Stacy’s personal life may have been in a constant state of turmoil, but her professional life had never been better. Not only had she been asked to substitute for the remainder of the school year for the fifth grade teacher who went into labor on New Year’s Eve, but she had also been offered a permanent position teaching first grade in the fall. She accepted before the principal even finished asking the question.
She needed the distraction, she needed the security, but most of all she needed the money. It seemed every day the mail brought another bill Chase had forgot to mention and never intended to pay. He had racked up so much debt Stacy wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t have two nickels left to rub together when the sale of the repair shop was finally complete and they handed the keys over to Roger Rogan in February. Most likely, they’d have to put the house up for sale, as well.
Until then, she spent every spare moment on the telephone, either calling banks and collection agencies to set up payment arrangements or hounding Chase for more money. He seemed to spend all of his time finding new ways to avoid her. The last thing she expected was for him to barge into her home early on a Sunday morning, the door slamming against the wall so hard the knob lodged into the drywall.
Startled, she cried out, “What the hell, Chase? You can’t just walk into my house whenever you—”
“Why didn’t you tell me you’re moving?” he demanded, his face flushed, his voice a violent mixture of anger and pain.
“What are you talking about?” In effort to calm the wild jackhammer of her heart, Stacy pressed a hand to her chest. “I’m not moving.”
“Bullshit!” He whipped a folded newspaper from the chest pocket of his jacket and slapped it on the table in front of her. The homework she had been grading scattered on the gust of wind his anger produced. As the coloring in his cheeks deepened, he stabbed at the crumpled and smudged newsprint. “It says you are right here! Stop lying to me!”
“I’m not lying.” Stacy tugged the newspaper from under his finger and looked to where he’d pointed. As she quickly scanned the real estate advertisement, she exhaled in disbelief, “Omigod.”
‘Soaring ceilings, custom woodwork and a natural stone fireplace accentuate the breathtaking views of Chelsea Lake from this newly-constructed, four-bedroom, three-bath country home, situated on eighty acres of pristine hunting ground just minutes from Allman Falls….’
If she hadn’t already been sitting, Stacy would have collapsed. The newspaper slipped from her grasp as the room started to tilt, blurring around the edges.
“You didn’t know?” Chase asked, his anger gone, replaced by confusion.
Struggling to find her voice, Stacy slowly shook her head. “I had no idea.”
With a trembling hand, she lifted the paper to read the ad again, and then closed her eyes to stop the world for a moment while she processed the news. What the hell was Dan thinking? He couldn’t sell Chelsea. The property was as much a part of his DNA as the color of his eyes, the baritone of his laugh—maybe more so. Oh, kochanie. What have you done?
“So, you’re not moving?” Chase asked, interrupting her thoughts.
“Of course, I’m not moving!”
“Is he moving in here?” Chase asked, his confusion growing. “Why would he want to do that?”
“What in the world are you babbling about, Chase?” Stacy cried out in frustration.
“You and Dan! Where are you two going to live if he’s selling the house?”
Stacy let out a long sigh as heavy defeat pressed down on her body. “We’re not together.”
“We never were.”
“But I thought—”
“You thought wrong.”
“Huh.” Chase frowned, his face crumpled in pout. “Then why aren’t we back together?”
Rolling her eyes, Stacy didn’t answer him. He didn’t deserve one. She crumbled the newspaper into a tight ball and pitched it across the room. “Go away, Chase.”
He pulled a chair close to hers and gripped her hand, his expression an eager mixture of regret and longing. “Are we ever getting back together?”
“I doubt it.”
His eyes brightened with a few degrees of hope. “That wasn’t a ‘no.’”
“It wasn’t a ‘yes’ either.”
“So, it’s maybe?”
“Not even if I did this…?”
Keeping a gentle hold of her hand, he slowly slipped from the chair and lowered down to one knee, kneeling in front of her. He reached into the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out a thin gold band with a tiny sliver of diamond mounted in the center. There was no box, just the ring. Pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, he presented it to her.
“Marry me, Stacy.”
Without waiting for a response, he slipped the ring onto her finger. It was the wrong size, too loose for her finger, and it was dirty, as though it had spent weeks living in his pocket, among his keys and change. He looked at her anxiously, anticipating her outburst of joy, but she was speechless.
