Chapter 113 ~ Sweet Unknown

Sweet UnknownJust before sunrise, Jimmy arrived the construction office and parked facing west. Slowly, the sun lifted above the horizon. Its light reflected in his rear-view mirrors, warming the brisk chill of the morning. Jimmy remained in the driver’s seat, frozen, unable to open the door and go inside. For the first time in his life, his body had nothing left to give.

He reversed out of the parking lot and drove around town, trying to settle his mind, but his thoughts kept returning to Brayden. He wanted to drop by and see how the boy was feeling, check if the color had returned to his cheeks. He wanted to smell Brayden’s breath to ensure his fever had broken. He wanted to kick back and spend the entire day listening to Brayden’s silly stories, hear his belly laugh.

Most of all, he wanted a redo of the night before. If he could do it all over again, he would hold Ky in his arms, feel her heart beat against his as they watched Brayden sleep. He wouldn’t kiss her, and he wouldn’t ask any questions. He wouldn’t force her to decide. He’d just hold her, just love her, revel in his ignorance and leave the future unasked.

His truck had been pointed toward home, but along the way it had wandered. He’d ended up at Chelsea Lake, instead. When Dan answered the door, he looked surprised to see Jimmy, but he stepped aside and offered a cup of coffee.

“How’s Emily?” Jimmy asked as Dan poured.

“Perfect.” He waved Jimmy over to the table and they sat across from each other. “She woke up a few times last night, but Stace got her back to sleep fairly quickly.”

“How’s Stacy feeling?”

“She’s fine.”

Jimmy nodded and took a sip of his coffee. Dan had brewed it weaker than he liked it, but the caffeine helped. Dan eyed him and waited patiently for him to say what was really on his mind. Jimmy opened his mouth to say it, but he chickened out.

“Brent’s got a few more interviews today. I looked over the applications last night and they all look pretty good.”

“Is that what you came here to tell me?”

“No.” Jimmy looked down into his coffee and tried to find the right words. “Ky officially told me she doesn’t want to get back together.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah.”

“I really thought you guys might have another shot, now that you’ve told her everything.”

Jimmy shook his head.

“You didn’t tell her, did you?”

“I can’t.”

“Don’t you think she deserves to know?”

“It’s not going to change anything.”

“Maybe not…” Dan sighed. “What about Brayden?”

“I don’t plan on giving her a choice where Brayden is concerned.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, she’s not going to shut me out of his life anymore. He’s my son, Dan.”

“Are you going to follow them back to California?”

“Yeah, I am,” he answered without hesitation. “It’s what I should’ve done all along.”

Dan pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly, thinking. “You don’t have any legal rights to Brayden.”

“I know.”

“If this is going to work, you’re going to have to win her trust. And you’re going to have to let go of how you feel about her.”

“I know.” Jimmy fidgeted with his coffee mug. “I’m just not looking forward to the day she meets someone else. I’ll be shut out of Brayden’s life so fast…”

“Not necessarily,” Dan said, but his expression said otherwise. Jimmy knew he had only a few more years, at most, as Brayden’s father, and Dan’s eyes confirmed it.

“I’m going to take what I can get.” He stood to leave, but Dan stopped him.

“If you want to go up and see Emily, you can. Stace is sleeping, but you won’t wake her.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. Go hold my baby for a while, clear your head. That’s why you came here in the first place, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy admitted. It was.

The very first time Jimmy had held Brayden in his arms, an unexpected sense of euphoria had consumed him, the power of that moment unforgettable in the way it had altered his entire sense of self. It wasn’t about holding a baby. He’d held a few over the years, those of both family and friends, and he had never felt anything other than uncomfortable and clumsy. It was Kylie herself that had made the difference holding Brayden. She had been an integral part of the experience. The combination of Brayden and Kylie together always made him feel as though he were invincible. Without them uplifting him, he was merely human.

Upstairs, Jimmy knocked softly on the bedroom door before he stepped inside. Stacy lay in bed, curled onto her side with her back to the door, but as Jimmy got a few steps into the room he realized she was awake, watching over Emily as she slept cradled in her arms.

“Hey, stranger,” she whispered. She reached for him as he approached, and he took her hand. She looked even more tired than he felt, but her exhaustion came from lack of sleep. His came from loss of hope. “What finally convinced you to take a day off work?”

“I had to see you, Beautiful.”

“Aw, you’re sweet, but you don’t have to lie. I know I’ve been upstaged.”

“Never, Stace.” He leaned in and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “You smell sweeter than usual today.”

Stacy smiled. “Dan said the same thing.”

“Maybe all those chili dogs finally flushed out of your system.”

She smiled again, her eyes closing in a blink that lasted longer than normal, the effort she made to re-open them apparent. He brushed her hair from her face and tucked a stray curl behind her ear, and she closed her eyes again. Without opening them, she asked, “You want to hold my baby?”

“She looks pretty comfortable where she is.”

“She won’t mind.”

Unable to resist any longer, he carefully slipped one hand under Emily’s body and the other under her head to support her delicate neck. Her body jerked in a newborn startle reflex, but she quickly settled into his arms. It had been a long time since he had held a baby so small, and he was amazed yet again how incredibly weightless they seemed. Her mouth opened in a wide ‘O’ as she yawned, her breath scented with breast milk and that sweet unknown newborn breath always carried. He couldn’t define it, but he had always imagined it came from Creation itself.

“God, she’s beautiful, Stace,” Jimmy whispered in awe, but Stacy didn’t answer. She had already fallen asleep.

He carried Emily over to the rocker under the windows and sat with her, gently rocking and humming a song that he made up as he went along. Her face was still a little squished and red from the violence of birth, but he could see how beautiful she would become. She was Stacy in miniature—small, feisty, curly-haired and gorgeous.

She opened her eyes in a little squint and looked straight at him with a puzzled expression, but she didn’t cry. They simply gazed upon each other, making introductions and feeling each other out. And as easy as that, Jimmy fell in love.

A soft knock fell upon the door. His breath caught as Kylie walked into the room. Dressed in a snug t-shirt that didn’t quite reach the waistband of the low-slung jeans that hugged her hips, he could see a flash of her silky skin. He longed to reach out and run his finger along her tight abs. Her hair was done up in a loose knot that threatened to come undone and she hadn’t bothered with make-up. She was natural beauty, as always, and he ached for her.

“How’s Brayden?” he whispered, careful to keep his voice low as to not wake Stacy.

Unaware he was in the room, Kylie startled at the sound of his voice. Her cheeks flushed pink as she inhaled, pausing before answering, “Good. Better, thank you… for last night.”

“Anytime, Ky.”

“I didn’t realize you were here, I’m sorry…” she faltered. “I just assumed that was Dan’s company truck parked outside.”

“No, it’s mine.”

“Oh… I thought yours had a dent on the fender.”

“It did. I got it fixed.”

“You guys should write your names on the doors, so you can tell them apart.”

Jimmy smiled. “I’ll bring it up at the next board meeting.”

