“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.”
“Lunch?” One of Phil’s associates asked as they left the Montgomery County Court House. “There’s a great Thai restaurant around the corner.”
Phil glanced at his watch. It was 11:45. He had to be within a few miles of Lina’s office. “No. I’m going to take the rest of the day off.”
Fifteen minutes later, Phil, dressed in a dark gray suit and royal blue silk tie that brought out the blue in his eyes, was entering Dolmar Enterprises for the first time, his eyes scanning the modern lobby with it’s high ceilings and exposed brick walls. The receptionist’s eyes widened as he stopped before her desk. “Hi.” She smiled. “May I help you?”
“I’m here for Lina Hunter.”
“Oh. Is she expecting you?”
“I texted her but haven’t received a response, so probably not.”
“I think she’s in a meeting or at least she was.” The receptionist came to her feet. “They have a creative meeting every Monday at 11. It usually less than an hour but sometimes it runs over. I don’t know—”
“I can wait,” Phil interrupted her nervous ramble.
“Oh, okay. Who should I tell her is—”
“Her husband,” Phil answered.
“Oh.” Heat came to the woman’s cheeks. “I didn’t realize. Let me just—I’ll go see if she’s done.” She hurried off, only to return less than a minute later. “They’ll still in the meeting. Uhm do you want to wait in her office or—”
“Her office,” he answered.
Lina’s office was bigger than he expected, not that he’d consciously given it any thought, but the size surprised him. It was almost as large as his own. He looked at the black and white photographs of Washington DC gracing the walls and then made his way to her desk. His eyes zeroed in on a framed picture of him and Lina at Alice’s wedding. It was a candid shot of them dancing. She was smiling up at him, looking absolutely gorgeous. His gaze drifted to another photo, this a recent one of Logan and Liam. Logan was holding Liam and Liam’s arms were wrapped around Logan’s neck and they were both smiling. Phil’s chest expanded as he looked at photo evidence of the growing bond between his sons.
The sound of Lina’s office phone pulled his attention away from the pictures. He crossed to the bank of windows in the back of her office, looking out at her view of Wisconsin Avenue. It had been months, yet he was still having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she had a real job with real responsibilities. She was his wife and the mother of his children. The working Lina was a mental adjustment he was still struggling to make.
He heard voices and turned to see Lina, William and a man he recognized from the news as Damien Rouse coming out of a room directly across the hall. Dressed in a sleeveless black sheath dress accentuating the curve of her hips and narrow waist, her dark hair falling loosely around her shoulders, Lina looked both sophisticated and feminine. Her head was nodding at what Damian was saying. Phil felt a surge of possessiveness grip his chest as he watched her interacting with the billionaire business man.
Lina’s gaze shifted from Damian to Phil, her eye’s widening in surprise. “Phil?” She disentangled herself from the other two, meeting him just inside her office. “What are you doing here?”
“My case was settled.” He ran his hand around her hip to the small of her back as he dropped his head and brushed his mouth over hers. “I was hoping to take you to lunch.”
He reached around her to greet William, shaking his hand before turning his full attention to the other man. “Phil Hunter,” he said, holding out his hand.
“You haven’t met Lina’s husband?” William asked his brother, clearly surprised.
“No, I haven’t had the pleasure,” Damian answered, returning Phil’s handshake. He looked like an older version of William with the same black hair, his sprinkled with gray, an olive complexion and dark brown eyes. “Your wife is a very talented lady.”
“She is,” Phil agreed, his hand stroking her hip.
“I hate to run, but I’m already late for another meeting,” Damian said. “It was good to meet you Phil. I’ll have my wife reach out to Lina and set up a dinner soon.” He turned to Lina. “I’ll see you Friday.”
“I’ll make the changes we discussed and send you the updated design.”
“No need. I’ll see them in New York with everyone else.”
“I’ll walk you out,” William said.
Phil followed Lina back into her office. “New York?”
“I just found out. It’s one night.” She crossed to her desk. “I need to check my emails. It will just take a second.”
“Lina,” a tall slim woman began, coming into the office, “Would you…” she trailed off when she saw Phil. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were in a meeting.” She began to back out of the office, stumbling slightly as she stared at Phil.
“It’s fine. Stay.” Lina said, continuing to look at her computer. “It’s just my husband. Phil meet my assistant, Brooklyn.”
Phil greeted Brooklyn before taking a seat at the small conference table in the corner of Lina’s office. For the next five minutes he watched Lina in business mode, signing off on her assistant’s paperwork, answering an email and taking a quick phone call. It was a side of her he had never seen.
“I’m sorry. That took longer than I expected. Ready?” She came around her desk.
“Not quite.” He held out his hand, remaining seated.
“What?” She smiled. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“What?” She made her way to him. “Phil, this is my office,” she whispered when he snagged her hand and pulled her between his thighs. “What are you doing?” She rested her hands on his shoulders.
“I’m proud of you.” His eyes narrowed as he looked up at her.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m proud of you. You’re good at this. It suits you.”
“Yeah?” She smiled and he could tell his words please her.
“I’m coming to New York with you?”
Her eyes widened. “You have to work?”
“We settled the case. My week is suddenly free.”
“What about the kids?” She curved her hand around the back of his neck.
“Your mom can watch them.”
“Will be fine,” Phil finished.
“I’m going to be working.”
“I’m coming. We’ll stay the weekend. I’ll even take you to a show.”
“Really?” Lina’s face lit up.
“Really.” When he saw the pleasure on her face, he made a silent vow to take her to a couple of shows a year, regardless of how tortuous he found them. “And we can sleep in on Saturday—hell, we’ll spend half the day in bed. Just the two of us. What do you say?”
“Good.” He brought her hand to his mouth, kissing the inside of her wrist.
This scene begins on the same day Lina is on the boat with Nick…
Phil noted that Lina’s car wasn’t in the garage as he followed Katie into the house. “Where’s your mom?”
“I don’t know.” Katie frowned. “I was with you.”
“Did you get the car?” Logan joined them in the kitchen, his attention focused on Katie.
Katie held up the keys to her new car.
“Where’s Mom?” Phil asked.
“I don’t know.” Logan shrugged.
“She just left without saying anything?” Phil asked.
“She said she’d be back tonight. I’m going to look at Katie’s car.” Logan headed out to the garage followed by Katie.
Phil sighed as he opened the refrigerator which, unlike the one at the Farside house, was stocked with food. He pulled out a beer, one of only two left, and opened it as he headed to the family room. He wondered if Lina would buy more of his beer.
He glanced at his watch. It was just after two. Mike would be there within the hour to help him move the rest of things. The thought of returning to his empty rental brought a physical pain to his chest. He hated the place. It didn’t matter how nice the property was — it wasn’t his home. He dropped down on the couch, spreading his legs wide as he leaned back into the cushions. His eyes focused on a family photo displayed on the end table to his right. His chest expanded as his gaze zeroed in on Lina – his Lina. A surge of pain rocked through him. It was unfathomable, the thought of a life without her. He shook his head. He wasn’t letting his thoughts go there.
