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The familiar heaviness settled over Angie as she parked in front of Billie's house. Every time she came here, she saw the same image in her mind's eye: the flashing blue and red ambulance lights reflecting off the white stucco facade, the shocked neighbors gathered on the sidewalk, Billie's too-still body being rushed to the ambulance, an EMT working frantically to keep her alive.
Angie reached for her purse and the bag containing the gifts she'd bought in New York and made her way up the drive, noting the mail crowding the letterbox. The lawn needed mowing, too.
A pile of shoes lay abandoned on the porchtwo pairs of child-size rubber boots and a pair of adult sneakers. She hit the doorbell, checking her watch.
After what felt like a long time, she heard footsteps on the other side of the door. It swung open and Michael appeared, his features obscured by the screen.
"Angie." He sounded surprised, but she'd emailed him three days ago to tell him she'd be coming by to see him and the kids once she arrived home.
"Hey. Long time no see," she said easily.
He rubbed his face. "Sorry. I forgot you said you were coming over." He pushed the screen door open. "Come in."
His hair was longer than when she'd flown out six weeks ago, his jaw dark with stubble. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, both hanging on his frame.
"How are you?" she asked as she kissed his cheek.
"We're getting by." His gaze slid away from hers and he took a step backward, one hand gesturing for her to precede him up the hallway to the kitchen. "How was New York?"
"Good. Busy. Hot and hectic." She'd gone to train with an American jewelry designer and show her work at an arty little gallery in Greenwich Village. She'd also gone to get away, because she'd needed to do something to shock herself out of her grief.
She blinked as she entered the dim kitchen and living space. The blinds had been drawn on all the windows, the only light coming from the television and around the edges of the blinds.
It took her eyes a few seconds to adjust enough to see that Charlie was ensconced on the couch, his gaze fixed on the flickering TV screen as Kung Fu Panda took out the bad guys.
"Hey, little man," she said, crossing to his side and leaning down to drop a kiss onto his smooth, chubby cheek.
He glanced at her and smiled vaguely before returning his attention to the movie. She took in the stacks of books on the floor, the dirty plates on the coffee table, the clothes strewn over the couch.
"Eva should be home soon. She went to a friend's place after school," Michael said. "You want a coffee?"
She returned to the kitchen, her gaze sliding over the dishes piled in the sink and the boxes of cereal and other foodstuffs lined up on the island counter. Paperwork sat in a cluttered pile, and an overloaded laundry basket perched on one of the stools, leaning dangerously to one side. Everything looked dusty and ever-so-slightly grubby.
"Coffee would be good, thanks," she said slowly.
The house had been like this when she'd visited before she'd flown to New York, but for some reason it hadn't made the same impression as it did today. Then, she'd talked with Michael amidst all the dishes and laundry and not registered the darkness and the mess and his gauntness. It had all seemed normal, because in the months since Billie's death it had become the norm as she did her best to help Michael any way she could.
Today, she saw it allthe disorder, the dullness in Michael's eyes, the air of neglect and hopelessnessand she understood with a sudden, sharp clarity that this wasn't simply a household in mourning, this was a household veering toward crisis.
Her chest ached as she watched Michael go through the motions of making coffee. For as long as she lived, she would never forget the look in his eyes when she arrived at the hospital hard on the heels of the ambulance that horrible day. He'd been sitting in a small side room, elbows propped on his knees, head in his hands. She'd stopped in the doorway saying his name. When he'd looked up the emptiness and grief in his eyes had told her everything she needed to know. The memory of that moment of realizationthe death of her last hope, that somehow they had managed to save Billie from what had clearly been a catastrophic major eventwas still sharp and bitter and hard, but she knew that her loss was nothing compared to Michael's.
He'd loved Billie so much. She'd been the center of his world and she'd died far, far too young. Was it any wonder that he was finding it so hard to pull himself together and move on?
She swallowed a lump of emotion and lifted the basket off the stool so she could sit.
"How did your show go?" Michael asked as he slid a brimming coffee mug toward her.
"Well, I think. But it's so competitive over there, I'm not holding my breath."
"Your stuff is great. You don't need to hold your breath."
