A Colorful Life
Series: Stand-Alones, Book 2

They say that death happens in threes, but so does life.

This is the story of three incredible women--a widow who, more than seven years after her husband's death, would rather hide inside her favorite books than face life without her beloved; an aspiring artist who finds new inspiration in her whirlwind romance and unexpected journey to New Delhi, India; and the pregnant teen who will show them both that God can fix anything, if only you let him.

Join them in this beautifully felt novel of exciting beginnings, haunting mistakes, and a world of dizzying color from a New York Times bestselling author.

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Daly's feet dragged through the all-too-familiar halls of Oakland Community College. She'd already spent two years of her life here, and was supposed to be done, but… she'd put her dreams on hold for another year to retake the stupid algebra class she needed for her associate's degree in liberal arts. Why did she need math and biology in order to paint? The whole reason she'd attended junior college in the first place was to bolster her not-so-great high school GPA and impress the admissions board at the Cranbrook Academy of Art—and now she was wasting even more time.

What's worse, the class met two days per week at eight in the morning, and she'd never been a morning person. She doubted such a thing even existed, especially after watching the other commuter students floating through the hallways with their eyes fixed on their feet. No one wanted to be here.

The scholarship she so desperately needed demanded a minimum 3.5 GPA. She'd do what it took to get an A this semester, but that didn't mean she would enjoy it.

Her mother had huge stores of money, but of course, she refused to designate even the smallest amount for Daly's education unless she chose to major in something “useful.”

She refused to give in to her mother's misguided plans even though finding her own way meant wasting away at community college for another long semester; she would live her own life, thank you very much.

She hurried into class, chose a desk at the front of the room, and unpacked her school supplies.

After a few silent minutes, the instructor plodded into the room without so much as a glance at Daly and the other students. He dropped into his chair and took a long swig of coffee, then cleared his throat, still scowling.

Daly's chest clenched. No, this was not good. Where were the teachers who loved their jobs? Who loved sharing their passion with beginning scholars? A groggy-looking mean person would make this already awful experience even worse than she'd feared.

He took out his iPhone, and the music of Angry Birds filled the lecture hall for a good ten minutes past the scheduled start time.

Finally, a student behind Daly stood and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Palermo. It's almost a quarter after. I think class is supposed to begin.”

The instructor raised a condescending eyebrow, then scanned the room full of students who were all annoyed, but too afraid of jeopardizing their grades to complain. He slammed his phone down and stalked over to the chalkboard and wrote his name in big block letters.

Looks like she'd be needing a tutor.

* * *

Class ended almost as quickly as it began, leaving Daly with an hour to kill before heading home. Maybe a surprise visit to her boyfriend's dorm room could help turn this awful day around. Still, visiting him always made her a little sad. He'd moved on to a four-year college and was only a few semesters shy of his bachelor's degree, while she was still stuck in junior college studying subjects she loathed.

She should be at the next phase, too, according to the plan they'd made when they met two years ago—they would get their associate degrees, and then Rick would move on to pre-law and Daly to art school. They would each graduate top of their classes; Rick would be the next Johnny Cochran, and Daly would be a true original but every bit as famous as Chagall, Picasso, or Matisse. Somewhere in the interim, they'd get married and live happily ever after.

It was a good plan. Maybe she could still catch up.

Her excitement mounted as she climbed the stairs to the third floor of the residence hall. Rick didn't have class until the evening on Tuesdays, so they could spend the entire day wrapped in each other's arms—a low-key, high-romance kind of day.

She'd missed him these past few days, but he'd insisted he needed a little time on his own to learn the lay of the new campus, collect his books, and get settled in. Now that his first week of classes was drawing to a close, though, he'd be thrilled by her surprise visit.

Each of the doors sported yellow stars cut out from construction paper, with the names of the residents scrawled in black marker. She followed them down until she found Rick's. A disgusting gray sock clung to his doorknob.

Yuck.

