The Presence of Grace (Love and Loss #2)(3)

By: Anie Michaels

My concentration was broken when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw Evelyn’s name across the screen. Hesitating for more than one reason, I convinced myself that five minutes before the bus was scheduled to pick my kids up wasn’t a good time to take a call. I sent her to voice mail and hoped she didn’t take it personally.

My phone went back in my pocket and I zipped up Jaxy’s lunch box, setting it in front of him on the bar just as Ruby emerged from her room again, this time dressed for school.

“Oh, look. You managed to find some clothes to wear.”

“Barely,” she mumbled under her breath. The closer Ruby got to preteen, the mouthier she became.

“I think you look nice,” I offered sincerely.

“This skirt squeezes my fat belly.” Her eyes cast down over her body.

Red flags were flying in my mind. Lately, Ruby had become more and more aware of her body, and I’d known this was coming, but that didn’t mean I knew how to handle it. Ruby wasn’t overweight, not by a long shot. Honestly, her stomach was the softest part of her, but it wasn’t something she needed to worry about.

“Ruby,” I said gently as I ran a hand down the back of her hair. “Your belly isn’t fat. You’re not fat. You’re beautiful. If the skirt doesn’t fit, we can find something else.”

Her eyes slowly met my gaze and she looked sad. “It’s okay, Daddy. I don’t have any time left.” She turned away and locked her gaze on her brother. “Jax, let’s go. And don’t try to sit next to me on the bus this time.”

Jaxy simply walked behind her, mimicking her with a high-pitched, singsong voice. I smiled because little brothers were jerks. I followed them until I got to the threshold of the house, then leaned against the doorjamb, keeping a safe distance. Ruby had informed me earlier in the school year that it wasn’t cool to have your dad at the bus stop. I told her I wasn’t about to let them wait unsupervised, to which she rolled her eyes. We compromised by agreeing I’d wait at the door. Luckily for Ruby, the bus stop was at the end of our driveway.

The bus came, collected my children, and drove away while Jaxy waved at me from the window. Taking one last sip of coffee from my mug, I grabbed my keys and headed out the door.

Before we moved to Florida, I’d had a suit-and-tie job as a business consultant. It had been really good money and that was mainly what kept me there. Raising a family was expensive and Olivia had wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. But in Florida, my priorities changed. I was the only parent they had left and I couldn’t spend fourteen hours a day at a desk anymore. When I was ready to go back to work, my dad offered me a position at his hardware store. He’d built a thriving business, and every summer from ages thirteen to eighteen I’d worked for him. He’d always wanted to pass the business down to one of his children, and was more than happy to hire me when I needed a job.

Working for my dad allowed me to leave the house after the kids got on the bus, and to be home in time to make sure they ate dinner and finished their homework. Four days a week the kids were dropped off at a care center until I could go get them after work. Jaxy still liked going there, but Ruby was reaching the age where she definitely didn’t think she needed a babysitter. There were a few kids there her age, but not many, and I knew she hated it. I also knew that once she hit sixth grade, I’d have to let her stay home alone after school.

I parked my SUV and walked toward the happy-looking building where I could hear the elated screams of children playing on the playground out back. It wasn’t quite spring yet, so the temperature was still cool enough that playing outside was feasible.

I pulled open the door and anticipated the cool rush of air that blasted me in the face. Air-conditioning was no joke here. Approaching the front counter, I tried to keep my head down, not wanting to bring too much attention to myself. But my efforts to remain unseen didn’t work—they never did.

“Mr. Roberts.” I heard her overly friendly voice coming from the office to my left, then heard the slap of her heels on the linoleum floor. I kept my gaze down on the sign-out sheet. “I was beginning to worry about you. Running a little late today.” Candace was, for all intents and purposes, a very nice woman. She was probably just a few years younger than I was, pretty in the I-spend-an-hour-in-front-of-the-mirror-every-morning-to-look-like-this way, and very, very persistent. When the kids first started going there, she immediately tried to catch my eye. I wasn’t in a good space then, and turned her down, eventually having to straight-out tell her my wife had just died and I wasn’t looking to date anyone. She’d obviously taken that as an indication that when I was ready to date, she’d be up first.

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