The Difference You Have Made (PREVIEW ONLY)

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Chapter 5 - Inclusion

Morning comes with bright sunlight, rousing Cristiana from her sleep. The startling realization that she’s nestled in the comfort of Cole’s arms nearly jolts her out of the comfortable bed. His sleeping face is peaceful and relaxed. She looks around quickly comprehending that she’s in his bedroom. He must have carried her there after she cried herself to sleep last night and held her all night. Warmth floods her body. She slides her arm around his waist and scoots closer to his chest. Relishing what is likely a one-time thing.

Cole groans while sliding a hand into her hair. “Good morning.” His lips brush against hers. He acts as if them being in bed together is the most natural thing in the world.

“Good morning,” she murmurs, waiting for reality to hit him.

He lifts his head just barely to look at the digital clock on the nightstand. “We need to get ready for church. Heather Skylark will not take it too kindly if we don’t show up.” She tries to get out of the bed, but he tightens his hold. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to get ready.” She inhales sharply as he nuzzles his face into her neck. His mouth places heated kisses on her skin. “Stop!” She squeals shoving at his chest. “We have to get up.”

“I’m already up,” he murmurs jutting out his hips so she can feel his morning erection.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” Cristiana pushes him away and runs from the room. His grumbled complaints bring a smile to her face.

Within an hour Cole and Cristiana look like a pair of presentable adults. She is wearing an A-line, maroon, quarter-sleeve dress that stops at her knees and simple black pumps with black jewelry. Her hair is detangled and hanging in loose curls around her face. Minimal make up has been applied to her face for the sole purpose of covering the bags beneath her eyes. Her full lips are lightly glossed, but there is no color on them. She walks into the hallway and frowns as her eyes land on Cole. He is wearing a black suit with a maroon tie.

“You should change ties, ” she suggests.

He looks at her with bewildered eyes. “Why?” Silently she gestures to herself. Understanding strikes. He chuckles, “We look like a pair.”

Her frown serpent. “But we’re not, so change.”

“No, I don’t think I will, ” he refuses while walking to the elevator. His hair is gelled back, and his face is clean-shaven.

Cristiana tugs his tie. “You’re going to make Heather and Rachel think there’s something going on between us and then I’ll get fired and end up homeless on the street.”

He rolls his eyes. “You worry too much. You’re not going to get fired or be homeless. If anything, my mom will make us pose for a picture because she likes the way we look.”

“If I worry too much, then you don’t worry enough.”

“Because you do it so well for the both of us,” he teases.

She debates her response as they step out of the elevator and walk into the garage. “I’m already intruding on a family thing. I don’t want to give them the wrong impression.”

“You’re not intruding. What car should we take?”

“The G-Class because it already has Liam’s seat in it,” she suggests.

Cole grabs the key off the hook. “I haven’t driven this one since you took over it.”

Cristiana narrows her eyes. “I didn’t take over it. I’ve driven it twice. The first time was because Liam had a doctor’s appointment. The second time was because your mom insisted that I bring Liam to her.”

He shrugs, “Either way it’s basically yours now.”

“Not really, ” she grumbles. Nothing in her ‘new life’ belongs to her, except for the things she brought with her. She will have to rebuild when her contract ends. The thought is unsettling. She’s surviving on borrowed time. Her home, transportation, and source of income could disappear in the blink of an eye.

The drive to the large church doesn’t take long. There are police officers directing traffic. Cole finds a parking spot not far from the main entrance. He makes his way around to the passenger side and opens the door for Cristiana. Nervously her eyes flit across the parking lot as she steps onto the asphalt.

“What’s wrong?” He asks while holding her hand as they near the white doors.

Cristiana frowns. “I’m probably the only Black person here. I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb.”

Cole takes her hand into his and squeezes it. “No, you won’t. There are other non-white attendees.”

They enter the sanctuary along with others who are only now arriving. The Skylark family is seated on a pew at the front. Space has been saved for him and her next to Liam.

