This piece features Jaxi and Blake Coleman. The oldest brother of six, Blake’s been enjoying married life and his twin baby girls. He wouldn’t change a thing, even though he still teases Jaxi they were supposed to have all boys. Jaxi’s more than content—this is what she’d longed for.
Timeline: This vignette takes place during the time frame of ROCKY MOUNTAIN DEVIL. February 13 to be specific, only a few days after a certain someone left Rocky Mountain House.
Six Pack Ranch homestead
Blake stepped across the kitchen and slipped his arms around Jaxi, pulling her body to his. “Smells great,” he murmured against her neck before kissing the soft spot under her ear.
“Roast chicken and veggies,” Jaxi offered.
He hummed, hands moving around her more firmly as he took a deep breath. “Not talking ‘bout the food.”
She laughed softly before twisting in his arms. Her lips met his full on while she was still smiling, and he swore he could taste her happiness.
Something jerked at his belt loop. Someone.
“Daddy, we need you.” Two voices in unison made the demand, followed by a softer, more babyish echo, “Daddy, need you.”
Blake glanced down to discover he and Jaxi were surrounded by their blonde-haired little girls, all three of them dancing on the spot with excitement.
“We’ll pick this up later,” Blake promised his wife.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Jaxi said. “Go. Looks like you have important things to do. Supper’s ready in about half an hour.” She glanced at her watch. “Oops. Keep an eye on Peter, too? I have to run outside for a couple minutes.”
His daughters guided him to the living room where they tugged him to the floor and shoved red construction paper at him.
“Can you make hearts, Daddy—?” Rachel began.
“—because Mama says you can,” Rebecca finished
“If Mama says I can, then it must be true. What’re we making hearts for?” Blake picked up the scissors, holding back a grunt of pain as his youngest daughter crawled into his lap, stepping on spots he’d rather not have stepped on.
Lana cupped his cheeks in her little hands, her big blue eyes wide as she explained in a serious tone that was all business, “It valenday, Daddy.”
“Val-len-tine,” Rebecca corrected.
“Val-man-time,” Lana echoed.
“Right.” Rachel nodded before her lower lip stuck out briefly in what Blake thought was a fairly adorable pout. “Mama said we can make better cards, but I liked the one at the store with—“
“—Elsa was pretty,” Rebecca agreed, “but we can’t—“
“—I know. But then we can—“
“—oh, can we?”
Rachel grinned at her twin, then they both faced Blake with identical smiles, the shared conversation obviously complete and clear as day. To them.
His heart ached fiercely, and he wondered what he’d ever done to deserve this kind of paradise. “You two should try to finish a sentence on your own once in a while. Just for variety.”
“Did you cut out any—“
Blake attacked the construction paper, dipping his chin and hiding his grin. “I forgot it was Valentine’s Day. Who you gonna make cards for?” He lowered his voice. “You makin’ one for me?”
Lana was rubbing the glue stick over her heart, getting more on the table under the red cut-out than on the paper. Blake adjusted her grip so he could guide her fingers.
“I’m making one for Mama and—“
“—one for Grampa, and one for Gramma, and one for—“
Blake held up a hand, glancing around the room. “Hold that list, babies. Where’s your brother?”
“PJ in jail.” Lana jabbed a stubby finger at the wooden bars between the living room and the kitchen. Jaxi had jammed an old playpen into the gap where she said she could keep an eye on it from anywhere on the main floor.
Blake kissed the top of Lana’s head and lowered her to the floor carefully. “The way you keep telling people we put your brother in prison, I’m surprised we haven’t had social services drop by yet.”
“—more hearts,” the twins warned.
“Be right back,” he promised, starting toward the playpen. The absolute silence from the “jail” left him expecting to see Peter passed out enjoying the sleep of the innocent.
Instead he found his son lying on his back, staring at the ceiling with a huge grin on his face. Every stitch of his clothing had been removed…
Including his diaper.
The aroma that rose into the air was damn near lethal, and Blake swore softly. His son’s ability to strip like a little Houdini was entertaining at times, but this? Not so much. The diaper had been full. And while Blake spent his days shoveling shit, this was different. Peter poop was a special brand of hell all of its own.
