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The Anti-Boyfriend / - (by Penelope Ward, 2020) -

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The Anti-Boyfriend / - (by Penelope Ward, 2020) -

The Anti-Boyfriend / - (by Penelope Ward, 2020) -

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: 505
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The Anti-Boyfriend / - (by Penelope Ward, 2020) -
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2020
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Penelope Ward
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Andi Arndt, Sebastian York
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,
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upper-intermediate
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07:42:45
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Anti-Boyfriend / - :

.doc (Word) penelope_ward_-_the_anti_boyfriend.doc [721.5 Kb] (c: 13) .
.pdf penelope_ward_-_the_anti_boyfriend.pdf [1.68 Mb] (c: 12) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: The Anti-Boyfriend

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( , ).


CHAPTER 1 Carys MONKEY BALLS The sound of the bed creaking might as well have been nails on a chalkboard. My neighbor, Deacon, didn_t always have women over, but when he did_boy, he really had them over. Over him. Under him. Tonight was the loudest one of all, and the noise always seemed to kick up just when I_d nod off. Once something woke me, it took a long time to fall asleep again. They tell mothers to sleep when your baby sleeps. Well, that_s not possible when the apartment next door is The Bachelor_s fantasy suite. My daughter Sunny_s room was on the opposite side of our place, so thankfully, the noise coming from 5B didn_t wake her. But my room was right on the other side of the wall from Deacon_s bedroom. I heard the bed moving, and each and every sound of pleasure was clear as day_every excruciating moan, groan, and shriek. And as a bonus, I could feel the vibrations right behind my headboard. Sadly, this was the closest I_d come to getting action in over a year. You_d think I_d have the balls to bang on the wall or something, but I felt like I didn_t have the right to interrupt. After all, he was a single guy living his best life in his own apartment; he was allowed to have sex. He couldn_t help it if the walls were thin. It wouldn_t have been such a big deal if he were quick. But he had so much stamina! Like the Energizer Bunny of cock. Did I mention that Deacon was hot as hell? I_d only met him a few times in passing, but it was hard not to stare at his sculpted face with its perfectly placed chin scruff over his angular jaw. Knowing what he looked like didn_t help this situation, because yes, I was annoyed, but imagining what was happening on the other side of the wall wasn_t exactly a hardship. The imagery itself was enough to keep me awake. So there you have it, my pathetic situation. Eventually, as always, it stopped. The banging and sounds of sex morphed into muffled laughter and talking. As I tried once again to fall asleep, I vowed that the next time I ran into Deacon in the hallway, I_d gently make him aware of the situation. Surely he didn_t realize our beds were back to back, since he_d never been in my apartment. It would be an uncomfortable conversation, but it had to happen. I needed my sleep. I wasn_t working at the moment, but taking care of my six-month-old daughter was a full-time job. Sunny was the beautiful result of a brief relationship with my former boss, who_d ended up going back to his ex-wife before he realized I was pregnant. He_d wanted nothing to do with me nor the baby once he found out I was carrying his child, so I_d been raising her with virtually no help_aside from some money he_d send me when he felt like it. I should emphasize that he and his wife had been legally separated for over a year when I met him. I_d always told myself I_d go back to work when Sunny turned six months old, but we_d just reached that milestone, and it hadn_t happened yet. I missed getting out of the house and socializing each day, and yearned to go back at least part time. Affording childcare was a lot easier said than done, though. Not to mention, I wasn_t totally ready to leave Sunny. But I struggled with the decision, because I was slowly going insane without adult interaction. Would leaving Sunny to go back to work make me a bad mother? That was the type of question that kept me up at night_that is, when my studly neighbor wasn_t the one responsible. * * * The following day, Sunny was down for her afternoon nap, which usually gave me about an hour and a half, though possibly three hours on rare occasions. That time was pretty much my only guilty pleasure. Me time. When she first fell asleep, I would make myself lunch while watching The Young and the Restless on low volume. I wasn_t really all that into the show, but it reminded me of my childhood and being home sick from school when my grandmother would watch me. Leaving my sleeping daughter alone even for the one minute it took me to check the mail always made me nervous. So, after lunch I_d run downstairs and open the mailbox as fast as I could before sprinting back up. It probably took me under a minute, and I never left without the baby monitor in hand. Today, just as I got back to my door, Deacon was exiting his apartment. _Oh, hey, Carys-Like-Paris. How goes it?_ He flashed a wide smile. When people ask me my name, for some stupid reason, I sometimes answer, _Carys, like Paris,_ particularly when I_m nervous. That was the case the first time I met Deacon. A whiff of his amazing smell put my body on alert. He looked handsome as always. Today he wore a camel-colored suede coat with a shearling collar. His blue eyes, which stood out against his tanned skin, glimmered under the fluorescent lights overhead, which also brought out the copper tint to his otherwise medium-brown hair. He was at least six-foot-two_a beanstalk to my five-foot-four self. This was my opportunity to bring up last night. But now that he was right here, towering over me, his musky smell saturating the air, I seemed to have lost the words. Still, I was determined to speak up now or never. My heartbeat accelerated. Here goes. Still out of breath from my sprint up the stairs, I said, _Well, honestly, in answer to your question_ I_d love to say I_m doing great, but I had a hard time getting to sleep last night. So, I_ve been better._ He frowned. _I_m sorry to hear that._ _Actually, it_s sort of your fault._ Deacon_s forehead crinkled. _My fault?_ _Yeah. I don_t know if you realize this, but your bed is right up against mine, on the opposite side of the wall. Your_interactions_last night woke me up, and I had a hard time getting back to sleep._ Boom. There. Said it. Deacon closed his eyes momentarily. _Shit. I_m sorry. I didn_t know you were right behind me._ _Yeah. It_s basically like I_m_right there._ _Well, that was rude of me. I should_ve invited you to join._ What? It felt like all my blood rushed to my head. He held out his palms. _I_m kidding. Bad sense of humor comes out when I feel awkward, I guess._ Slipping a piece of my hair behind my ear, I brushed off his comment. _I know you_re kidding._ _Totally kidding._ He smiled. _But I_ll try to be more considerate now that I know you can hear everything. You should_ve said something._ I tilted my head. _How exactly would that have worked? Barging in on two naked people? That_s why I_m saying something now._ _Solid point. But I take it last night wasn_t the first time you overheard things?_ I looked down at my feet. _No, it wasn_t._ _You could_ve banged on the wall or something._ _I_m not one to rudely interrupt someone_s_personal happenings. I just wanted you to be aware of the situation. We don_t need to discuss it further._ _Maybe we should come up with a code._ _What do you mean?_ _Like, If I_m disturbing your peace, you play a song and crank it up to send me a message._ He snapped his fingers. _Something ironic like _The Sounds of Silence_ by Simon and Garfunkel._ _Can_t exactly crank up a song when a baby is sleeping._ His smile faded. _See? That goes to show you how clueless I am. Clueless and so sorry, Carys. Truly. I_ll try not to let it happen again._ _It better not, fuckboy!_ a voice shouted from behind one of the apartment doors. Deacon and I turned around in unison. I noticed Mrs. Winsbanger_s door move across the hall. The old lady must have been listening in. She lived alone, and I often spotted her peeking out her door, spying on people. Deacon grimaced. _Mrs. Winsbanger loves me._ _Apparently I_m not the only one who overheard things last night,_ I said. His face turned red. His embarrassment was a bit surprising. I_d expected him to be more cocky. _I_ll move my bed to the other side of the room. That should help._ _Well, that would be nice, if it_s not too much trouble._ _It_s not._ Happy to have the conversation over with, I let out a long breath. _Okay, well, I_ll let you get going._ He didn_t budge and seemed to be examining my face. _You okay?_ _Yeah. Why?_ _You seem frazzled._ Well, yeah. I didn_t get good sleep, I_m trying to get things done in possibly the only hour of the day I have free, and we just had the most awkward conversation EVER. _This is just me_my life. I have what could be barely more than an hour to eat my lunch and have some quiet time before my daughter wakes up from her nap._ _Ah._ He scratched his chin. _How old is she now?_ _Six months._ Deacon knew I was a single mom. He_d run into me one day and helped me bring groceries in while I tried to juggle Sunny and her stroller. I was just about to head back inside my apartment when his voice stopped me. _Do you need anything?_ I wasn_t entirely sure what he meant. _Like what?_ _Something from the store? A_coffee, maybe? I_m just headed out to run a quick errand, but I can stop somewhere on the way back._ _It_s the least you can do, monkey balls!_ Mrs. Winsbanger chimed in from across the hall. She was apparently still listening. _Did she just fucking call me monkey balls?_ he whispered. At that moment, I lost it. Laughter got a hold of me, and it took almost a minute before I could even speak. Deacon laughed, too, but I think he was more cracking up at my reaction. _No idea why she just called you monkey balls. But I haven_t laughed this hard in weeks._ After I finally calmed down, Deacon repeated his earlier question. _Anyway, as I was saying, can I get you a coffee or something?_ His offer gave me pause. It was rare that anyone asked if I needed anything. I had a couple of good friends in the city, but they worked and had busy social lives. It wasn_t like they were around in the middle of the day to run to the store for me. And given that it was fall in New York, it was getting chilly out. I had to have a damn good reason to take Sunny out in the cold. Honestly, I was dying for a latte from Starbucks. Running to the coffee shop was definitely something people without babies took for granted. It wasn_t worth having to bundle Sunny up. _I would love a vanilla latte from Starbucks, if you pass one on your way back,_ I finally said. _Done._ He smiled. _That_s it?_ _Just one pump of vanilla would be great._ _One pump. Got it. Anything else?_ _Isn_t that enough? It_s hardly a necessity. I shouldn_t be taking advantage._ _Take advantage of me. What else do you need? Seriously. It_s the least I can do after disturbing your peace last night._ Take advantage of me. Yup. Mind straight in the gutter. _You_re not my gopher._ _Carys_._ His baritone voice turned serious, and he repeated in a slow and exaggerated manner, _What. Do. You. Need? I could run to the store._ There was something else I desperately needed. _Diapers?_ I said hesitantly. _Okay._ He laughed. _You_re gonna have to help me out with those. I_ve never purchased them in my life._ Before I could tell him what size, he handed me his phone. I was all too aware of the brief touch of his hand. _Enter your digits. I_ll text you from the store to make sure I get the right kind._ I did as he said before handing him back the phone, once again enjoying the contact from that brief exchange. Cheap thrills were as good as it got these days. He put it in his pocket. _Anything else?_ _Not that I can think of._ _Alright. Well, if you change your mind, you can let me know when I text._ _Thank you. I really appreciate it._ _Talk to ya in a bit,_ he said before heading down the hall. I stood by my door and watched him walk away. The view from the back was just as good as the front. And moreover, it seemed Deacon was just as lovely on the inside as he was on the outside. _One pump my ass,_ I heard Mrs. Winsbanger say before she slammed her door. * * * A text came in about a half-hour later. Deacon: Okay. I_m in the diaper aisle. There are a lot of choices. I smiled as I typed. Bless his heart. The idea of my hot neighbor standing clueless in the diaper aisle was as adorable as it was funny. Some unsuspecting mama was going to have a heart attack when she went looking for diaper pail bags and found him instead. Carys: Anything in size 2 will be great. Deacon: Huggies or Luvs? Carys: Whichever is cheaper. Deacon: Which does she prefer? Carys: LOL. Well, we_ve never discussed it. She can_t exactly tell me. Deacon: Ah. Right. Carys: But Mommy prefers whichever is cheapest. Deacon: Which do you like better? Carys: I_ve never really compared. Either one is fine. He didn_t text again, so I assumed he_d chosen something. Then another message came in. Deacon: Oh_plot twist! I laughed. Carys: What? Deacon: There_s Pampers too. Carys: Just choose one. LOL Deacon: There are a couple of women coming to my rescue now. They think I need help. Sure. I bet it_s the diapers they_re concerned with. I needed to pick a brand to put him out of his misery. Carys: Luvs will be great. Deacon: K. Got _em! Carys: Thank you. Deacon: Anything else while I_m here? I needed some tampons and deodorant, but I wouldn_t dare send him for those. Carys: No. Thanks. That_s it. A few seconds later, another text came in. Deacon: What_s a peepee teepee? Lord. He needs to get out of the baby aisle. Cracking up, I typed. Carys: It_s a tent for your wee-wee. Deacon: A tent for MY wee-wee? Are you suggesting I need one after last night? I couldn_t believe he was bringing that up again. I also couldn_t believe how hard I was laughing right now. I_d laughed more today than I had in ages. I hoped I wouldn_t wake up Sunny. Carys: It_s for baby boys so they don_t piss on people. Deacon: Ah. Then I_m good. I haven_t pissed on anyone in a while. ;-) Holy shit. Where was this conversation going? Carys: SMH Deacon: Doesn_t look like they have my size anyway. Oh my God. Deacon: Okay. Really leaving this time! And now I was burning up. * * * When Deacon returned a half-hour later, Sunny was still sleeping. He handed me a bag containing the diapers. He also carried two coffees in a cardboard tray. He lifted mine out. _I got you a venti. Wasn_t sure if that was too big._ _No such thing when it comes to coffee._ I smiled and took it. _Thank you._ I walked over to my purse and took out my wallet. He held out his hand. _No way. Everything_s on me._ _I can_t let you pay._ _Just consider it my apology for keeping you up last night._ _I need to pay for the diapers at least._ _No, you don_t._ _Seriously, I can_t__ _Yes, you can. I won_t take it. So put your wallet back._ I was never good at accepting charity but conceded. _Well, thank you._ I took the first sip of the hot, foamy latte and closed my eyes. I moaned, perhaps a little too loudly. _You sound like something coming out of my bedroom last night._ He laughed. I nearly spit out the coffee. My face must have turned red too, because he added, _Too much?_ _Actually, no. I appreciate you making light of the situation and not pegging me as the bitchy neighbor._ I took another sip of my coffee. _This is so good. I haven_t had one of these in a while._ _Any time you want one, if you can_t leave, just let me know. I_ll make a coffee run. It_s right down the street._ As tempting as that was, I wouldn_t be beckoning Deacon to fetch me coffee anytime soon. If there was one thing I hated, it was appearing needy. I squinted. _Why do you have to be so nice? It makes it hard to be annoyed at you._ _I didn_t realize being annoyed at me was a goal of yours._ He smiled and looked around. _Your daughter is still sleeping?_ _Yeah. It_s been a couple of hours now_above average, though on occasion, she_ll go to about three. I_m loving it. It_s rare to get this long of a break._ _Well, I_d better not say monkey balls again. Otherwise you_ll start laughing and wake her up._ And now I was laughing again. I covered my mouth to dampen the sound. _Oh my God, that was so funny._ _Have I mentioned Mrs. Winsbanger loves me?_ he asked. _She gives me the stink eye, too._ _Have you actually seen her? I normally just notice her door cracked open when she_s spying on people in the hallway. I think I_ve only seen her once or twice._ _One time I tried to help her carry some shit in, but she refused and gave me the dirtiest look. You would_ve thought I was trying to rob her. I was just trying to help._ He grabbed his phone. _Let me look it up._ _Look up what?_ _Monkey balls. Maybe I_m missing something._ He typed something and scrolled. _According to this, monkey balls is slang for chafing that causes guys to walk like a monkey._ He looked up from his phone. _Well, shit. That doesn_t sound too pleasant._ He returned his eyes to the screen. _Oh! Look at this. Monkey balls are also an inedible fruit used for pest control. They ward off spiders._ _You learn something new every day._ I chuckled. _Thanks to Mrs. Winsbanger._ He rolled his eyes, putting his phone down. Gosh, my cheeks hurt. Having him here made me realize again how much I_d missed adult interaction. He took his drink out of the tray, and I noticed he had some ink on his left wrist, coming out from under his sleeve. I wondered how much of his arm was covered. Part of the ink was a word, but I couldn_t see it clearly aside from _hie_ at the end. Was it a name? Ruthie? No clue. He had the biggest, most beautiful hands, too, with prominent veins and rough skin. Long fingers. Deacon was the epitome of masculinity. I forced my eyes away from admiring him, instead focusing on the writing on the side of the cup he held. He seemed to have ordered three shots of espresso straight, no milk. A strong drink to match a strong man. He noticed me looking at his cup. _They got my name wrong. They wrote Beekman. Who the fuck_s name is Beekman?_ _My dad_s actually,_ I said, forcing a straight face. _Are you serious?_ Releasing my stoic expression, I shook my head. _No._ _Ah_Carys made a funny. Maybe she_s more than just the prude next door._ _Hey!_ I laughed. He winked. _You know I_m kidding._ _Well, I can certainly relate to the name screw-up thing. Normally, they write Paris on mine, even though I sound out the C pretty clearly._ _That_s true, Carys-Like-Paris._ _Sometimes they write Karen._ I shrugged. _Happens all the time._ His eyes lingered on mine. _Carys is a unique name. I like it a lot._ There was something about the way this man looked at you when he spoke. He gave you every shred of his attention. His eyes were two giant spotlights on me that drowned out the rest of the world. Feeling my cheeks heat up, I said, _Thank you. It_s Welsh._ _Are you Welsh?_ _My mother is half Welsh, yes._ _Well, it_s a beautiful name._ A shiver ran down my spine, as if he_d complimented me on something much more exciting than my name. My senses were having a field day between Deacon_s amazing scent and the delicious aroma of the espresso_two of my favorite smells blended together. But mostly my body was hyperaware of the gorgeous creature standing in front of me_one who_d made a woman scream in pleasure just last night. Deacon walked over to the corner of the room. I admired him as he examined the photos displayed on my shelves. Most of them were of Sunny, but he lifted one of me. I braced myself as he looked back and forth from the photo to where I was standing. _You were a ballet dancer?_ I nodded. _Yeah. I was_for several years. Not anymore, obviously._ _Professionally?_ _Yes. I performed for The Manhattan Ballet as a principal dancer._ If I_d thought his stare was penetrating before, that was nothing compared to the way he looked at me now. _Wow._ He glanced back down at the photo. It showed me in an arabesque. He looked at it for longer than I was comfortable with. _Why did you stop?_ I swallowed, not prepared for this discussion. _I had an injury, and it forced me to retire._ Saying the words aloud left a bitter taste in my mouth. He seemed to freeze, looking almost like it devastated him to hear what had happened to me. _I_m sorry. That had to have been hard to go through._ _It wasn_t easy._ Deacon stared at me, and with each second that passed, I felt a little more naked. _It was the hardest thing I_d been through up to that point,_ I finally admitted. _What did you do_after? When you couldn_t dance anymore?_ _I took a behind-the-scenes position with the company for a couple of years._ _What happened with that?_ I shrugged. _Sunny happened._ _Ah._ He sighed and placed the frame back on the bookshelf. _Of course._ The fact that he seemed genuinely interested gave me a push to open up a bit more. _Well_Sunny happening is the short version, actually. The longer story is that I began a relationship with the director of the ballet. Charles is the son of the long-time owner. He_s in his position via nepotism. Charles was legally separated from his wife at the time I was working for him. He left me to go back to her, but not before I got pregnant._ _Shit,_ Deacon said, taking a few steps toward me. _Yeah._ I exhaled. _Finding out about the baby didn_t change anything with us. And honestly, I wouldn_t have taken him back anyway. He had two kids already, and while he did tell his ex-wife_now wife again_about Sunny, he_s chosen not to tell his children about their half-sister. He asked me to keep his name off the birth certificate._ _He doesn_t support her at all?_ _He gives me money under the table. It_s a minimal amount, but it helps. I take it because I_m not going to let pride get in the way of caring for my daughter._ _Well, that_s really sucky of him not to take more responsibility._ _I_d honestly rather he not be in her life at this point. The only thing that feels worse than not having a father around is feeling rejected by the father you do see from time to time._ He examined my eyes. _You sound like you have personal experience with that._ Somehow this coffee run had turned into a therapy session. Deacon had a certain quality that made me feel like I could tell him anything, like he wouldn_t judge. _You would be correct,_ I said. _My dad wasn_t around for me._ I shook my head and looked down. _Anyway, no need to get into my life story. You went for coffee. This is more than you bargained for._ _Are you kidding? I_m the one asking the questions. Sorry for being nosy._ He took a sip of his drink. _Anyway, I hope you don_t mind me saying, I_ve always been curious about you_your deal, what happened to your baby_s dad. It_s none of my business, but I did wonder._ I sighed. _Well, now you know._ _Yeah._ He smiled. Since he didn_t seem to be going anywhere, I decided to ask something I_d been curious about. _So, what about you? What_s your deal, Deacon? Are you from New York?_ _No, actually. I_m from Minnesota originally. I came out to New York from California a few years back because I wanted a change. But I can work from anywhere._ _What do you do?_ _I design interactive games for a company based out of Asia._ _That sounds so cool._ _Definitely not a career I could_ve predicted, but it_s fun. Our app is very popular, and it does well. So that gives me a little job security in the otherwise unpredictable field of entertainment._ _So you never have to go into an office?_ _I work from home the majority of the time. Only have to go to the company_s New York office occasionally for meetings. Their headquarters are in Japan._ _That_s a great situation._ _It is. But sometimes it_s hard to get your shit together at home. I get distracted a lot._ _Yeah. I think I might have heard one of those distractions during the afternoon once._ I winked. _Ouch._ He grimaced. _And here I was, thinking I_d done a good job distracting from your initial impression of me._ He formed his fingers into an L for loser over his forehead. _Fail._ I laughed. _Just teasing._ It amazed me how fast I_d grown comfortable around him. I enjoyed his company. _Anyway,_ he said. _The good thing about working remotely is that I can work at all hours. So if I_m goofing off during the day, I get my shit done at night._ _It_s awesome to have flexibility like that. I_m trying to find a similar type job as we speak. Know of anyone hiring?_ _Not off the top of my head, but I can keep an ear out. What kind of work are you looking for?_ _Well, my experience is pretty much administrative work. So, maybe like a virtual assistant? But I_m open to something new. I have a degree in general studies, but I spent so many years focused on ballet that my resume is limited, aside from the couple of years I worked behind the scenes. I assumed for so long that dancing would be my career._ _Of course._ He nodded. _That makes sense._ I fiddled with the green stopper that had come with my latte. _Not having a job has been fine for a while. I always planned to stay home with Sunny initially, but I think it would be good for my mental health to get out of the house a couple of days a week or find something I can do from home. It_s hard to find the perfect situation. But I definitely don_t want to leave her five days a week._ Deacon let out an exasperated breath, seeming almost overwhelmed. _A kid changes everything, huh?