12.23.2014

Prologue

          “Hey, there she is,” Grady looked up at me from his bed, his eyes smiling even while his mouth barely mimicked the emotion.
          “Hey, you,” I called back. The lights had been dimmed after the last nurse checked his vitals and the TV was on, but muted. “Where are the kiddos? I was only in the cafeteria for ten minutes.”
          Grady winked at me playfully, “My mother took them.” I melted a little at his roguish expression. It was the same look that made me agree to a date with him our junior year of college, it was the same look that made me fall in love with him- the same one that made me agree to have our second baby boy when I would have been just fine to stop after Blake, Abby and Lucy.
          “Oh, yeah?” I walked over to the hospital bed and sat down next to him. He immediately reached for me, pulling me against him with weak arms. I snuggled back into him, so that my head rested on his thin shoulder and our bodies fit side by side on the narrow bed. One of my legs didn’t make it and hung off awkwardly. But I didn’t mind. It was just perfect to lie next to the love of my life, my husband.
          “Oh, yeah,” he growled suggestively. “You know what that means?” He walked his free hand up my arm and gave my breast a wicked squeeze. “When the kids are away, the grownups get to play…”
          “You are so bad,” I swatted him- or at least made the motion of swatting at him, since I was too afraid to hurt him.
          “God, I don’t remember the last time I got laid,” he groaned next to me and I felt the rumble of his words against my side.
          “Tell me about it, sport,” I sighed. “I could use a nice, hard-“
          “Elizabeth Carlson,” he cut in on a surprised laugh. “When did you get such a dirty mouth?”
          “I think you’ve known about my dirty mouth for quite some time, Grady,” I flirted back. We’d been serious for so long it was nice to flirt with him, to remember that we didn’t just love each other, but we liked each other too.
          He grunted in satisfaction. “That I have. I think your dirty mouth had something to do with Lucy’s conception.”
          I blushed. Even after all these years, he knew exactly what to say to me. “Maybe,” I conceded.
          “Probably,” he chuckled, his breath hot on my ear.
          We laid there in silence for a while, enjoying the feel of each other, watching the silent TV screen flicker in front of our eyes. It was perfect- or as close to perfect as we had felt in a long time.
          “Dance with me, Lizzy,” Grady whispered after a while. I’d thought maybe he fell asleep; the drugs were so hard on his system that he was usually in and out of consciousness. This was actually the most coherent he’d been in a month.
          “Okay,” I agreed. “It’s the first thing we’ll do when you get out. We’ll have your mom come over and babysit, you can take me to dinner at Pazio’s and we’ll go dancing after.”
          “Mmm, that sounds nice,” he agreed. “You love Pazio’s. That’s a guaranteed get-lucky night for me.”
          “Baby,” I crooned. “As soon as I get you back home, you’re going to have guaranteed get-lucky nights for at least a month, maybe two.”
          “I don’t want to wait. I’m tired of waiting. Dance with me now, Lizzy,” Grady pressed, this time sounding serious.
          “Babe, after your treatment this morning, you can barely stand up right now. Honestly, how are you going to put all those sweet moves on me?” I teased, wondering where this sudden urge to dance- of all things- was coming from.
          “Lizzy, I am a sick man. I haven’t slept in my own bed in four months, I haven’t seen my wife naked in just as long, and I am tired of lying in this bed. I want to dance with you. Will you please, pretty please, dance with me?”
          I nodded at first because I was incapable of speech. He was right. I hated that he was right, but I hated that he was sick even more.
          “Alright, Grady, I’ll dance with you,” I finally whispered.
          “I knew I’d get my way,” he croaked smugly.
          I slipped off the bed and turned around to face my husband and help him to his feet. His once full head of auburn hair was now bald, reflecting the pallid color of his skin. His face was haggard, dark black circles under his eyes, chapped lips and pale cheeks. He was still as tall as he’d ever been, but instead of the toned muscles and thick frame he once boasted, he was depressingly skinny and weak, his shoulders perpetually slumped.
The only thing that remained the same was his eyes; they were the same dark green eyes I’d fallen in love with ten years ago. They were still full of life, even when his body wasn’t, still full of mischief while the rest of him was tired and exhausted from fighting this stupid sickness.
          “You always get your way,” I grumbled while I helped him up from the bed.       
          “Only with you,” he shot back on a pant after successfully standing. “And only because you love me.”
          “That I do,” I agreed. Grady’s hands slipped around my waist and he clutched my sides in an effort to stay standing.
          I slipped my arms around his neck, but didn’t allow any weight to press down on him. We maneuvered our bodies around his IV and monitors. It was awkward, but we managed.
          “What should we listen to?” I asked, while I pulled out my cell phone and turned it to my iTunes app.
          “You know what song. There is no other song when we’re dancing,” he reminded me on a faint smile.
          “You must be horny,” I laughed. “You’re getting awfully romantic.”
          “Just trying to keep this fire alive, Babe,” he pulled me closer and I held back the flood of tears that threatened to spill over.
          I turned on The Way You Look Tonight- the Frank Sinatra version- and we swayed slowly back and forth. Frank sang the soft, beautiful lyrics with the help of a full band, the music drifting around us over the constant beeping and whirring of medical machines. This was the song we thought of as ours, the first song we’d danced to at our wedding, the song he still made the band at Pazio’s play on our anniversary each year.
          “This fire is very much alive,” I informed him sternly. I lay my forehead against his shoulder and inhaled him. He didn’t smell like himself anymore, he was full of chemo drugs and smelled like hospital soap and detergent, but he was still Grady. And even though he barely resembled himself anymore, he still felt like Grady.
          He was still my Grady.
          “It is, isn’t it?” He whispered. I could feel how weak he was growing, how tired this was making him, but still he clung to me, held me close. When my favorite verse came on, he leaned his head down and whispered in a broken voice along with Frank, “There is nothing for me, but to love you. And the way you look tonight.”
          Silent tears streamed down my face with truths I wasn’t ready to admit to myself and fears that were too horrifying to even think. This was the man I loved with every fiber of my being- the only man I’d ever loved. The only man I’d ever love.
          He’d made me fall in love with him before I was old enough to drink legally, then he’d convinced me to marry him before I even graduated college. He knocked me up a year later, and didn’t stop until we had four wild rug rats that all had his red hair and his emerald green eyes. He’d encouraged me to finish my undergrad degree, and then to continue on to grad school while I was pregnant, nursing and then pregnant again. He went to bed every night with socks on and then took them off sometime in the middle of the night, leaving them obnoxiously tucked in between our sheets. He could never find his wallet, or his keys, and when there was hair to grow he always forgot to shave.
          And he drove me crazy most of the time.
          But he was mine.
          He was my husband.
          And now he was sick.
          “I do love you, Lizzy,” he murmured against my hair. “I’ll always love you, even when I’m dead and gone.”
          “Which won’t be for a very long time,” I reminded him on a sob.
          He ignored me, “You love me back, don’t you?”
          “Yes, I love you back,” I whispered with so much emotion the words felt stuck in my throat. “But you already knew that.”
          “Maybe,” he conceded gently. “But I will never, ever get tired of hearing it.”
          I sniffled against him, staining his hospital gown with my mascara and eye liner. “That’s a good thing, because you’re going to be hearing it for a very long time.”
          He didn’t respond, just kept swaying with me back and forth until the song ended. He asked me to play it again and I did, three more times. By the end of the fourth time, he was too tired to stand. I laid him back in bed and helped him adjust the IV and monitor again so that it didn’t bother him, then pulled the sheet over his cold toes.
          His eyes were closed and I thought he’d fallen asleep, so I bent down to kiss his forehead. He stirred at my touch and reached out to cup my face with his un-needled arm. I looked down into his depthless green eyes and fell in love with him all over again.
          It was as simple as that.
          It had always been that simple for him to get me to fall in love with him.
          “You are the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me, Lizzy.” His voice was broken and scratchy and a tear slid out from the corner of each of his eyes.
          My chin trembled at his words because I knew what he was doing and I hated it, I hated every part of it. I shook my head, trying to get him to stop but he held my gaze and just kept going.
          “You are. And you have made my life good, and worth living. You have made me love more than any man has ever known how to love. I didn’t know this kind of happiness existed in real life, Liz, and you’re the one that gave it to me. I couldn’t be more thankful for the life we’ve shared together. I couldn’t be more thankful for you.”
          “Oh, Grady, please-”
          “Lizzy,” he said in his most stern voice that he only ever used when I’d maxed out a credit card. “Whatever happens, whatever happens to me, I want you to keep giving this gift to other people.” I opened my mouth to vehemently object to everything he was saying but he silenced me with a cold finger on my lips. “I didn’t say go marry the first man you find. Hell, I’m not even talking about another man. But I don’t want this light to die with me. I don’t want you to forget how happy you make other people just because you might not feel happy. Even if I don’t, Lizzy, I want you to go on living. Promise me that.”
          But I shook my head, “no.” I wasn’t going to promise him that. I couldn’t make myself. And it was unfair of him to ask me that.
          “Please, Sweetheart, for me?” His deep, green eyes glossed over with emotion and I could physically feel how painful this was for him to ask me. He didn’t want this anymore than I did.
          I found myself nodding, while I sniffled back a stream of tears. “Okay,” I whispered. “I promise.”
          He broke out into a genuine smile then, his thumb rubbing back and forth along my jaw. “Now tell me you love me, one more time.”
          “I love you, Grady,” I murmured, leaning into his touch and savoring this moment with him.
          “And I will always, always love you, Lizzy,” he promised.
His eyes finally fluttered shut and his hand dropped from my face. His vitals remained the same, so I knew he was just sleeping. I crawled into bed with him, gently shifting him so that I could lie on my side, in the nook of his arm and lay my hand on his chest. I did this often; I liked to feel the beat of his heart underneath my hand. It had stopped too many times before, for me to trust its reliability. My husband was a very sick man, and had been for a while now.
Tonight was different though. Tonight, Grady was lucid and coherent, he’d found enough energy to stand up and dance with me, to tell me he loved me. Tonight could have been a turn for the better.
But it wasn’t- because only a few hours later, Grady’s heart stopped for the fourth time during his adult life, and this time it never restarted.



