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Dr. Michael James McKinley Junior's life came crashing down around him at seven o'clock on a Wednesday evening in October.
Ironically, he was home considerably earlier than usual. He was feeling content. Happy, even.
Entering the lavishly lit and decorated lobby of his building, he anticipated the moment of homecoming at a level of detail that he would have been embarrassed about if anyone had known.
It would unfold something like this:
Alicia would hear his key in the door and come to meet him, giving a little cry of pleasure and surprise. He'd suggest a meal out, and she would hurry away to change and freshen her makeup and hair. The kids would still be awake. He could spend some time with them, while Alicia readied herself.
The procedure always took a while, but the results were worth it. She was just about the most stunning woman he had ever seen. After nearly seven years of marriage he still thought so, and when he entered a social gathering with her on his arm, he felt the aura of success around both of them like a magnetic field.
So, yes, he would have to wait for Alicia to work her beauty magic, and that would be fine. He could help Nanny Maura with well, with whatever she did with the children at this time of the evening. Their bath. Their bedtime story.
He felt he ought to know what they would be up to in their routine, but it seemed to change every few months, and it was hard to keep track of such things when he was so rarely home at an hour when they were still awake. Kids grew so fast. He had the idea Alicia had told him recently that Tyler was on the verge of giving up his daytime nap.
Or maybe he already had. MJ couldn't remember.
He took the elevator, thinking that he had better be quiet when he entered, in case Tyler was already settling into sleep. While the thought of his two-year-old son bouncing excitedly out of bed to greet him was a pleasing one in his own head, he realized that Alicia and Maura might not think of it the same way. Tyler was an exhausting little dynamo, and if he became overtired or overstimulated he was even worse.
No, he absolutely must not disrupt the sleep routine with Tyler purely for a father's selfish reasons.
At the apartment door, he registered that things were indeed pretty quiet in there. He slipped his key silently into the lock, turned the handle slowly so that it didn't make a sound and tiptoed inside.
There were no lights switched on against the gathering night, and no sounds. Still convinced that he was arriving at his children's bedtime, he crept through to the sitting room, expecting to see the night-light glowing in its socket in the hallway, or to hear the soft voices of Alicia and Maura telling Abby and Tyler good-night.
But the apartment was dark and silent. The sunset fading in the sky outside provided the only source of light, and the traffic in the canyons of the Manhattan streets below made the only sounds. No one was here. His pleasing fantasy of a warm greeting, twenty minutes of parental quality time and a relaxed evening out evaporated and left a feeling of fatigue and irritation.
He'd been at the hospital at six this morning, in surgery at six-thirty. He'd eaten lunch on the move, hadn't had a break all day, and then when he'd glimpsed the possibility of an early departure, he'd tied himself in knots to make it happen. As a reward, he could easily have accepted fellow surgeon Oliver Marks's casual suggestion of a quick drink instead of hurrying home to his family. Would it really have been too hard for Alicia to text him with a warning that she and the children might not be home? His arrival at this hour wasn't that rare, was it?
He checked his phone to see if he'd missed something, but, no, she really hadn't left a message. What the hell was she thinking? He didn't ask much of her in that regard, for heck's sake, and he gave her a truckload in return.
Anger rising, he went into the kitchen and flicked on a light. His gut ached with hunger, he registered, and it probably wasn't helping his mood. There'd be something in the refrigerator to hold the hunger at bay until he knew if his dinner plan with Alicia was going to come off.
He actually had his hand on the refrigerator door handle when he saw the note on the gleaming black granite countertop, pinned down by his favorite coffee mug. He swung away from the prospect of food and picked it up. Okay, Alicia, so you did leave me an explanation, but why on earth didn't you text, so I could
It's not working, MJ. And you're never here. There's no point saying this in person, and I doubt you'll care. I've taken the kids to Vermont for some time out. I'll talk to a lawyer in the next few days about a divorce. A.
He stood with the piece of paper in his hand. His empty stomach dropped like a stone and his temples throbbed in shock and disbelief.
Alicia had left him.
"You see, there's green fields and little towns in Ireland, just like this," Nanny Maura explained to Alicia in the same tone she might have used to explain her preference for coffee over tea. Her Irish accent was strong. "I came to America for a taste of city life, like. I don't want to be stuck in the country. You didn't tell me you were gettin' a divorce when we were packin' to come up here. I thought 'twas just for a few days."
