NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY
The Holmes Brothers Series - Book 7
Harrison Holmes has it all: the perfect job, the perfect family, the perfect life. Until it all comes crashing down around him. Of all the problems suddenly complicating his life, the troubling state of his relationship with his wife Willow scares Harrison the most. In an effort to rekindle the dying flames of his once-perfect marriage, he makes plans to whisk Willow off to Italy for their wedding anniversary. But will it be enough, or will Harrison have to face his greatest fear of all, losing the woman he cherishes?
Willow Holmes has the kind of life she’s always dreamed of: a handsome, successful husband, a palatial home in the suburbs, and two remarkable children. So why is she so unhappy? Maybe because she had other dreams that went unfulfilled. Now she's rethinking the career and life she sacrificed to devote herself to marriage and motherhood. When her husband gifts her with a delayed honeymoon in Rome, Willow sees it as a first step in setting their relationship back on track. But how can she make Harrison see that one trip won't fix all that ails their marriage? And what will become of them when the secret she’s been keeping comes to light?
Wincing from the ache that thrummed throughout his sore body, Harrison Holmes deduced that the persistent throb pulsing behind his eyelids meant one of two things: a miniaturized rock band had taken up residence inside his head overnight, or after forty-three years on this earth he was in the midst of his very first hangover. The effort it took just to lift his eyelids guaranteed that he would never put himself in the position to experience a second hangover. Ever.
With a groan, he sat up, clipping his head on the wooden arm of the small, uncomfortable futon.
Son of a bitch.
That would leave a mark.
He swung his legs over the side of the futon, but nearly tipped over when he attempted to stand. Plopping back down on the thin mattress, Harrison lowered his head into his hands and sucked in several deep breaths. Of all the days to wake up with a hangover.
Through bleary eyes he peered out at the sparsely furnished third story attic-turned-studio-apartment above the law office he shared with his law partner, Jonathan Campbell. The stark space had served as his temporary home for the past three weeks. At least he hoped it was only temporary.
“It’s temporary,” Harrison grounded out through a mouth that felt as if it had been scrubbed with sandpaper.
He kneaded his temples in an effort to stave off thoughts of the home he should be in right now. The comfortable bed he should be waking up in. The warm, caring, alluring wife who should have been lying next to him last night.
He braced himself for the shooting pain that was sure to pierce his chest. It happened with increased regularity these days. Just the thought of the wife he missed with every single fiber in his body brought about a physical ache—an ache he had no idea how to curb.
That wasn’t true. He knew one way to curb it. He could go home.
If only he could figure out just where in the hell he and Willow had gone wrong, maybe then they could fix whatever was broken in their marriage and he could move back into his house with his family. That’s what this “break” was supposed to be about, after all. Willow’s insistence that some time apart would help to clear the air and make it easier to talk things through was the only reason he’d agreed to move out in the first place. But, so far, they hadn’t talked about anything.
This limbo they were currently living in wasn’t sustainable. They had to do something about their marriage.
However, right now, he needed to do something about this hangover.
Harrison checked the watch he wore twenty-four/seven and offered up a prayer of thanks that he still had three hours before he was due in front of the Honorable Wilber Rubin. He would need every single second to get himself ready to face the arbitration judge.
He stood, taking a couple of seconds to steady himself. This was why he didn’t drink. Why in the hell would anyone purposely put themselves through this?
Once he was certain he wouldn’t fall flat on his ass, he crossed the two or so yards it took to make it to the bathroom. The space was barely big enough for his six-foot-three frame, but Harrison refused to complain. He’d rather sleep in the cramped apartment above his office than in some hotel, or worse, take his dad up on his offer for Harrison to move into his old room. For some reason, that felt like admitting defeat.
This wasn’t the first time he’d spent the night on the futon in the three years since he’d joined Jonathan’s firm. There had been times when he’d worked so late into the night that it made more sense to sleep over than to drive out to his home in Lakeview. If he tried hard enough, he could convince himself that he’d spent every night of the past three weeks sleeping on that lumpy, uncomfortable excuse for a bed because he was working late on a big case, and not because he was no longer welcome in his own bed.
Harrison sucked in a painful breath.
That wasn’t fair. Willow hadn’t thrown him out of his bed. But he hadn’t felt all that enthusiastic about being there these last few months either.
Harrison grimaced at the scruffy face he encountered in the mirror. He didn’t recognize the person staring back at him. He didn’t recognize the life he was now living.
How had he gotten here? His seventeenth wedding anniversary was two short weeks away, and he could probably count on one hand the number of arguments they’d had in that span of time. And not one of those had been real arguments.
