Authors: Kristen Strassel
“And for a minute I thought your mother might be getting less nuts.” Daisy rolled her eyes, then tossed the ball back to Lucas. They’d been playing in the yard as we worked, and they were getting anxious for us to join them. “What happened with Troy? Did he go to rehab?”
“Yeah. He’s there for at least three months.” I could rest easier with him in treatment. The panic attacks I had every time I pulled into my parking lot since that night had finally stopped. “I hope it helps.”
“Me, too.” Daisy shook her head sadly. “Sorry I haven’t been able to help out lately.”
“Don’t you dare apologize to me.” She’d just lost her sister
found out she was going to be someone’s mom. I didn’t factor in on the to-do list, but God, I missed her. “But I was thinking of asking a little favor, when you’re ready?”
“When do you want me to watch them?” It was the only thing I ever asked for.
“Monday nights?” I smiled hopefully. “I actually want to try those pole dancing classes.”
“Really?” Daisy couldn’t hide her surprise. I’d never been overly excited about any sort of exercise.
“Yeah. All the stuff I’ve read talks about it being an amazing workout, and how confident all the girls feel. And it’s sexy. I want up my game a little bit.” I put the last of the decorated mason jars back in the box. “Josh could have any girl, you know?”
“But he wants you.” Daisy put her hand over mine before she took the box from me. “You’re bringing him to the party, right? I can’t wait to meet this guy.”
“Whatever you do, you can’t tell Daisy’s dad that you like the Yankees.” I almost forgot to tell Josh one of the most important things about meeting Daisy’s family. “He’d be far more accepting if you told him you were a professional arsonist.”
Josh laughed. “Yeah, it’s a pretty unpopular opinion up here. Go Sox.” He pretended to gag. “Bree, relax. Everything’s going to be good.”
“Daisy’s been my best friend since second grade, and you’re the first guy who’s ever been invited to their house with me.” I twisted my hands together in my lap. “It’s a big deal. I want them to love you.”
“I understand that.” Josh pulled behind another car on in front of Daisy’s house and cut the engine. I’d already unbuckled myself, the boys were anxious to start partying. He turned to me, making no effort to get out of the car. “But the important thing is that I love you.”
My body tingled, frozen. “No one’s ever said that to me before.”
He leaned over to kiss me, and the boys
in the back seat. I stuck out my tongue at them, then went back for another kiss. “That’s because they’re all stupid,” Josh said against my lips. “But I’m okay with that, because that means I get to keep you.”
I melted. “I love you, too.”
I knew today wasn’t going to be easy. It was a strange mix, all the beautiful decorations that Ev had made, the taco truck, the margaritas, but no Ev. The only person I could find in Daisy’s immediate family was her dad. “Remember what I told you,” I whispered to Josh before I left the two guys together to find Daisy.
There was only one place she could be, and I knew she needed a margarita. I found her on the floor in her old bedroom, next to the box that held Ev’s wedding dress, crying her eyes out.
“Come on, Dee. Everyone’s asking where you are.” I downed my margarita as soon as I sat on the bed.
“Did you tell them?” She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “And I thought you didn’t drink in front of the boys.”
“Not unless I have to. And Josh is keeping an eye on them.” I wanted to tell her about our conversation in the car, but not yet. Anyway, I think she’d figure it for herself out pretty soon. If only I could get her to the party.
The boys were all over Daisy as soon as she came downstairs. She kissed them, and then stood up and looked at me like she didn’t know where she was. Daisy had trouble with crowds. I led her over to the head table, the place where Ev should have been sitting, and a couple of people approached her immediately. I wanted to scream at them to go away, but Daisy was the guest of honor today, whether she liked it or not.
“She okay?” Josh mouthed to me from behind her chair. I shook my head, and he sat down as soon as Daisy’s aunt left. We had her surrounded now, so she’d have a chance to catch her breath.
I fell into his lap with the margarita giggles. “Isn’t he hot?”
She rolled her eyes, but I finally got her laugh. “Yup.” I turned back to Josh, who I’d never seen blush before. He still looked hot.
“Your dad’s quite the sports fan.” Josh had heard all about Daisy, but this was the first time he’d actually met her. It was crazy how much everything had changed this summer. “I couldn’t hang. He’s the real deal.”
“You didn’t tell him you like the Yankees, right?” I asked. Oh my God, please let him have not said that. He didn’t have any visible damage, so I doubted it. “I told you not to. Now you get it.”
“He didn’t. I can tell.” Daisy laughed again. “If he did, he’d be across the street, eating his tacos alone.”
