The Secret Ingredient for a Happy Marriage


By Shirley Jump

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From New York Times bestselling author Shirley Jump comes a heartwarming tale about friendship, family, and the unbreakable bond between sisters.


Nora has always been the sister who binds the O’Bannons together. No matter what crisis hits, smart, dependable Nora knows how to fix it. But for Nora, the pressure of perfection is taking its toll.

Nora’s marriage is in trouble, and she has been reluctant to worry her sisters with just how dire her situation is. Now though, faced with losing her husband, her home, and the life she’s worked so hard to build, Nora can no longer pretend.

As the O’Bannon women rally around her, Nora begins to see that failure is nothing to fear. It’s like they say in the bakery: if you want to make something good, you can’t be afraid to get messy. When her husband returns, asking Nora to give their family a second chance, Nora must decide if their relationship can be saved-or if it’s time to throw out the old recipe and start from scratch.



From the street, Nora O’Bannon Daniels’s life looked almost perfect. The quintessential three-bedroom, two-bath house in a decent neighborhood, with a wooden swing set in the backyard and a pink bike leaning against the garage. The pale green Dutch Colonial sat a hundred yards back from the sidewalk on a leaf-covered quarter-acre lot of weedy grass peppered with the detritus of two kids. A trio of pumpkins marched down the stairs, still whole and uncarved. The brick stoop had weathered from the harsh winters, and the black paint on the railing had peeled down to gray metal, but the house had a well-worn and loved air.

If her life had been a TV show, there’d be some quirky, close-knit family on the other side of the front door, a family whose biggest problem was a lost set of keys. Within thirty minutes, the keys would be found, and the family would be sitting down to a dinner where they’d laugh and hug and pass the creamed corn.

But when Nora parked her aging sedan in the driveway, the grumpy engine ticking as it cooled, she could see the truth she’d been avoiding for months. She didn’t live in a sitcom, and there wasn’t going to be a lifesaving solution in the next half hour, punctuated by commercials for GEICO and Smucker’s jam on either end.

No, in Nora’s world, life pretty much sucked. She hadn’t thought that the bank would actually do it—some unrealistic part of her had been hoping for some last-minute sympathetic, divine intervention—but the threatened end had finally arrived. While she was at work, a bright yellow sheet of paper had been tacked to her front door, its message stamped in black block letters underscored with a paragraph of red warnings.


On the welcome mat sat a cellophane-wrapped orange chrysanthemum topped with a Mylar balloon. The balloon waved back and forth in the fall breeze, screaming HAPPY BIRTHDAY in neon green letters.

Happy birthday, Nora O’Bannon. You’ve lost your house. Your family is now homeless.

Not exactly the way she’d wanted to turn thirty. The irony of it all would have made her cry, if she’d had the energy to work up some tears. For a year, she’d argued and prayed and strategized and negotiated, so sure she could head off this disaster. Her husband, Ben, had done what he always did, buried his head in the sand and left her to handle the incessant phone calls and letters. Nora, who was the one everyone had said could do anything she set her mind to, had failed. The faceless person on the other end of the phone had no interest in letting them skate on the mortgage. No heart for the two children she was going to have to uproot. And no solution that Nora could actually afford.

Nora got out of the car, carrying a takeout pizza in one hand and a bag of fabric in the other. Sarah wanted to be a princess for Halloween, and in a thick cloud of denial, Nora had bought yards of pink tulle and dozens of sparkly rhinestones. She figured she could whip out the old Singer and stitch up something that would pass for a princess, all in time for Sarah to go trick-or-treating on Friday night. Jacob was still wavering between being a pirate and a ninja, so Nora had grabbed a couple yards of black fabric.

