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"Daddy's here?" Camille sounded unsure, so Riley glanced in the rearview mirror to find her daughter peering through the minivan window with a disbelieving expression.
Despite grief counseling, Camille's idea of a cemetery clearly wasn't lining up with the sight of lush forest and crowded gravestones whizzing past.
"Daddy's in heaven," Riley prompted. "Remember what we talked about with Ms. Jo-Ellyn? This is his special place on earth so we can visit him whenever we want."
"Like God at church," Jake explained, the caring brother.
"That's exactly right, sweet pea." Riley caught her son's gaze in the mirror and gave him a smile. "We can always talk to God because He's everywhere, but church is His special place."
Jake nodded slowly, looking so serious that Riley knew he wasn't convinced about this cemetery business, either. Tough little guy was just looking after his "girls." She didn't think he could actually remember when his daddy had charged him with that responsibility….
"You're the man around here while I'm gone," Mike had always said. "Take care of our girls for me."
Obviously Jake had been affected on some level. One thing Riley had learned during the past two years of grief counseling was that the human mind had an amazing capacity to cling to long-ago details. She also knew caring for "his girls" was a big responsibility for a five-year-old.
She maneuvered the minivan down one of the narrow paths winding through St. Peter's Cemetery. Left. Left. Right. Left. She made each turn as if she'd just visited the grave site yesterday.
Her mind definitely had an amazing capacity for the past.
In some ways Riley felt as if she'd lived a lifetime since that last time she'd been here. Yet she didn't even have to close her eyes to see the place as it had looked then. Stark during that bleak time of year before spring breathed even a hint of promise. Just mere months after Mike's death, when she'd finally accepted she wasn't going to forge through the healing process like the strong widow.
Riley had intended to deal with grief head-on. She knew it would be hard, the hardest thing she'd ever tackled in her life, but she was practical and had every reason in the world to cope with this unexpected turn their lives had taken.
Two very precious reasons—both securely strapped in the back seat of the van.
Much like Jake felt the responsibility of caring for his girls, Riley's responsibility was to care for the family in Mike's absence, to make their dreams happen even though he wouldn't be with them.
It had never even occurred to her that the healing process wouldn't be hers to manage and control, that the process had a mind and a will all its own.
The Law Enforcement Support Network provided a variety of services for family members who'd lost loved ones in the line of duty. She'd read every word of the literature, followed every counselor's suggestion, listened attentively to other grieving folks in the support group. She'd accepted the help of loving family and friends though her inclination was to put on a determined smile and tell everyone, "I'm good. It's all good."
She hadn't been good at all.
It had taken months to accept that fact, months to realize that her decision to grieve in a healthy fashion for herself and her kids didn't matter. Not when everywhere Riley turned she'd been bombarded by memories of Mike, their wonderful life together and all the dreams they'd made for the future.
Riley could barely stand to be inside the house. She couldn't sleep. She couldn't eat. She couldn't concentrate long enough to write a 1200-word article. No matter how hard she tried, she simply couldn't believe that Mike wasn't coming home. Ever.
Part of the problem, she knew, had been the investigation. While Mike had managed to kill his murderer on the courthouse steps, there'd been other gang members who had organized the shooting behind the scenes, a revenge killing against the cop responsible for building the case that would send one of their own to prison. Mike's partner and the entire police department had been determined to bring down each and every one.
Even if she could have avoided the newspaper headlines and television and radio sound bites, she would have had to burn the city to the ground to avoid the reminders of gang graffiti on street signs and bus stops and the sides of buildings.
Every time Riley drove through downtown Poughkeep-sie—and her job as a reporter for the Mid-Hudson Herald brought her there often—she'd witness the visible displays of anger and violence that had cost Mike his life.
In that fragile emotional state, she hadn't wanted to make decisions about selling their farmhouse in Pleasant Valley, Mike's twenty-five-acre dreamhome for the horses he loved.
Fortunately she hadn't had to. Their college-age nephew had become caretaker as a way to move out of his family home since he hadn't earned scholarships for dormhousing.
Riley had made arrangements to stay with her mother and stepfather in Florida. On that long-ago day, she'd come to the cemetery on her way out of town to apologize to Mike for abandoning their life until she could figure out some way to heal and go on. But Florida wasn't meant to be forever, and now she and the kids were coming home.
