Chapter 72 ~ This Day Forward

This Day ForwardAshley looked down at her hands, amazed at how steady they appeared when her entire body trembled on the inside. Why, oh why, oh why, for the love of God, does she keep doing this shit to herself? Good decisions, bad decisions, wrong, right, crazy-insane, or just plain stupid, Ashley never stopped to think. She only acted, on impulse, usually to great detriment. She’d color her hair, hook up with assholes, drive across county, join the Army.

Get married.

“Shit.”

She was going to puke.

But first, she accepted the pen from the clerk, signed by the X. When she finished, she immediately wished she had taken her time, signed with more care, ended with a flourish, with a pretty curl or a fancy star, as it would be the last time she ever signed her name as ‘Ashley Rae Johansen.’ From now on, she would sign as… Shit, who would she even be? All this time, she’d never asked. She had to look at Mike’s signature to know; from now on, she would be ‘Ashley Blum.’ Ugh. Or not.

She leaned into Mike, whispered, “I’m keeping my name.”

“Okay.”

She slipped her hand into his as she stood beside him, rested her chin on his shoulder. He was so easy, so relaxed. With Mike, there were no power plays or ridiculous pride, no petty arguments or restrictions. He wasn’t into controlling her, or manipulating the situation to his own advantage. He was just… Mike. Always there, whenever she needed him to be. Maybe, someday, she would marry him again, for all the right reasons—love and loyalty and all that jazz—and not just for health insurance and a dental plan.

Impulsive decision, yes, absolutely, brainstormed and executed in just under an hour, at the low, low cost of only twenty-five dollars. But she figured this decision was a good one. She hated the thought of taking off for basic training, and whatever came next, while leaving Mike high and dry, without steady income, a car, or even his name on the lease. This way, she could guarantee his right to stay in her apartment, he could go to the doctor, or get his teeth cleaned or a cavity filled, whenever he needed to. If he woke up one morning and found himself depressed and despondent, headed down that dark, dangerous path, he could seek immediate help for himself, privately, never having to ask.

And, if anything should happen to her, he could make decisions on her behalf. He could be her person back home, the one they call in case of emergency. Or, in the event of tragedy, he could be the guy whose door they knock on, so her mom would never have to face that alone.

It was a win-win for all involved. Absolutely. No losers here. Just good things, all around. She rehearsed that argument, over and over in her mind, as they walked out of the courthouse, Mr. and Mrs. Blum.

Together, they stood on the sidewalk, blinded by the evening sun, immobilized by the reality of what they had done.

Finally, Mike asked. “You ready to do this?”

He talked big, but his voice lacked even the slightest bit of confidence.

“Absolutely not.” She laughed through the panic tightening her chest. Ky was going to flip her shit. About everything. “I need a drink.”

“We’ll get you one at Gimp’s.”

“No, no. No. I need one now. Before we go in there.”

“Ashley.”

She could feel his concern, but she brushed it off. With a pat on his chest, she popped up and kissed him light on the lips. Her husband. Shit. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine. I promise, I just need one, to calm the nerves, and then we’ll do this together.”

He held onto her arms, steadied her nervous bouncing. “Just one.”

“One,” she flat-out lied, and led him down the block toward Jack’s.

* * *

As six o’clock slowly rolled into seven and beyond, Kylie, Brayden, and Kylie’s mother, Martha Johansen, sat in a cracked vinyl booth at the back of Gimp’s Pub, watching the clock and the door, while they shared a bowl of stale peanuts. A handful of seniors sat at the bar, nursing whiskey or red beer, but the crowd had only grown smaller since Kylie had arrived. By ten o’clock, the place would be completely dead.

Across the street, Captain Jack’s would be hopping, the after-work crowd gearing up for a long Friday night of drinking, dancing, flirting, and the occasional brawl in the street. Some of them would wander over to Gimp’s throughout the night to sit and bullshit over a beer or two with Cheryl, the owner of Gimp’s, but the majority would stay at Jack’s until closing time, their hands stuck like Velcro on her ass and their wallets forgetting how to tip as the night wore on. Kylie hated Jack’s. It was clean and modern, but a cesspool of high-class low-lives and infidelity.

