Rose rested her phone on the kitchen bench and stared at Aiden standing in the entranceway, the raindrops on his jacket glinting in the light.
“What’s cancer?” she asked. Her mind felt sluggish, fixated on the photo displayed on the screen.
“The lump. Under my arm. It’s cancer.” Aiden ran his hands through his hair, sprinkling raindrops onto the ground.
He stumbled into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around her, his shoulders heaving as he sobbed into her hair. She slipped the phone into her pocket.
“I went to the doctor today.” His voice was husky.
“You said you were…” She shook her head. “Cancer? That lump?”
He traced his finger over her cheek. “I had a biopsy last week. I didn’t want to worry you, so I didn’t say anything.”
“When you were late home?”
She thought of the smorgasbord of wild accusations she imagined while watching the clock and the empty driveway. Hands on bare flesh, skin, lips, passion, delicious contempt and mouth-watering self-righteousness.
“The news isn’t good, Rose,” he whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s stage four. Metastasized from my liver.” He rested his lips on her nose, his five-o’clock shadow prickling and rough on her skin. “They can’t cure it.”
“They have to,” she whispered.
Aiden shook his head. “I love you.”
“There has to be something. An experimental drug? Something. Anything.” Rose jerked out of his arms and slammed her fist on the bench.
She laid her head in her arms and cried big, hacking sobs. “It can’t end like this. It’s not fair.”
Aiden rested his hand on her back, the steady weight familiar, constant. She closed her eyes, and let the delicious contempt, the wild accusations, the photo dissolve into impossibility.
“The doctor told me about a new drug that’s had some success,” he said quietly.
She spun around, her gaze meeting his watery eyes. “Let’s do it.”
He looked at the floor.
“It’s not funded.”
“About three hundred and twenty thousand.”
She ran her finger along the smooth edge of her phone in her pocket. The photo locked inside. It couldn’t end like this.
“What if we asked Julia?”
Aiden looked surprised. Then coughed and offered a poor excuse for a smile.
“No, don’t do that,” he said, shuffling out of his jacket.
“You can’t just pick your wealthiest friend and ask them for a small fortune. Besides, we’d never be able to repay her.”
“Hey, it’ll be okay.” Aiden took her hands, bringing them to his lips and kissing them. “We’ll figure this out. Crowd funding or something.”
Crowd funding took too long. She picked at a smudge on his collar. “What’s that?”
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. Julia always said a photograph was worth a thousand words. How many dollars?
The price of Aiden’s life?
Breaking the rules, but for the right reasons?
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’ll find a way.”
Rose’s heels clicked on the footpath, beating out a rhythm as she walked, like a drummer marching warriors to war.
She paused in front of Julia’s letterbox, the envelope heavy in her hands. The weight of her hopes and the burden of her shame squeezed into a single crisp, white envelope. She’d sealed it with a sticker, a red heart, the symbol of love.
A red hatchback sat in the driveway, a Rip Curl sticker dominating the rear windscreen. Golf clubs in the back. Julia hated golf.
Rose caught herself grinding her teeth and relaxed her jaw. The upstairs curtains flapped across the open window. Curtains closed in the middle of the day. A red car in the drive.
She nudged the envelope towards the letterbox. Once it crossed the threshold, there was no turning back.
A thud followed by raucous giggling cascaded out the window. She poked the envelope into the slit, and it slid smoothly into the abyss. The plea laid. Her integrity extinguished. Aiden would get his recompense. Julia with her lover, too.
Breaking the rules. For the right reasons.
“Are you okay?” Rose rested her hand on Julia’s arm, her skin clammy. “You don’t seem quite yourself.”
Julia drew in a shaky breath, her lip trembling. “Rose, I’m being —”
A waiter carrying a tray of drinks arrived at their table. He delivered the cocktails and mumbled an apology before scurrying off to interrupt other lunchtime conversations.
Julia leaned closer, black clumps of mascara in her eyelashes.
“I’m being blackmailed,” she whispered.
Rose shifted in her chair, arranging her face into a frown. She reached for her margarita, her tongue thick and dry in her mouth.
“Blackmailed. What do you mean?”
Julia swallowed. “Well, I’ve done… You see… It’s like…” She fiddled with her napkin, her red nails scratching at a smudge in the corner. “You know the guy I’ve been seeing. The one you haven’t met.”
