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by Barbara Delinsky
William Morrow, 2001
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It was five in the morning, and her husband still wasn't home. He hadn't called. He hadn't sent a message. His toothbrush was in the bathroom along with his razor, his aftershave, and the sterling comb and brush set Laura had given him for their twentieth anniversary the summer before. The contents of his closet were intact, right down to the small duffel he took with him to the sports club every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If he had slept somewhere else, he was totally ill equipped, which wasn't like Jeffrey at all, Laura knew. He was a precise man, a creature of habit. He never traveled, not for so much as a single night, without fresh underwear, a clean shirt, and a bar of deodorant soap.
More than that, he never went anywhere without telling Laura, and that was what frightened her most. She had no idea where he was or what had happened.
Not that she hadn't imagined. Laura wasn't usually prone to wild wanderings of the mind, but ten hours of waiting had taken its toll. She imagined that he'd had a stroke and lay unconscious across his desk in the deserted offices of Farro and Frye. She imagined that he'd been in an accident on the way home, that the car and everything in it had been burned beyond recognition or,alternately, that he had hit the windshield, climbed out, and begun wandering through the cold December rain not knowing who or where he was. She had gone so far as to imagine that he'd stopped for gas and been taken hostage by a junkie holding up the nearby 7-Eleven.
More rational explanations for his absence had worn thin as night had waned. By no stretch of the imagination could she envision him holed up with a client at five in the morning. Maybe in April, with a new client whose tax records were in chaos. But not the first week in December. And not without telling her. He always called if he was going to be late. Always.
Last night, they had been expected at an opening at the museum. Cherries had catered the affair. Though one of Laura's crews had handled the evening, she had spent the afternoon in Cherries' kitchen stuffing mushrooms, skewering smoked turkey and cherries, and cleaving baby lamb chops apart. She had wanted not only the food but the tables, the trays, and the bar to be perfect, which was why she had followed the truck to the museum to oversee the setting up.
Everything had been flawless. She had come home to change and get Jeff. But Jeff hadn't shown up.
Hugging her knees tighter in an attempt to fill the emptiness inside her, she stared at the phone. It had rung twice during the night. The first call had been from Elise, who was at the museum with her husband and wondered why Laura and Jeff weren't there. The second call had been from Donny for Debra, part of their nightly ritual. Sixteen-year-old sweethearts did that, Laura knew, just as surely as she knew that forty-something husbands who always called their wives if they were going to be late wouldn't not call unless something was wrong. So she had made several searching calls herself, but to no avail. The only thing she had learned was that the phone worked fine.
She willed it to ring now, willed Jeff to call and say he had had a late meeting with a client and had nearly fallen asleep at the wheel on the way home, so he'd pulled over to the side of the road to sleep off his fatigue. Of course, that wouldn't explain why the police hadn't spotted his car. Hampshire County wasn't so remote as to be without regular patrols or so seasoned as to take a shiny new Porsche for granted, particularly if that Porsche belonged to one half of a prominent Northampton couple.
The Frye name made the papers often, Jeff's with regard to the tax seminars he gave, Laura's with regard to Cherries. The local press was a tough one, seeming to resist anything upscale, which the restaurant definitely was, but Laura fed enough luminaries on a regular basis to earn frequent mentions. State Senator DiMento and his entourage were seen debating ways to trim fat from the budget over steamed vegetables and salads at Cherries this week, wrote Duggan O'Neil of the Hampshire County Sun. Duggan O'Neil could cut people to shreds, and he had done his share of cutting where Laura was concerned, but publicity was publicity, Jeff said. Name recognition was important.
Indeed, the police officer with whom Laura had talked earlier on the phone had known just who she was. He even remembered Jeff's car as the one often parked outside the restaurant. But nothing in his records suggested that anyone in the department had seen or heard of the black Porsche that night.
"Tell you what, Miz Frye," he had told her. "Since it's you, I'll make a few calls. Throw in a piece of cherry cheesecake, and I'll even call the state police." But his calls had turned up nothing, and, to her dismay, he had refused to let her file a missing persons report. "Not until he's been gone twenty-four hours."
