Aida appeared as Dan and Jeff exited the Ferrari. “Daddy!”
“Hey, baby girl.” Dan scooped her up. “This is Jeff and Becca. They’re friends of mine. They go to the school where Daddy teaches.”
Jeff seemed thrilled to be qualified as a friend, and Becca grinned over his exuberance.
“Hi, I’m Aida. I’m my daddy’s little girl. I go to a different school”
“Hi, Aida.” Becca beamed.
Entering the house through the garage, Jeff looked deeply impressed with his surroundings. Becca seemed much more comfortable.
“Mommy said you’re going to spend the night and that I get to help.”
“We can help, Officer Vindico,” Becca urged.
“Yeah, we don’t want to be trouble,” Jeff shifted the bags he was carrying.
Fionna appeared with her sweet smile that always put everyone at ease. “Hey, baby.” Dan relaxed as soon as he saw her.
“Hey.” She brushed a tender kiss on his lips. “Come on in. We have everything taken care of. You two relax. If I need ya, I’ll let ya know.” She guided Jeff and Becca inside. “Aida, why don’t you show them the guest bedroom so they can put their things away.”
Aida wiggled out of Dan’s arms. “It’s this way.” She pointed up the stairs. Jeff and Becca began their impromptu house tour. “This is baby Halia’s room, but Mommy’s sewing machine won’t still be in here when Daddy takes baby Halia out of her tummy.”
Dan and Fionna chuckled. “And this is the guest room.” She moved down the hallway. Jeff deposited the bags but Aida kept going. “This is the bathroom. And this is my room!” she declared.
“It’s a really pretty room,” Becca assured her. “I like your purple curtains.”
“Thank you. Mommy made them. This is Sophie. She’s my baby doll that Emily gave me. You can hold her, but you have to be very gentle.”
Dan eased up the stairs to investigate. “Oh, okay, I’ll be very gentle.” Becca was cradling the doll when Dan approached. Aida picked up on something in Becca’s energy as she held the doll. Her brow furrowed. She cupped her hand around her mouth. Dan leaned down so she could whisper in his ear.
Feeling his heart prick, he nodded. “Aida wants to know if she can give you a hug.”
Tears welled in Becca’s eyes again. Aida had sensed her stress and weariness.
“It’s going to be okay.” Aida patted Becca’s shoulder in her hug. “When I lived in the orphanage sometimes I cried at night because I was so scared and I missed my mama and papai, but then I got to come live here. And I have a mommy and a daddy and a baby sister. And if I get scared and miss Mama and Papai then Mommy says it’s okay to miss them and we talk about them. And then daddy holds me until I feel all better. They’ll make you feel better, too. They know how to.” Aida assured Becca.
Jeff closed his eyes momentarily as Dan slapped him on the back. “For about the first week she lived here I swore to everyone we knew that I had a cold and that’s why my eyes were watering,” Dan assured him.
“No joke, man,” Jeff choked back the emotion that was coursing so closely to the surface.
Fionna moved up the stairs slowly. She took in Aida and Becca embracing and smiled. “Why don’t we all go get something to drink and settle in.”
Dan turned on Supernova for Aida and joined everyone else in the kitchen. “Dr. Pepper or anything?” Fionna was concluding her drink offer.
“Am I allowed to have that?” Becca quizzed.
“I have maybe one or two a week, but the rest of the time I drink water.”
“Except for her coffee,” Dan teased.
“Halia likes coffee, too,” Fionna laughed.
“I don’t know anything about what I’m supposed to do or not to do. I’ve just been drinking water,” Becca explained nervously. Jeff took her hand. The helpless look in his eye Dan understood only too well.
“If you have any questions about anything, I’ll do my best to answer them. I have a little experience.” Fionna rubbed her hands over her bump. “And if I don’t know, Mrs. Haydenshire will.”
