The Other Wife

The Other Wife
The Other Wife Book Cover

Till death do us part…

Eleanor Anderson has a beautiful home, a loving husband, a tranquil life. After thirty-eight years of marriage and her children now grown, she finally has time for herself. She’s not expecting any surprises; certainly not to wake up one morning and find her husband dead in bed beside her from a massive heart attack. It’s a devastating discovery… but not as much as the shock awaiting Eleanor when she learns the truth about her husband’s secret life. And then there’s the damaging document he signed before his death, which threatens to destroy her life.

Claire Anderson isn’t your average thirtysomething. A professor of psychology at a prestigious university, Claire has a successful career, a handsome husband, and two young children at home. But nothing in her background, including her academic accomplishments, prepares Claire for the horrendous reality of discovering that the life she’d led was all a lie… fostered by a husband who’d promised to love and cherish her forever.

Two women from two generations, bound together by denial, anger, and grief. How far will their misery and fear push them? Does compassion rule the day, or will a husband’s betrayal lead to a woman’s revenge?

What happens when each of these women comes face-to-face with the other wife?

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Reviews

Kathleen Irene Paterka has made her mark on women’s fiction with this stunning novel about love, loss, betrayal and starting over...”    ~ Tender Tome Book Blog

 

Exploration of very human issues of love, betrayal, and the choices we all have, even if we don’t realize it until faces with a crisis…. a very well told story.” ~ Amazon reader

 

The storytelling is thoughtful and heartfelt, building towards a dramatic chain of events that results in the long-anticipated meeting of the two women. A thoroughly enjoyable, well-written, and ultimately uplifting read.” ~ Author Wendy Janes

 

I loved this story! In a day when happily ever after love stories are published in the masses this story was a refreshing change. It is a story of loss, growth, compassion and forgiveness and will leave you craving more from this talented author.” ~ Terry’s Book Addiction

 

” I cried..laughed..got mad and went on the journey with the characters… Paterka explores relationships in an honest and unique way. I just wish she would write faster so I get a new story quicker....”   ~  Amazon reader

 

“… gripping story of love, betrayal, and loss… ”   ~  Author Caroline Fardig

 

Prologue

It wasn’t much of a sound. Later, she would remember it as an odd sort of grunt. Still, it had been loud enough to wake her. Eleanor rolled over in their king-size bed, stretched out an arm, and nudged him. Richard’s snoring had worsened in the past months. She lay there in the darkness, waiting to see if another nudge was necessary. Just the other day, she’d read how snoring could be a sign of sleep apnea, leading to other, more serious, health problems. Perhaps tomorrow, depending on what kind of mood he was in, she’d mention the subject over breakfast. Maybe she should insist that he see a doctor. Not that it would do much good. Richard rarely listened to her. For most of the thirty-eight years they’d been married, he hadn’t listened to much of what she had to say. He’d probably give her his usual shrug, tell her to quit worrying.

Quit worrying. It wasn’t until five hours later that she realized she’d had good cause to be worried. She should have known that sound was different. She should have stayed awake. She should have tried to rouse him. Instead, she waited another minute, surrounded by silence. Then, turning over, she laid her head back on the pillow and curled up in her spot, still warm from sleep, snuggling into the clean, fragrant smell of freshly laundered sheets changed by Martha the day before. Closing her eyes, Eleanor drifted off into the most pleasant dream… only to wake the next morning to every woman’s nightmare.

Richard, in bed beside her, was dead.

Chapter One

“Sorry if you think things are moving too fast, Mom,” Jeffrey said from behind Richard’s desk. “But we need to get the paperwork started.”

“I understand.” Eleanor nodded, pretending as if she were following exactly what her son was saying, though that couldn’t be further from the truth. Why the hurry? Richard was dead and he wasn’t coming back. She pushed away the thought of the gleaming black limos lining the curb of the church yesterday as they departed the funeral service, the dark, somber hearse as it moved through slushy streets lined with snowbanks. Chicago in March was often bleak, and the graveside service had been that and then some. Returning home for the mandatory gathering of family and friends hadn’t proved much better. The men stood in loud, boisterous clumps throughout the house, warming themselves in front of the fire, enjoying the feast spread out by the caterers. They laughed and joked, and ate and drank, as if the reality of an untimely death of one of their own could be chased away by delicious food and Richard’s best scotches and bourbons.

