Monday mornings tended to be one of the quieter times working on the house, but Jimmy and Brent were especially quiet the Monday morning following Stacy’s football party. Outside, the wind howled and a stinging rain fell as a cold front blasted down from the north. Inside, the brothers’ silence added a frosty draft to the chill in the air. Brent threw Dan glances once in awhile, but if he had something on his mind, he wasn’t sharing. Jimmy popped in a pair of earbuds to deter conversation. Not in the mood for pleasantries himself, Dan left them alone. Besides, they worked faster by ignoring each other.
Just before lunch, the plumbing contractors Dan had been chasing finally made an appearance. Dan took the two men upstairs to show them what needed finished in the bathrooms, leaving Jimmy and Brent to the silence. When he came back down twenty minutes later, Aria stood with the boys in the kitchen, the three of them arguing quietly in the corner.
“What’s going on?” he asked and sifted through the mail Aria had left for him on the counter. It was the kind of day he’d expect to see an orange envelope from Melissa, but the pile contained only junk.
“We need to talk to you, Dan,” Aria said, taking a step toward him.
Brent pulled her back and said, “No, we don’t.”
“Keep your mouth shut, Aria,” Jimmy warned.
“Talk about what?” Dan prodded.
“Nothing.” Brent put an arm around Aria and started to guide her out of the room. “We’re going to lunch.”
Aria pulled out of his grasp. “Stop, Brent. Stacy has the right to know what’s going on, and I sure don’t want to be the one to tell her.” Aria turned to Dan and said, “You can tell her if you think you should.”
“Tell her what?”
“You know how Ashley was talking to Stacy about her friend, Jill, who’s pregnant?” Aria asked.
“I guess. Yeah,” Dan rushed, his frustration growing.
“Well, according to what Ashley told Kylie, Jill’s boyfriend is Chase…”
“Ashley thinks Chase is this girl’s boyfriend,” Brent corrected. “She doesn’t know for sure.”
“And Chase is the father of the baby,” Aria finished, but Dan’s world had already turned red—burning, violent flames of red.
He grabbed his jacket off the ladder and stormed out of the house, shoving Jimmy aside when he tried to stop him. Climbing into his truck, he tore down the gravel to Allman Falls. Strong gusts of wind buffeted his truck from the side and the rain-softened road grabbed at his tires, pulling him toward the ditch, but Dan didn’t slow down. Once in town, he blew through the stop light on Main and skidded to a stop in front of Chase’s shop, landing half on the sidewalk.
Flying from the truck, he was inside in an instant and ripped Chase out from under the car he was working on by his feet. Startled, Chase scraped his head on the undercarriage but was fast to find his feet and quick to anger. Dan grabbed a fistful of his shirt and shoved him backwards into the office.
“What the fuck?” Chase cried as he struggled to find his balance.
The customers in the waiting room and the man working the counter all stared in silent shock until Dan slammed the door. A woman gave a belated cry of horror and someone started pounding on the door. He locked it.
“Who’s the girl?” Dan demanded. He shoved Chase back a few feet.
“Get the hell out of my office!” Chase shoved him back.
“Who’s the girl?” Dan shoved Chase harder this time, sending him sprawling onto the desk.
“The girl you got pregnant!” Dan grabbed a fistful of Chase’s shirt and pulled him up, getting right in his face. “Who is she?”
Chase hit hard and fast, landing a blow high on Dan’s cheekbone. Dan swung back and blood exploded out of Chase’s nose. Chase hit lower and knocked the wind right out of Dan, nearly bringing him to his knees as pain shot from his ribs in radiating waves. Dan grabbed him around the neck as he went down, and they reduced to wrestling, destroying the office in the process.
As they struggled, a fist pounded against the door, rattling it violently against the hinges just before it burst open, bringing Chief Powell and another officer in. They pulled Dan and Chase apart and before Dan knew it, he was shoved through the shop and thrown into the back of a police car. Locking him in, the officer returned to the repair shop.
Dan wiped the blood out of his eye with his sleeve and slid down in the seat so the pedestrians gawking at him from the sidewalk had a harder time looking in. It made the pain in his ribs scream, but he ignored it as he closed his eyes and wished for Millie, sending up a desperate prayer to return to his old life. His world had made sense when he was with Millie. Since he’d lost her, he felt like he was walking an edge that constantly threatened to give way, like he was drowning without her strength to hold him up. But if he was with Millie that would mean Stacy would be alone, and she had been drowning for a very long time.