He reached for the remote and turned on a college football game, staring unfocused at the television.
He heard Logan’s voice in the kitchen a few minutes later and called out for him to join him. “Sit down and watch the game with me.”
“I have a lot of homework,” Logan mumbled, avoiding his eyes.
“I’m only going to be here another half hour or so. I’d like to spend some time with you.”
“We’re going to the Raven’s game tomorrow.”
“Fine.” Logan dropped down on the couch.
He wondered how long Logan’s anger would last. He took a swallow of his beer. “I’m surprised you weren’t watching.”
Logan shrugged, noncommittally.
“What did you do last night?”
“Nothing. Just hung out with Brian.”
Phil’s grip tightened on the beer as his thought quickly shifted to Nick Prossi. “Where?”
“Here–he went home this morning.”
Phil forced his thoughts away from Drayton. “How’s Mom? Logan?” he pressed when Logan didn’t answer.
“What?” Logan frowned at him.
“I asked you how your mom was?”
“I thought you wanted to watch the game.”
“Hey—I asked you a question.”
“She’s fine.” Logan crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back into the couch. “I don’t want to talk about her with you.”
Phil took a breath, striving to maintain his temper. He wasn’t used to this defiant Logan. “I love her, Logan. Nothing is ever going to change that.”
“She’s fine,” Logan repeated. “You don’t have to worry about her. I’ll take care of her.”
“You’ll take care of her?”
“I mean, I’ll make sure she’s safe.” Logan’s face heated. “I’m the one here.”
Phil felt a twist in his gut at the realization that Logan was the only male presence in the house. If there was an intruder it would be Logan, not himself, protecting the family.
The sound of the doorbell had Phil looking toward the front of the house. “It’s your uncle Mike. He’s going to help me get a few things.” He came to his feet, but hesitated before leaving. “If anything ever comes up, you know to call me, right? Anything at all”
“Yeah, Dad, I know.”
“Thanks for coming,” Phil said as soon as Mike stepped into the foyer. “You can start with the boxes in my stud. The rest is upstairs.”
“Hi, Uncle Mike,” Logan said joining them.
“Hey Buddy.” Mike dropped an arm around Logan’s shoulder and pulled him into his side. “You look like you’ve grown another few inches. You’re going to pass your father soon.”
“Do you need any help?”
“No,” Phil answered. There was no way he was going to let Logan have a memory of moving him out. “You can finish your homework.”
Logan’s gaze shifted to Phil’s bandaged arm, but he didn’t argue, instead walking off down the hall.
Phil nodded toward the study. “The boxes are behind my desk. I’ll be upstairs.”
As soon as Phil entered the master suite he was assailed with Lina’s familiar smell. He paused just inside the room. It had only been two weeks since he left, but he felt like he’d already lived an eternity without her, not that what he’d been doing was living. At best, he’d been existing.
His throat constricted when his gaze settled on their bed, her bed now. The thought of never lying beside her again was almost too much to bear. He sat down on the edge of the mattress and gripped his forehead with his good hand. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to remove his things from the room. It was too final.
The sound of a clearing throat had Phil springing to his feet. He turned his back to Mike as he quickly swiped at few stray tears. “Everything is in the wardrobe.”
“Are you okay?” Mike’s voice was full of concern.
“No. I’m not okay Mike. I lost my fucking wife.”
“Don’t say anything. There’s nothing you can say.” He proceeded Mike into the closet.
“Here let me do it,” Mike said, reaching around Phil to remove several hanging suits. “I can do it faster myself.”
Phil scooped up a pile of lounge pants with his good arm. “I’m helping.” He just wanted it to be over.
An hour later, Mike delivered the last of Phil’s clothes to the closet in the Farside house. “Well, that’s everything.”
“It’s a nice place,” Mike said.
“Yeah,” Phil agreed.
“Why don’t you come over for dinner. Jeanie’s—”
“No thanks.” Phil followed him down the stairs and to the front door. “I’ve got some work to do.”
“You can’t keep going on like this,” Mike said. “You look like shit. When was the last time you eat?”
“Thanks for your help. You can leave now.”
“Jesus, Phil.” Mike tried to clasp his shoulders, but Phil backed away from him.
“Don’t.” Phil’s eyes widened as he looked at his brother. “You can’t make this better okay? So, just go.”
“I’m just worried about you.”
“Don’t be.” He hated the look of pity in Mike’s eyes.
“Anything you need, just call. Day or night.”
“I’m not going to fucking kill myself if that’s what your worried about.”
“I’m not. But you’re my brother and no matter how much you fucked up, I still love you.” Mike put his arms around Phil and gave him a firm hug. “You don’t have to pretend around me. I’ll know how devastated you are. I know how much she means to you.”
Phil pushed back from his brother, holding on to his composure by a thread. “I just need to be alone,” he said. “Please.”
Mike clasped his arm. “Call me anytime.”
As soon as Mike left, Phil leaned his forehead into the closed door. He breathed in and out, trying to maintain control. He’d put himself here. He wasn’t going to feel sorry for himself. He pushed off the door and made his way to the kitchen and the bottle of scotch he’d left on the counter.
He poured himself a glass and sat down at the kitchen island. He took a long swallow, savorig the burning sensation as it went down his throat. He’d been drinking too much. He knew it and yet it was the only way he could numb the pain.
Phil woke with a start. It took him a moment to orient himself. He was in the family room of the Farside house. He looked at his watch. It was almost eleven which meant he’d been asleep for four hours. He dragged his hand down his face. He felt like shit. He picked up his phone and tapped the display, bringing up the tracking ap. Lina was home. Logan was home. Katie was home. They were all safe. He leaned back into the couch.
He didn’t bother to go to bed, instead he watched television most of the night, flipping through the myriad of channels, searching for anything that would distract his thoughts. He drifted off to sleep for a couple of hours between five and seven and then he got up to get ready for church.
When Phil was halfway up the driveway he spotted Lina. She was wearing yoga pants and one of his Georgetown Law sweatshirts, the hem falling half way down her thighs. Her hair was pulled up in a messy bun. It was a scene he’d seen a thousand times. His Lina —the words played again and again in his mind.
“What are you doing here? It’s barely nine.” She continued to stare forward.
“I’m picking them up for church. They didn’t tell you?”
“No.” She continued to avoid his eyes.
He noticed Knight as he saddled up beside him, pressing a ball against his thigh. Phil took the ball and launched it across the yard. “You’re welcome to join us.” He stepped closer toward her, trying without success to make eye contact.
“No.” She turned back toward the house.
“Why haven’t you looked at me since I arrived?” he asked. “What are you feeling so guilty about?”
When he noticed her cheeks heat, he knew she was lying to him. She’d been with Drayton. He felt a wave of nausea at the thought.
