Chapter 1

I've never been superstitious, but the night my world shattered was Friday the 13th . . .

That was yesterday. Today Laura James was able to write about it. But then, she was a writer. No, she wasn't superstitious or suspicious. She had never intended to snoop or pry. She never had the slightest suspicion there was anything to snoop or pry about. She was just lonesome and naïve.

Tom worked late so many nights. Not to mention the out-of-town traveling his entrepreneurial job required. And the hours of solitude were perfect for the reading and thinking Laura's writing career required. But she wanted her husband's companionship too.

Just this past year his real estate finance business had gone wild. He had overseen developments all over the Northwest and California, and now there was this really big deal in Kansas—the one he had dreamed of for years. People kept asking Tom and his partner, Phil, if they would be moving. But when you were as spread out as that, there was no one place to move to, and as long as planes kept flying into and out of Boise, it was as good a place to live as any.

But Tom and Laura were apart so much. Sometimes she missed the good old days when there wasn't enough work or enough money but plenty of time.

Well, it was only eleven o'clock. She would fill a basket with goodies and surprise him with a midnight picnic at the office.

Laura washed a cluster of pale green grapes, at their September sweetest, then put a wedge of creamy Port du Salut cheese in the basket—just for Tom—next to her slice of fat-free cheddar. Smiling, she thought how surprised Tom would be and how they would laugh, sitting together on the office floor. She took a package of eclairs out of the freezer to add to her trove. Maybe she would even eat one tonight. When the teakettle whistled, she filled the Thermos with Almond Pleasure tea, and her work was done. All that remained was to brush her short, curly, nut-brown hair and slip on a crisp shirt over her tailored skirt.

The night air was still warm and languid. As she walked from her little car to the black marble-fronted office building, she felt the heat of the day emanating from the cement sidewalk while hints of the coming autumn crispness lurked in the air. But in the building's small foyer, the air conditioning returned the atmosphere to its seasonless comfort. Laura inserted her key in the elevator and pushed the button for the third floor.

When she stepped off the elevator, all was dark and quiet in the reception room of Marsden and James, Inc., but she could see a slim strip of light under Tom's door. The tweed carpet muffled every sound as she crossed to his office and flung the door open wide.

"Surprise, Darling!"

She stood encased in timeless, disbelieving horror. What were these people doing in Tom's office? Even when he had disentangled himself from the woman's embrace, Laura still couldn't accept that it was Tom. It was as if some strange man was holding a woman in Tom's office.

Part of her muddled brain wanted to say, "Excuse me, but where's Tom?" While another part of it wanted to scream and claw and throw things. But she didn't do anything.

She didn't know how long she would have stood there, mute and immobile while her brain lurched and shrieked, if Tom hadn't moved. He took two steps toward her. "Laura, I believe you know Marla Kauffman, the real estate agent I've been working with."

"Hello . . . " She actually started to acknowledge the introduction as if at a formal reception. Then the frozen horror melted and flooded her. She turned and ran from the building, taking the stairs because waiting for an elevator was unthinkable.

At home, her favorite wingback chair received her like a mother's arms, and she sat there in blindness, silent tears flowing down her cheeks. A long time later she heard Tom's car on the driveway, then his key in the lock. She made no motion to respond.

"Laura, I'm so sorry."

A small corner somewhere in Laura's brain registered that Tom looked as if he'd aged 10 years.

"I wouldn't hurt you for the world. I don't even know how it happened." He sank heavily onto the bench at the foot of the bed—their bed—where they had slept together for seven years.

"Not hurt me?" She sprang at him. A blaze of anger burned her tears away. "Not hurt me? You thought you could carry on with another woman and 'not hurt me'?" Was he that stupid, or did he think she was? "You never thought of whether or not you'd hurt me. You just thought I wouldn't find out! If you thought at all!"

His shoulders slumped. "Laura, I . . . "

"Oh, don't try to explain. For God's sake, don't make excuses."

The shock on his face was indescribable.

