“I’m telling you, they’re following us,” I say to Luke, nervously glancing over my shoulder at the car trailing a few dozen yards or so behind us. They followed us out of the pharmacy parking lot in Olympia where we’d stopped to stock up on diapers and other supplies for Calliope, and they haven’t even so much as fallen behind since.
Luke looks in the rearview mirror and shakes his head. “We’re on a two lane highway in the middle of nowhere, where do you want him to turn off?”
“He’s not going to turn off, because he’s definitely working for Taylor and he’s definitely following us.” I turn in my seat again, trying to decide whether or not I can recognize the car. Luke sighs. We’re just passing the first few signs announcing the upcoming exit for Montesano, so he puts on his blinker and pulls off the highway.
The car behind us follows.
“See?” I shriek in panic. Luke looks up, his eye bouncing between the road ahead of us and the rearview mirror. He takes us down the road to a Burger King and pulls into the parking lot. The car behind us continues on down the road.
“No, you see?” He lets out a breath. “Come on, it’s late and the road to your dad’s house is garbage.”
He pulls the car out of his parking place and takes it through the drive through. I move to the backseat so that I can feed Calliope bits of chicken fries as we make our way towards the woods, then climb over the console into the passenger’s seat again when Luke gets lost.
It’s dusk by the time the road begins to dip down into the valley where Lake Sylvia is, and my breath catches at the sight of it. The scenery before us is absolutely magnificent beneath the setting sun. The deep lake, crystal blue in my memory, is black and so perfectly still that it looks like glass. The towering mountains caging us in are deep purple, which contrasts with their snow capped tops in sharp, broken angles. The crisp, clean air that pours in through the open windows of Luke’s car carries the smell of fresh pine.
I breathe it in and let it breeze away as much of the hurt as I can unload on it, relieved by even just the small amount of levity it brings me.
We come to a stop next to the rustic cabin with golden light pouring through the windows and curls of smoke twisting from the stone chimney into the periwinkle sky. I’m just reaching into the back seat to pull Calliope into my arms when I hear the squeaky-whine of the screen door and turn to see my father, looking simultaneously shocked and solaced to see me.
“Anastasia Rose! Christian has been calling here every fifteen minutes for the last three hours asking if I’ve heard from you. He’s been looking for you everywhere!”
I settle Calliope on my hip and look up at him with lost eyes. “Did he tell you why?”
My father’s attention is caught by Luke, and the overnight bag he pulls from the trunk and swings over his shoulder. As we start for the stairs that lead up to his porch and he catches the tone of our solemn march, he frowns.
“I-“ The word moves through my throat like water rippling through a ragged river bed, then dies away. I cling a little tighter to Calliope, gently rubbing my hand in circles over her knee to try and distract myself from crying. It doesn’t fool my dad.
“Come here, kiddo.” He puts a broad smile on his face and takes my daughter from me, swinging her high in the air before settling her on his hip, pulling a laugh from her that I haven’t heard all day. Then he looks up at me. “Come inside. We’ll get you settled in, then you and I can talk.”
I nod, gratefully, and step through the door Luke holds open for me.
There’s a creak from the floorboards as I step into the small front room. None of the furniture in here is familiar to my childhood, but there’s a blanket my mother crocheted years and years ago folded over the sofa that reminds me of home. Everything is neat and tidy, in the perfect order my father became accustomed to after years of being in the military. I glance at the sound humming softly from the corner, and see a pre-season football game playing on the television.
The 49ers. Gross.
“I haven’t been here before,” Luke says, turning back and looking at me expectantly. I motion with a nod of my head to the wooden staircase at the back of the house, then follow after him as he begins the climb.
We emerge in an open loft with a full-sized bed pushed into the corner, which Christian incessantly complained about the one time we stayed here overnight. There’s a desk my father built in his woodshop out back that rests, lovely and sturdy, beneath the window. The rest of the space is barren.
“You can take the bed,” I offer, noticing Luke’s frown as he glances around at the empty, hardwood floor. He gives me a slanted look.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Luke, you don’t have to-“
He holds up a hand to stop me. “I’m fine. Why don’t you leave Calliope with me so you and your dad can talk?”
I start with a thankful smile, then pull him into a hug. “Thank-you. And thank-you for today… and every day, I guess. I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you.”
