Little Deadly Secrets / One Perfect Morning

Two Unique Covers, Same Gripping Book

She’s made her bed, and now he’s lying dead in it…

Mackenzie, Robin and Lily have been inseparable since college. Twenty years later, they all live in the same neighborhood with their perfect homes, perfect families, perfect lives.

But in their idyllic suburban town, no one truly knows what goes on behind closed doors. For each of these women is crumbling under the weight of a secret, a betrayal, a lie. And a mistake that scarred one of them for life.

And when the worst happens, will the unbreakable bond of their friendship survive, though it’s started to fray at the edges?

One dead husband. Three women with motives. And they’re all best friends who have each other’s backs – or do they…?

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Chapter 1

Sunday Morning

It was a strange, unexpected thought as I glanced over at the man I had married, wondering how the ugliest of hearts could be wrapped in the most beautiful skin. The down comforter was tucked up under his chin, hiding his lithe body that required no effort whatsoever to maintain. Sometimes I joked that I despised him for it – eating anything he wanted without gaining an inch on his waistline. If I even looked at dessert, I gained two pounds. Sometimes I wasn’t joking when I said I hated him.

It wasn’t that I hated him, not exactly. Years of togetherness had given me so much, but now he had taken too much. For so long I had just followed him blindly, until he led us both off the ledge. I needed to find my way back, and I couldn’t do that with him anymore.

For years he had been my rock . . . tied to my ankles.

‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered, and I meant it.

Once upon a time we had loved each other deeply. It showed in the way he carried me over the threshold when we had first bought this house. Or when we took our first vacation together to Asheville, North Carolina, where we toured the Biltmore House and oohed and aahed over the thousands of tulips blooming in the gardens. Or the first time we made love, on a bed of rose petals as he sucked the tender spot on my neck and caressed my thigh longingly. Those memories had been so pure and good. But now only painful memories remained. Like chess pieces, the bad had knocked all the good off the board.

All I could remember right now was the way he hurt me. The way he betrayed me. The way he lied.

A moonbeam cast a silvery stripe across the bed. He slept soundly beneath covers that were charcoal like the sky, unaware of me standing over him, and I regretted what I was about to do. I wondered if he had any unspoken regrets. I had a mouthful of them. I had spent the best years of my life loving this human being more than anything else, deeply and passionately with a forbidden desire I couldn’t quench. Only now did I realize it had never been love, but obsession – an obsession with stability, with security. I needed him, but he had never needed me back.

We had been wrong from the beginning, I knew this, but I let him consume me regardless. Nothing could stop me, not even myself. Not even all the red flags.

The mystery of love – yes, it had enthralled me, and now here we were, lost in its unanswerable riddle. I still couldn’t figure it out, why I had ever loved a monster. Some days he felt like a warm rain, but recently he had become a torrent sweeping me out to a stormy sea, drowning me.

Now here I stood over him, wrapped in Sunday morning nostalgia, watching him sleeping in the Ethan Allen four-poster bed we shared, controlling my breath as I whispered my goodbyes. I reminisced about the idyllic weekends of long ago. Pure heaven – the scent of French roast coffee wafting to our bedroom, the humming stillness of the house, two lovers pretzeled together beneath mulberry silk sheets, our bodies sweat-glazed from creative and energetic sex.

Now that was laughable, really. His touch burned me, his lips disgusted me. Not because of time’s toll on our bodies – gravity works extra hard after age forty, you know. It wasn’t that. It was the slow rot of who he used to be. Once upon a time we cuddled like two toothbrushes in a cup, the length of our bodies resting on one another. I wished I could reach that man today, right now, but I knew he was long gone.

I thought about the apology flowers he had just bought me, how his face lit up as he handed them to me. How I tenderly placed them in a vase, admiring his thoughtfulness for a moment. That moment had dried up with the crisp petals currently scattered along the coffee table. Wilted, dead flowers – they were my marriage’s final curtain call, but they weren’t enough. Not to save us. Not to save him.

‘Remember when we first got married and lived in that tiny apartment in the basement of Cat Lady’s house?’ The whispered question was more for myself than for him. I didn’t want to risk waking him. I shook the memory loose.

Cat Lady was the nickname we gave the white-haired woman who rented out her basement to us. We could never remember her actual name – it was Slavic, with too many syllables for our all-American tongues to pronounce – but she had at least a dozen cats that we counted the only time she let us into the first floor of the house. The ammonia stench took our breath away; it was a wonder the waterfalls of cat piss didn’t leak through the floorboards into the ceiling of our apartment below. Life had been so full of adventure and hope back then.

