Authors: Kristen Strassel
Every day that passed without word from Head Start made me more nervous. They’d talked to both of us and Landon, I had no idea what else they needed. Every time I asked Landon if anyone at school had asked him about Josh again, he said no without any hesitation. I didn’t want to push it, because he was too young to understand what was going on, and I didn’t want to make him suspicious of his teachers.
It felt different there, without Josh, when I dropped off Landon for school. More restricted. Less alive. No one said anything to me about the situation, because once they got the information they wanted out of me, it was no longer my concern.
Josh was still getting paid even though he wasn’t working, which we both took as a good sign. But he was acting different, too. I noticed he was more reserved with the boys, keeping his distance when they played on the floor and especially at night. He’d leave us before dinner and come back after bed time.
Otherwise, we’d been inseparable. Josh needed me to believe in him as much as I need him to believe in me.
“I’m not letting you get away tonight.” I kissed him as soon as he came in the apartment. I was sitting on the floor, sorting army guys with the boys, there’d been a mix up with the cowboys and Indians. It was a serious problem.
Josh knelt down beside me and went right to work. “I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.”
“Yeah right. You keep disappearing in the middle of the afternoon and coming back after dark, like some sort of weird vampire.”
“Pamhire?” That got Lucas’ attention. He was developing an interest in the macabre at an early age, even if he couldn’t say it right, accelerated by all the Halloween stuff that was popping up everywhere.
“Yeah. Maybe I can be like those guys on TV.” Josh pretended to bite my neck and the boys squealed and looked at each other wide-eyed, wondering if he could actually be a pamhire. “Start a band, move to Vegas…”
“Speaking of that, Daisy invited us over for a cookout.” I wriggled free of his grasp, Josh still pretended to be a vampire, sticking his top teeth out and laughing like the world’s goofiest Count Dracula. “Cam’s leaving for Nashville to record his album, and she wanted us to all get together tonight.” It was nice to have someone to geek out over Cam with, since Josh was a fan, too.
Josh’s eyes lit up. “Nice.” He and Cam had hit it off at the party, and he knew I had barely seen Daisy since she brought the baby home. “Good thing we have something to celebrate.”
Now it was my turn to light up. “We do?”
“We do?” Landon repeated. Because he was my son, I knew he equated celebrating with cake. Now I wanted cake.
“Yes.” Josh’s smile was too big for his face. “I heard from Nancy today at Head Start. The one you talked to. They finished their investigation. They didn’t find that I’d done anything inappropriate, but they still feel I shouldn’t have a relationship with a parent of one of the students.”
My heart sank. “I thought this was good news.”
“It is. Let me finish.” He leaned in to kiss me, but then pretended to bite my neck, sending the boys into another fit of giggles. “I was offered a transfer to the Brockton school.”
“Oh my God, that’s awesome!” I threw my arms around Josh, hugging him tightly. The school would have been crazy to let Josh go. But still, the verdict was a relief. “You know that’s not a great area.”
“That’s okay. There will be lots of kids there that can use some help.” Josh shrugged, and I kissed him because if everyone had his attitude, the world would be a better place.
“And it’s about forty minutes away from here.” I felt bad, Josh had settled himself close to work and now his whole life changed because of me. I wanted it to be for the better, not worse.
“I don’t mind. It takes much longer than that to get anywhere in New York. If I can’t handle it, maybe I’ll start looking for a nice three bedroom place a little closer.” He kissed my forehead.
I was confused. “Why would you need a three bedroom apartment?”
“Do you need your own room?” Josh raised an eyebrow, pulling away from me slightly. “I had visions of us sharing. All right, I’ll be honest, I had visions of the pole in the bedroom.”
Turning bright red, I shushed him and jerked my head toward the boys. But I was so blown away by the big picture of what he was suggesting. “You know if I do that, I’ll lose my benefits.” Translation: I’d have a really hard time paying my share. Especially since my share was seventy-five percent of the total.
