They say time heals all wounds….

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Gabriel Ivers scrubbed a hand down his face and prayed for patience. Five, four, three, two…


Right on cue. His six-year-old charged into the kitchen followed by his nine-year-old.

“Daddy, Livvie says I can’t twirl, but I can so. Right, Daddy? Right?” Maddie lisped slightly thanks to two missing teeth. Crap. He’d totally forgotten about the tooth fairy’s visit tonight. He hoped he had money in his wallet to put under her pillow.

“Dad, my ears are tired and really want Maddie to shut up,” Olivia countered.

He chuckled even as he groaned. “Maddie. We’ve talked about this.”

“But, Daddy–”

Gabe put down his pencil and held up a palm. “Madison. It’s getting late. I know how much you love to dance but this close to bedtime is quiet time. No twirling. No dancing. No singing. Right now, it’s time for books.”

“Aw.” She stamped a little foot and crossed her arms. “Book are so boring.”

“Dad, can Maddie stay here with you so I can read?” Olivia asked.


As Olivia hurried down the hall to his bedroom and shut the door, Maddie whined some more. “That’s not fair! I want to read in your room, too.”

“Olivia and Kimberly are allowed in my room because I can trust them to stay quiet and not wake up Emmy. Since you just told me how boring books are, I don’t think you’ll be reading in there. I think you’ll be jumping on my bed.”

Madison was, by far, his most impulsive child, which — because she was also his most energetic — unnerved him.

“I’ll be good, Daddy. I will, I promise. Please, can I?”

Gabe glanced at the clock on the stove and winced. Time had gotten past him. “Not tonight. It’s already too late. Right now, bath time and then, bed.”

It was actually past time. Baby Emerson was already down for the night. At two, she didn’t last long past seven-thirty so as soon as dinner was done, it was bath and bed for her while the other girls watched TV or played quietly. It was now almost eight-thirty but he still hadn’t given Maddie a bath. He’d gotten caught up in paperwork. He permitted Kimberly and Olivia to stay up until ten or so. Staggering his daughters’ bedtimes was extra work but often the only way he got one-on-one time with them.

He closed his laptop and the notes he was jotting down in a small notebook, slid both carefully to the top shelf in the bookcase in his living room. “Come on, Ducky. Fast bath tonight. I already let you stay up later than usual.”

To his shock, Maddie didn’t fight him. “Okay, Daddy.” And then she let out one of her trademarked gasps. “I know! I can play with the fingerpaints in the bathtub.”

He didn’t answer because sometimes, you had to pick your battles. He took her hand, led her to the bathroom opposite the bedroom and started the water running. “Strip, but don’t get in that tub yet, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

He went into the girls’ bedroom where Emmy breathed deeply in her crib. He’d have to start thinking about a bed for her now that she’d figured out how to escape it. He was ridiculously grateful that she could sleep through the chaos the rest of the girls could create. He grabbed pajamas for Maddie from one of the two dressers in the room and returned to his now naked daughter dancing in the bathroom.

“Ooo, unicorn jammies. Yay! I really like unicorns, Daddy. Can we get one?”

He lifted her into the tub, held her while she settled. “No, honey. They’re not real.”

“Aw.” She found a way to extend that sound into three different syllables. “They’re so cute.”

“What would you do with a unicorn?” He asked. He grabbed the small bucket he kept on the tub ledge, filled it, then poured it out over her long dark hair.

“I’d feed it and comb its pretty white hair and put ribbons in it and it would be my best friend.”

He shampooed her hair, cursing mentally when he noticed another snarl. “Where would it sleep?”

“In my bed.”

He laughed. “Where would you sleep?”

“I could sleep with Livvie.”

Yeah, that would go over well.

He got her hair rinsed and her body washed before his back started to scream — which he considered a major victory.

“Okay, out you go.” He pulled the stopper before she could protest and held out his hands. When she stood up, he lifted her out of the tub and into a fluffy towel. “Do you have any more loose teeth?”

He watched while Maddie stuck her tongue in the space where her front teeth used to be.

“Nah. Not yet.” Another gasp. “We have to put my tooth under my pillow.”

“We will. Right now, let’s comb out your hair.” He helped her put on fresh underwear and pajamas, and then sat on the toilet with her on his lap to begin the long, often torturous process of hair de-tangling.

Of the four girls, Maddie most resembled her mother. She had the same huge brown eyes, the same thick dark hair that had caught Gabe’s eye back when he was fifteen years old. He’d married Janey right after college, popped out a kid or four… and then, Bam!

She was gone.

Been gone for two years now. Two years and two months, to be exact. Not that he was counting or anything.

Okay, so maybe he was counting.

It was just something he did to see how long it took to get over the love of your life dying. One year? Two?

Nope. Not yet.

