Chapter 127 ~ Under Review

Under ReviewThe first panic attack Marissa ever suffered had happened the morning of her first day of second grade, just before the school bell rang. It had consumed her so quickly, so completely, it felt as though she had been possessed by evil itself, the intensity of it seemingly turning her inside out.

She had been too scared to cry, too weak to move, too terrified to speak. Frozen, with no control over her own body, she had messed her new dress. A lifelong victim of panic attacks herself, Marissa’s mother had quickly driven her home, calmed her down, cleaned her up, and returned her to school in time for first recess. The trick, Kitty said, was to give the panic no more power than a fleeting case of the hiccups. Pause for a moment, if you need to catch your breath, but never let it stop you from living life.

The advice had sounded plausible to a seven year-old, but it was so contrived not even Kitty herself could follow it. As the years passed and Marissa’s panic waxed and waned like the moon, she witnessed her mother succumb to her own spells of uncontrollable fear and anxiety. With each attack, Kitty had surrounded herself in a fresh hoard of treasures to reinforce her pretense of security, and Marissa’s faith in her own future sanity wavered.

As a teenager, the excess of hormones coursing through her blossoming body had nourished the panic, intensified its strength. Usually, it would strike her at night, paralyzing her as she drifted to sleep, terrorizing her half-dream state until she prayed for the sweet release of death. Occasionally, she would feel the fear creep up on her in the middle of the day, in public places, when others could witness her weakness. She’d learned to keep to herself, skirt along the peripheral of life, only stepping inside with Jimmy by her side.

She’d scared the shit out of that poor boy the first time he’d witnessed one of her fits of panic, a sudden powerful attack on a brilliant summer day spent fishing and wading in the river, fooling around on blankets they’d laid out on the grassy banks. He’d recovered faster than she could, and he had taught her the power of primal screaming.

Of course, that only worked in the rare instance she was alone in an abandoned field, with no unsuspecting soul within a country mile. It wasn’t practical when perched on a chair in the boss’s office, sitting close enough to shatter her with the first caterwaul.

Marissa smoothed her skirt, tucked her hair behind her ear, straightened her back and opened her airways. Still, her pulse throbbed in her neck, each beat sharp, as constrictive as Tyler’s hand had been the night he had pinned her to the ground.

“Relax, dear,” said Marg Sloan, her smile bright, encouraging as she reached across her desk to lightly pat Marissa’s clasped hands. “This is just a performance review, not an inquisition.”

“Right.” Marissa’s voice carried as a whisper through a nervous laugh. Consciously, she drew in a deep breath, closing her eyes to center her soul and calm the hiccupping of her heart. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

With a gentle exhale, she expelled the rising panic, and returned her haunted memories to the back of her mind, where she’d successfully kept every pain, every vision, every memory of her own tortured cries, buried for the past ten years.

Bloodied and bruised, more exhausted than she’d ever felt in her life, she’d still considered herself the victor of that fight. Spiritually. Emotionally. Never once had she allowed herself to feel a victim or a fool.

Obviously, she’d only been fooling herself, if only the casual mention of his name held the power to revive that night in a vivid rush of terror and rage.

Marissa drew in another cleansing breath, forced her vision to focus on the paper Marg had placed in front of her, to listen to the words the woman spoke.

“…is simply wonderful. Your efficiency and accuracy ratings are well above what we would expect from a team member who has been with us for…”

Her speech became garbled. The typed words on the paper swirled. Marg handed Marissa a pen. She signed where Marg pointed. The paper disappeared into a manila folder. Marg produced another.

And then she sighed.

“Now, about your attendance.”

Start on a high note, gentle roll to the low.

Marissa did her best to look contrite about her missed days and long lunches. Marg worked her way back to another high, Marissa’s impeccable phone etiquette, signaling the end of the performance review.

She walked away with a three-point-two percent pay raise. Better than the zero percent she’d expected, but not even close to what she had made during her brief stint working for Jimmy at Rogan-Handley Construction. Not that she wanted to suffer that humiliation again.

Still, she needed something better than Allman Falls Savings and Loan.

