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The Presence of Grace (Love and Loss #2)

By:Anie Michaels

The Presence of Grace (Love and Loss #2)
Anie Michaels

 Prologue

Grace

Have you ever seen a grown man cry?

I mean, really cry? Not the single tear that gets wiped away before anyone sees it. I'm talking about the body-wracking, lung-seizing, shoulder-shaking kind of crying.

I hadn't, not before that night.

Sure, I'd seen a few guys get choked up, but they were usually always drunk and the tears were sports related.

But not that time.

He was hunched over, elbows on his knees, leaning against the brick of the building, face in his hands, and he was sobbing.

I'd just left the school, but he hadn't heard the doors open. They took their sweet time closing thanks to the little gadgets that kept them from slamming shut, so I got a good three-second look at this man crying right in front of me. Three seconds is a really long time when you're witnessing someone have an emotional breakdown. They were the longest and saddest three seconds of my life. Granted, it was dark outside, and he was huddled against the wall, but I could tell he wasn't a small man. He was built. Large. Manly. And watching him cry was almost painful. I never could have imagined what would make a man like him sob.

When the door finally closed, the soft thump jarred him and I watched as his head snapped up and he finally noticed me.

I was frozen, stunned really, afraid to move or speak, hoping maybe I could spare us both the embarrassment of the moment. I didn't know if I should continue the short distance to my car, turn around and go back into the building, or acknowledge the crying man.

He stood up fully, raking his hands down his face, which immediately and unconsciously awakened my kindergarten teacher reflexes. I reached into my giant purse and pulled out a few tissues, took the last few steps between us, and held them out.

"Here, take these."

His eyes met mine, then traveled down to my outstretched hand, and he slowly accepted them. He used them to wipe his eyes and nose, then just let his head rest against the wall, taking deep breaths.

"Are you all right? Do you need me to call someone?" My question trailed off at the end. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do to help this crying, albeit handsome, stranger.

A few moments later, a very deep and raspy voice answered, "No, thank you. There's no one to call."

His answer sounded more painful than factual, as if my even asking him that had opened the wound up further. I had no idea what I was supposed to do next.

"You seem really upset. Do you want to talk about it?" Why did I ask him that? He didn't know me and there was no reason he should want to unload his problems on me, but he was breaking my heart with his tearstained cheeks and breaths that were stuttering in and out while his lungs tried to catch up with his emotions.

His eyes met mine again, bravely, but his face scrunched up and his bottom lip found its way between his teeth. Then he started crying again.

"Oh, shit," I whispered, upset with myself for making him cry. I hurried to his side just as he bent at the waist again, and awkwardly rubbed my hand up and down his back. I'd never known it was possible to feel so uncomfortable and so helpless at the same time. "Please, please don't cry. I'm sorry. I'm sure everything will be just fine." I was grasping at straws, saying every clichéd thing you would think to say to your crying girlfriend when she broke up with her asshole boyfriend, but it didn't seem to work on this man, whose back, I noticed while trying to comfort him, was nothing but firm, taut muscle. Tendons moved in tandem as his breaths pulled in and then rushed back out.

A few minutes passed, long minutes of him crying and me offering him a gentle hand at his back. When he finally stood up, I handed him more tissues and waited for I don't know what.

Eventually he spoke.

"My wife died a few months ago," he murmured, his words both shaky and sad. "This is the first time I've been to parent-teacher conferences without her."

Oh, God.

Oh. God.

"I'm so sorry," I say honestly. It was the saddest thing anyone had ever said to me, and with just those few words, the tears started to well in my own eyes. I managed to push them back, to swallow the pinching in my throat. This man might not have needed me, but I felt as though I was supposed to help him, not cry along with him.

"I'm a mess," he whispered, standing at full height again.

"I think you're allowed to be a mess."

We were both silent for another moment, standing against the brick wall, nothing but the sound of night between us, and then he spoke again.

"Every day I think to myself, ‘It has to be better today. It can't be any worse than yesterday.' But then something else happens and I realize I'm alone, and that she'll never be here again, and it's like a sledgehammer to the gut."   





