Read The Sweet Life Online

Authors: Francine Pascal

The Sweet Life (4 page)

BOOK: The Sweet Life
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Chapter Six

Caroline Pearce was like a vindictive elephant—she never forgot a grudge. The fact that most of the people who knew her would also say she looked like one, too, was something she preferred not to think about. No matter how hard she dieted or exercised or what kind of clothes she wore, she'd always be boxy and thick, and at some level, frumpy.

Some might say it was jealousy more than anything else that motivated her now, as she worked to dig up dirt on the gorgeous Jessica Wakefield. Caroline never found it easy growing up two doors down from the beautiful Wakefield twins, always being compared to them and coming up short.

But Caroline saw it differently.

All she ever wanted was their friendship, or so she had convinced herself. Jessica never had been a good friend, a point that was hammered home not too long ago when Jessica so rudely threw her out of her house. Caroline only wanted to be a
good friend,
so that's why she went to warn Jessica that her nearly-ex-husband was fooling around with Sarah Miller.

Had Jessica been grateful to hear the news? No, she'd started screaming like a maniac and had thrown her out.

The rejection still stung.

And it hadn't been the first time, either.

For more than twenty years, Jessica had acted like she was better than Caroline and treated her like dirt, and Caroline wasn't going to take it anymore. Despite spreading often untrue rumors, Caroline easily convinced herself
she
was the victim, and that's why she'd been pressing her sources for any dirt she could dig up on Jessica.

Up until this morning, the rumors were all good news. She heard that Jessica and Todd might be getting back together, a thought that just made her stew with frustration. So she kept digging.

That morning, she finally hit gold.

It happened at yoga class at the Sweet Valley Gym. She had been doing downward dog next to her friend Amy Dent, who also worked as a clerk at the Imagine Hotel. They'd both bonded in the class, being the only women in there who weren't size sixes.

Amy bragged about seeing Liam O'Connor,
People
's Sexiest Import, with a mystery woman recently at the hotel. After class, she'd even shown Caroline a picture she'd snapped on her phone.

That's when Caroline saw her prayers had been answered. Liam hadn't been with just anybody. The girl with him was none other than Jessica Wakefield.

There they were, standing together, waiting for the elevator that would take them to his room. She looked a little tipsy, as she leaned against him for support. They were cozy, to say the least.

But the juiciest bits came next.

“I snuck up to the room, which is a big no-no,” Amy had confided to Caroline. “But I was going to ask if he might need anything, except that when I got to the room, I didn't even knock because I heard…” She leaned forward and continued in a whispered hush. “Some serious sex. These two? Let's just say…they weren't shy.”

That was the quote Caroline planned to put in bold in her blog entry.

Now, she clacked happily at her keyboard. Outside, darkness fell. Tonight was Jessica's big MeanGreen gala, she'd heard about that, too. Well, here would be a nice little exclamation point on the end of
that
evening, she thought.

Jessica and Todd back together? Not when
this
news hit the blogosphere. Caroline only wished she could actually see Jessica's face when she read this. Maybe then she'd finally be sorry.

She decided then and there that when she was done with the blog entry, she'd e-mail Todd the link. Caroline wasn't going to sit around and hope Todd heard about it. She was going to make sure he did.

After all, that's only what a
good friend
would do.

Chapter Seven

Just as Annie Whitman sat down in the courtroom her phone lit up with a text from Jessica.

CALL ME AS SOON AS YOU CAN. IT'S ABOUT BRUCE. WE NEED YOU.

She'd been waiting for this call ever since word of the scandal broke. The Bruce Patman case was right in her line of expertise. It was a case she was itching to handle. And now that she had moved up from San Diego to Sweet Valley, this was just the front-page trial that could shoot her right up to junior partner.

She glanced over at Doug, one of the three named partners in the firm Leisten, Hartke & White, the biggest defense firm in Southern California, and thought she still should be pinching herself that she was working for the biggest and best firm in Los Angeles. Leisten, Hartke & White always landed the most important cases. Granted, she had been known as the best defense lawyer in San Diego. Doug had practically pleaded with her to join the firm. Still, she couldn't help feeling a little nervous today, her first time in the courtroom in Sweet Valley. Her hometown could do that.

Today Annie was representing the starlet who'd been sued by a member of the paparazzi for running over his foot in her Maserati.

“You'll do great,” Doug told Annie, and smiled.

Annie took a deep breath. She tried not to think about the last time she'd stood in a courtroom before a judge. She hadn't been a lawyer at all, but a plaintiff.

That was six months ago, when she divorced Charlie Markus, her husband of seven years.

Charlie had been her high school sweetheart, the boy who helped her turn her life around. Without him in her life, she thought, she never would've finished law school. Or become one of San Diego's best defense attorneys.

He convinced her she knew how to defend people—to find in them what needed defending. She'd done it for herself her whole life, ever since she'd had to defend her reputation in high school. “Easy Annie,” they'd called her. But not anymore.

She gave Charlie credit for that.

