It never failed. The moment Dan climbed high, tangled up, or buried elbow deep, his cell phone rang. Usually, he’d ignore it, but he’d already wasted two days playing phone tag with an elusive plumbing contractor. When his phone rang while he was up high on stilts, mudding and taping drywall seams in the entryway, he juggled the pan and knife, ignored the tape as it unspooled from the clip on his belt, and fished his phone from his pocket. He had to swipe twice, almost missing the call, before the smart phone distinguished his mud-caked thumb as human, not pocket change.
“Yeah?” he barked in greeting. “Handley here.”
Instead of the plumber, Stacy sang out in reply, “I found someone!”
“You did what now?” Dan asked, clueless as to what she was talking about.
“Found a guy. For Ashley,” Stacy clarified. “If she still needs someone, that is.”
“Good question.” As though he could tell by looking, Dan took a few steps backward on his stilts and glanced through the house to where Jimmy and Brent were finessing drywall onto the framing of the cove ceiling in the dining room. He’d forgotten all about the Jimmy/Kylie/Ashley mess, too wrapped up in the Stacy/Chase debacle to even care anymore. “I’ll have to check into it and let you know.”
“Well, do it quick, because this guy’s a hot one. I don’t think I can keep him reserved for long.”
“You sound like you’re making a trade on the cattle market.”
“I am.” She laughed. “Let’s just do this, kochanie. Invite them all over to my house for the game on Saturday. Come over around nine to help me get ready, and bring a big, ol’ pot of your chili with you. Bye!”
She hung up before he could object. As he debated calling Ms Bossy Pants back, just so he could hang up on her, the front door opened a crack and Aria called out, “Anybody home?”
“Come on in, Aria,” Dan said, stepping out of the way on his stilts so she could come inside.
“You look different today,” Aria mused as she lifted onto her tiptoes to deliver his bundle of mail. “Shorter, somehow. Fatter, maybe?”
“I parted my hair to the other side.”
She quick tapped a finger to her nose. “That’s it.”
He flipped through the stack of letters. Another bright orange envelope with a yellow forward sticker hid among the bills. “What are you doing Saturday?”
As Brent joined them in the entryway, he kissed Aria on the cheek. “You smell good today.”
Dan had to agree. She did smell good—sweet, like vanilla.
“What are we doing Saturday?” Aria asked Brent.
“Whatever.” Brent shrugged. “No plans.”
“What did you have in mind, Dan?” Aria asked.
“Stacy’s having people over to watch the game. She wanted me to invite you guys.”
“How fun!” Bouncing, Aria grabbed onto Brent’s arm. “I’ve heard so much about Stacy it’ll be nice to finally meet her.”
“Yeah, she’s great,” Brent mindlessly agreed. His attention, his eyes, his hands were on Aria’s neck, her breasts, her hair. She was autumn air and pumpkin spice, dressed in a flowing cardigan and colorful scarves over warm leggings and cowboy boots. He was denim and steel toes sprinkled with drywall dust, layered in plaster and sweat. Together, they were youth. Lacing his fingers through hers, he started walking her backward toward the door. “Let’s go to lunch.”
“Hang on.” Squatting low on the stilts so he could talk quietly, Dan asked Brent, “Is Jimmy still with Ashley?”
“I don’t know,” Brent groaned at the delay. “Kind of. Why?”
“What are you up to?” Aria whispered conspiratorially.
“Stacy’s working out all of the details, but I think we might have a way to get Jimmy and Kylie together.”
“Are you serious?” Aria squeezed Brent’s arm in excitement. “How are you planning to do that?”
“Stacy’s found someone to distract Ashley with.”
“I don’t know, Dan—” Brent started to disagree, but Aria interrupted him.
“That’s exactly what we need.”
“I’m putting you in charge of making sure they all come,” Dan said to Aria.
“Piece of cake.” Giggling, she spun then bounced up to kiss Brent on the cheek.
Brent repeated, “I don’t know.”
“It’ll be fun!” Aria said.
“I don’t…” With a groan of trepidation, Brent shook his head. “No.”
