Dan brushed the light dusting of snow from his porch steps and sat to watch the Easter morning sunrise reflect off Chelsea Lake. In the vibrant rays of orange and brilliant yellow, he tried to find the strength to hold onto hope.
When he’d poured his heart, and nearly his guts, all over Stacy’s porch, he’d left feeling like an idiot, but he’d also felt certain she would call by the end of the day. She didn’t. As each long day followed another endless night, his phone remained silent, and his confidence faded.
He’d gone to her house with a speech so practiced he could recite it forward and backward, upside down if he had to. But then she’d emerged from the house wearing nothing but a towel, her skin flushed and still damp from her shower, smelling of sweet pea and jasmine, and everything he’d intended to say vanished into thin air.
He had absolutely no idea what ended up coming out of his mouth. For all he knew, he’d spent ten minutes reciting the service manual for a Toro lawn mower. But even if his words came out wrong, she’d responded to his intention. He could feel it in the air between them. Her heart wanted the same as his, if only her stubborn nature would allow it.
In the days following, the only calls he received were from Aria, checking to see if Stacy had called, and from Bev, his realtor from hell, who was supposed to be finding a building with a shop and office space now that Rogan and Sons Construction was officially Rogan-Handley Construction and looking to expand. She kept calling with offers on his house instead. He’d told her a hundred times Chelsea Lake was permanently off the market, but she was relentless. She wanted that commission.
He couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. He tried to work, but he couldn’t concentrate on anything. He’d spent the past week remodeling a kitchen with Jimmy and Brent, but spent more time checking his phone for missed calls than he did stringing wire. As usual, Brent didn’t feel much like working either. On Good Friday, they left on a parts run to Juliette and ended up sitting on the banks of Chelsea Lake, beer in one hand, pole in the other, fishing the freshly thawed waters. Brent left when the sun set, and still Stacy never called.
She pulled into his driveway instead.
Not quite believing she was actually there, Dan slowly stood and watched as she stepped from the car. Dressed for church, she wore strappy sandals inappropriate for the snow. Her pastel floral lace dress flirted around her hips and flattered her curves in a modest way, while her crocheted yellow sweater illuminated her chestnut curls.
“Hi,” she said in nervous greeting.
“Hi,” he exhaled in reply, unable to form legitimate words. The morning chill in the air tinted her cheeks in natural beauty more gorgeous than the sunrise, stealing his breath and his every thought. When he inhaled, he caught a hint of fresh baked sweets and candy, reminiscent of Gram’s kitchen. “You smell good.”
With a nervous hand, she smoothed an imagined wrinkle from the front of her dress. “Thanks. I’m actually surprised I don’t stink. I’ve been running like crazy since two this morning, baking kolaches and filling baskets for Easter brunch.”
“You should have called for help,” he said, remembering their previous early-morning baking session. “I was up anyway.”
Her already flushed cheeks deepened in color. “I must’ve been thinking about you. I dropped everything off at the church and was on my way to Sunrise service and got distracted. Somehow, I ended up here.”
“I’m glad you did.”
A silence settled between them. Dan used the time to concentrate on his breathing. Stacy looked out across the lake, her face tipped toward the sky as though in silent prayer. The rising sun warmed the air, but breeze across the water still carried a chill. Stacy pulled her shoulders in as she fought back a shiver.
“You want to come in?” Dan offered.
She considered him for a long moment before agreeing, “Maybe for a minute.”
He led her up the porch stairs, nervously watching her expression as he opened the door. She stepped inside, her eyes traveling the entryway and into the rest of the house.
“Wow, Dan,” she said on breathless whisper as she took a second, timid step inside. “This is… Wow.”
He wished he could take credit for the warm, welcoming feel of the house, but it was Aria who had lovingly turned the hollow shell he’d built into an inviting home. She had spent long evenings and weekends shopping, sewing, designing and decorating every inch of every room. All he did was write the checks and stay out of her way. Inspired by Nature’s palate of earth, moss, rock and sky, she had selected furniture rich in texture with deep wood grains, comfortable leathers and buttery suede. She decorated in an eclectic mix of new items and timeless antiques she scrounged up and brought over bit by bit, each piece adding another touch of home.
