Thank you so much for reading the Lake State University series and for patiently waiting for Max’s story. I hope it was worth the hours you spent wondering about his mystery woman.
From the moment I started writing the bonus scenes for this series, I knew Max’s was going to be the one that would bring everything full circle, just like I hope his book did for you. And with that in mind, I spent days figuring out what the future would look like for each of the couples. How many kids would they have? What does their life look like? Where do they live now?
This scene occurs ten years after the series ends. Enjoy!
That number seems small when you’re talking about seconds or minutes. Even hours.
The number of potato chips in a serving size. Or in a handful of M&Ms.
But when you’re talking about children… that number seems outrageous.
When you’re staring at eighteen children running around your backyard, chasing each other, taking turns swinging on a tire swing, swimming in the pool… it’s a little overwhelming.
And I thought three was a handful.
“You look scared,” Kora says, sliding up next to me and curling herself against my body.
“There’s just so many of them.”
“You knew that before you offered to host. Did you think everyone would leave their kids at home?”
“No, but I didn’t really give much thought to how many kids we had combined.”
Running down the list in my head, I add up the kids again.
Willow and Finn have three – James, Keenan, and Evan. I’m fairly certain Finn knocked my sister up on their wedding night. They didn’t want to wait to start a family. Hell, they’d waited years to be together, so it felt like everything after they finally gave in went at warp speed. (Really, though, who am I to talk? I married Kora less than five months after we started officially dating.) Engaged, married, buying a house, having a baby. James is my best buddy which pisses Finn off to no end. I think it’s because he was named after my father that we have such a great bond. He reminds me of him a lot. Keenan is all Finn, loves to work on cars with him, and could spend hours in the garage just arranging tools. Evan is Willow to a T. Sweet as the day is long but with a strong sense of independence.
Declan and Kendall have two – twins, Mason and Hudson. Apparently, having twins doesn’t always skip a generation and something in the Potter line was strong. Both Kora and Kendall were shocked when they found out. The boys were hellions when they were little – a lot like Declan was which makes me smile that he got a dose of his own medicine – but they’ve grown into more tolerable young boys now. At the precious age of six, they still love cuddling with mom but also wrestling with dad.
Micah and Alexis have four – Lila, Logan, Lucas, and Lauren. Micah swears they’re not done but if you ask Lex, she has a different opinion on the topic. When they found out they were pregnant with Lauren, Finn, Declan, and I each bought Micah a box of condoms. He laughed and threw them in the trash. The devilish smirk on his face told me he knew exactly what he was doing the night he impregnated his wife, and he didn’t regret it for a single second. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have another. He can barely keep his hands to himself in public.
Julian and Piper have two – Emma and Aiden. Emma is her mother through and through. She loves to cook and entertain while Aiden is already following in his father’s athletic footsteps. We drive into Sunnyside to watch Aiden’s t-ball games every Saturday morning. And of course, Julian is his coach.
Leo and Evie have one on the way. Leo swears it’s a girl, but I hope for his sake they’re having a boy. He has no idea what he’s in for if they have a little Evie on their hands. Maybe it’s because she was the youngest, but I remember how demanding she seemed as a child. Entitled. A bit of a brat. And her scream when she didn’t get her way… I’m surprised I don’t have nightmares about it, especially being back here.
Brady and Mya have their miracle daughter, Grace. She’s the light of her parent’s life and spoiled beyond belief by all her aunts and uncles. Especially my wife. Mya and Kora have become close since we moved back here. In fact, they live just across the street and our youngest, Brooke, and Grace play together all the time while Kora and Mya gossip.
Yes, gossip. When all they talk about is other people and speculate about their lives, that’s called gossip. I don’t care how my wife tries to spin it.
Colt and Scarlet stopped after one. Which is probably good considering Liam has his mother’s good looks and his father’s charm. He’s going to be a heartbreaker when he grows up. He’s only seven and I can already tell. It’s the way he smirks at the other kids. Like he already knows the secrets to life, but he is keeping them to himself. I caught him looking at Sophia the last time they came for a visit, and it took all my restraint not to hit a child.
Kane and Cleo have two – Theo and Ava – but she’s trying to convince him they need one more. Baby fever is real, and Cleo has it. She’s been fawning over Evie all day. Theo is a bright kid. Quiet like his dad most of the time, fading into the background. But when he does speak, he sounds like Cleo. Certain of what he says and wise beyond his years. Ava’s your typical six-year-old. She loves dolls, anything pink, and her giggle is contagious. She looks just like her mother with the exception of her eyes.
