I’d seen photos of Niall Stella, so of course I was prepared for the resemblance between my brother-in-law and my husband—same lighter brown hair, same warm brown eyes, way too pretty to be fair—but what I wasn’t prepared for was the impact of having not one, but two Stella men standing in the doorway of our apartment.
Niall let a black leather laptop bag slip from his shoulder, and straightened to his full height, before smiling widely at his brother.
He was just as tall as Max, but a bit more on the slender side. Years of rugby had left Max with broader shoulders and arms and legs defined by ropes of thick muscle. Niall was definitely built, but leaner, the type of build with wide shoulders and narrow hips. A body designed to wear a suit.
From the way he walked into the apartment, it was clear he was comfortable in his own skin, but he was quieter, missing that boisterous quality that seemed to seep into a room whenever Max entered it. In its place was a gentle confidence and a touch of vulnerability that made me want to push Max out of the way and hug Niall myself.
Niall had been unable to come to the States for our small, last-minute wedding ceremony—he’d been in the middle of a divorce, a new job—but had promised to come as soon as he was able. I knew he and Max, being only ten months apart, were the closest of the siblings, and Max had been more excited for this visit than he’d wanted to let on.
Max loved Will and Bennett—and there wasn’t a situation in which I could imagine him not doing whatever it took to help out his boys—but it had nothing on the embrace he gave his younger brother. The two men wrapped their arms around each other in an all-encompassing hug, and maybe it was the hormones talking but it’s possible the closed eyes and small smile on each of their faces might have left me a bit teary. Maybe.
Max whispered something in Niall’s ear I couldn’t make out, before he clapped him on the back and pulled him inside. It was clear that Max had been even more worried about his brother than he realized.
“It’s been too long,” Max said, reaching for Niall’s bag before closing the door.
“Absolutely,” Niall said, and oh. Two British men under my roof. I didn’t stand a chance.
I stepped out of the hallway and into the living room, and offered Niall a small wave when I caught his eye.
“And you must be the lovely Sara,” he said, crossing the room to place a kiss on my cheek. “So lovely to finally meet you.”
Niall was a great hugger, bending at the knees and wrapping his arms completely around me. When he pulled back to meet my eyes, I almost swooned.
“I can see what has him so smitten,” Niall said.
“Truer words were never spoken,” Max said.
“I may need the two of you to cut down on the cute for a bit,” I said. “I’m not sure I can handle it.”
“We’ll do our best, Petal,” Max said with a wink, and led Niall to the living room. “You look bloody fantastic. Divorce suits you.”
Max had explained the circumstances behind Niall and Portia’s divorce, that they’d married when they were fresh out of high school, and been with only each other up until the previous summer, when they both decided it wasn’t working anymore. Max also told me that “not working anymore” was code for Portia was a beast.
If Max’s comment bothered Niall at all, he didn’t show it. Instead, he sank back against the sofa and exhaled in what looked like his first real breath in a very long time.
“You know I would never speak poorly of Portia,” Niall said, shaking his head with a smile, “but yes. I feel better than I have in years.”
A small sound emanated from the baby monitor on the end table, and I stood, explaining that I’d go get the baby up from her nap.
I could hear the men talking while I changed Anna’s diaper, hear the clink of their beer bottles and laughter, and I smiled down at my daughter.
“Ready to go meet your uncle?” I whispered, and she cooed, smiling up at me and kicking her little sock-covered feet. I gathered her up and we made our way into the living room, and both men stopped. Max looked like the proudest daddy in the world, but Niall looked completely in awe.
“She’s breathtaking,” Niall said, setting his bottle on the table and standing to meet me. “She’s absolutely bloody gorgeous, Sara. Well done.”
“She’s a beauty, yeah?” Max crossed the room to take her from me, kissing me on the forehead before sitting next to his brother.
“Mum must be over the moon,” Niall said, running a finger along the edge of the blanket.
“You’ve no idea,” Max said. “I’ll be at her flat not five minutes before she’s nicked her from me.”
