Chapters One and Two of ZZZ!

Young casual couple isolated on white

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Peck

 

My phone buzzes and I ignore it. It’s just one of my sisters.

The guy in the sound booth shoots me a dirty look. I’m working on a track for the new album, because I want to see how some new beats sound mixed with our new single. He hits a button. “Do you need to take a break?” he asks.

I shake my head and keep playing. I play drums for a band, and I don’t have time to stop right now. Anything my sisters have to say can wait until I’m done here.

My phone rumbles again.

“Let’s call it quits, shall we?” he says from the booth.

Sometimes it’s hell having four sisters. And sometimes it’s awesome. Right now I’m annoyed. I pick up my phone but instead of answering it I cram it into my pocket.

I go out into the sound area and sit down next to the recording engineer. “Let me hear it one time, will you?” I tap my drumsticks lightly on the table while I talk.

He mixes it all up, and music comes into the headset he gives me. I like it. I like it a lot. I smile at him and nod.

He smiles back. “It’s better,” he says. “You were right.” He shakes his head.

“Don’t look so happy about it,” I tease. I take the headphones off and lay them on the counter. I swipe a hand down my face.

My phone rings again, just as the door opens. It flies inward, slamming hard against the wall. I jump to my feet when my sister Lark comes sliding into the room.

“Oh, my God, I have been trying to call you for an hour,” she blurts out. She bends at the waist, trying to catch her breath. She stands up, pressing a hand to her side.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“I can’t breathe,” she pants. She holds up one finger. “Stairs.” She gulps air.

One of her gloves slips down her wrist, and that’s when I realize how serious this is. Lark never takes her gloves off. She never lets anyone see her hands or arms. Ever. For a long time, I thought she was just a germ freak—until I learned the truth. But the fact that she just let her glove slip tells me a lot. “Did someone die?” I ask.

She nods. But then she shakes her head. Then she nods again.

“Oh, my God!” I cover my mouth with my hand. “Who?”

“Sam Reed,” she pants out.

My heart lurches. My stomach dips and blackness crowds the corners of my vision.

“Emily just called to say he was in a really bad accident. They’re all on their way back from the beach to go to the hospital.”

I sink into a chair. “And he died?” How could he? We have unfinished business.

She waves a hand through the air. “No, no, not yet.”

I jump up. “Then why the hell did you tell me he was dead?”

“At the time, I was trying to breathe!” she yells back. “It’s not my fault you misunderstood!”

The door flies open again and another of my sisters runs into the room. Finally. Someone who can make sense of it.

“Emily just called again,” Wren says. “They just got to the hospital and Sam is in surgery.” Wren might be a mess on the outside, but she’s got it together on the inside. Thank God.

I jab my drumsticks into my back pocket and start for the door.

“Where are you going?” Wren calls to my back.

I don’t wait for her. I hail a cab and get in it, my heart beating about a mile a minute. Sam’s in the hospital. In surgery. I left things at a bad place the last time I saw him. A really bad place. I can’t stand the idea of him being injured and possibly dying without knowing how I truly feel about him.

 

***

 

The cab stops at the Emergency Room doors, and I get out. I go to the desk, and they tell me where the waiting room is for surgery, and I go in that direction. “Are you one of them?” the lady at reception asks me.

I lift my brow at her, because I can’t get my thoughts together enough to talk.

“There are a lot of them here for him.” I look blankly at her. “His family.”

Oh, yeah. There are a lot of Reeds, and all of them in one place can be a little intimidating. Lots of big, blond, tatted-up men. Like a buffet of testosterone and hotness, wrapped in pretty ink.

I stop in the doorway of the waiting area. I can hear the low murmur of male voices and stick my head into the room. The Reed brothers are all over the place, not to mention their wives. I find Emily and motion toward her. She waves me into the room.

I sit down beside her and she takes my hand. How bad is it? I ask her in sign language. Emily’s husband, Logan, is deaf, so the whole family signs. Thank God these people speak my language. Because if I opened my mouth right now, one big long stutter would come out, and nothing else.

Pretty bad, she replies.

What happened?

She shrugs and shakes her head. He left the beach right after the wedding to go home. He had to get to practice. He’d already missed way too much training time. And on the way from the airport to his house, he was in an accident.

Can I do anything?

“Pray,” Paul says from behind her.