With a sigh, he tossed all the contaminated clothes and blankets on top of his son’s naked belly, stripping the playpen of all toxic waste. He wrapped the little man up and hoisted the entire mess into the air. “Just a minute, girls. Your brother needs hosing off.”
Fortunately, the new laundry room was right there off the kitchen, the washtub big enough to use as a bathtub. The instant Blake set him down, Peter grabbed the scrub brush off the counter and began driving it like a car over the edges of the basin. Blake hauled open the washing machine with the intent of getting rid of his filthy armload.
But the washer was full. So was the dryer. By the time he’d manhandled the dry clothes into a laundry basket, transferred the wet washing to the dryer and finally shoved the dirty blankets into the washer, Peter had stopped playing and started crying, and there were noises of discontentment rising from the living room.
Blake gave up all hope of keeping his clothes clean. He snatched Peter up against his chest so he could stick his head around the corner and shout a warning at his daughters. “Play nice. I’ll be right back.”
“Goo stick mine,” Lana complained loudly.
“Give her back the glue stick,” Blake ordered as he stepped back into the laundry room and turned on the water. He got it nice and warm before dipping his son under the stream.
Going by the sounds escaping PJ’s lips, anyone within a quarter mile would have sworn there was a pig being butchered in the room. He ignored his son’s complaining as he rapidly wiped him clean. Blake took a moment to shed his now shit-decorated shirt before wrapping Peter in a dry towel and hauling him in close.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he offered gently, but Peter was inconsolable, his volume peaking at maximum. As an added bonus, the screams from the living room had also grown louder. Blake resisted the urge to cover his ears. “Jeez, I’m going to be deaf before I’m an old man.”
Two-year-old tucked close, Blake hurried back to the living room and found three little girls with tears streaming down their faces all tugging at the pile of construction paper. Blake watched helplessly as the paper ripped, and three miniature blondes fell in different directions, tattered shreds of red falling like bloodstained rain. It looked as if the apocalypse had taken place in what had only moments before been a well-organized and pristine room.
Blake took a deep breath and then let out the laugh that had been building ever since he’d spotted the open diaper. He laughed hard and loud, and the echoing cries of the four children in the room slowly decreased in volume as they looked at him in confusion.
Peter tilted his head to one side, his mouth hanging open as he stopped crying, sucking in little gasps of air that shook his body. He reached up and touched Blake’s cheek, as if wondering when his father had lost his mind.
Fortunately, Jaxi stayed out of the house long enough that Blake had time to clean the mess in the living room. He sent Rebecca off to fetch a wet face cloth so he could wipe all four faces clear of tears, and by the time Mama was back in the house, the girls were once again gluing hearts on card stock, and Peter was sitting on the blanket in front of the fireplace, happily playing with a couple stuffed horses.
Jaxi paused in the doorway of the living room, the basket of eggs dangling from her hand as she eyed the room suspiciously. Blake smiled up at her, knowing she was probably reading the clues like a detective, but she didn’t say anything other than to admire the cards their daughters jumped up to show off. The ones with orange and yellow hearts on them since there was no red paper to be salvaged.
Then she examined Blake closer, a trickle of amusement in her eyes as she made her way to his side. She knelt behind him, the soft swell of the baby in her belly pressing against his back as she whispered in his ear. “You seem to have lost your shirt.”
He twisted his head toward her so he could answer softly, “Just getting ready for later.”
She hummed lustily, kissing his cheek before rising and making her way to scoop PJ off the floor. “I’ll get him dressed, then it’s time to go to the table.”
“I’ll get the girls there,” he promised.
Jaxi smiled. “You’re a great daddy.”
“He’s the bestest—“
“Bestest daddy,” Lana agreed.
Their reassuring chorus warmed something deep inside him. Damn if being a daddy wasn’t the hardest job he’d ever had.
Although, he figured he had another job that was just as demanding, and considering it was Valentine’s Day tomorrow, he needed to make sure he was working just as hard to be the bestest husband as well…
Time to make some plans.
Daniel wondered how on earth he was going to survive the next five plus years of raising teenage boys.
In front of him, Lance shifted uncomfortably from side to side, partially blocking the computer screen he’d unsuccessfully attempted to close when Daniel had entered the room. Daniel was pretty sure he was fidgeting as well, but it had to be done.