She stood in the doorway, hesitant to come inside. When she finally started moving, he kept his eyes on her as she crossed the room toward him. The closer she came, the faster his heart beat, and the pinker her cheeks flushed. She stayed back, keeping space between them, but when Emily kicked, and her mouth suckled as though nursing, Kylie closed the distance in an instant.

“Aw, she’s awake. She was being so quiet I never would’ve guessed.”

As she leaned in to look at Emily, she placed one hand lightly on the back of the rocker he was sitting in. When her arm brushed across his shoulder, the pounding in his chest became so painful he could have cried.

“We’re just sitting here bullshittin’ with each other,” he said, forcing his voice to sound as casual as possible. “She thinks her dad’s got a big nose.”

“She does not.” Kylie smiled. “You’re mean.”

“I’m just repeating what she told me.”

Kylie moved in even closer, squatting down so she could see Emily better. “I can’t imagine Brayden ever being this tiny, but I guess he was, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, he was,” Jimmy whispered, remembering. The pain in his chest intensified.

“She looks just like a little Stacy.”

“You want to hold her?” Jimmy asked. She was so close to him he could smell her shampoo. It took everything he had not to reach up and untie her hair.

“I better not. I might be carrying Brayden’s germs. I probably shouldn’t have come at all, but I needed a baby fix.” She straightened up and tilted her head slightly. “I’m surprised you’re not working.”

Jimmy shrugged. “I felt like taking a day off.”

“You? Take a day off?”

“I put in some long hours at the Polinski’s. I’m kinda beat.”

“Ah… What theme did Nita go with this time?” Kylie asked.

“Moroccan.”

“What room?”

“Kitchen.”

“I bet that looks interesting with her Dutch dining room.”

“She ditched the Dutch a while ago. She got tired of dusting the wooden shoes.”

“Did you ask her to pay you in kolaches again?” Kylie teased, and Jimmy smiled.

“Who, me?” Jimmy asked, feigning innocence.

“You’re a kolache whore.” She let out a soft laugh as she ran a light hand around Emily’s down-covered head. “What are you doing with the rest of your day off?”

“I don’t know for sure. I hadn’t thought past this.”

“I see,” Kylie nodded. They fell into a comfortable silence.

Jimmy wished, for just one moment, that the baby in his arms was his and Ky’s, that the morning was theirs to create.

“What were you going to show me?” Kylie asked.

“What?”

“Yesterday, when you called, you said you had something to show me.”

“Oh… yeah…” Now that he knew they would never be together, the idea of showing her the house he’d bought for her felt pathetic. But he still wanted her to see it.

“Did you forget?” Kylie asked.

“I didn’t forget.”

“Can I see it?”

“No.”

Visibly disappointed, she paused before asking, “Why not?”

“Because I don’t have it with me. It’s too big to fit in my pocket,” he teased.

“You’re an ass.” She smiled. “Then where’s this ‘something’ at?”

“My place.”

“Oh…” Uncertainty marred her face. “I don’t know…”

“Please. Ky.”

“Alright… Do you want to go now, or should I meet you at your apartment later?”

“I’m not living at the apartment anymore.”

“You moved?” she asked in surprise.

“Yeah…” He looked down at Emily as though she could give him courage. “I bought a place.”

“The Malek place?”

“Yeah,” he answered, surprised she remembered. He had mentioned his dream for the house to her only one time before, in passing, when they had been driving around on the gravel roads late one night after her shift at Captain Jack’s. That night had happened long before they had started dating, and they had never discussed it again. He never imagined she would have held on to that.

“When did you buy it?”

“September.”

“Oh… I see,” she replied softly, her eyes adverted from his gaze. She leaned in, brushed her hand along Emily’s soft hair again. “She’s a beautiful baby, isn’t she?”

“Gorgeous.”

“Time goes so fast… seems like just yesterday you were rocking Brayden like that…” Kylie cleared her throat. Quickly, she straightened, turning her back to him as she walked to the door. “Well, let’s go do this thing of yours. I need to get home and check on my son.”

“You want me to give you a ride there? It’s not far, just on the other side of the section.”

“No, I’ll follow you.” She disappeared from the room so fast he never saw her leave; he just blinked, and she was gone.

Carefully, Jimmy laid Emily in her bassinette and tucked her receiving blanket around her. His hand lingered for a moment before he let her go, and then he paused to place a soft kiss on Stacy’s cheek. Her eyes remained closed, but she touched his hand to stop him from leaving.

“She’s still in love with you,” she whispered.

“I know,” he whispered back.

“Don’t let her leave again.”

“She has to want to stay.”

He kissed her again and hurried to catch up to Ky.

 

Chapter 112 ~ New Dawn

NewDawnKylie wiped the shower steam from the mirror and leaned in to apply moisturizer to her face. She paused, contemplated her reflection. Lingering exhaustion from her long night with Brayden added to the stress she had been wearing like a mask for the past few months. The loneliness, the anger, had deepened her worry lines, stripped her hair of shine, dulled the brown of her eyes. Some days, she didn’t recognize her reflection at all. She only gazed in sorrow at the faded woman in the mirror.

Nessa had said losing love was like losing your reflection, but Kylie wondered if she had ever truly known the girl mirroring her in the glass. Had she ever admired her strengths? Accepted her weaknesses?

Had she ever felt brave enough to lose control? To lose her heart?

Had she ever dared to close her eyes and fall?

Had she ever trusted someone would catch her?

Had she ever trusted in anyone, for anything, at all?

“Once upon a time…” six-year-old Kylie whispered through the mirror.

“‘Happily, ever-after’ only exists in fairy tales,” twenty-six-year-old Kylie replied.

The child in her laughed and shook her head in denial, but the vibrant innocence of her smile quickly faded, her eyes saddened by the reality of life as she aged. She brought her hand to her face, wiped away the silent tears, the haze of exhaustion from her eyes.

“Stupid girl,” Kylie chastised in whisper. Quickly, she fastened her still damp hair into a hasty knot, skipped the makeup, and escaped the steamy bathroom before the last, weak strand of her sanity snapped.

In stark contrast, the kitchen welcomed her with warm, bright light and the robust aroma of freshly brewed coffee. She sighed in gratitude when her mother poured her a generous mug. “Good morning.”

“Are you hungry?” Martha asked. “I could whip up some scrambled eggs.”

Kylie sweetened her coffee with a splash of cream. “Maybe later.”

“Are you feeling okay?” Martha’s face softened in familiar concern. “You aren’t catching Brayden’s bug are you?”

“I’m fine,” Kylie assured her, though she felt far from it.

Sipping her coffee, Kylie looked out into the back yard as she awaited the first jolt of caffeine to hit her blood stream. A fresh dusting of snow covered the picnic table in the corner of the yard. Wrens hopped over and under the weathered wood, inviting her to watch them play, but Kylie looked beyond the winter morning, into her memories of a late summer evening when the temperature had been pushing a hundred degrees.

