He was good.
Meg Roberts stood in the open doors of the Dark Horse Winery’s tasting room and watched her boss, Chad Hallahan, co-owner of the Napa winery, and VP of Sales & Marketing, work his magic on the women clustered around him. There were quite a few clustered around, too. But when weren’t they?
Women loved Chad. They always had. He had charisma. Sex appeal. Warmth. It was the warmth that melted women into puddles of want.
The corner of her mouth lifted slightly, as she saw the woman on Chad’s right put her hand on his arm and lean towards him. Women always leaned close, too.
She’d worked at the winery for four years now, and in those four years she’d been both amused and intrigued by his effect on women. Initially she’d thought it was his good looks that sent women tumbling to his feet. But over time she’d come to realize it wasn’t how he looked at them, as much as what he did.
He paid attention to women. And he listened to them. Really listened. And then at some point when listening, he’s smile that slow sexy smile that made even sweet little old ladies’ hearts race a bit.
He’d smiled that way at Meg in the beginning—with his eyes and his mouth, a smile that had heat and power--until she let him know she was happily married and the mother of three.
She’d been relieved that he got the message and he’d never flirted with her again. Meg was glad. She was. She didn’t want to be tempted in any way, by any man who wasn’t her husband. And Chad was tempting. Seven years younger than Meg, he was tall, strong, and ruggedly handsome. He also filled out his old Levis quite nicely, with a small firm butt and muscular thighs.
Maybe that was his secret. That hot bod of his.
Her lips curved again and yet her chest felt tight. She’d hit forty a couple years ago and had begun to feel a little too settled. No wonder Chad’s energy was appealing. To be young and hot and so very alive…
She watched him nod and smile at the woman on his left, and found herself wishing she was the women he was smiling at. Not because she loved him, or wanted him, but because she’d love to have a man look at her as though she was beautiful. Fascinating. An object of desire.
Not that Meg Roberts, aka Mary Margaret Brennan, had ever been the beautiful Brennan sister, or an object of desire. She was the practical, hard working one. The sister who made sure all the others were dressed, face washed, hair brushed, and by the front door ready for Mass.
A light hand touched her elbow. “Meg, thank you so much for inviting me. I’m glad my schedule opened up so that I could come.”
Meg turned towards Amy Chin, the young producer from the Food Network, who’d surprised everybody by showing up tonight. “I’m glad, too. And I know Craig and Chad are really pleased you showed.”
Amy’s lips curled as she threw a quick glance in Chad’s direction. “They’re certainly telegenic, especially that one.”
So another one had fallen, Meg thought, checking her own smile. “Chad’s very comfortable in front of the camera,” she said blandly.
“I think Dark Horse Winery is perfect for a new show we’re discussing at The Food Network. I’ll be in touch next week?”
“Of course. Anytime.”
Then Amy was walking away, out through the Tuscany inspired front door into the night. Meg watched her brisk, confident walk until she disappeared from sight, and then drew a deep breath, pleased that tonight’s party had been such a resounding success.
One hundred seventy five guests had attended. Seven members of the media actually showed—two TV stations, two newspapers, three magazines, and one TV producer. The caterers’ menu had wowed. The floral arrangements elicited numerous compliments. Her bosses, vintner brothers Chad and Craig Hallahan, couldn’t have been happier.
She was happy, too, but in a subdued sort of way. Meg had never reveled in her accomplishments. She put it down to being Irish-American, Catholic, and the oldest of five. She had to succeed. It was expected of her. But then, from the very beginning she’d been the go-to-girl in the family. Need something done? Ask Meg. Need someone dependable? Get Meg. Want it done right…and quickly? Meg, again.
But being Meg exhausted even Meg at times.
Or maybe that was being forty-two and juggling kids and a career and keeping track of her wonderful, but rather absentminded husband.
Meg leaned back against the doorframe, hands tucked behind her, and glanced towards the guests still lingering on the terrace. It was a beautiful, clear night and the flagstone terrace looked picture perfect in the moonlight with its massive weathered trellis covered in grape vines and lit by thousands of tiny white lights.
Many of the guests had driven up from San Francisco for the party. Some were serious foodies, others loved a good party, and others just needed to see and be seen. But tonight no one seemed in a hurry to leave, and Meg wished she were out there by the stone fireplace with its crackling fire and a glass of the new merlot in her hand. It was a great wine. Craig and Chad had another winner with the merlot.
“You’re looking pensive,” said Chad, joining her at the open door.
Meg straightened, and smiled, even as she swiftly smoothed her black cocktail. “Am I? Not feeling pensive in the least.”
“What are you feeling, then?”
She stood tall. “Happy. Grateful.” Her shoulders twisted. “Mostly grateful.”
“Grateful for what?”
“My job. The weather. The good turnout.” She nodded at the guests out on the terrace. “Everyone seems to be having a really good time.”
“How could they not? It’s a fantastic party. You outdid yourself once again.”
“One day I’ll run out of great ideas and you’ll replace me, Mr. Hallahan.”
“Not likely. You’re as important to this winery as Craig or I am.”
