It had long past Brayden’s bedtime and he was out like a light, a heavy weight against Jimmy’s chest. He slept with his face to Jimmy’s neck, his breath warm and sweet, laced with vanilla from the ice cream Cheryl had fed him while she’d had him sequestered in the kitchen, avoiding the wrath of Kylie.
Jimmy hadn’t been so lucky. The instant Ashley’s wedding announcement spewed from her mouth, Kylie had turned to him, her condemnation so sharp he could feel it penetrate his chest like a searing hot knife. The accusation was unjust. He’d take blame for a lot about Ashley, the good along with the bad, but this one wasn’t his to own.
“Want a beer?” Dan offered as he joined Jimmy at the table.
“I’m done for the night,” he declined.
He already had a hell of a buzz going, partly from the whiskey he’d downed after Kylie had stormed out, but mostly from exhaustion. He could sleep for a year and still wake completely drained, and even more behind schedule.
Dan cracked open the beer, but barely sipped it before he set it on the table. “Want to do some four-wheelin’ around Chelsea tomorrow? Celebrate a shit job finally done.”
“Not done yet.”
They had an hour’s worth of work to finish, maybe two, depending on what Charlene found to complain about when they did the final inspection in the morning. And he still had to deal with Marissa’s situation with the city. Knowing Kitty Vasek and her indiscriminate collecting habits, and her penchant for the dramatic, he could blow the rest of his weekend trying to clean up the property and accomplish nothing.
Brayden sighed, shifted in his sleep. Jimmy slouched a little lower in his chair to help him get comfortable. His little boy grew heavier as every day passed. Taller. Stronger. More independent. He wanted to do everything by “I’s self.” He made up ridiculous stories and told them again and again, embellishing with every repetition. He could blow bubbles and had learned how to lie for his own benefit. It wouldn’t be long before he would refuse to be held, even while he slept.
Until Jimmy held Brayden for the first time, he had never understood why some people had so many kids. Now, he knew. The inevitability of empty arms was a terrifying prospect.
He needed to slow time. Forget the work, experience the moments. But he’d made commitments. Striking a balance seemed impossible. His father had never figured out how. Maybe he’d never tried. James Rogan had missed birthdays and Christmases, school concerts and football games. His chair at the table had sat empty for almost every meal, his voice absent from the family chatter. For most of Jimmy’s life, his father had been a brutal boss, a harsh critic, or a midnight shadow on the wall. Work came first. Church second. Family, not even a distant third.
Until his stroke, he’d never prioritized his life any other way. By then, it was too late. Jimmy had to learn how to do better, before he missed it all.
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” he promised Dan. “I’ve got to look at something for Missy quick, but then we’ll swing out. Ky wanted to go camping anyway. Might as well do it at the lake.”
“Should we invite your brother?” Dan asked with a nod to Brent.
Jimmy glanced to the jukebox, where he and Aria swayed in slow dance, lost together in a private world. Both with their eyes closed, their feet barely moving, Aria held her hand to Brent’s cheek as he leaned in to the kiss she whispered along his neck. Content, they looked to dance forever.
“Probably should,” Jimmy said. “He’d be mad if we didn’t.”
Dan hooked a thumb toward Mike. “What about your other brother?”
The kid sat at the bar, his face in his hands as though in prayer to disappear, a full shot of tequila in front of him, his back to the crowd he came in with. Jimmy had never seen a more miserable soul.
Though Dan had been the one to call to him, Mike looked directly at Jimmy when he turned. He sat frozen, unblinking, momentarily trapped by indecision, before he started a solemn walk across the bar. He brought the shot of tequila with him.
Jimmy kicked a chair toward him. “Take a load off.”
Mike slid the chair further away from Jimmy before sitting down.
“Congratulations?” Dan asked as a question, lifting his bottle in cheers.
Mike set the shot glass on the table, muttered a feeble, “Thank you.”
They sat in awkward silence.
Dan lifted his bottle again, taking a slow pull of beer. He looked to Jimmy, then around the room as though searching for inspiration. He settled on the obvious.
“Who’s the redhead?”
Mike lifted a shoulder in shrug. “I don’t know. She signed as a witness. I think she works at the courthouse.”
“She looks like a stripper.”
He shrugged once more, said nothing.
He sat with his shoulders hunched, his eyes averted. He fidgeted with the shot glass, occasionally lifting it to spin it around, testing the weight of it before he set it down. He’d drum his fingers on the table, clutch his hand in a fist, before lifting the glass to spin it again, his struggle so vivid Jimmy felt it strangle his own throat.