He squeezes me tighter. “By being that same friend to me.”
I hum in acknowledgement before pulling away. Reaching out to squeeze his hand affectionately before turning and descending the stairs again. My father is in the living room. The TV is muted and the newspaper he’d been reading has been cleared away from the empty seat next to his on the sofa. He’s setting a piping hot kettle on a protective pad on his coffee table when I come up behind him.
He gives me that familiar comforting smile, the one that reminds me that I can tell him anything and that he’ll never stop loving me, then motions for me to take a seat. I pull my mother’s afghan off the back of the couch and do just that.
“Talk to me kid.” He hands me a mug of tea.
“I’m pregnant,” I blurt out before I can stop myself.
The lines of deep concern in his forehead go smooth as the shock spreads across his face. He blinks a few times, then shakes his head a little as if he’s trying to dispel a troubling thought.
I sweep my finger across the rim of the mug in my hands, working up the courage to confirm the words that, despite being married, and despite already having a daughter who he adores, I feel some shame in admitting.
I’m in trouble because I got knocked up.
“I’ve been sick a little over a week, so Kate thought I should take a test. I did, and… I’m pregnant.”
This time, the confession makes direct impact. He leans back as though he’s trying to get away from what I’ve said, and his hands ball into fists. His flushed complexion bleeds away to white, and then turns a slight, pale green.
I can see it then. There wasn’t a spark of joy that was dampened by reality or a wistful hope that, maybe, just maybe, it could be different this time. He looks like he’s seen tragedy. The same way Christian looked when I told him yesterday.
I turn to look out at the mountains through the window, now nothing but jagged silhouettes against the last of the sunlight disappearing behind them. “Christian doesn’t want me to keep it. We got in a fight.”
He takes an uneasy breath, pausing for a long time before he proceeds with obvious caution. “Yeah. I think I remember him saying he didn’t want any more kids.”
I snort. “Oh yeah, he’s made damn sure of that. He had a vasectomy behind my back this morning.” The consequence of that statement once again coils around my stomach and squeezes with the strength of a 20 foot python.
We’ll never have more kids. This is it.
“Yeah. Obviously, that was part of the fight.”
My father’s face changes, caught somewhere between concern and understanding. He reaches out and squeezes my hand.
“I—“ He hesitates again. “You’re sure you’re pregnant. I mean, you’re really sure?”
“I haven’t gone to the doctor yet, but I took like 10 tests and they were all positive.” The buzz of life that’s so unique to this experience once again vibrates through me. “I’m sure.”
His hands tighten around mine and his lips part as though he’s going to speak, but… he doesn’t. He looks lost, and the turmoil in his stormy ocean eyes feels like it could break me. I’m completely out on a ledge. I have absolutely no idea how to resolve this impasse I’ve found myself in with the one person I can’t live without or bear to hurt, and if my father can’t give me any guiding wisdom, I don’t know where else to go. He’s never been speechless.
“What do I do, Daddy? I can’t even consider what he’s telling me to do. I wouldn’t be able to live with it. I’d never forgive myself. It’s… it’s not what I want.” I reach down and unconsciously lay a hand over my stomach. “I can feel him. Or… her. I don’t know. And I know that sounds ridiculous, and I know that I really can’t, but I can. He’s there. His heart is beating, and he needs me to protect him. You taught me to protect the things I love, and I am his mother. I’m already in love.”
He grinds his teeth together, chewing on the words as though he has to feel their substance to believe them. Before the tense silence becomes overbearing though, it’s broken by the shrill scream of the phone, and my father’s shoulders deflate.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
“I’m–,” I pause to breathe through the unwelcome sense of Deja-vu. “I don’t want him to come here, so… if he asks for me, I’m not here.”
He doesn’t acknowledge me while he strides across the room and takes the old-fashioned phone off the hook. There’s a quiet reserve to his face as he brings the portable handset to his ear.
“Hello?” A blink, then a frown. “Yeah, she and Luke showed up here about ten minutes ago. They brought Calliope with them.” My eyes widen in horrified betrayal, but he holds out a hand to keep me silent. “But I’m not telling you that because I’m giving you permission to show up here. You’re Calliope’s father, and you have a right to know where she is. But that’s it.” Another pause, this time paired with an uneasy glance in my direction. “She’s staying the night, and I don’t know anything beyond that. You can call her tomorrow and figure out what comes next, but tonight… She needs a little bit of space. You stay put. I mean it, Christian. Do not test me.”
