In the beginning, I believed in second chances. How else could I account for the fact that years ago, right after the accident - when the smoke cleared and the car had stopped tumbling end over end to rest upside down in a ditch - I was still alive; I could hear Elizabeth, my little girl, crying? The police officer who had pulled me out of the car rode with me to the hospital to have my broken leg set, with Elizabeth - completely unhurt, a miracle - sitting on his lap the whole time. He'd held my hand when I was taken to identify my husband Jack's body. He came to the funeral. He showed up at my door to personally inform me when the drunk driver who ran us off the road was arrested.

The policeman's name was Kurt Nealon. Long after the trial and the conviction, he kept coming around just to make sure that Elizabeth and I were all right. He brought toys for her birthday and Christmas. He fixed the clogged drain in the upstairs bathroom. He came over after he was off duty to mow the savannah that had once been our lawn.

I had married Jack because he was the love of my life; I had planned to be with him forever. But that was before the definition of forever was changed by a man with a blood alcohol level of .22. I was surprised that Kurt seemed to understand that you might never love someone as hard as you had the first time you'd fallen; I was even more surprised to learn that maybe you could.

Five years later, when Kurt and I found out we were going to have a baby, I almost regretted it - the same way you stand beneath a perfect blue sky on the most glorious day of the summer and admit to yourself that all moments from here on in couldn't possibly measure up. Elizabeth had been two when Jack died; Kurt was the only father she'd ever known. They had a connection so special it sometimes made me feel I should turn away, that I was intruding. If Elizabeth was the princess, then Kurt was her knight.

The imminent arrival of this little sister (how strange is it that none of us ever imagined the new baby could be anything but a girl?) energized Kurt and Elizabeth to fever pitch. Elizabeth drew elaborate sketches of what the baby's room should look like. Kurt hired a contractor to build the addition. But then the builder's mother had a stroke and he had to move unexpectedly to Florida; none of the other crews had time to fit our job into their schedules before the baby's birth. We had a hole in our wall and rain leaking through the attic ceiling; mildew grew on the soles of our shoes.

When I was seven months pregnant, I came downstairs to find Elizabeth playing in a pile of leaves that had blown past the plastic sheeting into the living room. I was deciding between crying and raking my carpet when the doorbell rang.

He was holding a canvas roll that contained his tools, something that never left his possession, like another man might tote around his wallet. His hair brushed his shoulders and was knotted. His clothes were filthy and he smelled of snow - although it wasn't the right season. Shay Bourne arrived, unexpected, like a flyer from a summer carnival that blusters in on a winter wind, making you wonder just where it's been hiding all this time.

He had trouble speaking - the words tangled, and he had to stop and unravel them before he could say what he needed to say. 'I want to . . .' he began, and then started over: 'Do you, is there, because . . .' The effort made a fine sweat break out on his forehead. 'Is there anything I can do?' he finally managed, as Elizabeth came running toward the front door.

You can leave, I thought. I started to close the door, instinctively protecting my daughter. 'I don't think so . . .'

Elizabeth slipped her hand into mine and blinked up at him. 'There's a lot that needs to be fixed,' she said.

He got down to his knees then and spoke to my daughter easily - words that had been full of angles and edges for him a minute before now flowed like a waterfall. 'I can help,' he replied.

Kurt was always saying people are never who you think they are, that it was necessary to get a complete background check on a person before you made any promises. I'd tell him he was being too suspicious, too much the cop. After all, I had let Kurt himself into my life simply because he had kind eyes and a good heart, and even he couldn't argue with the results.

'What's your name?' I asked.

'Shay. Shay Bourne.'

'You're hired, Mr Bourne,' I said, the beginning of the end.