Chapter 1 – Claire
The best days were always the ones that we spent together. It didn’t matter what we did, just that we did it together.
Our group had grown over the years. From the girls’ nights in college with Sam, Addi, Mandy, and I to today where thirteen of us gathered with kids and occasionally another friend, life was the best when we spent it together.
“You okay?” Mandy asked, giving me one of her looks.
I nodded. “Yeah. Just thinking how lucky we are to have each other.”
Mandy leaned over to me and rested her head next to mine. “Hell, yeah, we are.”
“I don’t know how you guys did this without looking like you were losing your minds,” Peyton said. She took a bite of her cupcake and scowled. “I feel like I’m losing my mind.”
The married ones laughed. We all knew the feeling.
“Well, I eloped and skipped all of it,” I told her with a smirk. My friends and family weren’t thrilled when Aidan and I came back from our vacation not engaged but married, but it was perfect for us. We didn’t want to wait, and after six years of marriage, there was no doubt we made the right decision.
“I wish we’d done that,” Peyton said. “Wyatt wanted a wedding.”
Vicki laughed. “Don’t blame it all on Wyatt. You were the one who decided a Christmas wedding was perfect for you guys. It’ll all be worth it once you get down the aisle.”
“If I survive that long,” Peyton said.
“What do you need help with?” I asked her. “I have a light week since the break is next week. All the teachers are giving exams so it’s a bad time for seminars. Put me to work.”
“Are you sure?” Peyton asked with a look of unease.
Peyton still struggled accepting help from us even though we’d been friends for years. I got it. We were all the same, we hated to put someone else out, but we were friends. Friends helped each other.
“I’m positive. What do you need to do?” I asked.
Peyton took a breath and tapped her phone. “The wedding planner is handling most of the wedding stuff, but I still have a list. And this week is really busy at work. I should have taken off more than just Friday. God, I can’t have you do this stuff.”
She started to put her phone away, but Carrie reached for it. “Stop. We’re your friends. We want to help. Let’s see what we can do.” Peyton let Carrie take her phone. Carrie read the list while Peyton chewed her lip.
A part of me wished I’d had a wedding, but the stress of it always told me it wasn’t worth it. What counted was the marriage, and ours was great. Peyton and Wyatt’s would be, too. They were great together.
“Sam, are you free this week?” Carrie asked without looking up from the phone.
“I have a few openings, but not a whole day. I’ll do what I can, though. Why?” Sam asked.
Carrie looked up with a grin that said she had an idea that bordered on the dirty side. And if she was asking Sam for help, I had no doubt that was exactly it. “Peyton needs a gift for Wyatt.”
Sam grinned and slid her red-rimmed glasses up her nose. “Like yours?”
Sam clicked her phone and nodded. “Thursday. Eleven am. We’ll go to lunch after.”
“Wait, what are we doing?” Peyton asked. “I’m still working Thursday.”
“You’re working a half day Thursday. I just checked your schedule. You have appointments until nine, then you’re free. Your assistant was smarter than you and blocked out the rest of your day.”
Carrie nodded. “She did. So, you’re free to meet with Sam.”
“Are you going to tell me what we’re doing?” Peyton asked.
Carrie grinned. “Sam’s going to take pictures of you for Wyatt. Clothes on, but sexy lingerie. Hot, for his eyes only pictures. She took some for me and Drew. Best gift ever.”
“Are you serious?” Mandy asked.
Carrie nodded. “It was amazing. And of course, it’s Sam, so I wasn’t uncomfortable and the pictures were stunning.”
“Aw, thanks,” Sam said with a grin.
“That’s an amazing idea,” I said. “What else is on that list?”
“Final fitting, guest bags for the hotel, write vows,” Carrie read from Peyton’s phone.
“You haven’t written your vows?” Riley asked.
Peyton shook her head. “No. I wanted something traditional, but Wyatt wants our own words. But you guys know me. I’m a by the book kind of person.”
“I’ll help you with that,” I told her. “Lunch Friday?”
“You don’t have to,” Peyton said.
I smiled at her. “I know, but I want to. We all do. You matter to us, and we want to help. So Sam will take pictures, Carrie will probably buy you some lingerie, Vicki will be there to drag you out of work, Mandy will make sure Vicki doesn’t get pulled into anything, and we’ll all help you. You and Wyatt deserve an amazing wedding, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure you get it.”
Peyton’s eyes teared up. She sniffed and grabbed Carrie and Vicki’s hands. She smiled at all of us and drew in a shaky breath. “Thank you.”
“And Thursday afternoon, we can do the bags for the hotel. It won’t be that many, so we can get it done quickly. I’m guessing most guests are coming in Friday?” I asked.
“Good. Then we’ll have time to do that, and we can run them over Friday after lunch.”
Peyton finally breathed. “I don’t know how I’d do this without all of you.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” I told her.
We’d been there. We knew it wasn’t easy. But we weren’t going to let her even consider it wouldn’t be worth it to be married to the man she loved. They were getting down that aisle, no matter what.
Chapter 2 – Noah
“Think she’s going to run?” Ethan teased Wyatt.
Wyatt’s eyes were glued to Peyton. They always were, but as the wedding got closer and closer, Wyatt seemed even more addicted to her.
“Of course not,” I said. I saw the way they looked at each other. Even before they knew they loved each other, the rest of us knew.
“She’s just as addicted to him,” Brady said, nodding toward the women as Peyton glanced at Wyatt. He grinned and winked at her, then winced when their son, Leo, whacked him with a stuffed elephant.
“Ow,” Wyatt said, grinning at his son.
“I’ll take him,” I said, reaching for Leo. I’d taken on an uncle type of role with all the kids in the group. Tara and I talked about kids, but neither of us were all that interested in having our own. We liked the idea of loving everyone else’s and being able to hand them back. And with everything I saw daily treating kids with cancer, I wasn’t sure I could handle it if we had our own.
Leo looked up at me with big, brown eyes, smiling when I made a face at him. He was a cute kid, a good blend of both of his parents with plenty of personality for a kids who was barely a year old.
“I can’t believe Sawyer and Kiana are already having a kid,” Ethan said.
I nodded. Sawyer and I got along, but Ethan was more like a brother to him than I’d ever been. Where I’d always idolized Sawyer, Ethan was his equal.
“Yeah, they seem pretty excited,” I said. “Kiana wasn’t sure she’d be able to have kids, so they didn’t want to wait too long to try. They weren’t expecting it to happen so quickly, though.”
“Lucky,” Joey said with a grin.
We all knew the struggles he and Addi had conceiving. The fact that he could smile about it was amazing to me. The strength of the people I spent one night a week with impressed the hell out of me.
“Is everything set for the bachelor party?” I asked.
Ethan nodded. “Yep, we’re all ready.”
“And you’re still not going to tell me what we’re doing?” Wyatt asked.
Ethan shook his head. “Not a chance.”
The rest of us grinned. We agreed not to tell Wyatt anything, knowing it would make him crazy. Ethan and Graham planned the whole thing. No strippers, since we were all happily married or committed, and Peyton threatened to kill someone if Wyatt showed up to the wedding hungover, so we were going to a bar that offered axe throwing. Because we were smart enough to know we wouldn’t get trashed if we were going to have weapons.
I hoped we were that smart.
“I’d skip the suit,” Graham told him. “Do you own boots?”
Wyatt raised an eyebrow. When Graham didn’t smile, Wyatt shot a worried look around the table. “Is he serious?”
I nodded. “Absolutely.”
If Wyatt could have gotten out of it in that moment, I think he would have.
Which made the rest of us laugh.
“You guys are assholes,” Wyatt muttered, which only made us laugh harder.
“Do you really think we’d do anything that would be that bad?” I asked him.
Wyatt shook his head after a second, actually considering the question. I smiled at him, and had to admit I was enjoying picking on him.
“You look good with a kid,” Hunter said. “You should think about having one.”
I shook my head. “I’m happy with the ones I get to hand back. Tara and I work with kids so much that neither of us can handle having our own. We love kids, but we’re good.”
“I never considered kids until I met Olivia,” Ethan said. “It didn’t even cross my mind. But having Kevin and Becca made me want more. Now I can’t imagine life without all of them. Jonathan made our family feel complete.”
“You just liked seeing Olivia pregnant with your kid,” Brady said with a smirk.
Ethan nodded. “I won’t say that wasn’t a huge fucking turn on.”
I laughed. Seeing so many of the women pregnant definitely made me think about asking Tara if she wanted a baby, but the pregnancy was quick. After that, you had a baby who became a toddler then a child and, if they didn’t get sick, a teenager then an adult. There wasn’t an easy moment.
“One was enough for us,” Brady said. “I loved seeing Sam pregnant, but it wasn’t easy all the time. And once Madison was born, I had to kiss our sex life goodbye for a while. Having a kid means I can’t make love to my wife whenever I want. Madison always comes first.”
“That part definitely sucks,” Ethan agreed. “We make sure we have time together, but the kids are always on her mind.”
“All I know,” Graham said, “is being married is awesome, and not having to worry about someone walking in on us is definitely a perk of not having kids.”
“Agreed,” I said, nodding at Graham.
“I still can’t believe your brother is having a baby,” Graham said, shaking his head. “I never thought he’d become a dad.”
I nodded. Graham, Brady, and Ethan were closer to Sawyer than I was, but I agreed. Sawyer would make a good father, and we definitely had a hell of an example, but it surprised me. Selfishly, I was also disappointed they weren’t coming for Peyton and Wyatt’s wedding. Sawyer spent so many years away, and just when we were starting to get to know each other, he moved away. I missed my brother.
“Hey, we should call him. It’s early there. We can see how they’re doing,” I suggested.
The others nodded eagerly, and I pulled out my phone. It didn’t take long for Sawyer to answer my FaceTime call.
“Hey, Noah! What’s up? How are you?”
“Good,” I said. “We were talking about you and wanted to say hi.” I turned the phone so he could see everyone.
Damn it was good to see him, even if it was from a distance.
Chapter 3 – Carrie
I fell back onto the bed and exhaled. “I’m so tired,” I whined.
Drew grabbed my ankle and lifted my foot. The second his thumb dug into my heel, I moaned.
“That feels so damn good.”
“I was hoping it would,” he said. I could hear the smile in his voice. “You’ve been on your feet a lot.”
“Chasing two toddlers around is exhausting,” I admitted. I hated complaining because I loved my kids, but they wore me out.
“I know,” Drew said. His tone made me look at him. Those brown eyes I’d lost myself in since I met him were avoiding meeting mine.
He shook his head and pressed his lips into a smile.
I pulled my foot away and sat up, forcing him to look at me. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”
He shrugged. “I just wonder if having another kid is really the best thing for you.”
Ah, so that was the problem. Drew really wanted a big family. He wanted a bunch of kids, and he was thinking of giving that up because I was tired. “You’re sweet, but dumb.”
He scoffed and crawled over me, pushing me back onto the bed, and started tickling me.
I squealed and tried to get him to stop, but he wasn’t interested in stopping. So, I fought dirty and kissed him.
His hands stopped immediately as his tongue met mine. He groaned and let his weight mold me to the bed. His hands slid up my sides and cupped my head, tangling in my hair and tilting my head to where he wanted it.
God, I loved my husband.
“That wasn’t fair,” he breathed when he finally pulled back.
I grinned up at him. “Maybe not, but it got you to stop.”
He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Why are you so bothered by this?” I asked him.
He pressed his lips to mine then rolled off me. He pulled me with him and settled us against the headboard. He held me close while he talked.
“I still worry about you. I’m not here, and if something happens…”
I knew what he meant. My first pregnancy ended with a miscarriage. He didn’t know I was pregnant until after I lost the baby. Even I didn’t know for long before. We weren’t speaking to each other, and no one knew we were together. Ever since then, he’s been the most devoted boyfriend and husband ever, but the fear lingered.
“Joel knows how to call 9-1-1 if something happens. And I had easy pregnancies with both Joel and Nora.”