That first sighting of Jimmy, sitting there at the picnic table in her mother’s backyard, had flamed her body to a temperature scorching high above the summer air, but the heat of that glance was nothing compared to the fire his touch had driven her body to on those hot summer nights, over and over again.

She missed his touch.

She missed his voice.

She missed his heart.

He had offered to give it all back, promising to catch her if she fell.

Would he catch her this time? Would she ever actually let go?

Martha pressed her cool hand to Kylie’s burning cheeks, flushing hot from her memories.  “Are you sure you’re not coming down with something? You look feverish.”

“I’m fine,” Kylie lied, once again.

When she turned away from the window, the torment in her mother’s eyes had her reaching out to return the comforting touch.

“What’s wrong, Mom?”

Martha held Kylie’s hand to her cheek. “I’m sorry, baby.”

“For what?”

“For letting you believe a lie for so long.”

Kylie pulled her hand away. “What lie?”

“About Charlie.”

“What about Charlie?”

“Charlie came back.”

“No.” With a slow shake of her head, Kylie asked in disbelief, “When?”

“Quite a few times, actually. In the beginning.” Martha turned her back on Kylie and pulled a loaf of bread from the box on the counter. As though biding her time, Martha untied the bag, removed two slices of bread, and placed them in the toaster.

Kylie didn’t know what to think, how to feel, what to ask, so she waited.

When Martha finally spoke, she started her explanation from the very beginning.

“You were too young to remember, but you were with me the day I met Charlie. It was so hot that day—had been hot all week—and you were fussing something terrible from teething and a diaper rash that had rubbed your poor bum raw. I had a killer headache, the air conditioner had quit working in the car, rent was due by the end of the week, and my hours had been cut at work, again.” Martha let out a laugh and confessed, “I had fourteen dollars to my name, and I was about to spend most of it on diaper rash cream and extra-strength Tylenol. What I really wanted to do was spend every last penny on an hour of babysitting and the biggest margarita I could find.”

Feeling as though she should apologize, Kylie smiled. “I’ve had days like that.”

“I stood in this endless line at the checkout, juggling you and the butt cream, and you were screaming bloody murder in my ear. That margarita was sounding better and better by the second, and I was two heartbeats away from escaping it all when Charlie came up behind me in line.”

Martha’s gaze pulled inward as she slipped deeper into her memory.

“He was tall and dark, with these deep green eyes that twinkled in mischievous amusement as he approached. Speaking directly to you, he held up the box of condoms in his hand, and said, ‘Thanks for reminding me to pick these up, mi hija.’ What he said made me so mad, yet made me laugh so hard at the same time. And when he winked, I was done for. Without asking permission, he scooped you into his arms and held you high. You fell silent mid-cry, your eyes wide in wonder as you stared at him. He smiled that smile of his, you reached out and placed your tiny hand on his lips, and I swear in that instant he fell so hard in love with you I could hear the crash.”

The toaster popped. Martha pulled out the warm toast and started the next two slices.

As she buttered the crusty bread, she said, “I loved that man like I will never love again. I know he loved me just the same, but he had feet made for wandering. He would disappear for days or weeks at a time without as much as a goodbye, and when he came home, we would fight, and we would love, and he would promise me the stars, and then he would leave again and take my heart right along with him. It took me a few years, but I finally opened my eyes and realized he was taking yours, too. The day he left for Albuquerque, I told him if he walked out that door he would never be allowed to walk back in again. I don’t know if he didn’t believe me or if the itch to go was too strong to ignore, but either way, he left. Two weeks later, at just past two in the morning, the hint of a noise woke me up. I found him sitting in your room, watching you and Ashley sleep.

“He followed me out to the yard, begging to be allowed to come back home. We stood under the sweet gum tree and yelled and screamed at each other for what felt like hours. Every time I felt myself wavering, I thought back to you standing on the curb, watching his car drive off. Your tears broke my heart that day, and I swore I would never allow him walk out on you again.”

As Kylie listened to her mother and watched her methodically toast and butter bread, she thought back through her memories, trying to piece everything together. She remembered sitting on her knees on her bed, watching out the window as her mother and Charlie argued in the dark backyard. Their faces had been filtered by the heavy foliage of the tree as they yelled, then calmed and kissed, then pushed away, their emotions cresting and crashing like the ocean waves. She had always figured that fight had happened the night before Charlie had left, but her memories were old, untrustworthy, captured by a young heart and easy to rearrange.

“He finally left, saying he would be back in the morning. I woke you and Ashley before the sun rose, packed some bags, and we hid out at my mother’s house for a week. She had never liked Charlie and she spent those seven days dumping fuel on the fire of my anger.”

She reached into the refrigerator for a jar of grape jelly, her residual anger showing in how she jabbed the knife into the jar.

“He came back a few more times after that, begging to see you and Ashley. Every time, I sent him away. I kept telling myself that if he truly loved you, he would have kept coming back, or he would have asked for custody. I convinced myself that if he truly wanted to be a family, he never would have signed the divorce papers.

“I sent him away, fought with everything I had to make sure he stayed away, and then I was angry and hurt because for the first time in his life, he’d done exactly what I’d asked him to do. I thought I was protecting you girls, and I was, in a way, but looking back, I was protecting myself, and hurting you in the process.”

“Mom…” Kylie started, but a million questions hit her at once, all begging to be asked first. Her tongue tangled and she fell silent.

“Charlie wasn’t perfect, but his love for you and Ashley was. And I stole that from all three of you. Sometimes I look at you girls and wonder how different your lives would have been if I had let go of my damn pride and allowed him to see you. Especially Ashley. She would have benefited from the guidance of a father, even a part-time one.”

“You can’t blame yourself for Ashley.”

“Honey, I’m her mother. If I don’t blame myself, who can I blame?” Martha looked down at the teetering stack of toast on the plate in front of her. “I hope you’re hungry.”

Kylie stirred her lukewarm coffee and tried to push it all back, but one question refused to remain unanswered. “Where is Charlie now?”

Martha straightened the toast, and then ran a knife through it, cutting perfectly on the diagonal. “Last I heard, he was in Arizona. Divorced again.”

She didn’t want to know but couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Any other kids?”

“Two boys, probably high school age by now.”

Martha placed two slices of toast on a plate and handed it to Kylie. She chewed but didn’t taste.

Brayden shuffled into the kitchen, Boo Bear dangling by one arm from his tiny fist. His eyes were sleepy, but clear of fever, as he scanned the room. “Where Jimmy?”

Kylie shot her mother a hopeless glance. “He had to go home, sweetie.”

Brayden’s expression fell. A frown creased his forehead as Martha lifted him up and set him in his booster seat for breakfast. He took a few slow bites of his jelly toast and picked at Boo Bear’s stuffing. Kylie watched his face, waiting for the tears to start, but they never did. He almost looked too sad to cry.

Martha refreshed her coffee and changed the subject to one easier to digest. “What are your plans with Nessa today?”

“I’m not sure we have plans. She called from Chief’s house around six this morning and said not to worry about her. I feel horrible that I didn’t even realize she hadn’t come home last night.”

