The skies were clear, the winds calm, when their airplane landed in Omaha, but Kylie could feel a storm brewing in the atmosphere as they made their way through the crowded airport. A major meltdown was in the forecast, the only uncertainty being which one of them would crack first.
Weather delays in Denver had put them in Omaha hours later than they were supposed to land, turning her bundle of nerves into a mountain range. Brayden was overwound and agitated from sitting still too long on the airplane, and he had a three-hour car ride to Allman Falls yet to endure. Nessa, who’d managed to maintain a smile even after a brutal attack on her elbow by a distracted stewardess welding a beverage cart, totally lost her mind when Kylie’s luggage failed to come down the baggage carousel.
Fearing Nessa’s profanity-laced tirade would attract the attention of airport security, Kylie ripped her away from the customer service counter, stuffed a crumpled wad of dollar bills in her hand, and shoved her toward the vending machines to get Brayden some snacks for the car ride. She then proceeded to spend the next hour proving her identity, proving she had luggage to lose in the first place, filling out claim forms, and getting file reference numbers so she could waste a good portion of the rest of her life trying to track down bags that were most likely on their way to Zimbabwe.
Luckily, Brayden’s clothes were in one of Nessa’s over-size bags, Aria had possession of her dress and shoes for the wedding, and she could always borrow from her mother’s closet for the remainder of their vacation. She didn’t care about losing her clothes. What she did care about was the sculpture she had carefully wrapped and nestled amidst her soft sweaters for protection.
She had packed it at the last minute, still undecided what she wanted to do with it, but certain she’d wanted it close by, just in case. Fate had obviously stepped in to save her from making a foolish mistake, but the possibility of the piece being lost forever sliced through her heart like a personal assault.
“So where to next?” Nessa asked around a mouthful of chocolate.
“Pick up the rental,” Kylie replied.
“Please tell me they have cars in Nebraska and I’m not going to be stuck riding a horse to your tiny, little, small town.”
“Oh my god, Nessa! Seriously?” Kylie barked in irritation.
Nessa shrugged. “What?”
“We are not riding a horse to Allman Falls,” Kylie stated, but then couldn’t stop herself from laughing at the irony. “We’re riding a pony instead.”
Nessa followed Kylie through the airport at a wary pace, muttering under her breath about rope burns, saddle bags and one-horse towns, but when the rental agent handed Kylie the set of keys to a new Ford Mustang, Nessa’s frown turned into an ear-shattering squeal of delight.
“Ooh! Let me drive! Please, please, please, please, pretty, pretty please,” Nessa begged as she nudged her way toward the driver side door.
Kylie caught her arm, pulled her back. “No way! You have a suitcase full of clean underwear and a toothbrush. I’ve got nothing. I get to drive.”
“You’re going to need clean underwear after you come in your panties from the vibrations of all that raw horsepower,” Nessa said with a wicked grin.
“Nessa,” Kylie scolded, covering Brayden’s ears. “And for your information, a rental car’s stock. It takes a heck of a lot more horsepower to make this girl… you know.”
“Ooh! Ky Girl likes it rough,” she laughed, and Kylie blushed hot.
“Shut up, you.” Kylie distracted her by popping the trunk.
Nessa heaved in her suitcases. “This ’Stang may be weak, but it’s still sexy as all get out, and I’d look dang good driving it, but seeings how I have no idea where we’re going, I’ll give you the honor of chauffeuring my cute, little booty around.”
“How very generous of you,” Kylie said with a chuckle and roll of her eyes.
Finally, free of the airport, Kylie maneuvered through heavy Omaha congestion to the west end of town where the highways opened up and the traffic thinned. As they left the suburbs in the rear-view mirror, Kylie felt a sense of peace wash over her. She hadn’t realized how much she missed the open quality of the country. She could breathe easier. Her heartbeat settled into a calmer rhythm. The fog over her mind lifted and she could think clearer than she had in months. She took a deep breath and smiled.
Nessa also took a deep breath, then immediately wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell? Did Brayden poo his pants?”
Kylie laughed. “No. It’s cattle.”
Nessa strained to look over the night-darkened landscape. “Where?”
“The whole state smells like this?”
“Of course not.” Kylie took another deep breath. “Oh, Ness, you should smell it in the spring. When the snow melts and the ground begins to thaw, it releases this amazing scent of… I don’t know, almost like… Renewal. It makes you feel like anything is possible.”
Nessa rolled her eyes. “You’ve been smoking some of Frog Man’s medicinal herbs back in his kitchen again, haven’t you?”
Kylie smiled. “I’m just happy to be home.”
Nessa shifted, turning more toward Kylie. “So, what’s going on with David? You guys ever going to do the deed, or what?”
“Do the deed?” Kylie repeated, immediately uncomfortable, trapped. She slid her hands around the leather steering wheel, wishing she could drive faster and escape the conversation. “I’m sure, yeah… someday.”
“Because I’m kinda picking up a vibe that you’re not all that into him. Not like he’s into you.”
“I’m into him,” Kylie rushed.
“Yeah, I don’t think you are. I think you want to be, and who wouldn’t? The man is smoking hot, smart as hell, and does some downright sensual things with chocolate. Chocolate, Ky! Just think about that!”
“Oh, believe me, I have.” And she had thought about it, many times, only the man drizzling the chocolate in her dreams didn’t look at all like David.
“You should be jumping his bones every chance you get, Girl, but you seem almost indifferent to him. It’s like you’ve been married to him for thirty years already and it’s only been what, like three weeks, since you met him?”
“There’s nothing wrong with being cautious.”
“Throw caution to the wind, girlfriend! You’re only young and hot once. Take advantage of that body and use it to its full potential.”
“I’ve thrown caution to the wind before, Nessa. Look where it got me.”