“I’m sure,” Jeff vowed. Everyone chuckled. The Haydenshires had given birth to eleven children, and had raised thirteen, along with helping to raise another dozen or so who were friends of their brood, Dan included.
“You don’t mind me asking you questions?” Becca sounded astonished.
“Of course not. Here, why don’t we make the boys go play, and you and I will have some girl talk.”
“So, we’re being kicked out,” Dan goaded.
“Sweetly,” Fionna giggled. “Dinner will be ready in about an hour. Why don’t you see if our little girl wants to go to the park?”
“Do you need to do your homework or anything?” Dan quizzed Jeff.
“No, sir, I’m not working up at the computer lab this year since you got me the internship so I do it in my off periods and at lunch, so I can pick up odd jobs in the afternoons.”
“He works all the time,” Becca sighed.
“Oh, I know someone who can definitely relate,” Fionna winked at Dan.
“Yeah, yeah, we’ll chat about that. You mind hanging out with me and Aida at the park?”
“I’m good with anything you want me to do,” Jeff vowed.
Dan walked hand-in-hand with Aida through their backyard to the adjoining park. It was one of the reasons he’d purchased the house after Amelia had been killed. There were dozens of running trails and Dan had run them all repeatedly.
Now, he generally walked them with Fionna after dinner, holding her hand while they escorted Aida to the nearest swing set.
“And Haley says thank you so much for her lunch. I told her my mommy makes the best chicken sandwiches, and when she took a bite she smiled and said yum,” Aida explained. “I want Haley to come over.”
“Sure, baby. Just ask Mommy, okay?” Dan agreed.
They reached the large swing set a few blocks from the house. Aida spied a little girl from her class and ran off to play while Jeff and Dan seated themselves on a bench.
“Wonder what Bec wants to know?” Jeff choked uncomfortably.
“Probably the same stuff you want to know, but aren’t asking me,” Dan allowed wryly.
Aida waved from the top of the slide. Dan blew her a kiss making her beam.
“You’re a great dad. I mean, she feels so safe with you. I could tell.”
“I’m sure we’ll screw something up. No one does it perfectly. As long as she knows I love her, and that she could never do anything that would change that fact, and that I’ll keep her safe and she’ll always have a home wherever we are, I kind of think that’s about eighty percent of the game. The rest is just doing whatever my wife says.” Dan tried to get Jeff to loosen up.
“I just wish I knew what to do for Bec,” Jeff pricked the surface of the strain and worry he’d been carrying for the past week. “I never had a dad. I just want to be a good one. I want to be a good husband, too, but I don’t know how to do that either, not really. Mrs. Vindico looks so happy. She lit up as soon as she saw you. You must do everything right.”
“No one does everything right, and being married isn’t easy.” Dan recalled a few of the conversations and bits of advice he’d received from Governor Haydenshire. “But I kind of think at the end of the day, if you’re there with her no matter what the day held, if you keep talking, and telling her you love her, and then doing everything in your power to show her that you’re all in for every moment of the next eighty-plus years, then in the end it will work out. You just have to be determined not to let her parents, or the baby, or school, or work, or hell, the world, tear you apart. Think about her first in everything you do. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be there.”
“Yeah well if I’d thought about her first she wouldn’t be pregnant and kicked out of the Sapman’s mansion.”
“Right, because she didn’t want to share those experiences with you. It was just you that wanted to sleep together,” Dan goaded incredulously.
“I just feel so freaking stupid. How could I have forgotten to cast her?” Jeff let his head fall into his hands briefly.
“Been there asked myself that more times than you could imagine,” Dan sighed.
“You seriously don’t care if I ask you stuff?”
“How many times do I have to tell you that Fi and I really want to be there for you two?”
“No one’s ever wanted to be there for me. Well, maybe Becca and my mom,” he amended.
“Add me to the list with them, and ask me what you want to know.”
Jeff grew thoughtful.