But something shifted during the course of their marriage, though Annie couldn't say exactly when. At some point, Charlie ceased to be the optimistic and loving boy who believed in her and became a bitter, vindictive man who blamed her for everything wrong in his life.

Charlie used to be the one to tell Annie that things weren't so bad. That was before he'd spent twelve years trying—and failing—to get one of his four novels published.

While his career floundered, hers flourished. She earned promotion after promotion; he got stuck with boring freelance assignments writing about suspension and brake systems for car magazines. Her salary passed his years ago. They weren't even in remotely the same tax bracket anymore.

At some point, Annie came to realize that Charlie's resentment wasn't a passing phase. That happened about the time she read, first page to last, one of his unpublished manuscripts, the one called
Easy Annie
.

Charlie would never have let her read it. He guarded his laptop more closely than his ATM PIN, but she'd stumbled on the manuscript by accident. He'd left a copy he'd planned to send to a prospective agent out on the kitchen counter. She moved it to avoid dripping coffee on it, never intending to read it. The first sentence, however, caught her attention:

Before she met me, Annie was nothing but a cheap, sad girl, the kind all the boys would use, but none of them could ever love. She was nothing but sloppy seconds.

Annie couldn't stop reading after that, and as she read more, she found it didn't get better, only worse. A switch flipped inside her then. She saw clearly for the first time that Charlie only wanted to be with her as long as he was the savior and she was the save-ee, as long as she never got more respect than he did.

During the last year of their marriage, Annie went through her angry phase, but eventually, by the end, after all the mediation and the back-and-forth about custody of their beautiful son, who would soon start kindergarten, and a lot of counseling, she came to forgive him.

Now she knew she'd always be grateful for the kindness Charlie had shown her in high school. A part of her would always love him, too, despite the cruel things he wrote about her. He had saved her back in high school. But now she was going to save herself.

And she did—by cutting the cord and leaving him.

She took a deep breath now and told herself she was a long way from that woman who'd lived under the thumb of a bitter husband in San Diego. After the divorce became final six months ago, she moved back to Sweet Valley, into the house her mother had left her when she died, and now she was going to start a new life here with her son.

A new life that included being a part of Leisten, Hartke & White.

She began her arguments to the judge. Her words flowed smoothly and none of her nerves showed. The more she talked, the more confident she became, until she was completely in control. She felt the judge coming to see her side.

Doug gave her a slight nod and she knew she'd nailed it. The starlet would go free and not have to pay a dime; the photographer would have some explaining to do about why he'd thrown himself onto the hood of her car in the first place.

At that moment, she felt more like herself than she had since she'd filed for divorce.

After the hearing, she texted Jessica.

SORRY—JUST GOT OUT OF COURT. WHAT'S GOING ON?

Jessica texted back.

WE NEED A LEGAL EXPERT. CAN YOU COME TO BRUCE'S HOUSE TODAY?

Annie answered:

ABSOLUTELY.

She slipped her phone back into the front pocket of her briefcase. Bruce hadn't officially hired her as his defense attorney, but she hoped he would eventually. She'd been born to take his case. It would be monumental for her career, and it was one she felt pretty sure she could win.

She had no doubt Bruce was innocent.

Sure, Bruce had been full of himself in high school, but Annie had always had a soft spot for him, and now she was a little gleeful at the thought of helping him.

And she had Jessica to thank for that.

Amazing what a difference a few years makes. Since she'd come back to Sweet Valley, the two had actually become friends. She had always been close with Elizabeth, but since her firm began to handle VertPlus.net, Jessica's company, she had also been spending a lot of time with Jessica. The fact that they both were now single, working moms of little boys (hers now six and Jessica's two) also gave them lots to talk about.

Motherhood had mellowed Jessica, Annie thought. She wasn't quite the same spoiled Jessica from high school, the one who'd set out to keep her from the cheerleading squad. Boy, had she hated that Jessica then.

No, this was a more rational, more professional Jessica. Sure, she would always be a little self-centered, but that was just Jessica.

Now, Jessica had brought her—even unofficially—the most sought-after case in Southern California. Annie felt grateful.

Annie had good instincts. She had a talent for sniffing out something fishy with a victim's account, and in
this
story, something just didn't add up. She couldn't put her finger on it exactly, but she felt something was wrong, and she'd told Jessica so.

Eventually, she was sure, the truth would come out. It almost always did.

Chapter Eight

Steven Wakefield gently put baby Emma into her cradle shortly after two in the morning. He always held his breath when he put her down, praying the handoff to the crib wouldn't send her eyes flying open and unleash cries of protest.

Steven knew if she made even so much as a peep, his partner, Aaron, would be running down the hall and would scoop her up and rock her the rest of the night in his arms. And then she'd spend yet another night out of her crib.

Steven knew Aaron really did
mean
well. They both did. Both of them had instantly fallen for little Emma the day she was born to surrogate mother Linda Carson, whom Steven and Aaron had paid to supply the egg and carry Emma. They had both donated their sperm, and neither one knew who was actually the biological father. Not that it mattered. They were both her dads. So far she didn't look like either of them, really. She looked most like Linda, her mother, who shared her light blond hair and pink bow lips.

