Chapter 47 ~ Sour Cherries

Sour Cherries“I like your hair like that.”

“Really?” Ashley ran a self-conscious hand through her tangled tresses, grateful for the soft shadows and gentle glow of early morning in her bedroom. Five a.m. sunlight was much more forgiving than its evening counterpart. “You don’t think it makes my face look fat?”

“Are you serious?” Trevor’s easy laugh traveled across the world and wrapped around her like a warm embrace. “You have to know you’re beautiful.”

Unable to stop the smile, her cheeks flamed in blush. She rolled onto her side and propped her phone on the pillow beside her, wishing she could feel his heat, smell his skin, taste his breath as they talked. At least she could see him. Asking for more was greedy, but she was a greedy girl. She wanted all of him.

His hair was freshly trimmed, shaved high and tight, his cheeks shadowed in stubble. His eyes were bright, eager and hungry, but ringed in dark circles. He never complained, but she could hear the exhaustion in his voice. The tour was wearing on him. His skin had aged in the heat and the wind, had dried and cracked and healed itself into leather. His tan had deepened, his hair bleached in the sun as his body slowly transformed itself to the landscape surrounding him, metamorphosing into sand.

“I got something for you,” she said. “You want to see it?”

“Absolutely.”

Slowly, teasing, she slipped the strap of her tank top off her shoulder and lowered the fabric covering her breast to reveal her new tattoo, still tender to the touch.

“Sweet!”

“You inspired me.”

Similar to his bear-eating-skull on his upper chest, she had added a feminine skull to her magnolia tattoo, open mouthed, as though biting the flower. She’d had it done the day after James Rogan’s stroke, as a reminder that all things beautiful are weak, all things beautiful die. All things beautiful will be stolen away and destroyed.

“I like it.” He leaned forward, squinting as though trying to get a better look. She arched her back, improving his view. “Is that a hickey?”

As her hand flew to her neck to hide it, she cringed in embarrassment. “Shit, yeah. Sorry.”

He laughed. “Who’s the sloppy guy?”

“How do you know it’s not a sloppy girl?”

“Is it?” he asked, his eyes bright, eager as a little boy on Christmas morning.

“No,” she laughed, and then lifted her phone, holding it high so he could see Mike sleeping behind her. She returned the phone to her pillow and raised a shoulder, offering the slightest of apologies for needing company, even though she knew Trevor had been doing the same. “He’s sloppy, but he’s a good guy.”

“Is it serious?” Trevor asked, his voice carrying a note of disappointment, which caused Ashley’s heart to flutter.

“Just fun.”

“Good.”

Her heart fluttered again, tapping against her breastbone, daring her to say, “I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” he whispered.

She held the phone closer, imagined his words carried on a warm breath, tickling across her cheek.

“I have to go,” he said, his voice heavy.

She didn’t trust herself to speak, so she only nodded and held eyes with him, silently enjoying their last, long moment before he reached toward the screen and ended their connection. Carefully, she returned her phone to her nightstand and debated waking Mike to cure her loneliness, but decided to let him sleep for a bit longer. She opted for a long, hot shower before work instead.

When she emerged from her steamy interlude, she found Mike in her kitchen, wide awake and fully dressed, chugging a cup of coffee. Instead of his typical dirty jeans, fluorescent t-shirt, and work boots, he wore clean jeans, a black t-shirt and his work boots.

“Well, don’t you look fancy?” she teased.

“What? Yeah, I…” he trailed off. Distracted and antsy, he smoothed a hand down his shirt, checked his back pocket for his wallet, and messed with a stack of junk mail on the counter.

“Are you about ready to go?”

“No, I got…” Again, he abruptly stopped talking and spun in a circle, opening random drawers before returning to rummage through the same pile of mail again.

“What are you looking for?”

“I had some papers in my bag. I lost ‘em.”

“What papers?”

“Court papers. I have court today.”

“Oh,” she said, surprised. She hurried over to help him look, even though she had no idea what kind of paperwork he was looking for. “Do you need a ride?”

“No, my sponsor’s picking me… Fuck. Where are they?”

Frustrated, he shoved the mail and magazines across the counter and practically sprinted from the kitchen, toward Ashley’s bedroom. She rushed after him.

“What do they look like?” she asked.

“Like paper.” He tore open drawers, dumped out his backpack, peered under the bed. “Fuck!”

“Calm down.”