“You mean Brayden?” Nessa asked, turning in her seat to look at the little boy who was miraculously sleeping through his sugar high.
“Yeah,” Kylie answered softly. Brayden wasn’t who she was talking about, but her son was absolute proof of her ability to lose her mind to sex. He was the only good thing to come out of her relationship with one of the biggest assholes who ever walked the planet.
“Do you ever talk to him anymore?”
“No. He disappeared as soon as I told him I was pregnant. I don’t even know where he is.”
“He’s not paying child support?” Nessa asked.
“No, and I don’t need him to.” Agitated, she turned up the volume of the radio.
Nessa took the hint, falling into silence as she looked out the window to watch the miles fly past. Kylie felt bad, but she was tired from the day and not in the mood to drudge up bad memories. It had been a long time since Kylie thought back to that chapter of her life, and she didn’t want to get stuck there in her mind. Not when she was already struggling with more recent pain.
Truth be told, she knew where Brayden’s father was, but she wanted nothing to do with him. He wanted even less to do with her. He’d been a charming guy with a nasty temper who hauled cattle for a living and wore a pair of Levis like no one else could. They’d fought more than they’d loved, but her youth and ignorance, her stupidity, had warped their dysfunctional relationship into fantasies of the happily-ever-after she had silently prayed for since she was a little girl.
But, just like her mother, that dream would never become her reality. Not with him. Her wake-up call came the instant her eyes fell upon the pink, parallel lines on the plastic stick. He’d demanded she get an abortion. She’d demanded he go to hell. He’d moved to Wyoming instead, and told her to never contact him again.
She’d listed Brayden’s father on his birth certificate, in case either one of them ever wanted, or needed, to search the other out some day, but as far as she was concerned, the man did not exist.
Her eyes drifted to the rear-view mirror and she watched Brayden while he slept. With his blonde hair, blue eyes, and the faint cleft in his chin he looked exactly like his father, but he also looked an awful lot like Jimmy. Strangers always assumed Brayden was Jimmy’s. Even people who should have known better believed the two were father and son. Jimmy had stepped in and filled the role of father for Brayden’s entire life, so she wasn’t surprised people mistook the situation, but it was just play-acting. Jimmy could never love selflessly enough to be a real father. Not when he had never learned how to love himself.
Two miles after Kylie turned off the highway, onto the Allman Falls spur, the hypnotic silence inside the car was shattered by the sudden appearance of red and blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror.
Nessa turned and looked out the back window. “How fast are you going?”
“A mile or two over.”
“And he’s stopping you for that?”
“No,” Kylie said on a sigh as she slowed and pulled over to the shoulder. “He’s stopping me because we have out of county plates.”
“Well, let me deal with this b-u-t-t hole. There’s no way I’m letting you get a ticket from some psycho, hillbilly cop.”
“No,” Kylie said firmly. “You will sit quietly, be polite, and smile.”
Nessa made to protest, but Kylie silenced her with a glare as the police officer approached the car, flashlight in hand. Kylie flipped on her flashers, rolled down the window, and bit back a smile as she watched Nessa’s eyes grow as big as saucers.
“Holy schnickies,” her friend whispered in awe of the bald-headed, six-foot eight-inch cop with biceps the size of ham hocks who bent down and peered into the car.
“Hey, Chief. How’ve you been?” Kylie greeted with a warm smile and happy heart. Chief was the first person from home she had seen in what felt like forever. She felt almost giddy.
“Well, hey there, Kylie. I’d wondered if it wasn’t you,” Chief said in his slow baritone. “How’s California treating you?”
“I can tell.” He shined the flashlight into the backseat. “Brayden sure has grown.”
“Too fast,” Kylie agreed. “Chief, this is Vanessa Martinez, a very good friend of mine.”
Chief stuck his arm through the open window, past Kylie, and engulfed Nessa’s tiny hand in his gigantic one. “Nice to meet you, Vanessa. I’m Chief Roland Powell, but you can just call me Chief.”
“Nessa,” she answered on a shaky breath, her eyes bulging, threatening to pop out of her head.
“Are you girls here for Dan and Stacy’s wedding?” he asked, withdrawing his hand from the car.
“We are. Are you coming?”
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll stop by at some point in the night.” He tapped on the roof of the car as he straightened to his full height. “You drive careful, now. Be sure to say hello to your mama for me.”
Kylie waited a moment for him to return to his cruiser before she pulled off the shoulder and continued down the road.
“Oh… My…” Nessa hyperventilated in the seat beside her to her.
“I know. Chief can be a bit intimidating until you get to know him, but he’s really just a giant teddy bear. Everyone loves him.”
“Oh, he’s not intimidating.” Nessa popped around in her seat and looked back, mesmerized by the flashing red and blue lights. “That man is a Norse God!”
Kylie laughed. “You think?”
“Is he single? How old is he? I bet he’s hung like a moose! Omigod, Ky, I need me some of that!” Nessa gushed rapid-fire, causing Kylie to laugh so hard her eyes teared up.
“Yes, he’s single, thirty-something, and eww! Gross. I don’t want to know,” Kylie answered Nessa’s questions while wiping the tears from her eyes.
“Is that what corn-fed means?”
Kylie laughed harder.
“Well, hot damn, girl! I’m likin’ Nebraska more and more by the minute.”
“Shhh,” Kylie shushed them both as she continued to laugh, but it was too late.
Their excitement woke Brayden, and he started to cry. Nessa tried to comfort him as Kylie swiftly drove through the sleeping town, not stopping for anything until she pulled into the driveway.
The porch light came on as Martha Johansen stepped out of the doorway. Exhausted, Kylie threw the car into park, kicked open the door, and flew into her mother’s open arms.