Bang by Abbi Cook

 

ChapterOne

Stephen


As I turn the doorknob,I listen for any sounds coming from my newest son. I hear nothing. He doesn’t cry. He doesn’t make any noise, for that matter. Not in the hospital nursery. Not since he’s come home with his mother.

He must take after me because Jessica couldn’t keep quiet to save her life. Good. I’d like one of them to be like me. So far, Maddox and Trace are far too much like their mother for my taste.

Two steps inside the apartment, I hear Jessica singing to him. She sounds sweet and gentle. Too bad she can’t be that way with me.

A bead of sweat forms at my hairline. It’s hot. Too hot. How does she live like this?

I keep her here in this place so I can know where she is. Girls her age tend to wander more than I prefer, so whatever cost I incur, it’s worth it. I may not be able to marry her, but that doesn’t mean I want her out with other men.

Not that she ever goes anywhere. She’s utterly devoted to me like she has been since the day I met her when she started working for me as Maddox and Trace’s babysitter whenever the nanny would have a day off. It didn’t take long for me to make her more than just that in my life, though. As young as she is, Jessica has something alluring about her that draws me in like a siren’s song.

She’s the most seductive woman I’ve ever met. It’s a shame I can’t keep her. Even as emotional as she can get, she makes me happier than anyone I’ve ever been with.

But we could never work. I knew that from the moment I kissed her that first time just a year ago.

“Jessica? Where are you?” I call out as I walk down the hallway on my way to the living room.

“I’m right here,” she says in that exasperated tone she uses far too often with me lately. “Stop making noise. You’ll wake the baby.”

“Why do you keep it so hot in here? It’s May, for God’s sake. Open a window.”

I stop a few feet away from where she sits on the floor wearing a pink sundress with him wrapped in a pale blue blanket in her arms. For a moment, I let myself question whether I should actually do this today. She’s only had him home for three days. Just looking at her, I can see she’s happier than I’ve ever seen her before.

And more beautiful. She really is the most stunning creature I’ve ever laid eyes on with those big brown eyes and perfect mouth. I really do wish I could keep her.

With a smile, she beckons me toward them. “Come see your son. He just fell asleep in my arms as I was feeding him. Isn’t he beautiful, Stephen?”

I take a single step forward and stop as the sight of the little boy in her arms hits me square in the chest. He looks like me. Even more than my other sons, this one is the spitting image of me. It’s like his mother had no part in creating him at all.

Swallowing hard, I say what needs to be said, knowing what I’m in for afterward.

“It’s time for him to come home, Jessica.”

It takes a second for her to understand precisely what that means, but the moment it becomes clear that I’m here to take him away from her, she clutches him to her body and shakes her head, her eyes wide in disbelief. She’s going to be as difficult about this as she’s been about nearly everything else since we got together.

“No! Don’t do this. Please! I’ve never been as happy as I am since he came into my life. Don’t take him away from me. I’ll do anything you want. Just let him stay,” she says as she stands up, still holding him tightly to her breast.

Her dark eyes fill with the tears I knew would be part of this. Always so emotional.

“No. He needs to live at the house with me. That’s where he belongs. Now let go of him, Jessica. I need to leave.”

“I can be your maid,” she says, her voice pure desperation. “You and Celeste will need another one with three little boys around. Let me be that so I can be close to him. Please, Stephen. Don’t be cruel.”

Already tired of fighting with her about this, I reach out for the baby, but she turns away, clinging to him. She moves so quickly that he begins to cry, and I listen to the sound of his unhappiness for the first time since he was born.

He’s strong. Good. He’s going to have to be.

“I’ll give you this apartment,” I say, willing to negotiate away things I don’t give a damn about. “What else do you want? A car? I’ll buy you whatever you want, Jessica. We can keep seeing each other, if that makes you happy. But he needs to come with me tonight.”

Easing him against her shoulder, she begins to softly pat his back, and he stops crying. “Please, Stephen. I can pretend to be his nanny. Maddox and Trace need to be looked after too, and one nanny isn’t going to be enough. I can do that for you. I’ll do anything. Just let me stay in his life!” she begs.

The very thought of having Jessica there at the house makes my head hurt. “No. Celeste will never be okay with that. She’s sure I’m still seeing you as it is. There’s no way she’ll ever believe we’re not together if you’re at the house all the time. No, this is the way it has to be. Give me the baby.”

