Pain woke her, forced open her eyes. She was lying in
pitch-black darkness, and her head was throbbing, as if someone had
smashed the back of it with a chair. There was a weird taste in her
mouth --- metallic. I’ve cut the inside of my mouth, she
thought. She tried to find the spot with her tongue, but it was too
swollen to move.
Where am I? She wondered, panic-stricken. Her heart began to
pound in time with the throbbing in her head. She tried to shift
her body, but she felt paralyzed.
She forced herself to take a breath. I’m in a nightmare,
she told herself, one of those nightmares you can dream and see
yourself in at the same time. And I’m going to wake up. As
she breathed, she smelled something musty, like mildewed clothes.
No, this was real. She tried again to shift her body. Her arms
didn’t move but she was able to twist her head a little.
A sound slid through the blackness --- a long, low groan that
she didn’t recognize. Her heart pounded harder. It’s a
motor, she thought finally.
She realized at last where she was. But why? Had she fallen? Or
had someone hit her? Her mind was so confused, her
thoughts choked like a tangle of weeds in a lake. She found the
beginning and tried to go step by step from there. The last thing
she recalled was trying to reach the flashlight. It must have gone
out, though. How long had she been here, and why was she alone? And
then suddenly she knew. She remembered everything. She let out an
anguished sob at the truth.
She realized that the hum of the motor must be from the freezer
she’d seen earlier, which meant the power was back on. She
had to get out. She twisted her head back and forth and commanded
the rest of her body to move. Her legs still felt leaden, like
metal drums filled to the brim, but she was able to shift one of
her arms --- the right one. She flexed her right hand slowly open
Then there was another noise --- from far above this time.
Footsteps. And next a door opening. Terror engulfed her body,
squeezing air from her lungs.
The killer was coming to get her.
“You’ve got a secret, don’t you?”
“What do you mean?” Lake asked. Caught off guard by
the comment, she set her wineglass down on the café table and
pulled her head back slightly.
“There’s a cat-that-ate-the-canary look on your
She knew Molly was picking up on something she herself had only
realized in the past few days: the grief and guilt that had stalked
her so unmercifully for four months had finally begun to retreat.
She felt lighter, less oppressed, suddenly even hungry for life
again. Earlier, as she’d hurried down Ninth Avenue to meet
Molly for lunch in Chelsea, she’d actually felt a brief surge
of joy --- because of the brilliant summer sky and the work she was
doing and the fact that somewhere something new and good might be
waiting for her.
“Don’t tell me you’re seeing someone?”
“God, no,” Lake said. “I just feel like the
gloom has finally lifted.” She smiled. “I may even
surprise you and be less than a total sad sack today.”
“Just remember, it can be a real emotional roller coaster
right now,” Molly said, shaking out her long red hair.
“What I learned the first year after my divorce was that you
feel great one second and then bam, the blues are back ---
and you’re in bed for the next four days with the covers
pulled over your head.”
“I’m not expecting any miracles,” Lake said.
“I’m just sick of moping around like some character in
a Lifetime movie. I’m a forty-four-year-old single mother,
and it won’t be a breeze, but I’m ready to see it as an
adventure rather than a curse. And it helps that I love working
with my new client. The clinic does good stuff.”
“So what’s happening with the divorce? Are things
“My lawyer has been playing telephone tag with
Jack’s. But he thinks the agreement should be ready to sign
before the kids are back from camp. Once that’s done,
I’ll really be able to move on.”
“Then why not date?” Molly asked. “It
would be so good for you.”
“Well, I’m hardly beating men off with a
“The reason no one’s in hot pursuit is that you make
it so hard for guys to talk to you,” Molly said. “When
are you going to let your guard down? You’re a knockout,
That’s helpful, Lake thought. Molly made her sound like a
feral cat that ran and hid under the nearest porch whenever anyone
approached. Sometimes she rued the day she confided in Molly about
what she’d gone through when she was younger.
“I don’t think I’m ready for any kind of
“What about the doctor?” Molly asked, her green eyes
“That guy at the fertility clinic --- the one you said was
kind of flirty with you.”
