legacy of lies bonus extended epilogue

I am so thrilled to share this peek into Tripp & Jolie’s happily ever after ending with you!

Enjoy!

 
 
 

Jolie

“Romy!” I rubbed my swollen belly as I yelled from the bottom of the stairs, listening for any sign she’d heard me while sipping from the mug clutched in my hand.

Coming up with a single complaint about living in a three-thousand-square foot triplex penthouse in the heart of Manhattan was nearly impossible, but not being within shouting distance of my daughter at all times was one of them.

Tripp came up behind me, his breath whispering along my pulse as he slid my tousled hair away from my shoulder and planted a lingering kiss just below my ear. “You really should use the intercom,” he groaned, wrapping his arms around me and folding both his hands over mine.

I sighed, tilting my head back as my eyes fluttered shut, letting the warmth of his embrace wash over me. Tripp’s presence in my life was a comfort I didn’t take for granted.

We’d been through so much together in the two years since we both returned to New York.

Falling back in love.

Forgiving each other.

Trusting each other.

Learning how to co-parent Romy.

Foiling my stepmother’s attempt to take her from us.

Managing our family, two thriving businesses, and a growing charitable organization.

And soon, we would welcome another child into our lives.

“You know Romy hates that thing. She says it reminds her of the loudspeaker in the prison waiting room.”

Tripp dragged his stubble-roughened jaw along my cheek before dropping another kiss at my temple. He hadn’t shaved this morning. “Well, she won’t be hearing that anymore.”

“Nope,” I said softly. Nina was getting released today, and Romy had begged to be there for her, waiting outside when she took her first free steps since her sentencing.

Nina would have to spend the next six months in a half-way house, but she would no longer live behind bars.

I winced as a particularly strong kick hit my ribs, although Tripp’s proud chuckle took the ache away. “Looks like we’re going to have another soccer player.”

Romy finally appeared at the top of the stairs, and Tripp straightened as she bounded down them.

Despite the joy in my life these days, there were times when it felt like I was navigating a tightrope without a harness. At nine months pregnant, it was a daunting prospect at best, and somedays I was clinging to it with nothing but my fingernails.

Today was one of those days.

Although Romy said she was happy about having a sibling, she hadn’t yet referred to herself as a big sister. Tripp and I had decided to delay finding out the sex of our baby, hoping the It’s a girl! It’s a boy! excitement would be better received when Romy had a little sister or brother to hold. But now, with Nina’s release and my imminent due date, I couldn’t help but worry that Romy would want to return to the way things were—living with Nina while I was a peripheral figure in her life, useful for sleepovers and shopping sprees, but little else.

“Ready?” She looked only at Tripp. “I don’t want to be late.”

“I made breakfast. You should really eat someth—”

“I’m not hungry.” She breezed past me, completely ignoring the heaping platter of French toast set out on the kitchen island.

“We have plenty of time.” Tripp said, giving my shoulder a reassuring squeeze as he walked toward the food. He knew how worried I was about Romy. “And I’m starving.”

She swung around, and even from a distance I could see tears glittering from her silver eyes. “We can’t be late.” Her voice was a whispered tremble, her posture a so straight she looked in danger of cracking at any moment.

Guilt invaded my veins like a toxin.

Romy had been such a trooper through everything. New home. New school. New friends. Discovering her entire life was a lie.

That she’d been hidden from her father as if she was a dirty little secret. Unacknowledged by her biological mother, as if I was ashamed of her.

Those last two weren’t true, of course. But in the mind of a pre-teen girl …? Truth was just a reflection of her capricious moods. It changed day to day, hour to hour.

Some hit particularly hard. Just last week Romy had said she was sick and couldn’t go to school. She had no fever and her appetite was fine, but I kept her home. That afternoon I received an email from her teacher, kindly extending the due date for Romy’s latest assignment. A personal narrative, illustrated by family photographs.

When I told Romy about the extension, she burst into tears. Through broken sobs, she managed to convey that using photographs of only Tripp and me made her feel disloyal to Nina. But including Nina in her assignment would mean explaining a situation she was still grappling with herself.