For a second time, I reach out to take him, this time actually shoving my hands between his body and hers. Instantly, he begins to cry again, but now he’s joined by his mother.

“Don’t do this! I can’t live without him. He’s my son. He needs his mother. I love him, Stephen. I love him like I’ve never loved anyone or anything else in my life. Don’t take that away from me. Please!”

I step back, shaking my head. “You used to say you couldn’t live without me. I guess I’ve been replaced by a nine pound baby.”

Patting his back, she sniffles as she says, “I had to learn to live without you when you decided I wasn’t good enough to become your wife.”

Christ, this again. Of all her faults, living in some fantasy world where a man like me could marry someone like her is her worst.

“You knew that could never happen, Jessica. You’re sixteen. The people in my world will tolerate a lot of things, but us together isn’t one of them.”

“Then what will they think of some baby suddenly appearing in your life? Just let me be his nanny or the maid or the gardener. I don’t care as long as I get to see him and be around him. I’ll scrub toilets at the estate. I’ll do anything, Stephen. Just let me be in his life!”

Jesus, she sounds pathetic.

“No. Now let go of him.”

She shakes her head as she backs away from me toward the picture window on the far side of the room. “She’ll never accept him, Stephen. You’ll be bringing him to a house where no one will care for him.”

“I’ll care for him.”

A manic laugh explodes out of her, startling the baby so he begins to cry louder. “You don’t care for the children you already have. Maddox and Trace got more love from me when I was there than they ever have from you.”

“I will care for him.”

Wildness fills her eyes. “Then…then, I’ll get a lawyer and stop you from doing this. I’m his mother. I have rights.”

Laughing, I can’t believe how ridiculous she’s acting, almost as if she doesn’t know who she’s dealing with. “You won’t find a lawyer in this state who will go up against me, so let him go and give me my son.”

She stops walking backwards right before she reaches the windowsill. “His name is Helix! Helix! Not him. Not my son. Helix!” she cries.

“Fine. Give me Helix. It’s time for me to go.”

Shaking her head frantically, she pleads, “No, please Stephen. What good is a baby to you? You’re just going to hand him off to the nanny. Let him stay with me at least for a year. You don’t need him until he’s older. Let me see him start to crawl and take his first steps. Let me get to hear him call me Mommy just once. I’ve never done anything to hurt you in any way. Let me at least see some of his firsts. I’m begging you. Don’t take him away from me. I can’t live without him.”

“No. Then after that you’ll want to see him off for his first day of kindergarten. He’s coming to my home where he belongs.”

That only makes her cry harder, so I yank the baby from her arms and turn away so she can’t take him back. She claws at me to get at him, but it’s no use.

My mind is made up.

“He belongs with me! I’m his mother. Nothing can replace that. She’s never going to love him like I do. Please don’t take him away, Stephen. He’s all I have.”

I can’t listen to any more of this, so I start to make my way to the front door to leave, mumbling, “We can still get together. Don’t worry. I won’t completely cut you out.”

The baby cries in my arms, and I stare down at him to give him a look to make him stop. I don’t need to hear that kind of howling all the way back to the house. The kid sounds more like his mother with every passing moment.

“No! Listen to him,” Jessica sobs as she runs beside me and tries to take him out of my arms. “He needs me. He’s crying. Helix, honey, I’m right here. Mommy’s right here. Stephen, please give him back. Please! I’m begging you! I’m here, Helix. Mommy’s here.”

“Enough!” I yell, frightening both Jessica and the baby into silence for a mere moment before he begins to wail again.

When she tries to touch him again, I push her away and she stumbles back onto his clothes and toys on the floor, clutching the blue blanket. “He’ll get everything he can possibly need at home. Now accept this. I have to go.”

She doesn’t say another word, but her crying matches my son’s, drowning out everything else around me. As I open the door, I glance back and see her holding his blanket to her chest. She’s inconsolably sobbing, surrounded by all the things she bought for him before he was born.

He doesn’t need those things anymore. He’s a Rule. He’ll have everything he could possibly want with me.

I shake my head, needing to get the image of her like that out of my mind. She’s just being emotional. I always told her if the baby was a boy, it would have to come live with me. I don’t know what she thought would happen, but I never misled her.

