If I ever mention buying a house again, someone please shoot me. Noah and I spent all of Saturday and Sunday wandering Beaumont with my excessively hyper real estate agent. The only thing I learned was how to eye roll like a nine year old.
Sarah, Sadie or maybe it was Suzie – I don’t remember – showed us house after house, none of which met my requirements. Yes, I may be one person with a kid that I will have occasionally, but that doesn’t mean I want a small house. I want two stories with a full basement and attached two-car garage with at least a half-acre of land. I didn’t think these requirements were too over-the-top, but apparently they were.
Now Noah and I sit outside this two-story house in the same neighborhood as my parents. I realized that this was exactly what I was looking for, so we drove though looking for a FOR SALE sign. We found one.
We're waiting for the agent to arrive so we can see the inside, but I know I already want it. I can imagine Noah climbing the giant oak trees that surround the property and can see him throwing the football around with his friends in the yard.
This new agent steps out of his car and waves at us. He’s short and pudgy with white hair. He looks like a marshmallow.
“Hi, I’m Liam Westbury and this is my son, Noah.”
“Nice to meet you, I’m Stu. Let’s go in shall we.”
We follow Stu up the brick steps. The porch is wide with white pillars in desperate need of a paint job. Stu opens the door allowing Noah and I to step in. Before us is the staircase, open on both sides so you can see into the dining room and living room. The living room has two large windows, one in front and one in back, two more on the side. The kitchen is new, with a nook and all new appliances, and windows facing the back yard. There is a nice sized bathroom just off the kitchen. The dining room faces the front yard with one large window and two that face the side yard.
We head upstairs to the four bedrooms. The master is large with a walk-in closet that leads to a bathroom with shower and Jacuzzi tub. One room is decorated as a nursery which I’d have to change. The other two rooms are the same size. All the rooms have ample natural light. There is one shared bathroom upstairs.
Stu is sitting at the table when we come down. “We’re just going to check out the basement,” I say as we pass him. He smiles and nods at us and goes back to his paperwork.
The basement is accessed through the kitchen. We stomp down the steps, testing their sturdiness. There is a laundry room and a very large space.
“What do you think, Dad? I’m thinking a man cave like Uncle Mason’s over there and your studio there,” he points to the wall on the left side of the room.
“Yeah? You know the studio is pretty big. I need a place to set up equipment.”
“I think it will be big enough. What do you think?”
I look at my son. He's beaming with excitement. “I like it. Do you think you’ll like living here?”
“Yeah, I do.”
I put my arm around him and pull him into a half hug. “Let’s go buy us a house.”
We climb back up the stairs. Stu raises his head when we enter. “We’ll take it,” Noah blurts out before I have a chance to say anything.
“Yeah, we’ll take it.”
Stu starts talking about financing and banks. I tell him this will be a cash sale and that I want to move in right away. He calls the homeowners and tells them the deal that is on the table. They accept right away and I agree to show up tomorrow to sign papers in his office.
Noah and I walk around the yard after Stu leaves. He climbs one of the trees and we race across the yard to see who's faster. I may have let him win, but I’ll never admit it. We leave the house when the sun starts to set and head to dinner.
Family dining at Deb’s is a Beaumont pastime unless you’re a Westbury. The first time I went there, I had just gotten my driver’s license. When my mom heard about it the next day she was horrified. We Westburys do not degrade ourselves with a place like Deb’s.
I love Deb’s. Noah and I grab a booth and order our celebratory dinner. He asks when I’ll be able to move some stuff in and I tell him that we’ll order furniture this week and everything else we’ll need. I still haven’t been able to come to a decision about leaving L.A. so until then I’ll be here for a week or so every month.
We’re half way through dinner and Noah drops a bomb. “Mom and Nick fight a lot.”
I set my napkin down, placing my arms on the table. “What do you mean? Does Nick hit her?”
“No, at least I’ve never seen him do anything like that, but I hear them at night arguing. He doesn’t think I should be able to spend more than a weekend with you at a time and he doesn’t want you buying a house here.”
I bring my hands up, resting my chin on them. Noah should not hear them argue about me. It’s not fair.
“Listen, buddy. This is a difficult situation for all of us and honestly really unexpected. You know when I came here for Mason’s funeral I never expected to find you. I was shocked, hurt and even angry. I didn’t know about you and to hear this boy tell me that he saw me kissing his mom on a DVD, I didn’t know what to think. So imagine what your mom thought when I showed up or when Nick heard you call me dad. There are a lot of high emotions right now and we're all trying to find the best way to deal with them.
“But don’t think that the three of us don’t love you. We do, very much. You're our number one priority. Just be patient with your mom and Nick. They’ll work out and things will be fine.” I’m not sure where all of that came from but I feel good saying it to Noah. He needs to understand that I’m the catalyst for these emotions between Nick and Josie. What I don’t understand is Nick. On Thanksgiving he promised to try and be cordial for Noah and Josie’s sake. I didn’t promise him anything.
I drop Noah off at home and tell him I’ll see him tomorrow after school. Right now the agreement is I’ll pick Noah up from school, keep him for dinner and drop him off an hour before bedtime unless he has practice.
I drive by my soon-to-be new house and park out front. I want to see Josie running outside with me and Noah. I want her flowers decorating the front and inside. I want her living here with us as a family.
It’s Noah’s last game of the season. I’m standing in my usual spot with Peyton beside me. She watches Noah like a hawk and I haven’t figured out if it’s a crush or if she wants to play football. Katelyn says no football, but maybe in a few years she’ll change her mind.
Noah is struggling today. He’s thrown two interceptions and has fumbled the ball. I’m counting the seconds to halftime so I can ask him what’s going on. When the buzzer sounds, I walk over to the sideline to greet him. He takes off his helmet. His unhappy expression makes my heart ache for him.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Nothing feels right. I’m seeing everything slow.”
