“You’re insane!” Bryce screamed, walking away but then turning back around and charging up to me again. “I’m going, and I’m not coming back this time!”
I slid the notch of the hammer onto the nail head, pulling out the nail and removing his full morning of fuck-ups. The muscles in my arms were charged and hot, and if he didn’t fucking leave, I’d remove him myself.
“I mean it, Damon!” he barked again, calling my bluff.
I shot him a middle finger, not looking at him.
I heard cans crash to the floor and guessed he’d probably kicked something as he stormed to the door.
“Hey, what the hell?” I heard Kai burst in, the two-way door flapping as he charged in from the front office and into the warehouse where we were working. “What’s going on?”
“He’s crazy,” Bryce said. “He can’t work with people!”
I laughed under my breath.
I heard Kai sigh, because he was as much at his wits’ end as I was.
Like, seriously. No one here could think for themselves. You had to tell them every little goddamn thing, and God help you if you had to give them more than one instruction at a time, because their brains would fucking short out, because they couldn’t remember all that AND remember to breathe at the same time.
I finished removing the last two nails and pulled the two-by-four off and tossed it off to the side, getting rid of any evidence he did any work here today.
“He’s temperamental, but he’ll compromise,” Kai explained to Bryce. “We’ve been through this before.”
“Compromise?” Bryce whined. “He threw an ax at my head!”
“If I’d thrown it at your head, I would’ve hit your head,” I growled low.
There was silence, and then I heard Bryce’s voice. “I’m outta here, man.”
I knelt down, pulling up the nails on the next board he’d fucked up.
“Bryce, come on.”
“Let him go,” I told Kai.
The door swung open again, hitting the wall, and the rest of the crew around me cleared their throats, getting back to work as Kai loomed. Why was he even fucking here? If I couldn’t have Will handling shit out there, then I wanted one of the girls. Michael and Kai stressed me out more.
“How are you going to get anything done?” Kai demanded, and I noticed a stack of papers crunched in his fist.
“A lot better without that idiot around.”
But I shook my head. Just fucking stop. I needed to get the framing done on three more treehouses before the baby came in like nine days, not to mention finalize the design on the fountain in front of Meridian City’s new library and figure out what the fuck a she-shed was, because Catherine O’Reilly just loved her son’s new treehouse and thought I could build her something of her own. She was paying double to rush it before the snow started in a few months, so I couldn’t say no.
Photographers were coming by all week to get shots of “work-in-progress” for the new website that Alex was handling and thankfully doing everything to get us set up online. I just wanted people to leave me alone in the warehouse. I moved faster without help here.
But part of me knew I was part of my own problem, too. The Langston kid wanted a treehouse, but once I found out he was obsessed with pirates I chucked everything that was already done and started a design for a tallship instead. What the fuck was I thinking?
I looked over at the bow and masts already constructed, feeling a smile tug at my lips. It was going to look fucking fantastic when it was done, though. It was worth it if he loved it.
“You are running on fumes,” Kai told me. “You just got back from Washington, and then California before that, you have a baby on the way, projects are piling up…” He trailed off, and I felt him inch closer. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think you should start smoking again.”
I arched an eyebrow. I hadn’t entirely quit, actually. I probably never would.
Lifting up the first frame, I leaned it against the wall and then moved to the next one.
“You don’t need employees, you need a team,” Kai said, following me. “I’m not taking any more orders until we get this place in shape. With a regular staff. I’ve already put word out at the university that you’re recruiting.”
I shot him a scowl. He wasn’t wrong. I just didn’t have time to deal with it.
But Kai went on, “You need an office manager, you need a design team, and you need a receptionist, and that’s not me. I have enough on my plate.” He rubbed his neck. “Everyone is scrambling to keep you covered, but you’ll be a lot less stressed if your home base is running smoothly.”
“Fine, whatever,” I snapped. “Just take care of it. I need to stay ahead of schedule.”
