Chapter 1

My sexy fiancée, Annie, and I strolled toward the water hand in hand. She pulled up short when the water barely reached her ankles.

“Are you really going to make me come in? It’s cold!” she whined, with a pleading glance at me through her thick lowered lashes.

I’d arrived home hot, sweaty, and okay, sort of cranky from working my summer job for my uncle’s landscaping business. Going swimming was her idea, and she had vowed to come in with me and not wimp out this time.

“You promised, babe. I can make it really easy for you.” Tugging her close, I reached for her legs and attempted to sweep her into my arms.

Mike Jarrid, don’t you dare!” She fought back. “Let me do it myself!”

Releasing her, I chuckled and in one swift motion, dove under. The cold, crisp water sent a shockwave through me. Surfacing, I flung the water from my tangled hair and smiled, enjoying the view as Annie approached.

With each step she took, her grimace deepened as the water lapped a little higher on her inviting body. Auburn hair flowed long and wild. Hypnotic green eyes high-lighted a fair complexion, with a smattering of fine freckles, and a pink tint when I embarrassed her, which I tried to do on a regular basis. Oh, and her lips! Soft, full, almost fragile, but very kissable. The rest of her was solid and curvy. Her mind and spirit rivaled her outer beauty.

From the day I ran her off the ski trail, I knew she was special—I’d hit the jackpot! She was all I could handle, and I loved handling her.

My gaze left Annie and swept the surroundings. There weren’t many others sharing the spring-fed pond. The small size, cold water, and swift descent from shallow to deep probably was enough to deter most people. A mom sat on the very edge with two toddlers playing with pails and shovels in the sand. A trio of teenaged guys whipped soggy Nerf balls at each other.

When Annie finally reached me, I could see her goosebumps and I’d like to think it was me who actually inspired them rather than the frigid water. She cuddled close to steal my warmth, and her arms wound around my neck. As I moved us deeper, one of her arms released its hold. That hand moved stealthily between us, then suddenly plunged under the water and slipped down inside the front of my trunks.

“Oh geez!” I gasped, laughing as my knees partially buckled. I spun us around so we were facing away from the others in the water. Glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was aware of her shenanigans, I asked, “What are you doing?” I couldn’t tell if I was blushing, but my face felt hot.

“Hey, little buddy,” she teased in a high, innocent voice. “Where are you? I can’t find you!” She chuckled as she groped around down below.

“Your buddy and his friends went into hiding, Ms. Biology Teacher. You ought to know that. Self-preservation. They’re trying to stay warm.”

She grinned a sultry leer. “I can heat you up.”

I nodded. Yes, you definitely can. Kissing her, I scooped her up, and her wandering hand once more found my neck. “I’ll take a rain check on that offer.” Boosting her higher so my lips had better access, I planted them as far into her cleavage as I could sink my face. She giggled, playfully scolding me and tugged her top back into place.

All of a sudden, “Hi, Mrs. Jarrid!” boomed from only a couple of feet away. Spinning around, we spied a ball bobbing in the water and a tall, scrawny kid splashing toward it, a huge grin on his face. How much had he seen?

“Oh my God, he’s one of my students,” Annie mumbled, as she scrambled out of my arms and put on a cheery smile, behind her blazing cheeks.

“Hi, Liam.” One of her arms crossed her chest, as her other hand pushed her hair away from her face. Being a teacher, she always felt she had a proper image to maintain.

Finding it all pretty comical, I gave her shoulder a squeeze. Then my fingers slid down and took her hand, and we started for the shallow water. I didn’t try to hide the smug smirk on my face. Payback was sweet.

As we neared the shore, she slowed, scoping out our immediate surroundings. The boys had gone back to their game, oblivious to us. She turned and brushed the hair off my forehead, smiling into my eyes with those dancing emerald gems.

“I know you aren’t crazy about your job, Mike, but I kind of like what it’s doing to your body. You’re looking so good.”

Uh-oh. Radar up. After three years of dating her, I knew a compliment like that signaled a topic of interest was about to be introduced. One side of her mouth twisted up.

“I think we should start thinking about kids.” She watched for my reaction.

Panic immediately rippled through me. “Now?” I croaked, my bravado failing me miserably. “Where’d that come from?” As if I didn’t have enough on my plate right now, a final year of school, finding a job, and a wedding, without worrying about a baby and everything that would entail.

“You can breathe, again, babe.” She patted my chest. “I don’t mean right this minute, but maybe as soon as we’re married? Look, my mom and dad had such a hard time getting pregnant with me, it took like five years. I don’t want to be thirty before I have my first kid!” I took one of her hands between both of mine. She dragged her sad puppy dog eyes up to meet mine, her lips pouting as she fought to hold that serious face.

