Unedited chapter one of OO

Young casual couple isolated on white

Release date 8/20/14

Available for preorder on iBooks!   https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/only-one/id906542226?mt=11&uo=4&at=1l3voVk

Nick

 

Sunlight streams through my window and offends the backs of my eyelids. I look over at the blond head that’s tucked against the pillow next to mine. Who the heck is that? I brush her hair from her face and groan inwardly. How the hell did Jack get in my bed? Her name is Jackie, and I’ve known her all my life. Sometimes I wake up, and she’s found her way into my bed. I don’t even remember inviting her into it last night, but that’s not always necessary in Jack’s world. She does what she wants, when she wants.

My guess is that things weren’t great at home and her dad started swinging again, so she came here. That part doesn’t bother me. Why she’s in my bed is a whole other topic. I let her sleep and roll out of bed.

I’m just glad I wore boxers when I went to bed. Not that Jack hasn’t seen me naked. I’ve seen all of her, and she’s seen all of me, but that’s just because she gets drunk often and I have to drag her naked ass home. We never have and never will have sex. Ever.

We’re best friends, with no jealousy. Our relationship is free and easy, and we’re not territorial when it comes to relationships with other people. That’s what’s so great about us. Sometimes the loneliness overtakes me and I cave in to the need to feel someone close to me. Jackie doesn’t mind. I’m a guy and I absolutely hate to be alone. Sometimes the quiet becomes more than I can bear.

I walk into the kitchen and find my roommate Malone with his hand in the cookie jar. Literally, elbows deep in my mom’s Winnie the Pooh container. He grins at me, a lock of his dark hair falling over his eye. “Morning,” he says, and then he crams a handful of cookies in his mouth.

When he’s done chewing, he looks at me and waggles his brows. “Jack find you last night?” he asks.

“Apparently,” I mutter. “Who let her in?”

“I couldn’t leave her outside,” he says.

“Why did she pick my bed?”

He shrugs. “She was wrecked.”

She always is. “Next time, put her on the couch, will you?”

He looks at me sheepishly. “I tried that last night, but she wanted you, man.”

Yeah, but I don’t want her. At least not permanently. Not for more than what we already have. “Did Marty come home last night?” I ask. I don’t know why I feel the need to check up on our last roommate. She doesn’t even sleep here every night. She’s older than we are – 21 compared to our 19. She’s like the mother we never wanted when she’s here, making us clean up behind ourselves and put the toilet seat down. But she pays her rent, and that’s all I need. I can’t afford this place by myself, no matter how many jobs I have.

I look around. It’s not much, but it’s mine. I remember when my parents bought it. They were so proud. It’s a trailer in a lot about the size of a postage stamp, but it’s on the coast and it’s valuable to me just because of the memories.

“Haven’t seen Marty,” Malone says. He goes and knocks softly on her door and then opens it and sticks his head in. “Nope,” he says. “Not here.” He scratches his bare stomach. “I think I’m going back to bed.”

“Did you eat all the cookies?” I lift Pooh’s head and look down. He left me some Oreo dust. “Jackass,” I mutter.

He laughs and goes into his room. The door closes behind him.

I sort through the mail on the counter and get excited when I see a letter from Patty Michaels. I open it up and look at the check. Mrs. Michaels pays me to keep up her yard when she’s not here. Usually, she just sends a check each month – a generous check – and I never hear from her otherwise, unless I need to meet the exterminator or something for her. But a note falls out of the envelope.

 

Nick,

I’ll be arriving after graduation. Can you be sure the AC is serviced and tidy up the yard? We’ll see you in a week!

Best,

Patty Michaels

 

My heart drops all the way down to my toes. If the Michaels’ are coming to the beach, then that mean’s Carrie’s coming back to the beach. Carrie is their daughter. She hasn’t been here in at least three summers. Not since her parents separated.

Carrie is the one who got away. She was my first kiss. My first snuggle with a girl with boobs. My first boner in the arms of a girl. My first love. She was fourteen and I was fifteen the last time I saw her. Can you fall in love that young? My heart says you can.

Carrie was different from anyone I ever met. She could make me laugh and make me cry all in the same breath. One glance from her and I knew what I wanted for the rest of my life.

I’d seen the example of what love could be in my parents, so I felt like I knew it when I found it. Then she left and never came back. Life went on, but it hasn’t been the life I wanted. Or at least not after my parents died.

I jerk myself from my memories and look at Mrs. Michaels’s note again. Carrie’s coming back to the beach. I whistle as I go back into my room. Jack snuggles into my pillow, and I realize she’s not wearing anything but her panties. The covers are pushed down around her feet and she’s on her stomach, her arms tucked down at her sides.

I sit down on the side of the bed and brush her hair back. She mumbles something I can’t understand.

“Jack,” I whisper.

She doesn’t stir.

“Jack,” I say a little louder.

She moans into my pillow but doesn’t open her eyes.

“Jack!” I shout. She opens her eyes and looks at me, squinting against the sunlight. I trace a little circle against her back. “Hey, pretty girl,” I say. She smiles into the pillow, but she still doesn’t move. “You have to get out of here.”

“Where am I supposed to go?” she asks.

“I don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay in my bed.” I mean it. She can’t, because Carrie is coming back. I’m not sure what day, but I sure as hell don’t want her to find Jack in my bed when she does get here. “Where are your clothes?” I ask.

She shrugs.

“Did you have clothes on when you got here?”

She sits up, clutching my sheets against her chest. “I don’t remember,” she admits.

“You have to stop doing that,” I warn.

“I know.” She flops back down against my pillow.

I ruck one of my shirts up in my hands and slip it over her head. She sticks her arms in the holes and tries to close her eyes again. “Out!” I say. I pull her legs over the side of the bed and tug on the shirt she’s wearing until she sits up. “Now.” She stands up, tilting on her wobbly legs like a newborn colt. She walks toward the door. “Hey, Jack,” I say softly. She looks back at me, her eyes mere slits.

“What?” she asks.

“You have to stop doing this to yourself, okay?” I say.

“I know.” She doesn’t say more than that. She just walks out of my room in my shirt and her panties. I watch her, because I don’t want her to leave looking like this. But I have a feeling I know where she’s going. Just like I thought, she goes to Malone’s room and pushes his door open. I hear her say something to him, and then the bedsprings squeak.

I follow her and peek inside the room. She’s under the covers and his arms are wrapped around her. I don’t know why she didn’t just start out in his room. I very softly close his door. He’ll take care of her.

I have to get ready for Carrie. What if she has a boyfriend? What if she doesn’t remember me? What if she’s no longer the person I remember? Why didn’t she send a card or condolences when my parents died? Why didn’t she come back? Ever?

I have a lot to do to get ready. So I start by changing my sheets. Then I have to get the AC serviced at Carrie’s house. I still have a picture on my dresser that we took in a photo booth three years ago. It’s a strip of four photos. Carrie has her tongue out in one, her lips pursed in a kiss in another, and one with her lips pressed to my cheek. The last one is her looking into the camera lens while I stare at her. I wonder if she’s changed. And how much.

 

 

Carrie

 

I cover the mouthpiece and try not to breathe heavy enough for them to hear me. “I already made arrangements to have the beach house opened and everything. Just let me have her this summer,” my mom pleads. Her voice breaks over the line.

Please don’t let her have me this summer, I think to myself. I don’t want to go.

I haven’t seen my mother in four years. Not since she decided to leave our family. She met a man she loved more than us and one day, she just left. It was sort of like she never existed once my dad got over his temper-fit. He threw all of her things, or at least what she left in the house, onto the fire pit in the backyard and sang Living on a Prayer at the top of his lungs until nothing was left but a hangover and ashes.

Dad groans. “Where are you taking her?”

Her voice is quiet. “I thought we’d go to the beach.”

Dad heaves a sigh. “Patty,” he says on a breath. I can imagine him squeezing the spot between his eyes at the top of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

“We had a lot of good memories at the beach,” she says, her voice soft and so familiar that it makes my gut ache. But she’s not my mother any more. She’s that woman who left. She’s that woman who never came back. “You could go with us, if you’re worried,” she says. Her voice sounds… hopeful? I don’t even know how to describe it.

“You know I can’t do that,” he says.

“Would your girlfriend mind?” she asks.

Dad doesn’t have a girlfriend. He never did after she left, but I get the feeling he told her differently. “She wouldn’t approve,” he says.

“Oh,” Mom breathes. “But I could still get Carrie? For the summer? This is the last time I’ll ask. I won’t be able to darken your doorstep after this.”

What does that mean?

“You’ll never have to deal with me again. Just let me have this last season. Please?” Her voice breaks.

“Patty,” Dad breathes. And I hear his bedsprings squeak through the phone. I can almost imagine his knees going weak, because that’s what she does to him.

“John, please?” she begs.

“Okay,” he says on a heavy exhalation. “Fine. You can have her for the summer. If… things weren’t… like they are… I would never allow it. You know that, right?”

“Yes,” she says quietly. “I know that. And I understand why.”

“I have one condition,” he says.

“What is it?”

“You have to tell her about your diagnosis before you two leave. And you have to promise to send her home the minute you’re too sick to take care of her.”

What? What’s he talking about?

“I’ll tell her.”

“We’ll tell her together.”