He paces back and forth a few times, offering one word responses to Christian’s questions that don’t give me much context to what he may be asking. I wonder if Christian is as frustrated with the evasive way he speaks as I am because, after only another minute or so, my father hangs up the phone. He rests it back on the hook, then moves back to me with a much heavier gate.
“Congratulations, Annie. I should’a said that earlier.”
It would mean a lot, if his congratulations didn’t somehow sound more like a condolence.
“Daddy… not you too.”
“No,” he shakes his head, and pulls away from me. “No, I’m on your side. I’m always on your side, you know that. I just…” He stops, but it looks as though he doesn’t want to. The words are there, he’s just purposefully holding them back. I don’t need them really. I know what they are, and I know why he feels that way.
“Was it really that bad?” I whisper.
A flash of pain moves across his face that tells me I don’t have to clarify that I’m talking about Calliope’s birth. He hangs his head again, nodding. “Yeah. It was that bad.”
My eyes flood with tears and I turn to look through the window again. I try to keep it together for about half a second until I realize that I don’t care whether or not my father sees me cry, and then I lose it.
He scoots next to me and pulls me into his chest.
“Hey, Annie…. We’re going to figure this out, okay? It’s gonna be alright.”
I turn my face up to his, honestly pleading now. “I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do…”
A melancholy look crosses his face before he finally brushes the tears from my cheeks and starts to nod. “Yes you do. You know exactly what’s right. And I promise you that no one is going to force you into anything you don’t want. Do you hear me?”
I sniff. “Yeah.”
“It’s going to be okay, Ana,” he says again, hugging me again and rocking me back and forth. “Christian’s just… he’s scared.”
With one last squeeze, he pushes me back and once again looks into my eyes. “Are you tired?”
“I just told you I’m pregnant. I’m always tired.”
He lets out a single, soft laugh that carries enough humor to melt away some of the ice enclaving my heart.
“Why don’t you go to bed? We’ll talk more in the morning, okay?”
“M’kay. Thanks, Daddy.”
“Anytime, Sweetheart.” He kisses me on the cheek before he lets me go, and I gather the blanket I’ve had wrapped around me in my arms. I head up the stairs and find Luke lying with Calliope. She’s tucked in beneath the covers, her head nestled into her pillow while she breathes through her deep, unperturbed sleep. He’s cuddled up next to her, reading aloud from a magazine he’d shoved into his bag on the way out of his apartment. His low voice suggests that he’s reading to Calliope, but after hovering and listening closely for a few seconds, I realize he’s reading her an article about some new, high-speed computer about to hit the market and that none of the excitement in his voice is for her.
I nearly roll my eyes, but watching him makes me think of all the times I’ve watched Christian read her to sleep. The way he holds her, always like he wishes he could pull her in closer. The way he’ll linger on a page with only a single sentence written on it for minutes, just because the colorful artwork makes her eyes go wide with wonder. The way his hushed tones encase his words in velvet and lull her into complete serenity.
Christian is an incredible father. He loves our daughter, absolutely. He’d do anything to make her happy. He’d die to keep her safe.
So why can’t he understand that what he’s asking me to do is impossible?
I realize I’m staring off into space when Luke calls my attention. I try to give him a bashful smile, but I think it just shows pain because he gently pulls away from my sleeping daughter and comes to wrap me in his arms.
“He’s going to come around, Ana.”
I nod into his shirt, because he has to, then allow Luke to lead me back to bed. With as much care as I can manage, I ease Calliope toward the wall enough that I can slip beneath the covers next to her. Then Luke tucks the blankets in around me and leans over to kiss my forehead. There’s a cabinet at the top of the stairs, filled almost to bursting with extra blankets, so Luke grabs a few and makes a makeshift bed on the floor next to us.
Once he turns off the light, the tears that I hadn’t been able to hold back downstairs come back with a vengeance, and I start to weep in the darkness.
I manage to keep silent at first, embarrassed for Luke to hear me, and worried that Calliope will. I keep my lips pressed so tightly together, it borders on the edge of painful, and I tamper as much of my shallow breathing as possible while my body convulses.
