“Don’t pull that crap again,” Natalie snapped at her husband. “I’m having a baby. Women do it all the time.”
Neither of us paid her any attention as I nodded up at the big man. “I agree. She’s too important to me to want anything to happen to her or that sweet little girl growing under her heart. I’ll manage without her for the time being. I did it before, I can do it again.”
Devlin blinked his aquamarine eyes, as if amazed that I’d actually agreed with him. I barely stopped myself from rolling my eyes, more than a little stung that he would think I actually thought so little about Natalie’s health or that of their unborn child. “Good.” He crossed his arms over his massive chest and tossed his long black hair out of his face. “I don’t want to see any texts from you or anyone else that has to do with work. She needs to be as stress-free as possible.”
“You watching over me like a fucking caveman is stressful too,” Natalie grumbled.
“I promise I’ll have all her calls redirected to my home office or my own cellphone and I will only text or call to check on her. If she’s not better by morning, get her in to see the doctor. Make her drink lots of water and keep her feet propped up. I’m pretty sure they were starting to swell.” She’d been limping earlier, practically waddling. I remembered those days well and sure as hell didn’t miss them.
“Have I become invisible or something?” Natalie snarled from the bed. “I’m right here, people. Stop talking about me as if I’m not.”
A noise behind me had me turning to find Harris and Lucy hurrying up the stairs. Natalie’s stepson, so much like his father in both looks and personality, had a paleness to his face as he reached the landing. “Is she okay?”
I nodded. “For now at least. Your dad’s putting her on house arrest. Or rather, bed arrest.”
“Good.” Harris carefully moved past me and into the bedroom to get to the bed where his stepmother was still grumbling to herself. “How do you feel?”
“I have a headache,” she told him honestly with a tight smile. “Would you mind getting me some Tylenol? Your dad and Emmie seem to have forgotten I’m here.”
Harris didn’t hesitate to move into the connecting bathroom. I heard him moving around and figured it was time for me to go. I glanced at Lucy who had stopped in the doorway beside me. “Hey, baby. Do you need a ride home?” I figured she’d been hanging out with her best friend from the moment school let out for the day, and when Harris had found out about Natalie, had dropped everything to rush home to take care of his stepmother just as his father had done.
Dark eyes lingered on the bathroom door where Harris was still getting what Natalie needed. “Yeah,” she murmured. “Yeah, I want to go home.”
Harris’s head popped out of the bathroom at the sound of her voice. “I can take you,” he assured her, a frown on his handsome face. “We can still hang out for a few more hours if you feel up to it.”
Lucy’s lips pursed together and I knew she was biting her tongue about something. After only a small pause she gave him a smile that didn’t reach her big brown eyes. “No, that’s okay. I have homework I need to finish. You stay and take care of Natalie.” Her gaze went to the bed to offer the other woman a kind smile. “I hope you feel better, Nat.”
“Lucy—” Harris started forward with a bottle of Tylenol in one hand and a glass of water in the other, but Lucy lifted a hand and put an all-too-brief smile on her beautiful face.
“No. It’s okay. Really. Take care of Nat and if you have time, call me later.” She started to turn to leave, paused and looked back at him over her shoulder. “And don’t forget to call that girl who gave you her number at the beach earlier.”
Damn it. In that moment I wanted to grab Harris Cutter by his ears and hold him outside his stepmother’s bedroom window. Open your fucking eyes, boy. I wanted to scream it at him, but refrained from doing it.
I knew Lucy was way too young for anything but friendship with Harris. Didn’t mean I didn’t agonize over how my sweet little niece was feeling right then. Love sucked. Love was a bitch. Love…
Love was the ultimate four-letter word.
Harris didn’t even blink. “Yeah, okay. I’ll call you,” he promised, but he didn’t sound like he was happy.
I rushed through my goodbyes, knowing I needed to get Lucy out of there as quickly as possible. My niece was not the docile little girl I remembered from the first time I’d met her. She was growing up and turning out to be so much like her older sisters—and myself. More than I was sure Jesse could handle at times.
Neither of us spoke until we were in the back of the Escalade headed toward my house. “You okay?” I finally asked, knowing without her having to answer that she wasn’t.
“Guys suck, Aunt Emmie.”
I wrapped my arm around her and pulled her head down onto my shoulder. “I know, baby. I know.”
“He doesn’t even know I’m alive,” she whispered more to herself than to me.
“I disagree, Lu. That boy definitely knows that you are alive. You’re his best friend in the world. You know that.” But I also knew that wasn’t what Lucy was talking about. She was only eleven though, and maybe in a few years the age difference between her and Harris wouldn’t seem so huge, but right then her eleven and Harris’s almost seventeen seemed like a million years apart. We both knew it, but that didn’t make her pain any easier to handle.
She remained quiet and I grimaced as I stroked her hair on the short ride home.
First crushes sucked. First loves were even worse, and Lucy was experiencing them both. I would have done anything to have taken the pain from her, having felt exactly what she was going through myself with Nik. I would have spared her that kind of pain if I could have, but all I could do was love her and offer her a little advice.
