Between Sisters Page 6


“I’d rig his parachute for him.”

They laughed, though it wasn’t funny. “How’s Bonnie doing?”

“That’s the saddest part of all. She barely seems to notice. Rex was never home anyway. I haven’t told her that he moved in with another woman, though. How do you tell your kid something like that?” Gina leaned against Claire, who slipped an arm around her friend’s ample body. “God, I needed this week.”

They were silent for a long moment. The only sound between them was the slapping of the water against the dock and the girls’ high-pitched laughter.

Gina turned to her. “How have you done it all these years? Been alone, I mean?”

Claire hadn’t thought much about her solitude since Alison’s birth. Yes, she’d been alone—in the sense that she’d never been married or lived with a man, but she rarely felt lonely. Oh, she noticed it, ached sometimes for someone to share her life, but she’d made that choice a long time ago. She wouldn’t be like her mother. “The upside is, you can always find the TV remote and no one bitches at you to wash the car or park in the perfect spot.”

“Seriously, Claire. I need advice.”

Claire looked out at Alison, who was standing up to her belly button in the water and jumping up and down, yelling out the ABC song. The sight made Claire’s chest tighten. Only yesterday Ali had fit in the crook of her arm. In no time, she’d be asking to have her eyebrow pierced. Claire knew she loved her daughter too much; it was dangerous to need another human being so desperately, but Claire had never known any other way to love. That was why she’d never been married. Men who loved their wives unconditionally were few and far between. In truth, Claire wondered if that kind of true love existed. That doubt was one of many legacies handed down from mother to daughter like an infectious disease. For Mama, divorce had been the answer; for Claire, it was never to say “I do” in the first place.

“You get past being lonely. And you live for your kids,” she said softly, surprised to hear regret in her voice. There was so much she’d never dared to reach for.

“Ali shouldn’t be your whole world, Claire.”

“It’s not like I didn’t try to fall in love. I’ve dated every single guy in Hayden.”

“None of them twice.” Gina grinned. “And Bert Shubert is still in love with you. Miss Hauser thinks you’re crazy for letting him go.”

“It’s sad when a fifty-three-year-old plumber with Coke-bottle glasses and a red goatee is considered an eligible bachelor just because he owns an appliance store.”

Gina laughed. “Yeah. If I ever tell you I’m going out with Bert, please shoot me.” Slowly, her laughter turned to tears. “Aw, hell,” she said, leaning into Claire’s embrace.

“You’ll be okay, Gina,” Claire whispered, stroking her friend’s back. “I promise you will.”

“I don’t know,” Gina said quietly, and something about the way she said it, maybe the softness in a voice that was usually as hard as steel, made Claire feel empty inside. Alone.

Absurdly, she thought about the day her life had changed. When she’d learned that love had a shelf life, a use-by date that could pass suddenly and turn everything sour.

I’m leaving you, her sister had said. Until that moment, Meg had been Claire’s best friend, her whole world. More of a mother than Mama had ever been.

And then Claire was crying, too.

Gina sniffed. “No wonder no one wants to sit with me anymore. I’m the princess of darkness. Ten seconds in my company and perfectly happy people start to weep.”

Claire wiped her eyes. There was no point in crying about the past. It surprised her, actually, that she had any tears left. She thought she’d made peace with Meg’s abandonment long ago. “Remember the year Char fell off the dock because she was crying so hard she couldn’t see?”

“Bob’s midlife crisis. She thought he was having an affair with their housekeeper.”

“And it turned out he was secretly getting hair-plug treatments.”

Gina tightened her hold around Claire. “Thank Jesus for the Bluesers. I haven’t needed you all this much since I was in labor.”

FOUR

THE INTERCOM BUZZED. “JILL SUMMERVILLE IS HERE TO see you.”

“Send her in.”

Meghann grabbed a new yellow legal pad and a pen from the overhead cabinet. By the time Jill was led into the conference room, Meg had returned to her seat and was smiling politely. She rose. “Hello, Jill. I’m Meghann Dontess.”

Jill stood near the door, looking ill at ease. She was a pretty woman, thin; maybe fifty. She wore an expensive gray suit with a cream silk shell underneath.

“Come, sit down,” Meghann said, indicating the empty chair to her left.

“I’m not certain I want a divorce.”

Meghann heard that all the time. “We could talk for a while if you’d like. You could tell me what’s going on with your marriage.”

Jill sat stiffly in the empty chair. She placed her hands on the table, fingers splayed, as if she were afraid the wood might levitate. “It’s not good,” she said softly. “I’ve been married for twenty-six years. But I can’t. Do it. Anymore. We don’t talk at all. We’ve become one of those couples who go out to dinner and sit silently across from each other. I saw my parents do that. I swore I never would. I’m going to be fifty next year. It’s time I have my life.”