Bringing a fresh round of drinks, Cheryl came up to their table. “You going to keep waiting for that girl ‘a yours to show, or are you gonna go ahead and eat without her?”

Cheryl herself was a lot like Gimp’s—sturdy, no nonsense, and comfortably out of fashion. In her fifties, she was a big-boned and hearty woman who favored sweatshirts with wolves on them, even in the Hades days of summer. She worked hard, didn’t tolerate bullshit, and tended to snort when she laughed. If Cheryl ever put a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in her window, Kylie would be the first to apply, but it would snow in August before that ever happened. Cheryl didn’t need help from anyone.

“Well?” Cheryl wiped the water rings off the well-worn table.

Martha checked her watch and sighed. “We should wait a bit longer, but I’m sure Brayden’s getting hungry.”

Brayden shook his head and blew through the straw sticking out of his glass of chocolate milk, giggling as the thick liquid bubbled up.

“Do you want a cheeseburger, Bray?” Kylie asked him.

“No!” He stopped blowing and sucked down a big mouthful of bubbly milk.

“Hot dog?”

“Nuh-uh.” Brayden sucked through the straw again.

“Slow down on the milk there, buddy.” Kylie slid the glass away from him, eliciting a whine of protest. It was his third glass in forty-five minutes. Though they had been small servings, Kylie knew from experience if he didn’t get some food in his belly to soak up the liquid he’d wake up wet again in the morning. “You want some mac and cheese?”

“No,” he answered in a short quip with a thrust of his body.

“Chicken fingers?” Martha suggested.

Another thrust. Another, “No!”

Cheryl threw her hand on her hip and tipped her head, looking down at him in a studious fashion. “Well, what are ya hungry for then?”

Brayden’s bottom lip stuck out as his shoulders hopped up and down in an exaggerated, spastic shrug.

“How ‘bout you come in the kitchen and I’ll let you pick whatever suits your fancy?”

Brayden scrunched his face as he debated her offer, and then he said, “Oh-tay.”

He slid off the bench seat and tucked his little hand into Cheryl’s beefy one. Kylie sighed as she watched them disappear into the back room behind the bar.

“How much longer until he outgrows this no-eating phase?” she asked her mother.

“If he’s anything like you, then never.”

Kylie grunted a laugh. “I eat fine.” She plucked a stale peanut out of the bowl on the table and held it up. “See?”

“I see,” Martha appeased her as she lifted one of the menus from behind the ketchup and mustard bottles and flipped it open, the action more one of habit than need. Other than the daily specials and the paper they were printed on, Cheryl’s menu hadn’t changed in twenty years.

As Kylie cracked open the shell, her eyes drifted to her cellphone sitting on the table. She resisted the urge to pick it up to try calling Jimmy again. She’d left a message already, and followed it up with a few texts, all with no reply. There was no point in turning stalker and alienating him further.

As though reading her mind, Martha said, “He’s probably still at work.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” Kylie cracked open another peanut shell and fished out the nut inside, eating it even though she wasn’t hungry. The motions kept her hands busy. “I just hate when he shuts down on me like this—not answering my calls. We fought again last night, and he was really upset right before we went to bed, but he seemed fine this morning. He left for work a little earlier than usual, but…” She brushed at the shell crumbs littering the table. “I don’t know.”

“Kylie, how many times have I told you to quit picking fights with that poor man?”

“I didn’t,” Kylie denied, although, technically, she had. She was the one who had insisted they talk about Marissa, about Ashley, about his drinking. All he’d wanted to do was go to bed.

Martha lifted a knowing gaze to Kylie.

“Alright, fine, I did,” Kylie admitted.

It was pointless to argue otherwise. Her intuition astute, Martha had always been able to read every thought passing through Kylie’s mind, as though they were two sides of a mirror—identical opposites eternally connected by an invisible, unbreakable force of nature. They shared the same tall, slender frame, the same facial features, the same nervous tics. If not for the fact Martha kept her thick, mahogany hair trimmed in short layers and favored embroidered teddy bears on her clothing, they would be impossible to tell apart. But when it came to temperament, they were yen and yang.

