At Christmastime, a certain amount of secrecy was to be expected between spouses. Aleksy understood this, but he was still disturbed by the way Clair had been acting the last few days. She was both distracted, yet deeply intent at other moments, affectionate, yet suddenly turning remote.
He kept making excuses. They had been planning to quit Moscow for the holidays. That always turned the house upside down as they packed and readied for the trip to Saint Petersburg. The children needed one last visit with their friends before they could be separated from them for a few weeks. Last minute dental and hair and other miscellaneous appointments had cluttered the schedule for all of them.
Then there had been the black and white ball that Clair had organized to fundraise for her foundation, Brighter Days. She had looked stunning last night as she had announced new programs for the string of orphanages they sponsored, thanks to everyone’s generosity. Aleksy had been so proud of her he could hardly keep the front of his tuxedo buttoned, but finally all of that was behind them and they were home.
Their real home, in Saint Petersburg.
Tomorrow they would fetch a tree and begin decorating for Christmas—something the children had chattered about the whole flight here, but this house worked a type of magic on all of them. The moment they arrived, everyone relaxed. Mila found the stuffed bear she had been missing; Fredek settled in to snap together his construction blocks. Both had gone to bed early without invented delays.
Aleksy checked them on his way past and both were fast asleep.
His wife, however, was still unpacking and wearing a small frown of deep thought. Aleksy showed her the glass of wine he’d brought her and set it on the table next to the bed, placing his own vodka beside it while he moved pillows up against the headboard.
Then he turned off the light so only the glow of the lamp lit the room.
Clair turned with surprise. “I was just going to finish—”
He moved to stop her from folding a scarf, taking her hands in his own.
“You’ve been going non-stop for days. Come sit.” He wanted to ask what was going on.
As if she knew communication couldn’t be avoided, she looked up at him with a dozen emotions flitting across her expression: uncertainty, a hint of culpability, worry, conflicted hope.
“Clair, are you all right?” He hadn’t felt such a curtain between them since their earliest days. His heart lurched as he recognized this was far more than a pricey gift hidden in a closet. “Are we all right?”
“Yes! Oh, Aleksy, of course we are.” She touched her forehead to his breastbone in a kind of apology, but that shadow of doubt colored her voice and stayed in her eyes when she looked back up at him. It stayed like a damp cloak across his shoulders even as she wrapped her slender arms around his neck and brought herself up to kiss him.
He hesitated, thinking he shouldn’t let her use sex as a distraction, but that’s not what this was. As her lips met his, she wasn’t arousing to divert. Her soft mouth was a plea against his. He felt the need for reassurance in her as easily as he felt the softness of her hair under his palm, or the warmth of her narrow back as he curved his forearm to pull her into him.
It wasn’t unusual for his wife to make advances. They were as sexually active as a couple could be when sharing a home with a seven and four-year-old. But Clair was usually teasing and playful when she came to him, not needy and urgent.
Alarmed concern hit his chest anew, making him kiss her back with perhaps more desperate force than he had showed in a while, but there was something, some obstacle. It needed to be dissolved in the heat of their love for one another. He could feel it.
Talk, he thought, but she flicked her tongue against his, inciting him, inviting him to take control and he did, picking her up and carrying her to the bed. They tugged at clothing until they were naked in the warm light. He had locked the door, had intended intimacy, but he had expected lazy lovemaking, not the kind that made his skin feel like fire scorched his hide.
Clair needed this, though. He could feel her giving up to his dominance, letting him drag at her hair so her throat was arched to his lips, proving her utter trust in him and moaning with agreement when he used words like, “Mine.”
When he sucked her nipple, she arched like it pained, but pressed the back of his head, urging him to keep pulling at her. It made him insane, the ache in his flesh was so profound he nearly howled with need.
“Oh, Aleksy,” she gasped, shifting to open her legs and fisting her hand around him, making him throb, drawing his thick, hard flesh where she wanted it.
As he felt her slippery opening against his tip, he distantly thought about a condom. “Are you back on the Pill?” he managed.
“It’s okay,” she gasped, lifting her hips to make the penetration happen, and brought his mouth to hers. “Make love to me. I need to feel you…”
He slid into her with one deliciously wet thrust and her nails prickled his shoulders. Her breath broke as she climaxed, body bowed with the force of it. He nearly lost himself, he was so taken aback.
