One marriage. One lie. Two sides to the story.
The moment Vivien meets Ashton, she knows she will be his wife and absolutely nothing will stop her.
Powerful, rich and from a good family, Ashton is everything Vivien is not. So, she molds herself into Ashton’s perfect soulmate.
Pouring his favorite vintage wine, whispering ‘I love you’ over dinner in front of friends and biting her tongue when she disagrees with him are simple sacrifices for the perfect marriage she has always craved.
When people begin to notice the bruises on her cheek, she holds their stares. There is no cry for help from Vivien. She simply keeps her mouth shut and lets the gossip continue.
If you saw Vivien nursing a black eye, you might be forgiven for thinking what everyone else does—that she is the victim in her marriage, but you’d be wrong. Vivien and Ashton’s life together is much more complicated than that. You will never guess the true story behind Vivien’s undying devotion to her husband. Nor could you possibly predict what she does next…
Perfect for fans of Gone Girl, Behind Closed Doors and The Perfect Couple. If you enjoy reading twisted psychological thrillers with bags of suspense, then you’ll love The Newlyweds from USA TODAY bestselling author Arianne Richmonde.
What readers are saying about Arianne Richmonde:
“Woah! What a ride! I read this book straight through cover to cover. Full of twists I never saw coming.” Meandering and Muses, 5 stars
“Gripping, heart-pounding and completely unpredictable.” Little Miss Book Lover 87, 5 stars
“A psychological thrill ride you won’t be able to look away from. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. 6 stars!” Alessandra Torre, New York Times bestselling author
“Had me up all night to finish it. I just had to know how it ended!!! So many twists that I didn’t see coming.” The Shelves of a Bibliophile, 5 stars
“I was hooked from the very first page. This one blew me away. I couldn’t put it down. Keeps you on the edge of your seat.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“Taut and tantalizing… Wow, this author has done a fabulous job. I loved every twist. I finished it in a few hours.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars
“Wow! I read way past my bedtime simply because I didn’t want to stop reading.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“It’s rare that a thriller grips me from the first few pages, but this one did and it admirably didn’t loosen its hold until the end… The atmospheric setting, plentiful WTF moments and numerous plot twists all made this one of my favorite recent reads…
Release date: January 19, 2021
Print pages: 350
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I thought I had my life under control, that I was the architect of my future.
I was wrong.
On the day of our wedding, I questioned everything. But the wheels were in motion and it was too late to turn back. I could not let go of my dream. The painstaking plans that had kept me up at night and every waking hour for all this time were finally happening. My wish had come true.
Ashton and I were getting married.
It was a fantasy wedding beyond anything I could have hoped for. The sort of wedding you design in your head from the age of six, a make-believe princess’s fairy tale. Grand and elegant: the big white dress, the something-borrowed-something-blue gifts, the ever after speeches.
Distant Island, where Ashton’s family house had stood for nearly two hundred years, and where our wedding was set, could not have looked more beautiful. Glorious in its antebellum magnificence, the mansion, Distant Sands, presided over the coastal waterfront and its private dock, reflecting the pale blue, late April sky. As if it knew my secret, as if it held our history in the eyes of every windowpane, the limbs of every door. Watching us.
Watching me as I moved ahead with my mistake.
There was no stopping me now.
Huge white marquees on the lawn and tables dressed with the finest linen, and silverware—real, not plate—shimmered in the afternoon sun, while guests chatted and laughed, sipping champagne from crystal glasses, throwing back their heads in abandon, and toasting the happiest couple in the world. Waitstaff weaved between the throngs, carrying canapés and trays with drink refills, as children circled and skipped between grownups’ knees and elbows, and dogs in bow ties barked happily on the gleaming green spread of lawn.
Everything was perfect.
Except… it wasn’t.
I couldn’t believe I had actually gone through with this, but I had, and you would never have known from the smile on my face what I felt deep down inside, because, despite my reservations… despite myself, I did feel like the luckiest girl in the universe.
“Honey, are you all right? Everything okay?” Ashton, his face brimming with consternation, swept a tendril of hair from my brow—careful not to dislodge my perfect hairdo, styled and fussed over all morning by South Carolina’s top hairdresser. Ashton looked like the perfect Southern gentleman in his tailored tails, the rosebud buttonhole he sported, the shiny black shoes polished to within an inch of their lives. His sandy hair—that turned blondish in summer and back to brown in winter—flopped over his liquid brown, multi-century eyes. Observing Ashton did make you believe in reincarnation. As though he’d lived so many lives already. His wise, heavy brow that told you he had it covered, that he could fix any problem. The strength of his jawline spoke of quiet determination and justice, but even a hint of his boyish smile took all that away. The paradox of him confused me. Ashton was so much more than just my husband. He was—
“Vivien, honey, are you all right?”