“Do you not trust your receivers?”
“Noah, get over here,” Nick yells. I know he’s the coach, but it’s not like I don’t know what I’m talking about.
“Trust your receivers, Noah. Throw the pass as it’s designed. They'll be there to catch it.”
“Thanks, Dad. Sorry you can’t come tonight.” I look at Noah questioningly. He’s with his team before I can ask what he’s talking about.
Noah’s second half fairs better than the first, but they still end up losing. Noah looks sad and probably angry with himself. He throws his helmet, which I don’t approve of at all. I head over to the bench to speak to him about sportsmanship.
“Pick it up, Noah.” Nick demands. Noah is standing there, his arms crossed over his chest. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but it won’t fly. Pick it up.”
“Noah, what’s going on?” I ask, stepping forward and standing next to Nick. Nick takes a deep breath, turns and glares at me.
“This isn’t your concern, Westbury. In fact, you’re the problem.”
“You heard me,” he growls.
I look in the stands for Josie. She’s standing there, her face frozen as she takes in this scene. There is definitely something going on there that I’m not privy too.
“Get your stuff, Noah. We’re going to be late.” Noah stares at Nick, not moving. He looks at me with tears in his eyes. I walk over to him and pull him aside.
“Noah, what’s the deal?” I ask, bending down to his level.
“There’s a team party and Nick said you can’t come.” I look over my shoulder at Nick who's in a heated conversation with Josie. He makes shit difficult when it could be so easy.
“It’s all right, buddy. We can hang out tomorrow.”
“No, I want you there and since it’s for kids, I should get to pick.” My son, the logical one, who knew?
“Tell you what. You go to the party and call me when you’re done then I’ll come get you and you can spend the night, okay?”
“Mom will say no.”
“Leave your mom to me,” I say. He leans forward and gives me a hug. “By the way, if I ever see you throw your helmet again, you’ll be sorry. Am I clear?”
“Go pick it up.”
I wait a moment before interrupting Josie and Nick. I hate what I’m about to do, but Nick is giving me no other option.
“So, Noah is going to call me when your party thing is over and I’m going to pick him up and take him back to Katelyn’s to spend the night.”
Nick starts chuckling. “Says who? You?”
“No, Josie. Set some god damn boundaries with him. You let him walk all over you and Noah played like shit tonight because he’s pissed off at me.”
“Hey, don’t blame Noah. It’s not his fault.”
“Stay out of this, Westbury.”
“You know, Nick, I thought we were cool, but I guess not. Either way, you don’t matter in this equation.” I hate saying these things because I promised myself I’d treat Nick like a parent. I look at Josie; she looks embarrassed. She should be. “I’ll pick Noah up when he calls. If this doesn’t work for you, tell me now so I can have my lawyer fax you a custody agreement.”
I leave her with the words I never wanted to say, but she’s giving me no choice here. I’ve met every demand of hers and she allows Nick to fight me on spending time with my boy.
I don’t know what I did to deserve the nasty turn my life has taken, but I’d like to know so I can rectify the cluster that has become my life.
The team party is, to put it mildly, an epic disaster. Noah isn’t talking to Nick. Nick isn’t talking to me. Parents are talking about me. They don’t even have the common courtesy to do it behind my back. I can see them pointing and whispering. The head shaking and side glances. They make it seem like I’ve done something wrong. This incident would be no different if Liam and I were divorced and sharing custody.
I bet I’m being branded the town harlot. So what? I got knocked up by my very steady boyfriend the summer before we left for college and, yes, he left me, but he didn’t know about the baby or he wouldn’t have. Liam loved me then, unconditionally.
He would’ve stayed.
And been utterly miserable because he didn’t want to play football and that is what I reminded him of, the dream that wasn’t his but mine. We would’ve married and divorced a few years later because I would’ve held him back from his destiny.
Destiny is such bullshit.
I can’t wait to get out of here. I’m done with this football team for the year. I’m done with the pointing, staring and the questions, whether or not Liam will fund the team next year so they can have new uniforms.
My frustration level is reaching an all-time high. I think I need a vacation. Someplace tropical and warm with white sandy beaches and water so blue you look like you’re floating in a crystal clear sky. I can close my eyes and feel the warmth on my skin, the sand between my toes and the ocean, its waves calming me with a sweet lullaby.
A place like that calls for romance, a lover’s getaway. I can see myself and Nick spending the day sharing a hammock, reading together while he sways us back and forth, gently. I’ll snuggle up to him and even though it’s hotter than blazes out there, he’ll keep me cool. I’ll pepper him with kisses and he’ll look into my eyes, tell me that he loves me.
Only it’s not Nick I see when I look into the eyes staring back at me.
Noah comes up to me and hugs me from behind. I love my boy. He’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. I thank my lucky stars every day that I made the right decision to keep him.
“My dad is outside,” he says quietly in my ear. I nod and sit forward, releasing his hold on me. I leave the table. Nick shakes his head while Noah and I walk hand in hand to the front door. Sure enough, leaning up against his car is Liam, his ankles crossed, hands pushed into his pockets.
He doesn’t look at me, but smiles at Noah like he hasn’t seen him in a week. He loves Noah without question.
“We didn’t stop and get him clothes. I’ll bring some over.”
“No need. I went shopping. He’ll have enough at Katelyn’s.”
It kills me when he talks about Katelyn’s. He makes it sound like it’s his home. Noah gets in the car and waves to me. Not a kiss goodbye or anything. He knows Nick and I aren’t getting along and he wants to be far away from me. I can’t blame him.
