7

By the time everyone stopped talking and Grammy M had prepared tea, Brenna’s sobs had settled into hiccups. The seven women huddled together in the living room, with Brenna sitting in the center of the green sofa by the window, flanked by her mother and Grandma Tessa. Katie sat on the coffee table in front of the sofa, Francesca next to her. They each held one of their sister’s hands. Mia and Grammy M hovered.

Katie felt sick to her stomach. How could this have happened? Brenna and Jeff were always so happy.

“Tell us what’s going on,” their mother said firmly. “Start at the beginning.”

“I don’t know when it started,” Brenna said, then pulled her hands free and clutched at the crumpled tissues on her lap. “I thought everything was great. I didn’t know-”

She squeezed her eyes shut, but that didn’t stop a tear from trickling out of each corner. She brushed them away impatiently.

She swallowed. “Jeff’s been working long hours, but he always does. His practice is new and he has to make rounds at the hospital. I never suspected…”

Katie gasped. No! She refused to believe it. Bad enough for Jeff to want a divorce.

“Another woman?” she asked in disbelief.

Brenna nodded and dropped her chin to her chest. “He says he’s loved her for a l-long time.”

Katie turned toward Francesca, who looked as heart-sick as she felt. Tears filled Francesca’s eyes.

“This can’t be happening,” Francesca whispered.

“It is,” Brenna said with a sob. “It hurts too much not to be real.”

Katie pressed a hand to her stomach. “Who is she?”

Brenna glanced at her, then shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. He didn’t say much, except…” Her voice thickened. “She’s a lot younger. Like twenty.”

Brenna sprang to her feet and slipped out from between the sofa and coffee table. She paced the length of the room, still twisting the tissues in her hands.

“I can’t believe it. I just can’t. I gave up everything for him. I loved the winery. I’m the only one of the four of us who gave a damn about it, and I walked away because of him. I worked hard, I supported him and cared about him, and he left me.”

Grandma Tessa half rose to her feet, but for once she didn’t chastise her granddaughter for her language. “Brenna, it wasn’t like that. You were getting married. Jeff was going into medical school. Supporting your husband the way you did is a sign of a loving wife.”

Brenna brushed away more tears and shook her head. “It’s the sign of a fool. I can’t believe I was such an idiot. I sacrificed my whole life for him and he walked out on me for a younger woman. I’m a twenty-seven-year-old clich?.”

She crumbled into a wing chair. The Grands and Mom headed to her side. Katie shared a glance with Francesca. Neither of them knew what to say. Katie had friends who had divorced, but that was different. Friends weren’t family. Friends’ husbands weren’t Jeff.

Francesca sucked in a breath. “We loved him like a brother,” she murmured. “We joked with him and confided in him. He betrayed us all.”

Katie nodded, but couldn’t speak. She felt as if she were going to throw up.

Grandma Tessa stroked Brenna’s hair. “I know it sounds like the end of the world, but it isn’t,” she murmured. “Married couples sometimes say horrible things to each other. Or do horrible things. Occasionally men stray. Time heals-we forgive.”

Brenna made a sound that was either a strangled sob or a very scary laugh. “Don’t get your hopes up, Grandma Tessa. There’s no way I’m ever forgiving Jeff.”

Their grandmother clucked her tongue, then pulled her ever-present rosary from her pocket and kissed the cross. “Don’t say such things. You weren’t raised to be so cruel. Your husband will come around. I think you two need to talk about having babies. That will makes things right between you.”

Katie felt her grandmother’s advice was poorly timed, at best. Not to mention overly optimistic. Her mother didn’t take it so well.

“Mama Tessa,” Colleen said, glaring at her mother-in-law. “For once leave babies out of this.”

“But bambinos-”

Grammy M pulled her granddaughter close. “Ah, my poor darlin’. The pains of the world seem bigger than usual today, don’t they?”

