If one more thing went wrong with her day, Stacy would claim the world record for Crappiest Day Ever. From the minute she woke up to an empty bed, and realized Chase hadn’t bothered to come home yet again, everything went to hell. Stupid, little things that would have been almost humorous on any other day kept piling up until she felt like screaming—burnt toast, stubbed toes, wearing her shirt backward for half the day before she noticed, an overflowing toilet—the list just went on and on. And then she went grocery shopping.
Usually, Prairie Foods was her favorite place in all of Allman Falls. Clean and brightly lit, aisle after aisle boasted perfectly aligned boxes and cans, artistically arranged fresh fruits and vegetables, every ingredient needed to fill the belly, heal the sick, or soothe the soul. She could spend hours perusing the shelves, planning delicious meals, stockpiling midnight snacks. Armed with coupons, calculator and a carefully crafted list outlined according to the aisles, Stacy would work the store from left to right, starting in the produce and ending in the bread aisle, feeling like the master of a tiny, little universe. But that evening, her one joy of the day quickly deteriorated into the biggest nightmare.
It all started innocently enough, at the cart corral. The shopping cart she grabbed had a loose wheel. She could have put it back, selected a better one, but her day had already gone to pot. What difference did a wonky cart make? She’d just strategically load her selections to balance the weight on the three good wheels. She’d done it a million times before, no big deal. Shaking off the bad juju, she set off on her shopping adventure.
With one wheel thumping, Stacy navigated the produce department easily enough, though the tomatoes were a little under ripe and the bananas a bit bruised. And her arm did get blasted by a sudden downpour from the automatic misters installed above the leafy greens. Belatedly, the little lights flashed and the thunder sound effect rumbled a storm warning. As cold water soaked through her shirt sleeve, she headed out of produce, but she had to turn right back around when she remembered her promise to make cobbler for the church’s annual duck dinner that upcoming Sunday.
With ten pounds of Granny Smith weighing down the front of her cart, Stacy finally left produce behind, anxious to dive into the heart of her list. The blessed feeling of anticipation didn’t last long. As she whipped around the corner into the condiment aisle, the loose wheel locked up, causing the cart to veer hard to the right, and ram smack to the back of Father Griffin’s legs.
Profanities slipped out of both of her and the priest, causing eighty-seven-year-old Mrs. Beckstead, who stood nearby contemplating mayonnaise or sandwich dressing, to flush and tsk in disdain. Mortified, Stacy wrestled control of her cart and stuttered through a rambling string of incoherent apologies. She skipped her much needed purchase of ketchup to seek sanctuary in canned goods, which should have been in the next aisle. But when she rounded the end cap display, she came face to face with a solid wall of cereal. Bewildered, she looked up at the aisle marker.
Befuddled and confused, she snagged the arm of her favorite bag boy, Corey Tate, as he rushed past her to answer the call for courtesy at Register Four.
“What the heck happened in here?” she demanded, pointing at the row of Apple Jacks sitting where the Campbell’s Tomato Soup should have been.
“We rearranged.” He shrugged. As though it was no big deal!
“Why?” she cried out in horror.
“To make you ask questions,” he said, and smiled at his own joke. When she glared back, the smile slowly slid off his face. “I… uh…. I gotta go bag groceries, Stacy.”
Cautiously, he backpedaled the first few steps, strategically waiting until he was out of her arm’s reach before he turned his back and ran for the registers.
“Bastards,” she muttered under her breath. Mrs. Beckstead tsked again and Stacy rolled her eyes. “Sorry, Mrs. Beckstead.”
What felt like hours later, but was probably only twenty minutes, Stacy finally found everything on her list. She left the grocery store feeling panicked and a little sweaty, but the crisp night air helped to soothe some of her jagged edges. She made her way across the parking lot, the loose wheel nothing but a distant memory—until she smacked hard into a pothole and the wheel snapped off completely. Violently, the cart tipped, causing a case of root beer to shoot off the bottom rack and crash onto the blacktop, where it exploded. Cans skittered across the parking lot, spinning, rolling and bouncing in every direction.
“My, my, my.” Mrs. Beckstead scolded, clicking her tongue once more in contempt.
“For cripes sake, lady! I’m sorry!” Stacy snapped, and then she broke down in tears.
The older woman’s severe exterior softened. “Would you like help, dear?”
Feeling foolish, Stacy nodded. “Please.”
