Authors: Lisa Wingate
Tags: #FIC042040, #FIC027020, #FIC042000, #Women professional employees—Washington (D.C.)—Fiction, #Life change events—Fiction, #Ranch life—Texas—Fiction, #Land use—Fiction, #Political corruption—Fiction
“Oh.” So was Iâall confused.
Daniel shifted on the sofa, forcing me to sacrifice the warm spot under his chin, so I could see him. Those eyes, those beautiful green eyes, took me in. They were so pensive, so concerned, as if an invasion of the Daddy-body-snatchers had stolen away my gypsy king.
I felt every heartbeat in my chest, felt the teary lump rising and growing more imminent by the minute.
Please don't say it. Please don't say it
“So, anyway, I was thinkingÂ .Â .Â .” he began.
Here it comes, here it comes.
I braced myself. Or tried. For some reason, a snippet of Josh and Kaylyn's video-game programmer talk raced through my mind.
Shields, shields, raise the deflector shieldsÂ .Â .Â .
“Â .Â .Â . what do you think he should call you?” Daniel finished.
“IÂ .Â .Â . huh?” My disembodied self melted back into the
carcass of the highlighted-blond, brown-eyed girl on the sofa.
I wanted to say.
You scared me to death for that?
I pretended to have a tickle in my throat and something in my eye. In reality, tears of joy had begun to seep onto the bridge of my nose. “Sorry. I must have gotten a whiff of something.” I fanned myself, my body hot, then cold, then hot again. My gosh. I was crazy about this man. How was that possible after only a couple weeks? “I don't know. I hadn't thought about it.”
Because I know absolutely nothing about kids.
To my nieces, I was just a big kidâsomeone fun to play with, but completely useless at mealtime or bath time.
Daniel scratched the nape of his neck, seeming to agonize over the question. “It's just thatÂ .Â .Â . wellÂ .Â .Â . however we get him started, that's what it'll be forever. Kids are creatures of habit, you know?”
I nodded. Nope, didn't know. This whole issue had never even crossed my tiny little mind, nor could I really focus on it now. I was still stuck on one word of that sentence:
Forever, forever, forever
“Why don't you pick?” I suggested. “I'm okay with whatever you decide.”
I instantly sensed that I'd given the wrong answer. He looked disappointedâas if I'd blown off something he considered important, indicating that I didn't understand the weight of it. “Okay, let me think a minute.” I said
. Think. Think, think, thinkÂ .Â .Â .
I'm not his aunt. I'm not his mother. Well, not yet, but a girl can dream.
These were changing times, but I had always been taught that children didn't call adults by their first names. My mother found the familiar way my older nieces spoke to me to be completely distasteful. Since they wouldn't use
, she had attempted to convert them to
, the French word for
, which, in her view, had greater
hipness to it. It was a flop, unless the nieces were trying to tease me. Then, when Mother asked who'd spilled Kool-Aid on the kitchen floor and failed to wipe it up, they'd call out,
Tante M did it,
with an emphasis on the French.
It crossed my mind that whenever I did finally work up the guts to confess to my mother that I was seriously dating a divorced guy with a three-and-a-half-year-old sonâat which time she would frown gravely and remind me that I was recently out of a two-year relationshipâshe would not be impressed if Daniel's preschool-aged child was calling me by my first name.
“How about Tante M? It's French for
. It's sort of a weird handle my mother made up. She hates it when the nieces call me by my first name.”
“Tante M.” Daniel licked his lips, tasting the word.
I watched his lips, felt myself swoon. Everything about him lit me up like a Christmas tree. He hadn't even tried to put the moves on me, which, considering that this was DC, was shocking. Daniel was a perfect gentleman, old-fashioned in his view of things. I found that as charming as everything else about him. I'd almost lost faith that there were guys like that around anymore, but deep inside me, there was that image of my parents romancing in the pool. I'd always known that casual relationships were no substitute for true love and lifetime commitment. Aside from that, Great-grandma Louisa had avidly assured us girls that a man does not buy the cow if he can get the milk for free. You don't forget a mental image like that one. Ever.
“But we can pick something else if you don't think that seems good.” Maybe he thought the whole foreign language thing was dorky.