Drew nodded. “I know, but you’re so tired with them. They wear you out.”
I laughed. “Honey, they wear everyone out. Your mom can barely handle an hour with them. They’re young and they’re close in age and they’re a little bit crazy. That doesn’t mean I can’t handle them. Besides, by the time we’d have a third, Joel will be in preschool.”
“I wish I could be home with you guys more,” Drew said softly, kissing the side of my neck.
“We wish you could, too, but we understand. You have to work, and if I’m going to be home… I could—”
“No,” Drew said firmly. “You’re not going back to work. This is what you’ve always wanted to do.”
“Yeah, but if you want to be home, then it makes sense—”
“Carrie, I love you, but stop talking.”
“Babe, you love being home, and I love knowing they have you hear all the time. Even when they get into school, there will be field trips and snow days and school breaks. It’s going to make sense to have you home with the kids. So, no, I don’t want you to find a new job. I want you to keep the one you have now. You’re the best mom ever.”
I sucked in a breath and worked to keep my tears back. All of us talked about how hard it was to be a mom sometimes, but my friends all worked outside their homes. They were tired because they were trying to do it all. I felt guilty being a stay at home mom, like I had no right to complain. I only had one thing to do.
“Joel and Nora are lucky to have you, and so am I. But I don’t want to stress you out or wear you out or risk something happening.”
I turned to face him, needing to see him. “I want more kids,” I admitted. “I want the same thing you do. I love Joel and Nora, but I think one or two more would be nice, too.”
Drew smiled and leaned in, kissing me. His hand on my hip held me in place. His tongue swept through my mouth and made me want him, just that quickly. I’d never been able to get enough to my husband. Sometimes I wondered how we’d only gotten pregnant three times.
“I love you, Carrie,” he whispered against my lips.
“I love you.”
“Should we start for that next one?” he asked, nipping my earlobe.
I moaned softly, already ready for him. I nodded as he slid his hand under my tank top and teased my nipple. He grew hard against my back.
“No condom tonight?” he asked.
I nodded again. I hadn’t taken the pill in years, but between babies, we used condoms until we were ready to try again. I was definitely more than ready.
“Mommy,” we heard in the hallway. “Daddy?”
I sighed heavily. Having a sex life with kids was not easy.
“I got him,” Drew said.
“No, I can.”
Drew kissed the side of my head. “You rest, babe. I’ll handle it.”
Drew slid out from behind me and opened the door. His voice was soft as he spoke to Joel. Slowly, it drifted until I couldn’t hear them anymore. I laid back on the bed and rested my eyes for just a minute. I’d wake up when Drew came back. But for just a minute, I was going to rest.
Chapter 4 – Abby
I turned off my alarm before it even went off so I didn’t wake my husband. Husband. I was still getting used to that title. Graham was so patient with me, even though I knew he wanted to get married. He never once pushed or asked or made me feel like I was being ridiculous for not wanting to get married again.
I spun the rings on my finger. For the first few days, they felt strange, but not anymore. They were normal now, but I hated that I constantly had to take them off. Baking with rings on always worried me.
I slid out of bed and went to the bathroom. I took a quick shower and tied my hair up into a tight bun. Wrapped in my towel, I tiptoed to the closet and grabbed the clothes I picked out the night before then got dressed.
I kissed Graham’s cheek, and he mumbled goodbye, but he didn’t really wake up before I left.
Everything was still quiet as I drove through Winterville. A few plows were out, but for the most part, our sleepy little town was still tucked into bed.
I let myself in the door to SkinnyCakes and got to work. My morning routine always soothed me, even on days when everything seemed off.
I couldn’t put my finger on what was off lately, but something was off. I wondered if it was hormones or stress or something else, but I had no idea.
As I filled the case with treats for the day, I pushed my fears from my mind. It didn’t matter what was going on as long as I had Graham and SkinnyCakes and my family and friends. Everything would be fine.
By the time Graham came in for his morning coffee, I was busy. So busy I barely had a chance to speak to him before he was leaving to start his day. It wasn’t until after the morning rush was over and my assistant, Kelly, said something that I realized anything was different.
“I haven’t seen you two that distant ever. Is everything okay?” she asked.
“What are you talking about?” I asked her, wiping the counter down before the lunch crowd came in. Even though SkinnyCakes was a bakery, I still had plenty of people who came for lunch to get their savory treats.
“You and Graham,” Kelly said. “You two always kiss and you always take a few minutes to talk to him. Are you two okay?”
I opened my mouth to say of course but stopped. She was right. Over the last few months, I’d gotten busier and so had he, and somewhere along the way we’d lost each other.
“I, um, sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked,” Kelly said, backing away.
I shook my head and smiled at her. Kelly was an empty nester who was a stay at home mom for most of her adult life. She loved having kids, but when her youngest went to college, she decided she was bored and needed something to do. I couldn’t survive most days without her, and she’d become more than just as assistant. She was one of my closest friends, too.
“You’re right,” I admitted. “I don’t know why. I…wow. I can’t think of the last time we really spent time together. We’re both working so much, and we’ve lost each other in that.”
“So plan a date night,” Kelly suggested.
I ran through the next week and shook my head. “We have Peyton and Wyatt’s wedding this weekend, and I’m working every morning until then. And then next week is going to be crazy because of the holidays. And he’s always busy after the first of the year.”
“And you’re making excuses,” Kelly said with a raised eyebrow. “It doesn’t take hours to reconnect with your husband. Cook dinner. Hold hands. Have some sex. Anything to shake up your routine. Getting lost in the day-to-day will kill a marriage faster than anything else.”
“You make it sound like you have experience in that.”
Kelly nodded. “I do. My marriage almost ended right after it began. I got pregnant on our honeymoon, and by the time I knew it, I was a stay at home mom with three kids and a husband who worked so many hours, he barely saw our kids or me, and I barely remembered making the kids with him. We never spoke, barely saw each other, and were falling apart. We’d let being busy keep us apart, and we were heading toward divorce.”
“What did you do?”
Kelly smirked. “I seduced my husband. I made his favorite dinner and made sure the kids were all in bed before he got home one night. I used to keep them up so he could see them, but it made everyone cranky. Anyway, I wore a slinky little outfit and told him I missed him. We ate and talked and by the end of the night, we made a promise to spend more time together.”
“Is it that easy?” I asked.
Kelly shrugged. “It’s that easy to let things go sideways. I won’t tell you it was easy to stay on track, but we both wanted to stay together, so we made the effort. You and Graham are great together, and from what you told me about Brett, you deserve a man like Graham in your life.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Sometimes I think he’s far too good for me.”
Kelly laughed. “That’s how you know it’s right. He thinks the same thing.”
Kelly nodded. “Absolutely. And if you tell him you feel the same, I think you’ll both know you’re really perfect together.”
I smiled. “He’s definitely perfect for me. I love him so much.”
“Then seduce that beautiful man and show him just how much.”
I chuckled. “Sounds like a plan.”
Chapter 5 – Brady
The heavy fall of my feet on the pavement coupled with the icy breath blasting in and out of my lungs put me in a hypnotic state. Thump, thump, thump. Huff, huff, huff. Over and over I let the rhythm soothe me until I barely registered the world around me.
My five year anniversary was coming up, and I wanted to do something special for Sam. My life was nothing without her, but we’d both spent so many hours working lately that we were drifting apart. That wasn’t okay with me.
Too many times in my life, I felt like I didn’t deserve love. I was told exactly that on more occasions than I can count. But Sam changed everything about how I saw myself. In the years since we met, she showed me how important love was, and I wanted to return the favor to her. She gave everything for our family, and it was time I gave something back to her.
The soft tap-tap-tap of another set of sneakers broke into my mind and drew my attention from my musings. I glanced back and shook my head when I saw Ethan chasing my down.
I picked up my pace and sprinted ahead. He growled and raced after me, neither of us stopping until we reached the doors of Dave’s Gym, the other love of my life.
“Dammit,” Ethan breathed as he waited for me to unlock the door. “One day I’m going to beat you here.”
I chuckled. “Only if you cheat and leave early.”
Ethan and I started running together once a week a little over a year ago. It was good exercise and definitely got our blood pumping, but we both loved the competition. It helped that he was slow and I always won. At least, it helped me.
Ethan shook his head and followed me through my old apartment to the kitchen. When Sam and I bought a house, I thought about renting out the tiny apartment, but I didn’t like knowing someone else would be in there. It was a convenient place to hide when I needed a break, and it was a good spot to sneak Sam off to when she came in to work out.
I started the coffee pot and tossed Ethan a bottle of water.
“You okay?” he asked.
I nodded and drained half my water bottle. Ethan and I were good friends, but we didn’t talk about anything too personal. Sex and kids and the women we loved, but not our feelings or emotions or shit like that.
“What’s up your ass?” he prodded.
“Everything okay?” Ethan asked, concern drawing his brows together. Ethan grew up in a similar way I did feeling like he wasn’t loved. Mostly because neither of us were. Falling in love was the hardest thing either of us had done, and keeping our women happy topped our list of priorities. But we never came out and said all that.
I nodded. “She’s fine.”
“What’s with the one word answers.”
Ethan flipped me off. “Why are you being a dick? What did you do? Is she leaving you?”
“Shit, no. Why would you go there?”
“Because you won’t tell me what’s going on.”
“I figured you probably wouldn’t want to know.”
“Just tell me.”
I shook my head and sighed. “Fine. I’m trying to figure out how I can take Sam away for our anniversary but can’t figure out how to pull it off. Her family won’t help out with Madison, and she’s always crazy busy.”
“Are you seriously that stupid?”
Ethan scoffed and shook his head. “Why do we run together?”
I shrugged. “Because you’re slow and you want to be as good as me.”
He flipped me off again. “Or maybe because this crazy ass group is the only family I’ve ever known. Because you’re like a brother to me.”
I sucked in a sharp breath and nodded in agreement.
“So why in the hell do you think finding someone to take Madison so you two can go away is a problem. Her family doesn’t matter when Madison has twelve sets of aunts and uncles who would take her in a heartbeat. And I have a house on the water you guys can use if you just want to get away for a few days.”
I couldn’t speak for a full minute. I’d always been a man of few words, but Ethan’s words silenced me and cut me to my heart. He was right. They were family. All of them. I never had people I called family until I met Sam, and Sam came with a group of people who’d lay down their lives for each other. And if they’d do that, they’d definitely watch our kid for a few days.
“Thank you,” I finally managed.
Ethan nodded. “I don’t know what family means, not to some people, but to me, it’s what we have. We weren’t born a family, but we’re closer than any family I know. Olivia and I will take Madison. Becca will love it.”
“You guys already have enough going on.”
Ethan shook his head. “Never too much for family. Never.”
I pressed my lips together and nodded. “Thank you. I just…”
Ethan nodded. “You guys watched our kids so we could have time in Hawaii. We all look out for each other. Let me know when you want the house, after you talk to Sam, and I’ll get you the keys.”
I shook my head. “It’s too much. You’re going to watch our kid and give us a place to stay?”
Ethan shook his head. “It’s what you do for family. You’d do it for us.”
He was right. I struggled to accept handouts, but I happily helped others. But helping someone didn’t mean giving them a handout. “Make sure Olivia is okay with it.”
Ethan nodded. “I’ll ask her, but Kevin and Becca are in school next month, so we won’t be going up there. It’s yours.”
I took a breath and smiled. Sam was going to love it. Time away without any distractions? Sounded like a dream to me. “It’s perfect. Thanks. You made my wife very happy.”
Ethan snickered. “I think you’ll take care of that part of it.”
I grinned. “Hell, yeah.”
Chapter 6 – Lexi
The shower door opened behind me and I couldn’t stop my smile. Too many people tried to tell me I was missing something because Mike and I didn’t want kids, but this…I would miss this if I had kids. Because then we’d worry about a child walking in on us in the shower together.
“Need your back washed?” Mike whispered in my ear.