He offered a distraction. “I need you to work off some of your rent tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure. Okay.” Mike pulled his hand away from the shot glass, his posture relaxed. “Whatever you need.”
“You know that house on Second and Franklin, across from the old service station?”
“The one with the trash?” Mike asked with uncertainty.
“The one with the trash,” Jimmy confirmed. “Meet me there at nine. We’re going to clean it up.”
“Oh!” His face crumpled in dismay, his expression reminiscent of Brayden’s whenever Kylie set broccoli in front of him. “All of it?”
“That’ll take a year,” Dan said.
“Not if you come help,” Jimmy suggested.
“Or you could just light a match and watch it burn.”
“Can we?” Mike asked, his eyes bright, eager.
“No,” Jimmy laughed.
The flash of humor died in an instant as the door to the pub flew open, slamming into the wall for the second time that night. Brayden startled in reflex, but did not wake. Kylie stormed through, headed for the Women’s restroom. Jimmy moved to follow her, but Stacy waved for him to stay put as she followed Kylie down the short hall.
Ashley came in a moment later, her eyes puffy from crying, her mascara streaked in black rivers down her cheeks. She went straight to her new best friend, the redhead sitting at the bar. Ashley gestured wildly as she recounted her argument, finished the girl’s beer, then impatiently snapped her fingers at Mike as they headed out.
Mike jumped to his feet, knocking hard into the table and upending his chair. Dan shot a hand out, saving the tequila as it teetered toward the floor. Oblivious to the chaos he created, Mike stumbled his way across the room, tripping over chairs in his rush to join Ashley.
Jimmy strangled back a laugh as he watched the kid scamper, but when the redhead paused to slip off her heels, his attention shifted entirely to her. She was young, maybe twenty, twenty-four at most, a natural redhead with creamy-white skin. Freckles peppered across her face, spilling onto her shoulders. She could be called cute, maybe even pretty, but her body more than made up for her average features. Especially her legs.
As though she could feel Jimmy’s eyes upon her, she turned, her expression practiced coy. He didn’t return the smile, but he didn’t look away from her either. As all girls tended to do when they knew they had an audience, the redhead threw a little more hip-action into her stride. Her gestures became animated. She laughed too hard at something Ashley said. Every few steps, she casually checked to see if she still held his attention.
She hid it better than most, but the intention behind every action was obvious. He’d played the game so many times he had the script memorized. She didn’t care if he was single, married, widowed, divorced, gay or straight. She was throwing the invitation out just in case he didn’t care either. To accept, all he had to do was follow her out of the bar. It was too fucking easy to get laid.
“Why don’t you go see if she needs a ‘safe’ ride home, Jimmy,” Kylie snapped, ripping his attention away from the girl. “That line always worked real good for you at Jack’s.”
Jimmy bit his tongue. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but he wasn’t in the mood to defend himself. He was tired of fighting with her, and she looked as though she’d gone ten rounds already. He just wanted to take her home and help her forget. “Are you okay?”
“Do I look okay?” she snapped.
“No.” She looked as though she would burst into tears at any moment.
She lifted her sleeping son from his arms. “I’m going home.”
“I’ll drive you,” Jimmy offered.
He had to lengthen his stride to keep up with her hurried pace as she left the pub and crossed the parking lot. He opened her car door so she could set Brayden in his car seat, and then he stepped in and buckled his son in secure. Brayden slept on like a rock through all the man-handling, a sweet snore escaping his lips. Jimmy kissed his cheek and his forehead, and then carefully closed the door.
He followed Kylie around to the driver’s side. As she grabbed the door handle to make her escape, he braced his hand against the frame, preventing her from opening it. Gently, but forcefully, he moved her aside, then used her keys to start the engine. Once he had the air conditioner cranked to keep Brayden cool, he turned to Kylie, watching as she paced in angry strides.
“Ky,” Jimmy reached out in comfort, but she pulled away.
“Don’t even start. I can’t think right now. I just want to go home.”
“I knew she was up to something. I knew it, and I didn’t stop her.”
“You can’t put this on yourself. She made her own decisions.”
“This isn’t a decision! This is a tantrum she’s throwing for attention. Or to piss me off.”
“Or she’s doing what she wants to do,” Jimmy countered.
“You think she wants any of this?” A bitter laugh laced her doubt. “Maybe she thinks she’s in love with Mike, or that she can save him, somehow. But there’s no way she wants to be married. She can’t handle that kind of commitment! She’ll be divorced in a week. And the Army?” She laughed again, a hint of hysterics creeping in. “Are you serious?”