“Daddy!” The boy’s eyes brighten as Cole sits down. “Cris!” Liam launches himself into her lap.

Heather smiles warmly at Cristiana. “You look lovely dear. Your dress compliments Cole’s tie beautifully. I’ll have to get a picture of you two after church.”

Cole grins knowingly as he hears his mom’s whispered words. She’s more accepting and approachable than Cristiana realizes.

Heather continues speaking in a hushed tone. “I don’t think you’ve properly met my husband Daniel. Daniel, this is Cristiana. She’s Liam’s nanny.” She motions to the man sitting on her left.

“It’s nice to meet you Mr. Skylark.” A polite grin pulls at Cristiana’s mouth. Daniel gives a stiff nod of his head but says nothing. She bristles. The senior Mr. Skylark does not like her.

The service begins. Nearly a year has passed since Cristiana was inside a church of any kind. She’d stopped thinking of God when she started feeling abandoned and trapped by Tyson. How could God love her and allow her to be terrorized everyday? It didn’t make sense, so she pushed aside everything she was taught. Sitting on the wooden pew now feels strange as if she’s undergoing an out-of-body experience.

The reverend gives a sermon about God’s timing and how everything has a purpose. It’s a comforting sermon that Cristiana listens to intently. The Skylarks rejects the notion of sending Liam to the church nursery. His behavior in the past has made him unlikable to the caretakers. They don’t want to force the toddler’s presence where he isn’t wanted. To her surprise, he sits quietly through the entire service. She’d been certain he would get unruly at some point and that she would have to excuse herself to take him out of the sanctuary. His good behavior makes her proud.

When service ends, the Skylark family, with Cristiana in tow, makes their way out of the church. Heather makes Cole and Cristiana stand in front of a large, plotted plant and smile while she snaps several pictures. Liam, not one to have the attention taken from him, joins the picture insisting that Cristiana holds him.

Heathers smiles at her phone screen. “One of these will be framed and hung on the wall. I’ve got the pot roast on at the house. You all come straight over.” Heather announces eying her three children pointedly. They all murmur agreements.

“You can take me back to your house before you and Liam have dinner with your family. I don’t want to intrude any further.” Cristiana makes the suggestion as Cole joins the bustling Upper East Side traffic.

He scoffs, “For the last time, you’re not intruding. All three of us are going to dinner. You heard what she said, we’re supposed to go straight there.”

If Cole’s house is a mansion, then his parents’ home is a palace in Turtle Bay. The massive house stretches across six stories on a coveted corner lot with sixty-seven feet of frontage, replete with a private garage and partial East River views. The exterior is fashioned in a Neo-classical limestone design that’s obviously inspired by European architecture.

Cristiana’s mouth hangs open. “I didn’t know you could have a place this big in the city.”

“You can for the right price. My parents bought this place when they found out my mom was pregnant with me. It used to be separate apartments, but they gutted the interior and converted it into one massive home.”

Cristiana is even more amazed when they enter the house. She’s never seen anything so whimsical. The foyer is a museum with its vaulted ceiling and rounded walls showcasing fantastic oil paints of each Skylark family member including Liam.

“Did you grow up here?” She whispers to Cole as they walk through the mazelike halls to the dining room.

“Yeah, it’s why I bought a small house. I still get lost here.” Her eyes bulge. It’s laughable that he thinks his house is small. In comparison to his parents’ home, it is. In comparison to the average American house, Cole’s is far from being small.

“Let me go.” Liam pulls away from Cristiana’s hand to run down the hall. Jovial laughter sounds from him. He moves recklessly.

“Don’t run sweetheart,” Cristiana calls out to him.

“It’s alright,” Cole assures her.

“What if he breaks something?” She anxiously hisses.

“I’m sure Peter and I have broken it before,” Cole responds without a care.

