Brent was good for two beers, then he headed home. More than once, he suggested Jimmy do the same, but like the dumbass he was, Jimmy stayed and switched to whiskey. He also switched to a table in the back of the bar, in a corner darkened by deep shadows, where people would leave him alone. The clamor of the crowd and the pounding of the music drowned out the echo of Kylie’s voice. Jack Daniel’s numbed the pain. His entire body hummed, the beat of his heart reverberating from one side of his head to the other. When he closed his eyes, the sound bounced behind his lids in vivid red and yellow waves.
Mike had also taken an early exit, leaving his new wife and her redheaded stripper to party on without him. Jimmy had tried to talk to Ashley earlier in the evening, but she’d been too far gone for coherent thought. He’d have better luck in the morning, when her hangover extinguished her anger and regret pounded behind her eyes. He left her alone, but watched over her as she and the redhead danced.
He didn’t have much choice. Dancing in the corner of the floor, directly in his line of sight, they twined together, and pulled apart, rising and falling, pulsing and pausing in their own private, erotic timing. He could have looked away, but the show they put on was solely for him, so he watched. He considered it his wedding gift to her. He sure the hell wasn’t going to buy the bitch a blender.
He drained the last of the watered-down whiskey in his glass and whistled to his cousin, Sarah, for another. She headed in the opposite direction, intentionally making him wait. It could have been worse. Marissa could have been the one making the rounds, holding his drinks hostage. He’d rather suffer through Sarah’s childish antics than Marissa’s sexual innuendos every time his glass ran dry. He’d seen Missy fly through earlier in the evening, an asshole on her arm and too much makeup on her face, but she didn’t stick around for long.
As Sarah passed once more, Jimmy raised his empty glass. She kept walking, torturing him longer. He hated her. Always had. He didn’t know why. Her perfection, maybe. Sarah looked like a Rogan. She had the thick brown hair, the warm chocolate eyes. She had the slight, Rogan bow to her legs, same as both his father and his brother had. She was strong, capable, smart as hell. She had been a straight-A student. Valedictorian. He had barely passed high school, studying only hard enough to make the grades he’d needed to qualify to play baseball in the spring, football in the fall, to wrestle in the winter. Once Rich Handley died and Jimmy started working for his father full-time, there had been no point in trying to keep up even a mediocre grade-point average. Playtime had ended.
Sarah’s first marriage had failed; not through any fault of hers, other than she’d placed her faith on the wrong man. She had two beautiful children, one a boy, one a girl, both with strong Rogan features, both as smart and capable as their mother. She’d found a better man, one who loved her, who adored her children, who’d had to ask for her hand only one time before she’d cried out, “Yes!” Sarah Rogan would be Sarah Bennett before her next birthday rolled around. Jimmy had no clue when Kylie would get around to saying, “I do.” Or if she ever would.
In a sermon, Pastor Tom had once said life was an intricate puzzle packaged in a plain cardboard box, some pieces light, some dark, the solution obscure, but through faith, the picture revealed. Like Brent, Sarah had solved her puzzle with ease, the darkness shifting seamlessly into bright clarity. All the pieces of Jimmy’s puzzle were laid out before him—Kylie, Brayden, the business, a house, Brent and Aria, Dan and Stacy, Sunday dinners at Chelsea Lake, fishing after sunset, making love in the summer rain—but they lay strewn about on a vast table, acres of pecan-stained cherry wood between each one. The harder he tried to fit his life together, the more the pieces resisted, as though his hands had already aged into uselessness, gnarled by arthritis, trembling from abuse and drowned regrets.
Sarah snuck up on him from behind and kicked the leg of his chair, jerking him to attention.
“About goddamn time.”
“I was going to make you wait longer, but I was afraid you’d park your ugly ass up at the bar.” She stood with her hand on the back of his chair, watching Ashley and the stripper grind seductively against each other from his vantage point. “You’re encouraging her.”
“She doesn’t need encouragement.”
“She really got married, huh?”
“So she says.”
“You don’t believe her?”
“I haven’t believed a word that’s come out of her mouth since the day I met her.” He held his empty glass up for Sarah, his eyes never leaving the ass of the redhead. She put on a good show. As long as she was offering it for free, he was going to get his money’s worth. “But, yeah, I believe this.”
“Good.” She smacked him upside the back of his head and disappeared with his glass.
