4 & Counting
Her feet were killing her, but Elli Adler refused to wear anything other than heels when she strolled through the halls of the Assassins’ headquarters. It may hurt, but her momma always said beauty was pain. And Elli’s bright yellow Jimmy Choos were just that. They went perfect with her too-tight black maternity dress, but Shea had guaranteed her she still looked good. Even though she didn’t believe him, she knew coming to work in a ratty T-shirt and sweats would be unacceptable. So instead, she wore her too-tight clothes with the shoes that hurt her feet. It wouldn’t be much longer, though; she knew in her heart her boys were coming any day now.
Elli’s C-section wasn’t planned for another couple weeks, but she was certain her water was going to break at any time. The boys had dropped, and she felt nothing but pressure all the time. Even though she would be considered full term with the boys in a month, she knew it was only going to be another week. Like Shelli and Posey, the boys were going to be early. She had accepted this and even told her new doctor this, but he’d waved her off, saying she would last longer.
She was convinced he was an idiot.
Walking past her desk, she glanced over at her new assistant and rolled her eyes. Tabitha was on her phone, like always, tweeting. Even though her last assistant, Janet, had been smuggling money from Elli’s close friends, Lucas and Fallon Brooks, and that was wrong, Elli still missed her. She may have been a crook, but she was the best assistant Elli had ever had. Now she was stuck with this bimbo, and she was not happy about it.
“Tabitha, do I have any messages?”
Tabitha had her eyes glued to her phone, not sparing Elli a glance as she muttered, “Nope.”
Elli glared. “Any emails?”
She wanted to wring the girl’s neck. But instead, she said, “Tabitha.”
Elli waited until Tabitha finally looked up at her. She was a pretty girl, young, big brown eyes, blond hair, and nicely tanned skin, but Elli was convinced she was dumber than a box of rocks.
“Please pack up your stuff and leave my office. You are fired.”
With that, Elli ignored Tabitha’s stunned face and protests and went into her office, slamming her door. Walking over to her phone, she called security to make sure Tabitha was escorted out before falling into her chair and letting out a long breath. Her heart was racing. She hated firing people, but for the last three months, that girl had driven her half-past mad. Reaching for her phone again, she called the only person who could make it all better.
His voice was like butter, and it still curled Elli’s toes.
“Hey, I fired Tabitha.”
“Thank God. I was wondering how long she would last. She’s an idiot.”
“Right? Blah, I’m so tired.”
“Come home,” he suggested, and she could tell he was smiling, “I’ll make you feel better.”
Elli giggled as she closed her eyes. “As much as I would love that, I have to work. Trades are happening, and I’ve got two players that, if they don’t get their crap together, I’m gonna castrate.”
He took in a sharp breath. “Don’t castrate my teammates, sweetheart. It will affect how they play.”
“Well, I don’t care, ’cause if Phillip and Erik don’t stop parading all over town, making me look bad, they won’t be playing for me. So why do I care if they can’t play?”
“Okay, so you’re a little angry right now. I think you need to take a deep breath.”
“Fuck a deep breath. I need a new assistant, and I need to call and yell at agents, and I also need to get a couple new forwards and maybe a new defenseman so my husband can stay home and help me raise our four children.”
Shea let out a groan. “Elli baby, I’m not having this argument with you again. I’m not ready to retire.”
“Whatever.” She pouted as she leaned against the desk while her boys body checked each other in her belly.
“Don’t be mad. You’re too beautiful to have your face all scrunched up.”
That only made her glare more because he knew her so well.
“Why did I even call you?” she asked angrily.
“’Cause you love me.” She made a face as he continued. “Come on, say it. You know you do.”
A little grin pulled at her lips before she finally gave in. “Yeah, I do.”
“Told you. Now calm down, take a breath, get everything done you need to, and then come home. I’ll massage every inch of you before I slowly make love to you. Once I’m finished with you, all this anger will be gone.”
Her body heated as she leaned back in her chair. “You make it sound so tempting.”
“I know. Now, hurry up. I’ll get everything ready here, and I’ll even wait to put the girls down for their naps.”
She let out a breath and smiled. “Okay. I’ll be home in a couple hours.”
“Text me before you come and, Elli,” he said in that low way that made her squirm.
“I love you.”
Her heart exploded in her chest as she smiled. “I love you more.”
“Good, see you soon.”
She hung up her phone feeling a heck of a lot better than she had when she first called him. Which, really, was the reason she’d called. He always calmed her. He always made things better. He was her everything. He knew how to handle her, and lately, she had been acting crappy and bitching. It was expected when you had forty more pounds weighing you down, but she still felt bad. Shea was such a good man.
When she looked down, her phone stared back at her, and she groaned. She didn’t want to work; she wanted to go home and be with her husband, but that wasn’t an option at that moment. With another disgruntled noise, she reached for her phone and called the agent for Phillip Anderson and Erik Titov.
