Ginger gave her the first real smile she’d had since sitting down at the table. “Well, girls, I guess it won’t be long before we have another one to add to our play group.”
Casey shook her head, laughing. “I’m not pregnant, and I don’t plan on having children anytime soon.”
While the women burst into laughter, the waitress gave them strange looks as she sat their coffees down in front of them.
“I give her a month before she’s knocked up.” Sassy smirked.
“Nope, at least a year. She’s smarter than us.” Ginger blew on her coffee.
“One thing is for certain: the baby won’t be named after Max,” Casey said with certainty.
Mila shook her head. “You can’t break the chain. It’s bad luck.”
“Max is his road name, isn’t it?” Casey asked. “I could do a form of his real name and still keep the chain going. Do any of you know his real name?”
The women all stared at her in sympathy.
Blaze said pityingly. “Fred Everett.”
“Max isn’t so bad.”
* * *
“Well, this is awkward.” Penni nudged her in the stomach with her elbow.
“No, it’s not. We’re a blended family,” Casey countered.
Penni lifted her paper cup toward the group of women staring a hole through Casey as she stood in the kitchen, watching everyone playing in the backyard pool that Max had installed a couple of years ago.
“I think they want to blend something, that’s for freakin’ sure,” Penni drawled.
Casey smiled in the direction of Max’s exes, as Penni had made no attempt to lower her voice.
Since her marriage to Max, the mothers of his children had decided it was in their best interests to give her husband more time with his kids. He had gloatingly told her that the subtle hint that he had acquired an attorney had them loosening their rigid control, though Casey believed it was more than likely the wedding band on his finger.
“Where did you three disappear to last week?” Casey asked casually, reaching for a carrot stick to nibble on.
“We went on vacation with my brother, Shade. Want to see a picture?” Penni’s phone was always attached to her. She swiped the screen and raised it, pointing the picture in her direction.
“Don’t, Penni!” Sawyer made to grab the phone, but Casey snatched it from Penni’s grasp, prepared to tease Sawyer about whatever picture of herself that she was too embarrassed for Casey to see.
Casey lost all thought as she stared down at the picture of the woman smiling back at her from the screen. She was surrounded by Sawyer, Vida, Penni, and all their children. Her violet eyes were shining while she held a small child—her own, from the resemblance—and the man seated beside her was gazing at her as if she was the most precious thing in life to him.
“It’s okay, Sawyer.” Vida took Sawyer’s arm, keeping her from taking the phone.
Casey’s eyes rose, seeing the fear in Vida and Sawyer’s expressions. Penni had paled, sensing she had done something terribly wrong.
Casey glanced back down at the picture before handing it back to Penni.
“It seems as if you all had a good time.” Casey’s voice was hoarse with emotion. “I need to check on Max.” She left them staring after her as she stepped out onto the back porch, sliding the door closed. Then she walked to the end of the deck and leaned against the railing. Her hands clenched the smooth wood as she looked toward Cole, who was jumping off the diving board.
He would have found joy in knowing the little girl he had tried to help years ago had found happiness. The Cole she had grown up with was gone forever, but in his place was intrinsically the same person—a kind and loving man. If he had been given the choice to save himself or someone else, Cole would have put himself second. Casey accepted that. Of course, like all families that had to deal with challenges, the choice hadn’t been theirs to make.
Shaking those thoughts away, a smile tugged at her lips. The backyard was filled with family and friends who were celebrating Max’s birthday. The pool was practically overflowing, with several of the Predators prowling around, keeping an eye on everyone’s safety.
At first, she had been terrified of having a pool; however, the safeguard of the fence with not one but three alarms installed by Max had swayed her, and the enjoyment the children and Cole got from it had proven to be worth giving in to her husband’s coaxing.
Max was standing beside the table, feeding the apple of her daddy’s eye a bite of chocolate cake. The fifteen-month-old toddler was perched on her daddy’s hip in her poofy dress with a big red flower headband circling her peach fuzz blond hair. She wore her usual pink bandana tied around her neck to catch the drool that constantly clung to her chin. She could rip a bib off in a second with her flailing arms. As a result, the bandana had saved more than one dress, no thanks to the father spoiling her rotten. Joy gazed at Max with the wonder only a child could find, her chubby hands cupping her father’s cheeks as her forehead rested on his. Her little rosebud lips giving her hero a kiss. It was a special moment that was gone to soon when Joy’s attention returned to her second favorite thing in the world. Chocolate cake.