And Baby Makes a Zillion

 

Brandon admired his cousin Jacob more than Jacob would ever know.

For starters, Jacob had taken his love of cars and, with his wife’s business degree and drive, turned it into a thriving business. Three businesses, in fact.

And that was just the beginning. Jacob was a good husband and father, who coached his kids’ soccer team and did more than his share of the housework while his wife helped run the businesses, and who worked with her as an equal through tax audits, dance recitals, and soccer tournaments. Jacob knew how to be part of a winning team.

And he played with his family—he was a big goofball at heart who could coax a smile out of his wife or children after the worst, most stressful days. Jacob’s pure soul made him, head and shoulders, Brandon’s favorite relative.

Especially since Jacob had taken Brandon in for his last two years of college so he could go to Sac State without commuting all the way down from Truckee. That helped make Jacob and Nica Brandon’s most especial favorite relatives.

If not for one teeny tiny problem.

“For God’s sake, Jakey, get off of her!”

Jacob scrubbed his face with his hands. “I know!”

“I mean, dude! This is your fifth kid!”

Jacob lowered his head to the table and laced his fingers behind his neck. His dark blond hair stuck out in tufts, and his shadowed eyes were hidden against the wooden veneer. “I know!” he wailed.

“The oldest is only nine!”

“I had a vasectomy!” Jacob told him. “I was clear. There were no swimmers, I swear!”

“Oh, that’s a lie!” Nica muttered, stepping over two Barbies and a Lego fort on her way from the bathroom where she’d been throwing up. She looked like hell, but she was a pretty woman, so even looking like hell, she still outclassed Brandon’s goofy cousin. Nica was amazing—beautiful, smart, fun, devoted to her spouse. But Brandon had been Jacob’s favorite cousin and garage apartment freeloader since the fourth baby, and he knew the first two months of pregnancy made her—and rightly so—a bitter shrew with a thorn in her paw and a bug up her ass. “If he says his swimmers were dead, he’s lying. There are no dead swimmers. He could be a frickin’ zombie and one of his swimmers would wake up one day, crawl up my cooter, and knock me up!”

“I know!” Jacob groaned. “Monica Teresa Carol Gaudioso Robbins-Grayson, I’m so damned sorry!” He turned a genuinely contrite face to his wife, and she stuck out a full lower lip.

“Aw, Jakey—dammit….”

One side of his mouth pulled up in a lopsided smile. “I’ll be here—you know it. You and me know the drill by now, right?”

But Nica looked like she was going to cry.

“Jakey,” Brandon said, trying to keep that from happening, “man, look. Two things—first of all, you need a new room on the house.”

“Can you do that?” Nica asked, a frantic note of hope in her voice. The house could barely fit four kids and three adults, which it had held since Brandon took the over-the-garage apartment. But things were still tight, with two kids per room after they’d taken the crib out of Jacob and Nica’s room. One more kid—and all the accompanying stuff that kids brought with them—would send the roof of the house flying off, and the collective force of Legos, Barbies, baby dolls, Hot Wheels, and Disney/Pixar DVDs would spew across the county.

Another house would have been awesome, but Brandon knew how much they loved this particular house in Rocklin and how hard they’d worked to turn their star-thistle-y backyard into a kid-friendly zone, right down to the fenced-in pool patio.

Brandon had worked construction all the way through college, and he had some contacts. He was pretty sure they could draw up some plans for a kid suite where the back porch was now, and then, with some shuffling and some organizing, yeah. The whole family could fit.

“Yeah,” Brandon said. “Of course. Nica, anything for you guys. But Jakey—she can’t do this alone anymore when you’re at the shop. You know that, right?”

Jakey nodded and sent his wife a hopeful look. “Baby, how do you feel about a nanny?”

Nica’s lower lip wobbled. “But won’t the kids love her more?”

Jacob and Brandon chuckled softly, and Jacob pulled his still-slender wife into his lap. “Oh, baby—the kids couldn’t possibly love anybody more than you, okay?”

Nica nodded and rested her head on her husband’s shoulder and cried for no reason at all.

Brandon took that as his cue and stood up to clear the breakfast table and then start rounding up children for school.

He had his own job to go to, but he helped any way he could.

 

 

Unfortunately, helping meant he got to be at the family eat-and-kvetch that Sunday.

This week it was held at Nica’s brother’s house—which was probably the biggest of the family houses, and it had a bigger pool. Not that Brandon was a hedonist or anything, but the big pool with all those kids? That was a plus.

Dustin, the oldest at nine, could wrestle his own seatbelt, but the other three were still at the car-seat stage. Brandon got Conroy, the youngest at two, Jacob got Melly—age five—and Belinda—age seven—and Nica got the lasagna and manicotti pans because she didn’t trust anybody else to cook, not even her mother.

