“So, what did Santa bring today?” Ashley asked. Ruby froze in the threshold of the laundry room, until the weight of her laundry basket rocked her forward and sent her stumbling into the room.
“Oh!” Said Ashley, “Let me--”
“I’ve got it,” Ruby said. She crossed to the dryer and hefted her basket onto the lid with a thunk.
“Didn’t realize you were in today,” said Ruby. “I thought you were off Tuesdays?”
Ashley raised an eyebrow. “I am. It’s Wednesday.”
“Oh.” Damn. If she’d known that, she’d have run back upstairs to put away--
“So.” Ashley raised a finger and gestured to the shoebox-sized gift balanced atop Ruby’s laundry. “That.”
Ruby shifted on her feet. “What about it?”
“That’s from him, isn’t it?”
“As a matter of fact, it is. Leda said he left it at the front desk for me last night.”
“What is it?”
“Kinda spoils the surprise of a gift if you tell people about it in advance.” She sighed. “But you’re gonna keep bothering me until I open it, aren’t you?”
Ashley looked at her as if to say, “Who, me?”
Ruby shook her head, then picked up the box. Pink and blue teddy bears on matching rocking horses smiled up at her, some of them obscured by a yellow bow as wide and tall as Ruby’s forehead. He was getting better at wrapping, she noted. He hadn’t resorted to staples this time.
It was almost a shame to undo all his hard work. Almost being the operative word. She shredded the paper in three sharp yanks to reveal a plain, slightly battered gift box with a note taped to it. She picked it off and smoothed it out against the edge of the dryer.
Ashley peered over Ruby’s shoulder. “Well?”
“My note.” Ruby said, twisting away from her friend. “Hold on, geez!”
My Dear Ruby,
Here are a few things to keep the little one warm on his—or her, as the case may be-- way from the hospital. I realize January’s still a ways off, but parenthood is one of those things you can never be too prepared for, don’t you think?
If you’d like some other colors, let me know. I’m happy to make more.
The corner of Ruby’s mouth twitched up.
“What?” Ashley asked.
“He didn’t buy me something. He made me something.”
“He made you something?”
Ruby lifted off the box lid, then brushed back the tissue paper layering the interior to reveal the box’s contents.
“Baby booties.” Said Ashley, after a moment.
Ashley pursed her lips. “I can’t decide whether that’s horrifying or hilarious.”
“I think it’s sweet.” Then, at Ashley’s raised eyebrow. “Okay, and a little bit horrifying. But I think there’s more, too--”
She dug into the paper and pulled out hats, mittens, and even a little scarf. “Oh, wow…”
Something about the idea of Gold hunched over in his living room chair with brow furrowed in concentration while the needles in his hand clacked away, made her want to tear up. She clapped a hand to her cheek as a grin split her jaw.
“Aren’t they cute?” She dangled the little mittens at Ashley.
“Surprisingly. Who knew he had hobbies? I thought he spent all his free time plotting new ways to terrorize us.”
And like that, the spell was broken. While Ashley returned to sorting the laundry, Ruby frowned and folded her gifts back into their box. When she looked up again, Ashley was watching her with the bemused expression she wore whenever the topic of “that one,” as she generously called him, came up.
“How much stuff has he given you?” Ashley's tone was light, but Ruby heard the real question lurking beneath.
“He helps me out with the baby stuff,” she said curtly. “I didn’t ask for more than that.”
“I’m not blaming you. I just want to know what he’s playing at.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ashley leaned against the washer and sighed. “Look. He’s been trying to push stuff on you since the moment you told him you were pregnant. The townhouse, the car, the credit card, the—”
“He didn’t push,” Ruby snapped. “He offered. And I said no, because I don’t need that kind of help.”
In truth, she was still considering the townhouse. There was no way in hell she was going to try and raise her baby in the inn, and that would’ve been true even if Granny hadn’t forbidden it outright. But Ruby had no interest in the fresh wave of chiding that announcement would bring, so to Ashley she said nothing.
“Regardless,” Ashley said. “He’s treating you like you’re his mistress or something. What’s he so afraid of that he has to buy you out?”
“He’s not trying to buy me out, he’s trying to make sure that the kid and I are going to be comfortable.” Ruby snapped. “I realize the idea of a father caring for the mother of his child is pretty new to you.”
Ashley’s mouth flopped open, then snapped shut so fast that her teeth clicked. She looked at Ruby like she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to cry or hurl an industrial-sized bottle of Tide at Ruby’s head.
Ruby winced, held up her hands. “Ash, wait, I didn’t mean--”
“Never mind,” Ashley said, her voice arctic. “I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“It’s fine.” Ashley turned away from her and started punching down the load in the washer drum. “The hormones’ll make you a bitch. I’ve been there, remember?”
They said nothing after that. Ruby picked through her laundry basket, separating the colors from the whites, and tried not to cringe as she listened to Ashley finish prepping the load like she was fighting a cage match with the machine. Finally, the lid slammed down. Ruby heard the washer dials ratcheting, and soon the gurgle and hiss of water in the pipes drowned the silence in the room.
“It’s nice that he’s…well, being nice.” Said Ashley, after a while.
Ruby glanced over. Ashley was leaning over the machine with her fingers laced on the lid. Her lips were a thin line, but her gaze had softened.
“Ash. I know you hate him. I don’t blame you for it. And I know he can be a complete ass when he wants to be, but... he’s really excited about this kid. And for the last few months, he’s been amazing. Attentive to the point of suffocation at times, but amazing. Not that he was ever a dick to me before,” she added quickly. “If that were true, this--” she dropped a hand to the swell of her belly. “--wouldn’t have even had a chance to happen.”
“Hm. Hopefully he can maintain that enthusiasm after the kid’s born.”
“I don’t know,” Ruby said. A smile plucked at her lips. “He’s been bouncing on his heels for four months straight. I’ll be shocked if he’s not standing between my legs with a catcher’s mitt after they wheel me into the delivery room.”
Ashley snorted. “I’m shocked he wasn’t waiting with a catcher’s mitt for Alexandra. You sure he doesn’t need the baby for some kind of ritual?”
“I kid, I kid.” She waved a white dish towel. “Seriously, though. I hope it all works out for you.” A beat. “At least you know the guy doesn’t do things by halves. If he’s invested this much in his kid already, he’s probably going to be in it for the long haul.”
Backhanded, but still a compliment, and probably the closest to one Ashley would give when it came to Gold. “Thanks,” said Ruby, and she meant it.
“And if it ever looks like he’s trying to manipulate you or screw you over, let me know. I’ll flay him alive myself.”
That was more like it. Ruby started towards the door, and patted Ashley’s shoulder on her way past. “I’ll keep that in mind.”