A single light shined from Jimmy’s house when Dan pulled around the section and up the country driveway. Silver moonlight from the cloudless sky illuminated his path through the yard, guiding him around palleted stacks of new construction material and piles of discarded demolition waste, overflowing from the roll-off dumpster.
His arrival awakened Bella, Mike’s young Labrador pup, who lay dozing in her usual spot, the dark shadow of Jimmy’s truck, patiently waiting for her owner to finish his day’s work and take her home. She barked in excited greeting, her tail wagging hard enough to shake her entire rump. She jumped up on Dan one time before she remembered her manners and sat at attention at his feet.
“Good girl,” Dan praised as she gave him a thorough once-over with her nose, taking special interest in the six-pack of beer in his hand.
Mike backed out of the house, carrying a heavy armload of splintered, water damaged floorboards. As he tripped across the yard toward the dumpster, he nodded in Dan’s direction.
“Hey,” Dan replied, then asked of Jimmy, “Is he busy?”
“Nah, he’s just hanging out tonight.”
“You want some help?” Dan offered.
“Nah,” Mike repeated. “I was just about to take off, anyway.”
Still, Dan set the beer aside and helped Mike haul the last of the ripped-out flooring to the dumpster. They tarped it as well as they could, preparing it for the morning pickup. While they worked, Mike chattered on about video games, his love of potpies, an old Mustang he has his eye on, Kitty Vasek’s collection of classic county albums.
Dan listened to everything Mike wanted to say. With Ashley out of state for Army training, and Jimmy his only company most days, the poor guy had to be lonely. He needed a hobby, to find something besides work and Narcotics Anonymous meetings to break up his days. Dan would help the kid out, take him bowling or to the car races, but he never found time to do those things himself. So, he listened. And listened, and listened.
When Mike finally ran out of words, he loaded his lunch cooler, water bottles, and Bella into the rusted out, welded together, twenty-year old John Deere Gator Jimmy had once taken as trade for felling and hauling off a half acre of tornado-damaged trees. Stuck permanently in low gear, its top speed maxed out at 23 miles per hour, which Dan still felt was way too fast for a guy who had lost his license for multiple DUI’s, but seven country miles made for a long walk home in the winter time. Especially, for a dog.
Dan knocked once before walking into Jimmy’s house. He found Jimmy in the living room, lounged back on a tattered, second-hand sofa, wearing only a pair of dirty work jeans, his chest and feet bare. Loosely, he held a bottle of beer in one hand, the remote in the other. Jimmy glanced up at Dan and nodded, but turned his bloodshot eyes right back to the television without uttering a word, his better mood of earlier in the day long gone.
Dan sat down in a similarly tattered arm chair and looked around. It had only been a few weeks since Dan had last helped to rip out walls and rough-patch the roof against the elements, but Jimmy and Mike had made noticeable progress in a short time. The house was rough and still had a long way to go before it could be considered a home, but it was light-years away from the dilapidated nightmare Jimmy had over-paid for at auction in September.
“I like what you’ve done with the place.”
The living room was unfinished drywall and plywood sub-floor, furnished with mismatched pieces that looked like they came out of someone’s basement. Plastic sheeting covered the archway separating the room from the rest of the house. He could see a work light set up, but turned off, in the next room. The house smelled of fresh wood and paint, without a hint of cat urine.
“It’s homey,” Dan added when Jimmy still hadn’t replied.
“Thanks.” Jimmy tossed the remote onto the table and propped his feet up next to it, crossing his arms. His tackle box sat open and spread out on the table in front of him, lures, hooks and line scattered about as though he had been sorting through them.
“I hope you’re not planning on going fishing. The ice is a little thin yet, don’t you think?”
Dan pulled a bottle of beer out of his six-pack, and twisted off the cap, tossing it into the pile Jimmy had already accumulated on the coffee table. Dan hoped they weren’t from only one night of drinking, but he had a feeling they were.
“I’m going to Florida to see my mom. Might throw in a line while I’m there.”
Jimmy shrugged. “Maybe tomorrow. I don’t know.”
Dan sighed inwardly, knowing exactly why Jimmy was going to Florida, and it wasn’t to fish or visit with Mary Ann. He was going there to hide.
“I hope you plan to stick around until after my wedding.”
“I’m not going to your wedding.”
“You know why. Don’t fucking pretend you don’t.” Jimmy tipped his head back as he finished off the last of his beer. He set the empty bottle on the floor and started to get up to get another. Dan held out one of his, to keep him from running off.