Romy knew Nina had tried to take her away from us. She also knew about Nina’s fraud. But for most of Romy’s life, Nina was the only mother she’d known. And regardless of her faults, Nina had been a good mother. She’d kissed every boo-boo. Scheduled every dentist and doctor visit. Cheered from the sidelines at every soccer game, and from the audience at every dance recital and school play. She been the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus.

I knew from experience how painful it was to witness your idol fall, tumbling from the brightest light into the blackest abyss. Excruciating.

“It’s fine,” I said. “I don’t want you to be late either.”

Tripp plucked a piece of French toast from the tray and took a big bite, looking from me to Romy and back again. “You sure?”

I cupped both hands around my warm mug and nodded. “I am.”

“I’ll get the elevator,” Romy said, slipping into her shoes and rushing into the foyer.

Setting my coffee on the granite, I ducked back into Tripp’s outstretched arms for a moment. He lifted my chin with his thumb, pinning me with a stare identical to Romy’s. Liquid steel, intriguing and powerful. “Promise me you’ll go lie back down?”

“I’m not on bed rest anymore,” I reminded him. After a scare in my seventh month, my doctor had said that if I didn’t keep off my feet I was going to spend the rest of my pregnancy in the hospital. But with the baby due any day now, my confinement was over.

“Still. I’m going to be gone a while. I’d rather know you were nice and cozy, keeping our bed warm.” One hand reached out to cup my breast, my sensitive nipple immediately straining toward his palm.

A breathy laugh fell from my lips, my body heating at his touch. Even though I’d spent most of the past two months in bed, sex was prohibited. I missed the intimacy of our love. And the orgasms. “You can’t possibly want me right now.” I wasn’t blind. The glow of pregnancy was definitely over. It’d put on nearly fifty pounds and my signature walk, once in high demand on runways all over the world, was now an awkward waddle. Usually in the direction of the nearest bathroom.

Tripp shook his head. “I can’t remember a day of my life that I haven’t wanted you, Jolie. And I know, with absolute certainly, I never will.”

I blinked away tears, my bones disintegrating into shaky white platelets made of love, held together by hormones. I lifted my lips for a kiss from this glorious man who found it in his heart to forgive me. To give me his love, after all I’d taken from him.

I wasn’t just #blessed. My blessings were too many to be confined to a pithy hashtag.

“Elevator’s here!”

Tripp’s mouth ghosted over mine at Romy’s announcement, landing for just the barest brush. “Your daughter is impatient.”

I licked my lips, tasting the cinnamon sugar I’d sprinkled over the toast. “That’s because she’s your daughter.”

“Thank fuck for that,” he said, the flare of joy lighting up his face making my heartbeat stumble and then take off at a gallop.

“Dad!” Romy’s yell was louder this time, a decibel that could shatter windows.

Tripp spun away from me, winking as he grabbed another slice of toast and jogged to the elevator. “Coming!”

For a moment, the two loves of my life were framed, as if they were standing in a shadowbox. Father and daughter, dark heads facing each other, wearing matching grins.

But then the doors closed. In the sudden silence, I attempted to douse my heartburn with a sip of coffee.

It didn’t work.

Dumping the remainder down the drain—it was decaf anyway—I picked up my phone. “Please tell me you’re free to come over for breakfast. And bring the twins.”

Eva laughed. “They’re already at school, and I’m on my way to catch a Vogue editor before she flies off to an overseas shoot. She promised she would try to get some of our pieces in the feature.”

“You are amazing,” I said, meaning every word. In addition to being a loving, involved mom that could play a rousing game of tag in Manolo Bhlanik stilettos, Eva had become an impressive businesswoman. Much of Jolie’s incredible success was because of her efforts.

As usual, she brushed the compliment aside with a, “It’s nothing.”

“No. It’s not nothing,” I scolded gently. “Thank you.”

