Not wanting to wake up my sleeping daughter, I carefully close my front door before jogging down to my driveway. The midnight wind gusts over and caresses my bare neck, prompting me to pull my hair down and tighten my teddy coat around my torso. Shivering from the cold, I walk faster to the black car that has been parking in front of my garage door. Before I can tap on the window, the passenger door is pushed open from the inside, revealing the man who gave me a reason to laugh and cry in a very short period.
“Sorry for dragging you out of your bed this late,” Ashton greets.
I shrug and plop down on the passenger seat before closing the door. “I haven’t slept anyway. Or I wouldn’t be responding to your text.”
“I wanted to come to you sooner but I was held back with the... impromptu meetings.”
Noticing the delay in his last words, I turn my head to him. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah. It was just quick informal talks with people from the executive–” Ashton’s reply is cut abruptly by a dog barking on the sidewalk behind his car. Mr. Donegal, our dear neighbor, scolds his Terrier before pulling her to walk ahead.
I shift my gaze back to Ashton and the glowing light from the top of the garage door allows me to examine his face thoroughly. His hair is disheveled but it barely hides his gorgeous face. The bruises on his upper cheek look more prominent while his temple is swollen like a boob.
“Are you in trouble?” I ask.
“No, not really.”
“They dismissed the office fight you had today with Dickson just like that?”
“Well, I did get a warning,” Ashton replies, looking straight at my garage door. “I know, what I did was stupid.”
Regrets always come later or the world would’ve been a better place by now. But honestly, Ashton is one of the most calculated persons I’ve ever met. What he did in the photocopy room was really out of character.
“It was stupid indeed. And now people have a new gossip to cook at least for the next six months.”
“I’m used to it.” He shrugs.
“History repeats itself, huh? Fighting with your brother over a woman.”
“Is that what they say about my first fight with Dickson?”
“I see.” Ashton nods. “It was more to it, but never mind, people just want the juicy part, of course.”
I bite my lip, refraining from asking further. The relationship between the two brothers is really intriguing but seeing where Ashton and I stand right now, I need to keep our conversation skin deep. “I still can’t believe you two bashed each other’s face for nothing,” I murmur as I shake my head.
“I misunderstood him and he misunderstood me. It happens.”
“How did it start by the way?”
“Well, it started with him being a dick, of course.” When Ashton notices I’m giving him a straight face, he continues, “Earlier today, he sent me a picture of him getting cozy with a woman with a message ′guess who was with me last Sunday’.”
“Cozy as in being naked in bed?” I know it’s not the time to ask, but I’ve been so darn curious about the picture.
“Hmm, not entirely. I would’ve noticed it wasn’t you if it was the case.” Ashton glances at me sheepishly. “It’s a picture of his stupid face lying on a woman’s bare thighs. It was hard to tell who she was. So, I asked. He then started to speak riddles about how women in my life easily find a new man, and when he mentioned ‘your babymama’, my mind was brought back to what I witnessed Saturday morning at your place. And that was it. I lost it.”
“So, that was the ultimate reason you punched your brother’s face like a caveman? Because you thought he slept with me?” I ask. “I never knew this part of you.”
“He insulted you, too, Char, even after he slept with you. What kind of man does that?” he reasons. “Well, apparently it wasn’t you but too late, I hit him already.”
“Gosh. This is so messed up,” I mumble, grunting as I lean back on the headrest. “Why did he do that in the first place?”
“Who knows. To spite me, I guess.” Ashton shrugs. “My relationship with my siblings has always been a battlefield since day one. We were raised to compete with each other. That was the only way to show our worth in front of our father; through our achievements.”
I turn my head to him while feeling my chest tighten. He probably feels my gaze on him since he also turns his head, mimicking my gesture, and then our eyes meet. I have to control myself to not reach out for his hand.
“It must have been a tough childhood.”
“You can say that, but we didn’t know any better because all we knew, we were born as a Knight. A fighter.” Ashton glances down at my hands clutching my coat. “It’s getting cold in the car. Should I start the engine for the heating?”
