Lying half-naked and spread-eagled with a hot hunk whispering encouraging words in your ear might be the fantasy of millions of women, but this particular variation was not doing the trick for Jules Kilroy.
“I need to bleedin’ push!”
“Not yet,” Doctor Harper said firmly. Her tough-as-old-boots OB must have been a sergeant major in a previous life.
Push, don’t push, deep breaths, shallow breaths…agh! Jules was trying not to act like she was the first woman to give birth, but it was her first time and blimey, the pain was excruciating.
“It’s not called labor for nothing,” the man at her side added, a knowing smile in his deep rumble of a voice. Usually that voice worked gangbusters to get her through the rough times, not to mention fueling a few luridly inappropriate fantasies, but today she just wanted to drop-kick Tad DeLuca’s beautiful face into the middle of the next millennium.
Instead of losing the plot, she made a conscious decision to breathe herself to serenity. From time immemorial, the entirety of womankind had endured the pain of childbirth, so she needed to stop being such a trauma queen. The sucking-in-air part she could manage. Slow, deep breaths. Around her, the low hum of hospital equipment and the professional, almost balletic movements of Team “Get Demon Out of Jules” focused her mind on the task ahead.
Bloody hell, she was having a baby!
Pain, sharper than before, lanced through her. She clasped Tad’s hand so hard she half expected to see diamonds pop out.
He didn’t flinch, but then he never did.
Tad had been her rock since she showed up in Chicago five months ago, straight off a flight from London with a bun in the oven. Those broad shoulders, indecently covered with drip-dry fabrics ready to absorb her weepfests, had borne the weight of her weary head more times than she cared to count. He was the first person she confided in about her dyslexia, the last person who comforted her through every piddling panic. She had her brother, former celebrity chef Jack Kilroy, and an amazing extended family in the DeLucas, her brother’s soon-to-be in-laws, but Tad was the guy who made her feel like she was part of something bigger. He made her feel special.
A rolling wave of pain caught her by surprise—surprising because she had passed the point where the contractions let up and gave her breaks. For the last hour, they had been blurring into each other, shifting like tectonic plates heralding an earthquake of suffering.
“Demon wants out,” she muttered, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Of course he does.” Tad thumbed at the corners of her eyes, swiping her leaking emotion away. “He’s dying to meet you. And we’re all dying to meet him.”
Him. That she was having a boy was bloody typical. The male of the species had been nothing but trouble since that first moment on a London school playground when she realized the anatomical differences between boys and girls were worthy of further exploration. Curiosity, every woman’s downfall.
“Now’s the time to push,” barked Doc Harper.
Jules bore down, trying to remember how to do something that was supposedly innate and natural. She had to be getting it all wrong, like she always did.
Tad squeezed her hand, much more gently than she had squeezed his. “Hold it for ten seconds, just like we practiced in the classes.” With an empathetic held breath of his own, his shoulders lifted, inflating his already immense chest. The scrubs he wore should have been loose-fitting, but they molded to his muscles on that inhale, a fact she should not be noticing now, of all times. Think of the fortune this deliciously distracting man could make hiring that face, bod, and voice out to birthing mothers everywhere.
“That’s good. Now relax, don’t push,” said Dr. Harper, her professional eye on the fetal monitor. Its steady beeps reassured everyone in the delivery room that the baby was okay even if Jules felt like an alien was about to explode from her hoo-ha.
“Maybe you should take some of that dope they offered so liberally a while back,” Tad said, in clear violation of her instructions.
No matter what happens, don’t let me take any drugs.
There had been other instructions to Tad as well: refrain from flirting with the pretty nurses and under no circumstances are you to look down there! But mostly, the “just say no to drugs” was rule numero uno.
Though she had always been open to the idea of an epidural, in the end she had elected to stick with a natural childbirth. Not because she was an earthy-crunchy, tree-hugging hippie type. She had a sneaking suspicion that if she got high, she’d get chatty and might reveal a few unfortunate home truths to the man at her side.
Such as how he made her tingly in troublesome places and that she had a whopping mega crush on him.
“Too late for that,” Doc cut in, eliminating the need to make a decision.
“So the window for legalized narcotics has passed,” Tad said. “But that’s okay because I’m here. I’m your drug, baby. Just look at me and tell me you’re not addicted to my shocking good looks.”
“Arsehole,” she muttered, annoyed that he had the audacity to read her mind while she was at her lowest point. Shocking good looks weren’t far off the mark, though. Taddeo DeLuca was a Prada commercial come to life. The hard bod, the piercing blue eyes, the dark, wavy hair that framed his face like a wimple of sin. In his banged-up jeans and motorcycle leathers, he was sex-on-Italian-legs.
He smiled brazen and wide, passing over her ill humor like a true friend. That smile was killer. “If my hotness is not enough to distract you, let’s talk about all the things you’re going to do once you offload this basketball.”
For months, she had been whining constantly about everything she missed while pregnant, so even in her addled state, the list reeled off her tongue smoothly.
“First up, spicy tuna rolls.”
“I’ve got Aiko’s on speed dial,” he said, referring to their favorite sushi place in Wicker Park, the north side neighborhood where they both lived. “Just say the word.”
“A double gin and tonic.” As soon as the words escaped her lips, her mouth watered like she was Pavlov’s dog. “Just one, though, because I’ll be breastfeeding.”
Tad’s dark brows lifted and his gaze dropped to her breasts, covered by a hospital gown. They’d ballooned to a point where they could be seen from the International Space Station. There was the Great Wall of China, then her massive boobs.
“The miracle of life,” he murmured dreamily.
She thumped him in the arm. “Perv.”