How had a couple who hadn’t had so much as a single major fight in seventeen years of marriage land themselves in this predicament? His inability to come up with a reasonable answer had kept him up an untold number of nights these past six months.
The chime of the antique doorbell on the 18th Century colonial that housed the law practice knocked Harrison out of his recriminating musing. He waited for a moment, wondering if Jonathan would answer it. He figured his partner had spent the night on the couch downstairs. But after a couple of minutes passed and the doorbell rang again, he realized Jonathan must have gone home last night. Apparently, his law partner was better at handling his liquor than Harrison was.
He decided to ignore the doorbell—well, as best as he could ignore it with this ringing still going on in his head. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. The office didn’t open until noon on Mondays, given that both he and Jonathan usually spent most Monday mornings in court or meeting with clients outside the office. Whoever was out there would just have to wait until their receptionist arrived in another half hour.
The doorbell chimed for a fourth time, followed by the ding of a text message on his phone. He went back into the bedroom and picked up the phone. It was his sister, Indina.
I’m outside. Open up.
“Shit,” Harrison cursed. He didn’t want anyone to see him looking this ragged, especially his sister, the Queen of Unsolicited Opinions. But he also knew Indina would not be ignored.
He hurried down the stairs and, thankfully, spotted the decanter and half-filled tumblers of bourbon still sitting on the coffee table in the parlor where they’d been drinking last night. Yesterday had been a rough day for Jonathan. His friend had needed him. Hell, they’d needed each other.
Harrison picked up the evidence, balancing the two glasses against his chest so he could hold the expensive decanter with both hands. Just as he was setting the crystal globe on the bar, Indina rang the bell again, and followed up with three hard knocks.
Harrison jumped, spilling the leftover bourbon from one of the tumblers onto his shirt.
“Would you open this door?” his sister called, knocking again. “I can see you in there.”
“Give me a minute,” Harrison called back. He looked down at his shirt. Damn. He looked even worse than he had a few minutes ago.
“Harrison Clark Holmes, open this door!”
Knowing she would go ballistic if he took the time to go upstairs and change his T-shirt, Harrison prepared himself for the judgment he would no doubt receive. True to form, the moment he opened the door his sister frowned and scrunched up her nose.
“You smell like cheap liquor and disappointment.”
Harrison cocked a brow. “Shows how much you know about bourbon. There’s nothing cheap about this liquor.”
“I don’t care how expensive it is, it still stinks. And you look like hell. Go take a shower.”
“I was about to,” Harrison said, moving aside so she could enter. “But someone wouldn’t stop ringing the damn doorbell. As if my head isn’t hurting enough.”
Indina sized him up, her eyes roaming over his disheveled clothes. “Let me guess, you have no idea what to take for a hangover?” she asked, a smile lifting one corner of her mouth.
Harrison didn’t bother to answer as his sister let out a peal of laughter. And, just like that, it once again felt as if someone had struck the rim of a Tibetan ringing bowl in his head.
Why’d he let her in? Oh, yeah, because her nosy ass probably would have called the fire department and had them break down the door if he hadn’t.
“Did you drive all the way out here just to make my headache worse, or is there a purpose for this visit?” Harrison asked.
She held up an envelope. “I brought the caterer’s contract so you can look it over. They emailed it yesterday.”
“Is this 1985 or something?” He snatched the envelope from her hand. “You could have just forwarded the email instead of driving across the city during Monday morning rush hour.”
“Yes, I could have,” she said, following him into the parlor. “But I wanted to see how you were doing.” Her voice took on a cautious, serious edge as she stopped him with a hand on his arm. Her eyes teemed with concern. “How are you doing?”
Harrison tilted his head back and rolled it from side to side, trying to release the built-up tension in his shoulders.
Despite his repeated insistence that there was no need to worry, he knew his entire family was concerned about the state of his and Willow’s marriage. That’s what close-knit families did when someone was going through a rough patch. They couldn’t help but be concerned. And when it came to his sister, she couldn’t help but voice her concern.
“I don’t know how I’m doing,” Harrison answered honestly. Indina would have seen straight through a rote I’m fine. “It’s been three weeks and nothing has changed. I’ve been to the house four times since I moved out, but the only thing Willow and I have talked about are the kids.”
“The two of you need to talk about your marriage.”
“You don’t think I know that?” He ran a hand down his face. “I’ll see if she will agree to at least set aside some time for us to talk when I go over there this morning.”
“You’re going this morning?”
He nodded. “I need to pick up my blue herringbone tie.”
“What does a tie have to do with anything?”
“I’m going in front of Judge Rubin today and everyone knows that Judge Rubin’s favorite color is blue.”
His sister rolled her eyes. “That’s asinine, but if it gives you and Willow an opportunity to talk, take it. I’ve tried to talk to her about what’s been bothering her, but whenever I do she changes the subject.”