He shifted, bracing a hand on the sofa arm and leaning toward me. “I don't know. I'm not sure I want some other
man talking to you in French.” His voice was throaty and rich. “You might like him better than you like me.”
“Not possible,” I whispered, and he kissed me, and the storm of worry in my mind whirled off into a corner, growing smaller and smaller, until it was just a little swirl, like water spinning down the drain after a hot bath.
Not possible that I could like someone better than you.
In some hidden part of my soul, I knew that
wasn't the word I meant. I didn't just
Daniel. I was in love in every way a girl could be. If two weeks was too soon to be using that word, I couldn't help it. This was it. The Amy Ashley romance novel kind of love. I wanted to be his Irish bride.
No other man I would ever meet could possibly make me feel like this, I was certain.
But as it turned out, little Nick took a pretty good stab at it the very next day. I liked him the minute we met, over a picnic of fried chicken and soggy potato wedges. I'd been burning the midnight oil at work, and the best I could do was a quick brown-bag dinner in Bartholdi Park. I was, at least, newly out of the walking cast, so the stroll over was no problem.
Nick was not only adorable, he was funny, articulate, andâperhaps because he felt the absence of a mom in his lifeâsurprisingly attuned to women. Moments after we met, he told me he liked my hair. I'd let it dry wavy that day, and he said it was
. I fell in love. While Nick explored the softly trickling water feature nearby, I told his father he had competition for my affections.
“Figures.” Daniel let his head droop forward, his shoulders rounding in a display of surrender. “Nick always gets the girls. You should see him at day care.”
“I think you're doing all right yourself.” I stretched onto my tiptoes for a kiss while Nick wasn't looking. The next thing I knew, something was pushing on my knee, trying to
force me away from Daniel. An instant later, I realized that it was Nick, and that we'd been caught. Guilt sledgehammered me. I'd watched the talk shows. I knew that this first meeting should have been about getting acquainted in a nonthreatening way that was easy for Nick to adjust to. Less than a half hour together, and I'd blown it already. He hated me.
Step away from my daddy,
the pressure of that little hand said.
Who do you think you are, strange-princess-hair-woman?
Daniel and I yielded to the push in unison. There was a hand pressing on his leg, too. When we looked down, Nick was poised between us like a tiny Atlas, trying to hold two worlds apart. Daniel cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable. He gave me a worried look. I was sorry that we hadn't waited for a less rushed time to begin introductions with Nickâmaybe allowed him a few days to reacclimate to DC.
“Sorry, buddy,” Daniel said, and Nick just rolled a look at himâthe kind of honest scorn that comes from a little psyche not yet attuned to hiding feelings in order to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy.
We'd really screwed up.
Daniel extended a hand to take Nick's. “C'mon, bud. Let's go see the water.”
I took a step back. Now would probably be a good time to exit, since this hadn't gone so well. “I shouldÂ .Â .Â . ummmÂ .Â .Â .” I thumbed over my shoulder, wincing apologetically. “Go back toÂ .Â .Â .”
I never finished the sentence. The most amazing thing happened, and in that moment, I felt certain that angels must have been swirling overhead. They smiled down on us as Nick turned to me, his face rising into the light, his blue eyes framed with his father's thick lashes. He reached upward, fingers extended, all ten of them, as far as they would go, and in the space of a heartbeat, I understood that he wanted me to pick him up.
Daniel and I glanced at each other, and he just shrugged. “Well, I can see I'm second-rate.”
I picked Nick up, swinging him onto my hip somewhat awkwardly, but he didn't seem to notice. Instead, he flashed an over-the-shoulder smirk at his dad, a pleased look with perhaps a hint of gloat in it. Daniel grinned wider and shook his head, a dark curl toying near his eyebrow. “I think someone's after my best g-i-r-l.” He spelled the last word, and Nick squinted at him, trying to discern the meaning.
I felt like a queen, like a rock star, like a supermodel with adoring fans crowding in at the edges of the catwalk, fighting over me. Nick wasn't pushing me away from his dad. He was pushing his dad away from me.
