Chase stood in the middle of the baby supplies aisle, staring at a wall of diapers, and tried to remember what size Nolan wore, which brand gave him a rash, which ones Jill didn’t like. The longer he considered them, the more they all looked familiar, and all looked wrong. He selected one at random and held it up to Nolan, who lounged in his car seat in the shopping cart. “Is this the kind Mommy buys?”
Eyes wide, Nolan pushed his tongue out of his mouth and spread his fingers, but otherwise had no comment on the situation.
“Thanks for your help, buddy.” Chase tapped Nolan’s tiny hand in a baby fist-bump and tossed the diapers into the basket of the cart. “We can always come back if we’re wrong.”
Heading for produce, Chase spun the cart around without looking, and nearly crashed into a young, tight blonde in yoga pants. He stopped short and offered an apology, then waited for her to pass. Instead, she lingered to make a fuss over Nolan.
“Oh, my goodness, how adorable!” She moved in closer, gently stroked his cheek, and Nolan flashed his brand new, toothless grin. “How old is he?”
She turned to Chase, sneaking a quick glance at his ring finger before checking out the rest of him. Her cheeks tinted the soft pink of a practiced blush and she gave him a little smile, advertising her willingness.
“Almost six weeks,” he answered, offering a smile of willingness of his own, but she had already returned her attention to Nolan.
“Aren’t you’re a handsome little guy? Just like your daddy.”
Since Nolan’s birth, Chase had started attracting a different kind of woman, the ones who hadn’t given him as much as a second glance before. These women were not the carefree kind he used to seek, the ones who thrived on the weekend high and the passion of a one-night stand. Instead, they craved what their sisters and co-workers and best friends had—a husband, a baby, a house with a yard and a Disney vacation. Until they found it, they wanted to play house. He made a good playmate.
“What’s his name,” she asked Chase.
“Oh, my gosh, I love that name. Nolan. Like that guy, the baseball player, right?”
“Sure,” Chase agreed, growing tired of her fake cheer. Nolan had fussed most of the night, only sleeping for a half hour at a time before crying out with colic. He and Jill had taken turns walking the hall with him, leaving neither of them well rested. Inching the cart away, he hinted, “We better get going. His mom’s waiting for us.”
“Oh! Sure.” She checked his ring finger again, and then pressed a hand against her chest. “I’m Hannah, by the way.”
“Hannah,” he repeated and continued to inch by.
“Goodbye, Nolan,” she cooed as she crowded in, forcing Chase to stop the cart. “Goodbye, beautiful boy.”
“Goodbye, Hannah,” Jill suddenly said from behind them, her intention clear as she stepped between the blonde and her child. “It was so nice meeting you.”
Chase bit back a smile as Hannah startled and took a defensive step back. Nolan’s nose crinkled and his face lit in joy at the sound of his mother’s voice. He squealed and thrust his body upward, reaching for her. Jill’s tired eyes brightened as she smiled down and softly clapped her hands before unbuckling his safety straps and lifting him into her arms.
Jill shot a glance over her shoulder, watching as Hannah disappeared. “Are you using my baby to pick up… that?”
“Hey, he’s the one using me.” Chase held up his hands in innocence and tried not to laugh at the look of disgust on her face. “Our kid’s got good taste. Hannah was hot.”
Jill grumbled a very different opinion of the girl under her breath as she reached into the cart, picked up the package of diapers, and exchanged it for one that looked exactly the same as the one Chase had selected. “The pharmacy’s out of Nolan’s tummy drops again. We’ll have to stop at the one down the road on the way home.”
“That’s fine.” He reached up and brushed a stray strand of hair away from her flushed cheeks. “You feeling okay?”
“Tired,” she admitted.
“Me, too.” He pointed the cart toward the front of the store. “Maybe he’ll fall asleep in the car and you can sneak in a nap before work tonight.”
