“Just come, Kylie. Stacy needs you there,” Aria pleaded through the phone. “You haven’t been home since you moved to California in September. Don’t you want to see everyone?”
Kylie closed her eyes, her jaw clinched in frustration. She had already had this exact conversation with Aria on multiple occasions, and her answer was always the same, “You know I want to, but I can’t.”
“I’ll pay for your tickets,” Aria offered, as though money was the issue. They both knew damn well it wasn’t.
“I can’t. Please, stop asking me.”
“Yes, you can. It won’t cost you anything but a few vacation days at work. Come for the wedding, and then you could stay for Christmas. You know Martha would love to spend the holidays with her grandson. She hasn’t seen him in so long, and she misses him so much. All she talks about is how much she wishes you would come home.”
Aria was talking fast, throwing every punch, and Kylie felt her resolve weaken. Moving to California had been a spur of the moment decision, one Kylie wished she hadn’t been forced to make, but living her old life in Allman Falls as though nothing had changed was not an option. From the moment Jimmy walked out of her kitchen, Brayden had spent every waking minute searching for him. Whenever they left the house, he strained against the straps of his booster seat and pressed his face against the car window, his eyes whipping around as he desperately scanned the streets for Jimmy’s truck. He ran off in stores and away from the playground. He picked fights at daycare. He stopped talking. He cried every night when she put him to bed and he was still crying silent tears when he woke up in the morning.
It hadn’t helped that they’d always found each other. Jimmy was a solitary guy, but Allman Falls was a very small town. It was impossible to lose anyone there. Every time they bumped into him, Brayden flew into his arms and clung to him for dear life, his little arms wrapped so tight around Jimmy’s neck she wouldn’t have been able to pry him away if she’d wanted to. And she hadn’t wanted to. It would have destroyed Brayden if she had. She always allowed them a few moments together, but it had physically ripped her in two watching them interact.
As soon as Jimmy had Brayden in his arms, he would carry her son away, giving Kylie the space he thought she wanted. While he listened to every story her son wanted to tell him, Kylie stood on the sidelines, forced to pretend she didn’t still love him, didn’t still crave the smell of his skin, didn’t long for the taste of his breath mingling with hers as they slept. She’d stood distant, making believe she no longer lived in her memories of the days when they had been a family.
As much as she’d hated watching Jimmy carry Brayden away, the hardest part had always been Brayden’s pain when Jimmy inevitably returned to her. Brayden would scream in horror of never seeing Jimmy again, practically strangling Jimmy in his refusal to let go. By the time she and Jimmy finally managed to get her son transferred from his arms into hers, all three of them were in tears, and Kylie was left feeling hopeless she would ever be able to help her son heal.
They could go days without seeing Jimmy, each hour inching along and blurring into the next, her body growing increasingly numb with every passing minute. Her mind would go blank, her heart cold as her anger burned itself into ashen shades of grey. Just as she began to foolishly believe they’d recovered from the worst of the pain and were finally healing, finally moving on, there he’d be, pumping gas at the station on the corner or walking around the endcap display at the grocery store, and their worlds would shatter anew.
She’d be damned if she was going to sit around and watch Brayden’s little heart continually break over losing the man who had been his father. Brayden needed the freedom to forget what he had lost while he was still young, before the hurt could leave a scar too deep to heal. He would never get that in Allman Falls. In desperation, she’d sold their entire life in Nebraska and drove without direction until they ended up in the sunniest place she could think of, the state where she had been raised, California.
With twelve-thousand miles separating them from Jimmy, it was easier to pretend they were okay, but their hearts were far from healed. They still needed more time.
“Please, Ky,” Aria begged. “Come home for a little while… How about just until Dan and Stacy have their baby? She looks ready to pop at any minute. I honestly don’t know if she’ll even make it until the wedding. She’s huge, Kylie. And I mean huge. But don’t tell her I said that… Don’t you want to see the baby?”
“Why in the world are Dan and Stacy getting married now anyway? Shouldn’t they wait until after the baby’s born?” The question come out a little more irritably and a lot more self-righteously than she’d ever imagined she could sound, and she immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean that… I thought they were talking about a spring wedding.”
“You know how Stace is. Once she has an idea in her head she can’t shake it. She wants to be married before the baby’s born, and all Dan wants is to make her happy, so he’s game. He has the sweetest surprise planned for her wedding march—Omigod, Ky! You have to come just for that! She’s going to start balling, I’m going to be balling—Ky, you have to be here! I guarantee you will cry. But it’ll be a good cry, the best kind of crying—happy tears! I just hope her dress still fits when the day comes. We ordered it big, but at the rate she’s growing… Man, I hope my dress fits. I’m no Skinny Minnie anymore either. So, are you coming?”
