Sophia Braden dropped the phone into its cradle and covered her mouth with her hands, trying to absorb the bombshell Wade had just dropped.
Her throat constricted, and she struggled to catch her next breath.
A tug on her shirttail made her look down.
“Aunt Sophie? Was that my mama?” Danica looked up at her with woeful puppy-dog eyes—eyes so like her mother’s. How did you explain something like this to a four-year-old? Sophie could barely make sense of it herself.
“No, sweetie”—she took a deep breath and put a hand on her niece’s head, smoothing back the silky yellow hair—“that was Wade. He—” She swallowed back a sob that felt like a boulder. “He’s going to pick you guys up in a little bit.”
A glint of suspicion crossed Danica’s delicate features, and she looked hard into Sophie’s face, then ducked out from under her caress and ran back to the living room, where her brother and sister were watching a video.
What on earth was Wade going to tell these kids? And what would happen to them? No way in the world was Wade going to take on three kids and raise them. And she sure as Moses wouldn’t do it.
Her big sister was gone. Dead. Sophie was jolted all over again by the thought. It brought back too many memories that were better left buried.
But one thing couldn’t be ignored. She was totally alone now.
What could have happened to Starr? Wade said they didn’t know yet, but good grief, a twenty-nine-year-old woman didn’t just drop dead for no reason. She and Starr had had their differences over the years, but in spite of it all, Sophie loved her sister. Starr was the only family she had left. Now she was gone too.
And where was her sister’s God now? She strangled a derisive snort. If Starr had one fault, it was that she was always trying to cram her religion—her faith, she called it—down Sophie’s throat. Well, it didn’t take a psychologist to see that Starr had God and Wade mixed up. Just because things had finally gone right for Starr, just because she’d finally found a man who treated her like a princess and loved her brats as if they were his own, Starr was ready to jump up and shout hallelujah and give God all the credit. Well, where was God now?
Sophie hoped Starr knew…wherever she was.
Wade stood six feet from Starr’s body and answered the questions the emergency personnel—and later the medical investigator from the coroner’s office—threw at him. But Wade had no light to shed on what could have caused Starr’s sudden death. Numb, he told them everything he could think of: She’d spent long hours working at the house, using all kinds of paints and varnishes. She’d been fighting a cold for several days, but that hadn’t seemed to slow her down. No, she wasn’t on any regular medications, though he thought she might have been taking something for the sinus headache. But he couldn’t be certain. He racked his brain for anything else that might help and came up blank.
Finally they covered Starr’s body and carried her from the house. Like an automaton, Wade locked up the house, climbed into his truck, and drove over to Sophie’s place. He trudged up the sidewalk to the run-down apartment. It took supreme effort to put one foot in front of the other.
How could he tell those kids their mama was dead? They’d had so many struggles already in their short lives.
He rang the doorbell. Almost immediately the door swung inward, and two featherweight little girls swooped on him. “Wade! Wade’s here! Wade’s here!”
Oh, Father, give me the words. “Hey, half pint.” He hoisted Danica up with one arm and pulled her seven-year-old sister close with the other.
“Hey, Lacey Daisy. Hey, Dani Banany.”
Beau waited in the wings, with the newly acquired aloofness of an almost-nine-year-old. “Hey, buddy.” Wade put up a hand for their ritual “give me five” greeting.
Beau slapped Wade’s hand hard with his small palm, then dipped his head and tossed Wade a crooked grin.
“Where’s Mama?” Dani asked, looking past Wade to the front door.
He felt his spirit falter. “Come here, guys.” He started toward the living room, Dani still in his arms, herding the other two beside him. “I…I need to talk to you…about your mama.”
From the corner of his vision, Wade saw Sophie grab the remote and switch off the television. She leaned on the doorjamb.
He sat down on the shabby sofa and pulled Danica close, breathing in the sweet baby shampoo scent of her hair. Beau and Lacey stared at him, waiting. What were they expecting him to say? Surely not the terrible, devastating words he was about to utter.
He cleared his throat and fought for control. “Something happened to your mama this morning. We…we’re not sure what yet, but she had an accident—or maybe she was sick—we don’t know for sure,” he repeated.
“The…the doctor is going to try to find out. But your mama…she’s in heaven now.”
“She died?” Beau’s voice cracked, and his face contorted. He stood like a statue for a long minute before his angry outburst split the air. “No! You’re a liar!”
Wade reached for him, but Beau wriggled out of his grasp and ducked between the sofa and the wall, whimpering.
