Proving Paul’s Promise

Coming 8/19/2014!

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Chapter One – Unedited

Friday

 

I’ve heard that the best way to get over one man is to get under another. With that said, I doubt this is what the speaker had in mind. A hand squeezes tightly to mine. It was pretty stupid of me to allow them to be in the room with me for this part because I’m feeling terribly exposed, despite the fact that my lower half is draped with a sheet. There’s just something about having my legs up in stirrups and the top of a woman’s head visible between my thighs that makes this all awkward.

It should be beautiful, and really, it is. It’s just… odd.

I have Cody on my left and Garrett on my right. They lean toward one another and kiss over my head, and Garrett uses his free hand to wipe a tear from Cody’s cheek.

The doctor looks up from her perch between my thighs. “You doing okay up there?” she asks.

I squeeze my eyes shut tightly. “Fine,” I say.

Garrett leans down and kisses my temple, his lips lingering there. “Thank you for doing this,” he whispers vehemently, and emotion swells within me.

“Thanks for letting me do this,” I say back. I tip my face up and he presses a soft kiss to my lips. There’s no passion in this kiss whatsoever. There’s only emotion and gratitude and a type of affection like I’ve never known.

Cody squeezes my shoulder. These guys make the cutest couple. They have been together for about twelve years and, after three failed adoptions, they wanted more than anything to have a kid. They didn’t even ask me. I volunteered to be their surrogate. I’m healthy, I’m young, I’m in love with the type of love they have for one another, and I wanted to give them their own baby.

We used a donor egg and a mishmash of their sperm. The donor egg is so I could stay as far removed from the situation as possible. The mishmash is so they won’t know who the father is. They’ll both be fathers. All I know is that I don’t want to be a mom. But I’m willing to let the little guy cook in my uterus for nine months or so. Then I will gladly hand him over to these wonderful men and they will be able to raise their own child.

I wince as the doctor cranks the speculum down and pulls it from my vagina. She lifts my feet from the stirrups and rolls her chair back. “Friday,” she says. That’s my name. Friday. Like the day of the week. It’s not the name on my birth certificate, but it fits me better than that old relic of my former life ever did. “In about ten days, I want you to come in for a blood test.”

Cody rubs his hands together. He’s so excited that I get all teary again. That could be the hormones they used to get me on a cycle similar to that of the egg donor. But either way, I’m much more emotional than on a normal day. “Ten days until we find out if we’re going have a baby!” Cody squeals.

A grin tugs at my lips as Garrett helps me sit up. I feel a lot better with the gown covering all my girly bits, instead of having my hoo haa up in the air for everyone to see.

“I can go to work today, right?” I ask.

She nods her head. “The only thing you can’t do is have an orgasm.”

Heat creeps up my cheeks, so I slap my palms against them. “Oh, no!” I cry. “What am I going to do without my daily orgasms?”

Garrett holds up two fingers. “Twice on Sundays.”

“Don’t do any heavy lifting or any strenuous exercise. And no warm baths.” the doctor says. She looks at the tattoo on my knee with keen interest. It’s a spider web with a baby rattle in the middle of the web. “Interesting,” she says more to herself than to me. Hell, she already saw the one on my inner thigh.

I cover my knee with my hand and she jerks her gaze away. I have tattoos all over my body. I love them, and each one tells a story. I drew most of them, and they all mean something to me. I know people with tattoos have a lot of stigmas attached to them, but I just like art, and I like to wear art on my body. Judge me if you want to, because I don’t care.

“I have to get back to work,” Cody says, and he leans over to kiss Garrett on the lips. Then he kisses my temple and leaves, his smile big and bright.

Garrett hangs out with me while I change clothes behind the curtain. I can hear his feet hitting the side of the exam table he’s sitting on. He’s like a giddy little kid with his feet swinging back and forth. “Where do you have to go when you leave here?” he asks.

“Work,” I say as I pull my dress down over my head. I like vintage clothes and today is no different than any other day. I wonder how I’m going to be able to pull off the vintage look when my belly is big and round. I am not sure vintage-inspired clothes will be easy to find for pregnant women.

