Beautiful Beloved: Chapter 2

Sara

I turned down Fifty-Sixth and caught sight of the Parker Meridien near the end of the block.

The gray stone façade was as bleak as the morning sky; the clouds overhead fat with snow that was certain to start falling any minute. Winter in New York after Christmas was dreary: cold and wet, dirty slush, and days at a time without a hint of blue sky. But this year had been blessedly mild compared to others, and warm enough for Max to regularly push the bundled-up stroller alongside Will and Hanna as they ran through the park.

My phone buzzed in the front pocket of my coat. I didn’t need to look to know it was Chloe, sending the third Where are you? You are not backing out on us Sara! message in the last hour. So maybe I’d missed a few lunches with the girls since Anna had been born, it wasn’t easy getting out of the house with a newborn who would be permanently attached to my breast if given the chance.

I ignored my phone, my head still full of my morning with Max. Chloe could wait.

But of course only two steps later I was clutched with the fear that maybe the text hadn’t been Chloe. Maybe it was Max with a message that Anna was sick or had hurt herself or—

I moved off the sidewalk to stand in the shelter of a nearby building, and pulled out my phone.

Will might come over for dinner, Max had written. You good with that?

I replied that it was fine and slid my phone back into my pocket. With each step, my favorite boots crunched through the salt that had been scattered along the sidewalk. Chloe wanted to take me shopping before I braved the office today, but I’d declined. I wanted the comfort of my favorite skirt and the heels that added just a little swing to my step, the sweater that rendered Max speechless and then consumed this morning. I needed to feel like myself.

I straightened my jacket and tightened the grip on the purse Max had bought me for my birthday. A Burberry clutch, not a diaper bag. I hadn’t been out of the house without my baby, let alone diapers, bottles, wipes, and a change of clothes, since Anna was born, and the soft leather felt too light in my hand.

Just a few hours away from her today, I reminded myself. Just see how it goes.

I smiled at the doorman as I stepped inside the marble lobby. The floors were gleaming white and inlaid with glossy black squares, the walls made of polished stone. People gathered on benches and sat hunched over their phones. Conversations carried through the giant space and up, echoing off stone walls. I walked under a giant arch and turned left, climbing a set of stairs that led to Norma’s. As usual, I could hear Chloe before I could see her.

“There she is,” Chloe said, standing on skyscraper-tall boots, all long legs and cascading wavy hair and an expression that said there was no way I’d get out of being late without getting a little shit for it first. “Fucking finally.”

“I know, I know,” I said, crossing the wood floors to reach them. “Sorry. Just trust me that time warps when you have a kid, and you think you’re getting out of the house on time and then suddenly you’re half an hour late.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t because Max saw you in that outfit and got a little handsy?” Hanna asked from beside Chloe.

“Spoken like a woman who’s with a boob man,” I said, laughing. “And . . . maybe.”

I adored Hanna, but Max in particular had grown especially fond of her in the past year, saying that anyone who could keep Will Sumner by the balls was aces in his book.

“Just ignore Attila the Hun over here,” my assistant and good friend George said, motioning to Chloe. “The woman isn’t happy unless she’s bossing someone around.”

“Hell yes,” Chloe said.

I hugged them all and hung my coat on the back of my chair before taking my seat.

“How’s the princess?” Chloe said, blowing over the top of her mug. “Where’s the princess?”

“Perfect. She’s with Daddy today.” A proud smile spread across my face. “How’s the Bennett?”

“A nightmare,” she answered, equally proud.

“And what’s new with you and Will?” I asked, turning to Hanna. “I feel like I hardly see you, even if Max has taken it upon himself to crash your runs lately. Sorry about that.”

Hanna leaned an elbow on the table and smiled. “I love when he comes along. And judging by the goofy look Will gets on his face when he sees that running stroller heading down the path, I can assure you he doesn’t mind, either.”

“Good, because as bad as I feel, the extra hour of sleep I get makes me feel a lot better.”

“Maybe I should join those runs,” George offered. “Does Will run shirtless in the spring?”

“George,” Hanna said, ignoring this, “are you going to tell Sara about the little dreamboat you’ve been seeing?”

“Was seeing,” he corrected. “As in past tense. Ugh, it was a stage-one breakup. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“A stage what?” Chloe asked.