As Stacy stepped further into the house, into the living room, Dan asked, “Do you want a tour?”
“Maybe in a minute,” Stacy said, her voice distracted. Drawn to the group of pictures Aria had clustered on the far wall, she stopped short before she reached them. “Where did you get these?”
“Aria made them.”
“They are,” Dan agreed. The collage was his favorite art in the entire house. Aria had poured through Dan’s photographs, filling albums and frames, and had selected her favorites to enlarge and reprint onto canvas. With oils, she’d added texture and highlights to the prints, creating the illusion of true paintings.
Stacy paused in front of the center picture. “I don’t even remember this one.”
“That’s always been my favorite,” he said, slipping into the memory.
Stacy and Millie had gone swimming that day. Having ignored Dan’s suggestion to put on sunscreen, they both came home with sunburned shoulders and rosy-red cheeks and noses. In the photograph, Stacy sat at the kitchen table while Millie stood behind her. She’d bent down to give Stacy a quick hug, her arms across the front of Stacy’s chest, their faces together as they both smiled up at the camera and Dan, who had taken the picture as proof he was always right.
Before she’d enlarged and mounted it, Aria had cropped the picture so it was a close-up of just their faces, slightly turned towards each other, cheeks almost touching, both of them absolutely gorgeous in the light and the memory of the day. The sepia tones calmed down their red noses and cheeks, leaving them with a natural glow that seemed to radiate from the canvas.
As Stacy slowly traced Millie’s face in the picture, Dan stepped up behind her and gently placed one hand on her hip. She leaned back into him and continued to gaze at Millie.
Unable to bear her silence any longer, he cautiously asked, “What are you thinking?”
“That I miss her,” Stacy answered, her voice breaking. “And that I hope she understands.”
“That I never meant to hurt her. That I never meant… I never meant to fall in love with you.”
“She understands,” he assured her in a whisper and held her closer. With each slow breath, her body softened as she allowed her fears to dissipate. When he thought she was ready, he asked, “Do you want to finish the tour?”
“No,” she said and stepped from his embrace, but took his hand in hers, leading him to the sofa.
She sat and he perched uncomfortably on the edge of the cushion beside her. She turned toward him, her eyes bright and warm, but her emotions still a mystery.
“Your hair’s getting longer.” She reached up and brushed a lock from his forehead.
Her touch calmed his rapidly beating heart. “I need to get it cut.”
“No, don’t,” she said. “Let it grow a little more.”
“Okay,” Dan whispered.
With her fingertips, she traced his hairline, then down along his jaw. “Chase left me.”
“He’s a fool,” Dan said.
“He did it because I was too scared to do it myself,” she said, dropping her hand toward her lap.
He caught her hand in his and gently turned her palm up. “What were you afraid of?”
“Being alone,” she said, watching his hand brush along hers.
“You’ll always have me, Stace.”
Slowly, he traced her life line.
“I didn’t want to hope,” she said.
He could feel her pulse quicken in her wrist.
“Why?” he asked, carefully tracing her heart line.
“You weren’t mine to have. I got scared that I wanted it so bad.”
He lifted her hand to his lips and placed a kiss on the center of her heart line.
“I was scared, too,” he admitted.
“Of what?” she asked. Her eyes were moist and seemed to look straight into his heart.
“That you didn’t want it at all… That you would disappear from my world… That I would have to live the rest of my life without you…”
“It felt wrong to want to be with you. Very wrong.”
“It’s not,” Dan stated, certain of that fact.
She placed a hand on his face and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips—soft, light—testing. Her eyes stayed on his lips as she ran her thumb lightly over where hers had just been.
He sat still, patient as she worked through her inner struggle. Finally, she gave the slightest of nods then slipped her hands to the back of his neck, drawing him down to her. Her kiss was decisive—intense—pulling him in. Every barrier they had built between their hearts dissolved as he returned her kiss, finally loving her as he’d dreamed of doing for the rest of his life.
“Kocham cię,” she breathed as he kissed along her neck, craving the taste of her skin like a drug, as though a lifetime had passed since they’d made love.