“Don’t you want to take the rest of the day off?” he asks. “We could go shopping. Buy some baby stuff.”

“Tempting,” I say. Honestly, it sounds like hell. “I’ll leave that to you and Cody, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine,” he tosses back harshly, like he’s annoyed, but I know he’s not. “Let me buy you lunch, then. And I’ll walk you back to Reed’s.”

Reed’s is the tattoo parlor where I work. The idea of him walking me there makes me surprisingly joyful. “Will you be sure to kiss me before you leave?” I ask. I grin as I put on my delicate shoes with the tall heels that I love so very much. They match the dress.

“Why?” he asks, instantly suspicious. He jerks the curtain back as I pull my hair from the neck of my dress. He grins. “Which of the Reeds are you hoping to make jealous?” He narrows his eyes at me.

I start to tick them off on my fingers. “Logan is married and has a baby on the way. Pete is with Reagan. Matt is married and knocked his wife up. With twins!”

“So that leaves Sam and Paul.” He appraises me shrewdly.

Kissing Sam would be like kissing my brother. Paul, on the other hand…

“Mm hmm,” Garrett hums. “It’s the big one, right?”

“He’s not that big,” I mutter to myself.

“Are you kidding?” he shrieks. “He’s fucking huge.” He grins. “I bet the rest of him is just as big.”

Sometimes having a gay man as a really good friend has its advantages. Because a straight man would never wonder how big Paul Reed’s dick is. “I wouldn’t know,” I murmur. His baby mama would, though, because he still sleeps with Kelly. That part makes my gut ache.

“Does he still walk you home at night when the shop closes?” Garrett asks.

I shrug. “One of them does.”

“Does he still try to kiss you?” Garrett sings. He’s like a damn woodland creature with his giddiness. I expect him to break out into song any second.

“That only happened once,” I say. It was the kiss that rocked my world, though. I pick up my purse and step out into the room.

“And?” He makes a rolling motion with his finger as he opens the door for me and we walk through the hallway. He checks us out, pays the bill, and we step out into the sunshine.

“And what?” I huff as I put on my sunglasses and pretend like I don’t know what he just asked.

“The man laid one on you and you still have to see him every day, Friday. How’s that going?” He takes my hand in his and threads his fingers through mine as we wait for the subway. The baby doctor’s office is on the good side of town. And Reed’s is not. It’s in the area that I love more than anything.

“Fine.”

He gapes at me, his mouth hanging open. “That’s all I get? Fine?” He points to my belly. “You might have my baby in your uterus, and that’s all you’re going to tell me?”

I cover his mouth with my hand. “You don’t get any say over any part of my body except for that baby that might or might not be growing in there.”

“Oh, that was cold,” he says. But I have quite effectively changed the subject.

He talks about nurseries and bottles and clothes and all those things I don’t even want to know about until we get to Reed’s. When we get there, he stops out in front of the shop, cups his hands around his eyes and looks through the glass into the room. “Yep,” he says with a grin. “It’s show time!” He takes my hand and opens the door. The grin falls off his face, and he replaces it with a look of aloofness. It’s uncanny how he can do that. He minored in theater many years ago, though, so I guess it makes sense. He’s a teacher now.

I drop my bag behind the desk at the front, which is where I usually work. I draw tattoos, and sometimes I do the actual tattoo part. I’m still learning how to do that. But drawing is my thing. This is where my skills lie, since I’m an art major at NYU. Or at least I was until I graduated two weeks ago. Now I’m just a possibly-knocked-up soon-to-be-homeless person. Oh, crap. I haven’t told Garrett and Cody about my living situation yet.

Paul looks up from where he’s doing a tattoo on a guy’s shoulder and he frowns. “Morning,” he says, looking from me to Garrett and back. Garrett swells up in size. Honey, no matter what you do, you will never look as big or as tough as Paul Reed, I can’t help but think.

“Morning,” I chirp back.

Logan is here, too, and he smiles at me and waves. Logan is deaf but can speak, and we all learned how to sign many years ago. I wave back.

Who’s that? he signs at me, and points to Garrett.

I put my hand on Garrett’s shoulder. “Garrett, this is Paul and the quiet one there is Logan.”

