Excerpt from Luck of the Draw

CHAPTER ONE

It rained the night Randy died—scattered spring storms that left shimmering puddles on the pavement under the streetlight outside the house. They swirled with surreal, iridescent color as Kate opened the door with one hand and clutched her robe closed at her throat with the other.

There were two of them, their uniforms dark with rain, eyes dark with fatigue. They spoke with gently dispassionate voices as they delivered the news. Single car accident… Only occupant… They asked if she understood. Yes, she said. Yes. Was she alone? No. Would she like a drink of water? No. No, thank you. She didn’t want them in her home, didn’t want them searching for a clean cup in her kitchen, compassionately detached as they watched her and waited for her to fall apart.

After they left, she stared at the wet boot-prints on the living room carpet and wondered what she should do or whom she should call. Her limbs felt strangely heavy as she wandered through the house to her room, too stunned to cry, looking around for traces of him, but, of course, she’d already packed away the pictures and mementos of their life together. All that remained of their ten-year marriage sat in a small bowl on her dresser.

She picked up the ring, her breath held tight in her chest, and slid it back on her finger—as if, somehow, by putting it on, she might magically go back in time and make things turn out differently.

But the miracle never happened, and then Liam woke up. She assured him everything was all right—even though it wasn’t—and curled up with him on his small bed, in the dark, trying not to hug him too tight.

She didn’t sleep.

She didn’t weep.

She simply stared at the plain gold band on her finger as the pre-dawn hours slid into day.


June 7 Time. They talk about it flying, as if it were a child’s kite, but as I get ready for Liam’s third birthday party today, it occurs to me that for every year of his life, I’ve lived TEN. That’s not flying, that’s careening. Just sayin’.

CHAPTER TWO

Seven weeks later…

“My God, Kate—I think I’d die if I were you.”

Kate Mitchell’s hand froze in mid-air, a mini wiener inches from her lips as she tried to think of an appropriate reply. Granted, wieners weren’t considered top-drawer fancy fare, but Liam loved them, and it was his day. She lowered her hand to her plate and forced a smile.

It was stunning how tactless people could be when expressing their condolences. Here they were, surrounded by streamers and giddy children, and yet Betsy’s china-doll blue eyes blinked earnestly as if they were standing next to Randy’s casket instead of eating finger foods at a three year-old’s birthday party.

Kate cleared her throat. “Yes, well, you know what they say about not being given more than you can handle.”

“Still, you’re so brave. I mean, how will you get by? I heard Randy didn’t even have life insurance!” Betsy finished sotto voce, her china-blues blinking back compassionate tears.

“Well, under the circumstances…”

“I know,” Betsy touched Kate’s arm meaningfully. “I heard about the DUI.”

She pronounced it ‘dee-wee’ as if it were some child’s game and not a misdemeanor crime. Kate fought the urge to stuff her mini wiener up Betsy’s pert, surgery-enhanced nose.  She pasted what she hoped was a suitably neutral expression on her face. “Oh?”

Lord, she hated this. Hated, especially, feeling like she still had to defend Randy even though he’d been days away from being her ex-husband, even though—ironically—he hadn’t actually been drinking the night he’d plowed his Lexus into a tree. No, it was enough he had the reputation of drinking and driving. It was enough he’d still, technically, been her husband.

Betsy gave her hand another pat. “I understand,” she said.

Kate stifled a bubble of hysterical laughter. How could Betsy possibly understand something she couldn’t understand herself? She couldn’t explain why Randy had run off the road that night any more than she could explain the wild mood swings that had plagued her the last few weeks, her gut turning over itself like she’d eaten bad chicken salad or something. Grief, the counselor had told her. But, it didn’t feel like grief. It felt like fear.

Kate glanced around for escape from Betsy’s glistening eyeballs and spied Nana—dear Nana!—in the corner with elderly Mrs. Pemborly who lived next door at the end of their southern Connecticut cul-de-sac. It was a quiet neighborhood, picturesque, with forsythia bushes and mature trees shading small, well-tended yards. Just the place to raise a family. Or at least, that’s what Nana had insisted nearly three years ago when she’d offered to rent the house to Kate and Randy after Poppy died. Nana had decided to move back to her hometown of Sugar Falls, New Hampshire. She’d said she didn’t have the heart to sell the house in Connecticut but didn’t want to rent to strangers, either.

