I can’t thank you guys enough for your support of Bad Boy’s Bridesmaid. I’m so happy you fell in love with Nate and Mandy like I did.
This bonus epilogue is a mini-novella, 16,000 words in length (About a quarter of the size of Bridesmaid). This is a little story which takes place a month after Lindsey and Bryce’s wedding, once the news of the baby settles and Mandy and Nate get to work on starting the new stage of their lives together.
This epilogue is just a little playful story, but I wanted to give you guys something fun for free. In the future, I plan to write serialized stories, releasing one part a week, just for the subscribers to my mailing list. So keep an eye on your emails!
Thank you guys so much! I hope you enjoy!
Bad Boy’s Bridesmaid
Bad Boy’s Bridesmaid
Copyright © 2016 by Sosie Frost
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you’d like to share it with. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.
Chapter One – Mandy
One Month Post the Lindsey/Bryce Wedding
So here’s the thing about being the pregnant Maid of Honor.
The teal dress and bouquet of stolen funeral flowers singled me out as a bridesmaid, but the attention wasn’t on me exactly.
Sure, some of my friends might have gossiped and pointed.
And, of course, the minister was angry with his son and refused to acknowledge the bastard until leaving the sanctuary of the church.
And, yeah, the entire family learned all at once about the baby once Mom ninja-kicked the champagne flute from my hand…even though it’d bubbled with ginger ale.
But at least they’d watched the bride. For the most part. Sometimes.
Okay. Not at all.
I’d thought Lindsey would be furious, but the blushing bride slammed enough tequila shots to forget her new surname. The attention lavished on the rumor of my condition was lost during her blessed and drunken haze.
We’d survived the wedding, and Nate wasn’t pummeled to death by Dad or Rick, but things weren’t…normal.
As great as it was to no longer be the pregnant bridesmaid, I wasn’t sure I liked my newest role.
I hoped I’d become just Mandy again after the wedding. Instead, I became the unfortunately, accidentally pregnant, unwed mother-to-be. Besotted with a troublemaker. Spoiled before her prime. Showing with a little bump of shame that people congratulated with a tisk of their tongue, sidelong glance, and sigh.
When we said we couldn’t wait for grandchildren, we didn’t mean now.
The thing about a secret baby? The news was old to me…but not to anyone else. I’d known about the little nugget for months, but no one else had learned until the wedding.
Including my family.
And definitely the daddy-to-be…who happened to be thrilled, and even more excited that I agreed to move into his apartment.
Now we had five months to prepare until the baby, and five months to prepare everyone else for the little guy’s arrival.
Fortunately, after the nightmare that was planning Lindsey’s wedding, anything that didn’t involve flowers, shoes, dresses, musicians, or bitten strippers was a welcomed change. I’d feared for the worst, but at least my family was now as excited as me about the pregnancy—indecent as it was.
“Mandy, look what I have!” Lindsey burst into Nate’s apartment bearing a white box and a proud smile. “I had it made specially for you!”
She set the cake box on Nate’s kitchen counter.
I bolted before the tropical stench of the unholy dessert wafted its way from the kitchen.
Fortunately, the second trimester was a lot kinder on my tummy, but I still exercised an overabundance of caution. I had nothing to ward off the coconut, and, for a preacher’s kid, Nate possessed surprisingly few religious relics. So I forged a rudimentary crucifix out of the hair brushes I’d packed in the suitcase heading for my vanity and aimed it at the cake.
“Keep it away from me,” I ordered.
“I’m on it!” Nate came to my rescue.
He grinned—that perfect playfulness that was now mine and mine alone. Every night he teased me to sleep with it, and every morning I fell more madly in love with him.
Nate dropped a box of shoes in the bedroom and picked his way through the cluttered living room. He brandished a fork left over from breakfast, wiped it on his jeans, then dug into the cake.
We…still had some things to work on.
Nate held up the box so I could read what Lindsey had scrawled in pink and blue icing.
Congrats! You Had A Baby Before Me!
“That’s real sweet, Linds,” Nate said. “Not sure how you did it, but somehow you made the cake all about you. That’s a talent…and probably a mental health issue.”
Lindsey crossed her arms. “It’s a joke, Nate. God. This is the thanks I get for offering to host a baby shower?”
I frowned. “You didn’t want to throw a formal baby shower after the stripper banned you for life.”
“Yeah, well, he refused to wear a diaper for the party anyway.”
Nate made a face. “What kind of baby shower has a stripper?”
“Like the women who’d RSVP wouldn’t know where babies come from,” Lindsey scoffed.
“Not…from a grown man dancing in Huggies.”
“It’s for his show.” Lindsey pointed at me. “Besides, you two will use cloth diapers.”
Nate glanced at me. “They come in cloth?”
I had only just explained how long a baby would be in diapers to Nate. I didn’t need any more confusion—not when he still mixed-up the terms uterus, ovary, and placenta.
Nothing ruined a sensual and sexy night more than a discussion of a woman’s mucus plug.
“We have a lot of time before we worry about diapers and all that,” I said.
“No, you don’t!” Lindsey counted the potential crises on her fingers. “You have to decide if you’re breast feeding. You need to get cloth diapers. You have yet to find a midwife. You haven’t even prepared a kit to preserve the placenta. Good Lord, Mandy. You haven’t scheduled a gender reveal party! Not to mention childproofing this death trap, painting, buying furniture, finding a pediatrician, getting a preschool. What about college?”
Every word she spoke tightened my chest. I groped for the wall to support me.
“Jesus, Linds,” Nate said. “If a cat can have kittens in a fucking shoe box, I think we’ll be okay. Here.” He rooted through his pockets and tossed a ten-dollar bill onto the coffee table. “I started a college fund for the little guy. We’ll be good. And…Mandy will be breastfeeding.”
I hugged my arms over my chest. “Wait, what?”
“You’ll be fine,” Lindsey said. “You’re so young, it won’t sag you at all. It’s good for the baby. You know, Mom breastfed you until you were almost three.”
That explained so much. “Okay, can we just get me moved into Nate’s apartment? We’ll discuss my breasts later.”
“We should order you some special tea,” Lindsey said. “Oh, and the breast pumps! They’re electric now.”
“As opposed to what? Diesel?”
Lindsey pulled out her phone. “I’ll add it to the list! Aren’t you glad you have a big sister helping you? By the time the baby comes, you’ll be plump as a cow and overflowing—”
“Yes, thank you!” I interrupted her before I imagine just what would be overflowing. “You’re a Godsend.”
Lindsey hugged me. “You did so good on my wedding, I want to return the favor. I’m not going to leave your side until the baby comes. In fact, Nate should just give me a spare bedroom because Aunt Lindsey is going to be all over that little widdle baby waby.”
Lindsey rubbed my tummy. I stared at Nate, mouthing for help. The fiend only grinned and snuck another bite of the cake.
My sister waited, expectantly, guilting Nate into dropping his dessert. He found one of the three forks he kept in his apartment and handed it to my sister. Her nose crinkled, and he sighed, rubbing it clean on his jeans.
Lindsey changed her mind on the cake.
I took a breath. At least Nate’s bar below was tidy.
We had a lot of work to do.
The apartment wasn’t big…but how much room could a baby possibly need? Sure, they were six pounds and a couple ounces of trouble when they popped out, but at least they’d fit into most spaces. Nate seemed pretty confident about a shoebox, but I knew where he hid the receipt for the gift he bought me.
The most beautiful crib in the baby store.
The one I wept over when we came across it.
Delivery was next week, and that man still kept it a secret. I’d have to pretend to be surprised, but I was crying over anything from shoelaces to dog food commercials. At least I’d be convincing.
At least we already cleared Nate’s spare bedroom…his legit bachelor pad. What had once been a catchall for bottles, extra brewing equipment, pallets of Arizona Iced Tea, canned chili, and tool kits morphed into a nursery, already packed with gifted stuffed animals and onesies.
I hoped the baby would like cream walls. Painting had been a no-go since we opened the can of obscenely smelling canary yellow paint. What came out of me was anything but the sunshine gold we planned for the trim.
Nate abandoned the cake as the front door opened again. Bryce and Rick huffed, puffed, and sweated as they carried a load of my things from the street. A lamp and TV nearly clattered to the ground, and Rick swore as he dropped a box of books onto his toe.
Rick rubbed his foot and grumbled. “How much stuff do you have?”
I shrugged. “I…accumulate.”
“She hoards,” Lindsey said. She whispered to Bryce. “It’s a problem.”
“I do not hoard! If anyone hoards, it’s you, pack rat.”
“Pack rat?” Lindsey’s hands settled on her hips. “What’s in the box, bubblebutt?”
I kicked the box that crushed Rick’s foot. “Those are books.”
“Buy a Kindle.” Rick scowled. I kicked him instead. “We still have half the truck to unload. This might cost you another pizza.”
I bit my lip. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather get Chinese?”
I rubbed my belly. “Or hoagies. Oh! How about spaghetti?”
Bryce shrugged. “I just want something to eat. How the hell did you fit all this stuff in a studio apartment?”
“Skill,” I said. “But seriously…what are we eating?”
Rick cleared his throat. “Tell you what. It doesn’t take a doctor to know you’re going to change your mind on your cravings sixteen times before we’re done moving you in, and even then you’ll think you’ll want a little bit of everything smooshed together.” He winked at me. “We’ll pick a food once we’re done.”
It was sweet and irritating and agonizing all at the same time.
My lower lip trembled. “I don’t think I want anything with cheese on it.”
Lindsey crossed her arms. “Yeah, Rick. My little sister will have whatever she wants, when she wants, and no one is going to give her shit for it. Is that clear?”
A horrible vision of the future passed before my eyes.
For years, I worried that I would slowly age, gain fifty pounds, and turn into my mother. Instead, I suffered a couple hormonal changes and suddenly I sounded a lot like…
Oh sweet baby Jesus, no.
“Pizza’s fine!” I forced a chipper tone. “Absolutely fine. No problem with pizza, especially if everyone wants it. We’ll get these last few boxes inside and—”
Yelling erupted from downstairs.
Windows rattled. Dogs howled.
They were coming.
“—Because you were never at the house, Conrad! You were always working!”
“Because someone had to pay for that house, Sandra!”
Everyone collectively tensed. My parents no longer had the wedding to blame for their bickering, and so they focused on the next crisis in their endless battles.