I step into Dad’s bedroom doorway, the phone still clutched to my ear. He’s sitting exactly like I imagined, with his index finger and thumb pressed against the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed. “You’re going to tell me what?” I ask.

“Carrie!” Mom gasps.

Dad jumps to his feet. “How long have you been listening?”

I let the cordless phone drop down to my side. “Long enough,” I say.

I can hear my mother calling my name from down by my knee.

“We didn’t want you to find out this way,” Dad says, rushing toward me.

“Find out what?” I grit out, punctuating the words with clenches of my jaw.

Dad speaks to the phone and not to me. “You should come over, Patty. Now.”

He nods and mumbles, turning away from me to talk quietly with her for a minute. Then he turns back.

“She’s on her way.” He tosses the phone onto his covers.

“What’s going on, Dad?” I ask. My heart is thumping like a crazy woodpecker lives inside my chest.

“She’s on her way, and she should be the one to tell you.”

“Tell me what?” I finally yell. He stops and looks at me. His eyes are kind. They’re always kind. Dad wears glasses and has sandy blond hair. He has a bit of a potbelly that he can’t get rid of, no matter his diet, so he doesn’t worry about it. Right now, his face is bright red and he looks like he just ran a mile.

“Your mom has cancer, Carrie,” he says and he winces as the words come out of his mouth. He opens his arms and I fall into them. He catches me, just like he always does. All I can think as I sob into his shoulder is that I’m glad he told me before she gets here, because if she knew I cared if she lives or dies, she would have power over me again. Dad holds me close and lets me get it all out. When I’m done, I stand back and wipe my eyes.

“Is she dying?” I ask. I bite the inside of my cheek, calmed by the metallic taste of blood when I bite too hard.

He nods. “Yes, this will be her last summer.”

“Are you sure?” I wait. The clock on the wall ticks. One. Two. Three. Four.

He nods. “I’m sure.”

“Good,” I bite out.

“You don’t mean that,” he scolds.

“Yes, I do.”

I go into my room to compose myself. My mother is on her way over to tell me she’s dying and I have to spend her last summer with her. But my mother died in my heart three years ago when she left. I refuse to mourn her twice.

I have almost enough time to fix my hair and my makeup before she arrives. I hear the knock on the front door, but I refuse to go out until they make me. Mom and Dad talk softly in the kitchen and I can smell coffee brewing. My mom is a coffee fanatic, but my dad hates it.

A knock sounds on my door. “Hey, Carrie,” Dad calls. I don’t answer, so he cracks the door and sticks his head inside. “Your mom wants to see you,” he says. He shoots me a glare when he sees that I’m in my jammies under the covers.

“What?” I ask, throwing my hands up.

“Get up,” he says. He’s suddenly that dad. He’s one that has a sharp tone and a never-say-die attitude. When he’s that dad, I have to listen. I throw my book down and toss the covers back. I stomp past him, just because I can. “Carrie,” he says softly.

“What?” I ask when he grabs my arm to stop me.

“Never mind,” he says. He shakes his head. He motions for me to proceed. “You don’t have to make this difficult, you know?” he asks my back as he follows me down the hallway.

“I’m not the one who made it difficult,” I hiss back over my shoulder.

Then I see her.

I stop.

She’s sitting at the table with a mug of coffee cupped in her hands. She looks up at me, and there are already tears in her eyes.

“Hi, Carrie,” she says quietly. She doesn’t get up or move toward me or reach out for me in any way.

“Hi, Patty,” I toss back. I go to the fridge and get a bottle of water.

Dad winces but Mom chuckles. I didn’t expect that.

The last time I saw my mom, she was pleasantly plump. She wore Spanx and loose-fitting shirts and pants with elastic waistbands.

Now she’s not her.

She’s someone else.

She’s someone skinny with short, patchy blond hair that sticks out at odd angles. She raises her hand and absently strokes across the top of her head when she sees me staring at it. I step closer to Dad. I want him to touch me. I want him to ground me. I want him to make it all right. But he just hitches his hip on the counter.

Mom clears her throat. “So, about the summer,” she says. She swallows so loudly that I can hear it.

“About the summer,” I parrot. I don’t know what else to do or say. I lift my water bottle to my lips and take a drink.

“So, you don’t want to go with me, do you?” she asks. She looks hopefully up at me.

“No.”

“You’re eighteen. I can’t force you.” She shrugs.

“I can,” Dad murmurs. I look up at him and he glares back at me. I want to stick my tongue out at him, but he’s that dad right now.

“We can go sailing,” she sings. “We can fly kites. You always did like to fly kites.”

“When I was eight.”

“We can take long walks on the beach. You used to love to look for sea shells.”

“When I was five.”

“Some of your friends still live there.”

“Which ones?” I ask, before I remember that I’m supposed to remain aloof.

“Amber and Rose.” She looks up at me from lash-less eyelids. “And that boy you used to like.”

“When I was fourteen.”

“We could leave right after graduation. I’ll pick you up, and we can all go to dinner to celebrate, and then we can go to the beach.”

I look up at Dad. “Are you going, too?” I ask.

He shakes his head and pretends to sort through the mail. “Not this time.”

But isn’t this supposed to be the last time?

“So, it’s settled,” Mom sings again. She swipes a hand beneath her nose and sniffles. “We’re going to the beach.”

“Yay,” I say, deadpan.

“Carrie,” Dad growls.

I force the corners of my lips to turn up. “Yay,” I sing, pumping my fist in the air. “We’re going to the beach!” I look up at Dad. “Can I go back to my room now?” I ask.

He glances toward at my mother and she just shrugs. He leans over and kisses my forehead. He smells like woodchips and aftershave.

I start toward the hallway, and my mom’s voice calls to me.

“Carrie,” she says. I look back toward her. “I think I’m supposed to tell you that I’m dying and that this will be my last hurrah and that I want you to share it with me. But I’m just going to tell you that I want to spend the summer with you, even if you act like this the whole time, because I’ll take what I can get.”

Tears start to burn my eyes and I blink them back furiously. “I’ll go,” I whisper.

Dad puts his hands on my shoulders from behind and squeezes. “But she vows not to enjoy a single minute of it.”

Mom laughs. But it’s a sound with no joy in it at all. “I’ll take it.”

I nod and run toward my room. I go inside it and lean heavily against the wall. I leave my door cracked so I can hear what they’re talking about. But they’re so quiet that I can’t hear a thing. I do know, however, that my mom doesn’t leave until the early hours of the morning.

Proving Paul’s Promise

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Young casual couple isolated on white

Friday

 

I’ve heard that the best way to get over one man is to get under another. With that said, I doubt this is what the speaker had in mind. A hand squeezes mine tightly. It was pretty stupid of me to allow them to be in the room with me for this part because I’m feeling terribly exposed, despite the fact that my lower half is draped with a sheet. There’s just something about having my legs up in stirrups and the top of a woman’s head visible between my thighs that makes this all awkward.

It should be beautiful, and really, it is. It’s just…odd.

I have Cody on my left and Garrett on my right. They lean toward one another to kiss over my head, and Garrett uses his free hand to wipe a tear from Cody’s cheek.

The doctor looks up from her perch down below. “You doing okay up there?” she asks.

I squeeze my eyes shut. “Fine,” I say.

Garrett leans down and kisses my temple, his lips lingering there. “Thank you for doing this,” he whispers vehemently, and emotion swells within me.

“Thanks for letting me do this,” I say back. I tip my face up, and he presses a soft kiss to my lips. There’s no passion in this kiss whatsoever. There’s only emotion and gratitude and a type of affection like I’ve never known.

Cody squeezes my shoulder. These guys make the cutest couple. They have been together for about twelve years, and after three failed adoptions, they wanted more than anything to have a kid. They didn’t even ask me. I volunteered to be their surrogate. I’m healthy, I’m young, I’m in love with the type of love they have for one another, and I wanted to give them their own baby.

We used a donor egg and a mishmash of their sperm. The donor egg is so I could stay as far removed from the situation as possible. The mishmash is so they won’t know who the father is. They’ll both be fathers. All I know is that I don’t want to be a mom. But I’m willing to let the little guy cook in my uterus for nine months or so. Then I will gladly hand him over to these wonderful men, and they will be able to raise their own child.

I wince as the doctor cranks the speculum down and pulls it from my vagina. She lifts my feet from the stirrups and rolls her chair back. “Friday,” she says. That’s my name. Friday. Like the day of the week. It’s not the name on my birth certificate, but it fits me better than that old relic of my former life ever did. “In about ten days, I want you to come in for a blood test.”

Cody rubs his hands together. He’s so excited that I get all teary again. That could be the hormones they used to get me on a cycle similar to that of the egg donor, but either way, I’m much more emotional than on a normal day. “Ten days until we find out if we’re going have a baby!” Cody squeals.

A grin tugs at my lips as Garrett helps me sit up. I feel a lot better with the gown covering all my girly bits, instead of having my hoo-ha up in the air for everyone to see.

“I can go to work today, right?” I ask.

She nods her head. “The only thing you can’t do is have an orgasm.”

Heat creeps up my cheeks, so I slap my palms against them. “Oh no!” I cry. “What am I going to do without my daily orgasms?”

Garrett holds up two fingers. “Twice on Sundays.”

“Don’t do any heavy lifting or any strenuous exercise. And no warm baths,” the doctor says. She looks at the tattoo on my knee with keen interest. It’s a spider web with a baby rattle in the middle. “Interesting,” she says, more to herself than to me. Hell, she already saw the one on my inner thigh.

