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Wait for It: Chapter 25


I was sitting on the edge of the couch, slipping my heels on when I zeroed in on Louie, who was sitting beside me on the couch dressed up in an outfit I’d found on sale around Labor Day. But it wasn’t the navy blue pants or vest he had on that caught my eye, or the fact he was matching for once in his life when he wasn’t wearing his school uniform. It was the red spot on the collar of his white shirt that had me reaching to pinch the tip of my nose.

“Louie.”

“Huh?” he asked, his body hunched over with a tablet on his lap as he played whatever it was he was playing.

“Did you eat something after you changed?” I’d specifically told him not to eat anything because I knew him.

“No,” he answered quickly, his attention still below him.

Sliding my heel down into my nude shoe, I gave my toes a wiggle to make sure my foot was in there as deep as it would go, telling myself not to freak out over his shirt. It had been inevitable, hadn’t it? Hadn’t I known this was going to happen and tried to prevent it? With a deep breath, I glanced back at his shirt and stood up, tugging on the skirt part of my dress. “Gooey, did you get something from the fridge?”

“Apple juice.”

I pinched the tip of my nose again. “Did you grab the ketchup bottle by any chance?”

He stopped playing his game to glance up and give me a curious expression. “How’d you know?”

“Because there’s a big red stain on your shirt, Goo.”

Louie’s hands immediately went to his chest and started patting around as he tried to find the spot. “I didn’t eat anything!”

“I believe you,” I moaned, trying to think if he had any other dress shirts that he hadn’t out grown.

He didn’t, and we didn’t have time to wash this one. Ginny’s wedding was in half an hour.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized.

It was just a shirt and he was just a kid. It wasn’t the end of the world. “It’s fine.”

“I promise! I didn’t eat anything!”

“I believe you. You probably just held the ketchup bottle too close to you, you sloppy mess.” I stared at him for a moment longer before telling him, “Come here. Maybe I can wipe off the worst of it with a napkin.”

He tipped his chin down to try and see his collar. Without a warning, he poked at the button closest to his neck, tugged the material away from him and stuck his tongue out. He licked at the ketchup spot. Over and over again.

“Louie! Oh my God, give me a towel. Don’t lick it off, Jesus.” I laughed, knowing I shouldn’t but not being able to stop myself.

One blue eye peeked at me as he licked it again. “Why? I’m saving water. I’m saving the Earth.”

Saving the Earth. If I hadn’t just spent twenty minutes putting on makeup, I would have smacked myself in the forehead. “Stop. Stop. Leave it alone. It’s fine. You can save the Earth another way.”

“Are you sure? I can lick more.”

That really made me laugh. “Yes, stop. Put your tongue back in your mouth, nasty.” I laughed even harder as the tip of it peeked out between his lips.

Louie cracked up as he inched his face closer to the spot, as if daring me.

Stop. Just pretend there’s nothing there now,” I ordered him, right before he gave the ketchup stain one more lick. “Oh my God, look at that! There’s no stain anymore!”

“What are you doing, ding-dong?” came Josh’s voice from behind where I was standing. “Why are you licking your shirt?”

“Ketchup,” was the boy’s reply.

I looked at Josh as he muttered, “What a weirdo.”

Dressed in black pants my mom made him wear when they went to church, a blue long-sleeved shirt, and a black vest, my little Josh looked so much like my earliest memory of Drigo it nearly took my breath away. I had to bite my lip to keep from saying anything. “Looking good, J-Money.”

He rolled his eyes. “I look stupid.”

“And if by stupid you mean really handsome, you’re right.”

He rolled his eyes so far back I was surprised they managed to make their way forward again.

“Ready to go?”

“Yes.” He paused. “Do I have to go?” he asked for the fourth time since I’d told him we were all going to Ginny’s wedding.

I told him the same thing I had when he’d argued that he could stay with his grandparents, or that he could stay with my parents. “Nope.” But I did tell him something I hadn’t before. “Dean is going to be there.”

That wiped the frown off his face just enough. “He is?”

“Yes. Trip texted me and asked if you were going.”

His response was a grunt that I chose to ignore.

“All right, let’s go, gangsters.”

Louie hopped to his feet. “Okay, gangster.”

Grabbing my purse and Ginny’s gift, I corralled the boys outside, trying to balance everything under my armpits as I made Louie lock the door behind us. Josh was already at the back passenger door of the SUV when I heard, “Diana!”

I couldn’t help but smile as I turned in the direction of the person yelling. Not “the person.” Dallas. Sure enough, striding across the street in the way that only someone so tall with his kind of confidence was capable of, was my neighbor looking better than ever. And that was saying something since I’d seen him shirtless. In charcoal gray dress pants, a white shirt, and lavender tie, he was the best-looking man I’d ever seen.

Coming toward me.

Smiling.

Who said he was in love with me.

And looking at me with this focus that almost made me break out in a sweat. He’d shaved recently, his facial hair more of a five o’clock shadow than the neat beard he usually kept.

“Hi, Professor” I called out to him as he took a step onto the sidewalk directly in front of my house.

“You mean Coach,” Josh suggested.

I shook my head, still watching my neighbor. “No, I meant Professor.”

Dallas must have heard us because I spotted him smirking and shaking his head.

Louie immediately asked, “Are you coming with us?”

Dallas touched Josh on the back of the shoulder as he approached us, one of his hands extended out toward me. He took the gift from under my arm as he answered, “If you guys don’t mind.”

Like I would ever mind.

“Come with us!” Louie agreed.

“I don’t care,” Josh added.

I swallowed the knot in my throat as Dallas leaned forward and kissed my cheek for one brief moment that would be etched into my memory forever and ever even as Josh made a gagging noise. “Of course you can.” I gave the keys a jiggle. “Want to drive?”

He looked me right in the eye as he took the keys. “Tell me how to get there, Peach.”

* * *

I’d been to a lot of weddings in my life—my parents used to drag me to every single one they ever went to when I was a kid—but even if I hadn’t known Ginny, I would have thought it was the most beautiful wedding I’d ever been to. There was a reason why she’d been so tight with money for so long. She’d splurged. A lot. But as I sat in the banquet hall following the ceremony, which had taken place in another section of the facility, I had a feeling she was going to have zero regrets about all the struggling she’d put herself through. Gin was beaming. Her happiness was like a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

It made my heart swell. I hadn’t known Ginny back when she’d been with her ex, but I’d heard why they split up. They’d both been young, and by the time they decided to go their own way, they were completely different people. No shit. You weren’t the same person you were at seventeen that you were at thirty-three.

