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* * * * Everything Unexpected a novel Copyright Š 2016 by Caroline Nolan Cover design by Okay Creations Formatting by JT Formatting All rights reserved. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the authors. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author ’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. License Notes This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

To my husband, Because sometimes, the best lovers are best friends first.

Title Page Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Epilogue Epilogue – Epilogue Acknowledgments About the Author Praise for This Is Love

FIRST COMES LOVE, Then comes marriage. Then comes—err Wait…

Five Years Ago LOUD THUMPING BEATS of overplayed hip-hop blasts from the floor to ceiling speakers found all throughout the house. Discarded empty red plastic cups scatter the floor while those that are still half full are left to sit on any available space in the room—in between the DVD’s that fill the bookcases, among the workout magazines on the coffee table, and on every inch of the enormous mantle that hangs over the never used fireplace. People are in every crevice of this house. Every corner is occupied with drunk college students, laughing, yelling, dancing. Groups of girls are grinding against each other in the middle of the living room, their bodies moving to the overly loud beats of Eminem. And from the corner, a cluster of fraternity brothers holler and whistle at them when they aren’t too busy competing against each other on who can down their beer the fastest. There’s a group sitting on what little furniture still remains in the room, rolling and smoking weed, passing joints around in a circle, the air around them turning thick and foggy. Just walking past them is enough to give me a little high. Up the stairs, I watch a couple pair off, opening and closing bedroom doors, looking for an available room to start their own private party. This is the mirror image of any stereotypical college party found in any college movie ever made. Right down to the beautiful girls, football player jocks and every other social circle in between in attendance. Only, unlike the lead character from all those movies, I’m not the brooding college quarterback nor am I the loner who doesn’t belong. I’m not the guy who wishes he could be anywhere else. In truth, I actually enjoy these parties and come for the exact same reason everyone else does. To have fun. I scan the crowd around me but many are faces I don’t recognize. Though the view isn’t bad. Most of these strange faces belong to beautiful young women with their long hair flowing, tanned skin glowing and lips full of bright smiles. Attending a clichéd fraternity party at a Southern Florida University definitely has its perks. Short skirts and low cut shirts—sometimes even a simple bikini top is the preferred school uniform. I’ve been around it my entire life. Being a native of Florida, I’ve become accustomed to seeing half-naked girls everywhere. It’s the reason I can also always tell who the out of state people are. Especially the guys. The ones who came here from Kansas, Ohio, or Michigan. They’re the ones who usually have

their mouths open and tongues out, eyes wide and head spinning. To be fair and not to single out the guys, the out of state girls are often just as easy to spot. The ones that relish in the notion Mom and Dad are no longer around to see what they’re wearing—or rather, what they’ve left off. The ones who aren’t used to summer weather all year long. The ones who believe the more skin you show, the more local you’ll seem. Walking into another room, my eyes fall on a brunette who must really be trying to come off as a pure Floridian. Her pink tank top is cut so short you can see ribs. It has the words Baby Doll written across her chest in sparkly letters. Her exposed hips and stomach twist and turn as she dances, her barely covered chest bouncing slightly under the thin fabric. As a twenty-one year old junior, these kind of movements grab my attention. I dare you to try and find a red blooded college guy who wouldn’t look. But I know everything from her outfit to her dance moves are skillfully planned out because when Baby Doll looks my way and catches me staring at those sparkly letters, she doesn’t give me a dirty look. Instead, her lips curl into a flirty smirk, flattered by my attention. So as much as a twenty-one-year-old male’s eyes like to look, twenty-oneyear-old females like to be seen. “Shane! Over here,” Bryan my best friend yells at me, cocking his head to the side, indicating for me to follow him. His loud voice carries over the speakers and breaks the eye contact between Baby Doll and myself. She may not be my type but it doesn’t stop me from silently thanking the University of Miami for accepting imports from all over the country. I work my way through the kitchen and the heavy crowd that’s fused itself around the counter and continue to the back room of the house. I still have yet to recognize anyone, but that’s not all that surprising since I no longer attend this school. Nearly two years ago I dropped out of business studies and transferred to another school a few miles up the road. I’m currently majoring in a subject that’s captured my attention ever since my high school art class—photography. Not everyone was excited about the change. A ‘fool hearted and reckless choice’ I heard relentlessly. Leaving behind a business degree which guaranteed me stability in the future for the ridiculous pursuit of a hobby that had very little chance of becoming anything more than just that. My father ’s words exactly. “What kind of career do you expect to have with an art degree? You’ll be taking children’s school pictures if you’re lucky!” he told me, clearly frustrated. My mother, on the other hand, was much more accepting. But that’s Charlotte Carlisle for you. She believes in following one’s passion. After all, she had done so with my father years ago when he started his own company. She stood by me and my choice. She came to my defense and assured me my schooling would continue to be paid for. She went up to bat for me against my father, arguing I was young and now was the time for me to explore all my options. She made the case that there would always be time for me to find my way back into business if ever that needed to happen and if that’s what I wanted. She’s really one of the only people I know who can stand up to my father like that. My father is one of the most influential men in the city. People both admire and fear him in the business world. But at home, he is powerless against my mother. Never have I witnessed it as much as the day he wrote my first tuition check to my new school. Payment made to the order of Miami International University of Art and Design. He may have conceded in some respect, but his anger was very clear. His pen stabbing at the paper, the tip pressing down so hard it nearly tore the check as he signed his name. My art school is quite small, nowhere near the size of the one this fraternity belongs to. The University Bryan still belongs to. Bryan and I met first year, both in the same business program, both living in the same shitty apartment complex near campus. Even before I switched schools, my parents

thought I should live at home, but I insisted on having the true college experience. I told them I’d even pay the rent if it meant I could be on my own. Unfortunately, that crappy apartment was all I could afford. It was a definite downgrade from the Coral Gables neighborhood I grew up in. There is no highly emotional story or one indicative moment that explains how our friendship started. It just did. We partnered up for a group project, then started hitting the gym together, which led to hanging out outside the gym, week nights, weekends. That simple. When I told him I was dropping out of business and transferring to an art school, he was undoubtedly surprised. I received great grades in our classes and like everyone, I think he saw my hobby of taking pictures as just that. A hobby. Realizing we’d no longer be in the same classes or have the same schedules bummed us both out more than we thought it would. So I suggested we leave the building we lived in and find a place somewhere in the middle of both campuses. A bigger place. A better place. Roommates instead of neighbors. “Best of both worlds,” he said. “I can work the chicks over on this end and you can work the artsy types over there. After, we’ll trade.” I made it very clear to him we would never, ever trade. Ever. Even though I’m at a different school, I still come with Bryan to these parties. It amazes me that no matter how many frat parties I go to, most of the people here are unrecognizable to me. Different faces at every one, the school’s population never ceasing to bring in new partygoers. Bryan is pretty good at introducing me to people he’s met over the last two years and I never have problems meeting people on my own, but tonight feels different. Like maybe someone is supposed to come meet me for a change. Walking down another crowded hallway, I squeeze my way through the line for the bathroom, past a couple who have decided to openly grope each other, not caring about the audience they’ve started to gather. As I turn the corner, a small feminine body crashes into mine, her drink spilling down her bare legs and onto her dark sandals. “Fuck,” she growls, bending over to wipe her legs with her hand. “Sorry, crowded area,” I say, apologizing even though she is just as much at fault. “My sandals are ruined!” I swallow back the urge to tell her they aren’t, in fact, ruined, and only lightly splattered with clear liquid from her cup. But I put her dramatic comment behind me and search for a napkin. I find a relatively unused one under an empty cup and bend down, offering it to her. Her eyes shift and land on my face. They widen slightly and she breathes in an air of surprise. I press my lips together in order to hide my smirk, knowing her earlier anger at me bumping into her has suddenly altered into something much more pleasant. “It’d be a shame to have ruined those legs for the rest of the night,” I say, winking. Forgotten is the offered napkin in my hand as we both rise up, now standing straight. Her eyes take a quick scan of my six foot two frame before landing once more on my face. Not to sound too cocky, but I know I’m a pretty decent looking guy. Good bone structure, straight teeth, warm mocha skin, but it’s my eyes that seal the deal. They’re a surprise. Unexpected with my skin tone. Blue-green against warm coffee. The wonderful outcome from my father ’s blackness and the blonde fairness of my mother. The contrast stands out and captivates people. Especially girls. “No, it’ll be fine. Just a small spill,” her voice stutters, shoulders fidgeting. See? Every time. My grin expands and I slowly make a show of looking down her body. “Are you sure?” I ask, nodding towards her legs. Without realizing it, she crosses one leg over the other and presses them together. “Yeah,” she starts but it almost sounds like a question. She shakes her head a little. “Yeah. I’m

sure,” she repeats, now smiling. “I’m Shannon.” She leans one shoulder against the wall, extending a hand out to me. My smile stays put as I take her hand, softly shaking it. “Shane.” “You go to school here?” “No,” I say, shaking my head once. I don’t offer up any more information. She opens her mouth slightly, the corners of her lips dropping a bit, thrown by my uninformative answer. She squints her eyes a touch, causing her brows to furrow. I watch as she tries to think of something else to say when Bryan appears back around the corner. “Shane,” he waves me over, “I found them.” His eyes dart between me and Shannon and he cocks one eyebrow up, silently asking if he should leave me here with her. If I want him to leave me here with her. Subtlety, almost unseen except to him, I shake my head. Although she’s cute, her earlier attitude has already turned me off from wanting to get to know her better. Bryan nods and waits for me to say goodbye. “Looks like some friends are waiting for me,” I say, cocking my head in his direction. “Oh, okay. Maybe I’ll see you around?” she asks, hope clearly laced in her words. I smile but once again, say nothing more. I step around her and make my way over to where Bryan is waiting. He turns to me. “No bang?” “Nah.” He looks back to where I left Shannon. “She’s cute. Maybe I should go back there—” I laugh. “Trust me,” I say, pushing him forward. “She’d be too much for you to deal with. We’ll find you another,” I promise him. He shrugs and we continue to walk to the back of the house where the game room is located. It’s big enough for both a ping pong and pool table, a couple of arcade machines and my personal favorite, a foosball table. A small group of our friends have hunkered around a makeshift bar, sitting in mismatched bar stools and free pouring drinks. Most of these guys I became friends with during my first and only year I attended this college. Some of them still are. I’ve made a couple of friends at my own school but they’re not exactly the frat party type. They’re more the tortured, sensitive soul artist type. Keeping their weekends quiet and reflective. I, on the other hand, happen to like having drinks and getting laid on a Saturday night. And the simple truth is, girls at a frat party are more likely to be looking for the same thing than those who go to poetry readings at a coffee shop. Not judging, just observing. “Surprise, surprise. You all managed to find the sausage factory area of the party,” Bryan says, pulling up a bar chair. “Surprised you even bothered to find us,” Steve, an acquaintance of ours says. “With all these girls who don’t know any better standing between us?” The guys laugh because we all know Bryan only ever has one thing on his mind when going out here. Finding someone to join him at his own personal after-party. “Don’t you worry, my friend,” Bryan smirks, filling a cup with vodka and whatever mix happens to be right in front of him. “There’s plenty of time to find that special someone for tonight.” “Poor girl,” Steve says, laughing into his cup. Bryan fills another cup and hands it over to me. I take a sip, yielding my head back at how strong he’s made it. After a few minutes of Steve and Bryan flailing insults at one another, Eddy comes over and sits next to me. Bryan introduced us in second year. After I left, Bryan said he needed someone to partner up with in some of his general classes and Eddy looked the smartest. Glasses, shaggy hair in desperate need of a cut, button down shirt tucked in. I have no idea why Eddy agreed to partner up

with Bryan. The two could not have been more different, in both personality and work ethic. Bryan was big and loud. Eddy, skinny and quiet. Bryan spoke before he thought. Eddy calculated every word before it was uttered. Bryan waited until the weekend before a project was due while Eddy always had most of it already completed. But as the semester progressed, Eddy came around more and more and edged out of his shell a bit. He’s actually a pretty funny guy once you get to know him. And when the semester ended, I figured we’d see less of him as he and Bryan no longer had any classes together. It kind of saddened me a little. I had grown used to him being around, hearing his anecdotes about anything and everything. And he was also so fascinated with the work I was doing in art school, always asking about the meaning behind every shot I took. But when the new semester started, he just kept coming around. At some point, he wasn’t just Bryan’s old lab partner anymore; he was our awkward, nerdy friend. “I read a fascinating article yesterday that says the Arts are a dying breed within our nation’s economy,” he says, pushing his thick rimmed glasses into place. “Does that make you want to reconsider going back to a business degree?” Not even a frat party with half-naked girls dancing can keep Eddy from talking economics and business. “Eddy,” Bryan interrupts, his head falling back. “We’re at a fucking party.” Eddy’s eyes squint, as if not understanding what our location has to do with anything. I feel a little bad for the guy. He just can’t help it. He’s just so…academic. But being the good friend I am, I indulge him. “Why don’t you send me the link? I’ll look it over sometime,” I say, knowing full well I won’t, but Eddy nods enthusiastically, mentally taking note to do so. I take another sip from my too strong drink while my eyes fall on the empty foosball table. “Who’s up for some foos?” I ask. Steve rolls his eyes and turns his body away while Eddy glances at the table in apprehension. I look to Bryan who only snorts. “Why not?” “Are you kidding? You take it too serious,” Bryan says, already refilling his cup. “No I don’t,” I argue. All three of them look at me with the same deadpanned expression. Okay, so maybe there was that one time I got a little angry at Bryan when he wouldn’t listen to my incredibly clear instructions and, out of frustration, I broke the head off one of the little wooden men. But that was over a year ago. I’ve come to realize I overreacted then. “Come on. No pressure. Just for fun,” I grab his shoulders, shaking him a little. “We’ll find some frat guys and put a little money on it.” Bryan snorts even louder this time before taking a big sip from his drink. “Oh yeah, sounds exactly like it’s just for fun,” he repeats before reluctantly standing from his stool and following me to the table. It doesn’t take us long to find a couple of guys who are willing to put down a little money on the game. Nothing large, but enough for it to be incentive to win. Because Bryan and I have played together many times, we know how to move in sync with each other and how best to take on opponents. But to my surprise, after a few rounds, these frat brothers are actually better than I anticipated. I do my best to conceal it but I can already feel nerves of frustration prickle against my skin at every goal they make against us. And when they tie the game to one a piece, I need to take a breather. With a best out of five at stake, I roll my shoulders, trying to release the tension that’s already been building there. “Let’s stay calm. You’re trying to switch places too much,” I tell Bryan as he refills his cup. “I got it, I got it,” he says, nodding. “Fun, remember?” he says snidely.

“Screw that. Fun ended the minute they tied the game up. I’m not losing to these guys. Finish your drink and let’s go,” I say, gulping down what’s left from my own cup. I crumple the plastic cup in my hand, feeling confident and ready to win this last battle. That is, I was until she happened. Kendall Holten. The only girl Bryan has ever pined for. The only girl who has captivated his attention for longer than a night. And that is definitely not Bryan’s style. But obviously there’s something about Kendall that gets him bent out of shape. They went out a few months ago. Just a couple of times, but it took him weeks to get over it. I know for a fact it didn’t even go too far in the bedroom. Why it ended, I’m not entirely sure, but still to this day she has an effect on him. Any other girl, he would have gotten over it long ago—forgotten about it and moved on to many nexts. And he has. Sort of. He’s been with many girls since, but every time he comes face to face with Kendall, he turns into someone I barely recognize. A lost puppy, begging for affection. Usually it’s amusing and funny to watch but not when it’s standing in my way of winning some money. “Hi.” She smiles, tilting her head in order to look past me, right to where Bryan’s standing. Her dress leaves little to the imagination and the strong strawberry scent she’s wearing wafts heavy around us. It’s too sweet for my liking but I can already tell Bryan is becoming hypnotized by it. My eyes drift back to the small but substantial stack of twenties piled on the edge of the foosball table. “Hey Kenny,” Bryan says, his voice lowering a few octaves. He clears his throat and stands taller, shoulders stiffening. I’m very aware that I need to get him away from her, just long enough for us to finish our game. Otherwise, in a matter of minutes, I’ll lose him completely. “We should get back,” I interrupt, my smile tight while I take a step and stand in between them. I turn and face Kendall, somewhat blocking Bryan from her view and vice versa. But Bryan lightly shoves me aside. “Oh, okay.” Her lips dip into a sad smile, disappointed as she looks back from me to Bryan. When her eyes finally settle on his, she delivers a proposition I know Bryan can’t resist. Only a few words leave her mouth but it’s all I need to ensure me of losing this game and the money. “I thought maybe we could hang out again.” Hang out again? Is she serious? They’ve had nothing but chances to hang out again before now. But this minute needs to be one of those times? I know it. I’m screwed. Call the game now—it’s over. “Maybe after we finish?” Bryan suggests, his voice barely disguising his forced nonchalant tone. I have to look away. I can’t witness this. I know what’s coming even if he doesn’t. “I’m actually heading back to the sorority house. Thought maybe you’d want to walk me back.” She takes a step forward. And there’s the final blow. It’s a hit no man can come back from. Sex. It doesn’t matter if it happens or not. It’s the thought that it could happen that I now know I have no chance in hell at him staying to continue this game. Without even a second thought, Bryan brushes past me, barely giving me glance. “See you later.” “We’re in the middle of a game!” I argue to his retreating back, already knowing it’s for nothing. He turns but continues walking further away, following Kendall, mouthing only one word while shaking his head. “Dude.” Way to leave a man behind. I’m not one to cock-block but I’m also not one who likes to lose. “We playing or what?” I hear one of the guys yell. “Or should we just take your money now?” I take a quick look around, noticing our earlier matches have gathered a small audience mostly made up of guys from the frat. Doubtful I can get one of them to fill in against their own brothers and

I have to no clue where Steve or Eddy have gone. I walk back to the table, figuring I could try and play on my own and take them both on. “Yeah, we’re playing,” I hear a confident but distinctly feminine voice come from behind me. Before I can turn around and see who it came from, a pair of delicate and perfectly manicured hands with purple nails rest on the rods, testing them out. My eyes travel from those pretty hands with the perfect polish, to a beautifully sculpted arm, fantastically rounded shoulder and a long elegant neck. My eyes move just a fraction more upwards and for the first time in my life, it’s my eyes that widen in surprise. Even more unexpected, my breath seems to have gotten caught as well. “I’ll be your partner,” she says, looking over at me and giving me a half smile. I hear the words come from her mouth but I’m momentarily dumbstruck. She has honey colored, long, blonde hair that easily falls to her lower back. She’s wearing tight skinny jeans and a white tank top. Her skin is a gold only a native Southern Florida girl could have. Her small smile gives me the slightest view of her white teeth, her cheek bones nearly reaching her deep brown eyes. I can tell she’s got a great body even though it’s not on display like the rest of the girls here. Blinking back into the present, I regain some composure and turn to fully face her. “Do you know how to play?” She smiles at me like I’ve said something cute. I almost anticipate being patted on the head. “Doesn’t look so hard,” she answers. She turns back to the table and test spins the rods once more. I lean my hip against the table and lower my mouth to her ear. I’m close enough I can smell the faintness of coconut on her skin. But not from a perfume. More like she applied sunscreen hours ago and it’s just naturally faded as the hours have passed. “I’ve got some money riding on this. So I need to know,” I say quietly. “Can. You. Play?” She tilts her head up to look at me, some of her hair falling off her shoulder. God, she has a lot of it. She blinks, then smiles. “I can be your Monica.” I furrow my brows, confused. “Be my Monica? Is that your name?” Her shoulders drop in disappointment. “Monica Gellar? Friends? The TV show?” Still not getting the comparison, I continue to stare at her blankly. Seeing I’m not understanding, she rises up and rests both her hands on my shoulders. The contact is imposing, and I can’t help but wonder what it would feel like to have those hands drag down lower on my body. I feel how warm her hands are through the cotton of my t-shirt and even at this seemingly innocent touch, I feel a small stirring happening in my stomach. “Don’t worry, we got this,” she says winking, turning back towards the table. I take a quick moment to shake off the fluttering that’s going on in my stomach before getting into place beside her. The frat brothers are blatantly gawking with their mouths opens at my new partner. I’m about to tell them to drop the ball so we can both play and also to get them to stop staring at her, but I’m beaten to it. “Let’s play, boys!” she screams in their face. It shocks them momentarily but they quickly recover, smug smirks coming over their faces. “Like taking candy from a baby,” one says. “It’ll taste pretty sour once we’re finished with you,” she snaps back with a smug smile. The ball drops and before I even blink, the ball is stopped by one of our little wooden men and shot into the opposite net. “Score!” she yells, raising one arm in the air. Like my opponents, I’m stunned and left staring at the table. Maybe she wasn’t lying when she told me not to worry. I look back in her direction and see she’s already back in place, waiting for the ball

to drop once more. The frat boys make a few comments about beginners luck but quickly shut up when after ten seconds go by, she scores again. And then once more not long after that. The boys stand, both taking a frustrated step away from the table, uncomfortable when the crowd starts chirping at them. Snarky comments about being beat by a girl clearly making way to their ears. They pace back and forth a bit, breathing heavy, their faces becoming red. “Do you need more time?” she asks, her tone mockingly sweet. When the ball drops this time, there is no immediate score and it gives me the chance to actually play alongside her. And we play together well. Our bodies move in sync like it’s been choreographed. She ducks under my arms easily as we switch positions, our legs easily stepping in between each other ’s as we crisscross back and forth. I realize then her skills at this game may even be better than mine. After our next goal, we high five each other and her smile grows wide from ear to ear. It’s the prettiest one I’ve ever seen. We are well on our way to beating their asses by an embarrassingly high score. After a few more minutes, the score is so outlandish, there’s no chance of them having a comeback. We show mercy and end the game, but not before I collect my winnings. Grumbling and obviously irritated, they hand over the cash and leave the room, catcalls from their brothers following them out. I count the cash and pocket most of it but hand a small share over to my partner. “Well deserved,” I say. Smiling, she doesn’t even hesitate before accepting it, which only makes me like her more. “Looks like I’ll have to look into this Monica girl,” I say, smiling. “You should,” she nods, her eyes narrowing in a playful dare. A small laugh escapes my lips. “Well,” taking a step towards her, “you can be my Monica anytime.” She bites her lower lip, trying to keep her smile somewhat hidden. I want to pull that lip free with my finger, not allowing her to hide anything from me. “I told you,” she winks, crossing her arms over her chest. “We had it all along.” Her eyes shine with teasing amusement. Christ. What is it about this girl? I mean, sure, she’s gorgeous, but I’ve been around gorgeous girls before and it definitely took a little more than a small bite to the lip and some teasing to get me this interested. “Maybe we should take this on the road. Make a killing off all the frat houses in Florida,” I suggest. She laughs. It’s loud and authentic. Not like the small giggles I’m used to hearing from girls. This laugh is real. “You go to school here?” She nods once more. “I do.” She tilts her head to the side, studying me. “But you don’t.” I shake my head, wondering what gave me away. “University of Art and Design.” “Ah…makes sense. You’re the only one wearing clothes without the University insignia. No hat. Plain t-shirt. Almost like you don’t belong,” she says, teasing. “I could say the same about you, Honeycomb,” I answer back, pointing to her own choice of clothing. It also gives me a chance to look her entire body up and down once more, but slowly this time. She smiles then blinks in confusion. “Honeycomb?” I stand straight, pushing myself off from where I’ve been leaning against the foosball table and take one step closer to her. She stiffens slightly at my new closeness but doesn’t shy away. I lift my hand and take hold of a few strands of her honey colored hair, lifting it up between us.

Her smile returns but she looks away, hiding her blush. It makes me want to see what else I can do to make her blush like that. Suddenly an arm appears out of nowhere and wraps itself around her shoulders. I drop her hair from my fingers and take a defensive stance. The arm belongs to Mr. College Varsity. Not only is he wearing a t-shirt with the school’s insignia all over it, he also looks like he could be the quarterback of the football team. Muscular build, straight cut hair, small Greek letters tattooed across his arm. He looks me up and down, sizing me up as I do the same to him. He’s about the same height but probably outweighs me by about thirty pounds—of muscle. “Sorry I’m late. Got caught up,” he says leaning into her but keeping his eyes on me as he drops a kiss on her temple. Just like women, men also have a way of communicating to one another without the need of using actual words. Sometimes it’s a grunt or a simple hand gesture. Sometimes it’s by doing nothing at all. But that slow, controlled, claiming kiss to the temple was a clear method of communicating one message to me. She’s mine. Step back. He follows the kiss with a simple curt nod, looking for acknowledgment I’ve received his directive. For now, I ignore it. “Trevor! You missed it. We annihilated that game,” she says extending her arms out to the table, completely oblivious to the silent conversation already being had. “I believe it,” he says giving her a swift glance before looking back at me. “Thanks for keeping her entertained, but I got it from here.” Oh, I’m sure you do, douchebag. Nothing screams insecure to me more than a man who needs to piss around his girl. “Trev, don’t be an ass,” she mutters under her breath. I glance at her and can tell she’s slightly embarrassed at his behavior. Her face tightens, her earlier smile faltering and a light flush starts to creep up her neck. But the worst part? She’s seems too uncomfortable to even look at me now. It’s for all those reasons I keep my mouth shut and let this guy have his way. I don’t want to add to her obvious discomfort. “Thanks for leading us to victory, Comb” I tell her, hoping the nickname will bring those big brown eyes back up to mine. And it does. She looks up at me and smiles. “Let’s go. They’re waiting,” Trevor tells her, slightly pushing her away from me. Nodding, she complies and turns to leave with him, but not before she gives me one final look filled with apology. I wave my hand, letting her know not to worry about it. I watch them as they leave the jam-packed room and continue to watch until I lose sight when she disappears into the hallway. “I don’t know what she sees in that dillhole,” Eddy says coming out of nowhere and standing beside me. His eyes are pointed in the same direction as mine, to where Honeycomb just left. Two things surprise me. One, Eddy just swore, or at least what Eddy considers swearing, and two, he may know who this girl is. “You know her?” I ask him, following his stare. He nods. “Leah. She’s in a few of my pre-law classes. Smart. Knows her stuff. The guy she’s with is Trevor, also in some of my classes. Complete dickwad to most people.” “Calm down, Hulk,” I say with a smirk, teasing him for his use of language. Eddy shakes his head. “His parents are high class lawyers in New York. Thinks he owns the world. Arrogant type,” he says. When I turn back and look at him, he realizes what he just said and begins to backtrack.

“I mean, except you, of course,” he says, nervously. I laugh and look back towards the area where I lost Leah. Leah. Pretty name. “I mean, not once have you ever acted better than any of us because of your parents, or where you grew up—” Is he still blabbing about this? “Eddy, stop talking,” I say, grabbing his shoulders. “Actually, tell me one thing. Where would I find all you pre-law students during the week?”

Present “SURPRISE!” The burst of loud noise shocks me, almost springing me backwards. My heart pounds, my ears burning up at the complete disbelief at what’s in front of me. Once I regain my bearings, I’m able to quickly dart my eyes over the entire room. To the bar filled with faces I recognize, all smiling, laughing, pointing their fingers at me. Expressions brimming with pride knowing they’ve all succeeded in pulling a fast one over on me. I hear their excited words mixed in with their laughter. Did you see his face? He had no clue. I hope someone got a picture. And there, standing right in the middle of it all is the one person who I know must have orchestrated it. Jumping and laughing, pointing her own two index fingers at me, just like the rest of them. “Got you!” she yells from across the bar, her hands circling her mouth to ensure her voice carries all the way to where I’m still standing. I tip my head to her, silently conceding to her words. Yes, you did. Bryan pushes me forward from behind, past the entryway and into the bar. Well wishes and “Happy Birthday’s” come at me from all directions as I make my way through the crowd. Balloons and streamers hang in every corner, adding bright color to what is usually a dimly lit and stark place. The garage door windows start to rise, opening up an entire wall and allowing the slightly cooler Miami winter air to breeze inside. I hadn’t even notice they were closed when Bryan and I walked passed them a few minutes ago. We are at one of my favorite spots in South Beach. For everything that Miami bars are known for —the music, fancy drinks, hot waitresses—this place was the opposite. The floorboards squeaked with every step, shoes usually sticking to the floor—unless they’re already crunching against grains of sand that blew in from the beach across the street. There’s no DJ, which is almost a sin in Miami, and barely a dance floor. No drink comes with a fruit garnish, as the drink choices here are very simple. The décor even more so. Wooden tables and chairs are scattered around, two neon signs that

are usually the only burst of color when turned on. A lit up palm tree and a martini glass with the word cocktails written above. Ironically, this bar doesn’t even serve anything in martini glasses. The sound system regularly plays the Beach Boys and the bar is never full. Except for tonight. It doesn’t take many to fill this small room but knowing all these people are here for me still seems unbelievable. The bartender, Ray, catches my attention before flipping the cap off a bottle of beer and sending it over. I raise the bottle in thanks before taking a sip. “Happy birthday, you old fuck,” Bryan wraps an arm around my neck, pulling me downwards and punches me in the gut in a few times. Eddy and Cal both take this opportunity to assault my back and ribs with their own show of love and affection. Fighting them off, I stand straight and give Bryan a playful shove. “Your birthday was four months ago. Making you older than me,” I tell him. He waves off my point, as usual, and turns to order himself a drink while Eddy and Cal resume drinking the beers they already had while waiting for us to arrive. Cal raises his bottle in cheers before downing the rest of his drink. Cal is my assistant—Intern, really—while he finishes up his own degree. Currently attending the same program I was in, he’s been working for me for the entirety of his final year, helping me out with many of my local shoots, though I’m seriously considering bringing him with me on one of my future traveling trips. He may still only be a student, but he’s got a real eye for details in pictures and I know I wouldn’t be able to get a lot of my own stuff done nearly as fast and efficiently as I do without his help. I was lucky to have found him and lucky he’s become a good friend. Speaking of good friends, my eyes scout the room, in search of the honeycomb-haired magician who was able to plan all this without me having a clue. I find her on the other side of the bar standing with a group of her own friends she’s invited. A few are from her old college classes, some are coworkers from her law firm. I have yet to meet them all in person but I recognize most of them from their Facebook profiles when she insisted I help her “research” them right after she was hired. I also see Holly, Eddy’s fiancé. I start to make my way over, quickly giving her a once over before she notices. It’s a habit I’ve picked up over the years, taking her all in before she has a chance to see me do it. It started long ago at that frat party and I guess it just never stopped. A habit I never broke. Tonight, she’s wearing a short sequined mini skirt that hugs her hips perfectly and shows off her incredibly long, toned, tanned legs. A black tank with thin straps shows off her delicate collar bone and the thin gold chain I gave her as gift for passing the bar exam. Her long hair falls loose along her back in large wavy curls—just the way I like it. The bright neon lights from the hanging palm tree reflect over the gold hoops in her ears. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees me approaching and her full lips curl into a fuller smile. “So? Surprised?” she asks, her eyes shining with bright amusement. I raise my hands up in defeat. “You usually aren’t able to get one up on me. Who helped you pull this off?” I ask, edging closer. She makes a show of sealing her lips together, letting me know she’s not going to divulge any of her secrets. “She did it on her own, man. Only told us when and where,” Bryan steps in out of nowhere. He holds out his beer and we clink the heads of our bottles together. “One hell of a best friend you got there. After me, of course,” he says, taking a sip. I bark out a small laugh, looking back at her. “That I do,” I agree. “You know how I feel about birthdays,” Leah says. “It’s like everyone’s own personal New Year ’s. A new start for a new year,” she nods, emphasizing her point. “So, old man, got any older and wiser

resolutions?” she teases, winking and sipping from her own drink. Her glass is nearly half empty and I hope she hasn’t already had too many of whatever it is she’s drinking. She’s a bit of a lightweight and the night’s only just begun. “I’ll let you know when I think of one,” I answer. “Until you do,” she begins, “let’s drink and ring in your new year with a fan-fucking-tastic night!” She smiles widely, raising her glass out in front of her to our small crowd. “To Shane, worldly photographer, connoisseur of lingerie models, ongoing foosball champion, and—” her eyes then fall on me, “my best friend.” Everyone raises their drinks and smiles at me. “Fuck you,” they all call out together. I laugh, dropping my head back before I take a good swig from my beer. I can feel everyone’s eyes watching me as they smile and laugh with me. But while I seem to be the focus of everyone’s attention, mine is solely fixed on Leah. TWO HOURS LATER, I’m on my way to a respectable state of drunkenness. Not surprising when the minute your drink is empty, another is placed directly in front of you. Currently sitting around a table with the boys, our conversation has easily fallen into one of two categories—sports and girls. While Cal runs off some stats about this year ’s upcoming baseball season, Bryan’s contribution leads our attention to the girls outside the bar walking down the street. “God, I love this city. Everywhere you turn, no matter what time it is or what month, there are chicks walking around in bikini tops and miniskirts,” his eyes following a group of girls on the sidewalk. “What other place has that?” he asks, shaking his head. “Brazil, Australia,” Eddy begins to list. “If we’re talking nationally, California—” I laugh knowing Eddy could go on listing places all night. “We get it Eddy,” I say before turning back towards Bryan. “Keep staring just like that. I’m sure Kendall will appreciate it,” I goad him. Bryan rolls his eyes but doesn’t look away from the street. “That’s over.” “Again?” we all ask in unison. Bryan twitches his brows once before taking a sip from his beer. Bryan and Kendall are an anomaly to us all. The last two years of school they were on and off more than a bedside lamp. And they continue to be that way still to this day. For years they’ve been playing the same game and I can’t wrap my head around why. I know he wants her more than any other, but it’s like the minute he has her, he doesn’t know what to do. Half of him always seems ecstatic while the other seems…terrified. When Kendall is around, he loses all focus on anything or anyone else. Then something always inevitably happens and days later, he’s looking to fill his time and energy with other…distractions. And many of them. I don’t believe Kendall stays at home crying over him either, but I know she doesn’t act out the way he does. He’ll never admit it, but I know he feels like shit every time he does it. Even shittier when he hears she’s found out about it. So how they both agree to try again and again, I have no idea. “You just don’t appreciate what this city has to offer as much anymore. You’ve grown up in it and you see it up close every day for a living,” Bryan answers, looking to me then back outside to the parade of girls walking by. “Interesting,” Eddy shakes his head as he thinks about it. “I suppose it could be possible to become immunized.” I laugh at the absurdity of what was just said. I appreciate the female form probably more than any of these guys here. In part because I’m a twenty-six-year-old man and like every man, the female body is my kryptonite. But also because appreciating it is a pretty large aspect of my job. Unlike what my father believed would happen, I have managed to make a small name for myself

in the photography world. While in college, I had the opportunity to intern for Stu Schultz and that unquestionably added to my credibility. Stu’s portfolio was as impressive as his client list. He took me under his wing and taught me it wasn’t who or what you were taking pictures of but how you captured it that made the picture. Stu may have been known for the hundreds of magazine photo spreads he shot, but like me, his true passion was in the photos no one else ever saw. The ones he prized the most. The ones that were my favorite too. Similar to my own true passion. Photos of everyday people doing mundane everyday tasks but that showed beauty in what real life was like. “Real life always wins out,” he once told me. But he also taught me other aspects of becoming a successful photographer. The ones that couldn’t be ignored, ones that had nothing to do with taking pictures. Networking, meeting the right people, taking the right jobs were all important factors for a beginner. He taught me that sometimes you have to take the boring pictures in order to have the opportunity to take the great ones. I think that’s why I want to be a good mentor to Cal. Stu taught me so much; I want to be able to pass some of that along, even if I’m still considered a newbie in the industry. But some of the guys, especially Bryan, can’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t want to do anything but bikini and lingerie shoots. “That’s life’s true beauty!” Bryan argues constantly. It’s true, it can be fun and a few times, my encounters with some of the models have gone beyond professional. I guess you could call it a perk to the job. But I really only do those shoots for the steady pay check. I need that money to live until the seldom and rare opportunities at the Discovery Channel or National Geographic magazine come along. Because that’s my real passion. Nature, culture, seeing the unseen. It just so happens that until those moments come, I spend my time with the women of Victoria’s Secret. I suppose I can’t really complain. “Not true,” I answer, thinking how best to explain this in terms Bryan would understand. “Girls in underwear are like Lucky Charms. Yes, they’re delicious and colorful and sometimes, the perfect evening snack. But every now and again I need something a little different to sustain my hunger.” “What the fuck are you talking about?” Bryan says, disbelievingly. “You have girls with bras barely covering their nipples around you all day. If it were me, I’d be happy eating the same cereal every day for the rest of my life.” “It’s a wonder why Kendall continues to take you back,” Eddy marvels. “Hey, I take her back just as much,” he argues, but none of us believe him. “And not everyone is looking to put a ring on it, okay?” Bryan fights back. “Don’t be resentful that I still get to experience what Mother Nature has placed down before me.” “And you experience Mother Nature before or after Kendall declines your drunken calls?” I ask, smirking. Bryan answers by giving me the finger. But not all of us have relationship problems. Several months ago, Eddy asked Holly to marry him. They met through Leah right after she had started working at her new law firm. Holly is a paralegal there and was the first to come and welcome her. Insta-friendship. She brought Holly out with us all one night and the minute Eddy’s eyes fell on Holly, he was a goner. I saw it immediately. But Eddy’s… shy, to put it mildly. He hardly spoke to her the entire night. Once Leah and Holly left, it seemed like Eddy had just released his first exhale of the evening. I told him he should have talked to her, struck up a conversation. He immediately shook his head. Too nervous and lacking experience with women, Eddy’s confidence level in the art of picking up is about as high as it would be if someone stuck him in as pitcher in game seven of the World Series. College chicks don’t appreciate the smart ones during those years. They come around years later after they realize the guys in bands who drink too much and party too hard aren’t worth the devotion they give them. Not long from now, all those girls

Eddy ever tried to speak to will wonder about him. I guarantee it. So the next time a few of us hung out, I pulled Leah away from the table, leaving Eddy and Holly alone. I gave Eddy a look, telling him this was his chance, talk to her. Go pitch that ninth inning! Leah asked why I was keeping her away from the table when I cocked my head to the side to let her see what was happening behind her. Eddy had slowly made his way over to Holly’s side of the table, sitting beside her instead of away from her. And they were talking. For a brief moment, Holly’s head even fell back in laughter. I almost choked on my own drink when I saw the surprised look on Eddy’s face that he had made a girl laugh like that. “So you’re a matchmaker now?” Leah asked, smiling. “Why don’t you work that magic and find me someone?” I shook my head. “Because your taste in men is terrible and I don’t know any douchebags to set you up with.” “Then maybe you need to find me someone more like you,” she teased. I stared at her for a moment, unsure how to react at the thought. It never bothered me that she dated all those idiots because I knew nothing serious would ever come out of it. She was too smart to let it ever go too far. But what if one day she did meet someone more like me? Someone I would have to share her with. The thought stuck to my ribs like a pound of grease. Leah kicked my leg and jerked her head behind her. “Look at them,” she said. We watched Holly and Eddy continue to laugh and talk for a few more minutes before finding empty stools at the bar and staying there for the rest of the night. That evening two years ago, Eddy asked Holly for her number, and then, a little over a year ago, he asked her for a whole lot more when he got down on one knee with a ring. A warm arm wraps around my shoulder, surprising me back to the present. Pretty pink nail polish appears in front of me holding a shot glass with amber liquid and a wedge of lemon on top. Tequila. Leah’s favorite poison. I take the shot glass from her as she takes a seat next to me. Her face is glowing slightly from sweat. She’s been dancing for the last forty-five minutes to a mix of songs I’ve never heard play here before. Top forty songs. “Where did you find lemons in this place?” I ask, taking the shot from her hand. She winks. “I brought my own.” She takes her shot glass and raises it up to my face, looking down at my own, instructing me to do the same. “Happy Birthday,” she says loud enough for only me to hear. I watch as the shot glass rests on her lips while her head falls back, tequila slowly disappearing. I do the same, letting it fill my mouth and go down my throat smoothly. Leah’s eyes squint as she swallows, immediately reaching for the lemon wedge and sucking on it vigorously. I laugh, offering her mine as well which she takes. I don’t understand why she keeps with the tequila shots when it nearly brings tears to her eyes every time. “So, what were we talking about?” she asks the table, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Just how unnatural it is Shane would rather be knee deep in the Antelope Canyons than a Victoria’s Secret model these days,” Bryan says. “How eloquent,” Holly, who has just joined the table, says. She takes a seat next to Eddy, kissing him on the cheek. The minute she sits down, you can physically see Eddy’s confidence rise. He sits taller, lets his own version of a smirk appear on his face. Give him another few years, he’ll be puffing out his shoulders and banging his fists against his chest.

I turn to face Bryan, once again ready to argue my point when Leah speaks up first. “Can’t eat Lucky Charms all the time,” she says, stealing a sip from my beer. I immediately laugh and plant a big kiss on her cheek. This is why I love this girl. “Hear that, boys? She gets it!” Leah starts to laugh, confused. I’m grinning large while the rest of the guys are groaning. “It’s fascinating how well you two know each other,” Eddy says, his eyes moving back and forth from me to Leah. “Why fascinating?” Leah asks. “Finishing each other ’s thoughts and sentences?” Bryan says. “It’s like you two are the married couple. Not them,” he says, tilting his head in Eddy and Holly’s direction. “Maybe we’re just two people who understand each other. One and the same,” Leah argues, raising a brow. Bryan snorts. “What?” Leah sits back in her chair, facing Bryan. “Two people can’t know each other enough to —” “Two people? Yes. A guy and a girl? No.” “That’s ridiculous,” she shakes her head. “There are lots of people out there who are of the opposite sex and understand each other the way we do.” Bryan leans in. “Those people understand each other like that because they’re usually also fucking each other.” Leah blinks, her mouth clamping shut. “You two,” he points his fingers between us, “Eddy’s right. You two are fascinating,” he smirks, leaning back in his chair. “All that time you two spend together? The way you understand each other,” he taunts Leah with her own words. “And not once have you two even banged? Just for the hell of it?” He looks back and forth between us. “Fascinating,” he repeats. I glare at Bryan, shooting daggers in his direction. I feel the table watching us, looking for a reaction from either of us. They’re interested in our answer. It’s obvious this has been a topic of discussion between them before. One they’ve had without me or Comb around. A group dissection of how it’s possible Leah and I have never crossed that line before. They’re all waiting for one of us to say something, do something. The smashing of a glass behind us cuts the tension at the table, causing everyone to blink and fall back in their chairs, yet still no one has said anything. I take a quick glance in her direction, half expecting her to laugh off his words, but when her face fills my line of sight, she’s not laughing. Instead, her throat moves slowly as she swallows, her eyes are fixed ahead and away from me. It’s been said men think about sex every seven seconds or something like that. Although there’s no proof to this, as a man, I know we do think about it a lot. And a lot of my seconds I spend with Leah. So it’s only natural that thoughts of sex and of Leah have gotten intertwined a couple thousand times over the years. And why wouldn’t it? She’s smart, funny, fun and let’s not forget, one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever laid my eyes on. But we friend-zoned each other years ago, and I’ve long moved past thinking of her that way purposefully. Any sexual thoughts I’ve had since, if any, must be coincidence. I’m certain of it. Almost certain. Fairly certain. But watching her now, her struggle to look at me, has me wondering if she’s thought about it. “It would be like fucking my brother,” she finally says, her face molding back into her secure and confident expression. Well, that answers that. The table immediately erupts into laughter. “Thanks, Comb,” I say, forcing a laugh but trying hard to hide the insult I wasn’t expecting to feel.

A brother? Really? Leah looks at me and smiles, but it looks strained, flustered even. The need to find out why is strong, but I’m unable to ask because she stands abruptly and holds her hand out to Holly. “Come on, I love this song!” she says, dragging Holly away from the table, nearly running to get away. My eyes follow them to the dance floor and watch as they start twirling in circles like all women do when they dance together. “Bullshit,” Bryan says when I turn back around. I look at him confused. “I call her bullshit,” he repeats. “She’s thought about it.” I roll my eyes. “You heard her. She hasn’t.” “Shane,” he leans in across the table, “did you not just see what happened? She was like a deer caught in the fucking headlights. Trust me. She’s thought of it. And we both know you think of it. I mean, Christ, I can’t blame you. Look at her.” He nods his chin in her direction. I look back and watch. I watch her hips sway, her breasts bounce, arms waving up in the air. Realization dawns on me then that I must still think about it, coincidence or not. “Shit,” I mutter. Bryan drinks in my sudden self-awareness. “Come on, how could you not? I myself have thought about it a few times. In the shower, over the breakfast—” “Fuck off,” my tone sharpening. “She’s off limits. And that includes your fucked up kinky daydreams.” “I know,” he laughs. “I’m just fucking with you. But come on, have you really never even tried?” I take a deep breath followed by a long drawn out sip of beer. “There was never a right time,” I admit, shrugging my shoulders. “What? You need roses and candles?” I shake my head. “It just never happened. She was with Trevor for years. And when she finally kicked him to the curb we were a long way past that road. No going back, you know?” Leah’s been in my life for over five years now. We have one of the best and closest relationships I’ve ever had. The night we met at the frat party and the days later are still as clear and vivid to this day. I remember finding her at the Starbucks Eddy mentioned having seen her studying a few times. “This doesn’t look like Central Perk,” I said, pulling up a chair and sitting across from her and her laptop. I’ll never forget the surprised smile she gave, looking up at me from her screen. It was the first time my heart lost its rhythm for someone. “You watched,” she said, leaning back in her chair. I tilted my head to the side, half smiling. “I YouTubed.” Her laugh was just as loud and full as I remembered. “And?” she asked. “It had its moments,” I answered. She bit her bottom lip, trying to keep her mouth from smiling too wide. And again, it had the same effect on me then as it did at the party. Conversation between us started quick and swift, as if we had done so many times before. I remember how easy it was to make her laugh and how being taken aback I was for her love of swear words. I grew up in a world where having a trucker ’s mouth was thought of as tasteless, but coming out of those pink lips, it was strangely endearing. We talked for over an hour before Trevor called her cell, letting her know he was on his way to pick her up. It was clear she was in a relationship and she wasn’t looking to stray. But I liked her, so if friendship was all that was on the table at that point, then why not? Who knew what could happen in the future? “You know she broke up with that asshole because of you,” Bryan says pointedly, interrupting my

momentary trip down memory lane. “No she didn’t.” “Yes she fucking did. Maybe not to bone you, but everyone knew that douche didn’t like your,” he raises his hands and makes finger quotations, “‘friendship.’ She chose you.” I glance at her once more on the dance floor, wondering if that’s true, if she did in fact break up with Trevor because of me—for me—and what it meant if she did. I shake my head, needing to clear it of these thoughts. “Let’s get another drink,” I say, standing. “Don’t need to ask me twice,” Bryan responds, downing what’s left of his. AN HOUR LATER, I’m drunk. But so is everyone else. I down this last shot, knowing I shouldn’t have another. Bryan left me to talk to a pretty brunette over in the corner of the bar. The chair beside me scrapes across the floor and fills with my favorite person. The hair on the nape of her neck clings to her skin, damp with sweat. Her eyeliner has smeared just a touch from all her dancing, but also from all her laughter. She’s looks beautiful. “Thanks for tonight,” I tell her, resting my hand on her bare thigh. Without thinking, I begin to rub it up and down, all the way along her warm, soft as silk skin. Her eyes glimpse down to where my hand is grazing her thigh and it takes me a moment to notice what I’m doing before I remove my fingers slowly. “Any time,” she answers, her breath catching a little. “Well, any time a year from now.” I smile. “This was my first surprise party.” “Really?” she smiles, her eyes slightly glazed. “Well, everyone deserves a surprise party at least once in their lives.” “Have you ever had one?” She laughs. “Not yet.” “Perfect. I’ll throw you one.” She laughs louder. “It won’t be much of a surprise if you’re already telling me it’s coming!” I think about her words before I nod in agreement. “You’re right. It will have to be on a day not even close to your birthday.” She shakes her head, amused. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around. Always keeping me on my toes.” She leans in close, her forehead now resting against mine. I close my eyes and take in her familiar scent. The light mix of perfume and coconut from both her shampoo and her sunscreen. There’s also the slightest aroma of sweat from all her dancing. I’m not sure if it’s the booze or my earlier conversation with Bryan, but something inside me tightens, causing goosebumps to pin prick my skin. I look down to see if her skin is having the same reaction, but Leah leans back suddenly, her face falling away from mine. “I love this song! Dance with me?” She doesn’t even let me respond, pulling me from my chair and to the dance floor. I recognize the song, it plays on the radio often enough. It has an upbeat tempo, one Leah knows just how to dance to. I, on the other hand, am happy to just stand here and watch her. Once the chorus hits, Leah turns to me and starts singing the words while jumping up and down, her long golden hair flying everywhere. I laugh and continue to watch her while I myself barely move. Her hands fall on my chest and she starts to sing along with the song. The words leaving her lips in loud screams. Something about “not daring to look back” and to “shut up and dance.” I cover her hands with mine, keeping them glued to my chest, not letting her move too far away, making it hard for her to continue jumping around. Without the ability to move, she stays in one

place, swaying side to side and looking up at me. I try and read her thoughts, but for the first time in a long time, I have no idea what’s going on inside that head of hers. “Let’s get some fresh air,” I suggest, speaking into her ear. She looks back at me and nods, grabbing her bag from a nearby chair and turning, heading for the exit. As soon as we’re outside, the breeze from the ocean brushes against my skin. It feels refreshing and instantly sobers me up a little. I think it’s done the same for her. The sidewalk is busy with people leaving bars and clubs down the street, so I take her hand and cross over to the beach side. “You sure you had fun tonight?” she asks, leaning against the wooden fence that separates us from the sandy beach. “The best,” I tell her honestly. “Good.” She smiles. A silence comes over us. Usually, if there is quiet between us, it’s never uncomfortable or awkward. But right now, I feel a different kind of energy. I can’t tell if it’s coming from me, or her, or the both of us, but it’s new. I try and think of something to break the strange mood but her next words only intensify it. “Have you ever thought about it?” she whispers, glancing around as though she doesn’t want anyone else to hear. I’m pretty sure I know what she’s talking about but I don’t want to make an ass out of myself in case it’s not. I clear my throat. “Thought about what?” She turns and faces me, her smile turning devious, calculating. “What Bryan said.” Okay. So we are thinking about the same thing. “Have you?” my lips curl into a smirk. She slowly turns back towards the ocean, lacing her fingers together as she leans further against the fence. The wind blows her hair off her face and shoulders, exposing the skin it was just covering. I can tell that she won’t answer first, which is unlike her. She’s always quick to blurt out her opinions and answers. But then again, we’ve never had this kind of conversation before. I take my fingers, placing them under her chin and raising her face back up to mine. With as much honesty as I can sum up, I go first. “Yes. Obviously.” She blinks once then opens her mouth. I can see her tongue peeking through the small slit but she says nothing. We stare at each other, neither of us speaking. I have no idea what to do next. Should I push and ask her again if she has? Should I change the subject entirely? Have I completely made her feel uncomfortable now? My heart begins to beat a mile a minute but I haven’t moved an inch. “Do you—” I start. “Want to get out of here?” she interrupts, somehow completing the question I’m not even sure I was asking. I blink twice, unsure of what’s happening. Is she asking me to take her home or is she asking me to take her home? Her question is laced with different meanings and I have no clue how I should take it. Asking if I want to get out of here? What does that mean? How should I answer? Should I even consider saying yes if she’s asking what I think she is? Thoughts and arguments for and against build in my head. The first being that this is Leah and if anything happened that might ruin our friendship, I would without a doubt be devastated. But then I let my eyes skim across her body as I’ve done so many times over the years. The same body that had me

feeling so many things with just the simplest of gestures. It most likely makes me the stereotypical male because it’s those thoughts that win out. I give her face another quick look, a chance to make her meaning clearer to me before I act. And then, she bites her lip. With that, I quickly turn and leave her at the fence, walking with determination to the side of the road to hail a cab. And by some miracle, one stops almost immediately. I turn back to find her right behind me. I grab her hand and nearly push her inside the car. I give the driver my address as the cab pulls away, leaving the bar, the party, and our friends behind. I keep my eyes on the road ahead of us, too nervous to look at Leah beside me. In my periphery, I can tell she’s doing the same. I wonder now that we are both in a cab headed for my place, if the reality of this situation will finally hit us. Maybe we’re drunker than we think and only now our minds will begin to clear and be rational. Maybe in another minute, Leah will burst out laughing at the absurdness of this all. Maybe I will. I take a breath and wait for that feeling to come. But it doesn’t. Five minutes into the ride, it still doesn’t. Instead, in those few minutes, I realize just how much I want this. My hard-on is screaming at me how much I want this. But only if she does. I finally turn to face her at the same time she turns to face me. I’m going to ask her, make sure she’s okay with everything that’s happening here. But the minute I open my lips to speak, they’re covered by hers.

