The first thought that came to my mind when I woke up was that my toes were cold. All I needed to do was roll over because then I could slide them between Jared’s calves to warm them up. He always flinched but never told me to stop because he was amazing like that.
My body was so tired that I couldn’t force it to move, though. Suddenly, the memories of everything hit me at once.
Chris being taken. Crying with Jared. The wait as they tried to find him. Going with the police to that disgusting house. Christopher being carried out while he screamed unhappily. Hugging my two favorite boys while we rejoiced. The gunshots. The blood. The pain. The thought that I was going to die just when I had everything I had ever wanted.
“Do you want me to hold him?” a voice whispered, pulling me further into reality, and I heard someone sigh as a baby whimpered.
“I’m going to have to take him out of the room. He’s not going to be happy being around her unless she’s holding him.”
The first voice spoke up again. My mom. “I’ll take him out, Jared. We’ll walk the halls for a bit.”
I could smell the hospital around me. The sound of different machines infiltrated my ears and I tried to force my eyelids open. They were so heavy and I was so tired, though, and I couldn’t get them to cooperate. It was silent for several long moments and I was drifting back to sleep without meaning to when someone spoke.
“I remember the look on her face when she found him,” a new voice, one that belonged to Troy, said quietly. “She was in love with him instantly. I remember when she called to tell me that he needed someone to bond with. I knew that she would be the one there for him.”
“They bonded pretty powerfully,” Jared’s tone was soft when he replied. “He loves her so much.”
“You love her, too.” Troy sounded almost sad and I could hear Jared release a long sigh.
“I really do. I can’t imagine my life without her.”
Troy cleared his throat and I felt fingers squeeze my ankle through the blanket. “I can tell. That night in the bar… She’s different with you. She’s the Stephanie I used to know and it’s amazing to see. I hope you plan to marry her. She deserves the family she’s always imagined.”
“I want to give her that.” I could tell Jared was smiling. “I can’t wait to marry her, to give Chris some siblings. I know she’ll be really happy to get your blessing, too. She worries about you even if she won’t admit it.”
“She has nothing to worry about.”
I tried to make sense of their conversation but my brain was so hazy. It wasn’t until the two of them went quiet that I attempted to open my eyes again. It took a moment for them to cooperate but they finally did. The dim hospital room had beige walls and a painted portrait of the Grand Canyon was on display directly in front of me.
“Hey,” Jared whispered and I turned my heavy head to see him sitting next to me. He was holding my hand in his and he squeezed it gently as relief crossed his face. He looked exhausted, though. His blonde hair was a complete mess, he had slight bags under his eyes, and I could tell he had missed a morning of shaving because he had a five o’clock shadow on his chin.
He was so handsome.
I blinked twice and tried to smile. “City Roast.”
He reached his free hand up to touch my face and a small sigh left my lips. A smile stretched across his and he pressed a kiss to our conjoined hands.
“It’s good to see you awake, sweetheart.”
“Where’s Christopher? Is he okay?”
“He’s fine.” His fingers swept along my cheek. “He was dirty, starving, and scared but he’s okay. Your mom took him out of the room.”
Someone shifted at the foot of the bed and I turned slowly to see Troy. His face looked relieved, too, but I could see the worry behind his brown eyes. He’d obviously come from work because he was wearing a rumpled blue, button-up shirt that had short-sleeves.
“Troy. Hey.” My voice was still quiet, barely above a whisper, and I had to blink several times to keep my eyes open. He offered me a tiny smile.
“Do you remember what happened?”
I nodded very slightly, remembering the smell of the warm blood as it coated my hand.
“Angela shot me. What time is it?”
Jared’s fingers moved through my hair and my eyes closed as he spoke.
“It’s a little after nine in the morning. You’ve been here for about thirteen hours. Angela’s bullet hit you in the stomach, nicking a vessel in there. You lost a lot of blood but they fixed you up and luckily, it missed all of your organs. We left our phones at the police station but the hospital had Troy’s information on file as your emergency contact.”
Troy spoke and I could tell he was smiling. “They called me and I got ahold of your parents and Alyssa. They’re still here and your siblings have been in and out all night.”
“Look at you, man in action,” I whispered with a tired smile as I forced my eyes back open. “Thanks for coming.”
“I will always come and I will always be there for you.” I watched as he stood and moved to the side of the bed opposite Jared. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “I’d prefer never to get a call like that again, though.”
I laughed quietly, quickly grimacing when the action caused pain to shoot through my abdomen. “I don’t plan on getting shot ever again.”
We stared at each other for a few minutes. He’d changed since the last time I’d seen but still looked the same in some ways. “You look happy.”
“I’m really good, Steph.” Troy brought a hand up to touch my cheek. “You look happy, too. Well, as happy as someone who’s been shot can.”
I squeezed the hand Jared was still holding and I nodded once. “I am.”
“Good.” His eyes cut to Jared briefly before meeting mine. “He’s a nice guy. He has terrible taste in sports teams, but otherwise…”
All three of us laughed and Jared spoke up. “We’ll have to agree to disagree on that, Troy.”
