We Were Gods

We Were Gods (A Dunham Novel) coverWE WERE GODS
Tales of Dunham: LaMontagne 2
a companion to Paso Doble
© 2014 by Moriah Jovan
110,000 words (414 pages)

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After a 20-year marriage and five children, teenage sweethearts Étienne and Tess LaMontagne had burnt out. Tess, once a brilliant architect, was exhausted, drained of energy and vision, and no longer building with her engineer husband. Étienne was feeling trapped and frustrated by a life that had taken a direction he had not wanted and missing the vivacious, creative woman he had married.

Five years after their bitter divorce forced each to experience life on their own, Étienne is drawn home to rescue his oldest daughter. Tess, having brilliantly revived her career, is also dealing with a sick child. When her latest project and their children’s crises bring Étienne and Tess face to face, they must decide whether they want to reunite, and if so, how to overcome the issues they’d run from years before—

—because even separated by distance and time, they never stopped loving each other, never stopped wanting. It’s just that sometimes, love isn’t enough.

Until it is.


Deconstructivism

August 2005
Kansas City, Missouri

Étienne LaMontagne didn’t look up from the table in his workshop where he had been assembling a component to go in his life’s work. Then he simply continued to fiddle with it because he didn’t want to gape at the young woman in the doorway.

She was gorgeous: tall, blonde, curvy, with legs to her neck, and a face to launch a fleet of ships.

And he was married, albeit in the middle of divorcing. He shouldn’t even be thinking this way.

He wanted her to go away.

Now.

“Get me a Dr. Pepper,” he barked without looking up.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw her bottom lip go slack. And he wanted to kiss it.

More than he wanted to build Whittaker House.

If her blueprints were anything to go by, she was brilliant.

And young.

“No,” she said calmly.

She shouldn’t have done that. Now he really wanted to kiss her.

“Oh? You think you’re my equal?”

“I know I’m your equal.”

Damn. She had him. When was the last time Tess had talked to him like that?

Oh, Tess.

His heart was breaking over one woman and here he sat, suddenly and unexpectedly salivating over another. Maybe he really was as irresponsible and immature as Tess thought he was.

He looked at her from under his brows to see her watching him speculatively and was not surprised to know she found him attractive.

Everyone did.

“Fuck me,” he muttered in French.

“Was that an invitation?” she said, still in that calm tone.

He was in so much trouble.

“No,” he snarled. “Bring me those plans and keep your hormones to yourself.”

At least until his divorce was final.

•  •  •

Tess LaMontagne sat at her vanity in her massive bathroom watching herself unpin her straight black hair from its sleek French twist. The lack of neon streaks still made her feel naked, and she hadn’t had them in years. Her earrings—one pair—were simple gold studs. She had a short string of pearls around her neck, over the soft mint cardigan that made a sweater set a sweater set. The long sleeve of her prim white blouse hid her right wrist, tattooed with a circuit board bracelet, symbolizing her first building project, the one she’d built with her husband when they were newlyweds, stupid in love.

Who would soon not be her husband.

She couldn’t bear to look at that tattoo, which matched the one on his right wrist.

It killed her, what she’d done, in an effort to make him see what his constant hounding was doing to her.

It was always the same: “Go draw, Tess.”

A shadow crossed in the mirror, came out of the darkness of the bedroom and into the light of the bathroom toward her. He came to a halt behind her, crossed his arms over his chest, and stared at her in the mirror.

And he was naked.

Well over six feet of Dunham brawn, hardened and shaped by lifting heavy pieces of machinery all day in his workshop and on build sites. Thick red-mahogany waves long past his shoulders, a cluster of tiny braids at each temple, pulled back and tied. Medium-sized gold hoops in his ears, and from behind his left earlobe, down his neck, across his jaw, stark rays of black ink symbolizing the first building they’d built together. It matched the one beginning at the nape of her neck and radiating out and across her back like art deco angel wings. His nose was long and strong with a slight bump in the middle, his lips thin and carved, his cheekbones high. His ice blue eyes burned into hers.

He looked like an eighteenth-century rogue standing there with his head lowered, looking up at her from under his strong brow, his jaw stubbled.

He took her breath away.

He always would.

She couldn’t do this. She didn’t want to give him up, give up the life they’d built together, devastate the children over their differing priorities.

He looked at her clothing and sneered. “Get that off,” he said, his French accent thickening as it usually did when he was aroused. Or angry. Or both.

Her mouth tightened. “Tell me why you don’t value what I do for you.”

He bared his teeth in a snarl. “I have been telling you why for the last three years.”

“Tell me a different way.”

“I’ve tried every way I know how and I’m tired of trying.” He reached out then, caught her pearls, twisted his hand until the string broke and sent pearls scattering and pinging everywhere.

She rolled her eyes. “That got my attention, all right,” she drawled sarcastically.

“Get it off,” he snarled. “I cannot stand you looking like that.”

She didn’t care for it much, either, but she wasn’t a teenager anymore. “Oh, do you mean like an adult? I think it’s rather flattering.” It was very flattering, but that didn’t mean she liked it. She raised her eyebrow. “You’re trying to pick a fight.”

“And you’re going to give me one,” he shot back.

The mirror made it easier for her to arrange her face to show the exact degree of snarky boredom that would drive him over the edge.

“Call off the divorce, Tess.”

Indeed she would. First thing in the morning. And then she would call a marriage counselor. She didn’t understand why he didn’t like her in the supportive-wife-and-mother role, and he didn’t understand why it was important to her to be that. But right now she’d give him that screaming fight he wanted and then have angry sex all night and then go out tomorrow morning to start making it right.

The appropriate tool was a marriage counselor, not a divorce lawyer, and she’d never been one to use a hammer to drive a screw. Would that she had chosen the screwdriver to begin with.

She pressed her palms into the vanity and arose slowly, her jaw tight, returning his hard stare with an equally hard one. She turned, her gaze going straight to his erection and his orange pubic hair and a tattoo of a raven—a symbol of the last building she’d designed, the one he’d powered—and was the companion to her own tattoo there.

That generator had taken them from upper middle class to wealthy, and her building had made her one of green architecture’s hot young darlings—before her mother reminded her that children didn’t get fed nor houses cleaned on the back of pretty little awards. That had to be dusted.

“I have tried,” she began calmly, “to be the kind of wife I was supposed to be. I have done everything I was supposed to do to make your life as easy as possible because you are the breadwinner.”

That killed her.

He snarled.

“And yet … you continue to say I have more important things to do than raising kids and keeping a clean house and doing the house books and making sure the yard and house are maintained so, you know, it won’t fall down on us!

“You do have more important things to do. Design a damned building!

I don’t have time!

“You have plenty of time!” he roared.

“If you helped me in the least bit, I might actually have time!”

“I do help you. I have helped you. I have offered to buy you an entire housekeeping service to help you. But you refused. And yet, you tell me you don’t have time. Why can you not find your way to your office? Your office, Tess! A whole room in this house dedicated to you and what you were born to do, and you can’t manage to get your butt in that chair for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years.”

He didn’t understand. He refused to.

“You know all those flowers-and-sunshine, wavy-wheat-and-daisy-field, sappy-theme-song fantasies we had about having kids?” His nostrils flared. “It’s not real! Somebody has to be the adult in this marriage, Étienne, and I’m it and I’m going to stay it.”

“That’s the problem,” he said low, grasping her wrist to pull her into the bedroom. She bashed her shin on her vanity chair and stumbled after him because his grip was murder.

But when she got her feet under her, she stopped and heaved backward. He barely noticed.

She threw herself at his back, her elbow digging into a kidney. He fell forward on the bed with a grunt, but still had her wrist, so she went with him.

Suddenly her mouth was opened by his and her tongue found its way into his mouth with no hesitation whatsoever. She closed her eyes and breathed her desire into him, reaching up and grabbing fists full of his thick, coarse hair to pull him closer.

“You drive me insane,” he growled as he left her to crawl to the middle of the bed. He sat, his knees up and wide, his erection standing proud, teasing her. He wrapped his big hand around her wrist and dragged her to him across the silk counterpane. She rose to her knees in front of him, daring him to rip her clothes off her.

Knit sweaters and skirts don’t rip so well.

“I hate these,” he muttered while his talented fingers deftly undid her buttons. “Take it off.”

“Say your right words,” she purred.

He leveled her a look of pure animal lust. “How you turn my world, you precious thing.”

It only took a few seconds for her to divest herself of her adult clothes until she was as nude as he was. She stared down at him from where she knelt between his legs. He returned it right before he reached around her and jerked her to his body.

He tilted his head back to welcome her kiss, which she gave him, tilting her head to get her tongue in his mouth as far as she could. It was his turn to moan softly.

She was stupid to think she could let this man go. Twenty years. Five kids. And this. Still. Most people their age weren’t so lucky.

“Étienne,” she whispered into his mouth, straddling his thigh, then his hips. She lowered herself on his erection, feeling it slide up into her still-tight sheath.

“Tess,” he sighed, covering her butt with his enormous hands and stroking down, spreading her apart. He lowered his knees so she could move more freely over him, so she could rub her breasts against the coarse hair on his chest the way she liked, so she wasn’t confined in whatever she wanted to do to him.

She kissed him frantically while she rode him hard, her hands over his face to keep him to her. She felt his coarse hands slowly slide over her butt, up her back, into her hair.

“Go back to your drawing board, Tess.”

“What?” she sighed, not really caring.

He pulled away from her and clasped her chin in his hand. Tight. Yet their mouths were a bare breath apart. “Go back to your drawing board.”

A memory flashed through her mind, when they’d been married for six months, and she had excused herself from the bed they’d been in for hours and hours to draw.

Yes, she sighed.

He’d protested she could work on that later, but he didn’t understand. She had to. What she had designed had been not just visionary, but divinely inspired, something she couldn’t have drawn before she’d become a woman in his arms. And when she was done twenty-four hours later, she had gone back to bed with even more to give her new husband.

“Please, Tess,” he said. “Please.

“Not right now,” she gasped, and threw her head back, breaking his grip, arching her hips harder into his.

“Tomorrow.”

“Things to do tomorrow,” she breathed vaguely, because her orgasm was building, there, right … there.

She kissed him when she went over the edge because she wanted to scream and there were still kids in the house. He kissed her back, frantically, almost desperately, and continued to do so as he gritted his satisfaction and thrust up into her. She came again when he did, though it was a tiny orgasm.

They stayed that way, their chests heaving, connected, in their favorite position, the one where she wasn’t so much shorter than he was. The one where they could talk. The one where she was one of her buildings and he was one of his engines.

“Go draw,” he growled, and suddenly his tone was piercing through her lust-fogged brain. It was a command, an order. A plea.

She pulled away from him slowly, but it was dark and the bathroom light didn’t give her enough to see into his eyes. But his mouth was tight. His jaw tense. And he would not stop looking at her.

“Now?” she asked carefully.

“Oui!” he barked, but did not release her. “Now! Now, tomorrow, the next day, the day after that. Go into your office and draw something.”

Even if she hadn’t had plans for the next day, even if she had any ideas, she wouldn’t be able to draw because she had to be in the zone and she never had enough time for that to happen.

But he wanted it so badly. Why?

“I can’t tomorrow,” she began gently. “I have to call my—”

“Whatever it is, it can wait!” he snarled. “Go—design—me—something—to—build!

She decided to not argue because he seemed to be on the edge of actually getting it out, whatever it was. “Why is this so important to you? I mean, why now? You’re begging.” And Étienne did not beg for anything. There had to be a catalyst. “What happened?”

“I met a woman today,” he hissed.

Her heart dropped into her stomach and she couldn’t breathe.

“And I want a chance to salvage what we had—what we started out with—before I go fall in love with someone else. I love you, Tess. I always have and I always will, but this— She slapped me in the face today, looking at her, hearing the you I married. So now I’m telling you what I want, which is—you design me a fucking building it’ll take me a year to figure out how to power! And do it tomorrow.”

Her chest was heaving. Another woman. No. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t possibly be.

Could it?

“If you don’t, I’ll give you the divorce you want, and I will go hard and fast after this girl.”

“Girl?” she choked.

“Twenty-four. An architect. One I’ll be working with for the next two years to build a building you designed twenty years ago. Remember those plans? The ones with the concepts your professors said couldn’t be done? The ones I swore I would find a way to power? And now it’s twenty years later and it’s not visionary anymore. Why am I so often the only one in the world who can build what people need? The one architects draw their ambitious plans for so often? Because I figured out how to power your buildings so long ago. Because of you, forcing me to work twenty years into the future. I could power Whittaker House—a stupid niche hotel in the Ozarks!—in my sleep, but now I’m powering it for her!

Tess thought her body would shatter into a million pieces. She stared at her husband, her lover, her best fr—

A best friend wouldn’t do this to her, would he?

“I just saw those plans again— By an architect older than you when you drew yours. They aren’t even her concepts—they’re her client’s. And her client is a chef! A chef has more vision than this girl has. It’s twenty years later. You have to have something left. Look into the future, Tess. For me. Please tell me it’s not gone, that the housekeeping didn’t destroy it.”

Another woman. Tears overflowed her eyes onto her cheeks. She couldn’t have spoken if she wanted to. She could not physically speak to tell him her plans for tomorrow. She was hyperventilating, gasping for air.

He was still talking, still pleading, still begging her for a design. She barely heard a word.

Another woman.

“Why am I not building this with you, Tess?”

Another woman.

“Why am I building it with a girl who can implement it but can’t conceive it?”

Another woman.

“What we built together are masterpieces! And then …you just fell off the face of the industry. You trashed our business, our partnership, our reputations—and for what?! Baking chocolate cakes! Tess! We made art!

And children. Don’t forget the children.

ANOTHER WOMAN.

“We made children together, Tess. Good ones. Smart ones. Why did we have to stop there? Why didn’t we get back to building masterpieces?”

She pushed away from him, scrambling, sobbing, trying to catch her breath so she could speak and tell him what she needed to, but she choked, coughed, hacked on her own spit, and she slid off the bed and stumbled to the bathroom and slammed the doors and dropped to her knees in front of the toilet.

She was still puking when the bedroom door slammed shut.


1: Craftsman

September 2010
Kansas City, Missouri

Tess could not contain her good mood this Sunday morning as she walked from the church’s parking lot to the front doors. Fall was in the air. Her church job was all caught up and her list of duties was in order for passing on to whoever her successor would be. Her middle daughter had been stable the last three days. And she had a meeting tomorrow that might be the final step in the vindication of her career—and marriage.

Even if the venture capital meeting in the morning didn’t turn out as well as rumor said it would, after the phone call she’d gotten early this morning confirming her suspicions as to the quality of Whittaker House, nothing could get to her.

She grinned at the turning trees. The Little Hotel in the Ozarks was an utter disaster. Oh, it wasn’t going to fall down on anybody’s head. It did exactly what it had been built to do. And by all reports, Vanessa Whittaker, its owner, was ecstatic over it, but why shouldn’t she be? She was a chef. She wouldn’t know any better.

Tess did.

Yes, it did what it had been built to do, but it did not do what it should have been designed to do—even then its architect hadn’t done the job.

The only thing that had saved that building was its engineer.

Every architect older than forty who’d been working in green energy their entire careers knew what Whittaker House should have been, even if the rest of the industry didn’t. And that was its tragedy.

But those architects were few and far between, and Tess was a villain in hipster green-energy circles, the one in which Whittaker House’s young architect ran.

I don’t give a crap about the environment.

She was infamous for that statement, its qualifier having gotten lost long before: All I care about is the most efficient, cost-effective way to decouple the property owner from energy providers—in a structure that’s not so butt-ugly you’d need eyeball bleach to look at it. It is incidental that everything I do is also good for the environment.

And her hus—ex-husband had to know exactly how big a screw-up Whittaker House really was.

Not that she would ever ask, nor would he admit it to her, but if Tess had her name all over it like Étienne did, she’d want to run away to hide from the shame of it, too. Nia Desmond was still riding high on her wave of fraudulent popularity because very few people would ever know how average Whittaker House’s architect was, not even the architect herself.

Tess could hardly blame her for that. The girl didn’t know what she didn’t know.

Didn’t matter. It was enough that Tess knew, that her firm knew, that a few key architects around the world knew, and, most importantly, that Étienne most certainly would know.

Tess nearly bounced into the building, then into the chapel, and she couldn’t stop smiling. She found her seat next to her cous— ex-cousin-by-marriage, the husband, and their toddler, and plopped herself and her tote down.

Today, it only annoyed her a little bit that she still had to remind herself she wasn’t married. Of course, the fact that she was still wearing her wedding ring—but only because it was pretty and she felt naked without it—didn’t help.

“Well aren’t you chipper this morning!” Giselle said, then lowered her voice. “Did you get laid or something?”

Tess scowled at her. It wasn’t funny, but Giselle didn’t know that so she took Tess’s scowl as a joke. Didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough to dampen her spirits.

“Hey, Tess,” said Giselle’s husband.

“Hey, Bryce. My life could not possibly be any better at the moment. You know that hemp project I’ve been working on since forever? The four-twenty? We have a VC meeting tomorrow morning and if the rumors are right, it’ll be fully funded and then some.”

Giselle’s face lit up. “That’s great!”

But Tess couldn’t explain further because other people came trickling into the chapel and interrupted the rest of her news, which was just as well. Tess needed a little weight hung on her buoyant mood before she popped of joy or started to cry, whichever came first.

“Tess!”

At her mother-in-law’s voice, she stood and turned to collect her hug. Harriet LaMontagne had always loved and championed Tess, even though Harriet and Soon-hee Chun, Tess’s mother, should never have been put in the same room together.

“Where’s Kelly?”

“At Darcy’s so Jeremy could take a break.”

“Poor boy needs one.”

Tess couldn’t agree with that more.

“Hey, Aunt Harrie,” Giselle called.

“Good morning, Giselle,” she returned. “Bryce.” She smiled at Duncan, then got back to the thing Tess knew was most important to both of them. “And Darcy?” she asked quietly.

Tess lowered her voice, too. “Lucid three days. Jeremy tried another OB, though.”

“Why?”

“The old one said he didn’t have any drugs he could give her that wouldn’t harm the baby, and they’re still on the fence about when they can do a C-section.”

Harriet pulled in a deep breath and released it slowly. “This is going to be a long nine weeks.”

And they already had twenty-three weeks behind them.

“Have you talked to Tabitha lately? When will she be coming for a visit?”

“She’s as bubbly as ever. The girl’s a born mother, but Dave can’t get away and Tabby doesn’t want to travel alone with a baby and a toddler.”

“Oh, I don’t blame her.” Harriet smiled, her happiness deep and warm, then looked at Tess’s regular pewmates. “Giselle,” she called, “are you available Saturday to go to Darcy’s? Can you pick me up at nine?”

Giselle was being used as a jungle gym by her toddler, but she nodded. “Sure.”

“Thank you,” Tess breathed.

Harriet patted her hand. “I know you need time to do what you do, and I’ll do what I can to make sure you get that time. I wish I had— Ah, before … ”

Before Étienne and Tess’s marriage had fallen apart.

Harriet’s eyes were moist. “I learned my lesson with Victoria, then did nothing when you and Étienne needed help. I can’t seem to do anything my twins actually need.”