Even in the face of adversity, Martha remained optimistic, buoyantly cheerful with a bright and sunny disposition. She tended to err on the side of trust to avoid confrontation, especially where Ashley was concerned. Kylie had been disappointed too many times to ever take anything at face value. People lied. They deceived. The more honest someone claimed to be, the more leery she became of their intentions, their hidden agendas. Those differences had caused a few flare-ups between Kylie and Martha over the years, but somehow it had also created a solid bond between them, tightly-woven with respect, admiration, and unwavering love.

Martha turned the menu over and studied the list of sandwiches on the back. “What did you two argue about this time?”

Kylie shrugged, not in the mood to rehash the night. Her gaze drifted to the door. “I don’t know why we bothered with tonight. It’s pretty obvious she’s not coming.”

“Don’t give up yet. Ashley runs on her own schedule. Always has.”

“I know.” Kylie picked up the ketchup bottle sitting on the table and turned it upside down. The thick liquid remained lodged in the base of the glass bottle, defying the pull of gravity. “I talked to Nessa a bit last night.”

“How is she?”

“Good.”

“Did you ask her to be your maid of honor yet?”

Kylie returned the ketchup bottle to the table, setting it on its cap, daring the ketchup to continue misbehaving. “Not yet.”

“You are going to ask her, aren’t you? You two have been best friends since before either of you knew how to talk.”

“Of course, I am,” Kylie said in a rush.

Martha narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “Does she even know you’re engaged?”

Kylie ignored the question and forced the focus of the conversation into a more comfortable direction. “Aria’s pregnant.”

Easily distracted, Martha cried out in delight, “Oh, how wonderful!”

“Brent’s been hinting around for a while now that he wouldn’t mind starting a family, but it sounds like it wasn’t planned.”

“You and I both know Mother Nature has her own crazy ideas.”

“That she does,” Kylie agreed. Brayden was one of Mother Nature’s little “ideas.” So was Kylie. Apparently, along with porcelain skin that burned to a crisp in the sun, stupid-in-lust was an inheritable Johansen family trait.

Somewhere in the world, there lived a man named Leonard in possession of a fuzzy, Jose Cuervo-laced memory of dancing in the moonlight on a southern California beach with a mystical woman wearing a turquoise-blue sarong. All Martha claims to remember about the night was how Leonard’s skin had smelled of the sea, and his brown eyes sparkled with threads of spun gold. Nine months later, Kylie was born with those same golden specks in her brown eyes.

Martha gave Kylie’s hand a light pat. “Beautiful ideas.”

The story of Brayden’s father wasn’t nearly as mysterious as the one of Kylie’s. It was pretty cut and dry, a nightmare she would rather forget than romanticize, but she was eternally grateful she had lived those six months of heartache. If she hadn’t been so stupid-in-lust, she never would have been blessed with her beautiful Brayden and his constant sunshine.

Kylie rested her chin on her hand as she sifted through the peanut bowl again. How many thousands of fingers, on how many thousands of hands, had touched those peanuts before hers? Just thinking about it made her queasy. She pulled her hand away, wiped her fingers on her jeans. “Mom, do you think Ashley will ever forgive me?”

“For what, dear?” Martha tipped her head back and squinted down her nose at the menu. She needed reading glasses, but she was too stubborn to admit it.

“Jimmy.”

“Oh, I don’t know that she was ever all that upset about it.”

Kylie snorted out a laugh of disbelief. “You can’t seriously believe that. It’s been almost a year, and she’s still mad that we’re together.”

Martha gave up on the menu and shifted her attention to Kylie. “Ashley was never in love with Jimmy. She was in love with the idea of being in love with him. That’s why they didn’t work out. It had nothing to do with you.”

“Yeah, right.” It had nothing to do with Kylie arguing with him one minute and laughing with him the next, or finding excuses to call him, text him. It couldn’t be all those late-night drives around the moonlit countryside with him, sharing her hopes and dreams with him, listening in rapture as he revealed his. It had nothing to do with her allowing him—no, encouraging him—to fill the role of Brayden’s father when the real one wanted absolutely nothing to do with her or their son. Nothing at all.

