It was ten past seven by the time Jimmy pulled into the parking lot of Rogan-Handley Construction. Marissa had already arrived, but she remained in her parked car, talking animatedly into the phone. As he passed by, he tapped her window, indicating she was late. She nodded, gave him a half-assed wave, but remained in her car.
Annoyed by her indifference, he unlocked the office door and pushed it open. The trio of brass bells attached to the inside handle danced with a light tingle, its ring reminiscent of a Salvation Army bell-ringer on a cold December morning. The cheery hopefulness of its plea pissed him off. He ripped the bell from the door with one solid tug, and tossed it onto the reception desk. It landed with a dead, hollow clatter, the noise more in tune with his mood.
The office air felt like ice compared to the muggy, early-morning heat outside. The sudden temperature change sent a violent ripple of chill over his sweat-dampened skin, inflamed his throbbing headache. He stopped by the thermostat, adjusted the temperature higher before crossing over to the scheduling board to see if anything had changed since he’d left the day before. He wasn’t surprised to see nothing had been deleted and three new jobs had been added. No matter how hard they worked, they never seemed to get caught up. Some days, he was to the point of calling it quits. He was tired. He was done. But he could never quit. Construction was the only life he knew.
He pulled one of the new work orders off the clipboard hanging on the wall and stepped into the kitchenette to make a pot of coffee strong enough to cut through the worst of his hangover. What he really needed was a little hair of the dog, but Folgers would have to do, for now. He downed a quick cup with a handful of Tylenol, then filled his Thermos and headed for the shop. Dan was still there, loading his truck for the day.
“You’re late,” Jimmy called out.
“So are you,” Dan replied. “You look like shit.”
Jimmy shrugged. Like he fuckin’ cared. He held up the work order in his hand. “Since when do we do farm repairs?”
“Ask your brother. He’s the one who took the job.” Dan opened the driver’s door of the truck and reached in to push the button for the automatic overhead door opener. As it rumbled up the track, he added, “Brent promised Amos we’d be out first thing this morning.”
“That stupid kid needs to learn how to say no. Tell him to call Mahoney.”
“Mahoney’s overbooked, too. That’s why Amos called Brent. With this late heat he’s worried about mold in the bin. He’s got the exhaust fan on hand, just needs it installed.”
“Brent can go do it then.”
“Aria’s still sick. He’s taking her to the doctor this morning. Said he might be in later.”
“I thought she was better.”
“Apparently she had a relapse.”
“Fuck.” His headache pulsed in time with his heartbeat, muddling his concentration. Jimmy scrubbed at the stubble along his jaw as he fumbled through some quick, mental calculations. He hated to do it, but he saw no way around hiring the help. Not if Brent didn’t come in. “Call in Jason, and whoever else you can get. We’re already bleeding money on Charlene’s, might as well go for broke and get it done. I’m sick of that diner.”
“Already done. He’s on his way there now.”
“Right. Thanks.” He should have known Dan would already be on top of it.
“You know, maybe it’s time to reconsider hiring a guy or two on fulltime.”
“No,” Jimmy snapped without even pausing to consider it.
He’d done the numbers a hundred times before, every single time Brent had asked, and it wasn’t possible. Not yet. Not when they’d just invested in the building. Not when they needed another trailer. Not when the cost of supplies rose every single minute of every damn day. Not with winter coming. They were overbooked now, but some Januarys the phone hardly rang.
He’d be damned if he had to lay someone off at Christmastime, or any other time, because they couldn’t afford to float the guy’s salary when the work slowed down. Jimmy’s top priority was making sure Brent always had a paycheck, and Dan, and now Marissa. He had to ensure Kylie had what little support her stubborn pride allowed him to provide, and he was still obligated to Ashley, for as long as she needed him. He didn’t have the financial, or emotional, resources to take on the weight of providing for another man’s family. Not right now.
“Now’s not the time.”
“If not now, then when?” Dan asked. When Jimmy didn’t answer, he grumbled under his breath and climbed into his truck. He started his engine, but before he pulled from the garage, he leaned out the open window. “Should I wait until you’re in a better mood to remind you Charlene wants that estimate on the kitchen?”
His day was getting better and better by the minute.
Jimmy locked up the shop and returned to the office to check through the mail for bids and sign any checks Marissa may have set out for him. She had finally managed to find her way inside and to her desk, but she was still on her cell phone, texting, while talking low and close to Jason. The kid had practically wrapped himself around her, his hand on her chair, his hip touching, as he bent to look at the paperwork spread out on her desk.