"But awful things can happen in twenty-four hours!"
"Good things, too, like lost husbands coming home."
Lost husbands coming home. She resented those words with a passion. They suggested she was inept as a wife, inept as a woman, that Jeff had been bored and gone looking for fun and would wander back home when the fun was over. Maybe the cop lived that way, but not Jeff and Laura Frye. They had been together for twenty good years. They loved each other.
So where was he? The question gnawed at her. She imagined him slain by a hitchhiker, accosted by Satanists, sucked up, Porsche and all, by an alien starship. The possibilities were endless, each one more bizarre than the next. Bizarre things did happen, she knew, but to other people. Not to her. And not to Jeff. He was the most steadfast, the most predictable, the most uncorruptible man she'd ever known, which was why his absence made no sense at all.
Unfolding her legs, she rose from the sofa and padded barefoot through the dark living room to the front window. Drawing back the sheers that hung beneath full-length silk swags, she looked out. The wind was up, ruffling the branches of the pines, driving the rain against the flagstone walk and the tall lamp at its head.
At least it wasn't snowing. She remembered times, early in her marriage, when she had been home with the children during storms, waiting for Jeff to return from work. He had been a new CPA then, a struggling one, and they had lived in a rented duplex. Laura used to stand at the window, playing games with the children, drawing pictures on the glass in the fog their breath made. Like clockwork, Jeff had always come through the snow, barely giving her time to worry.
He worked in a new building in the center of town now, and they weren't living in the duplex, or even in that first weathered Victorian, but in a graciousbrick Tudor on a tree-lined street, less than a ten-minute drive from his office. It was a fast drive, an easy drive. But for some unknown and frightening reason he hadn't made it.
Laura whirled around at the sudden sound to find Debra beneath the living room arch. Her eyes were sleepy, her dark hair disheveled. She wore a nightshirt with UMASS COED NAKED LACROSSE splashed on the front over breasts that had taken a turn for the buxom in the past year.
Aware of her racing heart, Laura tried to smile. "Hi, Deb."
Debra sounded cross. "It's barely five. That's still the middle of the night, Mom. Why are you up?"
Unsure of what to say, just as she'd been unsure the night before when Debra had come home and Jeff hadn't been there, Laura threw back a gentle, "Why are you?"
"Because I woke up and remembered last night and started to worry. I mean, Dad's never late like that. I had a dream something awful happened, so I was going to check the garage and make sure the Porsche was " Her voice stopped short. Her eyes probed Laura's in the dark. "It's there, isn't it?"
Laura shook her head.
"Where is he?"
"Are you sure he didn't call and tell you something, and then you forgot? You're so busy, sometimes things slip your mind. Or maybe he left a message on the machine, but it got erased. Maybe he spent the night at Nana Lydia's."
Laura had considered that possibility, which was why she had driven past her mother-in-law's house when she had gone out looking for Jeff. In theory, Lydia might have taken ill and called her son, though in all likelihood she would have called Laura first. Laura was her primary caretaker. She was the one who stocked the house with food, took her to the doctor, arranged for the cleaning girl or the exterminator or the plumber.
"He's not there. I checked."
"How about the office?"
"I went there too." To the dismay of the guard, who had looked far more sleepy than Debra, she had insisted on checking the garage for the Porsche, but Jeff's space the entire garage under his building had been empty.
"Is he with David?"
"No. I called." David Farro was Jeff's partner, but he hadn't known of any late meetings Jeff might have had. Nor had Jeff's secretary, who had left at five with Jeff still in his office.
"Maybe with a client?"
"But you were supposed to go to the museum. Wouldn't he have called if he couldn't make it?"
"I would have thought so."
"Maybe something's wrong with the phone."
"Maybe he had car trouble."
But he would have called, Laura knew. Or had someone call for him. Or the police would have seen him and called.
"So where is he?" Debra cried.
Laura was terrified by her own helplessness. "I don't know!"
"He has to be somewhere!"
She wrapped her arms around her middle. "Do you have any suggestions?"
"Me?" Debra shot back. "What do I know? You're the adult around here. Besides, you're his wife. You're the one who knows him inside and out. You're supposed to know where he is."
