BRIAN arrived home from the office later than usual, thankful that day was behind him. “Zoe,” he called, and he heard footsteps scurry along the upstairs hallway before clambering down the stairs, the sound reverberating through the small, old house.
“Daddy,” she squealed as she jumped into his arms, and Brian twirled her around as he hugged his daughter to peals of laughter. “I got an A in math today, and I learned how to spell M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.” She sang as she spelled, and Brian smiled as he listened before twirling her again.
“Where’s Aunt Georgia?” Brian asked.
“She’s upstairs playing Mario Kart. You can play too,” Zoe told him, and Brian set her down, following her upstairs as she dragged him by the hand. As he got closer to Zoe’s playroom, he heard the sounds of engines and crashes followed by quiet swearing.
“Georgia, please don’t swear around Zoe,” Brian said as he entered the room where his younger sister was holding a plastic steering wheel, frantically turning it and pushing buttons while she swore under her breath.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” Zoe cried as she jumped onto the sofa, “I know I shouldn’t say words like shit, fuck, and ass.” Brian watched as it took Zoe a second before she realized those words had crossed her lips, and then her hands clamped over her mouth and she stared at Brian.
Brian glared at his daughter and then at his sister, who at least had the grace to put down the game controller and look appalled. “I’ll deal with both of you later,” he growled before walking into the bathroom and closing the door, and then bursting into laughter. Brian held his sides as he tried not to make too much noise and give himself away, but he just couldn’t help it. It took him a few minutes to get himself under control. After using the facilities, he washed his hands and opened the bathroom door. The house seemed quiet, the whirr of the game silent. Walking into the playroom, he saw Zoe sitting on the sofa with his Georgia next to her. They were reading together, looking angelic. Brian wasn’t fooled for a second. “Zoe.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said, running into his arms. “I didn’t mean to really say those words.”
“I know,” he said, glaring at his sister, “and if someone didn’t swear like a sailor, you wouldn’t have heard them.”
Georgia rolled her eyes, but had the decency to at least look contrite. “Gerald from your office called just before you got home to remind you about the party tomorrow night, and he said to tell you to stop by early.”
“Kimmy called too,” Zoe told him, squirming to get down. “She asked if I could stay the night tomorrow. Can I pleeease?” She jumped up and down to show her extra-special excitement.
“Do you want to go to Kimmy’s or to see Uncle Gerald and Uncle Dieter? Remember that tomorrow is their Christmas party. This year they even sent you your own invitation in the mail,” Brian reminded her and waited for her answer.
“Can I go to Kimmy’s on Sunday?”
“If her mother says it’s all right,” Brian answered, pleased with his daughter’s choice.
“I’ll call and find out.” Zoe was gone and down the stairs before Brian could tell her to wait until after dinner. Giving up on that front, he turned to Georgia.
“I know, I know,” she said, trying to diffuse the situation. “You don’t have to lecture me. Mom does that plenty.”
“Then stop acting like you need to be lectured. Zoe adores you and hangs on every word you say. When you’re not here it’s ‘Aunt Georgia’ this and ‘Aunt Georgia says’ that. She listens and she watches everything. For example, she told me about seeing you kissing another girl after you left last night.” Brian sat on the sofa next to her and watched as Georgia bristled like a porcupine. “Now, before you get all bent out of shape, I explained to her that some girls like boys and some girls like other girls, just like some boys like other boys. Do you know what she asked me?” Georgia shook her head. “She asked, ‘Is Aunt Georgia a lesbian?’”
“What did you say?” she asked, her arms folded defiantly over her chest.
“I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know. Are you?”
“Mom will freak,” Georgia answered. “Are you gonna freak too?”
Brian wouldn’t be put off and used his lawyerly court voice. “Just answer my question.”
“Good God,” Georgia responded, rolling her eyes. “Yes, okay, I’m a lesbian. That’s enough of the third degree. I’m going home so Mom can give me grief about the fact that I’m not engaged yet.” Georgia stomped toward the door.
“Hey,” Brian said, a little more sharply than he meant, and then he softened his tone. “You need to be who you are, not what Mom wants you to be.”
“You mean you’re not going to give me shit, I mean crap, about it?” She actually seemed shocked.
“Hardly.” Brian looked around, listening for Zoe, but heard nothing. “Glass houses and all that,” he responded.
“What does that mean? Mom doesn’t blame you for the divorce. Barbara the bitch was the one who cheated.”