Stage One: Denial

Not every story has a happy ending. Some only hold a happy beginning.
This is my story. I’d already met my soul mate, fallen in love with him and lived our happily ever after.
This story is not about me falling in love.
This story is about me learning to live again after love left my life.
Research shows there are five stages of grief. I don’t know what this means for me, as I was stuck, nice and hard, in step one.
Denial.
I knew, acutely, that I was still in stage one.
I knew this because every time I walked in the house, I wandered around aimlessly looking for Grady. Because I still picked up my phone to check if he texted or called throughout the day. Because I looked for him in a crowded room, got the urge to call him from the grocery store just to make sure I had everything he needed, and reached for him in the middle of the night.
Acceptance- the last stage of grief- was firmly and forever out of my reach, and I often looked forward to it with longing. Why? Because Denial was a son of a bitch and it hurt more than anything when I realized he wasn’t in the house, wouldn’t be calling me, wasn’t where I wanted him to be, didn’t need anything from the store and would never lie next to me in bed again. The grief would cascade over me, fresh and suffocating and I was forced to suffer through the unbearable pain of losing my husband all over again.
Denial sucked.
But it was where I was right now. I was living in Denial.



Chapter One
Six Months after Grady died.

          I snuggled back into the cradle of his body while his arms wrapped around me tightly. He buried his scruffy face against the nape of my neck and I sighed contentedly. We fit perfectly together, but then again we always had- his big spoon nestled up against my little spoon.
          “It’s your turn,” he rumbled against my skin with that deep morning voice I would always drink in.
          “No,” I argued half-heartedly. “It’s always my turn.”
          “But you’re so good at it,” he teased.
          I giggled, “It’s one of my many talents, pouring cereal into bowls, making juice cups. I might just take this show on the road.”
          He laughed behind me and his chest shook with the movement. I pushed back into him, loving the feel of his hard, firm chest against my back. He was so hot first thing in the morning, his whole body radiating warmth.
          His hand splayed out across my belly possessively and he pressed a kiss just below my ear. I could feel his lips through my tangle of hair and the tickle of his breath which wasn’t all that pleasant first thing in the morning, but it was Grady and it was familiar.
          “It’s probably time we had another one, don’t you think?” His hand rubbed a circle around my stomach and I could feel him vibrating happily with the thought.
          “Grady, we already have three,” I reminded him on a laugh. “If we have another one, people are going to start thinking we’re weird.”
          “No, they won’t,” he soothed. “They might get an idea of how fertile you are, but they won’t think we’re weird.”
          I snorted a laugh. “They already think we’re weird.” 
          “Then we don’t want to disappoint them,” he murmured. His hand slid up my chest and cupped my breast, giving it a gentle squeeze.
          “You are obsessed with those things,” I grinned.
          “Definitely,” he agreed quickly, while continuing to fondle me. “What do you think, Lizzy? Will you give me another baby?”
          I was getting wrapped up in the way he was touching me, the way he was caressing me with so much love I thought I would burst. “I’ll think about it,” I finally conceded, knowing he would get his way- knowing I always let him have his way.
          “While you’re mulling it over, we should probably practice. I mean, we want to get this right when the time comes.” Grady trailed kisses down the column of my throat and I moaned my consent.
          I rolled over to kiss him on the mouth.
          But he wasn’t there.
          My arm swung wide and hit cold, empty mattress.
          I opened my eyes and stared at the slow moving ceiling fan over my head. The early morning light streamed in through cracks in my closed blinds and I let the silent tears fall.
          I hated waking up like this; thinking he was there, next to me, still able to support me, love me- hold me. And unfortunately it happened more often than it didn’t.
          The fresh pain clawed and cut at my heart and I thought I would die just from sheer heartbreak. My chin quivered and I sniffled, trying desperately to wrestle my emotions under control. But the pain was too much, too consuming.
          “Mom!” Blake called from the kitchen, ripping me away from my peaceful grief. “Moooooom!”
          That was a distressed cry, and I was up out of my bed and racing downstairs immediately. I grabbed my silk robe on the way and threw it over my black cami and plaid pajama bottoms. When the kids were younger I wouldn’t have bothered, but Blake was eight now and he’d been traumatized enough in life- I wasn’t going to add to that by walking around bra-less first thing in the morning.
          He continued to yell at me, while I barreled into the kitchen still wiping at the fresh tears. I found him at the bay windows, staring out in horror.
          “Mom, Abby went swimming,” he explained in a rush of words.
          A sick feeling knotted my stomach and I looked around wild-eyed at what his words could possibly mean. “What do you mean, Abby went swimming?” I gasped, a little out of breath.
          “There,” he pointed to the neighbor’s backyard with a shaky finger.
          I followed the direction of his outstretched hand and from the elevated vantage point of our kitchen I could see that the neighbor’s pool was filled with water, and my six-year-old daughter was swimming morning laps like she was on a regulated workout routine.
          “What the f-“ I started and then stopped, shooting a glance down at Blake who was looking up at me with more exaggerated shock than he’d given his sister.
          I watched her for point one more second and sprinted for the front door. “Keep an eye on the other ones,” I shouted at Blake as I pushed open our heavy red door.
          It was just early fall in rural Connecticut; the grass was still green, the mornings foggy but mostly still warm. The house next to us had been empty for almost a year. The owner had been asking too much for it in this economy, but I understood why- it was a beautiful, stately colonial with cream stucco siding and black decorative shutters. Big oak trees offered shade and character in the sprawling front yard and in the back, an in-ground pool was the drool-worthy envy of my children.
          I raced down my yard and into my new neighbors. I hadn’t noticed the house had sold, but that didn’t surprise me. I wasn’t the most observant person these days. Vaguely I noted a moving truck parked in the long drive.
          The backyard gate must have been left open, because even though Abby had taught herself how to swim at the age of four- all by herself, the end result giving me several gray hairs- there was no way she could reach the flip lock at the top of the tall, iron fence.
          I rounded the corner and hopped/ran to the edge of the pool, the gravel of the patio cutting into my bare feet. I took a steadying breath and focused my panic-flooded mind, long enough to assess whether Abby was still breathing or not.
          She was, and happily swimming in circles in the deep end.
          Fear and dread quickly turned to blinding anger and I took a step closer to the edge of the pool while I threw my silk robe on the ground.
          “Abigail Elizabeth, you get out of there right this minute!” I shouted loud enough to wake up the entire neighborhood.
          She popped her head up out of the water, acknowledged me by sticking out her tongue, and promptly went back to swimming. That little brat.    
          “Abigail, I am not joking. Get out of the pool. Now!” I hollered again. And was ignored- again. “Abby, if I have to come in there and get you, you will rue the day you were born!”
          She poked her head back up out of the water, shooting me a confused look. Her light green eyebrows drew together, just like her father’s used to, and her little freckled nose wrinkled at something I said. I was smart enough or experienced enough to know that she was not on the verge of obeying, just because I’d threatened her.
          “Mommy?” she asked, somehow making her little body tread water in a red polka dot bikini my sister picked up from Gap last summer- it was too small which for some reason made me more angry. “What does rue mean?”
          “It means you’re grounded from the iPad, your Leapster and the Wii for the next two years of your life,” I threatened. “Now get out of that pool right now before I come in there and get you myself.”
          She giggled in reply, not believing me for one second and resumed her play.
          “Damn it, Abigail,” I growled under my breath- not that I was surprised by her behavior. She was naturally an adventurous child. Since she could walk, she’d been climbing to the highest point of anything she could, swinging precariously from branches, light fixtures and aisles at the grocery store. She was a daredevil and there were moments when I absolutely adored her “the world is my playground” attitude about life. But then there were moments like this, when every mom instinct in me screamed she was in danger and her little, rotten life flashed before my eyes.
