The pony rides began at 2:00 p.m.
The birthday boy, Edward, was first to ride. Veronica moved forward to help him, but stopped when her husband, Jon, pressed a finger to his lips and shook his head. She stretched a smile across her face and stepped back.
“Mommy, look at me!”
“I see you, Eddie. Be careful.” Veronica twisted her fingers together as the trainer guided the pony down the driveway.
Her sister-in-law, Beatrice, came to stand beside her, wrapping an arm around her waist. “Edward is such a good birthday boy.”
Veronica leaned into the embrace until she felt Jon’s eyes on her again. “He’s always been my good boy. I can hardly believe he’s six today.” Her voice cracked and she coughed to conceal it. “How about something to drink?” Without waiting for an answer, Veronica hurried over to the picnic table, grabbed a full cup of something red, and brought it to her lips.
“Edward couldn’t have asked for a better step-mother.” Beatrice lowered her voice. “You’re a better mother than Charlotte was.”
Back when she was a new wife, Veronica would have welcomed the comment. Today it meant nothing. Five years ago, when Jon’s lawyers had stripped Charlotte of all her maternal rights, Veronica had been thrilled to become Eddie’s only mom. Now, she cringed at how Charlotte must have suffered. Karma, she thought.
Cake and ice cream were served at 3:30 p.m.
“Where’s Mommy? I want Mommy to cut the cake.” Edward’s eyes darted around the table until they locked on her.
Veronica recognized the fatigue etched on his quivering mouth.
Hannah, the nanny, stepped forward. “Would you like me to slice it? I can do triangles.” Before Edward could answer, she began slicing the cake and humming the birthday song. She dropped a dot of icing on his nose and then slid a plate of cake in front of him.
Hannah had been Jon’s choice. Studying her, Veronica decided she was a better nanny than she herself had been nearly six years ago. Ironic to figure that out today, of all days.
The party was over too soon. Veronica carried Edward upstairs to his bedroom. Together, they arranged his new toys around the room. When they were finished, she helped him into his favorite dinosaur pajamas and he climbed into bed.
“Will you stay with me until I fall asleep, Mommy?”
“Of course.” She sat beside him and stroked his hair until his eyelids began to flutter. He was asleep within minutes, but she continued to touch him. She patted his hair flat against his forehead, then pulled the blanket higher and smoothed the wrinkles. She pressed a palm to his soft cheek and smiled when he leaned into it.
At exactly 8:30 p.m. the bedroom door clicked open.
Hannah stood in the doorway. She looked at her watch and raised her eyebrows. Slowly, Veronica eased off the bed. She pressed a kiss to Edward’s forehead and more to both cheeks.
“Stop, or you’ll wake him. He’s had a long day and tomorrow will be hard.” Hannah’s voice was mild, her face still pleasant.
Veronica sighed and followed her out of the room and down the stairs to the wide, echoing foyer.
“I could come in the morning to make the transition easier.” Veronica opened her eyes wide to stop from crying.
Hannah waited at the front door, one hand on the doorknob, the other in her pocket. “We agreed you could stay until Edward’s birthday.”
“I know.” Veronica glanced into the study. Jon sat on the black leather couch, his arms folded behind his head, a smile on his face, watching them. He hadn’t spoken to her since last night when she had signed the papers and accepted his check.
“Just a few hours of visitation. I won’t get in the way. I won’t do anything wrong.” The words were blurted before Veronica could stop them. She held out her hands to Hannah who glanced toward Jon before speaking.
“We don’t owe you anything. You aren’t his real mother.”
It had always been that, even before Hannah, always the same argument — she wasn’t Eddie’s real mother. She wondered if it would be the same for Hannah. Oddly enough, Veronica hoped it wouldn’t. Maybe Eddie would finally have a mom that his dad loved and acknowledged, and maybe they would have a child together. She swallowed past the lump in her throat. To be a mom was the best thing in the world.
Veronica nodded at Hannah before walking out the front door. On the other side, with the door shut behind her, she hurried to her car. Behind the wheel she closed her eyes and pushed all the air out of her lungs. She eased her swollen belly forward, relieving the stress of holding it in all day. She rested a hand there for an instant, its steady warmth calming her. Waiting until Eddie’s birthday had been a huge risk, but she had so hoped things would end differently.
She turned the key, her hand vibrating slightly as the powerful car rumbled to life. But Jon was Jon. Veronica glanced at her handbag; a plane ticket and her passport were waiting inside. She wiped away her tears and put the car into reverse. At the end of the driveway, she looked up at Eddie’s window one last time. She would miss him. He had always been her good boy.
Von Rupert lives with her family in Virginia where she homeschools her children and writes copy for her husband’s podcasting business. She’s a member of Writer’s Village University (WVU). Three times a year, she mentors writers at WVU’s free writing course, F2K. She blogs at wheretheshadowsmeetthelight.blogspot.com.