Katie'd been at her briefcase. Its high gloss was smudged with the suspicious prints of a five-year-old, and the buckle had been fouled with pink bubble gum.
"Ray," she groaned. "I thought you were going to keep an eye on her!"
Ray ducked around the corner with Katie slung around his neck like a tree sloth.
Stella had noticed a new subtlety to Katie's interaction with her lately.
Katie looked... not exactly smug, but grimly satisfied about the damage done to Stella's briefcase.
"Katie. Come here and talk to me about this."
Ray pried her from around his neck and set her on her pink sneakered feet.
Katie looked up to him for support, but Ray shook his head, folded his arms and leaned against the door jamb to watch Stella mete out another round of stern parental justice.
Fucker, Stella thought briefly. Her annoyance was so old it was as dry as paper now, and lighter than ash. Easy to dismiss. But it still bugged her that she always had to be the heavy.
When she knelt down to speak to Katie at her own level, her stockings snagged on the low, sharp edge of the coffee table they'd used to have swaddled with bath towels so Katie wouldn't fall against it and put out an eye. The run striped her leg like a rope ladder and she felt it give all the way to the hem of her thigh, where it was halted by her control top panties.
Out of nowhere, Stella hid her face in her hands and began to bellow.
She was confused by her own reaction, and she didn't want to look up and find out that Katie was glad she'd made her mother cry.
There was a rustle and the sounds of Ray scooping Katie up and walking down the long hall towards Katie's bedroom. He told Kate to sit on her bed and think about what she'd done to mom's briefcase, I'll be back later, Kato, and you'd better have something good for me.
Then the tromp of his boots on the waxed floorboards again, and she could feel him hunch down in front of her, hovering close, smelling like hair gel and peanut butter sandwiches and baby shampoo.
His arm slipped around her shoulder and he squeezed her close, companionably, talking to her hair.
"Why is she so mean to me, Ray?" She sobbed and hated herself for it.
She'd given birth to a person who didn't seem to have a single ounce of familial affection for her. Worse, Katie's behavior was beginning to erode Stella's affection for her, her only child. She'd thought Katie'd at least have been a teenager before that happened...
"She's just pissed at you. "
Stella wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and turned to press her cheek to Ray's bony shoulder.
She could feel him shrug.
"Who knows, Stella. She's just like you, you know. And nine times out of ten, I can't tell why </i>you're</i> mad."
There was a pause as Stella reminded herself not to admit that nine times out of ten, she wasn't sure herself. Especially when it came to Ray.
He stroked her hair, his first fingertip just touching the point of her cheekbone.
"I'm gonna guess she wants you home more. Her, not me," he added hastily, pre-emptively. "I know you gotta work crazy hours, but she's been five for, like, 8 days. She doesn't get that. She just knows you're not here."
Stella leaned against him, felt his wiry strength buoy her, keep her from sliding to the floor.
"Stella? I know you're working hard. I know you need some down time. And I also know Katie loves you. Okay? How about tonight, I'll send Katie to Ma Vecchio's, you and me, we can have a little dinner, a little dancing... How's that sound?"
She took a steadying, but appallingly shuddery breath.
"That sounds really nice, Ray."
She kissed his stubbled cheek, and set her hand on his knee to lever herself to her feet.
She smoothed her hair and sniffed.
"But I've got to stay late. Farnsworth has that new Bedermeyer evidence to go over. And I have to look over Gorning's statement again before I talk to his lawyer tomorrow."
She saw Ray fold in on himself a little, pull his knees up to set his elbows on them.
She almost reached out to touch the top of his head, but as it was, she was running half an hour late.
"I'm going to get changed. And... Why don't you bring Katie by and have lunch with me later? About 2?"
Ray lifted his chin from the cave of his own body, and there was a hint of approval in his eyes, slanted at her from under his blond lashes.
"We can go to Turner's on Broadstreet. Katie digs their cheese sticks."
She forced a smile and thought about Ray feeding Katie, still in her high chair, bald and wriggling and spattered with pureed peas, and how she'd never gotten over that first pang of jealousy.