Authors: Teona Bell
Elliot looked at Charmaine, and she stared back at him. Fear in her eyes and hurt stood stark against rich cocoa skin that was all at once paler. He’d screwed up big time, damn him.
When he didn’t speak, Amaya moved back and tugged his hand. “It’s okay, Elliot. I don’t have a daddy. So you can be my daddy. Will you, Elliot?”
“Amaya,” Charmaine rasped.
He stooped to face the little girl, hands at her hips. “Sweetheart, there’s nothing I would like more in this world than to be your daddy. I really would love it. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.”
He focused on a spot of lint on her shoulder and picked it off because he could no longer look into those wide innocent eyes. “Because a daddy, one that’s not your original daddy, should probably be with your mommy.”
Another screw up. Damn, I’m doing great.
“But Aunt Charmaine is my mommy now, aren’t you Aunt Charmaine?” She glanced at Charmaine for verification. Even from the corner of his eyes he registered the shock on Charmaine’s face and the glisten of tears starting.
“Yes, baby, I’m your mommy now.”
Amaya nodded as if that settled things. “See, Elliot?”
He gathered his thoughts to explain to her, but she had already moved on. “Can we get chicken? No, hamburger? I want cheese and French fries.”
Elliot blew out a breath as Amaya ran over to the dresser beside the bed to look for clean clothes. He winced seeing her yank out several pieces and toss them on the floor. When he faced Charmaine, she still hadn’t stirred or said anything. Elliot moved over next to her and touched a hand to her lower back.
“Breathe, it’s fine,” he whispered.
She dipped her head, and the fingers on both hands found each other. He laid his other hand over hers and felt her tremble. A sense of wanting to protect her came over him, and he stepped closer. He wished she would lay her head on his chest as easily as Amaya hugged him, but he knew that wouldn’t happen. Regardless, she stayed close, and Elliot let her draw on his strength.
“She knows how to keep you on your toes,” Charmaine joked. “I didn’t think about whether she thought of me as her mother. She always calls me Aunt Charmaine, and we never talked about anything different. Elliot, I…”
He waited, silent and wanting her to be brave enough to finish whatever it was she had to say.
“I don’t know what I would have done these first few weeks of having her without you. I know we just met, but you’ve been an amazing friend and…more, I guess.”
“I want to be more,” he murmured. She stiffened, so he didn’t drive home the point. “Just do me a favor and let me be that friend you say I am, okay? Don’t push me away, and I won’t try to get more than you’re willing to give. Not until you’re ready.”
She smirked. “Until I’m ready? You act like you expect I will be some day.”
“Not some day.”
“I’ll give you one thing, you’re a positive person.”
“I am, and I want you to see the good all around you, too.”
“I’m not in the depths of despair.”
“No, but you should be in the clouds.”
“With Amaya…and…I guess I can join you ladies for a bit of frolicking through the floating islands.”
“Man, you’re nuts, but I like you.”
He laid a hand over his chest. “Be still my heart. She likes me! Amaya, did you hear that? She likes me!”
“Yay!” Amaya shouted.
“Don’t encourage her.” Charmaine started away from him, but he forgot his vow. He drew her backward and tucked her against his chest, bringing his arms around her waist. When he lowered his head to the top of hers, he breathed in deep and shut his eyes. Her body fit right against his. She squirmed, but he tightened his grasp and moaned. “She’s not looking.”
looking. Let go, Elliot.”
“In a minute,” he said. “This is the other way to make up for the ugly balloons.”
She giggled. “Don’t start that again.”
He studied her beautiful face for a beat and peeked over at Amaya. The little girl was still digging around in her clothing drawer, so Elliot decided to steal a kiss. He cupped both sides of Charmaine’s face between his hands and tilted her head back. Her eyes widened, and she grabbed onto his wrists. He waited a second, but she wasn’t trying very hard to get him off. Elliot tossed her a knowing look and leaned down.
Charmaine’s soft lips parted for him, and he took the offering, dipping his tongue into her mouth. She tasted so incredible, he wanted more and for the kiss to last forever. Unfortunately, something told him they would be caught if he lingered. With a hungry suck at her bottom lip and a brief nibble, he let her go.
She wobbled and pressed the backs of her fingers to her mouth while glaring at him. Elliot winked, and she smacked his chest.
“You said you wouldn’t push.”
didn’t push,” he assured her. “My tongue is another matter.”
“Bastard,” she whispered.
He grinned. “Get cleaned up. I’ll go shower and change and pick my favorite ladies up in forty-five minutes. That good?”
“I guess it will work.”
Elliot caught the twinkle in her eyes and sang about a purple turtle on the way back to his apartment.
I’m not in love, damn it! I’m seriously not!
Charmaine had been having the argument with herself all morning, and she just recalled a night full of dreams that included one stubborn nerd of a man. She couldn’t get him out of her head when she should be writing code.