IT TAKES EXACTLY two seconds for me to get over the surprise of Leah’s lips on mine before I tune in and take control. One hand immediately finds itself lost in her long hair, my fingers wrapping around hundreds of honey strands. It keeps her close, not giving her any leverage to move away. On instinct, I run my tongue over her bottom lip, coaxing her into allowing me entry. Pure impulse leads me to resting my other hand along her side, my short nails digging into her ribs, my thumb brushing over the side of her breast. All things I’ve done hundreds of times before with other women, but this time feels so much different. She lets out a small, almost inaudible moan the minute our tongues meet. A sound I’m not unfamiliar with, but it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time. She sounds better than any fantasy I may have had over the last few years. Hearing it in a dream is nowhere near as good as hearing it in real life. I want—no, need—to hear it again. More than I need my next breath. She lets out another sweet moan, sounding almost exactly like she does when she takes her first bite of dessert. Like she’s been waiting the whole meal for it. It’s a great sound—no, a fantastic sound. But one that reminds me of who just made it—and why. That I just stuck my tongue down my best friend’s throat. I pull my lips away from Leah’s, even though it’s the last thing I want to do. I rest my head against hers, needing a second to regroup. Never before has a simple make out in the back of a cab caused me so much affliction. Half of me is screaming not to stop, that her body feels too good, her lips feeling even better against mine. But the other half, the annoying sensible half, won’t stop reminding me of whose body I’m touching and whose lips I’m now craving. I swallow hard, releasing a shaky breath before I look back up at her face. Her eyes are still closed, lips slightly swollen and wet. The lip gloss she wore a little smudged. I lick my lips, wanting to see if mine taste like her. When she opens her eyes, I prepare to see them filled with uncertainty and doubt—but I’m wrong. They’re filled with a look I’ve never seen come from her but one I know all too well. Lust. “Shane,” her voice is soft and breathy. Her eyes scan my face, trying to understand my hesitation, the reason I pulled away. The reason that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Any question or concern I had was answered the second she opened her eyes and looked at me. And she continues to answer me in the way she pants quietly, the rising of her chest in quick successions.

She wants this just like I do. I pull her face back towards mine and kiss her again. I’m not shy about it this time either. I pry her lips open with my tongue, sweeping it across hers. Her breath is hot, smells and tastes faintly of citrus. She teases my tongue by sucking on it just like she did those lemons after the tequila shots. My mind reels, remembering it was just an hour ago we sat around that table, speechless at the mention of hooking up. Now look at us. Like animals in heat, attacking each other ’s mouths with our teeth, tongues and lips. “No boom-boom in the cab,” an accented voice speaks up. We both freeze, startled by the interruption. Our attention shifts to the driver, who is staring at us through the rearview mirror, eyes wide and annoyed. I want to tell him this is Miami and worse things than kissing have probably gone on in the back of this cab. But I don’t want to embarrass Leah or bring attention to the fact I personally know just how much can be done in the back of a cab. I release my hand from around her head, pulling away from her side. I lean back against the seat and take a breath, fisting my hands at my sides. From the corner of my eye I notice Leah does the same. I watch her as she leans against the sticky leather of the back seat and crosses her legs, pressing them together. My eyes become glued to her thighs. One long, tanned leg draped across the other. Her skirt shifts higher and I know if I were to move my head just slightly forward, I’d be able to see the color of her panties. The thought drives me crazy. I need to know. I pray for this cab to move faster so I can take her to my bedroom and find out. Leah opens her window, letting the breeze come through. It blows her hair in my direction and I can smell her shampoo once again. I close my eyes and count to ten, knowing if I keep letting all my senses get wrapped up in her right now, I won’t last two minutes once we get inside my loft. The cab finally pulls up in front of my building. I don’t even look at the counter, pulling two twenties from my pocket and shoving them in the driver ’s hand. I open the door and watch Leah slide over the seat before taking my hand and getting out of the cab, slamming the door behind her. As soon as the cab pulls away, we are left alone and the realness of what is happening looms over us once more. I don’t want to over think this all again. And I definitely don’t want her to either. I want to get back to the place where our mouths met and sweet little moans were the only sounds heard. I reach for her hand, pulling her towards the front doors of my building. Relief swells up inside me when she doesn’t hesitate. We walk in, hand in hand, heading straight for the elevators. I live on the third floor of a five story loft building. The ride to my apartment won’t be long but it feels like it could be miles away at this point. As soon as the elevator doors close, I notice our hands are no longer intertwined and we are both standing on opposite sides of the elevator car facing each other. I can’t remember the last time we’ve gone this long without saying a word. From the time we left the bar, only moans and a single call of my name has been uttered. It feels…not like us. I try and think of something to say, something that will bring us back to being Shane and Comb, but also won’t screw up what’s about to happen. “Don’t over think this,” she says first. “I’m not,” I tell her, almost as a reflex. “You are,” she states. “Stop.” I’m amazed at how calm and in control she seems. Her breathing has slowed from her earlier pants in the cab and the flush on her skin has nearly disappeared. My obvious nerves compared to her lack of any make me feel a little…inadequate. That’s not a feeling I’m used to. The elevator doors open with a ding once we reach my floor. I extend my arm, letting her exit first. The words “to your left” almost escape my lips. But then I remind myself I don’t need to tell her which apartment is mine. She’s been here too many times to count. I follow her to my door where she waits for me to unlock it. I fish out my keys from my pocket

and let her go in first. She walks down the short hallway, flicking on the light switch from behind the kitchen counter, knowing exactly where to find it. It feels surreal, bringing a girl home who already treats this place like home. Knows where everything is, doesn’t take the time to wander around, mentally assessing all of my belongings. Girls almost always stop in front of the far wall where six large, framed, black and white photographs hang, interested in what they are and where they were taken. Most are from my parent’s vacation home in Georgia. One is of the abandoned barn acres away from the main house. Another of a broken wooden fence, carvings of random numbers etched into it. Beautiful hidden spots I’ve found walking around the property. But Leah doesn’t even glance at them. Why would she? These are pictures she’s already seen thousands of times before. She’s even been to these places in person. I rub the back of my neck, trying to acclimate to this new setting. Usually I’d ask if they’d like a tour, show them around the loft before eventually leading them towards my bedroom. But this time I’m completely out of my element. “Do you want something to drink?” I ask, pointing over to the kitchen, which is really just a long counter with a small island separating it from the living space. Leah drops her bag on my gray sofa, next to the blue throw she bought to have here for when we watch movies. She turns and faces me. “No.” Okay. I keep still, contemplating my next move but Leah already seems to have one in mind. She steps away from the couch, moving towards me before turning to the left, past the foos table Bryan and I bought and straight for my bedroom. She stops at the door of my room and glances back behind her, her body twisting. She’s waiting for me to follow. I take a second to look at this girl, really look at her. A girl who has completely shocked the hell out of me tonight. She’s taken complete control while remaining as cool and collected as can be. I’m amazed by her right now. My eyes move from her face downwards, stalling momentarily at her breasts before moving further south to her hips then down her legs. The thought of those legs wrapped around my waist spurs me into action. I take the few steps I need to reach her, determination getting stronger the closer I get. As soon as she is within touching distance, I wrap my hand around the back of her neck and crash my lips to hers. The rest of her body follows suit, her breasts crushing against my chest. One of her legs steps in between mine and I feel the other rise, her inner thigh rubbing against the outside of mine. Already this is better than any thought, dream or fantasy I ever had of us. Our breathing quickly turns into pants and I feel her hands fall to my waist, her fingers finding their way under my shirt, leaving a burning trail wherever she touches. I move away from her lips, licking my way down her neck. She tastes both sweet and salty. Sweet in the way I had always figured she would, salty from the remnants of sweat her dancing brought on. I lick slowly, going lower to the base of her neck before coming up the other side. I bite her earlobe, pushing her hoop earring aside. I hear her let out a shaky breath that tells me she likes this. That I’ve found one of her sweet spots that will drive her nuts. I want to explore the rest of her body and find out how many more she has. I lead us further into my room, kicking the door closed behind me, not wanting to be interrupted should Bryan come home. The minute I close the door, we are enveloped by darkness. I give her a quick kiss on the lips, simply resting mine on hers for a few seconds before I pull away to switch on the lamp that sits on my dresser. Dim gold light illuminates the room, casting a warm glow over Leah. I’ve always knows she was gorgeous. Anyone can see that by looking at her. But seeing her now, in my room, just a hint of light bouncing off her, she looks more like a dream. A dream I’m going to

live. I step away from the dresser and stand in front of her again. We’ve come this far and I know soon there will be no going back. I reach and pull my shirt over my head, dropping the material to the floor. I wait for her reaction, her eyes following the shirt as it falls by my feet. She looks back up, finding an expression that tells her I’m waiting, daring her to respond in kind. I see her shoulders rise slightly with an intake of breath before she reaches down and lifts up her own top, revealing a black, lace, strapless bra. I hear the light sound of her top hitting the floor but my eyes stay glued to her chest. To the lace bra that hides nothing. To her nipples that are dark and hard. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Leah’s breasts. A year ago, a bunch of us took a weekend and rented a beach house in the Keys. One day while I was in Leah’s room and she was in the en suite changing, I caught a glimpse of her taking her bikini off. The bathroom door wasn’t fully closed and I could see her reflection in the mirror. She had no idea but I couldn’t look away. Much like I can’t look away now. Only this time, she’s watching me as I do it. “In the cab, I wondered what color your panties were,” I tell her, looking back up to her face. If my words shocked her, she’s hiding it well. “Are they black to match? White? A color I’d be surprised by?” With every question, I take a step closer and closer. I’m excited when she doesn’t back away, thrilled when I see a hint of pink blush on her chest and turned on I’ve managed to get that reaction from her again so quickly. “Are you going to show me, Comb?” It takes everything she has to stay standing the way she is, unyielding. I’m sure of it. Her eyes glare, her posture straightening. She takes one small step before her arms move back behind her back. I hear the sound of a zipper coming down. I exhale, not wanting her to see just how much that little sound affected me. Confidently and without hesitation, her hands move to the waistline of her skirt and she slowly pulls it down, letting it fall around her heeled feet. She stands in front of me now, clad only in that black lace bra and a pair of silk panties. “Pink,” is all I can think to say. “Pink,” she repeats. One foot in front of the other, I come at her, one arm sneaking around her waist, the other to the side of her face. This time when I kiss her, I use all the pent up attraction I’ve had for her for the last five years. I kiss her for all the years I didn’t. I kiss her so she knows that for the last five years, I’ve yearned for this, even if I didn’t realize it. I kiss her for five years of neglected lust and ignored attraction. I nip at the corner of her mouth, her cheek, and the spot just below her ear. I want to taste every part of her. I feel her hands grip me harder when I nip at her skin with my teeth. I move lower to her shoulder, following the line of her collarbone with my tongue. I move to the center of her chest, licking and kissing down to the space between her lace-covered breasts. I look up from this position, slowly moving my hands behind her back, communicating what I’m about to do. My fingers skim her soft skin until they find the clasp. My fingers hover for a second, giving her a chance to stop me, but she doesn’t. Swiftly, I unclasp her bra and it falls easily to the floor next to the rest of her discarded clothes. My eyes are now perfectly aligned to her newly naked breasts. They are full, big enough for me to palm in each hand. I cup them, lifting one slightly for me to taste. I suck on her nipple, closing my eyes, imagining what else I could do to them. My own excitement is unreal and I know I’m going to be in need of my own release soon, my jeans quickly becoming too tight. After teasing and giving her other nipple the same attention, I lead us back towards the bed. I lay her down and immediately fall on top of her, resting on my forearms. Once again, I go to work teasing her breasts, licking and nibbling my way down to her belly button. I feel her body squirm, raising off the mattress higher and higher the lower and lower I go.

I sit up on my knees in between her legs. My eyes study her body, appreciating it. She’s full of soft curves and they’re all so incredibly sexy. Most of my experiences lately have been with models whose ribs are visible and hip bones jut out. Leah’s body is toned but…womanly. There is no place on her body I don’t want to touch, feel, and kiss. My hands reach for my belt and I unbuckle it, unbuttoning my pants and pulling down my zipper. Already I feel better. I pull at my jeans, kicking them to the side. Leah watches me, her eyes focused on every move I make. My eyes fall to the sweet spot between her legs. I grin, seeing the evidence of her arousal through the pink silk. As I’m about to move down and kiss her, her hands brace my shoulders, stopping me. I look up, raising an eyebrow. “You have protection, right?” she asks. I smile. “Of course. Don’t worry,” I tell her. I climb back up, placing a kiss on her cheek before twisting over to the night stand, opening the drawer. My hand digs around, moving quickly in search of a tiny foil package. When I can’t feel one, I move closer, taking a look inside. My heart drops to my stomach. The drawer is empty of condoms. I look a little further back, but there’s nothing. Only my passport stares back at me. Immediately, I think to go to my emergency back-up, the lone condom I carry around with me in my wallet. Then another crushing blow sweeps over me when I think of Adele, the swimsuit model from a few weeks ago. This can’t be happening. Leah’s head turns to the side, to the empty drawer. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” I say. I quickly think of what to do. “Nothing, just give me one sec.” I hop off the bed and rush out of the bedroom. I pray Bryan can help me out. I run into his room, stepping over some of his clothes littering his floor and make my way to his bedside table. I open the drawer, finding a few Playboys and some junk receipts. “Please,” I whisper, nearly begging. “Please be in here.” I start to pull out the magazines, one by one when I don’t find anything. Finally, a glint of purple foil catches my eye in the back of the drawer. “Thank you, God!” I say pulling out the two remaining wrappers. I kiss the small packets and quickly make my way back to my room. As soon as I close the door behind me, I freeze. Leah is no longer in the same position she was when I left. She’s sitting on the edge of the bed, her back to me, her long loose golden hair falling down the length of her back. My heart tightens at the thought that she’s stopping this. My thoughts quickly move from I can’t believe this, to okay, maybe it’s for the best, back to I can’t fucking believe this. I step further into the room, almost meeting the bed. I try to calm myself knowing that whatever happens next is probably for the best. “Comb,” I start, but don’t know what else to say. Disappointment washes over me and I don’t want to say something I might later regret. I try and form coherent sentences in my head, stringing words together to ensure there’s no hard feelings. I open my mouth, ready to tell her all this but my lips refuse to move when she stands from the bed. My eyes lower from her back down to her ass. They’re no longer covered in pink silk. I swallow. Slowly she turns, revealing herself to me. Revealing everything. Standing in front of me is the most beautiful, sexy, completely naked woman I’ve ever seen. Only a small amount of trimmed, tidy dark hair is left from where the pink silk once was. “Wow,” I say, stunned. I look up to meet her eyes but something is off. I see worry there.

“Promise me things won’t get weird after,” she says seriously. I nod, silently agreeing because I still can’t seem to make actual words come out of my mouth. But she repeats herself. “Promise me,” she says with more vigor. “Promise me things won’t change.” Her tone indicates just how much this promise means to her. I want to tell her nothing could change how I feel about her, nothing could ruin our friendship. That she’s one of the most important people in my life. And if she was really, truly concerned, we could stop this and forget it ever happened. We could get dressed and never speak of it again. And I would do it, all to reassure her. But, because I’m selfish and a man, I look her in the eyes and promise what I know could never be one hundred percent true. “I promise. Nothing will change.” A small smile forms on her face. Then, as if straight out of a porn video, she crawls on her hands and knees over the bed and waits for me. I show her the two foils I brought back with me before I toss them on the bed, bringing my hands to the waist of my boxer briefs and pull them down. Her eyes flare open just slightly at the sight of me. “Tell me what you like,” I ask her. She lets out a small laugh. “You didn’t strike me as the kind who needed coaching.” Coaching? Is she serious? “I was trying to be courteous.” A sly, vixen-like smile appears on her face. “Trust me. If you aren’t doing something right, you’ll know.” Five years I’ve known Leah. I know about her parents, she’s even met mine. She’s fallen asleep on my couch hundreds of times watching movies. I know how she takes her coffee. What her favorite foods are. Who her celebrity crush is. But now, after having watched her crawl across my bed with that smile, I have no idea who this girl is. I cock my head to the side. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” I say confidently. I climb up on the bed, both of us on our knees, only inches of space separating us. I scan her body, not sure where I want to touch her first, how and with which part of my own body. All of me wants to touch all of her, smell all of her, taste all of her. A distant part of my brain is telling me this may be the only time this will ever happen with us so I should savor it. My hand reaches up and my fingers slowly brush across her chest, down the side of her body. My fingers trail from her hip to her pelvic bone, to the spot right below her belly button. I’m about to bring them back up when she grabs my hand with both of hers and lowers my fingers to where she wants them to be. She’s wet and soft and so warm. My eyes dart up to her face, surprised by her forceful actions, but then again, everything about tonight, about her, has been a surprise. “I’m dying here,” she whispers. “Please don’t keep me waiting.” Her words are like a switch. No longer do I want to take my time and relish this moment. All I want is to be inside her. My hands frame her face and I kiss her. I kiss her with the foresight of what is about to happen. I’m a little rough and forceful with my hands, my tongue, my lips. But the best part? She gives it back one hundred percent. She matches my pace so well, I’m not sure who’s leading whom. My hands fall to the back of her thighs and I lift her enough to drop her down on the mattress. A small breath escapes her lips before mine are back on them, our tongues dueling for control once again. I lick, kiss, and bite down her neck, chest, and breasts. She wiggles a little under me, my teeth affecting her the way I want. I rise up onto my knees, both of her legs on either side of me. Just a few

inches away is the one place on her body I have yet to truly explore. To really touch and feel. The one spot I haven’t been able to breathe in yet. She watches me stare at her, and I love how unabashed she is by it. It turns me on even more—something I didn’t think possible. I put two fingers in my mouth, wetting them before I bring them down to touch her. She’s smooth like the silk panties she wore and I move my fingers in small circles, finding her most sensitive spot, watching her facial expressions change. Her eyes close slowly, her breathing becoming deeper, her arms falling back over my pillows. “I want to watch you come. The second time it happens, my view may be obstructed,” I say, my eyes moving from where my fingers are working to her face. Leah smiles softly, her hips move in circular motions, matching the movements of my fingers. I rest one hand by her head, bending over her while I continue to get lost in her body. “Will you let me see? Let me watch?” I ask. Her eyes open as does her mouth. She doesn’t speak though. Can’t, I think. But her body tells me yes. We stay like that, our faces close but not touching while I continue to feel her, inside and out. I know she’s getting close by how rigid her body is becoming. Then, one hand comes up and wraps around my bicep, squeezing it as she starts to come. “Oh fuck,” she breathes out. I keep going until her body begs me to stop. I remove my fingers and kiss her, breathing in her panting breaths. Her hands rest on my hips, her nails digging deep into my skin. I jerk my head back, scanning her face. “Good?” She smirks. “Great.” Her fingers come away from my hips and move over to my stomach, slowly scraping lower until she wraps her fingers around me, holding me. I feel her thumb move up and down, circling me. I hold my breath but pump my hips slightly. “You want a taste?” I ask. She cocks her mouth to the side, squeezing me once more before moving out from under me, pushing me onto my back and placing me in her mouth. Nothing has ever felt so good before. It takes every ounce of will I have to keep my eyes open so I can watch her pleasure me. I swipe some of her long hair out of the way, cradling her head as it moves up and down. “God, you’re good at this,” I say. Her eyes look up at me and she smiles. “I know.” I know if I let her go on, searching for those rubbers will have been all for nothing. “Enough,” I say. “This isn’t how I want to come.” She stops what she’s doing and climbs on top of me, sitting dangerously close to where I’m in the most need of contact. “How do you want to come?” her voice teasing. I let out a small laugh. “I think you know.” My eyes look down to where she sits on my thighs, then to the area right above. I reach for one of the foil packages, ripping it open and sheathing myself. Once I’m ready, I look up at her. “Hop on,” I tell her. There is a second that passes, maybe two where we both stare at each other, knowing once we do this, once her body moves just a few inches north, there will be no going back. In these two seconds, we need to make a choice. A choice that no matter how hard we’ll try not to let it, will change us. She raises her hips up off my legs and reduces those remaining inches to nothing. My hands fall her to hips and I help guide her, line her up to where I need her before I thrust myself inside. A few

minutes ago, I thought her mouth was the best thing I ever felt. I was very wrong. I was not prepared for how warm and tight and fantastic she would feel around me. As soon as I’m fully inside, she settles around me and we both start to move. Her body rising up, her hands on my chest, using me for leverage. One of my hands stays on her hip while the other grabs hold of her breast. “Christ, Leah. You feel amazing,” I say, watching her body move over mine again and again. “I think I’m going to come again,” she says, one hand getting lost in her hair, the other meeting mine, gripping her breast alongside my fingers. “Please come again,” I say, moving faster. I bring a hand down to where her body is meeting mine, using my thumb to find the spot that drove her wild earlier, helping reach her second orgasm. Simply watching her come is enough to make me want to. “Oh God,” she says. “Shane!” I feel her muscles contract around me and I wrap my arm around her, flipping us over. Her body is still convulsing around me and I start to move harder and faster. Sweat is dripping down my neck, my stomach tightening, telling me I’m close. “I’m gonna come,” I tell her. I drop down to my forearms and Leah wraps her legs around my back. A few more thrusts is all it takes. “Leah, shit. Leah,” I say into her neck. I’m out of breath, panting into her hair. Our bodies are sticky with sweat, glued to one another. I barely have the energy to move but I roll off her, both of us on our backs lying next to each other. “Wow. That was…” she starts but doesn’t finish. She doesn’t need to. “Yeah. It was,” I finish her thought. We stay silent for another few minutes. I don’t think either of us knows what to say or do. I wish I had the right words ready, but I don’t. My eyes are fighting to stay open from both the pleasure and exhaustion. Maybe the right words will come in the morning, after a few hours of sleep. I’ll have a clearer mind and Leah will most likely not be naked while we talk. We’ll get up, have coffee, read the paper like we’ve done many times before, casually speak of this and all will be fine. Everything will be just fine.

I CAN’T MOVE but I can’t stay still. I’m afraid any shift or stirring I make will completely wake me from this half sleep and force me to face the reality of what happened here last night. I know it’s early in the morning, the sun just starting to creep over my closed lids but it’s enough to wake me. I wish I had woken up in the middle of the night, when the room was still dark and Shane was barely visible to me. It would have been easier to get up from this bed if he were just a shadow and I wasn’t able to make out all his features. His bare chest, skin that reminds me just how I like my coffee—sweet with just a bit of milk. His muscled shoulders that just hours ago held him directly above me could have been masked in darkness but now there’s no way to ignore them. Every part of him is becoming more and more clear, more and more unavoidable every minute I let pass and don’t move. What the hell do I do now? Stay? Wait for him to wake up? Leave? Give each of us some time to digest last night’s events before we talk? Hours ago I made him promise to not let things get weird, a pledge that we not lose what we have. How fucking stupid was I? Of course things are going to be weird. I’m panicked just being around him already. I slowly turn my head, careful of every millimeter my body moves. He’s lying on his back, only the thin layer of cotton his sheet provides covering him from his hips down, a small trail of dark hair sneaking just under the top edge. My eyes rise to his face where he continues to sleep peacefully and content. Like he has no cares in the world. It’s unbelievable how men can do that. Not let anything bother them between the hours of twelve and seven in the morning. How they can just shut their minds off and leave everything until morning. While he sleeps like a baby, my mind’s been reeling, not quieting itself long enough to sleep longer than twenty minute increments. I wish I could sleep like Shane. Find peace and comfort in this bed. But I can’t, and because I can’t, I want to slap him awake. Flashbacks of last night spiral through my mind. Everything from the tequila shots, dancing, to the tequila shots again. The memory of Shane’s genuine surprise when he walked into the bar momentarily brings a smile to my face. The knowing look he gave me, acknowledging I finally pulled one over on him. Bringing all of our friends together, the laughs, the smiles, the ultimate perfect birthday bash. Until fucking Bryan opened his big fucking mouth. “Not once have you two even thought about banging? Just for the hell of it?”

God, why did I let him get to me like that? After that, it was all I could think about. Shane and me. Me and Shane. Sex. The thought never crossed my mind before. Of course I’ve always been aware of how attractive he is. What am I, a nun? Look at him, he’s gorgeous! But we’d been friends for so long. The first two years of our friendship I was dating someone else! When I fantasized about other men, it was usually the likes of Ryan Reynolds or Ryan Gosling. Never my best friend. Fuck, and he is my best friend. And last night, out of nowhere, I threw myself at him. Several times. Outside the bar. In the cab. The living room. The bedroom. What the hell was I thinking? I initiated all this. I came on to him! Practically begged him for it. If it wouldn’t risk waking him up, I’d put the pillow over my face and scream. I need to get out of here. I can’t face him like this. Not when I’m absolutely mortified at what I started. I slowly and very carefully get out of bed, praying he doesn’t wake. I pick up the clothes that are scattered on the floor, dressing quickly and quietly. I hear the rustling of bed sheets and my heart stops. I freeze, letting only my eyes move, peeking up from the foot of the bed. Shane has turned over and is now lying on his stomach. His arm reaches out to where I was just a short moment ago but thankfully my absence doesn’t wake him. Fuck this is horrifying. I’m sneaking out like this was a one night stand with hopes I’ll never have to see this person again. But I will see him again. I have to see him again. Because it’s Shane. My Shane. And he’s one of the few constants I have in my life. What a fucking nightmare. I finish getting dressed and tiptoe towards the door, opening it slowly and closing it just the same. I walk down the hall, wiping my eyes clear of any eyeliner that’s likely to have smudged during the night. Running my fingers through my hair, I feel them get caught in tangle after tangle. I make my way to the couch, quickly finding my purse. I open it, thanking God for the box of TicTac’s I had slipped inside. I pop one in my mouth, never so happy for that small burst of mint to hit my tongue. I turn to head towards the front door when I’m halted in place, face to face with a whole different kind of nightmare. A few feet away, sitting at the kitchen counter with a spoon full of cereal in the air, is Bryan. Still in last night’s clothes, his brows furrowing slightly, slowly piecing together the scene in front of him. It isn’t anything new for me to spend the night here on occasion but never have Shane and I slept in the same bed, nor have I ever come out of his room looking like I’ve just spent the night having sex. God, I hope I don’t have any visible bite marks on my skin. What do I say? Do I even need to say anything? No. I don’t need to justify myself to anyone, least of all Bryan. I’m just going to do nothing, say nothing, and walk out that door. Yes. That sounds good. Bryan’s mouth opens wider when his eyes move down my body. It’s embarrassingly obvious he’s recognizing the walk of shame I’m about to take. His eyes dart between the hallway leading to Shane’s bedroom then back to me. Before he has the chance to say anything, I charge for the door, leaving him stunned and silent behind me. All alone with his Cheerios. I don’t dare wait for the elevator. I rush to the fire exit and take the three flights of stairs down to the main floor and the safety of being outside of this apartment building. The streets are still quiet, barely anyone out, which makes sense considering how early it is on a Sunday morning. I walk the few blocks it takes to get to a busier intersection where I hope to catch a cab. My pace begins to quicken with every step, moving as fast as I can in my heels. My stomach starts to turn and I’m fairly certain it has nothing to do with all the alcohol I drank last night.

Sweat forms on my neck and I know it has nothing to do with the morning sun. I keep moving, faster and faster, never having to get away from that loft as much as I do right now. SEVEN TEXT MESSAGES, two voicemails and an email. That’s how many times Shane has tried to get in contact with me over the last day and a half. I sit at my desk, staring at the latest text that just came through.

He’s right. I know he’s right. I hate that he’s right. I am the one making everything weird by not answering his calls or texts. And I’m such a hypocrite for it. After making him promise me nothing would change, here I am hiding from him. I’m just not sure of what to say. How will it be seeing him? Will we be able to act like nothing happened? Is that even possible now that I’ve been spread out in front of him naked? Now that I’ve seen him naked? I mean, we had sex. Great sex. Which almost makes it worse. Maybe if it had been awful, it wouldn’t be so weird seeing him. It could be something we laugh at a few minutes and then forget. But sex with Shane is nothing to laugh at, and I don’t think I can forget about it. A knock at my office door interrupts my thoughts. Holly pokes her head in, her lips curling into a small smile. She comes in uninvited like she usually does and sits in the chair directly in front of my desk. “You didn’t answer my calls yesterday,” she says. “Was the hangover that bad? Eddy couldn’t even get out of bed.” She laughs. The answer to her question is more complicated than she could imagine. “Pretty fun night though,” she adds. I almost groan. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone yesterday. Once I got home, I peeled off my clothes and jumped in the shower. I wish I could say the hot water helped wash away all the confusion I had about that night but every time my hands ran over certain spots of my body, it only reminded me of it more. I put on my bathrobe, hopped into bed and did nothing but stream Friends all day. I let all my calls and texts go unanswered. “I guess those shots hit me harder than I thought they would,” I say, trying to smile but I’m certain it looks more awkward and strained than anything else. “Hope you’re feeling better for tonight. Nothing big. No drinking, that’s for sure,” Holly says. “Tonight? What’s happening tonight?” Holly gives me a funny look. “Shane’s leaving tomorrow,” she says slowly. Fuck. I completely forgot that Shane is leaving for Australia tomorrow for a National Geographic shoot. It’s a trip he’s been looking forward to for over a month. He’ll be taking pictures of the outback. A story about the Ayers Rock, I remember him saying. He’ll be gone nearly two weeks. I feel a small stabbing jab in my heart at the thought of him being gone for so long without having talked to him first. But I can’t talk to him with everyone around, and I still have no idea what to say. “I don’t know, Holls. I’m a little behind,” I point to all the folders on my desk. “I think I’ll have to stay late tonight.” It’s a poor excuse, I know. Especially since I never miss a get together before Shane leaves for a

trip. “You remember that he’ll be gone for two weeks, right? You’ve never not been there before he leaves,” she says, shocked I would consider missing this. “I know but my schedule can’t always revolve around Shane’s,” I say. I hear how defensive I sound and inwardly cringe. Holly sits back in her chair, studying me. “What’s going on?” She’s obviously heard it too. “Nothing.” Her eyes stay on me, clearly not believing me. “No…something’s up. Spill,” she probes. I’ve never kept one of my sexcapade stories secret from Holly. Especially when the sex was that good. But this time is different. Everything about it is so fucked up, I don’t even know where to begin. Maybe if I talk about it, things will become clearer and I’ll know how to handle Shane when I see him. Whenever that may be. I take a deep breath. “Something happened…with Shane.” “What do you mean? Did you guys have a fight or something?” she asks. I twirl a pen between my fingers a few times before I look back up at her. “No,” I say quietly. “Not exactly.” “Then what? Everything seemed great Saturday night. We all had a great time, especially Shane. Last I saw, you guys were leaving the dance floor and I lost track of you going outside—” She stops mid-sentence. A questioning yet astonished look appears quickly, like it was just slapped on her face. “Wait!” she begins, raising her hands. “Wait, wait… Did you… Did you guys…?” I turn my head, looking away and swallowing hard. After a few seconds of silence, Holly’s burst of laughter jerks my attention back in her direction. “Why are you laughing?” I ask, annoyed. “Oh my God,” she says between small bursts. “I should be so pissed that you’re only telling me this now.” She folds her arms across her chest. “So, you two did it. It actually happened. Happy Birthday, Shane,” she teases. I press my lips together and continue to roll my pen between my fingers. “So? What does this mean?” she asks anxiously. I shrug, barely making eye contact. “Well, what did he say?” I shrug again. “He hasn’t said anything.” “I don’t understand. You’re not making sense.” “I mean we haven’t spoken.” Her eyes squint and her head jerks back in surprise. “You haven’t spoken since or you haven’t spoken about it yet?” she questions. Then her eyes flare open. “Oh God,” she gasps quietly. “Was it…bad?” “What? NO!” I say a little too quickly. Bad is definitely not the word I’d use. Amazing. Orgasmic. Those are words I’d use. But I keep them to myself. “We just haven’t spoken.” “At all? Not even after?” I feel a flush of heat come up my neck, the temperature in my office seemingly veering towards tropical. “I kind of left while he was still asleep,” I confess. Holly’s face remains still for a few seconds before I watch her try and bite back laughter. “You snuck out?” A light chuckle escapes her lips. I nod. “Bryan saw me do it too.” Holly’s chuckle now turns into a full blown belly laugh. Tears form in her eyes. “It’s not funny,” I state, almost angry.

“So what now? You’re just going to avoid him? That’s your plan?” Her laughter settles and she gives me a look telling me I’m being ridiculous. “Leah, the longer you let this go without talking to him—” “I know, I know. I just don’t know what to say,” I tell her. “So let him start,” she says, standing. “Or maybe,” I begin, hope lacing through my voice, “he also doesn’t think we need to talk about it. Maybe he’s fine with just letting it be. Like nothing ever happened.” Holly looks at me like I’ve just grown a second head. “Leah, you had sex with Shane. Shane! That changes everything.” She shakes her head and walks out of my office, leaving me to let her words sink in. I fight the urge to throw my pen at her out of resentment because I fear she may be right. I pick up my cell and reread Shane’s texts. All seven of them, over and over again. My fingers hover over the reply button but I don’t press it. Instead, I open my desk drawer, place my phone inside and try to ignore it for the rest of the day. I DON’T GO to Eddy and Holly’s that night. I hate this feeling of being afraid to see the one person I’ve never shied away from. It hits me in the lowest depth of my stomach, making me feel nauseous. I try to forget about it by keeping myself busy and staying at the office until late into the evening. But staying back and working hasn’t stopped me from checking my phone relentlessly. I’ve received nothing more from Shane, but Holly texted asking if I was on my way yet. I swipe back to Shane’s last message.

That text stands out more than any of the others. I start to pack up for the night, turning off my computer and putting my last few files away when I hear my phone chirp.

The guilt of knowing that if the situations were reversed and he were treating me this way, I’d be more than angry and resentful. I’d be…devastated. I don’t want to do that to him. I don’t want to do that to me. The thought of him leaving for two weeks and not seeing him before breaks my heart.

His reply is instant.

It takes me a full two minutes before I hit send to my next text.

Two seconds later…

THE CAB RIDE is spent going over every single scenario that could unfold. I try and prepare for any one of them. A practice I’m used to as a lawyer. Be prepared for anything and everything. Have my arguments ready, rebuttals planned, and examples handy. Only, how can I really be prepared for this? What if he says that regardless of the promise he made, things have changed and being around me now is just too weird. That it’s impossible for us to go back to the way we were. That it was stupid of us to believe in such a thing. It would kill me. Losing Shane would kill my heart. Perhaps the best strategy, the only way I can ensure that night won’t come between our friendship, is to act like it had no effect at all. I’ll build my case around the notion that yes, we had sex, but it’s of no consequence to me or how I feel about him so, in turn, it shouldn’t be to him either. It was a onetime thing. I was curious after Bryan’s comments (fucking, Bryan!), and I foolishly acted on them but now things can go back to normal. Perfect! That’s the best way to handle this. Act like it wasn’t a big deal and it won’t turn into one. The front door swings open before I even knock, as though he’s been waiting, checking through the peephole for me to arrive. “Hey,” he says. “Hi.” I smile awkwardly. God, this is already brutal. He steps aside and lets me walk in. Once in the living room, a nervous energy rushes over me as I recall what happened the last time I was here. I suddenly wish I had a bit of that same liquid courage that led to everything. But just enough to take the edge off. Enough to get me through saying what I’ve already carefully planned out. I straighten, turning to face him. We stare at each other, neither of us apparently ready to be the first to speak. To bring up the giant fucking elephant in the room. “Do you want something to drink?” he offers. He said those exact words right before I went into his bedroom. I shake my head, both to answer him and to clear my mind of the memory.

“You’ve been ignoring me,” he says. His head dips down, glancing at the floor briefly, shoving his hands in his jean pockets. “You left pretty early Sunday.” “I know,” I answer, guiltily. “Sorry about that.” I see now that my leaving like that hurt him a little. “I guess I didn’t handle it very well.” He looks up at me, our eyes meeting. “You think?” I blink at his scolding, but I guess I kind of deserve it. “Are you okay?” he asks sincerely, changing his tone. “Saturday was awesome, Leah. Really. Everything from the party to…after. It was…amazing.” He takes a step forward, removing his hands from his pockets and raising them up in the air. “Comb—” Oh god. I hear a “but” coming. He’s about to say exactly what I’ve been fearing. That even though we promised not to let things change, there’s no going back. Not for us at least. The need to stop him before he says anything more is so strong, I feel my body shake. I need to say something before whatever it is he wants to say is out and impossible to take back. “It was nothing,” I abruptly interrupt. Now or never, Leah. Tell him Saturday night was no big deal. That it didn’t affect you and shouldn’t let it affect him. Save the friendship! He stops, taken aback my words. “Sorry?” This is it, Leah. Say everything you meticulously planned to say. “I agree. Saturday was amazing.” I force a smile. “I left early Sunday because I didn’t want you to feel obligated to say anything. There’s nothing that needs to be said,” I say with as much candor as I possibly can. “I’m fine. You’re fine. We’re both fine. I was curious. You were curious. We scratched an itch and now it’s gone. Everything can go back to normal.” I swallow the lump that’s formed in my throat. I look for his sigh of relief or weight visibly being lifted from his shoulders, but I don’t get any of those reactions. Instead, I watch him blink a few times, confused. Like I’m an equation he’s trying to solve. “Okay,” he says, a little unsure. He moves his hands to the back pocket of his jeans, realizing he’s been holding them out in the air this whole time. He smiles, only it doesn’t reach his eyes like it usually does. “Glad we were able to clear that up.” His voice sounds distant, a little harsh even. Have I insulted him in some way? Should I have worded that different? I wish I could just ask him like I used to be able to ask him anything, but I can’t. Not about this. After a moment, his smile becomes more sincere and he moves towards me. “So we’re good?” he asks. I smile as naturally as I can, even though I feel like I might be sick. “We’re perfect.” For the first time in forever, there’s a hesitation when he leans in to hug me. But once I wrap my arms around him, he relaxes. His lips press against my neck as he speaks. “I missed you, Comb,” he murmurs. “I missed you too,” I answer back, holding him a bit tighter. But the feeling of him against me feels different now. More intimate than before. I’m the first to let go, needing some space between our bodies. “I wanted to see you before you left. Make sure we cleared the air,” I say, taking a few steps back. His brows scrunch together. “You don’t want to stay a while? We could hang out, watch some TV. There’s probably a Friends episode on somewhere.” I shake my head, even though part of me would love nothing more. “I’ve had a long day. You have an even longer one tomorrow. We’ll hang out as soon as you get back.” And just like that Sunday morning, I’m rushing to get out of here. I can’t stay here any longer and it will only be a matter of seconds before he’ll be able to tell.

“You sure?” I can hear the disappointment in his voice. “Positive. As soon as you get back,” I reiterate. I walk past him, catching a whiff of his scent as I pass by, and it makes me dizzy. His voice causes me to turn and look back before I’m out the door. “Miss me while I’m gone, would ya,” he says, his lips pressed together, his smile tight. It hurts to see it because I can tell it’s somewhat forced. He’s never had to force a smile with me before. Already, I can see how things are changing between us. I nod, forcing my own smile. “Always,” I answer quietly, before closing the door.

“WHAT THE FUCK? What in the fucking, fuck?” Panic streaks through my voice. I stare down at the small white plastic stick in my hand. A small white plastic stick with two very clear, very distinct pink lines. This can’t be happening. I must be dreaming. I somehow must have fallen asleep at Holly’s and I’m having a nightmare. I urge myself to close my eyes and count to five, taking long, deep inhales. I keep repeating to myself this isn’t real. That I’m not really in Holly’s bathroom, standing over the sink with a tiny stick that feels like it could weigh twenty pounds. I repeat it over and over. Slowly, I reopen my eyes and wait for relief to wash over me at seeing anything but Holly’s bathroom. But I do see it. I am faced with my own reflection in Holly’s bathroom mirror, her bright red shower curtain burning into vision from behind me. I cast my eyes downwards. “Oh my God.” I try and swallow down the acid building up in my throat. There’s a soft knock at the door before it slowly opens. Holly’s face peeks inside. “And?” she asks, walking in. I lift the stick to show her the results. I feel lightheaded, like I’m about to faint. I look around the small bathroom, lowering the toilet seat and collapsing on it. “It’s okay,” Holly starts. “That was an old test. It’s been under my sink for at least a year. It’s most likely a false positive,” she says calmly. Is there such a thing? “How late did you say you were?” “Four days,” I whisper. “That’s not that long,” she says with confidence. “I’ve been that late plenty of times.” I look up at her, my face numb. “I’m never late.” She brushes my remark off and spurs into action. “Well, this time you are!” Pulling me off the toilet seat, she stuffs the used stick and empty test box in the small garbage can by the vanity. “We’re going to the pharmacy and buying every single test they have,” she says eyeing me. And with a little less resolution than before, “You’ll see I’m right.” THE TRIP TO the pharmacy is a blur. I vaguely recall the hurried steps we took down the block to the corner store. I sort of recall Holly pulling me inside, the hit of air conditioning causing me to shiver.

I kind of remember being ushered down several aisles before we find the right one. But every moment of standing in front of all those colorful boxes, recognizing the brand names from commercials, is all too vivid. Thank God I have Holly with me. While I stare at the wall of doom, unable to move, she’s throwing box after box into the little basket she grabbed by the entrance. “Grab two of those,” she instructs, pointing to the large bottles of water near the cash register. “You’re going to need them.” I grab two bottles as Holly pays for our purchase. My purchase. My brain is telling me to stop her, pay for all this myself, but my body can’t seem to do anything but follow Holly’s simple instructions. Walk this way. Grab that. I just do as she tells me. “You’ll take these tests and we’ll know this worry was all for nothing.” I nod, incapable of anything else. I’ve become a fucking invalid. THE WALK BACK to Holly’s is just as quick. We get off the elevator and I follow her to her door, inside, then run right into her back. Unprepared for the sudden halt, I look around her to see what’s caused the sudden stop. Eddy and Bryan are sitting on the couch in the living room, watching us. “What are you doing here?” Holly shrieks while casually hiding the bag with our purchases behind her. Eddy’s eyebrows lift. “I live here.” But it sounds like he’s answering in the form of a question. Holly fidgets. “I mean, weren’t you supposed to be out playing golf or something?” her voice relaying a slightly accusatory tone. “We were, but look at it outside. Storm’s coming,” Bryan says, cocking his head to the window. A storm? I glance out the window and see the dark gray clouds slowly rolling in. It’s rare for it to storm in the late afternoon this time of year. “Now we’re watching the game.” He points to the television. “Can’t you do that somewhere else?” she asks. “Why?” Eddy questions. “Because you said you’d be out!” Holly argues. Eddy stares at her for a moment, trying to rationalize what’s happening. “Why are you upset?” His chin drops, seemingly embarrassed for what he’s about to ask. “Is this…are you on your…monthly?” Bryan snorts loud enough for all of us to hear. I’d find humor in Eddy’s embarrassment too if I wasn’t already dealing with the lack of my own…monthly. Holly tenses and a standoff occurs in the small living room. I begin to feel a little guilty. I don’t want my mess to cause any problems for my friends, especially for Holly and Eddy. I need to say something to alleviate the tension that’s formed in the room, but my brain isn’t working fast enough. “No,” Holly says, rolling her shoulders. “We were just looking for some girl time.” She looks back at me. Her eyes flash, an idea popping into her head. “Leah has a hot first date tomorrow night and she wanted to borrow an outfit. We were hoping for no interruptions.” She winks at me, encouraging me to nod along. I do because all I’ve been doing today is following Holly’s lead, but wait. What did she just say? I have a…date? “Granted,” Eddy says, leaning back against the couch. “We’ll stay right here.” He turns his attention back to the television. Bryan’s attention, however, falls on me. His eyes narrow. “You have a date tomorrow?”

I haven’t seen Bryan since that awful morning in the kitchen. It’s safe to say I’ve been avoiding him. I have no idea what Shane’s told him, nor do I have time to think about it right now. I have bigger issues in front of me than Bryan. Obviously, I don’t have a date tomorrow, but I don’t want to bring any unwanted attention to myself by contradicting what Holly said. So I nod once more. “Yes.” Only one word but my voice still shakes. “A first date on Valentine’s Day?” he asks, skeptically. Tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day? Last I remember, it was a week away. How could I have lost track of what day it was when I’ve been counting them so carefully? “Romantic, isn’t it?” Holly says. I tell myself to stay quiet. This conversation needs to end and the boys need to mind their own business. Eddy already seems to have lost interest, but he’s the only one who doesn’t know about me and Shane yet. I can’t believe Holly’s been able to keep it quiet from him but she has. “Have fun,” Bryan sneers, disapproval clearly showing in his expression before he sits back, turning his attention to the TV. I follow Holly back into her bedroom and she closes the door. “Well that went terrible,” she says. “And did he just call it my monthly? What the hell was that? Ugh, and the date thing? I don’t know where that came from. It just came out. They surprised me being back here—” She stops, realizing she’s rambling. “I’m sorry,” she apologizes. “It’s fine,” I answer. “No harm done.” We sit side by side on the bed, and she takes one of my hands in hers. “Everything will be okay. I feel it in my gut.” She smiles. Opening the shopping bag, she pulls out one of the water bottles and removes the cap. “Now,” she says, offering it to me, “drink up.” “WHAT ARE YOU going to do?” Holly asks, still in disbelief that she was so, so wrong. I look at all the sticks laid out on the bathroom floor. All eight of them. All silently screaming the same thing. I told you so! I told you so! I shake my head, not knowing how to answer. “When does Shane get back?” she asks, another question I don’t have the answer to. “He was supposed to be back a few days ago. But then he got an offer in New York. Swimsuit shoot or something,” I mumble. “A few days, I guess.” She nods furiously, reminding me of a bobble head. “Everything will be okay,” she says for the hundredth time. Funny how this time, those words have absolutely no weight to them. “What do you need? What can I do?” I almost laugh. “I think it’s already been done,” I say, my hand sweeping over top all of the tests. I turn and face her, the situation threatening me with tears. “What do you think he’ll say?” “I don’t know,” she answers, enveloping me in a hug. After a minute, she releases me. “First things first. Let’s get you in with a doctor. Then…” Her voice trails, saying nothing else. She doesn’t know what to else to say, just like me. “Yeah. Then...” I pick up the tests from the floor and shove them in my bag. I gather up all the empty boxes, looking to rid the tiny room of any evidence that my life has just been blown to pieces in a matter of seconds. Results in just three easy minutes. There was nothing easy about those three minutes.

I lift my head to the mirror over the sink, finally looking at something other than those white sticks. I stare at my own eyes, trying so hard not to cry. In my head I know it’s way too early, but my eyes fall and linger around my stomach for a minute. Already I’m searching, seeking for any signs of change. Looking for proof of what all those tests already told me.

