Authors: Barbara Valentin
* * * * *
Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know about our new releases!
Sign up for the Gemma Halliday newsletter!
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Valentin
Cover design by Estrella Designs
Gemma Halliday Publishing
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
To my husband for asking, "Why aren't you writing?" and my boys for letting me.
* * * * *
"We sleep in separate rooms, we have dinner apart, we take separate vacations—we're doing everything we can to keep our marriage together." —Rodney Dangerfield
On most mornings, Claire Mendez was out of the house by 6:45. By then, she would have packed five lunches, her own included, unloaded the dishwasher, started a load of laundry, checked her email, drafted a mile-long to-do list, and conducted a status meeting with her globally dispersed team.
But having stayed up well past 2:00 a.m. to put the finishing touches on an overdue project plan, this would not be one of those mornings.
Instead, intermittent flashes of bright light accosted her closed eyelids.
Blinking at the clock radio on the nightstand, Claire moaned and pulled the pastel blue-and-green plaid comforter over her head. But it didn't help.
Light, dark. Light, dark. She started drifting back to sleep, wondering how a thunderstorm could generate lightning without thunder.
Then she heard Paul.
Sure, in the delusional
I think I just found my soul mate
days of their relationship, the sound of his smooth, deep voice would make her all sorts of tingly. On this particular morning, however, it made her homicidal.
Like a chauffer retrieving a client from the airport, he droned, "Claire. Claire Mendez. Claire Elizabeth Mendez."
Beyond annoyed, she pushed the blankets back just enough to scowl at him. There he was, standing in the doorway, expressionless, with his hand poised over the light switch. She half expected him to be holding up a sign with her name on it.
In what seemed like a lifetime ago, he used to use a different kind of electricity to wake her up. He would start by kissing her forehead and work his way down until she was…well…wide awake. His approach would, at times, backfire, and they'd both end up sound asleep. But then they had Luke. And Marc and Tomas and Jonah, and those tender mercies were replaced with the cunning use of light bulbs and banal salutations.
As if being a two-career household with four young boys didn't put enough strain on their marriage, the real nail in their matrimonial coffin came when Paul lost his job a few years back, and he promptly traded his custom-cut suits for jeans and T-shirts. Much to Claire's chagrin.
Within the first few months of his stay-at-home-dad gig, the former senior account manager at Chicago's oldest and most venerable investment firm was dubbed "Mom of the Year" by the boys' elementary school's PTA. Smug with vindication, he took on a series of other positions, including but not limited to Cub Scout Den Dad, Car Pool Coordinator of Hermitage Avenue, and Coupon Clipping Savant.
In the meantime, Claire found herself routinely clocking an ungodly number of hours at a job she loathed.
So, two nails really.
"You awake?" Paul asked, frowning at the motionless lump on their bed.
The sleepy fog wouldn't lift, and Claire's eyelids resumed their sojourn south. They would've reached their destination too, if he hadn't flicked the lights again.
This time, she sat bolt upright. Her hair going every which way, she cringed as her laptop, which had moved in after Paul moved out of their room several months back, tumbled to the carpeted floor.
Through squinted slits, she saw that he was wearing nothing but his running shorts, the really short ones. His dark-brown wavy hair looked damp, and the sculpted muscles of his tanned arms and chest glistened with sweat.
He looked hot. As in overheated.
"Rise and shine, Imp," he said without tipping his hand to any heartfelt emotion whatsoever. Instead, he gave the light another flick.
She used to love when he called her that. Yes, she was height challenged, and yes, she had a well-documented reputation for being, on occasion, a tad impatient. But it was the way he used to say it, always with a smile and the crinkled corners of his big brown eyes hinting at all sorts of potential mischief.
After a while, the term of endearment stuck. More recently, though, it had somehow morphed into an admonishment.
Claire yanked the blankets back and muttered, "Stop with the lights. I'm up."
Leaning against the doorframe, Paul folded his arms and asked with his voice full of indifference, "'Nother late night?"
"Yep" was all she cared to offer by way of a reply.
He stood watching as she rifled through her underwear drawer.
Clamping on to a pink bikini brief like a prospector who had just found a ten-pound gold nugget, she shot her husband a quick glance as she shoved the drawer closed.
You mean despite being stuck at a job I hate because you refuse to go back to work?
Not wanting to start her day with another argument, she pretended not to hear his question and instead demanded, "Did you make the boys' lunches?"
Paul stood straight up and seemed to fill the doorframe before her, blocking the exit and thwarting any possibility of making it to the shower without a confrontation. "They're makin' 'em now."
He raised his eyebrows expectantly and repeated his question.
Claire clenched her fists. "Everything's just peachy. Now, come on. Move it, or lose it. I'm late." It was everything she could do to not snap her fingers at him.
He just stood there, apparently unconvinced.
After a minute, she rolled back her head with a groan and looked squarely at him. "Let's see. After being forced to lay off half my team, my manager pushed up all of my deadlines. And somehow, I'm supposed to make it all work, even if it means staying up until two in the morning from now until the day I die or retire—whichever comes first."
And you're completely ok with that, aren't you?
Keeping that last bit to herself, she watched him step aside. With a quick nod toward the bathroom, he said, "Leave the door unlocked. I'll bring you up some coffee."
That's more like it.