“Oh, you.” Dismissing Brent’s concern, Aria tugged on his arm. “Let’s go to lunch.”
Once they left, Dan opened the orange envelope from Melissa and unfolded her picture. This time, the little girl drew Millie and Dolly inside the hardware store, the floor littered with yellow and orange flowers. Millie stood behind the counter, wearing the faded blue apron she’d loved so much. Carefully, Dan refolded the paper, tucked it into the envelope and set it with the rest of his mail on the ledge. When he returned home later that night, he carefully tacked Melissa’s drawing to the wall with the others.
“Hunting?” Stacy asked for the hundredth time.
“Yes, fucking hunting, Stacy. How many times do I have to say it? I’m going hunting.”
“Hunting?” she repeated again. “Since when? You didn’t say a word about it this morning, or yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that! You just all of a sudden decided you have to go hunting? Right now?”
“I don’t have to do anything. I want to go, so I’m going.” His last nerve frayed, it took everything he had to keep from forcefully shoving her out of his way as he rushed to pack a bag.
Shadowing his every move, she rattled off a monologue of questions, “Where are you going to go? What are you hunting for? Who are you going with?”
“What the fuck do you care? Back off.”
“Is it a girl? Is that it? You met someone?” Stacy demanded. “Who is she?”
Tired of lying, Chase clamped his mouth shut as he pulled boxes of ammo from his gun cabinet, barely catching himself as he accidentally grabbed 9mm rounds instead of .308. His hands shook, his heart raced. His stomach fought the brat and kraut he’d had for lunch. Stacy kept jabbering, but all he could hear was Jill screaming out in pain as he rushed her to the ER, the doctor muttering, “Emergency appendectomy… risk of fetal loss… maternal mortality… ”
Stacy changed tactics, from accusation to guilt. “I can’t throw this party by myself, Chase.”
“Cancel it, then. I really don’t care what you do.”
He braced himself for her waterfall of perpetual tears, but they didn’t come. She stood in the doorway, arms crossed under her breasts, stoically watching him for a moment more, and then disappeared down the hall.
He didn’t hear the front door open and close, or her car start, but when he finally gathered everything he needed to believably fake a hunting trip and buy himself time with Jill—a woman who actually needed him for something real, something more than opening jars and reaching bowls off the top shelf—it was all for naught. Stacy hadn’t cared enough to stay and watch him leave.
Grunting in frustration, Stacy tried to wrestle a case of soda onto the bottom rack of her overflowing shopping cart. “We’re going to need a second cart.”
“Absolutely not.” Dan relieved her of the heavy case and muscled it onto the rack. “We should take this as a sign it’s time to stop.”
When she had called and asked him to help her pick up a few things for the game, he had assumed she meant a few things, so he’d said yes. If she had been truthful about her intentions and said, ‘Let’s go waste three hours of our lives at the grocery store and see if we can fit every single item they sell into one, single cart,’ he would have said no. She had purposefully deceived him, and he had spent the last hour thinking up various ways to repay her for the deception. So far, he hadn’t come up with anything excruciating enough, but the night was still young.
Reviewing her list, she said, “I still have to get the stuff to make the dip.”
“What dip?” Dan cried. “We already have salsa, French onion, ranch, and whatever the hell this stuff is.” From the cart, he picked out a jar of some kind of green goo that she had found in the deli section. The disruption set off an avalanche of shredded cheese packages, sending them slipping and sliding down to the floor.
“Way to go.” With a groan, Stacy bent and started tossing them back into the cart, but she fought a losing battle. As the packages continued to slide out faster than she tossed them in, she broke into a fit of laughter. Dan didn’t find the situation nearly as hysterical as she did, but he managed a smile as he wedged the bags she handed him deeper into the cart.
“What’s with all the ruckus up here?” scolded a voice from behind. Dan turned to see a grinning Brent coming up the aisle behind them. “You’re not allowed to have fun in a grocery store.”
“This isn’t us having fun,” Dan assured him. “It’s our slow descent into insanity.”
Stacy popped up onto her tiptoes to kiss Brent on the cheek. “You came just in time. We need another cart.”