‘We used to snuggle up on that ratty old sofa we found on the curb, talking about our plans for the future.’ I smiled at the memory. Reaching out a finger, I touched his stubbly cheek and recoiled in distaste.

I would never forget when the mouse came crawling out of the sofa cushion and darted across my leg. I was pretty sure the whole neighborhood heard me scream. The most baffling part about it was how the mouse had managed to slip by a dozen cats. I chuckled softly, then wiped a tear that dripped down my cheek.

The Simple Days, I called them. Back then, when life made sense and I knew who I was, where I was going. These days I aimlessly trudged through the mire of one moment to the next.

I couldn’t resurrect The Simple Days, though, could I? They were too far gone. Some things just aren’t meant to last, no matter how many stars we naïvely wish upon.

My eyes traveled down his sleeping body – his brawny arms hugging his pillow like it was an illicit lover, his long legs sprawling under the covers. Asleep, his face looked so sweet and boyish, incapable of uttering a harsh word or criticism. Of course, I knew that was only an illusion. In the mad rush of days filled with housekeeping and packing school lunches and folding laundry and prepping dinner, I rarely saw the softer side of him anymore. We rarely saw each other at all.

The barking of the next-door neighbor’s dog prodded me with sudden urgency. Before long the street would erupt in the commotion of families rushing off to church or Sunday breakfast. I needed to make this quick, get it over with before I talked myself out of it. Or before he woke up. It was time.

There’s no better time than the present, my mother often said. Even when it didn’t relate to anything pertinent, she loved using that tired old cliché. I was still wearing yesterday’s clothes, hadn’t bothered to slip into pajamas when I snuck back in this morning. Pajamas wouldn’t fit with the story I had already planned out. I could feel daybreak approaching. While early risers all across my suburban neighborhood held steaming mugs of coffee, I held the knife I’d slid out of the butcher block minutes ago. My hand trembled as I lifted the blade and sucked in a steadying breath.

Lightly moving the covers aside, I took one last long, lingering look at the man I was about to kill. The man I had sworn to love and cherish until death do us part. And yet I had kept my vow, hadn’t I? On the count of three I would forever alter my future – giving myself the freedom I needed, the sole choice I had never been given to control my own life.

One.

Two.

Three.

I pressed the blade lengthways against his throat. I closed my eyes and turned my head. His flesh resisted. But not for long. While across the neighborhood wives kissed their husbands good morning, I planted Death’s kiss on mine.

 

Chapter 2

Meet the Girls

Two Fridays Ago

When you put three best friends from college in a room together, you’re asking for trouble. And trouble was exactly what Robin Thompson, Mackenzie Fischer, and Lily Santoro had found.

The rain hadn’t stopped since last night, spreading a dreary gray haze across the morning sky. It was typical Western Pennsylvania spring weather, making sunshine and blue skies a rare event. Robin, Mackenzie and Lily sat thigh to thigh in the living room where tiny smudged handprints ‘decorated’ the antique white walls. Lily, who had no fondness for children, often sardonically compared them to the ones on the walls of the creepy abandoned house in the climax of The Blair Witch Project. That flick had freaked them all out when they’d gone to see it together back in 1999. It had cured them of the desire to ever go on a camping trip together.

Robin reached for her favorite teal mug, grabbing empty space instead. ‘Has anyone seen my coffee?’

It wasn’t her fault she was so forgetful. It came hand in hand with having young kids. Like forgetting the load of wet laundry still in the washing machine, now turning mildewy. Or the milk you accidentally placed in the cupboard and the cereal box you put in the fridge. Or the cup of lukewarm coffee you never got around to drinking after you misplaced it for the umpteenth time.

Lily laughed while Mackenzie empathized.

‘It’s probably in your bathroom,’ Mackenzie said. ‘That’s always where I find mine.’

Lily shook her head. ‘Allora, when you have kids do they suck your brains out? You both are perpetually losing shit . . . mostly your minds.’

‘It’s true. Kids do that to you. But they’re worth it.’ Robin kissed the sleeping baby she held against her breast. Nestled in Robin’s arms was her youngest, Collette, an eight-month-old bundle of cuteness and colic. Robin couldn’t remember the last time she’d enjoyed a full night’s sleep.

