His phone rang and he answered it. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Fletcher,” Eleanor Johnson said, “but your mother is here.”

“My mother?” Oh, yes, now he remembered. He’d even put it in his daily planner. She’d asked about meeting him on Thursday and he’d suggested lunchtime. In his current frame of mind, he had no interest in food, but he couldn’t slight his mother. He sighed, then said with obvious reluctance, “Send her in.”

“Merry Christmas, Roy.” Disregarding his mood, his mother came into the office and hugged him.

“How are you, Mother? And isn’t it a little early for Christmas greetings?”

“Not at all,” she said, smiling at him with sparkling blue eyes. “Once December arrives, it’s never too early to say Merry Christmas.” Roy smiled in return. He sincerely loved his mother. She often frustrated him, but he did love and admire her—although he didn’t understand her. She’d allowed his father to swindle her out of a huge amount. Roy had wanted her to fight, had urged her to drag his father back into court and make him pay. Roy wanted his father’s reputation destroyed, which was what Burton Fletcher deserved, but his mother had refused to do it. His father seemed to have some regrets, if his efforts to contact Roy were any indication, but so far Roy had adamantly rejected any kind of relationship.

Instead of fighting, his mother had apparently forgiven Burton and become a hermit, living in a ridiculously small cottage on a tiny San Juan island. What really upset him was that she claimed to be “reasonably happy.” She’d been cheated, dumped and cast aside like yesterday’s junk mail and she was happy? Roy just didn’t get it.

“Are you ready for lunch?”

Roy couldn’t think of a way to tell her he didn’t feel like having lunch without disappointing her. He checked his watch.

“Is your meeting over?”

“Yup, I have half an hour.” His problem was that he couldn’t be around his mother and ignore the past. When he was with her, his heart ached for a life that was dead to him. He grieved for the innocents they’d once been, he and his mother. She’d taken one path since the divorce and he’d taken another. Hatred for his father and for Aimee consumed him. He wanted them to suffer, wanted them to rot in hell for all the pain they’d caused.

While his mother chose to forgive and forget, he chose to remember every detail, every incident, every minute of their treachery. In retrospect, he realized Aimee had been interested in his father all along. He’d never been anything more than the means to an end.

“I’ll take whatever time you have for me,” his mother said in the complacent voice that always perturbed him. “Oh,” she said, slipping her arm around his waist. “I have a painting I want you to look at one day soon.”

“Another landscape?” Without her knowledge, he’d purchased several of her pieces, displayed under whatever name she used. Mary Something? He couldn’t remember at the moment. She refused his financial help, but what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

“Not this time,” she said, then softly added, “This time I painted something entirely different.”

Seven

“You don’t know how good it is to see you!” Marta Rosenberg greeted Anne, throwing her arms wide. The hotel foyer was dominated by a fifteen-foot-tall Christmas tree decorated with huge shiny red balls and large gold bows. Plush leather chairs and mahogany tables created an intimate atmosphere despite the openness of the room.

Anne hugged her friend. It’d been years since they’d last visited. Nearly ten if she recalled correctly. Burton had taken a business trip to New York and Anne had accompanied him. They’d gone to a show on Broadway, gotten together with old friends and strolled through Central Park holding hands. She and Marta had met for drinks one afternoon, gossiping and laughing like the college girls they’d once been. That was long before Aimee, long before the divorce.

A familiar ache stabbed Anne close to her heart. She made an effort to ignore it; she wouldn’t allow her loss to taint this reunion.

“You look marvelous,” Marta said, stepping back to get a better view. “What have you been up to?”

Anne laughed off her old friend’s praise. “I spent most of the afternoon buying Christmas cards and wrap—after I had lunch with Roy. I swear Scrooge has more Christmas spirit than my son.” Her elegant white suit was left over from her old life. These days, she was most comfortable in jeans and an oil-smeared cotton shirt.

Marta was blond and tanned and she dressed strictly in black, no matter what the season. It was a New York thing, Anne figured. Her friend’s hair haphazardly framed her face, but Anne knew there was nothing haphazard about it. She looked chic, rich, sophisticated, and her world seemed a million miles from the one that had become Anne’s.

“Speaking of Roy,” Marta said as she led the way into the dining room. “I understand he’s making quite a name for himself.”

“I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished, but I worry about him.” She didn’t elaborate and thankfully Marta didn’t question her. Despite her determination to enjoy this evening, Anne’s thoughts went back to the lunch with Roy. He seemed preoccupied, but when she’d asked him about it, he’d brushed aside her concern. He so rarely permitted her any glimpses into his life; he’d closed himself off from her, the same way he’d shut out everyone else.