Cam had been missing in action, along with Daisy’s mother, and her anxiety was coming back. There was no reason for either of them to be anywhere but here. My eyes widened when I saw Cam turn the corner to the backyard, and he put his finger over his mouth to make sure I didn’t ruin the surprise. Secrets had never been my strong point.
He leaned down and kissed Daisy, trying to lure her to the front yard. Whatever was out there had him absolutely beaming. I bounced in Josh’s lap, dying to know what was out there. Daisy wasn’t having any of it. “Bree can be my representative.”
Cam wasn’t giving up that easily, but there was no swaying Daisy. “Tell me what it is!” I insisted. I don’t know how she played it so cool.
“JR’s here,” he whispered in my ear.
My jaw dropped. “Daisy, go with him. Trust me.” I actually had to pull her out of her chair, staggering backwards when she stood. “But can I come too? I want to see the look on your face.”
“Fine.” She gave in. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement as we rounded the corner, and tears filled my eyes when I saw the car seat waiting for Daisy. Cam had covered her eyes, and she had no idea who was waiting for her.
I lost it when she picked up JR, swaddled in a blanket and a blue knit cap. Cam stood next to me, rubbing my arm and barely holding in his own tears. JR was still so tiny, it still shouldn’t have even been his birthday yet, but he was here with us now. Home.
“He’s so beautiful,” I said when she brought him over to me. Daisy looked shell-shocked, and I got it. When they put Landon in my arms for the first time, I didn’t know I was ever going to take care of him. It all worked out, but it didn’t stop me from having the same doubts with Lucas.
I kissed Josh as soon as we came back to the yard. “Now we have something to celebrate,” I murmured. A crowd had gathered around Daisy, JR, and Cam, but we hung back. The advantage of being Daisy’s best friend was I was going to get to see all of them on a regular basis, once everything settled down.
Josh pulled me in close. “I’m looking forward to getting to know these guys.”
“No more pictures, Mama!” Landon walked out of the frame of my camera.
“But you’re so handsome!” I followed him for a couple more shots, because his protesting face was adorable. “How else am I supposed to remember this day?”
“Write it down in a story,” he said like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“I will read it to you every night.” I threatened. I actually liked the idea. Daisy loved to scrapbook, and I had a pile of pictures that needed a home. “No more pigeon.”
Landon looked horrified. I’d done it now. “Noooo!” It was hard not to laugh at him. “Can we go now?”
“Yes.” I couldn’t believe my baby was starting school. Preschool, but this was going to be the longest we’d been apart on a regular basis ever. I groaned as I lifted him and Lucas into their car seats. I’d gone to my first pole dancing class this week. Daisy’s mom found out about it and agreed to watch the kids so I could go. I think she was secretly envious, since she was always at Zumba classes. Muscles that I didn’t even know I had hurt. But I’d had so much fun I couldn’t wait to go back when I could afford another class.
“Remember what I told you about Josh?” I asked Landon in the parking lot as I put his arms through his backpack. He shook his head. “He’s going to be busy at work and he has to pay attention to all the kids equally. So if he treats you different at school than he does at home, that’s why.”
I was so nervous about school, for so many reasons. I wanted everything to go well for Landon. Even though he was super smart, he could be a little pushy. I didn’t know how he was going to do in a classroom setting, even something that was more play based. I hadn’t seen Josh since the party, barely even talked to him, since he’d been getting everything ready for the first day of school. And Landon was in love with Josh. Four-year-olds were notorious for saying what was on their mind, and no amount of coaching was going to sway Landon on how he acted when Josh was around and I was not.
“You must be Landon.” A girl not much older than me crouched down in front of Landon and handed him a bag after I checked us in. He nodded enthusiastically. “I’m Miss Kate. You’re going to be in my class. You can go sit with those kids over there.”
I watched him go while Miss Kate asked me if I had any questions, I think, but Josh walked into the room. There was no doubt he was in charge, in his dress pants, crisp blue shirt, and tie. The stubble never went anywhere. God, he looked amazing. Our eyes locked and I froze.
“Josh!” Landon called out, running over to him.
Miss Kate stopped mid-sentence, confused, and turned around to see Landon hug her boss. “We’re friends.” I bit my lip as I downplayed the situation. The
part was none of her business.
“Oh.” She frowned, apparently that interfered with whatever she had in mind for Josh.
Ignoring her as I stepped past, I went over to Josh. I was carrying Lucas, I held my free hand out to him and he squeezed it. “Good luck today.” He had sixty preschoolers showing up to this party. He was going to going to need it.