Mike said it was time for Gabe to get off the bench. Get back on the field, man! Get some skin in the game. Get some, get some! High five, shoulder slap, bro hug. Mike was all about variety. He may have been his oldest and closest friend, but Mike had no idea that Gabe’s flesh crawled at the thought of touching another woman, no idea that he stopped caring if he woke up every morning. Mike never understood that Gabe was a one-woman kind of guy so Gabe never told Mike that the only reason he did get out of bed every day was because of the four pieces of his heart that still beat.





“Ow, Daddy!”

“Sorry, honey.” Gabe drew the brush slowly through Maddie’s hair, working on the smaller tangles until her hair lay smooth against her back.

“Daddy, I don’t want a new mom.”

His hand froze. “Um. Okay. How come?”

She lifted a narrow shoulder. “Livvie said step-moms are mean.”

He swallowed the stream of curses begging to cut loose. She was six years old, six frigging years old and shouldn’t be thinking about step-moms, shouldn’t be thinking about new moms because her mom should still be alive. The injustice of it grabbed him around the throat and threatened to choke him until he shoved it back down and chained it there. When he was sure, when he knew he could speak, he slung an arm over Maddie’s shoulders and said, “Well, as it happens, I don’t want a new mom either.”

That was pure truth. He had no interest in giving the girls a new mom.

But God, he wished he could get the old one back.



Amelia Blake sat beside the window that overlooked 7th Avenue. New York hummed as traffic idled and pedestrians clogged the intersection but she wasn’t looking at them. She was looking for him.

She glanced at the watch on her wrist. Just going on seven AM. She had to get the timing just right. Jared was a creature of habit…as was she. He always left at 6:55. Always. It was now 6:57. From the window of the apartment she’d once shared with him, she watched and waited. At 7:02, she finally spotted him, walking with Candi.

With an I.

Lia sneered. How old do you have to be to stop dotting that I with a cutesy heart? That’s what Jared wondered when they’d met their new upstairs neighbor three years earlier. It hadn’t taken Candi long, Lia noted. Three years to steal her husband.

Her life.

Then again, Lia had no real idea exactly when Jared had first hooked up with Candi-with-an-I. She’d been too busy juggling temperature charts and infertility specialists, not to mention her clients. She’d had no clue he was unhappy, no clue he’d been cheating on her, no clue her own marriage was anything but an illusion, just like her parents’.

That’s the word Jared used when he asked her for a divorce. Illusion.

She’d been in the hospital, recovering from a miscarriage and emergency hysterectomy.

He’d walked in, sat down, told her what was up, and then, just to rub salt into her freshly-stapled incision, told her he’d never meant for any of this to happen, that he was sorry. He’d wanted to leave sooner, but when she’d gotten pregnant — finally — he’d felt that he had to stay. For the baby’s sake.

A cliché. He ended their marriage and her dreams with a stupid cliché.

She hated him in that moment. He should have left the minute he’d developed feelings for Candi-with-an-i. If he had, she’d never have gotten pregnant. And if she’d never gotten pregnant, she’d still have that dream of motherhood to sustain her.

In a gesture no doubt intended to be magnanimous, Jared told her she was welcome to their apartment. He’d already moved upstairs. Ridiculously, she had. She had no idea what she’d been thinking.

She managed half a laugh. Thinking was obviously not so high on her to-do list. She’d been too busy mourning.

She remembered sitting alone in her hospital room with the bouquet of flowers in her arms, plucking off every last petal and leaf, imagining they were Jared’s balls. She was still plucking when Roseann and Vivian arrived and by the time her mother showed up, her anger had given way to grief…grief not just for the child she’d lost and the husband she’d loved, but for something that went way deeper.

“Where’s Dad?” She’d asked her mother, her voice thick from crying, but Victoria had lifted her shoulders the way she always did when Lia asked that question.

“Oh, he wanted to be here, amie, but he had that golf thing.”

Golf. Right.

Lia was about ten years old when she’d guessed the truth about Santa Claus. She was only slightly older when she’d figured out Greg Blake was a man who’d never wanted kids or a wife and after he’d found himself chained by both, enjoyed pretending he had neither. Evidently, not even his daughter’s miscarriage and emergency hysterectomy could compel him to skip a date with his latest good-time girl. When she was thirteen, she asked Victoria why she put up with it but her mother shushed her. She asked again when she was seventeen and Victoria said she knew who Gregory Blake was when she married him.

Which was no answer at all if you asked Lia.

When she was a child, she’d questioned and wondered and cried alone in her bed at night, and promised herself that when she grew up, she’d make the family she wished she’d had. She’d find a husband who respected her, who loved her, and together, they’d have children who’d never question or wonder or cry alone.

While she’d curled in a ball in that hospital bed, she mourned that child as much as the one she’d lost…maybe even more.

“Amelia, I told you from the beginning that men don’t appreciate women with lofty goals but you insisted on starting that business and now look what happened,” Victoria told her. “Your husband is playing house with someone else.” Victoria seemed incapable of seeing her own hypocrisy and Lia was too full of grief to deal with her.

