Jimmy had never thought of himself as a particularly stupid person, but as he tried to make sense of the seemingly simple concept the saleswoman had just explained to him, he began to doubt his intelligence.
“Cut, color, and what?” he asked.
“Clarity, dear,” Evelyn repeated, her voice carrying the soft lull one reserved for small children and dimwitted adults.
“Right.” He lifted his ball cap and ran a rough hand through his sweat-dampened hair, a feeble attempt to quell his rising agitation. Eight hours spent screeding, floating, and finishing concrete in the blazing sun with a heat index pushing a hundred fifteen had done a number on his back, and on his mood. Why the hell he’d thought it was a good time to go ring shopping was beyond him. Heat stroke induced insanity, maybe. “And that’s important, why?”
As though sensing his discomfort, Evelyn swept aside the glossy brochures depicting the intricacies of diamond grading. “Let’s forget this nonsense for now and concentrate on finding the perfect setting to showcase the diamond. Are you thinking traditional gold, or something a little more modern, like silver?”
“For the band, dear.”
“Oh. Uh… I think…”
Hell, he didn’t know what he was thinking, except he needed to leave. Now.
He turned toward the exit, toward fresh air and sane thought, but Evelyn denied him the grace of reconsideration with a swift flourish of an upholstered stool. Gently, she patted the plush cushion.
His body obeyed.
“Tell me a little about Kylie. What’s she like?”
“She’s beautiful,” he answered automatically.
“Of course she is.” Evelyn returned to her post behind the glass display case and selected a key attached to her beaded wrist chain to unlock the access door. “What else can you tell me about her?”
“She’s smart, funny… stubborn as hell, but she’s incredible…”
As he searched for the right words to describe all that Kylie was, Evelyn lifted seemingly random settings from the display and placed them on a mahogany tray in front of him. Each ring varied from the others in size and shape, some intricate, some simplistic in design, but they all had one thing in common—none of them made him think of Kylie.
“She has a son. He’s two…”
Nodding, Evelyn rearranged her selections. “How did you and Kylie meet?”
“I was dating her sister.”
A twinkle of delight flashed in Evelyn’s eyes as she shot a glance over the edge of her reading glasses. “That must make Thanksgiving interesting.”
“It makes every day interesting.” He lifted a twisted band of silver coloring. “What is this, silver?”
“Platinum. It’s extremely dense and will feel a little heavier on her finger than a traditional ring, but it’s durable and won’t require the maintenance of white gold. However, white gold is cheaper…”
He slipped the ring onto the tip of his small finger, testing the heft of it, before deciding, “Platinum, for sure, but not this one. She’s more simple beauty.”
His cell phone vibrated, jarring Jimmy from his ramblings. He checked the screen.
“It’s my brother. Sorry…”
Evelyn brushed away his concern with a gentle wave of her hand. “Take your time, dear. We’re in no hurry.”
As soon as he answered, Brent asked, “Where you at?”
“Still in Juliette.”
“Hurry the fuck up. It’s beer-thirty time.”
“It always is.” Jimmy abandoned the rings Evelyn had selected in favor of those still in the case. She trailed close behind like a well-coifed shadow. “You guys finished up at Char’s for the day?”
“Is she still complaining about the tile?”
“Not anymore. Dan ripped it out.”
“What the fuck? I told you guys not to touch it.”
“Yeah, but after Dan wasted two hours of the day trying to convince her she was seeing shadows on the floor, she called Dad.”
Jimmy choked back his irritation. “Of course she did.”
It was the same thing, every single time they did a job for one of their father’s friends. He always found a way to get involved, and never in a way that made Jimmy’s life easier.
“Dan decided it was cheaper to rip it out and start over instead of spending the rest of the day arguing with Dad.”
“If he thinks it’s so cheap, he can pay for the new tile.”
“I’m taking what we could salvage to put in my basement. I’ll pay for it.”
