Beach House Summer
Don’t miss the brand-new summer book from Sarah Morgan – coming in May!
Sometimes life takes you by surprise…
A marriage in the spotlight
Joanna Whitman’s high-profile marriage held more secrets than she cares to remember, so when her ex-husband dies, she doesn't know what to feel. But when she discovers that he’s left behind a pregnant young woman, Joanna is forced to act. She knows exactly how brutal the spotlight on them both will be…unless she can find a way for them to disappear.
A beach house hide away
Ashley Blake is amazed when Joanna suggests they lie low at her beach house in her sleepy Californian hometown. Joanna should be hating her, not helping her. But alone and pregnant, Ashley needs all the support she can find.
A summer of new beginnings
Joanna's only goal for the summer is privacy. All Ashley wants is space to plan for her and her baby's future. But when an old flame reappears, and secrets spill out under the hot summer sun, this unlikely friendship is put to the test…
“[A] poignant tale of opportunities lost and regained…This emotional romance is an easy choice to throw in the beach bag.”—Publishers Weekly
She slid into his car, hoping this wasn’t a mistake. It hadn’t been her first choice of plan, but the others had failed and she was desperate.
He smiled at her, and there was so much charm in that smile that she forgot everything around her. The way he looked at her made her feel as if she was the only woman in the world.
To add to the charm he had the car, a high-performance convertible, low, sleek and expensive. It shrieked look at me, in case the other trappings of wealth and power hadn’t already drawn your attention.
Her mother would have warned her not to get in the car with him, but her mother was gone now and Ashley was making the best decisions she could with no one close to offer her advice or caution. She remembered the first time she’d ridden a bike on her own, unsteady, unbalanced, hands sweating on the handlebars, her mother shouting keep peddling! She remembered her first swimming lesson where she’d slid under the surface and gulped down so much water she’d thought she was going to empty the pool. She’d been sure she was going to drown but then she felt hands lifting her to the surface and a voice cutting through water clogged ears, keep kicking!
She was on her own now. There was no one to tug her to the surface if she was drowning. No one to steady the wheels of her bike when she wobbled. Her mother had been the safety net in her life and they’d grown even closer after her father died. But now if she fell she’d hit the ground with nothing and no one to cushion her fall.
He turned onto Mulholland Drive and picked up speed. The engine gave a throaty roar and the wind played with her hair as they sped upwards through the Hollywood Hills. She’d never been in a car like this before. Never met a man like him.
They climbed higher and higher, passing luxury mansions, catching glimpses of a lifestyle beyond the reach of even her imagination. Envy slid through her. Did problems go away when you had so much? Did the people living here experience the same anxieties as normal people or did those high walls and security cameras insulate them from life? Could you buy happiness?
No, but money could make life easier, which was why she was here.
Spread beneath them were views of Downtown, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.
‘I know the best place to see the sunset.’ His warm, deep voice had helped propel him from yet another TV personality, to a mega star. ‘You’re never going to forget it.’
She was sure of it. This moment was significant for so many reasons.
What would happen to that confidence when she told him her news?
Nausea rolled in her stomach and she was relieved she’d been unable to eat breakfast or lunch.
‘You’re quiet.’ He drove with one hand on the wheel, supremely confident. One hand, his eyes mostly on her. She wanted to tell him to keep his attention on the road.
‘I’m a little nervous.’
‘Are you intimidated? Don’t be. I’m just a normal, regular guy.’
He was driving fast now, enjoying the car, the moment, his life. She knew that was about to change. She’d rehearsed a speech. Practised a hundred times in front of the mirror.
I’ve got something to tell you..
‘Could you slow down?’
‘You prefer slow?’ His hand caressed the wheel. ‘I can go slow when I need to. What did you say your name was?’
He didn’t recognise her. He didn’t have a clue who she was. How could he not know?
She sat rigid in her seat. Was she really that forgettable and unimportant?
In this part of town, where everyone was someone, she was no one.
She fought the disillusion and the humiliation.
‘I’m Mandy. I’m from Connecticut.’
Her name wasn’t Mandy. She’d never been to Connecticut. Couldn’t even put it on a map.