“I love you, too,” he whispered, closing his eyes as her strawberry lips returned to his.
Her body heated under his hands, her skin becoming deliciously hot to the touch as her lips parted, inviting him in. He accepted eagerly.
“Pragnę się z Tobą kochać,” she moaned, slipping completely into Polish as he cupped her heavy breast through her dress, as perfect in his hand as it was in his memory.
“I don’t know that one, but I don’t care,” he said and pulled her roughly onto his lap, her heat enveloping him through all their layers of denim and cotton, adding to his urgency.
“I want to love you, and I want to make love to you,” she translated in a heavy whisper. “Right now. Forever. I never want to stop making love to you. I need you with me, surrounding me, loving me, forever, kochanie.”
“Say it again,” he asked as he slipped off her sweater and unzipped the back of her dress. She shrugged the fabric off her shoulders and he unclasped her bra, casting it aside unwanted, unneeded. His hands cupped her breasts, his mouth eagerly tasting her sweet, delicious skin. “Say it to me always.”
“Pragnę się z Tobą kochać.”
She struggled to say the words as her breathing became heavy, but he didn’t need to hear them again. He had it memorized. He had her memorized. He repeated it back to her, his voice thick, his accent rough, his words muffled by her skin and his desire.
“What about that tour you promised me?” she asked and he could feel her teasing smile.
“This is the living room,” he answered as he swiftly flipped her off his lap, onto her back on the sofa. Her hair framed her gorgeous face, her back arched as his impatient hand slipped under the skirt of her dress, up her thigh. “I’ll show you the rest some other time.”
She laughed as she grabbed a handful of his shirt, pulling him down and into her heart forever.
“Okay,” Stacy gasped as she collapsed flat on her back, onto the thick carpeting, and tried to focus her eyes. Her heart was pounding, her ears ringing, her muscles spent and leaden from exhaustion, but she felt incredible. “Where next?”
“That’s it,” Dan panted beside her, his entire body flushed and dripping in sweat, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. “Tour’s finally over.”
“Oh,” she exhaled hard then raked in fresh oxygen. “Okay.”
“You sound disappointed,” Dan said, making a noise that was probably supposed to be a laugh but sounded more like the croaking of a frog and sent him coughing, which made him groan in pain.
“No…” She struggled to swallow through her heavy breathing and placed her hand on her damp chest over her wildly beating heart. “It’s a beautiful house, kochanie.”
“A lot of rooms.”
“A lot,” he agreed. “Too many. I think I hurt myself.”
Laughing, she patted his thigh in sympathy and looked around at the built-in shelves, up to the skylight and the blue sky outside. “Where are we?”
“A closet, I think.” He rolled his head to the side and looked around. “Yeah. A closet.”
He looked around again. “I have no idea.”
“It’s nice… very roomy… The carpet’s soft.”
With more of a flop than a roll, he turned his head toward her and brought his hand to her chaffed, stubble-burned neck. “Does it hurt?”
“A little,” she admitted. “Is your shoulder still bleeding?”
He touched his shoulder, checking for blood. “I don’t think so, but I’ll probably have a hell of a bruise on my ass from the nightstand.”
She laughed. Her heartbeat gradually slowed, cooling the fire in her lungs. The longer she lay still, the more her entire body felt like jelly. She finally knew what sated meant—and it was awesome. “So, now what?”
“I’d offer you breakfast, but I’m pretty sure it’s past noon.”
At the thought of food, her tummy growled and she giggled. “How about lunch?”
“I have peanut butter.”
“I don’t know. If not, I think there’s some honey in the pantry, Ba—”
Before he could say it, she slapped a hand over his mouth. “Don’t you dare call me ‘Baby Bear.’ I hate it worse than the time we watched Smoky and the Bandit and you started calling me ‘Frog.’ ”
“I could’ve called you ‘Fred’ instead,” he mumbled against her hand.
She uncovered his mouth. “I surprised you didn’t. You called me ‘Steve’ for a year and a half.”
“Why did you call me ‘Steve’ anyway?” she asked.