“Oh, Clair,” he breathed, thrusting and watching, enthralled by how deeply aroused she was, how responsive and abandoned to his lovemaking. It was so erotic he was on the brink, fighting to hold back so she would catch up and join him, wanting to lose himself, but wanting her with him—
“Oh, Aleksy. It’s so good.” She writhed beneath him, her arousal not waning, but growing with his until she shattered again.
He barely stopped himself shouting his fulfillment, groaning instead while he discarded all other restraint, thrusting deep and joining her in a profound place that he only ever found with her. It held him in thrall for long, powerful heartbeats and took a long time to finish and fade. When he collapsed on her, both of them shivered in silent ecstasy for several panting breaths, waiting for calm to find them.
He stayed inside her, liking the sensation that no barriers existed between them. No condom, he recollected, brain barely sparking. She had been on the Pill for most of their marriage, but a few weeks ago, when they’d all had the flu, she’d missed a few. They’d had to start using condoms again while she waited for her period and could get back onto birth control.
But she hadn’t had a period. She had gone to the doctor a couple of days ago to ask when she should.
Aleksy came up on his elbow, body slipping free of hers, which was a pity, but he felt like a bucket of cold water had just been thrown across his back.
“Clair, are you pregnant?”
Clair had just been about to confess it. It wasn’t a complete surprise that she was pregnant. Not when they’d accidentally made love without protection before she had realized she’d missed her pills for several days when she’d been sick.
But they hadn’t been planning a pregnancy at all. They had agreed rather firmly that making a baby should be put off for at least a year.
“Do you mind?” she asked, suffering that awful worry that had been dogging her since her appointment with her doctor three days ago.
“No.” He shook his head, his shock evident, but something wonderful was lighting his expression as he began to assimilate this news. “Of course not. Why would I mind? I’m just…speechless.”
“I know! But we agreed—”
“Clair.” He had such a loving way of saying her name sometimes. Her husband was not a man for endearments, but he could make her name sound like the most tender, sweet, darling, love of my life, angel, piece of my heart… “Is this what has been bothering you? Yes, I know you well enough to sense when something’s off with you,” he scolded with a disgruntled look. “You’ve been acting strange for days. I thought— It doesn’t matter what I thought. Why would you think I would mind? I’m dumbfounded,” he admitted with a flash of a rueful grin, “Because no, we weren’t planning this. But I’m thrilled. Ecstatic. A baby? Really? You’re sure?”
She nodded and his arms tightened around her as he rolled her close and tight against him, both of them laughing, sharing a look then laughing harder.
“It’s crazy, right? I mean we can barely keep our sanity with two children,” she said.
He made a scoffing noise, always confident in his ability to handle chaos.
“But I am worried about them,” she confessed softly. “If I haven’t been myself, that’s why.”
Waiting to conceive had been her idea, her preference that Fredek and Mila have their new parents to themselves before introducing an infant. They’d already been through so much, being orphaned under such terrible circumstances. Mila, thankfully, was young enough she would forget most of it, but Fredek was only starting to trust this life they were trying to give him.
She watched sober thoughts flicker across Aleksy’s expression, making his scar stand out briefly as he shifted to pull her under the blankets with him and drew her against his cool, naked skin.
Neither of them liked to dwell on the hard start their children had had. Poor Fredek had been left alone to care for his toddler sister, both of them abandoned in a shack where they had nearly starved to death waiting for the return of a mother who’d been killed by a boyfriend who had abused all of them.
“I feel like I keep going back on my promises to you,” Clair confessed in a mumble.
“What do you mean?”
“I said I knew we couldn’t save all of them. Couldn’t give all of them a home.” Being an orphan herself, she felt all the lost hope in every pair of eyes. She had experienced the same streak of envy she saw in one child when another was adopted and they were overlooked. “Then I talked you into adopting Mila and Fredek.”
“Clair.” Again it sounded like he caressed her with her name. “I wanted them as much as you did. You know that.”
It had been just after Christmas last year when they’d met the pair. As Clair traveled with Aleksy, she often made a point of visiting local orphanages, offering resources and trying to bring them all up to a standard of care that she could live with. Out of the blue, as she’d been visiting one near the Georgian border, little Mila had rushed up to her, crying, “Mama!”
Mila had backed off abruptly as she realized Clair only bore a passing resemblance to her lost mother, but the moment had imprinted the small blond girl into Clair’s heart. Then a young boy, skinny with dark eyes and a stern little mouth, had come to fold his arms around Mila, saying, “It’s not her. Come back to the toy box.”