“THOSE WERE HER words?” I ask once more, thinking I may hear a different answer. “Yes,” Bryan says once more, his answer frustratingly still the same. I hear him blow out a long breath, tired of repeating himself. “Dude, I told you already. Get over this. It’s fucking with your brain, and it’s a little embarrassing now.” I ignore his last comment, even though I know there is some truth to it. The last two weeks in Australia and this week in New York have plagued me with feelings of…unfinished business. I did my best to forget about them, to submerge myself in work, spend longer hours at my photo sites and even longer hours editing. All in an effort to keep myself too busy to think about home. About her. How weird the night before I left for this trip felt between us. At first, I felt relieved, grateful even, that we were both able to agree nothing has to change. It may have taken a few days, but Leah seemed cool about it all. Too cool. Ready to act like nothing had even happened. She didn’t come over looking for any reassurances. Instead, she took control of the situation and guided me. Like she was the one who had to come over to reassure me. I didn’t even have to say a word. She didn’t need me to. We scratched an itch and now it’s gone. Those were her words. So why am I so uneasy about all of this? Why do I feel like there were things left unsaid? And why are Bryan’s words feeling like a punch to the gut? “A few weeks ago, you wouldn’t have blinked at Leah going on a date. Now listen to yourself… Man up!” Bryan nearly yells. “Who has a first date on Valentine’s day?” I argue, attempting to ignore the real reason this news is burning inside my stomach. Make it more about the timing of the date instead of the date itself. “That’s what I said! Any single guy out there with half a brain knows that is the one night you stay in. Promises of true love and commitment in your face all night? It does something to a woman’s ovaries. Images of white dresses and flowers and rings. Thanks, but no thanks,” he says. “Maybe Kendall, but Leah’s not like that,” I argue. I know she’s not. “All chicks are like that,” he reiterates. “Look, all I know is she has a date and she and Holly both think it’s the most romantic thing since The Notebook. So like I said to you already a hundred times this week, you need to put that night in the rearview. She obviously has.”

I think about all the emails, texts and pictures I’ve been sending her over the last few weeks and they now leave a sour taste in my mouth. Trying so hard to make everything feel like it’s back to normal, but now I feel like the idiot who’s been trying too hard. Maybe Bryan’s right. That alone is a scary thought. Maybe I do need to get over whatever residual feelings I may have before it really starts to mess with my mind. “You know what you need to do,” Bryan begins. “You need to get your dick wet. Fuck that memory out of your system.” I roll my eyes. “I’m serious!” he states. “Do you know how many guys would kill to be you right now? Beautiful models walking around in barely-there underwear? You’ve got a beautiful half-naked buffet in front of you and you’re walking around limp-dicked thinking about some one-night stand.” “Hey,” I speak up. “Don’t talk about Leah like that.” “You know what I mean,” he relents. “But someone needs to kick your ass back into reality. And what better reality to wake up in than under a gorgeous model.” Noise from behind me redirects my attention. A few of the models have come out of wardrobe and are familiarizing themselves with the set that’s been arranged. It’s February but we are already prepping for a late summer campaign. I turn back to my computer screen. “I need to go. Duty calls.” Bryan tilts his head, trying to see past me. “Turn the screen a bit,” he says, looking to get a glimpse of the models in the background. “I’ll be back in two days,” I say standing, lowering my computer screen, disconnecting our call. “Just one look!” Bryan pleads. “Shane!” he yells once more before the sound of the program shutting down cuts him off. I walk towards the set where my station is all set up with my equipment. Cal flew in yesterday to help me with this job since we are in a bit of a time crunch. The space the client rented was only available for one day so that didn’t leave us much time to mess around. Everything needs to get finished today so I can spend all day tomorrow editing the shots. “All set?” I ask him as I approach. He nods while setting up some degrees of brightness for the lights on another laptop. “Should be. The cameras are all set up over there.” He cocks his head towards another table. I look over and see all my lenses and camera bodies laid out. “Good. We should get started. We only have a couple of hours.” “More than enough time,” Cal tells me. “Let’s hope.” I walk over to the table with my cameras and choose a lens for the first set of test shots when pink panties enter my line of sight. I’m quickly reminded of the last time I saw pink silk and of the woman who wore them. I blink, trying to rid myself of that memory as quickly as it came. “Shane?” a soft voice with an even softer accent speaks. I raise my eyes to the girl. Long, brown hair, deep brown eyes and an incredible tan that looks completely natural. I gather from the skin tone and accent she comes from a Brazilian or Colombian background. She’s thin like most models, her ribs and pelvic bone poking out just slightly. And, just like all models, she’s gorgeous. “Hi.” I offer my hand. She smiles, shaking it softly. Her hand is soft but chilled. Most likely from only being dressed in underwear. “I’m Natalia. One of the models.” She rolls her eyes, embarrassed. “Obviously.” She waves her hand over her body, quietly laughing. It sounds pleasant, just like her accent. “I just wanted to come and introduce myself. I’ve been looking forward to working with you.” A small smile teases her lips. It makes me smile back. It might be the first I’ve had in weeks.

“That’s nice of you to say. I hope I can meet your expectations,” I say. Her eyes widen the smallest amount at my choice of words and it hits me how they might have sounded. “I’m sure you will.” She smirks before walking away. My eyes instinctively follow her as she walks back towards the set and the other girls. Her legs are long, shiny from whatever lotion the makeup artist used. Her ass is small but round. My eyes are still locked on it when she glances back over at me and catches me staring. She laughs a little before turning back. I’m well aware of the signals she’s giving and the ones I seem to be reciprocating. My immediate impulse is to feel guilty, like I’m doing something wrong. Then I remember I have nothing to feel wrong or guilty about. That much was made clear when Bryan told me of Leah’s date plans. Why shouldn’t I enjoy the attention? Why should I not give it back? It feels refreshing, actually. Normal. Get your dick wet. Fuck that memory away. Maybe that’s exactly what I need to put things back in perspective. Bryan’s right. Weeks ago I wouldn’t have even thought twice about Leah having a date. She’s never thought twice about me hooking up with a model. And if I’m trying so hard to get things to go back to normal like she already has, then this is exactly what I should be doing. What I need. What we need. I grab my camera and walk over to set. Hair and makeup are putting finishing touches on the girls. I lock eyes with Natalia while her plump lips are getting another coat of gloss put on them. Yes. This is exactly what I need. “You okay?” Cal asks, coming up beside me, his eyebrow raised. I look at him, confused. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He narrows his eyes. “You sure that’s the one you want?” I blink, confused by his question. Is he asking me if Natalia is the one I want? Compared to whom? I pull my head back a notch, wondering if Cal can read minds or something freaky like that. He points down to the camera in my hand. “You’ve got the wide angle on,” he says. “Is that the one you want? Or should I grab the 85mm?” I look down at the camera and stare at it for a moment. He’s right. I have the completely wrong lens on. I remove it from the camera and hand it over to him before he walks over to the table and fixes my mistake. This isn’t the first time that’s happened over the last two and half weeks. While in Australia, half a day’s shots were useless after I realized I had the camera on the wrong setting. That alone should have been an indicator of just how badly I need to get my head back on straight. But all that’s changing now. I’m resolving myself to the fact that if Leah can do it, so can I. Cal returns with the right lens and I quickly click it in place. “You good?” he questions, once more. “Yeah. I’m good,” I say with a new awareness. “Let’s get this started.” MANY HOURS AND wardrobe changes later, Cal and I are hovering over my computer screen looking at today’s images. The shots are good. Really good. “This one is my favorite,” Cal points to a lone shot of Natalia. I can’t disagree. She looks amazing in it. She’s lying down on a bed of rumpled sheets. She changed into a black corset and panty set with white accents. She’s stares up into the camera, lust and sex written all over her face. I can’t say it didn’t affect me a little, standing above her, her entire body filling my lens. It felt like every photo I took of her, we were having a silent conversation. She was hinting at her wants and I was hinting at mine. An agreement that if we were both up to it, we could have some simple fun—no strings attached. I obviously need a distraction, maybe she does too. Maybe her ’s is as simple as not wanting to be

alone on Valentine’s Day. As long as she’s good with this being nothing serious and just a bit of fun, why pass it up? Some entertainment that can jump start me back into regular life. Life before I had sex with Leah Kessel. The sounds of footsteps and laughter come from behind us. The girls are getting ready to leave but I notice Natalia hang back. I look back to Cal who is still skimming through shots on the laptop. “Pack up everything and put it in the van. I’ll meet you in a couple of hours,” I tell him, grabbing my jacket. He looks up at me, eyes narrowing. “Where are you going?” “I’ll see you in a couple of hours,” I repeat, walking away. “I’m supposed to pack all this up myself?” he calls out after me. I turn back and smile. “You’re the intern.” I hear him grumble a few words, looking around at all of our equipment. A small part of me does feel bad leaving him to do all the packing on his own, but it’s quickly forgotten when I meet Natalia near the exit of the studio. “Heading out?” I ask. Her lips form a knowing smile. “You too?” I lean in closer, raising an arm against the door frame. I watch her eyes skim my outstretched skin before making their way back to my face. She says nothing, waiting for the invite she knows is coming. “You want to get a drink? Celebrate a day well shot,” I ask, my lips curling into a grin. Her smile disappears as she leans in, closing the gap between us. “I think we can celebrate in another way,” she says slowly in my ear. I lean back a little in order to get a better look at her before I nod once, opening the door. “After you.” I’M SITTING ON my couch watching the game. Or at least trying to watch but failing miserably. As soon as my flight from New York landed, I had a text waiting from Leah asking if she could come over tonight. I immediately replied, letting her know to come over whenever she wanted. That was four hours ago. I’ve been sitting and waiting for her since. Throughout my trip, there was a distance between us that had nothing to do with me being across the world. It was strange. Uncomfortable. I’m hoping that with this visit we can put the distance behind us. Maybe she’ll tell me about her date and maybe I’ll tell her about Natalia. We’ll talk, just like we used to. It will be just like it was, like I promised it would stay all those weeks ago. If there is one thing these weeks have told me, it’s that Leah Kessel means more to me than almost anyone, and I will do anything to make sure she stays that way. I miss the way we were before my birthday. As incredible as that night was, if that means I need to forget about a few hours in our past in order to have many years in our future, I’ll do it. When the knock at the door finally comes, I jump and am opening it too quickly to come off as casual. But I don’t care. I’ve missed this girl, and I know seeing her will immediately put me at ease. “You’re exactly what I needed to feel home,” I say smiling, opening the door wide. Her smile, on the other hand, barely makes a dent in her cheeks. She brushes her hair behind her ear, a telltale sign she’s nervous. “Hey.” And that’s all she says. No “I missed you too” or “I’m so glad you’re home.” She shifts from one high heeled shoe to the other. She must have come straight from work because she’s dressed in a form fitting gray skirt and a cream blouse. Not the usual shorts and t-shirt I’m used to seeing her in. She’s rubbing her palms up

and down her thighs, not even noticing the repetitive behavior. She also hasn’t been able to look me in the eye for longer than a fleeting glance. This is not exactly what I was expecting. I open the door wider, inviting her in. She makes her way slowly to the center of the room, her purse dropping from her shoulder and falling to the chair. “You want a beer?” I ask. Her face lights up for a brief second at the offer before pressing her lips together and shaking her head. “Water? “Sure.” I grab a bottle from the fridge and walk over to her. She still hasn’t taken a seat. Offering her the bottle, she accepts it but barely smiles. Turning to the sofa and falling into it, I thought she’d follow suit but she continues to stand, now tapping her fingers against the bottle. Everything about this feels wrong. She seems so uncomfortable and unsure of herself. I’ve never seen her act this way, not even the night before I left for my trip—and those circumstances were way more awkward. “You want to sit?” I offer. “Where’s Bryan?” she asks. I raise my brows at her question, surprised. “He went to Kendall’s.” Now it’s her turn to look surprised. “Don’t ask. I’ve long given up figuring those two out.” She nods but seems even more nervous now knowing we’re alone. Was she hoping he’d be here so she wouldn’t have to be alone with me? God, I hope not. Or maybe she was hoping he wouldn’t be here, give us more privacy. But for what? “You’re making me fucking nervous,” I tell her, sitting up straight. “Would you sit down?” She looks over at me and holds my stare. This is the longest she’s looked at me without glancing away. “Could we…go to your room?” she asks, almost shyly. Those words throw me for a loop. First she won’t look me in the eye and now she wants to go to my bedroom? She is completely kicking me off balance. I don’t understand what— Then a thought hits me. Is it possible she’s looking to…go at it again? My mind takes off with thoughts, most of which are why this would be a bad idea. After the first and only time, it took days before she’d even talk to me. The thought of us maybe having sex only to be followed by silence is not something I want to go through again. Then I remember how we were that night. How in sync we were. How amazing it was. Speculation that her Valentine’s Day date must not have gone well makes a brief appearance in my mind. Mine with Natalia, on the other hand, was very simple. We didn’t even go out for that drink. We went back to her box sized apartment and did exactly what we knew we’d do. But I quickly push those thoughts aside, not wanting to think about them right now. I look at Leah and see how vulnerable she seems. How nervous she looks, waiting for me to respond. But I also notice how beautiful she looks, how sexy she is in her work clothes, and I know my decision is made. I stand and walk towards the bedroom, Leah following right behind. I slowly close the bedroom door and watch her as she briefly glances at the bed. I take a step forward but she takes an equal step back, stopping me from moving closer. “Maybe you should sit down,” she says, her tone serious. Confused, I stay put. “I thought—”

“Please,” she says quietly. The soft pleading tone of her voice make my feet move and I sit at the edge of the bed, watching her as she begins to pace the room. “Comb—” I start but am interrupted right away. “While you were gone, something happened. It actually happened before you left but I only found out about it later. I would have told you sooner but it was a shock. A big one. Not one I ever saw coming and am positive not one you saw coming, but it’s here and I need to figure it out. We need to figure it out. This wasn’t something I wanted to tell you over the phone or through text, so I’ve just been waiting for you to come home. Waiting for days for you to come home. I don’t know what I’m going to do—what we should do—but we need to do something. Because time is ticking.” Her words and her pacing aren’t making any sense to me. “Time?” She stops midstride, turns and looks at me. I watch as she grabs her purse from the bed, not even noticing her bringing it in. She opens the flap, reaching inside and pulls something out. Pulls several things out and places them on the bed beside me. I’ve seen these before. In television commercials or in a store because they are always beside the condoms. But I’ve never seen them this close. Or out of their boxes. And never with small positive pink lines marked on them. Even though I know what these are and I know what those pink lines mean, I can’t put together what she’s trying to tell me. I look up at her and see her eyes darting from me to those sticks over and over, terrified. I want to ask her of what. The white plastic sticks? The pink lines? Me? “Say something, please,” she whispers. I blink a few times and look back down at the sticks. Understanding of what she’s saying begins to creep in, but I must be in shock or denial because the only thing that comes to mind is she peed on those sticks and they are now on my bed. Gross. I hear a sharp intake of breath and realize I must have said that last bit out loud. I look back up and see her eyes begin to glisten with unshed tears. Shit. She hastily picks the sticks up off the bed, shoving them back into her purse, clearly upset at my choice of words—word. I reach out and place my hands on top of hers, stopping her from grabbing more sticks. “Stop, stop,” I say gripping her hands tighter, fighting her to keep from moving. “STOP!” She looks at me and it kills me to see how frightened and…disappointed in me she looks. If Rocky Balboa were to throw a punch at me right now, I’d have an easier time getting up from it than from the look on her face. This is a punch I’m not sure how to get up from. I close my eyes for a second before opening them again. Hopefully, this time something better will come out of my mouth. “Are you sure?” I ask. She snorts, lifting whatever sticks are in her hand up to my face. “Pretty much.” “Aren’t those things constantly wrong? I hear that all the time. Maybe you just did it wrong or—” “I’ve been to a clinic,” she cuts me off. “Blood test was positive.” My shoulders fall, my breath stuck somewhere between my lungs and lips. I sit in silence for a few minutes, unsure of what to say. This news could not be further from what I expected to hear or happen tonight. If a purple elephant came crashing through my window and started to dance, it would not shock me more than this news has. She’s waiting for me to say something but my mind is blank. I know I need to say something, try and comfort her but my vocabulary is at a standstill. Words of support aren’t seeming to form either.

I’m at a complete loss, and I hate how incompetent it’s making me feel. “You said something about time?” I finally speak, clearing my throat. She takes a breath and sits next to me, staring straight ahead just as I am. “To figure out what to do.” It takes me a minute to understand her meaning. “You mean…” She nods. “Wow,” I say. “I have an appointment in a week. To go over options. I can let you know what they say—” “I’ll go with you,” I rush out. She turns her head so we are facing each other. I see a small wave of relief flash across her eyes, and it pains me to think she thought for one second she’d have to do this alone. I would never leave her to face this alone. “I’ll go with you,” I say again before taking both her hands in mine and kissing her fingers. “Okay,” she says quietly, her voice shaking. I pull her closer and wrap an arm around her shoulders. I keep her there, holding her for I have no idea how long. I feel one of her tears fall and land on my arm but I do nothing to wipe it away, too scared I’ll startle her and she’ll look up and see what I’m trying so hard to hide. So I continue to stroke her hair and the length of her back, praying she doesn’t look up and see the pure unimaginable terror in my eyes.

“YOU SURE IT’S yours?” I look up from my coffee mug, a glare of warning silently threatening Bryan to think carefully about his next few words. I won’t even dignify the question with an answer. He should know better. He does know better. This is Leah we are talking about. Realizing he’s struck a nerve with that comment, he immediately back tracks. “You’re right. Sorry,” he says apologetically. “Just covering the bases.” “I don’t understand how this happened,” I groan, rubbing the tiredness out of my eyes. I wasn’t able to sleep at all last night. After Leah left, I went back to my room and just…sat there. For minutes, hours, the entire night. I heard Bryan come in around midnight, slowly moving about in the kitchen, but I stayed in my room, lost in blank thought. Leah is pregnant. Leah is pregnant with a child. My child. No matter how many times those two words run over and over in my mind, it still doesn’t make any sense to me. How could this have happened? We used protection. Sure, we were a little drunk, but we weren’t stupid. I still have the second unused condom somewhere in my room. “Well, when a boy’s peepee and a girl’s—” Bryan starts. “Shut up. You know what I mean,” I say looking up at him. “We used protection,” my voice adamant. “I got them out of your drawer. How am I ever supposed to trust latex again?” Bryan’s brows jerk up. “My drawer?” I nod. “The ones in your nightstand. You had a couple left in there,” I tell him, leaning back against the bar stool. “I had rubbers in there?” he asks, surprised. “I just told you that,” I say, annoyed at the circle this conversation seems to be taking. Bryan narrows his eyes as if he’s trying to figure something out. “I haven’t put any in there in a long time. I usually keep them right under the mattress. Easier access,” he says, taking a sip of his own coffee. “And Kenny’s on the pill.” He looks up at me questioningly. “You check the expiration date before you used them?”

Check the expiration date? Who the hell does that? Of course I didn’t. I hop off the stool and head for my room in search of that lone unused packet. I find it quickly, figuring I had thrown it in my nightstand, and flip it over to read the small imprinted date found on the bottom corner. And there it is, staring me in the face. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. It feels like a hundred pounds of guilt has just fallen on my shoulders. I scrunch the lone packet in my hands, knowing I’ll never use it. I thought we were being careful. Obviously we weren’t careful enough. Bryan comes into my room, walking up behind me. I throw the wrinkled packet back onto my bed and walk to the window, pinning one hand against the wall. “Expired. Almost a year ago,” I tell him. He doesn’t say anything. What is there to say? It won’t change anything. I hear his retreating steps before my door closes, leaving me alone to digest this information. Digest the enormous amount of responsibility I just had to swallow. It was me who promised her nothing would change. It was me who reassured her everything would stay the same. It’s me who’s failed at the coming through on those promises. Outside my window, the bright Miami sun beams from the blue sky and a sliver of the Atlantic Ocean is visible between the buildings and houses in the area. Even from here, that thin sliver of blue looks limitless. An infinite line with no ending. I can’t help but laugh to myself at the irony. Staring out at something so vast and vigorous, nothing short of impressive by its sheer size and openness, yet here I am, a few short miles away never having felt more trapped. THERE’S ONLY ONE person I can talk to about all of this, who I can trust to speak openly and honestly with me. Hopefully my father can give me some advice on how to better handle all of this, because so far, I haven’t done too good a job. My parent’s home is an hour outside of the city. My mother spends most of her time here while my father, who refuses to retire, comes downtown to work every day. Why should he retire? He’s the CEO of an incredibly successful marketing firm—the same firm he aspired for me to take over one day—and he’s still at the top of his game. People want to work for him and clients want him to work for them. He enjoys what he does and he’s great at it. And truthfully, I don’t think my mother is ready to have him around all the time yet either. “I couldn’t imagine a worse hell than him sulking around the house bored all day,” she told me once. She, on the other hand, loves being out here, away from the city and the noise. She loves going to lunch with her girlfriends, playing tennis at the club, nurturing the house she and my father worked tirelessly to build. This was their dream home. There are several occasions she meets my father in the city and stays with him at their small condo during the week. It was just easier for them to have one there for those times my father had late nights or early mornings. It was also an excuse to drop by my place at any time because they were both already spending the night in the city. I think she likes to pop in and surprise my father as well, make sure he’s not cheating on his diet, or God forbid, sneaking in a smoke. My father may be the head of his company, but my mother is the CEO of this family, and neither of us have yet to meet anyone fiercer at that job. No one has ever been a better partner to someone like my mother has been to my father. They love each other completely. It was nice, growing up with that around me. Two parents who loved and liked each other more than they didn’t. Divorce happened more often than you could imagine among

many of my parent’s friends. I was lucky; my parents are the real deal. Still are. I pull into the driveway and instantly feel at ease. It’s the first time in days I’ve been able to finally breathe. It’s this house, being here. It has nothing but great memories of family dinners, holidays, and anniversary parties attached to it. This house represents everything I want my future to look like one day. Much further in the future. I pull up in front of the three car garage, only my father ’s car is parked outside. I walk up the small stone steps to the front door, inhaling the floral scents coming from the bushes in my mother ’s garden. She’ll spend hours out here tending to it. Pruning, weeding, caring plants back to life. My father offered to get her a gardener so she wouldn’t have to do it all but she insisted that putting in the work was half the fun of enjoying it. He couldn’t argue with that. He feels the same way about his company. Although my father and I don’t see eye to eye on everything, he’s still the one person I trust most. Was he disappointed when I left business school for art? Yes. Was he worried about what kind of life I would have as a photographer? Without a doubt. Is he impressed with what I’ve been able to achieve so far? You bet. Does he hide it? Abso-fucking-lutely. I don’t bother knocking, and let myself in. The house is fairly large with marble floors and a winding iron staircase in the middle of the entrance. Every room in this house is big in size but feels lived in. Family pictures are littered around each room, divots formed in the furniture from years of use. No one could ever say this house wasn’t a family home. I hear the television echoing through the hallway, the soothing voices of golf commentators coming from it. “Dad?” I call out. “In here!” he yells back. I shake my head because “in here” could mean a few rooms in the house. I follow the sound of the television, entering the kitchen, finding the remnants of a sandwich on the counter. I look out into the family room where the golf game is being shown but my father is nowhere in sight. “Where’s here?” I call out again. “My office!” I turn and walk down the hallway. His office is exactly what you’d imagine the office of a sixtyyear-old man to look like. It’s the one room that’s the complete opposite of the rest of the house. Made up of dark mahogany furniture, dark shelving and a large obtrusive desk, this room oozes Able Carlisle. The walls are painted a mossy green and the windows are covered with dark wooden shutters. Not even the strong Florida sun can shine its rays through them when closed. But oddly, it feels welcoming. When I was younger, I loved hanging out in here with him. I’d do my homework on the couch in the corner while he worked away at his desk. “My two men working hard,” my mother would say as she walked by. I find my father sitting at his desk, typing on his laptop. The minute I walk in, he takes his reading glasses off and leans back in his chair, crossing his arms over his large chest, examining me for a minute before he speaks. “This must be bad.” I look away, somewhat annoyed at how well he knows me. I look around his office, not quite ready to get into the reason why I came. A cheer from the crowd on the television roars, finding its way into the office. “You could just watch this TV instead of having it on full blast out there,” I say pointing to the small flat screen hanging on the wall. He shakes his head. “Too distracting. I like it as background noise.” My father and I don’t look all that much alike. I take more after my mother except for the skin tone, though I’m not nearly as dark as him. He’s also shorter and burlier than my taller, leaner frame. I easily stand over him by several inches but he has the capability to make himself the tallest man in

the room. I used to fear that about him. Now I admire him for it. I walk around his office as I’ve done many times before, rereading the titles of books he has on his shelf, skimming over the awards displayed on his mantle. His office is somewhat of a shrine to his life’s work. Everything he’s worked so hard to achieve on display. And above all those awards, larger than anything else in this room, is our family portrait from years ago. His most prized accomplishment. “All right, son. Stop sidestepping and tell me what you’ve done.” I turn and look at him, his expression all too full of awareness. Like he already knows what I’m about to say will be life-changing. “How much trouble are you in?” he asks, now serious. “I’m not sure,” I say sitting down in one of the chairs in front of his desk. I rub my hands along my jean-clad legs before I lean in, resting my elbows on my knees. “Leah’s pregnant,” I say quietly. He blinks and digests the news for a minute. “And since you’re telling me this, am I right to assume it’s yours?” I nod, barely. His hands fall to the armrests of his chair, and I’m surprised at how relieved I feel when I don’t see immediate disappointment flash across his face. He’s taking time to gather his thoughts, drumming his fingers against the black leather. He used do the exact same thing when deciding my groundings as a teenager. “I’m also going to assume this wasn’t planned, which leads me to believe you didn’t follow the simple rule I gave you the minute you turned sixteen. Wrap it up! That was your responsibility Shane. You want to have sex, be prepared—” “Dad, it wasn’t like that,” I interrupt. “We were careful. But it still…happened.” He looks out the window for a brief moment before turning his attention back to me. I always wished I could tell what he was going to say before he said it. Have time to prepare myself for his words. To bask in the glow of his approval, or build armor for the hit I’m about to take. This time, I’m surprised when he doesn’t even make it about me. “How is she?” he asks. I don’t know why the question throws me. Both my parents have always really liked Leah and cared for her. Maybe it’s because I’m not really sure how to answer it. Our communication these last few days—hell, weeks—has been a little…strained. I think back to the night Leah told me the news, then to the following day when she stopped by to drop off pamphlets the clinic gave her, the look on her face still very vivid. “Scared,” I say. My father stands from his chair and slowly makes his way around the desk, stopping directly in front of me. “Boy,” he says that one word with such command, I look up immediately. “You want to be a man at night, you be a man in the morning. Understand me? Your only focus right now should be to make sure she doesn’t feel that way. This woman is carrying your child and—” “I’m not sure for how long it will stay that way,” I interrupt him. “Come again?” he asks, his eyebrows furrowing. “We have an appointment this week. To discuss…options.” In the past, this would be a no brainer for me, but now, I’m too unsettled to even say the word. “I see,” he says. His expression turning stern. “Was this her idea or did you—” “Of course not. I would never,” I assure him. He nods once, believing me before taking a seat right next to me. “What about you?” he asks, crossing one leg over the other.

I turn my head towards him. “Me what?” “How do you feel about this?” I shake my head. “I have no clue. I mean, it’s not my choice. It’s her body. Like you said, my job right now is to support. I just have no idea how to do that,” I tell him. “That’s why I’m here.” My dad laughs. “Son, no amount of advice I give you is going make this easier. The both of you have to figure this out together. You’ve put yourselves in this position and now it’s time to own up to it. Children are a blessing. But they deserve more than being born into a lack of options, you hear?” I swallow and nod. “I hear.” “Nothing will prove yourself more of a man than the way you conduct yourself right now. With her. So be the man I know you are. The man I know your mother and I raised you to be.” I breathe out a small laugh. I want to be that man. The man my father believes I am. The man Leah needs me to be. “Thanks, Dad.” The front door of the house slams and my mother ’s voice sings down the hallway. “Shane?” She finds us easily in the office. Wearing jeans and a loose purple blouse, her shoulder length blonde hair falls just beyond her shoulders, still with little to no hints of gray. Her skin is lightly flushed from the outside sun, her green eyes covered by sunglasses. “I didn’t know you were coming by today.” She wraps her arms around me and holds me tight. “Able, why didn’t you tell me Shane was coming?” she scolds him. “A surprise for me as well,” he says standing, putting his hands in his pockets. She steps back, her smile taking up half her face. “Well this is perfect. I just picked up some fresh steaks from the market. We’ll have dinner together. Able, get the rest of the bags out of the car, would you, dear?” My dad smiles. “Of course, sweetheart.” “Let me see if I can scrounge up some more of your favorites! Oh this is such a nice surprise!” she smiles, releasing me and heading for the kitchen. “Don’t go to any trouble, Mom,” I tell her. “No trouble at all!” she yells back disappearing. Then, “Why is the television so loud?” My father and I start to walk out of his office before he grabs hold of me, stopping me in the doorway. His expression once again serious, his voice even more so. “Don’t mention this to your mother,” he says, deadpanned. “It would upset her to think she’s becoming a grandmother only to… not be.” I press my lips together and nod, understanding his meaning. He ushers me out of the office, calling my name when I turn to head to the kitchen. “Where do you think you’re going? Get your ass outside and get the groceries,” he says stalking past me, leaving me behind as he heads to the kitchen and to tend to the groceries all on my own. I’M PARKED AT the curb of Leah’s apartment building waiting for her to come down. Today is our first and perhaps last appointment with the doctor. Other than a few text messages back and forth and her stopping by to give me those pamphlets, we haven’t spoken much. Afraid maybe of what each other will say, so instead choosing to not say anything at all. Walking out of the building, Leah is wearing a long flowing floral dresses but it’s not the dress itself that’s caught my attention. My eyes can’t help but drop down to her breasts because they are filling out the dress in a way they never have before. Gone are the small handfuls I touched weeks ago. In their place is something…much different. As soon as she opens the car door, I look away, not

wanting to be caught staring at her chest. “Hi,” she says, putting on her seat belt. “Hey,” I respond still looking ahead. I pull away from the curb and we drive in silence, not even the radio is turned on. After several blocks, I can’t stand it anymore. “How was your day?” I ask before inwardly cringing at how lame that sounded. Conversations between us have never been forced. I’ve never had to resort to asking her about her day or talk about the weather. This is the same girl I used to tell everything to, but I can’t help but feel like she’s someone I barely even know right now. “Okay, I guess,” she says quietly, looking out the window. Another few moments of silence pass before she speaks again. “I told everyone I had a dentist appointment.” My heart squeezes at her tone. She sounds ashamed. I hate that she feels that way. I hate that I understand it, sympathize with it, because I feel it too. “Until we figure things out, no one has to—” “Did you read those pamphlets?” she asks abruptly, now looking my way. I swallow and nod once. “Yeah, a few.” Truth is, I only read the titles of two of them before shoving them in a drawer. I told myself I’d get back to them when I was ready. I never did. “Good,” she nods. Good. Her word choice sticks out in my mind for the next few minutes as we once again ride in silence. Good. “So, is that what you’re leaning towards?” I ask delicately. She looks back out the window, seemingly unable to face me. “I don’t know,” she whispers. I can only hear her because it’s so damn quiet in the car. “Maybe.” When I don’t say anything in return, she turns in her seat, fully facing me. “I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am, Shane. So hard to get into law school, to be hired by this firm. I’ve only been there for a short period of time. What would they say?” “I’d hope they’d be understanding—supportive,” I answer her back, hearing myself get a little defensive. “Easy for you to say. Your job lets you get up and go whenever you please. You don’t have the same expectations to meet, or play on the same field against the kind of players I do. It’s not your body, your time, your life—” “Of course it’s my life!” I snap, angry she could think none of this would affect me. “I’m in this too! We did this together. We are in this together!” Surprised by my outburst, she falls silent and looks out the window once again. As much as I hate seeing her sad and scared and worried, it felt good to get some of those things off my chest. To at least start talking about this, vent the frustrations over the growing silence that’s come between us. “It’s not the same,” I hear her whisper, mostly to herself. My hands tighten around the wheel, knuckles becoming white. I don’t say anything more and just continue to drive. WE ARRIVE AT the doctor ’s office and sign in with reception. I pick up a magazine for something to do but put it right back down when I see it’s filled with pictures of babies. All the others are similar so I’m left to sit and stare ahead, waiting to be called in. Luckily, the wait isn’t too long and we are called in after a few minutes.

We’re shown into an examination room and I’m bombarded with posters of the female body depicted at every angle. Front, side, back, inside. I’m positive one of them is upside down. Leah takes a seat on the medical examination table, the paper sheet crinkling under her legs. Beside her sits a massive machine with a screen attached to it. At the side are different attachments that look like long vibrators. What the hell happens in this room? I turn away from the sex toys to where a poster on the opposite wall catches my eye. It’s entitled Your Baby’s Growth. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t stop myself—I skim each section until I find the week Leah guessed she was at. Eight weeks, or close to, she said. I remember thinking how that didn’t make sense. We didn’t have sex two months ago. She went on to explain how pregnancy is calculated and it only confused me more. Honestly, after that conversation, I was never happier to have been born with a penis. I stare at the image associated with a pregnancy at eight weeks. I’m surprised to see it already has a formed head and parts of a body. I envisioned something more like a bean. No human characteristics, just a blob. But there it is, in front of me. I close my eyes, unable to look at it any longer. When I turn, I see Leah’s been watching me, unease showing all over her face. I want to comfort her, tell her everything is going to be all right, that no matter what, I’m here for her. But now, when I look at her, all I see is that image from the wall behind me. The door behind me opens and I sigh in guilty relief, knowing I’ve been spared having to find any comforting words. “Hello, I’m Doctor Sigh,” she says walking over to Leah first, offering her hand. “Hi,” Leah answers. “Thank you for seeing us.” “Of course,” she says before smiling at me in acknowledgment. She’s younger than I expected. Early to mid-thirties I’d guess. I return her smile and take a seat on the chair in the corner. She turns back to Leah. “I understand we are here to discuss options.” Leah only nods, sending a quick glance my way. “Alright,” the doctor starts. “Why don’t we start with some basic questions first. When was the first day of your last period?” “I don’t have the exact date. Eight weeks or so.” Dr. Sigh nods before writing the information down. “Have you ever been pregnant before?” “No.” “Are you experiencing any symptoms? Nausea? Cramping? Bleeding?” “Just some breast tenderness. And they’re a little swollen.” A little? “Good,” she says, taking a few more notes. Then she wheels a stool over and takes a seat. “I understand you’ve been given some literature about the different options that are available to you. Both of you,” she says, bringing me into the conversation. “Have you had a chance to discuss it?” “A little.” “Not really.” We both answer at the same time. Silence falls over the room for a few seconds as Dr. Sigh’s eyes dart from me then back to Leah. “It’s a big decision,” she says. “Unplanned pregnancies are scary, sometimes creating complications for the couple—” “We aren’t a couple,” Leah states. The doctor looks to me once more and I immediately feel uncomfortable—like I’m being judged, like she thinks I was forced here kicking and screaming. I want to tell her none of what she’s thinking

is true, but I remain silent, locking my jaw in place. “Well, you’re both here now,” she says, smiling at Leah. “Since every woman’s cycle is different, I’d like to perform an ultrasound so I can assess how far along you are. It will help us better understand your options and the best course of action to take, no matter what you decide. Would that be all right?” Leah seems a little stunned but nods in agreement. “I’ll wait outside,” I say standing, ready to give her some privacy. “No!” Leah blurts out. I stop instantly, waiting for her to continue. “Please stay,” she says, almost pleading. “Okay,” I say, taking a few steps towards her. The doctor hands Leah a paper sheet and instructs her to pull up her dress and remove her underwear. “I thought you do this on the stomach,” I say, confused. The doctor types a few things into the machine before grabbing one of the vibrators. “Because it is early, we do a transvaginal ultrasound. Helps us get a better look at the fetus.” Fetus? Something about that word doesn’t sound right. Leah shimmies out of her panties, stuffing them into her bag before lying down on the table. Her feet go up in the stirrups and she lays the paper sheet over top of them. Once she’s settled, I feel her intertwine her fingers with mine, holding tight, like she’s hanging on to me for safety. The heat from her palm, the softness of her fingers, make my heart beat a little faster. Or maybe it’s because I’ve never been more nervous of anything in my entire life. The overhead lights turn off and the doctor squeezes some gel over the vibrator before covering it with a condom. Christ, it is a sex toy. “Okay, Leah, just take a deep breath,” she instructs before the wand disappears under paper sheet. Leah’s squeezes my fingers even tighter and I cover it with my other hand, bringing it to my lips. I see the doctor playing around with the machine, pressing buttons. A picture even prints out. But she doesn’t offer to let us see anything or show us the picture. I suppose it’s for the best. Best not to look, not to see, not get attached. I look up at the clock in the room and pray for the minutes to pass faster. To let this be done and over with. I’m sure Leah feels the same. “I read somewhere that by eight weeks you can see the heartbeat,” Leah says out of nowhere. My head snaps back towards her. “That’s true,” the doctor replies, glancing in our direction. “Can…you see it?” she asks. Comb, what are you doing? Why are you asking these questions? Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t do this to me. Not if you’ve already made up your mind. I want to cover her mouth, stop her from talking, from us learning too much. It will only make everything so much more difficult. I want to tell her all this but my mouth stays frozen, too dry to speak. “I can,” Dr. Sigh says. She looks at us. “Would you like to see?” No, Leah! Tell her no! “Yes,” she answers, her voice shaking. Finally, I find my voice, but it’s incredibly strained. “Comb…” But it’s too late. The doctor is already swinging the machine in our direction, pointing to a spec on the screen. “It’s hard to tell, but this is the gestational sac, and that little blip right there is the heartbeat.”

I have no idea what a gestational sac is, but I did understand the word heartbeat. She was right when she said it was hard to tell but I do see the blip. It’s blinking fast, like you would when you’re trying to get dust out of your eye. I even try counting the blinks but they happen so quick, I can’t keep up. “Is it supposed to beat that fast?” I ask, suddenly worried. Dr. Sigh nods. “Yes. It means it’s strong.” I have to pry my eyes away from the screen to look at Leah. She too is having a hard time looking away. Her body shifts just the smallest amount, getting closer to the machine. Like she feels that’s the only way to get close to it, even though what we are looking at is inside her. She starts to bring her fingers to the screen but stops herself halfway. And that’s when I see it happen—a lone tear falling from her eye and down her cheek. I know then her decision is made. She didn’t even have to tell me because I saw it happen. I see it in the way her lips open just a touch, the way her face relaxes for the first time in days. “I’m having a baby,” Leah says between tears and a small laugh. That laugh makes me feel weak in the knees and I can’t help but smile back. Decision made. No going back. My father ’s words replay in my mind. How nothing will prove me more of a man than how I conduct myself right now. He’s right. Time to be a man. “No, Comb,” I say kissing her hand again. “We’re having a baby.”

“SO YOU GUYS are actually doing this?” Bryan asks, sipping his beer. He’s the only one at the full table still with a hint of disbelief. “I mean…a baby. You two.” He points with a finger. “How fucked up is that?” Fucked up? I don’t know…maybe. Surprising? Definitely. I think I’m more surprised about the pregnancy itself than who the baby daddy is. If anything, Shane being the father is the one calming piece I have to this entire situation. “You guys do realize you can’t give it back after, right?” Bryan asks, somewhat seriously. “You’re an idiot,” I hear Holly answer for us all. “Hey, I just want them to realize this is a lifetime gig. Don’t shoot the messenger.” He holds up his hands. It’s two weeks later on a Friday night and we’re sitting around a table at the same bar where this all started having drinks. Just like we would have done any Friday night before the news broke to our friends. Only tonight, we aren’t listening to Holly and Eddy discuss the wedding like we have been, or Bryan making comments about some girl at the bar. Tonight, the hot topic of discussion has been all about the baby. “We’ve taken it under consideration,” Shane says, sipping his beer. “Thanks for the warning though.” “Just saying,” Bryan answers. I look at Shane and see the small smirk hidden behind his glass. He glances in my direction and he gives me a wink, back to his good old relaxed self. I look around the table, to our friends, to the bar, the street outside. Life around me hasn’t changed at all but I could not be living in a more different world. For instance, in front of me is a glass of ginger ale instead of beer. And let’s not forget that my boobs won’t stop itching and my jeans are digging into my stomach more than they ever have. And for some reason I can’t get over a craving for vinegar. All of this so painfully obvious to me, but to my friends they’re all blissfully unaware. They’re all still merrily drinking, Holly’s jeans don’t seem to be bugging her one bit and none of them have even thought about food. What I wouldn’t give for some French fries right now.

“I think it’s great!” Holly says cheerily. When I told her my decision to keep the baby, she was…surprised. Only because she’s heard the same arguments I told Shane over and over. But when I explained what happened in the doctor ’s office, seeing that little heartbeat a mile a minute, I couldn’t not have this baby. I felt my own heart start to beat faster too, trying to match the one on the screen. It’s not something I could explain while giving it justice. It’s too strong a feeling to put into words. I think that’s what actually made her understand, that I couldn’t explain the overwhelming feeling I had in the doctor ’s office. It was too large to define. Then and there I wanted nothing more than to protect that little heart and make sure it stayed safe. I wanted it to only become bigger and stronger. I wanted it to grow healthy and happy. I wished for wishes I had never made before. And I wanted to be the one to make them possible. It happened so quickly and without warning. I looked at Shane to try and explain but he already knew. He saw it happen. He didn’t argue or question my decision. He simply accepted the life-long responsibility I had just put on him. Holly cried, which is rare, but then immediately went into questioning and planning mode. When are you going to tell the firm? What are yours and Shane’s plans? Have you thought of names? All valid questions, none of which I had answers to. Still don’t. It’s been two weeks since Shane and I had that appointment. Two weeks since I made the decision to change our lives. Two weeks since we’ve tried to get back to our regular schedules. That’s not to say we haven’t talked about it at all. Shane’s been great about calling and texting every day, seeing how I’m feeling, asking about morning sickness, whether it was getting better or worse. Thankfully, I wasn’t hit too hard with it and it only lasted a very short period of time. But we’ve only discussed the logistics, the medical aspects of the pregnancy. We haven’t really discussed what having a baby means for us. That’s the only really fucked up part of this whole situation. Not that we are having a baby, but that we haven’t talked about us having a baby. Sooner or later that will have to change. It will get harder and harder to push it aside, especially once I start to show. And considering how uncomfortable I already feel in these jeans, it can’t be too long from now. “Have you told your parents yet?” Eddy asks, stirring his drink with his straw. All eyes at the table fall on Shane. I don’t have the greatest relationship with my own mother and I don’t expect her to be a big help or show too much enthusiasm. Not unless that baby comes out gifting her with a bottle of booze. I had to learn the hard way I wouldn’t be able to count on her for much growing up. But I refuse to spend time feeling bad for myself about it. It made me who I am today and I’m proud of it. It got me to where I am all on my own. It was hard, but worth it. It’s also the one thing I want to make sure this child never has to go through. Shane’s parents are a different story. I love his parents and they’ve always been very welcoming of me. Once Shane and I became close, never did I have to spend another holiday alone in my apartment again. Able and Charlotte Carlisle always ensured there was a spot for me at the table. They’ve invited me to their house in Georgia many times and I adore them for that. Able even gave me my first internship at his firm within their small legal department. Having that on my resume definitely helped get me where I am today. “Not yet,” Shane answers slowly. “I thought we’d go up there and tell them together.” He looks over at me in question, seeing if that’s something I’d be up for doing. “Nothing like a grandbaby to

make Charlotte happy,” Shane says jokingly. My smile falters. “You don’t think they’ll be upset, do you?” I ask, suddenly nervous. “Are you kidding?” he scoffs. “Charlotte with a baby? You’ll be walking on water in her books for giving her a grandchild.” I ease back into my chair, trying to relax at Shane’s reassurance. “This baby will have it made,” Bryan says, his eyes glancing around the bar. “Trust fund, heir to the Carlisle throne. Not a bad clan to be born into Leah.” The table jumps and all our glasses wobble, liquid spilling out from the tops. “Fuck! What was that for?” Bryan looks at Shane, bending over to rub his shin. “Don’t be a dick,” Shane answers quietly. “What the fuck did I say?” Bryan looks around the table, confused. No one answers him, all too busy wiping up the spilled alcohol. I know he most likely didn’t mean it to sound like it did—like I found my way into a family with money—but nonetheless, that’s how it sort of came out. God, I hope that’s not how Shane’s parents will see it. He seems so confident they’ll be happy about this but what if they’re not? What if Bryan’s words are the same ones that go through their heads? That I’ve somehow trapped him—trapped their family for the rest of our lives with this baby. Shane sees the mild panic in my eyes. “They love you,” he says leaning in, speaking into my ear. “Don’t listen to him.” I nod but can’t shake the anxiety completely. Because really, who am I? I’m not Shane’s girlfriend. I’m not the woman he’s in love with. How will we explain this to them? My thoughts are interrupted when Eddy speaks up. “Who needs another round?” he says lifting his empty glass. “Me,” Holly raises her empty glass, glaring in Bryan’s direction. Bryan lifts his bottle, indicating that his too is nearly empty. When Eddy looks over at Shane, I see him quickly glance my way before shaking his head. “I’m good thanks,” he declines. “You’ve only had one,” Eddy argues. “I know. I just don’t need another.” His eyes shift down to my barely touched ginger ale. “You can have another,” I tell him. “Just because I can’t drink doesn’t mean you can’t.” He looks at me, unsure. Although I appreciate the gesture, I see no point in him not being able to enjoy a few drinks while we are out with friends. No one else seems to mind pounding them back in front of me. “You sure?” he asks. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I say. Shane looks up at Eddy then nods. “I’ll come with you,” he says following Eddy to the bar. Bryan also stands, grinning. But he doesn’t follow the guys. His attention is focused elsewhere. “I’ll be back,” he says before making his way over to a pretty blonde standing on her own. “I thought he was back with Kendall?” Holly says, watching Bryan strike up a conversation with Blondie. “That was weeks ago,” I answer, shaking my head. “Today? Who knows?” Holly scoots over and sits directly in front of me, a small worried smile tugging on her lips. “You’re nervous about telling Shane’s parents.” “A little,” I admit. “What if they think—” “Don’t listen to Bryan,” she says. “You know he didn’t mean it like that. He just doesn’t have a filter for his overused mouth.” I laugh a little.

“Shane would never let that happen. His parents love you,” she insists, repeating his earlier words. “I hope so.” I turn my head and see Shane standing at the bar, waiting for our drinks with Eddy. “We haven’t talked about it.” “What? Telling his parents?” I turn back to look at her, shaking my head. “The baby,” I explain. “He asks how I’m feeling, if there is anything I need. But we haven’t talked about what will happen once it’s here. What our plan is. What we want.” “What do you want?” I shrug. I never had the kind of upbringing Shane did growing up. Both parents living together, happily married. My childhood was filled with arguments until my dad left when I was eight. Then with my mother ’s drinking, I was left to pretty much parent myself. I just know I don’t want that for my baby. I want him or her to know they are loved, to feel it every day. How Shane and I will achieve that together, I have no idea. “Let’s talk about something else,” I say, not wanting to think about it any longer. “Fill me in on the newest wedding plans.” Holly’s eyes light up at the mention of her wedding and she immediately starts reciting plans and forecasts and back-up plans for the wedding. This is a subject she can go on and on about. Explaining every detail and reason for every choice. Nothing pleases her more than organizing and preparing. That’s what makes her such a great paralegal at work. I watch as she pulls out a few cue cards from her purse and shows me a list of pros and cons she’s made about having a cake versus individual sized cupcakes. The list is long and extensive. When it comes time to plan my own wedding, I definitely think I’ll take more of a laid back approach. Ironically, it’s that very thought that causes me to stiffen, my mind now speaking to me more loudly than Holly’s voice. Married? How are you even going to date? That voice is right. No one is going to want to date a pregnant woman or one with a baby. And even if there was some weirdo out there who didn’t mind, when would I have the time? I’m twenty-six and the next time I’ll be able to go on a date will be in eighteen years! The thought is so depressing I slump down in my chair, causing my jeans to dig further into my stomach. I reach under the table, under my long tank and unbutton my pants. The relief is quickly overshadowed by sadness when I realize no one will want to date a woman who has to undo her pants in public just to be comfortable. Eddy comes back to the table with his and Holly’s refills, but Shane isn’t with him. I look back to the bar and see why. He’s busy speaking to a woman. A tall, skinny, beautiful woman who’s drinking wine and has her pant buttons done up. I watch as he says something, leaning in closer to her and she throws her head back, laughing. No one wants to date a woman with a baby, but a man with a baby? Might as well just attach a pussy magnet to Shane’s chest now. He’ll have no problems dating. If anything, this baby will likely only help him get laid. I swallow back an awful feeling. I stand from my seat, already looking for my purse. This gets Holly’s attention. “You okay?” she asks, concerned. No. Not even close. “Yeah, I just got really tired all of the sudden. I think I’m going to head home.” Holly stands, grabbing her own purse. “I’ll come with you.” “No, stay. Have fun,” I tell her. “I’m just going to go to bed anyhow.” “Are you sure?” Eddy asks, skeptically. I nod. “Absolutely.” I turn and see Shane is still talking to the girl, completely oblivious I’m leaving. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” I tell Holly.

