Dan sat in Stacy’s cramped living room, squeezed between Brent and Ashley on Gram’s lumpy, rosy-red, linen floral sofa. As uncomfortable as he felt, with his shoulders pulled in, knees to his chin, his balls pinched and numb from lack of circulation, he looked like the least miserable person in the room. Only Dolly seemed to be enjoying herself, lying on her back on the floor, grunting and huffing in pure bliss as Aria scratched her belly.
Stacy’s plan of fixing up Ashley with her co-worker’s son, Trevor, had died at inception. The kid was good-looking enough, polite and well-spoken when you could squeeze a word out of him, but as far as Ashley was concerned, he may as well have been a table lamp. All she paid attention to was Jimmy, and her phone. In fact, all of the kids had their faces to their phones. Ten minutes into the game, when even the most die-hard fans could clearly see another abysmal loss lurking on the horizon, the phones came out and the room fell silent. Dan had no clue who Ashley was texting, snapping, chatting or tweeting, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out Jimmy and Kylie were texting each other. Trevor stared at the wall.
Just before halftime, Stacy grabbed a half-empty bowl of chips and indicated for Dan to follow her into the kitchen.
“This is a disaster!” she cried as soon as she closed the swinging door behind them.
“No kidding!” Dan agreed. “What’s with the phones? Doesn’t anybody talk anymore?”
“You’re aging yourself, kochanie.”
“I don’t care. If that’s youth, call me Gramps.”
“So, what do we do?” Stacy asked as she filled the bowl.
“How the heck should I know? This was your big plan, not mine.”
“Oh, no!” she said, shaking her head. “This whole matchmaking thing was your idea. Don’t go pushing it off on me.”
“I know,” he admitted, though the way he saw it, the execution, not the idea, was flawed. They had thrown Trevor into a mess of a love triangle, and left him to sort out for himself which Johansen girl was supposed to be his, when neither showed even the least bit of interest. The one ray of hope in the entire doomed experiment was of all the girls in the room, Trevor’s eyes found Ashley most often. “He does seem to like Ashley, though. He keeps looking at her.”
“She probably scares him. Are all those piercings and tattoos real?”
“She’s an angry little thing, isn’t she?”
“I think she’s cute.”
“So does Trevor.” And he could see why Jimmy had fun with her, but his heart was clearly with Kylie. Dan grabbed some salsa from the fridge and poured it into a serving bowl. “We need to get rid of Jimmy for awhile. If he’s not sitting there, actively ignoring Ashley, maybe she’ll stop ignoring everyone else in the room, and at least look in Trevor’s direction.”
“How do we do that without Ashley tagging along?” Stacy asked.
“We could wait until she goes to the bathroom and then send Jimmy and Kylie to the store.”
“That gives us ten, fifteen minutes tops to get something going between Ashley and Trevor,” Stacy said, dismissing the plan.
“Maybe not,” Dan said. “I have a feeling if Kylie goes with Jimmy, they’ll take their time.”
“You think so?”
“I’d bet they don’t come back at all.”
“My party sucks that bad?”
“It has nothing to do with your party,” he assured her. The sexual tension between Jimmy and Kylie was so thick Dan was getting a contact high off it. He was surprised Stacy couldn’t feel it, too. “Getting rid of those two is better than doing nothing and watching the whole thing go down in flames.”
“I guess.” Chewing at hangnail as she thought it over, Stacy paced the kitchen. “But what do we send them to the store for? Definitely not food.”
“Or beer,” he said. She had enough stacked in the garage for three more football games. “What about toilet paper? We didn’t buy any of that the other day.”
“Seriously, have you seen the stack in my linen closet? I won’t need toilet paper until after the new year.”
“What are you, a closet hoarder?”
“I just like a good bargain.”
“Right.” He opened her corner cabinet, allowing a landslide of bagged chocolate chips to pool on the counter below. “And what are these? Another bargain?”
“As a matter of fact, no.” Pushing him out of the way, she started stuffing the bags back into the cabinet. “They’re for the Sunshine Women’s bake sale at church tomorrow afternoon. You want to come over in the morning and help me make them?”
“Chase already accused me of baking cookies with you. Might as well actually do it.”