Movement at her side caught her attention, and she rolled over to watch Amaya sleeping. Her hair was a mess again, and Charmaine reached out without thinking to smooth the silky mass. Her heart thumped harder, and for the millionth time, she felt tears welling. She hadn’t noticed, but it had been difficult to hold Amaya and love her. Charmaine couldn’t have defined when she started to be afraid of being hurt or loving and touching people, but at some point, that block had crumbled.
“He did it,” she whispered to the quiet room.
Somehow in his crazy persistence, over the last few weeks, Elliot had gotten past her defenses and charmed her into not only caring about him, but more importantly loving Amaya. Of course, she had always loved Amaya, and probably on some deep level Stacia. The problem was, she’d been terrified of those feelings because it seemed like they would destroy her.
“How could I be scared of you?” Charmaine said to the small face, and Amaya opened her eyes. Another wave of love rolled over Charmaine.
She’s mine, and I’m not scared anymore.
Well, not as scared. Raising Amaya still terrified her beyond belief, but it wasn’t about caring for the little girl. “Hey, you want pancakes today?”
Amaya’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yup. I know how to make them good. Grandma showed me long time ago.”
Amaya bounced into a sitting position and then launched herself at Charmaine’s neck. Charmaine gagged. “Easy, if you choke me I can’t make the pancakes.
Her niece squealed and drew back. “Can Elliot have pancakes, too?”
Charmaine smirked. “You like him, huh?”
“Yes, I love Elliot.”
Simple as that, she admitted it while bouncing. Then Charmaine had a moment of panic. Did Amaya love him because she desperately wanted a dad? And what if they stopped being friends. Amaya would be hurt.
Charmaine reached out to grab her and settle her down. “Listen to me. First, I want you and me to start over.”
Amaya blinked in confusion and glanced around the room. “Where?”
Charmaine laughed. “I mean with our relationship. When you first came, I didn’t pay attention to you much. I didn’t realize I was kind of starting the same trend I came from with my mother and…”
Amaya’s blank expression said she didn’t get it, but she listened.
Charmaine took the little girl in her arms and sat up to place her on her lap. “I want us to be able to trust each other from now on.”
“You mean you don’t want me to steal stuff?”
“Oh baby, well, yes, but it’s not just you. It’s me, too. You were hurt, and I wasn’t there for you. I know you don’t fully understand what I’m saying, but…I guess I mean I love you, Amaya.”
Amaya twisted around and faced Charmaine and kissed her on the cheek. She held on, pressing the side of her soft face to Charmaine’s, and Charmaine ignored the awkward feeling inside to soak up the little girl’s love.
“I love you, too, Aunt Charmaine.”
“That makes me so happy I’m going to put a smiley face on your pancakes.”
Amaya whooped and leaped off the bed. She scurried to the living room, and Charmaine yawned, moving slower. “Brush your teeth.” She headed into the bathroom and then paused when she heard Amaya talking. When she walked back out, she found the scamp on the cell phone. Charmaine couldn’t turn her back for a second. “Who are you talking to?”
Amaya gave an OK sign with her fingers as if that solved it, still holding the phone to her face.
Charmaine put her hands on her hips, glaring. “Amaya Poe!”
“First!” Amaya shouted and tossed the phone on the couch and ran ahead of Charmaine into the bathroom. Charmaine just stood there dazed and more exhausted. Start over? She needed a good long nap before she started over and embrace all that came with dealing with Amaya.
A half hour later, a knock sounded on the door. Amaya went flying toward it. “Freeze, young lady.”
Amaya froze as if they were playing a game. Charmaine pulled her back and passed her to answer the door herself. Just as she expected, Elliot stood in the hall, and her stupid heart pounded out of control.
“Good morning.” He grinned and wiggled an amber bottle. “I brought the syrup.”
She wrinkled her brow. “Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack.” He strode past her and held out his arms. Amaya leaped into them, and he kissed the top of her head. Charmaine considered putting a stop to this relationship they had. Or maybe it was a plot between the two of them to lure her away from her goal.
“Just for the record, I didn’t give her permission to invite you.”
Elliot left Amaya’s side and was heading to her as she closed the door. Charmaine backed up, but he kept coming. He stopped inches before their bodies touched. “That’s what I figured, but I refused to let the opportunity pass me by.”
“You’re using a little girl, you know. It’s not right.”
He held up the bottle again. “Once you taste this syrup, you’ll be using me for it. I don’t mind. I’ll keep you supplied as long as I’m able to share it at the same time.”
“Elliot, you’re just as bad as she is.”
He had the nerve to ignore her and headed to the table with Amaya. All through breakfast, she debated telling Elliot she needed time off. They had been seeing each other almost daily for a few weeks after the condom incident, and she admitted in her own head and not to him that she loved it. Yet, she waited for the other shoe to drop.
Still thinking about, Charmaine stirred the last bite of pancake on her plate and popped it into her mouth. While she chewed, she felt his gaze on her. She dared to look at him, and he reached across the table to wipe a bit of syrup from her lip with his thumb. She gasped and almost choked.
“I could have gotten that,” she blurted.
He licked his thumb. “I wanted to.”