Logan stands up and shakes Garrett’s hand. Paul just grunts.

“Nice to meet you,” Garrett says. He turns to me and tips my face up. He leans down close to my ear and says, “I bet he’s fucking huge.” I laugh and try to turn my face away, but he just holds me there with his thumbs beneath my chin and his fingers splayed toward my ear. Then his lips touch mine.

He’s actually a really good kisser, and I kind of envy Cody a little bit, because if he goes after sex the same way he’s going after this fake kiss, Cody’s getting it pretty good…

The only thing about it – there’s not a single spark. Not even one. It’s just warm, wet lips sliding across mine, and the touch of a tongue really quickly. I pinch his side and he laughs against my lips and pulls back. He drags his nose up and down the side of mine. “Cody is going to love it when I tell him about this.” I stab him in the side with my index finger and he bends over, trying not to laugh.

“Remember what the doctor said,” he tells me, facing me and speaking quietly. “No orgasms. Not even ones offered by great big old studly looking tattoo artists that make you sweat.” He waves a hand in front of his face like a fan. “He makes me sweat a little bit, too.”

I hear a clatter behind us as Paul throws down his gun and stalks toward the back of the shop. He pulls the privacy curtain and goes behind it.

Logan looks up at me and grins, and just shakes his head.

Garrett kisses my forehead, lingering there for a second. “In ten days, you might be my baby mama,” he says, his body rocking against mine as he chuckles.

I punch his shoulder and point toward the door.

Next time he fake kisses me, I have to remember to tell him not to use tongue. I wipe the back of my hand across my mouth and watch him leave. He waves and blows me a kiss.

Logan throws up a hand to get my attention. You’re playing with fire, he warns. He jerks his thumb toward the curtain. He’s pissed. He must not want Paul to hear him or he would be talking instead of signing.

I wave a breezy hand at him. He’ll have to get over it.

He looks toward the curtain. You should go talk to him.

Why?

Because he still has a client out here and he had to leave because you were sucking face with the other guy.

Crap. Paul walked out with a client in his chair. With a half finished tat. He has no right to be angry.

Logan’s brow arches and he shakes his head.

Well, he doesn’t.

Quit being a baby, he signs. He jerks his thumb toward the curtain again. Go talk to him.

I heave a sigh and go to get Paul out of his snit.

Maybe Matt’s Miracle – May 1st!

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Young casual couple isolated on white

 

Chapter One

 

Skylar

 

Today would be a beautiful day if not for the casket and the three children with wet faces and red eyes sitting beside me on the front pew. The service hasn’t started yet, and people keep wandering up to look at my half sister, Kendra. Some of them whisper soft words to her and reach out to touch her cold hand. I touched it, too. That was the second and last time I would ever touch her. She’s the sister I never got to meet until the day she died.

I startle as the pew shakes. Seth, the oldest of Kendra’s children, jumps to his feet and cries, “Grandpa!”

Grandpa? What? He has a grandpa? I look up and see my very own father. He’s here? Huh? He wraps Seth up in his arms and squeezes him tightly. He sets him back and looks into his eyes. “How are you holding up?” he asks quietly.

Seth’s eyes travel toward the casket. “We’re okay,” he says. He swallows hard. I can hear it from where I’m sitting.

Dad takes Seth’s face in his hands and stares into his eyes. “Everything is going to be fine,” he says. “She’s in a better place.” He looks over Seth’s shoulder toward me. “And you have Skylar now,” he whispers. Seth nods.

A better place? When can I go to a better place? Anywhere would be better than this church where my dad is paying homage to his illegitimate daughter.

Dad walks over to me and kisses my cheek. “How are you, Sky?” he asks. He’s not nearly as friendly with me as he is with the grandchildren I never even knew he had until a few days ago.

“Fine,” I bite out.

Dad sits down and motions toward Kendra’s girls with a crook of his finger. The little one, who is three, scrambles into his lap, and the older one, who is five, leans into his side. He drops an arm around her and holds her close. He knows these kids. He knows them a lot better than he knows me. That chafes at me so badly that it makes me squirm in my seat.

Dad’s brows scrunch together in subtle warning. I stop moving.

