Ennis could feel his head spinning slightly as he digested Alma's words. "My daughter?" he repeated, looking back at the young girl in the chair, who was now looking back at him with brown eyes just like his.
Alma nodded. "Yeah. Remember the last time we slept together? It was about a week before you left for Amherst."
"Right. So, um...that would make her..."
"Five, 'cos she was born in May 2004. I was a few months gone when I came to see you in December."
"That's why you wanted me to come back with you," he realised, and she sighed.
"Yeah. I didn't wanna be an unmarried mother. But that's how it worked out." Taking pity on him, she stepped closer and laid a hand on his arm. "It ain't like you abandoned me, Ennis. I didn't even know myself until after you'd gone. I made the decision to wait until the holidays to try an' find you, before I gave birth."
He looked at her, feeling very unsure of himself. "Why didn't you tell me? If not then, why not since? It's been six years..."
"I know, an' it might not have been the smartest choice I ever made. But it's the one I did an' that's that. She knows who you are; I showed her photos of you. Junior?" she said to the girl, who got up and walked over to her. "This is yer daddy," Alma told her, and the little girl looked up at this tall man with wide, curious eyes.
Ennis couldn't believe the feeling that hit him as their eyes met. Here was his flesh and blood, right before him and he could already feel a bond forming. "Hey there, Junior," he said softly, crouching down to her. Junior regarded him for a moment and then smiled.
"Daddy!" She moved into his arms and he picked her up, the motion coming naturally to him. She was so tiny and precious, and he could finally understand how it felt to be a father.
"She's somethin' else," he marvelled, looking at Alma.
"I was hopin' you'd say that," she replied nervously, bringing the papers out of her bag. "I, um...I've decided that I want you to take her. Let her live here with you an' Jack."
"What?" he asked, his shock returning. She nodded.
"As her biological father, you already have parental rights. But I've decided to give you custody. My fiancé's family...they don't like that I have a child out of wedlock an' they won't let the weddin' happen as long as Junior's around. So...I've decided that this is the best solution. An'...I've decided to sign my parental rights over to Jack."
"You have? Why?" He was feeling very confused right now; this was happening too quickly for him to get a handle on it.
"Because...he can then adopt her. I don't like that you left me for him, but this is how it is. An' I know that you two will give her the lovin' home she needs. That's all I care about right now. All he has to do is sign them an' have them drawn up, and then he can apply for third-parent adoption. It's a simple process, really. I looked it all up."
"Alma...what about you? Are you keepin' in touch with her?" he asked, hoping for Junior's sake that she would.
"Yeah. I'm gonna need your number so I can call, an' maybe yer address if it's okay so I can write to her."
"Sure, I can give you that. But...are you sure 'bout this?" He wasn't too sure himself if they were ready for this. He and Jack might want children, but they'd intended to take things slowly to figure it all out. This was throwing them in the deep end and he wasn't too sure how Jack might react.
"I'm very sure. I made up my mind just after her birthday an' decided it was for the best. I reckon she'll be just fine with you two. Ennis...promise me you'll take care of her. If you can't promise me anythin' else, then give me this."
"I promise I will; we both will. We'll take good care of her," he reassured Alma, nodding and pulling his daughter closer. He still couldn't believe it; he was a father. He hoped that Jack would be okay with this; it could hurt him that Ennis had a child that didn't have anything to do with him.
She nodded and smiled. "That's decided, then. We all make our choices, Ennis. Yours was to be with Jack, an' mine was to give our daughter to you. Consider it a peace offering; hopefully we can all get along now." She had been prepared to feel resentful; to punish Ennis and Jack for what they had done. But she didn't feel that now, seeing Ennis with his daughter. And she had heard what Jack was like; he seemed like a good man who would also be a good father. This was truly the best solution for all of them.
Ennis looked at her, unsure of what to say. "Alma, I...thank you."
