The doorbell rang at ten minutes to three. Kelly was still upstairs getting ready for the photo shoot that would accompany the profile of our family in North Country magazine, so I headed to the front hall to get the door. “Let’s see who’s here, Dakota,” I said to the three-year-old resting on my arm. She’d just woken up from a nap and still had that sleepy look in her green eyes. Her brown curls were all matted on one side, but I figured Kelly would fluff it up before the photos were taken.
Just as I was about to pull the door open, two more of our girls came barreling down the steps behind me. “Daddy, is it the photographer?” asked eight-year-old Jolene breathlessly. “Is it time for us to get our picture taken?” She patted her hair and smoothed her skirt. “How do I look?”
“Great,” I said. With her thick dark hair and big brown eyes, Jolene looked the most like me, but she was way more anxious than I’d been as a kid, always worried about everything. But she was sweet as could be with her little sisters, and I appreciated her sense of caution.
“I’m ready!” six-year-old Serena shouted, showing off her gap-toothed smile. She was a freckled, red-headed little firecracker, a near-exact copy of her mother, right down to the red boots. “Cheeeeeeese!”
“Well, let’s say hello first, before we put them to work, okay?” I opened the door and smiled at the writer, a guy named Greg I’d spoken to on the phone, and photographer, a tall blond woman with a camera bag on her arm. “Hi. Welcome to the crazy.”
The woman laughed and held out her hand. “Hi there. I’m Annie, the photographer. Pleased to meet you.”
I shook it. “I’m Xander Buckley. And these are three of the four Buckley girls.”
“Hello, Buckley girls.” Annie offered a hand to Jolene, who took it hesitantly.
“Hi,” she said. After a nudge from me, she continued, “It’s nice to meet you.” Jolene could be shy around strangers, even though I knew how excited she was to have her photo taken and be in a magazine, just like her famous mama.
Annie smiled at Serena next, who was already waiting with her hand extended. “And who’s this?”
“I’m Serena,” she replied with her trademark lisp.
“It’s nice to meet you both,” said Annie.
“And I’m Greg Elton,” said the man standing next to her. “We spoke on the phone.” He offered his hand to us all.
“And this is Dakota.” I hefted her a little high on my chest, and she put her head on my shoulder. “She’s still waking up from her nap.”
“I miss naps,” said Greg.
“I don’t,” announced Serena.”
“Please come in.” I backed up to give them room to enter just as Kelly came down the stairs carrying the youngest of our four daughters on her hip—sixteen-month-old Hollyn.
Yes, I ended up with four daughters.
Serves me right for teasing Kelly about all the rowdy boys we’d have, doesn’t it?
But I wouldn’t change a thing. The Buckley girls and their momma were the light of my life, and being a dad was my favorite thing in the world. I’d had no idea how much I would love the quiet moments with them—reading bedtime stories and playing tea party and dancing with them standing on the tops of my feet.
They got plenty rambunctious too—Serena especially—and we did all the things I’d done with my brothers growing up. Climbing trees and making mud pies and playing pirate ship and looking for frogs in the creek behind the home we’d built.
It was our sanctuary.
Just thirty minutes outside Cherry Tree Harbor, it was nestled deep in the woods with plenty of privacy, yet it was still close enough to Buckley’s Pub that I could get to and from work easily. We saw extended family all the time, not only my dad and siblings but Kelly’s mom and brother too. We’d built a guest house on the property so they could come and stay whenever they felt like it.
We’d also built a studio on the premises for Kelly, so she didn’t have to spend so much time in Nashville anymore. She could record a hit song and be home in time to put the kids to bed, have dinner with me, and spend the night in my arms.
There was no way life got better than this.
“You have a beautiful home,” said Annie, looking around. “I love all the natural light.”
“Thank you,” said Kelly, reaching the bottom of the stairs. Her long red hair was still lustrous and wavy, her smile bright. She wore a canary yellow sundress and her red boots, and I was reminded of a day ten years ago when I followed her into Buckley’s Pub and wondered how on earth I was ever going to keep my hands off her. Over the last ten years, she’d only grown more beautiful.
“You look great,” I told her. “Are you sure I’m dressed okay?” I looked down at my jeans and T-shirt.
“Positive. I want this to be a very casual thing, so people see the real us.” She rubbed my bicep and winked. “Plus, this shirt shows off all your best features.”
“Should we do the photo shoot first? Or the interview?” Greg asked.
“Why don’t we do the photos first, since the kids are clean and no one’s crying?” Kelly suggested. “In a house with four kids under age eight, that status can change quickly. Plus, we’ve got a sitter coming at four to keep the kids occupied while we talk.”
“Sounds great. We’ll shoot first.” Annie glanced around. “How about some photos of everyone on the couch?”
The six of us sat on the couch and tried to pose like civilized people, but it wasn’t long before we ended up on the floor with the kids climbing all over Kelly and me. “Adorable,” Annie said, smiling as she checked the digital proofs on her camera. “These are perfect.”
* * *
Later, after the sitter arrived and took the kids upstairs to the playroom, Kelly and I returned to the couch to be interviewed. We talked about building the house, about raising the kids to have normal childhoods, about how people up here had grown used to having a celebrity living in their midst. Kelly hardly even caused a stir anymore at the grocery store or coffee shop, although we were always careful with her safety, as well as our children’s.
“Xander is very protective,” said Kelly, rubbing my leg affectionately. “He’s always been that way, since the day we met.”
“How did you two meet?” Greg asked.
We exchanged a glance. “He was my bodyguard while I vacationed up here in a little one-bedroom cabin,” Kelly said with a laugh. “Although we did not hit it off right away.”
“No?” The reporter looked surprised.
“No. I thought he was obnoxious, bossy, and rude, and I did not want him in my space, but he refused to leave.”
“She secretly wanted me.” I leaned back and crossed my arms over my chest. “I could tell.”
“He was the worst,” Kelly said. “I threatened to make him sleep on the porch, and he still wouldn’t leave.”
“She was drawn to me instantly,” I said. “It was obvious.”
My wife poked my shoulder. “I finally offered to let him sleep on the couch.”
I laughed. “Ask her how long that lasted.”
“Not long,” Kelly admitted, snuggling up closer to me. “He wore me down. I fell for him fast. And we were married a year later.”
“That first day we met, I never would have thought it was possible,” I said, putting my arm around my wife and kissing the top of her head. “Now I can’t imagine my life without her.”
“And you have this beautiful home and four adorable children,” said Greg. “What could be better?”
“Five,” said Kelly.
Greg looked confused. “What’s that?”
“Five children could be better.” She looked up at me and smiled that devious little grin of hers that still drove me wild. “Surprise.”
My jaw was hanging open. “Are you serious? You’re—” I glanced at her stomach. “We’re—” I looked her in the eye again, and although there was a twinkle in them, I knew she wasn’t joking. “Five?”
“Five,” she said, laughing at having gotten me good. She patted her belly. “Arriving next spring. Maybe we’ll finally get that rowdy boy you used to tease me about.”
“Oh my God. Come here.” A lump formed in my throat. I wrapped her in my arms and buried my face in her hair, not caring that we weren’t alone. “I love you. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or girl.”
“I know. And I love you too.”
“Five,” I said, my voice cracking.
“Five,” she confirmed. “You were right.”
I mean . . . of course I was.
(Just telling it like it is.)