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Hook by Chelle Bliss (1)

1

Angelo

“You need to go out, Daddy.” Tate climbs into my lap, blocking my view of the football game. She places her tiny hands on my cheeks, forcing me to look at her and talk about something I've been dancing around for far too long. “Are you listening to me?”

She’s so much like Marissa—so full of life with a side of sass, and her bossiness is off the charts too. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was twice her age. She grew up way too fast because of Marissa’s death, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shelter her from the pain.

I glance down and give her my full attention. “I’m listening, baby girl.”

She tilts her head like she’s about to lay shit out for me. “Brax needs a mommy.”

My head jerks back at the straightforwardness of her comment. “He has one,” I tell her, sweeping her hair behind her ear, wishing I never had to have this conversation with her.

“She’s not here anymore, Daddy. Brax needs one, and so do I.”

Her words are like a knife through my heart. I can’t speak. I’m too choked up by the truth my little girl is dropping in my lap.

She pushes harder against my cheeks, smooshing my face together until my lips pucker. “Mommy won’t be mad, Daddy. She wants you happy. It’s time for you to get back out there.”

This kid. Where does she come up with this stuff? Even though my eyes are filling with tears, I can’t stop myself from laughing.

“Where did you hear that?”

“Auntie Nee. She said you need to get back in the saddle and ride that horse. I don’t know what a horse has to do with anything.” Tate lifts her tiny palms up near her shoulders and shrugs. “I mean, I don’t know where we’d put one, but I’ve always wanted a pony, Daddy.”

Thanks, Daphne.

“Oh, sweetheart.” I don’t have the heart to tell her Daphne wasn’t actually talking about a horse. Sometimes my family forgets that although the children are small, they’re soaking up every word they say and filing it away in their heads.

She moves her face closer. “I’m serious, Daddy.”

God, how I love these moments with her. I know soon enough she’ll grow up and will barely look at me. But right now, she stares at me with those big blue eyes, the same ones Marissa had, tugging on my heart.

“Okay, Tate. I’ll see what I can do.”

She places her tiny, wet lips on mine as she pulls my face to hers. “You made me happy,” she whispers as she peers into my eyes.

There’s nothing in the world I want more than for my kids to be happy. They’re the reason I’m still breathing and not buried beside my wife.

I don’t think I could’ve survived losing her without my children. I most certainly wouldn’t have been able to get out of bed, or else I would’ve ended up an alcoholic, drowning my sorrow in the bottom of a bottle so I wouldn’t have to feel anything anymore.

Tate pulls away with her lips still puckered and covered in spit…hers, not mine. She’s the sloppiest kisser ever. I pray to God she stays that way, so the boys don’t start pounding down the door in a decade.

“I’m tired.” She yawns and is superdramatic about it. She stretches her arms and practically shakes in my lap. “Tuck me in.”

“Already? It’s early, baby.”

She slides down my leg until her sock-covered feet touch the floor. “Come on.” She tugs at my arm.

Tate loves her sleep. If I let her, she’d stay in bed half the day. She definitely didn’t get that trait from me.

“What jammies are you wearing tonight?” I lift her into my arms and carry her toward her bedroom.

“Unicorns.” She caresses my earlobe, something she’s done since she was a baby. “No. Mermaids.” She pauses. “Maybe rainbows.”

This is our nightly routine. She rattles off every nightgown in her collection, unable to make a decision. It doesn’t bother me. I want to keep her this age forever, arguing over unicorns and mermaids instead of boys.

“How about your princess nightgown?”

Her face brightens. “Yes. Princesses. That’s what I want.” She bounces in my arms.

I get her changed quickly, a task I’ve somehow mastered since Marissa died. Tate doesn’t always make it easy, usually wiggling or getting sidetracked by some shiny object in her room.

I toss her tiny dress into the dirty clothes basket as she twirls in a circle. “Climb into bed, and I’ll grab a book.”

She leaps into bed, sliding across the sheets. “I want the kangaroo book,” she tells me, bossy as usual.

