Chef watched his wife through the living room window from the driveway. She sat curled up on the couch with a book unfolded in her lap. All pretense at reading was being made, but Chef knew she wasn't. In the duration of their marriage, Amberly had done more reading than anything else at home - it was a habit that he loved and admired - she became absorbed so thoroughly in whatever she was reading that the sun would start to rise before she even realized it was dark. Today, though, her lips never twitched into a smile at a joke; her eyes didn't widen at a surprising plot twist. She hadn't turned the page in over twenty minutes.
There were two house rules. If you make a mess clean it up, and don't interrupt mommy when she's reading. Amberly needed some time alone. Chef ached, watching her. He wanted to go to her, pull her gently into his arms, and whisper that everything would be okay. But she was shutting out the world, reading. Shutting him out.
He couldn't blame her for needing time alone. After dropping Liam off at the hotel, Chef had driven around the city, aimlessly wandering while the radio blared at him. For the first time since Miranda was born, he did not sing or hum along. Several times he drove past the cemetery that held his baby girl, but couldn't bear to go inside to visit her. Not while her killer was still at large. Until he'd brought justice on the man, he couldn't face her. He drove home in shame. Home to try to patch his family back together.
Freddy Mercury informed him that, as anyone can see, nothing really matters.
But that wasn't true.
Chef exited the car, slamming the door shut. Amberly looked up from her book and closed it. “Hey, Bear,” he said, attempting to smile. He moved in to kiss Amberly's forehead. Her body tensed as his lips pressed against her. “Good book?”
“It’s nothing special.”
Chef sat on the couch sideways, facing her. “I've got a big project I am starting up at the restaurant, so I'll be spending a lot of time at work in the next few months. I was thinking I could take you two girls out for some ice cream this afternoon.”
“That could be fun.” Amberly said, in the slow tone that told Chef she had no desire to go. There was none of her smile in her voice.
Chef hadn't taken notice of the bass thumping from upstairs until just then. “I'll go get Mandy, and we'll go in a few minutes?”
Chef avoided the creaky step as he ascended toward the heavy bass thumping. He knocked on her door and waited.
He tried knocking again, and received no answer.
“Mandy, please open the door, I'm taking you and your mother out for ice cream.”
The music stopped. The door opened only wide enough for Chef to see Miranda's face, smeared with black makeup. “What?”
“I'm taking you and your mother out for ice cream.”
“Ice cream? That's your plan to win us back? Ice cream? That's the worst.”
“Mandy, I'm doing the best I can.”
“Not being there when we needed you the most, and then trying to make up for it with ice cream is your best?”
Chef sighed. “I guess it is.”
“Well, I hope you're a better cook than you are a father, or your restaurant is going to go out of business.” Miranda turned away and slammed the door in Chef's face.
Chef could only stare at the door, stunned.
* * *
Chef laid in bed listening to Amberly brush her teeth in the other room. He closed his eyes and waited for her to join him in bed, hoping that this would be the night that she curled up against him like she used to. She rinsed, spat, and crawled into bed.
“Sweet dreams, Bear,” Chef whispered. “I love you.”
Amberly murmured something unintelligible and turned her back on him, curling her body around a pillow. It wasn’t long before her breath deepened. Her grip on the pillow tightened as she fell deeper into sleep.
He felt like an ass, laying naked and staring at the ceiling instead of cuddled next to her. She’d been pulling away from him. Today’s failed attempt at a family outing had not been the first by a long shot. He reluctantly admitted to himself that it was a bad idea. In spite of his best intentions and attempts to keep the family together, his wife and daughter estranged themselves further from him.
Chef focused on breathing, feeling his chest tighten and sobs rise from his core. Fear rose in him, and it was only with great effort he banished it from his mind. Amberly was still his wife. She still loved him, and that wouldn’t change, no matter what happened.
Only a bad husband like Liam is afraid to touch his own wife, to let her know he loves her. Chef rolled over and shaped his body to Amberly’s. He put an arm around her waist and gently kissed the base of her neck …
And heard her start weeping.
Her whole body quaked, fingers dug into the pillow.
Chef removed his arm from around her and scooted back to his side of the bed. Slowly, her sobs subsided, the trembling stopped, and her breath deepened once more. The ceiling seemed as good a thing as any to focus on. Anything to distract himself from the fact that even though he hadn’t cheated on his wife, like Liam had, he was still as isolated from her as his friend. Maybe the hotel room had an extra bed he could borrow. Chef clenched his eyes closed, and hoped it didn’t come to that.