It doesn’t fool my best friend.
Luke’s hand reaches up through the darkness and wraps around mine. Every time he hears me take a broken, stuttering breath, he squeezes. One, long squeeze that’s only meant to convey one thing.
I’m right here.
I cry myself to sleep.
The next morning, I wake to the sound of mountain blue birds chirping merrily through the window. It’s pleasant, or would be if I could hear them over my now expected morning sickness.
“Ana,” Luke groans from his place on the floor outside the bathroom door. “Puke quieter.”
I groan as I flush, then hurry out of the bathroom in search of the nausea lozenges in my purse. Calliope is awake, sitting up on the bed, holding on to her toes, and glancing around at the room looking slightly confused. When I turn to her, she looks up at me, curiously.
I gnaw at the inside of my cheek before plastering a perfect smile across my face. “Why don’t we get some breakfast, huh?”
She reaches up for me, so I make a big production of scooping her up off the bed and swinging her around before I pull her into me. She giggles, and I smash my lips into her cheek before I carry her down the stairs.
She wants down the second we get to the living room, but she follows me into the kitchen asking about pancakes, or at least… I think that’s what ‘pinchems’ is supposed to mean. I go to the fridge, hoping against hope that my dad has buttermilk, or at the very least some lemon juice, but it’s empty. And I mean empty. There are three cans of Rainier beer on the top shelf, an open box of baking soda, a bottle of ketchup, and a covered Styrofoam container filled with fishing bait. In the freezer, a stack of hungry man frozen dinners and a few Ziploc bags full of trout.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” my dad yawns, coming out of the bedroom on the other side of the kitchen. I round on him, fists pressed firmly to my hips.
“Why don’t you have any food?”
He stutters. “Well, I wasn’t expecting you…”
“What about you?”
“Annie, you know I don’t cook. Your mom did. Then you. Then…” The strength of his voice trails off before he can say her name, but my mind can fill it in. Kim was a great cook. It had actually been one of the more petty things that had irritated me about her. That despite how much I hated her, everything she made almost had my eyes rolling back in my head it was so good.
I reach back into the freezer and pull out one of the blue boxes shoved into the back corner. “Is this what you’re living off of?”
He presses his lips together, looking guilty. I throw it down on the counter and turn angry eyes back on him. “Are you insane? You’re not a young man anymore, Daddy. You can’t be eating this much sodium. It’s bad for your heart.”
“It’s not so bad…”
“Yes, it is!” I shake my head in frustration and move back to the freezer, yanking out each and every box out and tossing them in the trash. Once they’re gone, I stomp towards the stairs. “Luke, we’re going into town!”
His head pops over the bannister and he raises an eyebrow. “Where are we going?”
“Grocery shopping. So, if you want to eat breakfast anytime soon, you better get a move on.”
It only takes him a few minutes, then we’re in the car, being jostled by the potholes as we make our way down the primitive dirt road. I’m not sure it’s a good thing, but I spend the drive making a list of everything I need to buy while Luke sings along softly to the garbage coming through his stereo. It means I don’t have to think about Christian, or the baby, or the Grey Publishing merger, or even the reasons behind my trip to the store in the first place.
I just make a list.
The grocery store we pull up to in Montesano is the exact same one I’d grown up with. I can feel the nostalgia pulling out the cart and pushing it through the automatic doors. The smell that hangs in the air immediately conjures images of my small hands wrapped around the cool metal bars, while my mother concentrated on the calculator in her hands that would ensure we didn’t go over our budget.
It’s much different now. Pacing the aisles with a limitless credit card, I find myself deciding between the turkey sausage I should buy and the pork sausage I know my father will eat, instead of carefully examining everything in front of me for the best price per pound. I don’t even bother to weigh out the bulk ingredients I scoop from the barrel sized drums into plastic bags, and I take sometimes three or four times the amount of the non-perishables I need, just so I can be certain I won’t come here again and find his cupboards empty.
“We’re going to need another cart,” Luke says, giving me a sideways look. “Which I hope you’ll agree is absolutely ridiculous since your dad lives by himself.”
“I won’t. Will you go get another one? And…” I pause, doing the math in my head. “Forty-two food prep containers. Make it fifty.”