“We’ll figure it out, Bree. It’s not something we’re going to do tomorrow, but when I look into the future, I like it when I see you guys in it.” This time, he kissed me for real, and I didn’t care if the kids oohed and ahhed. They needed to see this. A man who knew how to treat a woman with love and respect, and most importantly, their mama deliriously happy.
“Give me that baby.” I said to Daisy as soon as we got to their condo. I handed Cam the cake I’d brought with us, then stood with my hands out, like one of the kids when they wanted something.
Daisy eased JR into my arms as the boys ran into her legs, hugging her. “Careful. His head’s still soft.”
“Oh, come on.” I’d forgotten what it really felt like to hold a newborn, so tiny and delicate compared to my monsters. “I’ve raised two kids and I don’t think I’ve given either of them brain damage.”
I turned around to see Lucas dive head first into JR’s rolly chair, as Landon started to race across the living room with it. “I take it back.” I sighed, but I kept the baby against my chest. He cooed and made all those baby noises, and balled his little fist in my hair. Love.
Cam and Josh had already disappeared onto the deck, so we followed suit. It was one of those unseasonably warm late September nights, the sun had started to set over White Horse Beach. The sky had exploded in streaks of dark pink and bright orange. It was truly breathtaking.
“Anyone want to play catch on the beach before we eat?” Cam had picked up a Nerf football, hitting it against his other hand. The boys jumped up and down around him, then headed down to the beach for a game of two hand touch football.
“Josh got his job back.” I told Daisy as soon as he was out of earshot. I’d been keeping her updated on the situation.
“I knew it.” She’d been right all along that we had nothing to worry about. It didn’t feel that way in the middle of it.
“He’ll be in Brockton, which I warned him could suck, but he started talking about moving in together, some place closer.” I beamed, news like that was way too good to keep to myself.
“Really?” Daisy seemed surprised. “Not that I’m questioning it, but it would be a big change for you.”
“Well, not right now, but sometime in the future. We have something to work toward.”
Daisy leaned over the railing, her blonde hair fanning around her in the breeze. I stayed a step behind her, knowing she’d freak out if I had JR too close to the edge. “This is awesome, isn’t it?”
“It is.” I stopped to kiss JR on the head. “You always wanted to live in one of these condos.”
“That’s not what I mean.” She didn’t look back at me, instead she watched my boys jump all over Cam, trying to get the football away from him. “I mean…look at us. We’ve both been through hell. It’s good to be happy again.”
“We always said this is what we wanted,” I said as I handed JR back to Daisy, he’d started to fuss and wanted her. “I can’t believe that we actually got it.”
Epilogue—One Year Later
We were just about moved in. Landon pushed Lucas across the floor in an empty box. “Watch out, you guys,” I cautioned over my shoulder as I stood on a stepstool, hanging curtains. The box mobile came dangerously close to my stool, and I saw my life flash before my eyes. “I’m not sure how to get to the hospital yet from this place.”
When the door opened, I almost fell off the stool for the second time. “Josh!” The boys cried out, leaving me wobbling on the stool. Giving up on the curtains, I climbed down to join in on the hugging and kissing.
“It looks great in here.” Josh surveyed my progress. It was finally starting to look like home, a mix of both of our stuff, and of course two giant plastic tubs full of toys. Right now, the boys were more into the empty boxes, so the toys were all where they belonged. “You’ve been working your tail off.” And to make sure I understand what he meant, he slapped my ass, sending the boys into a fit of giggles.
“I can’t believe I have to go to work tonight.” Moving in with Josh meant I was finally off welfare. It was scary, because I was still such a work in progress I couldn’t just snap my fingers and get an awesome job. There were plenty of mommies with incomplete college degrees looking for part time work. Landon had started kindergarten, which freed up a ton of time for my classes, but I still had Lucas with me during the day until he started preschool next year. So for now, I was working a couple nights a week at a coffee shop. “I want to just hang out with you.”
“You’ll only be gone a few hours.” Josh headed upstairs to the bedroom, loosening his tie. I followed him, watching him unbutton his shirt and step out of his dress pants. The only thing sexier than him wearing those clothes was him taking them off. I held on to the pole that he insisted on installing the first night we moved in, swinging slightly forward. I’d told the boys it was a support beam for the room. “And then we can play with that.” He motioned to the pole.