“Well, you’re welcome. Now go lie down or something. You’re on your feet again, aren’t you?”

“I swear you and Tripp share the same brain.” I rolled my eyes. “But I’ll tell you what I told him. I have the all-clear. I don’t have to lie in bed like an invalid anymore.”

“Don’t you remember what it was like with Romy? Once that baby arrives, you are going to regret every minute you didn’t spend sleeping. Take advantage now.”

Regret. It was a punch that slammed into the base of my spine, pain radiating outward. I pulled the phone away from my mouth so Eva didn’t hear my gasp.

“Jolie. Jolie, are you there?”

“Yeah. Sorry. I just … It’s hard to think about that time with Romy.”

Eva’s regretful curse filtered through our connection. “I’m sorry. I should have realized.”

“No. It’s fine, really.” It wasn’t Eva’s fault. My past was like a field of wildflowers that had sprung up from dirt thrown over scattered landmines. Every other step was an explosion waiting to happen.

I was a teenager when I gave birth to Romy. And she’d been a preemie. I had barely adjusted to the fact that I was pregnant when I suddenly became a mother. My first memory of Romy was of this tiny little human, her skin practically translucent over blue veins. She was locked inside an incubator, tubes and wires connecting her body to machines that blinked and beeped, arranged in a semi-circle around her bassinet.

Love was there, but it wasn’t the emotion that had overwhelmed me.

Instead, fear had risen up like a great, roaring wave. Submerging me within a dark ocean of terror.

I wasn’t allowed to touch her or hold her, and when the nurse wheeled me back to my room, I pretended to be in pain so I could slip into a morphine-induced haze. Needing the reprieve from reality.

I blinked, focusing back in on Eva. “… shouldn’t be too long. I’ll come over the second these samples make it into her suitcase, okay?”

“Actually,” I said, rubbing my back and making my way toward the nearest couch. Company, even Eva, wasn’t so appealing anymore. “I think I’ll lie down. Talk later, okay?”

Tripp

“Can I sit shotgun?” Romy’s eager question echoed within the vast underground parking garage, bouncing off cement walls.

I looked down at her with a raised brow, the tone of my voice teasing. “Do I really have to answer that?”

Every glimpse of my daughter’s face filled me with joy, although her frown was one of my least favorites. She threw herself into the back seat of my Range Rover, not saying anything.

I adjusted the rearview mirror maintain eye contact. “Not much longer, Romy. When you’re twelve—”

 “So, until then, I’m going to be stuck in the back like a baby?”

Ah. So that’s what this was about. It wouldn’t be long before there was a car seat buckled beside her. “You’re not a baby. You are an awesome eleven-year-old, and the second you’re allowed to sit in the front seat, I’ll be thrilled to have you right next to me.”

 I reached behind me to pat Romy’s knee before shifting into drive and pulling out onto the street. Her moods were erratic these days, a reflection of her impending teenage years and our shifting family dynamics. The three of us hadn’t been a family very long, and we would be four in a matter of days. Nina’s release from prison was a double-whammy.

The family therapist we continued to work with said Romy’s turbulent emotions were normal, and not to jump on every comment and outburst or she would stop telling us what was on her mind.

I had no idea parenting would be so hard.

It was also the greatest joy I could possibly imagine.

Today was a perfect example of the insane dichotomy that was fatherhood. In about an hour, I’d be standing outside a prison to greet the woman who had kept my daughter from me for the first nine years of her life—and then tried to do it again once I knew the truth and demanded that Romy be told, too.

Not just waiting.

I was there to welcome Nina back into our lives and take her to the assigned half-way house that was a condition of her early release.

This wasn’t my idea.

It was Romy’s. And because I loved my daughter in the painfully selfless way a father loves his little girl, I agreed to maintain a cordial relationship with the woman who had raised her.

I also believed in keeping friends close and enemies closer.

Was Nina still an enemy? Only time would tell.

But if she ever tried to take my daughter away from me, or hurt Romy in any way, I would rip Nina’s fucking head off and bury her without the slightest shred of remorse.