“You had a lot going on, and she’s in very safe hands,” Martha assured her. “I ran into Old Chief at the fundraiser last night. He said Chief’s pretty smitten with Nessa.”

Kylie dumped the last of her coffee into the sink. “She’s really into him, too. She’s usually really picky about the men she dates. I honestly can’t remember anyone she’s gone out with more than once or twice. She always finds something wrong with the guy. But she’s all smiles about Chief.”

“Aria called while you were in the shower. Stacy somehow managed to talk the doctors into letting her go home yesterday. You should stop by and see her.”

“Maybe I should wait a day or two. She’s probably tired.”

“I’m sure she’s fine. She could probably use some advice. You remember how scary bringing home a new baby can be.”

“You mean terrifying.”

“Besides, you haven’t spent any time with her except before the wedding.”

“You’re right,” Kylie agreed. “Would you mind watching Brayden while I go? I’d hate to have him spread his germs to Stacy and Emily.”

“Not at all. I feel like I haven’t been able to spend any time with my grandson.”

“If he takes a turn give me a call and I’ll come right home.” Kylie kissed Brayden’s messy hair and smoothed her hand down his cheek. “Be good for Grammy.”

He turned away from her, his frown back on his face. He wasn’t saying anything, but Kylie knew why he wasn’t happy with her. His Jimmy was gone, and it was all her fault.

Chapter 111 ~ First Day Jitters

With a gentle kiss along his neck, Stacy woke Dan before his alarm. Emily slept soundly in her bassinet, giving Dan and Stacy a moment of quiet time together, which they had quickly discovered would be fleeting and precious. As he ran a hand over her stomach, he missed the feeling of life growing inside her. He asked if she thought about how many children she wanted.

“Oh, two or three, I think,” she answered.

“Three sounds good.” He moved his hand to her swollen breast.

“I hated not having any brothers or sisters. But it’s not like I had the best parents in the world, so it’s probably a good thing they only had me… You better leave that alone, by the way,” she said, removing his hand from her breast. “Otherwise, you’re going to get an eye full of milk.”

“I always wanted a sister to torment. It looked like fun.”

“You did your best to make my life hell when we were kids,” Stacy reminded him.

He pressed his lips to her collarbone. “You were fun to tease. But I think I was pretty nice most of the time.”

“I’m lucky to have you in my life, kochanie. I don’t know what I would have done without you. Even back then.”

“I’m the lucky one, Stace.” He pulled her in for a kiss and groaned when his alarm buzzed as soon as their lips touched. He rolled away from her and reached over to quiet the noise before it woke the baby.

Stacy held onto his arm. “Do you have to go in today?”

“I could stay if you need me to.” He rolled back to her and brushed her hair from her face. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I feel fine,” she assured him. “I’m just scared.”

“Scared of what?”

“I have no idea. That’s the crazy thing. I was so anxious to get Emily home, I didn’t stop to think how I would make it through an entire day with her, all by myself.”

Her voice carried so small and quiet Dan’s heart ached for her. He pulled her close and rubbed her back. “I’ll stay as long as you need me to. We’ll be scared together.”

“You’re scared?” she asked, dubious.

“Terrified,” he admitted. “I have been since the day we found out you were pregnant.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Everything.”

“I’ve wanted a child for so long I never imagined I’d be afraid to be alone with her.”

“I feel the same way.” Dan gave Stacy a slow, soft kiss. “But we have each other, and the two of us together are going to make one spectacular parent.”

“Just one parent?” She smiled in confusion.

“Well, Emily will technically have two parents, one spectacular, and the other a basket case. We just won’t ever let her meet the basket case. We’ll keep that one hidden and only let it come out to hyperventilate over major crises.”

“What kind of crises?”

“Oh, the really big ones. You know, like diaper rash. And teething.”

“And walking and toilet training?”

“The first day of school.” Dan smiled. “Prom night.”

She returned his smile with one of her gorgeous ones. “Our baby girl’s growing so fast.”

“That’s why we have to have lots and lots of babies. Then we can slow time a little.”

“After the first ‘lots of babies,’ how will we find time to make the other lots?” Stacy laughed softly.

“There’s always time for baby making,” Dan assured her with a wink. “I can be quick if I need to be.”

She rolled her eyes and said, “How fun for you.” And then she smiled.

“I love you, Stace,” Dan whispered, his heart full. Complete.

“I love you, too, kochanie.”

Emily chimed in from the bassinet, calling out her love for them with a whimper of a cry that quickly rose in decibel. Eagerly, Dan rushed to her command.

 

Chapter 110 ~ Sweet Dreams

Jimmy!”

Sitting on his knees in bed, Brayden continued to cry out for Jimmy. He refused to let Kylie or Martha hold him. His fever was high. His medicine wouldn’t stay down. Kylie cried along with him, begging him to calm before he made himself sick again.

“Call him,” Martha insisted again, holding out Kylie’s cell phone. “Or I will.”

“No! It’s not fair to him. You should have seen his face when he left here tonight. I broke his heart all over again! I can’t keep shutting him out just to pull him back in. He said his goodbyes. I have to leave him alone.”

Jimmmmeee!” Brayden wailed, a long soulful cry.

“Look at your son! He’s sick, he’s feverish, and he is in pain. Let him have the one thing he wants. Jimmy will understand.” Martha held out the phone again. “Call him!”

“No!” Kylie reached for Brayden and he pushed at her arm, screaming remarkably loud for how sore and infected his throat was.

“I used to call the time and temperature recording and tell you it was Santa Claus whenever you pitched a fit,” Martha said angrily. “You didn’t know better, but it worked. Sometimes a child just needs to hear a male voice.”

“So call the time and temp guy.”

“Brayden needs Jimmy’s voice.”

“I’m not calling Jimmy. It’s almost midnight. He’s probably sound asleep. Or drunk.”

“Kylie!” Martha admonished.

“What?” Kylie shot back. She was exhausted and done being nice. She lifted Brayden from his bed. He screamed again and again, pushing hard against her chest, throwing his head back, desperate to escape her grasp. Kylie paced the room, trying to calm him down, but he only kicked harder, screaming louder.

“Jimmy is a grown man capable of understanding this is an extreme circumstance that you need his help with. He won’t make more of it than what it is,” Martha reasoned.

“I don’t think he’s going to make more of it than what it is!” Kylie snapped back. “I don’t want to hurt him again!”

“You won’t hurt him. I promise you, he will understand.”

“Jimmy!” Brayden bawled.

“Kylie, call him.”

“Fine,” Kylie caved, unable to listen to her son’s misery a second longer. “Give me the damn phone.”

As soon as she set Brayden on the bed, he immediately threw himself onto his stomach and screamed face-down into his mattress. Martha handed Kylie the phone and she dialed the number she would forever have memorized. He answered on the fifth ring, just as she was about to hang up.

“Ky?” His voice was heavy, thick, but he wasn’t drunk. He actually had been sleeping.

