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He told her all about being an anesthesiologist in Iraq, where he’d just spent a year with Doctors Without Borders. That he owned houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs. “This feels incredible,” he said, stretching out on her bed.That he happened to worship at her church, Mariners. And he told her that she stopped his heart, she was so beautiful. Her last serious boyfriend had wounded her, in parting, when he said she wasn’t. She thought this was moving a little fast, but she decided to allow it. She brought John back to her penthouse, just up the block. She thought, “It’s just a mattress.” She became uncomfortable. He just didn’t want to leave, and she had to insist.She went to bed thinking, “Jerk.” She thought, “Cross off another one.” The next day she was back at her office, a little sad, trying to lose herself in work.Over the 30 years that she had built Ambrosia Interior Design, it had been her refuge amid many romantic disappointments.She thought they’d find something bad to say about anyone she dated. Debra wasn’t about to tell her kids that John would be moving in with her. At 23, Terra watched and rewatched every episode of “The Walking Dead.” She spoke of the series less as entertainment than as a primer on how to survive apocalyptic calamity.

This made it hard for Debra to maintain the illusion that John wasn’t really living there, though she tried. Terra screamed at her mother: “How could you let this guy talk to me like this?!

He said he had a Ph D, which earned him the title, plus advanced training in anesthesiology. She announced that he was the devil, that anything he had to say he could say in public. She found a therapist, who assessed the family dynamics and told Debra she needed to establish firmer boundaries with her children. They couldn’t sabotage her happiness — she had a right to it, just like anybody else. He liked to pose shirtless and take selfies of his washboard abs.

At the big Thanksgiving party the next day, it was impossible to ignore the sudden fissures in the family — impossible to ignore Terra’s absence. Debra’s mother, Arlane, thought he dressed tackily, especially for Thanksgiving. To John, this was more evidence that Debra’s kids were spoiled and out of control. If they wanted to come over, they had to be invited. If John was the man she had chosen, it was her business. Their house on the boardwalk had floor-to-ceiling windows, and from the rooftop deck they could watch the sailboats and the great yachts slide over Newport Harbor. She smiled when he’d stop in front of a mirror and say, “Damn!

She called them “approachable dreams.” They were like glossy ads in upscale lifestyle magazines — purged of kids’ toys and dirty dishes and other real-world complications. She didn’t mind his idiosyncrasies, like his habit of wearing his faded blue medical scrubs everywhere, even to a formal-dress cancer benefit she invited him to.

In her big Irvine warehouse, among the vases and mirrors and other decorative bric-a-brac, stood shelves of color-coordinated hardback books — aqua, navy, gray, brown — because books made nice furniture in perfect homes. The titles didn’t matter, as long as they omitted the words “sex” and “death.” Her perfect rooms were like the face you presented on dates, inviting people to fantasize about the piece that may complete their lives. Some people snickered, but she thought, “Busy doctor.” “So you are the real thing,” she texted him after one date.

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