"Here we go again," Creigh De Luca muttered to herself as she slipped open the door to her hybrid and climbed out. She stood in the open doorway of her car and brought her hand up to the base of her forehead. Shielding her eyes from the bright glare of the sun, she stared longingly at the door of her ex-husband's house.
It never failed. Whenever it was time for her to drop the kids off for one of their visits with Dean, Creigh begin to feel the waves of what-ifs wash upon her shore of doubts once more. But as usual, she kept her thoughts to herself. What good would it do to admit that the person who had initiated divorce proceedings was the one who wished she could take it all back?
There were no do-overs for life-changing fuckups. So Creigh was learning the hard way to lie in the bed she'd made. After taking a few cleansing breaths, she rounded her car and opened her trunk to take out the duffel bags the kids had packed for their visit.
As a trio the three of them made their way up the walkway to Dean's house. The two kids were laughing and joking around as Creigh fought the urge to smooth down her shoulder-length dark brown hair once more in a lame attempt at vanity. Instead she used her nervous energy to ring the doorbell.
After a few seconds Dean opened the door, meeting them with a big smile aimed directly at Harlow and Hamilton and not an inch higher so there would be no way Creigh could have the mistaken impression he was happy to see her. But that was okay. She was learning to deal with his indifference because the truth of the matter was, despite their problems, Dean was the best dad in the world.
It always warmed Creigh's heart to observe his reaction at seeing the kids after a week away from them. Dean loved their daughter and son with a fierce devotion that made a fatherless woman like Creigh envious and proud all at the same time. Her children were very lucky to have Dean as their father.
Hamilton, putting his well-earned nickname to good use, began to ham it up right away. Standing as rigid as possible, he saluted his father and spoke in a soldier dialect. "Sir, time for changing of the guards, sir."
Dean saluted back before reaching out and then running his hand over the tightly coiled curls of their son's golden brown hair. "At ease, soldier. New LEGOs are on the bed. Why don't you march up there and check them out? We have a storm trooper that needs assembling this weekend, soldier."
"Yes, sir." He saluted once more, then turned on the balls of his tiny feet and lifted his lips up for a kiss, causing Creigh to smile. Beneath the dirt he purposely smudged on his freckled light brown cheeks was the little boy who still preferred she cut the crust off his sandwiches and hadn't quite reached the age where cuddling with his mom was gross. "Bye, Mom."
"Have fun, sweetie. Call me."
"If I get leave to."
Creigh rolled her eyes. "See that you do, Hambone." Hamilton gave a stiff nod of his head, then ran into Dean's house. As she watched him go, Creigh shook her head.
The seven-year-old, who was in his usual weekend wear of fatigues, was taking his soldier obsession a bit far, but Dean, being the type of dad he was, played along with it. He insisted it was perfectly normal. He said at one time or another, all little boys wanted to be soldiers, cowboys, and magicians. Be that as it may, it didn't mean she had to like it. If Creigh had to pick a phase out of all of them, she would have gone with the magician. A cleaner, less violent obsession.
"He is so weird," Harlow muttered, put out with her brother as all big sisters across the universe were from time to time. There wasn't a doubt in Creigh's mind Harlow would take a sucker down for looking at Hamilton the wrong way, but she considered it her sisterly prerogative to give him as much crap as possible. She had two years of superior living on him, which in her mind made her the queen of all things. In Hamilton's mind, she was just a big know-it-all. "I think therapy might be something the two of you should consider for him in the future."
"Thank you, Dr. Phil." Smiling, Dean pulled his daughter in for a hug. The preteen fit just right in the nook of his arms, her head barely coming up to the middle of his chest. "Hey, princess. Missed you."
"Missed you too, Dad." Pulling back, she smiled and peered up at him, her pretty hazel eyes lit with happiness. "Did my Netflix movies arrive?"
"Yes, and the pizza should be here in twenty."
"And you ordered me my own, right? Organic veggies only?" Harlow was going through a PETA-loving health kick that was driving Creigh's food bill up and her patience down. She just couldn't win. One kid wanted to defend the world, and the other wanted to hug it. Creigh supposed it could have been worse, but she was sure stranger stages were ahead.
"Yes. No past lives, flavor, or anything remotely edible shall be on your pizza."