Not at all true, but still nice to hear, she thought, glancing at Craig where he stood behind the tasting counter. He’d spent the entire evening behind the bar, talking and pouring wine. “I’d offer to take Craig’s place back there but I don’t think he’d let me.”
Chad grinned as he looked Craig’s way. Four years separated the two brothers, but they looked a lot alike. They were both over six feet, both fair with light eyes. Craig had an inch or so on Chad in height, but Chad carried more muscle. Chad was also a little blonder and a lot more outgoing. Craig might be the president of the winery, with a good head for numbers, but Chad was the face of the winery and people loved him.
“Absolutely not,” Chad said, watching Craig open another bottle of the new label. “That’s his spot. That big counter keeps him safe. God only knows what would happen if he had to mingle.”
Chad winked at her. “I know. But why reform? Good girls love bad boys. You keep us in business.”
She groaned and rolled her eyes, thankful she was one of the few women in America immune to his charm. With his thick, wavy dark blonde hair and deep blue eyes, people frequently mistook him for the actor Bradley Cooper. In truth, Chad was better looking that Bradley Cooper but Meg would never tell him that. Chad had way too much confidence as it was.
“So how did you get Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Food & Wine to all send writers?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest, filling the doorway, making the space his.
“I’m a miracle worker,” she said lightly, knowing the only miracle was making phone call after phone call to ensure the right people showed tonight. This launch was hugely important, particularly with the current economy. New wineries were opening as fast as others closed and she’d spent months obsessing over every detail for tonight’s party, wanting tonight’s event to be the biggest splash yet.
“You are,” he answered, suddenly serious. “You’re a big part of our success, Meg. We wouldn’t be where we are now if it weren’t for you.”
“We wouldn’t be here if you didn’t make incredible wine.”
“But you make us look good.”
“That’s my job.”
“I know.” He paused and ran hand through his thick hair, combing it back from his brow. As long as Meg had known Chad, he’d worn his hair a little longer than fashionable, simply because he liked it that way. “And as you do your job so well, Craig and I have been talking and we think you should go to London for the Trade Fair with me—“
“The London Trade Fair in two weeks?”
“Is there any other?” he asked, creases fanning from the corners of his eyes as he smiled, revealing white even teeth. Like Craig, Chad spent hours every day out of doors, bouncing between the office and the vineyards, the cellar and the tasting room. They both drove big trucks, lived in Levis and cowboy boots and were happiest when tromping around in muddy fields.
Craig and Chad had grown up in Napa. Their father had been a rancher, and had been determined to keep the land open for cattle, but fifteen years ago after Craig graduated with UC Davis with a degree in Plant Science and Agricultural Management, their father allowed Craig to convert part of the ranch into vineyards, and when the winery took off, another portion was cultivated.
Their father, Charles, retired just before Meg had stared working for the winery but he still lived on the property in the original 1890 Victorian farmhouse on the valley floor. Today, seventy-five percent of the ranch was devoted to grapes, but Craig and Chad had promised their father that the rest of the acreage would remain undeveloped.
“No. But I thought you and Craig were going.”
“We were, but Craig has changed his mind. He told me a few days ago that he doesn’t want to attend this year and hopes you will take his place.”
“He didn’t say anything to me.”
“I asked him not to. I thought you had enough on your plate without trying to make a decision about the show. But he and I both want you to go. We’d cover your flights, hotel, all expenses. What do you think?”
Meg’s eyebrows arched. An all expense trip to England? Work the prestigious London Trade Fair? Have a chance to put a face to some of the names she’s worked with over the years? It sounded fantastic, but it wasn’t that easy. She had kids and dogs, and they had homework, sports, ballet and carpools. And then there was Jack…Jack sometimes being as much work, if not more, than the kids…
She gave her head a slight shake, dark hair swinging. “It’s so soon, Chad.”
“I know. And I’m not trying to pressure you, but if you do go, we should organize some buyer dinners. Craig didn’t want to when he was going—hates the whole wining and dining scene--but it’s your thing and I think it’s essential we do some wooing with our key European accounts.”
She’d worked closely with Chad on marketing and knew his goals: to double Dark Horse’s European sales, and make significant inroads in the Chinese market. Meg agreed that Europe was important but her focus was China, as China’s newfound wealth had created a demand for luxury items, including an appreciation for fine wine. Last year American wine imports to China dramatically increased by 138 percent, with ninety percent of that wine coming from California wineries. Unfortunately, Dark Horse wasn’t part of that growth as they weren’t known in China.
At least not yet.
But Meg was privately more optimistic at the chance for growth in a new market than Europe, where Napa wineries—despite achieving a protected name in the EU five years ago—have had little success penetrating their market. Compounding matters was that overall wine consumption in the EU was falling steadily.
“Which of our buyers?” she asked.
“Germany…Netherlands. Maybe Russia.”
“Yes and yes, and definitely Russia, too,” she agreed, aware that Russia was a bright spot with the consumption of fine wine on the rise.
“So you’ll come?”
Meg hesitated. She’d love to attend the Trade Fair, she really would, but the timing was crummy. It was May, and Jack Jr had baseball games three times a week. Tessa was dancing every day and then there was Gabi and her horse. Just thinking about the kids’ hectic schedule made her stomach churn. If she left, who would manage everything while she was gone? Jack loved the kids but he had no clue as to the work required to keep the family running.
