I watch Mateo read to the girls about mermaid genies. I study him like there’s an exam afterward—on him, not the book. I watch for any sign that this is all an act, that he’s more of a liar than I ever realized. That he’s a monster with a pretty face and a nice suit, and maybe there’s nothing underneath.
But it doesn’t seem fake. When Lily wrings a little smile out of him with her bedtime story pop quiz, the affection looks real. The affection for my daughter. The affection for his daughter. It doesn’t happen as much now, because he’s completely distracted by Mia, but when he rubs my belly, his affection for the little person we created—it all feels so real.
I’ve never needed to live in a black and white world, but right now, I hate the color gray.
Once the story is finished, he kisses them both, lets them tackle him to give hugs. My heart aches, because he looks so much like the man I love; he just doesn’t feel like him once they’re gone.
Then again, I don’t get him once they’re gone anymore. Maybe he still feels the same and I just don’t know because he’s never with me. He’s on the other side of the house, possibly harming someone else.
I take the girls to bed, like always. Tuck them in and give goodnight kisses. Slowly, dread weighing on me every step of the way, I go back to our bedroom. I expect he’ll leave now. Not right this second; he’ll linger for a few minutes, ask about my day, and give me a kiss. But then he’ll be gone.
For now, he’s still in our bed. So I climb up there and lie down beside him.
“I feel like I should get you a change of address form,” I tell him, lightly.
“Hm?” he murmurs, glancing over at me.
“It doesn’t even feel like this is your bedroom anymore,” I clarify.
“I know,” he says, sighing. “I’m sorry. Mia is being more difficult than I hoped.”
“Well, you killed her boyfriend,” I state, reasonably. “With your bare hands. In front of her. So… you know. That’s not really a turn-on for most women.”
It usually wouldn’t bother me that this amuses him. That his eyes twinkle and he turns to wrap his arms around me, to pull me close. “Most women aren’t you, huh?”
I don’t fight his embrace, but I certainly don’t do anything to encourage it. I can’t get the icky doubts out of my head.
“I’m surprised she even lets you stay in her bed,” I remark.
He doesn’t respond to this. Now I feel worse.
I hear a trace of fear in my own voice as I ask, “Is she letting you?”
“Are you asking if I’m still sleeping with Mia?” he asks, for clarification.
“No.” My heart threatens to fly right out of my chest, my courage desperately attempting escape. “I’m asking if you’re hurting her.”
“I’ve hurt Mia plenty,” he says, carefully. “Far more than she’s ever deserved. I’m still hurting her. But not in the way you mean.”
That should make me feel better, but it doesn’t. He said the same thing last time. He wasn’t good to Mia, but he never did that. Elise says differently. My doubts say he’s probably lying. Mia’s feelings for him in the past back him up—or, I thought they did, but maybe they don’t. She did make a joke about having Stockholm syndrome once. Maybe she managed to love him despite what he did to her. Maybe it wasn’t the evidence of his innocence that I took it to be.
Maybe I misread the situation and started a life with someone based on misinformation. Maybe I was wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. Probably won’t be the last, either.
Adrian was right about that.
“Am I still allowed to leave?”
It feels like the room suddenly freezes when those words slip out of my mouth. I had no intention to ask—I mean, I’ve wanted to, but I didn’t actually intend to.
Now they’re out there, and anxiety gathers in my chest. He’s still holding me, his grip still tight, but now it feels like a shackle. Now I can hardly breathe.
Finally he manages, “What?”
“Just hypothetically,” I add, trying not to sound as nervous as I feel.
“That’s not a question you ask hypothetically unless you’re thinking about it,” he states logically. “Are you?”
“I just…” I don’t know how to answer that. I’m not prepared. “You told me once I could leave if I wanted to. That the offer was open. That you could never hurt me. And I believed you. But I listened to you tell Mia just the other night she couldn’t leave. She never even accepted your death necklace or an engagement ring, and you told her you’d make her stay.”
“Mia made her own promises,” he tells me.
“Well, so did I. I took your ring. I’m carrying your child. But you still told me I could leave if I wanted to. When Mia tried, you killed her transport.”