“How is my favorite owner?”
Elli glared. She hated Koey Lefeber. He was the slickest agent she had to work with, and he always set her on edge. “I have a big problem with your clients, and if you don’t get them in line, Mr. Lefeber, we will have an even bigger problem.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose as she listened to Koey run his mouth. He was going to fix it. She had nothing to worry about. It was the same thing she had been hearing for months. She wished that, instead of calling him, she had just gone home.
Elli was so close to being done. She was almost out the door, but when she called Shea, telling him she was on the way, he asked if she would go to Fallon Brooks’s wine cellar and get the basket she had ready for him. After telling him he’d better rock her world once she got home, Elli started to adventure down to Fallon’s wine shop. She felt huge. Like, hippo-huge, and being in these heels was killing her. Stopping, she leaned against the wall and slowly slid off the shoes. She felt guilty, almost like she had given up, but once her swollen feet hit the cool linoleum, she didn’t have a care in the world.
With a grin, she walked with a little more spunk down the halls and then to the escalator before coming into view of Fallon’s cellar. Who would have thought that wine and hockey would mix? It was amazing and she was truly proud of her friend, but Elli was still a beer girl. Well, no one would know that now. She hadn’t had a drink in years. With a sad shake of her head, she entered the store, and Fallon turned around behind the counter, grinning. Tall and beautiful, Fallon stood in her own black heels with her little belly protruding. She looked gorgeous, and Elli found herself very jealous at that moment. She missed the time in pregnancy when she felt the glow. Now all she felt was fat.
“I don’t even want to look at you,” she teased.
Fallon let out a hearty laugh, holding her sweet son in her hands. “Whatever. I look like a massive cow. You are pregnant with twins and still look better than me.”
“You’re on something,” Elli laughed with a shake of her head.
Fallon rolled her eyes. “No, you are. Leaving work early?”
Elli nodded. “Yeah, I fired my assistant, and my back is killing me. I am done.”
Fallon smiled. “I wish I could leave.”
Before Elli could state the obvious—that she could because this was her store—Fallon’s sister, Audrey, came out from the back. “You can. You own the place. And stop bitching, I’m doing more than you are.”
Elli smiled as Audrey walked over, hugging her tightly. Audrey still had a little limp in her walk, but other than that, no one would ever know Audrey was recovering from a brutal attack by her ex. It was probably all the love she was receiving from her fiancé and Elli’s goalie, Tate. The girl was lucky to have snagged that man, and it showed. Audrey was glowing, with a belly twice the size of her sister’s. It was a joy to be pregnant, most of the time, but being pregnant at the same time as your sister was a blessing. Well, Elli thought it would be, but she would never know. Victoria would never have kids, but then again, even if she did, Elli wouldn’t know. They still weren’t talking. At times, it made Elli sad, but she had Shea. And what else did she really need when she had him?
“How are you?” Audrey asked.
“Fine, my back is hurting so bad, I gotta get home.”
“I bet. Carrying those two little guys, probably built like their daddy…”
Elli nodded with a grin. “More than likely. I am so ready.”
“Only a month left,” Fallon sang.
“I don’t know. I feel like they are coming any day now,” Elli said, hugging Audrey again before reaching for Shea’s basket.
“Yay! I can’t wait to see their sweet little faces,” Audrey gushed as Fallon hugged Elli bye.
“Me neither. Thanks for the basket,” Elli said before walking toward the door, “See y’all later.”
“Bye,” they both called as Elli waddled her way out of the arena. She went down the stairs slowly and carried all her belongings carefully, wishing Shea were there to help.
“This having a baby business is over after these two,” she muttered as she reached her car. Opening the back door, she placed all her things in Shelli’s car seat before shutting the door and then getting in her own seat. It took a lot of effort to pull up all her weight, and she groaned from the pain in her back. Once seated, she let out a breath but then went still as warmth filled her seat. Rushing for her phone, she dialed Shea’s number.
“Hey, sweetheart. On your way?”
As she took deep breaths, she couldn’t believe this was happening. She wanted it and was ready, but still, it was a month early. Would the little bits be okay? Tears gathered in her eyes from the fear as her hands started to shake.
“No, my water broke. Meet me at the hospital.”
She was exquisite.
Even with sweat dripping down her brow, her face pale from the delivery, and being so exhausted—he was surprised she was still awake—Shea Adler couldn’t seem to catch his breath as he watched his amazing wife hold their two bundles of blue.
Shea had known the moment he’d set eyes on Elli four years before, things would never be the same. He wasn’t prepared for her in the least, but it didn’t matter because when he fell, he fell hard. He knew he would never love another woman the way he loved her. Finally, she’d realized this and gave him her heart. And since the day he’d said I do, he had stayed true to only her.