“If you’re good.” I leaned over and kissed his forehead, stripping out of my shirt. It wasn’t to be sexy, I had to put on my uniform, which thankfully was just a pink T-shirt that I could never get the coffee smell out of and jeans. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“I’m going to be good.” Josh winked at me. “The question is, will you?”
“Always.” I scoffed. “Dinner’s in the crock pot. I made chicken and dumplings. If the kids act like you’re trying to poison them, there are dino nuggets in the freezer.”
“Mmm, that sounds so good.” He pulled me down on the bed with him and kissed me. Then he looked around the room, grinning. “There’s one box we forgot to unpack.”
“There is? I thought I got everything.” The boys kept dragging things out and putting them “away”, trying to help, so it was possible I missed something.
“Yup.” Josh got up and opened the drawer to his nightstand. I squinted in confusion trying to figure out what he could possibly be talking about, but my heart stopped when I saw the black velvet ring box in his hand. My mouth dropped, frozen in shock as he dropped to one knee in front of me.
“Holy shit,” I whispered. I never thought this moment would ever happen to me.
Josh opened his mouth to speak, turning red, and bowing his head. Wow, he was nervous. I wondered if I should just say yes and make his life easy. No way. I’d waited my whole life to hear this. “Aubree Lynne Farrell, it makes me insanely happy to come home to you, Landon, and Lucas, every day. Bish, too, because let’s face it, Bish completes us.” He took my hand in his as I giggled. He brought it up to his lips and kissed it. “And I want to make sure I can do it every day for the rest of my life.”
“Yes.” My voice shook. “Fuck yes.”
“I haven’t even asked you anything yet.” Josh tried to contain his smile, but it was impossible. “But I was thinking, this ring would look awfully good with a long white dress.” He slipped the prettiest diamond solitaire set in white gold onto my finger. I stared at it like it was something that was happening to someone else.
“White dress?” I cocked an eyebrow at Josh as I raised my hand so I could get a better look at the ring. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Not because it was a diamond ring, but because of what it meant. “Who are we kidding?”
“I don’t care if you wear footie pajamas and a robe, I just want everyone to know you’re mine.” Josh closed his hand over mine with the ring on it and brought it back to his mouth to kiss just below the ring. “So what do you say?”
“Fuck yes.” I slid off the bed and into his arms. I’d meant to kiss him sweetly, but instinct took over and I nipped his bottom lip, then pushed him back so he was flat on the floor. He pulled me in close and I fell on top of him, but that was it. We lay on the floor in a heap, doing nothing but savoring the moment.
I couldn’t wait to let everyone know Josh was going to be mine forever.
I hope you enjoyed Bree and Josh’s story as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you did, tell a friend! And please take a moment to leave a review. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but reviews are the best way to help spread the word about books.
I’ve included an excerpt of my next book in The Spotlight series,
Too Many Reasons
. It will be released February 9, 2015, and it’s available for preorder! Keep reading to meet Abby and Devon.
“Get him out of here,” my sister Mallory hissed, maybe even loudly enough to wake Devon, sprawled out on our futon in a drunken stupor. “How many more nights is this going to happen?”
“I’m not kicking him out. He’s not bothering you.” Our apartment was Devon’s safe haven, more so when my sister wasn’t around. I let him hide out here when he didn’t want to put up with the rest of the world’s shit. Tonight’s shit came courtesy of his current girlfriend, Lexi, as usual. By the time Devon got here, his words were slurred and he said the same things over and over. He wasn’t a reliable source. But I didn’t care. What mattered tonight was that
I had him and she didn’t.
“It’s one in the morning. I’m awake. He’s bothering me.” Mallory stood in front of the futon, getting in the way of me covering Devon with a throw blanket before she stormed back into her bedroom.