“That’s not what sex is really like,” Daniel informed his son bluntly as he reached around Lance and stabbed the power button off. “I mean, some of the mechanics are right, but you ever try something like that with a woman who’s not one hundred percent on board, she’ll chop off your balls with a pair of rusty scissors.”
Lance’s face flushed beet red. “It’s just…acting.”
Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose. Not that he wished Beth’d been the one to catch their fourteen-year-old checking out porn, but…
Yeah, actually he kinda did wish she’d been the one who’d caught Lance, because then she’d be having this conversation instead. Admittedly, though, he was glad she hadn’t witnessed their son ogling a site that could only be considered sleazy by any stretch of the imagination.
He was a guy. He understood the draw of porn, but that still didn’t make it right to toss this off as a guy thing. Particularly not at Lance’s age. It didn’t seem a time for a lecture on the differences between willing and unwilling participants of the sex trade, but—
Damn if this wasn’t one of the most awkward moments of Daniel’s entire life. And probably Lance’s, for that matter.
He took a deep breath. “I’m not trying to make this worse than it is. We’ve talked about sex, and movies and TV make it pretty clear it’s something people do for fun as well as to have kids.”
“Daaaaaaad,” Lance complained, dragging the word out long enough it had multiple syllables. “Just tell me. Am I in deep shit?”
Daniel raised a brow. “Are you in what?”
Lance swallowed hard. “Am I in trouble, sir?”
There were so many things that Daniel would rather be doing and so many places he’d rather be, but this was part of the job description. He thought back to the discussions his father had with him and his brothers, but jeez, Mike hadn’t had to deal with the insanity of the Internet, just Playboy magazines tucked under the mattress.
Daniel tried his best to channel his dad’s wisdom and patience. “Do I understand why you’re interested in checking out porn? Yep. Do I want you watching what I just saw and thinking that’s hot? Hell, no. And do I want you showing your younger brothers anything—?”
“I’d never show anything like that to Nathan and Robbie,” Lance insisted, honest shock in his voice.
“And they never go on your computer, and they would never even think to check your history.” Daniel folded his arms over his chest. “Oh, wait. Maybe Robbie knows how to take apart a computer and rebuild it in his sleep. And he’s already broken into your system once when you forgot your passwords.”
Lance had the grace to look sheepish. “I’d delete my history.”
“Scrub it clean. And the laptop stays in the family room from now on,” Daniel declared.
“But that means I have to do my homework—“
His son sighed mightily then began to gather up the cords. “Yes, sir.”
Unfortunately, the awkwardness was destined to continue. The real reason Daniel had made his way to Lance’s room in the first place still had to be dealt with. “You taking Kim to the Valentine’s Day dance tomorrow night?”
His son hesitated. He and Kim had been going together since before Christmas. “I’m not grounded, am I?”
Daniel shook his head. “Not unless you think you should be.”
“I don’t want to be grounded,” Lance said quickly. He looked up at Daniel, concern on his face. “I get what you mean. That stuff made me feel funny inside. Wrong funny.”
“Because it was wrong sex,” Daniel said plainly. “To be honest, at your age pretty much all sex is going to be wrong. Our bodies are built to think it would be fun, but sex is about a lot more than bodies.”
Lance was now staring firmly at the floor. Thank God, because it made it easier for Daniel to continue.
“Let’s see if you’re old enough to understand what I’m about to do.” Daniel handed over the box of condoms, still not positive he was making the right decision.
Lance had instinctively reached out to take what his dad offered before jerking his hands back as if Daniel had offered a live snake. “I don’t need— I mean, Kim and I aren’t—“
He stumbled to silence and if possible turned an even brighter red.
“Good to know that you’re not having sex, because you’re not ready for it. That whole ‘your body is interested but your brain’s not quite there’ is still happening. You’ll understand it all a lot better in a couple years.” Daniel shut his mouth to stop from rambling, even though rambling felt natural at the moment. He took a deep breath and forced himself to continue. “And me giving you this box is not in any way telling you that I approve of you having sex, but if you make the decision to go ahead at some point down the road, you now have no excuse for not wearing a condom. Just in case I haven’t made it clear, if you don’t use a condom, even your first time having sex, she could get pregnant, or you could get an STD. I hope to hell you’re smarter than that. No condom, no sex. Ever. No matter what anyone says. Got it?”