Confusion clouded her expression. “What in the world are you talking about, kochanie?”
“Nothing. Where is he anyway? I figured he’d be here by now.”
“He’s hunting.” With jaw set, and her eyes darkening in anger, she grabbed the bowls from the counter and started for the living room.
He sensed there was more she wasn’t telling him, but it wasn’t the time to pry. He let it drop, for the moment. “We don’t have a plan yet.”
“I’ll take care of Ashley. You just get rid of Jimmy and Kylie.”
She rolled her eyes in frustration. “I don’t know. Put your big boy pants on and figure it out.”
Following her into the living room, he watched as she set the bowls on the overflowing coffee table then sat down next to Ashley and started talking to her. Dan didn’t know what she wanted him to do, so he found an empty chair and checked in on the game.
Jimmy took advantage of Ashley’s distraction to sneak a glance over at Kylie. He only looked at her for a split-second, but Dan could read his every thought. He wanted Kylie, and he wanted her bad. The boy was struggling to control himself. If Stacy didn’t do something soon, Dan feared the poor kid’s head would explode. Stacy must have thought the same thing, because she asked Ashley to come upstairs and look at something in one of the bedrooms.
As soon as the girls disappeared from earshot, Dan went to Jimmy and played the only hand he had. “Do me a favor and run to the store. Stacy asked me to go, but you’re parked behind me.”
“What does she need?”
“Uh…” He said the first thing that popped into his brain. “Tampons.”
Jimmy looked at Dan in horror.
“Take Kylie with—”
The kids disappeared so fast it was almost inhuman. They didn’t even let him finish his sentence.
Once his part of the matchmaking scheme was complete, Dan was at a loss for what to do. If it had been up to him, he’d go home to the cool quiet of his cabin, but he had committed to the evening for the long haul. Brent and Aria had disappeared onto the back patio with Dolly, leaving Trevor and Dan to man the room alone.
“Having a good time?” he asked the poor kid.
“Yes, sir,” Trevor answered.
“Do I look that old?”
“It’s a habit. Marines.”
“Really?” Dan asked, though the high-and-tight haircut, ramrod-straight posture and slightly-constipated facial expression had given him away as soon as he walked into the house. “Are you still in?”
“Yes, sir. I’m just home on a short leave before we get deployed again.”
Dan was going to strangle Stacy. “That’s rough.”
“We do alright,” Trevor said, and then jumped to immediate attention as Ashley came running down the stairs with Stacy two steps behind, trying to calm her down.
Looking around, Ashley demanded, “Where’s Jimmy?”
“I sent him to the store,” Dan said. “He’ll be right back.”
Brent and Aria came in from the patio, and Ashley immediately jumped on Brent, “Take me home.”
“What’s wrong?” Dan asked, reaching out for her arm, but she jerked away.
“Ashley, honey, what’s the matter?” Aria asked as she joined them in the entryway.
“I don’t feel good, and I want to go home.”
Dan looked over at Stacy for an explanation but she looked just as confused as he was.
“We’ll have to wait for Jimmy to get back. He’s got the truck,” Brent said.
Dan was about to offer to give her a ride when Trevor stepped up.
“I’ll take you.”
Ashley rolled her eyes in irritation, but she snatched up her coat and headed outside. When Trevor tried to open her car door, she shoved him aside. The kid was completely out of his element with Ashley. They obviously didn’t spend a lot of time training for close-contact-maneuvers with insanely-jealous girls in boot camp.
“What the hell happened?” Dan asked Stacy as they all moved back to the living room.
“I honestly don’t know,” she said. “Everything started out great. We were talking about how she’s studying to be a pediatric nurse, and she told me about some friend of hers who’s pregnant and been really sick, that she was in the hospital and she planned to go visit her as soon as the game was over. I felt horrible for keeping her away from her friend and offered one of the baby quilts I made for the newborns at the hospital. We were upstairs, talking about babies and sorting through the quilts, and she was looking around at the pictures I have on the wall in my bedroom, when all of a sudden, she freaks out and says she’s sick and needs to go home. I have no clue what set her off, if it was something she ate…”
“Did she see Jimmy and Kylie leave together?” Dan suggested.
“Maybe. She was kind of by the window.” Stacy threw her hands up in exasperation. “I don’t know.”
