Through Aria’s incredible talent and a touch of her personal magic, Gimp’s Pub had transformed into a chic, rustic woodland for the wedding reception. Grapevines, floral twists and twinkling lights canopied the ceiling. Rich drapes and airy sheers textured the walls. The smaller tables had been replaced by family-style, wooden farm tables with mismatched chairs. Hydrangeas and roses, dyed leaves and eucalyptus filled the room with deep fall colors and fresh country air. The room glowed warm with candlelight, heady with the delicious aroma of Cheryl’s dinner of pumpkin soup and beet tart, roast turkey and potatoes, chestnuts and bacon, creamed spinach, cranberry sauce and fresh breads.
Each course looked more delicious than the last, but Kylie could only manage to bring the occasional bite to her lips. The rest she pushed around with her fork between glasses of wine, using the pretense of eating as a distraction from the heartache of staring down the head table to where her son sat on Jimmy’s lap, his little hand to Jimmy’s face to hold his attention while he chattered freely, finally sharing all those precious words he’d been saving.
The dinner noise gradually turned into animated chatter as the meal came to an end. Aria and Brent stood to toast the bride and groom once more. Brent’s made them laugh, Aria’s made them cry, and shortly after, it was time to cut the cake. They took delicate bites, shared a frosting-laced kiss, and then Dan took Stacy’s hand in his and led her onto the dance floor.
“Dan?” Stacy whispered.
“We don’t have a song.”
“Sure, we do. That one, by AC/DC, right?” Dan couldn’t keep from smiling.
She answered with a wrinkle of her nose and a smile of her own. It was a gorgeous combination. He held her in his arms, close to his heart as the lights dimmed and the music started.
With the first note of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the song he had horrifically crooned to her at karaoke night one year before, her eyes lit in delight. Lifting to her tiptoes, she gifted him a soft kiss that eased the butterflies in his stomach.
“So, I did okay today?” He pulled her in closer and their bodies began to move together in easy rhythm.
“You did real good today, kochanie.” Her hand slid up his back and down again, riding slow along his spine, the way he liked. “You do really good every day.”
“Loving you makes it easy.”
Watching from across the room, Aria rested her head against Kylie’s and sighed. “They are so cute together.”
Wine glass cradled in her hand, Kylie sat mesmerized by the newlywed’s intimacy. She envied their connection. Rare and beautiful, it was a blend of the innocence of youth, the passion of new lovers, and infallible trust that can only be built by a lifetime together. They had it all, but what she coveted most was the solid confidence Stacy had in him. Quite simply, Dan loved her too much to ever bring her harm.
When the song ended, the room filled with the sound of forks clinging against wine glasses, the guests signaling for the couple to kiss. Kylie’s heart smiled, and she laughed as Dan dipped a very pregnant Stacy back against his arm, so he could plant a huge wet one on her lips.
Aria hopped up as though cued. “Our turn!”
“What?” Kylie asked, suddenly unbalanced.
“It’s time for the wedding party dance.”
“Oh, no!” Kylie stated, shaking her head. “I never agreed to that.”
“You have to Kylie.” Martha suddenly appeared behind them. “It’s tradition.”
“Screw tradition. I’m not doing it.”
“Oh, come on, Kylie. It’s only three minutes of your life. Four tops,” Aria insisted.
“Let me dance with Brent then,” Kylie pleaded.
“Maid of Honor and Best Man always dance together,” Martha stated firmly, as if it was a law punishable by death if broken. “Come on, everyone’s waiting.”
She pulled Kylie’s chair away from the table and stole her wine glass.
“Mom!” Kylie cried in irritation. “Why are you making me do this?”
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Her smile looked slightly evil in its intention and did nothing to calm Kylie’s frayed nerves.
Kylie glanced around the room, feeling the guests watch her curiously, as though she were no more than a toddler throwing a tantrum. Nessa caught her eye and gave her a nervous, but encouraging, smile. Dan and Stacy waited on the dance floor, whispering to each other while Brent physically yanked Jimmy to his feet. He looked even less thrilled to dance with her than she felt about dancing with him. It gave her an ounce of satisfaction.
“I think I might actually hate you a little bit right now,” Kylie hissed at Aria as she slammed her napkin onto the table and stood up.
“I’d hate me, too.” She gave Kylie a little push toward the dance floor. “Go get ’em, Tiger.”
Kylie may have bared her teeth in growl just then, but she couldn’t remember. The fear in her core burned too intense to commit much of anything to memory.
