Mario watched Dr. Torres walk away with Miss Bradford. Geez, that guy was intense.
Mario couldn’t quite figure him out, and he didn’t like that. Mario was good at reading people. Most thought he was quiet and pensive, but he’d figured out that he could learn a lot by shutting his mouth and opening his ears. People gave themselves away with body language, what poker players called ‘tells’—— tone of voice, expressions, what they said and, sometimes most importantly, what they didn’t.
But all Mario knew about Dr. Torres so far was that he had a major thing for Miss Bradford and he was obviously pissed off about the fight and David.
Mario glanced at the still unconscious boy on the sofa. So, it was stupid that David was fighting. Well, no kidding. Especially considering that David was no where near angry enough to really be any good at it. He thought the money was enough motivation, but Mario knew that it took real emotion, something that could overcome pain and fear, to really fight.
Unfortunately, David also didn’t have a good reason to stop. Yet.
Mario’s attention quickly left David, however, as the girl across the room, dressed in a pale yellow top that was obviously a hand—me—down and two sizes too big for her, stood up and stretched. She was barely in Mario’s peripheral vision but still caught his attention. It seemed that nearly every movement she made caught his attention. It was enough to drive a guy crazy. That combined with the fact that she was the most amazing person he’d ever met, that he was totally in love with her… and that she was very pregnant with another guy’s baby.
It turned out that there was one person that made Mario angry enough to be motivated to fight again.
The problem was, he couldn’t figure out a way to effectively punch himself in the face.
# # #
There was no waterfall scene with naked girls in the Lord of the Flies.
Mario grinned to himself and flipped casually through the pages of the paperback while his friends around the table leaned in, concentrating as they leafed through their copies, trying to find the scene Dr. Torres had mentioned.
Mario had finished the book four days after it was assigned. Not that the other guys knew it. They wouldn’t give him shit about it; they knew he was smart and mostly they thought it was cool, especially because he never made a big deal about it. But if they knew he’d finished it, they’d want him to be their personal Cliff’s Notes instead of reading it themselves. He helped them with math and stuff, no problem and if the book had sucked he might have helped them out with it too, but it was a good story that they’d like. Especially Nate and Tony. They were smart too; they just didn’t really give a damn.
But Dr. Torres was smart. The guys would totally read the book looking for naked girls. And speaking of girls who made his heart race…
Mario felt Sophie’s presence when she was within five feet of him even without seeing her.
He loved her voice.
The boys readily abandoned their “reading.”
“Hey, little mamma,” Nate said.
She smiled at them all while Mario wished she’d look at him the way Miss Bradford looked at Dr. Torres, just once.
“How’s the kid?” Luke asked around his fourth piece of pizza.
“Huge.” Sophie cupped her eight—month pregnant belly and smiled.
Nobody at the Center was fazed by Sophie’s pregnancy. It hadn’t even cooled Mario’s desire, or what he was starting to think was more than that. He didn’t like the fact that some other guy had touched her… and then some. But it was still Sophie.
She had fallen for Drake Allen’s good looks, charm and money like every other female who crossed paths with the Homecoming king. However, Drake had denied the kid was his from day one, declaring he’d never sleep with “trash” like Sophie and claiming she was pointing her finger at him only because of his family’s money.
Mario knew better. He’d seen how Drake treated Sophie after school when his friends were nowhere in sight. He knew Drake was interested in Sophie’s Cover Girl face, Baywatch body and the game of dating a girl from the wrong side and not letting his friends—or father—find out. But a baby put a wrench in things.
Sophie had been more angry than hurt by Drake’s rejection. She hadn’t known him long enough to really love him and she was appalled at how quickly he denied everything. She didn’t want his money, or even him really, but she’d thought he had a right to know about his kid. When he rejected it all, she wrote him off.
Her big brown eyes focused on Mario. “I was wondering if you’d walk me home?”
He forced himself not to spring from his seat. Instead he lifted a shoulder and slowly rolled forward in his chair. “Sure. I could use a walk.”
Her eyes skittered to Nate, Tony, Ruben and Luke.
“Could they come too?”
Mario frowned. She didn’t want to be alone with him? “They’re reading for the test on Friday.”
“We’re okay,” Nate said quickly, getting to his feet. “Let’s go.”
“What about the test?” Mario asked.
Nate grinned. “You can just fill us in on the book.”
Mario gritted his teeth and got to his feet. He grabbed Sophie’s hand as they all moved toward the door, holding her back.
“You’re going home early.” Usually they all stayed as long as possible. Nobody at the Center had much at home to go to.
“Yeah, I’m babysitting for our neighbor.”
Mario didn’t say anything but reluctantly dropped her hand. She grabbed his again, surprising him.
Her hand distracted him. It was so soft and small compared to his. He wasn’t a big guy and had learned early that relying on his smarts was usually more effective and less painful than using his physical strength. But he’d also grown up in a tough neighborhood. He could hold his own. Still, next to Sophie, he felt big, or maybe it was manly. Sophie made him feel like a man, or at least like he wanted to give being a man a really good try.
Mario realized Sophie’s steps had slowed, allowing them to drop several feet behind the four guys who were horsing around ahead of them.
