So this is what it feels like, when your world falls apart. Shattered, the hairline cracks zigzagging across all the certainties she’d taken for granted. She felt numb, as if everything was suspended, waiting—but for what?
Carefully, Harriet Lang replaced her mug of tea on the coaster. It was a pottery mug from the local organic farm shop, thick and chunky, a deep, iridescent indigo with a shiny glaze. She’d bought four of them but, typically, William had broken one almost as soon as they were out of the box.
Still, she liked the remaining three, always used one for her afternoon cup of tea. The simple beauty of the mug gave her a little dart of satisfaction and pleasure, just as the coaster did—bought during their holiday in Provence, the sprig of lavender depicted on its surface a perfect match for the color scheme of the kitchen.
She glanced around the kitchen, from the large, cobalt-blue Aga gleaming against the cream walls—Farrow & Ball’s Slipper Satin—to the vase of lilies, still in their peak of blossom, in the middle of the farmhouse table of reclaimed oak, releasing their heady but still pleasingly subtle scent. A cream linen sofa rested against the far wall, along with a strategically-positioned rattan basket full of lifestyle magazines. French windows overlooked the terrace and sprawling garden, the grass and leafless trees and bushes now touched with frost.
Everything looked pleasing, perfect—except for the mobile phone bill resting on the table next to the flowers. The bill that showed that her husband had, in the middle of the night, made three two-hour phone calls to his assistant over the course of the last month. And that was only December. She had no idea how many calls he’d made before that.
Listlessly Harriet picked up the bill and scanned it again even though she already knew the times and dates by heart. A ninety-seven minute call at two in the morning of December second. A one hundred and thirty-two minute call at four in the morning of the ninth. A third call at one thirty, horribly, on Christmas Eve. That one was for a whopping two hundred and twelve minutes. She’d gone online and looked at January’s bill—there had been seven more calls.
The Christmas Eve one hurt the most, though. Had he snuck off to call her after he’d assembled Chloe’s dollhouse, while Harriet had finished up the last touches on the stockings?
Did her husband sleep? How had she not woken up when he’d crept out of bed and gone—where? To his study? To make these calls to Meghan, his assistant. His young, sexy assistant, someone they’d actually joked about as having the hots for him, making fun of her kitten heels and lashings of mascara, how cringingly obvious she was.
Harriet closed her eyes, wishing she could banish the lurid images flashing in her mind. Frantic whispering. Furtive looks. Phone sex. She didn’t even know what phone sex was, not in detail anyway, and yet perhaps Richard and Meghan had engaged in it. Repeatedly. It seemed likely.
She opened her eyes and took a deep breath. A glance at the teapot-shaped clock on the mantel told her she needed to pick the children up in five minutes. She needed to act—to pretend—that everything was normal, for their sakes as well as her own. She couldn’t break down in the middle of the school yard. Then tonight she needed to talk to Richard.
After that… well, she couldn’t think about an after that. The rest of her life occupied a blank white space, like a television program cut off and replaced by a screen of snow. She couldn’t conceive of a future, any future, now that she was sure her husband was having an affair. Slowly, her limbs feeling wooden and awkward, Harriet rose from the table. She pushed her feet into the knee-high leather boots that were the prerequisite for the school run, along with the skinny jeans and the cashmere poncho over a ribbed turtleneck that she already wore. Chunky necklace, discreet earrings, check, check.
She was dressed as nearly as every other mum would be as they all walked briskly to the school to collect their little darlings, chatting about the latest organic farm shop or Pilates class, or who had gained membership to the quietly elitist Soho Farmhouse. Harriet already had two years ago, along with her best friend, Sophie. They worked out there three times a week.
Except today was the children’s swimming lessons, so she wouldn’t walk, she’d take the car. Make the trek into Chipping Norton to sit in a damp plastic chair while her eyes itched from the humid, chlorine-saturated air for an hour. With a sigh, Harriet scooped up her keys. Tried not to think. Thinking had become dangerous.
She drove slowly through Wychwood-on-Lea, numbly fluttering her fingers at various acquaintances as she trawled the high street for a parking space. She barely noted the comfortable muddle of independent shops that had made her fall in love with the place six years ago, because it was quaint without being too upmarket or twee.