My heart swelled as I watched them together, and I took a few steps back and into the kitchen, leaving them alone while they caught up.
Tired from a long day of travel, Niall excused himself for the night around the same time I tucked Annabel in her crib.
With the apartment blissfully silent, I shut off lights and made a final check of the front door before finding Max in our room, folding tiny pink onesies and socks, and placing them in a basket on the bed. I lay down next to him and watched.
“You’re pretty sexy when you’re domestic,” I told him, running a hand up the back of his thigh.
“If you think this is hot, you should see me change a diaper.”
“I have, actually; why do you think I married you? That and your accent. Oh and your giant penis.”
“Too right,” he said, and bent to kiss me. “And I married you because you’re lovely and smart and sexy as hell. Not to mention the fact that you can take on the world.”
“Taking on the world,” I said, folding a pair of socks. “Guess I’ll be going back to that soon enough.”
Max set the basket aside and kneeled on the floor in front of me. “Are you not ready, Petal?”
I picked up one of Anna’s little T-shirts, one that fit her only weeks ago and was now ready to be packed away. I barely remembered her in that shirt, and she had just outgrown it. What in the world would I miss when I was gone all day? And yet . . .
“I am,” I said honestly. “I’m just having a hard time shutting out that guilty voice over wanting to go back to work.”
“Why on earth would you want to silence it? Let yourself feel all the things, Sara. Then take a step back and realize that you can do whatever you bloody want. You can take over the world and still be the world’s greatest mother and wife. Annabel will grow up seeing you do all the things and know that she can do all things, too, if she chooses.”
Max got up and sat next to me on the bed.
“And I’ve been thinking. I know you want to go back to the club, and I want you to know that I want that, too. I was thinking over something we talked about the other day, how there was a time when it felt like Annabel never slept. But slowly, we got through it?”
“Maybe that will be our new rule. We figure it out as we go.”
“You know, I was thinking the same thing. I’ve been so set on proving that I’m the same—that we are—but we’re not, are we? And we don’t have to be. I love this new life and I love the new you, just as much as the old one. Maybe even more.”
Max leaned in and tilted my chin up to meet him before pressing a slow, lingering kiss to my lips. “I like the sound of that,” he said. “So you’ll go back to work, and we continue to do this.” He kissed each of my cheeks and then motioned between us. “Doing what works best for us. I’m actually looking forward to having her with me more at the office, and Mum—not to mention Will—will be thrilled.”
I pulled Max to lie next to me, and fit my leg between his thighs. “You know, everyone’s asleep.”
“You think you could be quiet with what I’d do to you? I’m insulted,” he said, smiling against my mouth.
“I don’t know. But I’d certainly be willing to try. Maybe you could gag me?”
Max’s eyes widened before he started unbuttoning the top of my dress. “I think we can work something out. In fact—”
As if on cue, Annabel picked that exact moment to start wailing.
“Let’s give her a minute. She might just fall back to sleep.” I told him, tucking my face into his neck. He smelled so good, like the Max I had always known, but a little like Anna, too. He was getting so laid.
Two minutes of crying went by, and I had just extricated myself from Max’s arms to go pick her up, when the apartment fell silent.
We looked at each other, before both of us turned our attention down the hall. “What is that?” Max asked.
I listened, unable to make out the soft humming I could hear from the living room. We both stood and quickly dressed, before we began tiptoeing down the hall.
We turned the corner and Max stopped, quickly enough that I ran into his back. “What is it?” I whispered.
Max moved over the tiniest bit, and there was Niall: tie off and top of his shirt unbuttoned, shoeless and walking back and forth, talking softly to a bright-eyed Annabel.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Max said. “Didn’t take long for her to fall in love with him. Not that I’m surprised, mind you.”
“That’s it, baby girl,” he murmured, kissing her softly on one of her puffy cheeks.
Anna continued to look up at him in awe, and Max and I turned to look at each other.
“Niall’s a natural,” I whispered to Max.
He looked back at his brother, before turning back to me. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”