Women, however, were realists. Who needs food when you’re being served drama? They crowded around her as she moved through the rooms, following her down hallways, seeking her out in every corner. “What a tragedy, Eleanor. How terrible for you,” they murmured, as if speaking such might convey upon them a special blessing and guarantee a similar horror would never touch them. Only one brave soul voiced the crucial questions all of them must have longed to ask but didn’t dare.

“Is it true you performed CPR? Wasn’t it horrible, putting your mouth on his, knowing he was dead?”

And her personal favorite: “What will you do now?”

Good question, Eleanor had thought as she wandered the rooms, numbly accepting hugs and words of condolence. What would she do now? First thing would be to put her house back in some semblance of order. The refrigerator shelves and every inch of the kitchen counters were crammed with dishes from the catered luncheon, and the house was filled with overripe blooms that had taken over like uninvited guests settling in for a long stay. The stargazer lilies were especially unwelcome, their overpowering scent wafting through the house, drifting into Richard’s study. Maybe if she begged politely, Martha would take them home with her along with some of the leftover food. Then again, Martha lived alone. No one person could be expected to eat all that food. What was she supposed to do with it? Throw it out? It seemed a shame to let good food go to waste.

She shook her head, focusing back on the here and now. “There’s quite a bit of ham in the refrigerator,” she said. “Would you like to take some of it home? Genevieve and I will never be able to finish it.”

“I’m a vegetarian.” Genevieve shifted in the chair beside her. “I’ve been a vegetarian for years. That means I do not eat meat… including ham,” she added with a cool stare for her mother, as if Eleanor were the one responsible for having butchered the pig.

“Knock it off, Vivi. We haven’t got a lot of time, so let’s focus. Okay?” Jeffrey raked a hand through a shock of thick hair that would have resembled golden wheat if it weren’t such a drab brown. “I’ve asked Jim Kennedy to join us today.” He glanced at his watch, gold and gleaming on his wrist. “He should be here soon.”

Eleanor’s eyes fluttered shut. Not only was Jim Kennedy their insurance agent and a confidant of Richard’s, he and his wife Anne had been their close friends for years. They’d attended the funeral yesterday, returning to the house after the service. Jim had spent considerable time closeted in conversation with Jeffrey while Anne had been part of the group hovering around Eleanor, offering wine, sympathy, and a shoulder to cry on. Not that she’d needed one. Rather, she’d been the one moving through the downstairs rooms of her home, handing out tissues as she accepted condolences from weeping mourners. The doctor had assured her that her own tears would start once she recovered from the shock. Until then, the little blue pills would help her cope.

“For your nerves,” he’d informed her as he pressed the bottle into her hand. “Trust me, you’ll need them.”

She’d accepted the prescription, though she had no intention of taking any pills. Doctors weren’t necessarily always right, and she wasn’t in shock. She simply needed time to absorb what had happened. It didn’t feel as if Richard was dead and buried, but more like he’d suddenly departed on one of his frequent trips to the Middle East. If she hadn’t been in bed with him, seen his fixed, glassy stare, felt the cold, rigid skin of his body under her hand, she wouldn’t have believed it. She still found it hard to believe.

Though everyone else acted as if they believed it. Anne’s tears and alcohol consumption had increased with each glass of wine Eleanor refused. Briefly she considered offering Anne one of those little blue pills, then thought better of it. One shouldn’t mix alcohol and pills. By the time they left, Anne was in full-on grief mode and a smashed stupor, supported by Jim’s arm as Eleanor escorted them to the door. She’d hate to be living in Anne’s head today.

Bad enough she was stuck living in her own.

Jeffrey tapped a burgeoning file on the left side of the desk. “The funeral director provided me with copies of the death certificate.”

The mere mention of the word death brought Richard back to mind. Richard, cold and unresponsive as she’d tried to rouse him that morning. A massive heart attack, his physician had informed her, occurring around the time she’d been woken from a sound sleep by the odd sound he’d made in the night. The death rattle, the doctor had called it. It was a sound she would never forget.

“I talked about Dad with Social Security this morning,” Jeffrey continued.

“Do we need to discuss this now?” Eleanor tugged at the waistband of the skirt pinching her middle. They still hadn’t settled the question of the leftover ham cramming the refrigerator shelves. Maybe she should send it home with Jeffrey, no matter how much he objected. Lord knows she didn’t need it.

“Sorry, Mom, but this is important.” His voice sliced through the thick, reeking odor of lilies and grabbed her attention. “I’m afraid it’s not good news.”