They enter the dining room and Cristiana nearly faints with envy. The vast crystal chandler floods the space with light. The extended market style dining table is covered in platters, bowls, and dishes. The table could probably seat ten people but there are only eight place settings and chairs. Daniel is already sat at the head of the table. He has shed his black necktie but is still wearing his suit sans the jacket. Peter sits to Daniel’s immediate right. Rachel is across from him. Next to her is a caramel colored man with a diamond face and short salt-and-pepper hair.

“Cristiana, this is my fiancé, Thomas Gomez,” Rachel introduces the man with a happy grin.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Cristiana smiles. She’s slightly less uncomfortable knowing that there is another person of color present.

Cole guides her to a seat on the right of the table towards the end. Next to her chair is another chair with a booster seat in it. Cole places Liam there. He sits on the left side of the table beside Thomas.

Thomas smiles at Cristiana. “Wow, Rachel you weren’t kidding. She is gorgeous.”

“I told you!” Rachel smugly grins. “And it’s all natural. I’m a little jealous.” She playfully glares.

“Okay, this is awkward.” Cristiana looks down with an embarrassed smile as Heather hustles into the dining room carrying a large, covered pan.

“That pot roast smells delicious.” Peter eagerly rubs his hands together.

Heather lifts the lid with flourish and takes her seat at the end of the table. “Oh, Cristiana, don’t worry dear it’s beef. I know you don’t eat pork.”

“Oh, thank you for considering me.” Cristiana blinks with surprise. This day is not turning out how she expects.

Daniel says grace before the food is passed around. Heather has prepared quite the spread. There’s pot roast with carrots, green beans, and mashed potatoes. There’s also cornbread as well as macaroni and cheese. Their crystal goblets are filled with a crisp white wine that tastes more expensive than Cristiana could ever hope to afford.

Daniel clears his throat commanding attention. “Cristiana, my wife seems to think you hung the moon where Liam is concerned.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I just give him the best care I can,” Cristiana answers feeling put on the spot.

Heather shakes her head. “Nonsense, you do more than simply provide care for Liam. You nurture him. He’s already improved in his speech and potty training.”

“I potty like big boy,” Liam announces proudly.

“That’s because you are a big boy buddy.” Cole winks at his son.

Rachel smiles fondly at her nephew. “His behavior has significantly improved. He didn’t have any fits when I kept him yesterday.” She turns her attention to Cristiana. “Don’t be modest. You’re the best nanny this family has seen in a long time. Maybe when your contract is up with Cole, you’ll consider coming to work for me. Thomas and I will be adding to the family by then.”

“You can teach me which end of the baby the diaper goes on,” Thomas jokes.

“Whoa,” Cole holds up his hands. “She’s mine.”

Peter coughs a laugh. “You sound a little territorial brother.”

“Yes, you do.” Daniel eyes his eldest son suspiciously.

Cole clears his throat, turning his attention to Thomas. “So, how long are you home for?”

“Thomas is a traveling surgeon,” Rachel explains to Cristiana. “And he’s home until after the wedding.”

“Who’s getting married?” Cristiana asks trying to keep up with the conversation.

Rachel gasps and leans forward to slap Cole’s shoulder. “You didn’t tell her about the wedding!”

“Ow!” Cole flinches from the hit. “I forgot.”

Heather shakes her head with disappointment. “They say the mind is the first thing to go. Rachel and Thomas are getting married on October 16th.”

“You’re invited even though my dumb big brother didn’t mention it to you,” Rachel adds, letting her aggravation show.

Cole frowns at his sister. “It’s your wedding. You should have mentioned it before.” He huffs looking across the table at the woman who has starred in his every waking thought. “Liam is the ring bearer. Surely you won’t want to miss that.”

Cristiana ruffles the boy’s hair. “Definitely not. This little guy is going to be the best ring bearer there ever was.”

“I best.” Liam nods with certainty.

“That’s right.” She tickles his side. Cole looks at them fondly. It warms his heart how genuinely Cristiana cares for Liam. She always puts him first. She doesn’t just do her job. She loves Liam and it obvious to everyone.

Daniel clears his throat. “Cole, how is the Japanese project coming along? I haven’t heard anything about it recently.”