Mom and Dad stomped into Nate’s apartment. They carried identically sized packages, gift wrapped with bows. Mom scowled and pointed at me.
“And now look what happened without a good male role-model around the house!” She tisked her tongue. “Babies having babies!”
I sighed. “Um, this isn’t Dad’s fault.”
Dad stared only at Nate. “No. It isn’t.”
Another moment of tension, and everyone’s butts squeezed a little tighter.
“Don’t you blame the boy.” Mom poked a finger into Dad’s chest. “Don’t you dare, not when you were after the same damn thing when you were his age.”
Dad surrendered. “We aren’t blaming anyone. These things happen, and we’re all being supportive.”
“That’s not what you told me twenty-nine years ago.” Mom hooted. “You sure changed your tune. I remember one visit from the stork that had you running for the hills.”
Lindsey crossed her arms. “I don’t know that story.”
Mom patted her cheek. “Of course you don’t, Sweetie. You were our happy little accident.”
Mom didn’t answer. She pulled me to the couch and set a huge, heavy box in my lap. I steadied the present, wrapped in gaudy blue and pink paper.
“I couldn’t help myself.” Mom yanked the present away before I could open it. She handed me the card. “From Grandma.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Dad pointed at the box. “Is that what I think it is?”
Mom hmphed. “And if it is?”
Dad shook the gift he brought up the stairs, as large and cumbersome as the present waiting at my feet. He wrapped his in silver paper and scrawled in black sharpie From Pop-Pop over the top.
“I thought we were going to coordinate,” Dad said.
“Don’t you dare tell me not to buy my own grandbaby a present!”
“I didn’t say that, but, Sandra, these kids will need help. We have to organize what we buy for them.”
I unwrapped both.
Two identical car seats.
Nate shrugged, and I knew what he planned. One for each of our cars.
I braved the skirmish before it turned into a war. “Hey guys, thank you both—”
“This is just like you!” Mom shouted. “Always wanting to play the hero!”
Lindsey, Bryce, and Rick edged to the door, ducking downstairs to bring up anything stuck in the truck. Traitors. They left me to deal with the parental apocalypse alone.
Nate cleared his throat. I caught his gaze, and those green eyes turned to a steady and authoritative confidence.
He was right. We had been working on my assertiveness. Without interference from the wedding, and with the baby on the way, it was up to me to push back against my family.
Or for me to rein them in before WWE Raw broke out in my new living room.
“Guys.” I adopted a sterner voice—one I imagined using on the baby…or Nate…when they got into the cookie jar before dinner. “What did I tell you? The baby hears everything. We’re supposed to be calm and soothing.”
Calm and soothing.
Trying to mediate peace between my parents wouldn’t happen without severe economic sanctions and UN boots on the ground…
…And yet Dad’s SUV had parked overnight at her house one night last week.
Lindsey and I weren’t speculating, at least, not without alcohol to dull the pain. I was pregnant, and she swore off tequila after the wedding, and so the only thing we allowed ourselves to think was that Mom and Dad’s pent-up aggression came from somewhere. I’d witnessed enough to know their love wasn’t dead—not unless it got mashed under Mom’s thighs too.
“Dear…” Dad faked his sweetness. “I wanted to organize the presents we bought for our darling youngest daughter.”
Mom grinned through the venom. “And I thought, as her mother, I was entitled to give her any gift I saw fit. After all, sweetheart, I’m the one who raised her, took care of her, and pushed her to finally find herself a man.”
Oh Lord. I stood. “Mom, remember that talk we had? When we decided it was best to approach certain topics of conversation with a bit more sensitivity?”
“Of course, Mandy.” Mom enveloped me in a hug, thrusting my head against her chest. “Don’t you worry. I won’t let anyone get you riled up, not while you’re in your condition. Illegitimate or not, that baby is family.”
“That’s so…nice.” I choked on her perfume.
What the hell was with my family and coconut flavored and scented products?
Mom stoked my hair. “And baby, if you weren’t moving in with Nate…I’d have taken you in myself. In fact…we still can!”
I tried to push away. Mom turned half-python and clutched me against her bosom.
“If you and Nate want to move out of this apartment…we can load your things into the truck and bring you home to Momma…”
Fewer things were more frightening that my positive pregnancy test.
This was one of those things.
“Sandra,” Nate said. He tugged on my hand while Dad pulled Mom away. “I think we got this. We’re still dealing with all the changes, but come on.” He grinned the smile that so often melted me. It didn’t impress my parents. “We’ll be fine. I love Mandy and the baby.”
It fluttered me in all the right places to hear him say such beautiful things…but the hormones figured it was more appropriate to cry. I hugged Nate, sniffling in his welcoming arms. His words were kind, but they meant more to me than just sweetness.
He saved me from living with my mother.
That was the stuff of legends. Not slaying dragons or winning jousts, but the noble prince offering the princess a home away from the Queen? That had happily-ever-after written all over it.
Lindsey, Bryce, and Rick returned with an armload of the last boxes from my car. It wasn’t organized, and it looked like my studio apartment vomited into Nate’s place, but that was it.
I moved in.
I was now living with Nate Kensington, father of my unborn baby and absolutely the last man I ever imagined myself loving.
Funny how things worked out.
We feasted on our half a dozen pizzas—the wedding planning special from the restaurant who practically catered for us the past six months. Then our friends and family said their goodnights.
The door closed, and Nate and I gazed at the chaos that was our living room, decorated with boxes, shoes, spare electronics, luggage, and empty pizza boxes.
He checked his cell phone, murmuring something about checking the time. His lips pressed into a hidden frown. He shoved the phone into his pocket.
I wasn’t sure when I learned to read Nate so well, but I could tell now when he hid things, when he avoided a subject. He wasn’t curious about the time.
“Did you parents ever text you?” I asked. “They…didn’t come tonight.”
Nate gave me a cocky wink that didn’t seem as genuine as his usual. “Don’t worry about them. They need time.”
“Your parents aren’t happy.”
“They’ve never been happy with me.” He grabbed a stack of pizza boxes and stuffed them on the kitchen counter. “They’ll come around on this.”
“This is a big deal.”
“This is our big deal.”
His hands snaked around my waist, pulling me close to steal a kiss. I wasn’t showing much, only enough to puff the front of my shirt out. Nate liked that. His kiss drifted from my lips, over my chin, and would have trailed lower if I hadn’t pulled away.
“There’s a lot to unpack…” I bit my lip. “Should we get started?”
“There’s only one tight little box I’m interested in.”
I giggled. “You’re obsessed.”
“I’m a man given a gift. Why wouldn’t I indulge?” Nate took another kiss, and the heat fluttered through me. “We’re not married, but we can still christen our bed, don’t you think?”
“I like how that sounds.”
His kiss wasn’t as gentle this time, and every furious nibble cast shivers over my body. I tugged on his belt, but Nate pulled away with a groan.
“Sorry…I have to go downstairs and check on the bar. Pat might need something restocked for tonight. You just…” His hands gripped my hips tight. “You keep looking so fucking delicious. I’ll be right back.”
Nate hurried from the apartment, taking the steps downstairs two at a time. I watched him leave, tickled by the flutter of lust, desire, and excitement that bubbled through me.
Once it had confused me, layering me in shame and silence.
I didn’t have to hide my feelings for Nate. I could share every single secret, emotion, and longing with the man I loved.
I never thought being a functional couple could make me feel so damn lucky.
I grabbed my bag and hurried to the bathroom, brushing my teeth and hair at the same time…which ended with me covered in toothpaste and a little nauseated. I had no idea where my packed pajamas were stashed in the apartment, so I grabbed the only ones I could find from my overnight bag.
That left me to seduce Nate in pink polka dots. Somehow greeting him naked felt a little too slutty, but the pajamas were just too…pink.
Only one option. I lived with him for approximately two hours. That gave me recourse to break any vow of expected privacy. I searched Nate’s drawers for an oversized shirt and slipped it over me.
Perfectly innocent, temptingly naughty, and I left the panties in the corner of the room where I figured a hamper would make the most sense.
…If he had one.
Unfortunately, I made the worst mistake a pregnant woman could make that wasn’t folding a slice of pizza over a chocolate chip cookie—which had tasted good until it came back up.
I laid down.
And the move, the stress, the exhaustion, and the warmth of Nate’s bed rushed over me.
My eyes closed.
I rolled over when Nate returned, but I didn’t remember saying good night, even as he kissed my shoulder and tried to rouse me.
After a few minutes, he gave up and flipped on the TV.
That woke me up.
I murmured, and he reluctantly turned the volume down a notch. Another murmur and he adjusted it down again.
I had to get to sleep before the heartburn, burping, and headache from the pregnancy kicked into full gear. I wasn’t losing another night’s sleep to the weirdest pregnancy side effects no one ever talked about. Nate protested as I grabbed the remote from his hand.
The TV turned off. I collapsed against the pillow. Nate grumbled.
Pregnancy was hard.
Living together was probably going to be tougher.
Chapter Two – Nate
One Week Post Move-In
An extra toothbrush in my medicine cabinet.
Two shampoos, two conditioners, and three bath gels in my shower.
Prenatal vitamins and some sort of organic voodoo grain pancake mix on my counter.
Not a dirty dish in sight.
I stumbled into the kitchen, stubbing my toe on the kitchen chair. It hurt, but I was so goddamned tired the pain took an extra second to make me swear.
Didn’t need that toenail anyway.
I shuffled into the seat, held my head in my hands, and tried to read the words on the message board Mandy stuck on the fridge. Something about a doctor’s appointment tomorrow? I blinked. It didn’t clear up, but I was damn sure the appointment was scheduled ridiculously early. Nine-thirty?
What time was it now? Hell if I could see. I groped my pockets for my phone.
Wasn’t wearing pants.
I thought it was cold.
Mandy’s sweet, melodic, unrelentingly chipper voice pierced my brain. I didn’t have a hangover as I hadn’t had anything to drink, but the loudness wasn’t pleasant on…three hours’ sleep.
She kissed my cheek. That made it better. I attempted to hide my shame with a politely placed napkin before she poked at me again.
She busied herself around the kitchen, tossing her purse on the table and kicking her shoes until the sandals slipped on. Water splashed in the sink, the bottles in the fridge rattled as she searched for her pre-made lunch, and the tea-kettle whistled on the stove.
Did I fall asleep with my eyes open? When had she made tea?