I cover my knee with my hand, and she jerks her gaze away. I have tattoos all over my body. I love them, and each one tells a story. I drew most of them, and they all mean something to me. I know people with tattoos have a lot of stigmas attached to them, but I just like art, and I like to wear art on my body. Judge me if you want to, because I don’t care.

“I have to get back to work,” Cody says, and he leans over to kiss Garrett on the lips. Then he kisses my temple and leaves, his smile big and bright.

Garrett hangs out with me while I change clothes behind the curtain. I can hear his feet hitting the side of the exam table he’s sitting on. He’s like a giddy little kid with his feet swinging back and forth. “Where do you have to go when you leave here?” he asks.

“Work,” I say as I pull my dress down over my head. I like vintage clothes, and today is no different than any other day. I wonder how I’m going to be able to pull off the vintage look when my belly is big and round. I am not sure vintage-inspired maternity clothes will be easy to find.

“Don’t you want to take the rest of the day off?” he asks. “We could go shopping. Buy some baby stuff.”

“Tempting,” I say. Honestly, it sounds like hell. “I’ll leave that to you and Cody, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine,” he tosses back harshly, like he’s annoyed, but I know he’s not. “Let me buy you lunch, then. And I’ll walk you back to Reed’s.”

Reed’s is the tattoo parlor where I work. The idea of him walking me there makes me surprisingly joyful. “Will you be sure to kiss me before you leave?” I ask. I grin as I put on my delicate shoes with the tall heels that I love so very much. They match the dress.

“Why?” he asks, instantly suspicious. He jerks the curtain back as I pull my hair from the neck of my dress. He grins. “Which of the Reeds are you hoping to make jealous?” He narrows his eyes at me.

I start to tick them off on my fingers. “Logan is married and has a baby on the way. Pete is with Reagan. Matt is married and knocked up his wife. With twins!”

“So that leaves Sam and Paul.” He appraises me shrewdly.

Kissing Sam would be like kissing my brother. Paul, on the other hand…

“Mmm hmm,” Garrett hums. “It’s the big one, right?”

“He’s not that big,” I mutter to myself.

“Are you kidding?” he shrieks. “He’s fucking huge.” He grins. “I bet the rest of him is just as big.”

Sometimes having a gay man as a really good friend has its advantages. Because a straight man would never wonder how big Paul Reed’s dick is. “I wouldn’t know,” I murmur. His baby mama would, though, because he still sleeps with Kelly. That part makes my gut ache.

“Does he still walk you home at night when the shop closes?” Garrett asks.

I shrug. “One of them does.”

“Does he still try to kiss you?” Garrett sings. He’s like a damn woodland creature with his giddiness. I expect him to break out into song any second.

“That only happened once,” I say. It was the kiss that rocked my world, though. I pick up my purse and step out into the room.

“And?” He makes a rolling motion with his finger as he opens the door for me and we walk through the hallway. He checks us out, pays the bill, and we step into the sunshine.

“And what?” I huff as I put on my sunglasses and pretend like I don’t know what he just asked.

“The man laid one on you and you still have to see him every day, Friday. How’s that going?” He takes my hand in his and threads his fingers through mine as we wait for the subway. The baby doctor’s office is on the good side of town. And Reed’s is not. It’s in the area that I love more than anything.

“Fine.”

He gapes at me, his mouth hanging open. “That’s all I get? Fine?” He points to my belly. “You might have my baby in your uterus, and that’s all you’re going to tell me?”

I cover his mouth with my hand. “You don’t get any say over any part of my body except for that baby that may or may not be growing in there.”

“Oh, that was cold,” he says. But I have quite effectively changed the subject.

He talks about nurseries and bottles and clothes and all the things I don’t even want to know about until we get to Reed’s. When we get there, he stops in front of the shop, cups his hands around his eyes, and looks through the glass into the room.

“Yep,” he says with a grin. “It’s showtime!” He takes my hand and opens the door. The grin falls off his face, and he replaces it with a look of aloofness. It’s uncanny how he can do that. He minored in theater many years ago, though, so I guess it makes sense. He’s a teacher now.

I drop my bag behind the desk at the front, which is where I usually work. I design the tattoos, and sometimes I do the actual tattoo part. I’m still learning how to do that, but drawing is my thing. That is where my skills lie—I’m an art major at NYU, after all. Or at least I was until I graduated two weeks ago. Now I’m just a possibly-knocked-up soon-to-be-homeless person. Oh crap. I haven’t told Garrett and Cody about my living situation yet.

Paul looks up from where he’s doing a tattoo on a guy’s shoulder, and he frowns. “Morning,” he says, looking from me to Garrett and back. Garrett swells up in size. Honey, no matter what you do, you will never look as big or as tough as Paul Reed.

“Morning,” I chirp back.

Logan is here, too, and he smiles at me and waves. Logan is deaf but can speak, and we all learned how to sign many years ago. I wave back.

Who’s that? he signs at me and points to Garrett.

I put my hand on Garrett’s shoulder. “Garrett, this is Paul, and the quiet one there is Logan.”

Logan stands up and shakes Garrett’s hand. Paul just grunts.

“Nice to meet you,” Garrett says. He turns to me and tips my face up. He leans down close to my ear and says, “I bet he’s fucking huge.” I laugh and try to turn my face away, but he just holds me there with his thumbs beneath my chin and his fingers splayed toward my ear. Then his lips touch mine.

He’s actually a really good kisser, and I kind of envy Cody a little bit, because if he goes after sex the same way he’s going after this fake kiss, Cody’s getting it pretty good.

The only thing about it…there’s no spark. Not a single one. It’s just warm, wet lips sliding across mine, and a really quick touch of a tongue. I pinch his side, and he laughs against my lips and pulls back. He drags his nose up and down the side of mine.

“Cody is going to love it when I tell him about this.” I stab him in the side with my index finger, and he bends over, trying not to laugh.

“Remember what the doctor said,” he tells me, facing me and speaking quietly. “No orgasms. Not even ones offered by great big studly tattoo artists that make you sweat.” He waves a hand in front of his face like a fan. “He makes me sweat a little bit, too.”

I hear a clatter behind us as Paul throws down his tattoo gun and stalks toward the back of the shop. He pulls the privacy curtain closed behind him.

Logan looks up at me, grins, and just shakes his head.

Garrett kisses my forehead, lingering there for a second. “In ten days, you might be my baby mama,” he says, his body rocking against mine as he chuckles.

I punch his shoulder and point toward the door.

Next time he fake kisses me, I have to remember to tell him not to use tongue. I wipe the back of my hand across my mouth and watch him leave. He waves and blows me a kiss.

Logan throws up a hand to get my attention. You’re playing with fire,he warns. He jerks his thumb toward the curtain. He’s pissed. He must not want Paul to hear him or he would be talking instead of signing.

I wave a breezy hand at him. He’ll have to get over it.

He looks toward the curtain. You should go talk to him.

Why?

Because he still has a client out here, and he had to leave because you were sucking face with the other guy.

Crap. Paul walked away with a client in his chair. With a half-finished tat. He has no right to be angry.

Logan’s brow arches, and he shakes his head.

Well, he doesn’t.

Quit being a baby, he signs. He jerks his thumb toward the curtain again. Go talk to him.

I heave a sigh and go to get Paul out of his snit.

 

 

Paul

 

I can’t fucking believe she brought that man here. To my shop. Where I work. Hell, it’s where I live.

I lean against the counter and balance myself on my palms. My forehead rests against the upper cabinet, and I force myself to take a deep breath and count to ten. It was all I could do not to jerk him off her and show him the door. With my foot up his ass.

One of my brothers left shit on the counter that should have been put away, so I clean up and slam the cabinet door. That feels a little better, but not much. I can just imagine that douche in the front of the shop. He’s probably got his hand all the way up her shirt by now.

I slam another door.

The curtain rattles behind me, and a breeze tickles the back of my neck as someone walks into the space. “Not now,” I grind out.

“Then when?” she tosses back.

Great. It would be her that came to get me. I knew it was her. No one else makes the hair on my arms stand up or gives me fucking chills. Not to mention that the perfume she wears gets to me before her voice does. It reaches across the room, creeps up my nose, and wraps itself around my heart. I lower my head and grit my teeth. “Go away, Friday,” I say.

“You have a client waiting,” she says, as though I don’t know.

“I’m aware.”

“Then what the fuck are you doing?” she asks.

Friday is the only one who talks to me like that in my shop. She calls me on my shit, and she has since the day she first walked in here. She was eighteen years old, and she had just started at NYU. She walked in looking like she was lost, and I hired her on the spot when she told me what was wrong with the tattoo on the side of my neck. She told me how she would change it and that any good artist would have known that it was placed wrong. She pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a quick sketch of a new design.

“Want a job?” I’d said.

“Yeah,” she’d replied. “But only if you’ll fix that fucking tattoo so I don’t have to look at that monstrosity every fucking day.”

I’d grinned. Hell, the thought of it still makes me grin. Logan had fixed the tattoo that day, and she’d started working for me. That was four years ago. Four fucking years of looking at her beautiful legs and red lips. Every. Single. Day. Four years of watching her and wanting her. Four years of lusting over Friday. Four years with her busting my chops.