“No shop talk at the table,” Heather instructs.

“It’s just one question.” Daniel defends himself.

“The Japanese project is coming along nicely,” Cole answers honestly. “It looks like I’ll have to make a trip to Tokyo before Christmas.” He glances at Cristiana before continuing. “I’m trying to lock down a date. I’m hoping to bring Liam with me.”

Daniel frowns with disapproval. “It’s a business trip Cole, not a family vacation. If you bring Liam, then you have to bring your nanny and that’s inappropriate.”

“Daniel,” Heather admonishes her husband. “Cristiana, I apologize for my husband’s rudeness.”

Her eyes widen briefly before she swiftly shakes her head. “It’s fine.”

Cole sneers. “No, it’s not.” Peter and Rachel nod in agreement with displeased looks on their faces.

Lunch progresses as well as it can after that. Cole, Thomas, and Peter talk among themselves about sports. Heather and Rachel discuss the wedding. Fall is Rachel’s favorite season, so it only makes sense that it’s when she’s getting married. They try to keep Cristiana in the loop, but it makes her feel uncomfortable to contribute. She’s not a friend of the bride or family.

Heather turns to her with a friendly grin. “We need to set up a day this week to go dress shopping. The wedding is a formal event.”

Rachel gasps suddenly. “We can go when I do my last dress fitting. That’s on Thursday. Are you available Thursday Cristiana?”

Cristiana nods with a demure grin. “I would love to go, but I have to take care of Liam.”

“We’ll get a babysitter.” Heather waves away her excuse.

She wants to hire a babysitter so the nanny can go shopping. It’s a ludicrous suggestion and yet it seems to be accepted by everyone at the table. Everyone except for Daniel. His scowl makes it clear that he does not like the idea of the help spending time with his wife and daughter.

“We can have lunch at the club and get massages. We’ll make a girls day of it.” Rachel speaks with bright eyes.

“I can’t leave Liam with a babysitter for too long,” Cristiana interjects trying to reel Rachel in before the plans spin out of control.

Cole breaks away from his conversation to join theirs. “Why not? You deserve to have a little fun. You spend most days cooped up in the house with a two-year-old.”

“I two!” Liam exclaims.

“It’s my job to take care of said two-year-old. I can’t ditch him with someone else to go prancing around the city.” Agitation tightens Cristiana’s face. She’s mindful of the less than professional look being shared between them. Daniel watches their interaction closely.

“I say you can,” Cole counters with a smug grin. “I’ll even work a half-day if that makes you feel better.”

Heather claps her hands together. “Well, that settles it. I’ve been wanting to spend more time with you Cristiana.”

“Me too,” Rachel agrees wholeheartedly.

Lunch ends with a dessert of German chocolate cake. After dessert everyone goes loads in the elevator and rides up to the roof. It’s been converted into a sizeable outdoor space. It’s a warm day in late September. There’s a sandbox and playset off to right. Heather swoops Liam into her arms and carries him to the play area. Rachel and Daniel sit in front of the fireplace in the outdoor kitchen watching the news. Peter and Cole stand in the middle of the faux grass having a seemingly hilarious conversation. Cristiana sits on the patio alone.

“Are you usually this quiet or are you just shy around new people?” Thomas questions as he joins her.

“I don’t have much to say when I’m sitting by myself.”

“You weren’t sitting by yourself at lunch.”

Cristiana purses her lips. “I shouldn’t have been sitting at that table at all. I’ve intruded on a family day. I’m just the nanny.”

Thomas glowers. “Don’t put yourself down. If you didn’t belong at the table with us, then you wouldn’t have been there.”

“I’m the help. The housekeeper wasn’t sitting at the lunch table making conversation, ” Cristiana counters dejectedly.

“She doesn’t work on Sundays, ” Thomas jokes trying to lighten the mood.

Cristiana fights her urge to laugh. “That’s not the point. I know my place and I’m going to stick to it.”