“I’m sorry, Beau. We don’t know why, but, yes,…your mama died. And she’s in heaven with Jesus now.”
“You’re a liar,” Beau spat again. “I hate you! I hate Jesus! I want my mama back!”
Danica began to whimper. “I want Mama. I don’t want Mama to go up to heaven.”
Wade held the little girl close, drawing strength from her birdlike weight on his lap. Her thumb went to her mouth—a habit that had been broken last year before she started preschool. He pulled Lacey into the circle.
She snuggled close to him, dazed and silent.
Wade looked to Sophie, wondering why she didn’t help him out somehow. Why didn’t she go to Beau, try to comfort him. Or talk to the girls? But Starr’s sister stood apart, removed from the scene. Wade reminded himself that Sophie had just lost a sister. They were all in shock.
Gently Wade eased the little girls from his lap and went to kneel beside the sofa where Beau crouched. He put a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Hey, Beau. C’mon, buddy, look at me.”
Beau jerked away from his touch.
“Come on, Beau. I need your help here. I know it’s tough. I miss your mama too. But we need to be strong…for the girls. Help me out here, okay?”
Beau sat stock-still, but Wade could tell by the way his sniffling quieted that he was weighing his words.
Finally Beau turned, still squatting on his haunches. He glared at Wade. “Why did she die?”
Wade risked reaching out to him again. This time Beau let him rest a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know, buddy. I don’t understand it either. We’re just going to have to be patient until the coron—” He stopped himself, not wanting to have to define the word coroner for an eight-year-old.
He started over. “We’ll have to wait until the doctor examines her. Then maybe we’ll know more about what happened. You sit with the girls for a minute, okay? I need to talk to your Aunt Sophie.”
Beau nodded, his eyes glazed.
Wade motioned Sophie to follow him into the apartment’s tiny kitchen. “What do you want to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“About the kids. Do you think it would be best if they stayed with you tonight?”
Sophie started wagging her head before Wade even got the question out. “I don’t have room for three kids here, Wade. You can see that. Besides, I can’t afford to miss work.” She looked at her watch. “I’ve already lost almost two hours as it is.”
“You’re going back to work?”
“The bills don’t pay themselves, Wade.”
“Sophie, your sister just died. You’re not going to work.” How could she be so cold? She must be in denial. “I’ll take the kids to Starr’s and stay there with them tonight,” he told her. “But we’re going to have some decisions to make tomorrow…about the kids. We need to decide where they’re going to stay…” Wade heard his sensible words, knew they were true, but there was a surreal quality about the very air in the room.
And yet, as each second ticked off the clock over Sophie’s cluttered kitchen table, he was clouted with a startling new thought about the reality of what Starr’s death meant for him: There would be no wedding in August. The big house he and Starr had restored would never hold all the love they felt for each other. The children were orphans. And the house had no purpose now.
Every room in that house had been lovingly created for one of those children. The names of Beau and Lacey and Danica were painted in Starr’s hand on the walls of the rooms. Just like the mocking couplet that crawled across the wall in the room he and Starr should have shared come summer.
Oh, Starr…Starr light, Starr bright. He placed a hand over his chest in a futile effort to ease the terrible ache that throbbed there.
“They need you now, Wade. They ought to be with you.” Sophie’s words brought him sharply back to the present.
He nodded. “Yeah. Okay. I’ll take them back to Starr’s and stay with them tonight. Who…who do we need to call?” Starr and Sophie’s parents were dead. The sisters had no other living relatives. “What about Darrin?”
Wade had never given the children’s biological father much thought.
He knew only the little that Starr had chosen to reveal about Darrin Parnell. The man had been abusive to Starr and neglectful of the children.
They’d divorced when Starr became pregnant with Dani because Darrin insisted Starr have an abortion. Starr had cut off all contact with Darrin even before the baby was born. She’d told Wade she hadn’t even wanted child support from a man who wished one of their babies dead.
But Parnell needed to know now, didn’t he? Wade stepped into the living room and looked at the children huddled there. Would Darrin Parnell have a claim to these precious children? He shuddered at the thought.
And for the first time his heart fully acknowledged that Beau and Lacey and Danica Parnell belonged to him—Wade Sullivan. He couldn’t have loved them more even if they were his own flesh and blood. Over the two and a half years he and Starr had known each other, these kids had become his. Not once had he seen them as a liability Starr dragged after her. No. They were a windfall. Just one more wonderful asset that was a part of Starr. One more gift she’d bestowed on him when, unbelievably, she’d offered him her love.