“I’ll finish in a minute,” I say. I heave a sigh and drop heavily into a chair. Friday wears me the fuck out.

She puts her hands on her hips and glares at me. “Why?”

“Why what?” I force myself to look at her face instead of her rack. She has the most beautiful rack I have ever seen, and I’ve been looking at it long enough to know.

“Why are you back here instead of out there working?”

Because I couldn’t watch you sucking face with that douche. “I told you, I’m taking a break.” I give her a what-the-fuck look. If I let her think she’s gone mental, I can blame it all on her, right?

“But why?” she asks. She stomps that little foot of hers, and it immediately draws my attention to her feet, and then up her legs, and then… God. I swipe a hand down my face. “Why, Paul?”

“Who’s the douche?” I ask, instead of telling her how I’m feeling.

“What douche?” She still has her hands on her hips.

“The one who had his tongue down your throat.” I glare at her. But she doesn’t back down. She never does.

“His name is Garrett,” she mumbles. She is suddenly really interested in looking at the magnets on the fridge.

“Garrett is a fuckwad. Tell him to keep his dick in his pants the next time he comes in my shop.”

She blows out a breath and raises her finger to point at me, and I can tell she’s about to ream me a new one.

“Weren’t you fucking somebody else last week, Friday?” I blurt out. I want to take it back immediately because it hangs there in the air between us like a bomb about to explode.

“What?” she asks, and her voice goes soft.

“Last week it was a different guy who took you to lunch.” I grumble to myself and get up, pretending to clean the counter.

She thinks it over. “You mean Cody?”

“How many are there?”

She blinks hard. What the fuck? Friday never cries. Ever. I take a step toward her, and she steps back, putting her hand up like she’s going to push the air around me back. “How dare you?” she breathes. A tear falls over her lashes, and she swipes it away and then looks down at the back of her wet hand like she doesn’t know what the fuck a tear is.

“Friday,” I say. I step toward her again. I soften my voice because I have no idea what to do. I have never seen this Friday before. I have only seen the one who can eat my balls for lunch. Hell, she’ll feed my balls to me if I piss her off enough. And make me like it. Four years and I have never seen her shed a tear.

She turns around and runs into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. I lean my ear against the door and listen, but I can’t hear anything over the sound of the fan. I knock. She doesn’t answer.

“Dammit,” I swear. I lean my forehead against the door.

“Leave her alone,” I hear from behind me.

I turn around because Logan is talking. “I can’t,” I say to him. I knock again, but she doesn’t answer.

“Just leave her the fuck alone,” he says again. He’s pissed, I can tell. “You have a client.” He waves toward my customer like he’s Vanna Fucking White. “Work to do. So, you might want to get to it.”

I heave a sigh and look at my client. “Just a moment,” I say.

“Take your time,” he says with a grin. He’s loving the show, apparently.

I pull my keys from my pocket and fit the key in the lock. I hesitate long enough for Logan to notice.

“You shouldn’t,” he warns.

I know I shouldn’t, but I am.

I turn the key and let myself into the room. I find Friday washing her face.

“What the fuck, Paul!” she cries. She turns back to the mirror and dabs beneath her eyes. She looks at me in the mirror. “Get out.”

I close the door behind me and lean against it. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” she bites out. But another tear slides down her cheek. “Fucking hormones,” she says as she swipes it away.

All this because she has her period? I know better than to say that out loud. “Oh,” I say instead.

She turns to face me, hitching her hip against the sink. She crosses her arms beneath her breasts, which pushes them up and makes little pillows over the top of that low-cut dress she’s wearing. My God. I look up at her face. She smirks at me. I like a smirking Friday a lot better than one who’s crying because I don’t know what do with tears. Not from her.

“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” I blurt out when she just glares at me.

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Fuck me, Friday,” I breathe. I swipe a hand down my face again and growl to myself.

She faces the mirror and starts to put on her lipstick. “I tried to do that and you didn’t want to,” she says. She purses her lips and kisses toward the mirror. The move shoots straight to my dick. “So, you, Mister I Am Jealous, don’t get to tell me who I can and can’t sleep with.” She looks directly into my eyes in the mirror. “So, I can sleep with Garrett. I can sleep with Cody.” She throws up her hands. “Hell, I can sleep with both of them at the same time, if I want.” She glares at me. “And you don’t get to have any say-so about it.” She walks toward me. “You can’t say a word because you didn’t want it.” She gestures toward the front of her body. “You said no to all this, so you don’t get to have an opinion.”

“I didn’t say no,” I mumble.

“You kissed me and then you tried to take it back!” she yells.

Okay, I like Friday yelling. I like it so much more than Friday crying. “I didn’t try to take it back!” I slap my palm against the wall, but she just looks at my hand, smirks, and rolls her eyes. “I just… Never mind.”

“Just what?” she asks.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s over and done with.”

“Yep,” she says, letting her lips pop on the P. “Over. Done.” She dusts her hands together. “So you don’t get to go all Neanderthal when someone else kisses me.”

“I just…” I shake my head. “I had something I needed to take care of.”

“Don’t you mean somebody?” She smirks and shakes her head. “Was it Kelly you had to take care of? Heaven knows Kelly needs to come more than I do.”

Did she just say come? I shake the thoughts away. They’re not going to get me anywhere.

Friday tolerates my daughter’s mother, but I don’t think she’s ever really liked her. “It actually was Kelly I needed to take care of,” I say. I may as well lay all my shit bare. Friday cried, for God’s sake.

She lets out a heavy breath. “You kissed me, and then you went and got some from Kelly?”

Her voice is soft. She’s… What is she? Is she hurt?

“No, I didn’t go and get some from Kelly. I went and broke things off with Kelly.” I take a step forward until I’m towering over her and she has to tip her head back to look at my face. “I had to go and tell her that I kissed you and that you rocked my fucking world.”

She freezes, so I take a chance and put my arm around her, pulling her against me.

“What?” she breathes. She turns her face up to mine.

“I haven’t slept with Kelly since before I kissed you. I don’t want to sleep with Kelly. I have you on my fucking mind, and I can’t get you out. So, I went and broke things off with Kelly. Completely.”

She blinks her brown eyes at me. Blink. Blink.

“Then I came back to see you, but you were pissed. You wouldn’t let me in. You said ‘no fucking way, you stupid son of a bitch.’ And you told me to go home. So, I went. Alone.”

Blink. Blink.

“Kelly and I weren’t dating. We were just friends with benefits. Or parents with benefits. Whatever. Now we’re just Hayley’s parents.”

Blink. Blink.

“I went and told her that we couldn’t do that anymore, and she understood.”

“You told her?” she whispers. “That you…what? What did you tell her?”

“I told her that I can’t stop thinking about you.” I brush her hair back from her forehead. I kissed Friday that one time when I walked her home and she invited me inside, and we both knew what she was offering, but I don’t think I’ve ever just held her in my arms. I like it. She lays her palms flat on my chest, like she needs to steady herself.

“I have a thing for you,” I admit. I wince inwardly because it sounds so lame.

“A thing?”

“A big thing.”

Her gaze drops.

“Not that thing.” Although now that she’s looking down at it, it’s ready to rise to attention. Fucking attention whore. I tip her chin up. “But,” I say.

“But what?”

“Then you showed up with that first douche. And then that second douche. And I had just changed my whole life for the possibility of you. But you had moved on. Quickly.” I drag my fingertips up and down her bare arms, and chill bumps rise. She shivers. “So, yeah, I’m mad. Sorry.”

“You don’t sound sorry.”

“I’m not.”

She laughs, and the sound of it shoots straight to my heart.

“Am I too late?” I ask. I wait, with my heart in my throat.

She steps back from me. “Paul,” she says. Her voice cracks. “I’m so sorry.”

I don’t need to hear any more. I go out and start my machine up and get back to work. I hear her move around in the shop, and I glance up at her every once in a while, but she gets busy with clients, drawing tattoos, and she ignores me. She doesn’t look in my direction. Not even once. Not for the whole rest of the night. And when it’s closing time, Logan volunteers to walk her home. I let him.

Chapter Two of Proving Paul’s Promise – Unedited

If you missed chapter one, you can find it here.

Preorder on iBooks:   https://bit.ly/1k2EGVG

 

Image

 

Paul

 

I can’t fucking believe she brought that man here. In my shop. Where I work. Hell, it’s where I live.

I lean against the counter and balance myself on my palms. My forehead rests against the upper cabinet, and I force myself to take a deep breath and count to ten. It was all I could do not to jerk him off of her and show him the door. With my foot up his ass.

One of my brothers left shit on the counter that should have been put away so I do it and slam the cabinet door. That feels a little better, but not much more. I can just imagine that douche in the front of the shop. He’s probably got his hand all the way up her shirt by now.

I slam another door.

The curtain rattles behind me and a breeze tickles the back of my neck as someone walks into the space. “Not now,” I grind out.

“Then when?” she tosses back.

Great. It would be her that came to get me. I knew it was her. No one else makes the hair on my arms stand up or gives me fucking chills. Not to mention that the perfume she wears gets to me before her voice does. It reaches across the room, creeps up my nose, and wraps itself around my heart. I lower my head and grit my teeth. “Go away, Friday,” I say.

“You have a client waiting,” she says, as though I don’t know.

“I’m aware.”

“Then what the fuck are you doing?” she asks.

