Grace O’Connor dropped the packing tape dispenser on the kitchen counter and pressed one perfectly manicured finger over the adhesive strip holding the cardboard box closed, dislodging air bubbles. Pulling the cap off of a Sharpie, she scrawled ‘men’s clothes’ over the top of the box.
A plain brown box. Filled with the clothes of a man who had been anything but plain.
Sucking in a deep breath, she turned to the teenager hovering just inside her door. “This is it. This is the final box.” It was one box out of a hundred. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but if she’d learned anything over the past year and a half, it was that grief had a way of obliterating life’s ‘should’s.’
The teenager heaved the box onto his shoulder and Grace tucked a tip into his t-shirt pocket emblazoned with the charity’s logo. “Thanks Mrs. Jensen! Have a great weekend,” he called, scurrying toward the elevator.
“It’s O’Connor,” she mumbled. It didn’t seem to matter how many times she told people, they still got it wrong. For over twenty years she’d been Jax Jensen’s apostrophe ‘S.’ First, Jax Jensen’s songwriter. Then Jax Jensen’s wife. And now Jax Jensen’s widow.
“You talking to yourself again?”
Grace’s head snapped up. She’d almost forgotten Annie was in the apartment. “It’s the sign of creative genius.”
Her best friend chuckled and tossed the magazine resting in her lap onto the coffee table. It flopped open to the center spread and Annie quickly flipped it closed. “Is it?”
Grace nodded as she tucked her clipboard under her arm, crossed the vast expanse of the converted warehouse loft, and sunk into the navy velvet Chesterfield sofa opposite Annie. She crossed her legs underneath her and forced her gaze upward, away from the magazine.
“Thanks for coming over today.” Grace picked up the to-go cup from Common Grounds, their favorite haunt, and air-toasted Annie. “And, for bringing coffee.”
“I would have brought something a little more appropriate for a Friday afternoon, but I have to pick up Ellie from dance class. Plus, I would have missed the barista falling all over himself to make your coffee. He asked about you three separate times.” Annie winked. “With a little flirting, you’d likely have free coffee for life.”
“Not really my thing. But you could try it.”
“I doubt he’s interested in an old married lady with two kids.”
Grace gave Annie a head-to-toe appraisal. From top to bottom, her best friend was her opposite. Straight chestnut-colored hair to Grace’s mass of blonde waves. Copper skin to Grace’s ‘have you ever gone outside?’ complexion. Legs that pushed her to near six-foot compared to Grace’s legs that needed heels to even hope for the middle fives. And deep chocolate eyes to Grace’s icy blue. Annie was a glamazon—and, kids or no kids, likely to turn the head of every barista in a hundred-mile radius.
Grace snorted and rolled her eyes. “We’re the same age, Annie. Though I feel like the past two years have aged me twenty.”
Annie’s expression softened, silently acknowledging the challenges Grace had battled—the kind no one wants, and no one faces voluntarily. She pointed at the dog-eared pages attached to Grace’s clipboard. “Speaking of which, what’s next on The List?”
Grace peered down and smoothed her hand over the wrinkled papers. The List. It read like a piece of fiction. Sell house in Malibu. Sell apartment in Tribeca. Donate guitar to Smithsonian. Donate the proceeds of “Best of” EP to the hospice that cared for Jax when he’d forgone additional chemo.
Her story had played out in a way she never could have imagined. One moment she’d been a shy midwestern girl from a middle-class family who, aside from an affinity for poetry and piano playing, was the very definition of unremarkable. Then, in the twinkling of a mischievous hazel eye, she’d been sucked into the swirling vortex of a musical superstar on the rise. From ordinary to extraordinary in one chance meeting.
But in the end, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how many stamps she had in her passport, or how many red carpets she’d walked, or how many hit songs they’d written, the Jax Jensen juggernaut jerked to a halt in a plain white room with a small soft-spoken man in a starched white coat. It took only two words—Stage Four—to silence the tempest.
Annie pointed at the clipboard again. “The List?”
Grace motioned toward the cup of rainbow-colored pens sitting on the recycled natural steel end table next to Annie. “Throw me a pen.”
“I will not. I will hand you a pen. You’re distracted and no one needs to lose an eye today.”
Grace shook her head and smirked. “I retract my previous statement. You are clearly much older than me. If I promise to sit up straight, wash behind my ears, and not swim for an hour after eating, will you please hand me a pen, Grandma?”
Annie arched one perfectly sculpted eyebrow and retracted her outstretched hand. “Grandma? Just for that, get it yourself.”
Grace lowered her voice. “Annie, if you hand me the pen, we can officially retire The List.”
“What? It’s done?”
Grace swallowed hard and placed a hand over her belly, willing the ache away, and nodded. “Donating Jax’s remaining clothes was the last item on The List.”
