“Why do you look so smug?” Xander grumbled from my side. He was leading me out of the office building we had entered hours earlier. Thankfully, the vultures from before had departed but there were still some stragglers. Even if I hadn’t seen them, the telltale tightening of Xander’s arm around my waist alerted me to their presence.
“I’m just happy to find more people who like you about as much as I do,” I smirked, thinking back to those angry faces back in the meeting room. Whilst they may have been convinced of our couple status, Xander had a tough time convincing them of his commitment to the movie. It was nice to see him grovel.
“They liked me,” he bit back defensively and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes in response.
“If you were students in my classroom, I would have made them apologise to you for hurting your feelings.”
“Of course you are bud,” I patronised, tapping him mockingly on the chest.
I turned to find Harrod holding the door open and I climbed inside the giant, black SUV Xander insisted he needed. I was just about to continue my mocking when I realised we weren’t alone in the car.
“Put your seatbelt on princess,” Xander instructed as he climbed into the car after me. Apparently, he wasn’t as shocked as I was to see his publicist waiting for us in the back of the car.
“Call me princess one more time,” I threatened but still moved to put it on anyway.
“You’ve already made serious progress in the twitter sphere with the top trending hashtag being #Ander. As well as on Facebook, where there have been hundreds of thousands of hits on the Morning show’s website, watching your interview from this morning and for the most part, the comments have been positive. It appears, despite all odds,” she looked poignantly at me at this point and I desperately fought the urge to slap her. I settled for rolling my eyes instead. It may seem immature but at least it stopped me from physical violence. “You have rectified the problem and your image has nearly been restored to what it once was.”
“The producers are also very happy with the response and seemed convinced by our relationship,” Xander shrugged shooting me a dangerous grin sending my eyes searching for something in the car to stare at intently. I eventually settled on the back of Harrod’s orange head of hair. It seemed the safest place.
“Perfect,” Dee muttered beside me, tapping away incessantly on her mobile phone. I swear if you tried to take it from her she would stop breathing.
“Good work, teach,” Xander praised, his warm breath jolting me where I sat. When I turned to face him I was startled to find that his hazel eyes were mere inches from my own, sending my heart into a nervous fluttered.
“I’ve booked you in at Cherry Tree tonight and there’s a Gala on Friday for you both to attend to increase exposure.”
“That’ll be fine Dee,” Xander answered but it was clear from his tone that he was distracted and when I heard the door open beside me I frowned. When had the car stopped?
“I’ll message you with the details,” were Dee’s parting words before she slipped from the car and we were moving again. Unfortunately, her floral perfume lingered.
“You did really well today, sweetheart.” I looked back at Xander as the car slowly plodded along through the New York City streets. He was still as close as before, only now his hands were resting loosely on my waist and I was suddenly finding it very hard to string together a set of coherent thoughts.
“You were...I was...where are we going now?′ Smooth.
“Back to my place,” he chuckled before casually pressing a kiss against my cheek and retreating back into his seat. What the hell was that?
Noticing his attention was now on the passing cars outside the window I decided to ignore his little display of affection. It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t anyone here to see it and no camera’s there to capture the moment. It was nothing to think about. Yet, I stayed in the centre seat right beside Xander for the remainder of the trip back to his place despite Dee’s seat being vacant now she was no longer in the car with us.
It’s not safe to change seats while the car is moving, I convinced myself and if anyone asked that was the story I was sticking to.
I rode the elevator up to the Xander’s apartment on my own because he was busy with a call to his manager. There was something about that man that just rubbed me the wrong way. Giovani seemed like he’d just as likely throw Xander under a bus for the right price. It was something in his eyes or maybe it was the two giant sweat stains under his arms but I just didn’t trust him.
Once I was inside, I was immediately confronted by sounds I hadn’t expected to find in Xander’s apartment, ever. Walking more quickly into the living area I found two children playing with a collection of toys on Xander’s tree stump coffee table. One looked no older than two and had short blonde hair and a pink bow whilst the other looked around five and was building a tower taller than himself with the blocks that were scattered around.
“Keely, stop throwing the blocks around,” the little boy complained, snatching a block from the toddler’s hand. Which instantly resulted in a shrill cry and a flood of crocodile tears.
“Sweetie, do you think that was the nicest way to take that block off your sister?” I frowned, stepping around the tower and picking up the howling child. Her face was turning red and splotchy from all her shouting.
“She’s started it. She’s been throwing all my blocks,” he pouted with familiar hazel eyes.
“Yes, but she’s only little. She doesn’t quite understand how sharing works yet.”
“Well, she should. I do.” He grumbled.
“How about Keely and I help you build your tower?”
“But she always ruins everything,” he complained, stamping his foot and pushing his wire glasses frames further up his nose. “Besides, I don’t need your help.” The harsh look he shot me floored me for a moment before I was able to recover.
