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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

“Good morning. How’s my favorite baby?”

Nate carries Morgan down the hall in one hand and his messenger bag in his other hand, passing her to me with a huge grin on his face.

“She’s your favorite baby?”

I kiss her chubby cheek. Her mouth opens into a big smile. “Yes. I have no children of my own yet, no nieces or nephews, no friends who have named me Godmother to their children. So … how did the rest of the night go?”

He grabs his usual to-go cup of coffee. “Perfect. She didn’t wake up once. I think it must be the formula. There’s enough to last the day. I’ll pick up more on my way home.”

“Have you found someone to watch her when I’m gone?”

Nate eyes me over the black lid to his cup, taking a cautious sip. “My parents will watch her until Monday. My mom can be physically limited, but hopefully her knowledge mixed with my dad’s physical abilities will be the equivalent of one capable adult.”

Why do I feel so guilty?

“And next week?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.”

“You have class.”

He nods. “I do.”

“You can’t take her.”

“This is true.” He sticks an apple in his messenger bag and latches it.

“I’m sorry. I really wish there was something I could do.”

“Not your child. Not your problem.” The tight smile on his face doesn’t help my guilt.

“Still …” My lips twist into a painful frown.

“Not. Your. Problem.” Nate kisses Morgan on the head.

“It feels like my problem.” I follow him to the back door.

He shakes his head and chuckles. “She’s not your—”

“I know, I know … stop saying she’s not my child. I get it. But I care about her, and I don’t want some stranger watching her or you losing your job because you’re trying to teach a class with a baby attached to your chest.”

“What do you want me to say?” He turns.

I cradle Morgan to me. This little girl needs me. I feel it in a way that’s hard to explain. “I don’t know,” I whisper, the guilt bearing down until my chest aches.

“Do you want me to ask you to stay home to watch her?”

My gaze falls to Morgan. I can’t look at him, not when he’s looking at me with those eyes that feel as familiar as my own. “Do you want to ask me to stay home to watch her?”

“Yes.”

My heart pauses for a breath—a silent gasp. I asked the question, but I didn’t expect a one-word answer delivered with such raw honesty.

And when our eyes meet, there’s not a flash of regret.

“But I won’t.”

Dear heart, you can start beating again.

“And I won’t tell you that it’s unnerving to think of you on the back of a motorcycle for hundreds of miles or surrounded by a bunch of beer-chugging men who get off on objectifying women.”

“Nate …” I need to respond, but he’s robbed every thought that makes any sense.

“I guess…” his eyes avert away from mine as his teeth trap the corner of his lower lip “…it’s just what I think your father—any good father—would say to his daughter.”

Would my father approve of me going to a motorcycle rally with Griffin? Absolutely not. But he’s not here. I’m an adult. And Griffin loves me. I trust him with my heart and my life. He makes me feel safe, even when I don’t know why I have this desperate need to feel safe. Yet, I do.

“Griffin would never let anything happen to me.”

Nate studies me. “A man on a bike amid SUVs and semitrucks doesn’t have a lot of control. He’s at fate’s mercy.”

“Aren’t we all at fate’s mercy?”

Nate flinches. It’s slight, but I see it. And the regret grips my heart.

“That was terrible. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s fine.” He opens the back door.

Nate is a single father because fate lacked any sort of mercy the day Morgan came into this world and Jenna left it. Why did I have to remind him of that?

“Have a good day.”

My lips pull into a tiny, painful grin. “You too.”

The door closes. My familiar stranger breaks my heart every day. When I’m home, all I want is to fall into the world of Griffin Calloway—love’s muse. But when I’m here, with Morgan gazing up at me, so innocent and helpless, I feel like something incomprehensible has led me to her.

I can’t risk losing Griffin, searching for something that may never be found, but I also can’t let this go. Part of me belongs to this unknown.

“Let’s get some floor time … in your daddy’s room.”

Morgan’s arms flail. She’s excited about it too. My bare feet pad down the shiny wood floor toward the open door at the end of the hall. Nate used to keep his door closed; now he leaves it open. It feels like an invitation. He wanted me to see those photos last night. He gave me permission to snoop. Maybe this is his way of helping me figure this out.

The camera no longer phases me. I lay Morgan on her mobile play mat and retrieve the box of photos from Nate’s closet.

“My god …” I pull out picture after picture and arrange them on the floor beside Morgan’s mat. They’re so vivid in my mind—holidays, hockey games, the tree house, the lake. My hands move them in order; I’m not sure how they know—how I know—but I do. When I’m done, there are six pictures that I don’t recognize, but they are of Nate. He’s older than my memory recalls, maybe in his twenties.

“Nate …” I stop on a black and white portrait of him with his shirt off, maybe on a beach. He’s looking off into the distance like he’s lost or even a little broken. There’s a darker tint to his wavy hair, maybe from the water, and a trimmed beard shadows his jaw. A smattering of hair covers his defined chest. He’s … beautiful.

“Were you thinking of Daisy?” I whisper. This photo … I can’t stop staring at it. I’ve never seen such a deep expression on the face of another human. “I’m not her.”

But I wish I were. I can only imagine how incredible it must have been to be loved by Nate. Will I ever make a mark on Griffin like the one Daisy made on Nate? If I died today, would Griffin mourn me for the rest of his life? Would he find another to love and name his daughter after me?

I chuckle. “I hope not.” One Swayze is enough.

Morgan starts to fuss.

“Are you hungry? Or just tired of floor time?” I set the beach photo aside and gather the other pictures, returning them to the box, but my gaze returns to that photo. I want to be there on that beach with him. I want to run my hands through those windblown locks and look into those soulful eyes until I feel exactly what he was feeling in that moment. With my back to the camera in the corner, I slip the photo into my pocket. I will return it—eventually.

“This is so messed-up,” I mumble, returning the box to the closet shelf. “Okay, fussy pants, let’s get you fed.” She feels warm when I press my lips to her forehead. “What’s going on? Do you not feel well?”

Morgan drinks less than half of her bottle before she falls asleep, warm—too warm. I take her temperature. 102 degrees.

Swayze: Morgan has a 102 temp.

Professor: Eating?

Swayze: Not quite half her bottle.

Professor: Crying?

Swayze: Sleeping.

Professor: I’ll call John.

Five or so minutes later I get another text.

Professor: Let her sleep. See if she eats when she wakes. Retake her temp and let me know. I can come home if you need me.

Swayze: We’re good for now. I’m not worried. I just wanted you to know.

Professor: Thank you.

*

“Hey.” Nate drops his messenger bag on the counter.

I look up from my book, hot as hell from a small heater sleeping on my chest most of the day. “Hi.”

“How’s she doing?”

“Still 102. But she took the rest of her bottle and part of another one.”

He nods, resting his hand on the top of her head. I can’t look at him without seeing the Nate in the photo stashed away in my pocket.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

I blink and avert my gaze from his eyes. It’s impossible not to look into his eyes and wonder what he was thinking when that picture was taken. “Yeah. Just … hot.”

“I’m sure.” He eases her from my chest, and she fusses a bit before falling back to sleep in his arms. “Thank you.”

I lift my stiff body out of the chair. “No apology necessary. Rocking sick babies is part of the job. I’ve done it many times before.”

He rests his cheek on top of her head. It’s precious and heartbreaking. She needs her mom and he needs his wife.

“Still …” Those soulful eyes find my gaze and a sad smile tugs at his mouth. “I feel bad that I wasn’t here.”

“You can’t be everywhere and everything to her always.”

“Well…” he rubs circles on her back “…I’m glad you were here. In fact, I have an offer for you.”

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