Page 68 of Tripping on a Halo

“She is a strong woman,” he gritted out. “Stop talking about her as if she’s gone.”

The man nodded. “I understand.”

He understands? What kind of bullshit response was that? He didn’t understand anything about this situation, and he sure as hell wasn’t fixing it. Out of every loose end he’d followed, this had been the biggest mistake.

He stood, moving to the door, the plush Oriental rug silencing the sounds of his steps, and he shoved the door open and breezed past the receptionist without saying a word.

Talk about a waste of three hundred dollars. No wonder she hated that man.

He jabbed at the elevator button and swallowed the wave of emotion that threatened his composure.

November

“Can you build me a dollhouse?” Paige threaded her fingers together and begged, her pigtails bobbing as she danced in place before him. “Pretty please?”

“Hmm…” Declan mused. “I don’t know. I’m very expensive. Do you have money?”

“No.” She shot out the word with such cheerfulness that he had to laugh.

“Do you have any ideas?”

“YES.” She reached forward, turning a page in his pad and tugged at his pen, pulling it out of his hand. “Let me show you.”

“Wait.” He stopped her, carefully pulling the latest Aldrete drawings out from the book and opened his leather binder, sliding them into the pocket. “Okay, show me.”

The little girl bent over the page, her pen working, the tip of her tongue stuck out in concentration. He closed his eyes for a moment, tired. He’d been at the office late, going over items with Nate, Benta’s parcel finally picked out and purchased. Now, with the smells of pumpkin pie and turkey heavy on the air, and the soft couch enveloping him, the desire to settle back on the leather and sleep was overwhelming.

The sound of heels on wood floors woke him. He turned his head and watched as Ansley walked through the doorway and stopped, an orange dishtowel in hand. “Paige. Wash up for dinner.”

“WAIT,” she said plaintively. “I’m working with Declan.”

“It’s true.” He smiled up at Autumn’s sister and felt a stab of pain at the familiar features, the glimpse of what she would look like in five or six years. “We may have a new associate on our hands.”

He thought of his secret project, one he was working on during late nights in Autumn’s room and between Aldrete project drafts. A house, designed for her. One with a scrapbook room with giant windows that overlooked a garden. A giant doggie door, big enough to accommodate a getting-bigger-every-day pig. A master suite with room enough for two.

Ansley wandered over and looked over his shoulder at the sketch Paige was creating. It looked like a scribbly blob that could double as a doctor’s signature. “Oh, yes.” She leaned forward, her hand resting on her knees. “I see. Very intricate. Is there going to be a living room?”

Paige looked up at her with a blank expression. “OF COURSE.” She jabbed the tip of the pen on the right side of the blog. “It’s right here.”

“Ah.” Ansley nodded. “And your bedroom?”

“Here.” Paige added a curly-Q of a circle to the top of the scribble.

“And what’s this?” Declan pointed to a big looping area, filled in with a bunch of dots.

“That’s Auttie’s room.” She smiled. “It’s bigger so it can hold all of her machines.”

His chest squeezed painfully and he glanced at Ansley, their eyes meeting over the top of the little girl’s head.

“And these”—the tiny glitter-tipped finger tapping at all the little dots in the area—“these are her angels, watching over her until she wakes up.”

Ansley’s eyes brimmed with tears and she leaned forward, pressing a kiss to the top of Paige’s head and bringing her into her chest.

“So?” Paige wiggled out of her mother’s arms and fixed Declan with a stare that was impossible to run from. “Will you design it for me?”

He swallowed and gave her his best smile. “Yeah, sweetie. Of course I will.” He met Ansley’s eyes and she smiled, taking a deep breath.

“Now,” she said. “Who is ready for turkey?”

He wasn’t. The thought of food and family, of sitting down at their table without her … it made his stomach cramp. But he couldn’t look into Paige’s beaming face, her sweet ability to include Autumn in all that she did, without putting on a mask and playing along.

He smiled. “I’ll be right behind you guys.” Picking up Paige’s drawing, he ran a hand over her room for Autumn, then carefully opened his notebook and tucked it into place.

December

Dear Autumn,

It doesn’t seem right, celebrating our first Christmas in a hospital room. Still, I did the best I could. A drunk girl in a karaoke bar once told me that I had a sexy singing voice, so I tried a few lines of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It wasn’t half bad, honestly. Had your panties been anything other than hospital-issued Teflon, they would have combusted. Also, small confession: I peeked at your panties. Then your breasts. I couldn’t help myself. I missed them. I kissed them. I promised them all sorts of filthy activities by the time next Christmas rolls around.

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