Psychologist Kate Holly tries to keep from unraveling as she deals with arson, madcap patients and friends and her eccentric family
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By Charlotte Hughes
Jove, 288 pages
February 24, 2009
The life of a psychologist is enough to drive anyone nuts…
Ever since she blew up her own office with nitroglycerin (she was sure the patient was bluffing---until the vial exploded), psychologist Kate Holly has been one step away from going off her rocker. It doesn’t help that she’s still in love with her firefighter ex-husband, a man whose only flaw is that he seeks out burning buildings and runs into them. They both want to patch things up, but Kate has been using sex to avoid talking, and he wants to know; is there something she is not telling him?
Well yes, there is. Kate is about to get evicted from her office, and her best option may be to share space with her hot tub-loving ex-boyfriend, Dr. Thad Glazer. With her oddball patients, her meddling mother, and her eccentric secretary thrown into the mix—not to mention a spate of suspicious fires- will Kate put her life back together before she ends up in a padded cell?
By Charlotte Hughes
Release date: February 24, 2009
My name is Kate Holly. As a clinical psychologist, I get paid to listen to people’s problems. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I hear. And just when I think I’ve heard it all, a new patient will come in and blow me out of the water. I am surprised my hair hasn’t turned white, like when Moses went up to the mountain where God appeared to him as a burning bush.
My colleagues and I often joke that we’re even more screwed up than our patients and should all be fitted for straightjackets. We might be on to something. For example, I’m obsessive-compulsive. When I’m stressed I count things. I do multiplication tables in my head. I prefer even numbers because they are divisible by two. Odd numbers are complicated.
Sort of like my life.
That explained why my ex-husband and I were presently sitting in a marriage counselor’s office.
Jay Rush is, and always will be, the love of my life, but we have issues; which only adds to the complexities. Nevertheless, our divorce two months ago was an accident. I’d meant to call it off so we could work on our problems, but I’d gotten side-tracked by a wacko patient, and I’d ended up in the ER. That I survived was a miracle, but it proved I needed to make some serious changes in my life.
Evelyn Hunt was supposed to be the best couple’s therapist in town, if not the most expensive. Fortunately, Jay had insisted on covering the cost.
As with most high-end psychologist, her so-called hour only lasted forty-five minutes. It was pretty obvious her client’s paid their bills regularly, unlike most of mine, because Evelyn’s office looked like the showroom floor at Ethan Allen. She wasted no time getting down to business.
“How’s the sex?” she asked me.
The question took me by surprise. I had done my share of marriage counseling, and I had posed that same question to troubled couples. But this was the first time someone had asked me.
“Fantastic,” I said. “Couldn’t be better.”
Evelyn regarded Jay.
“It’s pretty good,” he said.
My smile drooped. On a scale of one to ten his level of enthusiasm rated about a three. I knew he was annoyed with me. He’d had no desire to discuss our personal problems with a stranger, even a professional. The only reason he had agree to come was because he’d decided it was easier to go along with it than endure my nagging.
“Just pretty good?” I blurted.
He shifted in his chair. The blue nylon jacket he wore matched his eyes. He’d shoved the sleeves to his elbows, exposing arms that were brown and tightly muscled. He worked hard to stay in shape, and it showed. That; combined with his thick dark hair and olive complexion had turned more heads than mine.
He looked at me. “Sometimes, I feel you use sex so we don’t have to face our problems.”
“That’s not true!” I said. Okay, maybe it was true, I admitted to myself. But after listening to people’s woes all day, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about ours. And face the fact that we may never work them out.
“Sometimes I feel—” Jay paused. “Like you’re holding back,” he said. “Like part of you is cut off from me emotionally.”
I gave a mental sigh. When had the man gone all touchy-feely on me? “How can you say that?”
“That’s how I feel, Katie. If you don’t want to hear the truth then you shouldn’t have insisted I come here.”
“You didn’t want to be here today?” Evelyn asked him.
She didn’t appear surprised. “But you came anyway,” she said. “Why?”