Just do what you want, and don’t bug me with it. I knew they were all doing me a shitload of favors, and I was grateful they were here, because I wasn’t cut out for a lot of this. I just wanted someone else to be the face of the business and for me to stay in the background, designing and building and being left alone. If Will was here, he could do it. He’d be happy to do it.
But he wasn’t here a lot lately. He’d come home for a couple months and then fly off again, itching for space he never seemed to need before. He, Alex, and a few others were backpacking around Scandinavia over the summer, but when they came home, he stayed there, and I hadn’t seen him in weeks.
Although, he checked in regularly.
I think he was feeling left out. He saw Michael with Rika, Kai with Banks, and me with Winter, and struggled to feel like he belonged. He had Alex, but she wasn’t what he needed, and he just kept running away again and again, so he wouldn’t think or…feel. Or deal.
Kai turned and headed back for the lobby but then stopped, pulling his phone out of his pocket.
“Ah, shit,” he said. “Where’s your phone?”
“Why?” I grumbled.
“Because it’s time.”
“Time for what?”
He stared at his phone, smiling to himself. “I guess you’re girlfriend likes to stay ahead of schedule, too.” And he looked up at me. “She went into labor two hours ago. Where’s your fucking phone?”
My heart leapt into my throat. What?! I patted my jeans, looking around me.
I spotted it lying on a pile of boards and darted over, swiping it up. Pressing the power button, it didn’t light up.
“Fuck, it’s dead. Where is she?” I barked.
Two hours. She’d been in labor for two hours?!
But he just laughed. “At the hospital. Let’s go.”
Why was he laughing? Maybe he forgot how frantic he was when his kid came a few months ago.
I charged out of the room, hearing Kai tell the guys to lock the place up at five, and we hurried out of the building and into my car.
We rushed into the hospital, knowing Labor and Delivery was on the third floor from when Banks had her kid in May. I didn’t even know Winter was in the city today. What the hell’s the matter with me? She probably texted, but I’d forgotten to charge my phone last night, and I didn’t know how long it had been dead.
We went up the elevator and bolted out as soon as the doors opened, heading for the nurse’s station, but I immediately spotted Banks sitting on some chairs, holding her and Kai’s son.
Mads, for short. Mads Mori. Poor kid sounded like an assassin.
I brushed her face as I walked by, and she smiled big, excited for me. Mads gnawed with his toothless mouth on her jaw, making cute sounds and shit.
But then a scream pierced the air and a gasp, and I heard a man’s voice and Alex’s coaching. “I’ve got you!”
Without waiting, I burst into the room, my heart jumping into my throat. I’d never heard Winter sound like that before. Jesus. Was it supposed to sound like that?
She laid on the bed, and I rushed up to her, helping Alex hold her up as she pushed for the doctor.
“Six, seven, eight…” the nurse continued counting.
“Baby,” I breathed out, kissing her.
“Damon,” she gasped, realizing I was here.
“Nine, ten,” they finished.
And Winter let out a breath, sucking in air.
“I was so scared you weren’t going to be here,” she said. “My water broke while we were shopping, and he’s coming so fast.”
“I was with her,” Alex told me.
I steeled my arms around Winter and kissed her forehead, cheeks, and lips, making sure she felt me close.
“Thanks,” I told Alex.
Winter shook, and I studied her face, seeing her biting her bottom lip and tears hanging at the corner of her eyes.
And just like that she was eight again, our fingers hanging on by a thread in the treehouse, and I couldn’t stop what was happening to her.
“Why is she crying?” I barked at the doctor.
“Because it fucking hurts!” she yelped, answering for him.
“Well, give her something!”
“It’s too late for that now,” he mumbled through his mask and then peered over Winter’s legs. “Plus, you wanted natural childbirth, right?”
“What the fuck for?” I burst out, looking down at her like she had three heads. “We didn’t talk about that.”
She growled and pushed back up on her elbows.