Brenna clung to her. “You don’t understand,” she said harshly. “There aren’t going to be any babies. There isn’t going to be any marriage. Jeff told me he already filed for divorce, and when it’s final, he’s getting married. To the bimbo.”

A fresh storm of sobs overtook her. Katie rubbed her temples, fighting a sudden headache. Even Mia was subdued for once. This couldn’t be happening. Not to Brenna. Not to the family. Francesca was right. Jeff had betrayed them all. She wanted to kill him.

Brenna raised her head and looked right at Katie. Anger glittered in her eyes. “I want you to call Zach.”

Katie stiffened. “What?”

“I need a lawyer and I want a good one. You said he’s a shark. That’s what I want. I want Jeff to suffer.”

Grandma Tessa winced. “Brenna, please. Do you have to be so hasty?”

Brenna ignored her grandmother. “I mean it, Katie. Will you help me?”

Katie’s first thought was to protest. Zach was ruthless. He was a take-no-prisoners man who would stop at nothing to win. Not to mention she wasn’t ready to face him after that kiss. Then she thought about her sister and her pain. Ruthless sounded about right.

“I’ll call him right now.”

“Good. Tell him I need to see him as soon as possible.”

Manna from heaven, Zach thought when he hung up the phone. So much for Katie’s promise that Marcelli marriages never fell apart.

He buzzed Dora, his assistant, and had her clear his calendar for the afternoon. Right after his eleven o’clock partners meeting, he would head north.

It was nearly one when he finally drove onto the freeway and close to three when he exited. Tidy rows of grapevines stretched for as far as the eye could see in every direction. A fancy sign at a T-intersection directed tourists to the public buildings of the winery and indicated that the facility was open for tasting seven days a week, even in winter.

Zach turned the opposite direction and soon found himself driving under the massive arch over the road that led to the main house.

The three-story, pale yellow hacienda stood on the crest of a small hill. His first visit had been at night, when he’d been unable to appreciate the vivid colors of the main structure and the surrounding buildings. Flower boxes hung from several windows. The red and orange blossoms matched the tile roof. Wrought iron provided counterpoint, the gleaming black metal scrolled and swirled in intricate patterns forming balcony railings and lampposts on the driveway.

He pulled up to the side of the house and parked. Katie must have been watching for him because she was on the front porch even before he’d closed his car door. Her expression was both sad and wary. No doubt she thought he was going to say “I told you so.”

Zach didn’t believe in wasting breath on the obvious.

“Thanks so much for coming,” she said by way of greeting. She hurried down the front steps and crossed to stand in front of him.

“I won’t say it’s my pleasure to be here,” he told her, taking in the troubled expression darkening her eyes and the way she bit on her lower lip. Her lashes were damp and spiked. She’d been crying.

“It all really sucks,” she admitted. “Everybody liked Jeff. I know Brenna’s the one he’s divorcing, but we all feel kicked in the gut.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, and realized he meant it. “This is never easy on anyone.”

“You would know.”

He put his arm around her. “I know it’s a clich?, but time heals. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.”

She glanced at him. “Promise?”

He thought of her promise that Marcelli marriages lasted forever, but didn’t mention it. “Absolutely.”

She looked like a grown-up version of Alice, after her journey to Wonderland. A headband held her long, wavy hair away from her face. She wore a simple cotton dress, matching cardigan, and sandals.

“Staying calm is important,” he said. “Brenna needs that. She’s in shock and it’s going to be a few days until she fully comprehends what’s happening.”

Katie shook her head. “Brenna’s not the only one in shock.” She glanced up at the house. “We should probably go in.”

She led the way into the house. All the Marcelli women huddled together in the living room, not saying much as they sewed. Only Brenna stood separate from the group, her back to the room as she gazed out the window.

Zach watched the flash of needles through lace. Nearly invisible thread hooked beads, securing them in place. Light caught the iridescent pearls, glinting off them like sunlight off dew on a spiderweb. He stiffened slightly, seeing these women as spiders, weaving a trap to snare his son.