_ _Yeah. It really does. These six months have gone by in a blur. I feel like I_ve been in my own world. But I wouldn_t trade it. My daughter is everything._ _Well, for what it_s worth, from the little I_ve witnessed, I think you_re doing a great job. She seems like a happy baby. You_re a good mom._ His words made my heart flutter. I don_t think anyone had ever said that to me before. And as much as I knew I was trying my hardest every day, it was nice to hear someone acknowledge it. _Thank you, Deacon. You_re very sweet._ _I don_t hear that too often, but okay._ Our eyes locked. Then he suddenly looked down at his phone. _Anyway, I_ll let you enjoy the last of your quiet time before she wakes up._ I wanted to tell him he didn_t have to leave. Instead, I said, _I_m glad you got to know me a little today_so you know I_m more than just the cranky, cockblocking neighbor._ _And hopefully you see me as more than just the manwhore next door._ _Not quite yet._ I winked. _But we_re getting there._ He chuckled. _Take care, Carys. And if you need anything from the outside world, just say the word._ My brow lifted. _What_s the word?_ He scratched his chin. _That would have to be_monkey balls._ I cackled. _Ah. The perfect choice._ As he headed to his apartment, I called after him, _Thanks again for the diapers and coffee._ He turned around to face me, walking backwards and flashing a gorgeous smile that made my heart ache a little. _Diapers and coffee. Can_t say I_ve ever been thanked for that combination before._ He winked. _My pleasure._ After I closed the door, I leaned back against it, catching myself mid-swoon. Really, Carys? You_re pathetic. Don_t even go there. He wouldn_t touch this situation with a ten-foot pole. Leave it to my starving heart to take a man_s charitable gesture and turn it into the beginning of some unrealistic romance. After I polished off the rest of my coffee, I opened up the bag of diapers he_d brought. There was more than just the package of Luv_s inside. He_d thrown in a little stuffed Peppa Pig. And some earplugs. CHAPTER 2 Carys BABY WHISPERER A couple of weeks later, Sunny had a pediatrician appointment downtown late in the afternoon. Since we were out and about anyway, I took her to meet my friend Simone for an early dinner at a restaurant near the doctor_s office. _How did her appointment go?_ Simone asked as she perused the laminated card that listed today_s specials. _Six-month checkup went great. The doctor says her weight is right on target for her age._ _I_m so glad._ She looked up from the menu. _And how are you?_ I paused, momentarily stumped as to how to answer that. _Good_good._ There was no point in venting about my day-to-day problems. Simone and I were in two different places in life, and she likely wouldn_t understand. As one of the city_s top ballet dancers, Simone was where I would have been had I not been injured: an elite principal dancer, performing at night, sleeping in most mornings, and attending rehearsals in the afternoons, in addition to having an active social life. In many ways, I lived vicariously through her. So, instead of admitting that most days I felt lonely or worried about my finances, I just responded with good. _Have you been taking care of yourself?_ she asked. _You mean like_self-care?_ _Yeah. Taking time for yourself._ I looked over at Sunny, who was sitting up in the highchair. Her cheeks were flushed, likely from the vaccine she_d just received. The doctor had warned me she might get a bit feverish. I placed my hand on her forehead. _I rest when she rests, but I haven_t had a chance to go out much or, you know, get a massage or some crap like that. There_s just no time._ Our food arrived, and Simone_s questions stopped for a bit as we shoveled in our burgers and fries. _Are you thinking of going back to work at some point?_ she asked suddenly. Wiping the ketchup off the side of my mouth, I answered. _If I can find someone I trust to watch Sunny. But then I_d have to weigh the cost versus benefit._ _It_s too bad your mom isn_t closer._ What a joke. _Well, not sure she_d be able to handle it anyway._ I loved my mother, but she wasn_t capable of taking care of Sunny. She_d had my brother and me pretty young, and had told me she was done raising kids and now was her time to enjoy life. She_d moved from where I grew up in New Jersey to Florida a few years ago. She_d made her position clear to me the couple of times I_d hinted that I_d appreciate it if she visited more. Simone jumped in her seat a little, looking like she_d had a lightbulb moment. _You know, Cynthia was telling me they_re looking to hire a new PR person. I wonder if she_d consider you for the job. I mean, you know the ins and outs of the ballet. You_re attractive_when you_re not in your mom uniform_and you_re personable. I bet you could do a lot of it from home, writing press releases and such. You_d probably only have to go into the office occasionally or show up for special events._ Simone performed for a different ballet company than I had. While I_d never consider going back to work for my old company_since Sunny_s estranged father was still the director_a job at a competitor would be ideal. I perked up at her suggestion. _Really? You think she_d consider me?_ _She_s always talking about how much she admires you. And don_t take this the wrong way, but we talk about how much of a shame it is that you were injured in the prime of your career. You_re legendary in many ways. Everyone wonders what could have been if Carys Kincaid hadn_t been taken out._ I felt her words deep in my soul. The agony over never being able to perform professionally again was something I tried to suppress. _I_d rather still be dancing than be a legend, but it_s nice to know I_m respected posthumously._ Filteredhumously? You_re not dead, Carys!_ _I know, but in the ballet world, I might as well be._ _Look at it this way, if it weren_t for your accident, you_d still be dancing, but you might never have gotten close to Charles, and Sunny would never have come to be. As much as we hate Charles now, he brought you Sunny. Everything happens for a reason._ _Well, I definitely don_t regret her, so you_re right about that._ I looked over at my daughter. Sunny smiled as if she could understand we were talking about her. I loved her little pumpkin face so much. She had the Peppa Pig Deacon had gotten her from the store in her hand and waved it around. _That_s such a cute toy,_ Simone said. _My neighbor bought it for her._ _The old lady across the hall?_ _No. Not crazy Mrs. Winsbanger. The guy in 5B._ Her eyes widened. _The hot one we saw leaving the last time I visited you?_ _Yeah. Deacon._ _He bought her a toy?_ I nodded. _He ran to the store for me a couple of weeks ago and bought that as a surprise. And that was after I scolded him for fucking someone too loudly the night before._ Simone covered her mouth. _Oh shit. You scolded him?_ _Yeah. Kind of an embarrassing conversation, but he was really cool when I asked him if he could please keep it down._ She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. _I bet I know a way around that little problem._ _What_s that?_ _He can keep you up in a different way_you know, on your side of the wall._ She winked. _You can_t complain if you_re the one getting the action._ _Very funny._ I brushed off her joke, but I felt my insides heat up. It wasn_t like that hadn_t already occurred to me. Before I could explain why it wouldn_t be happening, she stood up. _Anyway, I gotta run. I have a date tonight I have to get ready for. I_ll talk to Cynthia about the PR opening and let you know what I find out, okay?_ That gave me as much anxiety as excitement. _Thank you. I really appreciate it._ I got up from my seat to hug her and watched as she kissed my daughter on the top of the head. After Simone left, I fed Sunny a couple of jars of baby food at our table. Later, as I bundled her up to get going, I spoke to her as I often did, even though she couldn_t talk back. _What do you think? Would you be okay if I went back to work? I don_t want to leave you, but I also want to make sure I can take care of us._ She cooed, and I kissed her forehead. _We_ll figure it out, right? We always do._ * * * That evening, as Sunny and I arrived at our building, we ran into Deacon and _a friend__a fiery redhead. They were approaching from the opposite end of the block. I wondered if she was the same person from that night two weeks ago. When Deacon spotted me, he lifted his hand. _Hey, Carys._ _Hey!_ I stopped the stroller in front of the entrance. _Let me get the door for you guys,_ he said. Deacon held the door open as I pushed Sunny_s stroller through. I normally had to fold it and carry it up to the second floor in one hand, while I held the baby in the other. But as soon as I took her out, Deacon worked to collapse the stroller and carried it up the stairs for me while his date quietly followed. _Thank you for your help,_ I said, my voice echoing in the stairwell. _Of course._ He smiled. When we arrived at our floor, he finally said, _This is Kendra._ _Nice to meet you,_ I said, feeling instantly jealous. I shouldn_t have, but I suppose I_d developed a crush on the guy. _Nice to meet you, too,_ Kendra said. _Your daughter is adorable._ _Thank you._ Once we got to our respective doors, Deacon leaned the stroller against the wall outside my apartment. He noticed the toy in Sunny_s hand. _She likes the pig, huh?_ _Yeah._ I smiled. _That was a good choice. Thank you._ Kendra turned to him and gushed, _Aw_you bought that for her? That_s so sweet._ _It was,_ I said. _And it helped calm her down today._ _What happened today?_ Deacon asked, looking concerned. _She had a doctor_s appointment._ His eyes narrowed. _Everything okay? Is she sick?_ _Just a checkup._ _All good?_ _Yes. Thanks for asking. She had to have a shot, so that_s always stressful. But it went fine._ _Glad to hear._ He smiled. _Well_you guys have a good night. We_re just heading inside for a nice, quiet evening._ He winked. _Maybe play some Parcheesi._ _Ah_well, you have fun with that. I have earplugs now in the event your Parcheesi gets rambunctious._ He laughed. _Have a good night, Carys._ _You, too._ I waved to Kendra. _Nice meeting you._ _Same._ She grinned. I swallowed my jealousy as I disappeared into my apartment. * * * Later that night, Sunny was inconsolable. She would not stop crying, and I cursed myself for letting her get that shot today. I_d called a nurse_s hotline, and they told me her fever of 102 was normal under the circumstances, and there was no need to take her to an emergency room. They said to monitor her and make sure she was getting enough fluids. I_d brought her into my bedroom because I couldn_t leave her alone like this. I also thought holding her would help, but it didn_t seem to matter. Holding her only made me feel better. Her wailing continued as I paced the room and rocked her. I_d never seen her like this before. There was a knock at the door that I barely heard through her crying. Shit. Had one of the neighbors complained? I didn_t need anyone_s wrath on top of this. I walked over to the door and looked through the peephole. It was Deacon. Remembering he had that girl over, I cringed. The roles had reversed. Now we were disturbing his peace. When I opened, I started babbling away before he had a chance to say anything. _I know we_re disturbing you, but I can_t get her to stop crying. I_m really sorry. She has a fever from the shot, I think, and there_s nothing I can do. So, if you_re going to complain like I did to you, that would only be fair, but I can_t do anything about this, so__ _Carys, calm down. It_s okay,_ he said, placing his hands on my shoulders. The unexpected contact shot what felt like an electric current through me, which stopped my rambling. I let out a long breath. _I can_t calm down. My baby is in pain._ _I didn_t come here to complain. I would never do that. She clearly can_t help it._ _Then why are you here?_ _I wanted to make sure you_re okay._ My heart softened, but I kept myself from getting carried away. _You don_t have to check on me, Deacon._ _I know that. I wanted to. There_s likely nothing I can do, but I can_t listen to a baby screaming for two hours straight and not offer help._ It dawned on me that Deacon had left that chick to come over here. Kendra. _Where_s Kendra?_ _She went back to her place._ _She left because of the noise?_ _She_had to get up for work early in the morning, so she went home to sleep._ _Sunny totally cockblocked you tonight. I_m sorry._ I really wasn_t. He waved his hand dismissively. _It_s alright._ _When this is over, you can get me back_fuck someone_s brains out nice and loud._ I_d expected him to laugh, but instead he looked at me with concern. I immediately wished I could take my crass joke back. _Did you try giving her a cool bath? I_m no expert, but wouldn_t that bring the fever down? I remember my mother doing that for my brother when he was small and had a temperature._ It seemed so obvious, but it hadn_t occurred to me_or to the damn nurses I_d talked to apparently. _You know what? That_s a good idea. I think I_ll go start a bath right now. Do you mind holding her while I run to the bathroom and set it up?_ Deacon looked anxiously around the room. Was he trying to come up with a reason not to take her from me? _Uh_sure,_ he finally said. I handed Sunny to him and took a few seconds to admire how cute it was to see Deacon holding her, bouncing her up and down gently. I rushed to the bathroom, not wanting to freak him out too much. I_d already disrupted his night enough. Running water in the tub, I tested the temperature, so it was cool but not too cold. When I finally shut off the faucet, I noticed something odd: silence. For the first time all night. Sunny wasn_t crying. My first instinct was to be alarmed. Had she passed out? I darted back out to the living room, but before I could utter a word, Deacon held his index finger to his mouth. _She just fell asleep,_ he whispered. Somehow, I was still concerned. _Are you sure she_s breathing?_ _I_m positive. I can feel it and hear it._ He swayed from side to side. _I_m afraid to stop this motion, because that_s how I got her to sleep._ As I watched him rock her back and forth, my ovaries felt like they were about to explode. This man was sexy when he wasn_t holding a baby. Now? Off the charts. _I don_t get why I couldn_t get her to sleep, and then you hold her for five minutes__ _Can_t say I understand it, either._ Looking down at her, he said, _I gotta be honest, though. I kinda wanted to run for the hills when you first asked me to take her. But she made it easy._ Deacon shrugged. _Not bad for my first time holding a baby, huh?_ My mouth fell agape. _Ever? You_re kidding me._ _Nope._ He laughed. _That figures._ She looked so comfy in his big arms. No wonder she_d fallen asleep. It must have been like lying in a warm, king-size bed compared to the usual fold-out cot with uncomfortable springs. _I think you_ll be okay if you stop rocking. Normally, once she_s asleep, she stays asleep._ His voice was low. _Should I put her down?_ I_d enjoyed watching him hold her too much to suggest that myself. _Let_s try putting her in the crib, yeah._ Deacon followed me to Sunny_s room. He carefully placed her on the mattress, and at first it seemed he_d been successful. We tiptoed out of the room, seemingly in the clear until we heard rustling. Shit! And there was the crying again. _Damn it,_ he groaned. _I thought I was careful._ _You were. Not your fault. She somehow sensed it. The same thing_s happened to me before. She must be super sensitive tonight because she_s sick._ I went in to get her, but once again, she wouldn_t stop crying. It was just as it had been before. _Should I try rocking her again?_ he asked. _I can_t make you do that. This is not your__ _It_s no problem, Carys. Honestly._ Deacon held out his hands, and I placed her in his arms again. He walked back out into the living room and this time sat down on the edge of couch, still rocking. Slowly but surely, over the next several minutes, her crying slowed until it was non-existent. Sunny fell asleep again in her king-size bed. I shook my head in amazement. _She definitely likes being in your arms._ He smiled down at her. _Anything you want to do, go do it. Because I don_t think I_m getting up anytime soon._ _You can_t just sit there with her all night._ _Why not?_ _Because it_s late. Don_t you have to sleep yourself?_ _Sleep is overrated. Plus, don_t forget I work from home, so I can sleep in tomorrow if I need to and catch up on work later._ After sweating from nerves all night, I needed a shower badly. I normally bathed each night before bed, but with Sunny being upset, I hadn_t been able to. Would it be terrible if I took him up on his offer? I hated feeling like a charity case, but if he wasn_t going anywhere for a bit, why not take advantage? _I_m just gonna take a quick shower, if that_s okay?_ _Take your time. Don_t rush. I_ll be here._ Despite his words, I couldn_t relax in the shower. So I washed my hair and rubbed the soap over my body swiftly. I did, however, take the time to properly brush through my wet hair after, and I dabbed a bit of concealer under my eyes to get rid of the dark circles. I wanted to look good in front of Deacon, even if that was difficult to admit, and even if nothing would come of it. There was an extremely attractive man in my apartment, and if I had the opportunity not to look my worst, I was going to take it. It wasn_t like I_d been planning for him to come over tonight. Before I ventured back out into the living room, I peeked out my bedroom door so I could properly enjoy the sight of Deacon holding Sunny without him noticing the look of swoon on my face. CHAPTER 3 Deacon DON_T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT I was pretty sure my balls had fallen asleep. Or if not fully asleep, they were definitely numb from lack of movement. Not wanting this baby to wake up again, I hadn_t moved an inch the entire time Carys was in the shower. How did I get myself into this situation? Oh yeah. I_d felt bad for Carys and wanted to show my concern. I never thought I_d actually be able to help. Because shit, what the hell did I know about babies? Absolutely nothing. And I_d always thought it was better that things stayed that way. Such a huge responsibility. The last thing I expected was to be comfortable holding her, or that she_d actually want me to. Apparently this little one liked me for some reason. When Carys came back out, I nearly did a doubletake. Her long, straight, strawberry-blond hair was down and towel-dried. I_d never seen her hair down before. She typically had it tied up, which was also nice because she had a beautiful neck. She wore a short nightgown that clung to her petite frame. Carys was attractive in a graceful way. It had come as no surprise that she_d been a ballet dancer, though normally she didn_t show off her body. And why should she? Taking care of her daughter was her priority. It wasn_t like she needed to impress anyone. But damn. It felt kind of wrong to be checking her out under the circumstances. From the moment I met her, I_d thought she was hot. But the fact that she_s someone_s mother automatically made her off limits. _Everything okay?_ she asked. _Perfect._ I whispered. _Aside from the fact that my ass has that pins-and-needles feeling from not moving. But I_m afraid if I hand her to you, she_ll wake up._ She laughed. _You_re a saint, Deacon. Feel free to pass her off to me any time, even if she does wake up. You have no responsibility to stay._ Maybe not, but I didn_t want Sunny to start crying again. At least one of us_Sunny_was getting sleep in the current situation. Carys sat across from me on the couch. She looked down at her baby. _I still can_t get over the fact that you hadn_t even held a baby before, and you nailed it on your first try._ _Eh. She makes it too easy for me. Unfair advantage._ Carys smiled. It was nice to see that she_d relaxed a bit. She_d seemed really tense earlier tonight when I_d helped her up the stairs, and that was before any of this crying stuff happened. Come to think of it, Carys seemed wound up most of the time. Not that I blamed her. She had her plate full. She really did have a pretty smile. And I really needed to stop noticing that. This girl might as well have had a sign on her face that read: Don_t even think about it. I wouldn_t be dating anyone who had a kid; children were not in the cards for me. It would be bad enough to inevitably fuck up a relationship with someone who lived next door, but to have a child involved who might be hurt when you left? No, thank you. No matter how damn cute_or intriguing_Carys was, I wouldn_t be going there. She fascinated me, though. Even before I knew anything about her, I_d had the sense that there was more to her than met the eye. Something in her eyes, maybe_they were always trying to tell a story. For a long time, I couldn_t put my finger on it. But when I saw that photo from her ballet days, it started to make sense. Her life as she knew it had been cut short by a traumatic event. I could relate to that. Maybe I_d somehow sensed we had that in common. Maybe that_s why I was drawn to her the moment I looked into her eyes. I wanted to know more about her past, but I didn_t want to pry. She caught me a bit off guard when she did some prying of her own. _So_how many women do you date at once? I hear them over at your apartment from time to time, but I don_t know if they_re the same ones or different people._ _Don_t hold back,_ I said, eyes widening. She blushed. _Sorry if I_m being nosy. I_m just curious._ _I_m kidding. It_s alright._ I sighed and shrugged. _I date around. I_m not gonna lie. But I don_t sleep with all of them, as you_re probably assuming. Contrary to popular belief, it gets a bit exhausting._ She pursed her lips. _Hmm. It_s interesting you say that._ _Why?_ _I notice that you_ Well__ she hesitated. What is she getting at? _I what?_ _When I_ve_overheard things__ _Yeah?_ I prodded. _I_ve noticed that you last a long time. I sometimes wonder if that_s stamina or__ _Boredom?_ I laughed. _Yes. I suppose._ I nodded. _Okay. Truth? That can be due to a lack of interest sometimes. Humans are not machines. I like sex_love it with the right person. But there are times when I_m not in the mood, or the chemistry wasn_t what I thought it was going to be._ _Sorry for all the questions. I_m just living vicariously through someone who actually has a sex life._ Maybe it was a dumb question, but I asked anyway. _Why can_t you have a sex life?_ _It_s kind of hard to go out and meet people when you have a baby. I can barely go to the bathroom._ _Well, not for nothing, but if you put your photo out there, pretty sure you_d find a line of guys willing to make house calls._ She shivered. _That_s kind of disturbing. I have to be careful who I bring around her._ _I get that. I was mainly kidding_not about there being a line, but about that being a safe and feasible option for you._ _Anyway, one-night stands are not my thing. I_ve never actually had one, and don_t think now is the right time to start._ My curiosity grew by the second. _Your last relationship was Sunny_s father?_ _Yeah._ She looked down at her daughter. _He was the older, powerful, authority figure who drew me in with a false sense of security. He was apparently just using me to pass the time until he decided to go back to his ex-wife. It sucks, but it was a big life lesson_be careful who you trust._ She looked contemplative. _But, like I always say, I got Sunny out of it. Being a mother so young wasn_t something I planned, but I wouldn_t trade it._ _How old are you?_ I asked. _Twenty-four._ Damn. She was younger than I thought. _How old are you?_ she asked. _Twenty-nine._ _Geezer._ She smiled. _Just kidding. I was going to guess in that range._ _How old is your ex?_ _Thirty-eight._ I wondered if she liked older men in general, or if that was just a one-off deal. There were a lot of things I wondered about Carys. Things I probably had no business knowing. The baby seemed deep into sleep now. As I stared down at her sweet little face, those almond-shaped eyes and her pudgy little nose, I got the courage to ask something else I_d always wanted to know. I hoped it didn_t offend her. _When did you find out that Sunny__ She finished my thought. _When did I realize she had Down syndrome?_ _Yeah. I hope you don_t mind my asking._ _Not at all. I like when people ask me about it. They shouldn_t be afraid._ She looked down at Sunny. _I didn_t know until she was born._ My first thought was to say something like, _That must have been devastating._ But why? Why would it be devastating? Because she_s different? I chose to just let Carys continue, because I didn_t want to say the wrong thing. _Of course it was shocking, you know? And at first, I was sad, like there was some kind of loss, but that was only because I was really ignorant about Down syndrome at the time. I was feeding off of other people_s reactions, which were to say things like _I_m sorry._ Can you believe that? In retrospect, they were so wrong, even if they meant well. I_m sorry is something you say when someone dies, not when they_re born. I hope no one ever says I_m sorry to me in the future. Because they_d get an earful._ See? My instinct to shut up was correct. _How long did it take you to realize it wasn_t something to fear?