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Just Breathe

Chapter One

After a solid year of visits to the clinic, Sarah was starting to find the decor annoying.Maybe the experts here believed earth tones had a soothing effect on anxious, aspiring parents. Or perhaps that the cheery burble of a wall fountain might cause an infertile woman to spontaneously drop an egg like an overly productive laying hen. Or even that the soft shimmer of brass chimes could induce a wandering sperm to find its way home like a heat-seeking missile.

The post-procedure period, lying flat on her back with her hips elevated, was starting to feel like forever. It was no longer standard practice to wait after insemination but many women, Sarah included, were superstitious. They needed all the help they could get, even from gravity itself.

There was a quiet tap on the door, then she heard it swish open.

“How are we doing?” asked Frank, the nurse-practitioner. Frank had a shaved head, a soul patch and a single earring, and he wore surgical scrubs with little bunnies on them. Mr. Clean showing his nurturing side.

“Hoping it is a ‘we’ this time,” she said, propping her hands behind her head.

His smile made Sarah want to cry. “Any cramps?”

“No more than usual.” She lay quietly on the cushioned, steriledraped exam table while he checked her temperature and recorded the time.

She turned her head to the side. From this perspective, she could see her belongings neatly lined up on the shelf in the adjacent dressing room: her cinnamon-colored handbag from Smythson of Bond Street, designer clothes, butter-soft boots set carefully against the wall. Her mobile phone, programmed to dial her husband with one touch, or even a voice command.

Looking at all this abundance, she saw the trappings of a woman who was cared for. Provided for. Perhaps --- no, definitely --- spoiled. Yet instead of feeling pampered and special, she simply felt…old. Like middle-aged, instead of still in her twenties, the youngest client at Fertility Solutions. Most women her age were still living with their boyfriends in garrets furnished with milk crates and unpainted planks. She shouldn’t envy them, but sometimes she couldn’t help herself.

For no good reason, Sarah felt defensive and vaguely guilty for going through the expensive therapies. “It’s not me,” she wanted to explain to perfect strangers.“There’s not a thing wrong withmy fertility.”

When she and Jack decided to seek help getting pregnant, she went on Clomid just to give Mother Nature a hand. At first it seemed crazy to treat her perfectly healthy body as if there were something wrong with it, but by now she was used to the meds, the cramps, the transvaginal ultrasounds, the blood tests…and the crushing disappointment each time the results came up negative.

“Yo, snap out of it,” Frank told her. “Going into a funk is bad karma. In my totally scientific opinion.”

“I’m not in a funk.” She sat up and offered him a smile. “I’m fine, really. It’s just that this is the first time Jack couldn’t make the appointment. So if this works, I’ll have to explain to my child one day that his daddy wasn’t present at his conception. What do I tell him, that Uncle Frank did the honors?”

“Yeah, that’d be good.”

Sarah told herself Jack’s absence wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. By the time the ultrasound revealed a maturing ovarian follicle and she’d given herself the HCG injection, they had thirty-six hours for the intra-uterine insemination. Unfortunately, Jack had already scheduled a late-afternoon meeting at the work site. He couldn’t get out of it. The client was coming from out of town, he said.

“So are you still trying the old-fashioned way?” Frank asked.

She flushed. Jack’s erections were few and far between, and lately, he’d all but given up. “That’s not going so hot.”

“Bring him tomorrow,” Frank said.“I’ve got you down for 8:00 a.m.” There would be a second IUI while the window of fertility was still open. He handed her a reminder card and left her alone to put herself back together.

Her yearning for a child had turned into a hunger that was painfully physical, one that intensified as the fruitless months marched past. This was her twelfth visit. A year ago, she never thought she’d reach this milestone, let alone face it by herself. The whole business had become depressingly routine --- the self-injections, the invasion of the speculum, the twinge and burn of the inseminating catheter. After all this time, Jack’s absence should be no big deal, she reminded herself as she got dressed. Still, for Sarah it was easy to remember that at the center of all the science and technology was something very human and elemental --- the desire for a baby. Lately, she had a hard time even looking at mothers with babies. The sight of them turned yearning to a physical ache.