She nods and I walk out of the bar. The seaside salty air hits my face, the early spring air still warm but cool enough to feel refreshing. I decide to walk the seven blocks home, needing time to clear my head. Too many realizations about what my future will actually look like coming at me too fast. But one aspect of it was made painfully clear—I’ll be going through it alone. My hand rests against my stomach. Almost alone. I walk past a few other bars on my way, hear the laughing, see the drinking, witness the dancing. Enjoy it while it lasts, I want to yell. Before you know it, it’s gone and not about to come back any time soon. I make one stop along the way at the corner store not far from my apartment. I’m so depressed I don’t even feel guilty about the large bag of salt and vinegar chips and four chocolate bars I place on the counter. The young cash attendant stares blankly at me and it only causes me to add to the pile. Why not add some licorice? My pants already don’t fit. When I get home, I peel off my jeans and quickly throw on a pair of sweat pants and an oversized t-shirt. My boobs feel immediate relief as soon as I take my bra off. I pull my hair up into a knot on top of my head and head to the couch with all my snacks. I turn on the television and start streaming an old Friends episode. I know exactly which one I want to watch. I’m roughly ten minutes into the show and well into the bag of chips when there’s a knock at my door. I look down at my shirt, at the grease stains from where I just wiped my hands. I’m not sure what’s worse—how much of a slob I know I look or that I don’t even care. I debate whether I should answer the door when another round of knocking starts, this time followed by a voice. “Comb? It’s me,” Shane’s voice carries through the door. I put the bag of chips down on the coffee table and pause Ross and Rachel on the screen. I open the door to find Shane and his concerned expression. “Holly said you just got up and left. Are you okay?” I nod, opening the door further to let him pass. He walks in and turns, his expression unchanging. “I was just tired. Kind of hits me out of nowhere these days.” It’s not an untrue statement but in this case, a lie. I make my way back to the couch and sit, hugging a throw pillow to my body. “You didn’t have to come over. I told Holly I was fine.” “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to go home?” I shrug. “You were busy talking to someone. I didn’t want to interrupt,” I say as nonchalant as I can. I look back to the television screen, to my open window, to the half-eaten chocolate bar. Anywhere but him. “You wouldn’t have.” I bark out a laugh. He laughs too, taking a seat beside me. “Really. I worked with her on a shoot before. I was just saying hi.” Seeing Shane talking to that girl upset me, but it’s the why that’s bugging me. I’ve never been jealous of any girl, including the ones Shane has given attention to. Hell, I’ve even been his wing woman from time to time. But things are different now and my reactions are obviously not the same. I blame it on the hormones. Shane reaches for the bag of chips and starts snacking on them. His eyes squint as he reads the flavor on the package. It might also be because of the extra vinegar I poured directly into the bag. He glances down to the half-eaten chocolate bar but doesn’t say anything. He just sits and continues chewing on the somewhat soggy chips before offering me some with a smile. I take the bag from him and grab a handful. “You could have stayed you know. Had some drinks. Hung out,” I say before putting them all in my mouth.

“Nah,” he says leaning back against the couch, turning his head towards me. “My two favorite people are right here.” I swallow the chips, feeling their rough texture scratch their way down my throat, not having chewed them enough. The reference to the two of us blindsiding me—causing my chest to now ache along with my throat. I reach for my bottle of water, chugging large gulps, watching him as he grabs for the remote, unpausing the show. After a few seconds of watching, he grins. “We’ve seen this episode a thousand times,” he says. I blink twice before turning my attention back to the screen, trying to ignore how his words are still affecting me. The show comes into focus and I smile a little because it’s true. I have made him watch this episode a thousand times. “I know.” I hug my pillow tighter, keeping my eyes to the screen. “But it’s the best one. He’s her lobster.”

AS HE THRUST his overjoyed member into her virginal garden, moans of joy, cries of newly attained womanhood reaching his ears. Never was another going to replace him, his body, or his giving of pleasure to her. She was his forever. Who reads this crap? Then, as if on autopilot, I turn the page and continue reading about Almonte and Gwendolyn. About their undivided, unabashed and now forever giving of pleasure, love. Am I ashamed to be reading this? Yes. Am I even more ashamed to be reading this at my desk over lunch? I can’t stress how much. But at least now I know it’s not my fault. Now I know if I were in my right mind, I wouldn’t be hiding in my office, with my door closed, reading smut. If I were in my right mind, I’d take the hour to go look at shoes at the boutique around the corner, or go to the café with Holly down the street. There’s also a huge possibility I’d be nose deep in the files that are currently piling up on my desk. The ones that have been waiting to be referenced and chronicled for my boss who will be back from court by end of day. But because I now know I’m not in the right mind, I continue to sit with my eyes roaming over the words of this book, turning the pages fervently, needing more. Fucking hormones. I know so. I’ve researched it. Libido Increase. Increased Sex Drive. First Trimester All-time High. Google spitting out the same answer over and over. Countless websites all telling me the same thing. That I’m knocked up and horny as hell. Instead of finding advice on how to diffuse the situation, every website all had the same thing to say. “Enjoy it!” Enjoy what exactly? Enjoy sitting uncomfortably? Being woken up in the middle of night panting because your body is screaming for sex? Stirring in bed, hitting your pillow over and over, praying for your uterus to calm the fuck down? Knowing that these are prime sex times for me and I’m missing out? Fuck all those websites. Isn’t simply being pregnant enough? We need to add sexual frustration to the mix?

I pull my hair back and tie it up in a ponytail. Cool air hits the back of my neck and it’s a small relief from how worked up I’ve become. I turn the page and accept the cheap thrill Almonte is giving me. Holly walks in without knocking, her hands carrying paper bags full of take out. “I brought lunch—” she starts, but halts when she sees me quickly shove my grocery store read in the top drawer of my desk. “What was that?” she asks, her interests piqued, lips forming a sly grin. “Nothing,” I say, slamming to drawer shut. “What did you get?” I point to the takeout, my focus switching to the aromas coming from the paper bags. The only thing that seems to get my mind off of sex these days is food. Holly walks over to my desk and drops the bags in front of me. “Oh just a few of your favorites. Chicken parmesan, Caesar salad, garlic bread.” My tummy grumbles just hearing the words. I go to grab one of the bags when Holly swipes it from me first. “Oh you can have it,” she taunts. “But first, let’s see what you’re hiding in there.” Her head tilts to the side, one brow pointed. “Nothing important,” I say. “Then why are you hiding it?” I stare at her, unmoving. “Why is your face red?” she continues, her eyes now glaring. “It’s not,” I argue. She leans in over my desk domineeringly. “Fine. Keep your secrets.” She stands back up straight, unpacking the takeout. “Grab two waters from your fridge, would you.” I walk over to the corner of my office to the little bar fridge I have there and grab two water bottles. “AH HA!” I turn quickly to find Holly holding my book of smut in her hand with a proud grin on her face. “Good for you. You found my big dark secret,” I say with sarcasm, walking back to my desk and taking the book from her. “I had no idea this was the type of reading required of you here,” she teases. “Laugh all you want. Go on, get it out,” I tell her, opening my container of food. If I’m going to be humiliated and ridiculed, I might as well have a mouth full of garlic bread to help swallow it down with. Holly grabs the book off the top of my desk and sits in a chair, flipping through the pages. Unable to watch her scan through the story, I concentrate on the food in front of me, cutting huge pieces of chicken and stuffing it into my mouth. “Whoa,” she starts to laugh. “This is…” She reads a few more passages, then snorts. “Thunderous member? Why are you reading this?” “Diminished capacity,” I say, my mouth too full. “You’ve committed a crime?” Holly raises her brows. “I’m reading that, aren’t I?” I answer, my eyes glancing down at the book. “No laws broken there. These books do very well for themselves. And wonders for their readers apparently,” she says, mocking me. I stuff another large bite into my mouth, busying myself with chewing instead of talking. After a few minutes of her staring at me, waiting for me to explain, I relent. “It’s the hormones,” I say, swallowing my bite. “They’re driving me crazy. All I can think about is sex. All I want is sex. Sex, sex, sex. It’s fucking hell!” Pregnancy hasn’t put me in tune with my feminine body like Dr. Oz said. Instead, it’s turned me into a fucking man.

“So go have it.” She shrugs as if it were the simplest answer in the world. “Go have it? With whom? In case you’ve forgotten,” I glance outside my office door then point to my midsection. I have yet to tell my boss or anyone else at the firm about my pregnancy. Before, I had the excuse of waiting for the first trimester to end, but that milestone is coming up fast. I’m nearly twelve weeks. Luckily my tummy hasn’t grown too much and loose blouses are able to hide any small growth I do have. I know I’m going to have to tell them soon. I’m just waiting for the right time. “For starters, how about the guy who got you pregnant,” Holly suggests. “Are you insane?” I snap my head up in surprise. “And keep your voice down. I don’t need some intern overhearing and blabbing it around the office.” “What?” She shrugs. “If it’s just sex you need, why not?” “Why not?” I repeat, flabbergasted. “There are lots of reasons why not.” “Like?” “Like…” I think, grasping for any kind of answer to come at me. I know there have got to be at least a thousand different reasons why having sex with Shane again would be a terrible idea. I just need one to jump out at me. Ah ha! “We’ve only just gotten back into our normal routine. Our friendship is finally back to normal, just like it used to be—or as close as it can be. I don’t want to mess with that. Secondly...” I pause. “Like I said, there are lots of reasons.” “Uh huh.” Holly smiles, stifling a laugh. I know I can have another argument ready if I am just given a minute to pull my thoughts together. I know I can put forward a case in which there will be no reasonable doubt left on how bad of an idea having sex with Shane again would be. But the arrival of my boss, Cassandra Fairfax, at my door stops me from pursuing it. “Ms. Fairfax, you’re back from court early,” I say standing, wiping my mouth with my used napkin. It’s fair to say this woman intimidates me wholly. Her presence, stature, demeanor. All of it daunting but only because I strive to be like her one day. A highly in demand attorney, well respected, senior partner at the firm and, quite frankly, a nicer woman than you’d expect in her position. “Apologies for intruding on your lunch. The judge recessed early. Leah, I need to see you in my office.” “Of course,” I tell her before she turns and walks away. I quickly start cleaning the containers off my desk when Holly brushes my hand away, telling me to leave it and go. “Thanks,” I say. I follow Cassandra down the halls of our office. Past the closed white office doors, the dark gray walls decorated with expensive art. Past the interns who stop everything they’re doing to smile and acknowledge Cassandra as she passes. I quicken my pace, entering her office just as she’s sitting down at her glass desk, typing a few things into her laptop. “Close the door. Take a seat,” she says, her focus still on the laptop. I see a few curious faces looking in through the large glass window beside the door. I make my way to the cream chair in front of her desk, scanning her office, admiring the sheer size of it. I’ve only been in here a handful of times. Many of our meetings or encounters have been in the board room with all the other partners and associates present. Her office is quite serene compared to it, with pale green walls and light furniture. The only bit of darkness comes from the wood frames surrounding her degrees hanging on the wall. Sitting down, I get a little nervous, questions as to why I was brought in here running through my

mind. Have I screwed up somehow? Made a mistake in some of my referencing? I wish I knew what— Shit. It must be because she knows I’m pregnant. Somehow, someone found out and it’s gotten back to her. And now she’s looking for me to confirm. This isn’t how I wanted to tell her. I wanted it to be at my own pace, after I’ve had more time to impress her and the other partners with my work. Time to awe them so they won’t even care that I’ll need to take some time off to have a baby. All they’ll care about is when I’ll be able to come back and continue my excellence at practicing law. Instead, now I’m going to have to apologize for not coming forward to her or the firm earlier for letting office gossip be the news breaker. When she finally looks up from her laptop, her expectant gaze is enough to turn the chicken parmesan I ate in my stomach. “Leah, I brought you in here today because I’d like it if you were to assist me in the Bakker trial.” “I understand, I should’ve told you,” I answer back immediately. Her eyes narrow, confused. Wait...what did she just say? Did she just say she wanted me to assist her on the case she’s working on? The high profile corporate takeover case that’s bound to bring the firm a ridiculous amount of money if we win— when we win? “Should have told me what?” she asks. She sits back in her chair, waiting for me to explain my odd response. My mind reels, quickly thinking of what to say hoping that all those years in law school have actually made me quick on my feet. “I’m sorry,” I repeat, speaking slowly as to give myself a little more time. “I just meant I should’ve come to you earlier, perhaps shown my own interest in aiding with this case. Shown my own initiative.” I hold my breath and watch for her reaction. A small smile tugs at the corners of her lips. “I’m glad to hear you’ve already thought about it. The partners and I have discussed it and we all agree that you would be a great addition in the case. We were all impressed with your work on the Tyson prep.” She leans in, folding her hands together, resting them on top of her desk. “And if we are speaking honestly, I think it’s a great move for the firm. Having two women at the helms of one of our biggest cases. I work hard to ensure this firm maintains a show of equality amongst its staff—among the sexes. Unfortunately, there are still a few partners who have—how should I word this…” She takes a moment. “A chauvinistic pigheadedness about them.” I can’t help but laugh. “I see.” “I’m glad we are on the same page.” She smiles. “I’ll have some of the files sent over.” She begins to shuffle a few papers around, an indicator to me this meeting is over. I stand, readying to leave. “Get ready for some busy days and probably busy nights,” Cassandra says. “I look forward to it,” I answer. And I do. Working on this case could be huge for my career. I open the door and just as I’m about to walk through, Cassandra’s next words stop me in my tracks. “We’ll show them we are more than just wombs that bear children.” “COMB, I’M SO proud of you,” Shane says releasing me from his arms, putting my feet back on the ground. “Pretty exciting,” I say righting my shirt that lifted while he spun me in the air. “More than exciting,” he beams. I can see in his eyes he’s more excited for me than anyone. “How do you want to celebrate?” he asks. I called him after work to tell him the news and he insisted on coming over, too happy for me to

continue our conversation over the phone. I follow him as he moves around my apartment, collapsing on the couch, resting one arm over the back cushion and propping one leg on my coffee table. He’s wearing the shirt I bought him years ago, the one that says Frankie Says Relax. We laughed when we saw it because we had just watched that very same Friends episode a few days earlier. But unlike Ross, Shane’s shirt fits him perfectly. White cotton against light mocha, form fitting in all the right places, pulled up just slightly by the way he’s sitting, showing a sliver of skin from his hip. I fidget, working to ignore the hormonal burst occurring. “No celebrating yet. I could still screw it up,” I say sitting beside him, taking a sip from my glass of water. “No chance.” “You have such faith in me,” I say, lightly teasing. I sit back and lean against the cushions, lifting my feet and burying them under the pillows. Without hesitation, Shane takes one and starts massaging it using his thumbs and fingers in the most amazing way. I close my eyes, the rush of pleasure from the right amount of pressure on my soles is overwhelming. “That feels so good,” I say, nearing moaning status. I feel his stomach muscles shake under my foot from his laughter. And when he moves a little higher on my foot, I let out an actual moan. “Looks like I still have the touch,” he says. I open my eyes, bringing them to his face, to the grin that’s plastered there. “Don’t be too pleased with yourself. It’s not all you,” I tell him. I try and pull my foot away but his grasp on my ankle gets tighter. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks, amused. I sit straighter, brushing my hair off my shoulders, shrugging. “Let’s just say a lot of my bodily reactions are hormone related. Involuntary reflex.” “Hormone related,” he repeats. “Tell me more.” He’s taunting me, making fun of me with his cocky smile. It causes a stir of annoyance in my stomach and…something else. “My hormones are rising, causing my body to react in certain ways. It’s not me. It’s biology. Look it up if you don’t believe me,” I challenge. Shane laughs, releasing my ankle as he slides over the sofa and sits right next to me. I can smell the faintness of his cologne, just a hint of it left, most of it having worn off during the day. He lifts his hand, brushing a few strands of hair back behind my ear slowly. The soft touch stills my breath. “Biology, huh? What can I do to help?” he asks. There’s a genuineness in his voice, his tone not quite what I was expecting. He has no idea what he’s asking or offering. My eyes move on their own, down his body, from his Adam’s apple to everything south of it. I swallow, roughly releasing the breath I was holding. I blink several times before looking away, embarrassed at ogling him. After a minute, I find the courage to face him and when I do, a look of understanding sweeps across Shane’s face. “Comb,” he says calmly. “Are you… asking me to have sex with you?” A deep blush rises up my neck and burns my cheeks. “No!” I shriek. “Of course not!” But even I can hear how unconvincing I sound. He continues staring at me, marveling at just how much his question hit the nail on the head. “What?” I question, increasingly becoming annoyed at how mortifying this evening has turned out to be. He tilts his head to the side, watching me continue to unravel in front of him. “It’s a stage. A hormonal stage. It will pass,” I tell him, looking away. “Right. Biology. Nothing having to do with chemistry,” he says, his voice falling somewhere between astonishment and cocky delight.

I shake my head, protesting but too embarrassed to look up. After a minute, Shane stands, his jeanclad legs stopping right in front of me, filling up my entire view. I look up at him, a smug grin on his face and one hand outstretched to me. “What are you doing?” I ask, my voice shaking. “You told me how I could help,” he says, his voice lowering. “Let me help.” A hundred refusals rush to mind. Reasons why this is not a good idea on the tip of my tongue, ready to be voiced—no, screamed. I line them up in my head from the most obvious reason to the more mundane, all of them explaining how insane this is. I’m ready to push his hand away, argue them all as soon as I stand. But the minute I’m up and my chest collides with his, all those reasons… turn on me. We stand chest to chest, neither of us backing down, neither of us moving forward. I see in his eyes that he too has a hundred reasons why this probably is not the greatest idea, but like me, he voices none of them. His eyes move down my body, skimming me slowly. “So?” Shane says, his green eyes turning darker. I’m a little taken aback by them. I knew I was aroused, but now I see he is too. “Are you going to lead the way?” I count to five in my head before I turn and walk in the direction of my bedroom. He follows and doesn’t bother closing the door, knowing there is no one to interrupt us. As soon as I hit the center of the room, I turn and face him. He makes no move to come near me. No move at all, actually. He’s waiting for something—me to make the first move. He’s made the offer and now he’s waiting for me to take him up on it. I don’t know why I’m not stopping this instead of reaching for the bottom hem of my shirt and lifting it over my head. Shane’s eyes drop, focusing on my now exposed chest. His lustful stare has me forgetting about my slight insecurity at my new just-noticeable bump. He takes a few steps forward, removing his own shirt as he approaches. We stand inches apart, but my fingers are begging to touch him. To feel the hard planes of his chest, to brush my fingertips across his nipples. I bite my lip, trying to refrain myself. I look up and our eyes lock, and for the briefest of moments, a silent understanding comes over us. We aren’t drunk this time—both fully aware of what we are doing. Fully aware that what is happening between us cannot later be blamed on alcohol or birthday naughtiness. I’m waiting for him to say or do something when his hands reach into the waist of my pants, pulling me towards him, crushing our bodies together once again. The sudden movement surprises me but when his lips start kissing and nipping at my neck, I quickly and easily melt into him. Wrapping my arms around him, I grip his shoulders, my nails digging into his skin. I feel his hands move around to my hips, then grip the back of my thighs. Lifting me, he carries me to the bed and lays me down in the middle. Standing over me, I watch his eyes move from my face, down to my chest and stopping right where my pants remain buttoned. A small grin appears as he bends and begins to undo my pants. Every swift touch his fingers make, every rough exhale he takes causes my skin to react. Heat collects anywhere he makes contact, the anticipation getting to be too much. I’m beginning to get confused if it’s the hormones or him that’s driving me this crazy. Cool air hits my legs once Shane rids me of my pants, his fingers lightly caressing them as he climbs up onto the bed. His fingers continue their trip up, slowly, torturously. When they skim over my breast, I inhale deeply. When they circle the tip of my nipple, I have to bite my lip to stop from squealing. Shane notices. “They’re really sensitive right now,” I tell him. He smiles. “Good to know,” he replies, before bringing his lips down and sucking the tip through my bra. Even with a thin layer of lace between, I think I’m going to explode. His fingers begin to roam once more, only this time they are making their way south. He starts to play with the hem of my panties, brushing my skin lightly, running over the soft fabric.

“You’re wet,” he says, switching over to the other nipple. I know I am. I have been for days. “I told you. Biology.” I feel his lips smile against my chest. “Let’s really see what biology has done.” His fingers sweep under the fabric of my underwear towards my center. Very quickly, he’s given an answer. He moves his fingers slowly in circles slipping inside, then back to circles. It’s quite possible I’m going to come faster than I ever have in my life. His touch is unhurried, taking his time to explore all the parts of me. He bites at my nipple and quickly soothes it with a flick of his tongue. “I appreciate the warm up,” I say, clenching the sheets in my fists. “But you don’t need to. We can get right to it.” His fingers still inside me as he lifts his head from my chest. An unreadable look washes over his face before his leans down, his lips so close to mine they puff air against them as he speaks. “Maybe I want to touch you.” I stare up at him in silence, unsure of what to say. Part of me wants him to continue his slow exploration of my body. For hours, days even. The other too concerned with how good that sounds. Shane sees a struggle going on in my head, only he has no idea what the actual feud is. He’s trying to read my thoughts and I’m terrified of his reaction if he could. Finally, he gives a quick, curt smile. “Okay, Comb. Let’s do this your way,” he says. He rises up on his knees, hooking his fingers around my panties, yanking them down my legs. He rids himself of his own pants and boxer briefs just as quickly. Nearly naked, my bra the only article of clothing left on, we take a minute to let our eyes wander before he moves in between my legs. I bend my knees, his body fitting perfectly in between them. His fingers run over me once more before he thrusts himself inside of me. We both let out a sharp moan. He rests his forearms beside my head, leaning down to my ear. “Condoms seem a bit pointless now. What more could happen?” He moves his lips away from my ear and begins to nip at my neck while he fucks me the way I asked him to. I wrap my legs around him, using the balls of my feet to pull him in closer. I’ve never come from sex alone, always needing some other kind of action to get there. But I know this is going to be the first time. I can already feel it starting. With every thrust, it builds and builds until I’m screaming his name. I feel him stiffen, coming not too long after. He collapses on top of me, out of breath, quick bursts of air hitting the side of my neck. Once his breath calms, he lays a soft kiss in the same place. I feel my heart squeeze. I tell myself once more it’s the hormones. Shane lifts his head and smiles down at me before slowly lowering, moving closer. I’m strangely nervous he may kiss me—on the lips. Nervous of that kind of intimacy, regardless of the fact that he just fucked me. Fear of what might happen, what my heart might do if he does. But he doesn’t. Instead, his lips brush softly against my forehead before he pulls away, moving out of me with equal tenderness. He jerks his head over to my bathroom. “I’m going to hop in the shower. Cool?” I blink twice before nodding, watching him as he leaves the room. Once he’s out of sight, I fold my arms over my face and release a breath I didn’t know I was holding. I’m confused by what just happened. Did I want Shane to kiss me? Was I hoping for it? I wanted sex, that much I know. Sex with Shane…obviously I was good with that too. But this? These confusing feelings? These are… unexpected. Shane’s words run through my head, only adding to my torment. What more could happen? Apparently everything. Everything could still happen.

“THIS CAR ISN’T very baby proof.” I take my eyes off the road for a few seconds, instantly enraptured with how the wind from the open top of the Jeep is blowing Leah’s hair in all directions. The sun is shining down on her, casting a gold glow over her flushed, pink skin. She attempts to run her fingers through her tousled hair, trying in vain to keep it out of her face. I peek downwards to her skirt and the wrinkles it’s gotten from being scrunched up in my hands only moments ago. Leah wasn’t kidding when she said her body was going through some sexual overactive phase. In the last few weeks, I’ve had more sex than I’ve ever had. She’s insatiable. The further along she gets in her pregnancy, the more her libido grows. Not that I’m complaining. Sex with Leah is…more than I could have expected. She’s always into it, always eager, and if I’m being honest, she comes pretty easily. Not that I wouldn’t work at it if she didn’t, but it’s nice having that little help. The only downside to this new dynamic we have going on is it’s confusing the hell out of me. I knew having sex with her would be anything but clean and easy, especially now, but something came over me that night. One minute we’re sitting on her couch, the next thing I know she’s telling me how her body is in heat. I stood no chance when the memories of touching that body, tasting it, seeing it beneath me started flooding my mind. All I could think was how much I wanted to live that all over again. But I didn’t see this happening. This ongoing, sexual relationship we’ve initiated that doesn’t seem to have an ending in sight. Now I’m craving her. I’m wanting her. I’m needing her. My one-time offer of helping her has turned into something much different. Something that’s playing with my brain and fooling around with my emotions. We don’t kiss but we’ll do everything else imaginable. It’s a little weird, my lips on so much of her body but not her mouth. I’m not even sure what would happen if I did try and kiss her. Would she let me? Would she even want me to? I can’t even process how strange it is to be inside of her but too nervous to kiss her. Leah’s my best friend, but what’s been going on between us lately— what I’m feeling towards her—isn’t all that friendly. What’s even more confusing is how casual Leah seems about it, like this isn’t complicating or changing anything between us. But I can’t be the only one feeling this way, can I? She can’t be this unaffected by what we’ve been doing almost nightly, can she? And I do mean almost nightly.

The other week, we were out for pizza when I felt her hand grip my thigh under the table, a clear indicator of what she was wanting. I made an excuse for us to leave, not even remembering what it was. Ten minutes later, I was inside her, her body pressed into her kitchen counter, neither of us even able to wait to get to the bedroom. She even showed up at my place in the middle of the night. Told me she couldn’t sleep and needed a release. I followed her back to my room quietly so that Bryan wouldn’t hear and took her from behind for the first time. And now, watching her straighten her blouse and reapply her lipstick, I think back to twenty minutes ago, pulled over to the side of a quiet road, the smell of orange groves all around us. As soon as I turned off the car, she unbuckled her seat belt, raised her skirt and climbed on top of me. I didn’t hear her complain about the lack of roof then. The brief stop did, however, make us late. My parents were expecting us a half hour ago. Today is the day we are going to tell them they’re going to be grandparents—officially. They’ll be supportive, that much I know, because that’s just who my parents are. Even if they don’t always agree with me, they support me. But I have no idea what kind of questions my mother will ask. Questions I most likely don’t have answers to just yet. Answers to questions I’ve only just recently started asking myself. We still have no idea how to explain how this happened to my mother. Comb and I aren’t a couple, but we aren’t just friends anymore either. I don’t know what to call us anymore. We crossed a line months ago and have continued to cross it since. But what that line says about us, about what we are now, where we are now, I have no clue. And if Leah has an idea, she’s not sharing. I continue to drive down the open road, small rocks and dust trailing behind us. I glance to the back seat of my car, to the thin layer of grime gathering over the leather. A broken seat belt jumping at every small pot hole I run over. Leah’s right. This car isn’t very baby proof. “Your car is safe,” I say, reminding her of her small, four door Mini Cooper. Leah looks at me as though I’ve missed the point. “Sure. But what about when the baby’s with you? It can’t ride in the back of this safari wagon.” “Hey—” “A baby needs a roof, windows, seatbelts that work—” “Okay. I get it. Relax,” I say laughing. But her expression doesn’t show one ounce of amusement. In fact, she looks slightly annoyed. As much as this girl gets hornier every week that passes, she also becomes more irritable. Sometimes her mood swings give me whiplash. “Relax,” I try again. “We still have time to figure this stuff out.” She presses her lips together for a second. “This stuff,” she repeats slowly before looking out her side of the car. Great, now what did I say? “OH MY.” My mother ’s surprised expression as soon as we walk into the house lets us know coming up with a way of breaking the news won’t be needed. Her eyes are already glued to Leah’s stomach. Most days, Leah hides her very small, growing belly, but today her outfit does nothing to camouflage it. The blouse she has on just barely buttons over her chest and her jersey skirt sticks to her form. When I picked her up at her apartment, I carefully mentioned those exact things. “Are we hiding it from your parents? Isn’t this,” she pointed to her stomach, “what we’re going to tell them?” she asked pointedly. “Besides, it’s only a matter of hours before this outfit won’t fit so I’d like to wear it.”

I foolishly and stupidly thought maybe it wouldn’t be the first thing my mother would notice. I envisioned sitting them down and breaking the news with pastel balloons floating up out of nowhere, but from the look on my mother ’s face, we’re not sitting anywhere and there will be no balloons. “Hi, Mom,” I say walking over and kissing her on the cheek. She doesn’t even register me. Her eyes stay solely focused on Leah and her midsection. My mother disentangles herself from me and walks the few steps to where Leah stands. “Surprise,” Leah says, her voice shaking a bit, her smile nervous. My mother wraps her arms around Leah and hugs her tight. “Surprise is right. What’s happened to you?” she says, her voice giving away cheerful disbelief. Leah glances over my mother ’s shoulder, looking at me expectantly. “You’re going to be a grandmother,” I say. At my words, my mother quickly releases Leah, her head whipping back to look at me. “Pardon me—” my mother starts, her head swinging from side to side, from Leah then back to me. “This is you?” she says, pointing to Leah’s stomach. “I know this is a surprise, Charlotte. It was to us too,” Leah starts. “And I’m sorry we’re only telling you now. We wanted to wait until after the first trimester. I’m sorry—” Leah’s nervous rambling is cut off by a piercing shriek of joy. My mother once again envelops Leah in a hug, her voice full of excitement. “Stop with the apologies! This is fantastic news. I had no idea you two had even started dating.” She looks at me poignantly. I open my mouth to correct her, but Leah’s glare keeps my mouth shut. “Able, get in here!” my mother yells. “Come see what’s happening.” My father ’s heavy footsteps come down the hall as he emerges into the foyer. “Look, Able! Look!” my mother cries, pointing to Leah’s stomach once again. “We’re going to be grandparents!” My mother turns back around and hugs Leah yet again. I look over to my father, understanding coming over his face as he comes up to stand beside me. “It’s decided then,” he says quietly, only for me to hear. “It is,” I answer. He nods, turning his attention to the women hugging. But I see a spark of emotion in the corner of his eye, one he’s trying to keep to himself. Pride. “Able, what is the matter with you? Come over here and congratulate her for goodness sake,” my mother chastises him. The hint of a smile turns into a huge grin as my father makes his way to Leah, wrapping her in his large arms. I nearly lose sight of her behind his big frame. “You look radiant,” my father tells her, kissing her cheek. “Doesn’t she? Just radiant!” my mother pipes in. I stand and watch my parents fuss over Leah and my unborn child. I see Leah wipe a happy tear from her cheek, relieved, I’m sure, at how my parents reacted. She looks happy, and a part of me beams knowing I had a part in that, that my family had a part in that. That seeing her like this, an excited mother-to-be, wouldn’t have been possible without me. Then a whole different kind of understanding creeps up on me. One I wasn’t expecting, but at the same time, think I’ve been waiting for. An awareness that feels more like a punch to the heart, causing it to skip a beat. I stare down at the floor, needing to look away from her for just a moment. Needing to process the realization that I want to be the only one to ever make her feel that way. The only man to put that smile on her face. While Leah’s eyes are shining with happiness, mine are shadowing in panic. If I thought what was happening between us before was confusing, it’s nothing compared to the realization that I might want

it to continue…permanently. WE’RE SITTING AROUND my parent’s dining room table as Leah and I are bombarded with questions from my mother. Both she and my father are sitting across from us, barbequed meat and salads laid out between us. I go to grab for another piece of chicken when my mother ’s next question stops my fork in midair. “Have you felt the baby move yet?” Move? Has she? I look at Leah while she shakes her head, dabbing the sides of her mouth with a napkin. “Not yet. Still too early, I think.” Is it too early? When is she supposed to start feeling these things? I make a mental note to catch up on reading some of those pregnancy books I bought. “How about names? Have you thought of any? Oh! Will you want to find out if it’s a boy or a girl?” Names? I haven’t thought about that either. Has she? Does she have any in mind? Boy or girl? Do I want to know? Does she? Leah eyes meet mine, the same questions running through her mind. How could it be that we haven’t discussed any of this? What the hell have we been doing all this time? Then a brief image of Leah’s naked chest against my lips enters my mind and I’m reminded of exactly how we’ve been spending our time. I clear my throat. “No names yet,” I say. “But I think I’d like to know what we are having.” A rare, shy smile appears on Leah’s lips at my answer. “Me too,” she says. “So exciting,” my mother adds for the hundredth time. “We can find out next week at my sonogram appointment,” Leah points out. I smile for a fraction of a second before her words register. Wait. Next week? “When next week?” I question. “Thursday. Like I told you,” she answers, smiling. No, she most definitely did not tell me that. I, on the other hand, am certain I told her about my trip to Los Angeles next week. “I’m leaving on Tuesday for LA, remember? I won’t be back until Sunday.” Leah stares at me blankly. Has she forgotten this already? I told her last week as soon as I booked the shoot. I know I told her because I wanted her to know well in advance of my leaving. “No you didn’t,” she states, gently putting her utensils down on her plate. “I did,” I argue. “Right after I booked the shoot. I called and told you.” I wait for recollection to sweep over her, but it doesn’t. Instead, she leans back against her chair and folds her arms. “I think I would remember you telling me something like that,” she counters. “Apparently not.” We stare at each other in silence for a minute before my father ’s deep voice interrupts our little game of Who Will Blink First. “The life of a traveling photographer,” he says before taking a sip from his glass of wine. Three sets of eyes turn on him, my mother ’s shooting daggers. “What?” He shrugs, looking at her. “They should get used to that.” Silence falls upon the table and I look back at Leah, who clearly seems embarrassed and uncomfortable with our somewhat public spat. I nudge her leg under the table with my knee.

“Hey,” I say softly. “You can call and tell me after you find out.” Any hope of that bringing a small smile to her face is gone when she only nods, preoccupying herself with folding her napkin in her lap over and over. Sensing her raw mood, my mother thankfully comes to the rescue. “You know what? We need to get you a congratulations gift!” She stands, stepping away from the table. “Why don’t the boys clean up while we choose a few things off the Pottery Barn Kids website?” Leah gives an awkward, tight smile before standing and leaving the room with my mom. She doesn’t even turn back to spare me a glance. Once the sound of their footsteps are far enough away, I lean back in my chair, dropping my napkin over my plate. “Thanks for that, Dad,” I say, sarcasm laced through my words. “You think that was bad? Just wait. You have no idea what’s coming your way.” My father stands, waving his hand over the table. “Clean all of this up,” he says, before walking out of the room. Left alone at the table, I rub my hand over my head, a small headache having developed. I resign myself to the fact that even if Leah does remember me telling her about LA, she’ll never admit it now. I stand, piling up dishes in my hands and head into the kitchen where my father is clearing space near the sink. “I did tell her,” I say, sounding like a sulking child. My father laughs. “Boy, in case you’ve forgotten, that girl is pregnant. Which means nothing you say or do is going to be right unless she says so. She believes you didn’t tell her, you didn’t. She believes you forgot what she told you, you did.” I shake my head. “That hardly seems fair.” He rests one hand on his hip, looking at me like I’m an idiot. “You just get hit in the head? Fair walked out the door the minute that girl’s hormones took off. You best remember that! It will make these next few months a hell of a lot easier. Fair,” he scoffs. “Of course it isn’t fair. But That’s. How. It. Is.” He enunciates each word slowly, carefully, so I understand his meaning. For the next few months, I’m at Leah’s mercy. “Now, on to something we can fix,” he says opening the dishwasher. “You can start work after this last trip of yours. We’ll start you off easy, some smaller accounts, but if all goes well, it won’t be long before—” I hold up my hands, stopping him. “Whoa, whoa. What are you talking about?” He casually continues to fill the dishwasher one plate at a time. “Starting at the firm,” he says. I must have missed something because he sees the confusion written all over my face. “You can’t think you’ll still be able to go on living this photographer lifestyle, do you? You’ll need a stable job closer to home. Not one that has you traveling all over the world all the time. I’ll get you started in the office—” “I can’t believe you,” I interrupt him, anger boiling under my skin. “After all this time, you still don’t believe I have a career. You think I won’t be able to provide for them.” My father turns and takes one very dominant step towards me, drying his hands with a dish towel before pointing a finger at me. “You’ve got some serious growing up to do.” I lean my hands against the counter, gripping its edges tightly. I feel my father ’s presence as he leans in, his familiar scent of old wood and spice getting stronger with every inch he comes closer. “The minute you and Leah decided to keep this baby, you decided to put that child before anyone or anything else. Before your own wants, your own needs,” he says sharply. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret you seem not to have figured out yet.” He takes a step back, giving me space to turn and face him. “Soon enough, before you even realize it’s happened, leaving your child behind for any amount of time will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It will crush you. And that girl,” he says pointing upstairs where Leah and my mother are online shopping. “I doubt she’s on board with being

a single parent, left alone for days at a time while you travel the world.” He covers his hands over the sides of my face, just like he used to when I was a boy and was about to tell me something important. His voice softens a bit. “Being a father will give you a sense of pride you never knew existed. A love so strong, you’d gladly lay down your life if it meant keeping your child safe and happy. You’d sacrifice anything without even blinking.” He releases my face and I swallow the giant lump that’s formed in my throat. I watch my father go back to the sink and begin to rinse more dishes. “This offer has nothing to do with my thoughts on your career.” He stills, looking down into the sink. “You’ve already proven yourself there.” Not once has my father ever said anything out loud about being proud of what I’ve accomplished as a photographer. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see it. It’s there, in the framed photos I took hanging in his office. But hearing the words… “I’ll figure it out, Dad. I’ll be able to do this my way,” I say, trying to reassure him and maybe even myself that I’ll be able to handle my job and the lifestyle that comes along with it as well as my responsibilities to both Leah and my child. Traveling will just become a part of our lives and we’ll figure out the best way to work around it. He looks over at me with a small, pitying smile. “Shane, it’s not that I don’t think you can do it. It’s that I know you won’t want to.”

“WHAT A DAY,” Cal’s tired words make their way past my pounding headache. I look up from where I’ve been massaging my temples for the last ten minutes to see him take a seat right next to me. “That could have gone better,” he adds. “No kidding,” I answer sarcastically, closing my eyes. The day started off awful and didn’t get any better as it wore on. In actuality, everything started to go to shit before I even left for LA. After our little misunderstanding at my parent’s house, Leah’s mood took a major swan dive. Gone was the girl who couldn’t keep her hands off me. In her place was a girl with a major chip on her shoulder. I’ve heard what they say about women holding grudges. It’s child’s play compared to a pregnant woman holding a grudge. We’ve barely spoken these last few days. The silent treatment started on the car ride home and continued right throughout the week. Any time I’d call or text her, I’d get short, clipped responses. When I called to say goodbye before my flight, she let it go to voicemail. Voicemail. Not even a goodbye. Leah being this irrational and stubborn is…new. Staying this mad over a scheduling conflict? How do men go through this over and over? One pregnancy should be enough to scare them off having any others. I’m beyond trying to understand Leah now. The only thing I can think of is that this pregnancy has actually made her crazy, no longer able to think rationally or clearly. But even with this new insanity, I have never missed her as much as I have during this trip. After the crappy few days I had leading up to this trip, it really shouldn’t have surprised me that everything after would also take a turn for the worse. Our scheduled rooftop photo shoot had to be postponed due to rain. Rain! In Los Angeles! Then, one of the models showed up hung-over, needing to take mini breaks every fifteen minutes to go puke in a bucket. And when a gust of wind from the overly obnoxious fan we were using blew over one of the flash umbrellas causing a large tear, I didn’t account for the two hours it would take Cal to drive in LA traffic to get a new one. But none of that compares to the struggle of knowing today is Comb’s ultrasound and I’m missing it. A few days ago when I told her it wasn’t a big deal I wouldn’t be there, I meant it. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. I didn’t think it would bother me that much. It’s just a doctor ’s appointment. There are bound to be many more. But when I caught myself checking my watch every

twenty minutes, calculating the time difference, wondering if she’s seen the doctor yet, what the doctor might have said, whether she got to see our baby on the monitor, I knew I was wrong. This was a big deal. Knowing she was going to find out if we’re having a boy or a girl without me hit me harder than a punch to the gut. The non-stop clicking from my keys on my laptop shifts my attention to where Cal is sifting through the shots we took today. “Not bad, all things considered,” he says. I lean back in my chair, glancing at the images as they flash across the screen. “I couldn’t care less right now,” I answer. Cal looks over and I know he can see the stress and exhaustion on my face. Not to mention the misery. “Do we know yet? Boy or girl?” I glance at my phone. No new notifications. No missed calls. No texts. “Nope.” Cal continues to scroll through the images. “She’ll call. Probably just got caught up in that case she’s working on. Didn’t you say she’s been working like crazy these last few weeks?” “Yeah.” I nod, but Cal’s attempt at trying to reassure me does nothing. He knows about Leah’s less than enthusiastic reaction to this trip. I think he started to see the same in me before we even took off, but he’s kept his mouth shut about it. He swings his chair away from the desk and faces me, leaning back into it just as I am. “Then don’t sweat it. She’ll call.” HOURS LATER I’M back at my hotel room plugging in my phone, the battery dangerously close to empty. I jump in the shower, hoping the hot water will in some way relax me. All I want to do is lie down and eat the burger I ordered through room service while I wait for Leah to contact me. I walk out of the bathroom with just a towel wrapped around my waist. I look for some fresh boxers in my suitcase and turn on the TV. I flip through channels, stopping when I see familiar faces. I don’t know why I can never change the channel when it falls on a Friends episode. I’ve seen every one several times over. But every time I watch Monica do something neurotic or hear Joey use the same lame come on, I smile. Because this show always makes me think of one person. From the desk, I hear my phone notifying me of a new text message. Swiping over the screen, I see Leah sent me a text with an audio attachment.

. Her words give me cause to smile wider. Curious, I press play on the twenty second audio file. At first, all I can hear is static. But after about five seconds, I make out what I’m supposed to be hearing. Like a drum, beating fast and strong, is a heartbeat. Our child’s heartbeat. I’m so in awe of it, I don’t even realize I’ve sat down on the bed and replayed the clip five times. A tightness forms in my chest, like my heart is being squeezed but expanding at the same time. Listening to that little heart drum, everything that’s happened this week between Leah and me, the silence, the finger pointing, seems so insignificant. That twenty second clip is the best thing that’s happened to me today. No, not just today. Not even this week, or month, or year. It is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I play the recording once more before I find her number and hit Call. “Did you get it?” she answers after one ring, not even bothering to say hello. Between listening to the recording and hearing her voice, a feeling of home sickness I’ve never

felt before falls over me. I would give anything right now to be at home with her. “Yeah, I got it. Played it ten times already,” I tell her, laughing. “I did the same,” she admits. “Doctor said we could have done it a few weeks ago but since I wasn’t an at risk patient, she waited until now.” My heart skips a beat momentarily at the words at risk patient but when Leah continues talking, her voice soothes that fear away. “She said the baby’s heartbeat is strong. One hundred and sixty beats a minute! Isn’t that crazy? She also said I should start to feel the baby kick soon.” I let out a long breath, taking in everything being said. She’s speaking so fast, going over all the details of her appointment, it’s too much to take it all in. “You keep saying ‘the baby.’ Were you able to find out? Boy or girl?” I ask, my heart pounding against my chest with excitement. “I was…” she starts to say. “But I didn’t.” My brows furrow together, confused. “You didn’t find out? I thought you wanted to know.” She waits a few seconds before responding. “I did. I do. But,” I hear her take a deep breath, “it didn’t feel right. Finding out without you there.” My hand clenches into a fist, gripping the bed sheets under my fingers. “I guess I wanted to find out with you more than I wanted to find out alone.” The guilt I feel at not being there is just as strong as the joy I have of her not wanting to find out without me. They’re such opposite feelings and I don’t know which one I should act on. Which is the right one to express. “I miss you so much,” I tell her, falling back onto the bed. It’s frightening how much. “Comb, this trip has been fucking misery. I hated not being there. Hated not finding out with you. Hated not talking to you. I just…” What? What am I trying to say? “I can’t wait to see you,” I finish. She doesn’t answer back immediately, causing a small stir of panic to course through my veins. Have I said too much without really saying anything? “You just miss getting laid,” she says trying to sound lighthearted but failing. She’s masking whatever it is my words did to her with humor, unsure how she should react. “No,” I say seriously. I mean, yes, I do miss that, but it’s not just the sex I miss. It’s sex with her. The feel of her skin, the inhales of her scent. Just being with her. “It’s more than that.” There’s another deafening silence that comes from her end. I can picture her twirling her hair around her fingers, biting her lip, trying to figure out what to say. “More than what?” she asks. I hear curiosity in her voice, like she’s waiting for me to address what’s been going on between us first. It gives me a sense of relief knowing she hasn’t been completely oblivious to what we’ve been doing. That under the façade, she’s feeling something too. Something more than either of us have been able to admit. Until now. “Do you miss me, Comb?” I ask, needing to hear the words before I continue. She releases a long breath before she answers. “It’s disgusting how much.” I smile into my phone. It’s big and goofy, and I’m absolutely certain I’d be embarrassed at seeing my own reflection, but I don’t care. Right now, all I care about is telling Leah what I’ve known to be true for days. Maybe even weeks. “I want you, Comb. I want you more than I already have you. I want to be with you every day and every night. And not because we’re having incredible sex, but because I want to be with you. Doing

nothing. Doing everything. It doesn’t matter. As long as I’m with you.” “And I hate missing you. I hate watching this Friends episode without you.” I take a breath. “Everything is just better when I’m with you.” I hear her clear her throat, most likely overwhelmed at my confession. “What episode are you watching?” she asks, her voice cracking, knowing my words have affected her. I laugh, not even mad she’s not acknowledging my confession. Because the breaking tone in her voice has already said it all. So to appease her, and with my best Ross Gellar impression, I answer her using only one word. “PIVOT!” Her pitchy voice turns into a full blown laugh. Next to our baby’s heartbeat, it’s the second best thing I’ve heard all day. “Ross was always my favorite,” she says. “I know.” I cover my eyes with my forearm. “I’ve missed hearing you laugh this week.” That comment silences her but I decide to push forward, tell her everything else I miss about her. “I also missed seeing your smile, hearing your snarky comments, the eye roll you give me every time Bryan opens his mouth.” She’s still silent but I know she’s smiling, maybe even biting her lip. Leah and I crossed one line months ago, not knowing what we were doing. But now I see a new line in front of us. One that could take us somewhere new and different. I want us to cross that line, become something new, something different but for that to happen, I think I need to be the one to take the first step. “When I get home,” I start, my voice almost growling with promise, “I’m going to make up for all the days I’ve been away. I’m going to show you just how much I’ve missed you. I’m going to remind you over and over just how good I think we can be.” “You don’t have to remind me of that, Shane,” she says. “That’s something I already know.”

MY ARMS SHAKE under me, my toes furiously trying to keep me rooted in place, but the drops of sweat running down my back and onto my neck are making it hard. My shoulder blades burn, screaming to give up and just fall over already, to give my body the reprieve it’s begging for. And to top it all off, I need to pee. Badly. “Now we stand in warrior pose,” our instructor tells us, her voice calm and serene, not at all like she’s having as hard of a time balancing as I am. I get into position and let my eyes graze over the room. The other ten women in the class are balancing on their feet easily, arms extended to the side, perfectly straight, not one of them struggling. I close my eyes, reminding myself it wasn’t too long ago I too had no problems with these poses. My core was strong, legs solid. An hour of balancing and stretching was nothing. But today, I’m fighting an exhaustion that’s almost inhumane. My body won’t cooperate the way it used to, my eyes are pleading for a nap and my bladder has recently become my worst enemy. Thankfully, we are now moving into a sitting position, a sign that this abusive class is about to end. The deep breaths we’re instructed to take only makes my need to pee even worse. I’m in hell. “Namaste,” our instructor says, bowing her head. “Whatever,” I mutter, my voice lost in the others repeating the respectful greeting. I start to roll up my mat and gather my belongings, shoving them all into my oversized bag. “That was a great session,” Holly says, rolling up her own mat beside me. “Where’s the bathroom in this place?” I answer, looking around the room. “Down the hall, I think,” she cocks her head to the side. The class empties out and I make a beeline to the bathroom. I don’t think I even close the stall properly before I’m pulling my yoga pants down and squatting. These days, it feels like I spend a lot of my time looking for the closest restroom. If there isn’t one readily accessible, I leave. This is what my life has succumbed to, ensuring I’m in close proximity of a toilet at all times. When I return to the studio, Holly is speaking with our instructor. I walk up, hoping she’s almost ready to leave because now that I’m empty, I’m starving. I give a quick smile to the instructor before turning my attention over to Holly. “Ready?” Before she can answer, our instructor turns to me and hands me a brochure, a brilliantly bright smile on her face. “I was just informing Holly about some classes you might be interested in.

