Available for Kindle, Nook, and other formats at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords

Available for Kindle, Nook, and other formats at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords

Someone was coming through her back screen door.

In another house, in another neighborhood, this might have given Olivia Chandler cause for alarm. But not on Green Ivy Way, and not on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening all the women came in through the back screen door. It was more convenient.

No, Olivia was not alarmed until she saw exactly what had come to her back door.

“A plant?” As she met Anja at the screen door, Olivia gazed apprehensively at the botanical horror being held with incongruous solicitude by her across-the-backyard neighbor.

“It’s for you.” The exact words Olivia had not wanted to hear. Anja thrust the plant at her. “A gift for the hostess.”

“Why ‑‑ why ‑‑ I don’t know what to say.” True enough. Warily, Olivia took possession of the houseplant. It weighed about a ton. With its sharp, spiked leaves and muddy green color, it looked as if it had just stepped out of a B monster movie. “Uh, I think I ought to warn you, I’ve got a black thumb.” Was there any way to get Anja to take the plant back? “Truly terrible. I kill anything with roots.”

“Is no matter.” Anja smiled her gorgeous smile. Olivia had often wondered if speaking the dramatic Russian language for half her life had given Anja’s face its exotic beauty. But then, Anja surrounded that exotic face with a two-hundred dollar haircut and, today, a sweater by Yves Saint Laurent. The woman might be a scientist, but she sure knew how to clean up.

“It’s called Mother-in-Law’s Tongue,” Anja told Olivia, indicating the plant. “Nothing can kill it.”

Was that so? Olivia eyed the plant anew. My, but one could see some resemblance to Gideon’s mother there, in the sharp, unyielding leaves and in the bitter hardiness ‑‑ not that Olivia considered Gideon’s mother to be her in-law any more. Or at least, she shouldn’t be an in-law…

“Well, thank you.” Olivia surrendered to the inevitable. “I’ll just…put this down.” As she turned, her floor-length Indian skirt eddied about her bare legs reassuringly. No, Gideon’s mother should not be an in-law any more. It was a decision Olivia ought to ‑‑ and would ‑‑ make tonight. And if she was surrounding herself with her favorite clothes and her dearest friends to ease the way, so be it.

Olivia’s next-door neighbor, Shana, spoke from the futon sofa beside the fireplace. “Bribes won’t work, Anja.” Looking dangerous in a form-fitting business suit, Shana swirled a glass of white wine. “No matter what gift you bring, Olivia is still going to make us meditate tonight.”

“Oh,” Anja said, in a lowering tone.

“Yeah,” agreed Brittany. A blend of tomboy and harried mother in a pair of faded blue jeans, the final member of the group sprawled in Olivia’s low-slung easy chair by the coffee table. “We’re meditating.”

Anja grimaced as she lowered to a position on the floor next to Brittany.

Olivia hid a grin. Seven months ago, she’d moved into this house near San Diego with nothing but her pottery wheel, her clothes, and the cookbooks. Most importantly, she’d thought at the time, she’d moved away from Gideon. As it turned out, the most important thing had been to move here, next door to the three neighbors now gathered in her living room. They’d gone from acquaintances to close friends ‑‑ to the best medicine possible to distract Olivia from the mess of her marriage.

“Now, no criticisms about the meditating.” Olivia stated this mildly as she bore the Mother-In-Law Tongue past them all to the dining area of the open-plan house. “Last week I sat and watched your midnight blue video, didn’t I, Shana, without a word of complaint?”

“No, no words of complaint,” Brittany smirked. “Just a lot of well-placed sighs.”

Olivia’s lips twitched. “How would you know about my sighs?” She leaned over the oak veneer table to place Anja’s plant in the center. “You fell asleep!”

“I heard them before I drifted off. Boy, was that soft core stuff boring.” Brittany took a healthy swallow of her wine. “No way I could keep my eyes open.”

“It wasn’t boredom that put you to sleep.” Shana leaned forward, displaying the cleavage her suit jacket had probably been tailored to supply. “It was over-stimulation. You haven’t had any in two years and you’re sex-deprived.”

Brittany lowered her wine glass from her lips in a hurry. “You gotta be kidding! I’m sex-free. Like virus-free. Healthy.” She shook her head and snorted. “The only thing that could make me hot nowadays is a reliable babysitter. Yeah, someone who’d show up on time, and not call in sick at the last minute. When I need to get away from those two monsters, I need to.”