Before I covered him, I took a good look at him, his long, lean limbs wrapped in colorful tattoos. The new ones were much better, but I loved the first one the best; a dragon that looked more like a dog crossed with an alligator, it barely had any color left. Looking at it brought me back to the day we’d skipped school and convinced the guy at the tattoo shop that the ID we’d found at the mall really belonged to Devon. Every time he got a new tattoo, I suggested he get it fixed, but he wasn’t the type of guy to pretty things up. That was my department. The more ink he got, the worse that dragon looked, but he insisted he liked it just the way it was.
My cat, Ziggy, stood up from her place next to Devon’s stomach and shook violently. She gave me one of those looks only a cat can get away with, and there was no doubt what she thought about that blanket. Devon found her and she loved him, she only tolerated me because I fed her.
I pushed a lock of hair from Devon’s cheek. The purple highlights were fading in his dark hair, and tomorrow I’d check to see if I had any more dye left to fix it. That meant my hair could use a touch up, too. We had a hair dying party tradition. I did his hair, he did mine, and we always watched Rocky Horror Picture Show while we did it. Devon insisted we sing along if my sister wasn’t home.
Like everything else about me and Devon, Mallory would think it was pathetic.
I could stand here and watch him sleep forever, but I had to be up in five hours, and Devon exhausted me. This wasn’t the first night this week he’d stayed here. I couldn’t even say I didn’t expect him anymore. He knew he was always welcome. We’d been friends too long and through too much together for me to ever turn him away. If I showed up yawning for my morning classes again tomorrow, I’d have to listen to everyone’s shit again, about how Devon was using me and that I needed to snap out of it and blah, blah, blah.
Devon loved me, just not the same way I loved him.
“Abby.” The shift of the mattress startled me awake when Devon crawled into bed with me. This happened almost every time he stayed here, too. He pressed his body against my back and wrapped his arms around me, his words hot whiskey breath against my neck. “Thank you.”
I nodded, reluctant to open my eyes. If he knew I was awake, he’d want to talk. The alarm was going to start screaming at me to get the fuck out of bed at quarter past six whether Devon worked out his feelings or not.
I nestled back against him, my body fitting perfectly against his. He didn’t react, but my heart stopped and sighed.
Devon took my movement as an invitation, just not the one I wanted. “How come you’re the one who just fucking gets me?”
I’d asked myself that same question more times than I could count. My eyes were open now. Three forty-five. Maybe we could make this quick. “I tell you the same thing every time.” I rolled over so I faced him. “You need to stop thinking you can make a relationship out of sex.”
“I don’t. At least, it doesn’t start that way.” He almost spoke in a regular tone now he knew I was awake, instead of the hush he’d used when he was only trying to wake me up. If his voice carried into Mallory’s room, she’d know he was in my bed again, and she’d barge in and go ballistic. “I thought I had so much in common with Lexi, but she’s doesn’t give a shit about my life, she doesn’t like any of the stuff we like. I wish I could find a girl just like you.”
I sucked in a breath that caught in the back of my throat, strangling the scream that I wrangled back. He had no idea how much his words fucking slayed me, and I had no idea how to tell him. We’d shared almost everything with each other since junior high and even though he lay in my bed with his arms around me, this was all that had ever happened.
What would happen if I just leaned in and kissed him? Would it change everything, or even worse, would nothing change, and life would just go on as it would before? Would he just go back to Lexi?
It killed me not to know. But it would kill me even more to lose him. So I continued my vigil, waiting for him to make the first move.
“You’ll find that girl.” I could barely get the words out. “When you least expect it.”
Devon didn’t say anything else, he just pulled me against his chest and rolled on to his back, the alcohol pulling him under for the second time that night. I should have been thankful for the chance to sleep instead of solving his problems, but sleep wasn’t coming. Instead, I lay against his chest with my heart pounding for two hours until it was time to step out of my warped little life back into the real world.
We both jumped when the alarm went off; it felt like five minutes later. “Good morning.” Devon blinked rapidly, like his eyes weren’t ready for daylight yet.
