“I’m a sucker for the ladies,” I reply and grin down at a newborn Stella Montgomery McKenna. “Hello, gorgeous girl.”
“It’s kind of hot to see you with a baby,” Nat says thoughtfully.
“I’m glad you approve. It’s good to know the woman I’m going to steal from my brother thinks I’m hot.”
“Not gonna happen,” Luke replies as he passes a sleeping Keaton to Nat then scoops her into his arms, then sits with her in his lap. “Get your own girl.”
“I found one,” I reply and grin down at Stella who is watching me with big, sober blue eyes. “God, Jules, she’s awesome.”
“I know.” She sighs and leans on Nate’s arm, watching us. Livie toddles between Nate’s knees, begging to be held. Nat is holding Keaton.
“It looks like a daycare in here.”
Natalie laughs and kisses her son’s blond head. Where Livie was born with dark hair, her younger brother has light hair like Luke.
“Brynna’s due anytime, right?” Nate asks Jules, referring to her sister-in-law.
“Yep, just a few more weeks.”
“You’re all a bunch of baby making machines. But thanks for taking the pressure off me with Mom and Dad.” I wink at Luke who laughs and gently rubs his fingertips on Keaton’s head.
“You’re welcome. Anytime.”
Stella’s tiny pink lips pucker, and suddenly she lets out a loud wail.
“Oh, okay, this is my cue to leave.” I gently pass the crying baby to her mama and back away with my hands raised in surrender. “I don’t do crying women.”
“Pussy,” Luke taunts me.
“Call me all the names you want. I don’t like to make a girl cry.” I kiss each of the girls on the cheek and back away toward the front door. “Have a good afternoon, guys.”
“Bye!” They all wave and I return to my Jeep and toward the house I recently bought in north Seattle. It’s a fixer-upper, but I got it for a steal, and since I work construction for a living, I figure I can fix it up for a song and flip it for a tidy profit.
I wonder what Mer’s gonna do with her mom’s place? Will she keep it? Live in it? With Jax?
Why does the thought of that make me violent?
Because I still think of her as mine. After all this time, when I think of Meredith, she’s my Meredith. Irrational? Yes.
Stupid? Most definitely.
But I don’t give a fuck.
I take a deep breath and scrub my hand over my face and suddenly feel… heavy. As of right now it feels final. Over. Maybe I held out hope for all of those years that she’d come to her senses and come running back to me. Fuck, I don’t know what I thought. But seeing her today, hugging her so tightly and hearing her voice in my ear call me M, then seeing the other man claim her, finally hammered it home.
She’s not mine. She hasn’t been mine in a very, very long time.
It’s time to move the fuck on.
Three Months Later
“Madison, not to be confused with Madeline, so we do not say Maddie, forgot her shoes at home,” Jax says in a hurry as he bustles past me back stage. “So her mom is making a mad dash home to fetch them.”
“It’s fine, we have like thirty minutes,” I say and prop my hands on my hips to survey the area. Little girls are admiring themselves in the mirrors, in their pretty dance tutus and makeup. “I can’t believe we gave in to the tutus,” I mutter.
“The moms like to see them in frilly dance clothes.” Jax shrugs and then laughs when a little girl, while watching herself in the mirror, makes a complete turn, transfixed by the sight before her. “And the girls like it too.”
I nod and then squat to help another girl with her shoes.
Before long, the excitement backstage is mounting. The girls are excited to show their mom and dads what they’ve learned. Or just show off onstage. We have girls of all ages dancing today.
“Ten minutes!” Jax calls out and the little girls all clap excitedly. “Hey, isn’t that your Mr. Hot Tamale in the audience?”
I frown and glance out from the curtain and survey the audience. Sure enough, right there in the front row, is Mark with Luke and his family.
What are they doing here?
I glance back at Jax with what I’m sure is panic written all over my face. He laughs and pats my shoulder. “Go say hi.”
“Oh God.” I clutch my stomach and inwardly cringe when I think of the way I threw myself at him at Mom’s funeral. I don’t know what came over me. I saw him, and it was as if no time had passed at all and I just knew in that moment that he was the only one who could comfort me.
And then I realized what I’d done, and when I pulled away he was aloof and someone I didn’t know.
He didn’t even say goodbye.
I bite my lip and decide what the hell? “I’ll be right back.”
“No hurry, we’re ready back here.” Jax winks and turns his attention to a mom asking about adult classes.
I walk out from backstage and approach Mark and Luke.
“Hi, guys,” I say with a bright smile. “What brings you here?”
It’s then I notice the stunning blonde sitting to Mark’s right, and the baby girl she’s holding.
Holy Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he’s married with a kid?
And that is the sound of my heart shattering and lying on the ground.
“Hi, Meredith,” Luke replies with a smile. Mark’s head jerks around as he takes the baby from his wife.
“What are you all doing here?”
“We’re here to watch,” Luke says and balances a toddler on his knee. “This is my wife, Natalie, and our children, Olivia,” he points to the little girl on his lap and then to the sleeping baby nestled in his wife’s arms, “and Keaton.”
I smile and shake Natalie’s hand and then turn my attention to Mark.
“I see congratulations are in order for you too, Mark.”
He frowns for just a moment and then seems to remember that he’s holding the infant. “Oh! This is Stella,” he kisses her head and my chest aches. Oh God, he looks amazing with a baby in his arms. But it’s not our baby.
Do not cry. Do not freak out. You can get through this. Keep smiling.
“She’s beautiful,” I choke out in the worst monotone voice I’ve ever heard. He’s watching me carefully and the woman beside him is typing furiously on her phone, then looks up at me and smiles.