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Amanda Appleby never suspected that her marriage of twenty-five years was heading for the rocks. If she had, it might have made what was to follow a little—if not exactly easier—then maybe a bit less traumatic. A fall was always harder when you didn’t see it coming.
Amanda didn’t see it coming.
As far as Amanda was aware, their marriage was rock solid. Rufus called her the perfect wife, and she prided herself on being exactly that. The perfect wife to the perfect husband. He was the doctor who’d risen to become one of the top plastic surgeons of Harley Street, practising his scalpel’s artistry on celebrities, billionaires, and the odd (Ssh, you mustn’t tell anyone) royal. She was his model wife and keeper of his sock drawer, mother to their twenty-four-year-old twins, Charlotte and Anthony, and doer of charitable works in the community.
They were a team. The dynamic duo. The Barbie and Ken of their set, according to their friends.
Amanda allowed herself a quiet moment at the French doors overlooking the crowded terrace where guests overflowed down onto the lawns below. She couldn’t take any credit for the weather—the June day had been delicious with the promise of summer, the evening mellowed to balmy perfection—but the rest of it was all down to her.
Paper lanterns bobbed and swayed in the soft evening breeze on lines strung above the partygoers while Norah Jones softly crooned a ballad from speakers set up in trees decorated with thousands of tiny fairy lights. Amanda had spent the best part of a week curating the playlist. All of Rufus’s favourites. But then, only the best for Rufus. His favourite music. Posh Champagne. The best and trendiest craft beers in Europe (nothing you could simply pick up at your local Tesco’s, perish the thought).
She took a sip of the Champagne she’d allowed herself now that the bulk of the evening’s formalities was done, only the speeches and cake cutting to come. The waitstaff were primed, which meant that any minute she could head over to where Angie and Paula were waiting for her to join them. Then she could properly relax. But right now, she just wanted to take a moment and drink in all she’d achieved. Because she’d done it. Six months ago when they’d bought it, this house had been begging for renovation. She’d since turned a run-down six-bedroom, three-baths, and four-reception-rooms pile into a show home, and she’d done it in time for tonight’s celebration. And now Rufus’s fiftieth birthday party was a raging success.
‘Great party, Manz.’ She stiffened, bristling at the use of her abridged name, something only Rufus had license to use, but of course, it was Charles talking, one of Rufus’s oldest school chums and the best man at their wedding. Credentials, he assumed, that gave him privileges. He clumsily swapped out his empty glass for a fresh glass of Champagne from a passing waiter, nearly upsetting the entire tray in the process.
‘Charles,’ she said, throwing a sympathetic glance at the red-cheeked young waiter as he steadied the glasses and hurriedly moved on. ‘Are you having a good night?’
‘The best,’ he said. ‘Party is great. And that belly dancer, wow! What was her name? Shaker-something?’
‘Shafiqa, Queen of the Dance,’ Amanda said, correcting him, wondering if he’d be so in thrall if he knew that the dancer was in truth the entirely unexotic Sharon Jones from Luton.
‘Shafiqa,’ he said, practically salivating. He made an attempt at what might have been a hip swivel. ‘What that woman could do with her hips.’
Amanda’s spine stiffened, her good spirits leaching away. ‘That’s her job,’ she said drily. The belly dancer had been Amanda’s pièce de résistance, the icing on Rufus’s birthday celebration. Rufus had lapped up the unexpected treat, exactly as she’d hoped, and she could hardly object to anyone else enjoying the show. She just didn’t want to have to wipe up their drool in the process. She’d rather think about Rufus and that kiss afterwards, when he’d squeezed her tight and told her that she’d made his day, while the hungry look in his eyes told her that he was looking forward to making her night. ‘Anyway, I should go ming—’
‘What you’ve done with this place,’ Charles said, throwing his arm around, thirty-quid-a-bottle champagne sloshing out of his glass, ‘it’s amazing. I never thought you’d pull it off.’
She blinked. The man was boorish as hell, and oblivious with it, but he was, after all, Rufus’s best friend and there were times you had to make allowances. ‘You should know me better than that by now, Charles. I promised Rufus I’d have the renovations done in time for his fiftieth birthday, and there was no way I was going to let him down.’
‘Yeah, well,’ he said, flapping his free hand around. ‘I reckon this place must be worth a fortune right now.’
She smiled tightly. ‘You might be right, but that’s hardly the point. This is Rufus’s and my forever home. We’re going to grow old together here.’
Charles pulled a face, the concept of growing old together clearly a difficult concept to grasp when he’d recently ditched his first wife for a younger model. ‘Still,’ he said after a moment, grinning in that had-too-much-to-drink way so that he couldn’t stop himself, ‘no wonder Rufus is over the moon. Have to say, the timing couldn’t be better.’
