He turns back to me, gulping down the water like a dog on a hot day.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t judge you.”
“Success breeds success.” The glass clinks against the granite counter as he sets it down.
Morgan’s grunts begin to escalate into a full-on cry.
“I’d better get going so you can get her fed and down for the night.” I grab my bag. “Thanks for the pizza.” Shooting him a quick smile, I head for the door.
I stop and turn just before grabbing the door handle.
“I just want you to know that I didn’t have a lot growing up, so I’ve always worked hard to ensure my life wouldn’t revolve around unpaid bills and a lack of food on the table. My wife had a good job. The house … the stuff is a reflection of her more than me.” He grimaces and shakes his head while repositioning a crying Morgan against his shoulder, rubbing circles on her back. “And I don’t mean that like it probably sounds. She didn’t need the stuff either, but she grew up with it so …”
“It’s fine. Really, I wasn’t trying to sound judgmental. Just … poor word choice on my part. Goodnight.”
For the second night in a row, I run until my lungs burn so my thoughts can only focus on oxygen instead of the ghost from … my past? I just … don’t … know.
Scott and Sherri Calloway have the all-American two-story house clad in white paint and black shutters.
Black chain-link fence borders the property line in their backyard complete with a fire pit and an old, rusting swing set, but it all feels white-picket to me.
The imperfections are character.
The chaos is my favorite music.
The inked guy at the grill is every girl’s fantasy. And he’s mine.
“Tell me about your day, Swayz,” Griffin in his “Hands off my meat” apron flashes me a lopsided grin over the lid of the grill as he flips the burgers.
My parents never flirted in front of me. No sexy grins. No PDA. No whispers that elicited pink cheeks. The Calloways are the complete opposite. His parents can’t keep their hands off each other as they go in and out of the sliding deck door, setting the rest of the food on the table beneath the big red umbrella. Scott not-so-discreetly pinches Sherri’s butt, and she shoos him away while biting back her flirty grin like a teenage girl with a crush.
I love this family.
It’s been two weeks since I last ran out of Nate’s house, filled with adrenaline, fear, and nausea. My new routine involves handing him Morgan and sprinting for the nearest exit as soon as he walks in the door. Since Dr. Greyson and I seem to be at a stalemate, unable to figure out why I know things I shouldn’t, I’ve decided to use distractions to keep my brain from wandering into crazy land. Griffin is my favorite distraction.
“Typical Friday. My grocery store guy forgot to wake me up before he left for work.” I glare at him, but within seconds my lips curl into a grin. Ten seconds is my record for staying mad at him. The adoration in his eyes every time he looks at me is too disarming. “Coffee. Exercise. I finished a business card design and trade show banner. Then I got my Morgan fix.”
“You mean baby fix?” His right eyebrow lifts a fraction.
I fill the blue plastic cups with lemonade as his mom yells into the house, calling his sisters to come eat. “No. Morgan fix. Baby fix implies my uterus is speaking to me, and I’m pacifying it in other ways. I told you Morgan started smiling this week, real ones, not the newborn reflex. She’s such a happy baby. Not colicky. She fusses when she wants to eat, but that’s it.”
“Enjoy it now.” Sherri winks at me as she takes the nearly-empty pitcher from my hands. “If you end up married to my rebel child and have children with him, there is a good chance you will have chronically fussy babies. All of our kids were colicky. The grumpy gene is strong in the Calloway bloodline. All from Scott’s side.”
Scott hands Griffin a plate for the burgers. “I know nothing of this grumpy gene. My wife has a vivid imagination.”
It’s all smiles and laughter. Griffin doesn’t recoil in fear at the mention of marriage and babies with a girl he’s known for only a few months. I like to believe in fate. Really, I like to believe in anything that involves a lifetime of Griffin and his family.
“Swayze, how’s your mom? We haven’t seen her in a while. You should have invited her to dinner,” Sherri says.
“She’s good.” I take a seat at the table. “She misses our traditional Thursday night dinners now that I’m working late on Thursdays, but I met her for frozen yogurt last night. And Griff told me to invite her tonight, but she’s taking a wine class or something like that. Her psychiatrist suggested she find ways to socialize more.”
