Chapter 14: Blindsided
The three of them walked up to the doors, Natalie staying close to Maria, and Maria staying close to Alex, squeezing his hand firmly. Once they swung open the door, she loosened her grip and a smile lit up on her face, amazed at what she was seeing. The restaurant didn’t even look like itself. It was like a whole new building. There was food out on the bar table, the ceiling was covered in blue and yellow streamers, and there were blue flower centerpieces on every table. The far back corner had the small table of gifts, most of which had blue wrapping paper. There were people scattered through out the room, all mingling and catching up because some of which hadn’t seen each other in years.
As soon as Austin found them, he came running over with his boyfriend Ethan.
“Maria! It’s so good to see you again! Aww, you look so great!” He smiled at her, then gasped when he saw Natalie. “Who is this?”
“This is Natalie, my daughter. Say hi, love.” Maria nudged the little girl slightly, and she was able to muster up a small wave before moving closer to Maria again.
Austin kneeled down on the tile so he was Natalie’s height. “I like your dress.”
She stayed quiet, smiled.
“What do you say? He just complimented your dress,” Maria said to her while pushing her own hair behind her ear.
“Thank you,” Natalie said quietly, before she found Elena and ran over to her.
Austin wrapped his arm around Ethan’s waist, who was standing quietly as he usually did. “And this is my boyfriend Ethan,” he said.
Ethan, who stood much taller than Austin, stuck out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. Congratulations by the way.”
Maria thanked him before following Alex, who insisted he would be the one to introduce her to everyone.
While Alex was introducing Maria to people, Austin had started following Natalie around everywhere she went. Alex didn’t say anything, but though it was rather cute. After Rumi’ announced the first activity, which was designing onesies, Austin had walked Natalie over to the table to start coloring on the onesie.
When Alex had gotten his and Maria’s, they joined Adam and Enrique at the booth they were sitting at because Alex thought that’s where Maria would be most comfortable.
Instead of drawing a random design, Alex had decided on making the plain onesie into a tuxedo, which, by the end of the night, had turned out to be Maria’s favorite. Next to Adam’s of course, because he had drawn a police uniform. Natalie’s was... well... colorful, but she was only four.
Running over from the booth with Austin, Elena, Tilda, and Ethan, was Natalie who wanted to show Maria and Alex her work.
“Mommy, mommy, look! Do you like it? It’s a bumble bee. See? Buzz buzz,” she excitedly.
“Good job! It looks so pretty!” Maria said, pulling her closer and kissing her. Alex could tell that it was hard for Maria to have Natalie around so many people. And for Maria too.
When all of the games had been played, the activity had come to a low as people took their seats again and started talking about there daily lives.
Maria sat with Bonnie, Adam, and Enrique again as they talked about their jobs and Alex’s most embarrassing moments as a kid.
Maria would also look over every once in a while at Alex and Natalie who had blue frosting all over her nose. She gave the duo a smile as she watched them laugh together while they shoved cupcakes in their mouths, the blue icing staining their tongues and lips. Looking around the room more, she found Elena and Tilda sitting on the floor in the back listening to something that was playing on their earbuds and laughing together every few seconds. It was weird seeing her sit there with another girl. A girl that Maria had never met. She felt some sort of protectiveness towards Elena. After having spent a couple of months with her, Maria stopped seeing her as Alex’s daughter, and as something more. She started feeling more of a family connection, but kept that to herself.
Once everyone finished the cake and the games were finished, guests slowly started filing out of the building, not including Rumi, Sam, and Camilla.
Natalie was now sitting with Maria on the rocking chair Alex had gotten her while she read another book to her.
Alex had begun helping clean up and placing gifts in the truck. Rumi was standing on one of the tables taking down streamers with Camilla, and Sam was supposed to cleaning up the food, but instead was pigging out on the leftovers. Not that it mattered. Camilla and Rumi’s grandmother had made more food then anyone could eat in their entire lifetime.
Alex trudged sluggishly over to Maria and Natalie who was sleeping, her head resting on Maria’s chest. He loved seeing them sit there together rocking back fourth.
“Everything is in the car. Rumi and Sam said they can handle the rest of it. Plus, you could use some sleep,” Alex told her, yearning to kiss her lips again.
Maria closed her eyes and took a deep breath in. “You are right about that.” She turned her attention to Natalie. “Alright love, it’s time to go.”