Now that Kane’s given up wearing sunglasses 24/7, I actually see the resemblance she holds to her father.
And Kora and I have three amazing girls – twins, Sophia and Stella, and my baby girl, Brooke. Well, at four years old she’s technically not a baby anymore but she’ll always be my baby girl. Sophia is quiet and reserved. She loves to read and would spend all day curled up with a book if we let her. Stella is her polar opposite. Loud and a bit over the top at times. She has sass and spunk and her personality shines like a beacon in the night. She’s going to be my troublemaker and Sophia is going to be the one covering for her when she’s caught.
I’m protective as hell of all my girls. Not that anyone is surprised by that fact. I’ve always been protective of what’s mine, of my family. Of those younger than me. And my children are no exception.
Still, as blessed as I feel to have my girl, I’ve always secretly hoped for a boy. Someone to have their backs, even if he is younger than them. Someone to protect them, to watch over them. To stand up for them when they need him.
But we’re done.
After moving home to Oak Harbor, Kora and I decided to stop trying for a son. It was stressing both of us out when every pregnancy test she took came back negative. So three girls are it and I will guard their hearts the best I can. Run every guy off in a fifty-mile radius. The same way I did with my sisters when they were growing up.
I just have to be a little stealthy about it since Kora doesn’t like it when I’m too overbearing.
As if there’s such a thing.
“As soon as Evie pops that numbers going to grow. And who knows, Cleo may end up talking Kane into one more. Or maybe Micah will get his way and Lex will give us number twenty-one.”
“Twenty,” I correct her. “There’s eighteen of them right now. Baby Evie makes nineteen.”
Kora leans back so she can look up at me. I recognize that smile. It paints a picture of the first night we made love as husband and wife. There’s a hint of mischief in it mixed with desire. It makes me wish I could throw her over my shoulder and storm up to our bedroom, take her against the glass tiles in our shower, or maybe bent over the bathroom sink.
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” she states, reading my thoughts.
“Don’t look at me like that then. You know what it does to me. So unless you want to leave our guests unattended, I suggest you go hang out with the girls because you know my self-control is lacking when it comes to you.”
How do you think we ended up with three girls? We weren’t trying to get pregnant the first time, or the second. Both were moments of pure lust. Swirling with desire. Need coursed through our veins and thoughts of protection flew out the window.
The night she got pregnant with the twins was the night of Cleo and Kane’s wedding. I’m certain of it though Kora thinks it happened a month later on our anniversary. The night she became pregnant with Brooke was after Alexis’ baby shower for Logan. They thought they were having a girl, so Piper threw her another shower. Surprise! They ended up with baby boy number two.
After Brooke came along, we started trying for one more. Kora knows how much I wanted a boy, someone to carry on my name. Apparently, it’s not in the cards for us. That doesn’t stop me from ravishing my wife as often as I can. And I’m not morally opposed to stealing her away right now and leaving my friends to fend for themselves.
Before I can do just that, Kane taps on my shoulder, drawing my attention, and Kora slips from my grasp, giggling as she saunters away.
“Have you seen Theo anywhere?” he asks, scanning the yard.
“Not lately. Did you lose a kid, Kane? Cleo’s going to be pissed.”
“You shouldn’t say that word, Uncle Max. Momma says it’s a bad word,” Lila sings as she races by, chasing after Evan.
“She told you,” Kane laughs. “And no, I didn’t lose him, I just don’t have eyes on him right now.”
Neither do I. And he’s not the only kid missing I’m starting to realize. Most of the older kids are nowhere in sight.
“Are you noticing what I’m noticing?” I ask, taking a step toward the yard, Kane matching my movements.
“We’re down five kids.”
“Theo, Stella, Sophia, Emma, and James.” I list off the ones I don’t see, my concern growing by the second.
“Where would you hide if you were an eight- or nine-year-old kid?” he asks.
“Down by the water. The same place I used to hide when I was a kid.”
Kora and I bought my parent’s house from my mother when we moved home. It was too much house for her to take care of but she didn’t want to give it up at the same time. Keeping it in the family was the right decision. I know this land like the back of my hand. There’s nowhere they can hide from me that I won’t find them.
Kane calls for Julian and Finn as I storm around the side of the pool house. My eyes are locked on the bottom of the hill where I see three of the missing kids standing, throwing rocks in the stream that runs through our property. But they’re not the ones I’m worried about.
It’s the two I don’t see I’m most concerned with.
Theo and Stella.
They don’t hear me approach even though it feels like the ground beneath my feet is shaking with every step I take. My hands are trembling at my sides as I scan the area in search of my oldest.