Turning back to the window, Laura drew the sheer aside and looked out again.
"I don't know where he is, babe."
"Great. That's just great."
"No, it's not," Laura acknowledged, nervously scanning the street, "but there isn't an awful lot I can do right now. He'll show up, and I'm sure he'll have a perfectly good explanation for where he's been and why he hasn't called."
"If I ever stayed out all night without calling, you'd kill me."
"I may well kill your father," Laura said in a moment's burst of anger. Given what she'd been through, Jeff's explanation was going to have to be inspired if he hoped to be spared her fury. Then the fury died and fear returned. The possibilities flashed through her mind, one worse than the next. "He'll be home," she insisted, as much for her own sake as for Debra's.
"How do you know?"
"I just know."
"What if he's sick, or hurt, or dying somewhere? What if he needs our help, but we're just standing here in a nice warm dry house waiting for him to show up? What if we're losing all this time when we should be out looking for him?"
Debra's questions weren't new. Laura had hit on all of them, more than once. Now she reasoned, "I looked for him last night. I drove around half the city and didn't see the Porsche. I called the police, and they hadn't seen it either. If there was an accident, the police would call me."
"So you're just going to stand here looking out the window? Aren't you upset?"
Debra was a sixteen-year-old asking a frightened sixteen-year-old's questionsLaura was a frightened thirty-eight-year-old with no answers, which made her frustration all the greater. Keeping her voice as steady as possible, given the tremulous feeling she had inside, she turned to Debra and said, "Yes, I'm upset. Believe me, I'm upset. I've been upset since seven o'clock last night, when your father was an hour late."
"He never does this, Mom, never."
"I know that, Debra. I went to his office. I drove around looking for his car. I called his partner, his secretary, and the police, but they won't do anything until he's been gone a day, and he hasn't been gone half that. What would you have me do? Walk the streets in the rain, calling his name?"
Debra's glare cut through the darkness. "You don't have to be sarcastic."
With a sigh, Laura crossed the floor and caught her daughter's hand. "I'm not being sarcastic. But I'm worried, and your criticism doesn't help."
"I didn't criticize."
"You did." Debra said what was on her mind and always had. Disapproval coming from a little squirt of a child hadn't been so bad. Disapproval coming from someone who was Laura's own five-six and weighed the same one-fifteen, who regularly borrowed Laura's clothes, makeup, and perfume, who drove a car, professed to know how to French-kiss, and was physically capable of having a child of her own was something else. "You think I should be doing more than I am," Laura argued, "but I'm hamstrung, don't you see? I don't know if anything's really wrong. There could be a logical reason for your father's absence. I don't want to blow things out of proportion before I have good cause."
"Twelve hours isn't good cause?" Debra cried and whirled around to leave, only to be held back by Laura's grip.
"Eleven hours," she said with quiet control. "And, yes, it's good cause, babe. But I can't do anything right now but wait. I can't do anything else." The silence that followed was heavy with an unspoken plea for understanding.
Debra lowered her chin. Her hair fell forward, shielding her from Laura's gaze. "What about me? What am I supposed to do?"
Scooping the hair back from Debra's face, Laura tucked it behind an ear. For an instant she caught a glimpse of her daughter's worry, but it was gone by the time Debra raised her head. In its place was defiance. Taking that as part and parcel of the spunk that made Debra special, Laura said, "What you're supposed to do is go back to bed. It's too early to be up."
"Sure. Great idea. Like I'd really be able to sleep." She shot a glance at Laura's sweater and jeans. "Like you really slept yourself." She turned her head a fraction and gave a twitch of her nose. "You've been cooking, haven't you. What's that smell?"
"It's not so bad." Jeff loved it with sour cream on top. Maybe, deep inside, Laura had been hoping the smell would lure him home.
"I can't believe you were cooking."
"I always cook."
"At work. Not at home. Most of the time you stick us with chunky chicken soup, frozen french bread pizza, or microwave meatballs and spaghetti. You must feel guilty that Dad's missing."
Laura ignored the suggestion, which could have come straight from her own mother's analytical mouth. "He isn't missing, just late."
