"As I opened the door and stepped into the humid night, her scream followed me out. But I knew there was still love for me in her heart…
Paul Strom has the perfect life: a glittering career as an advertising executive, a beautiful wife, two healthy boys and a big house in a wealthy suburb. And he's the perfect husband: breadwinner, protector, provider. That's why he's planned a romantic weekend for his wife, Mia, at their lake house, just the two of them. And he's promised today will be the best day ever.
But as Paul and Mia drive out of the city and toward the countryside, a spike of tension begins to wedge itself between them and doubts start to arise. How perfect is their marriage, or any marriage, really? How much do they trust each other? Is Paul the person he seems to be? And what are his secret plans for their weekend at the cottage?
Forcing us to ask ourselves just how well we know those who are closest to us, Best Day Ever crackles with dark energy, spinning ever tighter toward its shocking conclusion. In the bestselling, page-turning vein of The Couple Next Door and The Dinner, Kaira Rouda weaves a gripping, tautly suspenseful tale of deception and betrayal dark enough to destroy a marriage…or a life.
AVAILABLE FROM SEPTEMBER 2017
Enjoy a free sample of Best Day Ever.
Morning. 9 a.m.
I glance at my wife as she climbs into the passenger seat, sunlight bouncing off her shiny blond hair like sparklers lit for the Fourth of July, and I am bursting with confidence. Everything is as it should be.
Here we are, just the two of us, about to spend the weekend at our lake house. Today represents everything I’ve worked for, that we have built together. The sun blasts through my driver’s side window with such intensity I feel the urge to hold my hand up to the side of my face to shield my eyes, even though my sunglasses are dark and should be doing the job. Under any other circumstances, on any other day, they would be, I know. But today, something is different between us; some strange tension pulses through the still air of the car’s interior. I cannot see it, but it is here. I’d like to name it. Discover its source and eliminate it.
Sure, this morning has been hectic. It’s a Friday, and Fridays always seem the most frenzied when you have kids. Getting the boys up and dressed, and then dropping them off at their immaculately landscaped and highly ranked red brick elementary school where they will no doubt excel, in first and third grade respectively. Truth be told though, I usually have little to do with the scenario I just outlined. Mia, my wife, handles all of the tasks pertaining to the boys each morning. We’re a traditional suburban household in that respect. In the morning, I make coffee, shower, dress and leave for work before the boys awaken. Yes, mine is quite a selfish and single-minded pursuit on most days.
That’s another reason why today is so special. I drove the boys to school, reminded them that the babysitter would be picking them up afterwards. When I returned to the house, I put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. I can be helpful when I want to be, although I don’t want to remind Mia of this fact as she may come to expect it. Ha! Dishes finished, I had called up the stairs to Mia, urging her to hurry. We haven’t had a weekend together, just the two of us alone, for more than a year. This day was going to be special, and it was time to go.
She called back, her voice floating like a butterfly down the stairs, asking for my help with her luggage. The next moment, I found myself lugging two huge suitcases down the spiral staircase. She followed behind me with a laundry basket filled with who knows what.
“Staying a while?” I teased. She blushed, embarrassed by her notorious over-packing. But I didn’t complain. It was her day. She was free to over-pack away. Once we got everything loaded into the trunk of the car, just as Mia was starting to relax, the packing part over, that was when my phone rang. I shouldn’t have answered it. I finally finish syncing my phone with the car’s system. I find the playlist I created for my wife. All of her favorite songs will play during our drive.
And now, we’re getting on the road. My wife turns toward me and smiles. She has a perfect smile: half moon-shaped, with glistening white teeth. My smile is more of a rectangle; no matter how hard I try, I appear to be smirking, I know that. But I grin back.
She loves me so much, and of course the same can be said for me. We’ve been together almost ten years now. We know each other’s best qualities, and we know each other’s dark sides. Well, I believe I know her dark side, although to be quite honest about it, I’m not sure Mia has what you’d call a dastardly alter ego. Her dark side is simply grumpy, and it typically only appears when she is tired, or when one of our boys faces a rough patch. For my part, I wonder if Mia thinks I have a dark side? Most likely, as far as she knows, I am just her dear loving husband.
Today, though, this morning, right now, she is exuding energy; it is oozing from her pores, from her flawless face. It’s the cause of the strange pulsing between us, I decide.
“You seem wound up, honey,” I say. I want to pat her leg and tell her to relax but I don’t. She is still beautiful, almost perfect in every way.