Ben pulled in behind her and climbed out of his ten-year-old Toyota. Every time he got out of the sporty little two-door, Nora wondered how he fit inside. Ben towered over her, a lean but fit six-foot-three man with brown eyes that softened when he was tired, dark wavy hair that curled against convention, and a ready smile for everyone he met. She’d fallen in love with that smile at a party one stormy winter night twelve years ago. She’d been a senior in high school, Ben a college freshman, the two of them on Christmas break and crammed into Tommy O’Brien’s basement while Aerosmith thudded from the speakers.

She’d been sitting on a fraying blue cloth sofa, clutching a red Solo cup and pretending to sip Budweiser. Her sisters had always been the ones who fit in at parties, especially Magpie, who made friends with everyone she met. Nora always felt like the little old lady at a party—the one who didn’t stay late, didn’t drink, and didn’t sneak into an empty bedroom to have unmemorable sex.

But going to Tommy’s had sounded better than staying home with her mother on a Friday night, especially in her senior year when that kind of thing spelled loser. After a bit of small talk when she first arrived, Nora had taken up residence on the sofa, invisible to everyone else. She could have been another throw pillow, given how few people talked to her.

Then Ben sat down beside her, tall and lanky and with longer hair that brushed his brows. “Hey,” he said.

She gave him a nod. Lifted the cup to her lips but didn’t drink.

“You know, I read somewhere that Canada Dry is a gateway drug.”

She turned to him, this stranger with nice eyes and a Rolling Stones T-shirt. “Excuse me?”

He nodded toward the cup in her hands. “You start with ginger ale and next thing you know, you’re smoking a candy cigarette before you get out of bed in the morning. When you find yourself on the floor, clutching a bag of gumdrops in one hand and an Orange Crush in the other, you know you’ve hit rock bottom.”

Her cheeks heated, and she wanted to crawl into a corner and die. “How did…how did you know this isn’t really beer?”

“I saw you, in the kitchen earlier. You dumped the Bud down the drain and replaced it with some Canada Dry. Not much of a drinker, I take it?”

“Oh, I don’t…I’m not…” She didn’t have the confidence of Magpie, the easy conversational ability of Bridget, or the tough exterior of Abby. Talking to a boy left Nora flustered, nearly mute.

“It’s okay,” Ben said. “You’re not like everyone else here. I like that. And I have to say, I have a fondness for people who like ginger ale. It’s a very underrated soda, if you ask me.” He’d smiled then, the kind of smile that spread across his face as easy as butter and lifted a rather ordinary face into something bright, unforgettable.

For twelve years, that smile had convinced her that everything was all right. That things would work out. That if she was just patient—give me a chance, Nora, to make it right—the sinking ship they were living on would right itself. She’d given him a hundred chances, and time and time again, he’d blown it. The trust she’d once had in Ben had eroded until there was nothing left.

“Hey,” Ben said now. But the word didn’t have the friendly note from over a decade ago. It was cold, dispassionate, a greeting issued out of expectation. “They finally did it.”

“They told us they would.” Nora sighed. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell the kids.”

“Easy. Don’t tell them anything.” Ben jogged up the stairs, ripped the yellow notice off the door, and stuffed it into his interior jacket pocket.

The exact way Ben always lived his life. If he didn’t say it out loud, it wasn’t real. “That doesn’t make it go away, Ben. We’ve lost the house. There’s no going back, no passing Go again, no deal to work with the banker.”

“There’s always a deal, Nora. Just give me a chance—”

She wheeled on him. “You are the reason we’re in this mess. You’re the reason our kids are being evicted. You—”

“I didn’t get here on my own, Nora.” He waved at the pizza and the bags. “Takeout? Shopping? What happened to ‘we’ve got to buckle down so we can get caught up’?”

He was really going to compare twenty dollars’ worth of pizza and fabric to what he had done to them? She was doing the best she could here, working full-time, being a mom, trying to keep them above water. “We are three hundred thousand dollars in debt, Ben. I could buckle down until I’m a hundred and ten and still not pay that off.”

“I, me.” He threw up his hands and cursed. “What about we, Nora? Till death do us part?”