Shea already felt like the luckiest man on earth when he married Elli, but then she got pregnant, and out came Shelli, his princess. Shelli was so sweet and so beautiful. No matter what Elli said, all Shea saw was Elli when he looked at his sweet baby girl. She was almost three, with bright-blue eyes and dark brown hair that curled up around her face. Elli always put crazy bows in her hair to match the cute little outfits she wore, and Shea swore something changed about Shelli every day.
Shelli loved to dance and sing along with Shea when he pulled out the guitar. He was convinced she was going to be on Broadway one day, but Elli thought she was going to be a hockey player since she had such a little temper. Just like her dad, Elli would say. She was so full of life and could make him smile instantly. She was honestly the light in his day. All she had to do was grin at him, and he was a goner.
But then Posey came along and captured Shea’s heart the same way. She was almost two and looked exactly like Shelli. Blue-green eyes and brown hair, which Elli always put in a cute little ponytail on top of her head. It looked more like a spout than a ponytail, but it didn’t matter—she was cute as a button. Shea was wrapped around her finger, and she was so little and so sweet. With so much personality in such a little body, how could he not? She made little faces like Elli, and man, did he love her.
Just like Shelli, Posey loved to dance and had been into everything since she had learned to walk. Shelli didn’t like baby Posey in her room because she chewed on her dolls, but for the most part, they loved each other. He missed them at the moment, but he knew they would be up at the hospital later that day to meet Owen and Evan with his sister Grace and his family. He hoped the girls were being good for Grace. They were already a handful, and adding in two more kids was probably psychotic of him, but he was so excited he couldn’t see straight. He wanted this. A big, beautiful family with the most gorgeous woman on the planet.
He had never been so proud in his life before the moment Elli had told him they were having twin boys. It was a blessing, and he couldn’t have thanked God enough for all the gifts he had been given. First, the woman who completed him and then four gorgeous, healthy babies, all while playing the greatest sport imaginable? Who got that lucky? Glancing up at Elli, he met her gaze, and she smiled. Smiling back, he made his way to her side, kissing her temple.
“I love you,” he whispered against her temple, and then he kissed her again.
“I love you more,” she answered before turning to look up at him. “Aren’t they perfect?”
Shea had tears in his eyes as he nodded, looking down at his set of boys. They were identical twins, both with moss-green eyes like Elli and thick, dark brown hair. They had Shea’s chin and maybe the shape of his eyes, but for the most part, they looked like their momma. Owen was the bigger of the two at almost five pounds. Evan was only a couple ounces smaller, and the doctors had said they were glad Elli had gone early. For only thirty-three weeks, the boys were on the big side. Elli was a trooper, and Shea couldn’t thank her enough. Four babies in three years?
That was some woman.
Swallowing past the lump in his throat, he croaked out, “Handsome little fellas. They must take after their dad.”
Elli laughed, “Whatever. You can’t lay claim to these. They are me all over. Look at those lips. Girls are gonna go wild when they get older.”
Shea couldn’t disagree. He went wild for Elli’s lips on a daily basis. Looking up from their boys, he smiled back at Elli before leaning in for a kiss. She met his lips expectantly, and she shot him a grin as they parted.
“I’m so tired.”
“I bet. That was a rough go. I admire your strength, babe. You did amazing,” Shea reassured. She nodded as she glanced back down the boys.
He liked that. His boys and his girls. In a way, he might be complete.
“Thanks. It was rough, but totally worth it. I couldn’t have done it without you,” she said, looking back up at him. “And what a reward, huh? Two perfect little guys. Future hockey players. I swear they were hip checking each other in my belly.”
Shea chuckled as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer. “You got that right,” he paused as Owen moved a little, bringing his little fist into his mouth. “I only need one more for a hockey team, you know.”
“You better hope they’ll let you play, because sorry, buddy. This baby-making factory will be closed down before I leave this hospital.”
“Come on, Elli. Let’s keep the shop open for another year.”
“For what? I told you—I’m done. Four babies is enough, Shea. You gotta admit that, babe.” She glanced up, and no doubt, she saw that he didn’t think four was enough at all. “Great balls of fire,” she muttered before placing a kiss on Evan’s head.
He chose his words carefully. “Maybe after the boys are a year, we could have another one?”
“Elli,” Shea said softly, and she looked up at him. “Just one more, and I promise, you can close up shop. And I’ll also close up shop, and there will be no other babies until all ours bring home their own babies.”
“How in the world can you expect me to even think of having any other babies when I just went through the fiery depths of hell to have these two? I am torn in ways women should not be torn, Shea. Please.”