“Oh, Keaton,” Lake said. As she said his name she
pictured his face: the slate-blue eyes, the brown hair spiked a
little in front, so un-doctor-y. And that soft, full mouth.
“He’s the type who would flirt with a coatrack,”
she added. “A real player, I’m sure.”
“Playing has its place, you know. Why not try a little eye
sex and see where it takes you?”
“Do you make these expressions up yourself, Molly?”
Lake asked, smiling.
“When there’s nothing suitable in the vernacular,
“He lives in L.A., anyway. He’s just consulting with
the clinic for a few weeks. Should we check out the
Over lunch Lake did her best to steer the conversation off
herself and toward her friend’s latest exploits as a fashion
stylist. It wasn’t that she failed to appreciate
Molly’s concern for her. When Lake had gradually withdrawn
from her two closest friends after the separation, too sick with
shame to face them, Molly had persisted with her, offering herself
as combination confidante and coach. Lake had eventually relented
and had come to like the attention. But at times it could feel
overwhelming. Maybe because Molly had always been just a casual
friend, someone Lake had known professionally, and it was weird to
have her in this new role. Or maybe because at heart, Lake had
always been a bit of a loner.
“I’m supposed to hear about another job
today,” Molly said later, as their coffee arrived. “Do
you mind if I check my email?”
Lake used the moment to look at her own BlackBerry. There was a
missed call from her lawyer, Robert Hotchkiss. Finally,
she thought. But as she played back the message, she felt a rush of
fear, like water gushing through a garden hose. He wanted to see
her right away. And his voice sounded grim.
“Look, I’d better jump in a cab and get up
there,” Lake said after filling Molly in.
“Something’s clearly come up.”
She called Hotchkiss as soon as she hugged Molly goodbye and
stepped onto the sidewalk. Though she didn’t reach him
directly, the receptionist told her he was anxious to talk --- no,
she didn’t know why --- and it was fine for Lake to drop by
as soon as she could. Now what, she thought, as she threw her head
against the backseat of the cab. Was Jack going to renege on his
promise to let her and the kids keep the apartment? She’d
spent a year being humiliated and hurt by him, and it made her
furious to think he might have something else up his sleeve.
She was fuming by the time she arrived at Hotchkiss’s
midtown Manhattan suite. The receptionist, an older woman whose
champagne-colored hair was curled as tight as a poodle’s,
didn’t even announce her but simply led her down the
As Lake entered Hotchkiss’s office, he rose from his
boat-size desk to greet her. He was about sixty, with a ruddy face
and a stomach that draped over his expensive belt like a
“Excuse the chaos, Lake,” he said, gesturing toward
stacks of bulging brown legal files. “I’m in the middle
of a messy case.”
“Well, with two kids in grade school, I know all about
Her comment sounded stupid to her own ears. What she wanted to
do was skip the chitchat and shout, “What the hell is Jack up
“I can tell you never let it get the best of you,”
Hotchkiss said. “Please sit down. I appreciate your coming on
such short notice.”
“Is there some new development?” she asked, working
to keep her voice calm.
“Yes --- and I’m afraid it’s not
“What is it?” she blurted out.
“Jack has filed a custody complaint,” Hotchkiss
said. “He’s now asking for full custody rather than
“What?” Lake exclaimed, shocked. As
shabbily as her ex-husband had behaved, there’d been no hint
he’d pull something like this. “That makes no sense.
His business is so busy these days --- he doesn’t have time
to take care of a fish tank, let alone two kids.”
“Then it’s probably a ploy for money. Maybe
it’s finally sunk in that besides child support and alimony,
you’re getting half the assets, and he’s not happy.
This may be a way to convince you to settle for less.”
Lake’s stomach began to knot in both anger and fear. Her
kids were hardly babies --- Will was nine and Amy eleven --- but
the thought of losing them sickened her. It was tough enough
turning them over to Jack every other weekend.
“Does --- does he have a chance?” Lake asked.
“I don’t think so. >From what I can determine,
you’ve been a terrific mother. But we need to proceed
carefully and guard our flank. Tell me a little more about your
work --- what are the hours like?”
