In Kate White’s novel “Hush,” Lake Warren learns that her husband, Jack, is suing for full custody of their two kids four months after their separation, and she's pretty certain that things can't get any worse. What she doesn't know is that things will get deadly. An excerpt.
“You've got a secret, don’t you?”
“What do you mean?” Lake asked. Caught off guard by the comment, she set her wineglass down on the café table and pulled her head back slightly.
“There’s a cat-that-ate-the-canary look on your face.”
She knew Molly was picking up on something she herself had only realized in the past few days: the grief and guilt that had stalked her so unmercifully for four months had finally begun to retreat. She felt lighter, less oppressed, suddenly even hungry for life again. Earlier, as she’d hurried down Ninth Avenue to meet Molly for lunch in Chelsea, she’d actually felt a brief surge of joy — because of the brilliant summer sky and the work she was doing and the fact that somewhere something new and good might be waiting for her.
“Don’t tell me you’re seeing someone?” Molly added.
“God, no,” Lake said. “I just feel like the gloom has finally lifted.” She smiled. “I may even surprise you and be less than a total sad sack today.”
“Just remember, it can be a real emotional roller coaster right now,” Molly said, shaking out her long red hair. “What I learned the first year after my divorce was that you feel great one second and then bam, the blues are back — and you’re in bed for the next four days with the covers pulled over your head.”
“I’m not expecting any miracles,” Lake said. “I’m just sick of moping around like some character in a Lifetime movie. I’m a forty-four-year-old single mother, and it won’t be a breeze, but I’m ready to see it as an adventure rather than a curse. And it helps that I love working with my new client. The clinic does good stuff.”
“So what’s happening with the divorce? Are things moving along?”
“My lawyer has been playing telephone tag with Jack’s. But he thinks the agreement should be ready to sign before the kids are back from camp. Once that’s done, I’ll really be able to move on.”
“Then why not date?” Molly asked. “It would be so good for you.”
“Well, I’m hardly beating men off with a stick.”
“The reason no one’s in hot pursuit is that you make it so hard for guys to talk to you,” Molly said. “When are you going to let your guard down? You’re a knockout, Lake.”
That’s helpful, Lake thought. Molly made her sound like a feral cat that ran and hid under the nearest porch whenever anyone approached. Sometimes she rued the day she confided in Molly about what she’d gone through when she was younger.
“I don’t think I’m ready for any kind of romance, anyway.”
“What about the doctor?” Molly asked, her green eyes flashing.
“That guy at the fertility clinic — the one you said was kind of flirty with you.”
“Oh, Keaton,” Lake said. As she said his name she pictured his face: the slate-blue eyes, the brown hair spiked a little in front, so un-doctor-y. And that soft, full mouth. “He’s the type who would flirt with a coat rack,” she added. “A real player, I’m sure. Playing has its place, you know. Why not try a little eye sex and see where it takes you?”
“Do you make these expressions up yourself, Molly?” Lake asked, smiling.
“When there’s nothing suitable in the vernacular, yes.”
“He lives in L.A., anyway. He’s just consulting with the clinic for a few weeks. Should we check out the menu?”
Over lunch Lake did her best to steer the conversation off herself and toward her friend’s latest exploits as a fashion stylist. It wasn’t that she failed to appreciate Molly’s concern for her. When Lake had gradually withdrawn from her two closest friends after the separation, too sick with shame to face them, Molly had persisted with her, offering herself as combination confidante and coach. Lake had eventually relented and had come to like the attention. But at times it could feel overwhelming. Maybe because Molly had always been just a casual friend, someone Lake had known professionally, and it was weird to have her in this new role. Or maybe because at heart, Lake had always been a bit of a loner.
“I’m supposed to hear about another job today,” Molly said later, as their coffee arrived. “Do you mind if I check my email?”
Lake used the moment to look at her own BlackBerry. There was a missed call from her lawyer, Robert Hotchkiss. Finally, she thought. But as she played back the message, she felt a rush of fear, like water gushing through a garden hose. He wanted to see her right away. And his voice sounded grim.
