"Hi Mom." I greet my mother.
"Hello Peter, my dear. How are you?" she replies, but I can hear the accusatory undertone, she's always using when she's not pleased with something or someone.
"I'm good, Mom, just really busy." I tell her curtly, hoping to cut this conversation short.
"Well, I figured as you haven't called in quite a while." she says in a low voice, laced with disappointment.
"I'm sorry, Mom, but I've worked a lot of late hours in the last weeks. But I was planning on coming over to you on the weekend. Would that be okay?" I offer contritely.
"Yes, I'd like that. Did you also plan on telling me about my grandchild then?" she says coldly.
"Mom…what?" I stutter, totally startled by her question.
"Don't try to deny it, Peter. I know you fathered a child. What I don't know is why you didn't tell me." she states, clearly agitated.
"It's complicated, Mom." I sigh, slowly walking over to a bench and sitting down.
"So, it's true. You really have a kid." she exhales deeply.
"Yes, Mom. But how do you even know this?" my curiosity overtakes the shock of my mother knowing about Grace.
"My good friend Violet's daughter-in-law works in a lab and she worked on your DNA test. What is going on, Peter?"
"As I said, it's complicated, Mom." I sigh, not in the mood to have this conversation over the phone.
"Then explain it to…" a beep in the line stops my mother mid-sentence.
"I have another call, Mom. We need to talk about this another time."
"Don't hang up on me, Peter." she snaps and I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself.
"Okay, Mom. How about I come by later?" I offer, knowing she won't keep quiet until she knows the whole story. And to avoid future calls like this I want to get it behind me as soon as possible.
"Sure. See you later, Peter." she agrees, hanging up the phone without another word. I exhale deeply, shaking my head before I pick up the other call. It's my colleague, Matan, informing me that the jury in one of my ongoing cases is finally back with a verdict and the judge has called us in. I hang up and hurry inside the building.
It's after 9pm when I finally get home. I hang my coat and kick my shoes from me as I head to the kitchen, grabbing a bottle of beer from he fridge. I lean against the counter, taking a deep sip as I reminisce about the day that lies behind me. The talk with my mother wasn't pleasant at all, her disappointed stare piercing me through the whole conversation. But none of it mattered as the thought that Grace is really my daughter always lingered in my mind and I couldn't help the smile on my lips that wouldn't fade. A fact that kept on agitating my mother even more, because the matter of her only son having a kid out-of-wedlock doesn't fit with her view of the world.
I hadn't realized the deeper meaning of my mother's words when she had called. I had been too shocked that she knew anything about Grace at all. It had hit me that this meant I really was Grace's father as I sat in the courtroom waiting for the judge to appear. I had known deep down that she was mine from the moment I first lay eyes on her but since Alicia brought up the DNA test, a nagging feeling of doubt settled in my stomach and the fear I might lose my little girl again got harder and harder to keep at bay with every day that passed. My smile widens as I think about the last time I held Grace in my arms and I'm looking forward to seeing her grow up. I take another sip of my beer as I walk to my living room, but as I pass the hall I hear a knock at the front door. At first I want to ignore it but then I reconsider and walk to the door to check who is knocking. I'm surprised to see Alicia standing in front of it.
"Hey." I greet her after I opened the door.
"Hi, Peter. I hope I'm not disturbing you. I should have called before coming over. It's late." she smiles nervously, clutching her purse in front of her chest.
"No, I just got home. You want to come in?" I step aside so she can walk past me into the apartment. She nods and passes by me. She heads towards the living room and I follow her.
"Can I talk to you for a minute?" she turns and looks at me.
"Sure." I nod, gesturing towards the couch. Alicia sits down and I take a seat in the armchair opposite her.
"I got the DNA results today." she states, looking directly at me. I nod once more, telling her silently to go on.
"You are Grace's father, Peter." she affirms what I already know but hearing it officially from her makes me smile again.
"I kinda know already." I admit, not wanting to keep it from her that my mother already told me the test results.
"How? Did Owen call you?" she asks, watching me confused.
"No, not Owen. My mother knows some one who works in the lab and she called me today demanding an explanation. She didn't know about Grace." I clarify.
"You haven't told your mother that you have a kid?" she asks me surprised.