“That ended the day you walked into Mohegan Sun and blew your paycheck at a roulette table. And then did it again two weeks later, and a month after that. Chasing a stupid white ball.”

Ben shook his head. “You’re never going to let that go, are you? Fuck it. I don’t need to listen to this.” He slid his key into the door and went inside.

Nora grabbed the plant and balloon—a gift from her sister Abby—bumped the door open with her hip before it could close, and then dumped the pizza on a small table and the flowers and bag of fabric on the floor. She charged down the hall after his retreating figure. That was what Ben did—leave when the conversations got tough. Avoid, withdraw, ignore. “Our kids don’t have a home, Ben. You don’t get to be selfish now.”

“Nora, let it go.” He took out his phone. “I’ll fix this.”

She snorted. Fix it? There was nothing he could do now. That yellow paper said it all. “I’ve heard you say that twelve thousand times, Ben. And all you’ve ever done is make it worse.” Her gaze skipped over the kitchen, half painted, still missing three upper cabinets, a renovation started four years ago. Yet another of Ben’s promises that had been broken the second the work got inconvenient. Once upon a time, she’d thought she could create a home here. Now some other family would stand on the front lawn, hold up a hand, and buy the house she loved for pennies on the dollar. Every memory she had, every mark on the wall for the kids, every fingerprint on the glass, would belong to someone else. “I’m going to pack some things and take the kids to my mom’s until I find a better solution.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Yeah, Ben, I’m leaving. And I don’t want to argue about it or cry about it. Let’s just be adults here and admit we screwed this up. We”—she waved between them—“screwed us up. This whole thing with the house is a sign. We should go our separate ways and start over.”

Silence. She’d finally spoken the words both of them had danced around for two years. Ben’s gambling had taken a toll on their marriage, damage they’d never recovered from. He’d gone to rehab almost a year ago, thirty days of a desperate attempt to save his family. But the fractures only widened. It wasn’t just the money he’d lost. Nora had watched him put a deck of cards or a roulette table ahead of their marriage, as if it were just another thing to gamble. The promises they’d made to each other on their wedding day became nothing more than words, and at some point, Nora simply stopped trying. They’d gone through the motions for the sake of the kids, but the death knell had sounded the night they’d moved into separate bedrooms.

Ben crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re not taking my kids from me, Nora.”

“You already did that yourself, Ben.” She turned on her heel and walked out of the kitchen. If she stayed there for another second, her foolish heart would cave to the haunted look in his eyes, the pain etched in his forehead. How many times had she done that? How many times had she believed things would change?

All staying with him had done was cost her the only home her children had ever known. Cost her the family she’d wanted to build. The future she had dreamed of having. In the back of her bedroom closet, she found a trio of suitcases. She threw them open on the bed—the bed she had stopped sharing with her husband over a year ago—and started stuffing clean laundry inside. Enough for a few days. She’d figure out the rest later.

Ben leaned against the door, watching her for a long time without a word. Finally he said, “Don’t go, Nora.”

She hesitated at the hitch in his voice. The exposed wound in those words. Stay, some foolish, hopeful part of her whispered. Stay and work this out.

Instead she zipped the largest suitcase shut and then started filling the next one. “Why? Because there’s something to save here? You and I both know there isn’t.”

“It’s your birthday. We always go to dinner at Giovanni’s on your birthday.”

Her hands stilled, halfway through folding a Power Rangers T-shirt. “We used to go to Giovanni’s, Ben. We haven’t been in a long time.”

“We went last year—”

“Last year, I spent my birthday driving to Foxwoods. You’d sold your car to some guy in the parking lot for five hundred bucks.” There was more, but she didn’t say it. Some secrets were better left in the past.

“I know I fucked up. A lot. But things have changed, Nora. I’ve changed.”

She looked up at him, into the eyes she’d once thought could see inside her soul. At the face of the man she’d imagined growing old with, sitting on the back deck sipping wine as the sun set. “You have. The trouble is, Ben, so have I.”

