Shh, let’s not wake Daddy.
The intent of the sweet and simple whisper accomplished the very thing Jenna had warned against, but Gray kept his eyes closed as he listened to them. He’d been doing a lot of listening lately—and watching. He wanted to soak up as much of it as he could, while he still could.
He’d moved from the bed to the chair somewhere around three a.m. He’d been tossing and turning, and he didn’t want to wake Jenna after she’d finally drifted off somewhere around two. He didn’t know how long ago Sadie had found her way into the bedroom, but she seemed to be doing that in the early hours more and more often lately.
“Mommy, read me one more, ’kay?” “All right. Just one more.”
Gray couldn’t resist a moment longer, and he carefully opened his eyes to a gentle squint, watching them through the murkiness of predawn in unobtrusive silence.
Sadie flicked on the bright red flashlight Jenna had given her. After a weeklong bout of nightmares resulting from a scary movie she’d seen, it had really done the trick in alleviating some of Sadie’s nighttime fears. Its dim yellow light flooded over the pages of the leather journal open on Jenna’s knee, and Sadie caressed the dark blue ribbon draped over the slope of her mother’s blanket-covered leg. The light bounced off the pages and cast strange shadows over the faces of the two females Gray loved most in the world.
Jenna’s reddish hair protruded upward into a ponytail at the top of her head in a way that always made him think of Pebbles Flintstone. Her blue cotton nightgown had begun to hang loosely on her now, and it drifted off the shoulder on one side. Sadie sat next to her, those long and crazy spirals of dark blond hair—uniquely hers in every way—pointing out in all directions, still wearing the tie-dyed t-shirt she’d worn to school the day before.
“Find a good one,” Sadie urged Jenna, and Gray’s chest squeezed at the sight of them. A mist of emotion steamed his vision, and a tear fell before he could stop it.
“Oh, here’s one,” Jenna said, wrapping her arm around seven-year-old Sadie and drawing her close.
“What’s this one called?” the child asked, wide-eyed. “I called it The Importance of Being Silly.”
Sadie giggled, snuggling into her mother. “Let’s hear it,” she whispered.
“As much as we love him,” Jenna read softly, “and as many things as he’s really good at, you and I both know your father has not mastered the art of being silly the way we have.”
Sadie covered her mouth with both hands to muffle her laughter as she nodded vehemently. “That’s the truth,” she exclaimed through her open fingers.
“You and I know the importance of laughing until milk comes out of our noses. We share a deep appreciation for word games and silly songs, and we know the importance of Friday pizza nights wearing our favorite pajamas and socks—”
Sadie snickered. “Even if the socks might have a hole or two in them.”
“Even then,” Jenna replied with a nod, and she smoothed her daughter’s wayward hair with the palm of her hand before kissing the top of her head.
Gray noticed the glint of tears in Jenna’s tired eyes, and it just about killed him on the spot.
She sniffed before reading on. “We understand the lan- guage of puppies, the art of slurping spaghetti, or planting the image of a kiss on the top of an ice cream cone. These are very important things in life, Silly Sadie.”
“I love it when you call me that, Mommy.”
“And when I’m not around to remind him, it’s up to you to remind Daddy that these are things that little girls and future young ladies need in their lives. So I want you to be silly at least once each day, without exception, so that Daddy can remember how important it is.”
Jenna closed the journal and wrapped the blue ribbon around the large leather button until it fastened shut. She set it on the nightstand before sinking down into the mound of pillows behind her and tilting her head back.
“I promise, Mommy,” Sadie said as she wiggled her way against her mother’s body. After a moment, she added, “I just wish you didn’t have to go.”
“Me too, baby,” Jenna replied without opening her eyes. Gray rose from the chair in the corner of the bedroom and plopped down on the bed. “Me, too,” he added, and Jenna smiled.
Sadie tugged at him until he’d sandwiched her between the bodies of both her parents, and the three of them laid there quietly as the sun began to rise over the horizon outside the window.
A new day dawning, Gray thought.
And he wondered how many more of those they might have together.
Gray glanced at the dashboard clock before he pulled the key from the ignition and pressed the button to lower the garage door.
“Ten twenty-six,” he said aloud, punctuating the time with a weary sigh.
Sadie would likely be fast asleep by now, probably floating over angry strains of resentment toward her careless father who had missed their Friday pizza night together for the first time in years. He tried to justify it with the fact he had a good reason, but he knew it was one Sadie’s nine-year-old mind couldn’t understand.
He closed the door behind him and walked softly through the kitchen into the family room where Essie Lambright sat reading.
“Oh, good evening, Grayson,” she said in her barely-there trace of Florida twang.
Essie smoothed her silver hair and removed her reading glasses, placing a ribbon to mark where she left off before clos- ing the book on her lap.
“Hi, Miss Essie. How were things tonight?” he asked. “I didn’t notice any torches or pitchforks when I came in. Am I safe?”
“I’m sorry to say you are not,” she replied. “I think you’re going to have to earn your forgiveness, and she’s a pretty tough customer.”
“She certainly can be,” Gray said with a chuckle. “Can I give you a lift home?”
“No,” she chided. “It’s a beautiful Tampa night. I can walk the two blocks and enjoy the breeze off the bay.”
Gray hadn’t even noticed the weather on his drive home. He’d been lost in the maze of his thoughts and, looking back on it now, he couldn’t remember a thing about the commute.
“There’s chili in the slow cooker,” she told him on her way toward the kitchen, “and fresh cornbread wrapped in foil on the counter.”
“She didn’t go with pizza?” he asked, surprised. “Apparently, it’s not Friday pizza night if you’re not here.
So we decided to enter into the realm of the unknown with turkey chili.”
Gray grinned. “Well, thank you.”
“Oh,” she said, placing a finger to the side of her face and stopping in her tracks. “She is considering the merits of going vegan, by the way. But she’s still on the fence.”
“Vegan,” he repeated. “Where does she come up with these things?”
“It seems Steffi Leary is going that direction, and they share a table in the lunchroom.”
Gray shook his head and followed Essie through the kitchen toward the back door. “Thanks again.”
He flipped on the light and watched after her as the older woman followed the sidewalk around the curve of the house.
When she disappeared from sight, he turned it off and bolted the lock on the door.
The spicy scent of the chili caused a rumble to erupt deep within his stomach, and Gray pulled a bowl from behind the glass cabinet door, scraping the silverware drawer open and plucking a large spoon from inside before gliding it shut again. Just about the time he sat down on one of the stools at the island and took his first bite, the familiar rub of sock-against- ceramic-tile drew his attention to the doorway.
“What are you doing awake?” he asked, and Sadie groan-sighed, as Jenna used to call it.
“It’s her anniversary, you know,” she sort of spat out at him. “And you missed it.”
Gray’s heart pounded hard before flopping over and sinking. He’d convinced himself that she wouldn’t remember.
Sadie scuffed toward the refrigerator and removed a small carton of sour cream and a plastic container of grated cheddar cheese.
She slid it across the marble counter toward him and climbed up on the closest stool.
“Miss Essie says her chili cries for these. I tried it, and I think she’s right.”
The corner of his mouth twitched as he allowed her to sprinkle cheese into his bowl, followed by a dollop of sour cream. As he took a delightful bite, Sadie unwrapped the corn- bread and grabbed a hunk for herself before pushing the foil mound toward him.
“We had warm honey butter,” she said over a full mouth. “You woulda had some, too, if you’d come home at a decent hour.”
Gray arched one eyebrow and gazed at his daughter.
Nine, going on twenty-nine, he thought.