I WAKE WITH a start, feeling groggy and discombobulated. I peel my eyes open, and it seems harder than it should be—my eyelids heavy, and my entire body lethargic and slow. Furrowing my brow in confusion, I try to remember where and when I am. A small, disgruntled sound spills from my lips when I glance down and realize one of my nipples is out—the warm, soft and subtle breath of my son tickling my naked skin. As the fog that cloaks my memory begins to dissipate, I look to my other side and see my daughter’s mouth, while not latched, is still open around me.
I free a tired sigh as I admire my sleeping babies for a moment. I can’t help it. They’ve been home with us for ten weeks, but the sight of them still makes me pause. They are the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever known. To think that I played any part in their existence still blows my mind. I look at them, and my heart feels like it might burst at the seams with love. I adore everything about my little ones. Their warm bodies, heavy in slumber, pressed against my sides; their delicate eyelids, hiding their pretty brown irises; their long, dark lashes against their perfectly round cheeks; their smooth, soft, flawless skin; and their heads, full of the most amazing, silky, dark hair—the same rich color as their daddy’s.
I thought I knew true love. When I met Ashley, when I fell head over heels for him, I thought I understood that forever kind of love—which only comes once in a lifetime—but I was wrong. My twins have shown me how deep and how wide my love can reach. I met them, and it was obvious I’d only ever experienced the very tip of love. In the most awe inspiring way, my babies’ mere existence has even made my love for Ashley more profound and all consuming. Now, I’m constantly overwhelmed by the amount of love that fills our home.
Though, at times, I’m equally as exhausted by it. Especially lately.
I peer around the room, wondering where I’ve left my phone, clueless as to what time it is. I usually have it on me when I nurse, just in case. Sometimes, I only want to bond with my babies; but other times, it’s nice to have a quiet moment to check emails and get some work done while they eat. Ashley has been—well, Ashley, and insistent that I take it easy and not worry about business until the first of the year. Though, while I wholeheartedly admire and appreciate his reasons behind insisting upon a lightened workload, sometimes I need the escape. Not all days are created equal, and there are times when I need to feel like more than a milk maid. Except, today, work was the last thing on my mind as I settled down to nurse. It’s been a long couple of nights.
For the life of me, I can’t remember what I was doing before the babies insisted on eating. Worse, I can’t recall when night turned into morning, or even when the urge struck for me to close my eyes and succumb to sleep while I was nursing. I reach up and try running my fingers through my hair, but they get stuck in the rat’s nest that is my careless messy bun piled on top of my head. With a pathetic nod, I acknowledge my failed attempt to grab hold of something—anything—to help me get my bearings. Deciding I’m better off getting up in order to retrace my steps through the disjointed pieces of my day, I look back down at my babies and prepare to move us all.
Gently, I cradle my hands around my precious girl, picking her up and lifting her away from my side. I then carefully settle her in her boppy pillow before repeating the act with my sweet boy. When I’m free to do so, I lift my nursing pillow to set it aside. It feels good to stand, and I reach my hands over my head in a much needed stretch. Ashley’s old tour t-shirt, which covers my shoulders, slips down over my breasts. I’m quick to right my nursing bra before I pull the hem of the shirt around my hips. I know there’s no one here to see my body; but these days, I just feel more comfortable with it covered. While breastfeeding has me dropping pounds regularly, I’m aware of how far away I am from the woman I was. I’ve never been particularly small, but carrying two babies did a number on me.
Discarding thoughts of my post-pregnancy body, I sweep a few wayward strands of hair behind my ears and then lean over to grab my children. With any luck, I’ll be able to move them to the nursery without waking them. Except, the moment I scoop Brighton into my arms, we’re both startled when he spits up all over me. The familiar smell of my regurgitated breastmilk makes me wrinkle my nose—but the wail of my son makes me feel guilty. I’m quick to set him back down into his pillow as I reach for his burping cloth—the same one I didn’t use earlier when I fell asleep. I wipe at his face and neck as I try to shush him, but he only cries harder. This, of course, rouses Tomi, who fusses as she squirms unhappily.