Well, there’s that. I nod. Anything else?

She shakes her head.

Pete is sitting across the room with his elbows on his knees, his face buried in his hands. Reagan rubs his back and talks softly into his ear. He nods, albeit reluctantly, and kisses her quickly, pulling her against him for a hug. She falls into his arms, like she’s meant to be there.

Is it okay if I stay for a little while? I ask.

Emily squeezes my hand. “Of course.”

There’s a commotion in the hallway and my four sisters come into the room. They’re on their tiptoes almost, trying to be quiet. Emily gives them the story, and they sit down beside one another on the floor and lean against the wall.

The Reeds take people in like they’re family. Anyone. The only requirement is that you have a pulse. And if you don’t have a heart, they’ll give you theirs. So my sisters and I already feel a connection here, but I can’t help but think that we should leave and give them some privacy.

“Where are the kids?” Lark asks.

“With a sitter,” Friday says.

“All of them?”

There are a lot of Reed kids too. Paul and Friday have two—three if you count Jacob. And Matt and Sky have four little ones plus Seth. Emily and Logan have one.

Matt sniggers. “You say it like we have our own circus.”

“Well, if the shoe fits,” Lark says.

Pete holds up a finger. “That would be shoes—plural. Lots of circus animals.”

Do you want us to go and take care of the kids? I ask. We’d be happy to.

Sky, Matt’s wife, shakes her head. “We’re going to go home as soon as we find out what’s happening. He’s going to be fine. I’m certain.” She squeezes my hand.

Ten bucks says the wives might go home, but the brothers won’t. Or at least not all of them.

A man in green scrubs walks into the room. “Reed family?” he asks.

“Here,” they all say at once. The doctor looks around the room and shakes his head.

“Immediate family?” he asks.

“Here,” they all say at once again.

“Get on with it,” Paul barks.

“Your brother is a very lucky man,” the doctor says as he pulls his glasses from his face and brushes a finger over the bridge of his nose. “He broke his tibia—one of the bones in the lower leg—in the crash, and has a pretty bad head laceration. We stitched him up, set the leg, put him in a cast, and we’re going to need to keep him at least overnight.”

“Why?” Pete asks.

“The team physician wants us to keep an eye on him.”

So they know who he is. And what he does.

“How did the team know?”

The doctor shrugs. “I called them.” He glares at us. “He plays pro ball.” He says it like it’s the Holy Grail. “They’re sending the team physician to evaluate him in the morning.”

The door bursts open, and a couple of men and a few women walk into the room. They’re loud and noisy and they’re extremely disrespectful.

“Will he still be able to play?” one of them asks.

The doctor shakes his head. “He’s going to be on the bench for a while. It’s a damn shame, too.”

Paul swipes a hand down his face and takes a deep breath.

“Some players come back from an injury like this,” the doctor says helpfully.

Oh, hell, there’s a chance he might not play again?

“Can we see him?” Pete asks.

“One at a time,” the doctor says with a nod.

“Which way?” Pete barks. The doctor points.

Pete takes Reagan’s hand and drags her down the hallway. “Only one!” the doctor calls.

“We are only one,” Pete yells back, but he doesn’t stop.

“Matt, you should go next,” Paul says. “You have kids to get back home to.”

Matt nods, but he says, “So do you.”

“I’m going to hang out for a while anyway.”

“You know Pete’s not going to go home tonight,” Matt says.

Paul nods. “I know.”

Pete and Sam are twins. They have a bond.

The doctor shakes hands with Paul and leaves the room. The people who came in last swarm Paul, asking questions. It turns out they’re from the team. And the girls are cheerleaders.

“Only family can visit,” Paul warns.

“We know,” one of the girls says. “We heard about the accident and just wanted to come and check on him. We won’t stay long.”

I sit down beside my sisters. “Y-you should go h-home,” I say to them quietly. I talk to my sisters. I always have. My stutter isn’t as bad when I talk to them. Not as bad as it is with anyone else.

“We’ll wait,” Lark says. She leans the back of her head against the wall, and tilts it so that she can look at me. She takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “He’s going to be fine,” she says.

I take a breath.

I sit quietly as his brothers come and go. Pete and Reagan come out, and Matt and Sky go in. And the cycle continues until everyone has had a visit. Pete kisses Reagan goodbye. It looks like he’s going to spend the night after all. “This is a pretty sucky wedding night,” he tells her.