Once, she’d pictured herself poking in the antique shop, furnishing the house with local pieces, nothing too showy, but somehow she’d never found the time and, in the end, it had been easier, if not at all cheaper, to hire the interior designer Sophie had recommended.
And now she was late. Gritting her teeth as she reversed the massive Discovery into a space barely big enough to fit it, conscious of a stern pensioner glaring at her from the pavement, watching the whole, laborious process of reversing endlessly, and scowling when she hit the curb. Twice.
Harriet slid out of the car, ignoring the old woman who seemed to expect some kind of explanation or apology from her, and then hurried, half-running, towards the school at the top of the street.
It was fine to be late for Mallory and William, who, in year six and four, were old enough to leave school on their own, but not for Chloe in year one, whose teacher, Mrs. Bryson, would be checking her watch every few seconds in ostentatious disapproval if so much as a minute ticked by. She seemed like a woman who didn’t actually like children, at least not Harriet’s. She’d endured Mrs. Bryson twice already, when Mallory and William had gone through year one, and Harriet would be glad to see the back of the wretched woman when Chloe finished the year. Unfortunately it was only January.
Harriet strode towards the school gate, staring straight ahead, trying to avoid the other mothers, some of whom were already looking at her curiously. She was late, which was unusual enough, but Harriet suspected something of her emotions must be showing in her face. She felt brittle, ready to snap, to shatter into fragments. Surely other people could see it, sense it, and the last thing she wanted were questions she couldn’t answer. Well-meaning sympathy or avid curiosity, it didn’t matter which. She couldn’t handle either. Her face felt as if she was wearing a hardened mask.
Ah, there was Mrs. Bryson, mouth pursed like she’d tasted something sour as she checked her watch purely for Harriet’s benefit.
“Mummy, you’re late,” Chloe said, her high, piping voice, with all of its quivering accusation, carrying across the emptying school yard.
“Sorry, darling. I got caught up in something.” Harriet kissed her daughter’s plump, rosy cheek, savoring its perfect roundness, the innocent sweetness of it, before lifting her dutifully penitent gaze to the teacher. “Sorry, Mrs. Bryson. It won’t happen again.”
“I was,” Mrs. Bryson informed her tartly, “about to send her to the office.” She made it sound like Chloe had been about to be relegated to the ninth circle of hell. Maybe she had been.
“Sorry,” Harriet murmured again and, taking Chloe’s hand she started pulling her towards the juniors’ entrance where Mallory and William would hopefully be waiting.
“Mummy, you’re hurting me,” Chloe complained, and belatedly Harriet realized she was squeezing her daughter’s hand a little too hard.
“Sorry, darling, sorry,” she said, touching Chloe’s ringlets.
The last thing she wanted to do was take out her anger and fear on her daughter, even inadvertently. “Sorry,” she said again because she was sorry. But was Richard? What on earth would he say to her—and what would she say to him? She couldn’t think about that yet. She had too much to get through first.
Mallory was leaning against the brick wall by the juniors’ entrance, arms folded ominously, her fringe sliding into her eyes, as Harriet approached.
“Where’s William?” she asked, and Mallory shrugged.
“Nice to see you too, Mum. How was your day?”
“Sorry,” Harriet said yet again. “How was your day? And where is William?”
Mallory cocked her head towards the school field, and Harriet saw her son sprinting all the way across the field, well out of shouting range. Not that she’d be so uncouth as to shout.
“Brilliant,” she said on a sigh. She parked Chloe next to Mallory, who gazed down at her younger sister with disdain.
“Ew, stop picking your nose.”
“I’m not picking my nose,” Chloe answered indignantly, her thumb working industriously around her nostrils. “I’m itching it.”
Mallory rolled her eyes and Harriet started across the field towards William, wincing as her leather boots got a liberal caking of mud.
“William,” she called when she was within earshot, trying to keep her voice level and light. “It’s time go. We have swimming, remember?”