Prenatal. They’re much more suited for expectant mothers. The movements are less strenuous and you won’t struggle as much. We offer them almost daily!” she states, pointing to the brochure. I look down at the pamphlet. A woman who looks like she’s about to burst is sitting cross legged with her eyes closed. The words “Prepare. Relax. Breathe” are scrolled across the top. “Before you know it, that tummy is really going to give you a hard time with some of the poses we do in this class,” she says, laughing. Laughing! At me and my apparently oversized tummy. When I don’t reply, I see her smile begin to falter before it completely disappears. “Just a suggestion,” she adds awkwardly before walking away. I watch her leave the room before I turn back to Holly. “What the fuck was that?” Holly’s lips press together in an awful attempt to hide her own laugh. “Seriously,” I say. “Why would she give me this?” Holly’s lips lift up to the side, my obvious lack of understanding humorous to her. “Because you are pregnant.” “I know that. But how did she know?” I look down at my stomach. My loose flowing yoga top barely shows anything! I wore it on purpose! How could she have known? When I look back up, Holly is staring at my stomach as well. “What?” “You haven’t noticed?” “Noticed what?” I furrow my brows. Another small smile tugs at the corners of Holly’s lips. “Well, you’ve kind of…popped.” I blink a few times before answering. “Popped?” “Yeah.” She nods, waving her hand over my stomach. “You’ve got the belly now.” I look down at my stomach once more, stretching my shirt over my midsection. I look down at it from all angles, twisting my body in all directions. I mean, I did notice a bit of a change this morning, but I just figured it was some exaggerated bloating. Women don’t just pop out of nowhere. There’s a slow build, almost unnoticeable unless you’re looking for it. Right? I walk over to the mirrors that make up one of the studio walls and stand a foot away. I turn to the side and look, really examine what I see. My stomach, my ass, my boobs. Studying myself like this, looking for the changes, it’s clear two of three are without a doubt, bigger. Holly walks up beside me, her still slim body looking nearly model perfect next to my growing and expanding one. “Shit.” I thought I’d have more time before this baby made itself known to everyone. More time before I’d have to tell my bosses. “At least your ass still looks good,” she adds, looking down at my butt. I glare at her through the mirror. “Come on,” she says, taking my arm and leading me out of the room. “Let’s go feed that belly.” I SIT BACK in my chair, swallowing my last bite of Belgian waffles with strawberries and whipped cream. Not even a crumb is left on the plate. “At least now my ass will be proportionate to the rest of my body,” I say, licking my fingers, wiping them clean. Holly laughs while she finishes her egg white omelet with spinach. Only spinach. That used to be my breakfast choice after yoga before I started eating for two. Free-range eggs and organic

vegetables. Today, I couldn’t care less if my waffles were from the freezer and the whipped cream from a can. I watch as she finishes off her large cup of coffee, almond milk only, while I sip on steeped grass cuttings. I’d give up waffles for the rest of my life for one giant mug of caffeine. I miss coffee. I miss the taste, the aroma, the beautiful swirl of color it makes when I add just the right amount of cream. But what I really miss is the quick fix caffeine provides. I used to be able to work sixteen hour days, trusting in my cherished caffeinated friend to help get me through the day. These days, without its help, I’m usually ready for a nap by lunch. And my need to close my eyes in hour intervals could not have come at a worse time. The Bakker case is just about to get started and the hours I’m putting in at the office are killing me. Cassandra expects a lot to be done in a very short amount of time. Research, prepping for discovery, drafting expert reports, pre-trial interviews—the list goes on. A few months ago, this would have been my dream. Now, every day at work feels more like a nightmare. I’m overwhelmed, I run out of steam quickly, and the looks I’m receiving every time I go to the bathroom are getting embarrassing. I bet everyone thinks I have an STD. This case is supposed to be my big break at the firm, show the partners I can walk on legal water. Only I’m not walking on it…I’m drowning in it. As if on cue, Holly asks how the case is coming along. “Great,” I answer too quickly. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of preparation but nothing I can’t handle.” I plaster a smile on my face, hoping to convince myself as much as I am Holly. “I can help,” she offers, placing her empty coffee mug on the table. “With the research and drafting part,” she adds. I shake my head, ready to tell her I don’t need any help, but she continues on. “Leah, it’s my job. I can help,” she says. When she leans in over the table and lowers her voice, I know then I’m not doing as good a job at hiding how tired I am. “Let me help you,” she urges. I smile but her offer only makes me feel worse. Because I can hear the true meaning behind it even if she isn’t saying the words aloud. This case is too much for you. “I’ll let you know,” I say, promising her to think about it and looking to change the subject. “When are the final fittings?” The wedding is only a few short months away and dress fittings should be coming up soon. “Next month,” she says, but there is hesitation in her answer. “What?” She takes a moment before answering, as if preparing herself for what she’s about to say. The way one would prepare before giving bad news. “What?” I say again, impatient. “Well,” she starts slowly. “When we first choose the bridesmaid dresses, you weren’t pregnant.” “So?” “The dresses are above the knee, open back, a little form-fitting—” “I know what they look like,” I interrupt. “I was there.” She smiles uncomfortably. “Now that you are starting to show and will be getting…”“Getting what?” She uses her hands and makes a ball over her stomach. She doesn’t immediately say the words but I wish she would, because I’m having a hard time grasping it. And then she does say it, and it’s the words no woman ever wants to hear. “I don’t think you’ll…fit.” My mouth drops open. I look down to my stomach, trying to imagine how much bigger it will be by the time the wedding comes around. Surely it won’t be that big they can’t work around it? Unless, she thinks the rest of me

won’t fit in it either. “Is this because you just watched me eat three waffles?” I ask, embarrassed. A small, pitying laugh escapes her lips. One that says, Oh sweetie, it’s not your fault you’re fat. “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous,” her voice too soft, trying too hard to show how ludicrous my question was. But I see it in her eyes. She’s worried I’ll look like a whale in her wedding photos. “You’re that pregnant woman all other pregnant women hate. All belly and nothing else. But…the seamstress doesn’t think that dress will be as…” she takes a second, deciding on the right words to use, “complementing on you. She thinks we can find something better. Something that will work around the baby bump.” She says this all so sweetly it’s almost impossible not to understand her point. Almost. “Why don’t we just put me in a potato sack,” I say smiling wide, handling this immaturely. But I don’t care. This day has been just one giant suck after another. Every woman gets plagued by fat days. The days we wake up and don’t feel our best. But we hide them with flowing shirts and stretchy leggings. Sometimes we make ourselves feel better by eating junk food all day because if we’re already feeling fat, then why not? But the great thing about these kinds of days is no one really notices when you’re having them. They see you exactly the same way and most times, the feeling is gone by the next day. Today, my bitter reality made itself known. From now on when I wake up feeling fat, it won’t go away the next day or the day after that. It will stay long and only get worse. But the real shitty part? Everyone else will not only notice, but they’re already starting to point it out as well. IT’S NICE AND quiet in the office. There are only a couple of first year interns working at their desks, trying to accomplish the exact same thing I am—getting ahead by coming into work on a Sunday. They barely notice me as I walk in, still in my yoga gear, a large bag covering my midsection. As soon as I get to my office, I close the door and get organized. I turn my laptop on and stream some calming music, knowing it will help put me in a good frame of mind. I set a bunch of files in front of me and get to work on reading, highlighting, and researching one argument after another. It’s amazing how much work you can get done when you have no interruptions or distractions. What’s more amazing is how much more productive I am when I’m not spending so much of my energy trying to keep my pregnancy a secret from my co-workers. After a couple of hours, I’ve somehow found my way to the middle of my office, sitting on the floor with stacks of papers encircling me. But everything is systematic. I know exactly which pile I need to reach for when I need it. I should work like this every day. I’m so immersed in my work I don’t even hear the soft knock at my door, or it open for that matter. It’s only when I hear a clearing of the throat that I look up. “Cassandra—Mrs. Fairfax,” I say, clumsily standing. “I—I wasn’t expecting to see you here today.” “I heard the music playing—” But she doesn’t finish her thought. Something has blindsided her, shocked her into silence. Only then does it dawn on me that her confounded look isn’t about the piles of papers around me, but what’s in the center of the piles. Unhidden by my yoga attire, Cassandra’s eyes are dead fixed on my stomach. Instinctively, I wrap my arms around my stomach, as if to protect it. “This is …unexpected,” she says flatly, closing the door behind her. I’m surprised at how much I dislike the tone. I stand upright, straightening my shoulders. “Yes, you’re right in that regard. This was… unexpected.” The urge to defend this pregnancy, this child, runs through me faster and stronger than anything I’ve felt before. “I was planning on telling you and the rest of the firm this week,” I say as

confidently as I can, even though I’m lying through my teeth. I was hoping to still hide it from them for another few weeks. “I see.” “Rest assured, I’m not going to let this pregnancy impact the caliber of my work or the amount I’m able to handle,” I continue, lying, “therefore I don’t expect this to be an issue.” I pray she can’t see my legs shaking. Her eyes wander over my body, squinting just a touch. “Consider this notifying us of your… situation,” she says, then turns to leave. That’s it? That’s all she’s going to say? Simply call me a situation? “Cassandra!” I yell after her. “I meant what I said. I don’t expect this to impede my abilities or to be a problem moving forward. You’ll have my full attention with the Bakker case. Nothing changes.” She looks at me for a few seconds before her lips curve into the smallest of doubting smiles. “Leah,” she starts, casting a sympathetic look my way. “You’re a smart girl. You should know this by now.” I blink, confused. “Everything is going to change.” SHANE’S PLANE FROM LA landed a little while ago and he texted me to meet him at his place as soon as I could. After the day I’ve had, sex is just about the last thing on my mind. For the first time, I feel very uncomfortable with my body. I’ve always been secure and confident with myself, but now it just feels alien to me. Not only am I growing and expanding at a rate I wasn’t ready for, but it’s caused problems for me all day. Shane’s expression at seeing me for the first time in nearly a week doesn’t help either. I watch as his smile easily turns into one of surprise, his brows raising, mouth opening. And just like everyone else today, his eyes immediately fall to my stomach. “Whoa,” is all that comes out of his mouth. Like he’s about to herd cows out into the pasture. I breeze past him, my shoulder nudging him hard as I stomp by. I hear the door close behind me, followed by Shane’s hurried footsteps chasing after me. I turn swiftly, raising my hand in the air, telling him not to come closer. “Yes. I know,” my tone clearly annoyed. Shane stills, tilting his head to the side. “You know what?” “This.” I point to my stomach. “I know. I…popped.” His small grin slowly turns into an arrogant smile. Like he’s proud of himself for it. “Yes.” He nods. “You did.” He comes forward another few steps, hands raised as if to touch my stomach. I take a quick step back. “What are you doing?” I ask sharply. He stops mid-stride, his hands frozen in air. “I was going to touch you,” he says slowly, making his intention clear. “Why?” “What?” He barks out a small laugh. Why does he want to touch me? Is he not seeing what everyone else is? A few weeks ago I could understand the attraction. But now? “What do you mean why? I haven’t seen or touched you in a week and now you’re here and looking like—” He stops, looking me up and down with his eyes. “Like what?” I say a little too aggressive, daring him to make a comment about my body. “Looking like what?”

A gentle smile comes over his face and he takes two tentative steps towards me, moving slowly as if not to scare me. “Like you’re glowing,” he says quietly. With one more step, I feel his hands rest over my stomach. They’re large enough that his fingertips brush against my hips. “Absolutely glowing.” “I don’t feel like I’m glowing,” I say, looking up into his eyes. They’re a deeper green today, probably due to tiredness from his trip. “But you are,” he says smiling. “No, what you are seeing is me getting fat. It’s probably food sweats from everything I ate today,” I counter. “I’m not the only one who sees it either. It’s been commented on several times today. They all think I’m a whale.” Okay, maybe that part is a bit of a stretch. “What?” he answers, a hint of anger in his tone. “Who said that?” I shake my head, not wanting to talk about it. “Doesn’t matter. It’s not inaccurate. And I’m only going to get bigger. Bigger and rounder. Soon I won’t be able to see my feet. My own feet, Shane!” His head falls back and his shoulders shake with laughter. “Oh, Comb, I’ve missed you,” he says, kissing my cheek. He leads us to the couch, our hands still intertwined after we sit. I feel his thumb brush over my fingers. Two weeks ago, that touch was enough to make me want to rip his clothes off. But tonight, it only makes me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. How do you tell someone you’ve been having sex with for months that now the idea of being naked with him makes you want to vomit? “I’m not in the mood,” I say, releasing my hand from his grasp. “Sorry.” His brows furrow at my words and he leans away from me. “Wait…what?” he says, almost insulted. I shrug. “I’m just…not feeling very sexual right now.” “Is that why you think I asked you to come over?” he asks. I shrug once more. I hear him release an exasperated breath. “Wow,” he says, pulling away from me. Resting his arms on his thighs and interlacing his fingers together, he looks straight ahead as he speaks. “I thought we talked about this.” “This?” I repeat. He nods once, looking at me now, expectantly. “Yes. This. Over the phone.” He blinks back his own irritation. “I told you this wasn’t just about sex for me. I thought I made that pretty clear. I told you what this was about. What I wanted this to become. I thought you…felt the same way.” He turns his head away from me, shaking it slightly. He’s thinking back to the call, wondering if he misunderstood everything that was said. Thought I felt the same way? Could he really not know? After five years, could he still not know me well enough to tell? I think of how I acted walking in here tonight, the assumptions I made of why he asked me to come over. After five years, do I not know him well enough either? No. We do know each other. That much, I am sure. If there is only one certainty I have, it’s Shane. He’s my constant. And now, he’s left wondering if I’m his. I don’t want him to wonder. I want him to know. I wish I could erase these last few minutes and start all over. I want to walk back through that door with a smile, full of excitement at seeing him after a week of separation. I want for us to go back to that place we were at when we spoke on the phone. The place he led us. The place where after years of overlooking what could be between us, we can now both admit we want to try. I want to try to be his as much as I want him to be mine. Without warning, I do the same thing I did that first night in the back of cab. I lunge at him, taking

his head in my hands and press my lips to his. When I kissed him that night so long ago, I wanted my curiosity answered. When I kiss him now, our first time since that night, I’m answering his curiosity. Answering him with my lips, tongue, breath. I thought you felt the same way. I do, Shane. I do.

EVEN WITH THE kiss surprising him and his lips barely moving, they fall over mine perfectly without even having to try. I feel like I should say something, comment on it. When two people fit so well together they don’t have to put any effort into it, shouldn’t it be acknowledged? When two bodies can align without thought, one person’s curve filling in the others completely, shouldn’t it be recognized? When you know what they are going to do a fraction of a second before they do, shouldn’t that be authentication of something great? I should say something but I can’t. Because now his lips start to move, taking control of the kiss, and it leaves me speechless. Shane wraps his hand around my neck, pulling me into his lap, our mouths never separating. If anything, they only fused together more tightly, like we’re branding each other ’s names invincibly onto each other ’s lips. Our chests come together, my breasts pressed hard against his body. His hands find their way to my hips, fingers clenching into my skin, marking me through my barely fitting jeans. He pulls away, trying to catch his breath. I feel the scruff of his chin rub against my cheek, my fingers running over his short, nearly shaved head. Shane pulls one of my hands down and brings it to his lips, kissing my fingers softly. “Are we doing this?” he asks. I grin. “We’ve been doing this for months.” I expect him to chuckle at my answer, but he doesn’t. His face remains serious, his hand squeezing my fingers tighter. “No, Comb,” he begins again. “Are we doing this? Because I want to. But you need to want it too.” I pull my fingers from his hands and rest them on the side of his cheek. When he turns his face to the side to kiss them, I know I want this too. Maybe I’ve always wanted it. Maybe it took something so unexpected to make us getting together so…predictable. “I want this,” I tell him. Those are the only words he needs to hear. His lips press against mine once more. His hands hold my head in place as he nibbles against my jaw line, then soothes the tiny stings with his tongue. He leaves soft kisses in his wake as he works his way back up to my lips, leaving me feeling lightheaded. We kiss like that for seconds, minutes, hours. We kiss for all the weeks of touching, panting, begging, but never kissing. Our lips should feel like strangers, but they don’t. Instead, they feel like they’ve

finally found each other again. Lovers reconnecting, having counted down the days, weeks, months until being reunited. For months, we’ve been physical but it took us being separated for a week to finally become intimate. This technically isn’t our first kiss, but in all the ways it matters, it is. This kiss is a promise we are going to start everything all over. That everything will change yet stay the same. That we’ll still be Shane and Leah, still be best friends but as of tonight, we’re going to try and be more. Be something different. Be everything to each other. Shane’s lips move down to my neck, kissing and sucking every inch he touches. I feel his hot breath against my skin as he speaks. “I thought you weren’t in the mood,” he asks between small little bites. “I wasn’t,” I say panting. “But I’m pregnant. Things switch very quickly for me.” I feel his body shake under me, soft laughter rippling through him. “Lucky me,” he says before resuming his focus on my neck. I reach down to his waist, pulling his shirt over his head, wanting to be able to run my hands over his chest, to feel his hard nipples under the tips of my fingers. He helps by raising his arms up in the air. I toss his shirt to the side and look down at his chest, lost in how warm and beautiful his skin looks and feels. I want to lick every inch of him. He starts to lift the hem of my shirt and that earlier anxiety comes over me. Insecurities about how my body is changing—has changed—since he last saw me. My shirt is nearly half way up my body when I pull it back down. Shane’s eyes question me and an embarrassed rush of heat reddens my cheeks. I look down, refusing to meet his eyes and cup my hands together between my legs. “I—I don’t look the same. I’m…bigger than I was a few weeks ago.” My worry is met with silence, and I’m too nervous to look up. But Shane doesn’t give me a choice. He grabs my chin with his thumb and index finger, forcing me to meet his stare. “You are the sexiest woman in the world to me. Probably more now than ever before,” he says softly. I try and shake my head in disagreement, but his hold on my chin won’t let me. “No, Comb. I always knew you were gorgeous. Beautiful. Sexy. For years I thought any man who had the chance to have you was a lucky son of bitch. Now, I’m that lucky son of a bitch. Only it’s better. Because I get to see you do something amazing with your body. And it’s a turn-on.” I roll my eyes, not believing him. “It is,” he insists. “Even more so because I had a hand in doing this to you. Feel this,” he says taking my hand and resting it on top of his crotch. “Feel how hard you make me. Feel what your body does to me.” My hand slowly wraps around the obvious thickness that’s hidden beneath his jeans. I give it a little squeeze and hear the sharp inhale comes from his lips. “You do that,” he repeats. Feeling this hard part of his body, hearing his words, seeing the lust reflected in his eyes, it gives me the confidence to pull my own shirt up and over my head. A cocky grin appears on Shane’s lips, and a part of me feels like I should slap it right off him but the other wants to relish in it for the rest of my life. “Good girl,” he says before reaching around my back to the clasp of my bra. “Wait!” I say, his fingers pulling at the sides of my bra. “Bryan?” It’s one thing to let Shane see me in all my naked pregnant glory, but there is no way I’m letting Bryan catch a glimpse. “I sent him away for the night,” Shane says, kissing the space between my breasts while releasing

the clasp behind me. When the bra falls down my arms, goose bumps come over my chest, perking my nipples even more. “Your nipples—” Shane starts. “I know,” I interrupt. “Are huge.” “Are beautiful,” he says ignoring me before taking one into his mouth. I let my head fall back at the sensation, equally loving and hating the torture. My breathing starts to quicken, my fingers digging into the back of Shane’s neck. I hear a moan come from his mouth as he turns his attention to my other breast. I can’t stop writhing against his thighs, needing the friction between my own legs. Shane gets the message because one hand makes its way to the button of my pants. When his fingers brush the material of my panties, he pulls his head back a little. With half a smile, he looks at me confused. “Your pants are already undone.” I look down. “What?” A small laugh erupts between us. “Your pants. They’re undone. The zipper too almost.” My hand goes to the area in question. Button and zipper both undone, my fingers brushing against his and the material of my panties. Another round of embarrassment creeps up my face. I close my eyes, mortified. “I couldn’t do them up. I used an elastic. It must have flown off when we started…this.” Heat burns my cheeks, the flush on my neck now only due to humiliation. I cover my eyes with my hands, shielding me from his stare. “Oh, Comb,” he says quietly with a slight edge to his voice. “The things you do to me.” He wraps his arms under my backside and stands, lifting me. My legs instinctively wrap around him so not to fall. He walks swiftly to his bedroom, marching us right to his bed. Laying me down, he crawls over me on his hands and knees. “I love that you can’t do up your pants. Now I can’t be driven crazy wondering what your panties look like,” he says slipping a few fingers under the elastic edge. When his fingers reach just the right spot, he leans down and whispers in my ear. “Because it does. It drives me crazy thinking about it. Every. Fucking. Day.” His fingers move in small tight circles, somewhat restricted by the clothing I still have on. But it doesn’t seem to matter because within seconds I can feel myself building, close to coming. Shane’s mouth latches on to one of my nipples at the exact moment I come on his fingers. “Oh God!” I yell out, riding out my orgasm for as long as I can. Shane releases my nipple with a pop and removes his fingers from my skin. Sitting back on his heels, he grips the sides of my pants and pulls them down my legs, taking my panties along with them. He hops off the bed just long enough to unbuckle his belt and jeans, pulling them down along with his boxer briefs. He runs his hands down his own length a few times, his eyes focused between my legs. “I wonder if you taste different being pregnant,” he says, his voice husky. “Should I find out?” “How would you know? This would be the first time,” I answer, still panting. “Oh I plan to have a taste after the pregnancy too,” he says grinning, climbing back on the bed. “I’ve been wanting a taste of this for a very long time,” he says kissing the inside of my thigh. “Have you pictured my face here?” He bites my other thigh. Not enough to be painful but I know it will leave a mark. “Have you thought about my tongue,” I feel his finger tease the same spot that brought me such pleasure just moments ago, “right here.” I lift myself up on my elbows, eyes sharpening. “If you don’t stop using your tongue for talking and start using it for something else, I’ll hurt you. And I won’t feel bad about it,” I caution him seriously. The top corner of his lips quirks up, a look of raw satisfaction coming over his face. As he lowers his head between my legs, he whispers into my skin. “So sexy.”

My head falls to the mattress the moment his tongue meets my already sensitive skin. Heat comes over my entire body, prickling sensations of lust and want and need all over again. I grip the sheets beside my head, pulling them in opposite directions. I hear myself moan Shane’s name over and over, feel my teeth bite into my bottom lip to keep me from screaming. My second orgasm comes just as easily as my first. Shane rises, licking his lips and winking at me with an air of confidence. Two can play at that game. “Lie down,” I order. He appeases me and I crawl on top of him. Lining up exactly as I need to. “Proud of yourself?” I question. He shrugs the tiniest amount, his expression arrogant. “A little.” “You should be,” I say. “And in return, I’m going to ride you harder than you’ve ever been ridden before.” Taking him in my hand, I guide him inside me and do well on my promise. I WAKE UP in Shane’s bed, alone. The sheets are a rumpled mess underneath me but his blanket has been gently laid on top of me. It’s dark, the sun having gone down hours ago. Only a dim light comes through the doorway from the living room. I sit up, wondering how long I’ve been asleep. The alarm clock near the bed says it’s just after two in the morning. I look around the room, trying to find something I can easily pull over my naked body. For a man, Shane’s room is quite tidy, no clothing laying around on the floor or furniture. I hop out of bed and look in one of the dresser drawers, finding my favorite Frankie Says Relax shirt. I pull it over my head and make my way to the living room. The floor boards are cool against my bare feet, matching the air in the loft. Shane’s at his desk, camera in hand, clicking through shots on the small screen. “Hey,” I say, startling him a bit. But his surprise is quickly replaced with a smile. “Hi,” he answers. “I tried not to wake you.” “You didn’t. I wake up a lot during the night.” I walk over and sit on the couch, bringing my legs up to my chest, stretching the shirt over my knees. Shane notices what I’m wearing. “I see you found something to wear.” “My favorite,” I tell him, smiling. “Mine too.” He winks. “I will say that I think you’d look better out of it though.” I giggle. “I’m sure you do.” My eyes drift to his open laptop. “What are you working on? The shoot from LA?” He turns to look at his open laptop, then closes the lid. “Yeah.” I narrow my eyes. “Can I see?” Shane shakes his head. “Nothing really that great.” “That can’t be true. There’s a reason everyone wants to hire you.” He lets out a small laugh. “Maybe. But I think I’ve got a much better model right here.” He lifts his camera from his lap and takes a picture of me. The bright flash momentarily blinding me. Then he takes another. And another. I lift my hands in front of my eyes, shielding me from the bright bursts light. “Okay, okay. That’s enough. You know I hate having my picture taken,” I chastise him. He lowers the camera, placing it on his desk. “No you don’t.” He smirks. He swings his chair to face me and I get my first full view of him. Shirtless, wearing only a pair of light blue lounge pants that sit low on his hips, his pelvic bones are just noticeable above the

drawstring hem. I stand and as sexily as I can without looking like a fool, strut my way over to him, sitting down in his lap. I wrap one arm around his shoulder while one of his drapes across my bare legs. I let my fingers roam about. Over his hips, those pelvic bones, through the small matting of hair just beside it. I giggle when I press down on his belly button. “I love your outie,” I say. He looks down at my fingers, circling his tummy. “Oh yeah?” “Yeah. It’s just like the rest of you. Outspoken, never shy.” He laughs. “Even the night we first met. Do you remember?” I ask him. He looks up at me, a genuine smile coming over his face at the memory. “Like it was yesterday.” “You were so sure of yourself. Confident. Cocky—” I giggle. “And that was before I knew I had to compete for your attention,” he says. “Little did I know who I had just met. Who you’d be to me.” His free hand comes up and brushes some of my hair behind my ear. “Little did I know who you’d be to me,” he says, looking into my eyes. We continue to stare at each other, neither of us knowing what to say or do next. It’s funny how our relationship is several years old yet it can feel so new at the same time. This is a new Shane and Leah relationship. One that has expectations and responsibilities and so much more riding on its success. We have a whole other person coming whose life will be impacted by our success…or failure. And I don’t want to fail. Not at this. “I’m nervous,” I confess. I don’t elaborate because Shane knows exactly what I mean. He understands this feeling just as much. But he doesn’t admit to his own nerves or fears. Instead, he says exactly what I need to hear. “Don’t be. I’ll take care of you. Of us. Always.” He reaches up and his lips touch mine softly, sealing his promise with a kiss. I want to believe that will be enough. That his promise is all we need. I pull back, the constant reminder of my pregnancy pressing against my bladder. “I need to pee,” I say. Shane smiles, releasing me from his lap. I stand and start to make my way to the bathroom, but stop at the window that overlooks the ocean in the distance. The moon is full and casts a silver glow over the water. I pull the sheers that hang over the window apart to get a better view. I’m about to tell him how pretty it is and he should come and see it when I hear the sound of a click followed by a flash come from behind me. I turn just as he’s lowering his camera. “What did I say,” I tell him. “I know,” he says, covering the lens before looking back up at me. “But you’re just too beautiful not to.”

A LOT CAN change in a month. A lot has changed in a month. Leah and I are a couple. I am her boyfriend and she is my girlfriend. We’ve taken the steps to move our relationship to a whole new level. We aren’t just buddies, or best friends, or future co-parents anymore. And even though we only took that turn a few weeks ago, I think we’ve actually been traveling this road for a while. Slowly and obliviously, but now I notice. I notice every single thing that has to do with Leah Kessel. The way my body reacts to the brush of her hand as she walk by. The way her scent invades my senses when I bury my face into her neck. The way my lips want to lay claim every time they meet hers. There’s an intimacy I crave when she’s around, even stronger when we are apart. I always loved hanging out with Leah, but being with Leah, that’s an experience so new, so different, so much more satisfying. When she’s near, she makes my heart pound out of my chest while at the same time letting me breathe easier. I seem to do the same to her. I see it in the way she looks at me, in the smile that reveals a bit more than it used to, the gleam in her eye only I know is there. There’s romance between us now. Not the flowers and candles kind, but the intimate, souls meeting kind. Anything we kept hidden from each other before, we now share. Words we kept silent before, we say out loud. I touch her whenever I can. Her face, strands of her hair, her growing stomach. She was right when she said it would only be a matter of time before she would get bigger and rounder. She’s still uncomfortable with it, not exactly embracing it like others do. But there is no one more beautiful to me than her. No one who can take my breath away like she can. She has a hard time believing it. I can’t really blame her when she has no control over her own body. A couple of nights ago we were lying down on my couch, and I was rubbing the soles of her feet and she could barely keep her eyes open. She had just spent fourteen hours at the office working on that damn case. I told her I didn’t like her working those long hours, thinking she’d agree with me. She didn’t. In fact, she got angry and didn’t hold back when she told me all the reasons why. That she was just as capable now as she’s always been, that being tired wasn’t a show of weakness and how dare I imply otherwise. Just mentioning anything about her slowing things down at work is like walking through a landmine. There’s no way I want to live through that explosion again, so I’m letting her figure it out. Then there was last night. We had just polished off a pizza a few minutes earlier when Leah started

to get up, needing to go to the bathroom. Nothing new there, but what happened next was. As she stood, she farted. Loudly. Naturally, I thought it was hilarious. In all our years together, she had never farted in front of me. I found it entertaining. But I could see on her face she didn’t agree. She went beet red, eyes filling with tears. I thought it was a ridiculous thing to get upset over. It’s a natural bodily function. I even told her so. “Comb, don’t get upset,” I stood, gripping her shoulders. “It’s a fart. It was cute.” She looked at me with such venom, I actually took a step back. “It’s not cute,” she snapped. She whipped her face away from me, embarrassment still evident. “Hey,” I tried consoling her. “Don’t be embarrassed. I do it all the time!” “And I think it’s gross when you do it,” she replied. She faced me, anger replacing embarrassment. “This is your fault. It was your idea to get pizza. I was your idea to get sausage and bacon. It was you who ordered the cheesy dipping sauce. Hear me now Shane and hear me well. We are never eating pizza. EVER. AGAIN.” She stomped away and locked herself in the bathroom for twenty minutes. So maybe she felt like she was losing control of her body, but one thing was becoming very clear—she and her body were still very much in control of me. “SO, THE BOYFRIEND/GIRLFRIEND thing…” Bryan says, sitting on the opposite side of the couch. “How’s that going?” The grin on my face must say it all. It’s that happy, shit-eating grin that screams nothing could be better, feel better, than this. Bryan rolls his eyes. This is the first evening in a while the two of us have been able to just sit around, drink beer and hangout. It feels good to sit back and relax and watch the game. Our schedules lately have had us seeing each other in passing. After my trip to LA, a lot of my time has been spent with Leah, alone. And on his end, he’s been going back and forth to Kendall’s. That was, up until last night when he came home, tossing me his phone and begging me to delete her number. So with Kendall out of the picture, at least for tonight, and Leah working late, the both of us had no plans but to stay home and watch the game. After a minute, Bryan’s voice pipes up again. “What’s it like?” he asks, curious. I glance his way, turning my attention away from the TV briefly. “What’s what like?” “The whole relationship thing. Being a couple. How is it?” He knows how it is. He sees how I am around the loft. He hears the different tone my voice takes when I talk about to her. “It’s fucking fantastic.” “Whipped motherfucker,” he says, taking a sip from his beer. “Maybe,” I agree. “I hope she’s feeling better than the last time I saw her,” he adds, focusing back on the game. I bark out a laugh. The last time Bryan saw Leah, we were sitting around watching TV when Bryan made the mistake of commenting on her hair. “I thought you were blonde,” he said, his eyes lingering on the top of her head. “What?” she said, turning her attention towards him. “Your hair.” He cocks his chin. “I thought you said you were blonde but the top of your head is pretty dark.” He said it so casually, not thinking twice about it. Not noticing the irritation his observation made.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if he just stopped there. But he didn’t. Instead he kept bringing it up by calling her Roots all night until she finally had it. She stood up and got right in his face. “You think you’re funny? Roots? Very original, Bryan. How about you try growing a human being inside of you and then think about opening your mouth. Maybe do a little research about how chemicals are bad during pregnancy. Maybe know a little about what the hell you are talking about before you speak,” she said, laying right into him. “Whoa!” Bryan leaned back, waving his hands in surrender. “It was just a joke. Chill out.” “Chill out?” she repeated. She stepped away from him but not before knocking her two fists together twice and leaving the room. Classic Ross Gellar. Leaning into me, Bryan whispered, “What the fuck does,” he pumped his fists together “mean?” I just laughed. “You don’t want to know.” “Is she always like that now?” he asked, carefully watching her move about in our kitchen. “The hormones can be a bitch,” I told him. “You just have to learn how to delicately navigate around her now.” “All the power to you,” he said. “Makes me wonder if all pregnant chicks are that psycho.” “Hey, it’s not easy on her,” I quickly defended her. “There’s shit going on inside her we’ll never understand.” Bryan gave another careful glance to the kitchen. “Should I apologize?” I leaned back, further into the couch. “She’ll likely forget all about it soon. Her memory has been a little…off lately.” I watched her as she rumbled about in the kitchen, opening and closing drawers. I leaned in closer to Bryan. “The other day, she came out of the bathroom and forgot to do up her pants.” Bryan busted out laughing. “Serious?” I nodded, also laughing. “Yup. They call it ‘mommy brain’ or something like that.” “Fuck,” he said, his smile still large. “If ever there was a time to fuck up, it’s now. She won’t even remember it.” Bryan’s loud laugh at a commercial partnered with a knocking at our door brings me back to the present. Opening the door, I’m surprised at who I find on the other side. “Mom,” I say, inviting her in. “What are you doing here?” She walks by me, kissing me on the cheek as she passes. “Hello, sweetheart,” she says before smiling kindly at Bryan. “Hello, Bryan.” Bryan stands and walks towards my mother. “Mrs. Carlisle, what a pleasant surprise,” he says. Coming closer, he looks her up and down before smiling. “Just as beautiful as I remember.” Now I roll my eyes. “That’s enough,” I say pushing him away from her. She’s dressed in light colored pants and a blouse to match. Small gold earrings hang from her ears, and her hair is tied in a low ponytail. “This is a surprise,” closing the door behind us. “It shouldn’t be. I told you I was coming into the city today to make arrangements for Leah’s baby shower. I thought we could go over some of the details.” I hear Bryan cough, trying to cover up his laugh. “I think that’s a great idea,” he says, smiling at me. “Why don’t I leave and let you two discuss it. I’d hate to be in the way.” I watch Bryan kiss my mother on the cheek before heading to the door, but not before turning back around. “Shane, if you need me, I’ll be at the bar watching the game.” He winks. I flip him the finger when my mother isn’t watching. Once he leaves, my mother walks around the living room, scanning the area slowly. “As much as I appreciate what you’re doing for Leah, I’m not sure how I can help,” I say, taking a seat at the kitchen counter. I continue to watch as she peeks down the hall, past mine and Bryan’s rooms then back to the living room, her eyes now thin slits. “Okay, Mom. What’s going on?”

She turns in her spot, her eyes locking on mine. “I’m just a little surprised to still see all of Bryan’s belongings here,” she says. I furrow my brows, confused. “Why? He lives here.” “Yes, I see that. I thought he’d be moved out by now.” “Moved out?” I ask, confused. She looks at me dumbfounded. “Yes, Shane, moved out. You’re about to be a father. Where do you plan to have my grandbaby sleep?” I open my mouth, ready to put her at ease, only to realize I have no clue. This isn’t something Leah and I have discussed quite yet, which now, seems crazy to me. How could we not have talked about this yet? Where is the baby going to sleep? Where is Leah going to sleep? Is the plan to go back and forth between our two places? That seems like a lot of work. “Shane, what on earth have you and Leah been doing all this time?” Flashes of us having sex on the couch, watching movies bundled under covers in bed, ordering takeout cross my mind. Other than Leah and me spending time living in our new relationship, we haven’t really done much of anything else. “I have a crib being delivered here in a few weeks because I assumed you and Leah had made a plan. Quite obviously, I was mistaken. Do you have any idea how much stuff a baby needs? It’s not just diapers and bottles,” she presses on. “Honey, your whole life is about to change, and you aren’t doing anything to prepare for it.” The concern in her voice builds panic in mine. “I—” I look around the loft at all the basics two adult males need to live comfortably. One couch, one chair, one large flat screen TV. The fridge that currently only has left over Chinese food and beer in it. Nothing about this place says, Welcome Home, Baby. I wonder if Leah has thought about any of this. Does she have a plan I’m unaware of? How ready and prepared is she for this baby’s arrival? My mother witnesses all these questions running through my mind and she shakes her head in pity. “You’re right,” I say, nodding. “She and I need to start figuring this stuff out.” My mother walks over to me and rests one hand over my cheek. It’s such a gentle, reassuring gesture. One only a mother can give. “Yes, you do.” She removes her hand and sits on one of the bar stools next to me. “Have you given any thought about what your father said? About going to work for him?” I drop my head, shaking it. “I thought you were on my side,” I say, hearing accusation in my voice. She tilts her head to the side, letting me know she doesn’t appreciate my tone. “Shane, I have been and always will be on your side. So is your father, whether you believe it or not. He told me what he offered you and how you…reacted.” “And I still stand firm,” I tell her. She moves on without stopping. “He also mentioned how he warned you that you wouldn’t want to be away as much as you already are. As much as your job requires. How once that baby comes, nothing will matter to you more than being by his or her side.” She takes a moment and lets her eyes graze over me. “You and your father are so much alike.” I snort. “It’s true, Shane. And you’ll see it too after this baby comes. I remember the first few weeks after having you. Before that, I didn’t think anything could keep him away from the office but I almost had to push him out the door to get him to go. He didn’t want to leave your side. He was certain he would miss some of your firsts. You could barely do anything but cry and sleep and he was already worried about missing first steps. I told him over and over the only thing he’d be missing was nap time and changing diapers.” A small smile tugs at her lips. “Even then I still had to push him out the door.”

A longing to see my father creeps up on me. I haven’t felt that way since I was a child. “You just wait, Shane,” she says, promising. “One day you’ll understand where your father is coming from.” I say nothing, my mother giving me too much to process and think about. She stands and grabs her purse, handing me one of the invitations she had made for Leah’s shower. Neutral colors with a short cute poem about our baby’s arrival neatly embossed on thick card stock. “Now, I expect you to show up at the end of the shower. You’ll need to say hello and thank everyone for coming,” she says as she walks to the door. “And don’t forget to bring Leah a bouquet of flowers,” she adds. “I need to bring flowers too?” I ask, standing. My mother turns, her hand holding the door open. “Darling, she’s having your baby. Of course you need to bring flowers.” She looks around the loft once more before pointing a finger at me and my apartment. “Figure this out, Shane,” she says before blowing me a kiss and leaving. Once alone, I sit back on the stool and take another look around. One thing that’s obvious is Leah and I need to come up with a plan. An idea of what we want our future to look like—outside the bedroom. I spend the rest of the evening making a list of topics we need to discuss. Where is the baby going to sleep? Should we move in together? What kind of a maternity leave is she planning on taking? What does she think of the name Maximus, named after Gladiator? I write all these down so I don’t forget any of them. I feel better having something prepared, something tangible in my hands. Later that night, when Leah rushes through the front door, I’m ready to start discussing some of the questions from my list. But she ignores the piece of paper, taking it from my hands and tossing it on the counter. “Whatever that is, it can wait,” she says. “But—” I start, knowing what we have to discuss is important. “Shhh!” she quips, standing right in front of me. She takes my hand and presses it to the side of her stomach and holds it there for a few seconds. “What are you—” I start, but she shushes me again. “Just wait,” she answers, quietly. Then after a few seconds, I feel it. The reason she came barreling in here, the reason why she threw my list to the side. It’s light, like a flick of a finger under a protective layer. It’s almost nonexistent, but so very real. A kick. A soft kick followed by another, then another. “Whoa,” I say awestruck. “Did you feel that?” She laughs at my obviously stupid question. “Yeah, I feel them all.” “You’ve felt them before?” I ask, placing my other hand on her stomach, covering half of it. “I felt something before, but I just thought it was indigestion.” She laughs. “But these…these are strong. These are definite.” “He is strong,” I say, still in awe. “He?” I nod. “I’ve got a feeling. It’s a boy.” She shakes her head and laughs. “I think you’re wrong.” A girl? She thinks it’s a girl? No, it’s not. It’s a boy. I know it. “I don’t think so. I think it’s going to be a boy’s club around here,” I say, feeling another kick. “See, he agrees.” “Or she’s letting you know you’re in for a surprise.” “We’ll see,” I say, grinning.

The rest of the night centers on these little taps, waiting for the next to come. Nothing else matters. Especially not some list I made hours ago.

I OPEN THE car door, offering my hand to help Leah climb up into the Jeep. She ignores it, too angry and disappointed to accept my help. I close the door behind her and take a deep breath before walking around the car over to my side. I give her another glance but am still greeted with silence. She hasn’t uttered a word to me since leaving the doctor ’s office. The day didn’t start this way. The morning was full of excitement and her smiling face. We were about to go to another prenatal check-up—one I could attend this time. One where we planned to find out the sex…together. Leah was so excited she didn’t complain once about her full bladder, nor did she mumble a negative word when the doctor was more than a half hour late. She didn’t even flinch when the nurse told her current weight. Everything was going just as planned. In the examination room, the doctor measured her stomach, measured some other stuff while I looked away and took her blood pressure. Then she told us we could be on our way. “Wait,” Leah said, sitting up from the examination table. “My ultrasound.” “There’s no cause for concern so there’s no need,” Dr. Sigh answered, not looking up from her chart. “But,” Leah began again, staring at the blank screen of the ultrasound machine. “I drank a liter of water.” The irritation was clear in her tone. “I’ve had to pee for over an hour!” She looked to me for help, her eyes begging me to do something. “Leah and I were hoping to find out the sex today,” I explained. The doctor gave Leah a confused smile and flipped through Leah’s file. “It says here you wished for the gender not to be known.” Her eyes darting from Leah then back to me. “That was before,” Leah stated harshly. “We’d like to know now.” Leah was not asking. She was telling the doctor that we came here fully intending on finding out if baby was a boy or girl. “I’m sorry, Leah,” the doctor said. “But unless we see a medical need for an ultrasound, we don’t like to administer them more than we need to.” Leah face fell quickly, disappointment overtaking any other feature. I never thought someone’s disappointment could hit me so hard. “Is it written in the file somewhere? From the last ultrasound?” I tried asking, Leah’s expression

turning hopeful. I wanted so badly to be her hero right then and there. But my hopes were squashed when the doctor shook her head. “I’m sorry. But when Leah asked not to be told, it wasn’t written down.” Leah’s eyes bore into the side of my face. I could almost hear the thoughts going through her pretty little angry head. This is your fault. Why weren’t you here the last time? Accusations flew my way even though she never said a word. “Please,” I tried once more. “I’ll pay out of pocket right now. She—we just really would like to know.” Dr. Sigh looked over at Leah once before finally agreeing. She turned off the lights, instructed Leah to get undressed and we were underway. A head, two arms, two legs all clearly visible this time. “Looks like he’s got all his limbs. That’s good.” I smiled down at Leah. She laughed. “Inform him it’s a girl.” Dr. Sigh moved the cursor around a little bit more, clearly trying to find the answer. And then we got it. Only it wasn’t what we were expecting. “Baby’s hiding,” she said, sadly. Those two words are what brought me to the situation I’m in now. Leah upset and angry at me once more. I start the engine and pull out of the parking lot. This was supposed to be a day of celebration. The reveal followed by Eddy and Holly’s bachelor/bachelorette parties. Only now, we have no reveal and I, apparently, am to blame for it. I went from looking forward to tonight, to it being the last thing I want to do. Leah isn’t much in the party mood either. “Look at it this way,” I start, “we don’t get many big surprises in life. Maybe this is a good thing,” I argue. When she doesn’t answer, I continue on, trying to shed some positivity. “I’m actually glad this happened. Now there’s extra incentive for us to push!” That gets her attention, her head whipping in my direction, eyes boring into me. “Us?” It sounds like she’s asking a question, but her expression tells me it’s not. “There is no us pushing Shane. There will only be me. Me doing the pushing. Me doing the birthing. I’ll be doing it all.” I keep my mouth shut the rest of the way home. LEAH BROUGHT OVER all she needed to get ready for the evening before we left for our appointment. We assumed we’d have news to tell and we wanted to share it together. But the minute we walk into the apartment, she heads to the bedroom and closes the door—a clear indication for me not to follow her. I drop my keys on the kitchen counter and grab a beer from the fridge. Bryan comes out from his bedroom after hearing my bedroom door slam. He moves past me, grabbing a beer for himself. “Starting early?” he asks, raising his bottle. “Long day,” I mumble. He takes a sip from his bottle before raising his brows, suddenly remembering where I’ve been. “Shit,” he says facing me. “So,” he says with a smile, “boy or girl?” “Neither,” His brows pull together. “We didn’t find out,” I explain. “It’s a long story.” “What’s the short version?”

I look down the hall to my closed bedroom door. “Leah’s angry.” Bryan nods, not surprised. “And you?” I release a breath, feeling some of my tension loosening. I’ve been so caught up in Leah’s disappointed feelings, I haven’t really given any thought to my own. “It is what it is, I guess.” “Hey, nothing wrong with a good surprise,” he says. “Yeah,” I say, exhaling deeply. He shoves me in the shoulder. “You know what will help?” he asks, smirking. I raise my own brow. “Lap dances and whiskey.” I laugh, silently appreciating Bryan’s ability to make light of any situation. So today didn’t go as planned, but it’s not the end of the world. And there is still reason to celebrate. Tonight is about Holly and Eddy. We’re all slated to start off the night together with dinner before we separate to do our own thing. I have no idea what the girls have planned, but Bryan had a big hand in planning our after dinner activities. I know they’ll include alcohol and naked girls dancing at some point. Maybe a night out is exactly what we need. Leah could use some fun after the day we’ve had. I bet she’s thinking the same thing. I’ll talk to her, get her excited about it. Make her forget about today. I’ll do all of that—just as soon as she opens that door. TWO HOURS LATER, I’m working at my desk, editing some photos when I finally hear my bedroom door open. At this point, I’m not even sure if I should make eye contact with her, whether or not her mood has changed, but as usual when Leah is near, my eyes can’t help but go in search of her. And when they find her, my heart stops. Wearing a black sleeveless dress that’s molded to her body, she walks into the living room looking like she should be walking a runway. Every sweet and beautiful new curve of hers is on display, nothing hidden. Her long hair falls in loose curls over top her ginormous breasts. I’ve never seen such beautiful cleavage in my life. Her long tanned legs look even longer in her heels, adding endless inches to her height. Her toned arms are decorated with gold jewelry, oversized rings on the fingers of both hands. “Wow,” is all I can manage. The look on her face at my one word tells me I’ve finally said something right today. “Is that a new dress?” I ask. She nods. “Thank God for Spandex,” she answers. I remain transfixed as I watch her make her way to me, her hips swaying just slightly with every step. The closer she gets, all my other senses start to go crazy. The light smell of her moisturizer I know all too well has me aching to bury my face into her neck, the glow of her skin begging me to touch her, and the soft pink of her glossed lips has me craving a taste of her. There are more times than I can count where I’ve seen Leah get dressed up for an evening out. But tonight is different. Tonight, I get to do more than just notice how incredible she looks. Tonight, I get to be the lucky guy who she’s with. Tonight, everyone will know this girl is mine. “You don’t even look knocked up from this angle,” Bryan says, interrupting my moment. He takes a few steps, standing in front of Leah, looking her up and down. “Fuck me, if it wasn’t for that basketball…” he says, grinning. Instead of punching him like I expect, Leah smiles. “Coming from you, I’ll take it as a compliment.” “It was meant as one.” Bryan winks. And then she laughs.

Laughs! With Bryan for crying out loud! She can barely stand his pregnancy comments these days, but now he’s the one getting her to laugh? Smile? Without warning, a completely different feeling altogether forms in the pit of my stomach. It’s acidic and burns up my body, causing my arms to stiffen and hands to curl into fists at my side. I try and breathe through it, knowing it’s ridiculous to be jealous of Bryan, but logic is lost on me right now. “Don’t you need to get ready?” I say through clenched teeth. Bryan nods and smirks at hearing the begrudging tone in my voice. “Yes, I do,” he says walking way. “Titties await!” We both watch him head to his room before Leah turns to me, an eyebrow raised. “Titties?” I press my lips together, feigning ignorance. “I have no clue what he’s talking about.” “Sure,” she answers, saying nothing more about it. She takes another few steps, the images on my computer screen grabbing her attention. The shots I’ve been editing for the last few hours. They’re from a shoot I did last week for an up and coming lingerie designer right here in Miami. “Are these from your shoot last week?” There’s an edge to her voice. Looking down at the screen, I can kind of understand why. Frame after frame are models in skimpy lingerie, lace panties and see-through bras. Leah leans over me, using the mouse to scroll through more images. “Looks like you had your hands full.” I don’t like the unease I hear in her voice, the one that hints at self-consciousness. How could she think any of these women have anything on her? Didn’t she just witness my reaction when she walked out of the bedroom? My Neanderthal reflex towards Bryan? “This one,” she begins, “is my favorite.” I glance at the photo in question. The model is lying on a bed, sheets deliberately placed as to show off most of her half-naked body. The scene was meant to depict her waking up looking impeccable in her silk nightie. “Is your client serious?” Leah asks. “‘Comfort in lace.’ If he really wanted to make this realistic, you should have taken her picture the way women really look waking up in something as ridiculous as that. One strap falling off the shoulder, one boob hanging out. The caption should read ‘Survives all your twists and turns.’” I laugh, relieved she’s talking to me again. I take another look at the photo and shake my head, knowing Comb’s right. Although the picture itself is beautiful, the ad is foolish. “I’ll pass along the thought,” I tell her, lifting my arm and wrapping it around her waist. Leah eyes don’t sway from the screen. “She’s very pretty,” she says quietly. I look up, focusing only on her. “I hadn’t noticed,” I answer. I’m not lying either. For months, Leah has been the only girl I’ve noticed. “Sure,” she says, rolling her eyes. I stand, filling the empty space between us. Carefully, as to not mess up her hair or makeup, I place my hands on the sides of her face and make her look up. Make her look into my eyes. “It’s true,” I tell her. “My camera might see her, see all of them, but my eyes? They only see you.” She swallows slowly, her eyes scanning my face, determining whether or not to believe me. I hate that she has doubts. Doubts that she is all I see. So I kiss her. Slowly, carefully, but with as much passion a light kiss like this can give. I kiss her in a way I hope shows my claim on her and how she’s laid claim on me. When I hear her moan and her hands grip my biceps, I believe I’ve made a step in accomplishing that. It’s incredibly hard to pull away from her, but I do. “I have to go shower,” I whisper in her ear before walking away. After a few steps, I hear her near breathless voice speak.

“Okay.” I smile to myself, knowing she finally gets it. AN HOUR LATER, we are all sitting at Prime 112 Steakhouse. The lights are dim but it’s a comfortable balance to the white leather chairs and curtains framing the windows. The exposed ivory brick and wooden beamed ceiling opens the space up, which is good considering it’s a small restaurant. Glass wine racks fill up the walls, lit up from the inside. The bar ’s clear stools all have people sitting on them waiting for a table. We, on the other hand, were promptly escorted to a small room near the back of the restaurant reserved for our party of twenty. The windows have dark blinds, shielding us from any outside observers. The room is elegant and private, just large enough to stand around in, but too small for any uninvited guests. In the middle of the room is a large dark wood dining room, set and ready for when our meals arrive. Seated beside each other and at the center of the table are our guests of honor. The rest of us are scattered around, drinking wine or something a little heavier to start the evening off. It’s an interesting mix of people here. Guys from Eddy’s work, some from our college days. Same with the girls. Holly’s sister is here, as are friends from her college days, and a few from work. There are quite a few people here I’ve been looking forward to seeing but due to a certain someone monopolizing my attention, I’ve hardly spoken to any of them. And she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. Leah and I aren’t seated next to each other around this large table. Instead, we are directly across from one another. From this vantage point, I can easily watch as she brushes her hair behind her ear or lets her head fall back in laughter at something Holly’s sister said. I get to see her eyes shine, smile get bigger, cheeks turning pink. I try and concentrate on what Nate, a friend from Eddy’s home town is saying to me, but my attention refuses to be diverted. I love hearing her laugh or seeing the look of excitement that comes over her face when someone asks about the baby. And I can’t help but smirk every time someone tells her they’re shocked at how far along she is. I swear Leah’s favorite words tonight have been “But you’re so tiny!” It’s not until after cocktails and our meals have come and gone do I realize I’ve spent the entire evening watching her have fun. And when Bryan announces to the group it’s time to split up so the real parties can get started, I realize I won’t be able to watch her for the rest of the night. Right before we are all set to leave, I walk over to Leah, taking hold of one her arms and pulling her to me. “Be good tonight,” I threaten with a smile. Her lips hitch upwards but they don’t quite reach her eyes. I can tell this night has already tired her out and it’s barely started. “To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll make it much longer.” Guilt and disappointment shadows over her face. She rubs her stomach while stifling a yawn. “Do you want to go home?” I ask, absolutely willing to go with her if she wants. “Yes,” she says quietly. “But I’ll tough it out a little while longer. I don’t want to disappoint Holly. Besides, Bryan would kill you if you bail on them.” As if on cue, Bryan comes over, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. “Time to get Eddy shitfaced.” “You sure?” I ask Leah once more. Leah leans in and kisses me quickly on the lips. “Behave,” she says, smiling before heading out with the rest of girls. Bryan shakes my shoulders, raging with excitement. “Let’s get fucking drunk!”