He should know that. She wanted him to know that. She wanted him to say I know you’re not Mandy but he didn’t of course, because women came and went from his life and he was already moving on to the next one.
‘And you’re sure we’ve met before? I wouldn’t have forgotten someone as pretty as you.’
She’d had dreams about him. Fantasies. She’d thought about him day and night for the past couple of months, ever since she’d first laid eyes on him.
But he didn’t know her. There was no recognition.
Her eyes stung. She told herself it was the wind in her face because her mother had drummed into her that life was too short to cry over a man. She wouldn’t be here at all except that she’d felt alone and scared and needed to do something to help herself. She was afraid she couldn’t do this on her own, and he had to take some responsibility surely? He shouldn’t be allowed to just walk away. That wasn’t right. Like it or not, they were bonded.
‘We’ve met.’ She rested her hand on her abdomen. Blinked away the tears. The time to wish she’d been more careful was long gone. She had to look forward. Had to do the right thing, but it wasn’t easy.
Her body told her she was an adult, but inside she still felt like the child who had wobbled on that bike with her ponytail flying.
He glanced at her again, curious. ‘Now I think about it, you do look familiar. Can’t place you though. Don’t be offended.’ He gave her another flash of those perfect white teeth. ‘I meet a lot of women.’
She knew that. She knew his reputation, and yet still she was here. What did that say about her? She should have more pride, but pride and desperation didn’t fit comfortably together.
‘I’m not offended.’ Under the fear she was furious. And fiercely determined.
She wasn’t going to let this guy ruin her life. That wasn’t going to happen.
They were climbing now. Climbing, climbing, the road winding upwards into the hills while the city lay beneath them like a glittering carpet. She felt like Peter Pan, flying over rooftops.
Should she tell him now? Was this a good moment?
Her heart started to pound, heavy beats thudding a warning against her ribs. She hadn’t thought he’d bring her somewhere this remote. She shouldn’t have climbed into his car. Another bad decision to add to the ones she’d already made. The longer she waited to tell him, the further they were from civilization and people. People who could help her. But who would help? Who was there?
She had no one. Just herself, which was why she was here now, doing what needed to be done regardless of the consequences.
Thinking of consequences made her palms grow damp. She should do it right now, while half his attention was on the road.
She waited as he waltzed the car round another bend and hit another straight stretch of road. She could already see the next bend up ahead.
‘Mr Whitman? Cliff? There’s something I need to tell you.’
Joanna Whitman learned of her ex-husband’s death while she was eating breakfast. She was on her second cup of strong espresso when his face popped up on her TV screen. She grabbed the remote, intending to do what she always did these days when he appeared in her life – turn him off – when she realised that behind that standard head and shoulders shot wasn’t a sea of adoring fans, or one of his exclusive restaurants, but the mangled wreckage of a car in a ravine.
She saw the words Breaking News appear on the screen and turned up the sound in time to hear the newsreader telling the world that celebrity chef Cliff Whitman had been killed in an accident and that they would be giving more information as they had it. Currently all they knew was that his car had gone off the road. He’d been pronounced dead at the scene. His passenger, a young woman as yet unnamed, had been flown to hospital, her condition unknown.
A young woman.
Joanna tightened her fingers on the remote. Of course she’d be young. Cliff had a pattern, and that pattern hadn’t changed as he aged. He was the most competitive person she’d ever met, driven by an insecurity that went bone deep. He wanted the highest TV ratings, the biggest crowds for public appearances, the longest waiting lists for his restaurants. When it came to women he wanted them younger and thinner, choosing them as carefully as he chose the ingredients he used in his kitchens. Fresh and seasonal.
On most days Joanna felt like someone past her sell-by date. She was forty. Were you supposed to feel like this at forty? She’d wasted half her life on a man who had repeatedly let her down.
She stared at the TV, her gaze fixed on the smoking wreckage. Hadn’t she always said his libido would be the death of him?
Her phone rang and she checked the screen.
Not a friend (did she have any true friends? It was something she often wondered), but Rita, Cliff’s personal assistant and his lover for the past six months.