William glanced over his shoulder at her, and Harriet could see the thought process racing through his nine-year-old brain just as if he’d spoken it all out loud. She was too far away to make a grab for him, and he could pretend he hadn’t heard her, which was what he decided to do. He turned back and kept running, chasing another kid who was kicking a football. His clothes were filthy with mud. She stood in the middle of the field, fists clenched, boots muddy, a sudden fury pumping through her.
“William.” Her voice came out in a roar of parental authority, or perhaps just anger. Her body felt as tense as a bow, arrows ready to be let loose. “We are going. Now.”
William hesitated, and Harriet leveled him with the do-it-now-or-else death stare that she only brought out on special, or desperate, occasions. Another tension-filled pause where it could go either way, and then with a shrug of his shoulders, William started towards her, dragging his trainers through the mud so even more spattered up onto his dirty knees. At least he would get clean in the pool.
Harriet’s shoulders slumped in relief at the pitched battle that had been avoided. Maybe she shouldn’t have shouted, but she was holding onto her self-control by a single, fraying thread.
By the time she’d got everyone in the car and handed out the after-school snacks of yogurt-covered raisins and fruit-flavored water, they were already late for swimming. Mallory had dumped her raisins in the side pocket of her door, where they would no doubt melt and fester into one gloopy mass.
“These are so nasty.”
“You used to like them,” Harriet protested as she navigated back down the high street, cars double-parked on both sides. The Discovery way too big a vehicle for Wychwood-on-Lea’s narrow lanes, but everyone had a four by four these days.
“Yeah, when I was like, six.” Mallory blew a strand of hair out of her eyes, folded her arms, and flung herself back against the seat in a typical gesture of preteen discontent. When had her daughter developed so much attitude?
“I like them,” Chloe said from the backseat.
“That’s because you’re a baby,” Mallory returned in a bored voice.
“I am not—”
“Yes, you are,” William chimed in, just because he could. “Baby, baby, baby—”
“Enough, please.” Harriet held up one hand, wishing her children had the emotional astuteness to understand when she could and could not handle their bickering. “Silence until we reach Chipping Norton.”
Fortunately they obeyed her for once, Mallory taking out her phone, William kicking the seat in front of him, and Chloe singing under her breath. Harriet could just about handle all of that.
Once they arrived at the leisure center, there was the usual scrum of navigating the tiny changing room with its wet floor and the center’s absurd rule that you could not wear shoes in it, which meant your socks got soaked. She wrestled Chloe into her swimsuit and then the swimming cap onto her head, while her daughter screeched as if Harriet was plucking out her fingernails one by one. Finally, she sent Chloe on her way and went to take her place in the viewing gallery with relief.
A couple of other school mums were already sitting down, and Harriet wondered if she could absent herself from the usual desultory chitchat without seeming rude. She didn’t think she could cope with talking healthy dinners or homework right then. She couldn’t cope with talking about anything.
She smiled her hellos and then gave the necessary, apologetic grimace as she reached for her phone. “Sorry,” she mouthed, “I just have to answer some texts.”
She let the conversation wash over her as she stared down at her phone, everything in her going blank. My husband is having an affair.
It seemed impossible. It was impossible, surely. She and Richard were solid, always had been, since their university days. She’d never once doubted him. Never. Except… Harriet scrolled back the last few months and realized Richard didn’t feature in her memories all that much. How had she not noticed that?
And how long had his affair been going on for? Weeks? Months? She hadn’t looked at any phone bills before December’s. Yet she must have realized something was wrong, on a subconscious level, at least—that must have been why she’d checked the mobile phone bill, something she normally wouldn’t ever think to do. She hadn’t really realized, though, not consciously. Had she?
What had been going through her mind when she’d picked up the bill from the day’s post lying on the mat, slit open the envelope with the sterling silver letter opener that had been a wedding present, and started scanning the list of calls? What had she been looking for?
“Harriet, you’re missing it!”
She looked up, blinking the world into blurry focus as she registered the tone of laughing censure. “What am I missing?”
“Chloe,” Helen, another year one mum said, in censorious tone of voice that made Harriet inwardly wince. “The tadpole class is taking their polliwog test today.”