She closed the last suitcase, propped it on the floor, and wheeled it out of the room and down to her car, leaving the rest behind.


In the end, Nora chickened out on taking the kids to her mother’s house. Colleen O’Bannon would have questions, and if there was one thing Nora didn’t want right now, it was questions. Instead, she told the kids they were doing something special for Mommy’s birthday, and she took them to a hotel. One night there nearly maxed out her remaining credit card, which meant…

Talking to her mother today. Procrastination was clearly one of her special talents.

Nora had bought herself a short reprieve from the tough conversation. Maybe a miracle would occur in those hours, or the world would end, or the Publishers Clearing House folks would show up at her door with a giant cardboard check.

Until that happened, Nora kept putting off the act of finding a living solution by working. Right now, that meant frosting four layers of vanilla sponge before stacking them for a wedding cake. Her sister Bridget was here, both of them working in the family-owned bakery where they’d spent most of their lives. Abby, her younger sister, would be in tomorrow morning, getting started at the crack of ungodly early to bake all the bread orders. Their mother, who used to be full-time in the shop, came in less and less as she got older, not to mention busier with a social life. In the last few months, Ma had started volunteering at a shelter named Sophie’s Home and spending a lot of time with the director, Roger. Planning programs, Ma claimed, but Nora had detected a hint of a blush whenever Ma talked about Roger.

Bridget slipped into place beside Nora. She was leaner than Nora, a body yet unthickened by having children, but she had the same long, dark hair and blue eyes as all the O’Bannon girls. It had been a year and a half since Bridget’s husband, Jim, had died, and in that time, Nora had begun to see her sister blossom and grow as she found herself and a life of her own. She was now dating a great guy named Garrett and wore that happy smile of new love. A part of Nora envied that smile. Once upon a time, she’d smiled like that when she talked about Ben.

“Want some help?” Bridget asked.

Nora shook off the thoughts of the past and glanced at the work order, flipping past the wedding cake they were working on to what was next, so she could plan the hours ahead. “Sure. I need to have this out the door by four.”

The directions on the clipboard gave her pause. A Torta del Cielo cake, something they made often in the shop for a quinceañera, but this time, the customer requested a cake pull. The Victorian tradition used silver charms attached to ribbons that were hidden inside the tiers. Guests would pull on the ribbon and be rewarded with some little trinket.

In that instant, she was twenty-two and sitting in the dining room at her mother’s house, with all of her sisters and Ben. Ma ducked into the kitchen and emerged with a three-tier torta, the scent of almond meringue dancing in the air. Instead of putting it on the table, Ma handed the cake to Ben. He’d dropped to one knee—in front of her entire family—and held the platter out to her, turning it so one curl of gold ribbon faced her. “I love you, Nora, and I don’t want to spend another day without you. At the end of that ribbon is our future, if you want it. Marry me.”

She’d been stunned, completely in the dark that this family dinner was an impromptu engagement party. She tugged on the gold string and out slipped a diamond ring—elegant and simple and perfect. In that moment, with the ring and meringue and the joy in the room, Nora had thought her life forward would be as beautiful and amazing as the cake.

But like the dessert, nothing lasted forever. The gold ribbon had long ago been lost, and the sweet moments had soured and spoiled.

“So…you didn’t say. How was your birthday? Do anything special?” Bridget lifted one of the rounds for the layer cake onto a turntable and grabbed a frosting knife. “If I know Ben, he did something huge and over the top for you.”

Nora hesitated. Ben’s extravagance had been a major source of contention between them for years. Which for Ben meant expending huge amounts of cash they didn’t have, and when their savings dipped, he’d gone to the dog track or the horse races, in an ever-spiraling quest to “fix everything.”