“Jesus Christ.” He shakes his head in dismay, but does as I ask. I tighten my hold on the cart so I can heave it around the corner and make my way towards the bulk bags of brown rice.
Turning, I find a man standing a few feet away from me who doesn’t look like he could be much older than I am. I narrow my eyes at his casual maroon t-shirt over jean shorts, trying to judge their authenticity. “Are you a reporter?”
“No, it’s me. Cody Findlay. We went to school together.”
No we didn’t. Kaci Rice, the woman standing on the other end of the aisle from me trying to get a bottle off the top shelf, went to school with me. The one person I can see stocking the freezers at the back of the store, Dean Schmitt, was a senior when I was a freshman at Montesano High School, but I’d recognize his face anywhere. There were less than 500 kids in my entire school, and less than 4,000 people in the whole town. I know everyone who lives here, but I don’t know this man.
“Who the fuck are you?” Luke’s voice demands from behind me. I whirl around and see him pushing a cart filled with black and clear plastic containers. His expression is hostile and the reaction it draws from the stranger is stark.
“I uh… I was just…”
Luke holds up a strong finger, pointing down the aisle. The command is silent, but Mr. Cody Findlay obeys it immediately. He scrambles away from me, disappearing around the corner as fast as he can, and Luke’s eyes move to me.
“You know him?”
He frowns, then clamps his teeth together so hard I can see the tick in his jaw. “Then let’s get out of here. Stay close to me.”
A protective hand finds its way to my back and stays there pretty much the entire time we’re in the check-out line. Even though it’s no longer his job, the light, carefree Luke I left the house with has vanished and been replaced by the CPO. While I scan my credit card, his eyes scan the people around me, looking for danger. He hovers just a little too close to me to be natural as we make our way back to the car, then insists I sit inside with the doors locked while he unloads the groceries.
“What’s going on?” I ask him the moment he’s closed himself in with me.
He sighs. “Nothing. Probably nothing…”
“What do you mean, probably? Is there something I should be worried about?”
“How would I know? I’m not on your security team anymore.”
“Which means that you don’t have to follow protocol anymore. You don’t have to be my CPO anymore and you don’t have to follow Taylor’s rules. Tell me what you know.”
He grinds his teeth again. “I can’t. I signed an NDA as part of my employment. I can’t talk about anything Taylor has deemed classified, even after separation.”
“I’m a covered entity.”
He turns to look at me, and I stare back, unwavering in my resolve. His fingers tighten around the steering wheel, and his lips pull together so tightly that they turn white. But he nods, eventually.
“You’re married to a very rich man who attracts a lot of attention, is very open about how much you mean to him, and doesn’t have an easy time making friends.”
“And a very easy time making enemies?”
He shakes his head. “It’s not really one person in particular. Mostly, I think it’s a bunch of crazies who wouldn’t know what to do with you if they ever did get to you. But, ever since Endurance, it’s been… escalating.”
I can feel the blood drain from my face. “What do you mean escalating?”
He turns to me, and offers me a joking grin to cover his regret. “It’s nothing. Seriously. Taylor’s got it under control, obviously, since your oblivious ass hasn’t even noticed.” He laughs to himself. “A few weeks ago some dude tried to come over the back wall while you and Kate had the babies in the pool, we flagged him before he got anywhere near the house and I was there waiting. Taylor let me absolutely wreck the guy so we could send a message back to whoever sent him. It was pretty funny telling him to keep quiet while I very thoroughly beat his ass to Kidz Bop.”
He laughs again, trying to make all of it seem like a joke so I won’t be worried… But I feel like I’ve been plunged into the pretty lake we’re headed back to.
“Someone tried to attack me in my own backyard?”
I watch the calculation that runs through his head before he answers. “Uh…”
“Do not lie to me, Lucas.”
He swallows, then turns to look at the road ahead of us. “Well… yeah. But a lot of people have tried to attack you in your own backyard. And at your office. At the marina. At the airport. Kate and Elliot’s. Grace and Carrick’s. And pretty much everywhere in between. They never even get close.”
“Christian has told me over and over again that there’s nothing to worry about!”
