Hi. I've missed y'all.

Thanks to Iris, M, and Nic for all they do. I love those ladies forever.

Stephenie Meyer still owns the Twilight stuff, but Mississippiward is mine and always will be.

There's a moment at the beginning of each day when the house is still and silent, and the only thing in sight is my sleeping wife. The sun creeps under the blinds and through the curtains to outline her smiling lips and the freckles across the bridge of her nose.

I watch for a while, letting her rest as long as possible before the demands of parenthood kick in. Her eyes fly open at the cry of a wild turkey out in the backyard.

She blinks slowly and stretches. "Mornin'," she says. "You starin' again?"


Yeah. I've been looking since puberty, and I'm still not tired of it.

She pulls me down for a quick kiss. Her head turns at the sound of clomping in the hall. "Here she comes."

As expected, our bedroom door slowly opens, and a tiny head full of copper curls comes into view. "Oh, thank goodness you're awake."

"Good mornin'," I say, trying to keep a straight face.



Her fists ball and land on her hips as her eyes narrow. "You said you's gonna take us fishin' today."

"Did I say that?"

She takes a few steps, climbs onto the bed, and plants herself on her knees between me and Bella. "Yes, sir. You did."

Bella's hand covers mine on the bed. "I think I remember a promise over breakfast yesterday," she says.

"That's right." I give in and wait for my reward.

A happy five-year-old launches herself against my chest. "Now?" she asks, not bothering to finish my hug before she turns the puppy dog eyes on me.

A baby's cry sounds through the monitor across the room.

"Someone's awake," Bella says.

"I'll get him," I say, pushing the bedding aside and standing up to stretch. "You take care of your stuff, and I'll bring him to you."

Bella makes her way to our bathroom, and I follow Gracie down the hall to Tucker's nursery. She pushes the door open, skips across the room, and peers between the slats of his bed.

"Where's Hope?" I ask, unfastening the bulging diaper while Tucker tries to roll over.

"She's in the kitchen cooking breakfast so Momma won't have to." Gracie steps onto the stool next to the crib and hovers over the baby. He stills, smiles, and lifts a hand to try for a loose curl. Gracie lifts onto her toes and reaches her hand to touch his. "Mornin', Tucker." His lips part to show off the two bottom teeth that recently appeared. She turns to look at me. "Don't forget to cover that thing up before you take off the old diaper. He peed all over Chief Pawpaw yesterday."

"Oh, he did?" I ask, laughing at the thought.

"Yes, sir. All over his uniform. Then Chief Pawpaw said a bad word…"

"Well, he isn't used to little boys. He only had girl babies."

"Mamaw hit him on the back of the head."

"Gracie, honey, you just made my whole day."

She giggles and covers her eyes with her free hand while I switch out Tucker's diapers. He cries when I don't move to pick him up immediately, and her sweet voice rings out to calm him.

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…"

Tucker flips over when I join in and sing with her. He crawls to the bars of his miniature cell, reaches one hand out to grab the rail, and topples. I catch him and lift him into my arms, which isn't what he wants since he reaches for Gracie again.

"Can I carry him to Momma?" she asks. "I'll be real careful. I promise." She uses one finger to draw a cross over her heart.

I'm sure that someday I'll learn to say no to her. It's not going to be today, though.

"Remember how Momma showed you to keep one arm under him and one around his torso?"

Her arms are already up in the air when she nods. "Yes, sir. I remember."

We have a birthday party to go to later, but Tucker will be spending the morning here with Bella. A white onesie with little brown biplanes will work for scooting around the house. Once he's dressed, I hand him over to Gracie and follow on her heels down the hall to the master bedroom.

Bella's sitting up, relaxed against a pile of pillows and the headboard. There's a small smile on her face when we walk in. "Hey, sunny boy. Good mornin'."

Tucker's arms and legs flail at the sight of her, and he smacks and coos a greeting. It's with some reluctance that Gracie hands him over.