Mia glanced up and saw him. “Zach! You’re here.”

She rose and hurried toward him. The grandmothers rose as well, but stayed in place, as did Francesca. Colleen moved across the room.

“Zach, thank you for coming.” She touched his arm. “We appreciate you driving all this way to help.”

Zach wasn’t sure that representing Brenna as she divorced her husband technically qualified as help, but he didn’t dispute Colleen’s description. He was here because he wanted the family to owe him. He planned to build up a damn big credit. When the time came, he would cash it in, take David, and escape.

Brenna was the last one to turn toward him. He recognized the stunned disbelief in her eyes. She was a woman who felt as if she’d just walked through a war zone. It was his job to tell her all she’d survived was the opening salvo of the very first battle. The war was far from over.

“You hungry?” Grandma Tessa asked. “There’s pasta.”

He had a feeling there was always pasta in her house. “I’m fine.”

“Some tea?” Grammy M asked. “Fixin’ it is no trouble a’tall.”

Brenna walked toward him. “Let’s not drown Zach in food or drink,” she said. As she got closer, he could see that her eyes were red, and her mouth trembled when she spoke.

“I appreciate the hospitality, but it’s not necessary.”

Brenna swallowed. “You got here pretty fast. After Katie called, I realized I probably shouldn’t have asked you to come all this way.”

“In my business, house calls aren’t all that uncommon.” Actually they were for him, but she didn’t have to know that. He might be taking advantage of a miserable situation to find a way to keep his son from screwing up his life, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to give Brenna his best.

“There’s something wrong when divorce lawyers make house calls but doctors don’t,” Brenna said. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Sure.”

She glanced around at her family, then pointed down the hall. “There’s a library just over there. Second door on the left. I think that would be the best place.”

Colleen moved to intercept her. “Do you want one of us with you? Me or Francesca or Katie?”

“No. It’s going to be ugly enough without witnesses.” She gave her mother a very shaky smile. “I’m fine.”

Grandma Tessa pulled out a string of rosary beads and began speaking softly under her breath. Colleen hugged her daughter. “Call if you need anything.”

“I will.”

Brenna led the way down the hall. She and Zach entered a good-size room with bookshelves lining three walls. A large desk sat near the bay window, and two leather sofas faced a stone fireplace.

“We might as well make this official,” Brenna said, motioning to the desk. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

Zach set his briefcase on the surface, but instead of settling in a chair, he leaned against a corner of the desk. Brenna paced to the window, then back to the door she’d closed when they entered the room. Her body screamed tension. She hunched her shoulders, as if against a blow, and looked a lot like the other wives he’d met over the years. Wives who had been left; wives who weren’t sure if they wanted revenge or a second chance.

“Why don’t I go first,” he said easily, as if they were about to discuss the weather. “I’ll tell you how I like to handle things, and you can let me know if that agrees with you.”

She nodded without speaking. Nor did she stop pacing.

“You don’t have to get a divorce,” he began.

The words were familiar-he’d given the speech countless times. It served two purposes. First, having him start things usually put his clients at ease. Second, he was blunt about the divorce process, which often shocked the ambivalent back into their marriages for a year or two. Divorce was ugly, destructive, and expensive. Those who weren’t sure shouldn’t get involved.

“If you decide you want a divorce, you don’t have to do anything about it today.”

Brenna reached the window and turned to look at him. “If this is your standard line, how on earth do you stay in business?”

“That’s not a problem.”

She sighed. “Let me guess. Because the world is filled with foolish women who marry bastards?”

“Something like that.” He waited, and when she didn’t speak again, he continued. “Whatever you tell me is private. Attorney-client privilege means I won’t be discussing your personal business with anyone.” He allowed himself a slight smile. “Not even your family.”

“They have their ways of making people talk.”

“I’m pretty tough.”

“Katie says you’re the best.”

“I’m not afraid to go for the gut. But know this. Divorce is going to change your life in ways you can’t begin to imagine. I’ll start the process if and when you say you want to. However, if you change your mind, I have no problem stopping.”