“This has nothing to do with her,” Brian said, wondering why he was defending his ex-wife. He could simply let Georgia think that was it. “I married her because she was pregnant with Zoe. I was young and thought it was the right thing to do.” Brian was interrupted by Zoe’s footsteps banging on the stairs. For a little girl, she made more noise than anyone Brian had ever heard.
“Kimmy’s mom said Sunday was okay,” Zoe pronounced happily, and Brian made a mental note to call her as Zoe jumped on the sofa.
“We don’t put our feet on the furniture,” Brian reminded her, and she slid down.
“Uncle Dieter called, and I asked him if he was going to have the candy-cane tree this year, and he said yes.” She jumped off the sofa before throwing herself into his arms. “He also said to tell you that they have someone they would like you to meet.” Zoe gave him a hug and then got down, powering up her Wii. Brian tried to shake off Dieter’s message, but he could still feel a flutter of excitement inside. When he looked at Georgia, she had an “Oh my God” look on her face, and then she smiled and nodded slowly.
“I have to go,” she told him before hugging him tightly. “Have fun tomorrow,” she said and then whispered in his ear, “I get the feeling this isn’t a girl they want you to meet.” Georgia looked him in the eye for a second before she smiled and hugged him again. “Mom is going to shit a cow.”
Georgia jumped back and laughed as she hurried downstairs, and Brian heard her call her good-byes, then the front door closed. “I’m hungry,” Zoe pronounced without looking up from her game.
“Then put everything away, put your shoes on, and shut down your game, and we’ll go out for dinner,” Brian told her, and she nodded, but continued playing. “Zoe, I could always cook.”
Zoe looked at him like he’d just scratched the needle over a record. The game was turned off and the controller put away, and she suddenly became a tornado, cleaning up her toys. Then she bounded into her room to put on her shoes and socks. Brian walked to his bedroom to change his clothes. By the time he walked down the stairs, Zoe was waiting for him—they both knew his cooking was terrible. Turning off the lights, Brian locked the house and they headed for the car.
“ZOE, are you ready to go to the party?” Brian asked as he pulled on what he hoped was a nice sweater. The one thing that Barbara had always had was good taste in clothes, and she’d always made sure he looked appropriate for every occasion. But since their divorce, he’d sort of been winging it, and sometimes not very successfully.
“Yes,” Zoe said from the door to his bedroom. He looked at her and she began to giggle. “You look funny, Daddy.”
“Why?” He looked down at himself. Plain shirt, dark dress slacks, nice sweater that didn’t look out of place.
“Your socks,” she said, giggling, and he lifted his pant legs, realizing he’d left on the white socks from earlier in the day. Hurrying, he toed off his shoes and replaced the white with black socks.
Zoe nodded her head, and Brian held out his hand. After turning out the light, they headed downstairs together as the phone began to ring. Brian debated answering it, but did so anyway. He regretted it as soon as he did.
“Brian.” She sounded rushed.
“Hello, Barbara.” She had wonderful timing, if nothing else.
“I’ll be picking Zoe up tomorrow morning first thing,” his ex-wife commanded.
“No, you won’t. She’s going to Kimmy’s tomorrow, and we have plans in the evening,” Brian explained levelly.
“But it’s my weekend, and I want to see her.” Barbara only ever wanted to see Zoe when it was convenient for her.
“Last weekend was your weekend, but you asked me to take her because you were going out of town with what’s-his-name. This is my weekend, and you will have her again next weekend,” Brian responded firmly as he watched the excitement flow out of Zoe, his daughter moving closer to one of the walls for support. “She’s made plans for tomorrow, and I’m not disappointing her.”
“I’ll get my lawyer to call the judge,” she threatened, and Brian stifled a laugh.
“Please do,” he retorted before placing his hand over the phone. “Zoe, go upstairs while I talk to your mother for a few minutes. And don’t worry, I’m not letting her change your plans for tomorrow.” He tried to be pleasant to Zoe even as he seethed at her mother. Slowly, Zoe climbed the stairs, and Brian returned to Barbara. “Now you listen,” he said once Zoe was out of earshot. “I have kept track of every changed visitation, every time you’ve complained that you couldn’t take Zoe for whatever reason, and I will use that plus your whoring around against you. Remember, you already lost joint custody. Keep it up, and next I’ll request supervised visitation.”
The scream he got through the phone would peel wallpaper. “You wouldn’t!”
