The last place James Holloway expected to be on a Saturday night was the hospital, contemplating which of his women he should see first – wife or mistress?
If he had thought, for a split-second, of the consequences of his actions, he never would have come inside the gorgeous Amelia Valentine when his dear wife had been home, waiting for him to do the same to her.
Nine months ago, James Holloway fucked his wife in the bedroom of his family’s Manhattan mansion with the passion and stamina of a single man.
The candles were lit, the curtains drawn, and Heather Holloway wore a delicate red camisole, exposing her slender thighs and bare chest. James’ eyes lit up, excitement bubbling inside him. He knew he had satisfied Amelia the day before, so there was no doubt he’d arouse his wife too.
Heather smiled, that beautiful Hollywood-like smile, and James got hard. Her cropped black hair bobbed playfully over her shoulders, short and sexy, just how he liked it.
“You’re beautiful,” James said, as he grabbed Heather’s face and pressed his lips against hers.
Now, James buried his head in his hands, the bizarreness but complete reality of this situation giving him a pulsating headache. James had never predicted his two women getting pregnant around the same time, let alone going into labour on the same day. Until now, life had steered him away from complete disaster. He had always lived a privileged and sheltered life. Son of a rich man, born into old money.
James was fifteen when World War I started, so when thousands of men got shipped off to Europe to live in the dark and gloomy trenches, James remained at home with his parents. He had no older siblings to bid farewell to, no deaths hitting too close to home.
A year later, when Influenza hit, James watched as people around him grieved, their anguished, devastating cries keeping him up at night. James grew accustomed to hearing kids skipping rope while rhyming out loud: I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window. And in-flu-enza.
James’ family of three remained unscathed.
But when James was twenty, his mother died. Tuberculosis shut down her organs, killing her slowly. It was his first experience of real heartbreak.
To cope, he spent hours every night at speakeasies, swaying his body to live jazz while drunkenly sipping bathtub gin, one cocktail after another. Flappers danced on the bar, their beaded necklaces swaying across their breasts, their legs slender beneath their silk slips. James liked what he saw, and he knew how to get what he wanted. Besides, it was the beginning of a new era. Women were practically throwing their sexuality around, and James loved it.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he’d say, drunkenly, to every woman who gazed his way. Every time, he would lay eyes on a gorgeous woman and get her to leave with him. Then, he would fuck her hard against the alleyway wall and forget what she looked like the next morning.
James’ father died shortly after his mother, leaving James with the Manhattan mansion. That’s when the parties started. The thrill of drinking during the Prohibition was enough to attract hundreds of strangers to James Holloway’s three-storey mansion, despite having never met the man himself. Holloway became a legend, but only few could put a face to the name.
Heather Olsen – future Heather Holloway – was James’ first love.
It was James’ seventh party, but it was the first one he had decided to enjoy sober. He was too hungover from the night before, having spent it by himself at a speakeasy, but he had no intention of spoiling today’s fun for everyone else.
James was lying in bed and staring at the ceiling when a fair-skinned woman with cropped black hair walked into his master bedroom. She left the door open, inviting in a combination of chatter, live music, and cacophonous screams from downstairs.
“Pardon me,” she said, when James sat up, his tie hanging loosely around his neck. “I didn’t think there was anyone in here.”
Her voice was as smooth as honey, and her face was curious but intimidating, instantly reminding James of Clara Bow.
“No worries,” he said, rolling out of bed. He straightened out his shirt and approached the woman, extending his hand. “I’m James. James Holloway.”
She smiled. “Heather Olsen.”
James looked up from his seat to find a youngish woman in white nurse uniform.
“Hello, Mr. Holloway. I’m Nurse Lydia. I’m afraid I have some bad news about your wife.”
James opened his mouth to say, which one, but closed it as soon as realisation struck him. Instead, he said, “What happened?”
The nurse stood solemnly, inhaling deeply before delivering the news. “I’m afraid Mrs. Holloway suffered from Eclampsia. She started seizing after giving birth. The doctor did everything he could but…”
“It wasn’t enough,” James finished. He felt his heart plunge. “Is the baby okay?”
The nurse nodded. “She’s perfectly healthy. They’re cleaning her up right now.”
She. A girl.
What should have been a moment of celebration was instead one of sudden tragedy and confusion.
James had a daughter. But he didn’t know who the mother was.
He didn’t know which woman was dead.
He didn’t know who to be heartbroken over.
