“Come in.” Phil said in response to the knock on his door sill, continuing to look at his computer monitor as he drafted a response to an email.
“Unless you have something else for me, I’d like to leave a little early today,” his secretary said. “I still have to get candy for the trick-or-treaters.”
“Halloween.” He remembered it was Halloween for the first time since leaving the house that morning. He’d promised Lina he’d try to be home early. “Of course. Have a nice evening.”
“I’m supposed to remind you that’s it’s Halloween too.”
Phil shifted his gaze from the computer, his eyebrows pulled together in confusion.
“Your wife called. She said not to interrupt you, but to make sure you left by 6 p.m., so this is me telling you to leave by 6.”
After his secretary left, Phil looked down at his cell phone which he’d forgotten to switch off silence after a client meeting. There was a missed call from Lina and a text telling him to come home early.
“I have a deposition in the morning,” he said as soon as Lina answered. “I need another two hours.”
“It’s Halloween. You promised. You need to come to see the kids in their outfits.”
“Please tell me Logan isn’t going trick or treating. He’s over six-foot and—”
“He’s going to a party with Tiffany and Katie and Matt are going out too. Everyone is coming over pizza beforehand. I want you to see them before they leave. Come on. I don’t know why you’re being so cranky. You always used to come home early on Halloween.”
“That’s because I had kids that I had to take trick or treating and I’m not being cranky. I have a mountain of work on my desk.” He leaned back in his chair.
“It’s our first Halloween with Liam.”
Phil chuckled. “He’s one. He doesn’t even understand—”
“He’s almost two and he does understand. And even if he doesn’t there are going to be pictures and I want you in them.”
His eyes focused on the pile of papers on his desk. He sighed. “How long do I have?”
* * *
“Dad’s home,” Katie yelled when Phil came through the mudroom door into the kitchen.
He set his briefcase just inside the door. His eyes narrowed as he took in Katie’s costume. She was wearing a brown pencil skirt, oxford shoes, a pink shirt and a pink beret. “Did you have a job interview or something?” he teased.
“You’re not funny,” she said. “You have to guess.”
“Someone in the 50s.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “Mom got it on the first try.”
“Are you a specific person or…” he trailed off when Matt appeared from the family room wearing a black suit with a wide brown and white striped necktie and a brown fedora hat. “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“It’s about time.” She looked toward the front of the house at the sound of the doorbell. “That’s the pizza. I need money.”
“I can get it.” Phil reached into his suit jacket as he took a couple of steps toward the front of the house.
“No.” Katie stepped in front of him, blocking his path. “You’ll ruin the surprise. You have to stay in the kitchen.”
“Just give me eighty dollars and don’t leave the room.”
“Eighty?” Phil raised his eyebrows. “That sounds a little steep for pizza.”
“Seventy then.” She held out her hand.
Phil extracted seventy dollars from his wallet, but handed it to Matt instead of Katie. “Give them a ten-dollar tip and me any change.”
“You don’t trust your own daughter?” Katie asked as soon as Matt walked away.
“Not when it comes to money.” Phil crossed to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. “Where is everyone?”
Matt returned a minute later, followed by Logan who was dressed as a vampire. He was in all black with a red-lined cape with his dark hair combed straight back. His skin was paler than normal and the skin under his eyes looked bruised. Small dribs of fake blood ran from the sides of his mouth down his chin.
“Again?” Phil raised his eyebrows. It was the third year in a row Logan had dressed as a vampire.
Last year I was a zombie. I’m a vampire.”
“You look exactly the same. Where’s Mom?”
“She’s coming,” Tiffany, wearing a black dress, and make up similar to Logan’s came into the kitchen.
“Mrs. Dracula, I presume,” Phil said.
“You’re so sexist,” Katie said. “What year do you think it is? Taking the guy’s name is outdated.”
“It is?” Matt asked.
“I’m going to take my husband’s name,” Tiffany said, smiling at Logan.
“I’m never even getting married,” Katie continued.
“We’re not?” Matt dropped down into a chair, not looking concerned.
“We don’t the government to sanction our love.”
“Logan and Tiffany,” Lina called out, “we’re ready for you.”
Seconds later Lina appeared, smiling at Phil. “Hi.”
“Hey there.” Phil wrapped his arm around her waist as he brushed his lips over hers. “I thought the surprise was going to be you in a French maid costume,” he whispered into her ear.
“Be good,” she whispered back.
“I’ll be good. I’ll be very good.” He stroked his hand down to her butt.
“Stop,” Katie groaned. “Hurry up Logan! Dad won’t stop groping Mom!”
Logan retuned to the kitchen with one arm around Tiffany and the other around Liam who was hiding beneath his cape.
“Has anyone seen our little vampire?” Tiffany asked. “We’ve looked everywhere and we can’t find him.”
“Oh no!” Lina cried. “Is there a loose vampire in the house?”
Liam pounced out from beneath Logan’s cape, throwing his arms up in the air. “Grrrrrr! Grrrrrr!”
“Vampires don’t growl,” Logan laughed. “Don’t say anything.”
“Grrrrrr!” Liam cried.
It took Phil a moment to absorb the scene. Liam looked identical to Logan with his hair combed back, unnaturally white face, bruised circles under his eyes and fake blood dribbled down his chin. It was like he was Logan’s ‘little me’. With the exception of his blue eyes, they were an older and younger version of the same person. A knot formed in his throat at the demonstration of the obvious bond between them.
“Grrrrrr!” Liam stood before him. “Grrrrr, Daddy.”
“Aren’t you scared, Daddy?” Lina whispered.