_ _I started going online and connecting with other parents of kids with Down_s, and it was a totally new world. When you see their kids thriving, happy, communicating, it tells a different story than one based on fear or misinformation._ _Well, I_m definitely learning from this conversation. I_ve never known anyone with Down syndrome before Sunny. But I can clearly see that she_s a healthy, happy baby._ Sunny continued to sleep through our whispered conversation. _Don_t get me wrong,_ Carys said. _She will definitely face challenges a typical kid wouldn_t. But overall, our day-to-day life is the same as if she didn_t have Down_s._ She stared off. _When people ask me, _what she has_ or _how I feel,_ I tell them she was blessed with an extra chromosome and leave it at that._ I loved that. I nodded. _Everything is a matter of outlook._ _That_s right. And I don_t view her as handicapped. Unique, maybe. But not handicapped._ Carys played with some lint on the couch. _They did tell me to expect her speech to be delayed. She started early-intervention services as soon as she was born. Someone comes to the apartment a couple of times a week. She might have to learn sign language before she starts talking, but I_ll take that as it comes. I_ll line up the best speech therapist. I_ll learn everything I can myself. But I already see her trying to communicate with me. Even if the words don_t form as clearly or as quickly as other kids, we_ll manage._ I_d admired Carys before, but I had even more respect and admiration for her now. This girl is phenomenal. If only every kid with challenges was lucky enough to have a parent like her. But what she said next broke my heart. _I think the only time it ever really gets to me is when I_m out and about with her in public. You know how sometimes people see a baby and lean in to get a closer look? Well, some people do that to us. And sometimes, I see their faces go from happy to sympathetic when they realize she looks different. That makes me sad_not sad for me, but sad that people look at her as something unfortunate, something that would warrant a sympathetic look._ Her eyes watered, and she quickly wiped them. _I hate it, Deacon. Sorry. I don_t talk about this stuff often._ _Thank you for sharing all this with me._ This conversation had changed the way I viewed people with special needs. She stared into my eyes. _Thank you for not being afraid to ask._ I looked down at Sunny_s sweet face with a newly acquired sense of hope. _You think it might be worth trying to put her down again?_ _Yeah, I do._ I carefully lifted myself off the couch. It felt good to stretch my legs and take the pressure off my numb ass and balls. I followed Carys to the baby_s room, and once again placed Sunny carefully on the mattress. I don_t think I_d ever walked slower in my life than I did leaving that room. Once back in the living room, Carys said, _You really can go home now._ _Ah. I can take a hint._ _Oh, I wasn_t trying to get you to leave, if you want to stay. I_m too wired to fall asleep just yet. I_ll be up for a while. I_m enjoying the adult company._ It was rare to hang out with a woman without any expectations. I was enjoying her company, too. A lot. Carys was real. I didn_t have to put on the charm or any kind of a front around her. I could just be myself. That felt good. When she realized I wasn_t rushing out, she looked back toward the kitchen. _Can I get you some__ She hesitated. _Crap, I don_t even know what to offer you. I don_t have alcohol except for these bottles of champagne I never open. I don_t drink too often. And it_s late for coffee. I have hot chocolate?_ I chuckled. _That sounds good, actually. I might_ve chosen that if given the choice between alcohol and hot cocoa._ I followed her as she walked over to the kitchen. She took a couple packets out of the cupboard and filled a tea kettle with water. I carefully slid one of her kitchen chairs out and sat down. Although this night hadn_t turned out the way I_d expected, I was content to be here. I wasn_t sure if it was the whole no-expectations thing, but hanging around Carys was very calming. It was nice to just be friends with a woman. So, you probably shouldn_t stare at her ass as she leans over the stove. The thin material of her nightgown molded to her butt, giving me too good of a view. Carys looked back at me. _Shit._ _What?_ Does she have eyes in the back of her head? _I just realized the tea kettle whistles when it_s ready. I wasn_t thinking. It could wake her up._ _We can have_warm chocolate?_ She laughed. _I_ll just listen closely and take it off the heat right when it_s about to start._ She leaned her back against the counter and crossed her arms as she waited. _It_s funny all of the things you forego for the sake of not waking up a baby. Some nights I_ll debate for several minutes whether opening a can of seltzer is worth the potential of waking her up._ _So you decide not to bother, only to find that your trusty neighbor has a friend over and wakes her up anyway?_ _No._ She laughed. _You only seem to keep me awake. Her room is far enough away from our wall. But unfortunately, her room is right outside the kitchen._ _I did end up moving my bed, just so you know._ _I haven_t heard anything since, so it must be working._ The truth was, I_d only had sex in my apartment once since Carys had mentioned being able to hear it. And I_d been extra quiet, to the point that Kendra thought something was wrong. Now that I knew Carys could hear me, it changed things. I couldn_t do anything without wondering whether she was listening. The sick thing was, the idea of her listening turned me on a little. When the water started to boil, she rushed to take it off the heat. She poured two mugs and mixed the cocoa in before handing one to me. I looked down at the words on the mug she gave me. _I_ve always wanted to drink out of a mug that says, Classy, Sassy, and a Bit Bad Assy._ She chuckled. _Sorry. I don_t have a ton of mugs._ _I love it. And thank you. I haven_t had hot chocolate in forever._ _I_d offer you whipped cream, but it makes a lot of noise when it shoots out._ _I think there_s a manwhore-next-door joke in there somewhere,_ I cracked. _I wouldn_t have gone there._ She laughed. There were a few seconds of awkward silence before she said, _Anyway, we should take these out to the living room, so we don_t wake her._ _Oh_yeah. Let_s do that._ We sat down on opposite ends of the couch and quietly sipped our hot chocolates. _I hope you don_t mind me asking another personal question,_ I began. She licked her lips. _Okay__ _What happened that caused you to not be able to dance professionally anymore? What type of injury was it?_ She shook her head. _You_re not going to believe it._ _Why? _Because it_s pathetic._ _Well, now you_ve got me even more curious._ _I fell down a set of stairs and broke my ankle,_ she confessed. _Can you imagine that?_ I let out a long breath. _Oh, man._ _That_s what makes it so hard. It wasn_t like I was injured while dancing, or doing something impressive. It_s sad, really._ I felt for her so much. _How long until you realized it would impact your career?_ _I didn_t think it would long term_until the company terminated my contract. I always thought they_d give me time to heal, that eventually I_d go back. But apparently they saw my injury as too much of a liability. The doctors seemed to think I_d have recurring trouble with that ankle, even after surgery, so the medical reports only strengthened the company_s case._ _You must_ve been in shock._ She took a sip and nodded. _It_s like a death_the death of the future you believed you_d have. I had to reimagine my life. And for a long time there was nothing but a black hole. It wasn_t until Sunny came along that I realized I was meant for a new purpose._ Damn. Her words shot straight through my soul. This would have been an opportune time to tell her my story. She_d see just how much we had in common. But ultimately, it wasn_t the right time to bring it up. This conversation was about her, not me. Plus, it was late, and I didn_t want to open that can of worms. We talked for a little while longer, and eventually she checked the time on her phone. _I should try to get some sleep in case she wakes up again._ _Yeah. Of course._ I stood from the couch. She reached out to take my mug. _Thank you for everything tonight, Deacon._ _Thanks for the cocoa. This was nice_talking to you, getting to know you better._ _Yeah, feel free to come by again when Sunny isn_t wreaking havoc on the building._ _I definitely will,_ I said, standing in the doorway. _Have a good night._ After I got back to my apartment, I couldn_t stop thinking about Carys and imagining what she looked like when she danced. Okay, some of the time I was imagining what she looked like dancing naked. But that would remain my dirty little secret. Most of all, I couldn_t rid myself of that old, familiar pang in my chest that had developed when she spoke about her injury. I knew all too well what it was like to have dreams broken. CHAPTER 4 Carys PROMISE NOT TO LAUGH The faint noise of traffic from the street below was the only sound in the room as I nervously waited for Cynthia Bordeaux, the director of City Ballet, to begin the interview. Cynthia and I had met years ago when I danced for her competitor. She finally took a seat across from me and folded her hands. _So, let_s get right to it, Carys. Why do you think you_d be the best choice for the PR position we have open?_ Forcing confidence, I sat up straighter. _Because I know the business inside and out, not only as a performer, but I worked the admin side for a couple of years after my injury. That well-rounded experience, as well as my good writing and speaking skills, makes me a great fit._ She moved her pen between her fingers. _But you don_t have any specific public relations experience. So you can understand my hesitation in hiring you for this particular job._ _Well, I never worked in public relations. But months of having to respond to the press regarding my injury while keeping a brave face certainly helped prepare me for anything that might arise. And things like writing a press release are pretty straightforward. In fact, I_ve already enrolled myself in an online class that teaches the basics in anticipation of this position._ _Well, it_s good to know you_ve been proactive. That shows real interest in the job._ _I am very interested, Cynthia._ _I have to say, I_m impressed that you could move on from the traumatic life change of your injury by accepting another position with your company. You chose to keep a foot in the industry, which I like._ _Well, I_d danced all my life and did everything I could to make it professionally. So even when that was suddenly over, I wasn_t ready to leave. Being injured didn_t take away my love for the ballet._ _What made you finally leave? Was it just your pregnancy, or something else?_ _I stopped working to take care of my daughter, yes._ She tilted her head. _Why are you looking to go back to work now?_ _I_ve felt a bit antsy lately. I love being home, but I think it_s time for me to get back out there. There_s also the financial component. But mostly, I feel like having stepped away from the workforce for a while will give me a newfound energy for whatever I embark on next. I_m really excited for the next phase of my life._ She sighed. _I realize you have a lot going on, so I have to be honest in saying that my biggest hesitation in considering you for this position is that you might not be as available as we_d need you to be._ She crossed her arms. _Yes, a good portion of the duties can be performed from home, but there are several events where we_d need you on hand. Sometimes we don_t have a lot of advance notice, depending on the situation_say, entertaining a new investor. Do you think you_d be able to manage childcare at the last minute?_ Deep down, I knew that was going to be my greatest challenge. But I wasn_t going to let her close the door on me. I was determined to find a way to make it work. _I_m an expert at winging it, Cynthia. When I was injured, I made the best of it. When I suddenly got pregnant, I knew nothing about raising a child_winged it there, too. I want this position badly enough that I_m willing to do whatever it takes to make it work. Can I promise you that I_d be able to make a hundred percent of the appearances? No. But I can promise you I will make every effort to be where you need me to be. And if I have to miss something, I_ll work ten times harder to make it up to you, to make sure you know I_m dedicated to the job._ I let out a long breath. She nodded silently. _There_s absolutely no doubt that hiring someone who_s been so respected in this industry would be a good public relations move for us. Not to mention, you worked for our competitor, so having you with us would be a get of sorts. I_ve always been looking for a way to stick it to Charles._ I smiled. If that helped justify her offering me the job, I was all for it. She tapped her pen on the desk. _Tell you what. Let me mull this over. I have a couple other people I_m interviewing, and I want to give them a fair shot. I_ll call you when we_ve made a decision._ The idea of her interviewing people who likely had more experience gave me anxiety. Still, I tried to keep my poker face. _That sounds great._ I nodded as I rose from the chair. _And if there_s anything else I can answer, please don_t hesitate to email or call me. I hope you give me a chance to prove myself._ She reached out her hand. _Carys, it was amazing to see you again. You_re just as lovely as I always remembered._ After I left City Ballet, I went to pick up Sunny from Simone_s house. Since she lived nearby, she_d graciously offered to watch my daughter. But given her lack of experience, I didn_t want to dally in case something had gone wrong. On the way to Simone_s, I checked my email as I walked. To my utter shock, several responses to my inquiry about a part-time childcare worker had come in. I_d figured it wasn_t going to be easy finding someone interested in a variable schedule. But it seemed I_d underestimated the number of people who didn_t want to be tied to a fixed routine. Hope filled me. Maybe this was going to work out after all. * * * Later that afternoon, after Sunny and I had returned home, there was a knock at the door. Peeking through the hole, I smiled. Deacon stood there with two Starbucks cups in his hands. Lately, he hadn_t even been texting me before coffee runs. He_d just proactively get me a latte if he happened to be passing by. _You_re my favorite person right now,_ I said, reaching for the coffee. _Thank you so much. You have no idea how much I needed this._ His eyes went wide as he looked me up and down. _Look at you. You look great._ I was still wearing my black sheath dress from the interview. My hair was down and styled into loose curls. This was definitely the most dressed up Deacon had ever seen me. _I do clean up nice when I have to._ _Where did you go?_ I didn_t immediately answer, instead walking over to grab my wallet, though I knew he would once again refuse my money. Deacon held out his palm. _Stop. I won_t take it._ _Why are you paying for my coffee again?_ _Because you didn_t ask for it. I chose to get it. Now drink it and put away the money._ _You spoil me, Deacon. And given that I have no income, it_s most appreciated._ I took a sip then smiled. _But that may be changing soon,_ I added in a song-songy voice. He perked up. _You got a job?_ _Not yet. But that_s why I_m dressed up. I had an interview today._ _No shit? What_s the position?_ _It_s a PR gig at a different ballet company than the one I used to work for._ He beamed. _That_s fantastic. That_d be perfect for you._ _Well, I can_t celebrate until they offer me the job. And I_ll have to figure out a situation for Sunny if I get it. I_d probably be able to work more than half the week from home, but there would be some events I_d need to attend, sometimes with little notice. That_s why I have to line a couple people up._ _You got any leads?_ _Actually, yes. There_s this company that matches families and childcare workers. A friend of a friend recommended it. They sent me a few people to check out today. I_ll have to interview them all, but the company vets them, runs background checks, and makes sure they have appropriate experience. Like, I specifically requested people who have worked with special-needs kids._ I took a sip. _I just pray it will work out._ _Well, my gram always says if you think positively, make yourself believe it will all work out, it will. We have no idea how much our outlook affects things._ _I definitely have to work on that._ Deacon took a seat on my couch and picked up a ball of yarn I had sitting there from the night before. _What are you making?_ _Oh. I_ve been trying to teach myself to crochet, but it_s not going well. I wanted to make a hat for Sunny._ _Promise not to laugh, okay?_ he said. _What are you talking about?_ _Don_t laugh at what I_m about to tell you._ Before he could say anything further, my phone rang. He waved his hand. _Take it. I_ll tell you after._ When I went to pick it up, Deacon walked over to where Sunny was swinging. He knelt down and muttered something to her. The call was from a number I didn_t recognize. _Hello?_ _Carys? It_s Cynthia._ I cleared my throat. _Oh_hello, Cynthia._ With wide eyes, I looked over at Deacon. He gave me a fist pump. _I did a lot of thinking after you left my office today,_ she said. _I_ve always been a big believer that you have to go with your gut._ My heart started to pound. _Okay__ _My gut told me not to waste the time of those other two interviewees. I should just offer you the position. With your history, I doubt anyone could put their heart into it the way you can._ My jaw dropped. _Are you serious?_ _I am. Congratulations. The job is yours if you want it._ _I do. I do_thank you!_ Deacon gave me a thumbs-up and smiled wide. _Now, I_m assuming you_ll need time to line someone up for your daughter, so why don_t we select a start date in, say, three weeks? You can let me know if you need a bit longer._ Blinking, I answered, _Sure. That sounds amazing._ I had to keep myself from jumping up and down. _I_ll email you an exact date. Plan to work in the office for at least the first three days for training._ _Okay. You got it._ _We_ll be in touch._ _Cynthia__ I said before she could hang up. _Yes?_ _Thank you for giving me a chance._ _I_m certain you won_t disappoint._ _I won_t._ _Congratulations._ _Thank you._ After I hung up, I waved my hands and screamed, _I can_t believe I got it!_ _Hell yeah!_ Deacon yelled as he came over and pulled me into a hug. Whoa. I hadn_t been expecting that, but it sure did feel good to be wrapped in his arms. Now I knew firsthand why my daughter liked it so much. He pulled back. _I_m so happy for you, Carys._ _This will hopefully be the best of both worlds, if I can make it work._ _Not if_but when. You will make it work. You have to believe that._ _That_s right. I vowed to believe, and I will._ I smiled. _Thank you for the reminder._ _Atta girl._ _Would you want to celebrate tonight with me?_ I asked, feeling giddy. _My treat. I insist._ His smile faded. _Shit. I would love to. But I told someone I_d go see a show tonight. She already bought the tickets and__ _Oh my gosh!_ I waved my hand. _You don_t have to explain._ _No, I do. Because I really would_ve loved to celebrate with you tonight. This is a big deal._ I felt stupid for having suggested it. Perhaps this job offer had given me a false sense of confidence. _I shouldn_t have assumed you had nothing better to do than to celebrate with me on a whim._ _Why? We_re friends, right? Friends celebrate with friends._ And there it was. I_d been officially friend-zoned. It wasn_t like I didn_t already know this. But I suppose a part of me had held a tiny glimmer of hope for something more than platonic. Why did I even want that with_as he_d once dubbed himself_the manwhore next door? That wouldn_t be good for me. _A raincheck, okay?_ he insisted. Since he had to get ready for his date, Deacon left a few minutes later. When the door closed behind him, I walked over to Sunny, who was still calmly enjoying the baby swing. _Looks like it_s just you and me for the celebration tonight. I_m thinking sushi takeout for me, and pureed sweet potatoes for you? What do you say? Sound good?_ She kicked her legs and flashed me a big smile. Then I remembered Deacon had been going to tell me something before the phone call from Cynthia came in. He_d asked me not to laugh. But I was laughing now just thinking about it_not even knowing what the hell I was laughing about. * * * Later that night, after Sunny went to sleep, I sat down with my takeout maki rolls and popped open a bottle of pink champagne I_d had in my fridge since before my daughter was born. Turning on the television, I selected On Demand and decided to watch some episodes of Flip or Flop on HGTV_the old seasons from before the stars, Tarek and Christina, got divorced. This was my exciting celebration. But I wouldn_t complain. At least I had something to celebrate. Halfway into my dinner, I got a text. It was a photo of a champagne glass. Deacon: Cheers to you. I sent him back a photo of myself sipping my champagne. Carys: Cheers! Deacon: Nice!!! Glad to see you_re celebrating. Carys: How was the show? Deacon: It was okay. I_m kind of looking forward to heading home and going to sleep, though. Carys: Heading home alone tonight? Deacon: Yes. Not feeling it. Carys: Ah. You win some, you lose some. That_s too bad. But at least I know I_ll get some sleep ;-) Deacon: That_s very true. Carys: Sorry, couldn_t help myself. Deacon: I can take it. Carys: This explains why you_re texting me from your date. I hope she_s not right in front of you? Deacon: No. The champagne was from earlier (but in your honor). I_m on a bathroom break right now. Carys: So nice of you to think of me in there. Deacon: I_m not on the shitter. Don_t worry. Carys: Well, that_s good. Deacon: What did you have to eat with your champagne? Carys: I got sushi rolls from Miku. Deacon: That place is good. But have you tried Ichigo? Carys: No. Deacon: Ohhh. You need to! I_ll pick some up this week and bring it by. I was already looking forward to that day a little too much. Then I thought of something. Carys: Hey, what were you going to tell me earlier? When you asked me not to laugh at you? I got that call about the job and you never had a chance to tell me. LOL Deacon: See? You_re already laughing. Carys: I_m sorry. Deacon: You really want to know? Carys: Yes. The dots moved around while he typed. Deacon: I used to crochet. Carys: What? LOL You did? Deacon: Told you not to laugh. Carys: I_m not really laughing. I swear. Not out loud. I just wasn_t expecting you to say that. Deacon: It_s a fucked-up story how I learned. I was sort of forced into it. I_ll tell you the next time we have coffee. I gotta get back to the table or else she_ll think I_m whacking off in here. Well, that provided quite a visual. Carys: Yeah. I_ll let you get back to your date. Deacon: And I_ll let you get back to your bubbly. Carys: Thanks for checking in. Deacon: Enjoy the rest of your night. Carys: My imagination will be running wild, thinking about you being forced to crochet at gunpoint. Deacon: It_s not that bad. But close. My finger lingered over the keypad. I wanted so badly to tell him he should stop by when he got back. But I thought better of it. Then he texted again. Deacon: Okay. I_ll tell you real quick. When I was sixteen, I was acting up, getting into trouble. My parents made me live with my grandmother for the summer. All I was allowed to do was go to football practice and come back to her house. At the time, she was crocheting clothes for families in need. Sweaters, scarves, stuff like that for the upcoming winter. She made me learn how to do it. Forced me to sit down with her every night and help. I couldn_t contain the smile on my face. Carys: Wow. That_s sweet. Deacon: At the time, I was pretty fucking miserable. But when we delivered the items we made, and I got to see the smiles on those kids_ faces, it didn_t seem so bad anymore. Carys: That_s an awesome story. Deacon: Take it to the grave, Kincaid. I can_t let a rumor about me crocheting with an old lady ruin my game. Carys: You got it. LOL Deacon: Okay. Really going now. Carys: Have a good night. Deacon: You too. He closed out our exchange with three little celebration hat emojis, and I wanted to slap myself for being happy that he _wasn_t feeling_ his date. He_d been thinking of me tonight. CHAPTER 5 Deacon WHAT GOES IN MUST COME OUT I knew today was Carys_s first day of her new job. Over the past few weeks, she_d interviewed a ton of people about watching Sunny. She_d finally found a woman she liked_a retired daycare worker looking for something to keep herself occupied, and who didn_t require a set schedule. I_d gotten up at 5AM and gone to the gym, grabbing Starbucks on the way back so I could drop one off for Carys before she had to leave for work. Even if she_d already had her coffee, an extra might not hurt today. Holding the cardboard tray, I knocked on her door. She opened, and it was clear from her face that something was wrong. _What_s going on?_ Her voice was shaky. _Sharon, the woman who was supposed to be watching Sunny today, just called. Her husband is having problems breathing, and she had to take him to the emergency room. She_s not going to be able to come._ A tear fell down her cheek. _This is my first day, and I_m already flaking out._ She blew out a breath. _I_m done, Deacon. So done._ Shit. _The agency couldn_t provide you with anyone else?