          Those moments happened more and more often. She tested me, pushing every limit and boundary I’d set. She had been reckless before Grady died, now she was just wild. And I didn’t know what to do about it.
          I didn’t know how to tame my uncontrollable child- how to be both parents to a little girl who desperately missed her daddy.
          I focused on my outrage, pushing those tragic thoughts down, into the abyss of my soul. I was pissed, I didn’t have time for this first thing in the morning and no doubt we were going to be late for school- again.
          I slipped off my pajama pants, hoping whomever had moved into the house, if they were watching, would be more concerned with the little girl on the verge of drowning than me flashing my black, bikini briefs at them over morning coffee. I said a few more choice curses and dove into the barely warm water after my second born.
          I surfaced, sputtering water and shivering from the cool morning air pebbling my skin. “Abigail, when I get you out of this pool, you are going to be in so much trouble.”
          “Okay,” she agreed happily. “But first you have to catch me.”
          She proceeded to swim around me in circles while I reached out helplessly for her. First thing I was doing when I got out of this pool was throwing away every electronic device in our house just to teach her a lesson. Then I was going to sign her up for a swim team- because the little hellion was very, very fast.
          We struggled like this for a few more minutes. Well, I struggled. She splashed at me and laughed at my efforts to wrangle her.
          I was aware of a presence hovering by the edge of the pool but I was equally too embarrassed as I was too preoccupied to look. Images of walking my children into school late again, kept looping through my head and I cringed at the dirty looks I was bound to get from teachers and other parents alike.
          “You look hungry,” a deep masculine voice announced from above me.
          I whipped my head around to find an incredibly tall man standing by my discarded pajama pants holding two beach towels and a box of Pop-Tarts in one arm, while he munched casually on said Pop-Tarts with the other.
          “I look hungry?” I screeched in hysterical anger.
          His eyes flickered down at me for just a second, “No, you look mad.” He pointed at Abby, who had come to a stop next to me, treading water again with her short child-sized limbs waving wildly in the water. “She looks hungry.” He grinned at me, his mouth full of food, and looked back at Abby. “Want a Pop-Tart? They’re brown sugar.”
          Abby nodded excitedly and swam to the edge of the pool. Not even using the ladder, she heaved herself out of the water and ran over to the stranger holding out his breakfast to her. He handed her a towel and she hastily draped it around her shoulders and took the offered Pop-Tart.
          A million warnings about taking food from strangers ran through my head, but in the end I decided getting us out of his pool was probably more important to him than offing his brand new neighbors with poisoned Pop-Tarts.
          With a defeated sigh, I swam over to the ladder closest to my pants and robe, and pulled myself from the water. I was a dripping, limp mess and I was frozen to the bone after my body adjusted to the temperature of the water.
          Abby took her Pop-Tart and plopped down on one of the loungers that were still stacked on top of two others and wrapped in plastic. She began munching on it happily, grinning at me like she’d just won the lottery.
          She was in so much trouble.
          I walked over to the stranger, eying him skeptically. He held out his remaining beach towel to me and after realizing I stood before him in just a soaking wet tank top and bikini briefs, I took it quickly and wrapped it around my body. I shivered violently, and my dark blonde hair dripped down my face and back. But I didn’t dare adjust the towel, afraid I’d give him more of a show than he’d paid for.
          “Good morning,” he laughed at me.
          “Good morning,” I replied slowly, carefully.
Up close, he wasn’t the giant I’d originally thought. Now that we were both ground level, I could see that while he was tall, at least six inches taller than me, he wasn’t freakishly tall- which relieved some of my concerns. He still wore his pajamas: blue cotton pants and a white t-shirt that had been stretched out from sleep. He had almost black hair that appeared still mussed and disheveled, but swept over to the side in what could be a trendy style if he brushed it. He seemed to be a few years older than me- if I had to guess thirty-five or thirty-six- and he had dark, intelligent eyes that crinkled in the corners with amusement. He was tanned, and muscular, and imposing. And I hated that he was laughing at me.
          “Sorry about the gate,” he shrugged. “I didn’t realize there were kids around.”
          “You moved into a neighborhood,” I pointed out dryly. “There’s bound to be kids around.”
          His eyes narrowed at the insult but he swallowed his Pop-Tart and agreed, “Fair enough. I’ll keep the gate locked from now on.”
          I wasn’t finished with berating him though. His pool caused all kinds of problems for me this morning and since I could only take out so much anger on my six-year-old, I had to vent the rest somewhere. “Who fills their pool the first week of September anyway? You’ve been to New England in the winter, haven’t you?”
          He cleared his throat and the last laugh lines around his eyes disappeared. “My real estate agent,” he explained. “It was kind of like a ‘thank you’ present for buying the house. He thought he was doing something nice for me.”
          I snorted at that, thinking how my little girl could have… No, I couldn’t go there; physically, I was not emotionally capable of thinking that thought through.
          “I really am sorry,” he offered genuinely, his dark eyes flashing with true emotion. “I got in late last night, and passed out on the couch. I didn’t even know the pool was full or the gate was open until I heard you screaming out here.”
          Guilt settled in my stomach like acid, and I regretted my harsh tone with him. This wasn’t his fault. I just wanted to blame someone else.
          “Look, I’m sorry I was snappish about the pool. I just, I was just worried about Abby. I took it out on you,” I relented, but wouldn’t look him in the eye. I’d always been terrible at apologies. When Grady and I would fight, I could never bring myself to tell him I felt sorry. Eventually, he’d just look at me and say, “I forgive you, Lizzy. Now come here and make it up to me.” With anyone else my pride would have refused to let me give in; but with Grady, the way he smoothed over my stubbornness and let me get away with keeping my dignity, worked every single time.
          “It’s alright, I can understand that,” my new neighbor agreed.
          We stood there awkwardly for a few more moments, before I swooped down to pick up my plaid pants and discarded robe. “Alright, well I need to go get the kids ready for school. Thanks for convincing her to get out. Who knows how long we would have been stuck there playing Finding Nemo.”
          He chuckled but his eyes were confused. “Is that like Marco Polo?”
          I shot him a questioning glance, wondering if he was serious or not. “No kids?” I asked.
          He laughed again. “Nope, life-long bachelor.” He waved the box of Pop-Tarts and realization dawned on me. He hadn’t really seemed like a father before now, but in my world- my four kids, soccer mom, neighborhood watch secretary, active member of the PTO world- it was almost unfathomable to me that someone his age could not have kids.
          I cleared my throat, “It’s uh, a little kid movie. Disney,” I explained and understanding lit his expression. “Um, thanks again.” I turned to Abby who was finishing up her breakfast, “Let’s go, Abs, you’re making us late for school.”
          “I’m Ben by the way,” he called out to my back. “Ben Tyler.”
          I snorted to myself at the two first names- it somehow seemed appropriate for the handsome life-long bachelor, but ridiculous all the same.
          “Liz Carson,” I called over my shoulder. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
          “Uh, the towels?” he shouted after me when we’d reached the gate.
          I turned around with a dropped mouth, thinking a hundred different vile things about my new neighbor. “Can’t we… I…” I glanced down helplessly at my bare legs poking out of the bottom of the towel he’d just lent me.
          “Liz,” he laughed familiarly, and I tried not to resent him. “I’m just teasing. Bring them back whenever.”
          I growled something unintelligible that I hope sounded like “thank you” and spun on my heel, shooing Abby onto the lawn between our houses.
          “Nice to meet you, neighbor,” he called out over the fence.
          “You too,” I mumbled, not even turning my head to look back at him.
          Obviously he was single and unattached. He was way too smug for his own good. I just hoped he would keep his gate locked and loud parties few and far between. He seemed like the type to throw frat party-like keggers and hire strippers for the weekend. I had a family to raise, a family that was quickly falling apart while I floundered to hold us together with tired arms and a broken spirit. I didn’t need a nosy neighbor handing out Pop-Tarts and sarcasm interfering with my life. 