Friday is the only one who talks to me like that in my shop. She calls me on my shit and she has since the day she first walked in here. She was eighteen years old and she had just started at NYU. She walked in looking like she was lost and I hired her on the spot when she told me what was wrong with the tattoo on the side of my neck. She told me how she would change it and that any good artist would have known that it was placed wrong. She pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a quick sketch of a new design.

“Want a job?” I’d said.

“Yeah,” she’d replied. “But only if you’ll fix that fucking tattoo so I don’t have to look at that monstrosity every fucking day.”

I’d grinned. Hell, the thought of it still makes me grin. Logan had fixed the tattoo that day and she’d started working for me. That was four years ago. Four fucking years of looking at her beautiful legs and red lips. Every. Single. Day. Four years of watching her and wanting her. Four years of lusting over Friday. Four years with her busting my chops.

“I’ll finish in a minute,” I say. I heave a sigh and drop heavily into a chair. Friday wears me the fuck out.

She puts her hands on her hips and glares at me. “Why?”

“Why what?” I force myself to look at her face instead of her rack. She has the most beautiful fucking rack I have ever seen, and I’ve been looking at it long enough to know.

“Why are you back here instead of out there working?”

Because I couldn’t watch you sucking face with that douche. “I told you I’m taking a break.” I give her a what-the-fuck look. If I let her think she’s gone mental, I can blame it all on her, right?

“But why?” she asks. She stomps that little foot of hers. But that immediately draws my attention to her feet, and then up her legs, and then… God. I swipe a hand down my face. “Why, Paul?”

“Who’s the douche?” I ask, instead of telling her how I’m feeling.

“What douche?” She still has her hands on her hips.

“The one who had his tongue down your throat.” I glare at her. But she doesn’t back down. She never does.

“His name is Garrett,” she mumbles. She is suddenly really interested in looking at the magnets on the fridge.

“Garrett is a fuckwad. Tell him to keep his dick in his pants the next time he comes in my shop.”

She blows out a breath and raises her finger to point at me, and I can tell she’s about to ream me a new one.

“Weren’t you fucking somebody else last week, Friday?” I blurt out. I want to take it back immediately, because it hangs there in the air between us like a bomb about to explode.

“What?” she asks, and her voice goes soft.

“Last week it was a different guy who took you to lunch.” I grumble to myself and get up, pretending to clean the counter.

She thinks it over. “You mean Cody?”

“How many are there?”

She blinks hard. What the fuck? Friday never cries. Ever. I take a step toward her and she steps back, putting her hand up like she’s going to push the air around me back. “How dare you?” she breathes. A tear falls over her lashes and she swipes it away, and then looks down at the back of her wet hand like she doesn’t know what the fuck a tear is.

“Friday,” I say. I step toward her again. I soften my voice because I have no idea what to do. I have never seen this Friday before. I have only seen the one who can eat my balls for lunch. Hell, she’ll feed my balls to me if I piss her off enough. And make me like it. Four years and I have never seen her shed a tear.

She turns around and runs into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. I lean my ear against the door and listen, but I can’t hear anything over the sound of the fan. I knock. She doesn’t answer.

“Damn it,” I swear. I lean my forehead against the door.

“Leave her alone,” I hear from behind me.

I turn around because Logan is talking. “I can’t,” I say to him. I knock again, but she doesn’t answer.

“Just leave her the fuck alone,” he says again. He’s pissed and I can tell. “You have a client.” He waves toward my customer like he’s Vanna Fucking White. “Work to do. So, you might want to get to it.”

I heave a sigh and look at my client. “Just a moment,” I say.

“Take your time,” he says with a grin. He’s loving the show, apparently.

I pull my keys from my pocket and fit the key in the lock. I hesitate long enough for Logan to notice.

“You shouldn’t,” he warns.

I know I shouldn’t, but I am.

I turn the key and let myself into the room. I find Friday washing her face.

“What the fuck, Paul!” she cries. She turns back to the mirror and dabs beneath her eyes. She looks at me in the mirror. “Get out.”

I close the door behind me and lean against it. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” she bites out. But another tear slides down her cheek. “Fucking hormones,” she says as she swipes it away.

All this because she has her period? I know better than to say that out loud. “Oh,” I say instead.

She turns to face me, hitching her hip against the sink. She crosses her arms beneath her breasts, which pushes them up and makes little pillows over the top of that low cut dress she’s wearing. My God. I look up at her face. She smirks at me. I like a smirking Friday a lot better than one who’s crying, because I don’t know what do with tears. Not from her.

“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” I blurt out when she just glares at me.

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Fuck me, Friday,” I breathe. I swipe a hand down my face again and growl to myself.

She turns to face the mirror and starts to put on her lipstick. “I tried to do that and you didn’t want to,” she says. She purses her lips and kisses toward the mirror. The move shoots straight to my dick. “So, you — mister-I-am-jealous — don’t get to tell me who I can and can’t sleep with.” She looks directly into my eyes in the mirror. “So, I can sleep with Garrett. I can sleep with Cody.” She throws up her hands. “Hell, I can sleep with both of them at the same time, if I want.” She turns to face me. “And you don’t get any say-so about it.” She walks toward me. “You can’t say a word, because you didn’t want it.” She gestures toward the front of her body. “You said no to all this, so you get no say.”

“I didn’t say no,” I mumble.

“You kissed me and then you tried to take it back!” she yells.

Okay, I like Friday yelling. I like it so much more than Friday crying. “I didn’t try to take it back!” I slap my palm against the wall, but she just looks at my hand, smirks, and rolls her eyes. “I just… Never mind.”

“Just what?” she asks.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s over and done with.”

“Yep,” she says, letting her lips pop on the P. “Over. Done.” She dusts her hands together. “So you don’t get to go all Neanderthal when someone else kisses me.”

“I just…” I shake my head. “I had something I needed to take care of.”

“Don’t you mean somebody?” She smirks and shakes her head. “Was it Kelly you had to take care of? Heaven knows Kelly needs to come more than I do.”

Did she just say “come”? I shake the thoughts away. They’re not going to get me anywhere.

Friday tolerates my daughter’s mother. But I don’t think she’s ever really liked her. “It actually was Kelly I needed to take care of.” I say. I may as well lay all my shit bare. Friday cried, for God’s sake.

She lets out a heavy breath. “You kissed me and then you went and got some from Kelly?”

Her voice is soft. She’s… what is she? Is she hurt?

“No, I didn’t go and get some from Kelly. I went and broke things off with Kelly.” I take a step forward until I’m towering over her and she has to tip her head back to look into my face. “I had to go and tell her that I kissed you and that you rocked my fucking world.”

She freezes, so I take a chance and put my arm around her, pulling her against me. “What?” she breathes.

“I haven’t slept with Kelly since before I kissed you. I don’t want to sleep with Kelly. I have you on my fucking mind and I can’t get you out. So, I went and broke things off with Kelly. Completely.”

She blinks her brown eyes at me. Blink. Blink.

“Then I came back to see you, but you were pissed. You wouldn’t let me in. You said ‘no fucking way, you stupid son of a bitch.’ And you told me to go home. So, I went. Alone.”

Blink. Blink.

“Kelly and I weren’t dating. We were just friends with benefits. Or parents with benefits. Whatever. Now we’re just Hayley’s parents.”

Blink. Blink.

“I went and told her that we couldn’t do that anymore, and she understood.”

“You told her?” she whispers. “That you… what? What did you tell her?”

“I told her that I can’t stop thinking about you.” I brush her hair back from her forehead. I kissed Friday that one time when I walked her home and she invited me inside, and we both knew what she was offering, but I don’t think I’ve ever just held her in my arms. I like it. She lays her palms flat on my chest, like she needs to steady herself. “I have a thing for you,” I admit. I wince inwardly, because that sounds so lame.

“A thing?”

“A big thing.”

Her gaze drops.

“Not that thing.” Although now that she’s looking down at it, it’s ready to rise to attention. Fucking attention whore. I tip her chin up. “But,” I say.

“But what?”

“Then you showed up with that first douche. And then that second douche. And I had just changed my whole life for the possibility of you. But you had moved on. Quickly.” I drag my fingertips up and down her bare arms and chill bumps rise. She shivers. “So, yeah, I’m mad. Sorry.”

“You don’t sound sorry.”

“I’m not.”

She laughs, and the sound of it shoots straight to my heart.

“Am I too late?” I ask. I wait, with my heart in my throat.

She steps back from me. “Paul,” she says. Her voice cracks. “I’m so sorry.”

I don’t need to hear any more. I go out and start my machine up and get back to work. I hear her move around in the shop, and I glance up at her every once in a while, but she gets busy with clients, drawing tattoos, and she ignores me. She doesn’t look in my direction. Not even once. Not for the whole rest of the night. And when it’s closing time, Logan volunteers to walk her home. I let him.

 

 

Proving Paul’s Promise

Coming 8/19/2014!

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Chapter One – Unedited

Friday

 

I’ve heard that the best way to get over one man is to get under another. With that said, I doubt this is what the speaker had in mind. A hand squeezes tightly to mine. It was pretty stupid of me to allow them to be in the room with me for this part because I’m feeling terribly exposed, despite the fact that my lower half is draped with a sheet. There’s just something about having my legs up in stirrups and the top of a woman’s head visible between my thighs that makes this all awkward.

It should be beautiful, and really, it is. It’s just… odd.