“Are they?” Too late Harriet realized she should not have said that out loud.
She should have known, she would have known, if this hadn’t happened. If a bomb hadn’t dropped into her lap at one thirty that afternoon, and lay there, ticking ominously, ever since.
“Right, of course.” She forced a fake-sounding laugh. “Sorry, I was spacing there for a moment.”
She turned her attention to the pool, where Chloe was flailing in the water, looking as if she was about to drown. For this, she would get a little badge that Harriet would, of course, keep on proud display. Mustering a smile, she waited for her daughter to make it to the other side.
Everyone was thankfully quiet and subdued in the car on the way home, no doubt tired from the swim lessons as well as the slog from pool to car with wet hair in the freezing dark. Harriet hated swim lessons. She didn’t actually think the children liked them either. Why did she do them? The answer, of course, was because everybody else did. Every mother she knew kept a schedule bristling with afterschool activities—swimming, ballet, karate, Scouts, Rainbows or Brownies, football, rugby, horse riding. Sophie’s children even did some gourmet cooking class on Saturdays, with a Michelin-starred chef. To not book up every afternoon felt like falling behind or even failing.
As soon as she pulled into the drive, the children spilled from the car and into the house, eager to plug into their electronic device of choice until dinner time, when Harriet enacted the no screen time rule. For Mallory, it would be her phone; William, his DS; Chloe her kiddie tablet. Harriet trailed behind, arms full of wet towels and school bags.
The house was still and silent as she entered the utility room off the kitchen, dumping their wet, chlorine-smelling swimsuits and towels into the washer. The children had, trained in this one thing at least, put their shoes in their individual rattan baskets, each one labeled with their names in painstaking calligraphy that suddenly seemed rather absurd. She’d spent hours on those stupid baskets.
Sighing, Harriet unzipped her boots, kicked them off, and then went to decide what to make for tea.
Normally she would have put something in the slow-cooker before school pickup; normally she would have been briskly, efficiently organized. The house would be full of tantalizing smells and the table would have been set; all she would have had to do was make a salad and slide a par-baked baguette into the oven before pouring herself a glass of wine and telling the children to get their homework out. She would have texted Richard, promising him a glass of wine and a bath when he made it in from his commute. And when he had come home she would have snuggled in his arms and sighed happily. Except, when had she actually last done any of that?
Harriet opened the fridge and stared into its pristine depths, the labeled plastic containers, the wedge of very good Brie cheese, the healthy snacks, and organic milk, with blank incomprehension. Everything felt off, wrong, the simplest of movements jarring and clumsy. She no longer knew how to conduct her life. She didn’t think she could even make supper.
“Mu-um, where’s the charger?” Mallory’s voice was a piercing whine as she stormed into the kitchen.
Harriet closed her eyes. “Check the basket where I keep all the cords.”
“It’s not there.” Each word rang with accusation. How, Harriet wondered, was this her fault? She didn’t touch the cords, ever. She didn’t even like to use her phone that much, although her friends insisted on communicating by text.
“Check again, Mallory,” she called. “Or, here’s an idea, don’t use your phone.”
Mallory blinked, temporarily shocked into silence by her mother’s uncharacteristic sarcasm. Except she hadn’t actually meant to be sarcastic, not that her daughter would realize that. Harriet closed the door of the fridge.
“Right. Takeaway tonight.”
“Is something… wrong with you?” Mallory asked cautiously, as if cornering a wild animal.
“No.” Harriet took a deep breath, staving off the tidal wave of emotion that was threatening to crash over her and leave her to drown. “I’m just tired.” She rummaged through the drawer of takeaway menus.
The only offering in the village was fish and chips, which her children didn’t like. So that meant piling them all back in the car to go to Chipping Norton to pick up a pizza. Considering they’d only just got out of the car, that wasn’t a very appealing prospect for anyone. Why did everything have to feel so hard all of a sudden?
Harriet turned to the walk-in pantry and grabbed a packet of pasta and a jar of sauce. She plunked both on the yawning granite island while Mallory watched sulkily.
“I thought you said we were getting a takeaway.”