“I don’t think its practical,” she said quietly, feeling a flash of resentment for being the one to handle everything at home. There might be two adults in the house but she was the one responsible for kids, meals, laundry, shopping, holidays and bills. And it’s not as if she didn’t have a job.
“I need you, Meg.” All banter was gone. Chad’s voice had dropped, deepening, his tone earnest. “We make great wines but nobody in Europe knows it.”
“That’s why I want you to visit China—“
“Can’t think about China when I’ve got London on the calendar in two weeks.”
She exhaled slowly and tucked a strand of straight brown hair behind her ear. She was already heading out of town this weekend, heading to the beach house in Capitola in the morning for the annual Brennan Girls Getaway. “I’m already gone this weekend. I just don’t know if I could leave my family again so soon.”
“At least talk it over with Jack. Let him know we really need you there. Obviously I can go to London on my own, but I can’t do what I want and need to do, without you. You don’t just know our wines, you know the business, the European market, and what we’re up against.”
It was rather heady being wanted…needed. It felt good to know she was considered valuable to the winery operations. “I’ll talk to Jack,” she said, “but I might not have an answer for you until Monday.”
It was a thirty minute drive home through miles of vineyards illuminated only by the huge white moon. The hills rolled and undulated on either side of her. The first Napa wineries were founded in the middle of the 19th century, with early pioneer and settler George Yount planting the first grapes in Napa Valley. A few years later in 1858 John Patchett produced the first commercial harvest, and Charles Krug’s wine cellar was established in St. Helena in 1861. By the end of the nineteenth century there were more than one hundred and forty wineries in the region. One hundred and fifty years later, Napa Valley is home to over four hundred and fifty wineries.
The wineries defined Napa, and Napa helped define California. Meg couldn’t imagine one without the other, and she loved being part of the wine industry. It was exciting and interesting, especially working with the Hallahan brothers.
As Meg headed towards Petaluma, she thought about the party, the turn out, the media who’d attended, as well as Chad’s invitation to go to London. The invitation to attend the London Wine & Spirits Trade Fair was certainly appealing, but Meg didn’t travel for her job. That had been one of her conditions for taking the position. She’d work hard for the winery, but she needed to be home every night with her family to cook dinner, and then later, to tuck the kids into bed at night.
The kids were older. Gabi was now ten and she was the youngest, but Meg still needed the nightly traditions and rituals. She’d grown up in a family that put family first, and even if her father was at the fire station, the rest of them still sat down at the dining room table every night for a proper meal. Meg wanted the same for her children. Traditions were important. Stability even more so.
Gradually the dark road gave way to the lights of Petaluma where Meg was able to jump on 101 North. From Petaluma it was another twenty minutes to home, where she lived in a newer development of big estates in northeast Santa Rosa, each home nestled on two to five acres.
Her house, a six thousand square foot Cape Cod, stood on five acres which gave them privacy and a very long driveway. Pulling past the carriage garage into the back, she parked next to Jack’s old Saab, a car he’d had since Meg met him in graduate school.
Inside, she locked the mudroom door, set the alarm and turned off the light over the stove before heading upstairs where she found Jack still awake, reading in bed.
Jack looked up from his fat sheath of papers as she entered their bedroom, his dark hair rumpled, his smile welcoming. At forty-seven, Jack was enjoying his career more now than ever. A respected architect specializing in historical preservation and traditional renovation, he was in great demand not just in California but throughout the country. Even in the early years of their marriage Meg had marveled that Jack could be so focused at work and yet so absent-minded at home.
“How did it go tonight?” he asked, briefly glancing up from his reading.
“Wonderful,” he answered, dropping his gaze back to his reading.
Meg hesitated next to the bed, suddenly wanting, needing, more. More of Jack’s attention. More curiosity about her night. More questions about the event, and admiration for a job well done.
She swallowed around the lump in her throat. She had worked really hard on the party and suddenly felt depleted. She needed something…appreciation…validation.
If other men couldn’t flirt or make her feel good, she needed her man to flirt.
Or at least look at her.
Meg didn’t like the rush of emotion. She wasn’t insecure. She rarely craved compliments, but that’s exactly what she needed now.
She needed tenderness. Passion. Reassurance that her husband, her partner, still found her appealing and would marry her again, given the chance.
But Jack was lost in his document and she felt foolish hovering in her black cocktail dress next to the bed, waiting to be noticed. That’s what girls did at junior high dances. She shouldn’t wait for attention in her own bedroom, from her own husband.
She knew Jack loved her. Jack was a caring husband and a devoted father and they had a good marriage. Even after nineteen years of togetherness, two spent dating, seventeen as husband and wife, she loved Jack. Even better, she liked him.
Meg closed the distance between them, pulling her hair aside and presenting her back so he could unzip her black dress. “Chad and Craig were so pleased,” she said, wondering if her black lace bra would elicit any interest. He’d once loved black lingerie. “Everyone came. All the media, the writers, the VIP list. It honestly couldn’t have gone better.”
