But then she found evidence on her husband's computer that he was hiding money in a secret bank account and using it to pay for things he did not want her to know about.
While she was home struggling to feed the kids, he was eating out. And when police finally got hold of Francisco's cell phone records, they discovered that the supposedly devoted husband and father had been leading a double life.
He was seeing other women. And not only had he been cheating, but he was a player and a swinger, authorities said. He had Internet names like "Fun Time Steve" and "Horny Steven." His MySpace page listed his interests as "women," "couples," "sex" and "nudity." He listed his sexual orientation as "bi."
They also found that some of the money in the secret bank account had been used to pay for adult websites specializing in hooking up.
"He was soliciting sex," Carter said. "I felt so sick."
Clues led police and Carter to an anything-goes sex club in Seattle, the "Wet Spot," and a local bar where he met swingers at their weekly parties.
By now, Carter was re-evaluating her feelings about the life they had led. She was realizing that she had missed many clues.
"I feel like an idiot,'' she said. "How did I not see this stuff?"
She was forced to choose between two horrible versions of reality: a dead husband or one who would leave her and her children. It was easier to think of him as dead.
"That means that he didn't actually choose to leave me and my children, that he didn't actually choose to walk away," she said.
Carter filed for divorce. She later gave birth to their third child, a boy.
Police could not find Francisco. They made him "King of Spades" on a missing persons card deck.
Eventually the case lost momentum.
But then Carter received a call from a state employee telling her that a child support check was waiting for her. When she had filed for divorce, the absent Nicholas Francisco was classified as a deadbeat dad.
He then made the mistake of opening a bank account in Los Angeles and it was flagged by Washington State, which confiscated his money.
Francisco, who was living under an assumed name, tried to get his money back before closing the account and disappearing again.
ABC News tracked Francisco down outside his new home in Los Angeles. He did not want to see photos of his children and he had little to say.
He told one Seattle reporter he felt guilty about wasting everyone's time, energy and sympathy. Then he said no, they did it for selfish reasons.
"It doesn't surprise me,'' he said. "It's what people do. They want to feel good about themselves, that they're doing something."
His old friend, Donovan, said he feels betrayed. "You just feel like, like you've been like you've been…played for a fool. And now he's gonna get away with it."
Now divorced, Carter lost their house to foreclosure. She has remarried and lives with her new husband and her three children, squeezed into a basement apartment. She is forced to pay off Francisco's student loans, since she signed on as a co-borrower.
After those initial garnished wages, he hasn't given her another cent. So far the state of California has yet to go after Francisco for more. As Detective Holland told ABC News: so far, Francisco appears to be getting away with it.
Today, as she tries to get by, she has to explain it all to her children. Zea, now seven, still remembers her father.