“Look, I’d better jump in a cab and get up there,” Lake said after filling Molly in. “Something’s clearly come up.”
She called Hotchkiss as soon as she hugged Molly goodbye and stepped onto the sidewalk. though she didn’t reach him directly, the receptionist told her he was anxious to talk — no, she didn’t know why — and it was fine for Lake to drop by as soon as she could. Now what, she thought, as she threw her head against the backseat of the cab. Was Jack going to renege on his promise to let her and the kids keep the apartment? She’d spent a year being humiliated and hurt by him, and it made her furious to think he might have something else up his sleeve.
She was fuming by the time she arrived at Hotchkiss’s midtown Manhattan suite. the receptionist, an older woman whose champagne-colored hair was curled as tight as a poodle’s, didn’t even announce her but simply led her down the hall.
As Lake entered Hotchkiss’s office, he rose from his boat-size desk to greet her. He was about sixty, with a ruddy face and a stomach that draped over his expensive belt like a sandbag.
“Excuse the chaos, Lake,” he said, gesturing toward stacks of bulging brown legal files. “I’m in the middle of a messy case.”
“Well, with two kids in grade school, I know all about chaos.”
Her comment sounded stupid to her own ears. What she wanted to do was skip the chitchat and shout, “What the hell is Jack up to now?”
“I can tell you never let it get the best of you,” Hotchkiss said. “Please sit down. I appreciate your coming on such short notice.”
“Is there some new development?” she asked, working to keep her voice calm.
“Yes — and I’m afraid it’s not good.”
“What is it?” she blurted out.
“Jack has filed a custody complaint,” Hotchkiss said. “He’s now asking for full custody rather than joint.”
“What?” Lake exclaimed, shocked. As shabbily as her ex-husband had behaved, there’d been no hint he’d pull something like this. “That makes no sense. His business is so busy these days — he doesn’t have time to take care of a fish tank, let alone two kids.”
“Then it’s probably a ploy for money. Maybe it’s finally sunk in that besides child support and alimony, you’re getting half the assets, and he’s not happy. This may be a way to convince you to settle for less.”
Lake’s stomach began to knot in both anger and fear. Her kids were hardly babies — Will was nine and Amy eleven — but the thought of losing them sickened her. It was tough enough turning them over to Jack every other weekend.
“Does — does he have a chance?” Lake asked.
“I don’t think so. From what I can determine, you’ve been a terrific mother. But we need to proceed carefully and guard our flank. Tell me a little more about your work — what are the hours like?”
“Because of everything with the divorce, I only have one new client right now — a private fertility clinic. I don’t even work a forty-hour week.”
His brows knitted in incomprehension and she realized he’d forgotten what she did for a living.
“My consulting business,” she clarified. “I develop marketing strategies — for clients in the health and beauty industries.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Sorry, I forgot the details. Well, that’s excellent. You’ve scaled back. No one can accuse you of being a workaholic and turning over the care of your kids to a cadre of Jamaican nannies.”
“No, no one could say that at all.” Lake hesitated for a second. “Before I started my business two years ago, I did have a regular job — at a luxury cosmetic company. The hours weren’t brutal, but I sometimes didn’t get home till six-thirty or so. And I had to travel.”
She felt a trickle of sweat run down her neck. She’d been damn proud of her job back then — would Jack dare to turn that against her? From the start of their marriage he’d been so supportive, especially after Will was born and the working-mother equation became even crazier to solve. “You can’t not work, Lake,” he’d said. “You’re so good at what you do.” It was impossible to believe that the man she’d fallen for fourteen years ago had become this vindictive.
“How much travel?” Hotchkiss asked.
“Well, not every week,” she said. “Not even every month. But I went to L.A. a couple of times a year. To London once a year.”
He scribbled a few notes, his red face scrunched in consternation, as if she’d just announced she’d recently been in rehab for addiction to crack cocaine.
