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"Whatcha doing, Mommy? Can I help?"
Daria Fontina looked up from the two enormous plastic storage containers she'd bought that morning at the post-holiday clearance sale to see her youngest daughter standing in the doorway of the family room watching her. Daria had been meaning to organize their Christmas decorations for years, and now seemed like the perfect time. Half for her, half for him.
"Taking down the tree, sweetie. Christmas is over. It's time to move on," she told Hailey, who was tossing the shiny black ball she'd received in her stocking Christmas morning, a gift from the Santa Claus she no longer believed inthanks to her sister.
"I'd love your help. What does the Magic 8 Ball say about putting away Christmas ornaments?"
Hailey shook the plastic orb vigorously, then peered at the little window on the bottom. "It says 'Seems likely!'"
She and Daria both laughed.
Hailey, who was five going on fifty, and her older sister Miranda were Daria's purpose for living, her one true joy, her passion and her drug. Her love for them was probably partly to blame for the Grand Canyon-size wedge that had grown between Daria and Bruce over the years. That and his election to the State House of Representatives in Sacramento. Two worlds and three hundred miles apart.
He hadn't understood how much they'd grown apart until last August when she'd asked him for a divorce. In the five months that they'd been separated, Bruce had done everything in his power to prevent the inevitable from happeningfurther proof of their complete and utter disconnect, in her opinion.
Still, they'd agreed to a cease-fire over the holidays. "For the girls' sake," he'd claimed, but Daria was certain he wanted the détente to prove to his family that he was still in control. She'd expected there to be fireworks, but Bruce had been a complete gentleman. In fact, his courtly, model behavior had reminded her so much of the man she'd fallen in love with and married, she'd almostalmoststarted to have second thoughts about the divorce.
"See the two piles? You can start wrapping the more delicate ornaments and putting them in this box for Daddy." She scooted sideways and patted a spot beside her on the plush white carpet. Bruce's pick. Only a man who wasn't part of the day-to-day business of living with two young children would insist on white carpet.
"When is Daddy moving home?" Hailey asked, joining her.
Daria nearly dropped the fragile glass ball in her hands. "I'm sorrywhat? Honey " she said, brushing aside a lock of the child's thick curls to see her eyes. "Daddy isn't moving back in with us. He was only here to see you open your presents and have Christmas Eve dinner with us before midnight Mass, like always."
Hailey frowned. "But Miranda said Daddy was coming back with some of his stuff today. She heard him talking to Grandma when we went to her house for Christmas."
Traditionally, the entire Fontina clan gathered at Bruce's parents' on Boxing Day for their holiday celebration. This year Daria had enjoyed a peaceful, catch-up day doing absolutely nothing. A first. "He told Grandma you were done being mad at him. That you kissed and made up."
Daria's cheeks flushed with heat and she quickly returned to wrapping ornaments. Damn. Make one little mistake and look what happens. She wished she could blame the holidays or that extra glass of wine she and Bruce had shared after they'd put the girls to bed, but she knew that wasn't why she'd done what she had. It had been watching Bruce read The Berenstain Bears' Christmas Treea book that had been Daria's favorite as a childto Hailey that had softened her heart so much she was completely powerless to resist Bruce's tentative, wounded-little-boy kiss under the mistletoe.
Which, of course, had led to a much more fiery exchange that had wound up in the bedroom they'd shared for twelve years. She was human, after all, and all the women's magazines made a point of saying that she was at her sexual peak. She'd caved in to need and nostalgia. Once. She'd slept with her husband. Once. Then sternly insisted he go back to his mother's house instead of spending the night. "I don't want to confuse the girls," she'd told him.
Now, it turned out, she'd done just that."Well, my sweet girl, I wish that a kiss was all it took to fix what was wrong with Mommy and Daddy's marriage, but that isn't the case. We talked about this with the family counselor, remember? Daddy and I both love you and Miranda no matter what, but we can't live together and make each other happy."
Hailey's index finger began inching upward toward her right nostrila bad habit that had gotten worse the past few months. Daria handed the little girl a sheet of crumpled tissue paper to distract her. "Would you like to wrap the ornaments that your great-grandmother brought over from Italy? I'm putting all the special Fontina family ornaments in this container. For Bruce to put on his own damn tree next year.