In the end, all his big gifts and grand plans had cost them everything. She should have known it from that first day with the torta. There was no middle ground with Ben, and only rare moments of him facing reality. She’d been the one who worried and fussed and returned the overpriced sweaters he’d bought her. He’d looked at her like she’d let all the helium out of his balloons, and instead of apologizing or taking things down a notch, Ben had ramped up the celebration for the next holiday. She stopped trusting him with the checkbook and then stopped trusting him with their lives. It had been a year since he went to the gambling rehab place in New Hampshire, but Nora still saw shades of the old Ben in his tendency to overdo a simple holiday. Last Christmas, he’d bought the kids a trampoline without talking to Nora first. A trampoline she had had to return the next week, just to pay the electric bill. Which meant she was the bad guy, yet again.

“You know Ben—of course he did, but a little more muted this time because we’ve both been so busy.” Nora pasted on a smile. She’d gotten so used to lying about her life that the words slipped out with barely a hitch in her chest. “Balloons, flowers, a whole big surprise when I got home last night. We took the kids to Giovanni’s for dinner, then called the sitter so Ben and I could walk the beach. He had picked up that Italian pinot gris I love, and we had a little picnic under the stars.”

The lie sounded so convincing that for a second, even she could believe it. Maybe she’d imagined the auction notice. The fight with Ben. The night in the hotel and the suitcase in the back of her car.

“You know, you really do have the perfect life,” Bridget said with a sigh. “I used to be so jealous, and, hell, maybe I still am even though Garrett is awesome. But Ben…boy, he really does it up right.”

Nora checked the smoothness of the frosting job, avoiding Bridget’s gaze. Pale pink buttercream wrapped around the moist cake in a flat, even pattern. Her life might be out of control, but inside the walls of the bakery, Nora could keep order. Maybe that was why she liked working here so much. The precision of measuring, the dependability of what emerged from the ovens, the straight, neat decorations that turned ordinary into amazing. “Yeah, he’s one of a kind.”

Bridget turned her cake as she skimmed frosting along the edges, her movements fluid and practiced. “By the way, Ma said that new girl is starting today. The one she met at Roger’s place.”

“Oh yeah, the intern. I forgot about that.” The extra help would be a blessing, especially since Nora had been so distracted lately. The orders had been piling up while Nora’s motivation had been dipping lower every day, and even with her sisters here, it had been hard to keep up. She needed to get back on track, to focus on work. Except her mind kept wandering to that yellow notice, to the house that was no longer hers. To the question of what the hell she was going to do. Nora shook her head and cleared her throat. “Ma spends a lot of time over at the shelter.”

Sophie’s Home was a shelter started for women and children who were down on their luck or escaping dangerous situations. Nora had seen those women, women who looked just like her. Women who had lost everything.

She was one of them now, she realized. Homeless, broke, lost.

“I think she has a crush on Roger,” Bridget said. The founder of the shelter had been introduced to their mother at church last year, and they seemed to have hit it off right away. “And he definitely has one on her. He’s over here all the time, for some imaginary reason or another. What was it yesterday? He dropped off an umbrella because there was a thirty percent chance of rain. Ma parks right outside the back door. She doesn’t need an umbrella to walk ten feet. Still, it’s kinda cute to see him do that kind of thing.” Bridget finished frosting the top of the first round, and then set it to the side and placed a second cake on the turnstile. “Okay, how am I beating you at this? You’re like the decorating Iron Chef. Usually you’ve got two and a half cakes done to my one.”

“I’m just tired. Late night of birthday celebrating.” Which sounded a whole lot better than a sleepless night on a too-firm hotel bed. Nora’s mind had churned, panic clawing at the edges of every thought.

Bridget nudged Nora. “You and Ben, just as in love as you were when you got married, huh?”

