Jimmy finished the rest of Brent’s beer, then two more from the fridge. Still, his mind refused to shut up. His brother’s house was too quiet, regrets from his past too loud. He hunted through the cupboards until he found a half-full bottle of whiskey, and took it with him when he left.
His intention had been to drive home to his apartment, crank the music to drown out the noise, and drink until he passed out, but somehow he ended up on Kylie’s front porch, holding an empty bottle. He needed Kylie to help him. She was the only one who could stop the world from spinning out of control.
Once upon a time, Marissa had possessed the power to calm his mind, settle his heart. She’d been the one to guide him past his fears, through the anger torching his path. Kylie believed the connection was still there, that he and Marissa would be bound together forever, but their tie had severed long ago, the night an eighteen-wheeler crossed the center line. Jimmy had swerved, desperate to save that beautiful, innocent life they had created. Instead, he sent them spinning out of control. In one terrifying, tragic instant, Jimmy destroyed it all.
Deep in a valley all but nature had forgotten, with the rising sun as their only witness, Jimmy had knelt upon the damp earth beneath the spread of a gnarled burr oak. The knees of his jeans had soaked up the morning dew. The collar of her shirt had collected her tears. In a shallow grave, they buried the final shreds of their youth along with the broken promise of two pink lines. He managed to hold his grief at bay until the sun kissed the tips of the branches. When it broke, the weight of its release drove him bodily to the ground.
If Marissa had ever returned, he did not know. He had been unable to stay away. More often than he should have in the first few months, he would find himself descending into the valley to sit beside the ground they had turned, the blemish healing with the passing season.
With his guitar in his lap, Johnnie Walker by his side, he pressed his back against the rough bark of the patient oak and called upon the melancholy companionship of Nick Drake and Neil Young, Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and others to carry him through what lay beyond the blaze of the setting sun. One song blending into another, he explored the depths of the starry night sky and prayed for the ever merciless God to finally take pity and allow him to make his escape, only to awaken hours later, wrung out and hung-over, pained by the beautiful stain of the sunrise.
As time passed, the lure of the valley eased and he lost his craving for death, but it was not the Lord who deserved thanks for binding his wounds and healing his broken his heart. It was his Martin. A 1993 OM-21, it had been well-played and slightly abused before it became his. He subjected it to more of both over the years. He’d play until the strings broke and his fingers bled, and then leave it to lie forgotten. He had celebrated with it, hidden behind it, and fallen asleep with it under his arm. It had explored back country roads with him, helped him pick up women, and had kept him company when none were available. It was the Martin that had lifted him from the valley, and many years later, it was the Martin he had sought solace from during the uncertain hours following his father’s first stroke. And it was the Martin that had bolstered his courage the night he confessed to Kylie his darkest sin.
On a New Year’s Eve he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate, he found himself sitting in the Johansen’s living room, waiting on Ashley. Ordinarily, he would have left her behind, but when he walked into the house, he found Kylie gently swaying in the rocking chair, Brayden swaddled in her arms, nursing from a bottle.
“Ash might be awhile,” Kylie said, her whispered voice carrying a hint of amusement. “She just got in the shower.”
“I figured as much.”
“You want something to drink while you wait?” Dressed in yoga pants and a pale blue tank, she wore her thick hair in a sloppy knot and carried the weary expression of sleep-deprived mother, but she shined forever gorgeous. He had to force himself not to stare. “I’m sure Mom has a beer or two in the fridge.”
“Naw, I’m good.”
He settled into the far end of the sofa, one boot-clad foot on the coffee table, his guitar in his lap. As always whenever they were alone in a room together, an uncomfortable tension filled the air. Part desire, part something akin to loathing, Kylie’s conflicted feelings toward him tied his tongue with nerves. He never knew what to say, always felt as though he should be apologizing to her. For what exactly, he wasn’t sure.
“How was your trip to Florida?” she asked.
“Long.” He and his brother had flown out on Christmas Eve to spend the holidays with their parents. His mother had fussed. His father had grilled him about his business decisions. He had spent as much time as possible out on the water, counting the minutes until he could return home.
“How’s your dad doing?”
“About the same.”
His fingers began to travel along the strings, playing a mindless tune as his thoughts strayed where he didn’t want them to go. James Rogan had looked good physically, his mobility and dexterity both vastly improved by a few months in the Florida sun, but his emotions had been all over the place. Angry one moment, crying the next, he had been accusational, augmentative. Jimmy could only hope his father hadn’t meant half the things he had said over Christmas dinner, but he feared James had spoken from the heart.
“Who taught you how to play?” Kylie asked, pulling him from his wanderings.
“Mom taught me the basics, enough to get me interested, and then she kind of let me do my own thing with it. I think she was looking for a way to keep me out of trouble.”
“Did it work?”
“Not really, but it gave me something to do while I was grounded.” As she laughed, he started playing Phil Keaggy’s “The Wind and the Wheat” to give Kylie a taste of the passion his mother had ignited in him. “I used to put Mom’s old records on and try to imitate what I heard. Drove everyone in the house crazy with all my squelching and squawking while I worked it out, but I didn’t care. I was obsessed.”
“You learned to play that by ear?” she asked in disbelief.
He shrugged. “I guess.”
The way she studied him did crazy things to his heartbeat and tripped up his fingers on the strings. He stilled his hands before he made a fool of himself.
“Does anyone else in your family play?”
“Mom can play any instrument you stick in her hands, and she’s always singing or humming something. Dad’ll sing at church, but that’s about it. Brent’s like Mom, singing all the damn time, but his voice sounds like two cats screwing.”
“I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with him.”
Shaking her head, she tried not to laugh. “You’re awful.”
“The truth hurts sometimes.”
With a smile teasing her lips, she shifted her attention to the newborn sleeping in her arms. Gently, with care for modesty, she lifted Brayden from her breast and adjusted the knit blanket covering them both. He continued suckling in his sleep, letting out only a tiny grunt of discontent when she shifted him to her shoulder.
As Jimmy watched mother and son, a phantom pain clinched deep inside his chest, lighting a fire of fear so hot he desired to run. Even more, he desired to reach out and touch her skin, glowing warm in the soft light of the Christmas tree. Instead, he closed his eyes and started to play the music of the valley.
Lulled by the quiet notes, the engrained movement of his fingers, he almost didn’t hear her say, “That’s beautiful.”
Though it was not his to take credit for, he nodded.
“Haunting, though,” she amended, her voice no more than a whisper. “Kind of painful, in a way?”
She said it as a question, as though unsure whether she had interpreted the music the way it had been written, or the way he had intended it to be heard. He had no desire to influence her perception, so he continued on without answering.
Her body absorbed the rhythm of each song, altering the pace of her rocking chair, the pattern of lazy circles she rubbed along Brayden’s back as he introduced pieces of himself through the music that had healed him.
Only once did she ask, “What’s this one called?”
“The Thoughts of Mary Jane.”
“Ah. A lament to your pot smoking days?”
Unable to match her smile, he gave voice to the lyrics, allowing them to explain what he could not say. She shifted Brayden in her arms and closed her eyes, settling in as she listened. With her no longer watching him, the air in the room expanded, turning the atmosphere fragile. Long after the song ended, he kept his fingers in continuous motion, drifting for as long as she was willing to stay afloat with him.
He nodded his appreciation.
“I mean very good. So is your voice. You could play professionally.”
“That’s not my thing.”
“What is your thing?”
He raised one shoulder in a shrug. “What’s yours?”
“My son,” she answered easily.
She paused for a few heartbeats, her chair falling still as she searched, and then shook her head with a frustrated laugh. “Honestly? I don’t remember. Everything else seems so unimportant anymore, like my dreams never even existed before Brayden came along. Is that strange?”
“Why would it be strange?”
“Brayden’s barely two months old. How could I have lost myself so completely in that short amount of time?”
“You didn’t lose yourself, Ky. It’s all still there, just finally realized.”
She studied him, her brows knit, gaze intense, before she asked, “Who do you think about when you play?”
He had never intended to share with anyone other than Marissa the part of himself he had tucked into the valley, but something in the vulnerability of Kylie’s voice made him crave to know how it felt to be embraced by her absolute acceptance. From her, he desired intimacy in its entirety, and so he answered her with the truth.
“The rumors are true, then?”
“I don’t know what bullshit stories people are telling, but the simple truth is we were seventeen… stupid in our brevity…” His hands still, he ached to ease the tension in his chest with another dance along the strings, but he could no longer remember how to play. “I sold my pickup and bought Missy a ring because I thought that was what she wanted. I never knew for sure if it was. There was an accident… she miscarried before I got a chance to propose.”
Her eyes on Brayden, she asked, “Is that what you wanted? To marry her? Be a family?”
“I used to think I did, but I didn’t love her enough to put her grief before my own. I was too young, too selfish to love anyone back then, let alone be married.”
“What about now?” she asked.
“Now?” He cast a sideways glance to Kylie and answered in all honesty, “I want it all.”
But wanting something, no matter how desperately, did not mean those prayers would be answered. Jimmy had long ago given up hope of love, of a family, of a life well-lived. Any future he may have had died the night of the accident. He did not deserve another try. But with Kylie, he felt a shimmer of hope again, that maybe not all had been lost, that not all had been buried.
He tried to get to her, to tell her of the life he imagined with her, to tell her of her beauty, the brilliance of her soul, but his key wouldn’t work. There was something wrong with it. The key was in his hand, he could see it, but it wouldn’t slide into the lock. The door knob kept sliding away from him, swimming in and out of focus, changing sizes. Big… little… shifting side to side, making him feel the fool, scaring the shit out of him.
He rested his burning forehead against the cool, wooden door, and knocked.
The door opened, and she was there. So fucking beautiful…
“Jimmy?” Her face distorted into a mask of anger embroiled with worry, she pulled him off the door jamb and helped him inside. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know.” He had no idea what was wrong or how to fix it. He was having a hard enough time remembering how to walk in a straight line. The living room tipped on its axis, sending him listing to the left. “Everything’s fucked up, you know?”
“I know.” She lifted his heavy arm over her shoulders and held him up by his belt.
She was so strong.
“Where are we going?”
“Keep your voice down.”
His foot tangled in the carpet and he pitched forward, letting out a curse when he slammed into the wall. Kylie struggled to keep him upright, but upright made his head spin.
“Shh, Jimmy,” Kylie whispered. “You’re going to wake Brayden. Let’s just go to bed.”
He tried to change directions. He needed to go check on his son, make sure he was safe, but Kylie stopped him. She let go of his belt and moved her hands to his face, commanding him to look at her.
“Brayden’s asleep. Be quiet and come to bed so you don’t wake him.”
She was pissed, but so fucking gorgeous. She smelled of the coconut lotion she favored in summertime. He slid his hands around her waist, up her back, and leaned in to taste the sweet skin of her neck, holding her tighter as his body swayed with the listing room.
She jerked away from him, told him to stop. He tried to kiss her again, but when he reached for her, he couldn’t get his goddamn feet to stay underneath him. “Shit…”
Kylie caught him before he fell and helped him to her bed. He managed to get his boots off by himself, but it was all he could do. His belt buckle was an impossible task.
Kylie sighed in frustration but she helped him undress.
“You can’t keep coming over here when you’re drunk.” She removed his ball cap and worked his shirt off. “What if Brayden wakes up and sees you like this?”
She stood over him, her taunt stomach right there in front of him, so slender he could almost circle his hands all the way around. He pushed up her tight tank, her skin like white silk underneath it, so perfect. He pulled her closer and brought his lips to her navel.
“I’m sorry, Ky,” he whispered hot against her skin.
“You always are, yet you keep doing it.”
She was so furious he could taste her anger on her skin, but she softened under his lips as he kissed up her stomach. His shirt fell from her hands, her fingers threaded through his hair. She let out a sigh that wasn’t as angry as the one before. He slid his hands down to cup her bottom and lifted her into him until she straddled his lap. Her arms wrapped him up, securing him, sobering him, and suddenly it felt like the right moment—the perfect moment—so he asked her, “Marry me, Ky. Right now. Tonight.”
“Because you’re drunk and I’m tired and I don’t want to marry you.”
“Oh… Okay.” He nodded and the room spun again. He slid a hand down her backside, into her panties. Caressing her bottom, he asked, “Maybe later?”
He slid his hand across her hip, around to the front of her panties, slipping his finger along the folds of her soft heat. “I’m sorry.”
“You’ve already said that,” she reminded him with a sad smile.
“Oh.” God, she was beautiful, but so sad. “Why are you sad?”
“I’m not sad,” she said, but he knew she was lying. He could read the truth in the tears in her eyes. “Let’s stop talking and go to sleep. It’s really late, Jimmy…”
“I’m sorry, Ky.” His lips brushed along her neck, and her body tensed.
“Let’s just sleep tonight.”
She tried to pull away from him. He held her closer and stroked her sweet center.
“Please, Ky. Don’t be mad at me.”
She turned away from his kiss, away from him.
He needed her to look at him. More, he needed to be inside her. He needed to feel her surrounding him, nothing between them, buried deep as her heart beat in time with his. He kissed her shoulder and caressed her silky heat until her breathing sped up and her eyes fluttered closed.
“Jimmy…” she protested, but she held onto him tighter. Her hips began to move, her fingers twisting into the hair at the nape of his neck. Once she turned back to him and he saw the glimmer of need in her eyes, he was certain she had forgiven him.
His eyes filled with tears, his voice thick from the whiskey that couldn’t kill the pain in his heart. “Dad died, Ky.”
“I know he did, baby.” She ran a trail of tender kisses along his jaw. “I’m so sorry.”
He closed his eyes, and the world whipped upside down. He let it stay that way, suspended in disorientation. “He never believed me.”
“He believed in you. He was so proud of you, Jimmy.”
“No… No.” He shook his head. “He wouldn’t listen… He said…”
“He said what?”
“He said I was lying… He said he didn’t believe me.” He shook his head to silence his father’s voice, but he only echoed louder, “Did you force her into that abortion, or did you two decide to kill your child together?”
“No, Dad! You’ve got it wrong! It was an accident—”
“He didn’t believe you about what, Jimmy?” Kylie asked, her love strong as she tried to pull him out of his past and back to her. “Please, tell me what’s wrong.”
“You better fall down on your knees and pray that girl survives, or her death will be on your hands, too.”
“Please, Dad, just listen to me.”
“Never show your face in my house again, you goddamn, selfish piece of shit.”
“Look at me, Jimmy.”
His eyes fluttered open and his tears poured out. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” She cupped his face in her hands, her eyes holding his as she gently dried his cheeks with her thumbs. Her smile trembled, betraying the strength in her voice. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I’m sorry, Ky. I’m so sorry for everything.” His tears fell faster as she kissed his damp cheeks and then his lips. “Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t. I’m here.”
Gently, she pushed him back onto the bed and made love to him, slow, steady, pushing deep and hot around him, building the tension in his body until, finally, he let it all go.