"Can I?" Hailey beamed, her light brown curls framing her beautiful round face. She still had a few charming pounds of baby fat that made her look younger than her age, but she was smarter than any five-year-old Daria had ever met. Sober, quiet, thoughtful—pensive, even. Proof in Daria's mind that her daughter had seen and heard too much within the walls of this two-story McMansion that Daria hated. "I'll be extra careful. Daddy says these are very old and valuable."
To Hester, maybe. Daria's soon-to-be-ex-mother-in-law had made such a big deal of presenting Daria with the set of eight—now, seven—white-and-gold-flecked glass globes, you would have thought the gilding was fourteen-karat. In Daria's opinion, the balls were ostentatious and cheaply made, which was why they broke so easily. "They're only things, my love. Do the best you can."
Daria started filling the second box with things she'd accumulated before her marriage. Her mother had bought her a dated ornament every year she'd been alive. They were funny, silly, sentimental, and all very special to Daria, but she would never berate her daughters or make them dig into their allowance money if one broke, as Bruce had last year, ruining everyone's Christmas Eve.
"Here, sweetie," Daria said, grabbing the tree skirt she'd folded and set aside earlier. "Let's use this to add some packing between layers."
The handmade quilted skirt was adorned with gold ribbon and sequins. Daria had never seen anything like it, and while she gave Hester credit for the tremendous amount of time and effort it must have taken to make it, Daria hated the darn thing. Always had. She found it gaudy and sort of cheesy, and yet, she'd used it for twelve Christmases without argument.
Wuss, she silently chided.
Some battles weren't worth fighting, though, she'd decided a long time ago. If that made her a coward, so be it. But this was the last holiday she'd put the ugly thing around the base of her tree. She'd only used it this time as a sort of peace offering. Plus, money was tight, thanks to Bruce's legal shenanigans.
"Oh, Mommy, look. Here's your Kermit ornament," Hailey said, digging the spindly green object out of Bruce's pile. "Uh-oh. His ski is broken. I didn't do it, Mommy."The tremor in her daughter's voice fueled the quietly stoked fire that burned in Daria's belly. Her hand was trembling as she reached out to stroke her daughter's hair. "I know that, my love. Kermit lost his ski a long time ago. When I was in college, I think."
"Did you get in trouble?"
"No. It was an accident. And, even though I like Kermit a lot, he's just a thing. And things aren't as important as people."
"That's right, Hailey," a voice said from the doorway behind them.
Daria and Hailey both jumped guiltily. Kermit fell between them as Hailey flew into her arms. Daria could feel her daughter's heart racing against her own.
"Your mother knows all about how important people are. Especially the people in your family."
"Hello, Bruce," Daria said, trying to sound calm and in control. She patted Hailey's arm and eased her to one side. "I didn't hear the bell. Did Miranda let you in?"
He stood with arms folded across his chest, leaning against the door jamb. She guessed that he'd been leisurely eavesdropping for quite a while. In the past, she'd been able to sense where he was at any given moment that he was homebehavior typical of people living in highly charged abusive environments, she'd learned in one of the counseling sessions her lawyer had encouraged her to attend.
Their months apart must have removed her edge.
Was Daria the only one who noticed how tentative and thready her daughter's voice got when Bruce was around? Probably. Bruce thought of himself as a wonderful fatherstern and uncompromising when necessary, fun and playful at other times. Like never, Daria said to herself, using Miranda's preteen tone of utter ennui.
"What are you two up to?"
"Um putting away the ornaments. Mommy said I could help. I'm being careful. I didn't break this. Mommy did." Hailey gulped, realizing too late she'd ratted out her mother.
"In college," Daria added. She gave Hailey's thin shoulder a little squeeze. "Do me a favor, hon, and check on your sister? She's supposed to be taking down the decorations in the rest of the house."
Hailey picked up her Magic 8 Ball and dashed toward the kitchen, avoiding contact with her father. Subtle, but crystal clear to Daria.
"What are you doing here, Bruce? I figured you'd be on your way back to Sac to get ready for the big New Year's Eve party."