I thought about Trip and Dallas’s dislike of her new husband—of why they felt the way that they felt—but all I could think to myself was that, if she could be so happy with someone who had “been around the block” a few times, what did it matter what someone had done before you? No one ever succeeded at anything on the first try.

“Saving your first dance for me?”

I blinked from the empty plate of food in front of me and gazed at the man standing beside my chair. I smiled at Trip. “You dance?”

“You bet your ass I do. Come on.” He flexed his fingers at me in an invitation. There was a slow country song playing through the speakers, following the couple’s first dance.

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I got up and followed him, setting one arm on his shoulder and letting him take my other hand in his. He grinned as he took a mini step away from me with a wink.

“I don’t feel like dying tonight,” he explained, like that made any sense.

“Who’s going to kill you?”

“Dal.” He peeked over his shoulder for a moment before glancing back at me with a smile that reminded me of a little boy who knew he was doing something bad. “I give him two minutes before he’s over here.”

“He’s with one of your relatives right now. They were asking him about Miss Pearl,” I explained.

I’d gone over to Dallas’s house two days before to give the old woman a haircut. She’d acted like normal, didn’t call me Miss Cruz once, and then all of a sudden, in the middle of trimming her hair, she’d announced, “I’ve thought about it, and I wouldn’t mind some tan great-grandchildren someday.”

What the hell did I respond with? “Okay?”

Tan grandchildren. Oh my God.

My white-haired neighbor turned in her chair just enough to see me with one of those rheumy eyes and then said, “He looks out the window to check on you every night. I tell him to call you and quit being a stalker, but he thinks I’m going to listen in on his conversations.” She huffed. “I have better things to do with my time.”

All I’d managed to do after that was just nod. Obviously, Miss Pearl was doing just fine after losing a lot of her things in the fire.

“I still give him two minutes.” Trip raised his eyebrows at me as he turned us, bringing my attention back to the present. “So you two finally, huh?”

“Finally?”

“Yeah, finally. It’s only been, what? Three months?”

“No.” I narrowed my eyes. “Really?”

“You sweet, sweet, blind child.” He chuckled. “I told him he was an idiot for waiting until his shit had been settled, but he ‘wanted to do it right’

“Go find your own girl to dance with,” came a voice from behind me.

I’d bet my life that Trip’s easy acceptance was a sign of how much he cared for his cousin and that was why he backed away so quickly. He still winked at me before telling the man behind me, “Just warmin’ yours up for you, brother.”

“I bet you were,” Dallas said. He came around me and slipped so fluidly in front of me, placing my hands where they needed to go, I didn’t react until his chest was an inch or two away from mine. Those brown-green-gold eyes hovered above my own. I didn’t even watch in what direction Trip had gone I was so sucked in to the man in front of me. “There’s my one and only.”

I blushed and pinched my lips together. How was it that I had no idea how to act around him anymore? It was dumb. “Your one and only,” I muttered. “There’re lots of pretty girls here to dance with too,” I said like a complete idiot, even though my stomach started hurting immediately afterward.

His eyebrow arched upward as his hand curled over my shoulder, touchy, touchy, touchy. “Are there?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s nice for everybody else,” he said, drawing me toward him.

The sigh that came out of me was long and probably showed how confused I felt.

“What’s that sigh for? They don’t do me any good.” That broad palm of his went to the small of my spine, the other led our hands to the corner of his chest and shoulder, settling there as he dipped his face closer to mine. His eyes were steady and even, staring right into my own. “I already have the one I want right here,” he said.

“Dallas,” I groaned, ducking my head. What was I doing?

“What?”

Our talk at the salon a couple of days ago hadn’t eased my worries much. Talk was talk. Anyone could say they were Batman, but not everyone could be Batman. “There’re a million other women in the world who would love to be with you—”

“You want me to go find them?” he asked with way too much humor in his voice.

I glanced up at him. “No, but I can’t do casual. I don’t think you get that.”

His mouth went to my ear. “What gave you the idea that’s what this would be? The last thing I feel for you is casual, Diana.”

I groaned, feeling a warm sensation fill my belly. “Look, I just… I’ve really been trying hard to be an adult, and an adult would want someone like you to be happy. I care about you so much, and I’m a mess, you know that.”

“I know, baby.” He pulled me in closer to him with the hand on my spine. “It’s one of my favorite things about you.”

Heaven help me. Heaven help me.

I groaned again, trying to put my thoughts together. “You have a thing for single parents, huh?”

The hand on my back lowered, going over the curve before sweeping back up, teasing. “I got a soft spot for single parents. It’s tough. But I got this thing—you might know what it is, it’s red and it’s in the center of your chest—and that has more than a soft spot for hot aunts who raise their nephews. You can’t even call it a spot, really.”

I choked and felt his chin rest on the top of my head. “How big is this… spot?”

“It’s big enough so where I’d do anything for an aunt like that,” he told me.

“Anything?”

“Anything,” he confirmed.

I gulped and let myself swallow up the feel of his arms and hands around and on me. “Huh.”

“You can’t go around giving something that big and important to just anybody.”

I glanced at him, watching his face. “You’re going to give it?”

Dallas only cuddled me closer to his chest so that I couldn’t look at his face. “I gave it to you a long time ago, Diana. In little pieces and then bigger pieces, and the next thing I knew, I didn’t have anything left in me, so I hope it’s enough.”

I drew back and glanced up at him, and I swallowed. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I do, baby. Trust me. I know exactly what I’m doing. You three feel like my family. It isn’t every day you look at your friend and two kids and know this is where you were supposed to be. Do you believe me?”

I didn’t even have to think about the answer. “Yeah, I do.” I shook my head at myself, trying to remind my brain that we trusted this person. That everything would be all right. “You’re never getting your big red thing back if I have anything to say about it. I want you to think about that. I want you to know what the hell you’re signing yourself up for, because nice Catholic girls who only go to church twice a year don’t believe in divorce.” I blinked. “You know, when the time comes.”