“Yeah, Elena, get your stuff together,” Alex called over to Elena, who was smiling down at her phone screen. Alex then reached and picked up Natalie from Maria before helping her up.
Natalie had fallen asleep again after five minutes of driving, and she had fallen into such a deep sleep that Maria was worried she wasn’t going to have enough energy to change out of her dress.
Maria nestled comfortably into the seat and hummed quietly. As much fun as the shower was, Alex could see how she would have much rather stayed home and away from a ton of new people. But he knew, from what Elena told him, he knew that being around people would be good for her in the end, and she was aware of that. Alex also hoped that Maria also started to realize that even if she didn’t have Alex, she still had people that cared about her. Now, instead of being trapped and forced into silence, and punished for nothing at all, Maria had freedom. Freedom to speak to whoever she wanted, freedom to be with someone she was actually in love with, and the ability to go about her day without second guessing every move. That was the life she had before, but everything was different, and everything had changed. And this time, it was for the better.
“Did you have fun today?” Alex whispered softly, hoping not to wake up Natalie. Elena wouldn’t wake up if you blew an air horn in her ear.
Maria smiled, her eyes still shut. “Yes. Thank you for doing that for me. You and your friends.”
“We thought it would be nice for you to have a good time. And Austin wouldn’t stop talking about it. You know he has a book for every damn event known to man. He should be a party planner.”
“He seems like the type to have one of those. I had a wedding book when I was little.”
“Really?” He said in astonishment.
She nodded tiredly, leaning her head on the leather seating in the truck. “Yep. It’s probably at my mom’s house somewhere. After my dad died she tried to find things to keep me busy. She didn’t really help though. My mom isn’t exactly warm. She expected me to get over his death quickly.”
Alex stared at the road in front of him astonished. “Did she even really love him?”
“For real, true love? No. But for money? Yes. He was an anesthesiologist, and his father owned some company in Italy which he inherited a lot of money from. My dad worked a lot, but he also made time for me. My favorite memories were getting ice cream with him on Friday nights because he never worked on Fridays. We would go to this place called Swoops and count cars that went by that was our color. He counted black and I counted red. He usually won, but he let me think I did.”
Alex looked over at with sympathy when he stopped at a red light. “What was his name?”
“Giovanni Francesco Romano.”
“That’s quite a name.”
“Well my grandfather was from Italy, but my grandmother was American. I guess he still wanted to pass it on to my dad.”
“So, if his last name is Romano, does that mean you took Matthew’s last name?”
“Yeah. My maiden name is Romano.”
“Maria Romano. It sounds nice. Has a good ring. Do you think you would ever change it back?” He asked.
Maria adjusted her position, but found it hard to get comfortable. “I’m already planning on that. The Parks name is something I would rather forget and never think about it again.”
“Right,” he sighed. Looking at the dark night sky in front of him, he thought about how Maria’s name would sound with his last name. Maria Rivers. Natalie Rivers. He liked the way it sounded. But he would never say that out loud, unless she said something first. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did he die?”
“Pancreatic cancer. It was rough. He could have chosen treatment, but he didn’t want to. As a kid I could never understand why he didn’t try and fix it. But now I know,” she said, Alex knitting his brows together as he looked over at her. “He believed in fate. There was this song he would listen to by Doris Day call Que Sera Sera. That’s why. He didn’t want to make me go through seeing him in a hospital everyday slowly dying. I knew he didn’t want to spend his last few months in a hospital anyway. Sometimes death is better.”
Based on Maria’s past, and some inferences, Alex hoped that Maria knew that that wasn’t always true. Yes, sometimes death could be better because you wouldn’t be in pain or suffering, but Alex prayed that what she was thinking wasn’t true.
He reached over and took Maria’s soft hand in his own, and kissed it affectionately. “I’m sorry about your dad.”
Maria shook her head, smiling ahead at the moving road. “No, no, it’s okay. Unlike my mother my memories I have of him are good. And I know he still watches over me and is in a better place.”
“I wish I could have met him.”
“Me too. You guys would have liked each other.”
They pulled the SUV into the driveway not long after. The only source of light was a dimly lit porch light coming from the neighbor’s house. Because it was late, and bringing all the gifts inside in one go was impossible, Alex decided that he would do it tomorrow. Plus, he had no where to put it bedside’s the nursery, which was off limits until everyone went to bed.
