Today was the end. It had to be. Evelyn couldn’t go on like this.
She squinted against the morning sun, trying to get a better view of the man walking toward her. He stepped into the street a half block ahead of her parked car.
Phone pressed to her ear, Evelyn craned her neck to see past the rearview mirror. “I told you,” she murmured into the phone, “I still have the flu.”
“That doesn’t explain why you keep ignoring my emails!” Jackie Arthur squawked over the line.
The man definitely seemed to be heading toward the gallery as he pulled a key ring out of his pocket and twirled it around one finger. He had light-brown hair like the man in the pictures she’d seen, but sunglasses blocked too much of his face from view. She wished he’d take them off so she could be sure.
The voice on the phone kept whining into Evelyn’s ear. “The book fair starts today, and only half the boxes have been unpacked.”
Evelyn shook her head. She couldn’t concentrate on what she was doing and listen to Jackie’s complaints at the same time.
But Jackie continued. “As the volunteer organizer, you’re the only one who—”
“What do you suggest I do?” Evelyn interrupted. “Spread the stomach flu through the whole high school? Does that seem like a good idea?” This woman was interfering with something far more important than a stupid book fair.
“I . . .” That one sharp syllable faded into a moment of silence before Jackie’s voice turned snide. “You’ve had this stomach bug for two weeks. Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t been hospitalized by now. You sound remarkably strong.”
Strong? That was funny.
The man drew even with the windows of the art gallery and slowed. Yes. It had to be him. He stopped to slip a key into the door and seemed to unlock the adrenaline in Evelyn’s body. It surged into her blood, and she went rigid. The edges of the phone bit into her palm as she strangled it.
“I have to go,” she whispered. “I’m going to be sick.” She didn’t care if Jackie suspected Evelyn was playing hooky. Somehow the world would keep turning even if Evelyn Tester didn’t show up for her volunteer work at her son’s high school. And the kids walking by the book sale with their eyes on their phones wouldn’t care one bit if the shelves were organized correctly or not. Why should Evelyn care? Why had she ever cared?
She tucked the phone into her purse and opened the car door.
Last month, she would have noticed the beautiful morning. The crisp breeze. The spring leaves of the tree she’d parked beneath dancing with green light above her head.
But the bits of old Evelyn still tucked deep inside noticed only enough of the scene to know that new Evelyn did not give a damn. She shut the car door and kept her gaze on the small building across the road.
The gallery was a neat, pale square of white paint and glossy windows among the colorful shops of the street. The glare of the sun kept her from seeing anything of the art on display behind the glass, but the work listed on the website was nicely curated. A couple of local artists mixed in with more expensive pieces.
It was a place she might have visited in the past, a night spent sipping wine with her husband among other upper-middle-class couples. She would have enjoyed it so much, she’d have kept her arm looped happily through Gary’s, even when he started to get bored. She would have teased him out of his normal distraction. It was exactly the kind of place she loved.
But now? Now her stomach turned at the sight of the sign above the door: “The Whitman Gallery.”
Objectively, she knew the name was tasteful and elegant, perfect for a boutique shop, but she wanted to throw bricks at the neat black script. She wanted to write WHORE in red paint above it, then break the windows and rend her garments, screaming out her betrayal and grief to anyone who would listen.
It wouldn’t be fair, of course. The gallery belonged to Noah Whitman, not his wife. But if life were anything close to fair, Evelyn wouldn’t be here right now, trying to learn more about the woman who’d been sleeping with her husband.
Juliette. Juliette. A name so sweet and lovely, just like the woman herself, as far as the community was concerned. A perfect blond second-grade teacher with two perfect little children and a perfect husband and a perfect life. And still it hadn’t been enough for her. Still, she’d wanted Evelyn’s husband too.
Evelyn clenched her hand until the deep bite of her fingernails snapped her out of her anger.
She knew this wasn’t right. She was going to give it up. It wasn’t healthy. Tracking down every detail she could find on Juliette. Driving past her house. Sitting outside her school. And now this . . . spying on the woman’s husband. He, at least, was innocent in all this, or innocent of everything except loving that woman.