"Perfect." After bouncing over to Creigh, Harlow gave her a quick hug and kiss before following behind her brother into Dean's house. No matter how often she'd come here to either pick up the kids, drop them off, help out with something or the other, Creigh could not get herself to call it anything but Dean's house. The kids' home was with her. Keeping that in mind was the only thing that kept her sane as she roamed her lonely house when it was his time with them. The one thing holding her together.
As soon as Harlow's bouncing russet curls were out of sight, the smile on Dean's face slipped away, and he brought the door toward him as if he were liable to shut it at any time. He instantly became closed off, putting up a wall that clearly read hands off. A year hadn't changed much between the two of them. He was still angry and felt wronged, and she was still sad and felt wronged. And as the old saying went, two wrongs didn't make a right. "Same plan as last week. Your house, Sunday night, before six."
"Yes." The one bright spot of her weekend. The day her kids came back home.
"Okay, then." Dean began to close the door.
"Wait," she called out, willing her courage to rise. "I...ummm...I need to talk to you." It was now or never.
"Talk to"--Dean glanced around him in disbelief before facing her once more--"me. I thought the only talking we did was with lawyers."
"That was months ago," she bit out. Will this ever get easier?
"Funny, it feels like just yesterday."
Creigh felt her temper flare. "How long are you going to keep holding the divorce against me?"
"Until it stops hurting."
"Apparently this is not the time to talk." She took a step back. Breaking the news to him when he was in a mood like this would only make things worse. "I'll try back another time."
Cursing under his breath, Dean stepped out of the house and closed the door behind him. "Another time? This must be important if you're trying to pencil in time to talk to me."
It was, and the longer she waited, the harder it would be to tell him. "I wouldn't be talking to you if it wasn't."
He hesitated for a moment. "Is it about the kids?"
Creigh nodded. "It involves them, yes."
"Okay." Dean turned around and opened the door wide, waving her in. She did her best to walk past him without contact, but her efforts weren't enough, and they touched for a brief moment. As short of a time as it was, Creigh shouldn't have even noticed, let alone been affected by it. But she was. Her sensitive nipples instantly tightened beneath her shirt, a telltale sign if there was any, of the longing she still felt for this irresistible man.
Maybe it was because it had been far too long since she felt the weight of a man against her. Maybe it was because her hormones were overriding her brain. Or maybe it was simply because Dean was the best lover she'd ever had. No matter, it was damn near impossible for Creigh to be in the same room with him and not feel a tug of desire for him.
Dean's quick intake of breath let Creigh know she wasn't the only one affected. But before she could think of the implications of what that might mean, he stiffened and pulled back. Mortified, she hastened her steps and moved away from him. Good Lord. She had to get herself together before she made a fool out of herself.
She transferred her attention from her ex to her surroundings instead. His home was smaller than the one they'd lived in when they'd been together, but still comfortable enough to accommodate the kids when they visited. A word he despised.
"Mom?" Harlow's hazel eyes widened when she spotted Creigh.
Creigh shot her a quick smile, but it was Dean who spoke. "Your mom and I need to talk. Go check on your brother, and the two of you stay upstairs until I come and get you."
"Why?" Her gaze darted between her parents. "What's going on?"
"Adult stuff that has nothing to do with you. Now get." He punctuated his words with a playful swat to her behind. Harlow started up the stairs, but she continued to glance back over her shoulder in curiosity. When she was out of sight, he turned to face Creigh again. "Let's go in the kitchen."
"Okay," she said, following behind him when he went into the other room. As they walked she ran her gaze over him, taking in his outfit. He was dressed in what Creigh lovingly called De Luca wear. The staple clothing of all the De Luca men in Dean's immediately family--jeans and T-shirt with another shirt on top. And although his brothers made the very causal outfit look good, on Dean it was a work of art. Unable to help herself, she dropped her gaze to his ass, framed nicely by the faded denim he wore like a second skin.
The unbuttoned green long-sleeved shirt he sported over his black T-shirt had seen better days, but it suited him to a tee. Dean was in no way metrosexual. He'd never met a cotton T-shirt he didn't love and thought nothing about using his shampoo as body wash and face cleanser. He was a simple man with simple pleasures, yet he never failed to make her heart skip a beat. Even now, after all this time and with everything that had gone down between them, Creigh couldn't look away. Her sex throbbed at the mere sight of him.