"When can I feed him a bottle? When Momma's home, all he wants is the tit."

The smile disappears from Bella's face quicker than I can blink. "What did you say?" she asks.

"No," I interrupt. "Don't repeat that, Gracie."

"Where did you hear that word?"

I wince, already knowing the answer to Bella's question before Gracie says a word.

"Uncle Brady."

Bella takes a deep breath before she addresses the issue. "Gracie, it's called breastfeeding. You can say breast, but the other is one of those grownup words we had a talk about, okay?"

"Sorry, Momma."

"It's all right, honey. Why don't you head downstairs and see if Hope let Waylon out, yet?"

"Okay." Gracie rubs her hand over the baby's head, walks to our door, and pauses there. "Does this mean I'm gonna have to sit out durin' Presley's birthday party today? Uncle Jake's 'sposed to rent one of those big waterslides."

Bella's shoulders relax, and her whole face softens. "No, honey. It's a warnin', though. I don't want to hear that word again."

"Yes, ma'am."

Gracie hasn't made it halfway down the hall when Bella pulls out said tit to appease our wiggling son. "One of these days, I'm goin' to wring Brady's neck," she says.

"Just to be clear, I think she overheard him in our garage the other day sayin' that Marshall was finally takin' well to the tit. It wasn't anything dirty."

"I'm glad to hear that," Bella says. "I know Misty really wanted to nurse him." She sighs and rests her head against a pillow. "Y'all need to watch out for Gracie. She's like a sponge – a cute, nosey, observant little sponge. Plus, she's ornery. I guarantee you she'll say tit again at least three times this week, and I'll have to put her in a time-out and take away some privileges."

Tucker pops off for a moment to look at me and sigh. Then he nuzzles in and latches on again, making Bella wince.

"You're probably right," I agree.

"That child looks just like you," she says fondly. "But she acts just like Tanya; full of piss and vinegar."

"Chief Pawpaw thinks she'll be the first of his grandkids he'll have to cuff and drive home someday."

"Did he say that?" She's amused and offended. I can tell.

"He was jokin'." I stand and make my way to the closet.

It was covered in teasing and laughs, but I know damn well Chief meant it. If I had to guess, I'd say he's probably right. Gracie is headstrong and curious. She's our little rule-breaker. With a mouth like her aunt's and penchant for getting into trouble like her daddy, she's bound to stir up some drama in our future.

Tucker has switched sides by the time I'm dressed and ready for the day. "I'm gonna check on the girls and make sure they're not burnin' down the kitchen," I say.

"Pfft." She rolls her eyes and grins. "Hope could take on any one of those kid chefs on TV any day of the week. You're just hungry. Admit it."

I lean down to kiss her on the cheek. "Guilty."

"Go on," she says. "We'll be right behind you."

Hope is standing at the stove, stirring gravy. The scent of drop biscuits baking makes my stomach rumble. "Mornin', Daddy," she says, taking a moment to glance up at me and smile. And damned if she isn't the spitting image of her momma at nine years old with long, sun-kissed brown hair and eyes to match.

She's a thinker and still somehow one of the most passionate kids I've ever seen, especially when it comes to animals. Waylon is technically the family dog, but Hope's the one who fills his food bowl every day. He thanks her by sleeping on the rug at the foot of her bed at night.

Each morning, Hope starts her day out in the yard, staring across the meadow at deer in the distance, and then collecting eggs from the chickens and taking care of them, too.

"Mornin', honey." I kiss the hair covering her temple and reach for a coffee mug. "It smells good in here."

"I made grits." She nods at a covered pan on the back burner. "As soon as the gravy's ready, I'll fry an egg for you."

"Me, too," Gracie says, opening the back door wide. "Wayyyyyylon!" She whistles and leans forward to pat her knees. "Come on, you big dummy. That turkey's gonna whoop your tail if you keep messin' with him."

