Babies are so unreliable. Can’t count on them for anything. Evidently, they also don’t seem to understand how arriving in the world two weeks ahead of schedule is sometimes a truly terrible idea. The worst.
Lesson learned: I should have been more prepared. Reading up on things like early labor signs and calming breathing exercises, both of which would have left me better equipped for this situation. Instead, I’ve spent the last nine months shopping for cute footie jammie sets with elephants on them and tiny down-filled puffy coats I’m positive will make any baby look like an adorable little marshmallow. Unfortunately, neither of those things are of any help right now, no matter how fashionably precious they might be.
But, as far as I know, no one’s written a book called What to Expect When Your Sister’s Expecting. Because that is what I need right now. If I had a copy of this yet-unwritten book, I’d be driving with one hand and flipping through it with the other, looking for the chapter titled: “Early Delivery—What to Do When Your Former Rock Star of a Brother-in-Law Is Twelve Hundred Miles Away.”
Instead, I’ve fastened both hands to the steering wheel at ten and two, grasping it tightly as my sister lets out another tense groan from the passenger seat. At the sound, my right foot presses down on the gas pedal even harder than before. Eighty-five on a county road in the middle of nowhere Montana? No problem. As long as I maintain my safety-first death grip on the wheel, we’ll be fine and arrive at the hospital in record time.
“Lacey.” Kate sucks in a sharp breath, and I whip my head toward her. The jerky move means my hands betray me and we end up hitting the rumble strip on the shoulder of the road.
Correcting, or rather overcorrecting, leads to another jerk of the wheel in the opposite direction. I give myself a silent reprimand and try to get my act together once more. I’m a strong, capable woman, dammit. I’ve got this. Dealing with my flustered state is the last thing my sister needs right now, so I take a centering breath and try to restrain the panic in my voice.
“Jesus. Sorry about that. What? Are you OK?”
Kate props her elbow up on the door trim panel and then leans toward the window so she can rest her head into her palm, eyes closed and her face oddly relaxed.
“I’m fine. Just slow down and try to keep it between the lines, please. I honestly don’t know who would be worse in this situation, you or Trevor. Patience isn’t his strong suit, but your driving leaves a little to be desired.”
And the fact that I’m behind the wheel driving my sister to the hospital, instead of her husband, is the real issue here. This wasn’t in the job description of awesome aunt. I’m pretty sure that being the cool aunt means you’re in charge of things like fun sleepovers with movies your parents might not let you watch, lessons on makeup, and navigating the perils of your first junior high dance. Husbands are supposed to take the lead on remembering your go-bag for the hospital and getting you there in one piece.
Despite my forgetting said go-bag and managing to kick Kate in the back of the leg while I “helped” her into the car, my sister still manages to look beautiful when she’s already a few hours into labor. With a face scrubbed clean of any makeup and her dark hair pulled into a low ponytail, the only embellishments about her are the modest princess-cut solitaire diamond studs in her ears and an unassuming gold wedding band on a still-slim ring finger.
A slight slump in her shoulders is the only giveaway that she might be in pain right now. If it were me sitting there—a whole other story, guaranteed. The only thing that might stop me from wailing about the injustices of the universe and bawling my eyes out would be the avoidance of raccoon eyes. Because I definitely want to look as pretty as humanly possible in those inevitable postdelivery baby-holding photos people snap while you’re still in the hospital bed.
But Kate and I are sisters who think differently, act differently, and look like distant cousins rather than sisters. For every dark hair on her head, I have a strawberry blonde one—albeit the shade of blonde I’m currently sporting comes primarily from a bottle. For every trim, thin limb of hers, I have a sweeping curve. Really, the only physical trait we share is the Mosely family’s blue eyes. Kate is all unassuming, pared-down beauty, while I’m eyelash curlers and keratin treatments. Thus, she manages to look effortlessly fresh and natural, even when nothing is going according to plan and her husband is currently on a very tardy private charter plane somewhere between here and LA.