“I can’t fucking calm down!”

She grabbed at his arm from behind and he instinctively jerked, accidentally smacking her in the nose with his elbow. Immediate, blinding pain screamed through her sinuses, echoing in her teeth. Cursing into her hands, she tried to catch the blood pouring from her nose.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Mike rushed as he tried to pull her hands away from her face to check the damage he’d caused.

“It’s okay,” she assured him, though hot tears of pain mixed with the blood. “I’m fine.”

Outside, a car horn honked impatiently. Mike ignored it. Gently, he lifted Ashley’s chin and studied her face. “Did I break you?”

“I don’t think so.”

The car horn sounded again, longer and louder this time.

“Shit.” He rushed to the window and looked down to the street below. “I gotta—”

“Go,” she insisted. “I’m fine. But what about your paperwork?”

“I…”

He gave the room one last, desperate, searching glance, cursed again, and hurried out, slamming the door behind him. Ashley stood at the window, watching as he jumped into a rusted out minivan with stick figure family decals covering the width of the back window. She tried to catch a glimpse of his mysterious sponsor, but couldn’t make out any distinguishing features through her tears.

Returning to the bathroom, she did the best she could to clean her face, and noticed the beginnings of a black eye. “Awesome,” she muttered under her breath and changed into fresh scrubs before rushing off to work.

By the end of the day, both of Ashley’s eyes were underlined with a swath of purple bruising. Her nose throbbed like a son of a bitch. According to the doctor she’d cornered on rounds, it wasn’t broken, but she saw stars whenever she sneezed. Even chewing hurt. She made herself a dinner of wine and more wine, and sat up waiting for Mike, anxious to lay the guilt on thick and use it to her sexual advantage. He never showed up. She went to bed drunk and alone.

Three long, lonely nights passed, and still no Mike. He did not text or call, or knock on her door. He also did not direct traffic on the highway. An overweight, rosy-cheeked woman stood in his place, the change so seamless Ashley began to question if he’d ever existed at all. The only proof she had of his existence was a sore nose and bruising around her eyes, but even that was rapidly fading.

Unfortunately, it didn’t fade fast enough for her sister not to notice.

“He hit you?” Kylie held Ashley’s chin and turned her face toward the sun to better inspect the healing bruises. “Where is he?”

“It’s fine,” Ashley assured her sister and returned to her task of picking ripe cherries from the tree in her mother’s backyard. “It was an accident. I grabbed his arm when he wasn’t expecting it and he accidently bopped me in the nose. He felt horrible about it. He apologized. It happens. No big deal.”

“It is a big deal. If you hit someone hard enough to leave a mark, it’s no accident.

“Really? What about the time you were carrying a heavy laundry basket and turned around and smacked Brayden in the face? Are you saying you split his lip open on purpose?”

She looked horrified. “No! Why would you say that?”

“I’m not saying that. You are. I know Brayden’s lip was an accident, and so was my nose.”

“I’d still like to talk to him. Where is he?”

“I don’t know.” Ashley set a full mason jar of cherries in her basket and selected a second to start filling. “He had court the other day. I haven’t seen him since.”

“Is he back in jail?”

“No,” Ashley answered immediately, defensively, but she honestly had no idea. She had never considered the possibility, but it definitely would explain his absence, especially from work. Shit.

Kylie rolled her eyes and let out a weary sigh. “Seriously, Ashley, where do you find these guys?”

“On the side of the road,” she quipped. “Except for Jimmy. I found his drunk ass floating down the river.”

She watched as Kylie’s eyes clouded and the corner of her mouth twitched in an uncomfortable smile. Someday, she would stop taking pleasure in witnessing her sister’s guilt. But today was not that day. Today, she enjoyed the hell out of it. Suppressing a giggle, she moved around to the other side of the tree, looking for the ripest cherries.

“What in the world are you going to do with all those cherries?” Kylie asked, changing the subject, but somehow still managing to sound bossy. “You know they’re sour, right.”

“Duh. I’m making cherry vodka.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. It’s good. Have you ever tried it?”

“No.” Kylie picked up a full jar from Ashley’s basket and turned it over, inspecting the fruit.

“Take it,” Ashley offered.

“I don’t drink vodka.”

“Jimmy does.”

“Jimmy drinks beer and whiskey,” Kylie argued.

“And homemade cherry vodka,” Ashley assured her. He also liked Hennessy in winter, and angry sex before bed, but some things Kylie was just going to have to figure out on her own.

