It began with the laundry. But then, doesn’t it always?
Julie Preston was a natural-born domestic goddess. Fabric softener practically ran through her veins. Luckily for her husband, Jason, when the time came for him to refresh his wardrobe, he never had to lift a finger.
Yesterday was laundry day. And so, unlike today, which is garbage day, or tomorrow, which is supposed to be devoted to yard work, it had been Julie’s time to shine in the world of chores.
She had risen early. Not enough to catch Jason, though. He had slipped out at 6:30—off to a breakfast meeting downtown. Julie winced. I should have known something was amiss when he didn’t kiss me goodbye. He always sent himself off after bidding his wife adieu. How could Jason expect me—the woman who has known his affection for nearly a decade—not to notice?
By the time 7:30 rolled around, Mrs. Preston was a vision. She was also half an hour behind schedule.
Some may scoff at the notion, but to Julie the act of laundering clothing had to be one of the most loving things in the world. According to her, in taking care of your clothes, a person is doing more than preparing them for future use. She or he is engaging in a ritual. One is in essence renewing the fabric and bringing it back to life.
By 8:30, everything seemed to be in order. “Soap, fabric softener…I’ve got piles of clothes…Now where is everybody?”
Dylan Marshall was walking the circumference of his office. Again. He had fought hard for eight years at MGB TV—through making and spilling endless cups of coffee, through celebrity tantrums and whiny producers—only to face the biggest roadblock to his career.
“Why isn’t Andrew here yet?”
“Would you stop walking like that?” Steve asked. “I’d say you’d make a hole in the carpet and fall in, but at this rate the whole room’s going to give way.” He shot his colleague a deadly glance.
Dylan stopped and took a deep breath. He went over to his desk. It wasn’t the messiest, but it could’ve been neater. He picked up a framed photo of his family and frowned.
“Relax,” Steve snorted. “No one’s gonna cancel your show.”
“They’d better not. I just bought a new pool.” He picked up a pen and started tapping it against his appointment book.
“Will you stop that?” Steve snapped. Dylan looked up, wounded. Steve fought off the urge to glare at him. Why did he have to work with such a wuss?
He softened his tone. “Maybe they’ll just ask you to find a new Diva. Someone with a little more personality.”
“No.” Dylan shook his head. “No. Julie’s perfect.”
Steve muttered under his breath. “More like perfectly boring.”
Dylan curled his upper lip in disgust. He was about to respond to his colleague when his phone rang. After rubbing his palms together, he pressed the speaker button. “Who is it?”
His receptionist’s voice squawked through. “Andrew’s on line one.”
He picked up the receiver.
Moments later, at 438 Barvelle Avenue, the doorbell rang. Julie all but sailed up the stairs to open it.
“Daaaaaaarling!” The man on the opposite side grinned. “You look fantastic! How’s my favorite diva?” Delighted, Julie gave Dylan a quick hug, then held the door open as widely as she could. The cameramen and boom operator stomped into the foyer.
She nodded. The Domestic Diva crew flew into action. There were lights to set up and back-up microphones to put into position. A makeup artist whipped out a brush and aimed at Julie’s face, while a wardrobe assistant started tugging at her blouse.
Moments later, she was ready to begin the day’s shoot.
“Now, I always sort our clothes very, very carefully.” Julie was cooing. “First, you want to begin by making at least three piles: Your whites, your lights, and your dark clothes. Then these are further subdivided into two categories: regular, and delicates.” Julie worked with the precision of an army sergeant and the charm of an angel.
“My next tip? Be ready for an-y-thing!” Julie’s grin was sweeter than a fresh lemon pie. “It’s important to make sure your first load doesn’t get ruined by lipstick or bits of tissue! Basically,” Julie’s voice went down to a conspiratorial whisper, “I’m about to do a pocket-check!” As Mrs. Preston winked at the camera, the director couldn’t help but think of his luck. A reality show about a domestic goddess, and he found the best one in town.
“Almost done!” Julie grinned, grabbing a pair of men’s pants. “You never know what this one will bring home from work. Pens, pencils…” Again, the hushed whisper. “Once, I found a napkin and half a ham sandwich in a dinner jacket. Jason is such a scamp.” After a few seconds of feeling around in Jason’s pockets, Julie’s hands felt something crinkly. Upon first touch, she thought it could have been a regular piece of paper, but it was smoother. Suddenly, Julie’s Emmy-Award-winning smile froze into a tight grimace. “My goodness,” she drawled. “What’s do we have here…?”