“Nice guy you set her up with, by the way,” Dan said.
“He was,” Stacy agreed.
“No, what I meant was—what the hell were you thinking?” Dan clarified. “The guy’s in the Marines. He’s getting deployed.”
“I know,” Stacy said, not understanding.
“You knew?” Dan asked in disbelief.
“What’s wrong with that?” Brent asked.
“I think it’s great that he’s in the Marines,” Aria added.
“He’s leaving in a few weeks, possibly off to war. You don’t see a problem with this?”
“I think it’s kind of romantic,” Aria said.
Stacy nodded in agreement. “Like a love story in an old classic movie from the ‘40s.”
“He’s actually perfect for her,” Brent said. “She can have a casual relationship without feeling trapped. It’s one of the reasons she likes Jimmy so much. He doesn’t care if she sleeps around.”
“You guys are all insane,” Dan muttered and started picking up the room.
“What’s wrong with it, Dan?” Stacy asked.
“Why would you set her up with someone who might die in a few weeks? How could that possibly make him perfect for her? Do you realize what kind of misery that poor girl would be in if that happened? There is absolutely nothing romantic about watching someone you love die!”
He stormed into the kitchen and tried to slam the swinging door behind him. Back and forth, it swung on the hinge before finally stopping with a quiet swish. Robbed of the satisfaction of a good healthy slam, he threw the dishes into the sink, turned the water on full-blast, and started scrubbing.
Stacy left him alone for awhile, but she eventually came into the kitchen and stood behind him at the sink. After a pause, she gently placed her hands on his hips. “Everyone went home, kochanie. I’m sorry if I upset you.”
He shut off the water, but did not turn around. “It’s not your fault. I overreacted.”
She seemed frozen in place behind him, and he became acutely aware of the heat of her body, the sound of her breathing, the smell of her lotion.
“I’m still sorry,” she whispered.
Lifting her hands from his hips, she sent them on a tender journey, up the length of his back and down again, igniting a hot shiver of energy throughout his body. His heart flipped over and slammed back down in his chest, completely stealing his breath away. How the hell was she having this effect on him? He preferred the anger. He understood anger. It was easier to control.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
Unable to trust his voice, he shook his head as her hands slipped under his shirt and around to his stomach, lightly outlining his abs with her fingertips, fanning the fire into a blaze. Swallowing hard, his stomach muscles tightened involuntarily, his entire body going rigid under her hands. He squeezed the nylon scrubber in his hand so hard it dug into his palm.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
Her hands returned to his hips and blazed a new trail, riding along the waistband of his jeans, from the back to the front, moving so slow the anticipation of her destination became agony.
“No,” he lied, his heart hammering, his body screaming for him to say yes. He was beyond hungry, and rock hard in desire.
The room blurred, darkened, as his vision failed. The only sensations his brain registered were the thrill of her touch and the thunder of his pulse pounding in his ears. He thought it impossible to harden more than he had, but when she splayed a hand across his stomach and her heavy breasts pressed against his back, every ounce of blood in his body rushed to his erection, the pressure unbearable, the pain white-hot. Her fingertips teased along his waistband, exploring more dangerous depths with each dancing pass. When they skipped across his sensitized skin with a feather-light caress, his body went into spasm.
He grabbed her hands, squeezing too hard in his urgency to stop both of them before he lost complete control and acted upon his desire. A long moment passed before he collected himself enough to let go. When he did, he turned around and cupped her face in his hands. He looked deep into her eyes, straight to her heart.
What he saw made it excruciating to leave, but he didn’t dare stay.
As Dan closed the front door behind him, Stacy stood in the kitchen and leaned against the counter with her eyes closed, struggling to find breath as her heart pounded in her chest. What the hell was she doing? Had she completely lost her mind? She had no right to touch Dan the way she had. But she couldn’t stop herself. It was as though her hands were possessed by someone else—someone very, very, very stupid.
But, my god, he felt good. She could still feel his body heat in her fingertips, could still smell his heady, husky scent. He felt so right in her arms, in her heart, as though he had always belonged there. If life could for once be fair, he would be in her heart, and she would be in his. She would never be alone again. But life was what it was, and it was never going to change. He was Millie’s, and he would always be Millie’s. He was never meant to be hers.