The song changed, the crowd shifted. Ashley and her whore fused together as they danced, and Sarah returned with a fresh Jack and Coke.
She slammed the glass onto the table. “Eight-fifty.”
“Bullshit.” He made a grab for the glass.
She slid it away from him. “Inflation.”
He pulled a ten from his wallet, ripped it in two, and tossed one half onto her tray. She let go of the glass. Ten minutes later, she brought him another round and he gave her the other half of the ten.
Her eyebrow arched in irritation. “No tip?”
“Don’t eat yellow snow.”
“Hardy har,” she said with a roll of her eyes before a sad smile overtook her expression. “I miss your dad.”
“So do I.” He lifted the glass and contemplated the dark amber liquid inside. It never held the answers he searched for, but for some reason he couldn’t stop asking it questions, praying for an epiphany.
“What was the one he used to say all the time?”
“You shine like a pitchfork in manure.”
She tugged down the bill of his cap. “That’s the one.”
“Go away, Sarah. Please.”
“Go home, Baby James, before you get yourself in trouble.”
He fixed his ballcap, using the motion to mask the painful rush of emotion the long-unheard endearment had welled up in his chest. “Seriously, go away.”
“And I’m serious, Jimmy.” She shot a glance at Ashley and the redhead, and then narrowed her eyes as she glared at Jimmy. “Go home.”
Jimmy ran a hand down his face in irritation, drying tears he hadn’t known had fallen.
“Fuck,” he hissed in a whisper, cursing Sarah. Kylie. The whole fucking world. Cursing that damn song his mother used to sing to him when she tucked him in at night, kissing the cheeks and closing the eyes of her “Sweet Baby James.” There was nothing sweet about him anymore. Far from it. But he needed to hear her sing it again.
His mother’s piece of his puzzle still sat on the table, but she had moved to the very edge, refusing to return to the center where she belonged. He’d begged her to come home with him after the funeral, practically falling on his knees in desperation, but she had only smiled, her will stubbornly immovable.
“I can’t, Jimmy. This is where I need to be right now.”
She hadn’t said what he’d wanted to hear. He had turned away from her, trying to shut out her words, but her voice had followed him.
“Please try to understand.” She placed her hand on his forearm, her touch gentle, pleading, but he refused to look at her. “For my entire married life, I have shared my time with your father with someone else. With you, and with Brent. With our family and friends, with the church, the entire town—and, my god, how many hours of my time with him did I have to hand over to the business?”
She paused as though expecting him to answer, but he didn’t know what she wanted him to say. They had all sacrificed for the business. They’d all lost time. Money. Their youth. But the business was their livelihood. They did what they’d had to do.
“Too many, Jimmy.”
She trailed her hand down his arm, but she did not let go. She walked around him, inserting herself into his field of vision, refusing to allow him to avoid her gaze.
“Even after we moved here, I was forced to give my time with your father to his new friends, to a new church, to the doctors and nurses, his ailing body. And, in all that time, I never once complained. He was a big man, bigger than life itself, and I forced myself to be content receiving what little bit of him was left over after everyone else took their piece. But not anymore. Now that he’s gone, it is unacceptable to me to allow my heart, and my pain, to be second-best to everyone else’s. I need all of him right now. I need to indulge in my memories of your father, in memories of our life together and our love for each other. I need to walk along the beach and taste the salt on my lips, watch the sun rise from the depths of the ocean while I grieve over the loss of the only man I have ever loved. And I need to do it by myself. If I go home now, the solitude I crave will be the one thing I will be denied. I hope you can understand.”
He had understood, but she hadn’t. He didn’t want her to come home for him, to comfort him, to help him grieve. He wanted her to come home so he could do those things for her. He wanted to return to her all the selfless, loving support she had generously bestowed upon him for his entire life. But she didn’t need or want anything from him, except for him to leave her alone. It hurt to hear those words, to understand their meaning, but he had begrudgingly given her what she asked for. With the salty, summer wind whipping her long skirt around her too-thin body and tousling her graying hair, he had turned his back on his mother and headed for home without as much as a goodbye.
Dan kept telling him to give her time, to allow her to grieve in her own way, but the longer she remained in Florida, the longer she stayed away from home, the more he wished he had dragged her off that goddamn beach, and onto the plane.