He smiled at me and I smiled back. Before I could take my next breath, Dallas dipped his head and pressed his mouth, closed and sweet, to mine. He pulled back and then pressed it again.

“God, you guys are gross,” came a voice I’d be able to distinguish in a crowd. It was Josh. “When can we go home?”

* * *

I was smiling and more than a little sleepy as we drove home hours later. Going against Josh’s wishes of bailing an hour into the reception, I sent him back to hang out with Dean and play, or do whatever it was eleven-year-olds did at weddings when there was a playground and an adult in charge of watching the kids. Luckily, they must have gotten into something interesting because it wasn’t until I went to check on the boys once every hour that I found them still alive and in one piece, sitting at a picnic table looking at videos on Dean’s phone.

Meanwhile inside, I’d laughed my butt off with friends and family of Trip and Dallas, who filled up the rest of the table I’d been sitting at, and danced one song after another with one of the two of them, and even once with Trip’s dad. All those clubs I had gone to in my early twenties had really paid off. Mostly though, I’d spent the night either beside Dallas or in front of him. I wasn’t going to complain even a little bit.

With Louie passed out in the backseat in his chair and Josh playing a game on the tablet his brother was obviously not using, it had been a good night. I was ready to get home, change, and kick off my shoes though.

“Tired?” Dallas whispered the question.

“Little bit,” I answered him. Shifting how I was sitting, I watched his profile in the darkness of the car, taking in that almost long nose, his full bottom lip, square jawline, and the notch of his Adam’s apple. I loved him and it wasn’t even a little bit. It was a lotta bit. “You?”

“I’m fine.”

Hesitating for one second, I reached across the center console to grab his right hand, the one he didn’t use to drive. I didn’t know what it was about doing that that made me feel like an insecure kid again. The nerves, the wonder. The I hope he likes me as much as I like him. But Dallas didn’t pause as he flipped his hand up and linked his long, cool fingers through mine, holding them tight.

I smiled at him and he smiled right back.

Before I knew it, he was turning the car into my driveway. I was too busy looking at him to notice the car parked directly across the street.

I was moving slower than usual as Dallas got out and opened the back passenger door, his hands going to unbuckle the straps of Louie’s seat, gathering him into his arms before I could tell him I’d carry him. He was halfway to the door, and I had just finished closing the door with my hip as Josh got out, too. We were rounding the back of the SUV with me ruffling his hair when it happened.

“Josh!”

I stopped walking so fast, I turned my ankle in my heels. I knew immediately that voice could only belong to one person.

The one person who Josh spotted before I did. Anita was crossing the street.

“It’s me,” she called out to the boy who was frozen in place at my side.

Without thinking, as I straightened up, not giving a single shit about an ankle I had for sure either twisted or sprained, I set my hand on his shoulder. And I panicked a little. I didn’t tell him anything in the time it took his biological mom to cross the street and end up four feet away from us on the driveway.

What was she doing here again?

“You’re so big,” she said before I snapped out of it and took a step forward to block her from seeing him, a sharp pain shooting up my foot.

“Anita, this isn’t the time or the place,” I told her as calmly as possible.

She didn’t even glance at me. Tenting her hands under her chin, the woman who was almost my age but looked so much older tried to peek around me. “You look just like your dad, baby boy. I can’t believe it.”

My hands fisted and I took another sidestep over, faintly hearing the sound of the front door closing. I hoped Dallas had taken Louie inside so he wouldn’t wake up and witness this. As well as Louie had adjusted to all of the changes in his life since he’d lost both his parents, I’d never fooled myself into thinking that one day it wouldn’t catch up to him. I just really didn’t want that day to be anytime soon.

“Anita, focus. You’re not supposed to be here. You can’t drop by like this,” I told her as nicely as possible, fighting the growl in my throat as a hand touched my back, a hand that could only belong to Josh.

“He’s my son,” she finally spoke to me, her gaze going to mine.

I opened my mouth to tell her that he was mine too, but Josh beat me to it.

“Leave me alone,” he whispered.

Anita’s head jerked back, her gaze going to the boy behind me. “Josh, I’m your mom.”

That was the worst thing she could have said to him, and I wasn’t surprised how he reacted.

“You’re not my mom!” he shouted all of a sudden.

Shit. With one hand going to the back of his neck, I started leading him toward the front door, careful to keep my body between him and the woman neither one of us wanted to see. At least didn’t want to see her. Not like this.

“Josh!” she called out to this boy I wasn’t convinced we both loved equally.

I kept moving him forward, pointing my index finger at her as I stared her down. “Go. Go.”

“You can’t keep me from him!”

“I don’t want to see you!” Josh shouted again, suddenly turning around and moving aside so he could look at the woman who had given birth to him. “I never want to see you again! You’re not my mom today. You’re not my mom tomorrow. You’re never going to be my mom!”

“Josh—”

“No! You didn’t want me! You can’t change your mind!” he yelled at her, his chest puffing.

Fucking shit. I placed my hand on Josh’s shoulder and turned him around, quickly leading him up the pathway to our house just as Dallas came storming out of the front door, his eyes going from Josh, to me, and finally to Anita. It seemed to click. He remembered her. “Take him inside. I’ll deal with this,” he told me firmly as he walked by us.

The last thing I heard as the door closed behind us was his low voice spitting, “Do I need to—”

Josh shrugged my arm off almost instantly, and before I could stop him, he took off running toward his room. The door slammed to a close, and all I could do was stand there, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. Jesus Christ.

Pinching the bridge of my nose, I let out a breath for a minute, kicked off my heels, and went straight for Josh’s room. Partially expecting the door to be locked, I was surprised when the knob turned. I didn’t ask if I could come in. I was going to whether he wanted me to or not. I found Mac on the floor by the bed, his ears pinned back and his expression anxious and focused on Josh, who didn’t even glance in my direction as he plopped down on the carpet and reached for the controller to his game console. His fingers pressed hard into the buttons.

I swallowed. “J, do you want to talk about it?”

He was staring at the television screen, sure, and his fingers were moving across the controller of his game, but I could tell he wasn’t paying attention. I knew him too well to be able to ignore the anger and the hurt radiating off him. This kid was never the crying kind; he usually went straight into getting angry, and that was exactly what he was doing right then.

With that in mind, I wasn’t surprised when he snapped out a “No.”