Liam shuts the door and walks over to me. I’m not prepared to look at him. His expression is indifferent, as if Liam Page is looking at me right now, like I’m one of his conquests who he accidentally fathered a child with.
“You can’t take him away from me, Liam. He’s all I have.”
Liam’s eyes are sharp when he looks at me. “I’m not going to take him away from you, Josie, but I’m not going to stand by while Nick acts like this. I tried. I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me. I call him daily, I came back. Hell, I bought a fucking house just so he has a place he can feel comfortable in. I’m done bending to appease your boyfriend. I know Nick has raised him, but he’s our son, Jojo.”
“I know,” I choke out.
“I don’t know. It feels like Nick is trying to prove a point, like he won you or something. I know he wanted you in high school and it’s no secret he and I weren’t friends, but this… something’s up with him and I don’t like it.”
Liam leans in and kisses me on the cheek. He leaves without saying goodbye. I watch as his car, the car carrying my whole life, drives away. I turn and look into the window of the pizza parlor. Everyone's laughing and having fun. I lean against the wall and slide down, resting my head in my hands.
“Here, Nick Ashford asked me to give this to you.” Katelyn holds up a folded note, waving it back and forth. “Are you and Liam fighting?”
“No, why would you ask that?” I ask while setting my books in my locker.
“I don’t know. Why else would Nick Ashford write you a love letter?”
I stand up and look at her. She’s smirking, her eye brow raised. “I have no idea.” I reach for the note. She moves it fast, keeping it out of my reach.
“What’s this?” Mason grabs it out of her hand. Katelyn has an ‘oh shit’ look on her face when Mason opens it up. He stands still, his jaw clenching. He turns and looks at me. I slink back against my locker.
“Do you have a hard-on for Nick Ashford?”
“No, not at all,” I reply, defending myself.
“Wait until Liam sees this,” Mason says.
“Sees, what?” Liam bends down to kiss me before turning to Mason. “What’s this?” he asks when Mason hands him the piece of paper. Liam looks from the paper to me and back again. “What's this, Josie?”
“I don’t know. Katelyn brought it to me. I don’t even know what it says.”
Liam looks at Katelyn who shrugs. “He gave it to me in history class.”
“It says,” Liam starts. “Dear Josephine, Do you realize how beautiful you are? I see you in the halls and wish I had the courage to talk to you, but I don’t. I wouldn’t know what to say. I would like to get to know you better. Call me. Yours, Nicholas Ashford.”
Mason and Liam start laughing and it pisses me off. I walk away from them knowing that Nick just bought himself an ass beating. Katelyn should’ve just handed me the note instead of waving it around.
Before I can turn into my class, a strong hand pushes me through the double doors leading outside. I know its Liam even though he’s behind me. He directs me to the football field, his favorite place to hold a conversation, except we aren’t talking.
He pushes me up against the concrete wall, my legs wrapping around his hips instantly. His mouth attacks mine, our hands everywhere. “Do you want to call Ashford?” he asks as he moves from my mouth down my neck.
I shake my head and it’s the truth. I have no desire to know or talk to Nick Ashford other than being his classmate.
“He’s jealous of me, baby. He wants everything I have. Please don’t give it to him.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
I press my fingers into my temples, willing away the pressure as the door opens. Nick stands there looking at me. Something has to change. He holds out his hand to help me up, our fingers twisting together as we walk to the car. He seems so much more relaxed when Noah isn’t around and I don’t like that. I want my son around all the time.
When we get into the house he pushes me up against the wall and kisses me, his tongue eager and rough, as it tangles with mine. He sheds his shirt, pulling at mine. I push him away, but he thinks it’s only to gain the space I need to take off my shirt.
“We need to talk,” I say without making eye contact.
He lets go of me and leads us into the living room. We both sit. I turn and face him, bringing my knee up underneath me.
“You can’t fight with Liam anymore. It’s not fair to Noah. I know I screwed things up when I made the decision to tell Noah about Liam, but what’s done is done. I can’t change it. We have to accept that Liam is part of our lives now and just move forward.”
Nick brings my hand to his lips and kisses it. “You’re right. I’ve been an ass and you’re also right about moving forward; that’s why we’re moving.”
I look at Nick, dumbfounded. I know my ears must be deceiving me. He has a steady practice here and I’m in the process of expanding my shop. There’s no way in hell I’m moving.
“Excuse me, what did you say?” My voice catches in my throat. I can barely breathe.
“I’m taking a sabbatical and we’re going to Africa for a year for Doctors Without Borders.” I can tell by the look on his face that he’s serious and he thinks we're going with him. He made this monumental decision without even consulting me. My choice in telling Noah about Liam is peanuts compared to this.
“No,” I whisper. I shake my head. I’m not going anywhere.
“It will be good for us. Noah will learn a lot.”
I rip my hand out of his and stand. “Noah and I aren’t going, Nick. You don’t get to make a decision like this for us without talking to me first. Liam—”
“I don’t give a shit about Liam, Josie. Get that through your head. I’m taking my family and we’re going.”
“No, we’re not. You can go, but we're staying here.”
Nick stands, moving in front of me. “What are you saying?”
I look at the man I’ve loved for the past six years. “If you want to go, Nick, then go, but Noah and I are staying here. Noah has school and his activities and I’m not going to take him away from Liam while they're building a relationship. And I have my shop. I can’t just leave, I won’t. This… it’s not open for discussion.”
“So that’s it. You’re picking Westbury over me?”
I shake my head. “No, Nick, I’m picking Noah.”
Noah and I unpack the last box of clothes that I brought from L.A. I've decided to make Beaumont my hometown and will travel back and forth between here and Los Angeles. Harrison and Quinn will join us for Christmas. Harrison doesn’t have much family and when I told him about Beaumont, he asked if they could come.