I really need to learn that look now that I’m a mom.

Yes. I’m a mom. My dad came to me about a week ago and asked for my help. And bang—instant motherhood.

 

“Skylar,” Dad says quietly. “I need for you to do something for me.”

I look up from my manicotti and force a grin to my face. I should have known that he wanted something. He never would have invited me to lunch otherwise. “Did you get another speeding ticket?” I ask. I’m a brand-new attorney as of last month.

“No,” he says slowly. He won’t look me in the eye. “It’s about Kendra.”

I drop my fork, and it clatters loudly against my plate. I scramble to catch it and then brace myself with my palms on the table. “What about her?” I ask.

I know who Kendra is. She’s the daughter my dad had with his mistress. I found out a few years ago when my mother went on a drunken bender and unburdened her soul. And burdened mine.

Kendra is the daughter my father loved. Her mother was the woman he loved. It didn’t matter that my father was married to my mother. It didn’t matter that he had three kids with my mother. It didn’t matter that we were the perfect family with the house on the hill and a summer home at the Cape. Our family was only perfect until we found out he had another one. One he actually loved.

He had a whole other life with Kendra’s mother, right up until she died. They shared an apartment together, and they had a daughter. Dad went back and forth between our house and theirs for many years, but he was never really present when he was at ours. My mother was too resentful. So he stayed away more and more. With them.

Then, suddenly, one day he was back. His eyes were rimmed with red, and he retreated to his study with a bottle of Glenlivet. He didn’t come out for days. When he finally emerged, my mom walked around for a week singing, “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” Kendra was already an adult at that point, and married.

But I had my father back after that day. I didn’t understand at all how it had come to be. I didn’t know at the time that he had another daughter. Another woman he had loved. Another life. But he did. And now he wanted to talk about her?

“Kendra is dying,” he says. His eyes fill with tears, but he won’t let them spill over. He blinks furiously, his face reddening.

“Oh,” I say. How am I supposed to respond to that? Ding-dong, the witch is dead… “What happened?”

“She has cancer. She found out when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Mellie.” He wipes his eyes with a cloth napkin and motions for a waiter to bring him a drink. “I got her into a really wonderful chemical trial, but she wanted to wait until Mellie was born.” He heaves a sigh. “If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, she might have made it. She could have gotten an abortion, but she refused. She waited too long. The cancer is going to win, and she doesn’t have anyone to take the children.”

I can’t breathe. My chest stills, and I feel like I’m going to pass out. Dad shoves a glass of water at me, and I raise it to my lips, sputter into the rim of it, take a sip, swallow, and inhale. I take a deep breath. And I wait. Because there’s more. There’s always more with my dad.

“She has three children. Seth is sixteen. Joey is five. And Mellie is three.” He covers my hand with his and squeezes it. “They don’t have anyone but me. And I can’t take them.” He sits back and rubs the bridge of his nose. “You know how your mother is,” he explains.

Yes, and I know how my mother was betrayed. Yes, I know how my mother found out about his mistress. Yes, I know how my mother hates the ground they all walk on. Sometimes I think she hates me, too. It’s hard to tell. I really don’t think she loves anyone or anything.

He looks me in the eye. “I need for you to help me. They’re your nieces and nephew, no matter what your mother has taught you.”

I am stunned. Absolutely stunned. “You love them,” I say quietly.

He nods. “I do.”

“You love her.” The words fall on the room like cracks of thunder.

“I do.”

I lean back against the chair. “Can I ask you something?”

He nods. It’s a quick jerk, but I see it.

“What did they give you that we couldn’t?” I ask. I don’t even cry. I just ask it. I always wanted to know.

“Your mother made it really hard for me to be a part of our family,” he says. “After she found out—” He raises his hand to stop me when I open my mouth to complain. “Wait,” he says. “Hear me out.”

I nod. I couldn’t talk if I wanted to.

“I loved you and your brother and sister. But I loved Kendra’s mother, too, and I should have divorced your mother and made a clean break.”

“Without us,” I say.