Having Jack here to hold her hand and endure the New Age Muzak with her made the appointments easier. She appreciated his humor and support, but this morning, she’d told him not to feel guilty about missing the appointment.

“It’s all right,” she had said with an ironic smile at breakfast. “Women get pregnant without their husbands every day.”

He barely glanced up from checking messages on his BlackBerry. “Nice, Sarah.”

She had touched her foot to his under the table. “We’re supposed to keep trying to get pregnant the conventional way.”

He looked up and, for an instant, she saw a dark flash in his gaze. “Sure,” he said, pushing back from the table and organizing his briefcase. “Why else would we have sex?”

This resentful attitude had started several months ago. Duty sex, for the sake of procreation, was no turn-on for either of them, and she couldn’t wait for his libido to return.

There had been a time when he’d looked at her in away that made her feel like a goddess, but that was before he’d gotten sick. It was hard to be interested in sex, Jack often said these days, after getting your gonads irradiated. Not to mention the surgical removal of one of the guys. Jack and Sarah had made a pact. If he survived, they would go back to the dream they’d had before the cancer --- trying to have a baby. Lots of babies.They had joked about his single testicle, they’d given it a name --- the Uni-ball --- and lavished it with attention. Once his chemo was finished, the doctors said he had a good chance of regaining fertility. Unfortunately, fertility had not been restored. Or sexual function, for that matter. Not on a predictable level, anyway.

They had decided, then, to pursue artificial insemination using the sperm he’d preserved as a precaution before starting aggressive treatment. Thus began the cycle of Clomid, obsessive monitoring, frequent visits to North Shore Fertility Solutions and bills so enormous that Sarah had stopped opening them.

Fortunately, Jack’s medical bills were covered, because cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to newlyweds trying to start a family.

The nightmare had come to light at 11:27 on a Tuesday morning. Sarah clearly remembered staring at the time on the screen of her computer, trying to remember to breathe. The expression on Jack’s face had her in tears even before he said the words that would change the course of their lives: “It’s cancer.”

After the tears, she had vowed to get her husband through this illness. For his sake, she had perfected The Smile, the one she summoned when chemo landed him in a puking, quivering heap on the floor. The you-can-do-it-champ, I’m-behind-you-all-the-way smile.

This morning, feeling contrite after their exchange, she had tried to be sociable as she flipped through the brochure for Shamrock Downs, his current project, a luxury development in the suburbs. The brochure touted, “Equestrian center designed by Mimi Lightfoot, EVD.”

 “Mimi Lightfoot?” Sarah had asked, studying the soft-focus photographs of pastures and ponds.

“Big name to horse people,” he assured her. “What Robert Trent Jones is to designing golf courses, she is to arenas.”

Sarah wondered how challenging it was to design an oval-shaped arena. “What’s she like?”

Jack had shrugged. “You know, the horsy type. Dry skin and no makeup, hair in a ponytail.” He made a whinnying sound.

“You’re so bad.” She walked him to the door to say goodbye. “But you smell delicious.” She inhaled the fragrance by Karl Lagerfeld, which she’d given him last June. She’d secretly bought it, along with a box of chocolate cigars, for Fathers Day, thinking there might be something to celebrate. When it turned out there wasn’t, she had given him the Lagerfeld anyway, just to be nice. She’d eaten the chocolate herself.

She noticed, too, that he was wearing perfectly creased trousers, one of his fitted shirts from the Custom Shop, and an Hermès tie. “Important clients?” she asked.

“What?” He frowned. “Yeah.We’re meeting about the marketing plans for the development.”

“Well,” she said. “Have a good day, then. And wish me luck.”

“What?” he said again, shrugging into his Burberry coat.

She shook her head, kissed his cheek.“I’ve got a hot date with your army of seventeen million motile sperm,” she said.

“Ah, shit. I really can’t change this meeting.”

“I’ll be all right.” Kissing him goodbye one more time, she suppressed a twinge of resentment at his testy, distracted air.