“I should probably tell you what’s going on, just in case,” Sophie said.
“In case of what?”
She pulled her hand from his and crossed her arms, hugging herself as if cold.
Mario stuck his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans, rather than reaching for her like he wanted to.
“Drake tried to talk to me at school today,” Sophie said quietly. “I wouldn’t let him get me alone, though, so I think he might try to come over tonight.”
Mario felt the muscles tense all along his spine. “Are you scared of him?” he asked. It was bad enough that he had to live with the fact that Drake had seen Sophie naked. If he found out Drake had scared her or been aggressive with her, Mario wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay out of it.
“I don’t know,” Sophie said with a small frown. “I mean I haven’t been before, but he’s used to getting his way. And this is such a turn—around. Before this he wanted nothing to do with me.”
“What do you think he wants?” His voice sounded harsher than it should if he was just a friend, Mario realized. He wondered if Sophie noticed.
She shrugged. “The last time we talked he wanted me to get an abortion. But it’s too late for that now.” She rubbed her hand absently over the belly that on her slim build made it look like she had a basketball tucked under her shirt.
She did that a lot, Mario thought as he watched her, like she was comforting the baby—or herself—with the action.
“Of course, I’ll stay with you,” he assured her. That was no problem. Mario spent five out of seven nights a week at Tony’s or Reuben’s anyway and he knew Thursdays were Sophie’s mom’s night to work the graveyard shift at the diner.
“Thanks.” Sophie seemed very relieved.
But staying with her to help her avoid Drake wasn’t going to be an issue. They turned the corner and found Nate, Ruben, Luke and Tony engaged in an argument—with a bit of shoving—with Drake and two buddies.
Mario quickly turned her back the way they’d come, but Drake saw them.
Mario tried to keep her walking, but he felt her hesitation.
“Dammit, Sophie, wait!” Drake hollered.
She stopped completely and sighed.
“You don’t have to…” Mario started.
She faced him. “I know. I feel okay talking to him with you here, though. And I can get it over with. He’ll leave me alone after this, I hope.”
Mario knew Drake was a dickhead. But he had a way about him that made Mario feel poor, dumb and weak. The guy had obviously appealed to Sophie enough to get her clothes off at least once and if Drake was her type then Mario didn’t have a chance.
“Sophie,” Drake said as he came up next to them. “We need to talk.”
Sophie frowned at him. “We’ve talked enough.”
Drake reached into his pocket and Mario felt adrenaline surge through him. He was already wound tight just being around Drake with Sophie and he needed only the tiniest reason to pummel the guy. If Drake pulled so much as a toothpick out, Mario was taking him down.
Drake thrust his hand toward Sophie, something held between his thumb and index finger.
The sun was dropping in the west, but the light caught the diamond on top of the ring. Mario knew nothing about karats and crap like that, but he knew “huge” when he saw it.
“What’s this?” Sophie asked, recoiling like he was offering her a cockroach.
“It’s an engagement ring,” Drake said impatiently.
Mario felt his heart drop to somewhere around his knees, though strangely he also felt that it had lodged firmly in his throat. He wanted to grab Sophie, sling her over his shoulder and run as fast as he could from Drake Allen, the guy who could give her everything—and evidently wanted to, after all.
Sophie laughed. “Whatever.”
Mario turned to stare at her.
“Seriously,” Drake said with a scowl. “We have to get married.”
Instead of the punch—in—the—gut shock and pain Mario felt, Sophie looked suspicious. She crossed her arms. “What’s this really about?”
Drake would not make eye contact with Sophie when he said, “It’s the right thing to do. I finally realized that.”
Everything within Mario rebelled at the idea that Sophie being with Drake was right in any way. But what could he do about it? How could he take her away from the security and luxury that Drake could offer? The bastard had tried to get her to have an abortion, but Drake could write his own ticket to any future. Mario had a decent shot at a scholarship to college, where he wanted to study adolescent counseling. But if he didn’t get the full scholarship, he probably couldn’t swing college at all. And if he did go and get his degree, counselors didn’t make the kind of money people with the Allen last name did.
“Who says it’s the right thing?” Sophie asked. She didn’t look overly impressed with the Allen name or the guy with it at the moment.
Drake dropped his hand back to his side and glared at her. “I heard you were putting the kid up for adoption.”
Sophie nodded. “That’s right. What do you care?”
Derek hesitated just long enough to make Sophie’s eyes narrow even further.
“Oh, I get it,” she said softly, taking a seemingly subconscious step backward. “You don’t care. So, who does, Drake? Why are you here?”
Drake glared again. “Pull you’re head out, Sophie. If you cared about that kid…”
“Don’t even think about going there,” Sophie said quietly, furiously, once more stepping forward and staring Drake down. “Don’t you dare question if I care about this baby. I am not marrying you.”
Drake grabbed her upper arm. “Yes you will,” Drake said. “You’re not ruining this for me.”
Mario always thought rage was a hot feeling, but when he saw where Drake’s fingers dug into Sophie’s smooth skin, iciness slipped through him, making him feel cold and hard. He stepped up beside Sophie, and looked directly at Drake. “Let. Go.”