I sighed and walked further into his room, taking a seat on the floor by the television, my dress forcing me to tuck my legs under me. “All right. Let me rephrase that: let’s talk about it.”

He didn’t look at me as he repeated himself. “No.”

“Joshua.” I moved my head to the side to block his view of the screen. I raised my eyebrows. “We’re going to talk about it. Now. Save your game. You’re not even going to play well right now anyway.”

Those little fingers hammered at the keys of his controller a moment before he sent it flying behind his head, the innocent remote hitting the wall before it crashed to the ground. His chest started expanding in and out, and he was breathing hard, his face turning red.

It was times like these I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to do with him. What was the right thing to say? How was I supposed to soothe him? I didn’t fool myself into thinking that it wasn’t these moments that would shape how he handled bad things for the rest of his life. I knew it was. I knew that however I taught him to deal with shit would be the route he would most likely take from now on. And throwing shit was not something I wanted him to continue with.

“I get that you’re pissed off, J, and I don’t blame you.” I couldn’t tell him I understood he was hurt; it would immediately put him on edge and defensive. He didn’t get hurt. “But throwing your shit around is not all right. You want to deal with your anger? Do something productive. Scream your anger into a pillow to get it out of your system, but don’t bottle your shit, don’t break things, and don’t take it out on someone else. If your remote is broken, I’m not buying you another one.”

“I didn’t ask you to buy me another one.”

“Cut the attitude, Josh. Now. Talk to me.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Too bad,” I told him as I watched him avert his eyes to the wall at his right. Fucking Anita. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to kick her ass, mother of my nephew or not. But I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. I had to be a role model and role models didn’t go around tasering people. “You can tell me anything, you know that.”

He said nothing.

“If you don’t want to talk, then listen. No one is perfect, J. No one. We’ve all made stupid mistakes in our lives, and when you get older, you’re going to make a ton of them yourself, but that’s what I want you to understand—you have to learn from what you do, the good and the bad. I will never forgive Anita for what she did when you were a baby, but I don’t know what it must have been like to be so young and get pregnant either, okay? Neither one of us will ever understand that. And God knows, every time I see her, I want to smack her in the face for getting into so much trouble after you were born, but that’s the thing: I remember your dad telling me she wasn’t close to her parents. She didn’t have anyone to love her the way that Abuelito and Abuelita loved me, much less the way that I love you and Louie. You know I would do anything for you. I’m going to be here for you for the rest of my life, J. You’ll always have options in your life, and I won’t let you fuck up, do you understand me?

“I’ve told you before, you don’t ever have to do anything with her if you don’t want to, but maybe one day you will. I’ve told her before that, if she wants a chance of getting to know you, she’d have to get her life together.”

“I don’t want to know her!” he screamed, high and sounding so young the sound was like acid to my soul. “Not today! Not tomorrow! Never! She’s a bitch!” Before I knew it, he was off the carpet and throwing himself on his bed. He yanked his pillow from where it had been sitting and smashed it against his face, screaming into it for several long seconds until he tapered off. His chest started doing that puffing thing again, and I was 99 percent sure he was crying. It killed me. And what he finally said next, slid the knife in even deeper. “Don’t make me go with her. Please. You promised me—you promised me you would always take care of me.”

“Don’t call her a bitch,” I told him calmly, even though I felt anything but that. One of the worst things in the world was watching someone you love fall apart. “I told you, if you don’t want to see her, that’s fine. I’m not going to force you to, but maybe one day when you’re older you might want to. Maybe. I don’t blame you, but I want you to understand that you’re mine. You’re not going anywhere. I didn’t carry you around inside of me for nine months, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. You’re mine, Josh. You’re my Joshy Poo and you always will be. I’ll fight anybody for you who tries to say otherwise. But just because you’re mine doesn’t mean one day—if you want—she can’t be in your life, too. Some people don’t have even one person who cares about them, and you’ve had Mandy, too.”

He was silent. His back was bowed over his pillow, and he was shaking. I had never, ever wanted to kill a person more than I did in that moment. This was what Anita had done to unbendable, resilient Josh. I’d never forgive her for it. His question came out like a croak, muffled and raw. “You promise I’m yours?”

“Josh, you really believe you’re not?” I asked him as I got to my feet and sat on the edge of the bed with him, scooting back until I was lying alongside him, my head resting next to his chest. “I’ve wiped your butt. You’ve thrown up on me. I’ve spent my weekends at your games screaming my voice sore. I’ve hugged you and loved you even when you haven’t been very nice. You’re my d-o-double-g. You’re the peanut butter to my jelly. The pain to my ass—”

I was pretty sure he snorted even with the pillow covering his mouth, but it sounded watered down and hurt.

My own eyes started to get teary. “One day when you’re way older, you’re going to get a girlfriend and I’m going to want to kill the little b-i-t-c-h. I’m going to hate her guts. But you know what? I know at the end of the day, I’m still going to be your number one girl.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because she will never know what it’s like to have put a thermometer in your butt.”

That time, his laugh reached his chest.

“Josh, I love you and Louie, and nothing and no one will ever replace you two losers. I swear on my life. I will lie, cheat, and steal for you, and I always, always will.” I scooted my head closer to him, so the side of my face rested on his rib cage. “You hear me?”

His face was still covered. “Yeah, I guess.”

I’d have to take it. “You better.”

Neither one of us said anything for a while, but eventually the pillow on top of his face fell away, and his hand went to my hair. “Promise, we’ll always be family?”

“Kid, you couldn’t get rid of me if you tried.”

“Even if you have kids one day?”

I wasn’t stupid. I knew where this was coming from, and I’d messed up by not addressing it with him. So I made sure to wrap my arm around his forearm and kiss the soft skin there. “If I ever decide to pop out a baby, he or she is going to be your brother or sister. If you think of them as your cousins, it would break my heart and I’d give you a wedgie until you said otherwise. We’re family. There’s nothing tighter than blood.” I paused, needing to make him laugh. “And vomit. There’s no going back once you’ve been thrown up on.”

He sniffled, and I could sense him nod his agreement.

I swallowed and decided to take advantage of the moment. “I need to tell you something that has nothing to do about what just happened, but about our family, okay?”

“What?” he croaked suspiciously.

“Dallas—”

Oh.

