"Anytime," I say, sticking my hands into my pockets. Without that wiggly little body in my arms, they feel a bit useless just dangling there at my sides.
The photographer Colton and Sophie hired to capture the memories of their engagement party approaches. "Will you three get together for a picture?"
Kylie stiffens, and I see her mouth open like she's about to refuse the photographer.
"It's just a photo," I remind her. She's desperate to refuse anything that could be construed as intimate between us. "Please," I add.
Kylie settles Max on her hip so they're both facing the camera and I toss my arm around her shoulder, hugging them both, and smile brightly at the photographer.
She takes a few shots and then lowers her camera. "What an adorable baby you two have."
"Oh, he's not…" I pause, mentally smacking myself. I'd been about to deny him as mine– and he's not–but I suddenly realize that I wouldn’t mind people thinking he was. I wouldn’t mind someone assuming that this beautiful woman and her baby belong to me.
Kylie's eyes flash to mine, wondering why I haven't corrected the woman.
I shrug, lifting an eyebrow to tell her it's okay. Her brow crinkles and she chews on her lower lip, but doesn’t say anything, instead turning her attention back to Max.
In the distance I see the caterers setting out platters of food at the long banquet table on the patio. "Shall we get something to eat?"
"Sure," she says, then makes the sign for eat to Max, which he eagerly imitates.
Pace and I are seated at one of the banquet tables dressed in white linens with Max between us. I'm nervous he's going to spill something or ruin the tablecloth with his enthusiastic method of eating, but Pace only smiles adoringly at him. It makes me feel unsure and on edge.
I share a plate of food with Max, and he nibbles on grilled salmon, potatoes and cucumber salad like a champ. I'm thankful I don't have a picky eater. Otherwise, it'd be Cheerios for dinner, because that was all I packed. Of course I also forgot to put on his bib, which meant half of the food was ending up on his shirt. I'll be changing him into his jammies after this.
Pace looks on, clearly impressed by Max's ability to shovel fistfuls of food into this mouth. "Does he have any teeth in there?"
"He has four."
"How old is he?" he asks next.
I don't know what's up with his sudden interest in my child, or maybe it's just that he's trying to be polite and make small talk since he's stuck sitting next to the lady with the baby. "He turned one last month."
"So it's just you and him?" The depth of Pace's expression surprises me. There's usually a crooked grin on his lips, a dimple peeking from one cheek, and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. Now there's only a set mouth, strong jawline and deep blue eyes watching me, waiting for my response.
I swallow a lump in my throat. I don't need anyone. At least that's what I tell myself. But Max… I feel bad for my son. I hate to think about when he's older having to explain to him that his own father wanted nothing to do with him. "It's just us," I say, my voice going tight. I take a sip of water and exhale deeply. "Where's your girlfriend tonight?"
"I don’t have a girlfriend."
"What about the blonde from the other weekend?"
"She was a one-time thing."
"Classy." I raise an eyebrow at him. He's blunt, but for some reason I like his direct style of communication and the way his eyes never stray from mine. He doesn’t make excuses, doesn’t try to cover up who he is. Or what that night had been – it was a one-time hookup. God, I don't even remember what that'd be like.
I might be a mom now, but my body still has needs, yearnings…that I promptly ignore. Yes, sir, I shut those feelings down with a vice clamp. They are dangerous and make me want things that just aren't possible for me right now.
"I still want to take you to dinner," he says, reading my faraway thoughts.
"We're having dinner," I point out and feed another bite to Max from the end of my fork, hoping to actually get some of the food in his mouth this time.
Pace stares straight ahead, looking out at the ocean, and for the first time, I begin to wonder what he's thinking, what he sees when he looks at me. He's a handsome, eligible bachelor. Surely his prospects are better than a single mom so jaded it'd take a miracle for me to trust again. Though I have to admit, there is something in me that loved seeing him with Max. His big hands that curled all the way around Max's belly and ribcage, the gentle way he flew him through the air while Max giggled…Max deserves more moments like that. The rational side of my brain knows that, but I won't have him feel the loss and rejection when Pace decides a blond with inflatable breasts is more fun than a twenty-nine year old single mom and her son. And he was guaranteed to.
Men like him don’t change overnight. I need to keep my feet firmly on the ground and my head out of the clouds, no matter how freaking cute he is.
After dinner, I change Max into his pajamas, we brush all four of his teeth and I read him the two books I'd packed. I know he's tired because he's tugging on his ears through the second book. It's his tell. A clear signal that he's ready to be laid down and won't get up again until morning. And it's a good thing too, because after twelve hours of playing and lifting him and carrying him my back is aching and I just want to sit down and relax for a minute or two before we have to drive home.