“Oh, baby, mommy’s sorry,” I coo, frantically searching my surroundings for another garment. All the while, I smooth my fingers through Brighton’s hair, hoping to soothe him. I spot Ashley’s zip-up hoodie at the foot of the bed, where I discarded it before nursing, and grab it. Without thinking, I carelessly pull Ashley’s soiled shirt over my head and then shrug on the hoodie, zipping it up over my chest. “I know, sweetie. It’s mommy’s fault. I know. I didn’t burp you. I’m sorry.”
Sufficiently covered, I don’t hesitate to cradle Brighton in the crook of my arm. I rock him back and forth, grazing my lips against his forehead in a light kiss. As he starts to calm down, I shift my attention onto Tomi. Only, instead of picking her up, I simply place my hand over her chest and belly. With my instincts on high alert, my fuzzy mind is made clear. I know that while my son is most rapidly calmed in my arms, my daughter is so often placated simply knowing she hasn’t been left alone.
“You’re okay, honey,” I murmur soothingly. “Now, go back to sleep, babies,” I plead. “Mommy needs you to go back to sleep.”
I close my eyes as I continue to rock my body back and forth, my left hand steady on Tomi’s belly. It takes a second for both of them to settle down. Yet, as their sputtering cries turn into the soft, contented murmurs of my sleeping babes, I can’t shake the foreboding feeling I’ve got, telling me their slumber is not likely to last long. I don’t know what time it is, but the growing awareness of this new energy I’m beginning to feel tells me I was asleep for longer than twenty minutes. If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to pump before they wake up again.
Knitting my eyebrows together, I wonder if my nap was worth it.
Then I hear the garage door open. I gasp—suddenly wholly aware that the entire day is gone. Somehow, I lost track of it. Except, I’m not ready. I’m not ready for Ashley to be home.
All at once, my day comes back to me in fragmented bits and pieces. I remember the load of laundry I put in the washer this morning—the same load I don’t recall switching to the dryer. I remember boiling noodles for lasagna, and the beef I cooked for the sauce—but I don’t recall assembling the dish. Worst of all, as I look across the room and out of the bedroom doorway, I remember the batch of lemon poppy seed cupcakes I pulled out of the oven earlier this afternoon—and yet I know for a fact I didn’t get around to making the frosting. This means, it’s my husband’s birthday, and I forgot to make him the copious amount of frosting he deserves on his day.
I hear his footsteps as he enters the house, and I’m struck with an unexpected urge to cry. I can’t control it anymore than I can explain it, which only frustrates me more. I thought we were doing so well. It felt like we were so close to having a steady routine. This isn’t my first day alone with the twins, and I was sure I could do all the things. I was certain I could be superwoman today—I wanted to be superwoman today—but life had other plans.
Ashley doesn’t call for me as he makes his way through the house. Our ranch home isn’t enormous. My husband has always been the type of man who prefers intimate spaces, regardless of the size of his bank account. While this house is bigger than his last, our square footage is still small enough that I’m never hard to find. Even still, he used to call for me upon his entrance, before we brought the babies home. Every single time he walks through the door without me, I’m his first stop. Now he knows better than to holler. His silence makes me feel worse. Today, of all days, he deserves to know how much he is loved and appreciated. If only I had an hour or two—just long enough to make this right.
His deep baritone voice enters the room softy before he steps across the threshold, and the sight of him makes me weak. I must have been half asleep when he left the house this morning, because I don’t remember him looking that great. He’s not wearing anything fancy—but we’ve been living in the most blissfully exhausting seclusion the last couple of months. We’ve both been wandering the house in his sweatpants and t-shirts, loving on our babies. It wasn’t until December rolled around that Simon thought it might be good for Ashley to show his face a little.
In the most wonderful way, our isolation had my man looking like The Beard—the guy who made my breath catch and my heart pound every time he entered Uncle Cal’s coffee shop three years ago. That man, I know, is just for me. So last week, he stepped out to get his hair cut; and yesterday morning, he trimmed his beard down to almost nothing. He agreed to do an appearance on Dylan in a few days, and he’s taking his band with him to perform during her twelve days of Christmas. Now, after having been in Nashville all day for rehearsal, while he’s only wearing a pair of jeans and a simple, flannel, button-up—he looks good enough to eat. I, on the other hand, smell like spit-up.
