The dishes were done, the flat tidied, and Sara had begun to sing quietly to our little miss in the nursery. I said a simple prayer to the god of sleeping children, because on her way in there, Sara had given me the look.
The don’t fall asleep before I come to bed look.
The I’m still not over the sight of our baby sleeping on your naked chest look.
The you’re getting very, extremely laid look.
I fucking loved my life.
Across the room on the coffee table, my phone lit up with a call. Going over and seeing whose name flashed across the screen, I broke out in a massive smile.
“You’ve called the happiest bloke on the planet,” I told my brother, in lieu of a proper greeting.
I was met with a heavy pause of silence, and then: “It’s impossible for you to be smugger.”
“True. But make it quick. I’m about to be ravaged by the natives.” Sweet mother Mary it seemed like it’d been forever since we’d had anything more than a quick grope en route to passing out from exhaustion.
I was even considering doing some extensive stretching first.
My youngest brother, Niall, laughed. “In that case, I hope you survive the night because I’m coming to visit next week and I’d be terribly disappointed to miss the Max Stella tour you’ve promised all these years.”
“Brilliant!” I smacked the table with my palm. This night kept getting better. The promise of sex two nights in a row with my gorgeous wife and a visit from my brother next week. “Absolutely, bloody brilliant.” I hadn’t seen Niall since the last time I went home, over a year ago, and he’d been too busy to visit much. “Work letting you out, then?”
“More or less.” He paused. “Right. That’s it, then, it’s bloody late. Just letting you know. I’m coming to visit little Annabel, not you lot.”
Laughing, I said, “Understood.”
“I’ll arrive on Tuesday. Leaving Sunday.”
I noted the rest of the details and rang off before heading to find Sara to share the news.
The singing had stopped, and to my complete lack of surprise, I found my beautiful wife asleep in the rocking chair beside the crib, with the baby in her arms. I pulled the little Beloved away from her mum, swaddled her up, and placed her in the crib. Although until recently Annabel generally slept only two or three hours at a time, at least we could put her to bed beside a brass band and she wouldn’t rouse.
I suspected we wouldn’t be as lucky with the next one.
I blinked, feeling slightly mad for having this thought. It was only in the past two weeks that we were getting any sort of decent sleep at all.
With the baby taken care of, I crossed the room to wake Sara. Her eyes drew open just as I reached her, and she inhaled deeply, blinking up at me. “Oh. I fell asleep.”
I crouched in front of her, using my thumb to move a strand of hair off her face. “I don’t think you were supposed to do that.”
“No, I was going to get you naked.”
“That’s still an option.”
Sara took my hand and stood, pulling me after her out of the nursery and down the hall. “What were you thinking, just standing there looking down at me?”
“Just feeling rather in love with my life, is all.”
“Well, I fell asleep wondering whether our second will be as good a sleeper as our first.”
She glanced over her shoulder at me with a grin, and I gaped at her, eyes wide and incredulous. How could she know the exact thought had crossed my mind only minutes before?
“You call Anna a good sleeper?” I asked.
“She has been lately,” she clarified. “We just had to give her time to grow into it.”
I watched Sara’s hair slide over her shoulders as she turned back and shook her head. Her hair was longer now, thicker, and the way it slid across her skin made me want to gather it into a ball, hold it in my fist, and fuck her over the side of the bed.
Oh, but it had been forever since we’d done anything as rough as that.
I swallowed, closed my eyes, and attempted to steady my hunger when she sat on the edge of the mattress and slowly slid her thighs apart.
“You’ve lost your mind,” I said with a grin.
“Probably true.” Her sexy little shrug told me she was only half serious, and a naughty playfulness lingered beneath the surface.
Stepping between her legs, I helped her pull her tank top over her head and guided her onto her back so I could slide her thin cotton shorts down and off.
