Nick struggled to play the part of the newly married husband and not get sucked into the ruse. The tiny glow of belonging grew to a strong flare, but he snuffed it out with a decisive blow. This was not his family and he was only tolerated because he’d married Alexa. He needed to remember that. A dull ache pressed against his chest but he ignored it. Sure, they seemed to accept him, but only because they believed their marriage was real. Like all things, acceptance would end, too.
He might as well get used to the idea early.
Jim thumped him on the back and called over his brother. “Charlie, did you hear what Nick’s doing down by the waterfront?”
Uncle Charlie shook his head.
“He’s one of the few firms up for a bid to completely renovate all the buildings. We’re talking big time here.” Jim puffed up with pride. “Now I got a doctor and an architect to brag about. Not too shabby, huh?”
Uncle Charlie agreed and they threw a bunch of questions at Nick regarding his career. Inside, something shifted. He gave his answers but the strong wall around his emotions rumbled in warning. Jim spoke like he was no son-in-law, but a real son, comparing him to Lance. Maria made note of his favorite foods and pointed them out, smiling with pleasure when he almost blushed under her attention. Uncle Eddie invited him to his house to check out his new flat screen television and watch the Giants, seeming genuinely pleased to gain another male in the family.
Needing a break to get his head clear, he excused himself and walked down the hallway to find an empty bathroom. On his way, he glimpsed a bunch of giggling women packed in the small spare room. Alexa held a baby in her arms, her cousin’s he presumed, and rocked the infant back and forth with a natural feminine grace. The women spoke in hushed whispers and he caught the tail end of “great sex” when he paused in the doorway.
The mass stopped and stared at him in silence.
Nick shifted on his other foot, suddenly uncomfortable with the blatant looks of all Alexa’s cousins. “Hi. Um, just looking for an empty bathroom.”
They nodded but kept taking inventory. Finally, Alexa spoke up. “Use the one in the back bedroom, sweetheart. And shut the door, will you?”
“Sure.” He closed the door on the tail end of another giggle, then the whole group broke into hysterics. Nick shook his head and headed toward the back.
He was stopped mid-flight by the three-year-old.
“Hi,” he said back. Her wide eyes were serious, and he swallowed hard, wondering if he had to make conversation with her or if it would be acceptable to just step around and move on. “Uh, I’m just looking for the bathroom.”
“I have to go potty, too,” she announced.
“Oh. Okay, why don’t you get your mommy?”
“She’s not here. Have to go bad. Come on.”
She reached out a tiny hand and he panicked. There was no way in hell he was going to take a toddler to the potty. He didn’t know what to do. What if there was a problem? He backed off a few steps and shook his head. “Uh, no, Taylor, why don’t you get Aunt Alexa to take you?”
Her face screwed up a bit. “Gotta go now. Bad.”
He turned and knocked on the door where the women were. Again, silence fell past the wooden barrier. “Who is it?”
“Nick. Uh, Alexa, your niece needs you to take her potty.”
A pause. “I’m busy now, honey. Just go in with her, okay? It’ll only take a minute.” He heard a low mutter, then a cackle. Nick retreated, afraid to admit he couldn’t handle it in front of a bunch of women who judged his every move. He turned back to the little girl.
“Uh, can you wait one more minute? Maybe Grandma will take you?”
Taylor shook her blonde curls and jumped up and down. “Gotta go now, please, please.”
“One minute.” He raced down the hallway and into the kitchen where Maria was immersed in turkey stuffing. “Maria?”
“Uh, Taylor needs to go the bathroom and wants you to take her.”
She mopped her brow with her elbow and resumed basting. “Can’t right now, why don’t you take her? It will only take a minute.”
Nick wondered what would happen if he burst into tears. The horror of the situation hit him full force, and he realized he had no choice or Taylor would pee her pants and tell on him and then he’d be in real trouble.
He raced back and found her hopping on one foot. “Okay, let’s go. Hold it, hold it, hold it.” He chanted the same line over and over as he slammed the door and picked up the lid. She lifted her dress and waited, so he assumed she needed help with her underwear. He closed his eyes and pulled them down, then lifted her onto the toilet. He heard a sigh of relief and a slow steady trickle that told him so far everything worked okay. His confidence came back. He could handle a kid. Nothing to be afraid of.
“I want ice cream.”
Nick recited the same words Alexa had used that worked so well. “You can have ice cream after dinner.”
He took a gulping breath and tried again. “You can definitely have ice cream. But just wait a bit longer, okay?”
Her lower lip trembled. “I want ice cream now. I’ve waited, and waited, and I promise I’ll eat all of my dinner if you get me some now. Please?”
His mouth dropped open at her heartfelt pleas. What was he supposed to do? Nick reminded himself he was a successful businessman. How bad could a little girl be?
