“Damn, Dan. Don’t you ever sleep?” Brent let out a low whistle as he slowly turned, taking in the changes to Dan’s house. “We should take a week off hunting more often.”
The Rogans had arrived at the construction site early that morning, expecting to work on interior framing, but it was done. Dan had finished it over the course of the week, working non-stop, trying keep from thinking about what had happened with Stacy at the Wishy Wash. Every time he’d put the hammer down, his stomach had twisted up in knots of guilt, so he’d just kept swinging. The faster he finished the house, the faster he could get the hell out of Allman Falls and away from his confusing feelings, before he ruined their friendship forever.
“I guess we can finish up the wiring rough-in,” Jimmy said, mentally shifting gears. “Unless you finished that, too?”
“Not yet. Blueprints are on the bench over there,” Dan said, pointing to the makeshift office area he’d set up in the corner of the dining room. “I made some changes to the kitchen and laundry room, and to the master bathroom, so make sure to check those over. I want the rough-in inspection done Wednesday. Can you be finished by then?”
“It’s not a problem for us, but you’ll never get Grafton out early,” Jimmy told him. “He’s a dick about rescheduling.”
“Already taken care of.”
Brent shot Jimmy a knowing glance before asking, “How much you pay him?”
“Whatever,” Jimmy dismissed, and headed outside for supplies.
Though he shouldn’t have had to, Dan explained, “I called him at home yesterday, after church, when I knew his mother would be over for dinner. She was a very good friend of my parents.”
“That’s it?” Brent asked.
“That’s all it took. She answered the phone, I made small talk, and she offered to help, in whatever way she could.”
Brent snorted. “You played the dead wife card.”
“I did not…” Dan started to deny, which only made Brent look even more smug, so he admitted his shame. “Fine. I did. But it was the only way I could think of to get him out.”
Brent shook his head and started setting up to string wire. “Unbelievable. Now I really hope you accept our job offer when this is done.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I rode that sympathy as far it’s going to go. I moved up the HVAC inspection for Wednesday, too. He’s a little pissed.”
Brent paused in tightening a spade bit into his electric drill. “What’s the rush all of a sudden?”
“No rush.” Dan sifted through the blueprints until he found the set marked with the changes he’d made to the kitchen. Rolling them tight, he secured them with a rubber band. “I’m going to make a quick run to Omaha to order different cabinets. The ones we had got backordered indefinitely. Larry and his guys’ll be here in an hour or so to get started on the duct work. They should know what they need to do, but call if you need anything. I’ll be back shortly after lunch.”
“Yeah, okay.” His forehead wrinkled in confusion, Brent scratched the back of his head. “See you later, then.”
Dan whistled for Dolly, and they headed for the highway. He probably could have changed his cabinet order over the phone, but he needed to get away from Allman Falls, if only for a few hours. He needed a fresh perspective. For the past week, he had felt so guilty about almost kissing Stacy again that he had been physically sick to his stomach. He was hurting Stacy, but more, he was betraying Millie. That betrayal ate away at him from the inside out.
Over and over, he replayed the night in the laundromat, trying to figure out what triggered his desire to be close to her, to hold her, to kiss her. He couldn’t keep feeling the way he was feeling and expect to stay friends with her. And he needed her as a friend. Stacy was his only true friend. She had been for almost all of his life.
As kids, they had played together every day. They had shared every class, every holiday, every church summer camp. They had taught each other how to swim, how to ride bikes and shoot guns, how to drive a car. They had grown up as close as brother and sister, and that’s exactly how Dan had always considered Stacy—his sister.
Other than the one time, when they had been eight years old and curious, they had never had a sexual or intimate relationship of any kind. Even in middle school, when they and their friends had switched boyfriends and girlfriends on a weekly basis, he and Stacy had never paired up. When Dan had found himself without a date for his junior prom, his mother had suggested he take Stacy, but he’d told her he could never date his best friend. She had looked disappointed, but never mentioned it again.
When they’d moved on to college, they both started at Allman Falls Community College. Dan attended their trade school for construction management and Stacy started her courses in elementary education. He’d met a lot of girls at college, and he’d had a lot of fun, but he didn’t get serious with anyone. Freshman year, Stacy and Chase had bounced in and out of love like the tide, but by sophomore year they were serious about making plans for the future.
