"Paul, I have to tell you something."
Emma had never been so nervous before in her life. She hadn't been in this serious a relationship in years.
Her and Paul had been a handful of official dates so far, spanning over a couple of months. She really liked him. She didn't want to screw it up.
But she knew that if she kept this secret any longer, it would hurt them more in the long run. If he was going to run, it would hurt less if he did it sooner.
She had never told someone she had gone out with this before, and she really didn't know how he would react.
"Hit me," Paul said, setting the bowl of popcorn they had been eating out of onto his coffee table.
When she looked up at his face from her hands, she saw a small smile on his face. She couldn't tell if it was intended to comfort her, or if he didn't understand the gravity of the situation.
She continued nonetheless.
"Well, uh, after I tell you this you're probably not gonna want to see me anymore, so I might as well pull off the bandaid, huh?" The woman rambled nervously, eyes skirting around to avoid Paul's piercing blue ones.
"Emma, are you alright?" Paul questioned, continuing after she nodded stiffly, "Nothing you could say could make me not want to see you again. I promise you that."
"Okay," Emma said, not really believing him but putting on a face of faux relief anyway.
"So, um, I have a kid."
Paul slightly choked on the water he was in the process of swallowing when she spoke, but he tried to hide it quickly. He didn't want her to feel more anxious than she already did.
She noticed it, though, and it made her heart plummet.
"Really?" He spluttered slightly.
Emma nodded, her cheeks blushing with embarrassment."Yeah. Her name is Aubrey. Well, technically- wait, no- biologically, she's my niece. But I'm her mom," she said, stumbling over her words slightly.
Paul didn't say anything, so she continued, "My older sister, Jane, and her husband were in a car accident four years ago. They didn't make it." Paul reached forward and grabbed one of her hands, squeezing it softly.
"I was backpacking when I got the call that they had died, and that they had in their will that if anything happened to them, they wanted me to have custody of Aubrey. Jane had even written me a letter saying that she wanted me to be her mom if something happened. Which still doesn't make any sense to me, because I had no money and no roots and I hadn't even met her yet," she shook her head as if to clear it.
"She was only a few months old when they died. I immediately flew back to Hatchetfield. I couldn't just say no. I had said no too many times before, I wasn't going to again," she said regretfully.
"When I got here, I met her at the CPS office. She was the best thing I had ever seen," Emma said, a small smile gracing her face at the memory. "I moved into their house, got a job, and enrolled in community college after a couple of years. Everything I do now is for her. I want to give her a good life. Jane obviously entrusted me to do it, I have to do right by her."
When she lifted her eyes from her hands to his face, she found a shellshocked look. Her eyebrows furrowed in a mixture of sadness and frustration. Aubrey was the greatest four-year-old on the planet, and she wished that someone in her life would give her a chance, "Paul?"
She willed him to say something, anything that would show some kind of reaction to the situation. She wanted him to say something to stop the cracks in her heart from forming. But he didn't.
"I-I guess I'll be going, then. I can't be in a relationship with someone who doesn't accept my daughter. I'm sorry," Emma stood from her place on the sofa, quickly grabbing her bag and jacket off of the back of it.
"Wait, Emma, no," Paul snapped out of it and stood up quickly, taking the objects from her hands and placing them on the floor. He took her hands in his again.
"I was just a little taken off guard is all," he reassured. "Can I see a picture of her?"
Emma's shoulders relaxed a little, her hope of a further relationship with Paul restored, "Yeah, of course."
She shakily pulled her phone out of her pocket and pulled up her lockscreen, turning it to face him. The picture was one of the cutest things he had ever seen; Emma was holding a little girl, their faces squished together cheek to cheek. They both had matching sunglasses on, and their smiles were so wide and bright he thought they could blind him. Aubrey had brown, curly hair that was pulled into pigtails with bows, and her dimples were the sweetest things.
Emma noticed the small smile that had made its way onto Paul's face as he looked at the photo, feeling more and more relieved by the second. "She's the best thing ever," she gushed softly, "I love her so much."
Without warning, Paul pulled her into a hug. She was shocked, but she reciprocated, folding her arms around him and burying her head in his chest.