The one thing I haven’t done is tell Sam that I’ve left. I have my penthouse until the end of March at which time I’ll have to find temporary digs. I hope Jimmy and Harrison won’t mind recording music here.
When I told Harrison about Noah, he was excited and completely on board with my new plan. He said he understood why I needed to make the change and said he’d probably do the same thing if he had just found out about Quinn.
Things with Josie are better but nonexistent and I’m okay with that. She needs time to heal from her break-up and I need time to be a dad. I have a lot of years to make up for.
We're getting a Christmas tree tomorrow. With everything unpacked and put away, the delivery couldn’t come at a better time. Katelyn and the girls are coming over to decorate – apparently this is Elle’s specialty. Who am I to deny three beautiful women the opportunity to do all the hard work?
The doorbell rings and Noah yells, “I'll get it!” from the top of the stairs. I cringe when I hear him stomping down the stairs. Both Josie and I are afraid he’s going to slip and break something, but he isn’t listening to either of us. Maybe he’ll listen when he’s in the emergency room.
I hear a crash and something shattering. I run from the kitchen through the dining room, panic setting in because I can’t hear Noah; he’s too quiet.
“Noah, are you—”
I stop dead in my tracks. She stands there with casserole spread all over her feet, her hand covering her gaping mouth, eyes watering. I set my hand on Noah’s shoulder and look at her. She’s aged, but obviously had some work done. I can’t tell if she still wears the same red lipstick she did when I was growing up, but I somehow think she hasn’t changed much.
“Noah, why don’t you go grab some gloves, a towel and a plastic bag and we’ll get that cleaned up.”
Noah runs off toward the kitchen. I wait a few beats before looking her in the eyes. She’s watching Noah.
“What are you doing here?”
She looks at me, the same cold stare I grew up with. If I didn’t know better I’d think she hated me. That maybe I ruined her life.
“I was… he’s… casserole and… you’re...”
“Are you really speechless or has the vodka finally impaired your ability to function like a normal human?”
“I haven’t had a drink in five years,” she says.
“Congratulations. You should go before my son comes back. I don’t want to explain why we're talking as if we know each other.”
“Don’t,” I say as I step over the mess she’s created on my porch. I shut the door quietly behind me so I can be frank with her. “You don’t get to ‘Liam’ me. You stood by and watched as he threw me out of the house. You’re supposed to protect me and you should’ve been protecting Noah. You live in the same god damn town and he looks just like me, so don’t tell me you haven’t seen him or Josie around. You should’ve told me. You were the only one who knew how to get a hold of me and you didn’t.”
“I’m sorry, I tried, but you know your father. He was adamant.”
“I don’t want excuses. I missed ten years with him. Ten!”
“Can I meet him?”
I have to look away because looking at her – mascara running down her face like a Sunset Strip street walker – isn’t doing much good for me. I hate seeing her like this and, sadly, it’s my most vivid memory of her.
“Why should I let you?”
“You shouldn’t. I’m not a good person, Liam. I know that. I try, though, all the time to do something good for someone. I’m trying to be independent and not so—“
“Is that how you saw me?”
“Yeah it is,” I say moving toward the door. “You can meet him, but Sterling can’t. I don’t want him anywhere near my son.”
She nods and follows me into the house. Noah is sitting on the steps with the supplies in his hands. “What are you doing sitting there?” I ask him.
“You were having a private conversation. I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“He’s so polite.” I nod because he is. Josie has raised him well.
“The bathroom is down the hall, Noah and I will clean up this mess.”
Bianca Westbury walks down the hall in a home that I own. I swear I never thought I’d see this day in my lifetime. We clean up the mess and Noah hoses down the porch. I’m afraid the steps will ice over tonight, so we’ll have to watch that in the morning.
“Who’s the lady?’ he asks. I want to say a stranger, but she’s here and asking for an opportunity that I’m certain Josie wouldn’t want her to have. I suppose if she wants to see Noah, she can come over here and do it.
I look over my shoulder to see Bianca standing there wringing her hands. She’s cleaned up the best she can, but she’s nervous. I’ve never seen her so unsure of herself. I motion for her to sit down in the living room. She takes one of the wing back chairs while Noah and I sit on the couch.
“Remember when you asked if you could meet my parents?” Noah nods. His eyes light up at the mention of my parents. I wish they didn’t, they really aren’t anything to write home about. “Noah, this is Bianca Westbury, my mom.”
Noah looks at my mom as if he’s studying her, learning everything he can about her. She pats down her hair and smiles softly at him. She clasps her hands and then straightens out her skirt again.
Noah looks back and forth between us and shrugs his shoulders. “What do I call you?”
Bianca sits forward, her hands resting on her knees. “Oh, um… I don’t know… I… Let’s see…”
“I call my nana and papa, nana and… oh that’s funny huh, Dad?”
“Dad,” Bianca whispers. She looks at me and smiles. “I think if you called me Grandma Bianca that would be okay.” She nods and her face lights up. “Yes, I think I’d like Grandma Bianca.”
“Okay, that’s cool.”
“Yes, cool,” she says. I start laughing and so does Noah. I don’t think Bianca has ever said the word ‘cool’ before in her life.
“Noah, tell me all about yourself.” With those words I’m effectively cut out of this conversation. She moves over to the couch and sits next him. I remember her like this when I was little before things started changing at my house.
I leave them in the living room to get to know each other. I take out my phone and call Josie. She needs to know about my mom coming over and meeting Noah and I’d rather tell her before Noah lets it slip.
“Hi,” Josie says on the third ring. We’ve started talking every day, but I’ve avoided telling her how I feel. I want her to come to me when she’s ready. I’m not into being someone’s rebound and if she wants me it has to be forever. Right now I’m happy having her in my life without drama.
