“What the hell is this?” Justin shoved the container of yogurt out of the way. The plastic scratched across the wooden surface of the counter, but not far enough away for his satisfaction. He just wanted his normal breakfast of bacon and eggs with a side of toast so he could go to work. Not this chick food. And was that granola? He hated granola.
He’d already put up with Maddie banning most of his other vices. First it was the coffee. He wasn’t happy, but he could deal with it. Then came the beer. When she cleared out the sweets and other snacks, he almost put his foot down. But breakfast was sacred. You didn’t mess with the first meal of a man’s day. This crap could go the way of the other food Maddie had cleared out of their kitchen. For months. He’d accepted the changes early on, even embraced them, because he loved his wife and this was important to her. To them… and their family. But this was going too far.
“Maddie.” He drew in a few deep breaths. The best way to handle this was with a calm, rational conversation. Maddie was reasonable. She’d understand.
His wife of eight years ambled into the kitchen, a thermometer in her mouth. She pulled it out and stared at it.
“Huh? What did you say? I’m sorry, honey. I was taking my temperature.”
“I see that. What is this?” He motioned toward the counter, but he didn’t really need her to answer. He knew exactly what she was doing. The same thing she’d been doing for almost a year now.
“Breakfast. Yogurt and granola. It’s better for you. It’s better for us.”
He turned his back and gritted his teeth. Anything to keep from saying what he wanted to say. “I’m going to work. I’ll just get something on the way.”
A muffin and a hot cup of coffee from Java sounded pretty good right now. The problem was, he didn’t want to go behind his wife’s back. But he’d become that man… and he hated himself for it.
He didn’t want to resent what was happening in his marriage. He loved Maddie. He just couldn’t take it anymore.
She stared at the thermometer in her hand. “Keep your schedule open later. It might be time.”
“I have two vendors coming in today, and you know I have practice after work. I won’t be home until late.”
Tears pooled in her eyes. Dammit. Didn’t she know that he wanted a baby as much as she did? His sisters were important to him, and he wanted the same relationships for his son. He just no longer wanted to endure the stress to make it happen.
He pulled his wife into his arms. She couldn’t help the tears but that didn’t make seeing them any easier on him. That much he knew. It was the hormones—and her desire to have another child—that was driving these emotions.
If only he and Maddie could find some time to sit down and talk about everything happening in their family, calmly and rationally, it might mitigate some of the upset and disappointment they were feeling. As much as he wanted to give Aiden a little brother or sister, Justin had reconciled himself to the fact that they might only have one.
The charting and counting, the frantic calls to come home, had taken a toll. Maddie had to see that, didn’t she? Each month the pregnancy test revealed a negative sign instead of the desperately wanted plus, Maddie grew more fragile. She wasn’t sleeping, she barely ate, and she’d become obsessed with everything baby. He worried about her and what her need to have more kids was doing to the woman he loved.
This quest was coming at the expense of his wife… and his marriage.
Quick thumping sounded in the hall, the telltale sign of another conversation interrupted. “Mommy, Mommy.”
Maddie stepped away from Justin and swiped under her eyes. Their sensitive son wouldn’t understand what they were going through. And he shouldn’t have to.
Justin scooped up his son and buzzed raspberries on his neck. Aiden giggled in that sweet little boy laugh that Justin wished he could bottle up. “Hey, buddy. You almost ready for school?”
“It’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Can I wear my striped hat and take Go, Dog, Go to school today?”
“I think that’ll be all right. Hurry up and eat your breakfast and I’ll drop you off on the way.”
Maddie hadn’t said a word to Justin since Aiden rushed into the kitchen, focusing her attention instead on rearranging the food she’d set out on the counter. She was a great mother, he couldn’t deny that. But she was so much more. And she’d stopped seeing her sharp, creative mind and her wonderful sense of humor in herself with her obsession with having another child. If only he could find a way to remind her that she was still the woman he’d fallen in love with.
But was she?
Ten minutes later, Justin zipped up Aiden’s jacket and slid his arms through his backpack. “Okay, buddy. Get in the car, I’ll be right there.”
