Chapter 41

The corner market was running a sale on fruit. Jason grabbed a bag of oranges and dropped them into his cart. While he was there, he figured on picking up a few more things. Like bread, milk and eggs.

He headed for the diary aisle and stopped suddenly when his way became blocked. Maya stood still, her mouth open in surprise. Her eyes widened and then she began to giggle. Seconds later, Keesha rounded the corner. Her eyes blazing and her voice shrill.

"Maya! Don't you ever run off like that again! You know better."

"I saw Uncle Jason," she said, crossing to hug his legs. "I was running to him, Mommy."

Jason squatted to return Maya's embrace. He resisted the urge to linger and quickly released the child. "Listen to your mother. Never leave her side. Even if you see someone you know."

Maya's head lowered. Her bottom lip protruded. "Okay," she mumbled. She slunked to her mother's side and stepped onto the shopping cart. "Sorry, Mommy."

Keesha patted her daughter's shoulder. "I know. I'm not angry with you. Just don't do that again."

"I won't."

Jason stared, in awe of the scene before him. His daughter and her mother and him. Keesha didn't rush off as soon as he saw him. The last few times he'd been around her, she seemed to accept him.

"I didn't know you shopped here," she said. Her gaze drifted to his cart, and her brows drew into a frown. "That's what you're getting. What do you eat?"

He shrugged. "Food."

"You can do better than that."

"He can have dinner with us," Maya piped in. "We're having spaghetti and meatballs. Mommy makes the bestest spaghetti in the whole wide world. Want some?"

He answered before Keesha could make excuses. "IumI have plans."

"That's too bad," Keesha said. "Maya's right. My spaghetti is pretty good."

He cocked his head to the side. He couldn't have heard her right.

"I usually make too much," she continued, "but it's up to you. Come on, sweetie, let's go home and get started on the sauce."

As Keesha turned the cart around, Maya gave him a wide-toothed grin. "It's homemade with tomatoes! Bye, Uncle Jason."

He waved. "Bye-bye, sweetheart."

!*!

With the aroma of tomatoes, garlic and oregano filling the kitchen, Keesha paused for a moment to sit at the kitchen table and ponder her invitation. What the hell was she thinking? She couldn't have Jason here with Maya and her, having dinner like they were a family.

Tony was right. She needed rest.

"Mommy!" Maya came running into the kitchen. A smile as wide as the Grand Canyon brightened her cute little face. "Guess what?"

"What, baby?" Keesha placed her arm around Maya's shoulders. "Why are you so excited?"

"Uncle Jason's here!" She jumped and clapped. "He's coming for dinner!"

Keesha shot to her feet. "What?"

Maya pointed toward the front door just as the doorbell rang. "That's him!" She raced ahead.

Keesha took a moment to steady her breathing. Okay, this was happening. She, Maya and Jason would sit down for dinner. The idea of rescinding the invitation only stayed for a fleeting moment inside her mind. Maya's excitement over their dinner guest wouldn't be squashed. If having Jason join them meant her daughter was happy, then so be it. Keesha decided to face the conflict she felt at having him here while AJ was recuperating in a hospital bed in her own time. For now, she'd sacrifice her own comfort for her child's happiness.

She reached the door to find Maya peering through the side window, waving emphatically.

"Hurry, Mommy."

Please, God, give me strength.

She unlocked and opened the door. Uncertainty registered in Jason's eyes as he thrust a covered dish into her hands.

"It's a triple layer chocolate cake," he explained. "I got it at Kelly's."

"Thanks," she mumbled. His presence and his offering left her dumbstruck. She felt outside herself, watching the scene from afar. Was it a comedy or a tragedy? How will it all end? Could she fast forward to spare the anxiety?

"Come on in," Maya said as Jason lingered on the doorstep.

He looked to Keesha for confirmation. Nodding, she stepped aside. She watched his gaze travel around the room. She noted how he paused at the framed photographs. He appeared to memorize the frozen moments. Her breath caught as he reached for one of her favorites, she and a newly born Maya. AJ took the photo at the hospital a couple of hours after delivery and presented it to her on Mother's Day. There were few things she cherished more.

Maya grabbed Jason's hand and leaned on his arm. "That's me and Mommy. I was only minutes old."

"You were beautiful." He returned the photograph to its spot on the shelf. His voice was strained, but he managed to create an even tone, as he added, "You still are."

"Mommy, too."

His gaze settled on Keesha. The mask slipped. Unbridled emotion brimmed in the sapphire depths. "She is."

!*!

He lived a dream. Dinner with his daughter. Watching her lively antics. Enjoying her welcoming acceptance of him. And then being asked to read her a bedtime story. Jason thrived on Maya's attention. As she drifted to sleep before he finished the story, he closed the book and gently smoothed unruly curls from her cheek.

Thoughts didn't interrupt. Nothing else mattered. After a time, he rose and headed into the kitchen where Keesha was busy straightening up.

He rolled up his sleeves and joined in. "She's asleep."

"She loves being read to, but she rarely makes it to the end."

"She didn't this time."

Keesha gave him a faint smile. "I'm not surprised. She's taken with you. If she wasn't" She let the words hang before she added, "I don't want her to get hurt."

"Neither do I," he said. "I just want to be around her, Keesha, and she wants to be around me. Hurting her doesn't have to be a part of that."

A yawn delayed her response. Just then, Jason noted the dark circles under her eyes and the lines stretching from the corners of her eyes. Unaware of his observation, she stretched, arched her back and rubbed her stomach. He gathered the movements were a series of subconscious gestures. But for him, they were something more. A turning point where Keesha lowered her guard in front of him.

Then, his blood grew hot as he noticed other things. Like the fullness of her breasts and interesting curves of her belly and hips. His manhood throbbed to attention. He shifted his stance for an attempt at relief. His eyes narrowed as he continued to watch her. She moved carefully. Throughout dinner, her hands often wandered to her abdomen. He blurted the first thing that came to mind.

"You're pregnant."

She glanced toward the hallway that led to Maya's bedroom. In a low voice, she said, "What makes you say that?"

"Because you are." Life in the organization honed his observation skills. His accuracy was perfect. He didn't doubt it now. "Maya doesn't know."

"No, she doesn't and I want it to stay that way. The first trimester can be difficult. I don't want her to be disappointed."

"Do you want this baby?"

"Of course!"

"Then, you don't want to be disappointed either." He brushed his knuckles under her chin and tilted her head. "Your eyes are red and strained. You need rest. You're doing too much." He released her and turned back to loading the dishwasher. "Go to bed. I'll clean up."

"I can't let you do that. I can handle it--"

"Keesha," he said in a firm voice, "don't argue. I'm finishing this and I'll lock up. Get some rest."

She looked ready to fight, but bit by bit, she relaxed. Her shoulders slumped and she shrugged. "Okay. You win."

He smiled. The words sounded s0 sweet coming from her lips.

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