“When I called Trevor this morning to tell him my water broke, he cussed so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear.” Kate gives up a tired little chuckle and a sigh, then adds a gruff rasp to her voice. “ ‘Don’t you dare have our baby until I get there, Mosely. You hear me? Hold your breath or something. I don’t give a shit, just wait for me.’ ”
I offer a soft laugh in response to Kate’s anecdote. Nothing about this story sounds like anything less than truth, because Trevor manages to make even the coarsest, crudest, most forthright statements merely sound like an ode to everything he loves about Kate. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the man had only one purpose in this lifetime: cherishing my sister with a singular focus that eclipses everything else. Platinum records aside, that is what he’s truly gifted at. Seeing it play out is both heartwarming and heartwrenching. The latter, only because wanting that same adoration from someone, for myself, feels like an impossibility these days. I can almost feel spinsterhood nipping at my heels. Even if I’m determined those heels will also be ensconced in a pair of gorgeous Tory Burch mules when it happens.
Trevor and Kate have been here together for the last few months, nesting in our hometown, but Trevor reluctantly took a three-day trip back to their place in LA to wrap up loose ends on an album he is producing. Hoping if he did, it would leave him totally unburdened once the baby came. Kate assured him it would be fine, promising that she would do nothing but eat candy bars and stare at her belly in his absence. She practically shoved Trevor out the front door and tossed his suitcase behind him.
Kate sighs from the passenger seat again. “I reminded him that having a baby doesn’t really work that way. Not sure if he was about to cry or punch a hole in the wall. Maybe both.”
“You’re the one that married a retired rock-star hoodlum. Can’t expect him to clean up his mouth at this point,” I deadpan.
It’s been three years since they met, and in that time, despite declaring at the onset that no good could come from my sister canoodling with a guy who uses profanity at least every other word, I’ve come to appreciate all the rough edges that make Trax so very Trevor-like.
Kate gives a weak smile at my lighthearted jab and suddenly I can see every bit of disappointment there. The palpable sadness that Trevor isn’t here merely because of the fallibility of mechanical objects. Like airplanes, which sometimes have parts that break and leave an impossibly passionate man stranded on the ground thousands of miles away from where his wife is, in the tiny town of Crowell, Montana. Two places that couldn’t be farther apart in this moment, despite how these two have managed to make a life in both.
What’s worse is that my sister has already spent one too many nights at the Stratton County Hospital hoping and praying for a husband to come to her. Once, it was because her first husband, James, was dying in the emergency room after a car accident turned her life to icy shambles. Now, she’s on her way there again, wanting nothing but to feel Trevor’s hand wrapped in hers. Knowing all that means I would do absolutely anything to make this easier on her.
I offer the only thing I can to make this more bearable. Reaching over to grasp her hand, I manage to keep the car off the rumble strip while assuring Kate that everything will be fine.
Five hours later, Kate is holding a perfect baby boy in her arms and peeking up anxiously at the doorway to her room every ten seconds, in the hope Trevor will be appear there. I, on the other hand, have been continuously clenching and unclenching my fingers, trying to return proper blood flow to my digits. For a tiny woman, she gripped my hand like a pro wrestler for nearly three hours straight. I’m kind of wishing I hadn’t accessorized this outfit with lots of stackable rings on my right hand and a slew of bronze bangle bracelets on my left wrist, because between her hulking grip and an awkward stance that pressed my arms into the hospital-bed rails, it was a relatively uncomfortable few hours. Not that I could say that out loud. Because, you know, I wasn’t having a baby.
But every second of the bone-crushing pain was worth it. Kate was strong and stoic, and she didn’t curse Trevor’s name or do that thing where women rage against all men for getting them in this position in the first place. She just closed her eyes and disappeared into the discomfort until it was over.
