“Oh, my goodness! I am full. Why did you let me make such a pig of myself?” Stacy complained as she tried to get comfortable in the booth they shared, tucked in the back corner at Gimp’s.
Together, they had spent the day with Cheryl at the pub, cooking, serving and devouring her annual Thanksgiving feast for the lonely people of Allman Falls. Every year, about fifty people, mostly seniors, showed up for her ten dollar plate of turkey with all the fixings. After dinner, the crowd would shift and a younger group would filter in for Keno and karaoke. Dan planned to sneak off into the night before that happened, but at the moment he was too stuffed to move.
“I was too busy scarfing down my own food to pay attention to what you were doing.” Dan leaned back and pressed against his chest, trying to make room for a burp to escape. “I need an antacid. And a nap. I don’t think I even have room for my beer.”
“You better drink up, buddy. You’re going to need the liquid courage for when you get up on stage and sing.” Smiling, she lifted her glass and took a sip. The juice from the cranberry and vodka creation Cheryl had made special for the occasion had stained her lips and she appeared to be genuinely happy for the first time in over a month. The days she’d spent living with Cheryl had been good for her.
“I already told you, it’s not happening,” Dan said.
“I’ve got your song picked out.”
“Come on, sing with me. Please.”
Stacy pouted a little, but she didn’t keep pushing. Karaoke was one thing he would never do, no matter how much she begged. He didn’t sing in the shower. He didn’t sing in the car. There was no way he would ever sing in front of a bunch of people he didn’t know. He never sang for Millie. He wasn’t about to start now.
“What are you going to sing?” Dan asked Stacy.
“I don’t know. I’ll just pick whatever feels right when it’s my turn.” She fiddled with the cardboard drink advertisement on the table and asked, “How’s your house coming along.”
“Slow,” Dan admitted with a disappointed sigh.
Ever since the day Dan had moved to Chelsea Lake, he had felt a sense of urgency to build the house as fast as possible and then get the hell off the lake. As the holidays approached, his burning desire to complete the house had intensified. He’d started pushing himself harder, asking the Rogans to start earlier in the morning and stay later into the night. He needed this part of his life to be over so he could move onto the next. He had no idea what the next part entailed, but he felt trapped in time, as though the incomplete construction held him back. He had to finish it in order to move on.
More than anything, he needed out of the cabin. The little one-room cell had long since closed in on him. The house was to the point that he could move into it if he wanted to, but he had never intended to live in it. From the beginning, his plan had been to build the house, and then burn it to the ground. Now, he didn’t know what to do. As the house had come to life, it had developed a character, a personality. It had become part of him, and he found himself falling in love. Because of that, he had decided against burning it down, but the thought of sleeping in it, alone, still terrified him.
“You want some help with it?” Stacy offered. “I weld a mean paint roller.”
“I remember,” Dan said, smiling at the memory of Stacy and Millie repainting the kitchen in the apartment. Twice. Their first attempt had been a disaster. “Pumpkin’s your favorite color, right?”
“Ugh.” She stuck out her tongue. “Don’t remind me. That color looked more like a turkey’s butt than a pumpkin.”
“Speaking of turkey butts, check out Melissa’s most recent picture.” Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out the drawing he had received in the mail the day before, and handed it to Stacy. “I thought you might like this one.”
With great care, she unfolded the paper and smoothed it on the table. “Oh, how cute!” she cooed over the drawing of Millie wearing a jaunty Pilgrim hat, standing beside a gigantic turkey sporting orange and yellow feathers and a bright red wattle. She traced the crayon lines with her fingertip. “Can I keep this one?”
He felt a little stab in his chest, like a slight ache, or a twinge of heartburn. “Sure?”
As though she sensed his hesitation, she carefully folded the paper and placed it on the table in front of him, distracting him with the question, “What are your plans for the weekend?”
He picked up the picture and tucked it into his pocket, lightly pressing his hand against his chest, holding Millie to his heart. “I don’t know. Dolly and I’ll play it by ear, see what happens.”
