I step out of the elevator on Alicia's floor and use my elbow to push the bell because I'm carrying several bags and a bouquet of flowers. Nobody answers though I can hear voices from inside and I step closer to hit the bell once more when the door finally opens. I see a little boy with reddish-blonde hair peeking through the small gap. He wears a crown on top of his curls, which fits the princess theme of the party.
"Hey!" I smile at him but he just stares at me.
"Will you let me in?" I ask, but he shakes his head vigorously at me, his crown wobbling dangerously on his head.
"Who are you?" he finally asks, not taking his eyes from me.
"I'm Peter and who are you?" I kneel down to not tower over him but he keeps on looking at me suspicious. He's clutching a chocolate bar in his hands and traces of melted chocolate cover his mouth and parts of his cheeks.
"You don't want to tell me your name, right? That's smart. I bet your mom told you not to talk to strangers, right?" I challenge him but he just nods.
"That's good. But you know the little girl, Grace, who lives in that apartment?" I ask him and he nods again.
"Well, I'm her daddy. Will you let me in now?" I try again but he shakes his head fiercely. This time the crown slides from his head, dangling down his back on the rubber band but he doesn't seem to care.
"I see." I sigh.
"That's too bad, because you know Grace has her first birthday today and I guess she would be really sad if I couldn't see her today." I try to reason with him but he just takes a bite from his candy bar.
"Stevie? What are you doing at the door?" I finally hear a voice behind him and seconds later I spot Elsbeth, pushing the door further open.
"Oh, hi Peter." she greets me. "I guess he wouldn't let you in, right?" she asks as she pulls Stevie up and takes him into her arms.
"Hello, Elsbeth!" I reply as I walk past her, trying to ignore the tiara that sits atop her hair and put my bags down on the floor.
"No, he was a little stubborn." I chuckle, brushing through his hair with my now free hand.
"Yes, he does that. He acts a little strange sometimes. I'm sorry. I wonder where he got it from? Must be from his father." she informs me and I just nod, biting my tongue not to laugh at her serious face.
"Do you have any idea where I can find my daughter?" I ask her, looking past her into the living room, spotting some people I know sitting on the couch and the dining table with some small kids running around. The kids are all wearing crowns or tiaras, one of the taller girls is even in a princess dress. They giggle and laugh as they chase after one another and I step aside as they run past me.
"Sure, Alicia just took her to change her diaper. You should find them in her room." she replies, trying to wipe some of the chocolate from Stevie's face with a tissue.
"Thanks." I smile at her, gathering my bags again before turning to walk inside the living room.
"Peter? Can I talk to you later?" she calls after me and I look back over my shoulder.
"Sure." I nod before I continue my way to Grace's room.
I wave and nod to some people I know before I step into the nursery, the familiar scent of this room welcoming me. A smile spreads on my face as I see Grace on Alicia's arm. Alicia has her dressed in a white shirt with a princess on the front and a pink skirt with matching leggings.
"Hey birthday girl." I call out and she turns her head, smiling at me. A smile that always warms my heart, chasing any bad mood away.
"Dadda." she says, stretching her little hands out towards me.
"Did she… did I hear that right?" I stammer surprised, not quite believing she really called for me.
"Yes, 'Dadda' is her first word, Peter." Alicia answers me and I sense a little disappointment in her tone but no surprise, like she's heard it before.
"So that's not the first time she said it?" I wonder, putting my bags down at the floor.
"No, I think it was Sunday night when she first said it. Who are the flowers for?" Alicia asks me and it seems like she wants to change the topic.
"They are for you." I smile shyly, lifting them up.
"Thank you." she replies and this time I think I can hear surprise in her voice and I see a small smile spread on her lips. But it doesn't take my mind from the fact that Alicia didn't tell me that Grace had spoken her first word.
"Can we go to the kitchen, so I can put them in water?" she suggests and I nod, following her out of the room. I put the flowers on the counter once we entered the kitchen and step up to Alicia to take Grace from her. I hold her close, savoring the moment for a second as I think about that she came into this life a year ago and how grateful I still am that Alicia allows me to be a part of her life, to see her grow up, to help raise her and show her the world.
"Hey, princess." I smile at her, holding her over my head and she tries to grab my nose, laughing.
"Happy birthday, sweetheart." I lower her again and place a kiss on her cheek.
"Dadda!" she says again, patting my cheek with her little hand.