“A stage one,” he clarified. “I swear, do I always have to be the gay urban dictionary for you people? Stage one is where you break up via text message trying to come off not looking like a total douche bag. Stage two is where you tell the person, ‘Look, you’re not ringing my bell and I’m clearly not ringing yours. Let’s move this train along to grander stations.’ Stage three is where it’s not working and you sort of fade the person out over time. It’s painful because by then the other person has become sort of a habit. They know how you take your coffee and what days you can have carbs and just . . . it can be sad.”

“Of course it can,” I said, stirring my coffee. “Bonding over dietary restrictions can be very romantic.”

George gave me a playful jab to the shoulder. “You get a sarcasm pass because you’re lactating and it’s clearly eating your brain. Where was I? Oh, stage four. Well . . . stage four is where one person is totally invested and the other is just . . . over it. Awful, right? So, stage one doesn’t sound so bad, but in my opinion it’s the worst after stage four. If someone feels comfortable breaking up via text message, you clearly haven’t gotten to a place where you can ask a lot of questions, and you definitely can’t call them up and be all Oh hi, it’s me, the guy you wore the Lion Tamer outfit with? Can you tell me what happened?”

We all nodded sympathetically, and George glared at the bowl of muffins in the center of the table before reaching for one. “Now I’m eating my feelings.”

“Aww, George. Were you totally infatuated with him?” Hanna asked.

“Oh, girl, no,” George said with a laugh. “I don’t do infatuation unless his name is Sumner.”

The waiter stopped by our table, filling my coffee before taking each of our orders. “I’ll have the crispy waffle with berries and Devonshire cream,” I told him.

“I have no idea how you look like this,” Chloe said, motioning to my body, “and still eat like that. You don’t run with Hanna, and I know I haven’t seen you at the office gym in months.”

“One of the joys of breastfeeding,” I said. “I have to eat more calories to keep up my milk.”

Which was true. I still worked out when I could, but pregnancy and motherhood had left me with this new body I was only now getting used to: a slightly wider waist, but curves that had never been so full. I’d always been a bit on the skinny side, but I felt softer now, with rounded hips and boobs that surprised even me. It didn’t hurt that sometimes I’d turn around and see Max flat-out staring at my chest, completely unable to look away. I’d be lying if I didn’t say those moments made me feel like a fucking queen.

“What’s the plan when you go back to work?” Hanna asked, and taking in my outfit, added, “I’m assuming that’s where you’re headed now?”

I nodded as I took a sip of my coffee. “I don’t officially go back until next week, but thought it might be easier to ease myself into it.”

“Are you actually going to walk into your office and sit at your desk today?” George asked.

George had been a godsend while I was on leave. I was out for sixteen weeks, but I’d never wanted to feel disconnected from my career at Ryan Media Group, so I’d stop in on a pretty regular basis even though anything I needed to look at could have easily been couriered over to the apartment. Without really talking about it, we’d built up a system: Anna and I would meet George at his desk in the outer office, he’d hand me the stack of files and any messages that required my attention, and I’d leave him whatever I’d been working on at home.

I never went inside my office and he never questioned why.

Which was ridiculous, when you thought about it. I was Sara Stella, capable of managing multimillion-dollar campaigns and overseeing an entire finance department.

But I hadn’t quite figured out how to do all that and be mommy, too.

“You haven’t gone into your office yet?” Hanna asked. “Is it going to be weird to go back?”

“I don’t think so? I mean, I want to go back to work. I need to. It’s such a part of who I am and I need that part of my life. But Anna . . . the idea of leaving her for eight hours a day still fills me with this guilt like I’m ruining her somehow or I’m missing some vital mommy muscle that makes me want to stay home. Plus, I know I want more at some point and how will we make all that work? Is it fair of me to want more children when I’m pretty sure I’ll always need that side of me, too?”

“Bullshit,” Chloe said. “You think men ever have this conversation with themselves? Of course they don’t. You’ve killed yourself to get where you are. If you can have both, have both. It might take some adjustment but who cares? You figure it out as you go.” She tilted her head and added, “You don’t see Max wanting to stay home.”