That business had been another dream of hers. Oh, sure, it had never held a place of prominence like her dream of a loving family. But it was important. It gave her a sense of pride.

It was hers.

Jared encouraged her and spent countless hours talking over ideas and strategies with her… well, she talked and he just Mm-hmm’d in the right places. She knew he never really believed she’d succeed so she’d been determined to prove it. Lia provided remote administrative help to a variety of clients — things like specialized subject matter research for authors of novels and text books, social network monitoring for other small business owners, invoicing and bookkeeping, newsletter management, blogging, and essential marketing activities. She had no staff. It was just her, which was okay because she was damn good at this work. She loved that her days were never routine. BVS — Blake Virtual Services took off.

When Lia felt ready to expand operations, hire on staff, find office space, that’s when Jared said he wanted to start a family. She put those plans on hold and…and on hold again. When it was clear there was a problem, she began treatment. Fourteen months of it.

For…nothing. No baby. No husband. No family.

But she still had BVS. And she had Roseann Paneduro.

It had been Roseann who’d sent her mother away, Roseann who’d sat with her while she sobbed for all that she’d lost, and Roseann who’d taken her home with her to recover from surgery. After talking things through with her best friend, Lia decided not to fight Jared on the divorce. What would have been the point? But Lia argued about staying in the apartment she and Jared found and decorated together because yeah, there was some perverse part of her that needed to force him to deal with her.

“Lia, even if he does feel sorry for you — and I truly doubt he’s capable of that — he’s still going home with Candi. Is that what you want to see every day?”

Yes. Yes, damn it, it was. She wanted, needed Jared to face her, to see the hollows he’d put under her eyes, see the pain he’d etched on her face.

She watched him now, walking down the street to catch the subway he’d already missed, surprised to find no spark of feeling, no pang of pain. Maybe it was because he wasn’t the only reason she was lurking behind the curtains they’d hung together.

Candi was.

Lia glanced at her watch again. 7:07 now. At 7:10 every morning, Candi rode the elevator up from the lobby, carrying the to-go cup of coffee she bought after walking Jared to the train station.

It was impossible to hide it now.

Candi had stolen her husband and would soon give birth to his child…the child that should have been hers.

Absently, Lia rubbed at one of the scars on her belly. Though they were long since healed, they seemed to ache when she saw Candi’s baby bump. As soon as she’d noticed that bump, she’d called Roseann and said, “Help.”

Roseann got her a lead on a place in Queens. Bayside, to be exact. A nice duplex in a garden apartment building.

Her phone buzzed. Without pulling her eyes from the window, she answered. “Hello?”

“Lia, get your face away from that window and drive away.”

Lia managed a small smile. The jury was out on her parents but she trusted that her friends loved her. “I told them seven-thirty.”

Roseann cursed. “Okay, look. As soon as they get there, I want you to leave. Just get in the car and go. Don’t look back. The movers know what to do.”

“Yeah.” Her voice held no interest and Roseann instantly noticed.

“You’re making the right decision.”

At this, Lia huffed out a laugh. She’d thought Jared was the right decision once. Look where that got her. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Lia, this new place is perfect. It’s far enough away that you won’t keep bumping into Jared and Candi every time you turn a corner, yet still close enough for us to hang whenever we want. The train station is like four or five blocks. It’s ideal.”

Lia shivered at the word. Ideal. God, was there ever a more stupid word than ideal? Nothing was ideal and when it was, it was almost certainly another illusion, like her marriage, like her family.

“…three bedrooms means you can store a lot of your stuff plus set up dedicated office space. That’s a write-off, you know.” Roseann had been singing the praises of this phantom apartment for days now. And because Roseann thought it was ideal, Lia went along. She didn’t care that much one way or the other where she lived as long as it wasn’t here.

“Okay, the truck just pulled up. I’ll call you later.”

“Call me when you get there. I’ll head out tonight, after work, help you settle in.”


Roseann sighed. “Lia. This is a good move. I feel it.”

Lia bit her lip. “Yeah. Maybe. ” She hadn’t even seen this apartment. She was trusting someone else to make an important decision because it was so painfully clear her own judgment was faulty.

They ended the call. Lia scooped her planner, her maps, and her notes into a large bag, grabbed her keys and left the apartment without looking back. Down at the curb, she greeted the movers, directed them to her unit. Everything was boxed and labeled. Sorted. She had a grid of the new apartment and knew which boxes were to go in which rooms.

Lists, maps, plans…they were all the tools of her trade. Ruthlessly organized, she shined when hard work turned easy, when things were exactly where they were supposed to be. She relied on working smart, efficiently, and now that she was free of Jared, she could expand her business as she’d always planned and do it all from her new place.

The movers assured her they had the new address and she left them to their business.

As she drove to the tunnel and left Manhattan, Lia decided Roseann was right. Making this move as quickly as she could arrange it meant she’d never have to think of Jared, Candi-with-an-I, or their baby again.