“You’ll make up for it later,” she teases him. He hugs her, and then walks her and the rest of them out to waiting cabs.

When Pete comes back, I stand up and wipe off the butt of my pants. I should go home. I can do nothing for anyone here.

Pete motions toward the hallway. “Come on,” he says. He doesn’t want the team members or the cheerleaders to see me. I sneak to the doorway and follow him down the hall. The smell of disinfectant tickles my nose.

When we get to Sam’s room, he’s sitting up, but his eyes are closed.

I don’t want to wake him, I sign.

He smiles. “You’re the only one he asked for.”

My heart thuds. He asked for me?

He nods. “He’s a little fucked up.” He grins. “Okay, a lot fucked up.”

I walk into the room and sit down in the chair beside the bed. Sam’s hand lies outside the covers, so I take it in mine. I can see the veins in his hand, stark against his too-pale skin, and I move his IV line over so I don’t bump it.

Sam’s hand suddenly squeezes mine. I look up and find him smiling at me. It’s a goofy grin, and I’m so damn happy to see it that tears fill my eyes.

“Don’t cry, cupcake,” he says softly.

His eyes are barely open, and they shaved part of his head.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I whisper. I tap my thumb on the bedrail, so I can talk without stuttering.

“It’ll take more than a semi truck with a drunk driver to take me out, cupcake.” He laughs, but then he clutches his head. “That hurt,” he murmurs.

“Can I do anything for you?” Tap. Tap.

“Just stay for a little while.”

I scoot my chair closer.

“Where’s Pete?” he asks.

“I don’t know.” Tap. Tap.

“He got married today. And I fucked his honeymoon all up.”

“He doesn’t seem to mind.” Tap. Tap.

He whispers fiercely, “He’s s’posed to be getting laid!”

I laugh. I can’t help it. “He’d rather be here.”

“If I had a choice between having newly-wed, wall-banging, awesomely good sex and hanging out with me, I wouldn’t pick me. I’d be at home fucking Reagan.” His face turns a little green. “Well, I wouldn’t fuck Reagan, because that would be gross. But Pete should be home fucking Reagan.”

His words are slurred and I can tell they’ve given him pain meds. But he still makes me laugh.

“Hey cupcake!” he says, like he just had a great idea. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” I say.

“I thought you were ready to kick me to the curb.”

I was. But when I found out he was hurt, it nearly gutted me. “Would if I could,” I say.

“Do you think you could fall in love with me, cupcake?” he blurts out.

I’m startled. I know he’s medicated, so I shouldn’t put any stock into his words, but I can’t help it. “You should get some rest,” I say. Tap. Tap.

“So, that would be a no.” He whistles. Then he scrunches up his face when it makes his head hurt. “I’m in trouble,” he whispers quietly.

“What?”

He squeezes my hand. “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you, cupcake,” he says. “I just wish you could love me back.”

“You’ve had a lot of pain meds,” I say.

Suddenly, he grabs the neck of my shirt and jerks me so that I fall over his chest. His lips are right next to mine. “Listen to me,” he says.

“Okay,” I whisper.

“I don’t have much going for me, but I know what love feels like.”

“How?”

“It just is, cupcake. You don’t get to pick who you fall in love with. And God knows, if my head could pick, it wouldn’t be you.”

I push back to get off his chest, because I’m offended. But he holds me tight.

“You’re not easy to love, because you can’t love me back. But you might one day. I’ll wait. But you got to start taking my calls.” He cups the back of my head and brings my face toward his. A cough from the doorway startles us apart. I stand up and pull my shirt down where he rucked it up.

“Visiting hours are over,” a nurse says.

“She’s not a visitor,” he says. She comes and inserts a needle into his IV, and his eyes close. He doesn’t open them when he says, “She’s going to marry me one day. She just doesn’t know it yet.” His head falls to the side and he starts to softly snore. His hand goes slack around mine.

I pull back, my heart skipping like mad.

“They say some of the most ridiculous things when they’re medicated.” The nurse shakes her head. “He probably won’t remember any of this tomorrow.”

Pete comes into the room. “Everything okay?” he asks. He looks from Sam to me and back.

“Just gave him some pain meds,” the nurse says.