He turned to Maddie. With her hair pulled back into a ponytail, her face clear of any makeup, she looked every bit the college girl he’d fallen in love with. She’d barely changed in the eight years they’d been married. He opened his mouth, ready to remind her how beautiful she was, to tell her that he loved her, then closed it again. “Bye, Maddie.”
She waved at him, her head down, her focus not on him. He took a step toward her, then retreated. He couldn’t bear to see the anguish in her eyes right now.
He left without another word.
* * *
The door clicked behind Justin, setting off a new wave of tears. He’d left without kissing her goodbye. He’d paused, like he was ready to kiss her. But he didn’t. Is that what their relationship had become?
Maddie grabbed Aiden’s dishes and plunged her hands under the warm water filling the sink to stave off the onslaught that she struggled to control every day. Had she pushed Justin too far? She cried at the drop of a hat these days. And it wasn’t just because of the hormones, which were bad enough. It was that no matter what she did, she couldn’t make Justin happy anymore. All she wanted to do was give him another child, a daughter to look up to her Daddy, to be a Daddy’s girl.
He was so good with Izzy’s fiancé’s daughter, Hayley. His eyes lit up every time they were together. Justin might think he was fine without a little girl, but Maddie knew better. Was it so bad that she wanted to give him a daughter?
But it was more than just Justin’s need. She wanted this for Aiden. For him to have the love of a sibling… or two or three. For him to have the big family she hadn’t. That Justin still had.
After setting the final dish in the drainer and wiping her hands, her gaze landed on the four chairs at the kitchen table, fixing on the one that always sat empty. The chair waiting for another member of their family. One who may never be born.
She wandered toward the back of the house. Pictures of Aiden at every age decorated the walls and followed her down the hall. She stared at the empty spaces—spots reserved for future pictures, hopefully with more children in them. She was willing to bide her time, but her patience was wearing thin after all these months, years even, of their family not growing.
She stopped at Aiden’s room. She straightened the twisted bedspread from where her son slept like a tornado every night and smoothed her hand over the midnight-blue fabric.
He was all boy—like his Daddy. Images of baseball and football and soccer filled his walls, although Justin had made sure baseball took front and center in his son’s life. Justin would like nothing more than his son to follow in his footsteps with a baseball career.
Clothes from the past few days were strewn on the floor, like Aiden had rushed through changing and left them where they dropped. She collected them and stashed them in his hamper, little socks for his little boy feet, and a bright red and blue shirt that reminded her of how much he’d grown since she’d held him as a newborn.
Her arms ached to hold another baby, to introduce a new boy or girl to their big brother, to see Aiden look down on his baby brother or sister with awe and wonder. Aiden would be a great brother. She just knew it. Just like Justin was with his sisters. She wanted that for Aiden, but each day he got older… and she continued to not get pregnant.
She stepped across the hall and opened the door they kept closed. For her sanity. They’d moved Aiden into the front bedroom almost three years ago when he’d outgrown his crib, expecting they would again use the back bedroom as a nursery. A crib sat in front of the window where the morning light flooded the room with warmth and happiness, the mattress bare, waiting for its next occupant. The white-washed dresser still held some of Aiden’s baby clothes, but she couldn’t bear to open the drawers, to be reminded of what she didn’t have.
She crossed the room and lowered herself onto the well-worn cushion of the glider-rocker in the corner. Many nights she’d rocked a fussy Aiden in this chair, his cries sometimes soothed when she held him close. She could almost picture Justin, his sleep pants slung low on his hips as he snuggled the baby close to his bare chest. Father and son.
But that hadn’t stopped Justin from throwing her a heated gaze. A look that told her without words the desire he felt. Sometimes after they had soothed Aiden back to sleep, they would creep into their own room and make love, a slow, intense coupling that reconnected them, reminding them of the deep connection they’d always had.
A connection that felt severed, lost to them now. She could chalk it up to work and raising Aiden and not finding enough grown-up time, but she knew better. Justin wanted a big family, just like she did. A common interest they’d discovered early in their relationship. But she hadn’t been able to give him that, to give them what they both wanted so much. She’d done everything she could. Spent hours poring over internet sites about conception, joining chat rooms with other moms, changing their diet and routine. And when those methods hadn’t worked, she’d started fertility treatments. Anything to fill the ache in her soul that yearned for family.