“Think Sammy’s here?” Dustin asked excitedly. Sammy played high school sports, and Dustin thought he was awesome.

“It is his house,” Jacob told him. “Keenan is probably here too.”

“Yeah, but Keenan’s Melly’s age—he can’t drive.”

“But he thinks you’re as awesome as you think Sammy is. Maybe don’t ditch him first thing, okay?”

Dustin moved forward, testing the boundaries of “being nice” with his father. How long was he required to play with his younger cousin? Did he need to stay for one game? For two? For three?

Brandon balanced a sleeping Conroy on his shoulder and poked Belinda to move forward. “Dad’s smart,” Belinda said with the brown-eyed awe every father dreamed of in a daughter.

“Yeah?” Brandon asked. “What makes him smart?”

“Dustin can be a real jerk when he’s trying to hang with Sammy. Dad just got him all set up to be nice.”

Brandon grinned at her and she grinned back, missing the requisite four teeth that most kids lost at this age. “You’re right. Your dad’s a good guy.”

Jacob apparently had ears like a bat. As he watched a car pull up the long driveway, he paused. “You’re about to see Dad be a real jerk,” he muttered. “Tino! Dammit! Could you open the door? Some of us are carrying—”

“You could have knocked.”

Nica’s brother, Tino, had Nica’s dark brown eyes and black curling hair. He was hands down one of the most attractive men Brandon had ever met—next to his husband, Channing, of course.

“You could have heard us yammering on your front porch.” Jacob jerked his chin in the direction of the beat-up Ford sedan. “Can we get in before he knows anyone is home?”

“I told him to come,” Tino said softly. He had a long oval face, olive-complected, and a lush, soft mouth. Brandon had needed to work really hard not to crush on him when he’d come to live with Nica and Jakey, and the result had been a decent, if reserved, rapport.

Right now Brandon could tell Tino was troubled, and so was Nica, because she was biting her lip the same way.

Jacob was more irritated than troubled. “Do we really have to have that arrogant, hand-grabby assclown—”

“That was high school. Now he’s a good man and a wounded veteran,” Nica said without backing down. “Now can we go inside?”

“You suck,” Jacob muttered, gesturing Dustin past Tino and following him through the house.

“She must do more than that if you keep knocking her up,” Tino said, mostly for Jacob’s ears, but Brandon heard and snickered.

“Whatever.” Jacob rolled his eyes, but he smiled too. “Tell me you’re not going to let him in.”

“We have to let him in,” Nica said. “He’s my best friend. Tino, could you…?”

Tino took one of the lasagna pans from her and led them through the hallway and into the main dining room, which opened onto the pool patio.

Tino and Channing had opened the doors, since the breeze in the evening cooled the place down. The kids were in the pool, playing under Sammy’s direct supervision. Belinda darted away immediately, dropping her summer dress in a puddle by the picnic table so she could jump into the pool in her swimsuit. Brandon waved to Sammy with one hand while jiggling Conroy with the other arm. “Conroy, buddy, wake up. You’re gonna miss swimming before Grandma gets here and we have to eat.”

Conroy yawned and frowned, and Brandon sighed. He walked over to Sammy, who was sitting at the edge of the pool, dangling his feet in the water.

At seventeen, Sammy was a younger, slightly more vulnerable edition of his blond, gray-eyed, square-chinned uncle, and just like Channing Lowell, Sammy had a square sense of responsibility on his shoulders. And one of his doted-upon cousins—this one Channing and Tino’s adopted daughter—in his arms.

“Letty,” he said softly. “Letty, honey, it’s time for everyone to wake up from their naps. Conroy is here.”

“Letty?” Conroy sat upright and then wriggled out of Brandon’s arms. “Letty, why din’ you tell me you were here?”

Letty regarded him soberly with brown eyes in a round, pale brown face. “I din’ know,” she said, pulling her thumb out of her mouth. “Sammy, can we swim?” She scowled at the pool when she saw her brother, water droplets clinging to his tightly kinked brown hair as he and Dustin started an impromptu game of pool volleyball. “Keenan’s in there already!”

“Yeah, princess. He was awake when everybody got here. Go in and play with Conroy, but stay on the steps.” He watched her go and turned hopefully to Brandon. “You gonna help me out here?”

Brandon looked to where the “grown-ups” were talking, Sammy’s uncle included. “I wish.” He pulled his hand through his hair, knowing it spiked up like weeds in an unkempt red garden when he did that. “Big adult powwow going on. I’ve got, you know, duties.”

Sammy pursed his lips regretfully. “Yeah.” His fathomless eyes tried to bore into Brandon’s soul. “Not a grown-up yet, am I?”