Teary-eyed, I fixed him a smile and said, “Ashton, it couldn’t be more beautiful, I only wish I could have shared all this with my parents.”
“I know, sweetheart, but I swear I’ll make up for what you’ve lost. I’ll make you so happy, you’ll see.”
Ashton had extraordinary self-belief. Something I so admired about him. He was a fixer—not just because of his job as one of the best neurosurgeons in the South—but because of his unwavering confidence in himself. Why shouldn’t he be confident? Full scholarship to the best medical school in the country, Johns Hopkins, top of his class. Board certified neurosurgeon before he’d reached thirty. Had written papers on this and that, published in science journals, lectured all over the world. Respect was a word that came to mind. And awe. People were in awe of him.
I was in awe of him. And that was the truth. But not the whole truth.
I mulled over what he’d said: “Make up for what you’ve lost.”
I clung onto that belief.
The wedding spilled into the evening, until the inky gold of the sun dipped below the skyline, and guests ventured—some of them, the more adventurous ones—into waiting sailboats. They took off across the smooth water, the white sails looking like pretty handkerchiefs against the horizon, until the first stars twinkled in the Carolina sky. I didn’t take a boat ride myself but chatted with the other guests, my smile a beacon, my wedding gown’s beaded hem and train heavy around my ankles, swishing and swinging and making me feel that my life was indeed fit for a character in some classic romance novel, centuries ago. Then Ashton and I had our first dance, and when he fixed his gaze on me, I felt my heart leap inside my chest all over again, the way it did the very first time we met.
The way it still did when I wasn’t thinking.
“Darling, oh my darling, you look divine!” My reverie was interrupted by Georgia-May, Ashton’s mother, who had been released from her care home—supervised of course—for just a few hours, to partake in the nuptial celebrations. All elegance in her double strand of pearls and pink chiffon dress, she looked at me dreamily for a moment and then a furrow of confusion scrunched her brow, and she suddenly seemed to not remember who I was nor why she was even here at all. The poor lady had Alzheimer’s. Something Ashton always hated to discuss.
I remembered in that brief moment—after my dance with Ashton and between Georgia-May’s hazy confusion and several sips of champagne—confiding in a friend, one time, that I was unhappy about something (I couldn’t remember what), and my friend had told me, “I’m so sorry your life hasn’t turned out exactly as you wanted it to be.” Her words had shocked me and angered me too. But it also gave me a kick up the butt. I decided in that second, I am going to make my life turn out exactly as I want it to be. And no one’s going to stop me.
And here I was now, marrying Dr. Ashton Buchanan.
Everything was perfect for us for the first five months. We honeymooned in St. Barts. Ashton could afford to holiday on exclusive islands like St. Barts. It wasn’t that he was from old money, or even wealth; his father had been a shrimper. Ashton had inherited Distant Sands after his dad’s death. His great-grandfather had owned great chunks of the island—had won the land and several houses in a bet, over a century ago—but Ashton’s father had sold most of it off for practically nothing. Ashton had held onto Distant Sands, though, and its seven-acre lot. His was the only historic mansion that was still left standing. Romantic and beautiful as the house had always been, it was a dilapidated mess during Ashton’s childhood: the roof half caved in, dry rot eating at the wooden wrap-around porches. Passing nearly two centuries, the mansion—a three-story Greek Revival—had served for myriad purposes, notably a hospital during the Civil War. Ashton had made this house what it became: an exquisite piece of history shrouded in splendor and beauty. I say “shrouded” because nobody could look at this antebellum landmark and not feel just a little bit intimidated. Distant Sands could be a museum. Ashton had restored it with love, putting all his heart into everything: the grand, sweeping, curved marble staircase with wrought-iron bannisters lording over the marble-floored entrance hall, lit up by an original Venetian crystal chandelier and where the baby grand piano lived.
Ashton had brought everything back to its former glory. The French windows, the library with mahogany woodwork with top to bottom judge’s paneling. The heart pine and cherry wood inlay parquet floors, the windows—which didn’t look remade at all, of course, but as if they had been there forever.