‘Did you know that the average mother doesn’t sleep soundly for the first six years of her child’s life?’ Robin pondered aloud.

‘That means you haven’t slept in’ – Mackenzie paused, mentally calculating the math – ‘eighteen years, Robin. And you still have six years to go. Girl, you’re overdue for a nap!’

‘And that is why I’ll never have kids. Too much work and not enough sleep makes Lily a dull girl.’ Lily stood up from the soft leather sofa stained with breast milk and an unknown sticky substance. She hoped it was just juice. A pile of Cheerios had collected where she had been sitting. As she shuffled past Robin, their knees bumped and Lily gripped the coffee table with one hand to steady herself. ‘Che schifo, Robin! Don’t you ever clean? Puah!’ Lily squinted with disgust as she examined something gooey on her fingers.

‘Is that Italian for you offering to do it?’ Robin lobbed the question back at her.

‘If I knew it’d stay clean, I would.’

But that was the nature of motherhood. Dirty and selfless. Unsung heroism as they tended to real life in the background while their husbands wore scrubs and suits to work, building their careers while the mothers built their homes.

The women wore fake smiles, hiding their secrets like they did every day. On their own they were bitterness, submission, and obsession. Together they were loyal, inspired, and fierce. But there were some things out there that could break the strongest of bonds. And that something had found them today.

‘Are we still on for dinner Sunday night?’ Mackenzie asked. ‘The kids always have a blast at your dinner parties.’

Robin nodded, rocking back and forth in her seat as Collette fussed herself awake. ‘Of course. Grant’s even cooking on the grill. He told me it’s a meal that will change our lives, whatever that means.’

The three women laughed at the great pride Grant took in his grilling techniques, unaware of just how right he was. That night would forever change their lives, splitting their world open and letting the ruthless reality pour out.

**

1999, Pizza Joe’s, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania

If you were a teenage girl in the 1990s, you couldn’t escape the girl band sensation the Spice Girls. Maybe you even danced to their pop music, emulated their glam fashion, or fantasized about being them. The Spice Girls had distinct personas; it goes without saying every girl had her favorite. The year was 1999, in a small Western Pennsylvania town hugging the outskirts of Pittsburgh, where three best friends in college formed their own girl group, the Spicier Girls. Except they weren’t exceptionally musical or gifted at synchronized dancing.

Lily was the natural-born leader, the hand-talking Italian, the rebel, the creator. She spoke life into action, and it obeyed. Everyone submitted to Lily because she was a power you didn’t question, and a force you trusted.

Robin was the planner, the organized one, the goody-goody, the glue. Her brilliance was not just in her sharp mind, but in the way she dotingly tended to people like flowers. Gently, lovingly, as if each one would wither and die without her magic touch. And in some cases they did.

And then there was Mackenzie, the sheltered Southern belle of the ball, except she had forgotten her worth long ago. She was the victim who didn’t know she could be the victor. She was always there, the supporting actress in her own life, applauding everyone’s achievements but her own.

They were simply three friends brought together by fate, who lived to be loved by one another, sealed with a pact to stay friends for life . . . a pact that would test their bond for decades to come. They were there for each other through the laughter and tears, and they were there when everything shattered.

‘What do you think life will be like after we graduate college?’ Robin’s gaze trailed from Lily to Mackenzie, then to the cute server she’d been flirting with for the past twenty minutes while they waited for their large pizza, extra cheese. Mackenzie claimed that pepperoni would make her nauseous; Lily thought she was a hypochondriac.

‘Well, if you’re Mac, you’ll marry the first guy who asks you.’ Lily coughed the name Owen. ‘Then pop out two-point-four kids, overextend yourself in a mortgage you can’t afford, and live blissfully ignorant in your suburban soccer-mom existence.’ Lily nudged Mackenzie’s side, her lips lifted in a playful smile.

‘Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?’ Mackenzie whined, propping her elbows on the black-and-white-checkered tablecloth. Her ponytail swung back and forth, brushing her narrow shoulders. With her blond hair and blue eyes people often mistook her for a cheerleader, and Mackenzie always huffily corrected them that she was a book nerd. ‘Don’t be a hater just because I know who I am and what I want, and Owen happens to be the perfect guy for me.’

Per favore, perfectly narcissistic and controlling, you mean,’ Lily scoffed. ‘You’ve known him for like a minute and you’re already planning a future with him.’