“You wouldn’t believe who knocked on the door a half hour ago.”
“The delivery man?” She’s been giving me so much crap about the amount of deliveries, but I’ve never had my own furniture before. I may have gone a bit overboard with a few of my purchases, but I plan to own this house forever and it needs to be furnished properly.
I laugh at her. “Bianca.”
Josie only knows how I felt about my parents in high school. I haven’t told her about the ultimatum Sterling issued when I decided to leave school. I wait for Josie to say something. There’s nothing but silence on her end.
“What is it, Jojo?”
“Did she just show up?”
“She was bringing a casserole to the new people. What’s going on?” Her tone is making me curious. She’s usually bubbly when we're talking and right now she seems down.
“Nothing,” she says, clearing her throat. “So you don’t want me to bring dinner tonight?”
Even if the casserole was sitting in my kitchen, I’d still want her to bring dinner because having her in my house, knowing she’s not going home to anyone, is a great feeling. I can't wait to carry her up the stairs and lay her down in our bed and keep her there forever.
“I’m expecting you for dinner so you might want to hurry up.” She starts laughing and accuses me of using her for her mad food skills, even if she’s ordering pizza. I don’t deny it, but it’s a fine excuse to get her in the door night after night. “I’ll see you soon,” I say before hanging up.
I peek back into the living room.
They're still sitting together deep in conversation. I watch them
interacting and wonder how she could’ve allowed Sterling to be the way
he was. She radiates with excitement when she’s talking to Noah; why
couldn’t she have been like this with me?
Nick has been gone for three weeks. The night he told me he was moving, he left. I don’t know where he went. Needing a distraction I went to work the next day, giving Jenna a Saturday to do whatever. When I came home his stuff was gone. He didn’t have much, just clothes mostly, but I felt his absence when I walked into my bathroom and his shaving cream and toothbrush were missing.
I miss Nick. I miss his laughter, his comfort and how I felt when he held me at night. My heart is not broken. I haven’t sat and cried except for the night he left. How I feel is not fair to him. He did the right thing by leaving. He saved us this way. I just want to know if he’s okay.
Noah and I are spending Christmas at Liam’s with Katelyn and the girls. We’ll be one extended family dealing with the loss of a friend, husband and father – together. Katelyn and the girls are with Noah and Liam now, decorating. Liam wanted to wait until I arrived, but I told them to go ahead. I'll have plenty to do later.
In hindsight, Jenna should be working. We’re busy. Not that I’m complaining about having customers, but an additional set of hands would be nice right about now. My delivery boy is definitely adding to his Christmas fund with tips.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Potter.”
“Oh, Merry Christmas, Josie, I just love your little shop during the holidays. You do such an amazing job with your decorations and flowers.
“Thank you. What can I make for you today?”
“I’m hoping for an arrangement of red roses and white calla lilies to add a little contrast in my entry way.”
“Sure thing, Mrs. Potter.”
I leave Mrs. Potter while she examines the poinsettias. I direct another customer to the flowers he's looking for before walking to my walk-in cooler. I pick-up the roses and lilies, along with a few other festive flowers before heading back. There’s a tall blonde lingering at the register, she doesn’t have anything in her hand so I smile at her and tell her I’ll be with her in just one moment.
“Hi, excuse me, are you Josephine Preston?”
“I am,” I say as I start to arrange the flowers in a crystal vase for Mrs. Potter. She’s one of my regulars, always having fresh flowers in her house for something. The new customer just stands there not speaking so I continue to work. I finish up Mrs. Potter’s arrangement and take it to the register where she’s added other plants. After I ring her up and she pays, I help her carry her purchases to her car.
“Thank you, dear.”
“You’re welcome. Thank you for shopping here, it means the world to me.” She kisses me on the cheek before getting in her car. I hurry back inside; it’s freezing out. My hands rub warmth into my arms.
I ring up the remaining customers and start working on my next order, taking stock of the few customers left in the store.
The blonde walks up to the counter and sets her bag down. Her sunglasses hold her hair back and I look quickly outside for any hint that the sun has come out and see none. Tourists always mark themselves so well. “Can I help you?” I ask.
“I thought we could talk,” she says. I have to look at her again to make sure I don’t know her from anywhere. I don’t.
“Did you want to make an appointment for a bridal consult or is it for something else?”
She smiles when I mention bridal, she must be in love. “Somehow I don’t think my man would appreciate it if I made wedding plans without him.”
“You’d be surprised. Most don’t care.”
We laugh. She’ll learn that guys just nod and say ‘okay, whatever you want honey’. I pull out my appointment book and look at my next available open time.
“We don’t really need to meet. I just wanted to give you this,” she hands me an envelope – it’s manila and fairly light. I look at the return address. It’s some lawyer in Los Angeles. This must be the paper work for Noah to become Liam’s beneficiary.
“Thanks,” I say, setting it aside.
“Aren’t you at least interested in what I just handed you?” She leans on the counter, her long red nails catching my attention. Her twisted smile is devious, as if she’s planning something harsh and I’m the tail end of the joke.
I pick up the envelope and pull the flap open. Taking out the papers and reading them carefully, anger boils under my skin. He’s done what he promised he wouldn’t. I put the papers back in the envelope and slide it under the counter next to my purse.
“You really should’ve just mailed them. It seems like a wasted trip.” I try to busy my hands when all I want to do is kick every one out and race to Liam’s to pick up my son.
“It’s my job to make sure my client’s needs are met to the fullest.”
“Lucky client,” I reply secretly hoping she’ll leave. She’s done her job. No need to hang around any longer.