Shea felt horrible and nodded quickly. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“No,” Elli said, shaking her head. “I’m just being crappy, my cooter hurts, and I feel so overwhelmed. Even though I’m supposed to be having babies and not worrying about my job, I can’t help but think of all the crap surrounding Erik and Phillip. I’m just tired, and I swear, I could sleep for a year.”
“I know, baby,” he said, kissing her cheek and then the side of her mouth. “I’m sorry. Do you want me to go take Erik and Phillip out?”
Elli smiled, which was what he wanted. “No, I love those knuckleheads, even if they are giving the Assassins a bad name. I just want to enjoy the kids for the rest of my maternity leave. I want to be a mommy, not worrying about anything but these little miracles.”
Shea nodded. “We have all summer, just us six.”
“Six?” Elli whispered, “Jesus, Shea, they outnumber us. All of them. I’m telling you, we might have messed up.”
Shea chuckled as he moved his nose along her temple, taking in her scent. Mango, his favorite.
“No way. We did good. Four beautiful kids, two little girls who favor their daddy and two boys who favor their momma. What more could we ask for?”
“For our factories to shut down,” she laughed. Shea shook his head. He didn’t want that, but if it was something Elli really wanted, he would agree. She wanted the kids just as much as he did. She put on a front that he was knocking her up left and right—which he was—but she wanted it too. They wanted this life. Even if it was hectic and crazy, it was their life. One day, he would retire and be the father his dad was to him. He didn’t think he wasn’t a good father, but for almost nine months of the year, he was in and out. Shelli noticed and didn’t like it, but there was nothing he could do. He could quit, of course, but he wasn’t ready. One day, he would be, and he couldn’t wait. But that was later in life.
When a knock came at the door, they both looked up to see Grace walk in with Shelli and Posey on her hips. Both girls were decked out in their “Big Sister” shirts and had huge, bright pink bows in their hair. Shea rolled his eyes at the sight since Posey’s bow was bigger than her head, but he soon smiled when she reached out for him. Standing up, he closed the distance between them and wrapped up his girls in his arms. Posey smacked him in the face excitedly, knocking his glasses askew, not that he cared. He was happy to see them.
“I just wanted to peek, and then I’ll leave. You guys need your family moment. Mom and Dad are outside, and so are Elli’s dad and uncle. Let us know when you guys are ready for us,” Grace said in a rush. She ran over to Elli’s side without waiting for Shea’s answer and kissed Elli’s cheek before looking down at the boys. “Oh my gosh, they are gorgeous!”
“Aren’t they? I just wanna gobble them up, they are so sweet,” Elli gushed as she grinned down at them.
“You guys make the most beautiful babies. I swear,” Grace said admiringly as she ran a finger down Owen’s cheek. “So sweet.”
“Thank you. You didn’t do such a bad job yourself, you know. Ryan and Amelia are beautiful children,” Elli said with a smile.
“They are, this is true. Oh, I just want to stay and look at them, but you guys need your time. So I’m leaving.”
She stood up with one last glance at the boys before walking toward Shea. A huge grin on her face, she rose up on her toes and kissed his cheek before closing the door behind her. Shea loved his twin sister with everything inside him. He was glad their relationship had not suffered with his marriage and the arrival of all the kids. Grace was there for him and loved him, the way a sister should.
Shea kissed Posey’s cheek before kissing Shelli’s. Then he asked, “Ready to meet your brothers?”
Shelli nodded her head as Posey started screaming for Elli. “Mama!”
“Hi, Buttercup. Come on over here. You too, Sunshine,” she said, sitting up and moving the boys so that she could hold them better. Shea had always loved the nicknames Elli had for the girls. Buttercup for Posey and Sunshine for Shelli. The girls wiggled in his arms as he made his way over to Elli. When they got to her, Posey reached out for Elli as Shelli said, “Aww, babies.”
“Mamama,” Posey rambled as she continued to stretch.
“No, honey. Daddy will hold you. Momma has boo-boos,” Shea said, but Posey kept reaching for Elli.
“Give her here,” Elli said, scooting over a little. Shea hesitated, but when Elli looked up at him expectantly, Shea placed Posey carefully beside her. Next was Shelli, but she knew to be gentle and leaned more on Shea than she did on Elli.
“My babies?” Shelli asked before smiling up at Shea.
“Our babies,” Shea corrected as Posey stroked her fingers softly over Evan’s face.
“Ba,” Posey said slowly with a little grin on her face, “Mama,” she said, looking up at Elli.
“Yup. I love you, Posey, so much. I love you too, Shelli.”
“I love you, Mama,” Shelli said, then she leaned her head on Elli’s. “Baby name mama?”
Elli said, “Owen and Evan.”
Shelli giggled. “No, mama names.”
Shea had no clue what Shelli was asking, but obviously, Elli did, because she answered, “Oh, I don’t know? How about Mac and Cheese?”
