Beneath This Ink (Page 75)

She reached around her back and unclasped her bra before tossing it onto the growing pile of clothes. Her underwear followed.

She took my hand.

“Hell yes, I’m game.”

We sprinted toward the end of the dock and jumped off the edge into a future neither of us could’ve predicted.

Not only did I get my second chance, I finally got the girl.

Shit. I went overboard again. I blew out a puff of air toward my forehead to push the stray hair off my face. It didn’t work. I jammed the knife in the strawberry jam and used the back of my wrist to smooth it away.

I surveyed the stainless steel surface in front of me. Well, you’d be able to tell it was stainless if it wasn’t completely covered with paper lunch bags filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, applesauce, granola bars, pudding cups, fruit, and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

The kitchen timer unleashed a series of beeps.

Crap. I spun, but felt a presence behind me as I reached for the oven mitts.

“Sit down, princess. Let me get those for you.”

Con pressed a kiss to my neck and snagged the oven mitts from the counter.

“I’m pregnant, not helpless, Con.”

But even with my protest, I stepped aside and took a seat at one of the giant dining tables. Con pulled open the massive oven and lifted two cookie sheets out and placed them on top of the stove.

He chuckled. “I can tell you’re not helpless. The hundred or so bags on that prep table clued me in to that. You were supposed to make—”

“I know. I know. And then I was supposed to come sit and watch. But I got—”

“Carried away. I know, baby. You always get carried away.” He slipped off the oven mitts and left them on the counter before moving to where I sat. Crouching in front of me, he reached up and smoothed his thumb across my temple. “How the hell did you manage to get jam on your face and in your hair?”

I shrugged. I could pretty much get jam anywhere. It was a talent of mine. “You didn’t complain when I put jam on your—”

Con crushed his lips to mine, silencing my next words.

“All right, all right. Enough with that shit, you two.” I pulled away from the kiss at the familiar voice. I jumped to my feet, knocking Con back on his ass.

He grumbled, but didn’t stop me as I waddled across the room. “Trey!” I looked back at Con, who was pushing up to his feet. “You didn’t tell me he was home!”

Trey reached out to hug me, but I held up my sticky hands. “I don’t want to get your uniform all messy. It looks so perfect.” He hauled me against his chest anyway.

“None of that, now, little mama. I’ll have it all back to rights in no time. And that sure won’t stop me from hugging you.”

Trey was devastating in his uniform—the gray-blue jacket with all those shiny brass buttons and black braid. In his final year at West Point, he rarely made it back to New Orleans. I loved that he hadn’t even bothered to change before coming to see us.

“You just travel in that uniform to get perks on the plane,” Con laughed.

“And how is that a bad thing?” Trey asked. “Plus, the ladies go wild for a man in uniform.”

Trey finally released me, and I stepped back to study him. Con stopped behind me and wrapped an arm around my belly.

We both said the same thing to him, “You look good.”

Trey grinned at me. “So do you.” He glanced at Con. “You did good, man. Real good.”

I rested a hand on my belly, atop Con’s, and the diamond on my ring finger sparkled in the light.

It was Joy’s ring. The one that Andre had given her when he pledged to love her for the rest of his life. The one that had been stolen off her finger the night they’d been killed. Someone had pawned it at Chains about a year after Archer died and the foundation was dissolved. Lord had recognized it from the list of stolen items and returned it to Con.

According to Con, it was an undisputable sign that it was time for him to make an honest woman out of me. I hadn’t argued with him—I’d just said yes. Just like I hadn’t argued with him when he’d leased out the apartment above Voodoo and moved us into Joy and Andre’s house in the Garden District shortly after he’d proposed. The house had sat empty for years, because Con had felt it was the kind of home that deserved a family. And now we were finally giving it one.

Trey grinned when he saw the multitude of brown paper sacks on the prep table. “You expand the program more than I’d heard?”

I could feel Con shaking his head behind me. “Not quite that big. Vanessa just gets—”

“Carried away,” Trey finished for him.

I beamed, not caring that everyone knew about my penchant for going overboard.

“But we have expanded more,” I said. “We’re doing mixed martial arts in addition to boxing. We’re up to forty boys and twelve girls.” I was proud of what we were doing here. I’d taken over the administrative side of the gym and turned it into a real nonprofit organization, and applied for grants from several agencies. The gym had been expanded and now operated in an official partnership with the Boys and Girls Club. We put on joint summer camps for underprivileged kids and continued to run after-school and weekend programs. We had a staff of three, in addition to Con, Lord, Reggie, and me. We’d also expanded the sack supper program to provide for all of the kids at the Boys and Girls Club and their siblings at home. Finally, over the last four years, we’d helped obtain scholarships for more than twenty-five kids to go to college. These might not have been accomplishments on the scale of what I could have achieved by being at the helm of the L.R. Bennett Foundation, but they were immensely satisfying accomplishments all the same. I knew, without a doubt, we were making a difference. Just seeing Trey in his uniform hammered that point home.