“Where’s Theo?” I hear Kane ask the kids, startling Emma who screeches.
“He went for a walk with Stella, Uncle Kane,” James answers as he puts one arm around Emma and points down the well-worn trail that runs along the creek with the other.
I love that all the kids think of us as family. We’re all aunts and uncles, no matter the blood relation. Between the Palmer and the Graham clans, almost half the kids actually are related.
But Theo Howell has no relation to my daughter. And even at the tender age of eight years old, the two of them being alone together concerns me.
Am I overreacting? Acting too protective of my daughter?
And I always will. There’s no doubt in my mind.
Kane starts towards the trail, and I fall in step with him without a word. In silence, we duck beneath low-hanging branches and step over the overgrown roots. Not even a minute into our trek, I hear Stella’s signature giggle, easing the ache in my chest and bringing a smile to my face.
My girl is fine. She’s safe.
It’s the last thought I have as we round the bend and come face to face with Stella and Theo. Her back against a tree, arms wrapped around his neck. His lips pressed tenderly against hers while his hands rest on her hips.
“What the hell is going on here!” I roar causing Theo to jump away from Stella so quickly that he loses his footing and falls on his ass.
Angry dad is in full effect. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone back at the house heard me yell.
“Theodore Michael. What the hell were you two doing?” Kane asks, reaching down and tugging Theo off the ground by the collar of his shirt. You can hear the surprise in Kane’s voice, but he’s keeping his anger in check.
Theo chances a glance in Stella’s direction. She shrugs her shoulder so nonchalant the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
“Someone needs to start talking.” Leveling my gaze on my daughter, my wild child, I tap my foot against the dirt, my patience threadbare. “Now!”
“We just wanted to see what all the fuss was about, dad. Jeez. Lighten up.” Stella lets out a huff of air and it takes all my restraint not to throw her over my shoulder, march back to the house, and lock her in her room for the rest of her life.
I’m being tested, right? Three girls! Is this payback for all the years I spent hovering over my sisters?
“The big deal, Stella,” Kane says, placing a hand on my shoulder in an attempt to calm me down, “is that you guys are only eight years old. You shouldn’t be kissing each other, or anyone else for that matter, yet. Not to mention, your practically family.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to kiss him for the rest of my life,” she quips, her hands moving to her hips.
The fire inside this one… reminds me of her Aunt Kendall. Lord help me!
“You don’t get to kiss him, or anyone else, for another ten years. After you move out of my house. When you become an adult.” My words leave little room for negotiation on the subject.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Max,” Theo mutters when I motion for Stella to head down the trail, turning my back on the kid.
“I’m not mad at you, Theo.” The sound of my voice masks the sincerity of my words, so I turn back around and kneel, so we’re eye to eye. “I’m not mad, bud. I just need you guys to understand that you’re too young to be doing stuff like that. And like your dad said, you guys are family, even if not by blood.”
Theo nods his head once before dropping his chin to his chest. Kane gives his shoulder a squeeze, but he still doesn’t look up, his eye zeroed in on the ground between his shoes.
Nudging my chin over my shoulder, Kane leads Stella back to the house. Once I’m sure they’re out of earshot, I lower myself to the ground and pat the spot next to me.
“Talk to me, bud. What’s on your mind?”
After a few tense minutes of silence, he finally answer me, and if I hadn’t already been sitting, his words would have knocked me on my ass.
“I love Stella.”
How the hell do I respond to that? There’s no way he’s in love with her. He’s too young to know what love is, what it feels like. But if he thinks that’s what he’s feeling, I also don’t want to dismiss him.
“Love is a big feeling, Theo. It consumes you. You and Stella… you’re both very young. You have your entire life ahead of you. If you can hold onto that feeling until you’re both eighteen years old, you can have my permission to date her and kiss her all you want. But not a moment before then, okay?”
“Okay, Uncle Max,” he agrees, his mood suddenly perking up.
But my mood is still sour, even after we return to the house. And I know the only thing that’s going to relieve the tension and stress and lift my mood is to get what I’m thinking and feeling off my chest.
Gathering all the dad, my closest friends for more than a decade, in my home office, I formulate a plan to counter the anxiety rising inside me.
“Why does Max look like his head is about to explode?” Micah asks Declan, not bothering to lower his voice so I can’t hear him.
“Because he caught Stella kissing Theo earlier,” Kane informs him. “And just for the record, I feel like my head is going to explode too.”
“Aren’t they a little young to be making out?” Leo asks.