Chapter Two

          “Hey-O!” Emma called from the open front door. “Where are you, Lizbeth?”
          “In here,” I called back over my second cup of coffee. This morning had been a dismal failure, and the kids were- as predicted- late for school. “Do you want a cup of coffee?”
          My sister rounded the corner, flustered as usual. This was quite possibly a genetic trait, since I suffered from the same wild blonde hair and general air of confusion. She smiled at me, her full lips stretched tightly with unease. I recognized her assessing eye immediately. She was gauging my emotions, deciding whether she would get emotionally-volatile-near-breakdown me or the somewhat holding-it-together me.
          Today, I was in no way holding it together.
          “I’d love one,” she sighed a little out of breath. She dropped her oversized bright orange purse on my kitchen counter and slid onto a barstool next to Lucy. “Hey little girl, whatchya up to?”
          “Coloring a picture,” Lucy replied in her sweet four-year-old voice.
          “Can I help?” Emma asked, already picking up a crayon.
          “Just don’t use green. We hate the color green,” Lucy emphasized.
          I cleared my throat and turned my back on them. That was my terrible influence and obsession with her daddy’s eyes. It was unfair to take out my trauma on the kids, but I didn’t know how to stop.
          “For now,” Emma agreed. “But I bet we learn to like it again.”
          “No psychobabble this morning, please!” I begged. I poured my sister her cup of coffee and handed it to her along with the creamer. She liked her coffee insanely sweet, and I wasn’t even going to try to guess her creamer-to-coffee ratio. 
          “What happened?” she asked in her knowing, grown up voice that I still had a hard time taking seriously. She was my little sister, a good four years younger than me and a complete flake. But ever since Grady, she had actually stepped up to the plate and been a huge support system for me. I wouldn’t be functioning today if it weren’t for her.
          “I didn’t hug Abby when I dropped her off,” I admitted and the tears were already falling. Hot mess did not begin to cover the train wreck I had become.
          “Alright, start at the beginning.” She pulled off her gauzy infinity scarf and settled in for the duration of my tale.
          She was still getting her masters in counseling, so her schedule allowed her to stop by during the day and help me out. She was my saving grace in so many ways, but adult conversation was high on the list.
          “Abby left the house this morning without telling me. I found her swimming laps in the new neighbor’s pool,” I explained as casually as I could. My anger still simmered under the surface, but more than that, the fear of almost losing her was choking me and I could barely breathe through the panic.
          “Your sister is such a little fish,” Emma looked down at Lucy and giggled.
          “Don’t make jokes, Em. She’s only six. Anything could have happened to her and I didn’t even know she left the house!” I stared into the black depths of my coffee and held back my frustrated tears.
          “Liz, you cannot keep blaming yourself for not being both parents. You are enough. You’re everything these kids need.” She smiled at me sympathetically and reached across to pat my hand. These were coping/comforting techniques she picked up from school and I found them mildly obnoxious.
          I pulled my hand away from my sister’s compassionate grip and looked at Lucy. She colored happily for the moment, but I knew this would be another picture added to the pile I was supposed to “keep for daddy.” The daddy she was convinced was just vacationing to heaven. The daddy she was positive wouldn’t leave his family forever. The daddy that should be walking through the front door any moment.
          I wasn’t the only one struggling with denial.
          The cold hard truth was that I wasn’t enough. I had never been enough. My marriage was a partnership built on mutual love and shared responsibility. The house had run as smoothly as the chaos of four little ones would allow- but we ran it together. Grady had always been a doting father. He would get up early with the kids, make holidays, important days at school and birthdays so unbelievably special for them and most of all, he met me halfway with discipline. He wasn’t a perfect man, and our marriage had been anything but.
          I knew that. I told myself that often because it was too easy to idealize our relationship into utopic perfection. And then that was a straight spiral into the dismal abyss of despair. But life had been good- really, really good, and easier and happy.
          And now we were just barely surviving.
          “So what happened with Abby?” Emma prompted.
          “I couldn’t get her out of the pool. She was being difficult like usual. Finally the guy next door found us and lured her out with a Poptart. By then, we were late for school. I had to walk all the children inside and stop in the office to sign them in. I was so mad at her. Mad because she left the house without telling me, mad because she went swimming by herself and I can’t even think about the worst case scenario there, and mad because she made yet another morning difficult for me. I was so angry when I dropped her off in her classroom that I didn’t even hug her or tell her I loved her.” I was helpless to stop the tears that flowed freely down my flushed cheeks and dripped off my stubborn chin. “Now I have to wait until after school to see her. She has to go all day thinking I’m so mad at her that I don’t love her anymore. And I’m making myself sick over it.”  
          Emma’s blue-gray gaze held mine, her own tears brimming at the corners. With equal parts conviction and concern, she promised, “Liz, you will see Abby again. You will get to hug her and tell her you love her. She’s going to be alright. She knows you love her. There’s not a doubt in her pretty red head.”
          I nodded, with my chin trembling and more tears falling. These were things I’d been trying to convince myself of all morning, but it helped when they came from someone else. Just because I lost one of the people I loved most in life, didn’t mean I was going to lose them all.
          At least I wanted to believe that, but the hole in my chest told me differently.
          “Liz.” My sister stood up from the barstool and walked behind the long, tiled island to give me a tight hug. “You’re going to get through this. I know this is hard, but you are the strongest person I know. Grady would not have left you if he didn’t think you could handle this.”
          I hiccupped a big, ugly sob and bent my face into her neck. She smelled like lilac and vanilla and like my sister. We’d been sharing hugs like this since she was born.
          “Em,” was all I could sniffle. The pain was too acute, too shattering right now. I looked around the kitchen with watery eyes, taking in all the careful details Grady had done himself- with his own, rough hands.
          Before cancer, he had been a strong, smart, capable man that started his own construction company and built it into somewhat of a local empire. He went from working every job himself to having almost a hundred employees. He built our house, brick by loving brick and designed the entire inside himself when we finally had enough money and enough good credit to leave the cracker box of an apartment we shared for the first years of our marriage.
          We had lived here for a little more than six years. Other than Blake, all of our kids were born into this home. We had gotten to know our neighbors as they each built around us and we had gotten our dream home- our forever home- when we were only twenty-six. We felt unbelievably blessed here when Grady was still healthy.
          Now I felt drowned in memories of him. His ghost haunted me from every room, and lingered over each piece of furniture and hand-touched detail. This place by the island was where he would kiss me each morning and take his travel cup of coffee from me on his way to work. The long, weathered leather couch in the living room was where we would cuddle up each night and fight over my reality shows vs. sports center. Our backyard was devastated by memories of him grilling, teaching the kids to play catch and enjoying nice evening nights as a family around the fire pit.
          A consuming ache gripped at the center of my being and fractured my soul right down the middle. I felt the cracking intensely as it fissured out to each and every part of me, shattering my already broken spirit to pieces. Again.
          “What am I going to do?” I whispered, ignoring the concerned look from Lucy. “How am I going to survive this, Em?”
          Emma was balling too by now. My hair was damp and matted from where her messy tears had fallen. But at my questions she straightened and cleared her throat. Using her mature voice again she said, “First, you’re going to go take your run. I have to be back at the student union by twelve to meet my study group so I don’t have a lot of time. And then… we will figure this out together, Lizbeth. You are not doing this alone.”
          “Okay,” I agreed with a pathetic nod. I could do that. I could run. It would help me feel better anyway. I could use the time alone and the time to focus on at least one coherent thought.
          “Mommy are you sad about daddy again?” Lucy asked, na├»ve as any four-year-old would be.
          I nodded, unable and unwilling to show her exactly how deep the sorrow was rooted.
          “It’s okay to be sad, Mommy,” Lucy promised on a know-it-all whisper. “But don’t be sad all day. He only went on vacation. He wouldn’t leave us forever. He loves us too much.”
          The tears immediately started again and in that moment I instinctively knew this day was only going to get worse.
          Emma took that moment to ask, “Where’s Jace?”
          I listened for a second and heard only silence.
          So, I immediately panicked.
          Unlike Abby, there was no way Jace had left this house without sounding alarm bells or leaving clues to what he was trying to do. Jace, in all his two-year old glory, still hadn’t mastered the fine art of turning a door knob. But he was dangerously quiet and that never signaled good things.
          Emma and I raced through the kitchen and up the stairs. “He was playing in his room,” I panted as we careened down the hallway in search of him.
          His room was empty, and so was his brother’s. There was a chance he was in Lucy’s room, so we headed that way next.
Then we heard the toilet flush. We changed paths and backtracked towards the kids’ bathroom, dread sending icicles of anxiety into every part of me.
          There he was- standing over the toilet, looking down at a bowl filled to the brim with entire rolls of toilet paper. A mischievous smile played on his lips and he looked up at us with a giggle. His finger played with the flusher- as if he was getting ready to flush it again. Panic hazed my vision.
          “Jace, don’t even think about it,” I threatened in a low voice.
          Emma and I had paused in the doorway, hands raised like he was a wild animal we were careful not to spook. He let out another devilish giggle and then enthusiastically flushed the toilet.
          Emma and I leapt to the toilet, watching in horror as the bowl filled with water and all the sacrificed rolls sloshed around in their sogginess. I shuddered at the mess and started to cry again when the water reached the brim of the white, porcelain bowl and spilled over onto the tiled floor.
          My sister grabbed Jace so he wouldn’t get soaked and we all hopped back out of the way. Jace just kept giggling, and the water just kept gushing onto the floor.
My head fell into my hands and I moaned, “This is just not my day.”
I thought Emma would agree with me, instead she said, “Go, Liz. Go run. I’ll clean this up.”
“Em, I cannot leave you with this mess. Are you kidding?”
“You need the run,” she shrugged, but her face was contorted in disgust at the mess the bathroom had become in just a few short seconds. “I’ll have this cleaned up by the time you get back.”
          “I love you,” I whispered, still not able to get ahold of my emotions, but anxious for the opportunity to bale on this mess. If I didn’t have to clean up just one of the many catastrophes in my upside down life, it might be the difference between my sanity and a mental breakdown.
          “Go!” She ordered. “Before I change my mind.”