That was the year Dan’s father died. The night he’d heard the news, Stacy had slept in his arms, wrapped around him in his tight, twin bed. Even then, when she held him closer than she ever had, their touches never turned romantic. They’d twined their bodies together and slept chest-to-chest, nose-to-nose. Though their lips touched, their kisses had been nothing more than comfort.
Over the years, she and Dan both grew up and grew apart, but it was more her friendship with Millie that made the difference in their relationship. Stacy had never been one who needed to be surrounded by a hundred people. Instead, she was close to a few. The few she chose, she gave her whole heart to. Stacy clicked with Millie in a way she never had with anyone else, except Dan. It was as though they were two halves of the same person, identical in thoughts and soul.
Once Stacy had Millie, Dan was no longer the first person she consulted when she made decisions, or the first person she shared a laugh with. She cried on Millie’s shoulder instead of his. The change in their friendship happened while he was so wrapped up in his love for Millie that he didn’t even notice Stacy slip away.
When Dan and Millie moved to Iowa, it was hard on the girls at first, but somehow it brought them even closer together. When they found out Millie’s cancer had returned, Stacy spent every minute she could with them. As Millie became increasingly ill, Dan was selfish with Stacy’s support, always taking but having a hard time returning. It was a tragedy that Millie had died on a day when Stacy was not there, but at the same time, Dan was grateful he’d had that last, private moment with his wife to himself.
Over thirty years of life had passed since Stacy became a fixture in his world. He had seen her through every stage of development, both physical and emotional. He had touched her, held her, kissed her, celebrated with her and cried with her. He has loved her for as long as he has known her, but what he was feeling for her now was something entirely new, and previously unimaginable.
His change in feelings had to be stemming from the loss of Millie. Since his return to Allman Falls, Dan had allowed himself to become lonely and despondent, desperate for someone to fill the empty space Millie had left behind. Stacy was easy. She was convenient. She had been there all along. Dan was using her, and he had to stop, before he destroyed them both.
A study in fruitless efforts, Stacy used a damp paper towel to dab at the spot of poster paint staining her sleeve as she waited for Chase. According to Roger, he’d ducked out on a quick errand and would be back any minute. She’d been waiting in his office for close to an hour already, and he remained a no-show. He couldn’t hide from her forever, though. She knew where he lived.
When he bothered to come home, she reminded herself as she gave up on the purple stain and tossed the paper towel into the trash.
Swiveling in the office chair, Stacy turned to look out the large window behind Chase’s desk and watched traffic move slowly past. Everything moved a little slower in Allman Falls—people, time, life. It drove Chase crazy. He always wanted to go, go, go. But Stacy found comfort in the lazy current. It forced her to take a breath. Left alone, her mind raced. She overscheduled, overpromised, undervalued her own time. Watching others enjoy a moment reminded her to allow herself the same luxury.
Across the street, Darcy Garretson lifted her baby girl out of the backseat of her car and snuggled the sleeping child to her chest as she walked into the bank. Darcy had two older children, one of them in the class Stacy had subbed for on Monday. Sophia, a precocious little six-year-old with silky blond hair, spoke in the sweetest voice and astonished Stacy with her vocabulary. Stacy adored the little girl, as she did most of the children she taught. She wanted one of her own so bad she ached.
Chase didn’t want children—not until the shop took off and they paid all their debts. He didn’t want his kids to grow up poor. He didn’t want them wanting for anything. He had been poor, he had been wanting, and he was still poor and wanting. She was poor and wanting, but not wanting the same things he wanted. He wanted fast cars, fancy houses, expensive toys. He wanted folding money, as Gramps used to say, and a lot of it.
She wanted a man who loved her, a baby in her arms, and a house that felt like a home. She didn’t care how big or how small, she didn’t care what they sat on or drove around town in. She didn’t care if they didn’t have two pennies to rub together after the bills were paid and their bellies full. She wanted to love and be loved, and watch the result of their love grow into a beautiful soul. It was all she’d ever wanted, and she was getting damn tired of waiting for it.