He shrugged. “I suppose I should do my part to try and make our marriage work.”
“Do you want your marriage to work?”
“Of course I do.”
“Have you told Kate that you sometimes feel she is shutting you out?”
“Not in so many words. Like I said, we usually end up in bed.”
I sank low in my chair. Evelyn had probably labeled me a sex addict. I wanted to crawl beneath the expensive Persian rug on the floor.
She turned from Jay to me. “Do you think you hold back emotionally?” she asked.
“I’m open to him,” I said, flinching at the whiny sound coming out of my mouth. I made that same sound when my mother accused me of not visiting enough. “I share,” I added. But it wasn’t altogether true. And Jay and I had spent a lot of time in the sack during the first month of our attempt at reconciliation. It was the reason we made reservations at our favorite restaurants and never showed, the reason we’d missed two films we’d wanted to see, and lost money on concert tickets Jay had purchased.
The room went silent. Evelyn seemed to be waiting for me to fill it. “Okay,” I finally said. “I have been holding back a little, but that’s because Jay has been so critical. He seems to look for reasons to point out my shortcomings with regard to my work.”
“Tell Evelyn why I criticize you,” Jay said.
We locked gazes. “You’re just trying to make me look bad,” I said.
Jay turned his attention to Evelyn. “Two months ago, Kate was almost strangled by the boyfriend of one of her patients.”
“Oh, my!” she said.
“That’s the first time anything like that ever happened,” I said.
Jay went on. “The next day, she blew up her office with a vial of nitroglycerin.”
“He’s exaggerating,” I said quickly, knowing I’d lost all credibility as a wife and a therapist. “There was a small explosion, but it just broke a window and put a small hole in the wall of my reception room. It was an accident.”
“An accident?” Jay said. “Was it also an accident that one of your patients tried to run over you in the parking lot, and you ended up in the ER with a broken wrist?”
Evelyn’s mouth formed a small O.
“My patient did not try to run over me,” I said, my irritation growing with Jay’s every word. “I was chasing him across the parking lot, and I tripped.”
Jay gave a grunt. “How many near-death experiences does it take before you realize you might be in the wrong business?”
That pissed me off. “I resent that!” I said a bit louder than I’d meant. “I happen to be very good at what I do. Besides, who are you to talk about taking risks? You’re the one who races into burning buildings as everyone else is running out.”
He immediately became defensive. “I’m a firefighter. That’s what I do.”
“And I treat people with emotional problems.”
“You treat people who need to be locked away,” he said. “It’s like you’re on a mission to find the craziest and most dangerous patients in the world. The sicker the better,” he added.
Evelyn’s head swiveled from Jay to me and back to Jay. She reminded me of the toy dogs with the bobbing heads that people used to put in the back of their cars. “See what I mean?” I told her. “To hear him talk you’d think all of my patients were criminally insane when most of them are actually very boring.”
“Okay,” Evelyn said. “What I’m hearing is that each of you fears for the other’s safety because of your occupations; and that it causes discord in your relationship.”
“It’s harder on Kate,” Jay said, his tone softening for the first time since we’d entered the room. “Her father was a firefighter who died in the line of duty when she was ten years old.”
“I’m so sorry,” Evelyn said to me.
“Thank you,” I replied, even though I had no desire to dredge up my past.
“I try to take it into consideration,” Jay said, “but she’s still afraid. She obsesses about every little thing that might go wrong.”
“I think I handled it pretty well until you became injured,” I said.
He shook his head. “You know that’s not true. You questioned me constantly even before the accident. If I told you the truth, you fretted and begged me to quit the department. If I held back information, you accused me of being dishonest. It was one argument after another.”
I looked down at my shoes. As much as I wanted to deny it, Jay was telling the truth. The constant bickering had driven a wedge between us, and we’d stopped talking. We’d even stopped having sex. His injury had been the last straw for me, which is why I’d packed my bags and left.
“Kate knew what I did for a living before we married,” Jay said.