At the end of the day, Marissa logged off her computer, slipped on her coat, and picked up the only decoration she had in her cubicle, a snake plant in a square green pot.

The morning of her first day at her new job, Kitty had taken the clippers to her jungle of houseplants and selected a hardy cutting. She’d poked it into fresh soil, drawn a cheery face on the side of the pot, attached googly eyes, scattered a few stones for good luck, and then packed Marissa a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Marissa had tossed the sandwich but kept the plant. She’d named it Glenn and had given him the place of honor on her desk, beside her monitor.

Glenn had been in her care for eighty-four days now. She hadn’t killed him, but he didn’t look exceptionally happy, either. She poked her finger into the soil. Bone dry.

“Sorry, buddy,” she whispered, and tucked him into her oversize purse. “I promise, I’ll do better at our next place, wherever we end up.”

Marissa walked out of the office without a backward glance and braced against the wicked winter wind as she hurried across the icy parking lot to her car. The driver’s door was frozen shut, the handle an unyielding block of ice from the afternoon’s freezing rain. As she hurried around to the passenger side of her car, a frigid blast of arctic air whipped across the downtown square and stole the breath clean out of her lungs. Gasping, she popped the handle. The door opened with a wrenching groan.

With all the grace of hippopotamus in snow boots, she clambered across a collected mess of CD’s and fast food trash heaped in the passenger side, over the center console, into the driver’s seat. Panting through a sudden hot flash from the exertion, she struggled to loosen her scarf, unbutton her coat, and stabbed her key into the ignition.

Her poor car shuddered, died, and then choked to a semblance of life. She waited a moment longer, for the high-pitched squeal of her alternator to quiet down to a pitch less painful, then flipped on her one working headlight and rolled out of the parking lot.

She only had to drive a few blocks to the house she’d shared with Kitty for almost all her life, but she didn’t feel like going home. She wasn’t in the mood to hang out at Captain Jack’s, either, though she could probably pick up a shift if she’d wanted to. Her bank account needed her to. Maybe over the weekend, when the tips would be better, and she’d have time to sleep off a hangover.

She rolled through the drive-thru and counted out enough loose change from her center console to grab a meal of grease and salt then headed out of town. She started down the spur toward the highway, then turned onto a familiar country road. It had been a long time since Marissa had felt the need to drive this direction, to clear her mind, to breathe the air.

To focus.

Her brain felt scattered, her thoughts hyper and incomplete. The car’s heater cooked her feet, but the knob was broken. She couldn’t control the temperature. Instead, she cracked the window, turned on the radio, and started flipping stations, desperate to find something that matched her mood.

“…make the entire process easy for you…”

♪ I’d take it all back, take it all back, take it all back, just to have you… ♪

“…regain control over your healthcare costs…”

♪ Are you going to kiss me, or not… ♪

The night was black, the sky a thick, heavy blanket of clouds, allowing no illumination from the moon or stars. Patches of snow shone silver from the beam of her headlight.

♪ All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall… ♪

“…your official country station…”

♪ I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral… ♪

“…across the state with snow and ice, making the roads treacherous for travel…”

“…He had, at the end, a plan for salvation…”

Frustrated, she turned down the volume and drove the next two miles in relative silence. Her tires kicked up frozen gravel. Individual rocks dinged along the undercarriage of her car. Wind whistled through the cracked window. Her single headlight flickered when she hit a rough patch of washboard road. She slowed for an intersection, though there was no one she had to yield to.

She was alone, on the road, in the world. It was how she’d preferred to live her life. Except for Jimmy, there was no one she had ever loved, no one who had ever loved her. She’d never been the kind of girl who needed friends. Other than her mother, she had no family. Not since her brother was killed, since her baby had died.

Halfway to the next intersection, she slowed, then stopped, put her car into park. She turned off her headlight but she did not get out.

A lifetime had passed since she’d last walked into the valley and sat beneath the burr oak tree where she and Jimmy had tucked the memory of their accident. Part of the reason was the land had sold and was now used to run cattle. The beasts had soiled the ground, muddied the creek, stripped the life from the earth, and trampled the roots of her tree.

What innocence she’d buried had long been destroyed. Not only by the cattle, by also by the beast of man.