My mind frenzied with thoughts of pushing her thighs to her chest, biting my way down her torso, sucking and spanking the sweetness between her legs until she screamed so loud it shook the walls. Instead, I kissed her navel, her hip, moving my mouth to her ribs and then up higher to the firm swell of her breasts. They were already full, and growing tight the longer the baby slept. I bent, sucking at the pink flush of her nipples.
“Do you really love to look at them so much?” Her voice dropped slightly. “You like the taste?”
I loved her body like this, but I didn’t know how to truly admit it. I loved her hips, her breasts. Loved to watch her feed our baby and come curl around me after. It felt like every fucking thing in the world had come together with the arrival of our daughter. But it still felt a bit shameful to want her body to stay this way after what had admittedly been a tough labor.
I shifted forward carefully, pressing my cock through my boxers into the warm skin between her legs.
Sara pulled me down over her and slid her mouth down my neck. “Is it weird that I want to stay like this?” she asked as I spread my hand over her hip. “To fill this home of ours with little ankle biters?”
I laughed into her shoulder. “Sleep deprivation is eating your brain.”
“I know you want a big family,” she said. “And I’ve never been more in love with you than when I’ve seen you be a daddy . . .” She noticed where my attention had gone, to the firm swell of her breast again, my mouth closing over her nipple. “They get full like this . . .”
I kissed my way up to her neck. “They provide me with a rather spiritual experience.”
“So you do like my body right now?” she whispered.
There was a delicate edge to her voice, a vulnerability that shocked me. Sara knew I loved her body, every inch of her perfect, soft skin.
I pulled back to look at her. “I fucking love your body. And I love how happy motherhood has made you. I like how you seem rather blissful lately.” Bending, I spoke into the warm space between her breasts: “I also like how ripe your tits are.”
She took a handful of my hair and pulled me back, laughing. “Finally, he admits it!”
“What does that mean?”
Her brow furrowed a little as she studied my face, warm brown eyes moving to take in every aspect of my expression. Sara often studied me like this: quietly, earnestly. She ran a fingertip across my chin, her eyes trained on my lips. “I want you to not worry so much,” she whispered. “I want more babies—maybe not right away, but someday—and when I say that, I see terror in your eyes.”
I swallowed around the heavy lump in my throat. “It’s not as hard on my body.”
“My body seems to be weathering it fine. I’m going back to work soon. Look at us. We did it.”
I bent, tasting her skin again. Kissing her stomach.
She pulled me up, whispered in my ear, “Tell me you didn’t love having your baby in here.”
Laughing, I admitted, “She was certainly easier to take care of all tucked away in there.”
She looked back up at my face as I shifted over her, spreading her thighs with my knee and settling there, growing tighter at the feel of her, soft and warm, beneath me. “All right, love?”
Her breaths were already coming faster, short bursts against my neck, her hands sliding lower over my back to push my boxers down my hips. “Yeah.”
I slipped my finger into her mouth, wetting it against her tongue before bringing it between us to touch her. I hummed, rubbing myself on her thigh. “You sure? You’re not sore?”
She stared up at me, expression shifting into one I couldn’t quite read. “I’m sure.”
“We made love last night, too. I don’t want to hurt you,” I explained.
She closed her eyes, pulling my head into her neck. “I know, baby.”
I slid in, slow, and pressed my mouth to her jaw, groaning. Each time . . . each fucking time I was sure I would never get used to the feel of her. Her nails dug into my back as she let out a relieved moan.
“Christ, Petal. You’re heaven beneath me.” Cupping her breast in one hand, I squeezed, relishing the slide of milk on my palm. “Fuck,” I managed. “Fucking hell . . .”
“This is a new thing,” she whispered, scratching her nails down my back.
I clenched my jaw, fighting the admission that wanted to burst free. “I bloody love them like this. I’m sorry—I know they’re mostly a drag for you—but fuck, Petal. I love your tits like this.”
I felt her still beneath me and stopped moving so I could pull back and look at her face.
“What?” I asked. “What did I say?”
She didn’t look upset, just a funny mix of disappointed and amused. Sliding her legs up my sides, she whispered, “Since when do you have to give me a disclaimer?”