After the procedure, she followed the exit signs to the elevator and descended to the parking garage. Freakishly, the clinic had valet parking, but Sarah couldn’t bring herself to use it. She was already indulged enough. She put on her cashmere-lined gloves, flexing her fingers into the smooth deerskin, then eased onto the heated leather seat of her silver Lexus SUV, which came with a built-in car seat. All right, so Jack had jumped the gun a little, buying this thing. But maybe, just maybe, nine months from now, it would be perfect. The ideal car for a soccer-mom-to-be.

She adjusted the rearview mirror for a peek at the backseat. At present, it was a jumble of drafting paper, a bag from Dick Blick Art Materials and, of all things, a fax machine, which was practically a dinosaur in this day and age. Jack thought she should let it die a natural death. She preferred to take it to a repair shop. It had been the first piece of equipment she’d bought with her earnings as an artist, and she wanted to keep it, even though no one ever faxed her anymore. She did have a career, after all. Not a very successful one, not yet, anyway. Now that Jack was cancer-free, she intended to focus on the comic strip, expanding her syndication. People thought it was simple, drawing a comic strip six days a week. Some believed she could draw a whole month’s worth in one day, and then slack off the rest of the time. They had no idea how difficult and consuming self-syndication was, particularly at the beginning of a career.

When her car emerged from the parking lot, the very worst of Chicago’s weather flayed the windshield. The city had its own peculiar brand of slush that seemed to fling itself off Lake Michigan, sullying vehicles, slapping at pedestrians and sending them scurrying for cover. Sarah would never get used to this weather, no matter how long she lived here. When she had first arrived in the city, a wide-eyed freshman from a tiny beach village in Northern Califor- nia, she thought she’d encountered the storm of the century. She had no idea that this was normal for Chicago.

“Illinois,” her mother had said when Sarah had received an offer of admission the spring of her senior year of high school. “Why?”

“The University of Chicago is there,” Sarah explained.

“We have the best schools in the country right here in our backyard,” her mother had said.“Cal, Stanford,Pomona, Cal Poly…”

Sarah had stood firm. She wanted to go to the University of Chicago. She didn’t care about the distance or the god-awful weather or the flat landscape. Nicole Hollander, her favorite cartoon artist, had gone there. It was the place Sarah felt she belonged, at least for four years.

She’d never imagined living the rest of her life here, though. She kept waiting for it to grow on her. The city was tough and blustery, unpretentious and dangerous in some places, expansive and generous in others. Great food everywhere you turned. It had been overwhelming. Even the innate friendliness of Chicagoans had been confusing. How could you tell which ones were truly your friends?

She had always planned to leave the moment she graduated. She hadn’t pictured raising a family here. But that was life for you. Filled with surprises.

Jack Daly had been a surprise as well --- his dazzling smile and irresistible charm, the swiftness with which Sarah had fallen for him. He was a Chicago native, a general contractor in the family business. His entireworldwas right here --- his family, friends andwork. There was no question of where Sarah and Jack would live after they married.

The city itself was part of Jack’s blood and bone. While most people believed life was a movable feast, Jack could not conceive of living anywhere but the Windy City. Long ago, in the dead of a brutal winter, when she hadn’t seen the sun or felt a temperature above freezing for weeks, she had suggested moving somewhere a bit more temperate. He’d thought she was kidding, and they had never spoken of it again.

“I’ll build you your dream house,” Jack had promised her when they got engaged. “You’ll learn to love the city, you’ll see.” She loved him. The jury was still out on Chicago. His cancer --- that had been a surprise, too. They had made it through, she reminded herself every single day. But the disease had changed them both.

Chicago itself was a city of change. It had burned to the ground back in 1871. Families had been separated by the wind-driven firestorm that left nothing but charred timber and ash in its wake. People torn from their loved ones posted desperate letters and notices everywhere, determined to find their way back to each other.

Sarah pictured herself and Jack stepping gingerly through the smoldering ruins as they tried to make their way back to each other. They were refugees of another kind of disaster. Survivors of cancer.

Her front tire sank into a pothole. The jolt sent an eruption of mud-colored slush across the windshield, and she heard an ominous thud from the backseat. A glance in the mirror revealed that the fax machine had done a swan dive to the floor. “Lovely,” she muttered. “Just swell.” She pressed the wiper fluid wand, but the ducts sputtered out only an impotent trickle. The warning light blinked Empty.