Drake turned his narrowed gaze to Mario but obviously saw something in Mario’s face that intimidated him because he did drop Sophie’s arm.
That something, Mario was certain, was Mario’s complete willingness to beat the shit out of him.
“You don’t want to get involved here,” Drake said.
“Well, there’s one more thing you don’t know anything about,” Mario said coolly.
Sophie rubbed her arm, looking mad now. “How can I ruin anything for you by letting you off the hook?” she said to Drake. “If this baby goes to live with someone else then you don’t have to worry about me showing up on your doorstep with a toddler some day.”
Drake just stared at her as if envisioning her standing on his porch holding the hand of a two—year—old little boy that looked just like him. He looked horrified.
“Drake, we’re not getting married. This is stupid. Leave me alone.” Sophie turned, taking Mario’s hand and starting in the opposite direction.
“My grandfather is cutting me off if our kid isn’t an Allen. That isn’t going to happen.”
Sophie stopped abruptly. Mario felt the tension emanating from her. She was gripping his hand and he fought the urge to wince.
He looked at her quickly. He wanted to hold her. In spite of the fact that she was standing, incredibly pregnant, refusing the proposal of the only guy she’d ever slept with.
“Since when is this our kid?” Sophie demanded, whirling to face Drake. “How does your grandfather even know about the baby?”
“Your mom called him,” Drake practically spat. “God, Sophie, do you really think I would have told him? Or anyone?”
Instead of looking hurt, Sophie looked ready to smack him. “Well, you’re grandfather is going to have to deal with the fact that he’s only in charge of the things—and people,” she added looking at Drake pointedly, “that he owns. And that I’m not one of them.”
Drake took a menacing step forward. “I’m not getting cut off, Sophie. I will do whatever I have to.”
Mario stepped forward in warning, but Drake didn’t move any closer or touch Sophie.
Too bad. Mario would have loved a reason to hit him.
“I know this may shock you, Drake, but I don’t care about your threats. You can’t hurt me. You can’t scare me. And you can’t make me marry you.” She raised her chin slightly. “In fact, I think getting cut off might be good for you. It might teach you how to be a normal person, who has to work for things.”
Drake did move then, quickly, grabbing for her, but Mario had anticipated it and stepped between them.
Mario stared the other boy directly in the eye. “Don’t.”
Drake was pissed, but he was not going to challenge Mario, especially with Luke, Tony, Nate and Ruben behind them. Drake’s friends wouldn’t have wanted to risk tearing up their designer clothes or marring their pretty faces.
“This isn’t going away that easy,” Drake said, pointing a finger at her nose over Mario’s shoulder.
Sophie said nothing and Mario stood stoically in Drake’s way of touching Sophie.
Finally, Drake swore and turned, stomping off down the sidewalk toward the black sports car parked in front of Sophie’s apartment building. The tires squealed as they left and Mario felt his muscles unclench for the first time since they’d turned the corner. Or maybe since Sophie had asked him to walk her home.
He looked at her. She still looked mad.
She turned toward him. “Not really. But I’m really glad you were here.”
He shrugged. “Me too.”
Sophie grimaced. “My mother’s just interested in the money. That’s why she called Drake’s grandfather. I can’t believe she did that.”
But Mario knew that Sophie was no more surprised than he was. Her mom was really no different from anyone else who had lived long from paycheck to paycheck. She saw an opportunity to improve their situation and she took it. A person couldn’t be shy about taking advantage of good fortune when it came by.
The other guys came over. “What a fucker,” Tony said.
Sophie smiled. “Thanks for being here, guys.”
They all shrugged. It was something friends did. It was that simple to all of them. Besides, it was a rare day when Nate and Ruben weren’t in the mood for a scuffle. They didn’t seek fights out like they used to, but they didn’t mind the endorphin rush when one came by.
“I guess I’d better get in. Mrs. Ratino will be looking for me,” Sophie said.
“See ya’,” the guys called and started back for the Center.
They didn’t seem worried about Sophie in the aftermath. Of course, the kids in the neighborhood, even the girls, were tough. If any of them spent time worrying about all the things that might go wrong for the people they knew and cared about, none of them would get anything else done.
“I think I’ll stay for awhile,” Mario said.
Which was why the fact that Mario was still worried about Sophie meant she was more than a neighbor or friend.
She noticed this time.
“Why?” she asked, but she did stop on the steps and waited for him.
“In case he’s waiting for us to leave so he can come back and harass you some more.”
She smiled. “Okay.”
It was that easy. No protest. No insisting she was fine. Which also meant that she wanted Mario there as more than a friend or neighbor.
Sophie unlocked the security door. It could have easily been broken down if someone was serious about getting inside, but it made the old ladies on the first floor feel better.
“It’s macaroni and cheese for dinner,” Sophie told him as they walked down the narrow hallway to her apartment.
“I love mac and cheese,” Mario told her.
He loved the smell of their apartment, he thought as they stepped inside. Mario watched Sophie shift through the mail, read a short note from her mom and kick her shoes toward the living room. He’d been there a number of times, but he was always struck by the smell. It smelled clean and fresh, with just a hint of sweetness, like Sophie. He wanted to smell that smell every day for the rest of his life.