“I’ll give you a moment,” the nurse said. “You’ll be able to see her soon.”
James wasn’t sure if the she the nurse was referring to was his daughter or her dead mother, but he was now too deep in his thoughts to care.
He thought of Heather, her beautiful smile and ravishing brown eyes. The night they had met, in his bedroom, their slow breathing sounding out the jazz booming from downstairs.
“So, you’re the man behind these masterful parties,” Heather had said, with a ghost of a smile.
James laughed. “If they’re so masterful, why are you up here?”
Heather thought for a moment, a twinkle in her eyes. “Just looking for something.”
“Have you found it?”
“I think I have.”
“Mr. Holloway, it’s time.”
A voice interrupted his thoughts. James looked up to find a different woman, this one taller and a little older than the last.
“It’s a girl,” the woman said, overly optimistic. “The doctors are cleaning her up. Mrs Holloway is ready for you to see her.”
James stood up, blood rushing to his head and making him sway. He fell back into his seat and raised his hand in front of his face. “Just give me a moment,” he said, “I’ll be right in.”
This was too much. His mind was playing tricks on him, flashes of his life with one woman and without the other sending chills down his spine.
He had two daughters.
Except his daughters came from two different women.
And only one knew who the other was.
This was going to be a problem.
“I don’t care,” Amelia had said, after James broke the news of Heather’s pregnancy. She shrugged her shoulders as she poured lime juice into her cocktail glass, mixing it in with the gin. “We fucked first, that has to count for something.”
From the sofa of Amelia’s cottage living room, James let out an audible sigh. “Amelia, you’re being childish. And actually, Heather is my wife, so I sex with her first. You just got pregnant first…allegedly.”
Amelia added in some syrup, then turned to face James. “Exactly, I got pregnant first. I’m carrying your child, James. Don’t you want to be here for your child?”
“Of course, I do, but Heather is carrying my child too, and she’s my wife,” James said.
Amelia scoffed. “Right, so where does that leave me?”
James pinched the bridge of his nose. “Obviously, I’ll support our baby too.”
“I’m sure Heather would be totally fine with that,” Amelia said, rolling her eyes. “Her perfect husband raising his two children with two different women. The wife and the mistress.”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
“That is what is going to happen, James.”
James waved his hands in front of his face. “Fine, fine. Just give me a second to think.” He buried his face in his palms and pressed his knuckles against his forehead, attempting to alleviate the throbbing pain.
Amelia watched him with one hand on her lip, the other still holding the syrup. She put the syrup down and picked up the cocktail glass, walking over to James and seating herself beside him. “You need a drink,” she said, placing the glass on the table in front of him. She rested her hands on his lap and felt his body slacken.
James looked up at her and his breath caught in his throat. He lost himself in her chestnut brown, cat-shaped eyes, and admired her chin-length, brown curls, framing her face so elegantly. He noticed the line of freckles dotting her nose, only visible when she was fresh-faced. He hoped their baby would reap her good looks, and he knew that he wanted to be there for the kid, one hundred percent.
“You know I love you,” he said, his voice reduced to a whisper.
Amelia smiled. “Then marry me.”
James stood outside the maternity ward, his heart hammering at a hundred miles a minute, his forehead damp with sweat. He blew out a rush of air and then inhaled, trying to slow his breathing.
Then, with bated breath, he peeked through the door, scanning the room for both his women, despite knowing only one would be there. He paused and observed different women, their relief overpowering their exhaustion as they fawned over their new-borns.
James stepped both feet into the room and tried not to fall apart.
The midwife moved to the side of the bed – the one furthest away from the door – revealing a shock of black hair and that familiar, curious face. In her lap was a beautiful bundle.
“Heather,” James said, running over to his wife and losing all composure. He fell apart at the sight that should have built him up, the tiny, delicate baby cradled in his wife’s arms. “Can I hold her?”
Heather offered a tired smile, creases forming in the corners of her eyes. “Of course, baby,” she said, carefully handing the baby to James. “Meet your daughter, Anna.”
James stared at Anna’s little face, her button nose, the patch of brown hair on her head. Her eyes were closed, but he imagined the colour to be dark, like Heather’s.
“James, don’t cry,” Heather said, her voice soft. “It’s OK. Everything’s OK. We have a beautiful baby girl.”
And then Anna released a throaty cry, and the midwife looked up with urgency. James instinctively handed the baby over to her, but she cried louder.
“Is she okay?” Heather said, panicking. “What’s wrong?”