He held the box closer to Lance, who finally took it, holding the small package gingerly as if it might snap his fingers like a triggered mousetrap at any moment.
“Also,” Daniel pushed himself to finish. “When they’re older, I’ll have this same awkward conversation with your brothers. But, if by some chance you hear that they’re going to do something stupid before I get around to the talk, I expect you to step in and lay down the law. And make sure they’re prepared.”
Daniel held out his hand, grateful as hell they were one step closer to this whole experience being over.
Lance ignored his fingers completely, rushing forward to bury his face against Daniel’s chest. He snuck his arms around Daniel and squeezed tightly, all gangly arms, like a colt that had just been turned out of the barn and wasn’t quite sure what to do with its freedom.
The words came out in a rush. An instant later, Lance was out of Daniel’s arms and back at his desk, sitting down to delete his browser history.
“I love you, too,” Daniel spoke the words clearly and without hesitation. “I’ll be working in the shop tonight if you need anything.”
He paused in the hallway and leaned his head back against the wall as he took a deep breath to clear the tension out of his body. Beth was out with Nathan and Robbie at the swimming pool for another half hour, so Daniel turned on the dishwasher and headed out back to the woodworking shop.
The entire place was lit up. Daniel moved forward quickly, wondering if he had left the lights on when he stopped for dinner.
Blake stood at the jigsaw, protective goggles in place as he twisted a thin piece of dark wood under the rapidly moving blade. Daniel paced slowly around the perimeter of the shop until he was in sight, and his brother turned off the machine then stepped forward to offer him a slap on the shoulder.
“I rang the bell but nobody answered. Hope you don’t mind me making myself at home.”
Daniel shook his head. “You know it’s never a problem. What’re you up to?”
“Valentine’s gift for Jaxi. You got something done for Beth, yet?”
Dammit. He’d been so busy trying to figure out the best time and way to get the condoms to Lance that Valentine’s Day had completely slipped his mind. “Tell me your idea will duplicate easily.”
Blake grinned. “I thought I’d make a picture frame with a cut out of a tree. Kind of a twist on the family tree thing.”
“That’s brilliant,” Daniel offered. “Want to go into production and make one for everybody in the family?”
“With a really huge one for Ma and Dad?”
“One tree trunk, six branches,” Daniel countered.
Blake nodded, and they both moved around the shop to gather the supplies they needed. While it had been years since Blake and Daniel had worked together in the woodshop, there were some things that even time didn’t change. Daniel sketched designs on the wood that Blake ran through the planer, and by the time they ended up with the stack of pieces, they were both ready for a chance to shoot the breeze while they glued the frames together.
Blake adjusted his chair and took a deep, appreciative breath. “I can’t tell you how lucky you are to have the scent of cedar around all the time instead of the smell of shit.”
“You don’t have to use tweezers to pull shit slivers from under your skin.”
Blake chuckled then shared his pre-dinner fun involving screaming kids and nuclear waste-loaded diapers.
Poopie diapers and toddler tantrums—two things Daniel had never had to deal with, and he was glad. But then again—
“I missed that stage with the boys, but don’t go thinking what’s coming down the road gets any easier.” Blake’s expression grew tighter as Daniel shared his evening’s adventure in teenager-wrangling.
Blake shook his head in amazement when Daniel was done. “You gave Lance condoms? Holy shit, he’s only what—fourteen? Even Jesse and Joel waited until they were sixteen.”
God, Daniel knew. “I went looking at the statistics. Average age kids try sex these days is fifteen. And it’s not just the guys—the girls are pushing for it earlier as well.”
Blake’s face went white. “That’s not what I needed to hear. I was feeling thankful I’ve got girls to deal with first, but it sounds like I should be even more frightened.”
“Definitely frightened,” Daniel deadpanned.
His brother snorted. “Jerk.”
Daniel leaned back on his stool as he considered. Maybe the emotion was wrong, but it was somehow reassuring to know neither of them were completely sure what they were doing. “I don’t know that I ever thought about this part. I mean, I knew I wanted kids, and Ma and Dad are awesome parents, but I never really thought about the challenges. The ordinary, everyday decisions we have to keep making. Most of the time I wonder if I’m totally screwing up,” he admitted reluctantly.