“Don’t,” Tess murmured, taking and squeezing her hand comfortingly. “It’s not your fault. You had a husband and a daughter who needed you, and my mother took the opportunity to edge you out. I wasn’t about to ask you for more.”

“Tess, I would have, but I was conflicted. You are her child, not mine, and I didn’t think it was my place.”

“And my mother appropriated Étienne as her own, too. Étienne is your son, not hers. I should have grabbed hold of you and never let you go, and now I have and I am grateful for any help.”

Harriet bit her lip and looked away. “I wish I could bring Étienne back to you, but I still can’t find out where he is. I thought he would go to Spain eventually, but Victoria hasn’t seen him, hasn’t heard from him, doesn’t know how get hold of him. She says she hasn’t sensed that he needs her, so she hasn’t worried.”

Tess really didn’t believe that Étienne hadn’t gone to his twin once in five years. “What about Emilio?”

Harriet’s mouth tightened. “He put his foot down and said he refuses to discuss Étienne at all and to quit asking.”

Tess and Harriet traded a significant look. That meant Emilio Bautista, Victoria’s husband, knew exactly where Étienne was and what he was doing. Emilio was Tess’s ally by dint of the fact that he was a LaMontagne in-law, too, and could handle both twins’ personalities with ease. In fact, he’d been Tess’s only link to sanity in the very first days and weeks after Étienne left and headed to the Ozarks.

But he was also Étienne’s ally by dint of the fact that Emilio had his own sins to account for. After all, it wasn’t every day a man’s wife opened her front door to find his illegitimate son desperately in need of a family. Victoria’s only consolations were that the child was quite a bit older than their marriage, and she’d been prepared for the possibility.

Thus, Emilio was balancing his conflicting empathy for both Tess and Étienne, doing what he could for each of them without actually interfering—while being married to the female version of Étienne.

It was a wonder the man still had his sanity.

“Hey, Abuéla. Aunt Tess.”

Harriet’s face lit up at the seventeen-year-old’s greeting. Tess was impressed with how sharp her nephew was and how much he looked like his father. “You came! Did you not have a rodeo today?”

“Tonight,” Manolete Bautista said as he hugged and kissed his grandmother, then Tess. He shook Giselle’s and Bryce’s hands when he was introduced.

“Did you find out how long are you staying?” Harriet asked.

“Middle of November,” he answered with alacrity and a slight Spanish accent. “There’s a two-day wrap-up training session after the closing ceremony that I need to stay for. After that, I don’t know. What I do know is while I’m here, I need to find a tailor who can teleconference with my dad’s to take measurements because I outgrew my costume. I can’t just hop a plane to Madrid in the middle of the American Royal, and those things take forever to make.”

“I’ll take you to mine,” Bryce rumbled and dug into his suit coat for a business card. “Text me tomorrow. If he can’t or won’t do it, I’ll find someone else.”

“Will do, thanks.”

“When are you going to Colombia?” Tess asked.

He ignored that and looked at his grandmother. “Mom and Papa are coming for Christmas. Did you know?” Harriet gasped in delight, then he looked at Tess. “My debut is at the end of January, but Papa wants to spend a month getting me out of the clown groove and back into the matador groove.”

Tess’s eyebrows rose. “You sound conflicted.”

He grimaced. “I like clowning better. Not sure how to tell my dad.”

“I see your problem there,” Tess said with mock sympathy. Emilio had spent time being a rodeo clown and he’d known when Manolete left home to do the same it was a possibility, if not a probability.

“Hi, Aunt Harrie.”

Tess’s jaw swung out with disdain at the sound of that baritone. Manolete disappeared with a wave, and Tess began to steam.

“Good morning, Morgan. You need Tess?”

President Chun, you mean?”

“Oh, ward business. Where’s your mother?”

“She’s coming,” he drawled.

This ex-cousin-by-marriage (there were so many!) wanted as much to do with Tess as Tess wanted to do with him, which was less than zero. For him, the “ex” part came so easily.

But he was the second counselor to the bishop and she was the president of the ward’s women’s auxiliary, Relief Society. Or, well, she had been before she’d asked the bishop to release her so she could concentrate on Darcy. It was the nature of the beast, to deal with people one despised to get the Lord’s work done in the building of the kingdom of Zion.

“Brother Ashworth,” she said with airy contempt.

“I need to have a few minutes with you during Sunday school. Clerk’s office.”

“Not happening.”

“Tess—”

On the ward hierarchy, Tess was level with or a little above Morgan, depending on one’s point of view, and she made sure he did not forget it.

“You know my rule, Morgan. Three choices: We do this by email, Giselle comes with me, or I will go to the bishop and let you explain to him why I don’t want to talk to you.”

He drew in a slow, deep breath that meant he was trying to keep hold of his temper. He looked over her head and spoke slowly. Stiffly. “Giselle can’t this time because it involves things we need to wrap up before you’re released from the Relief Society presidency, which involves the needs of people in the ward.”

She didn’t fear Morgan; she just couldn’t stand him. She should be meeting with the bishop, because he was her direct superior. Why Morgan insisted on performing this duty, she didn’t know, but she wasn’t going to cooperate.

“You tell the bishop I will meet with him and only him. You can frame it any way you want. I won’t even mind if you make me out to be the Wicked Witch of the West. It should be easy enough to do since you’ve had so much practice at it.”

He winced. Slightly.

Giselle’s snicker made him flush. Even Bryce chuckled.

Tess could not have prayed for a more wonderful Sunday.

“I’ll email you,” he said tightly and made his way to the dais.

Tess sat down and smoothed her crocheted overskirt, a smile on her face. “He’s still in denial.”

Giselle snorted. “No, he’s not. He just doesn’t like having his nose rubbed in his shi—” Tess raised an eyebrow. Giselle huffed. “Poop—especially when it’s all Étienne’s fault.”

That was true.

“Vindication! I has it.”

“I can haz cheezburger?”

Tess and Giselle were trading internet memes and giggling like little girls long into the opening prayer.

•  •  •

Tess was still buoyant the next morning when she headed toward the conference room at Roark, Cleland, and Howard, late, to keep her reputation of scattered-but-brilliant architect intact. She was, in fact, scrupulously organized and considered “prompt” to be fifteen minutes early.

She shifted her blueprint bundles under her arm, palmed her presentation remote, and breezed through the great glass door, chirped a good morning and breezed down the long table occupied by some very important, impatient men all trussed up in business suits and ties. Poor guys. She dropped her plans on the table with a thud, pulled out her chair, and plopped in it.

She looked around and granted the table a wide smile that had charmed and seduced more unamused people than these, and said, “Am I late?”

In the seat next to hers, her boss pressed his hand to his mouth, but only to keep his laughter to himself. So did her office mate, across the table from her. The Cleland portion of Roark, Cleland, and Howard, sitting at the head of the large conference table, rolled his eyes. She pretended to be oblivious to these things and, well, everything else, too.

You’re Mi-kyung Chun?” said some dour, disdainful voice from down the table.

“Not if you ask my mother,” she trilled with one of her well-honed smiles directed straight at the old curmudgeon.

It didn’t work on him. That was all right. People she couldn’t charm simply had bad taste or were determined to be unhappy, but the poor darlings couldn’t help it, which was sad.

“Now!” she said breathlessly, clasping her hands together in front of her and looking around in feigned wide-eyed naïveté. “Who’s going to say the opening prayer?”

Her poor boss and office mate were shaking, but the money men in the room were gaping at her as if she had three heads.

“Oops! Wrong meeting. Where was I? Oh, yes.” She stood again, looked up the length of the table, stopped, and studied the tabletop the other way. She took a surprised breath. “You know that scene in Kill Bill where Lucy Liu hops up on the table in her kimono and minces down it with a samurai sword and chops off that guy’s head?” Surely they had to be thinking this architect was off her rocker. “Yeah.” She gave a definitive nod as if talking to herself and tapped the table with a fingertip. “That. I love that.”

She clicked the presentation remote in her hand and suddenly plunged the room into darkness. While she’d been distracting the venture capitalists with her antics, she’d clouded the glass walls and pulled the shades on the windows, so the darkness was complete.

Pitch.

The video slowly faded in on the large screen at the end of the room, timed so their eyes could adjust to the darkness gradually and be more easily manipulated to see her vision the way she saw it.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a low, husky, seductive tone she hadn’t used for anything but concept presentations since Étienne— No. She shook her head. None of that. “Welcome to the eighteenth century.”

•  •  •

By the time her film wrapped up, the glass walls were unclouded, the shades had retracted, and the lights had come up so gradually most of her audience hadn’t noticed.

They had also not noticed the overhead acoustic and lighting platform descend slowly on cables from the ceiling, on which her pièce de résistance was laid out in all its miniature glory.

She continued her presentation without interruption, using the remote as a laser pointer now, discussing what it could do with current technology and how she had accounted for future technological advances in the spaces she’d left empty.

Her audience—venture capitalists not prone to being enthusiastic about a project on first blush—all wore poker faces.

Then the questions started coming, and she answered each one as if she were Wonder Woman holding up her bracelets to deflect bullets.

And then … they were done.

“Miz Chun.”

Or not.

The drawl, one she recognized, one she did not want to hear, came from the other end of the room. She looked down the table, all the chairs to the left of her swiveling so she had a direct line of sight to … Sebastian Taight, who was not on the invitation list and whom she hadn’t seen because of where she was sitting.

Tess was going to find whoever invited him and get them fired.

Sebastian was yet another ex-cousin-in-law, the second of three of Étienne’s cousins he had used liberally as confidantes somewhere around the time Tess had decided she needed to be the adult in her marriage.

It had gradually alienated Tess and the children from Étienne’s large, close-knit family. It had suited Tess’s mother just fine because she couldn’t stand the idea that Étienne’s mother thought Tess was wonderful. But Harriet and Giselle had struggled to keep Tess in the family loop, insisting that the fault didn’t lie with the Étienne’s confidants, who felt wedged between their loyalty to Étienne and the loss of Tess and the children.

That didn’t fly with Tess. They were grown men and they’d been telling Étienne what to do for years. It would have been a simple thing for one or all of them to say, “Shut up.”

So now one of those confidantes was lazing back in his chair, his left ankle propped on his right knee, his left elbow propped on the table with three of his long fingers supporting his left temple.

He was here to ambush her.

“I’m told,” Sebastian began in a tone that let her know he’d arrived angry and stayed that way, “that the technology you say you already have to power this project doesn’t actually exist.”

Crap. Her boss stiffened.

He shouldn’t have known that. Nobody should have.

“I’m sorry,” she chirped. She chirped a lot in these meetings. “But you must have been misinformed. Why would we be seeking funding to build something for which the technology doesn’t exist?”

She, her boss, her team partner, and Cleland himself had been so sure it’d be in existence by now that they’d … well, fudged the truth a little, one could say. If one were saying. They’d searched and interviewed and picked brains. All over the world. And here they were, almost four years later, and they still hadn’t found anyone who could do it.

“Why indeed,” he said, his voice tight, but only she would know that. “What firm do you have in mind to … fulfill … your vision?”

She tried not to fidget. Well, honestly, there was one man in the world who could do what she wanted and she wasn’t in a position to contact him.

Even if she wanted to.

And if she did want to, it’d still take him two or three years to figure out how do it.

“I really can’t give you firm names, Mr. Taight,” she said airily. “We have to maintain at least a veneer of competition, you know.”

“I’ve looked at these plans very carefully, Miz Chun, and I’ve been involved in my share of such projects—”

He was a sweetheart for giving her that opening. “Oh, did you mean Whittaker House?” she said with the sheer delight of someone who’d just made a random association of some significance. “You chose the architect for that project, didn’t you?”

Her boss and the other green architects in the room groaned audibly.

But Sebastian’s jaw tightened, which meant he knew what he’d done. It shocked her that he knew, but he did. Somehow.

She smiled sweetly at him.

“Touché,” he gritted. “Nevertheless, let me call on that experience—because that’s really all any of us have to go on, isn’t it, Miz Chun? I don’t believe for a minute that you’ve been able to find someone who can make this building do what it’s designed to do. I would hate to back another project that didn’t live up to its potential, much less recommend anyone else do so.”

He had her dead to rights. His smirk grew as her smile stiffened.

“Is that true, Ms. Chun?” asked another potential investor. “Are any of the firms you’ve spoken to capable of building an energy collection and conversion system to power your design?”

Her boss saved her. “Not so far,” he drawled with impressive insouciance. “But we haven’t tapped the engineering programs yet. We’re after fresh minds.”

“Whittaker House’s architect was fresh,” Sebastian pointed out. “And she is very well regarded in your industry, is she not?”

“Mmm,” hummed Cleland disdainfully. “She may have stirred up the rest of the industry with her … brains—”

Tess laughed, but caught it in her hand. Sebastian shot her a glare.

“—but those of us with a tad more experience know what she didn’t accomplish. We are not impressed with Ms. Desmond or her work, and you seem to have been apprised of Whittaker House’s shortcomings. So after that, I’m not sure you should be counted on as having a sharp eye for innovation. Ms. Chun had the vision down cold twenty years ago, yet you passed her by.”

“Oh, yes! Let’s talk about that.”

The immediacy of Sebastian’s retort did not bode well for her, because she knew exactly what argument he was about to make.

“For the record, I can’t choose an architect if she doesn’t throw her plans in the ring. But let’s say she did and I passed her over. If Ms. Chun had the vision down cold twenty years ago, but the technology still didn’t exist to support that vision when we broke ground on Whittaker House five years ago, who’s to say she isn’t also twenty years ahead of her time now?”

That was one heck of a backhanded compliment, but it also would be her downfall.

“Maybe you should try writing science fiction, Ms. Chun, because while I am convinced that you are a true visionary, we’re talking about billions of dollars here, and I’m not waiting thirty years for a return on my investment.” Tess’s breath caught because that knife was sharper than she’d expected. Then Sebastian speared her with those oh-so-familiar ice cold Dunham eyes. “Please answer the question. Does the technology you need now exist?”

She was going to have to bite the bullet. “No.”

And there it was, the expression of victory in his face. No one else would be able to see it, but before she’d been edged out of the family by this man and two of his closest male family members, she’d considered Sebastian a friend and family.

Sebastian Taight, Morgan Ashworth, and Knox Hilliard: the triumvirate of douchebaggery.

“I would venture to say,” he went on, never letting her gaze leave his, “you actually know someone who could build what you want, don’t you?”

This was a declaration of war. On her. But why now? Her divorce had been finalized five years ago.

Her mouth tightened, but she didn’t answer.

“In fact, if I were the romantic sort—” He looked at her wedding ring finger, stopped for a second, blinked, then began to smile. He never smiled while doing business. She didn’t dare cover it up now. “If I were the romantic sort,” he purred, “it would seem to me this project was designed with that one person in mind. Is it possible you designed it for him?”

Only by the virtue of the fact that everything she designed she designed for him.

Her hand clenched around the presentation remote until the plastic cracked.

But then he released her attention and threw his pen across the table. “I’m in,” Sebastian said flatly. The money men started, business suits rustling.

“Taight, are you crazy? You just crushed her and you say you’re in?”

“On one condition: Étienne LaMontagne does the engineering.”

“We talked to him,” the senior partner said. Oh? Tess was suddenly so oxygen-deprived she was dizzy. “He wasn’t interested.”

She tried to shake that off, and the ensuing debate around the table gave her time. They had talked to Étienne? How? Without telling her? Her boss tugged at her sleeve until her ear was at his mouth.

“Don’t faint. We did try to find him, but nobody’s seen him in three years.”

She took a deep breath and straightened. “Gentlemen!” She rapped her knuckles on the table until she had their attention, then pulled out her next weapon. “Mr. Taight, isn’t LaMontagne Whittaker House’s engineer?” she asked coolly, because he could hardly admit that the hotel’s engineer was the only reason it functioned at all.

Sebastian’s eyes narrowed a little, and she allowed herself a smirk.

“Say, Taight,” yet another investor piped up, “LaMontagne’s your cousin, right? His work was all wrapped up in the Jep Industries – Hollander Steelworks fiasco? Licensing agreements almost shut Hollander’s operation down too?”

Everyone looked at Sebastian, but the balance of power had again shifted in his direction.

Darn it.

“Why, yes,” Sebastian drawled. “His work is so valuable neither company could survive without it, so the companies down the supply chain wouldn’t have survived, either. We had to round up every intellectual property lawyer in the country to get that mess sorted out. But now we’re all a lot richer for it, we saved an industry, and, most importantly, we saved thousands of jobs. All’s well that ends well, eh? I think I know what I’m doing here.”

“Except for Whittaker House,” Tess mused. She tilted her head. “Why, precisely, did you take on a niche hotel to be built in a really crappy location?”

The muscles in his jaw popped, but he didn’t answer.

“It was a pet project for your mistress at the time, wasn’t it? Does she know how flawed your and her … baby … is?”

Sebastian was furious. She could see it in the set of his mouth, the line of his jaw.

“I didn’t think so,” Tess said flatly.

“And yet,” he shot back, “Whittaker House—however deficient you and three other people in the world think it is—has been in operation a grand total of three years and is already out of the red. Let’s say it was a pet project for Vanessa, but it wasn’t billions of dollars and it’s paid for itself in record time. Because of Étienne’s engineering, not in spite of it.”

Hm. He could admit it, after all.

The investors rustled. There was, indeed, a bit of difference between a few million and a few billion. And none of the other money men really understood why they were arguing about a little hotel in the Ozarks, anyway, or why it mattered.

But Tess had one more card to play. “Why,” she asked calmly, “must you differentiate ‘because of’ from ‘in spite of’? The structure and the mechanicals are supposed to work together. Are you saying that a structure whose main purpose is to power itself—and still needed propane, which was not called for in the plans—is inadequately designed for the mechanicals? And that the engineer had to … kludge?”

Every architect in the room winced.

“You do this with Étienne or you don’t do it at all,” Sebastian snapped, and now everyone was looking between them, surely wondering how Sebastian and Tess knew each other well enough to get into such a personal argument and what wasn’t being said.

“Why do you care?”

“I care about him,” he shot back.

She chortled. “I have no doubt about that. The right question then becomes why do you think LaMontagne will care about this project?”

Sebastian’s eyes narrowed and he looked at Cleland. “You’re lying about talking to Étienne.”

Tess didn’t look back at Cleland. She didn’t dare.

“I know Étienne, and he would hop on this plan so fast it’d make your head spin.”

Oh, yes, he would. She felt a little pain in her heart over so many things, not the least of which was that she wanted him to design the collection and conversion system in the worst way.

She wanted to build with him again, something she couldn’t have done five years ago for reasons she didn’t quite understand herself.

“I want to him to see this. If that means I block all avenues of funding until he’s found, then that’s what that means.”

Sebastian could do it, too. No, he already had done it. They were dead in the water.

“Mi-kyung,” said her boss from directly behind her. “Let’s wrap the meeting up, shall we? We’ll take Mr. Taight’s recommendation of Mr. LaMontagne under advisement, but since he’s already refused to do the project—”

But Sebastian ignored that, pointed at her and snarled, “You know there is no other engineer in the world who can do what you want. You designed this specifically for him.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and sniffed. “You keep saying that as if I’m supposed to know what it means.”