“As I said, you have Zoe next weekend. I’ll call you during the week to make arrangements. Now, we have a party this evening, and she’s going to Kimmy’s tomorrow. Good-bye, Barbara.” Brian hung up the phone, wondering, not for the first time, how he’d managed to stay married to her for so long and why he hadn’t realized what a harpy she was.
“Zoe, honey,” Brian called, “let’s go to the party.” He kept his voice happy, even though he wanted to wring Barbara’s neck.
“Am I still going to Kimmy’s, or do I have to go with Mommy?”
“You’re going to Kimmy’s tomorrow, and next weekend you’re with Mommy.” Brian walked over to where she stood on the third step, and she jumped into his arms. “Now let’s go see Uncle Dieter and Uncle Gerald.” Brian laughed as he whisked her off her feet and out the door, Barbara’s drama soon forgotten as they climbed into the car.
The drive from the northern Milwaukee suburbs to the East Side, where Dieter and Gerald lived, took awhile. As they rode, Zoe watched for Christmas lights, her face nearly plastered to the glass of the backseat window. “Look,” she said, pointing just down the street as they pulled up to Gerald and Dieter’s house.
“That’s their neighbors. They will be at the party, and I bet you could get Uncle Dieter to take you over there if you ask nicely.” Brian turned off the engine, and he heard Zoe unfasten her seat belt. Brian got out and opened her door, letting her walk in front of him as they navigated their way to the front door and rang the bell.
“Uncle Dieter,” Zoe cried as the door swung open, and she rushed forward to get a hug. Gerald was right behind and he got a hug as well before their coats were taken upstairs. “Where’s the candy tree?” she asked excitedly, and Dieter took her hand and led her into the living room where Brian heard a gasp. “There’s lollipops too!”
“Yes, and you can have a candy cane now, and when you go home, I promise you can have some lollipops. I have a special bag all set aside for you.”
Brian joined them in the living room in time to see Zoe take a candy cane off the enormously tall tree that seemed to have more lights on it than Brian thought humanly possible.
“Brian, would you like a drink?” Gerald asked from behind him.
“Please,” Brian answered as he followed him into the kitchen. “So, did you enjoy your day off yesterday?” Brian asked after Gerald handed him a glass of red wine.
“Yes. But we spent most of the day getting ready for the party,” Gerald answered with a grin. Technically, Brian was Gerald’s managing partner at the law firm, but over the past year, since he’d had the courage to tell Gerald he was gay, Gerald and his partner Dieter had become very good friends with Brian.
“So, Brian,” Dieter said from behind him, “have you heard anything about the appeal?”
“Yes, just yesterday, as a matter of fact. The hearing is scheduled for early February.” Dieter’s great-grandfather and his daughter had escaped from Austria just ahead of the Nazis. His great-grandfather had had a sizable art collection, including four landscapes as well as a portrait of his wife, Anna, painted by August Pirktl, a well-known Austrian painter. Those five paintings were the subject of a lawsuit against the Austrians that Gerald won for Dieter. The decision was now being appealed, as they had known it would be, and both Gerald and Dieter had asked Brian to handle the appeal. Gerald felt he was too close to the situation to handle it properly. Brian had been honored, and with Gerald’s initial success had come a string of art-recovery cases that had kept Gerald and Brian busy enough that they had both become top producers at the firm. There was even talk of making Gerald a partner already.
“That’s really good.” Dieter was pleased but cautious. They’d already spent a year waiting for the appeal hearing. “I’m trying not to get too excited because I know even if we win, it’ll be appealed again.”
“It’s all a step in the process.”
“I know,” Dieter answered, and Brian wished all his clients could be as understanding and patient as Dieter. “Gerald and I are planning a trip back to Vienna this summer, and we wanted to ask if you and Zoe here would like to go along.” The doorbell rang, and Dieter excused himself, taking Zoe with him.
“Dieter has been corresponding with the family that owns the house his great-grandparents lived in. It’s now a small hotel, and we’re planning to stay there. They said in one of their letters that they found some things in the attic that might belong to his family, so he’s really excited,” Gerald explained. “And we thought if you wanted to go, we could see the city, take Zoe to a real palace, and you could see The Woman in Blue as well as the four landscapes that we’ve been fighting to get returned.”
“I’d like that,” Brian said before sipping from the glass. He hadn’t had a real vacation in years, and it would be good to take Zoe away.
