“Then they can pick a new one when they’re older. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out, just kiss me now.”
And he did.
The door to Madeline’s apartment creaked open as Akim ushered her inside. The sky was bright blue, the sun creating streaks of light that speckled through the air, landing on various furnishings.
Maddy’s lower back began to ache, and she placed a hand there, rubbing the sore muscles.
“Are you all right?” Akim asked, for what must have been the tenth time since they’d left the hospital.
Maddy tried not to grin too widely. It was so nice to have him actually caring about her welfare, instead of ignoring her and running away. If only he’d talked to her sooner, they could have avoided so much heartbreak.
“I’m fine. Just a little sore here,” she said, continuing to massage the muscles there.
Akim stepped behind her and brushed her fingers away, replacing them with his own.
Maddy moaned. “That feels amazing,” she murmured.
“Get used to it. With four children in there, I imagine you’ll be needing plenty of massages. I’m happy to offer my services, or we can hire someone to come in so you have access to a professional.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Maddy said. “This feels pretty great to me.”
Maddy shivered as Akim placed a warm kiss on the back of her neck. She may have been carrying four children, but she was still very much a woman, and she fought back the instant shot of lust that pulsed through her at that touch.
“Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll make you some tea?” he said.
“That would be wonderful,” she said, pointing him in the direction of the kitchen.
Maddy watched from the corner of her eye as Akim found a mug and a bag of decaf green tea before filling her kettle and turning on the stove. She was sitting on her sofa, looking out at the city, when he returned to her side and placed an arm around her shoulder while the water boiled.
“This is…a view,” he said.
Maddy burst out laughing. “You don’t like my penthouse suite?” she asked, a teasing glint in her eyes.
“It’s lovely, of course, but I think you deserve better.”
“I’m not terribly big on heights. The only time I felt okay was at your place.”
“Funny you should say that…” Akim began, but before he could finish the teapot began whistling loudly, and he was forced to get up and pull it off the stove.
He poured the steaming liquid into her mug and walked back over, handing it to her. Maddy blew on it gently before taking a delicate sip.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
“Of course. Anything for the mother of my children.”
“Shall we see if we can get them to kick? Sometimes when I have a hot drink, it wakes them up.”
Akim’s eyes were glowing with wonder, and another emotion Maddy was too scared to name. She didn’t want to say it was love until he said it first. She couldn’t trust that this change would last.
Brushing aside such thoughts, she reached for his hand and placed it gingerly on her belly. Then she took a sip of tea, and waited.
A moment later, a little kick pressed against her belly, and Akim jumped back, retracting his hand.
Once the surprise passed, Akim laughed, and Maddy joined him. He replaced his hand and the two of them spent several moments enjoying the feel of their growing children as they kicked and wriggled together.
“It must be so cramped in there,” Akim said.
“You’re telling me. If one of them makes a move, all of them wake up, and then I have to sit down because otherwise I’d be knocked over!”
Akim’s draped his arm around Maddy’s shoulders again, pulling her close and kissing her forehead. She nuzzled into his side, feeling safe, and, for the first time in a very long while, not alone at all.
After a moment, Akim twisted his wrist to look at his watch and sighed. “I need to get going. They have us do some interview prep and makeup before you go on the show, so your face doesn’t look shiny on TV. Are you sure you’re all right here on your own?”
Maddy circled her arm around his waist and gave him a gentle squeeze. “I’m fine. I’ve been taking care of myself for quite some time, you know.”
Akim frowned. “That’s my fault. I should have been there.”
Maddy arched up and captured his lips in a kiss, effectively shutting him up. When she pulled away, she ran a hand along his chiseled jawline. “No more talk like that, Akim. You’re here now. I can survive many things, but so long as you are with me I know I’ll be able to do it with some amount of grace.”
Akim’s eyes were shimmering, and Maddy wondered if those were tears before dismissing the thought.
“I will never leave you again, Maddy.”
“Except for right now, because you need to go,” she teased. “See you later!”