“Do I? I guess I’m just excited,” she says, confirming my assessment while stretching her hands toward the front windshield. The diamond from her wedding ring flashes in the over-bright sunshine as if imitating her energy
“I know you are, honey. But just relax now. Let’s make today the best day ever,” I say. I attempt to add the proper lilt to my voice. I need her to believe I am just as happy and carefree as she is. That driving up to our lake house for the first time this season is the most exciting thing I could ever imagine doing on any day, ever.
“There’s a little bakery in Port Clinton, just before the turnoff to Lakeside. I’d like to stop there on the way in. For croissants for tomorrow morning. We won’t arrive in time to eat croissants for breakfast today, of course,” she says. Thankfully, her bright blue eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses that match mine. When I glance at her, we cannot make eye contact. Not really.
I wonder if the comment about not arriving in time is directed at me, and realize it is. Of course. I am the one who took the phone call just as we were walking out the door. I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t anything new, but I had still held out hope that it would be. Instead, I spent thirty minutes on a worthless call with a headhunter, and, I know, made us late. The croissants will be gone by the time we arrive at the bakery; I know this, too.
“Not worried about gluten anymore, I take it?” I say. For a while, Mia and her doctor du jour thought her upset stomach, weight loss, and other intestinal issues were caused by gluten. I was relieved when she decided not to hop on that fad after giving up wheat for a few weeks with no change. She still insists on a vegetarian existence, leaving her with few choices when we go out to dinner and endless questions for wait staff. It’s annoying. But I push those thoughts away. My wife is just doing her best.
Stopping on our way to the lake house at a bakery that will, no doubt, be out of croissants was not on my agenda today. I just want to get up there already. But today, I’m being a great husband. Mia’s every wish is my command.
“Who were you talking to on the phone? The office?” she asks as I back out of our driveway.
“Who else? Sometimes I think they can’t last a moment without me,” I say. Some sort of emotion crosses Mia’s face before she turns toward the passenger side window. I guess we’re finished with that topic. I should apologize for the delay, but I don’t. An amicable silence falls between us.
Personally, I have to admit I love the implied success I feel being able to drive out of my very nice neighborhood, my wife by my side, on a Friday morning on my way to my second home. I am driving a Ford Flex, navy exterior, by choice. Supporting America while demonstrating that my ego does not require a fancy sports car or luxury sedan. No, I am secure in my status and a family man, all rolled into one. The American dream, that’s what we’re living right here.
My wife seems to be taking in the signs of spring around us. The lawns are greening up nicely and the trees, so stark for the long, dreary months of winter, are budding and flowering. Our suburb is becoming a lovely place to live again, just in time. We pull onto the freeway heading north through downtown Columbus, and I feel a pride for my hometown that extends beyond the college sports franchise. It’s growing up. People from all over consider us a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place now, not just a college town or a field of grazing cattle. I don’t have to say Columbus comma Ohio anymore. We are on the weather maps internationally as the city in Ohio. Our weather matters more than Cleveland’s or Cincinnati’s does. That, to me, is a sign we have arrived as a great city.
Ironically, as we zip through the periphery of downtown, skyscrapers slicing the clear blue sky, we are headed to farm country. Most of Ohio still is agrarian, it seems, no matter how much Columbus has changed. My wife and I, we spend our time in the bubble of our suburb mostly, cutting through the city on our way out of town. We really should explore downtown more, I realize.
Mia shifts in her seat, angling her body toward me as much as possible for someone strapped in by her seat belt, and asks, “Do you really think the strawberries will take hold? I mean, they looked like they were taking hold, growing, from the photos Buck sent me. But things can change.” I notice she holds her phone in her hands now; her lovely fingers, accented by a cheery red—strawberry red—fingernail polish, move quickly across the small keypad. She was a copywriter at an advertising agency when I met her, and she has amazing keyboard speed still.
“It says strawberry plants should be bought from a reputable nursery. I’m just not sure I picked the right one. And they need deep holes, wide enough to accommodate the entire root system without bending the roots. Very persnickety plants,” she says. Her lips are pursed together, as if she has eaten a sour berry.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” I say. A black sports car passes us on our right, only a flash of metal actually, because it’s moving so quickly. I hadn’t even seen it coming in my rearview mirror. It’s funny how things can sneak up on you, appear out of nowhere.