A glance out the window confirms that our odd turkey friend is back and hanging around near the girls' tree house again. He irritates the chickens and pisses off the dog, and if he tramples Bella's garden one more time… Well, I'm afraid her temper may get the best of her and he'll wind up in the freezer until November.

The gigantic yellow Lab barks a couple of times for good measure, and then follows Gracie's calls and comes inside. He walks over to his water bowl and laps at the contents for a solid minute, sloshing water everywhere. Once he's made a fine mess, he plops down on the cool tile and stretches out, panting and puffing through it all.

He lifts his head when Bella walks into the room with a babbling Tucker in her arms but doesn't move from his spot until Hope slides a hot fried egg into his food bowl. It's gone in one swallow before the rest of us have even had a chance to take our seats at the table.

Hope says grace. Tucker passes gas. The girls complain about how gross babies are, for the millionth time. Bella just smiles and squeezes my hand. She wouldn't trade this any more than I would.

After breakfast, the girls rinse the dishes and put them in the washer while I dig their tackle boxes out of the small storage closet in the garage. I back the 4-wheeler out next and turn it around to face the driveway. Hope's mini-quad is too small for me to ride, so I push it out of the garage and leave the keys in it for her.

All three of my girls step out into the garage after a while. Gracie complains about having to hitch a ride with me, whines that Hope has her own 4-wheeler, and then asks when Bella and I are going to get her one.

We've talked about possibly getting her an even smaller rig than Hope's for her birthday in a couple of months. She'll be six and plenty big enough for a small ATV with a governor and a kill switch. But Hope was eight when she got hers, and Bella worries it might cause a riff if it makes it seem like we're not being fair.

For now, Gracie's stuck with me. They kiss Bella goodbye, tickle Tucker, and slip helmets on for the ride across the highway. Bella walks over to wish me luck with a sweet goodbye kiss before Gracie climbs on in front of me and revs the motor.

"What time are we supposed to be at Presley's party?" I ask. I learned a long time ago that it's important to be home when you say you will. Wives like that. They don't like being late for things or rearranging plans, because a careless husband stayed out on the lake too long.

"It starts at one," she says. "Why don't I meet you over at your parents' with the truck around then and we'll head over?"

It takes three minutes tops to get from our driveway to her sister's these days. The Blacks sold that little house on Clancy Lane a few years back and traded it in on a brand new original from Platt-Cullen. Tanya wanted to be close to Bella, so Jake went to Alec with an offer to buy five acres of his land adjacent to my parents' property. Since it will all belong to me and Bella someday, Alec came to us first and then my folks. We all agreed that family's family, and the deal was done. It's nice having them close by.

"We'll be there," I promise.

She blows us a kiss and waves Tucker's arm as a goodbye.

We go slowly enough for Waylon to keep up with us. When we get to the highway, he stops between us and waits for my okay before crossing with us. As expected, Tyler Crowley's daddy handed over the dealership to Tyler a handful of years ago. The elder Crowley quickly grew bored with retirement and took up a new profession. As much as I dislike Ty, his daddy's the most sought-after dog trainer in the state of Mississippi, and Waylon's the best hunting dog I've ever seen. It chapped my ass to let Crowley do it, since he insisted on doing it free because he loves Bella. He called it a belated wedding gift.

In the end, we worked out a trade. I built a porch and a swing for his workshop, and he trained my most faithful hunting buddy and my daughters' best pal. Waylon doesn't make a move onto the asphalt until we give him the okay. He stays close the entire way.

At the sound of the ATVs, the backdoor of my folk's house opens, and momma steps out onto the porch with a steaming mug of coffee in her hand. Dad steps out behind her. Hope follows my example by stopping next to me and letting her rig idle.

"Good mornin'," Dad says.

"Hi, Grampa!" Gracie says. "Daddy's takin' us fishin'!"

"It's a perfect day for it," he says, glancing down at the lake and then up at the bright sun in the sky.

"Come with us," I say.