Mrs. Beckstead set her single bag of groceries in Stacy’s cart and helped her collect the wayward cans. They were a little dented, a little dirty, a little scratched, but none of them had cracked open. Stacy held up the front of the cart while Mrs. Beckstead steered from behind, pushing it the rest of the way to Stacy’s car. Once all of Stacy’s groceries had been loaded, she carried Mrs. Beckstead’s single bag to her car and placed it inside the trunk.
In appreciation, Stacy said, “Thank you so much for helping me.”
“My pleasure, dear,” Mrs. Beckstead dismissed with a wave of her hand. “You look like you are having a dilly of a day.”
“I am,” Stacy admitted, the word ‘dilly’ bringing a smile to her face. It had been a dilly of a day, indeed.
“Well, now, it can only get better from here.”
“I sure hope so.”
Stacy opened the car door for Mrs. Beckstead. Before she got in, the older woman turned to say, “May I ask you what you said as your cart tipped?”
Stacy grimaced as she felt her cheeks catch fire in blush. “Son of a whore. In Polish.”
Mrs. Beckstead surprised her by starting to laugh. Relieved, Stacy laughed with her.
“Oh, Stacy. You remind me so much of your dear grandmother sometimes.” She lightly patted Stacy’s cheek. “It’s a blessing to see her spirit shining on.”
As Stacy returned to her car, she let out a breath of relief. She hoped the older woman was right in that her day would get better. It certainly couldn’t get any worse. When Stacy saw Dan’s truck parked downtown, she angled her car into the parking space next to his, believing her luck had indeed just turned for the better.
In his previous life, hanging out at the Wishy Wash on First Avenue would not have been Dan’s idea of a good time on a Saturday night. Since his return to Allman Falls, it had become the highlight of his week. He actually looked forward to it. Once a week, he would venture into town, swing by the Tasty Frost and get his cheeseburger and fries to go, then head to the laundromat and eat while his whites whitened and his brights brightened. If he was feeling especially crazy, he would top off the evening with a trip to the grocery store.
Usually, Dan had the place to himself on Saturday nights, and he enjoyed the solitude. When he heard the door buzzer, he hoped it was someone with a small load who would be in and out quick, and not a mother of four with sixteen loads and an opinion on everything. One of those had come in the previous week. He would rather abandon his half-washed load and buy a whole new wardrobe than sit through that ordeal again.
To his pleasant surprise, Stacy walked through the door. Even more to his surprise, his heart skipped a beat at the sight of her.
“So, this is where you’ve been hiding yourself, huh?” She wrapped him up in a quick, warm hug. “I saw your truck outside and thought I’d pop in and say hello.”
“Hello,” Dan answered. His voice squeaked. He felt nervous, and his hands grew clammy, things that never happened around Stacy. He wondered if he was suddenly coming down with something—especially when his stomach started to flutter and twist.
“Hello.” She smiled bigger.
“How’ve you been?” he asked.
“You look tired.”
“A little,” she admitted.
“Not anymore.” She slipped onto one of the hard plastic chairs lined up along the room and turned to look out through the grimy plate glass window behind her. “It sure is cooling off out there. Halloween will be here before you know it.”
Mindful to keep some distance between them, he sat a few chairs down from her. “Are you trick or treating this year?”
She shot him a look as though he’d lost his mind. “I’m a little old for that, don’t you think?”
“No one’s too old for free candy. Besides, you could pass as a tall fourth grader,” he teased. “Or a short sixth grader.”
She glanced down at her chest and asked skeptically, “A sixth grader with double D’s?”
“You could put on a blonde wig and go as Marilyn Monroe.” He looked her over, lingering on her double-dang cups before moving up to her adorable pixie face. “Or you could just keep doing what you’re doing now and go as trailer trash.”
“You ass!” She bounced out of her chair, took a couple playfully jabs at him and pinched his arm. When he cried for mercy, she slid onto the chair right next to him and curled to the side, with her legs tucked up and her arm on the back of the chair. Resting her head on her arm, she gazed at him with soft eyes. “So how are you doing these days? And don’t lie to me.”
“I’m good,” Dan said. He leaned forward, turning his face away from hers, and rested his elbows on his knees. She was too close, but he liked the discomfort and didn’t want to move too far away from her.
“I didn’t hear from you all week and I was afraid to call.”
Dan gave an uneasy laugh. “I was feeling the same way.”
“Kinda silly, isn’t it?”
“I guess so.” He looked back, over his shoulder at her, and said, “I’m sorry.”
“For not calling?”
“That… and kissing you the way I did.”
“At least you didn’t kiss me the way you did when we were eight.” She winked, and his heart melted.
