Once Rory's breathing grew deep and even, Lorelai snagged her purse and snuck down the stairs of the Cheshire Cat bed and breakfast. LaDawn was standing behind the check-in desk, scribbling in what appeared to be a large calendar book and humming to herself.
"Hi," she said quietly, and LaDawn looked up, giving Lorelai a beaming grin.
"Well, hey, there," she said warmly. "Where's that precious little one?"
"Sleeping," Lorelai replied. "Um, may I use your phone? I have to make a call and I didn't want to wake her."
"Local?" LaDawn asked skeptically.
Lorelai held up a plastic card between her middle and index fingers. "I have a prepaid calling card," she said. She'd picked it up at a gas station on one of their many stops along the way, just in case of an occasion like this.
LaDawn moved the phone up onto the higher part of the check-in desk, turning it to face Lorelai. "I'll just be in the other room, let you have a minute," she said.
Following the instructions on the little card, Lorelai was relieved when she finally connected. Mia picked up on the second ring.
"Hello?" she said, and she sounded guarded and worried.
"Hi, Mia," Lorelai said, and she gripped the phone tightly in her hands.
"Where are you?" Mia demanded softly, and Lorelai knew that she knew.
"We're at a bed and breakfast in Portsmouth," Lorelai said. "I think we're going to go sight-seeing tomorrow."
"Lorelai," Mia said, her tone brooking no nonsense. "Luke called me, honey. I know."
"Okay," Lorelai replied. What else could she say?
"What happened?" Mia asked gently.
Lorelai felt tears pricking at her eyes, but she blinked them back. "We said some things. We need some time apart."
"He's out of his mind with worry," Mia told her. "You should call him, let him know you're okay."
"It's not like that," Lorelai said. She swallowed hard. "We're just another obligation to him. He has enough obligations." She paused, and her voice was thick with emotion when she continued, "And I love him too much to make him choose."
"Oh, honey," Mia said. "He cares deeply about you and Rory."
"I know," Lorelai replied. But caring deeply wasn't enough.
"He wants me to tell him where you are."
Lorelai froze. She held the phone even tighter. "No," she said, shaking her head even though Mia couldn't see her. "I need some time."
"Are you sure you two can't just talk this out? You've been so good for each other."
"You know why he married me, don't you?" Lorelai said, and although she tried to sound accusing, her heart was too broken to commit to it. The pause that followed spoke more than any words could say. "So then, you know." A sob burst out of her, and she tried to push it down.
"Oh, honey, let it out," Mia said softly.
"I can't," Lorelai gasped, trying valiantly to hold herself together. "I have to stay strong, for Rory. I can't fall apart, not now." She took a deep breath. "He's just a man. Rory and I, we'll be okay."
"Lorelai, we both know that Lucas is more than just a man."
"I have to go," Lorelai said. "I'll call you in a few days." After a quick goodbye, Lorelai hung up the phone, and took a few steadying breaths. She wiped the few tears that had managed to fall, and went back to her room.
Several days passed, and Mia's patience with Luke was starting to run low. "I told you that if she gave me any clues to where she was, I'd tell you," she said for the umpteenth time as they spoke on the phone.
He was feeling incredibly sorry for himself. He pulled into a nondescript bar along the highway after another unsuccessful trip into Hartford. His former supplier of paint was going out of business because of the arrival of another Home Depot in the state, and now he wasn't going to be able to provide any for his customers, not at a price he could afford in the small amounts he needed.
"Hey," said a petite brunette, sitting down next to him at the bar. He held up his glass in greeting. "What's a handsome guy like you doing in here?" she asked.
"The business I inherited from my dad is going belly up, and my wife and kid left me," Luke replied succinctly. "So I'm having a hell of a week."
"Wow, that really stinks," she said, looking sympathetic. "Hey, buddy," she called to the bartender, "Let me buy my friend here another beer."
"Thanks," Luke said, toasting her when his new glass arrived.
"I'm Anna," she said, reaching out her hand.
"Luke," he replied, accepting the handshake.
"Tell me about your wife," Anna said, settling into her barstool. So Luke talked. He told her most of the truth, leaving out the fact that they hadn't been more than friends when they married, and that he'd essentially tried to run away from relationships by choosing one that seemed safe. Instead, he talked about throwing himself into step-fatherhood and the business, making a house and home for his new family. He bragged about how smart Rory was, and grew wistful remembering some of the good times with Lorelai. He stopped short when he got to the part about his father. It was still too fresh.
Anna listened with rapt attention, and it was nice, to have someone listen to him. A niggling thought in the back of his beer-soaked brain reminded him that Lorelai would have listened with equal interest, but he pushed it aside. As he trailed off, he stared into the dregs of his beer, feeling completely miserable, but somehow lighter for having gotten it all off his chest.
"So, do you want to come back to my place?" Anna asked abruptly, finishing off her beer.
"What?" Luke startled, whipping his head to stare at her in disbelief. "Haven't you been listening? I'm married."
She shrugged. "You said she left. I'm assuming you'll be getting divorced."
"Divorced?" Luke repeated, the words leaving a foul taste in his mouth. He hadn't even considered that.
"Yeah, that's usually the next step after your wife leaves you," she said.
"No," Luke said, standing up. "No, we can't," he said, starting to sound agitated. He stumbled a little. He wasn't completely wasted, but he was definitely not sober.
"You need a cab, man?" the bartender asked, and Luke nodded, holding onto the edge of the bar for support. Anna tried again to speak to him, but he held up his hand. He felt like a fool for thinking that she'd cared. He felt like even more of a fool for not seeing through it earlier. When the cab arrived, he tossed some bills on the counter and staggered away, falling heavily onto the cracked vinyl seat, his half-drunk brain trying to think of a plan to get his family back.
After the cab dropped him off at their little blue house, Luke walked up the porch steps and unlocked the door. He felt much more sober now, but he decided to sleep the remains of the alcohol off and start his search for Lorelai in the morning.
Not that he was able to sleep. He tossed and turned all night, alternately staring at the ceiling and at the alarm clock. He could still smell traces of her shampoo on the pillow, and it was slowly driving him crazy. When the first hints of dawn colored the sky, he was up and getting ready to put his half-assed plan in motion.
After splashing his face with cold water, he called Mia. He called her phone over and over like a madman until she woke up and answered it. "Mia, I need something to go on," he begged.
She must have been still half asleep, because she gave him a real answer for the first time. "Well, she mentioned they were in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but I'm not sure where they are staying—" But before she could say another thing, he'd hung up, and was already racing toward the truck, barely even fastening the seatbelt before he tore out of the driveway and toward the highway.