‘Whatever. It’s not like I’m marrying him. We’re just seeing where things go.’

‘Lily’s right, Mac,’ Robin interjected. ‘We’re only sophomores in college – take a few different guys out for a test run before you settle down.’

Mackenzie rolled her eyes, then followed Robin’s stare. ‘Speaking of cruising for guys, you gonna ask Cute Waiter Guy out, Robin?’

‘I don’t need to. He’ll do the asking, I’ll do the accepting.’

‘Wow, you sure are confident,’ Mackenzie grumbled.

‘She should be,’ Lily retorted. ‘And you should be too, Mac. Hell, we all should be confident. We’re young, we’re hot, we’re amazing. And we don’t need men to be happy, capisce?’ Lily aimed the question at Mackenzie, who shrugged it off.

‘What about you, Lil – what do you think life will be like after college?’ Robin asked.

‘We’ve only just begun this. I still have two years left before I need to figure out life after college.’ Lily had always lived moment by moment, a trait that Robin yearned for and Mackenzie loathed.

‘Have you even picked a major yet? You need to start figuring things out, Lil, because before you know it, we’ll be out in the real world.’ Mackenzie, always the realist.

Lily thoughtfully sipped Dr. Pepper from her extra-large Styrofoam cup and sighed. ‘I want to do something adventurous. With lots of travel. But I don’t ever want to lose touch with you girls. I want us to grow old together.’

Mackenzie reached across the table and rested her hand on Lily’s. ‘Me too, Lil. You guys are my best friends. I’m so glad we got stuck together as dormmates. Let’s never lose touch, okay?’

‘Promise,’ Robin said, adding her hand to the pile.

‘Girl power and forever friends. We’ll be like the Spice Girls – only spicier.’ Lily winked.

‘The Spicier Girls?’ Mackenzie parroted with a contagious laugh.

‘That’s right, we’re the Spicier Girls. I’ll be Adventure Spice, Robin can be Homemaker Spice, and Mackenzie’s Dr. Spice.’

‘Dr. Spice?’ Mackenzie raised a skeptical flaxen eyebrow.

‘Because you’re super smart and majoring in science,’ Lily explained. ‘Together we’ll rule the world.’

The girls giggled as Cute Waiter Guy carried the pizza to their booth and slid it onto the table.

‘My friend thinks you’re cute’ – Lily adjusted the name tag on his uniform for a better look – ‘Geoffrey F. You should ask her out.’ Lily pointed to Robin, whose cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

The boy flashed a cocksure smirk. ‘I don’t need to ask. I just take.’

Lily glared up at him with shrewd eyes almost the color of coal. ‘Then you can just take your ass elsewhere. No one messes with the Spicier Girls.’ Lily flung an arm around Mackenzie while Robin hid her blushing face behind her hands and auburn bangs.

As he left, Robin peeked between her fingers. ‘God, you’re embarrassing. I can do my own asking out, thankyouverymuch. Why do I put up with you?’

‘Because you luuuurve me.’ Lily beamed at her two best friends, the sisters she never had but had always wished for. ‘We gotta stick together, right, girls? You know I’ll always have your backs.’

‘And we’ve always got yours. Until death do us part.’ Mackenzie pulled the trio into a group hug, arms linked, foreheads touching, as they burst into self-deprecating chuckles.

‘Oh, that reminds me,’ Mackenzie said, producing three colorful cords from her pocket. ‘I made these friendship bracelets – one for each of us.’ She passed the macramé charms out, and each girl fastened the delicate metal clip.

Robin traced the threads with one finger. ‘Fits perfect. And it’s gorgeous. Thanks, Mac. You’re a creative genius.’

Typically, she deflected the compliment with a wallflower’s diffidence. ‘I’ve got an idea. Everyone repeat after me.’ Mackenzie bounced in her seat, a happy dance, as poetry effortlessly flowed from her lips:

‘With this bracelet I do vow

To these two girls forever bound.

Through life and love, through thick and thin

Until that day when death will win.’

That night was the beginning of an era. The inauguration of a lifelong sisterhood, of shared dreams and tears and secrets and lies that would one day unravel their friendship to its core.

 

Chapter 3

Mackenzie Fischer

Two Fridays Ago

Melting skin. Charred flesh. Heat ripping through my cells, crisping the side of my wilting face. The fire blazed around me, imprisoning me as flames climbed the kitchen walls, blocking my escape. I wanted to scream, but my voice fell mute. Then I heard her calling me, her silhouette visible on the other side of my fiery prison:

‘Mackenzie.’