“Well, they already look fantastic, but I’m all on board with them getting bigger when your milk comes in.” Tad had devoured all the pregnancy books in the name of supporting her as they approached the big day and he knew more than the average male on the topic. He mimicked cupping zeppelin-sized breasts. “What are we talking here? Double Ds, Double Fs?”
“You’re impossible,” she said, feeling dangerously tender toward him right this minute.
He raised her clasped hand to his lips and brushed his soft mouth across her knuckles. “What else are you looking forward to, mia bella?”
Mia bella. My beautiful. She loved when he called her that, especially when she was feeling less than beautiful.
“Seeing my feet again.” Also on the MIA list were unmentionable body parts, such as the overgrown forest between her legs that machetes might have trouble hacking through. Jules had set up an appointment for a bikini wax about ten minutes after her waters broke seven hours ago.
“Cute shoes. My feet have puffed to marshmallows and my shoe collection misses me terribly.” She’d sequestered them in the back of her closet along with her most fashionable threads—the ones single girls on the pull wore as their armor—because the sight of them every time she opened the closet door gouged her fashion-loving soul.
Most of all she missed feeling sexy, and all research pointed to the disturbing conclusion that it might be a while before she got there again. Demon was going to be a real crimp in her love life for sure.
As if the little bugger heard her negative thoughts about him, he made a break for the border.
“I have to push,” she said with authority, desperately trying to sound like she had some control over this frightening situation. It was a biological need to propel this baby into the world, but also a psychological grasp at the tethers. Her entire life had been spent ducking and diving from the hard decisions. Fleeing when it got tough, shutting down when the situation demanded she step up.
Five months ago, she’d made the best choice for her baby when she left London and all the pain behind. Finding the strength to admit she needed help by mending fences with her brother had brought her to Chicago. To a new life and a ready-made family.
“Not yet,” Doc ordered.
“Yes,” Jules disagreed because it felt right.
Demon applied the screws again, determined to rip her open in his push to embrace daylight. The pain. Oh, God, the pain. She screamed, terrified and thrilled to be finally taking charge of her life.
“Okay, push,” the doctor said as if this baby wasn’t running the show.
“Come on, mia bella.” Tad wiped his rough, callused palm across her sweaty hair-matted forehead. Do I look beautiful now, you bastard? “You can do this. You can do anything.”
And in that moment, she believed him. He was a man, so lying was ingrained in his DNA and one of his penis people had got her into this mess. But he was also her friend, and she believed him.
Forty seconds of the most agonizing torture she had ever experienced and it was over. Her eyes registered a blur of red, a ball of raw meat, really, before the doc whisked him away to be examined and prodded.
“Is he all right?” She turned to Tad, whose face was frozen in a mix of wonder and fear. “Tad, is he all right?”
A baby—her baby—let out a wail that must have reached the waiting room where she knew her brother was likely wearing a groove in the floor. Choosing Tad to be her birthing partner had pissed Jack off in the extreme and set them back a few steps in their relationship rehab. But her brother needed to recognize that having her own agency in this, in all aspects of her life, was paramount.
“Fuck, he’s got a set of lungs on him,” Tad said, awe deepening his voice. “Sounds just like his mouthy mom.”
Jules raised a weak hand to smack him, only to let it fall away. She had nothing left to give.
Or, so she thought until she saw him.
Her fresh-born baby, out in the world, wrapped in a blanket and looking oh-so-innocent. The pretty nurse Tad had not flirted with placed the child against Jules’s chest and her jellied arms locked naturally in place to cradle the helpless bundle. Predictably, her stupid heart melted into a puddle of love and hormones while protectiveness pounded in an unrelenting build through her bloodstream.
A big head, no neck or hair, distended torso, wrinkled skin—alien and yet instantly recognizable as her flesh and blood. Large, soft blue eyes stared at her, seeking connection, making no apologies.
Oh, he was his father’s son, all right.
Pushing that evidence down deep, she re-focused on the new, beating heart in her arms as he found a rhythm with the one inside her chest.
“Thanks, Jules,” she heard beside her. Tad. She’d almost forgotten he was there.
Her son blinked the biggest eyes Jules had ever seen and tried to shift his gaze to the source of the voice. Tad met him halfway, with his face hovering close, giving the little guy his first taste of Italian perfection. Lost in each other, her two guys forged a bond she hoped would last a lifetime.
“Thanks for what?” she managed to husk out.
“For letting me be a part of this.” The reverence in Tad’s tone caught her off guard. Leaning in, he kissed her sweaty forehead with warm, firm lips, then dropped a gentle kiss on the soft crown of her baby boy’s head.
The pleasure was all hers, though the way her vision blurred seemed to contradict that. Demon’s fist shot out and grabbed at her hair in vain.
“He’s going to be a great pitcher for the Cubs,” Tad said with a chuckle, ghosting over the serious moment from a few seconds before.
“Footie, Tad. You’ll have to teach him the sport of his ancestors.”
“I’ll teach him everything he needs to know. How to score with girls, how to appreciate the finest wines—” At her raised eyebrow, he laughed. “In moderation and not until he’s at least fifteen. Hey, he’s part of the Italian culture now. And if he’s got Jack riding him hard, he’s going to need a cool uncle.”
Uncle. And that’s all Tad would or could ever be. She had spent twenty-three years on planet Earth wishing for a family to love and accept her, hoping she might one day be the center of someone’s world. Reconnecting with Jack and finding acceptance in the bosom of the DeLucas was the best thing to ever happen to her.
Well, the second best thing. Her gaze fell to her bonny baby boy and she let go of a happy sigh.
Acting on this inconvenient attraction to Tad would only put her newfound stability at risk. She had responsibilities now and they trumped her treacherous hormones. Men would come and go, but this—she looked down at her new focus, the precious heart beating outside her body—this was the love of a lifetime.