“Actually,” I started, and it was enough to get Chloe’s attention. She put down her mug and sat back in her chair, waiting. “I don’t really know what’s going on with him right now. I know he wants me every bit as much as he did before Anna, but I think it’s been more of an adjustment for him than he thought it would be, the idea of my being a wife and a mother. He’s so careful, like he’s not sure how to treat me.”

“Can you blame the man?” George said, and we all turned to him. “Have you seen what childbirth does to a vagina?” He did a full-body shudder.

“George,” Chloe said, shaking her head.

“What!” he shouted.

“Shut up!” she shouted back.

“As horrible a flashback as that was,” I said, “George has a point. I think Max is worried he’ll do something to hurt me, and I’m not really sure how to show him I’m the same Sara I was before. That I want the same things I did before.”

Chloe shrugged and picked up her coffee. “I don’t know, Sara. He went from having you all to himself to watching you learn how to be a mama. Doesn’t surprise me his brain is having to rewrite that code a little.”

“I don’t think it’s about having to share me . . .” I hedged, but Chloe held up a hand.

“I mean it’s about shifting how he sees you,” she said, lifting an arched brow. “First you were the lust of his life, and now you’re the mother of his daughter.”

I chewed my lip, nodding. “He worries that I’m delicate now.”

“Exactly,” she said, a bit more gently. “Having Anna was traumatic. It wasn’t as easy a birth as you both expected. You’ve already forgotten it, but maybe he hasn’t and still needs to get over it.”

Chloe was right. Sex this morning had been wild and hard, as if wanting me took over the part of Max’s brain that told him to slow down. That’s what I wanted.

“When was the last time just the two of you went out?” George asked.

“Since Anna? We haven’t.”

It was his turn for a little eyebrow snark. “Well there’s part of your problem right there, babycakes.”

“Are we just talking wild sex here?” Chloe asked. “Because it’s not like Annabel would have a clue what’s going on.”

“True,” George said, “but it’s probably a lot harder to fuck like wild animals with a baby asleep two doors down. You need a little space.”

He had a point. “I love my baby more than anything in the world, but I want hours and hours. I want to bang my husband until he can’t remember his name.”

Silence bounced around the table for a few breaths.

“Too blunt?” I asked, laughing.

“Never,” George said quickly. “I think we’re all just working on that mental image.”

“God, I sound desperate,” I say, resting my chin on my fist. “Maybe we should just start with dinner out? I think Max is asking his mom if she can watch Anna this weekend.”

“Otherwise next weekend Bennett and I can help,” Chloe said.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” George cut in. “What am I here for? My subtle charm? My pretty face? What about me?”

Chloe whipped her head around dramatically. “You?”

“I’ll have you know that my mother ran a day care, and I taught preschool all through college. Hell, I worked in the infant room when I was in high school to pay for majorette class.” Chloe went to respond but he held up a hand: “Shut it, Mills.” He turned to me. “I’ll watch Anna. I can even watch her tonight.”

“You’d watch her?” I asked. “You could really do that?”

“With my eyes closed. Besides,” he said, eyeing the muffins again, “it’s not like I have any kind of social life to speak of. My nights are wide open.”

The smell of home hit me before I’d even walked in the door. My talk with the girls and George had done wonders, and I’d successfully navigated the day with no freak-outs, no tears, and only one breast milk incident when a phone call went long and I couldn’t get to my pump in time. Next time, I’d just do it while I was on the phone. Boom. My friends were right; I’d figure it out as I went.

Basically, I was feeling pretty unstoppable as I rounded the corner, ready to tell Max about our dinner that night. Then I found him shirtless—again—wrapped in nothing but a towel, with a tiny sleeping baby in his arms, and I was ready to forget about dinner entirely and let him get me pregnant again that very second.

Focus, Sara.

“I’m taking you to dinner,” I said. “Surprise! Also, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m going to need you to put some clothes on for real this time or we’ll never get out of the apartment.”

Max looked up, confused. “Dinner? How did you—?” Sitting up, he said, “And no, I meant to ring you today. I wanted to take you to dinner this weekend but Mum is leaving for Leeds tomorrow. I completely forgot it was in my schedule.”

“That’s what I’m saying: George is watching Anna tonight.”

“Tonight? Has George ever even seen a baby?”