Marta announced her name to the maître d’, and they were immediately seated. The man handed Anne a leather-encased menu, and with more ceremony than necessary, draped the white linen napkin on her lap.

A waiter came for their drink order, and both Anne and Marta requested a glass of white wine.

“What brings you to Seattle?” Anne asked her. “Business, I assume.”

“What else? At one time I had a life, but now it’s art. You wouldn’t believe some of the pieces I’ve found. And—as I mentioned before—I really would like to see your work.”

“I’ve only been painting for the last five years, Marta. My work is amateurish compared to the artists you represent.”

“Let me decide that. You were the most talented girl in our class and I don’t expect that’s changed.”

But it had. So much had changed in the forty years since Marta had first known her.

Their wine arrived, and they paused to sample it. Anne welcomed the break in conversation.

“Well,” Marta said as she set her wineglass aside. “Let’s get the subject of Burton out of the way. What happened?”

Anne gazed sightlessly into the distance. “What always happens?”

“Another woman.” Marta scowled as she added, “Younger, no doubt.”

Anne nodded. “Thirty years younger.”

“I hope he paid through the nose for this.”

Anne didn’t answer. How could she? “Actually, no.” The details weren’t anyone’s business but her own. “It depresses me to discuss it, so let’s not, all right?”

“The jerk,” Marta muttered, and said something else under her breath, something Anne wouldn’t ask her to repeat.

“Shall we toast to independence?” Marta asked, tears filling her eyes.

“Marta?” Anne leaned forward and touched her friend’s hand. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s always wrong?” she murmured, echoing Anne’s earlier statement.

“Jack?”

Marta nodded, lowering her eyes. “He’s got a girlfriend. Naturally, he still thinks I have no idea, but a blind woman could’ve figured it out.”

So this was the reason Marta had sought her out. “What are you going to do?”

“Twenty-seven years with a man, and you assume you know him. Silly me.” She made a gallant effort to smile through her tears. Raising the wineglass to her lips, she took a long and appreciative swallow.

“You’re considering a divorce?”

Marta shrugged. “I can’t imagine the rest of my life without Jack, but I can’t tolerate the thought of him with another woman—especially while he’s married to me! I don’t know what to do.”

Anne noticed that her friend’s hand trembled as she put down her wineglass. “Half the time I want to bash his head in for hurting me like this and the rest of the time I cry.”

“You’re sure he’s having an affair?”

Marta reached for her wine and took another large swallow. “Very sure.” Tears glistened in her eyes again. “All right, my wise friend, advise me.”

Anne felt in no position to be giving her advice, although she supposed she could tell Marta what not to do. She’d been cheated and misled, and all because she’d been naive. The waiter appeared at their table, and Anne realized they hadn’t even looked at their menus. They did so quickly, both deciding on the salmon entrée.

Resuming the conversation, Anne called on her own experience. The first thing she suggested was that Marta talk to an attorney, and not one her husband recommended. From this point forward, everything Jack said was suspect, since he’d lied to her already. Marta needed facts and information. Anne might have saved herself a lot of grief had she hired an attorney of her own choosing—and done so earlier.

Their dinners arrived. They chatted, they ate, they laughed and cried, and then laughed again.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to talk with someone openly and honestly,” Marta said after their second glass of wine and two cups of strong coffee. “I didn’t know where else to turn. Lots of our friends have split up over the years, but…this just can’t be happening. Not to Jack and me, and yet it is, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Anne squeezed Marta’s hand. “I hoped Burton would come to his senses. I prayed and pleaded with God to give me my husband back. My entire identity was tied up with his.”

Marta grew tearful again. “I’m beginning to wonder if God really answers our prayers.”

Anne believed He did. “While it’s true God didn’t give me the answer I wanted, He did answer me.”

“How do you mean?”

“I have my own identity now, and it isn’t that of Burton’s ex-wife. I’m Anne Fletcher—and I’m also Mary Fleming, artist.”

“Why did you decide to use a pseudonym?”

It was a well-kept secret. Only a few people knew. Her fear was that friends, out of pity and concern, would purchase her landscapes in a desire to support her. Anne didn’t want their sympathy. Come hell or high water, she was determined to make it on her own.

“Mary Fleming is business-savvy, smart and talented. Anne Fletcher is meek, mild and a victim, in the eyes of the world.”

“I love it,” Marta said, reaching for the tab and signing it to her room. “Speaking of Mary,” she said, “I’m really looking forward to seeing her work.”

Anne hesitated. “You’re sure about this?”

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