"I'm all sandy," Kelly said when they started back, walking backward to watch the tide erase their creation.
Laura shrugged. "It washes off."
"You won't get mad?"
She stopped and looked down at the little girl, then squatted to her eye level. "Of course not, honey. You can't live at the beach and not get sandy."
"My momma didn't like the sand."
Oh, the poor darling, she thought when Kelly started to cry. Laura pulled her into her arms and stood.
From the distance Richard could see Kelly was upset and crying. His chest squeezed down on his heart as Laura lovingly cradled his daughter in her arms and carried the girl back to the house. His gaze remained fixed on them as they neared, and while he wondered why his daughter was upset, he wanted only to be with them. Jealousy spurred through him as he stared down at them. He hadn't done a lick of work all day because he couldn't stop moving from window to window, drawn by the sound of their laughter.
Laura paused on the front steps, looking up at him. Richard eased back from the window too late. Her expression spoke for her. You should be here, it said before she walked inside.
Laura carried Kelly upstairs, murmuring soothing words as she shuddered with low, painful sobs. Her heart broke for the child, and in her bedroom, she helped her out of her wet, sandy clothes and into a tub of warm bubbles.
A half an hour later, Kelly was clean and sweet-smelling and ready for a nap, although she insisted she wasn't. But Kelly falling asleep facedown in her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich gave Laura a little hint. She carried the sleepy child upstairs, her tiny arms and legs wrapped around her body, her head pillowed on her shoulder. Laura hugged her warmly, then tucked her in her princess bed. Leaving her with a small light to guard against the darkness, Laura went down to the first floor to clean up the lunch dishes. She prepared a tray for Richard and something for Dewey, then switched on the intercom.
"Lunch is served, my lord," she said into the little speaker.
"I'm not bringing it up. You'll have to risk running into me in the light of day and come down."
"I have work to do, Mr. Blackthorne. Chores I didn't do because I was playing with your daughter."
There was a stretch of silence and then he said, "Why was she upset?"
Laura spared him the whole of it and got right to the root of Kelly's tears. "She misses her mother."
"You seemed to know what to do."
Her heart ached as she remembered Kelly's pitiful tears. "I tried."
"Thank you, Laura."
"You're welcome. She's a lovely child. Now, get your recluse self down here and eat."
"You're being a little tyrant."
She ignored the smile in his voice. "That's me, Laura the Merciless." She clicked off the intercom and took a step away before she turned back and switched it back on. "And when I apologize for last night, I want you in the room when I do it, you hear?"
She didn't respond when she heard him call her name. He was going to come out of there, she thought. If it was the last thing she did, she was going to drag him kicking and screaming back into the land of the living.
* * *
Richard heard Kelly's cries, and he could feel them building as he strode quickly down the hall to his daughter's room, tying the sash of his robe. He pushed open the door and focused on the bed, on the child twisting in the sheets and comforters.
The small night-light offered only a pale glow, and her moans exploded in a scream just as he reached her. He gathered her in his arms, whispering that she was safe and he was here. She was stiff and trembling in his arms, her little hands gripping mercilessly at the fabric of his robe.
"Daddy's here, baby, Daddy's here," he whispered, rubbing her back, and when she softened against him, she cried helplessly. His heart constricted in his chest.
"I—I was scared."
"I know, honey, I know."
"Oh, Daddy, Mommy's gone," she wailed pitifully, and he squeezed his eyes shut. How did a four-year-old deal with grief, with a death she didn't understand?
"I'm here now, Kelly."
Her sobs slowly faded, and when her little arms looped around his neck, Richard tensed. She didn't seem to notice the rough scars and he relaxed a little, rocking his child and wanting to never let her go. He wanted so badly to protect her, to climb into her dreams and fight her dragons for her. He had to make her feel safe somehow.
Pressing his lips to the top of her head, he talked to her, telling her how glad he was that she was here, how much he'd wished he'd been in her life before now. She shuddered hard, and even after she fell back asleep, he still held her. This was the third night that she'd had a nightmare. Laura had come to her before him, and Richard wondered why she wasn't here now. Her hearing seemed more acute than his. Exhausted, probably, he thought, laying Kelly down and covering her. Especially after the day they'd had playing on the gym set, and on the beach. And he remembered sitting at the window, watching Laura teach his little girl how to do a cartwheel.