 

I wanted to know how she'd died, but I didn't dare ask. I hoped though, for her sake, she hadn't suffered.

"I'm no expert, and I've never dealt with this kind of loss, but I think it does get better eventually." I hated the sound of my words, hated the way they weren't helpful, especially since all this man seemed to need in that moment was help. "What grade is your child in?" I hoped distraction would work.

"Ruby," he said wistfully, and I swore I saw the pain fade from his face for just a moment while a tiny smile turned up the corners of his mouth. "She's in second grade."

"Fun age," I mused.

"You have kids?"

"No," I answered, hating the somber intonation of my voice. I nodded toward the building. "I'm a teacher."

His eyes widened slightly. "You're a teacher …  here?"

"Yeah. But don't worry, I don't teach second grade." I laughed, trying to make him feel better, trying to offer a joke to lighten the mood. It must have worked because a moment later he let out a soft laugh.

"I'll let you get back to your evening," he said, straightening up and wiping his hands, damp from his tears, on his thighs.

"Are you sure you're all right? I'm in no hurry, if you need to talk to someone."

"No, I'm honestly really embarrassed you caught me crying to begin with." He let out a real laugh then, and all the muscles in my body that I hadn't realized were tense let out a sigh of relief.

"Don't be too hard on yourself. I'm sure you're doing a great job." He didn't respond, but he did give me a sad smile, so I took that as my cue to leave. I gave him a tiny wave and continued toward the parking lot. I hoped he got his wish and that tomorrow would be better than today.





Three Years Later





Chapter One

Devon

"Ruby, you have ten minutes to be outside waiting for the bus. Jax, you absolutely have to brush your teeth this morning. I never should have let you skip last night."

I said practically the same thing every morning, gave the same warnings and the same countdowns, but it seemed like we were always just seconds away from disaster. Well, disaster in the form of missing the bus. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but it definitely would throw a kink in my plans for the day.

"Dad," Ruby whined as she came into the kitchen where I was packing Jaxy's lunch. "I don't have anything to wear."

"That is statistically impossible. Grandma just took you shopping last weekend." Not to mention I'd just stuffed her drawers full of clothes the night before after an evening of folding laundry.

"I can't find anything I want to wear."

"We passed finding what you want to wear twenty minutes ago, Ruby. You need to go put on a top and some jeans. Your bus will be here in"-I looked at the clock on the microwave- "eight minutes." She puffed out an irritated breath and marched back to her bedroom. As soon as she was out of sight, Jaxy waltzed into the kitchen and hopped up on one of the barstools. "You brush your teeth?" I asked, not even bothering to look up. I was good at making lunches, but not blindly.

"Yeah. Did you fill out my book order form?"

"I did last night. It's all in your backpack."

"Did you get me the books I circled?" he asked excitedly. At that point I did look at him. I loved watching my kids getting excited over books. Jaxy, being in second grade, was just getting to the point where he really excelled at reading independently, and books without big, colorful pictures were becoming appealing. Olivia had loved to read and I was so glad both our kids had gotten that from her.

"I got you a few of the books you circled, but I supplemented those with a few that I think will challenge you." A smile spread slowly across his face.

"Cool. Thanks, Dad." His lips pulled up to form the exact same smile as his mother. My eyes darted to the large photo of her hanging over the fireplace across the room. The ache was still there, still burned in my chest when I thought about everything Olivia was missing out on, but what gave me hope was that the ache was slowly dulling.

When we'd moved to Florida two and a half years prior, just months after Olivia's death, I'd been a mess. I'd wanted to stay in the town and house we'd raised our children in, thinking it would be best for Ruby and Jax, but I couldn't function there and needed the support of my parents. Moving to Florida had been hard-starting over was not something I'd ever thought I'd have to do-but having my mom and dad so close proved to be invaluable. My kids now had a strong bond with my parents, and I'd had the help I needed from the right people. People who were supposed to hold me up, supposed to love me through the hard times.   

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