Black Tie Formal
Uncrossing my legs, I pushed myself to my feet, staying squatted on Audra and Finn’s play mat long enough to ruffle Finn’s dark curls before straightening and twisting from side to side to stretch out the kinks which had developed in my back from sitting on the floor for the past two hours. The motion caused me to sigh in satisfaction and also gave me a good idea of where Jaxon was in the room.
Constantly keeping an eye out for him had become somewhat of a bad habit on my part, and one which I couldn’t seem to stop. Usually it wasn’t actually that much of a problem because my entire job consisted of taking care of Jaxon’s kids while he wasn’t around, so I wasn’t necessary when he had free time. Still, I found myself making excuses to stick around and if he saw right through me, he didn’t indicate it in the slightest.
Which is why I had spent the entire afternoon in Jaxon’s suite with the twins while he got ready for that evening’s award show. Though, in this case, he might have actually needed me, seeing as the past couple hours had been a whirlwind of stylists and makeup artists and interviewers hoping to get sound bites. The chaos had finally settled about fifteen minutes ago and currently, Jaxon was standing in front of the full length mirror on the other side of the room, struggling to make the knot on his black silk tie look even.
Laughing to myself, I crossed the room, coming to a stop a few feet behind him. “Need some help?”
Turning to face me, he scrunched up his nose apologetically. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” I laughed, stepping forward and reaching out to undo the knot and start over. The band didn’t often dress up this much for red carpet events, but this was a big one, so he’d gone all out. Unfortunately, this also meant that he had no idea how to tie a tie. Lucky for him, four years in private school made me an expert on the subject.
“Thanks,” he muttered, lowering his chin to watch my fingers work.
I didn’t want to imagine how his long eyelashes, which were casting a shadow against the tops of his cheeks, would feel against my skin, so I said something to avert his attention upwards. “Excited?”
It served its purpose: he looked up, but it took me all of three seconds to realize that wanting him to look up at all was a huge mistake. Because now my eye line was right at his lips, which meant that if I leaned forward just a little, we’d be kissing. But I couldn’t look up because then I’d be staring into his eyes, so I settled for focusing on the movement of my hands tying the knot as he spoke.
“Nervous, kinda,” he admitted, clearing his throat before the words came out, “But I always get nervous before we perform.”
It was their first televised performance of their newest single, so I understood the tension. “That’s good, right? Gives you an edge.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he shrugged, taking a step back once the knot was pushed all the way up and turning to look at my work in the mirror. He lifted one side of his mouth into a smile, nodding as our gazes met in the glass. “Been paying attention, huh?”
I did pay attention to the conversations he had with his band mates in the dressing rooms and I’d learned a lot about the music industry and touring and Jaxon in general. More than he realized or than was appropriate to admit. “Something like that.”
His smile widened as he turned to face me once more, stepping to the side to grab his jacket off the bed and shrugging it over his shoulders. “Hey, thanks for working tonight. I know it’s past your usual time.”
“No worries,” I shrugged as he adjusted his lapels. “Duty calls.”
“Right,” he laughed, nodding at me one more time before bypassing me to squat beside his kids on the play mat, leaning over to give them goodbye kisses and hugs. “Alright, Daddy’s gotta go. Be good for Divs. Wish me luck?”
“Goo Luck, Daddy!” they called out in chorus as he stood up straight, lifting his fingers to his lips to blow one last kiss before heading towards the door.
Once he was gone, my evening consisted of offering a lot of choices. I offered the twins the choice between carrots or peas for the vegetable to accompany their chicken nuggets and the choice between first or second when it came to whose hair was getting shampooed and then the choice between Dr. Seuss and Clifford when it came to nighttime reading.
It wasn’t long before their heads fell to the side in sleep during my dramatic reading of One Fish, Two Fish. Just as I was about to begin the process of carrying them to the bedroom from the couch, the doorknob wriggled and the door pushed open to announce Jaxon’s return.
“Hey,” I whispered as he stepped through the door, speaking softly to indicate his children were fast asleep. “I was just about to take them to bed.”
I hadn’t expected him back so soon because usually fancy award shows were followed by fancy after parties, but apparently he wasn’t in the mood for an all night rager. Not that I minded him coming back early.
“Let me help,” he offered in a whisper, tossing the jacket he’d been holding over a nearby chair. “You take Finn, I’ll take Audra.”
Doing as instructed, I lifted the boy from the couch and waited for Jaxon to do the same with the girl, following after him towards the bedroom. Holding Audra expertly with one arm, he pulled back the covers and lay her down gently on the mattress as I mimicked his actions with Finn on the other side of the bed.
After safely tucking them in and kissing both of them on the forehead, he motioned for me to follow him out, closing the bedroom door as quietly as possible once we were in the common area again and letting out a soft sigh. “You know, it makes me sad that I can’t carry them for long periods at the same time anymore. They’re getting so big.”
“You could do that?” I asked, impressed.
“Yeah, when they were babies,” he laughed softly, reaching up to further loosen his already loose tie. “Not at first, though, because Lauren wouldn’t let me, she was too afraid I would drop them if I tried.”
I didn’t recognize the name Lauren, so it took me a moment to piece together the context and figure out who he was talking about. “Lauren’s their mother?”
He nodded, his eyes clouding with sadness at her name and I immediately felt guilt bubbling up in the pit of my stomach, so I backtracked. “It’s okay, you don’t have to talk about her.”
The truth was that I was curious. There was very little known about Jaxon’s ex-girlfriend. As far as I could tell, they’d managed to keep their relationship pretty low profile while they were dating, which meant that most of the pictures of them together were blurry and unfocused, taken from the phones of fans who happened to recognize them as they were out and about. Although Lauren’s pregnancy did make headline news, Jaxon made sure that the twins were never featured in any articles, wanting to keep them out of the media spotlight for as long as possible. As a result, Lauren’s departure wasn’t documented either. All I knew was that one day, she was just gone.