“You know what I was thinking?” he said as she went into the kitchen and he followed slowly.
“What?” She got two glasses out of the cabinet then went to the fridge for milk.
“I think you should consider putting someone else’s name on the birth certificate.”
He stopped in the doorway and watched her freeze with the milk jug in one hand and the lid in the other. She turned to look at him.
“I wasn’t going to put Drake’s name on the birth certificate.”
“But I don’t think you should leave the dad’s name blank.”
“He could always come back later. If someone else’s name was on there then Drake has no claim on the baby now or later.” Or on you, he added silently.
“So, just make up a name?” she asked. She frowned. “I don’t know if you can do that. They might need ID or something.”
Mario stepped into the kitchen fully. “No. Put someone’s real name on there.”
“Like it’s someone else’s baby?” she asked.
He nodded, his mouth suddenly very dry. “Only you and that person would know that you didn’t really have sex. Even Drake would believe it if you tell him that you slept with him and the other guy within a few days of each other. Then he’d leave you alone. He could tell his grandfather that you made a mistake and he’s off the hook too. Then he has no reason to bother you anymore.”`
Mario was worried for a moment that she’d be offended by having people think she was the kind of girl to sleep with two guys within only a few days time frame. But Sophie was smart. Helping her baby was more important to her than her reputation.
She nodded slowly. “That’s true.” Then she frowned harder. “But who would do that? Why would someone claim a baby that wasn’t theirs?”
He couldn’t swallow. “Because they wanted to help out.”
“That’s going beyond being friends, isn’t it?”
Here was the moment. The opening he’d wanted. Now he just had to un—stick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“So why would someone do that? Then they’d be forever tied to that baby. Then someday, when the baby wants to know her real parents, she would track that person down. What would that person say then?”
Mario moved forward until only about three steps separated them. “He would tell the truth. That he loved her mom and her, but that they were too young to be good parents and wanted her to have a better life.”
Sophie was staring at him. The milk jug started to shake and he stepped forward quickly and took it from her, setting it on the counter, grateful for something to do other than stand there and let her read every one of his emotions on his face.
“Mario?” Sophie said softly.
He turned. “Yeah?”
“You don’t have to offer this. I’ll be okay, with Drake and everything.”
“I know I don’t have to,” he said, his voice scratchy. He cleared his throat and decided to finally jump in fully, no more wading at the shore where it was safe.
“I wish I was the guy you should be putting on the birth certificate. Maybe if I hadn’t been such a chicken I would have told you how I felt a long time ago and you would have never been with Drake. I can’t change that, but I can be the guy now.”
Her lip started trembling and she stared at him. “You want to be that guy?”
“It makes sense. Drake doesn’t really want to be, you don’t want him to be, I sure as hell don’t want him to be. And that baby maybe doesn’t know it yet, but she doesn’t want him to be either.”
Tears filled Sophie’s eyes and she started shaking her head.
She dropped her gaze to the floor and Mario heard a strange hiccupping noise. Her shoulders started to shake and she covered her mouth. He stepped forward and put a hand on either shoulder, forcing her to look at him. She was laughing and crying at the same time.
She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him as tightly as her stomach would allow. “Oh, Mario, I wish I hadn’t been chicken too.”
He held her for a long time, just relishing the feel of her in his arms. Loving the feel of her belly against him, even as he wished he could have those few inches to be closer to her. But finally her words sank in. He pulled back.
“What do you mean?”
She gave him a wobbly smile and sniffed. “I’ve been in love with you for so long. But you were so focused on college and everything and I didn’t think you were interested in girls. Then I messed up with Drake that one stupid time. Once I knew I was pregnant, how could I even think that you would be interested? What guy would want to take all of that on?”
Mario stared at her. She was in love with him? She’d stayed away because she thought he wouldn’t want her?
“Me,” he said firmly. “I want to take all of it on.”
She hugged him again tightly and laughed. “It’s weird, huh? The baby that I was sure would be the major turn—off is what made us finally confess.”
And then he felt it. Sophie’s baby kicked against his stomach.
He looked down. “Is she trying to push me away?” But he smiled.
Sophie laughed. “I think she’s saying hi.” She looked up, her eyes bright with tears and happiness. “To her dad.”
Then he finally did something he’d feared he would spend his life wishing for and never fulfilling: he kissed Sophie, right over the top of her very pregnant stomach.
# # #
Mario recognized the black sports car waiting conveniently two blocks from the Center. Close enough to not miss anyone walking by, but far enough to not be recognized by any of the kids inside the Center.
He knew Drake wasn’t waiting for Sophie. She’d been at the Center for nearly an hour already. She went straight after school while Mario helped with math tutoring after school.
Which Drake would also know since Mario had tutored Drake’s younger brother last semester.
Drake got out of the car as Mario approached. He appeared to be alone. Mario still considered going back the other way, not because he was scared of Drake but because he was afraid of what he’d be temped to do to Drake with no witnesses around.
Mario slowed his steps and took a long drag on his cigarette. He’d put fighting behind him a year ago when he’d been brought to the Center by Miss Bradford’s brother, unconscious and bleeding. He didn’t want to start up again.