I’m going to go, I sign to him. I turn back when I get to the door. Will you call if anything goes…wrong?

He nods. “I’m going to go get some coffee while he’s asleep.”

I go to the public bathroom and sink back against the wall. He was medicated. He didn’t mean any of that. Did he? He couldn’t have. I stand there until my heart stops feeling like it’s going to jump out of my chest. I need to go and tell him that I do have feelings for him. What if something goes wrong during the night and I can’t tell him tomorrow? I need for him to know.

I go back to his room and stop in the doorway. Sitting beside his bed is a girl. She’s holding his hand and talking to him. He smiles at her and says, “I’m serious. I’m going to marry you.”

My heart jolts. He may as well have stabbed me with a knife.

I turn and leave. I don’t run into Pete, and my sisters are waiting for me.

“What happened?” Lark asks when we get in the cab.

I wipe a tear from my cheek as it snakes a warm path down my face. “N-nothing.”

“Did you talk to him?”

I nod.

“And?” Wren chirps.

“A-and the ch-cheerleader is in with him now.”

“Oh,” Wren says.

“Yeah,” I say.

I’m an idiot.

 

 

 

 

Peck

 

When I was twelve, I went for months thinking I was dead. Everyone in my household ignored me. That was per my mother. “If she won’t speak, don’t speak to her,” she’d said. What she didn’t understand was that I wanted to speak. I wanted to speak with a desperation unlike any other. I wanted to unburden my mind. I wanted to talk.

I just couldn’t.

So I moved around the house, prepared my own meals, got myself on the bus and off, took care of my own laundry, and I spent most of my time in my room, since no one was going to talk to me anyway.

I thought I was dead. Because why else would they not speak to me? Why would they punish me like they did for something I couldn’t control? I must have died and someone forgot to tell me. I was a ghostly specter of myself.

My mother and her boyfriend spent more time away from home than in the small apartment my mom and I shared. He kept a place across town, and it became easier for her to stay there rather than come home. I didn’t mind. I was a ghost walking around alone anyway, right? I spent my nights alone and was grateful for the silence. Because it would still be silent even if she were here.

But then there was a problem one day at school, and I ended up in the emergency room and then had my appendix out. It took them four days to find my mother, and suddenly someone cared if I lived or died.

Her name was Mrs. Derricks, and she was the school counselor. She brought me into her office and changed my life that day, and every day since.

The door slamming behind me jerks me from my thoughts of Mrs. Derricks.

Why aren’t you dressed? I ask Lark in sign language as she drops her things on the couch and flops down.

“Dressed for what?” she asks, blowing out a breath.

For the funeral.

Her brow furrows. “What funeral?”

My hands fly wildly. Mrs. Derricks’ funeral!

“Oh, crap,” she says. She jumps up. “Totally forgot. Give me five minutes to change.”

I text Wren and Star to see where they are, but just as I hit send, they come through the door. They couldn’t be more opposite. They’re sisters, born one year apart. And while they look alike, they couldn’t be more different.

“You need to tie your shoe,” Star says to Wren.

Wren looks down. “Why?”

“Because you’ll trip over it.”

“Who cares,” Wren tosses back.

Star has her shirt tucked into a pair of nice pants, her creases all perfect and sharp. Wren, on the other hand, is wearing jeans and a T-shirt I think she stole from Emilio when we stayed over with him and Marta at their house for Christmas. It’s four sizes too big for her and hangs down almost to her knees.

Emilio Vasquez isn’t our real dad. He’s the man who “sprung us from jail” as he calls it. In reality, it was a group home, but he’s pretty accurate. He and his wife Marta couldn’t have kids, so they decided to use their millions to better the life of a child. And they ended up with five of us, all at once.

Emilio is a former rock and roll star who hung up his microphone when drugs and drinking destroyed his band. Marta is a former groupie he fell in love with, or that’s at least how he tells it. She smacks the back of his head every time he calls her a groupie. She’s a tiny little Latina fireball.

To us, they’re our parents. They’re the family we weren’t born with, but were lucky enough to grow into.

“I can’t find black gloves!” Lark calls from her room.

“Why do you need black gloves?” Wren yells back.

“For the funeral!” Lark bellows.

“Oh, shit.” Wren streaks to her room with Star right behind her. They forgot too, apparently.

