I’m not sure if this will be the first chapter or the second chapter, it’ll have to wait until the final edits.
Bible black clouds log-jammed against the western horizon. The storm’s anvil cast the White Tank mountains into shadow. Humidity pressed down on the Valley of the Sun, shushing the play of the breeze through the Mesquite and Ironwood trees. Pale gray clouds unrolled over the upscale suburban neighborhood like knots in old felt.
“You will not take my children.” Ellen Duncan gripped her house keys in her left hand. Metal dug into her palm. Her eyes burned and her joints throbbed. A shudder rippled through her as her fever returned. She sniffed then swipe her dripping nose with the damp handkerchief. Her ex-husband’s power plays always had impeccable timing. She planted her orange Crocs on this side of the crack running up the driveway. A line in cement—she’d been given everything on this side of fissure in the divorce settlement.
Behind her, the white vertical blinds clinked together, and her chocolate lab barked. Muffled calls of ‘Mommy’ seeped through the sweat beading on the dual pane windows.
Ellen’s stomach cramped, threatening to return her breakfast of tea and toast. The flu diet. For the last two days she’d merely rented her food.
“Now, Mrs. Duncan…” Twenty-four year old Renata tossed her bottle blond hair over her shoulders. The long curls bounced against the scarlet spaghetti straps her sun dress. The color reflected her manicured nails and toes. Even her strappy sandals were red.
Ellen held up her hand. “You’re Mrs. Duncan now.”
Her ex had upgraded their Russian nanny six months after Ellen had delivered the divorce papers. Renata was welcome to Alan Duncan. Ellen just hoped the nanny-bride got her green card in addition to all the sexually transmitted diseases her ex-husband graciously shared.
Color spotted Renata’s high cheekbones. Her full lips formed a shiny ‘o’ and her knuckles showed white where she gripped her cell phone.
At least the girl had some guilt. Not that she should. Alan had hit on the bridesmaids at their wedding; it was Ellen who believed her love could change him. Thank God, she outgrown of that particular brand of stupid. Unfortunately, there were so many others to choose from. Her lungs labored under the humidity and the strain of her illness.
“Call me, Ellen,” she wheezed.
There. That sounded nice and civilized. Unlike so many others’ behaviors lately. From the corner of her eye, she checked the security camera under the eaves of the tiled roof. The red light blinked, indicating it was recording. A blue octagon screwed into the beige stucco warned that the house was under the protection of a security company. Ellen bit the inside of her cheek. She’d checked to make certain all the signs were posted after her father’s phone call this morning.
Warmth cascaded over her and she sneezed.
Renata wrinkled her pert nose and eased back. “I don’t understand, Mrs…. Ellen.”
“Just Ellen.” Mrs. Ellen sounded like someone’s geriatric aunt. At thirty-two, she was no one’s aunt, but this damn cold made her feel three times her age. Even her freckles ached. Working the wadded handkerchief to the side of her fist, she fumbled with the zipper of her sweatsuit. It might be ninety degrees at eight A.M. but she still felt a chill.
“Ellen,” Renata’s curls bounced as she shifted. “You hired me to watch your children. Surely, you can trust me to take Rafael and Erin to school.”
Bile surged up Ellen’s throat. God, her life was becoming one long cliché. The irony wasn’t lost on her. Despite being a stay at home mom and wife, Alan had insisted she hire a nanny to help her. Virtually picked her replacement. Her nails dug into the damp handkerchief. “I trust you, Renata.”
About as high as Ellen could benchpress a Kraken. Although, to be fair, Renata hadn’t slept with her ex-husband until after their separation. At least, the private investigator Ellen’s father hired hadn’t found any evidence of it. And he’d unearthed enough dirt to fill in a sink hole.
The garage door next door grumbled open.
Great. Now, there would be a witness to the latest drama sponsored by her life. Not that Andrew Whiteangel hadn’t already seen her at her lowest. Ducking her head, she shielded her smile behind her hair. Alan had deserved that punch in the nose. She’d only wished she could have kicked him in the balls, but her anger had been such that she was afraid her son might walk funny afterward from the impact. Ellen dropped her keys into her sweatpants pocket then blew her nose. Gah! She wished this child custody debacle was over. She wished this confrontation was over. And she wished her cold was over.