It hadn’t surprised Kate when Randy jumped at the chance to move out of the tiny second-floor apartment they’d rented since their wedding day. He’d always cursed the too-short shower and cramped kitchen. Made fun of the baby-blue walls.

But Kate hadn’t hated it. Snippets of memories flooded her. The bouquets of wildflowers she used to put in mason jars on the window sills. Liam asleep in his bassinet in the corner of their bedroom. How Randy had carried her up the narrow stairs and made love to her on the living room floor when they’d first moved in.

Lord, it all seemed a lifetime ago.

Another mother smiled and reached across Kate for a celery stick, her hand hovering momentarily as if assessing it for calories. The woman finally picked it up and nibbled delicately, her white linen pantsuit looking impossibly fresh and sophisticated next to Kate’s khakis and plain blue tee. Kate stepped aside and nodded politely in case the woman gave into temptation and picked up a carrot.

Liam waved from across the room and smiled, his forehead sweaty, his hair sticking up adorably on the side. Kate waved back, her heart squeezing in her chest as a swift surge of love flooded her.

She watched the woman pick up another celery stick, and the surge of love turned to a wave of guilt. She should be taking better care of herself, for Liam’s sake if not for her own. She should be reaching for carrots instead of loading her body with salt and nitrates. Hadn’t she given Randy heck every time he’d brought mini wieners home? Of course, she’d never expected to like them. She’d never expected she’d be a thirty-one year-old widow, either, for that matter.  Kate stabbed another mini wiener and stuffed it in her mouth, resenting the celery-eating mom’s self-restraint immensely.

“So,” Celery Mom said. Kate couldn’t for the life of her remember the woman’s name, but she was pretty sure she’d come with the girl dressed entirely in Hanna Andersson who was currently jumping on the sofa. “Kate,” she continued, her face creased in delicate sympathy, “have you made any plans?”

Plans? Kate looked around at the three year-olds running rampant in her living room and wondered how these people could be so incredibly insensitive.  How was this any of their business? “I don’t know,” she murmured, grasping for something to say besides the impolite retort that came to mind. “My grandmother suggested I meet with her financial planner—”

“Oh, honey, I don’t mean those kind of plans.” Celery Mom backed up a little. “I was just wondering if you had any plans, you know, for the summer. Vacation?”

“Oh! No. No plans,” Kate said. “No plans whatsoever.” Without a plan. Planless

That wasn’t precisely true, of course. Kate had lots of plans. Plans to get her life back on track. Plans to finally finish her art history degree and get a real job. Plans to prove to her parents once and for all she hadn’t flushed her life down the toilet the day she married a smart-talking bad-boy from nowhere.

Unfortunately, Randy’s accident had thrown all those plans up in the air like a messy game of 52 pick-up. Without alimony or child support and, just as importantly, another adult to watch Liam, she wasn’t sure how she would manage classes and tuition now. If she could convince Nancy to let her switch to a reduced schedule or even a four-day workweek, that’d save on daycare expenses. She might just be able to swing it.

Lord knew she didn’t want to ask her parents for help. Her father took great pride in his self-made success and said hand-outs eroded character. Kate sighed—she could accept a little less character if it bought her some time. Maybe she should buy a Powerball ticket…

“You should come to Sugar Falls!” Nana piped up from behind as if reading her thoughts. Kate jumped in surprise, nearly dropping her mini wiener off her toothpick. Good Lord. For a woman pushing seventy, Nana was surprisingly quick on her feet.

“What? No.  I couldn’t.” She’d love to, hadn’t been to New Hampshire since she, Nana and Poppy had gone together that summer after high school, but now was so not the time.

“Nonsense,” Nana insisted. She did a lot of insisting. “It’d do you good to get away for a while. Fresh air. Swimming. Fishing…”

Fishing?” Liam exclaimed, bouncing over to join them. “I never fished! Can we go? Can we?”

“Not for a while,” Kate hedged.

“Why not?” Nana and Liam asked in unison.

Kate gritted her teeth and tried to simultaneously smile at Celery Mom, shoo Liam away and give Nana the evil eye. “Please don’t get Liam’s hopes up,” she whispered in Nana’s ear. “I can’t afford a vacation.”

Nana dug a carrot into the veggie dip, popped it into her mouth and crunched loudly. “Nonsense. You could stay at Ruth Pearson’s little house on the lake. She moved in with her kids last year after her knee surgeries. It’s just sitting empty. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.” Nana touched Kate’s arm. “I’ll call her.”

