“Slow down, man!” Jimmy laughed at his brother’s spastic dance as he scurried across the framework of the deck they were adding onto Dan’s house on Chelsea Lake. “You’re going to fall and break your neck. Or give yourself heat stroke.”
“I can’t slow down.” Brent dropped a stack of cedar boards and started kicking them into place with the toe of his work boot. “We’re running out of time.”
“We’ve got a week,” Dan countered as he secured boards with decking screws. “Relax.”
“A week’s nothing. A week’ll go like that!” Brent snapped his fingers for emphasis. “And we’ll still be screwing down these stupid boards. Why the hell is your deck so big anyway, Dan?”
“Hey, you’re the one who wanted to have the reception here. I’d rather be fishing than building a deck today, but I’m doing it for you.”
“Doing it for me, my ass. Abusing me for free labor is more like it,” Brent muttered to himself as he started down the deck stairs, into the yard, to bring up another load of boards. In his haste, he tripped over a pallet, tangled up in the garden hose, and nearly clocked himself in the face swatting at a bumble bee like a drunken ninja.
“Are you sure we can’t smack him around, just a little bit?” Dan begged Jimmy. “The kid’s wigging out.”
“Aria says no,” Jimmy replied, disappointed. “She doesn’t want any bruises in her wedding photos.”
“I’ll hit him where it wouldn’t show.”
“I tried that. When he freaked getting fitted for his tux, I pinched him way up high on his arm, where no one would see it, but she saw it and got pissed. Said they’re going to the beach for their honeymoon and she wants him pretty for those pictures, too.”
“Fine,” Dan grunted.
“Besides, she’s right over there,” Jimmy said with a nod of his head in the direction of the flower garden. “She’d hear him scream.”
“Not if you cover his mouth while I kick him in the ass.”
“Stace is over there, too,” Jimmy reminded him.
“Yeah,” Jimmy shared in his disappointment as they watched Brent huff up the stairs with an armload of deck boards, cursing Dan under his breath with every step. As he dropped the boards, Dan slipped a comforting arm around his shoulders and performed the only calming technique Aria would allow them to do.
“It’s okay, Brent. Just take a deep breath. Think of pretty ponies and rainbows… Butterflies and cotton candy… Unicorns and purple popsicles—”
“Shut the fuck up,” Brent grumbled, shoving Dan away as Jimmy laughed.
Teasing Brent wasn’t nearly as fun as punching him, but it did help him relax, just a little bit, as his Fourth of July wedding day quickly approached. In less than ten days, Brent and Aria would be married in a small ceremony at the church in Allman Falls, followed by an evening reception at Chelsea Lake. They had planned a causal event under tents on the beach. Nothing fancy, just barbeque, fireworks and beer, but the significance of the day was quickly driving Brent to insanity.
Dan understood how overwhelming it could be. Overnight, his life had changed from one of simple existence to one with purpose and meaning, every moment a confusing blend of exquisite joy and irrational fear. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed that emotional cocktail until the day Stacy moved in, bringing her mutt, Willie Nelson, and all of her treasures with her. Once Stacy unpacked, the house on Chelsea Lake finally felt the way Dan had always envisioned. Along with her library of books, a little dust and her comfortable clutter, she brought with her warmth and light, and a constant, glorious aroma of fresh baked sugar cookies and apple pie.
It wasn’t just Stacy filling the air with her lively spirit. Aria and Brent, Jimmy and Kylie, Brayden and Cheryl all considered Chelsea their home. One or all would stop by for a few minutes, or stay late into the night. Sunday dinners for eight were common. Stacy would cook enough for eighteen, ensuring his fridge was never barren of leftovers. It was the biggest, loudest family Dan could have ever imagined, and he loved them all, even the crazy one.
From the side yard, Stacy let out a sudden, frantic cry, “Dan!”
Immediately, he dropped his tools and rushed down the steps, his heart thumping in erratic beats as he hurried to the garden, where Stacy and Aria stood beside Millie’s rosebush, which had been planted center stage.