“What’s wrong?” More bad news was the last thing she wanted to hear. And something was wrong; definitely wrong. She could tell from the look on Jeffrey’s face. Somber and pale, she was suddenly reminded of the little boy who had once cuddled at her side as they read aloud bedtime stories, nudging ever closer when they reached the sad parts, patting her cheek when she invariably started to cry.

Would his news make her cry?

“As Dad’s wife, you’re entitled to receive death benefits.”

“I understand. And that’s fine.” Richard had handled the finances in their family, and she’d never had any cause to worry. She wasn’t worried now, either, especially since Jeffrey was in charge. Their son, an accomplished attorney, had been in private practice for more than three years. She was in good hands. “I trust you’ll handle the paperwork for me?”

He cleared his throat. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Dad was sixty-two, but you’re only fifty-seven.”

Something about the way he moved his head, the way his gaze suddenly shifted away, caused her heart to knock about in her chest.

“Is that a problem?” Eleanor finally asked. She hated the way her voice quivered, hated that she’d been forced to be part of the conversation. She’d much rather be outside, puttering in her garden. Or sitting in the sunroom, relaxing in one of the cheery chintz-covered chairs, enjoying the spring sunshine. Or upstairs in her bedroom, curled up with a good book. But the garden was littered with muddy snowbanks, the skies had been gray and overcast for weeks, and she couldn’t even recall what book she was currently reading. Not that it mattered, for she was sure the words wouldn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. Since that day, as she’d come to think of it, her mind wasn’t cooperating. The world wasn’t cooperating. And as for her bedroom? She hadn’t set foot inside since that horrible morning when the EMS crew crashed through the doorway, departing with Richard’s lifeless body on a stretcher, leaving her standing speechless and alone in their wake. Sometime in the hours afterward, she didn’t know when, Martha had removed her clothes and personal items, switching them to the guest room. God bless her, Eleanor had thought, upon finding them there. Somehow Martha had known she wouldn’t be able to enter that room, let alone sleep in the bed where Richard had died.

Not that she was doing much sleeping. Would she ever be able to sleep again?

“For God’s sake, Jeffrey, quit being so dramatic.” Genevieve sat forward, perching on the edge of her chair. “What’s the problem? What did the people from Social Security say?”

“They weren’t very encouraging.”

“Meaning?” She shot out the word in an exasperated sigh.

“Meaning,” he said, his voice tightening, “that Mom won’t be eligible to draw survivor benefits until she reaches the age of sixty.”

“Why should we care about that?” She sniffed slightly, stroking her blond hair, which was pulled back in a smooth chignon.

Eleanor eyed her slim, beautiful daughter. Genevieve had inherited Richard’s patrician nose as well as his self-assured air of authority and grace. Her flawless comportment had been present even as a child. But how or from whom she’d learned it, Eleanor couldn’t say. Certainly not from her.

“Besides, it’s not as if she needs the money,” Genevieve added. “Daddy had plenty. She’ll be fine.”

But would she? Eleanor wasn’t so sure, especially since Jeffrey wasn’t quick to rebuff his sister’s assumption. Plus, that little telltale tic in his brow above his left eye had started up again. She watched it with a curious distraction as it twitched—up, down, up, down—and she straightened in her chair. Under her heavy hips, she felt the springs bounce. She winced as her skirt pulled around her waist, cutting into her stomach along with the fear. Maybe she wouldn’t be fine.

“Who cares about Social Security? It’s a nonissue. Everyone knows the government is broke.” Genevieve shrugged. “I thought we were here to talk about Daddy’s will… So let’s get on with it, shall we? You might have all the time in the world, but I have to catch an eight-o’clock flight out of O’Hare tonight. They expect me back in New York tomorrow. We have buyers coming in from all over the country next week, and I’ll be working round the clock to catch up. This… this…” Genevieve’s voice broke suddenly, her body struggling to contain an involuntary shiver. “This event has already cost me five days away from my desk.”

Richard was dead, and his daughter begrudged him a few days out of her life? Eleanor’s mouth twisted against the unspoken rebuke, even as her mother’s heart opened to protect her own. It was obvious that Genevieve was still suffering. She’d put away the tissues, but her eyes were red rimmed, smudged with dark shadows despite the makeup. Richard had loved playing the role of her hero. Father and daughter had always been close.

Unlike their own relationship. Genevieve had banished her to the dungeon of disillusion and disappointment long ago. Having her daughter back in the house again for these past few days had made Eleanor want to take to her bed and bury herself under the covers.