“Can I get you anything?” Mandy smiled at me so sweetly and dressed so professionally for work I almost felt bad for ignoring everything she said so I could stare at her ridiculously swollen tits. “I can’t keep eggs down, but I can probably scramble some for you. Also…I ate all the crusts off the bread last night, but I’ll make you the white part for toast. Or I think we have some cereal, but I need to get more milk. If I stop at the store, would you want me to get anything in particular? I like Cheerios, but the doctor mentioned Mini-Wheats as maybe being better for the baby, but I still can’t eat much beyond oranges and bananas…”
What Twilight Zone Hell was this? I rubbed my face.
“Baby…” My voice was a harsh grumble. “What time is it?”
“Are you kidding me?”
She giggled. “Haven’t been up this early before?”
“Sure…when I haven’t gone to bed.” I glanced out the window. “Why the hell is it still dark?”
“Because it’s early, silly.”
“You realize I don’t even have morning wood yet, right?” I pointed to my pantsless legs. “That’s too goddamned early.”
“I have to open the office at seven.”
“I…” I couldn’t see straight. “Gotta sleep. Bed. Go.”
Mandy grinned, and seeing that was almost worth waking up early. She leaned down and gave me a kiss, winking as she unbuttoned the top of her blouse so I could get a full show of what distracted me.
Now it was worth it.
But her mouth wasn’t where I wanted it.
My cock hardened, and she teased it with a soft graze of her finger. “Ah, good morning to you too. Now you don’t have an excuse. Gotta get up.”
“I’d rather go down…”
She pulled away before I could get a peek of her panties under her skirt. “I’ll be home at five. See you then?”
“I’m bartending tonight. I’ll be downstairs until closing.”
Mandy crinkled her nose. “I don’t know how you can work so late.”
“Not sure how you crawl out of bed this early in the morning.”
She smirked. “If you think this is bad…wait for when the baby comes.”
I pulled her in for another kiss. “Don’t think I can.”
She coo’ed and squirmed the way I liked. My cock twitched, but she insisted she had to leave.
At least she’d be imagining me all day.
Except my cock bobbed and smacked my damn leg with every step back to bed. It tented the sheets as all I smelled was her sweet vanilla scent.
No sleeping then.
I peeled myself from the bed and hobbled into the shower…
And I emerged cold, wet, and towel-less. I ripped through the apartment, finally finding the stash of towels in the hall closet where no bare-assed person fresh from a shower would think to look. Sure, they were washed, but it wasn’t like I had room on the bathroom counter to set it, not with Mandy’s hair dryer and supplies crowding the sink.
No hot water left in the tank, and no towels.
I loved Mandy—more than anyone and anything…but damn this adjustment was hard. At least she had a killer ass, sweet smile, and my baby in her belly.
Living together took some work. Bryce warned about the changes—new food in the fridge, favorite clothes thrown out, everything smelling like weird candles and fabric softener.
I just hadn’t thought I’d need to find a new place to set my towel.
Or that I’d move aside twelve different flavors of Greek yogurt to make room for a six pack.
Or that I had to keep the TV volume low when I tried to fall asleep. Mandy couldn’t sleep with any noise, but I hated the silence.
It was worth it though. I had her. I’d have my baby. All families took a while to sort out their boundaries. And hell, I already missed her when she wasn’t around the house.
I hit the bar before she got home. It sounded worse than it was when I texted it to her, but I hoped our unborn child would understand that I sold the booze, I wasn’t drinking it. Much.
The night was busy, and Mandy gave me a peck on the cheek when she dragged herself in.
“Tired.” She shouted over the music. The jukebox raged, and a group of college kids sang in the corner. She pointed to her stomach. “Hungry.”
Poor thing. Pregnancy really kicked the ass of a mom-to-be. It was a wonder anyone did it. Then again, it wasn’t like Mandy had planned for this to happen. So far, it had been the best thing to happen to either of us, but I still didn’t like her suffering for it.
I hugged her, but she crinkled her nose. Whoops. I smelled of grease from the fryer. If she didn’t like that, she wouldn’t like my offer for dinner.
“No burger?” I asked.
“Peanut butter, apples, and chicken broth.”
I feared for my kitchen. “Not together, I hope.”
“That remains to be seen.”
Mandy headed to the apartment—one I was sure would resemble the scene from the Exorcist the instant the peanut butter hit the soup. But I wasn’t stopping her. I already learned the easiest way to lose a finger was to take a sandwich from a pregnant woman’s hands, no matter how much grape jelly she slathered on the salami.
Messing with cravings was idiot move number one, and I liked my balls where they were, not crushed on the floor under her heels.
I hoped to check on her after an hour or so, but the night only got busier. Arrogance became a local hot spot over the past few months, and I was slammed behind the bar. I’d have to hire another bartender and server soon, especially before the baby came.
I texted her around ten o’clock. That went…poorly. Her reply wasn’t kind. Apparently she had fallen asleep and waking her up didn’t earn me any points.
Lesson learned. I let her sleep and worked the rest of the night, finally kicking out the last barflies at two in the morning. My waitress dragged herself from behind the counter and out the door, barely waving a hand goodbye.
Was I the only night owl left in the world?
I much preferred the party scene, the nighttime fun, the excitement after dark. Even a Tuesday night could be entertaining if a person put in the effort. I connected my phone to the wireless speakers and turned the volume up as I organized the receipts, invoices, and bills I left piled on my office desk.
Pandora blasted the third Aerosmith song of the night at me, rattling the windows and thumping the bass through the office.
Then the music cut out.
Mandy glowered in the doorway, wearing my shirt, polka dotted pants, and two different slippers. She slammed the door to my office open and trembled on the verge of either rage or dismay.
Or murder. Possibly murder.
“What are you doing?”
She sounded pissed, but she immediately started bawling. I didn’t trust those tears. The hormones controlled that weeping, just like they told her to bite, snarl, or rip off various parts of me she felt were responsible for her condition.
“Heyyyy,” I said, as gently as possible, hands raised in surrender. “What are you doing up, sleepyhead?”
Her finger pointed accusatorily at my iPhone and speakers. “How can I sleep?”
“Oh…you heard the music?”
“Are you kidding?” Her hands clenched into fists. “I finally got used to the noise of the bar, and now it sounds like a damn concert down here!”
Wow. Wasn’t telling her about the Battle of the Bands event I scheduled for the end of the month.
“Sorry, baby. I wasn’t trying to wake you.”
“It’s three in the morning!”
“I’m sleeping!” Mandy rubbed her face. “I know. You’re just…trying to get your bar closed up for the night. I’m sorry. I’m just really tired and cranky and…”
I approached—slowly and cautiously, how they did on the nature shows when approaching big cats or moose. Mandy let me hug her, and I gently kissed those pouting lips.
“Go to bed. I’ll be up in a few minutes. I won’t make a peep. I promise.”
“We have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.”
She kissed me, and that damn lizard brain of mine flared. I got hard even when I knew it wasn’t safe to test the beast just yet. I watched her go, deliberating on whether I could convince her to let me tuck her in right…
And then I saw the math error.
Goddamn it. My waitress walked out of the bar, exhausted and dragging, and hadn’t counted the register right.
I sat at my desk. Two hundred dollars short? How the fuck—
Two hours and one massive headache later, I figured it out. Jenny wasn’t the type to steal, but she was damn busty and had a tendency to lean on the register to earn more tips. Some nights she forgot to reverse the transactions accidentally inputted by her tits.
Quarter after five, and I hadn’t even done inventory.
I didn’t get any sleep yesterday, and today wasn’t looking much better. I hauled my ass up the stairs and headed to bed.
I no sooner hit the pillow before Mandy groaned. The blanket kicked off, and she grumbled all the way to the bathroom.
New rule. No messing with cravings, and no waking her from a dead sleep.
She emerged from the bathroom, snuggled under the covers, and tucked her icy feet against my legs. My turn to swear. I shifted. She followed.
Fine. I didn’t mind snuggling with her. I turned, wrapped an arm over her belly, and held her close. She stopped cursing me, and I closed my eyes.
We earned thirty seconds of peace.
Her feet hadn’t even warmed before she woke with a lurch.
Mandy bolted from the bed, launching off the mattress with a swift kick to my balls.
She was lucky she threw up before me. My stomach heaved, but I couldn’t peel myself from the mattress to follow. Pain. Shooting. Horrible. Unrelenting—
I clutched the only thing that gave me more pride than my brewery.
“Sorry!” Mandy coughed from the bathroom. “Morning sickness.”
I gasped for air. “Yeah…be glad you got the baby now. Not so sure I can make another for you.”
Mandy rolled from the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bed. My cold sweat wasn’t much better than the dry heaving. I couldn’t move yet, even when Mandy whimpered, trembled her lower lip, and crashed into my chest.
“I’m so tired.”
I knew the feeling. “Go back to sleep. You have time before work.”
“Can’t. I’m wide awake.”
Great, and the one time I couldn’t service her. I could try, but I hadn’t been able to sit up yet. Mandy whimpered and tucked in close to me, the blankets at her neck. The pain slowly passed, and I closed my eyes as she snuggled and went still.
My hand drifted low, gently rubbing her tummy. I never thought of pregnant women as sexy before—more like bullets-dodged or women off-the-market, but on Mandy…it looked good. The little bump was beautiful and sexy and adorable all at the same time.
And I’d prove it to her after I got a full night’s sleep, shower, breakfast, a good hour of exercise—
I drifted to sleep. Mandy poked my chest.
I didn’t open my eyes. “Mm?”
“Are you awake?”
“The baby is coming in less than five months. Closer to four.”
“Does that scare you?”
“Not as much as another kick in the balls.”
So, we weren’t sleeping. I hugged her. “It’s a baby, not a nuke. It’ll be fine.”
“What if it’s not? What if we’re in over our heads? What if we can’t handle it?”
This was almost three months of keeping the kid a secret bottling up and finally cracking out. “It’s going to be okay. You let yourself worry alone about this for so long, it’s just getting to you.”
“Getting to me?”
“Yeah, We’ve only had a month together to process this. You kept it quiet for longer. But now you have me to calm you down when you overreact.”
“Over—” Mandy lurched from my arms. “Overreact? Nate this is a baby. A baby is coming. How aren’t you freaking out?”
“Because it’s our baby.”
“But there’s so much to do. Nurseries and clothes and doctors and…labor.”