Her heart and her head in turmoil, Kylie prayed for guidance. “Let me think about.”
“There’s nothing to think about. Just say yes. Please, please, please. Pretty please.”
“Fine, I’ll come.” Kylie sighed in defeat. She could never say no to Aria. “But there’s no way I can stay until Christmas. It’s a month away. I’ll come for the wedding, but that’s it. One day.”
“How about a week? Friday to Friday.”
“No… I don’t know…” The more she thought about it, the more a week with her mom sounded like the perfect medicine to heal her moody blues. She and Brayden could spend a week wrapped in the warm cocoon of her mother’s love, baked into decedent cookies and simmered in winter stews. There would be no reason to ever leave the house. Other than for a few, torturous hours at the wedding, they would never see him.
“If it makes you feel better, Jimmy’s been talking about going to Florida to spend the holidays with his mom. I don’t know if he’ll even be here for the wedding.”
Kylie picked at a loose thread on the sofa, distracting herself as an unexpected wave of sorrow washed over her. “How’s MaryAnn doing?”
“Really good. She’s excited for her first grandbaby.”
“I bet.” She had lost not just her fiancé, but an entire family in the breakup. The loss still wore her raw. “He finally broke down and called her then?”
“Brent didn’t exactly give him much of a choice. He can be pretty stubborn when he wants to be.”
“However it happened, I’m happy to hear they’re talking again.”
“So am I. He should have gone to see her a long time ago.”
Aria’s tone had turned somber, causing Kylie immediate concern. She couldn’t allow herself to love him, but she would never stop worrying about him. “How is Jimmy?”
“Fine,” Aria answered dismissively and too quickly.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Ky. You know how he is. I guess he’s doing okay, considering. Working way too hard, as usual. All the boys are.”
“Drinking too hard?”
“So, are you coming home?” Aria asked, ignoring her question, which gave Kylie the answer she’d expected. Yes.
“I can probably swing a week off work.”
“Yay!” Aria cheered, but her voice carried more exhausted relief than glee. “You’re going to love the dress I picked out for you. It’s gorgeous. Perfect for your figure.”
“You bought me a dress?” Kylie asked, not bothering to mask her irritation this time.
“Well, of course, silly girl. These things must be ordered. You can’t wear something off the rack. You are Stacy’s maid of honor, after all.”
“Oh, hell no! I agreed to come to the wedding, not be in it.”
“Too late. The programs are already printed. Oh, and Brayden’s ring bearer. He’s going to look so cute in his tux! Love you, sweetie. See you on Friday.”
“Goddamn it, Aria—”
Aria disconnected before Kylie could get another word in.
Letting out a string of whispered curses, Kylie winged her cellphone in the general direction of the coffee table. Like a stone across the surface of calm water, it skipped over the polished wood and skittered onto the floor. She felt like kicking and screaming and banging her head against the wall, but she didn’t have the luxury of a tantrum. Not with Brayden within hearing-distance in the next room. Instead, she bit back the frustration, bottling it up as she did every time, certain it would kill her before she finally had a private moment to let it all go.
Life would be so much easier, at least in the moment, if she smoked or drank to excess, if she had the kind of appetite that allowed her to scarf ice cream by the bucket-load until she collapsed into a sugar-laced coma. She’d kill for a vice of any kind that allowed her to blissfully self-medicate the pain away, but her vice was Jimmy. He always had been. A person couldn’t substitute one bad habit for another and expect to feel the same kind of euphoric high they were addicted to. Something would always be missing, making them crave the original that much more.
And, oh, did she ever crave him.
Late at night, when her defenses were at their lowest, when her bed felt colder than any Nebraska winter, she longed to put an end to her misery with a phone call. If she could hear his voice again, feel it wrap around her like a sultry, summer night…
But giving in to her desires would put her son at risk, sentencing him of a lifetime of disappointment. Alcoholics don’t set the glass down after one sip; a cheater’s eye doesn’t stop roaming after one stolen kiss. A tiny taste of the forbidden only amplifies the need. Soon, Brayden would be old enough to be influenced by Jimmy’s lack of self-control. It would shape him and mold him, distorting his definition of what it means for a man to respect himself, to love a woman, to be committed to a family. She refused to allow Jimmy to have that kind of permanent, negative impact on her son. She refused to allow Brayden to depend on a man who would one day up and leave them behind.
Kylie despised herself for carelessly entrusting Brayden’s precious heart with Jimmy in the first place. She had believed in his love for her son, just as she had believed in her step-father, Charlie’s, love for her every single time he had called her his little girl. But Charlie had loved himself more than he had ever loved her. Family life had bored him. He had grown weary of the responsibility, tired of the tedium, and he had walked away. All these years later, the pain in Kylie’s heart was still tender, still real, and like an idiot, she had exposed her son to the exact same pain.