“Well, as her older brother it’s your responsibility to show her how to do some things. Do you think you knew everything when you were her age?”
“No,” he conceded, eyeing me warily as I set a more docile Keely back on the ground.
“Well, I think a big boy like you would be very good at helping his little sister,” I smiled as Keely stood up and passed her brother another block.
“I guess,” he mumbled taking the block and adding it to his tower.
“Theo, are you playing nicely with your sister?” I started at the sudden intrusion and spun to find a strikingly familiar man looming over where I sat beside the coffee table.
“Yes, dad,” the boy droned and I smiled ruefully.
“Hello,” I greeted, shifting to my feet so I was on a more level playing field. This man looked almost identical to the one I had left downstairs only moments before.
“Hi, I’m Jamison but everyone calls me Jamie,” the man introduced thrusting his hand out for me to shake. His grip was firm and his hands were calloused so it was easy to deduce he wasn’t in the film industry like his brother.
“I know,” he smiled charmingly and I felt my cheeks heat. How could two men from the same family be so good looking? However, if his manners were anything like his brother’s it could easily dampen his striking features.
“Right, I guess the whole world might know about me now,” The bitterness quickly washed over me as I retracted my hand and clasped my own tightly together.
“You don’t seem to happy about that.” He seemed puzzled about my response and I looked up to find him looking at me with a strange expression.
“The last place I ever wanted to be was in the media.”
“You’d be the first, all his other ‘friends’ were eager to soak up the limelight.” I was saved from further questioning by the tug on my skirt and the loud, “up.”
“Hello, beautiful girl,” I smiled bending down and scooping her into my arms. “Are you finished making towers?”
“Momma,” She cooed. I sensed Jamie still beside me before he dove in and took her from my arms.
“No Keels, Momma isn’t here,” he tried to explain but it didn’t stop Keely from reaching for me again and crying, “Momma.”
“Is her mum coming or...?” I trailed off as Keely fought harder to get to me and I felt my heart tear in two.
“No, she-” He started to say something but then seemed to think better of it before he changed his thought. “Would you mind?” He asked, his face showing the desperation any parent felt when they had a child they couldn’t soothe.
“Of course not,” I smiled, quickly taking Keely back and bouncing her gently on my hip. Instantly, her fingers wound tightly in my hair and I was almost certain she was never going to let it go. She calmed immediately, resting her head against my shoulder whilst her free hand slipped into her mouth so she could suck her thumb.
“Thank you,” he sighed and for the first time, I realised how tired he looked. There were dark purple smudges under his eyes and despite looking almost identical to Xander his eyes were aged by thin wrinkles and frown lines outlining his otherwise tempting lips.
He had slumped down into the sofa I had found myself in after falling over in front of my building, and I knew from experience how comfortable it could be.
Gently, I sat beside him with Keely shifting in my lap until her eyes drooped closed. Theo played quietly in front of us, probably glad to have his sister out of his hair.
“I don’t know what to do with her.” He sighed. “She gets so attached to any woman. She just refuses to go with me.”
“I’m sure it’s just a phase,” I tried to console but my knowledge of toddlers was limited to the siblings of the students I taught. I had never had one of my own and I wasn’t even sure if I ever wanted one.
“Ever since Jenna...never mind, you don’t want to hear this,” he frowned and I was stopped from questioning further by the sound of the door opening.
“Uncle Alex,” Theo shouted, jumping to his feet and charging around the wooden floors. As soon as he was within arms reach he leapt into Xander’s waiting arms.
“Hey big man,” Xander beamed with a smile more carefree than I had ever seen. “How have you been doing?” Theo then launched into a detailed retelling of every event in his life since the last time he had seen his uncle.
Xander listened intently and I found I couldn’t take my eyes off him, despite knowing there was another set of eyes watching me.
Xander walked over and sat beside me with a very chatty Theo in his lap but that didn’t stop him from leaning over and pressing a kiss against my cheek. I felt my grin broaden only to be reminded by the look in his eyes that this was a show too.
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“Three and two sisters. I’m the second oldest after this old timer,” he teased and I looked back at Jamie to see him shooting his brother a look.
“Wow, I never had any brothers and sisters.” I frowned, thinking back to all those times I had been alone in my parents big, draughty house just wishing I had a sibling to play with. Anyone, to fill the lonely hours when my parents were away on business or at some social event that children weren’t invited to.
“Count yourself lucky that you never had a brother like this one,” Jamie smirked, reaching behind me and smacking Xander across the back of his head. “He was always causing trouble back on the farm. He was forbidden from collecting the eggs because, without fail, the hens would always escape and we’d spend the entire day trying to wrangle them.”