Little Mila had clung to her brother, crying, and Clair had cried when she heard how the boy had scalded his arm so badly while trying to cook for his sister, he had nearly lost it to infection. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about them and made an excuse to bring Aleksy to the home before they left, wanting one last chance to check on them.
Fredek, perhaps sensing the bond that had formed between his sister and Clair, had approached Aleksy and said, “It’s okay if you want Mila and not me.”
Aleksy had been defeated on the spot.
He and Clair had been talking about trying to conceive, but once the adoption process began they decided it would be easier on the older children if they weren’t competing with a baby for attention.
“I’m not worried about how Mila will react,” Aleksy said as though speaking both of their thoughts, stroking her hair and rubbing his chin against her brow.
“But Fredek,” Clair said on a heavy sigh, knowing they were completely attuned in their concern for their son. “I don’t want him to feel like we don’t think he’s ours. Like we needed our own baby or something like that.”
“I know,” Aleksy agreed, then dipped his chin, grinning at her. “But seriously. How did this little miracle even happen?”
“The flu,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“Am I crazy to think that’s when we started to gel as a family?”
“No, I feel that, too.” Clair smiled remembering it, even though they’d all be miserable. First the children had been sick, then the virus had hit her and Aleksy with a vengeance.
This is parenting, she remembered thinking. It wasn’t all about hugs and eat your vegetables and reading aloud. It was helping a little girl put on clean pajamas after being sick and bringing her to your bed so you could monitor her even though you felt horrid yourself.
Until that night, Clair had occasionally slept in Mila’s bed with her, but she hadn’t brought her into their own. Aleksy hadn’t said anything as the little girl had softly cried herself to sleep, even though he’d been restless and achy with the same low-grade fever that had flattened all of them.
Mila had finally settled and suddenly Fredek had been at the side of the bed.
“I’m sorry, Clair,” he whispered. “I was sick on my sheets.”
Before Clair’s eyes were properly open and her foot snaking toward the edge of the mattress, she heard Aleksy behind her. “Son, I don’t think either of us has the energy to change a bed right now. Climb in here with the rest of us and we’ll all try not to be sick in this one.”
Fredek had hesitated, then had settled between his sister and Aleksy, asking Aleksy in a whisper so faint Clair barely heard him, “Are we dying?”
“No, son. It’ll pass. Do you want to put your hand on my chest so you can feel me breathe?”
Gone were the days when Clair and Aleksy slept nude. Both wore pajamas in case they had to get up with the children. She had peeked through teary eyes as Fredek placed his pale hand against the dark blue of Aleksy’s T-shirt. His little shoulders had been tensed, but now sighed with relief.
They’d all slept deeply after that, waking very late in the morning.
Clair had still been achy, but the children had been firmly on the mend. When Mila sat up and giggled, Fredek admonished her in a whisper. “Shh. Let Mama and Papa sleep.”
Aleksy had grumbled, “Papa bear is awake and hungry.” Then he had scooped both children in one long arm into the wall of his chest and threatened to eat them.
After much giggling and wiggling, they all rose and managed to keep down a little breakfast, then spent a very lazy day watching television and dozing, finally getting back to normal by evening.
Since then, Fredek had been calling them ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa.’ They had all been bonded in a very unique way that was incredibly precious to Clair.
“I want this baby so much,” she said to Aleksy, settling her ear against his chest where she could hear the steady beat of his heart. “But I don’t want to lose our son.”
“We won’t,” he promised her.
Aleksy was still thinking about it a few days later, as he and Fredek brought in firewood. Clair and Mila were in the kitchen, singing English carols and setting the table. Christmas was still a few days off, but with the tree sparkling and snow falling outside the window, it was a perfect moment of magic and bliss. He found himself wondering how he had come to this point when a few short years ago, his heart had been a lump of coal, his view of life very bleak.
He had been convinced he’d never have a family, yet Clair had come along as a first miracle and here he was with children and a new baby on the way—
He noted his son’s enthrallment with the gifts and ruffled the boy’s hair. “No peeking,” he teased.
Fredek dragged his gaze off the tree and his expression was very grave. “Does Mama have the flu? I heard her being sick.”
They had planned to tell the children on Christmas Eve, but looking into the dark eyes of his son, so worried and disturbingly mature, Aleksy made the executive decision that a man-to-man chat was in order.
Sitting on the coffee table so they were eye-to-eye, he said, “She’s fine, but she’s going to have a baby. Sometimes being pregnant makes a woman sick. I don’t know why that happens, but the doctors say it’s not something we need to worry about too much.”