I crossed the room and kissed him softly on the mouth. “Hi,” I said, and kissed him again. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s perfect.” I took the sleeping baby from his arms and leaned in, pressing my face to her soft little head, breathing in as much of her as I could. She had Max’s hair for sure, only a shade darker than mine but already with a bit of a wave to it. Her clean-baby smell hit me, and I felt my breasts grow heavy, my milk letting down almost immediately.

A chair Max brought me from England sat tucked beneath the window in the nursery. It was my favorite place in the apartment, where I was able to look out over the city while I nursed. I got Anna situated, and then looked up at him.

He clearly thought I’d lost my mind. “Are we talking about the same George?”

“I had breakfast with everyone this morning before I went in to work. Did you know that George’s mom ran a day care while he was growing up? He worked there while he was in high school and all through college. He worked with infants.”

He gave me his best skeptical face. “We’re talking about the same twenty-something bloke who wore a Wisconsin cheese hat and some flowy Jesus robes for Halloween, calling himself ‘Cheesus’?”

“The one and only,” I said, laughing at the memory. “He’s probably more qualified to take care of her than we are. Plus we’ll stay close. Just around the corner. He can text or call with any questions and we can be back up here in less than three minutes.”

“But . . .”

“No buts. This is exactly what we need. Now get dressed, he’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”

George showed up exactly fourteen minutes later.

From the bathroom, I could hear Max open the door and let him in, and begin grilling him as they went from room to room.

“And what about her bottle?” Max asked, clearly hoping to be proven right, and that George had absolutely no idea what he was doing.

“Sara’s breastfeeding so I assume you have expressed milk in the freezer? Maybe even fresh in the refrigerator,” George said, more to himself than to Max, I was sure. “What am I talking about? Honestly, I think I’ve seen more of Sara’s boobs in the last four months than my own.” There was the sound of the freezer door as it opened and closed, and I stepped out into the living room, watching as George answered Max’s questions one by one. Max looked begrudgingly impressed.

“I assume she’s getting about six ounces a feeding,” George continued. “Probably every three hours or so? I’ll heat the refrigerated milk first—only ever under warm water, never the microwave. It kills beneficial properties, you know—and I’ll use the frozen if needed. Though you’ll probably be back by then . . .” George trailed off.

“We have a bottle warmer,” Max said, brow furrowed in what I was certain had to be confusion. George really did seem to be more knowledgeable about taking care of an infant than we were. “And nappies?”

“You mean diapers? Oh you Brits are so damn cute. And please, Maxwell. I could probably diaper you in your sleep and you’d never have any idea. I am a pro.”

“Or so you’ve been told,” I said, stepping out to kiss his cheek. “Sorry, Chloe’s not here and I had to throw that in for her. Thank you so much for doing this.”

He waved me off. “No problem. The little princess and I will probably just sit here and cry through The Notebook. For very, very different reasons, I’m sure.”

Between kisses and cuddles and last-minute instructions, it took another fifteen minutes for George to shoo us out of the apartment.

But we didn’t go to the restaurant around the corner. George had apparently made such an impression that Max made us last-minute reservations at a little Italian place a few miles away. I was nervous at the prospect of leaving Anna when I didn’t have to, but I was also giddy. We were going on a date, just the two of us, and my pulse hadn’t slowed down yet.

I watched his profile as he drove us both to the restaurant; as I studied the way the streetlights passed overhead to emphasize the fullness of his lips, the cut of his jaw, I thought back to our first real date—is that what that was?—when he’d taken me to Queen of Sheba and I hadn’t been able to stop looking at his mouth. I still couldn’t stop looking at his mouth.

The press didn’t follow him like they did before we were together, but since Anna had been born, there was an uptick in Hot Daddy Max Stella photos in Page Six and on various Internet gossip sites. I couldn’t say that I blamed them, no matter how much I still resented them for ever spooking me in the first place.

I closed my eyes, my heart squeezing tightly as I was pulled back in time to our first night together after the pictures in the papers, the ones that made me think he’d cheated. He’d thrown a party, and after not answering his calls for over a week, I’d shown up, finally ready to talk. But it hadn’t been as simple as I expected—he’d been genuinely hurt—and I had some apologizing to do.

I remembered the small, grudging smile Max gave me when we woke up together the next morning; he had handed over the last tiny bit of himself with that.

