“Your son is obsessed.”
Aiden’s little face screws up to match Rocky’s on the screen as he mimics the sit-ups. Ever since my husband watched Rocky last week, our three-year-old begs us to turn it on so he can do the workout scene.
Rider grins. “That’s my boy.”
With a laugh, I shake my head and try to scoot past Rider, who’s sitting on the couch, but like lightning, he swipes an arm around my waist and tugs me into his lap. But I land gently, because Rider is always careful when I’m in this state.
I trail my fingers through his thick hair. “The party yesterday was out of control.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” He tries to contain his smile when he kisses me but fails.
“Don’t pretend like you’re sorry. Or that it won’t happen again. Can you imagine what the neighbors must be saying right now?”
Kiss. Kiss. Longer kiss.
“It’s true. We had too many chicks.”
We stare at each other a beat before we crack up.
“A petting zoo, Rider?” I snort as he rubs my growing belly.
“I can’t help it. I wanna spoil her before the season starts.”
I grab his beautiful face in both hands before I plant another kiss on his lips. “You’re forgiven. Poppy was ecstatic. When you said I should leave the details to you, I was a bit skeptical, but you outdid yourself.”
Our backyard was filled to the brim with every furry creature he could find. They were all penned in carefully and organized so the bigger animals wouldn’t freak out the smaller ones. Adults supervised every child to ensure they were gentle with the animals. Most were rescues, and we used yesterday to showcase them to our neighbors and friends, many of whom adopted a furry friend or donated to the cause.
Poppy just turned seven, and she’s absolutely precious to both of us. Maybe more so because she’s the reason we got together in the first place.
When Rider is offseason or home between games, he’s very hands-on with our children. Even when he travels, he checks in every day to video chat with me and the kids.
Our lives have been a whirlwind since we graduated, but in the best way.
We were ecstatic when Dallas drafted him. He even won himself a Super Bowl ring two years ago. And Rider’s championship win his senior year garnered all the funding the Broncos needed to renovate their aging stadium.
After my student-teaching stint, in which I figured out I enjoyed public school over Archer any day, I got a job at a Dallas high school. But having Poppy and then Aiden, I realized what I was missing during those college years when I was trying to figure out my life wasn’t a teaching job, but having family.
Since Rider’s season is so intense, I decided to homeschool Poppy, which helped me stay involved with a field I found truly rewarding. We meet with several families that get together to teach our kids, and I’m having a blast. Poppy is doing so well, and because we’re part of a larger coalition, she doesn’t miss out on any sports or extra activities with other kids. Plus, the parents share the responsibilities across the different subjects so everything doesn’t fall to just one person who might not have the expertise.
When I’m not prepping our class activities, I’m whipping up treats for my small baking side gig, which isn’t so small these days. After I had so much luck licensing my baked goods to Rise ’N Grind, Rider encouraged me to pursue that. As a result, my mom’s recipes formed the bedrock of my company Dulce, which now serves dozens of bakeries in Texas.
As I sit on his lap, engulfed in his muscular arms, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.
“Whatcha smiling about there, sweet mama?” he whispers in my ear as he caresses my belly with a slow stroke.
“Just how lucky I am. How much I love our family.” I tilt my head back to look at him. Trace a finger over his lean, stubbled jaw. “How much I love you.”
“Love you too, baby.” His lips descend to mine, and we’re in our own little bubble for two point two seconds. Until a little voice goes, “Ew!”
We break apart to see our daughter standing there with her hands on her hips. “Y’all are always so kissy-kissy. Cody Stevenson says kissing’s where babies come from. Is that how come we’re getting another brother?” Poppy points to my belly. “Because of the kissing?”
No, it’s because Daddy loves when Mommy gets new sex toys. I chuckle to myself and make a mental note to thank Sienna for her latest recommendation.
I feel Rider shake with silent laughter beneath me. “You’re getting another baby brother or sister because I love Mommy.” Beneath his breath, he adds, “And I can’t keep my hands off her.”
Cricket rushes in from the backyard. “Good news and bad news, my peeps. The good? We found the rogue goat. The bad? He got into Adele’s garden.”
Adele wanted to be near all the babies, and since we have a huge place, we invited her to move in with us last year. She’s getting older, and this way we can keep an eye on her.
“Yikes. Well”—I pat Rider’s chest—“guess I know what you’re going to be doing next week.”
He gives me a crooked grin. “Planting lots of eggplant.”
I chuckle and kiss him again, and Cricket tosses a dishrag at us. “Hey, gross. I got that joke.”
“What joke?” Poppy asks, looking between us.