“I’m sorry I woke you—”

“Jimmy!” Brayden cried again, his sorrowful voice breaking as he started to give up.

“Put him on,” Jimmy said, instantly alert.

Kylie pushed speaker phone and held it close to Brayden. “Brayden, Jimmy wants to talk to you. He’s on the phone.”

Brayden hit the phone and pushed her away.

“Listen, Brayden,” Kylie pleaded. “It’s Jimmy.”

Brayden hit the phone again and started to cry harder, but when Jimmy’s voice came over the line he paused.

“Brayden? Buddy. Are you listening?” Jimmy asked, his voice soft and soothing. “It’s Jimmy, Little Man… I want to sing you your favorite song, but if you cry you won’t be able to hear me sing. You have to stop crying so you can hear the song. Okay?”

Brayden sniffed, pulling in air in giant gulps. He started to hiccup. “Oh, tay.”

He pushed himself up onto his knees and Kylie pulled him into her arms. Martha filled a medicine dropper with Tylenol and snuck it into his mouth while he was distracted.

“Are you ready?” Jimmy asked.

Brayden nodded his head and snuggled into Kylie’s shoulder as he swallowed the medicine. She handed him Boo Bear and he clutched him tightly to his chest. His thumb snuck into his mouth and he stared wide-eyed at the phone, still hiccupping, but his huge breaths decreased in size and frequency as he slowly calmed down.

Softy, beautifully, Jimmy began to sing John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy.” His deep voice carried over the phone so clearly it was as though he were sitting in the bed with Brayden, holding him in his arms, gently rocking him as he drifted off to sleep. Kylie had heard Jimmy sing the song a hundred times over the years, and as she closed her eyes and listened, her mind wandering back to the very first time she had heard him sing.

Brayden had been only a few hours old, and Kylie had been exhausted, lying in the hospital bed but unable to sleep, terrified, and feeling utterly alone, despite the roomful of people. Ashley had bounced around, talking nonstop and fiddling with everything, asking a million questions and grating on Kylie’s last frayed nerve. Finally, Martha had suggested they go to the cafeteria to eat, so Kylie could rest. Ashley jumped at the chance to leave, but Jimmy had stayed behind, sitting quietly in the rocking chair in the corner, watching Brayden as he slept in the bassinet.

There had been something in Jimmy’s eyes, a tenderness she had never seen before, that had compelled Kylie to offer him a chance to hold her son. Even though he had looked scared to death at the prospect, he had nodded.

As she’d pushed herself painfully out of the bed, Jimmy had stood to help her, but she had waved away his concern. Still inexperienced herself, she had had been careful as she lifted Brayden from the bassinet and settled him into Jimmy’s arms, fussing over the blanket and showing him the proper way to support Brayden’s delicate neck. Jimmy had sat frozen, not even breathing, as though he feared the natural act would somehow cause Brayden harm.

He had been so beautiful with her son in his arms, she had reached for him. She had brushed her fingers through Jimmy’s hair, her light touch calming him enough to begin to breathe again. After a few breaths, he began to rock, slowly, carefully, his eyes never once moving from the fragile life in his arms. Once she was confident Jimmy wouldn’t pass out, she had returned to her bed, curling onto her side so she could watch the two of them together.

After a few moments of silence, Brayden had begun to fuss. And a heartbeat later, as though instinctively, Jimmy started to sing.

Kylie had lied to Nessa about when she had fallen in love with Jimmy. It hadn’t been a slow, gradual emotion she had naturally evolved into. She had fallen in love with Jimmy like a hammer hitting a nail, suddenly and explosively, and it had happened the moment he sang the very first word of John Lennon’s song.

She had never expected the beautiful voice, the delicate tone, or the loving words to come out of his mouth. But when they had, something inside her changed forever. That moment in the hospital had been the first time she saw the man Jimmy could be some day.

Or, maybe, in that moment, she finally saw the man he already was.

She had lain transfixed by him, losing her own ability to breathe as his words washed over her. The song was exactly what Kylie had needed to hear that day so long ago, and exactly what Brayden needed to hear this night. He fell deep asleep before Jimmy reached the end.

With Brayden cradled to her chest, Kylie closed her eyes and followed him to sleep, with Jimmy’s voice singing in the backdrop of her dreams.

***

“Thank you, Jimmy.” Martha sighed into the phone. “It’s been a long night for our poor baby. He needed to hear your voice.”

“Is he asleep?” He wished he could reach through the phone and hold his son.

“He is. And we snuck in some more Tylenol. Hopefully, he’ll keep it down this time, and finally break his fever.”

“Do you want me to come over? I can sleep on the sofa, just to be there if he wakes up again.”

“If it were up to me I’d have you here in a heartbeat,” Martha said, her voice soft with regret.

“But it’s not up to you. I know.” Jimmy paused before asking the question that had been burning up his heart for so long. “What do you think Kylie would say if I wanted to call Brayden once in a while… maybe go out to California and visit him?”

Martha didn’t answer for so long Jimmy thought she had hung up the phone. When she finally spoke, he could hear the tears in her voice. “If I were you, I wouldn’t ask Kylie anything. I’d just do it.”

“I don’t want to upset Ky.”

“I love my daughter with all my heart, but she can be too stubborn, and too proud, for her own good sometimes. She thinks it’s easier to cut ties and forget, but it’s not. It leaves the wounds open and raw, and they never heal. Believe me, I know.”

“I am so sorry for what I did—” Jimmy started, but Martha cut off his apology.

“You can’t change what already happened. All you can do is try to fix it as best you can and go on from there. I haven’t given up hope for you two yet.”

Her support lifted Jimmy’s dark mood a shade or two. “Good night, Martha.”

“Sweet dreams, Jimmy.”

He didn’t think he would be able to fall back asleep, but he drifted of quickly, and slept better than he had in a very long time.

 

Chapter 109 ~ About a Boy

AboutaBoyDr. Garrison couldn’t fit Brayden into his schedule until late in the day. Once he finally had time to see them, he confirmed Kylie’s suspicion with a quick swab to the back of the throat—Brayden had strep. The doctor packed up a goodie bag of Amoxicillin and Children’s Tylenol, prescribed extra sleep, plenty of fluids, and sent them on their way.

It was late evening by the time Kylie and Brayden returned to her mother’s house, which always felt warm and welcoming, even when it was empty. Nessa had already headed out for her date with Chief, and Martha was chairing a fundraiser for the church. She wouldn’t be home until later in the night, but she had left a pot of her homemade chicken noodle soup simmering on the stove for supper. Kylie didn’t feel hungry. Brayden didn’t look as though he had much of an appetite, either. His eyes were still red and hot, and his nose was starting to run as he breathed through his mouth.

“You want a Popsicle while I finish supper?”

“Purp-ple,” he answered, his voice deep, raspy and raw from the infection.

Kylie dug through the freezer for his favorite grape flavor. He sat on the floor in front of the sofa and watched cartoons on television while Kylie made up some rolls and ladled out a bowl of soup to cool on the counter for Brayden.