He'd been here less than a week, and already Rick was living like a slob.

He'd better get his act together before we move in together next year. Daly grabbed the sock, stuck her finger over the peephole, and knocked.

Rick groaned inside. “Dude, go away!”

That was weird. She knocked again.

This time footsteps stomped across the tiny room and the door flung open. “Whaaat?” The moment his eyes fell upon Daly, his expression changed. “Uh, what are you doing here, Daly?” He stood in nothing but a pair of black boxers patterned with red chili peppers.

Daly pressed the sock into his chest and pushed her way into the dorm. “I wanted to surprise you… Are you surprised?”

“Yeah, definitely.” He nodded vigorously and drew her into a tight embrace.

She consumed him in a ravenous kiss, walking them backward in the direction of his bed. He hesitated, but she ignored it. They could talk about what was bothering him later. Right now she needed Rick's kisses to erase the terrible start to her day. She fell back onto the bed, pulling him down on top of her.

Their landing was anything but soft.

Daly jumped back onto her feet and whipped around.

A naked redhead rubbed her eyes and sat up. “Rick, honey, who's this?” She yawned and pulled the comforter up to cover her exposed breasts.

“Yeah, Rick, who's that?” Daly demanded, risking a glance at him, which only increased her fury. They had agreed to wait until marriage—his idea—but now here he was with some random co-ed, breaking their oath and breaking her heart in one swift maneuver.

Rick's eyes shot from one girl to the other, his face turning as red as the imposter's tresses.

The longer he remained silent, the tenser the situation became.

Finally Daly blurted, “Um, I… my class got out early, and I wanted to surprise you…spend the day together, but—”

“But, he's already with me,” the naked girl supplied.

Tears welled behind Daly's eyes, but she refused to surrender the last bit of power she still held.

Rick frowned.

“Oh, I get it. You must be Daily,” Ms. Naked chirped.

“The name's Daly,” she sputtered, emphasizing the soft a. “It rhymes with tally.”

Why am I bothering teaching this home-wrecker how to correctly pronounce my name? It wasn't as if she ever wanted to see her again.

“Whatever, Daily.” She reached her arms toward Rick and cooed. “Ricky, come back to bed.”

“I… I just….” Just what? What could I possibly say to make this okay?

Rick pulled Daly into the tiny dorm bathroom before she could form a cohesive thought. “Give me a minute here,” he muttered to the redhead as he shut the door.

“I don't understand. How could you do this to me?”

“How couldn't I? You must have seen this coming. I mean, you did this to yourself.”

Daly shook her head and a tear escaped.

Rick clenched his jaw. A single, pulsing vein snaked across his left temple. She chose to focus on that rather than his words. “You seriously don't understand? Well, that's the problem. You're too distant, too out of touch. I feel like I'm having this relationship all by myself, and that's not really fair to me, is it?”

Daly just stared at him.

He took a deep breath, sending the vein back behind the protective sheath of his tanned skin, like he was mentally pushing her aside. “You don't let people in. You don't let me in.”

“You're too much like your mother.”

Daly gasped. After two years together, he had to know how much that statement would hurt her. Well, his plan worked. She would never forgive him now—not even if he begged.

“I'm sure you'll be super happy together,” she said sarcastically, as she pulled at the bathroom door and dashed out into the dorm room. She bumped into Ms. Naked who stood right outside the bathroom with the sheet wrapped around her, toga-style.

“I'm leaving,” Daly whispered. “You win.”

The girl smirked, obviously thrilled to have won the “prize”. Well, she could keep him.

Daly pulled the door behind her with a quiet click. She was not the slamming type.

As she fled the building, she tried not to think about the day they'd first met in English class, or the time he gave her that first kiss on their weekend getaway to Chicago, or any of the other memories they'd created during their two-year relationship.

She needed some breathing room in order to make sense of things—and the last thing she wanted to do was head home where her mother would no doubt make her feel even worse. That only left one place.

