Ella recognized Ben’s voice on the phone when she picked up. Dread filled her. “Erin? Is she all right? Is the baby all right? Where are you?”
“We’re back at the hospital. In the L and D unit. A floor below where we were before. Everyone’s okay, but—” He broke off with a curse.
“I’m on my way right now,” she assured him as she stood, grabbing her things and heading to the doors to the parking lot. “Family emergency,” she called out to the receptionist as she rushed by. Fear chilled her. It had only been a few weeks since the last scare. She’d hoped that Erin would be fine.
In the car she ruthlessly tamped down the panic and fear, focusing on her friends, knowing they’d need her to be clearheaded and in control so they didn’t have to be. Still, she was thankful the hospital wasn’t that far away and it was early enough in the afternoon she didn’t have to battle her way through the unholy mess of Seattle traffic to get there.
Once inside, she rushed to the labor and delivery unit. There was a waiting room just outside, where Brody stood in front of closed glass doors. She went straight to him, hugging him.
He kept her hand in his, the worry etched into the skin next to his eyes. “The swelling is back; her blood pressure is bad. They’re running tests to see how her kidneys are doing. She’s freaked out.” His eyes shone with unshed tears.
“How is the baby?”
“He’s kicking like a champ,” Ben said as he entered the room. She rose to hug him and noted the blond ponytail whip past, toward Brody, as Elise entered. The noise level rose as Rennie plopped herself down next to Brody and began talking.
“He?” Brody asked and they all turned.
“Surprise. I think I’d have preferred to find out another way, but we’re having a boy.” Ben’s smile was sweet, genuine and totally worried.
She stood straighter. “I’m here to help. Tell me what you need, and I’ll make it happen.”
Todd came in. “You’re a good friend.” He smiled at her before turning to everyone else. That’s when Cope flew in the door.
“What’s going on?”
“They’re checking her out to see if the cervix is thinning. She’s at thirty-five weeks, so they’d like to wait even just a week or two if they can, just to give him some more time to bake in there. But if her other tests come back and the numbers indicate danger, they’ll need to induce and get him out of there for both their sakes. She made me leave for this part.” He snorted. “It’s not like I haven’t seen the goods before.”
“No one wants their cervix probed with their husband in the room. Um, well not like this.” Elise reddened, and it lightened the mood a little.
“Hey, Red.” Cope put his arms around her, kissing her soundly. “I was gonna call you once I’d gotten the scoop. Glad you’re here.”
They settled in on the uncomfortable couches to wait. Rennie didn’t want to leave to go to her grandparents’ house. She was so very worried and upset about Erin and the baby that Brody and Elise had allowed her to stay. But Ella knew Elise must have wanted to focus on Brody to get him centered.
“Rennie, you want to come with me to grab some coffee for everyone? Hot chocolate for you, my treat.”
Rennie nodded seriously, but it was impossible to miss the calculated gleam in her eyes. Ella just waited for it.
“I sure am hungry. Do you think they have slices of punkin bread like you guys have at the café?”
Brody laughed, leaning over to kiss the top of Rennie’s head. “Work it, kid.”
“I promise to bring some back for you too. But not punkin, ’cause I know you don’t like it as much as the lemon.”
“Always thinking of others,” Elise murmured with a smile.
Ella stood. “Got your walking shoes on? Zip your coat up, and we’ll walk. Just a few blocks away. Near a bakery too, you know, just in case they don’t have any punkin bread left at the coffee shop.”
“Want some company?” Cope offered, but she saw his worry and knew he needed to be there for Ben.
“We’re good. Thanks.” She touched his cheek, and he leaned into her hand. “Stay here where you’re needed. Rennie and I will be back shortly.”
Cope watched them leave, torn.
“Go on. It’s not like we’re going anywhere. Erin is stable, the baby is fine, his heartbeat is strong and he’s active. You have a phone, so if anything happens, I’ll call you right away.” Ben looked at his brother.
He wanted to, but he also wanted to be there for Ben. “She’s getting coffee, it’s okay. She’ll be fine. What can I do here for you guys?”
“I called Mom. She’s on her way. She made a comment about him, but I warned her not to bring him into this mess.” Ben meant their father, and anger washed through him anew.
“All right. Is the café covered? I’m on the pager, Kylie said she’d stay on to cover the phones just in case.” Kylie was the office manager who they’d hired a few months back to run their main office. They’d been working out of Ben’s house, but with the baby coming, they’d wanted to shift back to their main digs and keep family separate from work.