“No, I would have taken you with me if I could. But I couldn’t. Your mother would have ruined me financially, and I could get over that, but she would have gotten custody of you all. And I couldn’t just leave you with all that hatred, without at least trying to be a buffer.” I don’t remember him as a buffer. I know him as that man I never knew. He balls up his fist and squeezes tightly. “That’s why I never left completely. Your mother is more than a bit vindictive, as you know.” He scrubs a hand across his perfect white hair. “Sometimes I think she would have been okay with it if Kendra’s mother was white.”

What? Kendra’s mother’s not white? My father had an affair with a woman of a different race?

“If you do this for me, your mother is going to be very angry at you.”

No shit. She’ll hate me. But I think she already does anyway.

“I understand if you say no,” he says on a sigh. “But they don’t have anyone else.”

“Where is their father?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Fathers,” he says, enunciating the word. “Seth has a dad who sees him once or twice a year, and the girls’ dad has a new family and not enough time for them.”

“So, what do you want me to do?” I ask. I throw my napkin into my plate. My manicotti is churning in my stomach.

“I want you to go and get them.”

“Did you ask Tim? Or Lydia?” They’re my brother and sister and both are older than me.

He shakes his head. “They have families of their own.”

“And I don’t.” Shit, I don’t have anyone. No one but a boyfriend I almost never see. My mother is a nutcase and my father’s heart lies with another family.

“You’re single. You would be wonderful with them.” He lowers his voice and looks around the room. “You won’t look at them like they’re unwanted, biracial children. You’ll love them. I know you will.” He glares at me. “Will you at least meet them? Please? I know it would be a challenge. You’d have to learn a lot, but Seth is sixteen. He helps to take care of the little ones. Hell, in two years, he can take custody himself. That’s what he wants.”

Dad’s pleading with me.

“I’ve never asked for anything before,” he says.

He’s right. He’s never asked for a good night kiss. Or any of the things fathers want. Well, he probably asked for them from Kendra.

“I’ll go,” I say. They’re just children after all. And children need to be loved. I wasn’t, but I can make it better for Kendra’s kids, can’t I? There’s a tiny little piece of me that wants to make my father proud. To make him love me.

He deflates like a balloon. “Oh, thank God,” he says. He lays a hand on his chest. Then he gets up, lifts me by my elbows, and pulls me to him. I can’t remember ever getting a hug from my father before, and I don’t know what to do with it. He holds me like that, breathing into the hair on the top of my head for a moment. Then he sets me back. His eyes are wet with unshed tears. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much.”

I nod. I can’t do anything more. I feel like somebody took my insides and shoved them up my throat.

 

I’m jerked from my memories when someone sits down on my left. I look up and instantly recognize Matthew Reed. He was a friend of Kendra’s from the cancer center. I went to visit, right before Kendra died, and to get the kids. Matt was waiting with her. He stayed with Seth so they could be there when she took her last breath. I took the little ones home; I didn’t think they needed to remember their mom that way.

His blue eyes gaze into mine, and he sticks out a hand to shake. He doesn’t say anything. I look up at him. He’s wearing a blue turtleneck covered up by a black button-down shirt with a pair of really nice trousers. He tugs at the top of the turtleneck, and I get a tiny peek of his tattoos.

“You clean up nicely,” I say. I smile at him because I don’t know what else to do.

“Thanks,” he says quietly. His blond hair is held back with a leather band at the nape of his neck, but a piece falls forward, and he tucks it behind his ear. He has a row of piercings up the shell of his ear, and I count them in my head. I have a suddenly insatiable desire to see his hair hang loose around his face.

He looks down at my black skirt and my white shirt. “So do you.”

I think I was wearing something similar the last time I saw him, but I smile anyway. He squeezes my hand and pulls his fingers from my grasp. I probably shouldn’t have held his hand so long. I’m an idiot. He leans across me and reaches for my dad’s hand. “Mr. Morgan,” he says with a nod. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Dad nods his thanks and grips Matt’s hand tightly, and then swipes a finger under his nose. He goes back to talking to the girls, and they’re snuggling closer and closer to him as he murmurs softly to them.

Matt reaches past my dad and bumps knuckles with Seth. Seth smiles at him, but then the preacher walks to the front of the church, they close the casket—thank God—and the sermon begins.