“Oh. Right.” Phil stepped backward. “Don’t hurt me, vampire.”
Liam continued to come at him. Phil clasped him under his arms and lifted him in the air. “What happened to Liam? What have you done with Liam?”
“I Lee. I Lee, Daddy.”
Phil chuckled at the serious expression on Liam’s face. “Oh, there you are.” Phil smiled at him. “You scared, Daddy.”
““I Lee. I Lee,” Liam shouted. “I Lee, Daddy.” He smiled in delight.
Phil kissed him on the top of his head before setting him back on his feet. “Now we just have to find Logan.”
Liam immediately ran to Logan, throwing his arms around his legs. “Lo Lo, Daddy,” he laughed.
Phil smiled, taking in the sight of the two of them. “Are you sure that’s Logan? He looks like a vampire to me.”
“Lo Lo,” Liam repeated.
“Look over here Liam,” Katie said as she took a picture with her cellphone. “Okay now try to look scary.”
Phil participated in the photo-taking for a few minutes and then followed Lina to the boxes of pizza stacked on the kitchen island. “Was that your idea—Liam’s outfit?”
“Actually it was Tiffany’s,” she whispered. “Much to Katie’s chagrin. She wanted him to be rock star.”
“I didn’t realize how much they looked alike.”
“You didn’t?” Lina’s eyes widened. “They both look like you. How could they not look alike?”
“Yes.” She framed his face between her hands. “Have you seriously not noticed?”
“You aren’t very observant.”
He curved his arm around her waist before she could step back from him. “I notice how fucking beautiful you are.”
Lina wrapped her arms around his neck. “Even without a French maid costume?”
His gaze shifted between her eyes and lips. “That would just take things to a new level.”
“Maybe you could dress up for me?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Oh I don’t know. Maybe a pool boy?”
Phil laughed aloud.
“What’s so funny?” Logan asked, shuffling up beside them.
“Nothing,” Lina answered. “We were just—why don’t you set the table so we can eat.”
Forty-five minutes later, Liam’s cries filled the kitchen. “Lo Lo!”
“That’s enough Liam,” Phil said. He’d been crying since the teenagers left to go to their parties a few minutes earlier.
“He’s just tired.” Lina continued to jiggle him against her side. “He didn’t get a nap today.”
“Vampires don’t cry, Liam,” Phil said. “Come here.” He tried to take him from Lina.
“No!” Liam clung to Lina’s neck.
“You’re acting like a baby.”
“No Daddy!” Liam stopped crying to glare at his father. “No!”
Phil laughed at the sight of the glaring little vampire.
“No!” Liam yelled.
“Don’t tease him,” Lina scolded. “Let’s go find a book. Do you want Mommy to read you a book?”
“Book,” Liam agreed.
“I’m going to change into my pool boy outfit,” Phil said to Lina’s departing back.
Phil took a shower before changing into lounge pants and a T-shirt. It was 8:45, well past Liam’s 8 p.m. bedtime, so Phil made his way to his room. He leaned against the door sill when he saw Lina sleeping beside Liam and his single bed. He wasn’t surprised. It was a common occurrence, Lina falling asleep as she read Liam a bed time story. Working and taking care of all of them was more than a full-time job. He’d suggested they ask the nanny to also cook for the family, but Lina had insisted she didn’t want help in the kitchen. His eyes shifted from Lina to Liam who was curled into her side. The makeup was gone from his face, but he was still dressed in the costume. Phil pushed himself off the wall and made his way to the bed. He carefully removed Liam’s cape, knowing Lina wouldn’t want him sleeping in it, and then lifted Lina into his arms.
“Phil?” She opened her eyes. “What are you doing? I can walk.”
“I’d rather carry you.” He turned Liam’s light off and shifted Lina slightly so he could pull the door clothes.
“He can’t sleep in the cape. He could choke—”
“I already took it off him.”
“I need to clean the kitchen. It’s—”
“It can wait until tomorrow.” He carried her into the master bedroom, using his foot to close the door. “We’re going to bed. You’re exhausted.”
“It’s not even nine.”
“Stop arguing with me.” He pressed his knee into the mattress as he laid her down.
“I need to brush my teeth and wash my face.”
Phil removed her shoes, tossing them toward the wardrobe. “Later.” He pulled off his T-shirt and stepped out of his lounge pants.
“I thought you wanted me to go to sleep.” Lina lifted her arms as he tugged off her blouse.
“I didn’t say anything about sleeping.” He reached beneath her to unzip her skirt.
Lina lifted her hips so he could remove it. “Did you lock the door?”
“No, but he’s dead to the world.” He dropped his mouth to her neck as he positioned himself between her thighs.
“You feel so good.” She wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Yeah?” He nipped her earlobe with his teeth. “Are you pretending I’m the pool boy?”
“Liar,” he growled before thrusting into her.
Phil got up briefly to set the alarm and lock up the house. It was after 1 a.m. and Logan and Katie were in their beds asleep. He was turning off the kitchen light when he noticed his cell phone on the counter. He picked it up and headed up stair, flicking through his emails. He stopped his forward moment, one hand on the banister when he saw an email from Kim.
How is Liam? I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I’ll be in the area a week from Thursday and would like to see him. I’ll reach out on Tuesday or Wednesday to firm up plans. Kim
“Fuck!” All it took was one paragraph from Kim to ruin his mood. When she’d moved to New York six months prior, he’d figured she’d keep in touch, but when the months passed with no word from her, he’d started to believe she was permanently gone from their lives.