There were two parlors, one a drawing room with Chippendale settees, where men once drank cognac and smoked cigars, the other where the ladies would “retire” after a formal dinner or sip iced tea and catch up with gossip. The house still retained the air of bygone days, with its Queen Anne wingback chairs, needlepoint and tapestry footstools, and silver tea sets displayed on mahogany or cherry wood sideboards and eighteenth-century cabinets. It was almost as if you could hear their chatter in the walls, the hazy, heated summer days. Ladies with fans sipping long, cool glasses of iced lemonade. I couldn’t help but feel this place would always haunt me—it wasn’t me; I would never fit in, never feel at home here, no matter what I did. Distant Sands. Its name spoke volumes to me. Distant. So true.
Distant Sands maintained its classic, Deep-South antebellum design, with wide wood plantation shutters and upper and lower front porches. The back porch overlooked shaded green wooded land, and the front of the mansion faced the water and a live oak tree of such magnitude—at least eighty feet high—that people would come and visit it in awe. The tree was older than the house itself, and the most beautiful, majestic thing I had ever seen. Draped in swathes of gorgeous Spanish moss, it seemed like some elegant grand dame in her finest clothes, or a wild Medusa standing proud, guarding Distant Sands—her very own Greek Revival mansion—garlanded and festooned with streamers in her leafy hair.
The minute I arrived, Distant Island gave me a feeling that I was on a remote, going-back-in-time, Carolina sea island. I felt a little isolated.
The mansion is perched on just a little bit of a slope. The façade of the house faces a lagoon surrounded by a meandering web of creeks and inlets teeming with oystercatchers and winding salt rivers and coastal marshland buffering the land from the great Atlantic. Distant Island, on Lady’s Island, neighbors hundreds of other sea islands, most of the inhabited ones connected by a bridge. Bays, rivers and sounds meander their way around them, like arteries flowing between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean.
When the tide is low the salty marsh exposes itself with all its secrets and God’s little inhabitants amidst the wild sea grass shimmering in the breeze: the marsh birds, blue herons and egrets, crabs and crayfish, and silver oysters wedged in the sand.
And when the tide is high you can dangle your legs in the water, perched on the house’s private deep-water dock that stretches wide across the marshy creek. You can watch pelicans dive-bombing for fish and sometimes spot bottlenose dolphins flitting across its smooth waters, pewter at dawn, and copper at sunset. Of course, there can be riptides that sneak into these waters and wild storms sometimes, even hurricanes, although, so far, I hadn’t experienced any crazy weather. I have made Distant Island sound as if it’s in the middle of nowhere, which isn’t quite true, because it’s only fifteen minutes from Beaufort, a beautiful little town set between Savannah and Charleston. Beaufort’s downtown district was designated as historic by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Still, even with the town close by, I felt out on a limb.
I couldn’t help sense that I was a visitor. A ship passing in the night. A shooting star exploding into dust. I knew from the outset I’d have to start counting my memories—the good ones—because they’d be fleeting. Call it premonition or sure-fire knowledge, it didn’t matter. My days at Distant Sands were numbered.
I was still trying to acclimatize myself to married life with Ashton. A Yankee as I pretty much considered myself, the South Carolinian ways were new to me: the food, the polite, unsaid rules, the unhurried gaiety and social norms that spoke a new language I hadn’t yet mastered. I’d heard some of their jokes, told with a grin: “Yankees are like hemorrhoids. Pain in the butt when they come down and always a relief when they go back up.”
I longed to fit in, to be accepted. I had yet to find out that cruelty would be wrapped in lace, and that if anyone said “Bless your heart,” you knew that heart was damned.
I often wondered if confidence is something you’re born with or something you acquire. I mean, real gut confidence, not the bravado kind or the fake veneer. I’d certainly had to acquire bucketloads of confidence since I’d been married to Ashton. The way you pick seashells from the shore, I had to collect confidence amidst the grains of sand, make myself sparkle, ease myself into feeling at home in a foreign world. Because the Lowcountry was foreign to me. Everyone was more than welcoming, but I wanted to be the perfect wife, to look as if Ashton and I matched, and that we had been made for each other, belonged together.