_ _Not on such short notice. I_m supposed to leave in ten minutes._ She shook her head. _I_m just gonna have to explain the situation to Cynthia and see if she can extend my start date by a day. But honestly, if I were her, I_d tell me not to bother coming in tomorrow._ This made me angry; it wasn_t fair. Carys had all of her ducks in a row. This wasn_t her fault. She needed this PR gig, and might not ever find something so perfect again. She didn_t know it, but she and I were kindred spirits. I knew full well what it was like to have to redefine your life. Finding something that gave you a purpose after losing your entire world meant everything. A voice inside my head urged me to offer help, even though it was way out of my comfort zone. It took several seconds for my fear to step aside. Although I was probably completely crazy, I refused to let her fail. _You think you can teach me everything I need to know about watching Sunny in ten minutes?_ She looked up as my words registered. Her eyes went wide. _I can_t let you do that, Deacon._ _Come on. We_re wasting time. We know I have the holding thing down. What else do I need to know?_ She just stood there in shock. It was up to me to push things forward. _Show me how to change her diaper._ _You_re serious?_ _Yes. Let_s go. You don_t want to be late._ She picked Sunny up out of her playpen and led the way to the baby_s room. Seeming discombobulated, Carys did the best she could to demonstrate the diaper-changing process. Her words came out rushed. _You roll the dirty one up in a ball like this and put it right in the basket._ _Easy enough,_ I said calmly, though the diaper thing freaked me out. _This one was just pee, but if it were poop, you_d lift her legs up sort of like this and use the wipes to clean her. I still use one wipe to clean her after pee, though._ She demonstrated the process of wiping Sunny_s chubby bottom, front to back. I swallowed. If it wasn_t poop now, the chances of it being poop later were pretty high. I vowed to worry about that when the time came. Couldn_t say I was looking forward to it, though. _You take a new diaper from here and place it under her, then fold the top over and secure the sides with these tabs._ I exhaled. _That seems pretty straightforward._ _Yeah, well, it depends on the situation, but the main thing is, just be careful to make sure she doesn_t roll off the table. If you don_t change or clean her perfectly, it_s not the end of the world._ After that, Carys put Sunny in the baby swing and brought me into the kitchen to show me where the formula was. She pointed. _These single-serving containers just pour right into the bottle I use right there._ Carys placed the jars of baby food I_d need on the counter along with a plastic spoon. She began writing down a feeding schedule. _She already had her bottle this morning, so the next meal can be these pureed bananas at eight. She normally has rice cereal for breakfast, but that_s a little more complicated to prepare, so I_ll just give her that for dinner._ I nodded, trying hard to take it all in. _Don_t worry, it_s all down on this pad of paper_what to give her and when._ I scratched my head. _Okay_yup._ _I would change her diaper next around ten. So, approximately every two hours._ I gulped but tried to seem nonchalant. Carys lifted one of the jars. _Around 11AM, she_ll have these sweet potatoes and peas. Then I follow it up with another bottle of formula._ My head started to spin a little. _Got it._ _At noon, you_re gonna want to try to put her down for a nap. But change her diaper again first. Text me if you have an issue putting her down. It usually just entails placing her on her back in the crib and turning on her mobile. It_s okay to leave her in there awake. She eventually falls asleep if the mobile is on._ Trying to maintain my game face, I nodded. _Sounds good._ _Some babies have two naps, but she only has one. I find she sleeps better at night with just the one._ _And you said in the past, her naps can be anywhere from an hour to three?_ _Yeah. I_m impressed you remembered that._ She smiled. _But yes, very unpredictable._ _Alright._ _Depending on when she wakes up, I_d give her another bottle either after her nap or around three. That will tide her over until dinner, and I_ll handle that when I get home._ I looked at the time on my phone. It was past ten minutes since I_d arrived. She needed to leave. _You_re gonna be late. Don_t worry about us. Go._ _You_re sure about this?_ _Yes._ _Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I owe you big time, Deacon. Big time._ She rushed around in search of her stuff. _Don_t forget anything,_ I warned, taking one of the drinks I_d brought out of the tray. _Take the coffee with you._ She took the cup from me and looked around one last time. _Got my phone, got my purse__ She took a deep breath and ran over to kiss Sunny on the head. _Bye, baby. Be good for Deacon._ She looked over at me. _I can_t believe I_m saying that_for Deacon._ Me neither. _We_ll be fine._ _Text me if you need me. I don_t care how often._ _Okay, but I_m only gonna do it if I really need to, like if the apartment is on fire._ _Oh God, don_t say that,_ she said as she rushed down the hall. After I closed the door, the silence was deafening. Sunny stared at me from her swing. I was relieved she seemed content. At least one of us was calm. _Okay_that whole _we_ll be fine_ thing? That was just an act so your mom wouldn_t worry. I_m freaking out, little girl. You need to help me. No surprises and we_ll be good._ She squealed. _Alright, you cool to just chill there for a few? Looks like, according to your mom_s schedule, we don_t have anything until eight._ I rubbed my chin. _Actually, I need to go next door to get my laptop so I can use it when you_re sleeping. I_m gonna take you with me to go get it. You okay with that?_ Unfastening her from the swing, I lifted her out. We walked over to my apartment, and I grabbed whatever I could fit in my left hand: my laptop, some beef jerky, and chips. I wasn_t sure what Carys had to snack on over there. On the way out, I stopped at the mirror that hung on the wall near my door. I didn_t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of myself juggling all these items along with the baby. When she spotted herself in the mirror, Sunny flashed a huge, toothless grin. Her almond eyes turned to slits at the joy of seeing her own reflection. Fuck, she_s adorable. _You like mirrors, huh? Well, at least I know one way to entertain you if all else fails._ I whispered in her ear, _I_ll tell you a secret. I like them, too. I look at myself way too much in this mirror before I go out. But I won_t admit that to anyone but you._ She laughed as if she could understand me, but she was probably just still amused by looking at herself. When we returned to Carys_s apartment, it was time for Sunny_s breakfast. When I put her down in the highchair, she started to cry. Shit. I knew this was a bad idea. _What_s wrong? What did I do?_ I spoke to her like she was going to give me an answer. After I lifted her out, the crying stopped. She looked up at me with her teary eyes, and I realized this was a repeat of that one night. She wanted to be held. _Oh. We_re back here again?_ She just kept looking up at me until she smiled. _No, no, no. What_s that for? You tryin_ to butter me up or something? So I_ll hold you? Not gonna work._ She smiled even bigger. A second time, I put her in the highchair. Once again, she started screaming. _Shit,_ I said. Then I cursed myself silently for swearing in front of her. _You didn_t hear that._ Picking her up again, I worked to open the jar of bananas while holding her at the same time. I ended up feeding her while standing up. She must have been super hungry because she kept opening her mouth wide before I could even get the next bit of bananas onto the spoon. _Damn, girl. You_re hungry, huh?_ Then it occurred to me: what goes in must come out. I shook that thought from my head, vowing once again to deal with it only when I had to. The spoon finally hit the bottom of the jar, and there was nothing left. She licked her lips. Carys had left another jar of bananas on the counter, so I assumed we_d just keep this going. She devoured that one just as fast as the first. Still holding her, I grabbed a piece of paper towel and turned on the water to wet it before wiping her mouth clean. _Alright. Step one finished. You should be good for a while, right? I_m gonna try to put you down in the swing, so I can check my emails._ The second her bottom hit the seat of the swing, she started to fidget uncomfortably and broke out in tears. Damn it! I told myself I was going to stick it out. Let her cry. But after five minutes of pacing while she screamed, I caved. _Okay, okay. You win._ I lifted her out. We walked back over to the couch and sat. _We have to stop meeting like this, Sunny._ Now, that she was calm, she looked up into my eyes. There was something so amazing about watching a baby stare at you with pure wonder. What was she thinking? Or maybe she was just seeing her reflection. Then she smiled again. At least she was happy. I was already exhausted. It was only two hours into the day, and it had felt like I_d been here for months. If someone had told me yesterday that I_d be stuck inside an apartment today with a baby, I would_ve dreaded it. But the reality wasn_t so bad_just different. Tiring, yes. But I could see, in theory, why people liked children_especially when she was content. When the clock struck ten, I realized it was time for the dreaded diaper change. I got up and walked with Sunny over to her room. Please don_t be crap. After lying her down on the changing table and opening up the diaper at the sides, I was relieved to find only piss. Score one: Deacon. Trying to remember the steps Carys had shown me, I changed Sunny into a fresh diaper as fast as possible. Returning to the main room, I looked at the clock. Jesus. Was it only ten thirty? It felt like eleventy-hundred years at this point. At eleven, I gave her the sweet potatoes and peas, then followed it up with formula as instructed_all while holding her in my arms so she wouldn_t freak out. The formula went down smoothly. Carys hadn_t specified whether to burp her, but it made sense to try. After a moment I was damn glad I had because a belch the size of Gibraltar came out. A text from Carys came in right around 11:30. Carys: How is everything going? I laughed out loud. Could you imagine if I were honest? Sunny won_t let me put her down, so my arm is numb, and I_m trying to figure out how I_m supposed to wipe my own ass later when the time comes. How do you do this every day, Carys? HOW DO YOU DO IT? I responded using voice-to-text since holding Sunny made it a difficult to type. Deacon: Everything_s perfect. Been following your schedule. She just had her lunch and formula. Carys: Awesome! I owe you huge for this. Deacon: How_s the first day of training? Carys: It_s going great. I_m so glad I was able to make it. I have a lot to learn. But I_m feeling optimistic that I can handle it. Deacon: Well, keep slaying. I_ve got everything under control here. Carys: Thank you again!!! Deacon: Anytime. I turned to the baby. _Don_t make an even bigger liar out of me, Sunny. Okay? We_re gonna turn this around before she gets home._ Returning to the couch, I counted the minutes until naptime at noon, still having no clue how I was supposed to get her to stay in that crib without screaming her head off. When Sunny smiled up at me this time, I squinted. _What_s that for? You enjoyin_ watching me sweat? I_m not cut out for this, you know. Between you and me, I have no business playing Mrs. Doubtfire today. No offense, but I don_t want kids._ I leaned in and spoke in her ear, _But_I guess I can see why some people do. Your mama_s lucky to have such a sweet baby._ I made the mistake of placing Sunny on my chest while I lay back and turned on the TV. Within a few minutes, she_d fallen asleep there, and I was now afraid to move. I wondered if there was any chance in hell that I could transport her to the crib. Movement of any kind was a risk. But I really needed to use the bathroom. Lifting myself off the couch, I walked as slowly as I could to her bedroom. I_d never moved so carefully in my life as I placed her down on her back. It was like a miracle when she didn_t stir. She stayed sleeping, her chest rising and falling with each breath. I tiptoed out of there, and the first thing I did when I got back to the living room? I danced. I fucking danced_fists pumping, hips swaying. And I had to laugh at myself a little. I was a grown man dancing outside a baby_s room because it felt like the first time I could breathe since 8AM. But Carys did this every damn day. Over and over. I_d put in a few hours and thought I deserved some kind of award. I was pathetic for thinking it was some magical feat that I_d managed to get a baby down for a nap. But I didn_t care. I silently danced my ass off anyway. In record time, I did everything I could while Sunny was napping. I used the bathroom. I kicked my feet up on the couch and ate beef jerky. I caught up on my emails. I_d never moved so fast in my life, because I had no clue how much time I had before my freedom ended. My phone chimed, and I_d never wanted to murder a device so much in my life. I immediately put it on vibrate. A text had come in. Katy: You up for a quickie lunch date? Of course I knew lunch wasn_t what she was looking for. Katy was a girl I_d stopped seeing a few months back. It surprised me that _lunch_ was still something she was interested in, considering I hadn_t called her. The thought of a quickie lunch date at this particular moment was comical. Sure, come on over. But if you make a sound, I_ll have to kill you. Deacon: Can_t. My day_s all tied up. Katy: Maybe next time then. Deacon: Sorry. Yeah. Sunny slept for almost three hours that afternoon. I got to decompress, work on a new design concept for my job, and tackle some emails. I considered myself very lucky_until she woke up. CHAPTER 6 Carys MORE IN COMMON THAN YOU KNOW The sound of running water immediately registered when I walked in the door. Cynthia had sent me home at 2:30 with a bunch of information to review. I was thrilled that I_d be able to relieve Deacon a bit early. _Deacon?_ I yelled. _In here!_ I heard him holler. Oh no. This isn_t good. When I got to the bathroom, I said, _I would ask what happened, but I know what happened._ Deacon held Sunny stiffly away from his body as the tub filled. She had poop all the way up her back. _There was no way the wipes were going to clean this,_ he said, sweat pouring from his forehead. I rolled up the sleeves of my jacket and took her from him. _I_ll take it from here._ Deacon immediately left the room. I thought he ran out to vomit or something, but he returned soon after with a bath towel. _Now I know where you keep them, in that small closet in the hallway._ _Thank you. You don_t have to stay. You look traumatized. I_m so sorry this happened._ I began cleaning her up. _It_s okay. You saved me in the nick of time anyway._ He stood in the doorway for a bit while I bathed Sunny. _I want to hear how your day went and tell you about Sunny_s. I_m dying for some fresh air, though. Why don_t I go for a Starbucks run and come right back?_ _Okay, that sounds good._ After Deacon left, I looked down at my daughter, who was now laughing and splashing the water with her palms. She_d just started sitting up on her own, so bath time was a lot easier. _What did you do to Deacon, huh? You couldn_t wait till I got home?_ She cooed. I bent down into the tub to kiss her head. _I missed you so much today._ After I dried Sunny off and got her dressed, I brought her out to the living room and placed her on the playmat. A few minutes later, Deacon knocked. When I opened, he handed me my coffee. _Oh, you_re the best,_ I said, taking the stopper out of the lid. At the sight of Deacon, Sunny started crying. He shook his head. _Oh no you don_t. Your mommy_s home now. You don_t need me to carry you._ My mouth dropped. _Don_t tell me she cried all day until you picked her up?_ He hesitated. _Not all day_not during her nap._ _Oh my gosh, Deacon! You can_t let that happen. You have my full permission to let her cry when she does that. Otherwise, she_ll never leave you alone._ _I know. But she does this whole sad-eye, pouty, quivering-bottom-lip thing. And I just_cave._ _She_s totally playing you._ Deacon sat down on the couch and rested his head back. _Seriously_ I walked outside just now, and it was like I hadn_t been out there in years. How do you do it every day?_ _It gets easier. The first time you take care of a baby is overwhelming. And in the beginning, it was like that almost every day. But you do get used to it._ _Well, you have my mad respect._ He sighed. _Tell me how today went._ He gave my leg a smack, and his hand lingered on my thigh for a couple of seconds before he abruptly slid it away, almost as if he_d caught himself doing something he didn_t think he should have. And of course, my body reacted instantly. I felt the effects of that minor contact long after it was over. I cleared my throat. _Today was truly awesome. Cynthia showed me around the office. I have my own cubicle, and it_s big. We went through some of the press releases the previous public relations person had put together. She also had me study up on the company_how many dancers, their names, backgrounds, their ranks, stuff like that. The day flew by, and then she randomly told me to go home at two thirty. Sent me home with more reading to do. But I was thrilled to be able to come back here._ _And I was thrilled when you walked in._ _Was that good timing or what?_ I laughed. _Seriously, though, you saved my ass today, Deacon. The good news is, the nanny company assures me Sharon is all set to come tomorrow morning, so we won_t run in to this problem again. Apparently, it was a false alarm with her husband, and he_s home resting._ _It wasn_t a problem. As much as she made it challenging by insisting I hold her, it was cool getting to hang out with her._ I knew he was just being nice. I really did owe him. _Oh__ Deacon snapped his fingers. _I figured out she likes mirrors._ _She does. How did you discover that?_ _I took her next door so I could grab my laptop and a couple of other things, and when I stopped in front of the mirror, she started laughing._ _Yeah. She gets a kick out of herself._ Deacon_s eyes lingered on mine, prompting me to ask, _What?_ _Nothing. You look really nice. I don_t know if I told you that this morning._ His compliment gave me goosebumps. _Thank you._ It would have been easy to take that the wrong way and think maybe he was interested in me_especially with the way his bedroom eyes were fixed on me right now. But I knew better. Even if he were attracted to me, I suspected he wouldn_t cross the line_especially after seeing firsthand what my day-to-day life entailed. Still, I appreciated his company and his friendship. _Can I make you dinner this weekend?_ I asked. He took another sip of his drink and placed it on the coffee table. _You_re working all week in between taking care of her, and you want to make me dinner?_ _You literally saved my job. I know how you are, that you won_t take money from me. It_s important that I pay you back in some way for today. I feel like the best way I know how is to make you dinner. I really like to cook. I just don_t do it too often, since it_s just me._ He nodded for a few seconds, seeming to think it over. _Okay. Yeah, sure._ I smiled, trying not to seem overly excited. _Yeah? You choose the night. Friday or Saturday._ He checked his phone briefly. _I can do Friday._ I smiled wide. _Then it_s settled._ _Can I bring anything?_ _No. I insist you don_t. But because I know how you are, and you_ll likely bring something anyway, a bottle of wine will do._ * * * The rest of that week went off without a hitch. My new sitter, Sharon, showed up on time the following two days, and Sunny seemed to like her almost as much as she liked Deacon. Then I worked from home on Thursday and Friday as planned. Cynthia said she wanted me to come into the office at least two days a week for the first few months, if possible, but she let me choose the days. Sharon seemed amenable to that arrangement, and we decided we_d choose the days based on her availability each week. Because I worked from home on Friday, I was able to get most of my stuff done early so I could prepare dinner for Deacon. My online grocery order arrived on time, so I got started preparing the food around five. I_d decided to make breaded chicken with a side of risotto, Caesar salad, and roasted Brussels sprouts with cranberries, bacon, and almonds. I ordered a store-bought chocolate cake for dessert. I_d told him to come by at eight thirty, which would hopefully be after Sunny fell sleep. After slaving away at the stove, I decided to sneak in a shower once I put Sunny down at eight. It was probably the fastest one I_d ever taken because I needed time to get dressed and put some makeup on before Deacon arrived. As much as I knew this was an innocent, friendly dinner, I couldn_t help the butterflies swarming in my stomach. I was incredibly attracted to Deacon, even if nothing would come of spending time with him. My expectations needed to remain low. We were in two different places in life. He had all of the freedom in the world and seemed to be taking full advantage of that, milking the single life. That_s likely what I would be doing if I were in his shoes. And he_d flat-out told me that we were _friends._ So the fact that his coming over made me nervous was pretty silly. I slipped on a gray, fitted sweater dress that landed several inches above my knees and high leather boots. Maybe it was overkill for a night in, but I_d had a really productive week and felt like celebrating in style. I made up my face and had just put the last stroke of mascara on when I heard a knock on the door. My heart hammered in my chest as I walked to answer it, proof that whatever I tried to tell myself about the platonic nature of our relationship was a crock of shit. Deacon held a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine. His eyes moved over me. _Wow. Uh_you look fucking amazing._ My cheeks felt hot. _Thank you._ He handed me the flowers. _These are for you._ I took the multicolored tulips. _You didn_t have to do that._ _Well, you didn_t have to make dinner for me, either._ I smelled the buds. _I keep waiting for you to show me your asshole side, Deacon. But you_re sickeningly sweet sometimes. I definitely had the wrong idea about you early on._ _Manwhores can still be sweet. Sometimes we even shop for flowers for our friends._ He winked. Friends. I heard that loud and clear. _Sometimes manwhores even crochet._ I winked back. _Ouch._ He smiled through gritted teeth. _Remember your promise, Carys._ My body buzzed with awareness as I took him in. He wore a dark green sweater with jeans and black leather boots. His sleeves were rolled up, and for the first time I got a full look at the tattoo on his left forearm. _I_ve never really seen your tattoo before. Does it go all the way up your arm?_ He looked down at it. _It_s just the forearm. I got this ink when I first moved to California about eight years ago. It was a work in progress. I kept adding to it._ The design was a mix of roses, crosses, birds, and other ornate imagery. And now I could read the name written in cursive over his wrist. Kathie. _Kathie is my grandmother,_ he said. _Ah._ I smiled, feeling strangely relieved that I didn_t have to be jealous of the fictitious woman I_d created. _I_d noticed the word before but could never make it out. I always assumed it was an ex-girlfriend and didn_t want to pry._ _No. Just Gram._ _That_s really sweet._ His cologne wafted over me. Deacon looked hotter than I_d ever seen him. Even if we weren_t dating, I loved the idea of having him all to myself tonight. Clearing my throat, I said, _I hope you don_t mind, but I think we should eat out in the living room to be as far away from Sunny_s room as possible._ _Believe me, if there_s one lesson I learned this week, it_s the trouble you can get into when a baby wakes up. Sometimes massive explosions, even._ I shut my eyes briefly, remembering the disaster I_d walked in on. _I_m sorry. That was funny, though._ _I_m glad you thought so. I_ll send you the bill for therapy._ He laughed. _Let_s crack open this wine, shall we?_ He lifted the bottle of red he_d brought. _Yes. Be right back._ I headed for the kitchen. My heart pitter-pattered as I grabbed a bottle opener and two glasses before returning to the living room. My hand brushed against his as he took the opener. Heat zipped through me at the fleeting touch_proof of how desperate I_d been for the slightest contact. It was pretty pathetic that I hadn_t been with anyone since Charles. The cork made a slight popping sound as he opened the bottle and poured the wine. We sat down across from each other on the couch. I was starting to get a good buzz on as he asked me more about my new job. Then he took a deep sniff. _Whatever you_re making smells fucking amazing, by the way. I was just thinking the same thing about you_how good you smell. I stood up. _Shall we eat?_ _Hell yeah. My stomach is growling._ He followed me into the kitchen, and I sensed every movement of his body as we plated our food. _Holy crap, Carys. This looks fantastic. I might have to keep creating reasons for you to cook for me._ You_ve read my mind. We brought our plates back out to the living room and sat next to each other on the floor, so we could use the coffee table. Deacon and I were well on our way to polishing off the bottle of wine as we enjoyed the chicken and risotto I_d made. _How did you learn to cook like this?