At the sound of the office door opening, Stacy turned to watch Chase walk in. His eyes narrowed slightly when he saw her sitting in his chair.
“Where’ve you been?” she asked.
“I had to run to Juliette.” He motioned for her to get out of his chair, but she stayed put.
“To get stuff.”
Stacy rolled her eyes and picked up the envelope she had been waiting an hour to give him. Holding it out, she asked, “Care to explain this?”
Chase took the envelope and pulled out the folded paper. Too quick to read anything, his eyes scanned the letter.
“It’s not a big deal,” he dismissed.
“You took out a loan in my name, and didn’t pay it, and you think it’s no big deal?”
He stuffed the paper into the envelope and tossed it on the desk. “You knew about this.”
“The hell I did!”
“You signed the paperwork,” he insisted.
“No,” she said with a sharp shake of her head. “You forged my name. Again!”
“Your memory’s slipping.”
“Fine, we’ll go with that. I’ve completely lost my mind and don’t remember taking out a five thousand dollar loan for your shop, solely in my name.” She leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “Humor me and tell me what I so desperately needed the money for that I would agree to that ridiculous interest rate.”
“On what?” Stacy screamed.
“I paid all of the taxes! I do the bookkeeping, Chase. I paid the taxes!”
“You must have missed something.”
“You are such a little liar.”
“I’m not lying,” Chase insisted. Sitting in the chair across the desk from her, he picked up the envelope and pulled out the paper. He spun it around and pointed at it. “Call this guy—John Whatever. Call him and ask him if you signed the paperwork or if a really ugly girl with facial hair came in and signed it all. You have to show ID, Stacy. I couldn’t have signed your name.”
“You could’ve done it through the mail.”
“Their office is down the street.” He shoved the paper at her and added, “Yeah, I screwed up and missed a few payments, but you took out this loan for the shop. Maybe it wasn’t for taxes, I don’t know, but you signed for it.”
“And just when did I do this?”
“I don’t know—three, four years ago maybe.” He snatched up the letter and scanned it. “It doesn’t say, but it was a long time ago.”
She took the paper from him and studied it. It still didn’t sound familiar, but he was probably right. They’d been in a really rough financial patch back then. Borrowing money had been a constant necessity. She re-read the entire paper, and gasped.
“How do we still owe over four thousand dollars if we took this out four years ago?”
“I don’t know. You’re the bookkeeper. You tell me.”
“How long have you been forgetting to pay it?”
“Awhile,” Chase said, shaking his head. “I don’t know.”
“How much did it take to get it straightened out?”
“A thousand or so, give or take.”
“Where did you get the money?”
“I sold some stuff.”
“What stuff?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. The last time he’d sold some “stuff,” her Gram’s glass goblets mysteriously disappeared. They weren’t even worth anything except a memory, but he’d stolen them from her anyway and hocked them on eBay. She’d had to pay the buyer twice what he’d bought them for to get them back.
“Just stuff,” Chase said.
“The same ‘stuff’ you just went and picked up in Juliette?”
“Yeah,” he answered, and then huffed out a laugh. When his eyes twinkled, he looked a little more like the old Chase than he had in a long time. Her anger slipped just a bit.
“Don’t get cute with me, mister,” she grumbled, but still found herself smiling. “You didn’t sell my stuff did you?”
“No. I sold some parts off one of those junkers in the back,” he said with a nod of his head in the direction of the backyard.
He looked down at his hands and her eyes followed his. His hands were permanently stained from working on cars for the past twelve years, longer if she counted the cars he worked on when he was a kid. He could scrub for hours, and they would still be slightly darker than the rest of his body. They were calloused and strong, but could hold her tenderly if he wanted to. She loved his hands.
With a sigh, the rest of her anger faded away. She pushed out of the chair and walked around the desk. Looking up in surprise, he sat back in his chair so she could settle onto his lap. As she rested her head on his shoulder, he wrapped her in his arms. He smelled of oil and metal, and she breathed him in deep.
“It’ll be okay, Stacy,” he assured her. “Someday, we’ll be swimming in money.”
