“You might wanna pack somethin’ a little dressy, in case we decide to go out for a nice dinner,” Lilah suggested while tucking another pair of leggings into her suitcase.
The morning light had brought Tony no miraculous answers. He still had no idea how to tell his wife that he was going to spend the better part of the next year away from home. Their efforts at making this marriage work may never get off the ground unless he could find the right way to break the news to her.
They’d had cereal with the kids earlier this morning and then, while he was in his office tying up a few loose ends, Lilah had taken them to some type of story hour or another. Even with the silence that allowed him to hear his thoughts, he wasn’t able to work it out in his mind. The only thing it had given him was a guilty conscience.
Now, they were only a short time away from having his entire family convene downstairs and he was still clueless. It made him a little edgy and, since she was offering suggestions on his wardrobe, he figured it was fair that he make his own recommendations.
“I will if you’ll leave the leggings at home.”
Her forehead crinkled with confusion. “I, uh… What’s wrong with my leggin’s?”
Confusion turned to hurt for an instant before the Shield of Apathy settled over her features. “Oh. I didn’t realize you had such a strong opinion about ‘em.” She retracted the offending items from her bag and put them back in the closet.
He was being an asshole by taking his frustration out on her.
“I didn’t mean to be a dick.”
“No, no,” she deferred, not meeting his eyes. “The deal was that we’d always speak our mind. We lost track of that at some point, but I’m glad you’re pickin’ it back up. I wish you’d do it more often.”
She had just left him an opening big enough to drive a Mack truck through. There would never be a more perfect opportunity to tell her about the tour, and he would be an idiot to let it pass him by without speaking.
“Mommy! Mommy!” M.J. burst into the room with a storm cloud brewing on her little face. “Lucas needs to be spanked!”
Tony didn’t know whether to chastise his daughter for interrupting or kiss her. Perhaps it wasn’t M.J., but Fate intervening to tell him it wasn’t time for this conversation yet. Weirder things had happened since Lilah appeared in his life.
“Why is that?” her mother inquired, obviously immune to their daughter’s theatrics. From what Tony had seen, M.J. thought Lucas needed spanked every day for some act of treason.
“He said Mr. Bear looked like poop and THREW HIM IN THE POTTY!”
Mr. Bear was Micah Jane’s most cherished stuffed friend and he went everywhere with her. As a result, the little brown bear had weathered vomit, mud puddles, chicken noodle soup and probably a dozen more things that Tony wasn’t aware of or wanted to think about. After every such instance, Lilah soaped the little guy up and made him good as new. The bear would eventually be unable to survive any more bathing, but for now he was still hanging tough.
Their precocious child crossed her arms over her chest and looked expectantly at her mother. Undoubtedly, she expected Lilah to be as mortified as she was and couldn’t understand why corporal punishment wasn’t already being administered to her Machiavellian brother.
Lilah didn’t find the situation nearly as horrifying and continued packing her panties, offering only the little girl an nonchalant, “Well, you’d better get him out before Lucas decides to flush.”
The sentence was barely out of her mouth before M.J. let loose with a shriek that pierced Tony’s eardrums. They were still reverberating when the little girl flew out the door as quickly as she’d flown in.
“I cannot wait until he loses his fascination with all things bathroom. This poop thing is gettin’ old real quick.”
Tony appreciated Lilah’s fortitude. Yes, he lived with his kids, but the sauce business had him in and out of the house for long stretches of time, so he didn’t bear the everyday brunt that his wife did. These were the times when he was grateful for that – and Lilah. If they were actually going to try and improve their relationship, it wouldn’t kill him to express that gratitude.
“You’re a good mom.”
Her head popped up from her packing, surprise etched in the lines creasing her forehead. “I keep them from killing each other, if that’s the yardstick you’re usin’ to measure good,” she replied deprecatingly. “Most days I think they might be better off if I gave ‘em up for adoption.”
Now Tony was the one surprised. “Not that it’s a fuckin’ option, but why would you think that?”
“Because I hate being a stay at home mom and, eventually, they’re gonna think it’s their fault.”