I remembered how that look had squeezed my heart, painfully. He’d been scared to let me back in, and in the stark white light of the morning, with both of us sweaty and spent, we couldn’t hide with our faces pressed to the other’s skin, or in the game of transparency through photos. He looked at me directly, baldly, and there was nothing else between us.

“Stay,” he said, bending to suck at the skin just beneath my ear. “Stay with me. It’s good, Petal. Us. It’s so sodding good and if you spook again it will absolutely wreck me.”

“I won’t.”

“I love you, yeah?”

I nodded, heart trapped somewhere between my throat and the sky. “I love you.”

“That means we’re settled. It means there’s no question where my heart is. You’ll stay here.”

It had been that easy. It had always been that easy. And I had learned to trust it.

But now it was a different shape: bigger, yes, but unwieldy, and the ease of it all—Max and Sara, a rhythm ricocheting between us like a shared heartbeat—was now pounding too hard for me to bear.

Because now I felt everything. It was like a faucet had been turned on inside me, filling me with warmth and pride and thrill and terror and vulnerability and strength and powerlessness and lust and it never shut off. It filled and filled until I was sure I was bursting from it, but how could I ever complain that I felt too much? How could I explain that I was burning up with the constant awareness that if anyone ever tried to hurt my man or my baby I would rip them inside out with my rage?

How could I ever complain that it was often hard to find myself in the desire to be mother and lover in equal measure to the two people in my life who seemed to matter above even my own need for air?

Max held my hand as we drove, until a text from George pulled me out of my memories.

“Aww,” I said, turning the screen to face him. It was a picture of Anna asleep on George’s shoulder, her fat little fist pressed against her perfect mouth.

“Maybe we should send him flowers next week to thank him,” Max said, and then I recognized the little twist in his smile that signaled he was up to no good. “And say they’re from Will.”

“Don’t you dare,” I told him, saving the picture before tucking my phone away. “If this works out we’re going to use him again. Hell, I might just change his job position from assistant to nanny and offer him a raise.”

“I might have to let you,” he said, and brought the back of my hand to his mouth for a kiss. “Maybe then I can sneak you away for a weekend? Someplace we can lock ourselves in our room the entire time, not a stitch of clothing on either of us?”

“That sounds pretty close to perfect.”

My phone buzzed in my clutch, and we stopped long enough for me to reach for it, unsurprised to find another text from George.

Look how gorgeous she is!! it said, along with a photograph of Anna fast asleep in her crib and several heart-eyed emojis.

“This is way too easy,” I told Max. “But instead of questioning it, I’m going to put this away and enjoy the hell out of this night. And maybe if you’re lucky, I’ll let you have your way with me on the way home.”

“That, Petal, is the most amazing thing I’ve heard all day.” Max curved his hand around the back of my neck and pulled me to him. I went willingly, my mind already spinning ahead to what could happen after dinner, where we might go and the delightfully filthy things he might do to me. This is what we’d been missing. Max and Sara. Tonight was absolutely perfect.

Max pulled up to the valet at Granduca’s and an attendant reached for my door. “I’ve got it, mate,” he said, rounding the car and offering a hand to help me out.

Mindful of the fact that I was in a dress, I carefully swung my feet out onto the ground and moved to stand. Max’s hand felt warm and reassuring in my own and I took a step, intending to follow him into the restaurant. But I couldn’t.

What the . . . I almost gasped when I realized that I was stuck. Or to be more accurate, that my dress was. The subtle beading on my skirt had snagged on the inside door latch of Max’s BMW.

“I’m just . . .” I started, letting go of Max in an attempt to get a better look. “My dress seems to be caught.”

Max kneeled next to me but I waved him off.

“No, just one second, let me.”

By now the attendant with Max’s keys had realized something was wrong, and so had a few of the others. “Maybe if you try and slip that piece right there through the latch,” one of them said.

“No, that will make it worse. See those little beads? They’ll get stuck. I’ve got some scissors. I can go grab them,” said another.

“Man, it is really in there,” said their supervisor. “How did you even do that?”

Four pairs of hands all tried to help me untangle myself, but I batted them away.

“No,” I said. “Please. This skirt is vintage.” There was a grimace in my voice as I pulled on a tiny thread, careful not to snag it further. Damn, it did not want to give and I was practically sweating. “A gift from my mom,” I added. “Just let me—”

“Oh,” they all said in unison, along with a “Fucking hell,” from Max.