Except Richard was the one they had buried.

“Dad’s will is pretty straightforward,” Jeffrey said. “I can read it if you like, but it would be a waste of time. Since Mom is still alive, there’s no estate to disburse.” He cleared his throat, glancing between the two of them. “However, the will contains a provision we need to discuss. Dad made a bequest for each of his children. That bequest is effective regardless of who died first: Mom or Dad.”

“What kind of bequest?” Genevieve asked.

“Each of us is to receive ten thousand dollars cash.”

“Ten thousand dollars,” she said, mulling it over.

There was no surprise in her voice, no breathless awe at her father’s generosity. Her daughter’s words were calm and cool, as if she’d already made plans for how to use the money. Had Richard mentioned the bequest to Genevieve at some point in the past, Eleanor found herself wondering. She wouldn’t put it past him. He and Genevieve had always been close, to the point that sometimes she herself had felt shut out, even as his wife.

Yet she’d thought they’d agreed that their wills would be confidential.

She’d thought they had agreed upon a lot of things.

Such as Richard slowing down and taking better care of himself. He was under constant stress with his frequent flights in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq. As an independent contractor working with the U.S. government, his structural-engineering consulting firm was a thriving business that kept him constantly occupied. He’d laughed off her concerns when she told him it was dangerous. Richard had thrived on danger. He’d relished the thrill of exposing himself to the daily hazards and risks associated with his job, of placing his life in jeopardy. No amount of money is worth a life, she’d argued. Why hadn’t she insisted he take better care of himself? That he slow down, perhaps take on a partner. Someone younger, someone to share the worries, the burdens, the travel.

She should have insisted, Eleanor caught herself lamenting. She shouldn’t have backed down when he laughed off her concerns. She never should have let him ignore her, run roughshod over her. Maybe if she’d stood up to him, things would have turned out different.

Now it was too late.

“I knew Daddy would remember us,” Genevieve said. “Ten thousand isn’t much, but at least it’s something.”

A cold disdain washed over Jeffrey’s face. “You would say that.”

“I don’t have to sit here and take that from you.” She threw him a haughty glance and rose to her feet. “I’m going upstairs to pack.”

“Sit down, Vivi,” he said in the same voice he might use with a client he suspected was guilty. “We still have some things to discuss.”

“Things?” She glared at him. “What kind of things?”

Perhaps they could begin with why her daughter didn’t like her given name, Eleanor mused. It had taken a full three days after Genevieve’s birth before she’d finally managed to convince Richard to name their firstborn daughter after her maternal grandmother. Eleanor had always thought it a beautiful name, and her mother had been so pleased. Obviously, Genevieve didn’t agree.

“The bequests, for one,” Jeffrey said. “I can’t make the payments.”

“Why not?” Vivi demanded. “Can’t you find the checkbook?”

“Try the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk,” Eleanor wearily suggested. “I think that’s where your father keeps the checkbooks.” The bickering between her children was making her dizzy. Or maybe it was the thick, cloying fragrance of those horrid stargazer lilies. She’d never cared much for that particular flower, and now her entire house reeked with its overpowering presence. Much of her life right now was beyond her control, but not those flowers. She was determined they’d be gone from the house before the day was over, even if she personally had to throw each and every one of them in the trash.

“I found the checkbook, Mom. That’s not the problem.”

Her son’s strained voice put her in mind of the afternoon years ago when Jeffrey had fessed up to his parents and admitted he hadn’t been accepted at Northwestern University, Richard’s alma mater. The news had been a crushing disappointment to Richard, but she hadn’t minded. No doubt Jeffrey would be accepted at another university and eventually make something of himself… which he had. It was simply a matter of having confidence in oneself. She’d always had confidence in her son’s abilities. Whatever the problem, Jeffrey could handle it.

Genevieve sank back in her chair, cool and chic in an elegant beige pantsuit that complemented her like a second skin. If she herself were to try wearing an outfit like that, Eleanor was certain she’d end up looking like a bleached stork.

“What’s the problem? Daddy appointed you personal representative. Write the checks.”

“I can’t. There’s a problem with the bank.”

“What kind of problem?” Vivi pressed.

“For one thing, there’s not enough money in the account to cover the checks.”

Vivi shrugged. “So make a transfer from one of his other accounts.”

“Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.”