“Dad?” Katie called from the house, “Can I just go to a later service? I—”
“Don’t argue with me. Get your brother and let’s go.” He felt rocked with devastation at the thought of Drayton touching her. “I’ll have the separation agreement drawn up this week. Try to refrain from seeing him until it’s signed.”
“I’m not,” she insisted, even as her blush deepened.
“Don’t bother lying to me. The truth is all over your face.” He strode away from her and toward his car.
“As your lawyer, I have to counsel you against this.”
Phil frowned at the family law attorney sitting across from him. “I don’t want your counsel. I just want you to put what is on that sheet into the separation agreement.”
“But it’s insanity. You’re giving her more than—”
“I’m giving her what she deserves,” Phil interrupted. “I don’t care what you think, okay? She’s my wife and this is what she deserves.”
“What if she’s someone else’s wife? Would she still deserve this? Because the reality is she will probably remarry and when that happens another man is going to benefit from your life’s work.”
Phil looked away from the attorney as a wave of pain swirled in his chest. The thought of Lina married to someone besides him was unnatural. “If that happens that’s my penance.”
“Fuck, Phil. What are you Catholic or something? You need to take some time and think about this. You didn’t work this hard to give it all away.”
“I worked this hard for her. To take care of Lina and my kids,” he said his voice breaking. “That’s all that matters, so write up the fucking agreement or I’ll find someone else to do it.”
“Okay.” The attorney held up his hand. “Okay.”
It was close to nine before Phil left his office, in no hurry to go back to the Farside house and his new reality. He was almost to his car when he saw Kim getting out of the car parked beside his. It was the first time he’d seen her since the wedding. She was noticeably pregnant. His gaze rested momentarily on her rounded stomach before his eyes lifted to hers. “Call my lawyer,” he said coldly. “We have nothing to discuss.”
“Considering we are going to share a child,” she began running her hand over her baby bump, “I think the least we can be is civil with one another.”
“Civil?” His eyes narrowed. “Was that card to my wife civil?”
“I don’t know how many times you expect me to apologize.”
“You could apologize for the rest of your fucking life and I wouldn’t forgive you. Now get the fuck away from me.” He brushed past her.
“Phil.” She clasped his arm. “I—”
“Don’t,” he snarled, pulling his arm from her grasp. “I have nothing to say to you.”
“We are going to be in each other’s orbits. You can’t just ignore me. It isn’t healthy for the baby.”
“Fuck you!” He growled, pointing his finger in her face. “You went out of your way to hurt the only woman I will ever love — a woman who is pure and decent and good and did nothing to deserve it. And you…” he shook his head. “You are the woman I will regret for the rest of my fucking life.” He yanked open his car door. “Stay the fuck away from me.”
“Where’s Liam?” Lina asked.
Phil shifted his gaze from the mirror as he finished knotting his tie. “He’s right…” he trailed off when he noticed the bedroom door open. “I’ll find him.”
Moments later Phil scooped Liam, who was banging on Logan’s door, up into his arms. “Come on. Logan’s sleeping.”
“No! Lolo,” Liam protested as Phil carried him from Logan’s room. “Lolo!”
“You can see him when he wakes up.”
“No! Lolo!” Liam slapped Phil’s shoulder. “Down!”
Phil stopped his forward movement, staring down at Liam. “Did you just hit me?”
Liam glared up at his father. “Lolo!”
Liam struggled to get out of his arms. “Down!” he demanded.
“Down!” Liam was once again glaring at him.
“You need to distract him,” Lina said as she approached from down the hall. “There is no reasoning with them at this age.”
“He hit me.”
She took Liam from Phil, pulling him into her side. “What’s the matter handsome boy?”
“I just told you. He hit me.”
“I’m not talking to you,” Lina said dryly.
“Lolo.” Liam pointed toward Logan’s door.
“Logan’s still sleeping. Why don’t we let Knight back inside and give him a treat?”
“Knigh eats.” Liam pointed toward the stairs.
“See.” Lina paused beside Phil, brushing her lips over his. “You just have to distract him.”
“Knigh, Mommy,” Logan demanded.
“Okay. Let’s go find Knight.”
Phil snagged her around the waist before she could walk away. “Do you know how amazing you are?”
“No, Daddy.” Liam pressed his hand against Phil’s chest.
Phil clasped his hand. “If you try to keep me from touching Mommy again, I’m going to keep your hand.”
“Mine.” Logan pulled his hand back.
“Ignore, Daddy,” Lina said. “He’s not taking your hand. Let’s go find Knight.”
Phil watched them walk away a surge of feeling expanding in his chest. “Hey?” He waited for Lina to turn back before continuing, “I love you.”
She blew him a kiss before disappearing down the stairs.
He stared after her for a long moment thinking how fucking lucky he was.
“Dad?” Megan, clad in pajama shorts and a tank top, had come out of her bedroom.
“Good morning, sweetheart.” He slipped his arm around her as she saddled up beside him. “Was it nice to be back in your bed?” She’d arrived home from college the night before.
“Yes. Do you have to work today?”
“Of course. It’s Friday.”
“But we’re leaving today.”
“Our flight isn’t until 8 p.m.”
“I wanted to run with you this morning.”
“We’ll run together in Greece. I have to finish getting ready.” He pressed his lips into the top of her head.
“Who’s watching Liam?” Megan asked as he began to walk away. “When we’re in Greece?”
Phil turned back to her, a frown marring his features. “No one is watching Liam. He’s coming with us.”
“To Greece?” Her eyes widened.
“Yes to Greece. What did you think we were going to do with him? We’re going to be gone ten days.”
“I know, I just…” she trailed off. “Is it safe to have him on the yacht? What if he fell overboard?”
“The yacht? Oh.” He remembered the original plan had been to charter a small yacht and visit the various islands. “We’re not renting the yacht.”
“Then what are we doing?”
“Hotel or Airbnb. I don’t know.” He looked at his watch. “I have to go. Talk to Mom. She made all the arrangements.”
“He’s coming to Greece with us,” Megan fumed moments later as she joined Lina in the kitchen.
Lina paused with her coffee cup at her lips, meeting the eyes of her eldest child. “Who?”
She nodded toward Liam who was in his highchair, stuffing a handful of cutup watermelon into his mouth. “Him.”
Liam smiled at Megan.
“He has a name.”
“He’s going to ruin the trip. He already is. Dad said we aren’t renting the yacht,” she whispered.
“Why are you whispering?”
“Because I don’t want Dad to hear. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
“That’s nice of you,” Lina said dryly. She took a swallow of coffee.
“I’m serious,” Megan hissed. “There’s a reason this is the first time we’re going there. We were all too young before. It’s not a child-friendly place.”
“We’ll be fine.”
Megan glanced toward the front of the house before continuing. “Why can’t his mother watch him? Wouldn’t that be a perfect solution?”
Lina felt a surge of anger at the thought of Kim. “Considering she hasn’t called once to check on him in the two months he’s lived here, that’s not even an option.”