“It’s like having babies again, or puppies,” she says, ignoring the racecar as I turn on my blinker and slide us out of the passing lane. “Don’t plant too deep, it says. The roots should be covered, but the crown should be right at soil surface. I should call Buck and ask him to check on the crowns.”
She glances at me, no doubt catching my smirk. First, what kind of name is B-U-C-K? I mean, really. But despite his ridiculous name, Buck Overford is a nice enough guy, I guess. He’s our next-door neighbor at the lake, a widower even though he’s about my age, who likes to talk gardening with my wife. I should be clear. I’m forty-five, and Mia is only thirty-three. Buck is closer to my age than hers, maybe even a bit older. I look younger anyway. Not that we’re old geezers by any stretch. Buck does have this affinity for gardening, which to me is a woman’s thing, so that makes him older, weaker than me in my book.
At least gardening is what Mia tells me she and Buck have been talking about since we met him last summer. It was just after our moving truck had left. He brought over a bottle of Merlot, a nice one if memory serves, and the three of us spent a lovely evening together on the screened porch until it was time for us to find our boys and get them ready for bed. The boys were free-range chickens up at the lake, had been every summer we’d rented. Now that we were owners, members, they’d increased their span of wandering, it seemed.
There were countless wholesome activities at the lake to draw their attention, from sailing lessons to shuffleboard, skateboarding to bike riding. Sometimes, we’d find them sitting by the edge of the lake, skipping rocks, like they’d stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It was all perfectly safe, these endless summertime activities that delighted our boys and made them beg us to head to Lakeside whenever possible. When it was bedtime though, finding them, corralling them and then getting them into bed was a process best left for family only. We never wanted witnesses to that exhausting exercise.
“Right, I don’t need to bother Buck. I can check the crowns as soon as we get there,” she says in my direction before returning her attention to her phone screen.
“Good call,” I say, checking the rearview mirror for any more speeding sports cars. I had an expensive sports car before, of course, and I’ll likely have one again one day when my lifestyle dictates a change, I realize, taking in the interior of my sensible Ford Flex. Room for the whole family, as many strawberry plants as Mia could handle planting. I can haul as much of the boys’ sports equipment as they can throw my way. It is a sensible, practical car. For a responsible family man. It fits me perfectly, this car. Me and my hot, newly skinny again wife. If she loses any more weight, though, she’ll disappear. Like I said, she’s been struggling a bit with nausea. A shame. The latest doctor is convinced it’s stress-related. He told her to meditate.
“Did you know my strawberry plants’ runners are called ‘daughter’ plants?” she asks. The air between us pulses, I feel it. Ping.
“No, I didn’t,” I say, taking a deep breath before I realize I am doing it. It’s funny how the absence of a daughter catches your breath at the strangest times, over the silliest topics. “No ‘son’ plants? How sexist.”
“I still wish we’d tried,” Mia says quietly, stirring the age-old pot. Just that topic, that old leathery shoe of a stew made me swallow something bitter. I cough, trying to clear my throat, my dark mind.
“Can we try not to have that old discussion today, of all days?” I ask. I focus on the farmland beginning to open up on either side of the road. We’re finally out of the reaches of the city, finally free from the responsibility, the shiny office buildings, bespoke suits, and country clubs that that part of civilization values. I would miss golf if I had to live in the country, of course. And many other things. Country visits are for weekends, a touch base with our more rural and simple selves. Not a place to live full time. I hope we aren’t going to disagree this early in our country excursion.
Mia turns to me and smiles a gentle agreeable smile. She says, “Of course, no fighting. This is our happy day, the start of a wonderful weekend. I just didn’t realize until this moment that strawberry seedlings send out ‘daughter’ plants. I should have grown peppers.” Her voice is quiet, a stealth dagger to my heart. This statement, the peppers, is a jab. Sure, we could have tried to get pregnant one more time, but I was convinced it would be another boy. We had two of those, perfect little specimens, each a miniature version of me, as they should be. I realize Mia would enjoy seeing a little version of herself walking around this world, following in her footsteps. But why tempt fate?
I glance at my wife. Did I see Mia wipe under her eye? No, I’m sure it is an errant eyelash. This topic is almost as old as Sam, our youngest, who is six. We have been arguing, disagreeing let’s call it, over our phantom daughter—her name would have been Lilly, Mia had said over and over again—for six years. The whole thing is absurd. She should be counting her blessings, like her strawberry daughters at her beautiful lake house, for example. She should be thankful for everything she has, everything I’ve provided, not missing something, someone who never existed. I feel myself squeeze the steering wheel, watching my knuckles whiten.
