A soft rap on the back door broke in on Siobhan’s intent focus of watching the coffee fill her mug. She sighed.
And so my day starts.
Far too early, too, the sun a bare wink on the horizon.
She wanted the day over with. Done. No, she’d prefer it wiped from the calendar, declare May-fucking-sixteenth extinct. Shorten the month by a day. May had thirty other days, so who’d miss one? She certainly wouldn’t.
But this was her life, and with a sigh she dragged her feet to the door and peered through the window.
As if the silhouette could belong to any other.
She unlocked the door and swung it open, revealing the man with a large bouquet and a recyclable shopping bag in the one hand, the other occupied rubbing down Sadie as the dogs circled him.
How had she not heard the dogs’ excited barks?
He straightened, and his soft green eyes raked over her. She self-consciously hugged her arms around her body, trying to hide the ratty cotton shirt from his all-seeing, all-knowing gaze.
A gaze full of sympathy directed at her.
For a few moments they stared at each other, silent.
“I know I’m not your favorite person at the moment, but may I come in?”
No. No. It was the last thing she wanted. Today she wanted nobody. Yet today she’d have everybody.
She stepped aside. She didn’t have it in her to argue with him.
He entered, set the flowers and the bag on the table before turning to her. Without a word, he slid his strong arms around her. He held her close, ignoring the stiffness of her body as his large hands soothed up and down her spine.
“I wish I could say happy birthday, Bluebelle, but life sucks, and this day is just a fucked-up one.”
His words so echoed her thoughts, she couldn’t help it. A snort escaped her, followed by laughter, a trifle hysterical, but laughter, nonetheless. But the tears started, and the spurt of mirth turned to sorrow.
It took her a while to get her emotions under control, during which Daniel didn’t let go. He stood and held her, not saying a word, his arms solid bands of strength. Of comfort. He held her until the tears turned to hiccups.
He released his hold and offered her a handy dishcloth to mop her face. She held the cotton over her eyes for a few seconds, drained. She shuddered in a breath, tossing the cloth on the counter.
Daniel lifted her chin with his hand, eyes probing. A finger lightly traced over her cheek. “You’re exhausted.”
“I haven’t slept,” she admitted, and allowed him to seat her in the chair he’d pulled out.
She watched him move around her kitchen, the last person she wanted there, yet his presence … soothed.
She gratefully accepted the mug of coffee he offered her. “I presumed the half-and-half is yours.”
“Yeah.” She lifted the mug, inhaling deeply.
He filled a sturdy vase he located in the hutch with water, removed the wrapping from the flowers, and placed them in it.
She studied the large arrangement. Long-stemmed yellow roses, mounds of white gypsophila, and blue—
“Are those blue tulips? I didn’t know one could get blue tulips.”
“They were a bit harder to source than the yellow roses,” he acknowledged. “Yellow for friendship and joy, blue for hope and beauty.”
“Thank you, Daniel. They’re lovely.” She eyed the other bag. “What’s in there?”
“I thought I’d cook breakfast for the three of you.”
Wow. Okay. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. But then, today she wasn’t sure about anything.
“That’s … sweet of you.”
He sat down, kitty-corner to her, and took a swig of his coffee. “Want to talk about why you haven’t slept?”
She fixed her gaze on the caramel-colored liquid in her mug.
No. No. She wanted to forget. The hurt. Loss. But she also needed to remember, to never forget.
“A week ago, I thought I’d turned a corner,” she admitted, absently rubbing her bare ring finger. “I thought I was ready to move on. But last night … Grace was the first to join me in bed, all weepy, said she was feeling very sad, missing her daddy. Not ten minutes later, Dax slid in beside us. To be near, ’cause his dad told him to always ‘protect our girls’.
“That … night … Colin’s last … Oh God, it was so hard …” She sucked in a breath, exhaled deeply, and met Daniel’s gaze. “I’d stayed awake, not wanting to miss a moment with him.”
She was so tired but refused to give in to the exhaustion. Because she knew, just knew, this was their last night together.
Grace was sprawled out next to Colin, Dax curled up at the foot of the bed. Both were fast asleep. Siobhan was seated on a chair beside the bed, holding his hand, waiting for daybreak. The clock read 4:10, so it was still a while to go.
Colin’s parents were asleep in Dax’s room, her own mom having left late last night. The night-nurse popped in every so often, but Annie also knew it wouldn’t be long, and she tried to leave them alone as much as possible.
She felt movement on her fingers, and her eyes opened to meet the sky-blue eyes of her husband. Clear eyes.
“Hey,” she whispered, leaning closer, letting her fingers trail across his gaunt face.
“Darlin’.” His voice was soft, thready. His gaze drifted to their kids, still sleeping peacefully around him. “What day is it?”
She thought about lying but couldn’t. “It’s Sunday. Early still.”
“Your birthday then. Aw, darlin’, we should be doing something fun, celebrating, not… here.”