"No. I don't know if it makes sense, but after I decided to stay away from you and Grace I didn't want to tell anyone because I thought the more people knew the higher the chances you might learn about it. And after you knew that we all had kept the truth from you and told me you didn't want to see me again I tried not to think too much about the fact that I had a daughter I might never see again, so I told no one to spare me the pain." I reveal, though Alicia hasn't asked me for a reason.
"I understand." she smiles at me and I exhale in relief.
"We need to talk about something else, Peter." she continues and I nod. "The DNA result is enough to have Will removed from the birth certificate. The question is do you want to be named as Grace's father?" she casts her gaze down.
"You know there is nothing I would rather do, Alicia." I declare and she peers up. I think I can see a small smile on her lips.
"But do you want me to?" I ask her, looking directly into her eyes.
"I think it's not about what I want, Peter. It's about what's best for Grace and when I stayed with my Dad I realized how important my relationship to him is for me. I don't think I have the right to rob Grace from the chance to have that with you. So, if you really mean it I won't stay in the way." she is holding my glance and I nod.
"Thank you, Alicia. And I mean it." I smile.
"Good, because if you're not sure this is the last chance to bail from the responsibility, Peter. You can't back off if you should get bored or your plans change. You can't just walk away." she says in a firm voice, the smile has left her lips.
"Why do you think I'd walk away? Because you did when your plans changed?" I snap back, cutting her off.
"It wasn't like that." she murmurs, lowering her glance. "I'm still sorry for how I treated you, but I…"
"It's okay, Alicia. I know what you're about to say. Maybe if I never had let you leave that night we met, maybe then I would've had a chance. I should have followed you home back then, maybe…" I trail off, running a hand through my hair as I push the images appearing in my mind away. This is not the time to linger on memories.
"I better go." Alicia says but I don't look at her.
"I'll leave the papers from my lawyer here. Look them over and call him if you have any questions." she retrieves an envelope from her purse and places it on the table as she gets up. I nod, still not looking at her, so I only see in the corner of my eye that she just stands there, watching me.
"I'm sorry for what I said, Peter. I know you'd never walk out on Grace." she whispers and leaves as I turn my head to look at her and before I can reply anything I hear the front door and she's gone.
"To freedom!" John, a friend of mine toasts and all my guests, attending this impromptu party, raise their glasses. There are not many people here, just my mother, Alicia, Elsbeth, Peter and a few of my friends; in short the people who stood by me through this ordeal that luckily lies behind me now.
I couldn't believe it when Elsbeth called me this morning to tell me that all charges against me have been dropped. I was speechless for a while, not really getting what she told me over the phone. Only her words 'It's over' kept on repeating themselves in my mind. I felt such an enormous relief that all the months of fear and insecurity were finally history.
"Thank you, Elsbeth, for believing in me." I walk over to my lawyer, hugging her for at least the fifth time since she arrived and we toast each other.
"You're very welcome, Owen. It's just a shame that you can't babysit for Alicia any longer now." she winks at me and I smile, knowing what she's referring to. Alicia started working for Elsbeth a week ago and there already was more than one occasion I had to pick up Grace from the day nanny as Alicia couldn't make it in time.
"Well, how about you let Alicia go in time, then I won't be missed." I smirk and she laughs.
"Good point." she chuckles.
"But I'll be available for a little while longer. I'm not sure I'll return to work at the college." I admit.
"Really? Why? I'm sure they'll give you your job back." she raises an eyebrow at me.
"They already did. I got a call this afternoon. They apologized and said I can come back anytime, but I don't think I will. The trust is gone, you know? They turned away from me so fast, marking me as guilty with the suspension. I will check my options, maybe I'll even leave Chicago. Who knows?" I explain before I take another sip from my glass.
"Wow, you want to leave town?" she exclaims.
"Shhh, not so loud, Elsbeth. I haven't said anything to Alicia and my mother yet." I try to calm her down as I don't want to get into any discussions before I have decided anything. She gasps and covers her mouth with her hand.
"Oh, okay, I'm sorry." she whispers now, looking around to see if any of them is in earshot.
"I won't say a word, I promise." she places her index finger over her lips, looking at me as if we just agreed to a conspiracy and I can't help but laugh.
"Thanks, Elsbeth." I smile and she nods fiercely.
"Not a word. Scouts honor." she reassures me again.