Nick wrapped his little arms around my shoulders, and from that moment on, we were friends. He quickly discovered that although I didn't know how to properly cut up a hot dog into toddler bites and I could not even begin to name the characters on
Thomas the Tank Engine
, I could keep a balloon in the air for a long time without reusing any part of my body, I was pretty good with a soccer ball, and I had a poor short-term memory that made me easy to beat at the memory match card game. Time after time, it was a mystery to me which card had the purple dinosaur under it and which had the rubber ducky, and so on. Nick loved that about me. He also knew more farm animal sounds than I did, and he loved that, too. I had no idea what a goat might say, and I didn't know whether a bull would
like a cow or snort like a fire-breathing dragon. Nick knew because his grandparents lived in a rural neighborhood with farms just down the road. I didn't mind losing parlor games to a kid who had yet to graduate from day care to official preschool. I was just happy that the three of us were bonding so well.
We made dinners together. We played games. We did things
on the weekends. We watched the last of the spring blossoms fall and new leaves come in. The Gymies, fearing that I'd been kidnapped by some underground government agency, began reconnoitering, sniffing out the situation, asking concerned questions.
“Don't you think things are moving a littleÂ .Â .Â . fast, though?” Kaylyn wanted to know when I called to ask Josh if I could borrow a few of his Disney DVDs for a couple days. Daniel had to go out of town to some sort of symposium about fertilizers and genetically modified super crops, and due to a snafu with the baby-sitting he'd arranged, I'd agreed to stay with Nick through the weekend.
“I mean, it sounds like you're practically moving in over there.” Kaylyn's romantic notions of St. Patrick's Day magic and Irish destiny seemed to have faded away. “It's only been, like, a month, y'know.”
A month? Had it really been only a month? “I'm
watching Nick for the weekend while Daniel's gone. I'm not
.” But in the pit of my stomach there was a giddy little domestic feeling that I hadn't told anyone about. I was looking forward to spending the weekend with Nickâboiling hot dogs, working on my ability to make boxed convenience foods, watching Disney movies, and reading favorite storybooks before tucking him into his little race car bed.
“What's your mom think about all this?” Kaylyn had been dragged along on enough of my mother's DC shopping visits to fully understand the undertows between Mom and me.
“I haven'tÂ .Â .Â . exactlyÂ .Â .Â . said anything to them,” I admitted.
“You haven't told your parents?” Kaylyn's shock caused me to hold the cell phone away from my ear.
“I will. I will,” I ground out, the pressure pinching like a hermit crab nested under the mop of hair at the back of my neck. “I'm just waiting until I go home for Easter next week.
That way, I can tell them in personâsort of ease Mom into it, so she doesn't go berserk. The whole thing about Daniel being divorced-with-kid might throw her a little. She thinks divorced guys are damaged goods. She's prehistoric that way.”
“You haven't told your parents
?” Kaylyn reiterated, then she covered the phone and shared the news with Josh, who was probably hard at work on the other side of their cubicle, creating fantasy characters and pixel-based swords for some new video game. “Mallory hasn't told her family anything about Mr. Wonderful or Little Mr. Wonderful.”
I heard Josh's response. “Whoa. That's radical.”
The conversation went on from there, Kaylyn's admonishments heaping guilt and trepidation on me until I almost gave up my quest to wrestle away some of Josh's prized Disney DVDs.
But I wanted those movies, so I persevered, and an hour later, I was picking them up on my way to grab Nick from day care. Kaylyn was concerned about my ability to handle over forty-eight hours of parental responsibility. She dredged up the issue of the little window-hanging finch feeder she'd given me for Christmas. The one that sat empty while disenfranchised birds cast wistful looks from nearby electrical lines.
“I'm not going to forget to feed the kid,” I insisted as Josh caressed the stack of Disney movies, appearing to have second thoughts. “I'm
. Seriously, I've got it all planned out. He's just one little boy, and he's adorable, and we have a blast together. What could possibly go wrong?”
I should have known that such questions only tempt fate.
Nick picked that weekend to get the stomach flu.
I learned about thermometers and wet wipes, sensitive skin and Desitin, sponge baths, dehydration, throw up, washing sheets, washing sheets again, scrubbing stains out of carpet, and calling the emergency hotline in the middle of the night.