***

A week passed without Mike, and Ashley’s concern turned to legitimate fear that he was in jail. Or high. Or dead. She didn’t trust the guy in the creepy van. What if he wasn’t really Mike’s sponsor? What if he was his drug buddy, or his dealer? What if he was with the cartel? What if Mike had been kidnapped and held for ransom? What if he had been murdered?

Speculation fueled her fears. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t concentrate on work. All she could do was wonder and worry, and obsess over his demise. By the eighth day of his disappearance, she decided it was high time to stop being a little bitch about it, and actually go look for him.

The only places she knew he hung out were the motel in South Juliette and the gas station across the street from it. He wasn’t at either. She didn’t know any of his friends, if he even had any. The woman who took over his job on the highway didn’t have a clue who he was or where he could be. Out of options, Ashley did the only other thing she could think to do. In the heart of the construction zone, she slipped out of the pilot car traffic, parked on the shoulder of the road, and set off on foot in search of the project foreman, Mike’s grandfather.

Half of the crew ignored her. The other half whistled and entertained her with wholly inappropriate sexual innuendos. No one knew where Mike was, and no one seemed to share her concern. Finally, a small, skinny man with a long, grey braided beard took pity on her and radioed for the foreman.

She recognized Mike in his features, but he outweighed his grandson by an easy two hundred pounds of beer belly and heavy muscle. His voice had been graveled by the elements and a four-pack a day habit. He was down to the filter on one cigarette when he approached, and used it to light the next before flicking it carelessly off to the side of the road.

“I don’t know where he is, I don’t care where he is,” Fat Mike said when Ashley asked. “All I know is if he comes back high, he’s fired. Now, get the hell out of my sight before I have you arrested.”

“Where do you think he is?” Ashley asked the guy with the beard braid as he escorted her back to her car.

“I don’t know, man,” he said. “Probably off in the hills, smoking away his sorrows.”

“What sorrows?” Ashley asked.

“He lost custody of his girl, Bella.”

“His what!?” Ashley freaked. Utter shock and total dismay for his loss instantly battled with a hot flash of anger over the fact he had lied to her. ‘I’m a Gemini, atheist with a meth addiction, no kids, no dog…’ Bullshit. All of it. Sputtering, she demanded, “What girl? What hills? And what the hell would he be smoking? Meth?”

She overwhelmed the old guy with her questions. His mind went nearly as vacant as his stare, but he did manage to remember the name of Mike’s sponsor, the guy in the minivan, Carl Jr. No last name. No address. But he thought maybe they might have attended the same NA meeting at a church in South Juliette one time, back in the day.

It was her best lead yet. Ashley flipped a u-turn in the middle of the highway and raced into town, arriving at the church just as the secretary was closing up the office for the day. Marla was a wonderful woman in her mid-fifties with a joyous laugh, a sympathetic heart for Ashley’s fading black eye and an empathetic ear as she unburdened the worry from her soul. But Marla was also wonderfully protective of the congregation. She refused to give out personal information on anyone who walked through the doors of the church, member or not, without the pastor’s approval. Unfortunately, he was not available, but Ashley was more than welcome to leave a message, if she so desired. Ashley did not desire to wait any longer. She wanted answers, and she wanted them now.

“If you can’t give me the guy’s address, what about a phone number? Is he listed? Can you at least tell me his last name?”

Marla remained tight lipped and politely ushered Ashley to the door. Outside on the stoop, just as Marla started to close the door, Ashley caught sight of the rattle-trap minivan Carl Jr had used to pick up Mike a week earlier. Her irrational mind jumped from kidnap and murder to a church cover-up and conspiracy.

Strong-arming the door, Ashley demanded answers, “Who owns the minivan? Where is he? Is he inside the church? Oh, my god, is Carl Jr the pastor?”

But Marla’s strong arm was stronger than Ashley’s, and she slammed the door, locking it with a resounding click! Ashley rattled the handle. She hammered on the door with her fist, but Marla did not return. She gave the door a swift kick, flipped a double middle finger salute to the wonderful bitch, and returned to her car. In case Marla had called the cops, Ashley pulled out of the church parking lot and moved a half a block down, out of sight of the church windows, but stayed in clear view of the minivan.