As all the women had met Brittany’s five-year-old and her toddler ‑‑ both boys ‑‑ there was a round of understanding nods.

“Although it does occur to one, Brittany.” Shana scratched the edge of her glossy pink lips. “That you could ask your ex for help.”

“Huh.” Brittany shot Shana a dark look as she reached for the bottle of Chardonnay. “You are joking.”

“Well, he is the children’s father. He could take some responsibility.”

“Blake is not in the equation.” Brittany poured herself a generous glassful of Chardonnay. “After two years he still hasn’t asked for custody of any sort, and that’s just fine and dandy with me. Better if those boys never know their low-down, rotten father.”

Somehow Brittany said this in a way that made it clear exactly how Blake had been low-down and rotten: via other women. Then Brittany looked up and directly at Olivia. It was a look that said, you know what I mean.

With an inner lurch, Olivia glanced away. She quickly smiled and clapped her hands. “Well! Shall we get started?” There were, in fact, some uncomfortable comparisons possible between Brittany’s ex and Gideon. But Olivia didn’t want to dwell on how Gideon had been unfaithful ‑‑ on top of everything else.

“Anja, would you light the candle?” Earlier, Olivia had placed a beeswax candle in the center of the coffee table, together with incense and a box of wooden matches. The meditation was a new thing for her ‑‑ yet another distraction from her problems ‑‑ and she was still reading up on various techniques.

“Wait a minute.” Shana held up one hand. “Aren’t we supposed to do that touchy-feely thing first? The one where we say what we’re going to let go of this week. Doesn’t that come first?”

Olivia’s jaw dropped. Yes, of course. That had been the plan. She was supposed to give him up tonight.

And she’d nearly skated right past it!

It was one thing to refuse to face his betrayal of their marriage vows, it was another to skate past the whole point of the evening.

But Olivia continued to skate past, lifting her chin and waving an imperious hand. “Oh, we can skip that part tonight.”

Brittany, arching an eyebrow, turned to Olivia. “I like it. Why are we going to skip it?”

Because I obviously can’t do this after all. Wasn’t that evidenced by her inability to file for divorce, nine whole months after leaving her husband? Olivia managed to unclench her teeth. “Fine. We can do the letting go thing, if you insist.”

“Well, I don’t insist.” Shana gave Olivia a strange look.

I insist.” Brittany gave Olivia a far more readable gaze. “If we don’t let go of the old junk, we don’t have room for newer, better stuff. Right, Livvie?”

“Right.” Olivia was clenching her teeth again, however. Damn! Why wasn’t she ready? With a swish of her skirt, she took a place on the rug beside the coffee table. “You first, then, Brittany.”

“Sure, sure.” Brittany scooted off the lounger to take a cross-legged position on the floor next to the coffee table. She stared broodingly at the unlit candle. “This coming week I’m going to give up…trying to beat out the other mommies at the I-can-think-of-a-better-school-fundraiser game. Bake sales are fine. There’s nothing wrong with a bake sale, and no reason why I should sweat bullets trying to get the PTA to agree to do an auction instead.”

After a short pause, Shana said, “Bake sales are idiotic.”

“You don’t have to tell me.” Brittany threw her a glare. “But that’s what I’m giving up.”

“Okay, okay.” Shana held up her hand. “I’ll go next.” She unbuttoned her suit jacket so she could manage the transfer from the futon sofa to the floor. She tucked her long bare legs to one side. “Let’s see, let’s see. What am I willing to give up…?” She tapped a finger against her full, curved lips.

“I could make one major suggestion,” Brittany muttered.

“Hush,” said Olivia. “It’s up to her.”

Shana closed her eyes. “Next week I’m going to give up…celibacy.”

“Oh, come on!” Brittany exploded.

Shana opened her eyes. “I haven’t had sex in four whole weeks now. Four of them! But enough is enough. I will have a man in my bed by our next meeting.”

“As if that’s any kind of a denial.”

Anja, already seated on the floor beside the coffee table, chuckled at the by-play. Although she shared the least of her life and dreams, it seemed to Olivia that Anja, the newest addition to the neighborhood, got the most out of the weekly Girls’ Night In sessions. She seemed to suck it all in, like a thirsty cactus.

