The more I think, the more nauseous I feel. It was … before the chocolate incident. I think. No after. Gah! I don’t remember. They only last a few days. I was a mess. I’m still a mess. But it’s been after Anthony.
“Do we know who the daddy is?”
“What?” I open my eyes again.
“Is it Jake or Anthony?”
I shake my head, rubbing my temples. “I’m not pregnant.”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out.” She stands. “Be right back.” Sydney leaves the room, yells down to Ocean to turn on a movie until she’s done helping Aunt Avery with her tummy.
I’m not pregnant. No. It’s a virus. Or cancer. Or some awful parasite I picked up from bathing in unclean water.
“Come tinkle on this.” Sydney holds up a pregnancy test. “I have two left. They’re both yours.”
“I’m not pregnant.”
“Then the test should be negative.”
“He’s leaving for Milwaukee on Saturday. And he’s a liar. And …”
Sydney grins. “He’s your baby daddy.”
I roll over, putting Sydney at my back so she doesn’t see my tears. But my body shakes with emotion.
“Ave … no …” The bed dips again as she crawls in next to me and hugs my back. “A baby, Ave. You could be having the one thing you didn’t think you’d have. And I know you want this. I’ve seen you with Ocean and Asher. You are so good with them. You have so much love to give.”
The nausea. The fear. The feeling of complete failure.
“I’m not married … and I don’t even have my own place to live. And I don’t h-have a g-good job … The timing is all w-wrong.”
“No. Nope. No way … You cannot talk to me about bad timing. Hello? You’re talking to the queen of bad timing. But, in case you haven’t noticed, my life is perfection. All the bad timing, all the pain, all the missed opportunities … they led me to here.”
I stare at the gray-blue wall while my sister hugs me.
“Give me those sticks.”
She doesn’t call or text. Part of me feels like I should try harder to make things right with her, but a bigger part of me feels like she needs space. It’s what brought her to my place the other night. I have to believe it will bring her to me again.
Maybe not today.
Maybe not even in a few weeks.
But … eventually.
I will wait. I’ll wait forever.
“When should we expect you again?” Seth asks as I close the tailgate to my truck, relishing the last day of balmy salt air as the sun stretches over the horizon.
“Hard to say. Couple weeks? Couple months?”
He chuckles. “What’s that supposed to mean? Why would you be back in just weeks? To check up on Aspen. She’s definitely worth checking up on.” He winks.
I give him a lifted brow. “Behave.”
He salutes me. “Would your indecisiveness have anything to do with her?” He nods to something over my shoulder.
It’s Avery pulling in next to my truck.
“Safe trip, man.” Seth pats me on the shoulder before heading back around to the cafe.
She came to say goodbye. That’s something. I think …
Slipping my hands in my front pockets to keep them from grabbing her and kissing her into submission, I make my way to her car as she gets out. Of course she looks amazing in her fancy jeans, silver flats, and pink zipped hoodie. No makeup, maybe just some gloss on her lips.
I’m dying. How the hell do I leave her?
“Hi.” I smile.
She shuts the door and shoves her hands into the pockets of her hoodie, shoulders high, chin tipped down. “Hi.”
“I was just getting ready to pull out. Good timing. I’m surprised you’re out of bed.”
She glances up at me, wearing something between a smile and a cringe. This isn’t good. I don’t like that look. It’s the nice-knowing-ya look.
“I figured you’d leave early, and I didn’t want to miss you because …” She draws in a slow breath.
My chest aches. She’s telling me goodbye, but not a for-now goodbye. A forever goodbye.
“There are words to be said before you go.”
“Words …” I echo her, trying to mask my defeat, trying to pretend that I don’t know exactly what she’s going to say. I shouldn’t have lied about Mo. It was impulsive and risky. I just needed to know if I mattered to her anymore. I needed to see if there was even a twitch of jealousy.
“Just your words? Do my words no longer matter?” Tension bleeds into my voice. I can’t help it. I can’t hide my desperation.
“Nope.” She shakes her head, staring at her feet. “Your words don’t matter. My words are the only words that matter. They are the final words. And you can choose to accept them or not, but it changes nothing.”
“Jesus, Ave …” I step closer, unable to stop my hands from grabbing her face, forcing her to look at me as I rest my forehead on hers. “Don’t do this.”
“I have to,” she whispers, reaching for the zipper to her hoodie, pulling it down slowly.
What is she doing?
I pull away just enough to see her better.
Fuck me …
She keeps her gaze down as I read her white T-shirt with black lettering.
Congratulations, you knocked me up.
Baby feet are stamped on the belly of the shirt.
Teary blue eyes glance up at me. “I’m sorry.” Her bottom lip quivers. “I know what you’re going to say. We should have—”
She swallows hard, blinking once to release the tears. I hate the fear in her eyes.
“This …” Emotions strangle my words. “This day. This. Very. Moment …” I thread my fingers through her hair, forcing her to look at me with her tear-drenched face. “It’s the greatest moment of my life.”
“I’m scared,” she whispers.
I kiss the tears from her cheeks. I kiss her forehead. Then I kiss her lips. “I’m not, Ave. I’m not scared. I’m relieved. I’m tired of running from the demons. I’m tired of chasing something I can’t see. For the first time in so many years … I can breathe.”
Her arms slide around my neck, and her body melts into mine, her face in my neck. I lift her off the ground, her legs wrap around my waist.
“I love you,” she says on a long sigh.
Yeah, definitely the greatest moment of my life. She’s never said those exact words to me. I don’t think she probably realizes it. I’ve felt her love in a touch, an innocent smile, a tiny glance, but not until this moment has she said the actual words.
Avery Montgomery has finally given herself permission to love me. All of me. All of us.
“What are you doing?” She looks up as I open the passenger door to the truck.
“Getting you fastened in.” I set her in the seat.
“Where are we going?”
I latch her seat belt and bend down. Pulling up the front of her shirt, I press my lips to her flat belly. “Milwaukee.”
“What? No. I can’t go with you. I have a job. I live here. My sister is here. I need to—”
“Shh …” I grin, keeping my lips pressed to her stomach. “We’ll return later.”
“You’ll return. I need to stay here.” The panic in her voice escalates.
Lifting my head, I rest my hand on her leg, giving it a light squeeze as I nuzzle into her neck.
Her fingers slide into my hair. “Jake …”
“Ave … do you know what I need?”
“What?” she whispers with slight resignation in her reply.
“You. That’s it. So can you do me a tiny favor?” I kiss her neck one last time and lift my head to capture her gaze. “Can you just need me? Can you trust me to be everything you need?”
She blinks several times. “I don’t have anything packed.”
“We’ll stop along the way and shop.” I grin.
Avery tries to hide her delight by biting her lips together.
“Pregnant women shouldn’t sleep on the ground in tents.”
I chuckle. “We’ll stay at the finest hotels.”
“I don’t have that much money.”
“You should have the forty dollars you stole from me. But let’s let that go.” I wink at her. “I’ll cover our lodging.”
“I have nothing, Jake …”
“You have me.” I press my forehead to hers and whisper, “Am I enough, Ave? Because you sure as hell are my everything.”
She smiles, eyes filling with more tears. “Okay.”
I only needed Jake and our simple life, but he gave me more.
A big wedding.
A closetful of clothes.
If getting pregnant once was a miracle, then we’ve had three miracles in five years—a boy then two girls.
“Is it wrong of me to love the lines on your stomach and the new shape of your belly button even more than I loved the pre-mom version of it?” Jake stands behind me as I stare at my reflection in the full-length mirror.