“What’s your greatest regret?” Obadiah asked.
“Not letting Gail back into Kate’s life when she wanted to return.” Depriving Kate of her mother had placed Ben Michaels in this cold, dark corner of Heaven where he would remain for all eternity if he didn’t fix the mess he’d made in life. “What can I do about it now?”
“All depends on how badly you want to make amends.”
The white-garbed spirit guide standing next to him then forced Ben to watch the replay of his life yet again in tediously slow motion. Every. Agonizing. Moment. Ben had been a selfish piece of work all right by choosing to keep Kate all to himself. He’d convinced himself he’d done so to provide Kate stability and to bring up his only child in a wholesome environment on the family farm. The fear of losing Kate had remained foremost in his mind for the rest of his life, in part because he knew he didn’t deserve to have her. He’d gone through life paralyzed by fear that Gail would remarry and decide she wanted joint custody, now the desire to see his daughter reunited with her mother burned inside him. From what he could tell by a recent visit, his wife, Gail, had settled down. But was it too late?
Man, if his grandparents could see how badly he’d screwed things up…they hadn’t raised him to be like that. He’d shortchanged his daughter in so many ways.
“Your grandparents—and even your parents—are fully aware of everything you’ve done,” his guide assured him.
Ben sighed. “Yeah. Probably why they keep their distance up here.” Well, his parents had done the same on earth. He’d been cared for and raised by his grandparents, who had loved him unconditionally. Kate was the only other person to love him that way, but he’d killed any chance of that love continuing if she found out what he’d done.
“Your parents have their own work to do, but they have advanced beyond the level you’ve been stuck at for ten years.”
“I had my reasons for doing what I did,” he said, raising his chin defiantly. “But Kate and I didn’t go anywhere. If Gail had straightened herself out and wanted to see our daughter, she knew where to find her.”
“What if your wife didn’t have the money to come back to Kentucky? Did you ever think of that?”
Ben conceded the possibility. Gail had never been able to hold a job for more than a few months. She’d been too much of a free spirit, flitting off to find herself every other month. He’d warned her when she’d left the last time that he wouldn’t allow her to swoop back in when the urge to return overcame her. He’d seen firsthand several times that she’d only leave again in a few months and break Kate’s heart all over again. Inevitably, Gail’s need to wander always resurfaced over the course of their six years together. That wasn’t fair to Kate. A five-year-old couldn’t process the disappearances of her mother for weeks and months on end.
But Kate had been devastated anyway when Gail didn’t return.
“How’d that decision work out for you?” Obadiah’s question caught him off guard, reining in his thoughts.
“Not so well.” In Ben’s last year or two in the physical world, he’d begun to have regrets about depriving Kate of having both parents in her life. Gail had loved Kate in her own way.
Obadiah flashed several images across his mind, forcing him to face what he’d done. Some depicted events he hadn’t even witnessed in life. Kate calling to her mom when she came home from school that first day only to discover Gail had left again. That went on for a heartbreaking number of days before Kate became silent and withdrawn. Why didn’t Ben remember that? He’d probably been out in the fields or the barn working.
The next images showed Kate crying into her pillow each night for months. She’d put up a strong front around him. Often, she’d consoled him for his loss, not revealing the depth of her own heartache.
“She blamed herself, you know,” Obadiah said.
“Sending her mother away.”
“Children aren’t rational about these things. In her mind, she did something that led to her mother’s leaving. Furthermore, she thought you blamed her, which is how she explained why you never talked to her about her mother after the age of five. That’s part of the reason she hasn’t actively pursued trying to find her. She expects to be rejected again.”
“I had no idea.” Ben sure had been a selfish bastard.
The final image played out before him of one of the hottest days of the year. He’d been cutting tobacco all day and, after taking his shower, Gail took him by the hand, along with four-year-old Kate, and led them to the springhouse. Earlier, she’d stashed a picnic basket for them, along with a small cooler with cold drinks. They’d played “Ring Around the Rosie” with Kate. He could still hear her laughter filling the…
Ben blinked rapidly before turning toward the spirit beside him. “Why are you wasting your time on a despicable soul like me?”
“Because by helping you, I’m gaining spiritual growth without the pain and suffering of going through the physical plane again. Lord knows I tried to guide you for decades, but you weren’t open to suggestion in the physical world. You’ve always been a challenging one for me to convey truth to.”
Obadiah had been attempting to get Ben to do the right thing since he was a small boy on the earthly plane. Of course, Ben hadn’t been aware he’d had a spirit guide while he was alive. He’d chalked up Obadiah’s mental badgering as coming from his own conscience, which he readily ignored.