He lifted his gaze from his phone to find Liam standing at the top of the stairs, his hair stuck up in all directions and his eyes puffy form sleep. The memory of the bite marks on Liam’s back the Christmas prior flashed in his mind. He was gripped by a surge of protectiveness. “What are you doing up?”
“You don’t have a bottle anymore.” Lina had weaned him of the bottle the week before. It had been a few nights of hell as Liam got used to the sippy cup.
Phil met him at the top of the stairs and lifted him into his arms. “We’ll get you something to drink.” Phil kissed his head.
“Bottle.” Liam rested his head in the crook of Phil’s neck. “Peeze.”
* * *
“No.” Liam pushed the sippy cup away with his hand. “Bottle, Daddy.”
“You’re a big boy. Big boys don’t get bottles, remember?”
“No, Lee baby,” he said.
Phil smiled at the sudden reversal. Liam had been insisting he wasn’t a baby for weeks. “I thought you wanted to be a big boy like Logan.”
Liam shook his head. “Lee baby.”
Phil pressed his lips against his forehead. He fought the urge to give him a bottle. Lina would kill him. “Mommy gave all your bottles to a new baby.”
“No!” Liam frowned up at Phil, his lower beginning to tremble.
“How about if we read you Guess How Much I Love You?” According to Lina it was his new favorite book.
Lina wasn’t surprised to find Phil’s side of the bed empty the following morning, but she was surprised to find the bathroom empty with no evidence he’d used the sink or shower. Before she could give it too much thought, the bedroom door opened.
“I fell asleep with Liam.” He dragged his hand down his face. “He was up in the middle of the night.”
“You actually laid down with him?” He usually read to him in a chair and then put him to bed.
“I did.” He clasped her shoulder as he brushed his lips over her cheek. “I’m taking a shower.”
She was in the kitchen with Liam when Phil came downstairs, dressed for work in a dark suit.
“Daddy!” Liam smiled.
He paused beside Liam to kiss top of his head. “Daddy has to go to work.”
“Already? It’s barely seven.”
“I know.” He joined her at the counter beside a pot of brewed coffee. “Someone made me come home early last night.” He reached around her for a ‘to go’ mug. “Shouldn’t Logan be up?”
“They don’t have school today. I’m taking off too.” She watched him make his coffee. “Don’t forget we have dinner with Adele and William.” She frowned when he sighed. “What was that? You like William.”
“I do. I just have a lot going on.” He leaned in and brushed his lips over hers. “I’ll see you tonight.”
She clasped his free hand before he could walk away. “Do you want me to cancel?”
“No. I don’t know.” He shook his head.
“Is everything okay?” She suddenly noticed the circles beneath his eyes.
He released a deep sigh. “I don’t
have time to get into this right now, but I uh—Kim emailed me. She wants to see
Lina’s stomach dropped. “When?”
“Late next week.”
“I don’t know.”
“She can’t have him overnight, Phil.”
“He may not even remember her. She can’t just expect to take him for the weekend.”
“I said okay.” His eyes narrowed. “We’re in agreement.”
“You just said you didn’t know.”
“I don’t know what she wants. What her plan is. All I have is an email with very little information.”
Annoyance bubbled in her chest. “How long have you known?”
“Less than six hours. I’m not the enemy, Lina. We’re on the same side here.”
“Mommy!” Liam began banging his fists on the high chair tray.
“I’m coming,” she called, not looking away from Phil. “I’m not going to let her hurt him again. I don’t care how much money it costs us. I—”
“Calm down.” Phil squeezed her hand. “We don’t have any information. This may just be a breeze in and breeze out. Let’s not get upset until we have to.”
* * *
Does she have unlimited rights?” William asked later that evening.
Lina and Phil along with William and Adele were at the Woodmont Grill in Bethesda for a late dinner. The first drink had barely been served before the conversation turned to Kim’s visit. Lina had been tied up in knots all day at the thought of Kim being around Liam. She’d naively assumed Kim was gone from their lives and had let herself relax, believing she would be Liam’s only mother. Now she didn’t know what to think.
“I wouldn’t say unlimited,” Phil answered. “But she does have rights.”
“She disappeared from his life without a backwards glance,” Adele said. “Wouldn’t a court frown upon that?”
“Maybe.” Phil paused to take a swallow of Scotch. “It’s too soon to claim abandonment. I talked to my lawyer today. She could claim she was under stress with the decision to let us have him. No judge is going to pull her rights away after six months.”
Lina looked down into her wine glass. She and Phil had discussed what the lawyer said on the drive over. Hearing it again only served to raise her blood pressure. They had no choice but to let Kim waltz back into Liam’s life. That was the reality.
“It’s fucking insane,” Adele fumed. “She walked away from him. She shouldn’t have any rights.”
“I agree,” Lina said. “But apparently we’re in the minority”
“I didn’t say I agreed that it was right,” Phil said.
“You didn’t say you didn’t.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake. Do you really think I want her anywhere near him? I’m just trying to be realistic. I don’t want to throw a ton of money at a case we can’t win.”
She lifted her glass to her lips and took a sip. She knew she was being unfair to him, but at the moment she was upset and fairness wasn’t at the forefront of her mind. “She’s not coming into our house.”
“Of course, she isn’t.” Adele glared at Phil.
“No one said she was coming to our home,” Phil said, his words clipped. “I would never allow that.”
“I don’t want her near our house or Ellicott City,” Lina clarified. “Logan is finally back to normal and I don’t want some insensitive gossip to see the three of you and—.”
“Fine,” Phil said, cutting her off. “Do we really have to do this right now?” The side of his jaw had begun to clench and unclench.
“Maybe Lina needs backup,” Adele said.