Zipper down, Jack patted her backside. “That’s my girl. I’m proud of you.”
A pat on the butt. She might as well be a basketball player being tapped by a coach.
She smiled faintly and turning around, dropped a kiss on his forehead, the only bit of skin available to her, before stripping her dress off and heading for their adjoining walk in closet.
The closet was massive, as big as a guest room, and finished in warm rich wood, but far from crammed with clothes.
Neither Meg nor Jack were clothes horses. Meg preferred classic pieces in neutrals like black, bone and navy, while Jack lived in his uniform of creased chinos or faded jeans paired with his favorite worn button down shirts. Jack liked soft and worn—it killed him to buy new clothes--and if he had his way, they’d still be living in the 1908 farm house they spent ten years restoring before Meg refused to go through one more winter in a house without forced air, insulation, or double paned windows.
In the closet she stepped out of her shoes, unhooked her bra and struggled out of her Spanx. It was a relief to be free of the snug undergarments and Meg deliberated between her favorite cotton pajamas and a black slinky nightgown. Pajamas were more comfortable, but if she wanted Jack’s attention, the slinky nightgown would be better.
“Chad and Craig want me to go to London for the Trade Show,” she said, sliding the satin gown down over her shoulders and then her hips. She emerged from the closet, sucked in her stomach, and passed close to the bed. “Craig thinks I’d do a better schmoozing in the booth than he would.”
“And you would,” he answered, head still buried in his papers.
She waited a moment. “I haven’t been to London since our fifth anniversary. Can you believe it’s been twelve years since then?”
He made a sound, turned a page, continued reading.
Meg disappeared into the equally lavish bath with thick marble counters and creamy Italian marble tiles covering the walls. Beneath the expensive live fixture the rich, pale stone gleamed like thick fresh cream. Opulent. Decadent. New. Jack hated it. She loved it. Even two years after moving in, Meg was still so very glad to be living among pretty things and nice finishes instead of historically accurate and painstakingly renovated.
Swishing the whitening pre-rinse wash in her mouth, Meg squeezed whitening toothpaste onto her toothbrush, more vigilant than ever about taking care of her teeth since she was drinking—and selling—more red wine than white.
“They’re paying all expenses but its in two weeks,” she said, spitting out the pre-rinse to talk. “I’d be there for the 17th.”
“But honey, it’s your birthday.”
“I’d be gone on your birthday.”
He hesitated only a moment. “No big deal. We’ll celebrate when you get home.”
But once it had been a big deal. Her toothbrush hovered in mid air as she remembered how sacred birthdays and holidays had once been. They were special occasions, events to be celebrated together. “I head to the beach house in the morning, and just not sure I should be heading away to London days after I get back from the coast.” Meg popped the brush into her mouth and began scrubbing.
“Why not? Capitola is a girls weekend with your mom and sisters. London is business. And I think its wonderful Craig and Chad want you to go and represent Dark Horse Winery. I think you should do it.”
This is one of the things she’d always loved about Jack, Meg thought, leaning over the sink to spit. Jack had always been supportive of her career, and proud of her success. He never made her feel guilty for working.
Rinsing her mouth, Meg caught a glimpse of her reflection—light brown eyes and brown hair against pale skin. She’d inherited the Brennan square jaw and broad brow and her mother’s coloring. Her mother, Marilyn, was half Irish and half Italian and one hundred percent strict Catholic. You didn’t swear around Mom without saying a Hail Mary or two.
She spit again and paused, inspecting her face, seeing the faint lines at the corners of her eyes and the barely perceptible droop near her mouth. Forty-two, she thought. Where has the time gone?
Turning off the bathroom light, Meg crawled under the covers on her side of the bed and faced Jack who was still reading through his papers. She watched Jack read, knowing it’d be historical research on a project he’d been hired to do, or wanted to do. Jack loved his research. Lived for historical accuracy. And that was something she loved about him. He was so smart. And dedicated to excellence.
“You really wouldn’t mind if I went to London then?” she asked, stretching a hand out to touch his chest beneath the covers. Her hand trailed down his stomach to the waistband of his pajama pants.
Jack reached under the covers to stop her hand. “Of course not. Why would I?”
She slowly drew her hand back, telling herself she didn’t mind, that she wasn’t being rejected. “The kids are so busy—baseball, dance, horse stuff.”
“We have sitters who already drive them to their afterschool activities.”
Meg suppressed a sigh, aware that it wasn’t quite that simple. Someone had to tell those sitters when to come, where to be, and how to get there. Someone had to greet the sitters and pay them and talk about homework and meals and possible problems. But that person wasn’t Jack. After nearly sixteen years of parenting, he still thought babysitters just magically appeared—babysitter storks dropping them off fully screened, trained, and prepared on the doorstep. Ha!
Meg smashed the pillow closer to her cheek, watched Jack read. “I know the college girls can get the kids to where they need to be, but when they have a game, the kids want us there—“
“And I’ll be there.” Jack pushed up his reading glasses to the top of his head, making his hair fluff at his crown and ears. “It’s not as if you’re going to be gone for weeks. It’s what? Five days? Six?”
