“He’s your son, Pidge. Does it surprise you that he’s good at cards?”
“He beat me, Trav. He’s good.”
I paused. “He beat you?”
“I thought you had a rule about that.”
“I know.” She sighed. “I know. I don’t play anymore, but he had a bad day, and it was a good way to get him to talk about it.”
“There’s a kid at school. Made a comment about me today.”
“Not the first time a boy made a pass at the hot math teacher.”
“No, but I guess it was particularly crude. Jay told him to shut up. There was a scuffle.”
“Did Jay beat his ass?”
I laughed. “Just asking!”
“I saw it from my classroom. Jessica got there before I did. She might have . . . humiliated her brother. A little. Not on purpose.”
I closed my eyes. Jessica, with her big honey-brown eyes, long dark hair, and ninety pounds of mean, was my mini-me. She had an equally bad temper and never wasted time with words. Her first fight was in kindergarten, defending her twin brother, James, against a poor, unsuspecting girl who was teasing him. We tried to explain to her that the little girl probably just had a crush, but Jessie wouldn’t have any of it. No matter how many times James begged her to let him fight his own battles, she was fiercely protective, even if he was eight minutes older.
I puffed. “Let me talk to her.”
“Jess! Dad’s on the phone!”
A sweet, small voice came over the line. It was amazing to me that she could be as savage as I ever was, and still sound—and look—like an angel.
“Baby . . . did you find some trouble today?”
“It wasn’t my fault, Daddy.”
“It never is.”
“Jay was bleeding. He was pinned down.”
My blood boiled, but steering my kids in the right direction came first. “What did Papa say?”
“He said, ‘It’s about time someone humbled Steven Matese.’”
I was glad she couldn’t see me smile at her spot-on Jim Maddox impression.
“I don’t blame you for wanting to defend your brother, Jess, but you have to let him fight some battles on his own.”
“I will. Just not when he’s on the ground.”
I choked back another swell of laughter. “Let me talk to Mom. I’ll be home in a few hours. Love you bunches, baby.”
“Love you, too, Daddy!”
The phone scratched a bit as it made the transition from Jessica to Abby, and then my wife’s smooth voice was back on the line.
“You didn’t help at all, did you?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“Probably not. She had a good argument.”
“She always does.”
“True. Listen, we’re pulling up to the airport. I’ll see you soon. Love you.”
When the driver parked next to the curb in the terminal, I rushed to pull out my bag from the trunk. Sarah, Thomas’s assistant, just sent through an email with my itinerary, and my flight was leaving in half an hour. I rushed through check-in and security, and made it to the gate just as they were calling the first group.
The flight home seemed to last an eternity, as they always did. Even though I used a quarter of it to freshen up and change clothes in the bathroom—which was always a challenge—the time left over still dragged by.
Knowing my family was waiting for me was brutal, but the fact that it was my and Abby’s eleventh anniversary made it even worse. I just wanted to hold my wife. It was all I had ever wanted to do. I was just as in love with her in our eleventh year as I was in the first.
Every anniversary was a victory, a middle finger to everyone who thought we wouldn’t last. Abby tamed me, marriage settled me down, and when I became a father, my entire outlook changed.
I stared down at my wrist and pulled back my cuff. Abby’s nickname was still there, and it still made me feel better knowing it was there.
The plane landed, and I had to keep myself from sprinting through the terminal. Once I got to my car, my patience had expired. For the first time in years, I ran stoplights and weaved in and out of traffic. It was actually kind of fun, reminding me of my college days.
I pulled into the drive and turned off the headlights. The front porch light flipped on as I approached.
Abby opened the door, her caramel hair just barely grazing her shoulders, and her big gray eyes, although a little tired, showed how relieved she was to see me. I pulled her into my arms, trying not to squeeze her too tightly.
“Oh my God,” I sighed, burying my face in her hair. “I missed you so much.”
Abby pulled away, touching the cut on my brow. “Did you take a fall?”
“It was a rough day at work. I might have run into the car door when I was leaving for the airport.”
Abby pulled me against her again, digging her fingers into my back. “I’m so glad you’re home. The kids are in bed, but they refuse to go to sleep until you tuck them in.”
I pulled back and nodded, and then bent at the waist, cupping Abby’s round stomach. “How about you?” I asked my third child. I kissed Abby’s protruding belly button, and then stood up again.