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table, and buried his face in his hands. The song blasting through the speakers changed. The bass thumping, the red and yellow sound waves behind his eyes pulsed in time with the sadistic cadence. He should go home. He should wrap Ky in his arms and tell her not to worry about their wedding. They would slow down. They would wait.
God damn, he didn’t want to fucking wait. He wanted to marry her. He wanted to wake up every day for the rest of his life with her breath warming his cheek. He wanted babies and soccer games and barbeques. He wanted loud Christmases. Most of all, he wanted to come home at the end of the day, kick off his boots, scoop Brayden into his arms, and know with certainty his little boy would be his son for the rest of his life. He needed more than a hope and a prayer. He needed a binding contract, witnessed and approved by God, stating without a shred of doubt, We are family.
He uncovered his eyes to find the redhead standing where Sarah had been. She smiled, her teeth orthodontic perfection in pearly white.
He readjusted his hat with the bill to the back, and leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed, studying her. “Don’t play dumb. You know who I am.”
“Can I ask you something, Jimmy?” she asked in a seductive, southern drawl as fake as beauty mark penciled high on her cheek.
“I’ve been watching you watch me all night.” She slipped onto the chair across from him, positioning her body to give him the best view of her freckled cleavage. A diamond teardrop dangled from a thin gold chain around her neck, dipped into the valley of her breasts. His eyes followed. “Why you haven’t asked me to dance.”
“Why would I?”
With every intention of leaving, Jimmy wrapped his hand around the sweating, still-full glass of Jack and Coke, but something in the way she drew a breath kept him pinned to his chair. As though hypnotized, he watched her breasts rise and fall through another breath before he shifted his gaze to the emerald green of her irises.
“You don’t like the way I dance?” she asked, her lips puckering into a pout.
“I didn’t say that.”
He held her gaze as he lifted his glass. Her lips parted as he took a drink. Her breathing deepened, her eyes darkened, her body responding as though he was drinking her instead of the whiskey. When she moistened her lips, his disobedient body responded, forcing him to shift to a more comfortable position in his chair.
“So, you do like it.” She smiled again.
“I didn’t say that either.”
He set the glass down, wiped his hand on his jeans, tugging at the denim to relieve the growing pressure against his zipper.
“Well, which is it?” Her fingertips brushed along his arm, her skin virginal white against the deep tan of his. “Do you like how my body moves for you?”
He watched the rhythmic way her hand danced as she teased him with a practiced touch. He ignored her question and asked one of his own. “What’s your name?”
“Anna Mae.” Her eyes deepened in color, her body purring, as though the sound of her own name aroused her.
“Anna Mae?” he repeated as he leaned into her across the narrow table.
She met him halfway, eagerly erasing the distance between them. He pressed his lips to the shell of her ear, breathed in the light, coconut scent of her shampoo. She inhaled a trembling breath, turned into him in anticipation.
The moment he had her, he whispered, “Go to hell, Anna Mae.”
She smacked his hand, gasping in false horror. “Shame on you.”
Exhausted by the never-ending games, he pushed away from the table and moved over to the stool at the end of the bar where there was a little more light, and less chance he would be ambushed by another southern seductress.
“Making new friends, I see,” Sarah said.
He huffed his disgust and shook his glass, rattling the ice cubes. “Skip the Coke this time.”
She ripped the glass from his hand and replaced it with a lowball glass of straight Tennessee whiskey. “Sixteen-fifty.”
He turned his hat around and slipped his wallet from his back pocket. “I’ll make you a deal…”
Eagerly, she watched as he pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. When he ripped it in two, she smacked him hard.
“What the hell is your problem, Jimmy? Stop doing that!”
“It’s just paper.”
“You’re an idiot!”
“You want it?” He tossed half on the bar, pinched the other half between his index and middle finger, holding it away from her. “You keep your mouth shut and keep ‘em coming for the rest of the night, I’ll give you this, plus one more as a tip.”
She narrowed her eyes, chewed on her bottom lip in consideration.
“Easiest two hundred bucks you’ll ever make.”
She nodded at his wallet. “Let me see the other one first.”
He showed it to her.
“Deal.” She made a grab for it, but he was faster.
“Uh, uh, uh.” He wagged his finger. “Not until the end of the night.”
“Last call’s in an hour.”
“And if you want my money, you’ll make sure I don’t see the bottom of my glass before then.”
She pulled a full bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the rack and slammed it onto the bar beside him. “Done.”