Maggie Young had the market on normal. Normal friends, normal parents, normal grades…normal life.
Clayton Reed was running from his past and an army of personal demons that threatened to take him down. He never thought he had a chance at happiness.
Maggie thought their love could overcome anything. Clay thought she was all he needed to fix his messy life.
Sometimes the greatest obstacle to true love is within yourself.
“I forgot to get whipped cream! You can’t have pie without whipped cream!” Maggie ran around our kitchen, reminding me a bit of a headless chicken.
I sat at the table, waving a spoon of peas in front of our daughter’s mouth, hoping she’d swallow them this time and not spit them all over my shirt.
No such luck.
One face full of green gook later and I declared dinnertime officially over.
“Every thing will be perfect,” I assured Maggie, kissing the back of her neck as she stood at the counter chopping up lettuce for the salad.
She stopped her frantic preparations and leaned back into me for a moment.
“This is our first Christmas with everyone here. I just want everything to be nice,” she said softly. I wrapped my arms around her middle and she put her hands over mine.
“We have everything we need for the best Christmas ever. You need to relax and enjoy it,” I urged her.
She nodded, dropping the knife onto the cutting board and going to get our daughter out of her high chair.
The little girl was the spitting image of Maggie. And watching the two of them rub noses, Maggie laughing as our daughter nuzzled into my wife’s neck, I couldn’t help but remember that night, two years ago when I had been scared to death to start this chapter of my life. Terrified to be a dad. Worried like hell I’d fuck it all up and be the sort of parent that my own had been. Worthless.
And in an instant, my whole universe had changed…
“Clay…wake up!” I groaned and tried to roll away from whatever was jabbing me in the side. I pulled the covers up over my head, trying to stay resolutely asleep.
No such luck.
Next came the full body shaking.
“Wake the fuck up!”
I felt a full on titty twister on my nipple and yelped, sitting up in bed. I rubbed my bleary eyes, trying to figure out what was going on.
Maggie was stood beside me, her hands cradling her swollen belly and she looked ready to kill me.
“What is it? Is the house on fire?” I asked groggily, turning on my bedside light so I could see what the emergency was.
Maggie scowled at me and then she doubled over, moaning so loudly I was sure the neighbors would hear. I jumped out of bed and put my arms around her.
Shit. I knew what this was.
We had been preparing for this moment for the last seven months.
I had stopped taking my sleep meds three weeks ago so that I would be able to do what I needed to do when the time came.
But it didn’t stop the freak out that threatened to take me down.
“We have to go to the hospital. Now!” she yelled, squeezing my hand so tightly that she cut off the circulation to my fingers.
I stood there, rigid, unable to move. A thousand panicky worries flooded my head at her plea. Up until now, the idea of having a child had been some sort of abstract concept. It had been the natural progression in our life together.
We had been married for two years. We had bought our first house last summer. And now we were expecting our first child.
And I was also still fighting my way through the dark fog of my daily struggles with my mental illness.
Bi-polar disorder didn’t care that you wanted your life to be normal. It didn’t give a shit if you had a million and one expectations for what you wanted to do and be. It was the merciless bitch that would never quite relinquish its hold on your world.
On your mind.
It was the taunting tease in the back of your head that whispered you’ll always be mine.
I had been riddled with the terror that I would pass this on to my child. That he or her would suffer the way I had. How would I be able to live with the knowledge that I had given this to someone who depended on me?
I had spent most of my therapy sessions over the last six months discussing this very point. I had read the research and knew that bi-polar disorder could be hereditary and that my child had a 10-25% chance of developing the illness themselves.
But Maggie wanted a baby.
I wanted a baby.
I wanted the chance to be the parent mine had never been. To prove I was more than the people who had given me life.
We both wanted that perfect person that embodied the love we felt so deeply for one another.
Wasn’t it the worst kind of selfish to want something so badly, no matter the consequences?
How could I knowingly give the worst part of myself to a helpless child?
Maggie and I hadn’t been trying for a child when she had gotten pregnant. But we hadn’t been trying to prevent it either. How naïve I had been at the time to think I was emotionally ready for this step.
In the years since we said I do, Maggie and I had struggled hard to build the life we wanted together. It was anything but smooth sailing. I was still riddled with doubt and self-loathing. Maggie still worried that I would backslide into the person I had been before.
Counseling had become as commonplace for our relationship as dinners and movies. It was how our relationship functioned. It was how we, together, flourished.
It was the only way we could be the healthy, functional couple we wanted to be.
So when Maggie announced that she was expecting, I had, at first, been over the moon. We had thrown ourselves into buying every random piece of marketed baby crap that was out there.