Dieter returned with Zoe and another man. “Brian, this is Reed. He and I work together.” Dieter looked pleased with himself, and Reed smiled at him, extending his hand, and Brian shook it. “Why don’t you two go on into the living room while Zoe and I finish putting out the food,” Dieter said, scooting them out of the kitchen, and Brian knew he was truly being set up.
Following Reed, he walked into the living room. “Dieter has tried to set me up with you for the last three months,” Reed said with a laugh. “He’s so sweet.” Reed sipped from his glass. “He tells me you’re a lawyer.”
“Yes. I work with Gerald.” He left out the part about being his boss; that really wasn’t important. “He and I now handle cases that involve the return of stolen and looted art. It keeps us very busy.” Brian indicated the paintings on the walls. “These are some of the works we’ve recovered. So what do you do?”
“I’m a computer programmer,” Reed answered as he looked around the room. It was fairly obvious to Brian that Reed wasn’t particularly interested. Not that Brian had much experience, but there didn’t seem to be much of a connection. The doorbell rang, and since no one was nearby, Brian answered it, and Mark and Tyler from up the street walked inside. Brian had been to parties at Gerald and Dieter’s a few times, so he knew some of their friends. Brian said hello, and the doorbell rang again. More people arrived, and Dieter walked into the hall to greet them, and soon the house was filled with people. Brian had lost track of Reed, which seemed okay, since after awhile, he saw him speaking to another of Dieter and Gerald’s friends, and the two men seemed quite cozy.
“Hi, Daddy,” Zoe said from beside him.
“Are you having fun?” he asked his daughter, whose eyes seemed wide and her smile huge.
“Yes. They have great computer games, but I didn’t want you to be lonely.”
Brian lifted Zoe into his arms. “Thank you, honey. Did you want to show me the food you helped Uncle Dieter put out?” Brian put her down, and she led him into the dining room.
“Are you enjoying the party?” a voice said from behind Brian as he reached to get a plate. Brian turned and saw Reed smiling at him.
“Yes, very much,” Brian answered. “You?” From the smile on the man’s face standing next to him, Reed was definitely having a good time, or would be soon.
“Yes. Dieter and I have worked together for a few years, but this is the first time I’ve been able to attend one of his parties,” Reed answered getting a plate and handing it to his companion before taking one for himself. “This is Jonathon,” Reed said, introducing him before turning to his companion, “and this is Brian. He works with Gerald.” The two of them shook hands, and Jonathon smiled a little and said hello before following Reed around the table as he filled his plate. It looked like Jonathon was staying close in case Reed tried to get away.
Brian felt a twinge of disappointment for a few seconds as he watched them. Granted, Dieter had tried to fix up him and Reed, but Brian wasn’t really sure he was ready for anything, relationship or otherwise. He had Zoe, and she needed to come first. The divorce had been hard on her, especially with the way Barbara had gone off like she was free and really didn’t seem to take much interest in her own daughter except when it suited her. Brian knew Zoe had been hurt, and he’d done his best to try to make up for it.
“Daddy.” He heard Zoe’s voice cut through his thoughts, and he bent down so he could hear her over the other conversations. “What’s that man doing?”
Brian followed her gaze, looking toward the corner of the room, and saw two men standing together, motioning to each other with their hands. “They’re using sign language,” Brian explained without looking away. Their hand motions were so fluid, and the way they looked at each other made their connection seem so deep. Brian sighed softly, wishing he had that connection with someone else. Lord knew he’d never had it with Barbara. Not that he was surprised about that.
“Daddy,” Zoe said impatiently, and he looked away from the two men.
“Sorry, honey.” He turned to her and saw her huge blue eyes looking up at him. “They’re talking with one another using their hands.”
“Because at least one of them is deaf and can’t hear,” Brian explained to her, and she continued watching them, her plate dipping forward as her attention on it waned. Brian took the plate from her hand. “You shouldn’t stare, honey. It’s not nice. Let’s get something to eat and find a place to sit down.” Brian helped her with her food and placed two napkins in his pocket before finding a quiet place to sit.
In one corner of the living room, Brian found two chairs and helped Zoe get settled on the floor. She folded her legs beneath her pink dress, using the seat of the chair as a table once Brian had put down a napkin first. Zoe ate quietly, and Brian looked around the room, seeing Harold, the senior partner at the law firm, and his wife, Christine, talking with another couple.
“Is there anything I can get for you?” Dieter asked as he passed through the room.