Traffic crawled in a miserable stream northward. Stuck at a stoplight for the third cycle, Sarah thumped the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. “I don’t have to sit in traffic,” she said. “I’m selfemployed. I might even be pregnant.”

She wondered what Shirl would do in this situation. Shirl was her alter ego in Sarah’s comic strip, Just Breathe. A sharper, more confident, thinner version of her creator, Shirl was audacious; she had a screw-you attitude and an impulsive nature.

“What would Shirl do?” Sarah asked aloud. The answer came to her in an instant: Get pizza.

The very thought brought on such a craving that she laughed. A craving.Maybe she was already showing signs of pregnancy.

She veered down a side street and punched in “pizza” on her GPS. A mere six blocks away was a place called Luigi’s. Sounded promising. And it looked promising, she saw when she pulled up in front of the place a few minutes later. There was a red neon sign that read, Open Till Midnight and another sign that promised Chicago’s Finest Deep Dish Pizza Since 1968.

As she pulled up the hood of her coat and made a dash for the entrance, Sarah had a brilliant idea. Shewould take the pizza to share with Jack. His meeting was probably over by now and he’d be starved. She beamed at the young man behind the counter. The name Donnie was stitched on the pocket of his shirt. He looked like a nice kid. Polite, a little shy, well-groomed. “Pretty nasty out there,” Donnie commented.

“You said it,” she agreed. “Traffic was a nightmare, which is why I took a detour and ended up here.”

“What can I get you?”

“A thin-crust pizza to go,” she said.“Large. And a Coke with extra ice and…” She paused, thinking how good a nice cold, syrupy Coke would taste. Or a beer or margarita, for that matter. She resisted temptation, though. According to all the fertility advice books she’d


read, she was supposed to keep her body a temple free of caffeine and alcohol. For many women, alcohol was often a key factor in conception, not a forbidden substance. Getting pregnant was a whole lot more fun for people who didn’t read advice books.

“Ma’am?” the kid prompted.

The “ma’am” made her feel old. “Just the one Coke,” she said. Right this very minute, a zygote might be forming itself into a clump of cells inside her. Giving it a shot of caffeine was a bad idea.

“Toppings?” the kid asked.

“Italian sausage,” she said automatically,“and peppers.” She glanced yearningly at the menu. Black olives, artichoke hearts, pesto. She adored those toppings, but Jack couldn’t stand them. “That’s all.”

“You got it.” The boy floured up his hands and went to work.

Sarah felt a faint tug of regret. She should at least get black olives on half the pizza. But no. Especially during his treatment, Jack had become an extremely picky eater, and just the sight of certain foods turned him off. A big part of cancer treatment was all about getting him to eat, so she had learned to cater to his appetite until she practically forgot her own preferences.

He’s not sick anymore, she reminded herself. Order the damned olives.

She didn’t, though. What no one told you about a loved one getting cancer was that the disease didn’t happen to just one person. It happened to everyone around him. It robbed his mother of sleep, sent his father to the neighborhood bar each night, brought his siblings jetting in from wherever they happened to be. And what it did to his wife… She never let herself dwell on that.

Jack’s illness had stopped everything for her. She’d put her career on hold, shoved aside her plans to paint the living room and plant bulbs in the garden, squelched her longing for a child. All of that had gone by the wayside and she had parked it there willingly.With Jack fighting for his life, she had bargained with God:I’ll be perfect.I’ll never get angry. I won’t miss our old sex life. I’ll never complain. I won’t wish for black olives on my pizza ever again, if only he’ll get better.

She had held up her end of the bargain. She’d been uncomplaining, even tempered, utterly dedicated. She hadn’t made a peep about their sex life or their lack of one. She hadn’t eaten a single olive. And presto --- Jack’s treatments ended and his scans came back clean.

They had wept and laughed and celebrated, thenwoke up the next day not knowing how to be a couple anymore. When he was sick, they had been soldiers in battle, comrades in arms fighting their way to safety. Once the worst was behind them, they weren’t quite sure what to do next. After surviving cancer --- and she didn’t kid herself; they had both survived the disease --- howdid you start being normal again?