Five minutes later, they all come out dressed in dark colors. Wren looks like a slouch, but a respectable slouch. Star looks like she could be walking a runway.

“Tie your shoe,” Star says to Wren.

“Why?” Wren asks.

Do we really have to do this every day? When we lived with Emilio and Marta, their solid presences kept the fighting down. But now that we’re on our own, my sisters snipe at one another like verbal fencing is their favorite pastime.

I tap my finger on the counter, because when I tap, I can speak without a stammer. “Has anyone seen Fin?” I ask.

Star shakes her head and squats down to tie Wren’s shoe.

“Can’t stand it, can you?” Wren taunts.

“Shut up,” Star grumbles. She pulls a brush from the tidy little purse she has hanging over her arm and goes toward Wren with it. Wren backs up and blocks her.

“You are not brushing my hair,” Wren says.

“Somebody needs to,” Star says. She holds the brush out and raises her brow.

Wren turns to the mirror, licks the palm of her hand, and slicks her hair down by dragging her wet hand through her pink-and-blue locks.

“That is so gross,” Star says.

Wren grins.

I shake my head and motion for everyone to go. We’ll just have to leave Fin. If I wait any longer, I’m going to be late for the funeral, and I simply can’t have that. Mrs. Derricks saved my life. She’s the reason I’m still alive. And now she’s gone. Tears burn my nose and I sniffle.

“Are you all right?” Wren asks quietly as we walk toward the car waiting out front. Our driver gets out and holds the door for us, and we all slide in.

Fine, I sign, holding my five fingers out in front of my chest. All of my sisters know sign language. It was the only way I could talk for a long time. Until Emilio put a pair of drumsticks in my hand one day and I realized I had a voice.

Suddenly, there’s a squeal of brakes as a red four-door coupe slams to a stop in the street. The car jumps the curb and lands with one wheel on the sidewalk.

“Sorry I’m late!” Fin yells as she jumps out of the car and runs toward us. She’s already dressed, so she just gets into the car. “Were you going to leave without me?” she asks with a huff, settling her black skirt around her as she scoots in the car.

Finch is her name, but we call her Fin. She’s perpetually late. Always. For everything.

“Yes,” we all say at the same time. We have learned through the years that if we wait for Fin, we’ll be waiting forever.

She grumbles something to herself. Then she reaches into her purse and pulls out a brand new pair of gloves. She tosses them to Lark and grins. “Thought you might need those,” she says.

“That’s why you were late?” Lark asks.

Fin nods, looking down her nose at all of us. “I went to get you black gloves. So sue me.”

“You suck so bad,” Lark mumbles. She turns away from everyone and pulls her gloves off, and pulls the new ones on. Lark never goes without gloves. Ever. These go all the way up to her elbows and the tips of the fingers are cut out. “Where did you get these?” she asks. “They’re comfy.”

“At that new shop on Main.”

Lark spins her hand in front of her. “Did they have more colors?”

“Only about a bazillion.”

“Nice.” Lark smiles. She looks at us. “We’ll have to forgive her for being late. She was doing a good deed.”

“If we have to,” Wren grumbles.

Fin flips her the bird.

The car stops in front of the church, and we all get out. We have a security team of two and they’ll be with us. Hopefully no one will recognize us, but you never can tell how people are going to react.

Marta and Emilio find us inside the church and come to sit with us. They kiss each of us on the forehead and ask how we’re doing. The two of them together—it’s like looking at newlyweds all the time. They’re so in love with one another that it hurts.

The service starts, and I feel tears prick my eyes and my nose starts to run. Emilio pushes a handkerchief into my hand. I wipe my eyes and try to keep it together. But Mrs. Derricks saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be if she hadn’t found out about me and made it her mission to help me. I certainly wouldn’t have four sisters and two wonderful parents, that’s for sure.

The church is bursting at the seams with people, and right before the service is over, we hear the whispers among the crowd. They know who we are, which means there’s a good chance we’ll get mobbed when we leave here. The security guards keep us close, flanking us on each end as we walk out the door. But when we get outside, there’s an even bigger crowd.

Someone inside the church must have alerted social media that Fallen from Zero was in the building, because there’s suddenly a mob of teenagers who are blocking the door.

“Oh, shit,” Emilio says.