He found himself a little dumbfounded. Hadn’t she – just last night, in fact – refused to get a job and leave the kids?
Not exactly. Specifically, she said she wouldn’t have much of her paycheck left after paying for a babysitter. You just paraphrased to suit yourself.
“I don’t even know what to say to that.”
Her smile was anything but cheerful when she zipped her bag and hefted it off the bed. “There’s nothin’ to say. It is what it is.”
“So you’re going to be voluntarily miserable-“
She silenced him with a raised palm. “I don’t wanna talk about it. Your parents should be arrivin’ any minute. They’re comin’ early so your dad can use our kitchen to put the lasagna together.”
If he were more sure of where they stood, he might have – hell, he would have – pushed the matter. Their current state of limbo had him biting back his reaction, which was somewhere between thinking her an alien and declaring her an idiot.
Those thoughts aside, he did wonder about something else. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Not about the most recent subject, no.”
God she was stubborn.
“Not about that.”
She paused in putting away shoes that hadn’t made the vacation cut and nodded, watching him warily. “Alright, then.”
“You said something about speaking our minds earlier. Why did you stop speaking yours?”
Blue-green eyes that were, for once, unshielded by glasses solemnly studied him as Lilah considered her response. Whether she was trying to decide why, or deciding if she wanted to tell him, Tony didn’t know. Whatever the decision, it seemed like seconds crawled by into minutes before she shrugged with a sad little frown.
“You stopped listenin’.”
“Lucas Anthony, if you don’t sit your fanny down in that chair you can forget about gettin’ any birthday cake!”
The birthday party was well underway. His dad had prepared the famous Bongiovi lasagna while Lilah had taken on the salad, Matt and Desiree had brought freshly made bread, and Jon and Dorothea brought wine. It was a typically boisterous family dinner, especially once the wine started flowing.
There was talk of the sauce business, Matt’s latest project and, of course, Jon’s album and upcoming tour. That part made Tony a little tense, but everything was kept at a superficial level, thank God.
A folding table had been put up in the family room for the kids – Lucas, M.J., Jacob, Romeo, Rocco and Isabella. Although Jon and Matt’s kids were old enough to shepherd the littlest two, Lilah had still seated herself so that she could keep an eye on them for herself. That was a smart move on her part since, getting restless in anticipation of cake, Lucas had apparently decided he’d rather stand in his chair than sit. His cousins and sister hadn’t seen it as a problem.
“How long do I hafta sit?”
“Until you finish everything on your plate,” Micah Jane declared importantly.
There was every possibility that his daughter was the inspiration for a meme he’d seen on Facebook. The picture was a little girl about M.J.’s age looming over a cowering little boy, who was about Lucas’s age, and threatening him with a stick. The caption read, “I’m not bossy, I have management skills! Understand?!”
“Micah Jane, I am quite capable of answerin’ for myself,” Lilah informed lower management. “If I need your help, I will ask for it. Lucas, you have to sit there until I say you can get up.”
“Only butt I wanna hear about is yours in that chair. Sit!”
Tony dipped his head to hide his laughter as Lucas dropped his ass to the chair with a huff, but his brothers weren’t smart enough to keep their amusement on the down low. They were laughing outright at the antics of the two kids and, more so, Lilah.
Their amusement earned a double dose of stink eye from Lilah and Dorothea before Dot called to the two children she had in attendance. “Jacob and Romeo, please help Lucas and M.J. stay out of trouble.”
“Rocco, Isabella, you too,” Desiree instructed her own.
All involved offered the expected grumbles, but finally agreed to do as they were told.
“I don’t care if you beg until you cry,” Jon instigated a blatant change of subject to distract the Stink Eye Brigade, and pointed a finger at Tony. “Those goddamn cats are not coming to my house.”
The cats he spoke of were Tony and Lilah’s – okay Lilah’s – two. There was sixteen year old Tinkerbell who really wanted nothing but cat treats and attention, and six month old Jinx, who had replaced the other cat that went missing a while back. Jinx wasn’t quite as laid back as Tink and had been known to raise a little bit of kitty hell in the form of toilet paper destruction. The felines drove Tony nuts most of the time, and he fully understood his brother’s stance.