"Oh, don't worry. I wasn't swearing. I was praying. You may have thrown everything you believe into the wind for the sake of a fling, but I haven't."

. . . It was as I said it that I understood. I was able to put the awful, gaping wound inside me into words. I hadn't made Tom my god—but I realized then that my faith in him had been as complete. As unshakable. I sank back into my chair, all anger gone. In slow, hollow tones I said, "It's as if God were dead."

Laura closed her journal. Reliving last night's scenes had been almost as painful as the initial experience. But now her mind was clear. It was a catharsis. Getting it on paper got it out of her head. Now she could think about something else.

She sat there for some time, biting one fingernail, seeing Tom's face as she spoke those words. If she had been trying to hurt him—seeking revenge—she could have done nothing more effective. He sat for several minutes, his head bent forward as if he had received a physical blow. Then he got up slowly and went to the guestroom.

It was nearly noon the next day—today, that was—but Laura's grasp on time was tenuous and slippery. They met in the kitchen. The teakettle was singing, the sun shining on a glossy Swedish ivy hanging by the window, and the red and white silk-screened wallpaper looking as vibrant as ever. But to Laura the world was a dull gray. As she poured the bubbling water over the English Breakfast tea leaves, she noted that in spite of his taking care to shave and brush his smooth blond hair into place, Tom looked as war-ravaged as she felt.

Mechanically she put two slices of honey wheat bread in the toaster and waited for them to pop up. It wasn't until they were sitting in their usual places at the glass-topped white wrought iron table that Tom broke the silence. "Laura," his voice was husky, almost pleading. "What do you want to do now?"

She shook her head, deliberately poured skim milk into her tea, and took a long sip before she answered. "What I want is for it never to have happened. But since it did, I suppose you'd better tell me about it." She held her teacup with both hands and stared at it. She knew Tom wasn't looking at her either.

"There's so little to tell. Marla's agency had some finance questions we couldn't answer about the Kansas project. So we've been working for days—weeks, I guess—on computer runs to see what happens to the profits if the builder is his own investor—things like that. Last night we were finally getting the answers. And they were good—incredibly good—beyond our wildest expectations. And then we were hugging each other . . . "

"You expect me to believe that? That all I saw was a joy of the moment celebration of a good computer run?" Her cup landed in her saucer with an angry crash.

Tom shook his head and looked at her with dead eyes. "No. I'm not trying to soft-pedal it. I'm just trying to explain what happened."

"So there was more? How much more?" She probed with the ruthlessness of a surgeon excising a cancer. She didn't want to know. She didn't want there to be anything to know. But her life depended on finding the truth.

His voice was as lifeless as his eyes. "I don't know."

"You don't know? You mean you've been cuddling her so much you lost count?"

"No!" Tom came off his chair and leaned across the table toward Laura. "No. That was the first time—and the last. What you saw was all there was. I hugged her. We had all our clothes on, for goodness' sake."

Laura waited. Tom took his seat. He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, rumpling its silken smoothness. "I don't even remember the first time we met. Some meeting with some potential investor. Who knows? But when we started focusing on this project we discovered we read all the same columnists in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist. Somewhere along the way we discovered we both prefer Sumatra Roast . . . "

Laura looked at the splattered remains of her tea. She hated coffee.

". . . and Gershwin . . . "

Laura moved to snap off her Mozart CD, then realized she hadn't started it.

". . . I'd get an idea about the project and couldn't wait to tell her about it . . . "

"And you assumed I wouldn't be interested—or wouldn't understand."

"Well, investment formulas have never been your favorite topic of conversation."

"And so, last night . . ." Laura prompted him back to the subject at hand. They weren't discussing her shortcomings at the moment.

Tom shook his head. "It started as simple celebration. But—she felt so good in my arms—so warm and responsive. Before God, I'm sorry, Laura. But the least I can do is be honest with you. If you hadn't come in . . . Laura, you've got to believe how very, very thankful I am that you did come in. But I can't honestly say what might have happened . . . God help me." He put his head down, supporting it with one hand. "I don't know. I just don't know."