“Oh, what?”

“I know about Mr. Dallas already,” he announced.

I sat up and set an elbow under me, watching his puffy, red face as he stared up at the ceiling. “What do you know?”

“He loves you. You love him,” he muttered with an eye roll, glancing down at me briefly before focusing up again. “You know, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Aunt Di with a baby carriage.”

Uhh, where the hell had that come from? “How… did you know?”

“I have eyes?”

This fucking smart-ass.

“And he told me.”

“What did he tell you?”

He glanced at me from his spot still lying flat on the mattress. “Remember when Jonathan’s mom yelled at you during the tournament and you cried?” How could I forget? “He told me.”

What the hell? “What did he say?”

Josh rolled his eyes, sliding his elbows underneath his shoulders to sit up, bored with this conversation. “I don’t know. He said he liked you—yuck.” I blinked at him. “One day during practice when we saw that dad talking to you, I told him I didn’t like you talking to him, and he said he didn’t either. So I asked him what we should do, and he said nothing because you were never gonna do anything with him and that one day soon, between me and him, none of those jackasses—he said it, not me, don’t get mad—would never bother you again.”

Was my heart about to burst or was I imagining it? “And what did you tell him?”

“I told him okay as long as he didn’t make me go live with Grandma and Grandpa—”

“I would never make you go live somewhere else!”

“That’s what he said! Jeez. He said he knew I already have a dad, and he told me that his dad died too and that he knew that if his mom had got married again when he was young, that he would never call anybody else Dad. So, he said we could be friends and he could show me how to do stuff and we could be a family, that I didn’t have to call him anything but Dallas if I didn’t want to.”

I was not going to cry. I was not going to cry. “And what did you tell him?”

“I said okay.”

“Okay? That’s it?”

He grinned. “What did you want me to do? Ask him for money?”

I burst out laughing. “You’re the man of the house. You can’t just give me up like that.”

He shrugged and said, “You know how many Xbox games he has?”

My mouth fell open and I shook my head at him. “You traded me for Xbox games. I cannot believe it.”

“Believe it.”

Where the hell had this monster come from? Had I created this?

I had. I really had.

“Just don’t kiss in front of me. That’s gross,” he added with a shudder.

“Your face is gross.”

“Not as gross as yours.”

I grinned at him, and he grinned right back.

“You really don’t care if I…” What word was I supposed to use? Date? It seemed like so much more than that already. “See Dallas all the time? If he comes over a lot and stuff?”

Josh shrugged as he sat up completely, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hands. “I don’t care, Aunt Di. I like him, and Louie likes him, and he likes you a lot. That’s why he’s always doing stuff for us. Just… don’t kiss, and close the door to your room. I don’t wanna see anything. Dean told me about stuff he’s seen his dad do, and that’s nasty.”

His words made me pause. That’s why he’s always doing stuff for us. Had Josh seen this before me?

And what the hell was Dean telling him? I needed to talk to Trip.

He pushed his knee against mine, grabbing my attention. “Are you gonna tell Abuelita you have a boyfriend?” he asked.

Shit. “I have to. One day.”

Josh smirked. “She’s gonna be mad.”

“Too bad for her, huh?” I smiled at him and reached over to pinch his nose. “Are you going to be all right?”

“Yeah,” he said a little softer than a moment before, his expression turning just slightly grim.

“Good.” I dropped my legs off the bed. “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”

“I’m just…” He patted his pillow. “I’m gonna play some games and go to bed.”

Standing up, I nodded. “Okay. I love you with all my heart.”

“I know. Love you too.”

With two exchanged smiles, I left his room, closing the door behind me just as he called for Mac to join him on the bed. I could see the light in the living room on, the sound of voices from the TV drifting down the hall, but first, I headed to Louie’s room. The door had been left cracked, and I peeked in to find the small body face down under the covers.

I sure as hell wasn’t going to wake him up to get him into pajamas. He wasn’t going to die sleeping in his clothes. From how much he’d played with the other kids on the playground, he was going to sleep all night.

Backing out, I headed the few feet down the hall, keeping weight off my ankle that was all of a sudden reminding me that I’d twisted it. When I got to the living room, I found Dallas on the couch with the television on. His thighs were spread wide and he had a hand on one, the other was draped across the back of the sofa.

“Hey,” I whispered to him, limping over.

“What happened?” he asked, watching me carefully.

“I rolled my ankle outside. It hurts.”

He frowned as I stopped beside his knees on the couch and plopped down. Before I could even sit back, he leaned over and swung my legs onto his lap, my knees bent over the middle of him, feet on the couch on his other side.

“Josh okay?” he asked as his hand went straight for my foot, his thumb sweeping gently over the bone.

“He was pretty upset, but he’ll be fine,” I explained, watching his fingers move over me. “She left I’m guessing?”

He hummed. “She’s gone, I made sure.”

“Thanks.”

His palm went down to cup my heel. “Will you tell me about the situation with the boys’ moms? I get that Louie and Josh don’t share the same one.”

I scooted my butt over on the couch until my hip came in contact with his, where I was basically one move away from sitting on his lap. My dress had hiked up pretty high, but I didn’t worry about it. He’d seen more of my legs than this the day of the fire. “My brother was married to Louie’s mom. She’s like you—”

“Tall?”

I snickered and grinned. “No, ding-a-ling. Your skin color. Where do you think he gets his blue eyes from?” I moved over a little more. “When my brother died, Louie’s mom lost her shit. She wasn’t eating, drinking, or sleeping. I had to take the boys because it was obvious she didn’t know she was the one alive and my brother was the one who wasn’t.”

When I sighed, the arm he had over the back of the couch was lowered to rest against my shoulders, his hand going to palm my upper arm.

“She wasn’t dealing with it. We should have—we should have done something about it. We all knew she wasn’t doing well, but…” Oh man, the guilt hit me hard in the solar plexus. “She fell down the stairs, which I think about now and I’m pretty sure she did it on purpose to have an excuse to take painkillers… and six weeks after my brother died, she overdosed.”

There was something stuck in my throat, and for the second time in minutes, I felt my eyes tear up. “I’ll never forgive myself for not saying or doing something. Getting her help. I don’t know. Something. You know, I expected somebody else to do something or maybe thought she would eventually just get it together, but that’s not the way it works.”