“I changed my mind.” Harriet’s tone brooked no argument and with a huffy sigh, Mallory turned back to the family room, disconsolate and cordless.
For the next few hours Harriet managed to exist on autopilot. Make dinner, set the table, call the kids. Insist on napkins, no elbows on the table, mop up spilled milk not once but twice, load the dishwasher. As she wiped down the kitchen counters, the children got out their homework, and then Harriet spent half an hour going over Chloe’s spelling, and William’s chicken-scratch handwriting before she sent them upstairs to get ready for bed.
No baths tonight, thank goodness, since they’d had showers after swimming. Pajamas, stories, Chloe’s army of stuffed animals arranged just so, every inch of her body covered by something soft and cuddly, William insisting on reading Guinness Book of World Records rather than what Harriet deemed a proper book to read before bed, Mallory sneaking her phone under her duvet.
Harriet felt too exhausted to cope with any of it and yet somehow she did, removing Mallory’s phone, turning off William’s light, fishing Chloe’s one-eared elephant from under her bed and positioning him next to Chloe’s left arm, where he always went.
“Thanks, Mummy,” Chloe said sleepily, and sudden, surprising tears stung Harriet’s eyes.
Her daughter was so innocent, so unknowing. All the children were. She reached over and gave Chloe a tight hug, making her daughter squeal with surprised pleasure. What was going to happen to them? What was going to happen to her?
“’Night, darling,” Harriet whispered, and tiptoed downstairs where everything was blissfully quiet.
Mallory was still awake; at eleven years old, she had the privilege of staying up half an hour later than William, as long as she was in bed reading. The other children would, hopefully, settle to sleep sooner rather than later. And then Richard would come home from his ninety-minute commute from London, only occasionally in time to kiss the children goodnight. Harriet uncorked a bottle of decent wine and poured herself a very large glass, needing the courage as well as the comfort. Now to wait.
She was, Harriet reflected as she sat on the sofa in the kitchen and sipped her wine, viewing this whole debacle from far away, as if it wasn’t actually happening to her. Perhaps that was the only way to survive it—to force some emotional distance, as if she was watching it from afar, wondering what that poor, jilted woman would do. Would she be quietly dignified, taking the higher road? Would she be coldly furious, or smash dinner plates, even the Meissen twelve-piece set they’d received as wedding presents? Or, worst of all, would she dissolve into noisy tears, blubbering about all she’d given and sacrificed, how much she loved him, and now this?
The funny thing was, she really didn’t know. So she’d sit here and wait for the drama to unfold, the show to start, and hope for a happy ending. Upstairs, Mallory’s light clicked off. Someone went to the bathroom; Harriet heard the sound of footsteps, the flush of a toilet. A single cough, and then silence. She waited and sipped, feeling strangely, surreally calm. The wine was very good.
And then, finally, the sound of Richard’s Lexus in the drive, the slam of his car door, the electronic beep of him locking the car. Footsteps, the door flung open in the utility room, a weary sigh. Harriet tensed.
“Hey.” His face, his lovely, familiar face with the unexpected dimples and the cleft in his chin, the dark, floppy hair, and his warm hazel eyes, creased into a tired smile. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Yes, why are you?” Harriet’s voice rang out, shrewishly accusing, making her wince inwardly. So that was how she was going to play it. She wished she’d tried for something a little more dignified and composed.
Guilt flashed across Richard’s face, so quick she would have missed it if she hadn’t been looking, hadn’t been waiting for it. Then he turned and with slow, careful deliberation, took off his overcoat and draped it over a kitchen chair, his back to her. Stalling. He was stalling.
“The usual,” he said when the silence had ticked on for several taut seconds. “You know.”
“No, I don’t actually know, Richard.” Her voice was too loud; she’d have Mallory down here, looking sulky and scared, and then Chloe and William, woken up, wondering what was going on. Harriet took a deep breath, and then a gulp of wine. “But maybe you should tell me.” Another breath, and then the plunge. “Why don’t you start with the phone bill?”