Now the man was making absolutely no sense at all. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Oh,’ he said, jerking himself upright. He looked slightly confused at his now-empty glass, as if he couldn’t work out how that could possibly have happened, before peering searchingly over his shoulder. ‘I should be getting back to, um…’
‘Shauna?’ she offered, and his face reddened as she plucked his glass from his hands before he could drop it while he swayed his way down the steps to the lawn.
Amanda didn’t like to feel smug, but she almost felt sorry for the man. Was that what happened when you left your wife for another woman and couldn’t remember which one you were supposed to be with? Thank heavens that had never been a problem for Rufus and Amanda.
Of course, she’d read the usual gloomy reports in the Sunday papers that something like forty-two percent of UK marriages ended in divorce, but that was clearly something that happened to other people; couples who fought over finances or who couldn’t communicate, or who bickered over every little thing until the last fragile strands of their marriage snapped.
Not Amanda and Rufus. Together, they’d successfully weathered the dangerous first decade when the majority of divorces occurred; they’d survived the transition of their marriage from a couple into a family with the birth of Charlotte and Anthony. As their children had grown, so too had their marriage, eventually settling into a comfortable partnership.
Rufus still kissed her on the cheek every morning when she dropped him at the station to catch the express train to London, and again when she picked him up in the evening. And then there was the odd Sunday morning where they managed to have sex somewhere amidst that first pot of coffee and the Sunday papers. Rufus would nudge her arm with his elbow, wink at her over the reading glasses he’d only recently conceded he needed, and she’d know it was on.
Foreplay, she’d laughingly call it, Rufus style. Not exactly monkey sex, sure, but it wasn’t like they were newlyweds anymore. They had nothing to prove. They had it all. They were lucky.
Not that it was luck that made a marriage work, because twenty-five years together didn’t happen by accident, but it was a good feeling to be on the side of the fifty-eight percent of marriages that didn’t end in divorce.
She finished her champagne, thinking she might order a jug of margaritas to share with Paula and Angie—she could do with it after her run-in with Charles—when Charlotte skipped up the terrace steps. ‘Have you seen Dad? People are making noises about going home.’
‘Already?’ Amanda glanced at her antique marquisate watch, last year’s birthday gift from Rufus. For heaven’s sake, it was barely eight-thirty P.M. ‘Who’s making noises?’
‘Gran and Gramps. The aunties. The neighbours.’ Charlotte rolled her eyes. ‘You know, old people who need their beauty sleep. They’re all waiting for the speeches so they can go home.’
Amanda scanned the crowd. ‘He was out here last time I saw him. He must have ducked inside for a minute.’
‘Want me to go look for him?’
‘No, I’ll go. He’s probably in the garage showing someone that sodding Tesla, and he’ll be right back. You stay here in case he appears and make sure he stays put.’
She primed the staff in the kitchen that any minute now the birthday boy would be blowing out his candles and set off towards the garage to find him. That car was Rufus’s pride and joy, never mind that it was only ever used on Saturdays to take him to golf, or farther afield to visit his syndicate’s breeding stables. But the garage lights were off and Rufus was nowhere to be seen.
He was probably already back on the terrace, she thought, but still she checked the downstairs reception rooms and powder room and drew a blank. Upstairs was the same, the guest rooms and bathrooms empty.
It was only for the sake of completeness that she snicked open the door to the main bedroom. The lights were off there too, and she was already closing the door, when sounds rushed out to greet her. Panting sounds, grunting sounds, along a tinkle of what could only be a coin belt.
What the hell? Bloody Charles, he’d been with Shauna for barely twelve months, and here he was shagging the belly dancer. Amanda backed out. She needed Rufus here right now to set him straight. That’s when, courtesy of a sliver of hallway light, something filtered through her shocked psyche and slammed like an express train into her brain.
Because this wasn’t Charles who’d slipped away for a quickie with the entertainer. Those socks around which the trousers pooled on the floor were the very same bespoke socks she’d designed and gifted to Rufus for Christmas last year—Rufus as a surgical Crocodile Dundee contemplating a gleaming scimitar whilst saying, You call that a scalpel? THIS is a scalpel.
She shoved open the door and snapped on the lights. One split second was all it took. One flash of illumination that was enough to prove that not only were they her husband’s socks, but also her husband’s arms holding up a pair of shapely legs, and most certainly her husband’s white buttocks jiggling under his shirt tails as he powered into the queen of the dance.
And Rufus, her perfect husband, the man she’d been married to for a quarter of a century—the man she’d been so proud and happy to call her husband—looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes wide, his face contorted, too far gone to stop and yet still somehow managing to squeeze out the words, ‘It’s not how it looks…’
End of Excerpt