It was at that point he looked around at the table and realized—

His smile widened, which made many people in the room fidget nervously. “Well well well, Mi-kyung Chun,” he drawled with that victorious tone back in his voice. He steepled his fingers in front of him like Mr. Burns. “Do your colleagues know anything about you?”

“My work speaks for itself,” she said with as much hauteur as she could muster.

Sebastian looked at Cleland. “If you want to build this, you get Étienne LaMontagne. And if he still says no, tell him Tess LaMontagne designed it.”


2: Spanish Colonial

September 2010
Aguas Corrientes, Uruguay

Étienne’s phone buzzed and he groaned, peeling his eyelids open and seeing that dawn was just breaking. It buzzed again and he patted around his bedroll for it until he had it. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes so he could see who was texting him.

“If you could please get your lazy ass out of bed and start a fire, that would be great,” growled a young man from some twenty feet away on the riverbank, fishing.

“Bossy,” Étienne grumbled, but arose and began his morning routine. By the time he’d answered the call of nature, taken a dip in the Santa Lucia with a bar of soap, braided his hair, dressed, started the fire, and gotten the spider hot, Kimber had their breakfast fileted and spiced. He poured olive oil in the pan and laid the planks in carefully.

“Who needs to talk to you so early in the morning?” Kimber asked as he tended the fish.

“Kelly,” Étienne grunted as he reached for his phone. It was seven-fifteen and the message didn’t make any more sense now than it had forty-five minutes ago. He held his phone up for Kimber to see. “She’s upping her game.”

Kimber craned his neck and read the text: I think something’s wrong with Tabs. He grunted. “I really hate the supreme douchebag she married.”

Étienne’s mouth flattened. “How do you know? Didn’t even go to the wedding. You could have at least sent a card.”

“Oh, look at you, remembering what Hallmark’s for.”

“Eh. I was there and I don’t like him. Had him investigated, but he checked out.”

“Lots of douchebags’ll come up clean.”

That was something Étienne had had to learn over and over before he’d gotten better at paying attention to people instead of demanding they pay attention to him.

With the ease of long practice, Kimber pulled four perfectly fried planks out of the pan and, while Étienne divvied them up, he laid in four more. Étienne eyed the pile of fresh fish marinating in olive oil and spices. They were going to eat well that day. They weren’t always so lucky.

They dug in, eating in comfortable silence. As he studied the countryside, Étienne vaguely noted, not for the first or fifty-first time, that his oldest son was one hell of a cook. This part of Uruguay was beautiful, but familiar: Green and lush farmland, fed by a pretty river, it looked like the rolling hills heading into the Missouri Ozarks, only with palm trees. The palm trees kept Étienne from tearing his hair out over the familiarity.

If he never went back to the Ozarks, it would be too soon.

“I want to get out of here,” Étienne muttered around his food.

Kimber just nodded. They’d been here a month, which was about a week too long for what little work they’d been able to find, but it had been a welcome respite after their last adventure had gone slightly awry.

Where slightly awry equals almost killed by a jungle fire and-or guerrillas.

But as Étienne ate, Kelly’s text continued to bug him, and after three years of his vagabond lifestyle, he didn’t really like it when something harshed on his Zen.

He put his dish down and called his youngest daughter. “Two-thirty is a little past your bedtime, isn’t it, ma fille chérie? Especially on a school night.”

“I was serious,” she whispered. “Something is not right with Tabby. I talked her yesterday, but she sounded weird. Like, too happy. I called her back, and she didn’t answer. Her landline number’s not going through, either.”

That didn’t mean anything. Everybody was mobile. Landlines were redundant if not obsolete. “I talked to her three days ago,” Étienne said, “and she was fine. Where are you right now?”

“At Darcy’s, but some people who are not me are sleeping.”

That stopped him for a second. “Darcy’s?”

“Yes. And no, I’m not going to get her out of bed so you can talk to her.”

“Hrmph. Why don’t you tell the person you live with about this? She’s closer to you. And Utah.”

She ignored that. “Where are you?” He sighed a pointed sigh. “I won’t say anything. I promise.”

“Yes, you will, you tattle-tale!” Kimber yelled.

“Tell him to shut up.”

“Kel, answer the question. Why aren’t you telling your mom?”

She hesitated. “She’s, um, dealing with … something.”

“What?”

She huffed. “Now, if I can’t tell her stuff about you, then why do you think I can tell you stuff about her? I’m demonstrating that I’m trustworthy. I keep demonstrating this, but you keep not believing me.”

“She’s got a point,” Kimber mused while he dished up the next batch of fish and started the third.

Étienne rolled his eyes. “You’ve been after me to come home for three years now. Is this a trick?”

“Seriously, Dad?” she demanded in an angry whisper. “I’ve been bugging you. I haven’t stooped to lying to you to get you to do what I want because I don’t do that! But you left when I was twelve, so you wouldn’t know me well enough to know that, would you?”

Direct hit. Étienne grimaced. She’d never pulled that out, but it told him she didn’t realize he had kept her in close contact for the last five years—calls two or three times a week, constant emails and texts—because he’d left when she was so young.

“What about your grandfather? He’s right there in Salt Lake.”

“No, he’s in Korea.”

That didn’t surprise him. The church’s general authorities traveled a lot in order to oversee their areas. It was a big church in a much bigger world. “Have you left a message?”

“What for? His assistant said he wasn’t due back for another month. You can’t possibly be farther away from Utah than Korea.”

Two hundred fifty miles farther away, to be almost precise.

“It’s only been a couple of days. There is no reason to think anything’s happened to her.”

“Fine. I’ll find a way to get there myself!”

Call ended.

“You going home?” Kimber asked as if disinterested, shoving another forkful of fish into his mouth.

Étienne looked up at his son, the angry one, the one with his mother’s genius. Unlike his mother, whose mind worked like a precision timepiece, Kimber couldn’t beat his mind into submission long enough to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He was pummeled with options that appealed to him, and he kept running, hoping he could either shed his crippling indecision or stumble over something that would eclipse all his other fascinations.

Kimber had worked his way around the world in his quest to make one of those options choose him and had done so already once by the time Étienne met him in South Korea three years ago, where Kimber was trying to find his family—or rather, figure out which Chuns were actually related to him.

It was a bit difficult to get people to believe his mother was Korean, not with the mop of auburn waves he’d had at the time. No one would give him the right time of day in helping him read Korean nor did he want to spend money on a translator. His mother didn’t speak Korean, so he hadn’t bothered calling. He couldn’t call his grandfather for direct information without risking a gentle I’m-so-disappointed-in-you—and the only thing in this world Kimber feared more than Étienne’s fury was Grandfather Chun’s disappointment.

Étienne looked down at his phone without seeing it, now half afraid Kelly wasn’t bluffing. She was too insistent, and she’d been willing to throw Étienne’s absence in his face. That wasn’t her.

“Well?”

“I wonder if Dave had the potential to be a douchebag but his parents and the church kept him in line,” Étienne said abruptly and looked over at his son to gauge his reaction. His expression was blank, but Étienne knew him too well. He was anything but disinterested; he’d just learned to guard his emotions well.

“Is that really possible?” Étienne pressed. Kimber understood more about normal human beings than he did. “People don’t change their spots, but how would you go from being a good kid to a bad one?”

“I don’t know. I’ve always been a bad kid, but at least I was honest about it.”

Étienne sighed. Kimber’s martyrdom wasn’t quite as well developed as his anger, thank heavens.

“Addiction’ll do it,” Kimber finally said, “you know, you grow up in the church, you don’t drink, and then you go out on your own and have a drink and you like the way it makes you feel and then next thing you know, you’re at an AA meeting.”

“You drink,” Étienne pointed out.

“So I can shut my brain down enough to get some sleep.”

That was true.

Kimber slid him a look. “You changed without chemical assistance.”

Ah, oui. So he had, in the blink of an eye, and not for the better. Karma had smacked him down immediately, in the form of what was supposed to be a green-energy self-powered hotel in the Missouri Ozarks.

That still needed propane.

Vanessa Whittaker, the hotel’s owner, didn’t care.

Étienne did.

Tess would gloat if she knew, but, thankfully, she would have no reason to know.

“Hrmph.”

“But you’re still a high-maintenance attention whore.”

Étienne laughed. “Redundant observation is redundant.”

Kimber almost smiled, but then said, “Mom changed.”

Oh, Étienne did not want to go there. The topic of “Mom” was a sore point for both of them, one they’d barely touched in three years. Kimber had been at war with her since his conception just because they were so alike. And Étienne was turning sour in a cask of guilt and remorse—which, sadly, didn’t mitigate his fury at what she had let go.

“Well?”

“I don’t know,” he murmured, for the first time in three years having to make a hard decision about where to go next. It was an odd feeling to think in terms of just … leaving. “I talked to Tabby three days ago and she was—”

“Too happy?” Kimber said blithely.

No situation in which Tabitha was too happy had ever turned out well. And now that Étienne thought on it, he had to agree with Kelly. “I’ll call her this afternoon, then decide.”

Kimber’s mouth tightened slightly.

“Let’s head to Buenos Aires again and see Chad.”

“We haven’t gotten him in trouble yet, so let’s just keep dropping in on him until we do, right? You know his mission president is a prick about the rules.”

Étienne shrugged. “There are ways around mission presidents.”

“Oh, you mean, like marrying their daughters?”

Big mistake.

Étienne kept that to himself—just in time—in case Kimber thought he regretted the existence of his children. He didn’t, but Kimber was touchy, seeing insults where there were none. And that was in no way predictable.

And it wasn’t true anyway. Étienne was just one big mess of guilt and anger.

“You’re going home.”

There was nothing in his voice to betray how he felt about that, but Étienne knew: He wasn’t happy.

He had grumbled that Étienne insisted on following him through east, then southeast Asia, working their way west in a north-south zig-zag, but he’d been happy about it. It had taken Étienne about six months to figure that out.

“You can use the money in your account for something other than getting across an ocean, you know. Like … food. And shelter.”

Kimber turned that look on him, the one he’d inherited from his mother. “Money is a pain in the ass.”

“Right,” Étienne drawled, half dismayed, half proud. But he’d learned a lot from his son, being forced to come out of his head for a while. Or all the time. To pay attention to his surroundings and people, to take the time and effort to think about menial things and formulate a response or plan, to leave the ideas cooking at the back of his mind.

If he had any ideas.

Whittaker House had taken it out of him. He was still bruised, if not broken, from that giant snafu and he was dry as a bone. He needed something to fill that hole in his head.

And heart.

“You gonna eat that?” Kimber asked, gesturing to Étienne’s nearly untouched second serving.

He scoffed and picked up his fork. “Oui, I’m going to eat that. I notice you aren’t too upset about our itinerary.”

“Meh. It’ll be good to get back to civilization for a while.”

“Ah, I see. Getting a little restless, are we?”

Kimber leveled him a pitying expression. “You could use a little TLC yourself.”

Étienne snorted. “Unlike you, if I wanted sex, I wouldn’t have to pay for it. And I guarantee you the professionals would pay me.”

“Braggart.”

“It isn’t bragging if you can do it.”

“‘Ain’t’ bragging. You just can’t bear to say the ‘ain’t,’ can you?”

“No.”

Kimber said nothing while laying the last of the fish into the pan, but there was a smile teasing the corner of his mouth. Étienne knew why: In the past three years, Kimber had witnessed Étienne’s mesmerizing effect on women and men up close and personal. He had also witnessed Étienne ease himself out of those situations with a graciousness that left every one of them feeling as if he had declared his eternal devotion.

Étienne had never taken advantage of his opportunities because he was only interested in having sex with one woman, which Kimber had finally deduced. So his suggestion that Étienne get some “TLC” was his way of saying that, since Étienne was going home anyway, he should go back to Tess.

It was the first time Kimber had made his opinion known.

Étienne slid his son a knowing smile that turned into a smirk when Kimber flushed and looked away.


3: Critical Regionalism

October 2010
Kansas City, Missouri

Étienne hit KCI a week later and found his youngest daughter waiting for him at the baggage claim where he’d expected her to be. But he didn’t have any luggage. Everything he owned was in his backpack.

At seventeen, she’d grown a few inches since he saw her last. She’d filled out, her maroon-streaked black hair falling to the middle of her back. Even dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, she was attracting a lot of male attention. It was to be expected: He and Tess had made very pretty babies.

He snagged her from behind and, ignoring her startled screech, planted a big smack on her cheek. “How’s my baby girl?”

She struggled to get out of his arms, stumbled to her feet, and turned on him prepared to slap the crap out of him. Then her face lit up. “Daddy!” she cried she cast herself at him. “I’m so glad you came home,” she whispered in his ear.

Suddenly, he was too.

“But you stink.”

Étienne laughed and set her down, explaining his lack of luggage and letting her drag him to the hand-me-down kid car. “Does your mom know about me coming home?” he asked after instructing her to drive. He hadn’t driven in three years. Planes, trains, taxis, horse carts, donkeys, boats, rickshaws, and bicycles had been his various modes of transportation. And when all else failed, he walked. He hadn’t minded that in the least. He hated driving.

“No,” she snapped.

“Well, don’t tell her.”

Kelly slid him a sidelong glance. Oh, how much she looked like her mother. It made him ache for Tess in ways he had mostly been able to squelch for the last five years. He’d gone from being angry at Tess to being angry at Nia for the two-year Whittaker House build. Then he’d left the country, only returning briefly three times for the weddings of two of his daughters and his second son’s missionary farewell.

Those had hurt, Tess not acknowledging his existence. He managed to keep the pain down to a dull throb and when he wasn’t in the same country, it was a pain he could mostly ignore.

“Is it because you didn’t ditch that bitch?” she asked suddenly, her voice tight. “Is she going to be here anytime soon?”

Étienne started and glanced at her. After a really filthy glare, she turned her gaze firmly to the road, hunched over the steering wheel like she was afraid it would come loose, and held her body tensed.

“What bitch?” he asked, genuinely confused.

“Nia whoever—the bitch you left mom for.”

Étienne’s mouth dropped open. “Are you serious?” he barked.

But her mouth was set, which meant she wasn’t backing down. He liked that about her. “Serious about what? That I found out or that I actually had the guts to say something about it?” She glared pointedly at his shirt, then reached out and felt his biceps. “Oh. You’re still wearing your temple garments. Hypocrite.”

He attempted to clamp his temper, but it was difficult. There were so many implications to what Kelly had asked he didn’t even know where to start. Or even if he should.

“Question,” he said smoothly, impressed with himself because his mind and gut were roiling with anger. “Did your mother tell you that?”

“No. I was snooping.”

He almost breathed a sigh of relief. That was one issue down. More to go. “Is there a reason you haven’t said a word about this in the last five years? I talk to you at least three times a week.”

She scoffed. “I was snooping four days ago.”

“Oh, I see. You decided to wait until I got here so you could ambush me.”

Somebody has to!”

“Well, I’m here now, so congrats.”

“If you could just pretend to not hate us, that would be great.”

His head snapped to her, but she still stared at the road, her jaw clenched, a tear running down her cheek.

“Kelly, I’m your dad. I love you.”

“Okay, maybe just pretend you don’t hate being in the same country with us.”

Oh, what had he done?

A moment.

It had only taken a moment to light the fuse of his long-fomenting rage. If he’d just … gone for a walk around the block or something—before he’d gone walking ’round the world.

“I wasn’t kidding about Tabby,” she muttered. “I have these feelings. Instincts. Or whatever.” She glared at him again. “But you wouldn’t know that, would you?”

He deserved it. Every word of it.

“If you would be so kind,” he said wearily, “please explain why your mom isn’t taking care of this. She can’t bear to part with her dustmop for a week to go say hi?”

Kelly opened her mouth to argue with him, but then snapped it shut again. “I am being trustworthy,” she sniffed.

Étienne dropped his face in his palm.

You weren’t doing anything else, anyway.”

That was true.

“Oh, shit,” he breathed, his head snapping up. “I could have called Knox to check on her. He’s there.”

“Right,” she snapped. “You think he cares what happens to us?”

Étienne groaned, but hit the speed dial anyway. “Check on my kid,” he said as soon as Knox answered.

“Hello!” Knox cried with sarcastic delight. “Why, it’s my long-lost cousin, calling to ask how I and my wife and child-soon-to-be-children are doing.”

“Check on my kid,” Étienne repeated. Slowly this time, in case Knox hadn’t heard correctly. “Tabitha.”

Knox laughed. “You think you’re entitled to the world, don’t you?”

Since he had been around it and seen suffering and poverty and evil he’d rather not have known existed, he thought that was perfectly reasonable. “Oui. Go. Check. On. My. Kid.”

“We don’t live in Provo anymore,” Knox said disdainfully. “We’re living in Eilis’s house in Chouteau Woods, awaiting completion of our house. It’s being rebuilt.”

Étienne blinked.

“The prophet got wind of my presence at the law school and summoned me. Yes, the prophet of God summoned me. We had a nice sit-down and we now understand each other’s positions a little more clearly. But he still fired me. Damn near fired the guy who decided the best way to get me hired was to use F.K. Oliver Hilliard instead of Knox. Also, I don’t particularly like BYU when I’m not a student. Loses its charm. Who’d’a thunk it?”

Étienne sighed. “I do not care how you managed to get hired at BYU or about your confab with the prophet or your issues with that crappy little town. I want to know if you ever talked to Tabby at all?”

“No. But not because I didn’t try. She refused to talk to me. Apparently, putting distance between us and your family when you and Tess hit the skids did not go unnoticed.”

“Bite me, Knox!” Kelly yelled.

“See?”

Étienne was suddenly sick to his stomach. The LaMontagnes had always had a good relationship with the rest of the Dunham tribe—until Étienne had gotten so frustrated with Tess he had begun to vent to his cousins. Whenever he and Tess had it out, there he went, running his mouth. Then the two of them would make up, or agree to a truce, or have three straight days of mind-blowing angry sex, but that news wouldn’t manage to trickle down to his confidantes. The chasm widened slowly but surely.

Another sin he had committed against the woman he loved, had loved for so many years.

“Wait, what? You’re here? In the US? And your uppity kid is eavesdropping?”

“I’m in Kansas City, oui. Kelly seems to think Tabby’s in some kind of trouble.”

Knox took a deep breath that meant he was about to lose his temper. And Knox’s temper scared Étienne a little bit. “I believe,” he gritted, “that her biggest problem is that her husband is an asshole.”

“Coming from you, that’s saying something!” Kelly yelled again.

“Shut up,” Étienne told her calmly. “I’m here because you put out the bat signal, remember?”

“To sum: I couldn’t get near her without getting my head chopped off, and Justice wasn’t interested in making friends with someone who didn’t want her there. What I don’t know is which one of them was more interested in keeping me away. I did get the vague feeling he’s a control freak.”

“I told you something was wrong,” Kelly grumbled.

Étienne ignored that. “Is there a reason you didn’t call me?”

“She’s your kid!” Knox snapped. “If you want to run off with your tail between your legs—or rather, the tail who’s got your dick between her legs—” Étienne’s heart stopped. “—and no, I don’t care if your kid is listening, because she’s probably as pissed as the rest of us—”

“True,” Kelly agreed.