“She’s done her research, Ky. She knows what she’s getting into.”
“She hasn’t researched anything,” Kylie easily dismissed. “She probably thinks it’s like going to summer camp, only with hot guys in uniform.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “You don’t know your sister at all, do you?”
“After everything I’ve done for her?” she huffed. “I think I know her pretty damn well.”
“Maybe you used to, but when’s the last time you actually talked to her?”
“She won’t talk to me!”
“She used to. Were you ever listening to what she said, or taking notice of all the changes she’s made in her life?”
“I was listening to her tonight! Every drunken word. She sounded like a damn fool.”
“Yeah, she was drunk, but I have a feeling she was a little nervous over how you’d react.”
“So, this is my fault now?”
Jimmy grunted in frustration. “I didn’t say that.”
“No, you’re right. It is my fault. And it’s yours, too.”
“Fine.” He didn’t deserve the blame, but Kylie wanted to lay it on him, so he accepted it. “Blame it all on me, Ky. I don’t care. Just cut Ash a little slack.”
Kylie continued her argument, oblivious to his surrender. “You messed around on her so much she’ll never be able to trust anyone ever again. She can’t even trust me!”
“Apparently, she trusts Mike,” Jimmy countered. “Enough to marry the guy.”
“Oh, you would just love that, wouldn’t you?”
Confused, Jimmy asked, “Love what?”
“For her to be fine! For her to be okay, with everything! To be normal!” With a bitter laugh, Kylie struggled to open her car door, but she was too distracted by her anger. “You get to use her and screw her and treat her like crap, for three years, and suffer no consequences? That’s bullshit!”
The thin rope of control he held over his temper severed, and he exploded. “What do you want to happen to me, Ky? You want to send me to jail? You wanna cut off my dick? Would that make you feel better?”
“This isn’t about me!” she screamed.
“It’s always about you! You don’t trust me! You’ve never trusted me! All these arguments about my fucked up relationship with your sister all boil down to the fact that you will never trust me!”
“You don’t trust anyone. You never have.”
Her jaw tightened in defiance, trembling slightly as her eyes filled with tears.
“I’m not Charlie, or your father, or that goddamn asshole that got you pregnant. I didn’t abandon you! Quit treating me like I already have!”
She said nothing as the tears trailed down. No denial. No profession of faith in him. Just cold, pained silence, broken only by the low rumble of thunder rolling through the thick, humid air.
“That’s what I thought.”
He ripped his ball cap from his head, scrubbing his hand through his hair in frustration. He was so sick and tired of having the same fucking argument with her, he felt like screaming. Or crying right along with her. Instead, he shoved the cap back on and choked down his emotion as he returned to her.
“What do you want me to do here, Ky? You want me to go talk to Ashley? You want me to apologize to her? Force her to divorce Mike, or renege on her commitment to the Army? Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
“No.” She wiped at her tears with the back of her hand, her expression pained as she adverted her gaze from him. “I don’t want you to do anything. Let’s just leave it alone for tonight, okay? I’m tired, and I’m frustrated. I’m pissed off at my sister, and at myself, and if we keep arguing like we always do, I’ll keep saying things I don’t mean. I just want to go home and put my son to bed, and forget this messed up day ever happened… Can we do that?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed on a ragged breath. “You want me to come with you?”
He stood helplessly watching as she slid into the driver’s seat. At the last second, he put his hand out and stopped her from closing the door. “What time are you going dress shopping tomorrow? I could watch Brayden for you—”
“A stupid wedding dress is the least of my concerns right now, Jimmy.”
The distaste in her voice hit him with such force he lost his hold of the door. “Right.”
“I’m sorry.” Her gaze drifted away from him. “I’ll call you, okay?”
He stood in the middle of the parking lot long after she left, unsure what he was supposed to do, where he was supposed to go. He didn’t want to go to his apartment. He didn’t want to go back inside. He wanted to get in his truck, and follow her home. But he wasn’t welcome there.
A comforting hand came down on his shoulder. “You okay, Jim?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said with a shake of his head to clear it.
“Ky leave?” Brent asked.
“She’s gone.” She’d been gone for a long time now. He was beginning to wonder if she had ever been there at all.
“Let’s go get you a beer.”
Jimmy took one last look up the road, in the direction his life had disappeared, and then followed his brother across the street to Jack’s.