Maggie was glowing. She had never been more beautiful in my eyes. Her parents were ecstatic. Daniel and Rachel were down right giddy, already planning future play dates for our children. Ruby had burst into tears and promised to fly up and help after the baby was born.
But then the dark part of my brain started to take over and I began to question what I was doing. What sort of parent did I hope to be? I could barely take care of myself! What did I know about taking care of someone else?
I was setting myself up for the worst kind of failure. The kind you didn’t bounce back from.
Of course Maggie didn’t follow my doom and gloom logic.
“You’ll be a fantastic father, Clay. I would never be taking this journey with you if I weren’t completely certain of you. Of us.” She would say emphatically when she recognized the characteristic pessimism on my face.
And her confidence would pull me out of whatever black place I had gone to.
She always did.
And I had learned ways to hold onto the light when she’d hand it to me.
It’s what made us work. It’s what would get us through anything.
Except right now all I could feel was total and complete emotional chaos as I helped my very pregnant wife to the car, stopping periodically so she could yowl in pain and grip my hand hard to cut off circulation.
Shit, who knew Maggie May Reed was capable of channeling the Incredible Hulk? She was fucking scary.
“If you don’t get me to the hospital in the next ten minutes I’m going pop a fucking squat and this baby is going to fall on the floor mat!” she growled, clenching her fists as another contraction hit her body.
“We’re almost there,” I assured her, trying like hell to hide how close I was to screaming with her. Seeing her in pain was horrible. Not knowing what would come after all this was over was freaking torture.
“Stop driving like an old lady and put your foot down! Drive like you’ve got some balls!” Maggie roared, gripping my arm and piercing my skin with her talon like nails.
“It’ll be fine, I promise, baby.” I tried to be consoling. Okay, so maybe I was teetering on the edge of placating and perhaps that wasn’t the best course of action when dealing with your wife whose body was currently trying to expel a baby.
I winced and tried not to swerve the car off the road. “This is all your fault, you shithead,” Maggie yowled just before letting out a guttural groan. “It hurts, Clay. Why didn’t they tell me how much it would hurt?” she panted.
I swung the car into the hospital parking lot, found the first available spot and practically flew out of the vehicle. I grabbed Maggie’s bag from the trunk and then ran around to the side of the car, tripping over a soda can.
I caught myself before falling on my ass and opened the door for Maggie. I tried to calm myself down, knowing that my freaking out would only make the entire situation worse. Maggie needed me to be strong.
I was so used to Maggie being my rock. She was the one I had leaned on for so long that it was discombobulating trying to assimilate to a new role.
Because Maggie needed me.
I wrapped my arm around her back and supported her weight as I practically carried her to the door of the ER. We checked in at reception and while the nurse went to get a wheelchair, I leaned down and cupped Maggie’s face in my hands.
“I love you so much,” I said softly, kissing her lips.
Her beautiful face was pinched in pain and I knew just standing there was taking everything out of her. But for the time being she didn’t appear to be wishing me bodily harm. Her face only radiated the same love that I knew shown from mine.
“I love you too, Clay. So very much,” she whispered back just before she doubled over as another contraction hit. And then she wasn’t loving me so much as cursing my very existence. And if this were any other time but during the delivery of our first child, I would have been gutted by the hateful string of curses spewing from her normally pretty mouth.
“You fucking asshole! If you ever think about doing this to me again, I’ll cut your nut sack off and shove it up your ass!” she screamed as a nurse wheeled her to labor and delivery.
I wanted to hide my face in embarrassment. Maggie May Reed had morphed into some sort of petrifying she-demon. The nurse, a plump redhead whose nametag read Nurse Randall, bit her lip to keep from laughing. Smart move, because Maggie wasn’t in the frame of mind to understand the humor.
I tried to take her hand to reassure her but she swatted me away. “Back the fuck off, Clay. Just back. The. Fuck. Off!” she grit out as her nostrils flared.
Two minutes later, after the contraction had subsided she held her hand out, tears streaming down her face. “Don’t leave me, Clay! I need you!” she pleaded and I sighed, already exhausted by the rollercoaster. Shit if this is what Maggie had to put up with from me throughout the course of our relationship, I owed her a bigger apology than I had ever imagined.
Nurse Randall took us into a private delivery room and gently took one of Maggie’s arms. I quickly went to my wife’s side and took her other one. We ever so carefully led her to the bed.
Maggie laid her head on my shoulder, the epitome of the docile mother-to-be.
I waited on pins-and-needles, wondering when the pain crazed, gutter mouthed, scary person would take her place.
I didn’t have to wait long.
One minute and forty-eight seconds later (yes, people, I timed it), she was screaming in between her guttural, rage fueled tirade. Maggie could have given Linda Blair a run for her money. Paging The fucking Exorcist!