* * *

Roseford Park sat empty, its usual occupants in school, or perhaps their retirement homes. Daly tried not to think as she strolled down the rocky paths with her eyes set on the sky above her. The clouds had retreated today, leaving a blank sheet of blue.

It seemed God had abandoned her, too. Why couldn't He offer her this small solace? Whenever she missed her father, she'd look to the heavens and find his likeness—the friendly almond eyes, soft wisps of hair, and sharp, angular nose. Not today, though. The sun crowded the entire sky with its egotistical brightness.

Daly glared right back, determined not to let the giant ball of gas intimidate her. No, she needed to be strong now.

She spotted a bench in the shade, and made her way over to it. A narrow river gurgled nearby. The water raced faster than usual, as if it knew it would freeze over in a few months and must expend all of its energy before the big sleep. Rocks jutted defiantly from the water, at war against erosion, determined not to recede beneath the surface.

Daly swallowed and willed the water to wash over her mind and sweep away the pain. It wasn't even noon yet, and her day was already broken beyond repair. She closed her eyes, hoping to embrace the blackness, the void. Instead, she was greeted by the memory of that scraggly sock on Rick's doorknob; she now realized what it meant—how could she have been so stupid?

She saw Rick's overgrown wisps of hair swinging from side-to-side as he accused her of driving him to infidelity. She imagined those jagged tresses piercing his eyes, blood pouring forth, each breath bringing a shattered scream of pain. Karma—Rick getting what he deserved, if only in her mind.

What would life be like all alone? She'd grown so accustomed to him being around whenever she needed him. He'd been her escape when she needed some distance from home. He'd been her one…

Stop.

Laughter sounded in the distance. Who could be happy at a time like this? She scanned the horizon for the source of the noise. The silhouette of a small family emerged, making its way down the winding park trail. The family laughed and chatted the whole way, alive in each other's company. Daly fixated on their happiness, trying to suck the bliss from them like some psychic vampire.

A mother pushed a baby in a stroller, while a toddler sat perched upon her father's shoulders. They all seemed so happy, the little girl especially. Her father set her down on the walkway, and she pranced in circles around her parents and younger sibling. Her arms stretched out as she tipped and swayed, simulating flight.

“Look at me, Papa! I'm flying. Vroooom.”

“Very good, Anjali.” Her father ruffled the hair on top of her head and pulled her in for a hug.

They strolled on, the wife shifting her gaze for the briefest moment toward the park bench where Daly sat.

Daly watched until their growing distance stifled the giggles, and she was alone again.

She'd once been like that little girl—bubbly, exuberant, so in love with her daddy. Maybe she still was, somewhere deep down. Stop it, she scolded herself. You need to wake up from that ridiculous daydream. She stretched her neck at an awkward angle, trying to find the sky between the gaps in foliage. Had the clouds come out? Was her father there now?

No.

She'd have to find him the only other way she knew how. She would bring him to her. Daly pulled her tattered old journal out from her messenger bag and thumbed through the pages.

She found him there, near the beginning—a goofy grin plastered on his face, his ears pulled out in emulation of a monkey, his eyebrows raised high. Never mind that he had dark bruises around his eyes or that his hair had all fallen out. He'd accepted his approaching death, and he wanted Daly to do the same. It was the last portrait she'd ever drawn of him.

There hadn't been many more moments like this one. He'd maintained a light spirit, but the cancer had taken its toll.

She caressed his penciled cheek and shivered.

Turning to a fresh page, she let her mind go blank.

No more thinking, just drawing.

Her hand began sketching before her mind realized where it was taking her. A landscape. Roseford Park. The stream. The tree. The bench. An empty silhouette, an unmistakable absence where she should have sat. The picture didn't need her to be complete. Just like the rest of her life. Here, she was a placeholder, nothing more.

She slapped the journal shut and took one final look at the sky before getting up and heading home to her mother.