“You could call her,” Megan insisted. “She is his mother.”
“That’s not an option,” Lina repeated.
“Then what about grandma?”
“What’s going on here?” Phil asked. His gaze shifted between Lina and Megan.
“Daddy!” Liam held out a piece of watermelon, his earlier frustration with his father clearly forgotten.
“Megan thinks our trip will be more pleasant if we leave Liam behind.”
Megan’s face reddened. “I just thought it would be easier. How are we going to go cliff diving in Santorini. You said—”
“We’ll go,” Phil interrupted. “I’m sure we can find a babysitter.”
“Daddy, piece?” Liam continued to hold out the fruit.
“Thanks, Buddy.” He took the chunk of watermelon and tossed it into his mouth. “Where’s Kathy?” he asked referring to the sitter.
“She’s running a little late,” Lina said.
“No—go. I’m not ready to leave anyway.”
“Daddy, more.” Liam was holding out another piece of watermelon.
“No. That’s yours.” Phil stroked his hand over Liam’s head. “Daddy has to go to work now.”
“Say bye bye,” Lina said.
“Bye bye Daddy.” Liam waved.
“I should be home by three.” Phil paused beside Lina’s chair, his hand sliding over her back as he leaned down and brushed his lips over hers.
“Lolo!” Liam screamed as Logan shuffled into the room.
“Was he banging on my door this morning?” Logan asked.
“Lolo!” Liam began to bounce up and down in excitement.
“Make sure you help your sisters and mother with their bags if I’m not home in time to pack the car,” Phil said to Logan, patting his back as he stepped past him.
“Okay.” Logan pushed his hair back from his eyes. “Did I dream the banging.”
“I’m sorry. We tried to stop him,” Lina said.
“Lolo, piece?” Liam held out a squished-up piece of watermelon.
“I really think you should call his mother,” Megan said as soon as her father was gone. “He shouldn’t only be our responsibility. It isn’t fair.”
“Megan, drop it. He’s coming with us.” Lina shook her head. She attempted to reign in her annoyance, knowing Megan had been away at college for the past two months and hadn’t really spent any time with Liam.
“The whole trip is going to revolve him,” Megan said. “Did you know he was coming?” she asked Logan.
Logan shrugged. “What else would he do?” He took the piece of fruit from Liam’s outstretched hand.
“Spend time with his real mother.”
“I’m the only mother he has,” Lina said shortly. “His real mother has abandoned him, so please stop talking about her in front of him.”
“He doesn’t understand me,” Megan said.
“Maybe not, but he will one day.”
This is a Discussion Thread — new scenes will be added to the scene section below
New Scenes will be Posted on the Flash back — Lina and Phil (the younger years). I’m just starting this new thread so we don’t have to sift through so many comments
Phil and Lina in high school…
“Hey, Hunter wait up.”
Phil slowed his stride, allowing a couple of teammates to catch up to him as he headed toward the lacrosse field.
“Did you hear that Steve’s having a party tonight? His parents are out of town,” one of the boys said, referring to one of their classmates. “His brother is bringing a keg.”
“I can’t make it. I have plans with a girl.”
“The one from the dance?” the second boy asked.
“Yeah.” Phil continued onto the field, his eyes scanning the stands that were beginning to fill with spectators.
“Wait, I didn’t hear about a girl,” the first boy said. “Who is it? Where does she go to school?”
“Walter Reed,” Phil answered, referring to one of the local public high schools. “Lina Rayburn.”
“Adele’s sister? The middle one with the long dark hair?”
“You know her?” Phil asked.
“I know of her. She’s hot as shit. Reynolds had a thing for her last summer.”
Phil stopped his forward movement, turning to the other boy. “She went out with him?” He hated the thought of Reynolds, who was with a different girl every week, touching Lina.
“No. She blew him off.”
Phil felt the tension leave his body.
“Have you done her yet?”
The tension immediately returned to Phil. “None of your fucking business!”
“Relax man,” the other boy said holding up his hands. “I was just asking? It’s not like you don’t ask.”
“She’s off limits.”
“Hey, save the aggression for the field,” their coach said, stepping between them. “Get your head in the game.”
“I need you to drop me off at Georgetown Prep,” Lina told Adele when she found her in the kitchen. “Mom said you could use the car.”
Adele turned from the open refrigerator. “Why do you want to…” she trailed off, her eyes widening. “You’re going to watch him play.”
“Will you take me?”
“I thought you didn’t like athletes.”
“I don’t normally,” Lina answered, lifting her chin slightly. “But he isn’t like the rest of them.”
Adele laughed. “Oh puleeze. He’s exactly like the rest of them. Phil Hunter is one hundred percent athlete.”
“You don’t know him.”
“And you do? You met him less than a week ago.”
“Are you going to take me or not?”
“Take her where?” Shiloh asked coming into the room. “Can I come?”
“No,” Lina answered.
“She’s meeting a boy,” Adele said.
“The one from last weekend? The one you kissed?” Shiloh asked.
“You kissed him?” Adele asked. “Why am I just hearing this?”
“Because you have a big mouth and so do you,” Lina said, frowning at Shiloh.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. You wouldn’t have even met him if it wasn’t for me.”
“Can we go? I don’t want to be late.”
“You like him,” Adele said. “Have you talked to him since last weekend?”
“He called me last night,” Lina said and every other night since they met, she thought but didn’t say aloud. “He asked me to come to his game.”
“Why don’t we all go?” Shiloh asked. “I want to meet him.”
“No. I barely know him. He invited me, not my family.”
Lina normally wasn’t shy. She was the opposite of shy. She was confident and comfortable in her own skin, but as she approached the lacrosse field behind Phil’s private school, she felt nerves fluttering in her tummy.
Lina turned to find a group of girls from her high school. “Hey.” She smiled relieved to see familiar faces. They weren’t girls she normally hung out with, but she liked them.
“I thought that was you,” a girl named Kelsey said, giving her a hug. “Who are you with?”
“No one,” Lina admitted. “I’m meeting someone after the game.”
“One of the players?”
Lina nodded. “Phil Hunter.”
“Phil Hunter?” Kelsey repeated incredulously, as if he were a movie star. “Did you hear that?” She turned to the other girls in her group. “Lina has a date with Phil Hunter.”
“I didn’t say it was a date. We’re just hanging out.”
“I hate you,” one of the girls said. “He’s like perfect.” For the next few minutes Lina was bombarded with questions.
“You are so lucky,” Kelsey said for the third time.
“Maybe he’s lucky,” Lina said, annoyance creeping into her voice.
“Oh well, yeah, of course. That goes without saying. Come on,” she continued, curving her arm through Lina’s. “Let’s go find a seat. The game is going to start soon.”
Five minutes later the starting players stood at midfield awaiting the singing of the National Anthem. Lina watched Phil stretching his neck from side to side. His number was fourteen, the same as her birthday. She wondered if it meant something. She’d ask her mom.