"So you cooked all night."
"Not all night. Just part of it." In addition to the borscht, she'd done a coq au vin she would probably freeze, since no one planned to be home for dinner for the next two nights. She had also baked a Black Forest cake and two batches of pillow cookies, one of which she would send to Scott.
"Did you sleep at all?" Debra asked.
"Aren't you tired?"
"Nah. I'm fine." She was too anxious to sleep, which was why she had cooked. Normally, cooking relaxed her. It hadn't done that last night, but at least it had kept her hands busy.
"Well, I'm fine too," Debra declared. "I'll shower and dress and sit down here with you."
Laura knew what was coming. Debra was social to the core. Rarely did a weekend pass when she wasn't out, if not with Donny, then with Jenna or Kim or Whitney or all three and more. But as drawn as she was to her friends, she was allergic to anything academic. At the slightest excuse, she would stay home for the day, "You'll go to school when it's time," Laura insisted, "just like always."
"I can't go to school. I want to be here."
"There's nothing for you to do here. When your father comes home, he'll want to sleep."
"Assuming he hasn't already slept."
Laura felt a flare of indignance. "Where would he have slept?"
Debra's eyes went wide in innocence. "I don't know. Where do you think?"
"I don't know! If I did, we wouldn't be standing here at this hour discussing it!" Hearing the high pitch of her voice, Laura realized just how short-tempered she was and how uncharacteristic that was. "Look," she said more calmly, "we're going in circles. I know nothing, you know nothing. All we can do for the time being is wait for your father to call. If I haven't heard from him by eight or nine, I can start making calls myself." Framing Debra's face with her hands, she said, "Let's not fight about this. I hate fighting. You know that."
Debra looked to be on the verge of saying something before she caught herself and reconsidered. With a merciful nod, she turned and left the room. Laura listened to her footfall on the stair runner, the occasional creak of a tread, movement along the upstairs hall, then the closing of the bathroom door. Only when she heard the sound of the shower did she turn back toward the den.
"Damn it, Jeff," she whispered, "where are you?" It was one thing to put her through hell for a night, another to involve the children. Scott was at school, sleeping in blissful ignorance in his dorm room at Penn. But Debra was home, awake now and aware that her father was missing.
Laura couldn't believe he had willfully stayed out all night. He was a devoted husband and father. Something was wrong.
At the door to the den, she stopped. This was Jeff's room, his retreat. Technically it was a library, lined top to bottom with books. The books were still there, but so were a new television and a VCR for fun. He also worked there, which was why the gleaming mahogany desk which had originally sported a gold-edged blotter, several leather-bound volumes braced by brass bookends, and some scrimshaw now bore a more functional pad, a computer linked to the one in his office, and a Rolodex filled with the names and addresses of anyone and everyone with whom Jeff had professional dealings.
Should it come down to a search, Laura wouldn't know which names to call first. Jeff didn't discuss clients with her unless they bumped into one at a party. He put a high value on confidentiality, and she respected that. He was a decent person.
Drawn into the room by the musty scent of Jeff's collection of old books, Laura let the atmosphere take the edge off her tension. Gently lit, as it had been all night, by the green clerk's lamp on the desk, the room had a feeling of history, and with good cause. On those shelves were an assortment of books, pictures, and mementos that documented their life together.
Neatly arranged, as was Jeffs style, were books from their college days, Jeff's on such subjects as Financial Reporting, Advanced Federal Taxation, and Auditing, hers on American Literature, Beginning Anthropology, and French. Jeff's shelves progressed to books on advanced accounting issues that he had read for graduate courses, as well as ever-growing collections of the Journal of Accountancy and the Massachusetts CPA Review. Laura's shelves, reflecting the fact that she had dropped out of college after a year, branched out into photography books, years of National Geographic, and diverse fiction. Those books bought used or in paperback early in their marriage were more weathered. The shelves filled more recently held handsomely packaged hardcover books. And, of course, there were the antique volumes, first editions that Laura had given Jeff over the years.