After the warm air begins to blow from Ashton’s car’s fan, he continues, “Do you know why they named my oldest brother Dickson?”
I scrunch my nose. “Well, we’ve been inventing theories about it...”
“Something about him being a dick?” Ashton chuckles. “That would have made perfect sense, but originally, Dickson means a strong leader.”
“Not sure. Maybe since before they used the word dick to refer to a penis?”
“Wow. I hope no one named their child Cockson back then,” I murmur, earning a deep rumbling laugh from Ashton.
“This is one of the reasons why I miss you. A lot,” he says lightly but enough to make me choke on my own saliva. He must be noticing how his line changes the atmosphere inside the car because he stops laughing.
“Why are you here, Ashton?” I ask after I calm my cough.
Ashton’s fingers fiddle with the steering wheel, taking his time in answering me. “I...” He pauses a bit. “I wanted to apologize for knocking you down this evening.”
“At eleven-thirty in the night?” I ask. “You gotta learn from me how to lie.”
“Well, that’s not the only reason.” Ashton fixes his gaze on me, his eyes searching my face. “I wanted to know what you think after you found out why I punched my brother.”
I know Ashton isn’t a guy who beats around the bush, but I figured out what he feels about me just a few hours ago. My mind is still doing back-and-forth salto from trying to make sense of everything.
I look down at my fingers fiddling with my button coat. “We broke up, Ashton,” I mumble. The words ‘broke up’ still taste bitter on my tongue. “I don’t think punching someone’s face because you think I sleep with him is a good idea. We have separate lives now.”
“I want you back, Char,” he replies, catching me off guard.
“What?” I squeak.
“I want us back.”
I open my mouth, leaving it hanging for a while before closing it again. Even though Ashton has said it loud and clear, twice, my brain still has trouble processing it.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” he asks, sounding anxious.
“But... what about Diandra? I learned that you two are having rough moments right now, and a lot of decisions to make.”
Ashton brushes his fingers through his unkempt hair. “That is true, but Diandra and I are not together. I try my best to be there for the baby and to support her in any way I can. But I’m not getting back with her.” His reply sends a jolt in my stomach, waking up the butterflies from a two-month coma.
“But... how? Why? I thought... I mean Dickson said Diandra’s family demands that you marry Diandra before the baby is born.”
“Dickson has filled you in, I see.” He sighs. “I never agreed to it. Not gonna.”
“Even if it...gives your son a bright future?”
“With what I have, it’s enough to support my kids until they’re ready to decide what kind of future they want to have,” Ashton replies. “As much as I want to make this work for all of us, I also want it to be fair for everyone, including me. And I don’t think it’s fair to marry someone I’m not in love with.
“I’ve been holding myself back for the whole two months because I respect your decision. But I have to say, seeing you barely look at my face every time I picked up or brought Chloe home made me really sad. I deserved that, though.” Ashton takes a deep breath. “I know I screwed up big time. I should’ve told you right away once Diandra broke the news that morning.”
“Why didn’t you then?”
“I couldn’t,” Ashton replies, his voice heavy with remorse. “I was trapped in a circle of thought between accepting the news and the fear of losing you. I wish I could be an asshole who easily denies a child when my ex broke the news, but I’m not that guy. I also didn’t do that to Chloe when you told me she was mine. Though it took me a while to come to terms that I had a daughter.”
“Yeah, I remember that. I actually expected you would deny it,” I murmur.
“Well, I could see how Chloe was my carbon copy. But as for Diandra, we were still seeing each other around the time the baby was conceived. She might have a free soul and is very adventurous, but I don’t think she lies about something this serious.”
For almost a year of knowing him, I know Ashton is sharp at analyzing people. Maybe this is one of the qualities in him that brings him to the top. But can he be biased when it comes to his love life or to people he cares about?
“The next day after Diandra told me about the baby, I made an appointment with my family doctor to run all kinds of tests regarding the pregnancy, still hoping that it was just a big mistake. But it wasn’t,” he goes on. “I wasn’t in town when I learned about her situation. That left me no choice but to wait for the paternity test. And I knew I had to break the news to you eventually but trust me when I said I was so scared. I’d never been that scared of losing someone.”
