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“Are you ready?”
Was anyone ever ready to sign divorce papers? Mabel Gray definitely was and good fucking riddance. Her soon-to-be-ex-husband Piers was an asshole, a liar, a cheat, and exceedingly more patient than she, willing to allow negotiations to drag on for months and years if she’d let him. If he couldn’t have everything, then he’d bleed their accounts dry with lawyer fees. That kind of asshole.
“They’re waiting outside, Mabel. It’s time to go.”
She inhaled, clenching her jaw as she stood from the sofa and swept her gaze across the sitting room. She’d designed the house, worked with the contractors, chosen the décor, hosted dinners and parties, raised their daughter. Piers believed holding out for the house would hurt and maim her in inconsolable ways, but he’d never really known her.
The antique Persian rugs, the Granville Redmond on the wall, the redesigned mid-century furniture, the house. They were all things. Expensive things, but they could be replaced. With her decade-long working relationship with San Francisco’s auction houses, they could be replaced and recreated easily. Things were easy to walk away from. People were harder. But she’d been able to do that too. As much as it ripped out her heart, she’d done it before, and she could do it again to save herself.
“I’m ready,” she said, finally. “Let’s do this. And thanks for being here, Antony.” He wasn’t just here as an attorney; he was a family friend. Mabel didn’t have many of those. She convinced herself she was too busy—and introverted—but she hated confiding vulnerability to anyone. Her mother and grandmother taught her to be strong. Unfortunately, strong, she found out, also meant lonely.
“Of course, I wouldn’t let you walk out of here alone. Not like this—I tried—”
“This was my choice. I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. He can have everything if it means I can have my life back.”
“Yes, but the exchange, the signatures, the transfer of property, this could have happened in our offices. And there’s absolutely no need to parade you in front of the neighbors like this. It’s shameful.”
No, it was humiliating. Tragic, maybe. That’s how their neighbors would remember her and whisper her story until she was a myth, larger than life. Piers would loathe that. But she knew how to push his buttons too, since he always had to get in the last word. Mabel smirked at the buxom Frasier fir tree dominating the landing between the twin staircases and inhaled its pungent aroma. It smelled like dignity and victory and freedom. Piers hated all things Christmas because he was a hateful person. The reel in her head ran with images of Piers trying to rid himself of the tree, his arms wound around its thick, bushy trunk, the branches scratching at his face, the mess of needles scattering to the floor as he waddled it toward the double front doors. It wouldn’t fit easily; she’d made sure of that. He’d have to drag it outside kicking and cussing. No, the neighbors wouldn’t remember her humiliation today; they’d remember his. It made walking out on her old life that much easier. Piers would scream as soon as he walked into his house and saw the tree, and she’d relish every second of his agony, like he’d done to her for years.
“Do you have a purse? Suitcases?” Antony asked.
“In the car. I’m ready.” Truthfully, she’d been ready since the first time Piers dared to raise a hand to her. She wasn’t a punching bag but felt compelled to make sure for herself and for her daughter that she did everything to save the family so that there would be no doubt that when she did walk away, it was for good and for the right reasons.
Mabel led Antony past the prickly fir which she brushed with her fingers with a silent thank you, you’re the best, through the kitchen with its gleaming twenty-foot island covered in Christmas desserts, and out through the door leading to the garage. It was a scene out of The Sopranos: folded card table, Piers seated askew with his hands clasped between his thighs. Flanking him were his attorney and his girlfriend, sweet girl by the way.
Mabel’s heels clicked but didn’t echo. Antony pulled the metallic chair back for her to sit and Piers’s attorney retrieved the paperwork from his leather briefcase.
Two police officers stood beyond the dividing line between garage cement and driveway concrete, charged with keeping the peace and nosy, gawking neighbors off their lawn.
Luckily, all the places requiring her signature were flagged with blue sticky tabs. The ceremony was over quickly. A few pen scratches, the tap-tap-tap of the bundle of papers on the table, and she’d signed over everything she’d built and worked for to Piers. He reaped the rewards for the last fifteen years of her labor. But she got to walk away with her dignity and the rest of her life to live, knowing she could always build another business and make more money. Piers would not. He’d blow through all the money left in their accounts in five years if she was being generous with her projections.
She stood first, eyeing her getaway car with her mind’s eye. “Is that all?”
Both lawyers nodded, and Piers’s grin grew to Joker-like proportions. “I’m sorry our marriage didn’t work out,” he sneered.
Total bullshit. He was a horrible liar. “Yeah, me too.” Because she’d actually tried and loved him once. And for all his dickish qualities, he gave her a miracle daughter.
He didn’t have to, but Antony opened the door of her black Audi S8, a ’99, the first and only car Mabel ever owned. The only reason Piers didn’t want it was because it was old, outdated, and ugly “like her” he spat on more than one occasion.