Interspersed with the books were mementos from trips: a Mayan bowl they had bought in the Yucatán the first time they had left the children and flown off for vacation eight years before; a conch shell they had found on a St. Martin beach the year after that; an ironwood sculpture they had bought in Arizona two years later.
The Arizona trip had been special. All four of them had gone. It had been the first time any of them had seen the desert, and Laura, for one, had adored it. She loved the barren beauty of the landscape, the clear sun, the dryness of the air, the hotel, the food. Lifting a photograph taken on that trip, Laura let her finger glide over the glass. Scott had been fourteen, Debra eleven, both healthy, happy, and handsome, both looking markedly like their parents. With their dark hair, lean athletic builds, easy tans, and bright smiles, they were the picture-perfect American family.
Laura's finger lingered on Jeff's face. Where was he? The house was quiet, empty without him. Where was he?
Feeling the same itch to do something that she'd felt on and off all night, she returned the picture to the shelf and went out into the kitchen. The sink was clean. So was the counter and the granite island. Other than the pot on the stove, the plastic-wrapped platter of cookies by the refrigerator, and the footed cake dish in the center of the island, there was no evidence that she'd been cooking. She had scrubbed everything clean with the same energy with which she normally worked. She didn't do well with idle time, didn't do well with it at all.
She glanced at her watch. It was five-forty-five. She glanced at the digital readout on the microwave, but it was the same. After letting out a frantic whimper, she dragged in a slow, deep breath and forced herself to relax.
Jeff had to be somewhere. He was alive and well and intact. There was an explanation for what had happened a misunderstanding, crossed signals. Surely someday they'd laugh over the folly of the night.
Clinging to that thought, Laura headed for the stairs. If Jeff would be coming home soon, she didn't want to look tired and washed out. A bath would help. She felt wound tight.
The master bathroom was her pride and joy. High-ceilinged, skylit, and spacious, it was of variegated marble, deep green and lush. The towels and small area rugs were white, the wallpaper a broad floral sweep of green and white. Though there were several groupings of botanical prints, the main decorative force came from the plants that sprouted in every imaginable spot. They gave the room the feel of a forest glen.
By the time Laura had run the water, undressed, and climbed in, the heat lamp had made the room comfortably warm. She sank down, stretched out, closed her eyes. Had the Jacuzzi not hummed she might have turned it on. But she didn't want to miss a sound. So she took a deep breath and let it out, then repeated the procedure when the jitters in her stomach didn't let up. She concentrated on relaxing her hands, then her thighs, then her knees and feet. Each floated. Each moved with the water as she breathed.
At a creaking from the bedroom, her eyes flew open. "Jeff?" she called excitedly and held her breath.
"It's me, Mom. Are you okay?"
The jitters resumed. Trying not to sound too disappointed, she said, "I'm fine, babe. Just taking a bath."
"Nothing happened while I was in the shower?"
"Want me to listen for the phone?"
Laura knew if the phone rang she'd be out of the tub like a shot. "That'd be great," she said. "I think I'll just soak for a while. Then I'll fix us some breakfast."
"Isn't it a little early for that?"
"I thought I'd do some waffles."
"I'm not hungry."
"And maybe some eggs."
"I'll be downstairs, Mom."
"Okay. I'll be there soon."
Pleased that she'd managed to sound relatively normal, Laura took a hand from the water and studied her nails. She'd done a job on them during the night, destroying the pale polish she wore in ways that her work, for all its manual labor, rarely did. Tonight she and Jeff had a dinner party to go to, tomorrow night a political fund raiser. She'd have to redo them. Before the dinner party. Or the fund raiser.
Where was Jeff?
Feeling panic, she sat up in the tub. She glanced at the door, peered at the watch she'd left on the closed commode. It was five past six. "Come on, Jeff," she cried in an urgent whisper and climbed out. "Come on, come on!"
After slipping into a pair of gabardine slacks and a loose cashmere sweater, she put on a smattering of makeup, pushed a brush through her shoulderlength auburn waves, swallowed two aspirin, and headed down the stairs.
Debra was perched on a stool in the kitchen, wearing her school uniform of lace-edged leggings under a short denim skirt and a high-necked blouse under a large wool sweater. She gave Laura a strange look. "Why are you dressed like that?"