Mr. Crowley isn't the only one who's made changes in his work habits. The town keeps growing, and as a result, so does the clinic and the number of people who work there. Dad tried to retire early, but they talked him into cutting back his hours instead. He gives them his Thursdays and Fridays. But Saturday through Wednesday, he's an amateur golfer, a honey-doer, and a diaper-changer. Between him, Momma, Renee, and Charlie, we've rarely had to rely on the church's daycare center throughout the years.

"You wouldn't mind?" he asks, checking to make sure he's not intruding.

"Not at all. We'll wait for you down at the dock."

It gives me a chance to spray sunscreen on the girls before we board the boat. They stand with their backs to me, arms stretched at their sides, and the tips of their fingers touching. When I'm done, I lean down so Hope can spray the back of my neck.

Dad shows up with a small picnic basket in one hand and his fishing rod in the other.

His big boat is still parked since it's not quite summer, yet. One by one, we climb into the old fishing boat I promised Bella I'd never part with. It's still running like a champ and has a name now. The Kissy Boat.

Hope even painted it on the side in bright pink block letters.

Brady laughed at me for an entire afternoon the summer it happened. Three months later, he became a dad, too, and finally understood why things like pink paint and flowers stenciled on my boat don't bother me.

Waylon's the last one to board. Dad helps ease him onto the boat without rocking us too much. We head south, since that's where the fish have actually been biting so far this year. Gracie points to a small cove attached to Alec's land, and we settle in for a long morning of relaxation.

The girls share a seat, with Waylon stretched out behind them on the floor. Dad and I untangle lines for them, and help them get the fish they catch off the hook, since both of them still think fish are too gross to touch when they're cold and slimy.

"When does the strip mall project start?" Dad asks as he casts.

"Three weeks." I keep my eye on the yellow and orange bobber in the distance.

"Are you nervous?"

A shopping center at the edge of town is the biggest project we've taken on since expanding to include commercial construction last year. Alec and I put in a fair bid, and the city council decided to take a gamble on us instead of a couple of well-known companies in Meridian.

So, yeah. I'm nervous.

Alec and I have worked hard to grow this business, to help grow this town. Part of me is nervous at the beginning of every job. I'd rather have a good name than a padded bank account. Luckily, we've managed both success and money. Not enough to swim in, but enough to pay the bills, the employees, and ourselves every month.

"Excited and nervous," I say.

"Quitman is finally getting an athletic store and a restaurant that serves sushi. You're going to be the town hero."

We both laugh, and just like that, I feel better.

When afternoon rolls around and it's time to head to shore, Hope is the winner of the day with seven under her belt. Between us, there's enough for a family fish fry in the next couple of weeks at Grampa and Meme's. The girls like that idea.

Bella and Tucker are waiting with Momma, killing time on the swing by the dock. Waylon's the first one off, followed by the girls, and then Dad. He sticks around to help me get the cooler off the boat.

"I'll come by tomorrow after church and help you clean 'em," I say.

"If you have time," he agrees.

Bella leaves Tucker with Momma and walks across the wooden planks until we're standing toe-to-toe. "How'd it go?" Her arms snake around my waist, and she leans up to kiss my neck.

My hands slide down into the back pockets of her jeans. "There's a cooler full of fish. Your girls are pros."

"Of course they are," she says, flicking the bill of my cap. "It's in their genes." When she hugs me, I catch her leaning in to sniff my shirt.

"Do I need to catch a quick shower before we head to your sister's?"

She shakes her head. "You smell like a dad who's been out in the sun with his girls all mornin'. There's nothin' wrong with that."

I lean down to kiss her and can taste the salt from my skin on her lips, but we keep it clean since our youngins are a few feet away.

"How was your mornin'?"

"Peaceful," she says. "Tucker played on his mat for a while and took a short nap."


"I did some laundry, cleaned out the pantry, and changed our bedding for spring."

"You were supposed to relax," I say. I love fishing with my girls, but today's trip had a double purpose. Monday's a big day for Bella, and she's been having a hard time these last few weeks.