“You’re the baby of the group,” Finn points out. “You can’t say shit about age.”
“They’re like six,” Leo counters.
“They’re eight,” I correct him. “And too young to be kissing. Which is why I called you all in here.” I can feel their eyes on me as I stare at the dark mahogany of the desk that was once my father’s. “You all know how protective I am of the women I love.” Finn grunts from beside me. Or was that a stifled laugh? Asshole. “I think we need to lay down the law with our kids. Forbid them to date each other. That’ll keep things like what happened today, from happening in the future.”
“And you think that’s going to keep them from sneaking around behind your back?” This from Leo, who I haven’t punched in years. If he keeps talking, though, that may change.
“I agree,” Kane says, moving to stand beside me, nudging me with his shoulder when I don’t look up.
I don’t want my friends to see how weak I feel right now. Still, I force myself to lift my eyes to the men I’m proud to call my family.
“I don’t really see it being a problem yet,” Declan offers. “But I agree, when the time comes, we need to make it clear that they’re not allowed to date each other.”
Brady snickers and whispers something to Julian.
“Care to share with the rest of the class?” Finn asks.
“You going to hold him back?” Brady retorts, nudging his head toward me. “Because he’s not going to like what I have to say.”
“That’s not unusual,” I reply.
Squaring his shoulder, Brady looks me dead in the eye and says, “Mya called it. In the hospital. After Grace was born.”
“That our kids would want to date each other. That they’d fall in love just like we did. With someone close to them. And that you, Max, would be the one to lay down the law trying to prevent it. Which is why I think it’s funny that of all the kids already testing the boundaries, it’s your daughter.”
I don’t like what he said.
And I have a feeling, Stella is going to continue to test my boundaries every chance she gets. Whether it be with Theo or another boy. My only hope is that once the kids are old enough, and we talk to them, they listen to our demands and remain friends, nothing more. Because once they cross that line, there’s no turning back.
At least there wasn’t for their parents. And most of our kids are miniature versions of us, through and through.
Lord help us all.
“Uh, Max,” Colt says, his eyes trained behind me. “Is there something you want to tell us?”
Following his line of sight, the air is knocked from my lungs when my eyes land on it. In my pen cup. The blue and white stick.
“Is that something new? Can you actually write with it?” Micah asks, leaning over my shoulder to get a better look.
“Out,” I state but my voice lacks its usual growl, and no one moves a muscle.
“Are you going to look, or do you need me to do it for you?” Finn asks, reaching for the cup but stopping short, waiting for me to answer him. When I can’t find the words, he picks up the sticks and turns it so I can see the results.
But… we stopped trying. I gave up on the idea of having a son. It’s been three years since we made the decision that three was our magic number.
“Congrats, man!” Finn pats me on the back and hands me the test. A round of congratulations follows me as I make my way out of my office and through the house in search of my wife.
Who – I’m assuming – thinks she’s funny by putting a positive pregnancy test mixed in with my pens. She knew I’d find it there. But I doubt she thought I’d find it when surrounded by other people.
She’s sitting on the edge of a lounge chair by the pool, watching Brooke and Ava paddle around. She’s mid-laugh when she feels me approaching. Her eyes swing to mine, then glance at the stick in my hands, going wide with surprise.
“Something you want to share, love?”
“Uh… surprise?” She throws her arms out wide as she says the words, but you can hear the hesitation in her voice. “We’re gonna have another baby.”
“Really?” Cleo squeals from behind her.
Kora nods her head but never takes her eyes off of me as the girls take turns hugging and congratulating her. As soon as she’s released, she tentatively takes a step in my direction and my hands immediately go to grip her waist.
“Yeah, really. That was the first test I took, but there are ten more in the garbage. I wanted to be sure.”
Resting my forehead against her, I close my eyes and breathe her in. She’s my life. The reason for my existence. I still can’t believe I survive four years only having pieces of her. And now she’s all mine. For the rest of my life.
“I love you, babe.”
“I love you too, Max. But if it’s not a boy-“
“I’ll take another girl. My heart’s already prepared to break over and over again,” I say as I press my lips to hers.
And it’s the truth. As long as I have Kora and our children, I’m the luckiest man on the planet.
If you’re hoping to meet these friends again in the future, your wish has been granted. A second-generation series, the kid’s stories, is already in the works. But before we get to that, you get to meet the men of Oak Harbor, and the women who love them.
The first book, Confess For Me, is coming your way on March 9, 2023! First up is the resident bad boy, Tate Jacobson. Sound familiar? He made a cameo in Risky Little Affair.