“Max,” she said, trying to keep her voice even and calm, despite the whirlwind of emotions she felt churning inside, “he’s here to get to know the boys. His sons, remember? We’re not together that way, and believe me when I say I’m being careful.”
Maxie didn’t look convinced, but then she wasn’t exactly a trusting soul when it came to men. Not that Jenna could blame her or anything…not after she was so unceremoniously dumped by that jerk Darius Stone.
“This is a bad idea,” Maxie said, as if she hadn’t already made herself perfectly clear.
“He won’t be here long.”
“His kind don’t need much time.”
“You sure he’s not staying?”
“Why would he?”
“I can think of at least three reasons off the top of my head,” she countered. “Jacob, Cooper and oh, yeah, you. So I ask it again. Are you sure he’s not staying for long?”
Hmm. No, she wasn’t. In fact, Jenna would have thought that Nick would have had his baby fix by now and be all too glad to go back to his life. But so far he hadn’t shown any signs of leaving.
Was it just the boys keeping him here?
Or did he feel something for her, too?
Oh God, she couldn’t allow herself to start thinking that way. It was just setting herself up for more damage once he really did leave.
“Jenna—” Nick called to her from the front porch, then stopped when he saw Maxie and her talking and added, “Oh. Sorry.”
No way to avoid this, Jenna thought dismally, already regretting putting her sister and her ex-lover in the same room together. But she forced a smile anyway. “It’s okay, Nick. This is my sister, Maxie.”
When neither of them spoke, Jenna gave Max a nudge with her elbow.
“Fine, fine,” Max muttered, then raised her voice and said grudgingly, “Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah. You, too.”
“Well, isn’t this special?” Jenna murmured, and wondered if she could get frostbite from the chill in the air between these two. “Come on in, Max,” she urged, wanting her sister to see that she had nothing to worry about. That Nick wasn’t interested in her and that she wasn’t going to be pining away when he left. Surely, Jenna thought, she was a good enough actor to pull that off. “See the boys. Have some coffee.”
Still looking at Nick, Maxie shook her head and said, “I don’t know…”
“I went out for doughnuts earlier,” Nick offered.
“Is he trying to bribe me?” Maxie whispered.
Jenna snorted a laugh. “For God’s sake, Max, be nice.” But as she followed her sister into the house, Jenna could only think that this must have been what it felt like to be dropped behind enemy lines with nothing more than a pocketknife.
Nick knew he should have left already.
Then he wouldn’t have had to deal with Jenna’s sister. Although, she’d finally come around enough that she hadn’t looked as if she wanted to stab him to death with the spoon she used to stir her coffee.
The point was, though, with access to a private jet, he could catch up with the ship in Fort Lauderdale in time to enjoy the second half of the cruise to Italy. Then he wouldn’t have to play nice with Jenna’s sister—who clearly hated his guts. And he wouldn’t be tormented by the desire he felt every waking moment around Jenna herself.
The last couple of nights he’d spent on her lumpy couch had been the longest of his life. He lay awake late into the night, imagining striding down the short hall to her bedroom, slipping into her bed and burying himself inside her. He woke up every morning so tight and hard he felt as if he might explode with the want and frustration riding him. And seeing her first thing in the morning, smelling the floral scent of her shampoo, watching her sigh over that first sip of coffee was another kind of torture.
She was here.
But she wasn’t his.
Now Jenna was off to a packaging store, mailing out one of her gift baskets, and he was alone with his sons.
Nick walked into the boys’ nursery to find them both wide awake, staring up at the mobiles hanging over their beds. The one over Jake’s crib was made up of brightly colored animals, dancing now in the soft breeze coming in from the partially opened window. And over Cooper’s bed hung a mobile made up of bright stars and smiling crescent moons.
He looked from one boy to the other, noting their similarities and their differences. Each of them had soft, wispy dark hair and each of them had a dimple—just like Nick’s—in their left cheek. Both boys had pale blue eyes, though Cooper’s were a little darker than his brother’s.
And both of them had their tiny fists wrapped around his heart.
“How am I supposed to leave you?” he asked quietly. “How can I go back to my life, not knowing what you’re doing? Not knowing if you’ve gotten a tooth or if you’ve started crawling. How can I not be here when you start to walk? Or when you fall down for the first time?”
Soft sunlight came through the louvered blinds on the window and lay across the shining wood floor like gold bars. Outside somewhere on this cozy little street, a lawnmower fired up and Jake jumped as though he’d been shot.
Instantly Nick moved to the crib, leaned over and laid one hand on his son’s narrow chest. He felt the rapid-fire thud of a tiny heart beneath his palm, and a love so deep, so pure, so all encompassing, filled him to the point that he couldn’t draw a breath.
He hadn’t expected this. Hadn’t thought to fall so helplessly in love with children he hadn’t known existed two weeks ago. Hadn’t thought that he’d enjoy getting up at the crack of dawn just so he could look down into wide eyes, eager to explore the morning. Hadn’t thought that being here, with the boys, with their mother, could feel so…right.
Now that he knew the truth, though, the question was, what was he going to do about it?
Moving across the room to Cooper, he bent down, scooped his son up into his arms and cradled him against his chest. The warm, pliant weight of him and his thoughtful expression made Nick smile. He drew the tip of one finger along Cooper’s cheek, and the infant boy turned his face into that now-familiar touch. Nick’s heart twisted painfully in his chest as he stared down into those solemn blue eyes so much like his own.
“I promise you, I’ll always be here when you need me.” His voice was as quiet as a sigh, but Cooper seemed almost to understand as he gave his father one of his rare smiles. Nick swallowed hard, walked to where Jacob lay in his crib watching them and whispered, “I love you guys. Both of you. And I’m going to find a way to make this work.