I nodded and tilted my head to give him room to kiss down my neck. He didn’t disappoint as he pressed his erection against my lower back and reached around to cup my breast. He plucked my nipple and nipped at my shoulder.
“I’m not quite ready to wash you yet,” he said. “I think I need to get you a little dirtier first.”
“Oh really? Well, I have to be at work in thirty minutes, and it’s a fifteen minute drive,” I teased. Working for my husband had a lot of perks, and never being late to work was one of them.
“I think I can talk to someone about that.”
His hand slid down my front and pressed my thighs apart. His fingers teased my clit, and my knees threatened to buckle. He bent his knees and lined himself up with my entrance then slid inside with no resistance from my body.
“Fuck, yes, Lex. Dammit you feel good,” he moaned in my ear. “I love you.”
“I love you,” I replied automatically, but the words couldn’t have been more true. Sometimes I wondered if I loved him too much, but then I looked in his eyes and saw he was just as gone as I was and knew there was no such thing as loving him too much.
He lifted and lowered, sliding in and out of me as he caressed my clit with his fingers. Hot water covered us, forcing me to close my eyes, but I felt every brush of his fingers, every touch of his lips. His tongue slid over my shoulder then up my neck. He nibbled on my earlobe until I turned my head and captured his lips.
His tongue plunged into my mouth and his strokes inside me faltered. Kissing him was always my favorite thing to do. Sex was what brought us together, but kissing was how we connected. Kissing him told me everything I ever needed to know.
He slid out of me and spun me in his arms. With my breasts pressed to his chest, my hands were free to explore his body. He was so sexy, and there were still moments I wondered why he was with me. My curves cupped and held the water between us, but it sluiced down his fit form.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said, leaning back and looking at me. “I can’t get enough of you.”
“How do you always know when I need to hear that?” I asked, smiling.
He kissed my nose. “It’s always true, whether you need to hear it or not. Just sometimes you don’t listen.”
I smiled, knowing he was right. There were always days I couldn’t hear his words. Days when I was feeling less than. Days when the world seemed to get to me. But he was always there, ready for me to listen again when he said I was beautiful.
“Thank you,” I said quietly.
“I love you, Lexi. Always.”
“Always,” I answered, pulling him in for another kiss.
His hands eased down my body until he cupped my thighs. He lifted me easily, far more easily than I ever thought possible, and pressed my back to the cool tile wall. He slid into me again, and repeated how much he loved me with every stroke inside.
“Love you, Lex. Love you.”
“I love you, Mike,” I told him. “So much.”
We raced toward our orgasms together, his relentless thrusts sending me higher and higher until I couldn’t hold out any longer. I came with a shout and a rush of joy that only came when I was with Mike. Nothing and no one had ever made me feel the way he did.
He was right behind me, grunting his release and moaning my name as he filled me. “So beautiful,” he murmured. “So fucking perfect.”
“I love you,” I said again.
He leaned against me and wrapped me up as close as possible, kissing my neck and whispering he loved me.
When he finally let go, he washed my back and all my other parts, then washed himself. We dried off and dressed quickly before heading to work. We stopped for coffee and breakfast since we didn’t save time to make anything at home.
Mike kissed me at the gate and went toward his office, leaving me to walk into the plant.
“Lexi!” I heard from behind me. I turned back and saw Luke jogging toward me.
He was still gorgeous, but no one compared to my husband. “Hey, Luke. What’s up?”
“Did you see my email last night?”
I shook my head and dug my phone out. “Is everything okay?”
He nodded and grinned, waiting for me to pull up his email.
The title was My Next Project. It concerned me enough to stop me from walking forward. Luke was an amazing maintenance manager, and he could write his own ticket if he wanted to leave. A new project could be anything from a resignation to an actual project.
My screen was too small to make out the blurry black and white photo in the email. I turned to make the picture bigger and realized what I was looking at. “Is that…?”
He beamed at me. “Callie’s pregnant.”
I glanced at the picture again and waited for the pang of regret to hit me, but it didn’t come. Luke wanted a family, and he found it. For a long time, I felt guilty for dating him when I was in love with Mike, but the picture in my inbox was proof that it all worked out.
“Congratulations, Luke,” I gushed, reaching up to hug him. “How is she doing? How are you doing?”
Luke grinned and told me all about his wife’s pregnancy and how excited they were to bring a baby into the world. I walked with him and listened and smiled, knowing everything was exactly how it was supposed to be.
Chapter 7 – Xander
I ran my hand over the wall to check for any rough spots. It was smooth, perfect. I drew in a breath and grinned. The house was almost finished, and I was ready to move on.
“Shit, this house is taking forever,” Drew said, walking up next to me. “Nice job.”
I nodded. “Thanks. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get this wall right. I was going crazy.”
“Not far to go,” Drew said quietly.
“Ah, screw you,” I said with a laugh. Drew was like a brother to me. We’d known each other forever and he’d been there for me more times than I could count. He was family, and working with him was the best thing about my job. And I loved my job.
“Wanna grab lunch?” Drew asked as we cleaned up.
“You mean Carrie didn’t pack you a lunch today?” I teased him.
Carrie always sent Drew with leftovers for his lunch. A lunch that always made me jealous because Carrie was a fabulous cook. Mandy could cook, but she didn’t like to. I did most of our cooking because I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t hold a candle to Carrie. She was amazing, and I only wished I could cook half as well as her.
Drew shook his head. “She’s been worn out lately. We’re thinking about another baby.”
“Wow, really?” I asked.
Drew nodded. “Yeah.”
“And you don’t agree?”
He shook his head. “No, it’s not that at all. I just worry about her. She’s been so tired. Two kids is tough.”
“And it’s hard not to wish you were there with them,” I said.
Drew nodded then pulled back and looked at me. “Wait, what?”
I shrugged. “I get it. I mean, we’re not trying for another kid and we only have one, but I get it. We’re here ridiculous hours sometimes, and Mandy’s home with Elise at the end of the day and I barely get home in time to make dinner and crash.”
“Is everything okay?” Drew asked, sounding concerned.
I nodded. “Yeah, yeah, it’s fine. We always talked about doing this, but I don’t think either of us expected it to take such a toll on our family life.”
Drew chuckled. “Probably because neither of us expected to have a family when we decided to do this. We were bachelors and we loved the idea of freedom and flexibility. We wanted to make our own decisions and our own rules and not answer to anyone, but we do now.”
I grinned. “Our wives.”
Drew nodded. “Don’t tell Carrie I said that.”
“As long as you don’t tell Mandy.”
Drew nodded again.
“I love doing this, but I hate the endless hours. The big jobs. The projects that take both of us months of work and late nights and dedication that is harder than when we were working at Colton Construction. I love what we do, but man, is it tough sometimes,” I admitted.
“I should have known you felt the same way I did. We’re always on the same page.”
I nodded. “Let’s grab lunch and figure out what this is going to look like going forward.”
Drew and I headed out to get sandwiches and talk. I’d been thinking for a while I wanted to make a change, but knowing Drew felt the same made things so much easier.
“So, how are we going to do this?” Drew asked when we were seated with food in front of us.
I took a sip of my drink and glanced at the tables around us. Tables of families and couples and coworkers enjoying time together. I had a great family growing up and stayed close to my parents as an adult, but part of that was spending time together. I wanted that for my family.
“We can either hire someone else to help out with the projects or we can back off and start saying no,” I offered.
Drew nodded thoughtfully and took another bite. Neither option was great, and I knew that, but I didn’t know what other choices we had.
Finally, Drew spoke, “We do a lot of good helping people, but we both wanted to do more than fix up homes for rich people. We wanted to give back.”
I nodded. He was right.
“What if we agree to do more smaller projects. We have enough contacts. And Ricky’s been asking for more responsibility.”
“You think we should let him take over the bigger projects?” I asked.
Drew shrugged. “With a transition period. We need our lives back. We need to spend time with our families. And we both know Carrie will be pregnant before too long, which means I’ll have three kids at home within a year.”
“Then I’ll handle the transition with Ricky. He can handle the projects like what we’re just finishing up. He can do everything we do.”
“But he’s young,” Drew groaned.
I laughed. “We were young once, too.”
“Hey, I’m still young.”
I snorted. “Yeah, okay, old man.”
“Do you think he can handle everything?” Drew asked, his tone serious.
I nodded. “He has the skills. He has the knowledge. He can do all of the work. He’ll need a crew, but I see no reason he can’t handle it all.”
“So, we’re going to keep him under our banner?”
“For now, yeah. What do you think?”
Drew took a breath and nodded slowly. “Shit, we’re really doing this, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, I think we are.”
“Carrie is going to freak out.”
“So is Mandy.”
“But in a good way?” he asked.
I nodded. “Definitely in a good way.” I just needed to figure out how I was going to tell her.
Chapter 8 – Connor
I grinned and stretched out my arms, waiting as my perfect little girl raced across the room and leapt at me. I pressed my nose to her hair and held her close. She still had that baby smell and baby features that reminded me she was only two and a half, but all that was disappearing quickly.
“Hey, baby girl. How was your day?” I asked.
“It was awesome, daddy. Ms. Laura said I’m the bestest singer of all.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I think Ms. Laura is right. You do have the bestest voice ever.”
Pauline nodded, her dark locks swinging with her emphatic nod. “I do, Daddy. Andrew’s voice is all weird, and Amber just sings really loud. But my voice is always perfect.”
“Just like you,” I told her with a straight face. She took her singing very seriously. She took a lot of things very seriously. The biggest one was ice cream. “Guess what we’re doing today?”
Her brown eyes got really big and she squealed. Every Wednesday, I got off work early and took Pauline to visit my grandmother. She spoiled my little girl with books and ice cream and anything else she wanted. In the summer, we took trips, but Pauley didn’t like going out much in the winter. Today was a tough day for her. She was tired and probably not really up for company, but she insisted we visit anyway.
Pauline and I gathered up her stuff, and I thanked Ms. Laura, then we headed out for the day. Pauline chatted happily in the backseat about her day and everything that happened. I drove, smiling and laughing and knowing I was a lucky guy.
I parked in front of Pauley’s house and unbuckled Pauline from her carseat. She was trying hard to figure out how to do it, but she hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet. Riley and I were thankful for that since she was definitely the kind of kid who would scramble around the backseat if she managed to get free.
I knocked on the door and let us in with my keys. Pauley called out to us from toward the back, and Pauline took off running. “Be careful,” I warned her. She still didn’t understand how powerful she was and how easy it would be for her to knock my grandmother over.
I followed Pauline quickly to the kitchen and found her wrapped around my grandmother’s legs, both of them grinning like mischievous kids.
“It took me about five seconds to get here, and you two already look like you’re scheming,” I said, continuing across the kitchen to give my grandmother a kiss on the cheek. “How are you feeling?”
She nodded. “I’m much better now that you two are here. And we’re not scheming. We’re just talking.”
Pauley was a vault, but Pauline couldn’t keep a secret to save her life. I scooped her up and tickled her, knowing she’d spill quickly.
She giggled and shrieked and squirmed until she told me, “Pauley bought three different kinds of ice cream this week!”
“What?” I said, setting Pauline down and giving her my stern face. “And what makes you think you’re going to get any ice cream.”
“Because I always do when we come here,” she said with a sass I was not looking forward to dealing with when she was a teenager.
I couldn’t hold my stern face any longer and chuckled. “Well, fine. But small scoops.”
Pauline and Pauley winked at each other, and I just rolled my eyes. My grandmother never could say no to the precious girl we named after her.
I told Pauley to sit and read a book to Pauline while I got ice cream for everyone. The two of them listened, but probably only because they were getting ice cream. I carried the bowls into the living room and shook my head when I heard Pauley reading Good Night, Moon.
“You two are going to wear that book out,” I said with a smile.
“It’s my favorite, Daddy,” Pauline said.
I nodded. “I know, baby girl. Your mommy read it to you every night when she was pregnant. She read you a lot of books.”