But he would.
“I want to talk to you,” Drake said when Mario reached his front bumper.
“Not interested,” Mario told him shortly, prepared to amble by as if not concerned by a thing in the world.
“My grandfather wants a DNA test,” Drake said as Mario got just past the back bumper.
Mario stopped. Shit. So Sophie had already told Drake that Mario was the baby’s father. He was pleased she hadn’t hesitated to use the story, but he should have known that it was too easy. The fact that Sophie was in love with him was too amazing. He couldn’t possibly have the good fortune to have everything else fall right into place too.
He turned, took a final draw on the cigarette and then flicked the butt along the curb. “So?”
He really wanted another cigarette. He wasn’t going to smoke around Sophie and the baby at all, but that meant making the most of the times she wasn’t with him, which wouldn’t be often if he had his way. It would really be much easier to just quit.
“So, I think we both know what the test will show.”
Mario gave up the daydream of a calming smoke and concentrated on the reality in front of him.
“But there are ways around the test,” Drake went on, propping a foot up on the front fender of the car and leaning an elbow casually onto his knee.
“I would think you’d want the test to turn out in my favor,” Mario said.
“I do,” Drake agreed. “I really do. But there is a problem with that.”
Mario just waited.
“See, if you’re the father then that means Sophie cheated on me with you. And I can’t live with that. No chick picks anyone over me, especially a guy like you.”
Mario really wanted to pop him right in the nose. Just once. Nice and hard. And not even for Sophie’s sake so much for the sake of all the people Drake had shit on over the years.
“You tellin’ me this for a reason?” Mario asked. “You denied the whole thing for so long, not that many people even believe that you were with Sophie.”
“I’ve got to make an example of you man,” Drake said.
Mario clenched his jaw hard.
“See, I’ve got to be sure that no guy tries to mess with my stuff in the future. If you get away with this, who knows what might happen next?”
Sophie was part of his ‘stuff’? Mario made a tight fist, but tamped down the urge to use it. Sophie wasn’t Drake’s anything anymore.
“How?” Mario asked, knowing that it somehow involved him.
“You and me,” Drake said, pushing away from the car and standing straight. “Fight night. And I kick your ass.”
Mario almost laughed. They both knew there was no way Drake could kick Mario’s ass. “The only way that’s happening is if I take a fall.”
Drake wanted Mario to let him win.
“What if you can’t make it look good?” Mario asked.
Drake shrugged. “Then the test comes back for real and Sophie is with me. I can think of worse things. The sex was never the problem.”
Mario came at him almost too quickly to pull back. Drake scrambled backward, his eyes wide. Mario’s left knee caught the corner of the fender as he lunged for Drake. Pain raced to his brain, cutting through his enraged focus on Drake and halting his momentum. He pulled in a few deep breaths, his blood still pumping with angry adrenaline.
“I’ll fight you,” he finally said, when he trusted his voice to not emerge as a furious roar.
“And you’ll lose?” Drake clarified, still several safe steps back.
Oh, he’d lose. Eventually. But he wouldn’t go down easy and he certainly wouldn’t go down without getting in a few “convincing” blows of his own.
“I’d do anything for Sophie and that baby,” Mario said.
Drake watched him, obviously trying to read his sincerity. Finally he nodded once and moved toward the driver’s car door. Mario didn’t move and Drake had a hard time making a wide berth around Mario and the irate tension coming off of him while still reaching the car door. But he did it, and squealed away from the curb.
Mario watched him go. Then he dug in his pocket for a cigarette.
# # #
It just sucked. That was all there was to it. He was sitting in the large overstuffed armchair in the TV area of the Center with his arm around Sophie, her snuggled up against his side, his hand resting on her stomach feeling the baby kick. It was the first time they were hanging out as more than friends with the rest of their Center buddies. Everyone was completely at ease, it seemed, though with him and Sophie as a couple. He should have been totally content.
But his head hurt like a son of a bitch.
Mario was glad he hadn’t had a haircut for awhile. The gash on his left temple from Drake’s big—ass school ring would have freaked Sophie out, not to mention Miss Bradford, the other Miss Bradford and probably even Doc T.
Really, he just wanted to go to sleep. He loved being close like this with Sophie, but damn his head throbbed and now his stomach was turning too.
Maybe if she’d lay on the couch with him he could still hold her, but keep his brain from trying to jackhammer its way out of his skull.
He was just glad nobody had any food. Even a whiff of a ham sandwich might send him running for the toilet like Sophie in her first two months.
Mario slumped down so that he could rest his head on the back of the chair.
Nobody noticed the seemingly slight shift, most eyes on the movie on the TV. Sophie just snuggled closer, her head resting on his chest.
Sophie’s voice sounded far away and Mario realized his eyes were closed. Slowly he became aware that she was saying his name. It was really difficult but he managed to get his eyelids up.
“You okay?” Sophie looked concerned, even alarmed.
Mario liked her concern, but he didn’t want to scare her.
“Sure,” he said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
“You look really weird.”
Well, then he looked better than he felt, which was downright horrible.
