The saga of Alex and Gwen that started in the bestselling Vlad All Over continues . . . they can’t be together, but they won’t stay apart. Is there a happily ever after in Alex and Gwen’s future? Only the gypsies know for sure.
Alex and Gwen have set aside their animosity for the sake of their son. Joint custody requires cooperation, and they’ve mastered that—perhaps a little too well, at least according to Gwen’s new boyfriend, who’s less than pleased when Gwen agrees to spend the summer in Transylvania with Alex and the kids. Although it’s not as if Alex gives Gwen much of a choice—she only goes to Romania to avoid another bitter costly lawsuit she can’t afford. But Gwen’s visit is timely because the dispute over Dracula’s gold mine is coming to a head. And so is her and Alex’s future.
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“Did you hear that?” I asked.
My boyfriend, Robert, rolled over onto his side. “Hmmm,” he mumbled, still half-asleep.
“Pancakes!” I heard my two-year-old son, David, shout then collapse into giggles.
Dammit. I knew I shouldn’t have moved him into a toddler bed so soon. At least when he still slept in a crib, I had a modicum of control over his early-morning activities.
I slipped out of bed and hustled down the hallway, afraid of what I might find. Last week he’d gotten into the baby powder while I was in the shower and made it “snow” all over the house. I didn’t think my vacuum cleaner would ever recover. Hopefully David woke his half-sister, Isabella, before he started exploring. The two of them could certainly get into trouble together, but since she was almost ten, it was much less than what he’d get into on his own. What I found in the kitchen shocked me even more than the baby powder.
“Alex, what are you doing here?” He was standing at my kitchen counter stirring batter in a mixing bowl. David was sitting cross-legged on the counter—something I never allowed him to do, but Alex routinely did—trying to grab the spoon out of his father’s hand.
“Good morning, Gwen,” Alex said, taking in my outfit with one eye sweep. If I’d known my ex was in the house, I would’ve grabbed my bathrobe. The days of wearing sexy lingerie in front of Alex had ended months before David was even born. “Pancakes?” he asked.
“Mommy!” David yelled and held his arms out to me, which always brought a smile to my face. Apparently I was still more interesting than a bowl of pancake batter. How much longer would that last?
“Good morning, baby,” I said as I lifted him off the counter and inhaled. He still smelled faintly of baby shampoo from last night’s bath, a scent I never tired of.
“I’m not a baby. I’m a big boy.”
His new mantra for the last few weeks. I didn’t know where he’d picked it up from. Maybe from another kid on the playground when he was with his nanny, Katarina.
“Big boys don’t grab Mommy’s breast,” I said, removing his hand from its favorite resting spot. I’d never understood this habit since I’d bottle-fed him from day one. Alex insisted it was instinctual. Or perhaps he just took after his father.
“They don’t?” Alex asked then grinned at me.
Smart ass. “You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here. I thought you weren’t picking up the kids until this afternoon?”
“I took the red-eye home so I decided to get them earlier. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“I don’t,” I said as I set David on the kitchen floor with two of his toy trucks, which usually bought me ten minutes of peace. “But you should’ve called first. I gave you a key for emergencies, not so you could waltz in here whenever you pleased.” Giving Alex a key to my house had been a huge issue for Robert. But since technically he didn’t live with me—he just spent four or five nights a week at my place—I overruled him.
“I didn’t use the key,” Alex said. “Isabella let me in.”
At the mention of her name, I glanced around the kitchen. Even though she was Alex’s daughter, not mine, some weeks she spent more time at my house than at his, especially when he was out of town on business a lot as he had been lately. I didn’t mind. She was a huge help to me with David. They were so close, sometimes I felt like she was the mother and I was the interloper.
“In the living room,” he said, reading my mind. “And I didn’t call first because I didn’t want to wake you.”
Not true. He didn’t call first because he knew I would’ve told him not to come by until Robert left. It was hard enough keeping the peace between them when they weren’t in the same room. “So you didn’t think I’d wake up when you started banging around my kitchen at seven o’clock in the morning?”
Alex sighed. “Gwen, I’ve spent the last twenty-eight hours traveling and I haven’t seen my kids in ten days. Can we please not fight about this?”
I nodded and turned away from him, choosing to busy myself with making coffee instead. Alex and I had a good relationship these days and I wanted to keep it that way. It was better for all of us when we got along. We hadn’t always.
After our bruising custody battle while I was pregnant, I’d been expecting the worst. But Alex softened once David was born. He let him live solely with me for the first three months even though we’d agreed to fifty-fifty joint custody. In exchange, I allowed Alex to come over to my house and visit with David whenever he wanted. That set the tone for all future custody negotiations.
When David turned three months old, Alex insisted we abide by the joint custody agreement. I was devastated. When I’d dropped off David at Alex’s house that first morning, I’d felt like a piece of my heart had been ripped from my body. I was so distraught that Alex let me spend the day with them. And even after I put David to bed that evening, Alex offered me the guest room for the night because I didn’t want to leave. The next two days I only spent the evenings with them. I went back to my own house after David fell asleep. Over time it became easier. Two years later I could last the requisite three or four days without seeing David, but I always began missing him after a few hours.