The midwife cradled Anna and shook her gently. “The doctor just stepped out. I’ll take her to him and get her checked, give you two a moment alone,” she said. When she was out of earshot, James straightened up and stared deep into Heather’s eyes.
“Anna already hates me.”
Heather made a face. “Don’t be silly, James. She doesn’t hate you.”
“She started crying as soon as I picked her up.”
“She’s a baby. Babies cry.”
“That was a cry of hate.”
Heather pouted. “James, don’t say things like that. Why on earth would your own daughter hate you?”
James sighed, the day’s stress and anguish threatening to break him to pieces. He knew he had to tell Heather the truth. He had always been a masterful liar and conniving two-timer, but he couldn’t outrun the truth, not this time. His lies had materialised in the form of two baby Holloways, and the mother of one of them was dead. Dead.
“You know I love you, right?” James said, his cheeks wet.
Heather frowned. “Of course, I know that. I love you too.”
James exhaled a shaky breath, opened his mouth to speak. “Good, because I need to tell you something.”
Four months after getting married, James and Heather had an intense argument.
“I don’t understand you, James. You’ve always been a true cake eater – always popular with women – but when it comes to my mother, you can’t be bothered to even offer a half-assed smile,” Heather had said, pacing their bedroom. She wore a green camisole and had her hair pushed back with a headband.
James sat up in bed, shaking his head. His usual slicked back hair was messy at the front. “Heather, she’s rude to me,” he said. “I’m not going to smile at someone who’s rude.”
“She made a passing comment about your father,” Heather said, “and she didn’t even mean it. She wasn’t trying to be rude to you.”
James laughed. “Honey, she called him a privileged prick.”
“That’s just because he was rich,” Heather said, perching at the end of the bed. “She was saying he didn’t have to work very hard for what he had.”
“She was implying that I’m like my father.”
Heather frowned. “No, she wasn’t.”
Heather shrugged her shoulders. “Well, maybe she’s right, James. You were born rich. You didn’t have to work like my father did.”
James eyes narrowed. “You think I’m a privileged prick?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“It’s what you meant.”
Heather shuffled closer, placed her hands on James’ lap. “You should be grateful for all you have, is all.”
James scoffed. “I am grateful.”
“I know, but I just think –”
“No, I don’t care what you think,” James snapped, moving Heather’s hand off his lap. “If you think I’m too rich, too privileged, then just leave.”
Heather opened her mouth to speak, but James shut her up. “Actually, I’ll leave. You enjoy this grand mansion you worked so hard for. God, Heather, it must have been incredibly hard to marry rich, huh?”
James marched across the polished wooden floor and made his way to the door.
“James, wait,” Heather called, but James shut the bedroom door behind him, drowning her out.
James drove off in his Rolls Royce and parked down the road from Jerry’s Laundromat. He walked around to the back and knocked on the unmarked door.
“Password?” said a gruff voice.
The door clicked open, and he sauntered in, the faint jazz in the distance reaching his ears. James pushed open another door marked The Top Hat Bar, and walked into a lively room, exactly what he needed to escape his ever-consuming thoughts.
“You look like you need a drink,” a voice said from behind him.
James turned to find an extraordinarily attractive woman with dark hair and pretty eyes to match. She wore a silver, tasselled dress, and a matching feathered headband. Her lipstick was scarlet, and her eyeshadow was heavy with sparkles. Around her neck was a glittery, ruffled scarf.
“Amelia Valentine,” she said, raising her voice, trying to be heard over a flapper singing Voodoo Doll on stage. Amelia noticed James admiring her and gave him a spin.
“James Holloway,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it. “Pleasure is all mine.”
Amelia’s lips curled into a suspecting smile. “Holloway…why does that ring a bell?”
James chuckled. “Manhattan mansion,” he said, and Amelia clicked her tongue.
“Of course, the famous Holloway parties. Whatever happened to those?”
James scratched the back of his neck. “Ah, they died a while ago. I needed to straighten up.”
“Wife?” Amelia asked, before shaking her head. “Actually, I don’t want to know. Uncertainty is far more exciting.” She gave James a subtle wink, and a ball dropped in his chest.
When Amelia pulled him closer, he let her. When she said, “Dance with me,” he did, their bodies swaying in time to the music, their hearts beating in sync. And when she leaned up to kiss him, he leaned in too, their lips grazing softly first, before she grabbed his face and kissed him harder. James’ worries and stress melted away, and not once did he think of Heather. His heart beat against Amelia’s, and it was a feeling so great, he knew he’d have to feel it again.