I have Cody on my left and Garrett on my right. They lean toward one another and kiss over my head, and Garrett uses his free hand to wipe a tear from Cody’s cheek.

The doctor looks up from her perch between my thighs. “You doing okay up there?” she asks.

I squeeze my eyes shut tightly. “Fine,” I say.

Garrett leans down and kisses my temple, his lips lingering there. “Thank you for doing this,” he whispers vehemently, and emotion swells within me.

“Thanks for letting me do this,” I say back. I tip my face up and he presses a soft kiss to my lips. There’s no passion in this kiss whatsoever. There’s only emotion and gratitude and a type of affection like I’ve never known.

Cody squeezes my shoulder. These guys make the cutest couple. They have been together for about twelve years and, after three failed adoptions, they wanted more than anything to have a kid. They didn’t even ask me. I volunteered to be their surrogate. I’m healthy, I’m young, I’m in love with the type of love they have for one another, and I wanted to give them their own baby.

We used a donor egg and a mishmash of their sperm. The donor egg is so I could stay as far removed from the situation as possible. The mishmash is so they won’t know who the father is. They’ll both be fathers. All I know is that I don’t want to be a mom. But I’m willing to let the little guy cook in my uterus for nine months or so. Then I will gladly hand him over to these wonderful men and they will be able to raise their own child.

I wince as the doctor cranks the speculum down and pulls it from my vagina. She lifts my feet from the stirrups and rolls her chair back. “Friday,” she says. That’s my name. Friday. Like the day of the week. It’s not the name on my birth certificate, but it fits me better than that old relic of my former life ever did. “In about ten days, I want you to come in for a blood test.”

Cody rubs his hands together. He’s so excited that I get all teary again. That could be the hormones they used to get me on a cycle similar to that of the egg donor. But either way, I’m much more emotional than on a normal day. “Ten days until we find out if we’re going have a baby!” Cody squeals.

A grin tugs at my lips as Garrett helps me sit up. I feel a lot better with the gown covering all my girly bits, instead of having my hoo haa up in the air for everyone to see.

“I can go to work today, right?” I ask.

She nods her head. “The only thing you can’t do is have an orgasm.”

Heat creeps up my cheeks, so I slap my palms against them. “Oh, no!” I cry. “What am I going to do without my daily orgasms?”

Garrett holds up two fingers. “Twice on Sundays.”

“Don’t do any heavy lifting or any strenuous exercise. And no warm baths.” the doctor says. She looks at the tattoo on my knee with keen interest. It’s a spider web with a baby rattle in the middle of the web. “Interesting,” she says more to herself than to me. Hell, she already saw the one on my inner thigh.

I cover my knee with my hand and she jerks her gaze away. I have tattoos all over my body. I love them, and each one tells a story. I drew most of them, and they all mean something to me. I know people with tattoos have a lot of stigmas attached to them, but I just like art, and I like to wear art on my body. Judge me if you want to, because I don’t care.

“I have to get back to work,” Cody says, and he leans over to kiss Garrett on the lips. Then he kisses my temple and leaves, his smile big and bright.

Garrett hangs out with me while I change clothes behind the curtain. I can hear his feet hitting the side of the exam table he’s sitting on. He’s like a giddy little kid with his feet swinging back and forth. “Where do you have to go when you leave here?” he asks.

“Work,” I say as I pull my dress down over my head. I like vintage clothes and today is no different than any other day. I wonder how I’m going to be able to pull off the vintage look when my belly is big and round. I am not sure vintage-inspired clothes will be easy to find for pregnant women.

“Don’t you want to take the rest of the day off?” he asks. “We could go shopping. Buy some baby stuff.”

“Tempting,” I say. Honestly, it sounds like hell. “I’ll leave that to you and Cody, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine,” he tosses back harshly, like he’s annoyed, but I know he’s not. “Let me buy you lunch, then. And I’ll walk you back to Reed’s.”

Reed’s is the tattoo parlor where I work. The idea of him walking me there makes me surprisingly joyful. “Will you be sure to kiss me before you leave?” I ask. I grin as I put on my delicate shoes with the tall heels that I love so very much. They match the dress.

“Why?” he asks, instantly suspicious. He jerks the curtain back as I pull my hair from the neck of my dress. He grins. “Which of the Reeds are you hoping to make jealous?” He narrows his eyes at me.

I start to tick them off on my fingers. “Logan is married and has a baby on the way. Pete is with Reagan. Matt is married and knocked his wife up. With twins!”

“So that leaves Sam and Paul.” He appraises me shrewdly.

Kissing Sam would be like kissing my brother. Paul, on the other hand…

“Mm hmm,” Garrett hums. “It’s the big one, right?”

“He’s not that big,” I mutter to myself.

“Are you kidding?” he shrieks. “He’s fucking huge.” He grins. “I bet the rest of him is just as big.”

Sometimes having a gay man as a really good friend has its advantages. Because a straight man would never wonder how big Paul Reed’s dick is. “I wouldn’t know,” I murmur. His baby mama would, though, because he still sleeps with Kelly. That part makes my gut ache.

“Does he still walk you home at night when the shop closes?” Garrett asks.

I shrug. “One of them does.”

“Does he still try to kiss you?” Garrett sings. He’s like a damn woodland creature with his giddiness. I expect him to break out into song any second.

“That only happened once,” I say. It was the kiss that rocked my world, though. I pick up my purse and step out into the room.

“And?” He makes a rolling motion with his finger as he opens the door for me and we walk through the hallway. He checks us out, pays the bill, and we step out into the sunshine.

“And what?” I huff as I put on my sunglasses and pretend like I don’t know what he just asked.

“The man laid one on you and you still have to see him every day, Friday. How’s that going?” He takes my hand in his and threads his fingers through mine as we wait for the subway. The baby doctor’s office is on the good side of town. And Reed’s is not. It’s in the area that I love more than anything.

“Fine.”

He gapes at me, his mouth hanging open. “That’s all I get? Fine?” He points to my belly. “You might have my baby in your uterus, and that’s all you’re going to tell me?”

I cover his mouth with my hand. “You don’t get any say over any part of my body except for that baby that might or might not be growing in there.”

“Oh, that was cold,” he says. But I have quite effectively changed the subject.

He talks about nurseries and bottles and clothes and all those things I don’t even want to know about until we get to Reed’s. When we get there, he stops out in front of the shop, cups his hands around his eyes and looks through the glass into the room. “Yep,” he says with a grin. “It’s show time!” He takes my hand and opens the door. The grin falls off his face, and he replaces it with a look of aloofness. It’s uncanny how he can do that. He minored in theater many years ago, though, so I guess it makes sense. He’s a teacher now.

I drop my bag behind the desk at the front, which is where I usually work. I draw tattoos, and sometimes I do the actual tattoo part. I’m still learning how to do that. But drawing is my thing. This is where my skills lie, since I’m an art major at NYU. Or at least I was until I graduated two weeks ago. Now I’m just a possibly-knocked-up soon-to-be-homeless person. Oh, crap. I haven’t told Garrett and Cody about my living situation yet.

Paul looks up from where he’s doing a tattoo on a guy’s shoulder and he frowns. “Morning,” he says, looking from me to Garrett and back. Garrett swells up in size. Honey, no matter what you do, you will never look as big or as tough as Paul Reed, I can’t help but think.

“Morning,” I chirp back.

Logan is here, too, and he smiles at me and waves. Logan is deaf but can speak, and we all learned how to sign many years ago. I wave back.

Who’s that? he signs at me, and points to Garrett.

I put my hand on Garrett’s shoulder. “Garrett, this is Paul and the quiet one there is Logan.”

Logan stands up and shakes Garrett’s hand. Paul just grunts.

“Nice to meet you,” Garrett says. He turns to me and tips my face up. He leans down close to my ear and says, “I bet he’s fucking huge.” I laugh and try to turn my face away, but he just holds me there with his thumbs beneath my chin and his fingers splayed toward my ear. Then his lips touch mine.

He’s actually a really good kisser, and I kind of envy Cody a little bit, because if he goes after sex the same way he’s going after this fake kiss, Cody’s getting it pretty good…

The only thing about it – there’s not a single spark. Not even one. It’s just warm, wet lips sliding across mine, and the touch of a tongue really quickly. I pinch his side and he laughs against my lips and pulls back. He drags his nose up and down the side of mine. “Cody is going to love it when I tell him about this.” I stab him in the side with my index finger and he bends over, trying not to laugh.

“Remember what the doctor said,” he tells me, facing me and speaking quietly. “No orgasms. Not even ones offered by great big old studly looking tattoo artists that make you sweat.” He waves a hand in front of his face like a fan. “He makes me sweat a little bit, too.”

I hear a clatter behind us as Paul throws down his gun and stalks toward the back of the shop. He pulls the privacy curtain and goes behind it.

Logan looks up at me and grins, and just shakes his head.

Garrett kisses my forehead, lingering there for a second. “In ten days, you might be my baby mama,” he says, his body rocking against mine as he chuckles.

I punch his shoulder and point toward the door.

Next time he fake kisses me, I have to remember to tell him not to use tongue. I wipe the back of my hand across my mouth and watch him leave. He waves and blows me a kiss.

Logan throws up a hand to get my attention. You’re playing with fire, he warns. He jerks his thumb toward the curtain. He’s pissed. He must not want Paul to hear him or he would be talking instead of signing.