Romy crossed her arms and looked out the window. “Are we there yet?”

I glanced back at her for any trace of irony on her face but there was none. “Well, we just got in the car so no.”

“How much longer?”

“An hour, give or take.”

Her response was a sigh.

“Hey, I spy with my little eye something that is … red.”

After half a minute of silence, I glanced back. Romy had her earbuds in and was absorbed in something on her iPad.

Patience, Tripp. Let her be.

I was on the highway when my phone rang. I answered through the Bluetooth speakers. “Lance, I have Romy in the car with me.” My business partner had an unfortunate habit of discussing his sex life and bowel health. He needed a muzzle, but a warning would have to do for now.

“Hey there, Rome-ster!”

Damn it. “She’s on her iPad right now.”

“Headphones?”

I bit down on a groan. “Earbuds.”

“Good. Because you’ve got to hear about my night. Remember the hot Russian I met on my climb two years ago?”

“Keep it PG,” I warned.

“PG? Are you kidding?” He scoffed. “Did you know there are things you can do with caviar that—”

“Jesus Christ. Not now, Lance.”

“Fine,” he huffed. “Isn’t it a school day? You can call me after you drop—”

“We’re picking up Nina. She gets released today.”

 “Shit.”

I flicked my eyes back toward Romy. Her head was still bowed, the end of her dark braid resting on her screen. “Yeah. That about sums it up.”

“Is Jolie with you?”

“Nah. When she’s stressed, her blood pressure skyrockets. I don’t want her dealing with this right now.” I glanced at the clock. “Listen, I have about twenty minutes before we get there and then I’ll probably be offline the rest of the day. If there’s anything we need to discuss, not involving the hot Russian, let’s do it now.”

I hung up with Lance just as we pulled into the prison parking lot. The second I parked in the designated area to wait for released prisoners, Romy yanked out her earbuds and set aside her iPad, jumping out of the car.

I stifled a groan as I opened up my own door and joined her. “It might be a while. Not sure that these things run on time.”

Romy stared straight ahead. “That’s okay. I want to be the first thing Mom sees.”

She had finally begun calling Jolie Mom, but as always, hearing Romy use the word for Nina felt like a sharp blade jabbed between my ribs, the tip puncturing my lung. I rubbed at my chest as I dragged in a breath.

Romy glanced up at me. “You okay?”

I hesitated for a blink, raking a hand through my hair and exhaling a ragged sigh. I knew Jolie was feeling insecure about her place in Romy’s heart now that she’d be seeing Nina for more than just monthly visits and monitored phone calls. We’d danced around the issue in therapy, but maybe this was a good opportunity to get some insight into Romy’s head. “You know, I was thinking we could talk about—”

“She’s here!”

God damn it. I looked up to see the automatic gate opening slowly, one figure walking towards us. I squinted, hoping it would be someone else. Anyone else.

But no, it was Nina.

Romy took off at a run, not stopping until she threw herself into Nina’s arms. The blood in my veins thickened, becoming heavy and sluggish, pushed along by a heart that pounded with dread. Could any good possibly come of this?

Nina and Romy made their way toward me slowly. “Thank you, Tripp. I—” Nina bowed her head, now more gray than blonde. “After everything, I really appreciate you being here today. And for bringing Romy.”

“She’s my daughter. I did it for her.” I pushed the words out through gritted teeth and a tight throat.

With one last look at Romy’s overjoyed expression, I slid back into my seat. My body was hot with anger and resentment, my temperature only increasing when Romy opened the back door and hopped in, Nina joining her.

They talked nonstop, Romy excitedly filling her in on just about everything she hadn’t had time to say during their monthly visits and calls. Everything except the imminent arrival of her new sibling. Romy had never mentioned it to Nina, or to anyone else.

We were halfway to Queens, and I was counting every minute.

