Before: Part 3: After – Chapter: 5


New York is having one of its hottest summers when Tessa has Auden. It’s Tuesday, release day for my newest novel, and Tessa and I are lying on the carpet, staring up at the ceiling fan we installed just last week.

We keep redecorating our small apartment, for some insane reason. We know we won’t end up staying here, yet we keep putting money into this place. Our very impulsive decision to completely redo our son’s nursery when he was only eight weeks old has ended up being much more of a task than we expected. The renovation has Auden’s crib in our room, centered at the end of our bed. I find it stuffy and cramped, like we’re refugees in a tiny boat, ones who decided to give their five-year-old, our daughter, Emery, the main cabin while we took the escape raft.

Tess loves it.

Some nights she falls asleep with her feet facing the headboard and holds his hand while they both sleep. Half of the time I wake her to right her position by nibbling at her ear, rubbing her tense shoulders. The other half, I wrap my arms around her legs and just sleep that way. I have to touch her in some way. She always ends up next to me by the morning, nibbling on my ear or rubbing my lower back.

I already feel like an old man; my back aches from my shitty excuse for a writing posture: sitting slouched on the couch or cross-legged on the floor with my laptop on my actual lap.

Tessa points up to the fan. “It’s crooked. We should repaint.”

Currently, the nursery is painted a soft, Easter yellow to go along with a gender-neutral room. We wanted to keep the space light, having learned firsthand what a mistake—and subsequent pain—it was to assume one’s daughter wanted cotton-candy-pink walls. Those we painted before she was born. But as soon as Emery learned that she didn’t really like pink, it took us three afternoons and three coats of green to cover that damn color. We learned our lesson from that, and Tessa learned a few new swear words from me. So, insisting that a muted pastel yellow was all the rage, we went with that; we all know how I just have to keep up with the Joneses and please my lady. That, or the fact that it’ll be a really easy color to paint over when Auden starts expressing preferences.

The nursery contains several different shades of yellow. I didn’t realize there were shades of yellow, or that they could clash so much. Each has come from Tessa’s stops at IKEA and Pottery Barn, which I swear occur at least three times a week. She finds all sorts of things she loves and hugs them to her chest, exclaiming things like “This decorative pillow will look soooo good!” and “This toy is so cute I could eat it up!” And then she tucks said item under a sofa cushion or into a random cubbyhole in the nursery that she hadn’t filled yet.

The room has ended up being a big ball of undulating sunshine that Tessa can’t be in for longer than ten minutes without getting nauseous. She made me promise her that I would never again let her decorate a room—especially not a nursery. And now she wants me to repaint it all again.

The things I do for this woman.

And I’d do more. I do all I can.

One thing I could do for her is, by some magical means, make it so she can leave more of her work at her office. She’s been so tired lately, and it’s driving me fucking mad. She won’t slow down, but I know how much she loves her job. Her career is her third baby. She works so incredibly hard to produce the most beautiful weddings imaginable. She’s new, brand-new in the industry, but she’s fucking amazing at this.

Tessa was terrified when she’d brought up her potential career change with me. She was pacing back and forth in our small kitchen. I had just loaded the dishwasher and “finished” painting Emery’s nails. I thought I was doing fine with the role reversal, but Emery made Tess fire me when I claimed that the mess I was making on her tiny hands was okay, that the red polish just looked like she had killed something.

I hadn’t realized any child of mine could have such a weak stomach and sour sense of humor.

“So, I want to turn down the promotion at Vance and go back to school,” Tessa said casually from the kitchen table. Or what I took as casually. Emery sat quietly, having no idea of the impact such adult choices have on people’s lives.

“Really?” I rubbed a towel over a wet plate to dry it.

Tessa tucked her bottom lip between her teeth, and her eyes went wide. “I’ve been thinking about it so much lately, and if I don’t do it, I’ll go insane.”

She didn’t have to explain that to me. Everyone needs a change sometimes. Even I got bored between books, and Tessa came up with the idea of me substitute teaching two or three days a month at Valsar, Emery’s elementary school, where Landon happens to work. Granted, I quit after three days, but it was an entertaining experiment and earned me brownie points with my girl.

As always, I encouraged Tessa to do what she wanted. I wanted her to be happy, and it’s not like we needed the money. I’d just signed my next contract with Vance, my third in the last two years. The money from After went straight into an account for the kids. Well, after I bought Tessa a “please forgive me for being a fucking idiot repeatedly” gift. It was simple: a charm bracelet made of metal to replace her old one, which was made of yarn. Over the years, the yarn tore apart, but Tessa kept the charms and she was overly excited that the new bracelet had the option of adding, changing the charms as often as you like. It seems like a pretty stupid concept to me, but she loved it.

