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The divorce club, p.3
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       The Divorce Club, p.3

           Jayde Scott
 
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  He turns to face me, his eyes beaming again. "I'm a business exec."

  Now I'm the one letting out a snort. "So you're Robin Hood, except that you rob the poor to give back to the rich. How altruistic."

  "Says the one who robs children of their youth so they can make pretty handbags." He points at my second-hand Louis Vuitton.

  My temper flares up, leaving a boiling feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Louis Vuitton don't engage in child labor. Besides, it was a gift."

  The guy nods. "Ah, a gift. That certainly makes it more acceptable."

  Heat scorches my cheeks. I've no idea why I'm arguing with this man. He's not even that good-looking, but I know I'm lying to myself. He's well-dressed, groomed, probably almost as educated as a NASA astronaut―and makes me all defensive. But, after dealing with Greg for fifteen years, I can certainly deal with Mister Business Exec.

  "Can you call me back once you get home?" I ask Mel as I keep my gaze fixed on the guy in front of me.

  Mel agrees and I hang up, smiling at my visitor.

  "So." He cocks his head.

  "So." I imitate his posture. "You'd sue me, wouldn't you?"

  "Yep," he says, grinning.

  "Okay." I open a drawer and pull out an application form, which I push toward him. "Fill this out, please. It's four hundred a month." I usually charge two, but I feel as though he owes me after all the headache.

  "Four hundred?"

  I nod, feeling guilty because my superego tells me I'm about to cheat someone out of their hard-earned cash. "That's quite cheap considering the kind of service you'll receive here."

  "I thought you charged more." He points at the scratched up chair. "You know, to get new furniture."

  "Really?" There's my chance, so I switch off my bad conscience and go with it. "That's because I just offered you the basic package. If you want the 'extras' you'll obviously have to fork out more."

  "What's the 'extras'?" He looks up from the application form.

  "A 24/7 emergency line and an employee's constant surveillance that you stick with your goals. After all, if you want to change your life, the changes have to come from within yourself."

  He seems impressed as he signs the form and hands it back to me. I read his name written in all caps: JAMES BOWERS.

  "Everyone calls me Jamie." He points at the form as though reading my thoughts.

  "I'm Sarah."

  "Do you do home or office visits as well?" he asks.

  I nod, suddenly recognizing his enthusiasm. He didn't mean to sound rude; he just wanted to join so badly that he saw no other option but to threaten me. "Any time."

  "In that case, it's worth every nickel."

  "Five hundred," I say, hoping I'm not pushing my luck. He doesn't even blink as he hands me his credit card and signs the standing order form.

  As soon as I've locked all papers inside my drawer he asks, "When do we begin?"

  "You just missed our first session, but that's okay. You can jump in on Thursday and I'll give you an hour longer to set up a personal timetable."

  Jamie hesitates. "I guess I can stand waiting another forty-eight hours, but it'll be tough."

  I gape at him. He must really want to get that divorce. I'm wondering how bad things are at home. "If you need to talk, just call me. We've run out of brochures, but here's my number." I jot it down on a blue sticky note.

  "So, if I wake up at three a.m. and feel like hitting a wall or something, I know who to call." His expression is dead serious.

  "Yep, that'd be me." I smile, hoping he wouldn't dream of calling me at that unholy hour.

  "Thanks. I appreciate it." His lips stretch into a lazy smile and a dimple appears on his right cheek. I avert my gaze quickly before I look like an idiot staring at a stupid dimple.

  "Divorce can be a traumatic event in a person's life. Even if you believe your world's crashing down on you, we'll keep you grounded as you progress through the various stages," I say in the hope I might cheer him up a bit. "See you in two days then. We start at five p.m. Don't let the missus bug you."

  A frown crosses his forehead as he stands and heads for the door. "I'll find my way out. Goodbye."

  Chapter 4

  On the way home, I keep replaying the conversation between Jamie and me in my head. I never figured a man to want to join my club because men don't have difficulties breaking up with their girlfriends or wives. They're the ones to usually pack their bags and leave behind a mortgage and 2.4 children plus the dog and the bumped car. According to my narrow-minded life view it should've been the missus standing in my office. So, naturally, I'm nervous because I know I'm about to dab into unknown territory here and soon explore the male way of thinking.

