Per usual, Finley invested time in her garden when she had other obligations on her plate. Her latest pregnancy was moving along swimmingly, no complications in sight. That was always a relief she could indulge herself in when hiding wasn’t enough.
While she watered her carefully grafted plants, her phone buzzed away in her pocket. It’d been going off so much lately that she even felt weak vibrations when no one was calling. She didn’t need to see the screen to know that it was Malcolm calling again. He’d been at it since their night together. Not once had she braved answering it.
Finley had to wonder if pleasing her creator was really the route she needed to take in life. Her family was perfect just the way it was. She and Manu’s three children were nearly the textbook family unit, apart from the separation. And Eddie’s rebellious years. Whenever she fondly observed her children, she almost always blocked out what a handful her oldest had been.
Even though Sasha was her first child with a different father, Finley knew that she fit perfectly into her family tree as well. Her siblings didn’t treat her any differently, and, gradually over time, she seemed to come to love them more. Sasha willingly spent time with Frankie and Quinn, even when their mother was free.
Would Ana be able to squeeze into the picture with ease? Finley, perhaps without even knowing, put off aging Ana up for this very reason. As of now, her youngest child caused no rifts in her established home. But she was only a baby. What would happen when she was a child? Her personality might be off-putting or simply not meld well enough with the others. And then there was yet another little life slumbering in her middle. Two more children with two different fathers. Was her creator really leading her down the best path?
Finally, in her third semester, Finley answered the phone for Malcolm. She hadn’t meant to, accidentally pressing the green accept instead of the red icon. It felt too rude to hang up after this mistake. She had thought for sure that the wealthy heir would berate her for ignoring him, but he didn’t even mention this. Malcolm begged her to talk to him. He was able to get her to agree to a chat in the park, somewhere public that she wouldn’t have to feel threatened in. Finley brought along Sasha as well, knowing that she could always use her daughter as an excuse to leave.
Finley joined Malcolm on a bench while Sasha ran off to play. “Wow, you are huge!” he greeted without even a hint of knowingly being rude. “I didn’t think you would be so far along yet.”
“Yeah, pregnancies tend to progress,” Finley mumbled, already uncomfortable on the plastic seat. “So, what’s up?”
Malcolm chuckled at that, and then frowned when she didn’t join in. “Well isn’t that obvious? I want to discuss the arrangements for our child.”
“You know, custody arrangements. How often will I keep them? A certain number of hours per week or consistent days? I’m sorry, but I thought you would be keen to discussing this before the birth.”
“You want the baby?” Finley was unable to keep all of her pointed disbelief out of her voice.
“Why would I not want my child? I don’t plan on taking them away from you; I’m not that cruel—unless you prove to be an unfit mother.”
Finley scoffed. “I’d be more concerned about you. You destroyed my kids’ dollhouse!” she hadn’t meant to snap.
She thought things would become even more awkward after that. Sasha waved to her mom from the pirate ship, and Finley waved back, trying to hide her building tension. She had assumed that the tension was mutual, but Malcolm appeared undisturbed by how their conversation was going. He kept a mild expression and even commented on what a fine young daughter she had raised. “See, I knew I was right. My parents think I’ve simply made a juiced mistake, but I knew that you were the right fit for the job.”
To say she was a bit bewildered would be an understatement. She had figured that the somewhat snobby guy wanted to talk about whether or not the baby would deserve to get his name, or make her sign papers saying she wouldn’t press him for money. She had never thought that he would actually try to take her child, even for a portion of the time. That made her remembering their awful night together and the following actions he took even more angering. “Why on earth would I let you have any custody over the baby?”
“Because I’m the father?” his gamely smile faltered for a moment.
“You went up to my kids’ bedroom and destroyed their stuff! That doesn’t make me want to let you around any kid unattended, let alone my own.”
“I—I didn’t like that doll house. It wouldn’t be suitable for my heir; it’s the cheapest one on the market. I ordered a much more extravagant replacement.”