As the bread baked, she stood in the archway to the living room and watched Brayden stare blankly at his cartoons. His head rested heavily against the sofa. His Popsicle melted down his arm. She wished she could make him feel better just by loving him. If she could, she’d cover him in tiny kisses until he smiled again.

The doorbell rang, and Kylie opened the door to Jimmy.

“Hey,” she whispered, surprised by the relief she felt by his presence.

Jimmy bent down and reached out for Brayden, who had followed her to see who was at the door. His eyes were still red, his lips were purple from his Popsicle, but his face had a touch more color to it than it had all day.

“What’s the matter, Bray? Not feeling so hot?” Jimmy asked, holding him close.

“Nuh-uh,” Brayden said with a shake of his head and a cough in Jimmy’s face.

“That doesn’t sound good.” Jimmy put his lips to the boy’s forehead to check for fever. When he was satisfied Brayden wasn’t too hot, he kissed his cheek and rested him on his hip.

“He has strep and a cold,” Kylie explained.

Jimmy frowned. “Colds suck.”

“Uh huh,” Brayden agreed, mimicking Jimmy’s frown.

“I have something that might make you feel better.” He reached into his jacket, pulled out a worn, brown teddy bear with patches of fur missing and only one ear.

Kylie gasped in surprise.

“Boo!” Brayden’s eyes lit up like the sunrise, and he smiled a real smile for the first time all day. He squished the well-loved teddy to his face and fell against Jimmy’s shoulder.

Still in disbelief, Kylie asked, “Where did you find him?”

She had looked all over Allman Falls for the little bear before they’d moved, even finally breaking down and calling Jimmy to see if it was at his apartment. He’d said it wasn’t, and she’s believed him. She had endured many sleepless nights when Brayden wouldn’t stop crying for his beloved stuffed animal. And she had spent a small fortune trying to buy a suitable substitute for him to cuddle with as he fell asleep.

“He was under the seat of my truck,” Jimmy said, meeting Kylie’s eyes in apology. “I found him about two weeks after you left for California. I tried calling but you didn’t return my calls, so I drove over here to give it to Martha to mail to you, but… I just couldn’t let go of it… I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Kylie rubbed Brayden’s back and let her hand slide down to brush against Jimmy’s arm before stepping back. “You want some dinner? I have enough if you’re hungry. Mom made her chicken noodle soup.”

“Sounds good.” Jimmy carried Brayden into the kitchen, keeping the boy on his lap instead of putting him in his booster seat.

Kylie dished up another bowl and set it in front of Jimmy. He slid Brayden’s cooled soup over and tried to convince him to eat some of his noodles, but Brayden shook his head in frustration and pushed against Jimmy.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Jimmy asked.

“Nuh-uh.” Brayden’s forehead crinkled in a deep frown. He picked at the eyes of the teddy bear with his little fingers and curled up against Jimmy’s chest.

“It’ll make you feel better.”

Brayden grunted in disagreement.

“I’ll take him so you can eat,” Kylie offered.

“That’s okay. I think what Little Man needs is some cartoon-therapy. An hour of SpongeBob and he’ll be good as new.” Jimmy carried Brayden into the living room and settled onto the sofa with Boo Bear, and a blanket.

With his head against Jimmy’s chest, Brayden’s red, hot eyes slowly started to close. Jimmy stroked his hair and whispered incredible stories about a gigantic football player named Suh. Kylie allowed them some time alone, listening from the kitchen as she picked at her bowl of soup.

After she finished supper, she kept herself busy with the dishes and tidying the kitchen before she went to check on the boys. The television off, Brayden snored softly from his stuffed-up nose. Jimmy sat quiet in the low light, content to just hold him.

“I didn’t know he’d fallen asleep,” Kylie whispered, feeling Brayden’s forehead.

“Yeah, he zonked out a while ago.” Jimmy shifted Brayden in his arms as he stood. “I’ll go put him to bed.”

Watching him carry Brayden off to bed brought back a flood of memories Kylie could not suppress. When they had been a family, Jimmy had tucked Brayden in every night, sitting with him until he fell asleep. When he had first started the routine, Kylie wondered if Jimmy was trying to earn points, or play pretend. But as he continued to do it night after night, Kylie realized Jimmy didn’t have to prove himself as a father. He was one, naturally.

As night fell and Jimmy didn’t return to the living room, Kylie peeked into Brayden’s room to check on them. She found Jimmy sitting in the dark in the rocking chair, his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles in front of him, his head tipped back, slowly rocking as he watched over Brayden while he slept.

Hating to intrude, but desiring to join him, she asked in whisper, “Can I come in?”

Jimmy looked up, startled to see her standing in the doorway. He straightened in the chair. When she walked over to him, he pulled her into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her and whispered, “I love you, Ky.”

“I know you do.” She stroked his cheek, silently admitting she loved him in return. “I’ve never doubted that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?” she asked, though she knew.

“For hurting you… hurting him. For letting you go. For everything.”

“I had to go.”

“No.”

“It hurt too much to see you every day and not be with you.”

He nodded, stroked her hair. “I’m sorry.”

Kylie wrapped her arms around him and rested her head against his shoulder. She missed the way he held her. They fit together perfectly, as though their bodies had been designed specifically for each other. For this one, brief moment, she wanted to close her eyes and be held by him, as though nothing had happened. As though they were still together.

“Would you consider staying?” His fingers played through her hair, his touch so light it could have been her imagination. “Could we try again?”

She lifted her head off Jimmy’s shoulder. In the low light of the room, she caught a mirror of her own heartache reflected in his eyes. “I don’t think we should.”

“Why?”

His eyes holding hers, he traced her jaw line with his thumb, caressed her ear with the tips of his fingers. She wanted nothing more than to shed herself of the anger, let go of her pride and give in to his touch, but they had already caused each other too much pain to ever truly forget. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them to pretend otherwise.

“Because I know now that I never trusted you. Honestly, I don’t think I ever will. I can’t live like that, and neither should you.”

“Is there anything I can do to prove to you how sorry I am?”

“It’s not about being sorry. I can see that in your eyes. I believe you, and I appreciate it, but…”

“But what?” he asked.

“Do you remember the first time we made love?”

“I remember everything,” he whispered out on a pained breath.

“Do you remember what you promised me that night?”

Jimmy nodded and closed his eyes, as though he would cry if he didn’t.

“Oh, god, I was so scared to fall in love with you, Jimmy.” She ran her hand down his cheek, kissed his closed eyelids as tears began to fill her own eyes. “You promised me I would never regret loving you… You said you would never leave me… You promised you would never do what Charlie had done… And you promised…”

“I promised you would never know what it felt like to be your mom,” he finished for her as he opened his eyes.

Her gaze locked into his, and he apologized again, silently, through his heart, and she accepted. But it wasn’t enough. It never would be, and they both knew it.