“I want you standing next to me, Jim.”
Jimmy looked up at him. “What, like as your best man or something?”
“I’ll understand if you can’t do it, but I’d be honored if you would.”
“What about Brent?”
“What about him?”
Jimmy turned his attention back to the television and then to the beer in his hand. He didn’t answer for a long time, his entire body still as he contemplated the sweat beading on the glass bottle. Finally, he drew in a breath. “Yeah… okay.”
“Your outburst of emotion is making me feel all tingly inside.”
Jimmy cracked a smile. “What, did you expect a kiss, or something?”
“The wedding’s this Saturday, in case you forgot.”
“I didn’t forget.” Jimmy picked at the label on the bottle with his thumb. “Saturday’s my birthday.”
Dan mentally kicked himself for his ignorance. “Aw, shit, I forgot about that.”
“It’s not a big deal. Don’t worry about it.”
“Did you have plans with Mary Ann?”
“No, not my mom. Ky and I once talked about going out to…” His shoulder rose and fell in a half-assed shrug, a heavy sadness clouding his face. “It’s nothing. Never mind.”
“What were you going to do?”
Jimmy kept his eyes adverted, his jaw tight, so Dan didn’t push him to answer.
“Show me this kitchen you’ve been talking about.”
“Some other time, maybe.”
“Alright. I’m going to head out, then. Leave you alone.”
Jimmy looked down at Dan’s beer sitting on the floor. “You’re only two into the six-pack, and I’m drinking one of ’em.”
“Keep ’em,” Dan offered. “You can pay me back some other time.”
“What’s the rush?”
“Stace trying to induce labor with semen?”
“What the fuck?” Dan sputtered, flushing in hot, instant, ridiculous embarrassment. How the hell had an off-hand, private conversation with his fiancée about curing her false labor by inducing the real thing become public knowledge so quickly? “Who told you that?”
Of course. “And I’m sure Aria told him, and Stacy told her…”
“Yep,” Jimmy confirmed.
“I swear that woman can’t keep her mouth shut about anything.” Without thinking, he added, “It’s all Kylie’s fault, you know.”
Jimmy’s expression hardened. “How’s it Ky’s fault?”
“She once told Stace that’s how she finally went into labor with Brayden.”
Jimmy choked out a laugh. “No, she didn’t.”
“Ash and I took her bowling at Newman’s. She went into labor a few hours later.”
“Seriously?” Dan asked.
“Huh… Stace lied to me then.”
“Indeed, she did.”
A smile overtook Dan as his body temperature rose. She wasn’t trying to induce labor. She was just horny. “I better go home and teach that woman a lesson.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy huffed. “You do that, and slide that beer over to me on your way out.”
When Dan returned to Chelsea Lake, he found Stacy in the kitchen, sitting at the breakfast table, two big chili dogs covered in cheese, potato chips, and a pile of pickles on the plate in front of her. A stack of spelling tests waiting for grades sat on the edge of the table near her elbow, forgotten, while she multi-tasked eating, flipping through a bridal magazine, and texting.
“Didn’t we just eat dinner?” he asked with a sigh.
“Like, hours ago.”
Dan checked his watch. “One hour. Singular.”
“I guess it didn’t fill me up.” She brushed him off with a shrug, crunched on a sweet pickle.
“You should have called. I would have driven into town for you.”
“I didn’t drive. Cheryl dropped these off. She loves me.”
“She’s an enabler. You both need counseling.”
“You wanna share?” she offered, holding up one of the dripping dogs.
“You sure?” she asked, batting her eyelashes for effect.
“Positive, Stace.” Dan laughed. She was too damn cute for her own good. He sat in the chair across from her and watched her take a bite. “That’s disgusting.”
“But so yummy. Cheryl’s a chili dog genius.”
“Promise me, with our next baby, you’ll pick a healthier food obsession. Something like broccoli, or celery, maybe.”
“Yuck.” Stacy wrinkled her nose. “Celery’s gross. All those strings get stuck in my teeth.”
“You’ve got a chunk of something stuck in your teeth right now.”
She rolled her eyes and took another bite.
“You’ll be happy to know you and Aria’s little plan to reunite Jimmy and Kylie at our wedding should work, thanks to me. But I suggest one of you two Brainiacs call Kylie and let her know what she’s getting herself into if she comes. It’s not fair to ambush her emotions.”
“Don’t play dumb.”
“I’m not,” she insisted, her cheeks flaming pink.