For that ground was where she had been raped.

She turned away from the valley, dug through the CD’s piled on her passenger seat.

Just the mention of his name…

She found Sturgill Simpson. Slipped him into the stereo. She kept the volume low and closed her eyes.

For everything Marissa Vasek had been in high school, Tyler Tomek had been the opposite. She was the child of a single mother, of poverty and panic. He was a child of wealth, of healthy abundance. She’d always been slow to learn, struggled to read, hated school. He’d been elected class president, valedictorian, voted most likely to succeed.

She’d smoked pot, talked back, got suspended. He’d kissed ass, played the teachers, mastered the game.

He’d dated cheerleaders. She’d dated Jimmy.

Secretly, she’d watched him, crushed on him. He’d never once looked her way. Until, the night before their high school graduation, he had.

Three weeks earlier, a semi had crossed the center line of the highway. Jimmy had swerved, overcorrected, and her entire world had flipped upside down.

She’d healed physically from the car accident, from her miscarriage, from the surgery. But she had yet to heal emotionally.

She’d hated herself. She’d hated Jimmy. She’d hated the way the whole town talked about her, about him, about what they’d done. She was branded a whore, Jimmy even worse. Together, they were outcast.

She was high, all the time.

The night Tyler noticed her, she was so stoned she could barely walk, could hardly keep her eyes open. But when he’d beckoned, she’d felt the first glimmer of joy hit her heart since the night of the crash, and she’d followed.

She’d climbed into his car, directed him out into the country, and led him to the burr oak tree. She’d wanted to show him where she’d buried her soul. But all he’d wanted to see, to kiss and to touch, was her body, naked beneath his in the grass.

She’d said no. She’d screamed, No!

But Tyler always got what he wanted. Even if he had to steal it.

Until that night, despite rumors to the contrary, Jimmy was the only boy Marissa had ever let see her body, kiss her skin, lie naked alongside her and touch her intimately. Together, they had learned how to please another, how to love another, how to respect another. He’d been gentle with her, playful with her, rougher when she’d wanted it. He’d stopped immediately if she ever felt uncomfortable.

He’d learned what she liked, and he’d perfected his stroke. For her.

Jimmy was how she imagined every man would be. She had never been more wrong, more naïve, about anything in life.

That night in the valley, Tyler had done what he wanted, how he’d wanted, when he’d wanted. He’d gotten hard over her struggles for him to stop. He’d slapped her, pinched her. He had bit her breast so hard she’d thought the bruise would never heal.

He’d wrapped his hands around her neck, shoved her face down into the muddy earth, and he had taken her from behind. And then he’d left her beaten and bloody, her clothing torn, her body exposed, and returned to town without her.

She’d curled up under the tree, knees to her chest, and forced her eyes to dry. As she’d felt her body passing out, she’d prayed for God to finally let her die in her sleep.

Hours later, she’d woken up to a cold rain, her face tender and swollen to the touch, pissed off to still be alive, and determined to never feel weak or helpless again.

Years passed. She’d taken control of her body, of her panic, of pleasure and sex. She’d learned how to defend herself, how to resist the desire to love, to be loved.

She’d never mentioned that night to anyone, not even to Jimmy. And she had never allowed Tyler a second thought. Until now.

Now, her stomach roiled from the memories. Her chest tightened, as though compressed by a heavy weight. The rising panic suffocated her, causing her to draw in rapid breaths that left her feeling lightheaded and confused.

Her vision clouded and she clawed at her door, frantic to find the window control. A blast of winter air rushed into the confined space and she gasped, inhaling deep in preparation of that first guttural scream that would shatter the bondage of terror constricting her very life force.

And then, she heard it. Faint at first, nothing more than a whispered plea carried on the north wind. Not the bellow of the cattle surrounding her, but a quiet cry of pain, of sorrow. An infant’s cry of loneliness.

The second cry brought her mind to center. It was the lonesome call of an animal, injured or trapped. Marissa picked up her cellphone, turned on the flashlight and trained its beam across the night-darkened field.

Hidden in the shadows, beneath the brush beyond the burr oak, a pair of eyes shined back.

