Grace arrived in the kitchen as Brett was dabbing grease off the bacon she had just cooked.
“Good morning, sunshine. How are you feeling today?” asked Brett.
“I’ve been better. And I have thought a lot about that place—Finedale. I think I should talk to Peter first…”
“Of course. But keep in mind that you can go up there for a couple of days, even though the full program is four weeks,” said Brett. “It’s good to get away, clear your head. I can take you there if you decide you want to go.”
“I’m so lucky to have you.” Grace hugged her. “You’re my best friend.”
“We are best friends,” said Brett. “Look at us, sista. We be lookin’ pretty good for forty-seven! It’s no wonder men can’t resist us,” she added slyly.
“I’m not feeling particularly attractive to men right now…”
“You’d feel a lot better, much better, after Finedale. Trust me!”
“I’m going to head out. Thanks again. I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
Grace drove the ten blocks from Brett’s home to her own and pulled into the garage next to Peter’s Audi A7. Tiptoeing up the back staircase that led to the family room, Grace put her right ear to the door. She heard high-pitched voices coming from the other side. Opening the door slowly, she sniffed for Peter’s aftershave. Not a whiff. She relaxed, but then instantly tensed, nearly slamming the door shut when she saw Peter sound asleep on the family room couch, spooning Daisy, who was snoring loudly. The television flickered with cartoon characters. Her hands trembled as she opened the door again. Daisy lifted her head and jumped off the couch, tail wagging to greet her mistress.
Peter opened his eyes. “Grace?”
“We need to talk.” She nervously sat down in the lounge chair across from him.
“Where have you been? Why didn’t you come home last night? I called your parents, but they said they hadn’t heard from you.”
“I stayed at Brett’s.”
“Look, I don’t know what you thought you saw, but it was nothing.” Peter did not sit up. “She was just a colleague picking me up from the airport—that’s it.”
“I know what I saw, Peter.”
“Don’t go running off half-cocked.”
“You always try to bully me into believing whatever you want. This time I have the advantage of actually being there.”
“Why’d you come to the airport anyway? Not like you’ve done that in ten years. It was crazy.”
“Really? That’s your response? I was crazy to go to the airport to pick my husband up? You’re trying to make this my fault?”
“Calm down. You always get so wound up at the silliest of things.”
“No, Peter. This isn’t a silly thing! This is a breach of our marriage, and you’re trying to blame me.”
“If the shoe fits….”
Grace marched out through the kitchen and up the stairs to the master bedroom closet and dialed Brett’s number. She then stuffed a weekend bag full of essentials and ran back down to the family room to tell Peter she was going away for a few days.
He was dead asleep.
* * *
The steep, winding drive was a two-hand operation, especially with the road slick from an early-season storm.
Grace had stopped crying, which was good since she had used up all the tissues from the travel pack in Brett’s glove compartment. When Grace had called her parents somewhere between the Golden Gate Bridge and the In-N-Out Burger they’d stopped at in Mill Valley, she’d tried as much as she could to curb her tears.
“I’m so sorry about this, darling,” her mother, Marie, replied after Grace divulged the circumstances. “You take all the time you need. We love having Nick with us and we’re always here for you.”
Stopping her red Porsche Cayenne next to a security box on a waist-high pole, Brett drew out a piece of scrap paper and entered a six-digit, hand-scrawled number into the keypad.
“Not sure this code still works. They keep changing it,” muttered Brett, glancing over at Grace. “You okay?” Grace forced a smile.
“Who may I say Finedale has the pleasure of receiving, please?” boomed an androgynous voice. Grace jumped in her seat. Hovering high above the stone wall in front of them loomed a security camera that swiveled in their direction, and seemed to zoom in on them.
“Brett Magnin. Grace Meadowcroft is with me.”
Whir, beep, click. Moments later, the solid steel gates slid slowly open to let them proceed.
“Pretty,” said Grace, her eyes following the orchard of olive trees that dotted their way down the hill to the patchwork of vineyards below.
Just within the gates was a carved wooden sign:
Welcome to FINEDALE
Treatment Spa for Women
Behind them, the gates sealed quietly. Four eucalyptus trees later, another sign was posted in red ink on a bright yellow background.
“Seems kinda strict,” said Grace. “Seriously, ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’?! What’s wrong with a regular old ‘Keep Out, No Trespassing’ sign?”
“You’re going to love it here, Grace.” Brett patted Grace’s hand. “Trust me.”
Shifting into second, Brett hugged her Porsche to the side of the cliff as they ascended the last thousand feet to the top of the hill. As they crested the ridge, the San Francisco skyline was visible to the south, even though over an hour had passed since they had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.
Brett rolled to a stop on the cobblestone drive in front of a grand Spanish Revival building with pink stucco walls and a clay tile roof.