He lifted his head from the back of the chair and felt really nauseous. If only talking to her didn’t involve looking at her.
But Sophie’s frown separated into two frowns. Now he was getting scared too.
He shook is head to clear the double vision, but that made it feel like his brain had been put into a clothes dryer and was tumbling over and over.
“Sophie said she’s using your middle name somehow for the baby’s middle name,” Travis said, not sounding alarmed at all. “Hope it’s not something stupid.”
They all laughed and Kevin asked, “Yeah, what is your middle name?”
He wasn’t sure.
But he liked the idea of the baby having the same name. He liked it a lot.
He stood up, needing to get to the bathroom for some cold water, or peace and quiet, or something. He just didn’t feel right.
Mario stood up and felt steady for about four seconds before the floor shifted, knocking him off his feet.
Then everything went black.
# # #
Someone knocked on the door to his hospital room. Mario sighed. He should be exhausted. His mom had been here to put on the show for the cops who had arrived to do a follow—up on the injuries the hospital had been required to report.
Of course, the social workers had come up anyway. Her I’m—the—best—most—concerned—mother—in—the—world act was getting less and less convincing. Probably because she was putting less effort into it. When he was younger, she received financial aid based on being a single mom in school. She was still ‘in school’, but he was almost an adult. When he turned eighteen she wasn’t going to get to claim him anymore. He even gave her money sometimes now. Which was the reason she wanted to keep him under her roof and not some foster parents’ roof as long as she could.
Still, she was his mom and had never hurt him physically, had never told him she hated him or anything, and could be fun to be around when she hadn’t been drinking and was around.
Besides, she’d had nothing to do with his current situation. And he didn’t want to go to all the trouble of moving all of his stuff to a new place for the few months before he could be officially independent.
Anyway, all of those people were long gone and the only person he wanted to see was Sophie, who wasn’t answering her cell phone, couldn’t be found at the Center by the part—time volunteer who answered the office phone, and wasn’t picking up at home.
So, this was probably just a nurse or someone who wanted to suck more blood out of his arm. He closed his eyes and sunk down farther in his bed, pretending to be asleep. It wouldn’t keep them from sticking needles in him, but he could avoid some idle conversation.
There was another knock. Then he heard the door latch click as someone came in. He opened one eye a slit to see if it was the young, hot girl who made the blood—sucking a least a little more pleasant.
He would have laughed if it didn’t hurt so much to even breathe deeply, when Tony and Reuben pushed the door to his room open and peered in.
It was interesting that two teenage boys, that between them had twelve piercings—many of them done at home— eight tattoos and nine victorious fight nights, could look so scared just walking into a hospital room.
“Hey.” Mario worked hard on not grimacing as he pushed himself back up to sitting.
“Hey,” Tony said hesitantly, standing just inside the door, barely giving Rueben room to let the door shut.
Reuben seemed to be having trouble looking at Mario. He knew that other than the IV needle stuck in his arm, there was no external sign that Mario was not completely normal. The sheet covered the incision on his stomach, the incision on his head was in the back, away from Reuben’s line of sight and even the goose— egg and cut on his head from the fight were healing.
“What’s up?” He was glad to see them. Lying around like this for the past three days sucked. He hated being here by himself. Both the Miss Bradfords and Sam had showed up, of course. And other kids from the Center had been by. But he’d wondered where his friends were.
“Get in here. You look like wusses standing around by the door,” Mario ordered.
Tony gave him a sheepish grin and ambled forward, his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. As he got closer, he took in the IV pole, the bag of fluid and the long tube from the bag to his arm. “I can’t believe that asshole,” Tony said with disgust. “What a pussy. He couldn’t beat you without…” He stopped and swallowed hard.
“A baseball bat,” Mario filled in. He knew rumors were probably flying and God knew what Drake and his guys were saying.
Tony flinched but nodded. So he’d heard it right: when Mario had shown up for fight night like it was supposed to be, it had only been Drake and his three buddies. And the baseball bat.
Drake’s buddies hadn’t helped. That was one thing Mario was thankful for.
But none of it mattered now. He wasn’t pressing charges or anything. It was over. Not that he trusted Drake and he certainly hadn’t been looking to get attacked like that, but he probably should have been. But there would be no more than this. Now Drake would walk away and for that Mario would take ten more beatings.
Reuben looked ill when Mario turned his attention to him. “What’s with you man?” Mario finally demanded of his big, unusually quiet friend. “You got a problem?”
Reuben shook his head.
Reuben had never seen a doctor after a fight even though one of his fingers was crooked from being broken and he had at least two scars that would have definitely been stitched if someone had seen him. Did he think Mario was weak, laying here?
He’d show him differently. Mario swung his legs over the edge of the bed and pushed himself up to sitting.
“You got something to say?” he asked once he was upright.
The big black guy finally looked Mario square in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
Mario stared at him. He had to swallow the words he’d been about to say, challenging Reuben to a fight to show he could hold his own even in a hospital gown.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Reuben drew up to his full six feet and three inches. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Sorry I didn’t have your back.”
Mario didn’t know what to say. Which was good because his throat was suddenly very tight.