“No, thank you, we’re good,” Brian answered with a smile after swallowing his bite of hummus. “Everything is delicious. Did you make it all yourself?” Brian knew that Dieter was a good cook, and Brian was a bit jealous because he burned water on a regular basis.
“Yes,” Dieter said with a pleased smile, looking at the fireplace. “Gram would roll over in her grave if I served store-bought food at a party.” Dieter chuckled, and Brian did as well, having heard the stories of the old-fashioned grandmother who had raised Dieter from the time his parents had died when he was four. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Daddy, I’m full,” Zoe pronounced before handing Brian her plate.
“You can take a lollipop off the tree,” Dieter told her, and Brian saw Zoe’s eyes go wide. “And I believe there’s a present under the tree for you.”
Brian watched as Dieter took Zoe to the tree. She chose one of the brightly colored lollipops, and then Dieter handed her a wrapped present. Brian saw her sit on the floor before tearing open the present, letting loose a squeal of delight that cut though every conversation in the house. “I love it. Thank you,” she said before hugging Dieter. Then Brian saw Zoe tear by him, carrying what looked like a DVD in her hand, and Brian followed her with his eyes. He heard Gerald’s voice and another, “Thank you, I love it.” Deciding his daughter was in good hands, Brian sat back and relaxed, talking to the people around him like an adult.
Over the past year, his main companion outside of work had been Zoe, and Brian hadn’t realized how much he missed adult company and conversation until he was deep in a conversation with Harold about his upcoming deep-sea fishing trip to Florida. God, it had been a long time since he’d simply talked to another adult.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Dieter said, and Brian and Harold paused their conversation. “I’m taking Zoe up to the television room so she can watch her video.”
“Thank you,” Brian said, grateful to his friend. Dieter left, and Brian and Harold continued their conversation. After a while, Harold excused himself and got up. Brian, deciding he wanted another glass of wine, walked through the house to the kitchen. The room was full of people, and Brian poured a glass of wine and was about to leave when he lightly bumped into another man. Pausing to excuse himself, Brian stopped and the tall man turned around. Bright blue eyes stared into Brian’s, and for one of the few times in his life, Brian stared open-mouthed, completely at a loss for words. This man was stunning, rather than beautiful, with piercing eyes that nearly made him flinch and deep black hair that shone in the light against his olive-toned skin. “I’m sorry,” Brian said, for bumping him, and the man smiled slightly, nodding his head before turning away.
People shifted in the kitchen as glasses were filled and new faces moved to the bar for refills. Brian made his way back into the living room and nearly bumped into Gerald, thankfully not spilling any of his wine. “Who’s the man over there with the dark hair?” Brian indicated the man he’d seen in the kitchen.
Gerald smiled at him. “That’s Nicolai Romanov. He’s an art restorer, and he’s been helping Dieter with the paintings. He’s a really sweet man,” Gerald said, lowering his voice, “and very handsome. He’s also available, or so I understand.”
“What about the man with him?” Brian asked, his eyes following Nicolai and the other man around the room. They looked rather cozy to him.
“That’s Peter, and they’re not a couple. He’s a friend and sort of acts as Nicolai’s interpreter because he’s deaf. Besides, Peter’s as straight as an arrow, and if there were a lot of women here, Nicolai wouldn’t be getting as much interpreting time. Peter’s a bit of a ladies’ man. Come on, I’ll introduce you. Nicolai reads lips, so speak clearly and look at him, and you’ll be fine.” Before Brian could stop him, Gerald was leading him into the hallway where Nicolai was looking closely at one of the paintings. Gerald lightly touched him on the shoulder and stepped back.
“Nicolai,” Gerald said once he’d turned around, “this is Brian.” He noticed that Gerald made eye contact and spoke clearly, but not loudly, to Nicolai, who held out his hand.
“Very pleased to meet you,” Nicolai said slowly, his consonants very smooth, and it took some concentration, but Brian was able to understand him. Brian shook his hand and wondered what to say. Thankfully Gerald started things off.
“I work with Brian. He and I try to get art works returned to their proper owners. Brian is handling The Woman in Blue case for Dieter and me,” Gerald explained, and Brian saw Nicolai’s eyes light up.
“That must be exciting,” Nicolai said. “Dieter has told me about his great-grandmother. It is a very exciting story.” Brian saw Nicolai’s fingers and hands moving, presumably out of habit.