“What are you talking about?” Her brown eyes—Richard’s eyes—blazed to life. “Daddy was loaded. What about his savings? What about his stocks?”

What a mess. The two of them sounded no different today than they had when they were children bickering over their toys. Who cared about stocks and bonds or their savings account? All of this was merely a financial hiccup. Jeffrey would sort things out. He was making the phone calls Richard would have made. He was taking care of matters Richard would have seen to. He was sitting in Richard’s study, behind Richard’s desk, and he was doing it all without being asked. Probably because he assumed she couldn’t do it herself.

And he was right.

She couldn’t think about anything but Richard. It felt as if she’d been sleepwalking through her life for the past five days. How could he be gone? When he’d been home a few weeks ago, he’d been so alive, vibrant, so Richard: grumbling about the stock market over dinner; fussing over his graying beard and salt-and-pepper hair in the bathroom mirror at night. Richard, ever the perfunctory husband, off on another of his numerous business jaunts to the Middle East, taking leave of her with a dutiful kiss. And though she worried about him constantly, nothing ever happened. He chided her regularly, admonishing her not to upset herself about things over which she had no control. Everything would be fine. He’d be home when his business was finished. And over the years, though she’d grown accustomed to being alone, she’d never quit worrying about him. Richard was her husband. She loved him. She missed him. He was often gone for weeks at a time—but he always came home.

Except this time. When he’d left the house this time, it had been on an ambulance gurney, which eventually was traded out for a black hearse.

This time, Richard wouldn’t be coming back.

“There’s not much money,” Jeffrey said.

“You must have made a mistake,” Genevieve insisted. “Daddy has a huge stock portfolio.”

“Leveraged through bad accounts.” He shook his head. “I talked with his stockbroker this morning. The recession pretty much wiped him out.”

“This is unbelievable.” Genevieve whipped her head around and glared at Eleanor. “Simply unbelievable.”

Eleanor nodded. Unbelievable? For once, she and her daughter were in complete agreement. In fact, this whole week had been unbelievable. She tried her best to look serious, though she found it hard not to laugh at the outraged accusation on Genevieve’s face. Did she really believe that her mother was the financial doofus responsible for providing Richard with bad advice? He never listened to a word she said; why would he have consulted her about their investments?

She closed her eyes, turning a deaf ear as her children continued squabbling. There was no point in listening. Things would eventually work out. They always did. Everyone had their priorities, and so did she. Get rid of those horrible flowers. Find someone to take that ham. And make sure Genevieve boarded that plane tonight. That, above all, was priority number one. She needed the house to herself again. She longed for peace and quiet, for the serenity and privacy she’d come to treasure; something which had been nonexistent in the past few days, especially with Vivi around.

“Mom, are you listening? Did you hear what I said?”

Eleanor’s eyes blinked open as her face flushed a guilty crimson. Glancing up, she found Jeffrey staring at her with an odd mixture of frustration and pity. Poor Jeffrey. And poor Genevieve too. She didn’t blame them for being upset. True, she’d lost her husband, but they had lost their father.

Perhaps they could both benefit from that unopened bottle of little blue pills still sitting on a shelf in her medicine cabinet.

“I know this has been horrible for you both,” she said. “Genevieve, you’re so busy with your job in New York. And Jeffrey, I’m sorry you and Susan were forced to cut short your vacation. I know how much you were looking forward to getting away.” Someone—exactly who, she had no idea—had made an emergency phone call, summoning Jeffrey and his wife home from Hawaii.

“For God’s sake, Mom, of course we came back. Did you think we wouldn’t?”

“Well, I appreciate everything you’ve done.” She watched as he ran a finger under his shirt collar, straining the soft roll of flesh pudging around his neck. How long had it been since he’d had a physical? Jeffrey needed to take care of his health. Cardiac issues ran in the family. Richard’s father had died of heart complications, plus both her parents, and now Richard too. Jeffrey was only in his early thirties, but you never knew. That little paunch settling around his middle might have already shaved a few years off his life.

No leftover ham for Jeffrey, Eleanor decided, making a mental note as the doorbell rang. A few moments later, a somber Martha ushered Jim Kennedy into the room.

Her husband’s old friend quickly made the rounds with a firm handshake for Jeffrey, a consoling hug for Genevieve, and an affectionate peck on the cheek and pat on the shoulder for her.