Shit is right. This is awful. We try to speak, say hello, and sign some autographs, but suddenly someone jerks my hair.

“I got some!” I hear a female voice yell as she lifts a lock of my hair, which she just jerked from my head. I press on the offended spot. That hurts like crazy. My sisters start to run when they realize that this crowd is out for blood. I run too. Hell, I already lost a lock of hair. I don’t want to lose my clothes. Yes, that does happen.

We’re almost to the car when someone’s shoe sticks out and trips me. I hit the concrete hard, so hard that my forehead smashes into the sidewalk. Holy hell, that hurts. Someone steps on my wrist, and I scream.

But suddenly the crowd parts, and I see five really big men with tattoos holding back the offenders. “Back the fuck up!” one of them barks at the overzealous fans. I hold my wrist, because it’s throbbing like crazy, and roll over onto my back.

“I got you, cupcake,” Sam Reed says as he pulls me up off the ground. He moves me around like I’m light as a feather, getting me quickly to my feet.

“Th-thanks,” I murmur. Then I realize he just heard me stutter.

“I want to be your knight in shining armor, swoop you up, and carry you the rest of the way, but…” He looks down at the crutches he dropped.

I’d like to see you try, I think. But I don’t say it out loud.

His brother picks up his crutches and hands them back to him. Sam looks like he’s in pain. “You okay, Sam?” Matt asks. Matt is the one with the long hair and the kind smile.

“I’m okay,” Sam says. “Get her in the car, would you?” He jams his crutches under his arms and walks with us, and Matt holds my elbow.

Matt scowls at Sam. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Well, I couldn’t just let them walk all over her.”

“Um-hmm,” he hums. “I think the four of us had it covered, but whatever.”

Sam winces as he maneuvers his crutches. You okay? I ask. Since Sam can sign, talking with him has always been so easy.

“Fine.” He winces again, though, and I can tell he’s hurting. His eyes suddenly jerk up to meet mine and he says quietly, “This wasn’t how I’d planned on seeing you again, cupcake.” He reaches out and touches the side of my face. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.

I hadn’t planned on seeing him again at all. Ever. Not after the way we ended things.

“Can I call you?” he asks.

Best if you don’t, I sign.

He looks everywhere but at my face for a second. But then his blue eyes meet mine. “Why not?” he asks softly. He stares into my face.

I don’t answer. I see that the car door is open and I get in, still holding my wrist. The driver closes the door, and I fall back against the seat.

Emilio and Marta ended up in our car, and I’m glad of it. “M-melio,” I say. I try to move my wrist and gasp as pain shoots up my arm.

“What?” Emilio asks. He sits forward.

“I th-think I h-h-hurt my wr-wrist,” I finally get out.

He tells the driver to take us to the hospital.

I lay my head back and look out the back window. I can see Sam Reed standing in the street watching the car until it’s out of sight. He’s standing apart from his brothers and their wives, all by himself.

“I’m glad those boys were there,” Emilio says. “I’ll have to buy them a beer to say thank you.”

Marta clucks her tongue. “They’re going to get swamped themselves, if they don’t get out of there.” The Reeds are local celebrities, ever since their reality TV show started.

I touch the top of my head where I lost a lock of hair.

Marta leans forward and pulls my head down gently so she can look at it. “I think you’ll be okay,” she says. She pats my hair down flat. She leans close to my ear. “At least your head and your hand will. Not so sure about your heart.”

She turns to look back at Sam, but he’s a speck in the distance now, and that’s how he needs to stay.

 

 

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My short story about April and Kenneth — Hope you like it!

He’s a lying, cheating bastard, I think to myself. And I’m stuck with him for the rest of my life. I roll over and looked into Kenneth’s face. He has lipstick on his collar, and he doesn’t care if I see it. He never does. He’d dragged himself back to the hotel room at four in the morning. Here we are in Scotland for a “last effort to save our marriage” trip, and he disappeared last night. I didn’t have to ask him where he’d been.

I get up and take a shower, and wrap myself in a towel. I am in Scotland. Our daughter is with my mother for a few days, and I am not going to waste my time on Kenneth. He just isn’t worth it. I should have known this when my ex-boyfriend admitted to me at mine and Kenneth’s wedding that Kenneth had been sleeping with my maid of honor. But I had just said I do. And we had a baby on the way, so I stuck it out.