As Roger neared my house, and in turn Lucy’s, which was only a few houses down from my own, I lifted Lucy’s curly head and stroked a finger over her baby-soft cheek. She was growing up way too fast. Sometimes I had to remind myself that she was only eleven, but she looked and acted so much older that it was easy to forget.
“Maybe it’s time to pull back a little, baby. Maybe…” I gave her a grim little smile, knowing that my next words would sting and hating having to hurt her in any way. “Sweetheart, I know he’s your best friend and that he’s been there for you during…everything.” I couldn’t hide my shiver while memories of everything flooded my mind and I watched helplessly as Lucy’s face paled. “But sometimes you have to think about which of two evils is worse—having him around all the time, breaking your heart on him every time you see him so much as smile at other girls, or not having him at all. What would hurt worse, Lu? What can you live with?”
Lucy swallowed hard but put a small smile on her face. She was so strong. “Thanks, Aunt Emmie.” She reached for the door, still smiling, but I could see the tears in her eyes. “That’s something I’ll really have to think about.”
I watched from the back seat as she walked toward her house. Roger didn’t dare move until she was safely inside. Damn it, I hated that she had to be so strong, that her innocence to the evils of the world had been stripped away. It wasn’t fair, but I of all people knew just how unfair the world really was.
Roger cleared his throat and my head snapped up, only then remembering his presence. Realizing that he’d driven the two hundred yards or so to my own house, I grimaced. I needed to pay better attention to my surroundings. He stood with my door open, waiting patiently for me to move. Shaking away my thoughts, I climbed out. “Is it time to pick up Mia?”
Roger shook his head. “No, Mrs. Armstrong.”
I grimaced again, wishing that Mia could just be homeschooled, but that would only make my life that more chaotic. Not that stressing over her being gone most of the day was making it any easier.
“But I’ll head over and be the first in the pick-up line if you don’t need me.”
Some of my tension at the thought of Mi
a and her safety dissolved and I was able to find a smile for the bodyguard Charles Seller had been so good to find for me. “Thanks, Roger. I’d appreciate that.”
The giant inclined his head, the barest traces of a smile on his face. “That’s what I’m here for.” I nodded and hurried inside knowing he would wait until I was inside before getting back into the Escalade.
As soon as the front door shut behind me, I could hear Nik with Jagger and I followed the sound of them playing. They were in the living room, both of them lying on their stomachs on the carpeted floor. Matching sets of ice-blue eyes gazed up at the flat screen as Ohio State football players took the field.
“That’s the quarterback, son. You need to remember what he looks like if nothing else,” Nik explained to Jagger as he stared wide-eyed up at the television. “Stop drooling, dude. The cheerleaders aren’t that important.”
All the stress of the day seemed to evaporate—for the moment at least—as I stood there watching them, trying hard and failing not to laugh as my baby boy kicked his legs and grunted happily at the mention of cheerleaders. Damn, he was going to be just like his father when he got older. A small giggle left me and Nik’s head snapped around.
Like our son’s had at the mention of cheerleaders, Nik’s eyes widened and he jumped to his feet. “Watching an old game with the boy,” he muttered as he dropped his head and brushed his lips over mine in a kiss that was soft and over way too quickly, but still had my heart jumping and my legs going soft as Jell-O.
Instinctively my hands gripped his shirt, using him as my anchor. “Teaching him the important parts of the game, I see.”
Ice-blue eyes twinkled down at me. “Of course. Notice, I did try to tell him that the cheerleaders aren’t important.”
I smirked up at him. “I believe you said they weren’t that important. There is a difference, but I guess in guy speak it’s the same thing.”
He chuckled. “See, you’re learning. I knew you would.” He kissed me again, this time deeper, slower. My fingers tightened on his shirt as my thighs clenched in an attempt to ease the ache between my legs. “Missed you,” he breathed at my ear when he could bring himself to lift his head.
“Missed you more.”
I glanced down at the sound of Jagger’s voice to find him crawling toward me. Once he got close enough, he got a little unsteadily to his feet and walked the last two feet over to me, his chubby little arms lifted in my direction. Heart melting, I dropped down to lift him into my arms, kissing his cheek. “I missed you too, Jags.”
“Dude, she loves us both. You don’t have to hog the lovings.” Nik brushed another kiss over my lips, making Jagger grunt angrily at his father. He was definitely his father’s son in more than just looks, and I loved it.
When Nik lifted his head Jagger glared at him, as if saying ‘she loves me more’.
I bit my bottom lip to keep from laughing while Nik moved to get the remote to the television and turned it off. “Guess there’s no use in trying to teach him the rules of football when he’s gonna be a damn momma’s boy for the next few hours.”
“He’s not a momma’s boy. He just adores his mother. Nothing wrong with that.” I gave Jagger a little squeeze, one more kiss on his cheek, and then set him on his feet. “What would you like for dinner?”
“Gail left some stew simmering on the stove and she made some Mexican cornbread to go with it,” Nik assured me as he dropped down onto the couch and I followed suit, snuggling closer. These days I always felt like I couldn’t get close enough to him, and even when I did my chest ached more than a little because it didn’t feel like it was enough, but I refused to think about it right then. Examining how needy I’d become in recent months wouldn’t get me anywhere but depressed and pissed.