          And I obeyed. While she calmly chastised Jace on his destruction techniques, I slipped on my tennis shoes and bolted out the front door. I ran away from the mess in the bathroom, away from children I couldn’t control on my own and away from a house so saturated in memories of the man I loved, I couldn’t breathe with him so close.

Pre-Order The Five Stages of Love NOW!!!!!!

Amazon 

11.14.2014

Some of you might have seen this before, because I haven't exactly kept it secret... However, today is the big scale cover reveal of The Five Stages of Falling in Love!!! Thank you Inkslinger PR!!!!

This is my first adult contemporary romance!!!!

And I've been writing it slowly for over a year and a half. So now that it finally has a release date and the cover is finished and I'm showing it off, I really cannot wait!!!!

It will be out January 27th, 2015.

But it's already up for pre-order everywhere!!!

The Five Stages of Falling in Love for Amazon

The Five Stages of Falling in Love for iBooks

The Five Stages of Falling in Love for Barnes and Noble

The Five Stages of Falling in Love for Kobo

Here it is. For your viewing pleasure! Plus I've attached a little excerpt so you can get a glimpse at what it's all about!!!




Synopsis:

Elizabeth Carlson is living in the pits of hell- also known as grief.

Her husband of eight years, the father of her four children and the love of her life, died from cancer. Grady’s prognosis was grim, even from the start, but Liz never gave up hope he would survive. How could she, when he was everything to her?

Six months later, she is trying to pick up the pieces of her shattered life and get the kids to school on time. Both seem impossible. Everything seems impossible these days.

When Ben Tyler moves in next door, she is drowning in sorrow and pain, her children are acting out, and the house is falling apart. She has no time for curious new friends or unwanted help, but Ben gives her both. And he doesn’t just want to help her with yard work or cleaning the gutters. Ben wants more from Liz. More than she’s capable of ever giving again.

As Liz mourns her dead husband and works her way through the five stages of grief, she finds there’s more of her heart to give than she thought possible. And as new love takes hold, she peels away the guilt and heartache, and discovers there’s more to life than death.


Excerpt: 