“The divorce decree only allows me to hand over my children to Alan.” Ellen coughed into the crook of her arm. Her stomach performed crunches with each hack, and her breakfast burned her throat. She swallowed. Hard. She’d vomit after she got rid of her company. “I’m sure you know that Alan is challenging the custody arrangement.”
Hell, the man wanted a complete redo of their divorce decree.
Renata flipped her hair. “It is a very nice house to raise the children.”
The nanny-bride pressed her hand to her flat stomach.
Oh no. Oh, hell no! The little skank was pregnant. And given that she talked about the house, she must know everything. Maybe even been in on it. Ellen ground her teeth together. “I am raising my children. In my house.”
Her jaw ached, and she took a steadying breath. She couldn’t lose her temper. The camera was watching. Her skin prickled.
Andrew, her next door neighbor, rolled a round end table onto his driveway. Sunlight added blue highlights to his jet black hair. Bare chested, he righted the table. His muscles bunched and flexed. Skull tattoos flashed a toothy grin from his biceps, and inky bird’s wings fluttered on his chest. Raising a hand in hello, he squinted in her direction.
Ellen flashed her palm at him. Andrew always managed to work on his latest project whenever her ex-husband was due to arrive. She appreciated that their schedules meshed. “And I won’t be giving you or Alan any reason to claim I am an unfit mother.”
Tossing her head, Renata pursed her lips. “You are not feeling well. Do you think it is wise to expose your children unnecessarily?”
Bitch. Ellen counted to ten. Then fifteen. At twenty-three, she corralled her anger. The camera was watching. A light breeze stirred the branches of the desert willow two houses down, exposing the shiny black hood of a BMW. Alan drove a similar car. She’d bet good money, he was watching her, no doubt waiting to pounce on any infraction.
She hoped he held his breath until he keeled over and died.
Ellen snapped her attention back to the nanny/bride. “Moms don’t get sick days. It’s a 24/7 arrangement.”
Even when there was shared custody.
“But the news, it is full of the hospitals and the sick. Many are dying.” Renata raised her dimpled chin. “You are risking the children’s lives by exposing them.”
The gall of the woman! Ellen squared her shoulders. “The hospitals are full with attempted suicides, not people with the flu. Suicide isn’t contagious. Neither does the flu cause someone to kill themselves.”
No matter how bad the symptoms. She blew her nose. Or how much snot a body produced.
Someone rapped on the living room window.
Renata waggled her fingers. “Come out. I’ll take you to school.”
“No. You won’t.” Ellen shifted, placing her body between her children and the other woman. “Since Alan is unable to take them to school, I will drive them.”
Across the oleander hedge, Andrew stopped shaking his can of lacquer and cocked an eyebrow.
“As Alan’s wife, I—”
“Have no rights when it comes to my children.” Throbbing started at the base of Ellen’s skull and tightened her scalp. Rubbing her forehead, she cleared her throat. She didn’t need a nosy neighbor calling the cops for domestic disturbance. “I have full custody of Rafael and Erin. Alan can see them when he wants provided it doesn’t interfere with their schedules.”
And isn’t being a demanding asshole.
Muttering in Russian, Renata stomped down the stamped concrete driveway to her white BMW at the curb. Purple Texas sage blossoms clung to her red heels, and her swinging skirt revealed flashes of thigh. Instead of opening her car door and slipping inside, she raised her arm as if to hail a cab.
Like cabs prowled the upscale neighborhood.
An engine roared to life two houses down. Strangling the wheel, her ex-husband drove out from behind the desert willow.
Damn. Sometimes being right was a pain in the ass. Ellen swiped at her nose before turning to the window.
Rafael and Erin had disappeared. Almond, her chocolate Labrador, rested his chin on the oak sill. His pink nose twitched.
Brakes screeched. A door opened and slammed shut.
Ellen filled her lungs. From the corner of her eye, she spied her neighbor, Andrew.
He carefully set the can on the top of the round end table waiting to be finished.
Good. Alan hated witnesses to his scenes. Drawing up to her full five-foot three, she turned and met her husband before he reached the porch. “Now that you’re here, you can take the children to school.”