“Oh, I almost forgot. I got an email from Portwood before my last class, he says you can start Monday, and he wants me to bring you out there Friday afternoon to meet the teams and workout.”
“Wow. Thank you. The sooner I can start the better.”
Dan was hesitant to bring up the next item on his list but Jeff didn’t seem to have any questions he could verbalize just yet. “About that, I kind of think you and Becca should stay with us until you get a paycheck.”
Dejection took another blow to Jeff’s features. “Because you figured out we can’t even buy food.”
“Payday is next Friday.”
“I don’t know how we’re going to buy anything, even after that,” Jeff huffed dejectedly. “Furniture, food, clothes, stuff for the baby.” He listed himself further into depression.
“One day at a time,” Dan soothed. “And Fi and I have a storage unit full of furniture from when we combined our houses. Her bed’s in there, couches, tables, tons of stuff. If you and Becca could use it, you’d be saving me over a hundred bucks a month in storage fees.”
“I’m such a loser,” Jeff declared.
“Hey, you’re not a loser. You know Rainer and Logan lived rent free in the Haydenshire’s guesthouse for a year, and they used furniture from storage. I’m quite certain you know what kind of money Rainer has. You work your ass off, put in the time and the hard work now, save every penny you can, eat at school and at the Senate when you’re there, and maybe by the time the baby’s here you’ll have made it all the way to Elite Iodex. That’s a pretty substantial paycheck for a guy right out of the Academy.”
“Yeah,” Jeff couldn’t argue that. “Enough to take care of Bec and the baby. She wouldn’t even have to work if she doesn’t want to. But I can’t buy her a mansion.”
“I didn’t get the impression that she wants what her parents have. Believe me I grew up in Governor Vindico’s manor house, and you couldn’t pay me to go back. I want Fi and my girls. That’s it. Doesn’t matter where we live so long as they’re with me. In fact, the cottage we live in Kauai would fit in my living room and part of my kitchen. We’d rather be there than anywhere else.”
“I can’t let you feed me and Bec for a week Mentor Vindico and give me furniture,” Jeff finally managed in a heartbroken whisper.
Dan considered momentarily. “Tell you what, you and Becca agree to stay with us until Senate payday next week, and I’ll let you help me out with some stuff around the house. I’m a little behind with the yard, and Fi wants the nursery painted yellow and the dining room wainscoted.”
“I’ll do it. I’ll do anything,” Jeff pled instantly. “I’m good with stuff like that. I work construction all summer because it pays best, and do some computer programming at night, just one off jobs. I may try to pick up some more of those if I have time with school and Iodex.”
“And that would be the perfect segue for me to warn you about working too hard or too much. Balance is an unachievable goal and I know you need the money, but your wife is going to need you around more and more.”
“Yeah, maybe I’ll back off on the programming. It’s my favorite though. I’m good with computers, but clients are bad about paying on time and I don’t have time to do the billing.”
“I’m sure Portwood will put all of that to good use. And in answer to the question you desperately want to ask, but just can’t seem to, no, you won’t hurt Becca if you sleep with her. It’s actually good for your baby to feel your energy not just Becca’s.”
“That obvious, huh?”
“Not obvious at all, but that was my first question the second time I found out Fi was pregnant. The first time I wasn’t sane enough to formulate that far.”
“Hey, Mentor Vindico, I know it’s none of my business, but I am really sorry about what happened the first time. That was … rough.”
“It was very rough.” Dan found it oddly cathartic to discuss this, with one of his students, of all people. “But, we took a horrible situation and turned it around. Doesn’t change the pain or the heartbreak of what happened, but we have to go on. I would have traded places with Fi on that operating table in a heartbeat but I couldn’t. I couldn’t save my child, and that almost ended me, but if I’d decided to let that be my end, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, watching my baby girl pick wildflowers and feeling my other one kick when she hears my voice.”
“She knows your voice?” Astonishment perforated Jeff’s tone.