Alex and I set up a schedule: David was supposed to spend Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and every other Wednesday with me and Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and alternate Wednesdays with him, but it almost never worked out that way. In reality, we shuffled David back and forth all the time depending on our respective schedules. I’d returned to my teaching job at Académie française de la Californie in the fall after David was born so on weekdays he was always with the nanny, either at Alex’s house or mine. And in the last year Alex had started traveling for business a lot more, so I kept David and sometimes Isabella whenever Alex was out of town. When he returned, I always let him have David for a few days even if I was technically supposed to have custody.
Being flexible with the schedule worked out better for all of us—David had two parents who weren’t constantly fighting, Alex could work when and where he needed without worrying about losing time with his son, and it benefitted me too since I ended up with custody of David for more than my fifty percent allotment. Plus, I was able to see David even on Alex’s days because I had an open invitation to Alex’s house.
After that first awful week of joint custody, Alex told me I was welcome to come over and spend time with him and the kids whenever I wanted, which I sometimes did, much to Robert’s consternation. This, however, was not a reciprocal arrangement, much to Alex’s consternation.
“So was that a yes on the pancakes?” Alex asked, pouring batter into the frying pan.
“No,” I said, pulling two mugs down from the cabinet even though the coffee was still brewing. “None for me, thanks.”
Alex sighed again. “Gwen, you need to eat.”
The man had been pushing food down my throat practically since the day we’d met—almost three years ago now. “Do I look too skinny to you?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Really?” I glanced down at myself, still in my cream silk babydoll. It was loose fitting so Alex was unable to see the pouch in my abdomen, which I couldn’t eliminate no matter how much weight I lost or how many crunches I endured. After a year of trying everything, I finally accepted that my stomach was never going to be as flat as it had been pre-baby, at least not without a tummy tuck, which was a step further than I was willing to go. But for my belly, I thought the rest of me looked pretty good. I was thinner now than I had been before I’d gotten pregnant, which I attributed less to my attempts at a healthy diet and more to my constantly running after David and not having time to eat.
“Robert likes me this way,” I said.
Alex rolled his eyes. “Of course he does.”
I let the comment slide.
“I like you a little rounder,” Alex continued.
I laughed. “Then you must’ve loved me when I was pregnant. I was very round then.” I’d only gained twenty pounds, but my stomach was huge.
“I did.” He stared at me through those familiar sea-green eyes. David had inherited them from Alex, although David’s eyes were a few shades darker.
I turned away. Yet another conversation I didn’t want to have. Leaving the past in the past was better for both of us.
Alex finished cooking breakfast and I set the table and rounded up David and Isabella. When Alex passed me the platter of blueberry pancakes, I grabbed one to keep the peace. It wasn’t a major concession—they smelled delicious.
“Isn’t this a lovely family portrait,” Robert said from the kitchen doorway. He was dressed in my favorite of his scrubs—the dark blues—the same ones he’d been wearing the day I’d met him. He wasn’t supposed to wear his scrubs outside the hospital anymore, but occasionally he did anyway, usually when he was too tired to change into street clothes before heading home.
“Sorry I didn’t wake you,” I said, jumping up from the table. “I figured you’d rather sleep.” Robert hadn’t crept into my bed until almost three a.m., even though his shift was supposed to end at midnight. The ER was always busy, and he often worked longer hours than he was scheduled to.
I poured him a cup of coffee, added two sugars, and handed him the steaming mug. “Thanks,” he said and took a sip.
“Good morning, Doctor Bob!” David waved to him between bites of pancake.
Robert crossed to the table and ruffled his hair. “Good morning, champ. Morning, Isabella.”
“Good morning, Doctor Bob,” Isabella said. She wasn’t quite as fond of Robert as David was. I suspected Alex had something to do with that.
“Good morning, Doctor Bob,” Alex said too.
I shot Alex a don’t-make-trouble-for-me look.
He knew Robert didn’t like the nickname “Doctor Bob.” He accepted it from the kids, and from me on occasion, but not from Alex. David was the one who had started it. When he first began talking, he couldn’t say “Robert” and instead called him “Baba.” But “Baba” was too close to “Dada” for Alex’s liking, so I tried to get David to call Robert “Doctor Robert,” which eventually became “Doctor Bob.”
“Alexander,” Robert said because he knew Alex preferred the shortened version. “What brings you here so early on a Saturday morning?”
“Breakfast with my children,” Alex said without looking up from his plate. “Obviously.”
“Yes, your children,” Robert derisively replied before turning back to me. “Sweetheart, don’t you think you should put on some clothes?”
I glanced down at my lingerie. Shit, I’d meant to grab my bathrobe. I’d just gotten so caught up with Alex and the kids I’d forgotten. “Yeah, I’ll go change.”
“No need to dress on my account.” Alex gave me another eye sweep and smiled. “I was always quite fond of that outfit.”
I shot him a second stop-making-trouble-for-me look, even though the damage was already done.