“You can’t keep beating yourself up about the past, Kylie. What’s done is done.”

“How can you be so c’est la vie about the whole thing?”

“Because everything worked out the way it was supposed to,” Martha said. “You and Jimmy were always the ones who were meant to be together. Even Ashley knew that. It’s the only reason she held onto him for as long as she did.”

Kylie shook her head in disagreement. Her sister had loved Jimmy. For real. She still did.

“It was the same way with you girls and Polly Pocket.”

“Polly Pocket?”

“You remember—that Christmas when you were six or seven, and you begged Santa for a Polly Pocket play set. You had a million of them already, but you wanted this one in particular, and you would just die if you didn’t get it. It took me forever to find it, but I finally did, and in my hurry to get everything wrapped on Christmas Eve, I accidentally put Ashley’s name on the package instead of yours. You cried and cried when she opened it Christmas morning, and she refused to let you play with it because she knew you wanted it so bad.” Martha shook her head in a long, slow motion and let out a heavy sigh, as though she reminisced of a tragic death and not a simple childhood disagreement. “Oh, it was awful. I can’t believe you don’t remember.”

Kylie’s eyes narrowed. Oh, she remembered. She remembered all too well. It had been a tragic time in her life, one that had already involved mourning, long before the stockings had even been hung. It was the first Christmas after Charlie left, the Christmas she had prayed to God and pleaded with Santa to bring him back to them. For Ashley. For her mother. For herself. She had prayed for Charlie, and for a Polly Pocket. And she’d thought all her prayers had been ignored. “That was my Polly Pocket all along?”

“Yes, it was.”

Kylie stared at her mother in disbelief. “And you didn’t make her give it to me?”

“How could I? You both still believed in Santa at the time. I couldn’t very well take it away from her and ruin the magic of Christmas, now could I?”

“Yes!” Kylie cried.

“Anyway, that’s neither here nor there,” Martha said with a dismissive wave. “My point is Ashley refused to let go of Jimmy for the exact same reason she refused to let go of the Polly Pocket she never played with—because she had it, and you wanted it. It gave her power over you. She adored Jimmy, but she never loved him. Not in the way you did. She knew that, and she intentionally kept him away from you for as long as she could. It was all a game to her.”

“You can’t be serious! Three years of hell is no game.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt she thought she was in love with him in the beginning, but there towards the end, when it was obvious the way you and Jimmy felt about each other, it became a game.” Martha gave Kylie’s hand a squeeze. “She’s still playing it, Kylie, and you’re letting her win.”

“How am I letting her win?”

Martha ticked off all the ways. “By listening to her lies, by clinging to the guilt, by not marrying him—just to name a few.”

Kylie waved her left hand, the diamond on the engagement ring catching the light. “What do you think this is? We’re engaged!”

“You may be wearing a ring on your finger, but you’re not wearing it in your heart.”

“Yes, I… What does that even mean?” Kylie stammered defensively. “How can I not be wearing it in my heart? If I didn’t love him I wouldn’t have said yes.”

“I didn’t say you don’t love him. I’m saying you’re not opening your heart to the excitement and the thrill and the wonderment of being in love.”

“I am excited, Mom,” Kylie insisted, though she felt closer to tears than to laughter, the anguish pouring out in a flood of rushed words. “It’s been a really long summer for both of us. His dad just died, his brother just got married. He’s worried about his mom and furious that she decided to stay in Florida, but he won’t talk to her about it because he doesn’t want to upset her. He’s killing himself working eighty-hours a week, plus all the damn favors he does for people on the side. We only see each other for maybe two hours a day—if we’re lucky—and all we do is fight. Jack’s is killing me, and the pay is shit. School’s costing me a fortune and I hate it. I feel like I don’t spend any time with Brayden. I wake him up and take him to daycare, and he’s already in bed when I get home. He refuses to eat. We’re struggling with potty training. Ash keeps running off, doing whatever the hell Ashley does—I don’t know because she won’t talk to me—and you want me to flip through bridal magazines and dream of silk and lace like some dumb girl who doesn’t have a goddamn care in the world?”