“That,” she was taken aback for a second by his lack of understanding. “Doesn’t make it right. My kids were asleep a few feet away. They would have been so scared if they’d woken up to see some strange guy beating down their stuff! Don’t you get how inappropriate that was?”
“So that is why you asked me to leave so suddenly? I was almost afraid that I wasn’t up to par in the boudoir.” Malcolm chucked to himself and Finley chose not to comment on this. Suddenly, his expression turned serious. “I suppose I was a bit angered as well. When I saw all those kids, well, I felt tricked. You had made yourself sound like any other single mother, not some overbred kennel bitch.”
Finley sucked in a quick breath upon hearing that word, but relaxed the tiniest amount when she realized he hadn’t meant it like that. At least, she didn’t think he had.
“I should apologize. I made a rash judgment of you, and allowed that to cloud my reason. I’ve put much thought towards it, and realized that you having so many children is a great thing for me. When not in my care, my child will be in very capable hands.”
Although not the direction she thought the conversation would take, her talk with Malcolm was making her just as uncomfortable as she thought it would. She was actually thankful when some Sasha caused a minor argument with two strangers. It gave her a reason to get up.
After apologizing to and then shooing away the offended women, Finley calmed her daughter down by agreeing to play a sea monster for her. She hadn’t done that since her boys were young, and it brought back pleasant memories that calmed her a bit. “Terrific mothering!” Malcolm happily cheered from the bench. Once again, she tensed.
When she announced that they were leaving, Malcolm surprised her by asking if he could say something to the baby. He didn’t wait for her approval to lower himself down to her stomach. He baby talked a few pleasantries and then rubbed the large bump. He didn’t seem to notice her body stiffening out of discomfort. “So, when did you decide that you wanted a baby?” she asked, trying to distract him from feeling around for a kick.
It worked and he stood straight again. “Oh I’ve always wanted a child. The Landgraabs wouldn’t be where they are now if someone dropped the ball and didn’t bring in a new generation.”
“I thought you didn’t want to be tied down with a kid?”
He laughed. “Where did you hear that? I’ve wanted one for a long time, it’s the mother I don’t wish to be straddled with. Hence, why you’re perfect!”
A few days later, a knock interrupted the busy afternoon scene unfolding in the Harper household. Finley, struggling to fit the back onto the post of an earring, saw her old friend at the door. She called for him to come in. He entered, easily dodging Sasha who was being chased by Frankie for whatever reason.
“You look real beautiful today, Finn,” Brandon greeted. Finley nearly giggled and blushed seeing his earnest expression. She had to remind herself that that was simply who he was, an extremely nice guy. Part of her wished that he would find someone perfect to be with already, just so that she wouldn’t have to daydream about his perfection anymore. Although, she had suspicions that she would be extremely jealous seeing him with another woman. Or a man. They’d never really discussed who he was looking for.
“Thanks,” she finally responded. “I’m stuck going to some rich family’s house. I feel really ridiculous.”
“But you look amazing! Well, just as amazing as any other old day, but that dress is pretty and…” he rambled off, endearing himself to Finley even further. Sometimes she had the strangest suspicion that she might have had a chance at being with him. She usually shook it off pretty quick. It was probably just foolish unrealistic hope; if he’d had any interest, he would have showed it a long time ago. Other men had had no problem with this.
“I’m really really sorry, but I’ve got to get going. We should get together soon though!”
“That’s no problem. I actually swung over to talk to Quinn and Frankie anyhow.”
“Oh,” Finley gave a quick shrug. It hurt a little bit every time she had to be reminded that he was just a friend. He probably didn’t see her any differently than her older children now. They seemed to be just as close with him. “Well, have fun then.” She took off towards the door, calling out thanks to Quinn for volunteering to watch the house. Finley was curious as to what Brandon wanted to talk about, but nerves began to take over this.
“You wanted to talk to me?” Quinn asked, taking a seat at his chess table. He motioned for the neighbor to join him. He’d known the man all of his life, but he couldn’t recall exchanging any serious type of conversation with him before.
“Yes sir,” Brandon answered. He sat down, but didn’t go to move any of his pieces. Instead, he twisted his hands together in his lap and bounced one leg up and down.