Joanna didn’t want to talk to Rita. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. She knew from painful experience that anything she said would find its way into the media and be used to construct an image of her as a pathetic creature, worthy of pity. Whatever Cliff did, she somehow became the story. And no matter how much she told herself that it didn’t matter because they didn’t matter, and that the woman they wrote about wasn’t really her, she still found it distressing. Not only the intrusion and the inaccuracies, and there were many of those, but the constant reminder of her biggest mistake – not leaving him sooner.
She’d stayed ridiculously loyal to him for two decades and yes, she regretted it now. He’d made her extravagant promises and told her she was the best thing in his life and that this time things were going to be different, and naively she’d believed him. And she hadn’t just done it once. She’d done it repeatedly. She’d thought this time he means it and things will be different, but things never were different and he hadn’t meant it. And now she felt stupid for believing he’d ever change, and that the things he said would ever be anything other than empty words spoken to induce her to stay, but she’d so badly wanted to believe him because the alternative was to accept that under the charm and the warmth Cliff Whitman was a cheat and a liar, and that she’d stayed with him far too long.
She’d finally left him, but the news stories never went away, which meant that even though she’d finally divorced him she still sometimes felt as if they were together. Her mistake was an anchor that held her fast. Whatever she did in the future, she’d be dragging her past with Cliff along with her.
She rejected the call, muted the sound on the TV but continued to stare at the words scrolling along the bottom of the screen.
Celebrity chef Cliff Whitman killed in car accident.
Dead at the scene.
She’d spent the last year wanting to kill him herself and she didn’t know whether to feel elated or cheated. After everything he’d done, everything he’d put her through, it seemed unfair of the universe to have deprived her of the chance to play at least a small part in his demise.
A hysterical laugh burst from her and she slapped her hand over her mouth, shocked. Had she really just thought that? She was a compassionate human being. She valued kindness above almost all other qualities, possibly because her encounters with it had been rare. And yet here she was thinking that if she’d seen his car hovering on the edge of a ravine she might have given it a hard push.
What did that say about her?
Her legs were shaking. Why were her legs shaking? She sat down hard on the nearest chair. Dead. Her journey with Cliff had been bumpy, but she’d known him for half her life. She should be sad, shouldn’t she? She should feel something? Yes, Cliff Whitman was a liar and a cheat who had almost broken her, but he was still a person. And there had been a time when they’d loved each other, even if that love had been complicated. There had been good parts. At the beginning of their marriage he’d brought her breakfast in bed on Sunday mornings, flaky, buttery croissants he’d baked himself and juice freshly squeezed from the citrus fruit that grew in their home orchard. He’d listened to her. He’d made her laugh. She’d organised his chaotic life, leaving him free to play the part he enjoyed most. Being Cliff. He’d said they were a perfect team.
She stood up abruptly and fetched a glass of iced water. She drank it quickly, trying to cool the hot burn of emotion.
Whatever had happened between them, death was always a tragedy. Was it? Was she being hypocritical? She should probably cry, if not for him then for the woman who’d made the bad decision to get into the car with him. Joanna sympathised. She was never one to judge the bad decisions of another. She’d made so many bad decisions in her life she could no longer count them.
She thought about Rita. Would she be shocked to discover she hadn’t been the only woman in Cliff’s life? Why was it that a woman so rarely believed that a serial cheater would cheat on them? They all thought they were different. That they were special. That they would be the one to tame him. When he said you’re the one, they believed him.
Joanna had believed that too. She’d needed to believe that. When she’d met him she’d been vulnerable and heartbroken. She’d wanted so badly to be special to someone. To have someone whose love she could rely on. She’d thought love meant security, and it had taken a long time – too long – for her to understand that they were different things.
Putting the empty glass down, she took a deep breath and forced herself to think. She and Cliff were no longer married, but they still shared the business. Cliff’s was a brand, but now the figurehead was gone. What did that mean for the company they’d built together? She’d invested more than twenty years of her life into its growth and success, which was why she hadn’t walked away from it at the same time as her marriage. It had represented the only consistency and security she had left. Also Cliff’s gave her a focus, and she needed that. The media didn’t understand of course. They didn’t understand how she could still work alongside a man who had repeatedly humiliated her.
She closed her eyes. Forget that. Don’t think about that.