“No! No. Work is… busy. Besides, I don’t think any more upheaval would be good for Liam. He needs to be home.”

“Home?” Nana sniffed, stuffing another dip-drenched carrot into her mouth. “I thought it was a memorial to Randy Mitchell what with all the pictures you’ve got lying around. He’s here more now than he was when he was alive.”

Kate gaped in disbelief before finding her tongue again. “Excuse us,” she mumbled to Celery Mom. She grabbed Nana’s elbow and steered her away from the snack table. Oh. My. Lord! She didn’t have the strength for this conversation. Not on Liam’s birthday of all days. “We’ve been through this, Nana. The psychologist said it would help Liam process Randy’s… being gone.” Not that Randy’s death had had nearly the impact on Liam Kate had feared it might. She shouldn’t be surprised. Randy had always been too busy… or drunk… to spend quality bonding time with his son.

“Anyway,” muttered Nana with single-minded determination, “I don’t see why you have to have a picture of him on the back of the toilet.”

“It’s Liam’s favorite photo of his father. He likes to look at it when he’s taking a bath. Can we drop this now? Please?”

Kate scanned the room. She should probably serve the cake at some point. Right after she gagged her meddling grandmother and stuffed her in a closet somewhere.

Nana, God bless her, had been poking around the edges of Kate’s ‘situation’ ever since arriving from New Hampshire the day before. And when Nana got a hold of something, she was harder to shake loose than peanut butter from hair. Don’t ask how she knew.

Hanna Andersson girl poured the last of the lemonade into her paper rocket-ship cup. Grateful for an excuse to escape, Kate grabbed the empty lemonade pitcher and pushed through the kitchen door. Unfortunately, Nana picked up a chip bowl and trailed behind.

“No, I won’t drop it. The ladies and I are worried. What’s happened to you, Katie? You were so determined to move on, to start fresh —”

“But he died first!” Kate cut in, pouring way too much pink lemonade powder into the empty pitcher. Oh, heck. Who cared? The kids were already plenty sugared up. Kate held the pitcher under the faucet with shaking hands. “He’s dead. That kind of changes things, you know? I know he wasn’t perfect, and—yes—we had our problems, but he was the only father Liam had. I have to respect that. For Liam’s sake.”

Nana raised an eyebrow and tugged open a bag of chips. “At what cost to you?”

Kate could feel the tears threaten as she searched the counter for her extra-long spoon. “Oh Lord, Nana, I can’t get into this with you, again. I’m fine. We’re fine. Tell the ladies they don’t need to worry.”

Pfft. Anyone can see you’re not taking care of yourself. You’re not eating right. You haven’t had a haircut in months…” Nana motioned vaguely toward Kate’s hair.

Kate stuffed a hunk behind her ear. Sure, it was a little longer than the shoulder-length page-boy she’d worn it as for so long, but she was still deciding what to do with it.

“Your problem is you’ve been so busy trying to preserve Randall’s memory and pretend everything’s okay you haven’t given yourself time to be angry.”

“Angry?” Kate pushed her hair out of her face again and tried to concentrate on Nana’s words. She spied the spoon and began to stir the lemonade with more vigor than precisely necessary.

“Yes, angry. Why, for six months after your grandfather died I paced this house hurling insults at him. I was so mad at him for leaving me.”

“I know how much you loved Poppy, but I hardly see how that’s anything like—”

“He was my rock, true, but I don’t think it matters. Love. Hate…” Nana waved the empty chip bag and crumbs sprinkled the floor. “They’re really not that far apart. The point is I’d built my life around that man. I couldn’t see how I could make it work without him. But, apparently, the Almighty could. ‘Cause here I am.” She flicked the bag toward Kate. “And here you are. So get angry and get on with your life. Take some time to figure out what you want to do.”

“What I want to do,” Kate shook her head and put the spoon in the sink, choosing to ignore the neon pink dribbles that spattered the counter, “is get through this damn party without discussing this anymore.”

Nana pursed her lips. “Well. There’s no need to swear. I get the hint. We’ll talk later.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “Nana, I know you want to help, but I don’t—”

“Kate! There you are.” Betsy pushed open the kitchen door and stepped forward. “Here. Let me get that. Thirsty crowd out there! Oh, and Cindy wants to know if the cake will be gluten-free, because she brought sorghum flour cookies to share just in case.” She took the pitcher and disappeared back into the living room.