There were complications during Tucker's birth, or rather, prior to it. After a nice afternoon on Chief's pontoon with the family, Bella started bleeding heavily on the dock. It happened a week before her due date, and my dad ended up doing an emergency C-section at the clinic here in Quitman. That sure as hell wasn't part of our birth plan.

It scared the living shit out of me.

A long time ago, I thought I wanted five kids. The day Tucker was born was the day I decided three were plenty. It took a while to convince Bella, though. She's much braver than I am.

She cried the morning we made the trip to Meridian for me to get snipped a few weeks ago. She's cried over it a couple of times since, especially with Tucker growing like a weed the way he is. He's the caboose, so every milestone is bittersweet. No more babies for us.

Throw in a phone call from the Department of Wildlife about an opening in our county for a field biologist, and things have been... strange for the past week. Bella's worked part-time since Hope was born nine years ago. She's been worrying herself ragged about the changes that are bound happen if she goes full-time.

"I'm too nervous to relax," she says. "I haven't been on a job interview in almost ten years. Keeping busy helped get my mind off of it. Besides, I couldn't function in all that quiet. No girls arguing, no husband rattling off estimates on his phone, no dog barkin' and chasin' the turkeys…"

"Are you sayin' you missed me?" I ask, giving her ass a subtle squeeze and hugging her close.

"Very much, but I'm glad you had a good time with the girls and your daddy."

"It was a good day on The Kissy Boat."

She tosses her head back and laughs, gripping my biceps with affection. "It's a good boat, for sure."

I slip an arm around her waist and guide her off the dock to follow the girls and Dad up the hill. "You're gonna knock 'em dead Monday," I say with my lips against her hair. "I know it."

Her hand grips mine tightly. "I love you."

"I love you, too, pretty girl, and it's all gonna work out. You'll see."

She takes Hope and Gracie up to the house, so she can make sure they wash up before we leave. A lot of worms and fish have been touched today, and Gracie's not great at hygiene. From picking her nose to squashing and eating ants in the church parking lot, she's a bit of a pistol.

Tucker's snoozing peacefully in Momma's arms, and she won't let me take him since I'm a bit of a mess myself.

"How long has he been out?" I ask.

"Just a few minutes. Bella fed him a few minutes before you got back, and you know how he gets after a meal."

He doesn't make it through many nursing sessions awake. It tuckers him out. That's how he got his name. We started feeding him fruits and veggies this week. Plus, he's been doing well with cereal for a while now. He manages to stay upright and alert after those meals, though. I think it's something about Bella's voice and soft skin that knock him out.

Momma opens the back door for me, and I use their kitchen sink to scrub down like I'm going into surgery. The girls will be playing in the water all afternoon. I'll be baking in the sun, and prefer not to do it with dried lake water and the smell of fish on me.

The party's in full swing by the time we make it to the Blacks'. We leave Waylon inside with their Beagle, Toby, and make our way to the sprawling backyard. A double rainforest-themed waterslide is set up on one side, and an inflatable safari bounce house is on the other.

There's a long plastic table on the back porch, loaded with fruit trays and finger sandwiches cut into triangle-shaped halves. Out in the yard, a dozen kids or more are running around, already soaked to the bone and racing each other for another turn on the slide.

Gracie squeals, vibrating with excitement. "Can we go?" she asks.

Hope looks up at me and Bella for approval.

Since they already have swimsuits on under their clothes, I wave at the melee and say, "Have at it."

Hope takes the time to remove her shirt and shorts carefully on the back porch and hands them over to Bella. Gracie takes off running, stripping as she goes, without a backward glance. Renee catches sight of her and intercepts her for a quick hug on the lawn before Gracie has a chance to get wet.

Chief picks up the clothes Gracie discarded and brings them over to us, tapping Hope's nose with his finger when he passes her along the way.