I wave a breezy hand at him. He’ll have to get over it.

He looks toward the curtain. You should go talk to him.

Why?

Because he still has a client out here and he had to leave because you were sucking face with the other guy.

Crap. Paul walked out with a client in his chair. With a half finished tat. He has no right to be angry.

Logan’s brow arches and he shakes his head.

Well, he doesn’t.

Quit being a baby, he signs. He jerks his thumb toward the curtain again. Go talk to him.

I heave a sigh and go to get Paul out of his snit.

Maybe Matt’s Miracle – May 1st!

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Young casual couple isolated on white

 

Chapter One

 

Skylar

 

Today would be a beautiful day if not for the casket and the three children with wet faces and red eyes sitting beside me on the front pew. The service hasn’t started yet, and people keep wandering up to look at my half sister, Kendra. Some of them whisper soft words to her and reach out to touch her cold hand. I touched it, too. That was the second and last time I would ever touch her. She’s the sister I never got to meet until the day she died.

I startle as the pew shakes. Seth, the oldest of Kendra’s children, jumps to his feet and cries, “Grandpa!”

Grandpa? What? He has a grandpa? I look up and see my very own father. He’s here? Huh? He wraps Seth up in his arms and squeezes him tightly. He sets him back and looks into his eyes. “How are you holding up?” he asks quietly.

Seth’s eyes travel toward the casket. “We’re okay,” he says. He swallows hard. I can hear it from where I’m sitting.

Dad takes Seth’s face in his hands and stares into his eyes. “Everything is going to be fine,” he says. “She’s in a better place.” He looks over Seth’s shoulder toward me. “And you have Skylar now,” he whispers. Seth nods.

A better place? When can I go to a better place? Anywhere would be better than this church where my dad is paying homage to his illegitimate daughter.

Dad walks over to me and kisses my cheek. “How are you, Sky?” he asks. He’s not nearly as friendly with me as he is with the grandchildren I never even knew he had until a few days ago.

“Fine,” I bite out.

Dad sits down and motions toward Kendra’s girls with a crook of his finger. The little one, who is three, scrambles into his lap, and the older one, who is five, leans into his side. He drops an arm around her and holds her close. He knows these kids. He knows them a lot better than he knows me. That chafes at me so badly that it makes me squirm in my seat.

Dad’s brows scrunch together in subtle warning. I stop moving.

I really need to learn that look now that I’m a mom.

Yes. I’m a mom. My dad came to me about a week ago and asked for my help. And bang—instant motherhood.

 

“Skylar,” Dad says quietly. “I need for you to do something for me.”

I look up from my manicotti and force a grin to my face. I should have known that he wanted something. He never would have invited me to lunch otherwise. “Did you get another speeding ticket?” I ask. I’m a brand-new attorney as of last month.

“No,” he says slowly. He won’t look me in the eye. “It’s about Kendra.”

I drop my fork, and it clatters loudly against my plate. I scramble to catch it and then brace myself with my palms on the table. “What about her?” I ask.

I know who Kendra is. She’s the daughter my dad had with his mistress. I found out a few years ago when my mother went on a drunken bender and unburdened her soul. And burdened mine.

Kendra is the daughter my father loved. Her mother was the woman he loved. It didn’t matter that my father was married to my mother. It didn’t matter that he had three kids with my mother. It didn’t matter that we were the perfect family with the house on the hill and a summer home at the Cape. Our family was only perfect until we found out he had another one. One he actually loved.

He had a whole other life with Kendra’s mother, right up until she died. They shared an apartment together, and they had a daughter. Dad went back and forth between our house and theirs for many years, but he was never really present when he was at ours. My mother was too resentful. So he stayed away more and more. With them.

Then, suddenly, one day he was back. His eyes were rimmed with red, and he retreated to his study with a bottle of Glenlivet. He didn’t come out for days. When he finally emerged, my mom walked around for a week singing, “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” Kendra was already an adult at that point, and married.

But I had my father back after that day. I didn’t understand at all how it had come to be. I didn’t know at the time that he had another daughter. Another woman he had loved. Another life. But he did. And now he wanted to talk about her?

“Kendra is dying,” he says. His eyes fill with tears, but he won’t let them spill over. He blinks furiously, his face reddening.

“Oh,” I say. How am I supposed to respond to that? Ding-dong, the witch is dead… “What happened?”

“She has cancer. She found out when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Mellie.” He wipes his eyes with a cloth napkin and motions for a waiter to bring him a drink. “I got her into a really wonderful chemical trial, but she wanted to wait until Mellie was born.” He heaves a sigh. “If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, she might have made it. She could have gotten an abortion, but she refused. She waited too long. The cancer is going to win, and she doesn’t have anyone to take the children.”

I can’t breathe. My chest stills, and I feel like I’m going to pass out. Dad shoves a glass of water at me, and I raise it to my lips, sputter into the rim of it, take a sip, swallow, and inhale. I take a deep breath. And I wait. Because there’s more. There’s always more with my dad.

“She has three children. Seth is sixteen. Joey is five. And Mellie is three.” He covers my hand with his and squeezes it. “They don’t have anyone but me. And I can’t take them.” He sits back and rubs the bridge of his nose. “You know how your mother is,” he explains.

Yes, and I know how my mother was betrayed. Yes, I know how my mother found out about his mistress. Yes, I know how my mother hates the ground they all walk on. Sometimes I think she hates me, too. It’s hard to tell. I really don’t think she loves anyone or anything.

He looks me in the eye. “I need for you to help me. They’re your nieces and nephew, no matter what your mother has taught you.”

I am stunned. Absolutely stunned. “You love them,” I say quietly.

He nods. “I do.”

“You love her.” The words fall on the room like cracks of thunder.

“I do.”

I lean back against the chair. “Can I ask you something?”

He nods. It’s a quick jerk, but I see it.

“What did they give you that we couldn’t?” I ask. I don’t even cry. I just ask it. I always wanted to know.

“Your mother made it really hard for me to be a part of our family,” he says. “After she found out—” He raises his hand to stop me when I open my mouth to complain. “Wait,” he says. “Hear me out.”

I nod. I couldn’t talk if I wanted to.

“I loved you and your brother and sister. But I loved Kendra’s mother, too, and I should have divorced your mother and made a clean break.”

“Without us,” I say.

“No, I would have taken you with me if I could. But I couldn’t. Your mother would have ruined me financially, and I could get over that, but she would have gotten custody of you all. And I couldn’t just leave you with all that hatred, without at least trying to be a buffer.” I don’t remember him as a buffer. I know him as that man I never knew. He balls up his fist and squeezes tightly. “That’s why I never left completely. Your mother is more than a bit vindictive, as you know.” He scrubs a hand across his perfect white hair. “Sometimes I think she would have been okay with it if Kendra’s mother was white.”

What? Kendra’s mother’s not white? My father had an affair with a woman of a different race?

“If you do this for me, your mother is going to be very angry at you.”

No shit. She’ll hate me. But I think she already does anyway.

“I understand if you say no,” he says on a sigh. “But they don’t have anyone else.”

“Where is their father?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Fathers,” he says, enunciating the word. “Seth has a dad who sees him once or twice a year, and the girls’ dad has a new family and not enough time for them.”

“So, what do you want me to do?” I ask. I throw my napkin into my plate. My manicotti is churning in my stomach.

“I want you to go and get them.”

“Did you ask Tim? Or Lydia?” They’re my brother and sister and both are older than me.

He shakes his head. “They have families of their own.”

“And I don’t.” Shit, I don’t have anyone. No one but a boyfriend I almost never see. My mother is a nutcase and my father’s heart lies with another family.

“You’re single. You would be wonderful with them.” He lowers his voice and looks around the room. “You won’t look at them like they’re unwanted, biracial children. You’ll love them. I know you will.” He glares at me. “Will you at least meet them? Please? I know it would be a challenge. You’d have to learn a lot, but Seth is sixteen. He helps to take care of the little ones. Hell, in two years, he can take custody himself. That’s what he wants.”

Dad’s pleading with me.

“I’ve never asked for anything before,” he says.

He’s right. He’s never asked for a good night kiss. Or any of the things fathers want. Well, he probably asked for them from Kendra.

“I’ll go,” I say. They’re just children after all. And children need to be loved. I wasn’t, but I can make it better for Kendra’s kids, can’t I? There’s a tiny little piece of me that wants to make my father proud. To make him love me.

He deflates like a balloon. “Oh, thank God,” he says. He lays a hand on his chest. Then he gets up, lifts me by my elbows, and pulls me to him. I can’t remember ever getting a hug from my father before, and I don’t know what to do with it. He holds me like that, breathing into the hair on the top of my head for a moment. Then he sets me back. His eyes are wet with unshed tears. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much.”

I nod. I can’t do anything more. I feel like somebody took my insides and shoved them up my throat.

 

I’m jerked from my memories when someone sits down on my left. I look up and instantly recognize Matthew Reed. He was a friend of Kendra’s from the cancer center. I went to visit, right before Kendra died, and to get the kids. Matt was waiting with her. He stayed with Seth so they could be there when she took her last breath. I took the little ones home; I didn’t think they needed to remember their mom that way.

His blue eyes gaze into mine, and he sticks out a hand to shake. He doesn’t say anything. I look up at him. He’s wearing a blue turtleneck covered up by a black button-down shirt with a pair of really nice trousers. He tugs at the top of the turtleneck, and I get a tiny peek of his tattoos.