Mabel started the engine and backed out of the garage slowly, waiting for her neighbors to scatter. She idled at the curb as Piers took his victory stroll into his house. It didn’t take thirty seconds for the front door to disappear with Piers yelling insults and obscenities about the tree and the holiday season.
Mabel quoted her favorite line from Home Alone, pulled her sunglasses down over her eyes, gunned the engine, and drove.
“Enjoy your time off.” Danny Dorsey stood on the dock and gave his crew and onboard medical staff—mainly spies for his worried family—awkward hugs, back pats and their Christmas bonus checks—what he thought of as hush money. He doubted they needed the money since they were both doctors, who earned plenty so that they could now enjoy uninterrupted quality time together over the holidays.
Danny’s brother Clark paid Mauricio’s and Tierney’s salaries, but Danny wanted to show his appreciation for their work and company over the past few months too. This extensive yachting excursion would have been impossible without them. The arrangement had worked well. Mauricio could pilot a boat, Tierney was happy to clean and prepare meals, and they too loved to travel and practice medicine unconventionally. His brother’s concerns had been placated.
The yacht was large enough for three people to have ample living space without running into each other if they didn’t want to. Mauricio and Tierney were together, not married and had no plans for legally committing. It didn’t matter though. It was plain to see how crazy in love they were and in it for the long haul. They were Steph and Ayesha, Gabrielle and Dwyane, Sarah Michelle and Freddy Prinze Jr., Meredith and Derek.
At first, Danny wasn’t sure if it was seasickness or homesickness or lovesickness or his actual brain sickness but being on the yacht all the time made him want to vomit. He’d recovered quickly. Mauricio and Tierney were sweet and complementary. Opposites on a color wheel, but perfectly matched. It was the first time in his thirty-five years he’d witnessed up close what a true romantic partnership was supposed to look like—encouraging, supportive, and unconditional. They trusted each other so deeply that anything could be said, hashed out, and problem solved. Neither walked away. They weren’t incomplete apart, but they were stronger together. The more time he spent with them, the more he wanted what they had.
After all, Clark was ready now—after his live-in girlfriend Leena gave birth to their baby—to finally propose. And their oldest brother Deacon was in a committed relationship—a feat for the reformed perpetual bachelor. Like he’d already said, he and his brothers did not have a good model for relationships growing up. Two out of three gave him hope for love in his own future. But there was still his pesky condition, the one that meant he couldn’t guarantee he’d have a future.
Danny had been traveling long enough to know he didn’t actually want to be away from his family anymore. He’d just needed a break from their nagging and worrying over his health. They’d needed the separation as much as he had. Danny had no idea where Clark got the idea he could beat him in any kind of physical or intellectual competition, but it was time to remind him. And Danny would have the pleasure of meeting and charming the pants off Deacon’s new paramour, Cheramie. Not literally charming the pants off her. Just winning her over with his boyish grin and sparkling personality. #teamdanny.
“You’re not just dropping us off and taking off again, are you?” Tierney asked, gaze narrowed. She had the right to be suspicious. Danny didn’t confide in many people; his trust needed to be earned. He wished he wasn’t this way, but them’s the breaks.
“I’m spending Christmas with my family,” he said.
“I’d believe that if you actually liked Christmas,” she replied.
“Who said I didn’t like Christmas?” He didn’t. She was right.
“You. Over and over. For literal months. I didn’t know there was so much to loathe about the season.”
“It’s so fake. Fake trees. Fake hospitality. People faking they like each other. People faking how much money they have and buying exorbitant gifts for people they fake like. People faking they like snow and cold weather. Bah! Humbug!” he declared.
“All right, Scrooge.”
“I don’t see the point.”
“To spend time with your family?”
“That I will do. But it doesn’t have to be Christmas to do that. I can’t wait to shower my new niece with all my love and affection. It’s my mission to make sure she loves me better than Deacon. If I can swing it, more than Clark too.”
“But he’s her dad—” she argued, and Danny wiggled his brows.
“Never mind. You’re not a bad guy, you know,” she said. “I don’t know why you pretend to be.”
To protect the people he loved from getting too close. Duh. “Shhh…don’t tell anyone. You’ll blow my cover.”
“Is this goodbye?” Mauricio asked.
“I think it might be,” Danny replied.
“Really? Are you going to turn down the offers?”
“You never know. The Bachelor in Paradise offer is pretty enticing. Will you guys be around if I decide to head back out to sea?”
“We haven’t decided anything yet, but we could be enticed. Watching you wine and dine all those women might be worth the trip alone.”
“Alright, go,” Danny said. “You’re touching my last feeling.”