“By the way, I’m Sam Moreno,” she sticks out her hand. I don’t move to shake it. I have no desire to be friendly with her. She pulls her hand back. “Anyway, I'm Liam’s manager. From here on out, you’ll go through me where your son and Liam are concerned. Also, the last page of the filing I just gave you is for a paternity test.”
“A what?” I squeak out.
“Well, you can’t expect someone like Liam Page to just hand over cash for a child that might not be his, do you? I mean I'm sure that’s what you thought he was going to do when you dumped your kid on his doorstep like a money-grabbing little whore. You may have a desire to milk my client's cash cow repeatedly but I can assure you, I won’t let that happen.”
“You should go now.” I bite my tongue from lashing out. I know she’s just doing the job that Liam hired her for, but I want to gouge her eyes out with my shears and watch them bleed down her smug face.
She smiles, picks up her bag and walks out the door.
Customers still linger, but none seem aware of what just took place. I walk up to them calmly and tell them that there has been an emergency and I need to close early. I offer them a discount on their next purchase and promise I’ll be open tomorrow. Thankfully they aren’t too upset.
The drive to Liam’s is messy. I don’t even know when it started snowing, but the lightly snow-covered roads make driving difficult. I take in a few deep, calming breaths when I pull into his driveway. He’s decorated the outside of his house with white lights. There are candle lights in each window, something I suggested. There’s a green wreath with a large red bow hanging on the front door.
For the first time I notice that my name appears on the Santa decoration sitting on the porch. It says Liam, Josie and Noah live here. I trace our names before knocking.
The door swings open. Liam is standing in front of me. He’s confused, his brows push forward. “Why are you knocking?”
I should’ve practiced what I was going to say. I can’t look at him. I just want my son.
“I came to get Noah.”
“What do you mean you came to get him? We have plans tonight.”
“I… things change. I need to take my son home now.”
Liam steps forward, down onto the porch. He closes the door behind him. He’s standing on the brick porch barefoot in a t-shirt and jeans. He must be freezing.
“What’s going on?” he asks. I step away creating space between us, only for him to step closer. My head shakes, I can’t look at him. I won’t.
“Jojo,” he says as he reaches for me. I bat his hand away.
“Don’t call me that.”
“What the hell is wrong?” His eyes flash with rage.
“Nothing,” I answer sharply. “I want my son and I want to go home.”
“Our son,” he seethes.
I laugh at his term our. “Are you sure about that, Liam Page?”
The look he gives me is one of confusion and hurt. I can see the pain in his eyes when I call him by his stage name. “What the fuck are you talking about, Josie.”
I can’t take it anymore. I can’t stand here while he plays stupid. I pull the envelope from my purse. “This,” I say through tears as I slam it into his chest. “You did this after you promised me you wouldn’t. I trusted you… again and you’ve broken my heart.”
Liam pulls the envelope from my hands and tears it open. He reads the first page, then each one after. His face turns white.
When he looks up at me, I see fear.
Josie has only knocked once since I moved in, so when I open the door and she’s standing there I know something is wrong. I can tell she’s upset. Her stance on my porch is defiant. She’s pissed off and I don’t know what I did, but I know her anger is because of me.
Stepping out onto the porch is probably the dumbest thing I’ve done all week. It’s cold, snowing and I’m not wearing any socks or shoes. I could care less about not having a jacket on. I’m trying to be serious with her when all I want to do is run back into the warmth of my home.
There is nothing more frustrating than a woman who doesn’t tell you what’s wrong when you ask her. I want to grab her and shake the answer out of her. She stands in front of me, her shoulders hunched, refusing to look at me, to show me her beautiful eyes that I can read like an open book.
I tear open the manila envelope that she slams against my chest. My eyes read over words like custody, visitation, child support, and California resident. The last page does me in – it says I’m requesting a paternity test to determine if the child known as Noah Michael Preston is my son.
Josie crosses her arms over her mid-section like she’s been punched repeatedly. She doesn’t bother to wipe the tears that have started cascading down her beautiful face, now marred by deception with my name attached. No wonder she wants to take Noah away. I told her I’d never take him from her and these papers are telling her I am.
This is not what I want. I want us to be a family. I never even thought about this when I found out about Noah. Never in a million years did this thought ever enter my mind.
“Where did you get this?” I demand. I grip the papers, crinkling them in my hand as I shake them. She rolls her eyes and turns away from me, pissing me off even more.
“I just want to get Noah and go home.”
She shakes her head. “Just give me my son!” she yells, her hands instantly cover her face.
I can’t, I won’t. I will not hand over Noah without having the answers I want from her. I grab her arm and pull her into the house. She resists, fighting me as I drag her through the kitchen and down the stairs to my studio. It’s a soundproof room so we can yell and scream at each other and Noah won’t hear us.
I push her into the room and slam the door shut, locking it behind us.
“Who gave you these fucking papers, Josephine?” I hate saying her full name, but it gets her attention. She looks up at me, determined.
“You know, I thought we could work at this co-parenting thing, but I was wrong. I don’t want your money, Liam. I don’t need it. Noah and I have managed this whole time on our own so you don’t have to worry about me sucking you dry.”
“No, let me finish.” She holds up her hand, moving away from me, as far as she can get.
“No!” I yell at her. “I will not. Tell me who gave you these god damn papers. There is no postage so I know they were hand delivered. I’m really about to lose my shit here, so just tell me already.”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because it’s fucking bullshit!” I scream. “I didn’t do this. I don’t want this. I don’t want to take Noah away from you or Beaumont.”
I stalk over to her and push her up against the wall. My body is pressed against hers, as my hand cups her face gently. I want to do nothing more than to kiss her. To rip all her bulky winter layers away from her body and feel her skin against mine.
“I love our son, Josie. I love him so much. I would never do anything to hurt him and taking him away from you would do that.” I try to calm down. I know who’s behind this and for me this is the last straw.