“Me, too,” Tony said. “I’d like too kick some ass for you.”
Mario shook his head. “They set it up for me to be alone. If it hadn’t been there, it would have been somewhere else. Sometime.”
He felt dizzy, but he didn’t dare show that to his friends. They felt bad enough.
“She’s worth it,” he said.
“Sophie or the baby?” Tony asked. It was common knowledge that the baby was going to be a girl named Grace.
“Both,” Mario said. He took as deep a breath as he dared. Though sitting up was fine once he was there. Now the baby could come. Everything was settled. Sophie and Grace were all his. “Hey, get that pole,” Mario said to Tony, gesturing toward his IV pole on the other side of the bed. “I need a soda bad.” And he needed to show his friends that he was okay.
Maybe that would help with his lightheadedness. He’d been without caffeine for awhile now.
Mario pushed up off the edge of the bed, firmly gripping the bed railing and trying to seem like he wasn’t firmly gripping the bed railing. He wasn’t exactly steady, but it was okay. He couldn’t jog down the hall, but he could shuffle.
“Wow, man, you can’t go up there like that,” Tony exclaimed from behind him.
Belatedly, Mario felt the draft across his naked butt. “Quit looking at my stuff.” He pulled the hospital grown together in back.
Tony just laughed. “Hard to miss, man.” He came around the end of the bed rolling the IV pole. “I’m sure Sophie won’t be complainin’, but I don’t know about her mom.” Tony headed toward the door.
Mario followed behind, like a dog on a leash, the length of the plastic IV tubing limiting how far away he could let Tony get. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I don’t think Sophie’s mom wants to see your naked ass when you’re visiting her daughter.”
Tony kept walking, but Mario stopped and grabbed the IV tubing before it could pull the needle from his arm. Tony came up short as the IV pole started to tip. He caught it and frowned at Mario. “What the hell?”
“Well, that’s why we came to get you. We told you…” Tony trailed off as he realized they hadn’t.
Mario felt like the floor had just tilted. He braced his hand on the wall. “Is she… are they … is Sophie… and the baby…okay?” But of course she wasn’t. She was in the hospital. Probably scared. And he was two floors away.
The floor righted itself, his stomach unclenched, his throat opened up and his caffeine deficit ceased to matter.
“Get my pants.” He lifted his hand, ripped the tape off of the back where the IV needle was and then pulled the needle out. He barely felt the sting. IV fluid ran out of the tube onto the floor. But his brain refused to focus on anything except the thought that he had to get to Sophie. She wasn’t going to do this without him. His daughter was not coming into this world without him.
“We’ll take the stairs,” he said to Reuben, starting for the door. He jogged the twenty feet down the hall. His head spun as he yanked the door to the stairwell open and a dull pain throbbed to life over his right temple. Stress, worry, the urge to take four steps at once all the way to the sixth floor all combined he was sure.
“The elevator’s here,” Reuben called, holding the sliding door open.
Mario pressed a hand against his abdominal incision that felt like a hot knife was slitting it open again and had to admit that taking the elevator made a lot more sense.
“Here! Pants!” Tony arrived breathless and tossed the navy blue running pants to Mario as he changed directions and lunged for the elevator.
It was late enough that no one was in the elevator to see him strip off the hospital gown and pull on the pants as they ascended. Not that he would have cared. He was bare—chested and barefoot, but he’d be there. He didn’t think Sophie would mind. She was going to be distracted anyway. If anyone else cared, tough shit.
That was his family up there and nothing could keep him away from them.
“How could you not tell me right away?” he asked his friend, rubbing the back of his hand against the leg of his pants. The stinging where the needle had been was getting stronger.
They didn’t answer and he looked up to find Reuben staring, his face white, at the large bandage across his stomach. Mario glanced down. There was blood seeping through.
Mario glanced at Tony. He was trying to avoid looking at the bandage.
“You looked like hell. I got distracted by feeling guilty,” Tony said grimly. Then he lifted his eyes to Mario’s. “And I had to concentrate on not puking when I saw your bare ass.”
“Bite me,” Mario muttered. But he smiled as the elevator stopped on the sixth floor.
Reuben and Tony would get over what had happened. His stomach would heal, the bandage would come off and they would realize no permanent damage had been done.
He was about to be a dad and he knew he could count on Tony and Reuben to think his baby daughter was beautiful. He could hardly stay mad at them for forgetting to tell him Sophie was in labor. They cheated on algebra tests and thought fart jokes were funny, but they’d do anything for Grace the minute she was born simply because Mario said she was his.
Besides, they’d prop his sorry ass up at Sophie’s bedside if he needed them to. Which he would if things didn’t stop spinning pretty damned soon.
# # #
Mario’s head pounded like a son of a bitch. It was damned dark, too.
As he turned his head, he realized his eyes were closed. And that his head pounded worse when he tried to turn it. He tried to open his eyes, but it felt like someone had super—glued them shut. He struggled against the hold of whatever it was keeping him in the dark and from moving. He tried to push, pull, thrash somehow against it, but not knowing what it was, he was disoriented and hurting and scared.
He put every bit of energy…and fear… into moving. He felt the fingers on his right hand twitch slightly. A soft gasp followed, that he didn’t think came from him.