So she wouldn’t be alone.
But month after month, she cursed the day when her hopes were shattered… again.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. Maybe it was Justin, calling to apologize? Her heart fell as Jen’s picture flashed across the screen. Maddie clicked the talk button. “Hey, Jen.”
“What’s wrong?” Jen was the only person who truly understood what Maddie was going through. Frankly, she was Maddie’s only friend these days.
Maddie couldn’t bear to be around her “Mommy friends” anymore, showing off their baby pictures and sonograms. Everyone she knew was having more kids. The friends from Aiden’s Mommy and Me classes were all on their second or third baby by now. And here was Maddie. Barren.
“Sorry, Jen. I was just thinking.”
“Oh, Maddie. We talked about this. You need to get your mind off babies, and thermometers, and charting.”
“I am. I was. But I just felt different yesterday morning.”
“Wait, stop. I don’t want to have this conversation over the phone.”
Maddie didn’t have any interest in meeting up with Jen. She barely felt like leaving the house anymore. Why should she subject herself to the pitying looks and the furtive whispers behind people’s hands? Whenever she went anywhere with Aiden it was always When are you two going to have another? “I don’t think I’m up to going out this morning.”
“You can’t keep being a hermit, not leaving the house, not seeing anyone. Walk out your front door once in a while.”
“I don’t know.”
“Maddie, just walk out your front door.”
Jen was right. Maddie couldn’t keep shutting herself away in the house, hoping for something that was never going to happen. Maybe some fresh air would be good. After throwing a last look around the nursery, she closed the door and headed to the front of the house. She could take a photo and text it to Jen. That might pacify her for a while.
With a plan in place, she pulled open the door.
“Surprise.” Jen waved her cellphone at Maddie with one hand, a paper bag in her other, a wide smile on her face.
Tears sprang to Maddie’s eyes. Again.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Jen burst past her, and Maddie had no choice but to shut the door. Whether Maddie wanted company had never deterred Hurricane Jen before. “I brought sustenance.”
Maddie shook her head. She loved her friend for trying, but she barely felt like eating anymore. Certainly not the scone or chocolate croissant likely in the Java bag.
“I don’t know, Jen. I think I should just stick to what I’ve been doing.” Maddie’s stomach was in knots all the time, and she couldn’t help but worry about every morsel of food she put in her mouth. The doctor had told her to maintain her regular diet, but the website she’d read last week had sworn that yogurt and granola increased fertility. After all these months, she’d take any help she could get.
“Haven’t I told you to stop with Dr. Google? It’ll just drive you crazy. All you do anymore is stay holed up here, reading site after site, and getting more neurotic.”
“I’m not neurotic. I just want to do everything I can to get pregnant.”
Jen lowered herself to the sofa and patted the cushion beside her.
Maddie slumped onto the couch. She knew what was coming.
“Maddie, I love you, but you’re going about this all the wrong way.”
“How could I be going about this the wrong way? I take my temperature. I know exactly when I’m ovulating and when Justin and I should have sex.”
Jen pulled a scone from the bag and made a big deal of smelling it, reveling in the warm deliciousness, before taking a big bite. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the bigger picture. What kind of mom can you be to Aiden and wife to Justin when you’ve made everything about getting pregnant? You’re not the happy woman that I met three years ago. I see the shadows in your eyes and the dark circles. I hate this for you and Justin. You’re just so sad all the time.”
“I’m not sad all the time.” But even as she said the words, Maddie knew Jen had a point.
She loved Aiden. Her bright, energetic five-year-old son should be full of energy, bouncing off the walls and keeping Maddie on her toes, but instead, he walked on eggshells around her. He was always so sweet about it, wrapping his arms around her when it looked like she needed a hug. But she should be the one taking care of him, not the other way around.
There were those pesky tears again. But this time, they had nothing to do with her hormones and everything to do with how she’d failed her son.
“I’m a terrible mother.”
Jen’s arms came around Maddie. “No, Maddie, you’re not. You’ve just lost sight of the big picture. I can’t imagine what it’s like, wanting something so much that it takes over everything in your life. Maybe you should focus on what you already have, a sexy husband who loves you and a great kid who has a gentle soul. Maybe you shouldn’t be putting so much energy into getting pregnant again right now. The stress can’t be good for any of you.”