While Kate holds her baby, I make my way to the other side of the room, knowing after so many years of watching her that she needs a moment. She’s an insular, independent woman and I do my best to let that play out when she needs it, the same way I’ve done my entire life as the slightly dopey little sister who has trailed after her, envied her, and exasperated her. Besides, enduring life so tenaciously—with all its little surprises—on your own is something I’m starting to do quite well—thrive and flourish under, really. Even if I once thought the notion of feminist self-reliance merely sounded like a fancy way of convincing yourself that you don’t mind eating every meal alone.
Kate’s room is relatively quiet, even with her door open to the hallway. An afternoon lull in this part of the hospital means there isn’t much to break the silence beyond the low hum and drone of the medical equipment.
This near tranquility also means that the sound of someone slapping a flat-footed sprint down the hallway is easily discernable, every squeak and shuffle of what I’m guessing is a pair of worn-out Chucks coming through clearly. Kate lifts her head for the millionth time and grins at the still-empty doorway until Trevor appears there, coming to an abrupt halt by latching on to the door frame with the grip of one hand.
Instead of barreling immediately into the room, he stops and lingers at the threshold, eyes flickering to mine for a half second before opening his arms wide and bracing them in the doorway.
“I was very clear, Mosely. I told you to wait for me,” Trevor says, voice faltering over our last name. “You don’t take direction very well, do you?”
Kate shakes her head and purses her lips together, but whether she’s holding back a smile or a wail, I can’t tell. “Nope.”
Trevor looks worn down, dressed in his usual garb, a faded T-shirt and loose jeans, and so much regret etches his face. “I tried, baby. Devon and I nearly hijacked some CEO asshole’s jet. Simon talked us off the ledge on that one.”
Kate laughs, an undercurrent of relief in the frailty of it. “Oh God, Simon was the voice of reason? Not good.”
Awesome. Apparently, my brother-in-law didn’t come alone. Which means I’ll get to enjoy a few awkward moments with his tough-as-nails-while-still-gorgeous sister, Devon, and her wildly hot, charming boyfriend, Simon. Ideally, they’ll make out in the waiting room and feel each other’s asses blatantly, too. That way I can compound my singlehood by watching them carry on for all to see. As if my hand didn’t already hurt enough from Kate’s eagle-claw grasp, perhaps now I can add an envy-induced headache to the mix.
When Kate stretches her free hand out toward Trevor to urge him forward, still using her other to cradle the baby in the crook of her arm, the room turns so dense and thick with intimacy that all I want is to somehow disappear without either of them taking notice of my vanishing act. Maybe just a puff of pink smoke or a tiny glitter bomb from where I’m currently sitting to denote my absence.
Instead, I stay put and hold my breath while Trevor shakes his head at Kate and closes his eyes for a beat.
“Give me a minute, sweetheart. I missed the whole goddamn thing, so let me stand here for a second and just look at you. Both of you.”
Kate’s hand drops limply to the bed, but she fixes her eyes on his and waits.
Any second now, Trevor or Kate or both of them are going to start crying, I can feel it. I want to look away, but it’s practically a Hallmark card commercial, so I can’t. Finally, he drops his arms from the doorjamb and starts toward her. He reaches the edge of the hospital bed, pulls one leg up onto the mattress, and kneels toward Kate, taking her face in his hands, leaning in until his nose is touching hers. In his broken whispers, I can hear just enough, even though it’s probably too much. Apologies and endearments, with a few soft curse words to color all the reverence and make it clear we’re still dealing with Trevor, after all.
Kate lets her lips touch his for a moment and then pulls away so Trevor can see his baby up close. At that second, I start for the door because my heart is swelling and breaking at the same time. How those two got here, to a place where they’re both whole again, is a mystery and miracle. Because if you tried to understand how a brainy, overthinking novelist from the middle of nothing landed squarely in the heart of a ghetto-born, reformed-thug musician, you might spend a lifetime and never be able to find the logic in any of it.
