Vanessa blinked back tears. The empty feeling inside wasn’t going to subside any time soon, and hiding away in a hotel room wouldn’t change anything. Besides, tears wouldn’t bring Alyssa back. But, somehow, someway she was going to get her daughter back. What was her baby doing? Did she miss her? Was she crying? God, she missed Alyssa. Missed their morning ritual—the loving, hugging, and cuddling. Every day for two years, they started the day the same way.
At least they did until two weeks ago.
Never in her life had she felt such anger and pain. Tears burned her eyes, slid down her cheeks. Powerless to stop them, sobs shook her body. Gulping back the sobs, Vanessa looked around the small hotel room. Okay, so it wasn’t the Ritz, but it was clean and reasonably priced. Luxury wasn’t important. Never had been before and sure as heck wasn’t now. The important thing now was figuring a way to get her daughter back. Time to pull herself together and get on with life, find a job. Two weeks of self-pity was enough. Vanessa swung her legs over the side of the bed, went to the bathroom, and turned on the water for the shower. She needed a plan. Crying wouldn’t solve a darn thing.
The hot water ran down her gaunt body, and Vanessa lathered her tangled auburn hair. Was it only two weeks ago life seemed normal? How could things have changed so suddenly? But it wasn’t sudden. A divorce had been coming for a long time. She just never expected it to end without Alyssa. Vanessa shivered getting out of the shower and wrapped the towel around her. Her only chance of getting Alyssa back was to find a job, and to make a fresh start.
Showered and dressed, Vanessa caught her reflection in the mirror. High sunken cheekbones sat beneath green eyes that stared back at her with a vacant look. How had her face become so skeletal in two weeks? What happened to the woman, who had her hair done weekly, never appeared without makeup, and worked out every day? Not that she cared about all that pampering. None of that mattered, never really had. What mattered was her baby. Living without luxuries was easy. She’d done it all her life. But losing Alyssa left a hole in her heart. Never had she experienced such pain. Not even when her parents died. Losing her child tore her apart. Tears burned her eyes again.
Vanessa gulped back the tears and turned away from the mirror, straightened her shoulders and stood to her full five foot eight height. Through the years, her height had afforded her many advantages, and she’d been proud of it. Not so long ago, it had given her confidence and security. Time to regain that confidence. She was down, but not broken. No other way to beat Charles and his mother to win custody of Alyssa, and beat them she would. Darned, if Mrs. Sanford was going to raise her daughter. Not in this lifetime.
Charles—what a mistake he turned out to be. Although he had provided well for the past five years, the past was over. He didn’t matter anymore. Hadn’t really mattered for a long time.
She brushed the hair from her forehead, smoothed her blouse and took a last look at the unfamiliar person that stared back at her.
“Time to get down to business, first thing to find a job,” her voice in the empty room shocked her. It was the first time she’d spoken in almost two weeks.
Clutching her sweater tight to block out the wind, Vanessa hurried across the parking lot to the motel lobby and purchased a paper. Back in her room, she shivered, poured a cup of coffee, sat down at the small round table, and opened the paper to the classifieds. The settlement money from Charles was safe in an account, but she didn’t want to count on it to live. Besides, it wouldn’t last forever. It was time to do something for her, to feel worthwhile again. That money was the start to getting Alyssa back. Vanessa smiled. Nothing would make her happier than beating Charles with his own money. But it would take a lot more than what she had to find a lawyer who could beat him.
Memory of signing the papers and taking the money invaded her thoughts. That sneering smile and hushed tone of Mrs. Sanford made her skin crawl, even now. The words would be forever implanted in her mind. “Charles has been more than generous in his settlement. You ought to be grateful, dear.”
Oh yeah, more than generous, but at what price? And grateful, for what? That they forced her give up her daughter? That Charles had threatened her? Mrs. Sanford’s idea of grateful and hers sure didn’t agree. And that dear, if she never heard that term again, it would be too soon, especially the way Mrs. Sanford said it. But they weren’t going to win. Not by a long shot.
Vanessa set the paper aside, closed her eyes and remembered how happy she had once been. How could things have gone so wrong? All she had wanted was to fit in, to be the perfect wife and part of Charles’s family. Quitting her job at Mrs. Sanford’s insistence was her first mistake. Filling her time managing Charles’s large house, fulfilling commitments at the club, and volunteering with Mother Sanford and Charles’s sister, Joanna, was supposed to be fun. Fun, yeah right, nothing with Mrs. Sanford was fun.
Pushing the memory from her mind, Vanessa picked up the newspaper, circled some help wanted ads, and made a few phone calls. It didn’t take long to figure out Christmas Eve wasn’t the best day to look for a job.
Christmas Eve. She had lost track of time, Christmas, when she should be with her daughter. She had begged Charles to let her stay until after Christmas, but with his mother behind him, as usual, he refused. How could anyone be so cruel?
“What difference does it make what day it is?” Charles waved her off. “It’s over, the papers are signed. Take the money and leave before I change my mind.”
Vanessa left, knowing he meant it. She wouldn’t put anything past Charles Sanford these days. He sure wasn’t the man she married, or had she been too blinded by love to see the real Charles?
“But the fight isn’t over, Charles Sanford. Somehow, someway I’m going to win Alyssa back. No way is your mother going to raise my baby.” The choked sound of her own voice startled her. The thought of Mrs. Sanford raising Alyssa sent chills through her. No, that cold, unfeeling witch wasn’t going to raise her daughter.
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