Dan was still nursing his beer and pickled egg hangover when Stacy knocked on the door late the next morning. Without a word, he let her in, poured her a cup of coffee, and sat across from her at the table. Not to be left out, Dolly lumbered down from the bed, sat beside Dan and rested her head on his leg. He absentmindedly scratched her ears and watched the wind blow whitecaps across Chelsea Lake as Stacy stared into her mug. Dan’s own coffee grew cold before she finally broke the silence.
“I’m sorry about what Chase said to you last night.”
“Why are you apologizing? You didn’t do anything wrong. You should be pissed, too.”
“Oh, he didn’t say anything I haven’t heard a million times before. He gets in these moods and starts wondering, ‘What if.’ He’ll come out of it in a few days and be happy-go-lucky Chase again.”
“You deserve better than that.”
“You think I haven’t wondered the same thing?” Stacy shook her head and tapped a fingernail on her coffee mug. “Not everyone has a relationship as perfect as you and Millie did. Most of us have those moments when we struggle to remember why we fell in love with the person sleeping next to us at night.”
“Our marriage wasn’t perfect, but even on our worst days I can’t imagine wishing I had never married Millie.”
“Then you’re one of the lucky few. The rest of us just kinda go day by day, enjoying the good times and pushing through the bad. If the bad times last long enough, we give up,” she said.
Surprised, Dan asked, “Are you giving up?”
“I’m too much a glutton for punishment to ever give up. I plan to keep fighting.”
“I don’t know whether to be happy about that or feel sorry for you.”
“I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself, no matter the outcome.”
Dan leaned back in his chair and watched her for a long moment before asking the question that had been bothering him for years. “Why haven’t you married Chase yet? Honestly.”
She shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“Don’t bullshit me. You’ve been together for fourteen years. What are you waiting for?”
She didn’t answer the question. Instead, she took a sip from her mug and shuddered. “Your coffee is terrible.”
She crossed the room to the kitchen area, dumped her coffee down the drain, and then proceeded to wash the handful of dirty dishes he had collected in the sink. Once she finished, she moved on to scrubbing the sink and stove. Stress-cleaning had always been her way of avoiding and Dan let her do it. This wasn’t the type of conversation the two of them usually had. It would have been one for Millie.
As Stacy wiped the counters, she cleaned up around Millie’s rosebush, still sitting in the windowsill where Dan had dumped it his first day at the cabin. He’d barely looked at it since he’d set it there. Every time he did, more leaves fell off and the canes seemed to wither under his gaze. He did manage to curse it out every morning, just like Millie told him to, not that it did it any good. It still looked dead.
Stacy poked her finger into the dry dirt. “I think your plant’s dead.”
“It’s not dead, just depressed. It misses Millie.”
“I understand completely,” she said to the sickly looking plant.
She turned on the faucet, filled her clean mug with fresh water and moved to pour it on the soil. Horrified, Dan jumped from his chair and grabbed her arm, barely stopping her in time. Ripping the cup from her hand, he demanded, “Are you trying to kill it?”
“What did I do?” she asked, startled by his actions. She looked even more confused when he dumped the water in the sink, refilled the mug with lukewarm coffee and watered the rosebush with it. She looked at him as though he had completely lost his mind. “And you think I’m trying to kill it? What the heck are you doing, some kind of old-wives tale, voodoo magic? Maybe you should knock it off because it’s obviously not working.”
Dan didn’t answer her. If she could avoid conversations so could he. She wouldn’t believe him even if he told her. She rolled her eyes at his stubborn silence and wandered over to the bed.
“I’m so tired I think I could sleep for a week.” She flopped down on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling a moment before wrinkling her nose in disgust. “Your bed smells like feet.”
“Don’t blame me. It’s Dolly’s feet that stink.”
Dolly let out a huff of protest and Dan laughed.
“Whatever.” Stacy rolled her eyes again and then immediately smiled at him. She kicked off her shoes and scooted over on the bed to make room for him. As he lay down next to her tiny frame, his weight caused her to roll downhill, closer to him. She barely took up more room on the bed than Dolly did and probably weighed less.
