Stacy’s laughter carried through the house, blending with Aria’s in a bubbling cascade that tumbled down the stairs into the kitchen, where Dan stood elbow-deep at the sink, cleaning up the last of the supper dishes. It was a chore he despised, but one he didn’t mind doing if it meant Stacy could rest.
“She doesn’t sound like she’s getting much rest though, does it?” Dan grumbled down to Willie Nelson, who lay sleeping on the rug at his feet. “Those two are up to something. I can feel it.”
The pup opened one eye long enough to find Dan unworthy of his attention, and resumed napping.
“She better at least be sitting down while she’s running that mouth of hers.”
With just shy of six weeks remaining of her pregnancy, Dan could feel her misery. She complained little as she carried the burden of a sore back, sore legs, sore breasts, sore everything. By the end of the day, her ankles would swell out of her shoes. Dan tried to keep her off her feet as much as possible, but he found it increasingly difficult to keep her pinned down, especially whenever Aria was around. Keeping those two reigned in and out of mischief was as impossible as herding cats. Pregnant, secretive cats, always with their heads together, whispering.
“They’re up to something,” Dan repeated to Willie. “I’ll bet dollars to donuts it has to do with our wedding on Saturday, something that’s going to cause me to lose another damn deposit because they can’t make up their freakin’ hormone-addled minds.”
Neither confirming nor denying his suspicion, the dog faked sleeping.
“Keep ignoring me, mutt, but we’ll see who’s complaining when your food bowl runs empty and I can’t afford to buy you kibble.”
Willie popped up his head, off his paws, his antennae ears perked.
“Ha! Got your attention now.”
“Are you talking to yourself again, Dan?” Aria teased, suddenly in the kitchen behind him, the secretive cat also stealthy. Willie leapt to his feet and scuttled across the room, whining to be pampered. Aria scooped him up, eager to oblige. “Aw, pretty sweetie, give me kisses.”
Wildly, Willie licked Aria’s cheeks and chin. Dan let out a pretend sigh. “Damn, for a minute there I thought you were talking to me.”
Aria swatted his arm. “I’m heading home.”
“Good. Now maybe Stacy can get some rest.”
“She had her feet propped up the whole time I was up there. I swear.”
“Are the final wedding plans all finalized for the final time?”
“Absolutely. No more changes. I promise.”
“Your nose is growing, Pinocchio.”
She laughed off Dan’s complaining, and cooed and kissed the wiggling pup in her arms. Willie greedily gobbled up Aria’s affection, like a dog starved for attention, letting out a whine of complaint when Aria handed him over to Dan. Dan immediately set the traitorous mutt on the floor.
“Stacy told me to tell you she’s hungry.”
“We just ate dinner. She can’t possibly be hungry.”
“Call it a craving, then.”
With a deep groan, Dan grabbed his keys from the hook by the backdoor and shrugged into his jacket, preparing to drive into town. Again. “Cheryl’s damn chili dogs are going to be the death of me.”
“Aw, poor baby.”
The lack of sympathy in her voice made him smile. He held Aria’s coat while she slipped in her arms. “Do Brent a favor. When your pregnancy cravings kick in, try and desire something he can fix at home. Don’t make him drive all over creation in the middle of a blizzard for Cheryl’s secret recipe.”
“Oh, quit your belly aching. Two snowflakes do not a blizzard make.” Aria buttoned her coat against the chill of the night, forced to leave the bottom few buttons undone due to her newly-showing baby bump. “Well, wish me luck. I’m off to call Ky again.”
“I thought you two were going to let that go.”
“When have we ever let anything go?”
“Never, but you’re asking for trouble with this one.” He wanted Kylie to come home from California and talk to Jimmy as much as the next guy, but not at his wedding. So much residual pain and anger boiled between them their reunion was destined to be toxic for everyone within a five-mile radius. Stacy didn’t need that stress on top of everything else, especially not at her wedding.
“Maybe we are, but I for one am sick and tired of sitting around, waiting for stupid people to figure out the obvious.”
“Did you have to pick my wedding as the place to explain it to them?”
“A wedding is the best place to do it, Dan, when there’s so much free love and happiness floating in the air.”
“That’s supposed to be me and Stacy’s love and happiness, and I plan to keep it that way. Promise me you won’t push it if it’s not going to happen.”
“Oh, it’ll happen. All they need is to be in the same room with each other again, hold each other again, dance with each other again.” She snapped her fingers and swiveled her hips. “Chemistry will take over from there.”
Dan scrubbed at his stubbled cheek in agitation. Brent was rubbing off on her, and not in a good way. She was delusional if she thought Kylie could forget what Jimmy had done and fall right back into love with him again. That kind of betrayal took a long time to forgive, especially when there was a child involved. It wasn’t going to happen over wedding cake and the Electric Slide.
“You worry too much, Dan.” She smiled, but he didn’t smile with her.
“You should worry more.”
“I am worried, and so is Stacy. That’s why we’re doing this.”
“Dan!” Stacy called down the stairs to him.
“I know, I know! I’m getting ‘em, Stace!” he hollered back, and then asked Aria, “How are you planning to convince Kylie to come? She’s been pretty adamant about saying no.”
“I don’t know for sure,” Aria admitted. “But I do know she’s dying to see Jimmy again. She just refuses to admit it.”
“We don’t even know that Jimmy’s going to be there. He’s already talking of heading to Florida to visit his mom. If he catches wind Kylie’s coming home, he’ll be on the next flight out for sure.”