“He’s married.” Her voice cracked, and she sniffed.
“I know. I didn’t mean for it to happen. It just did.” She wiped her eyes, leaving a black streak across her cheek. The first crack in her perfectly manicured exterior.
“Someone’s found out. They’ve got photos and everything.”
“Oh, Julia.” Rose brushed her fingertips against Julia’s skin and tried to ignore the weight settling on her shoulders, squeezing out the last of her humanity.
“They say that unless I pay them, they’re going to release them.”
The waiter coughed, making Rose jump.
“Your order,” he said, slapping the plates on the table and scuttling away.
“How do you know they’ll do it?” Rose wiped her hands on her skirt.
“They had a list of all the emails they’d send the photos to.”
Rose laced her fingers to keep them from wiping the sweat on her forehead. “So it’s someone that knows you then? Or him?”
Julia nodded. “Maybe.”
She swallowed. “His wife?”
Julia shook her head. “I don’t think so.” Her voice caught in her throat and she looked at the floor.
“Are you going to pay?”
“I think so. They said I had to pay by tomorrow. I’m going to the bank after this.”
Rose leant back in her chair, the tension easing from her shoulders. “How much did they want?”
“Three hundred and twenty thousand.” Julia touched her mouth with trembling fingers. “They put their demands in my letterbox with a heart on the envelope. What kind of monster does that to someone?”
Three hundred and twenty thousand.
The price of life.
Julia looked out the window, and her eyes widened. Rose followed her gaze. A red car with a Rip Curl sticker on the back windscreen and a set of golf clubs in the back pulled into the carpark. A man with a green jacket and a five o’clock shadow climbed out of the car.
“Aiden’s here,” Julia said, clutching her napkin.
Rose nodded, watching Aiden walk towards them. “He said he’d pop in to share some news.”
Julia swallowed. “What news?”
“He’s got cancer.” Was using those words as weapons breaking a rule? Perhaps. Maybe for the right reasons, too.
Her phone pinged, and Rose picked it up off the bed. A smile twitched at the corners of her lips.
Aiden walked into the bedroom, a towel wrapped around his waist, and leant against the dresser. “Did you ask Julia for money before I got there yesterday?”
Rose slipped the phone into her pocket and picked up a pillowcase from the washing mound on the floor. “No, why?”
“She was acting super weird the whole lunch.”
Rose paused. Did he feel any guilt? Any remorse? Or was he so certain she didn’t know about the affair it never crossed his mind to feel guilty?
“You told her you had cancer.” Rose held his gaze. “You had to know that would affect her.”
“I guess.” Aiden looked at her tote bag resting against the bed. He frowned. “Why are you taking your bikini to work?”
Rose picked up a shirt from the pile and began folding. “I thought I might go for a swim this afternoon.”
It wasn’t a lie.
“The smudge on your collar didn’t come out.” Rose held the shirt for Aiden to see.
“Oh.” He coughed and picked at his nails.
“You should ask Julia to wear less lipstick next time, so she stops ruining your shirts.” She grabbed her bag and walked past Aiden, leaving him frozen in the bedroom.
Rose lay on the beach, the sun warming her legs and the sand hot between her toes. She sipped her margarita and closed her eyes, listening to seagulls squabble and waves crash on the beach.
She checked her watch. Any minute now, if the private investigator was the computer whizz his ad suggested. He hadn’t let her down so far.
Her phone dinged, and she opened her email, clicking on the attachment. Hands on bare flesh, skin, lips, passion. Julia. Aiden.
She checked the other recipients of the email and smiled, waiting.
Her phone dinged and pinged and vibrated. She switched it to silent and ordered another margarita.
The waiter delivered her cocktail. Her friends and family delivered messages of sympathy.
How could Aiden do that?
How could Julia?
We’re so sorry.
Are you okay?
Are you going to leave him?
There it was.
Leaving a dying husband was against the rules, but it’s perfectly reasonable to leave a cheating one. Friends and family extended sympathies to her. Julia’s money extended to first class and an exclusive beachside resort in the Bahamas.
How much was the photo worth?
Three hundred and twenty thousand dollars.
The price of life.
That cheating bastard could burn in hell for all she cared.
Rose sipped her margarita and closed her eyes. Breaking the rules. But for the right reasons.