“Adele,” both William and Lina said at the same time.
“Please stop,” Lina said to Adele. “I don’t need backup. Let’s just talk about something else.”
* * *
A few glasses of wine took the edge off Lina’s anxiety, allowing her to push thoughts of Liam to the back of her mind and enjoy the evening. Phil was quiet, but with Adele carrying the conversation it wasn’t completely unusual. When he didn’t say anything for the first ten minutes of their drive home, she knew something was wrong.
“I’m not mad at you,” she finally said after another ten minutes.
“That’s not what it feels like from where I’m sitting.” He gripped the steering wheel.
“It’s just hard, you know?”
“I know.” He reached out and took her hand, dragging it to rest on his thigh. “I’m sorry. I wish she’d stayed away too.”
Lina looked out the window. A knot had lodged in her throat and she didn’t trust herself to talk without choking up.
“Hey.” He squeezed her hand. “We’ll get through this. It could just be a one-time thing.”
“Or it could be more,” she whispered, her stomach twisting. “She could decide that she wants regular visitation.” Just saying it aloud caused a pain in her chest.
“She isn’t going to—.”
“You don’t know that,” Lina cried, swinging her gaze from the window to him. “You have no idea what she wants!”
“Baby, calm down.”
“No!” She shook her head as tears came to her eyes. “He’s my son. It’s as if someone is trying to take my baby from me. She has the right to take him!” She covered her eyes as she was overwhelmed by emotion. She felt the car slowing and then Phil was pulling her into his arms.
“No, Lina. That’s never going to happen,” he said as he stroked his hand up and down her back. “I swear to you. That will never happen.”
“But she has rights. And I don’t have any. In the eyes of the law, she’s his mother not me. Do you know how that feels?”
“No. You’re his mother. You’re the one who gets up with him and takes care of him. You’re the one who loves him every day. He thinks you’re his mommy because you are.”
“What if something happened to you, Phil? Would he be mine?”
“Nothing is going to happen to me.”
“But what if it did?” She pulled back to meet his eyes. “She could take him from me. I just can’t bare the thought of it. We have to make this legal Phil. She has to let me be his mom.”
“I don’t want the kids to know.”
The sound of Lina’s voice woke Phil from his semi-sleep state. He focused on the alarm clock on the night stand. It was 1:20. They’d been in bed for half an hour.
“Unless they have to,” she continued. “There’s no reason to upset them. Like you said, it may be an isolated event. She could just disappear again.”
“When do you think you’ll hear from her again? Maybe you should just ask when she wants to see him and for how long.”
“I thought we agreed to wait, to not let her think we’re not making a big deal about it.” They had discussed it at length on the way to dinner. Lina insisted the lack of information in Kim’s email was intentional, that she was trying to increase their anxiety by not letting them know her plan.
“I know, but now I don’t know. How can we formulate a response if we don’t know what she wants? She may think she can sweep in and take him for the weekend.”
“Or she may just want to see him for a few hours on Friday.”
“Which would require you to take a day off work.”
“I have court next Friday. If she wants to see him Friday, Teresa can meet her.”
“No!” Lina sat up and turned on the light. “He isn’t going without you. That’s a terrible idea. What if he gets upset?”
“Alright. Bad idea. I wasn’t thinking. Would you turn off the light?” He squinted up at her.
“This is why you need to find out her plan,” Lina continued, ignoring or not hearing his request. “What if she thinks she’s going to see him Friday. Do you think she’s going to be fine with you saying ‘no’?”
“I’ll email her tomorrow.”
“No. Wait until Monday. I don’t want her to think she’s ruining our weekend.”
“Monday then,” he agreed, not pointing out that Kim was, in fact, ruining their weekend. “Would you turn off the light now and go to sleep.”
She turned off the light before laying back down beside him, resting her cheek against his chest as he wrapped his arm around her. “I hate this,” she whispered.
“I know.” He pressed his lips against the top of her head. “I hate it too.”
* * *
“Fuck.” Phil looked at his cellphone. It was almost four on Monday afternoon and there was a message from Lina on his phone, asking if Kim had responded. He’d been avoiding contacting her, hoping she’d go away, but he’d promised Lina.
He quickly drafted an email, keeping it as brief as possible:
When do you want to see him?
“Well?” Lina asked as soon as he arrived home.
“Is that how you greet me?” He cupped the side of her face as he brushed his lips over hers. “Hi.” He kissed her again.
“Daddy!” Liam bounded into the room and directly into his father’s legs, wrapping his arms around him.
“I haven’t heard,” he told Lina before turning his attention to Liam. “Hey buddy.” He scooped him up into his arms.
“What does that mean?” Lina asked. “Why wouldn’t she answer?”
“Maybe she’s busy. She could have been in court all day.” He smiled down at Liam. “Do you want to come up stairs with me while I change?”
“Do I have time for a run before dinner?” he asked Lina.
“Yes.” She sighed.
“Hey.” He paused beside her. “Don’t read anything into this. She probably receives a hundred emails a day. She’ll respond.”
Kim responded later that evening. Phil was beside Lina on the couch watching a SITCOM when he checked his email on his phone.
I should be done with my meetings by 4 on Thursday. I can be at you house by 5, traffic depending. I’ll have a few hours before my train back to New York
He felt relief flood through him that she wasn’t asking to keep Liam overnight. He held the phone out to Lina.
Her eye’s widened as she read the response. “She thinks she’s coming here? She actually thinks I’m going to let her in my house?”
“It doesn’t matter what she thinks,” Phil said.
“Tell her she isn’t welcome in our home—EVER.” She glared at him.