_ I wiped the corner of my mouth. _Self-taught, mostly. I feel like everyone should be able to follow a recipe, but most people believe they can_t for some reason. It_s not that hard._ He drank the last of the wine in his glass. _I_m one of those people who assumes I_m gonna burn the place down if I try. I need to get new pans, too. The ones I have are so damn cheap, they burn my hands when I touch the handles. I take that as a sign that I should just stay the fuck out of the kitchen altogether._ I laughed. _Well, it_s nice to have someone to cook for._ _I_ll be your guinea pig anytime. I haven_t had a home-cooked meal like this since the last time I went home to Minnesota._ _None of the women you_ve met have cooked for you?_ _Not that I can recall. But I don_t expect anyone to cook for me._ I smirked. _Yeah_they don_t need to know how to cook._ His smile was hesitant. _I know what you_re thinking. Despite what you may believe, it_s not all about that. They have to have half a brain, and they have to be decent human beings. Honestly, there are more duds than not out there._ _It must be expensive to go out all of the time, huh?_ _Yeah, and it costs the same whether it_s a bomb or not._ _I never thought about how costly it must be to have a social life._ _If you_re gonna date in this city, you expect to pay a fortune in drinks and restaurant bills. Secretly, my favorite thing to do is stay home. But I know I_ll regret it if I don_t push myself to go out. I feel like that_s what I should be doing at my age._ _I envy your freedom. I wouldn_t change my current situation, but I do miss being able to come and go as I please._ _I really understood that on Monday,_ he said. _Yeah._ I chuckled. _My life is basically the opposite of yours._ He paused, looking into my eyes for what felt like much longer than normal. _You say that_that our lives are so different_but we have more in common than you know. There_s something I_ve never told you about._ I blinked. _There is?_ He nodded. _I feel very connected to you. And you don_t even know why._ I put down my glass and inched a bit closer to him. _Well, now you have me curious._ He emptied the last of the wine into our glasses before turning to me again. _You said once that when you stopped dancing, it felt like the death of the future you_d always imagined. I can relate_because my career was cut short by an accident, too._ My heart sank. _Really?_ _I don_t talk about it much. In fact, I don_t talk about it at all. I don_t think I_ve told more than one other person since I moved here._ I leaned in a little. _What happened, Deacon?_ He stiffened, as if gearing up for what he was about to divulge. _My father is Jed Mathers, the head college football coach for Minneapolis. And I was the star quarterback for Iowa, one of their biggest rivals in the next state over. We made headlines in those days because of that._ I exhaled the breath I_d been holding. _Okay_wow. You played football?_ _I was on track for a career in the NFL. Our team_s record was twenty and six. But_everything ended one day when I crashed my car._ My stomach felt sick. Oh no. Instinctively, I reached my hand to his arm. He looked down at it and continued. _I hit an oncoming vehicle on a foggy night. I was lucky to survive, but my leg was crushed, and my professional football days were over._ I felt his pain intensely. _I_m so sorry. How long ago was this?_ _A little over nine years. I was twenty, a sophomore in college. My whole life had been about the dreams my father had for me, the same dreams I had for myself. From a very young age, everything had revolved around football._ He stared off. _After the accident, I didn_t know who I was anymore._ Those words resonated so strongly with me. Hearing them come out of Deacon_s mouth felt surreal. _I understand that to my core._ He looked into my eyes again. _I know you do. That_s why I just awkwardly interrupted our lighthearted dinner to unload my baggage._ _I_m so glad you did. Tell me more about what happened._ He let out a long breath. _My father and I_ Our relationship never really recovered. We didn_t know how to relate to each other without football. I felt useless for a long time. Eventually, my younger brother replaced me in my father_s eyes_became the new hope. While Alex never made it to the NFL, for several years my father chose to focus on him, anything to forget the disappointment I was._ That hurt my heart. _It wasn_t your fault._ Deacon frowned. _Well, actually, it was. The night of the accident, I was focused on my navigation app when the car crashed into us. Yes, there was fog, but it was very much my fault for not being more alert._ _Were you alone?_ _No. That_s the worst part._ He swallowed. _My girlfriend at the time was with me._ I braced myself. _Was she hurt?_ He hesitated. I knew this had to bring back painful memories for him. _She wasn_t severely injured, no. But__ His words trailed off, and he paused. For a moment I thought he might elaborate, but then he simply said, _Things were never the same after that day._ _Were the people in the other car injured?_ He closed his eyes briefly. _No._ I nodded, relieved. _Sorry for all the questions._ _No. It_s good for me to talk about it. Normally I just keep that part of my life bottled up._ _So_what did you do to get back on your feet after that?_ _Well, you know how you ended up still working for the ballet after your accident? You kept a foot in the world you loved? It was the opposite for me. I wanted nothing to do with football if I couldn_t play. Being around my football buddies, my father and his players, it depressed me. So I transferred to a different college in California, away from everyone, and threw myself into school._ _Did you ever move back to the Midwest after that?_ _No. I_ve felt very disconnected from my family ever since. I_m closer to my mother and grandmother, but it_s been difficult being around my father and brother. I love them, but my relationship with everyone changed after the accident._ _Is it just the one brother you have?_ _Yeah. Alex is two years younger than me. Do you have siblings?_ _I have one brother, too._ I took a deep breath, still processing everything he_d told me. _Wow. Here I was thinking I didn_t know anyone who could relate to my situation. You_ve been right next door all this time._ His eyes met mine. _Crazy, isn_t it?_ CHAPTER 7 Deacon THE BLACK SWAN It felt good to let it all out. I_d wanted to tell Carys about my background for a while, but the timing was never right. When she invited me over for dinner, part of the reason I accepted was because I figured I_d have an opportunity to finally explain. _From the moment you told me about your accident,_ I said, _I_ve felt very connected to you, like maybe I was meant to meet you, because of our shared experience._ I immediately regretted those words. Too intense. They were the truth, but I didn_t want her to take them the wrong way. Meant to meet you. I corrected, _I don_t mean to sound__ _Misery loves company. I get it._ She smiled. _I_m really happy you told me._ She placed her delicate hand on my arm. I wished she wouldn_t touch me, because my body reacted every time she did. I had no business feeling that way about Carys. My attraction to her made things uncomfortable. She was the first woman since probably high school who I truly considered a friend. And the whole friendship thing would be a heck of a lot less complicated if I didn_t constantly imagine what her ballerina body would feel like under mine. She was like no other woman I_d ever encountered. Carys was elegant as hell. Long, beautiful neck. Soft, porcelain skin. Hair like silk. Didn_t need a drop of makeup. But it wasn_t only those physical things. Her elegance was more inside than out. It was the way she carried herself. If there was one word to describe her, it was graceful. It was hard not to notice her beauty on an average day. But tonight she was playing up her sexuality with those damn knee-high black boots and slinky gray dress that hugged her body. I couldn_t stop staring at her, and I really hoped she didn_t sense anything, because that would make things awkward. Carys was off limits. She didn_t need to mess around with someone who hadn_t been capable of holding down a relationship in nearly a decade. You got that, Deacon? _You know why else I_m glad you told me?_ she asked, snapping me out of my thoughts. _Why?_ _Because now I know I can_t put up a front around you. I often try to give the impression that I_m okay with what happened to my career, that being a mother to Sunny more than makes up for everything I might have missed out on. But the truth is, I_m trying to make myself believe it more than anything. Someone who_s lost their identity in a similar way knows better than to buy into that so easily._ _Yeah,_ I whispered. _I definitely know how hard it is._ I was dying to hug her, hold her hand, move the hair off her face _something. But I couldn_t. My eyes were glued to hers, and I didn_t know how to handle this pull that gnawed at me. I didn_t know what to do with my damn hands because all they wanted to do was reach out and touch her, to be as connected physically as we were emotionally at this moment. But I refrained. Thank God she interrupted the tension. _I forgot,_ she said suddenly. _There_s cake!_ When she stood and started taking the plates to the kitchen, I got up too. _Let me help you._ She held out her hand. _No. Stay. The less people in the kitchen the better. If Sunny wakes up, she_ll never leave you alone, and then you won_t get to eat your cake._ As I sat down on the couch, I laughed to myself. You can_t have your cake and eat it, too. That saying was perfect for this situation. Could I continue this friendship with Carys without giving her the wrong impression? I wanted to keep whatever this was going, but given my growing attraction to her, was that realistic? I needed to be careful, maybe take a step back. Carys returned to the living room carrying two giant mounds of chocolate cake. She handed me mine and sat down. I watched as she took a huge bite of hers and moaned. _Sorry. I get a little too excited over chocolate._ She laughed, covering her mouth. Well, I get a little too excited watching you eat it. And yet, I continued to stare at her mouth, anticipating each time she_d open it, enjoying every little sound that came out. The more I looked over at her, the more I wished I could have seen her dance. _Do you still dance?_ Her eyes narrowed. _How do you mean?_ _I know you don_t dance professionally. But do you ever_dance_when you_re alone_for yourself? Maybe that_s a dumb question. I_m sorry._ _No. It_s not dumb at all._ She wiped her mouth. _I actually do sometimes. Just to make sure I still have it. It_s not the way it would be if I were up on stage, but yeah, sometimes I_ll randomly put on my toe shoes and do an arabesque in front of the mirror._ She turned a little red. _I can_t believe I_m admitting that._ _I think it_s awesome. What_s an arabesque?_ She pointed to the framed picture on her bookshelf. _Arabesque is what I_m doing in that photo over there. It_s one of the hardest positions, even though it might look easy. I should say, it_s not easy to do it correctly. The perfect turn out_lifted up and forward, relaxed elbow_the right arm placement. No two people do it exactly the same, because everyone_s body is different._ Shaking her head, she said, _Anyway, I_m going off on a tangent._ She rolled her eyes. _Ballet nerd._ She_s so damn cute. _Your passion is palpable. Just because you stop doing something every day, doesn_t mean you can_t have that kind of love for it. That_s within you._ She hesitated. _Would you want to__ Then she shook her head. _Never mind._ My heart beat faster. What the heck was she going to ask me? I needed to know. _Say what you were going to say._ Her cheeks grew redder. _Would you want to see a video of me dancing?_ A relief came over me. Jesus. For a split second, I thought she was going to ask me if I wanted something else. Did I really believe she_d ask if I wanted to go back to her bedroom? Christ, Deacon. Get your mind out of the fucking gutter. _I would love that,_ I said. _I have one of our old performances on DVD. I haven_t watched it in ages._ _Break it out. I_m dying to see it._ She stood up. _Okay, let me get it._ I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants as she took off in search of the DVD. When she returned, I could_ve sworn I saw her hand tremble as she popped it into the DVD player. _Are you nervous to show me?_ Carys smiled shyly. _A little._ _Don_t be._ She pressed play. At first, the camera was so far away, it was hard to tell which dancer was her. _I_m easy to spot. That_s me in black,_ she said, pointing to the screen. _We were performing Swan Lake._ _The Black Swan. I don_t know ballet, but I know enough to know you_re the Black Swan._ _You must have seen the movie with Natalie Portman._ She laughed. _I did, indeed._ I sat transfixed. The orchestral music, the lighting_this was the real deal. A guy dressed in tights lifted Carys into the air, her legs spreading apart with impressive flexibility. After landing on her feet, she twirled with beautiful precision. The smile on her face exuded confidence and pride as she lifted onto her toes and raised her arms as if reaching for the stars. She was a star. And seeing this drove home the loss she_d suffered. This hadn_t been a hobby. This was a calling. My heart broke to know it had been taken from her. Her male partner almost seemed like a tool to showcase Carys_s talent. He guided her along, but she was the focal point. She really shined when she danced alone. Without the guy invading her space, Carys spun around free as a bird. Flawless. _It_s like I can feel your emotions,_ I told her. _Not only by looking at your expressions but in your movements._ _That_s pretty much the biggest compliment you could give me._ _Really?_ She nodded. _One of my teachers used to say that was the difference between a good dancer and a great one. She said our purpose in a performance was not to simply move our bodies or entertain, but to express our emotions through dance. Then ideally, those feelings would also be experienced by anyone watching. So I always tried to keep that in mind._ _It_s fucking beautiful._ My eyes met hers. _Truly._ I didn_t merely mean it. I meant her. Her eyes glistened. _Thank you._ For the first time in a long time, I felt like tearing up, too, and it had nothing to do with my own shit. What a tremendous loss she_d suffered_the world had suffered the day this woman stopped being able to perform. The emotions pummeling me were too much. It was time to go before I did or said something I_d regret. I didn_t want to be rude and leave before she turned off the video. But I vowed to make my exit at the first opportunity. _I_m blown away by your talent,_ I told her when the video ended. _Thank you again for showing it to me._ _You_re welcome._ Carys put the DVD back in the case and stared at it a moment before snapping it closed. _I think I should probably head back,_ I said. She seemed surprised. _Oh_okay. Yeah. It_s getting late, I suppose._ _Yeah._ We stood and faced each other. A few tense seconds passed_tense seconds where the right thing to do felt like kissing her, even though I knew that would be very wrong. Carys rubbed her arms. _Thank you for coming._ _Are you kidding? Thank you for having me, for preparing that amazing food, for listening to my sob story, and most of all, for sharing that video with me. It really means a lot that you did._ _After what you told me tonight, I definitely felt more comfortable._ _Yeah._ I smiled, and after a few seconds of awkward silence, I said, _Well_have a good night._ I wasn_t prepared for her to reach out and hug me. I stiffened. But once the initial shock passed, I relaxed into her embrace. Feeling my heartbeat accelerate, I moved back before it became too obvious that her touch had wreaked havoc on me. I nodded and didn_t say anything else, heading to my apartment in a brain fog. CHAPTER 8 Carys DID YOU LOOK IN MY BOX? A few days went by before I heard from Deacon again. I_d had this funny feeling he was keeping his distance because things had teetered on crossing the line during our dinner_not necessarily on a physical level, but certainly on an emotional one. Sharing that video of my Swan Lake performance was like taking the Band-Aid off a wound that hadn_t quite healed yet. But somehow, after letting it air out, I didn_t feel like I needed the Band-Aid anymore. Reliving my past, even for that brief moment, had been therapeutic. And my confidence in doing so had everything to do with Deacon first opening up to me. The story he_d told me about his past made me feel less alone. I_d never imagined my happy-go-lucky neighbor was hiding something so painful. I got a text from him on Monday afternoon while Sunny was napping. Deacon: Hey_ I got a package that was meant for you. Delivery guy got the apartments mixed up. I ripped it open before I realized it didn_t have my name on it. Want me to leave it outside your door? It seemed strange that he wanted to leave it outside rather than just come over with it_further evidence that he was avoiding me. That bummed me out. Carys: Yeah. Sure. Thanks. I couldn_t remember what the hell I_d ordered. Lately, I_d been up late at night one-clicking all kinds of crap I didn_t need. I bought pretty much everything online, because it was easier for me, so this could have been anything from baby food to shampoo and tampons. A few minutes passed before I opened my door to find a medium-sized box on the ground. The top had been ripped open. I brought it into the apartment and looked inside. A package of pacifiers. Banana chips. Black licorice bites. Diaper cream. A Woman_s Guide to Self-Pleasure. I paused. A Woman_s Guide to Self-Pleasure. My stomach sank. Oh. No. Now I knew exactly why he_d chosen not to knock on the door. * * * I spent the rest of the day stewing over what Deacon might have been thinking about me ordering that book. I didn_t know why it bothered me so much. Did it make me seem lonely or desperate? Or was it just the sheer embarrassment of needing a how-to guide on touching myself in the first place. The book had seemed like a good idea the other night at 2AM. Now? Not so much. I wished I could just not mention it. But I knew myself. The next time I saw Deacon, my preoccupation would be written all over my face. I_d act all awkward. Eventually, I_d stammer my feelings out in a less-than-articulate attempt to explain myself. It was better to acknowledge it calmly and get the awkwardness over with now. Grabbing my phone on the nightstand, I scrolled down to Deacon_s name and typed. Carys: Hey. He responded almost immediately. Deacon: Hey. Everything okay? You don_t normally text at this hour. Carys: Everything_s fine. Are you out? Deacon: I_m in bed, actually. Carys: Did I wake you? Deacon: No. I was watching some documentary. What_s up? My fingers lingered over the keys before I mustered the courage to type. Carys: Did you look in my box? Ew. That didn_t come out right. Or maybe that was the perfect lead-in to this awkward-as-fuck conversation. Of course, he picked up on it. Deacon: Huh? LOL Thanks for letting it slide, Deacon. I rephrased. Carys: I assume you saw what was in the box you dropped off earlier? My pulse raced as the little dots floated around. Deacon: Yeah, and I have to say, I_m pretty surprised. My heart hammered against my chest. But before I could reply, he sent another text. Deacon: I didn_t take you for a black licorice person. Worst candy ever. Oh my God. Carys: Nice try pretending you didn_t see the book. I shut my eyes tightly and cringed. Deacon: What book? ;-) Carys: The winky face gave you away. You know what book. Deacon: I had no plans to mention it. It_s none of my business. Carys: I wanted to acknowledge it before you did. I_m a bit embarrassed. Deacon: I wouldn_t have acknowledged it. And if I did, I certainly would never shame you for reading about something that_s natural. Not only would that be wrong, it would be hypocritical. Carys: Hypocritical_because you have a similar book? LOL Deacon: No. Because self-pleasure is one of my pastimes. I_m pretty damn good at it. Carys: I take it you don_t need a book then. Deacon: I could WRITE the fucking book. Well, then_ Carys: I know I don_t have anything to be embarrassed about, but I still feel weird that you saw it. Deacon: Why? Carys: Because it makes it seem like I don_t know my way around my own vagina! I_m not totally clueless. I just figured, you know, since it_s just me_I need ways to be motivated. Thought I_d check it out. See what it has to say. It sounded like a good idea at 2AM. Deacon: Have you read any of it yet? Carys: No. Deacon: I thumbed through it. Shit. This is worse than I thought. Carys: You did? Deacon: Yeah. And I don_t think it_s what you need. Carys: Meaning? Deacon: You really want to talk about this? Carys: Aren_t we already? Deacon: Okay. Just wanted to make sure, because you seemed embarrassed a minute ago. Carys: I_m over it now. What did you read? Deacon: That shit_s too clinical. The steps she goes through_there_s too much choreography. Honestly, I was bored when I should have been turned on. Worrying about where the fuck you put your hand is not going to help you get off. Carys: Yeah. That doesn_t sound like something I have time for. Deacon: Pretty sure what you need is to relax with a good fucking glass of wine and some hot porn. The book you bought will have you thinking too much. What you need is to NOT think. Getting off is not so much about technique. It_s about losing yourself until you can_t help but touch yourself. When that happens, you don_t give a fuck how you_re doing it. It suddenly got really hot in my room. My nipples hardened as I reread that last message a few times. Deacon: That_s just my two cents. Carys: Is that what you do when you_re alone? Have a glass of wine and watch porn? Deacon: Occasionally. Carys: Do you always need porn to get off? Deacon: No. It_s a mood thing. Sometimes I don_t need it at all. Carys: Like when? Deacon: When I_m turned on by someone or something that happened. Or sometimes, I_m just turned on for no reason. If I_m stressed, I might need more assistance. Carys: I see. If he only knew how aroused this conversation had made me. Until this very moment, I don_t think I_d realized just how hard up I_d been. The muscles between my legs ached. That was ironic, because it proved his argument. If you were turned on enough, the mechanics didn_t matter. I knew if I touched myself right now, I could make myself come_all because of this conversation and the fact that I was now imagining what Deacon looked like when he pleasured himself. There was so much more I wanted to know: what exactly turned him on, who had turned him on last, what he thought about in those moments when he made himself come all alone. I didn_t need a freaking book. I needed more of this_but I wouldn_t dare ask for it. Instead, I chickened out before I made a total fool of myself. Carys: Headed to bed. Thanks for the chat. The three dots moved around for a lot longer than usual. Deacon: Sweet dreams. * * * A couple days later, a box arrived at my apartment. Given my penchant for online spending lately, I once again had no clue what it might contain. When I opened it and reached inside, I wasn_t even sure what I was holding. It looked to be a pair of men_s leather pants with the ass part cut out. What the hell? Then I noticed the name on the billing receipt. Deacon_s. Although the address was mine. Even more confused, I took out my phone. I couldn_t even type the question without laughing. Carys: Did you order assless chaps and have them sent to my apartment? Deacon: Wow. They came fast. Carys: So this isn_t a mistake? Do I want to know what you_ll be doing with these? Deacon: They_re a gag gift for my buddy, Adrian. He and I are always sending each other weird shit as practical jokes. He was complaining that he had nothing to wear for this costume party he_s going to. So, voila. Carys: And you thought to send them to ME because??? Deacon: Just wanted to see your reaction. Plus, I figured this would make us even. You accidentally sent a masturbation book my way. And now I sent you assless chaps. Carys: That was so thoughtful of you. Deacon: Thank you. Just trying to be a good friend. ;-) Then came the worst thing that could have possibly happened. I meant to send the laughter emoji. Instead, my finger hit_the tongue. Ugh! It was at the top of my choices, since I responded to Simone earlier after she sent me a photo of her dessert. I just sent the tongue in response to assless chaps. Deacon: Okay??? Carys: Sorry! Wrong emoji! My finger slipped. It was supposed to be a laughing face. Deacon: So you_re not an ass licker then. My jaw dropped. Deacon: Not that there_s anything wrong with that. I was mortified. Deacon: Too much? Carys: YES. Just a tad, TMI King. Deacon sent a zipper-mouth emoji. I threw the phone across the couch, still embarrassed_but laughing. CHAPTER 9 Carys WE_RE JUST FRIENDS Fall flew by, and before I knew it, winter was upon us in New York. I couldn_t believe I now had a nine-month-old. Over the past couple of months, my friendship with Deacon had grown stronger, but it was still just that_a friendship and nothing more. He_d chosen not to go home to Minnesota for Christmas, instead going to Vail on a ski trip with friends from New York. While he was away, my mother came for a two-day visit from Florida. And that was enough. By the end of her stay, I_d had enough of her criticisms about my parenting and ignorant questions about Sunny. I loved my mother but could only take so much of her. Now it was January, and I looked forward to what the new year would bring. My job was going well, and Cynthia had given me more responsibilities. Since I was working in the office today, Simone and I met for a quick lunch. We hadn_t gotten together in a long time, so we had a lot to catch up on. I_d only now told her about the day Deacon had to watch Sunny_the day he_d saved my ass. Simone dabbed her pizza with a napkin to soak up the grease. _I can_t believe he watched her for the whole day. What a trouper._ _Yeah. It was pretty amazing._ She squinted and examined my face. _You like him__ _No._ I shook my head and lied, _Not that way._ Says the girl who still masturbates to the transcript of our text chain about masturbation two months later. _Why not?