“I want to make sure you want to do this. I know how difficult a time this is. I’m happy to take you home or to your mom and dad’s condo. Just say the word.”
“I’ll give it a shot.” Grace got out of the SUV and, with an outstretched right arm pointing toward San Francisco, she continued, “Looks close enough to hear Peter calling for his lover.”
“Mrs. Meadowcroft, welcome,” exclaimed a cheery young woman in a pink lululemon sweat suit, who approached from around the large stone fountain that defined the center of the motor court. “I’m Annie!”
“They’ll take great care of you, Grace. Let me just give you a quick hug goodbye,” said Brett, hugging her before turning to leave. “I’ve got to get back—I’ve got a date tonight.”
“Not giving him a name unless he sticks.” Brett smirked.
“We’re so happy you’re here, Mrs. Meadowcroft!” Annie Diamond’s infectious grin revealed perfect orthodontia. The willowy blonde, who resembled a Degas ballerina, acknowledged Brett joyfully and then she extended her hand to shake Grace’s. “Come with me, and I’ll get you all signed in.” Annie gently took hold of Grace’s arm and escorted her across the cobblestones while a porter retrieved her Louis Vuitton duffle bag from the back of Brett’s SUV.
A quick honk caught Grace’s attention before she reached the two mammoth wrought-iron entrance doors to the villa. Grace dashed back to the driver’s side of Brett’s car.
“Remember, I’m happy to come pick you up anytime. They take away your cell phone.”
“Really? You didn’t mention that before.” Panic blistered and sparked in Grace’s eyes.
“Trust me, Gracie. There are plenty of house phones.”
A hint of a smile grew on Grace’s face. “Might be good for me to live without my appendaged phone for a couple days.”
Annie studied her clipboard papers at the entrance, waiting for Grace to return.
“All set, Mrs. Meadowcroft?” With a quick nod of her head, Annie signaled a security camera. Without a sound, the heavy, hand-carved wood doors opened effortlessly.
As she entered the cathedral-sized hall, Grace noticed two enormous iron chandeliers adorning both ends of the room, each with at least two-dozen flickering candles filling the room with a warm amber glow. In the center, twenty feet above the herringbone-patterned hardwood floor, was a massive domed skylight. Spanish Revival was a popular architectural style in California during the 1920s. It incorporated design elements from both Spain and Morocco. They were standing in a gleaming example of its highest form. Wrought-iron banisters adorned the staircase, an ornate balcony overlooked the grand hall from the mezzanine, and a Roman arcade surrounded three sides of the building.
Grace sank deep into the plush red chair next to Annie’s reception desk and took in the splendor. Laughter filled the hall, and Grace craned her neck to see several women at the other end playing cards at a game table. In the opposite direction, another room revealed two women who were seated on golden mohair couches, chatting next to a stuccoed fireplace. A few more were bustling in front of the antique wood bar, behind which a handsome male bartender was serving up cosmopolitans and glasses of white wine. Everyone was wearing sweat suits similar to Annie’s, but in a rainbow of colors.
Annie broke Grace’s gaze. “Now with regard to your stay, we provide a variety of options. Option one…”
“Just take my credit card, and we’ll be done with it, okay?” Grace opened her wallet and pulled out a platinum American Express card embossed with the same name as all her other credit cards—Mrs. Peter Meadowcroft.
Grace had become Mrs. Peter Meadowcroft sixteen years before. She’d continued at Magnin’s even after the wedding, despite Peter’s encouragement for her to quit so she could become a WoFT—Wife Of a Financial Titan, as the most successful investment bankers referred to their significant others. And like many of those wives, Grace had learned to fill the expanding void of emotional connection to her husband with the satisfaction garnered from retail therapy, whether through buying a new pair of shoes, the latest runway fashion, or a designer handbag.
Peter’s star had been on the rise in his late twenties, despite a setback after the investment bank he had been working for at the time was made an example of by the SEC for flipping IPO stock. But since he was not directly involved, he’d left unscathed and landed at a respected second-tier firm, founded by the father of his business school classmate, Michael Barrett. Peter told Grace he wanted a stay-at-home wife so that she could join charitable organizations just like Michael’s wife, Jane. Jane confided in Grace that she had started her own side business in promotional merchandise, and suggested that Grace should do something similar to keep sane in the chaotic world of being the wife of an investment banker. Grace liked Jane, and yet, for a reason she couldn’t put her finger on, she did not trust her.
“No, wait,” said Grace as she grabbed back her AMEX before Annie had the chance to swipe it through the credit card processor attached to her keyboard. Grace dug into her wallet and handed Annie a nondescript Bank of America Visa card that also stated Mrs. Peter Meadowcroft. “Sorry, this is my personal allowance account—my husband doesn’t get to see the bill.” She had a sheepish look on her face.