She paused in mid-pace and stared at him. “You’re a divorce lawyer. Why aren’t you pushing me to do this?”

“Because if we go through with the divorce, I’ll need your cooperation. That doesn’t happen if you’re ambivalent.”

He continued with his standard speech, going over everything from the length of time to the dissolution of marriage to the potential hazards of a court-mandated property settlement. Brenna listened intently and didn’t wince when he named his hourly fee.

When he was finished, he moved behind the desk and sat down. “Now you talk,” he said. “You can tell me you need more time, tell me to go to hell, or just cry.”

One corner of her mouth twitched slightly, as if she had almost smiled. “You must be pretty used to female tears.”

“I’ve had plenty of male clients lose it.”

She walked to one of the chairs across the desk from his and collapsed onto the soft leather. He guessed she was a year or two younger than Katie, but right now she looked old and very tired.

“There’s no question about the divorce,” she said flatly. “Jeff cheated on me.”

“That doesn’t have to be a hanging offense.”

“It is to me.” She looked at him. “He’s not remorseful and he’s not coming back. He told me he’s already filed for divorce.”

Zach pulled out a pad of paper. “That means you’ll be served in the next day or so. Brace yourself for that.”

“Great. So the hits keep on coming?”

“I can help you hit back. If that’s what you want.”

“Revenge sounds really good right about now. I guess one bright spot in all this is I don’t have to change my name back. I never took his. A voice inside told me not to. I guess there was a bigger message I should have listened to.”

Zach leaned forward. “I need to ask you a lot of questions about your marriage, what property the two of you own, that sort of thing. Do you want to deal with that now?”

She nodded.

He pulled out a form and handed it to her. “I’ll need this information as soon as you can get it.”

She read the paper. “Bank account numbers and balances, credit card accounts, car license information.” She glanced up at him. “I guess you’re going to want to know a lot of personal details.”

“So will the court if we don’t come to a settlement privately. California’s a community property state. Everything gets split fifty-fifty.”

“Works for me.”

“Good. Now tell me about the relationship.”

Brenna wanted to curl up in a ball and have the entire world go away. Some kind of oblivion didn’t sound so bad, right about now. One minute her heart raced so fast she thought it was going to jump out of her throat, the next she couldn’t even find a pulse. She felt both hot and cold. Her body ached.

Less than twenty-four hours ago she’d been blissfully happy. Stupid, but happy. Twenty-four hours ago she’d been working at the job that she hated to pay off medical school for a husband who had been busy screwing someone else.

Anger filled her. Anger and rage and frustration and shame. She felt humiliated. She felt old and used.

None of which was going to help Zach Stryker with her divorce. So she did as he requested and gave him a thumb-nail sketch of her marriage to her soon-to-be ex-husband.

“You’ve been sharing a residence,” he said.

“Right up until I walked out this morning.”

“And a bed?”

She glanced at him, but he wasn’t looking at her. Instead he scribbled notes on his pad. Heat flared on her cheeks. At that moment she wanted to get on her knees and thank God for her Italian genes. They might have given her chubby thighs, but at least her olive coloring prevented her blush from showing too much.

“If you’re asking if we’re sleeping together, then yes. Every night.” She frowned. “Except when he’s gone for his conferences.” Which there had been a lot of lately, she remembered. Tears burned in her eyes. “If you’re asking about sex. Not very often.”

Not even once in the past four months, she reminded herself. Jeff had had so many really good excuses. Her hands clenched into fists. To think he’d wasted his time coming up with reasons to avoid making love. All he’d had to do was tell her the truth. If she’d known about the other woman, she wouldn’t have bothered asking.

Humiliation clawed at Brenna’s throat. That’s what really got her. That she’d asked. She’d known there was something wrong, and like a fool she’d assumed it was the pressure of finally finishing up his residency or the stress of interviewing with different doctors about joining their practices.

“You and Jeff don’t have any children together, right?”