“That’s why you asked me to come here this afternoon.”
A smile tweaked the corners of Grace’s mouth. “You should be careful. I asked you to take the day off and you did it. No questions asked. The sheer power of that is likely to go to my head.”
“You said you needed me. You never ask for help unless you really need it—and sometimes not even when you do. Of course, I’d be here.” Annie extracted a neon-pink marker from the cup, rounded the table and plopped down next to Grace. She slung her arm around Grace and pulled her into a half hug. Uncapping the pen, she held it out. “Ready?”
Grace’s gaze traveled between the pen and The List. She’d organized The List about a month after Jax’s passing. It gave her a reason to get out of bed in the morning. For eighteen months it had given her purpose. Like a slow-release capsule, it helped her say goodbye in steps. In the beginning it was a healthy coping mechanism. Now? It was a counterproductive crutch. It was time to retire it—past time, actually.
She reached for the pen but pulled her hand back. “I can’t do it,” she whispered. Crossing off the final item equaled facing the future. Without The List she was a ship unmoored, floating out to sea, bobbing over the waves with no idea where she was going and no land in sight.
Annie squeezed Grace’s free hand. “Do you want me to do it?”
Grace nodded and Annie tugged on the clipboard. “You’re going to have to let go, sweetie.”
Grace squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “Can’t do that, either.”
“Okay, on the count of three, all you need to do is take a deep breath and straighten your fingers, and I’ll slide it over to me. One, two . . . two and a half,”—Annie pried up Grace’s fingers—“three”—and yanked the clipboard free.
Grace listened as Annie shuffled through the paper, stopped, and scratched the pen across the page. The pen’s cap clicked into place. The List was finished. She waited for relief. It didn’t come. It felt strikingly similar to a book with an unsatisfying ending. Hollow. Incomplete.
Annie tucked an errant curl behind Grace’s ear. “Open your eyes, mi amiga. Tell me what you’re feeling.”
Grace’s stomach tumbled and twisted. How did she feel? Exhilarated. Guilty. Scared. And something else. “Foolish,” she blurted out.
Surprise flashed across Annie’s face. “That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. Why foolish?”
“I thought when The List was complete, I’d know what to do next.” She picked up the clipboard and threw it, sending it clattering across the table, finally coming to a rest next to that terrible, horrible—likely truthful—magazine article. “But I got nothing. No clarity, no direction, no plan.”
“I thought the plan was to give yourself some time and then return to what you do best—writing songs. Has something changed? Because, Grace, the world would be a darker place without your music.”
Grace snorted and rolled her eyes. “Overstate things, much?”
Annie smirked. “All the time. But not when it comes to this. I believe in you . . . and so did Jax. He wouldn’t want you to stop writing.”
Grace got very interested in the nap of the couch, watching the velvet change color as she dragged her fingers over it. Is that what Jax would want? She wasn’t so sure.
“A songwriter is nothing without a singer.” Grace stared out the mullioned floor-to-ceiling windows recessed into the original, feet-deep, industrial brick wall and absentmindedly pulled at a string dangling from the rip in her jeans that bisected her thigh. “Who would I write for?”
“Anyone you want.”
Grace turned her attention back to her friend. Annie had settled into an oversized emerald green sofa pillow and exuded every bit of confidence Grace didn’t feel. “It’s not that easy. The music industry is a fickle business. I’ve been MIA for nearly two years and a single artist recorded all my songs.”
“Pffft.” Annie waved off her concerns. “One artist or not, you’ve authored some of the biggest hits of the last decade and have the hardware to prove it.” Annie tipped her head toward the line of golden gramophones covering the mantle. “Who wouldn’t want to work with you?”
“Anyone who’s read that.” Grace pointed at the magazine taunting her from the center of the coffee table. Annie opened her mouth and Grace raised a single finger. “Before you say anything, I saw you reading it.”
Annie grabbed the magazine and rolled it up, smacking it against the table. “Who cares what one hack thinks? Plus, the article is mainly a retrospective on Jax’s career.”
“Exactly. We were equal partners, Annie, in every sense of the word. And how am I portrayed in that story? As nothing more than a footnote in his storied career.”
Annie gave her a pointed look, her chocolate brown eyes flashing as she bolted upright from the sofa and stomped into the kitchen. “I’m putting this damn thing in the garbage because that’s what it is.” She wrenched open the trash bin and slammed the magazine inside. “I have a single question for you, Grace. Do you still want to write songs—is it still your dream?”
Grace grabbed the pillow Annie had been leaning on and wrapped her arms around it, pulling it tight against her chest. “Technically, that’s two questions.”
Annie frowned. “Make your jokes, chica. I’ll wait. I’m paid—handsomely, I might add—to wait and let my opponent sweat the silence.”