For a second she seemed to forget that the cameras were in the room with her.
“Yes?” Suddenly, she caught herself. “My gosh. I’m sorry.” She shook her head, trying to refocus.
“It’s ok,” the director beamed. “What did you find?”
“What? Oh, nothing,” she fumbled, embarrassed. “Just a silly little gum wrapper.” She turned and held it up, smile restored, for the camera to get a shot. “Just a silly little bit o’ nothing.” With a wink, Julie tossed the wrapper in the trash. “All in a day’s work!!”
By 5:45, the cameras were gone, and Julie was alone. She went back downstairs, tweezers in hand, and retrieved the gum wrapper from the trash. What the Domestic Diva staff didn’t realize was that Jason Preston was allergic to gum. Or at least, that’s what he’d always told his bride. Consequently, every Friday when she ran errands, Julie had taken great care to buy her husband a fresh package of breath mints. To this day the lady at the corner store believed that the Prestons had had stock in Altoids.
Just as Julie was about to turn away from the garbage, something else caught her eye. She peered into the can, and furrowed her brow. There was a long, faded piece of paper at the bottom. If Julie didn’t know any better, she would have sworn it was a receipt. As she bent down to retrieve the slip of paper, she realized that she was correct. But it wasn’t just any receipt. It was from Georgio’s.
Lest you not be familiar, Georgio’s was not the sort of place a person visited with a drinking buddy. It was the kind of joint that you went to when you wanted to unwind in an intimate setting. With a date.
Julie blinked. This had to be some sort of mistake.
She pulled out the receipt and did the best to decipher its odd abbreviations. From what she could gather, her husband and at least one other person had dined on
She didn’t want to read any more.
Wine. Good, expensive, Italian wine.
Julie still didn’t want to go any further, but something deep within her was adamant about going forward. Her eyes dropped to the end of the slip of paper.
Julie’s lips formed a tight line. To say that Mrs. Preston was livid would have been a mistake. For weeks she had been gently reminded that eating out was a luxury. All this time she had been under the impression that Jason could barely afford a haircut, let alone a meal cooked by someone else. Yet here, in black and white, was proof of her husband’s extravagance.
This can’t be happening. Julie swallowed hard. This must be for a business dinner. In spite of the ping-pong match going on in her brain, Julie let her eyes scan the receipt again.
It had been printed at ten fifteen.
What sort of business dinners took place after nine o’clock?
“I have to work late, honey, “ Jason had purred. “ You know downsizing. We’ve been fighting to stay alive.”
Julie’s mind was a mess. Every time she tried grabbing onto a stable thought, she could feel the shore give way.
My husband went on a dinner date. A small part of Julie wanted to find the humor in the situation, but crumbled. Somewhere deep inside, she wanted to laugh. Six years of living the dream, holding tight and thanking God for her One True Thing, when friends’ relationships were crumbling—all washed away in an instant.
She shook her head. Something dark within pulled at her.
You don’t know anything for sure. You don’t know whose receipt this is.
She looked at the paper expecting an answer to confirm her anxiety.
She found none.
It could be that he was holding this for a friend. Or had just had dinner with his boss.
What kind of man orders risotto and red wine? As well mannered as they were, all of Jason’s friends appreciated the merits of a good steak.
Her heart beat hard in her chest. If nothing else, Julie knew she had to stop driving herself mad. She needed to get to the truth.
Who can I talk to? Who can I ask? What else can I find?
Julie’s thoughts continued to run between incomprehensible mush and sanity, with all points heading south.
As Julie grabbed her phone to call Jason’s assistant, she exhaled deeply. The woman had to know something.
“Hi, you’ve reached Christine Cleon. I’m—“
“Christine!” Julie interjected.
“…sorry I can’t answer your call. Please leave a message at the sound of the beep.” BEEEEEEEP!
Julie stared at her phone, holding the receiver in a vice grip. If it was a human being, then surely, it would be dead by now. She inhaled, having suddenly found her voice.
“Christine? Hi,” she cooed. “It’s me, Julie Preston. Listen,” she began to whisper, as though confiding in one of her best girlfriends. “I’m thinking of putting together a little bit of a surprise for Jason. If you could call me back, I would really appreciate it.” The minute she hung up, Julie’s grin turned into a tight scowl. One way or another, she had to figure out Jason’s schedule. She wouldn’t dream of asking him directly. He was far too smooth. Too vague.