“Because of everything with the divorce, I only have one
new client right now --- a private fertility clinic. I don’t
even work a forty-hour week.”
His brows knitted in incomprehension and she realized he’d
forgotten what she did for a living.
“My consulting business,” she clarified. “I
develop marketing strategies --- for clients in the health and
“Yes, yes, of course. Sorry, I forgot the details. Well,
that’s excellent. You’ve scaled back. No one can accuse
you of being a workaholic and turning over the care of your kids to
a cadre of Jamaican nannies.”
“No, no one could say that at all.” Lake hesitated
for a second. “Before I started my business two years ago, I
did have a regular job --- at a luxury cosmetic company.
The hours weren’t brutal, but I sometimes didn’t get
home till six-thirty or so. And I had to travel.”
She felt a trickle of sweat run down her neck. She’d been
damn proud of her job back then --- would Jack dare to turn that
against her? From the start of their marriage he’d been so
supportive, especially after Will was born and the working-mother
equation became even crazier to solve. “You can’t not
work, Lake,” he’d said. “You’re so good at
what you do.” It was impossible to believe that the man
she’d fallen for fourteen years ago had become this
“How much travel?” Hotchkiss asked.
“Well, not every week,” she said. “Not even
every month. But I went to L.A. a couple of times a year. To London
once a year.”
He scribbled a few notes, his red face scrunched in
consternation, as if she’d just announced she’d
recently been in rehab for addiction to crack cocaine.
“But that’s hardly out of the norm,” she said.
“How can that --- ?”
“It shouldn’t present a problem,” Hotchkiss
said, shaking his head. “I just need to be fully informed. Do
you presently spend a good amount of time with the kids?”
“Yes, of course. We do have a nanny slash housekeeper, but
only part-time. She’s off now because the kids are at
“When they return, you have to make them your number-one
priority. When school starts, you escort them there yourself ---
not the nanny.”
“I’d do that anyway,” she said. She
couldn’t believe she had to defend herself this way.
Hotchkiss raised his beefy fingers to his lips steeple-style for
a moment, and then lowered them.
“So you’ve had a little free time this
summer,” he said. “Have you been up to the Catskills?
You kept the weekend house, right?”
“Yes, I kept the house in Roxbury,” she said,
wondering what that had to do with anything. “Jack
wasn’t interested in it anymore --- he wanted a place in the
Hamptons. But I actually haven’t been up there at all this
summer since the kids have been at camp. I’ve just stayed in
He offered a tight smile, as if waiting for the other shoe to
“Are you seeing anyone right now?” he asked after a
So that’s what he’d been getting at. In her
agitated state, she was briefly tempted to respond with sarcasm, to
say that at age forty-four she’d discovered the thrills of
being a cougar, an older woman with a taste for young hotties. But
Hotchkiss wouldn’t be amused. He’d probably never even
heard the word cougar used that way.
“No, no one,” she admitted.
Hotchkiss sighed. “I’m glad to hear it. Technically
there’s nothing wrong with dating now --- or even having a
sexual relationship with someone --- as long as it doesn’t
impact negatively on the kids. But during a custody dispute you
don’t want to give even a hint of impropriety. This is not
the time to bring a new man around the kids. Definitely do not
bring a man into your home whether the kids are there or not. In
fact, the smartest thing for you to do right now is socialize in
Not that there was a slew of dates to be canceled, but here was
yet another thing Jack was stealing from her.
“So how do we fight this?” she asked anxiously. She
realized that they’d now be going from a no-fault divorce
situation to a contested one. And the kids would be dragged through
“The court will appoint a child psychologist to make an
evaluation, probably in a month or so.
But if this is about money, as I suspect it is, Jack’s
lawyer may tip his hand before then.”
“I’ll being seeing Jack at the camp this Saturday
--- it’s parents’ day. What should I do?”
She wanted to hear him say “Skin him alive,” but
Hotchkiss simply flipped up his hands and shook his head.
“Don’t say a word about this. And be civil,
especially in front of the kids.”