I HAVE NO idea what time it is. I barely know where I am. Our night went from zero to wrecked very fast. I loosely remember shots with the guys before we left the restaurant, a lot of rum at the Rumbar Lounge only to be followed by even more shots at the strip club. Flashes of Eddy up on stage getting a lap dance run through my mind as I ride silently in the back of a cab. “Excuse me, sir,” I slur a little. “What time is it?” “Four,” he replies. I nod, trying to count how many hours have passed since I received Leah’s last text.

The time next to the texts tells me she sent it at eleven twenty-seven. Hours ago. I picture her in my head, settled in under blankets, wearing one of my shirts. Her hair splayed out over her pillow, her face soft and pink from being scrubbed clean. The vision tugs at me, the urge to be with her and asleep next to her strong. My drunken logic tells me she probably wants the same thing and wouldn’t mind being woken up to have me crawl into bed with her. I tell the cab driver I’ve changed my mind and give him Comb’s address. Every mile we drive getting closer to her apartment, the better this idea sounds. I hand some cash to the driver, nearly tumbling out of the car. My feet are sluggish but I make my way inside her building, to the elevator and up to her floor. I pat my pockets looking for my keys. One of them is for this door. I’m ridiculously proud of myself when I find them. It takes me a minute or two to finally get the key into the lock but when I do, I mentally pat my own back with even more pride. I make my way into her apartment, bumping into things as I head to her bedroom. Unpacked boxes of baby supplies, piles of baby clothes neatly folded and tucked away in every corner. I trip over something and use the couch to break my fall, causing some of those piles to fall over. “This place is so small,” I mumble. I make it to the bedroom and see her lying there, just as I pictured in the cab. Her hair is scattered all over her pillow and she’s wearing one of my oversized t-shirts. I quickly, but definitely not gracefully, undress and climb in behind her. She begins to stir, alerted someone is in bed with her. If I wasn’t so drunk, I’d probably be angry it took her this long to notice. It makes me realize how much I don’t like her being here alone, unprotected. “Don’t worry,” I reassure her. “It’s just me.” She turns, her tired eyes opening and adjusting to the darkness. “What are you doing here?” she asks, her voice soft and full of sleep. “I missed you,” I answer honestly. I feel her relax into my chest once I’m settled in. “Did you have fun?” she asks, yawning. I kiss her cheek. “I did. You?” I feel her shrug. “For a while. I can’t stay out like I used to,” she says sadly. But for some reason it makes me happy. “That’s okay. I’ll stay in with you,” I tell her, inhaling her scent. It only makes my head foggier, making it harder to keep my eyes open. I feel her shake against me, laughing softly. “Okay,” I hear her say, pleased. My hand rests against her hip, my fingers feeling bare skin. She’s so soft. I sigh in contentment, knowing my decision to come here instead of going home was the right one. Because this is where I want to be. Every night, with her.

I try telling her this but the words come out jumbled, my brain shutting down faster than the words can escape my mouth. It’s probably for the best. The words I want to say are ones I should speak when looking her in the eye. When the time is right, not when I’m too drunk to properly enunciate them so she can see how serious I am. It’s better I wait. Find the perfect moment to tell her what my heart is already screaming. Because she deserves that. She deserves more than a drunken declaration I won’t remember in the morning.

I LOVE YOU. I click through one file, then another, and another. I’ve been searching for where I saved all the work I did earlier this morning for almost an hour. How is it possible that a file I saved not that long ago has vanished? I love you. Frustration boils inside of me. Not only am I irritated I can’t continue on with my work, but this baby will not lay off my bladder. It feels like I have a water balloon floating around inside, expanding, threatening to burst every three minutes. All that pressure just to have a few drips come out. I love you. And my breasts are on fire today. I can’t stop pulling at my bra, scratching, rubbing. If anyone were to come in and see how much I’m playing with my chest, they’d have quite the show. What I need are two bags of frozen peas. I saw Snooki rest them on top of her breasts when she was pregnant. And obviously, anything Snooki does… I love you. I scratch at my stomach, another annoying symptom that doesn’t want to seem to want to go away. It’s a non-stop reminder my skin is stretching, expanding, growing much more than I’m okay with. I love you. I’m tired all the time, but have trouble sleeping. I can’t keep my eyes open past eight p.m., but toss and turn all night. Even that stupid body pillow Shane bought me does nothing to help support the giant mass my once toned, flat stomach has become. Shane. Usually I can count on him to make me feel better. But not today. Today the sheer mention of his name adds to my growing irritation. I love you. It’s been two days and two nights since I heard him mumble those three little words as he fell asleep. Two days and two nights since those three little words have been on repeat inside my head, since he’s had the nerve to act like he never said them at all. But he did and I heard them, loud and clear. Okay, maybe quiet and mumbled, but I heard them nonetheless. And now he has the audacity to

act like it never happened? Pretend like he doesn’t remember saying them? People don’t just say those kind of things and not remember them. Not mean them. Right? I spent the rest of the night preparing myself to hear him say them to me again in the morning, ready with my reply. I even got up first, and spent ten minutes playing with my hair so it looked like I did nothing to it at all, brushing my teeth, applying lip gloss before carefully getting back into bed, waiting for him to wake up. Waiting for him to see me looking like one of those models he takes pictures of. I did all of that for him! And what did he do? He woke up, made no mention of how angelic I looked and went to the bathroom. A few minutes later, he yelled he was going to use my toothbrush. My toothbrush. He walked out of the bathroom, smiled at me and said he was going to go make himself some coffee. No mention, no hint, no nothing. How can someone say “I love you” then ignore it? Is he embarrassed? Does he feel bad he let it slip out that way? Is he worried maybe I don’t feel the same? He must know. How can he not? I swallow back the large lump in my throat. What if he didn’t mean it? What if he does remember saying it and feels awful for even putting it out there? A drunken misuse of words? Two people who only ended up dating due to interesting and unexpected circumstances. Two people who care for each other as best friends, who are having a baby together, but that’s all. But he came to my place that night. He told me he missed me. He told me he was where he wanted to be. Argh! Two days and two nights. Does he love me or not? Where the hell is a daisy when you need one? I bring my hands to my face, rubbing it in frustration. My eyes begin to burn. I blink away the tears, refusing to have a meltdown at work. I’m a professional. I can get through this day and figure out my personal shit later. I know I can. I am woman, hear my pregnant roar. Two seconds later, I break out into a sob. God, this day sucks. “Leah, you still haven’t sent me those files,” Holly says, walking straight into my office without knocking. “I know,” I answer between whimpers. “I can’t find the stupid thing!” Holly sees my tears and quickly shuts the door, coming to my side and wrapping me in a hug. “Don’t worry. We’ll find it,” she says laughing. I don’t bother correcting her. I let her think my tears are about the stupid Bakker file. Last week, I had no choice but to ask her for help. I couldn’t keep up with all the crosschecking and document review. These were my responsibilities as assistant chair but with the growing frequency of doctor ’s appointments, my inability to get a good night’s sleep and my constant state of uncomfortableness, I was in over my head. “I’ll find it. Just give me a minute,” I tell her, wiping my eyes. “Are you alright?” she asks, walking over to one of the empty chairs. I look up from my screen and nod. “I’m just tired. And hungry. Once I get some lunch I’ll feel better.” “Once you get it?” she questions. I look up from my screen then follow to where Holly’s eyes have shifted. Sitting on the corner of my desk is my lunch already spread out. A small chicken wrap filled with

veggies sits on a napkin, a cup of yogurt with a plastic spoon sticking out of it and an apple cut up already half eaten. “God, I’m a disaster.” “No,” Holly says in her most reassuring voice. “You’re pregnant.” “Forgetfulness and stupidity comes right along with it, it seems,” I say, grabbing an apple slice and shoving the whole thing in my mouth. Holly laughs. “You just need some rest. That’s all,” she says, taking an apple slice for herself. “Speaking of needing rest,” she says between bites. “How did Shane feel after boy’s night out? All Eddy could do when he got home was insist on taking a shower. Which only means one thing… strippers.” I really don’t want to talk about Shane. I fear the emotional breakdown that could ensue. “He seemed fine,” I state, not divulging any more. Holly smiles. “He couldn’t take his eyes off you that night.” I smile, but it’s tight, making me fully aware of just how much effort I need to put into it. “Maybe we should be looking for a dress for you tonight,” she says with a smirk. “The song starts with falling in love, then marriage, then the baby in the baby carriage. But since you two already screwed that up…” I stare at her blankly. “You didn’t forget, did you? Tonight? The final dress fittings.” I blink several times before glancing down at my calendar and seeing a star marked in red pen next to today’s date. The words potato sack written right beside. “Of course not. It’s written right here,” I say pointing to my calendar. I absolutely forgot. “Good.” She smiles, standing up. “I’ll meet you there,” she says walking out of my office. “And send me those files when you find them.” I sit back in my chair, Holly’s words replaying in my head. That stupid childhood song on repeat. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage. Shane and I didn’t have love first. Marriage? Are you kidding me? The only thing we do have is a baby coming in a baby carriage. And that’s not even all true. We haven’t bought a carriage yet! Shane and I have done nothing right. We still haven’t even discussed what we are going to do after the baby arrives. I’ve been ignoring the fact I have piles of baby clothes and diapers littered all over my apartment and that the baby’s crib still lies unassembled in a box at Shane’s place. I wanted so badly not to fail at this and so far, we haven’t done anything to help us succeed. I thought having a baby with Shane was the easiest part of this whole situation. The one thing I could hold on to. Knowing we were in this together and we’d help each other find our way. But if that were true, why do I feel so lost? I GAVE UP knocking on Shane’s door a while ago, taking a page out of Holly’s book and letting myself into the loft anytime I come over. Tonight is no different. I walk straight in, breezing past Bryan sitting on the couch and head directly for Shane’s room. If I thought today was bad, tonight really put the icing on the cake. I find Shane on his bed, back against the headboard, one jean-clad leg crossed over the other, his red shirt stretched over his chest. In his hands, he’s holding a book. What To Expect When You’re Expecting. And by the looks of it, he’s almost finished the damn thing. I’ve hardly begun reading it. It’s just another item to put in the Failing column. He looks up, folding the corner of the page over and closes the book. “Hey,” he says, his voice expressing surprise at seeing me here.

My eyes stay focused on the book. “You’re almost finished?” He flips the book over, looking at the cover. “I figured one of us should know what the hell is going to happen,” he says, teasing. I walk closer to the bed, standing in front of him as he moves his legs over to the edge of the mattress. When he looks up at me, his expression changes. Concern fills his eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asks, his hands molding into the sides of my legs. “I’m going to be a terrible mother,” I say, tears falling down my face. “What? Where did that come from?” he says, rubbing my thighs. “I’m on chapter four of that book, Shane. Four! I’m reading about stuff that happened to me six months ago. I should be learning about feedings and burping. Schedules. Instead I’m learning about morning sickness.” “Hey, stop that,” he says. “You’re going to be a great mom. Perfect, even. I know it.” What if I’m not? I may be coming closer and closer to the end of my pregnancy, but really, it’s just the beginning. After this, there will be an actual baby to take care. To feed, bathe, to nourish. What if I can’t do it? I’m already finding everything so overwhelming and the baby isn’t even here yet. “No such thing as perfect,” I say, roughly wiping tears off my cheek. “You are,” he says with a smile. “Oh yeah? Then what’s this?” I challenge, hastily lifting the corner of my shirt up, exposing some of my skin and pointing to the corner of my hip. “Look!” I dare him. I watch his eyes make their way to my hip, skimming over the skin. “What am I looking at?” “Are you blind?” I ask. “Right here.” I point to a more accurate spot. “What? This hive?” he says. I take a breath. “It’s not a hive. It’s a stretch mark. I’m now permanently scarred for life!” His shoulder shake with quiet laughter. “So what?” “So what?” I repeat. “What if more come? What if by the time this baby decides to come out, I look like a road map!” Shane stands, placing his hands on the sides of my face. “Comb, millions of women have them. Men even.” I shake my head, pulling his hands away from my face. “You don’t get it,” I say quietly, taking a step away. “Explain it to me,” he says. I look down at my bump. I can’t even call it that anymore. A watermelon isn’t a bump. What I have is a mound. “I’m exhausted all the time,” I start. “Most of my clothes don’t fit anymore. I can’t remember anything, and I cry at almost everything. Last night, a coffee commercial came on about a grandfather taking his grandson out fishing. I bawled for ten minutes. I have no control over my hormones, over my feelings. I’m tired of being pregnant and I still have two months to go.” I look down at the floor, almost ashamed at what I’m about to say. “I’m sick of being pregnant. What if I get sick of being a mom?” “Oh, Comb,” he says walking up to me, brushing some of my hair behind my ears. “How can you even think that?” I try and look away but he uses his fingers to swing my face back in his direction. “Every day,” he starts. “Every day you floor me. Every day, I am more and more amazed by you. And every single day, I’m so thankful I’m doing this with you. Going through this experience with you. You are the strongest, most courageous woman I know. The night you told me you were pregnant, I was terrified. I had no idea what to do. But you took charge. You made the decisions and everything has fallen into place since. We have fallen into place since.”

He takes one step forward, eliminating what little space there was between us. “Don’t be nervous about what kind of mother you’ll be because I already see it. It’s in how you take care of yourself, the sacrifices you’re already making.” He gives my chin a little flick with his fingers. “I know how terrible giving up coffee was for you,” he teases. Then he surprises me by getting down on his knees, lifting my shirt just enough to expose my hip. “And this,” he says, laying a kiss directly over that hideous red mark, “this is not a stretch mark. This is a battle scar. A reminder to me and to everyone else that what you are doing is the most beautiful,” another kiss, “bravest,” another kiss, “and strongest thing anyone could ever do.” He rests his lips on that scar for another second. And when he looks back up at me, his smile brightens his entire face. “I’m in awe of you,” he finishes. I feel a tear fall, only this time it has nothing to do with fear or guilt or sadness. This lone tear is full of something much more positive. Happiness, courage, faith. Love. With that tear, I realize just how in love I am with Shane. Way past the moments of falling and landing dead center in the middle of the love’s bull’s-eye. How did it take six years for me to realize it? “Shane,” I whisper. “Shhh,” he says, slowly bringing his hand over to the hem of my pants, slipping them down over my hips, legs, and letting them pool at my ankles. His fingers brush my skin covered by only a thin layer of cotton. “Let me show you how in awe of you I am,” he says, pulling the rest down. He takes my hand, helping me step out of the clothing at my feet and lays me down on the bed, my legs falling off the edge. He falls to his knees and caresses my skin while simultaneously pulling my legs apart. A wicked smile tugs at his lips before his face gets lost between my thighs. My head falls back the second his tongue touches me and takes me to a place where nothing but this matters. My mind clears, only allowing these sensations to fill me. I leave my worries be for another time because even though he didn’t say those three little words again, being in awe of isn’t too bad either.

THE OUTDOOR TERRACE at Baoli on its own is one of the most beautiful spots in the city. With luscious small trees spread throughout the patio, full ferns sitting on top the half-walls for privacy, it feels more like you’ve landed in the middle of a secret garden instead of a restaurant not far from South Beach. I’ve been here once before, in the evening when the twinkle lights were on and the tableware was dark and sophisticated. Today, in the middle of the afternoon, the terrace looks much different. The tables are covered in cream cloths with small hydrangea bouquets on each. The twinkling lights aren’t turned on but the branches from the trees all have large yellow tissue pompoms hanging from them. The chairs have white seat covers, each with alternating green and yellow bows. The terrace is set up for two hundred guests, even though my portion of the guest list only had thirty names on it. Regardless, all of this, the flowers, the food, the adorable cake, the gifts…it’s all for me. The terrace would have been exquisite without all the added décor, but Baoli had no idea what they were in for the minute they let Charlotte Carlisle loose. The restaurant now looks like it belongs in a photo spread I’ve seen in gossip magazines. The ones where you get an inside peek at celebrity baby showers. But what Charlotte managed to created here today would give any of those Hollywood moms-to-be a run for their money. “Wow,” I hear Holly’s impressed voice come from behind me. “She went all-out.” I glance around the space once more. There’s even a fountain sprouting fruit juice in the corner. “Yes, she did.” As soon as I step foot onto the terrace, Charlotte sees me and comes rushing over. “Sweetie, you look absolutely lovely!” she says, kissing my cheek. I smile, looking down at the gray maxi dress I have on. The top has a beautiful cream crochet design that helps keeps me cool during this summer heat. I look up at the trees in the middle of the terrace, thankful they cover the entire area with shade. “And this,” she points to my headband, “is adorable!” I touch the daisy petals on my head, smiling at how my look seems to completely fit the decor of the party. “Thank you,” I answer. “Charlotte, this is—” I start but am unable to find the right words to describe what this woman has done for me today.

I always thought Shane was lucky to have a mother like Charlotte. A mother who would do anything for their child, love them fiercely. I never had that growing up. After the news broke to Shane’s parents about the baby, Charlotte has been nothing but most supportive and kind. She calls to check up on me, buys more things for the baby than I can keep track of or fit in my apartment and has taken me out to lunch several times within the last few months. “Oh, honey, you deserve it. And so does my grandbaby,” she says, tapping my stomach. “This looks amazing,” Holly pipes in beside me. “It definitely puts my shower to shame,” she says looking around. “Hey,” I say insulted. “I helped plan that.” Holly laughs, nudging my shoulder, letting me know she’s joking. “Go ahead, look around. The rest of the guests are all starting to arrive. And try the mango papaya juice from the fountain. Oh and the mini quiche! I made sure the entire menu was pregnancy friendly. The goat cheese is pasteurized!” she says seriously. I laugh. “I will try it all,” I promise. She squeezes my hand briefly before heading off to speak with a few ladies who have walked in. They must be her friends because I don’t recognize any of them. “She’s great,” Holly says. I nod, smiling. “Yeah, she is.” “Look,” Holly points to a table, “the mini quiche. Let’s go!” she says pulling me across the room to the food. THERE ARE MOMENTS in life where not having a family of my own is felt stronger than others. Moments like when I graduated from college or law school. Or when I passed pass the bar exam. Holidays, weddings, celebrations. I imagined I would feel the same way at my own baby shower. Happy and excited, but like something was missing. I prepared myself for that feeling. It helped I had a lot of practice through the years, but just like all the other times, I told myself Fuck it and not let it affect my day. I had a great core group of friends, co-workers I enjoyed. I had Shane and his family. I prepared myself to look at this day with the glass more than half full. What I didn’t expect was for the feeling something, someone, was missing to never come. Today, I felt more included and more part of a family than I ever have. So much of that is because of Charlotte. Anything I could have asked for, dreamed of, all came true today. Even some I had never considered. “Well then,” Charlotte says, coming to sit beside me at a table. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I laugh, taking a sip from my virgin mojito. “No. It wasn’t.” I look around the room, seeing women laughing and drinking and having a great time. I even see a few of Charlotte’s friends doting over Holly’s ring, asking her about the wedding. “Charlotte, this was more than I could have asked for,” I tell her, overwhelmed at all she’s done. I turn, giving her my full attention. “I don’t even know how to thank you for today. Truly, I’m—I don’t —” Then finally, “You didn’t have to do all this.” “Of course I did,” she says smiling. “But I didn’t do this because I had to. I did it because I wanted to. You are the mother of my grandchild. And that makes you just as precious to me as that baby in there.” My lips break into a smile, my cheeks hurting. I do my best to keep my emotions at bay, not wanting to cry. It’s only harder when I see Charlotte trying for the same thing. “I knew it,” she says, covering my hand with one of her own. “Years ago, I knew. I saw it.” “What?”

“That you were the one. The one Shane would fall in love with. Start a family with. You were going to flip his world upside down. All those years ago when he brought you to the house, I knew it.” I shake my head, reminding her that back then Shane and I were only friends. “Yes, yes. Just friends.” She waves her hand, dismissing my words. “It didn’t matter,” she says. “Do you know that you are the only girl he’s ever brought home?” I sit back a bit in my chair, surprised. “No. I didn’t know that.” Charlotte smiles, like this bit of information only proves her point. “You are. The first and only. I remember telling Abel after you both left, ‘Watch what happens with those two.’” She laughs at the memory. “Of course it took a little longer than I thought it would, but everything happens for a reason. Even the most unexpected of things,” she adds, glancing down at my stomach. I rest my hand over top the small mountain at my midsection. “This definitely was one of the most unexpected,” I say agreeing. “Sometimes, the best things are.” Charlotte’s faith in all things unexpected gives me some back as well. Maybe she’s right. Maybe Shane and I were always meant for more than just friendship. “Maybe you’re right,” I agree. “Maybe this was all meant to be.” “I think so.” She catches a glimpse of something behind me and her eyes light up a little. “Speaking of meant to be…” I turn and look to see what’s caught her attention. Behind me a swarm of ladies have surrounded Shane who’s carrying the largest bouquet of white roses I’ve ever seen. I watch as he politely smiles, saying hello to everyone he passes. Hands reaching for his face, every one of them pulling him down to meet the kisses of fifty year old women. He slowly works his way through the crowd, his eyes looking to me every few minutes for help. But I just sit and wait and laugh. It’s his turn to answer hundreds of questions. He glares at me when he sees me refusing to get up, but it doesn’t stop him or his determined steps to reach me. Once in front of me, I stand, greeting him with a kiss on the cheek, accepting the flowers. “I’m not sure you deserve them. Leaving me stranded like that,” he says into my ear. “You were doing just fine. Forget the twenty-year-old models you work with. I think middle-aged ladies are your true niche,” I answer, winking. I feel his laughter as much as I hear it, his chest shaking against me before he lifts my face to his and rests his lips over mine. Meant to be. “Darling, the flowers are gorgeous,” Charlotte’s approving voice breaks us apart. “I don’t think you’ve ever gotten me flowers before,” I say, resting the bouquet on the table. “Shane…honestly,” Charlotte’s voice changing, chastising. “There are other ways to show someone you care,” Shane defends himself. “So the flowers weren’t your idea?” I ask. Shane glances in Charlotte’s direction, saying nothing. “Sometimes roses are an excellent way to show someone you care,” she tells him, pointedly. “They are lovely dear,” she says, patting him on the chest before being called away by one of her friends. “She’s right you know,” I say, fingering some of the soft petals from the bouquet. A slow, sly grin works its way onto Shane’s face before he leans in and whispers in my ear, his lips tickling my lobe. “The way I like showing you I care isn’t for the public to see.” I try and keep my composure, but with him being so close, his hot breath against my skin, the

smell of his cologne wrapping around me, it’s difficult. “You’re sure of yourself,” I say, working hard to keep my breath steady. He nods, lifting the corner of his lip. “The way you scream my name over and over proves it.” “Will you be quiet,” I scold, looking around us to see if anyone else can hear our conversation. “Why? They must know. You’re already pregnant,” he says, grinning. Holly comes up beside Shane, nudging him in the side. “Nice touch,” she says, looking down at the bouquet. “I have no idea where you guys are going to put all this stuff.” Together, Shane and I look over to the corner of the terrace where there are more gifts in one place than I’ve ever seen. When Charlotte told me to go ahead and register for some baby things, I wasn’t expecting to get everything on the list and then some. I feel very fortunate but at the same time, very overwhelmed. Holly’s right. Where will this all go? I look over to Shane, his expression unfazed. “I’ve instructed some of the staff to start putting the gifts in our cars,” Holly says, handing Shane her keys. “About that,” he says, cocking his head in the direction of the gifts. “When we get home, we should talk about that.” I watch how his eyes change, becoming brighter, happier. Excited even. He wants to talk. Seems eager about it too. Finally, we are going to discuss things. Everything we should have already said, we will say tonight. And I have a good feeling about it, about our future. How can I not when he looks at me the way he is now? I nod. “Yeah, okay.” Shane smiles and kisses me on the cheek before leaving to supervise the handling of all the gifts. Guests are doing their last round of mingling, stopping to wish me luck as they leave. I thank all of them, but my mind is already somewhere else. All I can think about is the conversation Shane and I are finally going to have. I save my last goodbye for Charlotte who wants to stay back and speak with the owner of the restaurant to personally thank him for the day. I’ve already told her thank you at least a hundred times but I say it twice more, hugging her, appreciating the fact that even though my own mother wasn’t here, I had Charlotte and that was much better. “Ready?” Holly asks, grabbing both our bags. I nod. We walk out of the restaurant onto the street, the late afternoon sun shining bright, hitting me directly in the eyes. I bring my hand up over my eyes to protect from the glare, putting everything back into focus. Putting Shane who’s ten feet away into focus. One hand resting on the door of his Jeep, the other at his hip, he’s too busy to notice me because he’s talking to someone. A woman. A tall, skinny, beautiful woman. A model. “Who’s that?” Holly asks. “I’m not sure,” I say. I walk a step behind Holly, moving closer and closer in Shane’s direction. As soon as he sees us, I notice how rigid and stiff he becomes. “Hello,” Holly says while tilting her head, studying this woman before turning her eyes towards Shane. “Hello,” the woman answers, smiling. An awkward silence comes around our small group. Sets of eyes moving from one person to the next. “Are you a co-worker of Shane’s?” Holly asks. “Not exactly—” she answers, looking to Shane, waiting for him to say something, but he remains

frozen, unable to speak. I watch as she nudges Shane in the shoulder, knocking him off balance. She breathes out a small laugh. “We did a shoot together a few months ago,” she reveals, still watching him. She has an accent but her English is perfect. Shane is still working on righting himself as she says all of this, but it’s her next few words that knock me off balance. “He was my Valentine.”

“HE WAS MY Valentine.” Those words are paralyzing. I feel my chest constrict, my ribs squeeze, pushing what little air is left out of me. It takes all the will power I have not to look at Leah, which I know only makes this all look so much worse. But I can’t let her see what I’m trying so hard to hide. Fear. Guilt. More fear. I blink back my dread, my nausea, trying my best to seem unaffected by Natalia’s words. I swallow the giant sized rock that’s formed in my throat and do my best to seem unfazed by the huge clausterfuck I’ve just found myself in. I smile casually but my mouth is so dry, my lips almost needing to be pried apart. I clench and unclench my fists inside the pockets of my pants, hoping it will help relax the rest of my body. I fight every instinct screaming at me to grab Leah and run. To literally pick her up, place her into my car and drive us far away from this sidewalk, away from this moment, away from Natalia. But if I do that, she’ll know. She’ll know I did something that never in my life have I wished I could take back more than I have in this moment. She’ll see it written all over my face if she doesn’t already. And it will change everything. Flashes of that night in New York work their way into my head, no matter how much I try to keep them out. The confusion I had over what happened between us the night of my birthday. My conversation with Bryan. Being told Leah was going out on a date on fucking Valentine’s Day. The hurt, anger and jealousy I felt but didn’t fully understand then. The photo shoot. The memory of how I acted that night turns my stomach. Acid and bile burning a hole inside me right here where I stand. My head begins to spin, selfish need to get away from here, more importantly, the need to get Leah away from here taking over everything else. Protect her, me, us, from anything that could hurt what we have now. Because what we have now is more important to me than anything. More important than admitting the truth, than telling lies, than anyone who might take her away from me. I cannot—will not—let anything jeopardize that. Pull it together, Shane! I need to snap out of my semi-paralyzed state and move. Move far, far away from the awful detour this day might potentially take. “I’m in the city for a shoot,” Natalia continues on, smiling, completely oblivious to how she could destroy my world. The world that took years to make. “I was sad to hear you weren’t going to be the

photographer.” She pouts playfully, her fingertips gripping my forearm. It feels like fire against my skin, burning me, causing me to rip my arm away from her grasp. It can’t have gone unnoticed by any of them, but my only thought is of Leah, and her seeing me touched by another woman. “It was nice seeing you again,” I manage to say, smiling as casually as I can. I turn and open the passenger side door of the car and hold out my hand to Leah, inwardly begging for her to take it so we can leave. I turn my head, glancing at Natalia for what I hope will be the last time and silently plead she just goes away. Confusion and hurt sweep across her face at my quick brush off. I know I should feel bad, my more than standoffish reaction incredibly rude. But I can’t think about her feelings right now, even if she doesn’t deserve this. There is only one woman, one person’s feelings, that matter to me right now and it’s not Natalia’s. I shift my attention back to Leah, her eyes trained on Natalia but her face expressionless. I can’t tell what she’s thinking, where her thoughts are taking her, and I hate it. All I know is I need to make sure they don’t take her somewhere awful or ugly. The truth. “Comb,” I say, wiggling the fingers of my outstretched hand. My voice rattles her a bit, blinking several times before she reaches out and intertwines her fingers with mine. I pull her towards me, wrapping my arm around her shoulders, keeping her close. Her body falls in line with mine but I feel the tension running through her. Her body is stiff, not molding into me as it usually does. Natalia’s eyes follow every move we make, watching us silently. Her eyes dip the slightest amount, to Leah’s stomach and it only takes her a second to understand. Her eyes widen for a fraction of a second before an awkward and slightly embarrassed smile works its way to her lips. She opens them a touch as if to say something but closes them again immediately. I have to remind myself over and over not to let my own discomfort show. Not to dig my fingers into Leah’s shoulders or bury her face into my chest, removing all of this from her sight. “Of course,” Natalia finally answers, straightening. “It was good to see you too.” She gives us all one more look before nodding her head in goodbye. She walks past us and, thankfully, has the decency to not look back. To not look at me, Leah, or Leah’s stomach. “Okay,” Holly says, looking directly at me. Her eyes are glaring, silently accusing me of wrongdoing. She’s already put two and two together. She knew the instant Natalia opened her mouth about Valentine’s Day. It’s one thing to beg for silence from Natalia, but Holly? She’s Leah’s best friend. How can I possibly get her to give me the benefit of the doubt and let me explain before she presses me about Natalia in front of Leah? “Holly, let’s get the rest of the stuff in the car,” I say, pleading to let her assumptions and questions go, at least for the moment. I turn to my attention to Leah. “Get in.” I motion to the car. “It will only take another minute.” She nods once and I help her get into the Jeep. So much of me wants to stay right by her side, in constant contact, not even letting mere inches separate us. But I need to talk to Holly. I wait for Leah to buckle her seatbelt and then kiss her softly on the lips. I let out a sigh of relief when she kisses me back. I press my forehead to hers. “Just a few more boxes,” I tell her. “Okay,” she says, quietly. I grab a few more boxes and gift bags from the sidewalk and load them in the car before turning back to grab a few more to put into Holly’s. I come around the back of Holly’s car to where her trunk is open, obstructing us from Leah’s view. Traffic drives by, drowning out the sound of her lowered voice, but I hear it very clearly. “What the fuck?” she snaps, her teeth gritted together. “It’s not what you think,” I tell her, equally riled. “You know how I feel about Leah. I would never

do anything to hurt her,” I quip, trying to keep my voice equally low. I take a calming breath, thinking about how best to defend myself. If there even is a defense. “Believe me when I say I regret nothing more than that night,” I say bent over, my hands gripping the trunk of her car. I close my eyes for a second before twisting up to look at her. “It was before all this. Before Leah and I became…what we are now.” Holly rolls her eyes, but still lets me speak. “Please, Holly,” I beg. “You know me. You know us.” I spare a quick glance in Leah’s direction. “She’s everything to me,” I say with every ounce of truth that’s in me. “She’s everything.” I watch as Holly takes a deep breath, glancing over the trunk of her car to look at Leah herself. I see some resolve come over her face and I close my eyes in relief. “Be very careful, Shane,” Holly threatens lightly. “I promise,” I say with such intensity. “I won’t let anything or anyone hurt her.” We both stand and Holly slams the trunk shut. “That better include you.” Holly walks past me and calls out to Leah. “I’ll call you later.” She waves, a tight smile on her face. Holly gets in her car and pulls away, leaving me just a few lengths away from Leah. I see her golden hair blowing in the breeze, almost completely hidden from view behind all the bags and gifts mounted in the back seat. Before walking back to the Jeep, I inwardly beg to anyone listening for today to not completely turn to shit. I plead that everything I had planned for us tonight, the outcomes I hope for still to happen. Tonight was supposed to be about our future, not a fight to keep us from my past. Walking around to the driver ’s seat, I work on convincing myself that if I can just get Leah home, if I can just tell her everything I planned on saying, everything will be all right. More than that— everything will be perfect. “Ready?” I ask, turning on the ignition. Leah remains motionless, barely acknowledging me. I press my lips together, reassuring myself once more everything will be fine and pull out onto the street. As I drive us home, I once more go over all the things I plan to tell her. None of that has changed. If anything, the importance of my words being spoken has only gotten stronger. The threat of something or someone destroying this chance has a way of putting things into perspective. No more waiting. No more interruptions. Leah Kessel is going to hear what I have to say. I just need to get her home so I can tell her. Home. That’s the first thing I want to discuss with her. We’re about to become a family of three and I want us to be one who lives together. Every time I walk by that giant box that holds the pieces of our baby’s crib, I think about it. Think about the three of us being together, sharing one space. When I’m in Leah’s tiny apartment and see the piles of baby clothes, diapers, and blankets leaning up against the wall in the corner, I hate myself for not bringing it up earlier. I don’t know why I waited this long to tell her. Why I’ve waited this long to tell her how I really feel about her. How far deep I am for her. So much yet so little has changed between us these last few months. She’s still my best friend, but she’s also become so much more. More than I could have ever wished for. More than I knew to wish for. This girl has changed everything, and I’m not going to let another day pass without her knowing it. We’ve waited six years. I’ve waited six years for this moment. I will not let the last five minutes derail it all. I glance in her direction and see her eyes roaming around the car. Everywhere from outside the windows to the gifts piled in the back seat. Her eyes don’t stop, busily looking over every inch of this car. But not once do they fall on me.

“Lots of stuff back there,” I say, breaking the silence. She looks over, her eyes finally focusing on me. Our eyes meet and hold for a few seconds before I need to turn back to look at the road. “Yeah,” she says, facing forward. “No idea where I’m going to put it all.” I tap her on the leg a few times before leaving my hand on top of her thigh. “We’ll figure it out,” I say, with confidence. I have it all figured out. This will work out. I feel my heart pound, not with nerves, because I’ve never been surer of wanting anything more in my life. Once we arrive back at my place, I tell Leah to head on up while I text Bryan to come down and help unload the car. Even he’s surprised at the amount of stuff we brought back with us. “Holy fuck,” he says, examining the full Jeep. “A baby needs all this stuff?” “I doubt it,” I answer. We start unloading the car, piling the boxes along the curb, when Bryan stops and folds his arms across his chest. “So, today is the day.” I nod. “Today is the day.” “Confident?” I take a staggered deep breathe. “Dude, you’re about to tell this girl you want to be a family unit or some shit like that. You need to do better than that,” he tells me. I roll my shoulders, looking up at our loft windows on the third floor, imagining Leah in there, walking around, making herself at home like she always does. I want that with her. A place where both of us feel at home with each other, in a place that is our home. “Hey.” Bryan cocks his head my way. “You love her?” “Of course,” I say without thought. “No, I mean, do you love her? There’s a difference.” I raise a brow. “And you know the difference?” I say, skeptically. “Yeah. I do,” he counters, a serious expression coming over him. “People are either in fucking love or they’re in fucking misery,” he says with more honesty than I’m used to hearing from him. I’m a bit thrown by it. He isn’t one to talk feelings too often, so his remark surprises me. It also leads me to believe we aren’t just talking about me and Leah anymore. For all the nagging we give Bryan for his strange relationship with Kendall, it finally dawns on me there is a reason they keep going back to each other. A reason neither of them can let the other go. In fucking love or in fucking misery. I think about which category I fall into. Which category I probably always fell into when it comes to Leah. “I’m in love,” I tell him. “Completely.” A grin tugs at his lips, followed by a look that tells me he already knew that. “Okay then. Let’s get all this shit upstairs so you can tell her that.” After helping me bring up all the boxes, Bryan leaves to give Leah and me some privacy. I walk to the bedroom, my confidence level rising with every step, in both my feelings for her and my plan. Today, I am going to once more change the pace of our relationship. Move it in the direction I know it’s always been meant to go in. I’m done waiting for the right time or the right sign. My feelings are the fucking sign. I feel like nothing can stop me, nothing except for the way I find her, sitting on my bed, waiting for me. Her back straight, head facing forward, hands held together in her lap. She looks up when I enter the room, expressionless. The slow blinking of her eyes her only movements. “Everything okay?” I ask, slowing my steps. Her eyes continue to meet mine for another few seconds before they dip low and away. “I’ve just

been thinking,” she says. “Okay.” I nod, taking another tentative step. “I’ve been thinking too. A lot lately—” But my words seem to fall on deaf ears because she continues speaking as if I’ve said nothing. “I’ve been sitting here, thinking about the same thing over and over again. Do you ever do that?” she asks, looking back up at me once again. “When you can’t fucking rid yourself of a thought, no matter how much you try?” Her expression turns sharp, like glass. And just like glass, I see it’s incredibly fragile, ready to break into a thousand pieces if not handled properly. “Sometimes,” I say carefully. A quick, short laugh escapes her lips. “When I found out I was pregnant, I was so scared. I know you think I was strong and courageous and in control. But I wasn’t.” She shakes her head at the memory. “I was numb. It literally paralyzed me. I had no idea what to do, how to react, how to feel. A thousand emotions and fears ran through me all at once, but in a slow, painstaking way.” This time when she looks up at me, her sad expression tightens everything in my chest. I take a step closer, wanting to comfort her, to make up for not being there when she first found out. But she doesn’t let me. She holds up her hand, indicating for me to stay right where I am. “But my biggest worry was how you would react. Isn’t that silly? I’m the one who’s pregnant. I’m the one who ultimately was going to have to make the choice, but my biggest concern was what you would say.” Every ounce of confidence I had walking into this room begins to dissipate faster than I can keep hold of. And it’s scaring the shit out of me. “Comb—” I start, but she moves on. “For days I carried around this sick worry inside of me. Terrified what we had done, what we were about to face, was going to ruin us. Ruin our friendship—” “Nothing can ruin us,” I interrupt. “Because you were my best friend, Shane,” she says, still not paying any attention to my words. “And you’re mine,” I tell her, taking a step towards her, ignoring her plea for me to stay away. But the next words out of her mouth stop me midstride. “Valentine’s Day,” she says, almost in a whisper. “That’s what I’ve been sitting here thinking about. Over and over. I keep telling myself I must have the dates wrong. Maybe…she had the dates wrong. I’ve been arguing with myself over it. Telling myself that while I was taking pregnancy tests, you couldn’t possibly have been out fucking other women. Right?” her tone pleading with me to agree. “That wouldn’t happen?” This breaking, begging tone in her voice is one I’ve never heard from her before. One I know I never want to hear again. The thought of lying briefly crosses my mind. But just as quickly as that thought materializes, it disappears. I can’t lie to her. If I lie, there’s no way she’ll believe anything I have to say after to defend myself. I close my eyes and tell her the truth. “It was just once,” I admit. “And I wish more than anything I could take it back. I wish it never happened but—” “Oh my God,” her voice cracks. I look up to see her stand and start to walk out of the bedroom. I follow her out into the living room, watching her pace around the open space. “Wait! Please listen to me,” I beg. This time it’s my voice that’s breaking slightly. “After my birthday, I was confused. What happened that night was…incredible. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. And while I was in Australia and New York, you were all I thought about. That night was all I thought about.” She stops pacing and turns to look at me, hurt and anger radiating from her. The way her eyes glare, the way her chest and shoulders rise and fall rapidly, holding back tears. It kills me. I want

nothing more than to pull her to me and hold her close. To make that hurt and anger go away. “When Bryan told me you had a date, I—I didn’t—” I take a second, trying my best to figure out how to explain my actions. “I was jealous and…pissed. It’s not an excuse, but I let what happen with Natalia happen because I was hurt. Angry at you.” “Angry at me?” she says harshly. “Yes,” I answer. “Because you were over it already.” “So the best way to get over what happened with me was to get under someone else?” she asks, disappointment laced her voice. It feels like stabs to the chest. “At the time, yes, that’s what I thought,” I admit. “Wow. I can’t wait to see what you do next time I piss you off,” she says spitefully. “That’s not fair!” I tell her. “Try and understand it from my point of view. I was going crazy thinking about you. When I left, there was something unfinished between us. I know you felt it too. But neither of us did anything about it. And that was a mistake. I should have said something then. And you should have as well! It wasn’t just an itch to scratch between us, Leah. We know it now and we probably knew it then too. Neither of us handled anything right that night. But we aren’t in a place like that anymore. We’re beyond that.” “Why?” She shrugs. “Because we’re having baby?” I stop myself from rolling my eyes and ignore the curtness in her voice at her question. “You know it’s not just that,” I say, taking a small, slow step towards her. I need to steer us in a direction where we can talk rationally. Where she’s calm enough to listen to what I’m saying more than what the memory of the last hour is screaming at her. A place that will remind her of what we’ve gone through over the last few months. What we’ve become to each other. The feelings I know we have for each other and that have changed everything between us. A place where the actions of one night have no impact on what we as a couple are today. “You and I would have happened regardless.” “I’m not so sure about that,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest defiantly. “Yes, you are,” I argue. “You and I both know that this, us,” I use my index finger to point between us, “would have happened. I’m sure of it. It was only a matter of time. It just happened faster because of the pregnancy.” “So it is because of the baby,” she says, her voice raising. “That’s not what I said! Stop putting words in my mouth,” I say, raising my own voice a little. I take a quick breath, releasing it slowly, knowing I’m the one who needs to remain calm if there’s even a chance of us talking this through tonight. “You know what I’m certain about?” she asks. “I’m certain if it wasn’t for this pregnancy, our lives would not have changed at all. You’d still be traveling the world just like you are now. Gone for days, weeks at a time. And I’d be climbing the ladder at work, working my way to the big cases, the ones I know I should be getting.” A small snide smile forms on her lips. “But there is a pregnancy. And now I see it’s only my life that’s changed. You’re still living the life you had and I’m—” She lets out small laugh. “I’m struggling just to make it through each day.” Her words sting. “How can you think that? How can you think my life hasn’t changed?” “I don’t know,” she says, shrugging. “Maybe it’s the crib still in pieces in that box. Unbuilt, unopened even. Ignored—” “I haven’t ignored it,” I defend myself. “Or maybe it’s that you still take off for trips around the world for who knows how long—” “It’s my job—” But she seems to be on a roll because she keeps coming at me with more accusations.

“Maybe it’s that we drove back here today in your Jeep. The same car that has no windows, doors that are paper thin.” Her tone is angry now. “I remember telling to you months ago it wouldn’t be safe for a baby. Yet there it is, parked downstairs on the street.” I shake my head in disbelief, trying to reign in my own anger now. I’m not dumb. I know Leah’s current lashings stem from her hurt right now. She’s hurt by New York and now she’s trying to give it back. But this is not a game Leah and I play. We’ve never thrown blame and pain at each other just to make ourselves feel better. We’ve also never been in a position where each other ’s actions have had the ability to hurt one another this much. But who’s to blame isn’t important to me right now. Fixing this is. So if I need to take a few lashes before she’s ready to hear me out, then I’ll take them. I’ll let her mark my body with her angry words if it means we can work on healing them faster. “You’re not ready for this,” she says as if she’s just come to some sort of realization. The absolute fucking wrong realization. “What?” “You don’t want this. You’re not ready for this,” she says. “You’re wrong,” I say forcefully. “Comb, I do want this. I want you. More than anything.” “Me maybe,” she says. “But it’s not just me anymore.” Her folded arms drop down from her chest. Down to her stomach, covering it, protecting it almost. From me. “I know that,” I say. “I want the three of us. Together. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Our future. Leah—” I stop and swallow. This is not how I expected this conversation to go, but if I need to bare it all right here and now in order to prove to her she and this baby are everything I want, then I’ll do it. “I love you,” I tell her. She blinks twice before shifting her gaze away from me. “Those words are so easy for you to drop,” she says. Now it’s my turn to blink a few times. “What’s that supposed to mean?” She just shakes her head. “Leah—” I say, taking another step towards her. “I think you need to take some time. Figure out what you really want.” I stop right in front of her. “I don’t need time,” I argue. “I’m telling you right now. I’m telling you everything. I love you! Why won’t you listen to what I’m saying?” “I am,” she says. “I just don’t think you fully understand what you’re saying.” If she had slapped me, I don’t think it would have stung as much. “How can you say that?” “How can I?” she asks surprised. “I’m just trying to be truthful.” “No! You’re trying to hurt me because you feel like I hurt you. And I get that. I can even understand it. But don’t tell me what I need. Don’t tell me you know what I want more than I do. Because I’m telling you, I’m ready for this. This is the life I want.” “Then why is everything still in boxes, Shane? Why are you leaving every few weeks? Why am I the only one sacrificing?” she yells. “I am too!” I yell back. “I am sacrificing. I’m turning down job offers so I can be at your side. So I can go to your doctor ’s appointments. So that I stand by you when you’re having a pregnancy meltdown. I stay home and rub your legs every night to make you more comfortable. I do my best to make my schedule fit around yours!” I know I should ease up on my tone. None of this is helping, but for whatever reason, I can’t help myself. I don’t think I’ve ever been this upset, this angry at her before. “I’ve done everything I can think of to make things easier for you! Anything you want, I try and give you. I even fuck you when you want it!” The second the words leave my mouth, I regret them. I want to take them back, erase them from ever being said. I didn’t mean them, she must know that. But the look on her face after saying them, I

won’t soon forget. Tears form in the corner of her eyes, pooling together before they finally fall down her cheeks. “Comb—” I start, feeling like utter shit for my words. I raise my hand to touch her, wipe away her tears, but she quickly takes a step back, recoiling even. “Well,” she starts, her voice trying to hide embarrassment. “At least now I know how you really feel.” “I didn’t mean it like that,” I say gently, trying again to reach out to her. But she’s even further out of my grasp now, walking away, headed for the door. I realize she’s going to leave, walk away before we have a chance to fix this. Before I have a chance to fix this. “Don’t go,” I plead. “Stay. Let’s talk.” She looks back at me but continues her walk to the door. “I think we’ve talked enough.” “No we haven’t,” I say, chasing after her. I catch up to her, wrapping my hand around her arm to stop her, but she shoves me away. I raise my hands, yielding, accepting she doesn’t want me to touch her. Slowly and calmly, I beg her. “Please stay.” “No,” she answers. “No?” “No,” she says again. “I can’t be here right now, Shane. I can’t be near you right now. Maybe you think you don’t need time, but right now,” her eyes wander, looking at anything but me, “I do.” Fear creeps up my spine. “Time for what?” I ask. “Are you—are we breaking up?” Her eyes finally fall on me and their sad expression nearly knocks me down. My hand reaches for the door frame, the rest of me needing help to stay upright. How can we be breaking up when all we’ve done is fall in love? “Comb?” I breathe out. “I… I don’t know,” she says. “I just…need time.” “How much time?” She doesn’t answer. We just stare at each other for what feels like an eternity before she finally turns and walks out the door. I watch her, stunned, as she walks down the hallway, to the elevators and pushes the call button. I tell myself this isn’t real, that this isn’t happening. I tell myself that if she turns around, just gives me one look, I know she’ll come running back. Because she’ll see how much I love her, how much I want her here, how important she is to me. How much this family we are about to start means to me. She’ll see I didn’t mean any of the stupid shit that came out of my mouth. And I’ll see the same thing. I’ll know she didn’t mean what she said. That she doesn’t need time. That she doesn’t want to leave right now. That she loves me back. Please, Leah. Please turn and look at me. The elevator doors open. There’s a small hesitation in her step but it’s not enough. She takes one step, then another, disappearing into the elevator. The doors close and she’s gone. She didn’t look back. I stand in my doorway for I’m not sure how long, unable to comprehend how this day turned out the way it did. This day was supposed to end with us moving forward, together. Instead, I’m left alone, unmoving while the distance between us grows larger and larger with every step she takes away from me. I close the door after I accept she isn’t coming back and stagger to the couch, leaning my head back against the cushions. I sit back and replay everything that’s just happened. The words we used, the anger we had. I try and follow the twists and turns that lead us to this point, but my mind can’t seem to process any of it right now. How could five minutes on a sidewalk change everything? Change all the minutes of my future? I don’t pay attention to how long I’ve stayed sitting like this, my head back, arms fallen at my

sides. I don’t notice the time passing or the sun setting. After a while, a bottle of beer appears in front of my face. I look up to the hand offering it before I open it, Bryan taking a seat next me. The lights in the apartment are still off, a darkness hovering over the room. I have no idea what time it is but it must be a few hours since Leah left. I take a long sip from my beer, not realizing how thirsty I am. “Things not go as planned?” Bryan asks, carefully. I almost choke at the comment. “No,” I say, nearly laughing at just how unexpected and unplanned everything went. I take another sip from my beer. “Not even close.”