“Not in front of little people.”
“Maybe we should—”
“Go to the water park one last time since school is starting.”
“Yay!” Amaya shouted and started from the table.
“Hold on,” Elliot said, kind but firm.
Amaya swirled and looked at him. He pointed to her empty place, and she rushed back to grab it and take it to the sink. Charmaine admired the man’s skill.
“Just a word? I have to say things several times usually.”
“It’s in the deep voice, I’ve heard.”
“So the water park?”
She hesitated and waited until Amaya had run over to the dresser. They definitely needed a bigger place, but if she moved away, Elliot wouldn’t be close by. She had already checked. The building didn’t have any vacancies for two bedrooms with walls between them.
You can’t plan the future based on Elliot.
“Charmaine?” he called again.
She fiddled with her fork. “I was thinking of moving to a bigger place, Elliot. Amaya can’t sleep in my bed forever.”
“That’s responsible.” He sounded sad, and she looked up at him.
“You don’t want us to go?” She clamped her teeth together, regretting allowing the question to slip out. What he wanted didn’t matter—much. Okay, it did a lot.
He reached for her hand, and despite her resolve, she let him take it. Their fingers danced together, brushing gently, and then flitted apart, only to link again. Her body wanted all of his, and her heart ached when he wasn’t there. She didn’t like thinking she loved him so soon, but falling in love took an instant not months or years.
“I don’t want you to go,” he admitted. “Logically, I understand the need. What I want is…”
He gazed at her, and she was scared to push for what he intended to say.
“What I want is to live with you and Amaya.”
Her mouth fell open. “Elliot, we just—”
“I know. Don’t worry. I’m not asking. I’m stating what I want, just so you know.” He glanced across at Amaya for a second and then at her. “Can you believe I love her?”
Charmaine was surprised her feelings were hurt a little. “She’s easy to love.”
“Good. You can believe it.”
“So?” He seemed to have a point, but she wasn’t getting it.
“Since you can believe I love her, Charmaine, I want you to consider something else.”
“Your logic isn’t making sense right now, but go ahead.”
“Consider that I love you, too.”
“Whoa.” She had not seen that coming as much as she should have. “You love me? That’s impossible, Elliot. We just met and it’s only been a few weeks.”
“You cling to ‘we just met’ very well, but it’s not true. It’s been a couple months. You’re telling me I can’t love you in that time? Yet, you believe I love Amaya.”
“She’s a sweet little girl.”
“And you’re a sexy beautiful woman.”
Her jaw worked, but the words were broken. He had embarrassed her and warmed her heart at the same time, the bastard. Wasn’t she just debating over being in love? To think he felt the same just didn’t seem plausible. Not when it came to her.
The old fears rose up, and all she could think about was running, getting as far away as possible until her emotions calmed down. She untangled her hand from his and set hers in her lap. Elliot let her go without a fight, and for a few minutes they sat in silence. Elliot rose, and she started to reach for him. Her fingers just brushed the back of his shirt, but she let him go. While Elliot gathered up the dishes and started the water in the sink to wash them, Charmaine drew her knees to her chest. She watched his sure movements with the slight smile on his face. That man loved every minute of the domestic life. He deserved to have a family. Why did he have to wait so long to find the right one, she wondered.
Then she recalled Elliot himself, so opinionated that it came off as arrogant. He got notions and thought he should share them. Most of all, from what he had said about his past relationships, poor Elliot always fell for the wrong woman. The man wasn’t as perfect as he seemed, and somehow that made her feel better.
Charmaine stood and walked around the table to join him at the sink. “Elliot, what do you think of this place?”
“This place?” he gazed around her apartment. “It looks strangely like mine.”
She laughed and smacked his shoulder. “You know what I mean. Living in this apartment building, in this neighborhood.”
“It’s a nice one. The small grocery store on the corner is great to go to when you don’t feel like going all the way to the chain store.”
“True.” She leaned against the sink and chewed her lip. “But would you consider moving? Into a different building, maybe not so far that we can’t enjoy the little grocery?”
He dropped the mug in his hand, but thank goodness it didn’t break. She reached for it, but he caught her hands with his soapy ones. “Are you asking me to move in with you?”
The man looked crestfallen.
“But maybe we could get really close apartments like now with one big enough for me and Amaya. I know that sounds like the stupidest idea and unreasonable, but I don’t want to move either. Or maybe Amaya and I should wait to move a little longer.”
“A year,” he suggested.
“We date and stay here a year. You put up with the space issue, and I’ll help so she won’t make this apartment a disaster area.”
“Like now?” she asked, looking over at Amaya who shopped through her wardrobe. What would she be like as a teenager?
Elliot laughed. “Yes, like now. We can take our time, baby. I want to be with you.”
She panted. “You’ve never called me baby before.”
“I know. I was trying it out. I like it.”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re trying to make me kill you.”
He kissed her, and she let him.
When he drew back, she tried something else out. “You know what, Elliot?”
“What’s that, baby?”
“I think I kind of love you, too.”