Right now the worst part was that there would be a funeral, and she hated funerals. No matter whose funeral it was, it was always her father’s funeral. Again and again, like some kind of cruel time travel trick. And she was always ten years old, shivering as the cool Californian rain blended with her tears. This was different of course. She’d adored her father, and her father had adored her back. He was the only man whose love she’d been sure of. But even with him love hadn’t meant security because he’d left her, felled by a heart attack in the middle of the living room with her as a witness. She could still hear the sickening thud as his body had hit the floor.
And now there would be Cliff’s funeral. Did she have to go? The thought of it made her want to reach for a drink, even though she wasn’t much of a drinker.
Yes, she had to go. Divorce or no divorce, it was the respectful thing to do. People would be watching. Everyone would want to know how she felt, not that she would tell them. She never spoke to the press.
How did she feel?
She heard sounds in the distance and then the insistent buzz of her gate intercom. Without thinking she stepped to the window and looked down the sweep of the drive to the large iron gates that protected her from the outside world.
A camera flashed and she gasped and quickly closed the shutters.
Unlike Cliff, she’d never sought fame or celebrity but she’d been caught in his spotlight anyway. It was one of the reasons she’d moved to a different neighbourhood after the divorce. She’d hoped to be able to slide away from the dazzling beam of attention that always landed on him. She’d chosen to live in a small discreet community, rather than up among the flashy mansions in Bel Air where Cliff entertained lavishly on his verdant terrace with views of mountains and ocean. They’d found her of course, because the media could find anyone, but she’d hoped that by living a quiet, low key, non-newsworthy, Cliff-free life she’d become less interesting to them.
She’d been wrong. They continued to write about her, exposing all her secrets for the public to enjoy. They knew about her father’s death. They knew she was estranged from her stepmother, Denise. They’d tracked her to the assisted living centre where she now lived. Predictably, Denise had been only too happy to voice her opinion. She’s no daughter of mine. Always was a difficult child.
Her phone rang, dragging her back from a downward spiral into the past. This time it was her assistant Nessa.
Joanna answered it, grateful for the distraction. ‘Hi.’
‘Can you let me in, boss? I’m outside the garden room. I used the back entrance.’
‘I don’t have a back entrance.’
‘I took a secret route.’
Joanna walked to the back of the house, mystified and alarmed.
She’d chosen the house because it was secure. When she’d first viewed it, instead of admiring kitchen appliances and ceiling height, she’d been checking areas of vulnerability. The dense woodland at the back had been a plus. This was an unfashionable area. There was no road, and no running trails. Her property was protected by a high wall and tall, mature trees which concealed the back of the house from view.
It had been a carefully considered purchase, but when she walked through the door she never once thought I love this house, or even I’m home. She didn’t think of it as home. Home was a place where you felt safe and could relax. Neither of those things could happen when you were an object of public interest.
She walked through the garden room and saw Nessa standing on her deck, glancing furtively over her shoulder. Normally impeccably groomed, she had twigs stuck in her hair and her shoes were muddied and scuffed.
Shaken by the discovery that her home wasn’t as secure as she’d thought, Joanna opened the door and Nessa virtually fell inside.
‘What is wrong with people? I tried coming in the conventional way, actually through the front door, you know, like a normal person? But there are a million people with cameras and two TV vans which, frankly, I don’t get because why areyou news? You’re not the one who was trying to have sex in a moving vehicle. I’m all for multitasking, but it depends on the task, doesn’t it? Sex and driving – call me boring, but those two things do not go together.’
‘Nessa, breathe -’
‘So I’ve been thinking about this.’ Nessa shrugged off her backpack and toed off her shoes. ‘I’ve ruined my shoes by the way. I was thinking maybe we can charge them to Cliff as this was all his fault. Do you have any antiseptic? I scratched myself coming through the woods. I don’t want to die of some vile disease because you need me right now.’
Joanna’s head was spinning. ‘You came through the woods at the back of the house?’