Anger stamped red patches on his narrow cheeks. His coin slot nostrils flared. The sharp angles on his face and bladed nose reflected his personality—using a hatchet when a scalpel would do. He stabbed his smartphone at her, not bothering to hide the active camera app. “It is my day to see the children, and you are depriving me of my time.”
“You can see them. But you know the court said I am to turn the kids over to you, not your wife.” Ellen had thought him handsome once. Now his spiked, brown hair had thinned along with his lips. At least the flotilla of skin creams minimized the lines from his over tanning.
As if on cue, the door opened.
Six-year-old Erin tumbled through the opening. Her pink backpack thumped against her spindly legs. The latest Disney movie character sparkled on her tee-shirt when she raised her arms. “Daddy!”
Renata hustled forward, intercepting Erin before she reached Alan. “Hello, cutie. I get to take you to school today.”
Erin leaned to the right, aiming for Alan. Her hands worked like pinschers. “Daddy.”
Alan patted her head. “Go to school.”
Ellen searched his face. No softening of his tan skin, no spark of happiness in his eyes, not even a single compliment about his daughter’s new hair cut. Nothing.
Hunched in his hoody, Rafael shuffled past. At eight, he’d rather be cool in his jacket, than just be cool. “Bye, Mom.”
She caught her son by the arm then dropped to her knees in front of him. She pushed his sandy hair out of his eyes. “That’s not how we say goodbye.”
She hugged him tight. He was growing up so fast. How long before he wouldn’t allow her to hug him at all?
He threw his arms around her neck and squeezed. “Do I have to go with Dad? All him and Nanny do is fight all the time.”
Ellen’s embrace tightened. Dammit. Alan had promised not to involve their children in their fights. She should have known he was lying. The jerk. Rocking back on her heels, she pushed her son’s hair out of his eyes. “Are you certain, Josh’s Last Day of School pool party isn’t a slumber party?”
A light flashed in Rafael’s hazel eyes. Her son was quick. He stroked his chin like a diabolical cartoon character. “I’ll have to ask his mom.”
“You do that.” And Ellen would make a phone call or two. Josh’s mom was divorced and had slept with Alan. Both had made her ripe for petty revenge.
“Rafael.” Alan snapped. “Get in the car. When I have you full time, you will learn that anything other than promptness is inexcusable.”
Ellen winked at her son, then mussed his hair. “Have fun today.”
“I will.” Rafael ducked her hand and raced for the white BMW where the nanny-bride secured Erin in her booster seat. Erin blew kisses then waved to Ellen.
She waved back. Be safe, babies. A shadow arrowed across the gravel landscaping.
“Who told you I was suing for custody?”
Ellen continued to wave as her children pulled away then disappeared down the street of McMansions with matching landscape.
“Ellen.” Alan planted himself in front of her. His left eye twitched, a sign of his irritation.
That particular tick no longer ruled her life, nor the children’s when she had them. “My lawyer told me that a motion had been filed.”
“Your father, you mean.”
“My father is my lawyer.” And a damn good one. Thank God, he worked for free. She had a feeling she was going to need his services for a while to come.
He was such a pill when he didn’t get his way. Still, he’d been growing more hostile lately. She could have sworn he’d practically skipped when she’d relieved him of custody of their children. It had been why he’d thrown in the house with its small mortgage. “I hear congratulations are in order. When is Renata due?”
His eyes narrowed. “There’s no way your father knew about that.”
“Renata told me.” Although not in so many words, not that Ellen would enlighten him. She also wouldn’t allow him to bully her. Not anymore, and especially about her children. “Who’s the father?”
“I am, and don’t you forget it.” Alan shook his finger in her face.
“Had your vasectomy reversed?” She didn’t believe it. Alan liked dipping his wick too much, and he didn’t appreciate children. To him, they were taking away from items he wanted, needed to maintain his image as a successful marketing vice president. She couldn’t wait to tell her father.
It was time the jerk learned, she wasn’t the do-anything-he-wanted-for-his-career/image wifey anymore. She hoped his reality check sucked lemons.
