First Chapter: Boy Toy
“No,” Kate says when I hold up the tiny jeans. “No pants. No.”
Of course she refuses them. She’s two. Two-year-olds are made of No. But I have to be at work in forty minutes, it’s a fifteen-minute drive, and I need some time built into the schedule for me to have a complete and total breakdown.
Today will be the girls’ first time at daycare, even though I swore this day would never come. I didn’t want my girls to be marched out of their own home every morning like tiny nine-to-fivers. I wanted them to enjoy the comforts of home through those formative early years, so I could control their environment. You know, for optimal brain development and health.
Yet here we are. Daycare. If motherhood has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is truly in my control.
And it’s all because this family has had a spot of trouble with nannies. When I say a “spot of trouble” I’m underplaying things just a little bit. The first nanny decided that boinking my ex-husband was a good idea. And yes, I know the nanny and Decker were equally culpable.
But that was only the beginning of the Great Nanny Hell Spiral. Nannies number two, three, and four quit within weeks. They were poached by other playgroup mothers who didn’t have twins. And nanny number five lasted four months, until I realized she’d been stealing from me the entire time.
The fates have decided that employing nannies was not for me. After I discovered three grand in unauthorized credit card charges, daycare suddenly sounded like a reasonable option, and my kiddos’ developing personalities might even benefit from more social interaction.
Kate’s pants are now the only obstacle to this new plan.
I take a deep breath and pray for patience. Then I let it out again. I am a trained therapist. An expert in psychology. Insight into the human mind is my specialty. Yet my years of education are no match for negotiating with my toddlers. “You can’t go to school without pants on,” I point out. “It’s a rule.”
“No pants,” she repeats, just in case I didn’t get it the first time. “No no no.”
“Fine,” I lie. “Leggings instead. Gotcha.” I open up her dresser drawer and grab a pair of purple leggings. They’ll look ridiculous with her green T-shirt, but it’s better than a meltdown.
Anything is better than a meltdown. My meltdown this time, not hers.
She regards the leggings with round-cheeked suspicion.
“Please put these on,” I whisper. “We can’t have waffles until they’re on.” I hate bribing my child with food, but there’s no denying its effectiveness. Faster than you can say organic maple syrup she toddles over and offers a chubby little leg for the cladding.
“Well done!” I say with false cheer. Scooping her into the leggings and then onto my hip, I lift both of us off the floor and look around for her sister. Amy is sitting beside the baby gate, waiting for us, ever-present pacifier in her mouth and Piggypoo clutched in her chubby hand.
She’s my cooperative child. And I tremble at the thought of trying to leave her to the chaos of daycare.
* * *
Twenty minutes later I walk them both through the door at Small Packages daycare. I’m carrying a duffel bag full of extra clothes, nut-free food, and comforting items from home. The most comforting item, in my opinion, is the lengthy instructional letter I’ve included. I’ve written a long list of descriptions of the twins’ varying emotional reactions, complete with solutions. They’ll need the pacifier and Piggypoo to soothe Amy. And there’s a football helmet to ensure Kate doesn’t hurt herself too badly when tackling things. I’ve jotted down the songs they like and a list of foods that will send them into a tailspin.
Next week I’ll drop off some suggested reading on childcare development. I don’t want to come off too strong on day one.
Even though I’ve been preparing for this moment, my heart rate is still about twice the healthy limit. Because I know when I walk out of here Amy will lose her mind. And even Kate will take a break from trying to run the world and hate me for leaving her.
I turn my critical eye onto the ponytailed girl behind the reception desk. She looks about sixteen years old. And she’s in charge of checking kids in and out? Seriously? What do these people know about security?
My stomach dives for the tenth time today. No moment in parenting has ever made me feel guiltier. Not even when I fell down the stairs carrying Kate. (She was fine, but it was close!) And not even when my girls ask, “Where Daddy go?” and I have no answer to give them.
At least that’s his fault, not mine.
But today is all on me. This feels like dropping the girls off at the county jail. What if Amy misplaces Piggypoo or needs a drink of water? Will someone bring her one? I won’t see them for nine hours. Nine. Entire civilizations have fallen in less time than that.
“Good morning! Welcome to Small Packages! You must be Sadie! And Kate and Amy!”
I blink at Miss Ponytail, surprised that she got that right. “We are. Yes. First day. Here we go!” My words are the equivalent of machine gun speech—nervous and rapid-fire.
“Here is your welcome packet, complete with webcam access.” She pushes a shiny folder across the desk at me. “Step right over to the ladybug room! He’s waiting for you.”
Kate takes off running toward the door with the ladybugs crawling all over it. But Amy wraps her arms around my knee. “No school,” she says softly. “Home now.”
Oh boy. I feel my throat beginning to double in size. Here comes the tearful departure. I know a woman whose daughter cried at the daycare door every day for three years. This could be bad. My daughter is going to end up in therapy because I leave her every day to give therapy to others.
Where is the logic in that?
I scoop Amy off the floor and nuzzle her silky cheek. “They have toys in there,” I whisper. “If you don’t try out school, you won’t get to see the toys. Hey, I see a really great rocking horse in the corner.” It’s the plush kind with a silky mane.