But he was like Evelyn, wasn’t he? She couldn’t blame Noah Whitman for loving his wife. Evelyn had loved Gary for twenty years, and what he’d done wasn’t her fault, was it?
She slipped on her sunglasses and crossed the quiet street, too aware of the sharp click of her heels on the road. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn heels before today. Then again, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d shaved her legs either. But she’d gone all out this morning. Showered and shaved and styled her long hair. She’d put on makeup and a touch of perfume and a sleek black skirt.
Her appetite had vanished, and she was conscious of how flat her stomach was now. From a size fourteen to a ten in just two and a half weeks, and she couldn’t even be happy about that, because Juliette Whitman was a size four at most. She must’ve looked amazing naked.
Forcing the scowl from her face, Evelyn smoothed her hand over her disappointingly brown hair and glanced down to be sure the buttons of her red blouse weren’t gaping. She had bigger breasts than Juliette, at least. One stupid, sexist triumph to hold on to. A point for her in a sexuality competition. She was ashamed that she even cared to compete, mostly because she knew she’d never win.
But something about this long scavenger hunt into Juliette Whitman’s life felt like winning. Evelyn couldn’t pin down what it was. If she could just ferret out all the woman’s secrets, somehow Evelyn would win something back. Dignity. Self-respect. Superiority. Sanity.
If she couldn’t quite connect the dots between meeting Noah Whitman and restoring happiness to her life, well . . . it didn’t matter. Evelyn was going to take her sister’s advice and concentrate on rebuilding her marriage. She just needed to see this other person Juliette had betrayed first. Then she could move on.
When she reached the door, her hands were so sweaty that her fingers slipped right off the metal pull. Wincing, she scrubbed her hand on her skirt and tried again, hoping he wasn’t watching from inside.
Cool silence greeted her. If music was normally piped in, it hadn’t been turned on yet. She took two steps inside and waited in the quiet, cringing a little at the loudness of the door whooshing shut behind her.
The space was outfitted in normal gallery style, nothing original in the plain walls and white display stands. Evelyn had seen this room in dozens of other art galleries, but this was the first time her hands had itched to deface the whiteness. She wiped her palms on her skirt again, eyes darting around to be sure the man wasn’t hiding in a corner.
But no, she was alone for the moment, likely the earliest visitor to show up in months. Careful of the click of her black heels, she turned to take in the displays, wondering if Juliette’s hand was here.
Her first impression was so unwelcome that her face crumpled into a frown: as a whole, she liked the art.
She could see immediately that the gallery was arranged by artist, each visible wall a different medium or style, but the overall tonality was beautiful. Harmonious. It worked, and it worked well.
She’d wanted so badly for it to be ugly. Clumsy. She’d wanted to smirk at the knowledge that Juliette’s husband must have terrible taste. Why else would he be so unable to see past the easy prettiness of that woman he’d married? At least Evelyn could comfort herself that her cheating spouse was a psychiatrist, trained in manipulating thought.
But no, there was no smirking on Evelyn’s part. She stepped closer to the first piece. An artist she’d never heard of, someone a little too fond of the impasto technique, but he wasn’t bad. The whorls of thick paint complemented the emotion of the sky.
Her heart scrabbled to climb up her throat as Evelyn spun toward the voice.
It was him. Noah Whitman. Juliette’s Facebook page had dozens of pictures of her two blond children, but only a few of Noah, and he was more handsome than Evelyn had thought. Taller too, his body framed in the dim rectangle of a hallway door.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, a surprisingly boyish smile appearing on the hard planes of his face as he stepped into the room.
“No, I . . .” Her throat was too busy swallowing her panic, and she could barely speak. She pressed a scolding hand to her heart and tried again. “I wasn’t sure there was anyone here.”
“Neither was I,” he said, gesturing toward her with a coffee mug. “I normally have a couple of hours before the lunch crowd arrives.”
