“Up you go, Little Man.” Jimmy lifted Brayden high above his head, eliciting a squeal of joy from the boy before he gently lowered him into his bed. “Did you have fun today?”
Nodding, Brayden yawned and exhaled an exhausted, “Uh huh.”
He was fresh from his bath, his hair still damp, his cheeks rosy. As Jimmy leaned in to kiss him goodnight, he caught the light watermelon scent of his shampoo, the hint of mint and sweet bubble-gum from his toothpaste. Still, Jimmy could smell the sun and ocean from their afternoon spent playing on the beach. It had been one of the best days of his life, one neither he nor Brayden had wanted to end, but as he watched his son’s struggle to keep his heavy eyes open, Jimmy conceded it had.
Brayden rolled onto his side, curling his body around Jimmy where he sat on the edge of the bed. “Jimmy, you sleep wiff me tonight?”
“I can’t tonight, Buddy, but maybe next time I come you can spend the night with me. We’ll camp right on the beach and sleep outside under the stars. How does that sound?”
“’Morrow?” Brayden asked, his eyes bright with hope.
“Not tomorrow, but very soon. I’ll call you every night until then, so we can count down the days together.”
“Oh tay.” As Brayden let out a sigh of disappointment, Jimmy saw a shadow of the memory of all the time they had missed out on reflecting in his tired eyes.
Jimmy rubbed his hand around Brayden’s back, slow and soothing to help settle him into sleep. “A story or a song tonight?”
Brayden hitched a shoulder, picked at Boo Bear’s stitching as he thought it over. Finally, he decided. “Song.”
Jimmy smiled. It had been a long time since he had asked for James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” The song was as much a part of Jimmy as the color of his eyes. It was the song Jimmy’s mother had lulled him to sleep with every night of his childhood. After Brent had been born, she’d changed the lyrics to “Sweet Brent and James,” but he had always considered the song his alone. He would lie in the top bunk of their bunk bed, watching through heavy eyelids as the branches of the silver maple danced in the wind outside his bedroom window, and listen to his mother’s soft, melodic voice.
Like all little boys do, he had told his mother he was too old for lullabies long before he truly wanted her to stop. He had been five-years-old at the time, practically on the verge of manhood. She had agreed, but then stated that since she would still be singing to Brent, and the song wouldn’t sound right without his name in it, he would have to cover his ears, so he didn’t accidentally hear it. Jimmy never did cover his ears. He listened to her sing his song every single night until he was eight and Brent was six, grateful for those three extra years.
Jimmy stayed by Brayden’s side long after he fell asleep. He knew he needed to leave, but he stole another few precious moments with his son before he did. The blonde haired, blue-eyed ray of sunshine was his heart. His home. It was where he belonged, where he intended to live for the rest of his life. Even if he could only do so a few weekends a year.
When he finally pulled himself away, he found Kylie in the living room, still wearing her uniform from the diner. She sat folding a basket of laundry, silently fuming, waiting for him.
“Is he asleep?” she asked.
He nodded in answer, then followed up with a verbal affirmation when he noticed her gaze avoided his, her attention stoically trained on the tiny pair of Levis in her hand.
“Good. You can go now.”
“I am,” Jimmy said, his voice strained as he kept his emotions in check. “My flight leaves in an hour.”
She said nothing in reply. For the briefest of moments, he allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy of loosening Kylie’s thick hair from the ponytail she held it trapped in, taking her in his arms and kissing her until she forgot her anger, her worries, her doubts, and could think only of making love to him.
Pushing the desire aside, he grabbed his jacket from the hook by the door and shrugged it on. “I’ll be back next weekend. We can figure out a more permanent visitation schedule then.”
“Excuse me?” she asked, her voice an angry sputter. She wrapped the toddler-sized pair of jeans into a ball, slammed them into the laundry basket. “We’re doing what now?”
Jimmy pulled a folded check from him pocket and tossed it onto the coffee table in front of her. “That’s for daycare, doctors, food, clothes, toys; whatever Brayden needs for the next six months. If it’s not enough, let me know and I’ll send more.”
Her face flushed in prideful anger, but he cut off her impending lecture.
