The door to the cabin slammed open, ushering in a blast of arctic air and a very angry Rogan. Dan didn’t bother to react. He knew why Brent was pissed, and he didn’t care.
“What the hell, Dan? You can’t just sell your house.”
“I can do whatever I want to with it; sell it, wreck it, burn it to the fucking ground. I’d planned to do exactly that, but I figured you and Jimmy would be pissed, so I didn’t. I was thinking of you.”
“How fucking gracious of you!”
As Brent continued to rant, Dan took rough aim and hurled another dart at the map he’d tacked onto the wall, and then walked over to see where it had landed. Mena, Arkansas. He’d never heard of Mena, but it sounded much better than Las Vegas, where the first dart had landed. With one dart left, he debated whether to throw it or settle on Mena. They’d been landing to the south. If he over-corrected too much, he might end up in Minot. The fishing was good, but it was too fucking cold there.
Brent watched him cross the room and toe the line he’d drawn in the dust on the floor. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Deciding where to live. Have you ever heard of Mena, Arkansas?”
“You can’t decide your life by throwing darts.”
“Yes, I can,” Dan said.
“No, jackass, you have to decide what you want like a grown-up and then fight for it,” Brent insisted as he settled onto one of the kitchen chairs. He toed the other closer and propped his feet on it, wet boots and all. Dan would have cared if he planned on taking the furniture with him, but he wasn’t, so he didn’t. “What are you going to do when things get tough in Arizona? Keep running?”
“Arkansas,” Dan said.
“The dart’s in Arkansas, not Arizona. Did you fail geography or something? They aren’t even close to each other.” Dan returned to the map, pointing in agitation. “This is Arkansas, and all the way over here is Arizona.”
“Whatever. Just stop acting like a baby and go talk to Stacy.”
“I’m not being a baby.”
“You’re a big, fat, whiney baby who needs to quit bitchin’ and moanin’ and feelin’ sorry for yourself and go talk to her.”
“I did talk to her! She told me to go away, so I did.”
“So go back!”
“Just drop it, Brent. We tried it, it didn’t work out. End of story.” Dan crossed the room once again and turned to face the map. “Should I throw the last one or settle on Mena?”
“You should get your head out of your ass and call Stacy.”
“I like having my head in my ass. It’s dark and quiet in there, exactly the way I prefer.”
“That’s because all you can see is your own shit. If you’d bother to pull your head out once in awhile, maybe you’d see everything’s not always about you.”
“Whatever.” Dan raised the dart and said, “This one’s the keeper.”
“If you’re going to throw your life away, you might as well close your eyes and go into it totally blind,” Brent said with a sigh.
Dan covered his eyes with one hand and threw the dart with the other. A second after he heard it hit the wall, Brent started laughing. Dan kept his hand over his eyes and asked, “How bad is it?”
“It’s fucking priceless!” Brent said, laughing so hard he started to cough.
Dan uncovered his eyes and looked at the map. His dart landed in Nebraska. He didn’t have to cross the room to see what city it pinpointed. It was close enough. Dan cursed, and Brent laughed even harder. Without another dart to throw, Dan whipped off his ball cap and flung it at Brent. He ducked and the cap went skating across the floor.
“You need any help moving your shit down the street?” Brent asked, still laughing as he stood and went to the fridge, kicking Dan’s hat further across the room as he did.
“Bite me.” Dan chased down his hat, stuffed it back on his head, pulling it low and tight, and then slumped into the chair Brent had abandoned, his arms crossed over his chest.
“It’s a sign, Dan. You’re supposed to stay and fight,” Brent said as he returned to the table, sliding a cold beer to Dan.
Dan had no fight left. He was done. He took a long pull from the bottle and changed the subject. “You guys got any extra jobs going on right now?”
“We’ve got more than we know what to do with. Building your stupid house might’ve been a waste of your time, but it was advertising gold for us.”
“That’s really good, Brent,” Dan said, sincerely. The boys deserved success. They’d worked hard for it.
“You know, if you do eventually manage to wiggle a crowbar up in there and pry your head out of your ass, you could buy in, be a partner. Jimmy has it all worked out. He told me to mention it to you.”
“Why are you so fascinated with my ass?”