“Cheryl and I are going to revive our old tradition of taking a girls’ weekend in Minneapolis to do some Christmas shopping. You’re more than welcome to come along.”
“On a girly weekend? I don’t think so.”
“It’s not going to be all girly stuff,” Stacy laughed. “At least I don’t think so. Cheryl hasn’t really told me everything we’re doing.”
“Knowing Cheryl, she has something fun planned. Just don’t have too much fun. I don’t want to have to drive all the way up there to bail you two out of jail.”
“You’re no fun.” Stacy smiled.
“Who’s running the bar for her while you gals are gone?”
“No one. She’s going to close.”
“Hey, Old Woman!” Dan called over to Cheryl.
“What?” she hollered back.
“You want me to take over the place while you’re out slackin’ off?”
“Do you promise not to scare away all my customers?”
“Good enough. You’re hired!”
“I can’t believe you!” Stacy bopped his hand. “You’d rather sit here for three nights, serving beer to the handful of old drunks who happen to stumble in than go on a weekend road trip with me?”
“Yes.” It was only partially true. He would also rather serve drinks to alcoholic seniors than be in his empty house alone.
“Oh, you’re singing now, buddy,” Stacy declared and hopped out of the booth. She came back a few minutes later with fresh drinks and a laminated copy of the playlist. She set it flat on the table, closed her eyes, spun her finger around and randomly pointed to a song. When she opened her eyes she giggled. “Have fun with ‘I Feel Pretty’!”
She collapsed into laughter and Dan ripped the playlist out from under her hand. He scanned it twice and exclaimed, “That’s not even on there! You’re pure evil, woman.”
As he leaned across the table and gently bonked her on the head with the playlist, Aria and Brent wandered over to them.
“Hey guys, how’s it going?” Aria asked.
“Good, good,” Stacy answered, still laughing. She slid out of the booth and stood up. “You two sit here.”
“You better go get yourself a chair because you’re not sitting with me, Baby Bear,” Dan said, keeping his legs on the bench so she couldn’t sit.
“Oh, scooch over, you big galoof,” Stacy said and shoved his legs off the bench. He sat up and made room, allowing her to slide in close. As she rearranged the glasses on the table, she asked, “No Jimmy tonight?”
“No, he’s spending the evening with Kylie,” Aria said. She slid onto Stacy’s bench, the smell of cinnamon drifting into the booth with her, and Brent went to the bar to get them some drinks.
“Jimmy and Kylie are dating?” Dan asked, shocked to hear Stacy’s matchmaking had worked out.
Aria’s eyes lit up as she smiled. “They think we don’t know, but they are definitely together. Haven’t you noticed the big, stupid grin on Jimmy’s face all week?”
“No.” A warm feeling fluttered in Dan’s heart. It was ridiculous, but hearing about Jimmy and Kylie put him in the best mood he had been in for a long time.
“I heard Ashley and Trevor hooked up, too,” Stacy added. “I guess I am a pretty good matchmaker after all.”
When Brent returned to the table, Dan raised his bottle for a toast.
“Here’s to stubborn people finding love!”
Everyone raised their drinks and gave a round of cheers. Aria tapped Dan’s foot under the table and nodded towards Stacy pointedly. He ignored her, and that made her smile.
Cheryl shut off the jukebox and moved over to the little stage she had set up by the pool tables. Gripping the microphone in her hand, she sent out a Thanksgiving wish to the crowd and asked, “Now that our bellies are full and our drinks are fresh, who’s ready for some really crappy singing?”
The people in the bar cheered. Dan groaned.
“We’ve got lots of new songs on the list so make sure you look it over real good. And remember—you’re only allowed to sing ‘American Pie’ if you buy a round for the crowd first. Eight and a half minutes is too damn long if we’re thirsty! So, who’s on deck…? Looks like MaryAnn Hansen with Sara Bareilles’ ‘Love Song.’ Everyone give her the applause now in case you don’t like it later!”
