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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 where he’d been catching up on some paperwork, 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.”
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 stomped a little foot and crossed her arms. “Books are so boring.”
“Dad, can I read in your room?” 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.”
“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 paints 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?”
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.
“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 stepmoms 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 stepmoms, 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.
“Daddy, can we watch TV a little tonight?” Olivia asked from the door, pulling him out of his thoughts. “There’s a biography on LeeAnne Walters I want to see.”
“Who’s that?” He smiled with pride. Olivia was more interested in biographies than fiction. Of all the girls, she was his most logical, most curious.
“She’s one of the first people who noticed something was wrong with Flint, Michigan’s water supply.”
“No kidding?” It didn’t surprise him that his nine-year-old knew all about Flint’s water issues.
“Yep. The show starts at ten.”
Gabe frowned. “Liv, that’s way past bedtime. I’ll record the show for you instead, okay?”
She sighed, but nodded without argument.
“We’re done in here if you want to take your shower.”
He found an outfit for Maddie to wear to school in the morning, sat with her in the living room while she amused him with more ideas for the care and feeding of a unicorn and tucked her in bed by nine-thirty. Liv was right behind her.
By ten o’clock, Gabe’s eyes were drooping and he could barely remember his name but he looked for Kimberly.
She looked up from the tablet.
“What are you reading?” He glanced at the screen. She angled it so he could see the latest title by a popular young adult author she enjoyed.
“You all set for school in the morning?”
“Yeah. Homework’s done.”
Amen to that, he thought. He sat on the bed next to her. “You’re quiet today. You okay?”
Shrugging, she shifted to make more room for him. “I guess.”
Another shrug. “It’s school. It pretty much sucks.”
He huffed out a laugh. “I just wondered if you made any new friends.”
She shook her head. “Not really. I have a couple, but I really miss Brenna and Kaylie.”
Gabe pressed his lips together. When he took this job and moved to this apartment, he’d thought it would be good for them. After Janey died and all the babysitting arrangements he made fell apart, Janey’s parents invited him to move in with them. They adored the girls and he loved them. They were great people. But they had their own ideas on how to raise girls. They didn’t support Olivia’s curiosity and they could barely tolerate Maddie’s exuberance. Because he frequently disagreed with them, he thought it best to find his own arrangement or risk a rift as big as the one between him and his mom.
He hardly talked to her. She had her own life and remembered them usually at the holidays. Otherwise, she essentially ignored her granddaughters and he’d decided to stop making excuses for her. He hated to deny the girls their only other relatives so taking this job and this apartment had been his only option.
He wished he’d thought about things like being the new kids in town and sharing one bedroom and one bathroom. At the time, he’d thought being home for the girls when they got out of school instead of out scaling tall structures was all that mattered.
Gabe sighed. “Maybe we could invite them over one day?”
Kimberly shook her head, lowered the blue eyes she’d gotten from him. “And do what? Watch Maddie twirl? No way.”
That was a point, he conceded with another sigh. The apartment wasn’t big enough for hanging out.
That put a light in her eyes. “Could I?”
“Sure. But not now. It’s bedtime.”
“Okay. Can I text them now to ask when it’s okay?”
She handed him the tablet so he could log in to the message app. He was hyper-vigilant about the internet. Kim didn’t have a cell phone or social media accounts. When she needed Skype or text messaging, she used his accounts and only when he supervised. She didn’t have the passwords. He let her text her best friends for a few minutes and then called it.
“They said Saturday, Daddy.” She powered down the tablet, left it on his bed.
“That’s great. Night.”
She pecked him on the cheek. “Night.”
Gabe didn’t remember changing into pajamas or getting into bed. But he must have gone to bed because suddenly, the baby woke him.
He wrenched an eye open, focused it on the alarm clock blazing the time. Three-twenty-seven—a.m.
He forced the other eye open, trying to focus on the slight form of his youngest child standing in the band of light cast by the bulb he always left on in the hall, her lower lip stuck out about a mile and huge tears dripping down her face.