“You tell me. You’re the one living up there.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll just stick with the odd job to keep busy until my house sells.”
“Whatever.” Brent spun his bottle absentmindedly. “Dan, can I ask you something?”
Dan sighed. He didn’t want to keep hashing out the same thing, over and over, with Brent. There was no point in talking about it anymore. He was going to sell the house and then he was going to move. He was going to do whatever it took to forget all about Stacy, and Millie, and never set foot in Nebraska again. But Brent sat staring at him, patiently waiting for an answer, so he said, “Sure.”
“When exactly do you plan on feeding me? I’m getting hungry here.”
“I don’t remember inviting you over here for dinner. In fact, I don’t remember inviting you over here at all.”
“I think you did,” Brent said, playing dumb.
“Are you sure?”
“Huh… Can I at least have another beer?”
“To go with my steak.”
“Fine, you win.” Dan laughed as he stood up from the table. “I’ll cook you a damn steak.”
He crossed over to the kitchen and went to open the fridge but stopped mid-stride when his eyes landed on the photograph stuck to the door, held in place by a heart-shaped magnet. A sudden, painful wave of longing, of loneliness, washed over him, stealing his breath.
The picture had been taken on Thanksgiving night, at Gimp’s. Dan held Stacy in his arms, her hands laced behind his head, her body pressed tight against his, both of them smiling and looking into each other’s eyes, capturing the heartbeat after they kissed. The memory of her weight in his arms, her breath on his skin, and how unbelievably beautiful she had looked, her skin like porcelain in the moonlight, overtook him. The memory hurt more than he possibly could have imagined.
Brent missed his calling—he should have been a magician.
Quietly, unable to pull his eyes from the picture, Dan said, “Tell Aria to mind her own business.”
“Will do, Dan.” Brent grinned. “I still get that steak, though. Right?”
Just past two in the morning, smack in the middle of the coldest cold-snap of the winter, Stacy woke from a fitful sleep, shivering, in a room so cold her breath froze in the air. Cursing her persistent bad luck, she wrapped in a quilt and stumbled down to the basement where she stubbed her toe and knocked over a box of Christmas ornaments she had carelessly packed away. Glass shattered inside the box, signaling the loss of some of her Gram’s most-treasured glass balls. Furious at herself, Stacy took out her anger on the heater, but no matter how much she kicked and banged and cursed it out, the stupid thing wouldn’t reignite.
She figured she could suffer through the cold for a little while and wait until a decent hour to call a repairman, but the bitter wind howled through the crappy windows, causing the temperature inside the house to drop so fast she worried her pipes would freeze.
Stacy didn’t want to encourage Chase into thinking she needed him, so she called Jimmy instead. At barely four in the morning, he answered on the first ring and knocked on her door not even ten minutes later, wide awake and a bundle of energy—the epitome of a morning-person.
“I made coffee, but you don’t look like you need any.” Stacy said, stifling a yawn as she held the door for him. She’d been up for hours but still resembled the walking dead. He looked ready to run a marathon. “Have you even been to bed yet?”
“Oh, I was in bed, but I wasn’t sleeping,” Jimmy teased with a wink.
“You’re so full of poop,” she laughed, rolling her eyes. “If you were doing that, you wouldn’t have answered the phone.”
“I’m teaching full time now so I’m trying to watch what I say. Those kids are impressionable.”
“Little Miss Potty Mouth is going to stop swearing?”
She shrugged. “A girl can try.”
“Are you also going to wear some of those hot teacher-glasses and carry a big ruler?”
Stacy laughed. “You wish.”
“I really do,” Jimmy said with a grin and a wiggle of his eyebrows that made her laugh. “I had a dream like that about you once, and I was a very naughty boy.”
“You’re sick.” Stacy bit back a smile as she felt the familiar flush of heat race up her cheeks. He’d been making her blush since he was twelve, and he was damn good at it.
“You better hope none of those kids know how to speak Polish, or else you’re screwed.”
“Pocałuj mnie w dupe,” she said, and stuck her tongue out at him.
“You said something about my ass, right?”
“Maybe,” she dismissed, feigning innocence.
“You like my ass, don’t you?” Jimmy asked with another grin. “You want to spank it…. with your ruler.”