Fifteen minutes later, a group of women carrying Bibles, totes, and Tupperware emerged from the back of the church. Most of the women ranged in age from upper fifties to mid eighties, with the exception of a very pregnant bleached blonde wearing frosted denim overalls, who looked to be in her late twenties. While the older women gathered in the parking lot to continue their gossip and conversation, the blonde waddled to the minivan, tossed her Bible and heavy sling purse onto the passenger seat, hauled her large belly into the driver’s seat, and pulled out of the parking lot with smoke pouring from the exhaust and her alternator belt squealing.

Ashley followed the minivan across South Juliette to the Sack ‘n Save grocery store and parked two spaces down, settling in for a long wait. But even nine months pregnant, the woman filled an entire grocery cart in less time than it takes Ashley to pick up three Lean Cuisines and a bottle of wine. Ashley watched with a guilty conscious from her air-conditioned car as the poor woman piled heavy sacks, entire flats of canned vegetables, and four gallons of milk into the back of the minivan, and then pushed the cart across the hot parking lot to return it to the corral. The minivan started with another horrid squeal and a sputter of smoke from the exhaust, and Ashley followed it out onto the highway.

They traveled across town to the YMCA, where a gaggle of children dressed in swim trunks and flip flops loitered around waiting for their rides. Four of the children peeled away and climbed into the death-trap minivan. Crossing town once again, she dropped one of the girls off at a dance studio downtown and a boy at the park for baseball practice. One more time, they cruised across South Juliette and turned into a crowded neighborhood of older homes with no distinguishable style other than chain link, big trees, and very tiny yards.

The woman left her two children in the running minivan while she disappeared into a faded yellow split-level that listed to the east, its yard littered with bicycles, a sun-bleached turtle sandbox, and dandelions that had gone to seed. She came back out a few moments later with a baby on her hip and a toddler in tow. She buckled the little ones into their car seats, backed out of the driveway, and pulled into another driveway, four houses down.

The doors flew open and the older children immediately started unloading bags, cans, and gallons of milk from the back of the minivan. The toddler carried a box of cereal. The pregnant woman looked just about out of steam as she carried the baby and the remaining gallons of milk toward the house. Ashley took the opportunity to pounce.

“Yoo-hoo!” she called out as sweetly as possible as she approached. “Hi, there! I’m Ashley.”

Up close, Ashley could see the dark circles under the woman’s eyes, the exhaustion on her face, but she wore a beautiful, welcoming smile. “Hello.”

“I’m looking for Carl Jr.”

“Which one? The big one or the little one?”

“Uh…” Ashley paused, uncertain. “Good question. Which one would’ve been driving your van in Allman Falls a few days ago?”

“The big one,” she answered cautiously. “Why? Was there an accident?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Ashley assured her. “I just need to talk to him.”

“He’s at work, but he should be home in about an hour. You want some lemonade?” She started toward the house, expecting Ashley to follow. “I’m Melanie, by the way. Mel. This little guy here is Carlos. The other Carl Junior—CJ—is at baseball practice. Carly’s at dance. Carlene’s in gymnastics…”

Melanie kept talking as she led Ashley inside and placed the baby in his highchair, but Ashley stopped listening. Without being obvious, she scanned every nook and cranny in the cluttered, tiny kitchen, searching for a sign of Mike. As Melanie babbled and whipped up a pitcher of lemonade using a sweetened mix and cold tap water, Ashley peeked into the living room, toed open the basement door, leaned back in her chair to look down the hall. She found nothing, but realized she didn’t know Mike well enough to recognize any clue he may have left behind. For all she knew, everything she saw in the house was his.

The older children came tearing through the kitchen, wielding Nerf swords and water guns. The toddler and his banshee screams followed hot on their trail. They gutted a package of chocolate chip cookies, splashed lemonade into plastic cups, and crashed through the back door with their afternoon snack, out into the yard. The baby cried and struggled against his highchair straps, disappointed to be left behind. Melanie distracted him easily with a sweet coo and a cookie. As he nibbled, he stopped struggling, but continued to tired-cry and rub at his eyes.

“Poor guy needs a nap,” Melanie said around a yawn she failed to stifle as she settled uncomfortably onto a chair across the table from Ashley. “It’s been a long day.”

“For everyone, I think,” Ashley agreed. Overwhelmed by the heat and noise level in the house, she took the opportunity to make her escape. “I’ll just give you my number and you can have Carl call me if he knows where Mike is.”

“Mike? I thought you were looking for Carl Jr.”