Our housekeeper was becoming my new favorite person. I honestly hadn’t wanted to cook that night. When Felicity had worked for us she’d taken care of Jagger and Mia plus she’d made dinner for us every night—something I hadn’t asked of her and never expected—but she still did it anyway. That girl had been our saving grace.
My heart clenched, still feeling the loss of my children’s nanny and the woman who had become one of my closest friends. But Felicity was happier where she was, and I would never begrudge her that. That fucking biker had better not break her heart again, though, or I would show him exactly how many connections I had made over the years.
I could hear the baby crying when I pulled into the driveway. Shaking my head, I pocketed my keys and headed for the front door of Drake and Lana’s new beach house. I knew Lana had loved the condo the two had lived in up until last May, but with a second baby there hadn’t been any extra room for them all in the condo. This house, just a mile from my own house, was plenty big enough with seven bedrooms and a guest house that Drake and Nik were contemplating turning into a recording studio so we could work on our new album.
I wasn’t sure if turning my brother’s guest house into the recording studio was wise though. For one, I didn’t think Lana would appreciate us over all the time to jam, for another I was hoping to put a proposition out to the guys and Emmie about getting a floor or two in the same office building she was currently looking at and possibly starting our own label.
That wasn’t the reason for my visit today, however. I’d come in aide of my big brother’s text for help. It wasn’t every day that Drake sought out my help when it came to the kids. Layla was normally his first call, but with Jesse and Layla still at odds over having their own baby, I knew that Drake was reluctant to put any more stress on Layla. Emmie was the second choice, but she was out ruling the music world and Nik definitely had enough on his plate.
I was happy to help my brother out. I adored Neveah and always got a sharp kick in the chest when I got to hold baby Arella Faith, my newest little niece—who looked so much like her mother I pitied my brother when she got to her teen years.
Instead of knocking I used my keys to open the front door and followed the sound of the baby wailing to find Drake. They were in the downstairs playroom, which was really supposed to have been an office, but was quickly turning into a toddler’s dream playground with all the plastic toys set up in it.
There was a log cabin in one corner that Neveah had turned into her secret hideout, or so she called it. A tiny plastic slide with only two steps to climb to reach the top, a lawn mower that was supposed to blow bubbles when you pushed it, but Lana had put her foot down when the carpet and walls had started getting sticky with all the bubbles that father and daughter had been making in the room. A small table with four matching chairs was by the window where it looked like Neveah had been playing tea party with her favorite dolls earlier.
Along with all the tot toys there were also some baby-friendly ones as well. A swing that I’d quickly learned in the last few days was Arella’s favorite. A small, colorful activity set that had a blanket for the baby to lay on with teddy bears dressed as rockers hanging from the thing that sang different lullabies when Arella swatted or tugged on them. A bookshelf took up one wall with all of Neveah’s favorite books. From princesses to first word books that had pictures of the words that Neveah got a kick out of reading to me and anyone else who was willing to listen.
At the moment Drake was sitting in the rocking chair close to the little log cabin where Neveah was playing with all her stuffed animals, reading them one of her favorite first words book. In my brother’s arms was a screaming baby who refused to take the bottle that her father was coaxing her to take.
“What’s up?” I asked quietly as I stepped farther into the room.
“Hi, Un-ca Shane!” Neveah called from her log cabin.
Drake got carefully to his feet. “She’s has colic, or so that stupid doctor said when Angel took her in this morning. We were up all night with her, walking the floors and singing to her, but nothing seems to be working. Angel is e
xhausted and still feeling the effects of the delivery. She’s anemic again.”
The strain on my brother’s face cut like a knife to my chest and I crossed the room to take my screaming baby niece out of his arms. “Let me take her, bro. You look exhausted yourself. Go take a nap with Lana. I got this.”
Blue-gray eyes the same shade as my own looked toward the ceiling as if he could see his wife through the floor. Lana had suffered from anemia after Neveah’s birth too. It had taken her months to recover and get back to her normal self. Drake had done his best, keeping the baby happy while his wife rested as much as he could make her. Neveah had been an easy baby, though. Arella, not so much.
Drake turned his eyes back to me, his gaze lingering on his angry baby girl. “You sure?”
“I’m sure, bro. I got this.” I readjusted Arella on my shoulder and took the bottle from him. “Go get some sleep. What do you feel like having for dinner? I’ll order in. I’m sure Lana doesn’t want to cook.”
His gaze went to his oldest daughter who was back to reading to her stuffed animals once again. “Whatever you can get Nevi to eat.”
“Gotcha.” I nodded and, when it looked like Drake wasn’t going to leave, pushed at his shoulder. “Go. Cuddle with Lana, and sleep. You look like a walking corpse.”
“I feel like one,” he grumbled as he finally left the room.
Once he was gone I went over to the door to the playroom and shut it to offer the tired parents a little more peace. Arella still screamed and wiggled in my arms so I returned to the rocker where Drake had been sitting and carefully sat. Turning the little angel in my arms, I adjusted the blanket around her and offered her the bottle of what I could only assume was breast milk since that was what they had given Neveah when she was that age.