He set his papers on the nightstand and leaned over to kiss her forehead. “Meg, the kids are 10, 12 and 15. We can survive a week without you.”
She caught his face with her hand, and kissed his lips.
Tonight she wanted more. Wanted touch. Connection. She tried to deepen the kiss but he didn’t respond. Her lips went soft against his, but nothing. It was a very married kiss. A very practical, comfortable kiss. And usually it was enough.
She’d learned that it had to be enough.
But tonight…tonight she felt alone and lonely.
Oblivious, Jack rolled away to turn off the lamp next to the bed. “Stop worrying so much,” he said as their bedroom went black.
But that was the problem, she thought, staring up at the ceiling in the dark. She did worry. She worried constantly, about everything, which was doubly stressful as Jack apparently worried about nothing. Including the fact that they hadn’t had sex since…since…Christmas?
The next morning Meg had hoped to be on the road by nine thirty so she’d be at the airport well before Sarah’s flight landed, but she got a late start after discovering Jack Jr.’s baseball uniform hadn’t gotten washed after his Tuesday game.
Grimacing, she pulled the plastic cup from the jockstrap, and stripped the belt from the pant loops before throwing the uniform into the washer and returning to the kitchen to scribble last minute notes for Lindsay, the Friday sitter.
In the note, she reminded Lindsay that Jack Jr—or JJ for short—had baseball, Gabi went to the stables either today or tomorrow, but not both, and Tessa needed to go to the dance store to pick up new tights and ballet shoes before Saturday’s four hour rehearsal.
Meg chewed on the tip of her pen, wondering what she should leave out for dinner when her phone rang. It was Jack calling from his office in downtown Santa Rosa where he worked in an older building (of course) not far from historic Railroad Square.
“How’s traffic?” he asked.
“I haven’t left yet,” she answered, glancing at her wristwatch and feeling a rush of panic, which only heightened her anxiety. Oh God, it was ten. She was late. Really late. “I was trying to figure out dinner—“
“I’ll order pizza.”
“But JJ’s uniform is in the wash. It needs to get moved to the dryer—“
“I’ll come home at lunch. Now go, and give your sisters and mom my love.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too. See you Sunday. Have fun.”
Traffic was light—probably because it was one of those stunningly beautiful days when the red Golden Gate bridge popped against a wash of blue and green--and Meg made it to South San Francisco in less than an hour.
She was just a few miles north of the airport when she got a text from her youngest sister, Sarah, who was flying in from Tampa Bay via Atlanta, saying she’d landed and was heading to the curb in front of baggage claim.
Meg spotted Sarah on the curb as she rounded the terminal corner. Tall, slender, and pretty, Sarah had always turned heads as a teenager, but she was even more beautiful at thirty-four. Sarah still wore her hair long, with the addition of artful streaks in the golden brown color, and managed to keep her body bikini perfect even after two kids with diligent workouts. But then, Sarah, like Meg, was disciplined.
Little wonder that the youngest Brennan had caught Boone Walker’s eye ten years ago when he was a first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds and in the Bay Area for a three game series against the San Francisco Giants. Sarah had been wary of the baseball groupies in the beginning, but how did one say no to Boone? Six foot four, gorgeous, and ridiculously charismatic, Boone attracted attention wherever he went, even before people knew he was a major league baseball player.
“How are you doing, hon?” Meg said, leaning across her white Lexus SUV to open the door for Sarah.
Sarah flashed a smile, showing perfect white teeth. She’d had her teeth done a couple years ago, the same year she’d had her boob job, taking her stunning looks to the next level. Meg liked Sarah’s teeth. She wasn’t sure about the implants.
“Fantastic, now that I’m here,” Sarah answered, opening the back door of the Lexus and dropping her suitcase and purse on the floor before climbing in the front passenger seat. “How are you?”
“Good. Hope I didn’t keep you waiting long.”
Sarah shut her door and buckled her seatbelt. “I was out here only a couple minutes and it felt good to stretch my legs. It was a longer flight than usual today. I guess there were pretty strong headwinds.”
“Turbulent?” Meg asked, shooting her a quick glance as she merged with airport traffic.
“Very.” Sarah rubbed her hands together. “You don’t know how happy I am to be here. Can’t wait to get to the beach house. I haven’t been since our last girls weekend.”
“You weren’t there for the 4th?”
“No. Boone had just gone on the injured reserve list and I didn’t want to leave him.”
“How is Boone?”
“And the kids?”
“Wonderful, except for Ella not wanting me to go.”
Meg accelerated, changing lanes, preparing to enter 101 South to San Jose where they’d take Highway 17 through the mountains to Santa Cruz. “She’s only four. It’s hard for them at that age for mom to go.”
“I know. And I feel guilty leaving them, but I needed this. Needed some girl time. Adult time. Boone just got back from a ten day road trip and I’m already sick of being alone with the kids, but we’re only five weeks into the season. How am I going to get to make it until September?”
Meg shot her sister another swift glance as she moved into the far left lane. “Once the kids are out of school, bring them out for the summer. Come stay with us in Santa Rosa for a couple weeks, then head to the beach house for a couple weeks, and then maybe a week at Mom and Dad’s. Take advantage of having family around. Kit’s out of school in summer, too. She’d be more than happy to spend time with your two.”
