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 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.
“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.
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.
“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.