“Yeah,” Dan smiled. “I’ve been locking onto her and talking to Fionna’s stomach since we first found out she was pregnant again. So, now she knows my energy and she recognizes my voice. It’s pretty cool.”
“Do you … uh … you think you could teach me how to do that with Becca?”
“Sure.” Dan was pleased that Jeff wanted it badly enough to have asked. Jeff gazed out at Aida and the little girl from her class. They were to the side of the slide picking the last of the wildflowers before the first freeze. “Is that why you decided to adopt? Because of what happened the first time?”
Dan shook his head. “We didn’t really decide to adopt. Some people would say it was all a big coincidence, but I don’t believe that. She was brought to us by way of Garrett Haydenshire, but there were definitely higher powers involved. Fi and the Angels went to Brazil last year to work in the orphanage there. Emily and Fionna fell in love with Aida, so Rainer arranged for Aida to come live on Haydenshire Farm for the summer and be in the wedding. While we were all there getting ready for the wedding, Aida arrived, and we found out that the guy that shot Fi and killed the baby,” Dan choked but forced himself to go on. “Also killed her parents and her older brothers,” Dan gestured his head to Aida. “She doesn’t know any of that.”
Jeff nodded his understanding.
“We didn’t even talk about it,” Dan chuckled to cover his emotion. “Fionna looked up at me with those huge brown eyes full of tears, and Aida smiled, and I was sold, no going back. One of the best damn decisions we ever made.”
Aida rushed towards them effectively ending their conversation. “You ready to go, baby girl?”
She crawled up in his lap. Jeff watched them intently.
“Yes, and I picked Mommy some flowers and Becca some.” She divided the large bouquet she’d created. “You can give them to her.” She handed one half to Jeff. She doesn’t want you to be sad anymore.”
“So, now, I’m surrounded by incredibly strong receivers,” Dan chuckled.
Jeff accepted the flowers. “Thanks. Bec will love these.”
When they arrived back at the house, the ladies were both smiling and looking thick as thieves. “I made my pulled pork tacos. I hope you like them,” Fionna explained.
“Mrs. Vindico, anything is fine. They sounds amazing,” Jeff pledged.
“They are amazing.” Dan kissed the side of Fionna’s head.
“Daddy made me some tortillas. I just picked them up after I got Aida, so they should be good.” Fionna’s father owned a bakery in town.
Fionna had prepared a huge pot full of her stepmother’s recipe for tender pulled pork marinated with peppers, and there was plenty to go around. Jeff ate four helpings with Fionna and Dan’s urging. He didn’t look like he’d ever eaten something so delicious or that he’d ever really eaten until he was full.
Fionna had sliced mangoes, onions, lettuce, and corn for the tacos, and Jeff and Becca finally relaxed and settled in after they ate.
They cleaned the kitchen thoroughly afterwards, while Dan fixed the tea Fionna had been drinking at nights since she first found out she was pregnant for both of the pregnant women in his home.
“It will help your hormones stay balanced and help you relax,” Fionna explained as Becca sipped the Hawaiian tea.
After Aida was in bed, Dan retold the story of him trying to pick Aida up the first day of school. Everyone laughed heartily.
“I went in. I cried. I came out with my baby girl,” Fionna explained wryly.
“I’ll try that next time,” Dan teased. “But I think Jeff and Becca might like a little instruction on how Jeff can lock onto the baby’s rhythms.”
Becca blushed but looked intrigued.
Fionna leapt to work. “You’re so newly pregnant it might be tough. There isn’t much there yet, but there is energy at work. I don’t have to do this anymore since Halia is so big now, but at first I had to try and suppress as much of my energy as I could. After she does that, put your hands on her lower abdomen.”
“The baby starts out a lot lower than I’d thought,” Dan tried to recall everything he remembered from the first time he felt Halia. “Work your way through Becca’s rhythms, and then the babies are much faster and smaller.”