Her brain was racing and she knew she’d soon have more
questions, but she saw Hotchkiss glance at his watch. He’d
obviously squeezed her in this afternoon.
“I know this is a terrible curveball,” Hotchkiss
said, “but I’m optimistic. The key point is not to do
anything out of the ordinary. Make your life as routine as
possible.” He smiled. “Don’t rob a bank, for
instance. The worst thing is to give Jack a reason to file for
temporary custody. If you lose ground, it’s hard to get it
“Not to alarm you,” he added, leading her to the
door, “but it’s possible Jack might even have you
followed, looking for evidence.”
“Followed,” she exclaimed. “I
can’t believe this.” Her anger seeped through her
entire body, making her feel flushed. Jack had been the one to
leave. He had no right to sic a private eye on her.
“Actually, we might consider something like that
ourselves, considering what you told me previously. Let’s
think it over.”
When she’d agreed to give Jack a divorce so he could start
his shiny new life, she’d told Hotchkiss she thought he might
be involved with someone --- but, other than his total detachment,
she’d never had any evidence and had come to doubt her own
suspicions. But now Hotchkiss’s comment brought the
possibility rushing back. Was Jack planning to start a new family
with a wife better suited to his hot entrepreneurial image, the
kids just part of the package? Is that why he’d
lodged the custody challenge? If Jack thought Lake was going to
step aside and hand her kids over to him and a girlfriend, he was
By the time she was in a cab home, Lake nearly slumped over in
exhaustion. Two hours ago she’d been relishing life again, no
longer worried about seeming undone in front of the kids or her
clients. She’d even started planning for the future. And now
it seemed as if she’d been dragged back to square one.
As the cab hurtled north, she kicked herself for not seeing this
coming --- but how could she have? All of Jack’s attention
lately had seemed focused away from his old life with her
and the kids. So this had to be about money. During their marriage
she’d supported him, emotionally and financially, when he
started his software business and she spent endless weekends alone
with the kids while he was holed up at work. She’d even
contributed marketing ideas. Why would he try to deny her half of
Lake couldn’t wait to get home. Her place was a rambling
old apartment on West End Avenue in the Eighties, bought years ago
at a bargain from Jack’s widowed aunt. Jack could have made a
case for keeping it after the split, but in a surprising act of
generosity, he had insisted it would be best for her and the kids
to continue living there. Only later did it dawn on her that it was
because he wanted something sleeker and hipper for his new life.
The Bachelor: Forty-six, Fabulous, and Finally
The apartment had been a refuge for her lately and she was
looking forward to a quiet night at home. But when she stepped
inside late that afternoon, it was hot and oppressive. The cat,
Smokey, darted out to greet her and she patted his thick, black fur
distractedly. After she turned on the air conditioner and poured a
glass of wine, the phone rang.
“Everything okay?” it was Molly.
Lake briefly brought her friend up to speed.
“What a shithead,” Molly proclaimed. “Are you
sure you don’t want to go out? You don’t always have to
keep a stiff upper lip. You know, Lake, it might do you good to
blow off a little steam.”
“Thanks, but I want to do some research online about
custody. I need to know how bad this could get.”
“What’s the next step in the process?”
“An evaluation by a shrink. Till then I just wait --- and
keep my nose clean.”
“Don’t tell me men are totally verboten?”
“Apparently a woman can’t lose custody just because
she’s had a few dates --- or even because she’s had sex
--- but my lawyer says it’s smart to lay low, act like a nun,
at least when the kids are around.” She looked at the clock
and noticed the time. “I better go. I have to fax the kids
The summer camp Lake had chosen for the kids allowed parents to
send faxes, which were then distributed to the campers after
dinner. She tried to write every day, loved coming up with things
for notes, but today she had nearly run out of time. For Amy she
scribbled a few lines about Smokey chasing a dust ball that
morning. For Will she copied a riddle from a book she’d
bought just for this purpose.
Faxes sent, she stayed in her small home office and Googled
“custody battles” on her laptop. The news wasn’t
reassuring. Mothers rarely lost custody, but there weren’t
any guarantees. Judges could be unpredictable. Lake even found
stories of good mothers who’d lost out and learned years
later that the judge had been bribed.