A woman in her forties bounced up to the stage and the singing portion of the night began. Most of the people who sang were pretty good, one or two were exceptional, and the rest made Dan’s ears bleed—exactly what he’d expected.
Aria and Stacy teamed up for a couple of duets, including Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe,’ much to the disappointment of a couple who were waiting their turn to sing that exact song. Aria took a few turns on the mike by herself, singing candy-coated pop songs Dan didn’t recognize, and Stacy belted out an angry chick song about smashing out truck windows. She really got into the lyrics, drawing the audience along on her crazy/beautiful journey of vengeance, earning her the coveted ‘Free Drink Chip’ for the night.
As the clock swept closer to midnight, the drinks went down easier and Dan started feeling pretty damn good. Stacy begged another turn at the microphone, this time to sing Melanie Safka’s ‘Brand New Key.’ Her cheeks flushed as brilliant red as her cranberry drinks, she started to bounce along to the song, and Dan couldn’t take his eyes off her. It had been one of Gram’s favorite songs. The way Stacy sang it, with just the right folksy tone to her voice, took him back in time to the countless weekends he’d spent stretched out on the thick, green shag carpeting in Gram’s tiny living room, a board game set up on the floor between them, that song or one like it coming from the stereo cabinet in the corner. When she sang the chorus, he almost caught the scent of Gramp’s pipe tobacco lingering in the air. He winked and she rewarded him with one of her knockout smiles.
When she returned to the booth, she practically bounced into his lap. He laughed and put his arm around her to settle her down a bit.
“I’m happy to see you having so much fun.” Giving her a bit of a squeeze, he wished he had the courage to kiss her, right there, in the booth in front of Aria, Brent and the whole world. If he did, he wouldn’t stop. He’d keep kissing her forever.
She bounced up to peck his cheek. “I sang that one for you.”
“Gram would’ve been proud. You sang it beautifully.”
With a big grin, she said, “Now, you sing me mine.”
“Pretty please.” Stacy pouted playfully, batting her long eyelashes at him.
“Aw, come on, Dan. Sing one for Stacy,” Aria joined in.
He looked down at Stacy’s beautiful, freckled nose and his resolve shattered. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her.
“If I do this, one time, you can never ask me to do it again. Ever.”
Brent snickered. “Sucker.”
“I promise,” Stacy lied, pantomiming a cross over her heart.
“Ooh, Dan, sing some Barry White,” Aria suggested. “You’ve got that deep voice. It would be perfect for you.”
“I’ve got a song in mind.” He shoved Stacy out of the booth so he could stand up then grabbed her by the shoulders and planted a huge, theatrical kiss on her lips. “For luck.”
Blushing, she gave him an enthusiastic push toward the stage. Cheryl handed him the playlist, but he didn’t need it. When he told her what he wanted, Cheryl smiled and patted his cheek.
“That’s a beautiful song, Dan.”
He waited in line behind a group of four that murdered a classic Elton John song, and before he knew it, it was his turn. He stepped onto the stage and Cheryl gave him a nod. As he turned toward the crowd, his heart thumped like a rabbit’s and he almost chickened out, but he caught Stacy’s eye. She smiled, boosting his courage.
The music started and he sang the first bit a little off key, but when his eyes locked with Stacy’s, he found his voice and started singing Paul McCartney’s ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ from the heart. The room disappeared and a tear came to Stacy’s eye as he sang straight to her, his heart beating slow and powerful in time to the music as he allowed the words he sang to heal them both.
He was tired of being alone, and he knew she was, too. He needed her. She needed him. They needed each other. She was the only person in the world who understood him, the only person who would accept him and all his flaws, as he accepted hers. It was foolish to keep pretending otherwise.
The crowd held silent while he sang. As he reached the middle of the song, he closed his eyes, holding onto the notes as long as possible, as though they were physical, tangible evidence of his love for Stacy. He could almost see Millie’s soft smile, feel her gentle touch, encouraging him to let go of his grief and live again. Slowly, he opened his eyes as he sang and held Stacy’s gaze until the end. With the last beats of music playing, he carefully set the microphone on the speaker and stepped down from the stage. The room remained silent, watching him.