He shrugged, shoving his hands into the pockets of his pants and trying to give off the vibe that he wasn’t at all affected by the thought of her. “It’s a pretty simple story, really. I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together and she didn’t feel the same way.”
It couldn’t be that simple, though. People didn’t just one day decide to leave their kids behind. But I knew better than to say that out loud. “I’m sorry, that must have been hard.”
Despite his efforts to seem completely at ease, I saw a hint of sadness creep into his eyes. “It was.”
The vagueness of his answer meant he didn’t want to go any deeper. Which made sense, seeing as recounting the entire history of his relationship with the mother of his children wasn’t the type of conversation that seemed fitting for two people who were just barely friends to have. So I decided to make myself scarce, nodding towards the door. “I should probably go back to my room.”
He didn’t respond, so I took that as my cue to leave, turning towards the couch to find my bag, but stopping when he spoke softly. “Hey, Divya, do you want some ice cream? I’m really craving some rocky road.”
Lifting my eyebrows in surprise as I swiveled back to face him, I blinked as I responded. “Sure.”
Flashing me a smile, he turned towards the freezer, which currently held three pints of ice cream: one of cookie dough, one of mint chocolate chip, and one of rocky road. No matter where we were, he made sure his kids’ favorite flavors were nearby.
Forgoing putting on my shoes, I settled myself onto the couch, tucking my legs beneath me and smiling gratefully when he handled me a bowl with three scoops of rocky road and crossed his legs when he sat on the other end of the couch. We enjoyed our cold desserts for a few minutes before Jaxon broke the silence.
“This is probably going to come as a huge shock to you, but we didn’t plan on getting pregnant,” he said, speaking so softly that I had to lean forward a bit to hear him properly, “We were terrified, but we were young and in love and we thought we could get through anything. I guess we thought wrong,” he paused, stabbing a chunk of ice cream with his spoon and staring at the newly revealed marshmallow within, “Or at least I did. It was probably stupid of me to think that just because we had kids together, we would stay together forever.”
It wasn’t stupid at all. It was idealistic and romantic, but not stupid. And maybe the world would be a better place if more people thought that way. “I know there’s lots of couples that do that; stay together for the children.”
“I guess,” he shrugs, scooping up a bite of ice cream and bringing it to his lips, “but I’d rather my kids only have one parent than have two that are completely miserable.”
“That makes sense,” I nodded, taking another bite of my own dessert. I supposed it was good that he eventually arrived at the realistic option.
“It just wasn’t what she thought it would be, you know?” he said, and I wasn’t sure if he was actually speaking to me or if he was just talking because he needed to talk, “I think she had this really romantic idea of what parenthood would be like and when everything didn’t match up with exactly how she pictured it in her head, she figured she just wasn’t cut out for motherhood and split. Right before their first birthday. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember exactly what she was wearing and which strands of hair were falling out of her braid and how she smelled like marigolds and roses,” he paused, inhaling sharply as his previously soft and nostalgic tone hardened with each word he spoke next, “And I remember how she didn’t shed a single tear.”
I was pretty sure my heart actually stopped beating. Parting my lips, I wanted to find the perfect words, but even after forming an acceptable sentence, I didn’t know whether I was actually helping. “I’m sorry. I guess…I guess some people just aren’t cut out to be parents, you know?”
A large part of me wondered if maybe he thought Lauren’s departure was his fault and I wanted to assure him that wasn’t the case. Because despite not knowing the dynamic of their relationship, I couldn’t believe that anyone in their right mind would leave Jaxon and Finn and Audra willingly. There had to be a better explanation.
But he didn’t seem to think so, because he shook his head and let out a defeated sigh. “Maybe I’m not either.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, setting my ice cream bowl on the coffee table and scooting forward so that I could reach out and place a hand on his wrist. “Is this because of what that lady at the aquarium said yesterday?”
He nodded slowly, transferring his bowl to his free hand and setting in on the coffee table as well before bringing his hand back to tentatively stroke the back of my hand. “I just can’t stop thinking that maybe she had a point. I mean, I don’t know anything about preschools and that’s just the beginning of my complete lack of knowledge.”
“Okay, first of all,” I replied, doing my best not be distracted by the movements of his fingers over my skin, “that woman was a pretentious bitch. And secondly, you need to get a fucking grip. Cause your kids adore the shit out of you and if you just sit around feeling sorry for yourself, then you’re gonna miss out on how amazing it is to have people in your life who love you that unconditionally.”
He obviously hadn’t expected my inspirational speech on the topic to be so harsh, because he blinked at me blankly. “Wow. Going the tough love route, huh?”
“Yep,” I nodded, smiling so I wouldn’t think too hard about the fact that we were currently holding hands. “Is it working?”
The corners of his lips lifted into a small smile and he let out a soft laugh. “A little.”
He stared at me and the longer our gazes stayed locked, the more the darkness cleared from his eyes and the more I had to suppress the urge to lean forward and kiss him. I think I might have suppressed so much that I willed it in to happening because, as though I were in the midst of a dream, Jaxon leaned slowly towards me, his gaze dropping downwards to my lips before his eyelids fluttered closed.
It took us being point two seconds away from meeting lips for me to realize this was a disastrous idea, at which point, I removed my hand from his and sprung up from the couch as though it had been set on fire and took two steps around the coffee table to put some distance between us.
“I, um, I think I should go,” I managed to stammer out as I collected my purse and my shoes, heading for the door before he could get a word out.
If he called out after me, I didn’t hear it, because I was too busy sprinting down the hallway, hoping that any second now, I would wake up to find that all of this had just been a bad dream.