One tear falls, followed by another and then another as he closes the distance between us. The handsome smile he wore upon his greeting falls as he watches me crumble. Then he’s there, right here, with his big hands holding my face as his thumbs work quickly to dry my cheeks.
“Darlin’, what’s wrong?”
Before I can answer, he leans down and presses a kiss to my lips.
“I’m not ready for you to be home, yet,” I blurt out as he pulls away. “Nothing’s ready.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
As if he is oblivious to everything but us, he kisses me once more before he leans down and touches his lips to Brighton’s forehead. He lingers for a moment, and I know he’s breathing in his son’s indescribable baby scent. When he’s finished, he shifts his attention toward Tomi. I watch as his eyes drink her in before he scoops her up tenderly and tucks her into the crook of his arm. Even though she’s growing very well, she still looks so tiny against his broad chest. The sight of them together causes a fresh wave of tears to wash over me.
“Corie, sweetheart, what’s wrong?” he asks again.
“Everything’s a mess. The babies and I—we’ve just had a long day. Dinner’s not ready, your cupcakes aren’t frosted, and I’m pretty sure there’s, like, twelve loads of laundry I’ve not done, which means our babies are going to be out of diapers soon. Why did I have to insist on cloth diapers? I—”
“Shhh.” He hushes me as he wraps his freehand around the back of my neck and gently pulls me into his side. I seal my eyes closed when I feel his kiss in my messy hair, and I can’t help but to lean against him. I almost moan when he pinches his thumb and middle finger, massaging the tension from my neck. “What do you need? Hmm?” he mumbles, his voice rumbly and gentle.
“I need to pump, I need to shower, and I need you to not be home so that everything is perfect when you walk through the door.”
“Sugar, I walked through the door and found my wife lovin’ on my babies, both sound asleep. Doesn’t get much more perfect than that.”
“I told you I didn’t need anything for my birthday, darlin’. You already gave me the only gifts I could ever want.”
Forcing my head up in search of his hazel eyes, I furrow my brow and state, “Every birthday should be celebrated with copious amounts of frosting. It’s tradition—it’s our tradition—and I won’t break it.”
A lopsided smile pulls at the corner of his mouth, and Ashley leans down to touch his forehead to mine. “I’ll make you a deal,” he mutters. “You can leave the babies with me and go do what you’ve got to do so long as you stop that cryin’. You keep on cryin’, and you’ll have to stay in here with me, too.”
Sniffling, I blink away the excess moisture in my eyes and smile at him. “No more tears. Promise,” I assure him on a whisper. “Just—two hours. If the babies wake up hungry, I’ll make them each a bottle.”
“Let me worry about them. Give me my boy,” he insists, pulling away from me as he offers his free arm.
I don’t hesitate to transfer Brighton into his grasp. While part of me is relieved my twins, who were cranky all day, are now out of my care for just a moment—our separation isn’t what makes my heart swell so big that it aches. There’s something about seeing Ashley as a daddy that makes me weak in the knees.
He changed my whole life. Tucked away in a gorgeous cabin in Dillion, Colorado—after just one night—he had my heart. And if that wasn’t enough to rock my world, he swept me off my feet and away from the small town I thought I’d never leave. He gave me a job and a future. He exceeded my wildest dreams. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t look at him and see a man who has stood at the top of it all—a man who could have chosen anyone and, yet, he chose me. Only, in moments like this one, all of that pales in comparison. It is my greatest privilege not simply to call him mine, but to call him ours.
“Cor?” Ashley murmurs, his voice tender but rough, filled with gentle warning.
It isn’t until he speaks that I realize I’m crying again. Sucking in a gasp, I’m quick to swipe my fingertips across my cheeks. Pasting on another smile, I assure him, “I’m fine. I’m fine. Two hours. I’ll be ready in two hours.”
“Get, gorgeous,” he chuckles, jerking his chin at me. “We’re good here.”
I nod, and without further prompting, I’m gone.
I WATCH HER as she maneuvers through our sitting area on her way out of our bedroom, hoping cupcakes isn’t the only tradition she’s intent on me having for my birthday. While she’s been drowning her body in my clothes since we brought the babies home, I haven’t forgotten what lies underneath them. Since the doctor gave us the okay to start loving on each other again, we’ve taken advantage—but in our hunger for one another, and our exhaustion between feedings, I haven’t had the chance to take my time. Not that I’ll complain about taking my woman hard and fast, but she deserves to be worshipped slow and sweet. Tonight, I’m hoping for that chance.