But being perfect doesn’t come easy; you have to work at it, and work at it I did. The understated clothing, but always quality brands. Never flashy, never brash, but effortlessly well-turned out. My dark hair long enough to be sexy but always styled and cut so it was neat. Makeup applied with such precision that it looked as if I hardly wore any. A touch of mascara, maybe a dash of brown eyeliner to bring out the blue of my eyes, a dab of rouge or lip gloss. Natural was the byword, the key. Shoes: low heels or pristine sneakers. I favored pearl stud earrings. The only thing that drew attention was my solitaire diamond engagement ring that Ashton had had made especially for me. I tried so hard to be one of them.
I watched my diet, too. Salads and low carbs, no red meat, and rarely dessert. I drove an electric Volvo. Safe, expensive and top-of-the-range, but not ostentatious. I exuded class, or at least that’s what I was aiming for. Ashton may have been a Southern boy at heart, a shrimper’s son and a dab hand at the barbecue, but he was ambitious and a hard worker and had made himself a pillar of the community. It wasn’t that he asked me to do these things or behave in any particular way, like going to the gym or practicing tennis till I could slam a backhand and challenge anyone to a decent game, but I knew it was part and parcel of my marriage, and I had to keep up. This marriage was everything to me. Without parents to call my own I clung to it like a lifeline, and I needed to make it work. And the truth was, Ashton was the only man I had ever loved. The only one I could ever imagine being with.
I didn’t make friends easily but Lindy, the wife of the owner of the Sea Oats Country Club we frequented—where Ashton played golf—had taken me under her wing and we soon became fast friends. Not best friends, though. I needed to keep her curiosity at arm’s length. Trust is not something gained overnight. There were secrets I would always leave unwrapped. Skeletons that could stay right there in their creaky old closets. But Lindy was kind, and kindness is a gift. I knew only too well about life’s blows and switchback bends. Grateful was a word I cherished. I reminded myself every day how grateful I was for my marriage with Ashton and the chance to make things right again.
As well as keeping up with our social life at the country club, I worked long hours at a local foundation, Community Promise. We provided safe, temporary shelter and meals for those in need. Transportation to employment interviews, or medical appointments, or school. It gave women and youngsters a chance in life, to learn skillsets that would offer them jobs, or places at college. Our life skills program provided assistance in securing employment, access to medical care, school placement and, ultimately, help in locating affordable housing. We helped kids who had been abandoned by their parents, steered them away from temptations of drugs or crime. We also offered shelter from family abuse, or to runaway kids who had been molested. Troublemakers who were doing badly at school. Give a troublemaker responsibility and those troubles can melt away. So many kids are just not given a chance. It was a way of giving back, and my job meant the world to me. Our music classes in particular were transformative. With some youngsters it had been like watching the morning break, seeing the sun’s orb rise from a dark horizon, and then shine slowly, brighter and brighter, lighting up the sky, making everything gleam in its wake. Some of these teenagers had made one hundred and eighty degree turns. Nothing gave me more pleasure than being part of their journey, a key element to their healing process. Ashton loved what I did because, being a doctor—a surgeon, no less—mending people (and cutting out the bad parts) was in his DNA.
I did everything I could to make Distant Island feel like my second skin. I wanted Ashton to be proud of me, I wanted—no, needed—his mother, Georgia-May, to love me as her own daughter, especially since my parents were no longer in my life. I began visiting her at her care home, Heritage Park Assisted Living, and I believed she now recognized me as her daughter-in-law and was really starting to warm up. Next were Ashton’s friends in the community and his work colleagues. I left him to his own devices with his old fishing buddies and friends from childhood. What interested me more was the social scene at the country club and bonding with the other women.
A social climber, trying to hook my foot onto the middle rungs of the ladder and haul myself up to the top? You might assume that, if you didn’t know me better. Let’s just say I cared about being accepted by good society people. I cared about fitting in.
Our first dinner party I gave was a huge success. I spent weeks studying various different cookbooks, unsure of what to give them. The trick was to make it seem casual and second nature as if I were born into the laidback, unhurried, easy drawl of their world but was also effortlessly chic. I pretended that the dinner was no big deal. The guests were just Lindy and her husband Richard, and another younger couple, June and Michael. Michael was an intern at the hospital where Ashton worked in Charleston. A protégé, who had an uncanny resemblance to one of my favorite actors, Sidney Poitier. Neurosurgery is tough to master, obviously, and there aren’t so many neurosurgeons in the States, not even throughout the world. You have to be meticulous. Have hands like Leonardo da Vinci and a brain like Einstein. Something I’d tell Ashton if he was stressed after a long day, if he needed to be bolstered.
