“Hey, language in front of the little ears!” he laughs.
“Jace, I actually need to talk to you about Audrey,” Quinn calls over.
“Where is she, by the way? I haven’t seen her all day and I’m about to go crazy.” I lean in and kiss Chloe’s forehead and say, “I just needed to see you before I go to bed, little one.”
“Audrey’s already asleep. She went to that self-defense class today that you signed her up for.”
“Shit, I forgot about that.” I wrap Chloe in one arm and rub my temples with the other. I haven’t been able to talk to Audrey much while I’m at the office because I get so caught up and sidetracked.
“Jace, I’m going to give you some tough love so bear with me for a second, okay?” she asks and I nod my head. “I think you’re working too much, and you need to realize it before everything you care about slips away without you even noticing.” Her words catch my immediate attention and fill me with dread.
“What do you mean, Quinny? Where is this coming from? Did Audrey say she would leave me?” I rush to ask. I need to go see her. I need to stop whatever thoughts she may be having. This can’t be happening.
“Calm down, Jace. It’s nothing like that. I just don’t want it to get to that point for you guys. I mean, how much have you really seen Audrey lately? How many times have you come home at,” she looks down at her watch and says, “ten-thirty at night or later and had to wake her up?”
“I’m new to this company. I have a lot of grunt work to put in before I can pull back a bit,” I try to rationalize. “Audrey understands this.”
She nods her head and continues, “You’re right, she does. But Cole and I have been talking, and you don’t need to be there as much as you are. You can delegate. You have Jax, Cole, and now Lane, in addition to all of your many employees. Release the reins just a little, Jace.”
“I can try, but y’all don’t understand how much actually has to be done every single day...”
“Jace, you’re missing out on crucial parts of Audrey’s life and this job has only just begun,” Quinn says.
“I went and picked up Audrey’s gown from alterations today and afterward, I took it upstairs while she was out to hang it in her closest. How have you not noticed that she hasn’t even unpacked her clothes?”
“Jace, she’s been living here for months and all of her clothes are still in her suitcases. She wears them, washes them, and puts them back. She tiptoes around this house without touching a thing. If she has to use anything, she immediately washes it or stashes it away as if she were never there,” Quinn adds.
“I really hope you’re making this shit up. My heart is about to bust out of my chest,” I say in alarm.
“She’s lonely, Jace. Lane’s been gone all the time. She won’t go into town unless she absolutely has to, because she’s too afraid of what people will remember about her from high school. Today she told me she was glad she finally found a job because she’s running low on funds.” With that, she eyes me and continues, “Now, I only know what Cole makes, but you have to be making more than that. So why is the girl running low on money?”
“What?!” I holler. When Chloe squirms away from the elevated sound of my voice, I immediately apologize and begin rocking her back and forth. “Quinn, I swear to God we have a joint account.”
“Does she actually spend money out of that account?” Before she can ask another question, I wiggle my phone out of my back pocket and bring up our bank app on my screen. Swiftly, I scroll through every transaction. Mine. Mine. Mine. I slump down onto the couch with Chloe snuggled into my chest.
“Wait, last week she bought something...” I say and then look at it further. “Dry cleaner. Shit, that was for me.” How did I not know she wasn’t even using our bank account? “She’s going to leave me. She’s absolutely going to leave me,” I say in a defeated tone.
“No, she’s not. That’s not why I’m telling you this. I just think this has to do with how she grew up. You need to make her more comfortable. This house was your plans, your ideas, and you want her to spend your money...”
I quickly interrupt, “Our money. If anything, it’s hers. I don’t want it without her.”
She nods her head and softly says, “I’m glad to hear that. But you need to remember that she’s never known a relationship like that. I’m done stressing you out. She’ll kill me for saying something, but I figured you didn’t even notice.”
“Because I’ve been at the office every single day,” I grumble.
“You need to at least have some rest days every week, Jace, or even you will burn out,” Cole adds in. “What happens when you have a kid? Are you going to be that dad that’s never around? I had that dad, and trust me, it sucked. Your dad took time away, you can too.”
He has a point. My dad was home every day by dinner and all day during the weekends. I’ll never forget the time he spent with us, building the Camaro with Jax and hitting the heavy bag with me in the barn. I look down at a now-sleeping Chloe and realize I can’t become the guy I’m on track to become. I want to hear about Audrey’s day over dinner, not a sleepy, half-awake conversation late at night. I want to wake up next to her on Saturday and Sunday mornings and be able to share the day with her.
“I’ll fix this,” I inform them, “and she doesn’t need to go work for some random company. She can work at the office with me if she really wants to get a job.”
“I knew you’d be reasonable about this,” Quinn responds, while patting my leg. “But if I know Audrey, she’s not going to take some pity job from you. She earned a graduate degree. Let her be an adult, Jace.”
“I need to see my fiancé.” I kiss each of Chloe’s cheeks and stand slowly to walk her back over to her bassinet.
“Dude, seriously. Go make your own baby. This one is mine,” Cole whines, while transferring his daughter to his arms. He looks down at her with awe and wonder, like he’s done since the day she was born. He sits down on the couch and lays her little head on his chest. Yeah, she’s got him wrapped around her finger.
“I plan to,” I say, making my retreat. “Love you guys.”
I hear their responses when I hit the first step of our large staircase. I take them two at a time until I reach the double doors that lead into our master suite. The knob turns slowly in my hands and I slip inside quietly. The bathroom light, which she leaves on for me every night, shines across her na**d backside. The fact that she has to leave a light on for me should have been my first clue I’ve been coming home too late.