Delicately, Kylie cupped his face. She memorized every single speck of color in his eyes before pressing her lips to his. He kissed her fiercely, his emotions raw as a tear escaped from the corner of his eye and raced down his cheek, sliding into her mouth. He ripped away from the kiss and buried his face into her neck, holding her tight as he breathed hot and fast against her skin. She closed her eyes and stroked the hair at the nape of his neck, holding him against her, praying this last moment would never end. But, inevitably, it did.

He kissed a trail back up to her lips and held his mouth against hers, his lips slightly parted, barely moving, mingling their breath, tasting her, memorizing her, and then he let her go.

***

When Jimmy returned to his house, he stood in the middle of his living room and turned in a slow circle.

Everything he had imagined, everything he had worked so goddamn hard to fix—every rotten floorboard and every crumbling plaster wall he had ripped out and hauled off and burned; every length of plumbing he had replaced with new, every support beam he had reinforced and stabilized; every inch of frayed and singed ball and post electrical wiring he had pulled and restrung; every night he had stayed awake and kept swinging and swinging and fucking swinging away until his body collapsed in exhaustion and the sun came up—all of it stared back at him, and waited.

“Now what?” he asked the house. Himself. “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?”

The house had no answer.

Neither did he.

 

Chapter 108 ~ Crunch

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.

“No.”

“What?” Brent asked, innocent.

“Boobs don’t equal brains.”

“Boobs don’t delete brains,” Brent countered.

“True.”

“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?”

“What?”

“It’s just, Aria…”

“Aria what?”

“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.

“I’m sorry.”

“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.

 

Chapter 107 ~ Morning Rounds

Morning RoundsKylie awoke to the morning feeling as though she had slept for a hundred years, the deep rest giving her excessive amounts of energy she didn’t know how to burn. After bouncing around the still-sleeping house, cleaning and straightening things that were already spotless, she settled into making a breakfast feast of omelets, French toast, and fruit salad.

As she whipped the eggs, her cell phone rang. A quick look showed Stacy’s number on the screen. “Hi, chica,” Kylie greeted, tucking the phone against her ear.

“Hi yourself, Lady,” Stacy answered. “How are you today?”

“Good.” Kylie smiled. “Really, really good. How about you?”

“Amazing,” Stacy gushed. “Didn’t you hear?”

“Hear what?”

“I’m a mommy!”

“No way!” Kylie cried out, her surprise almost sending her phone for a tumble in the egg bowl. “What the—when did that happen?”

“Yesterday.” Stacy laughed. “It’s a good thing you didn’t come shopping with us. Nessa would’ve missed her date for sure!”

“She wouldn’t have cared! Not for something like this! Omigod!”

“I know!”

“So, tell me, tell me. What did you have?”

“A little girl. Emily Rose. She is perfect and healthy, and so much more beautiful than I ever dreamed she would be.”

“Aw, Stace, that’s amazing. I’m so happy for you guys.” Kylie picked up the whisk she had dropped in her excitement and resumed beating the eggs. “As soon as I get Bray his breakfast we’ll pop over to the hospital to see you. Do you need me to bring anything?”

“Oh, you should wait,” Stacy said. “I’m not in Allman Falls.”

“Where are you?”

“At a hospital in Omaha.”

Immediately concerned, Kylie asked, “Is everything okay?”

“We’re great! I’m not here because something went wrong. I just kind of, accidentally, went into labor while we were shopping… Oops!”

Kylie laughed. “Oh, I bet Dan’s pissed.”

“He was,” Stacy agreed with a laugh of her own. “Aria made Jimmy and Brent drive, so he’d get here in one piece, but he’s so wrapped up in Emily right now he doesn’t have a care in the world.”

“Huh,” Kylie huffed out a laugh as she thought to herself, That would explain Jimmy’s crazy day. “Why the heck didn’t you call me? I would’ve come down!”

“I know, but I didn’t want you to have to make the drive. Aria was dying to call you yesterday, just to give you the news, but I wouldn’t let her. I wanted to be the one to tell you myself. Sorry, I’m just now getting around to it. It’s been a crazy twenty-four hours.”

“Don’t you dare worry about not calling, silly girl. My goodness, you’ve got your hands full right now. How long are you going to be there?”

“I’m trying to get out of here today if they’ll let me… Tomorrow for sure,” Stacy said. “They just want to make sure Emily’s okay before we have to drive so far. She arrived a little early, but she’s so strong, Ky… healthy… beautiful… I’m sure they’ll say she’s fine.”

“Best to be safe.”

“I know, but I want to come home.”

“I can’t stop smiling. You totally made my day, Stace.”

“You’re too sweet.” Stacy laughed.

“I should let you go so you can rest.”

“Who needs rest? Like Jimmy says, ‘I can sleep when I’m dead.’ I’ve got a million people to call so I can keep bragging about my beautiful Emily.”

“Text me a picture and call me when you get home. I’ll swing by.”

“I will,” Stacy promised. “And, hey, Ky, speaking of Jimmy, go easy on him… okay? I know he messed up, but he’s a good guy, and he loves you so much. He’s not the same without you.”

“I’m going back to California in a few days, Stace. All I’m looking for with Jimmy is a way to say goodbye.” And she would be saying goodbye, she reminded herself. It was for the best.

“I was really hoping you’d move back home,” Stacy said. “I miss you.”

“I miss you, too, but we’ll keep in touch. You can bombard me with pictures and videos of every move Emily makes.”

“It’s not the same.”

“I know,” Kylie admitted.

Stacy said a few more goodbyes, and Kylie tossed her phone on the counter. As soon as it hit tile, it rang again.

“What the hell?’ Kylie muttered to herself and answered without looking at the screen. “You already called me, silly. Brag to someone else this time.”

“Um… Kylie?” David asked with uncertainty.

Crap! “Sorry, David, I thought you were someone else… How are you?”

“Good.” he answered. There was a long pause and Kylie racked her brain to think of something to say to fill the silence. David thought of something first. “I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” Kylie said. It wasn’t technically a lie. Just because she hadn’t thought about him, at all, didn’t mean she didn’t miss him… right? “How’s the weather out there?”

“Beautiful, as always. The waves were amazing this morning. Marcos and I headed out early and had the beach pretty much to ourselves for a while. It was incredible…”

David picked up speed as he went into a soliloquy about the waves and the sky and the birds and the air and the sand, and Kylie quit listening.

Nessa shuffled into the kitchen with her hair a wild mess and yawned. “Who’s on the phone?” she asked through her exhale.

“David,” Kylie mouthed the answer and then realized he was waiting for her to respond to something he’d said. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I was wondering what time you’d be back on Saturday. There’s an art exhibit I think you would love. I went last night and when I saw the artist’s work I immediately thought of you. It’s only on display through Saturday night.”

“Oh, gee, I don’t know… It depends on if we run into any weather delays. As it is, we’re not getting in until pretty late… How about I call you when we land? We can decide then.” Kylie’s call waiting beeped, and she had a hard time suppressing her relief. “Hey, I have another call coming in…”

“Oh… okay… I guess I’ll see you later then.”

“Yeah. Bye.” She clicked over without looking and said, “Hello?”