I let Maggie grip my hand in hers and tried not to wince like a pussy when she squeezed it tight enough to crack bone.
All worry, all possibility of negative self-doubt, disappeared over the course of the next eight hours. My entire focus was on not being murdered by the love of my life.
When I wasn’t terrified of her, I couldn’t help but be absolutely awe-struck by the immense wave of love that seemed to grow stronger and stronger with each passing moment.
After all we had been through together, I honestly hadn’t thought I could adore this woman any more than I already did.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Because watching her struggle to bring our child into the world, I thought I would burst with an almost crippling love.
This was the kind of love that could destroy everything. It could decimate villages and level mountains.
But it could also end world fucking hunger.
It was an awesome and powerful thing. Something that you couldn’t explain unless you’ve experienced it.
And when the time came for Maggie to push, I breathed with her. I counted as she bore down for the doctor. I almost hyperventilated and had the nurses asking if I needed to lie down. Yeah, that wasn’t embarrassing at all.
But in the end, in that perfect, indescribable moment, when our daughter came into the world, every struggle, every messed up bump in my road, diminished into nothing.
None of it mattered.
Because I had this.
Maggie sobbed as she pushed our baby from her body and my heart clenched at the sound of that first, thready cry.
The nurses surged forward and scooped our baby up and went to clean her off and to check her over.
I looked down at Maggie. She stared up at me with her red-rimmed brown eyes and tears falling down her cheeks. I brushed the hair from her face and leaned down to kiss her dry lips.
“You are the most amazingly, beautiful woman in the world,” I whispered against her mouth. “I love you so damn much.”
Maggie’s lips trembled as I kissed her over and over again.
“Are you ready to meet the most beautiful little girl ever?” Nurse Randall asked, her face beaming.
Maggie and I both nodded as the nurse laid the tiny bundle on Maggie’s chest. I kneeled down and knew with an absolute certainty that my heart would never belong only to Maggie again.
Just as I had given it to my wife all those years ago, I now gave it to this perfect little baby who we had made…together.
Maggie couldn’t stop crying. And then I was crying. And we were both crying as we touched and kissed and cooed over our miracle.
“You want to go to your daddy?” Maggie asked our girl.
I was a dad.
And that title meant more to me than anything else in the entire universe.
And I would do everything I could to deserve everything that name encompassed. I would be the dad this beautiful baby needed me to be.
I was scared to death to hold her. She was so tiny. So fragile. Her eyes were closed, her lips pursed in a bow. She was gorgeous. My heart overflowed. I sniffled through my tears. I was freaking mess.
I could barely breathe over the ache in my chest. I wanted to tuck this brand new little person inside of me and never let her go. My protectiveness had already kicked in with a vengeance.
And the most shocking thing of all was that I didn’t look down at her and wonder about the million and one ways I could screw this whole dad thing up. I didn’t begin to analyze what it would mean for her to be my daughter. What she may face as she got older given my history.
None of that even entered my mind.
Because all I could think was that this was my chance to do it all right.
And god damn it, I would!
“What are you going to name her?” Nurse Randall asked.
Maggie and I looked at each other, our eyes meeting in absolute understanding. Then in unison we stared down at our daughter.
“Hope,” I said, smiling through my tears.
“Don’t touch that, Hope!” Maggie called out, watching our now two-year old daughter pulling ornaments off our massive tree. Laura Young, Maggie’s mother, swooped in and grabbed her granddaughter before the tiny whirling dervish could carve a path of destruction through the Christmas decorations.
I sat on the couch beside Daniel, as he held his three-month-old son, Oscar, who was sleeping peacefully through the mayhem.
My aunt Ruby sat on the floor with Rachel and Daniel’s daughter, Poppy, who never wasted a moment to show off her newly acquired reading skills. Maggie was trying to listen to the conversation going on between her father and Rachel but spent most of her time watching Hope.
This was my life.
How did I end up so lucky?
I was surrounded by my friends and family and absolutely everything I could ever have dreamed of.
My heart was full.
My mind was clear.
My life was mine.
Maggie met my eyes from across the room.
I love you, she mouthed to me, her eyes twinkling in that way that was always only ever for me.
I love you, I mouthed back, knowing this kind of happiness was the forever kind.
The New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Contemporary and New Adult Romance.
A. Meredith spent ten years as a counselor for at risk teens and children. First working at a Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault program and then later a program for children with severe emotional and mental health issues. Her former clients and their stories continue to influence every aspect of her writing.
When not writing (or being tortured with all manner of beauty products at the hand of her very imaginative and extremely girly 7 year old daughter), she is eating chocolate, watching reality television that could rot your brain and reading a smutty novel or two.