“I told you Daddy’s house would be great, didn’t I?” I laughed softly when his little mouth contorted into a big yawn. “The lazy life looks good on you, Christopher.”
“Did he seriously stop crying just because you picked him up?” Jared asked behind me and I turned to give him a smug smile.
“Maybe.” I ran my eyes across Jared’s face and nodded in satisfaction. “You look better today.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You mean less frantic and more human?”
Somehow he had managed to describe himself from two days before perfectly. When I’d walked in and seen how exhausted, frantic, and disheveled he’d been, it had surprised me. I was used to seeing Jared Hart completely put together even when he wasn’t on the inside.
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“I swear, Stephanie, that shirt works miracles.” He gestured to where it was draped at the end of the bassinet. “My son is pretty hooked on you.”
I glanced down at Chris and sighed. “Well, the feeling is mutual. I’m pretty hooked on him.”
After making a pit stop for a clean diaper, we both walked back out to the living room and I settled onto the couch with the baby and iPad in my lap. When Jared offered to relieve me of Chris, I shook my head.
“I can make it work.” I paused and rushed on. “I mean, he’s your son so if you want him back…”
“No, Steph. It’s fine. Spend time with him. I was just offering to help if you needed it.”
I watched as he sat on the couch opposite where I was and I held his eyes for a moment before looking down at the tablet.
“So, I’ve seen your home. You obviously have a very safe and nurturing environment for him. I need to ask you a bunch of questions and some are really ridiculous but stay with me, okay?”
“Got it.” Jared nodded and proceeded to answer every single question seriously. Chris stared up at me the whole time and I was constantly prolonging questions so I could run my fingers down his cheek or kiss his face in some way. It took us about twenty minutes to get through my interrogation and I eventually dropped the iPad to the cushion between us.
“Well, you’ve passed your first home visit.” I smiled at him. “Congratulations.”
Jared chuckled and gestured to Chris. “Does that mean I get to keep him?”
“Unless I can figure out a way to sneak him out of here, yeah.”
“You’re the only one I’d trust,” he replied quietly. “They still haven’t found Angela yet, huh?”
I shook my head. “They don’t have a clue where she might be. I have court next week to officially terminate her parental rights now that the waiting period has passed. Since she’s facing criminal child endangerment charges related to the abandonment, she won’t ever be able to petition to have her rights reinstated.”
Jared blew out a long breath and relief filled his face. “I had a dream last night that she came back and I had to share custody with her. I don’t think I could ever trust him with her.”
“You don’t need to worry about that,” I reassured softly. “Whatever he knows about his mother in the future is your choice. Legally, she has no rights to him.” I hesitated for a moment. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“When you were dating her, did you notice any… issues? Mentally?”
He shook his head and let his eyes close for a moment. “Nothing at all until we split. We ended it amicably because we both decided we wanted different things. After that, though, she started treating me like a villain. Sending me shitty texts, trashing me to her friends and on social media.” He reopened his eyes and focused them on me. “Honestly, Stephanie, I’m beyond pissed she never told me she was pregnant. Even if she had come to me four weeks ago, I would have been there.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
He offered me a small smile and we stared at each other in silence for a moment. The intercom beeped, causing us both to jump and breaking us out of the moment.
Jared stood up to answer it. When Howie said that our food was there, Jared insisted on going down to get it. The door closed behind him and I turned my attention back to Chris. He was moving a bit more in my arms and trying to suck on his hand, my arm, and his pajamas. I went to the kitchen and found a clean bottle next to the formula. Jared walked in with carry-out bags as I was shaking the bottle to mix it.
“I made him two ounces,” I explained and Jared nodded.
“That’s about his limit right now.”
We stood in the kitchen while I fed the baby and Jared moved food from the containers to plates. Chris didn’t finish his milk before his eyes closed so I pulled it away and burped him before kissing his face and walking him down the hall to the bedroom. When I came back out, Jared handed me a plate and gestured to the living room.
