Cold, unrumpled sheets were all that greeted me when I rolled over to the other side of my bed.
The sun beamed through the curtains, illuminating the spot where there should have been another warm body. I stretched and then let out a breath, scrambling to get upright. When I sat up, my hand brushed against something, a piece of paper laid neatly on the pillow next to mine. There was a single rosebud taped to it, plucked from the bush outside the very front of our building.
I picked up the note. It had Hannibal’s lovely scrawl all over it.
My darling, it read. He was always one for baroque flourishes of the language. It made me giggle sometimes. Even now, I smiled in spite of myself, all former traces of annoyance vanishing into thin air.
I apologize for not being here when you woke this morning. I had a rather urgent meeting to attend. I will return home as soon as I am able.
He hadn’t signed it. No “Love, Hannibal” or anything like that. Instead, he stamped it with his official seal, a monogram of his initials encircled with raised dots. I’d seen him put it firmly to important documents on so many occasions that by now, he surely repeated the action on muscle memory alone.
I was annoyed again. Full frown and all. Dammit, it was Saturday. I was starting to wonder why my husband even bothered to leave notes at this point.
I sighed and hopped out of the bed, throwing back the plush satin comforter and using one of the smooth wooden posts to haul myself to my feet.
I grabbed a shower, brushed my hair, and pulled on a tee shirt and some leggings. Then I rounded the King-size bed and started to straighten the sheets. It always upset Carlotta, our cleaning lady when I made the bed myself, but it was a habit I had a hard time breaking. A habit I didn’t want to break, honestly. Making the bed kept me just a little sane. And besides, it wasn’t as much of a chore when you were only making up one side of it. Hannibal often scolded me for offering to help the help. “It’s what I pay them for,” he’d say. “Just let them do it.”
My stomach growled, and I told myself that I would be in a better mood once I’d eaten something.
With the bed straightened, I sunk my feet into soft slippers and padded down the spiral staircase to the main floor. I walked past the parlor and into the dining room, sitting down at the end of the carved wooden table. It was meant to seat up to twelve people, which was ridiculous because we never had that many people over at once. I picked up the Times, still neatly folded in half, and thumbed through it. Hannibal always left it for me before going to work in the mornings, saying I should stay on top of what was going on in the world. I usually skimmed the metro section and ignored the rest. Sometimes I’d try to read through the financial section. Hannibal was constantly watching the markets, and so I had taken to studying these pages as well. The news went right over my head most of the time. But I still looked. I wanted to be ready in case he one day decided to discuss his work with me. I wasn’t sure if he kept so quiet about his business dealings because he didn’t think it would interest me, or if it was because he was trying to keep his work life separate from our married life. I suspected it was the latter, though he didn’t do such a good job of that on most days.
There was an article about the Atkinson Firm that caught my attention. Simon Atkinson was Hannibal’s main competitor and the two men openly loathed each other. His firm had reported record earnings this quarter. I thought about taking that page out, but it wouldn’t do any good since Hannibal had likely already seen it.
Simone, a short, portly older woman, came waddling in from the adjacent kitchen. “Breakfast, Mrs. Barbas?”
I nodded to her with a smile. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
She was back a couple of minutes later with a spinach omelet spread out on a warm, white, bone china plate and some fresh-squeezed orange juice served in a crystal goblet. Sterling silver flatware was wrapped carefully in a white linen cloth and set beside me.
“Thank you, Simone,” I whispered before she hurried off behind the double doors.
I unwrapped my fork and dug in, going over my to-do list in my head. It was painfully short. Make the bed was at the top of the list and that was already crossed off. I frowned.
Exactly 60 seconds after I took my last bite, Simone reappeared to take my plate away. “And how was everything this morning, Mrs. Barbas?” Simone had asked that question every day in the same servile tone for the last two years.
“Excellent, as usual, Simone.”
She dropped the knife on the ground as she turned back toward the kitchen. I started to bend down to pick it up for her, but I stopped myself. “So sorry, ma’am,” she muttered as she disappeared again behind the door.
Just once, I’d like someone in this house to call me by my first name. “Tess,” I heard someone call just then.
Anyone except her.
I heard my mother’s impossibly high heels clicking on the hardwood floor in the direction of the dining room. She paused for a second, just standing there. Then she walked up behind me and rounded the dining room table. She sat down across from me, and immediately, the cloying, deeply floral smell of her perfume overwhelmed me. She was wearing too much, as she often did.