“That’s why I like to read so much.”
“Between Mommy and Pauley, there was no way you weren’t going to be a good reader,” I told her.
“Let’s eat this ice cream before it all melts, and then we’ll read another book,” Pauley suggested.
Pauline jumped on that suggestion and dug into her ice cream, one tiny arm wrapped around the bowl like she feared someone taking it away from her. I was fairly sure she’d growl at me if I even joked about doing it, which was why I never did.
Pauline was the first one done with her bowl, and she walked it back to the kitchen without being asked. When she came back, I asked if she wanted to use the potty. We were trying to train her, but when she got distracted, she forgot. So did I.
She nodded, so we went to the bathroom. I waited outside with the door cracked in case she needed me. She sang a song while she was using the bathroom, then another one while she washed her hands, and by the time we got back to the living room, Pauley was done with her ice cream and had another book ready to read.
Pauline snuggled up next to her and listened as Pauley recited the book she knew by heart. By the end of the book, Pauline was passed out, like she always was when we visited.
“She’s so precious,” Pauley said softly.
I nodded, staring at my daughter. She was a perfect blend of Riley and me. One minute I saw my wife, and others I saw myself or Pauley.
“Am I going to get any more grandchildren?” Pauley asked with a grin.
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. We’ve considered it, but we’re not ready quite yet. I’m not sure we ever will be.”
Pauley nodded. She understood. She never once pushed Riley and I to be people other than who we wanted to be, and that included being parents.
“How are you really feeling?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “The stairs are getting tougher.”
“Do you want us to move in here?”
She immediately shook her head. “No, of course not. You love your home, and I’d never ask you to leave it.”
“But we would, and I hope you know that. Because we love you more than we love our house.”
Pauley grinned. “I’m lucky to have all of you. So very lucky. And I do know. Thank you.”
“Promise me if it comes to that, you’ll talk to me.”
She nodded. “I promise. But for now, I’m going to nap with this little one.”
I smiled and leaned back on my seat. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Chapter 9 – Charlie
I waved goodbye and closed the door behind my last customer of the night. I was worn out, but Max had plans for us, so I had to find a way to revive myself so I could stay awake for whatever he had planned.
I finished the last of my cleaning so I was ready for the next day and locked up. Driving home was quick, but once I got there, I knew I was going to disappoint Max with how tired I was. I backed out of my driveway and headed to the closest coffee shop and ordered a large coffee. I drank it quickly on my way back home, hoping I could get as much of it down as possible before I went inside.
I finished my coffee on the way inside. I unlocked the door and inhaled deeply, surprised to smell…Chinese food? My stomach rumbled. I definitely hadn’t eaten well lately, but I thought we were going out.
“Max?” I called out, throwing my cup in the trash as I walked into the kitchen.
“Hey, babe,” Max said, walking over to give me a kiss. “How was your day?”
“Um, good. I thought we had plans tonight.”
He nodded and moved back to the stove. “We do. Dinner and a movie. I was thinking a foot rub, maybe even a full body massage. And after that, you can tuck me in.”
I snorted a laugh.
He winked at me. “Nah, just kidding. The massage is all for you. And so is this glass of wine. Why don’t you go get changed. Take the wine with you. I’ll get this stuff on a plate and get the movie started. I’ll see you in there.”
I was still confused, but I wasn’t going to question it too much. I took a sip of the cool, crisp, sweet wine on my way to the bedroom. I stripped off my clothes and threw them in the hamper, then changed into a tank top and a pair of shorts. I smiled at myself in the mirror. I never would have worn something that like in front of any of the guys I knew before Max. He gave me confidence in who I was and allowed me to embrace what I loved even more.
Bite Me! had become the business I always imagined it would be. It was flourishing, but not in a way I couldn’t handle. I had a chance to make it more, but more wasn’t what I wanted. Max understood that, and he supported my choice to keep it a place where I knew the customers and I worked every day and I didn’t worry about things like expansions and franchising and profit margins.
Instead, I got to do what I loved and bake cupcakes all day.
I took another sip of my wine and met Max in the living room. He had two large plates of food, a remote at the ready, and a kind smile.
I sat down next to Max and smiled when he started the movie. I didn’t settle right away, but I just stared at him.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Max asked.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
I shrugged. “You said you had plans for us. For tonight. And I got a coffee on the way home so I could stay up, and now we’re sitting on the couch, and I’m wondering if I screwed up and ruined something and you changed your plans for tonight because of something I did.”
Max smiled and paused the movie that was still playing the opening credits. “I did have plans, but I’m sorry you got a coffee. My plans for tonight were exactly what I told you when you walked in. I wanted a quiet night. With the wedding this weekend and how busy we both are with work, I feel like we haven’t spent much time together. I just wanted a night with my wife.”
I smiled and leaned over to kiss him. Max sighed and cupped my jaw, sweeping his tongue into my mouth. He tasted like Chinese food and love. God, I loved him.
He pulled back and kissed my nose. “Eat, babe. Enjoy the movie. And when it’s over, we’re going to go to bed and I’m going to rub every inch of your beautiful body until you fall asleep.”
“Really?” I asked, more than a little skeptical.
He chuckled. “Yes, really. Everything doesn’t have to be about sex. I love you, and that means spending time with you and taking care of you and sleeping by your side without sex when we’re both so tired we can barely stay awake for dinner together.”
I laughed and nodded. “You know me so well.”
He grinned and leaned in to kiss me again. “We know each other. That’s what love is. And I’m a lucky guy that I get to spend my life with you.”
“Me, too, Max,” I said.
We settled back and turned the movie back on. Our dinner was amazing, and the movie made us laugh. And when it was time for bed, Max fulfilled my every wish and stripped me naked then rubbed all the stress out of every inch of my body until I was moaning and barely conscious.
And then he wrapped himself around me and pulled me close, and we fell asleep together. It was perfect.
Chapter 10 – Addi
I rolled over and glared at the clock. The neon green letters mocked me. 5:23. Only seven minutes until my alarm went off. All I wanted to do was pull the covers up over my head and forget the rest of the world existed.
Then I heard it. The shift that told me he was awake. The whimper. Then the wail.
“I got him,” Joey said, jumping out of bed before I could even consider doing the same.
It wasn’t fair how easily he got up and moved around. I felt like I was going to be sick, and he was rushing into the nursery and cooing to Samuel, acting like nothing was wrong.
“Sorry, buddy,” Joey said through the monitor. “You poor thing.”
That got me up and moving. But as soon as I sat up, the room spun. I had to take an extra minute to get my bearings. I sucked in a breath and wondered if I was going to throw up. What the hell?
Joey kept talking to Samuel the entire time. I barely registered what he was saying until I heard, “Let’s go see Mommy.”
Samuel chatted happily, his words still mostly unintelligible at fourteen months old. Their voices drifted from the monitor and grew louder inside the house until they were in the bedroom.
“Mama! Mama! Mama!” Samuel said loudly once he saw me.
I grinned at him and stretched out my arms, snuggling him close when Joey put him in my arms.
“He was sick,” Joey said. “Threw up in his crib. I’m going to throw the sheets in the wash and his onesie from overnight.”
“Oh, I feel better now. I woke up feeling queasy, too. I was wondering why.”
“You two might have the same thing. Maybe you should stay home today,” Joey said, reaching over to brush his hand across my forehead. “You don’t have a fever, though. That’s good.”
I nodded. “Yeah, it’s just my stomach.”
“Maybe you’ll feel better after a shower.”
I nodded again. I usually did.
Samuel and I cooed at each other and smiled while Joey got the laundry started. When he came back in the bedroom, he scooped up Samuel and took him to start breakfast while I got in the shower.
The hot water felt good, and by the time I was dressed, I felt almost normal. Samuel was in his high chair, and Joey was packing my lunch when I walked into the kitchen. He handed me a cup of coffee, and my stomach turned again.
“No coffee,” I said.
Joey chuckled. “Are you pregnant?”
I shook my head. “After all the trouble we had getting pregnant with him, there’s no way.”
He nodded. “True. Well, I was making you a sandwich for lunch. Do you think that’s okay?”
“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll feel better by then. I’m going to make some toast. That’ll help.”
Joey and I moved around each other as we got ready for our days. After breakfast, I packed Samuel’s bag and scooped him up. We said bye to Joey and headed out the door.
I dropped Samuel off for the day with a warning to his sitter that he was sick when he got up. She brushed it off and said something was going around, but it seemed to be short-lived. I nodded and waved, hoping it was short-lived for me, too.
I felt a little better by the time I got to school. I had thirty minutes before my students would arrive, so I ventured to the staff break room and got a Coke from the vending machine.
“Are you pregnant?” Mel asked from behind me.
“Ha. Joey asked the same thing. Samuel has a bug, something that’s been going around. I must have picked it up, too,” I explained.
Mel frowned. She was like another aunt to Samuel and spoiled him rotten. She had no interest in settling down yet, but she adored Samuel. “I hate thinking of him being sick. Is he okay?”
I nodded. “Joey said he was sick this morning, but he was acting fine by the time I dropped him off. Hopefully it’s not too big of a deal.”
“Yeah, he’ll actually enjoy Christmas this year. It would stink if he was sick for it.”
“Tell me about it. I think Joey went a little crazy this year, but he won’t admit it.”
“Spoiling him isn’t always a bad thing. After everything you two went through, it’s good to remind him and you that he’s special,” Mel said.
“He is special. And seeing how sweet Joey is with him makes me love him even more. I can’t keep my hands off him sometimes.”
Mel chuckled. “Are you sure you aren’t pregnant?”
I shook my head. “Not with my history. If it took multiple doctors and fertility treatments to get pregnant the first time, it’s highly unlikely I’ll get pregnant on accident.”
Mel shrugged. “You never know.”
I shook my head again and followed her out of the break room. I took a sip of my drink and felt better. Mel had a test in her classes today like I did, and had given the students a day to relax right before the holiday break. We waved as we went into our classrooms and got things ready for homeroom.
I sipped my drink as I sorted the tests for the different levels, then made sure they were ready for my students. My stomach continued to bother me, but once my students started arriving, I forgot all about it and focused on them. The sick feeling would go away eventually. It was short-lived. It wouldn’t last long. And I’d be able to enjoy my break with my men.
Chapter 11 – Ethan
I was running late. I fucking hated being late. I hated when other people were late even more, but I hated being late. It was a respect thing. If someone was late to a meeting, they didn’t respect me or my time. Which was why it pissed me off when I was late, because I knew how valuable time was.
But I had a hell of a reason for being late. My wife was a fucking goddess, and when she wormed her way under the covers and wrapped her lips around me, there was no way in hell I was going to tell her she needed to stop because I had a fucking meeting.
I told her not to stop because I loved her, and because we didn’t have nearly enough time together.
But after the holidays, that would change. My last assistant found a new job two months ago, and I talked Olivia into filling the position. Thankfully, I’m just as convincing with my mouth as she is.
And even more thankfully, I added a back room with a lock on the door for the time we couldn’t keep our mouths, or other parts, off of each other.
I shifted my dick in my pants and walked into the room where my meeting was. It was empty. Son of a bitch. Not having an assistant was a pain in the ass. I tried hiring a temp to fill the position, but that just pissed me off even more. Instead, I was trying to do my best, but everything kept getting fucked up.
“Where’s my damn meeting?” I called out to anyone who was willing to answer me.
“Conference room B, Mr. Norwood,” a voice said from one of the close offices. “They’re still in there.”
“Thank you,” I called out, not caring or knowing who was speaking to me.
They were still in the conference room, and waiting for me. Thankfully, they also knew I was the most important person in the room, so none of them called me out for being late.
The meeting went quickly and I promised I’d have my lawyers review the contract that would bring Timeless Timber Toys to a new string of national stores. They approached me with the offer, so while it was good for business, I also knew it wouldn’t make or break my business. It would only help me and the company.
I left the meeting and went in search of the voice who answered me before the meeting.