I was not surprised by the comment. It always came down to that. My fault. “I thought I could handle it. I’m not the only wife who has fears. Why do you think the divorce rate is so high with firefighters?”
I was rewarded with a dark frown. “So why the hell did you marry me?” he asked.
“Because I fell in love with you, you idiot!” I came close to yelling.
“Time out!” Evelyn said, slicing the air with her arms like a referee. “We need to take a deep breath and calm down.”
“I have to get back to the station,” Jay said, standing. “This is going nowhere.”
“You can’t just walk out of marriage counseling!” I said.
“Don’t you get it, Katie?” he asked. “I’m tired of arguing about my job and now, your job.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying—” He paused. “I’ve got a lot going on at work right now. This just isn’t a good time for me. I’m sorry.” He opened the door and quietly let himself out.
My heart sank to my toes.
Evelyn was quiet for a moment. “Are you okay?” she asked finally.
I nodded but I wasn’t okay. What could be more important to Jay than our relationship? “I’ll be fine,” I said.
I could tell she didn’t believe me as she reached for her appointment book. “Why don’t we go ahead and set something up for next Monday. If you need to cancel, just give me a twenty-four hour notice.”
I nodded because I didn’t trust my voice.
I found myself anxiously counting traffic lights on the drive to my office. I tried not to think about the possibility of life without Jay. He was not only my lover but my best friend, and one of the most grounded people I knew. After being raised by two women who were the least grounded people I knew, Jay had, despite my objections to his job, provided a sense of normalcy that I’d lacked after my father died.
My mother and aunt were partially responsible for my neuroses. Picture two plus-sized women, identical twins, in their mid-fifties, with big platinum hair and inch-long eyelashes. Even before I’d lost my father, they’d been hardcore junk dealers, which meant I’d been raised in a house surrounded by more crap than Sanford and Son. Our living room made Graceland look like something out of “Southern Living.” They referred to themselves as the Junk Sisters. In school, I was known as the daughter of a Junk Sister. I’m fairly certain that’s why nobody asked me to the senior prom.
Red was their signature color. They wore red overalls and rode around in a candy apple red six-ton 2007 Navistar CLT pickup truck. It was twenty-one feet long and capable of hauling more junk than AmTrak. My earliest memories were of me digging through the trash in ritzy neighborhoods on garbage day while they kept watch from their battered pickup, the engine running so we could make a quick getaway if need be. I’d been coaxed inside every Dumpster within a fifty mile radius of Atlanta, and I knew everybody’s name at the local flea market where we rented a booth on weekends.
They had become very successful over the years, having turned their junk into sculptures, wall art, and painted furniture. Their new studio in Little Five Points drew high-end interior decorators and wealthy customers. The sign outside their store read Junque because my mother thought it sounded sophisticated. They made a killing.
While I was enormously proud of them, my mother and I bumped heads constantly. She often stuck her nose in my business, and she had more advice than a self-help book, even though, at thirty-two I had read most of them. She was bossy and overbearing and could induce guilt in the best of us. I recalled her doing the same to my father. Sometimes, when I was at the end of my rope with her, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d chosen to stay in that burning building.
I pulled into the parking lot of my office building and was suddenly overcome with a choking sense of dread. I had been served an eviction notice two months ago; a result of the aforementioned explosion. I’d spent the first month begging my landlord to reconsider. He’d agreed to give me an extra month, during which time I’d searched high and low for affordable office space. The only one that had come close was a one-story building that housed a cab company and a lending operation called Snappy Cash, owned and operated by a seedy man named Freddie who wore white shoes, polyester slacks, and had a terrible comb-over. It would have meant sharing a bathroom and kitchen space with people who appeared hygienically challenged and who were not overly concerned that one or two front teeth were missing.
I now had until five P.M. on Friday to find a place, at which time my landlord planned to change the locks on my doors.