She nodded and snuggled Nolan in closer, placing a kiss on his head. She walked alongside, silent as he loaded the cart with hot dogs, corn chips and canned chili for himself, packaged salad, deli chicken and bottled water for her. At some point, one of them was going to have to learn how to cook, but neither had the energy at the moment.
She broke her silence in the cereal aisle. “I’m not jealous, just so you know.”
“I know,” he assured her.
“I mean, I am, but not like you think. I don’t care if you like that girl.”
“I just didn’t like her touching my baby.”
“It was weird,” he agreed.
“It was, right? I’m not being stupid?” she asked.
“You’re not stupid. You’re being protective.”
He placed a hand at the small of her back, gently guiding her away from her fears and toward the registers. As they hoped, Nolan fell asleep on the way home. Chase lifted him from the car with extreme care, certain his next move would be the one that woke the colic monster. Nolan fussed only once as Chase carried him inside and gently laid him in his crib, watching over him until his breathing became steady with peaceful sleep. He lingered a bit longer, as always, mesmerized by the sight of his son.
Jill stepped beside him, her hands clasped close to her heart, as though warming her fingers. When she shook with a slight shiver, he slipped an arm around her and she rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m not jealous,” she repeated in whisper.
“I know,” he whispered his reply as to not wake Nolan. Together, they left their son to sleep and moved into the living room, settling on opposite sides of the sofa. “I know you don’t feel that way about me, and that’s okay. I never expected that from you, and honestly, I don’t know how I feel about anything right now. I keep thinking about Stacy…” He looked down to his grease stained hands, scrubbed at his rough skin. “I keep thinking about all the ways I messed that up, about all the things I did wrong, and said wrong, and everything I never gave her.”
“You can’t keep going back there, Chase.”
“I’m trying not to,” he said, but he did keep going back. Every night as he lay on his lonely bed on the sofa, staring at the dark ceiling, listening for Nolan’s cry, he thought of Stacy. He thought of her smile and her laugh, of how she would touch his face in that way that made everything okay. And he wondered how he could have ever been so selfish as to deny her of her dreams. “It’s hard to let go.”
She turned toward him, curling her legs beneath her. “I like what we have between us now, with you living here. And not just because you help with Nolan and the bills and stuff, but because… I don’t know.” She shrugged, as though lost for words. “I’m tired. And babbling. Just ignore me.”
“No, I like it, too,” he rushed, not allowing her to dismiss the conversation. “I never imagined I’d get to be here for Nolan like this—I never imagined I’d want to be here for the screaming and crying and diapers and no sleep, but I do. But it’s been…” He searched for the right word. “Incredible. Thank you.”
“I should be thanking you. I was terrified to do this on my own. I had nightmares and panic attacks just thinking about it. I honestly thought I’d have to move back in with my mom. Because of you, I didn’t have to, and I was able to get over the fear on my own. Even if you left tomorrow, I know I’ve got this. So, thank you for that.”
“Whenever you want me to leave, just say the word, and I’ll go.”
He knew it would come eventually. As much as he hated the idea, he had to be ready. The last thing he wanted was for her to feel obligated to take care of him. It was how he had treated Stacy, and he never wanted to another woman to carry the same burden.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said.
“But when you do…”
Her gaze shifted out the window as she left his words hanging between them. There was more he wanted to say, another promise he needed her to make, before the moment passed and he lost the nerve.
“When you do finally kick my sorry ass to the curb, I don’t want your boyfriend thinking he’s Nolan’s dad, like he has more right to my son than I do just because he’s with you. I know how it works. The mom gets full custody and the guy’s just every other weekend and a child support check.”
“I would never think that. You’re Nolan’s dad, one hundred percent.”
She sounded sincere, and he was certain she felt that way in the moment, but it would be a very hard promise to keep, for both of them.
“The idea of dating again is kind of scary. And having sex? No way.” She groaned. “My body’s all gross now.”
“No, it’s not.”
