“Babe,” Nate said. He wrapped a strong arm around her, tugging her back against the shell of his body. Ava let herself go soft and unresisting against him the way she knew he wanted, lips tucking up into a smile at the possessive strum of his hand across her belly. “You’re not seriously going to tack that thing up here, are you?”
She glanced back, one dark brow arched. “And why shouldn’t I?”
“The neighbors will see. Hell,” Nate added, fingers splaying wide, “that thing will see.”
“That thing has a name,” Ava said. She turned to break his hold, one hand pushed against Nate’s broad chest in warning when he would have grabbed for her again, keeping him back. Her nails—red as her lips, bright against the muted greens and blacks of his military jacket—pressed four indignant points against worsted wool. “And I seriously doubt Codsworth objects to the sight of me in my unmentionables.”
Codsworth floated by as if summoned, metal parts whirring softly.
“Ava,” Nate began. He was frowning. He always frowned when she refused to fall in line. The curse of marrying a headstrong girl, his father liked to laugh.
(And what’s the curse of having a misogynistic ass for a father-in-law? Ava managed not to say, but the words were tart and ready just behind her smile. Someday. Someday.)
He glanced away, eyeing the gilt-framed picture with a conflicted expression. There was shame there, and desire, and pride, and embarrassment. She wondered what his friends at the VA would say if they wandered inside and spotted that candy-colored old picture of her, tits out and smile wicked as a vamp’s. She wondered whether they’d already stumbled across it beneath their beds or in their little man caves, stuttering in horror as they flipped past buxom blondes and ginger thatches to discover Nate’s Old Lady spread like a present just waiting to be unwrapped.
Ava supposed she should be just as embarrassed as her husband at the thought. Instead, it just made her feel alive.
“I’m waiting, honey,” she said. Ava dropped her hand and crossed her arms over her sore breasts; she didn’t laugh when his eyes followed the motion, but that was only because it was so nice to be an object of desire again, if only for a moment. Pregnancy, it turned out, was just as much of a bitch as she’d always suspected. The women at the country club were fucking liars.
Nate dragged his eyes back up, only to look around their little suburban utopia helplessly. “It’s just,” he began. “Well. A little unseemly, don’t you think?”
That’s half the fun. But no, she couldn’t say that. “Compromise,” Ava offered. “I’ll take it down when anyone visits and slap a cow-eyed Jesus up in its place. Will that make you feel better?”
He gave a huffing laugh. “Ava.”
“I’m going to take that as a yes.”
Nate just shook his head and reached for her again, one arm snaking around her middle to reel her close. Ava allowed it, fingers tangling in the collar of his jacket when he swiped that big hand down her spine. He was looking at her picture and holding her; was his Catholic mind spinning out all kinds of Madonna and Whore imagery? Was he cradling his pregnant wife and remembering the college girl who used to crawl under the library table and suck him off to the sound of pens scratching over paper and Nate struggling to muffle his cries with an ink-stained fist? God, she missed school. “Well. All right. But if you end up scarring our overly polite British butler, you’re going to have to pay for the memory wipe, vixen.”
She looked up on a laugh, catching his chin in a quick, just shy of too-hard nip. “If you’re so concerned, why don’t you ask him? Codsworth,” Ava added, eyes never leaving her husband’s. They were darkening with promise. She wondered if she could get away with pushing her hands up under his shirt and raking shellacked nails down his back? “Do you have any problem with my hanging old pin-ups in the living room?”
Codsworth swung away from the kitchen, bobbing closer. There was a soft click before he spoke; she’d need to call someone out from General Atomics to get that seen to before the baby came. “Why, no, mum. No problem at all. And may I say, it is an extraordinarily fetching picture, to be sure.”
He wasn’t wrong. Eight months pregnant and piling more curves onto curves every day, Ava felt detached enough from her own body to be able to look at those old pictures—taken during the lean, hungry years before she’d passed the bar and sweet-talked her way into one of Boston’s best practices—and see something beautiful. The girl in the (airbrushed, but vanity could ignore that bit, couldn’t it?) photo was smiling with wicked interest at the camera, eyes a glittering near-black, mouth a wide slash of cherry red. Her breasts were bare and heavy even then, coral-pink nipples tight against the creamy stretch of skin. One leg was pulled up, flaunting the curve of her hip, her thigh, and only just hiding the dark thatch trimmed down for modesty. Her hair was swept up in what had been her trademark: pinned and rolled and curled to perfection, raven-dark as the wing-tipped kohl lining her eyes.
Chantilly Lace scrawled beneath her, sinfully red against the delicately innocent background. At the time, it had felt like sprawling out bare-ass amongst her grandmother’s doilies. Now, a few years later and settled (God help her) enough to be able to look back wistfully on the good old days…it didn’t seem so silly.
“Babe?” Nate said quietly.
She patted his arm, turning one of his favorite smiles up at him. “It’s nothing,” Ava said. And for the most part, she meant it. “Just feeling nostalgic for a moment.”
Her all-too-upstanding husband sighed and rubbed her back again. There were some days she thought he preferred her like this—big with child, demurely covered up, the only nods to her wicked old days a penchant for red and dark hair done in neat victory rolls. Vanquished, like the witch at the end of every story book. “Nostalgic for what? Being poor enough you practically had to prostitute yourself? Come on,” he added, sliding that strong arm around her shoulders and giving her a little tug. “Why don’t we go for a walk in the park? It’s such a nice day out, and I’m sure our little champ could use the exercise.”
Back went the possessive hand covering her belly. She didn’t really want to slap his hand away—that was just the hormones talking. Wasn’t that what her father-in-law turned doctor kept saying? The hormones were making her feisty?
Like she was a dog that needed to be kept on its leash.
“Of course,” Ava said, reminding herself that she loved this man, loved the baby inside her, loved her life. She’d fought hard enough to get it, hadn’t she? “A walk sounds wonderful.” She leaned into him, letting herself be led past a happily whirring Codsworth and toward the big, neat, perfect suburban dream she, Nate, and little Shaun would share.
But she cast a glance over her shoulder before she was ushered outside, catching her own eye in that gilt-framed picture taken not that terribly long ago; the dark sweep of hair, the brazenly naked body, the wicked know-you-wanna-fuck-me-and-maybe-I’ll-just-let-you smile. And tucked safely against the side of her doting military hero husband, the very picture of upper middle class values…Ava smiled back.