Early in the spring, he had saved the discarded lump of twigs and dirt from Chelsea’s frozen banks and decided to give the stubborn rose one last chance to prove to him how amazing it was, for Millie’s sake. Along with her rosebush, Stacy and Aria had crafted a gorgeous memorial garden filled with a variety of perennials and grasses, flowering shrubs and additional rosebushes. Stacy had selected yellow ones, which Dan thought Melissa would get a kick out of. He sent her pictures as they bloomed and they continued to exchange cards every few weeks. His kitchen was full of her artwork.
“Come look.” Stacy motioned for him to hurry.
“Another snake?” Dan assumed as he made his way down the stone path Stacy had laid through the heart of the garden.
“Not a snake.” Stacy reached for him, slipping her hand around his, and pulled him closer. She pointed down to Millie’s rose. “Look.”
The rosebush had never set a bud, except for the one Dan had crushed the day Millie died. But in the afternoon sunlight, he saw three orange buds just starting to unfold. One had already opened in full glory. He had to look twice to ensure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.
“Isn’t it incredible?” Aria asked as he reached for the delicate bloom.
Instead of staying a simple, solid orange like the first color peeking out of the new buds, the petals had opened into a spectacular blend of orange hues that subtlety transformed into a vibrant yellow center. Dan was at a loss. He had never seen another rose like it—except in Melissa’s pictures.
“It’s Millie,” Dan whispered, struggling to find his voice as his eyes filled with tears.“Perfectly Millie.”
“She’s beautiful,” Aria agreed. She pressed a light kiss to Dan’s cheek and wandered over to where Brent and Jimmy stood, watching from a distance. Silently, Brent slipped his arm around her waist and three of them left Dan and Stacy alone in the rose garden.
“Millie sure had a knack for finding hidden beauty, didn’t she?” Stacy asked.
“That she did.” Dan brushed a smudge of dirt from her cheek and held her face in his hands. As beautiful as Millie’s rose was, Stacy in the afternoon sun was so much more. With her chestnut curls dancing in the breeze, her cheeks flush from the heat and the sun, she was gorgeous.
Lifting up to her tiptoes, she wrapped her arms around him and smiled against his chest. “Guess what, kochanie?”
“What?” he easily replied, in love with the way she said his name.
Almost too quiet for words, she revealed to his heart, “I’m pregnant.”
Once again, she overwhelmed his soul with joy, with fear, and with glorious hope. “You are?”
Leaning back in his arms, her eyes twinkled as she nodded. “We are.”
In Stacy’s strong embrace, he felt Millie’s abiding love, his parents’ peace, Gram’s faith, and Dolly’s eternal joy guiding him ever forward. Her smile was his shelter, her love a precious gift he thanked heaven for every day. Her heart cradled the rich, vibrant history of their lives, all the peaks and all the valleys, nurturing it, honoring it, transforming it into the solid promise of the future he felt beating sure beneath his lips as he pressed a tender kiss into the salty skin of her neck.
“Kocham cię,” she whispered on a breath as his mouth trailed along her jaw and traveled to her strawberry lips.
He returned her love with his kiss and his caress, with the escalation of his heartbeat against her breast. Words alone could not encompass the magnitude of his feelings for her. They could not convey the swell of his heart, the heat of his body, the tingle in his skin, the sweet taste of the air as it swept into his lungs whenever she was near.
‘I love you,’ in all its translations, was too simple a sentiment to describe the bond that they shared. His existence was indelibly intertwined with hers. She was the brilliance of the sunrise reaching through the knotted branches of the cottonwood trees, the shimmer of light unfurling across the surface of the water, gently lifting him from the cool, dark depths, and wrapping him in the vibrant warmth of her soul. She was the whisper in the pines, the hint of honeysuckle on the breeze, the vivid colors of his dreams, as captivating as the blend of nature’s hues on a delicate petal.
Stacy’s love was his beautiful rose, and, as Millie had promised, he was indeed amazed.