“And there’s not! You’re not in danger, because you are very well protected. The secret service is a joke compared to what Grey has put around you. Honestly, it should make you feel better knowing that your team is so good at what they do, you didn’t even know what little problem you did have. Because they are good, Ana. I wouldn’t have left if I didn’t believe you were 100% safe.”
“You didn’t want to…”
“But I did.”
I frown, staring ahead through the window. He tries to assure me several times on the drive home that everything is fine. Taylor is smarter and faster than I’m giving him credit for, my current team is made up of former black-ops and specialized military personnel, and do I seriously think that my loves-to-overreact-about-everything husband would have let him go if there was a serious threat?
None of it breaks through the cold. My mind races in the exact uncontrollable way it did in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln, when I’d eventually snapped and decided to just preemptively eliminate any threat I could possibly imagine. It’s not healthy, but it permeates my every thought, even while I’m surrounded by steaming pots, baking dishes, and piles of cut up vegetables back at the house several hours later.
“Smells good in here,” my dad says, coming through the creaky porch door with a joyous smile spread across his face. I can still hear Luke and Calliope playing together outside. “What are you making?”
“Chicken and lentils,” I reply, my voice flat and automatic in my distraction. He makes a face as he leans over the pot.
“They’re good for you, and you’re going to eat them.”
“Couldn’t have just made potatoes…” he grumbles.
“I did. They’re over there.”
His head swivels in the direction I point, but the chagrin on his face isn’t wiped away. “Those aren’t potatoes. They’re orange.”
“They’re sweet potatoes, and they’re packed full of fiber and vitamin A.”
“And they’d be better if they were deep fried. Or covered in marshmallows…”
I pop the last dish I’ve prepared in the oven and turn back to him, wiping a hand across my forehead. “I’ve done enough to get you through the next couple of weeks. You should just be able to pull one of these out of the freezer and heat it up. I’ll have Gail do a week at a time after that and we’ll bring it all up here to you.”
The pain I’ve held back under concern and constant motion breaks through my face when I realize that “we’ll,” includes Christian, and the hours I’ve had to think about our situation haven’t given me any kind of clarity. This problem doesn’t have the same easy solution my father’s empty refrigerator did.
And then, as if he heard me think his name, the phone rings. My heartbeat starts to flutter and there’s a measurable sense of relief that courses through me as Christian’s presence immediately fills the room.
My dad moves to answer it.
“Hello? Hi, Christian. She’s, uh…”
I take a bracing breath, then reach out for the phone. He hands it to me, kissing me quickly on the forehead before he darts back outside to give us privacy. I pull the phone to my ear.
“Hi.” He sounds miserable. Lifeless, almost. Worse even than the times I’d been stuck in Cambridge and couldn’t make it home for weeks at a time. “How… how are you feeling?”
“I’ve been cooking all day.”
“How’s your head?”
“Any headaches? Light sensitivity?”
“What about pain? Any cramps or swelling?”
“Nothing more than to be expected.” I hold up my hand and stare at the now too tight wedding band wrapped around my tattooed finger. I don’t know if I could get it off if I wanted to.
And I don’t.
“Were you sick this morning?”
“A little.” It’s the same checklist he used to go through each night when I was in Cambridge. It had irritated me then, like he didn’t trust me to take care of myself when I was doing everything in my power to do exactly that. Now, it feels like he cares. And I cling to it. “I feel good, though. Really.”
He sighs. “How’s Calliope?”
“Good. She’s outside catching butterflies with my dad and Luke right now. We’re going to have dinner soon.” He doesn’t respond, leaving me only with his pained silence. “What about you?”
The disgusted sound I get in response makes me press him.
“What did you do today?”
“I wore a path in the floor of my apartment, mostly.”
“Apartment? You’re not at home?”
“No.” The word hangs heavy in the dead air over the phone. “I couldn’t stay there. I don’t know how to be in the home we built together when you’re not there. Escala… Well, I have a lot of practice surviving without you here.”
Every ounce of reprieve I’ve been able to draw from the tranquil isolation here evaporates with those words. The beat of my heart feels harsh and burdened when the image of him, alone at Escala, empty the way that it was before I moved in, flashes before my eyes. There’s a kind of dread in his sentiment that I know will lead him down a dark and destructive path, so I head it off before he can go any further.