Prologue

          “Hey, there she is,” Grady looked up at me from his bed, his eyes smiling even while his mouth barely mimicked the emotion.
          “Hey, you,” I called back. The lights had been dimmed after the last nurse checked his vitals and the TV was on, but muted. “Where are the kiddos? I was only in the cafeteria for ten minutes.”
          Grady winked at me playfully, “My mother took them.” I melted a little at his roguish expression. It was the same look that made me agree to a date with him our junior year of college, it was the same look that made me fall in love with him- the same one that made me agree to have our second baby boy when I would have been just fine to stop after Blake, Abby and Lucy.
          “Oh, yeah?” I walked over to the hospital bed and sat down next to him. He immediately reached for me, pulling me against him with weak arms. I snuggled back into him, so that my head rested on his thin shoulder and our bodies fit side by side on the narrow bed. One of my legs didn’t make it and hung off awkwardly. But I didn’t mind. It was just perfect to lie next to the love of my life, my husband.
          “Oh, yeah,” he growled suggestively. “You know what that means?” He walked his free hand up my arm and gave my breast a wicked squeeze. “When the kids are away, the grownups get to play…”
          “You are so bad,” I swatted him- or at least made the motion of swatting at him, since I was too afraid to hurt him.
          “God, I don’t remember the last time I got laid,” he groaned next to me and I felt the rumble of his words against my side.
          “Tell me about it, sport,” I sighed. “I could use a nice, hard-“
          “Elizabeth Carlson,” he cut in on a surprised laugh. “When did you get such a dirty mouth?”
          “I think you’ve known about my dirty mouth for quite some time, Grady,” I flirted back. We’d been serious for so long it was nice to flirt with him, to remember that we didn’t just love each other, but we liked each other too.
          He grunted in satisfaction. “That I have. I think your dirty mouth had something to do with Lucy’s conception.”
          I blushed. Even after all these years, he knew exactly what to say to me. “Maybe,” I conceded.
          “Probably,” he chuckled, his breath hot on my ear.
          We laid there in silence for a while, enjoying the feel of each other, watching the silent TV screen flicker in front of our eyes. It was perfect- or as close to perfect as we had felt in a long time.
          “Dance with me, Lizzy,” Grady whispered after a while. I’d thought maybe he fell asleep; the drugs were so hard on his system that he was usually in and out of consciousness. This was actually the most coherent he’d been in a month.
          “Okay,” I agreed. “It’s the first thing we’ll do when you get out. We’ll have your mom come over and babysit, you can take me to dinner at Pazio’s and we’ll go dancing after.”
          “Mmm, that sounds nice,” he agreed. “You love Pazio’s. That’s a guaranteed get-lucky night for me.”
          “Baby,” I crooned. “As soon as I get you back home, you’re going to have guaranteed get-lucky nights for at least a month, maybe two.”
          “I don’t want to wait. I’m tired of waiting. Dance with me now, Lizzy,” Grady pressed, this time sounding serious.
          “Babe, after your treatment this morning, you can barely stand up right now. Honestly, how are you going to put all those sweet moves on me?” I teased, wondering where this sudden urge to dance- of all things- was coming from.
          “Lizzy, I am a sick man. I haven’t slept in my own bed in four months, I haven’t seen my wife naked in just as long, and I am tired of lying in this bed. I want to dance with you. Will you please, pretty please, dance with me?”
          I nodded at first because I was incapable of speech. He was right. I hated that he was right, but I hated that he was sick even more.
          “Alright, Grady, I’ll dance with you,” I finally whispered.
          “I knew I’d get my way,” he croaked smugly.
          I slipped off the bed and turned around to face my husband and help him to his feet. His once full head of auburn hair was now bald, reflecting the pallid color of his skin. His face was haggard, dark black circles under his eyes, chapped lips and pale cheeks. He was still as tall as he’d ever been, but instead of the toned muscles and thick frame he once boasted, he was depressingly skinny and weak, his shoulders perpetually slumped.
The only thing that remained the same was his eyes; they were the same dark green eyes I’d fallen in love with ten years ago. They were still full of life, even when his body wasn’t, still full of mischief while the rest of him was tired and exhausted from fighting this stupid sickness.
          “You always get your way,” I grumbled while I helped him up from the bed.       
          “Only with you,” he shot back on a pant after successfully standing. “And only because you love me.”
          “That I do,” I agreed. Grady’s hands slipped around my waist and he clutched my sides in an effort to stay standing.
          I slipped my arms around his neck, but didn’t allow any weight to press down on him. We maneuvered our bodies around his IV and monitors. It was awkward, but we managed.
          “What should we listen to?” I asked, while I pulled out my cell phone and turned it to my iTunes app.
          “You know what song. There is no other song when we’re dancing,” he reminded me on a faint smile.
          “You must be horny,” I laughed. “You’re getting awfully romantic.”
          “Just trying to keep this fire alive, Babe,” he pulled me closer and I held back the flood of tears that threatened to spill over.
          I turned on The Way You Look Tonight- the Frank Sinatra version- and we swayed slowly back and forth. Frank sang the soft, beautiful lyrics with the help of a full band, the music drifting around us over the constant beeping and whirring of medical machines. This was the song we thought of as ours, the first song we’d danced to at our wedding, the song he still made the band at Pazio’s play on our anniversary each year.
          “This fire is very much alive,” I informed him sternly. I lay my forehead against his shoulder and inhaled him. He didn’t smell like himself anymore, he was full of chemo drugs and smelled like hospital soap and detergent, but he was still Grady. And even though he barely resembled himself anymore, he still felt like Grady.
          He was still my Grady.
          “It is, isn’t it?” He whispered. I could feel how weak he was growing, how tired this was making him, but still he clung to me, held me close. When my favorite verse came on, he leaned his head down and whispered in a broken voice along with Frank, “There is nothing for me, but to love you. And the way you look tonight.”
          Silent tears streamed down my face with truths I wasn’t ready to admit to myself and fears that were too horrifying to even think. This was the man I loved with every fiber of my being- the only man I’d ever loved. The only man I’d ever love.
          He’d made me fall in love with him before I was old enough to drink legally, then he’d convinced me to marry him before I even graduated college. He knocked me up a year later, and didn’t stop until we had four wild rug rats that all had his red hair and his emerald green eyes. He’d encouraged me to finish my undergrad degree, and then to continue on to grad school while I was pregnant, nursing and then pregnant again. He went to bed every night with socks on and then took them off sometime in the middle of the night, leaving them obnoxiously tucked in between our sheets. He could never find his wallet, or his keys, and when there was hair to grow he always forgot to shave.
          And he drove me crazy most of the time.
          But he was mine.
          He was my husband.
          And now he was sick.
          “I do love you, Lizzy,” he murmured against my hair. “I’ll always love you, even when I’m dead and gone.”
          “Which won’t be for a very long time,” I reminded him on a sob.
          He ignored me, “You love me back, don’t you?”
          “Yes, I love you back,” I whispered with so much emotion the words felt stuck in my throat. “But you already knew that.”
          “Maybe,” he conceded gently. “But I will never, ever get tired of hearing it.”
          I sniffled against him, staining his hospital gown with my mascara and eye liner. “That’s a good thing, because you’re going to be hearing it for a very long time.”
          He didn’t respond, just kept swaying with me back and forth until the song ended. He asked me to play it again and I did, three more times. By the end of the fourth time, he was too tired to stand. I laid him back in bed and helped him adjust the IV and monitor again so that it didn’t bother him, then pulled the sheet over his cold toes.
          His eyes were closed and I thought he’d fallen asleep, so I bent down to kiss his forehead. He stirred at my touch and reached out to cup my face with his un-needled arm. I looked down into his depthless green eyes and fell in love with him all over again.
          It was as simple as that.
          It had always been that simple for him to get me to fall in love with him.
          “You are the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me, Lizzy.” His voice was broken and scratchy and a tear slid out from the corner of each of his eyes.
          My chin trembled at his words because I knew what he was doing and I hated it, I hated every part of it. I shook my head, trying to get him to stop but he held my gaze and just kept going.
          “You are. And you have made my life good, and worth living. You have made me love more than any man has ever known how to love. I didn’t know this kind of happiness existed in real life, Liz, and you’re the one that gave it to me. I couldn’t be more thankful for the life we’ve shared together. I couldn’t be more thankful for you.”
          “Oh, Grady, please-”
          “Lizzy,” he said in his most stern voice that he only ever used when I’d maxed out a credit card. “Whatever happens, whatever happens to me, I want you to keep giving this gift to other people.” I opened my mouth to vehemently object to everything he was saying but he silenced me with a cold finger on my lips. “I didn’t say go marry the first man you find. Hell, I’m not even talking about another man. But I don’t want this light to die with me. I don’t want you to forget how happy you make other people just because you might not feel happy. Even if I don’t, Lizzy, I want you to go on living. Promise me that.”
          But I shook my head, “no.” I wasn’t going to promise him that. I couldn’t make myself. And it was unfair of him to ask me that.
          “Please, Sweetheart, for me?” His deep, green eyes glossed over with emotion and I could physically feel how painful this was for him to ask me. He didn’t want this anymore than I did.
          I found myself nodding, while I sniffled back a stream of tears. “Okay,” I whispered. “I promise.”
          He broke out into a genuine smile then, his thumb rubbing back and forth along my jaw. “Now tell me you love me, one more time.”
          “I love you, Grady,” I murmured, leaning into his touch and savoring this moment with him.
          “And I will always, always love you, Lizzy,” he promised.
His eyes finally fluttered shut and his hand dropped from my face. His vitals remained the same, so I knew he was just sleeping. I crawled into bed with him, gently shifting him so that I could lie on my side, in the nook of his arm and lay my hand on his chest. I did this often; I liked to feel the beat of his heart underneath my hand. It had stopped too many times before, for me to trust its reliability. My husband was a very sick man, and had been for a while now.
Tonight was different though. Tonight, Grady was lucid and coherent, he’d found enough energy to stand up and dance with me, to tell me he loved me. Tonight could have been a turn for the better.
But it wasn’t- because only a few hours later, Grady’s heart stopped for the fourth time during his adult life, and this time it never restarted.