I’VE NEVER BEEN the type of guy to dwell over a breakup. Relationships come and then they go. I never had the fear I let the right girl slip away. Never worried that one day, I’d wake up agonizing over a loss. I never had any of those worries because I knew I had never found my true match. Sure, I’d had fun times, good memories I’d look back on with fondness and humor, but never with regret. If things didn’t work out, it was for the best. I trusted that there must have been a reason. That someone else was out there, meant for me, meant for a different time. And to be honest, I was in no rush to find her. I enjoyed the journey. I liked being on the ride that would take me to her…eventually. But then my ride crashed, leaving me for the first time…heartbroken. Not only did I find the girl, but I was too blind to see she’s been riding alongside me this entire time. It’s been three days since Leah walked out my door without looking back. Three days I’ve had to live through every low one can imagine. Even some you can’t. The regrets, the pain, the utter fucking agony. The misery of knowing there’s nothing that can undo what you want removed the most, the hurt you imposed. The hurt thrown back at you. When Bryan said people were either in love or in misery, he was wrong. Because I’m in both. So in love with Leah it hurts, head over fucking heels in misery it kills. How naïve I’ve been all this time. To think I was in charge, that I somehow had control in how or when I fell in love. I never had control. For six years, since the night I met Leah in a crowded room around a foosball table, I never had control. I wish I had realized that years ago. I wouldn’t have wasted so much time. I would have fought for her harder, pushed anyone aside to be near her. I wouldn’t have let our time be wasted, especially if it was going to be so short lived. We haven’t spoken in days since she left. I’ve fought with myself every second not to chase after her, call her insistently, beg for her to listen. I want to fill her head with assurances and promises. Leave no room for confusion, any uncertainty or mistrust. No room for doubt. I’d be sure to push any hesitation she has about me, my feelings, my wants, out of her head. I never knew, never been prepared for how much a heart could shrivel up after letting it grow. My heart expanded not just for Leah, but for a person I haven’t even met yet. A small stranger who will change me for the rest of my life. Because of these two people, my heart grew so much, I wondered how it was possible for it to stay inside my chest. I’ve never been the type of guy to dwell over a breakup. Relationships come and then they go. But

this wasn’t just a relationship and this isn’t just a breakup. This is my life being torn into three, leaving me…broken. “HEY.” BRYAN NODS, walking through the front door carrying two takeout cups of coffee and newspaper. He hands me a cup and I thank him with a half-hearted smile. I look back to my computer screen, the shots I’ve been editing for the last two days. It should have only taken me a couple of hours but my concentration levels have been near zero. Bryan comes up behind me, inspecting the images on the screen. Much to his disappointment, they aren’t photos of women in lingerie. These are of sunsets over the water and boats docked at the marina. A small booking I did for a Miami tourist website. “What’s this?” he says, picking up an owner ’s manual sitting on the corner of my desk. “New car,” I answer, barely giving it a glance. “Audi Q5,” he says, surprised. “When did you get this?” I lean back in my chair, watching Bryan skim through the pages. “I picked it up yesterday, but I bought it a few weeks ago. Research says it’s one of the safest cars out there. It was supposed to be a surprise.” When I bought the car, I thought Leah would be thrilled. A fun way to show her how much I was ready for us to be a family. That I was preparing, adjusting. Future soccer dad in the making. I researched over ten different cars, their safety guarantees, comfort levels, space. Everything I thought would be important for a growing family. I even Googled what I should be looking for as to not forget anything. There were a few features I wanted so they had to special order the car. The dealership called me the day after Leah walked out, letting me know it was ready. What is it they say? Timing is everything? “Nice,” Bryan says. “That’s one thing you can throw back in her face.” “I don’t want to throw anything back in her face,” I say, yanking the manual out of his hands. “It’s not about that.” I know, in his own way, Bryan’s only trying to help. Defending me like any friend would. He’s the only one who’s seen me these last few days. The only one to witness what I’ve been going through. It’s easy for him to put the blame on Leah. “Well maybe it should be,” he argues. “It’s time for her to give you a chance to speak. She got her chance! If you ask me—” “I’m not asking you,” I say rubbing my eyes, exhausted. Bryan heads over to the couch, taking a seat. “I still don’t get why she’s so pissed. It’s not like you two were together when you banged that girl,” he says, shaking his head. “So what? You had sex with someone else. Is her pregnancy brain not letting her compute when it happened? It’s not like you cheated. She’s just punishing you because she thinks she can. Like all women think they can.” I swing my office chair to face him, leaning back and raising a brow. “All women?” “All of them,” Bryan reiterates before taking a sip of his coffee. “Right,” I say, folding my hand over my stomach. “So that includes Kendall?” Bryan snorts. “That one for sure,” he says. “She’ll punish me for anything. If I say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing. One minute she wants this, then the next it’s that. How am I supposed to keep up? She’s a fucking lunatic.” I know, as does Bryan for that matter, that she’s not. I actually really like Kendall. She’s a nice girl with a good head on her shoulders. Except for when it comes to Bryan. “Like last night,” he starts, sitting up to face me. “She kicked me out of her apartment for doing the exact thing she asked me to do.”

I raise my brow, waiting to hear more before I pass judgment. “We were in the middle of a great fuck when I spanked her. Why? Because for years all I’ve been hearing is Christian fucking Grey this, Christian fucking Grey that. Those fucking books sit on her nightstand like some kind of shrine or something. So I do what she obviously has been asking for. I spank her ass and tits a bit, just like he does. Maybe call her a name or two. But do I get a fucking thank you blow job? Fuck no. Instead she pushes me off her, telling me that I don’t understand or respect her. Loses her fucking mind and kicks me out,” he finishes. I bite the inside of my cheeks. “You read Fifty?” “I watched the movie,” he says dismissively, rolling his eyes. “Point is, women say one thing but expect another. Like we’re fucking mind readers or something. And then they want to punish us for getting it wrong.” I study him as he says all this. I’ve never honestly asked Bryan why he continues on with Kendall in part because it’s amusing to watch. But now, after having gone through what might have been some of the worst days of my life, I wonder why he chooses to go through something similar over and over again with her. It’s obvious to anyone he’s in love with her. No one would continue to go through that if they weren’t. Even if he won’t admit it—to her or himself. “You ever think maybe what she wants from you is not,” I pause, trying to think of the right word. “Physical? Maybe she’s looking for something more on an emotional level from you?” His eyes come my way. “I’m not a fucking moron,” Bryan says, dropping his head for a moment before taking another sip from his coffee. “I know what she wants.” “Then why do you keep doing this to yourself?” I ask, dumbfounded. “Why not just give it to her. Tell her. You wouldn’t keep going back to her if you didn’t want it too.” “Because I was never supposed to find her this early! I was twenty when I met Kenny,” he says, adamantly. “I was supposed to party, bang chicks until I was thirty and then maybe start thinking of settling down. Then think about falling in love and all that shit. These years were supposed to be all about me. But she fucked that all up. And sometimes,” he looks at me, a little rattled at what he’s finally admitting, “I blame her for it.” Bryan has never said anything so honest about Kendall and his feelings for her. Leah and I have only been going at this for a short time and it’s nearly killing me being away from her. How Bryan has lasted years of doing this with Kendall astonishes me. “So it’s not just me,” I say. He quirks his brow, not understanding. “In fucking love or in fucking misery,” I remind him. “You’re in both too.” He lets out a small laugh. “Who finds their fucking soul mate when they’re twenty?” he asks. I copy his laugh. “I guess we do,” I say. “And now we’re being punished for not realizing it like we should have.” “And you’re okay with that?” he asks. “Hell no,” I state. “Every minute that goes by and she doesn’t reach out to me is fucking torture. Every minute that slips away, keeping us from working things out, I need to hold in my anger. I need to remind myself she’s hurting because of me, regardless of how much I disagree. I need to remind myself I love her more than how resentful I am of her staying away. Every minute that goes by, I need to fight the urge to go over to her place, tie her in a chair and make her listen to me. But I know her. I know if I go over there now, she won’t listen. She’ll only fight me twice as hard. So instead, I have to sit here. Biding my time until she is ready. Even if it kills me. So, no. I’m not okay with any of this.” Bryan raises his coffee cup and smiles. “To being in fucking love and in fucking misery. What fucking bullshit,” he says before taking a sip. I return his smile. “And to the women who put us there.”

THAT AFTERNOON, AFTER still not having heard from Leah, I head downtown towards a building which holds several mixed feelings for me. Happy memories of going to see my father at work as a child, running to the elevators, wanting to be the one to push the buttons. Looking out his office window, plastering my head to the glass to peer down at all the people below. It’s because of this building and what goes on inside it I was gifted with the upbringing I had. The lifestyle I was afforded, the one my parents were able to give me. But this building also represents the conflict that has come between me and my father. Our continued failure to see each other ’s point of view. For the longest time, this building was a symbol of what I didn’t want for my life. This building made me equally determined to achieve things in life on my own, as well as make me the narcissistic asshole who thought I was too good for it. I ride up the elevator to the twentieth floor where Carlisle Corp runs a small fraction of the marketing world. Today, instead of feeling captured or restrained by these walls, they give me solace. A new hope. A step closer to the future I want if my plan is successful. I walk past the front desk, waving at the receptionist who’s seen me come through here enough times to not worry about checking my ID or asking who I’m here to see. I walk down the busy halls, watching everyone furiously at work. Carlisle Corp is one of the busiest marketing firms in the city that plays with big money. In order to stay working at this firm, there are two things expected of you —always put your best work forward and never let someone steal your thunder. It may seem a little cut throat, but these people live in the world of marketing and advertising. It’s a competitive industry and if you’re good at it, a healthy dose of competition will only make you stronger. I’ve heard rumors that if you can last a year at Carlisle Corp, you’ve essentially stamped yourself in the world of advertising. Outside my father ’s office, his secretary Maureen sits at her desk. She’s been with him since the beginning. Her hair may be a little grayer, her wrinkles a little deeper, but don’t let that fool you. Getting by her to see my father is tough. Unless you’re me. “Baby Boy, let me look at you,” she squeals, getting up from her seat. Maureen has called me Baby Boy for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager, I begged my father to tell her to stop calling me that, mortified that others on the floor could hear her. But today, it puts a smile on my face. Considering how chaotic life is at the moment, it’s nice to have something familiar and consistent. Even if it is just a nickname. Rushing around her desk wearing her customary skirt and suit jacket and reading glasses hanging from a long chain, she engulfs me in a warm hug. For as long as I can remember, Maureen has always smelled like cookies. Today is no different. As soon as she releases me, I notice she’s still wearing the pearl necklace my mother gave her on the twentieth anniversary of being my father ’s secretary. Some might find it odd that my mother would present my father ’s secretary with such a gift, but not to anyone who really knows our family. It’s no secret how my father made it to my school presentations on time, who arranged dinner reservations for wedding anniversaries, who reminded him of birthdays and other celebrations. My mother and Maureen created their own kind of camaraderie years ago, becoming one functional team. “Hi, Maureen,” I say as she takes my face in her hands, examining me. “How are you, dear? Oh and a baby! How could you not have come here and told me yourself?” she scolds. “Now when is that bundle coming to meet Aunt Maureen?” I laugh. “Just as soon as he’s born,” I promise. “He?” I tip my head side to side. “Just a feeling.”

She laughs, taking a step away and moving back behind her desk. “He isn’t expecting you,” she says, pointedly. Her expression screams interest as to why I’m here. “I know.” I nod. “I was hoping he could spare a few minutes. Is he busy?” “Always. But for you,” she cocks her head towards his door, “go on in. Don’t knock! It’s always fun surprising him with an unplanned interruption,” she says, giggling. “How you still have this job…” I tease. “Oh please. He’d fall apart without me,” she says, waving off my comment. I smile and head to his door, stopping myself from knocking before walking straight in. “Maureen, how many times—” my father starts before looking up from his desk. “Shane,” he says surprised. “She told me to come right in,” I answer like a snitching child. “Of course she did,” he says, shaking his head. He waves his hand, inviting me further into his office. I walk into the center of the room, mindful of each step I take. I feel my father watching me, waiting for me to come closer. He isn’t one to meet you halfway. He waits for you to come to him, no matter how long it takes. I slowly walk in front of one of the two chairs across from his desk and take a seat. He already knows I’m here to ask for his help. It’s written all over my face. But that doesn’t make it easier for me. “I hear you got yourself into a situation with Leah. A different kind of situation this time,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “Something like that,” I answer, crossing one ankle over my knee. It doesn’t surprise me he already knows. My mother must have told him because Leah told her. Over the course of the last few months, Leah and my mother have grown much closer. I’m not exactly sure what Leah said to my mother, only that we got into a fight and we both needed some space. The amount of times I’ve had to send my mother ’s calls to voicemail is obscene. The worry in her messages only escalated my own, so I had to stop listening to them. I look around my father ’s office, and much like the one he has at home, it’s made up of dark furniture and endless amount of books filling shelves around the room. The window I used to press my forehead against allows for the sun’s light to shine through, giving an amazing view of the buildings in the downtown core. My father takes off his glasses and places them on his desk before raising his eyes back in my direction, an indication he’s waiting for me to begin. But I remain quiet. I sit in his overstuffed brown leather chair, playing with a stray strand of thread from the inseam of my jeans. “I assume you came here for something,” my father says after a while. I nod once because it’s true. I did come here for something. Maybe for more than one thing. Some advice? A sounding board? His simple company? “Leah’s pretty pissed at me.” “I know.” “I’m not sure how to fix it.” “And you came here thinking I might have the answer?” he responds, a menacing grin mocking me. “You usually have something to say,” I reply, a tight smile forming. I watch my father shake his head, his grin only growing. He stands from his chair and makes his way around his large mahogany desk, taking a seat in the empty chair next to me. “You usually never like to hear it,” he says. “Probably still won’t.” “Then why are you here?” I blow out a deep breath. “Because, Dad, you know how to fix things.”

“Not always,” he says, tapping his hand over his leg repeatedly. “Your mother left me once.” My head snaps in his direction. “No she didn’t,” I say, disbelievingly. “Oh, she did, I promise you,” he says, seemingly now able to smile at the memory. “This was before you were born. Before she was even pregnant. She says ‘left’ is too strong a word, but trust me, that’s exactly what she did.” He points at me. “It was back when Carlisle Corp was just one rented office on the other side of town. I used to spend hours there. Early in the morning and long into the night. Working non-stop to build this company to what I knew it could be one day. What I envisioned it would be one day. What it is now. At the time, I thought nothing was more important than getting this company started. Making the Carlisle name known to everyone! This was going to be our future. Your future,” he says adamantly. “Any other responsibilities I had, I let slip because what I was building I believed was worth the sacrifice. Worth seeing your mother less and less. Worth the long days and sleepless nights. Because my sacrifices were going to build something for our family.” He says this all with such conviction, such pride. It reminds me why I thrive for my father ’s approval even when I spend so much time fighting him over it. “And you did,” I say. “You built something great.” He smiles and looks around his office. “Yes, I did. But at a cost I hadn’t even considered before.” I look at him, confused. “It was too late by the time I realized it, but during that time, I wasn’t the only one sacrificing.” My father sits back in his own chair, watching me. “All those nights I didn’t sleep, all those hours I spent in that small office, all that time I sacrificed with your mother, it never occurred to me she wouldn’t be okay with the sacrifices I was asking of her.” My father sits back up, leaning in closer to me. “I didn’t think of what her life was like those months, that first year. I left her on her own and expected her to be waiting for me when I was done. One day, she wasn’t.” “I can’t imagine any of this happening,” I tell him, shocked. “It did,” he answers. I watch him as he thinks back to that time, replaying the scenes from his memory. “The day I landed my first big client. As soon as the contracts were signed, I couldn’t wait to tell your mother. To show her it had all been worth it. That this company was going to make it. Just like I knew it would.” “What did she say?” My father laughs. “Nothing. She wasn’t there. She had already left to go stay with her sister, aunt Abby. She had left two weeks prior and I…forgot. Can you believe that? I actually forgot that your mother moved out. I felt sick when I got home. I realized then everything I had worked so hard for meant nothing if she wasn’t there for it.” “What did you do?” “What do you think?” he says, shrugging before looking me in the eye. “I went to go get her.” I let out a small laugh. “Threw her over your shoulder and dragged her back home?” A crack of a smile appears on his lips. “Not quite, but not too far off.” He shifts once more in his seat, crossing one leg over the other. “I went to Abby’s and refused to leave until your mother came home with me. Sat right there on the couch for hours while they ate dinner, refusing to offer me any, and then watched Dallas. For two hours. I knew they were sweating me out, but I stood my ground until she relented and finally let me speak my peace when she realized I wasn’t going to leave. And that’s when I told her none of anything I accomplished meant anything without her. That the success I had was only great if I had her to share it with. What took me too long to figure out was it couldn’t just be my success. It had to be ours. Together. I asked her what I needed to do to prove to her I finally understood that. She gave me a list.” He laughs. “A piece of paper she had ready in her pocket. A list of demands.”

“What was on the list?” My father looks over at me, his expression turning serious. “Only one thing. To always put each other first.” “That’s it?” “Is there anything more?” he questions me right back. “I don’t know. I don’t know if things are that simple anymore,” I answer. “Things are always that simple, Shane. Putting each other first, that’s what keeps people together.” “Leah doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’m ready to put her and the baby first. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to believe me.” He shrugs again. “Then maybe you need to show her, not tell her.” “And how do I do that?” I ask, turning my head to face him. “Go to her place and plant myself on her couch?” “Do you think that will work?” he asks, grinning. “I don’t think she’d even open the door,” I say. “I think I’m going to need a little more than a sit in.” “So figure that out. Figure out what she needs to see to believe you,” he says. “When men are desperate enough, inspiration is not too far down the road.” I laugh a little. “That’s good to know, because I’m pretty desperate. Right now, it feels like I’m at a pretty big fucking bump in the road.” “A bump in the road is also a boost,” he answers. I smile, thinking back to who told me that first. “Mom says that.” “And she’s always right,” he adds. I nod. “Thanks, Dad.” He smiles and gets up from his chair, walking back around his desk. He picks up his glasses and puts them on before shuffling through some paper documents. When he notices I’ve yet to get up, he looks down at me with question. “Something else?” It’s time for the real reason I came. And after this talk with my dad, I feel better about it. I’m done with fighting, rationalizing, arguing that I know better. That I have something to prove by doing this my way. Because the problem with my way is it only works if I’m okay doing things alone. My way only works if being with Leah and building a family with her comes second to everything else. And I don’t want it to come second. I want it to come first. It needs to come first. If Leah won’t listen to me when I tell her all this, then maybe my dad’s right. I need to show her. “Yeah, there is,” I say, standing from my chair. “I’d like to talk to you about that job offer.” WHEN I ARRIVE home, I’m feeling a bit better about things. I’ve begun to devise a plan in my mind. A plan to show Leah that she and this baby are my number one priority. A plan to show her that when I picture my future, she and the baby are what I see. And not because I have no choice, but because they are my choice. I also need to remind her that before there was a pregnancy, there was an us. It may have looked different then, but it was there and it was real. Bryan is sitting at the kitchen counter reading through a stack of papers. “Hey,” I say, coming around the kitchen counter, grabbing a beer from the fridge. “What’s up?” he says, cocking his head once. “Just taking care of some business. You?” He motions to all the sheets in front of him. “Same.” My eyes roam around our loft, and I start to mentally remove some objects from it and replace it with others. Configuring in my head a space that’s both welcoming and safe for a baby. I make a

mental note to look up baby proofing on the internet. Which leads me to what I need to talk to Bryan about. “So listen,” I start. His head rises from whatever he’s been reading, a red pen catching my attention as he moves it back and forth between his fingers. “I’ve been doing some thinking. Things are about to change for me. In a big way. And I need to start preparing for it. Preparing this place for it.” He raises his brows and sits straighter on his stool. “Look—” Bryan raises his hand in the air, interrupting me. “Shane, I get it,” he says, smiling. He slides the stack of papers he’s been flipping through towards me, turning them so that I can read what they say. They’re realtor listings. Places to rent in the area. “You’re not pissed?” I ask, skimming through the sheets. “Don’t be fucking stupid,” he says, taking the papers out of my hands. “Truth is, I’ve been looking for an excuse to leave you and this sorry place behind. You actually did me a favor knocking Leah up.” I see the joking glint in his eye, but it’s also mixed with something else. I realize that me having a baby changes things for him too. Because if it weren’t for the baby, we probably would have stayed roommates much longer. Like Burt and Ernie. No wait, bad example. More like Joey and Chandler. “End of an era,” Bryan says, holding out his fist. I smile, bumping it. “Thanks for…you know,” I say pointing to the stack of papers. He shrugs it off like it’s nothing, but we both know it’s not. “So when do you need me out by?” “Sooner than later,” I tell him truthfully. “And I’m also going to need your help with something else.” He nods, waiting to hear what I need. I feel bad for what I’m about to ask of him, but like my father said. Desperate men…

I’VE READ AND reread the same sentence over and over. My last hour has been filled with only these eight little words. The first eight words of a document approximately five thousand words long. You’d think that after an hour of staring at these same eight words, I’d have them memorized. Have a true understanding of their meaning, definition, interpretation. That I could repeat the sentence not only by using the words themselves but by streaming the order of the individual letters. But if someone were to come into my office right now and ask me what the first word in the sentence is, I’d be fucked. This has been my week. Every day is the same since I left Shane’s. Completely at a loss but trying, pretending to function. I come to work early, hoping to get my mind thinking about anything else. I stay late because my day’s been wasted thinking about nothing but him. I sit at my desk for hours, staring at a computer screen and accomplish nothing. I don’t fare much better at home either. My eyelids are continuously weighed down but I hardly sleep. My stomach growls constantly but I can’t eat. I’m lonely even though I’m never alone. I miss Shane so much it hurts. And because it hurts, I get angry. For one thing, two things, all things. I blame him for the way my week has gone. I blame him for not leaving my thoughts or getting out of my head. I blame him for the loneliness. I blame him for how much my heart aches because of it. I blame him that my heart aches at all. I was always capable of doing everything on my own because it’s the way it has always been. I blame him for that the most I think. I blame him for turning me into someone who needs someone else. I was never that girl. I never wanted to be that girl. I was stronger than that girl. Now, I’ve become that girl. I don’t know if it happened slowly or all at once, but it happened. Shane wasn’t just a part of my life anymore. He completely took it over. And I stupidly let it happen. I let it happen because he made me feel things I never expected. It happened because as confusing as it was in the beginning, it felt more natural to me than anything else ever did. It happened because I foolishly fell in love with my best friend. And then, outside of Baoli, something else happened. A hint of truth began to show itself. One I tried to ignore but inevitably reared its ugly head on that sidewalk. It sucked having to come face to

face with a woman he slept with while I was peeing on sticks, but she wasn’t the truth I didn’t want to face. Our truth ran much deeper than that. Riding in Shane’s Jeep, the crib still in a box tucked away, his place showing hardly any signs of preparation for things to come, I realized life hadn’t really changed for him. Life wasn’t changing for him. He was still living the same life except for one tiny little detail—the reason that got us to where we are. We didn’t happen naturally like I thought. We were forced together. I forced us together. Compelled him into a lifelong commitment because of a decision I made months ago in a doctor ’s office. I didn’t give Shane the chance to fall in love with me. He never had the choice at all. Realizing that made me angry, mostly at myself but I took it out on him. I didn’t mean for us to have the argument we did, but that doesn’t make the reasons for it any less real. I have no doubt Shane cares for me deeply. I have no doubt Shane will be a great father to this child once it’s here. But there are more ways to be a family than just the traditional sense. And this baby deserves that family more than a forced traditional one. As hard as it may be, I need to take a step back because this baby and me can’t be Shane’s plan—his future because of circumstance. So I’m keeping my distance for now. Giving us time to figure things out. Giving him time to figure things out. I refuse to trap us inside a traditionally shaped box when there’s a big chance we don’t fit in it. I know I can’t keep blaming Shane for where I—we—are now. I’m the one who brought us here. I close my eyes just for a moment, telling myself when I reopen them, I will reread these eight words for the last time and understand them for the first. I will give my heart a rest and start using my brain. My stomach growls, a reminder that once again, I’ve skipped breakfast. Not even a second later, baby throws a few jabs against my ribs, letting me know how unappreciative he or she is of not being fed. I tell myself I should head down to the café, grab something to eat, settle both our hungers, but my legs aren’t cooperating. The wave of exhaustion coming over me too strong to get me to move. So instead, I stay in my chair with my eyes closed, telling myself that I only need another few minutes and then I’ll be able to get up. But a knock on my office door forces my eyes open. Like always, without waiting for permission to enter, Holly strides in with several folders in her hands. “Quick question about those files you sent me—” she starts, but stops as soon as we link eyes. “Whoa. You don’t look so good.” “Thanks,” I say quietly, slightly insulted. “Are you feeling okay? You look a little pale.” “This is what happens when the pregnancy glow goes away. You’re left looking like this,” I say, waving my hand in front of my face. Holly walks further into my office, standing directly in front of my desk, concern flashing across her face. “I’m fine. Really,” I reassure her. “I just need to get a little food in me.” “Let me go get you something,” she offers. “What would you like?” “Anything,” I answer. She nods, turning to leave. “Wait!” I stop her. “You had a question?” Holly turns back around, remembering the reason she came here in the first place. “Yes,” she says, indicating the folders in her hands. “I started cross referencing the case files you emailed me but I’m confused. I don’t understand what any of these have to do with—” She’s doesn’t finish her thought because Cassandra appears at my open door. She gives Holly a brief nod of acknowledgment before turning her attention to me. “Leah, I’m still waiting on those briefs. I’d like to review them before court tomorrow.”

I quickly stand out of my chair, too quick because I’m suddenly light headed. “Yes. Holly and I were just discussing that. We’ll have it ready within the hour,” I promise, resting my hands on my desk for balance. I know that stretch of time is unlikely, but I smile anyway, ignoring my worry over that deadline. My eyes shift over to Holly’s for a brief moment but long enough to see her concern with that time line as well. There’s obviously an issue I have not been made aware of yet. Now not only do I feel lightheaded, but my neck is beginning to sweat. “Good,” Cassandra says with a curt nod. “One hour.” She turns to leave. I look to Holly. Both our eyes follow Cassandra out of my office and down the hallway as I sit back down in my chair, fingers massaging my temples, hoping to alleviate at least one body issue I seem to be having. “One hour will be tough,” Holly says. I nod without looking up. “I know. As long as we get it to her within two, it should be fine.” “That could also be a problem.” I look up, confused. “Why?” “That’s why I came to see you. The files you sent me,” she says, holding up the folders in front of her. “I’ve pulled and read through all of them, and I don’t see how any of this is pertinent to the Bakker case.” “What do you mean? All the precedent is there. Lloyd, Grimshaw, Fontaine. I spent weeks researching those cases. It’s all there. They all work in our favor,” I tell her. “Who?” Holly asks, confused. “What?” I respond, equally confused. “The cases I sent you yesterday.” I point to the folders in her hands. “Yes, these cases.” She glances down at the folders. “But these aren’t Lloyd, Grimshaw and whoever…these are Benton, Carson and Paulson.” For a moment we just stare at each other, taking turns shifting our attention from the folders in Holly’s hand, then back up to one another. My heart starts to accelerate, panic edging its way up my spine. The sweat that was beginning to form on the back of my neck now spreading. I know something isn’t adding up here but I still can’t seem to pull my thoughts together fast enough to understand what it is. Until Holly speaks, almost in a whisper. “Did you…highlight the wrong files?” Highlight the wrong files? I couldn’t have. Not after spending so much time on this case. Not when we are about to go to trial tomorrow. Not when it was my responsibility to have our argument backed up by the cases I spent months researching. The weeks I spent highlighting subsection after subsection. Subsections that apparently don’t match up to the correct cases. “I—I couldn’t have,” I start, my voice beginning to shake. “I didn’t…” I say, hoping for more confidence. My hands quickly move to my computer, my fingers hitting the keys on the keyboard at a furious rate. I open my email, the sent folder, my Holly folder. I quickly find the email I need, clicking it open, barely acknowledging the subject line that reads “URGENT” and look for the attachment. For the first time today, I process the first words of a document immediately. Right there, in bold font at the top of the page, directly above some of the highlighted notes that I merged in with this file, are the words Benton, Carson and Paulson. The wrong cases. “Fuck,” I breathe out in a panic, standing abruptly. My hands feel numb but I know they’re shaking. “Fuck.” I look at Holly and see the wheels in her head start to spin. She’s already trying to come up with a

plan, a course of action to figure this out while I’m too busy falling apart. There’s no way to make up for at least a day and a half of work when it’s due in less than two hours. My head begins to spin at an alarming rate, making me incredibly dizzy. “We can do this,” Holly says, now pacing back and forth. “Re-send me the case names. I’ll grab a few of the interns. No one will have to know.” I hear her words, but my reply stays the same. “Fuck.” How could I have made such a monumental error? This case was my chance to prove myself. That I could play in the big leagues. Take on the big cases. Now I’ve fucked all that up. Wasting everyone’s time by having them work on the wrong case! What the hell is wrong with me? I grip the edge of my desk, needing something to ground me in place because my head won’t stop spinning. I try and slow my breathing, taking deep breaths, but it only seems to increase in speed. Short, fast gasps not filling my lungs enough for me to exhale. “You’re not fucked. We just need to—” Holly pauses. “Leah?” I attempt to raise my head, trying to focus on Holly, but all I see are little black spots. I want to ask for some water but my mouth is too dry to utter a word. My eyes begin to roll back and I feel my feet slip from the floor. Right before everything goes dark, I hear Holly yell for someone to call an ambulance. THE RHYTHMIC STEADY beeping coming from the machines are a far cry from the speed at which my fingers are drumming against the rough texture of the hospital sheets. For every beep my heart monitor makes, my fingers move doubly as fast. A nurse comes in to check my blood pressure for what feels like the hundredth time, to see if it’s at all changed from the last time she took it five minutes ago. “This is ridiculous,” I tell her once again. “I’m fine. Like I said, I forgot to eat breakfast and got a little dizzy. There’s no need for all of this.” “You fainted,” Holly chimes in from the corner of the room where’s she’s sitting. “That’s more than a little dizzy.” I give her a dirty look. “I can’t believe you called an ambulance,” I mutter, but she seems unfazed. “Your blood pressure has stabilized,” the nurse says with a smile, unwrapping the medical band off my arm. “The doctor will want to speak to you before he lets you go home. But everything seems normal. And the baby is fine too.” I nod before looking up at the monitor that is tracking the baby’s heart rate. The nurse’s words cause a small lump in my throat that I can’t seem to swallow down. And the baby is fine too. I do my best to hide it but the guilt of being here in the hospital, that I may have done anything to cause harm to my baby, feels like my heart is being stabbed from the inside. My monitors continue to beep normally but my entire body lays stiff, tension building under my skin. All I wanted to do was prove myself to everyone. Prove that I could do it all. Handle it all. That being pregnant wasn’t going to restrain me in my career or be a hindrance to the firm. I was going to show everyone what I had in me. That nothing was going to slow me down. After jotting down a few more notes in my chart, the nurse leaves, leaving Holly and me alone in the room. “I need to get out of here. The case—” “Will be taken care of,” Holly interrupts. “I’ve already got four associates working on it, and they’re going to send the files over by five. I’ve already spoken to Cassandra. Under the circumstances—”

“Oh God,” I say, covering my eyes. “She knows I’m here?” Holly’s brows furrow together. “You were brought here by ambulance. The whole firm knows you’re here.” “Really?” I peek through my fingers, mortified. “It’s wasn’t so bad,” she says, biting the inside of her cheek. “Just think, you could have had your pants down in the bathroom when it happened. Instead, you fell down onto your chair, fainting like a Disney princess.” I drop my arms and glare at her. “That doesn’t make me feel better.” “You wanted to be noticed by the partners,” she teases. “Not exactly what I had in mind,” I say, lowering my hands. Holly stands, making her way to the side of my bed. “Let’s just worry about you and this little one right now,” she says, patting my stomach. I look down, resting my hands on top of my large bump. “I should have eaten,” I whisper, quietly talking to my stomach. “I’m sorry.” A small commotion outside in the hall redirects our attention. I hear my name being yelled loudly and repeatedly. The sound of shoes squeaking against the linoleum tile gets louder with every passing second. And then, that squeaking stops at the entrance of my room. At finally finding me, Shane’s hands grip the side of the door frame, his fingertips turning white. The light from a large window in the room shines on his face, making the small sheen of sweat noticeable on his forehead. He lets out a long exhale, one that nearly cries relief at finding me. But his next breath isn’t nearly as tender. That one almost screams anger at seeing me here. Defensively, I look over to Holly. “You called him?” I ask accusingly. “Obviously,” she answers, scrunching her face. Shane takes slow steps inside the room, stopping at the foot of the bed. His eyes quickly scan all the machines around me, to the monitors beeping, the IV taped to my hand. He swallows slowly, closing his eyes, releasing yet another emotion. Panic. “Are you okay?” he asks, finally looking up, meeting my eyes. Seeing him here, his frightened expression, shoulders slumped, voice slightly pitched, is awful. It only adds to my guilt of being here, leaving me only able to nod. “What the hell happened?” he asks, his voice seeming to find itself. I take a deep breath before answering. “Nothing. Everything is fine,” I say in the most assuring voice I can muster. “If everything was fine, you wouldn’t be here,” he argues back. That panicked expression he carried a moment ago is slowly being replaced with a different one. One filled with accusation and displeasure. Against me. I sit up straighter in the bed, not liking how helpless I feel lying down. “I forgot to eat breakfast and got a little dizzy. That’s all. This,” I say, motioning to the room, the machines, the bed, “is all just a precaution that I don’t really need.” I glance over at Holly, silencing her with my stare. Letting her know that Shane absolutely does not need to know the extent of just how dizzy I got. When I look back at him, his eyes are squinting, thinking over what I just said. I hope my words ease some of his tension and he’ll relax a bit. I don’t want to fight with him again. Especially not when the last one we had still stings. He looks down to the floor for a minute, his hands resting on his hips. He nods a few times and I feel better, thinking he’s going to let this drop. “How could you forget to eat?” he scolds, looking back up. His harsh tone hits me like a slap, a stinging mark left on my skin. Only it doesn’t hurt like I thought it would. It angers me. Not because he’s right, but because I already feel horrible enough without him shoving my negligence in my face. Shane so openly criticizing me for something I

already know is my fault instantly has me wanting to fight back. “It wasn’t on purpose,” I say, gritting my teeth together. “These things happen.” “These things happen?” he repeats, sounding dumbfounded. “No, Comb, these things don’t just happen. They shouldn’t happen. Not when your number one priority is to take care of yourself and our baby.” Is he serious right now? Is he really here to yell at me? Insult my parenting skills? What does he expect? That I stay at home with my feet up and wait while he hasn’t stopped once? That I let my career pass me by while he’s off building his own? Traveling to places all over the globe? Fucking models at every stop? Somewhere inside, I know that last thought sounds bitter, but I’m too insulted to give a fuck. It spurs my mouth into action. “That’s funny, you talking about priorities. Where do models fall on that list?” His head snaps back, hurt falling over his face at my emotional response. I hate that it doesn’t give me the satisfaction I was looking for. Hate that I hurt seeing him like that more than I feel justified in my response. “I’m going to give you guys a few minutes,” Holly says, my head jerking in her direction, having completely forgotten that she was still in the room. We both watch as Holly exits, leaving us alone. I refuse to look at him, too regretful at my choice of words and also because I can’t bear for him to see how vulnerable I feel in front of him. How scared I am that the reason we’re now joined together for life is also what’s tearing us apart. I hear his light footsteps as he makes his way over to the side of bed, wheeling a small stool over to take a seat. He’s so close I can smell his cologne mixed in with the awful antibacterial cleaner that fills the hospital air. I wish I could pick out the musky spice that makes Shane’s scent so unique and wrap it around me. Remind me that before we found ourselves here, there was a Shane and Leah that never fought, never got angry, never hurt each other. That Shane and Leah seems like a distant memory. One I’m trying so hard not to let go of, not to lose in this mess we’ve made for ourselves. “Holly’s call,” he starts. “It scared the shit out of me,” he says softly. My eyes begin to burn, the threat of tears falling very real. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” I say, my tone equally soft. “I’m sorry.” I want to tell him I’m sorry for all of it. For scaring him. For the harsh words I used earlier. For putting us in this situation in the first place. Shane’s hand comes up and rests on top of my stomach, gently stroking my bump back and forth. “I don’t know how many more times I’ll have to say it, but I’ll keep doing it until you finally hear me. You and this baby are my priority.” I swallow hard. “I’m your priority because of this baby.” I hear him groan in frustration. “Why can’t you just believe what I say? Why do you need to keep questioning this when there is nothing to question? I don’t know how much clearer I can be. I told you I loved you. I’m telling you that I’m in love with you. I want a future with you. Why are you fighting me?” “Because you need to be sure,” I tell him back, equally frustrated. I take a few seconds to calm myself, to calm my breathing. “I can live with this baby being one of the reasons you want a future with me Shane. I can. But it can’t be the reason.” He shakes his head, irritated. “I know pregnancy can mess with a woman’s brain, but you’re absolutely impossible right now.” “It’s not crazy to want what’s best for me. What’s best for you!” I argue. “No, it’s not,” he fights back. “But what’s best for us is this.” He points between us. “And it’s right here, in front of us. I’m here, in front of you. How can you not believe in it like I do?” He looks away from me. “It’s enough to drive me absolutely crazy.”

“If it’s so crazy, then why are you here?” He lets out a small laugh, shaking his head, looking at me in disbelief. He leans in towards me, his eyes boring into mine. “Because, Comb, no matter how crazy you’re acting right now, or how crazy you drive me,” he stops and lightly brushes some of my hair back off my face, “it’s nowhere close to how fucking crazy I am about you.” The skin on my face burns where his fingers touch me. My heart begins to pound in my chest so much so I’m sure my monitors are about to go crazy themselves. It takes everything inside me not to crawl out of this bed and into his lap. But I can’t get rid of this gnawing feeling. Something telling me we both need time to really think about what we want our futures to look like. What we would have wanted had it not been for this pregnancy. It feels too easy to think we would have happened regardless even if Shane truly does believe in that. But that idea, that vision, is very different than the reality of what being together would actually look like for us now. “Just please try and believe me,” he pleads. “You never doubted me before, don’t start doubting me now.” Before I can answer, my doctor walks into the room. I’m not sure if I’m thankful or enraged at the interruption. “How are we feeling?” the doctor asks, coming around, checking my chart. “Much better,” I reply. “Ready to go home.” The doctor smiles. “Your blood sugar was quite low, as was your blood pressure,” he says, flipping through the pages of my chart. “It says here that you forgot to eat today?” I hear the flicker of judgment but swallow back my annoyance. “Yes,” I nod. “An oversight on my part. I’ve been very busy at work and it slipped my mind.” “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that can’t happen,” he says slowly, as if I’m some kind of idiot. I nod in agreement, refusing to look at Shane and seeing the tiny look of satisfaction he must have at me being educated on that once more. “It concerns me that your job causes you that much stress and keeps you too busy to remember to eat. At the stage you are in your pregnancy, you need to be taking it easy. Not piling things on.” “I’m an attorney in the middle of a rather large case. Rest and relaxation aren’t readily available at the moment,” I say, forcing a smile. “But I promise to keep better track of my meals.” This doesn’t seem to go over well with the doctor. “Ms. Kessel, your due date isn’t that far away. You need to rest. The baby needs you to rest. I can’t stress that enough.” “And I will,” I state. “Just soon as the case wraps up.” “I really must insist—” “Don’t worry, Doc,” Shane interrupts. “I’ll make sure she gets plenty of rest from now on.” I turn and face Shane, annoyed he thinks he can try to manage my career. But my hard stare does nothing to his demeanor. He only looks down at me with an irritatingly, adorable grin. “We’re both going to be re-prioritizing.”

ONCE I WAS released from the hospital, I was forced to take a few days off work. Both on doctors and my boss’ orders. Some people love to stay home, watch Ellen and Dr. Phil all day. Not me. I hated every moment of it. I hated how every family Ellen helped turned me into an inconsolable mess. I hated the gum commercial that caused me to sob for over an hour. I hated sitting on my couch instead of a chair in the courtroom, hated how I spent hours channel surfing instead of case research. I hated not getting up and dressed in the mornings—actually I didn’t mind that. Being in my pj’s all day was actually really nice. But I hated that I had no reason to get out of them. I was bored and frustrated. Holly said it would be good practice for the weeks and months to come. Once the baby was here, I’d be on a maternity leave any way. A couple of months. But at least then I’d have a baby to distract me. A baby to keep me busy, keep me company. Having no distractions only left my mind open to everything I’ve been working so hard not to think about. My future. Shane’s future. If we really had a chance at one together. Every corner of my apartment is a daunting reminder time is running low on figuring that out. The bassinette in my bedroom, a small changing table near my bed, piles of baby clothes and blankets in the closet. None of it belonging to Shane, but every single one of them reminding me of him and the giant question mark that falls over top of us. Before I left the hospital, he took my hand and kissed my fingers, leaving me with these words. “I’m sure of us. That’s not going to change. But you seem to have a hard time hearing me, so I guess I’ll just need to show you.” I didn’t have a chance to ask what he meant because the nurse came in with my discharge papers and all my focus fell on getting out of there. That was a few days ago. I haven’t seen him since but he’s called several times. He says he’s just checking in, but I know he’s really just making sure I’m at home, doing nothing. Just like I was told. Thank God Holly is on her way over. I’m in need of someone to talk to and anything other than my life to think about. And with Holly and Eddy’s wedding coming up this weekend, I’m sure she’ll have lots to say that has nothing to do with me and Shane. After folding yet another basket of baby clothes, I’m relieved to hear a knock at my door. But relief turns to surprise as soon as I open it. “Cassandra,” I say, completely thrown aback to see my boss standing in my hallway.

“Hello, Leah,” she responds. After a few seconds of silence, she raises her brows in expectation. “May I come in?” “Yes, yes. Absolutely,” I say, opening the door wider to allow her entrance. I quickly scan my apartment, relieved that it looks in good shape. I see no dirty clothes in plain sight and only a mug of tea sits on my coffee table. “Please, sit down.” I usher her towards my couch. She takes a seat, her eyes roaming around my tiny apartment, finally landing on the pile of baby clothes folded beside her. “Not too much longer now,” she says, fingering the pile of clothes. I take a breath and sit on the chair next to the couch. “A few weeks,” I agree. A strange silence follows—a slightly uncomfortable one at that. I watch as she picks up a gray and yellow sleeper, her fingers gently running over the tiny duck stitched on it. A small smile appears on her face. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been around these little things. They didn’t have this cute stuff years ago like they do now,” she explains. “You’re lucky.” A new awareness comes over me. I never pictured Cassandra Fairfax to be a mother. She doesn’t wear a wedding ring, has no framed photos on her desk, has never even uttered a word about having her own children, but watching her look through my baby’s clothes, it’s obvious to me now. “How many do you have?” I ask, immediately feeling dumb for prying. What if she doesn’t talk about it for a reason? What if she keeps that side of herself closed off because she can’t talk about it. What if I just brought up a topic that is too painful for her and that’s why she never speaks of it? I’m about to apologize for my intrusiveness, but she speaks first. “Two. A boy and a girl.” I exhale in relief. “Years ago, you didn’t talk about it at work. Especially if you were a woman and especially if you were playing in the boys playground. It was much tougher then to have it all. You had to pay a much bigger price in order to get it.” She refolds the sleeper and places it back on the pile of clothing before turning to face me. I watch as she crosses her legs, followed by her arms. “It will be tough,” I say, agreeing with her, “but I won’t lose sight of my career goals. Of what I want to achieve. Achieve with this firm.” The need to reassure her of my dedication to the firm comes strong. I want her to know, to understand, that I look forward to all the future cases that will come across my desk. I want to explain that me becoming a mother doesn’t mean I’m giving up on my career or slowing down. She of all people should understand that. She, herself knows it’s possible to be both mother and kick ass attorney. She’s done it already. “I admire your ambition, your determination. You remind me of myself when I was your age,” she says. “Lucky for you, I can burst your bubble now quietly instead of it exploding in your face sometime in the future.” I blink a few times, unsure if I heard correctly. Burst my bubble? What the hell does that mean? Is she here to fire me? Can they do that? Because I’m pregnant? “Cassandra—Ms. Fairfax,” I begin, but she continues on. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to try and work a case when you’ve been up all night with a sick child? To be at the office instead of home when all your child wants is for you to be there taking care of them? To miss soccer games, dance recitals, school plays because you’re stuck in court? You don’t yet, but you will if you don’t make an adjustment to the vision of your near future. “Are you firing me?” I question. She almost laughs. “No, Leah, I’m not firing you. I am trying to ready you on how to balance motherhood and a career, especially one as demanding as this one is. Learning it sooner rather than

later will save you so much hardship in the end. Trust me. This is coming from experience.” Is that why she never talks about her children? Because she never learned how to balance it? That she missed too much of her children’s childhood that she’s not a part of their adulthood? Sadness at that thought comes over me. “Don’t feel bad for me yet. I have a wonderful family and great relationships with my children… now.” She pauses for another second. “But I’ll always look back and regret not making it more of a priority to go to those little things. A soccer game I promised to make it to but missed. The only game Jeffrey scored a goal. The dance recital Lauren still remembers me missing. She was only three but still brings it up to this day.” Cassandra laughs. “But it all worked out in the end,” I argue. “Oh it did. But it took a while,” she says through a smile. “I insisted I could have it all, do it all, be everything all at once. That’s why I came here tonight. To offer you some advice from someone who has been in your shoes. Of course, it’s completely up to you if you take it, but here it is nonetheless,” she looks right at me. “You can have it all, Leah. You can do it all. But…it doesn’t all have to happen right now.” I look down at my hands resting on my lap. They’re nearly sitting on my knees with how much my stomach has grown. Shane’s words at the hospital start ringing in my ears. We’re both going to be re-prioritizing. “I know it might sound like I’m telling you to give up on some of your goals. Believe me, I’m not. I’m just offering another way to achieve them.” Even though I know Cassandra is trying to be helpful, her words aren’t quieting my anxieties. My fear of putting everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve on hold. Being overlooked at work. I don’t want to be passed up for the big cases or left behind when promotion time comes up. I don’t know how to say all this without coming across as the most selfish soon-to-be mother on earth, but I am selfish with this. I’ve worked too hard to for it to be all forgotten. “My career is important to me. And it will be important to this baby too. It will show how I provide for this family. Show him or her what you can accomplish when you work hard for something. I want to show my child I can be great at my career and at being their mother. Both at the same time.” “Leah, all I’m saying is to take advantage of what the firm can offer you. It isn’t just men running things upstairs anymore. The firm offers a very attractive extended maternity leave. We have a great relationship with the daycare down the street from the office. And we are a big enough and successful enough firm that there will always be a big case. Perhaps for the first couple of years, you won’t be on them. The ones that get the most attention but eat up all your time. And most likely, the day you find out you weren’t put on it, you’ll be angry and upset. But that evening, you’ll get to go home and put your child to bed. And you’ll be thankful you got to do so. The big cases will always be there and you will get them. And not just when the firm is ready to give them to you, but when you’re ready to accept them.” She must still see some of my hesitation because she finishes with this. “You’re a great lawyer, Leah. It’s not overlooked by me or the other partners. The work you’ve put in on the Bakker case has been exceptional thus far. Even if you did miss the first few days of trial,” she notes with a smile. I’m about to apologize for that again but she waves her hand, stopping me. “We have high hopes and big plans for your future at this firm, Leah. Believe in that. In the meantime, enjoy this,” she says, glancing down at my stomach. Instinctively, I brush my hand over my large bump and as if on cue, the baby moves, as though he or she is agreeing with everything Cassandra just said.

“Thank you, Cassandra,” I say. She gets up and starts to head to the door. “Now, I expect to see you back at work next week—within a limited capacity. We were granted the continuance based on the precedents you found. I’m sure that will give us all the time we need to have the case dismissed. With any luck, this will be all over before that baby arrives and you can put your first big case under your belt.” “That would be amazing. Thank you,” I say, following her to the door. Once she’s on the elevator, I close my door and lean back against it. I look around my apartment, wishing I wasn’t alone. My thoughts immediately are of Shane, as they most often are. The unfair expectations I may have placed on him, the sacrifices I selfishly needed to see but wasn’t ready or willing to do myself. I look around my tiny apartment, to the piles of baby things scattered everywhere and realize I’ve dealt with this no better than Shane has. I’ve been criticizing him for the exact same thing I’ve been doing. I promise myself to stop that immediately. It’s hypocritical and unfair and I’m better than that. Shane deserves better than that. Maybe not everything has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I need to stop rebutting everything Shane tells me. He was right when he said I never doubted him before. For weeks, we’ve both been trying to get back to the place we were at before any of this happened. That was our first mistake. Because we can never go back to that place. Too much has happened. The biggest being I fell in love with my best friend. There’s no going back after that. Nor do I want to. So if I can’t go back and I don’t want to stay like this, then I need to move forward, stop doubting and start believing.

