Staccato Heartbeats

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Draining the last of her vanilla sweetened latte, Piper tossed the empty cup into the nearest trash can before pulling open the glass front door of the youth center. Despite the fact that Kira’s place of work was so only a thirty minute drive from campus, Piper hadn’t visited in months.

So today she was killing two birds with one stone. She wanted to see the center’s latest renovations. And she was in serious need of some big sister advice.

Rocky McIntire confused the shit out of Piper and she didn’t like it one bit. She wasn’t used to being so baffled by a guy. Generally speaking, she considered the male species to be pretty simple. And in the twenty-two years of her existence, she had yet to meet a member of it that intrigued her as much as her project partner.

They’d been working together for just over a month now, but she still felt likely barely knew anything about him. He was charming and flirty and made her laugh, but any time she asked him anything remotely personal, he would give her a complete non answer. And despite all the flirting, their relationship hadn’t progressed past people who just like to flirt.

The entire situation made Piper antsy and she figured that if anyone could offer helpful advice it was the girl she considered to be a big sister.

“Hey, Pipes!” Kira called out as Piper stepped into the lobby, striding towards the front door with her four month old son strapped to her front.

“Hey, Kiki!” Piper grinned, leaning in to smack a kiss to Kira’s cheek before adoringly brushing a hand over the sleeping baby’s soft hair. “Hi, Wyatt. How are you, handsome?”

“He’s still sleeping in two hour shifts,” Kira complained, though the way her gaze softened as she stared at her son indicated she didn’t mind enduring the frequent wake up calls.

Piper shot her a sympathetic glance. “Tired?”

Sighing, Kira nodded as she stretched her lips into an exhausted smile. “I’d kill for a full night’s sleep.”

“How’s Zach handling it?”

“Like a champ,” Kira laughed, her expression immediately brightening at the mention of her husband. “Though, I guess I’m not surprised that he’s Super Dad. I’m just pissed that he still looks so fucking gorgeous while I look like I should be on some sort of zombie television show.”

“Stop it, you look like a supermodel,” Piper assured her. “Always.”

“Thanks for stopping by,” Kira smiled, slipping a hand through Piper’s arm to grab her elbow and lead her further inside and keeping her other hand gently pressed to Wyatt’s back. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“I know,” Piper winced apologetically as she glanced around. “The place looks great.”

The renovations had left the center with a cabin on the lake feel. With exposed wood beams and dark floors, it felt homey and comfortable and Piper could definitely appreciate wanting to be here as often as possible.

“Want a tour?” Kira asked, beaming.

Piper couldn’t help but share her enthusiasm. “Of course.”

Kira had been working at the youth center for years, having begun as regular staff member and working her way up to her now assistant director position.

“So the main lobby is for indoor activities,” she began, removing her arm from Piper’s to gesture to an open concept living area, “We’ve got study rooms and conference rooms and craft rooms over here and basketball courts and a weight room down the hall.” Piper smiled at the children playing sports as she followed Kira down the hallway to the weight room in the back, which was lined with floor to ceiling windows, while Kira continued, “And then outside we have the playground and soccer courts.”

“Wow, that’s…,” Piper’s smile grew as she took in her surroundings, her heart swelling with pride for the girl she always considered to be a big sister. She meant to compliment the renovations, but her gaze halted when she looked out the windows to see the very male who had been the source of all of her agitation for the past few weeks and instead, she ended up saying, “beautiful.”

And it wasn’t untrue. Because with the sunlight casting streaks of copper into his hair and a wide smile stretching his lips as he watched a group of young boys play soccer, Rocky McIntire had never looked more dazzling.

“You know, if you take a picture, it might last longer.”

Kira’s amused voice ripped Piper away from her blatant ogling as she stammered to come up with an excuse for her behavior, “Sorry, I’m just…”

“Distracted,” Kira offered, smirking as she nodded. “Understandable. Rocky’s quite the male specimen.”