‘Yes. I remembered you telling me the woods were one of your reasons for picking this place. They can’t get to you from the back, only the front. That’s what you said. You only have to watch one direction. So I thought right, I’ll get to her from the back but it’s not pedestrian friendly. Do I have mud on my cheek? I bet I do.’ She scrubbed randomly at her face and then adjusted her glasses which had settled at a strange angle on her nose. ‘I am not cut out for wilderness adventures. Give me California sunshine and beaches and I’m there, but a dark forest full of insects, snakes, bears, coyotes and mass murderers? That’s me out. Can you check me for spiders?’ She spun and showed her back to Joanna, who dutifully checked.
‘You’re spider free. But even if you made it through the woods, how did you get over the wall?’
‘I climbed. Don’t ask for details.’ Nessa tugged at a twig that was tangled in her curls. ‘I grew up with three brothers. I have skills that would make your eyes pop. And don’t worry, no one followed me. No one is that stupid. Also, there were no humans in that wood. At least no live ones. Willing to bet there are a few dead ones though. Bodies undiscovered.’ She grinned. ‘Spooky.’
‘Nessa –’ Joanna brushed a leaf from Nessa’s shoulder. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m your assistant, and I figured you’d need assistance.’
‘I – I’m not really thinking about work right now.’
‘Of course you’re not. I’m here for more than work. I’m your right-hand woman. The dragon at your gate.’ Nessa polished a smudge from her glasses. ‘When you employed me, you said I had to be there for you in both calm and crisis, so here I am. I assume this is the crisis part. We’re in this together. Bring it on.’
Joanna felt a pressure in her chest. Someone had thought of her. Someone wanted to help her. Yes, she paid Nessa, but she was going to ignore that part.
‘You don’t want to be exposed to this circus.’
Nessa tilted her head. ‘You are.’
‘I have no choice. You do.’
‘And I choose being here with you, so that’s decided.’
The strange feeling in her chest spread to her throat. People generally distanced themselves from her, afraid of being tainted by association. They didn’t want to find themselves in that spotlight. ‘Have you really thought this through?’
‘What is there to think through? We’re a team. In my interview you said I’d need to be versatile. I hope you’ll remember the whole climbing the wall thing when you give me a reference, not that I’m planning on leaving you any time soon because this is my dream job and you’re an inspirational boss. Now what can I do? We can make a statement.’
‘I never make a statement. I never say anything.’
‘In that case I can call the cops and get them to move that mob with cameras at the end of your drive.’
Joanna looked at her assistant’s flushed, earnest face and suddenly didn’t feel quite so alone.
She wasn’t alone. She had Nessa.
Hiring Nessa as her assistant two years earlier had been one of the better decisions she’d made in her life. Her team had lined up a selection of experienced candidates for her to interview but then Nessa had bounced into the room, fresh out of college, vibrating with energy and enthusiasm and popping with ideas. Ignoring the disapproval of her colleagues, Joanna had given her the job and had never regretted that decision. Nessa had proved herself to be discreet, reliable and sharp as the business end of a razor blade.
Not all my decisions are bad, Joanna thought as she locked the back door.
‘I’m glad you’re here, but I don’t want you to do anything about the cameras. Leave them.’
‘Nothing?’ Nessa gaped at her and then looked guilty. ‘I’m so thoughtless. Here am I worrying about spiders and press statements, and you’ve just lost the man you were married to for two decades. I know you were divorced, and that he wasn’t exactly –‘ her voice trailed off as she studied Joanna’s face, ‘I mean twenty years is a long time, even if he was a –‘ she gave a helpless shrug. ‘Give me some clues here. I want to say the right thing, but I don’t know what that is. How do you feel? Are you sad or mad? Do I get you tissues or a punch bag?’
‘I don’t know how I feel.’ Joanna decided not to mention her less than charitable thoughts. ‘I feel – strange.’
‘Yeah, well strange about covers it. Can I grab a glass of water? Turns out covert operations in dense woodland is thirsty work. Then I’ll brush my hair, work magic with make up so that I don’t look as if I’m dressed for Halloween, and get to work.’
‘Go through to the kitchen. Help yourself. I’ll join you in a minute.’
Joanna went through the whole of the ground floor at the front of the house making sure all the blinds were closed before returning to the kitchen. They could stay there with their cameras, but she’d give them nothing to photograph. And if someone was brazen enough to breach her gates, they wouldn’t be rewarded for it.
