Veronica.

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6. Rodent Infestation.

James and I continue to watch each other as we have been doing for ten minutes. He brings his tiny finger up to cover his mouth, telling me to be quiet when we hear his sister’s approaching footsteps. I sneak a peek over the countertop, catching the top of Rowan’s head as she enters. With his tiny palm covering my own mouth, James follows me closely as we make our way around the counter. Rowan has her back to us, completely unaware that we are there.

I am about to make my move when she turns. She holds her weapon in her hands and points it directly at my shoulder.

“Got you!” She giggles, pressing the trigger.

A small spurt of water hits my arm leaving a damp mark in its place as it seeps through the fabric of my fleece. I quickly cover my shoulder with my palm and fall forward. A dramatic groan leaves my lips as I reach the floor. James kneels by my side, tucking his head against my stomach. His sister got him too, it seems. Rowan drops the water gun and approaches us, her wide eyes watching us carefully. When she’s within reach, I pull her down and begin attacking her sides with my fingers. She laughs uncontrollably, her tongue caught between her teeth as she rolls around on the floor in a bid to get away from the two of us. I laugh with her. Mostly because of the adorable sound that leaves her but also because of how much my heart swells when she’s happy. James lays down too, his head resting on his clasped hands. He’s happy watching his sister squirm under my fingers.

The perfect moment is disrupted by a loud, demanding knock on the front door. I sigh and heave myself off the floor. Leaving the twins in the kitchen with the water gun and the water it still holds is probably a bad idea but whoever’s at the door is becoming impatient. I open it after another bellowing thud echoes down the hallway.

Joel stands there, one hand drawn to a fist in the air as though he’s about to knock again. I take a surprised step backwards.

“Joel,” his name leaves my lips like a foul taste.

“Always a pleasure to see your charming smile. Whatever happened to the girl I met at the gym all those years ago?” A smirk plays on his pretty face. His golden eyes drew me in when we met. They’re still beautiful today but they no longer look at me like they used to. They mirror my own; all traces of lust and love gone.

And the third finger of his left hand that grips the edge of the doorway, is bare. I rub at the same place on my own hand aware that there’s nothing there. Our rings; like our love, we lost a long time ago.

“She realised that some people don’t deserve to see her smile,” I reply.

Ignoring me, he steps forward, “Can I see my children? I have a surprise for them.”

“Another surprise? Do you have a second fiance I should know about?”

“Roni, do you only act this way with me? This... this attitude is tiring.”

“You’re not that special. What’s the surprise? Are you moving again? Have you come here to promise the twins new bedrooms in whatever run-down apartment you found?”

A heavy sigh leaves him, “That happened once.”

“Once was enough. I was the one who had to help them deal with their father’s broken promises,” I force the image of my twins curled around me, crying their eyes out, to the back of my mind.

“Just get them, would you? I have to get the surprise from the car.”

He turns on his heel and heads towards his car. The twins come bounding down the hall seconds after hearing my call. They reach my legs, wrapping their arms around each one, hugging me close. We watch their father as he opens the car’s rear door. He bends down, straightening seconds later and turning. He approaches us, carrying nothing other than a damn cage.

“What is that?” I ask, sparing my children of swear words.

“This is a cage and inside sleeps the cutest hamster in the world,” Joel answers me as though he hasn’t just bought our children their first pet without as much as a call to consult me first. “Let’s get her inside, she won’t be a fan of the wind out here.”

With the audacity of a bank robber, Joel walks straight up the stairs, past me and the twins and into the living room. We follow him, Rowan jumping up and down in excitement.

“A hamster! I’m so excited! Mummy, a hamster!”

Joel opens his arms for the twins to stand by him. He’s crouched down and is tapping the plastic base of the cage. The slightest movement from inside catches my eye. Then, this tiny, fluffy thing is crawling across the sawdust towards his finger. She sniffs the air, slowly taking in her new space.

“She’s cute, right?” Joel asks, directing his question to me.

“What’s her name?” James asks, far more timid than usual.

“You can name her whatever you want to. She’s yours. Both of you have to promise to take care of her though.” Their father responds.

“Joel. Hallway. Now.”

With a reluctant roll of his eyes, he leaves the twins to stare in bewilderment at their new pet. The two of us enter the hallway and I shut the door gently behind me. I am fully prepared to scold him and his damn spending habits.

“Is there some special occasion that’s happening today?” I ask, crossing my arms over my chest.

“No. I wanted to see my kids,” he grins, knowing all too well why I’m angry.

“Oh, I ask because usually, you come around once every two months.”