Meanwhile Shana, smiling with satisfaction, turned to Olivia. “You want to go next?”

Panic struck Olivia. She didn’t want to go next. Fortunately, and to her great surprise, Anja rescued her.

“No, I go next,” the newest neighbor said.

“Oh. Okay,” Olivia breathed in relief.

“Sure, if you want to,” Shana agreed.

Anja smiled and tilted her head, swinging her wave of glossy dark hair. “What do I give up?” Her smile faded and she puffed out her lower lip. “I think I give up…trust.”

“What?” This came, in various degrees of surprise, from the women seated around the room.

Anja shrugged. “The medicine I am developing at the lab is powerful. Potentially dangerous if used…in the wrong doses. I cannot be lazy and expect my employer to take the proper safety procedures. So I’m going to do it myself. Make it safe.”

There was a thoughtful pause around the coffee table. Brittany broke it, saying, “Somehow, Anja, you and laziness are not words one would think of together.”

Anja smiled. “Is true I work long hours, but time has nothing to do with this.”

“Then what does?” Shana asked.

Anja waved a hand. “Is matter of…strategy. Tactics, craft. Since leaving Russia I’ve been lazy about that. Mm, how you say? Complacent. No more.”

Olivia frowned. It was laudable of Anja to want to make sure the drug she was working on was safe for public use, but to tie that to a distrust of her employer sounded…sinister. “Do you think something’s wrong with your employer?”

Anja’s dark eyes swung toward Olivia. She regarded her for a long, strange moment, almost as if she thought Olivia might have the answer to her own question. “Mmmm, that is the point,” she finally murmured. “I don’t know. And so it would be stupid to trust they are good, when so much is at stake.”

Shana was frowning deeply. “Exactly what is at stake?”

Anja opened and closed her mouth a few times, apparently only then noticing everyone’s concerned scrutiny. “Oh.” She laughed, and waved a dismissive arm. “Is money at stake, of course. Great big gobs of money.”

“Oh, well, money.” Brittany visibly relaxed. “Naturally, that would be an issue.”

“Cost-cutting, short-cuts.” Shana nodded her understanding.

But Olivia wasn’t so sure Anja was telling the whole story. She looked too…off-hand. Anja, however, had clearly had enough interrogation. She pointed at Olivia. “Now, you. Is your turn to give something up.”

It was her turn. Immediately, all thoughts about Anja’s problems were eclipsed by the brilliance of her own. What was she going to give up? Or, rather, whom? “Ah.” Olivia nodded sagely, as if her heart weren’t beating a mile a minute. “My turn.” It was time to say it.


God, she should have given him up months ago, contacted a lawyer, started a divorce.

Instead, she’d been waiting ‑‑ in vain, it appeared ‑‑ for Gideon to give in. She’d been waiting for him to come and apologize, to beg on bended knee for her forgiveness.

She would have given it, Lord help her. If only he’d have admitted what he’d done and expressed remorse, she would have forgiven him.

But Gideon hadn’t admitted a thing. To every question she’d ever put him he’d only responded with stony silence.

Oh, there had always been things Gideon would not discuss with her. He was in charge of sales for a software company and Olivia understood there were proprietary issues and marketing strategies that demanded secrecy.

But enough was enough. The woman with the husky foreign accent who’d called at one in the morning hadn’t sounded like she wanted to discuss software design. Nor did Olivia appreciate Gideon’s sudden business trip to North Carolina, a trip that had occurred just when Olivia and Gideon had been about to take their own vacation. No explanation for either the phone call or wiping out their vacation plans had been forthcoming.

All this secrecy was beside the simple distance that had grown between them. They used to make dinner together, sliding in and around each other’s tasks in the big kitchen at the ranch house, talking, smiling, laughing. They’d spent weekends sailing, with Gideon at the tiller grinning up at Olivia riding high on the catamaran. And making love, the hours they’d lain together in the dark murmuring and playing; the flash of Gideon’s teeth just before his mouth came down on hers, the indrawn hiss of his breath right before he’d enter her.

But in the months before she’d left, the smiles had dimmed, the meals they’d cooked together had become less frequent, and as for lovemaking ‑‑ well, the less said about that the better.

