The suburban Chicago house I’d lived in for the past six years came into view, and my stomach knotted tighter. It was the same feeling I’d had on my way to a job I’d hated a lifetime ago, when pulling up to the building made me groan out loud at the prospect of another shift in that godforsaken place. Didn’t seem right to feel that way coming home, but there it was, same as it had been for the past two months.
By the time I pulled into the garage beside the familiar red Corolla, my jaw ached from clenching my teeth. Probably because that’s what I’d been doing every night this week at the same time. Ugh. If I didn’t move out of this place soon, my dental bills were going to be astronomical. That was a good enough reason to step things up, wasn’t it? So I didn’t grind my teeth to dust?
As if I didn’t already have a laundry list of reasons why I needed to get out of here.
With an ache in my jaw and a sour feeling in my throat, I collected my coffee cup, lunch bag, and briefcase, and got out of the car. On the way inside, I couldn’t help limping a little, which added to my festering annoyance. It wasn’t unusual for my leg to be sore by the end of the day, especially after I’d been coaching basketball, but it wasn’t doing much for my shitty mood. I couldn’t think of much that would, though. Nothing short of substances that would get me fired. Or maybe finding a note on the counter that said I moved out. There wasn’t a plant on this earth that would get me higher than reading those three sweet little words.
But unless my soon-to-be ex-husband had won the lottery since this morning, he was just as stuck here as I was.
At the door, I paused for a deep breath to steel myself, then went inside. The kitchen and living room were empty. Derek’s car was here, so it was a safe bet he was home, but he was somewhere else in the house. Good enough for me. If I was lucky, he’d stay that way long enough for me to wind down.
I went through my usual motions—cleaning out my lunch bag, rinsing the Tupperware dishes, checking the cats’ food and water, perusing the mail. For years this routine had soothed me. Helped me shift from work to home so I could relax. Not so much these days.
Our long-haired calico, Lucy, hopped upon the counter and chirped at me, and I managed to crack a smile as I scratched her back the way she loved. She arched under my hand and purred. I chuckled, and I didn’t even mind that she was kicking the mail everywhere as she strutted back and forth on the counter.
“Hey, sweetheart. You miss me?”
I kept scratching and petting her for a moment, trying not to think about the future. Or the fact that Derek and I still hadn’t come to a custody agreement about the cats. They were littermates, and though they could fight almost as loudly as we could, they were inseparable. There was no “you take Lucy and I’ll take Chico.” When this was all over and we finally went our separate ways, someone was taking both cats, and someone would be living without them.
I scooped Lucy into my arms, and I hugged her tight, which just made her purr louder and my conscience burn hotter. Guilt had been a constant friend for the past couple of months, and every time I thought about either losing my cats or taking them away from Derek, I wanted to cry. As if I hadn’t done enough of that recently.
I’m so sorry, guys. I buried my face in Lucy’s plush fur. I fucked everything up.
The click of a door at the opposite end of the house made my spine stiffen. Lucy tensed too. By the time Derek was halfway up the hall, she’d stopped purring. As he cleared the corner into the living room, she wriggled in my arms, and I sighed as I set her back down on the counter. She jumped to the floor and trotted out of the room, probably to the office where Chico was likely watching birds.
I watched her go, fresh guilt gnawing at me. Things had really gone to shit when even the cats didn’t want to be in the same room with the two of us.
Without the cat to hold my attention anymore, I turned to see where Derek was headed so I could make my own escape. I still needed to change clothes anyway, not to mention take off my prosthetic and sit for a while to give my joints a rest. If he was going to hang out in the living room, then I could go into my bedroom or join the cats in the office.
But Derek wasn’t heading into the living room. He was coming into the kitchen. And from the way his gaze was fixed on me, he wanted to talk about something.
I swallowed. “Hey.”
“Hey.” He slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Do you have a few minutes?”
I struggled to hold his gaze. He didn’t seem like he was looking for a fight. There was some tension in his features, but it didn’t read as hostility or anger.
I shifted my weight, wincing at the vicious ache in my hip. “Yeah. Do you mind if we sit, though?”
“Sure. Yeah. Living room?”
“Okay.” I followed him out of the kitchen, and we sat on opposite ends of the sofa. As soon as I was seated, I leaned down, rolled up my pant leg, and disconnected my prosthetic. Derek didn’t speak while I removed it; for all our inability to coexist lately, he was still in the habit of giving me a minute to get situated, particularly when I needed to kick off the prosthetic after a long day on my feet.