Harrison wasn’t surprised at either revelation. Indina couldn’t help sticking her nose in where she shouldn’t and Willow’s unwillingness to open up about this rift between them had been a thorn in his side for months now.
Desperate to get the focus off the state of his marriage, he held up the envelope he’d taken from her but still hadn’t opened. “What kind of damage are we looking at for the catering?”
“Fifteen thousand. Eighteen if we want to serve beer and wine,” she said.
The gala to celebrate the start of the foundation they’d established in their deceased mother’s honor was less than a month away. Last week, the caterer they’d hired for the event had abruptly closed up shop and skipped town, taking the two thousand dollar deposit they’d paid with him. Eating that loss, along with the extra money they would have to pay for hiring a new caterer at the last minute, was going to make a huge dent in their fundraising profit, but there was nothing that could be done about it now. Shit happened. He was learning that more and more every day.
“At this point we have no choice but to cough up the money. I’m just grateful they’re willing to take the event on at this late date, no matter what the cost,” Harrison said.
“I’m not as concerned about the cost as I was just a few days ago,” Indina said.
Harrison’s brow arched. “Really? And why’s that?”
A sneaky grin curled up the corner of his sister’s mouth. “Because we’re officially sold out.”
His head snapped up. “Sold out!”
“Yep! Two hundred fifty tickets sold, at five hundred dollars a ticket. And that doesn’t count the pre-gala event.”
“Well, damn. At least something’s going right these days.”
“Yes, now the only thing that would make it perfect is if you and Willow can get your shit together before the kickoff party.” She tapped his shoulder. “Get to work on that.”
“I’ll try,” Harrison said, unable to drum up much enthusiasm in his voice.
He saw Indina to the door and then went upstairs to finish getting ready. He was tempted to bring his clothes with him so that he could shower in his own bathroom instead of this cramped, dollhouse-size shower, but he couldn’t show up stinking of bourbon. What would Willow think? What would his kids think?
Instead, he quickly showered, ran the electric razor over the lower half of his face, and packed up everything he needed for this first appearance before Judge Rubin.
Twenty minutes later, Harrison pulled into the driveway of the two-story Lakeview home he and Willow had moved into when Liliana was just two months old. His baby girl would make sixteen next month. It was amazing how quickly the years flew by. It was amazing how quickly his ideal life had crashed down around him like a ton of brittle bricks.
And there was that pain again. Sharp and breath-stealing. Relentless and unforgiving.
“You didn’t come all the way out here to stare at the house,” Harrison muttered from behind the wheel.
Acknowledging the apprehension inching up his spine for what it was, he alighted from the car and started for the front door. Over the past three weeks, Harrison had done all he could to convince himself that this separation wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t even a formal separation. It was just a break. Sooner or later, he and Willow would sit down and talk this thing out and everything would be back to normal.
But with every hour that passed, normal seemed to stretch more and more out of his reach. Nothing about living apart from his family felt normal. And figuring out how to fix this was harder than Harrison could have ever imagined.
He arrived at the door and stood there for a moment, debating the best way to handle this. The last few times he’d come over Willow knew he was on his way, but he hadn’t thought to give her a head’s up this morning. Should he call and tell her he was outside? Should he ring the doorbell? Should he just use his key?
Doorbell. He would ring the doorbell.
For a moment, Harrison just stood there, stunned. Was he really about to ring the doorbell to enter his own damn house? How in the hell had it come to this?
Just as he reached for it, the door opened, and a startled Liliana jumped back in surprise.
“Holy shit,” she yelped. She clamped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, Daddy.”
Harrison chuckled. “That’s okay, baby girl. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
He’d seen her yesterday, when they’d all gotten together for church and Sunday dinner at his Dad’s, yet Harrison felt as if he hadn’t seen her in ages. He was used to seeing her every day. He missed her.
They didn’t have that much time left in this house together. In less than two years she’d be off to college. She’d already started talking about going out of state to Spelman. He wanted to be here with her, soaking up every minute he could while she was still living at home.
“On your way to school?” Harrison asked unnecessarily. Of course she was on her way to school. Where else would she be going on a Monday morning?
“Uh, yep,” Lily answered him. “I’m going over to Amina’s and her mom is driving us to school.”
“Is the car okay?”
“I guess. If you can call a fifteen-year-old car with a broken heater and no Bluetooth okay,” she said with a shrug.
His brother, Ezra, had offered Lily his old Toyota Corolla. At first she’d passed on it, but apparently vanity was no match for the freedom of having your own ride. She’d accepted the car the very next day, even though she could only drive it down the block to her friend Amina’s. And even that was giving her more leeway than she deserved, seeing as she was still operating with only a learner’s permit. She would move up to an intermediate driver’s license in just a few weeks, when she turned sixteen.