“I was, so I could ask him about Mike.”

“You don’t need him for that.” Melanie pushed her heavy weight up from the chair and shuffled over the stairs. She hollered up, “Mike! There’s a girl here for you!”

“Wait, what?” Ashley stuttered. “He’s here?”

“Has been, for about a week. He comes and goes whenever he needs to. You can go on up,” Melanie offered. “End of the hall.”

Ashley took the stairs two at a time and found Mike in the last bedroom on the left, propped up on a twin bed outfitted with Ninja Turtle sheets and a My Little Pony pillowcase, playing X-Box. His face had paled, his hair looked greasy, and he smelled less than fresh. His eyes were clear and he was clean, but the sight of him pissed her off. She knuckle punched him in the arm.

“Ow!” The controller fell from his hand and he rubbed at his arm. “What was that for?”

“Where the hell have you been?” she demanded. “And why didn’t you tell me you have a daughter.”

“What the—I don’t have a daughter! What are you talking about?”

She punched him again. “Stop lying to me. Your grandfather told me you do.”

“I don’t!” he insisted. “Why would he say that?”

“I don’t know! Maybe he didn’t say it,” Ashley said, becoming confused by the day. “Maybe it was the weird guy with the beard. I don’t remember who said what. All I know is one of them told me you lost custody of your daughter, Bella.”

He stared at her, slack-jawed, for a heartbeat and then rolled his eyes and grumbled, “My dog.”

“Your what?”

“Dog. Bella’s a dog.”

“A dog?” Ashley slumped, defeated. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” With a grunt, he picked up the controller and returned to his video game.

She ripped the controller from his hand. “You still lied to me.”

“I did not!” He grabbed at the controller, but she held it out of reach.

“You did, too! You said you didn’t have a dog. You said you were a meth addict atheist with no kids, no dog, blah, blah, blah. Bullshit.”

“So what? I lied. I’m an addict. It’s what we do.” He grabbed her arm with one hand and wrenched the controller away with the other. In anger, she punched him again, and he barked, “Stop it! I don’t care if you are a girl. You hit me again, I’ll hit you back. Fair warning.”

“Sorry,” she offered. “But stop lying to me. I deserve better than that.”

“You’re right. You do,” he conceded. “I’m sorry.”

“So, what happened?” she asked.

His jaw visibly tightened as he shrugged. “Nothing. Doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does,” she argued. “What kind of dog is she?”

“Yellow lab.”

“Cute. You got a picture?”

“No.”

She figured it was a lie, but she didn’t push it. “Where’d you get her?”

“I don’t know. I just got her.”

He retreated to the safety of his video game, and Ashley settled in to watch him play, waiting. Eventually, he decided to start talking.

“My brother’s dog had puppies and she was the last to go. No one wanted her, so he gave her to me. I figured I’d breed her, or just keep her, whatever. I didn’t care. She was cool, but kind of a pain in the ass, still a pup when I got arrested. My brother wouldn’t take her back so I had to beg this girl I was seeing to watch her for me. She pitched a fit and didn’t want to do it, but she did, and then when I got out, she wouldn’t give her back. She said I was no good for Bella, that I couldn’t take care of her. She didn’t believe I was clean, or that I would stay clean. I begged her to give Bella back. I even offered to pay her whatever she wanted for her, but she refused. So, I took her to court. And I lost.”

“But how could you lose? She’s your dog.”

“I accidentally gave her Bella’s registration paperwork with her vet records. It was stupid, but I never thought she’d kidnap my dog. Stupid bitch changed Bella’s name to Taylor Sniff, and registered her as her own, and the judge was just like, eh, whatever. It wasn’t a kidnapping because a dog’s considered property.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“That’s what I thought, but he said if I could prove she was originally mine, he would award me the amount I paid for her. I told him I didn’t pay for her, that my brother gave her to me, and that I didn’t want money for her anyway. I just wanted Bella back.”

“Sounds fair.”

“You’d think, but the judge said it would be too traumatic for Bella to be removed from her home, that I couldn’t provide the stability that Hannah could, so even if I could prove she was mine, I wasn’t going to get her back. I asked the judge, how it could be too traumatic for her if she’s property, if she’s just a thing, with no feelings or emotions, and he threw me out. Said he wasn’t going to argue with me, and that maybe I should be more careful who I trust next time.”

“Omigod! What an asshole!”