“I’m not leaving you, Christian. Everything about this is… awful, but I’m not running away. I just… you scared me yesterday.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have… I mean, I didn’t want to…” He lets out a frustrated huff. “I’d never do anything to hurt you, Anastasia.”
“You did though. I’m hurt, Christian. And I don’t know what to do now…”
“You could come home. You could come back to me.”
I push my lips to the side and drag my finger over my father’s countertop, carefully choosing my words before I say them. “I’m coming home tomorrow night. Lucky for you, I can’t exactly take any time off work right now because my company was just bought out from under me and I need to go deal with the acquisition.”
I half expect a small, breathy laugh, but he’s not in anywhere near the kind of mood to appreciate sarcasm right now.
“Should I be there?”
I gnaw on my lip, considering my answer. “I hope so. But I only want you there if you’re ready to accept that this is happening and it’s not going to change.”
He swallows audibly, then leaves me in silence for several long drawn out seconds. There’s more defeat than defiance in his response. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
The phone goes dead without an, “I love you,” and my eyes well with tears. I stare blankly at the handset before I return it to its place on the wall, and finish my meal prep behind a teary haze that doesn’t clear away until my father and Luke bring Calliope in for dinner.
“Smells like heaven,” my dad tells me, squeezing my shoulder before pulling out a chair at the dining room table. I give him a small smile and start to dish some peas out for Calliope when there’s a knock on the door. For half a second, my heart goes cold in my chest and I wait for a pair of gray eyes to meet mine when my father opens the door.
“Kim,” he says instead, obviously surprised to see her. She’s standing on the porch with a box in her hands, looking impishly at him.
“I found these things mixed in with mine, so I figured I should return them.”
“Oh.” My dad takes the box out of her hands and looks through its contents, taking great care to sort the items he has no way of counting. I decide he’s buying time, trying to keep her standing in his doorway for as long as possible.
It’s what Christian would do if I showed up at Escala tonight. Because he loves me, and every second he’s in my presence is precious to him.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner…” Kim says cautiously, peering over my father’s shoulder and finding Luke, Calliope, and me all seated around the table. She bites down on her lip as she shifts her eyes back to my father. “Maybe… some other time, we could talk?”
“Yeah,” my dad responds. “I—uh…”
“Kim?” Her eyes move from my father’s, back to me, and I swallow back the defiant trepidation that rises up my throat. “Would you mind if… we talked for a second?”
My dad’s eyes narrow, but I ignore him.
“Sure.” Kim gives me a weak smile as she steps back on the porch and I get up from the table. My fingers reach out to brush my father’s in a reassuring kind of way as I pass, but his suspicion never wavers.
I close the door behind me.
“What can I do for you, Ana?” Kim asks, settling down in the porch swing and looking at me like I’m responsible for every ounce of the pain in her eyes. Hell, I guess I am.
“I don’t like you,” I start. She frowns before turning away and looking out over the water.
“You think I don’t know that?”
“You certainly don’t do anything to change it.”
The cadence of her breathing changes in a way that makes me think she’s trying to calm herself down, almost as though this is a familiar pattern with her. Like maybe, she’s had this argument before, only… just with herself. “I don’t know how. I don’t know what I did to make you hate me.”
“Well let me lay it out for you.” I move to the railing in front of the porch swing and pull myself up on it, letting my legs dangle between us. “You’re constantly trying to mother me, and I hate it. You’re not my mom, and I don’t need a replacement. I hate the way you always have commentary for everything I do and it’s always to make me feel like I’m shallow or callous because you think that having money and spending it on the people I love means that my feelings aren’t real.” I pause, tasting the bitterness of the words I now have to admit. “But… I like the way you treat my dad. I like that you give him companionship when he’s all by himself out here, and I like the way you take care of him. I like how happy you make him. I don’t like the way his life is when you’re not in it.”
A look of warmth slowly moves across her face as she takes in what I’ve said. Then she reaches out to remove the hand I have tucked underneath my arm and holds it in hers.
“I don’t think you’re shallow, Ana. Actually, I think you have a beautiful heart. The way you and your father are together… well, it makes me regret the man I chose as the father of my own children. The way you love Kate and the family you inherited through Christian, it’s wonderful. You think that I’m overbearing or that I’m meddlesome, but everything between us has always been about trying to get you to open your heart to me the way you do so easily for everyone else… To get you to see how much I care about you. How much I want to love you. All I’ve ever wanted was your approval. Your acceptance. You never wanted to give me a chance and everything I tried only made you hate me more.”