_ _Because he_s a friend. It_s not like that with us._ I took a bite of my pizza. _Are you just telling yourself that?_ Speaking with my mouth full, I said, _Unfortunately, no. Deacon has had plenty of opportunities to make a move. He_s not interested in me romantically._ _But you like him, and you_d want him to be your boyfriend if you thought he was interested, right?_ Feeling hot all of a sudden, I snorted, _Boyfriend? Deacon? Deacon is the anti-boyfriend._ _What does that mean?_ _It means he_s the opposite of someone who would be settling down any time soon_if ever. He loves the single life too much._ Simone glared at me, seeming to see through my defensive attempt to hide my feelings. Still, I wouldn_t admit that my hopes had been dashed too many times already. Taking a long sip of my water, I decided to be partially honest. _I have a crush on him, okay? I_ll admit that. A pretty big one. And maybe sometimes things border on flirtatious, but that doesn_t mean I expect it to go anywhere. He and I are in two different places in life. What does a single man living in New York City want with a girl who has a baby?_ _Don_t be so hard on yourself. You_re a very beautiful woman. And it doesn_t sound like he minds having Sunny around._ She tilted her head. _How old is he?_ _Twenty-nine._ _Hmm. So, pushing thirty, then. How do you know he wouldn_t change or grow to want a family? He seems good with kids._ _Okay. Now you_re taking this too far._ I laughed. _Being a helpful next-door neighbor and all-around nice guy doesn_t mean he wants the real responsibility being with me would bring. He has enough women without baggage lining up at his door._ Her face turned serious. _You don_t know he wouldn_t want Sunny._ Her words made my heart clench. Just the thought of any man not wanting my daughter, or worse, someone leading her on and leaving, made me so sad. _I pretty much do know, Simone. He_s made it clear in subtle ways that he wants nothing to do with me_with us_that way. He leaves abruptly anytime things get a little tense between us. The answer is in his body language and behavior. He doesn_t need to say anything for me to know where he stands. And that_s perfectly fine. We_re just friends. To be honest? It_s kind of nice to have someone I can turn to right next door without having to worry about complications._ _Well, that_s too bad. I think you guys would make a cute couple._ Feeling flushed, I looked down at my phone. _Shit. I have to go. I_m gonna be late getting back to the office._ _Way to escape the uncomfortable convo._ I laughed as I got up from the table and dropped a twenty in front of her. _That should more than cover me. I_ll call you. Let_s do this again soon._ * * * When I returned, Cynthia asked if I could accompany one of our potential investors, Neil Spectra, around the city for the remainder of the afternoon. She was supposed to do it, but apparently had gotten called home for a family emergency. Neil was the son of Albert Spectra, a multimillionaire who_d contributed generously to the arts over the years. Word was that Albert_s wife, Ginny, had recently passed and had requested that a portion of her money go to one of the two major ballet companies in New York. But it was apparently up to her son, Neil, to decide which company would receive the funds. We visited a new exhibit at the Met. Then he expressed interest in going for coffee after so he could ask me some questions about our company. I suggested the Starbucks near my apartment so I wouldn_t be late getting home. Neil had a driver, so I wasn_t really putting him out. Once we got to Starbucks, though, it seemed Neil was more interested in learning about me than City Ballet. _Carys, I hope it_s okay that Cynthia told me a bit about your history with City_s competitor, The Manhattan Ballet. I was intrigued to learn about your background._ _Yes, I have fond memories of my time there both as a dancer and behind the scenes._ _I was kind of hoping since you have experience with both companies that I could pick your brain._ Feeling unsure about where this was going, I nodded as I sipped my latte. _Sure._ He clasped his hands together. _This decision is very important to me. It meant a lot to my mother. She grew up in this city with very humble beginnings, and one of the rare luxuries was going to the ballet with her grandmother. Ballet got her through some rough times when her mother_my grandmother_was sick. So, as you know, in her will, she asked that a major donation be made to the company of our choosing._ _If you don_t mind my asking, why do you think she would be opposed to splitting it between the two ballet companies?_ _I_m not entirely sure. I guess, perhaps, she figured a higher amount given to one company could make a bigger difference. She asked that it go to the company we felt deserved it the most. I have to follow her wishes._ _I see._ _I_m not as well-versed in the arts as my mother was. But my father tasked me with overseeing this decision. I_ve learned a lot by visiting the two companies, and this experience has given me a greater appreciation for something my mother loved so dearly._ _Well, we_re extremely grateful for your consideration. I think it_s safe to say there_s no wrong decision._ He took a sip of his espresso. _I have to tell you, you_re a lot more gracious than your competitor._ _Why do you say that?_ _The gentleman I spoke with over there seemed to point out all the reasons I shouldn_t give my money to City, rather than trying to sell me on why his company was the best fit. Turned me off a little, to be honest._ Charles. I knew it had to be him, but I didn_t dare mention his name so as not to have to get personal with Neil. _Anyway, today has been a_refreshing change,_ he said. _And that_s due mostly to you._ He was definitely giving me a vibe that he might be interested in more than just my expertise on the ballet. A couple of minutes later, I was surprised to see Deacon walk in. Well, it shouldn_t have been a surprise. He hit this Starbucks daily, but it was rare for me to be in here. When Deacon spotted me, his eyes went wide. _Carys_hey._ He turned to Neil and extended his hand. _I_m Deacon, Carys_s neighbor._ _Neil Spectra._ Deacon nodded a few times before he turned to me. _I didn_t expect to see you here at this time of day. Thought you were across town at work._ _I am_at work, actually. Neil is a potential investor. So this is a business meeting. We just had it here so I could get home in time._ _It is a work meeting,_ Neil interjected. _But Carys has done a tremendous job of making me forget this is still business. She_s a joy to be around._ Deacon stared at Neil for a few seconds. _I_d have to agree with you._ He looked at me and nodded. _Well, I_ll let you get back to your meeting. Just gonna grab a cappuccino and head back._ _Okay__ I smiled. _See you later._ Deacon proceeded to the line. Was it my imagination, or was this run-in a little awkward? My eyes wandered to where Deacon stood at the register. He seemed fidgety as he waited for his drink. I wondered if it bothered him to see me with Neil. Maybe that was wishful thinking. A few minutes later, Neil was talking when Deacon walked past us with his coffee. Rather than interrupt to say goodbye, he winked at me before heading out the door. My eyes lingered on the exit. I wondered if Deacon thought there was something going on between Neil and me. It was as if Neil could read my mind. _So, I hope this doesn_t come across as inappropriate, Carys, but I_ve really enjoyed your company and was wondering if perhaps before I return to Palm Beach next week you might let me take you to dinner?_ Oh boy. Neil was decently attractive, smart, and successful. It was tempting to take him up on his offer. But there was no point, especially since he didn_t even live here. And mixing business with pleasure was never a good idea, as I_d learned the hard way. _That_s really nice of you to offer, and I_m flattered, but I don_t think I have the availability. Not sure if Cynthia mentioned it, but I have an infant daughter. I_m a single mother. So, it_s not easy for me to get childcare on a whim._ His eyes widened, and for the first time today, Neil seemed speechless. _Cynthia hadn_t mentioned that, no,_ he finally said. _You_re so young. I never imagined__ _Yeah. She was a surprise._ I could_ve used this opportunity to tell him the man he_d met with over at our competitor was also the deadbeat father of my daughter, but I didn_t. And Neil didn_t try to convince me to go out with him after my revelation. Apparently having a child was enough of a deterrent. We stayed at Starbucks for the better part of the next hour as the conversation moved back to business. He grilled me about my history as a dancer and asked for my honest opinion about how the money might be put to use at both companies. When five o_clock finally rolled around, I was relieved to have to walk only a block down the street to get home. Once I got to my door, I was surprised to hear music playing inside my apartment. And not just any music. The song was an old one: _How Deep is Your Love_ by the Bee Gees. The Bee Gees? I only knew them because my mother had loved disco when I was growing up. I assumed maybe Sharon had a thing for the seventies until I opened the door and saw Deacon standing there. The music came from his phone. What the hell? CHAPTER 10 Deacon THE BIRTHDAY GIFT After I_d returned to my apartment, I couldn_t stop thinking about Carys and that guy in Starbucks. Fuck. Why had it bothered me so damn much? Seeing her with a dude who looked like he wanted to eat her up definitely got under my skin. I_d always told myself nothing could come of my attraction to Carys, yet I seemed unable to turn off the jealousy. That was messed up, because it couldn_t work both ways. That old saying came to mind again. You can_t have your cake and eat it, too, Deacon. It may have been a business thing, but there was no way Carys was walking away from that meeting without an invitation for something more. And why wouldn_t she take it? He looked like he had his shit together. It was only a matter of time before she started dating, anyway. As her friend, I_d have to suck up my feelings on that. She had needs_as her masturbation book had proven. What I_d neglected to tell her back then was that she needed a good fuck more than any self-service, whether she realized it or not. I just couldn_t be the one to give it to her. But I wasn_t going to encourage her to go out and get it from some asshole who didn_t deserve her, either. My coffee was cold, and I_d tried to force myself to get some work done, but I couldn_t concentrate. Although it wasn_t because I was thinking about Carys anymore. It was Sunny. She wouldn_t stop crying. Sharon was next door with her, so I knew she was in good hands. But when the crying hadn_t stopped after a full thirty minutes, I_d decided to head over there to make sure everything was okay. Sharon had opened the door looking completely frazzled. We_d met once before, so she knew who I was, and Carys had always told her to call me in the event of an emergency. She_d thrown her free hand up, carrying Sunny with her other arm. _I can_t get her to stop crying. I_ve changed her diaper. Fed her. I don_t understand. She hasn_t done this before._ I pressed the back of my hand to Sunny_s forehead. _What_s up, Sunny?_ She didn_t feel hot or anything. I took her from Sharon. Her crying slowed before it eventually stopped. _Oh no you don_t. We can_t go down this road. There needs to be another way to get you to stop._ Sharon seemed amused. _Does she always stop crying when you hold her?_ _Most of the time, yeah._ _That_s so cute._ _It is until you can_t put her down._ When I placed her in the swing, the crying started again. I was determined to help Sharon find a solution that didn_t involve me picking Sunny up. I took out my phone and scrolled over to my music-streaming app. Kneeling down next to Sunny, I said, _We_re gonna find something you like._ Song after song, nothing seemed to stop the crying_until I got to the seventies station. _Stayin_ Alive_ by the Bee Gees was on. Little Sunny_s eyes went wide as she listened. I started bopping my head to the music and watched as she fell silent and remained content. _Did we find a winner?_ Sharon asked. When the song ended, a Donna Summer tune started, and Sunny wasn_t having it. She started wailing. So I tried a little experiment. I pulled up the same Bee Gees_ song on YouTube, and sure enough, Sunny stopped crying again. When it ended, the next video was another song by a different artist. Again, she started crying. The Bee Gees definitely had a unique sound. I wondered if it was the song she liked or the pitch of their voices. So I pulled up _How Deep is Your Love,_ a slower ballad. Sunny again quieted and listened intently. No shit? This is gold. At that point, I downloaded the whole freaking Best of the Bee Gees album onto my phone. Then Carys walked in. I couldn_t imagine what she was thinking. She looked concerned. _What_s going on? Why are you here, Deacon?_ _Deacon is a genius,_ Sharon said. _He figured out that Sunny likes the Bee Gees. Listening to their music keeps her from crying. He heard her from next door and came over to help._ _Well, she stopped crying when I picked her up, but I didn_t want to encourage that habit,_ I explained. _Decided to try something new. But the only thing she likes is the Bee Gees, apparently._ Carys_s mouth hung open. _The Bee Gees? They_re ancient! What made you think of that?_ _It was luck,_ I said. _They just happened to come on. That_s when she calmed down._ _That_s so bizarre. But_thank you for figuring it out._ _I downloaded their whole best-of album. I_ll get it for you, too, so you have it._ After Sharon left, we kept the album playing. Carys walked over to the swing to kiss Sunny_s head. She then kicked off her heels and plopped down on the couch, putting her feet up on the coffee table. I had to the urge to grab her feet and massage them, but I refrained. _What a day._ She sighed. _As in bad?_ _That guy you saw me with is a huge potential investor. Cynthia sprung him on me because she had a family emergency. It_s been nerve-wracking trying to make a good impression._ _It seemed to me he felt you made an excellent impression._ _Yeah, so much so that he asked me out._ I swallowed. _Really?_ She nodded. _But that interest got squelched as soon as I mentioned I had a baby._ Despite my jealousy, I was actually offended for her, which seemed hypocritical coming from me_a guy who didn_t want kids. My fist tightened. _He said something negative?_ _No, no. Nothing like that. But his tone changed. It went from flirtatious to a bit more guarded._ She waved her hand dismissively. _It doesn_t matter. I wouldn_t have gone out with him anyway._ I shouldn_t have been thrilled to hear that. I should_ve wanted her to find someone who could make her happy. Instead, my selfish ass was relieved that she wanted nothing to do with that rich prick. _I need a drink the size of my head tonight,_ she said. _And I don_t even drink much._ _After Sunny goes to bed, you should have it. You deserve it._ She turned to me. _Hey_thank you for coming over to help today. That_s not your responsibility._ _Well, now that I know Sunny, it_s hard to ignore her when she_s crying. I_m just glad we discovered something that can pacify her._ Our eyes locked for a few moments before she asked, _Big plans tonight?_ I hesitated to answer. I did have plans_with a woman I_d met online. Couldn_t say I was too excited about it, though. _Uh_just dinner._ Her brow lifted. _Anyone interesting?_ _Not sure yet. The verdict is still out. Haven_t met her in person._ _Gotcha._ She played with some lint on the couch. _Well_if it doesn_t work out_you know_if she doesn_t make the cut to come back and_play Parcheesi, maybe you can stop by and have a late drink with me._ Play Parcheesi. I remembered I_d once used that as a metaphor for sex. _Yeah. Maybe,_ I answered, sweating a little and feeling oddly anxious. This felt different. Was it just in my head? Carys had no idea how badly I wished I could play Parcheesi with her tonight. * * * Her name was Allie, she worked for the city_s water board, and she liked karaoke bars. That was about all that registered. Everything else was in one ear and out the other. I would_ve loved to believe I just wasn_t that into her, but I knew it was more than that; I couldn_t stop thinking about Carys_her invite and whether I was going to take her up on it. Aside from that one dinner, our get-togethers were always during the day_innocent. Her inviting me over for a drink in the late evening felt different. Allie was attractive enough. If this were a different time, I might have taken her back to my place for a nightcap. But I had no interest in that tonight. Believe me, I wished I did. Finally, we came to the point in the evening where we needed to leave the restaurant and figure out the next step. Allie asked the question that forced me to make a decision. Out on the sidewalk, she flicked her curly blond hair to the side. _Would you be interested in seeing my apartment? It_s small but cozy. We could have drinks there instead of going somewhere else._ Code for: would you like to come back to my place and fuck? I could practically hear the ticking in my head as my brain formulated a response. _You know, I actually have an early appointment tomorrow. So I_d better head home._ _Oh._ Disappointment was written all over her face. _That_s too bad. I would_ve liked to hang out some more._ _Next time, maybe._ I forced a smile. _Yeah._ Her tone proved she knew there wouldn_t be a next time. Once I separated from Allie, I grabbed a cab back home. My palms were sweaty as I texted Carys from outside her door. I_d gone to her apartment many times, but somehow the vibe from earlier had stuck; it felt different this time. Deacon: Still up for that drink? A response came in almost immediately. Carys: Yes. Deacon: I_m outside your door. Didn_t want to knock and wake Sunny up. A few seconds later, she opened. _Hey._ _Hey._ I swallowed at the sight of her. Carys wore black leggings, showcasing her toned legs, and a vintage Bon Jovi T-shirt. Her hair was damp. She must have just come from the shower. My eyes wandered down to her bare feet. Her toes were painted a light pink, like the color of a ballerina slipper. Fitting. She wasn_t even trying to look good, and I couldn_t remember her ever looking as beautiful as she did right now. Fuck me. She blinked a few times as she looked up at me. _I didn_t think you_d come by._ Following her inside, I said, _Why not?_ _Just a feeling, I guess._ Conflicting emotions rushed through me as I towered over her, continuing to take her in. She was right in that I hadn_t been planning to come over. But she was wrong in probably assuming it was because I was more interested in hanging out with someone else. Just the opposite. Not only was I physically attracted to this woman, I connected with her in a way I_d never felt before. It scared me. _Did she get to bed okay?_ I asked. _Hmm?_ Carys seemed as much in a daze as I was. _Sunny. Did Sunny go down okay?_ _Oh. You mean after several full rounds of The Best of the Bee Gees? Yes._ _You_re welcome?_ I joked. Carys yawned as she laughed. _You said you_d be up for a drink, but I have a feeling I_m late to the party._ She shook her head. _I think my body is tired, even though my brain isn_t. This day is just catching up with me. But I have no desire to sleep. Not sure I feel like a drink this late, though._ She rolled her eyes. _God, I_m twenty-five, and I sound like such an old lady._ _Twenty-five? Am I missing something? When did you turn twenty-five?_ She looked down at her feet. _Today._ What? My eyes widened. _Carys_today is your birthday?_ _Yes._ _Why didn_t you tell me?_ She shrugged. _Because I didn_t want you to feel obligated to hang out with me. I wanted you to choose to come over because you wanted to have a drink with me, not because you felt sorry for me on my birthday._ Wow. If I_d known, I would_ve definitely canceled my plans. _Confession__ I said. _Yeah?_ _I didn_t come for a drink,_ I admitted. _I came because I wanted to hang out with you. But if I_d known it was your birthday, I definitely would_ve been here earlier. We could_ve ordered Ichigo. I wish you would_ve told me._ That was the most honest I_d been about my feelings since we_d met. Maybe it was dangerous to admit I would_ve dropped everything for her tonight, but it was the damn truth. Carys blushed. _I_m sorry._ _Goddamnit, girl, you only turn a quarter of a century once._ Wracking my brain, I scratched my head before turning back toward the door. She followed. _Where are you going?_ _Don_t worry about it. I_ll be back in a few._ * * * I_d done the best I could on short notice. Hitting the two grocery stores within walking distance, I managed to find Carys a cake and a present. It still floored me that she was going to let this day pass without doing anything special. Carys looked down at the cake I_d found. It had probably been baked a few days ago. It had orange and blue frosting, which reminded me of the Florida Gators. If I_d had more time, I might have found a way to write Happy Birthday, Carys, but this would have to do. _So just imagine it says, _Happy birthday, Carys-Like-Paris_, okay?_ She smiled. _It_s the thought that counts, and it was an amazing gesture. Thank you._ We sat on the floor, eating directly off the cake with our forks. _This ain_t bad,_ I said with my mouth full. _Not sure I want to know where you even got a cake this late, but I have to say, it_s pretty damn good._ She had blue frosting stuck on her teeth, and I had the urge to take her mouth in mine and lick it off. Whoa. Distraction needed. Stat. I reached into my pocket and took out the gift card I_d purchased from the kiosk at the store. _There weren_t a lot of options. So I hope you can use this._ She took the gift card from me. _I love Macy_s. Maybe someday I_ll get a sitter for Sunny and spend the whole day shopping. That sounds divine._ She placed the gift card aside and stuck her fork in the cake. _You spent too much. You didn_t have to do that. You_ve made me feel incredibly special._ I stopped chewing. _You are special. You_ve become a really good friend._ There I was again, attempting to define our relationship, mainly as a means of reminding myself that I couldn_t cross the line, though I wanted to so desperately right now. She seemed to remember something. _Oh! I forgot! I actually have something for you, too._ Carys disappeared into her bedroom. She returned, holding something she_d apparently crocheted, but I couldn_t identify it. Carys smiled proudly. _Your little crochet story inspired me to give it another go._ She handed it to me. _I made this for you. Can you guess what it is?_ I didn_t want to insult her. But it didn_t look like_anything. A tiny umbrella slipcover? What the hell was it? Actually, to be honest, it looked like a_cock sock. _Is it a crocheted condom?_ I finally asked. She covered her mouth. _Oh my God._ Looking over at it, she said, _Actually, you_re right. That_s exactly what it looks like. Shit. But no._ _So, it_s not a cock sock?_ I teased. _It_s a cover for your pan handles! You said you burn your hands on your cheap frying pans. I made you a little cover for them. I thought I was being clever. It was also easy to make compared to the hat I_d been failing at. I actually found someone who made these online, and she listed instructions. But apparently, I made you something else._ She was so fucking sweet. I couldn_t believe she remembered I_d even said that about my damn pans. _Actually, that_s really cool. Who knew there was such a thing? Thank you for thinking of me. And I promise not to try it on for size._ Carys turned red and hopped off the couch. _Maybe we should have that drink, yeah? I feel like I_m getting a second wind._ Licking the frosting off my lips, I agreed. _Okay. Yup._ She retreated to the kitchen and brought out a large bottle of pink champagne. _This is my last one. I_ve had two bottles chilling in there for months_since before Sunny was born. The first one I opened the night I found out I got the job. Just not sure how to open this without waking Sunny._ I took the bottle from her. _Let me take it next door and open it over there._ _Good thinking._ She smiled. After I returned with the open bottle, we settled into the couch with our respective flutes. _So__ She took a long sip and swallowed. _If you_re here_then obviously your date didn_t go as well as you might have hoped._ It upset me that she thought she was someone I only turned to when things went wrong. Of course, I_d given her that impression. _Actually__ The words were at the tip of my tongue_that I_d specifically canceled the date early because I wanted to come here instead. I thought better of admitting that, though. _Yeah. The date was just_meh._ Feeling more comfortable with each sip, I lay back into the couch and put my feet up. She did the same from her spot at the other end of the sofa, her bare toes taunting me. Toes were not normally something that attracted me. But this girl_s toes? I wanted to take each and every one into my mouth and devour them. Fuck. I needed help. Carys downed the last of her bubbly before setting the glass down on the corner of the coffee table. Then she stared up at the ceiling and said, _You know_I used to imagine where I_d be at twenty-five. My life looks nothing like that. But I_m okay with it._ I turned to her. _You should be. You_re doing everything right. You_re an amazing mother, and your career is thriving. You_ve accomplished more than most people your age._ She smiled over at me, then stared into space for several seconds. _What are you thinking about?