“Smart.” Annie enthusiastically handed Grace a pen. Several signatures later, Grace was given a folder with copies of each signed agreement, and an iPad with her name calligraphied across the top of the screen.
“In addition to the academic and treatment buildings there are four tennis courts, a croquet lawn, and a driving range and putting green to practice up on that male-dominated sport.” Annie pointed out the outline of the facilities on the iPad screen with her sparkly blue manicured finger. “There’s also a jogging path around the perimeter. Oh, and we have a saltwater swimming pool in addition to the chlorinated one.”
“Like swimming in salty tears,” said Grace.
“Great for the skin,” said Annie with a huge smile. “Come, let’s get you settled.”
Passing trail maps at intersecting paths that were rustic versions of those found in shopping malls, Annie stopped in front of a two-story hacienda with a second-floor balcony draped in vibrant red bougainvillea. The carved wood sign in front read Casa Shangri-La. Four shingles flanked it—presumably the names of the four guests, since one of them read Meadowcroft.
Annie unlocked the villa’s arched iron and glass door that led to the two suites on the first floor and a staircase with wrought-iron railings going up to the second. Fresh lavender engulfed Grace’s senses as she walked in and noticed a full wicker basket on the antique walnut console to the left of the front door. She was reminded of picking the fragrant sprigs with her sister in the field next to their family home while growing up outside of Walla Walla, Washington. Up one flight, Grace followed Annie through the door on the right. They walked into a suite that had seen many broken women in the past, all hoping to find wholeness in the sanctuary of Finedale.
In the living room, Annie lifted a remote control off the end table covered in gray shagreen, this made from the hide of stingrays. The large flat screen television above the tiled fireplace flicked on, showing the Lifetime channel broadcasting a rerun of Oprah’s talk show. She moved past the plum-colored sofa and two paisley chairs to open the French doors that led to the terrace with northern views toward the Napa Valley.
“Breathtaking.” Grace viewed the rainclouds piling above the rolling hills of the vineyard to the east, on past the town of Napa. She turned to see Annie making the five-and-a-half twists of the muselet that held the champagne cork in place. A friendly fsssssssssssst sound reverberated from the frosted bottle of Roederer champagne that had been chilling in a bucket of ice on the small dining table. “I’m impressed, Annie. Someone taught you well. Most people don’t know any better and go for the pop.”
“I can also saber a champagne bottle’s neck with a sword, to open it Napoleonic style!” Annie swung her left forearm in a wide stroke. “Albert taught me well!”
“Albert?” Grace sipped her flute of Roederer.
“He’s … a colleague, really a mentor to me.” Annie stopped herself. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Meadowcroft, let me show you the rest of your suite.” The bedroom, like the living room, had reclaimed hardwood floors from one of the old Hearst estates that had burned. It was partly covered by a silvery viscose rug.
Grace ran her hand across the ivory damask linens that were every bit as luxurious as those at Brett’s. “I have my favorite five-star hotels, Annie,” she mused. Annie’s eyes widened in trepidation. “But I must tell you that Finedale…”
“If you’re at all displeased with anything, we’ll take care of it immediately. We…”
“What I was about to say…” said Grace, “Finedale strikes me as every bit as refined as the George V in Paris and Skibo Castle in Scotland—my particular favorites.”
Annie’s giant smile returned with a relieved sigh and the young lady pointed toward the bathroom.
Picking up a soft throw from the chaise lounge next to the bed, Grace wrapped it around her shoulders as she followed Annie into the bathroom. On the right, Calacatta marble countertops and a dressing table made entirely of antique mirror caught Grace’s eye. Against the opposite wall was a large shower, flanked by two heated towel racks. In the far corner was an oval Jacuzzi bathtub, easily large enough for two. It was the bathroom Grace had always dreamed of—large, elegant, with lots of mirrors, and definitely, definitely no flipped-up toilet seat.
Grace closed the door to her suite after trying unsuccessfully to tip Annie for her hospitality. Feeling an overwhelming urge to take a bubble bath, she turned both tub faucets on full blast and slipped out of her traveling clothes. Perhaps, she reasoned, the bubbles would wash away her pain, although her reasoning skills were not particularly finely tuned, considering that dressing up like a prostitute yesterday had seemed like a genius means to flatter her cheating scum dog of a husband. But forty-five minutes of steaming water and a mountain of bubbles later, she drowsily got out of the tub—concerned that if she was going to fall asleep and drown, it should be somewhere that people could find her more readily than in some sequestered hilltop enclave for discarded wives.
Grace found a plush white terrycloth robe with a pink Finedale insignia on the pocket on the hook behind the bathroom door, and snuggled onto the left side of her bed to take an afternoon nap and shake herself from the awful nightmare of her marriage. Melancholy, she shed no more than five minutes of tears before falling into a deep sleep.