I’d ripped it, like, really ripped it. And now, instead of a small, easily concealable snag, there was a slit that began at the bottom of my skirt and moved up, stopping at the top of my thigh.

“No way that just happened,” Max said.

“It happened,” I told him.

“I’m sorry, Petal. We can go back and you can change into something else?”

“This is nothing,” I said, and straightened, pushing up on the balls of my feet to press a kiss to his neck. “This is just karma’s way of proving a point because I said this was too easy. Of course something would go wrong after that.”

“I’d be lying if I said that I disliked this slight alteration,” he said, eyes moving up and down my thigh.

“It’s not too obscene?” I asked, a little thrill passing through my stomach at his wide eyes as he shook his head.

“Absolutely not.” He ran his hand down over my hip, and touched the bare skin of my thigh, right in front of everyone outside the restaurant.

Warmth slid into my veins. Was he going to play a little tonight? Would he touch me beneath the table?

“Listen,” he said, kissing my neck, “why don’t I check us in and you can run to the ladies, fix anything that needs fixing and maybe check in on George?”

I wilted immediately. “Sounds perfect,” I said, squeezing his hand.

I didn’t call George, opting to text instead of running the risk of waking Anna.

I know I don’t need to check in so just saying hi. Hi, I typed.

His reply came less than a minute later. If you two aren’t naked yet I’m going to be so disappointed.

I laughed dryly as I typed back, Nope, definitely not naked. How’s my baby?

Perfect. Just waking up so I’m heating her bottle. Then tummy time and a movie.

You’re a lifesaver, I typed.

Tell me something I don’t know.

I looked at the full-length mirror in the ladies’ room and Max was right, it didn’t look bad at all. Satisfied, I left to go find my husband, typing out a response on the way. How will I ever repay you, George?

Bring me back something shiny.

I smiled. Done.

By shiny, you know I mean chorus boys wrapped in sparkling swim trunks, right?

Obviously.

His response appeared only a second later. This is why we’re friends.

We were led to our seats shortly after. With the way Max was looking at me from across the table—like nothing would please him more than to spread me out in front of all these people and have me for dinner—I hoped I’d be able to make it through the next two hours.

I opted for clam risotto with bacon and chives, and Max ordered a creamy fettuccine with asparagus. The waiter brought a bottle of pinot noir and held it out for Max’s inspection. Max smiled and then motioned for him to show it to me—which was ridiculous considering I barely drank—but my eyes widened in recognition. It was the same wine we’d had at the quiet dinner after our wedding at city hall. My husband was so getting laid tonight.

“Perfect,” I told him.

The waiter smiled and began to remove the cork. “It’s an amazing choice,” he said, wedging the bottle between his knees to get a better grip. He laughed nervously and jostled the opener, but it didn’t seem to want to budge. “Wow, it’s really stuck in there.”

“Maybe if I—” Max started to say, but the cork came out with a wet suction and both the waiter and Max eyed it dubiously. It was black with sludge.

“Oh,” both the waiter and I said in unison. Max looked like someone had just popped his balloon.

“This is a pretty bleak metaphor,” I joked, but Max’s expression told me he didn’t think it was remotely funny.

“I’m so sorry,” the waiter said, and looked around as if someone would be standing there to help him. “This bottle is clearly off. I’ll just go get you another.” He paused, and I knew right away that it wasn’t a good sign. “I just remembered, that was the last one.”

“No worries, mate,” Max said, glancing through the wine menu. “Happens to all of us. We’ll just have a bottle of the MacRostie instead.”

The wine had been poured, and I tore off a small piece of warm bread while we waited for our meal. “So how was Anna today?” I asked.

Max looked at me over the rim of his glass, mouth turned up in a teasing smirk. “I believe there was to be no baby discussion tonight, Mrs. Stella,” he said. “But since I relish the chance to talk about our daughter, I’ll tell you that she was perfect, as usual. Mum quite enjoys having her there. Not to mention Will, even if he does nothing more than sit and make ridiculous faces at her from across the table.”

As if on cue, my phone vibrated next to my plate and I glanced over as the screen lit up.

Your daughter is not impressed with Ryan Gosling. This is clearly your husband’s DNA. Attached was a photo of the two of them on the couch, Anna making a hilariously frowny face at the camera.