"Here you go," he says, placing them in my hand and easing a smiling Tucker out of my other arm at the same time. He holds the boy at arm's length for a second to tease him. "How's your diaper, kiddo?"

"He's good, Pawpaw," Bella says. "I just changed him in the truck while Edward was spraying the girls down with sunscreen out front."

Chief takes a seat on the covered porch where he and Tucker can keep an eye on all of their girls. Presley comes over long enough to say hi, kiss her baby cousin, and drip cold water all over him. He repays her kindness by grabbing two fists full of her wet pigtails, and waving his arms back and forth until she hollers, "Mercy!" and a laughing Jake gets her untangled.

"Girl," he says. "You've got to watch your hair around babies."

"If ours is gonna do that, I don't want him anymore," Presley replies.

"It's a little late for that, honey." Jake shakes his head and lets his eyes find Tanya across the yard. Her hands are resting on the sizeable baby bump housing my yet-to-be-named nephew. As usual, the two of them can't agree on a damn thing and probably still won't have a name for him by the time he gets here next month.

The water fun lasts more than an hour, and then there's cake and ice cream. Bella takes off to nurse Tucker in the house while the presents are being opened. I'm the one stuck putting Gracie in a time-out when she gives Abe McCarty a swimsuit wedgie. She pouts about missing part of the fun, but that's what happens when you mess with the preacher's kid's britches for no good reason. She's not happy when I send her inside to sit with Bella.

Bella and Tucker reappear as the casual friends and church acquaintances start to load into their cars and trucks to take off.

"Gracie fell asleep while she was sittin' with me on Presley's bed."

"Good. She could use a nap."

"Not too long, though, husband. We have plans tonight." She leans down to plop our son on my lap and brush her lips against my cheek. "Naked plans," she whispers.

She tries to walk away, but I catch her hand and give it a squeeze. "Promises promises," I tease.

We always plan to get naked. The funny thing about these ornery beautiful youngins is that they love to disrupt even the simplest of plans. That's all right, though. Bella and I are experts at quickies, when need be.

"I'm still sittin' here," Chief grumbles.

"Sorry, Daddy." Bella gives him a small grin, and disappears inside to help her momma and Tanya in the kitchen.

Jake fools around with his grill at the other end of the porch, and after a few minutes, Tanya comes out to hand him a plate stacked high with steaks.

We wake Gracie when dinner's ready, and she seems to have calmed down some from her sugar rampage earlier. The kids get along well enough while we eat. The girls help Presley put away her new toys and play clothes after dinner. Jake and I take care of the dishes, so Tanya can get off her feet and Bella can visit with her on the back porch. When the sun starts to sink in the distance, they come inside, and Bella says it's time to go home.

The girls kiss Tanya on the cheek and pat her belly. Jake gets a hug.

"Momma," Gracie says. "Can Presley stay the night with us?"

Bella shakes her head. "Not this weekend, baby. Today's her birthday. Let her spend the rest of it with her momma and daddy, okay? Next weekend. I promise."

Presley hugs Bella first, then me. "Thank you for the boots and the caterpillar kit."

"You're welcome," Bella says. "If you take good care of them, you'll have beautiful butterflies to turn loose soon."

"I love butterflies!" Presley claps her hands together and clasps them in front of her. "They're pretty, and every one is different."

"That's right." Bella leans down to kiss her forehead. "Happy birthday, honey. I love you."

Our niece yawns. "Love you, too," she says. "See you in the mornin'."

Hope finds Waylon curled up in the closet of the nursery and wakes him, and we make our way out to Bella's Tahoe. He waits patiently while I buckle in the baby and help the girls into the backseat. I climb into the passenger seat, and he follows, curling into a ball at my feet.

Bella carries on a mini-conversation with Tanya while the rest of us get situated. We're comfortable by the time she gets in and closes the door behind her.

"You ready?" she asks with a smile.

In that last moment of daylight, the few gray hairs she's gained recently shine against the beautiful brown that still match her eyes. She worries about things like laugh lines and stretch marks, but to me, those things are happiness and the life we've made together.