“A baby?” Fredek’s straight little brow puckered into heart-wrenching dismay.
Aleksy swallowed, caught off guard by how much turmoil it caused him to see his son react with anything less than joy.
“This doesn’t affect your adoption, Fredek.” He hoped that was the reason for Fredek’s consternation, but the boy’s expression didn’t clear. “You’re still our son,” Aleksy spelled out. “We’ll just be a bigger family.”
“I know,” Fredek said, dark brown eyes growing shiny with anxiety. “But I don’t know how I can take care of a baby if you and Clair die. I’m just a boy. I can’t work. I don’t have money. Mila is too young to help. She still needs me.”
“Oh, son,” Aleksy breathed as comprehension dawned. His embraces of the boy were usually playful wrestles, but as he reached for him today, it was pure love. He grabbed his son and held him tight to his chest. “You should be a boy and not worry about these things.”
Pressing him back, he tried to reassure Fredek with a look, but it wasn’t enough. He could see that Fredek was too scarred by the loss of his birth mother to believe bad things didn’t happen.
Sobering, Aleksy tried honesty. “Your mother is very healthy. I believe we will both be alive and taking care of you and your sister for a very long time. But we have plans in place if something awful were to happen. You know Grigori and Ivana?”
Fredek nodded. He enjoyed playing with their grandson when they were in Moscow.
“If Mama and I couldn’t take care of you for any reason, they would take you. You wouldn’t go back to any orphanage. And I have set aside money for you and Mila. One way or another, you will always have a house of your own. You’ll always have food.”
Fredek was not wholly comforted. He needed time, Aleksy supposed. No, what he needed, Aleksy realized on Christmas morning, was a sense of command over his own destiny. Aleksy had told Clair about the chat so she wasn’t too hurt when their son showed reserve at the news of her pregnancy. Mila squealed with enough excitement for both of them, but Fredek only hugged Clair for a long moment, his little face pensive.
Aleksy was a man of action. He felt a need to do something for all their sakes and it struck him that Fredek probably needed to feel like he could handle the responsibility if it were thrust upon him.
With a new year before them, he and Clair began looking for ways to foster independence in both their children. It seemed counterintuitive and was definitely messy when milk was spilled or dishes weren’t washed properly, but it made a terrific difference in Fredek. As the year went on, whether he was practicing a call to emergency services or learning how to swing a hammer as they framed an addition to the house, the boy’s confidence grew by leaps and bounds. He even went to work with Aleksy a few times, so he began to understand that he was not without resources or—Aleksy was so used to it, he took it for granted—power.
Thus it was a completely different boy who reacted with easy aplomb when Clair went into labor unexpectedly as Fredek arrived home from school the following September. The chauffeur had dropped him then left to fetch Aleksy from work. The nanny was still en route, having been hired weeks ago and not due to start until tomorrow.
“I’ll call the ambulance, Mama. Then I’ll tell Papa to meet you at the hospital. Mila and I will be fine here alone.” He spoke with his father’s air of command.
Clair wasn’t in such pain or panic she allowed that to happen, but she was very proud of how cool-headed he was. She called the mother of one of his friends, a woman who lived nearby. She had already agreed to sit the children when the time came. An ambulance wasn’t necessary, but the chauffeur did come back for Clair and Aleksy did meet them at the hospital.
Their younger son was born healthy and loud just before midnight. Aleksy went home for a few hours to relieve their sitter and brought the children to the hospital when he came back the next morning.
Mila instantly fell in love, insisting on holding her little brother and saying reverently, “Look at his eyelashes, Mama! And his fingernails are so little.”
Fredek watched Aleksy fumble his way through his first diaper change and gave him an askance look. “I suppose I have to learn to do that, too?”
“I suppose you do,” Aleksy told him, then, as he swaddled the infant, asked, “Ready to hold him?”
Fredek nodded and gathered the boy into the cradle of his arms, studying his little brother’s face for long seconds before he glanced at Clair. “You’ll show me how to give him a bottle?”
“I will,” Clair promised, distantly thinking with a pang that she’d barely figured out breastfeeding, but of course she would. The picture of her older son holding her new one, Aleksy’s fatherly hand on his shoulder and her daughter beaming up at all of them was something she would keep in her heart all her life.
Fredek smiled and kissed the baby’s cheek. “Hello, little brother. Welcome to our family.”
And when the season turned to Christmas again, and Fredek was making out his wish list, the gift he wanted most was, Another Baby.