“Daddy.” Zoe barreled into him laughing before turning to her Uncle Dieter. “I turned off the player.”
“Zoe,” Brian said, still looking at Nicolai, “this is Mr. Romanov.”
“Hello.” She suddenly seemed shy, and Brian hugged her to his side.
“Nicolai, this is my daughter Zoe.” Brian made sure to face Nicolai so he could read his lips.
“Hello, Zoe,” Nicolai said as he signed, and Brian heard Zoe inhale in surprise as she watched Nicolai’s hands. “Zoe,” Nicolai said rather clearly as he slowly signed her name. Zoe brought up her hands and began to move them, mimicking the movements. Nicolai gently corrected her fingers, and soon Zoe could sign her name. “Nic,” Nicolai said and then performed the signs for his name. Brian found himself watching every movement of Nic’s graceful hands, trying to make the signs himself along with his daughter.
“Like this,” Nicolai told him, and Brian nearly jumped when the handsome man touched his fingers, lightly caressing his skin as he coached him through the signs. Brian repeated the movements for the three letters, and Nicolai smiled his encouragement. Brian wanted to ask Nicolai to teach him more signs, if only to get the other man to touch his hands again.
“Zoe,” Tyler, who lived up the street, called as he approached. “A little bird tells me that you want to see the lights at our house.”
Zoe turned to him, her eyes lighting up. “Can I, Daddy?”
“Sure, just get your coat from upstairs and be careful. It’s slippery outside,” Brian cautioned, regardless of the fact that it was falling on deaf ears. Zoe was already halfway up the stairs before he’d finished speaking. Tyler headed upstairs as well, and Brian concentrated his attention on Nicolai. “Do you only restore paintings?”
Nicolai shook his head before saying, “Glass windows too.” Brian initially had trouble understanding, but the words made sense just as Nicolai pointed to the stained-glass window in the stairwell.
“Do you work for the art museum?”
“Yes,” Nicolai answered. “I worked on their Monet.” The look on his face told Brian that Nicolai was very proud of that, as he should be. Brian could only imagine being a restorer and being good enough to work on an important and valuable work like that.
“Gerald and I often have clients who need to have their art restored or repaired after we get it back. Would it be okay if I had them contact you?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized what a dumb question that was. He was at Gerald’s party, and Gerald certainly knew how to get in touch with Nicolai. But he simply smiled and fished into his pockets before handing Brian a card.
“Best way is instant message or e-mail. If I am home, it is always on, except when I am working,” Nicolai said.
“Would you like some wine?”
“Please,” Nicolai said, and Brian nodded before making his way to the kitchen. Grabbing a bottle of water for himself, he wished he’d asked what kind Nicolai wanted, but guessed at a red and walked back into the hallway. Nicolai and another man, who Brian assumed was Peter, appeared to be having a conversation. Actually, they looked as though they were having a silent argument, with both of them signing frantically back and forth. Brian walked to Nicolai to offer him the glass, but he realized that it would limit Nicolai’s ability to communicate, and it appeared from the near-manic signing that Nicolai would not appreciate that right now.
“Why did you drive me, then?” Nicolai asked and signed, his words very slurred and barely understandable.
“I didn’t know I would meet someone,” Peter said softly as he signed.
“Can I help?” Brian asked, and Peter turned to him, followed by Nicolai. “Zoe and I can give Nicolai a ride home if he needs one.”
“Thank you,” Nicolai said before turning to glare at his friend, signing something Brian figured was most likely obscene because Peter rolled his eyes and said good-bye before hurrying upstairs. “That was very nice.”
Brian smiled and nodded before handing Nicolai the glass of wine. Peter came back down the stairs, carrying his coat and another one that obviously belonged to a woman. A bleached-blonde woman, apparently the only single woman at the party, walked over to Peter, and he helped her into her coat before the two of them waved good night and left. Nicolai raised his glass and made a rude gesture to his friend after the door had closed.
It opened again almost immediately, and Zoe rushed inside, her lavender coat fluttering as she moved. “Tyler showed me the lights and let me pet their dog. Her name’s Jolie, and she likes to have her belly scratched.” Zoe unzipped her coat and handed it to Brian.
“Why are you handing this to me? Do I look like a coat closet? Besides, we’ll be going home in a little while. So you need to gather your things together and say good-bye and thank you to everyone,” Brian told her as he handed back the coat, which Zoe immediately set in a corner before hurrying toward the kitchen. She returned shortly with Dieter and Gerald, and after saying good night and getting all of their coats, along with Zoe’s gift and a bag with enough candy to send her into a sugar coma, they said their last good-nights and left the house.