A year and a half later, Sarah reflected, they still weren’t sure. She had painted the house and planted the bulbs. She’d rolled up her sleeves and plunged into her work. And they had resumed trying for the baby they’d promised each other long ago.

Still, it was a different world for them now. Maybe it was just her imagination, but Sarah sensed a new distance between them. While he was sick, Jack had days when he was almost entirely dependent on her. Now that he was well, it was probably natural for him to reassert his independence. It was her job to allow that, to bite her tongue instead of saying she was lonely for him, for his touch, for the affection and intimacy they once shared.

As the aroma of baking pizza filled the shop, she checked messages on her cell phone and found none. Then she tried Jack, but got his  “out of service area” recording, which meant hewas still at thework site. She put away the phone and browsed a well-thumbed copy of the Chicago Tribune that was lying on a table. Actually, she didn’t browse. She turned straight to the comic strip section to visit Just Breathe. There it was, in its customary spot on the lower third of the page.

And there was her signature, slanting across the bottom edge of the last panel: Sarah Moon.

I have the best job in the world, she thought. Today’s episode was another visit to the fertility clinic. Jack was hating the story line.He couldn’t stand it when she borrowed material from real life to feed the comic strip. Sarah couldn’t help herself. Shirl had a life of her own, and she inhabited a world that sometimes felt more real than Chicago itself. When Shirl had started pursuing artificial insemination, two of her papers had declared the story line too edgy, and they’d dropped her. But four more had signed on to run the strip.

“I can’t believe you think it’s funny,” Jack had complained.

“It’s not about being funny,” she’d explained. “It’s about being real. Some people might find that funny.” Besides, she assured him, she published under her maiden name. Most people didn’t know Sarah Moon was the wife of Jack Daly.

She tried dreaming up a story line he would love.Maybe she’d give Shirl’s husband, Richie, bigger pecs. A jackpot win in Vegas. A hot speedboat. An erection.

That would never fly with her editors, but a girl could dream. Mulling over the possibilities, she turned to the window. The rainsmeared glass framed the Chicago skyline. If Monet had painted skyscrapers, they would’ve looked like this.

“Regular or Diet Coke?” Donnie broke in on her thoughts.

 “Oh, regular,” she said. Jack could use the calories; he was still gaining back the weight he’d lost during his illness. What a concept, she thought. Eating to gain weight. She hadn’t done that since her mother had weaned her as an infant. People who ate all they wanted and stayed thin were going to hell. She knew this because they were in heaven now.

“Pizza’ll be right out,” the boy said.


As he rang her up, Sarah studied him. He was maybe sixteen, with that loose-limbed, endearing awkwardness that teenage boys possess. The wall phone rang, and she could tell the call was personal, and from a girl. He ducked his head and blushed as he lowered his voice and said, “I’m busy now. I’ll call you in a bit.Yeah. Me, too.”

Back at the worktable, he folded cardboard boxes and sang unselfconsciously with the radio. Sarah couldn’t remember the last time she had experienced that kind of f loating-through-the-day, grinning-at-nothing sort of happiness.Maybe it was a function of age, or marital status. Maybe full-grown, married adults weren’t supposed to f loat and grin at nothing. But hell, she missed that feeling.

Her hand stole to her midsection. One day, she might have a son like Donnie --- earnest, hardworking, a kid who probably left his dirty socks on the floor but picked them up cheerfully enough when nagged.

She added a generous tip to the glass jar on the counter.

“Thank you very much,” said Donnie.

“You’re welcome.”

“Come again,” he added.

Clutching the pizza box across one arm, with the drink in its holder balanced on top, she plunged outside into the wild weather. Within minutes, the Lexus smelled like pizza and the windows were steamed up. She f lipped on the defroster and made her way westward through winsome townships and hamlets that surrounded the city like small satellite nations. She glanced longingly at the Coke she’d ordered for Jack, and another craving hit her, but she tamped it down.