“You couldn’t have known,” he said softly.

I shrugged under his arm. “I don’t know. Maybe not. But now Lou’s stuck with me forever. He doesn’t ever want to talk about her or acknowledge she even existed. You saw how he gets when we bring her up. That night in his room was the first time he’d said anything about her in forever. Even Josh, every once in a while, says something about her, but Lou refuses to. The only person he ever wants to talk about is his dad.”

“She’s the lady in the pictures around the house?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That’s better than nothing.”

I shrugged again and the arm over me tightened, pulling me in closer to him.

“It didn’t click until now that the Larsens aren’t Josh’s real grandparents.”

“Yeah. Only Louie is biologically related. But they met Josh when he was three. They love him so much. I know Mandy, that’s Louie’s mom, loved him, too. She was great with him. I think that’s why they’re so helpful. I like to think she would have wanted them to stick around in his life, and they have.”

“He’s an easy kid to love,” he said. “If I didn’t know he was your brother’s, I’d think he was yours. You two are exactly alike.”

I scoffed. “We are not.”

“You are. Trip and I have talked about it.”

“You talk about me behind my back?”

“All the time.” He smiled. “You two are… savage. You’re honest, and you’re loyal and love the shit out of things. Both of you give everything to what you care about. I love it.”

I pulled my head back and smiled at him. “That’s probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.”

“When you were about to kick Christy’s ass—”

“I was not going to kick her ass.”

“That’s when I knew, this girl has lost her fucking mind. For a week afterward, all I could think about was how you weren’t going to let anybody—even me—do the wrong thing for Josh, like you’d fight to the death for him. It made me think I’d want someone to feel that way about me.”

This knot formed in my throat, and I couldn’t help but lean forward to kiss his neck as his hand slid up my calf from my foot and settled on the sensitive skin behind my knee. “I threw Hawaiian Punch at your brother, that’s a start.”

Dallas bit his lips and smiled, kissing my cheek once and jawline another.

I tipped my head back to let him trail his mouth down to my neck, his lips warm and soft as they pressed closed and then opened, his breath damp on my skin. “I would never let anyone talk about you.”

“I know, baby. I know,” he said, kissing the hollow part on the right side of my throat. “I heard what you told your client that day at the salon.”

“You did?” I asked, staying where I was with my head back as he leaned over to kiss the other side of my neck, making me squirm.

“Mm-hmm,” he answered. “If you wouldn’t have been at work, I would have kissed the hell out of you.”

I moaned in my throat when his mouth latched on to my earlobe and gave it a suck. Shivers spread throughout my upper body, my nipples hardening. “You can make up for it now if you insist,” I told him in a whisper.

“I’m going to,” he said, sounding husky and raw right before he dipped his face lower and kissed me over and over again between my jaw and collarbone.

Shifting on to a hip, his hands roamed as my head stayed where it was, lulled backward to give him all the room he wanted. Those big palms went from my lower back to tangling his fingers in my loose hair, cupping my skull gently. I tried to keep myself from making noises, settling only for low pants as that wonderful mouth opened from time to time for his tongue to swipe at the skin over one tendon or another. He moved me, maneuvered me however he wanted, to get to whatever spot he wanted.

When his lips went low to kiss from the hollow at my throat, down, down, down a straight line to where the V-shape of my dress ended, I arched my back. I was turned-on. More turned-on than I’d been in my entire life. It was like drowning in pudding. I didn’t want it to end, ever.

And when his low voice spoke right into my ear as his nose drew a line over the shell of it, I was pretty much in a trance. “We don’t have to do anything tonight.”

“You don’t want to?”

His chuckle had me pressing myself closer to him. “What did you tell me about stupid questions?”

Somehow I managed to smile.

“Can I take you to your room?” he asked, pressing his lips just below the corner of my mouth.

He could take me to Mars for all I cared, but I couldn’t speak. All I could do was nod as I swayed into him, needing his mouth on my throat again. His husky laugh hit the sensitive damp skin he’d just had his mouth on. His hand went to my hip, curling those long fingers over my side.

“Yes?” he asked, drawing his mouth back up to kiss my cheeks, my nose, the sliver of skin just above my upper lip, everywhere but my mouth.

I was panting. Panting. “Uh-huh” was all I could get out.

Slowly, without breaking our closeness, he pulled me up to my feet, his mouth still everywhere, his hands going everywhere else—up and down my back, one hip, two hips, my shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, even my hands. Mapping me out. It wasn’t until he pulled me closer to him that I remembered we weren’t alone in the house.

“The front door,” I whispered, out of breath from just letting him use those lips on me.

“It’s already locked,” he told me as both those big palms slid from where they’d been at my waist, down, over the hem of my dress, before making a return trip upward, inside the skirt that time. Those rough, callused fingers and palms scratched my skin in the two heartbeats it took for Dallas to reach my ass, cupping the bare skin there in those big hands, gripping and molding them together as his breath hit my ear. “I always thought you looked like mine, but you sure do fucking feel like you’re mine, too,” he said, drawing a circle around my pulse point with his tongue.

Without a word of warning, he suddenly boosted me up, my dress straining as the material slid up to rest around my hips. Somewhere in the back of my head, I prayed he’d get us to my room fast—really, really fast—before Josh decided he needed to go to the bathroom and found me with my butt hanging out of my clothes, wrapped around Dallas like a spider monkey. Because that was exactly what it had to look like. The instant I was up in his arms, my legs had wrapped around his waist, my arms twining behind his neck. Face-to-face, my mouth hovered inches away from his. Millimeters, really.

And without kissing me, his forehead to mine, his eyes locked on my own, he started walking us down the hall.

One of my hands loosened around his neck to go up to the back of his head, running my fingers through the super soft short hair on his head. Neither one of us said anything as he kept walking, and eventually, I knew we were in my room even with all the lights being off. He kicked the door closed and took a step back, one of the hands he had supporting me disappearing for a brief moment before the low click of the lock being engaged filled the only other sound in my bedroom other than our breathing.

He didn’t turn on the lights and I didn’t bother to either.

Days later, I liked to think we were so quiet because there was nothing that could be said that would have made the moment better or more meaningful. There really wasn’t. Every time his hands touched me, it was like a sentence was being spoken. And I hoped that every time I set my hands on him, he could feel every single thing I thought of him, everything I felt for him.