Stage One: Denial

Not every story has a happy ending. Some only hold a happy beginning.
This is my story. I’d already met my soul mate, fallen in love with him and lived our happily ever after.
This story is not about me falling in love.
This story is about me learning to live again after love left my life.
Research shows there are five stages of grief. I don’t know what this means for me, as I was stuck, nice and hard, in step one.
Denial.
I knew, acutely, that I was still in stage one.
I knew this because every time I walked in the house, I wandered around aimlessly looking for Grady. Because I still picked up my phone to check if he texted or called throughout the day. Because I looked for him in a crowded room, got the urge to call him from the grocery store just to make sure I had everything he needed, and reached for him in the middle of the night.
Acceptance- the last stage of grief- was firmly and forever out of my reach, and I often looked forward to it with longing. Why? Because Denial was a son of a bitch and it hurt more than anything when I realized he wasn’t in the house, wouldn’t be calling me, wasn’t where I wanted him to be, didn’t need anything from the store and would never lie next to me in bed again. The grief would cascade over me, fresh and suffocating and I was forced to suffer through the unbearable pain of losing my husband all over again.
Denial sucked.
But it was where I was right now. I was living in Denial.


Chapter One
Six Months after Grady died.

          I snuggled back into the cradle of his body while his arms wrapped around me tightly. He buried his scruffy face against the nape of my neck and I sighed contentedly. We fit perfectly together, but then again we always had- his big spoon nestled up against my little spoon.
          “It’s your turn,” he rumbled against my skin with that deep morning voice I would always drink in.
          “No,” I argued half-heartedly. “It’s always my turn.”
          “But you’re so good at it,” he teased.
          I giggled, “It’s one of my many talents, pouring cereal into bowls, making juice cups. I might just take this show on the road.”
          He laughed behind me and his chest shook with the movement. I pushed back into him, loving the feel of his hard, firm chest against my back. He was so hot first thing in the morning, his whole body radiating warmth.
          His hand splayed out across my belly possessively and he pressed a kiss just below my ear. I could feel his lips through my tangle of hair and the tickle of his breath which wasn’t all that pleasant first thing in the morning, but it was Grady and it was familiar.
          “It’s probably time we had another one, don’t you think?” His hand rubbed a circle around my stomach and I could feel him vibrating happily with the thought.
          “Grady, we already have three,” I reminded him on a laugh. “If we have another one, people are going to start thinking we’re weird.”
          “No, they won’t,” he soothed. “They might get an idea of how fertile you are, but they won’t think we’re weird.”
          I snorted a laugh. “They already think we’re weird.” 
          “Then we don’t want to disappoint them,” he murmured. His hand slid up my chest and cupped my breast, giving it a gentle squeeze.
          “You are obsessed with those things,” I grinned.
          “Definitely,” he agreed quickly, while continuing to fondle me. “What do you think, Lizzy? Will you give me another baby?”
          I was getting wrapped up in the way he was touching me, the way he was caressing me with so much love I thought I would burst. “I’ll think about it,” I finally conceded, knowing he would get his way- knowing I always let him have his way.
          “While you’re mulling it over, we should probably practice. I mean, we want to get this right when the time comes.” Grady trailed kisses down the column of my throat and I moaned my consent.
          I rolled over to kiss him on the mouth.
          But he wasn’t there.
          My arm swung wide and hit cold, empty mattress.
          I opened my eyes and stared at the slow moving ceiling fan over my head. The early morning light streamed in through cracks in my closed blinds and I let the silent tears fall.
          I hated waking up like this; thinking he was there, next to me, still able to support me, love me- hold me. And unfortunately it happened more often than it didn’t.
          The fresh pain clawed and cut at my heart and I thought I would die just from sheer heartbreak. My chin quivered and I sniffled, trying desperately to wrestle my emotions under control. But the pain was too much, too consuming.
          “Mom!” Blake called from the kitchen, ripping me away from my peaceful grief. “Moooooom!”
          That was a distressed cry, and I was up out of my bed and racing downstairs immediately. I grabbed my silk robe on the way and threw it over my black cami and plaid pajama bottoms. When the kids were younger I wouldn’t have bothered, but Blake was eight now and he’d been traumatized enough in life- I wasn’t going to add to that by walking around bra-less first thing in the morning.
          He continued to yell at me, while I barreled into the kitchen still wiping at the fresh tears. I found him at the bay windows, staring out in horror.
          “Mom, Abby went swimming,” he explained in a rush of words.
          A sick feeling knotted my stomach and I looked around wild-eyed at what his words could possibly mean. “What do you mean, Abby went swimming?” I gasped, a little out of breath.
          “There,” he pointed to the neighbor’s backyard with a shaky finger.
          I followed the direction of his outstretched hand and from the elevated vantage point of our kitchen I could see that the neighbor’s pool was filled with water, and my six-year-old daughter was swimming morning laps like she was on a regulated workout routine.
          “What the f-“ I started and then stopped, shooting a glance down at Blake who was looking up at me with more exaggerated shock than he’d given his sister.
          I watched her for point one more second and sprinted for the front door. “Keep an eye on the other ones,” I shouted at Blake as I pushed open our heavy red door.
          It was just early fall in rural Connecticut; the grass was still green, the mornings foggy but mostly still warm. The house next to us had been empty for almost a year. The owner had been asking too much for it in this economy, but I understood why- it was a beautiful, stately colonial with cream stucco siding and black decorative shutters. Big oak trees offered shade and character in the sprawling front yard and in the back, an in-ground pool was the drool-worthy envy of my children.
          I raced down my yard and into my new neighbors. I hadn’t noticed the house had sold, but that didn’t surprise me. I wasn’t the most observant person these days. Vaguely I noted a moving truck parked in the long drive.
          The backyard gate must have been left open, because even though Abby had taught herself how to swim at the age of four- all by herself, the end result giving me several gray hairs- there was no way she could reach the flip lock at the top of the tall, iron fence.
          I rounded the corner and hopped/ran to the edge of the pool, the gravel of the patio cutting into my bare feet. I took a steadying breath and focused my panic-flooded mind, long enough to assess whether Abby was still breathing or not.
          She was, and happily swimming in circles in the deep end.
          Fear and dread quickly turned to blinding anger and I took a step closer to the edge of the pool while I threw my silk robe on the ground.
          “Abigail Elizabeth, you get out of there right this minute!” I shouted loud enough to wake up the entire neighborhood.
          She popped her head up out of the water, acknowledged me by sticking out her tongue, and promptly went back to swimming. That little brat.   
          “Abigail, I am not joking. Get out of the pool. Now!” I hollered again. And was ignored- again. “Abby, if I have to come in there and get you, you will rue the day you were born!”
          She poked her head back up out of the water, shooting me a confused look. Her light green eyebrows drew together, just like her father’s used to, and her little freckled nose wrinkled at something I said. I was smart enough or experienced enough to know that she was not on the verge of obeying, just because I’d threatened her.
          “Mommy?” she asked, somehow making her little body tread water in a red polka dot bikini my sister picked up from Gap last summer- it was too small which for some reason made me more angry. “What does rue mean?”
          “It means you’re grounded from the iPad, your Leapster and the Wii for the next two years of your life,” I threatened. “Now get out of that pool right now before I come in there and get you myself.”
          She giggled in reply, not believing me for one second and resumed her play.
          “Damn it, Abigail,” I growled under my breath- not that I was surprised by her behavior. She was naturally an adventurous child. Since she could walk, she’d been climbing to the highest point of anything she could, swinging precariously from branches, light fixtures and aisles at the grocery store. She was a daredevil and there were moments when I absolutely adored her “the world is my playground” attitude about life. But then there were moments like this, when every mom instinct in me screamed she was in danger and her little, rotten life flashed before my eyes.