“Her name is Sam,” she says so quietly I almost don’t hear her, but catching Sam escape from her lips is all the answer I need.
“Listen to me,” I say, pulling her chin up so she’s looking at me. “I bought this house with you in mind. I’m here because this is where my family is, you and Noah. I want to be with you.
“Sam's my manager and has clearly overstepped her boundaries. I don’t know how she knows about Noah, but I’ll find out. The last thing I want to do is to hurt you. I love you, Jojo.”
“Please don’t take him,” she begs. I hate seeing her cry. I hate the look of desperation on her face. I’m going to kill Sam for doing this to Josie… to us. We don’t need this drama in our lives.
I push a few strands of loose hair behind her ear. She leans into my touch, rubbing her cheek against my rough palm. I can’t resist. I kiss away her tears until I find her mouth. I place three kisses along her lips, the first two in the corners before testing her reaction in the middle. She’s receptive. Her hands pull me forward, closer.
I stop too soon for both of us. I want her, but not like this.
“Don’t you want me?” she whispers against my lips.
“I do, so much, but not like this. Not in my studio where Noah can see us.” I pull away from her and look into her beautiful blue eyes. “I want every part of you in my life, Jojo, when you’re ready.”
We walk back upstairs hand in hand, leaving the papers in my studio. I’ll deal with them later. The first thing I need to do is call my lawyer and have them retracted. I don’t even know what to do about Sam. Another question for my lawyer is if I can fire her? How much will it cost me to get out of this contract? She’s gone too far this time.
Noah and I start to set up the tree, centering it in front of the large picture window facing the street. Josie comes in, her face reserved. I know every expression she has and this one is hesitant, as if she’s walking on egg shells. I need to fix this and fast.
I purposely slant the tree. When she huffs, I turn my head and hide my smile. She starts to boss us around, telling us right, left and finally throws her hands up when we don’t listen to her. She leaves us men to the hard task of making our tree stand up right while she goes to the kitchen and works on making finger foods for tonight. Katelyn, the girls, Harrison and Quinn will be here shortly for our decorating party.
The Westbury men will have none of that. Noah and I sneak up on her in the kitchen. He tackles her from one side, and I the other. When she screams we start laughing. I can’t help but kiss her. I hear Noah snicker and walk off, so I kiss her again. I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help it, I love her.
I kiss her a third time briefly on the lips when the front door bursts open. Katelyn yells to the girls to be respectful. Josie pushes me away. It should hurt my feelings but it doesn’t. I know she wants to focus on Katelyn during the holidays. I make the decision to start wooing my girl. She needs to be romanced.
When Josie and I bring food into the living room, the kids, like vultures, attack right off. I leave them to answer the door. Harrison and Quinn are standing there, both holding out bouquets of flowers.
“You shouldn’t have,” I say, reaching for the flowers.
“Well, you are a sexy beast,” Harrison says as he bats his eye lashes. I invite them in and direct them toward the festivities. Josie and Katelyn look up and smile when we enter.
“This is my Josie and our son, Noah.” I point to Noah who looks up briefly and waves.
“Nice to meet you, Harrison. Hi Quinn,” Josie says, bending down to his level.
Quinn waves as he inches closer to his dad, but hands Josie the bouquet of flowers.
“You know she’s a florist, right?”
“Shut up, Liam. They’re beautiful! Thank you, Quinn.” Josie eyes me like I’m in some sort of trouble. I sort of wish I had taken advantage of her downstairs if she’s going to look at me like that.
“Harrison, this is our friend, Katelyn, and her daughters, Peyton and Elle.” Both girls look up and smile before they go back to sorting the ornaments.
Katelyn shakes Harrison’s hand and in slow motion he hands her the bouquet. She accepts the flowers, bringing them in so she can inhale their scent. Her eyes look up at him, his hand still holding the bouquet.
“Hi,” he says as if he’s just run five miles.
“Shit,” I say, shaking my head. Josie looks from them to me, her eyes going wide.
I pat Harrison on the shoulder and laugh. He lurches forward before catching himself, never taking his eyes off of Katelyn. Christmas just officially became interesting.
The smell of coffee wakes me. I bury my face into my pillow. The lingering scent of Burberry after shave weaves its way through my senses. Liam kissing me in his studio and again in the kitchen replays in my mind. I reach for him. I just need to feel him, to have his touch burning my skin knowing he’s the only one who can extinguish the fire.
His side is empty and cold. I sit up suddenly. The bed covers are straight, untouched. His pillow is missing. I flop back onto mine and cover my face. I can’t believe the simple smell of him can bring back such vivid memories.
“Are you sure we won’t get into trouble?” I’m whispering even though he’s assured me his parents are gone. Not just at work or the grocery store, but on a plane, heading for a cruise. How he convinced them to leave him home, I’ll never understand, but I don’t care because I get Liam all to myself.
He opens the door from the garage to the house. We stop in the kitchen briefly while he takes out two water bottles from the refrigerator. We climb the stairs hand in hand, until we reach his room. He hands me the water and pulls my silk scarf from my neck. Coming behind me, he places kisses along my neck before tying the scarf over my eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“Trust me,” he says against my skin.
I do trust him. With my life.
He opens his bedroom door, his hands under my shirt, his fingers guiding me forward. His door slams shut causing me to jump. With my eye sight hindered my other senses are heightened.
Liam stands behind me, his breathing labored. When he moves away I want to follow him. Something clicks and the smell of cinnamon and something sweet, like cookies, permeates though the air.
He takes the bottles out of my hand and pulls me toward him. I stumble into him, my hands gripping his arms so I don’t fall.
“I’ll never let you fall, Jojo.”