Maddie swiped at her eyes and sat up. “You’re right. I can’t keep letting this obsession take over our lives. This morning, Justin left without kissing me goodbye. He always gives me a goodbye kiss, no matter how big of a fight we may have had. But today, he didn’t.”
“Well then, missy, what are you going to do about it?”
She thought about that a minute then squared her shoulders. Jen was right. Maddie wasn’t this person. She was a strong, independent woman who didn’t let a challenge get in her way. That was how she’d caught Justin’s eye in the first place. She just needed to remember what it was like when they’d fallen in love. Before the sleepless nights and the temper tantrums. Before fertility shots and cycle charting had taken every bit of romance out of their relationship.
But how could she set aside her need for a family that had dug so deep and grabbed hold of her soul that she didn’t know how to live without it?
“My job here is done.” Jen hopped up and rushed to the door. She waggled her thumb and pinky beside her cheek. “Call me?”
Maddie nodded but barely noticed Jen scooting out the door. Her friend had given her a lot to think about. But first things first… she needed a shower!
Twelve years ago
“I can’t believe you convinced me to come to this game with you. I have two papers to write and an exam to study for.” Maddie giggled at Amanda as they climbed out of her friends Toyota Corolla. To outsiders, Amanda and Maddie looked like an unusual pair, but on Maddie’s very first day at Villanova, Amanda had approached her as she stood alone in the back of the room during freshman orientation, and the two had been inseparable ever since. Amanda kept Maddie social and Maddie kept Amanda from cutting too many classes.
“Come on, Maddie. Lighten up. The library is open all weekend, but the game is being played now.” Amanda bounced down the hill toward the baseball field. “Besides, you said you’d come with me to see Ethan.”
“I suppose.” Maddie bit down on her bottom lip as she practically tripped down the hill behind Amanda. “I’ve worked so hard to get to this point and I’m almost done. I can’t afford to lose my scholarships.”
“It’s three hours out of your life. You promised you’d come with me if I studied with you last night. I did my part of the bargain. Now it’s your turn. Besides, baseball players aren’t known for hanging out in a library cubby.”
“I’m not here to meet boys. I’m here to get an education and a degree so I don’t end up like my mother.”
Amanda rolled her eyes, a bit overdramatically if Maddie were being honest. “Blah, blah, blah. I’ve heard it a thousand times. There’s no reason you can’t do both.”
Maddie caught up with Amanda and stepped onto the bleachers beside her friend. She’d never gone to games in high school. It wasn’t like she had any friends to go with. She was a loner and she liked it that way. No one to ask questions or learn how she and her mother lived. But she’d missed out on a lot—games, dances, parties.
“Look, there he is.” Amanda jumped up and down in the stands and waved at Ethan across the dirt. He threw a ball and it went smack into the glove of another player closer to them. He then raised his head and noticed Amanda. A huge smile broke out on his face and he gave her a little wave. Like he had forgotten where he was for a moment, he snapped his hand down.
Maddie giggled. That big strong guy, worried about what his teammates thought because he’d waved at a girl.
Despite what Maddie’d said to Amanda, she was glad her friend dragged her out today—she’d been working really hard to finish up her final semester at school. She hadn’t gotten into Villanova because of her smarts. She had to bust her ass for every grade she received and every scholarship she earned. Her part-time job at the coffee house near campus helped with some costs, but it didn’t leave Maddie a lot of time for socializing.
Today was the first nice spring day this year, and Maddie had been staring out the library window instead of working on her paper anyway. Amanda was right. Maddie could work on her schoolwork when it was dark outside and the sun and fresh air weren’t calling to her.
While Amanda made googly eyes at Ethan, Maddie scanned the field. Boys from both teams were throwing and catching, while others were stretching and warming up. One player, who stood closest to Maddie, appeared to have the singular job of catching the ball at the base. She didn’t know much about baseball, but that position didn’t look very exciting.
But having him so close made it easier for her to admire how his T-shirt stretched tight across his shoulders or how the muscles in his back rippled each time he moved. And his ass… baseball pants hid nothing.
She wasn’t complaining.