He and Willow planned to surprise her with a new car for her birthday, but her attitude of late had put that plan in jeopardy. His sweet little girl’s disposition had turned markedly sour over the last few months.
“Just be grateful you have a car,” Harrison told her as he kissed her forehead and moved aside so she could leave.
After waiting at the door to make sure Lily made her way safely past his car as she backed out of the driveway, he went inside.
It was all so familiar, yet in just three short weeks it had started to feel…different. From the TV mounted on the wall in the kitchen he could hear the babble of a local morning news anchor droning on about the latest developments in the case against two ex-city councilmembers. The sound of muffled voices drifted from somewhere upstairs, and then moments later, the shower in the kids’ bathroom started running.
The bathroom door closed, and seconds later Willow appeared at the top of the stairs, her arms filled with laundry. She took one step, then stopped short when she noticed him.
“Oh. Hey,” she said.
Harrison stared at her from the base of the stairs and tried to swallow past the painful lump that instantly formed in his throat.
God, but his wife was beautiful. After all these years, she still had the ability to snatch the air straight out of his lungs with just one look.
“Hey,” he answered. “I, uh, need a blue tie.”
She nodded. “In front of Judge Rubin today?” she asked as she continued down the stairs.
“Yeah. Presenting due diligence findings.” He stopped her as she approached. “I know you have to get the kids off to school, but I was hoping—”
“Wait. Is Lily still here?” she interrupted him.
“No, she was leaving when I got here.”
“She’d better have gotten out on time. She’s been tardy twice in the last two weeks. One more time and I’m taking away her driving privileges.”
Harrison followed her as she continued toward the laundry room, just beyond the kitchen. He snatched a slice of bacon from the plate on the counter.
“Do you need me to have a talk with her?” he asked.
“No. She’s doing better now that I had her to delete Snapchat from her phone. I told her she can only use it on the weekends.”
Harrison nodded. It seemed as if she had things under control. For some reason, that triggered a stab of anxiety down his spine. He didn’t want chaos, but he didn’t want to see his home running like a well-oiled machine without him either.
“Willow, we need to—”
She cut him off. “So why are you in front of Rubin?”
Harrison tamped down his frustration. He didn’t want to talk about work. She always did that. Brought up every subject except the one they needed to talk about.
But at least they were talking.
“It’s for the Bayou Land Dredging acquisition,” he answered.
“So that’s going forward?” Willow asked.
He nodded. “Largest single acquisition Campbell & Holmes has ever seen. And I get to bring it home.”
Genuine admiration shone in her eyes. “Congratulations.”
“It’s too soon for congratulations,” he said, buoyed by the pride he heard in her voice. “We’re just getting started. Phillip MacMahon is going to give me a run for my money.”
“Phillip’s the one who should be nervous, not you.” She stuffed the load of dirty laundry in the washing machine, plopped her balled fist on her hips and looked around. “I need to find Athens’s gym shorts so he doesn’t have an excuse to miss out on Phys. Ed.” She looked up at him. “Do me a favor, when you go upstairs to get your tie, knock on the bathroom door and tell your son not to take forever in that shower. It was a pain waking him up this morning. He’s two seconds away from losing Xbox privileges during the week.”
“I thought he had lost Xbox privileges during the week?”
“He did, but I…I felt bad about…you know.” She looked away.
Harrison didn’t need further explanation. He’d felt like shit since the moment they sat Liliana and their ten-year-old, Athens, down to explain to them that they were separating.
Taking a break. Willow had decided that describing it as taking a break was gentler.
It didn’t feel gentler to him. Whatever way you sliced it, he was still living apart from his family. He was still going to bed alone at night instead of next to his wife. His world was still in shambles.
And they still hadn’t talked about what needed to be done to fix their broken marriage.
Harrison stopped her before she could walk past him, capturing her wrist. “Wills,” he said. “When are we going to talk about us? We have to talk, baby.”
She looked down at his hand, and then up at him.
“Mama!” Athens hollered from upstairs.
“I—I need to go see about him,” Willow said. She wrested her wrist from his grasp and left the laundry room in a hurry.
Harrison dropped his chin to his chest.
He was at a loss. How was this break supposed to help if they never addressed the problems that had precipitated it? How were they supposed to mend whatever was broken between them if they didn’t talk about it?
He had no idea what to do. He just knew this not doing anything bullshit they had going on right now wasn’t working. He and Willow were growing farther apart by the day. He had to figure out how he was going to repair whatever was broken in his marriage.
Before there was no marriage left to repair.