Abby rubbed her middle in a circular motion. “He’s still cooking.”
“Good.” I pulled a small box from my carry-on and held it in front of me. “Eleven years today, we were in Vegas. It’s still the best day of my life.”
Abby took the box, and then tugged on my hand until we were in the entryway. It smelled like a combination of cleaner, candles, and kids. It smelled like home.
“I got you something, too.”
“Yeah.” She smiled. She left me for a moment, disappearing into the office, and then came out with a manila envelope. “Open it.”
“You got me mail? Best wife, ever,” I teased.
Abby simply smiled.
I opened the lip, and pulled out the small stack of papers inside. Dates, times, transactions, even emails. To and from Benny, to Abby’s father, Mick. He’d been working for Benny for years. He’d borrowed more money from him, and then had to work off his debt so he wouldn’t get killed when Abby refused to pay it off.
There was only one problem: Abby knew I worked with Thomas . . . but as far as I knew, she thought I worked in advertising.
“What’s this?” I asked, feigning confusion.
Abby still had a flawless poker face. “It’s the connection you need to tie Mick to Benny. This one right here,” she said, pulling the second paper from the pile, “is the nail in the coffin.”
“Okay . . . but what am I supposed to do with it?”
Abby’s expression morphed into a dubious grin. “Whatever you do with these things, honey. I just thought if I did a little digging, you could stay home a little longer this time.”
My mind raced, trying to figure a way out of this. I had somehow blown my cover. “How long have you known?”
“Does it matter?”
“Are you mad?”
Abby shrugged. “I was a little hurt at first. You have quite a few white lies under your belt.”
I hugged her to me, the papers and envelope still in my hand. “I’m so sorry, Pidge. I’m so, so sorry.” I pulled away. “You haven’t told anyone, have you?”
She shook her head.
“Not even America or Shepley? Not even Dad or the kids?”
She shook her head again. “I’m smart enough to figure it out, Travis. You think I’m not smart enough to keep it to myself? Your safety is at stake.”
I cupped her cheeks in my hand. “What does this mean?”
She smiled. “It means you can stop saying you have yet another convention to go to. Some of your cover stories are downright insulting.”
I kissed her again, tenderly touching my lips to hers. “Now what?”
“Kiss the kids, and then you and I can celebrate eleven years of in-your-face-we-made-it. How about that?”
My mouth stretched into a wide grin, and then looked down at the papers. “Are you going to be okay with this? Helping take down your dad?”
Abby frowned. “He’s said it a million times. I was the end of him. At least I can make him proud about being right. And the kids are safer this way.”
I laid the papers on the end of the entryway table. “We’ll talk about this later.”
I walked down the hall, pulling Abby by the hand behind me. Jessica’s room was the closest, so I ducked in and kissed her cheek, careful not to wake her, and then I crossed the hall to James’s room. He was still awake, lying there quietly.
“Hey, buddy,” I whispered.
“I hear you had a rough day. You all right?” He nodded. “You sure?”
“Steven Matese is a douche bag.”
I nodded. “You’re right, but you could probably find a more appropriate way to describe him.”
James pulled his mouth to the side.
“So. You beat Mom at poker today, huh?”
James smiled. “Twice.”
“She didn’t tell me that part,” I said, turning to Abby. Her dark, curvy silhouette graced the lit doorway. “You can give me the play-by-play tomorrow.”
“I love ya.”
“Love you, too, Dad.”
I kissed my son’s nose and then followed his mom down the hall to our room. The walls were full of family and school portraits, and framed artwork.
Abby stood in the middle of the room, her belly full with our third child, dizzyingly beautiful, and happy to see me, even after she learned what I’d been keeping from her for the better part of our marriage.
I had never been in love before Abby, and no one had even piqued my interest since. My life was the woman standing before me, and the family we’d made together.
Abby opened the box, and looked up at me, tears in her eyes. “You always know just what to get. It’s perfect,” she said, her graceful fingers touching the three birthstones of our children. She slipped it on her right ring finger, holding out her hand to admire her new bauble.
“Not as good as you getting me a promotion. They’re going to know what you did, you know, and it’s going to get complicated.”
“It always seems to with us,” she said, unaffected.
I took a deep breath, and shut the bedroom door behind me. Even though we’d put each other through hell, we’d found heaven. Maybe that was more than a couple of sinners deserved, but I wasn’t going to complain.