Richard turned around, looking so genuinely confused that for a heart-stopping second Harriet was filled with wonderful doubt. Maybe she’d got it all wrong. Oh, yes, she had, she must have. She was practically smiling with tremulous, overwhelming relief when his expression suddenly turned guarded and wary, realization settling in his eyes, in the lines bracketing his mouth.
“What do you mean?” he asked, hedging his bets. It was so obvious now, and she hated that. Hated that she could see through him, that there was something to see at all. Something for him to hide.
“The mobile phone bill. I had a look at it this afternoon and there were three calls this month alone to a certain number.” She waited, for what she couldn’t even say. For it all to come spilling out?
Richard just stared.
“Your assistant’s number. Sexy Meghan.” She spat the words, trying to disguise the tremble in her voice. “We joked about her, Richard, and now you’re calling her at three in the morning?” Tears threatened and she blinked them back and drank more wine.
Richard stared at her for another few seconds, his expression blank. What was he thinking? She had no idea. Was he trying to come up with a credible excuse? If he said he loved Meghan, twenty-six-year-old Meghan with a thigh gap and underwear from Agent Provocateur, Harriet would scream. Or, worse, she’d start sobbing. She felt a need to keep her self-respect in this situation, not to burst into noisy tears and show how devastated she was. Dignity was, perhaps, the only thing she had left.
“It wasn’t—it isn’t—like that, Harriet,” Richard said. “Not… not exactly.”
Not exactly? Was that supposed to make her feel better? Because it definitely did not.
“Then what the hell are you doing, calling her in the middle of the night? Talking to her for hours.” He at least had the grace to look abashed. “You’re having an affair.” She stated it baldly, daring him to deny it.
“No, no, not… it’s not quite…”
Not quite what? She was not brave enough to ask. He sighed heavily, trailing into silence.
He couldn’t deny it, then. “The truth is, Harriet,” he said after a moment, “we’re broke.”
For a few stunned seconds she thought he meant them, as a couple, broken. Shattered beyond repair. She felt a terrible wrenching inside, as if she had just come apart. They were a couple, they had three children, they used to finish each other’s sentences, he’d kissed her stretch marks. They were not broken.
“Richard…” Harriet began, trying not to cry, and he pressed his lips together.
“We might lose the house.”
The house? Why was he talking about the house? With a jolt as if she’d just mentally fallen flat on her bottom, she realized he was actually talking about money. And then she experienced a rush of relief, making her feel weak. They weren’t broken. But wait… the house?
“What do you mean?” she asked, her voice faint, all of her self-righteous fury draining away, replaced by a dizzying incomprehension. “Broke?”
“I mean, broke.” Richard poured himself a glass of wine from the bottle left near the Aga and sat wearily on the other side of the sofa, running a hand through his hair as he took a sip. “I was fired from my job six months ago.”
“What?” She stared at him, disbelieving and appalled, her mind spinning with information she had not expected to receive. “How—but why—why didn’t you tell me? What have you been doing all this time?” Besides having an affair?
Harriet had a sudden image of Meghan as she’d seen her at the Christmas party a month ago, her sly smile as she’d sipped her wine. She’d been wearing the most ridiculously inappropriate cocktail dress. It had mesh inserts on the sides that had looked trashy. Harriet had been able to see her bra, which is how she knew about the Agent Provocateur underwear. Richard had seen it too, no doubt, and in far more detail. She felt sick.
Richard looked down at his shoes. “I kept going into London to try to find something,” he admitted quietly. “Working contacts, doing business lunches, that kind of thing. Nothing’s come up yet, but it will. I know it will. It’s just a matter of time, and then we’ll be back on our feet, just as we were.”
Just as they were? How could they possibly be just as they were?
“And Meghan?” Harriet asked, the words scraping her throat.
“Meghan wasn’t… that was nothing, Harriet.”
“She must know you’re unemployed.”
“Yes… she’s been… well.” He sighed, smiling in only a sort-of apology.
She’s been what?
“Six months,” Harriet said slowly. She could barely get her head around it all. “For six months you’ve been commuting to London for no good reason.”