Kelsey leaned over to Lina. “Do you want me to yell his name?”
“What?” Lina swung her attention to Kelsey. “No, I—”
“Go Phil!” Kelsey screamed.
Lina’s face heating with embarrassment. “Why did you do that?”
“He’s looking up here,” Kelsey said. “Wave to him.”
Lina shifted her gaze to find Phil staring up at the stands. He’d spotted her. Even from a distance she could see how beautiful he was. He lifted his chin in acknowledgment and her heart leapt.
Phil quickly gathered his gear. He’d had a good game, scoring five goals and assisting another two, but at the moment the only thing on his mind was Lina. She was the first girl he’d ever invited to a game. He’d worried a little that she’d be a distraction and she had been, but in a good way. Knowing she was watching was like an adrenaline rush. He’d wanted to impress her.
“Great game, Phil.” His coach patted his back. “That was a whole other level for you.”
“I felt good.” Phil lifted his bag from the ground, making it clear he didn’t want to linger.
“Keep it up,” his coach said to his departing back.
Phil’s gaze scanned the group of spectators milling about just outside the field. There were at least one hundred, but he was only looking for one. He spotted her off to the side. She was wearing jean shorts and a purple tank top. Her dark hair was falling down around her shoulders. She saw him a few seconds into his perusal and she rewarded him with a small smile. He breathed in. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
“Phillip,” his mother said. “You looked wonderful out there.”
He reluctantly pulled his gaze from Lina to greet his mother who had stopped beside him. “Thanks, Mom.”
“Your father had to use the restroom. I think he’s going to be hoarse from—”
“I’ve got to go shower.”
“Your dad will be—”
“I can’t wait. I have to be somewhere. Tell Dad I’ll talk to him at home. I’ve gotta go Mom.” He kissed her cheek and left her before she could say more.
He was greeted with a chorus of ‘congratulations’ and ‘great games’ as he made his way through the crowd, but refused to stop, intent only on reaching Lina. “Hey,” he said when he finally did. His heart began to pump harder in his chest as he met her eyes.
“Thanks.” He let his eyes travel over her face, but refused to give into the urge to drop them to her breasts. “What did you think?” He knew it was her first time seeing a lacrosse game.
“Honestly?” Her brows pulled together in a frown.
He smiled. “You didn’t like it?”
“I was afraid they were going to hurt you. It was hard to relax.”
She was serious. He could see it in her expression. “No one’s going to hurt me. You should worry about the guys I’m up against.”
“I don’t care about them.” As soon as the words left her mouth, a light blush stained her cheeks. “I mean I don’t know them,” she quickly added.
He reached out and hooked his finger into her belt loop, tugging her slowly toward him. “So, you care about me.”
“Don’t be cocky.”
“Your words, not mine.” He slowly lowered his head. “You smell good.”
Lina placed her hand on his chest as he tugged her still closer. “You’re sweaty,” she said.
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered against her lips. Before he could say more, he felt her gripping his shirt and then she was pressing her lips into his, kissing him softly.
The sounds of a clearing throat reminded Phil that they were in a public place. He reluctantly lifted his head. When he saw his parents, he stepped back from Lina. “Dad.”
“Good game,” Mr. Hunter said, cupping Phil’s shoulder.
“Thanks.” His eyes shifted back to Lina who was blushing in embarrassment.
“Introduce us to your friend Phillip,” Mrs. Hunter said.
“This is Lina,” Phil said.
“Does Lina have a last name?” Mr. Hunter asked.
“Rayburn,” Lina answered, offering a small smile.
“Oh my, aren’t you beautiful,” Mrs. Hunter gushed, cupping the side of her cheek. “Isn’t she beautiful, Bruce?”
“She sure is.” His gaze shifted between his son and Lina.
“I’ll see you guys at home,” Phil said, hoping his parents would get the hint and leave.
“Twelve thirty,” Mr. Hunter said. “No later.”
“It was so nice to meet you Lina. Don’t be a stranger. Come for dinner some night,” Mrs. Hunter said.
“It was nice meeting you too.” Lina smiled.
“Be good,” Mrs. Hunter said to Phil before letting her husband lead her away.
“I’m going to run to the locker room and take a quick shower. Are you okay waiting here?” Phil asked
Lina nodded. “Sure.”
Lina watched Phil jog toward the locker room, her eyes lingering on the muscles in his back and shoulders outlined beneath his damp jersey. She felt a fluttering in her tummy. He wasn’t the first boy she’d kissed, but he was definitely the first to make her feel butterflies.
When he returned fifteen minutes later, freshly showered and wearing Khaki shorts and a T-shirt, she again felt fluttering in her tummy.
“Ready?” he asked, holding out his hand.
She placed her palm in his, a shot of awareness coursing through her body as he engulfed her hand in his. It felt both new and familiar at the same time. He was bigger than she remembered. Her head barely reached his shoulder.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“Not really, but I should be. I’ve barely eaten today.”
“I’ve heard that’s what happens to girls when they’re falling in love. They lose their appetite.”
“You wish.” Lina bumped her shoulder into his side.
“You’re right,” he said, giving her hand a squeeze.
Lina watched Phil bite into the last slice of pizza. Besides the slice she’d taken a couple of bites from, he’d consumed an entire pizza. She’d never seen one person eat so much, but in fairness, she wasn’t used to boys.
“Do you want the rest of mine?” she asked when he was done.
“No, I’m good.” He leaned back in his chair.
“Do you always eat that much?”
He shrugged. “Pretty much.”
They stared at each other for several seconds before Lina looked away. “How can you do that?” she asked.
“What?” He reached across the table and snagged her hand. “How can I do what?”
“Just look in my eyes without looking away.”
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, pushing back his chair. “I want to be alone with you.”
Lina’s heart jumped at the sudden change in him. She came to her feet, proceeding him out of the restaurant and into the cool Spring night. The sound of gravel crunching under their feet, echoed in the air as they made their way to his car.
Instead of leading her to the passenger door, he stopped in front of the car, placing his hands on each side of her hips and effortlessly lifting her onto the hood. “Tell me you’re feeling what I’m feeling,” he said deeply. He situated himself between her thighs, his hands curving around the sides of her face as he tilted her head back so he could look into her eyes. “Tell me.”
Lina’s pulsed surged. “I do. Since I first saw you.”
He covered her mouth with his, moaning deeply as his tongue stroked hers.
Lina lost all track of time as she kissed him back, her fingers dipping beneath the collar of his shirt and stroking the warm skin of his shoulders. He was wedged between thighs and she could feel his erection pressing into her stomach. He couldn’t get any closer and yet that’s exactly what she wanted, to feel him closer.
“Fuck,” he groaned dragging his mouth across her cheek to her ear. “We have to stop.”
“No, we don’t.” She fisted his shirt, attempting to keep him from stepping back.
“We’re in a parking lot,” he reminded her. He dropped a hard kiss on her lips before pulling away. “Come on.” He helped her off the car and opened the passenger door.