Grace brushed a curl that had escaped from her loose braid away from her face and bit back a laugh. Annie stood with both hands on her hips and a don’t-even-think-about-fucking-with-me look on her face. This was Annaliese Santos, Esquire, in full reckoning mode.
“What else would I do? It’s the only thing I’ve ever done.”
Annie blew out a breath, sending her bangs skyward. “Not a real answer.” Grace’s eyes followed her as she walked, strike that, marched into the den and started digging through the bench perched in front of the grand piano.
“What are you doing?”
“This,” Annie said, lofting a Tiffany-blue journal in the air. She stalked up behind Grace and dropped the book over her shoulder.
It landed with a thud in Grace’s lap. Her lucky writing journal. The leather cover worn to a buttery sheen and the corners rubbed raw, exposing the original tanned hide from years of use.
“Open the magic book, G. Reacquaint yourself with your talent—and your dream. And, then do what Grace O’Connor does best. Write.” Annie pressed her lips together and stabbed a finger at Grace, coming within an inch of her nose. “Do it.”
“No time like the present.” Annie’s hands reconnected with her hips with a thwack. “Go on, I’ll wait.”
“Didn’t you say you had to pick up Ellie from dance class?”
Annie flipped over her phone and sucked her top lip under her teeth. “Shoot. I lost track of time. I gotta go, but my instructions stand. And, I’ll know if you’re not writing.”
“How does that work?”
“I’m a lawyer and a mother—makes my Spidey sense very acute.”
Grace chuckled and stood, linking her arm through Annie’s and directing her toward the door. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Oh, and don’t forget, Abbie’s school play is tomorrow night.”
“On my calendar. I’d never miss her debut as the Cowardly Lion.”
“They’re lucky to have you, Tía G.”
She was the lucky one. The List may have given her purpose, but it was Abbie and Ellie’s spelling bees, dance recitals, and soccer games that forced her to leave the house.
After Jax passed, she needed a break from the lights of Hollywood and the never-ending pulse of Manhattan. She needed the peace that she only found at their Minneapolis loft—the place they’d written some of their best songs, the place where they were simply Jaxson and Gracie and the place where they could enjoy a leisurely Sunday morning cup of coffee clad in soft t-shirts and well-worn jeans. Like any other midwestern couple . . . almost.
Those were the reasons she moved back to her hometown, but they weren’t the reasons she stayed. No, those reasons were Annie, her husband Will, and their two beautiful little girls. They’d known and loved her long before she became Mrs. Jax Jensen. They didn’t care about the money or the fame. They grounded her and gave her the stability she’d never found on the road. There was only one word to describe them: family.
Annie pulled Grace into a tight hug and whispered in her ear. “You’ve done so much for everyone else, now it’s time to do something for yourself. You’re ready, mi amiga.” She released Grace from the hug and poked at the journal wedged under Grace’s arm. “I mean it. Open it, sit down at the piano, and write something. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. I read something recently that said creativity isn’t faking it until you make it, it’s making it until you make it. Make it, Grace. Make it today.”
Grace laughed. “If this is the way you treat people on your side, I’d hate to see what you do to the opposition.”
“Promise me, Grace.”
“I promise,” Grace said, stressing each syllable. “Now go. Ellie’s waiting—likely stomping her foot with her hands on her hips.”
Annie smirked. “Can’t imagine where she picked up that behavior.” She pulled open the industrial sliding steel door and turned back to Grace. “You could come along. Then have dinner with Will and me and the girls?”
“And come face-to-face with fifteen five-year-olds in tutus? The cuteness overload would likely kill me. Plus, I just promised my best friend that I would put my butt on the piano bench and see if I remember how to compose a song. Raincheck?”
Annie nodded and yanked the journal from Grace’s grasp, thrusting it into the center of her chest.
“Oof. You’re relentless.”
“And you love me for it.”
Grace rolled her eyes and gave her friend a gentle nudge into the hallway and slid the door closed. Her gaze dropped to the book in her hand. Anxiety simmered in her stomach on its way to a full boil. She promised Annie she would try. But she had a dirty little secret.
She had been trying.
About six months ago, after a year of silence, simple melodies or six, eight, ten words of a lyrical hook started flashing and flickering in her mind again. The notes and words came at inopportune times—in the middle of the night, while out walking, or neck-deep in a bathtub full of bubbles. She groaned, remembering the night she sprinted naked and dripping through the condo searching for a scrap of paper, desperate to write it down before the idea disappeared. But like most times, by the time she found a pen, she had nothing. Sometimes she might get a stanza or two, but when she tried to build on them later, nothing came. She tried blaming grief, but the voices in her head whispered it was more than that.