“But that’s hardly out of the norm,” she said. “How can that —?”
“It shouldn’t present a problem,” Hotchkiss said, shaking his head. “I just need to be fully informed. Do you presently spend a good amount of time with the kids?”
“Yes, of course. We do have a nanny slash housekeeper, but only part-time. She’s off now because the kids are at sleepaway camp.”
“When they return, you have to make them your number-one priority. When school starts, you escort them there yourself — not the nanny.”
“I’d do that anyway,” she said. She couldn’t believe she had to defend herself this way.
Hotchkiss raised his beefy fingers to his lips steeple-style for a moment, and then lowered them.
“So you’ve had a little free time this summer,” he said. “Have you been up to the Catskills? You kept the weekend house, right?”
“Yes, I kept the house in Roxbury,” she said, wondering what that had to do with anything. “Jack wasn’t interested in it anymore — he wanted a place in the Hamptons. But I actually haven’t been up there at all this summer since the kids have been at camp. I’ve just stayed in Manhattan.”
He offered a tight smile, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Are you seeing anyone right now?” he asked after a moment.
So that’s what he’d been getting at. In her agitated state, she was briefly tempted to respond with sarcasm, to say that at age forty-four she’d discovered the thrills of being a cougar, an older woman with a taste for young hotties. But Hotchkiss wouldn’t be amused. He’d probably never even heard the word cougar used that way.
“No, no one,” she admitted.
Hotchkiss sighed. “I’m glad to hear it. Technically there’s nothing wrong with dating now — or even having a sexual relationship with someone — as long as it doesn’t impact negatively on the kids. But during a custody dispute you don’t want to give even a hint of impropriety. This is not the time to bring a new man around the kids. Definitely do not bring a man into your home whether the kids are there or not. In fact, the smartest thing for you to do right now is socialize in groups.”
Not that there was a slew of dates to be canceled, but here was yet another thing Jack was stealing from her.
“So how do we fight this?” she asked anxiously. She realized that they’d now be going from a no-fault divorce situation to a contested one. And the kids would be dragged through the mess.
“The court will appoint a child psychologist to make an evaluation, probably in a month or so. But if this is about money, as I suspect it is, Jack’s lawyer may tip his hand before then.”
“I’ll being seeing Jack at the camp this Saturday — it’s parents’ day. What should I do?”
She wanted to hear him say “Skin him alive,” but Hotchkiss simply flipped up his hands and shook his head. “Don’t say a word about this. And be civil, especially in front of the kids.”
Her brain was racing and she knew she’d soon have more questions, but she saw Hotchkiss glance at his watch. He’d obviously squeezed her in this afternoon.
“I know this is a terrible curveball,” Hotchkiss said, “but I’m optimistic. The key point is not to do anything out of the ordinary. Make your life as routine as possible.” He smiled. “Don’t rob a bank, for instance. The worst thing is to give Jack a reason to file for temporary custody. If you lose ground, it’s hard to get it back.
“Not to alarm you,” he added, leading her to the door, “but it’s possible Jack might even have you followed, looking for evidence.”
“Followed,” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe this.” Her anger seeped through her entire body, making her feel flushed. Jack had been the one to leave. He had no right to sic a private eye on her.
“Actually, we might consider something like that ourselves, considering what you told me previously. Let’s think it over.”
When she’d agreed to give Jack a divorce so he could start his shiny new life, she’d told Hotchkiss she thought he might be involved with someone — but, other than his total detachment, she’d never had any evidence and had come to doubt her own suspicions. But now Hotchkiss’s comment brought the possibility rushing back. Was Jack planning to start a new family with a wife better suited to his hot entrepreneurial image, the kids just part of the package? Is that why he’d lodged the custody challenge? If Jack thought Lake was going to step aside and hand her kids over to him and a girlfriend, he was sorely mistaken.
Excerpted from "Hush" by Kate White. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.