“I’ve been busy,” Richard said, a note of defensiveness creeping into his voice. “I’m doing a lot of legwork, keeping my ear to the ground…”
He sounded like one giant cliché. “It sounds to me like you’ve been going to London to screw your secretary,” Harriet said flatly, inwardly shocked by what she was saying.
She didn’t talk like that. She didn’t even think like that. And yet here she was. Here they were.
“No,” Richard said, but it sounded halfhearted at best. He’d never been a good liar. Harriet remembered when he’d tried to tell her mother that he’d lost the bobble-covered Christmas jumper she’d knit for him. His face had turned beet red. And he looked more than a little flushed now.
“Save it, Richard,” Harriet said tiredly. She couldn’t bear to hear his stumbling excuses. She still had so much to process. “Why were you fired?”
“I got a bit too cocky.” Richard sighed and rubbed his temples, not meeting her gaze. “You’ve got to be aggressive in this business, that’s what they want. You’ve always got to be looking for the next big thing, the investment no one’s heard of but is going to be huge. You can’t imagine the pressure.”
Harriet didn’t respond.
And, after a pause, he continued, “But one of my sure things ended up being a bust and I lost the firm a lot of money. They decided to make me an example. That’s all it was. They lost face and they decided to make me the scapegoat.” He shrugged. “It happens in this business. Everyone moves on, and I will too, to something better.” He lifted his chin, his eyes glinting with determination. He had, Harriet supposed, a lot of face to save.
Although the truth was, she didn’t actually know what Richard did—had done—for work in recent years. Not specifically, at least. She knew he was in high-flying finance, some kind of investment management but, beyond that, the details were hazy. The important thing was he made a lot of money, and there was a big fat bonus at Christmas. At least, there used to be.
She realized she hadn’t asked about it this year, had simply assumed the money was in the bank, but presumably Richard hadn’t received it. And if he hadn’t received it… For a second she thought of all the Christmas presents she’d bought—the gift baskets from Harrods for friends and acquaintances she didn’t actually care that much about, the remote control car for William that had cost a hundred pounds—
“How broke are we, Richard?” she asked, her voice turning shaky.
Surely not that broke. Maybe a bit of belt-tightening, a cheaper holiday this summer, fewer meals out, but he wasn’t talking about actually anything having to change, was he? He’d said something about the house, but that was just a scare tactic, surely…
“Broke,” Richard said flatly. He looked away, his lips compressing. “For now. Like I said, we might lose the house.”
Lose the house. The words echoed through her, impossible, surely impossible. And yet… Dizziness swept over her, and Harriet closed her eyes. She thought of the dollhouse she’d bought Chloe, an enormous French chateau. She’d barely played with it. And Mallory’s phone… it was brand new, the latest smartphone. Harriet had a feeling it had cost something like five hundred pounds. So much money, and all this time Richard hadn’t been earning anything, not a single penny. And he’d gone along with all the spending. He’d put the dollhouse together. He’d said Mallory was old enough for a decent phone.
But surely they couldn’t be that broke, actually, properly without any money. He would have said something. He would have had to. And how could they lose the house? This was their dream house, the farmhouse in the country straight off one of those property shows on the telly, the place they’d spent ages doing up, where they’d planned to have their grandchildren over for weekends. Mallory was going to come down the stairs as a bride, and the reception would be in the garden, with its stone walls climbing with roses and the huge horse chestnut with its wooden swing. They couldn’t lose this house. Except if Richard was having an affair, they’d already lost so much more. Who even cared about the house, when her husband was cheating on her?
Except… this house was the heart of her family, her marriage. This was the house where she’d made birthday cakes and finger painted with the children and planted seeds in the gardens. Maybe she hadn’t done any of that in years, but still. This was her dream house. Her dream life. And it looked like it was turning out really to be just that—a dream.
Harriet’s fingers clenched her wineglass so hard she thought she might snap the stem. She wanted to, wanted to feel the cut, see the blood seeping out. It would be more tangible, more satisfying, than the desolation she was feeling now, empty and sweeping.