Doubt and fear had unpacked, gotten comfortable, and were applying for permanent residence in her brain. Doubt would push back in his recliner, take a draw off his beer and say, “What you had with Jax Jensen was likely magic in a bottle. You’ll probably never be able to write without him.” All while Fear ran circles around Doubt yelling, “The writing is on the wall. Your career is over. What will you do? This is the only thing you know how to do. You should quit before everyone finds out that you’ve lost it.” It was like her own personal version of that kids’ movie. And her own personal version of hell.
She could just walk away. She didn’t need the money.
But . . .
And it was a big ‘but.’
Despite Doubt and Fear’s tap-dance, something buried deep inside her urged her not to give up without a fight. Likely she just needed more time. That maybe in another six months, or a year, it would come back.
She walked over to the Steinway and opened the keyboard cover. It creaked as she pushed it back. “You mocking me too, old gal?”
She laid her right thumb on middle C and her fingers followed. D, E, F, G. She depressed the keys so slowly they hissed out just a whisper of sound. In mirror image, her left fingers fell silently—G, F, E, D, C. She stared at the ebony and ivory keys, willing her fingers to move, telling her brain to disengage and let muscle memory do its thing. But again, nothing.
She sat in the silence, staring at the keys, and nearly leapt out of her skin as the chorus to “Overcoming”—the title track on their final album—assaulted the silence. She really needed to change her ring tone.
Placing a trembling hand on her chest, she paced the living room searching for her phone. The sound led her back to the coffee table. A stack of bills vibrated. She pushed them aside and stopped short. A familiar name flashed across the screen. A name she hadn’t seen since the day after Jax’s funeral.
What could he want? She sucked in a couple of ragged breaths and swiped her finger across the screen.
“Ford Marini,” he mimicked back. “I need five minutes.”
“People skills, Ford. We’ve talked about this.”
“Pleasantries take time and I’m a very busy man.”
“So you’ve told me—a thousand times.”
He sighed and Grace frowned. Even twelve-hundred miles away it took no effort imagining the music executive. Smooth olive skin, wavy mahogany hair held in place with something thick and shiny, starched Armani dress shirt, Italian loafers, and dark eyes—no doubt flashing with undisguised irritation.
“I want you here. In my office. Monday morning.”
Grace snorted. “Excuse me?”
“We signed a new group that has real potential, but they’ve cut their teeth on covers. Can’t put a group on the map without originals. We gave their writer six months to write the songs and he has summarily fallen on his ass.”
Grace’s breath hitched and her pulse kicked up. “And?”
“And, you’re a writer and I need a writer. And, a recent magazine article made it crystal clear you’re not doing anything else.”
The universe really had a sick sense of humor. The ink was barely dry on The List and no matter what Annie thought, she wasn’t ready to write again. She needed more time. To find her rhythm. To figure out how to do this without Jax.
She clutched the edge of the table and clenched her teeth together, reminding herself that she did, in fact, want to return to the industry . . . someday. But how did she say no without burning an important bridge? She snapped her fingers. Got it.
“Declining such a flattering offer is hard, but we both know that writing is a collaborative process and I no longer have a partner.”
“We’re not cutting out the group’s writer, we’re just adding you. Think of it like exchanging Jax for a new guy.”
Anger bubbled up inside her. “I don’t think that’s how this works,” Grace said, biting back a string of off-color words. Swap out ‘some guy’ for Jax Jensen? Not possible.
“It is if you ever want to work in this industry again, Grace.”
“Is that a threat, Ford?”
“You and Jax signed a publishing deal—a contract that remains unfulfilled.”
“But you didn’t. You still owe us an album. Do this and we’ll call it even.”
“I think we both know that’s not the truth. You have no power over me.”
“Untrue. I am a very influential voice in this industry, and if you want to keep working, it’s in your best interest to do this. Plus, you’ve been away so long you should be grateful anyone’s still asking.”
Grace squeezed her eyes shut and dug her fingers into her temple. Time to fake the confidence she wasn’t feeling.
“You’re willing to ruin my reputation for one new, untested group? Seems extreme. Got yourself in a bit of a financial situation?”
Ford grunted. “You sure you want to call my bluff?”
Did she? He wasn’t a man to throw around idle threats. A few words from Ford Marini and her Grammy-award winning career could be reduced to a whisper in industry hallways. ‘Who was that songwriter—you know the one—she worked with Jax Jensen and then just disappeared?’
“Grace? You still there?”
“Give me a couple of hours.” A couple of hours to come up with a reason why she wasn’t the right person for this job. “I’ll call you back before the end of the business day. Make sure your assistant knows to put me through.”
“Five o’clock, Grace. Eastern.”
She terminated the call and hurled the phone at the sofa. The word ‘disaster’ flashed in front of her eyes like a four-foot-tall neon beer sign. If she said no, Ford would blacklist her. If she said yes and couldn’t write? Shit. Her choice was between certain disaster and likely disaster.