The spicy scent of fresh fir filled Autumn Snowberry-Garthe’s nose as she balanced on a stepladder, carefully placing ornaments on the upper half of the towering fir Christmas tree standing in one corner of her living room.
Tinsel shimmered and the LED candles clipped to the tree’s branches cast warm halos. She hung the last blown-glass icicle, then climbed down and stepped back to study her handiwork.
Autumn smiled with satisfaction. She’d worked hard this afternoon to declutter her living room and create the perfect Christmas aesthetic for her Instagram followers. As she pulled out her phone, she already knew what tags she’d use when she posted the photos. #blessed #happylife and #christmascheer (of course). She’d have to search for other tags with lots of posts.
Maybe she didn’t have her own marketing firm anymore, but she still liked to stay in the social media game. Seeing her follower counts increase, and reading the admiring comments they left on her posts made her feel less of a failure. More like her old self than the woman who couldn’t quite manage to do anything right and constantly disappointed her husband.
Then her smile faded as she caught sight of the antique clock on a nearby bookshelf. Phillip would be home soon to scrutinize her efforts. She reached out and straightened a red velvet bow on the nearest twig. Nerves twisted her stomach into knots as she lifted her phone to take a close-up shot.
Then the front door creaked open and Autumn almost dropped her phone. He was home early today!
She turned to see Phillip’s imposing, silver-haired figure filling the entryway. His glacial, pale-blue eyes narrowed as he surveyed the open-plan living room.
“What’s all this?” He gestured at the Christmas tree and festively decorated fireplace mantel.
Autumn’s stomach clenched at his tone. “I just wanted the house to feel more festive and—”
Her voice wavered. She hated herself for it. Phillip didn’t like drama queens or whiners. He’d told her that often enough.
“It’s still fucking November. And thought we agreed, no lavish decorations this year.” Phillip’s stern tone sliced through her excuse. “Especially after we wasted all that money going to Seattle for your sister’s wedding.” He snorted. “Serves her right, getting jilted like that. Maybe now she won’t act like some kind of big shot with that TV show of hers.”
Autumn forced herself to bite her tongue at her husband’s cruel—and unfair—criticism of Winnie’s wedding fiasco. At the time, she’d used her social media experience to do what she could to mitigate her sister’s public humiliation.
Now, though her heart still ached for Winnie’s situation, she knew arguing with Phillip wouldn’t change his mind. It would only make him angry.
Angrier. She recognized the signs. Something had upset him, and he was looking for an excuse to pick a fight with her. She’d have to tiptoe around him until whatever it was either blew over… or he blew up and let off the steam.
“How much money did you spend on this nonsense, anyway?” Phillip demanded, lifting his chin to point at the tree.
“Nothing, except for the tree. It was all stuff we had packed away in the basement,” Autumn said truthfully. “And my followers—”
“Don’t give a shit about your stupid decorations.” Phillip cut her off ruthlessly. His lips thinned as he scanned the tree. “Your little social media hobby is getting out of hand. Again.” His phone chimed. He glanced down at it, and said. “I’ll be in my office. Call me when dinner’s ready.”
He headed upstairs, leaving Autumn deflated amidst the glittering ornaments and swags of fresh fir branches carefully arranged on the mantel between the three stockings hung there.
She swallowed hard, pushing down the familiar ache in her chest. As Phillip’s footsteps creaked in the second-floor hallway overhead, she allowed herself a deep breath before moving to start dinner.
Jayden would be home from school soon. She didn’t want to upset him by letting him glimpse her unhappiness.
Suck it up, buttercup, she told herself sternly. This is the life you wanted, isn’t it?
Would Matt have treated me like this? She wondered, not for the first time. In their senior year of high school, she and Matt Parker had talked about getting married someday, after he graduated from police academy and she got her degree in Business and Marketing.
But that was before she met Phillip, the charming older man who’d swept her off her feet as a college freshman and proposed to her in her senior year. She’d been so infatuated by Phillip back then. He’d made her feel like the most beautiful and precious woman on earth.
But that was then.
An hour later, the rich aromas of roast chicken and baking biscuits filled the house. Autumn set three places at the table, then called her husband and son down to dinner.
When Phillip reappeared, he was still focused on his phone. He took his place at the small dining table without looking up.
Autumn tried to read his mood. To her relief, he seemed… calmer. “How was your day?” she ventured warily.
“Busy.” His curt reply signaled an end to the conversation. Then he glanced up from his phone. “Where’s Jayden? Still playing that damn video game?” He didn’t wait for her reply before he bellowed, “JAYDEN! Get your ass down here! Right now!”
Autumn winced at the anger in her husband’s tone. But she knew better than to protest. Phillip had never laid a finger on her, but his words could bruise as badly as fists.
Jayden flew down the stairs from his room, then hesitated. Her heart contracted at the assessing glance he gave his father before slipping into his seat. Her little boy was learning the same caution she’d learned.
“Took you long enough, kid,” Phillip grunted, still scrolling through his phone.
“Sorry, Dad.” Autumn hated how her son tried to make himself smaller in his chair.
Autumn rose, carved the chicken, and served up the dinner before resuming her seat. Then they ate in silence, the unspoken tension hanging between them. Her gaze drifted to the dazzling tree, its joyous glow now muted.
She thought of her sisters’ homes, filled with laughter and warmth. A pang of longing caught in her throat.
What if I hadn’t dumped Matt back then? What if I’d returned to Snowberry Springs after college?
She tried to shove down the traitorous thoughts, but they kept coming up.
“I’m leaving on a business trip tomorrow morning,” Phillip announced, looking up from his phone at last. “Boss wanted me to visit HQ a couple of weeks ago to meet some important clients, but we were in Seattle.” His mouth twisted.
Autumn nodded. Phillip worked as a senior sales rep for a major pharmaceutical firm based in New Jersey. He liked to boast about how successful he was at closing big deals, and how much the company’s top executives depended on him to bring in new business. Consequence, he traveled almost constantly.
In the beginning, she had wondered why Phillip insisted on living so frugally if he was doing so well. Top sales representatives typically earned generous bonuses on top of their commissions.
When she’d asked him about that a couple of years ago, Phillip had predictably exploded with anger at being questioned. Then he told her, in the most condescending way possible, that he was investing the money for Jayden’s college and for retirement. “Managing the finances is my job,” he’d snarled. “You worry about your job. The house is always a mess and you suck at cooking. Too bad you didn’t learn something from that celebrity chef sister of yours.”
Three mornings later, the shrill ring of the house’s landline phone jolted Autumn awake in the predawn darkness. She rolled over and squinted blearily at the Caller ID. It was FFPCU, the First Federated Pharma Credit Union where she and Phillip banked.
“Hello?” she croaked.
“Good morning, is this Mrs. Garthe?”
“Mrs. Garthe, this Claire from FFPCU’s Fraud Department. I wanted to check with you regarding some recent unusual activity on your credit card account.”
Autumn sat up, suddenly wide awake. “What kind of activity?”
Phillip always handled bank stuff. But he had flown out to New Jersey on Tuesday. And he forbade Autumn to contact him on his cell during East Coast business hours unless it was a dire emergency.
“Did you or your husband rent an apartment yesterday at the Herrontown Woods Select in Princeton, New Jersey? We also have a charge from the Herrontown Lexus dealership for an SUV lease. We wanted to verify these transactions with you.”
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