“—and indulge your midlife crisis by not telling anyone where you’ve been for three years after you left the Ozarks, you have to live with the consequences.”

His body feeling very heavy suddenly, he murmured, “You think Nia and I—”

“Oh, she’s only been telling everyone you two left for Paris the minute Whittaker House was christened and that you’re shacking up there. When can we expect her arrival?”

“Oh, crap,” he whispered. “I cannot stand her. That entire build was sheer torture.”

Kelly gasped, and cast him a shocked glance.

After a long pause, Knox asked slowly, “Are you telling me you didn’t?”

“Oui … ?” Étienne said weakly.

Another very long pause. “Dammit, Stephen!” he roared, making him and Kelly jump. Knox only called him Stephen when he was really pissed. “It’s a matter of court record!”

“Um … ”

“You didn’t read your divorce papers before you signed them, did you?”

“No … ?”

Kelly groaned. “Geez, Dad! Don’t you ever learn?”

“A fifteen-year-old knows better than that.”

“I’m seventeen!”

“Be careful, Kelly. I might actually start to like you again.”

Kelly didn’t quite know what to do with that, but Étienne was writhing in silent agony.

“Pay attention!” Knox barked again, and again Étienne jumped. “You can sort that out later. Tabby’s an adult with a husband and children. I resent that you’re mad at me because I didn’t make your kid my responsibility just because I lived a mile away from her.”

“Oh, good point,” Kelly said.

“I’m a lawyer,” Knox said flatly. “I get paid to make good points.”

“Why do you hate my mom?”

“Ask your dad,” he snapped.

Call ended.

Étienne let his head thunk on the window, closing his eyes, feeling guilt wash over him. He was going to have to face this issue head-on.

He didn’t like facing issues head-on. It was so … menial.

His Zen was officially, permanently harshed, and he’d only been home for fifteen minutes.

“For the record,” he said with as much calm as he could muster, which wasn’t much, “Whatever the papers said— Didn’t happen.”

It couldn’t have. The architect he’d thought she was turned out to be … average. A mechanic. He’d known she had little vision, but at her level of experience, that was normal. He was used to engineering for Tess, who could see far into the future. What he hadn’t known was that Nia didn’t really understand her client’s vision, either. Building Whittaker House had been maddening, and he hated that hotel with every fiber of his being.

She had tried every way under the sun to seduce him, but he’d be damned if he had sex with an average architect half his age with an Electra complex, particularly when it’d get him excommunicated. She’d have to be a genius for him to risk that.

Tess was a genius.

For her, he’d risk it.

But she’d let her genius go, so he’d let her go. With a few cruel words guaranteed to make it permanent.

Big mistake.

He still couldn’t think about it, it hurt so badly. The look on Tess’s face. The scrambling to get away from him. The slam of the bathroom door. The keening and puking.

That he’d made her do that.

He drew in a ragged breath while barely keeping himself together enough to refrain from asking Kelly what her mother was doing nowadays.

“Does mom know you weren’t with that other person?” Kelly asked softly.

“Clearly not,” he said wearily.

“Well, I think you should tell her.” She wouldn’t believe him. “And work it out.”

Étienne just shrugged. Kelly didn’t need to know what had been said in private, and he doubted that had made it into the divorce petition. So far as he knew, none of his kids knew any details at all. They had only known that one day, Dad lived and worked at home, and then the next day he’d gone to a job two hundred miles away. That was normal. But at the end of it, he never came home again. That was not.

“Did you share your snooping with your brothers and sisters?”

“No!” she gasped.

“Small favors,” he muttered. “So now that you can’t brush me off, let’s talk about school.”

Silence. He looked at her. Her face was flushed and her bottom lip was between her teeth.

He took a deep breath and released it, closing his eyes. “Please do not tell me you’re flunking.”

Silence. Then, “I— Dropped out.”

Étienne’s mouth fell on the floorboard.

“Don’t yell at me, Dad,” she said frantically. “You don’t— I’m— I can’t explain it.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Both. I’m—” Then she stiffened and curled her lip at him. “I’m being trustworthy.”

That made no sense. “What does your dropping out of high school at the beginning of your senior year have to do with your mother?”

“It just does. I don’t know why you expect me to tell you anything about her when you don’t want me to tell her anything about you. And you know what else? That makes me really mad.”

He could see why.

Three years ago he wouldn’t have.

“I’m studying for my GED. I’ll take that in November and go to Penn Valley in January,” she admitted sullenly.

Kansas City’s urban juco.

Well, it was better than Tabitha, for sure, who’d gotten her MRS degree as soon as she hit Brigham Young University. That really ticked him off, not the least because BYU was so hard to get into, and she’d done it. And now she was in Utah with a husband and two babies, not going to school, with his youngest daughter suspecting some horrible thing to have happened to her, and his not-very-perceptive cousin inclined to believe a kid he didn’t know.

Darcy, his second oldest daughter, had married a local boy—not a member of the church, and both sides of the family had opinions on that—and they were now slugging it out with life in a studio apartment in a crappy Kansas City neighborhood. Darcy’s husband answered the phone and ran interference when Étienne called, very rarely letting her speak to him. He hadn’t spoken to her in six months—and not because he hadn’t tried.

“I’ll head out to Utah next week,” he muttered. “I need to get a place to stay first.”

“You told me to take you to Sebastian’s.”

“He’s got two toddlers. I’m not staying there any longer than I have to. I’ll sleep on his roof until I find something.”

Kelly’s jaw dropped open. “His roof?”

“What? There are worse things than camping out in a rooftop garden in October. It’s nice up there.”

“You—camp? Who are you and what have you done with my father?”

He sighed and declined to answer. She wouldn’t understand. At first, he’d hated the way Kimber lived his life, but when he’d suggested they get a room at a five-star hotel in Seoul, Kimber had scoffed.

Fuck off. Do it my way or go home.

He’d tried it again with a three-star hotel in Okinawa

I’m leaving now.

And then some fleabag “bed and breakfast” in Manila.

Get lost.

And then a hostel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Ciao!

Then a ramshackle train station with benches in Kuala Lumpur.

Mmm, okay. It’s typhoon season and you’re a pussy, so I guess so.

But there was freedom in Kimber’s life. He stayed in one place long enough to pick up a little of the language, get to know the locals and their traditions and their foods, do odd jobs here and there for change and a meal and a story. Possibly a place to stay. He moved furniture. He swept floors. Occasionally he could find an ex-pat dive that needed a short-order cook.

Étienne had never worked so hard in his life, but he’d started to find people who needed things fixed—toasters, TVs, houses, farm implements, Yugos—and fixed them with borrowed tools until Kimber had allowed him to dig through a pawn shop for some of his own.

You’re wasting your time trying to fix that piece of crap.

Maybe, maybe not. You know that saying, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”?

No.

That’s the problem.

Kimber had always made enough for his meager needs, but Étienne had made more right off the bat, so he’d taught Kimber how to fix things, too. Little things. Things the poorest American would take for granted.

Don’t MacGyver it. Whatever you fix has to last. We’ll be out of here in a week or a month, but they have to live with the thing they paid you to fix.

I got one measly dinner out of this and a spot in front of a pit fire next to a yak. That drools.

From people who don’t have enough to feed themselves. Do it well and can the attitude.

Étienne’s brain had unwound little by little, with each doorknob he replaced, each window he reglazed, each pipe he soldered, each carburetor he coaxed into life, each rusty plow he polished, until he could find some measure of peace from his grief and regret.

And learn how to live and thrive in the world on the world’s terms.

At forty-six.

“What about grandma?” Kelly said, interrupting his thoughts.

Étienne’s mother adored Tess. He had no ally there. He’d be lucky if she ever spoke to him again.

“Probably not. Never mind. What about Giselle? She’s got two whole floors she’s not using.”

He snorted. Oh, Giselle would give him a place to stay, all right. And it would come with a heaping helping of vicious barbs while her husband got out the popcorn to watch the show.

But if Knox could turn on him, maybe Sebastian …

Eh. Sebastian had had his share of married women. He’d funded a hotel for his mistress. He’d be disappointed Étienne hadn’t run off with Nia.

Kelly dropped him off in front of Sebastian’s with hugs and kisses and many tears. But long after she’d driven off, Étienne was still standing in front of the Black Box, as the family referred to it. Tess would love it, and suddenly he couldn’t remember if she’d ever seen the inside of it.

Perched on the steep hill just west of the Country Club Plaza, it was, in fact, a black concrete block with a thick piece of glass across the front at the third floor to face the Plaza. Otherwise the windows were three floors tall, about a foot wide and four feet apart, totally symmetrical. The ground floor was Sebastian’s studio, windowless, and only accessible by an industrial-looking firebreak door that had no knob on the outside. The fourth floor was the garage and on top of that was the rooftop garden and outdoor kitchen.

The inside was pure midcentury modern maple, punctuated with Sebastian’s art in the form of painstakingly carved mahogany slab doors and little pieces he’d done for himself, for the pure love of making art.

Étienne sighed. He’d had that pure love of creation once. Before building Whittaker House killed it.

He trudged up the front steps and punched in his key code. No one seemed to be home, so he headed toward Giselle’s old bedroom, dumped his backpack, then headed to the shower hoping there was enough shampoo.

Étienne loved his son, and he loved his vagabond life with his son, but damn, it was good to be home.


4: Tidewater

Taking a hot shower in the minimalist postmodern bedroom suite was heaven.

utter

sweet

luscious

heaven

It took a while before he was satisfied he was clean, and left the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his hips and one over his head. He bent over and sponged all the water out of his long hair, then tossed the towel in the corner and dug in his backpack for a strip of leather with which to tie his hair. With a flash of himself in the mirror, he realized he was a very pretty girl.

He snickered and went into the kitchen to find something to eat.

There were steak and salad fixings, but no frites. Darn.

“What the hell are you doing here and where the hell have you been?”

Sebastian’s bellow startled Étienne so badly he hit his head on the freezer door. He turned rather guiltily to see his paint-splattered cousin with an equally paint-splattered sleepy little girl in his arms, her thumb firmly in her mouth. A paint-splattered little boy was cowering behind Sebastian’s leg, looking at Étienne with wide eyes. Étienne tilted his head and looked at them. Sebastian was only two years younger than Étienne, and Étienne had grandchildren not much younger than Sebastian’s daughter.

Grandchildren. Étienne’s lip curled.

“Answer me!”

He looked at Sebastian then. His cousin was livid. Hm. It did not seem as if Étienne would be getting the welcome-home reception he’d expected, not even from his cousins. At this point, he knew Morgan would have the same reaction, because he’d always had the least sympathy for Étienne in, well, anything.

Oh well. “I’m commandeering your roof until I find a place to stay.”

“Where the hell have you been?” he snarled again. “I have been trying to find you for three years and Nia is still feeding me a line about you being in the shower. For three years.”

Étienne groaned and fell back against the now-closed refrigerator to slide down it.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Go put on some clothes. I don’t want you flashing my kids.”

He obeyed without a peep, but since he didn’t have much of anything at all and Sebastian was only slightly smaller than he was, he headed straight for his cousin’s bedroom and riffled through his closet. He noted that Sebastian actually had marginally acceptable taste that didn’t involve black Versace.

When he emerged, Sebastian was sitting at the conference room table, his elbows propped on it and his face propped on his fingertips. His eyes were closed and his mouth was tight. The children—Étienne didn’t know their names—were nowhere to be seen. He noticed there were blueprints all over the table, but he ignored them. He wanted nothing to do with any projects Sebastian was about to propose to him. He had more than enough money to live out the rest of his days modestly and devote himself to his life’s work.

For the pure love of it.

If he ever got it back.

He ignored Sebastian and continued to fix himself lunch. He turned on the broiler and found a pot in which to boil eggs.

“Where have you been?” Sebastian asked low.

“Around the world.”

“Don’t fuck with me, Étienne. I am not in the mood for it.”

“No, I’m serious,” he replied. “I’ve been around the world.”

Sebastian studied him for a moment. “You got a weird accent. What is it?”

“Hobo.”

“Nia said you two were in Paris.”

Étienne sighed. “As much as I love my home town, I would not have stayed there for three years. Much less with that hack.”

Sebastian’s head popped up and he stared at Étienne in shock. “What?” he whispered.

He sneered. “Let us say I have no reason to have to go to a bishop. No reason at all.”

Sebastian’s already pale complexion went white and he flopped back in his chair. “Um. Well. My worldview just imploded.”

“Hrmph. It appears,” he said conversationally as he put the steak on the broiler pan, and the eggs in cold water, then on the stove, “that I have, once again, gotten myself into trouble by not reading what I sign. Including my divorce.”

Sebastian groaned.

“Knox has already read me the riot act,” he said, leaning back against the counter and crossing his arms over his chest. “Although it seemed like he was too pissed off for the offense. It’s not his marriage and he’s not a divorce lawyer.”

Sebastian barked a humorless laugh. “You have no idea how many people are pissed at you and exactly how pissed they are.”

“Don’t tell me. You’re disappointed I didn’t sleep with Nia.”

“No. Actually, I’m impressed with your restraint. She’s hot.”

Étienne’s mouth tightened, and now it was his turn to be pissed. “Is that why you hired her?”

“No. I’m an artist, so I note what people look like. I’m also uninterested in anybody but my wife, and it certainly didn’t occur to me you’d tie yourself in a knot because you’ve been obsessed with Tess since you were nineteen, and you have spent your life being the perfect Mormon male.”

Étienne tapped his jaw.

“Except for the tats.”

Étienne flipped his earlobe.

“Ah, and the earrings.”

Étienne tugged at the cluster of tiny braids at his temple.

“Right, because you’re so wild.”

You were willing to believe I’d sleep with Nia, so you must be just as taken in by appearances as everyone else is. And this from a libertarian venture capitalist who wears Versace, keeps his hair missionary short, has no tats or piercings. Everything about you just screams ‘practicing Wiccan.’ You did grow up with me, right? Or did I imagine that part?”

Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Fine. You made your point. Except I never wear Versace. I hired her because I thought she could handle your unfathomable conceit and sense of entitlement.”

Étienne pursed his lips. “She wanted to handle a few other things.”

“That went without saying.”

“It got really annoying really fast.” He studied Sebastian a moment. It was something he’d learned to do, study people and suss out some details. “You know, then. About Whittaker House, I mean.”

“Yes. I found out by happenstance. I was presented with a several-billion-dollar mixed-use project by a megafirm that’s changing its focus to green energy.”

Étienne pointed to the blueprints. “That?”

He shook his head. “This is new. I was going over the plans with one of their alt-energy experts and he said something in passing about what a shame Whittaker House was. I was delighted when he pulled out the plans they’d reverse-engineered and told me exactly what should have been done, where, and why. He said, and I quote, ‘LaMontagne must have worked around the architect to make it functional. I really can’t imagine how he did it.’”

Étienne gave him a beatific smile, then dropped it. “It’s one giant kludge,” he snapped. “I took one look at her and I started thinking with my dick, which made me even madder than I already was, then it all went to pot.”

“That, too, went without saying.”

He didn’t want to think about that. “Nothing happened,” he grumbled. “Not even sure I shook hands with her. Furthermore, by halfway through the build, I refused to speak to her.” He turned to check his steak. His eggs were boiling nicely.

“So you’ve been a wandering Mormon?”

“You know my son, Kimber, right?”

“The ginger twin with the mouth and anger management issues.”

“That one. I’ve been with him.”

Sebastian’s confusion was comical. “This whole time?”

Étienne nodded. “Dropped in on Chad a time or four. He’s in Buenos Aires. On his mission.”

“Um … ”

Clearly Sebastian did not know what to do with any of this information.

Étienne took the opportunity to pull his chef salad together. This took a while, and he did it in silence, emptying his mind, trying to get his Zen back. He got his steak out of the oven and plated it.

“What brought you back?” Sebastian asked quietly when Étienne finally settled at the table across from Sebastian and began to eat his lunch.

“Kelly thinks there’s something wrong with Tabitha. I’d like to think it was an excuse to get me home, but she’s kind of panicked. I keep asking her why Tess isn’t dealing with this, but she’s punishing me by withholding information.”

“You deserve to be horsewhipped,” Sebastian grumbled.

“That opinion is trending. Hashtag @LordTavendish Is An Adulterous Butthole.”

“So all of Twitter knows where you are, but your family doesn’t.”

“If you don’t consider Emilio to be family, who is also on Twitter.”

“There are matadors on Twitter,” Sebastian said flatly.

“Lots.”

“Hemingway’s turning in his grave.”

“Social media for the win.” Étienne shrugged. “As it happens, Twitter is an efficient method of writing a travelogue. For me. I didn’t mean to get five thousand followers.” Étienne stuffed a piece of steak in his mouth, then gestured to the plans and talked around his food, not caring in the least bit that his table manners were shot all to hell. “If you were looking for me in relation to those plans, you can forget it.”

Sebastian’s eyebrow shot up. “What if I told you they were drawn for you specifically?”

Étienne rolled his eyes, chewed, swallowed. “Do you know how many plans are drawn for me specifically? Do you think I come by this ego just for being drop-dead gorgeous? Which also goes without saying.” He took another bite and pointed his fork at Sebastian. “You all seem to think that because I can’t manage to put on my own socks without help that I’m an idiot. I have other things to do with my giant … brain.”

“They have a word for people like you, you know.”

“Ah, oui. The labels. Your OCD just loves labels. So tidy.” He leaned forward. “Label me anything you want, but make sure one of those labels is ‘the guy who made Sebastian Taight his first million, which got him into Harvard’s MBA program.’”

Sebastian looked up at the ceiling and his jaw slid left. He wanted to slug Étienne in the worst way, except Sebastian didn’t have a baseball bat handy and he had learned the hard way not to pick a fistfight with Étienne.

“Didn’t think I knew that, did you? What I know and what I care about are two entirely different things and never shall they meet. In any case, you will be glad to know Kimber taught me how to put on my own socks. All by myself.”

“You do seem a little more self-aware,” Sebastian acceded grudgingly.

“Oui, I know. Since Tess can’t take a day off from her housekeeping and Relief Society schedule to go to Utah to check on Tabs and my father-in-law’s in Korea, Kelly got me home and here I am and there I go next week, like a normal father to make sure his child is alive and well. I can do that now, be normal. Mostly. Somewhat. Maybe.”

Sebastian stared at him for a moment. “Her housekeeping and Relief Society schedule?” he asked carefully.

“Oui,” he sneered. “Competing with the housework. Competing with service projects and Relief Society and PTA. Competing with the kids’ activities. But you know what? I wouldn’t have cared what she did if she’d just sat down at her drafting table and spilled her brains all over it so we could build something every once in a while. That’s what I’m pissed about.” And still was. “I thought Nia actually had a brain to spill, but I was wrong, which made me even more pissed at Tess, especially when I thought about what we did build, which I can’t help but think about every time I look at my tats—” He stopped, then looked down when shame flooded him.

He stayed silent for quite a while, trying to rein in his anger at what could have been, still thick after all these years and all those miles. He knew the anger would return in full force the minute he stepped foot on US soil. It was why he hadn’t done so but three times in three years.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” he said low. “I would … ” He took a deep breath. How did one ask for what one wanted instead of demanding it and expecting it to happen? “I would appreciate it if you guys would forget the things I said about her. I’d really like it if you apologized, but I’m not sure that would solve anything. Might make it worse. I don’t know. My expanded capacity for normal didn’t expand enough for me to know which one to choose.”