That night, after they’d fucked for the first time in the backseat of his car, clumsily, messily, passionately, James knew he had to do it again. He needed to keep seeing Amelia. He liked how she made him feel, and he knew she enjoyed him too.
“How long?” Heather asked. Her eyes were glassy, and her voice was reduced to a painful whisper. “How long have you been seeing her?”
James massaged his forehead, glancing round at the other women in the ward, feeling paranoid that they could hear. “Eleven months.”
“I don’t understand…”
James met Heather’s gaze. “I know, I’ll never stop being sorry.”
Heather stared at him with lost eyes. “I don’t understand why you’d tell me this now.”
James sighed. He opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t think of the right words to say.
“Why now, James?”
James bit his tongue, refusing to meet Heather’s eye. “Because…” he sighed, “I got Amelia pregnant too. She’s in the same hospital, right now, and she just died during childbirth.” James’ voice turned hoarse. He inhaled a shaky breath. “I have a little girl with her, and if I refuse to be her father, to take her home, she’ll be sent to the orphanage, and I can’t do that to her. I can’t, Heather.”
Heather’s lip trembled. She took deep breaths, expelling them in quick, short bursts.
James placed his hands on her lap. “Honey, calm down. Calm down. Deep breaths, there we go, in and out, in and out.”
When Heather regained composure, she looked James in the eye and slapped him across his face.
James blinked, touching his cheek in surprise. It felt cold and tingly. He heard someone cluck their tongue and turned to find the woman in the next bed giving him a dirty look. Her new-born rested in her lap, its eyes small slits, and James could have sworn that it was judging him too.
“You are a son of a bitch, James,” Heather said. “You and that skanky flapper of yours.”
“Hey, you don’t mean that. You’re hurting.”
“Of course I’m hurting, James. I just gave birth to our daughter, and you come in telling me that you have another with the woman you’ve been having an affair with for almost a whole year!”
“Bastard,” the woman in the next bed said, but James ignored her.
He nodded at Heather. “I know, I know, I just had to tell you. She asked me to marry her – Amelia, I mean – but I said no. We’re not married, legally, I mean. She still takes my name, and I paid a friend to create some documents, but you’re my real wife. You’re the one I love.”
“He’s lying,” the woman said, louder this time.
“Oh, good for you, James. Well done for turning down marriage with the woman you were fucking behind your wife’s back. Well done for buying solutions to your problems, as always. You deserve an award, truly,” Heather said. Her eyes battled duelling emotions of rage and devastation.
“Tell him, girl,” the woman said. James turned and offered her a pinched smile. “Butt out, will you?” he said. The woman regarded him with an air of indignation, but she shut up.
James turned back to Heather. “Look, I just need you to calm down and think. Think about the little girl who will be left parentless if you don’t let me take her home. We can look after her together. We’ll have two daughters.”
Heather laughed, a maniacal laugh. “Two daughters! You’re funny, James. There’s that Holloway humour.”
“No, James. Absolutely not. I am not taking care of your illegitimate daughter. I will not have a reminder of that woman living in my home, eating my food, puking all over my clothes, crying twenty-four-seven.”
“Heather, she’s innocent…she’s just a baby.”
Heather shook her head. “I can’t do it, James. It’s not fair on me, and it’s not fair on the baby. I’ll never be able to love her knowing she isn’t mine, knowing the truth about how she came to be. I can’t.”
James nodded slowly, taking in her words. “OK,” he whispered. “I need to go see her, then. To say hello…and goodbye.”
Heather’s face fell into her hands and her body shook violently. James took one last glance before walking out, feeling the eyes of about ten other women on him.
James returned to the room twenty minutes later, cradling his other baby girl. He’d been allowed one last glimpse at Amelia, her eyes devoid of light, colour already flushed out of her skin. She was gone, another woman added to the ever-growing number of maternal deaths during childbirth. Medicine was transforming, hospitals were emerging, but death still lurked at every corner. But the baby had lived, a new life in exchange for the old.
And what shocked James was – through the appearance of his two daughters – the realisation that Heather and Amelia looked so alike.
Now, Heather lay asleep, her cheeks stained with dry tears. Beside her, in a bassinet that hadn’t been there before, lay Anna, no longer crying.
Thankfully, the woman in the next bed was asleep too, her previously angry face now washed in a state of calm.