Shelli’s giggles shook Shea as he smiled. “Noooo!”
“Okay. Hmm, Rice and Krispie?”
“Noooooo, Mama,” Shelli laughed.
“Well, honey. They gotta go together.”
“Yeah, Lightnin’ and Bug.” Shelli said it just as her mother would. Country and drawled. She was her mother made over, and he couldn’t have loved her any more. She was also smart as hell because he sure didn’t remember Ryan and Amelia talking this well at two.
Elli shot Shelli a smile full of love before she nodded and said, “That’s perfect. My little lightnin’ and my little bug.”
“Yay! Lightnin’ and Bug and Buttercup,” Shelli said, pointing at Owen, Evan, and then Posey. “My family.”
Shea nodded, placing a kiss to Shelli’s head. “Yup, one big happy family.”
There was another knock at the door, and Shea turned to see who it was. “Hello, all,” a nurse said as she entered the room, “How’re the boys?”
“Great,” Elli answered, kissing Posey’s head, “So are the girls. I think they love their brothers.”
Shea agreed. Posey was smiling down at the boys as Shelli drew her finger down Owen’s cheek. The nurse gave them a bright grin as she walked over to the little table beside Elli’s bed.
“Wonderful. I’m glad y’all are adjusting well. So far, at least. We still gotta go home.”
Elli nodded as she laughed. “I know, right?”
The nurse smiled, and Shea leaned in closer to look at the shape of Owen’s lips.
Was it okay that his boy had a Cupid’s bow mouth?
Hopefully, he’d grow into that mouth.
“Okay. Well, I’m here to give you the paperwork for your tubal ligation that will be performed tomorrow at four with Dr. Resitra.”
Shea looked up quickly, glancing at Elli then the nurse before looking back at Elli. “What?”
The nurse looked up from her paperwork, then to Elli before answering, “I have paperwork for Mrs. Adler’s tubal ligation, also known as getting her tubes tied. I just need a few signatures.”
Shea kept staring at the side of Elli’s face until she looked at him. When she did, Shea could see the nervousness in her eyes. She hadn’t even discussed this with him. He’d thought he had more time to convince her to have another baby. Surely, she wouldn’t do this without discussing it with him.
Elli turned to look up at the nurse and then smiled. “I’m sorry, I need to discuss this with my husband first. Is there any way you can put the boys in their bassinet, and I’ll call you back when I’m ready to sign?”
“Sure,” the nurse said with a nod. “Do you want me to take them to the nursery?”
“No, ma’am,” Elli answered quickly. The kids never stayed in the nursery; they always stayed with Elli or Shea. When he’d asked Elli why, because Grace had said that was the time to sleep, Elli’s response was that babies could get stolen, and she much rather have them in view. Which was fine with him. It made him nervous when someone else had the kids. He hadn’t had children for other people to raise them. It was their job, and that was the way it had been. Even when Elli worked, the kids were at home with him or they went to work with her. Grace helped too, which was good, but only when there was no other option.
Shea watched as the nurse moved the boys to their little crib and then made her way out of the room. Shea took the girls to the chair and gave Shelli his phone for her to play with. Passing by his boys, he could help but smile even though he knew he was about to get into it with Elli. Leaning against the table, he pushed the papers away and looked over at his wife.
“Were you going to tell me?”
She nodded. “Of course. I didn’t think they’d be able to get me in so quickly.”
“So, that’s it?”
Elli looked up at him. “I told you, baby. I’m done. Four kids in three years? Come on. My body is tired. I’m tired. I’m already taking the summer off when, really, I want to take the year off. I’m tired, Shea.”
“I understand that, and if you want to take the year off, please do. Whatever makes you happy. But, baby, I really wish you would consider having one more. Just one.”
“Shea,” she whined. “I don’t want to get pregnant so soon aga—”
“One year. Give me one year before you do it. We’ll discuss having another one when the boys turn one. That would actually give us almost two years with the four kids we have before we throw another one into the mix.”
“But then a new baby would be so far apart from the kids. I don’t know.”
“Please, I just want one more.”
“I know,” she said with a laugh. “But I also know that you’ll have me pregnant in a month.”
“I promise, a year. If we decide then that we are done, we’re done. I swear. We’ll both get our factories closed, for good.”
Elli looked down at her hands resting on her swollen stomach. He loved the way she looked pregnant, all plump and voluptuous. But he would give her a year to get back to normal before he asked her to go through hell again. He just wasn’t done yet. One more and he’d be happy.
He’d have a whole hockey team, minus the goalie.
But if she was done, he’d respect that. She’d given him all the stars in the sky. In a way, he was being selfish. But then again, he knew she wanted the same thing. Someday the kids would be older, bringing their children by for them to gush over. They both wanted a big family, and one more would complete them.