I showed Max and typed out a quick reply, before placing my phone—facedown—on the table.

Max reached for my hand and took it in his, rubbing his thumb over my wedding band. “It’s okay to look at your phone, you know. This is our first night out without her. It’s all right to feel a little anxious. I’m a little anxious.”

“You don’t look it,” I told him. “You never do. I swear you have a poker face like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t know about that. Seems I couldn’t keep anything from you, now could I? Quite certain you knew I was ass over tits for you within a few days of meeting.”

“You played the rogue part pretty well, though. Even I—” My phone vibrated again and I bit back a groan.

It was more movie commentary from George, and honestly, if the accompanying pics weren’t so adorable and I didn’t love him so much for doing this for me, I’d probably offer to buy him a car to lose my number for the next forty-five minutes.

Has Anna been fussier than usual? Or doing this thing where she pulls her body up into a little bit before kicking out and crying?

“Was Anna fussy today?” I asked Max, suddenly worried that I’d missed something being away.

“Maybe a tad more toward the end of the day, but nothing big. Was just ready to go home, that’s all.”

Not that we’ve noticed, I typed. Why? Is she ok?

I’m sure it’s nothing, came George’s reply. Her tummy feels a bit noisy to me, so I’m going to do a little baby massage on her. See if we can get all those gas bubbles gone.

“She’s not feeling well,” I told Max. “I mean, he thinks it’s just gas but, I don’t know.”

“Would you feel better if we left, Petal?” he said, concern growing in his features.

“I don’t know.” I didn’t, I wasn’t sure if this was one of those moments where I needed to tell the overprotective side of myself to calm down, or give in to the worry pressing on my chest. A baby cried from somewhere near the back of the restaurant and I squeezed my eyes closed. Of course this would happen now. I could already feel the way my breasts felt heavier, tender. My milk was beginning to let down and I had no baby, no pump anywhere in sight. The night was going downhill, and fast.

Movement caught my eye, and I felt my shoulders sag with relief as I saw the waiter coming toward us with our dinners.

“Thank fuck,” Max said. “Shall I get them to go?”

The phone buzzed on the table again, so close to my cutlery that it caused a shrill clanking as they vibrated against each other. As he set my plate down, the waiter gave me a look.

So baby girl feels better now, the text said. Unfortunately, she feels better because she threw up all over me. And your couch. It fought the good fight though.

“She threw up, all over George’s fancy Italian shirt. Maybe send chocolates and flowers,” I said. “And let’s definitely get it all to go.”

There are moments when you definitely know life has a sense of humor, when you swear that someone is up there screwing with you. My phone went off again, sending my silverware clanging across the table. I reached for it as the waiter picked Max’s plate back up, at the exact same moment the person next to us stood, pushing out their chair. I grabbed for my phone, the chair collided with the waiter, and Max’s plate of white cream sauce went tumbling . . . into his lap.

Water was everywhere, across the tablecloth, inside my phone, and all over Max’s pants, where a wet, creamy mixture now lay steaming. I scrambled back from the chaos, my eyes wide with horror. A child next to us burst into tears, and I looked over at Max and the enormous mess in his lap.

“It’s fine,” he assured me, grabbing a napkin and wiping his pants.

My phone buzzed on the table with another picture from George.

“It’s okay, Petal. Just leave it.”

I sat down, shaking. “This is a disaster. I just want to get home to my baby.” I paused as Max dabbed at his pants again and looked down at my chest, my neck and cheeks flushing with humiliation, “Oh, shit.”

When Max looked up and realized my milk had let down and soaked through my red dress, creating two big, wet circles, I could tell he was done.

Tossing a few twenties onto the table, he stood and helped me up, wrapping me in his coat. “Let’s go home.”

I tucked into his side and strode beside him quickly, wordlessly, until we got outside, where I couldn’t help but start laughing madly. “We could have had cereal for dinner in our pajamas!”

“Fucking too right,” he growled, handing the valet the ticket for our car. Protectiveness and frustration rolled off him in waves. “Giant bowl of Froot Loops and—”

“Sir,” the valet interrupted, glancing at the number. His face was ashen. “Our deepest apologies, but I need to let you know there’s been a slight accident . . .”


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