“I don’t care about the money.” She kissed his neck. “Just don’t ever lie to me.”
“I didn’t,” he promised. He dipped his head and caught her lips with his. His stubble was harsh, but his kisses were gentle, reassuring.
“Are you coming home tonight?” she asked.
“For dinner?” she asked, careful to not be too hopeful.
He kissed her again, a little hungrier this time. “What are we having?”
“Whatever you want,” she promised. She bit her lower lip and lightly ran her thumb across his mouth. She had been blaming him for all of their problems, but she was to blame, too. He was who he was, and if she loved him, she had to love all of him. And she did love him. She did.
“Can we have pork chops?” he asked.
“Sure.” She smiled. Pork chops were his favorite. “With applesauce.”
As they kissed, she tried to lose herself in the moment, to focus on him and her and nothing else. She tried to kiss away the negativity and feel some kind of hope for the future, but her heart kept drifting away from the present, diving into the memory of Dan’s lips and the fire of life he breathed into her. It had been a long time since Chase had given life to her soul. She longed to feel that fire again and she kissed him fiercely trying to force the sensation, but try as she might, it never came.
When Dan returned to Chelsea later in the day, a familiar orange Jeep sat parked in the driveway amongst the array of dirty work trucks. Aria stood just inside the doorway, talking with Brent and Jimmy, while the heating and air contractors watched her appreciatively. When Dan called out a greeting, she turned, and treated him to one of her knockout smiles.
“Dan! I was just about to give up on you!” Fluidly, she presented him with a clipboard. “Your signature, please.”
“Again?” As he signed where she pointed, he said, “I’m going to start charging for these.”
“Are you bribing a government official?” she teased.
Brent laughed. “Dan’s getting pretty good at that.”
Not finding Brent nearly as funny as he found himself, Dan ignored the comment. Aria leaned in closer, pointing to a second line for him to initial. She smelled fresh, clean, like sunshine and lemonade. Her scent, and her spirit, made him crave the return of the summer weather he’d recently wished away.
As she traded him a small package and bundle of mail for the clipboard, she said, “Your house is amazing, Dan. Brent said you designed it yourself?”
“My wife and I…” A sudden, sharp lump rose up in his throat, making his eyes water. He coughed into his fist, masked the stab of emotion by exaggerating his movements as he set the box of replacement parts for his saw and the rest of his mail on the floor. When he turned to face Aria, he still felt less than human, but he faked his way through. “Do you have time for a quick tour?”
She linked her arm around his, gently squeezing his bicep. “I’d love one.”
The house was still a skeleton frame, but he described the details he imagined, the kitchen and breakfast nook, the screened in porch, his plans for a home office with built-in cabinets. He illustrated the intricacies of the woodworking that would go into the staircase leading to the second floor. Upstairs, she marveled over the vaulted ceilings and how he’d crafted the perfect view of Chelsea from each of the bedroom windows. Eventually, they made their way back to the main room. Aria surprised Dan by kissing his cheek as she said goodbye.
Touching his skin where her lips had been, Dan stood in the window and watched as Brent walked Aria out to her Jeep. The awkwardness between them had disappeared, replaced by comfortable desire. As they talked, Aria kept a light hand on Brent’s waist. He caressed her hair, touched her cheek, ran a thumb along her jaw. Remembering the way the earth shifted whenever Millie had been close, Dan knew exactly how the boy felt about Aria, and he felt a twinge of jealousy. When they began to kiss, Dan gave them their privacy and started another walkthrough, this time to check the work that had been done during his absence.
Later that night, as he sorted through the day’s mail, he found another orange envelope with a yellow forward sticker on it. Ripping it open, he unfolded a crayon picture of the same girl holding the same yellow and orange flower in one hand, a leash attached to the same gigantic black dog in the other.
This time, the pair stood next to a tree. A slide and swing set floated in the air around them. Melissa had captured Millie and Dolly taking a walk in the park. For a long moment, Dan stared at the picture and allowed the terror coursing through his veins to ebb and flow. Horrified, yet unable to part with it, he tacked it up on the wall next to the first picture. With her crayon-red lips, Millie smiled back at him, her cornflower-blue eyes watching his every move.