Rising from the fog of troubled sleep, Jimmy Rogan felt a light pressure against his lips. Rough and round, carrying a nostalgic hint of sweet chocolate, the intrusion fell away before he could identify it. The scent lingered. Distant and fragile, he could taste it in his dream.
Shifting, he settled into the comfortable weight of Kylie’s slender body draped around his. Their legs entwined, her thin camisole a soft caress against his skin, he drifted in her arms.
His brother’s voice, clear and melodic, sang from a memory born when they were young. Fear tripped along his spine, mingled with remorse. Blind, he was running, yet frozen, his body imprisoned by tangled sheets.
The pressure against his lips returned, more insistent, demanding, snapping the final thread of sleep.
Jimmy opened his eyes to the still-dark room, his vision quick to focus on the serious expression worn by Kylie’s two-year old son, Brayden, intent on feeding him breakfast. Parting his lips, Jimmy accepted the offering. A bright smile was his reward.
“Good morning, Bray.”
Brayden giggled, a whole body event, spilling a small avalanche of cereal from the box clutched in his arms onto the bed and down to the hardwood floor.
Finger to his lips, Jimmy whispered, “Don’t wake Mommy.”
“Mommy sleep.” Brayden mimicked Jimmy’s hush. “But I’s wake up. And Jimmy’s wake up.”
Jimmy glanced at the digital glow from the clock on the nightstand. “Do you want to watch the sun wake up?”
Brayden gave an emphatic bounce. “I get Boo?”
“Boo can watch, too.”
Brayden took off running, his bare feet slapping against the hardwood.
Careful to not wake Kylie, Jimmy eased from her embrace, but she shifted in his absence. Curling toward his empty side of the bed, she reached for him. “Are you leaving?”
“Not yet. Bray’s up.”
With a heavy groan, she started to rise. It had been well past two in the morning before she’d finally slipped into bed, exhausted from a long day of clinicals for nursing school followed by a double shift bartending at Captain Jack’s in downtown Allman Falls. In a few short hours, she would do the same all over again, practically killing herself for a degree he wasn’t convinced she even wanted.
“Stay.” He trailed his lips along the graceful curve of her neck, coaxing her to lie back down. “I’ve got him.”
Her eyes closed in easy surrender. “Five more minutes.”
As he bent to retrieve his discarded jeans from the floor, the stiff muscles in his back protested, the ache no worse than any other day. At twenty-seven, he had been working construction for close to half of his life. Pain was his constant companion. It resided in his back, his hands, his knees. His every joint. He could put it to bed at night with a couple of beers and a hot shower, a shot of whiskey and slow sex, but it always woke with him again in the morning. Once he climbed into his truck, he would be too busy to remember he hurt. For the meantime, he shook two extra-strength Tylenol from the large bottle he kept on the dresser and swallowed them dry.
“Go to the doctor,” Kylie mumbled into her pillow.
“He’s not going to tell me anything I don’t already know.” Digging through the basket of laundry on the floor, he grabbed a Rogan-Handley Construction t-shirt and sniffed it.
“Those are dirty.”
“You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
Eyes closed, she fell silent while he finished dressing, but as he collected the odd piece of clothing that had missed the basket she gave up the ruse. “What are you doing?”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I’d rather do it myself,” she said.
“Most of it’s mine anyway, Ky.”
“Why are you arguing with me about this?”
“Why are you arguing with me?” he challenged.
“It’s my house, Jimmy,” she said, her words broken by a yawn she failed to stifle. “Let me clean it the way I want to.”
Surrendering, he dropped the basket and sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I.” She brought a hand to his cheek, stroked the line of his jaw with her thumb. “It’s been a long week.”
“It’s almost over,” he promised and pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. Warm from sleep, she smelled of sweet jasmine, earthy and intoxicating. He wished he could spend the day wrapped up in her, but he left her to sleep and followed the trail of spilled, crushed cereal out into the hall.
A rental, Kylie’s house was a small, Depression-era bungalow, modest in design and in desperate need of updating, but she had furnished the home with care. Her artwork adorned the walls; charcoal sketches and oil paintings inspired by people she loved, places she’d been, dreams she’d remembered upon waking. She didn’t believe her creations were worth anything other than her own personal enjoyment, but her talent outshined her modesty. She was incredible.
