Christmas-weary diners crowded the tables at Confucius Says. Tory Beecham-Todd leaned back in her chair and linked her hands across her rounded belly. The baby was restless tonight--kicking, twisting and turning like an acrobat. She'd swear the kid had just done a back flip. At least someone at the table had energy to spare.
Across from her, Tory's husband, Dillon, worked his way to the last grain of rice on his plate. She wondered how he could always eat so much, yet stay so thin? Too thin, she realized with a jolt, wondering when he'd dropped so much weight. He looked as if he'd lost every pound she'd gained in the past eight months. And she'd gained plenty, despite her faithful exercise routine.
With tired eyes, Tory studied Dillon more closely. Not only was he thinner than normal, his olive skin seemed to have paled a shade. And his typically sleepy-looking eyes looked sleepier than usual. Two and a half years ago, when their daughter Kayla was born, he'd cut off his shoulder-length black hair. Short as it was, though, tonight even his cropped locks looked droopy--as droopy as Tory felt.
When her vision blurred, Tory gave in to fatigue, closed her eyes and sighed. The only thing keeping her going was the news that had arrived in the mail today--a letter that was, right this minute, tucked safely away in the pocket of her coat, which lay folded on the chair beside her. As soon as Dillon finished eating, she'd share the surprise, but for now, silly as it might be, she liked savoring the secret, being stingy with it, keeping it all to herself.
"Hmmm?" Tory answered.
"You're not gonna fall asleep on me, are you?" he asked with the lazy drawl she'd always loved.
"No, I'm going to fall asleep on this chair."
"I'm not sure I can carry you outta here."
She opened one eye. "Are you saying I'm too fat?"
"No." The corner of Dillon's mouth lifted: "I'm saying I'm too weak."
Tory opened her other eye. "It was nice of Lisa and Michael to give us a night out." As a Christmas gift, Dillon's boss, Lisa O'Conner, and her husband, Michael, who was Tory's boss, had given them a gift certificate for dinner at Confucius Says, tickets to a movie, and their services as sitters for Kayla tonight. "Too bad I'm too tired to enjoy it," Tory added, yawning.
"Yeah, me too." Dillon yawned back. "Wanna skip the movie?"
She nodded. "Look at us." Tory fought her stomach to sit up straight, then gave up the futile battle and slumped back in her chair. "You'd think we were an old married couple."
"We are an old married couple."
"No, we're not. We just feel old. And if we're this boring after only three years of marriage, no one will be able to stand us after ten. How long has it been since we've had a night out together, just the two of us?"
Dillon shrugged. "How old's Kayla? Two and a half?"
"See? After two and a half years we finally get some time alone and all we really want to do is go home and go to bed."
Dillon wiggled his brows. "Sounds great to me," he said, his voice low and suggestive.
Tory made a face. "I meant to sleep. If you haven't noticed, I'm pregnant."
With his dark eyes holding steady on her face, Dillon shoved his plate aside. "So?"
"So, I'm a lot pregnant."
"So, I'm exhausted. You are, too. Admit it."
He reached across the table for her hand. "We deserve to be exhausted. Think of all we've been through since we got married. Kayla's birth, both of us working and going to school at the same time, trying to make ends meet. Now, another baby on the way." He squeezed her fingers. "At least the load got a little lighter after I graduated last semester."
For you, maybe, Tory thought, but refrained from voicing the words. After finishing college, Dillon merely increased his hours at Wishful Thinking, the restaurant he managed, while she'd continued the long, slow trek toward earning her own degree. Tory worked three mornings a week at a law firm and attended classes the other two mornings. Occasionally, she'd taken a night class and had even picked up three credits in an Internet online program approved by the university.
"Now that you've graduated, too," Dillon continued, "things are bound to get easier for us. Less stressful."
The people at the next table laughed at some comment Tory hadn't heard. She felt like laughing too as she glanced down at her stomach, then scowled across at Dillon. "Our little unexpected addition to the family is due to arrive in-a month. Things aren't going to get any easier. Not for a long, long time."
Grinning, he lowered his gaze to her belly, apparently unfazed by the pessimistic tone of her voice. "One of these days we're gonna figure out how that keeps happening."
"Oh, I know how it happened. You were in too big a rush to postpone things and go make a purchase at the drug store."
Dillon's expression shifted from amusement to defensiveness in the space of a second. He released her hand, lifted his own to idly scratch one sideburn, a habit he'd acquired since cutting his hair: "When a guy finally gets a green light after six weeks of waiting, he doesn't want to waste time taking a detour."
"I'd been studying for finals," Tory snapped.
"So had I."
"Kayla had a stomach virus. I was up to my knees in dirty diapers. But you wouldn't remember, because you were never home."
Dillon's eyes went cold. The veins in his-neck bulged "Well, pardon Kayla for putting you out. I was working a full-time job and carrying a full load in school. You're the one who only works part-time. I can't be with Kayla as much as you can. I wish I could."
Tory bristled. He'd flipped the wrong switch. The guilt switch. She had always known having a baby would change her life, but until Kayla's birth, she'd never imagined the joy a child would bring...or the amount of stamina-draining work. "I have news for you, Dillon Todd. Kayla is a full-time job."
"If you want to accuse me of causing all your problems, that's fine. But no way am I gonna sit here and listen to you blame Kayla. Our daughter's not a job." His eyes narrowed. "I can't believe you'd say that, Tory. I guess next you'll be blaming the baby, too."
Tory's throat constricted. Dillon might as well have slapped her. The restaurant's clamor suddenly seemed louder than before. "I'm a good mother," she said in a strained voice. "Don't you dare say I'm not. I love Kayla, and I love this baby, too. They're my first priorities. I'm just..." She crossed her arms and looked away from him.
Across the restaurant, back toward the kitchen, an old Chinese man stood behind the counter, his shrewd eyes steady upon her. A chill prickled Tory's skin as she met his piercing gaze. And all at once, she felt herself being drawn into a vacuum where only she and the shriveled old man existed...away from the noise of the restaurant...away from her worries...away from Dillon. She shivered; it was as if the tiny man-was probing her mind.
Dillon huffed a breath and broke the spell. "I'm sorry, Babe."