Where I Belong(6)By: Claudia Connor
“Sometimes that’s what it takes.” Owen’s father sent his son a pointed look from the opposite end of the table.
Owen’s mother and sister exchanged a quick glance. Not one of the women had mentioned Owen when she’d run into Kyle and the kids on the beach after lunch. But she was getting the feeling it had been a very deliberate setup.
At the other end of the table, the baby that had been introduced as Lauren, let out a squeal of joy. Clara, trying to reach across to the baby, spilled a glass of ice water, pulling the family’s attention away from Charlotte. Thank you, Clara.
The mess was mopped up calmly and efficiently, followed by Winters rerouting his daughter to a seat closer to her baby cousin. From there, talk ranged from baseball to the new garden Owen’s mother was putting in. Charlotte relaxed enough to take a peek at Owen while the group listened and laughed at Winters’ recounting of how Titan Group, where he worked, was redecorating their office kitchen to make it more environmentally friendly. The kicker was that the whole process was part of a reality TV segment, and Winters’s boss was having a conniption.
“I’m glad you changed your mind,” Owen said just loud enough for her to hear.
Owen’s family was easygoing and easy to talk to. And she loved the general chaos of dinner with kids and family. Everyone talking at once, sometimes carrying on two and three separate conversations. And that didn’t include the running dialogue Kyle had going next to her.
And every so often, she and Owen exchanged brief glances that made her breath catch. Innocent—maybe—brushes of his denim-clad thigh against her knee made her pulse skip and her cheeks go hot. Even though she felt out of her element, the little thrill in her belly made her more than glad she was there.
“THANK YOU again,” she told Owen’s father as they finished dinner and walked out as a group. He’d insisted on picking up the bill for the table.
“You’re more than welcome.”
Owen’s mother smiled. “We’re glad you came. Kyle adores you.”
Charlotte smiled at Kyle, who was gathering smooth pebbles from the landscaping. “The feeling’s mutual.”
Owen scooped up Lauren as she toddled past him, swinging her up and over his head.
“Don’t jostle her right after she eats,” Trish said. “She’ll puke.”
“She won’t puke. Will you, Lar Lar? Not on your favorite uncle.”
Lauren squealed with joy when he swung her higher.
Charlotte’s heart skipped and skidded watching Owen with the baby. His smile that went all the way to his eyes and made little crinkles on the sides gave her heart a jolt.
“I know what I’m doing.” He brought her down then up again. Then, amid a gurgling laugh, a mix of mushed-up grown-up food and milk rained down from her smiling face, barely missing Owen’s mouth.
He froze, holding her at arm’s length. She cooed proudly.
“Oh, give me that angel,” his mother said, taking the baby.
Trish rolled her eyes. “I told you not to jostle her.”
“Hmm.” Owen looked down at his shirt then at his niece. “I’ll remember that when you want to borrow my car.”
The six older adults walked on with the children. Winters pulled his wife into the shadows of a palm. He had that look in his eyes, and it made her smile.
“So nice having grandparents, right? Just a few minutes of adults only is enough to refuel me for that stretch until bedtime.”
Owen stared at his sister, clearly not interested in talking to her.
“Ohh… I get it. Well, Neal and I can walk by ourselves. Not that you ever let me walk alone with a boy.” She rolled her eyes but laughed as her husband gave her hand a tug.
They fell into step side-by-side. Glancing at his stomach, Charlotte stifled a laugh.
His eyes narrowed. “You think this is funny.”
“A little. Your sister did warn you.”
“True.” He smiled down at her. “Glad you came?”
“I am. It was fun.”
He looked at her. “But?”
She winced, wishing she were better at covering her feelings. “But… I’m sorry if you felt blindsided. I… your nephew, he’s hard to say no to.”