There was a long silence, but Étienne didn’t look up from his food, which he was now simply fiddling with and not eating.

“My kids hate you guys,” Étienne said low. “And I regret that. Deeply.”

“What you did or that they hate us?” Sebastian asked, equally low.

“What I did. Their hatred is a consequence, not the problem. I shouldn’t have gone running to my girlfriends to dish every time Tess and I had a fight. They feel abandoned. Punished. Something like that.”

“We’re grown men,” Sebastian rumbled. “We knew better.”

“You know those jokes about women being vicious gossipy harpies, running around trashing their men?”

“Yeah.”

“They aren’t funny.”

Sebastian took a deep breath. “Nope.”

“And there was Giselle in the middle of us, being the only adult in the room, and there I was, pissed because she wouldn’t take my side. She’s my family, dammit, not Tess’s.”

“Have you talked to your mom?”

“Oh, hell no. She’d go running straight to Tess after she shoved a stake in my back.”

“She’s not mad at you. She’s worried about you and Tess the same way she was worried about Victoria all those years.”

“Not interested, thanks,” Étienne muttered, not wanting to face his mother’s sorrow any more than he wanted to face Tess.

Silence.

Then Sebastian abruptly said, “Tess’s mother died.”

Étienne’s mouth dropped open. He didn’t think he could bear any more shame, but there it was again, overflowing this time. He hadn’t been there for the funeral. Didn’t even know. Regular contact with his kids, and not a one had seen fit to tell him.

“When?”

“Right after we broke ground for Whittaker House.”

So long ago! It wouldn’t have been a big thing to catch a plane to Salt Lake.

Soon-hee Chun had adored Étienne from the moment he’d stepped into the Salt Lake mission home when he was nineteen years old. He found her amusing, but it had been a delicate balancing act between Tess and her mother, one Étienne hadn’t navigated with much grace at all. There had been something wrong there, in the triangle of Étienne, Tess, and her mother, other than the fact that her mother was in it at all. He had never understood what it was and if he didn’t understand a problem, he couldn’t fix it.

Especially with humans.

Humans were totally above his pay grade.

“You’re wearing your wedding ring.”

Étienne looked down at the wide gold filigree band studded with rubies. “Never took it off. I don’t feel not married. Never did. I’ve never even referred to her as my ex-wife.”

“I’m curious,” Sebastian murmured. “If Nia had turned out to have a brain, would you have?”

“No.”

Sebastian waited, and Étienne took a deep breath.

“I wondered,” he said low. “But I met a woman in Seoul, the minute I touched ground. She was breathtaking. And brilliant. And flamboyant as hell. And … I couldn’t. Naturally, I get hit on a lot.”

“Naturally,” Sebastian drawled sarcastically.

Étienne ignored that. Sebastian had always been jealous of his ease with women. “It’s different when you’re married to a beautiful, brilliant woman you adore, and you know you’re going to be going at it like bunnies that night. And then … I wasn’t. Married, I mean. But every single time— And let me tell you something. There are a lot of beautiful, brilliant women in the world. The variety is mouthwatering for a normal man, but I am not. Normal, I mean.” He took a bite of his salad and pointed his fork at his cousin. “Slap some label on me for this, but the thought of having sex with another woman nauseates me. A lot. It nauseated me the day after I left Tess, but didn’t know it for what it was.”

“Well, yeah. You’ve been conditioned to be faithful to your wife.”

Étienne shook his head. “No, not in a contemplating-excommunicable-sin way. In an ‘Oh, that’s disgusting’ way. Even if she is gorgeous. Whatever happened to me that day Nia walked into my workshop, it never came back and it was too late. Look, I was—still am—really pissed at Tess for filing for divorce out of the blue, and I lashed out using Nia. I don’t know what I hoped to accomplish except to maybe get some of my own back and maybe also that she’d come to her senses.”

“So it was a bluff.”

Étienne thought about that too. “I could go with that. Except it didn’t work. And there I was, stuck with a loser project with a loser architect who wanted a piece of me and did just about anything she could think of to get it. And … well, I couldn’t get the look on Tess’s face out of my mind.”

Sebastian arose slowly, as if he were an old man with back problems, and set about gathering the plans Étienne was actively ignoring. “What are you doing?”

“Taking these plans back to the architect.”

“I want to look at them.”

“You just said you didn’t.”

“And you took me seriously?”

Sebastian sighed and let the rolls loose again so they fanned out on the table.

Étienne studied them. It was a four-building housing complex. The buildings were oddly shaped, thin but slightly puffed out in the middle like—

“Looks like a really fat keel,” he muttered.

“Yes.”

They were each twelve stories high, polished concrete façades cut vertically with strips of glass. The living units were on the south-facing side with the access halls on the north. Each unit’s window covered an embedded balcony and could be opened.

The apartment buildings were placed in a diagonal pattern, with one large common area in the middle. The rendering showed a community garden and a playground. The ground floors of each building contained a cafeteria and lounge area.

“Dorms.”

“Right concept, wrong use. Its intended use is as a low-cost long-term housing facility for mentally disabled adults and low-risk psychiatric patients. People who can do many things for themselves, people who can work—see the garden there—but still can’t live on their own. One of the buildings is for offices and workshops.”

There were cables running from the points at the tops of the buildings down to the earth in an odd pattern that looked vaguely familiar. He blinked and looked closer. “Is that … hemp?”

“Yes. The idea is that the residents grow, process, and weave the rope as it wears out.”

Étienne snorted. “That’ll happen never.” He flipped through the massive pages. Sun, wind, water— “It’s been sited?” he asked quietly. “The water tables are real? To scale?”

“Yes. Somewhere in Texas.”

He dug through more pages until he found what he suspected he was looking at. “It’s strung up like a tallship. You know, the rigging.” He turned one of the renderings ninety degrees. “Oh, I see. Sails get unfurled when the wind’s high and they’re rigged to funnel it all into the collection unit on the front angle. But the sails have steel cantilevered spines, so it looks like the rigging’s decorative. The site as a whole is a flotilla.”

“Yes.”

Étienne was growing fascinated with this. More pages. “Junk timber. Bamboo. Hemp. Lots of hemp. Prairie straw. Clay.” Which was more than abundant in that part of the country. In fact, almost everything it needed could be grown or acquired locally with little effort or cost. Except the hemp. “Canvas. Made of hemp.” He squinted at the sails. The canvas by itself could funnel the wind, but it could do double-duty for solar energy. It would have to be woven with some type of special wiring to harness it all. His mind started to churn through the electricals to figure how it could be done.

Now he began to talk to himself. “Glass calls for a system of heat collection that doesn’t exist yet.”

“How do you know? You’ve been gone for three years.”

“Too advanced to have happened in three years,” he muttered. “Xeriscaped. Sustainable materials, residential labor, native produce. Mechanicals deep under the quad garden in one unit to power all four buildings. No. Each one should operate independently.”

“And there you go.”

Étienne raised his head. “What?”

“Anybody can run the power from the fuel cells to the buildings. But there’s nobody who can build the collection and conversion systems these plans call for.”

Of course not. Étienne specialized in energy conversion because he’d married, made love to, had children and built buildings with a woman who was a visionary. He’d worked with plenty of architects over his career. None of them challenged him to pull energy out of the ether and turn it into wattage the way Tess had.

“Since nobody could find you, I rescinded my funding until either you could be found or someone else could build the system.”

Again, Étienne noticed something in his cousin’s voice.

“You really like this, don’t you?”

He nodded. “Actually, I love it. I’m an artist. Mother Nature is my deity. But, as you noted, I also have OCD, and I detest authority. This complex is art and nature and clean lines and perfect order and, with all that possibly unattainable hemp, a big ‘fuck you’ to the government, all rolled up into one. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Whittaker House is beautiful too, but it’s just so elaborate and heavy.”

“The Victorians did love their ornamentation,” Étienne muttered absently as he continued to flip through the plans for the canvas construction, which would be the key energy collector. “But Whittaker House is plain. It’s not true to period.”

“It’s all the dark brick. The gables. The verandah. And the roof.”

“You know the entire thing was Vanessa’s doing, right? She just couldn’t draw it. She told Nia every single detail of what she wanted.”

“Yes. She and Knox both love it, but I could never live in that. And, well, I did fund it for her, which has been hammered into me lately by everybody and his dog.”

“Please note: I am privy to how much off-the-books money you poured into it, and that you’re the silent guarantor on her strip mall expansion and golf course. Didn’t know I knew that, either, did you?”

A deep, fury-tamping breath. “How did you get that information?”

“Emilio.”

“Asshole. I wish he would keep his fucking mouth shut.”

“You have known him for twenty-five years. This is what happens when you continue to trust your information to someone who will use it against you later. But,” Étienne continued, “in the course of discussing a coolant I questioned his unusual lack of budgeting. Imagine my surprise to be told he doesn’t have a budget and, furthermore, his surprise that I didn’t know that. My chemist—brother-in-law or not—is not going to keep such things from me, and why you thought he should is beyond me.”

“Yeah, well, neither Vanessa nor Knox knows that, so keep it to yourself. Vanessa would die of shame and Knox would kill me. Actually put a gun to my head and pull the trigger. And Vanessa’s current lover—who, by the way, is now the prosecutor up in Chouteau County—has had it in for me from the minute he saw the painting I did of her. If he knew, he’d find a way to put me in jail.”

Étienne hummed noncommittally, and continued to study the plans. “She wasn’t just another one of your women,” he said absently. “You loved her.”

“I did,” Sebastian agreed. “I still do. But certainly not the way I love Eilis, and I couldn’t have lived with her for much longer.”

“Why not?”

“Too young. Too stuck on her childhood crush—the aforementioned prosecutor—which made her too ambivalent about me. Too dazzled by the sex—I was her first. No. Ford was her first. I was never really Sebastian to her, even though she called me by my name.”

That clarified things a lot. Ford, Sebastian’s artistic alter-ego, was the manwhore, and only because he didn’t have to talk. Straight up VC Sebastian Taight was either tongue-tied around women he found beautiful or he snapped their heads off, making him utterly unapproachable. Sebastian’s wife was the only one who’d refused to be intimidated by him, which enabled her to observe him long enough to see him for himself.

“Does Eilis know this?”

“Yes. I tell her everything, hoping someday she’ll trust me with her everything.”

Étienne was now utterly bored with Sebastian’s love life. “This is genius,” he said, his neurons firing at turbo. “I’m not sure I could do it,” he muttered. “At least not yet. Take me a year, two, three, maybe, to figure out how to build it. See, the big thing would be to weave the canvas sails with a filament that could collect wind and sun at the same time. Or solar fabric. Oui, fabric. Use the canvas as the base. But I can’t stand the thought of putting up black sails. Ugh.”

“I half suspect it’s just a thought experiment.”

“I can see it. Tess would have loved this. Once upon a time. Before she gave up her drafting board for perfectly folded underwear.”

Étienne dug through them frantically in an attempt to find the architect’s name. Not there.

“Who did this?” he demanded without looking up.

“Geez, Étienne, it’s right there in front of your face, on every page, in the masthead on the bottom right. Don’t you read anything?”

“Yeah, but the architect’s name is missing. Why?” No answer. Étienne looked up. “Why?” he demanded.

“It’s not missing. You’re just not looking hard enough.”

“Where is it?”

Sebastian’s nostrils flared and his jaw tightened. “Why don’t you read the fucking fine print for once in your life?”

He ignored that. “I’ll go with you when you get these back to Cleland.” His brow wrinkled. “They’re a good firm. I like their work.”

Sebastian’s eyelids lowered. Étienne didn’t know what that meant. “Did you not tell me,” he began slowly, “that you were here to go check on Tabitha?”

“Oui. Next week. I’m not doing anything right now.”

“No, but other people are. I’ll put you in touch with the department head when you get back and you all can set up a meeting.”

“Why did you show them to me if I can’t talk to the architect? You just said it was designed for me.”

Sebastian’s expression tightened into one of utter fury. Étienne blinked. “Fuck—off,” he growled. “I didn’t intend for you to see them at all. They’re sitting on my table in my home, a place my long-lost cousin hasn’t been for five years. How am I supposed to predict that he’d show up on the exact day they’re due back to the firm? I come upstairs to put my kids down for a nap to find you half naked and raiding my fridge. You’re lucky I don’t carry in the house.”

Étienne couldn’t fault the logic, but it was irrelevant to him. “I want to talk to the mind who thought that up. To. Day.”

“Étienne,” Sebastian said low, and it occurred to him that Sebastian would have a baseball bat here somewhere and he was about to go get it. “Don’t pull that shit in my house. I don’t allow my children to throw tantrums, and I’m sure as hell not going to allow you to. Now go act like an adult father who actually gives a flying fuck about his family.”


5: Art Deco

“Mi-kyung, Sebastian Taight’s in the lobby asking for you.”

She snarled at her desktop. It was her boss standing in the doorway of her office. She would have refused, but she didn’t have a choice. The news that she was Étienne LaMontagne’s ex-wife, that she had once been one of the exponents of LaMontagne2, was not sitting well with her overlords. It was true that if she had mentioned Étienne and LaMontagne2, it would have been easier to get this job, but she had been desperate to put her name on a building without having to use the one connected to Team LaMontagne.

On the other hand, it was nice to have the secret out, to not have to tend her mystique. Her colleagues had oo’d and ah’d over those old plans and renderings as if she had just drawn them up. She’d been in her twenties and thirties when she’d done that work, and though with time they had faded from visionary to merely relevant, they were still remarkable.

Cleland was furious with her, but not enough to fire her. He’d simply demanded she produce lithos of her past projects so he could frame them and put them in the lobby. He’d also had her business cards and stationery redone to reflect her association with LaMontagne2.

Whittaker House, being the face of the breakup of LaMontagne2, was not spoken of at all now. Ever.

“I can see you snarling at me, you know.”

Right. In the monitors. She sighed. “All right.”

She didn’t wait for the lobby receptionist to call her and she didn’t bother to double-check her appearance. Her neon-rainbow-streaked black hair was twisted up above her head and speared with pencils. It wasn’t to keep her hair up. It was to keep her pencils where she could find them.

“Oh, there you are, Ms. Chun,” the lobby receptionist said cheerfully. “You have a visitor.”

She smiled, but it was forced. “I know. Thank you.”

There was Sebastian, his back to her, as tall as Étienne but not as bulky, his short black hair salting up nicely, waiting for her across the terrazzo floor, his hands in the pockets of his crisp black suit, looking at a rendering she had done in watercolors.

“You have good technique,” he mused, still studying the painting, but not looking at her reflection in the glass. “You’re an artist as much as an architect.”

Coming from him, that was a compliment of the highest order. It was, in fact, the second high compliment he’d given her in as many encounters.

He didn’t give out compliments.

“Thank you. Let’s go outside.”

He followed her out into the crisp October afternoon, and the wind almost blew her jingling skirt up over her head.

They were silent for quite a while, but Tess would be darned if she spoke first. She strolled along relaxed, her hands behind her back and he had his hands buried in his pockets. His head was bowed.

“Tell me about Whittaker House,” he said low. It was a request, not a command, which surprised her.

“It’s not going to fall down, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

He said nothing, and she realized suddenly that that was exactly what he was worried about.

She sighed. “Don’t take the inside-baseball stuff so literally. If Nia had not presented herself as a green architect, it would be a respectable accomplishment. Better than that. It mostly powers itself. Vanessa can sell energy back to the utility. That’s what it’s supposed to do. But it is not brilliant and it’s not a masterpiece and it’s not a prototype for what could be in the future. It’s a run-of-the-mill green building. And since the propane wasn’t in the original plans, that’s a big mark against it.

“For a handful of people, including my colleagues, what it should have been, could have been—but isn’t—is … a tragedy. It’s visceral, almost like a betrayal. Now that the cat’s out of the bag about whatever happened to Tess LaMontagne, who designed all those groundbreaking projects Étienne LaMontagne powered, it’s even more difficult because everybody knows if I had designed it—” She wasn’t explaining herself well, but it didn’t matter. “And,” she continued low, “I’m pretty sure Étienne was just as heartbroken as everyone else is.”

Especially in light of what he’d said to her their last night together.

Sebastian took a deep breath, pulled one hand out of his pocket and rubbed his mouth. “Um … I don’t really know how to approach this. Not sure I should, either.”

She waited.

“Étienne was not sleeping with Nia.”

“I know.”

He stopped abruptly and stared at her, aghast.

She shrugged. “The night he left me, he told me he intended to. I was … ill. Shattered. I puked for days. He was angry and—” She still couldn’t think about that night without tearing up, and her nose began to sting, so she tried to pack words into her brain that would drive the sounds out. “I had no reason to doubt him. But Emilio let me know what was going on down there and I realized what Nia was. I know Étienne and he is first and foremost attracted to the crazy train.”

Sebastian laughed.

“Flamboyance. Strong passions. High drama. Grand gestures. But more than that, he is attracted to intelligence. Not your ordinary smart-people intelligence, though he’s easier to manage if you’re smart, but the crazy-smart. The kind of smart that ends up having to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs and Adderall to cope with life. They may or may not kill themselves. If they don’t, they land in the gutter flat broke or chop their ears off. Them. Put that in a woman and … ”

“Yeah, not Nia,” Sebastian muttered. “She has no depth. There’s no there there.”

Tess shrugged. “To Étienne, those two things are the same. He won’t bother to dig out your IQ to play with it. It has to be on display and presented for his personal amusement.”

“But you were crazy, then you weren’t, and now you are again.”

“You forgot who I am,” Tess said with a certain satisfaction. “You stopped seeing me for who I am when Étienne started going to you with his gripes.”

Nooo,” he drawled. “We thought you’d finally hit the wall and started taking medication to ‘cope with life.’” He made air quotes. “We didn’t forget who you were. You became somebody else entirely and we didn’t know what you’d done with Tess or how to talk to this new person.”

She started and looked at him in shock. “Did you all think that?”

“Well, yeah,” he said, “because the changeover might have been gradual for you and Étienne, but we saw you less and less so when we did see you, it was a shock. What are we supposed to say when we’ve got Étienne over here bitching about his wife turning from Mozart to June Cleaver, and there you were right in front of us being June Cleaver instead of Mozart? We thought you were withdrawing from us because you stopped wanting to deal with the crazy that’s the Dunham family.”

Tess swallowed hard, shocked and … hurt. All her assumptions about the Douchebag Triumvirate had just shattered into sand, and she didn’t know what to do with the mess. “But … you didn’t even question it,” she said weakly.

“Were we supposed to save you from yourself?” he demanded. “Were we supposed to stage an intervention? Étienne wanted you back, but when we saw you, you seemed serene. Who takes the serenity of a perfectly functioning woman firing on all cylinders to turn her back into the bipolar mess she’s always been? I’m an artist. Don’t think I don’t know how much easier life is when you’re not knee-deep in paint and canvas, when you can remember what day it is—hell, what year it is. My business is the only thing that saves me from that, but you never had that. Then suddenly you did.”