"Why didn't you tell me she said her first word?" I turn to Alicia, watching her putting the flowers into a vase. Maybe I should let it slip but it bothers me that she kept it from me, though I thought we had arrived at a comfortable friendship, both putting Grace's needs first.
"I'm sorry. It happened late Sunday night and I guess I forgot it yesterday." she shrugs her shoulders and somehow this matches her strange behavior from when she picked up Grace on Sunday. I had the feeling she was practically running away from me and now she's avoiding my glance.
"It's okay." I finally say while I watch her take the longer way around the table to get out of the room. I shake my head at myself, wondering what happened that warrants her strange behavior. I recall last week when I picked up Grace and caught her getting ready for a date, a memory I pushed to the back of my mind since then. It had hurt seeing her apparently moving on but I had tried calming down by telling myself that one date didn't mean anything. Or should her weird behavior mean that it wasn't only a date but the start of something more, something she wasn't yet ready to tell me? I realize that I stare at the point I saw her leave, still standing in the kitchen when Grace hits me on the cheek once more, babbling happily.
"Hey honey." I smile at her, pushing the fear that my little girl might get another male role model in her life away and follow Alicia outside in the crowded living room.
I try to distract myself from my thoughts and talk to some people I know, mostly parents of kids that go to the same day nanny as Grace which I see regularly when I pick her up. I catch myself looking around the room for people I've never seen, especially single males but I don't spot anyone totally unknown to me.
I sit down on the couch next to Jake and Richard who are talking about Jake's and Elsbeth's firm. I don't really participate in the conversation as they talk about different cases and that they are still looking for another litigator, a fact that Alicia has told me already a while back and I wonder why they haven't found anyone yet.
"So, you're still looking for someone? Didn't Alicia tell me you were about to hire someone a few weeks back?" Richard voices my thought.
"Unfortunately that didn't work out. He wanted to become partner right away and Elsbeth and myself, we had doubts he would really fit. We are looking at some other possibilities now, but nothing concrete yet." Jake answers before taking a sip from his coffee.
"How about you, Peter? Aren't you tired of the State's Attorney's office yet?" Richard addresses me and I look up from watching Grace who fell asleep in my arms.
"At the moment I'm happy where I am, but who knows what the future might bring." I state surprised. "That shouldn't be an application, Jake." I chuckle as I see Jake look at me suspiciously and he joins in my laughter.
"Should I take her from you?" Alicia appears next to me, gesturing to Grace.
"No, it's okay." I smile at her, softly running my hand up and down Grace's back, enjoying her weight against my chest.
"Sit down for a moment with us, Alicia. We are talking about your firm and I just suggested Jake should hire Peter. Any thoughts on that?" Richard asks her, but Alicia shakes her head. I hope I am wrong but I think I saw a glimpse of shock in her eyes when Richard mentioned my name in connection with her workplace.
"No, Dad, I need to get the cake ready." she offers and rushes away. I suddenly remember that I brought something to decorate the cake with and stand.
"Could you take her for a while, Richard?" I ask and carefully place Grace into his arms after he nodded.
I step over some kids who play hide and seek in the living room and walk into the nursery to get one of my bags before I head to the kitchen, finding Alicia balancing the cake from the fridge to the table. The cake looks delicious and I smell coffee from the running machine on the counter.
"Do you need something?" she asks me without really looking at me and I sigh silently before I reach into my bag, retrieving a small box.
"No, I brought something for the cake." I reply, opening the box, letting the content fall on my palm. She peers up briefly, looking at the candle in my hand that is shaped like a princess, holding the number one in her hands.
"Oh, that's cute. Thank you." she smiles faintly.
"Glad you like it. I thought it fitted with the theme." I return the smile and stretch my hand out so she can take the candle from me. Our fingers touch and she quickly retracts her hand like she's been burned. I feel the familiar tingling and her reaction hurts. It's the second time she's done that in the last days and my next words leave my mouth before I pause to think about them.
"What's wrong, Alicia?"
"I don't know what you mean." she looks up but her eyes aren't meeting my glance.
"You're acting…kind of odd…lately." I stutter, suddenly not able to voice what I'm thinking.
"I have no idea what you're talking about." she states, placing the candle in the middle of the cake.
"You seem to avoid me. You were nearly running from me on Sunday and you didn't tell me Grace said her first word. That's just not you, Alicia. So, what did I do?" I exclaim, watching her stiffen in her movements.
