always and forever
an ever after novella
the newest chapter in the Ever After Collection
Sometimes trust is the hardest part of love
Parent-in-training Grace Daniels is still reeling from the battle she fought to save her nieces and nephew from their deadly father. Now, with custody of the four children and living with the man she loves, Grace can finally breathe and focus on the future.
Or can she?
Former hardcore bachelor Sean McKittrick will do whatever it takes to create the perfect life for Grace. Spending the rest of his life with her and the kids is all he wants. But Grace's reservations about the future have put their lives on hold. Can Sean prove that the family they've built together is the forever he's always been after?
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Grace Daniels turned at the sound of a key in the front door lock. Her heart wedged itself into the back of her throat. Was this it? Was it finally over? She tightened her hold on the basket of laundry she carried. Eight months of waiting…
The door swung open and Sean stepped into the foyer, his broad shoulders filling the doorway, a cane in one hand. Snug jeans hugged his hips and a white golf shirt accented the deep tan on his arms. Bottle-green eyes lifted to meet hers, halfway up the stairs. He didn’t waste time.
“Life,” he said. “No parole.”
Grace sat down with a muffled thump on the carpeted stairs. The laundry basket slipped from numb fingers, and she watched it tumble end over end onto the floor below, spilling freshly folded towels along the way. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered outside of Sean’s words. Nothing outside of the sentence handed down today to the man who had murdered her sister—his own wife—and then tried to kidnap his own children. To take them and—
Grace’s brain shied sideways, refusing to go there. Refusing to think of what might have happened if she hadn’t been able to stop Barry Walsh on that November day. That didn’t matter anymore, either. Because the kids were safe now. They were all—
“You okay?” Sean’s gruff voice asked, startling her with its nearness. He’d taken off his shoes and come to stand amid the spilled towels at the foot of the stairs.
Grace blinked, bringing him into focus. “I—” she broke off and shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Sean stretched out a hand and gave her knee a squeeze. “It’s been a long road,” he said. “It’ll take a bit of time to process.”
She nodded. “I suppose. I just hadn’t expected to feel…” Sean waited while she searched for the right word. “Sad,” she finished slowly. “I feel sad. This makes it all so real. I mean, it was real before, but…”
“But everything is more real now,” he supplied. “More final. Julianne, the kids…”
She swallowed against the lump in her throat and blinked back a sheen of tears. “Yes.”
“Ah, Grace.” Sean set aside his cane, ascended to join her, and rested his good knee on the step just below her. He reached out to gather her into his arms, then kissed the top of her head and murmured into her hair, “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. So sorry.”
Eyes closed, she rested her forehead against the strong, familiar chest as she had so often in these past months, letting his warmth and strength envelope her, infuse her. He had kept her both anchored and afloat since that awful day. Kept them all anchored and afloat. She didn’t know what they would have done without him. Didn’t know how they would have survived.
She still couldn’t believe he’d stayed through it all. Stayed to love her, to love them all.
“Aunt Grace?” a voice came from above and behind her. She pulled back from Sean and turned to Josh, hovering at the top of the stairs, his eyes round behind his glasses and every line of his body rigid with anxiety. “Is everything all right? They didn’t let Da—him out, did they?”
Grace shook her head wordlessly, a thousand emotions clogging her throat against the words of reassurance she wanted to speak. Sean gave her shoulders a squeeze.
“I’ll take this,” he said. He looked up the stairs. “Come on, Josh. Let’s sit out in the back yard where we’ll have a bit of privacy.”
Grace wanted to object, to say that she should be the one to deliver the news to Josh that he’d never have to see his dad again. But even if she could have crowbarred the words past the lump, she didn’t trust herself not to dissolve into a weeping puddle of relief that would end with Josh looking after her instead of the other way around. She nodded grateful acceptance to Sean and scooted aside for Josh, reaching out to catch hold of his hand as he passed.
“It’s good,” she managed to whisper huskily. “It’s all good.”
Relief clashed with profound sorrow in the boy’s eyes, shining a harsh spotlight on the lie underlying Grace’s words. Because, no, it wasn’t good. There was nothing good about any of this. Joss pulled away and he and Sean headed down the hallway toward the kitchen and the sliding doors to the yard beyond, the boy slowing his pace to match that of the man who still walked with a cane.
Josh and his siblings had lost both parents now. There had been no miracle for them that brought their mother back to life or made it so that their father hadn’t been her killer. There was no good for the kids in the sentencing of Barry. No right in what they’d endured—or the lifetime of healing they faced.
Grace tightened her jaw and squared her shoulders. There was, however, safety in which to do that healing. Safety for all of them. Maybe that was enough for now. Maybe, without the pall of Barry’s trial hovering over the house like the dark, suffocating shadow it had been for the last four months, they could finally move forward.
A faint call, muffled by a door, drifted down from the second floor. “Maamaaaa! I’m up!”
Despite the heaviness residing in her chest, Grace mustered a smile as she called back, “Coming, Annabelle!”
She heaved herself to her feet, gathered the scattered towels, and climbed the stairs toward the smallest of her responsibilities, her mouth tightening as she passed the bathroom and the possibility hidden in one of its drawers.
The smallest of her responsibilities so far.
“How did it go?” Grace pitched her voice low, so that the kids wouldn’t hear from the nearby table where they worked on their homework after dinner. She’d been in the middle of making spaghetti sauce when Josh and Sean had come in from the backyard, and she hadn’t had a chance yet to ask about Sean’s conversation with her nephew.
Sean looked up from rinsing out the frying pan at the sink. “With Josh, you mean?” He glanced over at the kids, his mouth pulling tight for a second. “It went, I suppose. He didn’t say much, but then again, what is there for him to say? You’re sure we can’t get him to talk to a therapist?”
Grace’s heart tightened in her chest. “If you think you’ll have any more success with the idea, be my guest. He won’t even discuss it with me.”
Water slopped out of the sink as Sean gave the pan an extra ferocious scrub. “Freaking hell,” he muttered. “What I wouldn’t give for two minutes alone with that son of a bitch. The number he’s done on these kids…”
Barry’s presence loomed between them as it so often did, and Grace reached out to put a hand on Sean’s tightly corded forearm. “The important thing is that he can’t get at them anymore,” she offered, but her words sounded feeble even to her. She tried again. “We’ll figure it out. Let’s just give him some time.”
Sean flashed her an appraising look. “Just him, or you, too?”
Grace’s stomach lurched. She knew where this was heading. She scrubbed with the tea towel at an imaginary streak on the glass she dried. “I don’t—”
“You do,” Sean interrupted. “And you can’t keep putting this off forever, Grace.”
Not forever, no. But until she figured out what she was going to do about—
Sean plucked the tea towel and glass from her and set both aside on the counter. He tipped her chin up until she met the faint exasperation behind his gaze. “You know I want to marry you, and I’m pretty sure you still want to marry me. You said you wanted to wait until after the trial, and I did. But the kids need stability now. We all do. So can we please set a date? Or at least open discussions?”
Grace pulled back from his hand, dropped her chin, and stared at a button on his shirtfront, guilt and no small terror twisting in her belly. He was right. She did want to marry him, and they should set a date, but…
Sean sighed. “Let me guess. Not yet?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just…I need…”
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, his warm breath tickling the top of her head and his unending patience and understanding shafting like a knife through her heart. “No yet,” he agreed. “But soon. Okay?”
The knife slid deeper. She had no response.