"Oh, Nick what on earth are you up to now?", I groaned, heading in the direction of my son's cry while picking up all the toys he'd thrown on the ground.
When I reached the living room, my eyes lit up in amusement at the comical sight before me. Buttercup, our beloved golden retriever, had dozed off and unfortunately, Nick's baby blanket lay beneath her. I watched as he struggled to pull it out, falling several times on his butt.
"Mommy!", he cried, running towards me as I took him into my arms.
"You want your blanket?"
He nodded his head then pointed a chubby finger at Buttercup.
I couldn't help but laugh at my adorable son and scooping him up, we both approached Buttercup. Gently, I tugged the blanket from her. She stirred slightly but remained sleeping.
"Here you go, dear." I handed Nick his blanket.
A huge grin split his face, and my heart warmed as he gave me a peck on the cheek.
"I wuv you, mommy."
"I love you, too, Nick." I smiled, ruffling his hair.
In a lot of ways, he reminded me of my late best friend, Nick Schneider. Their joyful attitudes were contagious and both loved watching hockey. As soon as he was old enough, I'd let him play.
It only felt like yesterday when Derek and I laid eyes on our son for the very first time, but in just four months, he'd already be turning two. Like we'd originally hoped, Nick had been an excellent baby and hardly ever cried during his first months.
He'd learned to talk pretty early, too, and "dada", was the first word that had left his mouth. Derek almost cried that day when he heard it. Unlike me, he still went to work, but since Nick's birth, he'd cut back on his hours at the office in order to spend as much time with us as possible. As a result, Keith had begun to gain more responsibility.
There was no denying how amazing a father Derek was. He always put our son's needs before his own, and on the rare occasions that Nick had woken up crying in the middle of the night as a baby, Derek had been the one to cradle him back to sleep.
I always told him to leave the job to me since he was the one that had to work early in the morning, but he refused, saying that I needed to preserve my strength to "make more babies." Between the both of us, I did have a harder time falling back asleep. Nonetheless, I adored his selflessness.
As the months passed, Nick had grown to look so much like his father. Their blue eyes and smile were pretty much identical. The only features he'd inherited from me were his hair and face shape.
He was the sunshine of my life, and every day, I soaked in the rays of happiness he brought to me.
My mom absolutely fell in love with Nick when she came to visit us during his first Christmas. We had a huge reunion that included both my side of the family and Derek's.
The whole time, I'd wished my father were still alive to meet his grandson. Although I couldn't physically see him anymore, I always felt his presence in my heart, and that was what mattered most.
I had plenty of stories about my dad that I'd spend the rest of my life telling Nick. He'd live on forever that way.
"You wanna bake cookies?", I asked my son.
"Yes!", he exclaimed, scrambling out of my arms to run towards the kitchen.
I followed him and together, we gathered the necessary ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies. Nick and his dad were huge fans of cookie dough, so I set aside a separate bowl for them.
"Can I lick the spoon, mommy?"
"Of course." I smiled, handing the dough-covered spoon to him.
He beamed and proceeded to stick the entire thing in his tiny mouth when we heard the sound of the garage door opening.
"Daddy's home!", he shrieked, dropping the spoon to the floor as he charged out of the kitchen.
I laughed, picking it up and wiped my hands clean before going to greet Derek.
"How are my two angels today?", he asked, bending down to give Nick a kiss on the forehead. Then, he turned towards me and flashed his signature breathtaking smile.
"We're super, daddy!", Nick said happily as Derek lifted him into his arms.
"That's what I like to hear."
"How was work?", I asked.
"The usual," he replied, pulling me to his side for a kiss, "but there's nowhere else I'd rather be than home with you two."
I melted into his warm embrace, and just when I thought about how wonderful it'd be to have him in bed right now, the oven went off.
"Are those cookies I smell?", he remarked.
"Yup," Nick said.
"This Friday just got a whole lot better." Derek grinned.
After stuffing ourselves with cookies, the three of us took Buster and Buttercup out for a walk in the neighborhood. Derek talked about his newest hotel project in Tokyo, and I offered ideas when he asked for them. He was backed by an entire architecture and interior design team, but the fact that he still wanted to hear my input felt special.
Later that night, we all had pizza for dinner- Nick's request- in the living room while watching a game of baseball. My focus wasn't on the TV at all, though. Instead, I was mentally preparing myself for the huge surprise I had yet to deliver to my family.
During the following commercial break, I decided to go for it.
"Nick, come here, sweetie," I said, patting my lap. He eagerly crawled into it and looked up at me with his big, blue eyes.
"What's wong, Mommy?"
"I have some exciting news for you guys."
"What news?", Derek asked, his curiosity piqued.
I took a deep breath then spoke.
"Nick is going to be a big brother."
Derek's entire face brightened as Nick began to bounce animatedly in my lap.
"Yup. You knocked me up, Derek... again."
"Knock what, mommy?", Nick asked, looking slightly confused.
Derek smirked, playfully punching my belly as we both began to laugh.
"Basically, there's a baby boy or girl growing inside of Mommy right now," he explained.
"Yay! I'm a big boy now!"
Nick was smiling ear-to-ear, and I held him tight in my arms.
"I need a celebratory drink," Derek remarked excitedly.
"Go right ahead."
He leaned in to give me a kiss then his lips were at my ear.
"Million bucks it's gonna be a Claire Jr. this time," he whispered.
"We'll see," I said with a smile. He chuckled.
"God, you're incredible."
"And that's why you love me."
"Indeed I do."
He stood up to go make a drink, and I playfully swatted his fine ass, which earned a huge laugh from Nick. The soon-to-be big brother.