The second-chance-at-life reason for divorce. It was number two, beaten only by that perennial favorite: He’s cheating on me. “Everyone deserves to be happy,” Meg said, feeling strangely remote. On autopilot, she reeled off a series of questions and statements designed to elicit solid information as well as inspire trust. Meg could tell that she was doing well on both counts. Jill had begun to relax. Occasionally, she even smiled.

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“And how about assets? Do you have an idea of your net worth?”

“Beatrice DeMille told me you’d ask that.” She opened her Fendi briefcase and pulled out a packet of papers that were stapled together, then pushed them across the table. “My husband and I started the Internet company Emblazon. We sold out to AOL at the top of the market. That, combined with the lesser companies and homes, puts our net worth at somewhere around seventy-two million.”

Seventy-two million dollars.

Meghann held on to her ordinary smile by dint of will, afraid that her mouth would drop open. This was the biggest case ever to fall in her lap. She’d waited her whole career for a case like this. It was supposed to be the trade-off for all of the sleepless nights she’d spent worrying over clients who couldn’t pay their bills. Her favorite law professor used to say that the law was the same regardless of the zeroes. Meg knew better: The legal system favored women like Jill.

They should probably hire a media consultant. A case like this could generate a lot of publicity.

She should have been excited by the prospect, energized. Surprisingly, she felt detached. Even a little sad. She knew that, for all her millions, Jill was still a woman about to be broken.

Meg reached for the phone and pressed the intercom button. “Rhona, bring me the lawyer lists. Seattle. L.A. San Francisco. New York and Chicago.”

Jill frowned. “But . . . ,” she paused when the secretary came into the room, carrying a sheet of paper.

“Thanks.” Meghann handed the paper to Jill. “These twenty lawyers are the best in the country.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Once you’ve spoken to them, they can’t represent your husband. It’s a conflict of interest.”

Jill’s gaze flicked over the list, then slowly lifted. “I see. This is divorce strategy.”

“Simply planning ahead. In case.”

“Is this ethical?”

“Of course. As a consumer, you have every right to get second opinions. I’ll need a retainer—say twenty-five thousand dollars—and I’ll use ten thousand of that to hire the best forensic accountants in Seattle.”

Jill looked at her for a long moment, saying nothing. Finally, she nodded and stood up. “I’ll go see everyone on your list. But I assume that if I choose you, you’ll represent me.”

“Of course.” She remembered at the last minute to add, “But hopefully you won’t need me.”

“Yes,” Jill said, “I can see that you’re the hopeful type.”

Meghann sighed. “I know people all across this country are happily married. They just don’t come to see me, but I do hope—honestly—that I won’t see you again.”

Jill gave her a sad, knowing look, and Meghann knew: The decision might be soft around the edges and filled with regret, but it had been made.

“You go ahead and hope, then,” Jill said softly. “For both of us.”

“You don’t look good.”

Sprawled in the black leather chair, Meghann didn’t move. “So, that’s why I pay you two hundred dollars an hour. To insult me. Tell me I smell, too. Then I’ll really get my money’s worth.”

“Why do you pay me?”

“I consider it a charitable deduction.”

Dr. Bloom didn’t smile. She sat—as always, chameleon still—watching. If it wasn’t for the compassion in her dark brown eyes, she could easily be mistaken for a statue. It was often that compassion—an emotion that bordered on pity—that undid Meghann. Over the past twenty years, Meg had seen a constant stream of shrinks. Always psychiatrists, never counselors or psychologists. First off, she believed in a surplus of education. Second, and more important, she wanted to talk to someone who could dispense drugs.

In her thirties, Meg had gone through a new shrink every two years. She never told them anything that mattered, and they always returned the favor.

Then she’d stumbled across Harriet Bloom, the stone queen who could sit quietly for an entire hour, take the check, and tell Meghann it was her money to spend wisely or throw away.

Harriet, who’d uncovered a few artifacts of the past that mattered, and surmised some of the rest. A dozen times in the past year, Meghann had decided to sever their relationship, but every time she started to actually do it, she panicked and changed her mind.

The silence was gaining weight.

“Okay, I look like shit. I’ll admit it. I haven’t been sleeping well. I need more pills, by the way.”

“That prescription should last for another two weeks.”

Meghann couldn’t make eye contact. “A couple of times this week, I needed two. The insomnia . . . it really rips me. Sometimes I can’t take it.”

“Why do you think you can’t sleep?”

“Why do you think I can’t sleep? That’s the relevant opinion, isn’t it?”

Dr. Bloom studied her. She was so still it seemed impossible that her lungs were functioning. “Is it?”

“I have trouble sleeping sometimes. That’s all. Big deal.”

“And you use drugs and strangers to help you through the night.”

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