Kate wiped her hands briskly on a dishtowel, ignored Nana’s pointed, questioning look and returned to the fray, letting the door swing closed behind her. She stepped over a girl crawling on all fours and nearly collided with the leggy, Nordic-looking nanny with the low-cut top and generous cleavage. The nanny apologized. Or at least Kate presumed she did, not actually recognizing the language being used. The nanny’s smile was brilliant and white and could only be expensive and imported.

“Are vee having  de kek soon?” nanny asked, blinding Kate again with her teeth. “Vee av an—ow do you say?—appoint-mont?”

“Cake! Yes! Yes. Good idea. I’ll serve the cake now.” Kate whirled back toward the kitchen where Nana was already ripping open a package of paper plates.  

“All I’m saying,”  Nana continued, as if Kate had never left the room, “is it’s better to be a widow when you’re young and attractive than when you’re old like me.”

What?” Kate gaped at Nana and reached to pull the cover off Liam’s rocket ship cake. “Where is this even coming from?”

“I’m just saying if you were my age, you’d have to accept you’re going to spend your remaining days alone.”

“Surrounded by family who loves you.” Or at least tolerates you. Hmm. Kate stuck the plastic astronaut figurine on the cake about where she figured the cockpit would be. The cake was a little lopsided and Kate had accidentally dumped the food coloring bottle into the exhaust-plume frosting, so it was really vivid, but Liam loved it. That’s all that mattered. Liam loved orange.

“Maybe. But that’s not the same as a warm man in your bed and you know it.”

Kate forgot about the frosting for a moment as she sucked in a fortifying breath. She so didn’t need a man in her bed. “I’m not ready, Nana.”

“Come on, Katie. Don’t waste your youth mourning him. You need to move on. He’s been gone two months.”

Seven. Weeks. It’s only been seven weeks.”

Nana waved a dismissive hand. “Time enough,” she muttered.

“Nana, it’s more complicated than just getting on with life. I can’t pretend Randy meant nothing to me. We had a child together!”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Randy knocked you up. There’s a world of difference.” Nana held up a hand to stop Kate from interrupting and pulled open the package of candles. “I saw how things were… before things went down the tubes. Let me tell you, once you’ve got a few kids running around the house, it isn’t sex that holds things together. At least, not the only thing.”

Kate propped her hands on her hips to argue the point then instantly regretted the action. She scrubbed at the frosting smear on her pants with a dishtowel. And they were having this conversation now… why?? “So now a wife’s not supposed to be attracted to her own husband? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Don’t twist my words, young lady. Of course she is. And Randy was a charmer, I’ll grant you that. But there’s got to be more to it. A marriage isn’t all about the bedroom. What you need is to find a man who’ll take care of you. One who’ll take care of little Liam, too.”

“They don’t make superheroes anymore, Nana.” Nana pursed her lips and handed over the cup of plastic forks.

“Not a superhero. Just one good man. That’s all you need.”

“What I need is way more complicated than any man can fix.” Kate licked a blob of icing off her knuckle and began rummaging through the junk drawer. “Aargh! Where are the matches?”

Her grandmother carefully stuck three candles into the cake. “Maybe you could try one of those internet dating services. The ladies agree—”

No.” Kate could only imagine what that personals ad would look like. “Definitely not. No way.” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh God. You haven’t done anything I should know about, have you? Tell me you haven’t!”

Nana gave her a blankly innocent look. “Of course not.” She reached around Kate and pulled a lighter from the drawer, lit the candles then picked up the cake. “Never mind. We’ll talk more when you’ve calmed down. Time for cake. Can you get the door?”

They sang Happy Birthday, Liam blew out his candles, and Nana started doling out cake, the kids descending like locusts.

Kate knew Nana meant well, but there were times it seemed Nana was so intent on everyone being happy she couldn’t let go if she thought there was something she could fix. Unfortunately, Kate’s problems felt like the mess in Liam’s Cat in the Hat book… so big… and so wide… she’d never clean it all up…

She absently stabbed another mini wiener and stuffed it in her mouth.

“Kate! There you are.”

Kate chewed rapidly and gulped as her boss, Nancy, appeared beside her. Nancy’s daughter and Liam were thick as thieves in music class, or Kate wouldn’t have been guilted into inviting them.

She’d been avoiding Nancy for days—ever since Nancy had not-so-subtly hinted about wanting to talk, a look of pinched concern telling Kate it wouldn’t be a fun conversation.