Too bad for Jon that Dorothea didn’t share that understanding. Or maybe she did, but she was nicer about it, and gave her husband a second generous dose of stink eye. “Jon, don’t be an ass.”
“I’m not being an ass. It’s my house and I hate fucking cats. I don’t want ‘em there.”
Lilah shook her head with amusement. “I am very well aware of your aversion to cats, Jon, and would never dream of askin’ you to keep ‘em. I have one of the neighbors comin’ over to feed ‘em while we’re gone.”
“You know, Lilah,” Dorothea reverted back to a previous subject in an effort to keep Jon’s foot out of his mouth as she sipped the last of her wine. “I’m really surprised that you’re letting Tony go on tour. Two energetic kids and two cats are going to be a handful by yourself for the better part of a year. I mean, I’m sure you’ll handle it just fine, but still… If you need anything, make sure to call me.”
No one at the table would’ve guessed Lilah didn’t already know about Tony’s part in the tour. She merely smiled, placed her silverware in the center of her plate and thanked Dorothea for the kind offer before beginning to clear everyone else’s dishes. Tony was the only one who saw the Shield of Apathy come into play, and it was accompanied by the lesser used Cloak of Denial and Armor of Self-Preservation.
He knew his sister-in-law was simply voicing admiration and support, but Dorothea’s casual commentary had just fucked up Tony’s world.
“Here, let me help with those dishes,” his mother offered, also starting to gather empty plates.
“No.” Lilah’s refusal wasn’t politely extended out of obligation, it was authoritative – but she softened it with another demure smile. “Y’all just sit here and visit while I get the cake. Have some more wine. It won’t take me a minute.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” Tony assured, standing to retrieve the stack of dishes his mother had accumulated. “You sit. I’ll help Lilah.”
Lilah’s mouth tightened at the corners, but she didn’t attempt to refuse him. He took that to mean she was going to take the opportunity to rip him a new ass, and braced himself for it as he entered the kitchen.
To his surprise, she merely set the plates carefully beside the sink and opened the cabinet for a fresh set to use for dessert. Those were placed gently on the island next to the amaretto cake she’d baked for him. Another trip to the cabinet had Mickey Mouse and Cinderella plates for their kids, and a dip into the cutlery drawer produced a handful of forks and a big knife. All of that also ended up on the island’s surface without as much as a clatter.
He followed suit by also putting his stack of dirty plates beside the sink and stood quietly, waiting for her anger until he couldn’t take the silence any longer.
“Don’t talk to me,” she cut him off as she began plating the cake.
“But I just-“
“I said don’t talk to me. Right now I have a dinin’ room full of guests waitin’ for cake,” she reminded him, again pushing the huge chef’s knife through two layers of amaretto and buttercream.
“They’re not guests, they’re family. Let ‘em wait.”
“No.” The first slice landed on its plate and she scooted it to the side, making room for the next. “They are your family. They are my guests because, mark my word, if we end up divorced, you won’t be able to say ‘community property’ before I’m nothin’ more than ‘Tony’s ex’.
He didn’t bother telling her how stupid that was, because he got hung up on a single word that had nothing to do with her place in the family.
It was the first time he could remember her dropping the ‘D’ word. At the very least, it was the first time she’d said it as though it were a legitimate option. Hell, who knew? Maybe it was, but he still had to make amends for this shit storm.
“Do you see that I have a very large knife in my hand?” The point of it was brought within inches of his face as proof, and he became very still. He had a valid concern that she would put a slice in him just because she could and because – maybe – he deserved it.
“Then get the hell out of my kitchen and go entertain your family.” The prospective weapon returned to harmlessly doling out cake slices.
She didn’t look angry. She didn’t look hurt. Lilah was… eerily emotionless.
Her eyes were flat and dull as though she was completely separated from herself, and it quite frankly scared the shit out of him. Tony had watched enough crime dramas to know that she could butcher him with that knife and legitimately claim insanity.
There was no way she was mentally stable at this moment, and that knowledge was enough to make him back down.
Left with nothing else to do, he turned on his heel and rejoined the family.