I couldn’t answer her. I choked on the thick smoke.

‘Mackenzie!’

Except it wasn’t her. And it wasn’t back then. It was now, and it was Owen calling me.

‘Babe, you’re burning the gravy,’ he said.

I blinked myself back into my own kitchen, where I stood in front of the gas stove, eyes transfixed on the blue flame licking the pot. I turned off the burner and stirred the bubbling sauce. Outside the patter of rain tapped on the glass.

‘Sorry . . . I must have been in a daze.’

‘You look exhausted. Long day, huh?’

I nodded numbly, the vision still so clear, so alive in my mind. Over the years, I could never truly lay the memory to rest, no matter how hard I tried. A therapist once told me as long as I continued to harbor bitterness over the accident, I’d never move past it. But who could blame me? She had not only disfigured my face but also marred my entire life. And somehow she was still my closest friend.

Despite the pact, bitterness over a distant mistake I had never forgiven festered in me like a cancer. Over time it began rotting the only good left in me. No matter how much time passed, the resentment rattled inside my heart.

After dinner was served, Owen talked about work while Aria caught me up on school and her weekend plans. I asked all the right questions and laughed at the right times, never uttering a word about my daymare, because it was upsetting to Owen, and God forbid my past trauma upset him. So instead I started writing about it in my journal of horrors. It didn’t matter anymore, though. Tonight I would shed my Owen-pleasing shell, initiating my revolution.

But like all revolutions, there would be bloodshed. For once, it wouldn’t be my own.

I am a people pleaser. And I fail at it miserably. The problem with people pleasers is that in their attempt to please everyone, they please no one. Least of all themselves.

Take tonight, for instance. It unfolded in the way that all people pleasing unfolds – where I’m always the loser. It was a role I had adapted to well over the years. But now I was determined to win, even at the cost of lying, of creating a secret that my husband would never forgive. I didn’t care about his forgiveness anymore. Tonight my people pleasing was put on hold as I put my plan in motion.

‘How do you like the roast, shugga pie?’ I asked, stabbing a slice of beef with my fork and rolling it in thick gravy. I grinned, knowing how Owen hated the countrified way I said sugar as my Southern drawl slipped out here and there. I’d spent a lifetime burying it, but apparently not deep enough. One’s roots had a way of worming to the surface.

Ironically, he loved Southern cooking, just not Southern talking. He couldn’t get enough of my fried chicken, but God forbid I slip up when warshing the clothes or fixin’ to make supper. According to him and his stringent Western Pennsylvanian upbringing, Southerners sounded stupid and illiterate . . . not that a dialect had anything to do with one’s ability to read or write. But I never dared challenge him on this, because a good wife never should. Especially one who was about to lie to his face and leave his life a crumbled heap of rubble.

‘It’s delicious, Mac.’ Owen was a meat and potatoes kind of guy, and I hoped dinner would be the perfect bribe. ‘Tender and juicy, just how I like it.’

Owen winked at me from across the handcrafted oak table that we paid too much for but was worth every penny, and I chuckled while Aria groaned next to me. ‘Ew, Dad. Seriously, extra cringey.’

Ah, the teen angst. Everything parents did was either mortifying or smothering or neglectful. We could never win. But I suppose it was the plight of every parent with a fifteen-year-old daughter.

Owen glared at Aria. ‘You should appreciate that your parents are still together and in love. Most marriages don’t last as long as ours has.’

When he turned his attention back to me, he flashed that same charming grin that had won me over more than twenty years ago, brimming with boyish mischief mixed with desire. Blondes have more fun, he had told me, which is what first drew me to you. Despite his many faults, he knew how to win me over again and again. With Owen, all it took was a smile. With me, all it took was a lie Owen wanted to believe.

‘It’s true, Aria,’ I said. ‘I’m so lucky to have a man like your dad to keep the marriage thriving.’ The words tasted bitter, but I pasted on the same adoration I did every night over dinner.

‘It’s just that I’m trying to eat and imagining you guys . . . ugh, never mind. I’m happy if you guys are happy.’

‘Oh, Aria, one day I hope you experience what love like this feels like. One day far in the future, though. Not anytime soon, ya hear?’