James placed Amelia’s girl beside Heather’s, and his breath caught in his throat.
When Heather woke up, James had already sorted out the perambulator, the shade down.
“It’s done,” he said, smiling through his tears. “We’re all set. Anna is fast asleep.”
Heather stiffened, her eyes devoid of the love she once showed for him.
“I know you’re still upset. Why don’t we get home and talk about it like civil human beings?”
“Fine,” Heather mumbled. “I’m exhausted.”
Back at the mansion, James prepped the bassinet while Heather freshened up in the bathroom. She emerged a few minutes later, hugging a satin robe around her body. Her face was fresh from the exhaustion it had displayed earlier, the light bags under her eyes the only indication of her having just gone through labour.
“How’s Anna doing?” she asked, approaching the bassinet, where James stood.
He held his arms out, holding her gently and firmly in place. “She’s fine.”
“Let me see her,” Heather said, moving James out of the way and peering over the bassinet.
James stood beside her, watching as her face twisted into confusion, then realisation, then desperation, and – as she turned to look at James – anger.
“James, what the hell have you done?”
James raised his hands up behind his head and squeezed the tension out of his neck. “I couldn’t leave her.”
“James,” Heather said, more urgently. She looked back into the bassinet and shook her head vigorously. “They look the same. Why do they look the same?”
It was the most striking thing James had noticed about his two girls. Despite coming from different mothers, they both shared James’ blue eyes, and they both had the same patch of dark hair, like their mothers. Heather’s hair was black, Amelia’s was chestnut brown, but with the babies, you really couldn’t tell. James knew that, as they would grow older, their faces would fit their own individual moulds, but for now, the features of the two new-borns were indiscernible.
“Which one’s Anna?” Heather asked, her eyes flicking between them both. She looked again at James, panicked. “James Holloway, you point to my daughter right now.”
James shrugged, regret clouding his face. “If you know, you won’t love Amelia’s daughter.”
“James, cut the crap.”
“I can’t tell you. I’m sorry.”
Heather laughed in disbelief. “So, you think you can just dress them the same and I’ll never figure it out?”
“You’ll figure it out eventually,” James said flatly. “But by then, it’ll be too late.”
“You’ll be too attached. You’ll love them the same.”
“No, it won’t be too late. Mother’s intuition exists, James. Anna will give me a sign.”
“If you say so, but you’ll never know for sure.”
Heather seethed, her cheeks burning. Again, she stared at the two newborns, desperately trying to figure out which one was hers. “Fuck, James!” she lifted her hands above her head. “They look the same.”
James smiled. “Remarkable, isn’t it.”
“I barely got to hold her,” Heather said, her eyes brimming. “I saw her for like two seconds. I can’t even identify my own child.”
“Hey,” James said, pulling his wife close, “don’t beat yourself up over this. Just think of it as having identical twins.”
“Who am I supposed to call Anna?” Heather said, crying. “This is ridiculous, James. How can you tell them apart?”
James laughed. “I can’t.”
Heather paused. “Excuse me?”
“I kept moving them around on the bed until I lost track of who was who.”
“It had to be done.”
“So what, I just guess which one Anna is?”
“I think we should just come up with two different names.”
“Anna is my mother’s name, James. It needs to be Anna.”
“Fine, pick one and call her Anna.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
Heather pressed her hands to her chest and released a heavy sob. She shoved herself against James and proceeded to hit him with frustration. James took each hit, allowing Heather’s anguish and sorrow and everything else to melt right into him.
It had been a hard decision to make, but James knew that leaving his other daughter would be ten times harder. He knew Heather would hold it against him for the rest of his life, but it had to be done. It wasn’t a decision made lightly. James had to be honest with himself, to understand what kind of person he really was, and he concluded that it didn’t matter who he was, but rather who he wanted to be.
He wanted to be a father who knew his daughters. One who could watch them learn and grow and mould into wonderful women.
He wanted to know his daughter with Heather and his daughter with Amelia. He wanted to be able to match their personality traits, quirks, and talents to their respective mothers.
James wanted to be a knowing father, and to do that, he had to continue being the person he’d always been: a privileged prick. A conniving two-timer. A liar.
When Heather stormed into the bathroom and slammed the door shut, James peered back into the bassinet and lifted both the baby’s feet up, ever so gently.
He spotted the dark freckle underneath Amelia’s little girl, and whispered, “I saved you, sweet girl. This is our little secret.”