Besides. How many times had she fallen? There was always a “big ticket meeting” or an “emergency” to attend to. At this point Julie couldn’t help wonder just how many of those were legitimate. Reality continued to blur for Julie. It was a wonder she even remembered what it was that her husband said he did all day.
Julie’s stomach was churning. One wave rose like the notes on a xylophone, then rolled down to a dull roar. The pattern repeated as she grasped at various thoughts. All this time. Sweethearts in college. Holding hands in the park after dark with a shark in the park. Stolen moments before they walked down the aisle…
She had to know the truth.
Julie covered her mouth and clutched her side. Her mind was racing. She swallowed hard. She could handle this. She WOULD.
She took a deep breath.
There was a chance that this was all a misunderstanding. It had to be. Impromptu business dinners happened all the time. Still. What kind of man ordered bruscetta?
In spite of it all, there was one word on Julie’s mind. One thing she knew she couldn’t do without. Help. She needed help in order to solve this mystery.
But there was no one to ask.
She could not—would not—ask her parents for help. And Jason’s…? She almost laughed at the thought. Her older sister, Joyce, was overseas.
Julie swallowed hard. What I really need is a—
Suddenly, the phone rang. Julie stiffened and breathed heavily. By the third ring, she was looking squarely at the display. Four one six, five five five, eight one, six—she picked up the phone.
“Julie!” Dylan’s voice blasted through miles of wire and air. “How’s my favorite star?” She could practically hear him grinning.
“Not too bad.” Her voice was stiff. Dylan would have had to have been deaf not to notice.
“Really? You sound kind of…Strained.” He lowered his voice. “Is there a problem?”
“You sure?” Somehow Dylan could feel his investments evaporating right before his eyes. He pressed on. “You don’t sound convinced.”
Sarah sighed heavily. “It’s Jason. I think…I think he’s cheating.”
“WHAT?!?” Dylan choked and sputtered. Julie could practically see him turning purple.
“I don’t know for sure,” Julie continued. Her voice was hushed even though she was the only one around. “He spent some money on a really expensive dinner…” She sighed again. “And he wasn’t with me.”
“Oh, Julie.” Now she was just being loopy. It was one thing for someone to be able to ham it up in front of the cameras. Dealing with someone who was a loony toon behind the scenes could be hell on wheels. “People have business dinners all the time!”
“At Georgio’s, after 8pm?”
Dylan winced. Even he could see the writing on the wall.
“Mmmhmmm.” Julie nodded. “See why I’m concerned?” She paused. In spite of her worry, Julie couldn’t deny something. It felt good to talk things through.
“Hmmmm.” Dylan was lost in a world of his own. “I can get a crew over there in 15 minutes.”
“Don’t worry about a thing.” He continued. “You’re a real woman with a very real, serious problem.” His tone softened. “Don’t you want to get to the bottom of this?”
“Um…Yes. Yes I do. But not with cameras watching.”
“Are you sure?” Dylan was desperate. “I can throw in a private investigator and a thera—”
Julie didn’t wait to hear the rest of Dylan’s offer. She needed to solve her problem, but not like this. Her problems were nobody’s playground and she would not have the world knowing her business. There had to be another way.
In the bedroom, Julie stepped into the walk-in closet. It was a dream. Every piece of wardrobe was arranged by colour. Pastel tops and dresses hung in a sorbet rainbow. Bolder shades stood firm against the burgundy backdrop. On the other side of the room, Jason’s shirts, suits and ties were straight solders. Somehow now, though, their shades seemed stifling. All of that black and grey…It all looked ill somehow.
Julie grabbed a stout stool from a corner. At the top of a nearby shelf, there was a lavender box. Carefully, quietly, she grasped it from the shelf, and brought it to the bed.
The dark hair inside was cut into a sleek bob. Carefully, Julie lifted out the wig and began to look it over.
Perfect, she thought. This should help me with what I need. Julie turned to the rest of her things. There was a blouse that she hadn’t worn in ages. She rubbed the sleeve between her fingers. The silky fabric practically seduced her with its satiny feel. Julie smiled. It was the colour of red wine. She couldn’t help but smile. She had always wanted an occasion to wear it. Yet it was in wardrobe no-man’s land—too swanky for a formal meeting, yet somehow too staid for a romantic one.
Julie smiled as she pulled down its hanger.
Only pants will do…She wrinkled her nose at a nearby pencil skirt. Too mid-town secretary…And grabbed a pair of black business pants. She was ready to be every bit the incognito professional.