“Café is good. I called over there after Ben called Ella. They’re closing early today but will work out a schedule to be open as much as they can the rest of the week. They run fine without Erin; just don’t tell her.” Brody smiled briefly, and Elise put her head on his shoulder.
“Well then, let’s sit and wait.”
Ella thanked the man who held the door for her when she and Rennie returned with full arms. Coffee, tea, snacks and a bunch of magazines in her tote. If Erin had to stay, she could at least have some reading material.
Rennie bounced along, keeping Ella’s attention on her rather than panic about Erin, and for that she was grateful. Until she turned in the elevator to face the doors and caught sight of Billy and Annalee waiting to get their ticket to get into the parking garage.
“Hey guys,” she said when they got back to the waiting room. Ben had gone off with Todd to check on Erin. She handed the two trays of drinks off, dropping her bag at the corner of Cope’s chair.
“Thank you, Red.” He handed out the proffered drinks and passed around the snacks while Rennie settled in with the coloring book Ella grabbed at the little newsstand where she got the magazines.
“I left something in my car. I’ll be right back.”
Cope put a hand on her arm. “That’s okay, I can get it for you.” He waggled his brows at her. “Or I can escort you.”
“Why don’t you do that?” Perhaps he could deal with his father and keep things low-key.
They went out, and she opted for the stairs rather than the elevator for speed’s sake.
“Am I that irresistible? You’re running to your car? I’m talented, but I’m not sure my talents extend to getting nasty with you in a parking lot of the hospital.”
She turned to him as they reached the parking level. “Your father is here. I saw them waiting to get a ticket to park. I’m trying to head them off.”
He paused, his hand on the door. She blushed. “I’m sorry. I know it’s presumptuous of me. For all I know you’ve all made up, but when I had coffee with your mother last week, it didn’t seem like it.”
“You had coffee with my mother? You didn’t say.”
Right then she felt accused, and when she was only trying to help, it pushed her buttons. “I wasn’t aware I had to clear it with you.”
“I didn’t say you did. It’s just that I, fuck, fuck.”
She turned and saw them come into the elevator lobby. Annalee looked upset, and Ella couldn’t blame her. Billy, well, she was sure the man loved his kids, but he was acting like a total ass. Hmpf, a lot like his youngest son, who scowled at her and then at his dad like she’d arranged it instead of trying to help.
“Hi, Annalee. How are you?” She moved past Andrew and hugged his mother. “Come on up. Ben said you were on the way, so I know he’s waiting for you.” The elevator dinged, and she shot a look at Andrew, who did have the good sense to look at least slightly abashed.
“You’ll stay here and speak with your son,” Annalee said to her husband as she got on the elevator with Ella. “Thank you, honey. I tried to tell him not to come.”
“Maybe this can be a good moment for them to get past all this nonsense.” She hoped so.
“I hope. He’s a stubborn man. Prone to saying things before he thinks. Stupid.” Annalee shook her head.
They entered the waiting room. Brody saw her and stood to give Annalee a hug. “We’re all just waiting to hear back. They’ve been monitoring Erin’s protein levels and, um, a kick count? Yeah, that’s it, a kick count on the baby. Ben went back to see what was going on.”
“Sit, here, would you like a coffee?” Ella held out the one she’d gotten for herself. Annalee most likely needed it more than she did.
“And some lemon cake.” Rennie handed the little bakery box Annalee’s way, giving the right kind of distraction. Ella looked over Rennie’s head to Elise and smiled.
“Where’s Cope?” Rennie asked. “I was saving this brownie for him. Ella says these ones are his favorite.”
Annalee looked up at Ella and smiled, before answering. “He’s trying to talk sense into someone.”
Ella just hoped it didn’t involve fists this time.
Mrs. Keenan came in moments later and headed straight for them. “Dean is down with Billy and Andy. Hopefully he won’t have to break up a fistfight this time.”
Ella put her head in her hands as the room fell totally silent. “I know Andrew would prefer that Erin not hear about that part,” she mumbled.
“It’s not my boy who should be ashamed; it’s his father. Stupid, stupid man.”
“This isn’t the time or place for any of this nonsense.” Ben came into the room and hugged his mother and then Lorie Keenan. “Rennie, Erin is going to have to stay here at the hospital for a few days; she’s going to need pretty pictures for the walls in her room. Can you do that for me?”
Rennie nodded solemnly. The kid was a really talented artist, and silly coloring books aside, she’d probably do a few masterpieces for Erin. “I don’t have any of my papers here, but I do at home.”