“Was it you who told me where to go?” I asked a young man sitting behind a standard metal desk.
He looked up and nodded. His green eyes met mine without hesitation or shame. Strong. I liked that. “Yes, sir. I saw them go in there a while ago. I try to pay attention to where people are in the building.”
“Thank you. You saved my ass.”
He nodded then went back to his work. I walked away thinking I needed to do something for him. But first, I needed to figure out something for Olivia.
My wife was the kind of person who only cared about her family. She had lists of things the kids wanted for Christmas, but she never came up with anything for herself. She wanted everyone else to have everything they dreamed of, but she couldn’t have cared less about a gift for herself.
I had an hour before my next meeting, so I scanned through the internet and tried to find something that would be perfect for her. Everything was too generic. Jewelry, artwork, clothes. Nothing Olivia would love.
I headed to my next meeting, passing by the man who helped me the first time. I stopped next to his desk and waited for him to look up at me.
“Can I help you with something, Mr. Norwood?” he asked.
“I need an idea for a Christmas gift for my wife. Something unique.”
He nodded. “I’m afraid I don’t really know your wife.”
“No, but you said you pay attention. I thought you might have an idea.”
“Well, my mom is always hard to shop for. One year, she said all she wanted was to help people. We went to a shelter and helped serve food to people. We’ve spent every year since volunteering. Giving back to those who don’t have everything we have. I know that’s something important to you. Is it something that matters to her also?”
I nodded, wondering why I never thought of it. “Thank you. That’s perfect.” I started to walk away, then stopped and turned back to him. “What’s your name?”
I extended my hand to him. “Thank you, Christopher. I have a feeling you just made her Christmas.”
He grinned and nodded.
I walked away again, knowing Olivia would love to give back more. We met because she was organizing a charity event for the local children’s home. We’d done a lot of volunteer work, but always through our jobs. It was time we put a personal stake in helping the community. It was time to give back.
My family had everything, but not everyone was so lucky. The kids who didn’t have gifts on Christmas morning and the families that were separated for the holidays could definitely use a little Christmas magic. Between Noah and the kids in the hospital and our connections in the rest of the community, there were a lot of needs we could help to fill.
My heart warmed at the thought of helping. Maybe I could sneak in a little something for Christopher, too. After all, he gave me the idea.
Chapter 12 – Hunter
“This is a nice surprise,” I said as I walked into my office.
Vicki stood and kissed me, pressing her sexy curves against my body. Just smelling my wife’s perfume had me turned on, but feeling her body and kissing her never failed to make me crazy for her.
“I thought it would be nice to have lunch together,” she said, settling in the chair again.
“It is nice. Another quiet day?”
She nodded. When Drew and Xander were out on jobs, she was bored. I liked my solitude, but Vicki needed people. She was that kind of person who enjoyed talking. It worked out well for me at times because she talked enough for both of us.
“I know they need to be out of the office, but it’s hard when they have projects like this one and are gone for weeks. I don’t think I’ve spoken to either of them in person since September.”
I chuckled. “It hasn’t been that long.”
She nodded again and picked up her sandwich. “I really think it has been. And I’ve been turning down more work lately for them because they just don’t have time. It isn’t what it used to be.”
“Have you talked to them?”
“And said what? Hey guys, I loved working here before, but now you’re paying me so well because you’re working like crazy and I just can’t stand making money.”
I laughed but tried to play it off as a cough when she glared at me.
“I just hate saying no to some of these people. They have these horrible stories about damage to their homes. This family that called the other day, they had a fire in their home. One of their kids was trying to make breakfast in bed for the parents, and he started a fire. No one was hurt, but the kitchen was a disaster. They had friends who had their kitchen redone by XD a few years ago and wanted to have an overhaul with an expansion, but we just don’t have time. It sucks.”
“That’s the kind of thing Xander and Drew both seemed interested in doing from the way they talked.”
Vicki nodded. “It was. They said they started out wanting to help people, but the commercial projects made it possible for them to really get their business off the ground. They’re doing more residential now, but it’s still big projects for wealthy clients instead of the everyday kind of person.”
“I really think you should talk to them. When I hired them for this place, they were really down to earth, and talking to them every week, I think they want more. They have big hearts and want to help people.”
Vicki drew in a breath and set her fork down. She pushed her salad aside and picked her sandwich up again. “I don’t think it’s my place. But maybe I need to start looking for a new job. Something that’ll mean I can be around people more.”
“You have to do what’s right for you.”
Vicki looked around then tilted her head. “It’s as quiet here as it is at my work.”
I smiled. “Yes, but the difference is I like it like this.”
“Don’t you want customers?”
I shrugged. “Of course, but during the day, customers are working. With the exhibit this weekend, I’m working on getting press releases out and connecting with clients who might be in the market for something new. The only person who has any reason to be here is you.”
“So, you’re saying no one is here and no one is coming here?”
I nodded. “Yeah, why?”
“Is the door locked?”
I nodded again.
“So, we could have sex in here and no one would know?”
My cock stirred and I nodded.
“Good to know,” Vicki said, then went right back to eating her lunch.
I laughed and shook my head. “You know you’re cruel, right?”
She smirked. “I do. But it’s so much fun to tease you. Because when I do, I know it’s only a matter of time before you lose your mind.”
“Is that so?” I asked, getting up from my chair to get closer to her.
She nodded and looked up at me from under her lashes. “It is. Like right now, you’re moving closer, hoping you can catch me off guard. What you’re not realizing is that I want to be caught just as much as you want to catch me.”
“What makes you think I want to catch you? Or that I’m going to chase you?”
She grinned. “Because you always do. Because I know you. And because having sex at work is always easier than trying at home when Mia might need something.”
The only other woman who could make me so happy was our daughter. Watching Vicki grow with her inside and seeing her strength when she had Mia made me love her that much more. Keeping my hands off her as she recovered from delivery and in the months since when she’s been too exhausted to enjoy sex was torture, but Vicki was nursing and I knew it drained her.
“I’ve been thinking I might stop nursing when she turns one.”
“That’s next month,” I blurted, like she didn’t already know.
Vicki nodded. “Yes, and she needs to start eating real food. And I’m ready for my body to be mine again. And yours.”
She nodded and stood. She stepped between my thighs until she brushed against my erection. “All yours, Hunter. I’m all yours.”
Need pulsed through me and I couldn’t deny that nothing sounded better than my wife telling me she was mine. “I love you, Vick.”
“I love you, too. But right now, I’m done with the teasing and need you to chase me.”
“What do you mean?”
She turned and darted out of my office, laughing as she ran.
And yeah, I chased her.
Chapter 13 – Sam
I locked the door to my studio and made sure the lights out front were off so no one thought I was available. Peyton was still anxious about the photo shoot, and the only way I’d be able to do my job was if she knew no one would see anything.
I walked back to the studio space and smiled at Carrie. “Is she okay?”
Carrie shook her head. “Not exactly. She’s freaking out a little. She thinks we’re going to think she’s fat.”
“I am!” Peyton shouted through the dressing room curtain.
“And what do you think I am?” I asked her. “None of us are thin, but we’re just as beautiful as the women we wish we looked like. And Wyatt loves you, not some other woman. He loves your curves and your body and all the flaws you see when you look in the mirror.”
Peyton’s sigh was audible. Carrie and I waited, and I breathed a sigh of relief when Peyton yanked the curtain aside and stomped out of the dressing room.
“Damn,” Carrie said, followed by a shrill whistle. “Where did you get that ass? I want one.”
Peyton smirked at us from over one shoulder, and I wished I had my camera ready. “I am on my feet constantly. If there was one thing I was happy about, it’s definitely my ass.”
“I’d be happy, too,” Carrie said. “I’m jealous.”
Peyton laughed, and I grabbed my camera. With Carrie there to keep Peyton distracted, I was going to be able to get some amazing shots that would make Wyatt crazy.
“All right, Pey, on the bed,” I told her.
The ease she felt seconds earlier slid away as she looked at the bed I used for boudoir shots. The sheets were cleaned by a professional cleaning service after each shoot, and there was never more than one person on the bed, but I still understood. It was uncomfortable at best, especially for someone as private as Peyton.
“Maybe I can do something else for him,” she said with a nibble on her lower lip.
Carrie stepped forward while I pretended to do something with my camera.
“You can,” Carrie said carefully. “And if you’d rather, we can go look for something, but I know how Drew reacted when I gave him my pictures. I really think it’s something Wyatt is going to love. And it’s just Sam and me. Would you feel better if I was in my underwear, too?”
Carrie was joking, but Peyton almost looked like she would.
“Let’s just talk,” I said. “Don’t think about the camera. Tell me what you’re most looking forward to about the wedding.”
Peyton grinned. “Finally being married. Is that dumb? I feel like I waited too long, and I’m just so ready to be married.”
“I felt the same way,” Carrie said. “I didn’t care that much about the wedding itself, but knowing Drew was finally going to be my husband was exciting. Of course, the wedding is fun, too.”
I nodded my agreement as Carrie asked Peyton another question. While they chatted, I took a few shots. Peyton barely paid any attention to me, and when I told her to lay down on the bed, she shook her head but obliged.
“Do you want to change?” Carrie asked after thirty minutes. “Did you bring more than one outfit?”
Peyton glanced nervously at us and nodded. “The other one is a little more risqué, though.”
I shook my head. “We don’t care. I’ve taken pictures of women in see-through lace. It’s all about what you’re comfortable in. I can use editing software to mask anything you don’t want visible in the pictures, but I think Wyatt will love a peek of whatever you want to show him.”
“Is this weird?” Peyton asked.
Carrie and I both shook our heads, but Carrie spoke first. “I can leave if me being here is making you uncomfortable. I wanted to come because I’ve done this and knew it was a little weird, but if I’m making it worse, I have no problem waiting in the front or leaving entirely.”
Peyton shook her head. “No, I think it’s helping. I just…I’m really private, and this is really private.”
Carrie chuckled, and I said, “It is, but no one else will ever see these pictures. I’ll edit them and print them here, and then all the photos are yours. I don’t save them anywhere. They’re all yours, so you can show all the photos to Wyatt, and if you ever want to print others, you can.”
Peyton finally nodded, then slid off the bed and went back to the changing room. Carrie and I chatted for a minute about the kids, but when Peyton walked back out, we stopped and our jaws hit the floor.
“Damn,” Carrie said. “Wyatt might not survive after he sees you in this. Please tell me you’re wearing it for your wedding night.”
Peyton blushed, her red cheeks almost as bright as the naughty Santa outfit she wore. The white fluff barely covered her nipples, and the red lace bodysuit bolded to her body like it was made just for her. Her bare legs looked killer in her black knee high boots, and when she walked past us and we saw she was wearing a thong, I knew there was no way Wyatt would survive their wedding night.
“He’s going to swallow his tongue,” I told her, camera at the ready.
I caught a shot of Peyton’s sexy smirk over her shoulder this time, and knew that was one I’d print for them.
With our compliments boosting her courage, the rest of the photo shoot was a breeze. Peyton played the camera and I got more than enough amazing shots for her and Wyatt to enjoy.
Once Peyton was dressed in her regular clothes again, she admitted she had fun.
“Thank you both. I was so nervous about this, but I know Wyatt is going to love it.”
“Hell, yeah, he is,” Carrie agreed. “And we were happy to help.”
Peyton hugged us, then wrapped her arms through ours and declared she was buying lunch as a thank you. We couldn’t say no to that.
Chapter 14 – Wyatt
It felt weird pushing things through that I wouldn’t be there to fulfill. To sign documents and approve things when I’d never set foot in the office again. I’d never be mayor.
I’d be something much better.
There were times I went back and forth about leaving my position as mayor, but I knew it was right for my family. Peyton’s career was demanding, and I didn’t want her feeling like she had to choose between it and her family. My career, while I enjoyed it, was always temporary. I had no plans to be a career politician or to stay in place as the mayor forever. It was always meant to be a stepping stone, to what, I wasn’t sure, but that was how I viewed the position.