She knew how things would end up. For her and for him.

By the time I reach the car and my driver, the baby’s screaming is ear-piercing and his face is so red it nearly matches the fire truck on his T-shirt. Matthew, my chauffeur, takes one look at me and then the crying child in my arms and an expression of horror comes over his face.

“Mr. Rule, we don’t have anything to put the baby in. Shouldn’t we have a car seat or something?” he asks as he opens the door for me to get into the back seat.

With my free hand, I wave off his concern. “It’ll be fine. Babies fall asleep to motion. I heard that from the boys’ mother once, I think. He’ll stop this soon, I’m sure. Let’s go home, Matthew.”

As we pull away from the curb outside the apartment and my son’s wailing fills the car, I look up one last time and see Jessica standing in the picture window crying. She’ll be fine. She’s young. She’ll get over this.


Celeste rambleson and on about the wedding gown and how all the little pearls shimmer in the train. At least I think she said shimmers. I’m only half listening to much of what she’s saying. She gets excited about details I really couldn’t care less about, but it keeps her busy, so there’s that.

“Stephen, it’s almost like you’ve seen the dress before our wedding day. I hope that’s not bad luck,” she says, suddenly stopping her discussion of this miraculous dress.

I force a smile and nod. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

Before she can launch into another branch of her explanation of what she did today for our upcoming wedding, the nanny appears in the doorway of the living room. A homely woman in her thirties who wears her dark hair so tightly in that damn bun that she’s got to be cutting off the circulation to her brain, she stands silently as she waits to give me her report on my sons, like every other night, except tonight there’s a third one added to her duties. Celeste chose her from the applicants sent over by the agency and claims she was the best one they sent.

I suspect she’s merely the ugliest one.

“Yes, Mara. What is it?”

“The boys have all been put to bed for the night, sir,” she says in a low voice.

Celeste shoots her a nasty look, probably unhappy about being interrupted in the middle of her talk about that damn wedding dress. I’m thankful for the break and happy to hear all three of my sons are safe and sound one floor above me.

“Thank you,” I say, silently dismissing her for the night.

“I don’t know why you brought that child here,” Celeste says, sulking as she sits down hard on the couch a few feet away from where I sit in my favorite chair.

“Because he’s my son. That’s why.”

I expect her to start in on Helix probably not being mine or having some defect because of who his mother is. I’ve heard it all before from her, and I’m not in the mood to deal with another hysterical woman today.

Before she can say another word, I grab my drink from the table beside me and walk out of the room. Celeste will have to get used to the fact that I have three children. She knew that when I proposed to her, so it’s time she accepted that reality.

Halfway through dinner,the maid comes to my end of the table and whispers in my ear that the police are at the front door. Celeste begins to ask what’s wrong, but I wave off her question.

“I’ll be right back.”

I reach the front door to see two uniformed police officers from town standing there looking somber. Unsure what they could want with me, I give them a big smile and introduce myself.

“Gentleman, welcome to my home. I’m Stephen Rule. It’s always nice to see our town’s finest. What can I do for you tonight?”

The one on the left wearing a crew cut and a name tag that says Mitchell on his dark blue uniform nods slowly but doesn’t smile. “Sir, I’m Officer Mitchell and this is Officer Kanton. Do you know a Jessica Allman?”

Oh, God. What did she do? I should have known she was too emotional to just let things go. In many ways, she’s still just a girl. I probably should have thought about that before I went to get the baby two nights ago.

“Yes, I do. What is this about?”

Both men exchange glances and there’s a long pause before Officer Mitchell answers, “Mr. Rule, she’s dead. She killed herself this afternoon. Slit her wrists. We found her in the living room of the apartment at 1599 Cedar Street surrounded by baby clothes, but there was no baby in the apartment. We know from Mercy Hospital’s records that she gave birth six days ago, so we’re hoping you can help us find the child and make sure he’s safe. We also found a letter addressed to you, sir.”

“So that’s why you’re here?” I ask, unsure which part of his speech I’m reacting to.

The two officers once more turn to look at each other before Officer Mitchell says, “Well, no. We’re here because your name is on the lease for the apartment where she was found. We’re hoping you can help us find her son.”

“No need for that. My son is here, safe and sound.”