I walk into my closet and discard my suit, leaving only my briefs on. Out of curiosity, I walk over and glance into Audrey’s closet, where Quinn’s observations are confirmed. It’s a giant, empty space with three suitcases lying on the floor. There are empty, wooden hangers lining the bars, and at the very back is a big, white bag that holds her wedding gown. My fingers itch to unzip it and peek inside. I’m dying to know what she plans on wearing, but I hold back the urge, not wanting to ruin her surprise.
I can’t wait for her to have my last name and someday soon carry my children. I stand in her empty closet and think back on the day she finally told me what happened with her pregnancy in high school. My jaw clenches at the murderous anger I have to suppress when I flash back to those thoughts. Since we’ve been back in Texas, I’ve tried to pay a visit to her dear ol’ dad, but apparently he’s been gone for a few years now. I’ll find him though, and when I do it won’t be pretty.
I shake off the thoughts and quietly shuffle across the wood floor to our bed. Softly, I kneel on the bed beside Audrey’s stunning body. She’s lying on her stomach with her face turned away from me and her pillows pushed to the side. Her soft breaths move her back up and down. I take advantage of the position and reach into the nightstand. I hold the bottle of massage oil above her back and drizzle a line down her spine. When the liquid hits her skin, her eyes shoot open and she fidgets. I reach out and hold her in place.
“Shh...it’s just me. Relax, gorgeous,” I whisper into her ear. When she hears my voice, I feel her body loosen and begin to respond to my touch. She doesn’t sleep as deeply as she used to, probably because I’m waking her up almost every night.
“Sorry, I fell asleep early,” she mumbles with a sleepy voice. I spread the oil around and slowly start massaging her muscles. With deep, long pushes, I rub out her tension and soreness.
I signed her up for a pretty intense self-defense class by one of my buddies who just got out of the Marines. He got all of his licenses and now runs a class. This isn’t some basic class run by an off-duty police officer. It’s extreme and tough. I wanted to go to the class with her but it slipped my mind, and I hate that she had to go alone.
“You have nothing to be sorry about. I’m sorry I’ve been working so much. I’m going to change that, I promise,” I say quietly. With the oil still thick on her back, she lifts up and looks at me questioningly. “I know you’re lonely, Audrey. I haven’t been taking care of you and I’m sorry.”
“Why are you saying this, Jace? What happened?” she asks, while nervously fidgeting her fingers. I unwind them slowly and run my hands up her arms, leaving a slick trail in their path. I can’t help but look at her bare chest on the way up to her eyes.
“I want you to move in with me. I want to live with you. I want to live where you’re going to be the happiest and if that’s not here, I’ll fix that,” I plead.
She looks at me with confusion for a few beats, and then says, “You’re scaring me. What do you mean ‘move in’? Haven’t I been living here with you?”
“Have you?” I ask. “Audrey, you haven’t unpacked your clothes and Quinn said you don’t touch anything in the house,” I say softly. Her body appears to deflate, and I can see her wheels begin spinning with what she should or should not say. If I could go a few rounds in the ring with myself right now, I would. How did I not notice this? I’m supposed to protect and care for her, not just provide for her. I promised to keep her first and in a way I thought I was by making sure she didn’t want for anything, but I didn’t take into account that most of all she just wants me. Not all this stuff I can buy her. Just me.
“Jace...” she sighs and looks up into my eyes. “I’m trying. I’m trying to beat these demons but...it’s a process. It took me a year to unpack my stuff when I moved in with Lane. You have to realize what my life was like. Before California, I had to hide all of my belongings in a backpack that I kept shoved under a couch. I’ve never felt like any place was actually mine. This house...” she pauses and seems to consider her next words carefully.
I finish for her by saying, “I made the plans for this house, and I had it filled with furniture before we moved in. I haven’t let you make it yours. I thought I was helping the transition process, but I never considered how that would affect you.”
“Jace, it’ll be okay. I love this house. It’s just going to take me some time to grow into it. I need you to know that I don’t want to be anywhere else than in your house with you,” she whispers.
“That’s the thing though, this is your house too, babe. Your name is on the deed right beside mine. I’ll make this right,” I assure her.
“I’ll try to unpack. That closet is just way too big though. Every time I open it, I’m intimidated. I yelled in it the other day and I could hear my own echo,” she says in an awed tone.
“Move into mine, with me. Once you actually start buying clothes like other girls do, you’ll probably fill yours up and take over mine anyway,” I chuckle.
She gasps and says, “I could never have that much.”
“And that’s why I love you so much,” I say, smiling at her innocence. I scoop her up into my arms and stride toward the bathroom. She squeals with laughter when my hands slip and slide from the oil that’s smeared across her body. When we reach the glass shower, I reach in and turn it to a warm temperature, just how she likes it. With my girl in my arms, I carry her inside the soothing spray.
Em, Quinn, Josie, and I had an early breakfast and nail appointment, so I snuck out of our bedroom without waking up Jace this morning. I can’t even remember the last time I woke up before he did. He’s usually out of the house before I even open my eyes every morning. He was sleeping so peacefully beside me, I didn’t have the heart to wake him up for a good-bye.
With a wave, Quinn and I step out of Em’s car and make our way up the front porch steps. If what Jace said last night is true, then I’ll get to spend the whole day with him and I couldn’t be more excited.
“Jace has to be exhausted after being up all night,” Quinn says from right beside me.
I stop and turn to face her, asking, “What do you mean? He didn’t get home that late last night.”
She looks at me, appearing unsure if she should say what she was just thinking. “Um...I had to get up with Chloe a couple times last night and each time I saw Jace pacing the halls while talking on his cell phone.”
“Huh...” I reply, because I have no idea what he was up doing. I thought he had passed out next to me after our long shower together.