When I first told Peyton I wanted to leave my job, she thought I was joking, but once she realized I meant it, she actually said she should leave. She felt guilty. God, I love her.
“Everyone is waiting for you,” Olivia said, knocking as she entered my office. “They expect a speech.”
I laughed and shook my head. “I don’t have one planned.”
“Then you better start thinking of one.”
Not working with Olivia was going to be the thing I’d miss the most when I left my position as mayor, but it meant Olivia could be with Ethan. He wanted her to work for him since they met, but she wouldn’t leave her position with me. With me leaving, she had no loyalty to the job. I didn’t blame her, and I was happy for her, but I was going to miss her, too.
“Are they going to make you do this next month?” I asked her with a grin.
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m not that important. Plus, I’m not planning my own going away party.”
I chuckled because I knew it was true. Olivia kept the town of Winterville running, but she didn’t get the credit she deserved for it. I tried to reward her as much as possible with a good salary, but she was still seen as an assistant instead of a lifesaver. She earned the latter title.
“What am I supposed to say?” I asked her.
She sighed and shook her head. “I’m not writing this speech for you. Just like I refused to write your vows.”
I winced. Yeah, I asked her for help with that one. As soon as I did, I knew it was wrong, but it was too late. I did eventually come up with my own vows, and asked her to look them over, but I wrote them.
“Is it wrong for me to sign these documents?” I asked her instead of pressing for more about the speech I was supposed to make.
She sat across from me and shook her head. “No. Not at all. You worked hard to put all this into place. If you don’t sign it, all your work was for nothing.”
“But Kensington will sign them.”
She shook her head again. “Not necessarily. He has his own agenda. And while I think he will eventually, I don’t think it’ll be top priority.”
I nodded and signed the last of the documents she had for me. With nothing else to delay me, I stood and followed her down the hall to the main conference room. It was rarely used since each department operated mostly independently, but Olivia insisted on inviting everyone in the building to my going away party, as she called it.
I heard the roar of conversation before I got to the door and couldn’t stop my smile. As soon as I stepped into the room, everyone clapped and cheered. Damn, I really did need to say a speech.
I worked my way through the room, hugging people I knew well and shaking hands of others. When I finally made it to the front, I climbed up onto the raised stage and accepted the glass of sparkling grape juice Olivia handed me.
“Thank you, everyone, for being here. My time as mayor has meant a great deal to me. Getting to work with all of you has been the highlight of my career.”
The crowd cheered at that one, and a few coworkers teased each other.
“Being the mayor of Winterville is not an easy job. It’s not always a popular job. But having a great team supporting me, and knowing we were all working to make Winterville an amazing town, made all the struggles worthwhile.”
I scanned the crowd quickly until my gaze landed on Olivia, already at the back of the room, invisible.
“I’d also like to offer a personal thank you to my assistant, Olivia Norwood. Olivia has been a friend and an employee, and she’s been invaluable to me as both. Neither of us will be here much longer, so I wanted to say that Olivia has made this town what it is. Her insight and dedication to Winterville is unmatched. I’ve loved the opportunity to get to know her personally, and although I know we’ll remain friends, I will miss seeing you daily, Olivia. Thank you for always making sure I had the right focus and for being a sounding board for me more times than was probably sane. And I wish you the best of luck in your new position.”
I raised my glass and said, “To Olivia.” Everyone in the room repeated my words, and Olivia just shook her head.
If she wasn’t going to have a party, I’d just have to share mine with her.
She mouthed thank you and I winked at her. Then I let myself get wrapped up in the crowd to enjoy the lunch Olivia put together. She really did save my ass. All the time.
Chapter 15 – Olivia
I smiled at Jenny, one of the admins from another department. She was angling for my job, and for Wyatt, ever since she started working in the building. Not having to see her every day was going to be nice.
“I still can’t believe you’re leaving,” Jenny said with a fake grin. She tilted her head, her red hair that always made me jealous tilting over her shoulder. She was beautiful, and I couldn’t help being envious of her constantly.
“It’s the right time for me. I love this job, but working with Wyatt was the best part of it,” I told her honestly.
She nodded. “He always seemed like an amazing boss and person. I…I know we haven’t really gotten along, but I was always jealous that you got such a great boss.”
“Wyatt is amazing. And going to work for my husband is going to be great, too.”
Jenny chuckled. “God, I’m so jealous of you. I probably shouldn’t say that, but it’s true. I…I hope this doesn’t offend you, but I hope I have myself together the way you do when I’m your age.”
“Really?” I asked, more than a little shocked by her statement.
She laughed. “Absolutely. I’m not trying to say you’re old, and I’m sorry if it sounded like that. I just mean that you’re someone who makes the rest of us think we can have it all one day.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think I’m the poster child for that. I’ve had my fair share of rough times.”
Jenny nodded. “I know, but you’ve gotten through and you have this amazing husband and this great job that you’re leaving for another great job and wonderful kids, and it’s just so good to see that it’s possible.”
Flabbergasted came close to how I felt. I never trusted I had anything together, but from the outside, I tried to see how Jenny, and others, might see me.
“Can I give you some advice?” I asked Jenny.
She nodded eagerly and leaned in like I was willing to share the secrets of the universe with her.
“Find a partner who is going to treat you like you’re equal,” I told her.
“What?” she asked, jerking back.
“I’ve been married twice. My first husband acted like I was his maid. I was expected to cook and clean and take care of the kids and inform him if he was needed. I was there to make him look good until he decided I wasn’t the look he wanted. With Ethan, we share everything. He does the dishes and helps cook. He gets groceries and helps with the kids and does everything I do. He doesn’t act like I’m anything other than exactly the same as he is.”
Jenny still looked confused, still looked like she didn’t get it.
“It was the same with Wyatt. He was my boss, and he had every right to treat me like I was less than he was, because in all reality, I was. I worked for him, and I am a person so I have value, but Wyatt is the mayor. He’s the decision maker. He was the one who was in charge. But he always acted like I was equal to him. He would grab my lunch from the fridge and get me coffee and ask my opinion. He treated me like his equal every day I worked with him, and that’s why we worked so well together.”
“Were you and Wyatt…?” Jenny asked.
I shook my head. “No, never.”
“So, you’re saying all the things people talk about when it comes to work-life balance and all that, it’s all about your partner?”
I chuckled. “I don’t know if it’s as easy as that, but I think that’s the only way it’s possible. If you have to work, and you choose to have a family, you will feel overwhelmed regularly. Having someone who’s willing to share that burden, who’s willing to ask what you need to make it better, who’s going to step up and do something to help you, that is what’s going to make everything better. That’s what’s going to make you feel like maybe there is such a thing as balance.”
“Wow,” Jenny breathed. “I, um, thank you. I really appreciate it. I mean, honestly. All the stuff you hear makes it sound like it’s so easy and everyone should be able to find balance, but I don’t know anyone who actually has balance in their life.”
“And I don’t,” I said with a shake of my head. “Not every day. It’s a struggle constantly to make sure one part of your life isn’t falling off the rails. But having a person in your life who will help find balance makes it possible.”
Jenny nodded and finished her cake silently. She threw her plate away then grabbed my hand and pulled me into a hug. “I really wish I’d tried to talk to you before today. I hate that we’re not friends, but I really appreciate the advice.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe we could be friends. Just because I won’t work here anymore doesn’t mean we can’t stay in touch.”
“Would you really want to?” she asked.
The desperation in her eyes almost broke my heart. I knew that feeling. I’d felt the same way, wanting acceptance from someone and not knowing if I’d get it. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they weren’t good enough for me.
“Absolutely,” I told her, grabbing her hand. “I would love it.”
She squealed and threw her arms around me again. I hugged her back and smiled. “You know what?”
“What?” she asked, pulling away.
“Another part of balance is good friends. I have a few I think you should meet.”
I smiled and nodded. “Yeah.”
Chapter 16 – Riley
The bell above the door rang, and I looked up with an automatic smile. When I saw who it was, my grin grew.
“Hi, ladies. Thanks for coming here. And for bringing me lunch.”
I hugged Claire and Peyton.
“I really appreciate you two helping me,” Peyton said. The lines on her face were deeper than just three days ago, and she looked like she hadn’t slept much.
“Are you okay?” I asked her gently.
She shook her head. “Not even a little bit. Wyatt is now done with work, and I had a panic attack last night worrying about being the only one of us bringing in a paycheck. He said I shouldn’t, but what if something happens to me?”
“Then he’ll figure it out,” Claire said calmly. She was definitely the one to help with her training dealing with traumatic situations. Not that Peyton was going through anything traumatic, but a calming demeanor was a good thing in both cases.
“But what if he doesn’t?”
“He’s not alone,” I reminded her. “He has all of us. And if he ever needed a place to live, or someone to help with Leo, or anything, we’d all be there.”
Peyton nodded, but the stress was taking a toll on her. I understood how she felt, but that didn’t necessarily make it easier.
“How was your photo shoot yesterday?” Claire asked before Peyton went deeper down the rabbit hole.
Peyton grinned. “It was very freeing. I really don’t like things about my body, but Sam and Carrie made me relax and I was able to enjoy the process.”
“Wyatt is going to love it. I think I might ask Sam to do the same thing for me,” Claire said.
I nodded. “I was considering it as well. I can’t believe Carrie didn’t tell me about it.”
Claire chuckled. “Knowing Carrie, she would have shown you the pictures if she thought to tell you.”
Peyton and I laughed with Claire. “Very true. I guess it’s a good thing she didn’t tell me.”
“Well, now that you have a gift for him out of the way, are you ready to write your vows?” Claire asked.
Peyton shuddered and shook her head. “No. I don’t think I am. I mean, I love him, but it feels really…like I’m naked. Stripping down to my underwear yesterday was less stressful than writing down how I feel about Wyatt so I can tell the entire world.”
Claire and I smiled at her, and I said, “Don’t think about it like that. Let’s just talk about Wyatt for a few minutes. What do you love about him?”
Peyton sighed and a small smile curled her lips up. “He’s the most amazing man I’ve ever known. He’s always made me laugh. And when we were getting to know each other, he was patient with me. He never pushed, even though I could tell he wanted to, especially when I didn’t agree to marry him any of the times he asked.”
Her smile slipped. Before I could say anything, Claire stepped in. “But you’re getting married now. Tomorrow. And nothing is going to change that.”
“Unless he runs,” Peyton said quietly.
“Are you really worried about that?” I asked her. Peyton and Wyatt were solid. They were strong. Anyone could look at them and see the devotion. I had no idea why she was spooked, but she was.
Peyton shrugged but didn’t answer me.
“Pey, he’s not going to run,” Claire said with a laugh. “He adores you and Leo.”
“Leo, yes. Me? There are days. We had a fight this morning, and all week we’ve been snipping at each other. After Hawaii, everything seemed so easy, but the closer we get to the wedding and him leaving his job, the more I wonder if he’s regretting all this.”
Claire and I immediately shook our heads. “No. Not a chance. You know how much he loves you. You know he’d never leave you—”
“He was thinking about ending things before I proposed. He was frustrated with me.”
“Because he wasn’t sure you still loved him,” Claire said calmly. “He was having doubts, but it all worked out. You have to have faith in him now. To know that everything is going to be okay.”
“But is it? What if it’s not?”
I put my hand on hers and waited until she looked at me. When I had Peyton’s full attention, I said, “You will always have moments of doubt. Moments where you question things. But loving someone means trusting them with your heart. Things aren’t always going to be easy, but you’ll have each other.”
“Do you love him?” Claire asked.
Peyton nodded without hesitation. “So much it scares me.”
“Good. Because that’s how much he loves you, too.”
Tears slid silently down Peyton’s cheeks. “You think so?”
“We know so,” Claire and I both said.