Smiling, I bent and kissed her sweet, full lips. My heart was beating a little too fast; I still wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong.
“You don’t have to apologize for being turned on by that,” she whispered into my mouth. “I miss seeing you lost in me, and unapologetic about it.”
My immediate instinct was to show her how lost I really was: to lift her arms over her head, pound into her, and relish the sight of her breasts moving below me, relish their weight and the spike of lust I felt when they leaked onto my skin. But instead, I began to slowly move above her, making sure to ease her pleasure from her with every draw of my body inside hers.
She grabbed my ass, urged me faster and harder, and I tried to give her more but it was almost like something newly hardwired in me with every shift forward:
Take it easy.
Take it slow.
Take it easy.
Take it slow.
We’d had sex many times in the months since the baby was born, but it hadn’t yet returned to the wild days of before, with fucking on the kitchen table or the floor, or sweaty and reckless play in the club. Those days we’d had spanking and bondage. Those days I’d taken her in every manner imaginable, sometimes with strangers watching, sometimes with only my video camera as witness. Once I’d bit her shoulder so hard she’d bled and it nearly made her savage with excitement.
Before—and during—her pregnancy, it never occurred to me how fragile she was.
And then she’d had my baby: nearly nine pounds and over twenty-four hours of hard labor. For two months after Annabel came, we’d stumbled our way through new parenting, fallen in love with our daughter, fallen in love all over again with each other, and found tiny winks of sleep whenever we could. Eventually, we’d also found ways to be carefully intimate with hands and mouths, playful with words and toys.
Then, nearly two months ago now, Sara said she was ready to make love again.
I’d been terrified at first, but one kiss led to another, and soon I’d been harder than I could remember being in weeks. The sound she made when I pushed into her would forever echo in my thoughts. It was a broken sound, the sharp, surprised cry of pain. I’d immediately stopped, and although she swore she felt no pain now, I couldn’t help but feel I was handling her differently: being careful with a treasure I’d only recently discovered could be broken . . .
We had yet to return to the club.
We had yet to even pull out the camera for anything other than pictures of our daughter.
We had yet to have sex that did anything more than rustle the sheets, let alone break furniture.
But here, in our bed, with her beneath me, and making her hungry, gasping little noises, her words echoed in my head—pounding—each one like a mallet hitting a drum.
I miss seeing you lost in me, and unapologetic about it.
She was letting me be gentle. She was patiently waiting for it to sink in that she’d asked for more, for real sex, again and again.
She’d say, Do you want to make a movie tonight?
No, Petal, it’s enough just to feel you.
Do you ever miss the club?
No, Petal, I love being right here where we are, with our baby asleep down the hall.
You really like to look at them like this? You like the taste?
I’d wanted to make things easy for her. I’d wanted her to feel safe and cherished. I closed my eyes, absorbed by the paradoxical sensations of relief when Sara began to quietly come beneath be, and heartache in the realization that somewhere along the line, I had forgotten what she needed.
At four in the morning, I sat on the floor of the nursery while Sara fed Annabel. The sky outside was deep blue-black, and even on the Upper East Side at this hour, the streets were relatively quiet.
“You didn’t have to get up with us,” she whispered.
She said the same thing every morning, worried about my lack of sleep and a long workday ahead. But this, right here, was my favorite part of the day.
“I’ll bundle her up and go for a run when you’re done.”
Sara watched me in the darkness. “I love you.”
I swallowed, nodding as I struggled to work past the lump in my throat so I could repeat the sentiment. I’d barely been able to sleep last night after realizing I’d been so focused on enjoying Sara the Mother that I’d barely let myself enjoy Sara the Woman.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered, watching me struggle.
“I think we need to make a deal to return to us before we can get pregnant again.”
“ ‘Us’?” she repeated.
“I think I heard what you were saying last night.”
Her brows pulled together and I could tell she wasn’t exactly sure what I was saying. “Oh?”
