From the moment we locked eyes, Mark Walker wanted to own me. Handsome as sin, he swept me away to his glamorous world and put a giant rock of a diamond on my finger before I could blink. We were happy at first. We built a home, a family, and a life that seemed perfect on paper. Until one day, I messed it all up with the first man to steal my heart. Fifteen miserable years later, Mark still hasn’t forgiven me. Night after night, he doles out his punishment, humiliating me by sleeping with countless young women under the noses of our friends and family. I know I’m not perfect, but even sinners deserve to keep a shred of dignity. Even after everything—even though he loathes me—he refuses to let me go.
Age Rating: 18+
I’m less than impressed with the website for the law offices of Stephen R. Garcia, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not a competent divorce lawyer, just that he needs to employ a more competent web designer.
But what do I know about the websites of competent lawyers? I have no clue how to find one outside of Google. People in my income bracket usually know all the best people around. At least, that’s the way it seems. Mark always knows the best providers of every service within thirty miles of Santa Barbara, and if he doesn’t, he knows who to ask.
Then again, Mark is the CEO of a large company, while I haven’t had a real job since the nineties. I’ve lived in this limited world, depending on Mark for everything, because that was exactly how he wanted it. He preferred to keep me on a tight leash.
I accepted it because I felt guilty.
I guess I also accepted it out of laziness. Branching out took a mental and emotional fortitude I was too tired to summon. Mental, because I knew I would have had to learn to take care of myself after years of having everything taken care of for me by Mark. Emotional, because I’d have to deal with his antics. He wouldn’t like it if I tried to branch out, and he’d fight me with everything he’s got.
Which is probably why I’m only just now doing it at forty-two years old. I couldn’t branch out until I became numb enough to face the unknown without fear.
I’m about to pick up Mark’s office phone to make the call to Stephen Garcia’s office, when the door opens and Mark peeks his head inside.
Irritation flares at the sight of him. He looks handsome and youthful with his light-blue collared shirt and his slim fit dark jeans. His dark, wavy hair is nearly as thick as it was when I met him over twenty-three years ago.
He’s dressed for a date, probably with one of his girls. Maybe with Lauren, who sent him those naked photos that told me from her supple perkiness that she couldn’t be much older than her early twenties. She’s a makeup influencer too, something I wouldn’t even understand if my fifteen-year-old daughter hadn’t explained it to me.
I can’t even imagine what they talk about. Does he know all about the brands that sponsor her and how much they pay? Does she ask him about the process of manufacturing and selling agricultural equipment?
“I’m headed for Camarillo,” Mark says.
Ah, yes. The Romano Farms meeting. So he won’t be hooking up with the Influencer from Coronado. Maybe the server from Twenty88.
“Will you be gone for the weekend?” I ask, knowing the answer already. I’m long accustomed to the flimsy excuses he uses to stay overnight in cities barely an hour away.
“Probably. I have the Esposito meeting first thing Monday morning. I’ll be able to sleep longer if I stay in Newport.”
The “beach house” we purchased when we already lived in a mansion overlooking the Santa Barbara coast. The “beach house” we purchased five years ago to “make all of his LA meetings less of a hassle.”
All code for making his affairs less of an embarrassment for me.
I shouldn’t still feel this hollowing in the pit of my stomach. It’s been far, far too long. Over fifteen years now. I should be long accustomed to it all.
I made my choice, after all. I chose to stay in this marriage and see it through, even when I knew it would be like this.
I knew he would never forgive me.
I take a deep breath, bracing myself. There’s no need to put it off any longer. Not when he’s already told me he’ll be away for the weekend. Neither of us will be forced to pretend for the sake of the kids. We’ll have seventy-two hours apart to recover from the aftermath of the bomb I’m about to drop.
Mark moves as if to leave, but I stop him. “Wait.”
He stops in his tracks and looks at me, lifting his brows in a look of impatience.
I know this look well. The “please get on with it” look. Please don’t waste too much of my precious time with your trivial existence. He probably thinks I’m going to ask him something silly, like about picking up almond milk on the way home.
His disdainful impatience makes me more abrupt than I intended when I make my announcement. “I want a divorce.”
His brow-lifted expression holds for a few seconds before a smile edges at his lips. “Okay, Whitney.” His tone is still full of impatience.
He doesn’t believe for a moment that I really mean this.
When he makes a move as if to leave again, I stand up from my desk. “I really mean it this time. I’ve found a divorce lawyer already, and I was about to make a call to his office. Stephen Garcia…”
My lips close. The thought of going to a lawyer’s office by myself, without Mark’s help, makes a prickling sensation spread over my skin. Oh God, this is going to be hard. Even in my numbness, it’s going to be hard.