Changing the subject, I try to scoot off Rider’s lap, but laugh when he won’t let me. Giving up, I ask Poppy, “Did you organize your toys?” When Poppy nods, I smile. This kid loves organizing almost as much as I do. “Let’s go through your closet for anything we can give away.”
Her little nose crinkles. “Why do we have to do this again? I like having lots of stuff.”
“Not all kids have toys, and since you have some you don’t play with anymore, I thought we could give some presents to children at this foster home I found and maybe make some new friends.”
After a pause, she gives me a decisive nod. “I like that idea. Will you help me, Mommy?”
“Get started and I’ll be up in ten minutes.”
Before she leaves, she turns to Rider. “Daddy, can we put together the Ferris wheel puzzle tonight?”
“After dinner, squirt.”
When she races off, she grabs Cricket and drags her behind her. I chuckle at the mock look of exasperation on Cricket’s face.
Cricket told us early on she never had the parental gene but wanted to be in our lives in whatever capacity we were comfortable. Poppy knows Cricket is her birth mother, but considers me her mommy. That’s never bothered Cricket, who likes that she’s more like the nutty aunt who gets to swoop in on the weekends to spoil my kids. Since Rider and I both know what it’s like to have a single parent, we figured the more people in Poppy’s life who love her, the better. And since that rehab, Cricket has worked hard to stay sober.
I sink back onto Rider’s lap and smile as I watch our son pretend he’s a boxer. We have a few weeks before Rider has to go to training camp, so I want to soak in every minute I have with him.
“What time is Sully coming over?” I ask drowsily as Rider rubs my belly in a soothing rhythm.
“He’ll be here for the barbecue.”
We see Sully so much that Poppy calls him Gramps.
On a side note, “Gramps” has been making eyes at Adele for a while, but she’ll never admit they’re hooking up. Sometimes his car is in our driveway until morning. I can’t bring myself to tease them about it. Yet.
I plant a quick kiss on Rider’s handsome mug and scoot off his lap. With a groan, I attempt to straighten the family room, which looks like an F5 tornado just blew through.
“Leave it, babe. I’ll clean up.”
I give him a grateful smile, but I can’t help straightening the photos on our fireplace that somehow got cockeyed.
Smiling, I study the photo of Adele and Sully at the Super Bowl. Both are wearing the Ride-or-Die t-shirts I made for our little crew of friends and fam. I trail my finger over our other photos. Pics of us with my cousins Tori and Kat and their families. Shots of us with Rider’s old Bronco roommates, who had a big reunion last summer. Images with his new teammates.
Rider’s father Hank is noticeably absent, but he refuses to visit. Once Rider got drafted, he bought Hank a house and set up a grocery delivery service to make sure he always has food. But Hank’s so bitter, he refuses to make an effort. It breaks my heart that he won’t try for his son. I think that just makes Rider more determined to be a better father for our own children.
I don’t really see much of Aunt Carmen either, but I’ve stayed in touch with her girls. They know they can always reach out to us if they ever need anything.
Pausing at a photo of my brother, I glance at my husband. “Is Ben still up in the guest room?”
He and his wifey went upstairs to “take a nap.” They’ve been visiting this week to celebrate Poppy’s birthday and to help with the surprise I have planned for Rider later today.
It’s been a tough road for me and my brother, but our relationship has come a long way.
Rider shakes his head. “Where’s my nap, huh? I think Mommy needs to tuck me in.”
I toss a throw pillow at him. My look says it all. This morning wasn’t enough?
Fortunately, our son only pays attention to us when we talk about food. He’s now jogging around the room with his arms raised in a victory lap, his pull-ups on the way to his knees.
“Child, get over here.” I re-clothe my kid, kiss his sticky face, and give him the sniff test. “You’re definitely getting a bath tonight.”
“Na da baff.”
“Yes, the bath, champ. Even Rocky took baths.”
He pauses at that. Looks at his dad, who nods. But because Aiden has the attention span of a squirrel, he scampers off to roll around in his makeshift fort.
“I’d do anything to have that kind of energy.” I sigh and sit my pregnant ass down on the couch next to Rider, who says he’ll be right back and heads to the kitchen. I need to regroup so I can help Poppy go through her toys, but my God, I’m tired.
“Eat.” He hands me the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all day. Finger foods. Sandwiches, cut into quarters. Apple slices. Cheese—so much cheese. Green and black olives. Nuts. He’s a charcuterie board genius. I’m so excited, I almost cry.
I still have a hard time remembering to eat sometimes. When Rider’s home, he’s always making sure my blood sugar doesn’t get low. When he’s working, he sets timers on my phone so I don’t get run down.