Her whole body was on fire. When he dropped down into the driver seat, she fought the urge to climb into his lap. “Let’s go to my house.”
He gripped the steering wheel. “What about your parents?”
“It’s just my mom. She won’t care. My sister has taken boys to her room.”
He turned his head and met her eyes. “Have you?”
She shook her head. “No.”
He started up the engine.
Lina’s house was dark when Phil pulled into her driveway, but as they approached the front porch, he could see lights coming through the windows on either side of the front door. They’d been mostly quiet on the ten-minute drive from the restaurant, but with the exception of the short amount of time it took them to get out of the car they hadn’t stopped touching.
He wasn’t having sex with her tonight. He’d decided that on the drive over. There wasn’t enough time. It was already eleven and had to be home by 12:30. He wasn’t going to do it with her and just leave. That wasn’t the memory she was going to have of their first time.
“Shh,” she whispered before turning the knob and opening the front door.
“You leave your door unlocked?”
“Shh.” She frowned at him, pressing her finger against her lip. “I don’t want them to hear us.” She took his hand and led him up the stairs.
As soon as he entered her room, he was assailed by the scent of her perfume. His body hardened in reaction. Coming to her bedroom wasn’t a good idea.
“What’s wrong?” Lina asked when he hesitated just inside her room.
“Why did we have to sneak in if your mom doesn’t care?”
“Because,” she began, taking his hand, “once she saw us, she’d never stop talking.” She tugged him farther into the room. “Do you want to talk to my mom?” She stroked her hands up his chest.
“Not really.” He clasped her hips.
“Me either.” She linked her arms around his neck.
His eyes roamed her face, memorizing everything about her. “You’re so beautiful.”
“So are you.” She brushed her lips over his chin.
“No, I’m not.”
“You are.” She pressed closer against him.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said even as he tightened his grip on her hips. “I don’t have a lot of time.”
“It’s only eleven,” she whispered, standing on her tiptoes.
Phil lowered his head, his lips brushing over hers. When he felt her tongue pressing against the seam of his lips, it was his undoing. He lifted her off the ground as he sucked her tongue into his mouth. He crossed to the bed, falling onto the mattress with her still in his arms. He rolled her onto her back and then sat up long enough to yank off his T-shirt. He wanted to feel her skin against his. He helped her off with her tank top and then his hand was at the front clasp of her bra.
“No,” Lina whispered, covering his hand. “I want to leave it on.”
He hesitated, propping himself up on his elbow as he looked down into her clear eyes. He’d obviously misread something. “Okay.” He released the clasp. “Do you want to put your shirt back on?”
“No.” She reached out and trailed her fingers over the side of his cheek and into his hair, curving her hand around the back of his head. “Can we just kiss tonight? I’ve never, you know. Done more than that.”
He felt a rush of feeling at her words.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.
“I just…I like what you said, that you haven’t been with anyone. I want to be the only one.”
She returned his gaze. “I want that too.”
It was 12:20 when Phil quietly closed Lina’s door. She’d fallen asleep in his arms fifteen minutes earlier. He’d watched her sleep, liking the feel of her body curled into the side of his. If felt natural. Leaving her didn’t. He plowed his hand back through his hair as he made his way toward the stairs. He wasn’t going to be able to go another week without seeing her. He didn’t care how busy he was with school and lacrosse. He’d figure something out. He was almost to the bottom of the stairs when a woman, he assumed was Lina’s mother, appeared from the back of the house.
“My goodness, you scared me.” She flicked on a light.
Phil squinted at the sudden brightness, stopping in his tracks. “I’m sorry. I was just…I’m Phil Hunter. I was visiting Lina.” He continued down the stairs and held out his hand. “It isn’t what you think.”
“And what do I think,?”
“That I was, uh—”
“Having sex with my daughter.” She took his hand.
“Yes.” He returned her hand shake which was surprising firm. “But we weren’t.”
“Why not? Is there something wrong with you?”
“What—No.” Heat rushed to his face.
She laughed aloud. “I’m just teasing you. I can see how virile you are. You’re quite tall too, aren’t you?”
“I’m almost six two,” he said absently, trying to play back her words in his head. Had she just called him virile?
“Did you know that you’re the first boy Lina has brought home? I’ll have to deduce from you that tall, dark and handsome is her type.”
“I guess so,” Phil answered. He didn’t know what to make of her. She didn’t dress or act like any mothers he knew. She was wearing shorts and tie-dyed T-shirt with her hair pulled back in a ponytail.
“Can I expect to see more of you?”
“Yes, ma’am. You’re going to see a lot more of me. I plan to marry your daughter.”
“Is that so.” Alice’s eyes narrowed as she studied him. “In that case, I’m going to need your birth date and time. I’ll have to do your astrological chart to make sure your compatible.”
Mr. Hunter looked up from his paper as Phil came into the kitchen the following morning. “You were late last night.”
“Only a few minutes.” He dropped down at the table kitty corner to his father. “No bacon?” he asked his mother when she set a plate of pancakes before him.
“It’s coming. Would you like me to make you some eggs?”
“No this is good.” He reached for the glass of milk beside his plate. “Oh, some orange juice, please.”
“The deal was no later than 12:30,” Mr. Hunter said. “We could go back to 12:00.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“Are you sure this is going to be enough food for you?” Mrs. Hunter set a glass of orange juice before him. “I could cut up some fruit.”
“This is plenty, Mom.”
“You burned a lot of calories last night.”
His thought shifted to Lina and the feel of her body beneath his. He picked up his fork and stabbed it into his pancakes. He needed to see her. He wasn’t waiting another week. “What time are we working on the deck?” He’d promised his father he’d help him build a new deck off their sun room.
“As soon as we get back from church. Hopefully we can get the foundation finished before your grandparent arrive for dinner.”
“Dinner, tonight?” he frowned. “I already have plans.”
“On a Sunday night?” Mrs. Hunter asked. “They’ll be so disappointed. They were looking forward to seeing you. .”
“I can stay for a little while,” he said.
“What are your plans?” His father asked.
“I’m getting together with a friend.”
“You can’t change—“
“No,” Phil interrupted. “The plans are set.”
Lina smiled as she awoke, her first thoughts of Phil. She buried her face into the pillow beside her. It smelled of a mixture of soap and him. Her stomach fluttered at the memory of his body pressed against hers.
The opening of the door, proceeded the shifting of the mattress as Shiloh, wearing pjs shorts and a tank top, slipped under the comforter. “Mom’s yoga friends are here. Do you think they ate the crumb cake?”
Lina rolled onto her side, so they were facing each other. “Probably, but they always bring food, so they’ll be something else.”
“I wanted the crumb cake.” Shiloh gave an exaggerated pouty face. “Will you go see if there’s any left?”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because you’re better at getting away from them.”