“It’s just… whatever.” With a growl of frustration he scrubbed his face with his hands. “I don’t fucking care anymore.”

“Yes, you do. Let’s go get you another dog,” Ashley suggested, hoping to cheer him up.

He exploded. “I don’t want another fucking dog! I want Bella!”

“I’m sorry,” she rushed, and grabbed onto his arm. “I didn’t mean—I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”

“She’s not a thing I can replace! She was my girl! She was my friend. She didn’t judge me or harass me, or make me feel like shit because of my addiction.” His voice cracked as his eyes filled with tears. “I wasn’t the best dog daddy in the world, especially when I was high, but I was going to make it up to her. I was going to…”

“I know,” Ashley whispered. She tried to hold him, comfort him, but he remained stiff in her arms. “I’m sorry.”

“You can’t just steal my girl and replace her with another. I can’t just suddenly stop missing her, stop loving her.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry,” she repeated.

“I love her…”

Ashley didn’t know if his tears were simply for the loss of his dog, Bella, or if they were an expression of all the other losses he’d suffered in his life, whether due to his addiction or simply poor decisions. It wasn’t for her to worry over or decide. She had her own answers to seek, her own losses to mourn. She started with one that tasted most sour.

***

“How did you meet Trevor?” Ashley asked Brent, attempting to make the question sound as casual as possible as she helped him pack his belongings from his apartment into boxes. She’d used her newfound detective skills to follow him around Allman Falls until she could corner him completely alone, without Aria, or Jimmy, or anyone else listening in. It took a few days. Between his construction business, his upcoming wedding, and renovating his new house, he was a busy guy.

“Same way you did, at Stacy’s football party,” Brent answered.

“So he was Stacy’s friend?” she prompted.

“Something like that, or maybe his mom was?” he said, distracted by his task. He taped a box shut, carried it over to the door, and immediately started loading handfuls of DVDs and video games into the next. “I don’t know, Ash. Why don’t you ask him? You’re still kinda seeing him, aren’t you?”

“Kinda, yeah.” She shrugged, acting nonchalant. “I was just curious, trying to figure out why you guys set him up with Kylie. It didn’t seem like they had a lot in common.”

“They didn’t,” he easily agreed. “She picked him out for you.”

“Kylie did? Really?” Ashley said, playing dumb though she’d always suspected her sister was somehow behind it all from the beginning. It didn’t change anything, but it was nice to finally have proof that she wasn’t paranoid, or crazy. “Huh. I never knew. I figured since I was with Jimmy and all…”

She trailed off, baiting the trap, waiting for him to blabber Kylie’s evil plan.

He surprised her when he said, “Not Kylie. Stacy.”

“Stacy?”

“Yeah, Dan figured we’d have to find someone special for you so Jimmy could finally hookup with Ky because it wasn’t like either one of them were ever going to do it on their own.”

Excuse me?” The conversation wasn’t going the way she’d expected, at all.

“I really like Trevor.” He stuffed another handful of movies into the box, slid it across the floor with his foot, and tossed in a stack of CDs before taping it shut. “I think Dan and Stace picked a real winner with him—”

Suddenly, his face flushed crimson and he stood at attention, fully aware of what he’d said.

“Shit.”

“What the hell, Brent?”

“I don’t… Aw, hell,” he muttered and raked a hand through his hair. “I don’t know what to tell you, Ash. I just want my brother happy. We all wanted Jimmy happy. And I thought, maybe, with Kylie, he would have a chance…”

“So, it was me? It was all me? I was the one making Jimmy miserable all these years?”

“Not the only one, no.”

“Jimmy doesn’t have the ability to be happy,” Ashley snapped. “Your father made sure to beat that emotion out of him a long time ago.”

“My dad never laid a hand on him.”

That was bullshit, and he knew it, but there was more than one way to destroy the beauty in someone. Words could do far more damage than a fist, and James Rogan was an expert at making a person feel worthless.

Disgusted by his ignorance, she started for the door, but paused to ask, “Is he happy now, Brent? Is his life with Kylie everything you imagined it would be?”

With his jaw tight, Brent answered, “Yeah. It’s great.”

It felt petty, but she took joy in knowing it was a lie.

“At least you guys did one thing right,” she added, her head held high. “I’ve never been happier.”

She walked out the door, bounced down the steps, and took joy in finally realizing that even on her loneliest nights, she’d spoken the truth.

 

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