Alma nodded again and placed the papers on the nearest chair. "There you go. It's done now. Can I just ask...if I had told you then that I was pregnant, would you have...?" She trailed off and shook her head. "Never mind. I don't think that either answer is gonna make me feel better."
"I'm sorry about all of that," he told her sincerely. "Wish that it hadn't been so bad. But...I love Jack, Alma. That's the way it was always gonna be."
"I know." She kissed Junior's forehead and smiled. "You be a good girl, okay? I'll call you soon." She then gave Ennis a piece of paper with her cell number. "Let me know how to get in touch, okay? I'll be sendin' her things along when you give me the address."
"Yeah, sure," he replied, watching as she left the apartment. This was the last thing he'd expected to happen today, and now he wasn't quite sure what to do.
Jack was steeling himself for his conversation with Ennis as he made his way home. He was ready to talk about them having kids and he hoped that Ennis was in the same place. He wanted to have kids with Ennis and felt as if they were finally ready for a family.
As soon as he walked in, he sensed that something was very different. For one thing, he could hear a child talking and there was a piece of paper on the floor, covered in stickers and pen as if a child had been using it. His brow furrowed, wondering if they were babysitting and where Ennis was.
"Ennis?" he called, eyes travelling over the living room and then looking towards the kitchen. Ennis was there, and at the table there was a little girl. She had red hair and as he looked at her, she turned her large brown eyes on him. Ennis looked over to see Jack looking confused; who could blame him?
"Hey, bud," he said quickly, moving over to Jack and giving him a brief kiss. "A lot's happened since lunch," he began, ready to explain everything before Jack freaked out.
"Daddy?" called Junior from the table, and Jack blinked. What the hell...?
"Come on over, Junior," he said to her, and she joined them, gazing up at Jack. Like her father, she was drawn in by the deep blue eyes and wondered who this man was. "This is Jack. He's...yer stepdad," he finished, realising that it was true.
Jack couldn't speak, and wondered if he was dreaming. Who was this little girl? Ennis put an arm around his daughter and looked at Jack. "This is Junior...Alma Junior."
"Huh?" Jack asked, wondering how Alma fit into all of this. Ennis led Junior back to the living room and took Jack's hand, sitting him down on the sofa and hoping that he could keep him calm. This was a lot to handle and he hoped they would be okay.
"Jack...Alma paid me a visit. About a week before I left Wyomin' to come to college, that was the last time I slept with her. Seems like I got her pregnant an' she didn't know until after I'd gone."
"Wow," Jack breathed, unsure of what to make of this. "So...that's why she came looking for you, and why she was talking about you going back and marrying her," he said, remembering when Alma had arrived and almost destroyed everything.
"Yeah. But she went back because I was in love with you, an' had Junior by herself. Now she's gettin' married an' her fiancé's family don't approve of Junior bein' around. So...Alma's given us custody."
Jack stared at him, feeling like a fish out of water. He'd just wanted to talk to Ennis about having kids, but now this had landed on their laps. To say that he was scared would be an understatement. "Really?"
"Yep. Thought it was crazy, myself...but she reckons it's for the best. She said that me an' you can give Junior the lovin' home she needs. So...we're parents now, me an' you. I know we ain't really talked about it, but..."
"Yeah...so...we've got joint custody?" he asked, wondering about the finer points. He wasn't too sure about the laws in this state regarding gay couples and children.
"Pretty much; I've looked over the papers Alma gave me. With me bein' her daddy, I've got parental rights. An' since yer my husband, legally, that makes you her guardian too. But...you don't have full parental rights." He bit his lip before continuing. "There is a way you can get 'em, though."
"How?" Jack asked dubiously, and Ennis took his hand, squeezing it gently.
"Alma signed her parental rights over to you. So if you have them filed, say with Mark, then you can start the process of...adoption. That's if you want to," he added quickly, knowing that this was all going very fast and sensing that Jack was feeling blindsided right now. "It ain't absolutely essential. Yer still her guardian through me, but...adoption would give you full rights by yourself."