Brent shoved Jimmy closer Kylie, giving him a nasty glare until Jimmy held out his hand for her. Her eyes shifted from the floor to his hand; strong—tanned and work-roughened as she remembered. Longingly, she gazed at the fingers he used to trail across her skin, riding lazy over her curves long after they’d made love, her insides flushing hot from the memory.
With a deep breath, she tentatively placed her shaking hand in his, closing her eyes as a million, tiny volts of electricity coursed through her body, settling in her stomach where they slowly smoldered. His hand tightened in response to the flash of heat her body produced.
Neither spoke a word as they walked together to the middle of the dance floor. Kylie couldn’t have if she’d wanted to. Her throat constricted, strangling the words out of her, stealing her ability to form complete thoughts. She felt trapped, caged like a skittish, feral animal. As every eye in the room bore down upon her, she struggled to suppress the deep, wailing sobs of agony she longed to release.
He stepped into her, encircled her waist, placing a familiar hand on the small of her back. She tried not to breathe in his intoxicating scent, but it consumed her. Her body heat flamed in response. Except for where their hands made contact, their bodies did not physically touch, but she could feel every inch of him as though he pressed solidly into her. Lust rolled through her as a thousand buried memories resurfaced at once, nearly bringing her to her knees.
Her physical senses already on overloaded, she feared if she looked at him she would collapse. She kept her eyes adverted, looking at nothing, unable to focus on any one thing as the room started to sway.
The lights dimmed, the music started, Keith Urban began to sing.
They stood together. Motionless. Barely breathing.
And then, as one body, one mind, they began to dance.
Time sped up and slowed down, stopping completely before racing forward again as her body moved in rhythm with his. They danced fluidly, intuitively, their bodies intimately familiar with each other as lovers. The tension between them became heavy. Sensual. His hand seared her hip, burning through her dress, imprinting on her skin, the heat radiating from the inside, born from every memory of his hands cradling her hips as she danced above him, their sweat-slickened bodies moving in perfect harmony.
From the very first time they had made love, they knew instinctually what the other needed—every touch, every caress, every stroke perfectly drawing out heightened pleasure in each other. His body had taken hers places she never knew existed, every orgasm powerful. Complete. As their bodies moved together now, hers reacted to those memories, longing for the kind of release only he could provide.
With a gentle hand, he nudged her hip, sending her out in a slow, sensual spin. The room disappeared when he pulled her back in, her eyes locking into his for a fraction of a second before she had a chance to steel them over. He looked straight into her, reading through her defenses, recognizing her pain. It was the same pain she saw reflecting from his heart, weakening her resolve.
When his hand slipped lower on her back, a rush of fire raced along her spine. Her heart slammed against her ribcage, screaming at her to erase that final breath of air between them so it could rest against his once again. Tears filled her eyes as she struggled to fight the aching need. Lightheaded from holding her breath, Kylie felt herself spinning out in Jimmy’s steady hands once again.
When he pulled her back in, she did not stop, could not stop, until her body pressed along his. She closed her eyes and clung to him desperately, locking onto him, holding him tight. Cautiously, he wrapped his arms around her body, his muscles taunt from his struggle to control his own desires, his heart pounding in his chest, slamming hard against her breast as his breath chugged out in ragged bursts. Her heart spoke with his in frantic, passionate beats of wanting as their chests melted into each other.
As though trying to sculpt her, his hands kneaded into her flesh, molding her anew from his memories. She longed to feel his naked heat beneath her touch, the thick fabric of his tuxedo a frustrating barrier. The only skin she could find was his neck, and she buried her face into his scent. His usual stubble shaved clean for the evening, she fought the temptation to run her lips along his jaw line. Instead, she simply breathed him in, slow and deep, her body reacting like a junkie, relaxing with every hit.
The tempo in the room changed as more people filled the dance floor. She dared to open her eyes. His were closed, his face contorted in pain, belying his struggle under her touch. Feeling her eyes upon him, he slowly opened his. Her heart hammered as she gazed into his clear, crystal blues, shimmering darker and darker with desire. He ran a rough, fiercely-controlled hand through her hair, every muscle in his body going rigid as he tipped her face up to his. His gaze shifted to her lips and she unconsciously moistened them, eliciting a barely audible moan from deep inside his core.
He dipped his head down with such excruciating slowness she feared she would explode from sheer anticipation, but when Jimmy’s lips finally touched hers, the explosion she felt was far from death. It was orgasmic in its release. If she could climb inside and surround herself in him, she would have, and she tried. Time stood still as his tongue stroked and explored her mouth, sending heady, liquid waves of pleasure roaring through her body.