“I wish I could. But Boone would really miss Brennan and Ella. He loves them so much.”
“He is a great dad,” Meg agreed, gripping the steering wheel more tightly, resenting Boone for putting them in this position where they couldn’t be real anymore. Where they couldn’t discuss Sarah’s marriage and life with any degree of honesty.
Two years ago in June, Sarah found out Boone was having an affair. It was with someone he’d met while on the road. He said it was nothing, but nothing nearly shattered Sarah. Devastated, she scooped up the kids and flew home to San Francisco. Dad had picked them up at the airport and told Sarah she never had to go back to Boone.
But she did.
She said she loved him too much to leave him, only the damage had been done. The seed of doubt had been planted. Sarah and Boone were together but Sarah was no longer secure.
It still made Meg furious that Boone would betray Sarah like that. The whole family had loved him, accepted him. He’d become a Brennan, and Brennans didn’t stab each other in the back. But when Sarah forgave Boone, she asked her family to do the same. And so for the last two years they’d all played this game of pretending that nothing had happened, and that Boone was a good guy, and their conversations about him, and Sarah and the kids, was deliberately upbeat and light. Positive. Even when Sarah looked miserable and trapped.
Meg cast Sarah a sideways glance. Like now. Well, maybe not miserable, but fragile, which made Meg wonder about the state of affairs—no pun attended—at home in Tampa Bay. But she couldn’t ask, not directly, not without risking alienating Sarah.
Which was ridiculous. Meg was the oldest and she’d always been protective of Sarah and over the years Sarah had come to her for advice on everything. But now, due to Boone’s indiscretions, they couldn’t talk?
Utter bullshit. What was the point of being a family if you couldn’t share things?
Temper rising, Meg drew a quick breath. “It’s supposed to be nice weather this weekend,” she said, trying to focus on something other than Sarah and Boone’s marriage. “We could even hit 70.”
“Blistering,” Sarah said with a wry smile, as she’d spent the last two years in the Southeast with truly sweltering summers.
“It is if you live in chilly Northern California,” Meg answered, even as her thoughts returned to Boone and her quiet fury. How could he betray Sarah? How could he sleep with other women after Sarah had given up so much for him? For eight years Sarah had followed him across the country as he climbed from Double A ball, to Triple A, and then to the leap up into the Majors. For eight years she’d put her own life on hold to support his dreams. Where was Boone’s loyalty? Where was the gratitude?
Sarah grabbed her hair, twisting it into a knot at the back of her head even as her stomach knotted inside of her.
She knew what Meg was thinking. Knew Meg was still deeply angry with Boone and it took all of Sarah’s control to pretend to be oblivious, but she wouldn’t talk about her marriage with Meg. She wouldn’t talk about her marriage with any of her family, except for maybe Kit. Kit wasn’t judgmental. But the rest…they were far too Irish Catholic. Far too married to shame and guilt.
Shame. And guilt.
Sarah released her hair, letting it tumble across her shoulders. And the terrible thing was, she needed someone to talk to. Needed someone to confide in. She was worried. Scared. Always scared these days. What if Boone fell in love with someone else? What if he found someone he wanted? Someone who was more…sexier, smarter, more fun?
Her stomach fell, tumbling. She couldn’t imagine life without Boone in it. She loved him. Loved him so much that it made her hate herself. Smart women, strong women left men that cheated. Smart women had more self-respect.
Apparently she had none.
“Do you think people realize how cold and foggy San Francisco is in summer?” she asked, her breath catching, her heart bruised.
“Nope,” Meg answered, lips curling up in a tight, forced smile as she shot her another calculating glance. “Most people have no clue.”
Meg was dying to ask questions, or put in her own two cents, but Sarah wouldn’t go there. The weekend with her older sisters and mother was only just beginning and she’d never survive it if she opened her life up for discussion.
And so Sarah talked the entire way, chatting about her kids and Meg’s kids, helping kill the time. Traffic was light on the 101 and they reached Santa Cruz in an hour, and then things did bog down a little once they merged with Highway 1.
Antsy that they were now creeping along, Sarah turned on the radio, flipping through the channels until she found the Classic Rock one that they’d listened to growing up.
Sarah was delighted to discover that the San Jose station was playing hits from the 80’s for the entire next hour. She knew the lyrics to all the songs—it was the music her big sisters had listened to while she was growing up—and turning off the air conditioner, she rolled down her window and sang loudly to Toto’s Roseanna.
Meg didn’t join in. But then Sarah hadn’t expected her to. Meg was a great person—a very honest, honorable person—but she was a little too uptight for her own good.
Turning off the highway, Meg drove through Capitola Village down towards the beach while Sarah belted out the refrain to Foreigner’s Hot Blooded. Got a fever of 103…
Meg parked, and glanced at Sarah, waiting for the okay to turn off the engine.
Sarah shook her head, still singing. Hotblooded…Hotblooded…Hot—
Meg apparently couldn’t wait any longer and turned the engine off. “We’re here.”