Steering the van off the path, she came to a stop in the grass so a car could squeeze past if one happened along, not that she could see another living soul around. The place was quiet, but with that lively silence of summer. Birds twittered. Insects chirped. Fat squirrels scampered around trees. Though there wasn't much of a breeze, leaves rustled sharply as a squirrel leaped in a daredevil arc from one branch to another.
These antics of nature were familiar reminders of the life they'd left behind in Florida. A life spent largely outdoors with play group visits to parks and the beach. The twins couldn't remember the reality of an upstate New York winter, and Riley hoped the novelty of snow would ease their transition through the upcoming, and unfamiliar, season changes.
"We're here." She forced a brightness into her voice she didn't quite feel and turned the key in the ignition. "Let's grab the things we made for Daddy."
She'd barely gotten the words out of her mouth before seat belts snapped open, the minivan door rattled on its hinges and sneakers hit the ground, ready to run.
She didn't bother repeating her direction, didn't stand a chance against the twins' curiosity and excitement. She just said, "Hang on," while retrieving the backpack from the floor of the van.
"Where is he?" Camille scanned the sea of gravestones impatiently.
Riley handed her daughter a bouquet of bright tissue-paper flowers and her son the Popsicle-stick frame showcasing him displaying the foot-long bass he'd caught on his latest fishing excursion with Grandpa Joel.
"Follow me." She directed them down a winding path, careful not to tread on other folks' resting places. Her two high-energy little kids grew eerily quiet.
"Here we are," she finally said, placing a hand on each small shoulder as they gathered around Mike's grave.
Riley couldn't bring herself to look down, not yet, so she watched her kids instead, the sun glinting off their pale blond heads as she tried to gauge their reactions.
Jake frowned intently, the spattering of freckles across his nose crinkling with the effort. Camille's crystal-blue eyes took in every detail, and she could barely contain her need to move, a need that had her bouncing up on her tiptoes excitedly.
As fraternal twins, Jake and Camille resembled each other as any brother and sister might, but they were entirely their own little people. While both were towheaded with fair skin that held enough of Mike's Italian heritage to let them tan to a deep golden brown, they had distinctly different features. Jake's eyes were a deep, almost sapphire blue while Camille's were startlingly light, the sparkly blue of ice.
The last time Mike had seen them they'd been adorable three-year-olds. Not quite kids, but no longer babies, either.
Now they were all kid, each with his and her own personality and opinions, both raring to get out into the world, which at this age meant kindergarten—the very reason Riley had decided now was the time to come home and get settled.
Unsurprisingly, Camille was the one to make the first move. She launched forward with a hop-skip and sank down in front of the headstone, propping her bright bouquet against it.
"Hi, Daddy," she said in her singsong lilt. "I made this for you at Chiefie school. Jakie made one, too, but Ryan knocked over his juice bag and grape juice squirted all over it. The flowers melted on the table."
"Ms. Kayleigh said it wasn't my fault so it was okay," Jake added in a hasty defense, taking a few tentative steps toward his sister.
Chiefie school had actually been a child-care class in a public high school. The program was designed to give student teachers hands-on experience in child care while gearing up preschoolers for kindergarten. Since Chamberlain High School's mascot was a Native American chief, the preschoolers had been known as chiefies. With four student teachers caring for each little chiefie, the mornings the twins attended the program had been filled with structured fun and a lot of caring attention.
"Here, Jakie. Give Daddy your present." Camille mothered her twin every step of the way, even reaching out to take the frame he held tightly in both hands. Jake pulled away and held it away from her. Camille just shrugged, familiar with her brother's unwillingness to accept help, and told her daddy, "Jakie made you a frame for his fish picture."
"It was a bass, Camille," Jake corrected, still clearly put out that she'd tried to take his gift. Slanting his gaze toward the headstone, he steeled his nerves and said, "Grandpa Joel said it was the biggest bass in the lake, and he showed me how to bend the hook so his mouth didn't have a big hole when we threw him back in."
The thought of Mike watching this show from heaven helped Riley shift her gaze down to the headstone, too.