“It really is,” she insisted. “And I’m scared what it’s going to feel like, if it’s going to hurt, or if I’m even going to be able to feel it at all. It’s kind of like when I was in high school, obsessing about losing my virginity. I’d heard such horror stories about the pain and the blood that I was terrified I would make a fool out of myself, so I lost it to this complete asshole of a guy who had been with so many girls already I figured he wouldn’t think twice about me when it was over. It hurt, but it was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be, and he wasn’t as big of a jerk as I assumed he was. Crazy, but it’s always the guys I like the most that turn out to be the biggest assholes.”
Assuming he was the biggest of them all, he offered a belated, “Sorry.”
“You are an ass, for sure, but I was already disillusioned by the idea of love by the time you came around. I just thought I was smarter about my birth control.”
He snorted out an involuntary laugh. “I thought I was, too.”
“Speaking of birth control…” She shifted on the sofa again, fidgeting. “When I was in the pharmacy looking for Nolan’s drops, I picked up something else, too, and…” She blushed, let out a nervous laugh. “I feel stupid asking this, and you can say no if you want, but at my last checkup my doctor cleared me for sex and I was thinking since you’ve already seen me at my very worst—”
Startled by his eager response, her face flushed crimson. “Okay?”
“I’m a guy. You don’t have to ask me twice.”
“But, I just… Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. When do you want to do it?”
Stunned, she opened and closed her mouth, then shrugged. “Now?”
“Okay.” He grabbed her hips and swiftly scooted her down on the sofa, before she could change her mind.
She bit her bottom lip, smiling as he struggled out of his shirt and fumbled with his boots. “This doesn’t mean we’re together, in any kind of way.”
“Okay. Where are the condoms?”
With a laugh, she rolled toward her purse and fished out the package. “And you don’t get to move off the sofa, into my bed.”
“Not a problem.”
“This is a onetime-only thing.”
“You might consider two times,” he said as he rushed to finish undressing them both. “It’s been awhile.”
Before she could think up any more rules, he ripped open the condom with his teeth, slipped it on, and settled in the cradle of her hips. Then he slowed his eager pace and she took control, directing where he touched, how he moved, and how fast he took her where she wanted to go. Her breasts were off-limits, swollen and tender from nursing, but he explored every other bit of her body, softened and strengthened in gorgeous motherhood.
He kept his touch tender, his movements a gentle caress, until she demanded more, seeking the familiar rhythm of their best nights together, craving that pulsating crescendo. As he felt her body thrum and her temperature rise, as her breath quickened against his neck and he heard her soft gasp of pleasure as she tightened around him, his body responded in a rush of hot release so powerful tears came to his eyes. Rolling away from her, he draped an arm over his face to mask his weakness with the sting of sweat. She rested her head against his heaving chest, her hand over his wildly beating heart, and he felt her warm tears roll across his skin.
He caught breath enough to ask, “Are you okay?”
“I’m good,” she assured him as she placed a soft kiss on his chest. “Real good.”
“Good,” he repeated as his skin flamed and his heart shuddered in panic. He pulled in deeper and deeper breaths, trying to force his body to stop reacting, stop feeling, stop panicking from her touch. Heavily, he exhaled, “That’s good.”
“Yeah,” he lied as his vision faded in and out and the room darkened. “I’m good.”
But he wasn’t good. Something was wrong, horribly wrong. His heart hurt, like he was dying, right there in her embrace. He tried to force the pain away, but she shifted in his arms, pressed her body tighter against his, and the pressure in his chest grew so intense he had no room left for breath. He was suffocating, strangling on the sweltering air between them.
She pressed her lips against his neck, tasted the sweat on his skin. Certain she would feel his death in his pulse, he sought the courage to speak the truth. But it was Nolan who cried out to her. Without hesitation, she untangled from his embrace and disappeared. Once she left, the room cooled and his breathing calmed, but his heart still ached, broken and abused by the causal games he never should have played.