He kept his voice firm. “First eat your dinner, then you can have ice cream. You have to listen to your mom and your aunt.”
The lower lip wobbled even more. Tears filled china blue eyes. “But Mommy and Aunt Al and Grandma never listen to me. I promise, promise, promise to eat everything on my plate, but I want some now. You can sneak it from the freezer and I’ll eat it right here and I’ll never tell. And you will be my best friend forever and ever! Please!”
He squirmed in pure terror and stuck to his guns. “I can’t.”
Taylor started to cry.
At first he thought he could do it. A couple of tears, he’d calm her down, walk her back to her mother, and still be the adult in this whole thing. But she opened her mouth and wailed while tears dripped down her smooth, rosy cheeks. Her lips shook and she looked so miserable Nick couldn’t take it anymore. After begging her to please stop and she continued, he did the only thing left.
“Okay, I’ll get you the ice cream.”
She sniffed prettily. Droplets clung to her long blonde lashes and stuck to her cheeks. “I’ll wait here.”
He left her on the potty and walked back out in the hallway. He figured he’d meet a parent or grandparent or aunt along the way to stop him, but he just walked into the kitchen filled with chaos, opened the freezer, and found a popsicle. Still he paused, awaiting discovery.
So, he unwrapped the popsicle, grabbed a napkin, and walked back to the bathroom.
Taylor was still on the toilet.
He held out the ice cream and she reached her chubby hand out and broke into one of the sweetest smiles he had ever seen in his life. His heart did a quick meltdown, and she stared into his eyes and promised him the world. “Thank you. You will be my very best new friend!”
Pride streamed through him as she enjoyed her ice cream. Kids were always hungry anyway, so he was positive she’d eat her dinner, but decided he better tell her this whole thing was to be kept under wraps.
“Don’t forget the ice cream is a secret, remember? Just between you and me.”
She nodded seriously. “Emily and me have lots of secrets together. But we can’t tell anybody.”
He nodded with satisfaction. “Exactly. Secrets aren’t told to anybody.”
Someone knocked on the door. “Nick, are you in there?”
“Go away, Alexa, we’re fine. Be out in a minute.”
“Auntie Al, guess what?” Taylor screamed. “I got ice cream!”
Nick closed his eyes. Leave it to a female to break your heart.
The door swung open. Nick imagined the scene before her eyes. Taylor on the potty, eating an ice cream pop, while he crouched on the small wicker stool in front of her, holding a wad of toilet paper in hand.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit,” Taylor repeated happily. “See my ice cream, Auntie Al? I got it from him! My new best friend.”
Nick waited for the explosion. The laughter. Anything but the dead silence from the bathroom doorway. When he finally got brave enough to look up, Alexa stared at him with sheer amazement, shock, and another emotion he didn’t understand. Almost tenderness.
She cleared her throat and got to work. “You really did it this time, squirt. Have one last bite and give the pop to me.”
Nick wondered why she didn’t argue with Alexa, then figured he should be grateful. His wife deftly wrapped the leftover ice cream in a wad of tissues and buried it in the bathroom garbage. She nudged Nick aside, picked Taylor off the toilet, and took the wad of paper from him to clean her up. Alexa pulled up Taylor’s underwear, straightened her dress, washed both of their hands, and did a quick wipe of her mouth to remove any evidence.
Then Alexa walked out of the bathroom with a very happy three-year-old and a confused adult. She squatted and spoke directly in Taylor’s ear. The little girl nodded, then took off to join the guests.
“What did you say to her?” he asked.
She smiled with an experienced smugness. “Told her if she breathed a word about any ice cream, she’d never get any more from us. Trust me, the kid speaks our language.”
“You’re not mad?”
She turned to face him. “Are you kidding? You have no idea how many things I’ve snuck that little angel. She cried, didn’t she?”
His mouth gaped open. “Yeah, how did you know?”
“Happens to me all the time. You didn’t have a chance. Oh, one more thing.”
“I am incredibly turned on right now and will show you exactly how much when we get home.”
Astonishment cut through him. “You’re playing with me.”
She gave him an open mouthed, curl-your-toes, drop dead, tongue-to-tongue kiss. Then pulled away with a sly smile. “No. But I’ll be certain to play with you later.”
Then she sashayed out of the bedroom leaving him with a hard on and a confused look on his face.
Two weeks later, Nick wondered if all power was lost once a man had sex with a woman.
His last presentation with Conte assured him a decision would be final by the first of the year. He squirmed the whole damn time he spoke with the man, who immediately asked how Alexa was, but thought he handled the situation well. The investors had whittled it down to Nick and StarPrises—a big company housed in Manhattan. He had one big conference to unveil his final model and design before Christmas. Thank God Drysell backed him hard, because they neared the final battle. Unfortunately, Nick had no clue which way the Count swayed and it made him nervous as hell.
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