He pulled me in slightly, and I gasped, not sure what he was going to do. Miss Kate’s glare burned my back. “I miss you so much,” he whispered in my ear.
“You know where to find me.” This was all in his hands now. I would never mess with his job, no matter how much I wanted to see him. Instead, I bent down to detach Landon from Josh’s legs. “Be a good boy today, okay? Remember what I said.” I kissed him on the forehead and ran out of there before I lost it.
Landon wasn’t the only one who was starting school today. My online classes started this week, too. After we dropped Landon off, I brought Lucas to the park and we fed the ducks. It was too quiet there with most of the kids in school, so we didn’t stay long after we’d run out of bread. He was going to miss his brother terribly and I didn’t want him to get lost in the shuffle. Once we got home, I got him a snack and put on a movie for him.
I opened my new notebook and put on my headphones in anticipation of watching the intro video for my psychology class. My heart thrummed in my chest. Not only was I excited, I was nervous. It had been a long time since I’d been in school, almost five years. I was pregnant in my junior year, and after a couple of months I realized it was easier for me to get my GED. Now I understood why I needed to take this seriously.
The professor had put up four videos to watch and I was relieved to find that online classes were easier than sitting in a regular classroom. I was actually interested in what I was listening to, which made all the difference in the world. If I missed something, I could back up and listen to it again. Once I finished the videos, I started my reading, with Lucas snuggled in my lap.
It felt really good to do things for me this week. The pole dancing and school made me feel different already, and I liked it.
Josh was nowhere to be found when I picked Landon up. I tried not to take it personally. I was no different here than the fifty-nine other parents whose kid started school today.
Miss Kate didn’t regard me as warmly as she had first thing this morning, but whatever her bitch was with me, she didn’t hold it against Landon. “He’s a really good listener and he made some new friends today.”
“Good job!” I held up my hand so Landon could slap me five.
Once we got to the car, Landon told me all about his day. How they played on the slide, colored pictures, and that Miss Kate kept a turtle named Tito in the classroom. But nothing else to report about Josh.
I needed to stop it. Josh wasn’t his teacher, he was an administrator. He wasn’t some sort of Head Start spokesmodel, and the last thing my kid needed to be worried about at school was my boyfriend. But for some reason, seeing Josh at work, surrounded by his peers, brought back a familiar feeling that I fought so hard against for the last couple of years. The one where I wasn’t good enough, just because I was me.
The end of the first week of school deserved a celebration. We’d all been working hard. Every day, Landon came home with a backpack full of papers, I was shocked at how much they were actually teaching him. I remembered preschool as play time. Maybe the magic was that the teachers made it seem like play. There were art projects, too. One of the teachers knew how to make balloon animals, and the one Landon brought with him didn’t even survive the ride home.
Today Landon couldn’t wait to give me a wooden slab with his hand cut out of fabric and a piece of paper with a poem about how he wouldn’t be little forever glued to it. “I love it,” I told him as he beamed with pride. We hung it in the kitchen as soon as we got home.
I’d forgotten about homework. Landon didn’t have it yet, but I sure did. Both of my classes required a ton of writing. English, I expected that, but not in psychology. We had to do case studies, which was actually kind of fun. When Josh came over tonight, I was going to ask him what he’d do, to see if I got it right.
Yeah, right. I was going to jump his bones the minute I had a chance, after pizza and pigeon stories. He hadn’t been over here all week. We’d exchanged a couple of smoldering looks in the hallway of school this week, and it was really hard to behave myself when all I wanted to do was run my fingers through that hair. It had been a mess every time I saw him. I knew he played with his hair when he was unsure of himself. We hadn’t talked except to make plans for tonight.
Josh showed up with the pizza and a bottle of wine. The boys did a pizza dance around him as I kissed his cheek and took the wine from him. “That has to wait until later.”
It took forever to get the boys to bed, all hopped up on pizza and Josh. They demanded that he read to them, no girls allowed. It hurt my feelings for about a minute, but then I realized I had actually had some time to myself. I poured us both a glass of wine, bringing the bottle back to the couch with me.
“That took you a while.” I accepted Josh’s kiss when he came back to the couch.
“We read three books. Lucas tapped out sometime in the middle of the second one, but Landon probably could have gone for another.”
My whole body warmed, and it wasn’t from the wine. “He likes you.”
Josh’s smile faded, he put down his wine, taking mine from me as well, placing the two glasses on the coffee table. He took both of my hands in his. “I need to talk to you about that.”