“Yes!” Martha cried out.

Kylie lost the battle with her tears. “Mom…”

“Oh, baby…” Martha lifted Kylie’s hand from table and clasped it in both of hers. “You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself. You always have, ever since you were a little girl. You need to learn how to let go of the worry and the doubt and just live in the moment, otherwise life is going to eat you alive.”

Kylie tipped her head back, shifting her gaze upward to stop the tears, but they only flowed faster. “You make it sound so easy. Like it’s a decision I can make.”

“It is that easy. If you don’t like school, then quit—”

“I can’t quit.”

“Yes. You can,” Martha stated. “If you don’t like nursing, then pick something else. Maybe try accounting—or sign up for one of those art classes you’ve been wanting to take.”

Kylie swiped an angry hand across her damp eyes. “I can’t support Brayden by doodling pictures all day long.”

“Who says you can’t?” Martha’s eyes watered along with Kylie’s but her smile remained bright with hope. “You’ll never know unless you try.”

“I can’t afford to try.”

“Yes, you can.” Martha pulled a handful of napkins from the dispenser and handed them to Kylie. “You aren’t doing this alone. You have Jimmy to help you and support you. He wants to do it. Let him.”

“I’m not asking him for money.” Kylie flushed in anger as she scrubbed the paper napkin across her cheek. Finances were another sore subject between her and Jimmy, one that hadn’t come up in a while, and she’d be damned if she’d allow it to make a repeat appearance now. It was bad enough he was still sneaking fifty-dollar bills into her tip jar at Jack’s when he thought she wasn’t looking. She knew he meant well, but every dollar he pulled from his wallet felt more like a judgment of her ability than a helpful gesture or a wrong assumption. “I don’t need his help paying my bills. I do perfectly fine supporting my son on my own.”

“I know you do, Kylie,” Martha said with a patronizing sigh.

As though deflated, Martha sat back in the booth and crossed her thin arms across her chest, her lightly sunburned skin blending with the pink fabric of her “World’s Greatest Grandma” t-shirt. Jimmy had helped Brayden select the t-shirt as a Mother’s Day gift for Martha while Kylie had wandered the home décor department, looking for a decorative set of bookends to contain her mother’s ever-growing collection of novels.

At some point during the same shopping trip, Jimmy and Brayden had also purchased a heart-shaped diamond pendant on a thin silver chain, which they had presented to Kylie later in the evening. As the three of them sat at an outside picnic table at Dairy Queen, eating cheeseburgers and Dilly Bars, Jimmy handed Brayden a gift bag and whispered a few words in his ear. Brayden blushed his little-boy blush, and batted his long eyelashes at Kylie as he offered the present with a whispered, “Happy mommies to-day.”

His expression had been serious as she opened his gift to her, his face proud and strong, looking years older than two-and-a-half as he awaited her reaction, gifting her a glimpse into the future along with the silver and diamond necklace. His smudged chocolate fingerprints still stained the white satin lining the inside of the velvet box the necklace had come in, a permanent imprint of all the flavors of the day.

“I wasn’t talking about asking Jimmy for money,” Martha said. “I was simply suggesting you allow him to support you emotionally. I can understand completely if you don’t feel as though you’re ready to marry him, but at least consider inviting him to move in. By simply being there, living there, his presence would take some of the pressure off you. You’ve had this impenetrable wall of stubborn independence built around yourself for so long it’s like you’re afraid to let anyone in.”

Kylie sat silently, staring blindly at the table as she shredded the paper napkin into damp crumbs.

“What are you afraid of, Kylie?”

Martha lifted Kylie’s hand in hers and ran her thumb across the engagement ring on her finger. A blush diamond on a platinum band, Jimmy had picked out the perfect ring for her, sensible and understated, absolutely beautiful in its simplicity, but at times it physically hurt to look at it, as though the diamond contained a Pandora’s Box of untold secrets and impending heartache.

“I don’t know,” Kylie answered honestly. She was afraid of… Everything.