The problem was, Aaron spoiled little Emma. Aaron had read somewhere that babies who were held more often were better adjusted or smarter or something, and so now he had it in his head that the crib was evil and Emma should not spend time in it or in a stroller. Aaron went around with Emma strapped to him all day in a BabyBjörn, and at night, more often than not, Emma ended up in bed with them.

So now Emma cried bloody murder when put down—whether in her crib, her swing, or on her play mat—and insisted on being carried or held at all times. It was exhausting. And easily avoided, Steven thought.

All Emma needed was a little bit of tough love, a
tiny
bit of crying it out in her crib, and she'd adjust. That's what babies did.

Steven laid little Emma in her crib without waking her and thought
Victory!
as he edged his way out of the nursery. Near the door, his right foot landed on a stuffed cat with a voice box, and the ensuing
meow
rocked the quiet nursery. Steven cringed, waiting for the high-pitched wail. Emma just let out a soft little cry, almost like a yawn.

A microsecond later, Aaron was at the door.

“What are you
doing
? You know you can't just put her down in that pink prison.” Aaron walked straight in and snatched the half-asleep Emma off her pink Land of Nod crib sheet.

Emma, now fully awake from the jostling against Aaron's shoulder, started to cry.

“That pink prison cost us fifteen hundred dollars,” Steven pointed out. Aaron had been the one to insist on the top-of-the-line crib, and now he refused to even
put
her in it. The nursery itself was a designer shrine that Emma spent next to no time in at all, since every one of her waking and sleeping hours was spent in somebody's arms.

“You want Emma to grow up to be a sociopath? Because that's what you're doing if you leave her all alone at night in this jail.” Aaron patted Emma on the back, and she snuggled into his shoulder and fell asleep.

“Do
you
want her to grow up to be spoiled and entitled like Jessica?” This, of course, was Steven's greatest fear. After all, he had vague memories of Jessica never sleeping in a crib, either, and demanding to be held at all hours. End result? Well…Exhibit A: Jessica Wakefield.

“She's not Jessica,” Aaron said, his tone implying that even the comparison was an insult. “She comes to sleep with us.”

“It's not safe, Aaron. What if I roll over on her? What about SIDS? The crib is the safest place to be.”

“The crib is the loneliest place to be,” Aaron said, refusing to back down. “What kind of parent abandons their child in a crib? She cries when she's in it.”

“That's why you let her cry it out.”

Aaron just looked at Steven as if he'd suggested they ought to have Emma's left arm amputated.

“I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that,” he said as he walked down the hall to their bedroom.

Steven sighed. This is what happened when Aaron spent too much time with the granola-hippie moms down at the baby yoga classes on the weekends. What's wrong with a baby sleeping in a crib? Steven didn't understand.

When Emma slept in their bed, Steven couldn't sleep. He was petrified he'd fall asleep, roll over, and suffocate her. He didn't know how much longer he could take it. These days Steven was a zombie at work. He held a lucrative but demanding job as a junior partner at Leisten, Hartke & White. That was sixty-plus full hours a week of difficult work on no sleep.

But Aaron, who'd taken an extended leave from his job, was happy to catch up on sleep in the afternoons, when Emma napped.

Steven walked down the hall, dejected. When he got to their bedroom, he saw Emma was now wide-awake and bouncing on Aaron's knee.

“Did that pink prison scare you, little sweetheart?” Aaron was cooing in baby talk.

“You have to be kidding me.” Steven sighed as he slumped down on his side of the bed.

“I think my princess needs a little surprise,” Aaron said. “How about it, Ems? A surprise?”

The baby cooed a little and clapped her hands. She might have been not quite five months old, but she already knew the word
surprise
. It was something Aaron had been saying since she was born. Aaron never met a baby rattle or toy he could resist buying, especially if it was wildly expensive and would be played with only once or twice. Little Emma had more clothes than both of the men combined. In less than five months, she'd filled all the closets in their house.

“Aaron, doesn't she have enough toys?”

“Nothing's too good for my princess,” Aaron declared, handing her a brand-new rattle from the bag of goodies he'd bought yesterday at some designer baby shop.

She promptly put the rattle in her mouth and gummed the edges.

“You can't give her a new toy
every
day.” He plucked the little rattle from Emma's hands. Yesterday, Aaron had “surprised” Emma with a plush rocking horse, even though she couldn't even sit up on her own yet.

Emma grabbed at the empty air.

“She wants it back,” Aaron said.

“Not until she goes to sleep.
In her crib.
” Someone had to be a disciplinarian around here.

And then Emma's bottom lip started to quiver and the waterworks began. Emma might have been a baby, but she knew already that neither of her papas could stand it when she cried. All she had to do was turn it up a little, and she'd get anything she wanted.

At these times, the Jessica Wakefield gene was strongly suspected.

In seconds, Emma had the new toy back in her hands, and neither of her daddies insisted she sleep at all, in her crib or anywhere else.

That didn't escape Emma's notice, either. She knew for a fact just who was running this show.

And it wasn't either of them.

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