‘Til Death Do Us Part’
Jennifer Winthrop smiled all through the antipasti, the penne Florentine, the veal scaloppini, the tiramisu. She was still smiling as Jonathan raised his champagne glass to hers. “Happy anniversary, dear.”
“Yes,” she murmured. “Happy anniversary indeed.”
She glanced at her husband’s empty plate as the waiter cleared their table, thinking: ‘The condemned man ate a hearty meal.’ She almost laughed aloud at the aptness of the phrase, given the circumstances. For herself, she had expected to pick at her own more modest portions. She was surprised instead that the prospect of imminent freedom gave her an appetite to match that of her husband.
Jonathan signed the bill with his usual flourish, waved the waiter away. Smiling expansively, he leaned back in his chair, regarded his wife of five years, noting the way candlelight reflected off the diamond earrings that had been his gift to her.
“Now, my dear, the evening is still young, what is your pleasure? Dancing? A drive in the country?”
Jennifer pretended to consider the options, while she toyed with her wedding ring. “Actually, Jonathan, I had something a little more intimate in mind. I thought we could go home. I, ah, I have a little surprise for you.” He would be surprised all right. But not in the way he expected, judging from the anticipatory gleam in his eye.
“Well,” Jonathan drawled, “that’ very interesting. Especially since I have a little surprise of my own for you.”
Jennifer’s chin rose; she regarded her husband warily. Did he suspect? No, he couldn’t possibly know.
She fingered the emerald necklace that graced her slender throat. “Well,” she replied, her voice husking in what she hoped would pass for her own anticipation, “if your surprise is anything like the one I have for you, great minds think alike.”
Jonathan chuckled as he pushed back his chair. “Let’s hope the reverse is not equally true.”
Jennifer stood, waited while her wrap was draped around her shoulders, a twinge of anxiety fluttering briefly beneath the taut silk of her gown at Jonathan’s oblique remark. She gave her head the barest shake, straightened her shoulders. As she sailed out of the restaurant on her husband’s arm, a small inner voice chanted: ‘Another hour and I will be free. Another hour and I will be free.’
As Jonathan threaded the sleek black Bonneville through the rain-washed streets, Jennifer wondered if her husband had the slightest notion that she hated him.
She knew all about his affairs, including the current one with his secretary; knew, too, that divorce was out of the question. There must never be the faintest breath of scandal around the Winthrop name. Not to mention the pre-nuptial agreement she had blithely signed in a moment of sheer ecstasy.
In a sober moment, right after she learned the real reason he maintained a penthouse at an exclusive address and why he found it necessary to work late so often, she read the fine print.
In true Winthrop tradition, marriage was indeed until death do us part. What the respective spouses did in their spare time was of no concern to anyone, provided that the Winthrop name was never mentioned in the scandal sheets. It was amazing how the press looked the other way if you had enough silver to cross enough palms.
As soon as they arrived at the sprawling estate that had been home to the Winthrops for more than six generation, Jennifer headed for the marble and tile bathroom of the master bedroom to prepare for her next role. She drew the diaphanous chiffon negligee over her shoulders, put a dab of OPIUM behind her ears and at the pulse point on her throat. She wriggled her fingers at the seductive image in her mirror, drew in a deep breath, switched off the lights.
In the bedroom, she headed for the bar concealed behind a wall panel. Jonathan lounged in one of the two wing chairs drawn up near the fireplace. He had put aside his jacket but was still fully dressed. Not that it mattered. She had no intention of playing the femme fatale tonight. Not for long at any rate. Following a prearranged script, she retrieved the decanter of brandy and two balloon glasses. She glanced over her shoulder to see what Jonathan was doing. He appeared to be deep in thought, staring into the cold dark fireplace as if seeking some answer in its blackened interior. She exhaled softly as a moment’s qualm overtook her, then she gave the decanter a little shake. She poured a generous measure of brandy into both glasses, set them on a silver tray and carried it over to the oval table set between their chairs.
She sat down facing Jonathan and reached for the glass closest to her. She raised her glass. “Cheers.”
Jonathan followed suit. “Cheers.”
He drained the brandy in one swallow, set his glass down on the tray.
Startled, Jennifer paused, with her own glass partly to her lips. Not that she intended to drink the contents. This was going even better than she expected. Normally Jonathan would have savored the brandy a sip at a time.
Jonathan glanced at his watch. “In spite of the seductive attire, which is very alluring, I’m afraid I am going to have to disappoint you. I just had a call from the office and I have to go back out. Don’t wait up for me. I will be very late. You know how these meetings can drag on. Now you said you had a surprise for me?” A shadow passed over his face.
Jennifer tightened her grip on her goblet to subdue her shaking fingers.
“Don’t bother lying, Jonathan. I know perfectly well you aren’t going to the office. And you have lied to me for the last time. I want my freedom, Jonathan. That’s what I want.”
Jonathan threw his head back and laughed outright. “A divorce? Not bloody likely, darling. I’m quite certain you have memorized certain clauses in that pre-nuptial agreement you so eagerly signed, so you know better that to even consider it.”
“That’s right, Jonathan. But I never mentioned the word ‘divorce’ now did I? And there is a very good reason why I didn’t. In case you are interested, in about, oh, five minutes or so, I shall be a widow. And oh, how the thought of the Winthrop fortune will console me in my grief.”
Jonathan stared back at her, bewildered. “What the hell are you talking about, woman? I don’t have time for this sort of nonsense.” He made an effort to stand, then sank back down again as a vicious pain ripped through his chest. “Whaaaat?” he croaked as realization dawned. He reached out to her with one hand, seized his chest with the other. A strangled cry forced itself through his lips. He half-rose, his eyes fixed on Jennifer’s face. He pitched forward abruptly, measuring his length on the carpet, his outflung right hand an inch away from Jennifer’s foot.
Jennifer slowly lowered her glass to the table. She clenched her hands tightly in her lap while she gazed down at the body of her dead husband. She licked lips that were suddenly parched, tried to ignore the quivering of her insides as cold reality filtered down through her shocked senses. She leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes. When she stopped feeling as though acid was fizzing in her veins, she supposed she should call 911. The verdict, of course, would be heart attack.
Mother Winthrop had never noticed that she was short an occasional digitalis tablet over the last few months. There was enough of the drug in the brandy she had poured to kill a horse. With barely a glance at her husband sprawled on the floor, Jennifer gathered up the two goblets and the half-empty decanter and took them into the bathroom. She emptied the contents of the decanter down the drain and washed both glasses thoroughly. She returned the goblets to the tray beside her husband’s chair, stepping over his body as she moved back and forth. She then went to the bar to retrieve an unopened bottle of brandy identical to the one she had doctored. As she reached for the brandy, she noticed a bottle of Dom Perignon beside it, a card attached to its neck. Curiosity got the better of her and she opened the card. It read, ‘I hope you enjoy my little surprise.’
Jennifer tapped her front teeth with the card, tears suddenly pricking her eyes. “Damn you anyway, Jonathan,” she muttered. Well, she was not about to let good champagne go to waste. She never even noticed the tiny puncture mark in the gold foil or the cork in her haste to open the bottle. Her hand trembled ever so slightly as she refilled both glasses, set the bottle back down on the tray. She smiled down at her husband through the tears that blurred her vision. She drank deeply from the glass. “Happy anniversary, dear.”
Then she dialed 911.
Funeral services for Jonathan Winthrop and Jennifer Winthrop (nee Bartlett) will be held Thursday at 2 pm at First Memorial Church. Internment will be in the family plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery,
No flowers by request.
June 9, 2017