“Well, I’ve already spoken to Eddie ‘bout this, and he agreed, but I didn’t think it was fair to ask jus’ him and not you and your sister. You’re close enough in age, and he’s not home anymore, so he’s not really man of the house.”
Quinn kept in a laugh at the man’s obvious nervousness. “And what did Eddie agree to?”
“I wanted to see if, uh, you would allow me to ask your mother on a date.”
Frankie made her presence in their conversation known as soon as he said that. “You wanna date our mom?”
“I sure do. She’s a wonderful woman with such a big heart. I’ve never felt closer to anyone, and I’d really like to share every day with her.”
Frankie wanted to playfully tease the man. Seeing how excited he was when talking about her mom though, she just couldn’t. She couldn’t think of any guy ever saying nice things about her before, certainly not her dad. And if she kept spouting out kids, then it probably wouldn’t happen again.
The front door opened and Eddie casually strolled in. He was halfway to the fridge (the one he seemed to raid every day) before he stopped to wave to everyone. “I see Brandon here has come to talk about Mom’s love life with you guys too.”
A touch of red came to Brandon’s cheeks. “This is inappropriate, isn’t it? Dammit, I went round and round on this in my head. I apologize, I—”
“Chill,” Frankie ordered. “I think it’s cute.”
“It is nice to hear that a man actually cares for our Mother,” Quinn chimed in.
Frankie sighed. “Too bad she’s not going to take him up on it.”
“How do you figure?”
“He is so friend zoned!”
“I dunno,” Eddie said, finally having made it to the fridge and speaking with leftovers in his mouth. “The way Dad tells it, she pretty much had a thing for him all along.”
With all the commotion, Sasha eventually joined in, arguing against pretty much any point that anyone brought up. She didn’t even fully know what they were talking about, but she was going to be heard!
Brandon smiled, surprisingly not overwhelmed by the energetic conversation that was whirling all around him. Sure, the kids were talking about him like he wasn’t there, but it was sweet in a way, even if some of the things brought up made him shake more when thinking of asking Finny for a date. Although he was not courting their mother, he felt as though the kids he’d seen grow up were his own in a way.
Finley had known that Malcolm’s family was wealthy, but that still didn’t prepare her for the massive piece of architecture that loomed before her. While gorgeous, she could never imagine living in such a house. If she really did decide to let him have partial custody, what would her child think being torn between two very different lifestyles?
Finley braced herself before timidly approaching the mansion. She knocked at the door, seeing no buzzer to press. As she waited, she wondered how she’d let herself get roped into this mess. With reason, she could come up with a list as to why she should step away from Malcolm and try to raise their child involving him as little as possible. His actions led her to believe he was very self-centered and somewhat out of touch with reality. Still, something about his wanting to have a child touched her. She hadn’t yet experienced that with a man. And then he went out pulled out the card that influenced her the most: family. He had parents. Their child could experience what it was like to have grandparents, something she’d never get to know.
After standing outside the house for twenty minutes, she decided to give Malcolm a call. It would be a disaster if someone thought she was up to know good in such an expensive neighborhood. He answered on the third ring, asking if she was at the house yet. He’d begged her to come after all, setting up the date and time so that his parents could meet the woman carrying their newest family member.
“What do you mean ‘am I here?’ Of course I am, where are you?” Finley listened to his reply, getting upset at the fact that it wasn’t at the house. She threatened him that she was leaving, angered that he had wanted her to meet his parents without his even being there, but he apologized and told her he’d be present shortly.
Perhaps he’d simply been raised poorly. She couldn’t fault him if he was raised to only think of himself. He did seem to be trying to learn from all the things he did to upset her.
Malcolm jogged up the sidewalk soon after they hung up, easing her frustration slightly. He remarked that he was surprised they weren’t home. Finley had suspicions that he hadn’t even told his parents of the meeting. “We can wait in my room; it’s much less stuffy in there.”