Thomas sighs heavily and shakes his head. “I don’t think your place is where you think it is, but you’ll have to figure that out on your own.” He gets up and joins his fiancée.

Heather carries Liam to the patio and takes a seat. “How are you feeling darling? You’re awfully quiet.”

“I’m fine.” Cristiana replies as Liam climbs into her lap.

“How have you been? Is Cole taking care of you?”

Cristiana laughs lightly. “It’s my job to provide the care.”

Heather scowls momentarily. “I guess you’re right. That doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be looked after every once in a while. Make Cole contribute more when you need to. Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself.”

“Cole takes great care of Liam when he can, but it’s my job. I’m the nanny. That comes before time for myself.”

The Skylark matriarch frowns. “Cristiana you are much more than the nanny.”

Heather has known it from the moment they met. She doesn’t just see the woman as the help. She sees her as Liam’s mother, Cole’s future wife. Heather began her meddling as soon as they got off the elevator. Cole and Liam needed Cristiana in their lives. Things have been rough for her boys since Cole became a single father. It was never a part of his plan, but he embraced the hassle to the best of his ability.

Parenthood often conflicts with livelihood. Cole tried as hard as he could, but he slowly began to pull away from Liam. They’d managed to talk the Skylark’s old nanny into leaving her post and working for Cole. She made it fairly far then old age got the best of her and she had to retire. The woman after that was a pitiful excuse of a nanny. She’d been sent by a hiring agency and lasted less than two months. Cole bore the guilt for that debacle. After that there was a string of babysitters whenever Heather couldn’t care for Liam. The boy was frustrated with the uncertainty. Cole was frustrated with his son’s frustration. Heather saw them growing even further apart and it broke her heart. Liam began to throw terrible fits all for the sake of getting his father’s attention. The whole family was at their wits end, then Cristiana came along. In less than five minutes she straightened Liam out. He was smitten with her. She’s perfect not just for Liam, but for Cole too.

Heather would bet her entire fortune that Cristiana has Cole begging on his knees for something beyond the professional dealings they were supposed to maintain. It’s obvious in the reverent glances he steals when he thinks no one is looking. Cole has been leaving the office earlier. He goes home during lunch. He’s changing for the better. It’s all because he’s enamored by her and anyone that knows him can see it. Heather just hopes Cristiana won’t push Cole away because of the stupid no fraternizing clause in her contract. Daniel insisted on it being added. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Cole tended to allow lust to get into unideal situations. Now she worries that her husband’s interference will cause their eldest son troubles of the heart.

“I sweepy.” Liam rubs his eyes and curls against Cristiana’s chest.

She wraps her arms around him. “Do you want me to rock you to sleep?” He nods his little head.

Heather smiles warmly at the sight. She catches a glimpse of Cole watching them as well. “You are perfect for him. We’re all indebted to you. You’ve brought back our loving little boy.”

“I’m just doing my job.” Cristiana places a tender kiss on his forehead.

“You’re doing so much more than that. If you want, I can show you the room Liam sleeps in when he stays here. He’ll probably sleep better in a bed.”

“That would be great.” Cristiana carefully stands while holding onto the boy. Heather leads them inside with one last glance at her son. She can see in Cole’s eyes that he wants Cristiana to truly be a part of his family. Now he just has to act on it.

~~*~~

That night after Liam is fed, bathed, and tucked into bed, Cristiana stands beneath the hot spray of her shower. She’s running her hands over her hair when the distinct sound of approaching steps reaches her ears.

“Cristiana,” Cole cautiously calls out.

“This better be important. I’m in the shower.”

“Is my shampoo in there?” He asks trying hard not to stare at her naked body through the frosted glass.

Her eyes roll at the seemingly ridiculous question. “Why would your shampoo be in my shower?

“I don’t know. Can you just check and see?” He huffs impatiently.

Cristiana looks around until her eyes land on the dark blue plastic bottle. “Close your eyes and I’ll hand it to you.”

“Really?”

“I’m serious!”