My phone rang, the name on the screen sending a ripple of alarm across nerves already stretched to the breaking point. “Eva. Is everything—”

The noise of a siren came through the Bluetooth speakers, filling the interior of the car. “I’m with Jolie, we’re in an ambulance. We’ll be at New York-Presbyterian in a few minutes.”

My mind split into two. One side automatically sending a signal to floor the accelerator, my hands gripping the accelerator at ten and two, leaning forward in my seat with hyper-vigilance. The other had only one concern: Jolie. “What the hell happened?”

“I don’t know,” Eva cried, her voice a panicked shout. “I came by this morning, just to check on her. I thought she was asleep on the couch but I couldn’t wake her. And I noticed…” She broke off.

A few seconds ticked by. “What? What did you notice?”

“Blood. There was blood between her legs.”

“Is—”

“—We’re pulling in now. Just get here as soon as you can.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror, catching a quick glimpse of Romy’s terrified expression. “Don’t worry. I promise you, everything will be okay.” My tongue was thick and heavy inside my mouth, making each word difficult. Or maybe it was because I had no right making a promise like that.

But I didn’t take it back.

Jolie liked to say that we were the only storybook couple to live out their fairytale ending.

Maybe.

But Jolie was my fairytale. And I wasn’t through living it.

I was only vaguely aware of Nina’s presence as I called Lance, sharing the few details I knew and the name of Jolie’s obstetrician. “Got it. I’ll make the call and hack into the hospital’s system. Whatever Jolie’s condition, I’ll find the best docs in the city to consult on her case or get down there in person.”

I muttered a quick thanks and then focused entirely on getting to the hospital as quickly as possible.

Once we got into the city, I fished my wallet out of my pocket and tossed whatever cash I had into the backseat. “You’ll have to find your way to Queens.”

“I don’t have to check in for hours, I can come in. Keep Romy company.”

“No. Absolutely n—”

“Please, Dad!” I didn’t have to meet Romy’s eyes in the mirror to know they were filled with tears. But when I glanced up, her face was already pressed into Nina’s neck, her braid trembling as she sobbed.

I exhaled a quiet, “Fine.” I didn’t have the heart to pry the two of them apart, not when my heart was already shredded, bleeding with Jolie.

My Rovers’ tires squealed as I slammed into park at the emergency entrance, tossing my keys to a valet and jumping out of the car. I flung open Romy’s door and reached for her hand. We ran through the hospital door together, Nina following.

Eva was the first person my eyes landed on. She was pacing the halls and spun around at our approach. “How is she?”

“I don’t know. They won’t tell me anything since I’m not family.”

I didn’t wait for her to finish the sentence, stalking over to the information desk. “Jolie Chapman was brought in by ambulance forty-five minutes ago. I’d like to speak with her doctor.”

The woman’s red nails tapped at the keys. “Last name, C-H-A—”

Christ. “Yes. C-H-A-P-M-A-N. First name, J-O-L-I-E.” Adrenaline had my pulse racing, my heart thumping against my ribcage. “What’s her room number?”

Her fingers stilled as she looked up at me. Red lips that matched her nails. Tan skin. Pink hair. “You the husband?”

“Legally, no. But in every other way that matters—”

“Mmmm mmmm.” She finished off with a snap of her gum. “Sorry. Hospital policy. We only give out information to family.”

I thought of the wedding license we had gotten the day before Jolie was put on bed rest. I thought about the wedding band I had designed to look just like the crown I’d once woven for her out of branches on an Indian summer day in Central Park. Both were now sitting in a desk drawer. “We have a daughter together,” I responded, my tone insistent.

“Is your daughter over eighteen?” snap.

 “No.”

“Then you’ll have to wait until Miss Campbell is conscious and asking for y—”

Suppressing the urge to reach over the desk and wring her neck, I pulled my phone from my pocket. At least Lance would have information for me.

But before I could hit send, I heard, “Excuse me. I’m Jolie Chapman’s stepmother. I’d like to speak with her doctor, please.”

I turned around to see the woman behind the desk picking up her phone. “Sure thing. I’ll page her right now.”