“I still can’t believe he’s gone.” Jim sank into a seat in the one empty chair left in the room. His forehead was lined with a few new wrinkles, his face pinched with a peculiar look of there but for the grace of God. “The two of us played golf a few weeks ago, and he told me he’d recently had a complete physical. The doctors found him in perfect health.” He shook his head. “Unbelievable, that someone his age could…”

Die? Eleanor found herself supplying the word in her head. Why couldn’t anyone, including her, say the word aloud? She knotted her hands together in her lap. There was no getting around the truth of what had happened. Richard had died. If he hadn’t, the four of them wouldn’t be sitting in his study today, discussing the terms of his will and the dry details of his life insurance policy.

“You asked for a copy of the death certificate.” Jeffrey slid a crisp white paper across the desk. “For the insurance files.”

Genevieve shifted in her chair, gazing at Jim with an expectant look. “Did you know or have anything to do with Daddy’s estate? My brother just informed us that the money seems to be gone.”

Jeffrey’s face reddened, and he shot her an angry glare. “I already told you I’ll deal with the bank. Jim’s here to discuss Dad’s insurance policy.”

The sober smile—what little there was of it—disappeared from the insurance adjuster’s face. Snapping open his briefcase, he rustled through a thick stack of papers and drew out a file.

“I’m sure the three of you are aware that your father—Richard, that is”—he corrected himself with a deferential nod for Eleanor—“had a life insurance policy in place. The policy is current and quite substantial. It’s worth several million.”

Millions? Eleanor blinked to the beat of Genevieve’s delighted laughter. But that couldn’t be right. What had she missed? She couldn’t recall them having such large policies in place. She would have remembered if Richard had mentioned wanting to change their policies. Plus, wouldn’t something like that require her signature? Then again, she’d grown used to him constantly presenting her with papers to sign. Thick stacks of paperwork filled with legal jargon and run-on paragraphs that blurred before her eyes. Official company policies, shareholder meetings, affidavits, trust documents. “Nothing for you to worry about,” he’d assured her time and again. “Sign on the dotted line.” After a while, she’d gotten tired of trying to decipher things. After a while, she simply signed.

Jim cleared his throat. “As I mentioned before the funeral, the autopsy was necessary due to the facts surrounding his death. But the results confirmed that he died of natural causes.”

“Meaning…?” Genevieve quickly prompted.

“Meaning that his insurance policy is a valid claim.”

“Wonderful.” She flashed Eleanor a brilliant smile. “See, Mother, now all your problems are solved. Even if Jeffrey is right about the stocks being worthless, Daddy still provided for you. You’ll have plenty of money. And personally, I don’t mind waiting for my inheritance check.” She glanced at Jeffrey. “You can wire transfer the funds into my account once she receives the insurance settlement.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple.” An odd note lingered in Jim’s voice. “You see, the policy was changed four years ago.”

“Changed?” Eleanor frowned. “But that’s impossible. Who would have changed it?”

His face flushed a dark crimson, and he crinkled the paperwork in his hand, as if consulting it would make it easier to share the news. “Richard.”

She swallowed down a sudden swell of fear. Richard had changed his policy? Without telling her? How could he have done that?

“What do you mean, changed his policy?” Jeffrey asked. “What exactly did Dad do?”

Jim cleared his throat again, adding to Eleanor’s rising panic. She didn’t like the sound of that harrumph, or the sudden ruddy complexion of his face, an odd consortium of grief and guilt. And she definitely didn’t think that she was going to like what she was about to hear.

“He changed his primary beneficiary.”

“I… I don’t understand.” A sour bile rose in the back of Eleanor’s throat as a yawning gap filled her stomach. Part of her comprehended what Jim was saying, but the other part—the one that had been married to Richard for thirty-eight years—was free-falling in complete denial. This had to be a dreadful mistake. “I’m his wife. Shouldn’t I be the primary beneficiary?”

Isn’t that the way things worked? Isn’t that the way things were supposed to be?

“I don’t believe it,” Genevieve said. “Daddy wouldn’t have done that. Why, the two of them have been married…” She halted, turning to her mother with a questioning look.

“Thirty-eight years,” Eleanor supplied in a faint whisper.

“Did you hear that?” Genevieve’s voice was like a knife, slashing through the twisted knots and tangles of a financial misunderstanding. “They’ve been married thirty-eight years. Of course she’s his beneficiary.”

Jim drew a deep breath. “I know this must come as a shock.”

“Damn right it is,” Jeffrey said. “Look, Jim, you told me yesterday there was an issue with the policy and we needed to talk. But this… this is unbelievable.” He shook his head hard, in flat-out denial. “Dad never would have done something like this.”