Ethan jogged up to the boy Maddie was admiring and gestured toward the bleachers. He was probably pointing Amanda out to his buddy. Boys were always looking at Amanda. How could they not, with her long, silky blonde hair and curvy body? In high school, Maddie hadn’t worried about her looks; she was more concerned about her grades. But next to her beautiful friend, she felt frumpy. She took comfort in the fact that Amanda would be the first to stand up to anyone who dared to make a negative comment about how anyone looked.
Ethan waved at Amanda again and his friend turned toward the bleachers. While he’d looked good from the back, that was nothing compared to the other side. The boy’s hat was tipped back so a few strands of hair hung out on his forehead, and an easy smile graced his otherwise chiseled features. The stubble on his jaw made her want to run her hand down his cheek and feel it brushing against her palm. And then his eyes landed on her. His smile grew and he raised his eyebrows just a little, but enough that she could see. Maddie’s breath caught and heat flushed her face. She almost smacked her palms over her cheeks to hide her embarrassment, but that would be even more obvious.
Maddie’s eyes stayed locked on the boy as he sauntered to the dugout. Just before he stepped out of sight, he met her gaze again.
And he winked and grinned.
The bell rang above the door, announcing another customer. A welcome sound. They could use the business. Justin rounded the counter and approached the woman who scanned the shelves. The lanky boy beside her had his head buried in his phone.
“May I help you?”
A look of relief washed over her face. “My son is thirteen and he plays baseball. He just moved up to the big field and he needs a new bat. I tried to research on some web sites but it’s all Greek to me. I’m hoping you can help us make the right choice.”
Just then, the boy lifted his head and his gaze landed on Justin’s hand. Or more specifically on Justin’s World Series ring.
“Are you Justin Harper? Man, I saw you play.” The boy didn’t give Justin a chance to answer before he turned his attention to his mom. “Of course he can help, Mom. He won a World Series with the Cannons. And he coaches at the high school.”
When Justin had first taken over his father’s store, the draw of being a former major league player had attracted customers curious about the washed-up athlete with a World Series ring. Over time, the fame-seekers had stopped coming and he’d established a small but steady clientele.
Justin spent a few minutes talking about the game with the boy and then grabbed the employee on hand today. “It’s been great talking with you guys and, Austin, I look forward to following your progress over the next couple of years. This is Chris. He’ll show you exactly what bat you need. And make sure you check out the spikes. You’ll need those on the bigger field, too.”
“Thanks, Coach Harper.” Austin rushed after Chris.
“You made my son’s day. Thank you so much for talking to him.”
“You’re very welcome.”
Justin watched the mom follow behind her son. The beginning of a new sports season always meant an increase in sales. He’d take it. More and more, customers were driving to Philadelphia to the big box sports stores instead of staying close to home. Sure, he was a little more expensive, but wasn’t supporting a local business and avoiding the hassle of going into the city worth it?
Justin headed into the back and flopped into his chair, the ledgers he’d left open on the desk taunting him. This month’s numbers were down from the same week last year. He raked his fingers through his hair. Dammit. He couldn’t keep going like this. His store needed something, anything, to put a jolt into their sales.
When he’d first taken over the business from Dad, Maddie was at his side. She helped customers and developed the advertising campaigns for the store. Her face would light up when she saw the final product running in a magazine or heard a spot on the local radio station. Her creativity touched every aspect of the store as well. She would arrange the displays in a way that drew the customer’s eye, and she was great at upselling.
After Aiden, she cut back on her time in the store. Justin was thrilled they were in a position where she could be home with their son when he was young. But Aiden had started school and Justin could use her help by his side right about now. She’d know how to turn things around. Instead, these days, she barely left the house. She spent all of her time on the Internet, reading articles about infertility.
They weren’t infertile—they were just having trouble getting pregnant again. But she’d taken it to an obsessive level. And this morning was just one example. Justin wasn’t sure how much longer he could deal with her wild mood swings.
He was an ass for even thinking those thoughts. He’d married Maddie because he loved her and it was his job to protect and support her.