Kenneth rolls over and groans. “Come back to bed,” he says, his voice scratchy.

“No thank you.” I rummage around in my suitcase, trying to find something comfortable that I can wear for sight seeing.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, swiping a hand down his face.

“What do you think is wrong?” I take my clothes into the bathroom and put them on. I don’t want Kenneth to see me naked, not anymore. He isn’t worth my time. He isn’t worth my breath. He isn’t worth… anything.

I come out and he’s sitting on the edge of the bed. “Are you going to act like this the whole trip?” he asks.

“Where were you last night?” I bite out.

He hesitates for a second. “I met some people in the bar and, since you were tired, I hung out with them.” He doesn’t look at me when he says it, and I know he’s lying. He always is. If his mouth is open, he’s lying. “Seriously, April,” he growls. “Is this how it’s going to be?”

I heave a sigh. “Is it?” I ask.

He groans and gets up, brushes his teeth, and gets dressed. “Where are you going?” he asks.

“Sight seeing.” I pull my hair back into a ponytail and glare at him, daring him to try to join me.

He ties his sneakers. “I’ll come with you.”

I shrug. I don’t care.

We’re staying at an old bed and breakfast in Scotland. It has the old Scotch feel to it, and I stop at the front desk to see if they have any tourist brochures.

“Good morning,” I say to the man behind the counter.

He lowers his chin slightly at me, and shoots Kenneth a glare. Kenneth is oblivious to it all. “What are yer plans for the day, lass?” the old man asks.

I’m going to ditch my lying, cheating soon-to-be ex-husband and then go see the sights. “I’m going to walk around the town, I think. Can you make any suggestions about places to visit?”

He eyes Kenneth for a moment, until Kenneth walks around the corner. “Everythin’ all right, lass?” he asks.

“No,” I admit. “But it will be.”

An older woman gets up from where she was sitting at a desk behind him. “Perhaps ye should tell her about the falls, love,” she suggests, putting her arm around his waist.

The man jerks, looking surprised. “Like that, is it?” he asks. He smiles softly down at her.

She nods. “I believe so.”

The man takes out a piece of paper and draws a quick map for me. “It’s not on any of the walking trials, and it’s a wee bit of a nuisance to get ta it, but if ye’re up for it, it’ll be worth it.” He nods toward Kenneth when he comes back in the door. “Be sure ta take him with ye so he can keep ye safe.”

“Is it dangerous?” I ask.

“Only fer those who are not pure of heart,” he says, winking at me. “Legend has it that many a liar, cheater, and some general arse-holes have fallen to their deaths from the bridge.” He grins. “Perhaps ye’ll get lucky and he’ll tumble inta the rocks,” he whispers.

I laugh.

I thank them and walk toward the door. The old man calls out to me, “Go canny, lass, aye?” he says. “The lass who guards the bridge can be a wee bit fearsome.”

“The lass?” I ask.

“Aye,” he says. “Rumor has it that she killed her husband dead. Tossed his body right off the bridge, where he tumbled ta his death.”

“Oh.” The hair on my arms stands up. “Why did she do that?”

“She caught him with a hoor or five,” he says. He shrugs. “Canna let that pass without comeuppance.”

I snort. They have no idea.

I take the map, and Kenneth follows me quietly toward the exit. He doesn’t open the door for me, and he looks put out, until he sees a woman walk by with short shorts. His eyes follow her, so I just keep walking. He comes with me, but not until he’s done thoroughly disrespecting me.

I pick my way down the trail, following the map the man gave me. The trail is hidden in some spots, and I have to search to find it. Go canny, the man said. Be careful.

Kenneth grunts as I let a branch go and it hits him in the face. He swipes it back. “Would you be careful?” he snarls.

I once thought Kenneth was all I ever wanted. I gave up a sure thing, Matthew Reed, to be with Kenneth. Biggest mistake I ever made. But at least I got my daughter out of it. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

I stop when I see it. There’s a rushing river, and a large bridge. Water shoots off the rocks, and tiny rainbows fill the air from the spray of the water on the rocks. It’s beautiful. Mesmerizing.

I wait, and stare, and wonder what the heck I’m doing with the asshole who can’t keep his dick in his pants, wasting time, wondering where he is or who he’s with.