He was wonderful and I loved him. I loved him more than I thought I was capable of. If I really put it into perspective, how could anything I had ever felt for anyone before him even be close to the “L” word when what we had was ten—twenty, thirty, forty, fifty—times brighter and more real than any man I’d ever met before him?

It couldn’t. It just couldn’t.

Because no one else was as kind or selfless, as giving or as patient, as loving in all the little and the big ways, as he was.

I’d never really known what I wanted most of my life, but this—him—was it.

And as he set me down on my feet in my bedroom, with only the faintest light coming in through the window from outside, his hands went to the bottom of my dress. In one quick move, the dress was up and over my head, gone to another dimension for all I cared. Those cool, scratchy palms went to my waist, and as I stood there in my underwear and a strapless bra, he pulled me into him, pressing my front to his. He sealed us together from the chest down just as his mouth finally decided to meet mine.

Mouth tilted, it opened over mine. Our tongues clashed and stroked. I was faint and dizzy as he kissed me, his mouth slanting from one side to the other as we ate at each other, like it was the end of the world and there was nowhere else either one of us would rather be.

It was the truth.

As he kissed me and kissed me and kissed me—his body warm and fully clothed pressed flushed to my chest, breasts, belly, and even my thighs—all I wanted was to be wrapped around him again. I was so busy sliding my tongue against his that it took me a while to notice him fumbling with the snaps on my bra with one hand. If that wasn’t my cue to get him out of his clothes, I didn’t know what was.

I sucked in a breath as I tore my mouth away finally, going up to the tips of my toes to kiss that warm, almost salty skin at his neck, tiny hairs prickling my lips and chin. Dallas’s hands kept fumbling at my back, and it took me a moment in the dark for my hands to slide up the hard, bulky muscles of his abs, up over his pectorals until my fingers found the buttons near his throat. I got his tie off and threw it before going back.

He got my bra off as I was about halfway down, unbuttoning his dress shirt. His hands stroked over my shoulders and the back of my neck as I finished and started pushing his shirt away, feeling him help me get it off, fast, almost desperately. With only his thin undershirt between me and all those rippled, hot muscles, I sucked in a breath as Dallas leaned down to kiss my upper lip before pulling away. From the sound and the feel of it, he took his shirt off, because the next thing I knew, a bare, smooth shoulder brushed across my cheek.

In the dark, everything felt so much more intense. His thumbs tucked into the scrap of lace at my hips as he tugged my thong down my legs. The kisses he fluttered on the trip down, at the side of my collarbone, my upper breast, the swift suck he gave my nipple once and only once as he kept lowering his body. Another kiss at my ribs and my bare hip. The sound of his knees hitting the crappy carpet told me where he’d ended up.

When he kissed my thigh and followed that up by pressing his warm breath and mouth to the crease where my thigh met the place my underwear had uncovered, I sucked in a breath, loud, so loud. And when he drew a moist line of kisses down and over, before pressing to the cleft at my seam, I swallowed hard and reached for his head for balance or to get him not to go anywhere, I had no idea.

He kissed me there and kissed me there again. He didn’t part me as the tip of his tongue tapped the outer skin and he gave me another kiss. His sigh was deep and rattled as his hands cupped the back of my thighs, gripping them hard, keeping me in place. Then Dallas parted my seam with his tongue, tasting that little knot of nerves that had come alive with the first kiss he’d given me.

His forehead pressed low against my belly, his nose at the skin I’d luckily shaved before the wedding, Dallas kissed me, sucking and licking those lower lips like I wasn’t already dying and ready for him. He made out with me like he had when we’d both been standing up.

Slowly, the hands on my thighs tugged and led me down until I kneeled in front of him. I kissed him, tasting myself on his lips as I moved my hands all over that chest I’d only seen twice in person, then slid them over those rippled abs that shouldn’t belong on someone over thirty. His own hands were at my breasts, pinching my nipples between his index finger and thumb before he cupped them. Dallas’s mouth dropped to take one and then the other between his lips, over and over again.

I squirmed and moved in front of him, dragging my hands up and down his abs again, over the hair trailing to the button and zipper of his dress pants. In no time, I had him unzipped and slipped my hand inside, my palm toward me. The back of my fingers grazed over his short, wiry hair before I felt that thick, hot root at the center of his body. Dallas’s body jerked as I kept sliding my hand inside, feeling his length tucked to the left, nestled against his thigh, and I still couldn’t reach the tip.

Flipping my hand over, I wrapped my palm and fingers around his thick width, and as gently as possible, I pulled him up enough until the tip faced the ceiling. Dallas stopped what he was doing, with his lips parted around my nipple, as I gave him a squeeze. He was just as thick as I’d imagined, and as I slid my palm up and up and up, he was just as long, too, eight or nine inches of swollen cock. His hips jerked and he sucked in a breath as I tightened my grip back up around him and pulled on the excess, super soft skin. Up and down, up and down.

In a quick movement, Dallas pushed me onto my back on the carpet, and before I even managed to let out a breath, he was over me. Covering me like a human blanket, but so much bigger, heavier, and warmer. I didn’t need the light to know the blunt, hard thing poking at my seam was him, ready, ready, ready. “I’m on birth control,” I whispered almost shyly. I wasn’t ovulating either, but I wouldn’t tell him that. Not yet at least.

He exhaled and I did the same as I slipped my arms under his armpits, leaving my forearms on his shoulder blades, my hands curling over the muscles of his trapezius muscles. “Diana,” he said from just above me.

I wrapped my legs around his hips, my ankles resting against his dress pants which were still covering everything except that big organ slowly pressing against me, trying to find that place we both wanted.

“I love you, Dallas,” I whispered as I tipped my hips up so he could ease in an inch.

His mouth and entire body came down on me, heavy, like he was trying to consume me into him. His weight was what pushed him in deeper, another inch, and another inch and another, pushing through my wet muscles that were protesting his thickness, protesting him period.

But Dallas kept going, kissing me over and over again until he was settled completely over me and in me, skewering my body with his.

The only sound he made before he started throbbing inside of me was a gasp, then a groan, and he jerked and swelled, shoved deep to the root in me. Dallas came and came, so much cum that when he retreated an inch before thrusting back in me, his cum trickled out from around his cock and down my skin.