Shifting my attention onto the tiny warm bundles in my arms, I admire the reasons why I love my wife more than I ever thought possible. When we decided to start trying for a baby a little more than a year ago, I was excited about the idea of bringing new life into this world. When we found out she was pregnant with twins, I was as nervous as I was thrilled. Then they were born. In an instant, Corie and I were a family of four. The first time I heard them cry, it felt like my heart exploded; and after they’d both been cleaned and placed against my bare chest, I was undeniably and unashamedly obsessed.
The last couple of months have consisted of some of the hardest and longest days of my life. I’ve learned that nothing fully prepares anyone for being a parent. There are a million little things a father can’t know until he experiences them. I thought I might come out of my skin when they got their vaccinations a couple weeks ago. Yet, out of all the places I’ve been, all the opportunities I’ve had, all the people I’ve met, all the music I’ve played, nothing compares to this. Nothing and no one has brought me this much joy and pride and love. When I hold my children close, when I stare at their perfect tiny bodies and their adorable faces—I see my heart. I see their mother, and I know I’ve been blessed far more than I deserve.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to leave the house this morning. Getting back into any sort of work routine—especially after the last three months, when work has been on my back burner—is tough. It’s been a long time since I stepped out of the background and into the spotlight, and I know there’s no going back. Even more, I know my job comes with a certain amount of responsibility that stretches beyond my music. I’ve got to get out there—I’ve got to show my face. Ashley Hicks belongs to the world, and I can’t be just Ashley all the time. Though, it sure has been nice.
I’ve stepped out for a few occasions over the last couple of weeks, but today was the first time I was gone from sun up to sun down. While I won’t deny it was good to reconnect with Travis—my new head of security—and the guys who will be playing with me next week, being away from Tomi and Brighton made me feel like I was missing something. While I don’t have the anatomy to see to their nutrition, I haven’t left Corie alone in this. We’re a team in all things; it’s the way it’s been since she agreed to come away with me, going on three years ago.
Our whirlwind of a romance has landed us here, and I couldn’t have dreamt of anything better. Not many fathers have the privilege of extended paternity leave, but it’s a freedom I won’t dare take for granted. To think I’ll be across the country without my family in a few days makes my gut wrench. I don’t want to miss a thing.
Brighton and Tomi’s warm, slumber laden bodies pressed against mine in this moment makes me hesitant to put them down, but I know I’ve got to. If Corie’s tears weren’t proof enough that she needs help around this house, her questioning her decision to use cloth diapers says it all. Chuckling under my breath, I carry my babies to the nursery, remembering Corie’s enthusiastic argument in favor of the things. She researched various brands for weeks, until she decided what she wanted. They cost a small fortune, but she insisted our babies’ bottoms had to have the best—and who was I to argue?
Both babies go down without a hitch, but I’ve learned every moment they can be left unattended is precious. As hard as it is to leave them be, I grab the portable video monitor and then sneak out of the room to go see about these twelve loads of laundry Corie’s worried about. She’s in the kitchen with her back to me as I head toward our utility room, and I slip in without being detected. It doesn’t take me long to figure out my sweetheart was exaggerating—but I’m still impressed the twins have managed to create so many dirty clothes since the last time we had a chance to do laundry.
I find an abandoned load of clean diapers in the dryer, and I fold them before I start another load in the washer. Careful to measure the right detergent, I pour it into the machine and get it going just as I hear the unsettled cry of one of the twins. I return to the nursery, fresh diapers in hand, and find Tomi squirming uncomfortably in her crib.
“Hey, cutie,” I murmur, reaching my hand out to cover her belly.
Her face relaxes for only a moment, and then she starts kicking her legs and flailing her arms as she cries, warning me she’ll let loose if I don’t do better than a soothing hand. Grinning down at my girl, I scoop her up and press a kiss to her warm, supple cheek.
“How ‘bout a fresh diaper?”