“Why are we talking about my father being an ass, and where is Andy?” Ben murmured to Ella. He held back a curse when she explained it.
“He wants to fix things for you. He’s a fixer, you know.”
Ben looked confused for a moment, and she wanted to sock him in the belly for not knowing what was right in front of him. “I’m giving you a pass because you’re under a tremendous amount of stress. But you need to give your brother some credit. He’s an incredible person who truly cares about the people he loves.”
His smile then was amused and affectionate. “I do. And it makes me happy you see it too.”
She waved it away. “We’ll talk about it later. How’s Erin?” she asked, this time louder.
“Sneaky,” he muttered. “Her protein levels are higher than they like to see. But Alexander is doing really well according to the doctors, and Erin is really reluctant to induce until another week or two has passed if we don’t have to.” He shoved a hand through his hair right as Andrew came in with Dean Keenan and Billy Copeland.
Ella took Ben’s hand, squeezing it.
“So they’re going to keep her here for another few days to monitor the situation more closely. They’ve got on-call surgeons and OB/GYNs if she has to deliver quickly. Total bed rest is apparently not the best thing for her, so she’ll be up and around a bit, but at least between me and Todd, we can make sure she doesn’t overdo.”
“Can we see her?” Brody stood.
“You can, but no one other than immediate family. This is the L and D wing, so all access must be cleared by the nurse’s desk on the other side of those secure doors. No children other than siblings, sorry Ren, I know she wants to see you.”
Rennie nodded solemnly, looking very much like her mother just then. “I just want her to get better. His name is Alexander? The baby’s a boy?”
“He is, and yes, Alexander Copeland Keenan is his name.”
Her eyes lit up. “That’s a cool name. Do I get to babysit him? I mean if Momma’s around and stuff? I won’t break him.”
Ben smiled genuinely. “I can’t imagine Alexander would pass up time with you. You’re his cousin, so he’s going to love being with you.” He looked to Brody. “I can’t wait to have a family like yours.”
“I’m a lucky man.”
“Alexander is a great name, honey.” Ella knew that Annalee’s father had been named Alexander; it was a good, strong name. Annalee moved to her son and hugged him. Ella stepped out of the way but not before catching the snort of derision from Billy Copeland, who still stood near the elevators.
Ella cut her eyes to him. She caught his gaze and narrowed hers, warning him to shut the fuck up. This was not the time or place for any nonsense, and she had had enough tiptoeing around his behavior.
He continued to look at her until she cocked her head and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Go on back, Brody. I told them to expect you.”
Elise told him to send Erin their love, and the big man left the room, looking ten kinds of worried. Rennie was a good kid, better than most she knew, but there was no way Rennie would be able to hang out in a hospital waiting room all night long
Ella interrupted. “Elise, it’s Friday night, and I don’t have to be anywhere tomorrow morning. Why don’t Rennie and I grab some pizza and DVDs and crash at my place for the night? You can call me in the morning, and I can bring her home or to your parents’ house.” She made sure to say it quietly enough that Rennie, who squealed with delight and ran to Adrian as he got off the elevators, couldn’t hear.
Cope moved around his father and over to Adrian, clearly explaining the situation.
Ben looked down at Elise. “Elise, they’re not going to allow anyone else in to visit with her at this point. There are restrictions to keep everyone safer from the flu, she’s in the high-risk pregnancy rooms and only immediate family is allowed. Hell, they tried to stop me the first time we came by.”
Annalee’s brows flew up, clearly outraged on her son’s behalf. “They did?”
“Mom, people treat us like that all the time. Heck, it took you about six months to come around.”
To her credit, his mother smiled up at him and patted his cheek. “I was a fool. But my grandbaby is going to be here soon, and that’s what matters. You happy is what matters. Erin makes you happy. Todd makes you happy. It’s not what I imagined for you”—she laughed—“but it’s yours, and because it’s yours, it’s mine too.”
“Could have made better choices with the right head.”
Ella marched up to Billy Copeland and took his arm, drawing him into an elevator that had opened up. She punched the down button and turned to face him, just as she caught sight of everyone’s shocked expression before the doors slid closed.
“Okay, you, I’m not related to you, nor am I married to someone related to you, so I’m just going to say what everyone else has nicely tried to tell you for years now. Shut up. You’re an asshole, and that’s your prerogative. This is America after all.”
They arrived on the bottom floor, and she led him, still shocked, out and into the parking area foyer.