Nessa had settled herself at the kitchen island. She had a glass of water in one hand and her phone in the other. She was scrolling through social media. ‘We’re trending, no surprise there. Interesting hashtags. Lots of speculation about what they were doing when the car went off the road –‘ she sent Joanna a sideways glance, ‘sorry. This is – awkward.’
‘Some people are saying it’s a shame because it was his recipe for citrus salmon that made them realise good food wasn’t just for restaurants.’
He created that recipe for me, Joanna thought. He was trying to teach me to cook. I ruined the salmon and he laughed at me and said some people couldn’t be taught. It had been the day she’d given up cooking.
‘Others are saying he was a sleaze, good riddance, yada yada,’ Nessa continued scrolling, ‘they’ve managed to get a comment from two of the women he – what? No way –‘ she stared at the screen.
‘You don’t want to know. If you want my advice, delete all your personal social media accounts.’
‘I don’t have social media accounts.’
‘Good decision.’ Nessa carried on scrolling, her expression alternating between disgust and surprise.
Joanna sighed. ‘That bad?’
Nessa hesitated. ‘There are a few decent people out there. People saying a death is always sad. Some of the comments are pretty neutral, some wondering who the woman was –‘ she sneaked a look at Joanna.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Of course you don’t. Why would you? You’re divorced from him. Whoever she is, I bet she’s wishing now she got into a car with a different guy. I mean we’ve all had bad dates, but that – ’ Nessa shrugged, took a gulp of water and continued scrolling. ‘Some people are wondering if this will mean the end of the business. Will it?’ She glanced up. ‘The business is called Cliff’s. And Chef Cliff is –‘ she stopped.
Joanna sat down opposite her.
‘Dead. You can say it.’
And Nessa was right. It would affect the business. The business they’d built together. She’d given up on their marriage, but she hadn’t given up on that. She’d spent the past twenty years nurturing it, watching it grow. It was her baby.
She felt a pang, thinking of the actual baby she’d lost. One minute she’d been eleven weeks pregnant, excited about her future as a mother, the next she’d been sitting in the bathroom sobbing. Her son. She’d buried that pain deep, but that didn’t mean it had gone away. Sometimes she’d wake up and think my boy would be ten years old today and she’d imagine the gift she would have bought, and the adventures they would have had together and how much she would have loved him. Would her priorities have been different if she’d had a child? Her marriage?
Her phone rang again and Nessa glanced at her.
‘Do you want me to answer that?’
‘It might be a friend.’
If she said I don’t have any real friends, Nessa would feel sorry for her and Joanna didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. She wanted to protect the last fragile strands of her pride.
‘If it is, then I’ll call them back.’
Of all the bad things about being married to Cliff, and there had been many, the media attention had been among the worst. Cliff himself had been emotionally bullet proof. Whatever they accused him of he’d laugh, wink, give them a ‘no comment’ or a ‘let’s focus on what happens in my kitchen, not my bedroom’. For some reason Joanna had never understood, his bad behaviour had increased his appeal. He was shocking, but supremely watchable. His TV ratings rose, no matter what he did. He was unapologetic about his colourful personal life, so sure that his charm would ultimately guarantee him forgiveness for all his misdeeds that it was impossible to shame or embarrass him.
Oh how she loathed being the subject of attention and gossip. Cliff hadn’t understood her aversion. He’d hungered for the limelight, and not only because it was essential to building his brand. If attention was a large pie, he would have greedily devoured the whole thing without offering her a sliver. But perhaps precisely because she wasn’t interested, the media chose to focus on her. How did she feel about his latest affair? Why didn’t she leave? Had she no self-respect? She became a case study in humiliation, although she’d never understood why the shame should be hers when he was the one who was cheating. They photographed her from every angle, commented on the weight she’d lost, how haggard she looked, their speculation cruel and deeply personal. If he cheats, it must be her fault. They’d speculated on whether in marrying a man fourteen years her senior, she’d somehow been trying to replace her father. That suggestion had offended her more than any of them. Cliff was nothing like her father. Hearing the two of them mentioned in the same breath had made her want to lash out.