“You clean up nicely,” I say. I smile at him because I don’t know what else to do.

“Thanks,” he says quietly. His blond hair is held back with a leather band at the nape of his neck, but a piece falls forward, and he tucks it behind his ear. He has a row of piercings up the shell of his ear, and I count them in my head. I have a suddenly insatiable desire to see his hair hang loose around his face.

He looks down at my black skirt and my white shirt. “So do you.”

I think I was wearing something similar the last time I saw him, but I smile anyway. He squeezes my hand and pulls his fingers from my grasp. I probably shouldn’t have held his hand so long. I’m an idiot. He leans across me and reaches for my dad’s hand. “Mr. Morgan,” he says with a nod. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Dad nods his thanks and grips Matt’s hand tightly, and then swipes a finger under his nose. He goes back to talking to the girls, and they’re snuggling closer and closer to him as he murmurs softly to them.

Matt reaches past my dad and bumps knuckles with Seth. Seth smiles at him, but then the preacher walks to the front of the church, they close the casket—thank God—and the sermon begins.

Matt takes my hand in his again, and I feel tears sting my eyes. I blink up at him, and he smiles softly at me. He squeezes my hand gently and listens to the pastor. But he doesn’t let me go.

 

 

Matt

 

“She looks lonely,” Emily says as she elbows me in the side. She’s my brother Logan’s wife and she holds a little piece of my heart. But sometimes I want to elbow her back when she pokes me with her scrawny limbs. “You should go check on her,” she whispers vehemently. She raises her elbow again, and I grab it before she can jab me.

“Fine,” I bite out. I get up, stepping on my four brothers’ feet as I scoot past them. Of course, I’m in the center of the aisle and have to go by all of them. Reagan, Pete’s girl, reaches out and squeezes my hand as I walk by her. I love Reagan, and Emily, too. But Emily is a little more outspoken. Reagan is famous for her tender touches, and Emily is the opposite.

I adjust my suit coat and tug at the turtleneck I borrowed from Logan. He gets free clothes from Emily’s parents, who own Madison Avenue, the upscale clothing company. I feel like a monkey dressed up in a coat and a top hat. Like the ones that dance at carnivals. Dance, monkey, dance.

I drop into the open seat beside Skylar, Kendra’s half sister, and I reach out to shake hands with her. She holds on a second too long, and I don’t mind it. She looks tired. Her dad is sitting beside her, but there may as well be an ocean between them. It’s only a few inches, but even I can feel the divide.

I shake his hand and bump knuckles with Seth. Seth and I were both with his mom when she died. We shared the most difficult moment of his life, and it’s something I will never, ever forget.

I watched Kendra take her last breath and all I could think was how lucky I was that it wasn’t me dying there in that bed. It could have so easily been me. Kendra and I were in the same chemical trial, but I got better and my cancer went into remission. Hers didn’t.

She died.

I’m alive.

I look down at Skylar. She looks nothing like Kendra. Kendra was biracial, so she had skin the color of sweet coffee, and she wore her hair natural but short. Skylar is light skinned, blond, and blue eyed. She has rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses pushed up on top of her head, holding her hair back from her face. It hangs halfway down her back in soft waves.

The preacher starts to speak at the front of the church, and Skylar closes her eyes. She squeezes her hands together in her lap, and I can’t tell what’s going on in her head. I wish I knew.

I reach out and take her hand in mine without even thinking about it. I tuck our twined fingers down on the seat between us, and I give her a gentle squeeze. She looks up at me and blinks slowly, her blue eyes startled. But then they soften and she blinks at me again, and this time she really looks at me. She squeezes my hand back, and I don’t let her go. I hold it until both our palms start to sweat.

I get so wrapped up in the feel of her hand in mine and the soft drone of the preacher, that it startles me when a cough jerks me out of my trance. I look up and see a tall man looking down his nose at me. He nudges my knee. “I think you’re in my spot,” he says.

I look at Skylar, and she is just as shocked as I am. She pulls her hand from mine and wipes it on her skirt. I scoot over, and he settles down beside her. He drops an arm around her shoulders, and she leans over to press her lips to his. It’s a quick kiss, one that makes me wonder how often he does it and if it’s always quite that chaste.

Great, now I’m thinking about how it feels to kiss her. Shit. Where did that come from?

Finally, they roll the casket from the church, and we all follow to the graveside. I am a pallbearer and so are my brothers. My brothers are really good for things like that. I volunteered them when Mr. Morgan called to ask me to do it.

I take the carnation off my lapel, lay it on top of the casket, and go to stand with my brothers behind the crowd.

Emily threads her arm through mine. “Who is the guy?” she asks, nodding toward the man who’s standing with Skylar.

I shrug. “I have no idea.”

“Does she have a boyfriend?” Reagan asks.

My brothers are silent. I wish Logan and Pete would tell their girls to shut it for a few minutes and quit being so nosy. I tap Emily on the tip of her nose, and she scrunches up her face. “Stop being so curious,” I tell her.

I wrap my arm around Reagan and pull her to me. I like it when she goes all soft against me, because when she’s not soft, she’s ready to take my head off with a karate chop. I have been on the wrong end of a startled Reagan before, and I don’t particularly want to go there again.

“You okay?” she asks quietly.

I heave a sigh. “I guess.” I shake my head. “I still can’t believe she’s gone,” I say.

Reagan kisses my cheek and then stops to wipe her thumb across the lipstick she must have left on my skin. She smiles. “I’m glad you got better,” she says quietly.

I squeeze her. “Me, too.”

But shit. I feel guilty. Kendra left behind three children.

I see Skylar walking toward us, and Emily and Reagan step back. The heels of the three-inch-high shoes Skylar’s wearing sink into the earth, and she totters a little because of it. I reach out to help steady her with a hand on her elbow. She stops in front of me.

“Thank you for being there with her,” Skylar says quietly.

“She was my friend,” I explain. I don’t know what else to say.

She looks into my eyes. “Was she in a lot of pain?” she asks. She shakes her head. “I tried to talk to Seth about it, but he pretty much pretends I don’t exist.”

I shove my hands in my pockets. “What do you mean? He’s not giving you a hard time, is he?”

She shakes her head again. “No. He’s perfect. He takes his sisters to day care in the morning and picks them up after school. He feeds them, and he bathes them. He won’t let me do anything. I think I’m just a placeholder.” She blows out a heavy breath.

I scratch my head. I don’t know how to tell her what I want to say.

“What?” she asks, her delicate brow arching.

“Kendra asked him to make it easy for you,” I admit. “When she was dying, she told him some things about how to be a good man. Always open car doors. Carry a handkerchief on dates, because you never know when she’ll cry. Never let her pay for dinner.” I take a deep breath. “And she told him to make it easy for you.”

Her mouth opens like she wants to say something but nothing comes out. She’s speechless. She closes it tightly, pressing her lips together. “What else did she tell him?”

“Just normal stuff about dying,” I tell her. It was soul-wrenching to watch. I’d finally had to leave the room so I wouldn’t upset them both with my sobbing. I missed some things as a result.

“I don’t know what to do with kids,” she says.

“They don’t really need much,” I say. “Just for you to love them.”

“I’m trying,” she says.

I want to lay my hand on the back of her hair and smooth down the length of it. I bet it feels like silk.

“I, um, should have introduced you to my boyfriend,” she says. “Do you want to meet him?”

I shake my head. I see him talking with Mr. Morgan. Skylar’s dad doesn’t look like he’s impressed.

“When you, um, took my hand…” she says. “I should have told you.”

“Why?” I look down at her. She comes up to my shoulder, even in her heels.

“I, um, didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

This time it’s me raising my brows at her. “Why did you think I took your hand?”

Her face colors. “I’m not sure,” she says.

I wrap my hand around her wrist and give her a soft squeeze. “I took your hand because you were trembling,” I say. “That’s all.” She’s trembling now, too, but I let her go.

“Oh,” she breathes.

She has her phone clutched in her free hand so I take it from her and add myself to her address book. “Do me a favor?” I say.

She looks up at me and then back down at the phone.

“Call me if you need anything. Anything at all. I promised their mom.”

“Okay,” she replies. “Thanks for everything.” Her blue eyes meet mine, and I have never seen anyone look quite so lost. But then her eyes narrow as her gaze shoots past me. “Shit,” she suddenly spits out.

“What?” I ask, looking over my shoulder toward the sedan that just pulled up.

“My mother is here,” she says. She squares her shoulders, and I suddenly see a spark that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Can you watch the children for a minute?” she asks.

“Why?”

“Just because,” she says. She grits her teeth and looks up at me. “Promise me. No matter what, don’t let her anywhere near the children.”

What the fuck? I look back at the sedan. The door opens, and an older and much harsher version of Skylar gets out.

“Okay…” I say slowly. Skylar nods her head, steels her spine, and walks toward her mother.

The rigidity of her posture makes me think of my own mother’s the time that Johnny Rickles stuck a “Kick me” note on my back and then watched all the other kids laugh. My mother went ballistic when she saw it. It’s a look that says danger will have to go through her before it gets to the children, and I think I just met Seth, Mellie, and Joey’s mom for the very first time. Her name is Skylar Morgan, and she’s tiny and gorgeous and awesome.