It didn’t hit Finley until she was actually standing in his bedroom. She’d known that he still lived with his mother and father, but the realization of that being slightly strange at his age didn’t register until she saw him room. He didn’t have a house, he had a room. Her kids had a room. It didn’t matter that his was much bigger and even had its own bathroom, it was still the same. He’d probably made no move to ever leave.
Finley sat in a cushioned chair, nervous yet somehow bored, while Malcolm entertained himself with video games. Time dragged by. She couldn’t stop checking the clock on her phone. She asked him more than once if they were even coming, suggesting that he try calling them. “They will arrive when they arrive,” he answered unhelpfully.
She’d just about made a whole in the wall with her eyes when she felt herself being pulled out of the chair. Malcolm got her to her feet before unceremoniously jamming his tongue in her mouth. The kissing caught her off-guard. While it wasn’t necessarily welcomed, she wasn’t completely offended. Finley humored Malcolm for a few moments before pulling away. He asked if she’d like to pass the time in his bed. Flattering to be wanted even being as heavily pregnant as she was, but Finley thought that she might prefer staring at the wall versus more woohoo with him.
As an excuse to get out of his bedroom, Finley stepped into the kitchen. Hoping it wasn’t rude, and knowing that it indeed was, she opened the refrigerator to see what kinds of ingredients they had. Quickly, she put together a shrimp recipe in her head and then got to work on it. At least when his parents came home, she wouldn’t be awkwardly caught in his bedroom. No, she’d be the one who prepared a delicious dinner—hopefully.
But even after she finished preparing the meal, they still hadn’t arrived. Finely called for Malcolm and waited for a minute or two. The food sat on the counter, losing heat and giving off delicious smells. Her stomach growled and she decided to give up the act of attempting to win favor with the Landgraabs and took a plate for herself.
Malcolm did eventually join her. They ate in mostly silence. He surprised her by doing the dishes afterwards, and then promptly taking a step back by leaving her to return to his computer.
Finley wandered around the first floor for a while. It was getting late, and so she called Quinn to apologize for being gone for so long. Being the kind of son that he was, he professed that it was no trouble and to take all the time she needed.
Even with things being under control at home, Finley decided that it was time for her to leave. She found her host upstairs in his room and told him that she was going. “Really? But Mother and Father would love to meet you.”
“It’s already past eleven,” she reasoned. “It was nice of you to want your family to meet me, but maybe next time you could plan things better.”
As she was walking out to leave, a painful contraction hit her. She wasn’t able to muffle her groan, and Malcolm caught on almost immediately. “You’re having the baby?” he asked, giddiness crawling to his face. “This is splendid! I could call a nurse and you could have our child here.”
Her creator must have been happy with her, because she felt no pain past that first whip. She pushed on to leave the mansion, eager to get to the hospital. Malcolm chased after her. “Fine, but I am still coming with!”
When Finley reunited with her creator, she felt foolish for ever doubting that they would lead her astray. Their wishes were her wishes. And yet, she managed to maintain the smallest blip in her head that wondered if this would go on forever. Being with her creator, getting enthused to please them, conceiving a child, having doubts, and then starting the process all over again.
Finley returned to the actual world, finding herself in her bedroom and Malcolm cuddling an infant girl. “Thank you for letting me name her. Mother is going to be so pleased that there’ll be another Nancy Landgraab.” Finley sighed. Nancy. It was a fine enough name, just one that she wouldn’t have picked herself.
It took quite a bit of convincing to get Malcolm to leave. It was the early morning hours when he actually did, but Finley still wasn’t alone with her babies. Frankie took his place in holding the little girl. “I can hardly remember when there were mostly boys around here,” she laughed, making Finley smile. She was on a girl streak it seemed. “So you had a busy day?”
“Yeah, you could say that.” They shared another laugh. Frankie opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again. She had been going to mention Brandon’s question—and then she realized that her mom probably didn’t even remember him coming over.
Finley thought some more on her youngest two becoming children when she was finally alone. It didn’t scare her so much now that she was post a visit with her creator. In fact, she was almost certain that it would only make her family that much better. With that out of the way, she rejoiced in the fact that she could finally be out of a dress and heels.