“I plan to, but this is good news. Three hours is all she wants.”
“There’s no good news—just less bad news.”
“Promise me you won’t let him out of your site,” Lina said. It was Thursday morning and she’d just joined him in the bathroom.
Phil paused with the razor under his bottom lip. “Even if he’s okay?”
“I don’t trust her.” Lina began to brush her hair, the strokes more vigorous than usual. “She could take him.”
She wasn’t going to take him, but Phil decided not to argue the point. Lina was agitated enough. He just wanted the day to be over. “I won’t let him out of my site.”
“I hate this.”
“I know.” He met her eyes in the mirror. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you going to ask about adoption—letting me adopt him?”
His stomach sunk. He didn’t want to give her false hope. He couldn’t fathom Kim signing over all rights. “I’ll feel her out.”
“What if you paid her? We could give her money to go away.”
“No.” He shook his head. “It wouldn’t stand up in court. You can’t buy parental rights. She could take our money, spend it and come back for more.”
“But if she signed something—”
“She could say it was under duress. We can’t pay her Lina.” He hated the worry and fear in her eyes. “I’ll do my best.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“Have you decided what we’re going to tell Katie and Logan.”
“We don’t have to tell them anything. Katie is staying in College Park with friends tonight and Logan has Talent Practice. He won’t be home before nine. They won’t even know.”
* * *
Phil carried Liam into Solid State Book on H street in D.C. at 4:50 on Thursday. Meeting at a book store had been Lina’s idea. She wanted Liam to be as comfortable as possible and decided the children’s section of a book store would be a perfect neutral location.
Liam had slept the entire drive over and was still a little groggy. As soon as he saw the stuffed animals, pillows and small tables and chairs indicating they had reached the “kiddie corner” he perked up. “Down, Daddy,” he demanded. As soon as his feet touched the floor, he ran off to join another boy who was running a train car along a track.
Phil glanced down at his phone. There was a new text from Lina.
Call me as soon as you’re done
I just arrived. I will call you as soon as we’re headed home. I love you
Another text arrived, this time from Kim. I’m running about 20 minutes late
Normally he would have been annoyed to be kept waiting, but in this case he was relieved. Twenty minutes less time with Kim was a plus. He shot off a quick text to Lina, telling her Kim’s latest status before shrugging off his suit jacket. He folded it in half and laid it on one of the small tables. He loosened his tie, regretting not taking the time to change out of his suit. He’d been late getting home and didn’t want to chance getting caught in traffic. He looked at one of the small chairs surrounding the table. He doubted it could support him. Instead he opted for a large pillow. He wasn’t going to stand for two hours.
He absently watched Liam watching a boy of about three push a toy train along a plastic track. After a minute the boy stepped back and indicated that Liam could take a turn. Liam immediately took the train and began to imitate what the other boy had done seconds earlier, only he chanted ‘choo choo’ as he maneuvered the toy around the track.
Another time, Phil would have enjoyed watching his son exercise his social skills. But his thoughts were with Lina. He hated what he was putting her through. She had been a nervous wreck since finding out Kim’s text an entire week earlier. He had no idea how he could ease her mind.
He knew the moment Kim arrived. Liam dropped the train in his hand, his eyes widening as he focused on something behind Phil. He hesitated only a moment before running to Phil.
“Daddy,” he said, climbing into his lap.
“It’s okay,” Phil whispered into his ear, stroking his hand down his son’s back. “Daddy isn’t going anywhere.”
“HI,” Kim said from directly behind Phil.
Liam fisted the material of Phil’s shirt, his eyes focused on Kim.
“Oh my God,” she breathed. “He’s grown so much.” She stepped in front of Phil. “Hi, Liam.” Dressed in a custom-tailored dark suit with a crème colored silk blouse and three-inch black pumps, she looked the part of a business executive or lawyer. “You remember me, don’t you?”
Liam pressed his body into Phil’s as if he was trying to be part of him.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked.
“Nothing’s wrong with him,” Phil answered, annoyance creeping into his voice. “He hasn’t seen you in six months.”
“Don’t you remember me?” She set down her briefcase before lowering herself into one of the small chairs.
Liam’s grip on Phil’s shirt tightened.
“May I hold you?” She held out her arms.
“No!” Liam shook his head.
“Give him a minute to get used to you,” Phil said.
“I’m your mommy,” Kim said. “Don’t you remember me?”
Liam turned his face into Phil’s neck.
“It’s okay,” Phil assured him, rubbing his back.
“I can’t believe how much he’s grown,” she said. “He’s so big.” When Phil didn’t comment she continued. “How is he?”
“He’s great,” Phil answered. “Happy.”
She nodded, her gaze returning to Liam who was once again watching her, a serious expression on his face. “You look just like your daddy.”
Liam turned in Phil’s lap so he was facing Kim, his back pressed against his father’s chest.
“Do you remember me?” she asked.
“Do you want to show her the train?” Phil asked. He couldn’t bring himself to refer to her as ‘mommy’. She wasn’t his mother, Lina was. “Why don’t you show her the train?” Phil repeated.
“Daddy come too?” Liam arched his head back to look at his father.
“No. Daddy is going to stay right here. I’ll watch you from here.”
“Will you show me the train, Liam?” Kim asked. “I love trains.”
Liam looked at Phil.
“It’s okay,” Phil reassured him. “You can show her the train.”
After a few more seconds, Liam scampered off Phil’s lap. He waited for Kim to stand before making his way back to the train.
Liam glanced back at Phil a few times, but eventually he began to relax, smiling shyly at Kim as he showed her how to run the train around the track.