“Because it pissed you off and you turn funny colors when you’re mad.”
“I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do,” she insisted and frowned in a pout, but her mood immediately brightened when she remembered something he’d said. “You have a pantry?”
“Yeah,” he answered, a slow smile crossing his face. “We do.”
Her heart smiled at the word ‘we’ and she pushed her tired body to a sitting position. “I don’t remember getting a tour of the pantry.”
“I was saving it for a special occasion.”
“Is it big?” she asked, teasing him with a wiggle of her eyebrows.
“Big enough for a sane person. But for you…? I seriously doubt it.”
He laughed, dodging as she pretended to punch him a few times, and then made a grab for her wrists and pulled her on top of him. She stretched her body down the length of his, sweaty skin on sweaty skin, and he let out a sigh of contentment as they locked eyes.
“I love you, Stace.”
“I love you too, kochanie.”
“You know what I was thinking about when we were in the first closet?”
“Do I even want to know?”
“I was wondering what would’ve happened if Gram hadn’t walked in on us all those years ago.”
“Probably nothing.” She laughed. “We were eight.”
“I know.” His hands slowly trailed down her back and over her hips. “But I still wonder.”
“Well… I probably would have done this,” she said, and pecked him chastely on the lips.
“Hmm…” He studied her seriously. “We did that. Remember?”
“Maybe I might’ve kissed you a little more like this…” She kissed him again, her lips softer this time, warmer, holding them there for a moment.
“I think we did that, too,” he said with a smile.
“Did we do this?” she asked and took him in her hand, stroking the length of him.
“No,” he whispered, slowly shaking his head.
“Can I tell you a secret?” she asked as she stroked him again and felt him harden into steel against her palm. She had no idea how he still had the stamina to keep going after all the rooms they had toured, but she loved discovering this private part of Dan and all the other intimately personal details about him that had previously been inaccessible to her.
“Yes,” he answered on a breath and closed his eyes.
“I was never going to show you mine,” she whispered. “I just wanted to see yours.”
“Seriously?” he cried out as his eyes shot open. “All these years, I was cursing Gram for walking in on us, and you were never going to give up the goods?”
“Poor baby.” She laughed and tried to kiss him again in apology but he turned his face away at the last second.
“Payback’s a bitch, Baby Bear.”
“Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it?” she taunted and stuck her tongue out at him.
He threw an arm around her and in one swift move he was on his feet and tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She squealed and tried to wiggle out of his grasp, but he held strong and headed out the door.
“Where are we going?”
He didn’t answer.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked again, watching the walls of the bedroom, and then the length of the hallway, pass by in a flash. “Dan?”
He kept silent as he carried her down the stairs and through the living room, around the dining room table and into the kitchen. She smiled when he opened a door and closed it behind them, plunging them into absolute darkness. He set her on her feet and then disappeared.
“Kochanie?” she called out in whisper. Spreading her arms out to try to get her bearings, she only grasped at empty air. If it was the pantry, it was a huge pantry, and she was in love. Listening for him to make a noise, she inched her bare feet across the cool, tiled floor and continued to reach into the darkness, desperate to feel something solid beneath her hands. She felt foolish because she knew she was safe, but still her heart skipped in fear. “Not funny, kochanie.”
Finally, after crossing what felt like miles of tile but was probably only a few feet, she felt his warm skin and the muscles of his chest against her fingertips. In the same heartbeat, something cool and wet landed on her breast, sliding down and around her nipple, and she let out an involuntary gasp. His mouth followed, and her gasp turned into a deep moan.
“You found the honey,” she guessed and gasped again as he squirted more on her bare skin.
“Honey mustard,” he corrected. “Close enough. And this—”
A stream of cold hit her belly, forcing her to squeal.
“Smells like ketchup to me,” she said with a laugh and another squeal, barely getting the words out as he hosed her again, covering her in the sweet, tangy sauce from shoulders to toes.
The bottle fell from his hand and his mouth came crashing down on hers as he lifted her in his arms and wrapped her legs around his waist. The pantry was the hottest, sweatiest, stickiest—all around messiest—part of the tour, but it was, by far, her absolute favorite room of the house.