“Alright, deep breath and push!” the doctor said. “One, two, three, four…”
“Ahhh!” she gritted through her teeth, her whole fucking body tense and rigid, and I wanted to look, but I didn’t want to leave her.
“Five, six, seven…” they called.
Winter looked flushed and sweat beaded her brow.
Her face twisted up, and she let out a small scream, and a tear fell, and I tightened my fists, unable to take my eyes off her. Jesus, fuck. Why the hell would she turn down perfectly legal drugs?
“Ok, the head is out!” the doctor told us.
My lungs emptied, and my stomach somersaulted. I moved to look, but she pulled me back. “Don’t leave me.”
I leaned back down and kissed her, but I started to laugh, and I couldn’t help it.
I didn’t know why I was feeling what I was feeling, but it was incredible. Whatever it was.
“I’ll bet it’s a boy,” she said, sucking in deep breaths.
“If you’re wrong, you have to do that bathtub thing for me,” I remined her of our bet.
We hadn’t found out the sex of the kid, wanting to be surprised.
But she just laughed despite herself. “I do it for you anyway. You know that?” she shot back.
“Ok, one more push,” the doctor told her.
Alex and I lifted her up again, and she took a few deep breaths, and then inhaled one more and held it, squeezing her eyes shut and pushing as the count began.
“One, two, three…”
I stared at her face, so much shit washing over me as I watched her, but most of all I just wanted to hold her close. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
I was going to be such a screw up. I’d do some many things wrong with her and this kid.
“Six, seven, eight…”
But fuck, I was going to love them. I didn’t care about being perfect. I just wanted to be everything my father wasn’t. I wanted this with her a million more times, and no matter all the shit that still lived inside me, I already knew I was better than him.
The doctor pulled back, Winter collapsed, and I heard a shrill cry fill the room.
“It’s a boy!” the doctor said.
I looked over, seeing red, little arms and legs as they cleared out his mouth and checked him, and then I watched as they brought him over and put him on Winter’s chest with a little blanket.
She smiled but started crying, wrapping her arms around him, and I just stood there, unable to breathe for a minute.
“A boy,” she said. “Told you.”
“Jesus Christ.” I smiled, lightly touching his head, almost afraid to touch him. “Holy shit.”
I checked his fingers and counted his toes, holding one of his long legs as he kicked.
“Twenty-two and three-fourths inches long, eight pounds and eleven ounces,” the nurse said somewhere behind us.
“That’s big,” the doctor commented. “He’s going to play basketball, Damon.”
I smiled but didn’t take my eyes off my girl and my kid.
I kind of wished we were fucking married now, but with the business, Winter’s dancing, and the pregnancy, we decided to take our time and do it right. I wanted to have it our way.
Alex left, probably to tell everyone waiting that he was here and healthy, and then I remembered that Will wasn’t here.
I faltered. He should be here for this. Out of all my friends, he should be here.
“What does he look like?” Winter whispered up at me, her voice raspy.
I smoothed my hand over both their heads. “Like next year he’ll be running around in the fountains with us,” I told her. “He’s perfect, baby. Black hair, a little pissed off…”
She snorted, and I thought about what he’d look like in a year when he was walking and running and laughing and playing. I wanted the noise. I wanted it all over the house. I wanted it filling our lives from here on out.
“Congratulations,” the doctor said as the nurses cleared up.
I kept my eyes on my kid. “How soon can she get pregnant again?” I asked the doctor.
“Damon…” Winter laughed under her breath.
I heard the doctor chuckle. “I think he likes being a father,” he said to Winter.
But I just turned my head and locked eyes with the doctor, and his face fell.
“Oh, you’re serious,” he said, realizing I wasn’t laughing.
He opened his mouth to speak, but it took him a few moments to find his words. “Um, within a few months, I’d say,” he finally answered. “It was a healthy pregnancy. But she needs time to heal.”