“Darrin won’t care,” Sophie said, staring blindly past Wade, bitterness thick in her voice. “He doesn’t deserve to know.”
Wade looked at her. He agreed with Sophie. But still, they ought to let him know. “Okay…we’ll worry about it after the funeral,” he said.
“Right now these kids need some supper in their bellies. And they need to be home.”
Sophie just nodded. While Wade rounded up the kids and their things, Sophie grabbed her purse and car keys off the kitchen counter. “I’ll be at work.”
The ten blocks to Starr’s apartment was the longest drive Wade had ever made. In his rearview mirror, he watched the kids lined up in the cramped backseat of his pickup. They sat buckled in, hands in their laps, eyes boring into the back of the bench seat in front of them. Any other time, he and Starr would have spent half the trip turned around in their own seats trying to shush the chatterboxes.
He pulled into Starr’s parking space, jumped out of the truck, and leaned his seat forward to help the girls with their seat belts. Beau’s eyes met his, and Wade cringed at the emptiness he saw there.
He gathered them all into the apartment. Beau immediately switched on the television.
“Hey, bud, turn that off, please. Let’s get supper going. You guys go wash your hands, okay?”
Beau complied, following his sisters down the hallway to the bathroom.
Wade followed but stopped in front of Starr’s bedroom. He looked through the doorway. Her bed was neatly made, as always, and the faint, musky scent of her perfume assaulted him. His legs threatened to buckle under him. He leaned against the doorpost, gathering his strength, sucking in air.
He heard water running, then the kids straggled from the bathroom one by one.
He went back to the kitchen with them and doled out assignments.
“Beau, you and Lacey get the dishes down. Dani, you can help set the table.” He pulled open cupboard doors, one after another, looking for something easy he knew how to make.
He should have stopped for pizza, but in a town the size of Coyote, he was bound to run into someone he knew. The news of Starr’s death would be hitting the streets by now, and he could not face the sympathy and questions it would bring. Not yet.
Besides, it seemed wrong somehow that they were going about the business of life—making supper, as though it were an ordinary day. What would people think if they could see him now, acting as if everything were the same, as if his whole world hadn’t just crashed at his feet the way Starr had crumpled on that floor?
He pulled two boxes from the cupboard over the stove. “How does mac and cheese sound?”
“I’m not hungry,” Beau said.
Wade tousled his spiked hair. “I know, bud. I’m not very hungry either, but we need to eat. The girls, too. Your mama wouldn’t like it if you guys skipped supper.”
He checked the instructions on the box and put a pan of water on the stove to boil. “See what you can find in the refrigerator to go with this, would you, Lacey?”
She tugged the door open and came out with a large container of applesauce cradled in both hands.
“Perfect. Did you put spoons on the table? We’ll need spoons for that.”
Lacey nodded. Wade wasn’t sure how long he could stand to look into their hollow, grief-stricken eyes.
When the macaroni was finished, he scooped generous helpings onto Starr’s everyday Melamine plates and helped the girls with their chairs.
“Let’s pray,” he said, stretching his hands out to Danica and Lacey on either side of him. It was something Starr had started, holding hands around the table while they prayed. It had made them seem like a family.
Tonight it only emphasized the gaping hole she’d left.
He waited for the children to bow their heads, then did likewise.
“Heavenly Father, this is…a very sad day for us—” His voice wavered and he willed it to steady. “We ask you to help us get through this time. Father, we know you loved Starr even more than we did. We know she’s with you now, and for that we thank you. But—”
There was a loud scraping of chair legs on linoleum. He looked up to see Beau slide off his chair and run from the room. Lacey and Danica looked to Wade to see what he would do.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Beau just needs to be by himself for a while.” He bowed his head again. “Help us, Jesus. Get us through these next hard days. Be with us. Amen.”
“You forgot the food,” Lacey said, nodding toward her plate of congealed macaroni.
It would have been funny any other night. But Lacey’s voice quivered, and her blue eyes brimmed. Wade thought he would lose it if she let those tears spill over. Quickly he bowed his head again, trying to keep his tone light. “Um, sorry, Lord. I guess I forgot something. Please bless this food for the use of our bodies. Amen.”
He raised his head but avoided looking into any Starr-like eyes. Shoveling a forkful of tasteless macaroni into his mouth, he watched Dani from the corner of his eye. She picked up her fork with her right hand, and with her left, she beaded a piece of orange macaroni on each tine.
Starr was—had been—a stickler about manners. She would have corrected Dani sharply. But tonight Wade didn’t have the heart.
Not tonight. Not on this first night that Danica Parnell was an orphan.