“I understand how you feel,” Jim replied. “And I’m sorry you had to hear the news from me. But unfortunately, I can’t change the facts. I have a duty to the policy owner. Whoever owns the policy has the right to name whomever they choose. And since Richard was the owner of his policy, it was in his discretion to choose his beneficiary. For many years, that was Eleanor. But four years ago, Richard came to me and said he wanted to make a change. I tried to talk him out it, but his mind was made up. I had no choice but to do as he asked. The policy changes have been in effect since then.”

He turned to face her, his faded blue eyes offering no hope. “I’m sorry, Eleanor. I wish I had better news.”

Silence settled over them like a shroud, and Eleanor tugged her sweater tighter around her shoulders. This room was so cold. Why didn’t someone turn up the heat? Their house had always been drafty in the winter. It was a stately home, handsome and elegant, with high ceilings and large, spacious rooms. She’d tried her best to warm things up with plump, cushioned chairs and floral prints. But Richard’s study, all sharp angles and hardwood floors, had never been cozy. He’d resisted her efforts to switch out the sober, serious furniture, told her it didn’t matter, that she should concentrate her efforts on something else and leave his study alone.

“Who is the beneficiary?” Eleanor suddenly heard herself ask. At least she thought the sound emitted from her. The small, tinny, faraway voice sounded nothing like her, but more like an echo from some distant tunnel.

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to disclose that information.”

“Excuse me?” Genevieve shot from her chair, five foot ten inches of outraged indignity glaring down at Jim. “You can’t refuse to tell us who’s going to get his money. Daddy’s policy is worth millions, and that money is ours. We’re his family. We deserve it.”

Jim swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple straining against his neck as he met her challenging gaze head-on. “Ethically,” he said, his eyes never wavering, “I’m authorized to release that information only to the beneficiary and the personal representative.”

“You weasel.” She whirled and aimed a deadly stare at Jeffrey. “You’re Daddy’s personal rep. You knew about this all along and you didn’t tell us?”

“Hey, back off.” He lifted his hands, splaying his fingers in an attempt to hold back her ire. “I had no clue. Dad never discussed it with me.”

“He’s right,” Jim said quickly. “Jeffrey didn’t know. I couldn’t share the information until I had a copy of the death certificate.” All of them watched as he slipped the official document into the burgeoning stack of papers comprising Richard’s file.

“Well, since you now have what you need, there’s no longer any reason to keep us in suspense. So tell us: who’s the lucky beneficiary?” She slid a lethal glance in her brother’s direction. “Is it Jeffrey?”

“No.”

“Oh.” She gathered a soft breath and tilted her head slightly. Pondering a moment, she suddenly brightened. “Well, if Daddy didn’t leave his money to Jeffrey, did he give it to me?”

“Vivi, you are a disgusting human being, you know that?” her brother said. “Why don’t you shut up?”

Eleanor closed her eyes, blocking out the ugly sight of sibling rivalry. She couldn’t believe she was sitting there listening to her children squabble over their father’s money. Their money. Her money.

“He didn’t leave it to any of you,” Jim admitted. “I haven’t contacted the primary beneficiary yet.”

“Wait a minute. Let me get this straight.” Jeffrey tiredly rubbed his forehead. “You’re telling us that Dad left his money to someone else? Not to Mom, not to either of us, but to someone else? And that he has no idea he’s inherited millions?”

She has no idea.”

She? Eleanor shivered, uncertain whether she’d heard Jim correctly. She shook her head as if by doing so she could dislodge the words rattling around in her brain like loose pennies that somehow had ended up in the bottom of her purse. She? She was certain there must be some mistake. Richard never would have left his money to another woman.

Would he?

“Let’s stop the bullshit,” Jeffrey said. “We’re his family, Jim, and we have a right to know. You said you could release the name to Dad’s personal rep? Well, you’re looking at him. And I’m telling you right now, in my legal capacity as his personal representative: I want to know. I demand to know.”

Genevieve’s eyes narrowed. “Me too.”

“Eleanor?” Jim’s voice was a soothing stream of quiet concern. “Are you all right?”