“I’m sorry to corner you like this, Kate. I’ve been hoping to speak with you, but I’ve been so busy finalizing the strategic plan with the new Board of Directors and taking care of last-minute details before we leave next week….” She shook her head on a wry smile as if to say, Husbands! How are you going to tell them their surprise anniversary cruise is poor timing?  “Anyway, do you have a moment?”

“Now?” Kate forced a smile, the mini wiener lodging somewhere just short of her stomach. Nancy raised an elegant brow expectantly. Kate wondered where all these women found the time for personal grooming. She vowed to find her tweezers as soon as the party was over. “Um. Sure.” She motioned for Nancy to follow her down the hall. “I’m sorry, Liam’s room is a mess, and my grandmother is using the guest room during her visit. Maybe right he—”

“This is fine.”

Kate scurried back down the hall as Nancy veered into the laundry room behind her.

A pair of dingy white panties hung from a clothespin above the washer like a limp, graying flag. Kate snatched them down and shoved them in a laundry basket.

Nancy pursed her lips. “I’ll get right to the point. I know about your plans, Kate. I know… you’re leaving.”

“What?” “I saw the college paperwork in your drawer. I wasn’t snooping, but you’d left for the day, and, well, it doesn’t matter now.”

“Oh. That.” Kate relaxed a little remembering the papers she’d brought to the office to copy. “I was going to tell you, er, talk about that, when you got back. You see, I’m not—”

Nancy held up a hand. “It’s okay. You don’t have to explain. I get it: you hate your job. It was too much to expect someone of your caliber to want to be my assistant forever. I just want you to know… I won’t stand in your way.”

Kate opened her mouth to protest, hate was such a strong word, really, but then… Nancy sighed.

Uh-oh.

Nancy’s sighs were epic in intensity and length, expressing her disappointment, frustration and sympathy in excruciating slow-motion. Kate had timed one sigh at seventeen seconds. The student had gone blue by the time the last low, guttural syllables had passed over Nancy’s lips.

Then she’d expelled him.

Eight… Nine… Ten…

Nancy inhaled. “Look, I know this has been a difficult time for you. It’s perfectly understandable that you’d want to explore your options. Especially now.” She paused and Kate sucked in a breath, bracing herself for who knew what. “I don’t know how to say this, but I want you to know what I’m about to say… I’m not speaking only as your boss… but as your friend.”

Kate nodded, the blood rushing from her head. “Am I being fired?”

“No! No. Of course not. It’s… Look, I know Randy’s death has been difficult. I understand. I do. But I think it’s fair to say your heart hasn’t been in your work for a while now.”

Kate nodded. “I had so many things to take care of after Randy—”

“I’m not talking about Randy, Kate. I’m talking about you.” Nancy laid a sympathetic hand on Kate’s shoulder. “It’s clear you’re at a crossroads. I’ve read Eat, Pray, Love. I get it. The fact that you’re applying to college again proves it. I want you to know… I support you. Go! Find out what’s next for Kate Mitchell. Find your passion.”

Kate blinked. “My what?”

“Your passion! Figure out what makes you happy. Alive. Figure out if being my assistant is enough or if you need something more in life.”

Kate shook her head as Nancy’s hand dropped away. Her gut clenched. “I don’t need to—”

“I’m giving you a leave of absence,” Nancy announced as if she were sending Kate on a cruise and not shoving her into choppy seas without a life preserver. “Take the summer. Explore! Get away. You can leave as soon as classes end. I can’t pay you, but think of it as a gift of time—”

“I don’t need time! I’m fine!”

“No, you’re not. You’re exhausted and lost.” Nancy’s head tilted compassionately. “Randy is gone, Kate. You’re no longer in his shadow. But, I’m here to tell you that, come September, the strategic initiatives the board just approved will demand a renewed commitment from everyone, including you.  As your employer, I need to know I’ll be able to count on you to give me 110%. As your friend, I’m giving you time—now—to figure out whether that’s want you want.”

Kate let out an unsteady breath. “Do I have a choice?”

Nancy smiled. “No.”

“I didn’t think so.”

A moment later, Kate stumbled back into the living room, her thoughts swirling, her summer opening up liking a gaping black hole before her. Some gift! How would she ever pay for tuition without a job? And, where would she find the time to attend classes and finish her degree if she gave Nancy the 110% she was asking for?

“Kate.” Celery Mom lightly touched Kate’s shoulder, and Kate dropped the carrot she didn’t know she’d been holding. It rolled under the loveseat. 