“Right.”

“Are you pregnant?”

The question raced through her like electricity. Her skin seemed to shrink a size and it was hard to breathe.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because a child means a whole new set of legal complications. Are you pregnant?”

“No.”

She pressed her lips together to maintain control, but it was useless. Tears spilled from her eyes.

She jumped to her feet and circled around the desk. A box of tissue sat in a bottom drawer. She pulled out the box and returned to her seat.

“Sorry,” she said, her voice throaty.

“No problem. I take it this is a sore subject.”

“Yeah.” She sniffed and wiped away her tears. “I wanted kids, Jeff kept saying we had to wait. Wait until he was done with medical school, then wait until he finished his internship. Then wait until he had his own practice. I was working eighty hours a week, so it’s not like I had time to brood or anything, but God.” She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. “I wanted kids.”

She still did. The difference was now she didn’t have a husband. No husband, no babies. Her heart twisted.

“Any prenuptial agreement?”

She straightened and stared at him. “No. We never discussed it.”

“Did either of you bring any money into the relationship?”

She laughed humorously. “No. Jeff brought plenty of debt, though. Student loans from college. Those just got bigger as time wore on.”

“So basically you supported him through his medical training and paid for debt he’d incurred before the marriage.”

“You got it.”

“Did he work also? Part-time or summer jobs?”

“No. He studied. We agreed that was his job.” Because she’d been so damn stupid, she thought grimly. Being the perfect, supportive, loving wife had been all she’d aspired to. If that meant two jobs and no free time, hey, she was married. She’d walked away from her family, from the vineyards, and for what?

She balled up the tissue she held. “He didn’t do anything. I worked, I cooked, I cleaned, I picked up his dry cleaning.” Just talking about it made her furious. She rose to her feet and crossed to the window. “I can’t believe it. All these years of my life given over to him, and I have nothing to show for it. I certainly didn’t go to college. I have no education, nothing. I have no life, except for being his wife.” She spun to face Zach. “I gave him my entire being and this is my reward.”

“You loved him.”

“I was a fool.” She rubbed her temples. “I can’t believe I put my husband through medical school and now he’s left me for a younger woman. That wasn’t supposed to happen for at least another ten years.”

Zach didn’t respond. Brenna knew there wasn’t anything he could say. Instead he asked, “What do you want from Jeff?”

“Blood,” she said flatly. “I want him to pay. He used me and he cast me aside.” Worse, he’d hurt her, but she wasn’t about to say that. The irony of the situation didn’t escape her. Jeff was a cardiologist-he’d known exactly how to break her heart.

“Are you sure there’s no chance of a reconciliation?”

She tried to laugh. “He’s not interested. He’s already moved on. I’m not interested, either. He screwed some bimbo-probably in my bed. Let her have him.”

“He could change his mind.”

“I don’t think so. I think the chances of him leaving his bimbo for an old, used wife are pretty remote.”

“What about you? What if he came to his senses and realized he was an idiot. What if he begged you to let him come back? Would you let him?”

Brenna considered the question. This morning when Jeff had casually announced that their marriage was over, that he had filed for divorce, and oh, by the way, would she please leave the dry-cleaning ticket on the table when she left, she had felt as if a meteor had destroyed her world. She’d been crushed-broken into a million pieces with no hopes of ever being whole again. In that moment she would have done anything to have her life restored.

Since then she’d been on a roller coaster of emotion, up and down, turning at breakneck speed until she didn’t know what she wanted or where she was going to end up. But she did know one thing with complete certainty.

“I don’t want him back,” she said with a conviction that came from the very depths of her being. “It’s not only the infidelity that I can’t forgive. It’s that he wasn’t even willing to try. I didn’t get a vote or a hearing. He decided it was over, so he filed for divorce. I would never trust him again. What’s been broken can’t be fixed.” She leveled her gaze and stared at Zach. “I want him punished.”

Zach nodded. “I can do that. It’s something I do very well.”

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