“And we’ll take care of all that.”
“Why are you so calm?”
I rose to my elbows. “Because it’s six o’clock in the morning, and the baby is months and months away. We’ll handle it—one crisis at a time. Just like the wedding.”
“Oh Lord, this is nothing like the wedding. I can’t taco bar my way through motherhood.”
I grinned, flopping back onto the pillow. “Why the hell not? Might make you the most popular mom in the neighborhood. Nachos, tacos, burritos—”
Mandy didn’t appreciate the joke. “I can’t believe you aren’t taking this seriously.”
“I can’t believe you’re so worried.”
She grunted. “I have to go make a list.”
“Who knows? Things that can go wrong. Things that have gone right. What I have to do today, tomorrow, next week. What we’ll need to do for the next eighteen years. Take your pick.”
“Want some help?”
“Will you take it seriously?”
“I’ll sharpen your pencil.”
Mandy groaned. “Nate. Fine. Sleep. I’ll be okay.”
I was serious, but Mandy stormed into the living room. I didn’t have the energy to chase her, or the pain tolerance to stand. She was upset, I was exhausted, and nothing was going to get done at six in the freaking morning that couldn’t wait for a decent, normal hour.
I didn’t have time to sleep. My balls had just un-swelled when my alarm vibrated from my pocket. I put up a cell phone and nearly pitched it across the room.
Mandy stood in the doorway. Dressed. Showered. Scowling.
“We have a doctor’s appointment. We need to leave in twenty minutes.”
Mandy was a terrible snooze button. I tripped getting out of bed. She paced, darting through my drawers and closet to gather clothes for me.
“I can handle it,” I said.
“I’m trying to help. I don’t want to be late.”
“I can dress myself.”
“But you still have to get a shower, shave, get dressed, wake up—”
I grinned. She didn’t like that. “Baby, I’ve been doing this shit myself for years. I promise you. I’m not going to be late.”
“I wish you’d be early.”
“We’ll be right on time.”
Mandy uncrossed and recrossed her arms. “And what if we were having the baby now? Like, what if I were going in to labor?”
I shrugged. “Guess…we’d toss a blanket in the sink or something. We’d make it work.”
“Fine. We’ll use a laundry basket.”
Mandy threw the shirt at me and stormed from the room.
It was still fun getting under her skin, though she had less of a sense of humor about these things now that she had someone else living under there.
But Mandy worked herself into a panic, and that wasn’t good for momma or the baby. Except I saw no reason to fear something so small, tiny, and growing within her. I loved Mandy, more than I had ever loved anyone else in my life, so what could be bad or hard about a baby we made together?
Two types of people existed in the world.
People who panicked, worried, and approached every major milestone in life with a list of things that could go wrong.
Then there was me. I had my girl. She was carrying my baby. I had my brewery. I planned to provide for my family and enjoy it. Settling down with a woman hadn’t destroyed me, even though I had always feared losing that independence.
It was time for the next phase—diapers, bottles, babies. I’d read a couple books, browse a few forums, and we’d be good to go in five months when the baby squirted out.
No muss, no fuss. No reason to get so scared.
And as soon as Mandy realized I had it under control, she’d calm down too.
The ride to the doctor’s office didn’t go any better. I drove to keep myself awake, and Mandy fretted. She scoured her phone for baby-related everything, studying any pregnancy tips she could find. I took her hand, but she only gave me a thin smile. Forced.
I didn’t like that.
“Mandy, you know you’re going to do great,” I said.
She stared only at the road. “At what?”
“At everything. Being a mom. Having the baby. Teaching me what to do with the baby.”
“I hope so.”
“You gotta relax. This isn’t something you can plan like the wedding. There’s no responsibilities on you. No caterers. No invitations. No dealing with your sister. The only thing you have to worry about is eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and letting me take care of you.”
“But you don’t understand. This is a big deal. Our lives are going to change completely.”
“They are ready have. You’re the first woman ever to spend the night in my bed. That’s a huge change.”
Oh Christ. I really was an idiot.
I had a million other things that had changed my life. Why not mention the goddamn yogurt in my fridge? Yogurt was a change. Yogurt was a monumental change.
“The point is…”
Did I have a point anymore? Or did I win myself a one-way ticket to the couch tonight? Technically that was a change too. I already thought of the bed as hers when we fought.
“We’re in this together,” I said. “You’re not alone anymore. Don’t push me away.”
“I’m not.” Mandy nibbled on her lip. “I don’t think I am.”
“You can trust me.”
“You love me?”
She cast a shy glance my way. “Yeah. I do.”
“Then there’s no problem.”
We waited at the doctor’s office for twenty extra minutes that I might have used to sleep. The nurse finally called us back, and Mandy took her steps with bated breath.
Was this what it was like when she went without me? Had she been this scared before, but all alone and facing the judgement of everyone when she didn’t come with the father?
I gave this woman my heart only so she could break it without realizing.
The nurse instructed her to change and wait on the table. I might’ve taken greater joy in watching Mandy lose her pants had she not looked so terrified.
I took her hand. “You okay?”
She shrugged. “I…always worry something will have gone wrong.”
I helped her onto the table. Everything in the damn office was white, stark, and dull—everything except her. Women really did glow when pregnant, but instead of a rosy little blush, Mandy’s beautiful skin darkened, rich and healthy and so warm with life and love. She resonated strength.
Nothing was going wrong with the pregnancy. She wouldn’t let it go wrong.
Neither would I.
“The baby is perfect,” I said. “And so are you.”
“Why does it feel like it’s happening so fast?”
“Because it is.” Of course, I just found out about it, but I supposed it felt just as fast to everyone. “But that’s all right. I always moved fast. I think that’s why you like me.”
Mandy gestured to her swelling tummy. “Obviously.”
I took her hand and kissed her fingers. I wished she wasn’t trembling. Nothing about this scared me. Nothing at all.
“You and me?” I grinned. “We got this. It’s time we got excited. Me and you made a baby. Maybe it wasn’t in the order we planned, and maybe it was sooner than we would have liked…and maybe it wasn’t even expected. But it’s ours now. I love the little guy. I love you.”
“Do you really think we can handle it?”
I shrugged. “Of course. It’s a baby, not a curse.”
Mandy shrugged. “My cousin is in town for her baby’s christening. She asked if I wanted to watch Ray-Ray while she went out with Lindsey and a couple friends. I said…yes. I figured I could use the practice.”
“That’s a great way to get someone to baby-sit for free.”
“That’s not why…” Mandy exhaled, frowning. “All right, that’s exactly why she’s doing it. She’s dropping him off tomorrow night.”
“Good. You’ll see. Babies—”
I gestured with my hand and accidentally whacked a plastic mannequin that served as some sort of teaching aid with a bunch of loose organs representing the female anatomy. The uterus popped out. Or maybe it was an ovary? I caught the simulated baby before it smacked the ground. Mandy groaned as I pointed the doll at her.
“Babies are no big deal,” I said.
The doctor knocked on the door just as the birth canal slipped from the mannequin. I tossed most of the plastic woman’s reproductive system into the sink and greeted the doctor with solemn nod.
The doctor buzzed past me so quickly I got whipped by her frizzy curls.
“How’s Momma today?” She asked. “Feeling good?”
Mandy shrugged. “A little tired.”
The doctor turned to scold me. “Daddy should be making sure Momma gets a lot of rest.”
She didn’t have to remind me. My balls still ached from last night.
Mandy rested on the table, and the doctor asked a few more questions and pulled the sonogram machine over.
Then I got a little nervous too.
Mandy took my hand and nearly snapped the bones in my fingers as the doctor spread the gel over her tummy. The machine flicked on, and Mandy pinched her eyes shut and held her breath until the little heartbeat wub-bub’ed through the room.
I stared at the screen.
The doctor grinned. “If you don’t want to know the sex of the baby, you should look away, we have a really good view this morning.”
I didn’t look away in time. I couldn’t.
My mouth dropped open, and I was suddenly grateful I took the time to research how to read the sonograms and tests so I wouldn’t seem like a total idiot when Mandy brought me here.
“Nate, don’t look!” Mandy covered her eyes. “Do you know? Can you tell?”
I grinned, kissing her hand. “Yeah. I told you. We’re not gonna have a problem with this baby at all.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she’s going to take after her mother.”
Chapter Three – Mandy
First-aid kit? Check.
Apartment cleaned and baby-proofed? Check.
I was ready.
“Nate?” I straightened the living room one last time, ensuring everything was in place. I dusted. I vacuumed. His apartment had never been so pristine. “Do you have a number for the poison control center?”
Nate changed his shirt before heading downstairs to tend the bar for the night. My breath caught. His abs rippled and tensed as the material hugged his every muscle.
“You’re watching a three-month-old baby. He can’t even crawl.” He gently kissed me. The tease. “How’s he gonna swallow anything?”
“I have to be prepared.”
Nate shrugged and Googled the number. He scrawled it on the dry erase board hanging on the fridge. “You’re gonna do fine, Mandy. You’ve watched kids before.”
“That was different.” I straightened a pillow on the couch.
“I was just watching them then. Now I’m scouting. I’m trying to learn what they are. How they act. Where their strengths and weaknesses lie.”
Nate tapped the bookshelf filled with baby books. “You feed them. You change them. They sleep. They aren’t the Vietcong.”
“You laugh. By the end of the night I’m going to be an expert.”
My phone buzzed to give me a thirty second warning. It was oddly kind of Lindsey to prepare me—
Blood curdling screams, shrill shouts, and rampaging footsteps blasted from the stairwell.
My cousin, Belle, suddenly seemed a lot more dramatic about her entrances.
My stomach dropped. Nate leapt back from the door. At least eight sets of hands rattled the frame, slamming, banging, and scratching so hard I thought I entered an episode of The Walking Dead.
A baby wailed, and the distinct whining of a screaming toddler demanding the potty echoed in the hall. A little boy yelled at his sister. A smack. More crying.
I opened the door, and a tipsy Lindsey greeted me first. Her arms swung over our cousins’ shoulders. Not just Belle, but Tanisha as well.
“Look who came to visit!” Lindsey squealed and hugged our cousins. Belle and Tanisha screamed as they saw me, bursting into the apartment to hug me in a tornado of hairspray and acrylic fingernails. “Girls’ night out!”
Oh no. I hadn’t recovered from our last girls’ night out…or the chastising letter that came from the Rent-A-Stripper organization.
