“It’s a map. If we follow it, we’ll get to heaven, and in heaven, everyone is nice, and no one hits you!” Tinder exclaimed.
I whipped my head in his direction, about to ask him who, exactly, hit him, when Tree pounced on me.
“What’d you get us?” Tree grabbed my cheeks, squashing them. “Is it a truck? I told Mommy I want one for Christmas. Red. It has to be red. It must. Your favorite color, right, Auntie Persy?”
“Tree, my gosh, why would you say that? Any gift is welcome. The fact she thought about you is enough.” Joelle scoffed. Our eyes met, and we shared a smile. In the past few months, we’d built a tentative friendship, based on our shared love for her sons. I knew it wasn’t easy for her to open up to me. Especially seeing as she had to slam her door in the faces of journalists and cameramen on a daily basis every time my husband leaked an unflattering piece of news about hers.
Andrew Arrowsmith was no longer the media’s sweetheart thanks to my husband.
Now they were both bad men who hated each other and stopped at nothing to destroy one another.
I wanted to give her the tools to be there for Tinder and Tree.
Especially now that I’d been with the family long enough to know Andrew’s presence in the boys’ life was almost nonexistent.
“You’re here,” Andrew’s steely voice rumbled, and we all looked up to the top of the stairways.
The timing of him being here made my heart leap. “Andrew.”
“How’re you doing, sweetheart? Is that savage husband of yours still giving you trouble?”
“Andrew!” Joelle yapped, blushing.
I raised my hand up.
“It’s okay.” I turned to smile at her husband. “Actually, I moved out.”
The words felt bitter on my tongue. What an incredibly traitorous thing to say. But I had to throw my plan into high gear. I didn’t know how much time I had with the family. How much time I had with Cillian. I was working against the clock.
“You did?” His eyebrows jumped to his hairline. “Why, if I may ask?”
I was still sitting on the floor, the twins in my arms.
“I’m not so sure it’s going to work out after all.”
“I see. How unfortunate.”
I smiled politely. “Well, I have a day full of activities with the kids. I better get started.”
He nodded distractedly. “Yes. Of course. I won’t keep you. I have some…some phone calls to make.”
To his lawyers, no doubt. He probably wondered if it was the right time to ask me to testify against my husband.
“Thank you for sharing this information, Persephone. It means a lot to us to have your trust. You’d tell us if Mr. Fitzpatrick mistreated you in any way, wouldn’t you?”
And there it was.
The bottom line.
The master plan we both had for my being here.
“Of course. You guys are like family to me.”
The Lannisters, but whatever.
Andrew turned around and made his way back to his office. I proceeded to hand Tree and Tinder their gifts, with Joelle standing next to us. I motioned for her to come join us. She did.
“Thank you, you shouldn’t have.” She crouched down. “I know you save every penny.”
“I love the boys.”
Tinder unwrapped his first gift. A chewing necklace. Shark-toothed shaped. He yelped in delight, thrusting it in his mother’s hand.
“Can y-you put it on m-me, Mommy?”
She stared at him for a moment, shocked. I had a feeling she didn’t have many moments like these with her children.
“I…of course. Turn around, sweetie.”
I watched them as Tree unwrapped his present—a bike helmet—blabbing happily about how he wanted a motorcycle when he grew up. Joelle’s hands shook as she wrapped the toddler necklace around her son’s neck. Tears pricked my eyes. Somewhere along the way, Joelle had forgotten how to mother. Or maybe she never got the chance to be one at all, always helping her husband chase his dreams.
Tinder twitched, curling and uncurling his fists, making animal noises, which he did often.
“I was raised by au pairs,” Joelle said grimly, her eyes still on the necklace she was putting on Tinder. “I thought that’s the way things were supposed to be. I never planned on having a son who is…”
“Special?” I finished for her softly. “It’s a blessing. It makes you grow. Find your strength. There’s a lot we can learn from children. Things we’d already forgotten but shouldn’t have.”
“Like what’s important in life. Family. Friendship. The beauty of a lone cloud sailing across a perfectly blue sky. Kids have their priorities straight. It’s us adults who sometimes forget the meaning of life. Now come.” I stood, offering her my hand. I was forming an unlikely friendship with a woman who fantasized about destroying my husband no less than I wanted to topple hers. “Let’s make new memories with the boys. It’s not too late. It’s never too late.”
I led everyone to the two bikes I’d purchased earlier that week. I used my own paycheck, refraining from touching Kill’s allowance. The money continued piling up in my account, like a mountain of broken promises and cracked dreams.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the backyard, teaching the boys how to ride a bike with no training wheels. Tree got the hang of it quickly while Tinder clung to me and made me promise not to let go of his bike the entire time. It took four hours and a hundred attempts before Tinder managed to ride a zigzagged line, but he did it, and my heart was ready to burst when I saw his face light up.
“I’m doing it! I’m riding!” He laughed. Tree followed behind on his bike, making racecar noises. Joelle and I looked at them, laughing.
“I never thought he’d learn.” She giggled. “Thank you so much.”
“I’m-I’m-I’m going to-to-to tell D-D-Daddy I can ride a bike. Maybe he’ll come downstairs and s-see us?” Tinder tugged at my blouse. I looked down and smiled, ignoring Joelle, next to me, whose smile turned into a grimace.
“That’s a great idea, Tin! I’m sure he’s going to be over the moon.”
Tinder padded back into the house through the glass door, making happy noises, his arms jerking about.
“Mommy! Look! No hands!” Tree bragged, stretching his short arms on either side of the bike. Joelle hurried to her son in a mixture of awe and anxiety. I wondered what it felt like to watch your own child spread their wings and take their first flight. The horror of knowing everyone falls, gets hurt, gets scarred. That you cannot shield your child from the ugliness of the world forever.