Stepping out of the precinct, I’m unlocking my truck when my cell vibrates in my pocket. Pulling it out, I find a text.
Gen: Hey. I know it’s been a while, but I need to talk to you. Are you free?
Jace: Geez, where the hell have you been?
Gen: Long story. Can we meet up?
Jace: As long as you don’t mind that Stella is there. We’re grabbing lunch.
Gen: Can’t wait to meet her. I’ve missed you, Jace.
Jace: See you soon.
Climbing behind the wheel, I fire up the engine, and once the Bluetooth activates, I call my girl, letting her know about the change of plans. Luckily she’s good with it, and when I pull up in front of our house a few minutes later, she comes strolling out. Leaving the engine running, I climb out so I can help her inside, pressing a kiss to her cheek.
“You sure you’re okay with my cousin joining us?” I ask, slowly backing out of the driveway.
Stella nods. “Yeah, I’m excited to meet her.”
“You’re the best, babe.”
“I know,” she quips, laughing when I shake my head at her.
Soon enough we’re turning into the restaurant where I had Gen meet us. When we step inside, a hostess comes over to help us, and I look around the seating area.
“We’re meeting someone here, but I’m not sure—” I break off, seeing Gen waving to me from the other side of the restaurant. “There she is now.”
The server motions us toward her, and I help Stella over, her hand clasped tightly in mine. When we arrive at the table, Gen stands and I give her the tightest hug imaginable. Her honey brown eyes look tired, and her long dark blonde hair is pulled back off her face.
“I missed you so much,” she says, her words muffled against my shoulder.
“I missed you too, Gen.” Cupping her face, I smile before releasing her, stepping aside so Stella can come forward. “This is my girlfriend, Stella. Baby, this is my cousin Genevieve.”
“Gen, please. Genevieve is so formal.” She reaches out to hug Stella, and I watch her eyes mist with tears when she notices Stella’s belly.
“It’s so nice to meet you finally, I’ve heard so much about you from Jace.”
Gen doesn’t say anything, just takes a seat, Stella and I following suit. A waitress comes over and takes our drink orders, giving us a minute to browse the menu. We’re quiet while we make our choices, and after we get them ordered, we’re left in awkward silence. Stella breaks it a moment later.
“So, Jace told me you’re a teacher? That must be so fun. What grade do you teach?”
“Fourth. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. They keep me busy, that’s for sure.”
Taking a sip of my lemonade, I train my eyes on my cousin. “Are you guys on winter break?” I ask, and she nods.
“Yeah, we won’t go back till after the first of the year. Yesterday was the first day of break. How’s work, Jace? You still saving the streets of Nashville every day.”
With a chuckle, I shake my head. “Doing my best.”
We lapse into comfortable silence, and her sudden visit has me concerned. I bite my tongue though, not wanting to upset her when it’s been months since I last saw her. Luckily, she must sense my tension, because she clears her throat and leans her forearms on the table.
“I left Brett.”
My eyes widen, and she laughs at my face. “You did?” I question, shocked.
“Yeah, only took a year of Mom telling me what an asshole he was to finally change my thinking. He slept with his ex a couple months back.”
“So where have you been? We’ve all been so worried. It’s not like you to go all radio silent on us.”
“Needed the time to lick my wounds in private, I guess. The whole time I was with him, I kept waiting for him to turn into Prince Charming, hoping he was the one. All my friends at work were getting engaged and having babies, and here I was, this almost thirty-year-old woman who couldn’t even date the right guy. I was heartbroken, Jace.”
“I’m sorry, Gen. He didn’t deserve you.”
“Thanks. I’m okay now. It’s been long enough that my brain knows the guy for me is still out there waiting. We all know I have a tendency to pick the wrong ones though.”
Our food arrives, so I wait until we’ve all dug in to speak. “No, you just see the good in everybody, even when they don’t deserve it.”
“Not everybody is as wonderful as you, cousin,” she jokes, giving me a wink.
“This one? Perfect?” Stella asks, mock horror on her face.
“Watch it, baby,” I tease, and both Stella and Gen start laughing at me.
“So, tell me everything. Clearly I’ve missed a lot.” Gen takes a bite of her sandwich, and I look at Stella with a smile.
“Well, it started with a routine call,” I begin, and, in minutes, it’s as if no time has passed. We lose ourselves in conversation, catching up and telling Stella stories.