Though it was thin, the ring weighed heavy on her hand. For fourteen years she had waited for this moment, dreamed of it, and typical of Chase, he picked the most inopportune time in the world to ask her, sucking every bit of romance out of the occasion. He didn’t even technically ask her. It wasn’t a question. It was a declaration he was ready and an assumption she would agree.
“Chase…,” Stacy started to protest, but faltered. Even though she hated the very sight of him, a part of her would always love him. That little part was screaming like mad for her to say yes. Unable to take her eyes from the ring, afraid to blink lest it disappear, she balled her hand into a fist to keep it from slipping from her finger.
“Don’t answer me now,” Chase rushed as he hopped up from the floor. He slid his chair even closer to hers, taking both of her hands in his as he sat. “Just think about it, okay? Just wear the ring for a few days, take it for a test drive or something, and see how you like it. See if you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I’m a jerk and I know I’ve treated you like shit, but I promise I will never hurt you again, Stacy. I mean it this time.”
With a gentle tug, he leaned in close and kissed her, his lips hard against hers at first, then softening as they moved and swept along the sweet spot on her neck. “I love you, baby.”
He stood fast, his body a bundle of energy as he bounced around the dining room. “Shit! Look at my hands! They’re shaking!”
“I can’t believe how nervous I am. You have no idea—”
“Shut up!” Stacy screamed, finally finding her voice.
He froze instantly.
With her foot, she slid his chair a safe distance away from hers, then pointed at it. “Sit.”
He obeyed, but opened his mouth to start talking again.
She silenced him with a raise of her hand. “You can’t come barging back into my life after everything you’ve done and assume we’re going to just pick right back up where we’ve left off, Chase! It doesn’t work like that.”
“I told you to shut up.” With a glare, she dared him to interrupt again, but he kept his mouth shut. She continued. “I hate you so much right now, you have no idea. None!”
“Goddamn it, Chase! Just shut the hell up for once and listen to me!”
“Sorry.” He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and looked at the ring on her finger. His expression made Stacy wonder if he wished he could take it all back. It gave her a tiny ounce of satisfaction.
“I hate you,” she continued. “But I am willing to consider your proposal—”
“That’s all I want,” he assured her. “Just for you to consider it.”
“When did you start sleeping with Jill?”
“What?” he snapped, thrown by her sudden change in direction.
“I can do the math, Chase. I know when you got her pregnant. It was in May, wasn’t it?”
She knew exactly where she had been in May, what she had been doing. She had spent most of the month in Iowa, a forced smile glued to her face, false hope in her eyes, while she silently cried whenever Millie wasn’t looking. She had spent May encouraging Millie to eat, holding her while she slept, and treasuring every single moment she spent with her dearest friend, knowing they would soon be coming to an end.
“You told me you couldn’t get away from the shop. You told me you were overbooked and we couldn’t afford for you to lose out on those jobs! It was all a lie, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” he affirmed in a whisper.
“You were just too busy thinking about yourself and what you needed to bother thinking about what I needed when Millie was dying, weren’t you?”
He scrubbed his face in frustration. “Yes!”
“All you ever think about is yourself!”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“When did it start?” She hadn’t wanted the details before, but now that they were finally having the argument, she had to know everything. “Even you aren’t unlucky enough to get someone pregnant the first time you sleep with them… or are you just that stupid?”
“Stupid would probably be the right word,” he answered with a sigh. Pulling his chair up to the table, he slouched a little lower. “I know you won’t believe it, but I honestly met her in April.”
“She lives next door to Deuce.”
Stacy slapped him so hard and so fast even she didn’t see it coming.
“Shit, Stacy,” Chase yelped as his hand came up to his cheek.
“I can’t believe you! How many times has that bastard been in my house? How many times have I cooked him dinner and bought him beer? How many times have I had to sit and listen to his stupid, disgusting stories? And the whole time he knew—you both knew—what was going on behind my back? You’ve made me look like a fool, Chase!”
It was all he could say, and even he had the decency not to try to make excuses that were too little, too late, and wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. Stacy sat back in her chair, her arms crossed over her chest, pulling inward. Debating. Chase sat silent, his eyes adverted from hers.