10 Years Later
I stared at the clock in my office, counting down the hours until I could finally leave. Derek was going to pick me up and then the four of us were heading to the airport for a two-week vacation.
Paris. The city of lights.
I'd always wanted to travel there but never had the chance to. Ever since I was promoted to project manager five years ago, my schedule became totally booked. Luckily, there was a break in my work for the next couple of weeks that allowed me to go on vacation.
This would also be the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time with my family. As soon as Sophia had turned two, I went back to work. (Yes, Derek had once again accurately predicted our child's gender.) So, Heather and James offered to take care of her and Nick during the day. Then either Derek or myself would pick them up in the evenings.
I missed those days in the past that I got to stay home with my kids, but on the other hand, my job promotion had been too good to turn down. Being the caring husband he was, Derek was hesitant at first because he didn't want me working long hours.
My job was definitely stressful and demanding, but I finally felt like the strong, successful woman I'd always dreamt of becoming. My incompleted degree from Stanford was no longer a reminder of failure and regret.
Unfortunately, time seemed to be slipping out of my hands these days. I hadn't gone for a run or hung out with any of my friends in what felt like forever. Several years had passed and yet here I was, a 34-year old woman still struggling to balance her life at home and work.
As I focused on polishing my presentation for the board of directors, a sharp pain hit my chest, and I dropped my pen, waiting for the sensation to pass. It lasted about two minutes then I resumed my work.
I'd been experiencing minor chest pains for the past couple of years now, and Derek insisted I go see a doctor, but I told him there was nothing to worry about. They were probably just due to stress or lack of sleep.
It was six o'clock when Derek and the kids came to pick me up after my presentation, and seeing their happy faces lit up my entire world.
In the car, I braided Sophia's blonde hair while listening to her talk about the new girl she'd befriended on the soccer team. My 9-year old daughter was the sweetest thing on the planet, but man, she could be such a fireball at times, especially on the field. That's why she was named the team captain of her league.
Likewise, Nick was achieving success both on the football field and in school. Although he was only in sixth grade, his math and reading courses were those of an eighth grader. I always thought he'd grow up to play hockey, but it turned out he only liked watching it.
My children were my pride and joy, and I couldn't wait to see what great things they'd accomplish in the future.
We stayed at the Ritz Carlton- a world-renowned hotel located in the heart of Paris. Besides its beautiful attractions and delicious cuisine, I loved hearing the French language. It sounded so elegant and romantic, like music to my ears.
At the very first restaurant we'd dined at, Derek had ordered our meal in fluent French, and as embarrassing as it was to admit, I felt so hot and flustered.
And he knew, too, because later that night, he'd made love to me while whispering sweet French words in my ear. I almost died.
Our fifth day in Paris was spent at a professional soccer game. It was an extremely popular sport over here, and the kids loved it, especially Sophia.
When it became dark, we had a dinner cruise on the Seine river, and the view was absolutely breathtaking. Lights illuminated the entire city, and the Eiffel Tower stood tall and majestic for all to see.
Eventually, the kids grew sleepy, so we drove back to our hotel. The more time I spent in Paris, the more I didn't want to go home. It felt so nice to not have to worry about work for once.
Suddenly, the thought of returning to my old position as financial analyst didn't seem so bad anymore...After all, wasn't family supposed to be most important?
I immediately thought of my own mom, who'd been living alone since my father passed away...
"Thanks for taking us to the soccer game, dad," Nick said as Derek and I tucked him and his sister in bed.
"You're welcome, kiddo."
"Mom, what are we doing tomorrow?", Sophia asked.
"We're gonna go up the Eiffel Tower. Doesn't that sound fun?"
"Yes!", both siblings exclaimed. Derek and I shared a smile.
After saying good-night to our kids, we headed outside to the balcony and I leaned against the railing, watching the streets down below.
"Beautiful night, huh?", Derek spoke, coming to stand behind me as his arms wrapped around my waist.
"It really is."
I turned around and gazed up at the man I loved beyond words. He'd only grown more handsome with age, and his dark hair was longer than it used to be, giving him a distinguished appearance. Even now, he still gave me the butterflies.
"Do you ever think about the future?", I asked.
"Always. I see us growing old together, living to be 100 while our kids are off pursuing their dreams. And you'll still look beautiful, and I'll only love you more and more each day."
My heart fluttered at the tender way he looked at me.
"That sounds lovely."
"Doesn't it? I'm just curious. Why'd you ask that?"
I shifted slightly in his arms.
"I was just thinking about my father. He probably had the same vision of his future with my mom. Only his life ended all too soon."
"I know. But you and I will make it, as long as we love each other."
Unfortunately, sometimes love just wasn't enough. Over the years, I'd learned that there was one thing love couldn't conquer- death.
After seeing what happened to Nick and my father, I only hoped that life wouldn't play its cruel tricks on me again. But the scary thing was that life was unpredictable. So as a result, my vision of the future tended to be less than perfect.
For me, every new day was a blessing that I never took for granted. I was beyond grateful to have such a loving husband and the most wonderful children. They made me complete. That's why I aspired to be the greatest wife and mother I could possibly be.
As Derek held me in his arms, I wanted nothing more than for life to be this way forever.
But it wouldn't.
A/N- Once again, we have another cliffhanger (please don't hate me too much)...any predictions as to how this story will end? I've been meaning to update sooner, but the Summer Olympics are on, and I've been watching it for several hours each day. Go Team USA! I start college in less than two weeks, so I'll try my best to cram in the final chapter. I still can't believe how far this story has gotten, and once again, thanks to all of my readers. You guys are truly amazing. And as usual, remember to like and comment!