Matt takes my hand in his again, and I feel tears sting my eyes. I blink up at him, and he smiles softly at me. He squeezes my hand gently and listens to the pastor. But he doesn’t let me go.

 

 

Matt

 

“She looks lonely,” Emily says as she elbows me in the side. She’s my brother Logan’s wife and she holds a little piece of my heart. But sometimes I want to elbow her back when she pokes me with her scrawny limbs. “You should go check on her,” she whispers vehemently. She raises her elbow again, and I grab it before she can jab me.

“Fine,” I bite out. I get up, stepping on my four brothers’ feet as I scoot past them. Of course, I’m in the center of the aisle and have to go by all of them. Reagan, Pete’s girl, reaches out and squeezes my hand as I walk by her. I love Reagan, and Emily, too. But Emily is a little more outspoken. Reagan is famous for her tender touches, and Emily is the opposite.

I adjust my suit coat and tug at the turtleneck I borrowed from Logan. He gets free clothes from Emily’s parents, who own Madison Avenue, the upscale clothing company. I feel like a monkey dressed up in a coat and a top hat. Like the ones that dance at carnivals. Dance, monkey, dance.

I drop into the open seat beside Skylar, Kendra’s half sister, and I reach out to shake hands with her. She holds on a second too long, and I don’t mind it. She looks tired. Her dad is sitting beside her, but there may as well be an ocean between them. It’s only a few inches, but even I can feel the divide.

I shake his hand and bump knuckles with Seth. Seth and I were both with his mom when she died. We shared the most difficult moment of his life, and it’s something I will never, ever forget.

I watched Kendra take her last breath and all I could think was how lucky I was that it wasn’t me dying there in that bed. It could have so easily been me. Kendra and I were in the same chemical trial, but I got better and my cancer went into remission. Hers didn’t.

She died.

I’m alive.

I look down at Skylar. She looks nothing like Kendra. Kendra was biracial, so she had skin the color of sweet coffee, and she wore her hair natural but short. Skylar is light skinned, blond, and blue eyed. She has rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses pushed up on top of her head, holding her hair back from her face. It hangs halfway down her back in soft waves.

The preacher starts to speak at the front of the church, and Skylar closes her eyes. She squeezes her hands together in her lap, and I can’t tell what’s going on in her head. I wish I knew.

I reach out and take her hand in mine without even thinking about it. I tuck our twined fingers down on the seat between us, and I give her a gentle squeeze. She looks up at me and blinks slowly, her blue eyes startled. But then they soften and she blinks at me again, and this time she really looks at me. She squeezes my hand back, and I don’t let her go. I hold it until both our palms start to sweat.

I get so wrapped up in the feel of her hand in mine and the soft drone of the preacher, that it startles me when a cough jerks me out of my trance. I look up and see a tall man looking down his nose at me. He nudges my knee. “I think you’re in my spot,” he says.

I look at Skylar, and she is just as shocked as I am. She pulls her hand from mine and wipes it on her skirt. I scoot over, and he settles down beside her. He drops an arm around her shoulders, and she leans over to press her lips to his. It’s a quick kiss, one that makes me wonder how often he does it and if it’s always quite that chaste.

Great, now I’m thinking about how it feels to kiss her. Shit. Where did that come from?

Finally, they roll the casket from the church, and we all follow to the graveside. I am a pallbearer and so are my brothers. My brothers are really good for things like that. I volunteered them when Mr. Morgan called to ask me to do it.

I take the carnation off my lapel, lay it on top of the casket, and go to stand with my brothers behind the crowd.

Emily threads her arm through mine. “Who is the guy?” she asks, nodding toward the man who’s standing with Skylar.

I shrug. “I have no idea.”

“Does she have a boyfriend?” Reagan asks.

My brothers are silent. I wish Logan and Pete would tell their girls to shut it for a few minutes and quit being so nosy. I tap Emily on the tip of her nose, and she scrunches up her face. “Stop being so curious,” I tell her.

I wrap my arm around Reagan and pull her to me. I like it when she goes all soft against me, because when she’s not soft, she’s ready to take my head off with a karate chop. I have been on the wrong end of a startled Reagan before, and I don’t particularly want to go there again.