“What the fuck?” Jimmy snapped, unable to control himself. White hot, anger pulsated behind his eyes. His head screamed. “Get to work!”
Jason jumped to attention, his face flushed, eyes wide. “Sorry, I just—”
“Get over yourself, Jimmy,” Marissa interrupted. “He’s just helping me with something.”
“I don’t pay him to help you. Get your ass to Charlene’s.”
With a quick nod, Jason scampered toward the door. Barely twenty, he was all lanky body and big feet. He was eager, excitable, too much a pup for Marissa’s taste, but Jimmy still didn’t like him sniffing around.
Marissa cursed and hastily gathered her papers. “Thanks a lot, Jimmy.”
“What?” he demanded, defensive.
“Nothing,” she snapped back. “Forget it.”
“Fine.” He wasn’t in the mood to play games.
“It’s the fucking city again.” She huffed out a laugh, but it sounded desperate, like a sob. “They won’t leave my mom alone.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” he whispered, immediately regretting his temper. He pulled a chair close to hers and swiveled her to face him. He held onto her hands to calm her trembling, but she pulled away. “What’s going on? I thought we had them all squared away?”
“We did, but then they sent this.” She swiped at the letter, waved it at him. “They’re never going to be happy. Not until they’ve chased her out of town.”
He caught her hand, took the crumbled paper, and skimmed it over. Standard complaints of overgrowth and visible trash. Concerns of rodents, insects, contamination. More of the same cleanup demands she’d been receiving for well over a decade. No fines had been assessed, but a deadline had been established. She had less than a week to get her property cleared, or they would issue a summons.
“How bad is it this time?” Jimmy asked.
She shrugged in frustration, shook her head. Her eyes filled with tears. “It’s a hundred times worse than it was the last time we cleaned it up. I’m not doing it again. I’d rather sneak Mom out of the house, pay Jason to do it, and deal with the consequences later than spend my weekend arguing with her over the value of broken flower pots and shredded tarps.”
“Don’t pay Jason. I’ll clean it for her,” Jimmy offered, but Marissa growled her frustration.
“No. I don’t want you bailing us out anymore.”
“I don’t mind,” he assured her. And he didn’t. A couple hours and a roll off, and her yard would be clean enough for the city council. At least for a few months, until she collected it full again.
“I know you don’t, and I appreciate it, but…” She let out heavy breath, clinched her teeth as though biting back her anger. “This really, really sucks, Jimmy.”
“It’s okay.” He held her hand, pulled her closer. This time, she relaxed, allowing him to comfort her.
“It’s fucking trash. She thinks she’s going to make all these beautiful sculptures, save this stuff from some horrid death at the landfill. But she doesn’t do anything with it. It just rots away in her yard, instead of up on the hill. It’s the same thing. How can she not see that?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know I’m supposed to have patience with her, that it’s an illness like any other compulsive disorder, but she pisses me off so bad. Half the time, I don’t know who I’m more upset with, the frickin’ city council for harassing an old lady, or Mom. I mean, why the hell would anyone want to surround themselves in garbage? What’s wrong with her, Jimmy?”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy repeated. Addiction was not something he was familiar with, but he knew someone who had some experience with it. He patted Marissa’s knee as he stood, kissed her cheek, ruffled her hair, poked her and teased her until she finally smiled, and then headed out to have a little chat with Mike.
Ashley was up to her elbows in hot pink hair dye, the colorant running out of control as it dripped down her scalp and pooled in her ears, when she heard a knock on her door. She ignored it and tried to rein in her disaster, but the pounding became insistent.
“For cripe’s sake, hold your horses,” she grumbled. As she peeled the gloves from her hands, she spun in a desperate search for a towel. “Shit.”
Four more heavy blows landed on her door, rattling her walls.
“Alright, already,” she hollered and grabbed the first thing she could find to wipe off the worst of the drips and give herself a bit of modesty. Hopefully, Mike wouldn’t mind a little pink on his Zeppelin t-shirt. She swiped the cotton fabric across her forehead and down her cheek, then held it against her chest to conceal her morning apparel of bra and panties. With a twist of the lock, she ripped open the door. “What the fuck—”
The totally unexpected sight of Jimmy Rogan, the heat of him, the heavenly smell of him, stole the very breath from her lungs. She staggered, stammered like a fool. Luckily, Jimmy seemed just as unbalanced as she felt.
