Authors: Robyn Carr
“You're in for a fun surpriseâjust wait and see who walks down the aisle. Don't miss this zany wedding.”
All the stuff she thought she had handled began to come back one at a time. The Samuelsons, Stephanie, Dennis and Dr. Malone, Peachesâand Jake, his timing as bad as ever.
“Charlie!” Jake yelled. “Hold up, will you? I need to ask you something. I need a favor.”
“In your dreams,” she muttered to herself. If I am afraid of commitment, she thought, Jake Dugan would be a good enough reason.
A flashing red light throbbed over her head and she turned to see that her ex-husband had attached his portable police beacon to the top of his car. He followed her at a safe distance, slowly, so that if a car approached from behind, she wouldn't be mowed down. But then again, she wouldn't need this service if he hadn't shown up in the first place, which was the cause of her walking home in the mud and rain.
She made the right turn into her neighborhood. The flashing red light disappeared and Jake's headlights strafed the houses as he made a U-turn and departed.
She stepped into her house and stepped into sanity. The lights were dimmed, the table set, candles lit, fire in the hearth and two cups of something steaming sat on the coffee table in front of the fireplace. Dennis, having heard her come in, appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping his hands on a dish towel. The sight of all this peaceful domesticity warmed the heart of the drowned rat, and without stopping to consider the ramifications, Charlene heard herself say, “Dennis, do you still want to get married?”
DEEP IN THE VALLEY
THE HOUSE ON OLIVE STREET
Watch for ROBYN CARR's newest novel
Coming October 2002
For Sharon Buchholtz Lampert,
for all the years.
harlene Dugan started her day as usualâsingle. Not just unmarried, but autonomous, independent, free. She was forty-five, in excellent health and shape, attractive, successful in the practice of family law, the single mother of a grown daughter, the single daughter of a widowed mother, the significant other of a handsome, charming man and
Though she had been with Dennis for five years, they did not live together. They each had their own homes and liked things as they were. Well, perhaps Charlene was a tad more committed to remaining uncommitted; Dennis
proposed a couple of times. But she had been married once, only long enough to produce one daughter, Stephanie, who was now twenty-five, and she had not been even slightly tempted to marry again in the twenty-four years since. She was content. Satisfied. Fulfilled, even.
On this ordinary unmarried day there were events that, taken singularlyâno pun intendedâwere quite manageable. But when combined, they so rocked Charlene's world that by day's end she was not only ready to consider marriage, she was inclined to do the proposing.
harlene entered the law offices of Phelps, Dugan & Dodge innocent of the trouble the day would bring. She smiled at the young receptionist and nodded as she passed cubicles where clerks and junior associates labored. She stopped in the break room to grab her customary morning cup of coffee and a bagel. Then, as she proceeded toward her office, she heard the muffled roar of her first clients. There was no mistaking the hostile tones of Mr. and Mrs. Samuelson, two of the most objectionable people Charlene had had the displeasure of knowing. She had been selected by family court to arbitrate the Samuelsons' divorce settlement. This was to be their third meeting. The first two had been complete and dismal failures.
Charlene loved her legal specialty. There were very few people who could make the traumas of divorce and custody bearable, and Charlene prided herself in taking families who walked into her office wounded and terrified, and sending them out as people who could cope, people with options.
The arguing achieved fever pitch as she neared her office. Briefcase under her arm, bagel in one hand and coffee in the other, she closed in on the noise. Her
assistant and close friend, Pam London, was standing behind her desk, arms crossed and toe tapping impatiently as she glared at the conference-room doors. A disgusted frown twisted her otherwise handsome features.
Charlene was a little confused. “What's going on?” she asked. The Samuelsons were not supposed to be in the same room until the arbitrator arrived, for obvious reasons. Plus, they weren't due for another hour.
“They both had an idea they could get to you first, before the other arrived,” Pam explained. “I put Mrs. Samuelson in the conference room and asked Mr. Samuelson to have a seat in the foyer waiting room. But they found each other out and have been in there fighting ever since. I've tried to separate them, to no avail.” She smiled evilly. “Let's bolt the door from the outside and let them kill each other.”
Charlene handed her briefcase to Pam. “Was he threatening?”
“Someone would have to take him seriously to be threatened. He's just a pip-squeak. An obnoxious little horse's ass. And she's no better.”
“Hmm. If anyone was threatening, we could call the police. Well, call building security to begin with, but give me three minutes before you send anyone in.”