Please, God, tell me how I could have been so incredibly stupid?
The front door of the condo flew open, sparing her from answering her own question.
“Oh, my good gracious, Ky! What a day!” Kylie’s roommate, and dearest friend, Vanessa Martinez, blew in on her typical whirlwind of chatter. She dropped two greasy bags from Froggy’s Café onto the coffee table and collapsed onto the sofa next to Kylie. “I need a drink!”
“Make mine a double.”
“Uh, oh. That doesn’t sound good. Do I need to beat someone up for you?”
“I don’t know yet.”
The complete opposite of Kylie in both body and temperament, Nessa was Kylie’s saving grace. If not for her childhood best friend, Kylie never would have made it through the past three months. She had arrived in California with no money, no plan, and no hope for the future. But one quick phone call to Nessa had changed it all—or at least the ‘plan’ part anyway. With her tips from Froggy’s, she had made good progress on the money part. Hope would only come with time.
“Just say the word, and I’ll go all assassin on their sorry ass.” Nessa’s face scrunched into a snarl and she punched at the air, adding the appropriate sounds for effect. “Nobody messes with my Ky Girl and lives to tell the tale.”
Kylie couldn’t help but laugh. “Put those killer fists away before you hurt yourself.”
Nessa hauled herself upright and started unpacking their dinner. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or is it another of your moody-butt secrets you love to keep from me?”
“I got suckered into being in a wedding this weekend.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun.”
“It’s not,” Kylie agreed. Even though she loved both Dan and Stacy dearly and wished them only the best, the last thing in the world Kylie wanted to do was be in a wedding that wasn’t hers. It was bad enough just to attend. “You want to be my date?”
“Ooh, I’d love to! Especially if we get to make out on the dance floor.” Nessa wiggled her eyebrows, forcing a smile from Kylie. “Whose wedding is it?”
“Dan and Stacy’s.”
“Dan and Stacy from Nebraska, Dan and Stacy?”
“Do you know of any other Dan-and-Stacies getting married?”
“Well, no, but… Are you sure you want to go?”
“No,” Kylie answered honestly.
“Is the devil incarnate going to be there?”
Kylie cringed. “Please stop calling him that.”
“Why? He sure ain’t no saint.”
“I know, but just stop.” No matter how many times she said it, Nessa’s nickname for Jimmy didn’t make Kylie smile as Nessa intended. Instead, it hurt her heart to hear.
Needing a moment of space, Kylie left Nessa to her grumbling and went down the hall to collect Brayden for dinner. She found him in his room, officiating over an elaborate, multicar Hot Wheels race. The track spanned the lowlands of his floor, up the steep incline of his dresser, across the rough terrain of his unmade bed, before returning to the valley to do it all over again. Amazed by his ingenuity, she leaned against the door jamb to watch a few laps.
Every so often, if she caught Brayden in just the right light, she saw a hint of the man he would grow into. She could see the strength in his jaw and the intensity in his gaze, the studious way he approached a problem, weighing every possibility before making his decision. Since their move to California, he had started eating better, sleeping better. He had fully graduated to big-boy underwear, even overnight. The southern sun had colored his face with a healthy glow and bleached his sandy blonde hair, making him look even more like Jimmy than he already had. Some days it was hard to look at him without tearing up.
“Time for dinner, Bray.”
Startled from his play, he whipped around.
He held up his favorite car, a circa 1965 Fastback Jimmy’s mother had given him during one of their Florida trips. One pushing, one shoving, Jimmy and Brent had both claimed it had once been theirs. Brayden nipped their argument in the bud by declaring the car, “Mine!”
“Cool car. What kind is it?”
“Is it a Mustang?” she prompted.
He turned the car over in his hands, one shoulder lifting as he traced his finger along the faded “Rogan” printed in a child’s block letters on the undercarriage.
Their move had been good for him in many ways, except one. Somewhere between Nebraska and California, he had lost his desire to tell jokes, to sing, to laugh at his own crazy stories. Some days he chose not to speak at all. Kylie’s worry intensified as the days passed absent of his sweet chatter, but the doctors, his teachers, even her mother, all assured her he would be fine, it was only a phase, the same thing they’d said back when he’d preferred pecking at his food instead of putting it in his mouth. Every night, she prayed for their expertise to be right. It would kill her if she had unintentionally caused him more harm in her attempt to keep him safe.
“One more lap, and then come eat, okay?”
She waited, praying for even a whispered word in answer, but he only returned to his game.