He must have talked about the trip he took when I bumped into Diandra at his apartment building. My chest tightens when I think about what kind of hell he was going through. Alone. “Why didn’t you tell me about all of this when you came to me that afternoon?”
“How? You didn’t let me. And as far as I remember, after you found out about Diandra’s pregnancy, you looked at me like I was a disgusting human being and you didn’t want to have anything to do with me at all. It was when I knew what I feared became a reality.”
“I’ve never thought of you as a disgusting human being, Ashton.” My voice comes out as a whisper. I close my eyes, feeling the familiar stinging sensation in the corners of my eyes. “You have no idea how my world crumbled on me when I heard about the news. I was just trying to pick up the pieces of my shattering heart and hold myself together. I did what I did to protect myself from breaking down.”
Feeling the tears that are hanging low in my eyes, I wipe them before they fall on my cheeks. “I might sound like the biggest hypocrite on earth, but the idea of sharing you with her and the baby horrified me. It still does. On the other hand, now I understand what Diandra must have felt when she learned about Chloe.”
“I can’t undo what I did, Char. Diandra pregnant with a baby that’s probably mine is a reality. I wish I could change it for us.”
I wish it was just a nightmare that I woke up from. I wish reality stopped throwing a new surprise at me. I wish reality left me alone with Ashton.
“How will Diandra take it if we do this? It’s going to be hard for her because I know how it feels to carry a baby without a partner’s support. I don’t think any mother should experience it.”
“I am supporting her. I try to be present during the routine check-up, sending her what she needs regarding the pregnancy, listening to her plan about the delivery, and helping her in any way I can to make it happen. And once the paternity test confirms that he’s mine, I will be involved in tending the baby during his first year. But she has to understand that there is no more ‘us’. Baby or no baby.”
Ashton rubs his face before brushing his hair backward once again. He then looks down at his lap, putting both his hands on the steering wheel. “This is me and my life now, Char. This is all that I can offer you. I know it’s not going to be easy, especially for you. There will be a lot of adjustments needed for everyone for a while. But I still hope that by the end of the day, after having a crazy day at work and helping out with the baby, I can go home to my woman, my family, my home.”
I lean into the window. My head is getting heavier every second from the idea of a life with him and a newborn who is not mine. “I don’t know, Ashton. I don’t know if I can do this. You will spend time with her and the baby while I’m home and then I can only have the rest of you once you’re done with them. It feels like I’m sharing a man with her. I don’t know if I can keep my sanity.”
“You’re not sharing me with her. We will try to find a common ground to make sure the arrangement is decent for everyone. But you need to know that you’re important to me.”
“Please, Char. I know I’m probably asking too much from you. If you don’t want this, I’ll respect your decision. But at least, give it some thought.”
The commotion from the sidewalk makes both of us look back and see Mr. Donegal is busy pulling his dog from running toward Ashton’s car. I have no idea what time people walk their dogs nowadays.
I look at the clock on Ashton’s dashboard before glancing at my entrance door. “What about Chloe? How are we going to tell her about her little sibling?”
“I would say it’s better to do it after the baby is born.”
“When is the baby due again?”
“End of February. Or early March,” Ashton replies.
“It’s going to be challenging to explain it to Chloe.”
“I know,” Ashton mumbles.
“And oh, she told me about Martha’s party. Are they inviting the rest of your family too?”
“I think so. I will need to come back to you about it. Are you... coming?” he asks. When he sees me nodding, a smile grows on his face. “We can go together.”
“We’ll see about that,” I reply, causing his face to drop. I adjust my coat and tighten it up against my torso. “I need to go back inside. If Chloe woke up and couldn’t find me anywhere in the house, she would freak out.”
I force a smile as I nod at him, bidding him a silent goodnight. I hear his voice again when my hand reaches the door handle. “Please give it some thought, Char. It might not be easy but I promise you it’s just temporary. I can see us go through this. Together.”