“I want a tattoo.” Hayley takes a seat next to me. “And I’m no longer eating meat.” She covers her plate with her hand as Griffin tries to hand her a hamburger.”
“I want a tattoo too.” Chloe tips her chin up and grins.
“Shut up. You’re only fifteen.” Hayley scowls at her.
“I want my nose pierced like Angie’s mom.” Sophie taps the side of her nose.
“I want my oldest spawn to apologize for being a terrible role model.” Sherri gives Griffin the hairy eyeball as he takes a seat on the other side of me.
“Dear Lord…” Scott bows his head “…please grant me the patience to raise three girls. Please help scientists find a cure for cancer and the Calloway grumpy gene.” Everyone chuckles. “And thank you for Swayze, a refreshing breath of normality in our crazy family. Amen. Let’s eat.”
Griffin rests his hand on my bare leg and gives it a gentle squeeze. Yep. Knowing intimate details about the life of a complete stranger is one hundred percent normal.
“I’m serious. I want an infinity symbol on the back of my neck.” Hayley adds a slice of cheese, pickles, ketchup, lettuce, and tomato to her bare hamburger bun.
“You’re seventeen. You can’t legally get a tattoo.” Sherri gives Hayley a dismissive headshake.
I’m not only the mistaken “normal” one at this table. I’m also the only blonde with blue eyes. All of Griffin’s family have dark hair and rich brown eyes. His mom is forty-eight—two years older than my mom—and she looks like the oldest sister in the group, not the mom. Four women with long, thick brown manes and two men with athletic bodies, flirty smiles, and a constant twinkle of mischief in their eyes. And now there’s me—Goldilocks.
I love this family.
Sometimes I wonder if my life would have been different had I not been too smart too early—then ultimately nothing but average. Would my parents have had more kids? Would we have been the family grilling out every night and disputing typical parent-teenager problems like tattoos and piercings?
“I might be able to get it with parental consent. You can in some states.”
All eyes shift to Griffin. He shakes his head. “Don’t look at me. I wasn’t a minor when I got mine. I don’t know the laws in Wisconsin.”
“It’s a moot point because you don’t have parental consent.” Sherri gives Hayley a smug smile.
“No one will see it unless I pull my hair up in a bun or high ponytail.”
“No one will see it because you’re not getting one,” Scott says.
“It’s one tiny freakin’ tattoo! Griffin has them everywhere, probably in places we don’t know about. I bet his ass has a tattoo on it.”
Griffin keeps his chin down, mouth full, so everyone looks to me for confirmation. My skin feels like it matches the color of the umbrella above us.
“Does he, Swayze?” Chloe asks.
“I … well …” This is great. Two curious parents, and three girls—seventeen, fifteen, and eleven—wait for my reply.
My love for this family is waning at the moment.
“Would it just be easier if I showed everyone?” Griffin pushes back in his chair and stands while unfastening his worn, faded jeans.
I twist my body away from him and slap my hands over my face.
“Leave your pants on, Griff.” A deep chuckle rattles from Scott’s chest.
“I wanna see it!” Sophie bounces in her chair and giggles, not realizing that seeing her older brother’s ass is inappropriate, especially during dinner. She’s eleven. She’ll figure it out in a few years.
Hayley grumbles and shoves a bite of coleslaw into her mouth, and everyone gets back to eating.
Griffin leans over and whispers in my ear, “Really, babe? Out of everyone at this table, you hid your face at the prospect of seeing my ass?”
I press a napkin to my lips and finish chewing. “Reflex.” I laugh.
After dinner we have a badminton tournament in the backyard. Of course, Griff and I win. Then he takes me for a long sunset ride on his Harley. This is the life I love. My parents were loving in the only way they knew how to love me, and I see it now with greater clarity and gratitude than I did at the time. But I never felt one hundred percent good enough for their standards. Behind the love, I could always see that tiny dark smudge of disappointment.