Not Part of the Plan
Nikolai Vulkov shifted his weight from foot to foot, his scuffed leather boots planted on the pretty farmhouse porch. Flowers in a rainbow of colors exploded out of planters and hanging pots, a testament to spring’s celebratory arrival after an interminable winter.
Spring meant new beginnings. Not that Niko wanted one of those. He’d prefer to go back, back to a time when everything in his life held a little magic. He hoped like hell it was possible to go back because forward no longer held the appeal it once had.
The lowing of a cow in the pasture beyond the house drew him back to his purpose. He was probably making a huge mistake. Definitely probably. His lips quirked at the irony. World-traveling fashion photographer “The Wolf” was vacationing indefinitely in Blue Moon.
Oh, yeah. He was definitely losing his mind. Niko raised his hand and rapped lightly on the door before he could change his mind and get back in his rental car. A cacophony of crying, barking, and yelling erupted from within the neat-as-a-pin two-story.
“Mommy needs some hair, Meadow!” The front door was wrenched open by the woman he was here to see, Summer Pierce. At least, he thought it was Summer. His chic, lovely, always put-together friend was grimacing as a baby—or was she a toddler now? —yanked a fistful of corn silk tresses out of Summer’s ponytail with chubby fingers. Summer’s t-shirt had several stains in varying shades and degrees of dried-on-ness.
The hulking dog next to her, spotted black and white like the cow in the pasture, stood hip high, and when Valentina yawned, Niko guessed she could accidentally swallow one of the twins with ease.
Summer’s pretty, bare face lit up when she processed his presence over the stimuli of sobbing child in her arms and another inside. “Oh, my God! Did I forget that you were coming?” she asked, her denim-blue eyes widening more when she spotted his duffle bag at his feet.
“I winged it. I should have called ahead,” he said sheepishly.
Summer yanked her daughter’s fist out of her hair again. “No! I’m just so happy to see you. And thrilled that I didn’t forget. How long can you stay?”
Niko scratched the back of his head. “A while. If that’s okay?”
He saw the spark of curiosity flash to life in her eyes and was relieved when her husband bellowed from the back of the house. “Who is it, babe?” The crying inside intensified, and another dog, a chubby beagle, slunk down the hallway casting wary glances over its shoulder.
“Poor Meatball,” Summer clucked at the dog as he sidled his hefty body up next to her.
Summer shoved Meadow into Niko’s arms and grabbed his bag. “I’m so happy to see you, by the way.”
“I’m glad to be here.” At least, he hoped he would be. The hopeful desperation that bloomed across Summer’s face made him wonder if it wouldn’t have been a better idea to have his life crisis on a sandy beach on the Mediterranean.
“Carter! We have reinforcements,” Summer shouted as Meadow began to cry in his arms.
* * *
The twins at fourteen months were teething again—molars this time. “It’s only temporary,” Summer insisted brightly as she lugged his bag upstairs. Niko, still carrying the now quiet Meadow, followed her over a baby gate at the top of the stairs and into the sunny bedroom at the front of the house.
Meadow, to his relief, seemed content to stare warily up at Niko with eyes the same brilliant blue as her mother’s.
“The main bath is all yours,” Summer said, placing his bag on the narrow desk under the window before flopping down on the patchwork quilt that covered the bed. She yawned. “I forgot how comfortable this mattress is,” she sighed.
“So, how’s life?” Niko asked, hiding his smile.
She yawned again. “Amazing. Like absolutely amazing. Also, exhausting.”
Meadow must have taken offense to her mother’s statement because she chose that moment to sneeze, sending a shower of slobber and snot all over Niko’s button down.
“Crap. Four seconds in my house, and we’ve already ruined your very nice Tom Ford. Sorry about that. Fluids just fly constantly around here,” Summer apologized.
“I figured that’s how you got twins,” Niko joked.
“Ha. There’s a whole pile of clean burp rags across the hall,” Summer said, directing him with an outstretched arm. “Missed you,” she called after him when he ducked out the door.
In the nursery, Niko found the towering pile of cotton cloths in every shade of pink and blue. Meadow’s little arms flapped like a baby bird when she spotted a stuffed giraffe in the closest crib. She made a squealy cry that sounded as if it might intensify into a shriek.
Panicked, he snatched the giraffe from the crib and shoved it into her grabby hands.
While Meadow amused herself by biting the giraffe in the face and cooing, Niko grabbed one of the clean-looking towels and scrubbed it across her face and then his shirt.
She frowned at him and let loose a stream of gibberish that sounded vaguely accusatory.
“Yeah, how about we let your Mom handle that?” Niko suggested.
“Mama,” Meadow insisted, nodding enthusiastically.
Niko crossed the hall again and entered the bedroom. “Hey, Summer—”
A soft snore was the only response. Summer was curled on her side, face buried in the crisp white pillow, sound asleep.
Niko shoved the giraffe back into Meadow’s mouth and hustled out the door and down the stairs. In the foyer, he picked up the gift bag he’d brought with him and headed into the kitchen to find Carter.
“Dada!” Meadow squealed.
Carter took the little girl from him and jiggled her. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said planting a loud kiss on her head.
“Hi, honey,” Niko snickered.
They shook hands in manly fashion. “It’s good to see you, man,” Carter said. “Did we, ah, know you were coming?”