The next morning, Tessa sat down with Vance and politely declined the promotion, then cried for an hour when she got home. I knew she would feel guilty for leaving her job, but she won’t be upset long. I knew Kim and Vance would reassure her every day until her two weeks’ notice was over.

When she got her first wedding-planning client, she squealed and I watched her come alive in a way I hadn’t seen before. I still didn’t know why this insane woman stayed with me after all the stupid shit I did when I was young, but I was pretty fucking happy that she did, if only to see her as excited as she now was.

Of course, Tessa nailed that first wedding and got recommendation after recommendation, enabling her to hire two employees after a only a few short months. I was proud of her, and she was proud of herself. Looking back, it seemed silly that she had ever worried about failing. Tessa’s one of those annoying people who touch a pile of shit and it turns to gold.

That’s pretty much what happened with me.

She worked and worked, and she was overworking herself again after we had Auden.

I nudge her. “You need a night off. You’re practically falling asleep on the floor while staring at the ceiling fan.”

A playful elbow is pressed into my hip. “I’m fine. You’re the one who barely sleeps at night,” she whispers into my neck.

I know she’s right, but I have deadlines and no time to award myself with sleep. Besides, when I’m stuck on a passage I’m writing, it stays glued to me and I can’t sleep. Still, I hate the idea of her noticing my lack of sleep, since she’ll always worry about me much more than I will myself.

“I mean it. You need to take a break. You’re still recovering from that little monster tearing you open,” I say, and slide my hand up her shirt and rub her stomach.

She flinches. “Don’t,” she groans, trying to push my hands off her soft skin. I hate how insecure she’s become since having our son. Auden’s birth did more damage to her body than Emery’s, but to me she’s sexier than ever. I hate that the touch of my hand makes her uncomfortable like this.

“Baby…” I move my hand away, but only so I can lean up on my elbow. Looking down at her, I shake my head.

Pressing two warm fingers to my lips, she smiles. “I know this part of the novel. This is where you give me the heroic husbandly speech about how I earned my scars and I’m much more beautiful for having done so,” Tessa says, giving the words at the end a dramatic flare.

She’s always been such a smartass.

“No, Tess, this is where I show you how I feel when I look at you.”

I move my hand to her breast and squeeze just hard enough to ignite her, letting her body warm up to me. I catch her moan before she does, and she whimpers when I find her hard nipple and pinch it beneath her clothing.

She’s done for. I know it; she knows it. She accepts it openly, and I react as fast as I can.

My hands quickly find the leg of her shorts and slide under the fabric there. Sure enough, there’s a damp spot at the front of her panties. I love the feel of her wetness and crave the taste of it on my tongue. I take my fingers away and lift them to my lips. Tessa moans and pulls my index and middle fingers to her mouth and sucks their tips.

Goddamn, this woman ruins me.

Her eyes are glued to mine as her teeth nip my fingertips. I push my body against hers, letting her feel how hard my cock is from her little tease-fest. I pull at the waistband of her cotton shorts and push them down her thighs and to her feet. She kicks them furiously when her panties get stuck there. She wants it now, needs me now. I suck at the skin on her neck and feel her hand grip my cock. She’s as frantic as I am as she undresses me. By the time she climbs on top of me, she has me down to my socks. Tessa’s insecurities seem to disappear as she lowers her body down on mine and brings her wet lips to my hard skin. Her warm tongue swipes across the tip, earning her a drop of me on her tongue. She keeps her mouth moving at a steady pace, taking more and more of me as I moan her name.

I lay my head back against the floor and reach up to grip her chest. Her tits are still inflated from the breastfeeding—one body change she loves, and I’m sure as hell not complaining about having even more of her to play with.

“Fuck, I love your tits,” I say as she slides her mouth down my length.

Tessa’s mouth draws harder on me, hugging me as I feel the tension building up my back. Just as I weave my hands through her hair, she pulls back, licking her lips while her eyes stay on mine. She lifts herself up on her elbows and brings her chest to my groin. I pant like a dog waiting for his owner to pet him after a day alone in a cage. Tessa pushes her beautiful tits together and slides my cock between them. With three of her movements, I come on her skin. As I catch my breath, Tessa’s tongue darts out between her lips and she gives me a shy smile, her cheeks flushed from the way her body responds to pleasing me.

She lifts herself to her feet, then, looking down at her chest, says, “I’m going to need a shower.”

Still panting, I grab my black T-shirt from the floor and lift it to her chest. She pushes her hand out, making a face at me, and moves toward the door. Over the years she has become less and less fond of me cleaning up any bodily fluids with my T-shirts. It’s apparently inappropriate and that’s what towels are for, she warns each time.

I follow her into the bathroom, ticking off in my mind all the ways I’m going to repay her in the shower.

Her chest looks amazing pushed up against the glass. The mirror on the wall there has to be one of the best things in this apartment.


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