Letting out a shaky sigh, Stacy pushed away from the counter, determined to never allow desire to possess her hands again. She would keep a distance between them, erect a barrier around her heart, and keep all further contact between the two of them strictly platonic. They were friends. Only friends. And that is what they would always be. Just friends.
“We’re just friends,” she said aloud, hammering it into her heart. And she repeated it over and over again as she attacked the dishes and polished her kitchen, fighting back tears and the empty ache in her soul. “Just friends… just friends… just friends.”
When he returned to the cabin, Dan stood in front of the stack of boxes and debated them, intimidated by the emotions they contained. But it was time. It had been for a very long time. After what almost happened in Stacy’s kitchen, he knew he couldn’t put it off any longer. He lifted the top box from the stack, drew in a deep breath, and ripped off the tape quick, like a Band-Aid, hoping it would lessen the pain. Surprisingly, it did.
The box was full of photo albums, neatly organized and labeled. Without pulling any out, he set it aside and moved to the next one, looking for the box full of loose candid shots, the castoffs Millie didn’t think were good enough for albums. Those were his favorites. When he found it, he sat on the floor and dug in.
The first photo was of Millie manning the grill at the Hollings Fourth of July celebration. Smoke hung thick in the air, filtering the sunlight and casting a faint shadow across her face as she smiled at something off-camera. He tried to remember what it might have been, but his mind jumped forward in time, past the meal and the fireworks, to the end of the night, to the beer garden aglow with strands of lights looped through the rafters. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel the dull hum of the crowd in his chest and Millie’s head on his shoulder as they danced to Norah Jones.
Temperatures had skirted a hundred that day, and it had remained unbelievably hot after the sun went down, the breeze intermittent, allowing the mosquitoes to swarm and buzz relentlessly in his ear. His body wore a layer of sweat and grime from the long afternoon, and her hair was damp from humidity and sweat, lightly scented with sulfur from the hundreds of sparklers she had helped light for the children. Wherever her bare skin pressed against his, they stuck together, but he didn’t mind.
When the song ended, she ran her fingers along his spine in the way he loved, that hinted at her intentions. He had whisked her home and tumbled to the floor, making love in the living room, unable to make it to the bedroom before the heat of the night and the words she’d whispered in his ear consumed them.
The box contained hundreds of seemingly-innocent photos, just like that one. Every time he selected one, he allowed himself the luxury of stepping into the memory, letting his mind take him wherever it wanted to go. As he worked his way through the box, he made love to his wife again and again. Sometimes the passion overtook them in an instant, sometimes it built slow and smoldered. Every time was a moment he never wanted to forget, a memory he was no longer afraid to hold onto.
Millie had put all the good pictures of her and Stacy in photo albums or frames. The pictures in the box were out of focus or over-exposed, or captured moments where they were looking a little less than perfect. They had taken a lot of them themselves; faces pressed together, hamming it up for the camera in their outstretched hands. The rest were Dan’s handiwork. He’d never quite figured out how to take a decent picture. He always seemed to push the button at exactly the wrong heartbeat, ruining the moment.
One, he accidentally got right.
In it, Stacy and Millie sat at the kitchen table at night, the lights turned low. No flash had been used. Stacy was in the foreground, her face softly lit by a light from another room. Turned toward the camera, her eyes were closed and she had the smallest of smiles on her face.
The picture captured a split second of time that was completely insignificant—one where she was in the middle of a blink, or just about to laugh, but it illuminated the essence of Stacy perfectly; her innocence, her beauty, her grace. In the background, slightly out of focus, a serene smile graced Millie’s face as she watched over Stacy.
Dan set the picture aside, saving it, and continued sorting.
When he reached the bottom of the box, he immediately opened the next and dove in, reminiscing over holidays, parties, quiet moments, vacations, Dolly’s puppy year and random everyday events. He relived the changes in Millie as her cancer progressed, realizing now how short that moment of life was. It had seemed so all-consuming when he’d lived it, but lasted for only a blink in reflection, and then it was over.
When he got to the end, he was exhausted and he was heartbroken, but he had finally said his long overdue good-byes to his wonderful, beautiful, exquisitely perfect Millie.