“No, we don’t.” Dan looked into the cavernous depths of Brent’s cart, which held only beer, Mountain Dew, Fruity Pebbles and a package of hamburger. Stacy could go nutty with a cart that empty. Giving Brent’s cart a shove with his foot, he muttered, “Get outta here.”
Brent eyed Stacy’s overflowing cart. “How many people are you having over for the game?”
“Just you guys,” Stacy said.
He whistled, “Wow.”
“This isn’t all for Saturday. I’m doing some other shopping while I’m here.”
Dan didn’t believe her. “Did Aria convince Jimmy and the girls to come?” he asked Brent, praying this adventure wasn’t a waste of his time.
“Yeah, I think so. Ashley was saying something about some sick friend, and not being able to stay for too long, but she’s pretty excited about it, actually. Jimmy hasn’t taken her out anywhere in a long time. I hope this doesn’t backfire.”
“It’ll work,” Stacy assured him as she wandered past, scanning the shelves.
“Who’s the guy Stacy picked out for her?” Brent asked.
“She didn’t say.” Distracted, Dan watched as Stacy selected a huge jar of pickles from the shelf. “Oh, hell no.”
“What?” She feigned innocence as she handed the jar to Brent instead of Dan, then crossed it off her list with a weary sigh. “I think that’ll have to do. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, though.”
“I don’t see how,” Dan said.
“Maybe I should grab another block of cream cheese, just in case.”
“No more.” Dan pulled her close and stood behind her with his hands on the cart push bar, trapping her in place. He leaned down and said, “We’re done.”
She tipped her head back and looked up at him with a smile, “Okay, kochanie.” Resting against Dan, she promised Brent she would pay for the pickles.
“It’s no problem,” Brent assured her. “Consider it my contribution to the evening.”
Dan rolled his eyes. “You’re so generous.”
“It’s how I was raised,” Brent said with a humble grin.
As Dan started pushing the cart toward the checkout at the front of the store, Stacy ducked from under his arms and made a break for an end cap display of chocolate syrup.
“It’s not that kind of party, Stace,” he teased, which stopped her dead in her tracks, allowing him to hook a finger through her belt loop and lock her in tight.
She punched his arm. “Don’t be gross.”
“Oh, it’s not gross.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Try it sometime.”
She wrinkled her nose, and he hid a smile when he caught Brent pause by the display and debate for less than heartbeat before tossing an extra large bottle of chocolate syrup into his cart.
At the checkout, Dan let Brent go first while he started the monumental task of unloading Stacy’s cart onto the belt. He thought he had been paying attention to what she was buying, but the deeper he dug into the cart, the less he recognized her selections. She was sneaky, that was for sure.
Brent watched as the ever-growing mountain of food piled high onto the belt. “You guys want me and Aria to come over early and help you make some of this?”
“Ask her,” Dan said, hitching his thumb towards Stacy. “I plan on making my chili at the cabin and showing up at kickoff, not one minute before.”
“What?” Stacy cried. “I can’t do this all by myself!”
“Sure you can.” Dan smiled. “You’ll just have to get up a little early.”
“You are coming over, Dan.” Shooting him a glare of death, she heaved a heavy case of beer onto the belt, sending a vibration down the length of the counter. “Whether you want to or not.”
Brent laughed into his fist. “Ooh, she told you!”
“Relax, Stace, I’m just teasing. Of course, I’m coming over.”
“Damn right, you are,” she muttered.
“Don’t get pushy now, Baby Bear,” Dan warned. “Or I will let you do it by yourself.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Why not? It suits you.”
“Why would it suit me?” Hands on her hips, she demanded, “Is it because I’m so short? Because I look like a little kid? Because you think you can push me around?”
“Relax.” He ruffled her wild curls. “It’s because you’re just right—perfect in every single way. Isn’t she, Brent?”
“Definitely,” Brent agreed, eyeing them curiously as he paid for his groceries, but Dan didn’t notice Brent’s inquisitive stare. He had become transfixed watching Stacy, mesmerized by how adorably perfect she truly was, in every imaginable way.