For Lucy by Jewel E. Ann




Chapter One





The lawn used to be mine—minus the dandelions, Creeping Charlie, and grub infestation. I took care of what mattered to me, like my wife. That’s why I painted that fence at least a dozen times.

White.

She thought it symbolized our perfect life.

The only thing truly perfect about our life was the way I stole her. A brilliant move on my part. We joked about it for years. Tatum would blow her tawny and most unruly bangs out of her eyes, smirking and winking at the same time before saying, “Emmett the Thief.”

I’m no longer a thief. I’m a martyr—only I’m still alive. Six out of seven days of the week, being alive sucks. Today is day seven. It doesn’t suck, but staring at the weeds … that’s its own kind of torture.

Weeds were nonexistent when it was my yard. I deposited spores to keep the grubs at bay and pulled a striper behind my red Toro mower. I come from a long line of men who aspire to have the best yard. Under my watch, the basketball net came down in the winter. Now it hangs by a few weathered threads like a flag on the front line, tattered and worn after the last battle.

Come on, Lucy …

I swear she keeps me waiting on purpose. She thinks I’ll give in and fix all the things that are broken if I’m forced to stare at them long enough. Some things can never be repaired—like my marriage. I tried. Really, I did. For weeks, Lucy and her mom stood inside the house with their lifeless gazes lazily following me around the yard as I mowed, wrestled the weeds, replaced the mulch, painted the fence, and filled in the hole that used to be a swimming pool—replacing it with a firepit, a pergola that I constructed myself, and raised flowerbeds framing the new gathering spot.

Only … no one ever gathered there. Sometimes I’d lounge by myself, the lone spectator gazing at the fire, wondering why fate decided to blow up my world.

When Tatum and I exchanged vows seventeen years ago, we said ’til death do us part.

Done.

We didn’t break those vows. Our marriage held on nearly six months past death. A death no one saw coming. The violent ripping away of a soul that made no sense.

It all started with a delivery room promise. Twelve hours into labor with Lucy, my wife made me promise to love our daughter more than her. She said parents were supposed to love their children more than each other—some sappy sentiment about our daughter being the best of us. With her hand gripping mine at the start of the next contraction, and the midwife giving me the just-say-it look, I returned several tiny nods.

“Of course, honey. Anything you want.”

I had no true intention of loving our daughter more than Tatum. It was only because I loved Tatum so much that we were at the hospital waiting for the fruit of our love to come into the world. Maybe I didn’t feel the same shift in favoritism because I hadn’t carried Lucy in my body for nine months. I’m not a stupid man claiming to understand a mother’s love. And after witnessing Tatum’s ability to function with only a few hours of sleep each night for the first six months of Lucy’s life, I conceded that nothing could compare to a mother’s love.

In fact, Tatum’s love and twenty-four-hour devotion to our daughter only intensified my love for her.

I loved Lucy with ninety-nine percent of my heart, but I loved her mother with all of it.

Until … death came. And we parted.

There is bad.

And awful.

Then there is the unimaginable.

No vow can prepare you for the unimaginable. The unimaginable breaks the strongest bonds, voids promises, and leaves irreparable wreckage.

“You know, you can come to the door. I didn’t even know you were here.” Lucy hops into my pickup truck and shoots me a grin, sun-kissed cheeks and hair, unruly like her mom’s but a few shades darker, pulled into a ponytail.

I return a somber smile, wondering what happened to my little girl. When did she get boobs? And why must she wear tiny shorts that expose her long legs that I know punk-ass boys gawk at all the damn time? The pink-painted nails and makeup covered face—really? Where did my little girl go? “I wasn’t in a hurry. I knew you’d eventually come out.”

She rolls her eyes, lashes heavy with mascara. Why? Why must she try to look twenty? What happened to pigtails, ribbons, and cherry Chapstick?

“Is that …” Before I put the truck in reverse, my chin juts in her direction and my eyes narrow to inspect her. “Is that a nose piercing?”