“What was wrong with it? That was a damn good kiss.”
“Whatever you say,” Stacy said with a roll of her eyes. “Don’t worry. You’re much better at it now.”
She gave him a coy, little smile and he suddenly wanted to pull her into his lap and kiss her all over again. The memory of how easily—how desperately—she had returned his kiss made it damn near impossible for him to keep his hands to himself. He stood and walked over to the line of washing machines, putting a roomful of space between them before he did something stupid.
“How’s Chase?” Dan asked, forcing his voice to stay level even though his heart jumped around in his chest, stealing his breath.
“Still in his funk,” she dismissed with a shrug and focused her attention on the night-darkened street outside the window. “I haven’t seen a whole lot of him lately.”
He’d obviously hit a nerve, so he hurried to change the subject. “Do you know the waitress that works at Captain Jack’s?”
“Which one?” Stacy asked.
Like an idiot, her name escaped his mind and he stuttered. “Uh… Shit… I don’t remember. Early twenties, brown hair, real thin. Pretty. Brent said she has a kid.”
Stacy shook her head in apology. “That could be any of them.”
“She has a sister.”
“Does the sister have a name?”
“I’m sure she does, but…” He shrugged.
“You really suck at this.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Stacy thought for a minute and asked, “Are you talking about the Johansen girls?”
Dan nodded through his uncertainty. “Maybe?”
“Kylie and Ashley?” she asked. When he continued to stare at her blankly, she asked. “Jimmy’s Ashley?”
“Yes!” he said with way too much excitement, causing her to jump. He toned it down. “Do you know them?”
“No, not really. All I know is they moved here from California about seven years ago, about the time they were in high school. Their mom works over at the nursing home. I forget her name, but she’s a real nice lady. I run into her from time to time at the library. She reads more than I do, if you can believe that. She showed me a picture of her grandson right after he was born. He’s a really cute kid and she was so proud of him. It was funny because usually she’s real quiet when I see her, but she was gushing about her grandbaby, about how cute he was, and that he had Kylie’s eyes and her nose. It was fun. But anyway, I think Ashley is working at the nursing home, too, and taking classes at AFCC, but I’m not sure what for. Nursing, probably. And Kylie’s working at Jack’s, but I don’t think she goes to school. I mean, when would she have time, right?” She snapped her fingers. “Martha! That’s the mom’s name. Martha Johansen. Martha said that the father of Kylie’s baby is a real deadbeat type, not paying any child support and an all-around jerk face—”
Unable to control himself, Dan busted out laughing. Stacy stopped talking midsentence and glared at him.
“What?” she demanded.
“You say you don’t know them, but you just rattled off more than I know about my own family.”
“Well, I don’t know them,” she said. “I just know about them. There’s a difference.”
“If you say so,” Dan said still laughing.
“Don’t make fun,” she pouted. “It’s not nice.”
“Sorry,” he apologized, and clamped his mouth shut, but couldn’t stop his eyes from laughing.
Stacy abandoned her chair and scooted up on the counter across from him, her short legs dangling. “Why are you asking about them anyway?”
“I wanted your opinion on something Brent told me, but since you don’t know them, I’m going to keep my thoughts to myself,” Dan said.
“Why not?” Stacy huffed.
“I don’t want to fuel your gossip fire.”
Her cute nose wrinkled as she laughed at him. “Gossip fire?”
He shrugged. “Whatever it’s called, I’m keeping my mouth shut.”
“Fine.” She tried to look disinterested, but Dan didn’t buy her act.
“You really want to know, don’t you?” he teased.
“I couldn’t care less.”
“You’re a horrible liar.”
“I’m not lying,” she insisted and made a big show of turning toward the television bolted to the wall, ignoring him to watch a commercial for prescription erectile dysfunction medication.
His washing machine stopped, and he went to move the clothes to the dryer. With catlike reflexes, she slid down from the counter, ran past him to the washer, and hopped up to sit on the lid.
Arms crossed under her breasts, she took a stance. “I’m not getting down until you tell me.”
“You’re supposed to sit on the washer when it’s spinning, Stacy, not while it’s sitting still.”
“What…?” she paused, confused for a brief moment, but when she realized what he insinuated, her face flushed deep crimson and her mouth fell open in indignation. “You’re disgusting! I would never do that!”
“I hear the words you’re saying, Stace, but your eyes are begging me for a quarter.”
Shooting up like a bottle rocket, she sprang from the washer and returned to the bank of chairs under the windows.
Laughing so hard he couldn’t catch breath, he said, “Fine, I’ll tell you.”