Alicia felt a weird and close-to-hysterical desire to laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing. Tell her nanny she wanted a divorce before she told her husband? Good plan! Add "Oh, by the way, I'm leaving my husband" to her daily list of instructions about activities and errands? No problem! Be fair to the nanny, while her life was in tatters and her children didn't understand what was going on? Easy peasy!
But she recognized that Maura had a point. There was a huge difference between New York City and rural Vermont.
And maybe she didn't even need a nanny now that she was here. It would be better, really. Maura was just another person she didn't want seeing her cry. And she'd left her schedule of beauty treatments and shopping trips and charity lunches behind in Manhattan. She would have plenty of time for hands-on child care.
"When would you like to leave?" Alicia asked, not sure of the answer she wanted to hear.
This had already been a painful interview, conducted once the children were safely asleep upstairs. She'd broken the truth to Maurathat there was a reason for the larger-than-usual amount of luggage they'd brought, and for the lack of the text messages to MJ that she would normally have sent if she was going up to his brother Andy's with the kids for a few days, as she'd done once or twice. Leaving now on the thruway.
Maura had hidden any shockor possibly lack of shockbehind the well-schooled facade that low-level, expendable employees learned to wear when confronted by difficult or irrational behavior from their employers. Alicia remembered the expression well from the countless times it had appeared on her own face. Maura had asked how long they would be here in Vermont, and on learning that it might be months, she'd come out with her explanation for not wanting to stay.
"When can you spare me?" Maura asked now, in response to Alicia's question.
"It doesn't matter." Because nothing much did. She'd left MJ. That was all that counted. "Whenever you want."
"Tonight?" Maura suggested hopefully. "If I check the schedule, could you drive me to the bus? A friend texted me about getting together tomorrow for"
"Tonight is fine. I'll give you cab fare to get you to the bus station." Why go through an awkward evening? This way, Maura wouldn't even need to unpack.
"I'm sure there'd be some lovely girls up here looking for child-care work," Maura told her in an encouraging way.
"I'm sure, yes." No point in telling this girl that she didn't intend to replace her.
"You were going to give me those clothes that you didn't want anymore ." Maura offered next, referring back to a conversation from a week or two ago that Alicia had totally forgotten.
"Give me a forwarding address, as soon as you have one, and I'll mail them."
This apparently dealt with the last of Maura's concerns. Cast-off designer outfits, yippee! Her eyes lit up, and she gushed her thanks in the Irish accent that Abby and Tyler were both starting to pick up. They spent far more time with Maura than they spent with Alicia.
Well, that was about to change, big-time.
She looked at the clock.
MJ was probably still at the hospital, or maybe winding down with a drink on the way home, with a couple of fellow doctors. When you added it up, she only saw him a few hours each week, and even those weren't spent the way she would have chosen.
He was either dog-tired and silent, wanting only to sprawl on the couch eating the tired leftovers of a meal that had been fresh two or three hours ago, or else they went out to a charity event or a gallery opening or dinner at a smart restaurant. He always touched the small of her back as they moved through one of those public spaces together, as if to say to any other man who caught his eye, "Look what I've got. Pretty special, huh?" He rarely touched her when they were alone.
It was her own fault. She hated herself for it. She'd done her bestbusted her gutto marry for money and status. She'd worked her looks and her fashion sense and her hard-won poise for all they were worth, and her strategy had succeeded.
She'd snared MJ.
She hadn't put a foot wrong.
She'd seized on that stupid, unforgettable night in Vegas when they'd gotten a little tipsy and stumbled into a garishly themed wedding chapel, and she'd gotten MJ over the line before he could sober up enough to rethink.
Brass ring, Alicia.
Married to a rich man with no prenup.
Not bad for a waitress from the wrong side of the tracks.
She'd been so goaloriented about it that she hadn't even stopped, before the ceremony, to think whether she loved him, or whether he loved her or whether they could possibly make each other happy.
She'd done her best for almost seven years to fulfill her side of the bargain. She'd given him two children. She'd kept her looks and her figure with an almost obsessive number of gym visits and spa sessions. She'd spent his money in all the ways he wanted her to. Everything they owned, from the children's clothes to the hand-crafted dining table and matching chairs, was the product of hours of research on quality and brand names.
She'd said as little as possible about the foster homes she'd grown up in, from age ten to seventeen after Gram-mie died, and she'd never, ever, ever even hinted at the desperate straits she'd been in when he'd walked into her restaurant that first morning and given her the eye.