“No!” She laughed. “I said ‘kiss my ass.’ ”
“Don’t lie. I’ve seen you staring. You know you like it.”
“Whatever,” she said and rolled her eyes. But she had stared. And she did like it. But she’d never admit to it. His overinflated ego would explode. “Are we going to stand here yapping all day, or are we going to go down and get busy?”
“God, I love it when you talk dirty to me,” he breathed in husky whisper.
It only took her a second to realize what she’d said. He laughed at the blush that surged up her neck, setting her face on fire. She smacked his arm and cursed him out, but couldn’t stop from smiling as she started for the back stairs. Damn him and his perverted mind.
He followed her down to the basement, the low ceiling forcing him to stoop. Both of them had to turn sideways to squeeze around the maze of boxes and bins in the dark, cramped area. The first thing he did was check her filter. Stacy blushed again, this time in embarrassment from how dirty it was. He narrowed his eyes in disappointment.
“Is that why it quit working?” she asked. The dirt clogging the filter was so thick she could pull it off in solid chunks. She tried to think back to the last time she’d changed it and drew a blank.
“Probably not,” Jimmy mumbled, his attention fully focused on diagnosing the heater.
She watched him for awhile, but he didn’t need her help. She returned to the kitchen where she could be more productive, and started cooking breakfast. Before long, she heard the familiar loud bang and house shaking rattle as the heater kicked to life, blowing cool air through the vent by her feet. It quickly warmed. She stood on the metal grate for a moment, letting out a sigh of contentment as the heat thawed her frozen toes.
By the time Jimmy emerged from the basement, she had plates piled high with waffles, bacon, and scrambled eggs keeping warm in the oven, and fresh honeydew and muskmelon balled and arranged in her Gram’s favorite glass bowl.
“Hungry?” Stacy asked as she heated the maple syrup.
“Famished.” Jimmy scrubbed his hands and poured himself a cup of coffee as she brought everything to the table. “Damn, Stace. If I’d known you’d feed me this good just for fixing your heater, I would’ve rigged it to breakdown regularly years ago.”
Smiling, she stabbed the top waffle with a fork. “How many you want?”
“Keep ‘em comin’,” he answered, motioning for her to keep filling his plate. He skipped the syrup but took seconds of the cantaloupe, sprinkling it heavy with pepper. “Guess who’s getting married?”
A flutter of panic rolled through her chest as she unconsciously turned the ring on her finger with her thumb and hid her hand under the table. “You?” she guessed, forcing her tone to stay light.
“God, no,” Jimmy said, the same flash of horror reflecting in his eyes. “My brother.”
“Are you serious?” Stacy gasped. “Aria never said a word!”
“She doesn’t know yet. He’s asking her on Valentine’s Day.”
“Aww…” Stacy pressed a hand to her heart. “That’s so sweet.”
“I think it’s stupid.”
“Why would it be stupid?”
“You girls really fall for that fake holiday crap?”
“Sad, but true,” she admitted. “We’re suckers for the mushy stuff.”
“He’s got the ring and the whole thing planned, but he keeps freaking out. I bet him a hundred bucks he pukes when he asks her.”
“Hey now, you leave him alone. Don’t make it worse for him.”
“Aw, he’ll be fine when the time comes. He always is.”
“They’re so cute together. Tell him I said congratulations.”
He nodded around a mouthful of bacon.
“So, when are you and Kylie getting married?”
“Oh… I… uh…” He stammered and started choking on his bacon.
Biting back a smile, Stacy whacked him hard on the back to help dislodge the stuck food and then let him off the hook by launching into a story about one of the kids in her class.
It wasn’t until he was helping clear the table that he finally asked, “So, what’s up with the ring on your finger?”
“Oh…” She immediately spun it around, trying to hide it. “It’s nothing.”
“Are you and Chase engaged?”
“Not exactly. We’re just… thinking about it.”
“What’s to think about? Say no. The guy’s an ass.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No,” she insisted. “It’s not.”
“I know he comes across like a jerk sometimes, but you don’t know him like I do,” Stacy said, feeling as though she had to defend herself, and her decision, as much as she was defending Chase. “Deep down, he’s a decent person.”
“No, he’s not.”