By the time I’ve got her changed, she’s kicking her feet for a different reason—the smile that lights up her face doing me in. When I prop her up against my chest, I see Brighton is awake, too. Only, instead of expressing any sort of discontent, he’s simply staring in our direction. It isn’t until I step a little closer that I realize he’s concentrating on filling his own diaper.
“Think your brother’s tryin’ to upstage you, darlin’.”
It’s not long before Brighton’s finished doing his business, and he’s not shy about voicing his discomfort. Hoping Tomi won’t mind, I settle her on her belly against her boppy pillow, on the gray sofa across the room. She grunts, trying to lift her head to follow me with her eyes before she gets tired and rests her cheek against the pillow. Fortunately, she doesn’t whine as I see to my precious boy. When he’s all cleaned up, I prop him in his pillow, facing his sister, and then ease myself in front of the couch onto the floor.
For a few minutes, I take advantage of their content moods. I talk to them and admire the beautiful beings they are, drinking in their essence as if I’ve been starved of it all day. Every time they try lifting their heads to look my way, I’m filled with a seemingly abnormal amount of pride. I wonder where the last couple of months have gone, and how it’s possible they’ve developed so much.
It’s not long before tummy time is the last thing they’re interested in. Their scrunched faces and pathetic sputtering serve as my cue, and I know I don’t have long before they’re both wailing in hunger. I move them one at a time to their cribs, leaving them frustrated and perturbed as I slip out of the room and into the kitchen. Corie’s at the island, mixing up a batch of frosting, when I approach. She turns off the electric beater when she spots me, her gaze drifting behind me when she hears the twins.
“Do you need help?”
I walk straight toward her, grabbing hold of her hips from behind as I come to a stop. Leaning down to touch my lips to her ear, I mutter, “Nope. You got any fresh milk?”
“Yeah. I left it out, just in case.” She points at the two bottles on the edge of the counter, and I kiss her cheek as I give her hips a squeeze.
It’ll take me a second to get everything situated, so I don’t linger. Upon reentering the nursery, I set the bottles on the sofa and then grab a couple of burp cloths.
“I’ve got you. Daddy didn’t forget about you. Come ‘ere.” I scoop up my babies, and all three of us get settled for their feeding. Silence falls over the room as they begin to eat, each of them nestled on either side of me. Not for the first time, I thank the good Lord above for these fancy lounge pillows. We’ve got one for each of them in just about every room of the house. There’s a lot of dumb crap we bought but didn’t need—first time parents and all. These things were not one of them.
After they’ve each had their fill and a healthy burp, we hang out for a bit, spread out on a blanket in the middle of the bedroom floor. This is how Corie finds us. I smell her before I see her, the scent of her shampoo making my dick jump. When I look back over my shoulder, I spot her in the room’s entryway, her long, damp, wavy locks hanging down her chest. She’s got on another one of my shirts—only this time, she’s chosen a flannel button-up. It hangs low around her hips, stopping at her marvelously thick thighs. I grow a bit uncomfortable on my stomach, my appreciation for her choice of black leggings evident in my own pants.
“I know I told you I didn’t want anything for my birthday, but you sure do look good in those things. ‘Preciate you dressin’ up for little ole me,” I comment with a wink.
She coughs out a half-hearted laugh and shakes her head at me as she replies, “I’m only wearing these because I couldn’t find anymore of your sweatpants. But I’m glad to know a shower and some old leggings is now the equivalent to me getting dressed up.” Raking her fingers through her hair, she nods down at us and murmurs, “Looks like you cheered them up. Think we can get them to nap while we eat? Dinner’s ready. I’m starving.”
“Let’s give it a go.”
Fifteen minutes later, after we swaddle, sway, and soothe our little ones into a restful state, we sneak out of the nursery. As I trail after my wife, it doesn’t take long for my body to alert me to the fact that I’m craving something far more delicious than lasagna. When Corie leans over to retrieve our dinner from the warm oven, the sight of her backside peeking underneath the hem of my shirt is like a promise of things to come.
She straightens, setting the lasagna on the stove top, and I press my body up against her back, sliding my arms around her middle. I stifle a groan at the feel of her soft, warm body fitted with mine in all the right places.
“What are you doing?” she asks on a giggle.
“I’d take you right now if you’d let me,” I mumble into her hair, holding her closer. “Miss seein’ those thighs.”