Sarah laughed, amused by Meg’s pained expression. Meg had a hard time loosening up and letting go. “Love this place,” she exclaimed, throwing open her door.
“I do, too,” Meg agreed, stretching as she climbed from behind the wheel.
Their house was one of the Seven Sisters on Lawn Way and had been in the family for years. The house had belonged to their maternal grandparents, and when they’d died, the house passed to their mother, Marilyn.
After unpacking the car, they carried suitcases and groceries up to the small, narrow two story beach house they went to for every holiday and school vacation. Looking back, it seemed like everything important in her life had happened here, too: first steps, first words, first kiss, first love.
“Kit’s here,” Sarah said, spying a pair of pink and red floral clogs on the front porch of the beach house.
It really wasn’t much of a house--doll cottage was probably more appropriate--but somehow the little house with the covered front porch that faced the sea--had always been able to accommodate the sprawling, boisterous Brennans and their boyfriends, husbands, and children.
“She got out of school early,” Meg answered, shifting her grip on the box of wine she’d brought from Dark Horse
Sarah juggled the suitcases to open the front door for Meg. “I’m so glad to be here,” she said, glancing towards the sea. “I feel like I’m home.”
“Me, too,” Meg agreed, carrying the box of wine into the kitchen while Sarah headed upstairs with the suitcases. The house was a one hundred year old structure that had been “updated” in the 50’s, with nothing being changed since. Although to be fair, the stove had been swapped out in the 70’s and a “new” refrigerator from the 80’s kept everything cold.
Meg was unpacking the groceries into the white refrigerator when she heard Sarah squeal Kit’s name. Meg smiled.
Sarah was the family baby, but thirty-eight year old Kit, an English teacher at a Catholic high school in Oakland, was everybody’s favorite sister.
It was impossible to not love Kit.
Growing up, Kit was the sister Meg had been closest to, and even now, when Meg needed to talk to someone, she called Kit. Meg couldn’t say the same for Kit’s fraternal twin, Brianna. Brianna made Meg crazy. Meg was just grateful that Brianna, the Brennan’s family prodigal daughter, lived in Africa and rarely came home.
Dairy safely stowed in the fridge, Meg followed voices upstairs to the Girls Bunk Room where Sarah and Kit were claiming beds. Sarah had climbed up the ladder to her usual bed—the upper mattress above Meg’s—while Kit was sitting cross legged on her lower bunk, which faced Meg and Sarah’s.
Spying Meg, Kit jumped up from her lower bunk to give Meg a warm, tight hug. “How did it go last night? I’ve been dying to get all the details. Did everybody show? Were the critics happy? What did Craig and Chad think?”
Kit had met the Hallahans at various winery events over the years, and had, for a brief period of time, harbored a little crush on Chad. But then, who hadn’t? There was something hopelessly seductive about a man that knew how to smile…
“It was great,” Meg answered. “I don’t think there’s anything I’d do differently. And you know me, that never happens.”
“You must be relieved.”
Kit grinned. “And now you can relax.”
Meg stretched and smiled back. “I fully intend to.”
They settled onto their bunks to talk. They discussed traffic and weather and Sarah’s daughter Ella who had serious mommy-attachment issues at the moment. They talked about Cass, their sister-in-law who couldn’t be here this time due to her latest IVF cycle, and how their mother hadn’t been here last year.
Sarah turned her head to look across at Kit who was curled on her side on the opposite lower bunk. “Where is Mom? Does anyone know when she’s arriving? I called her cell when I landed but she didn’t answer.”
“I don’t know when she’s planning on coming, just that she’ll be here sometime this afternoon.” Kit wrapped her arms around her knees. “Have any of you noticed that she’s hard to reach lately? Every time I phoned this week I went straight to her voice mail.”
Meg frowned, thinking that wasn’t typical behavior for their mom who always answered the phone, usually on the first or second ring.
“She’s not sick again, is she?” Sarah asked uneasily.
Meg looked at Sarah, and then Kit. “I’m sure she isn’t,” she said firmly. “She was probably just busy this week…doing stuff with Dad…” Her voice faded, as she pictured Dad driving Mom to another round of doctor’s appointments.
For a moment no one said anything and then Kit sat up. “Let’s just call her. See where she is. Find out when she’s arriving.”
Meg nodded. “That’s a good idea. And if she’s not going to be here til later, let’s just go get lunch now. I’m starving.”
“Me, too,” Sarah agreed.
“So who should call her?” Kit asked.
“Sarah,” Meg said, slapping at the lumpy mattress. She never slept well in the Girls Bunk Room. But years ago after a couple of cocktails one night they agreed this was part of the charm of the Girls Getaway Weekend. You could go anywhere for a luxurious hotel room, but you could only come to the beach house for a narrow little bed with a lumpy bumpy mattresses covered in nubby sheets.
The beds had become a bonding thing over the years, particularly as they slipped from their twenties into the their thirties and now into their forties.
Fortunately, there were other perks to the annual Brennan Girls Getaway.
The meals without bickering kids.
The nightly Happy Hour featuring potent blender drinks.
The long sandy beach just across the street.