What a stupid question, she thought to herself as she pulled her sweater tighter around herself. Of course she wasn’t all right. She’d had the oddest feeling when she’d woken that morning that today wouldn’t be a good day. Jim’s revelation was all the confirmation she needed to officially pound the last nail in the casket. Richard’s casket, so to speak. And now, if it wasn’t too much to ask, all she wanted was to be allowed to crawl back into bed, burrow down in the blankets, pull the covers over her head, and go to sleep. And maybe, when she woke up, she would discover all this had simply been a horrible nightmare. Richard would come strolling in the door, as he had countless times in the past, returning from yet another extended trip to the Middle East, his rolling suitcase filled with dirty socks and underwear, and a world-weary look about him. And after planting a kiss on her forehead, he would head upstairs where he would collapse in their bed, once sleeping for nearly sixteen hours straight, before he finally woke. Yes, that would be the way of it. She’d go upstairs and sleep off this nightmare. And when she was awake again, this ghastly business would have drifted away, leaving only mists of misery as a remembrance.

“Mom? Are you okay?”

Eleanor couldn’t remember hearing Jeffrey’s voice sound so distraught save for the day he’d returned from Hawaii, the day after Richard’s death. He’d broken down when he saw her, collapsing in her arms and crying unabashedly like he’d done as a little boy. She’d done the comforting when he was small, and she’d been the one to provide the comfort last week too, never questioning whether he’d been grieving over the loss of a father to whom he’d never been close or the lost opportunity to put things right between them. It hadn’t mattered then, and it didn’t matter now. Somehow she managed to summon the willpower to open her eyes and discovered the three of them staring at her.

“I’m fine.” Eleanor pulled in a deep breath. Much as she didn’t want to hear Jim’s news, she knew in her heart that she didn’t have a choice. “Jeffrey’s right. We need to hear the truth.”

Jim’s face was a cacophony of ethical concern versus friendship, and for a moment, she wondered if he would respect Jeffrey’s command and abide by her wishes. But thirty-plus years of friendship with their family finally won out.

“He left the money to a woman named Claire Anderson,” Jim finally admitted.

Claire Anderson? Eleanor frowned. The first name meant nothing to her, but the last name certainly did. It was the same name listed on her own driver’s license. She’d been Eleanor Anderson since she and Richard had exchanged wedding vows at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago thirty-eight years ago last month.

Claire Anderson. She couldn’t recall ever hearing Richard mention that particular name. He’d been an only child, so she couldn’t be a niece. A long-lost relative? A distant cousin? But if that was the case, surely he would have told her. Wouldn’t he? After all, she was his wife.

Correction, Eleanor reminded herself dully. She had been his wife. She was the one he should have turned to. All those years they were married. You’d think he would have told her something as important as this. She hung her head, hugging herself close, trying to remember the last time Richard had held her close.

On second thought, maybe he wouldn’t have told her.

On third thought, obviously he hadn’t told her.

“Claire Anderson?” Jeffrey’s voice cracked through the black void, trapping her like a clap of thunder. “Who the hell is Claire Anderson?”

“Yes. Who is Claire Anderson?” Eleanor echoed to no one in particular. Though, if Richard happened to be listening from beyond the grave, she would appreciate him providing some answers. She rubbed her forehead, sifting through the memories of those who’d crowded the funeral home, who’d followed them to the cemetery, who’d paid their respects at the house afterward. So many people, so many faces. The crush was overwhelming, yet she couldn’t remember seeing anyone she hadn’t known.

No woman she didn’t know.

“I’ve never met her.” Jim shifted in his chair, his face impassive. “I’ll be able to tell you more once I speak with her. She lives in Hyde Park. From what I understand, she’s a professor at the University of Chicago.”

“Why would Daddy leave his money to some dull old professor?” Genevieve’s bottom lip jutted out in a pretty pout, a trick Eleanor recalled her daughter perfecting as a toddler. “Who is she? What’s her connection to Daddy?”

“I don’t know,” Jim admitted.

She rolled her eyes and turned to her mother. “Do you know her?”

Eleanor shook her head. She couldn’t imagine what Richard had been thinking. Why would he change his insurance policy? They were his family. She was his wife. “No.”

“This is ridiculous,” Genevieve fumed. “I can’t believe no one knows her.”

“Obviously, Dad did,” Jeffrey muttered.

Genevieve slumped back in her chair, her arms forming a barricade across her chest. “Someone had better figure out who she is. I have plenty of questions for her.”

Eleanor stared wordlessly at her daughter. For once, the two of them were in complete agreement. Meanwhile, she had a few questions of her own.

Beginning with who exactly was Claire Anderson, and what kind of hold did she have on Richard?

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