          Those moments happened more and more often. She tested me, pushing every limit and boundary I’d set. She had been reckless before Grady died, now she was just wild. And I didn’t know what to do about it.
          I didn’t know how to tame my uncontrollable child- how to be both parents to a little girl who desperately missed her daddy.
          I focused on my outrage, pushing those tragic thoughts down, into the abyss of my soul. I was pissed, I didn’t have time for this first thing in the morning and no doubt we were going to be late for school- again.
          I slipped off my pajama pants, hoping whomever had moved into the house, if they were watching, would be more concerned with the little girl on the verge of drowning than me flashing my black, bikini briefs at them over morning coffee. I said a few more choice curses and dove into the barely warm water after my second born.
          I surfaced, sputtering water and shivering from the cool morning air pebbling my skin. “Abigail, when I get you out of this pool, you are going to be in so much trouble.”
          “Okay,” she agreed happily. “But first you have to catch me.”
          She proceeded to swim around me in circles while I reached out helplessly for her. First thing I was doing when I got out of this pool was throwing away every electronic device in our house just to teach her a lesson. Then I was going to sign her up for a swim team- because the little hellion was very, very fast.
          We struggled like this for a few more minutes. Well, I struggled. She splashed at me and laughed at my efforts to wrangle her.
          I was aware of a presence hovering by the edge of the pool but I was equally too embarrassed as I was too preoccupied to look. Images of walking my children into school late again, kept looping through my head and I cringed at the dirty looks I was bound to get from teachers and other parents alike.
          “You look hungry,” a deep masculine voice announced from above me.
          I whipped my head around to find an incredibly tall man standing by my discarded pajama pants holding two beach towels and a box of Pop-Tarts in one arm, while he munched casually on said Pop-Tarts with the other.
          “I look hungry?” I screeched in hysterical anger.
          His eyes flickered down at me for just a second, “No, you look mad.” He pointed at Abby, who had come to a stop next to me, treading water again with her short child-sized limbs waving wildly in the water. “She looks hungry.” He grinned at me, his mouth full of food, and looked back at Abby. “Want a Pop-Tart? They’re brown sugar.”
          Abby nodded excitedly and swam to the edge of the pool. Not even using the ladder, she heaved herself out of the water and ran over to the stranger holding out his breakfast to her. He handed her a towel and she hastily draped it around her shoulders and took the offered Pop-Tart.
          A million warnings about taking food from strangers ran through my head, but in the end I decided getting us out of his pool was probably more important to him than offing his brand new neighbors with poisoned Pop-Tarts.
          With a defeated sigh, I swam over to the ladder closest to my pants and robe, and pulled myself from the water. I was a dripping, limp mess and I was frozen to the bone after my body adjusted to the temperature of the water.
          Abby took her Pop-Tart and plopped down on one of the loungers that were still stacked on top of two others and wrapped in plastic. She began munching on it happily, grinning at me like she’d just won the lottery.
          She was in so much trouble.
          I walked over to the stranger, eying him skeptically. He held out his remaining beach towel to me and after realizing I stood before him in just a soaking wet tank top and bikini briefs, I took it quickly and wrapped it around my body. I shivered violently, and my dark blonde hair dripped down my face and back. But I didn’t dare adjust the towel, afraid I’d give him more of a show than he’d paid for.
          “Good morning,” he laughed at me.
          “Good morning,” I replied slowly, carefully.
Up close, he wasn’t the giant I’d originally thought. Now that we were both ground level, I could see that while he was tall, at least six inches taller than me, he wasn’t freakishly tall- which relieved some of my concerns. He still wore his pajamas: blue cotton pants and a white t-shirt that had been stretched out from sleep. He had almost black hair that appeared still mussed and disheveled, but swept over to the side in what could be a trendy style if he brushed it. He seemed to be a few years older than me- if I had to guess thirty-five or thirty-six- and he had dark, intelligent eyes that crinkled in the corners with amusement. He was tanned, and muscular, and imposing. And I hated that he was laughing at me.
          “Sorry about the gate,” he shrugged. “I didn’t realize there were kids around.”
          “You moved into a neighborhood,” I pointed out dryly. “There’s bound to be kids around.”
          His eyes narrowed at the insult but he swallowed his Pop-Tart and agreed, “Fair enough. I’ll keep the gate locked from now on.”
          I wasn’t finished with berating him though. His pool caused all kinds of problems for me this morning and since I could only take out so much anger on my six-year-old, I had to vent the rest somewhere. “Who fills their pool the first week of September anyway? You’ve been to New England in the winter, haven’t you?”
          He cleared his throat and the last laugh lines around his eyes disappeared. “My real estate agent,” he explained. “It was kind of like a ‘thank you’ present for buying the house. He thought he was doing something nice for me.”
          I snorted at that, thinking how my little girl could have… No, I couldn’t go there; physically, I was not emotionally capable of thinking that thought through.
          “I really am sorry,” he offered genuinely, his dark eyes flashing with true emotion. “I got in late last night, and passed out on the couch. I didn’t even know the pool was full or the gate was open until I heard you screaming out here.”
          Guilt settled in my stomach like acid, and I regretted my harsh tone with him. This wasn’t his fault. I just wanted to blame someone else.
          “Look, I’m sorry I was snappish about the pool. I just, I was just worried about Abby. I took it out on you,” I relented, but wouldn’t look him in the eye. I’d always been terrible at apologies. When Grady and I would fight, I could never bring myself to tell him I felt sorry. Eventually, he’d just look at me and say, “I forgive you, Lizzy. Now come here and make it up to me.” With anyone else my pride would have refused to let me give in; but with Grady, the way he smoothed over my stubbornness and let me get away with keeping my dignity, worked every single time.
          “It’s alright, I can understand that,” my new neighbor agreed.
          We stood there awkwardly for a few more moments, before I swooped down to pick up my plaid pants and discarded robe. “Alright, well I need to go get the kids ready for school. Thanks for convincing her to get out. Who knows how long we would have been stuck there playing Finding Nemo.”
          He chuckled but his eyes were confused. “Is that like Marco Polo?”
          I shot him a questioning glance, wondering if he was serious or not. “No kids?” I asked.
          He laughed again. “Nope, life-long bachelor.” He waved the box of Pop-Tarts and realization dawned on me. He hadn’t really seemed like a father before now, but in my world- my four kids, soccer mom, neighborhood watch secretary, active member of the PTO world- it was almost unfathomable to me that someone his age could not have kids.
          I cleared my throat, “It’s uh, a little kid movie. Disney,” I explained and understanding lit his expression. “Um, thanks again.” I turned to Abby who was finishing up her breakfast, “Let’s go, Abs, you’re making us late for school.”
          “I’m Ben by the way,” he called out to my back. “Ben Tyler.”
          I snorted to myself at the two first names- it somehow seemed appropriate for the handsome life-long bachelor, but ridiculous all the same.
          “Liz Carson,” I called over my shoulder. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
          “Uh, the towels?” he shouted after me when we’d reached the gate.
          I turned around with a dropped mouth, thinking a hundred different vile things about my new neighbor. “Can’t we… I…” I glanced down helplessly at my bare legs poking out of the bottom of the towel he’d just lent me.
          “Liz,” he laughed familiarly, and I tried not to resent him. “I’m just teasing. Bring them back whenever.”
          I growled something unintelligible that I hope sounded like “thank you” and spun on my heel, shooing Abby onto the lawn between our houses.
          “Nice to meet you, neighbor,” he called out over the fence.
          “You too,” I mumbled, not even turning my head to look back at him.
          Obviously he was single and unattached. He was way too smug for his own good. I just hoped he would keep his gate locked and loud parties few and far between. He seemed like the type to throw frat party-like keggers and hire strippers for the weekend. I had a family to raise, a family that was quickly falling apart while I floundered to hold us together with tired arms and a broken spirit. I didn’t need a nosy neighbor handing out Pop-Tarts and sarcasm interfering with my life.