A knock on the window forced his eyes open. The temperature had dropped further, changing the rain into fat balls of sleet riding sideways on the blustery wind. Chief Powell glared down at Dan. The same age, Dan and Chief had grown up together, but something about Chief’s sheer size and the way he carried himself made him seem older and more mature. He commanded respect and Dan gave it to him. He sat up as Chief opened the door.
“You got lucky. Conner doesn’t want to press charges against you,” Chief Powell said. “I suggest you stay away from each other in the future.”
Chief pulled out his ticket book and quickly scrawled across the top page. Ripping it from the book, he handed the ticket to Dan. “Keep your truck off the sidewalk.”
“Yes, sir,” Dan repeated and shoved the ticket into his jacket pocket.
Chief Powell stepped out of the way and Dan climbed out of the car. Dan was a tall man, right at 6’3”, but Chief towered over him another five inches, easy. Dan had to look up to meet his gaze. With a slight shake of his head, Chief clapped Dan on the back as he headed back into the shop. Dan’s ribs screamed out in agony from the heavy hand, but he bit back the pain. A light tap of a horn drew his attention. Jimmy, parked a half a block away, waved him over.
“Looks like you lost,” Jimmy said when Dan got to the truck.
Dan slowly sucked in air as he gingerly rubbed his side. “I think I won.”
“How much is this tantrum going to cost you?”
“I don’t know, but Chase isn’t pressing charges.”
“Huh,” Jimmy huffed in surprise. “You might swing by the ER and get some stitches on that cut. You don’t want to get any uglier than you already are.”
Dazed, he swiped at his forehead with his sleeve again, surprised to find it still bleeding. “Yeah.”
“Want me to follow you?”
“Stacy’s on a rampage,” Jimmy warned.
“Did he do it?”
“He didn’t deny it.”
“Sounds about right,” Jimmy said.
Dan walked back to his truck and pulled himself carefully inside. He wasn’t planning to go to the hospital, but when he caught his reflection in the rearview mirror, he decided to take Jimmy’s advice. The gash was deep and wide, and gushing like a faucet. He threw the truck into reverse and headed over to the Allman Falls Community Hospital.
It took longer to do the paperwork than it did to wait for his turn. A nurse showed him to his room, took his history and left him to wait for the doctor, advising him he would probably need X-rays of his ribs. Five minutes into his wait, the door slammed open and Stacy flew into the room. One look at her face was all Dan needed to know she wasn’t there to comfort him.
“Of all the stupid…! What in the…? How could you be so…? Argh!” Stacy stammered. Dan had never seen her so angry. She was too angry for Polish. The worst part was she was angry at him.
“I’m sorry,” Dan said. He didn’t know what else to say.
“You’re sorry?” Stacy spat at him. “For beating Chase into a bloody pulp? You’re sorry?”
“No, Chase deserved what he got,” Dan corrected her. “I’m just sorry I upset you.”
“How in the world could he possibly deserve a broken nose and cracked bones in his hand? How is he supposed to work with a broken hand, Dan?”
“It’s his fault if he broke his hand,” Dan said. “He shouldn’t have hit so hard.”
As soon as he said it he regretted it.
“You seriously did not just say that!” Stacy screamed.
The nurse rushed into the room and cautiously touched Stacy on the shoulder. “Stacy, honey, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“I’m leaving anyways,” Stacy snapped at her. She got right in Dan’s face and stated, “I don’t ever want to see you again!”
“Come on, Stace, don’t say that.”
Dan reached for her but she stormed out of the room. He jumped off the table to follow her and try and explain, but the nurse blocked his path. She didn’t need to. The screaming pain in his ribs sucked the wind right out of him. It took everything he had just to stay on his feet.
“I don’t know what you guys got into, but if I see either of you in each other’s rooms, I’m calling Chief Powell,” the nurse warned him and shut the door behind her.
Dan clutched onto his side and ripped the door back open. He brushed past the nurse in the hallway and stormed out of the hospital.
Freezing rain pelted his face and he pulled his collar up around his neck as he made his way through the parking lot. The cold temperature made it harder to breathe and he drew shallow air to keep the pressure off his ribs. Feeling like a fool, he carefully pulled himself back into his truck and headed for Chelsea, desperate to be alone.
When he pulled into the driveway, he saw the warm glow of lights coming from his cabin. Aria’s Jeep and the Rogans’ truck sat parked along the drive, slush accumulating on the windshields. Parking beside them, he slid out of the truck with his chest and side protesting loudly, and went inside. Jimmy and Brent sat at the table, drinking his beer, as Aria lounged across his bed, playing with Dolly. When Dolly heard him come in, she labored off the bed and crossed the room, tail wagging, to say hello.