She nodded, studying his face. The nose that looked too large in photos was actually a perfect foil for his square chin. Why was Juliette so dissatisfied with him? He seemed perfectly nice at first glance.
“That was a joke,” he offered.
She flashed an obliging smile, and his own smile widened in response. The pulse she’d nearly managed to tame sped up again, and she felt so sorry for him in that moment that she almost turned and left. She didn’t have any business invading this man’s life.
“Can I get you a cup?”
“A cup?” she asked, before realizing he’d lifted his mug again.
“It’s just plain old drip coffee, I’m afraid. I have an espresso machine, obviously—it’s an art gallery. But that thing is a pain in the ass to use.”
She nodded, and he set his coffee on a white block that held a bright-blue sculpture of a wave. Evelyn got stuck on the mug for a moment, wondering if it was going to leave a coffee ring, but common sense snapped her out of the thought. She wasn’t a housewife here, responsible for keeping things tidy. She wasn’t anything to him at all.
He seemed so normal. Had she expected a downtrodden sap? Maybe someone wearing a pair of cuckold’s horns that caught a light only Evelyn could see?
Despite the evidence she’d gathered on Juliette, Evelyn didn’t know how old Noah was. There was a Facebook page for his gallery, but not one for him. Juliette, on the other hand, took on the modern burden of social media with pride. She was thirty-six. Five years younger than Evelyn. Her husband looked a bit closer to forty, but who could tell with men? They didn’t worry enough about others to age appropriately.
Reappearing with another mug, he showed her the tiny packet caught in his fingers. “Sugar?”
When she nodded, he said, “I thought so,” and Evelyn wondered if it was the width of her ass that had clued him in. Her curves were probably startling after years of looking at Juliette’s boyish figure.
Her brain conjured up an image of Gary’s elegant fingers clutched around pale, thin hips, his wedding band glinting in flickering light. Even she knew this figment of her imagination was over the top, as if they’d had sex on a bearskin rug in front of a crackling fire.
She wiped the vision from her mind as she took the coffee and emptied only half the sugar packet in. Noah waited as she stirred it, then took the trash to a can by a bare desk, picking up his coffee on the way. Evelyn forced herself not to walk over and swipe at the surface with her sleeve.
“Is there something in particular you’re interested in?” he asked.
“No, I just . . .” She’d worked out a cover story, but it felt far away now. “I passed by last week and saw the piece in the window. That’s all.”
“The Franklin? It’s one of my favorites.”
He led the way to the far wall, and Evelyn followed, hands clutched around the mug as if her palms weren’t still slick with sweat. The heat was painful, but she didn’t shift her fingers.
Noah stopped in front of a large painting. “Have you heard of him?”
“He lives in Oregon. Amazing contemporary landscapes.”
She forced herself to look at the wall of paintings. The one they’d approached was a rising hill of black-and-green pine trees topped by stylized clouds in the distance. “He reminds me of Emily Carr,” she said.
When he didn’t respond, Evelyn felt a stab of anxiety. Art had been her greatest passion once, and she’d always taken pride in her knowledge, but it had been nearly twenty years since her last class. She darted a look at Noah and found that he’d turned his head to stare at her. Heat rushed to her cheeks.
“Emily Carr,” he repeated. “Not just a window-shopper, are you?”
“He’s always reminded me of Emily Carr, but you’re the first person who’s said that. I wasn’t sure if I was projecting my affection for her onto his work, since they’re both from the Pacific Northwest.”
She could feel his study, his assessment, and her ego woke from a long nap and stretched hard beneath her skin. Yes. She knew her art, and he could see that. The first person to see it in a very long time.
“No,” she finally said. “It’s something in the lines.”
“Yes, that’s just it.”
Satisfaction raised goose bumps on her skin. The only thing she’d been good at in the past decade was raising money for the school. Any school. Whichever one her son was attending at that moment. A passion that made other people cringe when they saw her coming. Oh God, here comes Evelyn to request more money or volunteer hours.
No wonder her husband had wanted someone else. She’d been such a wife. The dull, boring mother of his child.
