Dianna Friedman never expected her husband to leave her. Who does? But she’s making the most of what she has left–two near-grown sons and a mountain of bills that just keeps growing. She’s in over her head, but she is determined to survive.
Even if everyone else saw it coming, Paul O’Connell was blindsided by his wife’s affair and attempt to bleed him dry. He reaches out to Dianna–the woman who caught their spouses cheating–in hopes that her testimony at his divorce hearing will prevent him from paying alimony.
Dianna and Paul become fast friends and maybe a tad bit over-dependent on each other, but who are they hurting? No one. At least not until Dianna’s life takes yet another unexpected twist, and she and Paul have to step back and reevaluate everything… including what they mean to each other.
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“You bastard.” Dianna seethed, sending a coffee mug sailing across the kitchen. The ceramic shattered into several large pieces and dark liquid streaked across the floor. She scoffed. The mess perfectly represented her life—broken and wasted.
Still queasy from spending the morning sitting in front of a judge, Dianna forced back the urge to vomit. She swallowed hard against the saliva forming in her mouth. The questions wouldn’t stop echoing through her head, and she was forced to relive the unfortunate moment when she walked in on her husband screwing some overly-tanned blonde on Mitch’s desk. The hearing to decide the split of their marital property had stirred the anger and humiliation she had worked so hard to bury.
She clenched her jaw and dug her nails into her palms to stay in the here and now, but the memory of Mitch thrusting into another woman filled her mind.
“Stop it,” she hissed, recalling Mitch’s smug smile as the judge made his ruling.
In yet another blow to her once perfectly constructed life, Dianna had been awarded the house along with a suffocating mortgage, bills, and a pathetic amount of child support. The judge opted out of giving her alimony. Since their children were all but grown, he hadn’t seen a need for Mitch to support the woman whose only job for the last twenty-two years had been raising kids and keeping a home. When Sam turned eighteen in seven months, any financial obligation Mitch had to his family would end.
And that was it. Case closed. Mitch could move on. He was free.
She inhaled deeply and ran her hands over her cheeks, dragging her tears away as she breathed again, this time more slowly.
Her best friend Kara was trying to help Dianna meditate into a healthier mental outlook—one that was less bitter and homicidal. She wasn’t convinced she wanted to kill Mitch any less, but she had to admit learning how to take a moment to calm down had helped tremendously since he’d left her.
In with the good energy, out with the bad. Inhale peace and serenity, exhale anger and frustration.
She was nearly relaxed when the doorbell moaned out a deep bass tone, filling the house with a mournful sound that echoed the misery which now filled it. The bell used to ring a happier high-pitched tune, but like her marriage, she had ignored it for too long and the chime was slowly and pathetically dying. Whoever was at her door—Kara, she suspected—was about to get an earful about showing up when she’d been clear she wanted to be left alone.
Dianna slowed her angry stride as she neared her glass-paned front door. A man she didn’t recognize was bundled in an expensive-looking tan overcoat with a cobalt blue scarf wrapped neatly around his neck. He gave her a friendly smile, and crow’s feet wrinkled the smooth skin around his light-colored eyes.
“Mrs. Friedman?” he asked as she cracked open the door.
Mrs. Friedman? Not for much longer. “Yes?”
His smile faltered. “I’m sorry to bother you. My name is Paul O’Connell,” he offered hesitantly.
Her heart squeezed tight in her chest, and her breath rushed from her lungs as surprise punched her hard in the gut. “O’Connell?”
“Michelle was…is…my wife.”
Michelle. Better known as that home-wrecking-husband-stealing slut.
Dread settled heavy on her chest, and the bile she’d just barely managed to contain started churning in her gut. She still hadn’t made sense of what had happened in the courtroom—how she’d gotten stuck with so much debt and no way to pay for it. Seeing her husband’s mistress’s husband standing at her door only added to her sense of confusion, and she couldn’t quite think of anything else to say.
She stared at the stranger for longer than what could be considered polite, trapped by some kind of morbid fascination, taking in the man who had been replaced by her husband. He wasn’t as tall as Mitch, and instead of thinning hair, Paul O’Connell had a head full of silver strands. His face was long and thin. His straight nose came to a slight point, but not so much it was unattractive; if anything, it drew attention to his full lips.
Paul’s gaze skimmed over her as well, and Dianna suspected he was making the same assessment—comparing her to his wife. His young, skinny, overly made-up wife. Dianna had already accepted that she failed miserably compared to Michelle. Dianna was still thin by most standards, but she wasn’t fit like Michelle. Years of running kids to games and events while stuffing cheeseburgers and fries down her throat hadn’t done her body any good. She had curves, and not all of them were as subtle as they used to be.