“Oh, no! You cannot do this to me. It’s not fair—giving me ‘the look’. Besides, you won’t be thirty for seven years.” After kissing her hand, I took hold of her by the waist. Her lips twitched again.

“Please, just tell me you’ll think about it. You’ll be such an awesome daddy.” Smiling, I shook my head. All the arguments in the world were no match for ‘the look’.

“Okay . . .” Before I could finish my thought, she was bouncing up and down. “Annie, hold on! I’ll think about it. But finishing school and actually having a job are sort of important here. It’s a big decision to have a kid!”

“Oh, thank you! I love you, Mike!”

Somehow, without really intending to, I think I just consented to her proposition. Seeing her that happy was totally worth it. We’d have time to figure it all out; the wedding was still almost a year away.

In the next moment her face changed, eyes wide, and a worried, teeth baring downward pull to her lips. “Mike, we have to go!”

I’d started trudging backward into deeper water. I stopped.

“Like seriously, Mike. We need to go, now!”


“Just trust me. Auntie Flo is here.”

I scanned the waterline. “Who? Where?”

“Oh my God, Mike! I started my period, and it’s about to get very messy, very fast.” Her frantic eyes glanced over toward the boy who’d recognized her.

“Oh . . . oh!” In a flash, I dashed to the place we’d left our towels. I grabbed hers and moments later helped her wrap it around her middle. Then I swooped her up and jogged back carrying her.

“What are you doing? Put me down!” she squealed, knowing that my actions probably prompted stares from everyone around.

Safely on her feet once more, she hid her face behind a hand. “Let’s just get to the car.”

After cramming everything we brought into a huge canvas bag, I held it by the handles. “Guess all that talk of babies and reproduction got the old juices flowing.” I leaned over to peer into her face.

“Can we just go?” She tried to contain her embarrassed grin.

“The crimson tide—” I chortled.

“Mike! Stop!”

~ ~ ~

It was already the end of June, a couple of weeks after our ‘family planning’ session at the pond. My oldest brother Tom approached us with an opportunity to gain a little practical experience with kids.

He and his wife, Sheri, had their tenth anniversary coming up and planned an entire weekend alone at our family cottage up north. Usually they’d ask our parents, to watch the girls, but Mom and Dad already promised another brother, Paul, a visit in Minneapolis. I guessed we were the next most likely option, and Annie jumped at the chance.

Our economy apartment was one bedroom with a combination living room, dining area, and kitchen jammed into the other room. We had a chair and a couch with an end table in between, that was it. House sitting at Tom’s wasn’t an option because they planned to set off an insect killing bomb in the basement to deal with an infestation of spiders. Annie was so excited for the girls to come. I suggested they could sleep in the bathtub, which was answered with a punch to my arm.

The night before our weekend guests arrived, Annie flitted around the place, cleaning and prepping food and activities. She adored my nieces, seven-year-old Kellie and three-year-old Karlie. By mid-afternoon on Friday, I got a text saying the girls had been dropped off, and a surprise awaited me.

They planned to ambush me from around the side of the apartment building. I knew because as soon as I left the car and started walking to the entrance of our complex, a small lunch-sized cooler swinging from my hand, I could hear their muffled giggles.

Unable to restrain their excitement any longer, they jumped out, wearing pink capes fashioned out of pillow cases. Annie had twisted their blonde locks into some sort of weird knot on the top of their heads.

“Girl power!” they shouted and started kicking their legs and whipping their arms around karate style. Then they charged at me. Annie joined in, laughing and egging them on. Of course, I played along. I dropped my cooler and started backing up, crouching down and pretending to be afraid. When they got to me, the girls each wrapped their limbs around a leg.

Then Annie grabbed me from behind. She threw her knee into the back of mine, and my leg buckled. The next thing I knew, we were all on the ground.

She jerked up my T-shirt, yelling, “Okay, girls, now!” All of a sudden there were thirty fingers crawling up and down my ribs and across my stomach, tickling me, accompanied by high-pitched squeals and shrieks. Geez, I hated being tickled, and I was sure it had nothing to do with being tortured for years by my three older brothers.

I refused to fight back. All I needed was to accidentally kick one of them or something, so between my howls and fits of laughter, I just begged them to stop. Managing to roll over on my side, I pulled my legs up and curled into a ball so they only had access to my back. I could at least tolerate that much. Finally, they ran out of energy, and the kids piled on top of me while Annie stood up, smiling triumphantly over me.

“I give up!” I laughed. “Girl power rules! That was awesome!” Sitting up, the little one pounced into my lap while Kellie hung around my neck in the back, both showering me with hugs and kisses. “I’m so happy you girls came to stay with us. What a greeting!”