“And you should tell him that,” I added. “In your vows. Tell him you love him, and that loving him scares you and makes you strong at the same time. Loving him is what got you to the wedding when you worried about all the other things you weren’t sure would happen. Loving him is like breathing, and you can’t live without it.”
Peyton sucked in a breath. “Can I use that?”
I laughed. “Of course. But you might want to throw in a few of your own words, too. Here, I have books.” I pulled a small stack of books out from under the counter. I grabbed them earlier and flipped through them to get some ideas. “Let’s eat and talk and get your vows written.”
Peyton finally looked calm and ready. The three of us carried lunch and the books to my office and got to work. And yes, we all cried when Peyton finally found just the right words for her vows.
Chapter 17 – Max
“Elise, come here,” Mandy hissed as her daughter ran past me.
I scooped Elise up and she squealed with delight. Everyone in the church turned around and smiled at us. I handed Elise back to her mom, and Mandy sighed and sank down next to me.
“She is wearing me out tonight,” Mandy said softly.
I grinned and tickled Elise under her chin. She giggled and squirmed in her mom’s arms, and I reached for her again. “Need a break?”
“God, yes,” Mandy breathed. “People told me things were supposed to get easier when she turned four.”
I snorted. “Maybe give it a little while longer. She’s been four, what? A week?”
“Yeah, basically,” Mandy snarled. “I’m still tired.”
I nodded and teased Elise while Mandy stared at us. “You’d be a really good dad.”
I smiled. “Thanks. With our schedules, we never really thought about kids. I like them, but I never had a burning desire to have my own. Charlie doesn’t seem to either.”
Mandy shook her head. “No, I don’t think she does. Bite Me! is her baby.”
I laughed. “It is. Absolutely.”
Elise patted me on the cheek, hard, and brought my attention back to her. Mandy told her to be gentle. “Yes, Miss Elise. What can I do for you?”
“Do you know any stories?”
I nodded. “Of course. When I was young, my parents told me a story about a young man who lived in a tower. And he had really long hair. And he wasn’t allowed to leave the tower, but then a princess came one day and climbed up his hair and rescued him.”
Elise giggled uncontrollably, again, earning the attention of everyone trying to conduct the rehearsal for Peyton and Wyatt’s wedding. “That’s not about a prince.”
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“That’s Rapunzel. She’s a girl!”
“I’ve never heard that name before,” I said, scratching my chin. “How do you know it’s a girl and not a boy?”
“Because it’s my favorite story!”
“What? It is?” I gasped.
Elise giggled so hard she fell over and slumped across my lap. Mandy just smiled at her daughter.
“She’s a good kid,” I told her.
Mandy nodded. “She is. She’s just a handful. I’m exhausted at the end of the day. And with Xander working so many hours, it’s hard to make it through sometimes.”
“You should bring her by Bite Me! some afternoon. Or by our place. I’m usually done for the day by mid-afternoon. Charlie works later, but I don’t mind watching her if you need a break.”
Mandy grinned. “I think you might be that prince in the story.”
I winked at her and tickled Elise since she was quiet. She jerked up and almost whacked my nose with her forehead. I grabbed her before she collided with Mandy.
“Be careful, sweetheart,” Mandy said firmly.
“That was my fault,” I told her. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“If I bring her to spend time with you, you need to tell her when she’s being crazy.”
I shook my head. “That’s what parents are for. Uncles and Aunts are like grandparents. They get to spoil kids and send them home full of sugar.”
Mandy laughed quietly and shook her head.
“Is Xander going to make it to the rehearsal dinner?” I asked Mandy after a minute.
She shrugged. “I hope so, but I’m not sure. He and Drew are finishing up a project. They want it done by the end of the year.”
“I know they both want to be here,” I told her.
She nodded, but I knew that didn’t help much. If someone really wanted to be somewhere, they would be there. I liked Drew and Xander, and I knew they were only providing for their families, but I’d known far too many families that fell apart because one parent wasn’t around because they were trying to provide for the family.
“Hopefully it gets better soon. One day,” Mandy said quietly.
I made a mental note to talk to Xander at the bachelor party later that night. I certainly didn’t have marriage figured out, but I wanted to make sure he knew Mandy was struggling a little. If she was anything like Charlie, she wouldn’t tell him because she didn’t want to make him feel bad, but that didn’t solve anything.
“Let’s run through this one more time,” the minister said from the front of the church. “And this time we’ll have everyone in the crowd stand and involved.”
Mandy and I exchanged a guilty look as we faced the front of the church and tried to get Elise to stop wiggling between us. It was still hard to believe I met Charlie only a few days before Elise was born. I felt like I’d known her, and the rest of her friends, forever, but it had only been four years. Four years of feeling like I was a part of a family I chose. I loved my sister and all of my family, but being with Charlie and our friends was where I belonged on any given day.
Mandy and I participated with the rest of the church, all of us ready to see Peyton and Wyatt finally married. Elise asked if she could ride with me to the rehearsal dinner, and I grinned when Mandy breathed an exhausted yes. We got the booster seat into the backseat of my truck, and we waved goodbye to Mandy.
“What do you say we take the long way?” I asked Elise.
“Yay! I like the long way. Daddy always drives the long way, too. He says it’s more interesting.”
I grinned as I sent a text to Mandy letting her know we’d be a little while. I hoped she would take advantage of the break and sit down with a glass of wine. I sent Charlie a text next, asking her to look out for Mandy, then Elise and I set off for a mini-adventure.
“All right, Elise. Which way?”
Chapter 18 – Tara
The wine was delightful. Good God, was it good. I took another sip and savored it. I didn’t know what it was that gave me such joy, but I loved the wine. Maybe it was knowing this was the last wedding of our group. Maybe it was knowing that all my friends were happy. Maybe it was just really damn good wine.
Noah eased onto the seat next to me and kissed me. I loved his kisses. Maybe that was it. Maybe it was thinking about my wedding. Before Noah, I wasn’t sure I would ever get married, but the weddings we’d been to since made me think about mine. Not the flowers or the dress or any of the stuff that made it a wedding. No, I thought about Noah. About the look on his face when he first saw me. The words he said that bound us together. The way he kissed me when Ada announced us as husband and wife.
His tongue slid along the seam of my lips and I opened for him. Just like on our wedding day, he kissed me like I was the only woman in the world and he couldn’t get enough of me.
“Hey, beautiful,” he whispered as he pulled away. “I love this dress.”
“Thank you,” I said with a grin. It was a new dress, green for Christmas. It draped around my neck and hugged through my middle, and with the shaper underneath, I looked like I actually had an hourglass figure.
“I can’t wait to strip you out of it, Mrs. Carpenter.”
I laughed. “It might not be so easy with everything holding me into it.”
He licked the shell of my ear. “You know that’s not going to stop me.”
I grinned. It definitely wouldn’t, which was just one of the many things I loved about him.
“Hey, can we join you?” Abby asked.
Noah eased back and smiled at them. “Absolutely. Please. How are you guys?”
“Good,” Graham said for them. “Remembering our wedding.” He kissed Abby’s cheek.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I admitted. “Weddings make me think about ours.”
“What are we going to have now?” Noah asked. “Everyone is already married. We have no reason to party like this.”
“We don’t need a reason,” Abby said. “We’re always getting together.”
I nodded. “She’s right. It’s not like things like this will stop. We just won’t be able to drink free wine. This is really good wine.”
“Ooh,” Abby said. She lifted the glass in front of her and sipped, then drew back. “Wow, this is really good. Nice job Wyatt and Peyton.”
“Well, thank you,” Wyatt said from right behind us. “For what?”
“Amazing wine, apparently,” Graham said for us. “Tara and Abby are loving it.”
“I’ll text you the label,” Peyton said. “I love it.”
“Thank you,” I told her.
“Do you guys want to sit?” Graham asked.
They nodded and sat with us. “This whole thing is stressful. Families and friends and coworkers. I’m ready for us to just be married,” Peyton said.
“One more day,” Wyatt said with a kiss. “I wasn’t sure we’d get here. You better not run tomorrow.”
He grinned, but I saw the flash of panic on her face. “I…You better not either.”
He captured her lips and pulled her onto his lap. “Not a chance in hell, Pey. I’ll be waiting for you in that church dying to put that ring on your finger and make sure every man for the rest of our lives knows you’re mine.”
Peyton’s eyebrows lifted. “I’m yours?”
Wyatt chuckled. “Hell yeah. And I’m yours, babe. Forever.”
Noah’s hand cupped the back of my neck. I turned to look at him and grinned. We had the same thing. Forever. I belonged to him, and he belonged to me, and nothing was ever going to change that.
“Forever,” Graham and Abby said to each other. “We said the same thing before we got married. I was so reluctant to try again, and Graham was so patient, but I wanted him to know that it didn’t matter if we were married or not, I loved him and I was his forever.”
Graham nodded. “But I’m damn glad you finally let me put a ring on it.”
We all laughed, knowing Wyatt felt the same way as Graham.
“Agreed,” Wyatt said, kissing Peyton’s ring finger.
Peyton squealed and jumped up, running across the room. We all stared after her as she hugged her friend, Laura. Laura was Peyton’s best friend and maid of honor. She was running late leaving work and missed the rehearsal, but she was there, which meant Peyton would have her best friend and sister stand up for her.
Wyatt excused himself and followed Peyton to say hello to Laura.
“Did she come alone?” Abby asked.
I nodded. “Laura was going to bring her friends we met in Hawaii, but Ms. Georgia isn’t doing well. They think she won’t make it to the New Year.”
“Ah, shit. That sucks,” Graham said. “I wish that wasn’t the case.”
We all nodded in agreement, then Noah lifted his glass. “To Ms. Georgia.”
“To Ms. Georgia,” we repeated. We touched glasses and drank and had a moment of quiet for her.
We only knew her for a few days, but Ms. Georgia had an impact on all of us. She was so full of life, even in her sickness, and her smile and beauty and happiness on her wedding day was something I’d never forget.
“I hope Peyton and Wyatt know the kind of happiness Ms. Georgia and Eddie shared, but for a much longer time,” Abby said.
“I hope we all do. They were so happy,” Noah agreed. “Hey, do you guys think something is going to happen with Blake and Ian? They looked pretty cozy at times.”
I shook my head. “You’re such a romantic. You think everyone is falling in love all the time.”
Noah kissed my neck. “I see way too much bad in the world. I need to find every little bit of light that’s out there, even if it doesn’t actually exist.”
“Now that’s something to toast to,” Graham said. “To light.”
Chapter 19 – Aiden
“Do you ever wish we’d done this?” I asked Claire. There was a big part of me that felt guilty that I rushed Claire into a wedding in Vegas and didn’t give her the party she deserved.
Claire looked at me and cupped my cheek. I fought the urge to nuzzle against her and waited for her to answer.
She shook her head. “No. I was thinking the other day that I was happy we didn’t have to deal with this stress. I loved our wedding, and I loved our party back here after the wedding. But what matters the most to me is our marriage.”
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
She nodded. “Absolutely. I love you. Where is this coming from?”
I shrugged and kissed the side of her head. “I see the look in your eyes when we come to a wedding. A longing. I hate that I put it there.”
Claire leaned in and kissed me gently. Kissing her always made me want more. I knew men who didn’t spend time with their wives because they were only interested in sex, but Claire was everything to me. She was my best friend and I wanted to share every bit of my life with her.
“I promise you, I’m not missing anything. I don’t feel like I missed anything. I never have. I love you.”
“I love you. Is it wrong that I don’t want to go out tonight?” I asked her.
She chuckled and nodded. “Yes. But I understand. You’ll have fun tonight. It’s not like you guys are going to a strip club or something. You’re going to throw axes and have a few drinks. I know it isn’t what you would normally do, but you have fun with the guys.”
I nodded and took a deep breath. “Yeah, I do. It’ll be a good night. I might need some coffee, though.”
Claire laughed. “You’re an old man.”
I tickled her. “Not nice.”
She giggled and leaned into me, and I kissed her hair, inhaling her scent. God, I loved her.