She hadn’t stepped a foot inside a salon since before Mitch had left, and she cringed thinking of the gray strands that had crept into her long chestnut mane. Months of sleepless nights had made the bags under her eyes dark, and her near-constant frown had deepened the lines around her mouth and between her brows.
So, no. Compared to Michelle, Dianna wasn’t beautiful. She probably wasn’t even that pretty anymore. But at least she was wearing the slacks and blouse she’d put on for her divorce hearing instead of the oversized T-shirt and yoga pants that had become staples of her wardrobe. If nothing else, at least Paul O’Connell’s initial comparison between her and his wife was of Dianna dressed nicely instead of the depressed bum she’d turned into. Maybe, just maybe, his first thought wouldn’t be acknowledgment of why Mitch went looking for another woman.
She forced herself to slowly exhale the breath she’d been holding. Out with the bad.
“May I come in for a moment?” he asked.
Startled from her thoughts, she looked into eyes that were similar in color to his hair—silver with flecks of black.
Dianna stepped aside and gestured toward the hooks on the wall. He shrugged out of his coat and hung it and his scarf next to hers.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“That’d be great. Thank you.” He tugged the sleeves of his suit coat down one at a time, a gesture that made her think he must be anxious.
She swallowed as her own nerves started to feel frazzled. “It’s decaf.”
“That’s perfect. I’m trying to cut my caffeine intake. I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“I’m sure that has less to do with coffee than other things.”
He pointed to the broken cup and spilled coffee on the kitchen floor as they entered. “Did that help?”
Dianna’s cheeks warmed with embarrassment. “No. Now I’m just pissed that I’m down a mug and have to clean up the mess.”
Paul’s quiet laugh was a nice sound, even if it wasn’t heartfelt. She couldn’t recall the last time someone had laughed in her kitchen.
She opened a cabinet and pulled out two mugs. “How do you take your coffee?”
“Cream, if you have any.”
“That’s okay.” He knelt down and gathered chunks of broken mug.
“Don’t. I’ll clean that up.”
“I don’t mind. I’ve broken a few dishes myself. Although, I usually empty them first.”
She laughed as her cheeks warmed again. “I’ll remember that next time.”
He dropped the pieces into the stainless steel trashcan next to the counter. While she filled their mugs, he wadded up several paper towels and wiped the coffee from the floor. “I’m afraid that’s all the cleaning I’m good for.”
“That’s plenty. Thank you.”
Paul washed his hands as the silence in the room pressed down on Dianna. She still had no idea why he was in her kitchen. He finally quit fussing and sat across from her at the table, adding creamer to his coffee. He stirred the liquids together much longer than needed. Each passing of the spoon added tension to the knot in Dianna’s stomach.
Finally, the quiet overwhelmed her. “Mr. O’Connell?”
He stopped stirring and met her gaze. “Paul. Please.”
“Paul, why are you here?”
He tapped the spoon on the edge of his mug before deliberately setting the utensil on a napkin. “I feel like I should—”
He drew a deep breath and let it out loudly. “I’m sorry. For what she did.”
Dianna creased her brow. She didn’t know what she thought he was going to say, but that certainly wasn’t what she expected. “Why?”
“Why are you apologizing for your wife sleeping with my husband? Didn’t she cheat on you as much as he cheated on me?”
“Yes. She did.”
“So, why are you apologizing?”
“Well. Someone should. Don’t you think?”
His question sunk her heart. Her eyes, which were still irritated from her last bout of tears, began to sting anew. Yes. She did deserve an apology. Too bad one of the two people who should be sorry for what she was going through hadn’t offered it, though.
“Yes.” She swallowed in an attempt to tame her emotions. “I think someone should. But I don’t think that someone should be you.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Michelle sure seemed to think her affair was my fault.”
“Oh, yes. I didn’t understand his needs anymore.”
“I smothered her. I needed her too much, put too much pressure on her to make me happy.” Paul looked far more than miserable. He looked guilty, as if he were to blame for being on the receiving end of his wife’s adultery.
Dianna wanted to assure him he wasn’t, but she didn’t have the conviction. She’d failed to buy that line too many times to try to sell it to him.
Instead, she looked into her mug so she couldn’t see the pain in his eyes. “Do you know… Do you know what today is? Is that why you’re here?”
“No. I’ve been meaning to stop by, I just hadn’t worked up the courage.”
“What is today?”
Her lip quivered. “My divorce hearing was today. I just got home not too long ago, actually.”
“Jesus,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. May I ask how it went?”