We chatted a little bit and he told me about how his parents had both passed away. His mother had died when he was a kid and he’d lost his dad just four years before. He was an only child and didn’t have any living family left, which was hard for me to even imagine. I told him about my obnoxious family and he laughed as I described Eldon. When I mentioned a bit about Marco, surprise crossed Jared’s face.
“Yeah.” I furrowed my brow. “How do you know my brother-in-law?”
He laughed and shook his head. “I see it now. Briana is your sister, right? You guys look so similar. Marco interned for us last year and he’s now one of the assistants in my department. I’m his boss.”
“Oh, wow. That makes sense, though. I knew when you said you worked at Vandines that it sounded familiar.” I shook my head and let out a small peal of laughter. “Geez. This city is really too small.”
“It is,” he agreed as he placed his empty plate on the coffee table in front of us. He looked at me for a moment before speaking again. “It’s my turn to see if I can ask you a personal question.”
“Go for it.” I mimicked his actions with my own plate and braced myself for whatever he was about to say. He hesitated for a moment before speaking.
“How old are you? It’s not fair that I had to give you all of my statistics for that file and I know none of yours.”
I grinned, not expecting something so easy, and shook my head slightly. “My actual age or the age I feel most days?
Jared chuckled. “I’ll take both.”
“I feel at least forty most days but I’m twenty-six.”
“I understand completely. I think I’ve aged fifteen years since last week.” He ran his hand through his messy hair. “It gets easier, right? He’ll eventually sleep longer than four hours?”
I laughed and nodded my head. “It does get easier. Time moves so quickly. It feels like just yesterday my oldest nephew was born and now he’s in kindergarten. I know you’re tired but enjoy this moment because you’re going to blink and he’ll be so big.”
“That’s poetic and depressing,” he murmured and I shrugged my shoulders.
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
Our eyes locked and for a moment, neither of us said anything. The energy passing between the two of us was palpable and I glanced at his mouth without meaning to. When I snapped my gaze back to his eyes, they had darkened slightly and the desire to kiss him felt similar to desperation.
Client. Inappropriate. Client.
The words rolling around in my head had me blinking quickly and I leaned backwards, shaking myself from my reverie. Jared seemed to do the same, clearing his throat and glancing around the room before looking back at me. “I accidentally signed up for a poetry class during my junior year of college when I put in the wrong class number. I didn’t realize it until the first day when I strolled in and found out I was the only guy.” He smiled ruefully. “I was going to drop it but I got so many phone numbers after that first day that I ended up keeping it all semester. Even got an A.”
A giggle escaped my throat and seconds later, we were both laughing. I think the laughter on my end was a little hysterical after the tension had finally been freed but either way I was glad to put the awkwardness behind us.
We moved into lighter topics after that and swapped college stories instead. I hadn’t even realized how long I’d been there until my phone chimed with the fifteen minute reminder of my next appointment.
“Shit.” I stood from the couch quickly and smoothed out my skirt. “I have to go. I’m going to be late for my next appointment.”
Jared looked at his watch and his eyes widened. “Damn. I didn’t realize. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I just need to get going. Do you mind if I give the baby a kiss?”
When he just gave me a sardonic look, I smiled and ran down the hall in my stockings. I pressed a gentle kiss to Chris’s forehead and rushed back out to the living room so I could slip into my heels. I pulled on my jacket and stuffed my iPad into my bag before shouldering it.
“This was the best lunch break I’ve had in forever. Thank you, Jared.” I moved forward and gave him a quick hug. He returned it with one of his own and smiled as we parted.
“You’re welcome. If you bring another shirt next time, I might throw in dessert.”
I grabbed the doorknob and grinned at him. “Taking advantage of the fact that I’m a dessert whore will get you everywhere, City Roast. Bye.”
He laughed out loud as I pulled the door closed behind me.