The regret in his tone broke her heart. “Babe,” she whispered.
“I’m messin’ up your day, good and proper. I’m sorry, darlin’.”
“Colin,” she managed before her throat constricted.
“Wake our kids, darlin’, I need to talk to them.”
She gently reached over, first Dax, then Grace, and she clambered up beside him, too. They lay together, till the sun came up, Colin’s arms stretched wide, holding his family close, and they talked, laughed, cried.
Until he drifted off, unconscious.
“He never regained consciousness, and by mid-morning he was gone.”
Her mug was empty. When had she drunk it? Daniel still sat beside her. His coffee finished too. She became aware of other noises. Water running in the bathroom. Grace talking.
“Who’s Grace talking to?”
“Not sure. I heard a cell ring. I presumed it was yours as it played a twangy tune.”
She smiled through her tears. “Yeah, I downloaded a song last week. In Denver. Max took me …” She trailed off, sighing, and threaded her fingers through her hair, tangling with the knots.
Last week, everything had felt so simple.
“It’s okay to move on, Siobhan. It’s expected.”
She glanced at him, agreeing with him, yet felt so conflicted.
“Mommy.” Grace walked into the kitchen, Bernie scampering ahead of her. “Granny Joan wants to talk— Danny!”
Grace shoved the cell at her mom and threw her good arm around Daniel, the bright pink cast on her left one slapping him in the chest
As Daniel wrapped the youngster in his arms, Siobhan stood and walked from the room. “Hi, Joan,” he heard her say, followed by a short silence. “Yes. Daniel. He stopped by to drop …” Her voice faded as she walked away.
The little arm around his neck tightened its hold. “I’m sad, Danny,” Grace whimpered and hid her face in his neck.
Daniel soothed his hands over the little body, comforting the child as he had her mother earlier. She was such a little thing, he thought, his two hands almost covering her whole back.
“I know, Sprite. It’s okay to be sad.”
She vehemently shook her head. “No.” She pulled her head back, her hand toying with a lock of hair escaping his bun. Her brilliant blue eyes — so similar to her mother’s — fixed on his. “Daddy told us to always make Mommy’s birthday a happy day. Daxie and me, we made a deal last night. Today we weren’t going to be sad. But Granny phoned, and she was crying, and …” A sob escaped the little girl. “I miss Daddy so, so much,” she wailed.
“Oh, Gracie.” His hand moved to her head, and he cradled her close, allowing her to sob her heartache out.
Movement at the hallway door caught his eye.
The teenager stood still, his arms holding a wrapped gift against his chest, staring at the tableau before him, frowning. But Daniel caught a flash of something, maybe … relief? He kept his eyes on his son as Dax moved closer.
“Daniel.” Dax nodded in his direction, stopping short when his eyes locked on the flowers. He shot Daniel a glance, a small smile pulling at the corner of his lips.
Grace lifted her head, quickly wiping her hand across her face, smearing tears and snot in the process.
“Come, Sprite.” Daniel drew her to the sink and wet the dishcloth he’d used earlier, turning toward her, wiping her face clean as she jabbered to her brother.
“I tried to not to show my sad, Dax, I really did, but Granny Joan phoned, and she was crying, and you know what she’s like, and then I saw Danny, and—”
“It’s fine, pipsqueak.” Dax stroked a hand over his sister’s hair as he peered into the grocery bag. “What’s this for?”
“Don’t call me a pipsqueak,” Grace snipped, and turned her attention to what Dax was unpacking.
“I’m making y’all breakfast,” Daniel announced.
“What are you making, Danny?” Grace exclaimed.
“Pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Wanna help?”
Dax snickered and knocked on the cast of her arm. “Yeah, right.”
“I dressed myself today,” Grace muttered, slamming her right hand into Dax’s stomach.
He made an exaggerated oomph, caught his little sister by her waist, and tickled her.
They heard a slam of furniture, a wail of anguish following. They all glanced down the hall to the noise. Dax gripped Grace’s shoulder as she made for the hallway.
“Let her be, Gracie,” he whispered.
“Mommy’s hurting, Dax.”
Pain pierced Daniel’s heart at the woe in the little daughter’s voice, and he agreed with her. Siobhan was hurting. He had to hold himself back from wanting to rush to the grieving woman. To hold her again.
Instead, he knelt before Grace. “Grace, you’re right, she’s hurting, but I think maybe we need to leave her alone while we make sure she has an enjoyable breakfast to eat later. For her birthday.”
Indecision warred on Grace’s face, and she worried her lips with her teeth. She sighed, placing a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Okay, Danny.”
As Daniel rose to his feet, he’d noticed Dax surreptitiously wipe his eyes. His own sorrow increased at the palpable hurt this little family was experiencing. Daniel pulled his shoulders back and put a larger effort into engaging them in the activity of making breakfast.