But it wasn’t my soon-to-be drunk sister or my shrieking cousins that alarmed me.
It was the crying baby in Belle’s arms…and the three children racing around Tanisha’s legs.
Two boys and a girl.
Jamaal, aged a precocious five.
Tasha, aged an incorrigible four.
Benji, aged a terrible two.
And Ray-Ray, three months old and tantruming.
All crying. All screaming. And all flailing as they bolted around the apartment, knocking over end tables and shrieking for their mother.
“Oh, Mandy. Look at you. Having babies of your own.” Tanisha reapplied her ruby red lipstick. “They are a joy. Truly. Treasures. So I can’t thank you enough for letting me get away from this freaking insanity! Jamaal!”
Tanisha chased after her boy and smacked the dry erase marker out of his hand before he drew over all of his face.
Belle handed me a little bundle of what I assumed to be absolute aggravation. The baby screamed, cried, kicked, and fought me. Then he wet himself. Ray Ray was not as enthusiastic about girls’ night out.
“I haven’t gotten out of the house since the baby was born.” Belle hugged Lindsey. “Thank you so much for watching all of them.”
Jamaal found the remote, couldn’t figure out how to use it, and pitched it across the apartment. It clattered against the wall and exploded into three fragments.
Benji toddled over and immediately stuck the battery up his nose.
Tasha whined, danced, and wailed for a bathroom. When Tanisha didn’t listen, she yanked her dress up, panties down, and sat on the kitchen chair. Nate bolted to her side before she ruined his kitchen set. He lowered her skirt.
“I’ll…uh…show her to the bathroom,” he said.
This wasn’t a good sign.
The baby squirmed my arms. He didn’t look cute. Ray-Ray decided then and there he was declaring all-out war. I had no idea infants three months old could plan for my total annihilation, but the little angry glint in his eyes proved he was not out to make friends tonight. Instead he bitterly resented my hostessing skills as I had yet to present the parts of me not quite ready to produce milk.
“Wait,” I said. “You’re not staying?”
I didn’t know how to soothe the baby, so I bounced him a bit. His crying turned into a yodel, and that accidental embarrassment secured my total destruction. Ray-Ray screamed harder, and his little fists curled around my hair. He tugged in a tantrum that actually hurt.
“You want me to watch all of these kids?” I asked, tilting my head to the side so he didn’t rip my scalp from my skull.
Lindsey gave me a hug and pushed Tanisha and Belle to the door. “You wanted to practice. My girls wanted out. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Yeah, if one world was heaven and the other hell. “I don’t know how to take care of four children. I’m not prepared for this.”
Tanisha waved a hand. “You’ll do fine. Put on some Elmo and they’ll fall asleep on their own.”
Nate shouted from the hall, pounding on the outside of the bathroom door. “Uh…small little girl child? Are you done? Why are you flushing so much?”
The boys played tug-of-war with one of the couch cushions. Jamaal was winning, and a quarter sprung loose from the couch. It, too, found its way into Benji’s nose, soon to be followed by a wad of stuffing from the hole they ripped open.
“When…will they…stop?” I cleared my throat. “Sleep?”
She double checked her compact and rubbed lipstick off her front tooth. “Around eleven or so.”
“You know babies. They hate to sleep. I let my kids make their own schedule. They learn independence that way.”
My crazy cousins and traitor sister reached for the door. I screeched almost as loudly as Ray Ray. “But…food? What do I…?”
Belle pointed to a diaper bag on the ground, torn and dirty from a game of Jamaal’s impromptu kickball. “He’ll take a bottle. Just heat up some formula. It’s all in there.”
Tanisha nodded. “And mine will eat whatever. Pizza. Popcorn. Jelly beans are Tasha’s favorite.”
Tasha heard her name and ran from the bathroom, bowling over Nate and sprinting through the halls with a roll of unraveling toilet paper.
“Jelly beans!” Tasha took a flying leap over the ottoman and crashed into Benji. Benji tumbled to the floor. The battery and quarter went flying. A penny came out of nowhere, and I didn’t want to know which orifice he had used to stash it. Everybody started to cry.
“I want jellybeans!” Tasha screamed. “Nommy nommy now, Mommy!”
“Thanks, Mandy!” Tanisha blew me a kiss.
Belle patted Ray Ray’s head. “Be good. Mommy will be back later.”
My eyes widened. They weren’t serious. They were leaving me alone with this zoo?
This wasn’t babysitting. This wasn’t practice. This was one mortar shell away from Syria, and I had no idea how to control the chaos or where to stash the refugees.
“Lindsey?” I gritted my teeth. “Please, can I talk with you?”
Lindsey shrugged as our cousins dragged her back downstairs. “You’ll be fine. You’re a natural. You have all that estrogen and endorphins and amniotic fluid in you. It’ll be easy!”
It didn’t matter how many hormones I had flooding me, the only thing I felt was the cold wash of adrenaline and pants-pissing terror.
One baby, one toddler, and two kids under five?
That wasn’t babysitting. That was cruel and unusual punishment. Some sort of torture. People went to school for specialized degrees to handle children of this magnitude.
My cousins left. Lindsey followed at their heels.
I told myself the next time my family did something outrageous, I’d fight back. But what was I supposed to say? No, I can’t watch your bat-shit crazy children and then traumatize the little demons for life?
It didn’t matter how many paper towels they ripped up, or if they were using the couch as a rock-climbing wall, or if somehow Jamaal already found a bottle of Nate’s beer in the fridge. They were still kids.
How bad could they be?
Nate stared at the door with a forlorn despondency that I shared. “Where are they going?”
“I…think they left us alone,” I whispered.
“Because I’m pretty sure there is no God.”
Jamaal and Benji screamed for chocolate milk. Tasha skipped back to the bathroom, and I had no idea what she flushed down the toilet.
Ray Ray didn’t just wet himself…it was much worse than that.
And running down my arm.
“Okay…” I gagged. “We need to like…get organized.”
Nate stared at the children gnawing on his refrigerator handle. “Mandy…I gotta work tonight. I thought you were taking care of just a baby.”
Panic flooded me. I gasped for air that didn’t make it to my lungs.
“Oh my God, Nate, no. You can’t go. Call Pat. Tell him to work the bar. Please.”
“I can’t,” Nate said. “He’s worked five days in a row. I ask him for a sixth, and he’ll have my balls.” Nate stretched his legs. “And I don’t think they’re healed yet.”
I took a deep breath. That was a mistake. Whatever Ray Ray did in his diaper made him giggle manically. This baby was neither cute nor fair.
“Is there anything we can do?” I asked. “Call in a favor. Promise him a raise. Shut down the bar.”
Nate shouted and burst into the kitchen. He stopped Jamaal before he grabbed a knife from the cutting block but was too late to prevent Tasha from snipping a lock of Benji’s hair with the manicure scissors she procured from the bathroom.
He returned to me with a shrug. “I’m sorry. I have to go down.”
I held the baby away from me. “Okay. Just…grab my phone.”
“I’ll call Rick. He should be off his shift by now.”
Nate snorted, and I was surprised smoke didn’t pour from his nose. I hadn’t intended to make him jealous, and I didn’t think any animosity still existed between him and Rick, but Nate immediately called Pat. He bargained life and limb, but it worked out. He could stay…and Rick wouldn’t get to rescue me.
I didn’t have time to think. I didn’t have time to breathe. I shouted for Tasha to drop the toaster and to follow me with a diaper bag. Nate was on his own with Jamaal. I forgot about Benji.
Whatever Ray Ray unleashed in his diaper was the best birth-control I’d ever seen. Too bad it came four months too late.
He laughed, actually laughed, as I tried to clean every crevice the had somehow caked with his artistic merit.
This was too much. I changed him on the bathroom floor, which was a good idea as I kept heaving into the toilet. Tasha screamed like someone murdered her as I threw up. She bolted from the bathroom and ran smack into Jamaal as he led Nate on a chase around the apartment after stealing all the spoons. Assorted cutlery clattered to the floor amid a variety of shrieks and cries.
That was the moment Ray Ray reminded me that he was indeed a boy. I shifted to finish his diaper only to discover that he turned into a fountain.
A monument to my naïveté.
I didn’t have a diaper ready, but I had the bathmat. I couldn’t really angle it right, but I could at least control the flow of his little sprinkler.
Again, he laughed. Manically.
The books hadn’t mentioned anything about evil babies. After he finished his demonstration, I checked them for all manner of birthmarks which might have cited some sort of demonic possession or sign of the antichrist. He had none. Lucky for him.
I finished with the diaper, thoroughly washed my hands, and returned to the kitchen. Nate had recovered most of the pillows from the bed—the two that had been used in a fight between Jamaal and Tasha. The kids weren’t hurt. I couldn’t say the same for our only bedside lamp. The bulb blew and shattered, plunging us into darkness. The kids screamed. They scattered. Glass was everywhere.
Nate vacuumed up the mess, leaving Benji to his own devices. He found the grape jelly in the fridge, and used it is finger-paint on our appliances, the floors, the chairs, and in bright purple handprints over our television.
The TV had been on but was unable to entertain the children as Jamaal somehow flipped the language dubbing to Spanish. Apparently, they weren’t fans of Dora-The-Law-And-Order.
That was about the time I thought we were out of our league.
And the kids thought so too. They made sure we understood it.
They screamed. They fought. They didn’t listen.
They refused drinks only to raid the fridge and dunk orange juice over the floor.
They didn’t want to color, but they used my nail polish to polka dot the lampshade.
They weren’t hungry, the Benji ate every crumb from inside the couch and chewed on every piece of yarn he could untangle from the fringe on our pillows.
I found a Disney movie for them to watch on Netflix. Unfortunately, they didn’t understand why Robin Hood and Maid Marian hadn’t yet traveled to Arendelle to find Elsa.
Tasha then demonstrated a half hour long rendition of the same two lines from Let It Go, Jamaal deliberately drew on Benji, and Ray Ray decided to become colicky and screamed like a banshee in my ear.
After an hour, I was frustrated.
After two, I was terrified.
After another sprinkler diaper change, spoon in the garbage disposal, and Vaseline smeared over Jamaal’s face, I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. And Nate knew it.
He watched me reach for my phone but he couldn’t untangle himself from the braids he unsuccessfully wove in Tasha’s hair.