All the tension left his body and his eyelids lifted. He tried to smile and form the word ‘hi’ but neither seemed to work. Except his eyes, thank God. Sophie looked beautiful and worried. And his right hand worked, kind—of. He felt her squeeze his hand as her eyes filled with tears.
“Hi,” Sophie whispered with a smile. She leaned in and kissed his temple.
Everything came flooding back to him. He was in the hospital. He’d had surgery. Sophie had been in labor. He’d gotten on the elevator with Tony and Reuben… and there was nothing in his memory after that. What the hell?
“Are you okay?” he managed to whisper. It didn’t sound like his voice and it really hurt to talk.
“I’m great,” she answered. “Grace is great too,” she said, knowing he would want to know. “She was five pounds and three ounces. Eighteen inches long. She’s got dark hair and is really happy.” Sophie’s eyes filled again, but she still smiled.
“Is she…” He trailed off, not because of the difficulty with talking but because he didn’t know how to ask about the baby. He wanted to meet her, to see her, and hold her just once. But that seemed impossible now.
“She’s still here,” Sophie said, putting a cool hand against his forehead. “They’ve been here to see her,” she said, referring to the family who were going to adopt Grace. “But the doctor wants her to stay until tomorrow since she was early. She’s eating well, doing fine, though,” Sophie assured him. “But…”
“What?” He tried to sit up, but everything in his body screamed at the effort. He barely succeeded in lifting his head from the pillow.
“Hey, take it easy,” Sophie said, pressing against his forehead until he relaxed against the pillow. “Dr. Torres won’t let me hang out in here if you get all riled up.”
“Dr. Torres?” Mario croaked.
Sophie ran her hand back and forth from his forehead to the top of his head and back. “He operated on you two of the three times.” She smiled. “Miss Bradford said he really wanted to do all of it, but he doesn’t do brains. Miss Sara,” Sophie clarified at Mario’s questioning look.
It amazed him that Sophie knew so much about what he was thinking without him being able to talk.
“Mario,” she said gently. She took a deep breath when he looked at her. “They are trying to keep me from seeing Grace. They said it would be easier tomorrow.”
Mario closed his eyes. Grace was going home with her family tomorrow. They were great. The man was an eye doctor, the woman stayed home with their older daughter, whom they’d also adopted. She was now three and very excited about having a baby sister. Both Mario and Sophie felt great about the choice. And, while they loved Grace, they knew that this was right. Still, he wanted to see her. Just once.
“Mario, I love you,” Sophie said, putting her cheek against his.
He found the ability to lift his hand and cupped the back of her head. “I love you, too.”
They were too young for all of this; too young to be parents; too young to get married or anything like that. They hadn’t even gone on a real date.
They had made the right decision about Grace.
But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt.
The sound of a man clearing his throat made Sophie pull back. “There’s an OB/GYN looking for her sweetest patient.”
“Hi, Dr. Torres,” Sophie said, wiping her eyes as she straightened.
He came into the room. “Good to see you awake,” he said to Mario.
Mario found a smile for the doctor.
“Thought you’d like to know that I’ve done some checking on things,” Dr. Torres said. “One of the physical therapists is going to come up and help you get up on his feet. We’ll see how that goes, but I think it will go well enough to get you up to the nursery.”
Mario felt his heart thump. “But…” he tried.
Dr. Torres nodded once. “I know we’re working on a tight time frame here. I promise to get you up there in time. Okay?”
Mario believed him. His heart felt like it expanded so quickly it took his breath away.
“Thank you, Dr. Torres!” Sophie wrapped her arms around Ben’s waist and hugged him tight, her cheek against his sternum.
He smiled and hugged Sophie back, but then met Mario’s eyes over her head. “If you’re sure you want to?” he asked. “It’s going to be tough to say goodbye anyway. Seeing her might make it worse. She’s beautiful.”
Mario felt pride in the compliment, in spite of the fact that none of Grace’s physical features could come from him. Mario knew Dr. Torres was right and he took a moment to seriously consider the question. Did he want to see her? Would he still be able to say goodbye tomorrow?
“Yeah,” he finally said.
“We know it will be hard,” Sophie said, moving to the edge of the bed and taking Mario’s hand. “But this is the right thing. We can give her love, but this family can her love and everything else.” Sophie tucked her hair behind her ear. “Grace deserves everything else, you know?”
Dr. Torres looked stunned in Mario’s opinion.
Sophie squeezed Mario’s hand.
“It’s going to be hard,” she said, propping her hip on the edge of the mattress. “We know that. But good parents do things that are hard for them but good for their kids all the time, right?”
Dr. Torres recovered with a small shake of his head. “Grace’s very lucky. I’ll make sure everything is set up.” He turned toward the door with a smile.
“Hey, doc,” Mario said.
“Yeah?” He paused with his hand on the door handle.
Mario wanted to say a lot of things, but could only manage, “Thanks for everything,” partly because of his still raw throat and partly because of the emotions making that same throat really tight.
“I’ll be back to check on you after awhile.” This time Dr. Torres looked surprised but sounded choked up.