She didn't doubt the sincerity behind Michael's words, but the lack of emotion in his voice was yet another marker of how flat he was. He'd taken a year off work after Billie's death to provide some stability and continuity for the children. As equal partner in an architecture firm with two other architects, he'd been fortunate that he'd been in a position to do so. At the time Angie had applauded the decision but now, with the benefit of the new perspective provided by her six-week absence, she wasn't so sure.
"Did I miss anything while I was away?"
Michael shrugged. "Like what?"
"Eva was talking about starting ballet again. How did that go?"
"She changed her mind."
"But she was so keen."
He shrugged again. "You know how kids are." The doorbell echoed through the house before she could ask any more questions.
"That'll be her now."
He left to answer the door. Unable to stop herself, she slid off the stool and crossed to the stack of dirty dishes. The dishwasher was full of clean dishes, and she started stacking them in the cupboards. She was as familiar with Billie's kitchen as she was her own and she'd emptied the top rack by the time Michael returned, Eva trailing in his wake.
"Hey, sweetheart," Angie said, scooping Eva into her arms. "I missed you so much."
Eva's arms tightened around her with surprising strength, her head burrowing into her chest.
"I missed you, too, Auntie Angie."
Angie smoothed a hand over her hair and squeezed her as tightly. She met Michael's gaze over his daughter's head and offered him a faint, sympathetic smile. He didn't respond, simply dropped Eva's school bag on top of the rubble on the table and went to the fridge.
"How was school?" Angie asked, tucking a strand of hair behind Eva's ear.
"It was okay. Dad, I got invited to Imogen's birthday today. It's going to be a fairy party. I can go, can't I?"
"When is it?" Michael piled ingredients on the countercarrots, zucchini, onions.
"Not this Saturday but the one after that, I think." Eva pulled a crumpled invitation from her uniform pocket and handed it over.
He glanced at it briefly. "Okay. Remind me to take you shopping for a present beforehand."
"Okay. I will. And I'll stick the invitation here, too." She gave her father a significant look before using a magnet to fix the paper to the fridge door. "See? It's right here."
"Yeah, I got that, Eva." There was a note of impatience in his voice, but even that was subdued. Angie watched him, worried.
Michael started grating a carrot. He glanced up, almost as though he sensed her regard. "You staying for dinner?"
"Sure. Thanks. Can I help with anything?"
"Nope. It's just spaghetti, nothing fancy."
Eva groaned. "Not spaghetti again.'''
Michael ignored his daughter's complaint, grabbing a saucepan and filling it with water. Angie felt a tug on the knee of her jeans and looked down to find Charlie peering at her.
"Up, up!" he said, arms held high.
Clearly, Kung Fu Panda's attractions had waned.
She ducked to lift him, receiving a whiff of ripe diaper as she settled him into her arms. "Wow. Someone's been busy." She lifted his T-shirt and pulled his diaper away from his back to do a visual check. What she saw was not pretty.
Michael raised his eyebrows. "Does he need changing?"
"Right." He started drying his hands.
"I can take care of it," Angie offered quickly.
"Of course. We'll be back in five, won't we, Mr. Stinky Bum?" She jiggled Charlie on her hip as she made her way toward his nursery. The blind was drawn in here, too, giving the room an oppressive, claustrophobic feeling. She flicked on the light, then lifted the blind as high as it would go. Sunshine streamed into the room and some of the tightness left her chest.
Poor Michael. And poor Eva and Charlie.
"What you doin', Angie?" he asked in his bright baby voice, eyes wide and inquisitive.
"Letting some sunshine in, little monkey."
She lay Charlie on his change table and tugged off his jeans. She pulled off the soiled diaper and dropped it in the bin.
"Here." Eva passed a fresh diaper to her, along with the box of baby wipes for the mop-up operation. Angie hadn't realized she'd followed her.
"Hey, thanks." Angie gave the little girl a grateful smile.
"It smells." Eva waved a hand in front of her face.
"Yes, indeed, it does. Your little brother has a gift."
She cleaned him up while Charlie stared at her with a beatific smile and Eva hovered behind her.
"Can I ask a favor, Auntie Angie?" Eva asked after a few seconds.
"Of course you can. You can ask me anything."
"Will you remind Daddy about the party?"