When introduced to Obadiah in the afterlife and learning the truth, Ben hadn’t expected to develop such a close rapport with him. Never one to deal with messy emotions in life, Ben knew he couldn’t sidestep them here, despite his stubbornness. But he was still a work in progress. Obadiah assured him not to give up hope.
Ben sighed, focusing on the problem at hand again. “Every birthday and Christmas, Kate expected her mom to come home any day for months and months.”
Poor Kate. His trying to hoard her love had left her a fearful, untrusting woman making the same mistakes with her daughter, Chelsea.
“Certainly not the wisest decision you ever made,” Obadiah observed. “I think you might have been surprised at how Gail would have grown into the role of mother, if only you’d given her one more chance. Poor woman didn’t have an easy life before or after you, that’s for sure.”
Guilt washed over him. From this side of the veil, he could see the effects of his actions and how they’d affected both Kate and Gail. He’d justified what he’d done by saying Gail’s desertion time and time again was proof she wasn’t fit to mother Kate. Why had Gail given up so quickly?
“Benedict,”—Obadiah’s stern voice put Ben on notice—“don’t delude yourself. Gail continued writing letters to Kate for years after she left that last time. But you already know that, don’t you?”
“You’re right. I returned most of them. All but one.”
“Is it in a place where Kate might find it?”
Ben shrugged. “Not without a little manipulation from this side, unless she decides to repaint the room it’s in.” He was still learning the rules of engagement in the afterlife, despite having been here for a decade in Earth years. “Would I be able to wriggle the letter loose from where I hid it?”
“I’m sure that power could be arranged if it’s for a good cause.”
“It’s tucked behind a mirror above the fireplace in my old bedroom. Kate uses it as a guest room now. Well, more like a junk room, if you ask me.” She rarely had people staying there, making the likelihood of the letter being discovered by anyone else even more remote. “It’s summertime,” Ben pointed out, “so there’s not much chance of her accidentally finding it while laying a fire.”
“True enough. Let me consult with my superiors to see what can be arranged. Moving physical objects isn’t quite as easy as having the living see and hear us.” Not that he’d managed to succeed there with Kate, either.
“Tell me, Benedict, are there any other actions you need to correct?”
“None that I know of.”
“Are you sure?”
He sighed. His spirit guide didn’t miss a thing. “Okay, I suppose I could see how Chelsea’s father turned out and whether he’s good enough to be a part of her life.”
“Is that for you to determine?”
Probably not.“I guess that’s for Kate to decide. Could I do something to bring Kate and that Cooper fella back together for a second chance?” Ben was getting his own second chance to correct actions that had played a role in keeping Kate away from her mother, but the situation with Cooper hadn’t been his offense. Kate had asked him to keep Travis away.
“Travis Cooper has a friend who entered the spirit plane prematurely and is now making it his mission to help Travis move on with his life.”
“A spirit guide?”
“Not in the true sense. This one shared a strong bond with him on Earth and that has carried over to the afterlife. Danny will be the perfect one to lead Travis out of the darkness he’s experiencing these days, because Danny’s actions led Travis into that state. I think the best thing you can do is to not stand in their way.”
“I hope Travis is more open to listening to his friend in spirit than I was with you.”
Obadiah rolled his eyes and smiled. “Almost anyone would be more open-minded than you were.” The old soul’s long-suffering patience had been the stuff of legend up here. “Now, are you ready?”
An overwhelming feeling of protectiveness for his daughter overcame him. Maybe he hadn’t been a good parent while alive, but dammit he was determined to get it right now that he knew what his daughter had become because of his actions. Ben nodded. “I’m going to fix this. Thanks for giving me a chance to make amends, Obadiah.”
He shrugged. “It wasn’t up to me to allow you to interact with the earthly plane, but I have a lot riding on the outcome of this pursuit as well. While time means nothing to those of us on this side, the consequences of your actions—and inactions—have severe ramifications for those you’ve harmed. Do not delay further in rectifying this wrong.”
Ben nodded, but something in the spirit’s tone gave him a sense of unease. Why the sudden pressure, after all these years? Did Obadiah know something he didn’t? Well, of course he did.
God, he hoped Obadiah wasn’t hinting that his sweet Kate also might be in danger of crossing over prematurely. She took her chronic illness seriously, but everyone could mess up from time to time. Or was it Gail? She’d appeared frail to him on his last visit.
“I can tell you nothing,” Obadiah said, “other than the time to act is now.”
Ben hadn’t been granted the gift of seeing into the future, so he’d have to take Obadiah at his word. It was time to right a grave wrong and reunite Kate with her mother as quickly as possible.