And sleeping in as late as you wanted. If you could sleep on your bed.
“Why me?” Sarah protested.
“Because you’re the baby and you call her every day anyway.”
Sarah laughed, shrugged. “Fine, I’ll call,” Sara said, sliding off the top bunk to grab her phone.
Kit climbed off her bed and headed to the corner where she’d stashed her overnight bag. “And I’ll throw on a little make up. Try to make myself presentable. Just in case.”
“In case of what?” Meg asked, rolling onto her stomach to watch Kit rifle through her small cosmetics bag.
“In case Prince Charming rides up on his stallion,” she answered, unzipping her make up bag.
“But you have a boyfriend,” Meg protested.
“Do I?” Kit retorted, glancing up from her compact mirror, mascara wand in hand. “We’ve been together ten years but Richard still hasn’t proposed.” Her brow furrowed, lips pursing as she contemplated the future. “I’m beginning to wonder if he ever will. What if he doesn’t? We’ve been living together forever—“
“He will,” Sarah said confidently. “How could he not? You are absolutely wonderful and beautiful—“
“Not beautiful,” Kit interrupted, applying the mascara with a deft hand. “You’re beautiful. I’m cute. At least, on a good day, I can be.”
Sarah threw her pillow at Kit, just missing her head. “You still are! And Richard’s a fool if he doesn’t marry you! You’d be such a great wife and mom.”
Kit grimaced as she studied her face, checking each faint line and potential wrinkle. “If my ovaries don’t shrivel up and die first.”
“You still have time,” Meg soothed her, even though she was worried. Kit was thirty-eight. She’d moved in with Richard at twenty-eight. If Richard hadn’t declared himself yet, Meg doubted he ever would. Years ago she’d been a fan of Richard’s. He was an engineer. He was solid, dependable. Financially sound. But Meg wasn’t a fan anymore. If he loved Kit, why didn’t he propose? Kit was a teacher. She loved kids. She wanted to be a mom. How could Richard not see that? Make a commitment to her?
“I hope so,” Kit said, applying a soft coral lip gloss.
“Maybe it’s time you gave him an ultimatum?” Sarah suggested. “Step up to the plate, or step down.”
Kit cringed. “I don’t think I could. It’d be too brutal—“
“To him?” Meg demanded.
“No, to me!” Kit exhaled hard as she snapped the mirror closed. “What if he just left? I’d have nothing. I’d be starting all over—“
“Katherine Elizabeth, listen to yourself!” Sarah interrupted sternly. “You’re beautiful and smart and funny and kind. You’re a total catch and way too good for Richard and we all know it.”
Meg nodded her head. “He is lucky to have you, Kit.”
“Yes, he is,” a light, mocking voice echoed from the doorway, and a shadow fell across the wooden floor.
For a moment there was utter silence then Sarah made a gurgling sound and jumped from the top bunk to the floor. “Bree!” Sara cried, racing across the room to throw her arms around slim Brianna, the family wild child, dressed appropriately in cargo pants and a faded black t-shirt, her long red curls caught up in a ponytail high on the back of her head. “What are you doing here?” Sara exclaimed, hugging Briana tightly.
“It is the Brennan Girls Getaway, isn’t it?” Brianna answered dryly.
As Sarah freed Brianna, Kit moved forward to catch her fraternal twin in a hug. Kit was slightly taller than Brianna, and had always been curvier, too, with more hips and breasts, but Brianna appeared downright gaunt next to Kit now.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Kit spluttered, her hair chestnut against Brianna’s riot of bright red curls. “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming? How long will you--”
“I love you, too, Kat,” Brianna interrupted with a husky laugh, squeezing her back. “And if I told you I was coming, you wouldn’t be surprised.”
Meg held her breath, stunned. Brianna, here? Brianna at the beach house? For the weekend?
Had Mom known that Brianna was coming? And if so, why hadn’t said something? Warned Meg?
“Shocked, Mags?” Brianna said softly, casually, glancing at her older sister and using the nickname Meg had always hated.
It’d been years since Meg and Brianna had been in the same place at the same time. They deliberately avoided each other and it wasn’t one sided. Bree and Meg had just never mixed…kind of like oil and water…and years ago they gave up trying to pretend that just because they were sisters, they’d ever be friends.
Ignoring the tightness in her chest, Meg went to Brianna and gave her an awkward hug. Brianna remained stiff, arms at her sides. Embarrassed and uncomfortable by Brianna’s unwillingness to meet her halfway, Meg stepped back, arms crossing over her chest. “Did you just arrive today?”
“Yesterday morning.” Brianna smothered a yawn before shoving her hands into the deep front pockets of her olive cargo pants, collarbones jutting beneath her pale skin. “I crashed at a friend’s. Felt like hell but after sleeping for sixteen hours straight, I’m almost human again.”
“So does Mom know you’re here?” Sarah asked, beyond thrilled that her favorite sister had come home for the Girls Getaway for the first time in years.
Brianna rolled her eyes. “Of course. She was the one that drove me here.”
The Good Woman: A Brennan Sisters Novel
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Berkley Trade
- ISBN-10: 0425253007
- ISBN-13: 9780425253007