"Good, but if you'll excuse me. I need to see if I have some more wine in the kitchen." I tell her as I just spotted my sister leaving the room in that direction. She sat on her own in a chair since we toasted, just sipping at her wine and staring to the floor. So I follow her as I want to know what's going on.
"Hey, sis!" I find her leaning at the counter, swirling her glass between two fingers and apparently deeply lost in thoughts.
"Hey." she looks up, flashing me a small smile.
"Are you okay?" I ask as I lean myself at the counter next to her.
"Yeah. Why shouldn't I be?" she counters my question, her gaze back at her glass.
"Well, you seem far away. And as you were in a good mood not an hour ago, something must have happened." I challenge her, stepping away from the counter to stand directly in front of her.
"It's nothing." she says quickly but avoids my gaze.
"I don't believe you. Is it because Peter is here?" I ask her and a flicker in her eyes gives her away before she slowly nods.
"Well, the last time we spoke, we had a bit of an argument and I bet he's angry at me because I haven't called him yet to schedule some dates he can see Grace." she admits, still looking down.
"I know you accused him he might get bored with Grace. He told me when we met for drinks. But I doubt he could get really angry at you. The poor guy still loves you." I state and am amazed as I see some surprise in her eyes.
"Don't tell me, you didn't know? A blind man could see that, Alicia." I call out.
"I hadn't thought about it. I don't know, Owen. Did he tell you that?" she asks me, confusion written all over her face.
"Not recently, but you can see it every time he talks about you." I tell her but her glance seems absent again.
"You don't have, by any chance, still feelings for him?" I carefully ask her, preparing for an angry outburst as she always refused to talk about this.
"What would it matter? I can't think about that now. Grace is all I'm thinking about and all that matters. I can't get distracted from what's best for her." she says agitated.
"Well, one could argue that an intact family would be best for Grace." I observe, which earns me a furious stare from my sister.
"Okay, okay, I didn't say anything." I declare before she can reply anything, raising my hands in an appeasing way.
"But I think you owe it to Grace and yourself to think about the last time you were truly happy, so happy you didn't have to say it but it was visible to anyone who looked at you." I know I should have kept my mouth shut as I look at my sister, but I had to tell her.
"Alicia?" our mother's voice from outside the door saves me from a lecture from my sister.
"Yeah, Mom?" I step into the hall, not really sad about the disturbance as I'm not in the mood to fight with my brother.
"Grace is crying. You should check on her." my mother informs me.
"She'll be hungry. Can you look after her while I prepare her bottle?" I ask her after I've checked my watch and once more my daughter is right on time.
"Sure." she replies and I turn to head back to the kitchen. My brother hurries by me, carrying some bottles of wine, avoiding to look at me. I try not to think about it nor about what he just told me as I busy myself with preparing Grace's bottle. A few minutes later I head to my room, passing the living room, where I see my mother in a conversation with Elsbeth. I step over to her to ask why she's not looking after Grace.
"Peter offered and as he's the father.." she shrugs her shoulders and I just nod as I turn and continue my way to feed my daughter. But with each step the weird feeling in my stomach, that I felt since Owen told me that Peter still loves me, increases. Finally I step into my room and find Peter rocking Grace in his arms.
"Hey." he smiles at me, but I avoid his gaze as I walk up to him.
"Thank you." I say curtly, taking Grace from him, ignoring the prickling feeling in my fingers as they brush against his. I sit down in the armchair next to the crib to start feeding her. I look at my eating daughter but feel his gaze on me and Grace.
"I had hoped you'd call me so we could work out a schedule for when I can see Grace. I know with a kid you can't plan everything, but maybe we can agree on one day during the week and every other weekend?" he addresses me and I peer up but avoid to look at him.
"Last week was extremely busy. It was my first week at work and Grace is now with a nanny in the mornings. We'll need some more time to adjust before I can make any more decisions here." I answer evasive.
"I understand, but I'm not asking for more than your lawyer suggested in the custody agreement. I thought you were okay with that." he states and I can hear a little irritation in his voice.
"I know." I snap, looking back down at Grace who's still drinking her milk, not really knowing why I react so rude.
"You accused me that I might want out of my commitment to Grace but now I get the impression you want out of our agreement that I can be a part of Grace's life. Why, Alicia? What did I do?" I finally look at him, the sadness in his voice is palpable.