As ten minutes turned in to thirty, the little hope Phil harbored that Kim would relinquish all claims to Liam diminished to practically nothing. He still planned to broach the subject. He’d promised Lina he would, but there was an unmistakable bond between them. Liam hadn’t even looked back at him in twenty minutes. Phil plowed his fingers back though his hair as he watched Liam pull her to a pillow and insist she sit down. Moment later he was bringing her a book and crawling into her lap. Phil was glad Lina wasn’t witnessing the two of them together. He came to his feet.
“I’m going to grab a drink,” he told them, pausing beside their spot.
“No!” Liam eye’s widened with fear. He frantically slid off Kim. “Me go, Daddy!” He threw himself against his Phil’s legs, wrapping his arms around them.
“I’m just getting a drink.” He stroked his hand over Liam’s head. “I’ll be right over there.” He nodded toward the café on the other side of the store. “You can stay here and finish your book. I’ll–“
“No!” Liam’s bottom lip began to quiver. “I come Daddy.” He tightened his arms around Phil’s leg.
“Why don’t we all go?” Kim suggested. “I could use a coffee.” She gracefully came to her feet. “Do you want us to all go Liam?”
Liam’s arms remained clamped around Phil’s legs as he nodded at Kim.
“Do you want me to carry you?” She held out her hand.
“No! Daddy.” He looked up at Phil.
Phil leaned down and lifted Liam up, settling him into his side. He gathered the diaper bag and his jacket before making his way to the small café. Kim wordlessly trailed after them. Annoyance bubbled in his chest at the obvious terror Liam experienced at the thought of being left alone with Kim.
“I can’t believe it’s been six months. I don’t know where the time went,” she said.
“Cookie,” Liam pointed at a plate of cookies behind a glass display in the café. “Want cookie, Daddy.”
“I’ll get you one, but you can’t have it until after you’ve eaten.”
“Should we take him somewhere to eat?” Kim came to stand beside him.
“I have his dinner with me.” At Lina’s request, the nanny had packed him food.
“Cookie!” Liam began to bounce against Phil’s side. “Want cookie.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to take him somewhere?”
“Positive. He’ll do better here.” Phil’s gaze shifted to the barista. “We’ll have a peanut butter and chocolate cookie, a bottle of water and,” he paused as he pulled Liam’s sippy cup from the diaper bag. “Would you fill this will whole milk please.”
“Of course, anything else?”
“Whatever she wants,” Phil answered, not looking at Kim.
“I’ll have a skimmed late.”
“Cookie!” Liam smiled.
“For after you eat,” Phil reminded him.
Phil set Liam up at a small table with his dinner of a cut-up peanut butter and jelly sandwich, strawberries, and yogurt, but when he tried to leave him with Kim, Liam protested.
“Daddy, stay,” Liam demanded.
“I’ll be right there.” Phil nodded at a nearby table. “You can have some of the cookie when you’re done.”
“No, Daddy stay.” Liam frowned up at him.
“Do you want me to read you the book?” Kim held up the book Liam had picked out earlier.
“Daddy.” Liam tossed his hand toward the chair beside him.
“It’s cute how close he is to you,” Kim said.
Phil reluctantly sat down. He was across from Kim and perpendicular to Liam.
Liam relaxed, clearly no longer afraid of being left, and returned his attention to Kim who opened the book.
It was a book about farm animals, featuring a different animal on every page. As Kim showed Liam the first page, he shouted out ‘pig’ and then began to oink.
“Very good.” She smiled at him.
“Cow. Mooo,” he said when she turned the page.
“Wow.” She seemed genuinely surprised as she flipped from page to page. When she came to the last page her attention shifted back to Phil. “He’s really smart, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he’s smart,” Phil agreed.
“I never thought about that, how smart he would probably be.” She returned her attention to Liam. “Can you count? One, two–“
“Free, four, five, six, even, eight, nine, ten!”
“Very good.” Kim rewarded him with a smile and Liam beamed back at her. “You’re smart like your mommy and daddy aren’t you?”
A wave of annoyance shifted through Phil. He looked away from them.
“I don’t know why I’m so surprised. We’re his parents. Of course he’s going to be smart.” She smiled at him again. “And handsome. You’re very handsome.”
“Piece?” Liam held out a slice of grape.
“No. That’s for you.”
“Piece.” Liam continued to hold it toward her.
She reluctantly took it from him, holding it between her index finger and thumb. “Thank you.”
“Eat.” Liam lifted his eyebrows.
“I think I’ll save it for later.” She set it on a napkin.
Liam put another piece into his mouth before turning to Phil. “Cookie.”
“Not until you finish your sandwich.”
“Please tell me that’s almond butter,” Kim said. “She doesn’t give him peanut butter does she?”
“Excuse me?” Phil frowned.
“Almond butter has more vitamins and minerals.”
Phil shook his head. “Noted.”
“I’m serious. I just read an article that–“
“You’re here to interact with him, not with me.”
“It’s about him,” Kim said, but returned her attention to Liam.
Phil caught up on his email, only half listening to Kim and Liam’s interactions. Liam finished all his food and a cookie before he got tired of sitting, insisting Kim take him out of his highchair. Moments later he was running around the café.
“Liam,” Phil warned. “No running inside.”
“No, Daddy!” Liam stopped to frown at him. “No.”
“It looks like he inherited your temper,” Kim said.
“Do you want to go back to the books?” Phil asked Liam.
“Books.” Liam trotted off toward the Kid’s Corner.
“It’s only been two hours and I’m exhausted.”