Jack nodded, his head spinning. "Wow," he repeated, leaning over with his head in his hands. "This...it's a lot to take in, Ennis."
"I know, darlin'," Ennis replied, putting an arm around him. "An' I wish you coulda been better prepared. But she just arrived at the door without warnin', tellin' me I've got a daughter an' then she told me she's givin' us custody. Still haven't got my head around it, to be honest."
Jack leaned back against the sofa, looking at Ennis. "Well...guess we better just get on with it. Where's her things?"
"Alma left me her cell number; I'm gonna text her the address so she knows where to send Junior's stuff." He gave a tentative smile. "You okay?" he asked cautiously, seeing the look in Jack's eyes.
"Yeah, I...I'll be fine," Jack told him, trying to believe his own words. While Junior looked like a wonderful daughter to have and while Ennis's happiness was important to him, Jack didn't know how he felt about looking after a child that technically wasn't his. She was a connection between Alma and Ennis that he would never have, and he felt very strange right now.
Ennis kissed the side of his face. "Love you, bud. You know that, right?" he asked softly, and Jack nuzzled him with a slight smile.
"Yeah, I do. Can't say this is gonna be easy, but...we'll manage." He decided not to talk to Ennis about them having a kid; now was really not the time and he didn't want to think about the possibility of Ennis feeling fulfilled as a father now that Junior was here. Jack couldn't help but feel like he was trailing behind, as an afterthought and not really part of this family. He hoped that as time passed, the feeling would dissolve and he could see Junior as his own. It was really the only way for this to work.
Jack went for a walk to the shops while Ennis looked after Junior, needing fresh air and not really knowing how to react to what had happened. He still didn't know how he felt about it; their lives had been turned upside down. He sat on a bench on the front for a little while, watching the sun slowly set.
Still, he returned to the apartment and saw that Ennis had started dinner. He smiled a little and spied Junior in the living room, drawing again. Thinking that he should try to make an effort, he went over and sat near her. "Hey, Junior."
She looked up at him and smiled, clearly remembering who he was. Her face was full of trust and Jack wondered if he could step up to this task. "Jack! I'm drawin' a picture of you an' Daddy," she announced, pointing to the paper. He felt drawn in by her innocence and purity, and knew that certain paternal instincts had the opportunity to grow.
"That's great," he said to her encouragingly, looking at it and nodding. He could make out Ennis's blonde hair and his dark locks, as well as the differences in eye colour, and he smiled. She giggled and carried on colouring in. Ennis looked over from where he was preparing dinner and felt calm at the sight of his daughter bonding with his husband. Maybe everything would be okay, despite how unexpected it was.
Jack got up and headed over to him, needing a little attention from his man. "Hey," he said softly, kissing Ennis on the cheek. Ennis returned the favour and put an arm around Jack's waist, squeezing him.
"You okay?" he murmured, and Jack nodded.
"Yeah...needed to clear my head. Sorry if you felt I was running away..." He looked at Ennis with an apologetic expression, but Ennis shook his head.
"I didn't think that. I know this ain't easy for you; take all the time you need, bud." He smiled and kissed Jack lightly on the lips, thinking that he would have to give Jack some much-needed love tonight when they were in bed. He had to do whatever he could.
"She's a sweet kid," Jack told him, nodding at her. "Definitely got your eyes." Ennis nodded, wondering what was going on in Jack's head. He knew this man very well by now, and could tell that he was struggling.
"Thanks. Dinner's gonna be a while...think we oughta go sit with her." He put the food into the oven and led Jack over, feeling Jack squeezing his hand. They sat down near Junior and watched as she drew; now it was the beach where they lived. One thing was for sure; she was going to like living here. It was a great place to raise a child and Ennis felt like they could make it work.