“I know but I’m trying to make up for that.”

“Since when?”

Joel shrugs his shoulders, “Since I met Chloe. She doesn’t have children of her own and has always wanted them.”

“Right, but they’re my children.”

“We know.”

“You’re we now?”

“Roni, I have to tell you something,” his voice is full of excitement.

“I hope it’s an apology for the rodent you brought into my home.”

“It’s a hamster, not-”

“A hamster is a rodent, Joel.”

“That’s not the point. I’m here to tell you that I’m going to apply for custody of the twins. Well, half-custody.”

I suddenly feel sick.

My stomach drops as I take in his words, “What?”

“I want them to spend half the year with me.”

“You didn’t know what the word custody meant a month ago!”

“Chloe wants me to play a bigger part in their lives.”

“Are you kidding me?” I try my hardest to keep my voice steady for the sake of the twins who wait on the other side of the door. “Joel, I can’t believe you’ve dropped that bombshell as though it’s as easy as asking to take them to the zoo for the day! You do not get to come here and ask for custody! Not after what happened. Do you really think a judge will allow it?”

“Chloe says we have a good case.”

“Chloe needs to learn to keep her nose out of where it’s not wanted,” I snap, my eyes burning a hole in the wall. I refuse to look the idiot in the eye, not for a second longer than I need to.

“Roni, we can discuss this again when you’ve calmed down.”

I avoid the hand he aims to rest on the curve of my shoulder. Gritting my teeth, I speak, “Stay with the twins, I need to clear my head.”

I don’t give him the chance to respond because seconds after grabbing my leather jacket off the bannister, I storm out of the house. The front door slams behind me and I rush down the stairs, flipping my middle finger in the direction of his car as I do so. I count the pavement slabs as I walk down the street in a bid to calm down. My breath is heavy and my hands are balled into fists. If anyone were to see me, they’d tell immediately that something’s the matter. There’s nothing worse I can think of than Joel winning custody of the twins. Even if it is only for half the year. They are my children and I’d die before I allowed anyone to take them away from me for more than a day. Chloe fucking Nightingale has chosen the wrong woman’s life to interfere with.

Talk about a rodent infestation!

It doesn’t register with me how long I’ve been walking for until I’ve passed the twin’s school and am on the other side of the park. Nothing can distract me from Joel’s confession; not the cold wind that whips around my head or the pair of ducks that swim lazily across the lake. The water of which is still despite the gusts of freezing wind. I keep walking, my converse beginning to turn a darker shade of blue as the damp grass winds its way around them.

“Veronica?”

My name being called out is not a rare occurrence in this part of the neighbourhood. Plenty of parents from the school live around here, many of which spend the weekends at the park with their children.

I turn on my heel, my eyes searching for the owner of the voice. One of the last people I expect to find jogging towards me does so with a cap covering his sandy-blonde hair.

“Max? What are you doing here?” I ask, the shock clear on my face.

“Hi! I live not far from here. Zac wanted to have a kickabout,” he gestures to a young boy with a mop of chocolate hair who dribbles with a football a few yards behind him.

“Oh. Okay, that’s good,” I blink back tears that I think are a result of the piercing wind.

Max lays a hand on my shoulder, “Whoa! Are you okay?” Sincere worry fills his handsome face.

“I’m fine.”

“You’re definitely not. What’s wrong?” He’s insistent.

“Look, I don’t need to talk about it! Leave me alone,” I plan to scold myself later for being so damn rude to him.

“Is this because I didn’t kiss you?”

The little shit.

Screw scolding myself.

My eyes narrow, focusing on the small dent in his forehead, “What? No. Are you being serious right now? You really think I’d react like this because you didn’t kiss me? Max, I’m a grown woman and I don’t need a man to kiss me to make me feel good about myself.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I don’t need to explain myself to you. I really don’t and if you think that I wasted any time thinking about the kiss we didn’t share, then you’re wrong. I have far worse things to worry about!”

He freezes, shocked to the spot, “Okay. I’m going to walk away now. I’m sorry for upsetting you.”

He does the smartest thing he can do; leaves me standing there, regretting every part of the conversation.

✖✖✖

The twins name the hamster Mabel and for the life of me, I can’t hate her. She’s cute when she eats carrots and that’s enough for her to become part of the family. Her cage now sits on the chest of drawers in their bedroom and though, at night she’s loud, the twins love her to pieces.

It has been two days since I snapped at Max. Two days without any sort of contact and I already hate myself for losing my cool with him. It’s not his fault Joel exists. I stare defeated at my phone with its zero notifications before turning it screen down. Then I move to bend down to look at the muffins that sit in the oven. Through the glass door, they look good but when I remove them, they deflate.