"I'm glad you were comfortable enough to tell me," he murmured into her hair.
"Thanks for not freaking out. I really like you, Paul, and I don't think I want to lose you."
Emma pulled away after another moment, smiling up at him with slightly teary eyes.
"I better be getting home to her. She doesn't fall asleep if I don't say goodnight after the babysitter leaves, and it's getting late," she sniffled, gathering her things once again and walking towards the door next to Paul.
They stopped before the exit, and Paul leaned down to press a kiss to her cheek. She blushed again, this time out of adoration.
He pulled open the door and she smiled as she walked through, stopping in her tracks and turning around when she heard his voice.
"You seem like a really great mom. I'd love to meet her some time," Paul said, his smile genuine.
Emma nodded, all of her doubts washing away in an instant. She never thought she was good enough for Aubrey.
But maybe she was.
"Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!"
Aubrey, pajama-clad but bright eyed and bushy tailed, jumped into the awaiting arms of Emma, wrapping her little arms tightly around her neck and hanging on as the woman returned to full height.
It was getting harder and harder for Emma to lift the girl up, so she wanted to do it as much as she could. She would miss it.
"Hey, baby girl," Emma greeted, waving goodbye to the babysitter as she made her way out of the house, "Shouldn't you be in bed, little miss?"
"I was waiting for you, Mommy. Where were you?" The four year old questioned, giggling as she was carried into her purple bedroom and plopped down onto her flowered comforter.
"I was at a friend's house," Emma answered simply, tucking the child into her blankets before kneeling down beside the bed.
"Oooo," Aubrey marveled, eyes sparking mischievously, "Was it a date?"
"Maybe," Emma teased back, brushing the child's messy hair out of her eyes, "His name is Paul," she said before Aubrey had a chance to ask.
Aubrey nodded, accepting that that was probably as much as she was going to be able to get out of her mother.
"Goodnight, baby," the woman leaned down and pressed a kiss to Aubrey's forehead.
"Wait, Momma," Aubrey stopped her from standing up, reaching out a tiny hand to play Emma's curly locks. It was something that comforted her ever since she was a baby.
"Is he nice to you? Do you like him a lot?"
Emma's heart melted a little bit as she pulled the hand out of her hair and pressed a kiss to the chubby palm, making Aubrey giggle. The little girl had seen several brief relationships of Emma's crumble, and was able to tell when her mother was sad and not acting right because of it. Emma would tell her about people one night and never mention them again.
She wanted to do everything her little heart could to protect her mom from those emotions.
"He's very, very nice to me. And I do like him a lot," Emma paused, considering her next words carefully before deciding to just go for it, "He actually wants to meet you. Would you like that?"
Aubrey nodded eagerly, her eyes bright, "Yes! When? I want to be his friend!"
"I don't know when yet, but I'll work on it, okay? Go to sleep, sweetie. You have pre-school tomorrow, remember?"
"Okay, Momma. Goodnight. I love you!" the little one said sweetly, smiling softly.
"I love you too," Emma murmured as she stood up from the floor, back aching from the long shift she had earlier in the day.
She shuffled out of the room slowly, flicking off the light as she went. She could already hear the much-too-loud snoring coming from the tiny body nestled under the covers.
As Emma prepared herself for bed, she already felt dread filling her stomach at the thought of waking up for the 5 A.M. shift at Beanies the next day. Aubrey openly disliked waking up to a babysitter instead of her mom, especially when it was one of the three days a week she had to go to preschool.
The little one had anxiety surrounding going to school and making friends, and the only thing that could remedy it was the presence of Emma or, reluctantly, a quick phone call with her on her morning break.
The woman gripped the edge her bathroom counter tightly, looking at herself in the mirror with a twinge of some kind of self-deprecation and regret.
All she wanted to do was stay home with her daughter, cuddle with her in the morning and make her breakfast. She wanted to be there every day to send her off to school and pick her up when she was done. She wished she didn't have a job that lacked so much flexibility and took her away from all the little important moments in Aubrey's life.
Maybe someday she wouldn't. But until then, she had to keep doing whatever she could to provide for the little girl who was dropped into her life so unexpectedly but at the exact right time.