I frown and look down at my shoes in shame. Not just because it hurts to hear her perception, which is more intuitive than I’d like to give her credit for, but because I haven’t made my last confession yet.
“I hate the way you take him away from me. I’m not used to sharing my dad, and I don’t like it. Even when he was still with my mom, she would have never dreamed of trying to come between us. It feels like… that’s all you ever do. Find the things that are most precious between us and put yourself in the middle of all the best parts. That’s not where you belong.”
“Yeah.” It’s her turn to shift her eyes now. Everything she says next, she says into her own lap, rather than directly to me. “I’m sorry, Ana. I’m so in love with Ray and I want to be a part of all things that he loves. He doesn’t love anything more than he loves you and I thought, if I could make you love me, if I could make myself a part of your bond, then… you’d both want me to stay. That maybe, it would make him need me the way I need him.”
“It’s not where you belong,” I repeat.
“I know that now. I’m sorry.”
I take a breath and release it in a long, resigned exhale. “Christian and I are both public figures and that’s not going to go away. Anything you say or do or post online has the potential to become national headlines. Anything.”
“So I’ve learned.”
“No pictures of Calliope online. In fact, I don’t want you posting anything about us at all unless you’re supporting GEH. Nothing about our personal lives, period.”
“Of course not. I just thought it was such a cute picture. None of my family ever sees yours and since Christian got me on that damn PixC thing, I thought it could build a bridge, you know. Open a door. Create a possibility. I didn’t realize this would happen.”
“Then we’ll work on that,” I promise. “Just as long as you never, ever, ever, ever, ever do it again.”
“I mean it, Kim. This isn’t a thing you get to mess up. There aren’t any do-overs, and once something is public, it’s out of our hands. There are consequences to that, dangerous consequences, and if you’re in our lives, you need to understand how serious that is.”
“I do. I didn’t before, but now…” She bows her head in misery. “I’ll never do anything like that again.”
“Then, would you consider coming back? I don’t want my dad to have to choose between me and happiness, and you make him happy. I’m not going to stand in the way of that.”
“Oh, Ana!” She leaps to her feet and yanks me off the railing, pulling me in for a hug. “Thank you. Thank you so much!”
“Yeah,” my dad’s voice sounds from behind the screen door. “Thank you, Annie.”
Kim releases me in an instant and rushes for my father, yanking the door back and leaping into his open arms the moment she’s close enough. He wraps her against him so tightly, I worry for a moment he might break her. But she just laughs.
“I’m sorry, Kim. I didn’t know what else to do…”
She kisses him, then cups the side of his face when she pulls away. “There’s no need to apologize. I would never expect you to pick me over your baby.”
He nods, expressing overwhelming gratitude at her understanding, and pulls her in for a deep kiss that’s uncomfortable for me to witness.
“I’m going to eat,” I say flatly, maneuvering around them and sliding through the door. Neither of them notice me go.
Luke is walking around the living room with the house phone pressed to his ear when I come back, his food abandoned and a look of euphoria spread across his face. It only takes a couple seconds to deduce that he’s talking to Jade. I’ve never seen him look so overjoyed without someone handing him a gun first, and, even though I’m incredibly happy for him… it hurts a little.
Everyone I know is in love and happy. I’m… in love and drifting because of it.
How am I going to get out of this mess?
I sit back at the table and scoot closer to Calliope, keeping my eyes focused on her so Luke feels like he has the space to say the things he wants to tell the woman he loves. She grabs a handful of peas and smashes them against her face, only a few of them actually making it into her mouth.
I laugh and wipe away the mess.
“Daddy, wut?” she asks again. This time, it’s not as easy to hide my pain.
“Yeah. Daddy’s at work.”
Her face crinkles with sadness so I pull her out of her seat and into my lap, cuddling her more to comfort myself than her. “I miss him too, baby.”
It’s true. More so than I ever thought it could be. And for the first time since I found out I was pregnant, I wonder to myself if I could be happy with just Christian and Calliope.
But I don’t even finish the thought before I have my answer.