He put his arm around Jack, sensing that Jack was wary and under-confident. He was trying to remind himself that Jack might feel a little left out, given that Junior wasn't theirs together. She was a reminder of Ennis's past, and Jack didn't know how to open up to her.
There were other things bothering him about this, but they would have to wait until later. He had to get Ennis alone before asking these questions.
When dinner was ready, Jack got Junior settled in and made sure she was comfortable before sitting down himself, trying to bond with her because he knew it would make Ennis happy. He wondered if they could ever talk about kids of their own now that Junior was here; Ennis might no longer want one. The thought hurt but he could understand if that turned out to be the case.
Ennis sat next to him and they kept an eye on Junior, who could feed herself very well and was still polite. She made a little mess here and there, but that was a given for a child her age. Both men found her quite endearing.
"You okay there, Junior?" Ennis asked her, and she nodded with a grin.
"Yeah, Daddy," she replied, eating with gusto. Jack watched the interaction between them, a strange and unwelcome feeling creeping into his heart. Ennis didn't notice, but he was already suspicious that Jack was having a hard time with this.
Afterwards, Jack washed up while Ennis made up a bed for Junior, using the pack that Jack had bought earlier. He wanted Junior to feel at home, and that would hopefully happen as her things started to arrive. He would like for the three of them to be a family, like he thought they should be.
Jack would normally whistle while doing such chores, but he couldn't muster up the enthusiasm tonight. It had been a long, hard day and it was only the beginning. Junior was a well-behaved young girl, so she wasn't a problem. The only issue was that Jack was finding it difficult to accommodate this new aspect into their life together. There was so much he still needed to know; so much he wanted to hear from Ennis that would make things better.
He heard Ennis talking to Junior, who was chatting and laughing away in response. Jack knew he should feel happy about the love in this apartment and the family he had, but all he could feel was confusion and fear. What if he just couldn't do it? What if he felt like he had to leave? Could they really get a divorce? It didn't bear thinking about.
Ennis walked back into the living room, holding Junior in his arms and smiling at Jack. He set her down and started helping Jack with the dishes, nudging him gently.
"Love you," he said quietly. Jack sighed and looked at him.
"I love you too," he replied, knowing that if nothing else. That was all that mattered in the long run, regardless of anything else. He was very much in love, and would just have to deal with this.
Ennis sank down onto Jack's body, pulling out of him and sighing. "Darlin'," he breathed, running a hand over Jack's chest and feeling the sweat there. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Jack replied, feeling loose-limbed and relaxed now; he'd needed to unwind after today, and this was the best way. "That was good..."
"Mmm..." Ennis raised his head and looked into Jack's eyes. "Jack...you'd tell me if somethin' was wrong, right?" he asked, rubbing Jack's chest. "Like...the whole thing with Junior. Are you sure you don't wanna talk?"
Jack looked back at him, knowing that Ennis could read him like a book. "Alright," he sighed, moving to sit up. Ennis moved and sat next to him, seeing that Jack was steeling himself.
"What's goin' on in here?" he asked softly, stroking the back of Jack's head. "Come on..."
"I just...this isn't easy for me, Ennis. To come home and see...it was the last thing I was expecting. Things were just going at the right pace for us, and we were enjoying married life. Now all of a sudden...we're parents and...I feel like we've been thrown in the deep end. It's just hard to deal with."
"I know, darlin'," Ennis told him, holding him close. "I ain't findin' this easy, either. I never expected to see Alma ever again, an' then she was at the door with Junior. Thought that was all over after Christmas when she came lookin' for me. My mama told me she'd told Alma about our weddin', so she already knew..."
"Yeah. We nearly broke up because of her...when I found out you hadn't broken up with her, it hurt so much. I just...couldn't deal with it. So now...for this to happen...what if it breaks us up for real?" he asked, and Ennis could see the panic in his eyes. "What if it's too hard?"
"Hey," Ennis soothed him, now rubbing his back. "That ain't gonna happen. I want both you an' Junior in my life. We're a family now, an' nothin' can take that away from us. I love you so much, Jack...an' I don't wanna lose you."