And then he said it again, slower and firmer, sounding like a warning. “You should give her time to heal.”
The corner of my mouth tipped up, amused.
Did he think I was a monster?
The night passed as they transferred Winter into another room and took the baby to get washed. When they returned him, we all held him for a while, and Banks, Kai, Michael, and Rika finally left, but I asked Alex to stay in case Winter needed something, and we didn’t want to leave her alone. I stayed by his bassinet, watching him breathe as mother and son both slept, but after not being able to get any myself, I needed to stretch my legs.
I walked over to Winter, pulling my phone off the charger as I whispered in her ear. “Going to get some air,” I told her. “Be right back.”
She moaned softly and nodded, and I left, closing the door behind me.
I went down the elevator and made my way outside, the balmy August air thick and heavy on my skin as I stretched my arms over my head and yawned. I breathed in the smell of hot asphalt and fresh bread from the bakery down the street and dialed Will, but it went straight to voicemail.
I shook my head.
I almost hung up, but then a rush of sudden anger made me lash out. “You knew my kid was coming this month,” I snapped. “Why aren’t you here? You missed it. You know, you’re just really fucking…”
But I stopped and hung up, grinding my teeth together, because I didn’t know what to say.
But after a moment, I felt bad. I had no right to lose my temper with him.
I dialed him back, waiting for voicemail to pick up again. “I miss you,” I said. “We all miss you. We need you, okay? My son needs you. You’re his favorite. I know it already. Just…”
I shook my head again and hung up.
I shouldn’t be angry. I’d done my fair share of shit I thought I needed to do.
This was just important. I wanted him part of this memory.
I turned to go back inside, but a twinge of something else hit my nostrils, and I paused. Realization hit, and I smiled to myself, forgetting Will for a moment.
Turning my head, I saw a cloud of smoke drift from behind a corner and walked toward it, spotting Rika sitting on a parking stump with her legs outstretched and ankles crossed as she smoked a Davidoff.
I walked up next to her, staying standing, and without looking, she handed me the pack and lighter as if expecting me.
What was she up to? She’d been awkward as fuck the past several months, and I was half-tempted to kidnap her again, steal Michael’s yacht, and take her to sea until she had it out with me. We hadn’t gotten a chance to speak earlier, but she was clearly back for a reason.
I took the cigarettes and dug one out, lighting the tip and reveling in the welcome, familiar taste. I took another puff and blew out the smoke, handing the cigarettes and lighter back to her.
“I’m going to tell her she has a grandchild,” she stated, still staring ahead.
So that was why she was sitting out here at four in the morning? Trying to figure out how to handle a situation that was none of her damn business?
“Tell her whatever you want.”
In the months since I’d found out that Rika’s mother was also mine, I’d neither spoken to or reached out to Christiane Fane. She saw to my freedom after my father was killed, but as far as I was concerned, she owed me that much, so no, I wasn’t grateful. Screw her.
Winning wasn’t important, but the fight was, and she didn’t fight for me at all. Having her around would bring absolutely nothing to the table.
But Rika continued to protest. “Damon, you can’t do this to her. She deserves to be in his life.”
“Do you really believe that?” I asked her even though she still wouldn’t look at me. “What if my father had never told me the truth? Would she have? It didn’t look like that was her plan.”
“Maybe once she learned he was dead, that was exactly her plan,” she shot back. And then she stood up and looked up at me. “The truth is, she wanted you. She didn’t abort you or give you away. And she wasn’t the best mother she could be, but she never hurt me. She never raised a hand to me, and she loved me.”
I shook my head, not caring.
Or trying not to care.
An image of Christiane played in my head, though. Young, crying, holding me in her arms before my father snatches me away. I couldn’t imagine the pain.
But I blinked and shook my head. No. I was a parent now, and I knew, without a doubt, nothing would stand between him and me. She was weak for far too long. My kid didn’t need someone like that.
