Meredith set her coffee mug onto the counter. “Has she told you why?”
“No,” said Bert.
Sighing, Meredith filled her cup from the silver pot and returned the canister to its station. A low buzz indicated the radio spewing the morning news, but she couldn’t focus through her worried musings enough to make sense of the headlines.
Drifting to the kitchen’s main entrance, she stared toward the front door. The last piece of luggage remained beside the hall closet. Tags from a variety of airlines and hotels clung to the handle and dents marred the curved sides. Through the living room window, she spied Natalie’s car parked alongside the curb. The out-of-state plates with their government insignia seemed garish against the plain concrete.
Down the flanking hallway, the second bedroom’s door opened and shut. Soft padding of slippers traversed the carpet.
Meredith slipped into the kitchen and pretended to pour a fresh cup.
Natalie shuffled in, her hair tousled. Sleep made her plump cheeks sag.
“Morning kiddo,” said Bert.
“Morning, Dad,” said Natalie. She hunched in a plush violet robe, one matching the fuzzy slippers keeping her feet from the tile.
“Want something to eat?” Meredith motioned toward the refrigerator and then tipped her chin at the harvest of fruit by the sink.
“Coffee’s great,” said Natalie.
Turning her back, she opened the cupboard and sifted through the mugs. Meredith caught Bert’s gaze, but he shrugged and flipped open the newspaper.
“Milk’s in the fridge,” said Meredith, “and the sugar—”
“I remember,” said Natalie. She opened the door hiding the shelves of spices and collected the pewter sugar bowl. “It hasn’t been that long.”
“Three years between visits is a long time,” said Meredith. She glided to the nearest chair tucked beneath the dining table and gripped the rounded frame. “You must have a reason for this one.”
“Meredith,” said Bert to the financial section.
“It’s our house,” said Meredith. “She’s our daughter. I think we have a right to know why she shows up in the middle of the night.”
“It was 9 o’clock.” Natalie poured herself a cup and breathed in the steam. The heat seemed to melt the tension stiffening her shoulders. She managed a small smile when she looked up. “I can’t just drop in for a few days?”
“You don’t just drop in without a reason, Natalie.”
“Hey look,” said Bert, pointing at the paper. “Isn’t that your boss? Williams or Wallace or something.”
“Welkin,” said Natalie.
Meredith frowned at the crisp tone invading her daughter’s voice. She stepped aside as Natalie darted across the kitchen and hovered at her father’s shoulder. Natalie peered at the paper, her features contorting into a scowl as she glanced along the column.
“It’s out already?”
Meredith squinted at the gray pages. “What’s out?”
“Nothing, Mom,” said Natalie. She returned to the counter and started spooning sugar into her mug.
“Oh my,” said Bert.
He splayed the newspaper onto the table and leaned forward. With his liver-spotted finger he followed a line of text while adjusting his black rimmed spectacles.
“Which are you—” Meredith gasped and covered her gaping mouth as she spied the relevant headline. She swiveled slowly, her eyes wide as she latched upon her daughter’s back. “Natalie!”
Natalie set her spoon down with a clatter. “It’s not what it sounds like.”
“It sounds like you had an affair.”
“He was getting a divorce,” said Natalie, spinning to face them.
Meredith thumped down her mug and crossed her arms. “That’s supposed to make it better? Make it acceptable?”
“You don’t understand what’s really going on.”
“Oh please, may my only child enlighten me.”
Natalie pointed at the paper. “They’re bringing it up now to smear our environmental bill. They want a distraction. They want to undermine what’s right by having everyone focus on this nonsense.”
“Nonsense?” Meredith scoffed. “Sleeping with a married man is not nonsense.”
“He was separated. He’s divorced now.”
Meredith shook her head as rational thoughts aligned. “This is why you’re here isn’t it? You’re hiding from this.”
“My daughter never hid from anything in her life,” said Bert, adding his own level glower to the staring contest.
“Dad.” Natalie snagged her cup and listed against the counter. Her gaze sank into her coffee and her whole body slumped. “We thought it’d be better this way.”
Meredith scowl faded into a frown. “We?”
Natalie caressed the handle of her cup, a small curve lighting her mouth. “I don’t just sleep around, Mom.”
“So you’re still seeing this man?”
Natalie reached beneath the collar of her robe. Her fingers emerged, pulling on a gold chain threaded with a diamond ring. “We’re engaged actually.”
Meredith’s jaw dropped. “Natalie.”
Natalie’s lips formed a tentative smile. “Sometimes the best parts don’t make it into the papers.”