“He’s my partner for my senior project,” Piper replied, not sure what else to say since she couldn’t deny that she’d been checking him out.

“Oh, yeah?” Kira lifted an eyebrow. “Rocky’s great, he comes here all the time.”

Piper supposed that wasn’t too surprising. Brighton’s campus was pretty isolated, which meant that to engage in extra curricular activities of this kind, the youth center would probably be the closest option. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, he helps out coaching the kids in a little recreational soccer,” Kira explained, “Plus, it gives him a chance to relax and not worry about…”

She trailed off, apparently censoring herself before she gave Piper any insight into Rocky, causing Piper to lift a curious eyebrow. “Worry about what?”

“Um, you know, maybe it’s better if he tells you,” Kira replied, busying herself with shifting Wyatt into a more comfortable position and shooing Piper towards the door which lead to the fields. “Go say hi.”

“Thanks,” Piper called over her shoulder as she stepped outside, her eyes widening in fascination as she watched Rocky strip off his sweaty t-shirt and use the cotton to wipe his face, leaving his muscled chest and abdomen naked and glistening and magnificent. She waited until practice was over and he wasn’t inundated by questions from inquiring young boys before she made her presence known.

“This is completely unfair, you know,” Piper called out as she came to a stop beside him.

Rocky’s heart skipped a beat at the sound of Piper’s voice and as he turned his head to face her, trying to restore his breathing to normal at the sight of her looking so beautiful in the sunlight, he was briefly thankful that he’d been forcing himself to work out regularly for the past year. Processing her statement, he shot her a grin and said, “What is?”

“As though it’s not enough that you’re a talented musician with a gorgeous smile, you also have a smoking hot body?” she clicked her tongue and shook her head as though it was disgraceful. “Come on, man.”

Despite the fact that this conversation was pretty on par for the flirting they’d been doing for the past month, he couldn’t help but feel satisfied by her compliments and shrugged as though it wasn’t a big deal. “What can I say? Some guys just have it all.”

“Apparently,” she replied, unable to resist dropping her gaze lower to his bare torso and admiring the way his abdominal muscles flexed as he inhaled and exhaled deeply.

“My eyes are up here, baby,” he teased. Her eyes immediately snapped upwards to meet his, partly because she was embarrassed to have been caught ogling him and partly because of way he’d so casually used a term of endearment that she found so incredibly sexy. Tilting his head to the side, he smirked and asked, “What are you doing here?”

“Visiting Kira,” she replied, once she’d regained some moisture in her throat.

He nodded, knowing that all of the children of the members of Piper’s father’s band were incredibly close. “Right, I forget that you guys are…”

“Family,” Piper said automatically, knowing it to be true.

Rocky felt a smile stretch his lips, thinking it was nice that Piper considered family to be more than just blood. He parted his lips to tell her just that, but was interrupted by a brunette toddler reaching up to tug gently on the hem of his shorts.

Piper’s brow furrowed in confusion at the small child wearing a fuzzy pink tiara and staring up at Rocky as she said, “Can we go get ice cweam now?”

“Sure, sweetie,” Rocky smiled down at the pint sized cutie adoringly before reaching down to lift her into his arms and returning his attention to his project partner. “Piper, this is Hallie. My daughter.”

She hadn’t been expecting that. Of course, she knew Rocky had secrets. He was too damn mysterious for his own good. But all this time, it had never occurred to her that it wasn’t himself he was protecting; it was his child.

To Rocky’s credit, he was doing a pretty good job of holding himself together. He knew this day was going to happen eventually, but he’d always thought he’d have more time to prepare. It wasn’t as though he was ashamed of Hallie. No, he was pretty sure the four year old was the one who put the stars in the sky. But generally speaking, when people found out he had a kid, they began to see him differently, and not usually in a good way. So he stared Piper down, wondering what her reaction would be and hoping more than anything that it would only strengthen the growing feelings he had for her.