"Not happening this year," he said, his eyes trained on the two big bins. Worried, perhaps, that he might get shorted in the deal? Daria was being overly generous to avoid any such accusations. "The budget being what it is, nobody wants to get caught spending big bucks with lobbyists. Where'd these boxes come from?"
"The girls and I did some post-Christmas shopping this morning." She shook her head, remembering the chaos. "Good buys, but I had to outmaneuver an old lady in one of those motorized chairs to grab the last two."
She was exaggerating, of course. The store had had hundreds of bins in stock.
Bruce frowned, his thick black eyebrows uniting in what Daria couldn't help but think of as his unibrow. The first time she'd heard the term, she'd known it described Bruce's scowl exactly. "You better hope the TV cameras weren't around. The last thing I want is to hear the news media making a big stink about Representative Bruce Fontina's wife mowing down an elderly cripple. What were you thinking, Daria?"
"Well, Bruce," she said, getting to her feet. "I'm thinking you can't take a joke. There were several hundred storage boxes on the pallet when I left Lowe's. And let's not forget that I'm soon to be your ex-wife. I'm pretty sure nobody in the media gives a damn what I do, and frankly, that sounds pretty good after years of living in a fishbowl."
He gave her a look that made her stomach twist like a wet dishrag. "What are you talking about? We're not getting divorced."
Daria felt a chill of ice water course through her veins. "Yes, we are," she said, regret and apprehension suddenly rendering her about as articulate as Hailey.
He looked at her and shook his head, as if she were a woefully uninformed child. "No, Daria, we're not. You proved it yourself. You're not over me. You got your tail in a wringer over my being gone so much, but, I promise you, I'll do better. You can't deny that you still love me, Dar."
Damn. Damn. Damn. They were back to square one. His refusing to accept that what they had was over. Long gone and dead.
She took a moment to get her nerves under control, bending over to finish what Hailey had started, quickly wrapping one of the two remaining glass balls in tissue and nesting it carefully in the soft material.
"Can't we just call the other night one last booty call for old time's sake and get back on the divorce track?" She wasn't trying to sound flippant, and she regretted her words instantly.
She reached for the last ball as Bruce grabbed her elbow, causing it to fall from her hand. It bounced on the carpet and rolled against the corner of the hard plastic lid. A distinct cracking sound made her throat close as adrenaline flooded her bloodstream.
"Did you just break that?" Bruce cried, yanking hard on her arm. "What the hell is wrong with you? Have you been drinking? Good lord, Daria, it's not even noon."
She tried to shake off his grasp. "I no of course not I was shopping. It slipped. You startled me." He tightened his grip and stepped closer, using the thickness of his upper body to intimidate her.
"First, you invite me into our bed, then you act like it was nothing," he said, his voice dropping to a low, angry snarl. "Nothing is spreading your legs like a cheap hooker. Is that what you've become? Because sleeping with a man you don't love pretty much qualifies. Is that how you're going to finance this new life you're so eager to begin?"
His fingers squeezed, cutting off circulation to her fingertips. "Huh, Daria? Is it?" he asked, giving her arm a shake. "Do you have some regulars already lined up? I hope they aren't too attached to their balls because I know people who will cut them off, for a price. They'll do anything for a price, if you get my drift."
Fear gripped her belly. At the last Fontina family gathering she'd attended before filing for divorce, she'd overheard his brothers' wives talking about a man who'd stolen from the family's import-export company. Two weeks later, his body had washed up a few miles from the warehouse Bruce's family owned in Alameda. The guy had been missing all the fingers on his right hand. Freak accident or murder? The question had made Daria slightly ill, but she was determined to stand her ground.
"The other night was a mistake, Bruce. The holidays can make people nostalgic. I'm sorry you misinterpreted what happened, but, trust me, the things that are wrong with our marriage didn't get fixed with one night of sex."
He blew out a sound of disgust. "What's wrong with our marriage all comes down to what's wrong with you. And why the hell do you get to call all the shots—that's what I want to know!" His voice rose to a shout, a sound their daughters had heard many times in the past. Daria hated putting them through another argument. One that, obviously, was all her fault.