It was true. Lina had learned long ago that if you didn’t want to be caught in a thirty-minute conversation with their mother’s friends, you had to act like you were in a hurry. Adele was even better at it than Lina, but Shiloh couldn’t seem to master the art of getting away.
“Fine, but only because I’m in a very generous mood.”
“The boy?” Shiloh’s already large eyes widened.
“The boy,” Lina agreed. She pushed the pillow she’d been hugging to Shiloh. “Smell it.”
Shiloh touched her nose to the pillow, breathing in. She lifted her eyes to Lina, her mouth had literally fallen open. “He was here?” she whispered. “You did it with him?”
“Yes he was here. We didn’t do it.” Lina left the bed, pausing at the door. “But we’re going to.”
Lina was in their backyard swing later that evening, listening to Adele tell her and Shiloh about sneaking into the local community center pool the night before.
“Don’t they have video cameras?” Shiloh asked. “You could get caught.”
“Why would they look?” Adele asked. “We didn’t damage anything. We just used the pool. They only look at the videos if something…” she trailed off as she focused on something behind Lina. “Your jock is here.”
Lina looked back over her shoulder to see Phil, dressed in jeans and a dark polo, walking across the grass toward them. Butterflies swirled in her stomach. She jumped off the swing and crossed to him. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you.” He clasped one of her hands. “I called but no one answered.”
She looked into his eyes which looked even bluer than she remembered. “Come and meet my sisters.” She tugged on his hand, leading him to the others.
“If you hurt my sister,” Adele began, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“That’s Adele. You can ignore her.”
“I’ll kick you in them too,” Shiloh promised, but the shy smile on her face was such a contrast to her words, Phil laughed.
He dropped down into the swing, pulling Lina into his lap. “What if she hurts me?”
Lina relaxed back into the hardness of his body, liking how small he made her feel. “I won’t.”
“I’ll give you a band aid,” Adelle said, continuing to study Phil. “I’m not kidding about kicking you in the balls. I may be small but I’m deceptively strong.”
“Stop, Adele,” Lina said.
“Is it true that you’ve already committed to Duke to play lacrosse?” Adele asked.
“Yes.” Phil pushed off the dirt with his foot, sending the swing up in the air. He curved one of his arms over Lina’s middle.
“And they pay for everything?”
“Everything,” Phil confirmed. “Even books.”
“Is that Phillip out there?” Alice called from the patio.
Phil stopped the swing and quickly came to his feet, offering Lina a steadying hand as he stepped back from her. “Yes Ma’am.”
“Did you get your birth time for me?”
“Uh no, Ma’am, but I will.”
“Stop calling me Ma’am.”
“How do you know my mom?” Lina asked.
“When I was leaving—”
“Would you come in here, Phillip? I need your muscle.”
“Mom, he came to visit me,” Lina complained, following him toward the house.
“I just need his help loosening the garbage disposal, so I can install the new one.”
“I don’t mind,” he said.
An hour and a half later after installing a new garbage disposal and carrying some boxes from Alice’s bedroom to the basement, Phil followed Lina outside.
“I can’t believe she made you do that,” Lina complained.
“No, it’s not. You came to visit me and we barely got to spend any time together.” She was so annoyed at her mother.
“I’ll come back tomorrow.” He leaned back against his car.
“You will?” She stepped between his legs, sliding her hands up his chest and around his neck.
“I’ll come by after practice. I won’t be able to stay long, but I’ll come.”
“Do you promise.” She brushed her lips over his.
“Yes.” He curved his hands around her hips, pulling her body closer. “Why’s it so hard for me to leave you?”
“Because you’re not supposed to,” she whispered before meeting his lips.
“What’s the deal with your dad?” Phil asked a few night later. Lina was sitting on the hood of his car and he was standing between her legs with his arms wrapped around her.
“My parents are divorced. I told you that.”
“But where is he? Do you see him?”
“Not that much. He lives in Chicago. He’s a professor.”
“He doesn’t come down here?” His eyes narrowed in confusion.
“Never. We used to go up there, but…” she trailed off. “Don’t,” she said when she saw the concern in his eyes. “Don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t even care anymore. He left when I was six.”
“Six? He just left your mom with three little girls to take care of?” The concern in his eyes was replaced by anger. “What kind of man does that?”
“He gives my mom money.”
“It takes a lot more than money to be a father,” he fumed.
“Stop.” Lina fisted his shirt. “Why are you getting upset? I’m not upset?”
“Because it’s wrong. My dad would never do that.”
“He’s just different.” Lina tugged on his shirt, pulling him closer. “And I don’t care, so you shouldn’t either.” She wound her arms around his neck.
“I care about you.” He pressed his forehead into hers.
“Good.” She wrapped her legs around his hips.
He kissed her then, cupping the sides of her face as his tongue found hers. “Let’s go to my room,” Lina whispered when after a few minutes he lifted his head.
“I can’t. I have too much homework.”
“You could do it here.”
“No.” He shook his head, taking a step back from her. “I can’t think when I’m with you.”
“Will you be back tomorrow?” Saying good bye seemed to get harder every day.
“I can’t tomorrow. We have an assembly.”
“You could come after.”
“I’ll be with my parents, but the next day’s Friday. We’ll have a lot longer than twenty minutes.”
Lina clasped his hand. “Tell your parents you’re spending the night at one of your friends. You could stay here.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think I can.”
“Why not?” She squeezed his hand. “Don’t you want to spend the whole night with me?”
“I do. It’s just…it’s just too hard, you know. If we’re not, you know.”
Heat flamed her cheeks when she understood what he was saying. “Oh.” She lowered her gaze. “So you’re saying you’ll only stay if I—.”
“No!” He framed her face in his hands, tilting it up so he could meet her eyes. “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that it’s hard to lay next to you and not do that, so we can’t have sleepovers. I don’t want you to ever feel rushed, okay?”
She nodded, but still felt disappointed that he couldn’t just sleep next to her without sex.
“It’s almost three o’clock in the morning,” Mr. Hunter said as soon as Phil closed and locked the front door, the following Friday.
“Sorry, I fell asleep.”
“What were you thinking,” Mr. Hunter bit out.
“I told you. I fell asleep.” He took a couple of steps toward the stairs.
“We are not done,” Mr. Hunter called out. “Your mother was worried sick.”
“I’m sorry.” For the first time he noticed that his mother was standing slightly behind his father. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
“We tried to call you,” his father continued.
“It’s dead.” Phil pulled his phone from his pocket. “That’s one of the reasons I was late. I set the alarm for 12:15 but it didn’t go off.”
“You weren’t aware of the time?”
“I fell asleep watching a movie.” His gaze traveled between his parents. “May I go to my room?”
“Two weeks,” his father began pointing his finger at him. “Your weekends are mine for the next two weeks.”
“What!” Phil stopped with his hand on the banister and turned back to his father. “I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“You came home two-and-a-half hours after your curfew. You worried your mother and you interrupted my sleep. Two weeks.”