"Let's go," I say, resting my hand on her thigh as she starts the engine.

"I don't think Tanya's going to make it another month," she says. "I'm thinking two weeks."

"Did you become an obstetrician when I wasn't lookin'?" I tease.

She shrugs. "We'll see."

There's a deer a few feet away from our front porch when Bella pulls up next to the house. It stands frozen for a moment in the glare of the headlights before tearing across the meadow and into the woods.

Our turkey friend is gone for the evening, along with the sun. Hope gets out first and stalls in the garage until Gracie has already gone inside.

"Can I stay out for a while if I promise to stay in the treehouse?" she asks.

"Not long," Bella says. "But Gracie can have the first bath tonight."

"Thanks, Momma."

She takes off across the yard to the huge oak on the other side of the garden. I designed the treehouse to sit off of the ground to prevent any unnecessary snake incidents, but I linger until she's up the steps and on the first level before I move to go inside.

I give Tucker a bath in the kitchen sink while Bella assists Gracie in the bathroom. The poor girl inherited my natural curls and hasn't quite mastered conditioner, yet. Getting a comb through her hair is impossible unless Bella helps her.

Tucker's easier and quicker. I've got him dried, diapered, and in pajamas long before Gracie stops splashing down the hall.

"Can you get Hope?" Bella calls from the bathroom. "We're almost done."

Tucker seems content in his crib, so I make my way outside. Waylon's parked and sleeping at the bottom of the tree near the steps. He lifts his head as I approach.

"Hope, it's time to come in, honey."

She looks down at me with a small smile on her face. "Do you see them?"

Constellations fascinate her. She gets lost in the telescope Chief gave her for her birthday and forgets the rest of us exist.

I take a step back and glance at the sky. Bright stars shine in the violet glow of sundown. "It's a gorgeous night."

"When I grow up and get my island, I want you to build a house just like this one on the beach for me." She frowns. "Maybe a little bigger than this one. I'll probably be taller when I'm a grown up." She scoots over to the ladder and makes her way down.

"I'm gonna miss you when you move to your island."

Her hand slides against mine, and she tugs. "You have a boat, Daddy. You won't have to miss me."

If only it were that simple.

She takes off running in front of me and bangs her way through the screen door when she reaches the house. Hope's had one foot out of this town since the day she started walking. Her first steps were in Jackson on the Midway of the state fair. The bright lights and noise drew her in, and lit some fire.

She likes life here, but she dreams of faraway places.

Crickets chirp in the distance as I pause on the porch to close my eyes, and send up a prayer of thanks for this little slice of heaven Bella and I have carved out for ourselves. It's tiring and trying at times, but it's ours. We get through it and, most days, enjoy it. I've seen that temper of hers a time or two, and I've made an ass of myself and ended up on the couch on occasion.

It's a good thing it's comfortable.

The pre-bedtime frenzy's started by the time I make it into the house. Waylon's wearing out a bowl of grub in the kitchen, Bella's trying to run a brush through Gracie's wet and tangled curls in the family room, and Tucker's sitting a few feet away from them, beating the TV remote against the hardwood floor. I lay down next to him and roll over onto my back. The moment he spots me, he drops the remote and crawls over to me.

"Hey, buddy."

A soft grunt is his reply as his small face hovers above me. He looks confused since I look upside down to him. His hands grip my face, and he lowers his face to slobber a kiss on my chin.

He giggles and squawks, plops down onto his bottom, and claps. Gracie kicks a rubber ball in our direction, so I sit up to roll it to Tucker and chase it every time he tries to send it back my way. Waylon runs off with it twice but brings it back when Tucker starts hollering nonsense at him.

"He can fuss when he puts his mind to it," Bella says.

"Takes after his momma," I reply.

"Uh huh." She shoots me a look across the room. "Keep talkin'."

Gracie hops down from the chair the moment Bella excuses her. "Can I play, too?"