I was still trying to wrestle my fury into a controlled knot I could swallow down when a tall Asian woman came striding down the hall. “The family of Miss Chapman?”

Romy pushed between Nina and me, Eva on my other side. “Yes,” Nina and I said in unison.

“We’re prepping her for surgery now.”

“Surgery?”

“Are you the baby’s father?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

 “I’ve reviewed her chart and I believe a spike in blood pressure is what caused her to lose consciousness. It’s a good thing your friend went to check on her though.”

I slanted a grateful glance at Eva before turning back to the doctor. “What about the bleeding?”

“Perfectly normal for some blood to accompany her water breaking. Miss Chapman’s obstetrician arrived a few minutes ago and is scrubbing up right now. We explained everything to Miss Chapman and she’s consented to a cesarean. If you would like to be in the O.R., I’ll take you there.”

“What about me? Can I see her?” Romy’s face was pale, her voice quivering.

“No. I’m sorry. But you’ll be allowed in her room after.”

I pulled Romy into my chest. “I’ll come get you as soon as I can.”

A fresh tremor shook her spine as she clung to me. “Tell her I love her. Tell her I love her so much.” Romy’s voice cracked and I had to blink away the sting in my eyes.

“I promise.”

Nina stroked Romy’s braid. “I’ll watch over her, and we’ll be right here.”

She appeared earnest, but I didn’t trust Nina as far as I could throw her. I cast a silent plea at Eva.

“I’ll stay with them,” she said immediately. “You go. We’ll be waiting.”

After scrubbing my hands and forearms, covering my head with a cap and my mouth with a surgical mask, I walked into the operating room.

And stopped short.

Jolie was already there, lying on a table, surrounded by a surgical team, about to be cut open.

The breath caught in my throat, my knees locking me in place.

This woman was my entire world.

Her obstetrician glanced my way, completely oblivious to the panic crashing into me. Or maybe perfectly aware. “Look, Dad’s here. Come join the birthday party.”

Jolie moved her head, the lights turning her hair into a platinum waterfall, bright blue gaze latching onto mine. Steadying me.

“Hey.” Her lips curved into a smile. “I’m sorry I gave everyone such a scare.”

My legs suddenly moved forward again. “It’s my fault. I never should have left you.”

“Don’t be silly—”

“Okay, you’re going to feel some pressure.”

The doctor’s voice put an end to our conversation. I bent low over Jolie, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Thank fuck you’re okay.”

She lifted the hand not encumbered by an IV and curved it over my cheek. “I’m better than okay. I’m yours, remember?”

Love flared. I felt it as sharply as a mallet striking bone. “And don’t you forget it.”

We grinned at each other for a moment … until that moment was cut short by a piercing wail.

“Okay Dad, time to cut your son’s cord.”

Son. I have a son.

I have a daughter.

I have a son and a daughter with the love of my life.

This fairy tale keeps getting better and better.

I pressed another kiss to Jolie’s trembling lips, then cut the umbilical cord. It was … surreal. Amazing and terrifying. Full of joy and wonder and gratitude.

I expected to be handed our baby, but instead he was immediately taken to a different side of the room. Jolie grabbed my hand, her head twisting. “What are they doing? Where are they taking him?”

“I think they’re just weighing him.” I offered reassurance without being sure at all. My heart plummeted into my shoes as I looked on helplessly.

Each second felt like a year until finally one of the nurses returned, carrying a swaddled bundle in her arms and stopping directly in front of me. “He’s absolutely perfect. And now he’s all yours.”

Thank fuck.

 

Jolie

I came awake slowly, fighting the pull, and then all at once as my eyes snapped open, a white-hot blaze of pain radiating from my stomach thrusting me into consciousness. I wasn’t in the O.R. anymore. I moaned, my mouth unable to form words. Where was Tripp?

“Jolie.” Suddenly, Nina’s face hovered above me, one hand reaching out to smooth an errant tuft of hair off my forehead. “I had no idea you were pregnant. This is wonderful. The baby—”

I recoiled from her touch, sending another stab of pain to twist inside my gut. I tried to scream but what came out was a shrieking alarm. It wasn’t coming from me, but from one of the machines.