Kate murmurs their son’s name. Nicholas Duke Jenkins. His first name in homage to the brother Trevor lost years ago and the middle name in memory of our long-passed father. In the smallest whisper a grown man can muster, Trevor says hello.
“. . . Hey there, Nic.”
I turn to sneak in one last look and find Trevor holding Nic as Kate lets her head fall back against the pillows, eyes closed and resting finally. Because Trevor being here does what it always has. He reminds Kate that she isn’t alone, that it’s safe, and whatever burden she has, she doesn’t have to shoulder it alone.
And the sight of such unburdening is so wonderfully raw and tender, I want nothing more than to know what that feels like.
As I amble down the hallway, I notice all the nurses craning their necks blatantly toward Kate’s room. When one of them sees that I’ve caught her staring, she drops her gaze and pretends to look at a chart. The move sends cold hackles up the back of my neck and every mama-grizzly component of my familial loyalty rises up inside me. I stop and turn purposefully back toward Kate’s room and pull the door shut. When the nosy nurse looks up to see what I’ve done, I send her a look I hope conveys that if she tries anything shady, I’ll have her for lunch. I consider the ol’ draw-my-index-finger-across-my-neck motion to emphasize the point, but decide that the nonverbal threats can wait. She’d better pray we don’t get to the verbal ones.
Honestly, can people not understand how intrusive it is to hover over someone’s private moments like that? Even if that someone happens to be newsworthy? Before Kate met Trevor, I used to eat up every trashy gossip magazine out there, relishing the way a celebrity fiasco made my own simple yet stable life seem just peachy. But ever since the time my sister became the fiasco, I can’t much enjoy the diversion of them.
If Kate and Trevor were a little less humble, a little more self-absorbed, they would have locked down this side of the hospital and sent in a team of attorneys to secure nondisclosures from everyone, the nurses on down to the janitors. But their lives in Crowell are typically low-key—only when we venture out of our tiny town and into the greater county do people really gawk. When people call out to greet Trevor across Crowell’s town square, it’s not because he’s Trax, it’s because he’s Kate’s husband. So our townsfolk’s disregard of his big-deal-ness means that Kate and Trevor don’t think about protecting their privacy the way they probably should.
Once I’ve satisfied my need to send everyone in the vicinity a silent message to stay clear of room 121, I make my way back to the waiting room. Because Kate is a hometown girl and Trevor has practically been adopted into our rural family, the relatively small room is nearly overrun now. Kate’s neighbor Sharon is here, making small talk with Kate’s old coworkers from what used to be our family’s newspaper, Herm and Rita. Even the weird British guy who owns the local cycling shop, Abe, has made an appearance, because he’s Trevor’s bestie here in Crowell.
Segmented off and standing a few feet away is the LA contingent, including Trevor’s mom, Marilyn, and his manager, Damien. Simon, his bandmate, is laughing at something and grinning and looking so good, it makes my jaw ache a little.
For one night—admittedly, it was the night of Kate and Trevor’s wedding, which probably explains exactly how lovelorn and misty I was feeling in the first place—I was wickedly close to him, and those gray eyes of his were nearly delirium inducing. We never got past a few glancing touches and a smattering of soft smiles, but I still think about what it would have been like had we crossed that line.
“Shut the fuck up!”
Devon’s voice, for all that it sounds like a screeching car wreck to me, is actually annoyingly feminine, with just the slightest husky rasp to it, so everything she says sounds seductive and sexy, even to my straight-girl hearing. I don’t recognize the man she’s talking to, his back to me, but from the dark dress pants and white uniform shirt topped with navy-blue-and-gold-striped epaulets at the shoulders, he must be the guy who leisurely steered the private plane here. A dark gray knit beanie covers his head, with a few unruly tendrils of hair peeking out from around the edges, all of it lending a casual edge to the rest of how he’s dressed.