I leaned the prosthetic against the end table and sat back, releasing a relieved sigh. Everything ached, especially my hips, knees, and right ankle, and taking some weight off them felt so good. I might’ve even relaxed if not for Derek waiting a cushion away to have a conversation. Ugh. God. What now?
Schooling my expression, I twisted toward him. I stole a second just to look at him. There would come a time in the very near future when all I had left of him was pictures, and even with the constant tension hanging between us, it hurt to imagine not seeing him anymore. Seeing him like this hurt too. The dark eyes that had tongue-tied me on day one were cold now. Beside his eyes and mouth were lines that deepened whenever he smiled or laughed, and they were barely visible now. The near-black hair I’d run my fingers through millions of times, the soft lips I’d tasted more times than I could count, that spot on his neck where a single kiss could make him shudder all over—it was all out of my reach now.
Maybe it was time to take my sister up on the offer to come stay with her. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could handle.
Forcing back my emotions, I tried to sound casual. “All right. What’s up?”
He mirrored me, pulling his knee up onto the cushion and drumming his fingers on his inseam. “Um.” He stared down at his hand. “So, I talked to Vanessa this morning.”
My gut clenched. Instantly my mind was filled with a million worst case scenarios. I’d expected him to have something on his mind about us, not about our daughter, and panic shot through me. Had something happened? Was she hurt? Sick? “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Everything’s fine.” He made a calm down gesture. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Okay. Good.” I exhaled, my heartbeat coming back down. It wasn’t unusual for her to call him, but the whole “we need to talk” thing had me on edge. “So…” I raised my eyebrows. Oh God, had he told her? Did he finally tell her we were divorcing? He’d been dancing around that for two months.
Derek cleared his throat, and to my surprise, he smiled, though he still seemed guarded. “She’s, um… She’s getting married.”
I blinked. “She is?”
He nodded. “Corbin proposed last night.”
“Oh. Wow.” I actually laughed because I was so relieved that instead of something horrible, he was breaking the news that Vanessa was engaged. “That’s great!”
“Yeah. It is.” He met my gaze, but then he broke eye contact, and his smile faltered.
How could a conversation be this much of a roller coaster after thirty seconds? Oh, right, because it was us and we were a disaster. A disaster our daughter still didn’t know about.
Derek took a deep breath and sat up a little. “Here’s the thing—they want to get married sooner than later. Corbin is going to be transferring within the next year, and he’ll probably deploy at some point. So they want to get all their ducks in a row quickly.”
I nodded. “Makes sense. How soon is soon?”
“They’re thinking February.”
I whistled. “Really not letting the grass grow, are they?”
He laughed quietly. “No. But it’s still three months away. It isn’t like they’re eloping next week.”
“True.” And why was this line of conversation making me apprehensive? Like it was going somewhere I really didn’t want it to go? I was thrilled for our daughter and her husband-to-be, but something about this discussion with Derek…didn’t feel right. After nine years together, I knew him, I knew his tells, and I knew there was more to this than just telling me Vanessa was getting married.
Chewing his lip, Derek dropped his gaze and watched his fingers drumming on his knee again. There was definitely something on his mind. Something he needed to say, but either couldn’t figure out how to or couldn’t quite work up the nerve.
“Derek?” I nudged. “What am I missing here? You’re happy about this, right?”
“Yeah. Of course. I’m… There’s just…” He closed his eyes. Finally, he met mine again. “Vanessa still doesn’t know about, um, us.”
I winced. In the two months since we’d decided to split up, we’d debated more than once when and how we should tell her. The holidays were almost upon us, so that hadn’t seemed like the right time, and we’d agreed to keep a lid on it until after the New Year. She couldn’t make it out for Thanksgiving, and she was spending Christmas with her mom, so it wasn’t as if we’d have to play happy husbands right in front of her. Just keep up the illusion on social media and on the phone. Easy. Except for the part where it meant we’d had to keep it quiet from almost everyone else so no one accidentally let it slip on Facebook. And we were still stuck living together anyway because neither of us could afford to move out yet, so the whole fucking world thought everything was quiet on the home front. The closest we’d come to letting it slip was when a friend noticed our wedding portrait wasn’t on the mantle anymore. Derek had quickly said the frame had broken, and the subject had dropped. For now.
“Right,” I said. “So what does that have to do with her getting—” I tensed, then inclined my head. “Derek, please tell me you’re not going where I think you’re going.”
He looked at me plaintively. “It’s her wedding, Rhys. The next couple of months are going to be stressful as hell for her, and I’d rather all that stress be about planning her wedding. Not worrying about her dads splitting up.”