“Oh, Ky.” Martha squeezed Kylie’s hand tight. “When Charlie proposed to me all those years ago, I was terrified of the massive change he would bring to our lives, but I also remember being so giddy in love that I didn’t care. I couldn’t race down that aisle toward the unknown fast enough.”

Barking out a bitter laugh, Kylie ripped her hand away. “Yeah, and look where it got you. Lied to, cheated on, and abandoned with two little girls to raise by yourself instead of just one. Maybe instead of running like a damn fool you should have inched down the aisle and taken the time to read the warning signs along the way.”

“We didn’t work out, and it broke my heart when he left. I won’t deny that,” Martha said, holding her hands up in surrender. “But even now, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. My marriage to Charlie blessed me with four wonderful years with a man who set my world on fire, and a gorgeous baby girl I never would have had otherwise.”

Kylie turned away from her mother, her head shaking as her chest burned with painful memories. Even now, more than fifteen years later, she could still see the blinding glint of the sun bouncing off the rear view mirror of Charlie’s black Monte Carlo as he pulled away from the curb, headed for Albuquerque, leaving them all behind. She had watched and waited, hoping and praying, but he never once slowed down, never once looked back.

“I want that same giddy feeling to overtake you. I want you to feel the world as I felt it. I want you to see the colors I saw, and taste the air as I tasted it. I want you to be so excited to marry the man you love that you curse time for not passing fast enough as your wedding date approaches.”

Kylie opened her mouth to demand of her mother how her memory could be so blissfully selective she had become unaffected by the pain of abandonment, but she was interrupted by the bright blast of humid air rushing into the bar as the door to Gimp’s Pub opened, bringing Aria and Brent inside. Kylie rushed to wipe the last of the tears from her face, hiding her fears from her friends.

“Kylie!” Aria called out with a wave. She appeared to float in on a cloud of pure joy, the radiance of her smile outshining the sun, competing only with the intensity of Brent’s.

“Oh, look at her! She’s glowing already,” Martha gushed.

Dan and Stacy entered a moment later, bringing more blinding heat and a flurry of activity with them. Everyone started talking at once as tables and chairs were rearranged so they could all sit together.

“Where’s Cheryl?” Dan asked, his voice a deep boom. “I need a drink.”

“Are your legs broken? Go get it yourself, kochanie,” Stacy teased.

“Hell, no. Cheryl’ll bust my knee caps if she catches me behind her bar. I’ll just wait.”

“Might be a long wait. She’s in the back trying to convince Brayden to eat,” Martha said.

“Better grab your own then, before you die of thirst.” Stacy started toward the back room to say hello to Cheryl. “And while you’re at it, mix me up a Shirley Temple.”

“Bud Light,” Brent called out.

“Water for me,” Aria chimed in.

Martha handed her empty glass to Dan. “I could use a refill—rum and Coke.”

“Ky?” Dan asked.

“I’m good. Thanks.” Her eyes were still to the door, watching for Jimmy.

“He’s coming.” Brent squeezed her shoulder with one of his strong hands.

Kylie gave him a weak smile. “Am I that obvious?”

“Naw,” Brent lied with a wink. “He stayed behind to touch-up the paint around the trim that Dan fucked up.”

“Don’t go blaming me for Jimmy staying late,” Dan said. “My walls look damn good compared to your slopped-on mess. Brayden would’ve done a better job than you today.”

“Ah, bullshit.” Brent dismissed him with a wave then turned back to Kylie. “It’ll take him ten, twenty minutes tops to fix, and then he’ll be here.”

Brent squeezed her shoulder one more time, and as soon as he let her go, she turned to Aria and smiled for real. “Come here, Mama, and let me get a look at that belly. Did you grow any since this morning?”

“Gosh, I hope not,” Aria said with a laugh. She lifted her shirt, revealing her perfectly tanned, toned stomach underneath. “I do feel fat, though.”

“It’s just the hormones making you feel bloated. You look amazing, as always,” Kylie assured her.

Aria caressed her lower abdomen with a light touch of her hand. “It still doesn’t feel real, you know? I don’t feel any different now than I did before I went to the doctor. When does it sink in that it’s really real? That there’s a life growing inside you?”