Glancing back at Shea, Elli shook her head. “I’m gonna be fat forever.”
He smiled. “I’m gonna love you forever. You’re beautiful to me.”
Elli smiled as she glanced over to where the kids sat. “One more.”
“One more. Unless, for some reason, we have another set of twins, but I doubt that.” Elli glared and Shea smiled. “I can’t control what God wants.”
Elli scoffed as she closed her eyes before letting out a long breath. “One year, then we’ll discuss it.”
“Yup. I promise.”
Elli’s shoulders dropped, and she gave him a look so full of love, it took his breath away. “You’re lucky I love you, Shea Adler.”
Shea knew he’d won. With a bright grin, he wrapped his arms around Elli, kissing her deeply. When they parted, he kissed her nose and then the side of her mouth. “Damn right, I am. And I love you more than anything in this world.”
“I hope you love my expanding waistline.”
“I do,” Shea laughed. “Every sexy, delectable, yummy, single inch of you.”
“Let’s see if you left something in here for Daddy.”
Elli smiled as she got up and headed for the kitchen, listening to Shea talk to the twins. She was still in pain as she waddled to the kitchen, but she didn’t expect anything else. C-sections sucked. Pouring a glass of tea, she leaned against the counter, sipping it as she thought about everything going on. The boys were healthy and perfect, so were the girls. Shea was amazing and sweet as always, so nothing was wrong with her home life. But her work life was another story.
She had other teams looking at her free agents and problems with her players. Also, money-hungry agents who thought their players were the best and needed the best. Which they were, but Elli couldn’t break her uncle’s bank by throwing out just any amount of money.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Erik and Phillip were heavy on her mind. They were still going crazy and causing all kinds of trouble. She’d never expected this. They were good men—yes, a little lady-hungry, but always good guys. But it had gotten out of control.
In the past couple months, five girls had come forward saying the guys had fathered their children. All their claims were untrue, but it had still caused bad press for the Assassins. Add in the fact that the guys were all over the place, getting trashed and sleeping with any girl who could walk—and in the public eye, to make matters worse.
Elli had the worst headache in the world. She had been given a team full of good strong men who had morals and knew how to act. If they stepped out of line, the captains took care of it. But there was no taking care of Phillip and Erik. Shea was also at his wits’ end with them. Elli had never had this problem before, so she didn’t know how to proceed with it. Their agent promised they would behave, but apparently only Phillip took that to heart because Erik was still driving her bonkers.
Leaning against the counter, she listened to the commotion in the other room.
“Score! Nothing! Okay, Owen, let’s see.”
Elli listened as Shea groaned, and instantly she knew Owen had pooped. With a smile, she grabbed a water but paused mid-swig when the doorbell sounded.
“Hey, babe, can you get that?” Shea asked.
She rolled her eyes as she walked through the house. She was in pain. Shouldn’t she be asleep or something? But once she made it to the living room and saw Shea covered in baby wipes, she felt bad. God, she was such a bitch. He had been amazing and so helpful with the kids. Even though she was sad they hadn’t brought the Stanley Cup home, she was thankful because if the Assassins hadn’t lost in the first round, they would still be in the play-offs, and then Shea wouldn’t be home. Shea was still bitter and pissed about it, but Elli was grateful to have her husband with her and the kids. They’d win next year. This wasn’t their year, especially with Tate being out for everything with Audrey. Elli was okay with that. Next year would be their year.
Reaching the door, she pulled it open, and a huge grin came over her face.
“Hey, you!” she gushed, wrapping her arms around her “little sister” Piper. Piper was actually Harper’s sister, but Elli had claimed her as her own.
“Hey. Gosh, you’re always so beautiful,” Piper said with a smile as they parted.
“Liar,” Elli teased as they walked through the house with their arms around each other. “But thanks. Come to see my little men?”
“I did—and to see you. I need to talk to you about something.”
“Awesome. Come on, they are in here,” Elli said with a big grin as they entered the living room. Shea had his arms full of dirty diapers, while Shelli and Posey ran around the living room and the boys lay in their bassinets. Shea shot her a grin before leaning over to kiss Piper’s cheek.
“Hey, Shea,” she says before bending down to kiss the girls.
“Hey, good to see you,” he says before going into the kitchen. Elli watched Piper ooh and aah over the girls before going straight for the boys. Something was different. Elli had known Piper almost her whole life, and something was off. She wondered if maybe Piper had changed her hair, but that wasn’t it. It was still long and beautiful, down to the middle of her back. Piper did look as if she had put on some weight, but that wasn’t it either. Elli just couldn’t put her finger on it, but before she could ask, Piper turned to her with tears in her eyes, and Elli’s heart stopped.
“What’s wrong?” she asked immediately, taking Piper’s hand in hers.
