Fifteen minutes later, I was laughing as Virgin jerked and hissed his way through his foot massage.
“You like this shit?” he asked, hands a death grip on the arms of his chair to – I imagined – avoid slapping the poor nail tech who was clearly tickling him as she worked.
“I love this shit,” I corrected as my tech slipped the pad of her thumb along my aching arches, making my head slam back on the chair, my back arching, a low, somewhat sexual noise escaping me. A sound that made Virgin momentarily forget about his own feet, his eyes moving over me, the lids seeming to go a little hooded.
“Keep that in mind,” he murmured, filling my mind with fantasies of being sprawled out on his bed, my legs over his lap, his hands massaging the aches out of my sore feet.
“Aunt Freddie!” Jelena yelled, launching herself at me from my other side, landing on my lap with a giant smile. “Like my hair?” she asked, touching one of the little knots that were positioned on each side of her head, a part down the center, little cornrows leading up to them, the other half of her hair left in a curly mass almost down to her shoulders.
“I love your hair,” I informed her.
“Daddy is gonna grumble,” she told me with an eye roll that she had to have learned from Thaddeus.
“It’s gonna get knotty,” she told me, pulling at the free strands.
“Well, you’re gonna have to let him comb it so it doesn’t get knotty.”
She made a noncommittal grunting noise as she swirled herself on my lap, her little back to my chest, her head resting against my breast like a pillow.
And my heart did a little flip-flop as she snuggled in like she had always been there.
For some reason, my head swiveled, finding Virgin’s gaze on us, something strange, unreadable behind his eyes that made my heart do another flip.
“Alright, boo, let your auntie get her toes done,” Thad declared, moving up at my side, reaching his arms out to Jelena who reached back, happily settling on his hip when he hoisted her there. “Why don’t we go and get you some ice cream?” he suggested. “I can trust you to get her home, right?” he asked, directing his attention to Virgin.
“She’s safe with me,” Virgin agreed, tone almost determined.
“I’m counting on it,” Thad told him, giving me a wink. “See you later. This is all paid for,” he added, even though he knew I had wanted to pitch in now that I was working.
“She come to visit you while you were… gone?” Virgin asked, choosing the word carefully, knowing ‘away’ either meant jail or rehab, and aware that we were not alone.
“No,” I told him, a little sad about the lost time even though I had made it clear that I didn’t think it would be appropriate for Colson to bring Jelly when he came to visit, not wanting her to meet me after getting patted down like a criminal herself.
“So you just met her?”
“She has taken to you fast.”
“I think that she was kind of looking for a female presence in her life,” I admitted. “I mean Thad takes her to do all the girly stuff. And Colson goes with her to all her dance classes and such. But I still think she was craving a woman in her life.”
“Her mom bailed?”
“Yeah. When she was just a couple months.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But Colson is doing a good job with her.”
“What’s he do?”
“What he can,” I said, shrugging. “It’s not easy to work around her schedule. School is off a lot of days. And he has to be around for her classes and such. He works night jobs. A custodian and a security guard at some dive bar a couple towns over. It gives him his days free for Jelly. Then an older lady in his building watches her at night.”
“Can’t be making much,” he mused.
He didn’t intend for it to, of course, but the words made guilt stab into my belly. For all the years I allowed him to fill my commissary when he should have been saving the money for Jelena.
“I guess not,” I agreed.
“Just sayin’,” he started, shrugging. “If he doesn’t have some moral objection to a different lifestyle, Reign is looking for good men. And the hours are flexible. And the money is good.”
“I will… mention that,” I told him, even though I wasn’t sure there would ever be an appropriate opening for something like that. Hey, Colson. This apartment is really nice. But if you ever want to worry less about paying your rent, you can become a gun-running biker.
“Figure single dads need to keep their options open,” Virgin added, shrugging it off. “So, you gonna let me take you home after this, or be a pain in my ass and insist on walking?”