With more spring to her step, Aria jumped up. “I’m so sorry, Dan!” She flung her arms around him in apology, causing pain so intense he let out an involuntary cry.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said quickly and held onto his elbow as she led him to the table, shooing Brent from his chair. Dan sat down slowly. Dolly lay down on the floor beside him, resting her chin on his foot in comfort.
“What are you guys doing here?” Dan asked. “You should head home before the roads ice over.”
“We’ll be fine,” Aria said. “What did the doctor say?”
“I never saw him. Do you have a Tylenol or something?”
Aria hurried outside and Brent got him a beer from the fridge. Jimmy leaned back in his chair and said, “I thought you were going to the hospital.”
“I did,” Dan said.
“And they didn’t let you see a doctor?” Brent asked.
“No, Stacy came in and chewed my ass so I left before I did something stupid,” Dan said.
“To Stacy?” Brent asked, surprised.
“To Chase,” Dan said, irritated by his stupid questions. “He was in the next room.”
Aria came back in on a blast of cold air, carrying a large first aid kit. She set it on the table and dug around for pain killers.
“What EMT did you steal that off of?” Brent teased.
Aria didn’t answer. Instead, she kicked Jimmy out of his chair and slid it over in front of Dan. From the first aid kit, she pulled out gauze, antiseptic, butterfly closures and bandages, then studied the cut on his face before starting to clean it out. “You really should have stayed and got stitches.”
“You could do it,” Dan said, wincing from the antiseptic. She blew on the cut to ease the sting, just like his mom used to do, except Aria’s breath carried the sweet scent of strawberries. His mom had always smelled of coffee.
“I’ll do it,” Jimmy offered. “I’ve got fishing line in the truck.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Aria said.
“So what are you going to do about Stacy?” Brent asked.
“I don’t know, probably nothing for now. I’ll just wait for her to calm down and then talk to her.”
“Does she know why you and Chase were fighting?” Brent asked.
“Probably not,” Dan answered.
“What happened with Stacy?” Aria asked. Dan told her about his encounter with Stacy at the hospital. She asked him to explain what happened at Chase’s shop and he did. She thought it over for a minute and said, “I think Ashley was right. Chase is the father of that girl’s baby.”
“And I bet Chase made up some bullshit story to feed to Stacy about why you guys were fighting,” Jimmy added.
Aria nodded in agreement.
“So how does Dan win Stacy back?” Brent asked.
“What?” Aria asked, looking at Dan, then Brent, and then back to Dan. Her face lit up. “Are you in love with Stacy?”
“No,” Dan denied, dismissing her question, angry at Brent for suggesting it, and pissed at himself for blushing.
“Holy shit!” Jimmy laughed. “You are in love with her.”
“You shut up,” Dan ordered, wanting nothing more than to reach across the table and wipe the smirk off his face. “This whole thing is your fault.”
“How is this my fault?” Jimmy asked.
“Because if Stacy and I hadn’t been trying to get you and Kylie together, this never would have happened,” Dan said, a little too excitedly. Pain shot through his chest and side. “Son of a bitch,” he hissed as he held his side.
Immediately concerned, Aria commanded, “Stand up and take off your shirt.”
“What are you talking about?” Jimmy asked Dan.
Dan ignored Jimmy and stood up as Aria asked. He lifted his shirt so Aria could inspect his side, but he didn’t go as far taking it off. He wasn’t being modest; he just didn’t want them to see him cry like a baby from the pain of lifting his arms over his head.
Aria pushed his shirt up further and gently ran her hand over the giant bruise forming along his side and across the front of his chest. She slowly increased the pressure and felt along his ribs until he sucked in a breath of pain.
“What are you talking about?” Jimmy asked again.
“Well, it’s bruised for sure,” Aria said. “Maybe cracked. You want it wrapped in ice?”
“Will it help?” Dan asked.
“Dan!” Jimmy said.
“Maybe,” Aria answered Dan. “It’s worth a try.”
“I told Dan about how I think you and Kylie should be together, and that Ashley was in the way,” Brent told Jimmy. “Stacy and Dan had us all over on Saturday to hook her up with Trevor.”
“Go ahead then,” Dan said to Aria.
“What the hell, Brent?” Jimmy yelled. “Stay out of my business.”
