When her ringtone played the opening notes of Kesha’s “Backstabber,” Ashley’s relatively good mood turned as sour as the taste of last night’s beer she was trying to scrub off her cotton-coated tongue. Spitting out a mouthful of toothpaste, she silenced the call with a jab of her finger to the touch screen. Her sister, Kylie, was nothing if not persistent. She’d called four times already, and it wasn’t even six in the morning yet.
Ashley could only imagine the lecture Kylie had been stewing on all night. When Ashley had shown up to the barbecue with Mike glued to her side, his hand on her ass, the expression on her sister’s face had been priceless. A little bit horror, and a whole lot of disgust, she’d given Mike a hard once-over and then hauled Ashley into the kitchen to vehemently reprimand her for bringing a stranger to her home, around her child, without asking permission first.
Ashley took offense to the idea she would intentionally bring harm to her nephew. Kylie took offense to the very fact Ashley existed. Their mother took offense that no one wanted to try her beet salad. Brent and Aria, Dan and Stacy, and Jimmy’s cousin, Sarah Rogan, tiptoed around Ashley and Mike, treating them like unstable mental patients let out on a day pass. Jimmy did what Jimmy always does, and hid behind a beer bottle all night. The only person who treated Mike like a human being had been Brayden, who’d jabbered the poor guy’s ear off and reenacted in exquisite detail his afternoon encounter with a bumble bee.
She’d tried to be nice, tried to be sisterly, tried to take that first step toward mending their relationship, and once again, Kylie had spit on her efforts and treated her like a piece of trash. Of either of them, Ashley was the one who had the right to be pissed, who deserved to treat Kylie like shit.
She’d give anything to summon the courage and say, once and for all, “Kiss my ass, you backstabbing, boyfriend-stealing, self-righteous, jerkface bitch.” Not over the phone, though. She’d much prefer to deliver the acclimation in person so she could watch her dear sissy’s face.
“Oh, boo-hoo. Did someone hurt your pretty little feelings?” Ashley cooed into the bathroom mirror. As the glass fogged over from the steam of the shower, she watched her reflection fade, as though she’d simply ceased to exist. “Bitch.”
“Who are you talking to?” Mike called out from behind her sea creatures shower curtain.
She used a hand towel to wipe the moisture from the mirror and studied her reflection. She hated her hair. On a whim, she’d chopped it into chunky layers. Huge mistake. Her face was too fat to pull it off. Her cheeks had always been chubby. With the added layering, she looked like a greedy chipmunk stuffed plum full of walnuts. Combined with the freckles she couldn’t cover, a pig nose, short frame, and her fat, stubby legs, she looked like a toad. An ugly toad.
The only thing she had going for her was a nice set of boobs. Her supermodel skinny, marathon-running, porcelain skinned, perfect-in-every-way sister, Kylie, did not have boobs.
She had Jimmy instead.
It was the story of her freakin’ life. If Ashley wanted it, too bad. Kylie got it instead. She got the looks, the talent, the respect of their mother. Even Ashley’s own father had loved Kylie more, and Kylie wasn’t even his real daughter.
And now Kylie had Jimmy. She’d talked smack about him for years, about his drinking and partying and whoring around, trying to make Ashley feel like a desperate fool for sticking by him, for loving him despite his flaws. And then she’d screwed him, and stole him, and kept him for her very own. If that didn’t feel like a knife wrenching in her back, she didn’t know what would.
It was high time for Little Miss Perfect to know what it felt like to lose. Let her see how much it hurts when the man nestled between her legs is imagining he’s making love to someone else.
Before she lost her nerve, Ashley lifted her top, slipped down her bra, and plumped her breasts to the taunt-nipple perfection Jimmy had spent so many long nights kissing and suckling, fondling and admiring. With her cell phone, she snapped a picture of her breasts reflected in the steamy mirror, her face and body a hazy mystery, attached it to a text, and clicked send.
She didn’t expect Jimmy to reply. He hadn’t acknowledged any of her other naughty pictures or sexy texts over the past few months. She didn’t care if he ever did. Just knowing he’d be thinking about her while he stroked in the shower was victory enough.
As though he could read her mind, Mike poked his head out from behind the shower curtain. “You wanna play a little rub-a-dub-dub, scrub the naked man in the tub?”
Ashley laughed. “I’ll pass.”
“It’ll be quick.”
“Oh, now there’s an incentive.”
The night before, after a few awkward stops and starts and a brief, hysterical fit of laughter, they’d managed to have fairly decent sex. It wasn’t the mind-blowing, earth-shattering, furniture-breaking, wild fantasy kind of sex she would have hoped for, but she did manage a fairly decent orgasm in the middle of the fun. Good enough to make her want to try it again, but not right now.
“Just hurry it up. You’re making me late for work.”
Mistaking her instruction as an invitation, Mike leapt from the shower and wrapped her up in his sudsy, naked bear hug, completely soaking her scrubs with his scrawny, wet body. With a squeal, she squirmed from his embrace before his greedy mouth could cover hers in a kiss.
“Out!” Brandishing her hot curling iron, she shooed him from her bathroom and slammed the door. Seconds later, she heard a thunderous, booming sound from the other side of the apartment. “What the heck are you doing?”
“Some crazy idiot’s beating on your door. Stay in there. I’ll scare ‘em off with my big stick.”
“You mean your tiny toothpick?” Ashley teased.
Over the pounding, and the ringing of the doorbell, she heard her sister call out, “Ashley!”