Brian led them to the car, chirping it unlocked before making sure Zoe was buckled in as well as letting Nicolai get into the passenger seat. After walking around to the driver’s side, Brian started the car and pulled away from the curb. “I live in Whitefish Bay,” Nicolai explained rather clearly, and Brian drove through the city streets, heading toward the near northern suburbs. Nicolai’s home was right on the way, and it didn’t take long for them to reach his home. “Thank you for the ride,” Nicolai said before opening his door and getting out of the car.
“You’re welcome,” Brian said, making sure Nicolai could see him. Then the door closed, and Brian pulled away and down the street. As he approached the corner, he thought he could still see Nicolai standing on the sidewalk watching them, but he wasn’t sure, and after he’d stopped, the figure he’d seen was gone.
Brian drove the rest of the way home, Zoe already dozing by the time they pulled into the driveway. Brian carried her inside, setting her on the sofa. “Go upstairs and get ready for bed. I’ll be up soon.” Without saying anything, Zoe began climbing the stairs, and Brian returned to the car, carrying in everything and putting it away before locking up the house and climbing the stairs. Zoe was already in her nightgown and in the bathroom brushing her teeth. When she was done, Brian joined her in her room, holding up the covers so she could climb into bed. “Good night, sweetheart,” Brian said, kissing her on the forehead.
“Daddy, are you going to get married again?” Sometimes he wondered at the questions she came up with at the weirdest times. “’Cause if you do, will I have an evil stepmother like Cinderella?”
“Go to sleep, honey. I don’t plan to get married, and I would never give you an evil stepmother. I promise.” He kissed her once more before turning off the light and leaving the room. He quietly descended the stairs and picked things up as he made a sweep of the house before ending up in the family room in front of the television. God, he was tired, but not quite sleepy. The phone rang and he grabbed for it. “Hello.”
“Brian, what’s with this check?”
Barbara, just what he needed at this hour!
“What check are you talking about? Are you drunk?”
“No,” she replied quickly and too indignantly, leading Brian to believe he was spot-on with his assessment. “I’m talking about my alimony check. It’s too small. Where’s the rest of the money?”
“Did you even bother to read our agreement? It states that after a year, the amount is reduced by a quarter for six months, and then another quarter for six months.” It had felt really good to write the lower amount on the check. “You need to get a job and make sure you can support yourself, because in five months, the amount goes down again and then stops after six months, and you’re on your own.” God help us all.
“I didn’t understand what all that meant,” she sputtered, and Brian knew she’d at least had too much to drink.
“Ignorance will get you nowhere, and I’m not sending you a dime more, so you’d better start looking for a job so you can support yourself. You have a degree—you need to put it to use.” He so did not need this now. Brian was tired and worn out. “I put you in touch with a career counselor. He should have been able to help you.” Brian sighed from sheer tiredness. “I know you think I’m being mean to you, but you need to get on with your life, and getting a job will help you. You’ll be in charge of your own money and your own destiny instead of dependent on someone else,” Brian said, figuring he’d try reasoning with her. “Look, it’s late and I’m really tired. Think about it, okay?”
“I don’t care. I’m not getting off this phone until you send me more money,” she harped, and Brian seriously wondered what had happened to the woman he’d married. Sure, they hadn’t been in love, but they’d been civil, and Brian had cared for her, but those feelings were just memories as he listened to what she’d become.
“Good night, Barbara.” She continued talking and Brian quietly hung up the phone, turning off the ringer so it wouldn’t wake Zoe. Turning on the television, he curled under a blanket, watching whatever was on, or at least pretending to watch television.
Nicolai. Brian had never felt such an attraction to anyone in his life, and when Nicolai had touched his hands, Brian had had to stop himself from moaning out loud. He’d touched Barbara and been touched by her. She was the only person who’d ever laid a hand on him in an intimate way, but with one touch from Nicolai, Brian realized everything that he’d been missing for the past nine or so years. Not that he’d have given up having Zoe for anything, but with a simple touch Nicolai had shown him, whether he meant to or not, that there was something more than what he’d experienced.
Yawning widely, Brian turned off the television and quietly went upstairs, peering in on Zoe, asleep like an angel, before undressing, cleaning up, and climbing into his own bed.