Stop it, she ordered herself. Creigh needed to get herself together and fast, before she began to hump his leg like horny little Chihuahua.
By the time they entered the kitchen, Creigh had her libido back under control. As usual, Dean pulled out the chair for her, as was his custom. It was a testament to his upbringing that he still was chivalrous even when she knew he didn't want her around. "Have a seat."
Without speaking, she complied, then watched, disheartened, as he moved past the table and leaned against the kitchen counter, putting as much space between them as the small room allowed. Has it really come to this?
"So is this the part of the divorce where we become buddies? Are you going to start hooking me up with your single friends now that the ink is dry?"
"If I recall correctly, you didn't need the ink to be dry before you started hooking up." The accusation was out before she could help it, but some wounds took longer to heal.
Dean's mouth set into a hard line. "We were separated and you left me, if you recall correctly."
There was nothing wrong with her memory or apparently his rebound skills. "And a man has his needs."
"Yeah, the need to feel like a man and not like a failure just happens to be one."
"I never said you were a failure." She never even thought it.
"You left me. I think we can pretty much chalk that up as a fail."
She might have been the one to file the papers, but she wasn't the one who left. Dean had checked out of their marriage emotionally a long time before she'd sought a lawyer. "Everything isn't so black or..." Creigh closed her eyes and took another deep breath. This wasn't getting them anywhere. It was also why their changing of the guard happened on doorsteps and in public places. They still hadn't managed to recover from the bitter feelings of the divorce to act like adults quite yet. Releasing the breath, Creigh opened her eyes and forced her lips to tilt up in a smile. She would be civil if it killed her. "I didn't come here to fight with you. I came to talk."
"Talk." Dean snorted. "Not exactly our strong suit," he reminded her unnecessarily. He was right, though. There had been a lot of things they'd been good at, bed being number one, and talking being dead last.
"Then let's pretend to be other people for today. Adult people."
The corner of his lips turned upward. "That's not fun."
"Be that as it may, it's what I need today."
"I'm surprised you're coming to me with a need. I figured I would be last on the list of people you'd turn to."
"You'd figure wrong. We were friends a long time before we were lovers and for a much longer time than we were actual lovers." Creigh glanced down at her hands. "Sometimes I think we should have just stayed friends, but then of course there'd be no Harlow, no Hamilton."
"And that would be unbearable."
She glanced up and nodded. On that they could agree. "Yes, it would. It's also in their name and the name of our former friendship that I want to venture out on this limb and talk to you about something."
"Is there something wrong?"
"Not entirely." There was never going to be a better opening than this. "I'm pregnant."
Dean's head jerked back as if her words assaulted him. "Pre-pregnant. Are you sure?"
"As sure as three pregnancy tests, two sonograms, and several bouts of morning sickness can be." She tried to infuse some lightness in her voice to downplay the tension that filled the room.
"Damn." Dean paled, and he dropped lifelessly into the chair in front of her. Gone was the condescending man who opened his house to her just minutes earlier, and in his place was someone who appeared as if he just had his world kicked out from under him. It was a feeling Creigh knew well. "That's pretty pregnant."
"Yes, it is."
"Is this your way of telling me you're getting"--the final word seem to stick in his throat, making Creigh wonder if, like her, he had a hard time accepting the fact they were completely divorced--"remarried."
"No." Marriage was so not in the cards. "This is my way of telling you I'm pregnant."
His fingers clenched into a fist, and his voice became tense. "And the father?"
Creigh wanted so badly to remind Dean it took more than a donation to make a man a father, but she refrained. That was her own heartbreak she'd have to learn to deal with. It wasn't his fault or problem. So instead, she tried to play off her anger at her stupidity and shrugged as if it meant nothing. "What about him?"
"What's his role in all this?"
"He's not going to have a role." Something she was becoming more and more okay with the longer she had to deal with it.
His hazel eyes narrowed. "Your call or his?"
Creigh avoided his gaze. She didn't want to lie to him, but there was no way she could tell him the truth. "Let's just say it's mutual."
"Mutual." Creigh could see the very idea of a man not wanting to take part in his child's life was so foreign to Dean it was laughable. Dean was raised to take responsibility for his actions, to be a man at all costs, and never to fail. Personally, she always thought his upbringing played a large part in the hostility between the two of them now thanks to the divorce. "Not everyone wants to be a father."