Hundreds of unformed questions whirled in Laura's mind. After a time she was able to grab one of them. "Did you feel guilty?"

"There was nothing to feel guilty about! We never kissed. Never held hands. Not even one time. I told you."

Laura was surprised at the note of grimness in his voice—as if it had required a great deal of self-control that the case should be so. She tried to remember. She had met the woman on a few occasions. Marla wasn't beautiful, but her long strawberry blond hair and porcelain skin gave her a look of fragility that was undeniably appealing. And she had long, slim legs that Laura had more than once eyed with envy, since she always wore ankle-length skirts to cover her own less attractive legs.

She looked at Tom, remembering. Then she knew what had hurt her most that night. Her voice barely above a whisper. "You looked at her the way you used to look at me."

Silence pressed the ceiling lower and lower while remembered words and scenes ricocheted off the walls, more piercing than bullets. For a moment the vision of Marla's arms around Tom's neck was so vivid she thought she was going to be sick.

Suddenly she was on her feet, screaming at him. "It's—it's horrible! Disgusting! How could you? Like some depraved animal!"

"Well, now. That's more like it. About time we got around to that, isn't it?" Tom slammed his fist on the table, making the glass rattle. Any suggestion of groveling vanished. "Right! Let's talk about your hang-ups now. It took two to make this mess, you know!"

"It certainly did take two. It took you and Marla!" Tears stung the backs of her eyes, but she fought them away fiercely and kept them down with her anger.

Anger was her only defense against Tom's challenge. "Marla's only a symptom, and you know it. We're going to talk about us. A talk we should have had seven years ago."

"You can't blame me for your—your philandering!"

"I take full responsibility for last night. And I intend to take full responsibility for my future. And if you can't treat my love for you as something as other than depraved and animal, I'll find someone who will. So help me."

"Love! What you're talking about isn't love. It's lust! And you know perfectly well I've never denied you your rights. Never. Not once in seven years."

"Oh, no. You've been the perfect, submissive wife. But you've never accepted my lovemaking as anything more than a duty. How do you think that makes me feel? It so happens I'm a human being with feelings, and I would like to feel that my wife takes pleasure in my company in bed. You've never shown the least response in our whole married life."

"And therefore follows that you've never had pleasure in my company in all this time?" Her throat was so tight she was surprised her voice could come out.

"Your logic is impeccable. Just like the rest of you—impeccable, perfect, and passionless!"

It wasn't until she heard his engine roar in the driveway that she realized he had left the house. Had he gone to the office? Of course. What else? Would Marla be there?

Laura wanted to scream, hit, tear something. If Tom hadn't left, she would have lashed out at him with her bitten fingernails. She wanted to wound him as she was wounded. She sat there, replaying scene after scene in her mind. Last night in the office—if only she had flung the picnic basket at them. Or better yet, the contents one at a time . . . She smiled at the thought of that silky strawberry hair with chocolate eclairs rubbed in it, the soft crepe blouse drenched in Almond Pleasure tea . . .

Or sneak up behind them still locked in their embrace and pour the steaming contents of the Thermos over their heads. If Tom wanted a steamy romance, she'd give him one. And then scream at him. Smash his precious computer. Shred his exalted spreadsheets with those tidy columns of figures . . .

She sighed. Of course she would do no such thing, but living it out in her head was cathartic. Laura stumbled down the hall and sought refuge again in her favorite chair.

Still unable to face the present, she turned her thoughts from the past to the future. And again she faced the empty "God is dead" void. How could she bear it? Could she ever trust Tom again? Could she ever stand to let him touch her now? If he ever took her in his arms again, would he be thinking of Marla? Would that other woman always be there between them?

And yet, what if he never held her again? Last night with him in the next room had been unbearable. She had become accustomed to his absences on business trips, but to have him sleep in another bed when he was home was unthinkable.

Bed. She thought of the warm comfort of him curled beside her. Then her senses revolted and she could think no further.

From Roses in Autumn by Donna Fletcher Crow copyright 1998, Beacon Hill Press. All rights reserved.

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