“Mandy, what are you doing?” He stood. It upset a bowl of popcorn. Benji dove to eat every kernel that had touched the ground. “Who are you calling? Baby, put the phone down.”
I trembled. “I’m sorry. I have to.”
“What are you doing?”
I couldn’t believe I was saying it. I was desperate, exhausted, covered in three children’s poo. I couldn’t think straight, and I must have been delusional. It was the only reason calling her made sense.
“I’m getting Mom to come help.”
Nate freaked. He leapt across the couch and slapped the phone from my hands.
“Don’t do it!” He held me by my shoulders and shook. “Don’t! You’re better than this. You can handle it.”
“Goddamn it, Mandy. We’re survivors! Do not call your mother!”
He was right, but I couldn’t think, couldn’t feel my feet, couldn’t breathe. I cupped a hand over my tummy and forbade my daughter from ever emerging from my womb—not until she was ready to graduate high school, had learned proper manners, and was potty-trained.
The kids screamed, wailed, and pooed.
This was a living nightmare.
Was it always going to be like this?
Nate surveyed the damage to his apartment with a sigh. He clapped his hands and gathered the kids, a bunch of blankets, and a flashlight. He tossed them into the hallway and turned down the lights so Ray Ray could finally sleep. We didn’t have a fireplace, so he opened an app on his iPad that looked like a fire and gathered the kids close while he played spooky sounds on his phone.
“You’ve got to be super quiet now,” Nate whispered. “If you want to hear this ghost story, you have to stay silent. Know why?”
The kids went still, staring at him with wide eyes.
“Because with this particular story…the ghosts are also listening…and the instant they think someone isn’t paying attention…” He lunged over the iPad. Jamaal and Tasha shrieked. “They get mad.”
“Oh Lord. Don’t scare them,” I said.
“I’m not scared!” Jamaal yelled.
Tasha smacked him. “I am!”
If nothing else, the story was some silly little tale of Jello coming to life without any truly scary moments, but the kids listened, enraptured, until their eyes started to close. All three collapsed in the hall, snuggled in blankets, sufficiently traumatized for the next time their mother attempted to serve Jello or any other pudding-type dessert.
An hour of relative peace and one fussy baby later, my family returned.
This time, the kids didn’t get riled up—they got angry, grumpy, and nearly beat their aggression out on Ray Ray. Tanisha scolded hers and hauled them into the hall before they tore the molding off the wall. She wished me luck with my baby and corralled her children through the bar and outside to the car.
Lindsey and Belle fussed over Ray Ray, now cooing like an innocent little hellspawn. I swore he narrowed his eyes and deliberately flicked his middle finger at me.
My sister glanced over the apartment—trashed, sticky, overturned, and smelling of an odd mix of sweat, diaper cream, and grape jelly.
“Wow…” Lindsey laughed. “You had some night.”
“You owe me.” I let the threat linger. It tasted good. “You won’t know where, and you won’t know when, but you will owe me.”
Belle hugged me and waved to Nate, still crashed in the hall, as exhausted as the kids. “Thanks for doing this. You guys are the best. It’s so good to get out!”
Belle blew me a kiss and left with Lindsey to catch a cab back to their house.
I sunk onto the couch.
The apartment was turned upside down and shaken. Nothing was where it belonged, everything felt sticky, and the panic set in. Hard. Terrible.
Nate hauled himself to his feet. He shrugged and cracked his neck.
“That was an adventure,” he said.
Was he serious?
I stared at him, hands over my tummy. My words tumbled out. I didn’t cry. I knew the tears wouldn’t help. Nothing could.
“Nate…I don’t think I can do this.”
Chapter Four – Nate
Mandy freaked out.
And she had every right…just as Bryce would retain the right to kick my ass once I slathered Lindsey in grape jelly.
“Baby, we survived. Let’s go to bed.”
“What about the mess?”
No way was I cleaning the apartment now. I could hardly move, let alone scrape gum and formula and various condiments off the couch.
“Forget it,” I said. “We’ll tackle it tomorrow.”
Mandy shook her head. “I can’t sleep. Don’t you see? I can’t do this.”
“We’re only having one baby, Mandy. Not four demons dumped on us.”
“We’re…not ready. And there’s no time to get ready.”
“There’s plenty of time.” I kissed her forehead. “I know you’re scared. It’s life-changing and crazy, but there’s one thing you have to remember.”
I grinned. “Under no circumstances do you ever call your mom.”
I laughed. She didn’t.
In fact, she scowled.
“This isn’t funny, Nate. I know you think it’s no big deal, but we have less than five months to completely change our world. Not just babyproofing the apartment, but health insurance for me and the baby? Child care? Will I stay home with her? What do we do about your late nights and me working regular hours? We need to build the nursery. We should find a pediatrician and get started on the baby registry.” She took a shaky breath. “Nate, I love you, but I need you to take this more seriously.”
“I am serious. I’m gonna love our little girl, and I’m gonna take care of her. But you can’t let yourself worry through the entire pregnancy. There’s no reason to be afraid now. It’s not a secret anymore. You finally told me.”
She flinched. That wasn’t what I meant. I didn’t want it to sound like I blamed her.
“Look,” I sighed. “What I mean is…things are already changing. You have your stuff in my bathroom and your freakishly-cold feet in my bed. I’m already making adjustments just by letting you live here.”
Something told me I made a mistake, but I was too tired to filter through the right response.
“Well…yeah. We had to be together for this.”
“I thought you wanted to be together for this?” Mandy stood. “I had no idea you were just letting me live here. I thought…”
“What else would you call it? It’s not like you agreed to marry me. This is the next best thing for the baby. We agreed you’d move in, and we’d deal with everything.”
Mandy didn’t answer. She gnawed on her bottom lip. “I’m sorry, Nate. I don’t want to be something that needs dealt with.”
“I know I’m a pain in the ass right now. I’m scared and worried and planning for a million different contingencies. But I’m only trying to do what’s best for the baby. What was best for us.”
“Me too.” I had no idea why she reached for her purse or where she was going, but I prevented her from walking to the door. “What the hell is happening? I told you. I’ll take care of you and the baby. What more do you want?”
“You have to want it,” she whispered. “You have to understand everything is going to change, or else it’s just like you offering to marry me because I’m pregnant. The baby isn’t something we do. She’s supposed to be a blessing…and I think I’ve already screwed everything up.”
She pushed past me. I followed her to the hall.
“Where are you going?” I asked. “It’s late.”
“I…need to think.” Mandy didn’t look at me. “Don’t wait up.”
What the hell?
Was I supposed to chase after her, make her more upset?
Should I have let her go, so she could cool off?
Jesus. This was the problem. I hadn’t been with Mandy long enough to know how she reacted to a fight. I knew which one was her favorite childhood doll, and I remembered how she used to color the neighborhood sidewalk with chalk—because Bryce, Rick, and I would turn on the hoses and wash it away just to make her cry.
But I never knew her beyond the girl next door. That was the fun part of falling in love. I could discover her. Be with her.
And that was what living together was supposed to do. I wanted to know how she worked, what she thought, how she felt, why some things made her giggle and others worried her.
Wasn’t that what a relationship was about? It didn’t matter if she had a ring on her finger or a baby in her belly, we were together, learning each other.
So why the hell didn’t I tell her that before she raced out the door?
Damn it. I really was an idiot.
I changed out of the sticky clothes so I could run after her, but someone knocked on the door before I got the shirt over my head.
Probably Pat, pissed that I hadn’t come down to give him a break like I promised. I shouted for him to come in.
The shirt dropped. I gritted my teeth.
What the hell were they doing here?
I didn’t welcome him inside, and neither he nor Mom looked comfortable entering the apartment. Not that I could blame them. I hadn’t made my home open to them since I moved out, and, in its current state, not too many people would come inside.
“It’s late,” I said.
Dad cleared his throat. “I presumed you worked…different hours. I didn’t want to have a conversation in a bar.”
I let Mom give me a kiss on the cheek. She said nothing about the mess.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“We wanted…” Mom spoke without waiting for Dad. She hesitated, but usually she acted out around me. Or acted normal, whatever was the real Mom. “Your father and I talked. We wanted to see if you needed anything…since Mandy moved in?”
“What? Like a wedding?”
Dad nodded. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“Yeah, I tried that. And we agreed. We’d live together and wait for the baby.” I met Mom’s gaze, figured she’d like the news. “A baby girl.”
She covered her mouth, hiding a smile I wasn’t sure Dad wanted to see. “How blessed you’ll be.”
“Yeah. That’s what everyone says.” I gestured over the apartment. “This was the result of our first night babysitting. Mandy’s cousins brought over four kids and gave us a heaping dose of PTSD. No wonder you guys stopped having kids after me.”
Dad stared over the mess and chaos. “Then I’m relieved this was the destruction of a toddler and not my son acting like one.”
“Good to see you too, Dad.”
Mom placed a hand on his arm, and the stone-cold, commanding stare she gave him actually silenced my father.
Damn. Put a grandbaby on the line and Mom stepped up.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I wanted to check on you and Mandy…and offer any help your father and I might provide. In this case…” She studied a glob of jelly dripping from the ceiling. “Maybe a few sponges and soapy water.”
I rubbed my head. “I don’t think you can fix this one.”
“Where is Mandy?” Dad asked.
I shrugged. “Hell if I know. She got upset. Said she had to go for a walk or something.”
My phone dinged. I checked the text and groaned.
Staying at Mom’s tonight. I’ll call tomorrow.
“Not good news?” Dad’s eyebrow perked, as if he expected my profanity.
“I have no idea what happened.” I tossed the phone away. “Mandy is treating the baby like it’s a potential disaster. She’s prepping like it’s the second coming and we got left behind.”
“And you…aren’t preparing?” Mom arched an eyebrow. “You’re not worried?”
“She’s a baby. She’ll eat, sleep, cry, poop…what else is there?”
Dad hadn’t taken a seat. He held his coat close, as though he feared dropping it on anything too sticky. “And what does Mandy think of the baby?”
“Like she’s some big fucking crisis.” I didn’t apologize for swearing even though Mom flinched. “She’s planning ten years down the road what to pack for her middle school lunch. She’s talking pediatricians and health insurance and worrying about taking care of the baby and knowing what to do if she gets some sort of exotic Amazonian disease. I have no idea what to tell her, because any time I say don’t worry, I make things worse.”
“Why do you think that is?” Dad asked.