  I park my old VW in front of the house and unlock the door, hoping Sam's already home for once and I don't have to track down her location this evening.

  "Sam?" My voice carries through the dark hall as I switch on the lights. The clock in the living room ticks—the only sound in the house. Mel had a point when she advised me to get one of those GPS tracking devices. That'd save me lots of time and money spent on calling Sam's friends since my beloved daughter can't be bothered to pick up the phone.

  With a sigh, I dial her number. A second later, her phone rings somewhere upstairs. I follow the unnerving Black Eyed Peas melody to the upper floor, knock on the door and enter.

  "What?" Sam asks. She's cowered underneath her duvet; the curtains are drawn, bathing the room in darkness.

  "Are you all right?" I draw closer and put a hand on what I assume to be her back.

  "I'm fine." She doesn't sound okay. Her voice is hoarse and choked like she's been crying for hours.

  "Did anything happen?" I sit on the edge because I'm worried now. A metropolitan city's not a good place to raise a child. Hundreds of thoughts race through my head. Did someone hurt or threaten her? Is she being bullied? Did the boyfriend break up with her?

  "I said I'm fine," Sam snaps.

  I hesitate. The right thing to do would be to get up and leave her alone until she's ready to talk about it, but she might take that the wrong way and think I don't care.

  "Come on." I push back the covers and grab Sam's arm, pulling her gently to her feet. "I know something that'll make you feel better."

  "What?" She eyes me suspiciously.

  "You'll see."

  She follows me down to the kitchen and slumps into a chair as I take out the chocolate chips and start stirring them into a ready-made muffin dough. Sam doesn't say a word but I can tell from the way she peers at the chocolate that she won't complain.

  "Want to help me?" I push the muffin tray toward her and watch as she pours in the dough. "You know I'm here for you, right?"

  "I know, Mum."

  "Whatever it is, I won't be angry because I love you," I say. "And if anyone's threating to hurt you or me, don't believe them. It's just a trick to reel you in and keep you silent."

  The dough spills over. Sam wipes it off with her fingers and licks them clean. "You told me that a hundred times. No one's threatening me."

  "That's good." What else could it be? I strain my brain to come up with more possibilities.

  "I might fail math," Sam says.

  "What?" I drop the spoon in my hand and gape at her.

  "You said you'd never be angry. Now prove it."

  "Well, yeah." I need to play this cool and keep my word because otherwise she might not trust me again. But failing in school wasn't part of the deal when I made the offer. "What happened? You said the last exam went just fine."

  Sam shrugs. "I couldn't focus."

  "Oh, Sam." I wrap my arms around her and pull her close. She gives into my hug and presses her head against my chest, first sobs rippling through her skinny body like a tremor. Sam's always been proud of her good marks, but since her father and I split up she's been having concentration issues. "It's okay. We'll figure something out." A pang of guilt hits me full force. Even though I know it's not my fault I can't stop
thinking that maybe I somehow provoked Greg's betrayal and our consequent divorce.

  Sam nods and pulls back. I wipe away her tears and heat the oven, chirping as I work. "I can help you with your revision. We'll work out a schedule to get you back on track. Everything will be fine."

  "You're right. Thanks, Mum." Sam places the tray inside the oven and turns to face me. "How was your first day at work?"

  I feel the heat scorching my cheeks as Jamie's image pops into my head. A crush's not going to happen, so I push him to the back of my mind and start recalling the first meeting, leaving out the juicy details. Fifteen minutes later, we cuddle on the sofa with a plate full of chocolate chip muffins. I should be cooking a proper dinner for my daughter, but I see Sam's spark has returned and I don't want to spoil the mood. Time to put the mother role aside and play friend.

  ***

  I spend the next day trying to make sense of Sam's curriculum. Three years of statistics at college and I can't figure out a few simple mathematical formulas. Thank God for Yahoo! Answers. By the time Sam gets home from school my head's throbbing. It's past nine when I can finally get to bed. The phone rings as soon as I've switched off the lamp.