He was about to turn the car off but stopped when he realized what song was playing softly on the radio.
He turned the dial to the right to turn the volume, hoping Maria would realize what it was. When Alex looked over at her, he found her biting down hard on her lip trying to conceal her smile.
“So is this our song now?” She asked, now looking up at him, not hiding her smile anymore.
“I think you know the answer to that.” Alex leaned over and took her hand and intertwined his fingers in hers. Eyes locked, there lips met, and flashbacks of there first kiss that day in the parking lost flooded back. Only, they stopped when they heard Natalie move in her car seat.
“I’ll get her,” Alex whispered as he pointed towards Natalie, who was still sleeping soundly, her head leaning on the side of her car seat.
Maria nodded, then exited the car.
Alex watched Natalie’s head, and rested his body against his own. Elena had surprisingly woken up when Alex closed the door.
Alex put Natalie in her bed, Maria following behind him, but Maria saw that something was off about her.
“Can you give us a second?” Maria asked Alex, who suddenly felt out of place.
“Yeah sure. I’ll be in the living room.”
Maria watched as he closed the door behind him, then sat looked back at Natalie and sat next to her. She put her hand to her soft cheek and tilted her head with concern.
“What’s wrong Nat?”
The four-year-olds gaze switched from her mother to the wall.
“You don’t want to tell me?” Natalie shook her head, looked at Maria again. “That’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.”
“Actually, I think I want to tell you.”
“Okay. You can tell me.”
Natalie shuffled her fingers, thinking about what she was going to say. “Mommy?”
“Why were you kissing Alex? I thought you only kissed daddy? And how come we don’t live in our house with daddy?”
Maria gulped hard, not even thinking about how one day Natalie would be asking her questions about what was going on. “You saw me and Alex kiss?”
Nodding, she repeated, “I thought you only kissed daddy?”
“Well, me and daddy are not together anymore.”
In confusion, she tilted her head. “Why?”
“Because daddy did some really bad things, and now he needs to pay the consequences.”
Natalie squinted her big brown eyes as she sat up and gently grabbed her mothers arm. “Is that the really bad stuff?”
With a deep breath, Maria nodded. “Yes. But you don’t need to worry about that, okay? It will never happen again.”
“So is Alex my daddy now?” She asked, her eyes bright and curious, and part of her still unaware of what all of this meant.
Maria was hesitant at first, but soon answered with a confident, “Yes.”
After she has kissed Natalie goodnight, she changed into her pajamas, which was long pants and one of Alex’s old, big, and stretched out t-shirts, and joined Alex in the kitchen. It was now just the two of them, something Alex had longed for since their very first kiss. To Natalie, Matthew wasn’t anything anymore. She hardly ever brought him up unless she had a question. Even for being four, Natalie was in incredibly smart even though she sometimes stumbled on words. But she was too young to understand what was going on between Maria and Alex. And if they were being honest with themselves, they didn’t really know either. The only thing that they were sure of was that they cared deeply for one another, even for only knowing each other for a couple of months. It was something about Maria. Maybe because Alex saw a little bit of himself in her. Unloved, lost, broken. He had been all of those things until he moved back to his hometown with Elena. Elena had been Alex’s person, and Alex wanted to be Maria’s.
“Okay,” Alex started, trying to contain his excitement. “I have a surprise for you.”
Her eyebrow shot up in the air as she walked closer to him. “What more could you do? You planned a baby shower, found Natalie, let me live in your house. Alex, you do way too much.”
“Yeah, I know, but I want to. I’d do anything for you, because you deserve everything.” He tilted his head to the right and spoke again when Maria squinted her eyes. “Oh please, wipe that smirk off your face.”
Maria scoffed and rolled her eyes playfully. “Fine.”
“Wonderful, now come on. I’ve been waiting to show you this all week.” He took her hand and led her across the newly carpeted floor. “Ready?”
“Yes, just open the door.”
Alex gave her a toothy grin before pulling down on the silver handle. It opened, revealing everything Alex had done in the past week. All the late nights he had spent making sure every detail was perfect. After careful consideration, Alex had decided to put the blue rug with an elephant on it next to the crib instead of at the end of the bed. Now that he was seeing it all put together, and with Maria in it, he was glad he placed it there.