Given that he’s not sporting a proper pilot’s hat, and seems to have made himself at home here chatting up Devon, he’s not much for professionalism and probably spent too much time flirting with her to focus properly on getting the plane in working order. Shouldn’t he be back at his plane already? Doing whatever slacker private pilots do before flying back to LA? A little more efficiency and a little less drooling on the pilot’s part, and they might have gotten here in time for Trevor to welcome his first baby into the world.
Devon is wearing a skintight black tank top paired with black yoga pants, because that is what she always wears. Not even for the reason most normal women wear yoga pants, because we’re feeling too lazy or bloated to put on regular pants. In her case, it’s because she does approximately nine hundred hours of yoga a week. Hot yoga, power yoga, blah, blah, blah. She even sucked Kate into the vortex and now they both have those lean, ripped yoga arms that don’t wing around when you wave at someone. The rest of Devon’s body matches her arms, no flimflamming anywhere. She’s beautiful and self-assured in the way some women are, those who take space in the world without apology and never hesitate to expect respect. It’s a quality I’ve worked on for the last few years, figuring out how to be more for myself and nothing less for anyone else—but for Devon, it seems to come naturally. The freedom that comes with that must be so damn liberating.
Her green eyes flicker over to mine, coolly composed, and I see her stretch one arm out and shove her fingers into the back pocket of Simon’s jeans, where he stands less than a foot away, talking to Damien. Without even turning to look at her, he reaches back and untucks her hand, then wraps his fingers in hers. Another glance from Devon my way, to make it absolutely clear that she’s marked him as private property for her enjoyment only.
Jesus. Duly noted. Like I was even planning to try to seduce him, anyway.
OK, fine. Maybe a small, tiny, practically imperceptible part of me would consider it. Maybe I wanted to have a man look at me like that again, the way Simon did that night at Trevor and Kate’s wedding. Even for a couple of hours. Because it’s been a long time since I indulged in the distraction of a man and some flirting that may or may not lead anywhere. And I miss it. I miss letting a guy focus on me, doing all those things men do that make it seem as if you’re all that matters. A few hours wasted that way might convince me that being both desirable and self-reliant isn’t just a ridiculous fantasy.
Sharon sidles up next to me, gently tugging on the end of my shirtsleeve and allowing my attention to focus elsewhere. “How is she? Better?”
Nodding, I smile a little and let everything else fade away. Perhaps now I can escape the cloud of heavy-handed emotional stuff in this hospital for a moment and catch a breather outside. After that I’ll be holed up here—until I’m positive Kate doesn’t need anything else—trying to decide which pathetically out-of-date magazine in the waiting room to read first. Perhaps I’ll start with the self-esteem-damaging women’s mag that’s trying to masquerade itself as a fitness journal. The cover shouts of a workout that will give me skinny-jean-worthy thighs in six minutes a day. I like skinny jeans, don’t love my thighs, and consider six minutes to be the right amount of time for a workout.
Backing out of the room, intent on a few moments of fresh air, I smile. “She’s perfect now. I’m going to head outside for a bit, so make sure no one interrupts them for a while, OK? I’m sure Trevor will come out once they’re ready for the ambush of cooing and tears.”
I catch a glimpse of the pilot again just as I turn to leave the room. When he chuckles at another witticism from Devon, I suddenly want someone to punish for Trevor’s absence, and this guy makes the perfect target. He’s leaning in toward Devon and speaking quietly, in a rich, resonant tone that is far too easygoing for my taste right now.
“Plus, Trevor needs a few minutes alone with her and the baby.” I raise my voice deliberately. “Since fancy private planes apparently travel at the speed of molasses, he missed out on everything.”
The room immediately turns silent. Simon manages to ease the tension slightly by snorting out an uncomfortable laugh. I saunter away and step around the corner. No more than five steps beyond, there is a door leading to the outside. My hand lands against the door, but when I start to push it open, a loud voice emerges from the waiting room.