  "What?" I press the receiver against my ear, forgetting that I'm supposed to run a 24/7 hotline.

  "I wanted to tell him tonight but I couldn't. Instead, we had sex."

  "Who's there?" I ask, straining to sit up.

  A short pause, then, "Oh, sorry, it's Simone."

  Simone, the redhead—I remember her, but I've no idea what she's talking about. "Okay, slow down. Just tell me what happened." Of course I wish she'd just say it's not important and hang up so I can get back to sleep, but I can see I've no such luck.

  "We had a fight because I couldn't take him pretending everything's fine," Simone says. "One word led to another, and then we made up. It wasn't even bad. I'm so confused."

  "Stay away from him, keep your distance." I try to make sense of her words through the splitting headache. "Letting him get under your skin now's just going to cloud your judgment."

  "I know that. I wish I knew why I let it happen."

  It's called being horny, but it's not my job to tell her that. "Don't blame yourself. It happens to the best of us. Why don't we discuss it at tomorrow's meeting?"

  "But I don't get it. Apart from putting on weight, I did everything you advised. He said he knows I'm only nagging because I'm so stressed out and then he went on to give me a massage. I thought I didn't even fancy him any more," Simone continues as though she didn't hear me.

  I hug my pillow to my chest, imagining myself sinking into it and getting some much needed sleep after hours of fighting to make sense of some numbers. "You probably don't now, Simone, but you did in the past. It's only understandable those memories will come back to haunt you. It doesn't mean a thing. Now, if we could just—"

  "But I enjoyed myself." She says the word as though it's evil.

  "Your body has urges that need to be taken care of every now and then."

  "With him?" Simone shouts. "That's just wrong."

  I'd like to point out that there's nothing wrong with enjoying a romp with the hubby. Simone's attitude toward her partner strikes me as odd, so I make a mental note to mention that tomorrow—if she doesn't keep me up all night and I don't end up too exhausted to even remember my name. "Just look at it as a one-night stand. Men do it all the time, so why not women?"

  "Have you ever had one?" Simone's question takes me by surprise.

  "Of course not," I say, realizing how defensive I sound. "But I know a lot of people who did."

  "Oh."

  "Wait, I did once," I hurry to add. "When my ex and I separated I relapsed, just like you." That's a lie. I would've never let Greg back into my bed. Even the thought makes me want to throw up, but if it helps Simone, then the sudden nausea in the pit of my stomach's worth it.

  "You didn't fancy him any more either?" Simone asks.

  "Not one bit." This isn't a lie. I had to force myself to even discuss the shopping list with him.

  Simone laughs. "Wow. You've made me feel so much better. See you tomorrow, then?"

  "Looking forward to it." Fake enthusiasm drips from my voice, but Simone's already hung up.

  I snuggle under the duvet, ready to sink into dreamland, when the phone beeps again. This time it's a text message. Honestly, that 24/7 helpline wasn't my brightest idea. Mel assured me no one would ever be that desperate to call, but I've had my fair share of desperation in the last thirty-six hours.

  Groaning, I retrieve the phone, knocking over my tube of hand cream in the process, and open the message.

  Hey gorgeous. Been thinking of u. U wearing that black little number?

  How does he know what I'm wearing? Unless he's been watching me…A cold shudder runs down my spine as I peer at the unknown number. What's worse than a creep? An anonymous one. Any trace of sleep gone, I jump out of the bed and dash for the window to check the curtains are indeed drawn. Then I realize the wacko could be leering over an image of me this minute, so I cross my arms over my chest, covering the bare skin exposed through the sheer material. He could've sneaked in here and I'd never know. But why am I even worried about myself when the creep could be targeting my daughter all along while trying to divert my attention?

  I yank the door open and stomp down the hall to Sam's room. She's already asleep, her breath coming in soft heaps. I shake her arm gently.

  "Sam? Are you awake?" She stirs and moans, reminding me of the times I had to wake her up early as a child. "I want you to sleep in my room tonight."