He tucked an arm beneath his head as she settled against him. “Did I at least break his jaw?”
She laughed. “No, but it’s sore. He keeps rubbing at it. He was pretty mad last night, but shut up about it once he sobered up this morning.”
“I have no idea what came over me. I can’t remember the last time I punched someone.” He felt like an ass for losing his temper, but at the same time hitting Chase was cathartic. He almost wished he had a reason to do it again.
“Don’t worry about it. He’s been hit plenty of times before. He gets stupid when he’s drunk.”
“Did he go in to work?” Dan asked.
“Yeah. He can sit at the shop with a hangover just as well as he can at home. If it’s slow he’ll just nap in the office. I had planned to go in and get caught up on the invoicing today, but I really didn’t feel like being in the same room with him. We tend to get over it faster if we stay away from each other.”
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder?” Dan asked.
“Outta sight, outta mind,” he suggested.
“Something more like that.” She rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand. “So, what are your big plans for the day?”
“You’re looking at it. Dolly and I discussed it last night and we decided this was all the excitement we could handle right now. Want to join us, or were you looking for more action?”
“Well, I was hoping you would say you were going base jumping or bear hunting, but I guess this is okay, too.” She rested her head on his chest and wrapped her arm around his waist. “Your shirt smells much better than your bed.”
“I told you it was Dolly’s fault.”
“I’d make her sleep on the floor,” Stacy said and he could feel her smile against his chest.
“We tried that, it didn’t work.” Dan ran his fingers through the soft mass of wild curls on her head. “Besides, it gets a little lonely sleeping by yourself.”
“Yes, it does.”
She fell into a silence, quiet for so long Dan thought she fell asleep. He crossed one long leg over the other, getting comfortable. It was probably wrong, letting Stacy hold him, but he didn’t care. He knew she needed it as much as he did. Stacy was always reaching out to hold or be held, craving constant physical contact. She’d been like that forever. Her Gram had been the same way. He couldn’t remember a single conversation he’d had with Gram where she hadn’t pulled him in closer or held onto his hand, her attention completely focused on him as they talked.
More guarded about his personal space, Chase often pushed Stacy away when she reached for him. He had complained to Dan many times over the years that he felt smothered by her constant contact, that she made him claustrophobic. At Millie’s funeral, Stacy had clung to Dan, holding onto him for life, while Chase had stood back, detached. When they left Hollings to return to Nebraska and Stacy no longer held him, Dan felt hollow. Millie’s death was more real, more final. With Stacy next to him now he felt a comfortable, almost nostalgic sense of peace.
Stacy fit his body differently than Millie had. Stacy’s curves were softer, shorter; her weight lighter. He could not close his eyes and imagine that instead of Stacy it was Millie holding him now. His body had been in tune with Millie’s. He’d known her every inch, could anticipate her every movement, her every sigh ingrained in him. Whenever Millie had been near, there had been a charge to the air, electric energy pulsating heat through his blood. Stacy was comfortable and she was familiar, he liked the way she fit him, but she was not Millie. Even so, Dan did not want her to let go. He needed her to keep holding onto him, forever, so he would never feel alone again. Millie would understand. Dolly, on the other hand, was going to be jealous. Stacy was in her spot. He could almost hear Dolly’s objections and he bit back a laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Stacy asked.
“Nothing,” he said, patting her head like a little kid. “Go back to sleep.”
“I wasn’t sleeping, just thinking with my eyes closed.” She snuggled down tighter. “I like listening to your heart talk to me.”
“What’s it saying?”
“Mil-lie, Mil-lie, Mil-lie. Over and over,” she said softly.
His breath caught in his throat and he said, “I thought that was just my imagination.”
Late at night, when he couldn’t get his mind to stop, he would listen to his heartbeats echoing in his head. They would start out at an angry pace, screaming ‘can-cer, can-cer, can-cer.’ But some nights, if he was lucky, they would slow down and change over to the sweeter, calmer melody of Millie. On those nights, he slept without nightmares.