He reached out and lifted his daughter into his arms. “Hey, hey, hey, what’s the matter, E-Rex?” he murmured. She put her head right on his chest, sniffling back tears. He cuddled her there for a minute or…or five. At twelve and nine, Kimberly and Olivia were too big to be held against his heart like this. They grumbled and complained about sharp whiskers. But baby Emerson?
He was holding on to this one as long as she’d let him.
She stuffed a thumb in her mouth and wriggled her butt trying to burrow closer, a sign that she was sleepy. That butt was clad in a very soggy diaper, which explained why she was awake at this unholy hour.
Still holding her, he got out of bed and took her back to her room. He grabbed a fresh diaper from the package on top of a chest he’d refinished in antique white back when Kimberly was born, and made a fast job of changing Emmy’s bottom. Job done, he tried to tuck her back into her crib, but she threw a leg over the rail before he’d taken one step.
“Shh, shh, shh!” He did not want the entire house awake. First thing tomorrow, he was installing a roof on her crib. With locks. And an alarm system. A silent one, of course.
“Put your little head down. Want Daddy to rub your back?”
She gave him a solemn heart-breaking nod and obediently rolled over. He adjusted her blanket, put a large hand on that small back and rubbed in slow circles. She was just about asleep when Madison’s head lifted.
“Daddy, is it morning time?”
Silently spelling out another curse, Gabe shook his head. “No, Maddie. Go back to sleep.”
“But why are you up?”
“I don’t want to be up. Emmy had a bad dream.”
Gabe could see the wheels spinning in Maddie’s little head. When she gasped and thrust her hand under her pillow, he almost cursed out loud.
He’d forgotten about the Tooth Fairy.
“Aw.” She whined. “The Tooth Fairy didn’t come!”
“Maddie, it’s not morning. You have to go to sleep and stay asleep. Tomorrow, you’ll see the Tooth Fairy will be here.”
“I was asleep but I’m not tired anymore.”
Gabe wasn’t buying a word of this for a minute.
“You hafta rub my back, too.”
“I don’t think so, Maddie.”
“But, Daddy, that’s not fair! Rub my back, too. Pleeeeeeease?”
A groan from the bottom bunk of the beds on the other wall made Gabe sigh.
“Will you shut up, Maddie?” Olivia said. “I have a test in the morning.”
Gabe prayed for patience. “Go back to sleep, all of you.”
“I was asleep until everybody started crying,” Olivia protested.
“Rub my back,” Maddie cried, which woke Emmy up again, which got Olivia huffing and complaining.
“Oh my God, just shut up for five freakin’ minutes, Maddie!” Olivia jumped out of her bunk in an explosion of blankets, grabbed her pillow, and stalked out of the room.
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
“I’m sleeping in your bed,” she announced and got her sisters riled up all over again.
“That’s not fair!” Maddie scrambled up but Gabe was too fast for her. Gently, but firmly, he tucked her back into her own bed.
“Dad-dee bed,” Emmy cried.
What little patience he still had finally snapped. “Madison Elise, what’s not fair is Daddy being too tired to work. Now, you are going to stay in this bed for the rest of the night or there will be no movie for you tomorrow. Is that clear?”
All the girls knew when Dad whipped out their middle names, he wasn’t happy. Still, he knew she was just being six. Forcing his temper down, he smiled when she nodded and settled back onto her pillow.
He resettled Emmy back into her bed, rubbed her back for a few more minutes while Madison sniffled back tears. Feeling like the world’s biggest ass, he pressed a noisy kiss to Maddie’s cheek. “See you in the morning, sweetheart.”
“Ow, Daddy. Stabby beard.”
“I don’t have a beard, silly goose. My face is tired and needs to sleep. Tomorrow, it’ll be smooth again.”
Intrigued, Madison rolled over. “It will?”
“Sure will.” He drew a hand over his face, the whiskers rasping under his fingers. The girls hated the whiskers. He probably should shave twice a day, but who had the time? “Better go to sleep so my face can wake up soft later, okay?”
“Okay, Daddy. Night!”