Brayden came running in from the kitchen, the box of cereal still in hand, his well-loved teddy bear clutched to his chest. “Got Boo!”
“Let’s get going, then. The sun’s not gonna wait for us,” Jimmy said, unintentionally repeating the words of his father. Starting at the age of thirteen, every summer morning, James Rogan had kicked the foot of Jimmy’s bed, waking him with the same impatient command, “Get your ass outta bed, boy. The sun ain’t gonna wait for you, and neither am I.” Out the door and in the truck before dawn, they had never once stopped working to watch the sun rise.
It had seemed insignificant, at the time.
With a bit of skip to his step, Brayden followed Jimmy out onto the porch. Tucked into an older neighborhood on the west side of town, Kylie’s backyard was little more than a stamp of weedy grass caged by a chain link fence, the neighbors close on either side and behind. Mature trees and high voltage power lines further obstructed their view of the eastern horizon, but Brayden’s excitement in the moment more than made up for sitting in the cheap seats.
As he settled Boo onto one of the mismatched chairs, fussing to ensure he positioned the teddy bear for the best view, Brayden asked, “We go fishin’ today?”
“I wish we could, Little Man.” Jimmy lifted Brayden onto his lap and covered his bare legs with a light quilt to stave off the damp chill of the early morning air. “But I have to work.”
Brayden stuffed his hand into the box of cereal and pulled out a fistful of chocolate puffs. “’Morrow?” he asked around the cereal he shoved into his mouth.
“Tomorrow’s the day we get all dressed up and help Brent marry Aria.”
As though suddenly remembering, Brayden cried out, “I hold the ring!”
“Yep, you hold the ring, and Mommy holds Aria’s flowers, and I’m going to stand guard and make sure my little brother doesn’t pass out and land on his face.”
Brayden laughed. “He go boom!”
“He probably will.”
Brayden stuck his hand into the box again, but seemed more content to play with the cereal than eat it. “Ah-ree-ah pretty.”
“Aria is pretty,” Jimmy agreed. More than pretty, his brother’s fiancée was tall and beautifully slender with honey-blonde hair and natural grace, but other than to wonder what the hell a girl like Aria saw in a goof like Brent, Jimmy had never given her a second glance. “Your mommy’s prettier, though.”
“Yeah.” Brayden swirled his hand around in the cereal. “I think I marry Mommy.”
“I think I’ll marry her, too.”
The words came forth without thought, as true and easy as breathing, but the weight of his confession lingered in the summer air. He could hear the longing in his voice, taste the fear on his breath. He had never wanted anything more in his life. All he had to do was ask for it. And pray she didn’t say no.
But she would say no.
Brayden tipped back in Jimmy’s arms and smiled up at him in agreement. “Yeah.”
“Yeah.” Jimmy winked.
“Yeah,” Brayden repeated, and then laughed.
They settled into silence, snacking on dry cereal and thinking about pretty girls in white dresses, while they listened to the birds serenade the burgeoning morning. Time suspended as the stars faded and the sun lifted above the eastern horizon, slowly unfurling a glorious array of orange and yellow hues across the dark canvas of the night sky.
“Here she comes, Bray.”
As the sunlight strengthened in the humid air, individual rays appeared to solidify and diverge, slicing through a spattering of cumulus clouds and the heavy, gnarled branches of the neighbor’s aging maple tree. Brayden snuggled deeper into Jimmy’s arms and reached out as though to touch a sunbeam.
“Can you feel it?” Jimmy asked.
Eyes wide, fingers spread on his little hand, Brayden gave a solemn nod. “It tickle.”
“Yeah, it does.” With the sun warming his face and Brayden content on his lap, he closed his eyes and allowed life to pause in simple perfection.
“Oh, wow,” Kylie said on a whispered breath from beside them, startling both Jimmy and Brayden from their trace. “That’s gorgeous.”
Brayden clapped. “Mommy up!”
“Good morning, baby.” She bent to place a kiss Brayden’s cheek, then one on Jimmy’s lips, her breath a sweet mix of cream and coffee.