An hour later, she swiped her badge against the turnstile sensor in the lobby of her building and made her way up to the seventeenth floor, hoping no one would notice that she didn't have time to wash her hair and that she was wearing mismatched earrings. That she forgot to put on deodorant was another matter entirely. If the spare she kept in her desk drawer was empty, she could try running out for some at lunch. Or she could just tell everyone she was coming down with pink eye and spend the entire day in her office with her door closed.
When the elevator doors parted, she swiped her badge again to gain access to the software technology company's engineering wing, in which she ran the technical publications department. Her role, managing the steadily dwindling team of technical writers and project managers, was a far cry from where she had hoped to be sixteen years out of college—at the top of the
New York Times
Remembering her foolhardy decision to get suckered into a plan Paul had no intention of following himself, she yanked her office door shut behind her.
Stupidity, thy name is Claire.
* * *
"Don't forget there's a parent meeting after practice this afternoon." Luke just happened to mention this as Paul edged the SUV up to the curb in front of Knollwood High School.
Contorting his face in disbelief, he replied, "What? Why? We had one when summer practice started back in June."
Luke shrugged. "No idea. I heard some of the guys talking about getting their old coach back."
"Ok," Paul replied with a sigh, and then added, "Hey, what time?" He craned his neck toward the open passenger side window, waiting for a reply from his son, who was already sauntering into the building with a buddy.
He stared after his eldest, wondering how in the hell he could be old enough to have a high school freshman. Catching his reflection in the rearview mirror, he rubbed his hand over the few white hairs he noticed popping out of his otherwise black stubble. It seemed that just a week or so ago, his mom was dropping him off in the exact same spot. Those were the good times—before his older brother joined the navy, never to return, and before his mom discovered that the lump she'd been ignoring was going to claim her life within a year. Turned out, it only took six months.
His thoughts were interrupted by the honk of an irate minivan driver idling behind him. It was the first week of school. Everyone seemed on edge. New schedules. New routines. New worries.
"Ok, who's ready for school?" Paul called out to his three youngest sons as soon as he returned from dropping off Luke. He closed the back door behind him with a satisfying swoosh and walked into the renovated foursquare on a corner lot that he and Claire had purchased just a month after they found out she was expecting their firstborn.
Once in the family room, he turned on the television to check the weather forecast.
When he heard a commotion break out upstairs, something about a uniform shirt mix up, he switched it off and called out again, "Come on, guys. We're gonna be late."
Finally hearing the sound of shoes clunking down the hardwood stairs, he asked, "Everybody finish their breakfast?"
When they reached the foyer, three heads nodded.
Addressing the older two, he asked, "Lunches packed?"
They both nodded.
"Everybody brush teeth?"
Only two heads nodded.
Paul narrowed his eyes at Marc, his second son, and jerked his thumb toward the stairs. "Brush. Quick. Clock's tickin'."
Five minutes later, the four Mendez men stepped out onto the sidewalk and made their way to the elementary school at St. Matthias. Arriving with just minutes to spare before the bell rang, Paul leaned against the wrought iron fence that bordered the playground and watched as they went their separate ways. Jonah joined the other kindergarteners huddled around Miss Shelly, who was trying to herd them over to the swing set. Tomas was absorbed into a tight circle of rather nerdy-looking boys camped out at one of the picnic tables, and Marc high-fived his way into a quick pick-up basketball game in a secluded corner of the parking lot.
"Hey, Paul," Jacquie Calderon sang out.
He turned and smiled at the one parent who never made him feel like she was wasting her time talking to him until someone better came along. It helped that they each had kids in nearly all of the same grades, took them trick or treating together every year, and occasionally shared a few cold ones on their respective front porches while their kids played in each other's houses.
"Hey. How ya doin'?"
"I'm so glad school's back in session," she announced, laughing as she approached. "My days are my own again—at least until 3:30."
Paul gave her a knowing smile and removed his sunglasses. "Tell me about it."
"So, were you guys able to get away at all over the summer? I know you were hoping to."
Her question shouldn't have taken him by surprise, but it did. With Claire's company making cuts, putting people on unpaid leave, and not giving out raises again this year, they had to watch every penny.
He perched his sunglasses on top of his head and squinted at her. "No. How 'bout you guys?"
"Nah. Not really. Just that family reunion up in the Twin Cities."
She pointed to a clique of mothers sipping Starbucks, silently assessing what each other was wearing while they chatted several yards away. "I overheard Savannah Guthrie say she sent her Kendall to a music camp or theater camp or something. Ten thousand dollars, but it was in New York, so…"
Paul sucked in his breath. "That's insane. That's a down payment on a car."
"Or a new roof."
"Or a week in the Caymans."
Jacquie chuckled. "Ok, you win." Pointing at the school, she added, "What we pay to send the kids here is nearly putting us under. At least we're down to two this year."
Paul gave his head an empathetic shake. No sense telling her that he had worked a deal with Father Tom to give them a hefty tuition discount in exchange for balancing the parish books each month, pro bono. Hell, Claire didn't even know, not that the subject ever came up in their sparse conversations.
Nudging him with her elbow, Jacquie lowered her voice and asked, "I'm so glad you were able to convince Claire to let Luke go to Knollwood and not St. Pat's. My Mike was really banking on it. He was petrified that he'd be the only student from here. I kept telling him he didn't have anything to worry about, but you know him. Always expecting the worst thing to happen. Although, I don't know who else from here picked Knollwood over St. Pat's. That was clearly the favorite, but I'd have to sell a kidney or something to make that happen. And that's just for one of them to go, let alone four. Know what I mean?"