I was waking up inside my worst nightmare. One where my past had come back for me. Where was Tripp?

I heard footsteps. Voices. The alarm was cut off. “Ma’am you need to leave.”

I watched as Nina was escorted from my room. Good.

Numbers and acronyms were batted over my head. Heart rate and blood pressure. Systolic and diastolic. CCs and PSUs. “Miss Chapman, just relax. You’re going to be fine.”

There was the glint of a needle as it was inserted into the bag hanging beside my bed, a tube connecting it to my IV. The pain in my stomach immediately disappeared, my eyelids so heavy I couldn’t hold them up anymore. And the thought I was desperate to get out, a plea I needed to say, remained silent. Trapped inside my mind.

Don’t let her take my baby. I won’t give my baby up. Not this time.

***

 

Crying woke me. Not crying exactly, just sharp little squawking. Like a bird.

Or a newborn.

When my eyes opened, they landed on Romy. She was framed by the window behind her, a corona of afternoon sunlight drenching her silhouette. In her arms was a swaddled infant.

My son.

Romy’s brother.

Contentment surrounded me like the finest, sweetest mist. Tripp was seated beside her, one arm wrapped around Romy’s shoulder, the other on our little boy’s stomach.

Noticing that I’d woken up, he stood up and walked to the side of my bed, planting a soft kiss on the smile stretching across my lips. “He’s perfect, Jolie. Ten fingers, ten toes. Your mouth. Romy’s eyes.”

“Your eyes, too,” I whispered, love and gratitude dripping from each syllable. And then, remembering who was in my room earlier, I reached out a hand to grip his wrist. “Nina?” Keeping my voice low, the name was a question.

“We didn’t make it to the half-way house. I brought Nina here with me, but I asked Eva to take her.” He lowered his face again. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up. I took Romy to the nursery. She was anxious to meet her brother and I . . .” he looked away, regret gleaming from his eyes, “I didn’t want to share that moment with Nina.”

I dipped my chin, pressing my forehead to his. “Romy wanted to meet him?”

“She did,” he said.

I peered around Tripp, a fresh surge of joy expanding my heart at the sight. “So,” I choked out, “how does it feel to be a big sister?”

Romy’s smile was even brighter than the sunshine. “Awesome,” she said simply.

Tears sprung to my eyes. After so many months worrying that Romy wouldn’t connect with her new sibling, or worse, resent the baby altogether, it was a joy to see him in her arms.

“What should we call him?”

Though it shouldn’t have, Romy’s casual question surprised me. I hesitated. There was a baby name book back in our apartment that I’d flipped through a couple of times, but nothing felt right. “Remington Owen Montgomery IV?” I said tentatively. I loved Tripp’s full name and would be proud to give it to my son.

But he barked a laugh, putting his hands up. “Please, no. That name should have been retired after II.” Tripp still refused to have any contact with his father, not that I could blame him, but he didn’t flinch at the sound of his name anymore.

“What about James Owen?” Romy proposed, glancing at me. “Your dad was James, and if his middle name is Owen, we can call him baby Joey.”

My heartbeat slowed to a resonant thud as a surge of the deepest love washed over me. Her reasoning reminded me of mine. Romy came from the first letters of Tripp’s full name, with a y on the end. “I think it’s absolutely perfect.” Tripp helped me adjust the bed so I was sitting up and I patted the side of the mattress, ignoring the sharp slice of pain that accompanied even the slightest movement. “How about you bring him over here so I can hug both of you.”

Tripp shadowed Romy as she walked the few steps and then settled herself beside me. I wrapped my arms around her, tucking my chin over her shoulder to stare down at our new baby. Joey.

“What do you think of him, sweetheart?”

Romy didn’t tear her eyes away from her brother’s face. “I love him, Mom. I didn’t know if I would—at least, not right away. All my friends complain about their brothers and sisters. But I don’t think I ever will. And I think he’s the most beautiful baby in the world.”