As he turned toward the booth, Stacy crossed the room, picking up speed as she moved closer and closer to him. He reached for her and she surprised him by jumping right into his arms, holding on as if she would never let go again. He wasn’t letting go, either. She was his lifeline and he planned to hold onto her, forever.
She opened her mouth as though to say something, but no words came out. Nothing needed to be said. He knew her heart, and she knew his. She smiled through her tears and kissed him. The crowd cheered, but Dan didn’t hear them. All he knew was Stacy. She was all that he ever wanted to know again.
Her kiss was a real kiss, a sensual kiss, the kind that left no doubt. He closed his eyes and let go of his fear of loving and living, returning her kiss with a passion he thought he was no longer capable of. Her hands on the back of his neck pulled him in closer and she raised herself in his arms just a little bit, as though trying to erase every bit of space between them. When she parted her lips, he willingly took her invitation, immediately falling in love with the taste of cranberries on her breath. She was weightless in his arms as the room spun slowly around him. He could have kissed her forever.
He opened his eyes and realized he was the one turning them in a lazy circle. Someone in the crowd whistled, and Stacy blushed a deep, beautifully sexy pink. He kissed the tip of her nose before setting her down, and led her to the booth, her feet barely touching the floor as he held her. Sliding onto the bench, she leaned against him and ran a light hand along his thigh under the table. His adrenaline high kicked up another notch, pushing him to the top of the world.
“Holy shit, Dan.” Brent laughed. “Where did that come from?”
“I did pretty good, didn’t I?” Dan asked, the smile permanent on his face.
“You did real good, Dan.” Aria squeezed his hand then turned to Brent and asked, “You ready to get out of here?”
“But the night’s just getting started,” Brent protested.
Aria leaned into Brent and whispered in his ear. His eyes shot over to Dan for a second, registering Aria’s reason for leaving. She whispered something else and a slow smile crossed his face.
He whispered something back to her as he kissed her by the ear then said to Dan and Stacy, “Look at the time. I’ve got to get this girl home.”
Aria slid out of the booth and leaned down to give Stacy a hug before she left.
“Call me tomorrow.”
“I will,” Stacy promised, her cheeks flushed.
As soon as they were alone, Dan looked down at Stacy’s up-turned face and traced her jaw with his thumb. “I think I scared them away.”
It felt as though he was seeing her for the very first time, a new Stacy, who was so much more to him than the little girl he had always known. He took a long moment and memorized her delicate features, the faint freckles on her nose, the way the light shone in her eyes, a heat to it that he had never seen before. It took everything he had to remember they were in a bar and not alone. He desperately wanted to be alone with her.
“I think you scared a lot of people away,” she said with a coy smile. He looked up and saw the crowd was thinning. A very drunk man was singing to Waylon Jennings, and people were making their escape.
“Did I sound better than him?” Dan asked, semi-seriously.
“Much,” Stacy assured him.
Her hand moved along his thigh again and he couldn’t help himself. He dipped his head down and kissed her again, slowly this time, savoring the moment. All of his inhibitions dissolved in an instant as the beating of his heart calmed, welcoming her in. He picked up her hand and laced her fingers with his. They sat quietly, enjoying each other and the occasional singer. Dan never wanted to leave their little corner, but eventually Cheryl came over and disrupted their peace. They were the only ones left in the bar.
“Are you kicking us out, Mama?” Stacy asked, snuggling into Dan a little closer.
Cheryl sat across from them and said, “Not yet. I need to rest my tired dogs for a minute.”
“You sure know how to throw one hell of a party,” Dan said.
“Who knew I still had it in me?” Cheryl chuckled. “And you, Dan! Where you been hiding those pipes?”
“It wasn’t that good. There just wasn’t much to compare it to.”
“Don’t be surprised if Old Man Mort hits you up to join his quartette. Lonnie’s scheduled for a hip replacement. They’ve had to cancel a lot of gigs.”
Stacy giggled and he squeezed her hand.