“He really is, Jimmy. What you see is all just an act. It’s his way of trying to hide what he hates about himself. He gets so wrapped up in everything he did wrong, and everything bad that’s happened in his life, that he gets down on himself and makes careless mistakes. He needs me to keep him grounded and remind him of the good when life gets too hard.”
“Chase is a grown man,” Jimmy argued. “It’s not your job to make sure he likes himself.”
“I know it’s not my job, but… I don’t know… maybe it’s the fact that I’ve worked so hard for so long to make him happy with his life that until he finally believes he’s the person I know he is, I’ll feel like I’ve failed him. Or that I’ve failed us.”
“You can’t put that on yourself, Stace.”
“You don’t understand.”
“No, I do. I get what you’re saying,” Jimmy said. “You’ve invested a lot of time in him. I get it. But come on, Stace, the guy cheated on you. He treats you like shit. I don’t know what kind of bullshit he’s been feeding you to make you take him back this time, but you know he’s never going to change. He’ll always be a prick.”
“He’s not a prick,” Stacy dismissed half-heartedly.
“Chase is the type of guy who’s incapable of being happy with who he is. No matter what he’s got, he’ll always be looking at what the other guy has, wishing it was his. Instead of appreciating you for everything you do for him, he’ll keep blaming you for holding him back from what he thinks he deserves. Is that how you want to spend your life?”
“Jimmy—” she started to protest, but there was nothing to argue. Everything he said was true.
“When are you going to quit worrying about him and everyone else and just go after what you want?” Jimmy asked. “When does Stacy get to be the happy one?”
Stacy let out an involuntary laugh at the idea of happiness. It came out sounding so bitter it scared her. She tried to joke it away as she turned on the faucet to fill the sink. “I don’t know, Jimmy. Maybe next Tuesday?”
“I’m holding you to that,” Jimmy said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I always am.”
“No, you’re not.” He slid in close to her, leaning against the counter. He looked straight into her when he asked, “Did Dan make you happy?”
“Yes and no,” she answered honestly. “I love him, Jimmy. I always have. I love who I am whenever I’m around him, and I love how he makes me feel about myself, but being with Dan didn’t make me happy.”
“I felt too guilty to be happy.”
“Because of Chase?”
She shook her head.
He frowned in confusion, his eyes full of questions. She didn’t know how to explain it so she just shrugged. The longer he looked into her eyes, the harder it was for her to find the words, but the more he seemed to understand.
“It was because of Millie, wasn’t it?” he asked.
She didn’t have to answer him. He knew.
“She’s gone, Stace,” he said softly, as though he hated to remind her. “You both have to move on.”
“We are moving on, just not with each other.”
“You know that’s stupid, right?”
“It’s not stupid.” She sighed, growing tired of the conversation.
“It is,” he growled in irritation with her as he pushed off the counter and grabbed a dishtowel to start drying. “Look, I’ve known you and Dan my whole life and even when we were kids you guys were like the old married couple of the group. You’re so in synch with each other it’s unreal. It’s like you can read each other’s minds. I bet Dan says ‘bless you’ a full minute before you sneeze.”
“He doesn’t even say it after I sneeze.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” she admitted. “I do. I get it. But just because we’ve spent our lives together and know each other inside and out, it doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be ‘together’ together. You know?”
“Did the sex suck, or something? Was it weird—like gettin’ it on with your cousin?”
“No!” Stacy laughed and smacked his arm as yet another blush flamed her cheeks pink. “It was nice. Very nice. Perfect, actually.”
“Then I honestly don’t get it, Stace…unless you’re still in love with Chase.”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
“If you have to figure it out then you’re not in love with him. You’re using him as an excuse to hide from your feelings for Dan.”
“I’m not hiding,” she denied adamantly.
“Yeah, you are.”
“Why am I getting relationship advice from a guy who didn’t have the balls to ask a girl out for two years?” she snapped.
“It’s okay.” He bumped into her with his hip and said, “You said ‘balls,’ by the way.”
It took her a moment to remember she’d told him she was trying to stop swearing. “Oh, crap!”
“Shut up, you,” she scolded but laughed with him.
“You’re right, though. I don’t know jack about relationships.” He set down the plate he was drying and turned to face her. “Can I be dead honest with you about something?”