“And miss seeing Ky? No way. If she’s at the wedding, I guarantee he will be, too.” Aria kissed his cheek, filling the air around him with her warm vanilla essence. “Sweet dreams, Dan.”
“Not likely,” he muttered to himself as she slipped into the chilly night air. Where usually he felt oddly comforted by her scent, tonight it only made his stomach roil.
The naked fear in Stacy’s voice propelled him to run. With Willie hot on his heels, he leapt up the stairs, taking four at a time to reach her faster. He found her standing in the middle of the master bedroom, clutching her swollen belly, pain and anxiety marring her gorgeous, pixie face.
“What hurts, Stace?” Gently, he placed his strong hands over her tiny ones. “Bad chili dog?”
Biting her lower lip against the pain, she shook her head. “You need to get me to the hospital.”
“Are you having those false contractions again?”
“No, they’re real.” Buried beneath sharp breaths, her voice came out as a tiny squeak. “And they hurt really bad, kochanie.”
“I know they do, Stacy baby, but are you absolutely positive you’re in labor this time? You were fine five minutes ago.”
She snapped. “Do I look fine now!?”
He ran his hands around her stomach, feeling for himself the tightening of her muscles as she contracted, but he still wasn’t convinced. They had already made the anxious drive to the hospital three times in the past two weeks. Each time Stacy had been certain she was in labor, and each time they had come home feeling a little foolish, without a baby.
“Are you sure it’s not indigestion from the—”
Livid, her tears dried, her fear dissipated. “Daniel Joseph Handley, if you don’t get me to the hospital right now I swear to Gram I will kick your ass from here into next Tuesday!”
“Okay. We’ll go.” With a sigh of surrender, he asked, “Can you walk?”
“Of course, I can walk,” she stated, bushing away his hand and his concern. She drew in a deep breath, exhaling in ragged, pained puffs and started for the stairs. “Don’t forget my bag.”
For the fourth time in two weeks, Dan hefted Stacy’s hospital bag onto his shoulder, and followed her and Willie down the stairs. Leaning heavily on the railing, she navigated each step with exaggerated care, progressing much slower than his long legs wanted to go, but he resisted the urge to pick her up and carry her. She hated when he coddled her.
“Aria’s calling Kylie for me again.” Cradling her belly, Stacy paused at the landing. “She’s going to say yes this time. I can feel it.”
Her eyes were so full of hope his heart broke, knowing she would be disappointed. “Honey, she’s told you no every single time you’ve asked. You have to accept she’s not coming to the wedding. She’s not coming home, and she’s not getting back together with Jimmy.”
“Yes, she will,” she said with certainty.
“We don’t even know for sure Jimmy’s coming to the wedding.”
“He will if Ky comes.”
“No, Stace, he won’t.”
“Yes, he will, especially if you ask him to be your best man.”
“I would love for him to be my best man, but I respect him too much to put him in the position of having to tell me no. I already know he doesn’t want to do it. I’m not going to force it on him. You have to let it go and allow them to move on.”
The bright light in her eyes dimmed. “You don’t have faith.”
“I have oodles of faith, Stace.” He took her by the elbow to guide her down the remaining stairs. “I just know better than to waste it on lost causes.”
Stacy ripped her arm away from him. “Family is not a lost cause, dupek.”
“You’re setting yourself up for heartbreak.”
“Maybe I am, but at least I’m trying.” Her tears came suddenly, without warning, pouring out in a hot river of pregnancy hormones. “You’re just sitting on your butt, doing nothing, while Jimmy drinks himself to death in that stupid house he bought. He’s your best friend and you’re doing nothing!”
Dan’s jaw clinched from her accusation. “Bullshit I’m doing nothing! Who do you think’s been ripping out those goddamn walls with him every single night?”
“But you’re not fixing him!”
“I can’t fix Jimmy! He doesn’t want to be fixed.”
“He wants Kylie to come home. And I’m bringing her to him!” She turned on her heel and lugged her oversized body up the stairs, reversing the path they had traveled moments before.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Dan demanded.
“I thought you were in labor!”
“I refuse to have this baby until my family is put back together again!” She continued up the stairs and down the hall, her pace determined, propelled by her desire to escape him.
“You can’t refuse to be in labor!”
“Oh, yeah?” She swiveled around in the doorway to face him, her eyes blazing in fury. “Watch me!”
He flinched when the door slammed and cursed when he heard the distinct sound of the lock clicking solidly into place. He knocked, but to no avail. “Come on, Stace. Let me in.”
“Go away, dupek!”
“We need to get you to the hospital.”
“Why? I’m not in labor,” she stubbornly stated. “I have no reason to go.”
Uncertain if he could believe her, or if he even knew which way was up anymore, Dan rested his forehead against the cool wood of the door. “Please let me in.”
He listened to the sound of silence, punctuated only by the beating of his own heart.
Willie’s tags jingled as he trotted up the stairs to join Dan’s vigil. His head cocked in confusion, he contemplated the closed door. When Willie whined to be allowed in, his plea went unanswered.
He turned around and slid down the door, sitting on the floor in the hall. In exhaustion, he tipped his head back.
“Talk to me, Stace.”
The door jerked opened so fast he didn’t have a chance to brace himself before he fell backward. His hands grasping at air, his back wrenched and he crashed onto the carpeted floor.
Willie let out a startled bark, and Dan released a few choice curses of his own, but the vertigo he suffered from his tumble into the bedroom was nothing compared to that of the earth suddenly dropping away when Stacy whispered, “I think my water just broke.”