She sighed heavily, unable to speak for quite a while.

“Even Giselle and Aunt Harrie thought you were on medication,” he continued finally, quietly. “Étienne swore you weren’t, but it’d be easy to hide that from him.”

“I wasn’t on drugs,” she muttered, her head spinning. “I just woke up one day and realized you can’t run a family on high drama and neon green hair tips. Somebody had to be the adult.”

“Yes, and adults in your situation with your resources hire domestics.”

She bristled. “You adore your kids. Would you hire a nanny for your kids?”

“Absolutely not,” he snapped. “My goal was to be a work-at-home dad, and I earned it. But I don’t keep house and I don’t cook and I damn sure don’t plant flowers or clean the pool. I also have assistants, agents, accountants, and lawyers. You had all that, but you took over doing it by yourself and seemed happy to.”

Tess shuddered, a feeling of ickiness trickling through her at the thought of domestics, barely remembering a time when she hired all that out, but she shook her head, attempting to clear it.

“That was what Étienne was pissed about—and after that presentation you gave, I’m beginning to think I may have reacted the same way. It would turn my soul upside down if Eilis turned into Mozart after having been Marcus Aurelius her whole life. For better or worse, yeah, but a complete personality change into somebody I would never have married? That’s dirty pool.”

Goodness, was that how Étienne had seen it? Tess put her hand over her mouth, unable to deal with it at the moment. But—

“Is that why you were mad at the meeting?” she asked low.

“No. I was pissed about Whittaker House and Nia, which was made exponentially worse the minute I realized what you could have done with Whittaker House, and then you worked me up one side and down the other for it.” He sighed heavily. “Look, Tess, I didn’t come here to get on your case. I came to ask how fucked up Whittaker House is. Vanessa is a survivalist and she wanted a fully self-sufficient operation. I didn’t give her that.”

“It’s not your fault,” Tess muttered. “Completely self-sufficient buildings are very rare. I’ve only managed to build one out of six. The fact that I could have easily made Whittaker House fully self-sufficient doesn’t negate the fact that Nia fluffed up her qualifications to be awarded the project. You also wanted to give a young, hungry architect a start because that’s what you do. It was a gamble to begin with.”

Tess stopped talking because she couldn’t sift out what she wanted to say from the things Sebastian had just dropped on her.

Finally he said, “And so you knew all along that Étienne hadn’t cheated on you.”

She shrugged. “I was only ninety percent sure because he told me point blank if I didn’t call off the divorce, he would because he said he had the hots for Nia. We’re in the middle of—” Oh, why not be frank? Sebastian couldn’t be shocked. She sighed and dove in. “We’re having sex, good sex. The angry sex was the best. I was never June Cleaver in bed. We’re in the middle of that—I’m coming down off a killer orgasm—and he tells me about this other woman.”

Sebastian groaned.

“The sick irony? I had already decided I didn’t want to divorce him. He didn’t give me a chance to say it before I hear ‘other woman’ and— He’s pressing me to go design a building, but I needed to go see my lawyer the next day and he’s demanding I either answer him or hit the drafting table right then. I couldn’t have spoken if you’d held a gun to my head. He gave me up, like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Didn’t wait for a response. Didn’t wait until I could talk. I had no reason not to believe him, because he’s not capable of lying. Then he signed the papers. At first, I thought he had slept with Nia, but that was so not Étienne. Then Emilio told me he hadn’t, wouldn’t. Couldn’t.”

Sebastian took a rough breath. “He didn’t read the papers before he signed them.”

She sighed. “It took me a while, but I finally figured that out.” She smiled up at him then, but it was watery. “Do I think Whittaker House could have been so much more? Oh, yes. Do I regret not having designed it? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Am I sorry that it isn’t what it could have been? Definitely. Am I giddy that it’s a complete disaster to those who know and his name is all over that?” She snorted. “Oh, you bet I am. It’s my vindication for what he said, for leaving me, for not appreciating what I was trying to do for the family. His karma.”

Sebastian laughed. “He doesn’t feel karma the same way everybody else does.”

“Don’t kid yourself he isn’t writhing in agony over it and will until he dies. If he had had his way, he would have packed a semi full of dynamite under it and let nature take over the rubble.”

He looked intrigued by that. “Really? He’d feel it that deeply?”

She nodded. “He might not have if he hadn’t built with me, didn’t know what I was capable of. Once. Before five kids and a husband who provided very well for us but needed a keeper. My crazy got beat down by my survival instinct. My vision taunted me constantly with the fact that I didn’t have a minute to pick up a pencil, much less sit down and draw. Then here comes my mother popping in whenever, running her white-gloved finger over my picture frames, quoting Martha Stewart and church leaders from the fifties, telling me I’m not meeting my husband’s needs well enough. All of them. And I had Étienne in my other ear telling me constantly to ‘go draw.’ I can’t work in bits and pieces. How did he expect me to lock myself in an office for week nonstop when there was so much to do?”

He grunted. “Stuff you didn’t have to do.”

“Okay, so what? You still didn’t need to enable his whining,” she said quietly. “He shouldn’t have trashed me, but what I fault you for is letting him cull you away from me and the kids because he wanted to keep you to himself.”

He nodded slowly. “I understand and I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, we—all three of us—are ashamed that he walked out on you.”

That shocked her. “Why are you ashamed? You didn’t do it.”

“Because he’s a Dunham,” he said flatly, “part of the pack. And we don’t run out on our families.”

Tess stared at him, still shocked but … pleased. “You feel that reflects on you?”

Sebastian nodded. “We’ve all had our cowardly moments. Crises. Bad decisions. Consequences. Angst. But not him. No, he did everything right. He was the epitome of righteousness, whereas we— Well, we’ve racked up our share of pretty major sins, but none of us had a spouse and children riding on how we handled our midlife crises. So yes, on the spectrum of the pack’s hierarchy of sins, Knox gets a pass. Étienne doesn’t.”

Tess gulped, only now realizing how desperate she had been for their support, and now to know—

“Thank you,” she breathed, tears pricking her eyes.

“Question,” he began with some hesitance, “how would you be able to work with Étienne on your flotilla project?”

Tess sniffled. “I call it the four-twenty.”

He barked a surprised laugh.

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “The client wanted the impossible. I gave them that. Then they were mad at me because it truly is impossible without Étienne. It’s a lot of money, a lot of prestige. It’s not my finest work, but it’s a close second. I’d find a way to work with him because I want it to be built as badly as the client does.”

“I do too,” he said softly, surprising her. “I love it. I’d fund it in a heartbeat, because Étienne’s work is cutting edge, a goldmine for licensing agreements alone, not to mention the stuff Emilio comes up with.”

It made her very sad. All of it. What could have been. What was once. What she wanted again, but didn’t know how to get and how to cope with the fact that it could never be the same again even if he did come back.

Tess sighed. “It’s a moot point. You know Étienne. When he cuts somebody off, it’s done. Like they never existed. I haven’t spoken to him since he left me with … a couple of really good orgasms and an ‘Eff you, Tess. I’m going to get my crazy from someone else and ride her vision.’ He showed up at two weddings and a missionary farewell without a word or a glance acknowledging my existence, and all I could do was stare at him because he’s so beautiful and remember what it was like to make love with him and build together.”

The heartache in Sebastian’s sigh was real. “How did he know about them?”

“Emilio. The man’s got a cast-iron psyche, to be able to balance all the crazy amongst Victoria, Étienne, and me, but he doesn’t give up information, even to Victoria because she’d have told me.”

“He has his own agenda for what information he does and does not divulge when, where, and to whom.”

“Honestly, I don’t know how she puts up with that,” she said. “I’d be mad about everything my husband was keeping from me.”

“It’s hard to tell what he keeps from her because he’s being underhanded or because she doesn’t want to be bothered. That’s a code only he’s been able to crack and every couple has their idiosyncrasies.” He paused. “Unfortunately for you, none of us wants to get involved. Nine times out of ten, meddling makes everything worse, people end up pissed at the meddler no matter how well-intentioned, and considering what we’ve been through the last ten years, you can probably understand why we’re all a little touchy about gossiping.”

Ah, yes. That. Giselle had inadvertently started a snowball of tragedy when she was still a teenager. Murder. Mayhem. One little bit of information turned Sebastian’s, Knox’s, and Giselle’s lives upside down for years, and the three of them were still recovering, not quite knowing what to do with their newfound peace and quiet. They were lost. Constantly looking over their shoulders. Questioning everything. Still armed. Tess wouldn’t be surprised to know Sebastian had a gun on him right now. They’d lived with the stress so long they didn’t know how to live without it.

One thing was for sure, though: Giselle could keep secrets better than a dead man.

“Does Étienne talk to the kids?” he asked carefully.

She chortled at the unexpected question. “How would I know? They have their lives and I’m dealing with a really sick one.”

He started. “What?”

“My daughter, Darcy. She’s pregnant, but she’s got the opposite of postpartum depression. Antepartum. She’s … ” It hurt so badly to say it, but Tess shoved down her crazy and did it anyway. “She’s suicidal.”

“Oh, fuck,” he breathed.

“They don’t talk about that, you know. Or at least, not much. It’s not natural. It’s shameful, when you’re supposed to be happy and glowing and your worst problem is puking every morning for three months. Watch it. You’re going to harm the baby. Control yourself. What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know there is no such thing as depression during pregnancy? We can’t buy good help at any price and Darcy would just die if anybody at church knew, but that’s what family’s for, right? I pulled Kelly out of school to help full time, and Giselle and Harriet help when they can. I just— Her husband is a tiny little thing, like her and— You know what we need? We need a big, strong man to control her.” She paused. “Someone as big and strong as her father, but who doesn’t have any burn scars to terrify her.”

“Bryce?”

Tess nodded.

“Can we help? I know Knox and Morgan would be happy to. It’s not much in the way of making amends, but … ”

She sighed. “The problem is that it comes on suddenly. You just— You’d have to be willing to move in for a while, and you’ve all got your own lives. I appreciate the offer, though.” She did, she realized, and suddenly she wanted to be able to call on them if necessary. “You know what? Can I— If I need— Is that offer open?”

“Absolutely,” he said immediately. Then, “But look, I— If— What if … what if I could find Étienne?”

If anyone could, it’d be the Douchebag Triumvirate.

But she laughed harshly. “Trust me, as much as I love and miss Étienne, and I pray every night that he’s safe, his being here right now, demanding attention and making everything all about him, would be the worst possible thing I could imagine.” She paused and having her anger and pride set aside almost forcibly, she murmured, “But if you’re offering, I’d like you to find my son. Kimber. He left the day after he turned sixteen and never came back. I don’t even know if he’s alive.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ll, uh, see what I can do.”


6: Baroque

Duly chastened, Étienne landed in Salt Lake City the next day with his wallet and phone and passport (he never knew where he might want to go next) and his backpack, which held little more than undergarments, a change of clothes, and basic toiletries. He was used to traveling this way.

He liked it.

So there was really nothing to impede his progress to Provo except the clerk at the rental car kiosk, at which time he remembered Kimber’s aversion to the extras of civilization. Or, as he considered them, burdens.

It took four times longer than necessary to get a car and get on his way.

He was loath to stay in Salt Lake where memories of Tess were everywhere. He could hardly resist the temptation to drive by the mission house where she’d lived the entire eighteen months of his mission.

But getting onto I-15 immediately proved difficult because it was rush hour, and southbound I-15 was a parking lot.

“I should have taken State Street,” he grumbled. But that would have taken him by the ward building where he’d first seen seventeen-year-old Mi-kyung Tess Chun pulling off Cyndi Lauper much, much better than Cyndi Lauper did, dressing down the Gospel Doctrine teacher in front of half the ward, and fallen in love ten days into his mission.

He would give anything to see her like that again.

Oh, hell, he would give anything to make her take him back under any circumstances, even if she did still think dusting baseboards was more important than designing visionary buildings. Because if she took him back, he’d have time and proximity to seduce her back to her drafting table, with no kids to tend and no mother around to distract her. Thanks to Kimber’s training, he might actually be able to understand why she’d chosen baseboards over designing, and then fix her.

He couldn’t fix something he didn’t understand.

But she would never take him back now, not after what he had said that last night together.

Big mistake.

It took him two hours to get to Provo and he wallowed in guilt the entire time, replaying that night, what he’d said, when, and how. Tess was a fighter and she didn’t retreat and she could slam ultimatums back in someone’s face so hard they’d be dizzy. He should have known better than to think that would work.

Tess, I don’t understand what you really need to get your vision back. I’ll give it to you. I’ll give you anything you ask for. Just tell me in a way I can understand.

That was what he should have said.

He’d say it now if he could figure out a way to let her know there was no Nia, had never been a Nia.

She’d never believe it.

He’d signed the papers.

So lost in those thoughts, he got to BYU without noticing, then shook himself. He had to focus on his daughter.

He found Tabby’s ramshackle little rental house easily, but hesitated. It was dinner time. She had a baby and a toddler. She’d be cooking now, wouldn’t she? Would her husband be there to help her?

He didn’t know.

There was no car in the driveway, so he parked on the wide street in case her husband really wasn’t there and needed to park, and cut across her crappy lawn. He rang the doorbell. He could hear a child screaming in the background, the TV blaring some kid show, but he didn’t hear the doorbell.

So he knocked. No answer.

He knocked harder. Still no answer.

He balled up his fist, pounded on it, and bellowed, “TABITHA!”

That got her attention, but Étienne barely managed to hide his shock when she opened the door. His effervescent, flamboyant, and demanding daughter stood in front of him haggard and worn, looking older than she was, her sloe eyes with dark circles and the whites streaked in red. Her straight black hair was a rat’s nest. She wore a tattered smock and holey slippers. Her face was a study in hopelessness and despair.

Too happy. Kelly was right.

“Dad,” she breathed, her eyes widening and her breathing quickening. “Uh … why are you here?” she asked, panicking, her sudden energy that of a child caught with her hand stuck in the cookie jar. She stood on her tiptoes, trying to look at something over his shoulder, but when he turned, all he saw was the SUV he’d rented.

“What are you looking for?”

“Just— Um, if you drove.”

“I do know how to drive.”

“Or, you know. A taxi. Or whatever.”

There was something really fishy about that, but it was irrelevant. He leaned to his left to see the living room cluttered, filthy, and the baby was still crying. The toddler, he now saw, was clinging to her leg staring up at him in terror. And he was filthy, too.

What to do. What to do.

“I thought you were somewhere,” she squeaked, now attempting to close the door a bit so he’d stop snooping. Eh, that wasn’t going to happen.

“I was,” he said absently, and attempted to maneuver his way around her and into the house. She moved to block him. He looked back at her, but she refused to look at him. “And now I’m some-here. Kelly remarked to me that you had been too happy at her, which made me realize I had noticed the same thing. Then when I called you last week, your phone didn’t connect.”

She didn’t answer, and still wouldn’t look at him.

“Where’s your husband?” he demanded.

She flushed. “I … don’t know.”

“Tabitha,” he said calmly, but with a hard edge that let her know he meant business. “Let me in.”

“But—” She choked off a sob, then her shoulders slumped and she obeyed.

He stepped in and his ears were immediately assaulted by the deafening baby screams that had been muffled by the door. His mind fuzzed and he wanted nothing more than to leave. Fast. But he couldn’t. His baby needed him in the worst way.

He barely managed to think through the chaos of the noise. “What’s wrong with the baby?”

“Gas,” she said with a resigned tone. “I gave him some stuff. I don’t think it works. Or else it wasn’t the right stuff.”

Étienne knew less than nothing about babies, but he knew how to Google. So he whipped his phone out. He held up his search results. “This?”

She squinted and leaned close. “That’s not what I have.”

Étienne could not stay without the noise sending him into the corner to curl up with his hands over his ears. Abandoning her was not an option, but he could not tolerate that.

“Where’s the drugstore?”

Her face lost a little of its color, but he couldn’t fathom why. “The Creamery’s up Ninth East. Otherwise, everything’s on the other side of University Ave.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Right back was an assumption of massive proportions. He’d thought Tabby was exaggerating how far away a drug store of any kind was, but no.

He drove right to one, but it took him forever because of the student traffic and how freaking inconvenient everything was. Once there, he took the time to talk to a pharmacist. Rather, he made a scene when the pharmacist barely glanced at him, demanded he pay attention to him, only him, and woe be to the human who didn’t. He also demanded that the pharmacist—who had a line of customers waiting to have their prescriptions filled—escort him to the baby aisle personally and tell him exactly what he needed for a …

“I don’t know how old he is,” Étienne admitted. “Six months? I think?”

The pharmacist, half pissed and half intimidated by Étienne’s size and appearance, pointed at the medicines and said, “You’ll need that, this, and those over there. I have other customers waiting for me. I’m sure someone else can help you with whatever else you need.”

Though Étienne didn’t give one crap about anybody else, he allowed the man to scurry away, then commandeered a little coed with a wedding ring and a baby bump to tell him what else to get. She was only too willing to help him once she got an eyeful of him. For good measure, he gave her one of his slow, suggestive smiles.

She went breathless.

And then he pretty much cleaned out the aisle.

The baby was still screaming when he returned to the house an hour later, and he shoved the right gas relief stuff in Tabby’s hand. “Give him some of that. I can’t stand that noise.”

She took the box listlessly and turned, never looking at him, scuffling her feet as she went into the bowels of the house, the toddler clinging to her housedress and staring back at Étienne, still in shock.

It took forever for the screaming to stop, where forever equals two minutes.

Étienne, still standing in the middle of the filthy living room, dropped his head back in relief. Then it occurred to him to hit the kitchen and conduct an inspection. He threw open the refrigerator. Nothing but a few carefully wrapped leftovers and some condiments.

The freezer. Not much more than ice and small packages of breadstuffs he assumed were intended to become turkey dressing.

The cabinets. One can of formula and a few jars of baby food.

He sensed her presence. She was quiet. Too quiet. A younger Tabby would have been screaming at him for invading her space, which he would have continued to do regardless. This Tabby looked close to having a breakdown and he wasn’t sure how he should approach it. Whatever “it” was. And which “it” to start with. He could hardly shake her and demand she explain what happened.

He continued to inventory the cabinets and attempt to make a list in his head. No, there was too much. He’d need pen and paper.

“Where’s mom?” she asked low.

Étienne barked a harsh laugh and looked over his shoulder at her, his eyebrow raised. The toddler was still clinging to her, his eyes wide and his fist in his mouth. “Your guess is as good as mine, ma fille chérie, but since she is not here, I must assume you also told her everything was fine. How long were you going to keep lying to us before you asked for help?”

She looked away and down.

“Hrmph. Were you planning to call anybody? Ever?”

She hesitated. “My phone’s cut off.”

“I know that. That’s why I’m here. Your cell too, right?”

“It died.”

“Pay phone?”

She sobbed. Or laughed. Whatever. No, he realized. Those were nonexistent.

“Do you have a computer?”

“Yes.”

“Internet access?”

He knew the answer already. “No.”

“Cable TV?”

She shook her head. “A couple of DVDs for Raleigh, but he’s tired of them.”

“Are you going to church?” he asked, not because he was concerned about her soul, but because the church should have been taking care of her. Except they had to be aware of her situation before they could do that.

