Seattle, Washington State, July 2014
Resentment burned in Erica Caldwell’s chest as she knelt and wiped a tear off her daughter’s cheek. Chloe’s big blue eyes rimmed with long black lashes—the mirror image of her father’s—pleaded with Erica to make everything better.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. I know you were looking forward to staying with Daddy tonight. But he had to… work.”
She almost choked on those last words. Jamie kept letting Chloe down, the same way he’d always let her down. The man couldn’t ever do anything as planned or on time. He was always cancelling, postponing, or forgetting. Just like he’d forgotten to sign their divorce papers. Again.
“But Daddy said we’d watch The Little Mermaid and eat ice cream sundaes in the living room,” Chloe whined.
Pulling her daughter close, Erica smoothed her hand through Chloe’s brown curls. “We can watch the movie together.” Work was piling up and she’d been counting on the free evening to catch up. But Chloe came first. She always would.
A smile lit Chloe’s face and she clapped her small hands. “And can we eat ice cream sundaes in the living room, too?”
Erica couldn’t help cringing at the thought, but seeing the hopeful look on her daughter’s tear-stained face, she caved. “Just this once.”
“I love you, Mommy,” Chloe said, flinging herself at her mother.
Erica’s heart melted as her daughter’s warm pudgy arms circled her neck. There was nothing in the world like a child’s hug. “I love you too, sweetie.” Straightening, she helped Chloe snap up her pink Hello Kitty raincoat, then slipped the small matching backpack over her shoulders.
After popping open her umbrella, they headed out of the daycare, hand in hand. “We have to run over to the courthouse before we go home. I forgot some important papers on my desk.” When Erica stepped off the curb to cross the street, her sneaker landed in a puddle, splashing the hem of her pants. Good thing she’d taken a moment to change out of her heels before racing over to pick Chloe up. Her new Vera Wang pumps would have been ruined.
Back on the sidewalk, Chloe pulled her hand free to hop up the steps and into the courthouse lobby. After waving to Mr. Simmons, the security guard, she placed her backpack on the conveyer belt. Chloe had once told Erica he reminded her of a skinny Santa, and given his round face and ever-shiny bald head, Erica had to admit her daughter had a point.
“Now, don’t you be working too late tonight, Miss Caldwell,” he teased Chloe as he motioned for her to walk through the metal detector.
Chloe laughed as she skipped through it. “Oh we won’t, Mr. Simmons. Mommy said I could have an ice cream sundae for dinner.”
Simmons turned an arched brow on Erica. Heat rushed to her cheeks. “That’s not what I said,” she muttered, hurrying after her daughter and away from Simmons. By tomorrow lunchtime, every employee in the courthouse would think she was the worst mom in the county. The way Simmons could go on, he’d probably have child services coming to interview her about her parenting skills. And it was all Jamie’s fault.
Ushering Chloe into the elevator, she jabbed the fourth floor button. When the doors didn’t close fast enough, she punched it again. Chloe stared at her, a puzzled expression on her pretty face. An expression that looked exactly like the one Jamie frequently gave her. A headache began pounding at her temples. And that was Jamie’s fault too. Sure, it was irrational, but she didn’t care. Right now, she needed to vent. Fumbling in her purse, she pulled out her cell phone and as soon as the elevator doors opened on her floor, she pressed the call button.
Chloe started skipping down the hall. Since the building was empty except for a few stragglers, Erica didn’t bother telling her to stop. “Don’t go too far, sweetheart. Stay where I can see you.”
As if he’d been waiting, Jamie answered immediately. “Rickie, is everything okay?”
The nickname arced through her like an electric shock. “Stop calling me that! You know I hate it.”
“You used to like it.”
“Well, now I don’t,” she shot back.
Hearing his weary sigh, she bit her lip to keep from apologizing. She didn’t need to try to please him anymore.
“Did you get to the daycare before it closed?” he asked.
Considering he’d barely given her four minutes’ notice that he couldn’t pick up their daughter, it was a darn good thing the daycare was just across the street from the courthouse. She’d had to race through the halls and jaywalk across the street and still she’d arrived just as the clock struck six. The daycare charged ten dollars for every minute past closing, and the charge doubled every five minutes. He might have money to burn, but she certainly didn’t.
She gritted her teeth and took advantage of the fact that her daughter was out of hearing range. “Chloe’s upset.”
“I’ll make it up to her.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Jamie, life with you is a roller coaster. She’s only four years old and already you’re making promises you don’t keep. It’s too confusing for Chloe.” And for her. Half the time she didn’t know whether to hate him or love him, so as much as the failure of their marriage rankled her, she’d settled on leaving him.