Noah moved on to the next painting. She followed but stepped back a little. Shoulder to shoulder, she’d have to look at the paintings instead of him, but from here she could let her eyes measure his shoulders and his back and thighs, because there was a mystery in his body parts and she needed to solve it.
He seemed so normal. Approachable and warm. A man satisfied with his work and his life. Seeing him in person created more questions than answers. Did Juliette hate him? Or did she love him but still wanted other men?
He wasn’t as trim and fit as Gary—the blue chambray button-down Noah wore couldn’t quite hide the slight softness of his belly—but he was still an attractive man. Confident. At ease.
Despite Gary’s six-pack, earned in his daily sixty-minute workout in their home gym, there was a stiffness in his body that didn’t project as much strength as Noah Whitman’s solidness. So what had Juliette seen in Evelyn’s husband? Had she just wanted something different? Some manicured perfection to contrast with Noah’s hairier forearms?
Evelyn stared at his arms, at the golden hair and the thick wrists and the fingers that didn’t so much taper as simply end. She suddenly wondered if the rest of him was like that. Thick and blunt.
The silence hit her at the same moment as that shocking thought. She jerked her gaze from his fingers and found him watching her, lips parted as if he’d just stopped speaking, brown eyes still warm with a question he’d asked and she hadn’t answered.
She wanted to stammer out an excuse for why she’d been staring at him instead of the painting, but there was no excuse. And maybe he didn’t need one, because he turned, putting his back to his beloved paintings and facing her instead. “Are you an artist?” he asked.
“No!” The word jumped from her lips, sounding like alarm. “I mean, I used to paint, but I was just an art history major, really. A useless degree.” She realized she’d tossed an insult in his face and waved a shaking hand in denial. “I mean, unless you want to run a gallery, of course. Then it’s extremely useful. Clearly.”
Luckily he laughed, and the sound was as rich and sturdy as the rest of him. “I have a degree in geology. You don’t have to explain.”
“Geology?” She meant to gesture toward the painting, but her nerves made her muscles dumb. Coffee sloshed over the rim of her mug onto her shirt. She gasped at the heat of it but shook her head at his murmur of concern.
“It’s fine,” she said, but he’d already taken her elbow to rush her toward the desk. He pulled open a drawer and grabbed a box of Kleenex.
“There’s a bathroom in the back,” he said as he shoved tissues into her hand. “If you’re burned—ˮ
“I’m not,” she said, though her skin stung. “I’m only clumsy.”
The dark stain marred two inches of her shirt just below her right breast. She pressed the tissue to the fabric, and now she was aware that she’d emphasized her breast, the outline a stark curve above her hand. She jerked the tissue away and crumpled it.
“No one’s ever reacted to my geology degree with horror before.”
She glanced up to find him smiling at her, and he looked so kind. She wondered then if she’d come here to tell him the truth. Not just about his marriage, but the darker, more dangerous truth about what his monstrous wife had done. Why else had she been so determined to visit his gallery? Why else had it felt like the last piece of the puzzle?
The shirt clung to her skin, the fabric cold and awful now, a wet stain against her warm body. A mark.
“Are you sure you’re good?” he asked.
And maybe she was good, because Evelyn couldn’t tell this happy man what she knew. Maybe she was better than she’d thought.
“I’m sorry,” she bit out as tears welled suddenly in her eyes.
“Hey,” he said, but if he added anything else, she couldn’t hear it over her heels as she rushed toward the door, away from him, away from the bomb she’d thought to drop in his lovely life.
What the hell was she doing here?
She ran to her car and fumbled with the door, glancing over her shoulder to be sure he hadn’t followed. He hadn’t, but he stood in front of the gallery, watching. A tissue was still clutched in the hand he’d raised to his forehead to shield the sun, and his mouth had gone tense with concern.
She’d been mad to come here, but when she met his gaze, the dark jolt of emotion that hit her body wasn’t regret. It was recognition. They were connected, she and Noah, connected by her husband and his wife and linked forever by one awful, irrevocable night.
And Evelyn could never tell him anything about it.