Suddenly, a woman appears on the other side of the bridge. She has long hair that has tumbled down over her shoulders, and she’s wearing a corset and a long dress. Maybe she’s part of a reenactment? She’s dressed in what I imagine could be old Scottish garb.

“Who’s that?” Kenneth asks.

I shrug, and walk to the edge of the bridge. She walks slowly toward us, her gaze on Kenneth.

“Good morning,” Kenneth says to her, and he’s using that voice I hate, the one that has an invitation in it.

She drops into a curtsy.

“How cool is that?” Kenneth says, punching my shoulder lightly.

The woman turns to face the rail, and I step up beside her. Kenneth stands between us, but he’s more interested in the woman than the scenery. He’s trying to look down her bodice.

“Rumor has it that the bridge can see into the soul. That it kens the heart of a person, good or bad,” she says quietly.

“And what does the bridge do about such individuals?” I ask.

“The good are allowed ta pass. Many a bad person has fallen to his death.”

“Kind of like trolls who guard the bridge?” Kenneth snorts.

She wraps a lock of hair around her finger and twists. “Do I look a troll ta ye, sir?” she asks?

“You’re the keeper of the bridge?” I blurt out.

“For many a year now.” She smiles at me. Her expression goes serious. “Do ye want fer me ta take him?” she asks me.

I laugh. “Oh, you definitely don’t want him,” I say, waving a breezy hand through the air.

She laughs, too. “Oh, I believe I do.”

Kenneth has the gall to look flattered.

“I’ll leave you two to it, then,” I say, and I turn to go back the way I came.

“Be certain,” she calls to me.

“I’m certain!” I yell back over the rush of the water. I’m certain that I would be happy if I never saw him again.

Suddenly, a huge rush of air pushes me back from the bridge. I turn back, and watch as the woman takes Kenneth by the arm and jerks him against her. He goes willingly, his lips touching hers.

I feel nothing. Nothing. So, I know that my marriage is over, at least. Relief hits me.

But then the woman stumbles against him, and she and Kenneth fall over the rail of the bridge wrapped in one another’s arms. I run to where they were standing and look over the edge. I watch them go end over end, and suddenly, there’s a thump as they hit the rocks below. Kenneth lies still, and I see that his arms and legs are canted at odd angles. His eyes stare blankly ahead.

The woman gets up and brushes herself off. She waves at me from below. “Ye’re welcome!” she calls. She smiles at me and walks into the forest.

I jerk awake and look around the room. Kenneth is lying beside me and he has lipstick on his collar. We’re in bed at a bed and breakfast in Scotland, where we were making a last ditch effort to save our marriage. Or at least I was. But that dream…

I get up and get dressed. I want to go home to my daughter. I want to be done with Kenneth.

I pack quietly and quickly, and he sleeps through it. I pull my suitcase to the door and give him a final glance. I’m done. So done.

I step into the hallway and close the door. I breathe in a sigh of relief. I haven’t felt this calm in a really long time.

I go to the desk and check out. The old man is behind the counter and he smiles at me. “Was yer stay all that ye expected, lass?” he asks.

“That and more,” I say.

“Will yer husband be joining ye?” he asks. “Or will he remain with us for a few days?” He smiles kindly at me.

“I have no idea what he’ll do.” And I really don’t care. I have a flight to change, and a baby to return to.

“Oh, if he stays, perhaps we can show him the falls,” the old lady says from behind the man. She walks up and puts her arm around his waist.

“The falls, ye say?” he asks her, grinning. He kisses her forehead. “I’ll be sure to send him in that direction.” He nods.

I grin as I go out the door. I know it was just a dream. But it was a dream I needed.

“Oh, lass!” the man calls to me.

I turn back. “Yes?” I say.

“Best of luck to ye,” he says. He winks at me.

I think about it a minute. “Who is the lady on the bridge, may I ask?”

He raises his brow. “Oh, ye saw old Madge, did ye?”

I nod. “We met briefly. Who is she?”

“She’s a local legend. Rumor has it that she had a lying, cheating husband, and she shoved him to his death from that very bridge.”

I nod and shrug. Makes sense to me.

“She’s been luring unsuspecting men to their deaths ever since. Only those who deserve it, mind ye.”

I laugh. Those who deserve it.

I shove out the door and walk into my brand new life.

“Go canny!” the man calls me to me.

“I will.”

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.