They looked into each other's eyes for a few moments, but Jack still had concerns. "Ennis...tell me something. When Alma came looking for you that year...if she'd told you then that she was pregnant, would you have gone back with her? Would you have left me?"
Ennis sighed. "Alma was gonna ask me the same thing, but she changed her mind, sayin' that neither answer was gonna make her feel better."
"So what is the answer?" Jack whispered, feeling cold all over despite it being June. Ennis kissed him softly, cupping his cheeks.
"I would've stayed with you. I knew I loved you, even though I didn't say it until later. I woulda offered her child support or somethin', but...I wouldn't have gone back with her. I'd be miserable without you, Jack. And I woulda tried to find a way to keep both you an' Junior in my life. So...now I've got both of you."
Jack nodded, knowing that Ennis was just trying to do his best by both of them. "I know. And...I'm sorry if I'm pissing you off with this. I shouldn't be complaining when it's clear that you're happy to have Junior around. I want you to be happy, Ennis. That's all I ever wanted."
"Same to you, darlin'," Ennis answered, and he found Jack's hand, squeezing it gently. Jack smiled at him.
"You know...when we got married I promised to stand by you no matter what. So...that's just how it's gonna be. I'm here, and I'll do what I can."
Ennis kissed him in thanks and thought for a moment. "You know...Alma wasn't hateful when she came here. She was pretty civil...an' she'd have the right to be mad at us. But she even suggested we all try to get along for Junior's sake. She even gave you her parental rights."
Jack nodded, thinking of those papers in the desk drawer. He knew he ought to sign them, and part of him wanted to, but he wasn't prepared to do it until he was absolutely sure. He needed more time, he figured, and he was grateful that Ennis was giving him that. "Yeah..."
"I ain't gonna put pressure on you 'bout that, Jack," Ennis told him, and he gave Jack a little shake. "I know you don't need that." It was remarkable how they could practically read each other's minds. They really were a perfect match, and they had to hold onto that.
Jack leaned in and kissed him deeply, tongue working its way inside Ennis's mouth. They kissed for a few moments and then he drew back, eyes dark with lust. "You wanna go again?" he whispered, and Ennis grinned.
"That a trick question?" Jack laughed and pushed him back down, attacking his neck with enthusiasm and pushing away his dark thoughts. He worked his way down Ennis's chest, his destination becoming clear.
He took Ennis in his mouth and wrapped his lips around the swelling erection, tongue flicking out and causing Ennis to groan. "Fuck, Jack..."
"Mmm..." He sucked hard and fast, knowing that Ennis liked it when he did that. He needed to let go tonight and just focus on them. It was all he could do to try and stay sane.
A little later, he lay on Ennis's chest and gazed up at him, finally calm. "Think I needed that," he murmured, feeling sleep starting to take him over. "Can't wait for tomorrow...a new day and all that. Always a fresh start..."
"Yeah." Ennis was stroking Jack's hair and looking into his eyes. "Things are always better in the daylight. We'll be okay, bud," he tried to reassure Jack.
"I know," Jack replied, hoping that he could believe it. Junior was a very sweet girl, and he wanted to bond with her, but it would be very difficult. Maybe he would call Lureen or his mother, and get some advice. He needed it and so much more.
The next day, Ennis decided to take the day off to look after Junior while Jack went to work. He'd told his boss what had happened and he was sympathetic, telling Ennis that he could take off as much time as he needed to. Ennis knew that they needed to figure out what to do in terms of childcare; maybe they could enlist the help of a friend who could keep Junior until either he or Jack finished work. But for now, he was happy to take the time off. He wanted to get to know Junior and make her feel at home.
Thinking that she would enjoy some fresh air, he decided to take her to the park. None of her things had arrived from Wyoming yet; Alma had told him it would be a few days yet. So he went to the baby store first to get the essentials and took her out.