Charlene and the other senior partner, Brad Phelps, had the two expansive offices in the back, separated by their large conference room, while Mike Dodge was on another floor of the building. Charlene and Brad had private bathrooms with showers and two
doors apiece; one to outer offices and their respective executive assistants and the other to the conference room. Charlene placed her coffee and bagel on her desk and retrieved something from the top drawer. She stood in the frame of the conference door to watch. And listen.
The Samuelsons faced each other, fists clenched at their sides, their faces red to their scalps. If only they knew how ridiculous they looked. Mr. Samuelson, the shorter of the two, appeared to shout into his wife's heavy, pendulous breasts, and she sputtered obscenities onto the top of her husband's shiny little scalp. How could they not know they sounded so revolting, cursing each other in voices loud enough to carry through these professional offices? Forty years of marriage and five children, come to this.
“I bought that goddamn boat after you walked out!”
“You bought the goddamn boat after I walked out, using the money left in our mutual fundâ¦and you paid for jewelry for your floozies with our IRAs!”
“Since I was the only one who ever put anything in the goddamn IRAs or mutual funds, I figured they were mine to do with as I damn well pleased!”
“And that's why I left! Because you put no value on anything anyone else ever does! I stayed home and raised five kids! I moved fifteen times! I hostessed twenty-five company Christmas parties. Iâ”
“Played tennis, bridge and golf, got manicures and pedicures and facials, had to build a room onto the
house just for your clothesâ¦And you had the goddamn Christmas parties
The loud report, like that of a gun, caused the Samuelsons to shut up abruptly and bolt apart, turn andâ¦. And it was only Charlene, in the doorway with a party popper. Confetti drifted lazily to the floor, a curling piece of lavender streamer hanging off Mrs. Samuelson's large bosom, while Mr. Samuelson's bald head had collected a few glitters.
They both recovered from the sudden fright and looked with some relief toward the arbitrator. This was a couple dissolving after four decades; there were bound to be issues. A certain amount of rage was expected in this field. But as Charlene knew only too well, they must not be allowed to run amok. A little chaos could lead to a lot of tragedy. Domestic discord was the most volatile and dangerous of all.
“You may leave now,” Charlene said. “I will ask Pam to get Judge Kemp on the line for me. I'll tell him that arbitration is not possible in your case, and suggest you be bound over for a full divorce trial. You will each have to secure private counsel. I wouldn't consider taking on either of you as a client even if I could. And don't be too surprised if you find the judge considering a hefty fine.” Mr. Samuelson, “the only one who put any money in the goddamn mutual funds,” became especially ashen. “As an officer of the court,” she told them, “I'm obligated to tell him that you were nothing but discourteous and uncooperative, wouldn't consider the simplest of requestsâlike taking a seat in the waiting roomâwere a contin
ual disruption to the entire office building and have made no progress at all in two meetings. There is very little question, this divorce will cost you more than a boat. Probably more than a boat, a car and a house.”
“Now just you wait a minuteâ”
Charlene barked with heat. She was small of stature but should never be mistaken for slight in any other way. “If you speak to me in a tone that carries even the slightest disrespectâ¦” she began. The door to the conference room slowly opened and Ray Vogel stepped inside. Charlene had convinced the whole office building to agree to her choice of security service for this very reason. Ray, like his fellow security officers, was big, young, muscled and armed. When he frowned, he looked positively lethal. “Give me a moment, Ray.” She turned back to the angry-faced couple. “The slightest tone of disrespect will be accompanied by a contempt and perhaps assault charge. And naturally another hefty fine.” This wasn't true, but one look at Mr. and Mrs. Samuelsons' faces said they believed her thoroughly.
“Now wait a minute,” Mr. Samuelson tried again, but in an entirely different tone. “There's a lot of emotion here, and I admit we got a little carried away, but we can still work this outâ”
“No, you're entirely too late,” Charlene said. “We're all done listening to you curse each other, demean each other and make a mockery of a system designed to protect and respect the family.” Mrs. Samuelson smirked and crossed her fleshy arms over her chest. “And before you get all smug, Mrs. Samuelson, let me remind you
that when push comes to shove, he will probably
have the financial advantage in a trial. You might succeed in hurting him, but not without doing substantial economic damage to yourself.”
Her mouth dropped open even as her arms un-crossed and fell to her sides. Charlene lifted one corner of her mouth. “Perhaps one of the children will take you in.”
Mrs. Samuelson looked stricken.
“Okay, let's go,” Ray said, holding the door open.
