Mother May I Page 2

The sound faded. We waited, holding our breath. It could go either way. After ten silent seconds, I lifted a victory fist and Trey started toward me.

Robert started babbling then. He was awake and pleased about it, but if I didn’t go get him, he’d start fussing.

“So close!”

“Rain check for tonight?” I asked, pulling my nightgown back on.

Trey shook his head, rueful. “I wish. I fly to Chicago today.”

“Ugh, that’s right. I must have repressed it.” I got up.

He’d be there through the weekend and most of next week, too, thanks to Spencer Shaw. Spence was less than a bosom friend but more than just his partner at the law firm. Their mothers were cousins, so they’d gone to the same schools from the time they were three, even pledging the same frat at UVA. They hadn’t gone their separate ways until law school.

Spence had opted out of this Chicago trip because tonight was the firm’s annual Spring Gala, and he wasn’t one to miss a party. He loved himself a top-shelf open bar and pretty women in cocktail dresses.

Trey wanted me to go to the gala, too. To represent. But I always felt a little out of place at firm events without him. I’d said I would, unless Robert had a cranky afternoon. I had a strong premonition that he would.

“Spence is having a rough time, Bree,” Trey said.

Spence was in the middle of an ugly divorce, his second. My husband would carry him through it, just as he’d carried him during his first ugly divorce.

“So are you. You’re working crazy hours,” I said, shrugging into my robe. “Mostly because of Spence.”

“No. It’s this client.” He and Spence were working with a large Atlanta-based company that was absorbing a family-owned chain of grocery stores. “This is not a marriage of equals we’re officiating.” He leaned close, as if telling me a dirty little secret. “Our groom is a cannibal.”

I let it go. Trey was an equity partner, but Spencer’s name was third on the firm’s letterhead. His father’s name had been first before he died. Also, Robert’s babble was getting whiny around the edges.

“I’ll plan us a date for next weekend. Dinner, wine, kissing,” I promised, then went next door into the nursery.

This room used to be my office, before Robert surprised us. Now the heather-gray walls were covered over in giraffe wallpaper and my desk nook had a changing table in it.

I didn’t mind. I didn’t need an office now; I’d rolled off the boards of the Alliance Theatre and a statewide literacy nonprofit, promising to roll back on in a year or so. The girls had taught me how brief Robert’s babyhood would be. I didn’t want to miss it. I’d blinked, and here he was, already ten weeks old.

I bitched about Trey’s job sometimes, but I was lucky. When I was growing up, my mom worked full-time as a 911 operator plus waitressed on the weekends to make ends meet. I might not love Trey’s long hours, the travel, or the social obligations, but Trey’s career meant I got to watch Anna-Claire’s voice lessons and rehearsals, go to Peyton’s quiz-bowl and robotics meets, and still have time and money to support causes I loved.

I bent over the crib, and Robert kicked his chunky legs, happy to see me. He cooed as I lifted him, trusting that a fresh diaper and a warm bottle were next. I inhaled the crazy perfume of his head. Nothing on earth smelled as delicious as new baby, and this version was particular to him. Not just the scent of baby. This baby. My baby.

I took him to the changing table, and he gave me the goofy grin he’d invented just last week, toothless and so charming. He was easy. A good sleeper, a good eater. Anna-Claire had been trickier, lovely as long as everything went her way but instantly enraged by dirty diapers and late breakfasts. She was so mercurial and demanding that I’d planned a three-year gap before the next one, but she was barely Robert’s age when the stick turned blue. Peyton had been born anxious, and she never slept. Even when I was pregnant, my little insomniac kicked and spun inside me all night long.

“You are my sugar baby,” I told Robert, tucking his fat potato feet back into his pajamas and refastening the snaps. “You’re going to be a nightmare as a toddler to make up for it, aren’t you?”

I toted Robert down the hall to the kitchen to warm his bottle, then sat in the great room, holding him close while he pulled greedily at it. By the time he’d taken his five ounces, the sound of squabbling girls was drifting down the stairs. I kept an ear cocked as I marched Robert up and down, trying to thump a second burp out of him. He had one, I knew it, and he’d be colicky if I didn’t coax it out. I hoped the fussing upstairs would resolve on its own. Often it did. But late last year Peyton had gotten her period. She’d instantly synced up with Anna-Claire, and right now we were heading into danger week.

“Mo-om!” Peyton hollered in two aggrieved syllables. “She took my . . .” I missed the last word.

I toted Robert to the bottom of the stairs, jouncing and patting as I walked.

“Anna-Claire,” I called up.

She poked her face over the banister. She was sleep-rumpled, her masses of dark hair a tumbled mess, and still beautiful enough to take my breath away.

“You always take her side!”

She had a point. I did tend to take Peyton’s side. But life had taken Anna-Claire’s. She was built like me, tall and slim, and where I was pretty, she was gorgeous. She had my even features, but her true violet eyes tilted like kitten eyes, and her lips had a natural upturn, as if she were holding a delightful secret in her mouth, readying to speak or swallow it. She’d also come with a whopping scoop of Trey’s confidence and extroverted charm.

She’d never had an awkward phase, while Peyton was slap in the middle of hers. Right now puppy fat clung to her middle, and her skin had gone a little crazy. She was as cute as a button, with her dad’s round face and snub nose, but when she was next to her sister, people overlooked her.

Peyton joined her sister at the banister. “I haven’t even gotten to wear it yet!”

“Give it back,” I told Anna-Claire, mild but serious, still thumping at Robert.

“Fine. It’s in my middle drawer,” Anna-Claire told her sister, then gave me the eye roll she’d perfected in third grade. “It’s too big for me anyway.”

That was straight-up bitchy, but I let it slide with a warning look because Peyton was already off to go get the whatever-it-was. The fight had been derailed.

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