“Because she’s Mandy.” I paced the living room. “She’s responsible. She’s smart. She’s compassionate, and of course she’d want to make sure the baby’s okay and that the family is okay and that everything she does is best for everyone but herself.”
“Is it the best for you?”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
Dad took Mom’s hand. “Son, you only learned a month ago you were going to be a father, and you’ve only spent a total of four months in a…questionable relationship with this girl.”
My chest squeezed. I didn’t like that tone.
“So?” I said.
“Are you sure you’re committed to her and the baby?”
I had every right to kick my father out of my house, and even more of a right to punch him square in the jaw. Mom placed a hand on my chest, pulling me back before I got too close to his face.
“I love Mandy. And I love my daughter.”
“Then why aren’t you taking this seriously?” Dad demanded.
“Don’t you dare insinuate I’m not going to take care of my woman and baby.”
“You came to me for advice before Lindsey Prescott’s wedding,” Dad said. “What did I tell you? You had to act like a husband, a father, and a man. Have you done these things?”
I held my arms out. “She’s living here, isn’t she?”
Mom sighed. “Does it feel like her home?”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“Does it feel like the baby’s home?”
“The baby’s home is still in her. And she’s staying there for a long time yet.”
Mom shook her head. “Nathan, Mandy is scared now.”
“I know. I keep telling her not to be.”
Dad frowned. “And you aren’t scared?”
“Why should I be? I’m excited for the kid. I want the kid. But I’m not going to worry incessantly every minute of the day that I’m not ready for it.”
“Are you ready for her?”
I laughed. “Jesus Christ, hell no. I have no idea what I’m doing. If I did, Mandy wouldn’t be out at her Mom’s house instead of here with me.” I shrugged. “But I know I want to experience this with her. I want to raise the baby with the woman I love. Do all the dad things. Feed my daughter, give her baths, cuddle her, watch her grow up.”
My parents silenced, and I glanced over the apartment. A little mess aggravated me, but it hadn’t changed how I felt.
“Why would I be afraid of something so…amazing?”
Mom squeezed Dad’s hand. “You’re going to be an excellent father, Nathan.”
Dad nodded. “Then it’s time to show that to Mandy.”
He tugged Mom’s hand and led her to the door. I snorted. They weren’t off the hook yet.
“No.” I blocked them before they left. “You don’t get to come here and lord wisdom over me.”
Dad bristled. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. It isn’t my behavior in question. You didn’t help Mandy move in, you haven’t called or texted or asked about the baby. You wouldn’t even acknowledge that she was pregnant. Answer me this, right fucking now.” I stared at my father. “Are you going to be there for your granddaughter?”
Dad didn’t hesitate. “Of course.”
That wasn’t good enough. I wouldn’t have my daughter shamed because my parents didn’t approve of her skin color. “Even if the community realizes—”
“The community already knows, and those who don’t know will understand the instant they look at the child.” Dad hesitated, blinking away a moment of shame—not for the baby, but for his own behavior. “But she is our grandbaby, and she will be loved…by all of her family. Her mother. Her father. And her grandparents.”
Mom nodded. “I’ve already started knitting a blanket.”
My parents quieted. I didn’t know what to say. Since finding out about the baby, I talked to them more in a month than I had in ten years.
“Thanks for coming over,” I said and meant it.
“Bring Mandy home for a dinner next week.” Mom kissed my cheek goodbye. “Promise?”
I nodded, breaking my own personal vow to only visit on holidays. Guess that would have to change with a baby.
Though somehow, I believed it’d feel more like a home once my daughter was born. They already seemed softer now. I was willing to bet they’d treat her better than they ever treated me.
Dad shook my hand. It was as awkward as it was unnecessary, but at least it was something besides slammed doors and silence. They left me to the mess, quiet, and emptiness of the apartment.
Mandy hadn’t lived with me for very long, but I knew exactly what I was missing when she was gone.
And I knew what to do to keep her with me—forever.
Chapter Five – Mandy
I didn’t bother knocking on Mom’s door. I had the key and let myself in.
That was my first mistake, but it wasn’t my worst.
The worst was leaving Nate, running home, and trying to figure out the right path for me and the baby on my own.
But coming in a close second was catching Mom naked in the kitchen, gathering ice cubes, whipped cream, and strawberries.
We both shrieked, but not as loudly as Dad, racing to cover his own berries with whatever kitchen appliance he could unplug from the wall.
He grabbed a toaster, and something accidentally jammed inside. He grunted in pain.
“Oh my God!” I spun around too fast, getting myself even more nauseous and awkward and completely overwhelmed. “I am so, so sorry—”
The words interrupted in a dry heave. I bolted to the sink, pushing Mom out of the way as she desperately attempted to shove one very long and thick ice cube down the garbage disposal.
It wasn’t a regular ice cube. Nothing that phallic ever came out of our ice tray.
Luckily the morning sickness wasn’t nearly as severe as it had been, and the dizziness passed. I backed away from the sink, covering my eyes as my parents struggled to conceal themselves with robes and dish cloths.
“I’m sorry.” I repeated, blinded and panicking. “I had no idea. I didn’t see your car. I wanted to crash on the couch. I didn’t mean to ruin your…”
The nausea was back. Mom put her hands on her lips.
“Honest to goodness, Mandy. You’re four months pregnant, and you can’t even look your mother in the eye and talk about sex. No wonder you got knocked up.” She pulled me into a hug. I tried not to wonder why she smelled so strongly of strawberry lotion—unless it wasn’t lotion. “But I do love that little bastard child!”
“It’s a girl.” I murmured.
Dad hooted, congratulating me with an awkward shrug since he couldn’t wave his hands without revealing a little too much of the family tree. He darted upstairs to find pants.
Mom squeezed me harder. “Well, this sort of news is welcomed anytime, baby…even if you should have called first.”
I cleared my throat. “So…you and Dad?”
Mom took pride in herself, always. “It just sort of happened.”
“With…” I glanced to the table. “Champagne, whipped cream, and strawberries?”
Mom gave a wink. “Always be prepared. Prescott woman motto. Might have helped you a few months ago, but I’m glad it all worked out for the best.” She giggled and lowered her voice, and I knew what came next wouldn’t be good. “And the ice toy wasn’t for me.”
I was right. Every encounter with my mother was emotionally scarring anymore, building up some ridiculous mental callouses I’d have to overcome.
Still, she set me on the couch and promised to make me some hot chocolate.
Dad emerged from the hall, looking rightfully sheepish for a man who was sleeping with his soon-to-be ex-wife. I wasn’t deluding myself into hoping they’d completely reconcile, but this was an interesting way to settle assets.
I gave a smile. “I’m really sorry I interrupted.”
Mom hushed me. “Obviously it’s important enough to stop by unannounced.”
“I needed to talk.”
Dad settled on the couch, recrossing his legs a couple times. “What’s up, Mandy-Pandy?”
I shrugged. “General pregnancy freak out?”
“Well, it’s about time for one of those…” Mom sighed. “Unless we weren’t privy to the ones before?”
I had a feeling my family wouldn’t completely forgive me for keeping the baby a secret, but maybe once she arrived everyone would settle down.
“How did you guys know you were ready for a baby?” I asked.
Mom took my hand. “Oh, honey. The instant I looked into Lindsey’s eyes? That first little shrill cry she gave me…I knew then I’d be the best mother.”
O-kay. I shrugged. “And what about when I was born?”
“Oh, nothing prepared me for you, you midnight crier. If only you had been more like Lindsey. But you’re still a baby to me…especially those pudgy cheeks.”
I didn’t bother to answer. I looked at Dad.
He was better at this. “No one’s ever ready, Mandy. Least of all someone who wasn’t in a committed relationship to start. That’s a struggle, and it’s hard, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You and Nate have something special.”
I twisted my fingers in my lap. “I had to babysit for Tanisha and Belle tonight, and now…I don’t think I can handle a kid.”
Dad laughed. “Those hellraisers? The devil himself couldn’t control those brats.”
Mom stiffened. “You best not be talking about my family that way.”
Dad ignored her. “Mandy, know how you always hear how it’s different when it’s your child?”
“Well, it will be, because your baby won’t be little demon spawn like theirs.”
Mom bristled. “Conrad Prescott, you had better call my sister and apologize for the way you are speaking about her children, so help me God—”
I covered my face. “So how will I know I’ll have a good baby? How do I know I won’t mess them up or have permanent grape jelly stains on the walls? What if I can’t figure this out?”
“What’s Nate say?” Dad asked.
I looked down. “He’s not taking anything seriously.”
“He thinks it’ll be no big deal, and that we’ll learn on the fly. Nate’s always been so confident and casual about everything. He’s not even listening when I say how…how…”
“How?” Dad prompted.
“Overwhelming it all is.”
Mom shushed me, slamming my head on her chest. “There, there. You go pack up your stuff and move right back home here.”
“What?” I squirmed free. “Mom, I want to live with Nate. I want to raise the baby with him.”
“Then…” Dad sighed. “Why are you here?”
Good freaking question.
“I messed things up once before,” I said. “Now I have two lives to think of—Nate’s and the baby’s. And I have a vision in my head of a perfect life with us all happy and healthy and…not sticky.”
“What did I tell you about relationships?” Dad said. “They aren’t perfect. Neither are children. You can plan for every contingency, set aside money for college and vacation and illnesses and Christmases, and you can give them the best clothes and food and schools and everything, but that’s not what children want.”
“What do they want?”
Mom gathered me close. “A loving mother.”
Dad cleared his throat as I declined to speak. “A loving home. And Mandy-Pandy, I don’t know anyone who loves harder or fiercer or more genuinely than you.”
I’d have hugged Dad, but I’m pretty sure he had to pop a pill for the things he and Mom planned, and I wasn’t getting that close to the danger zone.
“Thank you, guys.”
“Now…” Mom stood with a grin. “I turned your bedroom into a sewing nook, but Lindsey’s is just how she left it. You can sleep there for the night.”
I cleared my throat. “If you’d rather…be alone…”
“Nonsense.” Mom hauled me up before Dad could answer. She dragged me to the room and pushed me inside. “Holler if you need anything.”
“No. I think I’m good now,” I said. “I just needed…a new perspective.”
My parents left me to sleep, and I grabbed my cell, texting Nate as I tried to ignore the rhythmic squeaking from upstairs.
Sorry I ran. Will you be home for dinner tomorrow?