Closing my eyes, I pushed out a long breath through my nose. We’d been married for seven years, and even though our happier days seemed like a lifetime ago, I remembered the stressful months leading up to the wedding like it was yesterday. The thought of my parents dropping a bomb like that in the middle of all that chaos? Of trying to enjoy my damn wedding while I worried myself sick about making them be in the same room? Okay, yeah, I got what he was driving at. But…fuck.
Facing Derek again, I said, “I get it. I do. But then what’s it going to be after that? Wait until after her birthday? Let her and Corbin get settled at their new duty station? Sooner or later, we’re going to have to just say it and be done with it.”
The looks we were exchanging edged toward glares. A familiar tension rose in my chest: the feeling that losing my temper wasn’t far off. Neither of us was particularly volatile, but ever since things had gone down—ever since I’d fucked up and sent us down this road—we’d both been on hair triggers. A conversation about groceries could spark a fight, so something like this? Debating the prospect of keeping our divorce under wraps for three more months? Yeah, I could totally see this devolving into a screaming match in a hurry, and I could feel my own calm disintegrating under his acidic stare.
I broke eye contact and rubbed the back of my neck. “I don’t want to ruin her wedding, okay? But I don’t want us to be miserable anymore either.”
He laughed bitterly. “I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a thing until we get rid of this place.”
I gritted my teeth, which still ached from clenching earlier. “Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mitigate it where we can.”
“So what do you want to do?” His voice toed a very fine line between letting his irritation show and trying to placate me so this didn’t erupt into a fight. “If we tell her now, we’re both still going to end up at the wedding anyway.”
I swallowed, and in a weird way, I was grateful that in his mind, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d go even if we were divorcing. Vanessa wasn’t my biological daughter, but I’d been in her life since she was twelve. We’d always been close, and my greatest fear was losing her right along with Derek.
“We’ll both be there,” I said. “But which do you think is going to be harder? Staying out of each other’s way? Or pretending we’re still…” God, I couldn’t even say it. My throat tightened, especially when he flinched. Guilt burned hotter and shame burrowed deeper.
I can’t believe I did this to us.
But I did, and there was no going back, and now we had to decide who we’d be at our daughter’s wedding three months from now—blissful husbands or frosty exes.
Derek cleared his throat. “I’d much rather go separately and stay out each other’s way. But this isn’t about what’s easier for us. This is about her.”
I was the one to flinch that time. “And if we do put on the happy, married, united front at the wedding?” I looked in his eyes. “What about between now and then?”
He shrugged tightly. “We keep doing what we’ve been doing. Go to work. Live our lives. Stay out of each other’s way.”
I supposed there wasn’t much else we could do. So, despite the hot lump of guilt behind my ribs—or maybe because of it—I nodded. “All right. Just, um, let me know the dates. I need to make sure I have the time off work.”
“I will.” Derek sat up, and he hesitated like he was going to say something more but then apparently decided not to. He rose, wincing when his knee cracked. He paused for another awkward second but again let go of whatever was on his mind, and without another word, he walked out of the living room.
As soon as I was alone, I sighed heavily. From the moment things had started unraveling, it had been one thing after another. The realization that the cats couldn’t go with both of us. Sticker shock over how much this whole process was going to cost, and how strapped for cash we’d both be when it was over. The prospect of breaking the news to friends, family, and colleagues, which we still hadn’t done because he didn’t have the heart to tell Vanessa yet.
And now this.
I kneaded my stiff neck. The thought of continuing the charade—acting like my husband and I were still happily in it for the long haul—made my chest hurt, but what choice did we have? There were people who put aside mountains of differences and stayed together for years for their kids despite being miserable. If they could get through that, then why couldn’t I suck it up and knuckle through three more months? At least I knew there was an end in sight. The recovery from my accident had been a solid year, and I’d made it through that.
I could do this. I could make it through another three months of living with Derek and telling the world outside that everything was fine. I could get through one wedding pretending Derek and I still loved each other.
Especially since I wouldn’t be the one pretending.
Rhys Powell and Derek Scott are divorcing. Mistakes have been made, lines have been crossed, and there’s no going back. Both men are exhausted and ready to move on.
But their daughter is getting married soon. In the name of not putting a damper on her wedding, Derek and Rhys agree to keep the divorce on the down-low and show up as the happy couple everyone still believes they are.
And between a roller coaster of a road trip and the love and joy surrounding the wedding… Derek and Rhys just might remember why they fell for each other in the first place.
Are they only kidding themselves? Or can a rekindled spark really light the way to forgiveness?