“Like you paid for the leftover brick from Opal’s?”
Stony silence came from Brent’s end of the conversation. Jimmy sighed in frustration.
“Whatever. Just take it. I’ll probably end up writing it off anyway.”
“Quit pouting. You won.”
“I’m not pouting.”
“One of us’ll have to go over in the morning and finish the grout.”
“I kinda figured.”
“I knew she’d find a way to mess with my wedding.”
“Don’t worry about her. I’ll take care of it,” Jimmy assured him as he returned his attention the task at hand. He pointed to a ring on the top tier of the lighted display and asked Evelyn, “How much?”
“How much what?” Brent asked.
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
Evelyn shook her head in displeasure over the ring he’d selected. “That’s not the one you want, dear.”
Considering he still had no freakin’ clue what he wanted, Jimmy agreed with Evelyn’s assessment and continued browsing.
“Who’re you talking to, then?” Brent asked.
“No one,” Jimmy lied, not because he didn’t want his brother to know where he was, necessarily. More, his brother had a big mouth. He didn’t want the entire town of Allman Falls to know he planned to propose to Kylie until after he’d officially done so.
As though overtaken by a sudden epiphany, Evelyn clasped her hands together. “Ooh! I bet she’ll love a princess cut. Let me show you one.”
“Princess what? What the hell are you doing, Jimmy?”
“Nothing.” He shot a glare to Evelyn and paced a few steps further down the display case. “I’ve got the radio on in the truck.”
“Uh, huh. Right,” Brent grunted. “When you get done doing whatever the hell it is you say you’re not doing, you think maybe you could haul your best man ass over to Jack’s for my bachelor party? It’s the only one I’m ever going to have, you know?”
“I still don’t see how you can call it a bachelor party when you won’t let me hire any strippers.”
“Aria’s the only woman I want to watch sexy-dance for me.”
“You’re such a liar.”
“Naw,” Brent denied with a laugh. “Besides, why pay good money when Ash’ll show off her goodies for free?”
“I’ve seen her goodies. They aren’t all that great,” he lied.
“Get your ass down here, Jimmy.”
“Half hour,” Jimmy promised.
As soon as he hung up, Evelyn asked, “Are we ready to get back to the task at hand, dear?”
The endearment was beginning to grate on his nerves. Or, maybe the phone call from his brother had set him on edge. Either way, he was tempted to buy the first ring he laid eyes on and haul ass back to Allman Falls.
Instead, he extended the torture. “What’s a princess cut?”
“You’re going to love it,” Evelyn promised as she pulled out another set of glossy brochures and delved into the science of symmetry, proportions, facet count and optical performance. He tried to follow along, but he was hopelessly lost. When his phone vibrated again, he dove for it in gratitude, and immediately regretted the impulse.
Without as much as a hello, James Rogan barked, “I got an interesting call from Charlene this morning.”
“I bet you did.”
“Care to explain?” His voice was as sharply demanding as ever, despite the multitude of strokes his body had suffered over the years.
“Why the hell not?”
“It’s not your business anymore, Dad. You can’t keep getting involved.”
As much as Jimmy hated talking to the antagonistic, perpetually pissed off version of his father, he was easier to stomach than the broken down James Rogan, the one who was tired and confused, prone to fits of rage and utter despair. It was always a tossup which one would call. Just once, he wanted to talk to the James Rogan of his childhood, the one who was two beers into a summer night, kicked back in the long grass on the bank of the river, pointing out stars in the night sky to his sons, drawing new constellations with the orange glow of his lit cigarette.
“As long as I’m alive, it’s very much my business.”
“Great, then you can start paying your fair share of the bills.”
James barked out a harsh laugh. “Strapped for cash, eh? I told you buying that building would come back to bite you in the ass.”
“That’s not what’s killin’ me.”
“The fuck it will,” Jimmy muttered, trailing off as he bent for a closer look at the ring in the corner of the display.