They stand there silently staring at me for a long moment before the other officer says in a stunned voice, “Your son, Mr. Rule? We assumed Miss Allman was a niece of yours since she was… so young.”

I shake my head. “No, so thank you for your diligence, but everything’s fine.”

They continue to stare at me like they have other questions, but I tilt my chin up to give them a clear sense that I have no interest in answering any more on this topic. They take the hint, like the local police always do when it comes to matters involving me, and nod in unison like they finally understand.

“Do you want the letter, sir?” Officer Mitchell asks, holding it out for me.

With a shrug, I take it before walking around them to open the front door. “Thanks again, and I’ll be sure to sweeten my contribution to the policeman’s ball this year to show my appreciation for all your great work.”

They take that as their clue to leave, as I intended it to be, and after closing the door behind them, I return to the dining room to finish my dinner. Always curious, Celeste asks what the police could want, and I dismiss her question.

“Nothing. Continue your meal. I think the cook told me she’s made some kind of special dessert for us tonight.”

Before I can enjoy another bite of my salmon, the nanny appears in the dining room doorway, silently standing there like some ghostly apparition waiting for me to notice her. So much for enjoying a quiet dinner at home tonight.

“Yes, Mara. What is it?”

“The boys were tired after a full day of being outside in the fresh air, so they’re in bed early tonight.”

I open my mouth to say thank you, but Celeste snaps, “Let’s make sure that baby doesn’t wake up the entire house again tonight.”

The usually timid nanny seems to find a spine for once with my future wife and responds, “I’m sorry, ma’am. He’s a big baby, and I’m getting used to his feeding schedule. He cries because he’s hungry. I’ll make sure he doesn’t make noise again.”

None of that answer satisfies Celeste, however, and she rolls her eyes in disgust as I dismiss the nanny for the day. I’m not sure what she’s complaining about. I didn’t hear a peep from the boys all last night.

Convinced I won’t be getting the chance to eat any more of my dinner, I stand up from the table and walk toward the hallway. “I’m going to get some work done.”

Celeste doesn’t say anything to that, and I head to my office. My curiosity gets the better of me after only a few minutes, and I take the folded piece of paper with my name written on it in Jessica’s handwriting out of my suit pocket.

I open it and before I can read a word, the reality of what that policeman said rolls over me like a tidal wave. Jessica’s dead. Christ. I knew she was emotional, but I never realized she was suicidal.

My chest tightens for only a moment or two before I take a deep breath in, holding it in my lungs before letting it out in a rush. I didn’t want her dead. I never wanted that. Just like I never wanted Maddox and Trace’s mother dead.

I focus on the words in front of me as my gaze glides down the page. I expected more anger. I guess Jessica was more attached to the boy than I thought.


Dear Stephen,


You’ve takeneverything I love away from me, so there’s nothing left to live for. I can’t bear the thought of Helix being so close and I can never see him. I’ll never hear him call me Mommy or see him take his first steps. You stole all that away from me when you walked out the door with him.

Please don’t punish our son because you didn’t love me. You’re all he has now. Helix deserves what your other sons have. Don’t let her convince you he should get less.

I want you to know you can take him away from me, but you can’t take me out of him. If there’s any justice in this world, he’ll be like me in spite of all you do. If that happens, then everything you did to me will be for nothing. I hope you can live knowing that. But no matter what, you’ll never be able to look at Helix without seeing me.

Neither will she.

For that, I have at least some happiness as I leave this world.

If you ever cared even the slightest bit for me, please do one thing for our son. Tell Helix I loved him more than I ever thought I could love anyone and that I would have given anything to be his mother for so much longer.

Jessica


The thoughtof Jessica gone sinks in, and I shake my head. Not surprisingly, she was emotional to the end. That’s my favorite girl. I half expected her to find a way to burst in on Celeste and me having dinner one of these nights, ranting and raving about how she’s the boy’s mother and all that nonsense. I guess that won’t be happening now.

I open my desk drawer and stuff her note all the way in the back. Helix will be like me because all my sons will be exactly as I am. I’ll make sure of that. He’ll have the same as Maddox and Trace because he’s as much my son as each of them are. Nobody, not Celeste or anyone else, can change that.

And if I see any hint of his mother in him, I’ll make sure to snuff that out, for sure.