_ I asked. _Neil_the guy you saw me with today_he mentioned that when he went to our competitor, The Manhattan Ballet, the man he spoke with over there was basically badmouthing us._ It hit me. _Sunny_s father__ She nodded. _Yeah._ _What an asshole._ She sighed. _I talk a lot about how he abandoned his daughter, but I don_t often deal with my feelings about what he did to me. And hearing that today opened up so many old wounds._ Anger filled me at the thought of how he_d hurt her. I wanted to beat the shit out of him. _You want to talk about it?_ _Not really. I wish I wasn_t focusing on him tonight, but the more I think about what he might have said to Neil, the more it enrages me. I_m sure he knows I work for City Ballet now. You_d think, at the very least, he wouldn_t try to jeopardize a company that_s basically the hand that feeds his child._ My fists tightened. _It_s one thing to be competitive and want to win. It_s another to knock someone else down._ _Exactly._ She exhaled and shook her head. _Anyway, I_m sorry. I shouldn_t have brought him up._ _It_s okay. You need to get it out. You can vent to me anytime._ She closed her eyes a moment. _I hadn_t had a lot of experience when I got involved with him. I had one boyfriend in high school back in Jersey, but my focus was always on dancing. After I moved to New York, I dated a little, but never anyone exclusively. Charles was my first serious relationship, the first man I gave my heart to. It_s going to be a very long time before I trust someone again because of my experience with him. The problem is, I__ She shook her head. _Never mind._ _Don_t stop. What were you gonna say?_ _It_s a little bit TMI._ Now she really had me curious. _TMI? Are you forgetting the circumstances under which we first got to know each other? I_m the TMI king, remember? Nothing is off the table, Carys._ Her face turned red before my eyes. Then she finally said, _Okay_what I was going to say is_I really miss having sex. Unfortunately, I can_t have it without a man. And I_m in no place to trust one right now, so I_m not likely to let a man into my life long enough to have sex. It_s a conundrum._ My dick hardened, and my heart began to race. _How long has it been exactly? _Well, do the math. Sunny is nine months. I was pregnant with her for nine. So, eighteen months?_ Jesus. I_d always assumed she hadn_t been with anyone since Sunny was born, but I really hadn_t done the math. I couldn_t imagine going more than a few months without sex. But a year and a half? That would kill me. I swallowed hard. _That_s a long fucking time, yeah._ _And the worst part is, something happened with my hormones after I had Sunny. They went crazy, and I_ve been hornier than ever. As you now know from my unfortunate book order, I struggle with getting myself off. Because there_s nothing like human touch. So I_m in this constant state of frustration._ Fuck. Me. Hearing her say that made me practically cream my pants. I_d never been more turned on by a conversation in my life. It felt like my hormones were raging worse than a teenage boy on Viagra. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than to make her come. Right here and now. _Have I stunned you into silence?_ she asked. God knows how many seconds went by. But I knew the reason I kept my mouth shut: the words begging to be said were dangerous. If I spoke, they were going to come out. As the seconds wore on, the need to say them became unbearable. My voice was barely audible. _I could give you an orgasm_if you want._ She turned to me suddenly. _What?_ Clearing my throat, I said, _I could make you come. We wouldn_t have sex, but I can give you a damn good orgasm._ It was like I_d lost my damn mind. She moved back a little. _I_m not some charity case, Deacon._ Shit. She_d taken it the wrong way. _No. I didn_t mean to imply that this was about charity. It_s not. Let me rephrase._ I took a deep breath and exhaled. _I would love to give you an orgasm._ Carys stared at me in disbelief. _That_s not why I told you about my issue_so you would offer to get me off. I was just venting. I__ _I know. I know you weren_t expecting me to say what I just did. Honestly, I can hardly believe it myself. But all I could think when you told me you wanted an orgasm is that I_really want to give it to you._ You could cut the tension with a knife as she just continued to stare at me. My heart pounded, hoping I hadn_t made a huge mistake, one that would cost us our friendship. She blinked several times. _I appreciate the offer. But I would feel weird saying yes. Because it would be one-sided if you gave me an orgasm, and we weren_t having sex._ So, let_s fuck then, a voice inside my head suggested. Actually, that voice was likely coming from below the belt. As much as I wanted that, going there would be too dangerous. _You underestimate the enjoyment a man gets from pleasuring a woman._ It was like someone had removed every shred of sense from me tonight. My words were completely bypassing my brain. _I can_t let you do it._ Her face was beet red. I didn_t want to make her uncomfortable, and it seemed I had. Now was the time to drop it. _Okay. Fair enough. I_m sorry if I crossed a line._ She let out a long, shaky breath and closed her eyes. _No. You didn_t. It_s okay._ I watched her as she stayed in that meditative state. I wondered what she was thinking, but I was too afraid to ask. It was better if I said nothing at this point. My mouth had already gotten me into enough trouble. After a while, she turned to me. _Are we supposed to just go back to normal conversation right now?_ _We can try._ I forced a smile. _I_ll go first._ Clearing my throat, I asked, _So how was Sunny tonight when you put her to bed?_ _You asked me that earlier._ _That_s true._ I scratched my chin. _Fuck. Okay. Did you see they_re raising the rent? _Yeah. That sucks._ _This isn_t working, is it?_ _No._ She laughed nervously. _Not in the least._ CHAPTER 11 Carys USE ME Deacon and I ended up putting on a movie_some old Jason Bateman comedy on HBO_but I hadn_t heard a word of it. The vibe was completely awkward. He_d shocked me with his proposition. His expression was stoic as he watched the movie alongside me. I couldn_t tell what he was thinking, whether he was unaffected or disappointed by my refusal of his offer. I, on the other hand, couldn_t stop thinking about it, and I wasn_t sure if that would ever change. Would I be able to think about anything else around him ever again? But the bigger question was: why did I not entertain his suggestion? It wasn_t like I had any other gorgeous men knocking down my door. I trusted Deacon, and I knew he meant well in wanting to _help_ me. His intention wasn_t to hurt me. He cared about me and wanted to offer me a safe way to get off without involving a stranger. I spent the next several minutes making a case to change my mind as the movie played in the background. My brain went in circles. How exactly did he plan to get me off? Was he going to use his mouth? Stop thinking about it. It would ruin your friendship. But oh my God. What would it be like? As uncomfortable as I was, I could feel myself getting wet at the thought of what might_ve been. It was past midnight now. The movie was nearing the end. When I looked over at Deacon this time, I realized he hadn_t been staring at the screen. He was looking at me. When he realized I_d caught him staring, he started to apologize. _I_m sorry if I fucked up, Carys. I__ _I want it,_ I blurted. His jaw fell. _You want_what?_ My breathing was erratic. _You_re gonna make me say it?_ He straightened in his seat. _Yeah. I need to hear you say it._ My words came out in a whisper. _I want you to make me come._ His breath hitched. _You sure?_ I looked into his eyes so he knew I was serious. _Yes._ His breathing grew heavier. Now I had no doubt he was turned on. It wasn_t just me. _You have to promise me something,_ he said, turning his whole body toward me. _Okay,_ I said shakily, my palms sweating, so nervous but wanting him more by the second. _Don_t overthink it. Just lie back and relax. Don_t think about anything but enjoying it. And after you come, I_m gonna leave. No awkward talk. I_m gonna pleasure you, and that_s all there is to it. And when we see each other again, we don_t need to talk about it or analyze it. Promise me that first._ Beyond the point of no return, I would have agreed to just about any terms now. _I promise._ _Good. Because turning something that_s supposed to make you feel good into something that makes you anxious or worried is counterproductive._ _I get what you_re saying._ Trying hard to reassure him, I nodded. _I_m good._ Looking deeply into my eyes, he confirmed it one last time. _You sure?_ _Yes._ After a long pause he finally said, _Let_s go to your room._ He stood, reaching out his hand. With my heart pounding in my chest, I took hold of him as he led me into my dark bedroom. He didn_t turn on the lights, but there was enough light coming in through the window to see him. Is this really happening? My knees shook as I sat down on the bed, feeling a mix of nervousness and excitement, the muscles between my legs giving new meaning to the term eager beaver. I had no idea what Deacon was going to do to me; I just knew I was going to let him do it and that my body was incredibly excited, as nervous as I was. Apparently my nerves were obvious. He placed his hand on my legs to still them. _You okay?_ _Yes, I promise. I am._ His voice was low and gravelly. _Is there anything that_s off limits? Anywhere you don_t want me to touch you or anything you don_t want me to do?_ His words alone were unraveling me, never mind anything he might do. _No. Do anything you want._ He closed his eyes briefly, as if to compose himself. Standing at the side of my bed, he whispered, _Lie back._ Deacon_s eyes were glassy as he looked down at me. He placed his large, warm hand on my stomach and moved it lower to pull down my leggings. After he slid them off, goosebumps peppered the skin on my thighs. He sat at the edge of the bed as he rubbed my legs. _You_re cold. Let_s warm you up._ As he ran his calloused palm along my legs, I practically melted into my mattress. His touch felt so damn good_not to mention surreal. It had been so long since I_d been touched by a man. But being touched like this by Deacon? It was my ultimate fantasy come true. After a few minutes, I felt his fingers grip the elastic band of my panties. Then he slowly worked to move them down. My clit was already throbbing, and he hadn_t even touched it yet. _Take your shirt off._ The demanding tone in his voice made me quiver. I lifted my T-shirt over my head but kept my bra on, mainly because it was the only article of clothing I had left. Deacon lowered his head and gently kissed down the length of my stomach. If I_d thought his hands felt good, that was nothing compared to his mouth. The stubble on his chin was rough against my skin. Then I felt his fingers at my opening. It was almost embarrassing how wet I was. _Jesus Christ, Carys._ _What?_ I asked stupidly. _You_re so wet. It_s beautiful._ As soon as I felt his fingers pushing inside, my body clenched. It had been so long. My muscles were tight, and it actually burned a little. But within seconds, he was fingering me with ease. Then he added his thumb to the mix, circling and pressing on my clit, and I knew it wouldn_t be long before my body gave in to this. I could hear the sound of my own wetness as he moved his fingers in and out, landing so deep each time he pushed in. He_d barely done it for a minute, and I could_ve come if I let myself. Deacon_s eyes were on my face the entire time. He seemed fixated on watching me come undone. He reached for my chest. I felt a nudge on my bra before his fingers fumbled around the material. _Front or back?_ After a brief thought that maybe he was asking how I wanted to take him, I realized he wanted to know where the opening of my bra was. My nipples hardening, I unhooked it from the front and tossed it to the floor. He pulled his fingers out of me suddenly, and my clit throbbed harder than before, longing for his return. Deacon moved to hover over me, one leg on each side of my body. He was so much bigger than me, and I loved the feeling of being locked in under him. He lowered his mouth to my nipple. The sexiest groan escaped him when he took it into his mouth. His teeth nipped at my tender bud, and I grabbed the back of his head, pushing him into my breast as he sucked my nipple harder. My fingers raked through his silky, thick hair. I writhed beneath him as my body longed for more. And then he gave it to me. He lowered his hand and pushed his fingers back inside of me, moving them in and out in a rhythm that complemented the way he sucked my breasts. It nearly did me in when he mumbled over my skin, _Fuck me. You_re even wetter than before. Amazing._ Pausing, he looked up at me. _You_re amazing._ Even in my lust-induced haze, I warned myself to take those words with a grain of salt, given the circumstances. And now he was doing that circling thing with his thumb again, rubbing my arousal over my clit, which felt ready to explode. But if I thought that was the pinnacle, I was wrong. Because when he pulled his fingers out and stopped sucking my breasts, Deacon slid his head lower and lower until it was right between my legs. I hadn_t been sure he was going to go there. I_d REALLY hoped he would. And it seemed he was. Oh God. He spread my knees apart, and at the first touch of his tongue to my clit, I let out an unidentifiable sound_certainly not one I remembered making before. He groaned in response against my tender flesh. _You taste so good, Carys. I_ve always wanted to fucking taste you._ His words vibrated through my core. Then he lapped at me faster, pressing his tongue harder against my clit. It felt like my body was here, but my mind had been transported to some other realm. There was no more concern about how I looked, how wet I might have been. I was too far gone now, gripping Deacon_s head and guiding his movements as his tongue pushed all the way inside of me and he massaged my clit with the top of his jaw. _That_s it. Grab my head. Show me what you like. Use me,_ he muttered. Use me. I nearly came. Instead, I clenched hard and pulled his hair in an effort to prolong this, because I never wanted it to end. His breathing and the sounds emanating from him continued to prove this wasn_t merely an act of kindness. He was losing it right along with me, and I wanted nothing more than to give him the same satisfaction he was giving me. I gasped. Holy shit. After a few minutes of hanging on for dear life, I panted, _I want to feel you inside of me, Deacon._ I could hardly believe those words had escaped me. But I guess when you need something badly enough, you have no choice but to ask for it. Despite the fact that I_d just begged him to fuck me, he didn_t budge. If anything, he buried his face deeper between my legs. Had he not heard me? Or was he pretending he hadn_t? I didn_t want to presume anything, so I chose not to repeat my request, as desperate as I was to be fucked by him. He slid his mouth down farther and began to fuck me again with his tongue. I gripped the sheets for dear life, because I knew this was going to be the end of me. His beard scratched against my ass as he continued moving his tongue in and out of me, stopping only long enough to say, _Fucking hell. I can_t get enough of this._ The muscles between my legs contracted. I was losing it. And he knew. _Come. Come all over my mouth. Give it all to me._ Those final words were enough to push me over the edge. I bucked my hips, circling my clit against the pressure of his tongue as a rush of adrenaline hit. It was painful to keep quiet as my orgasm coursed through me_more like barreled through me. Waves and waves of pleasure rocketed throughout my body. When I fully released it all, Deacon was still lapping his tongue slowly over my flesh, as if to eat up every last drop of the evidence. My body was blissfully limp as I recovered from the single most erotic experience of my life_one I knew I wouldn_t get over anytime soon. Eventually, Deacon kissed up to my stomach. He hadn_t kissed me on the mouth once. I assumed it was some sort of boundary he_d set, an attempt at not pushing what had happened into intimate territory. I longed for at least one kiss, though, my lips practically trembling from the starvation. But I was too high to let that disappoint me right now. Because I_d just had the best damn orgasm of my life. When Deacon moved off the bed, even in the darkness, I could see the bulge in his jeans. I knew he had to be hard, but actually seeing it, the proof that he was aroused, pleased me. My body could have immediately gone for round two. I longed to lie naked with him, to do so much more. But that wasn_t happening. When he leaned down toward me, he placed a gentle peck on my forehead and said, Filtered some sleep._ How does one even respond after the kind of orgasm he_d just given me? There was really only one thing to say. _Thank you._ _Happy birthday, beautiful,_ he said. Then he walked away and slowly shut the door behind him. Happy birthday, indeed. * * * The next morning, the faint smell of Deacon_s cologne lingered on my sheets. Desire pooled in me all over again. As I forced myself out of bed, I could still feel his mouth on me. Once my feet found the cold bedroom floor, though, everything hit me like a ton of bricks. Holy shit. Deacon went down on me last night. He gave me an orgasm_on my birthday_then left like a bat out of hell. How would I ever look at him again? How would I ever have a casual conversation, stare at his lips and not remember what they felt like between my legs while his tongue was inside of me? How could I ever forget the way he groaned when he was pleasuring me, as if he_d been starving for it? Or the fact that he told me I was amazing while he sucked on my breasts and fingered me? God, his words. His freaking words. Use me. Use me. Use me. I walked across the apartment to Sunny_s room in a daze. She was awake but quiet, which was rare. _Thank you for sleeping in this morning, baby girl. Because Mommy really needed it._ My brain felt foggy. After I changed Sunny, I brought her out to the kitchen and placed her in the highchair. A few minutes later, my phone chimed. Deacon: Morning. What the heck do I say? Carys: Good morning. The little dots danced as he typed. Deacon: You okay? I wasn_t sure whether he was being polite or really wanted to know what I was thinking this morning. I wanted to type a diatribe about my feelings, how I was scared things would never be the same, how I couldn_t stop thinking about him, how I craved the return of his mouth, yet I opted for a simpler response. Carys: Yeah. I_m great. Deacon: Good. Just making sure. What else could I say? Thanks again for last night? Instead of making a fool of myself, I didn_t text back. And neither did he. CHAPTER 12 Deacon THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM My friend Adrian waved a hand in front of my face. _Hey, man. What_s up? You seem distracted._ Adrian was one of the few close friends I had here in New York. When I first got to town three years ago, he and I had randomly met in Bryant Park and struck up a conversation. At the time, I_d been staying at a hotel while I apartment hunted. He ended up giving me a room until I could find a permanent place. He was probably my best friend now. But I_d never mentioned Carys to him, mainly because he was so good at seeing through me. It had been two days since Carys_s birthday _surprise,_ and I decided to take Adrian up on his offer to meet for lunch just to get out of the damn apartment. I looked down at the menu in front of me and brushed off his concern. _It_s nothing._ _If you say so. But if you wanna talk about it, I_m here._ I let out a long breath. If I couldn_t talk about it with Adrian, who could I open up to? _I fucked up,_ I finally said, closing the menu and sliding it away. _Okay. Be more specific._ _I crossed the line with someone I shouldn_t have._ _Someone meaning a woman, I take it._ _Yeah, one who_s supposed to be a good friend. That_s the fucked-up part._ _So you crossed the line with a friend? That_s a tale as old as time, man. Nothing wrong with going out of the friend zone if it feels right. You_re an adult._ _There_s more to it than that. This girl_she_s different. She_s been through a lot. And she deserves someone who has his shit together, someone who_ll be there for her and Sunny long term. I_m not that person._ _Wait__ He narrowed his eyes. _Sunny? Who_s Sunny?_ _Her daughter._ _Ah. She_s got a kid._ He now seemed to understand why this was complicated. _How old?_ _Nine months._ His eyes went wide. _A baby?_ I chuckled at his reaction. _Yeah._ _Where_s the father?_ _He_s not in the picture. He left when he found out she was pregnant. Sounds like a real gem. Went back to his ex-wife._ _What_s this chick_s name?_ _Carys_with a C._ I smiled. _Carys like Paris._ _That_s different._ _Yeah, so is she_in a good way._ He squinted. _You really like her. I can tell. I haven_t heard you talk about a woman like this since I met you._ I pondered his words. _She and I have a strong connection. We also have a lot in common. She was a ballet dancer before an injury took her out._ _Oh, shit, like you._ He laughed. _Well, not the ballet part. But same idea._ _Yeah, so we can relate to each other. But also, we just jibe, you know? Our conversations are comfortable and easy. She_s beautiful on the inside and out. And the way she handles everything life_s thrown at her? It_s like the personification of grace under fire._ A look of amusement crossed his face. _Yeah, you don_t like this chick at all._ Though my feelings were apparently transparent, I shook my head and laughed in an attempt to brush off his statement. _And her daughter is a sweet little thing. Even in the short time I_ve known them, Sunny_s gotten used to me. She knows me. That_s dangerous. I don_t want her to wonder where I am when I inevitably stop coming around._ I sighed. _It_s just hard because they_re right next door._ _Shit, okay. This is your neighbor. The one you mentioned having coffee with._ _Yup._ _I hadn_t put two and two together._ Adrian looked perplexed. _So, we never really talked about this, but why is the kid thing a problem? You don_t want to be a dad someday? Or is it just that you don_t want to be a dad to someone else_s kid?_ The thought of rejecting Sunny because she wasn_t my blood hurt my heart a little. It wasn_t about that. This was about me, not her. She deserved better. _I made a decision a long time ago not to have kids._ I had my reasons; I just preferred not getting into them right now_maybe ever. _Why?_ _Just a personal decision. If I know I don_t want kids, it_s not fair to get involved with a woman whose entire life is her daughter._ _So if you feel that way, what happened? You just slipped?_ He leaned in and whispered, _You fucked her?_ _Actually, no. Things didn_t go that far. But they shouldn_t have gone as far as they did._ _What kind of stuff did you do?_ For some reason, I didn_t feel comfortable telling him. It felt like I was exploiting what had happened somehow, which was weird because I never hesitated to talk about sex. But I felt protective of Carys. I wasn_t going to kiss and tell. I held my palm up. _It doesn_t matter what we did. I just don_t think I can look at her the same way now. That really sucks, because I don_t want to lose her friendship._ He scratched his chin. _If you didn_t live right next door, it would be easier to avoid her._ _That_s the problem. I don_t want to fucking avoid her. I just don_t want to mess things up any more than I already have._ _You think she has feelings for you?_ Deep down, I believed she did. _Possibly._ For a long time, I hadn_t been sure. But lately, even before her birthday night, there was something about the way she looked at me_probably the same way I looked at her. And what happened between us had confirmed that she was attracted to me, at the very least. For as long as I lived, I would never forget her begging me to fuck her. Pretending not to have heard that in the moment was nearly impossible, and I_d thought about little else since. My mind kept wandering back to her words, to the need in her voice. I_d spent that entire night hard, even after I jacked off. I_d stayed up until morning, unable to forget how she tasted, still savoring her on my tongue and smelling her on my body. And right now, I was nearly hard again just thinking about it. Adrian snapped me out of my thoughts. _Well, if you think she has feelings for you, and if you_re a hundred-percent sure you don_t want anything more than a friendship, continuing to be around her is a recipe for disaster. You can_t have it both ways, you know? Sounds like you_ve reached the point of no return. You can_t go back to being friends once you_ve crossed the line with a woman. Speaking from experience, it just doesn_t work. You can_t have your cake and eat it, too._ There was that fucking saying again. It kept haunting me. Except now, the word eating conjured up images of her sweet pussy. My jeans tightened. I shook my head. _I don_t want to lose her as a friend, but I also don_t think I can forget what happened between us._ _I don_t think you have a choice. You already did ruin the friendship. Honestly, was it ever really _just a friendship_ if you were attracted to her from the beginning?