“When did you do this?” Grinning, I double-fist mini-sandwiches and shovel them in to my mouth.
“After I spoke to Brian.” His agent.
Ugh. “I almost forgot. I’m afraid to ask.”
After what happened in college, we both turned off our social media notifications. Rider is constantly in the spotlight, so people are going to talk. Most is good, but a lot can be negative or critical or just plain mean. We decided a long time ago that if we really needed to see something, his agent will let us know. We’d rather focus on our family than waste energy dealing with negativity, most of which we can’t do anything about anyway.
“Miranda’s getting sued for trying to blackmail the guy.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised.”
He rubs my shoulder. “She threatened him with photos of him passed out and naked.”
Sienna always tells me to leave it up to karma, that people get what they deserve. She points to Zoe Evans as a prime example. Zoe had a few million followers online, married some celebrity, and wrote a book about what it takes to make a marriage. Only for everyone to find out that she and her husband had both been cheating on each other.
And who was Zoe’s husband cheating on her with? Miranda. Who was blackmailing him.
“Aren’t you glad you married me instead of her?” We always wondered if Miranda had something to do with his paternity scandal hitting the media when it did. Maybe she was upset he was dating me and wanted revenge or somehow thought a scandal would break us up. I frown when I think about how close we got to letting that happen.
“Babe.” He kisses my temple. “She was never an option.”
“Really? You never considered marrying Miranda?”
The horrified expression on his face makes me laugh. “God, no.” He looks me up and down. “You, on the other hand… Had to lock you up tight, as quickly as possible.”
“To think you almost lost your chance,” I say playfully as I pinch his side.
“Stop rewriting history. I always knew you were the one.”
I’m still smiling as I help Poppy and Cricket figure out which toys we can donate to the foster home. By six o’clock, another flurry of activity has everyone rushing around the kitchen to prepare for the barbecue.
Rider doesn’t know it yet, but I have a teeny-tiny surprise for him.
Once we’re assembled outside for the barbecue, I greet our guests.
“Thanks for coming, guys,” I say loudly so everyone in the backyard can hear me. “It means a lot to Rider and me that you could spend some time with us this summer before you head off to training camp.”
I could’ve done this yesterday, but I didn’t want to take away the focus from Poppy’s birthday. Our girl deserved her special day.
Rider steps up to me and wraps a thick arm around my shoulder.
I clear my throat. “Honey, I have a surprise for you and the kids.”
His eyebrows lift. “You got us a boat?”
I shake my head. “Boats are dangerous. No.”
Everyone chuckles, and I run my hand up his chest. “This is even better, but you’re definitely going to need to buckle up for the ride.” I turn to the small crowd and call Poppy to our side. Adele comes closer with Aiden in tow. “I had a doctor’s appointment this week that I may have forgotten to mention.”
Rider’s head jerks toward me. “What? Naughty girl.” He gives my ass a little smack, and I laugh.
“I may have found out the sex of the baby. Are you ready?”
He nods excitedly. Rider lives for this kind of stuff.
I give Tank the signal, and he fires the paper cannon. Pink and blue streamers hit the sky.
At first, everyone’s quiet, and Rider turns to me again. “Why are there two colors? Did they make a mistake?”
“Nope.” I reach into my pocket and pull out the sonogram photos. “We’re having twins! A boy and a girl! Congrats, stud! You’re getting two-for-one.”
“Holy shit. Are you serious?” Before I respond, he lifts me into the air and plants one on me.
“This is why they keep having babies,” Poppy yells. “Daddy won’t stop kissing her. I heard Mommy tell her friend she lives for his special kisses, whatever that means.”
Rider’s teammates howl, and I blush furiously.
My husband looks into my eyes and smiles. “And I never will stop kissing you. Love you, sweetheart. My little ride-or-die.”
“Love you too.” I rub his arm where he has his tattoos. A field of poppies for his daughter. Some jasmine, because that’s my middle name. A blazing sun for Aiden, since the name was derived from the Celtic sun god and means ‘fiery.’ “You’re going to have to start on the other arm.”
“Hell yeah, I am.” Leaning close, he whispers in my ear, “Don’t tell the guys, but this might be better than winning the Super Bowl.”
I thread my fingers through his hair. “So you’re not freaked out?”
“With you by my side, pretty sure I can do anything. Having my babies, giving me a beautiful family, is about the best gift you could ever give me. Thank you, Gabriela.”
I feel the same way. Rider is my home, and he always will be.
And the best part? We’ve only just begun.