Oh God, how she’d missed his taste.
With hooded eyes, he lifted her slightly and whisked her off the dance floor, out the back door of the bar, into the chilly night air. In one quick movement, he slammed her against the rough bricks of the building and kissed her so completely and deeply she thought she would melt into a puddle and float away.
Unable to resist the silky heat of his skin any longer, she pushed her hands into the jacket of his tux and ripped up the tail of his dress shirt, untucking it from his slacks. As her hands dug into his skin and skimmed up his back, his breath caught, and he paused to savor her touch.
“I’ve missed you, Ky,” he whispered out on a thick, pained moan. His mouth raked down her neck, his teeth biting her tender skin as his hands gripped her hips and pulled her tight against him.
Losing her mind from her intense desire, she moved her hands to the front of his pants and struggled with the clasp. She wanted to feel him inside her—she needed him inside her—the need so painful she would stop at nothing until he was buried hot and deep and pounding hard.
His hands gripped hers, clamping tight, stopping the frenzy.
“Slow down,” he whispered rough in her ear. “Let me take you home.”
He released her hands and pulled her into him, threading his fingers through her hair. He ravaged her mouth with another penetrating kiss and trailed down her neck and across her bare shoulders, sending shivers of want through her body. His blatant need pulsed against her through the fabric of his pants. She longed to ease both of their suffering, but he stopped her as she reached for him again.
The physical aching too painful to bear, she took his ear lobe into her mouth, sucking hard, begging him to do what she wanted. “Jimmy.”
His name was the only word she ever needed to say.
He groaned hot as he lifted the skirt of her dress in one, swift movement, and skimmed his hand along the waistband of her panties, kneading the flesh on her hip as she kissed her way back to his mouth. She lifted onto her tiptoes, inviting him to do what she longed for, begging him with a deep moan as she dug her fingers into his neck and kissed him greedily.
“Ky,” he groaned in agony as every muscle in his body tightened into a hard knot of restraint.
His rough fingers and one touch would be all she’d needed to dive completely into insanity, to allow animal cravings and desires take over. It was too much, too fast, and she turned her face to steal a moment’s breath before she lost all control.
She placed a firm hand against his chest, whispered his name from deep inside her heart. A string of whispered curses followed; his or hers, she did not know.
Gradually, he pulled away from her. When his body no longer pressed into hers, the cold night air whipped around her, bringing a chill to her skin, clarity to her mind.
They stood with life on pause, not saying anything as their breathing slowed and their eyes read the other’s confusion, their embarrassment, both unsure who should move first.
She shivered. He suggested they go inside.
With a nod, she reached to brush a smudge of her lipstick from his mouth. He held her hand to his lips, kissing her palm, his eyes locked into hers.
“Jimmy…” she started but didn’t know what more to say.
The silence between them became more pronounced, more uncomfortable. He kissed her palm again, closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Ky.”
When he opened his eyes, the blue of his irises stormed dark in pain and lust. Blame mixed with remorse. For one quick moment, despite the chill of the night, it felt as though they were back in the heat of summer, standing in her kitchen once again. She jerked her hand away from his grasp.
The pain, the rage, set fire to the wanting, burning her inside out.
“Don’t do this again.” He moved so fast she didn’t have a chance to run. His hands dug into her upper arms as he spun them around, using his body to block her escape. “Don’t fucking leave me again.”
“Don’t you dare put this on me!” With everything she had, she shoved into his chest, forcing him to let her go.
She was stupid when it came to Jimmy, stupid when she was around Jimmy, and it pissed her off.
She would not fall for him again. She would not do that to Brayden. She had to protect him at all costs. She had to protect herself.
“I love you, Ky.”
He was crying.
But so was she. Angrily brushing away her tears, she left him standing in the alley and went back inside.
She pushed her way across the dance floor looking for Nessa, who was hard to miss with her round body pressed into Chief’s sturdy frame. He stood head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd, the disco lights bouncing off his bald head, guiding her to Nessa like a beacon in the night.
Kylie choked on the anger burning her throat as she grabbed Nessa’s arm and yanked her away from Chief, more forcibly than she intended.
“What the—” Nessa gasped in horror when her eyes landed on Kylie. “Holy heck, Ky! What happened to you?”
“Nothing, I just… I want… I’m not feeling well, at all,” Kylie lied, trying to keep her voice even as her insides screamed. “I need to go home, but I was worried about getting you back to Mom’s.”
“What?” Nessa asked in confusion. “But Kylie, you look…”
“It’s nothing, Nessa. I swear. I just don’t feel good,” Kylie assured her.