Kylie placed her hand over Aria’s. “When you feel him move. I got fat, and I saw the sonograms, and heard the heartbeat, but it wasn’t until I felt that first flutter that I realized, ‘This is my life now.’ It was the most amazing feeling in the world.”

“And then that flutter turns into a punch to the kidney and it’s not so amazing anymore,” Martha said with a wink to Kylie.

The door of the pub opened again, and Jimmy came in looking hurried and exhausted. He met Kylie’s eyes and gave her a nod of apology as he headed straight to the bar and reached over the counter to grab a beer from the cooler. Cheryl came from the back room just in time to catch him in the act. She slapped his hand, but when he tucked a twenty-dollar bill into the tip jar, all was forgiven, and she gave him a second bottle.

Brayden came running out from behind the bar, dragging Stacy by the hand. She carried his meal of a hot dog and crinkle-cut fries in a red, paper-lined, plastic basket. One tiny bite was missing from the hot dog, the fries all stood on end in a pool of ketchup. He’d done more playing than eating, but when Stacy set his meal on the table, and both she and Aria used their sweetest voices to tell him it was time to eat, he clambered up onto the chair between them and plucked the hotdog from the bun, eager to please.

“All right, now that the gang’s all here…” Cheryl’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as she looked around at the table full of drinks. “And apparently helped themselves to my inventory…”

Brent pointed to Dan, and Dan backhanded him in the chest.

Cheryl let out a grunt of displeasure, but her eyes held a twinkle. “What do you guys want to eat?”

“I’m just going to eat off Brayden’s plate,” Stacy said, her voice sweet as she teased. She pretended to steal one of Brayden’s fries, and he let out a squeal, pulling his basket away from her with a possessive, “Mine!” She tickled him until he laughed, then said, “Fine, I guess I’ll have to order my own. Bring me what he’s having, but make mine a chili dog.”

“Chili? It’s a hundred and fifty degrees outside, woman,” Dan said.

Stacy shrugged. “It sounds good.”

“I’ll have the same,” Brent said. “Two of ‘em. And waffle fries.”

Dan looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. He grabbed a paper napkin from the dispenser on the table and used it to mop up the river of sweat flowing from his brow, soaking his sideburns. “Bring me ice—a big bucket of it so I can wear it as a hat. And a cheeseburger. And onion rings. And a couple’a pickles.”

“Ooh, that sounds good,” Stacy chimed in. “Bring me some pickles, too.”

Cheryl wrote down Aria’s and Martha’s orders, and then turned to Kylie expectantly.

“Um… I don’t know…” She floundered, trying to think of something even remotely good to eat. It was nothing against Cheryl’s cooking, more her worry over Ashley, Jimmy, money—her life in general—causing her diminished appetite. “Uh…”

“I’ll come back to you.” Cheryl turned to Jimmy.

“A Reuben and fries.” Jimmy slid a chair closer to Kylie, his leg brushing against hers under the table as he sat down, the tiny hint of a touch enough to send her heart racing in desire. He set his pair of beers on the table and turned toward her, one hand on the back of her chair, the other settling high on her thigh, his hand chilled from the icy bottle. He leaned in close and whispered, “Sorry I’m late.”

“You’re here now. That’s all that matters.”

“What’ll you have, Kylie?” Cheryl asked again.

Jimmy’s hand tightened on her thigh. “You want to just share with me?”

“No…” She hated sauerkraut, but nothing sounded better and Cheryl was shifting in impatience. “Yeah, that’s fine.”

Satisfied, Cheryl disappeared into the back room.

“I’ll scrape the kraut off your half, picky girl,” Jimmy promised with a slow smile.

As his crystal-blue eyes held hers, her body flushed with heat, all thought escaping her mind except the sensation of his hand massaging its way up her thigh. Once again, she found herself completely lost in him.

She ran a hand down the soft stubble on his cheek, her thumb running along the strong line of his jaw. “You look tired.”

His gaze shifted to her lips. “A little.”

“Uncle Jimmy, huh?” She smiled.

“Yeah,” he whispered, his eyes conflicted. “That kinda came outta nowhere.”