"You're imagining things, Peter. I'm not acting any differently. And I'm sorry that I didn't call you when Grace said her first word. I really am." she replies, her tone more friendly than before but she's still not looking at me. I feel the need to go over to her and take her in my arms, but something in her posture tells me I shouldn't. I don't believe all of her words, just the part that she's sorry for not telling me about Grace. Her strange behavior still stays a mystery for me but I decide not to pressure her anymore. Knowing her it'll get me nowhere.
"Okay." I smile. "Should I carry the cake outside?" I ask and step closer to the table as I see her nod, picking up the cake and follow her back in the living room.
I wait for Alicia to clear a place on the table before I put the cake down. Everyone gathers around the table and Richard brings Grace over who is up again and squirming in her grandpa's arms. Alicia takes her from Richard and places her in the high-chair directly in front of the cake. I reach for the lighter that lies on the table, not realizing that Alicia does the same and so our hands meet once more. Alicia pulls her hand back like before and I peer over to her, again irritated by her behavior. I don't let it show that I noticed it and light the candle. Richard appears with a camera, taking some pictures of the birthday girl.
"Could you step a bit closer to Alicia, Peter?" he asks me, gesturing with his hands and I step towards Alicia, carefully placing my hand around her back. I feel her stiffen under my touch and hope Richard will be done soon with his pictures.
"Can you step up some more to Peter?" he asks his daughter instead and after a moment I feel Alicia's hip bump against my thigh and her hand on my back. Her head nearly rests on my shoulder and I can smell the scent of her shampoo. I run my hand up her back and feel her relax a little, leaning more against me.
"Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you…" suddenly Elsbeth starts singing and little by little everyone joins in. Alicia uses the moment and steps away from me, leaning down to place a kiss on Grace's head as the song comes to a close.
"Make a wish, Grace!" Elsbeth calls out and it seems like all the guests help Grace to blow out the candle.
Grace laughs as everyone starts applauding, also clapping her little hands together a few times. Suddenly she reaches out, trying to grab the cake, but all she gets a hold of is the frosting, which she first smears on the tablecloth and then all over her face.
"Oh, Grace." Alicia exclaims, trying to keep a straight face at our daughter's action as she grabs a napkin from the table and starts to clean up Grace's hands and face.
"Could you get that?" she asks me as the door bell rings while she takes Grace out of her chair.
"I guess I need to change her." she nods to Grace who's still laughing, trying to lick the frosting from her fingers.
"Sure." I reply, chuckling myself because Grace looks really cute as I turn away from the table to head to the hallway and open the door.
"Hello Peter." Veronica greets me and before I can back away she has wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into a hug.
"Hi Veronica." I mutter surprised as she lets go of me and steps into the apartment. We haven't seen each other in months and this is the first time she's given me such a greeting.
"Where is my favorite grand-daughter?" she exclaims, rushing by me to the living room.
"You only have one grand-daughter." Richard's steps in her way. "At least from the kids we have together." he adds.
"Oh, you are here, too?" Veronica states in a bored voice, not really looking at Richard.
"Yeah, but I had hoped you would forget Grace's birthday like you used to forget our kid's birthdays." he snaps at her and I get that Alicia wasn't exaggerating when she told me about her parents relationship.
"Mom!" Alicia steps into the room, apparently realizing instantly what is going on.
"Hey, you want to see the birthday girl?" she has cleaned Grace and put her into a fresh shirt.
"There is my little princess." Veronica calls out, taking Grace from Alicia's arms.
"Don't worry. Alicia is nothing like her mother." Richard has stepped up to me, watching Veronica with Grace.
"I know." I murmur back, mostly to myself as I am no stranger to witnessing parents fight, but mine never had the strength to end their marriage but kept the public charade until my father died.
"You want some cake?" Alicia appears next to us, holding two plates with cake.
"Thanks, pumpkin." Richard takes a plate from her.
"Thank you, Alicia." I smile but she hardly looks at me. I brush her hand as I try to take the plate from her and she pulls her hand back abruptly. I lose my grip on the plate and it tips over, the cake flying from it, smudging my pants on its way to the floor.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Peter." she calls out, bending down to pick up the cake and plate, trying to wipe the frosting from my trousers. I don't know why but now it's me shying away from the contact and step back.