She barely shook her head.

“When’d Dave leave?”

“A couple of weeks ago. I think.”

Étienne took a deep breath and said, “You can come home with me or I can move here. Which would you rather?”

Her lips pressed together in indecision, and her eyes were firmly glued to the floor. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I just don’t know.”

Étienne’s heart broke.

He had nothing here, and he’d resented having been called to the penny-ante Salt Lake City mission, particularly since Sebastian got sent to France—and he didn’t even speak French!—and it was Étienne’s first language!—and then his twin sister got sent to Spain!—so he resented Salt Lake. Even if it had given him Tess.

He didn’t have many material possessions in Kansas City either, but he did have a large family.

Actually, he just really hated Utah.

“Are you sick?” he asked quietly.

To his surprise, she barked a humorless laugh. “I don’t know. Maybe? I’m so tired. All I can do is sleep. I can barely manage to feed the kids and change their diapers. My milk didn’t come in, so I have to set an alarm to remember to make formula before he starts crying. If I remember to set the alarm.”

That didn’t surprise him, though. “Your mother’s didn’t, either.” And lack of breast milk meant she had to shell out for formula. “Don’t they have welfare or something?”

She looked away. “I … can’t … leave the house.”

He could see why. No transportation. No energy. A toddler and an infant. Did she have a stroller? A baby backpack or whatever it was called? Even the poorest women in Asia and Africa had cloth slings to carry their children in a way that would allow them to work. And she was a long way from a grocery store. Even if she had everything she needed to hoof it with the kids, getting everything back would be a task of astronomical difficulty.

“Do you have any friends?” he burst out.

Another bare motion of her head no.

“What about your neighbors?”

“They hate us,” she muttered, her face flushing. “One of them slammed the door in my face. She said I deserved whatever happened to me.”

Dave had isolated her completely and alienated any potential allies and, to make sure she stayed put while he wandered, he’d left her no resources she could use to get out. Not even her feet. How had Étienne let this happen to his little girl?

“Oh, Tabby,” he moaned.

“I know you’re disappointed in me,” she said, no life in her voice. “I don’t blame you.”

He laughed harshly, and the toddler whimpered. “I am not disappointed in you. I’m hurting for you.”

She winced.

Wasn’t there a Thing women got after childbirth? Tess’s mood swings had ramped up while she was pregnant, but they went back to normal as soon as she popped the baby out. Of course, they had had plenty of money for food and formula, so he supposed that if Tess had had a Thing, it would have been worse without food or the hope of getting any.

“I’m going to go grocery shopping. Can you manage to take a shower or something?”

She shrugged. Sort of. Not really.

That wasn’t going to work. Simplify simplify simplify. “Okay. How about we all go find a nice hotel room and I’ll order pizza?”

Her eyelashes fluttered and she exhaled quite a bit of air, but she didn’t say anything. That idea had been divinely inspired. Then again, he was used to divine inspiration.

God had always loved him best.

“Let me pack up some stuff for you. Just—”

She let out a little peep. “What if—” She stopped. Gulped. “—he comes back and I’m not here?”

Étienne had no reply for that for a second or two because his attention was caught by the fear on her face. If he could get his hands on that kid— “Tabby,” he said carefully, “he hasn’t been back in two weeks. The odds he’ll come back while you’re gone are slim to none. If he does, you just won’t be here. What’s he going to do, trash the house?”

She blanched and looked to the side.

Oh.

“And if he does trash the house, so what? Tabby, look at me.”

She tried. She really did. But her eyes never rose about his chin. He decided not to press it.

“Did Dave ever hit you?”

She made some vague gesture that might be no. Might be sometimes, never, or only on the second Thursday of every month.

That meant he had.

“And he’s trashed the house. Thrown things?” He looked around. Ah. “Punched his fist through the wall? Broken panes out of the windows?” That hadn’t been reglazed, with winter coming on.

He would have missed her hesitant nod if he hadn’t been looking at her.

“Has he left you alone like this before?”

She nodded, and he realized she preferred being left alone and helpless.

“But he’s always come back before?”

She nodded.

“Do you love him?”

She didn’t move. “I don’t know.”

Then something else occurred to him. He didn’t want to ask, but he had to. “Has he raped you?”

She stiffened, just the slightest bit, but otherwise she didn’t move. She didn’t answer.

And that was all Étienne needed to know.

“You don’t have to worry about him anymore, ma fille chérie. Sit down and relax a while so I can gather a few of your things. Can you do that?”

She nodded. It was quite a bit above barely moving but far below enthusiastic. Didn’t matter. It was better than anything she’d given him so far.

He ached to see his defiant daughter so broken. Where were the screaming fits and demands and refusals to obey? Where were her crazy haircuts and ears studded with various and sundry earrings? Where were her imaginative homemade fashions, meticulously designed and hand-crafted out of thrift store finds? And on her less imaginative days, her goth, her steampunk, her Victoriana? His daughter wouldn’t be caught dead in jeans and a tee shirt, much less a muumuu.

The only thing he could see of her was the My Little Pony tattoo above her ankle, which had made him mad the second he saw it.

Are you kidding me? You put more thought into your last skirt than you did in that clichéd piece of— I expect better from you, Tabby. If you couldn’t come up with anything on your own, you should’ve asked your mom to draw you something original. Significant. Or wait until you actually had something significant to ink.

It’s cute! Everybody says so!

Then everybody’s got crappy taste.

He gently gathered her in his arms and pressed her cheek to his chest until she relaxed against him. He stroked her greasy rat’s nest and pressed his mouth to her head. It was gross. And he was used to gross.

“I love you, Tabby,” he murmured. “I love you so much.”

She just sighed.


7: Midcentury Modern

Étienne looked down at the semi-clean but happy baby lying on his hotel room bed, and propped his hands on his hips. He had screwed up that diaper change like nobody’s business because he was afraid of touching the baby too much in case he damaged it somehow. It wasn’t his kid. That made a difference. He really didn’t want to pick it up again, because the more he picked it up, the greater the odds that he would drop it.

It had been a long time since he’d dealt with babies, but a couple of his kids—he didn’t remember which ones, precisely, as he had five of them—had liked to sleep on his chest.

Tess hadn’t liked that. She thought he’d roll over on them in his sleep or forget they were there and sit up suddenly.

He didn’t blame her for that. It wasn’t an unfounded fear.

He cast a glance at the toddler, who seemed to be intrigued by the cheap crap toys he had picked up at the drugstore on the way to the hotel. The boy dumped the crayons on the bed. Picked one up and studied it as if he vaguely recalled what it was for.

Étienne piled blankets and pillows around the baby so he wouldn’t roll off the bed or something stupid like that, gave him a pacifier and a rattle, then skirted the end of it until he got to the other bed. The toddler looked up at him, but then back down at his new possessions.

Somewhere between giving him a squeaky toy, shoving pizza in his mouth, and pouring milk down his throat, Étienne had earned his trust. He sat on the bed beside him and reached for a coloring book. “Here,” he murmured, opening it, and picking up a crayon to demonstrate. “This is how you do it.”

Tess could have done it so much better. She could create masterpieces out of a piece of paper and a stick of colored wax. Give her a sixty-four-count flip-top box of crayons—with the little sharpener on the back—and a stack of newsprint and she would be in heaven for days.

Once upon a time.

Étienne breathed a sigh of relief when the child snatched the coloring book with a squeal and went to town. Heck, for all Étienne cared, he could color on the walls. He should color on the walls. That was what walls were for, giant blank canvases just right for holding information or art.

Étienne and Tess had moved to Kansas City after she graduated from MIT. She loved his mother, loved the peacefulness of their Sunset Hill neighborhood that was only moments away from chaos, loved being able to stand out and turn heads because Kansas City was so much more staid than Boston. The house he had bought for her was very traditional—not her style, nor his—a light-brick colonial revival. But it was big, on almost an acre of land, had a big swimming pool in the back and, more importantly, a big pool house Étienne could convert into a workshop. The house also had giant blank walls just waiting for her to color on—and she had.

He closed his eyes, sighed, and let the memories and quiet wash over him, punctuated only by soft toddler giggles (that was okay) and baby coos (that was even okay-er).

He couldn’t wait to see that house again. He ached to see that house again.

And Tess. In one of her outfits, the ones that made her look like the love child of a harajuku girl and a belly dancer. Or better, in one of her little tease-me lingerie sets, which she would not bother to remove before opening his fly and sliding herself down on him. Or getting on her knees and taking him down her throat.

She was beautiful, his wife. Five-three. Sultry almond eyes she could enhance until she was full-on femme fatale. Straight black hair—when it wasn’t streaked in one color or six. Heart-shaped face. Creamy vanilla skin. Strong nose and full lips just right for— Full breasts and hips and nicely rounded butt, evidence of the children they’d made together. He loved watching himself disappear into her—

He groaned and wondered how long he could stay in the bathroom before somebody bothered him.

“What’s your name?”

He started and looked down at the little boy he’d forgotten about, who, so far as he knew, couldn’t speak yet. And here he was with a clearly articulated question that made some sense.

Now he had to answer it. Possibly carry on a conversation with a two-year-old. What was Étienne’s name? Such a simple question, and yet so fraught with meaning.

There was no help for it. He was going to have to say the word and he really did not want to.

“Grandpa.”

The child blinked. “You’re my grandpa?”

Sadly. “Your mother’s father, oui.” He paused. “That’s ‘yes’ in French. I was born in France. My father’s French. You want to learn how to speak French?” Now he was just spewing to hear himself, so he stopped.

It was getting late and he wanted to keep the quiet. To wrap himself up in it and snuggle for a while so he could continue with his memories of Tess, because heaven knew it wouldn’t last.

The connecting doors between his and Tabby’s room were open, and he arose to peek in on her. She was out like a light after a long, hot bath and a decent meal, during which she hadn’t said a word, even when spoken to directly. It was as if she couldn’t hear him, she was so buried in her mind. She’d ignored the children, which he did not blame her for in the least bit. But that left him to deal with them, and he had to Google for every little detail of how to do so.

Just as his mind was about to overload, his phone rang. Ah, his twin sister, right on cue, even though it was three o’clock in the morning in Spain.

“Victoria.”

“Étienne,” she returned, then continued in French. “What’s the problem?”

“I am impressed with your prescience. Did I wake you?”

“No. Emilio just returned from a week-long conference in Brussels and is reading a bedtime story to Dolly since she waited up for him. If you wouldn’t mind, please tell me your problem so I can have sex with him when he’s done.”

He explained. He stopped. She was silent. Then, “You did all this yourself?”

“Yes. And now I need advice to continue doing it, because if I don’t do it, who will?”

“Hm. Now you finally understand what I had to do by myself all those years.”

He sighed. “This is why I haven’t spoken to you in five years.”

“I want to rub it in your face so badly I can’t stand it. Put me on speaker and get something to write on.”

It turned out, Étienne discovered to his great surprise, that giving a toddler a bath was not such a bad adventure and was grateful the salesclerk had told him to get bubble bath. It would keep the boy happy, if not quiet. Actually, Étienne didn’t mind the giggling. He’d forgotten what an awesome sound kid-giggles were.

He also remembered that giving an infant a bath was good training for handling Fabergé eggs. And that sinks were better than bathtubs.

It was ten by the time he had followed each and every one of Victoria’s instructions. He fed the baby and the toddler again whether they wanted anything or not because there was no way in hell he was going to get up for a midnight feeding.

Then he tucked the two-year-old in, clutched the baby to his chest so he wouldn’t drop it, carefully laid himself on the bed, pulled the boy to his side, and the covers up over all three of them.

It was the best night’s sleep he’d had in five years.

•  •  •

By some miracle, the children were still alive come morning, although the boy kicked like a mule and the baby’s hands were almost irretrievably tangled up in Étienne’s hair.

“Dad, I’m so sorry.”

He lifted his eyelids to see Tabby standing over him and reaching for the baby. “’Bout what?” he slurred.

“I just— I don’t what happened. I—”

There were tears in her eyes, but she really didn’t look any better than she had yesterday and he didn’t think her mind was all there yet.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, rubbing his face and yawning. “Nobody got suffocated. Everybody got a good night’s sleep.”

“Mommy, that’s my grandpa!”

Étienne groaned.

She looked at the boy and said, “That’s right, sweetie.” She looked back at Étienne. “I don’t know how— I missed his midnight feeding. I’m so sorry.”

Étienne smacked his lips and wished she’d go away so he could get out of bed and hit the bathroom. “He didn’t wake up, so the screaming should start any time now.”

His head couldn’t take it. He had to find a way to keep that kid perpetually happy.

“He slept through the night?” she asked cautiously.

“Oui,” he drawled suspiciously. “Both of them did. But my ribs are going to be black and blue tomorrow.”

“They’ve never slept through the night before.”

“Team Dad for the win. Tabs, I have to go. Seriously.”

Her expression melted into panic. “Go?! You just got here!”

That made no sense. And then … “I. Have. To. Pee.”

“Oh.” The utter relief on her face would have been funny had it not been so shattering. It was the first real sign that she actually knew what was going on and wanted him there.

“Take the kids and get out!”

“Oh. Oh! Sorry!”

She gathered them up and scurried into her room, slamming the connecting door behind her. Étienne groaned.

Once he had taken care of his business, showered, and gotten ready for the day, he knocked on her door. “Your turn. Hand over the spawn.”

She opened the door, and she was already exhausted from having simply minded them for an hour. He ran his tongue over his teeth. There were three children in this suite and for once in his life, he wasn’t one of them.

This would require menial thinking, so he concentrated.

What would Kimber do?

“Okay. Take a shower. Wash your hair. Comb it. Brush your teeth. Do you have any clean clothes? Other than that muumuu you were wearing?”

She looked haunted. “I don’t know,” she whispered.

Hooo boy. He bent his head and rubbed his temples. “Tabs, you’re gonna have to help me here a little bit. I’m baby challenged.” He was also twenty-two-year-old-catatonic-daughter challenged. He didn’t say that part. Barely.

“Let me ask you something. Is there anything in that house you would want to keep?”

“I don’t know.”

He nearly groaned. “Is there anything of value in the house?” Even as he asked, he knew the answer.

But she only said, “I don’t know.”

This was not getting him anywhere. “I’m going to order room service, and I’ll take care of the spawn. You will get ready to go out and you will try on some new clothes and you will pick out clothes for the boys. They can’t stay in those dirty little jumper things forever, especially since I just threw them away.”

“Onesie,” she said dully.

“Whattie?”

“It’s called a onesie.”

“Nice to know.” She still didn’t move. “Tabitha.” Her eyelashes fluttered upward. She was so small. Still his little girl. So much life and joy and vivacity—gone. He couldn’t stand it. “I want to see my bubbly and colorful little girl again,” he said before he thought, “and I will do whatever I have to do to pull her out of you.”

She blinked in what might have been wonder.

“You will do what I tell you to do until you can think for yourself again. No argument—” Not that she could. “—no disobedience, no tantrums. Do you understand?”

She closed her eyes and let out a great sigh. She nodded. “Okay, Dad.”

•  •  •

He had to poke and prod her to find anything for herself. Étienne, being vain enough to know how to dress himself in a manner befitting his place in the world as God’s favorite, was dismayed to find out women’s off-the-rack fashion was so … bland.

He’d been spoiled. He knew that. Before Tess had gone all Stepford, she had dazzled him with her creativity. Then his daughter had come along and followed suit, even as Tess devolved to sweater sets.

Tess’s free spirit had evaporated—why, he didn’t know, because he adored her for it. But Tabby’s had been crushed, ground into the dirt under the heel of a kid Étienne knew was bad news, but couldn’t prove it.

He’d tried.

He walked through Target, daughter and grandsons—ugh—in tow, turning every female head as he went and a few male ones too. That was normal. What was also normal was that he had offers of help coming out his ears.

He looked at a pierced and tatted young woman with pink-streaked bleach-blonde hair and granted her the smile that got people to do anything he wanted, give him anything he wanted.

It had driven Kimber up a wall when he did it on purpose.

Pussy.

And yet, now we have a place to stay. For free.

She’s only letting us stay because she wants to fuck you.

Everybody does.

In an effort to pull a smile out of Tabby, he exaggerated his accent and used accompanying hand gestures. When they were little, the kids had begged him to do this every time they went out, and giggled madly at the reactions he got.

“Would you be so kind as to ’elp my daughter dress? Somezing to make ’ere feel good and per’aps … ah, what izee word? Peck. Oui, peck ’ere a beet.”

He slid a glance at Tabby to check her reaction, but her eyes were unfocused and she was very far away.

“Perk?” the girl offered. “Perk her up?”

“Ah, oui, oui. Perk-perk ’ere up.”

The girl sighed dreamily. “I would love to.”

Once the children figured out why he got the reactions he did, it was no longer funny.

I cannot BELIEVE this shit!

Watch and learn, mon fils. Watch and learn.

Kimber wasn’t inept with women, as evidenced by the fact he could, in fact, get sex without paying for it—if he wanted to.

But he was no Étienne.

“Do you work on commission?”

The girl’s shoulders slumped. “No,” she said flatly.

C’est dommage. Make zee decisions for ’ere, s’il vous plaît? You can see she eez a beet—ah, ’ow do you say—”

The girl finally looked at Tabby. “Beat down?”

“I do not understand ziss ‘beat down,’ but you see ’ere zere. Shoes. Cosmetics. Jewelry. Earrings. Do you also see, she ’as ’oles up and down ’ere ears. Fill zem up. I will return shortly.”

Shortly was all of thirty minutes after another very helpful young lady, who had a baby of her own, filled a cart full of appropriate clothes.

But while she was doing that, he called Sebastian and spoke French.

“Buy me a house. I want to move in within the week.”

Sebastian responded likewise. “Uh … can you be more specific?”

“Big garage. Three-car, if possible. Four bedrooms. Cul-de-sac preferably. Large back yard with a fence. In Knox’s subdivision, an older part. Lots of trees and privacy. Doesn’t have to be fancy. No McMansions. No HOA.”

“You drive me insane,” Sebastian muttered.

“Next, find the owner of Tabby’s rental. Buy that house, too. Have the realtor change the locks on the doors and board it up. Iron bars over that. It has all her crap in it and I don’t have the time or patience to deal with it right now. Is burning down your own house bad?”

“It is frowned upon by the authorities, yes.”

“Then lean on the owner hard because that place is one broken floorboard away from condemnation.”

After the pen scratching stopped, Sebastian said, “What brought this on?”

“Ah, my daughter is in trouble. Husband abandoned her, so far as I can tell.” He wasn’t about to spill the worst part. “Lives almost in the foothills with no car, and all the decent stores are two miles away. Nothing in the house to eat. No money. A two-year-old and a six-month-old she can’t take care of because she’s as catatonic as Giselle was after Fen torched her store. Don’t women get a Thing after they’ve delivered a baby?”

There was a long silence. “Um … I think it’s called postpartum depression.”

“That. But I’m not sure because I asked her if this happened after the first baby and she said no. Maybe it’s just stress and exhaustion.”

“Uh … ” Sebastian sounded odd. “Just keep an eye on it.”

“I’ve half a mind to call Tess to get her butt out here and deal with this. She would know what to do.”

