Up since two because of her stupid heater, Stacy had never felt more physically exhausted or mentally drained. The only thing that got her through a long day wrangling the munchkins in her class was the vision of warm jammie pants dancing through her head. When she turned down her street and saw Chase’s truck parked in her yard, backed up to the front door with his tailgate down, that fabulous dream dove headfirst, straight out the window.
Stomping snow from her boots as she climbed the stairs to the porch, she found her front door propped open carelessly with a stack of her favorite books.
“Chase!” she hollered, her tone tight as she struggled to control her anger. She bent to slide the books out of the way before slamming the door closed. “Chase!”
He popped out of the kitchen, wearing her lip-covered, pink apron, holding a spatula in one hand, a beer in the other, sporting a big, stupid grin on his face. Quickly, she glanced down to make sure she could see pant legs below the hemline of the apron before demanding to know why he was there.
“Fixing supper,” he answered, as though it were obvious, or even common for him to cook. She didn’t know he even knew how to use a spatula.
“Why are you grinning like an idiot?” Cautiously, she stepped closer. “Are you drunk?”
“Nope,” he answered, still smiling. “Not yet anyway.”
“Why is your truck parked on top of my azaleas?”
“Come into the kitchen and find out for yourself.”
She didn’t know what she thought she would find when she stepped into the kitchen, but she definitely did not expect to see a brand-new, stainless steel dishwasher stuffed in between her cabinets. It had been installed slightly crooked, and had already suffered more than its fair share of scratches and dents, but it was a dishwasher. And it was gorgeous!
“Oh, my gosh! Where in the world…?” The giddy feeling only lasted a few seconds before worry kicked in. She narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “How much is this going to cost me?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Chase promised. “Deuce ordered it for a customer and it came in dented so he couldn’t use it. He got a replacement and gave this one to me pretty much for free.”
“Deuce?” Just saying his name left a bitter taste in his mouth, for about two seconds. Who the heck cared where it came from; she’d never owned a dishwasher before in her life. Biting back a giggle, she ran a light touch over the buttons. “Be sure to tell him thank you for me.”
“It’s no big deal. You’ve been asking for one for years now, so when he said he had one, I thought, ‘What the hell? How hard can it be to install?’ And you know what? It was easy! I should’ve done it years ago.”
Stacy refrained from rolling her eyes. Catching a rancid scent in the air, she asked, “What’s burning?”
“Oh!” Chase hurried to the stove and flipped the grilled cheese sandwiches he’d been frying on the griddle. The bread was burnt. Not quite solid black, but pretty close. “Shit.”
“Not bad, for your first try.” With a laugh, she pushed him out of the way and finished making the sandwiches, plating them up with potato chips and pickle spears.
They sat in the kitchen and ate together as a couple, sharing a comfortable silence. The smile danced in his eyes as a rare joy seemed to radiate from within. In fourteen years, she had never seen him as happy as he was at that moment, and curiosity got the better of her.
“What’s going on with you?”
“What do you mean?” Chase asked, smiling as he crunched on a bite of dill pickle.
“You look like you’re about to bust out in song and dance. I’ve never seen you so happy before.”
“Are you scared?” he teased.
“Kind of,” she admitted with a laugh and stole a drink from his beer.
“I am happy, Stacy. Like over-the-moon happy. I’ve never felt like this in my life.”
“So, tell me,” she prompted, beginning to love the smile on his face.
“Oh, man…” With a nervous laugh, he rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “I didn’t know how to tell you, so, I guess I’ll just come right out and say it—Jill had our baby this morning. I’m a daddy.”
“Oh…” she exhaled on a hot rush as fire filled her chest.
“He’s so beautiful, Stacy. And he’s perfect. He’s so small he fits in my hand,” Chase described, pantomiming holding a baby in front of him as the pride in his voice grew with every word. “And he’s strong, like a little linebacker already, or a quarterback…”
His mouth kept moving, but the sound of her blood pumping in ferocious waves blocked out all other noise. Raging jealousy turned her world red. She managed to nod and make noises of interest whenever he paused for her approval, but she was incapable of listening to him, focusing instead on the anger and pain churning in her stomach.
When he showed her a picture of the newborn, she closed her eyes for a moment to keep the burning tears at bay, and then plastered on a smile and exclaimed over his brand-new features. Not everything that came out of her mouth was a lie. Nolan Michael Conner was as perfect as Chase had described. With his hair dark and eyes bright, and his tiny fist raised in newborn victory, he was so beautiful Stacy’s heart ached to hold him, and then broke all over again knowing he wasn’t hers to hold.
“I feel like the whole world just opened up to me,” Chase said as he took her hands in his and pulled her closer to him. “It’s like all the shit is behind me now, you know what I mean? I held him seconds after he was born, and he was all slimy and gross and screaming his head off, and I felt this amazing sense of peace wash over me. It was like… like my whole world just exploded with possibility. I wish you could have been there with me, just to experience it all. And Jill… oh, my god, Stacy, she was amazing. I didn’t know she was so strong.”
White pain sliced through Stacy’s body as her throat clamped into a vise. She wanted to scream at Chase and beat him to a bloody pulp for being so cruel, but he didn’t realize what he was doing to her. It wouldn’t be fair.
When he hugged her, she hugged him back. When he kissed her, her mouth moved under his. When he invited himself over for dinner the following night, she agreed and promised to make him his favorite pork chops to celebrate. Once he finally left, she shut the door slowly, careful not to slam it, and then slid down the jamb to the floor, her knees to her chest, and prayed for Millie to come back to her.
She never came, but Aria did—appearing ten minutes after Stacy called her, with two Solo cups in hand and a bottle of cheap wine to fill them with.