“You okay?” she asks quietly.

I heave a sigh. “I guess.” I shake my head. “I still can’t believe she’s gone,” I say.

Reagan kisses my cheek and then stops to wipe her thumb across the lipstick she must have left on my skin. She smiles. “I’m glad you got better,” she says quietly.

I squeeze her. “Me, too.”

But shit. I feel guilty. Kendra left behind three children.

I see Skylar walking toward us, and Emily and Reagan step back. The heels of the three-inch-high shoes Skylar’s wearing sink into the earth, and she totters a little because of it. I reach out to help steady her with a hand on her elbow. She stops in front of me.

“Thank you for being there with her,” Skylar says quietly.

“She was my friend,” I explain. I don’t know what else to say.

She looks into my eyes. “Was she in a lot of pain?” she asks. She shakes her head. “I tried to talk to Seth about it, but he pretty much pretends I don’t exist.”

I shove my hands in my pockets. “What do you mean? He’s not giving you a hard time, is he?”

She shakes her head again. “No. He’s perfect. He takes his sisters to day care in the morning and picks them up after school. He feeds them, and he bathes them. He won’t let me do anything. I think I’m just a placeholder.” She blows out a heavy breath.

I scratch my head. I don’t know how to tell her what I want to say.

“What?” she asks, her delicate brow arching.

“Kendra asked him to make it easy for you,” I admit. “When she was dying, she told him some things about how to be a good man. Always open car doors. Carry a handkerchief on dates, because you never know when she’ll cry. Never let her pay for dinner.” I take a deep breath. “And she told him to make it easy for you.”

Her mouth opens like she wants to say something but nothing comes out. She’s speechless. She closes it tightly, pressing her lips together. “What else did she tell him?”

“Just normal stuff about dying,” I tell her. It was soul-wrenching to watch. I’d finally had to leave the room so I wouldn’t upset them both with my sobbing. I missed some things as a result.

“I don’t know what to do with kids,” she says.

“They don’t really need much,” I say. “Just for you to love them.”

“I’m trying,” she says.

I want to lay my hand on the back of her hair and smooth down the length of it. I bet it feels like silk.

“I, um, should have introduced you to my boyfriend,” she says. “Do you want to meet him?”

I shake my head. I see him talking with Mr. Morgan. Skylar’s dad doesn’t look like he’s impressed.

“When you, um, took my hand…” she says. “I should have told you.”

“Why?” I look down at her. She comes up to my shoulder, even in her heels.

“I, um, didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

This time it’s me raising my brows at her. “Why did you think I took your hand?”

Her face colors. “I’m not sure,” she says.

I wrap my hand around her wrist and give her a soft squeeze. “I took your hand because you were trembling,” I say. “That’s all.” She’s trembling now, too, but I let her go.

“Oh,” she breathes.

She has her phone clutched in her free hand so I take it from her and add myself to her address book. “Do me a favor?” I say.

She looks up at me and then back down at the phone.

“Call me if you need anything. Anything at all. I promised their mom.”

“Okay,” she replies. “Thanks for everything.” Her blue eyes meet mine, and I have never seen anyone look quite so lost. But then her eyes narrow as her gaze shoots past me. “Shit,” she suddenly spits out.

“What?” I ask, looking over my shoulder toward the sedan that just pulled up.

“My mother is here,” she says. She squares her shoulders, and I suddenly see a spark that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Can you watch the children for a minute?” she asks.

“Why?”

“Just because,” she says. She grits her teeth and looks up at me. “Promise me. No matter what, don’t let her anywhere near the children.”

What the fuck? I look back at the sedan. The door opens, and an older and much harsher version of Skylar gets out.

“Okay…” I say slowly. Skylar nods her head, steels her spine, and walks toward her mother.

The rigidity of her posture makes me think of my own mother’s the time that Johnny Rickles stuck a “Kick me” note on my back and then watched all the other kids laugh. My mother went ballistic when she saw it. It’s a look that says danger will have to go through her before it gets to the children, and I think I just met Seth, Mellie, and Joey’s mom for the very first time. Her name is Skylar Morgan, and she’s tiny and gorgeous and awesome.