“I am not nothing to him, Ky,” he said, throwing her hateful words back at her. “I am his father. He is my son. No matter how you and I feel about each other, that is never going to change. I’ll be back next Saturday morning at ten. Dress him for a day on the beach.”
He turned and walked out the door, escaping before she had a chance to say no.
* * *
The moment the door closed behind him, Kylie shoved the laundry basket off the sofa, buried her face in her hands, but the tears she had been fighting refused to fall. Too many other emotions competed for the focus of her attention; anger, lust, pride, confusion, a twisted vine of despair binding them all together in a heavy knot that choked her of clean oxygen and clear thought.
She didn’t have to pick up the check he’d left to know how heavy the zeros on it weighed. Her pride screamed for her to rip it to shreds, but the memory of her mother’s voice stopped her hands from doing so.
“He wants to help you. Let him do it…”
But what about what she wanted? Did that matter, at all?
How dare Jimmy barge into her life, state his demands, and then walk right back out again, as though her opinion didn’t matter. As though her needs were of no consequence?
Furious, she jumped up from the sofa and jerked open the door.
“Hey!” She shouted into the night, hollering out once again when she caught sight of his retreating frame. “Jimmy!”
Leaving the door open so she could listen for Brayden, she ran, capturing his arm before he could disappear around the corner of the courtyard.
“Ky—” Jimmy started to protest, but she silenced him with a shove against his chest.
“How dare you walk back into my life, with no warning, steal away my son, dictate my time, and then walk right back out again, without my consent!?”
“I’m not—” he tried, but she shoved him again.
“What about what I want, Jimmy?” She shoved him once more, forcing his back against the courtyard wall. “Do you even care about that?”
“Of course, I care,” he started to say, but silenced himself.
She stepped in close. He shrank away. She stepped closer yet, placing her hands on either side of him, trapping him against the wall.
Cautiously, he resigned, “Tell me what you want, Ky.”
She leaned into him, until the air she breathed no longer carried the slight hint of fragrance from the camellia-filled courtyard, but only the heady masculine scent of leather from his jacket, barbeque and lime from his dinner, the woodsy notes of his soap. Mixed in with those delicious notes, she caught a slight undertone of fear. That fear emboldened her.
“I want you,” she said, her lips a breath from his. “That is, if you want me, too.”
“Of course, I want you.” His reply came fast, his voice thick, husky, his body temperature rising. “You are all I’ve ever wanted.”
“We did everything wrong last time.”
“I know.” He agreed too easily. He wasn’t listening.
“No.” She pushed against him.
Confused, he reached for her. “Ky?”
“I don’t want what we had before, Jimmy. It was forced and it was chaotic, like we rushed into something neither one of us was ready for. I want to slow it down this time. Do it right. I want to take my time with you. I want to…” She struggled to find the right words to describe what she imagined, finally settling on the obvious. “I want to date you.”
“You want to do what?” he asked. Kylie watched as silent confusion slowly brightened into a mischievous twinkle in Jimmy’s eyes. “Are you sure about this?”
Stepping close to him again, she allowed her body to relax against his, in the familiar way she’d been missing.
“I want to lie in bed at night, alone, and anticipate seeing you in in the daytime. I want to talk for hours over the phone, and then sit in comfortable silence across the table from you in a restaurant. I want to hide in the back row of a dark movie theater with you, not touching, but wanting to. I want to lie beside you on the beach at night, gaze at stars, and imagine what our future could be like. I want to take the time to figure myself out while I get to know the real James William Rogan, Jr. To truly know you.”
“You know me, Ky.”
“But I don’t. That’s our problem.” She took a step back. “I know who I imagined you to be. I know the role I assigned to you long before I ever met you. I know I was wrong about a lot of it, and I’ve learned some of the secrets you keep, but I still don’t know you. And you don’t know me.”
He didn’t argue. She could feel his posture relax, as though in agreement.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “For everything.”
She nodded, whispered, “Me, too.”
They stood silent in the courtyard, slowing it down, their bodies close, their breath mingled, her hand over his heart as it beat solid against his chest, reminding her of the one thing she had known for certain from the moment she had first laid eyes upon him in her mother’s backyard: Their love for each other was true.
The rest, they had a lifetime to figure out. Together.