The old Jack would never do something like that, but she
wondered if the new one might. He seemed alien to her now,
self-absorbed and greedy. It was like dealing with an animal
she’d found in the wild --- one that could bite her hand off
She skipped dinner --- the glass of wine was all she could
stomach --- and undressed for bed. As she washed her face in the
bathroom sink, barely concentrating, she suddenly caught her
reflection in the mirror. Her father, long dead, once said that
with her deep-brown hair and gray-green eyes, there was something
actually lakelike about her appearance. She would hardly call
herself a knockout like Molly had, but she knew that she looked
good for her age and should just relish it. But it was difficult to
let go of what she used to see in the mirror --- the purply
birthmark over her entire left cheek. It wasn’t until the age
of fifteen that she’d flown from her home in central
Pennsylvania to Philadelphia for the laser treatments that had
removed all but the faintest shadow of it.
After splashing cool water on her neck, she ran her hands over
her breasts. Unless she counted the humorless radiology tech
who’d squashed them onto the X-ray tray for Lake’s
routine mammogram last month, it had been nearly a year since
anyone had touched them.
Lake marked the death of her marriage on the night last fall
when she reached for Jack in bed, eager to make love, and
he’d shrugged her hand off his shoulder. The rebuke had
She knew, however, that things had begun to unravel six months
before, when Jack’s business had gone through the roof. He
was working even harder, but also going out more --- socializing
with clients, playing golf, always extolling the virtues of
living large. She had oscillated between annoyance and the
need to cut him some slack. After all the stress he’d been
through, maybe he deserved a little fun.
But it wasn’t until he rebuffed her in bed --- that first
time, and then again and again --- that she’d panicked. She
searched his pockets and his emails, assuming an affair, but found
nothing. She bought sexy lingerie and felt like a fool when he lay
motionless next to her, like a hedgerow in the bed. Finally she
tried to talk to him, but he claimed he was simply tired ---
couldn’t she see how demanding things were for him? And then
suddenly she was the problem. He accused her of lacking spontaneity
and fun. “Where’s your passion?” he’d ask,
as if she was guilty of some moral failure. That’s ironic,
she’d thought, considering you won’t even touch me.
His departure had had the abruptness of a prison break. He took
just his clothes, some papers, and the stupid Abdominizer. She felt
a kind of shame she hadn’t experienced since her days with
her birthmark. But another part of her had been angry as hell at
his betrayal. It was hard to imagine that he was the same man who
once said, “You’re my rock, Lake. You saved
Lake put on her nightgown and paced the apartment. What did Jack
think he could use against her? Was he going to lie and make her
business seem more demanding than it was? She went into
Will’s room and touched his toys, fighting off a sob. Above
the dresser was a framed collage she’d made for him, designed
with snapshots and scraps of souvenirs. Jack’s face appeared
twice, flashing the famous grin that had once captivated her. But
it seemed satanic now. She fought the urge to smash the glass and
ink out his face.
Finally, sick of thinking, she retreated to her room and slipped
into bed. She’d expected to toss and turn, but, exhausted,
she fell asleep within minutes.
And suddenly she was awake again --- jerked out of a dream. She
lay there for a few seconds, wondering why, and then heard the
phone ring, for the second time, she realized. The clock on the
bedside table said 2:57. As she fumbled for the phone, her mind
went instantly to the kids.
“Hello,” she said, her voice hoarse from sleep.
“Is this the Warren residence?” a voice asked. It
was a woman, she thought, but wasn’t sure.
The voice sounded oddly distorted.
“Yes, who’s calling?” Lake asked anxiously.
The phone display read “private caller.”
“Is this Mrs. Warren?”
“Please tell me who’s calling.”
“Are you the mother of William Warren?”
Her heart nearly stopped.
“Is this the camp?” she blurted out.
The person said nothing but Lake could hear breathing.
“Please, what’s the matter?” she demanded.
And then there was only a dial tone.
Excerpted from HUSH © Copyright 2011 by Kate White.
Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperbacks. All rights