Michael Jacob Angelica Beloved Husband and Father 4/4/1975—2/2/2008 Always in our hearts
She'd chosen that tombstone for the simple design. Two angels poised on top, wings touching to create an arch over the marble memorial. That was the only ornamentation other than the inscription, and somehow seeing those words brought all the expectation she'd tried not to feel, all the anxiety that had been building to fruition. Riley exhaled a deep sigh.
Mike's place was peaceful.
Taking a step forward, she ran her fingers along the smooth arch of an angel's wing, felt the warm marble beneath her touch. A headstone that marked the resting place of the man she'd loved with all her heart. Then she noticed the bottle of Guinness Stout propped against the side of the headstone.
That would be a gift from Scott Emerson, Mike's partner on the vice squad of the Poughkeepsie Police Department, a longtime friend and drinking buddy. Since the label wasn't weathered, Riley guessed this unusual memento must be a recent addition. Leave it to Scott to continue the friendship despite death. That quiet loyalty had always been a part of her husband's partner and friend.
"Mommy, aren't you going to say hi to Daddy?" Camille asked.
"Hi, Daddy," Riley said softly, brushing aside a cluster of tiny leaves from an angel's wing. "We miss you."
"He knows that, silly." Camille rolled her eyes. "We tell him when we say our good-night prayers."
"So, Camille," Jake shot back. "He still likes to hear it."
"Oh, shut up, Jake."
"Camille," Riley cautioned.
No argument there. Riley shifted her gaze to her son, assessing whether or not the emotional letdown was the cause of this mood swing.
Jake shifted from one foot to the other, clutching his picture frame against his tummy. "I'm starving, Mom. We haven't eaten in forever."
Riley bit back a smile at the exaggeration. Apparently now that his apprehension about the situation had been dealt with, Jake's mind was back on the priorities.
Camille pivoted on her sneakers and raced back to the minivan. "I'll get the cooler. We can have a picnic with Daddy."
That wasn't exactly what Riley had had in mind while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their Maryland hotel room this morning, but a picnic with Daddy sounded like just the thing to kick off their return home. And with the canopy of leaves filtering the sunlight overhead, Mike's grave was the perfect place to take a deep breath before gearing up for the next big challenge.
Facing the house and the memories.
Riley took that deep breath, then sidled close to Jake. He'd inherited her hair color but Mike's cowlicks, and his thick blond hair always wanted to stand up like a rooster's whenever it started to grow out from a cut. She ruffled her fingers through it, making it spike even more.
"Mom," he groused, ducking away.
Riley smiled above his head where he couldn't see her. "Are you going to tell Daddy about your bass? Grandpa Joel was really proud of you. He said you reeled in that big boy like a pro."
Jake frowned down at the headstone, at the bright bouquet there. Riley didn't rush him, just slipped an arm around his shoulders when he glanced down at his photo.
"I miss Grandpa Joel," he said.
"I know, sweet pea. Do you want to call him after we get home? He and Granny want to know that we made it safely."
Jake nodded, still clutched his photo.
Riley's father had been a career naval officer, a larger-than-life man as fast to laugh as he'd been to issue orders. He'd died during Riley's sophomore year in high school, and her mom hadn't remarried until Riley's sophomore year at Vassar College, the year she'd met Mike, who'd been playing rent-a-cop at a campus concert.
Riley's stepfather was an Oklahoma farm boy who was as laid-back as Riley's father had been intense. There was no question why Mom had fallen in love with him. Not only was Joel charming, but as senior VP of international relations for a Fortune 500 company, his travel schedule was more active than Riley's dad's had been. Mom got antsy if she stayed in one place too long.
Riley had no doubt that her military upbringing was the very reason she was so set on rearing her kids in one place. In the States. Overseas. You name it, and if Riley hadn't actually lived there, she'd probably visited at some time or another during her early life.
Grandpa Joel had stepped in as the man in Jake's life whenever he was in town, inviting her son along in the mornings and evenings to help water the yard. He'd taught Jake how to plant and tend tomatoes, how to fish and how to tell the difference between venomous and friendly snakes.
As if any snake could be friendly.
"Is Grandpa Joe as nice as Grandpa Joel?"