“Hannibal not at home?” she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
She was wearing long sleeves, a navy blue silk pantsuit, even though it was now the beginning of June. She had on the necklace Hannibal had given her for Christmas, and she was wearing her favorite lipstick. I found myself struck, as I often did, by how beautiful my mother was. And how much more beautiful she’d be if she didn’t set her mouth in quite that way. She didn’t eat a proper breakfast, only asked Simone for some coffee and some fruit. She was impossibly vain. Watching her figure, she said. Though she looked better than any 50-year-old I’d ever seen.
“Good morning, Mother,” I said, ignoring her question. “Good morning, Tess.” Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“He went out,” I said, knowing she wasn’t about to let it go. “Said he had some business to take care of.”
“Hmm.” That was all she said before turning her attention to her cup of coffee. This was the part where I was supposed to ask her to elaborate or say what was on her mind. But I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. Not today.
Simone came through the door, setting a plate of fruit in front of my mother, and she broke our eye contact for a second. “Thank you, Simone,” she said, and then turned her gaze back to me. “Tess, sit up straight.”
It was only then that I realized I was slouching. The heat rose in my face a little. It always did when she told me what to do. As if I wasn’t grown. As if, up until a few short years ago, I wasn’t the mother in the relationship, and she was the petulant child. I glared at her.
She dropped her fork and glared back at me. Then she grabbed her coffee and fruit and got up from the table. “I’m going to finish reading my book,” she said. “I can’t be around you when you’re like this. Come find me when you’re ready to talk like adults.” She clicked away without looking back, and I wondered why she always wore high heels in the house.
It was after 3 o’clock when Hannibal came through the door. I sat and watched him from the living room couch. He shrugged off his jacket and hung it from one of the knobs next
to the front door. He stood, facing away from me, now dressed in two pieces of a dark and expensively tailored three-piece suit — an admitted hot button of mine — the rear view of him showcasing a powerful back encased in his vest.
“Tess,” he called, not realizing I was right behind him. My name sounded like rich cream rolling off his tongue, and my belly did a little flip-flop. He turned, and I stood. Suddenly I was no longer annoyed. I wanted to be, but his smile had effectively erased that feeling. I tried hard not to smile back but failed pretty quickly. He strode over to me and swept me up in a big bear hug, lifting me an inch or two off the parquet flooring. “Hey,” he whispered into my hair.
I buried my face in his chest, relishing the warmth of his body. Taking my face between his hands, he kissed me lightly on the lips. Then he leaned his forehead against mine and said, “I’m sorry again about this morning.”
Immediately my annoyance returned, and I felt a tightness in my throat. His words lacked depth; there was no truth to them. They were calculated. Rehearsed. Something he’d said over and over again until it came out of his mouth with no conscious effort.
I pulled away a little and muttered a rehearsed phrase of my own. “It’s OK.”
He grabbed me by the hand and squeezed, leading me over to the dining room. Simone came bustling out of the kitchen again. “Mr. Barbas, sir. Something to eat for you?”
“Just some coffee please, Simone,” he answered without looking up at her. He didn’t even look to see if she did what he asked. He just sat and motioned for me to sit in the chair next to him.
I sat next to him and breathed him in. He had a distinctly masculine scent. Cologne, musk, and coffee. Instantly, I was mad at my body for betraying my mind. I was supposed to be angry, but apparently, my hormones had missed that memo. A familiar ache spread through me. How long had it been?
“Tell me about your day,” he said, opening the paper. He’d opened it right to the page that contained the Atkinson article. I studied his face as he skimmed the page. His expression didn’t change but for the briefest of moments, something in his eyes did.
There wasn’t anything to tell. He knew that. He preferred it that way. But still, I went on and on about something or other — the garden, the guest room — while he flipped through the pages. He was so well-timed with his “mm hmm’s” and “oh really’s” that at first, it seemed like he was actually listening. I knew better, though, and I stopped talking.
After a moment, he looked up, set the paper down. “I’m sorry, darling,” he said smiling, touching me lightly on my chin. “I’ve just been so preoccupied with this deal. It’s a big one, and I’m worried that even after all the work I put in, it still won’t go through.”
I nodded and put on my best smile, opening my mouth to tell him, again, that it was OK when his cell phone rang. I snapped my mouth shut without saying a word.
He looked down at it and then back up at me. He held out a hand, and I already knew what was coming.
“I’m sorry, love. I need to take this.”