“That was two times,” Xander mumbled.
“He was never suited to hard labour.” Jamie chuckled and I didn’t miss the hurt look that crossed Xander’s face before he quickly hid it again when his brother looked back up. “Ma always said you were more suited to the beauty parlour not outside with the animals.”
“She did not,” Xander protested only causing his brother to burst into a belly laugh and doubling over. I felt Keely stir and I gently got to my feet telling the two brothers I was going to go and set her down on the guest bed.
As I put her down, I struggled to untangle the grip she had managed to get on my neck. Gently, I pried each of her fingers off before finally nestling her in the covers, surrounded by pillows so she didn’t roll off in her sleep. Her thumb slipped into her mouth again as I backed out of the room. I softly shut the door behind me only to turn and find the two brothers having a hushed conversation on the couch.
Judging by the serious looks on their faces I was guessing it was something private they probably didn’t want me interrupting.
Looking for an escape, I saw a tiny head of dark hair over the bench top in the kitchen. I smiled as I saw him rummaging through Xander’s fridge, probably looking for something covered in chocolate.
“What are you up to Theo?”
“Daddy and Uncle Alex are talking,” he answered without even raising his eyes to look at me. “I’m hungry.”
“Well, what do you say to chocolate chip cookies?”
“Mommy makes chocolate cookies,” he answered, closing the fridge door and looking at me with a look I could only describe as lost.
“Well, maybe you can take some home for her as well.”
“Mommy doesn’t live with us anymore. She moved away.”
“Oh,” I frowned, wondering if his parents were divorced. “Maybe you can give them to her when you see her next?”
“She went away for a long time. Daddy said she wasn’t coming back.”
“Then we’ll just make them for daddy. I’m sure he’ll love them.” He nodded noncommittally as I gathered all the ingredients we would need. Once I was ready, I set him up on the bench and had him mix them all together until his hands and most of his body was covered in dough. Most importantly, his face now had a smile on it that had chased his sadness away.
“Annie?” I was placing the cookies in the oven when I heard him call for me.
“Hmm?” I hummed, wiping my hands on my towel and turning back to face him.
“Can I lick the bowl?” He asked, his eyes as wide as saucers behind his round frames.
“Hmm, I don’t know,” I pondered causing him to stick out his lower lip in an adorable pout. “Do you think you’ve been good enough to lick the bowl?”
He nodded emphatically, some of the dough on his face falling on the floor in his enthusiasm.
“Please, Annie.” I pretended to ponder my choice for a moment longer before I put him out of his misery.
“Go ahead little cookie monster,” I beamed, starting to clear the bench as he nearly fell off in his haste to get to the bowl.
“Theodore James, I hope you plan on sharing that with your favourite uncle.” Xander had appeared in the kitchen at some point and suddenly my body became very aware of his presence. I quickly glanced across the room and was surprised to find that Jamie was missing. Where had he gotten to?
“But uncle Alex,” Theo whined, dropping his shoulders dramatically. “You didn’t even help make them.”
“But this is my kitchen. That means I’m entitled to a cookie dough tax.” Xander argued and I couldn’t hide my snort of laughter.
“Annie,” Theo wailed clutching tightly to the bowl of cookie dough his uncle was trying to pry from his fingers. “You said I could eat the bowl.”
“You can have the bowl all I want is the dough,” Xander smirked causing the little guy to let out a frustrated noise halfway between a scream and a groan.
“Xander, I did promise Theo,” I warned playfully and suddenly Xander wasn’t standing beside his nephew anymore. Warm, thick arms wrapped loosely around my waist before I was lifted from the floor and spun around the flour covered kitchen.
“Xander,” I giggled, halfheartedly pushing on his shoulders to get him to let me down. “Put me down.”
“Well, if I can’t have my cookie dough tax then I’m just going to have to collect on another one,” he grinned mischievously and I had a sneaky suspicion I wasn’t going to like where this was going.
“Xander,” I began as he set me down but kept his arms locked around my waist.
“Annie,” Xander mimicked and I couldn’t fight the urge to roll my eyes.
“You’re worse than a child.”
“Pay the toll and you’re free to go.”
“And just what might the price of using your kitchen be?”
“That’s easy, a kiss,” He beamed proudly like he had just solved all the world’s problems.
“Of course, I should have guessed.”
“Well, what’ll it be, teach?”
“I think you should try and find some cookie dough to eat.”
“He can’t Annie,” Theo grinned proudly. “I already eated it all.”
“Nice work, superstar. Looks like we’re both going to get what we want,” and before I knew it my world was spinning and my heart flipping erratically from the taste of him on my lips. It only lasted a moment but it was enough to make me stumble when he pulled away, a smug grin on his face.
“I think your cookies might be ready, sweetheart.”