“Dan and Stacy got married?”

At the sound of her sister’s voice, Kylie’s entire body deflated. She cursed herself for being so eager to hang up on David. Listening to his optimistic ramble was a million times less painful than listening to Ashley bitch. So was a needle in the eye.

“So, you’re talking to me again?” Kylie asked. She knew she sounded like a snotty thirteen year old, but she didn’t care.

“I never stopped talking to you.”

“I haven’t heard a peep from you since you ran off and joined the Army,” Kylie accused, not that she’d wanted to talk to her sister, necessarily, but pretending the silence between them had been accidental was just asinine.

Ashley ignored the accusation and continued her personal agenda. “Why wasn’t Mike invited to the wedding?”

“Who?” Kylie stumbled for a moment, then remembered. Not only did her sister impetuously join the Army, she also got married. To a drug addict. “Does he even know them?”

“He works for Jimmy! Of course, he knows them.”

“What’s he doing for—” Kylie started to ask but decided she really didn’t care. “I don’t know, Ash. You’ll have to ask Dan and Stacy.”

“I’m not asking them shit. If they don’t think he’s good enough for an invite, then they can go screw themselves.”

“Wow! You say stuff like that and yet you wonder why you guys weren’t invited?”

“You sure looked like you were having a good time,” Ashley said, ignoring Kylie’s reprimand.

“How would you know?”

“Sarah posted a bunch of pictures of the reception on Facebook. There’s about a million of you getting it on with Jimmy.”

What? I didn’t even know Sarah was there.”

“Sarah Rogan?” Nessa said around a mouthful of cantaloupe, her head nodding like a bobble head. “She was there. I met her. Real sweet girl. Chief and I ran into her again last night. She told me to tell you to stop by Jack’s and see her before we head home.”

Kylie could only stare at Nessa.

“Why were you dancing with Jimmy?” Ashley asked.

Feeling a migraine coming on, Kylie pinched the bridge of her nose. “Because I had to.”

“You didn’t look like anyone was forcing you,” Ashley snapped, her voice snide and vindictive as always. “He doesn’t look good. Is he sick?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Kylie said. “He looked fine to me.”

“He’s lost a lot of weight.”

“I didn’t notice.” She had noticed, but she wasn’t about to discuss changes in Jimmy’s body with her sister.

“I don’t see how you could have missed it! You were practically crawling inside his mouth!”

Kylie lost her last bit of patience. “What the hell do you want, Ashley?”

“Are you two back together?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. One hundred percent, absolutely, positively sure. We are not together.”

“Well, good.”

“Thanks for looking out for me,” Kylie said even though she knew she wasn’t the one Ashley was looking out for. Kylie was officially done. “Bye, Ash.”

“Hey, wait!” Ashley cried out.

But it was way too early in the morning for Kylie to have a civil conversation with her sister. She ended the call and tossed her phone aside. “Bitch.”

Her coffee mug poised to sip, Nessa paused to ask, “What was that all about?”

“Who knows, who cares? It’s just Ash being Ash.” She stared her phone down, daring it to ring again. When it didn’t, she turned to Nessa and asked with an exasperated laugh, “How was your date last night?”

Before Nessa could answer, her ringtone sounded.

“Oh, for the love of—” She ripped the phone off the counter and demanded, “What?”

“Ky?” Tinged with humor, the vibration of Jimmy’s deep voice sent a thrill down her spine.

“Hey,” she said, her tone softening, her body relaxing in response to him. “What’s going on?”

“Are you okay?”

“Peachy.” She drew in a deep, settling breath. “It’s been a little crazy around here this morning.”

“You want to get together tonight?”

Yes, yes, yes, oh god, yes! “Umm, I don’t know,” Kylie said, her resolve wavering.

“I have something I want to show you.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good…” Kylie trailed off as Brayden came into the kitchen, his eyes red and his face a sheet of white.

“Mommy…” he whimpered, a split-second before he threw up on the linoleum.

“Oh, shit!” she cried out. Brayden started to cry and Kylie rushed, “I gotta go!”

“I think I’m going to be sick!” Nessa gagged, covering her mouth and plugging her nose to the smell.

“Ky—”

Kylie threw the phone and scooped up her baby, rushing him toward the bathroom as another wave came out of the little boy, running hot down Kylie’s chest and soaking through her pajamas. He started to cry in earnest, and she held him tight as she ran.

“It’s okay, baby. It’s okay,” she murmured.

As soon as they were in the bathroom, she stripped off their soiled clothes and ran a bath. Brayden’s cries turned into hard sobs as she sponged the worst of the smeared mess off his chin and out of his hair at the sink, and then she stepped into the tub with him in her arms.

“I know, this sucks, baby,” she cooed, trying to soothe his fear and calm his tears.

He was burning hot with fever and his eyes were swollen from crying. She washed them both one more time and scrubbed his hair clean, and then lay back in the water with him on her chest, stroking his hair and rubbing his back, until he was calmed down.

Nessa knocked on the door and stepped into the room. “How’s the little man doing?”

“He’s not feeling so hot today,” Kylie said softly as she ran her fingers through his damp hair.

“I cleaned up the kitchen, but I think he got a little on the carpet. Does your mom have a steamer?” Nessa said.

“Oh, Nessa, you didn’t have to do that. I would have gotten to it,” Kylie said, her heart warming from Nessa’s compassion.

“I know. It was gross, but once I got started on it, it wasn’t so bad. Better than sitting there and smelling it. Besides, if I’m going to have kids one day, I gotta get used to it.”

“Yeah, but it’s easier to stomach when it comes from your own kid,” Kylie said.

“You know, I really don’t believe you.” Nessa laughed. “You want me to grab you some clothes?”

“Please. And call my mom. Ask her to make an appointment with Dr. Garrison. I have a feeling this little guy has strep. I can hear it in his voice.”

“Jimmy called your cell again and I answered it. I hope that’s okay.”

Kylie looked down at Brayden’s face as he drifted to sleep. “What did he say?”

“He asked what was wrong with Brayden and I told him. He said to tell you he couldn’t get out of the job he was working on because of Brent and Dan being gone and all, and some sort of bridge deadline that didn’t make any sense to me, but he said he’d stop by as soon as he finished.”

“Thanks, Ness.” Jimmy had always been a big help whenever Brayden had been sick in the past, so it didn’t surprise her that he wanted to help this time.

“I’ll be right back with your clothes.” Nessa started to close the door, but Kylie called her back.

“I’m sorry this vacation isn’t all you thought it would be. I swear I had something fun planned for the day,” Kylie apologized.

“Hey, don’t worry about me. I’m having an awesome time,” Nessa said, a huge grin lighting her face. “Probably the best time I’ve had in years.”

“So, tell me all about last night.”

“I will,” Nessa promised. “Just not right now. You worry about him while I keep racking up scandalous tidbits to entertain you with on the plane ride home.”

With a wink and a swish of her hip, Nessa headed down the hall and left Kylie to tend to her baby.