"Then he should have worn a condom. Or you should have been on birth control. Why weren't you? God, Creigh, how could you be so stupid?"
Creigh felt herself begin to tense up. "I don't need a safe-sex lecture from you."
"Apparently not. It would be a bit like shutting the barn door after the cow escaped."
"And I damn sure don't need you passing judgment on me," she snapped.
Dean's eyes flashed with anger. His jaw was rigid, and Creigh knew he was doing everything he could to keep his temper in check. After a few seconds of silence, he looked at her again. "So what are you going to do?"
"What do you think I'm going to do?" For her, there had never been a question.
"You're going to have it."
Creigh let out a sigh. She'd done so many things wrong. Slept with a man she didn't care about in hopes of jump-starting a lagging libido and boosting her self-esteem after seeing Dean out on a date with a younger, thinner, paler woman. Her pity party resulted in a night she wished she could forget with a jerk she wished she'd never met, but also a surprising little gift nuzzled right under her heart. No matter the circumstances of the baby's creation, it still was Creigh's baby. "Yes. I'm going to have her."
"Her. You know the sex already?" His gaze lowered to her barely-beginning-to-thicken waist, hidden quite well beneath the loose-fitting shirt she wore. "How far along are you?"
"Four and a half months," she admitted reluctantly.
"Four and a hal--" Dean erupted from his chair. "Why did you wait so long to say something?"
Warily, Creigh watched him storm over to the sink and grasp the front in his large, strong hands, holding on as if his very life, or hers, depended on it. "Superstitious, I guess. I needed to pass the three-month milestone before I could even begin to think of telling everyone. Announcing a pregnancy is easy, but unannouncing one is a whole other ballgame." A fact they both knew well after their miscarriage three years earlier.
"Do the kids know yet?" he asked without turning back around to face her.
Creigh shook her head even though she knew he couldn't see her. "No. I wanted to tell you first. I know it's not going to be easy for them." Hell, it still wasn't easy for her, but nothing worthwhile ever was. "Harlow, especially. She's never given up on the idea of us reconciling. And of course it doesn't help she thinks you walk on water."
Dean glanced over his shoulder at her. "I'm not exactly thinking Christlike thoughts right now."
"You'd be a saint if you were." And a saint he wasn't. No one knew that better than her. But her wavering feelings for him had nothing to do with the immediate problem at hand. "This is going to hurt them at first, confuse them even, but in time they'll adapt. Kids do."
"Adapt." Dean crossed his arms over his chest and turned around to face her once more. Anger clouded his features. Fury filled his voice. "Isn't that the line you fed me when you decided we should split up?"
Decide. He made it seem as if making the choice to ask him to leave was as easy as picking out an outfit to wear. It had been the hardest thing she'd ever had to do. Even harder than sitting before the man she still loved and having him stare at her as if she were branded with a scarlet A on her breast. But it had been the right thing to do. They'd been drowning, coming apart at the seams, and it was all she could do to stay afloat.
Dean was a stickler for seeing something to the end, and Creigh was afraid his need to make the best of the situation would have torpedoed the thin strand of friendship they had left. If she couldn't have his heart, at the very least she wanted his friendship. But even that seemed to be asking for too much.
She tried again to be civil. "If you could make this a little less difficult for me, I wouldn't hold it against you."
"I'm sorry if I'm not handling this as well as you'd like. It's not every day a man finds out his wife is pregnant with another man's child."
"Thanks for the reminder," he said bitterly.
"You're very welcome." Creigh ran her hand across her eyes and sighed. God, could this go any worse? Tired, she folded her hands together in her lap and looked up at him. "It wouldn't kill you to be a bit kinder."
"And would it have killed you to keep your legs closed?" She gasped at his words, and he immediately looked contrite. "I'm... Fuck." Dean spun away from her, but not before Creigh saw the look of disgust on his face.
Shaken, she rose unsteadily to her feet and placed a sheltering hand against her stomach. "And on that note, I'll say good-bye."
Dean turned back to her. "No. Wait. I didn't--"
"I just wanted you to hear it from me," she interrupted, unable to handle much more of his disdain. "I'll see you Sunday night."
Dean let out a heavy sigh. "Creigh."
"Just...don't." Shaking her head, Creigh turned and walked from the room, head held high, holding on to what little pride she had left.