“No, it’s real, kochanie. My heart’s saying the same thing.”
He lifted a lock of her hair and watched it slowly slip through his fingers. “I’m sorry for my breakdown the other night.”
She quickly pushed herself up and turned to look at him. “Don’t ever apologize for something like that. I’m sorry for pushing you too far.”
“It had nothing to do with you. You were just unlucky enough to be the one closest to me when it happened. One of these days, I’ll quit being an asshole that cries constantly.”
“You don’t have it in you to be an asshole.”
“You called me one the other day,” he reminded her.
“I changed my mind.” Stacy resettled herself on the bed with her head on the pillow next to Dan. “Let’s agree to only talk happy things for the rest of the day.”
“Sounds good. What do you know that’s happy?”
“Not a lot.” She laughed. “Umm, let’s see… Oh! There’s a little girl in the first grade class I subbed for on Wednesday who told me I was the prettiest teacher in the whole, wide world.”
Dan squinted his eyes and pretended to study her, then shook his head and said, “Sorry to burst your bubble, lady, but that little girl was wrong.”
“Excuse me?” Stacy huffed in indignation.
“The kid’s obviously never met our fifth grade teacher, Miss Spellman. She was the prettiest teacher in the whole, wide world.”
Stacy sat up and demanded, “What was so great about Miss Spellman?”
“You remember. She had big knockers out to here.” Dan held his hands in front of his chest, then looked down and moved them further out. “No—out to here.”
“I have big boobs, too.”
“Yeah, but yours are round and boring, like melons,” Dan dismissed. “Miss Spellman’s were sharp and pointy and stuck straight out from her chest like sex torpedoes. And I was eye-level with them.”
He wiggled his eyebrows up and down for effect. Stacy grumbled and smacked him around until he laughed and held up his hands for mercy.
“Okay, okay! I surrender!”
“You guys are all the same. You see big boobs and start drooling all over yourselves. You’d think you were all breastfed as babies the way you act.”
She kept taking play jabs at him and pinched his arm. Dan grabbed her, and in one quick move he had Stacy pinned to the bed beneath him.
“You girls can’t handle competition,” he teased. “You all have a green-eyed monster living in one half of your brain that rears its ugly head whenever it smells competition.”
“How can I compete with a horny ten-year-old boy’s fantasy?” She laughed, struggling to get up. “I bet if you saw Miss Spellman today, those perfect boobs would be dangling down by her knees.”
“You take that back!” Dan pulled her arms over her head and leaned down into her. “Say Miss Spellman is prettier than you are.”
Laughing hard, Stacy’s breath came out in gasps of air. “Never in a million years! Miss Spellman has saggy boobies!”
“Say it and I’ll let you up!”
“You’ll have to hold me prisoner forever, because I will never say it. Gram taught me to never tell a lie.” She stuck her tongue out at him and smiled.
Her muscles relaxed and something in the way her body shifted under his weight set off a spark deep inside his heart where he hadn’t felt anything but pain for a very long time. His breathing hitched in his chest and a flush of heat rose to his face so fast it left him light-headed and dizzy.
He didn’t say her name as much as thought it, but she heard him. Her smile slowly slipped away as her eyes searched his in confusion. He had no idea what he was doing, why he was doing it, whether it was right or wrong, but he couldn’t stop and he didn’t care. He needed it. He needed her. He needed something to make him feel alive again, and he was going to take it.
“Stace,” he whispered again as his grasp on her hands loosened and his lips brushed against hers.
* * *
The instant Dan’s lips touched hers, Stacy’s heart shuddered to a stop and then kick-started with such force she felt it resonate throughout her entire body, his breath breathing a life into her she desperately needed. She didn’t care why he was kissing her or what he was thinking. Her only thought as she grabbed onto him was she would take everything he could give her for as long as he was willing to give it. A second, a minute, a lifetime, it didn’t matter. She would take it all.