Slowly, she angled her body to face me and I moved back to give her room. She hesitated, her sweet face pinched with confusion and curiosity. “Did you … Did you love me when I was born?”

The tears I’d been blinking back overflowed my lashes and began rushing down my cheeks. “Oh, Romy. I did, more than anything else in the world.” It was true. The reason I’d been so damn scared of motherhood was because I loved her. I felt young and stupid and entirely inadequate. And so I gave my daughter to the best person I knew. Nina.

I would never truly know the ins and outs of Nina’s relationship with my father, or understand why she did what she did.

But for all her faults, she had raised my daughter into a smart, compassionate, fierce little girl. And I would always be grateful to Nina for that.

“Then, why did you leave me? Why did you lie about me?” These were questions we had all tiptoed around in therapy.

Now I answered them honestly. “I left, but not because I didn’t love you. You’ve been my whole heart since the moment I learned I was pregnant.” I wiped at my eyes and sniffled. “I left because I thought you deserved a better mom than I believed I could be. I lied because I thought it was best for you.”

I took Romy’s face in my hands, kissing the tear tracks running down her cheeks. “And I will never forgive myself for not being stronger, for not being—”

Romy interrupted me. “I forgive you.”

My shoulders shook with gratitude. “Thank you, sweetheart.”

She looked down at baby Joey. “That’s what you do when you love someone.”

Tripp’s fingers threaded though the hair at the base of my neck. “You’re right. That’s exactly what you do.”

Our eyes locked over Romy’s head. But our daughter wasn’t through. She glanced back up at me. “So, you’ve forgiven her? Because you wouldn’t have left me with Nina if you didn’t love her, too. Right?”

Powerful truths from the mouths of an eleven-year-old. I exhaled a heavy sigh. “I’m working on it, sweetheart. I really am. And I’ll get there, I know I will.”

Pummeled by a fresh wave of exhaustion and emotion, I wrapped an arm around Tripp’s waist. “Speaking of forgiveness, have you called your mom yet?”

Tripp chuckled. “Not yet. But she’s called three times in the last hour. She’s probably on her way here.”

As if she’d heard her name, Lily Montgomery walked in, a bouquet of flowers and an enormous teddy bear dwarfing her petite frame. “Of course, I’m here. I’m a grandma again—where else would I be?”

Tripp relieved his mother of her burden and she immediately hugged Romy, then peered down at baby Joey. “Oh my,” she exclaimed in a hushed, reverent tone, before looking up at me. “You and my son do make the most gorgeous babies.”

Tripp cleared his throat. “Before you ask, his name is James Owen.”

The shallow frown that sprung up between her brows eased the moment Romy said, “I picked it. We’re calling him Baby Joey.”

To Tripp’s surprise, Lily was a wonderful grandmother and she’d forged a strong bond with Romy. “What a wonderful name. Joey it is.”

Tripp bent down to my ear. “You know, our marriage license expires tomorrow.”

We had intended to get married two months ago in a small family service, then throw a larger party after the birth. But our plans were put on hold when I was ordered to stay off my feet and be as inactive as possible. “That’s okay. We can get another one whenever we’re ready.”

“I’m ready now. How about you?”

My lips twitched as I read the intention shining from his eyes. “I’m ready, too.”

“I’m sure they have a pastor in the hospital. I don’t know if I can wait another minute to call you my wife.”

I hesitated for a moment, looking at Romy and Lily’s heads bent over our newborn son. “I think we should. I’d like Nina to be here.”

“You do?”

I took a deep breath. “Look at what we have—because we chose to live with love, to lead with forgiveness. I want to give Nina another chance. Not just for Romy, but for me, too.”

Tripp’s admiring stare warmed me to my bones. “You’re something else, Jolie Chapman.”

I tilted my head up for a kiss, a sigh of happiness feathering through my lips. “Nope. I’m still just yours. All yours. Happily ever after.”

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