I spoke to several of the people who got on and off the elevator as I rode to my office on the fourth floor. I knew most of them since my best friend, receptionist, and self-appointed PR person, Mona Epps, held an open house on the first Monday of every month in hopes of building my practice. It was a catered event where she passed out brochures on mental health issues and saw that everyone left with my business card. Since she was rich and paid for it all there was little I could do about it.
The events hadn’t drawn many patients, but Mona and I were well-liked by the other tenants.
I heard loud singing before I opened the door leading into my reception room. Inside, I found a striking but disheveled woman in a sequined cowgirl outfit and ten-gallon hat, belting out the words to an old country song, “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” The fact that I wasn’t surprised to find a complete stranger performing a nightclub act in my office said a lot about what I faced on a daily basis.
Sitting at her desk, Mona gave me an eye roll. I simply stood there quietly while the woman sang, using a hairbrush as her microphone. Finally, she finished. I smiled and clapped and Mona did likewise. I’m sure we were in silent agreement that the woman would never see her name in lights.
“Who are you?” she asked me.
I noted a slight odor coming from her; like maybe she needed a hot shower and bar of deodorant soap. “I’m Dr. Kate Holly,” I said. “You can call me Kate.” I smiled. “And you are?”
The woman looked surprised. “You don’t recognize me?” She pulled off her cowboy hat, and I almost winced at the site of her hair, dyed coal black and chopped in an unflattering style.
Mona cleared her voice and gave me the special look we shared when weird people showed up in my office, which was often. “Kate, meet Marie Osmond,” she said. “I didn’t recognize her at first either. She looks much younger in person.”
The Marie Osmond Wannabe smiled.
She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her. The only thing I knew for certain was she couldn’t possibly be Marie Osmond whom I’d recently seen on Dancing with the Stars.
“I’m honored,” I said, taking her hand and shaking it. I noticed her nails were dirty and chipped. There were bruises on her arms.
“Miss Osmond is reinventing herself,” Mona said. “She plans to take the country music industry by storm. And you’ll never guess what else. She has walked away from all her fame and fortune and started from scratch.”
Marie nodded. “That’s right. I gave it all up—” She paused and snapped her fingers, “Just like that. A real country western star sings about hardship, broken hearts, and old pickup trucks,” she added. “They don’t sing songs about shopping on Rodeo Drive.”
Mona gave me another of our special looks. “Marie has been looking for gigs in Atlanta, but she hasn’t had much luck.”
The woman gave a huff. “It has nothing to do with talent, of course. People would hire me in a second if I would agree to sing the old Donnie and Marie songs.” She gave a massive sigh. “I swear; if I have to hear the song “Puppy Love” again, I’ll barf up my spleen. Anyway, last night I auditioned for this guy named Rusty who owns Rusty’s Place, and he gave me your address and phone number and said you had a lot of connections.”
I blinked several times. It was a lot to take in at once, and the woman spoke at warp speed. I knew Rusty well. Jay and I often ate at his restaurant because he had the best steaks in town. Obviously, Rusty had decided the woman had serious problems and sent her my way.
“I had doubts about coming to see you,” Marie said. “I mean, I grew up in the music industry, and there’s nothing I don’t already know about the business, but as I was pulling into your parking lot I saw your phone number written in the sky with the words ‘Compassionate Friend.’ I knew it was a sign from God that I was supposed to be here.”
I nodded. Most psychologists, upon hearing about signs from God, would immediately suspect they were dealing with a psychotic or a Jehovah’s Witness. Not true in my case. Mona had hired a pilot to pull a banner over the city of Atlanta advertising my services; hoping one day I would be famous and have my own talk show.
“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to help,” I said after a moment, “but I don’t know anything about the entertainment industry. I’m a clinical psychologist.”
Marie glanced from me to Mona and back at me. I could tell she was unsettled and probably very confused. “You’re a shrink?” she said. “Why would Rusty send me to a shrink?”
I tried to think of a good response.
“Maybe he thought we could give you the name of a good hair stylist,” Mona said.
I floundered for a reply. “Well, trying to reinvent
yourself can be very stressful,” I began, “and to be
perfectly honest, you look worn out.”