“Wait a minute, wait a minuteâ”
“Go!” Charlene commanded. Then she turned around, went back into her office and closed the door. She leaned against it and listened to the murmurings that came from the conference room. She could hear Ray's occasional deep voice urging them to leave. The voices carried a decidedly different timbre than what she had greeted this morning. She looked at her watchâ8:07. She went to her desk, took a sip of her coffee and a bite of her bagel. A person shouldn't have to endure this kind of reprehensible behavior first thing in the morning, she thought. She often wished she could just get a glimpse of what these two were like in marriage, because it was difficult not to assume that the divorce was long overdue.
There was a tapping at the door. She checked her watchâ8:11. Another fact that never failed to fascinate herâthe worse the couple, the quicker they could modify their behavior if money was involved.
Pam stuck her head in the door. “They'd like to
know if you'd consider giving them another chance,” she said.
“Ask them if they understand this will be the last time.”
Mr. Samuelson's glittering head and halo of thin, frizzy yellow hair popped into the door opening. He came to Pam's shoulder. He grinned triumphantly while Pam looked down at him with obvious distaste. “We understand,” he said.
“Good,” Charlene said. “We'll start with the boat.”
Three hours later, the Samuelsons departed quietly. Not happily, not even politely, but at least quietly. They had worked through part of their settlement, and had kept their rancor under wraps. The pressure for them to behave had been so intense that Mrs. Samuelson was messaging her temples with her fingertips as she walked out and Mr. Samuelson was holding his oversize gut with both hands, lest it explode.
Charlene went into her private bathroom and splashed cool water on her cheeks. It was a professional coup to be chosen by the court to arbitrate any kind of settlement. Having made a name for herself in the practice of family law meant that usually Charlene was going to be dealing with divorce property or custodyâtwo areas rife with explosive emotions. But this was hard. It took its toll of a morning.
She heard the intercom on her desk buzz, but she ignored it, remaining in the bathroom. She sat on the closed toilet lid, leaned back, kicked off her shoes and
held a cool cloth over her eyes, dampening her short brown bangs in the process.
After twenty years in the business, there were very few surprises. It was always about the boat and the savings account, about who brought home the bacon and who didn't. Even in the new century, when most marriages were made up of dual working partners, it always boiled down to who did the dishes and who earned the highest salary.
She unhooked her bra and let her rib cage expand briefly. She wiggled her toes into the thick carpet beneath her feet. She could not have borne more than three hours with those two. They gave divorce a bad name.
But she had pulled it off, gotten them to sit down and begin dividing things. A few more meetings and it would be done. The judge who had assigned her would be impressed. So what if it took her a while to recover. It was worth it to win the further admiration of the courts. The city was overrun with sleazy divorce lawyers, but there were only a pocketful of respectable unsharky family lawyers, of which Charlene was one. That is not to say her clients wouldn't get what they deserved; she took very good care of them. More important, they would leave the proceedings with their self-respect.
The intercom on her desk buzzed again. “Okay, okay,” she said to herself, tossing the washcloth into the sink, slipping her feet back into her shoes and hooking up her bra. She applied some makeup to her cheeks, a little lip gloss to her lips, and squinted crit
ically into the mirror. She looked tired even though she'd slept quite well the night before. She knew what that meant. It was time to seriously consider having her eyes done. A little nip, a little tuck, not a new face, but one that just didn't seem to age at the speed of light.
Charlene didn't give herself much slack; she was a perfectionist from nose to toes, professionally and personally. You don't become successful by relaxing your standards. It was taxing, but nothing worth having came easy.
She flushed the toilet even though she hadn't used it. She just didn't want anyone to think she had locked herself into her bathroom to recover from the Samuelsons. No one should think she
recovery. Not even Pam.
That was Charlene. Always in control. And perfect in every wayâwithout breaking a sweat.
The intercom was buzzing wildly as she headed for her desk.
“Thank goodness, I thought you'd fallen in. It's Stephanie.”
“Put her through.” Click, click. “Steph, honey, I'm reallyâ”
Charlene sank into her chair. Sacramento could be crumbling around them in the throes of a six-point-eight shaker and still Stephanie would assume that the current state of her love life was of paramount concern to everyone. Stephanie didn't even bother to say hello
or ask Charlene if she had a few minutes. “Hmm,” Charlene hummed, noncommittal.
“I have tickets for
Do you know how hard they were to get? How much they cost? And he promised me,
me he'd get the night off. How often do I ask him to do that?”
Probably very, very often, Charlene thought, but she held her tongue.
“Is there absolutely no one in the state of California, in the city of Sacramento, who can stand behind the bar and sling a few drinks so he can go to a musical with me?”