“Hey,” she finally managed to squeak out. Fuck.
“Hey,” he echoed, his voice cautious as he slowly straightened. His eyes roamed the length of her, stopped at her hair. He smiled. “You look good.”
She blushed. “Thanks.”
“I mean, like, really good. Happier.”
“You’ve been working out?”
She shrugged. “A bit.”
Taking her by surprise, he lifted her hand, tossed aside the t-shirt, and spun her around in an exaggerated, awkward pirouette.
“Jimmy,” she protested, blushing deeper yet, until her skin matched the pink of her hair.
He let her go. “How long you been back?”
She shrugged, debated lying but admitted, “A couple days.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “When were you planning to tell Ky?”
She shrugged again.
He smiled. “Where’s your boyfriend?”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she replied, stepping aside so he could come in. “He’s out walking the dog. Should be back any minute.”
“You know, you’re not supposed to have a dog in this apartment.”
“What dog?” With a shrug of ignorance, she returned to the bathroom to finish what she’d started with her hair. Jimmy followed. He leaned against the door jamb, arms and ankles crossed, watching her through the mirror.
“Are you back for good?” he asked.
“No.” Carefully, she pulled on the gloves and sectioned her hair. She used the distraction of applying color to advert her eyes when she said, “I signed up.”
“Really? Wow, that’s…” He let out a quick breath, then drew in a fresh one. “Army?”
“That’s cool, Ash. I’m proud of you.”
She risked a glance at him in the mirror. “I’m an idiot.”
“You don’t believe that.”
He spoke matter-of-factly, without hesitation, and he was right. For the first time in her life, she felt confident with a decision she’d made. It wasn’t rash, it wasn’t reactive. It was well thought out, discussed, planned. She’d asked a million questions of the recruiter, of Trevor, his friends, the Internet, a random guy in uniform she’d sat next to on the bus. She knew what she was doing. She knew what she’d signed up for. And she was anxious to get started.
She was not, however, anxious to tell her sister.
As though reading her mind, Jimmy asked again, “When are you planning to tell Ky?”
“Never?” she cringed.
He laughed. “I could tell her for you.”
“God, no! I can just imagine what you’d say!”
He shrugged, the picture of innocence. And, as always, easily distracted. In the reflection, she caught his gaze slowly drift toward her ass. She wiggled her butt, just for show, but she still felt a flush of disappointment when he didn’t step forward and grab on. Two days in Allman Falls, and she was already reverting into the old Ashley, the immature, jealous little girl who’d spread her legs for anyone. She needed to stay the hell far and gone from that version of herself and discover who she truly was, all of her strengths, her passions, her talents, her quirks and inabilities.
The time she’d spent in North Carolina had given her a tremendous start in the right direction, but it wasn’t until she talked to Trevor, face to face, that she admitted she still had a long way to go. He’d come back to the States for three days. Sixteen of those seventy-two hours were hers, and they’d spent them in bed. She’d missed his body, his strength, his sex. Mostly, she’d missed his mind.
For sixteen hours, they’d discussed the typical politics and war, gossip and gripes, but they’d also explored dreams and music, biochemistry and archaeology. They’d debated evolution, religion and how to make the best grilled cheese. In those sixteen hours, Ashley discovered she was madly, truly, deeply in love with a man who was madly, truly, deeply in love with the world, and she was jealous. She wanted to feel what he felt, see what he saw, taste exotic spices, drink Italian wine, listen to the songs of a hundred different birds, sink her toes into pink sands, cross borders, heal wounds, erase scars and deliver babies. She wanted to fall in love with the world, and discover her place in it.
“I am proud of you, Ash,” Jimmy repeated. He stepped closer, not to grab her ass, but to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Kylie will be, too.”
She didn’t share his confidence.
“I can’t wait for Mike all day. Tell I’ve got a job for him.”
“Sure,” she agreed. “Or, you could tell him yourself, tonight, if you’re willing to sit through a bit of family drama. Maybe I could get Ky and Mom and everyone together for dinner and a shit ton of alcohol, and let them all know my super exciting news….”
“I’d suggest somewhere neutral.”
“Gimp’s,” he concurred.
Gritting her teeth, she forced on a smile, pumped her fist and let out a joyless, “Yay.”