Twenty minutes later, she turned off the state highway and wended her way to a suburb where Jack was developing a community of luxury homes. She slowed down as she drove through the figured concrete gates that would one day be operated by key card only. The tasteful sign at the entrance said it all: Shamrock Downs. A Private Equestrian Community.

This was where millionaires would come to live with their pampered horses. Jack’s company had planned the enclave down to the last blade of grass, sparing no expense. The subdivision covered forty acres of top-quality pastureland, a pond and a covered training arena, lighted and lined with bleachers. The resident Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods would occupy an ultramodern, forty-stall barn. Bridle paths wound through the wooded neighborhood, the surfaces paved with sand to reduce impact on the horses’ hooves.

In the late-afternoon gloom, she saw that all the work crews had gone for the day, driven away by the rain. There was a Subaru Forester parked at the barn, but no one in sight. The foreman’s trailer looked abandoned, too.Maybe she had missed Jack and he was heading home. Perhaps he’d had an attack of conscience and left his meeting early to be with her at the clinic, but had gotten stuck in traffic. There were no messages on her mobile, but that didn’t mean anything. She hated cell phones. They never worked when you needed them and tended to ring when you wanted peace and quiet.

The unfinished houses looked eerie, their skeletal timbers black against the rain-drenched sky. Equipment was parked haphazardly, like giant, hastily abandoned toys in a sodden sandbox. Half-full Dumpsters littered the barren landscape. The people who moved to this neighborhood would never realize it had started out looking like a battle zone. But Jack was a magician. He could start with a sterile prairie or a reclaimed waste disposal site and transform it into Pleasantville. By spring, he would turn this place into a pristine, bucolic utopia, with children playing on the lawns, foals gamboling in the paddocks,women with ponytails and no makeup and thigh-hugging riding pants heading for the barn.

Darkness deepened by the minute. The pizza would be cold soon. Then she spotted Jack’s car. The custom-restored GTO was the ultimate muscle machine, even though legally, it belonged to her. When he was ill, she’d bought it to cheer him up. Using her earnings from the comic strip, she’d managed to save up enough for a lavish gift. Spending her life savings on the car had been an act of desperation, yet she had been willing to give anything, sacrifice anything to make him feel better. She only wished she could spend her last cent to buy him back his health.

Now that he was well, the car remained his prize possession. He only drove it on special occasions. His meeting with the client must have been an important one.

The black-and-red car crouched like an exotic beast in the driveway of one of the model houses. In its nearly finished state, the home resembled a hunting lodge. On steroids. Everything Jack built was bigger than it had to be --- wraparound deck, entryway, four-car garage, water feature. The yard was still a mud pit, with great holes carved out for the fully grown trees that would be installed. Installed was Jack’s word. Sarah would have said planted. The trees looked pathetic, like fallen victims, lying limp on their sides with their withered root-balls encased in burlap.

It was pouring harder than ever when she parked and killed the headlights and engine. A gaslight on a lamppost faintly illuminated a handlettered sign: “Street of Dreams.” There were at least two river rock gas fireplaces that she could see, and one appeared to beworking, evidenced by a deep golden glowflickering in the upper-story windows.

Balancing the Coke on the pizza box, she opened her push-button umbrella and got out. A gust of wind tugged at the ribs of the umbrella, turning it inside out. Icy rain battered her face and slid down inside her collar.

“I hate this weather,” she said through gritted teeth. “Hate it, hate it, hate it.”

Rivulets of water from the unplanted yard ran down the sloping driveway and swirled away in muddy streams. The nonfunctioning sprinkler system tubes lay in a tangled mess. There was no place to walk without getting her feet soaked.

That’s it, she thought. I’m making Jack take me home to California for a vacation. Her hometown of Glenmuir, in Marin County, had never been his favorite place. He favored the white sand beaches of Florida, but Sarah was starting to feel it was her turn to choose their destination.

The past year and a half had been all about Jack --- his needs, his recovery, his wishes. Now that the ordeal was behind them, she let her own needs rise up to the surface. It felt a tad selfish but damned good all the same. She wanted a vacation away from soggy Chicago. She wanted to savor each worry-free day, something she hadn’t been able to do in a very long time.

