Present day, Paradise Falls, Idaho…
Clare Burke bolted upright in bed.
The hazy light of dawn filtered through the French doors and sent a halo of light over the shimmering image at the foot of the bed.
“Grace.” Two years and two days since her death, and her daughter still came to her, comforted her.
Questions overrode logical thought, but rather than sort through them she blurted out the one that continually weighed on her. “Are you happy?”
Grace smiled that smile that would drive a hermit in search of companionship, then vanished.
Had she been real or imaginary? The lines were as blurred as Grace’s image.
Tears welled in Clare’s eyes, and her heart absorbed a wave of grief. Why had Grace been taken from her? Why her child? All she had left of the daughter she loved were memories. Memories of pursed lips hiding braces, purple-streaked blonde hair and the snort of teenage sarcasm.
The faint light illuminated the sky blue walls. The room should have made her think of wide open spaces, but instead it had become her prison.
She stared at the stack of self-help books on her nightstand. She knew the titles as intimately as she did herself. Learn to Grieve, Living Without Your Loved One and her more recent pick, The Top Three Reasons Marriages Fail: Finances, Communication, and Emotional Detachment.
The knot wedged in her stomach wound tighter as she stared through a blur of tears at her husband, Ethan, sound asleep, twisted around the down comforter like a deranged pretzel.
When was the last time she’d felt truly connected to him?
Two years and two days.
They’d embraced life back then, now they tolerated it. They were shells of their former selves—colorless imitations of the vibrant couple they’d once been. Back then she would have told him about Grace’s visits. Now they were barely civil to each other. Ethan was here physically. Emotionally, he had become as untouchable as Grace.
The faint shriek of their oldest son, Jack’s, alarm filtered through the adjoining wall.
Tousled brown hair poked above the covers. A pair of matching brown eyes slowly opened and stared back at Clare.
“What time is it?”
Once upon a time that raspy voice had been her idea of a mating call. Now she felt a desperate ache that nothing filled. “Six.”
His knuckles grazed her cheek. “Still a while until we have to get up.”
Clare knew that tone, the darkening of his eyes, the wisp of a smile that had once held the promise of bliss. It would be impossibly easy to say yes, to curl into him and ignore the fact that sex for her had become as tempting as unflavored gelatin.
She pressed his hand to her cheek. “Could we just hold each other and talk instead?” Her words stripped the smile from his face.
He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. “Honestly, Clare, I’m all talked out.”
“I’m not.” She desperately wanted to recapture the closeness they’d shared, and the only way she knew how to do it was by talking.
He turned his head to look at her. “You never are.”
Three simple words and their bedroom became a war zone.
Did she really want to pursue this? No, but an urgent need to connect with him drove her to press him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He averted his eyes, but not before Clare saw a chill in them that left her hollow inside. Did saving one child only to have the other die take the joy out of living?
“Let’s have it. Tell me whatever it is I’ve done wrong according to the latest self-help book you’re reading on grieving.”
His pointed stare at the nightstand had outrage overriding her good sense. “Why do you feel threatened by those books?”
His gaze cut to her. “Why do you feel a need to hide from life in those books?”
His criticism stung. They’d had a good marriage, a good life, until it all went horribly bad.
“There’s no passion between us. There’s nothing between us anymore. We don’t talk, we don’t touch, we don’t make love, we have sex. I need to understand what changed.”
“I don’t need a book to tell me the obvious,” he said.
“It’s damn hard to drum up passion with a ghost between us.”
Had Ethan seen Grace too?
She sat up against the headboard. “What exactly does that mean?”
“It means Grace is always hovering over us. She’s always on your mind.”
He hadn’t seen Grace. Disappointment settled over her, then anger. Of course Grace was on her mind. She was her daughter. Death wouldn’t change that. “What do you want me to do, forget her?”
He swung his legs to the floor and sat with his back to her. He expelled a weary breath, then twisted around to look at her. “Can’t we just sometimes not think about her?”
“You mean pretend she never existed?”
He grimaced. “I didn’t say that. I just can’t think about her every minute of every day.”
Clare studied the photo of Grace on the dresser, her lips tightly sealed to hide her braces. She wished she could comply with his request. “I’m sorry. I can’t turn myself on and off like that.”
The very idea terrified her. What if she stopped thinking about Grace and she stopped appearing? Could she survive that?
Ethan shook his head. “I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.”
The emotion clogged in her throat made it difficult to speak. “What are you saying?”
The silence between them had the same finality as their fourteen-year-old daughter’s blue and lifeless body on that pristine steel table.
“I love you. I’ll always love you, Clare, but I can’t stay in the past. It’s been two years since she died. I have to move forward.”
“So do I.”
The skepticism in his eyes was unmistakable. “You know, I think you really do believe that.”
Was he right? Was she the one who couldn’t move on?
Clare searched for the words that would convince him he was wrong, but nothing came.
He rose from the bed, and a moment later the bathroom door snicked closed.
Pain throbbed in Clare’s heart like a knife buried shaft-deep in her chest. She slipped out of bed, opened the French doors, and stepped out onto the wood deck. The October wind tangled through her hair like the knotted emotions inside her. She crossed to the railing and leaned forward as if she stood on the deck of the Titanic. Peaceful one moment, disaster the next. The same as her life.
Golden leaves fluttered past like fat snowflakes onto the ruffled waters of Lake Serenity. A picture perfect scene. One that should have lifted her spirits, but instead it was littered with pieces of her heart.