Alan pushed into her personal space, looming over her. “Daddy won’t be around to protect you forever.”
She leaned back to look at him, but didn’t give an inch. Anger roiled through her, adding to the heat of her fever. Her muscles twitched. If she hadn’t turned on the camera, she could have punched him in the nose. She probably could convince her neighbor that he hadn’t seen anything. Instead, she resorted to words. “Don’t threaten my family. Ever.”
He blinked and his forehead crinkled in confusion. He shook his head and determination locked his sharp features in place. “How can you hope to keep the children? You don’t have a job. Without my support payments, you can’t even afford a peanut butter sandwich.”
Her teeth clicked together. He didn’t need to know about her job. He didn’t need to know anything about her now. Her father planned to use his ignorance against him. She wouldn’t ruin the tactic. But neither could she stay here and be insulted. “I’ll see you when you drop off the kids on Sunday, Alan.”
She turned on her heel. She’d go inside, calm down, then write down everything that happened. He wouldn’t win. He wouldn’t take away her children.
Her ex clamped her elbow in his hand and dragged her against him. “Don’t tell me what to do, you b—”
“Ahem.” A man cleared his throat.
Using the interruption to her advantage, Ellen ground her heel onto Alan’s shoe and jerked out of his grip. Her skin burned and pulsed with each heartbeat. She was going to bruise. What the hell was wrong with him? He’d never been violent before.
He’d call her names.
He’d even belittle her.
But he’d never raised a hand to her, or tried to force his will on her. Hell, he hadn’t even wanted her to swat the children’s bottom when they misbehaved.
Andrew sidled next to her, standing a little in front. One fist hung at his side. In his other hand, he held up a mug. “Thought I’d return that cup of sugar I’d borrowed from you, Ellen.”
“Freeloaders.” Alan slapped the cup out of Andrew’s hand. It hit the concrete and broke open. Milk poured out. “You two deserve each other. Losers.”
The skull tattoos shifted.
For pity’s sake, she didn’t need the two of them to fight. She latched onto Andrew’s arm. He seemed the saner of the two.
After one last glare, her ex-husband stomped away. His tires screeched on the drive. A car honked in the street. He gunned the engine, and the black BMW sped out of sight. Still leaning on his horn, Mr. Murphy screeched into his driveway across the street.
Ellen flinched. She’d apologize to the Murphys later.
Andrew stared down at her hand on his arm. “Your douchebag ex is safe from me.”
She yanked her hand back. The feel of soft, hard skin branded her palm. Instead of rubbing it off, she caught it in her hand. Stupid. Idiot.
“Are you alright?” His black eyebrows met above his nose. The slope had a slight bump as if it had been broken once.
“I—” She sneezed. Then sneezed again.
Holding up one finger, she waited for the third one. She caught it in her handkerchief, then blew her nose. She couldn’t get any more repulsive if she tried. “They always come in threes.”
“God bless you.” His slate gray eyes twinkled.
“Thank you.” She waved her hand at the shattered cup on the porch. “For the milk?”
Across the street, the Murphys’ garage door rattled closed. A slam punctuated it.
“I didn’t have any sugar.” He shrugged. Muscle played across his lean frame. “I didn’t think Alan the ass would be violent, or I woulda been over here sooner.”
His New York accent thickened his vowels for a moment.
“Thank you.” Ellen tucked her hair behind her ear. Good Lord, was she actually preening for the man. She was a mess. She backed up a step. Two. “For everything.”
“No problem.” He tilted his head to the side.
He probably thought she had a screw loose, too. “I’ll replace the cup.”
“Don’t bother.” Andrew rocked back on his heels. His tan feet nearly came out of his laceless sneakers. A pink nose pressed against the pane, Almond whined from his station at the window. “Hey, boy.”
She heard the thump of the dog’s tail. Great, that made two of them happy to see him. She had to stop this nonsense. She had too much on her plate right now.
Shouting rolled like thunder from the Murphys’ house.
“Your husband’s bad day seems contagious.”
“Anger is like that.” She wrapped her arms around her body and turned slightly toward her front door. “Well, thanks again.”
Andrew nodded once.
A bang split the air.
Something slammed into her side and she flew backward.