I swallow as I look at Mark. “I really don’t want things to get ugly between us. My primary goal is to protect the kids’ inheritances. The Law Offices of Stephen Garcia had the highest ratings on Google, but that seemed like a silly way to find a divorce lawyer, like picking out a restaurant—”
Mark holds a firm hand in the air, his lips parted as if in incredulous disbelief. “Are you being serious?”
I exhale a nervous breath. “Yes.”
He looks to the side, his eyes wide and dazed, but then his brows suddenly snap together, and he fixes me with a hard look. “What is this about? Were you looking through my phone again?”
A humorless chuckle bubbles out of my chest. “That you would even ask that should tell you exactly why I’m doing this.”
It’s a perfectly reasonable response to such a silly question, and yet I know exactly what he means. Why are you doing this now? Why are you doing this after all these years?
He shakes his head. “Don’t make that appointment.” I can’t help but notice his tone is somewhat exasperated, like my asking for a divorce is a huge inconvenience for him. “I’ll come home tonight, and we can have an emergency meeting with the marriage counselor. Or… No. I’ll find another one, since that last one was a misogynist.” He emphasizes the last word, since it was my half-hearted excuse to quit marriage counseling. Our last marriage counselor hardly pressed Mark at all to talk about his affairs, which should have been the sole focus of our therapy—but that wasn’t why I wanted to quit.
I had given up on our marriage.
Mark knew it, and even in his hatred for me, he didn’t like it. He knew it didn’t bode well for the future, and for some reason, he decided long ago that he wanted to keep me. Even though I know he dreamed of much more than the type of marriage our parents had—a polite but distant relationship with an undercurrent of simmering hostility.
I’m not delusional enough to think that it’s for me. He just doesn’t want his life disrupted. His life and his business and the fact that he gets a doormat wife to take care of all of his needs while he can fuck twenty-five-year-old women without guilt or repercussions.
“No. There’s no need. I’m firm on this decision.”
His expression grows harder, and yet I sense his unease. He’s finally realizing how serious this really is.
“I’ve been thinking about it for the last year,” I say. “I always planned to wait until Maddy graduated from college, but—”
“You always planned?” Mark shouts, and I flinch at his sudden outburst, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “Yet you never consulted me about it?” He shakes his head dramatically before jabbing a finger in my direction. “You’re the one who says that marriage is more about work than love. You’re the one who says the kids—”
“I know,” I interrupt. “But I’ve changed my mind.”
He stares at me for several seconds, and I can almost see the angry thoughts stirring behind his blazing green eyes. “You’re seeing someone,” he finally says. He huffs and shakes his head slowly, his eyes looking almost wild. “I should have known.”
“No,” I say firmly. “I made this decision all on my own.”
He huffs again. “Sure you did. Who is it?” A cynical smile plays at the edges of his lips. “Cole’s UCLA friend, isn’t it? The one with the neck tattoo.” He laughs humorlessly, mumbling, “I knew you had a crush on him.”
My mouth drops open. If I wasn’t so baffled, I might laugh. Is he talking about Parker? Cole’s older, and yet still over a decade younger than me, college friend who spent the weekend with us almost a year ago. The one I chatted with and gave relationship advice while I made him pancakes, as if I were his elderly auntie. Even his name sounds young, probably high in popularity on baby naming lists during the late nineties when I was looking for names for Cole. That I would have an affair with someone named Parker is so patently ridiculous, I can’t even think of a reply.
His mouth tightens. “Ah.” The sound is a rasp. “You’re not denying it.”
I huff out a humorless laugh, shaking my head. “Mark, that’s ridiculous.”
“You know you’re just a novelty to him, right?” he asks as if he didn’t hear me. “You’re a bored, pretty-for-her-age housewife who’s so desperate for attention she’ll do things she’d never even considered doing with her husband.” He laughs again, an ugly sound. “I know exactly what you did too, because you were motivated by spite as much as anything. How was it? Is it less painful when you’re in love?”
My blood runs cold. As I stare at Mark, a strange aura vibrates over my skin. Am I just meeting him for the first time? I should be laughing. A distant part of me recognizes that. It ought to be funny that I’m now in love with this boy in Mark’s mind. It ought to be funny that even in the most important conversation of our marriage, he’s still throwing out his petty complaint that I won’t give him anal sex, but I don’t have a sense of humor anymore. I feel like I’m a spirit hovering outside of my body, with no earthly emotions.
“Is that what I am to you?” I ask, my voice sounding brittle even to my own ears. “A bored, pretty-for-her-age housewife?”
All cynicism vanishes from his face. “No, of course not, but a twenty-eight-year-old kid might see you that way.”