He brings me into the middle of his room, and into his arms. He caresses my cheek.
“I love it when you blush,” he says huskily. His lips find mine, urgent with need, as he pulls the scarf loose. “Merry Christmas, my girl,” he says as goose bumps spread across my skin. He picks me up, my legs wrapping around his waist as my hands tug at his clothes. He lays me gently on his bed, pulling away. I reach for him, causing him to laugh.
I look around the room. He’s decorated it with Christmas lights and a small tree with a few presents underneath it.
“Which do you want to open first?” he asks.
“You,” I say as I pull him down on top of me.
“Merry Christmas!” The door swings open and I’m greeted with the most beautiful sight in the world, my son and the man I am desperately trying not to love. I scoot up and attempt to straighten the rat’s nest that has developed overnight.
Noah jumps up on the bed, with a small box in his hand. Liam follows, carrying a mug of coffee. He bends down as I reach for the cup and whispers 'Merry Christmas' into my ear. I want to pull him to me, just like the last time we were together at Christmas, but I refrain.
“This is for you,” Noah shoves the small box toward me. I take a sip of my coffee before putting it down on the night stand. I don’t know how I didn’t notice the picture before, but there’s Noah and I framed staring back at me. I don’t know when Liam took the picture but it warms me knowing we're the first and last people he sees before going to sleep.
I smile at Liam who looks a little embarrassed. I’ll be sure to ask him about it later. I take the gift out of Noah’s hand and untie the large silky white bow. Noah scoots up next me while Liam sits just out of my reach.
I lift the lid on the black box. Nestled inside is a diamond heart-shaped pendant resting against crushed velvet.
“Look inside,” Noah says giddily. Setting the box down, I slide my nail in between the ridge. It pops open easily and staring back at me is Noah and his toothless grin.
“You’re supposed to be happy, not cry, Mom.”
“I’m very happy, Noah. Thank you so much. I love it.”
He reaches over and gives Liam a high-five. “You were right, Dad.”
Noah jumps off the bed and heads for the door. “Come on, guys, Santa came!” Liam starts laughing and stares at the door until he’s gone. As soon as he hears him downstairs he moves closer to me. He takes the box from my hand and removes the necklace. I lean forward, bending my head and wait for him to clasp the chain around my neck.
“Eager?” he asks. My eyes find Liam’s, he’s focused on me. I pull my hair to the side farthest away from him. He leans in, his scent enveloping me. His fingers linger on my skin following the path of the chain across my collarbone.
I turn my head slightly hoping to catch his lips. He doesn’t disappoint. His lips brush against mine ever so lightly.
“Liam,” I whisper. He pulls back and rubs his hand over his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just don’t want to rush this. I need you to be ready and not some rebound because you’re hurting from Nick.”
“No buts. You were with him for a long time and things just ended. I’ll be patient, Jojo.” He stands and leans over me. I have to lean back so I can see him. “You will be mine again.”
Once Liam is out of the room and my heart rate has returned to normal, I climb out of bed and change into something presentable. The moment I open the door, my name is being yelled from downstairs.
When I enter the living room seven pairs of eyes are staring at me. Apparently, I’m the last one to get out of bed this morning. One look at the tree and I see why everyone is ready. Santa came and brought the mall with him. I don’t know where all this stuff came from, but whoever played Santa just made these kids’ year.
Liam dons a Santa hat and passes out presents one by one. The look of elation spreads across his face when he reads his own name. He rips the paper off, causing the kids to laugh. The lid of the box goes flying and tissue paper rains down on us. He pulls out a photo album and starts flipping through the pages.
“Do you like it?” I ask him as his fingers ghost over ten years’ worth of photos of Noah.
He stands and rushes over to me, picking me up. I wrap my arms around him, our faces buried in each other’s necks. “Thank you so much,” he mumbles against my neck. “I love it. I love it so much, Josie.”
“I think your dad loves your mom,” Quinn says to Noah. Harrison and Liam start laughing as do Katelyn and I.
Liam returns to his Santa duties, each child getting ample attention for each gift. I’ve held Katelyn throughout the morning. She occasionally wipes tears. Some are happy that Liam has made her girls’ Christmas so special and others are for Mason.
After all the wrapping is thrown into the fireplace, Katelyn and I take to the kitchen to prepare dinner. The kids disperse throughout the house. Elle is with us while Peyton watches TV. The boys have gone outside to play with their new paintball guns while Liam and Harrison have retired to the studio to jam. I don’t know what that means, but it makes Liam smile.
Once Katelyn and I finish preparing dinner, I cuddle on the couch with Peyton, while she and Elle snuggle up in the chair by the fire. When Liam comes up an hour later complaining that he and Harrison are hungry, I offer to make their lunch. He follows me into the kitchen, pulling at my hair.
“What are you doing?”
He walks toward me until I’m cornered. “I like seeing you comfortable in my house.”
“Mhm. We need to go on a date.”
“What happened to waiting and being patient?” I’m losing whatever nerve I’ve told myself I need to keep around him. I want to be with him, but I also understand what he’s saying about Nick. It’s too soon, but I know what I want and it’s Liam. I wanted him the day he walked into my shop.
I’m just scared.
Liam shrugs. He fingers the buttons on my shirt. “I will be patient, but I want to spend a lot of time with you.”
“Yeah? How about New Year’s Eve? Just us?” he’s close enough to kiss. I lean forward only for his head to turn when the doorbell rings.
“You didn’t invite your mom did you?”
“No, definitely not. I’ll be right back.” He kisses me on the cheek, leaving me frustrated and alone.
“Hey, baby.” I freeze when I hear the same voice from the other day. I walk down the hall quietly.
“Sam, what the—”
“Oh my god,” I gasp loudly as my hand covers my mouth.