“Yeah, definitely.” Nora and Ben had had sex only once in two years. They’d become glorified roommates who shared two kids. In the middle of the night, when the dark crowded into her space in the guest room, Nora wondered what Ben had done for the last two years. When their marriage had been good, they’d had a healthy sex life. She doubted Ben could go more than two weeks without some kind of physical encounter, and given how little he was home nowadays, she had often wondered who he was spending those late nights with. The thought of Ben with someone else pained her, but she’d never asked. She had checked out of their marriage and essentially left him, which meant he was free to do as he pleased. To share that smile with someone else.

Bridget paused. “Hey, you okay?”

Nora dipped the knife into the tub, scooped up too much buttercream, and then scraped the glob off and grabbed another, smaller one. “Sure. Fine.”

Bridget stopped frosting, put her back to the counter, and faced Nora. “You sound a little…different. I don’t mean to pry, but you haven’t seemed like yourself in a while.”

“I’m fine. Just…tired.” Nora studied the cake as if her life depended on it. When the bell over the shop door rang, she shoved her knife into the tub. “I’ll get that.”

“I can—”

But Nora was already out of the kitchen and into the front portion of Charmed by Dessert. She’d always loved the public face of their family-owned bakery. Bright white paint lightened the walls, the starkness offset by pink window trim and black wrought-iron café tables. The glass case, full of pretty much every baked good imaginable, dominated one wall of the shop.

And all a stark contrast to the twentysomething girl standing in the center of the bakery. She was tall, thin as a beanpole, as Gramma used to say, with dark purple hair cut in a short spiky style. Nora counted at least four piercings above her neck—ears, brow, nose—and she could see the edge of a floral tattoo sticking out from under the sleeve of the girl’s leather jacket.

“Hey, I’m Iris.” The girl nodded toward Nora. “You work here?”

“I’m one of the owners.” Nora wiped her hand on her apron and stepped forward. “I’m Nora.”

The girl had a firm handshake, but her gaze cut away to the floor. Shy? Or shady? “Uh, Roger says I’m supposed to work here,” Iris said. “Said I was supposed to talk to Colleen.”

“That’s my mother. She owns the bakery, along with me and my sisters. She’s not here right now, but she told us you’d be coming in today,” Nora said. “Do you have any experience working in a bakery?”

And do you have a criminal record? Probably not a good question to ask, Nora decided.

“No, I mean, like, not a real one.” Iris toed the floor. “Before…well, before, I used to help my grandma in the kitchen.”

Good Lord. Roger had probably sent her some girl who barely knew how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. The “help” was going to end up being more work than it was worth. Still, Nora couldn’t turn her away. If Iris was truly terrible, Nora would just put her on dish duty. “Well, let’s get you in the back and get you started. We have a couple orders that have to go out today, so you arrived just in time.”

The girl looked ready to bolt. “Wait. Like I start now?”

“Do you have somewhere else you need to be?”


  • "Beautifully written and unflinching in its portrayal of the complexities of marriage, sisterhood and long-held secrets."—Kristan Higgins, New York Times bestselling author, on The Secret Ingredient for a Happy Marriage
  • "4 Stars! Bridget O'Bannon's grief at the loss of her husband is authentic, and her tumultuous relationship with her controlling mother and sisters refreshingly honest. As the author peels back the layers of this heartwarming, sometimes heart-wrenching, story, readers are given a glimpse of the good, the bad, and the ugly sides to family and forgiveness."—

On Sale
May 15, 2018
Page Count
400 pages

Shirley Jump

About the Author

Shirley Jump is an award-winning, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author who has published more than eighty books in twenty-four countries. Her romance and women’s fiction novels have been called “brilliant” and “spellbinding” by reviewers and fellow authors like Kristin Higgins and Jayne Ann Krentz. Shirley also works as an editor and ghostwriter for celebrities and experts in various industries and has spoken all over the world about the power of narrative and how to create compelling books. A resident of Florida, she uses the beach for a quick retreat, setting inspiration, and, when necessary, a perfect procrastination excuse. Visit her website at for author news and a booklist and follow her on Facebook for deep discussions about important things like the best way to make a French omelet.

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