Oh, shit. “You got caught.”
“I did.” He looked anywhere but me. “Just before I left today, I got a phone call from my supervisor, with a list of things Landon told one of the teachers.”
“Miss Kate.” My smile was murderous. “She acted funny on the first day when Landon ran over to you.” This afternoon, she’d been super sweet to me, but I saw right through it. I knew she was up to something and I would have bet it was this.
“Apparently, Landon told the class about our sleepovers.” Josh raised an eyebrow. “And that I read him bedtime stories. That was their biggest concern. I guess Miss Kate asked him a lot of questions about that to make sure everything was on the up and up.”
My blood ran cold. At first, I wondered why Landon didn’t tell me, but he wouldn’t even know to think it was strange. He’d probably just been excited to tell Miss Kate about his friend Josh. “So what’s going to happen?”
Josh shook his head. “They’re going to want to talk to you. Other than that, I’m not sure.”
“I’m so sorry.” I wasn’t sure why I was apologizing. Josh went into this with his eyes open. And he was still here, with an overnight bag sitting beside the couch.
“Don’t be.” Josh rubbed his thumb along my hand. “I knew what I was doing. You have nothing to apologize for.”
“Then I guess my question should be how does this affect us? Because I can’t see them saying never mind, everything’s cool. Miss Kate,” I couldn’t stop myself from mocking her name, “is leveling some potentially heavy accusations. They’re going to investigate this, Josh. Something’s going to happen.”
“Tell them the truth.” Josh lifted his chin, sitting up straighter, and tightening his grip on my hands. “We don’t have anything to hide. If we start telling lies, then it will make the truth look like something that’s bad.” He leaned close to me, his words a whisper against my neck. “We’ll figure it out.”
I closed my eyes, relishing the feel of his lips just below my earlobe, knowing that everything was going to change. Instinctively, I leaned back against the pillow and Josh followed, his hands now on my shoulders. His kisses intensified, more urgent. He felt the same way I did. We needed to figure this out, now. “Aren’t you worried? About your job?” I’d be terrified. I already was and it wasn’t even my job.
“I am.” He kept kissing me, his breath tickling my skin as he spoke. “But there’s no use changing anything. They know, Bree.”
His hands slid down the front of my body then under my shirt. I placed my hands over his. “We can’t do this out here.” I had to pull away from him to make him stop. “Landon comes out all the time.” He hadn’t caught us in action, yet. Even the bedroom wasn’t totally safe. He’d think nothing of opening the door and coming in.
Josh sighed, coming back from the place he was shielding himself from reality. “I’m scared. But I don’t want to lose you. I need to figure out how to make the two most important things in my life work. Together.”
He followed me to the bedroom, sitting on the edge of my bed while I was still standing. “How’s your class going?”
“Good, so far. I have a quiz on Monday in psych.”
classes, but I’ll help you study if you want.” A flame flickered in his eyes. “I meant your pole class.”
“Oh!” I laughed. “Good. I can finally lift my hands over my head without wanting to cry.” And to show him, I pulled my shirt off, and dragged it across his lap. He caught it, taking it from me, then looped it behind me so he could pull me toward him.
“I want to see your moves.”
The class was a lot different than I expected. The instructor had us lifting weights and doing sit-ups. But that’s not what Josh wanted to hear. “First of all, you need to have as much skin exposed as possible.” I dropped my shorts and stepped out of them. “Or else you can’t grip the pole properly.”
Josh leaned back, looking around my bedroom. “Can we get one of those poles in here?”
“So my kids can think we brought the park inside?” Placing my fingers under Josh’s chin, I brought his attention back to me. “I thought you wanted to know what we learned.”
Before he had a chance to answer, I sunk down to my knees, scooping the front of my body toward him, then dragging it back up. I rolled back on my heels, wobbly on the way up, and no one was more surprised than me when I didn’t topple over on Josh. Once I was standing again, I put my knee between Josh’s legs, leading him back to the mattress. He had my bra unhooked before his back hit the bedspread.
“I liked that trick.” Josh cupped my breasts in his hands, running his thumbs over my nipples. “I think you’re going to make an excellent student.”
He was still wearing everything, and it was way too much. I pushed his shirt up, working it over his head before we rolled over and I was caged in by Josh’s arms. I had just unbuckled his belt when the door opened.
“Mama.” Landon was totally oblivious to what was going on as we scrambled to cover ourselves. I draped Josh’s shirt over my breasts just before he came over to the bed. “Wucas just threw up.”