“How can we lose the house?” she asked, trying to be reasonable even though the words sounded desperate. “I mean, we had a hefty down payment. We’ve been paying the mortgage for six years…”
“I remortgaged it,” Richard answered. “I had to. And we’re three months behind on the payments already. They’re threatening foreclosure and, without any real income, there’s not much I can do about it. But it’s temporary, Harriet, you know that—”
“I do?” She wanted to believe it was, of course she did. But in the meantime… “Why did you keep all this from me, Richard? And for so long? We could have been saving money, cutting corners—”
“We need to cut more than a few corners, Harriet.”
“But surely every bit counts—”
“Maybe.” Richard shrugged. “But when you’re pulling in seven figures and then that suddenly goes down to zero…”
“But what about our savings?” Surely they had savings. It shamed her that she didn’t actually know.
“We spent most of it in the last six months.”
She stared at him, appalled. They’d spent all their savings and were behind on their mortgage? How had this happened?
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she whispered. “I could have…”
What? Saved fifty pounds on the grocery bill? Bought a cheaper phone for Mallory? Richard was right; they weren’t in scrimping and saving territory. And yet the betrayal of his deception, on top of the mobile phone bill and sexy Meghan… it felt like too much to bear. It was easier to focus on the money and the lies rather than the affair. A woman could only cope with so much.
“You should have told me about your job.”
Richard’s shoulders slumped, his gaze going downwards. He looked like a little boy, with his dark hair that held only a hint of gray, those hazel eyes that had lit on her twenty years ago at a party at university, twinkling with warmth and humor. “I know. But I was so sure something was going to come up, and I could make it all right again without you having to know. And something will come up, Harriet. I’ve got a promising lead…”
“But, meanwhile, we might lose our house?”
“We’ll buy a bigger one.”
“I don’t want a bigger one,” Harriet snapped. “I want this one. This life.” Except it was already gone. “So you didn’t tell me but you told Meghan,” she said after a moment. It seemed she couldn’t keep from thinking about that, as much as she didn’t want to. “She gave you a shoulder to cry on, I suppose?” The words came out like the lash of a whip, but Harriet was the one feeling the scourge. It was all so much worse than she’d thought.
“I suppose she did,” Richard said quietly. “She listened and understood in a way I didn’t think you could—”
“So I drove you to her?” Harriet couldn’t listen to anymore.
Stupid, sexy Meghan understood? She’d left university three years ago. She had a nose ring, for heaven’s sake. She twirled her hair.
Harriet rose from the sofa on trembling legs. “I can’t talk about this now,” she said. “Any of it. You’ve sprung so much on me…”
“I’m sorry, Harriet.”
A cheap sentiment at a moment like this. Harriet doubted he even meant it. The last call to Meghan had been three days ago, for thirty-seven minutes.
Harriet turned away, unable even to look at him. “You can sleep in the spare room.”
Richard nodded, accepting this as his due. “Fine, but we’ll need to make some decisions about the house,” he said. “And soon.”
“If I hadn’t found the phone bill,” she asked, her voice shaking, “would you have told me any of this? Or would I have found out when—I don’t know, when someone showed up at the door, asking for money?” She pictured something lurid from a television show, heartless men with bulging biceps hauling her furniture away.
“I knew I had to tell you soon. I was just hoping…”
“Hoping for what?”
He looked like a whipped puppy, all big, drooping eyes and sad frown. “That I could turn everything around. I still can, I know I can. I’ve been waiting for the furor to die down, and it has, for the most part. Things are looking up. I have a lunch meeting this week…”
A lunch meeting, after six months of pretending? Of lying to her? It hardly seemed like something to hang all her hopes onto, and yet what else did she have?
“And what about Meghan?” Harriet asked. Her anger had drained away, leaving a leaden, empty feeling inside. “For six months you’ve been cavorting with her—”
Richard’s face tightened. “I have not been cavorting.”
“You’ve been pouring your heart out to her on the phone, at least,” Harriet said, every word edged with bitterness. “That much I know.” She shook her head, not trusting herself to say anything more, and headed upstairs. She felt numb and reeling, unable to fully realize what any of this meant. The bomb ticking in the middle of her kitchen had detonated, her life reduced to rubble. What, if anything, could they rebuild from the ashes?
End of Excerpt