He knew that he was getting a few second glances from people; as far as they knew he didn't have any kids. Perhaps it did look strange to have one all of a sudden.
At the park, he held onto her and let her take a look around. "What d'you wanna do, Junior?" he asked her, and she blinked at this strange environment. The park back home had been so much smaller and almost always empty. But a lot of couples around here had kids, so it was fairly busy, and it was a good deal larger.
"Daddy, look!" she exclaimed, pointing at the swings. He nodded and smiled down at her. "Come on!" She tugged at his hand and led him to them, and he got her onto the seat with ease.
"You ready?" She held onto the chain and nodded, full of excitement. He started to gently push her a little way, careful not to overdo it. The last thing he wanted was to frighten her. After a few moments, he heard her laughing and the sound warmed his heart. A strong paternal instinct was building up inside him and he was actually glad to have her here. He just hoped that Jack had the same opportunity to bond with her; perhaps they could do something this weekend.
After a while, she indicated that she was growing bored so he scooped her up and walked around a little. He was leading her over to the pond to see the ducks when he heard a voice. "Ennis?" It was Amy, the woman who lived with Jack's workmate Jessica. They'd been together for longer than himself and Jack, and had been very welcoming when they had moved here.
He smiled at her and walked over. "Hey, Amy. How's it goin'?"
"I'm great. Jess is at work so I thought I'd get some fresh air. Who's this?"
"My daughter, Alma Junior," he said proudly, and he moved Junior closer to his friend. "This is Amy," he said softly, and Amy smiled.
"Hello, little one," she said kindly, squeezing Junior's tiny hand. Junior smiled at her. "So...how...?"
"My ex turned up yesterday. I was with her before movin' for college. Turns out I got her pregnant before I left. So..." He shrugged and kissed Junior's forehead. "It's okay, though. I'm gettin' used to bein' a dad an' she's a real sweet kid."
"So I see. How's Jack taking it?" she asked. She had worked in counselling and had seen situations like this before. She knew that people in Jack's position didn't always deal with this very well.
"He's...copin'. I know it ain't easy for him, an' I'm tryin' not to put pressure on him. Alma signed her parental rights over to him so he can adopt her, but he ain't signed 'em yet. I hope he will, though. It'd mean a lot to me."
Amy nodded. "Right. At least you understand how hard it is for him. A lot of spouses with kids from previous relationships don't always get that. They tend to expect their other halves to just go along with it no matter what. I'm glad you get it, Ennis."
"I love him," Ennis said simply. "I just want him to be happy so I know I can't force him. But...I think it's gonna be okay. He's makin' an effort with her an' he even told me he's gonna try. Guess we've just gotta see how it goes."
"You're right, Ennis." She smiled at Junior once more and kissed Ennis on the cheek. "I've gotta run, but we'll be in touch, okay?"
"Actually, I wanted to ask you for a favour," he said, realising something. "You don't work durin' the day, do you?"
"I was thinkin'...I took the day off to take care of her, but...I've gotta go back to work soon. Do you think you could...?" He bit his lip, knowing that it was a huge favour to ask.
"Look after her while you guys are at work?" she asked with a knowing smile, and he nodded sheepishly. "Sure, I'd love to. You can drop her off before work and pick her up after. It's no problem."
"Thanks, Amy," he told her as she left, and he smiled at his daughter. "Reckon we'll be okay, huh?" he said softly, and Junior rested her head on his shoulder. "Come on, let's get you fed." He took her to the park café and settled her into a booth, ordering a large plate of fries with gravy.
As they ate, he kept thinking about the documents Jack was due to sign and knew that he couldn't press the issue. This was Jack's decision to make and it had to be on his own terms. Ennis was happy to wait; he didn't want to put pressure on his husband and he understood how hard it was. One day, Jack was sure to make his peace with the situation and he would be ready to be Junior's father just like Ennis. For now, things were okay the way they were.