Olivia had to imagine Gideon had fallen in love with another woman. He was too passionate a man for his feelings toward Olivia simply to cool.

Shana’s voice intruded on Olivia’s dark ruminations. “We’re wai-ting,” she chanted, her head propped on a hand.

“Right. What am I going to give up?” Olivia breathed in and heard herself announce, “Sentimentality.” She screeched to a stop, unable to believe her own ears. Had she just said that, had she said anything but Gideon?

Brittany straightened from her slouched position. “Well, giving up the past, thinking too-good thoughts about it. That’s a start.”

Yes, Olivia told herself. Perhaps it was a start, a baby step toward what she really had to do.

Meanwhile Shana waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, I don’t know. Sentimentality can have its place. Like if you wanted to call Gideon up for a roll in the hay, for old times’ sake. That could be worthwhile.”

Brittany made a rude noise.

Shana hissed, “Well at least she’d get laid.”

“At any rate,” Olivia said firmly. “We can light the candle now. Anja?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes.” Anja picked up the box of wooden matches.

“Although I doubt we’ll be able to do much meditating with that fool dog barking its head off,” Brittany remarked.

Anja stopped what she was doing and blinked.

“I don’t hear any dog,” Olivia said.

“Neither do I,” agreed Shana.

“No, no, she is right.” Anja held up her free hand. “Listen.”

They all went quiet. Faintly, behind the sound of traffic on the main road two blocks away, a dog was madly barking.

“Odd.” Olivia frowned. “I wonder what its problem is.”

“I’ll just close the glass on the back door,” Shana offered, scooting to rise from the floor. “That ought to get rid of the noise.”

“Good idea,” Olivia said. “You have awfully sharp ears, Brittany.”

“Comes with motherhood. You can go ahead and light the candle now, Anja.”

But Anja, with the box of matches in her hand, already appeared to have gone into a trance.

“Anja?” Olivia tried gently.

Olivia’s neighbor returned to the land of the living with a start. She stared at the match box in her hand as if she had no idea how it had gotten there. Then, carefully, she set the box on the Oriental mat beside the beeswax candle.

“Anja?” This time the question came from Brittany.

“I…think of something I forgot to do this night.” A frown grew between Anja’s elegantly trimmed eyebrows. “I must go back to the lab.”

“Oh! No,” exclaimed Shana, turning around at the back door. “We all agreed. Wednesday was sacred.”

“I’m very sorry.” Anja’s face was an odd mix of preoccupation and regret as she rose from her cross-legged position on the floor. “I don’t know how I could have forgotten. Is very urgent. You all excuse me, please.”

“No.” Shana looked as if she were about to stamp her foot.

“Of course we’ll excuse you.” Brittany threw a dark look toward Shana. “Emergencies can happen to anybody.”

“Well, ” Shana relented, obviously remembering as she strode back toward the futon sofa. “There was that time I had to finish up a proposal for a big client by midnight.”

“There. You see, it’s perfectly all right,” Brittany assured Anja.

Anja, now standing, gave them all an apologetic smile. “I’m so sorry I forgot this important thing I have to do.”

“It’s all right. Didn’t we all say so?” But Olivia felt concern beneath her own reassuring smile. Anja looked decidedly off-balance. “Do you need anything?” Olivia asked. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Yeah,” Shana put in. “Anything we can do, just let us know.”

“Same goes,” Brittany said.

Anja appeared surprised by the offers of aid. Suddenly, the anxiety cleared from her brow. “I give up trust, but not for you, my friends. For you I keep my trust.”

“Now that’s the spirit,” Shana said.

“You can trust me, but I don’t know about her,” Brittany jibed, thumbing at Shana.

Shana rolled her eyes while Anja laughed and went to the sliding glass door. “I will call soon,” she promised.

“Do that,” Olivia agreed, and made a note to do the calling if Anja didn’t.

Meanwhile, Anja opened the sliding door. The sound of the barking dog briefly reentered the room while she stepped out and before she closed the door after herself again.

“Whose dog is that, anyway?” Shana muttered.

“I hope she’s all right,” Olivia murmured with a frown.

“Does this mean we get out of meditating?” Brittany asked hopefully.

“Not on your life.” Olivia gestured. “Light that candle.”

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