Right up until the very moment she closes her eyes, the girl is full of attitude.

I stretch out next to her, grabbing the kangaroo book from the nightstand as she curls into my side. “Close your eyes, baby.” I open to the first page and start to read until she pokes me in the chest.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you too, bug.” I kiss her forehead, wishing I could keep her this small forever.

As soon as she’s asleep, I dial Daphne to have a little heart-to-heart with her. My sister means well, but sometimes she needs to remember who her audience is and how her words may affect them.

“What’s up, Ang? Missing me?”

“Sister.”

“What?”

“We need to have a little talk.”

She lets out a very dramatic sigh. “I’m busy being a human buffet over here. All this baby does is eat. I swear, if I ate this much, I’d have an ass bigger than Old Lady Benedetto. What’s wrong now?”

“Tate heard you say I need to get back in the saddle.”

Daphne snickers, getting a little joy at my expense. “Well, you do.”

I groan. “Now she wants a horse.”

Daphne’s laughter grows louder. “The kid has big dreams. Can’t blame her for that, brother. I like her style.”

Of course she would.

“Sister, don’t fill her head with the impossible.”

“A horse?” She pauses. “Or you ever having a girlfriend?”

I rub my temple, trying to massage away the tension that never seems to vanish. Why did I even bother having this conversation with Daphne? I knew what she’d say. We’ve been talking— Scratch that. She’s been on my back about this for months.

“Both.” I grit my teeth.

“Marissa’s been gone a few years now. You need someone to love. It’s time.”

It’s time? My life isn’t an appointment or a recipe cooking in the oven. There’re no rules when it comes to mourning and moving on. I don’t know why everyone in my family thinks it’s time for me to start dating.

I don’t.

And I’m pretty fucking sure my opinion is the only one that matters when it comes to my life, my kids, and my heart.

“I have someone,” I snap.

“Angelo, I love you, but eventually you’re going to have to open your heart again. Marissa wouldn’t want you to be alone.”

“I know.” I hang my head, hearing my wife’s voice and the promise I made to her. “I’m just not ready.”

“I don’t think you’ll ever be. Just don’t wait too long. I swear I saw a gray hair on your head last week.”

“Fuck off with that.”

I know she’s yanking my chain the way she always does because that’s her lot in life. Ballbuster extraordinaire and way too much like my ma.

“Anyway, you messed around with Michelle for far too long. You two never would’ve worked. It’s time for you to find someone to really settle down with.”

“What?” I stare at the phone, mouth hanging open, wondering how she knows. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh please, Angelo. I’m not stupid or blind. I know you two have been fooling around for a few months.”

“Well…”

I thought Michelle and I were stealthy in our hookups and that my entire family, including my sister, was in the dark.

Clearly, I was wrong.

“She’s my best friend, dumbass. You don’t think I notice shit?”

“We were never serious, Daphne.”

“You’ve slept with her, right?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Michelle left for California a week ago. Your time with her is over. You’ve practiced the gallop, now it’s time to trot.”

“What the fuck are you even talking about?”

“Figure it out. I got to go. Get your head out of your ass before the rest of your life passes you by. Sweet dreams,” she says and ends the call before I can reply.

I toss the phone on the coffee table and kick back, relaxing into the couch to watch the last quarter of the game. But every throw and run goes by in a blur.

I can’t stop thinking about what Daphne said.

I replay the last words Marissa and I spoke to each other and how I promised her I’d find happiness again. The closest thing I’ve come to that has been with Michelle, but every time I touched her, I was filled with so much guilt.

We were never meant to be more than a fling. I scratched her back, and she scratched my…well, you know. But her plan was always to move to California to take care of her mother who’s been battling early onset Alzheimer’s for years.

I’m not heartbroken over her leaving. I like Michelle, hell, I even love her. She’s been in my life since we were little kids, and it’s hard not to have feelings for the woman. But it’s not the deep love I have for Marissa.

I can’t seem to let go of the past. The memory of my wife and the love I have for her still burns in my heart as strongly as the day she took her last breath.

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