“You’re supposed to be asleep,” he reminded her.
“Your dad called. Three times.” She held out his cellphone. “Apparently, he doesn’t want to leave a message.”
“He never does.” With a cursory glance, Jimmy scrolled through the missed calls from his father, punctuated by a text from his brother; Call Dad. He shoved the phone into his pocket. “Sorry about that.”
“Don’t be.” Resting a hip against his chair, she ran a light hand across his shoulders and massaged his neck. “If he hadn’t called, I would’ve missed this amazing sunrise.”
He tipped his head toward the fading crepuscular rays. “I made that, just for you.”
She humored him with a smile. “When Ash and I were kids, Mom used to take us to the beach to watch the sun set. Some nights, the rays would beam out over the ocean, so strong you could practically grab hold and climb right up into the heavens. Mom would say it was the hand of God, reaching out to guide lost souls. Ashley would roll her eyes, but I always hoped she was right. It made life feel a little less overwhelming.”
Jimmy collected her hand in his and pressed a kiss to her palm.
Brayden let out a startled, “Oh!” and wiggled off Jimmy’s lap.
“What’s the matter, Little Man?”
“I have go potty!” Pausing only to scoop up his teddy bear, he ran for the door and tapped his feet in a frantic dance, impatient for Kylie to help him with the latch.
“You want me to come with you?” she asked.
“I’s self,” Brayden insisted and took off running.
“My Mr. Independent,” she said as she watched after him.
“He’s his mother’s son.”
Kylie shot a glance to Jimmy as she picked up quilt Brayden had shed on his mad dash inside. “I’m going to take that as a compliment.”
With a quick snap of the fabric, she folded the quilt neatly in half and hung it over the railing. “You want breakfast before you go?”
“No time.” He stood, stretched his tired back. “Brent and Dan are probably already at the shop, wondering where the hell I’m at.”
Stepping close, she slipped her hands under his t-shirt and trailed her fingers along his spine. As always, her touch helped. Eyes closed, their bodies gently swaying, he rested his cheek against the cool silk of her hair and breathed her in.
“Mom offered to keep Bray overnight.” Slowly, her hands drifted down to travel the waistband of his jeans. “With all the running around we have to do in the morning for the wedding, she figured it would be easier.”
“Are you hinting we’ll have the house to ourselves tonight?”
He could feel her smile. “If I invite you over.”
She leaned back in his arms and regarded him with mock severity. “Cocky much?”
“Never.” He kissed the tip of her nose and worried over the dark circles marring the delicate skin under her eyes. “Take the day off, Ky. Call in sick and catch up on your sleep.”
“Tuition’s due. I need the tips.”
“I told you I’d pay for it. Or I could cover Brayden’s daycare, your rent, whatever you need.”
She pulled from his embrace. “Don’t start with that again.”
“Start with what?”
“Trying to finance my life. I don’t want, or need, your charity.”
“It’s not charity,” Jimmy insisted.
“That’s what it feels like.” She jerked open the screen door and started for the kitchen, forcing him to follow. “How would you like it if I insisted on paying your bills?”
“I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“I know you don’t. That’s the problem.”
Determined, he tried a different tactic. “Brent and Dan have been after me to hire someone to work in the office, answering phones, paying bills, that kind of thing. The job’s yours, if you want it.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Eight to five, Monday through Friday, hour lunch, paid vacation, healthcare.”
“You can bring Brayden to work with you every day if you want.”
Lifting her coffee mug to her lips, she eyed him over the rim. “I have a job, Jimmy.”
“One that pays shit and you work insane hours.”
“It’s only temporary.”
“Do you honestly think you’re going to be any happier once you’re a nurse?”
“It’s what I want to do.”
“I know exactly what you want to do, Ky, but nursing’s not the route you should be taking.”
“And being a kept woman is?”
“What does that even mean?”
With a sigh of irritation, she dumped the last of her coffee into the sink. “Just forget it.”
But he couldn’t forget it. His imagination jumped into overdrive, filling in the blanks with tantalizing possibilities. “Are there handcuffs involved?”