The stress of the judge’s decision hit her again. “Um…not well, actually. I don’t know how I’m going to—” She gestured lamely at the room around her. “Our oldest son Jason is away at college, and Sam is a high school senior so the judge didn’t feel that Mitch owed me anything. I’ve been a housewife since we got married. I’m not sure how I’m going to…you know…” She pushed herself up from her seat when a sob started building in her. “When I get stressed, I bake. Would you like some cookies?” She didn’t wait for him to respond. She grabbed a container off the counter. “I made oatmeal and chocolate chip. Sam ate most of the chocolate chip ones as soon as they were out of the oven, but”—she put the container on the table and sat down—“there’s plenty of oatmeal left. Please. I don’t need to eat all those myself.”
He hesitated for a moment but then grabbed a cookie. The silence returned as he took small, measured bites. She watched until she noticed the light glimmering off his wedding band.
“He wasn’t wearing his ring,” she said before she could stop herself.
Paul lifted his brow in question. “I’m sorry?”
“This morning. At the hearing. It’s the first time since we were married that I’ve seen Mitch without his wedding ring.”
Paul nodded, as if he understood exactly how much that had hurt her. He took the last bite from his cookie and carefully brushed the crumbs from his hands onto a napkin which he folded and used to wipe the table clean. He chased the bite with a sip of coffee. “Look, there’s never going to be a good time for me to ask this, but I was wondering…”
“I, um, I’m so sorry, but… When Michelle told me she was leaving me, I asked her what she was going to do when this great guy she was seeing decided he didn’t want to leave his wife. She said that wasn’t going to be a problem because you had caught them together. Is that true?”
Her mind again flashed to the night she’d walked in on Mitch and Michelle having sex in his office. He had her bent over his desk as he gripped her hips and thrust into her. Those sounds returned—skin smacking against skin, soft moans. Michelle’s black skirt was hiked up onto her back, her hands clinging to the edge of Mitch’s desk, his face tense as he neared release—a look Dianna knew all too well.
She winced. The painful memory still struck her like a slap across the face. “Yes. It’s true.”
Paul’s cheeks lost a few shades of color as if she’d confirmed something he was trying to deny. “Well, now she’s trying to say that her relationship with your husband wasn’t sexual.”
Dianna laughed bitterly. “Oh, it was sexual, all right.”
The muscles in his jaw tightened, and she had the sudden urge to reach out and stroke his face to help ease his tension. Her hand was several inches off the table before she realized what she was doing and stopped herself.
“I know it can’t be easy for you,” he said quietly, “especially having just gone through your hearing, and I swear to you I wouldn’t ask if there were any other way, but would you be willing to testify on my behalf? About when you caught them together.”
Dianna exhaled slowly. She’d give anything not to have to think about her husband’s affair ever again. She didn’t want to remember how completely unexpected catching Mitch cheating had been. Or how she’d walked into the room, as she’d done a hundred times before, carrying his still-warm dinner. How the Tupperware container fell to the floor. How the sound of plastic crashing onto the tiles pulled the lovers from their passion as shock rolled through her, numbing her mind and freezing her body. She didn’t want to remember how Mitch gasped out her name, or how the woman he was screwing lifted her face off his desk to smirk.
Dianna closed her eyes and hot tears slid down her cheeks. She didn’t try to hide them. Her pain overpowered her dignity, as it had so many times in the last six months. How could she care that this stranger was seeing her cry when her heart hurt so much?
“Please, Mrs. Friedman—”
“Dianna,” she spat. “I really hate the Friedman part right now.”
“Please, Dianna. She doesn’t deserve alimony.”
She scoffed. “God. Wouldn’t that be something? I was informed that I don’t deserve alimony because I am capable of work. Yet, you think she’ll get alimony when she’s got my husband to support her.”
“I think she’s got a hell of a better attorney than you had.”
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t afford to pay the bills, support our children, and pay for a top-notch attorney, could I?”
He didn’t respond.
“Sorry,” she whispered as her angry words lingered between them. “That wasn’t directed at you.”
“I know. I have no right to ask you to go through this again, but she will get alimony if I don’t stop her.”
“Well, that hardly seems fair. To either of us.”
“So, you’ll testify?”
Those damned memories flashed through her mind again, bringing with them the familiar stinging and crushing of her soul. She reached into the container sitting between them and grabbed a cookie. She’d likely eaten a dozen the night before, but that didn’t stop her from biting into another as she debated.
“Yes,” she said, finding a conviction that she hadn’t felt for a long time. “Yes, I will testify.”
Friends Without Benefits is available at these retailers: