Except for the flicker of the television in the living room, Kylie’s house stood dark when she finally pulled into the driveway at the end of her long, double shift. Once inside, she slipped her shoes from her swollen feet and listened to the merciful silence. Padding from the back door, through the moonlit kitchen, she intended to kiss her sleeping son goodnight and then head to bed herself, but her stomach rumbled louder than her head screamed. It demanded her attention first, reminding her of the leftover Chicken Parmesan in her refrigerator. She stripped the dish of its foil covering and ate a few, cold forkfuls before popping the rest into the microwave.
As she reached into the upper cabinet for a glass, a strong arm wrapped around her waist. A calloused hand brushed her hair from her neck. A wave of warm desire rolled through her tired body, relaxing her sore muscles.
“Is he asleep?” Her thirst forgotten, she leaned into the open-mouth kisses playing across the nape of her neck.
“Sound asleep,” Jimmy assured her. He slipped his hand under her shirt, splaying his palm across her stomach, and pulled her tighter against him. He was tall and lean, his body hard and defined, his muscle pure strength, built from a lifetime of physical labor. It was absolute heaven when he held her.
“Did he eat?”
“Liar,” she accused with a light laugh. Resting her head against his shoulder, she savored the scent of him. Still in his work clothes, he smelled of paint and Chelsea Lake, the Nebraska sun, a day even longer than hers. If she could bottle the combination, she would spray it on her skin, along her inner wrist, to never live a moment without him filling her senses.
“He ate every bite of a cookie,” Jimmy clarified. She could feel his smile against her skin. “After he glared at Stacy’s potato salad for a bit.”
“You’re a pushover.”
“The cookie had raisins in it.”
“Well, since it had raisins in it…” The weekend seemed years away, but the fire he breathed into her soul offered a brief respite from the stress of life. “You feel good.”
“So do you,” he whispered, his breath warm steam against her skin. “Let’s go to bed.”
“Mmm… but I need food.”
He trained his fingers down the flat of her stomach, popped open the button of her jeans. “Food’s overrated.”
“Not when you haven’t eaten all day.” She pressed her lips against the salty skin of his neck, tasting him. “Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?”
He started on her zipper. “Nothing’s bothering me, now that you’re home.”
“I could help.”
“Later.” He traced the waistband of her panties, his fingertips slowly inching inside as he leisurely traveled across her skin from one hip to the other and back again. “Come to bed with me first.”
“I’m ready to fucking explode here, Ky.” His lips whispered a caress along the shell of her ear. “Don’t talk. Please.”
She tried to focus only on him and her in that moment, his calloused fingers and what they were doing to her body, but her exhausted mind refused to relax, bringing her fears front and center.
“I’m worried about Ashley.”
She grabbed his hands to grab his attention. “Then why isn’t she talking to me? Why doesn’t she answer my texts or return my calls?”
“Hell, I don’t know.” With a heavy sigh of frustration, he pulled away from her. “Why does Ashley do anything she does?”
“This is going a little far, even for her.” Refastening her jeans, she turned around to face him. “I had to stalk her friends just to find out she’s hiding out in North Carolina—”
“She’s not hiding.”
“Why else would she be there? Why would she be working at a stupid grocery store? And for what, minimum wage, probably? She has a degree, for crying out loud! I bet she didn’t even try to find a better job.”
“You know, maybe if you didn’t criticize her all the time—”
“I don’t criticize her.”
“It’s all you ever do. No matter what she says, what she does, who she dates—”
“Yeah, meaning me,” he huffed defensively. “And Mike, and Trevor. That kid back in California.”
“That kid was a drug addict who OD’d on her birthday! I tried like hell to save her from that!”
“She knew what she was doing.”
“She was fifteen-years old! She didn’t know shit!”
“She’s all grown up now, Ky. You have to let her live her own life.”
“But she’s not living any kind of life. She’s just running away. Again. It’s all she does.”
“So, let her run.” He jerked open the refrigerator door, spilling a rush of cold air onto the scuffed linoleum floor. “Maybe she’ll find something better out there.”
“Maybe she will,” Kylie reluctantly agreed. Her sister did need a fresh start. She sure wouldn’t get one in Allman Falls. “I just worry about her.”
“I know you do, and you need to stop.” The door slammed as he twisted the cap off a bottle of beer and tossed it into the sink. “She’s not your problem.”
“She’s my sister. That makes her my problem.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
As he brought the bottle of beer to his lips, it took every ounce of restraint Kylie possessed not to rip it from his hand. All she wanted was a single night where she could lie in bed and fall asleep in his arms without the lingering scent of alcohol clouding his breath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a night like that, and she missed them.
“You’d worry the same for Brent if you thought he was headed down the wrong path.”
He said nothing. They both knew it would be a lie if he denied it.
Since they were arguing anyway, Kylie sucked in a deep breath for courage and finally asked the question that had been churning acid in her stomach for weeks. “Are you still sleeping with Marissa?”
“What?” Confusion knocked him off balance for the slightest moment before his jaw set tight, his blue eyes hardened into ice. “No.”