Phil was once again stretched out on an oversized pillow. He lifted his gaze as Kim sat down at the table beside him. Liam was interacting with another boy near the train. “I want you to sign over all rights.”
Her eye’s widened. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me.” He’d thought about bringing it up in a less direct way, but knew she’d understand what he was getting at, so decided not to play games. “Nothing will change. You can still see him, but I want him protected.”
“Protected from what exactly?”
“If something were to happen to me, I want him to remain where he is.”
“And his siblings.”
Kim looked away from him, shaking her head. “You’re unbelievable.”
“I’m unbelievable? Why? Because I want to protect him.”
“No.” Her gaze returned to his. “Because you’re trying to pretend that she’s his mother.”
Phil paused, trying to keep his temper in check. “You haven’t seen him in six months.
“And you barely saw him for the first six months of his life, so don’t lecture me. And it isn’t like I left him with a stranger. You’re his father.”
“I just want what’s best for Liam.”
“And you’ve decided cutting his mother out of his life is what’s best for him?”
“I didn’t say anything about cutting you out of his life.”
“Then what are you saying exactly?”
“I’m saying I want a stable life for him.”
“He has one, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, and I want to ensure that continues in the unlikely event something happens to me.”
“Well in that unlikely event, I, as the person who brought him in to this world, will determine what’s best for him. You seem to have forgotten I’ve done that once already. I decided he was temporarily better off with you. That’s the only reason he’s living with you right now.”
“Temporarily?” Phil repeated, his jaw clenching. “What in the fuck are you talking about? You walked away from him. You haven’t even checked on him.”
“He’s a baby. You’ve raised three others. I figured he was in good hands.”
“Nothing will change. I won’t keep him from you.”
“I know you won’t because I’m his mother. I’m not Lina, Phil. You can’t manipulate me. Regardless of what you want, I’m not signing away my right to him.”
“I am trying to protect him.”
She laughed. “Protect him? No. You’re trying to erase me from your life. You are trying to give my son to her.”
“He isn’t an object. He’s a person. And she is the constant in his life. She treats him like her own son. She loves him like he’s her own son.”
“That’s sweet, but he’s not.”
“You are so fucking selfish,” he growled.
“Nice language.” Kim looked knowing at a woman and little girl within hearing distance.
Phil dragged his hands down his face. There was no reasoning with her. Her thinking was completely warped.
After a minute he tried again. “She is mothering him. She, not you, gets up with him in the middle of the night. She’s the one that consoles him when he’s upset.”
“I could hire a nanny to do that,” Kim said dismissively.
He clenched his fists together. He had to get away from her before he lost it. “I think we’re done.”
“They only reason, I agreed to let you have him was because I’m trying to make partner. I work over 80 hours a week. I thought a family would be better for him. Plus, I don’t think I’m that great with babies. But he isn’t always going to be a baby. One day, I’ll have more time for him. Teenage years can be hard. Who knows, he may ask to live with me one day.”
“You live in a fantasy world.” Phil came to his feet. “Liam, time to go,” he called out.
Liam bounded back to them. “Cookie?” He curved his arm around Phil’s leg.
“When we get to the car. Say goodbye to Kim,” Phil said, emphasizing her name.
“Bye, bye.” Liam waved at her.
“How about a hug.” She held out her arms. “Mommy loves you,” she told him as she hugged him. “I’ll see you soon.”
As soon as she released Liam, Phil scooped him up. He left the store without a backward glance.
Lina read Phil’s message for what felt like the hundredth time.
On our way. We should be home in about 45
She’d considered calling him when she first received the message thirty minutes earlier, but ultimately decided not to, knowing if he’d had good news to share, he would have called. Kim hadn’t agreed to sign over rights or he hadn’t asked. She topped off her wine before crossing to the kitchen table.
A mixture of anxiety and annoyance swirled in her chest. She’d been consumed with thoughts of Kim and Liam for a week. She needed to pull herself together. It was beginning to affect her life and job. She’d been so distracted at work earlier that day, she’d forgotten to call in for a conference call with their New York site.
She hated the thought of Liam with Kim, hated the thought of her touching him. She’d given up her rights that day in the courtroom. She didn’t deserve him.
The sound of the garage door opening had her setting down her glass and coming to her feet. As soon as she saw the firm set of Phil’s jaw, she knew it hadn’t gone well. Liam was asleep in his arms, his body cradled against Phil’s chest.
“I’ll take him,” Lina said quietly.
“He’ll wake up,” Phil said. “Let me just take him up. If he wakes up now, he could—”
“I want to hold him.” She needed to hold him.
Phil hesitated only a moment before carefully handing Liam over. “Hey,” he said as Lina turned to walk away. He leaned in, brushing his lips over hers. “This isn’t over.”
A familiar lump formed in her throat. She looked away from him. “There’s a plate for you in the oven. I assume you haven’t eaten.”
“I swear to you, she is never taking him from us.”
“I’m going to take him up. We can talk later.”
Liam was clearly exhausted, continuing to sleep as Lina changed his diaper and slipped him into his pajamas. She laid in bed with him for over an hour, simply watching him sleep.
When Lina returned to the kitchen Logan was sitting at the kitchen island bent over a bowl of cereal. “Are you hungry? I could make you a grilled cheese or—”
“I’m good,” he said over a mouth full of cheerios.
“How was rehearsal?”
“Good. We’re the last act of the night, so it’s okay if you aren’t on time.”
His talent show was the following evening and Lina had a late meeting in Northern Virginia. “Where’s your dad?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I haven’t seen him. Are you okay?” His eyes narrowed in concern.
“Of course. I’m fine.” She forced a smile.
“Did something happen? You look sad.”
“I’m fine, sweetie.” Lina wrapped her arm around him and kissed the side of his head. “I’m just tired. It’s been a long week.”
She found Phil in the master bedroom. He was on the couch in the sitting-room, his knees spread wide with his elbows resting on his thighs. A glass of scotch sat on the coffee table. He was still dressed in his suit, the knot of his tie slightly loosened. He sat up as Lina approached.
“Did you eat?” she asked.
“No. I’m not hungry.”
He was always hungry. “You should eat.”
“I had a late lunch.” He reached out his hand. “Come here.”
Lina let him pull her between his thighs, resting her chin on top of his head as he wrapped his arms around her. They stayed that way for over a minute before Lina broke the silence. “Did he recognize her?”
Phil pulled back slightly and met her eyes. “I think so, but he wouldn’t let me out of his sight.”
“I told you not to leave him alone with her.” Annoyance bubbled in her chest. “Did you try to leave him?”
“Lina. Relax.” He squeezed her hand. “I just wanted to get a water.”
“I told you I didn’t want him upset.”
“It was a second. He never cried. He was fine.”
She could feel the anger flow from her body. “Tell me what she said.” She sat down beside him on the couch, curling her legs up under her. “How did she act? Did she say anything about seeing him again?”
“No. She just sat with him. Read him a book. Watched him play with another boy.”
Lina crossed her arms over her chest. “Did you talk to her about custody?”
“I did.” He leaned back beside her on the couch and stretched his arm along the cushion behind her. “She wasn’t receptive to giving away any of her rights.”
“So that’s it? There’s nothing we can do?”
“She’s not going to take him. She has no desire to be his mother.”
“Then why won’t she let me adopt him? If she has no desire to be his mother, why won’t she let me?”
“Because she’s selfish and she wants to put a wedge between us. This is all about power.”
“If something were to happen to you.”
“Nothing is going to happen to me,” he said intensely.
“You can’t say that. You aren’t God, Phil. We don’t know the future. But if something happened to you, she would take him from me. I would lose him. You have to do something. We have to get in front of a judge and prove how unfit she is.”
“Baby, stop. Stop doing this to yourself.” He cupped her shoulder. “Nothing is going to happen to me.”
“If you know that so emphatically, then why do we have insurance? Why did you insist on insuring yourself, Phil? It’s because you don’t know. You don’t know!”
“Look, there is nothing we can do right now. It’s too soon. In a couple of years after—”
“A couple of years?” Lina repeated. “That’s your plan? To do nothing for a couple of years?”
“We don’t have a choice, Lina. No court will strip her of her rights.”
* * *
It was ten after seven when Lina arrived at Gilman the following evening. She’d expected to be late, but traffic had been unusually light for a Friday. She was making her way toward the auditorium when she heard a familiar voice calling out her name. She turned to find Nick approaching from behind.
She stopped to wait for him to catch up, smiling in greeting. In dark slack and a tan suede jacket, his hair on the longish side, he looked as handsome as ever.
He returned her smile. “How are you?” They shared a brief hug.
Lina sighed. “You don’t want to know.”
“I wouldn’t have asked, if I didn’t want to know.” He tilted his slightly to the side. “What’s going on?”
It couldn’t have been a coincidence that she’d run into Nick Drayton at this moment. She couldn’t not confide in the child psychologist about what was happening with Liam and Kim. As briefly as possible she explained the happenings of the last week.
“I’m sure you’ve testified in cases of custody,” Lina said. “Don’t you think it’s worth a try?”
“Lina, don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t have a right to cut her out of his life.”
Heat rushed to Lina’s cheeks. “You have no idea what she’s like.”
“Please don’t get upset. You know how highly I think of you. You’re a wonderful mother. No one could say otherwise, but this isn’t about you.”
“How can you say that?” she cried.
“Because it isn’t. Regardless of how difficult it is to accept, regardless of how awful you believe her to be, she is his biological mother and you don’t want to be the person responsible for cutting her out of his life.”
“She doesn’t care about him.”
“If that’s true, he’ll come to that conclusion himself. You can’t come to it for him. You need to let him see her for who she is without your interference, or Phil’s, for that matter.”
“So we should just what? Let her neglect him and hurt him and—”
“No.” He shook his head. “That is not what I’m saying. Obviously if there was abuse, you would protect him.”
“She hasn’t so much as called to check on him for six months. That’s not abuse?”
“No. It’s not. One day that little boy is going to be a man and when that day comes, he’ll decide on his own what he thinks of her. You don’t want to confuse him by putting your thoughts into his head. Just love him Lina, love him, mother him—”
“But not protect him,” Lina interrupted. “If something were to happen to Phil—”
“If something were to happen to Phil, you would go to court and fight for him. That’s not what we are discussing here. You don’t need to fight for him right now, you have him. You are his mother.”
“I’m his mother? How can you say that? As long as she’s in the picture, I have no rights.”
“You want what’s best for Liam, right? I’m telling you as a professional that what’s best for Liam is for his relationship with his biological mother to evolve on its own without your interference. She may not have your capacity for love, but in her own way, I’m sure she loves him.”
“I’ll tell you what — In the unlikely event that something happens to Phil, I will do everything in my power to help you keep your boy, okay?”
Tears sprang to Lina’s eyes. “Thank you.”
* * *
Lina joined Phil in the auditorium, slipping down into the seat beside him.
“Hey.” He met her lips for a brief kiss. When he lifted his head, she could see the concern in his eyes. “How are you?”
“I’m okay.” She took his hand and squeezed it. “But if you die before Liam is out of the house, I’ll never forgive you.”