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…

“Daddy!”

Right on cue. His six-year-old charged out of the bedroom she shared with her sisters, 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 cash 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 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. “Books are so boring.”

“Dad, can I read in your room?” Olivia asked.

“Sure.”

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.”

“Your sisters are allowed in my room because I can trust them not to break anything. 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 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 finger paintsin 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 was ridiculously grateful that she could sleep through the chaos the rest of the girls could create. He grabbed pajamas for Maddie and returned to 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, hoping to distract her from wanting to play. 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 detangling.

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.

Kimberly.

Olivia.

Madison.

Emerson.