"Nothing." I sigh. "I'm sorry. I don't want out. It's just that the last week changed so much for me. It's the first time that I'm separated from her for some hours every day, and maybe you can understand that I'm not looking forward to more time I can't spend with her." I explain and though it's not the whole truth it is one reason I'm dreading to start the routine visits with Peter.
"Sure, I get that. I was thinking anyhow that you might come along the first few weeks and that I won't keep her over night at first. Actually I'm a bit scared of that." he chuckles. "I already bought a car seat and a crib. But I could use your help on some stuff if you won't mind." he adds and I can't help but smile at his admission. I like his idea and for a brief moment I catch myself looking forward to spending time with him and Grace. My brother's words about an intact family from earlier cross my mind but I chase them quickly away. I know it would be the easiest way and the best for Grace if I got back together with Peter but I don't want to settle for a relationship out of convenience and it wouldn't be fair to Peter as I don't think I share his feelings.
"Yeah, why not." I smile at him as I take the bottle from Grace and lift her up, reaching for a cloth to place it over my shoulder before I lay her against my chest and get up to walk around a little.
"Good." he replies and I can hear some relief in his voice.
"How about you start right now? Her diaper needs changing." I smirk at him and start laughing as I see the shocked expression in his face.
"Okay." he says hesitantly and I hand Grace over to him as she just finished her burp.
He walks over to my dresser which doubles as changing table and puts her down. I follow him and watch closely as he starts opening her onesie. At first his movements are a little clumsy and he looks at me for confirmation after every move. I force myself not to interfere but he seems to get more secure and soon the used diaper finds her way into the trash can next to the dresser. I hand him the baby wipes and the powder as I'm a bit surprised my daughter keeps quiet. Usually changing diapers is a real drama with her. But as soon as I finished the thought I see her squint her eyes and seconds later she starts screaming just as Peter carefully lifts her legs to continue cleaning her.
"Did I do something wrong?" he asks me, shock visible in his face.
"No." I chuckle. "That's the usual when her diaper is changed. She hates it. Just pick her up and calm her down a little. But you should get used to this sound when changing her." I tell him, trying to drown out the screams of our daughter. He nods and lifts her up, placing her against his chest, slowly stroking her back and head. I turn to get fresh clothes for Grace from the closet.
"Aaaaaaahhhh!" I spin around at Peter's scream and hurry back to his side. I need a second to realize what happened as I just see him holding Grace between his outstretched arms far away from his body. My daughter is happily gurgling and kicking her feet in the air, but soon I notice the liquid dripping from her toes and as my view wanders to Peter I can see a yellowish stain on his white shirt. His glance is a mixture of disgust and surprise and I can't help but to start laughing.
"Alicia?!" he exclaims and I can see in his expression that he's far from amused about my reaction.
"I'm sorry." I say as I try to calm my laughter and reach for a towel.
"Put her down again and step over. I'll do the rest." I smile at him and see relief in his face as he lays Grace back down on the changing table and steps back. I hand him the towel and he starts drying his shirt.
"I'm sure Owen can loan you a shirt. Why don't you go and ask him. I'll finish dressing Grace." I take some baby wipes and begin to clean my daughter.
"Okay. Does she do that often?" he steps up next to me, watching me as I put a new diaper on Grace with a few trained moves.
"Sometimes. I should've warned you, Peter. I'm sorry." I glance toward him, smiling apologetically.
"It's okay. I guess I need to remember that and never change her again in a good shirt." he smirks and I'm glad he's able to laugh about it.
"Well, that's just one downside of parenting. Wait for the first barf on your shirt, that leaves a stain you'll never get out again and the first sleepless night because you have no idea what's wrong, but she won't stop crying." I mention in an ironic tone and he raises an eyebrow at me.
"But she's worth it, right?" he looks directly at me and our eyes meet. I hold his gaze for a moment until he peers down at Grace and again I see the same love in his eyes I feel for her.
"Yes, she is." I whisper, still watching him.
"So, can I call you so we can schedule my next lesson?" he asks, peering up at me again.
"Sure. But now find Owen so he can give you a new shirt. And leave this one here. I'll wash it for you." I smile at him and he nods.
"Thank you." he replies smiling and I know it's not for the offer to wash his shirt. I watch him leave the room and this time I allow myself to look forward to spend time with him.