“Of course.” She turned off the water so she could listen.
“I’m scared shitless how I feel about Kylie. The intensity of it terrifies me, you know?”
“I know,” Stacy agreed. It was exactly how she felt for Dan.
“She’s all I think about—all the time—even when I’m with her. It’s been like that since the day I met her. I always thought I was just kind of obsessing about her because I couldn’t have her, but ever since we got together it’s like, I don’t know, like it’s worse, if that makes any sense. I just want to…” His expressions mirrored his struggle to find the right words. “I don’t know what I want… it’s like… I just want to be making love to her all the time, constantly, like she’s heroin or something.”
“Love is a powerful emotion, Jimmy.”
“It scares me, though. Sometimes I lie in bed at night and watch her sleep, and I get so panicked that my heart starts slamming against my chest, like it’s going to bust through my ribs, and I….” He looked away from her before saying, “I almost wish we’d never gotten together.”
“Kylie’s like no one I’ve ever met before. She’s this amazing, smart, beautiful, sexy woman who’s perfect and deserves the best of everything. And Brayden… oh my god, Stace, I love him so much you can’t possibly understand. But I know me—I’m gonna do something stupid and fuck it up, and I’m going to destroy them.”
“Oh, Jimmy,” she said on a sigh as she pulled him into her arms, her wet hands soaking his t-shirt. “You’re not going to mess up. You love them both too much to ever do anything stupid.”
“Yeah, I will, Stace, I can feel it.” He tensed in her embrace so she let him go.
“What could you possibly do that would hurt her?”
“I don’t know. If I knew, I could stop it. It’s like I can just feel this dark shadow lurking in the background, waiting to strike.”
“You have to have faith in yourself, Jimmy. Don’t let fear win.”
“Promise me you’ll never stop.”
“Never,” he promised. “But you have to promise me something, too, then.”
“Talk to Dan—”
“No,” Stacy said firmly.
“Because I can’t.”
“Yes, you can, you’re just too scared to try.”
“Maybe I am, but it doesn’t matter anyway. He’s moving.”
“No, he’s not. He’s just throwing a tantrum.”
“His house is up for sale.”
“Believe me, Stace, he’s not going anywhere. If he was, he would’ve already left. He’s a little hurt and really pissed off right now, but he’s also really in love with you. Go and talk to him.”
Ignoring him, Stacy scrubbed furiously at the pan she’d fried the bacon in. She was sick and tired of people telling her to talk to Dan. Aria was relentless about it. So was Cheryl. She didn’t need Jimmy to start in on her, too.
“Fine.” Jimmy sighed. “Don’t talk to him. I don’t care. Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid like marry Chase or have any babies with him. At least not until you figure out if you still love him. Deal?”
“Deal,” Stacy agreed. It was an easy promise to make. She had absolutely no intention of marrying Chase anytime soon.
Chase groaned, unwilling to rise from the warm cocoon of drunken sleep.
“Chase!” Jill slapped him hard on the ass. “Wake up!”
“My water broke.”
“What!” He popped to attention, nearly falling off the sofa in the dark living room. “Where?”
“In the kitchen. On the floor,” she said, waving her hands and turning in panic as she started to cry. “I made a mess.”
“It’s okay,” he assured her as he extracted himself from the tangle of sheets and blankets of his make-shift bed. He sat for a moment, finding his bearings as he scrubbed his hands against his rough, stubbled face. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” she answered, uncertain, as she sunk down on the sofa beside him. “I don’t know… Maybe?”
He threw a heavy arm around her thin shoulders. Her skin felt cold, clammy, covered in goose pimples from fear and the chill in the air. He wrapped her in his blanket, still warm from sleep.
She looked at him, her eyes wide, terrified in the dark night. “We’re going to have a baby.”
“Yeah.” He nodded, slowly, and found himself unable to stop. He felt like a demented bobble head, and tried hard not to vomit. “Holy shit.”
“Yeah,” she whispered in agreement. “Holy shit.”
“Are you ready?” he asked, still nodding.
“No,” she mouthed, unable to voice the word, but she started to nod along with him. Slowly, beautifully, she smiled. “I think I am.”
Suddenly, so was he.