“Tell Morty I’m more a solo act,” Dan said to Cheryl.
“Suit yourself. It’s a paying job though, and I hear you’re desperate for work.” She pulled herself up from the booth and said, “Speaking of which, let me give you the run down on the place so I can get outta here.”
Cheryl walked Dan through the basics of the register, the fryers and the clean up schedule. There wasn’t a lot to it that Dan hadn’t already figured out from being a customer, but she added a few notes of interest that might come in handy. She assured him that even though it was a weekend, it would be slow enough for him to handle. Dan and Stacy helped Cheryl clean up the last of the tables and glasses then they all headed out. Cheryl kicked up gravel as she sped off in her battered Suburban, but Dan took his time walking Stacy to her car.
“What are your plans for the rest of the night?” Stacy asked as she opened the driver’s door.
“Nothing much,” Dan answered. He still had a hold of her hand and lightly stroked the back of it with his thumb.
She turned and tilted her face towards his. “You want to come over and watch a movie or something?”
“Or something.” Dan pulled her in closer. Her eyes darkened and her lips parted slightly in anticipation. When he kissed her, she intensified it until they were dangerously close to forgetting where they were.
It took five minutes to get from Gimp’s to Stacy’s house, and they were the longest five minutes of his life. As he followed her inside, Stacy turned on a light and slipped off her coat and shoes. Boxes lined the entryway. Shoving them aside, she apologized.
“I was packing up the last of Chase’s junk before dinner and didn’t have a chance to get the boxes to the garage before it was time to leave.”
“You want some help?” Dan offered.
“No,” she said softly, shaking her head. Moving to the staircase, she stepped up on the bottom step. Dan crossed over to her and Stacy smiled. “I can reach you better this way.”
She pushed his jacket from his shoulders and let it fall to the floor. His hands slipped around her hips as hers went up the back of his neck and her fingers ran through his hair.
“I thought we were going to watch a movie,” Dan whispered, wanting nothing more than to taste the cranberries on her breath again.
“Or something,” Stacy murmured.
She brought her lips to Dan’s collarbone, her kiss flitting over his skin as lightly as a butterfly as she tasted her way up to his jaw. Little volts of energy seemed to course through his body, waking up every nerve ending that had long gone dormant. Impatient, he captured her lips and kissed her slow and deep, her breath sweet as it mixed with his. His hands found their way under her silk shirt, revealing her even silkier skin underneath. She was warm, her temperature rising, as her breathing quickened and her kisses claimed him. His hands moved down and he lifted her up, wrapping her legs around him.
The stairs were no obstacle as he moved quickly into the first bedroom at the top of the stairs. Stacy had her shirt unbuttoned before he set her down, the silky fabric falling to the floor in a whisper. Dan’s shirt followed. Her hands on his bare chest re-ignited the fire she had started all those long nights ago in the kitchen, the heat racing through his body, bringing him to life.
He desperately wanted to rip off every shred of clothing between them until her hot, slick skin was sliding against his. He had to force himself to slow down, to take his time. His hands shook in nerves and anticipation as he lifted her hair and kissed her shoulder, slipping her bra strap out of the way. Her breath hitched in her throat as her pulse hammered under his lips, his tongue, his fingertips.
As he slid the strap off her other shoulder, she took a step back and held his gaze—her eyes deep, shimmering pools of chocolate, lit softly by the low light in the hall. She reached for the clasp and slowly removed her bra, the black lace fluttering to the floor. His eyes didn’t want to leave hers, but he couldn’t help but turn his gaze downward. She was gorgeous in the dim light—flawless, every inch of her perfection.
“Oh, Stace,” he whispered on a hot exhale. His knees went weak. He seemed to be floating as she pulled him back to her and kissed him with such intensity he tried to slow her down. He wanted to memorize her body, feel along every curve, smell, touch and taste every bit of her. But she was desperate, she was insistent, and she was overwhelming his senses with her urgency. She reached for his belt buckle. She didn’t want to slow down.
So, he surrendered.