Meredith sent me a few recipes and I chose the first one. A blueberry muffin recipe with a granulated sugar topping. That sugar has burnt. I salvage them by scraping the sugar off and into the bin just as I would with burnt toast. Of course, burning the tips of my fingers in the process.

I am not cut out for baking.

There’s no way my twins will eat these, meaning I have ten muffins that I have no idea what to do with. Then, an idea pops into my head.

I box the muffins, grab a coat and head out of the door. The taxi pulls up in front of the fire station an hour later. I hand the driver his payment and a muffin, to which he smiles gratefully. Boy, I’m glad I won’t be around when he eats it. The station stands as tall as it did the other night; the red doors are open today though. A fire engine peeks its nose out of the doors, its bright colours catching my eye. I look down towards my hands. The box of muffins I hold onto tightly is a peace offering... a not so tasty, calorie dense, peace offering.

Taking a deep breath, I approach the station.

The first guy I recognise is Sebastian. He stands near the back of the fire engine studying the tyre for a few seconds before noticing me stood there.

“Hello! Whoa, I really am going to have to get used to seeing you in a full outfit, huh?” His smile is wide and shows me that his words are harmless.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” I shrug.

“It’s alright. What’s in the box?”

I hand it to him, “Muffins. Take one; they’re blueberry.”

“Not chocolate?” Despite scrunching up his nose, Sebastian takes the largest muffin. “I take it you’re here for Max?”

“Yes.”

Sebastian tilts his head back, “MAX! GET YOUR ASS OUT HERE, YOUR GIRL’S HERE.”

I’m taken aback by his yell and quite honestly, his choice of words. Max and I have been on one date and I’m considered his... what? Girlfriend?

“Thank you,” I mumble almost to myself.

Seconds later Max rounds the wall to our left, his shoulders broad and his eyes meeting mine almost reluctantly. He’s dressed in a simple, white t-shirt and joggers. In his simplest form, he manages to take my breath away.

“You sound better for someone who had two days off due to a cough,” he rolls his eyes, directing his words at Sebastian.

“Yeah, well... Ouch, I’ll go and ice my sore, sore throat,” Sebastian winks before prancing away with the excitement of a teen boy.

He leaves the two of us in the giant room and suddenly I feel tiny. Not because Max towers over me but because of how I acted the last time I saw him.

“I am really embarrassed,” I start. “You didn’t deserve to have me snap your head off for caring about me. I’m sorry. I really messed up. You were sweet and I’m just- I’m sorry. I also baked muffins. Here, take one.” I shove the box into his hands.

He takes one, bringing it to his mouth once he’s removed the casing. I watch on, not surprised at all when his mouth contorts upon having a bite.

Max frowns, “I accept your apology, but I can’t eat this.”

“Is it that bad?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“But-” I notice Sebastian has entered the room, “Sebastian ate his.”

“I threw it in the bin, sorry!” He shrugs, casually walking past us to go outside.

“Wow. I really am bad at baking.”

“I can help with that,” Max raises an eyebrow.

“Don’t tell me as well as being an extraordinary dancer, you can bake?” I tease.

He laughs, “Not quite. Henry’s wife owns a bakery and she’s taught me a few things. Are you free tomorrow?”

“I am.”

“Brilliant. If you meet me here at two when I finish my shift, we can head over to hers. I’m guessing you’ve been drawn into the school’s bake sale?”

“Yeah. Haven’t you?”

“Nope. I told that Meredith lady that Zac isn’t my son so, therefore, I shouldn’t have to bake for him. Lou will though. That seemed to please her,” he explains.

I puff out my cheeks, “Maybe I can make Joel bake...”

“Your ex?”

“Yeah. He’s pretty much useless at everything but he made a tasty Victoria Sponge way back when...”

“Is he the reason you were upset on Sunday?” Max asks, being surprisingly perceptive.

“Yeah. He bought the twins a damn hamster.”

“A hamster? Oh," a slight frown appears on his face.

“Yeah. He insists on bringing this thing into my home and I know that’s she’s going to disrupt everything. She just is!”

“She?”

“Yeah... Uh - The hamster, she’s called Mabel.”

“Awh, that’s sweet.”

“Maybe. I just know that she’s going to cause trouble.”

“Are we still talking about the hamster?”

I give him the most angelic smile I can muster, “Of course.”

All the while I’m thinking about how much I want to ram a muffin down Chloe’s gullet.

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