“Daddy.” The voice was insistent, as was the tugging on the blankets.
I grumbled and yanked the covers up again.
“Daddy.” The voice grew louder, and a small hand shook my shoulder. “Can we get up now? Santa came.”
I opened my eyes and saw Hallie and Luna standing at my bedside, wearing matching flannel pajamas and eager grins. Hallie’s hair was still in braids from last night, and Luna’s was a matted mess. “Is it seven a.m. yet?”
“Not here,” Hallie admitted, “but in other places, it’s definitely seven or even later. For example, in Melbourne, Australia right now, it’s already Christmas night.” At ten, Hallie was still curious about everything under the sun, and she’d recently learned about all the different time zones in the world. Of course, she’d immediately figured out ways to use them to her advantage.
“Hallie.” I yawned. “Our deal was seven a.m. Eastern Standard Time in the United States.”
“You never said that, Daddy.” Luna spoke up to defend her sister. “You just said seven.”
“Right, and we shouldn’t just assume our time zone is the right one,” Hallie went on. “That’s rude. Other people’s time zones are just as good as ours.”
Next to me, Winnie started to laugh.
“See? Winnie is up too.” Luna jumped onto the bed and tried her luck with her stepmom. “Can we start opening gifts?”
Winnie propped herself up on her elbows. “Give us five minutes, okay?”
“Okay.” Hallie grabbed her sister’s arm and dragged her off the bed. “Come on, let’s go down and start sorting everyone’s presents into piles.”
They took off, and a second later we heard footsteps pounding down the stairs. We still lived in the two-bedroom townhouse I’d bought over two years ago, having sold Winnie’s over the summer, just after we got married. We were looking for a house with more bedrooms but hadn’t found the perfect place for the right price yet. We figured we’d get through the holidays here and then start the hunt again after the new year.
But we were definitely going to need more space come spring.
As Winnie swung her legs over the side of the bed, I grabbed her hips and pulled her back beneath the covers. Laughing, she playfully swatted my chest as I held her close. “Dex! I said we’d meet them down there.”
“You said five minutes. It’s only been thirty seconds.”
She smiled, radiantly beautiful in the winter morning dark. I wasn’t sure how I’d lived for so long without seeing her face first thing every day. “Okay,” she said. “One minute.”
“Two,” I said gruffly, pulling her closer. She was warm and soft and smelled like vanilla body lotion.
“Two.” She tucked her head beneath my chin and wrapped an arm around me.“This is the first Christmas morning we’ve ever woken up together.”
“Last year, I woke up alone and then came over to open gifts.”
“And you surprised me with a ring.”
I kissed the top of her head. “I remember that too.”
She tried to cuddle even closer. “And now look at us—Mr. and Mrs. Hairy Ogre.”
“And a little ogre in the oven.” I held her body against mine, as if to protect the tiny life inside her. Her belly had only just started to swell in the last couple weeks and I loved seeing it and touching it and just being close to it.
She’d gotten pregnant fairly soon after our wedding—it hadn’t been a total shock, since we hadn’t been trying to prevent it, but what really amazed me was how excited I’d been when Winnie told me the news. I actually got choked up, and Winnie claimed there were tears.
There may have been some tears.
But I couldn’t help it—how could any guy be this lucky? I had two smart, funny, beautiful, kind daughters. I had a wife who was pure gold inside and out, who adored my girls, and who for some crazy reason had said yes when I asked her to spend the rest of her life with me.
And by this time next year, we would have another child to love. I’d get to watch Hallie and Luna be big sisters. I’d get to witness all the milestones I’d missed before. And I had Winnie to thank for everything.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Great, actually. Ever since I hit that thirteen-week mark, it’s been much better.”
“Good.” Winnie was sixteen weeks along now, and I loved keeping up with what was going on with the baby alongside her. Every night, she’d read to me from a website or a stack of books on her bedside table, telling me how big the baby was and what was developing—heart, lungs, ears, fingers, toes. I was fascinated.
Pulling away slightly, she looked up at me, her grin wide. “Should we go down? I can’t wait another minute. I’m too excited.”
I kissed the tip of her nose. “I am too. They’re going to freak out.”
“I know. They asked me the other day if I was too old to have another baby. I thought maybe they noticed my bump.”
Groaning, I sat up and tossed the covers aside. “I’m surprised they didn’t ask me that question. I’m the senior citizen around here.”
She giggled as she shrugged into her robe. “I’m not sure they quite comprehend your role in things.”
“Good.” I stood up and headed for the dresser, taking a pair of gray sweatpants from a drawer. “Let’s keep it that way. I’m dreading the day Hallie gets curious about that subject.”
“Don’t worry about it, honey. I’ve got the girls.” She rubbed her stomach. “If this one’s a boy, though—”
“Hey!” I rushed over and put a finger over her lips. “Don’t jinx me, babe.”
Laughing, she kissed my fingertip. “Okay.”