She ripped open the bathroom door and took off for the living room. “Mike! No!”
But it was too late. He opened the door, buck ass naked and slapping. Ashley cringed, bracing for hell to break loose, but Kylie didn’t even blink an eye as she rushed past him, into Ashley’s apartment.
“Ashley, I’m so sorry to do this to you.”
Wild-eyed and out of breath, she shrugged a heavy diaper bag and backpack off her shoulder, before unceremoniously handing off a sleepy Brayden and his Boo Bear to Ashley.
“If I had any other options I wouldn’t ask, but Jimmy’s dad had another stroke this morning. We booked a flight out of Omaha at seven, and we have to leave right now to make it to the airport in time, but daycare doesn’t open until six-thirty. Mom went into work early because one of the residents died and she wanted to be there with the family. She can’t leave them just to watch Brayden for me, so can you do it for an hour, just until daycare opens? You won’t have to worry about picking him up or anything after that because Mom can take over, and I’m really sorry if this is going to make you late for work—”
“Is James going to be okay?” Ashley interrupted.
Startled, Kylie stuttered, “No… I don’t… God, I hope so.”
But she didn’t sound confident. With her heart falling into her stomach, Ashley breathed out a silent curse and hugged Brayden tighter in reflex.
She’d met Jimmy just after his father’s first stroke, when every day, every minute, had been an uncertainty. She’d been there, supporting him through his father’s recovery, through the change in ownership of the business, through the sale of his childhood home and his parents’ move to Florida. She’d traveled with him after the second stroke, and had been there to offer comfort after the third. He’d never verbally shared his fears or discussed details of the day. He’d kept his words and his thoughts private. Instead, he’d expressed his anger, his frustration, his pain through sex, and she’d been there to absorb it all.
She longed to be there for him again, to bear his weight, to swallow his cries, but it was Kylie’s turn to be his strength, no matter how he needed her to be. Ashley choked back the bitter swell of jealousy and squeezed her sister tight in encouragement.
“Go. I got this.”
“Thank you.” Kylie hugged her quickly, and pressed a dozen kisses to Brayden’s cheeks. “Love you, Monkey. Be good for Ash.”
Turning to leave, she finally caught sight of Mike, who was doing a poor job of hiding his naked self in the space between the wall and open door.
She cried out in exasperation, “Are you freaking kidding me right now?”
“What?” Ashley cried back in immediate defense. “I didn’t invite you here. You came barging into my house! It’s not my fault you saw my breakfast sausage.”
“Ashley!” Kylie scolded and Mike snickered. Whipping around, Kylie snapped her fingers at him. “Go. Get dressed.”
“Shoo, boy. Bad, boy,” Ashley mocked. “Don’t talk to him like he’s a dog.”
Brayden bounced in Ashley’s arms and echoed, “Ba dog!”
Kylie ignored them both and commanded, “Go!”
“Uh…” Mike looked from Kylie, to Ashley, and back again before starting to ease out from behind the door, his pale skin covered in goose bumps, his body shrinking and pulling in tight from the chill in the air. “Okay…”
“Mike, wait,” Ashley instructed and he gladly froze. Taking her sister by the elbow, she ushered Kylie past Mike, out the door. Immediately, he scampered off to her bedroom and slammed the door. “Kiss James for me and give my love to MaryAnn. Tell Jimmy and Brent I’m thinking about them. Text me the minute you know anything, alright?”
“Okay,” Kylie agreed. Her eyes full of tears, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Ashley said, but it wasn’t.
“But, seriously, Ash, honey, what are you thinking? What about Trevor?”
Ashley shrugged. She asked herself the same thing, every day. She had no answer.
“I don’t like that guy,” Kylie stated.
“I’m sure you don’t,” Ashley said, leaving it at that. There was so much more she wanted to say to Kylie, so much hurt and hatred she deserved to spew, but it could wait for another day.
She wished she could close the door and leave the burden of worry with her sister, but she carried its heavy ass around everywhere she went. It tickled the back of her mind as she tried to concentrate on her patients. It boiled in her stomach and stole her appetite at lunch. It caused her to miss veins, trip up stairs, and drop pens. She got the hiccups, twice. Every ten minutes, she checked her phone. Kylie never texted. Finally, fed up and frustrated, she called her mom at the end of the day to see what she knew.
“Oh, he’s fine. Perfectly fine, honey,” Martha Johansen assured her. “Kylie called a few hours ago. He gave them a real good scare this time, and he’s tired and a little confused, but he’s going to be okay.”
Unable to stop the tears, Ashley locked herself in the last stall in the Women’s restroom, and cried until her eyes ran dry, but she found no relief. She headed for Jill’s house on the south side of town, longing for some baby time with Nolan and a good old fashioned whine session with her best friend. But Chase’s truck was parked out front, his claim on Jill firmly staked, marking yet another loss in her life, another piece of herself erased.
With a squeal of her tires, she tore through Juliette, out to the highway. As she approached the construction zone, she moved over to the shoulder and let the other cars pass her by. She waited to be last in line so she could have a moment with Mike.
When the traffic in front of her started their slow production behind the pilot car, Ashley rolled down her window and pulled up alongside him.
“Come home with me tonight?” she asked, hating how desperate her voice sounded.
“Sunset,” he agreed.
That night, as thunder rumbled and the air grew humid and thick, she poured her every worry, her every fear, her every pain into him, and he absorbed it all.