By the end of the weekend, I had been guest of honor for their tea party, complete with cookies they’d baked with auntie-to-be. I also had my hair bound up in tufts with about a dozen rubber bands and my nails done. Kellie painted one hand and Karlie the other. Let’s just say it was very colorful, complete with rainbows and sparkles. These moments were all documented digitally, some posted on social media.

Holy crap, it was a good thing I was comfortable with my masculinity!

I still sported the manicure when my brother and his wife came to pick them up Sunday afternoon after we’d come home from the park.

“Nice.” Tom smirked, nodding at my hands. “You went out in public like that?”

“Well, yeah! I just couldn’t decide which color I liked best, so I let the girls choose. Did you guys have a good weekend?” I asked, waggling my eyebrows in a suggestive way.

“We did,” Sheri said, letting go of Tom’s bicep and putting her arms around the girls’ slender shoulders. “But I missed my babies.”

“Mom! I am not a baby!” Kellie protested, but Karlie ate it up.

“We’ll take them off your hands anytime,” Annie piped in. “We had a great time.” The girls gave us enthusiastic hugs and kissed us good-bye, asking their parents when they could do it again as they left.

“We love you!” I hollered, waving as they skipped off down the hall. As soon as they were out the door, I handed the polish remover to Annie. “Get it off—please!”

“I kind of like it!” she teased, but she came back with a couple of cotton balls. I flopped on the couch and closed my eyes, thinking about how much we really did enjoy our time with my nieces, while she scrubbed away at my nails. “You were just great with them, Mike. I’m really proud of you.”

~ ~ ~

Somehow, the rest of the summer flew by. We found ourselves up at the cottage with my parents for the long Labor Day weekend. Warm sunny days rewarded us with swimming and languor. The evenings outside in front of the fire pit provided a perfect ending to our hectic summer. And our last precious time together before I left for school.

Back at home on Monday, our last night before I was leaving, we were both unusually somber. Annie unpacked from the weekend away, while I started making new piles to bring back to Madison.

“You’re being awfully quiet, Annie.” I tossed her a glance as she came out of the bathroom after putting away her toiletries.

“We hated doing this so much before, how did we end up doing the same thing again?”

A weary sigh escaped from me. We were both on edge, I didn’t want to have another fight on the same old topic. Nothing would change. I had to leave in the morning. We knew all summer this day was coming. Turning around, I wrapped my arms about her midriff and hugged her tight enough to pick her up. “I’m sorry. I’m going to miss you so much.”

She pushed me away. “It’s your fault we have to do this again, and you don’t get to be all regretful about it. For the first time, this summer felt like we’re a real couple, being together, doing couple sort of things and I loved it. Now you’re leaving and I’m stuck here alone. I can’t even stand the thought of it!”

“We are a real couple, babe. At least we know it’s not forever. Eight-and-a-half months, Annie. My senior year, then I’m done. I’ll come home every weekend. We’ll both be so busy, you with the wedding stuff and me with school, that we’ll hardly even notice.”

Tears filled her eyes. “‘Wedding stuff’ is hardly a substitute for a partner. I want you here! It’s so lonely when you’re gone.”

I cocked my head, taking a step closer to try to look into her eyes, but she avoided me.

“Hey,” I spoke softly, “Annie—” She turned her back to me and slipped into a tank top and pajama pants as she quietly cried.

“Aw—come here.” My hand touched her shoulder, but she jerked away.

“No!” She pulled back the covers and crawled in. “Turn the light off when you finish packing.”

A lump sat in my throat. Her being upset turned my stomach, it scared me. I’d been hurt in another relationship, and always in the far recesses of my mind was the worry that I would screw this up and lose her, too.

Two large duffles held the bulk of my clothes. I’d get the laptop and the rest of my stuff in the morning. My futon and most of the large items would be waiting where I left them in the house I shared with five other guys in Madison.

When I finally slid between the sheets, I cuddled next to Annie, slipping my arm over her side.

“No, Mike,” she mumbled. I backed off.

Early in the morning, we stood in the parking lot next to my aging but reliable Ford sedan. Back in the apartment, I’d told her she didn’t need to come outside to see me off. She’d insisted, and now she clung so tightly to me I could barely breathe. We’d made up, even had sex, but a cloud lingered over us.

I kissed her temple, keeping my lips there for a long time, before I moved to her mouth. “I’ll see you Friday, soon as class is over. I love you.” Her eyes were closed, lashes moist where I kissed them, then lastly I kissed her lips once more.

My fingers touched her under the chin, then I closed the car door and backed up as she gave me a limp smile and wave, mouthing the words, I love you.