Ah… yeah. Jacob’s advice to Dustin about being kind to Keenan because he had a boy crush was well given. “Sorry, Sammy,” Brandon said, hoping his kindness—and genuine affection—for the boy came through. Five years wasn’t really that big of a gap—unless the younger party was barely seventeen.

Sammy shrugged. “Yeah, well. I’m going to prom with Cindy Cahill. Gonna see what this bi thing is all about.”

Seventeen—seemed like the other side of the world. “Let me know how that works out. It was never that way for me.” Nope. Although Brandon’s folks hadn’t gotten it, Jacob and Nica had. He’d been grateful—and a little envious of Sammy, who had grown up with his Uncle Channing and Tino falling in love and adopting children. He’d had a first-hand view showing him it could all turn out okay.

“Let me know about breasts,” Brandon added a little wistfully. “I mean, I always thought that would be the most interesting part about liking girls. I just wasn’t interested enough to find out.”

Sammy laughed like he was supposed to. “I promise to kiss and tell,” he said gravely, and then, “Dustin, stop dunking him! He hates that!”

“Sorry, Sammy,” Dustin said contritely, and Brandon glared at him too. “Sorry, Brandon,” Dustin said—but this time he meant it.

“You remember what your father said.”

Dustin nodded. “Yeah. Keenan, I promise I won’t do it again, okay?”

The boy wiped water from his face and sniffled. “Okay. Want to play some more?”

“Yeah, but we need to let Melly and Belinda play, okay?”

Brandon recognized the olive branch for what it was and stuck his thumb up. He turned back to where the grown-ups were talking and let out a low whistle.

“Who in the hell is that?” he asked, his eyes going wide.

“That?” Sammy glanced at him sharply. “You’ve never met Taylor Cochran?”

Brandon shook his head dumbly, although he’d heard the name. “The guy Nica’s always going to visit?” He remembered her words—wounded veteran.

He had not been expecting this guy.

Damn. Six foot tall if he was an inch, with a mane of dirty-blond hair hanging over his T-shirt collar, the man who had just slouched onto the patio next to Tino Robbins-Lowell looked like nothing Brandon had ever seen before.

His jaw was square and long, and his nose patrician and sharp like a knife. The left side of his face was as beautiful as anything Brandon had ever seen, showing off an almond-shaped blue eye, a high cheekbone, and a sardonic quirk to his full mouth. But the right side… Brandon suddenly understood Jacob’s frustration. Any sins this man had committed when the three of them were young had been paid for with the wounding that had scarred the right side of his face.

And, judging by the eye patch, had taken his eye as well.

“Why’d Tino invite him?” Brandon asked, pulse rate picking up. Taylor was smiling tightly, as though uncomfortable as hell, and nodding at Tino, Nica, and Jakey where they gathered by the patio door.

“I don’t know,” Sammy answered, “but after Nica called this afternoon, Tino and Channing had an argument—”

“They never argue!” Ever. Unlike Nica and Jacob, who made friendly bickering an art form, Tino and Channing bantered and laughed a lot, but they didn’t argue.

“Yeah, I know. And Channing was the one who finally apologized. It was weird.”

Unprecedented. “What could possibly make those two fight?”

Sammy shrugged. “Look, all I heard was the words ‘And I thought I couldn’t have a family and a job at the same time, remember?’ from Tino—and then they took it to their bedroom. Doh! I mean, you know what I mean!”

Brandon laughed. “Yeah, I know what you mean. You mean they don’t argue in public. Lucky you.” Brandon’s folks hadn’t argued so much as his father had laid down the law and his mother had simpered. Not a healthy dynamic, no—he’d learned a lot better from pretty much everyone in Nica’s family.

And right now he could tell by the set of Taylor Cochran’s shoulders that he was gradually relaxing, being made a part of the group. Channing said something dry and funny—because that’s what Channing did—and Taylor tilted his head back and laughed, the sound rumbling up from his stomach and booming through his wide chest.

Brandon’s mouth went dry.

“Damn,” he whispered hoarsely. That laugh—that was amazing, right there. Then Taylor Cochran, the only person who, in Brandon’s knowledge, could make Channing and Tino Robbins-Lowell argue, turned the burning heat of his one good eye toward Brandon.

Brandon took a quick gasp of air and licked his lips and tried to keep the world from swimming.

That hard, assessing stare shook him to his core.

“So why’s he here again?” he asked helplessly.

“I don’t know—something about helping Nica with childcare. Like I said, details not forthcoming.”

“Oh God,” Brandon muttered. “I’ve got to get over there.”

“Why—what’s so urgent?”

“This guy’s gonna be the manny, and I’m telling you right now, that doesn’t work for me at all!”