I squeezed her hand, and she laughed with a shake of her head. ‘Don’t worry, Mom. I’m not at risk of falling in love anytime soon. The boys in my class are either self-absorbed jerks or clueless nerds. Definitely not my type.’

‘Good girl. Stay away from the boy drama. It’s nothing but heartache at your age.’ I stabbed a cooked carrot with my fork, saluted Aria, and popped it in my mouth.

Sure, we had our battles over curfew and chores, but Aria had always been my miracle, in more ways than one. My miracle child after I found out I had polycystic ovarian syndrome; my miracle angel because of how perfect she was. While other teenagers rebelled, my Aria remained my Aria. My devoted sidekick, shopping companion, pedicure lover, partner in crime. I could never figure out what exactly I had done right to end up with a teenager who enjoyed my company and laughed at my jokes and watched romantic comedies with me on Saturday nights, but I didn’t question it often. Maybe it was Owen’s divisive nature that nudged us closer. Or maybe it was her genetic code that made her a mommy-pleasing mini-me. My petite blond-haired, blue-eyed duplicate. Whatever it was, it worked for us and I loved her for it.

‘Are you coming to Lily’s with me tonight to work out?’ I asked her.

Owen darted his eyes at Aria, then at me. ‘What’s this about Lily?’

I chewed my last bite of meat, silently configuring the words in my brain. I hadn’t anticipated his sudden interest in my workout schedule with my best friend. This wouldn’t do – not at all. I had too much planned for this evening, and I couldn’t risk his interference.

‘Mind if Aria and I head over to the gym to meet Lily? Lily invited me to work out with her on Friday nights – plus it’s free training so I can get in shape.’ The word free usually won him over, unless it involved golf, in which case no cost was too high. ‘I’m still trying to lose the weight I gained over Christmas.’ Sure, the holidays had been five months ago, but it took ten times longer to lose weight than it did to gain it. I pinched the flab around my waist, a nervous reflex.

‘No, not tonight. I’d prefer you stay home, Mackenzie. It’s not like those exercises are going to help; you never stick to them anyway.’

‘That’s the whole point, Owen. I’m trying to stick to it this time. I really want to lose the weight, feel good about my body.’ It was so like Owen, to refuse such a simple request in his need for control. This was why I lied. This was why I kept secrets. This was why I came up with the plan. But I didn’t feel like fighting tonight. I needed everything to go smoothly – as smoothly as it could go when plotting your husband’s demise.

He laughed, and I shrunk at the scornful undercurrent. ‘Hon, I love you, but nothing you do is going to turn back the clock. Not those age-defying creams you junk up the bathroom with. Not all those useless exercise gadgets you pick up at Costco. You aren’t nineteen anymore, shugga pie. Just accept the way you look and learn to love it. I have.’

I knew what his thinly veiled reference really signified. I touched the scar on my face and thought of her. The skin felt rough and rubbery, a shiny wrinkled patch that ran up my neck along my cheek. I knew I wasn’t any beauty queen, but at least I could cover my disfigurement up when I styled my hair a certain way.

‘Why do you have to be so cruel?’

‘Oh, stop being so self-conscious. I married you looking like that, didn’t I? You know I love you no matter what you look like.’

But I didn’t know that. If it wasn’t my body that he found lacking, then it was the way I talked, or my cooking, or my housekeeping, or my childrearing. Maybe other women would be grateful if their husbands didn’t care if they let themselves go, but for once I wanted control over my own damn weight. Control over anything, really, but my own workout regimen seemed like the only option within reach.

‘I already told Lily I’d meet her, so I have to go.’ I dropped my cloth napkin on the table and rose from my chair, taking my plate with me. Beneath the smear of meat juices, the cherry blossom pattern peeked out from the white background of the dish. I remember picking the pattern out, with Owen hovering over my shoulder. I had initially wanted a turquoise dinnerware set – something bright and bold, the way I wanted to feel on the inside. Too blinding, Owen had scoffed. Let’s go with something more subdued. We came home with sixteen settings of pale pink cherry blossom that afternoon. And I had hated it ever since.

Aria had stayed silent during our tiff, but I could sense her seething. She followed me to the kitchen with her plate and deposited it in the sink.

‘Mom, mind if I skip and catch up on some reading? I’ve almost finished Doctor Sleep. We’ll work out together some other time,’ she said. She gave me a quick peck on the cheek, adding, ‘By the way, Mom, I think you’re beautiful.’