A trip to Glenmuir wasn’t so much to ask. She knew Jack would balk; he always claimed there was nothing to do in the sleepy seaside village. Battling her way through the wild storm, she resolved to do something about that.

No locks had been installed yet on the prehung doors of the huge, unfinished home.

She smiled as she pushed open the front door and sighed with relief. What could be cozier than sitting in front of the fire on a rainy afternoon, eating pizza? Quite possibly, this house was the only warm, dry place in the neighborhood.

“It’s me,” she called, stepping out of her boots so as not to muddy the newly finished hardwood floors. There was no reply, just the tinny sound of a radio playing somewhere upstairs.

Sarah felt a twinge of discomfort in her belly. Cramping was a side effect of IUI, and Sarah didn’t mind. The fact that there was pain lent an appropriate sense of gravitas to her mission. It was a physical reminder of her determination to start a family.

Shaking off the raindrops, she padded in stocking feet to the stairs. She’d never been here before, but she was familiar with the layout of the house. Though it wasn’t obvious to most people, Jack worked with only a few floor plans. The massive size and luxurious materials aside, he built what he unapologetically called “cookie-cutter mansions.” She had once asked him if he ever got bored, building essentially the same house, over and over again. He had laughed aloud at the question.

“What’s boring about netting a cool million on a tract home?” he had countered.

He liked making money. He was good at it. And she was lucky, because so far, she was terrible at it. Each year when they filed their income tax return, he would look at the revenues from her comic strip, offer her a generous smile and joke, “I always wanted to be a patron of the arts.”

At the top of the stairs, she turned toward the sound of the radio, her raincoat brushing against the machine-turned banister. “Achy Breaky Heart” was playing, and she winced. Jack had terrible taste in music. So bad, in fact, it was actually endearing.

The door to the master suite was ajar, and the friendly glow of the fire glimmered across the freshly carpeted floors. She hesitated, sensing…something.

A warning, beating like an extra pulse in her ears.

She stepped into the room, her feet sinking into the deep pile of the carpet as her eyes adjusted to the soft, golden light. The diffuse, kindly glow of the lifetime-guaranteed Briarwood gas logs flickered over two naked bodies entwined on a bed of thick woolen blankets spread in front of the hearth.

Sarah experienced a moment of complete and utter confusion. Her vision clouded and she felt light-headed and nauseous. There was some mistake here. She had walked into the wrong house. Into the wrong life. She fought against the panicky random thoughts playing Ping-Pong in her head. For a second or two she simply stood immobile, assaulted by shock, forgetting to breathe.

After endless seconds, they noticed her and sat up, gathering blankets to cover themselves. The song on the radio switched to something equally appalling --- “Butterfly Kisses.”

Mimi Lightfoot, Sarah realized, was exactly as Jack had described her: the horsy type --- dry skin and no makeup, hair in a ponytail. But with bigger boobs.

Finally, Sarah found her voice and spoke the only coherent thought in her head: “I brought you a pizza. And a Coke. Extra ice, the way you like it.”

She didn’t throw the pizza or spill the drink. She set everything carefully on the built-in media console next to the radio. She was as discreet and efficient as a room service waiter.

Then she turned and left.

“Sarah, wait!”

She heard Jack calling her name as she skimmed down the stairs with the speed and grace of Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. Shoving her feet into her boots barely slowed her down. In seconds, she was outside with her broken umbrella, heading for the car.

She started the engine just as Jack burst outside. He wore his good pants --- the ones with the creases she had admired this morning --- and nothing else. She could see his mouth working, forming her name: Sarah. She put the headlamps on bright and turned the car, feeling a satisfying crunch as the rear bumper of the Lexus toppled the custom river rock mailbox. Her high beams washed across the front of the house, illuminating the porch timbers and fine wooden window casements, the Andersen glass and the grand front entranceway. For a moment, Jack appeared pinned by the glare, a prize buck frozen in the headlights.

What would Shirl do? Sarah asked herself. She gripped the steering wheel, threw the car into gear and floored the accelerator.

Just Breathe
by by Susan Wiggs

  • hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 0778325776
  • ISBN-13: 9780778325772