It only took her a few seconds of adjusting to the revelation of Rocky having a child for Piper to regain her usual demeanor and she smiled brightly as she addressed the little girl. Taking the tiara into consideration, Piper curtseyed as she said, “Hi, Princess Hallie. I am very honored to meet you.”

Rocky was pretty sure he could feel his heart swelling, the growth doubling at the sound of his daughter’s giggle as she waved shyly at Piper before burying her smile in her father’s shoulder. Appreciating the genuine kindness in Piper’s eyes but also knowing that she probably had a million and one questions, Rocky decided to cut the interaction short, hiking Hallie up higher in his arms and saying, “Well, I promised the princess some ice cream since she was such a good girl and waited through practice. We better get going. See you tomorrow, Irwin.”

Before she could respond, he was walking away, grabbing a duffel bag that was sitting on the ground nearby, leaving her to whisper, “Bye,” to his retreating form.

Stepping back inside, Piper wandered the hallways until she found Kira’s office, plopping down on the worn red leather couch to the side and letting out a soft sigh.

“You okay?” Kira asked, noticing Piper’s far off look when she raised her gaze from checking her email, Wyatt now sleeping soundly in a basinet on the other side of the room. “You look a little dazed.”

Piper shrugged, staring at the ceiling. “You could say that.”

“You met Hallie, huh?” Kira asked, immediately deducing what had happened outside.

“Yeah,” Piper side, turning to lie on her side so she could face Kira more fully. “I mean, I knew that there was tons I didn’t know about him, but I didn’t expect that.”

“He’s pretty protective of her.”

“That’s good,” Piper replied, feeling her heart flip in her chest. “I’m glad he’s a good father.”

She’d spent so long in Rocky’s bad boy aura that it was a little difficult to reconcile the fact that he had a young child, but she was delighted that he took his fatherly duties seriously. It would have broken her heart if she’d found out he was a deadbeat dad.

“He is,” Kira assured her. “That little girl absolutely adores him.”

“How old is she?” Piper asked, curious to find out more.

Kira chewed on her lower lip as she thought about the answer for a moment. “Four, I think.”

“And her mother?”

That was a question that caused Piper’s heart to begin thudding in her chest a little. Considering all the flirting that had occurred between her and Rocky, she assumed he was single. But that didn’t mean Hallie’s mother wasn’t still involved in his life. And seeing how Piper very much wanted to be a part of Rocky’s life, she wanted to be aware of anyone who might occupy a space in his heart.

She stared Kira down, but the older girl refused to give anything away, keeping her gaze steady as she replied, “I don’t really think that’s my story to tell.”

“That’s fair,” Piper decided. As much as she wanted to know more, she would probably just have to get the rest of her information from Rocky himself.

Looking relieved that she wasn’t being pressed for more secrets, Kira asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” Piper said honestly, sitting up on the couch. “I’ve spent the past month wondering why he was so reluctant to tell me anything about himself, but it finally makes sense. He was protecting Hallie.”

A small smile kinked Kira’s lips. “I’m glad you see it that way.”

“As opposed to?” Piper furrowed her brow in confusion, wonder what other way she could have interpreted the situation. To be honest, she had thought Rocky’s aloofness was because, despite the flirting, he didn’t really see a romantic relationship between them going anywhere. Knowing the real reason behind the mystique was kind of a relief.

Kira shrugged. “As opposed to thinking he should have been honest with you from the beginning.”

Piper supposed she could see someone reacting that way. But as much as she valued honesty, loyalty to one’s family was far more important.

“Seeing as I’ve never been a parent I can’t really comprehend that kind of love,” Piper replied, trying to explain her thought process. “So I can’t really judge how he chooses to protect his own daughter either.”

Kira lifted her eyebrows in surprise before smiling widely. “How very mature of you.”

“Shut up,” Piper rolled her eyes, but she laughed, feeling far lighter than she had an hour before.

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