A couple hours later, I’m putting a box of rice in a shopping cart when my cell phone starts ringing. “Hello?”
“Jace, it’s Mason. Can you talk for a minute?”
Watching Stella push the grocery cart ahead of us, I make an excuse about going to find something we forgot and walk away from her.
“Stella and I are grocery shopping. What’s up?”
“I found the photo, man. And it’s in better shape than I remember it being, but it’s still covered in soot.”
Letting out a deep breath, I pinch the bridge of my nose.
“Fuck, that’s perfect. I put in a few calls earlier this week about getting it restored. There was one place downtown that had time, but I’m supposed to call them when I find out the condition of it. The nursery was the biggest present, but I was really hoping I could do this for her. Come up with some excuse to see her and we can come over this afternoon.”
“Sounds good. I’ll talk to you later, man.”
Mason ends the call, and I put my phone back into my front pocket. Before I started work on the girls’ nursery, I had called Mason looking for his help with Stella’s Christmas present. She had mentioned to me once that she had no photos of her parents, and I went to him for confirmation. He then told me there was a single photo, their last family picture taken, but it’d been damaged in the fire. He wasn’t even sure if he still had it.
One of the things I’d learned years ago in college classes was that sometimes a photo can be restored as long as it’s done properly and carefully. Mason told me he’d look for it, and I began work on the nursery plans, so if by chance he couldn’t find it, I’d still have a gift for her. But then it was finished and I couldn’t save it as a surprise any longer.
What I really want is to give her that photo. Now I just hope we can fix it.
Walking a couple aisles over, I find Stella picking out some baking items, and I set my hands on the carriage. “Making something for me?” I ask, hopeful it’s another of her apple pies.
Stella laughs softly and shakes her head. “No, just replenishing my baking supplies, sorry. Who was on the phone?”
I don’t want to lie to her, but I have to this time. If I told her that Mason had called me and I ducked away to talk to him, she’d be suspicious.
“Work. Just following up on paperwork from yesterday.”
“Cool. We only have a few more things we need, and then I want to stop at that little boutique downtown. Do you mind?”
“Do I mind spending time with my favorite person?” I ask, lips lifting into a smirk.
“Not what I meant and you knew it.” She rolls her eyes, and I move around the cart to kiss her cheek.
“Just giving you a hard time. No, I don’t mind. Which store?”
“This cute little baby store. I want to get an ornament for the tree.”
We’re standing at checkout twenty minutes later when Stella’s phone starts ringing from her pocket. She looks at me and says, “Mason,” so I tell her I got this, and she excuses herself. Turning back to the cashier, I watch her finish up the order and swipe my card, then hand me my receipt.
Stella comes walking back into the grocery store as I’m pushing the cart out, and she lifts her purse from the carriage. “Jules has something she wants to give me, so do you mind if we swing by Mason’s house after the baby shop?”
“Not at all. So, tonight, Stell. I was thinking we could just order in disgusting amounts of Chinese and watch some more Shameless. What do you think?”
“Works for me. I’ve got to know what happens to Frank next.”
“He probably snorts some coke and does something dumb as fuck,” I joke, and we both laugh. Loading the bags into the bed of my truck, I push the carriage into the return next to us, then help Stella get inside before making my way around the back and into the driver seat.
“So, you’ll have to show me where this boutique is, babe,” I tell her. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s in the same plaza as the pizza place we order from.”
“Oh, I know where that is. Never mind.” Pulling out of the parking lot, I head downtown. There’s a little bit of traffic, but luckily it clears after a few minutes and we’re on our way, soon pulling up to Precious Things, the name of the store lit up in pink and yellow.
Finding a parking spot as close to the store as possible, I kill the engine and go around the hood to help Stella climb down. I hold tight to her hand as we walk into the store, pulling the door open so she can go ahead. We’re greeted by a young woman behind the counter, Stella giving her a warm smile.
“Anything I can help y’all find, you just holler, okay?”
“Thank you,” I say as Stella walks toward the back of the store. Staying close behind her, I watch her wander, her eyes sparkling and a smile glued to her face the entire time. We went into the store to pick out an ornament, but in minutes I’m juggling six outfits and a matching set of pink baby booties, Stella holding a crystal ornament beside me.