Maria let go of Alex’s hand and put it up to her mouth, speechless. As she slowly made her way deeper in the room, she set her hand down on the bed and drag it along the covers before she did the same to the crib next to it. Taking in every feature, her bottom lip quivered to a steady beat as emotion flooded her eyes. After a few seconds, she turned around towards Alex who was still standing in the doorway.
“You did all this?” She asked, her voice shaky.
He nodded humbly and walked up behind her, running his hands up and down her arms. “Do you like it?”
Maria turned around, her eyes still looking over the room. “It’s perfect.”
Alex smiled again as hot tears of what he hoped was from happiness dripped down Maria’s skin. “Let me show you my favorite part,” he said, leaving her side and walking over to the crib. He picked up a blanket and held it up, letting it unfold itself. “Look how cute it is! It has elephants on it!”
She laughed quietly, signaling a shift in emotion that Alex had picked up on. Something wasn’t right, and he had a pretty good idea at what it was. He didn’t hesitate to drop the blanket and go back to her.
“Oh no, what’s wrong? Is this all too much? Elena said I shouldn’t surprise you with anything.”
She shook her head before following him to sit on the bed. “No, it’s not that. It’s just that... Matthew did the same exact thing for Anthony. He surprised me and everything.”
He figured long before he even decided on making a nursery that she would bring up Anthony again. He couldn’t blame her. She was still in grief over her son she lost not long ago, and she had every right to be. She said herself that this child was a replacement baby, but not by choice. He was only created in order to fill the whole Anthony had left in Matthew’s heart. He never cared about Maria’s wellbeing. If he did, he wouldn’t have forced himself on her and gotten her pregnant again after he knew damn well she didn’t want another kid. She shouldn’t’ve even had to tell him no because sometimes it’s just common sense. But unlike Matthew, Alex had made a promise to himself that day he learned about Anthony to remember him, to care for him, and to love him, even though he never saw him. It was only Maria and Matthew who ever got to see him before he was taken from her. Thinking about it made Alex glad he never had to be apart of anything like that, and he prayed he never would. He wasn’t sure he would be able to handle that. He could imagine Maria sitting there in pain, screaming at everyone in sight because of what was happening. That really hit him hard. It was a tough image to swallow. Although he was grateful he didn’t have to go through that with her, he wished that he was with Maria after. Maybe if he was, Maria wouldn’t be feeling this way. After talking with her, Alex knew that originally she didn’t want the baby, and he understood that. But he also knew that there was part of her that did because no matter what, the baby was hers and no one else’s. It was still a baby that she had created and was protective over. There was nothing that could change the bond between and mother and her child. The fact that Alex even had to think about this stuff, and that he and Maria were talking about that made him sick. She wouldn’t be feeling like this if it weren’t for him. And now he couldn’t even do something nice for her without it brining up terrible memories that she shouldn’t have.
That fucking bastard, he thought. How long until I can throw his ass in prison and slap him across the face for hurting the woman I love?
Alex had realized it at that exact moment. It was something he hadn’t felt in a long time towards anyone except for Elena. But now, after all this time, it seemed so clear.
He loved her.
Sure, he knew it before, but it didn’t register until now. And now that he knew, he wanted to tell her. But as Maria fell into an even deeper pool of sadness, he decided now was not the time.
Alex was never really the type to think saying I love you was a big deal, and perhaps that was because he never really was in love. But now with Maria it seemed so important, especially since it was Maria. If anyone needed to hear those words, it was her. And that was just another reason why Alex was in love with her and every trait she possessed. Her sensitivity, her kindness, her love for her kids, her weaknesses and strengths, and just her. Everything. The way her eyebrow shot up, how she would turn to him when she needed help, and the way she would entrust him with secrets she would never tell anyone else.
There were still tears rolling down her face, which left her skin glistening. After the few first tears fell, and endless river followed. She let out a silent cry trying not to wake anyone up.
Alex got up and stood in front of her before cradling her head with one hand and supporting her back with the other. He could feel her body tense, and the small pauses she took to catch her breath. She leaned her head against his chest, and he rocked her back and fourth because that was all he could do.