WHEN IT COMES to weddings, most men couldn’t care less about the flowers, the candles, or the lighting. Color schemes and chair coverings are things we only hear about. We nod in agreement, pretending we care, but we don’t. Because for most men, weddings are about the party. The booze. The bridesmaids. Not once have I heard a group of guys walk into a room and comment on the décor. Nine times out of ten, it’s always the same—where’s the bar? But I am the one out of ten. I’m the guy that walks into a room and immediately takes note of the lighting, the coloring, the scenery. My first thought is always how it will transfer onto paper—into a picture. I don’t photograph weddings but it doesn’t stop me from considering how all of this will affect the outcome of images frozen in time. I consider everything from the lighting to the space and all its angles, where I would be to capture the best shots of the perfect moments. I calculate how long before we lose the sun’s natural light. I think about which lens and which flash settings would work best. I scan every part of the room, ensuring not to miss any picture worthy shot. I can appreciate the work and the planning Holly has put into this evening. The cream and gold marrying perfectly together in this early evening light. The sun’s rays bouncing off the chandeliers, casting a glow in the room. And just beyond the doors, outside where the ceremony will take place, white and cream flowers cover almost every inch of the large wooden deck that overlooks the water. Two hundred white chairs equally lined, waiting for guests to sit in them. A group of violinists waiting to play for them. I’m about to close an eye and internally frame a shot when I stop myself, remembering I’m not responsible for capturing the perfect moments. I’m especially not responsible for them today. Instead, today, I get to be a part of the moments. Bryan comes up beside me dressed in the same matching suit I’m wearing and looks out at the scene in front of us. “Another man down,” he says, rolling ice cubes around in his nearly empty glass. “I see you found the bar. Shouldn’t you at least wait until after the ceremony?” “This is the only thing that’s going to get me through the ceremony,” he says, lifting his glass his lips. “Kendall was invited.” He looking around the room. I nod. “I know. You were the one who told Holly to invite her.” He shakes his head. “Who knows what kind of thoughts are gonna go through her head at seeing

all this.” “Worse yet, what kind of thoughts might go through yours?” I chuckle. “Fuck that.” But I see his eyes roam around the room, his brain working. I’d tease him more about it but right now, I have other things to think about. “Everything set?” Bryan smirks. “It is.” I turn to face him, ready to tell him how much I appreciate everything he’s done these last few weeks, what he’s given up to help me. But he cuts me off before I can say any of it. “Don’t get hormonal,” he starts. “All of this,” he motions his hand to our surroundings, “is already breaching the limit of how much emotional shit I can take in one day.” I let out a short laugh. “Besides,” he shrugs. “It’s how it’s supposed to be.” I smile and nod, knowing that’s all he’s willing to speak of it. But we’ve said it all already. A nod of the head, a shrug of a shoulder. That’s all Bryan and I need. Together we watch as the chairs begin to fill and the violinists begin to play the John Legend song played at every wedding. “God, I need another drink,” Bryan says walking back towards the bar. Usually I’d be right behind him, but today, I stay where I am. I listen to the violinists play that song from beginning to end. Because I get it now. I get what song is about. What it says, what it means. What it feels like to want to give someone—all of me. THIRTY MINUTES LATER, standing in front of two hundred guests, in between Bryan and Eddy’s brother Marty, I hear him ask his brother if he’s ready for this. Eddy’s simple reply says it all. “And more.” I smile, genuinely thankful I get to be a part of this. Eddy is one of my closest friends and to watch him be this happy is…inspiring. We’re facing the French doors, waiting for them to open. Waiting for the big moment. My eyes follow the photographer around, unable to stop critiquing where he’s standing to take his shots, why he isn’t taking the shot from a different angle, why he’s using a flash with this natural light. I do this for a few shots before I remind myself once again that it’s not my responsibility. I don’t have to worry about being in the right spot to catch today’s perfect big moments. Today, I can sit back and catch the smaller beautiful ones. The ones that don’t necessarily get frozen in time on camera but the ones that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Moments like this one. The doors finally opening, the music beginning to play that familiar, recognizable tune. This moment is one I know I will remember forever. The moment I get to watch the most beautiful woman in the world start walking down the aisle. And while everyone else only gives her a quick appreciative glance before moving their eyes back behind her, my eyes stay glued. I watch Leah walk down the entire length of the aisle, not sparing anyone else even a glance. Everyone but her disappears. Her long, one shouldered dress shows off her gloriously full breasts. Her sexy curves are perfectly covered by a light flowing skirt and her long hair is swept to one side, exposing her long slender neck. She looks unbelievable. I find myself replaying this moment in my head, only it’s a little different. Leah isn’t wearing gold and I’m the one standing next to the minister. I swallow hard. Not because that image scares me—quite the opposite. My nervousness comes from how badly I

want that image to come true. Because when I look at Leah, I see more than just her. I see my future. I see my world. I see one body but two lives that make up my life. My eyes follow her as she joins us up at the front, the other bridesmaids lining up alongside of her. But I don’t let anything or anyone obstruct her from my view. I stay focused only on her, unable to look away. She senses it too. I see her trying to hide her smile, biting the inside of her cheek, avoiding eye contact with me. She stubbornly looks down the aisle, at the flowers, the guests, everything and everyone before finally glancing my way. “Beautiful,” I mouth at her. She shakes her head but her smile remains for a few more beats. And it’s the best thing I’ve seen in weeks. It’s been so long since anything I’ve said or done has made her smile. I don’t even care it only lasted a few seconds. That smile, those few seconds, gave me the hope I need for tonight. The rumble of everyone sitting back down in their seats still doesn’t break me from my Leah tunnel vision. I didn’t even notice Holly make her way down the aisle. I don’t pay any attention to everyone turning to face the front, the minister ’s speech about love and commitment falls on my deaf ears. I barely hear the words that Holly and Eddy say to each other. I absolutely missed the part with the rings. I do catch a brief glimpse of the kiss. And with the prompting of those around me, I’m at least able to applaud when they are pronounced as husband and wife. I missed the entire wedding, and it happened two feet in front of me all because I couldn’t look. The violinists start to play and I quickly switch places with Bryan, bringing me to the back of our little line, making me the one who gets to escort Leah back up the aisle. I wait as the group partners up, first Holly and Eddy, followed by Marty and Holly’s sister and the rest of the bridesmaids and groomsmen. As soon as Leah and I are face to face, I extend my elbow out, inviting her to loop her arm through mine. “Wasn’t Bryan my escort?” she asks, her arm wrapping around mine. “As long as I’m around, I will always be your escort,” I tell her. And there’s that smile again. We walk arm in arm behind the rest of the bridal party. There is a small hold up as the photographer stops Eddy and Holly to take some pictures. It gives me a moment to whisper a few of the things I’ve been thinking over the last twenty minutes. “You are so beautiful, it’s really not fair to Holly,” I say into her ear. Her chest rises, the way it does when holding your breath. I’m thankful for that reaction, thankful it’s not a laugh or giggle. Because as much as I love those sounds, I don’t want her to laugh off the comment. I want her to know I truly mean it. So when she looks up at me and meets my eyes, I’m thrilled when she lets out her held breath and says, “Thank you.” WE TAKE HUNDREDS of pictures. No, thousands. Even I’m sick of it and this is how I make my living. Group shots, family shots, groomsmen only, bridesmaids only. It never ends. When Bryan mumbles his distaste and his need for a drink, I couldn’t agree more. Thankfully, a few minutes later, we’re told we are done and can now rejoin the party while Eddy and Holly take off to take pictures alone. “Finally,” I mutter quietly. “Come on, fuck face,” Bryan says wrapping an arm around my shoulder. “Kendall’s inside and I need a fucking drink before I come face to face. I saw her cry several times during the ceremony. I’m fucking screwed.” I turn and watch Leah walk away with the rest of the bridesmaids. “Yeah, okay.” As the night wears on, getting Leah alone is nowhere as easy as I thought it would be. Between

dinner, speeches, parents crying, crowds laughing, I can hardly grab her attention. After Eddy and Holly have their first dance, the crowd starts to move around in different directions. Most dance, others make their way out back onto the deck, and some, like Bryan, head straight to the bar. Only this time Kendall is right behind him, their hands intertwined. After an hour of guest pleasantries, I excuse myself and make my way to the only person I really want to talk to. Coming up behind her, I gently tap her on the shoulder, pulling her attention away from Holly’s mother. “Sorry to interrupt,” I say, not sorry at all, “but our song is playing.” She looks at me confused but smiles and excuses herself. I take her by the hand and walk her out to the dance floor, turning her around to face me. “We don’t have a song,” she says. “We don’t?” I question. “We should fix that. The next song that comes on is ours.” She rolls her eyes. And as though God was finally doing me a favor, “At Last” by Etta James starts to play. “Perfect,” I say, smiling. “Could this be any more cliché?” Leah says shaking her head, almost embarrassed. “Wow, you are a romantic,” I tease. She looks up at me. “Did you plan this?” I laugh. “I wish I could take credit, but no. This, Comb, was fate,” I tell her. I pull her close, wanting nothing more than to hold and breathe her in, but she just stands in place, uncooperative. “Come on,” I urge her. “Wrap your arms around me.” She looks down at her large bump for a second before bringing her face back up to mine. “It’s a little hard,” she says, matter-of-factly. I reach down for one of her arms and wrap it around my waist while I take her other hand and join it in one of mine. Our body’s touch and a wave of elation at being this close jump starts my heart. I dip my head to the side of her face. I can smell the sweet scent of her shampoo as my lips move against the soft skin of her temple. “No it’s not.” Her body eases into mine, her fingers gripping my hand harder. I feel the tip of her nose hit the side of my neck, followed by her chest rising with a deep inhale. She’s breathing me in, filling her lungs, her entire body, with me. It makes me weak in the knees. This woman can affect every part of me without even trying. I close my eyes, mentally tossing up a white flag, surrendering to her. Whatever she wants, whatever she needs, I will give her. “I love you,” I speak into her ear. “More in love than I ever thought I could be. With the both of you.” I feel her stiffen, only making me hold on her more tightly. I keep us swaying, turning in circles on the dance floor, refusing to allow more than an inch of space between us. I keep my lips to her ear and make her listen without interruption. “I don’t want to talk about this here. I know you don’t either. But I had to say it. Because I can’t not say it. I can’t not tell you every minute, every day. I love you, Comb.” This time when she backs away, I give her space. I need to see her reaction, what her eyes say even if her lips won’t. And when she brings those big brown eyes up to meet mine, I’m so glad I did. Because I don’t see resistance or doubt anymore. This time, I see her own surrender as well. “Come home with me tonight,” I nearly beg. “To talk. I have so many things I want to tell you. Show you. The right way this time. Please.” She blinks twice before the corners of her lips rise a touch. “Okay,” she agrees. I smile, relieved, and release her from the firm hold I have of her against my body. My fingers trace along her jaw, nearing her lips. I want to kiss her. Need to kiss her. It’s been weeks since I could and I can’t wait any longer. She knows it too. She knows it because she knows me, understands me

better than anyone. Better than I know myself. I drop my lips down to meet hers and place the softest kiss on her mouth. I don’t push for more because the connection is enough. I kiss her with promise instead of lust. With truce instead of fight. I memorize everything about this moment before I pull away, using the pad of my thumb to fix the small smudge of lipstick from the bottom of her lip. “I should tell you,” she says breathless, “that my expiration date tends to be around nine o’clock every night. And it’s already past ten.” I look down at my watch, nodding. “We could leave now,” I offer. She looks around at the crowd dancing around us. “Holly and Eddy would be so mad.” “Probably,” I say. “But I don’t care.” She laughs. “We’re awful friends. Always sneaking out of the party.” Her words remind us both of what happened the last time we snuck out of a party together. It makes her blush and makes me even weaker for her. I take her hand and lead us off the dance floor, stopping at the head table so she can grab her purse before we make our way outside the venue. Thankfully we don’t run into anyone, and even if we did, I wouldn’t think twice about pushing them out of our way. I’m not going to let anything stop this night from going the way I want. I hail the first cab I see once outside and help her get in. Once we are on the move, I turn to her and smirk. “What?” “This,” I say, motioning to the cab. “Reminds me of old times.” She shakes her head, looking away from me and out the window. But she does a terrible job at hiding her own smile.

“HOLY SHIT,” LEAH breathes out after I unlock the front door. “You’ve been robbed!” The instant concern in her voice almost makes me laugh. I swing the door open further, ushering her inside. After scanning the living room myself, the thought I was robbed is understandable. “No, Comb.” I smile, walking past her, dropping my keys on the kitchen counter. I take off my suit jacket and toss it over the keys, loosening my tie and undoing the top two buttons of my shirt. “I wasn’t robbed.” She stays rooted in place, only her eyes moving, taking in how empty the apartment now seems. “Then where’s all your stuff?” her voice pitches. I look around the space once more. It’s true, some things are missing. The couch and coffee table, the PlayStation and Xbox, but there’s still quite a bit left scattered around. My photographs are still hanging on the wall, the flat screen still mounted, bar stools still sitting around the counter. “Right here,” I answer. “I’m confused,” she says, slowly walking further into the apartment. “Where’s all your furniture? The foosball table??” She points to the corner. “Your laptop is on the floor!” I place my hands in the pockets of my pants and roll back on the balls of my feet. “This is my furniture.” She looks at me dumbfounded. “Are you not noticing that the couch and table are missing? Your game boxes?” This time I do laugh. “Well technically, those weren’t mine to begin with. They were Bryan’s.” “Okay, so are you not noticing that Bryan’s stuff is missing? He’s going to be so pissed,” she says. She raises a brow. “Why aren’t you freaking out?” “Because, Comb,” I take a few steps towards her. “I know where his stuff is.” A look of mild surprise comes over her face. “Oh,” she responds, folding her arms together. “Where is it?” “His apartment.” Her eyes open wide. “He moved out?” she nearly shrieks. “What? Why? When? Why didn’t you say anything?” I grin, amused with watching her right now. “How about you stop with all the questions and let me explain?”

I take the last two steps I need in order to stand right before her, and for a moment, just stare at her. Appreciate all the little details that make her so perfect. How both her top and bottom lip are full and plump, perfect to bite. How thick and shiny her golden hair is. I know my fingers could get lost in its waves. The lone little freckle just below her left collarbone that I want to kiss so badly. But first, I have something I’ve been wanting to tell her, show her, for weeks. “Follow me,” I say, cocking my head towards the other side of the apartment and extending my hand. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to show you.” Her eyes look in the direction I’m headed before she accepts my hand and I lead us towards Bryan’s bedroom. Or to what used to be Bryan’s bedroom. Before I open the door, I look down at her and hope that what she sees behind this door will prove to her just how serious I am about what I’m about to say. “I need you to know that I heard everything you were saying to me,” I say quietly. “I didn’t know any other way to show you I heard you.” She looks up at me, her eyes narrowing, causing her eyebrows to furrow just the slightest amount. Before she can say anything, I open the door and turn on the light. Her sharp inhale is the only sound I hear. I gently coax her into the room, watching as she takes in the dramatic changes the space has gone through. How the bedroom that once belonged to Bryan has now been completely transformed into a fully completed nursery. “I—I don’t… Wow.” Leah is never speechless so I’m going to take this as a good sign. “You like it?” I ask, still wanting confirmation. “I—Shane… How could I not?” she answers. “It’s beautiful.” She walks further into the room, taking it all in. These last few weeks, Bryan and I have spent all of our free time working to get this room ready. The walls have been painted a light creamy yellow. It’s a nice warm change from the mossy green it used to be. Where Bryan’s queen sized bed used to sit, the white crib that was boxed up for so many weeks takes its place. Soft gray and white bedding fills the crib along with a mobile of dancing animals hanging from it. Leah steps in front of the crib and runs her hand over the soft linens. She picks up the brown stuffed bear sitting in the corner of the crib. “This is cute,” she says, biting the inside of her cheek. “Bryan’s contribution.” She smiles, putting it back in its place. She turns around and sees the overstuffed chair in the corner near the window. I ordered it in a neutral color but threw a blue blanket over top. “It glides like a rocking chair,” I say. “Still thinking it’s a boy,” she says. I shrug, returning her smile. The wall off to the side catches her eye and her smile falls from her face. In its place comes a look of complete bewilderment. “What’s this?” she asks, stunned. “This,” I begin, “is my favorite part of the room.” Her eyes quickly become glassy, a hint of tears shining in the dim light of the room. She takes the few steps she needs to stand right in front of the wall—in front of several hanging picture frames. Two rows of three large, white picture frames, each one filled with black and white photos of her. Each one is a different stage of her pregnancy. In several of them, she wasn’t even aware I was taking her photo. Her eyes gaze at each of the frames, freezing on each one before moving to the next. In one, she’s asleep on what used to be my couch, her hand resting over her barely showing bump. Protecting it, even then. Another I took with my cell phone when we went shopping for baby things.

It’s the expression on her face I love the most. So serious in deciding whether she liked the little sleeper in her hands or not. Next to that one, she’s laughing, throwing her head back at Holly and Eddy’s bachelor/bachelorette party, her hands resting on top of her much bigger stomach. But my favorite of them all is the one I took a few months ago. The night we decided to give whatever was happening between us a real shot. She came out of my room wearing my Frankie Says Relax t-shirt and nothing else. And when she walked to the window pushing those curtains aside, I couldn’t help but take her picture. She glowed in the moonlight, silver light reflecting off her face. She scolded me for it taking it then but to this day, it’s still the most honest and beautiful picture I’ve ever taken. I watch as she stays focused on that shot longer than the rest. After a minute, she points to the corner frame at the bottom. “This one’s empty,” she points out. “I know,” I nod. “It hasn’t been taken yet.” I walk to her side, taking her hand in mine and bringing it to my lips. I press her fingers to my mouth before I explain further. “This frame is for our first family shot. The three of us.” I feel the tips of her fingers dig into my hand, squeezing them, broken breaths escaping her lips. “Shane,” her voice falters but her lips curve with the faintest of smiles. It’s now or never, I tell myself. I’m going to say everything I need to say and I’m going to make her listen. To finally hear it. I’m going to get through her stubbornness and make her see we belong together. “I hate that you were hurting, Comb,” I begin. She opens her mouth to interrupt but I don’t let her. I will not be stopped this time. I lift my hand, stilling her. She’s had plenty of time to say her part, now it’s my turn. “I hate that it put a space between us we’ve never had before. It drove me crazy being away from you. It drove me crazy you kept me away. But I let you have your space. I gave in, but never did I give up.” “Shane—” “No, Comb,” I say, seriously. “It’s my turn now.” She closes her mouth and lets me continue. “I hated being away from you. Especially these weeks.” I glance down at her midsection. “That night in New York,” I pause, not sure how to really articulate my feelings. “Obviously I didn’t handle the confused feelings I was having for you properly. It drove me crazy thinking of you dating someone else. And I didn’t know how to deal with that. It surprised me. You surprised me. The one person I thought I knew best shocked the hell out of me. You were all I could think about. Still are,” I say with a small laugh. “Of all the people in my life, you are the last one I would ever want to hurt or disappoint. You must know that. You must know that had I had any idea of what you were going through while I was in New York, I would’ve dropped everything to be there with you. I would have held your hand and waited right beside you for those tests results. You believe that, don’t you?” I watch a lone tear fall down her cheek as she nods. “I do. I do believe that.” Progress. Finally. “Good. Because I love you, Leah. I am in love with you. And I hate that a part of you thinks it’s because you got pregnant. Because it’s not,” I say with as much certainty I can convey. “Maybe it jumped started me into realizing my feelings, but they were already there. They had to be. Because what I feel for you is too strong not to have been there for a very long time already. I doubt I’ll be able to tell you how or when I knew, but I can promise you this—I felt every second of it. I’ve felt myself falling for weeks, months. Probably even years.” “You think I need time, but I don’t. You said you needed time, but I’m done giving it to you. I’m not willing to waste any more time. We’ve already waited six years. I want to start our next sixty right now. And I know now what it’s going to take to get us there. You were right,” I say. Beyond her tearstained eyes, she looks at me a bit puzzled. “About what?” she manages to say.

“It wasn’t fair of me to expect you to do all the sacrificing. With your job, your life—” “No, Shane,” she interrupts. “A lot of what I said…came out of frustration. I didn’t mean it. I know you’ve done your share.” I smile, appreciating her words. “Maybe. But it doesn’t mean you weren’t right about some of it. It was naive of me to think I could continue to live my life the way I was and be there for you the way I needed to be. The way I want to be.” “You are there for me,” she argues. “Not always the way I should be,” I tell her. I shake my head and try to hold in the laugh of irony at what I’m about to admit. “My father was right and I wanted so badly to prove him wrong. To show him my way would work just fine, but he was right. My way only works for me. And it’s not just me anymore. It’s not even just the two of us. There’s three of us now.” I look into her eyes and see that she completely understands what I’m saying. That maybe she’s had some of the same realizations herself. “I took a job with my father,” I tell her. Her eyes open wide, mouth opening in shock. “What? Shane, no… You love your job!” I nod. “I do. But I love us more,” I say, holding her stare. Leah opens her mouth to argue but I silence her by placing my index finger over her open lips. “Stop,” I almost order her. “It’s not exactly what you think. My father and I came to a mutual… agreement. I’ll work in the art department at the firm, help give us some scheduling stability. And in return, I get to be a bit more selective on what outside jobs I take. It will allow us to afford me saying no to certain jobs and wait for the ones I really want. The jobs that are the reason I love taking pictures. So really, it’s a win-win.” Leah looks overwhelmed with everything I’ve just laid out in front of her. But I warned her earlier. When I say I’m in, I’m all in. Now I just hope she’s ready to be all in with me. But if she’s not, then I have no problem carrying the weight of us until she gets there on her own. But under one condition. “I want you to move in here,” I say. “I want this place to be ours. To start our life as a family here, together. This room is pretty much done but we can work on building the rest of it together. A new couch, a new table. We can paint the bedroom, make it…yours—ours. You can even buy as many pillows as you want.” That gets her laughing through her tears. I let her smile settle between us for a moment before I ask the question that will give me the answer to the rest of my life. “What do you say, Comb? Are you in? Do you want to build a life with me?” Leah’s tears begin to free fall like a fountain down the sides of her face. “I have been in love with you for so long,” she says, bringing her fingers to my face. “But I’ve never been more in love with you than I am right now.” I let out a relieved sigh. “So you’re in?” “I’m in,” she says laughing, crying. “I’m going to kiss you now,” I tell her, cupping the sides of her face. “I’m going to let you.” Not even a second later, my lips are on hers. Once again, surrendering to her, promising her all of my future days. I’m too impatient, not waiting to use my tongue to open her mouth and slip inside. I feel her body fall against mine, her breasts pressed against my chest, arms wrapping around my shoulders. I run my hands down her back, over the sequins of her dress. “God, I’ve missed you,” my lips pressed against her neck, making their way to that small freckle on her collarbone that’s been calling to me. “Me too. So much,” she answers, bringing my mouth back up to hers. She bites my lips playfully at first then does it again a little harder. I pull back slightly, just out of reach. I see want in her eyes

matching my own. It’s been weeks since I’ve been able to touch her, taste her, be inside her. But she’s as close to bursting as I’ve ever seen her. I’m not sure how much she can take, how much she can handle. “Do you remember how it was the first time?” she asks. I blink, nodding. “Of course. I remember everything about that night.” She doesn’t say anything else, only looking at me with haze filled eyes. But that look tells me everything I need to know. She’s telling me how she can take it, how she wants it. Just like that night. Fast. Hard. Her cheeks flush a shade of pink. I grin at her sudden shyness. “How I remember it,” I start, pulling her closer. ���You weren’t shy about anything that night.” The corner of her mouth arches and she bites her bottom lip. I feel my own rush of blood heading south. I take her hand and lead her out of the nursery. There’s no way I’m going seal this deal in my kid’s new bedroom. The second we’re inside my room, my lips are back on hers. I’m incredibly worked up and immediately feel for the zipper of her dress, needing to touch more of her skin. As I pull the dress down her body, she’s working on the buttons of my shirt, followed by my pants. Soon we’re both standing in the middle of the room in only our underwear. I take a minute to admire her body, how much it’s changed since last time I saw her like this. She’s definitely fuller. So much so I’m a little nervous I might hurt her. “If I hurt you or you’re uncomfortable, tell me,” I make her promise before touching her skin again. “You won’t hurt me,” she answers before her eyes meet mine. “I know you won’t.” I grin, feeling better. “Sit down on the bed,” I order. She blinks once before cocking a small smile and turning towards the bed, sitting down on the edge. I go to her, standing between her bent legs. I bend down, running my hands along the inside of her thighs, causing her to squirm before skimming her hips and pulling at the only piece of material left on her body. She lifts her hips up off the bed, helping me rid her of her panties before she lies down on the mattress. I tug my own boxer briefs off, letting them fall to the floor before I climb over her, brushing some of the loose hair off the side of her face. She closes her eyes and bites the corner of her lip again, a sure sign she’s definitely getting close to where I want her to be. “You are so sexy,” I tell her, running my tongue down the side of her neck. “Even looking like this?” she asks, running her hands over my head. “Especially like this.” There’s something incredibly sexy about a pregnant woman. It makes all of her curves fuller, all of her sensations stronger. Looking at a naked woman is great, but seeing what the woman’s body can do? That’s just fucking unreal. I kiss my way down her body, over her breasts, down her round midsection to her hip and then make my way slowly to her center. It’s not until this second I realize just how much I’ve been craving her. All of her—her smell, her taste. I fight the urge to sink immediately inside of her because I want this to last. I want to worship her first. To drive her wild the way I’ve learned how. I kneel on the floor, pulling her closer to the edge of the bed. She’s at the perfect height this way. I run my fingers carefully over her, feeling how wet she is. I start to move my fingers in small circles and her hips buckle off the bed. I smirk, maybe a little arrogantly. “Still so very sensitive.” She only moans in response.

I can’t wait any longer—I need to taste her. I dip my head further between her legs and take everything she has to offer me. I feel her hands reach for me over her stomach, running her fingers over my head. I press my tongue harder against her, holding her in place with my hands. She tastes amazing. Better than I remembered. And the sounds she’s making? Only make me want to fuck her harder than I ever have. Her legs come up around my head and squeeze a little when she starts to come. “Oh God… Shane…yes,” she mumbles, pulling at the sheets. Once she starts to come down, her legs fall open against the bed. I get up from the floor and look at her. Areas of her body are flushed a deep pink, her hair having come loose and splaying all over the bed. Her hands fall her to her breasts and she squeezes them, still writhing from her orgasm. “I could watch you do that for hours,” I say. She opens her eyes and looks at me. She doesn’t stop what she’s doing, unashamed of her own touch. I fucking love that. “I want you to take me. Hard,” she says. “Then you can sit and watch me do this all you want.” I fist my hands together tight. “Whatever you say, Comb.” I take one step closer to the bed, lifting her legs up and wrapping them around my hips. Before I start, I meet her wanting expression. “Remember, if you’re uncomfortable—” “Shut up and fuck me!” she commands. So I do. The way she asked for it. Hard and fast. I WAKE UP a few hours later, alone in bed. I look around the room, listening for sounds coming from bathroom, but all is quiet. “Leah?” I call out, my voice hoarse with sleep. I turn over on my side and see the smallest glimmer of light in the hallway. I know then exactly where she is. I get up, find my discarded boxers on the floor and pull them on. I walk out into the hallway and follow the sliver of light all the way to the nursery. The door is only open wide enough to shine a small amount of light into the hallway. Opening it wider, I see Leah sitting in the gliding chair, running her hand over the blue blanket lying in her lap. “What are you doing?” I ask, startling her. I walk over to where she’s sitting and squat down in front of her. She found some of my clothes to wear. “I can never sleep through the night anymore,” she says. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” I shrug. “It’s okay.” She lets her head fall back against the chair, looking around the room. “I still can’t believe you did all this,” she says. “Well, if you weren’t going to listen to me, I had to show you,” I say, half teasing. But she doesn’t smile or laugh. In fact, she looks…sad. “Hey, hey… What—” “I’m so sorry, Shane. I hated these last few weeks too. I hated the way we fought, the way I pushed. It all just…fucking sucked,” she says, her shoulders falling. “It did. But we’re moving past all that now,” I say, rubbing her legs, consoling her. “I know.” She nods. “But I still need to say it. I’m sorry. For all of it. I was so scared of having to do this on my own that I almost made it happen. I should have believed in us more. Believed in you more.”

I let out a deep breath. “I didn’t make it easy for you.” “Still,” she says, pushing up from the back of the chair. She brings her face close to mine and rests her hands over the sides of my face. I feel her soft breaths tickle the top of my lip. “I should have trusted in us. Trusted in your feelings. Trusted that I wasn’t the only one falling in love. That you were right there with me too.” I swallow the lump that’s formed in my throat. “Always.” And I mean it. I will love this girl to the end of my days and beyond then too. It may have taken us six years, but I will spend the rest of my life making sure we stay here. That she understands she is my only one. “You’re my lobster,” I say, smiling. She barks out a laugh and it fills me with so many feelings I can’t discern them all. “I love you,” she says, kissing me. I wrap my arms around her and hold her to me, never wanting there to be space between us again. I pull my head back, cocking it towards the door. “Ready to go back to bed?” “You can,” she starts. “I’m going to stay here for a few more minutes.” I nod, standing. But instead of leaving, I pull her up off the chair and switch places with her, pulling her down onto my lap. “I’m too heavy,” she argues but simultaneously burrows herself deeper into my body. “I’ll survive,” I say. And I will. We will. As long as we stay together, we will survive everything unexpected that comes our way. I believe that more than anything.

“IF THIS BABY doesn’t come out soon, I’m going to lose my fucking mind,” I say loudly, using the armrest of our new couch to help me up. I hear laughter come from the kitchen, where Shane is currently making us dinner. Simple pasta with tomato sauce is on the menu. Only I’ve asked him make me some toast with peanut butter to go with it. He didn’t even blink at the request—used to them by now. He comes out of the kitchen with two plates in hand and sets them on our new dining table. I officially moved in three weeks ago. The morning after the wedding, once Shane and I finally got our shit together, he insisted on going over to my place to start packing. I told him maybe we should take it slow. Ease into the transition. Start with staying over a couple of nights a week, bring things over gradually, but he flat out refused. “No,” he said. “When I asked you to move in, I meant now. Not next week or next month, but now. Soon it won’t be just the two of us anymore. And I’m excited about that, but I do want you all to myself for a bit first. So put on your shoes and let’s go.” How could I argue with that? We drove to my apartment, started packing up as many of my clothes as we could along with some essentials to get me through the upcoming days before the move was final. We also packed up bags full of baby stuff I had accumulated. Clothes, diapers, blankets, soaps, detergents, toys, bottles. I think we put more effort in making sure we had everything the baby would need more than what I would. It wasn’t until we made it back to my new home, hanging the baby’s clothes in the closet that I thought of Bryan. “Where’s he living now?” I asked Shane, who was busy setting up the changing table. A small grin appeared on his face. “I’ve got good news and bad,” he said coyly. “All right,” I answered, curious. “The good is that he found a great place on short notice,” he started. “That is good,” I agreed. “The bad?” A smile covered his face. “It’s one floor up.” “He moved upstairs?” I asked, looking up at the ceiling as if I would be able to see him through the layers of cement and drywall. “Yup. We’ve got our very own Joey now.”

And Shane was right. We do have our very own Joey now. Finding Bryan here at all hours of the day and night is not a surprise. I’ll come home to find Bryan sitting at the counter, eating our food. Sometimes I’ve woken up and he’s already drinking a cup of coffee, reading the paper on our couch. I don’t really mind though. He’s moved his whole life to accommodate me, even if it is just one floor up. After eating a full bowl of pasta and pickles, I make my way back to our beautiful but way too expensive couch. Shane’s mother bought it for us as a “house-warming” present, even though Shane has lived in this apartment for years already. But hey, I wasn’t going to complain. Both she and Shane let me pick out any couch I wanted. Now we have an oversized, overstuffed light blue couch with darker blue throw pillows. And lots of them. It looks great with the new walnut colored coffee table we bought. None of this is Shane’s style but he was just so happy that we were living together, he was ready to say yes to anything I wanted. I do feel a little bad for using that to my advantage, but only a little. After doing the dishes and cleaning up, Shane meets me on the couch and we assume what has become our regular nightly positions. Me laying down, resting my legs on top of his thighs while he lightly massages my disgustingly swollen feet. “You know,” he starts, his lips cocking to one side as he applies pressure to all the right places, “I read that sex can induce labor.” I open one eye, staring him down. “Did a man write that?” I’m a fucking whale who can’t see her own feet while standing. That one night a few weeks ago might as well have been a year ago because not one part of me wants to have sex. Not with Shane, not with anyone. If Ryan Gosling came through the front door right now, I’d even tell him to come back another time. Shane laughs as he continues to massage my feet. “Just a suggestion,” he says, before picking up the remote control and putting the game on. I’m too tired to even suggest watching anything else. I don’t remember falling asleep but I must have because the sounds of quiet cheering jostles me awake. That and some terrible indigestion. I open my eyes to find Bryan sitting on a chair beside me, beer in hand, waving at the TV. “Hey,” he says noticing me stirring, sitting up on the couch. “Where’s Shane?” I ask, groggy. “On the phone in the other room,” he says, turning his attention to back to the TV. I sit up fully, taking a deep breath. My face scrunches when I feel pressure in my abdomen. I rest my hand of over my stomach, trying to communicate with the baby to ease up. But baby doesn’t want to listen. When I let out a little moan, Bryan glances my way as he takes a sip from his beer. “You okay?” he asks, an eyebrow cocked. “Yeah.” I nod. “Food cramps. It will pass.” He nods but seems unsure. I use the armrest to get myself up but once I do, I’m overwhelmed by a new rush of pressure I feel down below. “Whoa,” I say, using Bryan’s shoulder for balance. This grabs his attention once more, turning his head in my direction. But his eyes don’t come up to meet mine. Instead they stay focused on what’s directly in front of him. “Did you just piss your pants?” he asks, a little disgusted. I look down but can’t see anything past my enormous bump. “What? No! I mean, I don’t think so,” I say, moving my head to different angles, trying to get a look at what Bryan is seeing. Then I feel it.

Another surge of wetness leaving my body, soaking my gray leggings to my knees. And that I can see. “Oh God.” “What?” Bryan says, finally looking up at me. “Oh God what?” The words come out slowly, as if I myself don’t really believe what’s happening. “I. Think. My. Water—” but I don’t have a chance to finish my sentence because Bryan’s loud scream over takes everything. “Shaaannne!” LABOR IS LIKE everything they tell you and everything no one told you. For almost a year, I grew this little being inside of me. Months spent preparing to give birth. My body acclimating, adapting, progressing. For months I lived through it. The ups, the downs. My due date wasn’t for another week but I was ready for this baby to come out. I was sick of being pregnant. I was tired of waiting. I was over it. Until my water broke. The time had finally come that I wasn’t going to be pregnant anymore. I was getting my wish. And I wanted to take it all back. Suddenly I wasn’t ready to not be pregnant anymore. I couldn’t let this go yet. I needed more time. More time to finish reading those books. More time to memorize feeding schedules. More time to prepare to not be pregnant anymore. I was strangely…heartbroken about it. Not to mention the fucking pain I was about to endure. Who the hell gets excited about that? But Shane took charge. This time, he was going to take control. He gently and calmly repeated everything I’m sure the pamphlets about giving birth told him to say. He told me I was the strongest woman he’s ever met. That we were both ready for this and he would be with me every step of the way. I looked him directly in the eye after he said all this, and as calmly as I could, I told him to go fuck himself because he had no idea what I was about to go through. And I was right. He didn’t. But neither did I. Through all the yelling, the threats, begging for drugs, the countless hours of pure torture, the pushing, the sweat, the work, we did make it through. Like a power couple. At least that’s what Shane says now that it’s over. But I know better. I made it through. I’m the one who pushed that baby out for hours. Power couple? No fucking way. I’m the fucking superhero. But when I see him holding our baby, wrapped tightly in a pink blanket, I keep those thoughts to myself. Because without him, I would not be here right now staring at my daughter. Our daughter. And because of that, I choose to give him a bit of slack. “She’s not a boy,” I say, fighting to keep my eyes open. “No,” he says, refusing to take his eyes off her. “She’s definitely not. I double-checked myself.” “Are you disappointed?” I ask, curious. Anxious. He momentarily moves his eyes away from her and glances at me before he looks back down at our daughter. “I wouldn’t trade her for anything.” Without Shane, I’d also miss seeing him completely fall in love with this little six pound, five ounce new person. A little girl who has completely taken over his heart—pushing me right out of it. It only makes me smile. “She needs a name,” I say, trying my best to sit up straighter, but my legs still feel a little numb. “Thoughts?” he asks, looking down at me. “You first.”

He looks down at her and gives it some thought. “Amelia.” “Sounds too much like Natalia,” I tell him, clearly not tired enough to keep the edge out of my voice. He begins to roll his eyes, but thinks better of it. “Hilary.” “As in Clinton?” “Okay, smartass,” he says, laughing. “Let’s hear yours.” “Khloe.” “As in Kardashian?” he mimics my earlier tone. “Fine…how about Alexis.” He shakes his head, running his finger over her tiny wrinkled face. “They’ll call her Sexy Lexy.” My head falls back against my pillow, trying to think of a name we can both agree on. Then it comes to me. “How about Charlize. After your mom.” He looks at me, surprised at my suggestion. “Really?” he asks. “Yeah.” I nod. “Your mother has been so amazing to me this whole time. I think it’s a great way to say thank you. And I do like the name.” Shane smiles. “I like it too,” he says, looking down at our newly named daughter. “Hello, Charlize,” he speaks to her softly. And with that, she wakes up with the cutest fucking yawn I’ve ever seen which then turns into the highest pitched cry I’ve ever heard. “Hungry, I think,” he says, handing her off to me so that I can feed her. A nurse came in earlier to show me how best to get her to feed. Luckily, this time she latches on much easier than the first time. I see Shane reach for some paperwork on the table and begin to fill it out. “First name…Charlize. Last name…” He looks at me. “Hyphenated?” I shake my head. “Carlisle is fine.” “You don’t want Kessel in there?” he asks, surprised. “Why? To confuse her and everyone else? I don’t need my last name on a piece of paper to prove she’s half mine. I just spent hours pushing her out of me. I know my worth. So will she one day,” I tell him. Shane laughs. “I love you.” “Good thing. Because you’re officially stuck with me for at least the next eighteen years,” I tell him, looking down at Charlize. He’s watching me feed our daughter and I know without having to look there is absolute adoration for us in his eyes. “I’ll take you for longer than that,” he says. I look up, biting my lip. So will I. I know without a doubt I’ll take him for all the years I have left. After Charlize is fed and has fallen back asleep, Shane reminds me of one final thing we need to do before we let the cavalry that’s been sitting in the waiting room come in. He pulls out a camera from the overnight bag we packed. “Family picture for the wall,” he says. I groan, arguing that I look awful and am too tired, too much of a mess, but he silences me with a kiss. “You look more beautiful to me now than you ever have,” he says pulling away. Fuck him for always having the right words. He gives me a minute to put my hair up in a loose messy braid and apply a little lip gloss. If this picture is going to be up on the wall for everyone to see, the least he can do is give me five minutes to freshen up a little. He sets the camera on a tray near the end of the bed and sets the timer. He quickly makes his way back to both of us and sits on the bed with me, one arm wrapped around my shoulders, the other hand caressing the top of Charlize’s head. The timer rings and a flash goes off, but we aren’t paying it any

attention. Not when we have something so beautiful between us to concentrate on instead.

Two years later ALL IS QUIET in the apartment. Too quiet. It’s not something I’m used to these days. Years ago, silence would have been one of my favorite sounds. I could work away at my computer on photo edits for hours without any distractions. I would accomplish so much in those hours of peace, getting lost in my work. I thrived in those hours. Now, when I sit in front of my computer screen and there’s no noise, it’s unsettling. I find it hard to concentrate. I don’t like it. Peace and quiet are not my normal anymore. Normal to me is the squeals of young laughter. Of jumbled words that don’t make a complete sentence but I can understand exactly what’s being said. Like a secret language only Leah and I understand. Screams and shrieks echoing in every room no matter where the source. Pots and pans banged together, toys being thrown, educational cartoons on the television. That’s my normal. But none of those are happening right now. If you would have asked me how much money I’d be willing to pay for this kind of silence a year ago, I would have offered all I’m worth. I still shudder at the memories of those middle of the night cries. Everyone was right when they said I would have no idea what that first year would bring. The frustrations and irritations mixed with annoyance. Every failure as a parent highlighted and emphasized with each scream I couldn’t soothe away. The fighting, name calling, the blame Leah and I so easily threw around. That year was hell on earth. I thought Leah and I had already seen the worst in each other. Those few weeks we were separated, the fighting and pushing and pulling? That was nothing. Add weeks of no sleep and then you really see what people are capable of, how terrible they can be to each other. And we were, but I wouldn’t change a damn thing about it. Because for every awful, plug your ears, want to stab someone moment, there were handfuls of perfect, beautiful, funny, picture worthy ones to help you forget about the others. Between all those moments of anger and animosity, I fell in love with her more and more every day. I didn’t think it was possible to fall more in love with her than I did while she gave birth to Charlie, but it happened. And every day since, I’ve found a new depth. I would watch Leah do the most ordinary things and it would have me falling to my knees. Giving

Charlie a bath or dancing around the kitchen, holding her in her arms. Watching Charlie rest her chubby little hands on Leah’s face while she pretends to eat them. The squeals of joy Charlie reserves only for her mother. My heart pounds out of my chest every time. I have no idea why Leah was so nervous to become a mother. She’s amazing at it. It’s true, the first few weeks were rocky with neither of us knowing what we were doing. Those books were obviously a waste of money. But after a while, once we found a rhythm, she definitely took the helm and paved the way. And not once has she let me forget how lucky I am that I just have to follow her lead. But she doesn’t need to remind me. I’m well aware of how lucky I am. When Leah went back to work, it was an adjustment. She was incredibly nervous to leave Charlie but also nervous to be back in an office setting. After accepting the extended maternity leave, her day to day outings were made up of Mommy and Me classes. Topics of discussion ranged from diaper rash to which baby is sleeping through the night. Charlie was not one of them. Leah worried the only intellectual contribution she would be able to make would come from something she heard on Baby Einstein. But that first day back, when she put on her form fitting pencil skirt and V-neck blouse, held a briefcase in one hand and Charlie in the other, I was in complete fucking awe of the woman she had become. She put on a brave face when we dropped Charlie off at daycare and forced a smile as she left to go conquer the world of law. I was so proud of her. Even more so when she told me she waited ‘til ten thirty before calling the daycare to check in. I didn’t dare bring up that first hour she spent calling me, near tears with worry. But we survived that first day and all the rest that have followed since. Leah left to go put Charlie down twenty minutes ago. Some nights, Leah and I are counting down the minutes until our rug rat goes to bed. But there are the others when I’m disappointed it’s that time already, where I’m the one begging for her to stay up for just another five minutes so I can keep playing with her. I get up from my barely touched work and quietly make my way to Charlie’s bedroom. The door is slightly ajar, the only light coming from her princess nightlight. I open the door a little wider so I can get a better view of inside the room. And then I’m hit with another one of those instances where I become acutely aware of how much more I’m able to fall in love with this woman. How lucky I am to have fallen in love with her. Because falling in love is a great thing, but falling in love with your best friend? That’s everything. Leah’s lying with Charlie in her small toddler bed, the safety bars lowered so that she can climb out easily. Charlie is asleep, curled up to her mother ’s side while Leah reads to her in a hushed voice. Charlie’s loose wavy brown hair is being softly brushed back away from her closed lids, hiding her green eyes. Eyes like mine. She may have gotten that from me and taken after my skin tone, but Charlie looks just like her mother. Beautiful. A few years ago, this was not the image I saw when I pictured my future. But now, I couldn’t imagine a different one. Actually, that’s not true. There are two ways I want to see this picture being different. I’ve casually brought one of them up to Leah a few times, but she just rolls her eyes. But as I watch her fingers skim the smooth skin peeking out from the bottom of her t-shirt, over her flat stomach, I think my words have stuck more than she’s willing to admit. Another baby. Leah and I are both only children and I don’t want that for Charlie. I want her to have at least one other sibling to play with, share things with. When I bring it up to Leah, she tells me to pack that thought away for another time. But watching her fingers move over her abdomen the way they are now, I wonder if that time has finally come. Which brings me to the other thing I want to change. Her bare, ringless fingers. That at least is

something that’s already in the works, my proposal plan already formulating. Thoughts of rings and proposals are interrupted when Leah sees me leaning against the door frame and smiles. She quietly and very carefully disentangles herself from our daughter and slowly makes her way to me. “Finally,” she says, closing the door behind us. “How many stories did she need this time?” I ask, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “Four. I tried to tell her the faster she went to sleep, the faster it would be tomorrow and her day with Uncle Bryan would be here. She didn’t fall for it.” I laugh. Even though Charlie is only two, she’s on to our bribery games. No longer falling for our lame attempts to try and outsmart her. Not even promises of Uncle Bryan do it now. That may be one of the other biggest surprises to have come from this. Uncle Bryan. From the moment Bryan came to meet Charlie in the hospital, she had him wrapped around her finger. I thought the reality of a screaming baby around would have kept him away, but it was quite the opposite. He refused to leave. He even went so far as to buy a separate baby monitor to keep in his apartment. “In case you guys don’t hear her,” he said walking around our apartment, holding Charlie when she was two months old. “You don’t think we’ll hear that fucking piercing scream?” Leah asked, skeptical. “Language,” Bryan chastised, shaking his head. “Christ, Leah.” Once Charlie got a little older, Bryan insisted on having a full day with her. Leah was a little nervous about it at first, but I rejoiced. A whole day to ourselves? I reminded Leah of all the things we could do and all the places we could do it. I think that got her a little more excited and led her to finally agreeing. We started letting him have her for a couple of hours which then led up to half a day. Now we feed her in the morning and don’t pick her up until dinner time. Most times Kendall is there, which makes Leah feel better about it. For as much as Bryan has changed when it comes to Charlie, he’s still very much the same when it comes to Kendall. They still have their ups and downs, but for the last year, they’ve been on a steady climb up. But I get it now more than I did then. Kendall is his lobster. He’s loved her for years. Been in love with her for years. He’s just a much slower learner than I am. I lead Leah over to the couch where we fall on it together, her back to my chest. “What do you want to do tomorrow?” I ask, rolling the ends of her long hair between my fingers. “Stay in bed,” she manages to say through a yawn. I grin. “I could go for that,” I say releasing her hair and dropping my hand over her breast, giving it a squeeze. Leah laughs but doesn’t shy away. Instead, she pushes her chest out a little more, giving me a firmer and better grasp. “Be careful, Comb,” I say half joking before I slide the tip of my tongue along the skin near her ear. It always causes her to squirm. “You might have me thinking you’re finally on board with my little expansion project.” “Keep dreaming,” she answers. But it’s the tone in which she says it that causes me to pause. Usually she laughs it off and pushes me away. But this time she doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, I feel her hand grip my thigh, pulling me closer, my growing hard-on digging into her back. I pull her away from my chest, pushing her down on the couch under me. I take a minute to dissect her expression. I see arousal, much like she must see in mine, but there something else there too. One I’ve seen from her only once before.

Surrender. “Comb?” I ask, wanting confirmation that I’m reading the signs correctly. She looks up at me under heavy lids, her eyes a little devious. “You think you have it in you? To make another one as perfect as her,” she says, cocking her head towards Charlie’s room and unbuckling my belt at the same time. I twist my mouth to the side, grinning. “I know so. Let me prove it to you,” I say, rubbing my groin against her cotton covered middle. I know she can feel how hard I’ve gotten and she knows I can feel how hot she is under those yoga pants. Her hands come up to my chest, her nails digging into my skin through my shirt. “Okay, Carlisle,” she says, taunting me. “Show me what you got.” I laugh. “Whatever you say, Comb.”

FIRST COMES LOVE… Love always comes first.

I’M NOT THE greatest at writing these—not because I’m not thankful for all who helped me along the way, but even as a writer, I feel like words just don’t articulate quite enough sometimes. But I’ll try. To my fantastic editors who read and reread every word, line and paragraph – your thoughts, opinions and comments mean everything to me. I’m very aware that each change/edit/deletion only made this book better. So thank you Megan and Kristen. To my Beta Readers…Taking time out of your busy schedules to read and give me your input means so much. Christine, Keely, Nikki and Amanda. Thank you, thank you, thank you. To all the pregnant ladies – Baxy, Danielle, Shawna, Tara, Jenn to whom I asked silly questions and who gave back silly and hilarious answers—Muah! Chelsea – lawyer extraordinaire, thank you for all your legal expertise. Jason at Framed Photography – photographer extraordinaire, thank you for answering all my camera questions. Julie and JT Formatting – I can forever trust that my pages will look incredible when left in your hands. Sarah at Okay Creations for her incredible talent at creating beautiful covers. They usually start out as random thoughts and jumbled images in my head but somehow end up as art wrapped around my words. To my friends who incessantly ask when the next book will be done, well it’s here and thanks for the support! My family who tirelessly and selflessly promote me and my books more than I could ever dream. Words cannot describe how fortunate I’ve been for the bloggers and fellow authors who read and promoted a stranger—a writer they’ve never heard of but still took a chance on. Their support and kind words are what allows me to keep writing and allowed me to bring you Everything Unexpected. The list of names is long and extensive and one day when I’m organized enough to write them all down, I will. But for today, just know that I am forever in your debt. And lastly, the readers. Without YOU, there is no ME doing this. The term thank you is not big enough, but it’s all I’ve got. THANK YOU. xo Caroline

CAROLINE NOLAN LIVES IN Toronto with her husband and their fur baby. Her first novel—This Is Love—received high praise as one of the best debut novels by a Contemporary Romance Author. She continues to write and expects to release her third novel—Us, On Repeat in 2017. Caroline can be found online at mrscarolinenolan on Instagram @carolinewrites1 on Twitter

“Caroline Nolan has presented a book that I not only devoured, but would gladly re-read many times. It was such a beautiful and poignant story, and one I won't soon forget.” ~ Smokin’ Hot Book Blog “I had no idea what to expect when I started reading this book… I hadn’t even read the blurb. But from the first sentence, I was hooked. I devoured every page like I was starving.” ~ Cover to Cover Book Blog “Beautiful and realistic. Every word was moving. I read it slowly because I didn't want it to end.” ~ Author Pamela Sparkman “Caroline Nolan wrote this with such an exquisite, gentle touch; it left me so happy, my heart completely overflowing and a giant smile on my face. If you're looking for a breathtaking, stunning story about loss, healing, hope and the capacity of the heart to love limitlessly—THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED!” ~ Give Me Books “This Is Love is an AMAZING debut novel that is wonderfully unique and spellbindingly beautiful. Readers looking for an epic love, that is flawless in both the written word and the characters created; a real gem that embeds itself into your heart and soul, should pick up this book. I promise that it is one that will stick with you for a long time to come.” ~ Shh Moms Reading “Let’s get this out of the way shall we? Caroline Nolan is the real deal. I’m not pulling your leg, I really think Ms. Nolan is FOR REAL.” ~ Straight Shootin Book Review “This novel had a little of everything. You'll laugh and cry. You'll feel heartache right…. You feel the butterflies. And the ending.... are you kidding me? It was emotional but completely needed. Not to mention, it'll make you fall in love a little more.”

~ A Risque’ Affair Book Blog “This is Love is Caroline Nolan’s debut novel and an amazing one at that. When I was finished reading this book I wanted to look her up and find other books that she had written so I can add them to my TBR list. But then I read the acknowledgements and saw that this was her first book and I was completely surprised because the writing was fantastic. Ms. Nolan is such a talented writer. The words flowed so perfectly. The story told was beautiful and at times emotional. And the characters she created were so real and people that you will fall in love with.” ~Three Chicks and Their Books Blog

Everything unexpected by caroline nolan