“Aw, come on, Shoelace. Don’t go getting yourself all tied up in knots. I got him here in one piece, didn’t I?”
I halt in place. The door has one of those industrial-style push bars on it, and when I pull my hand back slowly, it squeaks loudly under the release. Finally, the door clicks shut and the weight of it against my hips threatens to toss me off balance. I keep my fingers against the cool metal of the door for a moment, trying to decide if I’m hearing things.
Only one person in my entire life has called me that. The world’s lamest nickname. People have called me Lace for years; my father called me Lacie-Gracie, riffing off my first and middle names. But “Shoelace” was the invention of a boy who liked to rile me up and kiss me down after he did, and ended up tearing my teenage heart in two when he walked away without even saying sayonara.
As my feet shuffle across the five long steps back to the waiting room, heart thudding angrily in my chest, I would swear my lungs are losing traction with every inch. I tip my head to the side and peer into the room.
Jake Holt. Live and in person. Standing there with the same crooked smile he used to give me when we were seventeen. The same blue eyes. The same dimple in his left cheek.
The same voice, every recognizable twitch of mischief and longing in his inflection. Just like he used to lay on me when we were alone and doing things I thought we shouldn’t but wanted more than anything.
Reckless things. Half-naked things. Semi-illegal things.
Slowly, Jake slips the gray beanie off his head, chin tilted down a bit so he can peer cautiously at me with only a small smile, and runs a hand through his hair. It’s different now; the last time I saw him it was longer and straggly, and one hunk would flop over his right eye every time he leaned forward to kiss me, obscuring the eyebrow ring he once had. When he did that—kissed me or put his face right next to mine to whisper something—the ends of his hair would tickle across my eyelashes. Now it’s shorter, less bright blond and absent of the green or blue streaks he used to dye in occasionally, cut into a shaggy but grown-up style.
And, good God, the rest of him grew up, too. The pilot’s uniform cuts close to his body, and he’s crossed his arms over his chest, a chest he actually has now, so I can tell that somewhere along the last decade or so, Jake Holt went and traded in his gangly, rangy body for one that is still lean but rife with dense, compact muscles. Everywhere, I’m pretty sure.
I don’t know what to say in response. A returning “hey” or “hello” doesn’t feel right, too casual for this moment. Probably because ten years ago, we never said good-bye properly. All I can manage is a stage whisper, but I get the words out somehow.
“What the hell took you so long?”
That question is for today, and yesterday, and every day between when he left town and now. How he might answer, who knows. How I might react? No telling.
Jake’s smile fades. “Sweetheart, I had things to do. Places I had to go.” He cants his head to one side a fraction. “I didn’t know anyone was waiting for me.”
So what if—somewhere in the reminiscent parts of my heart—I was? It’s not his concern. So what if I’ve always wondered what became of Jake Holt? So what if I’ve trolled social media for him when I’ve indulged in too much nostalgia, worrying that he died because he’s basically a ghost when it comes to the wilds of the ’net? Who cares if I’ve sometimes imagined in full color what my life would have been like with him, from the places we would live, to the things he would say when we woke up together in our bed?
A confused, heated, overwhelmed sting is brewing behind my eyelids. This is too much emotion for one day. New babies, old flames, unrequited hookups, all in the same building. Next thing you know, the eleven-year-old boy whose braces got caught in my hair during our first kiss will come walking through the door or something. And right now, there is no way I can handle another scene from This Is Your Life, the Lacey Mosely edition.
Kate will understand if I disappear. She won’t judge me for it, once she knows why. Once I come clean and tell her how I once gave everything to Jake Holt. When I tell her we were the kind of secret that was wonderful and wild, Kate will grant me a pass on leaving.
Since Kate’s opinion is the only one that matters today, I turn on my heel and throw the heavy door open so hard it nearly bounces back and whacks my shoulder before I can clear the opening. Then I get in my car, curse the radio for the throwback heartbreak song that’s blaring when the engine roars to life, and drive away.