He closed the door to the girls’ room with a sigh. Three out of four asleep. He’d give Liv a few minutes and move her back to her own bed. On bare feet, he padded to the small galley kitchen off the apartment’s living room, grabbed the notebook off its shelf and a couple of pain relief tablets from the bottle high up in a kitchen cabinet for the headache forming behind his eyeballs.
His family needed a bigger place before they killed each other…or him. The only reason he’d taken this unit was because it was one of the perks of being the building superintendent—no rent. But four girls in one bedroom was a disaster. One of the building’s three-bedroom duplexes had just been vacated. Its rent was high. Higher than the mortgage on the upstate house he and Janey had owned before her death. But maybe he could talk Mike’s uncle, the building’s owner, into letting him pay the difference between the rent on this apartment and that one. He wasn’t sure how he was going to swing that amount, though.
Twenty minutes later, he collapsed on the sofa and dropped his head into his hands with a loud sigh. He had a plan now, a plan that would take a lot of juggling, but could work. All he had to do was find some part-time engineering or inspecting work, pick up some extra cash. He could still manage the building.
He needed to square it with Mike first, but he wasn’t worried.
Mike Kinsella had been Gabe’s friend since they were Maddie’s age. They’d been through it all…school, football, broken hearts, first cars and first loves. Mike had been Gabe’s best man and was godfather to all four of his girls. And when he’d lost Janey, Mike was the first call Gabe had made.
Gabe had a difficult time facing Janey’s parents after her death. Oh, they’d welcomed him into their family, but Janey died on his watch. How the hell do you apologize for that? How do you ever make that right? They never said it. They didn’t need to.
He blamed himself.
Mike helped him care for the girls. He called his uncle, who owned several buildings in the New York borough of Queens, including a garden apartment building in Bayside. Styled like an old Tudor, it took up most of a city block, featured twenty ground-floor and second-floor apartments arranged around a central courtyard. It needed a new superintendent to live on-site in exchange for a small salary and two-bedroom apartment, rent-free.
They’d headed to Bayside just over a year ago. For the most part, it worked well. But the girls were really getting on each other’s nerves, and by extension, his. If he didn’t find a way to separate Kimberly and Olivia from Madison soon, blood might be drawn. Chatty Maddie could talk the ears off a dead body and he was close to slitting his own throat.
He lifted his eyes to the picture the kids had put on the refrigerator door. Janey’s beautiful brown eyes looked back at him, full of humor and love. It had been taken the day they’d brought Emerson home from the hospital, baby number four and the absolute last, he’d sworn. Janey had merely laughed and said, “We’ll see.” Exactly what she’d said after each of the previous children. Only this time, it had been true. She’d died barely four months later.
Now, it was up to him to figure out how to manage things like braids and feeding schedules and homework and after-school activities and mean girls and teething, and a host of other childhood issues he’d been utterly unprepared to tackle alone.
“God, Janey. I miss you,” he whispered to the photograph. Gabe swore he heard her giggle and figured it was time to grab some sleep. He stood, collected his paperwork into a pile and put it all on top of the refrigerator. His spine popped and cracked in blessed relief. He made sure the stove was off—it was, and the door locked—it was. He walked back to his bedroom, stopping at the door just across from the bathroom where a sign said Girlz Rule in pink glitter paint. He quietly opened it, walked inside, aiming his cell phone’s flashlight app to avoid tripping over discarded clothes, toys, and once—a tiny figure who’d fallen out of bed.
Emerson slept with her thumb in her mouth, clutching her Teddy bear. Madison was curled up in a cat shape in her twin bed. Across the room in the top bunk, Kimberly slept soundly. He shut the door, hit the bathroom across the hall, and in his bedroom, watched Olivia breathe for a minute or two. He was too tired to carry her back to her bed so he shuffled back to the couch and stretched out.
He’d sleep here for what was left of the night.
Ah, hell. Maddie’s tooth.
He dragged himself upright, found his wallet, and carefully slid a buck under Maddie’s pillow, then spent fifteen aggravating minutes trying to find the tooth that had found its way under the bed.
He returned to the sofa, stretched out on his back and finally, fell asleep.
End of Excerpt