I nod slowly, my numbness almost something I could touch. The numbness that took over a few months after my mom’s death two years ago is almost a blessing in this moment. I know this would have gutted me even a few years ago, hearing him say something like that. But now I feel nothing but … mystification. I slump down in my desk chair, lost in a daze of disjointed thoughts.
“I’m not leaving,” Mark says, his voice sounding far away. “I’m canceling my meeting.”
His pronouncement pulls me into the present. “No. Don’t cancel. There’s no need, but please at least let our lawyer know. I really don’t want this to affect the kids’ trust. I want it to be as clean as possible.”
Mark’s mouth hardens. “I really can’t believe you right now. I feel like I’ve been married to a stranger for twenty years.”
“Almost twenty-three,” I say softly. “And I was a stranger before. You never really knew me.”
“I guess not.” The hardness in his voice penetrates my daze.
“You always thought I was sweet, kind, and mild-mannered.” My brow furrows. “Maybe I’m mild-mannered, but I’m not sweet or kind—”
“That’s for sure.”
I frown. When I glance up at him, his wild eyes don’t match his hard, judgmental tone. He’s scared. I can feel his fear vibrating in the air between us.
I glance at the wire trash can by the bookshelf, my eyes drawn to the crumpled paper at the top. Harshly crumpled. Mark has strong hands. Was he angry when he crumpled that paper? Was he thinking about how much time he’s wasted not wanting to disrupt this toxic symbiotic life we’ve built? Maybe he wants this divorce too, deep down.
“This will be good for you,” I say. “You’ll finally be happy.”
“No, I won’t!” He’s nearly yelling. “And you won’t be either. This is a mistake.”
I shake my head. “No.”
“Give me an opportunity to turn things around. To change. I can change if this is what you want.”
My brow furrows. Did he really just say that? The words were so perfunctory …
He doesn’t want a divorce, but not because he’s afraid of losing me. He doesn’t want a divorce because of the disaster it will cause in his life.
I can’t be sympathetic anymore.
“You need to find your own lawyer,” I say. “And start looking for another place to live.”
As if from a faraway distance, I hear Mark slam the door.
It’s really happening.
I rush to my office closet and yank open the cabinet drawer. I take only a moment to find the bottle of Macallan I had stored for a rainy day. Maybe even for this moment in particular, because I knew how much I’d need it.
I’ve always feared this would happen, but especially in those first few months when she made her little announcement and destroyed my life. I knew the way I treated her was not sustainable, that eventually her guilt would fade and she’d leave me.
Which is why I went out of my way to make myself essential to her in every way I could. I took care of her. I made sure that I met her every need, except for the emotional side of our marriage. I made sure that the kids were taken care of. If I could do that, at least I could buy myself some time until I could forgive her.
But forgiveness never came. I can’t say I worked very hard to achieve it. Over the years, I became more and more complacent, and that was my downfall. The longer she stayed with me, and especially after times when she caught me red-handed with other women, the more my anxiety eased. I felt a false confidence that I had her for good.
The ease of my mind allowed me to hold on to my anger.
I love this anger, I’ve come to realize.
Something about it delights me. It’s strange and twisted that sometimes I even fantasize about what it was like when she had her little affair. Mental images of it make my skin hot and my jaw clench, and the angry spewing thoughts that follow provide their own perverse pleasure.
Then again, I can only imagine what it was like before they slipped behind a closed door together. I can picture their dinners out and her stupid texts to him and their Facebook messages, but once my imagination takes me into an intimate moment, my delightful anger cools to ice. My skin grows clammy and my stomach churns.
Thinking about it makes me want to die, even all these years later.
I know it’s irrational. I’ve fucked countless women since she made her little confession. A reasonable man who knew he wanted to keep her—as I did from the beginning, never even contemplating the idea of divorce—would have tried to resolve this long ago. He would go to marriage counseling. Work on communication, talking about what happened and moving past it.
I always knew my resentful temperament would be the end of me someday. And look what’s happening.
I’m losing everything.
Even when a part of me hates her, something deeper inside knows that hatred comes from love. Deep, agonizing love that even the most euphoric hatred couldn’t overcome. She’s everything I ever wanted in a woman. Even now, when she’s cold and distant with me, when all her warmth is for the children. Even when I only get to experience that warmth through proximity, it’s still better than its absence.
My God, I’ll be living in the deepest bitter-cold if I let her get away from me.
After taking a big burning gulp of whiskey, I slam my glass on the desk. Sizzling determination rushes through my veins.
I won’t let her go. I’ve been able to keep her this long, even though I’ve been as terrible of a husband as it’s possible to be.
I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her. I’ll fight dirty if I have to.
She’s not going anywhere.