"I have meetings all morning."
"You're going to meetings? Dad's been gone all night, we have no idea where he is, and you're going to meetings?"
"He'll show up." Laura looked at her watch. It was nearly six-thirty. "Soon, now. You'll see." She plugged in the waffle iron and pulled a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator. "Want some?"
"How can you think of food at a time like this?"
Laura doubted she'd have anything herself, but she was hoping Debra would, so she poured her a glass of juice. "We have to keep things in perspective. Panicking won't help. We have to stay cool."
"I'm not going to school."
"Yes, you are. And while you're there, if your father hasn't come home, I'll be making calls."
"What if there was an accident, like he skidded off the road into a tree, and the police suddenly see it when the sun comes up?"
"Then they'll come get me."
"Will you come get me?"
Seeing the fear in Debra's eyes, Laura reached over and gave her a hug. The contact felt good. "Of course I will. If I hear anything either way, I'll let you know. Fair?"
"Not really. I don't see why I can't stay here. I won't get anything out of school with this on my mind."
She had a point. Not even in the best of times was Debra a student. But Laura wanted her out of the house. No matter how distracted she'd be at school, she would be better off there than waiting at home for the phone to ring. Besides, if Jeff didn't show up, if the morning wore on without any sign of him, if Laura had to call in help, there would be a reality to the situation that didn't quite exist yet. The thought of that made her tremble.
"Do me a favor and get the newspapers?"
Debra's eyes grew wide. "Would there be something in the Sun?"
"No, but it's nice to see what's happening in the world." There was an absurd normalcy in headlines of economic recession or strife in the Persian Gulf.
"It's stopped. Get them, babe? Please?" Without waiting for an answer, Laura opened a deep drawer under the island and pulled out the mixing bowl. By the time Debra returned with the Wall Street Journal folded under an arm and the Hampshire County Sun open in her hand, Laura was vigorously stirring waffle batter with a wooden spoon. She poured some on the hot iron. Its sizzle overlapped the rustle of newsprint. The waffles were done just as Debra thrust the paper aside.
"Nothing," she announced in disgust. "Where is he?"
Laura forked the waffles onto a plate. "Don't know."
"What happened to him?"
"Should I whip some cream for that?"
"No! Mom, I'm not eating."
"You have to. You love waffles."
"I told you before I wasn't hungry."
"You have to eat."
"I can't!" Pushing away from the island, Debra disappeared into the hall.
Laura felt abruptly deserted. "Where are you going?" One part of her did want to keep Debra home from school, she realized, for the company and the noise if nothing else. The more rational part, the practical part, the protective part would send her on.
"Getting my books," came the distant call.
Blankly Laura looked at the plate of waffles in her hand. She looked at the waffle iron and at the batter remaining in the bowl, and put on a second batch. It was done, and a third was on the way, when Debra returned.
"I really want to stay home."
"I know," Laura said as she whipped cream into a froth, "but you can't."
"What am I supposed to say to my friends?"
"You can say what you want. But there's no need to get them all in a stir. I'm sure everything is fine. There must be a perfectly good explanation for last night. Your father will be home, Debra. I know he will."
"I'm glad one of us is so sure."
Laura wasn't sure at all, and the pretending was growing harder. The longer Jeff was missing, the more ominous the possibilities and the less sure Laura was of anything. But she was a mother, and she was an optimist. She had to be positive for Debra. "I'm sure." She looked at her watch. "It's ten after seven." The bus came at seven-twenty. "Why don't you run on now? Jenna will be there." Jenna was Debra's best friend, and had been since nursery school. The fact that she lived on the very next street from the Fryes had been an added selling point for the house.
"Will you get a message to me if you learn anything?" Debra asked, looking young and frightened as Laura walked her to the door.
Seemingly satisfied, Debra pulled up the collar of her leather jacket, hitched her backpack to one shoulder, and left. The instant she turned onto the sidewalk and was lost from sight beyond the neighbors' hemlock hedge, Laura made for the phone.
Excerpted from A Woman Betrayed by Barbara Delinsky. Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Delinsky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.