“Well okay, but…” Nessa’s eyes slipped up to Chief, warming instantly at the sight of him.
“I’d be happy to make sure Nessa gets home safe,” Chief offered, smiling down at Nessa.
Kylie looked at the two of them gazing into each other’s eyes and her stomach lurched violently. Turning away from Nessa and her Norse God, she frantically scanned the room for Brayden, so she could leave. Before she could find him, Brent caught her eye. He was on her in an instant, grabbing her arm before she could escape the dance floor.
“What happened?” he asked, scanning the room for Jimmy.
“I messed up and forgot my head for a minute, but now it’s back on straight and I’m ready to go home,” Kylie answered in a rush. “Now, please, let me go.”
“Where’s my brother?”
“I don’t—” Panic stole her voice. She struggled to free her arm from his grasp. If she didn’t run, she would lose it in front of everyone.
“Hey…” He pulled her closer, forcing her to face him.
“Brent,” she protested and tried to look away, but she couldn’t. Looking into his eyes felt like falling into a well of revelation. He let go of her arms and cupped her face in his hands, stroking her cheek with his thumb.
“What did he do, Ky?”
The tenderness in his voice was the final assault. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks in a flood, and she lost it. Heavy, aching sobs burst from her chest as Brent wrapped her up in his arms. Gently rocking her, he danced her in a slow circle. He stroked her hair and whispered question after question in her ear, but his words got lost, drowned out by her sorrow as she clung to him.
Aria came up behind her and rubbed her back, silently communicating to Brent to let her take over. As soon as he let go, Kylie fell into her arms.
“Shh. It’ll be ok.” As Aria held on tight, a calming wave of vanilla and lavender washed over Kylie, slowing her tears.
“I can’t do this, Aria,” Kylie whispered into Aria’s neck. “I can’t get messed up in him again. I was doing good in California. I could almost forget him for days at a time. Why did you make me come back?”
“Because you need to talk to him, Ky. Talk for real. And you need to listen.”
“Why should I listen? Just so I can hear all over again how he loves me but screwed around on me anyway, just like he did to my sister? That’s not love, Aria. It’s sick and twisted and I don’t want to live like that again. I can’t live like that.”
“I know,” Aria agreed. “But you still need to talk to him, even if it’s just to say good-bye. What you’re feeling right now isn’t healthy. You’ve got to get it all out. Tell him exactly how you feel. Don’t just run like you did before.”
“I can’t talk to him. I can’t look at him. I can’t think about him. If I’m close to him I lose my mind because he’s just so goddamned addictive,” Kylie cried. “Why does he do this to me?”
“Because what you have with him is real,” Aria answered. “That’s why it feels so good when you’re together and hurts so bad when you’re not. You two are connected on an eternal level.”
“If we’re so goddamn perfect for each other, then why is he always fucking someone else?” Kylie demanded, pulling out of Aria’s arms.
The couple dancing near them glanced over and Kylie blushed in horror over what she’d said. She rushed off the dance floor, running headlong into Dan. He grabbed her arms to keep her from losing her balance, but she only felt trapped.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he soothed, holding her tighter as she struggled to free herself from his grasp.
“How could you do this to me?” she demanded.
“What did I do?”
“You know goddamn well what you did! You and Stacy both! There was no reason to push us together like that again! You could have had Brent as your best man! Or Stacy could have picked Aria. It didn’t have to be me! Just butt out of my life for once. It didn’t work the last time you guys pushed us together, and it’s not going to work now!”
“You’re right. I’m sor—”
“Why did he do it? You were there. You have to tell me why.”
“I wasn’t there,” Dan denied. “But I know he didn’t—”
“He didn’t even fight for us. He just gave up. He never loved me at all, did he?”
Dan released her hands in sudden frustration, practically shoving her away. “He has always loved you, Kylie. He’s been fighting for you for so goddamn long you don’t even remember when he started.”
His devotion was with Jimmy, not her, his posture making that abundantly clear.
“What he did is not love.” She brushed past him, blindly wandering through the crowd until she found her mother and Brayden. He sat on her lap, licking a smudge of icing off his fingers, as he stabbed at his slice of cake with a plastic spoon.
“Are you ready to go home?” Martha asked, her voice gentler than it had been all day.
“Yeah,” Kylie whispered through her tears. She lifted Brayden into her arms. His weight heavy, he solidly anchored her. He was the only person in the world who mattered, the only person who would ever matter, and she cradled him to her heart, keeping him safe as they walked out into the cold night air.