Her defensive stance melted as she started to laugh. “You wish.”
Heaven help him, he did. Backing her against the counter, he braced his hands on either side of her body, trapping her in. “How about we take turns? One night, I’ll keep you.”
She placed her hands against his chest, maintaining an illusion of control even as her lower body arched into his. “And the next?’
“And the next, you can keep me.” Moving his hips in slow seduction, he pressed in close and teased the sensitive skin below her ear with a whisper, “For as long as you wish.”
“Tempting…” She opened to his kiss, but before she could fully accept his offer, Brayden came charging into the room and wedged his body between theirs.
With one little arm wrapped around Jimmy’s leg, the other around Kylie’s, he beamed up at them. “Hi, hi, hi!”
“What we do today?”
With a tender touch, Kylie brushed a blonde curl from his forehead. “Today, you get to play with your friends at daycare, and then you’re spending the whole night at Grandma’s.”
Bouncing in excitement, he asked, “We go now?”
“Soon,” she promised. “Say goodbye to Jimmy first. He has to go to work.”
“Be good today, Little Man.” Jimmy scooped up Brayden for a quick hug and face full of kisses before trying one last time, “Come with me, Ky. You can start today.”
With a roll of her eyes, she asked, “You never give up, do you?”
“Never.” He kissed her beautiful, stubborn jaw. “Love you.”
She gave him a playful shove toward the door. “Don’t forget to call your father.”
He grunted in acknowledgment and left them to their day.
The sun had yet to overheat the interior of his truck but it had baked the morning dew off the grass by the time Jimmy pulled into the parking lot of Rogan-Handley Construction. After years of working from their trucks, Jimmy had caved to his brother’s incessant pleas and purchased the commercial property on the outskirts of Allman Falls earlier in the spring.
Sitting on just under an acre of land, the twenty-year-old metal building had originally been Tokey’s small-engine repair. After Tokey died, the property had languished on the market for years. With office space in the front and a large shop with three overhead doors in the back, the building was more square-footage than they needed, and more upkeep than Jimmy wanted, but the investment potential was stupid to ignore.
He had intended to remodel the building slowly, as time allowed, but necessity and foolish pride had prevented him from growing idle hands. What started with repairing a leaky roof had turned into installing new siding, windows, and overhead doors. When he should have been fishing or tucking Brayden into bed, he had worked late into the night blowing in insulation, stringing new electrical, updating the plumbing, cabinetry, tile and trim. Brent’s fiancée, Aria, had tackled the interior design, mixing and matching rich woods and tough leather, buttery creams and subtle hints of sage for an understated yet rugged décor.
When he climbed from his truck, the stench of fresh blacktop overpowered the subtle fragrance of the lilies and lavender the girls had planted along the walkway. Inside, a phantom odor of motor oil and grease impregnated the air. He found it oddly welcoming.
“Welcome, O’ Late One,” Brent Rogan said as Jimmy walked in. Kicked back at the reception desk, his eyes hooded and boot-clad feet propped beside the keyboard, Brent looked half-stoned and rooted in for the day.
Jimmy eyed him suspiciously. “Are you high?”
“Naw.” Brent gave him a lazy smile. “Upward dog, man.”
Jimmy shot a questioning glance to Dan, who grunted in simple explanation, “Aria.”
“Figures,” Jimmy muttered.
“She’s been teaching me yoga and clearing my chakras to help me relax for tomorrow.”
“Why? Punching you worked fine.”
“I know I enjoyed it,” Dan agreed.
With his arms outstretched, Brent touched his thumbs to his middle fingers, closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath, letting it out in short bursts through puckered lips. “My peace comes from within, kemo sabe.”
Jimmy flicked his brother on the forehead.
“Quit fucking with my Zen,” Brent grumbled, and smacked his hand away.
Jimmy thumped him again.
“Your concrete’s coming at eight,” Dan reminded Jimmy. The Handley half of Rogan-Handley Construction, Dan filled the role of architect, builder, advisor, best friend, confidant; the same role his father, Rich Handley, had filled for James Rogan, Sr. in the original Rogan-Handley Construction team. Growing up as close as brothers, Jimmy possessed very few childhood memories that Dan did not share.