But he needed a break. A break from the grind their marriage had become and her compulsion to get pregnant. He didn’t even enjoy making love to his wife anymore. How could he when she’d turned it into a task to be checked off a list? Only at certain times, on her schedule. And only in certain positions. As soon as they were done, she’d shove him away and prop a pillow under her knees. She’d always teased him for not liking to snuggle when they’d first gotten married, but over the years, he’d come to need that connection to her after making love. He couldn’t even call the sex they had recently making love.
He ambled to the front of the store. Helping customers, seeing the kids’ faces light up with a new piece of equipment, always chased away his stress.
He smiled at his sister. He hadn’t heard her come in. “Izzy. And you brought Hayley with you.”
“Hey, Uncle Justin.” Hayley threw herself at him and he wrapped his arms around her. He closed his eyes and hugged his future niece for a moment. If he couldn’t have a daughter of his own, at least he could enjoy spending time with Hayley. But even as he tried to convince himself of that, the pangs of wanting a daughter snuck in. He closed his eyes and sucked in deep breaths until he could hide his emotions.
When he let Hayley go, she rushed off toward the racks of athletic clothes in the corner. He then wrapped his arm around Izzy’s shoulder. “Hey, squirt. What’s up?”
“We need to get Hayley some new shorts for dance class. She’s growing like a weed and has already outgrown what we bought her for Christmas.”
He smiled at his sister. Until last year, she’d been a professional ballerina. He was proud of what she’d accomplished, but he couldn’t help but be selfishly happy that she had come home to Cedar Hill at the end of her career. Now here she was, stepmom, or S’mom as Hayley called her, to a spunky little girl. He chuckled as Hayley was pulling out different shorts and holding them up to herself. “It appears she’s already found them.”
Izzy stared at him a moment and the smile fell from her face. “How’s it going with you?”
He sighed. God, he hated answering that question almost as much as he hated facing his distraught wife day after day. “I don’t know. Maddie’s obsessed. It’s not good for her. It’s not good for our marriage.”
“It sounds like you guys need a break.”
“We do. But I can’t even bring it up without her flying completely off the handle. She already feels like this is all her fault.”
She threw her arms around him. “Oh, Justin. I’m sorry it’s gotten so bad.”
“Please don’t tell Mom about any of this. I couldn’t bear to face the pity in her eyes.”
“We don’t pity you, Justin. We just hurt with you and want the best for you and Maddie. Whatever that is.”
“I know, sis. It’s just the stress talking.”
“Hey, S’mom, how about this pair?” Hayley held up one of his bestsellers, black compression shorts with a bright pink band around the waist.
Izzy’s eyes lit up and a huge smile crossed her face. “God, I love hearing her call me S’mom.”
Izzy had blossomed since Tanner and Hayley came into her life. “You’re a great S’mom. I’m so happy for you and Tanner. How are the wedding plans coming?”
She groaned. “Slow. Remind me again why I didn’t take your advice and elope?”
“Because Tanner wanted you to have a big wedding with all your friends and family. I believe his exact words were ‘I’m not doing this again, so we’re gonna make this one worth it.’”
Izzy got a dreamy look in her eye and rested her hand over her heart. “That man.”
“Okay, that’s enough of the sappiness for one day. We’ve got a game on Friday night. You with us?” He may not be able to play ball professionally anymore, but he wouldn’t give up his time with the town softball league for anything. Between that and coaching the high school team, he was able to stay involved with the sport that had been his life for so many years.
“I don’t know, Justin. Softball was never my forte. You remember how clumsy I was trying to run the bases.”
“Come on, Izzy. It’s all in fun. Besides, we need two women on our team. Say you’ll come. We’re playing the fire department.”
She rolled her eyes. “That gives me all the reasons to play. You want me because I’m a woman. I doubt you’d use that line on anyone else you asked to join the team. But I guess I’m up for a little more humiliation. Count me in.”
He resisted the urge to scrub his knuckles over her hair like he’d done when they were kids. “Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.”
“I’m not sure you’ll feel the same when I strike out and let the ball roll between my legs.”
Justin laughed. Leave it to Izzy to brighten his mood. “It’ll be fine. I promise. Now go help your daughter pick out some shorts.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck. “My daughter. That sounds so good. I love you, big brother. Call me if you need me.”
Justin appreciated Izzy’s support. Support he would typically get from Maddie. But she was stressed enough without him piling more on.
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