“I want to be the husband you need again. Photographs. Film. Knowing I’m giving you what you need.”
“What I need?”
“What we need.”
She licked her lips, blinking down to the baby. “You’re so much more than I could have ever hoped for. You know that.”
“I’d like to occasionally outdo myself,” I said, and she giggled, putting her hand over her mouth when the baby pulled off her breast in surprise.
“Shh, shh,” Sara murmured to her. “Come here.”
“Maybe Mum can watch little Beloved and we can start with dinner out? Slowly work our way to something else?”
She looked up again, eyes wide. “Like the club?”
I watched her holding our child in her arms and felt a protectiveness so violent lash over me I wasn’t sure how I would handle letting others see her so vulnerable, so ripe.
“If that’s what you want,” I managed.
She nodded, gently answering the question in my voice. “It is.”
I folded up the stroller and stowed it in the foyer closet before stripping off my shirt. Although so far it had been a mild winter, it was still January and the long-sleeved running shirt I wore to keep me from freezing outside immediately felt claustrophobic upon entering the warm apartment.
Bending, I unzipped the carrier and pulled out the extremely bundled child inside.
“Was that good, baby girl?” I murmured, kissing her pink cheek. She was warm and drooly and her enormous brown eyes crinkled exactly like her mother’s when she smiled. “Got a good run in, didn’t we?”
I sat on the couch and laid Annabel on my chest while I caught my breath.
“You’re sweaty and sitting on the couch, aren’t you?” Sara called from the master suite.
I stuck my tongue out at Anna and she tried to grab it. “Very sweaty,” I answered my wife. “Quite disgusting, actually.”
Sara’s heels clicked down the hallway and she froze when she saw us. “Max.”
“I’ll wipe it down, Pet—”
“I don’t care about that,” she said, walking closer. “You’re shirtless with the world’s sweetest baby cuddled on those muscles. Put a shirt on, you beast, or I can’t be held responsible for my actions.”
I fucking loved it when Sara looked at me like that. “Imagine how I feel when you’re feeding her.”
She gave me a bright smile as she bent, kissing Anna’s chubby thigh. “She looks like a little peach on you.”
I took in her outfit and immediately wondered if we’d be able to get the baby down for a nap this early in the day. I hadn’t seen Sara in work clothes in months and didn’t realize until just then how much I missed it. Her little black skirt hit just below her knees, giving a tiny flash of skin above her soft leather boots. Her tits looked fucking unreal in the gray sweater she’d put on.
Following my attention, she looked down at her chest. “I think I need to go shopping today. Everything is too small in the chest.”
“Don’t you dare get rid of that one.”
She pulled her lip between her teeth, blinking over to me. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I murmured, and the moment grew heavy. “You look bloody beautiful, Petal.”
“Is it . . . inappropriate, though? I mean, the way you’re looking at me makes me think this sweater is no longer very professional.”
“I guess it depends on where you’re headed.”
She shrugged, sitting down next to us. “I thought I’d go into the office for a couple of hours, just so next week doesn’t feel so disorienting. I’m meeting the girls for breakfast and then heading in.”
I kissed the top of Anna’s head. “Want me to take her with me?”
“Either way. I could, too.”
What was it about her face in that moment, right there, that made me feel so many things at once it was overwhelming? With her dressed and headed out the door, it was like I was seeing this combination for the first time: my lover, my wife, and also a mother, a nurturer and . . . fuck, a bird with the best pair of tits I’d ever seen.
Standing, I motioned for her to follow me back down the hall. I grabbed Annabel’s musical baby seat from the nursery and put it beside the dresser in our bedroom, facing the set of framed photographs of trees that she loved, and then guided Sara to the bed.
“Max . . .”
“Just a minute.” I retrieved my camera from the shelf, stabilized it on the tripod, and set it to automatic shots every five seconds. Sara’s breath was rapid and shallow when I bent low, kissed her neck, and told her, “I won’t keep you long.”