“Then why the hell did you hire her?” she asked, her voice cracking as she tried to smother her desperation.
“We needed help.”
“But why her, Jimmy? There’s a million other people you could’ve hired, instead of her.”
“I offered you the job,” Jimmy snapped, his eyes flashing in anger. “You didn’t want it.”
“But Sarah did. I told her about it and she was going to talk to you—”
“I’m not going to fucking hire Sarah! I don’t trust her to know my business.”
“She’s not family, she’s just a girl you used to—”
She clamped her jaw before the word shot out, but Jimmy knew immediately what she wanted to say, and he didn’t hold back.
“So is your sister.” He slammed the beer bottle down on the counter, the sudden intensity of his anger unexpected, stinging like a slap to the face. “But this isn’t about Ashley or Missy, or anyone else, is it? This is about you and that fucking guilt you’ve been dragging around since the day we got together.”
“I have not—”
“Bullshit! You’ve been hiding behind it for almost a year now, using it to push me away whenever you think things are getting too serious between us.”
“I’m not hiding behind anything,” she denied.
Grabbing her by the arm, he challenged, “Then fucking marry me already.”
“Why the hell would I, when you ask me like that?” She ripped her arm from his grasp and turned her back on him. With a grunt of frustration, he paced away from her, but her kitchen was too small for him to move far enough away for her liking. “Go home, Jimmy.”
“Don’t do this, Ky.” His voice weighed heavy with residual anger, exhaustion, the same weary emotions she felt toward him.
“Just go home.” She punched the release button on the microwave and grabbed her dinner. Her appetite was long gone, erased by the tears stinging her eyes, but she stabbed her fork into the center of the lukewarm chicken and started hacking it into jagged, bite-size pieces.
“Look, I’m sorry if you think I’m being an ass, but I’ve had a really long fucking week, and I’m not in the mood to talk about any of this shit, especially Ashley. Maybe now that she’s gone, she’ll get a life and quit messing with your head, and you’ll believe me when I tell you I love you.”
“I do believe you,” she insisted, but it sounded like a lie, even to herself.
“If you did, you’d set a date for our wedding.”
Shaking her head in denial, she hacked away at the overcooked noodles, her fork scraping hard against the plate. “It has nothing to do with that.”
“Then what, Ky? What does it have to do with?”
“You’re not ready to marry me.”
A bitter laugh erupted from deep inside him, echoing off the plaster walls of her tiny kitchen. “I’m not ready to marry you? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“You’re not ready,” she insisted.
“What the hell do I have to do to convince you I am? You don’t listen to anything I say. I could tell you a million times that I love you—that I have always loved you—that I want to spend the rest of my life with you—and you don’t listen to a word of it. You only hear what you want to hear.”
Slamming down her fork, she whipped around to him. “No, I only hear all the shit people talk about you and Missy, and every other girl in this god forsaken town. Maybe if you’d keep your dick in your pants once in a while, I’d believe you!”
His jaw pulled tight, the muscle in his temple pulsing as he worked to control his anger. Slowly, deliberately, he stated, “I am not sleeping with Marissa.”
“You’re so full of shit.”
He choked out an incredulous laugh and ripped the ball cap from his head, raking his fingers through his hair in agitation. “Yeah, you’re right. I am. Filled to the fucking brim.”
As he paced the tight confines of her kitchen, the room seemed to shrink, and his frustration grew. Muttering under his breath, he stuffed the cap onto his head and turned to her with his hands up in surrender.
“I can’t keep having this same argument with you, Kylie. No matter how much I wish I could, I can’t change the past. I can’t undo anything I did, or un-say anything I said, and I sure as hell can’t un-screw anyone, not even your sister.”
His words squeezed her heart, suffocating her. “Go to hell.”
“I’m already there.”
He didn’t slam the house door when he left, but she could hear his truck tires squealing long after the engine roared to life and he peeled away from the curb. She, on the other hand, forgot Brayden was asleep. She threw her plate into the sink with so much force it shattered on impact, waking her son with a frightened cry.
Cursing Jimmy and her stupidity, she headed for Brayden’s room. She found him sitting on his knees in the middle of his bed, crying into his blanket. His blue eyes were closed, his cry long and low, the cry he cried when he was more asleep than awake.
“It’s okay, Bray. Everything’s okay,” she soothed as she settled him onto his pillow. She tucked a light sheet around him, and kissed his sleepy face.
“Where Jimmy?” he asked, his eyes still closed. He always asked for Jimmy first.
She gently stroked his hair and whispered, “Jimmy went home, baby.”
“But… I wan… Jimmy… get Boo…” Sleep reclaimed him before he finished his thought.
She stayed with him for a long while, stroking his hair, kissing his cheek, wiping the tears from her eyes, watching over her son as he slept.
She wished she could turn back the night, start it over again. This time she would listen to her body instead of her fear. She would simply feel the strength of Jimmy’s love though his touch and his kiss, through the heat of his skin, the beat of his heart. This time, she wouldn’t let useless, hurtful words and poisonous doubt get in the way of the truth in their hearts.
If she could do it all over again, she’d keep her mouth shut, and take him straight to bed.