* * *
Half an hour later, the girls had torn the paper off all their gifts, and bounced with excitement as Winnie and I opened their present for us. It was a book—Hallie had written out her story about the princess and the ogre in her best handwriting, and Luna had drawn colorful illustrations for every page. Somehow, they’d had it bound in hardcover with A Real Life Fairy Tale by Hallie Matthews with illustrations by Luna Matthews printed on the front.
Winnie gasped as she thumbed through it. “Oh my goodness, girls! This is amazing! How did you do it?”
“We had a little help,” Hallie confessed. “I asked Grandma Frannie and Grandpa Mack if they knew a place that could turn my story into a real book.”
“And they said yes!” Luna flashed a gap-toothed grin. “So I made some pictures to go with it.”
“You did a great job,” I told her, my voice cracking. I cleared my throat, which felt tight and scratchy, but it was probably just cat hair or something—we now had two fucking cats living in the pantry. Thankfully, Piglet and Freddie Purrcury got along great.
Winnie opened her arms and the girls came rushing over to where we sat on the couch. “Thank you,” she said, squeezing them both. I gave them each a hug too, but my throat was still too tight for words.
Damn cat hair, I tell you.
“Now the stockings!” Hallie cried, racing over to get them with Luna on her heels.
They each took their stockings from where they hung on the banister and dumped the contents out on the floor. Candy canes and chocolate Santas and packs of gum and pencil erasers and hair accessories and chapsticks and other small toys fell to the rug—along with two copies of a blurry picture.
“What’s this?” Hallie picked up the ten-week ultrasound photo and studied it critically.
“I have one too.” Luna put down the chocolate Santa she was unwrapping and held her copy of the picture in two hands.
“What does it look like?” Winnie asked.
Luna turned it sideways. “It looks like clouds. Or snow.”
“It looks like a ghost,” Hallie said. “Or maybe an alien.”
Laughing, I put my arm around Winnie. “Keep trying.”
“That black thing looks like a lima bean,” said Luna.
“Yeah, but doesn’t that look sort of like a Halloween mask of an alien? Like with a skull and—” Hallie stopped talking. “Wait a minute. I’ve seen one of these pictures before.”
“Where?” Luna asked.
“At Ella’s house. It was on the fridge. And when I asked about it, she said it was a picture of the baby her mom was going to have.” Hallie looked up at Winnie. “Are you having a baby?”
Winnie nodded. “You’re getting a little sister or brother.”
“Yay!” Hallie and Luna both began jumping up and down, shrieking with delight and crying tears of joy. Winnie wiped her eyes too.
“Can we feel it kick yet?” Hallie came rushing over and put her hand on Winnie’s belly. “Ella said she can feel her baby brother kick.”
“Not yet,” Winnie said. “I think maybe in a few weeks.”
Luna, who didn’t want to miss out on anything, came racing over and added her hand to Winnie’s belly, despite what she’d just been told. The two girls appeared to be concentrating very hard, like maybe they’d be able to feel something if they were still enough.
“It’s too small, girls,” Winnie said, laughing at their furrowed brows. “It’s only about the size of an apple right now.”
“A red apple or a green apple?” Luna asked.
Hallie gave her sister a look. “What difference does that make?”
“I don’t know. But is it a boy or a girl baby?”
“We don’t know yet,” I said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Hallie pouted. “I hate waiting.”
“Me too,” echoed Luna. “I wish the baby was coming now.”
“When will it be born?” asked Hallie.
“Early June.” Winnie smiled at them. “We’ll have a new baby for the summer.”
The girls looked at each other with excitement. “We can take it swimming,” Luna suggested.
“Yes, and tell it stories,” Hallie said. “But whose room will it sleep in? Ours?”
“Hopefully, the baby will have its own room in the new house,” replied Winnie. “Babies make a lot of noise, more than you’d think. I remember when my little sisters were born, I begged Grandma Frannie to put them in my room, and then I was glad when she didn’t.”
“Could you maybe have twins too?” Luna asked. “That way, there’d be one for each of us.”
Winnie laughed and patted her belly. “No, there’s just one in there.”
Luna’s face fell. “Oh.”
“One is still good.” Hallie spoke confidently. “I think one is a good place to start.”
“To start?” I said, reaching out to tug one of her braids. “Listen, this is it. Enjoy your one baby. After this apple, store’s closed.”
The girls rolled their eyes and leaned down toward Winnie’s stomach. “Don’t worry, baby,” Hallie said sweetly. “He’s not grumpy all the time. Just sometimes.”
“And we’ll share the swear box money with you,” added Luna. “Because we are your big sisters and we love you.”
“You’ll be the best big sisters ever,” said Winnie with a sniff. “Just like mine were.”
I wanted to agree with her, but my throat was in a vise. When I went to speak, no sound came out. I looked at the three girls I loved more than anything in the world and the scene in front of me went blurry.
“Daddy? You okay?” Hallie gave me a funny look.
I nodded. “It’s all the damn cat hair,” I croaked. “It’s making my eyes water.”
All three of them exchanged a knowing look. Winnie rubbed my leg, and the girls went right back to telling the baby all their favorite embarrassing things about me.
My life had never felt so full.