Akim kissed her one more time before reluctantly rising from the sofa and leaving her apartment. When the door closed behind him, there was a deafening silence, and Maddy almost stood and followed him out the door, if it meant she could be with him a little longer.
Maddy was sipping her tea, daydreaming about her babies, when she realized that she owed her mother a phone call. Picking up her cell, she dialed her mother’s number and hit the call button, waiting anxiously while the phone rang two times. On the third ring, her mother answered.
“Madeline! We’ve been worried sick about you. We were considering getting on the next plane to Elbazzar, but I couldn’t stand not being by a phone in case you called. What’s happened? Why aren’t you here? What’s going on?”
Maddy did her best to calm her mother down. She explained how she had fainted at work, but that she and the babies were perfectly fine.
“Well that is a relief. You do work yourself too hard, Maddy. You need to be more careful.”
“I know, Mom,” Maddy said.
“So when are you coming out now? Is there another flight that looks good?”
Maddy paused, not sure how to convey the next part of her story.
“I’m not coming back to Portland, Mom.”
There was a loaded silence on the line as she waited for her mother to respond.
“Why aren’t you coming back to Portland?”
“Akim was with me at the hospital, as you know—he said he called you?” she began, relaying the rest of the story to her mother.
“So you see,” Maddy finished, “I need to be here. Elbazzar is my home now, and I want to raise my children here.”
“After one interaction?” her mother asked, her voice laced with concern. “How do you know he’s going to keep his word? How do you know he won’t just get scared and run again? How do you know he won’t put you and your children on parade?”
The truth was, Maddy didn’t have an answer to those questions because she had been afraid of them herself. At that very moment, Akim was likely going over talking points for his talk show interview, and those points could easily be announcing their success, and thrusting her and the children into the public eye. Was she ready for that? Why hadn’t they talked about it?
Maddy sighed. “Look, I know how it looks. Really, I do. But you have to trust that I know what I’m doing. I’m not going to mess this up. There’s too much at stake.”
“Just answer me one thing then,” her mom said.
“Do you love him?”
Maddy stared out the window, pondering her answer. The truth was, she had been beside herself after the way Akim had brushed her off before. She thought of him constantly, even in her dreams. When he’d confessed his reasons for keeping her at a distance, her heart had soared in a way it never had before.
Maddy knew her answer.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Does he love you?”
“I…I think so.”
l why don’t you wait until you know so you can be certain you’re making the right choice? Until then, our offer still stands. You can live with us, and we can make a home here for those little babies.”
Maddy did her best to ignore the longing in her mother’s voice. Clearly the news that she would be a grandmother had been well received, there was just the pesky problem of thousands of miles between them that happened to be getting in the way.
“Thank you. I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too. Kiss your belly for me, will you? And send us some more pictures!”
“I will,” Maddy promised before ending the call.
Maddy heaved herself up and plopped back down on a comfy chair that faced her small TV. Turning it on, she found the right channel and waited anxiously.
Her life could be over in an instant, if he announced what they had done. There were so many factors to consider. The government that had tried to blackmail Akim was still in place, and their corruption knew no bounds. It was entirely possible that he could announce their success too early and they would all be in danger of losing their livelihoods.
Then there was the aspect of being hauled around, heavily pregnant, as a spokesperson for Chlomerol. She was reaching a point where standing for longer than ten minutes was starting to become a burden. How would she carry on with so much weight, so much exhaustion? She tried to remember all the reasons she’d wanted to do this, outside of the obvious one of wanting to be a mother.
She would be making sacrifices, true, but her journey would eventually help thousands of women get pregnant. She knew firsthand what it felt like to feel like one’s body was lacking, unable to perform like it should. It would be tiring, but Maddy knew that if anyone could take that torch and run with it, she could.
Taking a gulp of her tea, she realized it had gone cold, but she didn’t care. The introduction to the show had begun, and Maddy’s future weighed in the balance.
Now all she had to do was wait and see what Akim would do.