“Or beans. Green beans. Those would be fun to grow,” I say. I have a passion for green beans and have since I was a child. I’ve learned not to question why. It’s just a fact, like the impossibly blue May sky or the brown-green fields stretched out for miles on either side of the car.
I remember when I was a kid and my parents took us to a fancy restaurant in town—this was long before their tragic accident, of course. Before everything changed. Just goes to show you, one thing can happen and poof, all bets are off.
People said it was an odd twist of fate, bad luck that both of my parents had decided to take a nap in the afternoon. Mom’s friends in the neighborhood told the police my mom hardly ever rested during the day. But she had Alzheimer’s, early stage, so things changed, all the time. Bottom line was she did take a nap that day. My dad was slowing down in his old age even though he was stubborn and wouldn’t admit it. He napped daily. While my mom’s disease was progressing, she still functioned, still had more energy than he had. Sure, she forgot little things like her neighbor’s name, but until then she hadn’t forgotten big things—like turning off the car when she had parked it in the garage, most notably.
But my dad always napped, from 12:30 to two every afternoon. He’d pull out his hearing aids, put the golf channel on the television and commence snoring almost immediately. I can almost picture my mom returning from her errand, pulling the car into the garage and pushing the button to close the garage door. She’d walk inside the house, accidentally leaving the door connecting the garage to the house open, the car running. She would have heard my dad’s freight-train snores coming from the bedroom and for some reason, that afternoon, decided to join him in bed. Maybe she had too much to eat at lunch that day and had a stomachache, maybe that’s why she decided to take a nap? The investigators found a bottle of Tums on her bedside table.
It comforts me to know they both slipped into death, like when you have anesthesia for a surgery. The nurse slides the IV in your arm and before you can count backwards from ten, you’re out. But in their case, they never woke up. The silent killer, that’s what they call carbon monoxide. I made sure to install detectors in our house after it happened, even though only about 400 people a year die from the colorless, odorless toxic gas. Still, you have to be cautious, consider every threat. Be one step ahead of everything, everyone. That’s how the universe is working these days.
But before that, back when I was a kid, my parents would sometimes take us to the fanciest restaurant in town. We’d dress up in our little suits and ties, and mom would beam and tell us we were the most handsome men ever and then we’d drive to The Old Clock Tower restaurant. All of the staff would dote over my brother and me. That’s where I had my first taste of perfectly prepared green beans, sliced thin, and painted with a buttery mustard sauce. I remember the beans glistening in the light from the candle on the table. I can still taste that first bite, the smile it put on my face. Those beans weren’t anything like the ones we had at home.
Mia and I don’t have a family restaurant we take the boys to on a regular basis. Not one with flickering candles and crisp white tablecloths at least. We manage to sit down together fairly regularly at the kitchen table, but neither Mia nor I would be considered a good cook, not by any stretch. Sometimes I’ll help throw something together, but usually Mia is in charge of meals, truth be told. Obviously this makes sense: She is the housewife.
I like taking the boys to Panera. It’s not quite like going to McDonald’s or Wendy’s for dinner – although I’ve been known to do that, of course. Please don’t tell Mia, though. No, Panera is almost sit-down, a step above, say, a pizza shop or fast food. Sometimes I try to talk the boys into eating green beans there, you know, for tradition’s sake. They don’t have the taste for them, though. Mikey actually grabs his throat and makes choking, gagging sounds at me. He doesn’t eat anything that’s the color green, Mia says. Those little guys. Sometimes I jokingly wonder aloud if they’re mine.
“Green beans,” she says. Her back is to me; she seems fixated, fully focused on the farmland rolling by the window. Even though I cannot see her face, I detect a tone in her voice, something that sounds like the feeling you get when you can’t understand a joke. Like you are the joke, like you are an idiot. Only someone you love can make you feel that way. “I can ask Buck if that’s possible, over the summer.” I notice she’s nodding, the landscape is rolling, and the overall effect is dizzying. I turn my eyes back to the road.
Since when do we consult with good old Buck on all things garden-related, I wonder? And what else do Buck and Mia discuss: The weather, the pros and cons of fertilizer, our marriage? Soon the road will narrow, and it will be down to one lane, each direction. That’s when I’ll really need to pay attention. That’s when it gets dangerous. If you make a mistake, there is no forgiveness on a two-lane country road.
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