Why did they hate her so much? It was a question she’d often pondered, and the only explanation that made sense was that they envied her. They envied her going to bed with Cliff, waking up next to Cliff, wearing his ring on her finger. And the only way to handle that envy was to convince themselves that she was having a miserable life.
They might have felt better had they known that most of the time, she was.
The buzzer rang again and Nessa sent an angry look in the direction of the door.
‘They’re like hyaenas, ready to chomp down on a carcass.’
‘Yes.’ Given that she was the carcass, the analogy wasn’t comfortable.
‘The stuff they say about you is all total crap. Aren’t you ever tempted to give your side of things?’
What would be the point? He said, she said… ‘They don’t want the truth.’
‘Surprising they don’t get bored, as you never give them a response. I guess they need to milk the story, and they hope that if they’re persistent you might eventually say something. Cliff’s dead, so he’s not going to be saying anything, the girl is in the hospital – that leaves you. They’ll want your reaction.’
What was her reaction? What did she feel?
‘Dead.’ She said the word aloud again, trying to make it real. Testing herself. Pressing, to see if it hurt.
Nessa eyed her. ‘Can I pour you a drink? A real drink?’
‘No, thank you.’ Her thoughts were complicated enough without clouding them with alcohol. Untangling her emotions was complicated. Was she feeling humiliated? Cliff’s behaviour had continually embarrassed her, even after they were divorced. Was she prostrate with grief? Angry at the impact his actions might have on the business and the people they employed?
Joanna finished her coffee. It was cold, but she didn’t care. She felt oddly detached. She felt grief, yes, but was it grief for Cliff or grief for the life she’d wanted that had never turned out the way she’d hoped?
She wasn’t sure what she felt. It couldn’t be relief, because that would make her hard hearted. Would it? Or would it make her human?
The buzzer sounded again. Annoying. Persistent.
Nessa slid off the stool and refilled her glass. ‘I’ll tell people in the office you won’t be in for a few days. Give it time to calm down. They’ll soon move onto something, or someone, else.’ She added ice to the glass, splashing droplets of water onto smooth Italian tiles. ‘Anyway, unless you’re going to wear a disguise and shimmy over the wall like I did, your only way out of this place is through the front entrance. You can drive over the photographers, but then you’d be arrested and I don’t have enough money in my account to bail you out. I suppose they’ll go away eventually.’
‘They won’t go away.’
She knew how this worked. There would be endless gossip. In the past she’d even been the subject of a women’s daytime chat show. Successful women who stay with men who cheat.
Joanna had watched it, appalled but also fascinated by this external analysis of her life. Was that really who they thought she was? Apparently she was a doormat, a coward, a disgrace to women. Where was her strength? Her dignity?
To them she wasn’t a person, she was a story. She was ratings, sales, a commercial opportunity, a talking point. They weren’t interested in the truth.
They didn’t know anything about her relationship. They didn’t know anything about her life before she’d met Cliff. They weren’t interested in who she was or what she felt. They didn’t know that although Cliff was the face of the business, it was her hard work that had made him famous. There was a popular TV show, a chain of expensive restaurants, branded cookware, cookery books – the franchise had grown like a monster.
Please Joanna, I can’t do this without you.
He was the face of the company, but she was the engine. She kept everything going, and he knew it.
He’d known it, she reminded herself. It was all in the past now. There was no more Cliff.
Why did you crash, Cliff? Were you driving too fast?
Nessa put a glass of water in front of her. ‘It’s a crappy situation, boss, no doubt about that. But as my mom always says, no matter how bad things get there’s always someone worse off than you. I hate it when she says that. Super annoying, actually, but I have to admit that mostly she is right. Although it’s true that right now I wouldn’t want to be you –‘
‘Thank you, Nessa,’
‘- do you know who I definitely wouldn’t want to be?’ She pushed her glasses up her nose and gave Joanna a knowing look. ‘That girl in the car. Don’t know who she is or what she was doing, but I would not want her life.’
The girl in the car. Joanna didn’t know who she was or what she’d been doing either.
The one thing she did know was that even though he was dead, Cliff Whitman had still managed to ruin her day.