“She’s not the only family you have, either,” Rika pointed out. “She comes with an army of relatives in Africa and Europe. Don’t you want that for your children?”
“No,” I retorted without hesitation. “My children will have Winter and me.” And then I looked over at her. “And you.”
She narrowed her eyes on me.
“And Banks, Alex, and the guys,” I added. “And they’ll have your children. This is their family. It’s exactly the family I want for them.”
And before she could argue any more, I flicked the cigarette off and walked away, back toward the entrance.
“I will win this,” she called out, threatening me.
And I turned around, unable to hide the smile from my face. “I look forward to seeing your next move,” I taunted.
And I spun back around, heading into the hospital.
Honestly, I wasn’t concerned. She might win, but it wouldn’t be tonight, and it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t ultimately want it to. The prospect of having Rika back in play was just too much fun, though, so let her try.
I hated my father for everything he’d done, but even though I hated to admit it, I loved this part. Part of me always wondered why I was drawn to Rika just a little more than other women besides Winter and Banks. I wondered why whatever was between us felt natural and inevitable. How I could’ve hurt her or killed her a thousand times, but something always held me back.
Of course she was one of my own. Of course she was. It all made sense last Devil’s Night. Everything seemed to align, and I had no fear.
Like Banks—like Winter and me—Rika was unique. She was built for the wilds, and I wanted her in my family.
Walking back down the hall and heading up it the elevator, I made my way for Winter’s room and lightly closed the door behind me. Her phone sat on the bedside table, an app playing some rain sounds as she slept, and I stepped over, looking in the bassinet at the sleeping baby, who was still swaddled up tight and warm. But now he wore a black beanie with white lettering “New to the Crew”.
I laughed quietly and looked over at Alex passed out on the chair next to his little bed. I didn’t remember that among any of the things Winter bought. I’d have to thank Alex. That was pretty funny. She must’ve woken up and changed it while I was outside.
I cocked my head, looking down at him. I expected him to be crying 24/7, but he was pretty quiet. Maybe he knew he was safe.
Or maybe he was tired, and shit would get real tomorrow.
“How is he?” I heard Winter whisper.
I popped up, looking over and seeing her sit up, her blonde hair in beautiful disarray around her.
“Asleep,” I told her.
I leaned down and held her face, noticing how exhausted she looked. We were both running on little fuel with everything going on these days, and it was time to slow down. I’d wanted to get so much more done before the kid came, but there was no time for that now. She’d need me a lot the next couple of weeks at least. But eventually, I’d need to hire someone to help with the baby. We knew that was a reality.
For now, though, I’d enjoy it just being he three of us.
I kissed her, and she put her hand on mine. “I need a shower.”
I stood up and took her hands. “I’ll help.”
I guided her out of the bed and carefully across the suite to the bathroom, leaning down to nudge Alex on the way. “Alex?” I said, seeing her jostle. “Keep an ear out for the kid, okay? We’re gonna take a shower.”
She nodded and yawned, and we headed into the bathroom, but I left the door open a crack, just in case.
Winter wasted no time shedding her hospital gown as I started the shower, getting the water warm enough, and she wrapped her arms around my waist, hanging onto me like she was going to fall over.
“You smell like high school,” she mused.
“I had a cigarette,” I admitted, even though I was pretty sure she knew I was still smoking here and there. “I was just feeling too good.”
“I like it.”
I didn’t want it all over my clothes when I held the kid, but the prospect of looking forward to a smoke once in a while made “quitting” easier.
I stripped off my clothes and lifted her into the shower with me, closing the door behind us.
As soon as I put her under the water, I saw the blood start to rinse from her body and turn the floor pink.
My stomach turned a little. I wanted more kids, but I didn’t like putting her body through this at all. I knew she’d be fine once she healed, but it almost seemed unfair that some women did this five or six times. Sometimes more. It looked brutal.
And I didn’t want to see her cry like that again.
We washed our hair and rinsed, and then I soaped up a cloth and washed her body, knowing she must be fucking sore to let me do it without protest.