  In the darkness I see her bright eyes sparkle. "Mum, aren't you too old to be having nightmares?"

  The alarm in her voice is obvious, so I smile and infuse some fake cheeriness into my tone because there's no point in frightening her. "No, sweetie. I just can't sleep, you know, feeling a little bit lonely."

  "Oh, okay. Just don't snore or steal the covers." She gets up and accompanies me to my bedroom where I lock the door even though I know that won't make me feel safe either. Nothing could make me feel protected at this point, not even the phone on the nightstand.

  Sam's shallow breathing tells me she's fallen asleep almost as soon as she hits the pillow. But for me, it's a long night. I toss and turn, my gaze wandering from the door to the window and then back to the door. It's amazing how a single text message can turn a stable person into an obsessive lunatic. At times, I wish I lived in the fifteen century when the word divorce wasn't even invented yet and men were still men: cheating, yes, but at least they knew how to protect their families. The one time we were mugged on a street, Greg pushed me in front of him and pretended to be invisible.

  It's barely six when I give up hope on any sleep and sneak down to the kitchen. By the time Sam joins me I've prepared a full plate of steaming waffles. Sam wolfs down a couple, then brushes her teeth and hurries out the door to catch the bus, late as usual. I know it won't last much longer though because I've seen her inspecting herself in the mirror as she sucks in her flat tummy. In a year or two, when she's started counting calories, I'll probably sell the waffle maker on eBay.

  I pretend to spend the day spring-cleaning the house, but in reality I'm checking for surveillance cameras and bugs, any signs of a forced break-in or otherwise suspicious indicators that the wacko with the text message was here recently. But the locks still work and the windows show no damage. No clothes or lingerie are missing, no pictures have been removed, and nothing's suspect. I begin to relax, laughing at my paranoia and the possible onset of obsessive-compulsive behavior. But I still need to find out who sent the message. Maybe I gave a creep my number and can't recall, or he found one of the leaflets advertising the club and decided to play a prank on me. That I might be wearing a black nightgown could've been just a lucky guess. I've heard black lingerie's a bestseller this year. Feeling much better now, I cook Sam's dinner and leave a note on the table saying I'd be late tonight, then change and head out.

&
nbsp; I arrive at the club with half an hour to spare so I switch on all lights and brew coffee for the girls while I set up the chairs in the middle of the room, adding one more for our newest member. They arrive shortly after minus Mister Business Exec.

  Lucy's barely hung up her coat on the hooks in the hall when she starts chattering. "Well, don't you look sassy? Look at her. She's glowing."

  "Thanks." I peer at my baggy jeans and black top, which I don't think are particularly flattering on my small frame. The few pounds I've lost since my divorce would make me even prouder if I only had the money to buy clothes that fit.

  "What happened?" Lucy loops my arm with hers and pulls me down into the chair next to hers. "You've got to share some of the magic."

  Where do I even begin? Maybe it was the realization some sick person's stalking me. Or I could attribute my sudden glow to my daughter's failure at school and the consequent headache.

  "I've read it's that feeling of being free again," Simone says.

  Shannon smiles and joins in. "Oh, I'd love some of that. Free of the nagging hubby. Free of his soccer games and the stupid household chores."

  Someone should point out that getting rid of the hubby doesn't equal the vanishing of household chores.

  "Soccer?" Lucy asks as though it's a dirty word.

  Here we go again. In spite of myself I start to laugh.

  "Oh for God's sake, Lucy, she's American," Mindy says. "It's the American word for football, not a vibrator."

  I excuse myself to get the coffee from the kitchen, hoping Jamie will arrive in the meantime because it's already ten minutes past five. When I return with the tray holding the coffee mugs and the remaining chocolate chip muffins he's still not here. The ladies are getting excited, so I ask, "Shall we start, then?"

  Murmurs expressing agreement ensue, then the room falls silent and I take out my notes. "In our last session we discussed how important it is not to seek all fault within ourselves because the guy's to blame too. I hope you had enough time to practice this new world view and see a difference in the way you feel about your new circumstances."

 
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