Piper shook her head, taking in a deep breath, and then she looked up, her beautiful blue eyes shining with tears. When one tear slowly dripped down Piper’s cheek, panic set into Elli’s heart. Piper never cried. She was the carefree one. Nothing ever bothered her, and it freaked Elli out to see her so worked up. Things had been good for Piper. She was working hard as a freelance illustrator, and she was happy—or at least, Elli thought she was.
Shit, she was a horrible friend.
Elli was speechless before she sputtered, “Excuse me?”
“I’m pregnant, and I have no clue what I am going to do.”
Elli was still speechless. She didn’t know what to say, she didn’t know how to act, and she sure as hell didn’t know what to think. This was Piper. The sweet, free-spirited girl who never could decide on one thing, and now she was pregnant? Surely, Elli was hearing her wrong, but when she glanced down, she knew the extra weight she thought Piper had put on was actually the start of a round belly.
“Holy shit,” Elli gasped.
Piper nodded, tears continuing to roll down her sweet cheeks. “I know. My thoughts exactly.”
Shea came back into the room, and Piper cut her eyes to his before looking down. Elli wasn’t one to hide things from Shea, but Piper looked as if it had taken everything in her just to tell her secret, so Elli reached for Piper’s hand and pulled her into the kitchen, away from her family.
“How far along?”
Piper’s lip wobbled before looking away. “Six months.”
“Holy shit, Piper! Six months!”
She nodded slowly. “No one knows, and I-I-I don’t know how I let it go this long.”
Elli wasn’t sure how to feel. Was she that busy with her life that she hadn’t noticed her friend was carrying a child? Things had been nuts for her, play-offs, pregnancy, kids, and stupid players, but for goodness’ sake, she saw Piper at least once a week. How had she not noticed?
“I’m sorry. I am completely stunned here.”
Piper wiped her face. “I know, and I’m sorry—”
“Don’t you dare apologize. I should have noticed, but at the same time, why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“I was scared.”
Elli nodded. She could understand that. Piper’s family was hard on her. She had always been the failure in her parents’ eyes. The one who never knew what she wanted. She was always moving, always doing something different. Stability was not in Piper’s vocabulary, and it made Elli nervous now since having a baby meant you needed to have stability. Racking her brain for a solution, she watched as the girl she considered her little sister sobbed. Piper’s body shook with her cries, and it killed Elli. It was easy to see Piper was scared out of her mind. Elli wanted to help. It was in her blood; she was a fixer, and even though she suspected the father was not in the picture, she still asked, “Who’s the father?”
Piper shook her head, covering her face to wipe it free of the tears. When she set her eyes on Elli, Elli knew this wasn’t going to be good. She could read Piper like a book, knew when she was lying and when she was hurting. But then again, maybe that wasn’t true anymore. She’d hidden a pregnancy for six months and Elli had no damn clue, but that didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was helping Piper, and Elli was going to do just that.
She took in a shuddery breath, her blue eyes flooding with tears, and her chest heaved. “I love him, Elli. I do. But he doesn’t love me.”
She was stalling, and dread filled Elli. She knew instantly who it was. It was someone she knew. It was someone she considered family. It was the same person who was causing a whole bunch of stress in Elli’s life. But before she could say his name, Piper did.
“Erik. Erik Titov, Jakob’s brother.”
Fucking Erik, Elli thought as her nails bit into her palms. She took in a deep breath and let it out through her nose before nodding.
“Does he know?”
She shook her head, and Elli wanted to shake her. Didn’t Piper realize she was doing nothing but hurting herself? Elli wouldn’t tell her that, though. Piper was going to get it tenfold from her family, and Elli wouldn’t do that to her.
As calmly as she could, she said, “Go to my house in Sweetbriar and pull yourself together. You need to tell Erik—he needs to know. It will hurt everyone in the long run if you don’t. Don’t do this to yourself, or him, or more importantly, to your unborn baby.”
Piper looked up at Elli through her flooded eyes. “What?”
Yes, this was the best thing for Piper. She’d figure things out, finish the book she was illustrating, and maybe she’d prepare to be a mother. Being a first-time mother was hard enough, but doing it alone was even harder. Elli was going to do everything she could to help with that, but Erik Titov was a whole different story. That man had so many issues off the ice, it was insane. But something was going to have to change. He needed help and wouldn’t get it, no matter what anyone said. But maybe this…this could be his wake-up call, his salvation.
Piper was a flighty girl, but she loved with everything inside her. Elli truly believed that was what Erik needed.
He needed Piper.
“You heard me. No rent, no bills, nothing. Go live there and just sort things out. Work on your sketches and figure out what is next. My house is yours until you don’t need it any longer.”