“Anna’s fine,” she said, pulling me closer. “Keep me as long as you can.”
Laying her back, I pushed her skirt up her hips and began kissing my way up her stomach, feeling my cock tighten with each nostalgic click of the shutter, with the feel of her hands digging into my hair. I moved her sweater up her stomach, revealing smooth, bare skin. She tasted like rain, like fruit, and had the same sweet scent I’d always worshipped on her body. Reaching behind her, I unhooked her bra and pushed it up over her breasts.
I’d always loved Sara’s breasts but I’d never particularly been a breast man until recently. The weight of them, the soft smell of her skin, and the odd spike I felt in my abdomen whenever she fed our child . . . it was an odd reflex to want to look at them, touch them like this, and one I realized I’d been fighting the last few months.
You don’t have to apologize for being turned on by that.
My mouth closed over the peak, tongue pulling her deeper into my mouth, and I groaned at the feel of it. She was warm and firm, so full—
I did this . . .
I made her this way
—and when she reached for my track pants and pushed them down my hips to take me in her hand, the moment dissolved into frenzy.
I could imagine her looking through the pictures later, seeing how much I relished the feel of her in my mouth, the taste of her on my tongue. She would know, then, just by looking at my face, how I loved the slide of milk on my hand, the way her hips looked spread around mine. I worshipped her.
I bloody worshipped this woman.
I rocked into her fist, groaning at the feel of her mouth sucking at my neck, her desperate, sweet little cries into my skin. Shoving her panties aside, I licked my hand and used it to make her slick so I could push deep inside with one sharp stab of my hips.
She gasped, eyes wide with thrill and relieved—fuck, she was relieved, as if I’d been missing and maybe I had. I pulled out and shifted forward, fucking her so hard and fast that within the span of a minute I knew I was coming; coming before I had time to get her there, before I even had time to consider whether she wanted me to spill inside her before leaving for work. I just . . . wanted with such intensity, with a kind of jagged need I hadn’t felt in so long that I couldn’t seem to slow myself down.
The tenderness and protectiveness had been pushed aside, just for the moment, by something older and familiar: a heavy need to claim her.
I reached between us, playing with her with my fingertips until she was bucking into my hand, gasping and squeezing around my cock. She cried out, three sharp pleas to drag her through her pleasure, and then she fell quiet, pulling me fully on top of her and exhaling heavily into my neck.
She’d seen me every day; we’d cuddled, talked, laughed, fallen asleep at the dinner table together, and done all manner of intimate things. But the relief in this moment was profound. I knew exactly what she meant when she whispered, “I missed you.”
And all I could say back was “I missed you, too.”
Mum was already at her desk when I arrived at the office wearing Annabel in the carrier. She jumped up, ran around the desk, and reached for her granddaughter without even looking at my face.
“Mum,” I hissed, laughing as I reached for her shoulders so she wouldn’t jostle the baby. “She’s asleep. Settle down, woman. You’ll get her in a bit when I’ve got a meeting with Levinson.”
My mother looked up at me and replaced her mild scowl with a sweet smile. “Mornin’, love.”
I’d never seen myself as a mum’s boy growing up but having her with us at Stella & Sumner for the past several years was one of my favorite things about coming to work. Especially since we’d had Annabel, I appreciated the proximity of family and their ability to tell us when we were acting like neurotic idiots.
And although Mum had raised ten of us quite capably, I registered I was due for a sizable heap of shit when I asked her—for the first time—to watch the baby so we could go out. We’d always taken the baby with us, but this was . . . well, this was entirely different.
“Mum,” I started as she walked back around her desk to sit down. “I was hoping to take Sara out this coming Friday. Would you mind heading over and watching Annabel?”
Her face fell. “Max, you forgot.”
I groaned. Fuck. This was the second time a woman had said this to me in less than twenty-four hours. “Forgot what?”
“I leave for Leeds tomorrow, dove. I’m going to stay with Karen for three weeks.”
“I can watch her tonight?”