"Leave it, Alicia. This'll only make it worse. I'll just rinse it out." I bend down as well to stop her, pulling her up by her upper arm. She jumps back, shaking my hand from her arm, the plate sliding from her fingers by the sudden movement. I reach out to grab it, but get a hold of her wrist instead. She pulls her hand back fast, the plate slipping from it for good this time, hitting the floor with a loud bang. The plate bursts in a thousand pieces, smashing the rest of the cake along with it, junks of it smearing the other leg of my pants.
"Ok, now rinsing might not be enough." I chuckle, trying to play down the weirdness of this scene and the hurt I feel by Alicia's repeated odd behavior.
I peer over to her, seeing her kneeling on the floor, scraping the cake from the floor and carpet.
"I got a rag, Alicia. Let me." Elsbeth appears next to us, kneeling down as well.
"I guess I'll clean myself up and head home." I mutter, turning to leave the room towards the guest bathroom.
"Nonsense. I'm sure I can borrow you some jeans for today, Peter." Richard places his hand on my shoulder, steering me towards Alicia's bedroom.
"I know I'm a bit fuller in the middle than you are, but with a belt it will work." he laughs, patting his stomach.
"Might also be a good opportunity to get out of that weird atmosphere in there." he murmurs, pointing over his shoulder to the living room.
I take the chance to leave too as my Dad leads Peter out of the room, heading for the kitchen to throw away the cake and clean my hands. I hold them under the cold water at the sink, exhaling deeply. I can't wait for this day to be over, though it should be a day to enjoy because my little girl is one year old and though the last year was hard I don't want to miss her from my life for a second. I feel tears burn in my eyes, swallowing hard to keep them at bay. It's way harder than I thought to be around Peter after I finally realized that I love him only to understand that I was too late. I hoped it would be easier to see him, but wasn't prepared for the hurt that just looking at him would cause, all the while aware that I brought this on by myself because I didn't realize my feelings for him earlier.
"What is going on with Peter and you?" my mother's voice sounds behind me, mixed with the bang from the closing door.
"I don't know what you mean, Mom." I shut off the water and turn towards her.
"I don't believe you, Alicia. Not after what I just saw." she steps up next to me, folding her arms in front of her chest.
"What did you see? I only saw you and Dad at your best again." I snap back, trying to change the subject as I know what she's referring to. I know most of that embarrassing scene just now happened because of me, because I can't bear Peter's touch as it reminds me of what was in my grasp but I let it slip away.
"That little awkwardness dance you and Peter performed in there. You were acting as if it was poisonous to touch him. So what is going on?"
"I still have no idea what you are talking about." I turn away from her, starting to stock the dishwasher.
"Try and deny it, Alicia, but something happened. My guess is you slept together and you blew it afterwards, but what do I know?"
"Yes, what do you know, Mom?" I press out the words, as the sob gets stuck in my throat, her words hitting a sore spot in my heart. She's right. I blew it. I had so many chances to get it right, to realize hat happiness was right in front of me but I was too blind to see. My hand that holds a glass starts to shake and it falls to the floor. The sound of the shatter somehow breaks the dam inside myself and the tears begin to fall.
"Alicia?" my mother's voice sounds confused as I lean back against the fridge, slowly sliding down to the floor as I cover my face to not show my tears.
"Honey?" I feel an arm wrap around my shoulders and I'm gently pulled into an embrace that I don't fight but welcome.
I bury my face on my mother's shoulder, letting the tears run freely as she strokes my hair and back.
"What's going on, Alicia?" she finally asks after my sobs died down and no more tears run down my face.
"You were…right, Mom." I choke, trying to swallow the lump in my throat. She loosens the embrace to look at me, brushing a strand of hair from my face but I keep my glance down.
"I blew it…big time." I sniff, wiping the tears from my face.
"You love him, right?" she states in a soft tone and I just nod as fresh tears start to fall.
"Then why don't you just tell him? It's what he's waiting for, honey." she lifts my chin so I have to look at her.
"No, Mom, it's too late. He's moved on." I sob, turning my face away from her gaze. It hurts way more to say these words aloud than only thinking them. Somehow it makes the situation more real than it already was.
"How do you know that? He's in love with you. You can see it in every glance that he casts your way and how he is there for you and Grace." she strokes up and down my upper arm.