Tucked into white satin set in a velvet box, a delicate train of diamonds sparkled along a platinum band, framing a center stone graced with a pinkish blush reminiscent of the flush of Kylie’s skin whenever they made love. His heart raced and his hands went numb.
Unequivocally, it was the one.
“Dad, I’m gonna have to call you back.”
“What, am I interrupting something?”
“Kinda, yeah. I’m buying Ky a ring.”
James grunted. “She deserves a hell of a lot better than a sinner like you, boy.”
Finally, something they could agree on.
She knew the day would come eventually, that the little bit of joy she’d found would disappear and her life would return to boring nothing once again. Friday afternoon, on her drive home from work, Ashley’s fear finally came to fruition. The miles of florescent orange cones from Juliette to Allman Falls had disappeared, the temporary signs taken down, the equipment loaded onto trailers and strapped down tight. The construction on the highway was finally complete. The crew was moving on. Mike would be leaving. And she would be left all alone, once again.
“Come with me,” Mike offered when she moped while he packed.
“What’s keeping you here?”
“My family. Trevor.”
“Your family sucks and Trevor’s not even here. You can call him from wherever.”
“True,” she wavered. “But I just signed a lease…”
“You can get a job in Salina.”
“What, for three months? Then you guys’ll move on to the next job and I’ll have to quit again.”
“Then don’t come.” Mike jerked the zipper on his backpack and flung the bag over his shoulder. “I just thought you might want a change.”
“I do want a change. I just don’t know if I want that change.”
“Whatever. I get it,” he said, disappointed.
She followed as he moved from the bedroom to the bathroom where he started collecting his razor, toothbrush, condoms, his comb; all the guy things she’d loved seeing litter her bathroom counters. She wished he would leave it all behind.
“You don’t have to rush out of here tonight. You could stay for a few days.”
“My ride’s leaving in an hour.”
“Don’t go.” She grabbed at his backpack, desperate to slow him down. “I’ll take you.”
“You’ll take me to Salina?”
“I’ll take you,” she repeated. “Just stay with me tonight.”
He turned to face her, considering. “It’s a long drive.”
“I don’t care. It’s worth it. I want to get dressed up and take you out. I want to get you drunk and take you home.”
“I can’t drink,” he reminded her.
“So get me drunk and take me home.”
“I can’t drive, either.”
“Ugh!” she growled in frustration and rolled her eyes. “We’ll go to Jack’s. We can walk from here. Or we could go to Gimp’s, or Charlene’s, or to my mom’s backyard. I don’t care where we go. I just want to celebrate with you.”
The corner of his mouth turned up in mischievous smile. “Celebrate what?”
She struggled to find a reason. “Does it matter?”
“No.” He slipped the backpack from his shoulder. “Is this like a date?”
She shrugged. “Do you want it to be?”
He let out a nervous laugh. “I wouldn’t know how to act.”
“Me either.” She smiled.
Slowly, he closed the space between them, walked her backward until he had her pressed against the wall, the length of him pinning her in place. He placed a warm hand against her neck, stroked her throat with his thumb. His eyes darkened, his voice deepened as he watched her lips part and he breathed in her exhale. “Wear something sexy for me.”
“Absolutely,” she whispered.
She closed her eyes as he moved in closer, his lips skimming along her skin, tasting, touching, his breath tickling her neck. He asked again. “Come to Salina with me.”
With rough, calloused hands, he slipped her scrubs from her body, stripped her bare.
“Come with me,” he repeated.
His mouth traveled south along her curves and he knelt before her.
“Come with me,” he whispered, softly demanding as he parted her legs and kissed her heat. “Don’t leave me alone.”
As his demands grew stronger, his breath hotter, her legs became weaker, her body looser, and she felt herself slipping, molding into his will.
She clung to him, unable, unwilling to stand on her own.
“Come with me.”
Surrendering, she moaned in delicious agreement, “Yes.”