“We were talking, Betsy and I, and we feel awful about all you’re going through.”

You have no idea.

Betsy nodded sympathetically. “I know it may sound crazy, but trust me. The best thing you can do right now is pamper yourself. Get a facial, a massage—the works. It’ll do you a world of good!”

“A spa day always makes me feel so refreshed,” Celery Mom agreed.

Kate watched as Betsy fished in her fancy designer bag. Her spirits lifted a little. A little me time did sound heavenly. While a spa day wouldn’t fix her problems, it would go a long way toward smoothing the rough edges.

Betsy found what she was searching for and pulled it from her bag. “I just happen to have a business card for my massage therapist. Trust me—he’s the perfect escape.” She winked conspiratorially and pressed the little ivory card into Kate’s palm. “It’s clear this ordeal has left you drained,” she whispered.

“And haggard,” mouthed Celery mom.

Kate stared at the card. Drained? Haggard? She tried not to erupt in semi-hysterical laughter. When was she supposed to have gotten a manicure? After the funeral but before her bereavement leave was over?

She wanted to tell them all—Betsy, Nancy and especially Nana—to jump in the proverbial lake. Oh God. But they were right. She hadn’t taken care of herself. And, while a gift certificate to said spa would have been a heck of a lot nicer than a measly business card, that had to change. Now. She shoved the card in her pocket. “Actually, speaking of escapes, we are taking a vacation. Liam and I. Getting away for a bit. We’re headed to New Hampshire, um, next week. So… no time for a spa day!”

“How lovely!” Betsy enthused. “My Evan’s family has a cottage on Squam Lake. You know—On Golden Pond?”

Seeing as Betsy referenced the decades-old Oscar-winning movie every time she mentioned the ‘cottage,’ Kate nodded.

“That is a lovely spot,” Celery Mom interjected. “Unspoiled.”

By this, Kate assumed she meant there weren’t too many pesky locals hanging about. “Yes, well, we’re actually going to Whisper Lake. In Sugar Falls.” Just as soon as she made arrangements.

“Sugar Falls? New Hampshire? I can’t say I’ve heard of—”

“It’s on the western border. Near Vermont. My grandmother grew up there.”

Betsy’s head tilted, her elegant, spa-shaped brows gently knitted. “Oh. Well. I’m sure it will be lovely there, too.”

“Lovely,” Celery Mom nodded in agreement.

Kate wasn’t sure how lovely it would be once she was arrested on attempted-murder charges for poisoning these toxic women with lethal doses of Red Dye No. 3, but she figured she’d find out soon enough. She grabbed the lemonade pitcher’s handle with a death grip, and refilled each of their paper cups with neon-pink liquid.

The pink dot that happened to jump onto Celery Mom’s white shirt was just a bonus.


An hour and a half later, Kate waved goodbye to the next to last guest with no small amount of relief. She put the slice of cake she’d wrapped up for Mrs. Pemborly in a plastic bag and handed it over. “Remember,” she said, “you’re not supposed to have too many sweets. So, this is for tomorrow.”

Mrs. Pemborly pulled the bag’s handles over her wrist, her pale blue eyes conveying what she thought of the admonition. “I’m ninety-three years old, Kate. There isn’t much point in waiting to indulge in anything.” She heaved a beleaguered sigh. “But I will. You can sleep with a clear conscience tonight.

“Liam!” the older woman barked, “Happy birthday, young man! Enjoy your loot!” Liam grinned and waved as Mrs. P. peered out the front window. “Oh, June, you’re right. It’s starting to rain again.”

“I’ll get my coat and walk you home,” Kate offered.

Mrs. Pemborly rolled her eyes and opened the door. “I’m ninety-three years old. I think I know how to walk. Besides, you look spent.” Great, thought Kate, another unflattering adjective to add to the listMrs. P. turned to Nana. “Just open my umbrella, would you, June? I have such a time with it. It’s a little rusty, but at ninety-three, there doesn’t seem much point in buying a new one.”

Before the woman could announce she’d turned ninety-four, Kate tied Mrs. P.’s little plastic hood under her chin, Nana popped the umbrella and they both helped her down the front steps. Nana closed the door with a satisfied thump. “Well! That takes care of that!”