"For a few minutes," Bella says. "It's almost bedtime."

Waylon gets bored and wanders off to the corner closest to the fireplace. Hope joins us after a quick shower and sits on the ottoman so she can watch Bella work on the Christmas stocking she's been making for Tucker.

When the clock clicks over to nine, Bella puts away the kit and stands. "Time for bed," she says. "We've got Sunday school in the mornin'."

"Aw, Momma," Gracie grumbles. "Can't we skip and sleep in?"

A small smile dances at the corners of Bella's lips. "There'll be plenty of time for that when you're older. Besides, a little birdie told me your teacher's bringin' muffins to class."

"Mamaw's makin' muffins?"

"Yes. She'll be sad if you're not there to eat one."

"Oh, all right. I'm goin'." She trudges up the stairs behind Hope, with me and Bella right behind them.

The man cave was converted to a little ladies' cave a few years ago. So far, they're okay with sharing a room. It's big and yellow, with two twin beds built by yours truly and hand painted white by their gorgeous momma. We figure Hope will want her own space once she hits her teens, but they're content to share space for the time being.

I hold on to Tucker as the girls climb into their beds. They sit up and put their hands together to pray. Hope is thankful for kissy boats and fish. Gracie is thankful for inflatable waterslides. Tucker passes gas again and makes both of them giggle through their amens.

Bella and I can hear their whispers and laughter on our way down the stairs to the nursery. She sits with Tucker for a while, rocking him in that old chair of Granny's while I make the rounds and lock up for the night. The girls quiet when Bella starts to sing.

Waylon stands when I turn off the lights in the hall. He lumbers up the stairs, making his way to his bed at the foot of Hope's. Tucker's out and already in the crib by the time I make it back to his room.

"Shhh," Bella says. "It's been a long day." She grabs my jeans at the waist and tugs me forward. "And I have plans for you."

"Oh, yeah?" I whisper the words against her skin. "We have to get up early."

"When I'm done with you, we'll both sleep like babies," she promises, pulling me down the hall to our room.

We have to be quiet these days. Things like undressing each other went out the window two kids ago. She pulls her shirt over her head and unzips her skirt, letting it drop to the floor. Her panties are gone, and she's spread out on the bed in nothing but a nursing bra by the time I get my boots off.

"Impatient?" I ask.

She nods and bends her knees, planting her feet flat on the quilt. "A little."

I toss my t-shirt across the room and climb over her. After all this time, I'm still never sure where to start with her. It's all so good.

My favorite dimple on her knee seems as good as any, so I lean down to kiss it. She squirms and threads her fingers through my hair. I kiss her belly, straight up the middle to the black nursing bra hugging her tits. The good thing about getting fixed is that once Tucker's done with them, those perfect tits will be all mine again. If I touch them now, though, things could get messy quick.

I plant my lips on her neck instead, kissing lightly until she gives my hair a tug and shift her hips to take me in. "Give me a hickey," she says.

Without a word, I suck the skin between my teeth and set a steady pace. There's a nickel-sized purple blemish on her neck by the time she taps my shoulder and pushes me onto my back. She rolls with me, turning the tables on me and taking what she needs. When she's close, I add my thumb in slow circles over her clit until she leans forward, squeezing my hips with her knees. I have to push her hair back from her face to see dammit fall from her lips.

Since we're not 100% percent sure that I'm 100% sterile, yet, I move her off of me long before I'm ready to come. She catches my cock in her hand and works it until I'm almost there, and she surprises me by leaning over and using her lips and mouth to finish me off.

Then she takes a page from my book and kisses her way up my stomach until she's cuddled under my arm and tucked in close with her leg thrown over mine.

"Your heart's racin'," she says. "You all right?"

I kiss her hand and place her palm on my chest. "It's your fault. You have that effect on me."

"Such a sweet talker." She turns her head to kiss my jaw.

"I love you, pretty girl."

"I love you, too."