His brother frowned before making a rude noise. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a great job.”
Daniel took the compliment gladly. “Thanks. You too.”
They returned to work, chatting about upcoming plans as they finished their task.
They were stacking the frames to one side for Blake to drop off with their brothers on his way home when Daniel held up the seventh one. The hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
One brother wasn’t around. There’d be no simple way to drop off his gift.
Jesse’s leaving was still so brand new, neither of them had remembered not to include him until this moment. “Think Jesse will be back for this soon?” Daniel asked quietly as he traced the tree’s outline.
Blake went quiet. “Still don’t understand why the jerk took off like that.” He paused. “I can keep it at my place until he comes to his senses and comes home.”
Daniel wasn’t sure why Jesse had up and vanished only days earlier, although he had his suspicions. Between Jesse’s leaving and a family funeral, there’d been a lot of tension and sadness in the Coleman clan that week.
Suddenly, it was important to have a way to turn that sadness around. He picked up the larger frame that was intended for their parents. “What about we save this for the next time we have a family meal? I’ll get everybody to give me a family picture, and I’ll grab a recent one of Jesse, and we can give the frame to Ma and Dad all done up nice.”
“Good idea.” Blake glanced at his watch. “Shit, I need to run if I’m going to make it home in time to tuck the kids in.”
There were headlights in the driveway. “Beth’s home with the boys, so I have to go, too.”
Yet they stood motionless together for another minute, staring down at the frames they’d made. Daniel’s mind was whirling with thoughts about family and growing pains and difficult moments. And love, if Daniel was honest, because it was love that made it all happen and made it worthwhile.
Blake spoke, and pretty much verbalized what Daniel was feeling inside. “We got a whole ton of blessings in our lives, don’t we?”
Daniel laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. For all the awkwardness and frustrations that went with their lives, neither of them would give up a single minute. “We’ve got families. That’s the biggest blessing of all.”
The evening rushed to completion like most other nights, with post swim-practice snacks and late night homework complaints, and by the time the boys were in bed for the night, Daniel and Beth settled in the living room for a moment’s quiet before ending their day as well.
Only his thoughts kept returning to that evening’s discussion with Blake. Daniel was so focused on his mental ponderings he was surprised to glance and discover Beth standing beside his chair, a faint smile on her lips as she gazed down at him lovingly.
“You’re not reading. You haven’t turned a page in fifteen minutes,” she teased gently.
He put the book aside and caught her by the wrist, tumbling her into his lap. He took a moment to appreciate the feel of her soft curves as he cuddled her close. “Just thinking.”
He nodded, stroking a finger down her cheek and under the chin so he could tilt her head back and steal a long, slow kiss.
Beth was breathless when he lifted his mouth from hers. “Ahhh. Those kind of thoughts…”
He chuckled. “Some. But also about how much you brought into my life. I don’t think I’ve thanked you for it near enough.”
Beth looked bemused. “You took on me and three boys, making us part of your world. You’ve been raising them with me and loving all of us. You’ve shared your family and you work long hours to support us. If anyone needs to be appreciated more for all they do, it’s you.”
“I never would have been a dad without you,” he said softly.
She rubbed her nose against his. “Well, you never know what might have happened, but I’m very pleased with what did happen. You’re a great dad, and you’re a fine husband, as well.”
“Fine?” he demanded, rising to his feet with her in his arms as he mock glared at her.
Beth winked. “Pretty fine? Perfectly fine?”
He carried her down the hallway, speaking softer as they passed the boys’ rooms. “And what kind of lover am I? Adequate?”
A giggle escaped her, and his amusement rose again. This was another part of love.
“Definitely,” Beth whispered. “Pretty adequate. Perfectly adequate.”
She was full out laughing as he tossed her onto their bed from a few feet away then turned to lock the door.
By the time he faced her, she’d stripped off her top and wiggled out of her pants. She knelt on the bed, scooting forward so she met him at the edge of the mattress. He closed the distance between them, and she curled her fingers into the front of his shirt as she stared up at him with desire and happiness in her eyes. “You really want to know what kind of lover you are? Perfect.”
Daniel moved over her and did his best to make it perfectly true.
Copyright © 2016 by Vivian ArendReturn to Six Pack Ranch Vignettes