“Maybe Tess is busy.”

“With what?” he sneered.

He said nothing for a second or two. “Étienne,” he finally said, his tone indecipherable. “You haven’t shown your face in three years. Five if you count when you mentally checked out the minute you clapped eyes on Nia. Nobody but Emilio knows where you are or what you’re doing and he’s not talking. And now you want to demand Tess drop whatever she’s doing, not knowing or caring what that might be, to do something you came home specifically to do. Are you really that incompetent or are you just being lazy?”

Lazy, but Sebastian didn’t need to know that.

“Nonplussed, rather,” Etienne grumbled.

“Oh, boo-hoo. Poor Étienne is out of his comfort zone. You’re an adult. Take care of it yourself. On your own.”

“But Tess—”

“Étienne,” he growled. “Pull your head out of your ass and think. This is not a difficult project. Calling me for help is one thing. Calling your ex-wife, whom you haven’t talked to in five years, to order her to take care of the kid you’re half responsible for when you’re already there, is a real asshole thing to do.”

“Oh! What day is it? Is it Friday? Is it window-washing day or knickknack-dusting day?”

“Shut up,” Sebastian snapped. “I don’t want to hear another word against her. Didn’t you tell me you were turning over a new leaf?”

Étienne pulled his lips between his teeth. There was that, and once again he felt shame. “My kid’s a mess,” he said low, “and I don’t know how to take care of her.”

“This isn’t difficult—”

“Emotionally, you shit!” he snapped. “There are some things only a woman—a mother—can deal with and I’ve lived with women a hell of a lot longer than you have. Don’t lecture me now that you’ve been married all of two years and have two babies and one on the way to show for it.”

There was another long silence, then a long resigned sigh. “You’re driving home?”

“I have no choice.”

“Yeah, well, don’t be a hero. Take two days and stop early for the night. Make frequent pit stops.”

Oh no. No. He knew it could be done in one hard sixteen-hour drive, only stopping for gas, because he’d done it before. So had both Giselle and Knox. And half the rest of his cousins. It was exactly what he’d planned, and he wasn’t deviating.

“I can’t help you with Tabby, you’re right. But for the kids— Get lots of ointment for diaper rash. Mix the formula with cereal and cut the nipple bigger. Buy lots of Cheerios. Stay away from the juice boxes and give them water to drink. Get a personal DVD player for the toddler and a shit-ton of kid DVDs. As long as nobody’s hungry or has their butt stinging like the devil, it’s just noise. Remember: Google is your friend.”

Silence. Étienne looked at his phone. Call ended. “Hrmph.” He dialed another number. “Find my son-in-law.”

“Speak English,” Knox said wearily.

Étienne turned away from people gazing at him as if they were hypnotized and quietly repeated himself.

“Fine,” Knox sighed. “Wait. Find him? What the hell?”

“I’m in Provo. Tabby’s husband is long gone and you are going to find him. When you do, put Giselle on a plane to wherever he is.”

End call.

One more to go.

“You will lend me your particular expertise.” There was stunned silence on the other end, but Étienne had expected that and continued. “You will take care of Tabitha’s husband the minute Knox hunts him down because I am not fucking around with a divorce. I do not care how you do it.”

“Uh … Étienne,” Giselle said hesitantly, “I can tell you’re seriously pissed because you dropped the f-bomb, but you have to give me a valid reason.” She hadn’t protested. Good. “I don’t kill people for the hell of it, and I’ve never murdered anybody.” Étienne remained silent for several seconds. “Yet?” she squeaked. She lowered her voice and hissed, “Why can’t you ask Knox? He’s done this before. Twice.”

Étienne had no idea who Knox’s second victim had been, and he didn’t care in the least bit. There was only one pertinent point here. “Knox is not indestructible.”

“Uh … ”

“What I am about to tell you, you will keep to yourself.”

“I keep everything to myself, you adulterous fucking asshole.”

“Oh, good! I’m batting a thousand. My son-in-law raped my daughter.”

Pause. “On it.”

Call ended.


8: Rococo

“Hey, Aunt Tess. Where’s Abuéla?”

Tess, having been early to church so the new family in the ward couldn’t take “her” pew, looked up at Manolete, shocked. “Ah, she and her sisters went to the stockyards to see you perform. Don’t you have a rodeo right now?”

“No, that’s toni—” His phone vibrated and he looked at it. “Oh, crud.

Tess snorted when he shot out the chapel doors and she heard the foyer doors blow open with a clang. She went back to her sketchpad, thinking how nice it was that she didn’t have to scramble to put Relief Society together anymore.

“Tess, can I have a few minutes during Sunday school?”

She didn’t look up from her doodles. “No, Morgan,” she said airily, “you can’t.”

“It’s important.”

“I’m no longer the Relief Society president, so it can’t be that important.”

She started when Morgan touched her shoulder, and she looked up again, ready to attack, but the somber look on his face made her stop.

“I’m sorry.”

… we—all three of us—are ashamed that he walked out on you … on the spectrum of the pack’s hierarchy of sins, Knox gets a pass. Étienne doesn’t.

It was one thing for Sebastian to speak for himself, but she couldn’t be sure he had authority to speak for Morgan and Knox.

“I don’t know if I believe you,” she finally said warily.

“It would be much appreciated if you did.”

She scowled. “Sebastian’s making you do this, right?”

His surprise was genuine. “Uh, no. Sebastian doesn’t run my life.”

“Hrmph.”

He sighed. “Can’t a guy have a moment of reflection and not like what he sees?”

“Are you in a twelve-step group?”

He closed his eyes. “No. Look, I don’t expect forgiveness, but I hoped you would know that I’m not going to lie to you. Nothing incited it except your oddly timed request to be released from your calling. You like being Relief Society president and you’re very good at it, but you quit. You’re a fighter, and I don’t believe you’d quit just because you don’t want to talk to me. So I reflected. Or prayed. Or meditated. Or whatever you want to call it. And it occurred to me that you might have something going on in your life that you can’t do your job, and maybe, because Étienne’s not here, you needed some help.”

Oh, Sebastian had spilled the beans. She was going to kill him.

“That’s it. I’m not a complicated guy, but I have done some shitty things in my life—”

He must have caught her look.

“—including cussing at church. I try to own up to them and make restitution where I can as I go along. And I wanted to apologize also for letting Étienne run off at the mouth unchallenged. Yes, he’s my family, but so are you. He was wrong. We were wrong.”

Well, yes, they were. But she still wasn’t convinced and she didn’t trust him. She knew it wasn’t a trick of any kind because they didn’t do that and, well, Sebastian’s offer of help had been offered sincerely.

She knew she should say something. “Hm. Even if I do believe you, being mad at you is a habit. Don’t expect me to be all sweetness and light from here on out.”

He shook his head. “I don’t. You’re my family, Tess, and I haven’t treated you like that. You deserve a sincere apology and some concern, and that’s what this is.”

“Fine. I’ll take it under advisement.”

That actually seemed to relieve him of some burden. “Thank you. Is there anything I can help you with?”

She hesitated because she didn’t let her pride get in the way of Darcy’s safety. “I’ll let you know.”

Giselle was hard on Morgan’s heels—actually shoved him out of the way with little more than a protesting grunt from him—and Tess moved her legs so Giselle could squeeze into the pew. She held the position to wait for Bryce and Duncan, but … no Bryce and Duncan.

“Where are your men?”

Giselle’s eyes were a little red and puffy. “Today is not a good day,” she said tightly.

Tess knew Giselle and Bryce had difficulties, but she wasn’t sure of the nature of them and Giselle didn’t share. “Do you have somebody to talk to?”

She shook her head. “I’ve been thinking about finding somebody, though.” She dug a Kleenex out of her purse and blew her nose. “Marry in haste, repent at leisure.”

Tess pursed her lips. “Do you really feel that way?”

“No!” she huffed, impatient with herself. “It’s just … every time we have a fight it’s the same fight over and over again. It’s about Today’s Thing, but it’s really not about Today’s Thing. It’s about Perpetual Thing X, which never gets resolved. What sucks is it’s not going to get resolved.”

Boy, did Tess know that one.

“But today, there’s a new twist on Perpetual Thing X, and I don’t know how to deal with it.” Tess’s eyebrow rose. “I … Somebody asked me to do something for them Friday.”

Do something was Giselle-speak for Dunham justice.

“I—don’t really want to do the thing. But it’s for a good cause. But Bryce is furious because it goes back to Perpetual Thing X.”

Tess heaved a great sigh. “What is Perpetual Thing X?”

Her mouth tightened. “I clean up other people’s messes. Bryce doesn’t like that. He thinks people use me, and he hates it that people feel free to use me whenever, and he hates that I let them.”

“Family?” Tess asked gently, because the Dunhams went to Giselle for everything, from the mundane to the nasty and beyond, and Tess was no exception.

“Yes.”

Giselle could probably make a full-time job out of it, and since she’d quit her job when Duncan was born, she probably had.

“So are you mad at the person who asked you or are you mad at Bryce for being mad about the situation?”

“I don’t know,” she cried softly. “That’s just it. This favor is really … out there.”

“Then refuse. You don’t want to do it, Bryce doesn’t want you to do it, so why would you do it, especially if it causes strife between you and your husband?”

Giselle took a deep breath. “Because … it needs to happen. Somebody’s got to do it. And, as it was pointed out to me, I am the most qualified.”

Tess had no answer for that. The Dunhams did things their way. She didn’t want to know what it was and she wasn’t interested in passing judgment. She loved Giselle and she was grateful for her help with Darcy, even if it did mean adding to Giselle’s family to-do list. Honestly, she didn’t blame Bryce for being mad about it, but Giselle was physically strong. Stronger than Darcy at her most possessed. Tess had no compunction about using Giselle if it meant keeping Darcy alive.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be unloading on you. I get on their case when they do it to you.” She gestured toward the stand, where Morgan was supervising the priests preparing the sacrament.

“That’s different. You’ve never come to me in anger and relayed every single detail of your arguments. And this isn’t really about Perpetual Thing X, is it? This is about the request itself and you’re conflicted about it.”

Giselle sighed. Hiccupped. Sighed. Slumped in resignation.

“And even if you were unloading like that, I would listen and forget. I’m not about to volunteer to carry all that anger when it’s not mine.”

She pondered that a minute. “Listen and forget.”

“Yeup. I had to do that with Tabby.” Giselle’s head snapped up. “When she was first married, she’d call me up two, three times a week to gripe, and then they’d make up and you know, you never get that information. The making-up part. No details. Maybe they don’t even tell you they made up.”

“Does she still do that?” Giselle asked slowly, almost carefully.

“Not for a long time now. Whatever it was, it must have gotten worked out. I talked to her last week, and she was really perky and happy. I also got an email from Chad yesterday, and he’s as enthusiastic about his mission as he ever was. So at least two of my kids are humming along steadily.” She paused. “It’s Darcy. And Kelly, because she’s withdrawing into herself and that’s not like her. And then there’s Kimber, and … I would be happy to hear his voice and know he’s alive, even if he’s yelling at me how much he hates me.”

Giselle laughed weakly. “Compared to you, my problems aren’t that big a deal. I guess I thought it would be different.”

“It’s not about the Perpetual Thing X,” Tess said urgently.

“Tess, he’s jealous. He’s always been jealous.”

This, Tess could not tolerate. “He needs you more than they do,” she said flatly.

“He’s a grown man.”

“He’s damaged.”

That got her back up. “And yours has—”

“Don’t say it.” Tess snapped, her mouth tight. “I don’t like labels. Étienne is … Étienne. He’s—” She stopped and thought, then breathed, “Magical.”

Giselle pulled back and looked at her like she was crazy.

She had been. Once. Who’s going to say the opening prayer? in a VC meeting didn’t bring the crazy like she had when she and Étienne were a team, and they’d go home after a high-octane presentation and make love all night long.

“I miss his magic so badly sometimes I want to scratch my eyeballs out and wear sackcloth and scrub ashes into my hair,” she murmured. “You don’t know what it’s like, being married to a man that beautiful, who turns heads wherever he goes. He knows the effect he has on people. Anybody. Women, men. Doesn’t matter. To him, it’s a tool to get what he wants, like money or needle-nosed pliers, and he uses it. But he looked at me the way the world looks at him. He wanted me and only me, night after night, even when I was pregnant and puking, even when I was having a meltdown, even when he was mad, even when he was about to leave me.”

Silence. “He left you for another woman,” Giselle murmured.

The corner of Tess’s mouth turned up. “The trigger, not the reason. He never slept with her.”

Giselle’s mouth dropped open, which Tess found immensely gratifying.

“I found that out after the divorce was final, though.”

They were both silent and then prelude music began streaming through the speakers.

“I don’t think of Étienne in terms of his having something, like it’s a disease. I think of him in terms of him. So what I’m saying is that Bryce has had experiences that damaged him, but he’s the man you want, the man you fell in love with, the man no other man can replace. He is the only man you found worthy to trust with your personal space and your body because you’re just as damaged as he is.”

Giselle bit her lip and her eyes glittered with moisture. “I made him go to therapy. Does that mean I don’t want the one I married?”

… a complete personality change into somebody I would never have married? That’s dirty pool.

“It’s not a personality change. It’s to take some of his suffering away, to give him some peace. It must be hard. I couldn’t live with a man who carries as much pain as he does. But the one I did live with … ” She sighed. “You know, I don’t know what I could have done differently to get Étienne to get off my case about not designing and for putting away my—” She flipped her hip scarf festooned with cheap tin coins that jangled when she walked. “—in favor of sweater sets. Most husbands would be hounding a wife to do the dishes. He was hounding me not to. But that would make me a bad mother and wife, and he never understood that. I wanted him to wake up to what he was doing to me and it didn’t work.”

Giselle said nothing, but her tears had dried and her expression was turning darkly pensive. “So … you filing for divorce—that was a hammer?”

Tess bit her lip. Said that way and by someone else, Tess could see it did not reflect well upon her. “But you almost divorced Bryce.”

I wasn’t bluffing,” she said flatly, with a hint of a snarl. “Tess, Étienne is my family, part of the pack. Now, I’ve heard all his complaints, and I’ve been on your side all the way through, but what you did was wrong. No matter how much he gets on my nerves—because he does—he didn’t deserve to be served with papers as a hammer to get him to do what you wanted.”

Tess opened her mouth to defend herself, but nothing came out. Her shoulders slumped. “I had decided,” Tess said low, unable to look at Giselle and see eyes the same color as Étienne’s, “to call it off before he told me about Nia. It was wrong. I knew it. I wanted us to get counseling, not a divorce. I didn’t have a chance to tell him before he hit me with Nia.”

Giselle was silent for a second or two. “Nia was a weapon, too. To get back at you. To call your bluff.”

“After I’d gotten some time and distance, I came to that conclusion, yes.”

Giselle’s brows drew together. “Did he know you were bluffing?”

“I … don’t know,” Tess said weakly, never having thought of that. “He knows me better than anybody, so all along I assumed … ” If he hadn’t known, it would make more sense. “Maybe—maybe he didn’t,” she whispered, now even more ashamed by what she’d done.

Again Giselle paused, but for a much longer time. When she finally spoke, her anger was mostly gone. “If you could speak to him,” she said slowly, “what would you say?”

“I don’t know,” Tess said wearily. “I want— I don’t know what I want that could actually happen.”

“Would you get back together with him if you could?”

Now she was speaking as if it were in the realm of possibility. It wasn’t.

“I don’t even know how to answer that. Once he cuts someone off, it’s permanent. It won’t even occur to him to come back or take me back if I asked. Why?”

Her mouth compressed and she looked away. “I— Um. I was just curious. I need to think about this,” she muttered. Tess didn’t know why she had to think about it at all.

“Giselle,” she finally said, laying a hand on her dear friend’s arm. “Judge me all you want, but learn from my mistake. Bryce loves you and he tries to be careful because only he knows where all your soft spots are. But you have to be careful with him, too, and if cleaning up other people’s messes is that damaging to your marriage, just stop doing it. Problem solved. No more Perpetual Thing X.”

Giselle’s mouth opened and closed. “I … don’t know. He— I thought—” Her lips pressed closed. “How would you like it if I said no to you?”

Oh, that was low, but Tess knew she deserved it. “That’s your choice,” she said gently, attempting to keep the panic out of her voice. “And it’s a perfectly valid one, and I would understand.” But she would not like it.

Giselle sighed and mumbled, “Actually, Bryce doesn’t mind that one, especially after he saw Darcy in action up close and personal.” She paused. “Tess, let’s assume Étienne … popped up somewhere. In your life. I mean, if he did, you’d get your four-twenty project funded, right? But what if— I don’t know. Let’s assume he actually didn’t cut you off. Everything else being equal, would you?”

Tess thought about that seriously for a moment because it was so tempting. “Yes,” she murmured, “but we’d just be picking up where we left off.”

“No, you wouldn’t. Do you remember once when I was reading Fanny Hill and I was laughing about ‘engine of love assaults’?”

Tess snorted in spite of herself. “It’s hard to get that out of your brain.”

“Do you remember how Étienne reacted, what he said?”

Prompted by something so specific, she started to remember, the details trickling into her mind. “He didn’t think it was funny.” She started to smile a little. “He said, ‘That’s what we do, Tess. It’s not metaphorical. We don’t build. We make love. Every detonation. Every trenching. Every girder. Every concrete pour. Every glass plate. A stroke in, a stroke out. And then when your shaft is finished, a crane drops my engine in it.’”

Giselle smiled softly. “That’s my point. He was mad because you weren’t designing, but you have been for the last four years, and this is the first thing you’ve designed that would make him reach again. The fight’s still there, but you’re not picking up where you left off. You’re not that person he left. You’re the person he built with. He’s not going to walk away from the woman he married.”

Tess’s brow wrinkled at her certainty. “How do you know? He did it once.”

“No, he walked away from the woman he didn’t marry.” That hit Tess in the gut again, but Giselle’s mouth turned down and she muttered, “But I don’t really know. The Étienne I knew wouldn’t have walked out on you, either, so I’m in no position to judge. On the other hand, I do know that he keeps at his projects until he’s figured it out. Sometimes he takes breaks and works on something else. But if you think you’d just be picking up the fight where you left off, then the project isn’t finished, is it?”

“Why do you care so much?” Tess asked suspiciously.

Giselle gave her a watery smile. “I love fairy tales and romance novels.”

Tess took a deep breath because that was most definitely true and, for Giselle, the only reason she needed to care. “Real life isn’t like that,” she muttered. “He wanted to fix me and he couldn’t. Using the divorce as a hammer was wrong. I know that. His saying the horrible things he said before he left was wrong. But five years have passed and now I know that the only way he could fix me was to leave.”

“I can buy that,” she said quickly, because the prelude music had stopped and the bishop had arisen to begin sacrament meeting. “But okay, he left. Now you’re fixed and you want him to slide his engine into your building. It’s exactly what he wanted. You aren’t going to get any more fixed if he stays away.”

“I don’t know where he is!” Tess whispered hotly. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t find him and regardless of what you’d like to believe, he’s not going to just pop up one day.”

“Do you love him?”

I never stopped!” How could she ask such a thing? Didn’t everybody know this?

“Tess! This family runs on faith. Have some!”

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