“Everybody decent?” Alex called out playfully as he opened the door to Mark and Hazel’s house and stepped into the foyer holding Krystina’s hand in his.
“Depends on what you consider ‘decent’,” Hazel called out from where she was seated on the couch with her legs pulled up onto the sofa, an afghan tucked around her feet. She placed a bookmark into the paperback she’d been reading and set it aside. “I mean, are we talking words or deeds?”
“I’m talking clothing,” Alex said, brushing his feet on the rug by the door. “The last time I left here there were subtle innuendos that my presence in your home was nearing the end of its life.”
“Oh! You brought your new girlfriend!” Hazel noticed Krystina when she and Alex came fully into view, and she sat up from the couch, then quickly righted herself from the unbalanced weight of having a protruding belly. “I’m so excited to meet you.”
“How do you know she’s my girlfriend?” Alex asked, baiting his cousin.
“Oh please.” Hazel rolled her eyes. “You’re holding her hand, and Mark said yesterday you couldn’t take your eyes off each other. I’m so glad to meet you.” She pushed past Alex and grabbed Krystina in a quick hug.
“Nice to meet you as well,” Krystina said, hugging her back. “How far along are you?”
“Only twenty-two weeks,” Hazel said, placing her hand on top of her belly. “Prince Hayden is scheduled to make his appearance sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving.”
“You’ve already named him? Since I was here yesterday?”
“We named him a few days ago. You just never asked. Hayden was Mark’s first choice and as soon as I saw the ultrasound, I agreed wholeheartedly. He just looks like a Hayden.”
“Speaking of, where is my prince this evening?” Alex asked.
“Teaching his sons to read, probably.” Hazel waved her hand dismissively.
“Aren’t they a little young for that?”
“I was joking, sort of. They like to read stories at bedtime, and he points to each word as he’s reading them.”
Just then a naked and sudsy wet two-year-old ran through the living room giggling from escaping the bathtub.
“You were saying?” Hazel asked with a straight face. “About whether we all had clothing on? There’s your answer.”
Mark hurried into the room carrying a fluffy towel, his t-shirt and jeans soaked from attempting bath time by himself. He stopped with an exasperated crease to his brow. “The good news is the baby is asleep and in his crib. The bad news is Aaron’s sheets need to be changed and he’s very slippery when covered in bubble bath. We may need to re-think this potty-training thing.”
“I believe I did mention that Pull-ups were still a requirement at bedtime,” Hazel said.
Alex leaned down and caught Aaron in his arms as he tried to run past, and managed to hand him off to Mark, who promptly snuggled the little guy into a towel and flew him airplane style back toward the bathroom.
“See why Mark’s in charge of bath time now?” Hazel asked, resting her hand on her baby belly.
“I’ll tell you what,” Alex started. “You and Krystina get to know each other, and I’ll go pull the sheets off Aaron’s bed and toss them in the washing machine. Sound like a plan?”
“I like that plan.” Hazel resumed her seat and patted the sofa to welcome Krystina to join her.
Alex heard Krystina giggle as she sunk onto the sofa, and Alex headed down the hallway toward the boys’ bedroom. He turned on the tiny lamp near Aaron’s bed, careful not to make too much noise while stripping Aaron’s sheets, thankful Mark and Hazel were smart enough to use a plastic barrier between the mattress and bedding.
The washer and dryer were on the other side of the kitchen, near the door to the garage, so Alex held his nose while hurrying in that direction. He didn’t understand why washing machines weren’t situated closer to the bedrooms. That would make more sense.
He heard soft laughter from the living room and smiled that his new girlfriend was fitting right into his family. If they were going to have a future together, which he suspected they would, this was a huge requirement.
After starting a load of laundry, Alex headed back toward the bedrooms and guessed correctly that sheets would be in the closet in the boys’ bedroom. After putting clean sheets on the bed, Alex headed back to the living room.
“So, Krystina, how many kids do you want to have?” Alex asked, slumping into a chair. “Ya know, hypothetically?”
Both ladies laughed at his question.
Mark, still covered in water, carried a sleepy and snuggly little Aaron out to lay him in Hazel’s lap with his footie pajamas and blankie. “I’ll change my clothes and come back for him.”
“If we have children as adorable as this little guy, we can have as many as you want,” Krystina said, reaching over to grab one of Aaron’s toes through his footie.
“In other words, one?”
They laughed at him again and Aaron tucked himself up close to his mom with wide eyes, pulled his foot away from Krystina and stuck his thumb in his mouth.
Mark entered the room again wearing comfortable-looking pajama bottoms and a clean t-shirt. “Come here, buddy.” He reached for his son, pulling him gently from Hazel’s arms and Aaron rested his head on Mark’s shoulder, still with his thumb in his mouth, and carrying his blankie.
“Okay, maybe two,” Alex said. They chuckled again.
While waiting for Mark to finish Aaron’s bedtime routine, Alex and Krystina took the files they’d brought and spread them out carefully on the large dining room table.
“Wow, there are a lot of them,” Hazel said, coming up behind them. “You’ve been busy.”
“Yeah, it’s obvious we have a problem,” Alex said. “The challenge next will be determining how deep into the local government and community the corruption goes.”
“I’ll make a phone call tomorrow,” Mark said as he walked into the room. “For now, keep this really close to your chests. Let the FBI do their job and the rest of us can go about our usual routine. I’ll casually do some drone flying and see what I can record. Even documenting a few of them will strengthen the case.”
“Can we leave these copies here with you?” Alex asked. “They’ll be safer. We also have backups on three thumb drives. I’ll keep one, Krystina can keep one, and you guys keep one.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Mark said, carefully packing the files away into an accordion file. “For now, let’s sit and chat. I want to hear all about your date.”
They enjoyed an hour of getting to know one another, Mark and Hazel telling funny and embarrassing stories about Alex and enjoyed a lot of laughter at his expense. When Hazel started yawning, Alex took that as their cue and wrapped up the night.
After a peaceful twenty-minute drive back to Kingston, Alex pulled his car into Krystina’s driveway. Opening the door for her to step from his car, Alex was tempted to pull her close for a goodnight kiss but held back. Instead, she reached up and kissed him on his cheek, then waved lightly as she walked up the sidewalk to her house.
He drove home with a cheesy smile on his face.