“No, you’ve got to pack and we don’t have any sort of plan in place. I get the sense we’ll both need this to be a military operation.”
“You’re mental. I’ve been telling you for weeks: just take the wife out and have some dinner, for crying out loud. By the time you and Niall and Rebecca came along, we were letting the dog watch you for a night out.”
Laughing, I agreed, “I don’t doubt it.”
“The fuck are you wearing?”
I looked down at Annabel still asleep in the carrier and replied to Will, “It’s called an Ergo.”
He followed me into my office and sat on my couch. “It looks like you went tandem skydiving and forgot to unlatch.”
Bennett walked up behind him. “You look like a marsupial.”
“It’s called baby wearing, you twats.” I laughed, and then whispered to the baby, “Is that right? Are you my little joey?” I looked up at my mates and only then did I do the mental calculation. “Bennett, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Will and I had a meeting with Gross and Barrett at eight. Did you forget?”
“Bloody hell will you lot cut me some slack! I’ve not slept in four fucking months!”
They both stared at me, wide-eyed, for several silent seconds.
“Are your nipples sore?” Will asked.
I shook my head, laughing. “Tosser.”
As carefully as I could, I unhooked the carrier behind my neck and let it fall so I could lay Anna down on the couch beside Will. She startled—both arms and both legs flying out in a spasm—but then immediately fell back asleep.
For his part, Will looked like I’d just put a giant hollow eggshell near him. His hands were clasped in his lap and his eyes were trained on the baby as if she might suddenly roll and explode. He’d been around Anna nearly every weekend since she’d been born and still looked at her like breathing too heavily near her might cause her to shatter.
“Since when are you an idiot around children?” I asked.
“I love kids,” he said, looking up at me. “But she’s just so little.”
“She’s not,” I assured him. “She’s enormous.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Look,” I said, sitting down in a chair near my desk. “I need to ask a favor. I want to take Sare out for dinner this Friday—”
Bennett interrupted: “You’re finally going to let someone watch Anna?”
Scowling, I explained, “It’s a lot easier said than done, right? Anyway, Mum is leaving for Leeds tomorrow so she can’t watch her this weekend. Can one of you . . . ?”
They both stared at me with terrified eyes.
“Aw come on, it’s not that hard. We’d only go out for a few hours. You and your better half give her a couple of bottles, change a couple of diapers, she sleeps, we get home.”
“We can’t,” Bennett said, wincing in apology. “Chloe and I are headed up to the Hudson Valley.”
“This weekend?” Will asked, nodding several times in quick succession as if to talk himself into it. “I could probably do it.”
“Brilliant,” I said. “Thanks, mate.”
“I’ve never changed a diaper. Or fed a baby. Hanna jokes that the only girl I’ve ever failed to charm is Liv’s daughter, Aspen.” Shrugging, he added, “But I’m sure it’s instinct, right?” He ticked the rules off on his fingers: “Don’t scald Anna in the bath, don’t leave the milk in the microwave too long.” He paused and seemed to continue to draft a mental list. “Oh, and don’t drop her.”
I imagined walking out of the office right now and leaving Annabel in Will’s hands for even a minute; my stomach flipped over and I wanted to vomit. “Couldn’t you bring Hanna?”
“She’s got some visiting-faculty dinners this weekend.”
Rubbing my hand across my chin, I asked, “You know . . . maybe you could come over and have dinner with us tonight to watch and learn?”
He nodded, but swallowed heavily. To be fair, I knew what I was asking was a big deal. It was one thing to hang out with us when we had Annabel, and quite another to imagine being alone with this tiny little girl.
“Can’t you just take it to the restaurant with you?” Bennett asked.
“That sort of defeats the purpose. Also, Annabel isn’t an ‘it.’ ”
“I didn’t call her an ‘it.’ ”
Will and I replied in unison, “Yeah, you did.”
Scrubbing my face, I muttered, “Fuck it. Just come over for dinner and we’ll have some beers.”
We’d figure something out. We had to.