Yes. That it did. Kate blew out a breath and tried to ignore her frayed nerves as she surveyed the mess. Toys and wrapping paper lay in mounds on the loveseat under the window. Popcorn and chip crumbs littered the carpet like pale confetti. Half-eaten plates of cake sat on the mantel, the snack table, the floor. And, a single cup of pink lemonade balanced precariously on a window sill.  Kate wanted to go curl up in bed with a cup of hot tea, but this mess wasn’t going away by itself. “You’ve been on your feet all day, Nana. Why don’t you go rest for a bit? I’ll clean up.”

“Nonsense. I’ll help. Mrs. P.’s right. You look exhausted!”

“Thanks for noticing.” Kate picked up a trash bin and began loading it with half-eaten cake slices and the larger chip crumbs, her eyes welling with tears. She poured the lemonade into a potted plant and threw the cup in the trash. Nana didn’t mean to be unkind, but the truth was, she was tired. And haggard. And out of a job! Kate swallowed. She wouldn’t lose it now, not after holding it together all afternoon.

The doorbell rang and her eyes flew to Nana. “I’ll get it. Probably somebody left their jacket or something.” Nana swung the door wide, and Kate’s stomach rolled.

“Katherine. Mother! Thank God. I’m so worried about Sandy…” Kate’s mother stood on the other side of the screen door, a giant golf umbrella sheltering the small pink animal crate in her hand. “She’s been acting lethargic all day,” her mother whispered.

Kate opened the screen door and took the dog crate as her mother shook the umbrella and set it next to the door.  “My God! What happened here?”

“Liam’s birthday party.” Kate set the crate next to the umbrella.

“Oh, right. I couldn’t make it. Sandy has been suffering so. I needed to be with her. You understand.” Her mother frowned. “Honey, don’t put her by the door. She’ll catch a draft.”

Kate dutifully picked up the crate again and carried it to the dining room.

“I hate to ask,” her mother continued, “but I have an event this evening and Rosaria has gone home, and I don’t like to leave Sandy alone when she’s under the weather…”

“I’ll watch her.” Kate said, returning to the living room.

“Thank you. You know how she looks up to you.” Kate fought the urge to roll her eyes and accepted the designer pink backpack that included Sandy’s leash, favorite toys, treats, organic food, stainless measuring scoop, pop-up dishes, biodegradable poo baggies, tick remover, hair brush, and personal pillow with lambswool covering. Kate knew this because her mother itemized its contents as she passed it over. “And only one scoop of food. Don’t let her beg for more. I know you’ll want to give in to that sweet little face, but we can’t have our little pooch getting poochy, can we?”

Kate glanced toward Nana—who was rolling her eyes. “When will you be picking her up?”

Her mother shrugged gracefully. “A few hours? Four at most. I’ll try not to linger.”

“Of course.”

“I have to use the little girls’ room before I go. Be back in a sec.” Kate’s mother’s kitten-heeled sandals made little schtuck, schtuck noises as she walked down the hall.

Liam pounded out a jar of Play-Doh onto the coffee table.

“There are times I cannot believe I gave birth to that woman,” Nana muttered from the other side of the room.

“Nana!”

“Oh, please. I think the chemicals she uses in her hair have done something to her good sense.”

Kate went back to picking up food debris. “She doesn’t use anything but the natural dyes now.”

“After thirty years of pickling her brain. But, she had you, so it’s clear the commonsense genes made it through before she did too much damage.”

Kate knew Nana was only trying to lift her spirits, but still. It hurt that a dog meant more to her mother than her own grandchild. Kate wondered if she had married one of the prep-school boys her parents approved of rather than the son of a factory worker whether Liam would be more acceptable in her parents’ eyes. She didn’t have time to dwell on the thought, as a shriek rang down the hall.

“Katherine! Come quick! There are feces on your bathroom floor!”

Kate met Nana’s eyes across the room. “Well, don’t look at me,” Nana said.

Kate hurried down the hall. “There. On the rug. The corner was flipped over, and when I went to straighten it—you really should invest in those mats that stay in place—I found that!” Kate’s mother shivered and pointed in horror at the bathmat. “Who does that?” she cried.

Kate sighed and carefully picked up the mat to shake the offense into the toilet. “Ma, there were a dozen three and four year-olds here today. Obviously someone had an accident and didn’t know what to do about it.” She rolled up the mat. “There.”

Her mother looked at the toilet dubiously. “Do you have any sanitizing wipes? I think it’d be a good idea to touch up… surfaces.”