“Find someone who cares,” she pouted, nose to the air and refusing to meet his eyes. “I’m not talking to you.”
“Don’t be mad at me, Stace,” Dan begged. He tried to stop laughing, but failed. It felt so damn good he didn’t know if he wanted to stop.
“Bite me, dupek.”
“Aw, come on now.” He crossed the room and knelt in front of her, resting his hands on her thighs. “I thought you said I could never be an asshole.”
“Pocałuj mnie w dupe,” she said, glaring at him.
Instantly, he felt dizzy and his voice grew thick. “I have no idea what you just said, but it sounded sexy as hell.”
A slow smile brightened her features. “I’ll never tell you.”
“Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.”
She smiled for real. “You tell me yours first and then I’ll think about telling you mine.”
With his hands on either side of her on the chair, he trapped her in. “I seem to remember playing a very similar game with you when we were eight years old. And if I remember correctly, you never held up your end of the bargain.”
“That’s because I’m not a stupid girl.” She turned toward him and placed her hands on his shoulders. Ever so slightly, her legs opened, as though in invitation.
An invitation he suddenly, desperately, needed to accept.
“Is this stupid?” Dan asked, his voice husky as he moved his hands onto her hips and slid her forward in the chair until he was nestled between her legs, her thighs pressing into his hips. He fit her beautifully, her body a perfect cradle for his, as though she had been designed specifically for him.
“Very stupid,” she answered, her whisper so slight he could barely hear it. Her hands laced behind his neck, locking him in. The air between them grew heavy and thick as time slowed down.
“Stace?” he asked, his voice choked by the heady lust rolling through his body.
She gave the slightest nod, a tiny whimper escaping her lips. Fear and confusion crossed her face, mixing with unmistakable desire as she looked into his eyes. His hands tightened on her hips as her body heat flamed.
Her eyes grew dark, the lids the slightest bit heavy, and they held his gaze as he moved into her. His heart beat erratic in anticipation of feeling her lips on his. He glanced to her mouth as he moved in even closer yet. Everything about her lips screamed perfection—perfectly full and soft, yet firm, glossed with the slightest of sheen. He knew from experience they would taste like strawberries.
Her hands held him a little tighter. She shifted a little closer, her thighs opened a little wider so that his sudden, painfully-hard erection nestled tight against her heat. His head tipped just a fraction. A heartbeat away from kissing her again, he could still back out, but her breath was intoxicating, drawing him in closer still.
Her eyes closed. Her lips parted slightly. He moaned from someplace deep down inside, so low he barely heard it but more felt it as it reverberated through his body. Just one little taste and then he would back away. Every muscle in his body taunt as he closed the last bit of air between them—
A loud buzz seemingly screamed though the room as the door to the laundromat opened. Dan ripped himself away from Stacy, flying to a chair a few away from hers in one swift, fluid motion. She slid back in her chair and looked away from him, her face flushed with embarrassment. With his heart hammering in his chest and the knot of guilt roiling in his stomach, he felt exactly the way he had a lifetime ago, when they’d been eight years old and Stacy’s grandmother had walked in on them—except this time the guilt was real, and a million times more intense.
And so was the disappointment.
If the woman carrying a heavy sack of laundry noticed the tension in the room, she didn’t let on. Dan waited a moment, pausing to find a normal breath, and then he stood up as casually as possible, stretching his shirt low to hide his shame, and went to get his clothes out of the washer. As he carried an armload of damp garments to the dryer, he heard the door buzzer again. He knew without looking that Stacy was gone.
Tires squealing, Stacy reversed her car out of the parking space and flew home on autopilot while her mind raced and her stomach flopped. Her entire body tingled and her hands shook violently as she alternately cursed and blessed the person who had interrupted them in the laundromat. She needed to throw up. She wanted to run home and hide under her blankets in horror and never, ever come out again. She wanted to run back to Dan and lose herself in his mouth, wrap herself up in his arms, feel his breath on her neck and his strong, masculine hands on her hips as he stroked deliciously in and out of her…
Tears burned her eyes as she choked back the fiery guilt exploding in her chest. She was a horrible, disgusting, atrocious person, coveting the husband of her best friend—her sister. She was disgusting. She was despicable. What she’d done was unfathomable. She could feel Millie looking down on her with hatred and loathing. It was one thing to love Dan. It was wholly another to lust after him like a dirty, pathetic whore. Stupid Mrs. Beckstead’s prediction had been very, very wrong. Her dumb dilly of a day had not gotten better. Not one, stinkin’ bit!