During the kiss, I closed my eyes and thought Lord, do I really get to keep him? After a few delicious seconds I surfaced and took in Kent’s lopsided grin. Pastor Tom said “I now present…” and we faced the crowd. I glanced at Tatum, now my stepdaughter, sitting quietly between Kent’s parents.
Since her mother’s death, Tatum had rarely smiled, and she spoke only to Kent and her grandparents. She was just six, but a furrow of worry between her brows made her look like a peevish librarian.
Tatum had picked her own outfit today. My mouth twitched as I imagined the wedding photographs: our wedding party in soft brown and the pale pink of apple blossoms, and Tatum, solemn in her turquoise Cinderella dress and shiny yellow boots.
I don’t want to be a wicked stepmother!
We chose a weekend in the country for our honeymoon; Kent was reluctant to leave Tatum for longer. After the reception, I stood in Kent’s parent’s doorway while he handed over his sleepy daughter. Kent hugged her and she whispered in his ear, then turned wide eyes on me.
I hesitated—should I hug her, too? But Tatum fled to her grandmother. Kent’s eyes said I’m sorry.
Two days later, Kent kissed me awake. “See you at six,” he whispered. “Tatum likes her juice in the blue mug, okay?”
I brewed some coffee and waited for Tatum to wake, absurdly afraid. I can do this, Lord...right?
She came to breakfast rubbing her eyes, avoiding me. After a silent meal, she shuffled into the den and sat in Kent’s chair, fingering an afghan.
“Tatum,” I said, “Go to the bathroom and brush your hair, sweetie. We’re going to have some fun!” I jingled my keys.
She walked past me without stopping in the bathroom and sat in the car, waiting.
I breathed deeply. Alrighty, then.
First stop: Build-a-Bear Workshop. Tatum’s eyes took in the whole store, but she shoved her hands in her pockets. “Do you like this one, Tatum?” I asked. “Does he need a hat? What about this vest?” Tatum remained silent beside me. We left with a bear designed by…me.
Next—The American Girls store. Tatum crossed the street holding my hand, but when we reached the store she took her hand back and rubbed it on her jeans. “Pick any doll you want, Tatum. How about Samantha? Josefina?” She just stood in the middle of the store. Other mothers stared. I led her back to the car.
Next—Baskin-Robbins. “Hey, Tatum! Ice cream for lunch! Cool, huh?” Tatum picked at her bubblegum ice cream, but I devoured mine, taking comfort in the cold sweetness.
When Tatum’s bowl became a blue puddle, I pushed back my chair. “Okay, Tater-Tot. One more treat.” Thirty minutes later we arrived at Club Libby Lu. I’d ordered the Celebrity package—a Hannah Montana wig and a backpack full of goodies. But when Tatum sat in the makeover chair, big tears plopped onto her lap.
“Ma’am, why don’t you bring your daughter back on a better day?” The perky teen who’d been about to make Tatum into a mini-celebrity looked alarmed.
She’s not my daughter…We drove home with the radio blaring. I didn’t bother to hide my tears. I knew I’d have to tell Kent: Tatum hated me.
That evening, Kent put Tatum to bed, then rubbed my feet. “You don’t have to do everything at once, hon. Take it slow, and soon she’ll love you as much as I do.” He stood and kissed my hair. “Be right back—I’m going to read Tatum her story.”
“I’ll do it.” I stepped into Tatum’s room; she turned her back. I perched on her bed and rested my hand on her shoulder. If she was going to feign sleep, she couldn’t very well shake me off. “Good-night, moon…”
I spent the night in restless prayer.
The next morning, Tatum drank her juice, occasionally peeking at me. I mussed her hair, still tousled from sleep. “Tater-Tot, I’m taking my coffee to the den.”
I watched the news. Tatum went to her bedroom. Soon she appeared at her doorway, watching me. I smiled. She ducked back inside. Another appearance. Another smile. She disappeared again, but came back moments later, approaching me with her hands behind her back.
“Whatcha got?” I set my coffee down. Tatum placed her hairbrush in my hand and sat on the footstool.
I brushed her hair in long strokes, each stroke a prayer.
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