“Yeah, well, these thighs are staying closed until I’m fed. I’m so hungry. A plate full of pasta is probably the opposite of what I need, but I’m going to eat every last bite.”
She bats away my arms, but I don’t mind. I know how much it takes out of her to keep the twins fed. Even though she’s constantly hiding her body, I’m not ignorant to the fact that she’s slimming down, and I know it’s from all the breastfeeding. If my sweetheart wants to eat a plate full of pasta, I’ll support her completely.
“I’ll grab us some plates.”
Corie serves us each a generous portion, and we make our way to the table. Neither of us have even picked up our fork to take our first bite when we hear one of the babies start to fuss.
“No,” Corie whines, holding up the monitor to see who it is. “Be a sweet girl for mommy, please,” she whispers, a desperate frown tugging at her brow.
“Hey,” I start to say, easing the monitor from her grasp. “Give her a second. Take a bite. If she doesn’t let up, I’ll go back.”
“No buts.” I reach over with my fork and cut a piece of her lasagna. Bringing the bite to her lips, I insist, “I shouldn’t have to remind you that we’re in this together. Birthday or no birthday. Get me?”
She nods as she opens her mouth, and I slide the fork inside. The hum that spills from between her closed lips goes straight to my groin, but I ignore my desire as I shift my attention back onto the monitor. After I’ve managed a bite, we don’t have one fussing baby, but two.
“Think this would be any good if I tossed it into a blender and then drank it?” Corie mutters around her mouthful of food.
Laughter erupts from deep within me, and I stand to my feet as I shake my head at her. “Keep eating.”
When I return to the table five minutes later, with two crying babies, I get a glimpse of how Corie spent her day. I watch as she shoves another bite of food into her mouth, hardly chewing before she swallows. I don’t bother telling her to slow down, knowing good and well what it does to her to hear her babies cry in hunger. Not every day is hard, and the twins aren’t always restless and cranky, but today can’t have been easy—and it’s not over yet.
“I’m just going to go grab my nursing pillow. Be right back,” she assures me, abandoning her half eaten plate.
When she returns, I carry Tomi and Brighton to her in the sitting room and help her get them situated. They latch onto her immediately, and then I return to the table to grab our plates. Corie doesn’t argue with me as I begin to feed her the rest of her dinner, but I don’t miss the way her eyes gloss over with tears as she chews. I’m sure this isn’t how she imagined our evening, but this is life with two babies—and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
In hopes of winding the twins down for a long night of sleep, Corie and I decide to bathe them before their final feeding. Both of them adore the warm water and the feel of our hands smoothing lotion over their skin. Corie and I do it together, all the while loving on them effortlessly. It’s nine o’clock when they are ready to nurse again; and when they’re finished, we turn the lights down low, each of us rocking a swaddled child as I sing to them. When they’re both finally asleep, we ease them down into their cribs, lower the lights completely, and take our leave.
As soon as I step into the hallway, Corie turns toward me and wraps her arms around my middle. Only, when her pretty brown irises lift in search of my hazel ones, it’s not desire I see in her expression, but desperation.
“I know—I know what’s supposed to happen now. I know our tradition,” she whispers around the knot I hear in her throat. “And I want to give you that. You just sang my babies to sleep, and I love you so much for that. I want you to have me, I do. But I’m so tired. If—”
“Shhh,” I hush, folding her in my arms.
She rests her cheek against my chest, and I smooth my hand over her hair. I won’t lie. I want nothing more than to sink inside of my wife tonight. The woman in my arms is the woman of my dreams—celebrating birthdays the best way I know how, with cupcakes and beer before she loves on her man like no one else can. But this year is different. This year, she’s more. She’s not just mine, she’s theirs, and I respect that more than I even know how to express.
“I vote we do cupcakes in bed tonight, then we’ll sleep ‘til we can.”
“Really?” she whimpers, holding me tighter.
“This won’t be my last birthday, sugar. With two babies in tow, you did one hell of a job this year. Let’s get you to bed.”
“I love you,” she sighs as she looks up at me. Pressing onto her tiptoes, she aligns her lips with with mine and semi-repeats, “I love you so much.”
Sealing my mouth with hers, I grumble, “You better.”