“You’re going to have to take the shirt off,” Aria said and started digging through her first aid kit again.
“Honestly tell me you don’t want to be with Kylie and I will,” Brent said to Jimmy.
Overwhelmed by the noise and heat of the room, Dan slipped into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. His head throbbed and he was becoming lightheaded from breathing shallow for so long. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, at the mess of blood on his face as Brent and Jimmy’s argument escalated and encroached on his quiet space. Tired of everyone and everything, he balled his hands into fists and fought back the anger.
Lightly knocking, Aria opened the door a crack. “Can I come in?”
He wanted to say no, but he answered, “Yeah, come on in.”
Aria squeezed into the small room with him, bringing a roll of gauze, an ice pack and a wrap with her. She closed the toilet lid and set everything on top, then reached for him and said, “Let me help you.”
Dan turned around and she helped him work his shirt off. It wasn’t as painful as he thought it would be. It was much, much worse. “Son of a bitch,” he hissed again.
“I would suggest button up shirts for a day or two until it starts to heal,” Aria said.
“I kinda figured that,” Dan said.
Aria picked up the gauze, loosely wrapped it around his chest, and tucked the end under. She grabbed the flexible wrap and said, “Hold your arms out and exhale as deep as you can.” Dan did what she said and she wrapped quickly, layering in the ice pack before pinning it into place. “Ok, all done. Only leave it on for a little bit. You don’t want to get pneumonia.”
Dan took a breath and it was a little better, but not much.
Aria sat on the edge of the bathtub and said, “Sit and talk awhile.”
“Not tonight, Aria,” Dan said, turning his back to her.
“Sit, Dan,” she insisted.
She added a ‘please,’ so Dan did as she asked and sat on the closed toilet.
“I feel like this is my fault.”
“I was the one who lost my temper. It’s not your fault,” Dan said.
“I should have picked up on the feelings you have for Stacy. I’m usually pretty good at these things,” Aria insisted. “If I’d been paying attention I never would have told you about Chase. I would have gone directly to Stacy myself.”
“Aria, I don’t have feelings for Stacy. Not like you think,” Dan insisted. “I’m in love with my wife.”
“And you always will be, but it’s okay to fall in love again. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“I was married to the most amazing woman in the world for ten years, and she died just a few short months ago. What kind of person am I if I can forget her so easily?” Dan asked, tears burning his eyes.
“You’re not forgetting her.” Aria reached for his hand. “You will never forget her. You’re just living. Love is part of life, Dan. It’s not something you can control. It’s what she would have wanted for you.”
“Stacy is just a friend,” Dan insisted, but he didn’t know who he was trying to convince.
“You want to know why Ashley ran out of Stacy’s house so fast on Saturday? Why she was so freaked out? All night long, she thought you and Stacy were married. She thought she was in your house, Dan. And then she saw the pictures of Stacy and Chase hanging on the bedroom wall. She totally flipped because everything hit her all at once—you guys weren’t married, and Stacy had all these pictures of a guy who looked exactly like her friend, Jill’s, boyfriend,” Aria tried to explain.
Dan held his throbbing head. “I don’t get your point.”
“The point is you and Stacy are natural together. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t see it, but now that I know, I believe it with all of my heart. There is something there, whether you want to admit it or not. It’s up to the two of you to decide what you want to do about it.” She stood up and checked the cut on Dan’s face again. “I’ll get the boys out of your hair and let you get some rest. No drywall tomorrow.”
Aria left the bathroom. Dan waited until he heard the cabin door close before he came out. Exhausted from the day, he took more Tylenol from the bottle Aria left on the table and collapsed into bed.
Jimmy drove away from Chelsea Lake with anger burning his chest and his brother’s frustrated words ringing in his ears, “If you like the girl, Jimmy, then kiss the girl! I don’t understand why you always have to make everything so damn difficult!”
He did like the girl. And he wanted nothing more than to kiss her again. He was tired of waiting, tired of the games, tired of being nice. Using the anger as fuel, he raced through town to her house and pounded a fist against her door. Her eyes wide with confused fright, she opened the door to him and whispered his name, “Jimmy?”
“No more,” he stated, and with a rough hand he pulled her into his arms. His mouth descended upon hers and he poured the frustration of every sleepless night she caused him into the kiss. When he pulled away, he whispered again, “No more, Ky.”
She nodded, tears pooling in her eyes as she twined her fingers through his hair and pulled him back down to her. “Okay,” she breathed into his mouth. “Okay.”