“Yes, you can,” Elli said, reaching for the canister that held their extra keys. Pulling out her Sweetbriar house keys, she handed them to Piper and smiled. “Go. If you need anything, call us and we’ll help you, but the house is the same as it was when I lived there. All you need is your personal stuff.”
Piper shuffled the keys around in her hands that shook with nerves. “How do I thank you?”
“By telling him and figuring everything out. You are going to be an amazing mother, Piper. You just have to decide what to do next. First, though, you need to tell Erik.”
Piper nodded slowly before slamming into Elli and hugging her fiercely. Holding Piper, Elli could feel Piper’s little belly pressing into her own, and it brought tears to her eyes. Her baby sister was having a baby.
And by the grace of God, Elli would make sure Piper was happy.
Hopefully, that would include Erik too.
After walking Piper out to her car, Elli waddled back in, exhausted. She had no clue what she was going to do about Erik and Piper, but she knew she had to do something. When she got into the foyer, she paused and smiled as the music reached her. Shea’s deep, beautiful voice was accompanied by the music from his guitar, and soon goose bumps rose on her arms. She loved when he sang, and this was one of her favorite songs. Walking into the living room, she found Shea with Shelli sitting beside him, watching him in awe as Posey, Owen, and Evan lay on the floor. Elli wasn’t sure if the babies knew what was going on, but they seemed calm, while Posey looked up at her daddy like he hung the moon and the stars.
Which, in all reality, he did.
Softly, he sang the chorus to Dierks Bentley’s “Thinking of You,” and Shelli’s smile was unstoppable. When her sweet little voice started singing along with Shea, Elli couldn’t keep the tears in if she tried.
Shea encouraged Shelli, singing the lyrics with her, and together they sang the song like pros. Elli’s heart promptly blew up in her chest. Coming closer, she lowered herself to the ground and gathered Posey in her arms as they listened to Shea and Shelli sing. Shea flashed her a grin that set her on fire, and she knew nothing could ever live up to this moment. She lay with her babies, her husband and eldest daughter singing, and nothing in the world was better than this.
She was happy. So freaking happy, tears rolled down her cheeks.
When the song ended, Shelli threw her hands up and let out a cheer.
“I did it!”
Shea leaned over, kissing her loudly on the lips. “You sure did, and it was beautiful!”
Shelli smiled proudly up at him as Elli said, “So beautiful, Shelli.”
Shelli jumped off the couch and climbed into Elli’s arms, kissing her on the cheek. Elli closed her eyes, holding her two girls as her boys lay beside her, sleeping softly.
Elli looked up to find Shea with his phone out, wanting to take a picture. Shelli and Posey smiled like the pros they were, but Elli shook her head. “I look horrible.”
“Never. Smile, gorgeous,” he said with a wink.
Elli did as he asked, and as soon as the flash went off, Shelli and Posey were up, running to see the picture. Elli leaned over to check on her little guys and listened as the girls gushed over the photo.
“All right, why don’t you guys go play? I’ll be in there in a few.”
“Okay, Daddy,” Shelli said, running off with Posey right behind her. Shea set down his guitar and came over to help Elli up. She smiled as she took his hands and let him lift her swiftly to her feet. He smiled as he gathered her in his arms, kissing her softly on the lips.
“I love you,” he whispered against her mouth.
“I love you,” she said, closing her eyes, running her nose along the hair on his jaw.
He hadn’t shaved since the play-offs, and boy, did she love this man with a beard. Hell, she loved this man anyway. As long as he was hers.
“Is Piper okay?”
Elli shook her head, leaning against Shea’s chest. “No, but she will be.”
“Anything I can do?”
She shook her head again. “Just hold me.”
“I can do that.”
He brought her to the couch, holding her close beside him as he dusted her temple with his lips. “Jordan called while you were in there with Piper.”
She smiled at the mention of the goalie she’d just let go. She loved Jordan. But with Tate being the Assassins’ main goalie, Jordan just wasn’t getting the play he needed, and she knew he needed to go to another team. She wanted him to be happy, and thankfully, he had met Aynslee, a fiery redhead who completed him, before he left.
“How are they?”
“Good, still not settled, but they found their house. He plans to ask her to marry him when he opens for the IceCats.”
“Awesome. I’m so glad.”
“Yeah, he says he wants us all to come to the wedding, the whole crew.”
Elli laughed. “Goodness, the whole crew? That’s what we are, you know. A crew.”
Shea laughed as he kissed her temple softly. “Damn right, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“Except maybe one more, though,” he said with a wink.
“Ugh! Don’t start!”
He laughed before turning her to face him. Elli met her lips to his, kissing him slowly, making the butterflies go nuts in her stomach. It was like kissing Shea for the first time every single time. She loved this man completely, and nothing could ever change that. Now all she needed to do was fix what was going on between Piper and Erik, and life would be great. It wasn’t going to be easy, but most things weren’t.