“Fine, my eyes are closed.” He holds out his hand and waits. Cristiana pushes back the shower door and freezes.

Cole is standing before her wearing only a white towel around his waist. Desire ripples through her body. Her bottom lip tucks between her teeth to suppress a moan. She places the shampoo bottle in his hand and promptly closes the door. It isn’t quick enough. As soon as the bottle is in his hand, Cole opens his eyes. He’s mesmerized by her naked beauty. His libido urges him to slide the door open and join her. It takes all his willpower to return to his own bathroom. Thoughts of a naked Cristiana run through his mind as he stands under the pouring water. His eyes land on the glass bottle of mint and cucumber scented bodywash perched next to his bathtub. With a smug grin, he turns off the water and grabs the bottle. He’s reaching for his towel when Cristiana barges in. Her hasty movements cause her towel to slip from her wet body. Their eyes lock on one another in a heated gaze.

Cole strides forward without hesitation lifting her so that her legs wrap around his waist. He presses his lips against hers. Her arms lock around his neck. A collective moan pulls from them both. He carries her into his bedroom as their mouths struggle in a feverish kiss. He drops her in the center of his bed and climbs the length of her body. She shivers with anticipation. His hands rub up the inside of her thighs coming to her warm center. She caresses his back wanting to be closer to him. They kiss again. Their hormones rising high. Usually, Cole likes to further the mood with a foreplay, but tonight he doesn’t have it in him to delay. He wants to be inside of her. The way her legs are holding him in a vice grip lets him know that she wants the same. He pulls back so he can look into her eyes as he rubs the tip of his hardened cock between her folds. She squeezes around trying to pull him in. His fingers toy with her clit, relishing how receptive she is to his touch. Her head lulls back and she moans.

“Look at me, ” he demands as he slowly pushes inside of her. Her eyes flutter close. “Cris, look at me. I need to see you.” He leans forward, gripping her chin, attacking her mouth with a sloppy kiss. His hips jut forward. Now he’s completely inside of her. He hisses from the tight warmth surrounding him. There’s no barrier between them. He curses and begins to pull out. She crosses her ankles on his back keeping him in place. “We need a condom.”

Cristiana shakes her head. “I’m clean and I’m on the pill.”

He tenses at the implication. “Cris, I’m clean too, but you have to be sure before we do this. Because if we do this, there’s no going back. You can’t keep running from me.”

“I’m not running,” she whines thrusting her hips in an attempt to get friction.

“Tell me you want this. I need to hear it.” Desperation fills his voice. “Tell me you want me, Cris.”

She meets his eyes with a heated gaze. “I want you.” He groans pulling his hips back until only the tip of him remains inside of her. Her body tightens with expectancy. Cole slowly pushes forward. He keeps the pace, savoring this moment. He takes pleasure in her naked body, wishing they could stay wrapped around each other all night. He strains himself making their intimate moment last as long as possible. They lose all concept of time.

His hips pick up pace. Cristiana’s nails claw at his back. Her back arches off the bed. She’s getting close. Cole isn’t going to last much longer either. He slides his arm underneath her pulling her closer to his chest. Her sweet moans fill the room. He silences her with a kiss worrying that they’ll wake Liam. He can nearly taste the climax. Euphoria descends as she tightens around him and begins to quiver. With a loud exhale he slams his hips into her one last time feeling his release. He lays his head on her breasts listening to her heartbeat. Her fingers dance through his hair.

“That was amazing,” Cole chuckles. Being with Cristiana was so much better than he’d imagined.

“You may have ruined me for other men,” she jokes.

“Good, because there aren’t going to be any other men in your life for a while.” He lifts his head kissing her lips as he carefully pulls out of her. “Ugh, we’re a mess. I’m going to shower. Care to join me?” He rolls off the bed and offers her his hand with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“We’re not going to get any sleep tonight.” Cristiana giggles as she accepts the offer.

“Nope.” Cole carries her into the waiting bathroom. The night is definitely going to be a long one.

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