Nate responded immediately. Wouldn’t miss it.
You know I love you?
He didn’t hesitate. I love you too. I’ll be waiting.
Chapter Six – Mandy
Dinner waited for me the instant I returned from work.
And, after an exceptionally awkward lunch with Dad, I was so glad to see the Nate preparing my current pregnancy favorite.
Chicken noodle soup without the noodles. Sliced apples. A cinnamon roll wiped clean of most of the cinnamon.
Nate had cleaned the apartment, scrubbed the mayo from the walls, replaced the curtains, and unclogged the shampoo, conditioner, and newspaper from the toilet. I dropped my purse on the vacuumed carpet and smiled.
He waited, the dining room table draped with white linen and lit by candles.
But that wasn’t the sweetest thing.
A highchair sat at the table, brand new and assembled and waiting for someone to claim it.
“Hey,” I said.
Nate curled his finger for me to approach, taking me in his arms once I got close. He kissed me, and I fluttered and warmed, relieved to be back home, where I belonged.
He stopped me. “Your dinner’s getting cold. Come on. I have a surprise for you.”
I never took Nate for a gourmet chef, but that was before I realized how talented he was at things beyond the brewery, the bar, or what we did at night in bed. The soup was made from a homemade stock, and the cinnamon rolls were freshly baked. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he had planted and harvested the apples too.
A series of notecards waited at the side of my plate. Nate gave me a sheepish grin.
“These aren’t official. But I thought we should start working on it.” Those green eyes were so beautiful and confident. “I think you’ll like what I picked.”
His handwriting was horrible, but I could read every letter perfectly.
Each note card had a girl’s name on it.
Sophia. Abigail. Caitlin. Nikki. Darcy.
“This is so sweet.” I paused over the card that read Lily and showed it to him. “Lily Kensington.”
He pointed to the star he doodled in the corner. “I liked that one too.”
My heart beat a little faster. I gave a giggle. “Did we…name our baby?”
“If you like it, I like it.”
“I think I do.” I stared at the notecard. Lily. A perfect name. Sweet and gentle and absolutely lovely. “Thank you, Nate. I needed this.”
Nate scooted his chair closer to me. He took my hand, and the instant he spoke, I knew everything would be okay.
“We’ve been doing this wrong. You think I’m not taking it seriously, and I think you’re worrying too much.”
“Maybe,” I said.
He rested his forehead against mine. “It’s time for a philosophy change. Yes, we have to be prepared, and, yes, I really should pick up a book once in a while…but this is about more than organizing our lives for our baby.”
I swallowed. “What is it?”
“It’s about celebrating the beginning of our family.”
Now my heart pounded hard, frantically, just as excited as when Nate used to look at me, touch me, want me in secret.
He shrugged. “We can make as many plans as we want, and we can read books and go on forums and research, but really? As long as I have you and the baby? I’ll take on any challenge.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of this change. This is exciting and scary, but in five months we’re going to have a child together. Here. Living with us, completing us.” He pointed to the high chair and squeezed my hand. “Sitting there. And that’s what we should prepare for. That’s what we should look forward to.”
He was absolutely right. Ever since I found out about the pregnancy, I’d been preoccupied with everything scary, a constant insecurity. It was a mistake to keep the baby a secret, but it was just as bad to cram for her arrival. Now was the time to be thankful for the gift we had been given.
“I love you,” I said. “You’re going to make an amazing father.”
“And you will be a perfect mom,” Nate kissed me. “We’re going to do it together. It won’t always be easy, but I know I’ll do the right thing because I can’t lose either of you. Not now. I ran from family for so long, until you showed me how great it could be. Now I want it. I want us.”
So did I. More than anything.
I didn’t know how to say it. Fortunately, I could prove it.
I took Nate’s hand and led him from the table with a sultry smile and teasing glance. That was all he needed. We abandoned the food to fall on his bed—our bed—and immediately tangle within each other.
I didn’t think I’d ever get used to kissing Nate, touching him, welcoming him over me. Not after so many months of sneaking around and trying not to get caught. For too long, I hadn’t let him see how much he meant to me or how much I needed him, especially after learning about the pregnancy.
Now I couldn’t imagine a life without him. Every touch was a gift, and every little delight a pleasure and absolute joy of discovery. No guilt prevented me from enjoying him. No insecurity dared to draw us apart.
I loved him, and he loved me, and the moments I spent in his arms reaffirmed everything I felt that I hadn’t understood it first.
This was family. This was home. This was the man I loved, and we lost ourselves within the other because we could. Because we were supposed to. Because we confessed the feelings that we hid in the past and could now enjoy in the light.
Nate unbuttoned my blouse. My hands trailed his as I attempted to remove his clothes as well. I groaned, desperate to feel his body against mine. I got my wish.
Our shirts tossed to the ground, and Nate crashed over me. I welcomed him between my legs and wiggled from my skirt. He settled over me, so strong and fierce and absolutely beautiful, even with the severe ink tattooing his flesh.
He was mine. This amazing, sexy, unbelievably compassionate man was mine.
And I was his.
My panties kicked away. Nate grinned as my legs spread, revealing everything to him. No matter how many times I offered myself to him, he hadn’t yet taken his fill. I trembled as he teased a finger over my slit to watch me wiggle.
“You’ve never looked so beautiful.” His words caught between growled awe and rasped desire. “I don’t think I’ll ever tire of looking at you.”
I bit my lip, arching as his fingers proved his honesty. The pleasure thrilled me, almost as much as his hungry stare. My body had changed, swelling my breasts, softening my skin, and revealing my not-so-tiny bump. A loose shirt or an oversized hoodie might have hidden it yet, but lying beneath him, naked, trembling? The baby was unmistakable.
And Nate loved how I looked.
He kissed me while his fingers endlessly circled the heat between my legs. I arched to meet his lips and bucked to feel more of his touch as he dazzled my clit in tight circles. His kisses trailed low, seizing a nipple in his mouth to tug with the same enthusiasm he used to tease my slickness.
“Beautiful.” He praised me with his mouth full, suckling against a nipple far too sensitive for such play. “I had no idea how sexy you’d get.”
He pressed his hard cock against my leg, still trapped within his jeans. I was surprised it hadn’t seared through the denim to take me.
“I never thought you’d ever look more beautiful to me than that first night I took you.” Nate’s hands wove over my body, gently pressing lower and lower until he cupped that tiny bump. “And then you gave me this amazing gift. You taught me to love. You showed me what it was to want family. And you made me…her.”
“I know everyone says she’s an accident or a mistake…” I bit my lip. “She’s not. She’s…she’s…”
Nate pulled me into a consuming kiss, commanding my body as he rose higher to unzip his jeans and free himself. I reached for him and flicked my tongue over his. He uttered a profanity as I seized his cock and pumped, just how he liked it.
Because now I knew what he liked.
Understood what drove him.
Teased him with the pleasure I knew how to give him.
Nate leaned down, suckling my nipple with one last tug before kissing over my tummy. He licked his lips and pleased me with the flick on his tongue. I ached to feel more than his hot breath over me.
And Nate had never denied me.
His kisses struck fast, quick, and deliberately over my clit. He rolled the nub, sucking hard to earn my cry and then lapping up everything I offered once he drew it from me. I twisted beneath him.
This man knew my body better than I did, and every touch, lick, and suckle forced me to beg more than the last.
I squirmed against his skilled mouth, bucked his adept tongue, and demanded more than just the knowing nip of his teeth against my most sensitive spot.
I wanted him.
More than anything. More than ever.
I had to feel him within me, connected to me, loving me.
I had to know what we said was real, and the only way I could prove how undyingly devoted I was to him was to offer my body, my heat, my tightness, and my pleasure to the only man who deserved it.
And Nate felt the same. His cock hardened, twitching and hot.
He settled over me, and I welcomed him with spread legs. What might have once felt vulgar and crass and naughty when done in the sneaking shadows was suddenly…beautiful, right, and the ideal connection between bodies, man and woman, lovers.
He sunk inside, one solid thrust, and I arched to fit as much of his thickness in me as I could take. My fingers dug into him, the bed, my hair, and every crash of pleasure erupted in a cascade of shivers dancing over my skin.
Nate’s thrust came quick. I welcomed it. I offered myself. I gave him everything I could give, and the surge of his hips promised the same.
Our bodies connected, fractured in excitement, and rebuilt with our promises to each other. I whispered words of longing and desire, pleasure and endless bliss. He swore oaths to me, vows sincerer and more honorable than any spoken on an altar. Every movement consummated us in each other, commitment, and a shudder of absolute ecstasy that would forever bind us together.
This was love.
And it was everything I ever wanted, and nothing I should have ever feared.
Nate’s breathing turned ragged. He held me tight, squeezing me under him as he struggled to control the slam of his hips. He wouldn’t hurt me or the baby, but I understood. Every strike of his cock, every slice through my core that rippled heat and desire and fierceness through me was another reason to love a man so strong. Nate wanted only to please me. And as long as I lived to love him, nothing would ever come between us.
I groaned as he thrust in completely, pinning me to the bed, to him, to this moment.
All it took was a word, and we murmured it at the same time.
“I love you.”
We came together. I held him, holding him close, weeping as the pressure built so strongly, so fiercely, that I fell limp against the sheets. I surrendered as the real world shattered and a dream of passion and sensuality overwhelmed me.
I cried out for him, and Nate embraced me. His heat burst within my core, jet after jet, as he thrust completely inside my slit and shuddered in his own pleasure.
The heat built, popped, and ripped through me again, and I clenched over him as a second, third, and unending orgasm clutched my body, heart, and mind.
I crashed to reality, and Nate held me close, pulling from me only so we could rest on our sides before his cock hardened and thrust within me once more. He didn’t move, just enjoyed how our bodies fit together in blissful exhaustion. He wrapped an arm over me, holding my tummy.
“I love you,” he whispered, kissing my ear. “And I love the baby.”
“Lily.” I snuggled against him.
“You have no idea how much this means to me,” he said. “I’m going to make sure this family is perfect. You’ll see.”
“It already is perfect…I have you.”
“Not so scared anymore?”
“I’ll always be a little scared.” I twisted, meeting his gaze. “But I’m excited. I’m going to have you, and the baby, and us…”
Nate grinned. “Forever. This is just the beginning.”
“Think we can handle it?”
He moved within me, earning a soft groan. “You tell me.”
“I think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.”