“No.” Phil shook his head. “No way.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I fell asleep watching a movie. It’s not like I was drinking or something. You’re not being fair.”
“I think you’re forgetting who makes the rules in this house.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“This isn’t a debate. Your mother and I decided your punishment before you came through the door.”
“Well you’re going to have to undecide it.”
“Phillip!” His father said sternly when Phil headed up the stairs. “Get back here. We aren’t done.”
Phil ignored him, continuing up the stair and to his room, slamming the door hard enough to shake the house. He paced back and forth across his bedroom, his fists clenching and unclenching. There was no fucking way, he was staying in. When there was no knock after five minutes, he began to relax, knowing his father wasn’t following him. He had half a mind to go back to Lina’s and spend the night with her in her bed. If he was going to get punished, he should at least get the benefit of doing something wrong. All he’d done was fall asleep on a couch between Lina and Shiloh.
It took him an hour to fall asleep, adrenaline continuing to pump through his veins. When his mother poked her head into his room at nine the following morning, his anger returned.
“You need to talk to him. I’m almost seventeen. He can’t treat me like a kid.”
“You can’t just come home when you want to.”
“I. Fell. Asleep,” Phil bit out. He pushed himself up on his elbows. “It was a mistake. I shouldn’t be punished for a mistake.”
His mother took a deep breath as she came farther into the room. “You shouldn’t have argued with him like that. It was very disrespectful. He was worried about you. We both were. We had no idea if something happened to you.”
“I was fine.”
“We didn’t know that.” She lowered herself into the chair beside his desk. “You have no idea what goes through a parents mind when their child is missing.”
“I’m not a child.”
She inclined her head.
“I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“Would it really be so awful to stay home with your parents for a couple of nights?”
He dropped his head back on the pillow. She was being ridiculous, just like his dad. “I work hard every day. I go to school. I get straight As. I practice lacrosse. The only time I get to do what I want to do is on the weekend. You can’t take that from me because my phone died.”
“What were you planning to do tonight?”
“I don’t know. Something.” Something with Lina.
“How about this. Why don’t you have her over here tonight and then by Monday or Tuesday this will have blown over enough for me to talk to your father.”
“How did you—”
“Know you were going to see Lina?” She raised her eyebrows. “We’re a savvier than your generation gives us credit. What do you say? I assume if you’re falling asleep at her house, you’ve met her parents? Isn’t it only fair that we have the opportunity to meet the girl who is taking up all of our son’s time?”
“It’s just going to be the four of us?” Lina asked. She was in the passenger seat of Phil’s car for the short drive from her neighborhood to his, a bouquet of freshly-cut flowers, her mom insisted she take, resting in her lap.
“You don’t have to be nervous. They’ll be nice to you.”
“I’m not nervous,” Lina lied. She was completely nervous. Knowing the whole purpose of the meal was so they could meet her, made her stomach twist with anxiety. It wasn’t like she had a problem with parents. She liked most of her friends’ parents, but a planned dinner seemed formal and as much as she tried to convince herself otherwise, she wanted them to like her.
A few minutes later Phil turned into a driveway.
Lina’s eyes traveled over a large brick colonial surrounded by a perfectly manicured lawn. There was a basketball hoop set up at the side of the driveway across from a three-car garage. “It’s so big. Have you always lived here?”
“Since I was born.” He shut off the ignition and stretched his arm out along the seat behind her. “Why are you nervous?”
“I just want them to like me,” she admitted.
“What I think and what you think—that’s all that matters.”
Her tummy fluttered in response to both his word and the seriousness in his eyes. “I know, but they’re your parents. I want them to like me.”
He pressed his forehead against hers. “They will. Just don’t worry about it.”
Lina felt a few degrees better when Mrs. Hunter greeted her with a warm hug. “I’m so happy you could make it.”
“My mom sent these.” Lina held out the flowers.
“Oh, they’re beautiful,” Mrs. Hunter said. “Did she pick them herself?”
“From her garden.”
“They’re lovely. Make sure you thank her. I have just the vase for them.”
Lina felt Phil’s warm fingers entwine with hers as they followed his mother to the kitchen. It was twice the size of hers with large windows overlooking a backyard pool. “I didn’t know you had a pool.”
“We plan to open it next week. You can use it whenever you’d like,” Mrs. Hunter said. She was at the sink, preparing the flowers for a vase.
“Where’s Dad?” Phil asked.
“Upstairs cleaning up for dinner. He should be down shortly.”
“I’m going to take Lina down to the basement.”
Mrs. Hunter turned from the sink, the filled vase in her hand. “You just arrived. I wanted to chat a bit with Lina.”
“You can talk to her at dinner.” Phil tugged Lina toward a door just outside the kitchen. “I’m going to teach her how to play pool.”
“Dinner’s almost ready.”
“We’re not leaving. We’ll just be downstairs.”
“Do you need help,” Lina thought to ask.
“No, thank you, dear. Everything’s been done.”
“Why would you just assume I couldn’t play?” Lina asked, taking the pool stick from Phil.
“Yes.” She leaned over her stick and trained her eyes over the cue ball, hitting it squarely and scattering the racked ball around the table. Two balls fell into the pocket.
“Not bad. You just need to learn how to shoot.”
“What are you talking about. I just got two in.” She pulled her stick back when he reached for it. “It’s still my turn.”
“I just want to show you how to hold it properly. Come on.”
“What’s wrong with the way I hold it?”
He came behind her, reaching around her to place both his hands over hers on the stick, the front of his body pressed into the back of hers. “It’s all in the hand placement.”
She could feel the heat from his chest as it pressed in to her back. “My placement is fine. You just want to touch me.”
He rested his chin on her shoulder. “I’m trying to teach you. The touching part is just a perk for you.”
“A perk for me?” Lina sputtered, releasing the stick as she turned around to face him. “You’re so full of yourself.”
He backed her into the pool table. “You don’t like when I touch you?” He tossed the pool stick on to the table, the game seemingly forgotten as he looked into her eyes.
“You’re the one who likes to touch me,” she countered.
“I do,” he agreed. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t like it.” He began to stroke his hand over her hip.
Her heart began to beat harder. “Your parents could come down.”
“We’re not doing anything.”
“They saw us kissing the first time I met them. They’re not going to see it again.”
“Are you thinking about kissing me?”
“No.” Her eyes immediately dropped to his lips. They were full, the bottom slightly bigger than the top. She wanted to feel them against her own. “Stop.”
“I’m not doing anything.”
She fisted his shirt. “You’re trying to make me want to kiss you.”
“I’m just standing here.”
“If we kiss my lips and chin will get all red and they’ll know. Adele told me yesterday.” Adele also told her that Phil was only into her because he wanted to have sex with her and as soon as he did, he’d lose interest because that’s what athletes did. Lina knew she was wrong.
“I don’t care who knows.”
Lina stood up on her tiptoes, winding her arms around his neck. “I want to make a good second impression.” She brushed her lips over his. “We can kiss later.”