“This makes me feel a little sick, Rachel, using Christmas as a set up for an ambush.” Kate fingered a piece of holly that stood proudly around the punch bowl and avoided her friend’s direct gaze.
“Kate, it’s a cookie exchange. It’s the perfect set up for a little minor questioning. That’s what we do at these things anyway, right? Stand around and pump information out of each other?”
“But the information isn’t always this. . .” Kate paused to grasp the right word. “Specific.”
“Look, a young, unattached woman applies for a secretarial position in your husband’s law firm where, I know I don’t have to remind you, he’s the only lawyer. That’s two people, male and female, in one location all day together.”
“Jackson has court, Rach. He’s not always there.” Kate actually had no idea how much Jackson had been out and about lately. He hadn’t said much when he finally made it home at night, and she’d been too busy with holiday festivities, including the plans for this very night. Even at this very moment Jackson was working late, and she’d be too tired to hold up her end of the conversation by the time he got home.
Rachel pulled her back to the present moment. “Kate, exactly how much time do you think she needs to get her claws in? I just want you to know what you’re up against. Hence,” she smiled at the room, “tonight’s festivities. We’ll learn where she stands. We might even all be friends by the end of the night.”
Kate knew better; she saw the glint in Rachel’s eyes. It was hard and calculating, a trait her friend had gleaned while staggering to the finish line of her marathon of a divorce, a race she would never willingly have participated in. But when her then-husband’s mere admiration for his newly hired assistant’s professionalism suddenly blossomed into an overwhelming lust--Rachel would never refer to his feelings as love--she didn’t have much of a choice.
Rachel retreated from life for two years on the day her divorce was final. Until then, she had held out some slight hope that Edward might wake up one morning, turn to his leggy blonde, and realize her morning breath was as stale as anyone else’s. He would start to feel the stirrings of desperation in the pit of his stomach at all he had given up. He would come back a broken and humble man, and Rachel would take him back wholeheartedly after putting up a good front at considering whether she should let him enter back into their home. For goodness sake, she told Kate, the girl’s name is Wren. He’ll be back.
Instead, Edward flew to Cancun to build his love nest in a cozy resort and married Wren a week after the divorce was final. When Kate saw the pictures on social media, a paunchy Edward smiling beside a fresh-faced, dark-haired girl who looked like she belonged in a sorority house, she almost vomited herself. What Rachel must be going through was unimaginable to her.
So while Rachel couldn’t resurrect her own marriage, she certainly wasn’t going to stand by while someone else’s matrimony began the trek to an early grave. She knew the signs, and the first one was a newly hired, unmarried younger woman.
Kate and Rachel stood silently for a moment, both lost in thought. Most everyone had arrived by then, except the intended guest. A thought suddenly struck Kate. “Where’s Shan?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Another headache. So she says.”
“She always has a headache.”
“Yep, and his name is James. I told her she needs a good doctor and an even better lawyer. Hopefully Jackson will be getting a call from her soon. I’m the last person to suggest divorce, but if I had to be married to such a cantankerous, thoughtless person. . .At least Ed was good to me while we were together.”
Kate nodded her head sympathetically. “So we’re only missing the one attendee then.”
“But there she is now.” Rachel tilted her head toward the door, and Kate sucked in her stomach a little tighter at the woman’s appearance. She wished she were near a trash can, so she could throw the oatmeal chocolate-chip cookie away she had craved all afternoon. By the looks of her, Jackson’s new assistant probably hadn’t eaten a cookie in years.
Kate stepped forward, but Rachel reached out a hand quickly to stop her. Rachel smiled, in Kate’s opinion, a bit too ravenously. “I’ll go make our guest feel welcome.”
“Of course.” Rachel blinked innocently and glided away.
Kate watched as Rachel approached the young woman, Camille was her name, and took the delicately wrapped cookies graciously out of her hands. She steered Camille toward the table, and Kate heard her laugh a little too loudly, a hollow sound that echoed across the room.
Kate knew then that the exchange would not go well, no matter what Rachel had promised. Celeste might be blonde, but in Rachel’s mind, this was her chance to say everything she’d never had a chance to say to her husband’s mistress.
The conversation ended more quickly than Kate had anticipated. Rachel stalked away to the kitchen; Camille stood alone again, a ribbon of red climbing up her neck, marking her embarrassment.
Kate sighed. No matter what Rachel thought of Camille, it was obviously time to do damage control. It was Kate’s home after all.
Camille looked wary at Kate’s approach, as if it might be wisest to fling the small plate holding a cookie aside and make a mad dash for the front door. She actually had taken a step when Kate intercepted her.
“Camille?” Kate made sure the name came out in the softest possible tone, with a bit of a lilt to denote interest.
“I’m sorry it took me a minute to get over here.”
Camille visibly gathered herself and stood a little taller. “Are you? It looked more like a strategic plan to me.”
So she was smart, Kate thought. She vaguely remembered Jackson mentioning that, but Kate hadn’t taken much interest at the time. Pay attention to anything he says about her, Rachel had warned her soon after.
“Yes. Well. I don’t know where to start. I’m sure Rachel didn’t mean whatever it was she said.” The lie came easily to Kate, who was usually a stickler for the truth, but there was simply no other way to salvage the situation.
Camille raised her eyebrows. “I’m pretty sure she meant everything she said.”
Kate’s hand went immediately to her earring and she pulled, an old nervous habit left over from much younger days. “What did she say exactly?”
“Oh, just something about how the women here look after each other, and she hopes I’ll be able to fit into the group. That this is a place where marriage is respected and homes are sacred.” She snorted, and Kate instantly liked her, this woman who she should probably be regarding as the greatest threat to her marriage. “Definitely not your typical 'so glad to see you here at the cookie exchange' type of conversation.”
“Listen Camille, there’s a whole backstory there. You see, Rachel’s husband. . .”
Camille held up a hand. “I get it, Kate.”
“Very much so. My guess is Rachel and I probably have a lot more in common than she would ever guess.
“Too pretty for that to happen to me?”
“Something like that.”
“It’s funny the rules we attempt to apply to infidelity. To a concept that’s much too complicated to be fully understood by any of us. Rachel’s rule is that any younger, unmarried woman who seeks employment at the establishment of a married man has a motive, right? Besides a bi-weekly paycheck, I mean.”
“That about sums it up.”
“My husband left me for a woman six years older. He’d always had a crush on her growing up and when she returned home from wherever she’d been and decided she now liked what she saw, he told me it was just an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.” Camille snorted again. “Almost like he’d just try things out, but come back if it didn’t quite meet his expectations. I didn’t wait around to see how it turned out.”
“Oh, Camille, I had no idea.”
“I’ll just say it, Kate. Your marriage isn’t under any kind of threat from me.” She reached out to briefly squeeze Kate’s hand that still held the plate with the untouched cookie from earlier.
Kate wanted to feel relief, she really did. It was just--something was off. But she couldn’t pinpoint it. Camille was watching her closely. She seemed on the verge of speaking again, but then flashed a--was it sympathetic?--smile.
Camille turned to leave, but Kate stopped her once more. “Maybe we can get together for coffee one day? Lunchtime or even after you’re finished at work? I’d like to make this up to you somehow.”
“Sure, Kate. You call when you can.” And then she was gone, but the unsettled feeling in the pit of Kate’s stomach remained.
A scant week later, Jackson came home, sat Kate down, and told her he’d accidentally fallen in love with Shan, that Shan didn’t have headaches and he hadn’t really had to work late so many nights. They’d met secretly on the night of the cookie exchange, and it was then they decided it best to inform their spouses of their decision to be together.