“Oh, and I’ll give you the stuff to put on your belly so you don’t get stretch marks,” Fionna reminded Becca.
“You don’t have to do that, Ms. Vindico. I can’t even pay you for it,” Becca whispered.
“You don’t have to pay me for it,” Fionna scoffed. “I want you to have it. I have tons, and my grandmother will send me more whenever I need it.”
“That’s when Dan started out locking on to her, actually. After he rubbed me down I was all relaxed so it was easier to feel her.”
Jeff’s face burned redder than that pork they’d eaten but Dan politely ignored this.
Becca had been yawning since dinner. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized after a deep yawn. “I don’t know why I’m so tired.”
Everyone gave her quizzical gazes and tried not to chuckle.
“But it’s so little. How is it making me so tired?”
“I do remember thinking that,” Fionna agreed. Then she stood, with Dan’s help, and headed up the stairs. She returned with a new Mason jar of kukui and coconut oils and handed them to Becca.
“Take her on to bed. We’re heading up in a little while,” Dan urged Jeff.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Jeff pointed up the stairs looking both bewildered and terrified.
“It’s that or the crib. You’re not sleeping on the couch.”
“Thank you so much for everything.” Becca threw her arms around Fionna’s neck. “I just don’t know what we would do without you.”
“You’ll be fine as long as you stick together,” Fionna vowed. “But let us make it a little easier.”
“Thank you for everything, and really I’ll do anything you need,” Jeff offered yet again.
“Just take care of her. That’s the most important thing.”
Jeff led Becca up the stairs. Dan heard the door close and smiled. “They’ve never spent the night together.”
Fionna tucked herself onto his chest on the couch. “I figured. He’s terrified, and she just doesn’t know what to do.”
“They’ll figure it out, and we’ll help them.”
Unable to determine why his heart was racing, Jeff eased the door to Dan and Fionna Vindico’s guest room closed, trying desperately not to awaken Aida.
Becca reached for his hand. He supplied it instantly feeling her draw his energy from him. The sensation made him pant. It was heavenly. It was everything he so desperately wanted to be for her, her shield, her protector. His energy held everything he wanted to give to her. It even managed to capture his love and his adoration, though he knew he’d never deserve Becca Sapman.
“You okay?” He barely got the words out, too lost in the combining of their energies.
“The Vindico’s are so nice.” She blinked back another round of tears.
“I know. He was just as overwhelmed by their generosity as she was, but he couldn’t stand to watch her cry. She’d been in tears off and on for most of the last week and it was all his fault. She buried her head on his shoulder. He embraced her immediately. “I’m so sorry, Bec,” he pled for the thousandth time though it didn’t change anything.
“Please stop saying that! I know this isn’t how we planned it, but I want to make this work. Just please stop saying you’re sorry, and start saying that we’re not gonna end up divorced and hating each other. Because if I have you then I know I’ll be fine. You’re all I need.”
“Hey.” Jeff pulled away to look her in the eye. “I’m not going anywhere. I want to be married to you. I’ve wanted to marry you since I asked you to the Freshman formal and you actually said yes.” He was still unable to believe his luck. “You’re just so sweet, and good, and perfect.” He tenderly pushed a strand of her long blonde hair behind her ear. She let her eyes close from the touch. “I don’t deserve you, and I feel like now I’ve ruined everything for you.”
“You haven’t ruined anything. That’s what I keep telling you, we can make this work it’s just like Mrs. Vindico said. We’ll be okay as long as we’re in this together.”
Jeff drew her back to him, desperate to feel her wrapped up in the safety of his embrace. “I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere. Just you and me.”
Lifting her head, she gave him her sweet smile. “And the baby.”
“A family.” Jeff certainly hadn’t meant to leave out their child. He hesitated but then forced himself to go on. Delicately and with precise gentleness, he let his hand caress her abdomen.
“Jeff … I need you. I need to be with you.”