Allie snorted. “Hell, Jacks, don’t panic, babe. I’m not pregnant again…yet,” she finished with a wink and a slightly evil grin.

He winked back at her.

A little voice broke into the conversation. “Mommy can bring Daddy’s baby juice!”

Total silence with the exception of Hayden’s giggles. We all looked over at Jenna who had dropped her head in her hands again, shaking it, muttering, “Why me?”

Jackson cleared his throat and asked Hayden if she wanted to take the dogs outside with him. She jumped up and raced out the door, Jacks looking back at Jenna once and shaking his head, his shoulders jumping with silent laughter.

As soon as they cleared the door, Emma rounded on her sister. “Daddy’s baby juice? What the hell have you been teaching my niece, Jenna?” She was trying hard not to laugh.

Jenna threw her hands up in the air. “She overheard us playing around one night when she was supposed to be in bed. It was after midnight, she’d been asleep but had apparently woken up. Noah and I were…well, that’s not important. We just were playing around and I teased him about giving me his…Jesus…baby juice. She knocked on the door but we didn’t think she heard anything until the next morning when she asked for some baby juice.”

“Oh, my God,” Leah breathed. “What the hell did you tell her?”

She shrugged helplessly. “Nothing. We just ignored it. She hasn’t mentioned it since then but trust my daughter to open her mouth to embarrass me,” she groaned.

Jackson and Hayden came back inside with the dogs at which time Jenna decreed it was time to go. She packed up Hayden, gave everyone hugs and was out the door, asking Hayden exasperatedly, “Child, what am I gonna do with you?”

Our little get together wound down then, but we did finalize our plans for the party. The guys were gonna take off the next day after work to get the fireworks and everything else was set. I was a little excited about it, but hey, I’m a sucker for parties.

Brandon and I left about half an hour later, right after Leah jetted out the door, which was point two seconds after Ian called her to see where she was. We barely got in the door when my phone rang.

“Hey, Jacks,” I answered.

“Hey. Got a question for you. Do you remember a little lullaby that mom would sing to us when we were young?”

Immediately my thoughts turned dark, knowing exactly which lullaby he was talking about, the memories flooding my mind with all the times I sang that to myself to float away from what was really happening.

I was silent for a long time, lost in my thoughts.

“Chloe?” Jackson asked softly.

I blinked, trying to push everything away. “Yea-uh, yes?”

“Are you okay?”

I glanced around the living room, shocked to see that I was barely inside the door. Brandon was standing in front of me, a worried look creasing his brow. I gave him a small smile and shook my head to let him know I was good as I answered Jackson.

“Yeah, I’m good. What made you ask about that?”

“Allie was singing some lullabies to Liam and I remembered that Mom used to sing one that she made up. I know it was your favorite, but I can’t remember the song. Figured you would have, but…I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking that it might be something you would’ve sang…that…” he cleared his throat again, stumbling over his words.

“Jackson, it’s not that. It’s just…it doesn’t bring back very good memories because I used to sing it to myself in my head when Greg would…” I broke off, not willing to go there. “But I would love to teach it to Allie so she can sing it to Liam. It would be my honor.”

I could hear the emotion clogging his throat when he answered. “Good. That’s great.” Then he added, “Chloe, I may not tell you very often, but I love you very much. And I’m so sorry that I left you there and wasn’t there to protect you. I know I’ve told you that before, but…I just…I’m so glad you’re here with us.”

“Thanks, Jacks,” I whispered into the phone. “I love you, too.”

I hung up the phone and wiped the tears that had welled from my eyes. Brandon was immediately in front of me, enfolding me in his arms. I hugged him tightly, completely content and loving the strength he was giving me, even without asking for it.

“I love you, too, you know. Just for the record.”

I grinned up at him. “Yes, I do know that. And I love you, too.”

He kissed the tip of my nose, pushed me back, and took off running toward the bedroom, yelling, “Last one in bed has to give the other a full body massage with hot oil!”

I gasped and shouted, “You cheating little ass!” as I took off after him.

He made it to the bed before me.

But I got the massage…and then some.

Chapter 24

The day of the party was picture perfect. The weather was absolutely beautiful, everyone was in a great mood, and it all fell into place. The night before, we’d gone a couple of towns over to hang out at the little festival they had and to watch the fireworks. Tonight, the guys had promised us a show to rival the one from last night.

They hadn’t let any of us girls know what they had gotten from the fireworks store; in fact, Calland had taken everything to his apartment so we couldn’t peek. So since we had no idea what they’d gotten, I’d run to the store and picked up a few boxes of sparklers, some smoke bombs, and some poppers for the kids. Well, and for us girls, because we loved sparklers, too.

And we didn’t care if that was pansy-assed or not.

I got up early and made a big batch of my Italian-ranch, bacon, cheddar pasta salad and a double batch of mini cherry cheesecakes. I also made some double dipped strawberries, which I hadn’t made in a very long time. I dipped them in white chocolate and then dipped them in dark chocolate, but before I did that, I injected them with 100 proof vodka. Well, half of them, anyway. I left the other half virgin for Allie, Emma, and Jenna.

Brandon walked into the kitchen as I was putting the finishing touches on the cheesecakes and looked around at the counters.

“Holy shit, woman! We feeding the whole town?”

I cut my eyes up at him as I spooned a dab of cherry pie filling onto a cheesecake. “Well, feeding you guys is like feeding a town, so we have to be prepared.” He narrowed his eyes at me playfully and I kept going. “You should have seen Allie at the grocery store. She had to buy thirty packs of hot dogs just to make sure we had enough,’ I said, tongue in cheek.

“Oh, now that’s just not right, exaggerating like that. You know we only need twenty-five,” Brandon said with a grin.

I slapped at him with my free hand and replied, “Get out of my kitchen and go get ready!”

He went, stealing a cheesecake as he did, peeling it from the wrapper and popping it in his mouth before dropping a kiss on my shoulder and strolling out of the kitchen. I laughed as he started singing Yankee Doodle as he left the room.

An hour and a half later we were on our way to Allie’s house, a bag with our bathing suits and beach towels on the back seat, surrounded by platters and bowls of goodies. We pulled up to see that Allie’s grandparents were there already, holding court on the front porch. I could see Luke walking across the yard from their house carrying a huge crockpot. Emma followed, Everly strapped to her chest in a baby sling, her hands full of bags of chips and what looked like plates and all that good stuff.