He slid his arms around her, taking her from me, and he slowly sat on the floor with her. She was eighteen months, so she’d want to stand on her own. She’d want to be moving around, but she didn’t.
She stood on his lap, her hand clutching her stuffed penguin, and she didn’t do anything except stare at him.
This was the right thing to do.
I knew it, felt it in my bones.
If Valerie had been there, she’d be crying, too.
“I’ll give you some privacy.” My voice came out in a whisper.
He barely acknowledged me as I backed out, going to the next room. I sat on the couch at first, listening to them starting to talk.
“Hi.” From Nate.
“I’m your dad.”
“Ayyyyaaaa yayaya ogd. Penna. See.”
“That’s your penguin?”
“Ayyyayaalllmmaa ooooo penna. See. See. See.”
A soft laugh from Nate. “I see. I like penguins. Do you know what sound they make?”
Nova just giggled.
When I heard her excitement and her joy, I made a decision that I hadn’t known I’d been debating until this second.
I pulled my phone out.
Me: We’re not fighting Nate.
He responded right away, but I knew he would. He would’ve been waiting for a report, and this wasn’t the type of report he wanted.
Duke: You’re emotional. Rein it in and don’t promise anything.
“She’s perfect, Aspen. Just perfect.” I was near tears, my voice barely coming out, but I’d never been happier. I had sunk into my hotel room’s bedroom chair as soon as I got back to the room.
I hadn’t fought the tears earlier in the room. Nova kept wiping them from my face.
Her little face puckered up as she grabbed both of my cheeks, then a babble came out.
Quincey started laughing, but she was sniffling, too. She wiped her nose and flicked her own tear away, translating, “She asked if you’re unhappy.”
My heart pierced again, but in a good way. I smiled, letting it blind my little angel, and she started smiling and giggling with me. “No, baby girl. I’m very, very happy.” My voice was a whisper by then, but more tears came, and Nova got all serious. She held my face and shifted up, her little forehead coming toward me.
I knew what she wanted, and I thought she had blasted through all my walls, but this little movement made everything shift all over again.
I stopped and moved my forehead some more, letting her close the distance. There was a slight bang, and I winced, holding her tighter, but she only started laughing. Then she got serious, and I was watching as she closed her eyes, her little lips moving and soft words slipping out. I couldn’t make sense of them. I waited, but Quincey wasn’t translating, and then Nova lifted her head, leaning back, and she clapped both sides of my face, her head moving in a firm and final nod.
“I think…” Quincey’s voice came out hesitant. I didn’t dare look. I didn’t want to miss anything Nova was going to do. “I think she just gave you a love spell or something.”
I was a mess.
This. Today. This was the day I woke up to the world.
I pulled my daughter close, hugging her, and I whispered, “Your daddy loves you very much.”
She was mine. I knew she was. Knew the second I saw her, saw my eyes looking back at me.
More happy cooing came from her.
I closed my eyes, pressed a soft kiss to her forehead, and she was still again.
The room shifted, growing more serious and almost sacred.
Nova might’ve been eighteen months, but she felt it. I thought anyway…
She leaned back against my shoulder. One arm came over, resting down my back, and her head leaned forward, resting on the side of my neck.
After that, I carried her down.
Quincey took her to the car. That was the first time I spared her a look.
She was pale, fresh tears streaking down her face, and she was biting her lip.
An urge to reach out and take her arm to ask if she was all right came over me.
I held back.
Then Nova was being put in her car seat, her bright eyes staring at me. Quincey lingered by the closed door, but I didn’t spare her another look.
“I’ll, um, I’ll be in touch?”
She started to go around the car.
She paused, looking up.
I stepped forward, not letting Nova see my face.
When she did, she gulped, her hands tightening around her purse.
“I was told to wait two days for the results, but she’s mine. She was Valerie’s. If you want to be in her life, you won’t fight me on this. You give that message to your father.”
Blood drained from her face.
She didn’t answer, blinking a few times, then continued around to the driver’s side.
I cleared my face, stepped back, and smiled down at Nova.
She pumped her arms, her little penguin clutched in her hands. She was waving it at me.
Now I was back in my hotel room, sitting in that chair, and I hadn’t moved for a full hour.
My phone rang then, and I had just gotten done catching my little sister up to date.
She was quiet for a moment afterward.
“She’s perfect, Aspen. Just fucking perfect.”
“I’m an aunt?”
“You’re an aunt.”
“Holy… whoa. You’re in Seattle now?”
“I’m in Hungary. I was in Seattle for two years! I was there. What?!” There was a sound from her end, a rustling movement. I heard Blaise’s voice, then she answered back, her voice muffled.
“Aspen.” I frowned. “What are you doing?”
“I’m coming back to the States. My brother needs me.”
“What?!” That was from Blaise.
Aspen’s voice came back. “Hold on. I’ll call you back.”
“Nate?” I heard in the hotel room, outside my bedroom.
I put the phone aside. “In here.”
Mason and Logan came in, both eyes hooded until they got a good view of me.
“Shit,” Mason said.
The two shared a look.
Mason nodded at Logan.