“I know nothing I say can take away your pain, but I’ll tell you this again, and as many times I need to. He knows you love him. He is your baby, he is your son, he is your kid. Nothing will ever change that, and I know that this baby did not happen like you wanted it to, but he isn’t replacing Anthony. He isn’t. I don’t care how many times I have to tell you that, because I will use every breath I have to make sure you know that. Just because you’re having another baby doesn’t mean you love him any less. And if you keep focusing on this, you are going to miss out on those little moments. Those little moments mean the most because those are the things you will remember for the rest of your life.”
“How do you always know what to say?” She asked, a small smile peaking from her lips that were still trembling uncontrollably.
“I’m not sure. I guess it’s one of my many charms.” He smirked, then kissed Maria’s hand just as he did in the car earlier. “Do you feel better?”
She nodded, then answered in a playful voice. “Yes, but I’m going to keep crying because I am hormonal.”
Alex laughed, then kissed the top of her head. They had only kissed passionately once, that night in Dallas in the parking lot at the Aquarium. Ever since that, Alex hadn’t kissed her on her lips again. Though he yearned to. But he was determined to wait until Maria was ready.
“Is it okay if I kiss you?” He asked.
“You just did.”
“No, I mean like Aquarium parking lot kiss.”
She pulled back from him just the slightest bit so she could look at him. “Are you really asking for my permission?”
“Yeah. I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to.”
She let out a breath and smiled ever wider before
Alex dragged his finger along her jawline. He leaned in closer, and their foreheads touched, sending tingles down both of their spines. He could feel Maria’s breath against his skin. He then cupped her cheeks with his warm hands, and before he could move them again, their lips touched, and Alex’s longing was fulfilled. They connected continuously, only pulling apart to come together again. The taste of each other was left on their lips as they pulled apart for the final time. As Alex pulled back, he touched the bottom of his top lip with his tongue, wanting to taste Maria’s lips forever.
“That... was the first thing I’ve felt something in a long time,” she said breathlessly, before her eyes went dark again. But before Alex could ask her what was on her mind, she spoke again. “Can I ask you something?”
He gave a concerned nod.
“Umm, how would you feel... if... how important is sex to you?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because after what Matthew did, I’m not sure if that is something I would want. And I just want to make sure you know that so you don’t get disappointed and... leave.”
He separated her hands that she was shuffling together nervously. “Maria, I would never leave you because of something like that. I understand why you wouldn’t want to, and I’m wouldn’t leave you because you don’t want to have sex. But would you completely rule it out?”
“No. I just think I don’t want that right now. Or anytime soon for that matter.”
“So maybe that’s something we think about later. I won’t make you do anything you do anything you don’t want to.”
She closed her eyes and smiled. “Thank you.”
He pecked her lips a final time, and said, “I love you.” He stopped immediately and his face turned bright red when he realized the three words that he let slip. And after the silent few seconds, he got his thoughts clear. “You know what, I’m not going to pretend that isn’t true, because it is true. I love you. I love you so much, Maria.”
Her eyes filled with tears again, and they did so so quickly that he couldn’t even say something to keep her from crying. “That is the first time anyone besides Natalie has said that to me, and actually meant it. You really love me?”
“That’s good, because I love you too.”
They kissed again, Maria letting out an occasional moan.
Soon after he walked to the kitchen to get water, and when he shut the fridge, he leaned against the steel door and sank to the floor, his heart full. As he sat there, it was as if the past couple of his months had flashed before his eyes. It all started that one day when that case he almost gave away. Before he got the case, his life consisted of one person. Elena. And even though he had friends he cared about, none of them compared to what Maria had become. Suddenly he found himself with not only Elena, but a girlfriend who he hoped to refer to as wife one day, a four-year-old, and baby that would be here in four weeks. While it was slightly overwhelming, never in his life would Alex have ever imagined he would have this many people to love. He thought deeper, and wondered how is life would have turned out if he and and Elena’s mother had stayed together. But it didn’t really matter now because she was gone, and he had built this amazing life with out her, and one thing was for sure. He did not want her to be apart of it.
Alex dragged himself off the floor, the though of Maria and everyone he loved on his mind. He smiled, biting his lip while blushing, and thinking about what the future just might hold. But before he left the kitchen, he heard a faint buzzing come from his phone on the table, so he went to turn it off. But when he saw the unknown number, his eyes drifted to the message and as his visions of the future faded, so did his smile.