Mother May I Page 3

I felt a sense of relief that was larger than the moment warranted, as if I’d stepped in and diverted a tempest. I shook my head. It was that awful dream. It still felt like a portentous one. The witch’s gaze had been so avid. I felt more than I thought, Something bad is coming for us.

I shook the little voice warning of doom away. My mother owned it. The voice in her own head must be a stentor. My father by all reports had been a piece of work. I’d never met him, and I was grateful, considering. He was the reason she wouldn’t get on an elevator with any man. Not alone. She kept a loaded handgun in a safe by her bed and was always gifting me pepper sprays and safety whistles. I had never once wondered where Peyton came by her anxiety, but I didn’t live like that. I refused to see the world that way. And I wasn’t going to borrow trouble when I was facing a week of single-parenting two hormone-crazed middle-school girls and a baby.

Anna-Claire stomped down the stairs to the first landing and cocked her hip at me. “Remember you’re a snack mom for rehearsal this afternoon.”

“I know.” Robert let out that last, sneaky burp. It was a whopper.

“Don’t bring bananas,” Anna-Claire said. “Cara’s dad always brings those gross generic fruit-snack things, so you need to bring something edible.”

I kept my smile in place, but it went a little stiff when I heard that Marshall Chase was the other “snack mom.” They really called it that, as if male parents were incapable of passing out raisin boxes and bottled waters. To be fair, he was the only dad I’d ever seen do it. Marshall was tall and lanky and attractive; the other moms made jokes about him being the snack, but a couple of months back, when Grease, Junior was cast, Anna-Claire got the alto lead. His own daughter got Marty. It was a good part with a solo, but it wasn’t Rizzo. I hadn’t ever thought of Marshall as the stage-parent type, but there was no denying that the balmy air between us had gone cool.

I hated it; Marshall and I had both grown up way out in Hurd County, Georgia. His wife, Betsy, had lived across the street from me. She’d been my best friend since before I had concrete memory. She and Marshall dated for most of high school, but they’d broken up when Betsy and I moved into Atlanta to attend Georgia State. Betsy had always been wilder than me, bolder, both more reckless and more fun. By the end of freshman year, she lost her scholarship, and she wasn’t even sorry. She went home, got a job, got back with Marshall. They’d gone through the police academy together and gotten married.

Our lives had forked, but Betsy and I had stayed close. We’d been each other’s maids of honor, and we’d been pregnant together; Cara was born a month before Anna-Claire. I’d always liked Marshall, though in that best-friend’s-husband way that rendered him more Ken doll than man.

When Betsy died in the line of duty, five years back, he’d wanted to move to a safer job, for Cara’s sake. Trey had hired him as an investigator. The firm had been thrilled to get him. Marshall was excellent; he’d been one of the youngest cops ever to make detective in Atlanta.

Last year Cara’s public school lost its arts funding. No more chorus or drama club, and Cara was distraught. Trey put in a word at St. Alban’s, and they’d offered her a scholarship. I’d hoped she and Anna-Claire would bond, like a mini me-and-Betsy, because Anna-Claire was also hip-deep into musical theatre and choir. Instead they were competitors, always up for the same parts and solos.

I couldn’t make them love each other, but I could threaten my too-pretty, too-popular daughter with phoneless exile and unending extra chores if she did one single thing to make Cara feel picked on or unwelcome. Cara had quickly found her own friend set, and her grades were excellent, so I considered the transfer a success. For her.

I’d hoped it would finally give me a real friend at the school. I had more in common with Marshall than with any of the other snack moms. At thirty-eight we were a decade younger than the remaining first wives and a decade older than the stepmothers. Most of these women had grown up with ponies and summers in Provence, while Marshall and I had had secondhand bikes and vacation Bible school.

Instead he’d gotten cooler and cooler, until I worried that my daughter was stealth-hazing his. I’d snuck around, eavesdropping at rehearsals, only to find them working well together. Friendly if not friends.

Even so, Marshall got ever more polite, gravely asking me how my day was going in the same professional, cool tone he used on the pampered Gen Two baby-wives of some of the other lawyers at the firm, like the one divorcing Spence right now.

I hadn’t hired a full-time nanny and made a career out of yoga class and blowouts. I hadn’t gotten into an affair and busted up Trey’s first marriage either. He and Maura split up amicably a year before we met, mostly because he wanted children and she didn’t. Marshall knew all this. He knew me, knew my family.

It bothered me, and I guess it showed, because Anna-Claire caught my stiffness and added, sly, “You should bring those organic Bunny Fruit Snacks. So Mr. Chase knows not to perpetrate that crap.” My eldest had a nose for drama, even when she was offstage.

I shook my head. “All fruit snacks are just tarted-up candy.”

“Ho snack!” Anna-Claire said, laughing, “I should tell Cara that you said her dad brought a ho snack. The cheap kind!”

“If you do, rest assured I’ll be bringing nothing but bananas for the rest of the year.” She made a face. “Now, scoot. Car pool comes in twenty minutes.”

“I’m mostly ready.” She came all the way down to pet her brother’s head, peeping up at me. “Aw, you look sleepy. Want me to take Bumper so you can get a shower?”

“Robert,” I corrected, but I was smiling. Typical Anna-Claire. She’d torment her sister, push boundaries with me, then instaflip to thoughtful. Moments like these I knew she could grow into a lovely, kindhearted woman, as long as Trey and I kept the parenting tight. She was so beautiful that kids and adults alike catered to her in ways that weren’t good for her. It was hard to find the balance between pushing back on that while still being a hundred percent on her side. “You’re sweet, but I got it. Thank you.”

I kissed her and went to check Trey’s packing. He was so color-blind that left to himself he could end up looking like a Mardi Gras float. I narrowly averted a green/blue disaster, then got him out the door. The girls’ ride showed up soon after, and I fell into my day.

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