Angie dusted powder over Charlie's nether regions, glancing at Eva. "Sure. But I'm pretty sure your dad will remember all on his own."
"No, he won't. He said he'd take me to see the new Miley Cyrus movie and he didn't. And he promised he'd take me roller skating and we didn't do that, either."
Michael had always been a great father. Attentive, playful, protective. He was indulgent when he needed to be, firm when it countedand he always did whatever was necessary to make his children feel happy and safe. Hearing that he'd let Eva down on more than one occasion recently brought the tight feeling back to An-gie's chest.
"I'll make a note in my phone and I'll call him before the party, okay?"
"Thank you, Auntie Angie." Eva hugged her again. "I'm so glad you're back."
They returned to the kitchen with Charlie walking between them. Michael was scraping vegetables into a saucepan before adding a store-bought jar of pasta sauce.
"Can I play with the iPad, Dad?" Eva asked, already sidling toward the couch.
"Half an hour, max."
"Okay," Eva said, rolling over the back of the couch and down to the seat.
It was such a classic Billie move that for a moment Angie was stunned. Grief stung the back of her eyes, and for long seconds she could do nothing but stare at the floor. When she dared glance at Michael, his face was utterly expressionless, but somehow she knew that he had been equally affected by the small moment. Suddenly he looked much older than his thirty-five yearsold and weary and defeated.
The impulse to go to him and simply wrap her arms around him was overwhelming, but they had never had that kind of friendship. They were comfortable and familiar with one another, yes, but they both sat toward the shy end of the personality spectrum, especially where physical stuff was concerned. Billie had been the hugger, and she'd trained Angie to first accept and then reciprocate her ready affection, but it was not a skill that had transferred easily to the other relationships in An-gie's life.
She started setting the table and after a few minutes Michael spoke up.
"Dinner's about ten minutes away. Would you mind watching the kids for five while I grab a quick shower?"
"Of course not. Go for it." She shooed him away.
He gave her a half smile as he left. She finished setting the table, then started on the kitchen. By the time Michael returned wearing a fresh pair of jeans and a clean T-shirt, she'd stowed the various foodstuffs in the pantry, emptied the dishwasher and whittled the debris covering the counters down to a stack of paperwork.
Michael's gaze flicked around the room before finding her. She tensed, worried she'd overstepped, but he simply gave her a small acknowledging nod.
Between the two of them they wrangled Charlie into his high chair. Michael cut his pasta into small pieces and let it cool before offering the bowl to his son. Charlie stabbed at the plate with his Winnie-the-Pooh cutlery, sending food flying. Michael asked Eva about her day at school and her afternoon at her friend's, saying all the right things in response to her questions, keeping up a semblance of normality.
It was all so subdued and colorless and joyless Angie wanted to weep.
Afterward, she gave Eva the I Love NY T-shirt and lip gloss she'd picked up for her, as well as a funky pair of high-top sneakers.
"Fresh off the streets. No one else will have these for months," she assured Eva.
"They're so sparkly." Eva twisted the shoes so their sequined details reflected the light.
Angie handed a plush toy hot dog to Charlie, along with a miniature version of Eva's T-shirt. Lastly, she slid a T-shirt Michael's way. He raised an eyebrow, obviously surprised he'd been included on the gift list.
"I saw this and thought of you," she said by way of explanation.
He unfolded the T-shirt and read the inscription: Trust Me, I'm an Architect. He smiled his first genuine smile of the day. "Very cool."
By eight o'clock the kids were down for the night, despite much pleading on Eva's behalf to "stay up late because Auntie Angie is home." A stern look and a few words in her father's deepest tones sent Eva scurrying off to bed, leaving Angie alone with Michael.
"Sorry, my hosting skills are a little rusty. I forgot to offer you wine with dinner. There's a bottle in the pantry if you want a glass
?" Michael asked.
"I'm good, thanks. I'm kind of detoxing after New York."
"Lots of partying, huh?"
Again, he was saying the right things, but he wasn't truly engaged. Rather than answer, she studied him for a long beat before starting the conversation that she owed it to Billieand Michael and Eva and Charlieto have. Even if it made her uncomfortable to force her way into sensitive territory.
"How are you, Michael? I mean, how are you really?'"