“Yeah, I know.” Jimmy shot a quick glance at the clock. “Lost track of time.”
“Sleeping off a hangover?” Dan guessed.
“Watching the sun rise.”
“Is that what you kids are calling it these days?”
Jimmy laughed. “Been so long you forgot, Old Man?”
At thirty-two, Dan was only a few years older than Jimmy, but he carried the wisdom of a man twice his age. A widower, the grief he’d suffered had prematurely salted his hair and graveled his voice. Shadows of past anguish remained etched in the creases around his eyes. But he wore his survival with pride. He had a new love, a fresh life, a baby on the way. Arms crossed, he leaned his six-foot-three frame against the doorway to the kitchenette, solidly confident in his ability to withstand the weight of whatever more fate dare fire his way.
“Watched the sun set last night.” Dan grinned. “Twice.”
“It doesn’t count if you’re sitting on the porch by yourself.” Spying a near-empty tray of homemade cinnamon rolls on the counter, Jimmy shoved past Dan, into the kitchenette. “Stace must be feeling better?”
“Morning sickness is still kicking her ass, but she missed her oven.”
“It’s about damn time they reconciled.”
“It’s only been a week.”
“A week too long.” As he sunk his teeth into cinnamon and sugar perfection, a moan of unadulterated pleasure rose from his chest. “My god, Dan, why have you not married that woman yet?”
“Hey, at least I’ve proposed. What’s your excuse?”
Dan laughed, but Jimmy found no humor in his misery.
“Did you talk to Dad?” Brent asked.
“Not yet.” Jimmy dumped the remaining splash of lukewarm coffee from the carafe into his travel mug. “What does he want?”
“Same as he always does—to talk to you.”
Balancing the softball-sized cinnamon roll on the lid of his mug, he returned to the reception area and pulled a chair alongside Brent’s. “That man needs to find a hobby.”
“He has one,” Dan said.
“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed. “Annoying the living shit out of his oldest son.”
Brent turned somber eyes on Jimmy. “Could be worse.”
“I know.” Ignoring the guilt gnawing deep in his gut, he knocked his brother’s feet from the desk. “Let’s get this done quick so I can go. How many temp guys did you call in for today?”
“Six. Four for Charlene’s, two for Studencek’s. Jason’s there already, double-checking the forms are good to go.”
“Speaking of the diner,” Dan said. “Charlene called this morning.”
Jimmy groaned. “What’d we do wrong now?”
“She’s convinced the tile in the Men’s restroom came from two different batch runs.”
“Don’t let her bully any of the guys into ripping it out until I can take a look at it.”
“She also wants to know where the estimate for her kitchen is.”
“She’ll get it when she gets it.” Jimmy pulled his cell phone from his pocket and scrolled through their overbooked schedule, asking Dan about the status of blueprints for upcoming jobs before turning to Brent. “Who’s filling in while you’re honeymooning in Florida next week?”
“Not as good as you.”
Brent clutched his chest in mock surprise. “Did you just compliment me?”
“Don’t say I never gave you anything for your wedding.”
“If you really want to give me something, put Jase on payroll,” Brent said.
“He’s good, Jimmy,” Brent repeated.
“Quit asking.” He grabbed a stack of envelopes from the pile of mail he’d been neglecting and sorted out the ones containing checks. Those with invoices to be paid would have to wait for a day when he had more time.
Brent seized the opportunity to ask, “Can we at least get a receptionist?”
“Absolutely,” Jimmy agreed. “Just as soon as Ky takes the job.”
Brent snorted. “So, never?”
“Yeah, no shit, right?” Jimmy’s cell phone rang, his father’s number appearing on the screen. With a swipe of his thumb, he sent the call to voice mail and tossed the phone onto the desk. “Are we done here?”
Dan pushed off the doorjamb. “We’re done.”
“Stop ignoring him, Jimmy,” Brent said as he stood to leave.
Distracted by an invitation to bid from the city of Juliette, he didn’t notice Brent had ferreted off with his cinnamon roll until he reached for it, and came away with a handful of empty air.
“Son of a bitch.”