With a guttural cry of exhausted victory, Ashley powered through her final rep of inverted crunches. Her muscles screamed, her pulse pounded, her lungs burned, desperate to catch a cooling, deep breath. Rolling back, she allowed her body a moment of suspended relaxation before she continued her brutal punishment outside, with burpees and weighted squats.
She punished herself for being weak, for losing control, for calling her sister when her emotions were high. She’d acted on impulse after seeing the wedding photos, driven by old jealousies and rage. She hated herself for still caring, still reacting.
She’d thought she was past the anger and the heartache, past the deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and exclusion. Maybe she never would be.
Or, maybe, the feelings of inadequacy were brand new, trepidation over things unknown, life unknown. Destination, unknown.
She had her first assignment. Germany. She could have gone to Texas or Georgia, Washington or Virginia, but she’d felt brave that day and had chosen Landstuhl.
She didn’t feel brave anymore.
Instead, she felt scared and alone, forgotten about by family and friends. Left behind. She felt like the old Ashley, the one she’d worked so hard to dispose of, and she hated herself for it.
With a grunt of anger, frustration, she suffered one more crunch of her abs to reach the foot brace, dismounted the bar, and headed outside to sprint the hill. Up and then down, she ran, scaling the rocky earth, over, and over again, until she sweat out every last, bitter drop of insecurity into the cold, morning sunshine.
Jimmy checked the time on his cellphone as he headed for his truck to grab another load of tiles for the Polinski’s kitchen. Forty minutes had passed since he’d last checked, and he let out a grunt of frustration, cursing the racing clock and the slow-moving job. There was no worse feeling in the world than knowing Brayden was sick and he couldn’t be there to take care of him.
A car horn honked behind him, and Jimmy turned, watching as Brent’s truck pulled up along the curb.
“I thought you were working the office today,” Jimmy called out.
“Eh, I got bored, staring at the walls.” Brent slammed the truck door and walked up the driveway. “I’ve got a break between interviews. Thought I’d get some air.”
“How are they going?”
Brent smiled a smile Jimmy knew all too well.
“What?” Brent asked, innocent.
“Boobs don’t equal brains.”
“Boobs don’t delete brains,” Brent countered.
“Haven’t seen any good ones today, anyway. You want some help here?”
“Nah, I got it. Should have it done by the end of the week like I promised. I got an early start on it this morning since they’re out of town.”
“How early?” Brent asked with a raise of an eyebrow.
Jimmy shrugged. “Three-thirty, four. Somethin’ like that.”
“What the hell, Jim?”
“Nita’s hosting card club Friday night, remember? She can’t host card club with her kitchen in shambles,” Jimmy said, quoting Nita, unable to hide a fond smile.
Nita and Bill Polinski were Jimmy’s favorite customers, and his best. They had been since long before it was Rogan-Handley Construction. Before it was Rogan and Sons, even. They’d been faithful customers since the very beginning, back when it was just James Rogan, a young guy with a new bride, doing odd jobs on the side, just trying to survive.
Now in their eighties, Nita and Bill spent most of their time traveling the world. Wherever they went, Nita became enthralled by the local architecture. She came home overflowing with remodeling ideas. Jimmy had personally remodeled her kitchen three times before, once Americana, once Dutch-inspired, and his least favorite, Feng Shui.
This time, she had decided on a Moroccan flavor. Dan had gone all out on the design, using her photos and pieces of pottery for inspiration. It was the best remodel yet, Jimmy’s favorite by far, and Nita was excited to show it off to her bridge club.
Brent frowned, his concern evident. “You should be spending time with Kylie while she’s here, not working all the time.”
“I talked to her a little when I got home last night, and I left a message with her friend that I’d stop by tonight. Brayden’s sick.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Brent asked.
“I don’t know. Throwing up.”
Brent took a step back. “Gross.”
“Better get used to it. Babies puke all the time.”
“Yeah, but I figured I’d leave all the ‘p’ problems for Aria. You know, like puke, poop, pee.”
“Good luck with that.”
“Yeah.” Brent shuffled his feet and looked uncomfortable, scratching at the stubble along his jaw. “Hey, Jim?”
“It’s just, Aria…”
“I don’t know… You know how she gets…”
While he waited for his brother to spit out whatever it was he wanted to say, Jimmy pulled out boxes of tiles from the bed of his truck and stacked them on the tailgate. Just as he lifted the heavy stack, Brent let out a sigh, reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a photo.
He kept his eyes focused on the picture as he said, “Aria wanted me to sneak into your house and stick this on your fridge, kinda like we did to Dan that time he was being an idiot about Stace, but your situation is a lot different, and I didn’t want to piss you off, so I’m just giving it to you and you can do what you want with it, but if Aria asks, you found it on your fridge, okay?”
Brent held out the glossy photo. Apprehensively, Jimmy set the tiles on the tailgate to relieve his brother of his burden.
He expected the picture to be one of him and Kylie kissing, similar to the one Aria had used against Dan and Stacy when they had been fighting their feelings for each other the previous winter. He was not prepared for the picture Brent handed him. The moment he laid eyes on it, the earth shifted hard left, and he had to fight to keep his balance.
The picture was from the wedding ceremony, of the exact moment Brayden had landed in his arms. Jimmy’s emotions were on vivid display as they’d ripped through his body, deeply etched into the expression on his face. He’d expected that. What he didn’t expect was evidence of the same confliction on Brayden’s face—joy, fear, pain, heartache, longing—masked by smiles and showered in tears. Brayden was too young to have to suffer through that kind of emotional turmoil.
“Jim?” Brent asked, squeezing Jimmy’s shoulder tight.
“Don’t,” Jimmy warned, his voice harsh, forced, as he stared at the damage he had caused.
“Just go,” Jimmy hissed out a whispered curse as he shrugged off his brother’s hand.
Shoving the picture deep into his back pocket, he strode toward the house. For the rest of the afternoon, he buried himself heavily in work, exhausting his body in effort to silence his mind.