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From the Embers
Author: Aly Martinez

 

To Mo Mabie

Thank you for suggesting pure brilliance like steel-toed boots.

And also for making sure I never wrote it down.

 

AND

 

To Corinne Michaels

For all the nice things I’ve done that you never remember.

 

 

EASON

 

“Hey,” I breathed, catching Jessica’s arm as she tiptoed out of the nursery.

“Stop, Eason. I’m not in the mood.”

She was never in the mood. And not the kind of mood that happened in the bedroom. Though, coincidentally, she was never up for that, either.

I gave her arm a warm squeeze. “Come on. You have to talk to me.”

“No, I don’t!” she yelled, spinning around to face me.

Bracing for war—and defeat—I silently shut the door to our daughter’s bedroom. “Quiet or you’ll wake her.”

“You don’t have to remind me of that. I was the one who got her to sleep in the first place while you were out in the garage, pretending to be Billy Joel on that fucking piano.”

Yep. She was absolutely right. Though, I was actually trying to be Eason Maxwell and force lyrical blood from my fingertips in order to string together a damn chorus that would allow me to keep our home out of foreclosure.

“There is no winning here, Jess. If I spend all day trying to create even the biggest pile-of-shit song that I can sell to keep us afloat for another few months, you hate me for working all the time. If I stop everything to help you with the baby, we lose the house and you hate me. What am I supposed to do?”

Her eyes flashed wide, her dark eyebrows jumping up her forehead. After three years of marriage, I had enough experience to know whatever was about to come out of her mouth was going to be the God’s honest truth as she saw it. I also knew it was going to hurt like hell.

“You’re supposed to be able to support your family!”

Yep. TKO.

Willing my temper into check, I closed my eyes and focused on the sounds of her heaving breaths—broken and rasping just like our marriage. “I’m trying.”

“At what point is trying not good enough anymore?”

My eyes popped open as I read between the lines. That wasn’t just a stab at my career. That blow was as much about our marriage as my employment status.

Gritting my teeth, I warned, “Don’t say something you can’t take back.”

We’d vowed never to use divorce as a threat, and for the most part, we’d done a pretty damn good job. But in the six months since Luna had been born, the big D-word had hung on her lips almost daily. It gutted me each and every time, but I’d been walking on eggshells around her for so long I didn’t know how to do anything else.

Tears sparkled in her blue eyes. “You promised me, Eason. You swore to me the day we saw those two little pink lines on the pregnancy test. You know how I grew up and you vowed to me our baby wouldn’t have to do the same.”

All of this was true.

But while I’d been struggling to give her all the things I’d dreamed about when she’d walked down the aisle with a lace vail covering a huge smile, the life we currently had was a far cry from the dilapidated farmhouse she’d grown up in.

“That’s not fair.” I pointedly swung my incredulous gaze around our three-bedroom, two-bath, two-thousand-square-foot home we’d dubbed Maxwell Manor. It was farther away from Atlanta’s city limits than Jessica had originally wanted, but it was one of the few places we could afford with a basement to accommodate a studio. A studio that we’d never built because…well, life had happened.

More accurately, Luna Jade Maxwell had happened.

We hadn’t been planning on kids yet. Jessica and I had a lot of living to do before we wanted to start a family. What was the saying about best laid plans? The ink on my recording contract wasn’t even dry when I’d found Jessica on her hands and knees in our bathroom, tears streaming down her cheeks, and clutching a positive pregnancy test.

Was the timing ideal? Absolutely fucking not. Especially when, a few months later, my label scrapped my album and then dropped me completely.

Was Luna, with all her thick, brown hair and a set of honey-colored eyes that were so uniquely hers it was as if she defined the color, the most spectacular thing that had ever happened to me? Unquestionably.

My shoulders sagged and I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Look, can we put a pin in this for a while? I need to take a shower and start making appetizers, and as soon as Luna wakes up, I’ll run her over to Rob and Bree’s.”

“Oh right, because we can’t afford a babysitter, so we have to lean on my best friend in order to hang out with them.”

I let out a groan. Jesus, she never missed an opportunity to take a hunk of my flesh. She acted like I was the only adult who lived in the house. She’d wanted to be a stay-at-home mom like Bree. I’d wanted that for her too. But when things got tough and my savings dwindled to nothing, Jessica never once stepped up to ask what she could do or how she could help our family. And yes, I was bitter about it, but you didn’t see me taking that shit out on her.

Above and beyond that, I wasn’t leaning on Bree for shit.

Luckily—or unluckily depending on how you looked at it—Jessica’s best friend, Bree, was married to my best friend, Rob. This meant I’d phoned the closest thing I had to a brother and asked my best friend if I could drop our daughter off to stay with his sitter.

He’d of course said yes. Then, after hearing the shame and frustration in my voice, he’d spent the next fifteen minutes on a pep talk, reminding me he and Bree had also struggled after their oldest had been born. To hear him tell it, everything we were experiencing was perfectly normal. I had a feeling that his wife wasn’t giving Jessica the same encouragement.

It could be said that Bree wasn’t my biggest fan. It could also be said that I’d puked on her shoes the night we’d met. But hey, stomach acid under the bridge, right?

We weren’t mortal enemies or anything. Bree and I got along just fine—on the surface. Deep down, she was a touch…uh, difficult.

And judgmental.

And snobby.

And…well, high maintenance.

I was learning some of that applied to my own wife too.

I’d been moving heaven and earth to work my way back into Jessica’s good graces. My hopes were high that a double-date night would at least bring her smile back. There was no way I could afford dinner and drinks at whatever five-star restaurant Bree would deem worthy of her presence, so Rob had suggested we make it a game night. With the kids at their place, the four of us could hang out at our house, free from little ears and responsibility. Everyone would BYOB. I’d drink the remnants of the Scotch Rob had given me when Luna was born, and I’d buy Jessica whatever giant bottle of wine I could find on sale. The good news for me was she wasn’t picky when it came to drinking away her troubles.

Gripping the back of my neck, I held her icy stare. “Can we just not do this tonight? Please. I’m so sick and fucking tired of fighting all the time. You’re pissed. I get it, okay? We’ll figure it out.” Reaching out, I hooked my pinky with hers and gave it a gentle tug.

She inched closer, stopping before her chest touched mine. “You’ve been trying to figure it out for months now, and nothing has changed. The mortgage company is blowing up my phone like I can magically produce four months of payments if they just keep calling. Every morning, I wake up terrified that it’s going to be the day they finally turn off the water or the power or—” Her voice cracked. “Or…I don’t know. Something.”

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