Kate pulled a package of wipes from under the sink and disinfected the sink, toilet handle and finally the toilet seat. Not that she could picture her mother actually sitting on the toilet seat. No doubt she’d hover like she’d always advised Kate to do in public restrooms. You never know who’s been there. “I’ll take this to the laundry.”

Kate returned to the living room where Liam was now busy chopping Play-Doh into tiny bits that were quickly adhering to the carpet fibers under his knees. “Pumpkin, can you bring your Play-Doh to the kitchen? Nana will give you cookie cutters to use with it.”

Nana ushered Liam toward the kitchen door and raised an eyebrow at the rolled bath mat. “Don’t ask,” said Kate.

Kate closed the laundry room door behind her, fighting back a bubble of hysterical laughter as she clutched the soiled bathmat in her hand. Good God. She unrolled the bathmat on top of the washer and stared at the little brown smudge in the corner, and suddenly… suddenly it seemed a commentary from the universe on the state of her whole life. Randy’s death. Nancy’s ultimatum. Ma’s stupid dog. It all distilled down to this one, simple fact.

Her life was a poo-stained bathmat.

Kate’s chest grew tight and her eyes blurred as she grabbed the pre-treater bottle off the shelf and aimed it at the smudge. She squirted blindly, blinking back tears. You’d think after all she’d cried over the last seven weeks, the source of them would have dried up already.

But they weren’t tears of grief. They were tears of panic.

Nancy’s words replayed in her head like a bad movie reel…

Go. Find out what’s next for Kate Mitchell. Find your passion.

Kate pushed away from the washer, the mini wieners roiling in her gut. Find her passion? How in hell was she supposed to find anything when she was barely making it through the day? And, furthermore, who in their right mind would be passionate about being a secretary in a private school?

Fine. Executive Assistant. Whatever.

Kate blew out a shaky breath and shoved the bathmat into the washer. Her gaze bounced around the cluttered room. How was she supposed to find her passion in the middle of this chaos? She’d meant to clean it. Truly. But then Randy had gone and died, and that was the end of that.

Except it wasn’t.

Her heart pounded as she closed the washer and fought against the small, nagging, paralyzing thought that had been poking at the edges of her sanity for days. She’d buried herself in preparations for Liam’s birthday, Nana’s visit, contacting the admissions office at the school, hoping against hope she would be saved from having to acknowledge the truth. But she couldn’t hide from it any longer.

Randy had been gone for seven weeks.

And she hadn’t gotten her period since.

She could barely breathe as her eyes fell on the small pile of clothes on the dryer. Randy’s clothes. She’d washed them and set them aside, had meant to return them to him. Now it was too late.

Her lips twisted as she picked up a T-shirt and rubbed the soft, faded fabric between her fingers. She concentrated on the sensation, trying to picture Randy in it, trying to remember how it felt with him beneath it, trying to remember how life felt before everything fell apart, but all she felt was… T-shirt.

Kate let her head sink to the washer, the metal cool and hard beneath her forehead as tears seeped through her lashes. She fumbled in her pocket for a tissue, her fingers instead finding a folded piece of paper that had already gone through the wash.

She peeled it open, recognizing the raised letterhead at the top, and her hands shook as she smoothed it out on top of the washer.

Dear Ms. Mitchell,It is our pleasure to inform you that your application for admission to the Fine Arts Program has been accepted…

The words blurred. She’d carried the letter around in her pocket for days, rereading it, not quite believing how neatly life was working out. And then she’d gone to drop off some things at Randy’s apartment. She hadn’t meant to say anything, but she had.

I’m happy for you, he’d said. I know you’ll do great. I always loved how you could do anything you set your mind to.

She’d hugged him then, her spirits buoyed by his unexpected support. She never intended to kiss him. Never intended to let it go further. But as he’d pulled her tight against him, all she’d been able to hear were the words …I’m happy… and …I always loved you… even though neither was true.

“Katie, you still in there?” Nana knocked on the laundry room door, and Kate straightened and wiped her eyes. “Liam wants to know if he can watch Bob the Builder, your mother’s left and I think Sandy needs to pee.”

Kate cleared her throat. “Just a minute.”

She picked up the letter, running her fingers over the softened folds, rereading it one last time. It seemed like yesterday she’d opened the envelope, her heart fluttering with excitement, her future unfolding like sweet promises and fresh starts.

She let out a long, shaky breath… then tore the letter into tiny, confetti-like pieces.

Sweeping it into the trash, she started the washer and opened the door….

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