“Leo and Al, remember?” I’d say. He’d always laugh.
For the entrée, I cooked a Basque pipérade of stewed green peppers, local clams and white fish, followed by a wine-braised chicken sprinkled with pearl onions and button mushrooms, and for dessert a cinnamon apple bostock splashed with French Calvados with frangipane cream and toasted almonds, sweet and crunchy. I’d baked bread, too, dripping with butter and garnished with herbs from the garden. I served it all with a crisp, cold Pinot Grigio, but had a good red on standby for those that might not like white. And a sweet French Sauternes for dessert. I was out to impress.
“So tell me how you two met?” Michael asked, dabbing his mouth with one of the linen napkins we had been given as a wedding gift. I had brought out all the best china and glasses and silverware too. I wanted his friends to approve of me.
“At the Citrus Club,” Ashton and I said in unison and then laughed at how in sync we were.
June’s eyes lit up. “The Citrus Club in Charleston?” We nodded. “And who spoke to whom first?”
I looked at Ashton, and he told them, “Me. Of course. I don’t think Vivien would have even noticed me otherwise. What do you say, honey?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I answered shyly, remembering how my heart had missed a beat when he entered the room.
“Vivien was waiting for a friend, who luckily never showed. She was sitting there, legs crossed, that gorgeous dark mane of hers hanging over one eye, sipping a cocktail so daintily—and I… well, I fell in love at first sight. And if anyone tells you love at first sight isn’t possible… well, I tell you it certainly is.”
“Nonsense,” I protested. “You didn’t fall in love with me at first sight.”
“Oh no?” Ashton said. “I think I can be the judge of that.”
“Get a room, you two,” Lindy joked.
Michael took some bread and passed it along. “Sounds romantic.”
Ashton smiled at me. “Oh, it was romantic, all right. I had to court her. But Vivien was hard to pin down. So busy with work. So elusive! Of course, I asked her on a date immediately—after we’d been chatting a couple hours. But she said she was busy, remember, honey? Took a while before I could get her to go for dinner with me. And after that first date, well, it took me forever to get her to have dinner with me again. And the third time. She was one cool customer. I had to work very hard to win her love.”
“But it was worth it, right?” Lindy said. She swallowed a mouthful of chicken and licked her lips. “How do you do it, Vivien? I know you’re busier than a moth in a mitten with your job. I mean, this food is out of this world. Weren’t you working all day at Community Promise? How do you find the time?”
“Well, I don’t have kids,” I said, looking optimistically at Ashton.
“Oh, my word,” Richard, Lindy’s husband, agreed. “This really is exquisite. Where did you learn to cook like this?”
“Paris,” Ashton replied. “Vivien is an astonishing cook. Even when she makes biscuits and gravy. I’ve really lucked out.” He turned to look at me, his brown eyes glinting with pride.
I gave him a small smile. “The biscuits and gravy I really want the recipe for is your mom’s, Ashton, honey. I hear Georgia-May has a secret biscuit recipe?” I had been hounding Ashton to let his mother come over and spend the day here, cooking, or doing something fun. The poor woman hadn’t been let out of Heritage Park since the wedding. Ashton being an only child, we were the only family she had.
But Ashton swiftly steered me away. “I’m sorry, Michael, your glass is quite empty.” He sprang up from his seat and gave everyone a refill. Ashton had such gentlemanly manners. As he was going around the table, in one hand a bottle of red and the other white, he said, “Vivien’s far too humble. She did a cordon bleu cooking course in Paris, you know.”
“How wonderful to do something like that in Paris,” Lindy gushed.
I smiled, just a tad embarrassed. All eyes were on me. “Yes. I lived in Paris for a couple of years with my parents when I was nineteen, but I had to leave, sadly.”
Richard, with his mouth full, said, “Why on earth did you leave Paris? Isn’t that every person’s dream to live there?”
“What took your parents to Paris in the first place?” June cut in.
“My dad’s job,” I said. “He worked in the fashion business, the rag trade. And my mom taught English as a foreign language to French students.”
June raised a brow. “How glamorous,” she drawled. “You must find it very backwater here in boring old South Carolina.”
I caught Ashton’s eye. “Not in the least. Distant Island’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever lived, ever seen. And if I feel like a bit of shopping, or the theater or whatever, I go to Charleston. Or Savannah. And th. . .
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