“Ugh.” Not ready to face the day either, I pulled the blanket over my head. I felt like someone had kicked me in the face, and I didn’t even drink last night.
Devon ripped the blankets away from me. “Time to get up.” How was he so cheery? He could barely speak English five hours ago. “What do you want for breakfast?”
I shook my head. “Just coffee.” Devon whacked me with a pillow. “What?”
“I’ll get cereal ready for you.” He jumped off the bed, still in his clothes from last night. I had yet to move. “Thanks. Again.”
“For what?” Movement hurt. Why did I pick classes that started at eight? Oh yeah, because I wanted to graduate sometime this decade. Or better yet, this spring.
He tipped his head in confusion. “For everything.”
Mallory was already in the bathroom when I went in to take a shower. “You’re an idiot.” That’s how she greeted me after spitting out her toothpaste. I couldn’t wait until it was time for her to go out of town for work again. “When are you going to stop carrying a torch for that loser and move on?”
“He’s my best friend.” I caught sight of the dark smudges under my eyes when I locked glares with her in the mirror. “I need to take a shower.”
“Yeah, I know, you guys have matching hair so you’re meant for each other,” Mallory let out her usual sigh of disgust. “Has he even kissed you yet?”
She knew the answer to that. “Is that what you want to happen?”
Mallory groaned. “Has anyone? If I wasn’t your sister, I’d just do it myself so you knew what you were missing.”
I ripped the towels down from the shower curtain. “Are you going to let me take a shower?”
“He’s never going to magically come to his senses and realize he’s madly in love with you. If it was going to happen, it would have already. You make it too easy for him. He can have his cake and Abby, too. Stop letting him walk all over you. Stop being band bitch and start concentrating on your own shit. You’re scared you’re not going to graduate because you spend all your time doing band stuff, and picking up the pieces every time Devon fucks something up.”
“I’m not band bitch. There’s more to it than you think.” That would be true even if Devon had nothing to do with Sinister Riot. Devon had been my muse since the eighth grade, and I’d always factored him into my future. If I couldn’t be a rock star, I was going to make damn sure he was. I’d helped him restyle clothes, I cut his hair, and I taught him how to put makeup on just like all the guys in our favorite bands for his shows. I knew things about Sinister Riot before the rest of the band even got to make decisions about them. I did all the promo and bookings for the band. I was the one who figured out how to make sure they got paid for shows before they even set foot on stage.
The only thing Devon didn’t talk to me about was his girlfriends, unless he was drunk and not making any sense. Not one of those girls had ever bothered to get to know me, they just expected me to disappear. Never going to happen. He might be fucking their brains out, but they didn’t care enough to see the side of him that I did. Advantage: me.
“I’ve been applying for internships,” I continued when Mallory shook her head. And I’d worried that it was going to be Devon who’d make me late for school. “No one’s answering me. But being band manager looks good on my resume.”
“Bullshit. You should have done that already. I was on set all last summer, what did you do? Sell T-shirts at a bunch of biker bars?” Mallory was a year older than me, and like everyone else in my major, she wanted to pursue film production, an industry that had boomed under the Louisiana tax credit. Even though she had no job guarantees either, everyone respected her choice. “No one is going to
that you’ve been the merch girl for a bar band. And you’ve said it yourself. There aren’t any record companies doing what you want to do.”
I’d stopped telling her that Sinister Riot was on the brink of something big. The slower the negotiations crawled forward, the more I looked like a liar. “I’m looking at indie labels. Something with heart. I know what I’m doing.”
Everyone thought they could just snap their fingers and I’d change my mind, and go into something safe and respectable, like teaching. Or film production, since everyone was all over that. That might be great for Mallory, but I just wasn’t interested. It didn’t matter how many ways people told me my plans weren’t practical. No guts, no glory. I always told them the same thing: I’d fall flat on my face doing what I loved before I did anything just for the money.
Mallory’s hand rested on the doorknob on her way out of the bathroom. Maybe I’d get my shower after all. “You’ve always been the smart one, Abby. Stop letting Devon Sinclair define who you are. It’s time he started chasing after you.”