Mauricio and Tierney exchanged sickening sweet smiles and crushed Danny inside of a group hug. “You’re a softie with the biggest heart,” Tierney said. “Anyone who really knows you knows that.”
“We already did this.” He hugged them back hard before they let go. “You’re good friends.”
Finally, he watched them go, arms wound around each other’s waists, the sun starting to sink in the sky behind him. Picture-fucking-perfect. Danny never aspired to much, but he was inspired by them to try.
He inhaled the salty sea air and the scent of soggy popcorn and absorbed the sounds of the promenade revival—carnival songs, raucous laughter, the flapping wings of seagulls. His shoulders relaxed. He cracked his neck and headed toward the boardwalk, because in his mind, there was no place like home.
Dust settled on the water to Mabel’s left.
The Pacific had kept her company for the past thirteen hours, the sun traveling from east to west over her Audi, as she drove due north. She massaged the growing knot in her left shoulder and arched her stiff back. “Come on, not now.” Her right butt cheek started to prickle, moving all the way down her leg, and she swerved on to the shoulder of the road before she lost control of her leg and the car completely.
She shoved the door open and slung her leg on to the dirt, lightly slapping her thigh and groaning. Mabel hadn’t meant to drive all day. The plan—with the custom itinerary complete with cities, hotel check-in and check-out dates, and local interests that she’d emailed ahead to her cousin Cheramie Johnston—detailed a seven-day road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Seattle.
Rolling ocean waves, towering redwoods, beach towns, wine tours, biking, hiking, Crater Lake! Her first stop was less than half an hour away from where she’d started her trip, in Sausalito. After this morning’s dramatic exit, she was supposed to spend the morning at a spa at her mother’s urging and on her dollar. From where she sat now, a deep tissue massage, facial, and mani-pedi didn’t sound so bad.
“I regret nothing,” she said.
Her trip wasn’t a lazy, meandering trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to rediscover her mojo or get her groove back. Mabel knew her worth. That wasn’t the problem. Her problem was that she needed to get back to work. This road trip was work. A research project. More and more, small tourist towns were capping new construction but were growing their commercial and retail sectors. All during her separation and divorce, unable to go to work at their shared company, a hotel conglomerate, Mabel gathered data.
On average vacancy rates: almost zero. Hello, Airbnb.
On housing markets: atrocious. Rich developers were buying up every property to flip at a disgusting profit. Only to have them sit empty.
On municipal zoning restrictions: most had restrictions on where and what to build.
Most towns with one notable exception…a little town on the water, where her first cousin was the current mayor of…Conception Bay. They didn’t have any zoning restrictions in place yet. And then Mabel’s brain really got cranking.
Based on the information she’d gathered, she could buy three or four properties to start with. She couldn’t afford major renovations yet, but she could source gently used appliances and furniture—because hotels off-loaded those all the time—and make sure her properties were immaculate. Elbow grease was a currency that went a long way. By bootstrapping she’d be in the black in no time, put away her profits, invest, and buy into more vacation properties. She liked the idea of this more than building another hotel empire. She didn’t have to wait on the construction of new buildings, nor did she have to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars.
She did, however secure a loan from her mother—one million dollars to be paid back in a year—accompanied by taut strings attached. One wrong move, and that loan could be rescinded. Her mother wasn’t a bank, so it’s not like there was much recourse. After a year, her mother would slap her with a huge interest rate, because even though she was her mom, she too was a shrewd businesswoman. Mabel learned from the best.
You really need to learn to relax, darling.
I’ll relax when you relax.
At least come and spend the holidays then. We can work together.
If it had been just her and her mom, she might have considered it. But her mother loved massive family gatherings, especially during the winter break. After the spectacular fireworks show that was her divorce, spending the holidays with her entire extended family sounded like the beginning of a divorce horror movie, if there were such a thing. Not a slasher film, but one where everyone talked down to her with sad puppy eyes and tilted nods asking her what she was going to do with herself and if she had any savings. No, thank you.
She was completely fine; her marriage was not. She could see the Easter sequel too, where her relatives came with prepared lists of their single friends—fellow divorcees or widowers because they deserved each other? There was no one else? And who said she needed a man anyway?
Because she didn’t. She’d built their hotel empire. She’d raised their daughter. She’d done everything. And she was going to do it again.
Mabel kicked the dirt. “My leg! It’s awake! Ha ha!” She picked up her phone and sent a message to Cheramie, informing her she was arriving a few days earlier than planned. Seven exactly. Her cousin replied with K, but Mabel didn’t have time to decipher any deeper meaning beyond the fact that Cheramie was K with the early arrival.
Jumping back into her Audi, she slammed the door and punched the accelerator. She’d already sped through all the towns she was supposed to stay in but knew what she needed to do. The faster she got there, the quicker she could get to work.
End of Excerpt