"Not anymore. He has a girlfriend, Mom. It's too late." I sigh, squeezing my eyes shut to force back more tears but fail.
"How do you know?" she asks skeptical.
"I saw them last Sunday. He took her for a walk with Grace. And they kissed. He's moved on." I whisper, resting my head at my mother's shoulder. In a weird way it feels good to share this with someone, although I never thought I'd break down in front of my mother.
"I blew it, Mom, just like you said." I snuffle and exhale deeply to calm myself down.
"Did you tell him how you feel?" she asks carefully as she gets up and hands me a piece of paper towel so I can blow my nose and dry my cheeks.
"No, I can't." I peel myself from the floor and lean against the counter, hanging my head.
"He looked happy, Mom." I sigh. "And after all the hurt I caused him, he's earned to be happy."
"That might be right, but I am sure he'd rather be happy with you, Alicia. You need to tell him." she says with great emphasis on her last words but I just shake my head.
"What good would it do? I had my chance, but missed it. Maybe I deserve this." I shrug my shoulders, still keeping my glance at the floor. In a weird way my last words make sense to me. This might be my payback for how I treated Peter in the past, the way I dropped him after Will came back in my life and I believed his lies without looking back.
"That's bullshit. And you know it. You have to tell him. And if you don't then I will." my mother states determined before she turns and heads to the door.
I walk back into the living room after a few minutes, wearing one of Richard's jeans. As predicted from him it's a little loose on the waist but I guess it will do for the rest of the evening.
"Peter?" Elsbeth's voice sounds next to me and she waves me to her to the two small armchairs that stand in front of Alicia's book shelfs. Jake sits next to her but stands as I approach them, offering me his seat.
"What's up?" I ask them, remaining in my spot in front of them.
"We, Jake and I, would like to talk to you." Elsbeth gestures from herself to her partner.
"Okay." I reply irritated as I sit down after all.
"Well, you know that we are looking for another litigator for some time now." Jake starts and I just nod, realizing in what direction this is going.
"I was only joking earlier, Jake. No need to ask me for real." I smile at them as I recall our earlier conversation with Richard.
"We are not joking, Peter. We've been thinking about this for a while now. Especially after I lost big time against you last week. I felt like back in law school during my first mock trial. I was devastated afterwards. I'm still thinking of seeing a shrink about it. Oh, wait, I'm already seeing one." Elsbeth trails off but I'm not really listening to her words anymore, only her first two sentences ring in my ears.
"What Elsbeth is trying to say is, that we would like to offer you a job. What do you say, Peter?" Jake chimes in, looking at me expectantly.
"You really are serious?" I state surprised not really knowing what to think and even say about this. I haven't thought about leaving the SA's office and going back to a private practice. I'm happy where I am but I'd be lying if I wasn't flattered by the offer and intrigued as well. I've come to know both Elsbeth and Jake as good lawyers and great people that I'm sure I'd love to work with.
"So, what do you say?" Elsbeth asks, looking at me in a combination of anticipation and fear.
"Peter?" Veronica's voice suddenly sounds behind me and I turn to look at her.
"Can I have a word with you?" she steps up behind me, putting her hand on my shoulder.
"Sure, but I am kind of in the middle of something here. Can it wait a few minutes?" I wonder, peering up at her.
"No, it can't." she insists.
"Mom!" Alicia suddenly calls through the room, hurrying towards us.
"I really need your help in the kitchen, Mom." she comes to a halt next to Veronica, trying to pull her away. The scene seems odd and I wonder what Veronica wants to talk to me about. Even more so as I look at Alicia more closely and see her reddened eyes, just like she's been crying.
"No, you don't." Veronica snaps back, pushing Alicia's hands from her arm.
Alicia finally looks around, taking in who's standing around her, her expression changing from anger to surprise.
"What is going on here?" she finally asks, her glance wandering from her mother to me, Jake and Elsbeth.
"We just asked Peter if he wants to join our firm." Elsbeth answers in a light tone.
I keep watching Alicia and see her eyes flicker between Elsbeth and me. She seems to have stopped breathing and shock creeps up her face. Now I'm sure I didn't imagine seeing the same in her expression earlier.
"What?" Alicia calls out, apparently frozen to her spot.
I swallow hard as I see the scare in her eyes, a reaction that oddly fits into her recent behavior. A demeanor that no longer just worries me but starts to hurt and I turn my glance away from her.