“You about ready to go?” Xander asked as Mandy sat in the chair on the other side of Claire.
I kissed my wife and nodded. “Yep. Let’s go party.”
Xander and Drew were riding with me so Mandy and Carrie could take the vehicles with car seats home. Mandy was giving Claire a ride once they left the rehearsal dinner, but I had a feeling that might be a little while.
Xander and Drew talked about work while I drove us to the bar. Ethan and Graham swore us all to secrecy about where we were going. Wyatt didn’t have a clue because even Peyton refused to tell him. Ethan and Graham knew Wyatt would worry about a strip club, which was half the reason they refused to tell him what we were doing.
Xander threw his arm over my shoulder as we walked into the bar and asked how things were going. With our wives as best friends, Xander and I had grown close over the years. “Are you as exhausted as I am?”
I chuckled and nodded. “Yeah. I was telling Claire I didn’t want to come here, but Wyatt’s been there for all of us.”
Xander nodded. “Yeah, he has been. He’d have been with us for our bachelor parties if we knew him. Or if you’d had one.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said with an elbow in his ribs.
Xander laughed and held the door open for Drew and me to go in ahead of him. A roar of the crowd already inside made me smile. A long bar stretched to the right with stools lined up in front. TV’s hung overhead and stretched around the open space with every sporting event possible in the screens. And in the back…that’s where the real fun was.
Ethan and Graham weren’t far behind us, with Wyatt wide-eyed between them.
“Where the hell are we?” Wyatt asked.
Ethan and Graham pointed to the back where people were lined up with axes.
Wyatt’s eyes grew even bigger and his grin matched. “No fucking way.”
Ethan clapped Wyatt on the back and nodded. “Olivia might have mentioned you said you always wanted to do something like this.”
“This is awesome. I have. If she still worked for me, I’d have to give her a huge bonus for this.”
“I’ll thank her for you,” Ethan said with a wink.
Wyatt rolled his eyes. “Why does everything have to be about sex?”
“Peyton,” Graham said.
Wyatt froze then nodded. “Yeah, okay. Fine. Let’s go throw some axes.”
Ethan and Graham clapped Wyatt on the back and led him through the bar. Drew, Xander, and I followed with the rest of the guys right behind us.
There were two open lanes at the end with Private Party draped across the front.
“Just for us. And all drinks are on me tonight,” Ethan said, making sure the group heard him.
A waitress came over and asked if we needed anything. Ethan spoke to her for a minute and she nodded. When she left, he said, “Beer is coming. Anything else you want, let Naomi know. She’ll put it on my tab for the night.”
“Thanks,” I said. “This is amazing. That you would do this.”
Ethan grinned. “Just because I thought Wyatt was going to try to steal Olivia away doesn’t mean I haven’t come to realize he’s a good guy. And he’s one of her best friends. She needs him.”
I clapped Ethan on the back and shook my head. “Just when I thought we knew you’d always be the asshole, you surprise us and do something like this. I gotta say, it’s a hell of a lot better than a strip club.”
Ethan nodded. “Graham and I figured we all spend enough time eating cupcakes and chasing kids that we should enjoy some guy time tonight.”
“I like it,” I said.
“So, who’s throwing first?” Ethan said.
“I am,” Mike said, stepping up to the line and grabbing an axe.
“Let the games begin,” Ethan said with a wink.
Chapter 20 – Mike
I tested the weight of the axe in my hand and stared at the back wall. There was a target painted on the wall. The wall looked wood, but it also looked like there was a false wall. Made sense so they could replace it when it got too worn out.
Axe throwing. I’d been looking forward to it since Ethan and Graham first mentioned it. I wasn’t an aggressive guy, but the thought of throwing something at a wall excited me. It was manly, and I didn’t have many chances to be manly.
“You ready?” Wyatt asked. He was in the stall next to me, testing the axe in his hand.
I nodded and stepped to the line. We each were going to throw three axes, then, because we were competitive, the ones who did the best were going to face off until we had one winner for the night.
I grabbed the handle and threw the first axe. I grinned when the blade hit the wood and stuck. Wyatt’s axe hit the wood, but with the handle, and it bounced onto the ground.
“Ooh,” the rest of the guys sang.
Wyatt looked at mine and grinned. “Nice. Have you done this before?”
I shook my head.
“What’s your secret?”
“Flick your wrist at the end. Release high, not low. And keep your eyes on the target,” I told him.
Wyatt grabbed the axe from the floor and tested it in his hand again. We both walked back to the line and threw again. Wyatt’s second axe went into the center of the target. Mine was a little off center, but it sunk in with a satisfying slice.
“Nice throw,” he said.
“You, too. Better than the first one.”
He grinned. “Let’s see how number three goes.”
We both lined up and threw again. Both of us hit the target again, with Wyatt’s throw a bit closer to the mark.
“You pick things up fast,” I told him. “Nice job.”
“Thanks. I appreciate the tips.”
We handed our axes to Drew and Xander and went to a table. Wyatt poured us beers from the pitcher and held his up. “To marriage.”
I grinned and tapped my glass with his. “To marriage. I’m happy for you guys.”
“Thanks,” Wyatt said. “I’ve been looking forward to this.”
“I know you have. It’s good you’re finally getting there. You both looked so happy today. Don’t lose that.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Marriage is tough. Things change, even though you don’t think they will. I love Lexi, but marriage takes work. Almost every day.”
“So, how do you keep your marriage strong?”
I smiled at him. “Surprise her. Tell her you love her every day. Show her you love her. It’s easy, but after a while, it’s easy to get complacent.”
“Are you and Lexi okay?” Wyatt asked.
I nodded. “Absolutely. But I don’t plan to let that change.”
Wyatt nodded thoughtfully. “I don’t want to ever worry again that I might lose her. Peyton is everything to me. Her and Leo.”
“And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.” I took a sip and set my glass down. “There’s a part of me that’s jealous of you.”
Wyatt’s brows went up. “Really? Why?”
“You get to learn what it’s like to be married. You get to start over. You get to have that honeymoon period where you can’t keep your hands off each other,” I said with a wink.
“Never let that one go,” Max said with a nudge. “Never stop chasing her around the house and making out like teenagers.”
I nodded and Wyatt grinned. “You know, when she told me she was pregnant, I wasn’t sure how I would handle it. Then when she let me love her, I knew nothing would ever change that. When Leo was born, it did, though. It wasn’t easy. The sleepless nights and the exhaustion, the lack of sex. It was hard sometimes. But I wouldn’t trade any of it.”
“Always make sure she knows that,” I told him. “Always.”
Wyatt nodded, then got up when Ethan called his name.
“Things going okay?” Max asked when Wyatt left.
I nodded. “Yeah. Just keep thinking back to everything I wish I’d known about marriage six years ago when we got married.”
“Like what?” Max asked.
I shrugged. “Like how easy it is to get into a rut.”
“Are you…What’s going on?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. Lexi and I were stuck. We were barely having sex and were starting to coexist instead of loving each other. We’re back on track now, though.”
“Yeah? And how are you back on track?”
“I got a kick in the ass. Her mom…she and her husband were talking about their anniversary. They were planning a big trip. They’d never been to Hawaii and decided to go for it. Lexi and I talked about traveling. We talked about doing a lot of things. But we never did any of it. We were waiting for someday, and finally decided someday needs to be today.”
“Wow, good for you. That’s amazing.”
I nodded. “It is. We’re going to California in January, and we’re talking about a cruise in the spring. Everyone has kids and weddings and so many things going on, and we were losing ourselves. We found ourselves again. We found each other again.”
“We don’t have kids,” Max said with a grin.
“You know what I mean,” I said.
He nodded. “I do know. Charlie and I have struggled some, too. It comes and goes. But I love her, and I don’t want to even think about life without her.”
I grinned. “Agreed. God, I agree with that. When did we become men who couldn’t live without someone else?”
“When we got lucky,” Max said with a clap on my back.
I snorted. “That’s for damn sure.”
Chapter 21 – Graham
I let myself in quietly and prayed I didn’t wake Abby up. It was a great bachelor party, but I was ready to crawl into bed with my wife and get a few hours of sleep.
I kicked off my shoes and hung my coat up by the door. Everything was dark so I walked slowly. The door to the bedroom was open, and I could see the lump that was my wife under the covers.
I snuck to the bathroom and closed the door quietly. I used the bathroom and brushed my teeth then stripped down to my boxer briefs and went back to the bedroom.
Abby stirred when I slid into bed. I knew better than to wrap my arm around her, but I couldn’t resist when I could smell her. When I pressed my body against hers, she wiggled her perfect ass against my growing cock. I spread my hand on her belly and kissed her shoulder.
“Did you guys have fun throwing axes?” she asked.
I nodded. “We did. I never thought throwing axes would be so stress relieving and such a turn-on.”
I kissed her throat. “Hell, yeah. Throwing axes was…you had to be strong and accurate. It was competition. And I won two rounds. So, yeah, it was definitely a turn-on.”
“Ah, and I get to reap the rewards of this?”
I shrugged. “It depends on how tired you are.”
“Well, I was sleeping when you got here.”
“Okay, then I can just roll over,” I offered.
“Now, I didn’t say you needed to do that,” Abby said, turning to face me. She cupped my face in her hands and brought my lips down to hers. She opened beneath me before our lips even touched, and she slid her tongue into my mouth instantly.
Abby nudged my thigh with her knee. I lifted and settled between her legs, pressing against her. She moaned into my mouth. God, I needed her.
I loved kissing my wife, and I loved being able to call her my wife. I cupped her breasts through her tank top, rubbing my thumbs over her nipples. The peaked for me, and she lifted her body to rub against mine.
I groaned and leaned back so I could look at her. Her eyes were closed, and I knew she was tired, but I wanted her. The way she tugged her lip between her teeth and looked up at me with lust in her eyes said she was just as into sex as I was.
I climbed out of bed and stripped my boxer briefs off and grinned when Abby quickly tugged her clothes off. I crawled back into bed and positioned myself between her legs again. I stared at her beautiful face as I slid into her, both of us groaning when I fit all the way inside.
“Fuck, you feel so good,” she whispered. “I love having you inside me.”
“Me, too,” I told her. “You’re amazing, Abby.”
“I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you so much, baby,” I told her.
She reached up and slid her hands around my neck, gently pulling me down to her. I kissed her, short strokes in and out of her body while we made out like when we first got together.
She sucked in a breath and moaned loudly, her nails scraping down my back. “God, yes, Graham.”
I leaned up and thrust harder into her. She slid her knee up my body until I could reach it, holding her open so I could stroke deeper.
“Oh, fuck,” she breathed.
I slid my free hand between us and rubbed over her clit with my thumb. She instantly jerked and moaned. Her entire body went rigid, then she squeezed her thighs together and her channel pulsed around me as her orgasm tore through her.
“Oh, God, yes,” she moaned, letting herself go.
I tried to focus on her so I could watch her, but the feel of her coming pushed me over the edge. I thrust in deep and hard and let go, spilling myself into her. I moaned her name and held myself inside her body until I stopped shuddering and collapsed on her.
Abby wrapped her arms around me and held me close. I stopped trying to roll off her years ago when she told me she wanted to feel us together for just a few extra minutes.
We both got up a minute later and went to the bathroom. We cleaned up and went right back to bed. I wrapped my wife in my arms and pulled her up against my body. I kissed her neck and tucked her under my chin.
“I think you need to go axe throwing more often,” she said quietly.
I chuckled. “Oh, yeah?”
She nodded. “Definitely.”
We both laughed and Abby quieted. It wasn’t long before her breathing evened out again and she fell back to sleep. I held her in my arms, knowing I was a lucky son of a bitch. I didn’t know how I managed to get her to fall in love with me, but I knew it was the best thing I’d ever done in my life.
I breathed in Abby’s hair and let myself relax. I had everything that mattered to me right there in my arms. Nothing else in the world could compare to Abby. Nothing.