“It always does.”

The pull to kiss him was strong, fluttering in her chest, the scent and the heat of him enveloping her in wanton need. Her draw to him remained as strong now as it had been from the very first day she had met him. The ache for him never subsided, the temperature between them never cooled. Making love to him did not quench the thirst or calm the desire. It only made her crave him even more. The intensity of her physical attraction to him terrified her in many ways, her greatest fear being he would one day lose interest and forever walk away. What would become of her if she could never feel his touch again?

“Are you working tomorrow?”

“Yeah.” He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, trailed his fingertips down her neck. “Are you?”

“No.” Heat pooled between her thighs from his caress. His thumb massaged her neck as she ran her hand up the length of his forearm and back down, feeling the rope of muscles under his tanned skin. If she lost him, it would kill her. If she never tried to hold onto his love for her, his love for Brayden, if she never pushed past her doubts, her fears, if she never braved that first step into the world he desperately wanted to create for them, she would only have herself to blame. “Aria and I have an appointment in Juliette to try on a wedding dress.”

His hand tightened around her thigh in reflex, his voice uncertain. “You do?”

She gave him a little nod, her heart thumping against her rib cage, straining to beat against his. When he smiled, a fire of life flashed in his eyes, eradicating the fog of weary burden he had been carrying for so long.

“Let’s take Bray camping when you get back.” His smile widened, his shoulders lifting as though relieved of a heavy weight. “Get the hell outta town… swim in the river… sleep under the stars…”

God, she loved him. She leaned in closer to him, brushing her lips against his ear, and whispered, “What do you say we—”

The door of the pub flew open and slammed against the wall, starting Kylie out of Jimmy’s arms. Ashley and a redheaded girl with massive breasts came charging into the pub, laughing loud, and drunk off their asses. A dozen others poured in behind.

“What the fuck?” His body tense, ready to fight, Jimmy stood to his full height. Dan and Brent did the same. A terrified Mike followed two steps behind the crowd. Looking as though he wished he could crawl into a hole in the ground, he kept his back to the wall, inched his way to the bar.

“Cherrrryl!” Ashley let go of the redhead and jumped up onto the table nearest the door. The stiletto heels of her caged sandals scraped across the laminated tabletop, gouging the surface.

“Ashley Rae! What on earth is wrong with you?” Martha scolded. “Get down from there before you hurt yourself!”

Dressed in shredded denim shorts, a tank-cut Jack Daniels tee and a flowing, floral kimono cardigan, with her eyes ringed black with thick, heavy liner and her hair dyed a ridiculous shade of neon pink, Ashley had painted herself up to be Rainbow Brite’s drunken spawn. “Cheryl!!

In a ball of fury, Cheryl came running out from behind the bar and commanded Ashley to get off her table. Kylie sat frozen, paralyzed in shock as Brent and Dan rushed to join Jimmy, Martha, and Cheryl as they circled Ashley, all five of them keeping a wary distance as one would to a rabid dog.

“Cheryl! Cheryl-Cheryl-Cheryl-Cheryl,” Ashley slurred, dancing away from Cheryl’s grabbing hands as the older woman tried to pull her off the table.

“Ashley, get down—now!

Ashley jumped off the table, and threw her arms around Cheryl in a drunken, groping hug. “Cheryl, Cheryl, Cheryl… Omigod, Cheryl…. Go pour me a drink—” She shoved off Cheryl and whipped around, laughing like a hyena as she spun. “Hell, check that—pour a round for every motherfucker in here! Cuz guess what, bitches! I got marrrrried today!”

“No!” Kylie scrambled from her chair and dove to cover her sister’s mouth, to stop her from speaking the nightmare into reality. “No, no, no, no, no, no—”

“And, and, and, that’s not all….” She stumbled, fell into her sister, patted her face and laughed. “I joined the Army.”

“Bullshit,” Kylie hissed out in disbelief.

She laughed again, spun away and sang at the top of her lungs, “I’m in the Army, in the Army, in the Army!”

Kylie’s heart screamed, “No!” as Ashley let out a whoop of drunken joy.

“Suck it, Ky.”

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