Her lips parted on their own accord and he groaned as his tongue stroked hers. Every muscle in her body lit on fire and liquid heat poured from her center. His lips ran along her jaw and down her neck and she moaned as her heart slammed against her ribcage. What they were doing was wrong, so very wrong, but she couldn’t stop, her body arching into his, begging for oh-so-much more.
Her fingers dug into his neck and ran through his hair as she pressed him closer, his mouth feeding her soul and healing her pain. He shifted and his hand snaked under her shirt, his touch like electricity on her sensitive skin as his hand skimmed up her stomach. Long-dead nerve endings screamed to life and her hips lifted into his. His weight was a heavy comfort, anchoring her body and her heart.
When his lips returned to hers, she tasted his salty tears.
Reality washed over Stacy in a cooling flood. Her heart cried with his as the passion extinguished and compassion took over. She loosened her grasp and ran her fingertips along his cheek, tracing the trail the tears burned through his stubble and along his nose. His hand cupped her breast, his thumb stroking her through the silk of her bra, but as he buried his face in her hair, rasping sobs blew hot into her neck.
“Shh,” she whispered into his ear and wrapped him up in her arms and legs, holding him tight.
“I’m sorry.” His arms snuck under her and he pulled her into his heart as he rolled off of her and onto his side, bringing her with him.
“It’s okay, kochanie,” she murmured. “It’s okay.” She stroked his hair, his cheek, kissed his neck, ran her hands down his back and along his shoulders, touching him everywhere, assuring him it was alright, giving him back everything he had given her.
They spoke with their hands and their lips, gently caressing and kissing each other as they cried for Millie and the part of themselves that they lost when she died. His lips pressed into her neck, her pulse strong beneath his mouth, and her hand rested on his heart as they reminded each other that they were both still alive and still had each other.
He looked long into her eyes, revealing to her all of his fears and his worries and his loneliness. He let her see him at his weakest moment, something he had never done before, and she held his gaze, assuring him she would always be there for him. Their breath mingled together, inhaling and exhaling the same air, and he promised to stay with her forever.
She laced his long legs into her shorter ones as he ran a hand down her side and around her hip, pulling her closer, erasing all the space between them. He was not aroused and she knew it was not his intention to become aroused. He just needed to feel the warmth of a body, to feel lungs expanding against his chest once again. She molded herself into him, and kissed him slowly, tenderly, breathing deep into him, through him, one last time, and then simply held him.
She held him and let him hold her long into the afternoon, long after his tears dried and he fell into a deep sleep. She gently kissed his closed eyelids, wishing away the nightmares she knew he had, the same ones that kept her up at night, and watched him sleep.
With his face relaxed he almost looked like her Dan, the one she knew before he was Millie’s. He was almost the six-year-old Dan whose GI Joe had lived in her Barbie Dream House, or the eight-year-old Dan who had kissed her in the back room of her Gram’s house, or the twelve-year-old Dan who had lay alongside her in the tall grass in her backyard and held her hand while they silently watched the clouds roll across the sky the day her mother disappeared. He was almost the Dan who at one time knew all her secrets and told her all of his, the one who knew where she was ticklish, the one who had cried on her shoulder the day his father died.
He was almost her Dan, the Dan she had always loved and held dear in her heart, but not quite. Part of that Dan was lost forever, beat down by heartache and heartbreak, chipped away by hardship and life itself. He was replaced with a Dan who was older, and stronger, and wiser, but yet still unsure. She gazed upon the Dan lying in her arms and her heart welcomed him in, loving him for who he was then, and loving him all the more for who he had become, in a way she never imagined was possible.
She studied his matured features, his laugh lines and worry lines, his hardened jaw relaxed in sleep, seeing for the first time the man he had grown into while she hadn’t been paying attention. She knew with sudden certainty that she no longer just loved him as a friend loved another or a child loved a brother, but also totally and completely as a woman loved a man. It was a love that burned deeper than her heart could handle, spilling into her soul.
It was the kind of love she just then realized she had never experienced, and the kind he had just lost forever. As the sun set, she carefully slipped out of his arms and into the cool night air, and her heart broke knowing things could never be the same between them again, but she would have to spend the rest of her life pretending that they were.