_ He had a point. From almost the first day I_d hung out with Carys, I_d had to fight my attraction to her. _So how do I handle it?_ _You stop trying to be her friend. I hate to say it, but this is a _shit or get off the pot_ situation. If you continue to stick around, you will cross the line again. Someone_s gonna get hurt._ Adrian was a straight shooter; he was seldom wrong. And I hated that I knew he was right in this case. It wasn_t fair to toy with Carys_s emotions. I wanted to be there for her if she needed me, but I needed to stop trying to get closer if I couldn_t trust myself. * * * Despite Adrian_s warning, when I passed Starbucks on the way home, I walked in and picked up a latte for Carys. My plan was to go over to her apartment and see if things seemed different between us. If they did, I_d know I_d fucked everything up beyond the point of no return. If by chance she acted normal, maybe that would mean I hadn_t totally ruined our friendship. Once I got to her apartment, I texted her from outside her door in case the baby was napping. A few seconds later, she opened. _Hey._ Her face seemed flushed. _Hey,_ I said. And there it was. Immediately. An unspoken energy that was different than what I normally felt. I handed her the coffee. She took it. _Thanks for this._ _You_re welcome._ After I entered, I looked down at my shoes for a moment. _After the other night, I, uh, wanted to come by and_see you_feel you up._ I shut my eyes and corrected, _Fuck. Out! Feel you out._ Jesus Christ. Not even a minute here, and I was already acting crazy. It was one thing to tell myself to act normal, but now that she was right in front of me, I was incapable of that. Her scent immediately fucked with my head, brought me back to my face buried in her pussy. I didn_t think I_d ever be able to smell her and not lose my mind again. I was a lost cause and an idiot for thinking things could go back to the way they were before. _I_m glad you came,_ she said, turning red. She shook her head. _I guess I_m speaking in ambiguous sexual phrases, too._ _What the fuck is wrong with us?_ I asked. When I noticed Sunny kicking her legs in the air on her playmat, I put my coffee down on the table and walked over. Kneeling down, I said, _Hey, Sunny Side Up. How ya doin_?_ I_d never been more grateful for Sunny_s presence, because it was just the buffer I needed right now. She cooed but didn_t cry to be held. I turned to Carys. _How_s Bee Gees therapy going?_ _It_s amazing. I had the album on a little while ago, and it put her in a really good mood. It_s a miracle. You see how she_s not even crying for you to hold her? I guess we weaned her off that habit._ _Who knew the answer was some high-pitched disco dudes all along?_ I stood up. _Glad to help._ About fifteen seconds of silence passed, but I swear it felt like fifteen minutes. Then we both started to speak over each other. _You first__ I told her. Then she said the dreaded words. _About the other night__ Here it comes. My heart started to pound. _Yeah__ _I don_t want things to be weird between us._ I let out a long breath, happy she_d articulated what I_d been struggling to. _Neither do, I, Carys._ _There_s no reason why they should be, right?_ She shrugged. _I mean, we_re both adults._ I forced honesty out of myself. _What happened_felt right at the time. In retrospect, I probably took things too far. I care about you and would never want to do anything to ruin our friendship._ She blinked several times and whispered, _It_s not ruined._ Relief washed over me, though I didn_t exactly believe her. I wanted to believe her. _I_m glad you said that. You have no idea how much._ Then my chest felt heavy again, because while the elephant in the room was no longer present, that unspoken tension remained. No matter what we told each other right now, something had changed. Our words weren_t coming as easily, and I could hardly look at her without remembering how she tasted. In fact, I could hardly look at her at all. Meanwhile, her eyes were on my lips. If coming over here was a test to see if things could feel _back to normal,_ we_d failed miserably. I had to give her credit for trying to convince herself our friendship could pick up where it left off. But it wasn_t working because I could see in her eyes that she felt the change in our dynamic, too. Adrian was right. He was damn right, and I didn_t know what to do about it. I ended up taking the cowardly way out. _Alright, well, I have a phone meeting with my supervisor. I just wanted to bring you your coffee and see how you_re doing._ _Thanks._ She smiled, but it seemed fake. Fuck. I walked over to Sunny. _Be good for your mama._ She took the toy she was biting on out of her mouth and flashed me a wide grin. Not sure why, but that smile kind of hurt this time. Maybe because deep down, I knew I_d be seeing it a lot less. That is, if I could stick to doing what I needed to. CHAPTER 13 Carys HE WASN_T ALONE I couldn_t believe I was thinking this, but I wished Deacon had never gone down on me. I wished I had never heard him groaning against me. I wished he_d never given me the most amazing orgasm of my life. I wished I could erase that night altogether, because nothing had been the same since. I wasn_t stupid. I knew he_d been keeping his distance since my birthday. It had been a week now, and it was clearer by the day that we_d ruined a perfectly good friendship. What bothered me the most was the sense of false hope I_d had after that night_that somehow Deacon would decide he wanted to be more than friends. Instead, I hadn_t seen or heard from him in days. Normally he would_ve stopped by with another coffee by now, but he had chosen to distance himself. Not sure I could blame him. The last time he was here, things were awkward. And I hated that. Things had never been that way before_sexually tense, maybe, but never awkward. Poor Sunny. As I sat ruminating about Deacon, I_d been feeding her mindlessly, causing some of the rice cereal to dribble down her chin. _I_m sorry, baby girl. Mommy_s mind is somewhere else today._ Thankfully, Sunny simply opened her mouth wider for the next bite. Didn_t take much to please her. After Sunny_s early-intervention therapist came for her visit that morning, I decided we needed to get out of the house. I found a _Mommy and Me_ class with drop-in availability in the afternoon, so I packed up a diaper bag and took my daughter out for a change of scenery. For an hour, I did yoga poses while holding Sunny, and she seemed to love it. I also got to talk to other moms, one of whom was single like me. It felt damn good to get out, and I vowed to do it more often. The only times I usually left the house were to go to the office or for some quick food shopping. That needed to change. After the session, I took Sunny to the neighborhood Starbucks. After wiping down the highchair, I fed her bananas while I sipped my latte. It had started to rain, so I was thankful we_d made it close to home before the weather got bad. It had been such a relaxing day. But that all ended when Deacon walked into the caf?. Raindrops covered the front window, so I_d had not even a few seconds_ warning before he entered. My heart beat faster as I watched him. The worst part? He wasn_t alone. I recognized the girl with him_Kendra, the redhead he_d taken back to his apartment at least once before. Why did this have to happen? Both times I_d come here recently I_d run into him. Maybe a part of me hoped to run into him. But certainly no part of me had hoped to run into him with her. When our eyes locked, I swallowed the tension in my throat. He had no choice but to come up to us, but I wished we could_ve bypassed this uncomfortable run-in altogether. I wished we were invisible. _Hey, Carys,_ he said stiffly. _Hi._ I could barely look at him. Instead, I looked at her. _Nice to see you again,_ I lied. It was pretty sad that looking at her was easier than looking at him. _You, too,_ she said. He placed his hand on Sunny_s head. _Hey, Sunny Side Up._ It broke my heart a little to see her face light up. That_s how I used to feel when I saw him, too. Sunny flailed her arms and legs in her highchair. _How long have you guys been here?_ he asked. _Not long._ My answer was curt, and I still didn_t look him in the eyes. I couldn_t help it. Seeing him with Kendra hurt, and I wasn_t in the mood for small talk. He likely sensed my disdain. _Well, I_ll let you two be,_ he said. _Enjoy._ _Yep,_ I said, still not making eye contact. I knew he hadn_t brought her around to hurt me, but it stung. He was spending time with her instead of me. I tortured myself by sneaking glances in their direction as they waited in line. When he took out his wallet to pay, my eyes zoned in on his big, strong hands. Hands that had touched me so intimately, hands that had made me feel things I_d never felt before. Hands that would be touching her later. The milk turned in my stomach as jealousy burned through me. * * * That evening, just when I_d thought my day couldn_t get any worse, the phone rang. I looked at the caller ID and realized it was Charles_Sunny_s father. Why is he calling? _Hello?_ _Carys__ _What do you want?_ _I wanted to congratulate you on City Ballet winning the donation from Neil Spectra._ _Thank you. You didn_t need to do that._ _I also wanted to see how you_re doing, in general._ Is he serious? _Why? You never normally care._ He sighed. _I know things have been rough between us for some time. That_s something I deeply regret._ I looked over at Sunny, who was peacefully swinging and oblivious to the fact that her _father_ was pulling some shit right now. I got a little choked up. _You should regret not acknowledging your daughter, aside from throwing money our way from time to time. That_s what you should regret._ _I know. And I do regret that. I really do._ _Well, it_s too late. You had your chance._ He paused. _I messed up royally._ _What_s the real reason for this call, Charles?_ After a short delay, he finally said, _I want to see her._ _Why? Why now?_ _Because she_s my daughter._ _Wait_you_re only now realizing this? I thought you didn_t want anything to do with her. You_re not even on the birth certificate, per your request._ _I know. I was scared, Carys. At the time, Violet had threatened to take everything if I acknowledged Sunny. She didn_t want Talia and Xavier to know. Still doesn_t. I handled everything wrong. I shouldn_t have given in to her._ _Why are you realizing this now?_ _Things have been bad at home. It_s become clear to me that I threw away everything with you for nothing. Not only did I make a mistake abandoning Sunny, but you, too. I really did love you, Carys. I don_t know what I was thinking going back to that woman when I had you. I was trying to save my family._ The nerve of him. _Oh, I see. You save one family by throwing the other one away. That makes perfect sense._ Is he seriously expecting me to be receptive to this bullshit? He was more than a little too late. _Please hear me out, Carys. I__ _I_m not sure what you expect me to say, Charles, but__ _Say you_ll speak to me._ His voice grew louder in my ear. _Say you won_t shut me out. Say you_ll consider letting me see my daughter._ Looking over at her, I felt conflicted. _I don_t know. I still have a lot of negative feelings toward you, and she_s very intuitive. She_ll be able to sense things. I don_t want negative energy around her. And I certainly don_t want you coming into her life only to leave again. I don_t trust you and never will._ _I have to accept that as my own fault. But please say you_ll consider talking to me again. Maybe that can eventually lead to my being able to see Sunny_on your terms._ _Are you going to tell your children about her? Because you shouldn_t be allowed to see her if you_re not willing to acknowledge her like you acknowledge them._ _You know it_s not my choice. Violet doesn_t want them to know. And I can see her point. They_re still very young. When they_re older, I may be able to tell them. I do plan to tell them eventually._ That was the only one of his arguments I sort of understood. It would be devastating for them to find out their dad had fathered a child with another woman. Xavier was thirteen and Talia was ten. His daughter, in particular, wasn_t even old enough to understand sex. After I didn_t say anything for several seconds, he said, _Talk to me, Carys._ _I honestly have nothing to say. I_m confused by what you_re throwing at me. I don_t think you deserve to see her, but at the same time, Sunny deserves to know who her father is, even if you_ve been a disappointment. So I guess I_ll think about the pros and cons of letting you be around her._ _That_s a start._ He let out a breath into the phone. _Thank you. That_s all I needed to hear._ CHAPTER 14 Deacon CALL ME DICK A few days after I_d seen Carys at the coffee shop, Kendra was over again. She bent down to pick up something off the floor. _What_s this?_ she asked. It was a pacifier. I couldn_t believe I hadn_t noticed it before. _Where was that?_ _Underneath this table. I went to slide my shoes under there and found it._ I had a small table where I dropped my keys near the door of my apartment. It was right next to the wall mirror_the one Sunny had loved to look at herself in. I had no idea she_d dropped the binky, which had been clipped to her shirt that day. Taking it from Kendra, I looked down at the dusty rubber tip. My chest felt heavy. It hadn_t even been two weeks since I_d vowed to stay away from them, but I missed Sunny. I missed Carys. I missed them. _Why do you have a pacifier here?_ Still gazing down at it, I said, _It belongs to the baby next door_Sunny. I had to watch her in an emergency one day. She must have dropped it._ _Oh._ She cocked her head to the side. _What_s their deal anyway?_ _What do you mean?_ _Why is there no father in the picture?_ The first time Kendra met Carys, I_d mentioned my neighbor was a single mother. Carys_ story really wasn_t any of Kendra_s business. So, I shrugged. _It didn_t work out._ _That_s too bad. The baby is so young to not have a father around. Especially given her condition. It_s such a shame._ My body stiffened. Then a rush of adrenaline ran through my veins. _Why a shame?_ _You know__ My tone was harsh. _No, I don_t. Why is it a shame?_ _The fact that the baby has something wrong with her._ My blood started to boil. _There_s nothing wrong with her._ I gritted my teeth. _Nothing. Do you understand?_ _Jesus. I didn_t mean any harm._ _She might look a little different, but there_s nothing wrong with Sunny. It_s time people like you started realizing that. She_s just like any other baby. And happier than most people. There_s no reason she can_t grow up to be just like any other adult. She has an extra chromosome. That_s it._ _Okay._ She held out her palms. _I_m sorry if I upset you._ _You didn_t. I just felt I should educate you on that._ Her voice softened. _Understood._ Things went quiet for several minutes before Kendra escaped to the bathroom. I felt a little bad for snapping at her, but I understood Carys_s frustration now. Down_s didn_t have any impact on who Sunny was, only how people saw her. * * * Kendra and I watched a movie in silence, and it was early evening by the time we even spoke to each other again. After we shut off the TV, she took me by the hand and led me to my bedroom. We hadn_t had sex in a while, and she_d given me every indication earlier today that her expectations were set on getting some. But I didn_t know if I could go through with it. Not only was I not feeling it tonight, but how would I deal with Kendra making noises Carys could hear? No freaking way was I going to put Carys in that position. But if I was serious about moving on, I couldn_t stay celibate forever. When Kendra and I started kissing, it felt_off. Then the sound of crying next door killed any last shred of hope. Even though my bed was now on the opposite end of the room, away from Carys_s wall, I was still able to hear Sunny pretty clearly. After I pushed back, Kendra rolled her eyes. _Well, this is d?j? vu._ I sighed. _Yeah. I suppose it is._ _What_does that baby have a radar that detects whenever we_re about to have sex?_ _I know. It_s pretty funny,_ I said. She crossed her arms in a huff. _I don_t think it_s funny at all. Glad you do._ Kendra was probably more pissed that I found the timing amusing than the interruption itself. _You know what?_ She hopped off the bed. _I need to leave._ _You_re gonna leave because the baby_s crying?_ _No, Deacon. I_m leaving because you find this funny_that our privacy doesn_t really matter to you. I_m also leaving because you reamed me a new asshole earlier for feeling sorry for that poor little baby._ Remaining silent, I didn_t try to convince her to stay as I followed her out of the room. I watched as she slipped on her shoes. She threw her coat over her shoulders dramatically. _Call me when you_re ready to stop laughing at me or reprimanding me._ She slammed the door behind her. I was a dick, because as upset as she was, it didn_t really faze me. In fact, her leaving was a relief. Continuing to see Kendra had been more about trying to move on from Carys than anything else. Kendra was merely a distraction, and she deserved more than that. So let her be mad, and let her find someone else to spend her time with. I had bigger fish to fry tonight. I really wanted to go next door to see if Carys needed anything. Sunny was still crying, and when I heard the Bee Gees playing and realized that hadn_t calmed her down, I decided that was my cue. My heart raced as I went next door. I_d use returning the binky as my official excuse. When she opened, I couldn_t believe what I saw. I had expected Carys to look flustered or disheveled after Sunny_s meltdown. Instead, she wore a black sequin dress and looked like a million bucks. She_s going out? Carys was out of breath as she stood there, holding a crying Sunny. _What_s up?_ she asked. _Are you heading out?_ Instead of answering my question, she blew air up toward her forehead. _What do you want, Deacon?_ Nice to see you, too. I held up the pacifier and wiggled it between my fingers. _I wanted to return this. Found it on my floor. I probably should_ve washed it but figured you_d throw it in the dishwasher. Not sure of the proper way to sanitize these things._ She nodded once. The fact that she was still cold toward me wasn_t a surprise. I knew seeing me with Kendra the other day must have sucked. But the fact of the matter? That was exactly what I was aiming for. I was trying to get over Carys and hoping she_d see things were _back to normal,_ back to the way they were before I_d royally fucked up. Sunny kicked her legs, seeming to want out of Carys_s arms. I reached out. _May I?_ Carys looked down at Sunny, then back at me, as if accepting my offer wasn_t an easy decision. But eventually, she handed Sunny over. After a couple of minutes in my arms, Sunny_s wailing had reduced to quiet sniffles. Bopping her up and down, I asked, _What happened to the Bee Gees? I heard the music earlier. They didn_t help much this time, huh?_ _No. I guess they_ve run their course_like a lot of things._ Ouch. I pretended that went over my head. _That sucks. We_ll have to find something else._ A few seconds of awkward silence passed. _Why did you really come over here?_ she asked. _I doubt it was to return this dusty binky._ I looked down at Sunny to gather my thoughts. _I wanted to check in on you, see how you_re doing. It_s been a while._ _Well, at the moment, not good, Deacon. Because I_m supposed to be attending an important event for work tonight, and Sharon had to cancel._ Shit. _Why didn_t you call me?_ I asked without thinking. _Do you really not know the answer to that?_ Of course, that was a dumb question. _What time are you supposed to be there?_ _I was supposed to be there fifteen minutes ago._ I waved my hand. _Go. I_ll watch her._ She shook her head. _I can_t let you do that._ _Carys_I know I fucked up our friendship. And I_m sorry. But I still care about you. And I don_t want you to miss this thing if it_s important. So maybe just take me up on my offer so you don_t have to piss off your boss. Then you can process it later. We_ll talk when you get back._ When she didn_t say anything, I pushed. _You need that job. Now_s not the time for pride._ She sighed. _I don_t know__ _Look how calm Sunny is right now. It_ll be fine. We_ll be fine._ We_ll be fine. Sunny and me? Yes. You and me? Not so sure. Blinking several times, she finally conceded. _Okay._ _Good,_ I said. _Now go, so you don_t miss too much._ Carys rushed around in search of her things, grabbing her purse and a quick glass of water. She wore high, red-bottomed heels. Fuck, her legs looked good in those shoes. My mouth watered as I admired the curve of her little, round ass in that dress. Then jealousy set in at the thought of men ogling her tonight. Kissing Sunny on the head, she said, _Be a good girl._ I took a deep breath of her scent for the few seconds she was close. She finally looked up at me. _I won_t be back too late._ _Take as long as you need._ Another whiff of her perfume hit me as she blew out the door. After she was gone, I looked down at Sunny. _We got this, right? No surprises tonight._ I put my forehead against hers. _And you know what that means._ When she smiled, it reminded me how much I_d missed her pure, non-judgmental sweetness. No one ever looked at me like Sunny Kincaid did. And I didn_t deserve a shred of it. I wished I could warn her not to get too attached to the man next door. I_d only end up disappointing her, like I had so many other people who_d trusted me. Wandering the room with her in my arms, I spoke in a low voice. _Do you ever wonder who the hell I am? I_m not even sure I formally introduced myself, Sunny. You probably just look at me as the weird, big guy who comes over sometimes and holds you._ I smiled. _Anyway_I_m Deacon. Can you say Deacon?_ I pointed to my chest. _Deacon._ She cooed. Sunny actually let me put her down on the playmat, which surprised me. I spent the better part of the next hour sitting on the couch while I watched her play on the floor. _Deacon,_ I kept repeating, to see if by some chance she_d try to say my name. I_d pretty much given up when I heard her say what sounded like_dick. Then she repeated, _Deek._ I cracked up. _That_s right!_ She_d babbled many different sounds tonight, and it could have been a coincidence, but I had myself convinced she was trying to say Deacon. Or maybe Dick was a more accurate description of me lately. Either way, it worked for me. Deacon or Dick. Tomato, Tomahto. I_d take any D sound she wanted to give me. A knock at the door interrupted my little celebration. I assumed it might have been Carys returning early, though that didn_t make sense. After I opened, I regretted not checking the peephole first, because it was a man I didn_t recognize. He wore a black tuxedo and looked to be in his late thirties. _Who are you?_ he asked. My body went rigid. _Shouldn_t I be asking you that question?_ _I_m Charles, Sunny_s father._ What the fuck? Gritting my teeth, I clenched my fists. _Does Carys know you_re here?_ When he didn_t immediately respond, I knew the answer was no. This guy wasn_t exactly what I_d pictured. He was average-looking, with blond hair and shorter than I_d imagined. Basically, Carys could have done a lot better. _Let me guess_ You expected to find some vulnerable, old woman watching the baby so you could weasel your way in here while Carys was out?_ When he took a few steps forward, I held out my hand. _No. Stay back. I_m not letting you in._ He let out a frustrated breath. _Look, man to man, I just want to see my daughter for a few minutes._ _Man to man?_ I scoffed. _A real man wouldn_t have to sneak over to see his daughter, because he_d be in her life already._ _Look, I_m going to the same gala Carys is at. My colleague told me she was there, so I wondered if I could just stop by to see Sunny without having to upset her. I don_t mean any harm._ He tried to look beyond my shoulders, but I adjusted my body so he couldn_t see past me. I crossed my arms. _Well, it_s not gonna happen_not without Carys_s permission._ He grimaced. _Who did you say you were?_ _The name_s Dick. And I suggest you leave before I show you exactly why they call me that._ He let out a frustrated breath, huffed, and made his way back down the hall. After he was out of sight, I shut the door, locked it, and went over to where Sunny was still playing on the floor. I lifted her up and held her for a while, feeling protective. It angered me that Carys_s ex tried to pull that shit, and now I_d have to tell her. Sunny stared up at me, this time not smiling as she normally did. Maybe she sensed I was pissed. _You deserve better than that dude. I_m sorry you have a crappy dad. But your mom makes up for it._ I walked over to the window with her, and we looked out at the traffic below. _Can I tell you a secret, Sunny?_ After pausing for her response, I said, _Okay. I_m gonna tell you anyway._ I looked at her. _I really screwed up with your mother. You got any tips for how I can make it right?_ A few seconds later, I felt a vibration from her bottom. Well, I guess that_s my answer.

  • Ratatouille /  (Disney, 2012)    Ratatouille /
  • Thumbelina /  (Disney, 2014)    Thumbelina /
  • Sycamore Row /   (by John Grisham, 2013) -   Sycamore Row /
  • Tales of mystery and imagination /     (by Edgar Allan Poe, 1993) -    Tales of mystery and

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