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A Thousand Letters(7)
Author: Staci Hart

I sighed, sadness anchoring my heart as it did so often.

There were days when I looked back at my life and wondered how I found myself where I was. At the fulcrum was Wade and the decision which had sent my life down this road.

I was the caregiver for my niece and nephew, and my payment was that I had a place to stay. But I received my other, more substantial income in the form of macaroni art and messy kisses.

When I looked up from my phone, Rick was watching me.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm sorry. It's my sister — she needs help with the kids."

He tried to smile. "Go."

I reached for his hand. "I don't want to."

"Don't worry. Tired."

"I promised I'd stay."

"S'okay." The words slurred together. "Go."

I looked down into my lap, torn.

"Elliot," he said, and when I met his cool, gray eyes again, they were full of understanding. "Go. M'okay."

I let out a heavy breath. "All right. I'll come see you tomorrow, okay? I promise."

He squeezed my hand, and I let him go, firing off messages to my sister and Sophie before packing my things, except the book, which I slipped under his hand. He flexed his fingers, trailing the canvas cover with his fingertips.

I smiled and cupped his jaw, which was strong, just like Wade's. "I'll bring more tomorrow. How about Emerson?"

"Yes, please."

And then I kissed him on the forehead, smoothing his dark hair before I turned to leave, hating that I had to choose. But my family, those children, were my world, and I worried over what was going on at home that was so important that she'd interrupt this. Interrupt my time with Rick.

So I hurried home, anxious about them, and when I blew through the door, I found a disaster zone.

Toys were strewn all over the entryway, and Mary looked frantic, her dark hair in disarray and brown eyes wide. A crying Maven sat propped on her hip, and Sammy was in tow, his face smeared with jelly.

"Thank God you're here," she said, passing Maven to me.

She stopped crying the minute Mary let go of her.

"What happened?" I asked as Sammy twisted away from her and ran down the hall.

"Get back here!" she called, chasing him down, marching back over to me with him under her arm. "It's just been a mess ever since I walked in the door."

I glanced at the clock on the wall. She'd been home an hour. "Where's Charlie? Did the kids have their snack?"

She huffed, shifting to keep the wiggling boy in check. "He's in the office, working, just dumped them on me the second I walked through the door. Can you believe that?"

"Shocking." I smiled at Maven, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "And the snack?"

"Who knows, Charlie was on duty." She readjusted her grip on Sammy, but he thrashed, making monster noises.

"I left him a list."

She rolled her eyes. "I'm sure you did. Doubt he read it. Here," she said, passing Sammy over. "It's bath time."

I frowned at her as Sammy chanted Ellioooooot, Ellioooooot, over and over again, dragging the word out. "They ate, right?" He wrapped his arms around my neck and planted a sticky kiss on my cheek.

Mary waved a hand, already turning to leave. "I didn't feel like cooking, so they had sandwiches."

I nodded and moved to the stairs. "Sounds yummy," I said to Sammy, setting him down so I didn't topple over trying to carry them both up. I bent down to get eye level with him, smiling as I dipped a finger in the purple massacre on his cheeks, pretending to lick it. "Mmm. Grape?"

He nodded, smiling wide. "With goldfishes!"

I opened my mouth in mock surprise. "Goldfishes and grape jelly? What a feast."

"It was good, good, good," he said, hopping up the stairs with each word.

"Ready for a bath?" I asked Maven, whose nose was still red, her little finger hanging in her pouty, red lips. She nodded, and I kissed her on her cool cheek. "Then let's get cleaned up, shall we?"

I followed the bounding four-year-old up the stairs and into the bathroom.

The routine was automatic, easy, bringing me a little bit of joy with every action: making sure the water was just right, adding the bubbles, singing them silly Beatles songs — "Octopus' Garden" was their favorite, followed by "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." I stripped the sweet babies down and took care of them, washing them tenderly, and as they began to play on their own, my mind wandered.

One whole hour, and she'd blown up my phone to get me home. Not even an hour — she'd barely been home at all when she texted me, put out I supposed because Charlie passed the kids off on her. Heaven forbid she cook or bathe them. I was hurt that she'd given up so easily, knowing I needed some time. And I'd already been late leaving because Charlie hadn't gotten home in time for me to leave with Sophie … I'd barely had any time with Rick tonight at all.

I sighed as I straightened up the bathroom, putting the kids' dirty clothes in the hamper and getting fresh towels out from the linen closet.

She had her reasons for being so unwilling to help. In part, it was bred in her by my father who indulged her at every opportunity — she'd always been this way. Past that, she was so busy at the hospital, and when she came home, she was tired and overwhelmed. Charlie too. He was an attorney and brought his work home with him nearly every night.

I also made a quiet concession that they hadn't planned for this, even for each other. They'd only been dating a few months when she found out she was pregnant, and their solution was to get married. I thought they'd been in love, but the strain of the kids and their jobs was so much, and things had deteriorated over the years. It was another reason I was happy to help, hoping I could take some of the pressure off of them so they could get back to each other.

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