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“Just like his dad.” Mom laughs and pats my chest. “Now, Hadley, how many pancakes do you want?”
“Three is good for me,” she answers, and I smile at her while Mom pours batter on the griddle. When my father’s eyes meet mine over the top of his cup, I know he’s happy for me. I also know he understands exactly what I’m feeling right now, because it’s what he’s felt for my mom for years.
By the time breakfast is finished and we’ve said goodbye to my parents with a promise to see them later, Hadley is completely at ease with both of them. Not that I’m surprised—my parents are easy to talk to, quick to laugh, and down to earth. Unlike a lot of kids, when me and my sister were growing up, we had no issues hanging at home with our parents, and normally our friends chose to spend their time at our place instead of at their own.
Now isn’t any different. If I have time off, I go to my parents’ place or spend time with the rest of my family, who are exactly the same. My family is close; we have always been, and I hope with time Hadley will settle in and feel what I’ve felt my whole life. A connection to people, who she knows will look out for her, protect her, and have her back when she needs it most. I want that for her more than I want anything else. I want her to know deep down to her bones that she belongs, that she can be herself, and that she has a family. Because one thing I know for certain is that at the end of the day, the unconditional love a family can bring you is what will make you stronger as an individual.
“SO HOW WAS IT seeing Harmony again?” Brie asks as we slide into a booth across from each other. It’s the Monday after I met Cobi’s parents on Saturday morning and the rest of his family that night when we went to his Uncle Nico’s house for dinner. Having met Nico and Sophie at the hospital I felt at ease around them, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the rest of Cobi’s family. Just like his parents, everyone made it a point to include me and make me feel welcome. It was strange at first being around a family that actually cared and obviously loved one and other, and, if I’m honest, it made me crave that for myself. “Hadley,” Brie calls, pulling me from my thoughts and bringing my attention back to the moment. “How was it?”
“Sorry,” I let out a breath. “At first it was a little weird,” I admit, unwrapping my fork and knife from the napkin bound around it. “Harmony and I just kind of stared at each other from across the room then she started to cry and so did I and we ran to each other.”
“You cried?” Brie asks astonished.
“It was emotional,” I say quietly.
“I bet. And it’s understandable. You two went through something traumatic together.”
I nod. “It’s odd, but I feel a strange connection to her because of what happened that night.”
“I think that’s normal. Who knows what would have happened to her or either of you if you weren’t together.”
“Yeah,” I agree, then look up at the waitress when she arrives. After she takes our lunch orders and leaves, I look at Brie once more. “But it was good to see for myself that she was okay and being taken care of.”
“So you met all Cobi’s family then?”
“Most of them, everyone who lives in the area was there.” I say, placing my napkin on my lap.
“What do you think of them?” she questions, studying me.
“They’re all really nice.”
“Real nice or fake nice?”
“Honestly they all seem like good people, the kind of people who you’d want to have as a family. They are super close, but I never once felt uncomfortable or out of place.”
“Like Cobi would ever allow you to feel uncomfortable.” She rolls her eyes.
“You’re right, he wouldn’t. Still, I never did. Not once.”
Her face is soft as she asks, “And Cobi’s parents?”
“I love them,” I say easily. “Even if things between Cobi and I didn’t work out, I would want to keep in touch with them. His mom is sweet, and his dad is funny. I liked them instantly and love how they were together. I’ve never seen a couple who’s been together for years still happy after all that time, but they are. Really thinking about it, his uncles and their wives are the same. They are like some kind of family science experiment that went right instead of wrong.”
“I like that for you. I like the idea of you being with Cobi and having them too,” she says just as the waitress arrives at the table dropping off our orders.
“I like it too.” I pick up my sandwich then admit. “I’m also a little worried.”
“What if I get used to Cobi and his family and having all these great people around then things don’t work out between us and...” I’m left alone again? I don’t add.
“First, you’ll always have me and Ken.” She holds up one finger then adds another. “Second, if you’re constantly thinking about what could go wrong, you’re going to miss when things are going right. Just enjoy the moment. You told me yourself that you’re taking things one day at a time with Cobi so continue to do that, continue to enjoy what you’re building with him and don’t let what might happen affect it.”
“Um… when the hell have I ever been wrong?” she questions, tone faux indignant.
“Oh, I can think of a few times.”
I smirk at her and she mutters, “Whatever,” under her breath, making me laugh.
We dig into our food since we don’t have much time before we have to get back to the office. When we’re both just about finished, the waitress drops off the check and I start to dig into my bag for some cash, then stop when I hear. “You fucking bitch!” I look up and feel the color drain from my face. Mr. Shelp, Lisa and Eric’s dad, is standing just inside the door of the restaurant with his angry eyes on me. “You fucking bitch!” he repeats and Brie turns to look at him briefly before swinging her head back my way.
“Do you know him?”
“He’s the father of two of my kids who have recently been removed from his custody,” I tell her quietly.
“Fuck!” she hisses, understanding exactly what that means as he starts to storm toward our table.
A large man wearing a construction vest blocks his path and Mr. Shelp shoves him in the chest roaring. “Get out of my way! That bitch took my fucking kids from me.” He points directly at me and my pulse that was already beating hard starts to thunder as everyone in the place turns to look in my direction. Adrenalin rushes through my veins and fear fills my chest when he shoves the guy blocking him out of the way. I stand quickly and Brie does as well. When he gets to Brie, who’s closer to him than me, she tries to say something to him but he puts a hand to her chest and shoves her back into the booth. I glance at her, making sure she’s okay then focus on the man coming at me quickly.
“Mr. Shelp, you need to calm down and think about what you’re doing right now and how this could end up affecting your case to get your children back.”
“Do not fucking tell me what I should be doing.” He bears down on me, shoving his finger in my face, and I smell it then, the stale whiskey, he reeks like it’s coming from his pores. “You took my kids.” His hand moves so fast I don’t have time to prepare, and when his fingers wrap around my neck my eyes widen. I dig my nails into his arm trying to get free and stars start to fill my vision as his hold on my throat tightens. “I told you, bitch, I’d fucking hurt you!” I hear Brie shouting. I can hear commotion going on around me, but my eyes are glued to the bloodshot ones that are locked on mine as darkness starts to take over the outer edge of my vision. Suddenly the hold on my neck is gone and I collapse to the ground, my legs not strong enough to hold me up. I wrap my hands around my throat trying to breathe through the pain there. It feels almost impossible.
“Oh my God, Hadley, tell me you’re okay.” Brie comes into view taking my face in her hands. I try to focus on her but everything seems fuzzy like I took Nyquil but woke up before I got enough sleep. “Call an ambulance!” she screams, looking frantically behind her.