“What will you do?” she asked as I knelt in front of her and washed her legs. “About Christiane?”
I paused, thinking. With Rika, I had too much pride to give myself away, but with Winter, I was freer.
“Do you think I should let her in?” I asked, not looking at her.
She put her hands on my shoulders to steady herself as I lifted her leg and washed her foot.
“I don’t think we have to be in a hurry to make any decisions now,” she said.
I smiled to myself. I loved how she was. She made me better, because I loved seeing her happy, but she didn’t push me, either.
“Our family comes first,” she added.
“Our family…” I repeated. My family. Mine.
I continued washing her, finishing her legs and cleaning the blood off her thighs.
“Do you ever stand at the edge of a cliff or a balcony,” she asked, “and have this moment where you wonder what it would feel like to jump?”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Kind of thrilled at the idea that you’re one step from death?” She squeezed my shoulders. “One step…” she said. “And everything changes?”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “It symbolizes a need to engage in self-destructive behavior. It’s not that uncommon.”
While driving, we think, even for just a moment, about jerking the steering wheel into oncoming traffic or leaping off the balcony of a ship and into the abyss of the black water below. They’re passing thoughts and little dares we allow our psyche, because we’re tired of not living and we want the fear. We want to remember why we want to live.
And some of us were more tempted than others at the thrill of how, in the moment, everything could change. Of how it’s not about who we are but what we are, and animals don’t apologize for whatever they need to do to survive.
“There’s a French phrase for it,” she said. “L’appel du vide.”
I looked up at her, her pink lips misty with hot water.
“That’s what binds us,” she told me.
“Kai, Banks, Michael, Rika, Will, Alex…” she went on. “You and me. We all hear it. L’appel du vide. The call of the void.”
I stopped, gazing at her.
“The call of the void,” I murmured.
Was she right? Was that what bound us together? Like recognizes like, after all, and we lived in that need to go a step further and feel everything we were capable of. The fear was terrifying, but coming out the other side redefined our reality.
“I like it,” I told her.
She paused and then said, “I love you.”
A pang hit my heart like it always did when she said that. Like I was falling for her all over again.
I stood up and wrapped my arms around her, smoothing her hair back under the water.
“You’re so beautiful,” I said. “Even though you gave me a son when I explicitly asked for a daughter.”
She broke out in a laugh. “I didn’t give you anything!” she argued. “It’s the chromosome the male contributes that decides the child’s sex. This is all your fault.”
We both smiled, and I nudged her with my nose. I wasn’t sure why I thought the kid was going to be a girl. Maybe I just hoped. I seemed to be better with girls. Banks, Winter, Rika… I was afraid, I guess.
“We’ll just have to keep trying,” I teased.
She nuzzled into my neck, leaving little kisses and making chills break out all over my body.
“I love you,” she whispered. “I love you.”
My dick started to harden, and I shook my head. “Don’t…” I begged. “You’re going to make these next few weeks torture.”
We couldn’t have sex for I-didn’t-know how long.
“He’s perfect, you know?” I scaled my hands down her back. “You did an amazing job. I just hope he has more you than me in him.”
She nodded, agreeing, and I gave her a swat on the ass.
She laughed. “So what are we naming him then?” she asked.
“We didn’t decide?”
“Not that I remember.”
I closed my eyes, shaking my head. God, I had no idea. Nothing old, please. And nothing biblical.
Oh, and nothing unisex. Like Peyton, Leighton, or Drayton.
“Any ideas?” she asked.
But I just leaned her back into the wall and held her close. “Tomorrow,” I said.
Right now I was more interested in climbing into bed with her and sleeping for as long as we could.
The name wasn’t important. He had my hair, and tomorrow, maybe I’d get to see if he had her eyes.
If he had mine, then I guess nothing skipped generations, after all, and Christiane was full of it.
Couldn’t wait to find out.