She was a horrible liar, and she knew it.
“Fine! I planned it. Are you happy now?”
“Not at all.”
With a huff, Stacy plucked another pickle from her plate. A trail of juice trickled down her wrist as she waved it about. “I’m just sick and tired of this whole mess.”
“It’s not your mess to figure out,” he reminded her for what felt like the millionth time, but she only launched into her familiar rant.
“Jimmy’s being an idiot… Kylie’s being an even bigger idiot… This stupid, self-indulgent soap opera of theirs has gone on long enough. Our baby’s coming very, very soon, and damn it, kochanie, I want my family back together before she’s born! We’ve already lost Millie, and Gram and Gramps, and both of your parents… and we can never get any of them back. I refuse to lose Jimmy, and Kylie, and Brayden, as well, especially over something so incredibly stupid as fear!” She shoved one of her chili dogs into her mouth, ripped off a huge chunk with a dangerous bite. Around the massive mouthful, she demanded, “You got a problem with that?”
Dan leaned back in his chair and held up his hands in surrender, smiling in adoration at her tenacity. “I wouldn’t dare.”
“That’s what I thought.”
He waited until she finished her bout of angry chewing to say, “I do have a problem with the fact that you lied to me, though.”
She rolled her eyes in irritation. “Just because I didn’t tell you why I moved up the wedding doesn’t mean I lied about it.”
“I’m not talking about the wedding.”
“Then what are you talking about?” she asked. Dan just looked at her, waiting to see if she would admit to it, but he had her confused, her mind racing. “Seriously, kochanie, what did I supposedly lie about?”
“About having sex to induce labor. You said you learned that from Kylie.”
“According to Jimmy, she went into labor after bowling.”
“Oh! Yeah, well… now… it wasn’t a big lie…” she appeased. “It was more a stretching of the truth. Kylie read about it in a magazine, so she was the one who told me. She didn’t actually do it because she didn’t have anyone to have sex with—although I’m pretty sure Jimmy would’ve been more than willing to help her out if she’d asked him to.”
“So, you admit you lied?”
“It was a teeny, tiny, minuscule, little white lie.”
“Uh-huh,” Dan said, trying to look stern.
“What’re you going to do about it?” she challenged.
Dan took the ravaged chili dog out of her hand, set it on the plate, and stood up.
“Come here,” he commanded.
Stacy’s eyes lit in that dangerous desire he loved so much. “Are you gonna spank me?”
As much as he adored her idea, he didn’t spank her. Instead, he took her hands and gently pulled her to her feet. She reached up to wrap her arms around his neck, turning her body slightly so she could get closer to him. Dan lifted her chin, tipping her face to his, and kissed her lightly on the lips, tasting the chili and onions and sweet pickle on her breath.
“Cheryl does make a good chili dog.” He kissed her again, gently parting her lips and running his tongue along hers, tasting and savoring. “Very good.”
He kissed her deeper yet, caressing and teasing her most sensitive places, in all the right ways, until her body heat rose, and she gripped tight to his t-shirt to keep from swaying.
And then—once she was good and hot and breathing heavy, her body trembling in unmistakable desire—he let her go.
With a smile and a wink, he stole one of her chili dogs off her plate, and headed for the living room without a word.
“What?” Stacy balled her hands up, slamming them onto her hips, striking her angry pose that was sexy as hell. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To watch TV.” Dan flopped down on the sofa, clicking on the television with the remote. He took a big bite of her chili dog. “Mmm. So good.”
“Daniel Joseph Handley, give me back my chili dog!” Stacy stormed into the living room with an angry waddle, inserting herself between him and the television. One of her hands still balled into a fist on her hip, she thrust the other out, demanding, “Give it!”
“Nope.” He took another bite.
“Dupek,” she huffed. She turned to walk away. Dan caught her wrist.
“You want the last bite?”
She made a grab for it, but Dan held it out of her reach.
“Or would you rather make out with me some more? Pick one. You can’t have both.”
“I…” She looked at the chili dog, and then looked at him. Her eyes slid back to the dog, her face pained with longing as she debated which one she wanted more.
Her turmoil elicited a burst of laughter from Dan. “Fine, take the damn hot dog.”
With nothing less than pure joy gracing her face, she snatched her chili dog from his hand. But she didn’t take a bite. Instead, she set the dripping mess on the coffee table and turned toward him with that sexy, dangerous gleam in her eye.
Ah, hell. She would be the death of him yet.