Even so, pointing it out makes me the worst kind of traitor. Amy is my sensitive one. My parents call her an Indigo Child, but I don’t like to influence her with their new-agey wisdom. It is true that Amy only wants her mother, which I’m both proud and guilty about. I mean, here I’m trying to sell her down the river for a fake pony ride. When she gets off that horse five minutes from now, her mommy will be gone.
It’s suddenly very hard to swallow.
I try to loosen Amy’s death grip around my neck.
These miserable thoughts are interrupted by a very jolly, very male voice. “Sadie Mathews?”
I look up to see a startlingly gorgeous man seated just inside the ladybug doorway. He’s young—in his twenties, probably—with tanned skin and wavy brown hair. He has smooth, very muscular arms. They bulge. His biceps are straining the sleeves of the polo shirt he’s wearing. They’re fascinating. I didn’t know that muscles could ripple like that.
He clears his throat.
Giving myself a mental slap, I straighten my spine and get back to the program at hand. It’s time to betray my children and make a quick exit.
But then I meet Mr. Biceps’ gaze, and find something in it that’s a bit familiar. I can’t put my finger on why, though.
“Wow, Sadie!” His smile is so wide that the tickle of familiarity intensifies. “It’s been too long! And are these your daughters?”
“Y-yes?” I stammer. Who is this guy? I’ve seen those warm, blue eyes before. I think. But the rest of him isn’t familiar at all. There’s no way I could know a man this attractive and not remember him.
I may be divorced, but I’m not dead.
“Hi,” I try, giving him a big, familiar handshake and a smile. “How are you?”
His eyes narrow. Then he stands up, covering his heart with one broad palm. “I’m trying really hard here not to be crushed that you don’t remember me. But it’s more than a little heartbreaking. I’m Liam McAllister. I know it’s been a while, but…”
“Oh my God, Liam!” My poor, stressed-out little brain tries to make sense of all the contrary information. “But… You’re six feet tall!” The last time I saw Liam McAllister we were the same height. Also, he was a pimply fourteen-year-old.
“I’m actually 6-3!” He beams, and then I recognize those dimples. Liam was always such a sweet little boy. But, Lordy. I’m experiencing a moment of cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile the Liam I used to babysit with this hunk of man.
“Seriously, I need a ladder just to shake your hand. What are they feeding you?”
“Aw!” He leans forward and literally picks me—and therefore Amy, too—off the ground for a quick hug. As if we weigh nothing. “It’s awfully good to see you. You look exactly the same.”
“Nice try,” I mutter under my breath, because I know that’s a lie. Since my divorce, when I look in the mirror, I see a stressed-out, unattractive woman. And just so you don’t think it’s all in my head, my ex made sure to tell me that he wasn’t attracted to me anymore. And that it was my fault he strayed.
“And, wow. Your daughters! Twins! I don’t think the world can really handle two beautiful Sadie clones. I’m surprised there isn’t, like, a disruption in the magnetic field at the poles.” He sits down again. “What is your name, miss?” Liam addresses this question to Kate. He’s taken her hand in his, and it’s the only thing preventing her from tearing into the room to start rooting through the toys.
“Kate,” she chirps.
“I’m Liam. You look like you want to hit that dress-up box, right?”
She nods like a thoroughbred in the starting gates at the Kentucky Derby.
“Have at it then.” He releases her, and I grab ahold of her green shirt before she can pounce.
“Hat!” I say. Kate grabs the little football helmet from the duffel bag, shoves it on her head, and charges, where I know she’s going to literally hit that dress-up box head-on.
“Sensory issues?” he asks, but it’s soft and not judgey.
“We’re navigating it,” I respond, a little startled that he seems to get it.
“No worries. The dress-up box is cardboard. She’ll be just fine. We also have a climbing wall outside on the play structure.”
I try to nod, but it’s hard to do with a two-year-old boa-constrictored around your neck.
Liam drops his voice to a softer timbre. “You must be Amy.”
She stares at him. At the bulging muscles, maybe, or perhaps that’s just me. Slowly I lower her to the floor, and she doesn’t complain. She’s sucking on that pacifier so vigorously that I’m relieved not to be breastfeeding anymore. She tips her head to the side, as if considering whether Liam-Who-Grew-Into-a-Hunk will be her new bestie.
Liam makes a beckoning motion to me, and for a split second I think he’s asking me to sit in his lap. I’m giving the invitation some serious consideration when I realize that he means for me to pass the duffel bag to him.
I hand it over.
“Amy, listen,” he says, never taking his kind eyes off hers. “There is a train set with enough track to go all the way around the snack table.” He gives her a meaningful nod. “I was thinking of setting it up, but I’m gonna need some help. Are you in?”
My daughter pops her pacifier out, says “Piggypoo?” and then plunks the pacifier back in. I’m just about to explain when Liam sets the duffel bag down and rescues Piggypoo from its dark depths. He holds it out to her and she gives him a solemn nod. She takes it from him and nestles it securely under her armpit.
He holds out a hand slowly, palm up, the way you’d gain the trust of a dog.
She puts her little hand in the center of his.
“All right. We’d better get to work, then.”
I’m mesmerized as Amy takes a few steps closer. She’s standing right against his knee, looking up at him admiringly.
Liam glances at me. Go, he mouths.
I turn on my heel and beat it out of there.