“Fuck,” he muttered, all raspy onto my cheek as he held himself as deep as he could get in me. “I didn’t mean to cum that fast.”

“It’s okay.”

His mouth moved over my cheek, from one spot to another, softly. “I’m not done. I promise.” Dallas pulled that thick organ out, slowly and rolled his hips forward, stuffing me one more time. “You couldn’t feel more like mine if you tried,” he told me, punctuating each word with a hard thrust that had me scooting across the carpet a few inches.

My back burned just a little as he kept his speed slow, and the last inch of his push into me a slap, a pound. He kissed me like he was making love to me, slowly, angling his mouth from one side to the other as his tongue caressed mine. His hips moved in a circle, like he was trying to get deeper.

I sucked in one breath after another, trying to keep from making a bunch of noise because the boys were just down the hall, but I kept moving my hips, trying to adjust the angle until he moved his body just enough so that his pubic bone started grinding down on me perfectly.

His chest brushed against mine, both of us sweaty and breathing hard, and he kept rolling his hips, building me up and up until I came around him. I had to toss my head back, bite my lip, and arch my back to keep from making a noise as he held himself still inside of me until I caught my breath. One hard thrust followed by another harder one, and then one more hard pull and push of his cock had us moving across the carpet again. Dallas shoved that thick girth in deep and he groaned, long and low, coming again, pulsing more and more, his length twitching and jerking.

Slowly, his weight went slack on top of me. He was heavy and it was harder to breathe, but I didn’t move my arms from around his back and shoulders, and I kept my legs around him tight, as all those fine muscles pulsed on top of me and in me. He was breathing just as hard as I was, it was like neither one of us could catch our breath.

After what could have been ten minutes or thirty, he got up to his hands and knees, and I could hear him swallow hard, his breathing shallow and choppy. With my eyes slightly more used to the dark room, I could see him reach toward my face. His hand cupped my cheek as I lay there on the carpet sprawled out, still not able to catch my breath.

I moved my head to kiss the pad of skin below his thumb, and just like that, Dallas was lowering himself back down to lay on the floor beside me. His arm slipped under my neck and he curled me into his side. He was damp from sweat, and when I rolled onto my side and draped my leg over his thigh, I felt what had to be both of us on his inner thighs. Sticky and wet. I loved it.

With my head on his shoulder, I slung my arm across the middle of his chest and hugged him.

When he started chuckling, I tipped my face up but could only catch the faint outline of his jaw. “What are you laughing at?”

The hand furthest away from me settled high on the thigh I had on him. He stroked further up, touching my hip with his palm and the side of my butt with his fingertips. He did that twice before he said in that awesome, hoarse, totally worn-out voice, “You know that hug of yours started all of this.”

What? “What do you mean?”

He moved his hand in a circle on my thigh, slowly kneading. “I saw you outside your house a few weeks after you moved in. The Larsens must have been dropping the kids off because you were all outside. You’d been standing on the deck waiting for them, and Josh came out of their car. When he came up to you, he wasn’t even paying attention, but you hugged him with this huge smile on your face. You were laughing. I don’t know what you told him, but then he started hugging you back and you shook him until he finally laughed too.

“And every single fucking time I saw you after that, you were always hugging somebody. Kissing somebody. Telling them you loved them. I’d go to bed thinking about you and wondering why you were always doing that,” he said to me in that low voice, hugging me closer.

“Because I love them and life is short.”

“I know that now, Diana. I learned that every time I was around you. You can see how much you love your family, and it’s the thing I love the most about you. I wanted someone to love me like that. I wanted you to love me like that.” The hand he had on my side found my own hand, and he linked our fingers together. “I’m not rich and I’m not good-looking, but I could make you happy. We could make our own patched-up family.”

My heart broke in half. “Of course you could make me happy. You already do. And you are so good-looking, what are you talking about?”

“No, I’m not. You told me I wasn’t your type, remember?” he reminded me in a tone that didn’t sound sad or disappointed.

“You were being an idiot. What was I supposed to tell you? My, what big arms you have? Then what? Please let me snuggle in your lap, my friend?” I laughed, squeezing my fingers in his. “You were married and you took it seriously. I would never do that. And it wasn’t like you were really nice to me for a while anyway.”

“What did you want me to tell you? That I wanted you to snuggle on my lap?” He chuckled back. “Baby, I took being married to someone I didn’t even love seriously. I never once cheated on my ex, even after we split up. What kind of man would I show you I was if I’d changed my mind about how I should act after I’d met you?”

He had a point and he knew it.

“I thought you were crazy at first, and then I got to know you and I liked you—you were my friend and you were nice just because that’s how you are, not because you wanted anything from me. And then that day I was taking lice out of your hair, you looked up at me while we were laughing and I knew I was done,” he said.

His hand went to my cheek again. “If I can respect being in a relationship with someone who I won’t remember years from now—someone I don’t ever think about—I wanted you to see how seriously I would take spending the next fifty years with the girl who’s keeping my heart for herself.”

This man. This man was going to stitch me together with industrial strength thread. How? How could I live a day without him? A week, a month, a lifetime?

As if sensing I was losing my shit, but not in the way he thought, Dallas lifted himself up onto a forearm to look down at me. “Diana, I love you, and every bone in my body tells me that I’m gonna love you every day of my life, even when we want to kill each other.”

I sniffled, and what did he do? He laughed.

“When you’re old, I’ll hold your hand when we cross the street. I’ll help you put on your socks,” he promised.

I started laughing, even as tears came into my eyes. “What if I have to help you put on socks?”

“Then you’ll help me put on socks. And if I’m in a wheelchair and you’re not, I’ll give you a ride.”

My tears spilled over as I laughed, and I couldn’t help but put my forehead to his shoulder. “You can’t promise me you’ll always be there. You know that’s not the way it works.”

“While I still have breath in my body, I won’t go anywhere, Peach.” He kissed my temple. “You never know what will happen an hour from now, a minute from now, but I won’t make you regret any of it too bad, even when I get on your nerves and we bicker because we’ve been together forever and know everything about each other. That time could be a month, or could be until we’re both in diapers, but I’ll be there.”

“Diapers?”

“Diapers,” he confirmed, leaning down to kiss my face three times. “I promise.”


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