“I guess so.” Troy’s lips pressed against my forehead again and he extended an arm out to Jared. I watched as they shook hands and Troy smiled down at me. “I’m going to go home and sleep. It’s been a long night but I wanted to stay until you were awake. Call me if you need anything. Both of you.”
“Thanks, Troy,” I said quietly as I saw Jared nod out of the corner of my eye.
“Thank you for everything.”
Troy held up his hand in a wave and smiled at me again before turning to leave the room. I focused my gaze on the handsome man next to me and shook my head.
“Chris is really okay?”
“He’s perfect.” Jared’s eyes searched every part of my face. “He was exhausted and slept nine hours straight in the stroller. He was getting upset and didn’t quite understand why you wouldn’t wake up and hold him.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “My sweet little man.”
“Oh, good, you’re awake. Are we talking about that baby?” a nurse asked as she walked in to check my vitals. Jared nodded and she just grinned at us both. “It’s very obvious that he’s a mama’s boy.”
“He is,” Jared agreed as he kissed the top of my hand again. “He’s definitely a mama’s boy.”
The nurse just kept grinning as she pat my leg. “The doctor will be in to talk to you soon.”
“Mama’s boy,” I repeated, feeling tears spring to my eyes. “I love that little guy so much.”
“He loves you, Steph. You are his mother and you have been since you found him in those boxes.” He leaned in and brushed his lips against mine. “I can’t imagine my life without either of you.”
“And I can’t imagine my life without you guys.” The tears spilled over and Jared reached out to wipe them off of my face.
“What do you say, Vanilla Latte? Will you officially move in with us and make the too-fancy condo a home with me and our baby?”
I nodded my head quickly even though the action hurt. “I’d love to.”
He leaned down to give me a soft kiss and whispered that he loved me. When my mom walked in with Christopher a minute later, I was bawling like a baby. She looked at me, concern on her face, before looking at Jared.
“What’s wrong? Is she okay?”
Jared chuckled slightly and nodded his head. “Those are happy tears, I think.”
“Oh!” My mom smiled excitedly. “Did you…?”
A strangled noise escaped Jared’s throat as he shot my mom a look. She coughed once and tried to recover from whatever just happened.
“Well, we’re about to have unhappy tears in a moment.” She tried to hold the struggling baby to her chest. He babbled incoherently and reached his arms out to me frantically. I shifted in my bed and held my arms out, too.
“He just wants to cuddle,” I murmured with a smile. “I can take him.”
“Steph.” Jared shook his head at the same time my mother said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I pointed to the crook of my arm. “He can just sit on my shoulder. I was hurt lower and on the other side. I need to hold him.”
The minute the baby was in my arm, he dropped his cheek to my shoulder and went still. I pressed my lips to the top of his head and inhaled his hair. He smelled clean, as if he’d just had a bath, and I sighed happily.
“Angela?” I asked quietly and Jared let out an audible growl, causing my mom to drop her hand to his shoulder as an act of comfort.
“She was shot four times and in surgery a lot longer than you but she pulled through.”
“But she’s going away for a long time,” my mom said with unmistakable venom in her voice. “She’s lucky that they have guards on her room right now.”
I smiled at my mother. I couldn’t fault her fury. I felt the same anger towards Angela for what she had done to Chris. My cheek pressed to the top of his head and his little hands clutched fistfuls of my hospital gown.
“I’m going to go find everyone else to let them know you’re awake, baby.” My mom leaned over my bed and kissed my forehead gently. “I love you, Stephanie.”
“I love you, too, Mom.” I watched as she walked away and turned my attention to the man sitting next to me. He smiled and ran his hand over Chris’s head before using the same hand to touch my face.
“Is he hurting you?”
I turned slightly so I could press my lips to the baby’s forehead. “No way. I’ll fight you if you try to take him, too.”
Jared laughed and drew a blanket up to cover us both. “I wouldn’t dare.”
Briana and Alyssa burst into the room a moment later, forcing Jared to scoot back, and they both spoke at a million words a minute. The entire time they fussed over me, Chris laid on my shoulder and watched with his big blue eyes while chewing on two of his fingers. The girls had just finished talking about how scared and pissed they were when Alyssa looked at the baby and grinned.
“That’s the most content I’ve seen him since he woke up. You have your mommy back and you don’t need anything else, do you?”
The baby just smiled at her around the fingers he was slobbering all over and everyone laughed. The moment was jarring for me, though. I’d been called his mommy a lot by strangers over the past few months but never in a context as serious as that. The thing was, I felt like his mother. There was no way to describe it completely but I had felt like his mother since the moment I found him in the garbage.
People filtered in and out for a few hours and Jared did end up taking Chris from me when the doctor administered another round of pain meds. He told me that I’d be able to go home in a day or two as long as my wound didn’t get infected. I looked to Jared just as the medication began to hit me.
“You should go home so you both can sleep in your own beds.”
He shook his head while Chris shoved some more Cheerios into his mouth. “We’re not leaving you.”
I think I mumbled some sort of argument but I was pulled under pretty quickly.