I needed that. God, how I needed that!

As I placed my dirty dishes in the sink, Owen’s footsteps padded behind me. His arm draped across me, pulling my back against his chest. His breath tickled my ear as his lips kissed my earlobe.

‘C’mon, it’s raining and miserable out. Stay home and watch a movie with me,’ Owen whined. ‘Besides, it’s not safe for a woman to be out after dark alone. Not every husband loves spending time with his wife as much as I love spending time with you, Mac. You should be grateful.’

‘I am grateful, I just . . . I need time out of the house. Being here all day, every day, well . . . sometimes I need to get out. Be with friends.’ See that? I had slipped a truth in with the lie. He didn’t know I had spent the morning gossiping with the girls, and I wouldn’t tell him, either.

‘Mac, you’re acting awfully strange tonight. What’s going on?’

Cold apprehension snaked up my neck. Did he know what I was up to?

‘Nothing’s going on. I’m just worn slap out. And, you know, my usual anxiety that I’m trying to work on – remember? I can’t fix it if I don’t face it. Please don’t fight me on this.’

Another defective thing about me was my social anxiety. I had self-diagnosed when looking up the symptoms on WebMD one day. It had started off innocuously at first, right after I’d given birth to Aria. Breaking out in a cold sweat when I went grocery shopping alone. Pulse racing when heading to Mommy and Me activities. Hives spreading across my neck when talking to the bank teller.

As dread of leaving the house weighted my feet down, I nursed the anxiety to life by quitting Mommy and Me and isolating myself from everyone. That’s when my friends took notice and begged me to get help. You need to get out and have some fun, Lily had scolded me in her protective Italian mamma way. If you don’t take control of your life, you’re going to crack, Robin had warned. Boy, were they right. After all, it wasn’t normal to break out in hives when talking to people, was it? Days before a planned outing I would stress and worry myself into a migraine, until I lost every part of my life outside my four walls.

Who had I become? Certainly not the aspiring free-spirited traveler I remember from college. The girl who ate authentic pad thai in Thailand, rode horses on a beach in Puerto Rico, and helped build an orphanage in Mexico. That girl was dead, buried, forgotten. But I was bringing her back to life, even if it killed me . . . or preferably, Owen.

‘I don’t want to fight either.’ Owen pouted. ‘But you can take one night off to spend with me. I have something special planned for tonight.’

‘Oh really? Why do I have a feeling you just suddenly came up with these special plans?’

‘Come on, babe. I do everything for you. This house – it’s for you. The cars – for you. Why can’t you give back just a little?’

‘Seriously, Owen? You don’t think I give back?’

‘Of course you do. I just want you here tonight, with me.’

Grabbing me around the waist, Owen lifted me up, propping me on the cultured marble counter. I straddled his waist with my legs and he cupped my chin with his palm.

‘I promise I’ll make it worth your while. You stay home with me to watch any movie you want, and I’ll give you a full-body massage tonight. Happy ending for you included.’ He whispered the words in my ear, and I almost couldn’t resist.

Damn it. My biggest weakness – a massage. But my plans . . . I couldn’t put them off any longer. I needed to set things in motion while I still had the nerve to finish what I started.

‘Please don’t,’ I begged. ‘I promised Lily.’

‘Then break your promise.’ If only he knew how many promises I had already broken. His lips kissed a trail down my neck – the side that hadn’t been marred by fire – dashing the angry red splotches of anxiety away. ‘Imagine my hands rubbing all that stress away.’

It did sound amazing. And it had been ages since I’d last gotten a massage. Besides, there was no way he was letting me out tonight, so I might as well get something out of it.

‘Fine. But it better be a five-star backrub – or else.’

‘Anything for my girl.’

My ass!

Two hours later, after Owen whined his way into watching what he wanted, a sci-fi action movie filled with soulless CGI, rather than the uplifting romantic comedy I’d picked out on Netflix, the selfish bastard snored beside me in bed while I pulled out a book to read. Pretty Ugly Lies, a nifty psychological thriller about a psycho wife plotting to murder her no-good husband. Ha, maybe I’ll get some tips, I joked to myself. He’d reneged on my promised massage too. It didn’t matter though. Tomorrow was another day, another chance. And then, for the first time in my life, I could stop the lies and deceit. But as it turns out with most people pleasers, that was just another lie – the worst kind. A lie to myself.

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