“Oh no.” She shook her head, putting her fingertips over his mouth. “You’ve said enough. And then some. It’s my turn now. You’re a cancer in your family. Why, I don’t know. Oh what? You think you’re the first guy on the planet who didn’t like who his son or daughter ended up with? You think you’re special? What you are is a coldhearted prick who seems to get off on abusing his family for kicks. Maybe you didn’t get enough hugs as a child, maybe your pea brain is too small to see how ridiculously and totally in love your son is with the people he’s made his life with. Maybe you’re one of those ignoramuses who thinks his opinions are facts. Frankly, at this stage, I don’t care.”
“Just who do you think you are?” His stance shifted, got more aggressive, but she was filled with so much righteous indignation and anger for her friends and for the man she loved, she held her ground despite the tiny frisson of fear deep in her belly.
“I think I’ve been friends with Erin Brown for longer than you’ve known her. I think I’m a person who watched her fall in love with your son every day. A person who watched your son fall for her and then for Todd. Oh, get that look off your face. It’s not like anyone is asking you to watch them have sex. Anyway, why is it you’re so fascinated with how your kid has sex and with whom? Seems to me that’s your issue, not his.”
“You’re dating Andy, aren’t you?”
“Yes. So now you can be unhappy with his choices too. I’m sure that will be a comfort to you at holiday dinners. Or when that baby says his first word, starts crawling for the first time, takes his first step. Your wife will be there for it. Are you so angry, so bitter and hateful that you’d willingly check out?”
“Ella, that’s enough.” Andrew stepped out into the area from the stairwell. “It’s not worth it.”
“Andrew Copeland, if this isn’t worth it, you please tell me what is.” She turned to him. “This man showed up here and has not done a thing to support his son who has to be terrified of losing his child. Why are you here, Mr. Copeland?”
“This is family business. You’re not family, and I don’t have to make excuses to you.”
“Fine, though I can’t be disappointed that you’re not family. What I can do is say what I’m thinking, because you’re not man enough to stop me. No one will stop me from speaking my mind ever again.” She said the latter to both of them.
“And what’s on your mind then? That I should throw a party for my half-gay son who is maybe having a baby, maybe not? That I should celebrate this baby who should not have ever been conceived to start with? What kind of life will that child have? You think all the other kids are going to be so hip and with it that they’ll accept two dads and a mom who looks like a pen exploded on her?”
“Is that what you think people want from you? Really? Your level of hubris is unbelievable. This isn’t about you. Don’t you get that?”
“Ella, honey, just let it go.” Cope touched her arm.
“Let it go? Are you kidding me? He comes here, stirs trouble, and no one wants to say boo to him. Why? It’s a serious question.” She knew they had a complicated relationship. What father and son didn’t? But this man didn’t deserve two sons as wonderful as Andrew and Ben.
“You are not family. You’re the problem!”
“You are, and you’re acting like a thug. And for whatever reason, you’re getting a pass. Not from me. The fact is, I amfamily. I’m more family to Erin than you will ever be, and I don’t need your permission to tell you I think you should go if you can’t at least be halfway supportive. My friend is in the hospital, scared about losing her child.”
“Get this woman out of my face, Andy.”
Andrew put his arm around her shoulders. “Dad, I think you need to take a breath and calm down. This isn’t helpful, and you promised to behave if you came upstairs.”
“I’m not taking any direction from this woman or from anyone else. This is none of her business.”
She started to speak, but Cope squeezed her shoulders. Which frustrated her, but it wasn’t the time for that. She knew he was most likely embarrassed by his father’s behavior and perhaps even hers. But she’d deal with that later. This man should not be allowed to make Erin, Ben or Todd feel bad here and now. If he wanted to hate at his own home, that was his choice. But not here. Not now.
He relaxed a little when she kept quiet. “Dad, we’ve discussed this, and you had options. You came here, so I’d imagine somewhere inside, you want to be helpful and loving. But on the outside? Not so much.”
“I’m not having this conversation with her here.”
Ella sighed but said nothing else to him. She turned to Cope. “I’m going back up.” She wanted to warn him again not to bring his attitude back up in there, but it felt like overkill, so she let it be.
Halfway back up the stairwell it hit her, and she had to pause, holding her belly. She’d done it. She’d stood up for her friends in the face of exactly the sort of aggression Bill used on her to keep her compliant.
She’d wanted to turn and run a few times, but she’d stood her ground.
She pumped her fist into the air once and smiling, began to climb again.