Of all the emotions running through her mind, jealousy wasn’t one of them. She knew exactly what Chase saw in the girl who was barely more than a child herself—his lost youth restored. It had always been his obsession. Growing up—growing old—was his biggest fear. Knowing that made the affair easier to accept, but harder to believe it would never happen again. He swore he loved her. He swore he was committed to a future together with her. He had made the exact same promises a million times before, and had failed to make good on any of them.
Except, this time, he’d added a ring.
Looking down, she watched the sunlight reflect off the gold band as she spun it around her finger with her thumb. It was pretty in its simplicity—understated—but solid in promise. If he hadn’t given her the ring, if he had simply repeated the same, tired promises, she would have had no problem pushing him out of her heart forever. But he had slipped the ring on her finger. She had to appreciate that. Only time would tell if he would honor the promise it represented, or if it was simply another, better, lie.
“When did you buy this?” she asked.
He lifted one shoulder in shrug. “Awhile ago, just before Christmas. I didn’t know how to give it to you, so I’ve been carrying it around, hoping for the right moment. I thought you were with Dan, so I knew I didn’t have a shot in hell of you saying yes, but I wanted you to know I still love you. I’ll always love you.”
She nodded and fiddled with the ring, debating whether to slip it off and give it back to him or leave it on. “How many other women have you slept with?”
“Do you want me to marry you or not?” she demanded.
“Then tell me. And be honest because you’ve got nothing to lose,” she said. He just looked at her without answering, so she made it easier on him. “I don’t care about the girls you messed around with when I was in college, just the ones after that.”
“I’m not as stupid as I look, dupek.”
“Two or three,” he answered, his voice low.
“Maybe,” he said, but nodded.
She stopped pushing, because in the number of women didn’t matter. “Do you have any other kids I don’t know about?”
“God, I hope not.”
He let out a noise that was part sigh, part groan, part laugh as he shifted in his chair, scrubbed his face with his hand, scratched his arm and then his neck. Stacy watched him fidget while she debated whether or not she would be able to stomach waking up to him breathing the same air as her every morning for the rest of her life.
“Okay, fine,” Stacy finally decided. “But I want children.”
If they were going to do this again it would be on her terms, not his.
“Right now?” he choked out in surprise.
“Not right now,” she said with a weary sigh. “But I want to start within the next five years. If we’re going to do this—really do this—you have to commit to not only being faithful to me, but also to being the best father you can possibly be.”
“Okay.” Chase nodded in agreement. He sat up straighter in his chair, but refrained from reaching for her.
“I want every single thing you’ve ever promised me. I want the marriage. I want the kids. I want vacations and Christmases and Sunday dinners with our grandkids and great-grandkids.”
“Okay,” he repeated.
“I don’t want a roommate this time. If I did, I wouldn’t pick you. I’d get a dog instead. I want a future, Chase. I want forever.”
“Absolutely. Whatever you want, it’s yours. No more messing around. This is forever.” He watched her, waiting for her to demand more. When she didn’t he asked, “So… now what?”
“Now, you go away.”
“Because, honestly, I can’t stand looking at your face anymore, at least not today.”
She stood up from the table and motioned for him to do the same. When he did, she kissed him lightly on the lips and gave him a shove toward the door.
“Go to Juliette and figure out how you’re going to make this all work with Jill once the baby’s born. If you have any hope of making this work with me, you have to make it work with them first. She’s having your child, Chase, whether you like it or not. Go figure out how to be a father.”
His face paled in fear. “How do I do that?”
“Start by just being there.”
Without warning, Chase crushed her to his chest, hugging her so tight it almost hurt. Her arms came around him automatically, comforting him out of habit. With a mental slap to herself, she pushed against his chest, holding him at arm’s length. If she wanted a future with him, she would have to help him. It didn’t mean she had to start today though.
“Good-bye, Chase,” she said and firmly shoved him out the door.
Once his truck pulled away from the curb, and she was certain he was good and gone, she returned to the dining room and smoothed out the wadded up newspaper. Her heart heavy, she carefully read the listing once more, desperate for it to be a misunderstanding, and then called Aria to find out what the hell Dan was thinking.
She didn’t like Aria’s answer, so she hung up.