“Your wife, who passed out on the guest room bed in the thirty seconds I left her alone, asked me the same thing.”
“We’re not getting a whole lot of sleep this week,” Carter said, carting Meadow to the fridge and reaching for two beers.
“Hang on,” Niko insisted, handing over the canvas bag. “Maybe we should start with this.”
One-handed, Carter fished the bottle from the bag.
“Bless your taste in alcohol,” Carter sighed, gazing lovingly at the vodka. “Have I told you that I love you?”
“Never,” Niko said, rescuing the bottle when Meadow made a sticky-fingered grab for it.
“Let me put this troublemaker in baby prison with her brother. Glasses are in there,” Carter said, pointing to a glass-faced cabinet next to the pantry.
Niko poured two fingers each into rocks glasses while Carter deposited Meadow into an octagon of baby gates and pillows in the great room. He appreciated the design of the great room addition. Huge trusses held up the two-story cathedral ceiling, and sets of French doors that ran the length of both sides of the room flooded the space with light. The hulking flat screen, the one that had inspired him to upgrade his own TV in his apartment, was mounted above the stone fireplace.
The kitchen was just as well done. There were enough modern conveniences—like the oversized fridge and stainless apron sink deep enough to bathe a dog—to balance out the farmhouse charm in the white cabinetry and view from the windows.
“They should be good for at least two minutes,” Carter announced, returning and grabbing a glass like it was anti-venom.
“Rough week?” Niko asked.
“Our daycare was closed all week. Disney trip for the woman who runs it and her family. So we’ve been splitting shifts, which wouldn’t be horrible if it weren’t for molars.” He sipped and sighed.
Niko swirled the vodka in his glass and shook his head. He couldn’t imagine living Summer and Carter’s life, but wasn’t that part of the reason he was here? To see how the other half lived?
“What brings you to Blue Moon besides a desire to babysit?” Carter asked.
“Funny.” A shriek from the great room echoed off the hardwood and granite. “Uh, are they okay?”
Carter shrugged. “Happy scream. We’ve got another minute before it gets ugly,” he predicted. “How’s your life these days? What’s it like not being sticky all day and interrupted fifty times a minute?”
Niko worked up a smile. “It’s, ah, great.” Wasn’t it? Didn’t he have everything he’d always wanted? Carter didn’t look like he was buying it. If there was anything Niko knew about his best friend’s husband, it was that Carter Pierce knew bullshit when he saw it.
Thankfully, Niko was saved by the banging open of the kitchen’s screen door. A harried redhead with pink cheeks, an overflowing tote bag, and a baby strapped to her chest rushed in, bringing with her the warm spring breeze.
“Oh, my God! I got so sucked into this ad revenue report that I lost track of time,” Gia Pierce, Carter’s sister-in-law, gasped, skirting the island and dumping the bag on the floor. Her fingers flew over the confines of the wrap that housed her tiny bundle. “I’ve got class at noon and a private session after that. You’re still good with her until two, right?” she asked, handing the sleeping baby over to Carter.
“Beckett will be here for his shift to cover for me and Summer as soon as he gets out of his meeting so we can make sure the farm hasn’t burned down and Thrive is still thriving,” Carter recited, expertly tying himself into the wrap.
“There are fourteen diapers in there, and you better pray it’ll be enough.” Gia pointed at the bag. “Hey, Niko,” she said, giving him her sunshine grin and skimming a kiss over his rough cheek. “I didn’t know you were visiting!”
“Hey, Gia,” he said, returning the kiss. “Gorgeous as always.” He’d photographed her for Thrive’s New Year Yoga piece the year before, and they’d hit it off. However, he couldn’t imagine anyone not enjoying Gianna Pierce. She was strong, confident, and ridiculously flexible. She was also a disaster with details and constantly losing everything except her children. She and Carter’s brother Beckett, Blue Moon’s beloved mayor, ran herd on three kids, a dog, and a three-legged cat.
“Catch up later?” she demanded, plucking the glass out of his hand and sniffing.
“Sure. Vodka,” he said, answering her unasked question.
She surprised him by taking a healthy swig and sighing. “That’ll get me through class!
“How about dinner at the brewery tonight?” Carter suggested.
“Not cooking after the week we had? Hell. Yes.” Gia said. Her green eyes widened. “Oh! Speaking of the brewery before I forget again…” she dug through the tote on the floor and pulled out a large manila envelope. “This was accidentally delivered to Thrive’s office. It needs to go to the brewery. Can one of you sexy, strapping men drop it off with my sister? I think Emma’s been waiting for it.”
Gia’s phone chimed interrupting her stream of consciousness. “Shit. That’s my ‘you’re already late’ notice. Dinner tonight!” She swooped in and pressed a quick kiss to her daughter’s forehead. “Mommy loves you, Lydia.”
When the door banged closed behind her, an ear-splitting scream sounded from the great room at the same time that a rank stench rose from the baby strapped to Carter’s chest.
Carter wrinkled his nose. “Jesus, kid, what do they feed you?”
She answered by filling her diaper as if it were an Olympic sport.
“I’ll take the screaming,” Nikolai volunteered. Anything to stay away from that diaper. He knocked back the rest of his vodka, squared his shoulders, and marched into the great room.