Chapter 126 ~ Time for Change

December DayDan awoke to the sound of silence. He stretched, reached for the warmth of his wife, but found only cold sheets on her side of the bed. He opened his eyes to a sun-drenched bedroom and experienced instant panic, certain he had horrifically overslept and missed his consultation with Bennie and Bernice Sock to discuss pricing on a four-car garage addition to the back of their 1950’s style ranch. A moment later, his groggy brain joined the party, and he remembered it was Sunday.

A glance at the clock confirmed he had missed church. A deep inhale while he stretched his sore muscles assured he had not missed Sunday dinner. He could smell the ham baking in the oven, caught a heavenly whiff of cinnamon and spice. Apple pie for dessert, he thought. Or, even better, a mountain of sweet potatoes bubbling in a brown sugar glaze, a thick cap of mini marshmallows toasting on top.

With his stomach growling, he reached for the t-shirt and Levi’s he’d hastily cast aside the night before, moments before he’d crashed into bed, too exhausted even to snore. He desperately needed a shower, to stand in a steady stream of scalding hot water until the ache melted away from his body and his tight back loosened. First, he needed strong coffee, and a soul-soothing kiss from his beautiful wife.

He found Stacy settled on the sofa with their infant daughter, snuggling as Emily nursed. Their fat pup, Willie Nelson, lay sound asleep on the cushion beside her. A fire crackled. Michael Bublé crooned softly from the stereo in the corner. A fresh pot of coffee brewed in the kitchen.

“Good morning.” Dan bent to place a soft kiss on Emily’s downy head. He followed with a kiss to Stacy’s lips before joining them on the sofa.

“Good afternoon,” Stacy said, correcting him with a smile.

“I’m sorry I slept so late.”

“You needed the rest. When Emily started fussing long before the alarm went off for church, I figured it was a sign to let you sleep and have a Mommy-Daughter day with my baby girl.”

“How was it?”

“Very nice. We snuggled in the rocker for a bit, then had a warm bath and some breakfast before putting on a little fashion show for Willie. We went to church early and showed off our fancy manicures.” She lifted Emily’s little hand with her finger to show Dan the delicate pink polish they had selected.

“Pretty,” Dan said.

“Willie wanted his done, too.”

Dan reached over and lifted the dog’s paw. A rainbow of colors decorated his toes.

“He couldn’t decide on a color.” Stacy smiled that beautiful smile Dan loved, the one where her eyes sparkled, and her nose crinkled the slightest bit.

Dan stroked her cheek, kissed her lips. “How was church?”

“Good, but sad. Pastor Tom officially announced his retirement.”

“We knew it was going to happen.”

“Yeah, but it was always ‘someday,’ some arbitrary day, far into the future.” She shifted Emily in her arms, removing her from her breast and lifting her to her shoulder to burp. “Now, it’s the end of the month.”

“That is soon,” Dan said, surprised to feel a sense of loss gradually blossom.

Other than his years in Hollings, he’d never known church without Pastor Tom. Pastor Tom had baptized him, confirmed him. He had blessed both of Dan’s marriages. He had been there for every birth, every death; every joy and every sorrow, guiding Dan through life and through faith. The thought of him being replaced by some stranger felt overwhelming.

“Who have the elders chosen to take his place?” he asked.

“No one, yet, but they have an interim.”

“Pastor Frank?” Dan asked, the obvious choice. For years, the minister from Juliette had filled in whenever Pastor Tom had been unable to lead services. He was just as well-known and loved by the congregation as Pastor Tom, but he was close to retirement age himself. He wouldn’t be a long-term solution.

“Pastor Frank would be perfect, but no.” She sighed. “It’s Tyler Tomek.”

“The name sounds familiar.” Dan thought back through unreliable childhood memories of a boy named Tyler who was always causing trouble, picking fights, harassing the girls, throwing parties, dealing drugs. “That boy from Sycamore Street?”

“Yep,” Stacy said, her disappointment evident. “John and Cathy Tomek’s son.”

“Tomek Investments,” Dan said with dawning understanding. “Big money.”

“And big donors.”

“Meaning the interim will likely become permanent.” Dan bit back a grunt of displeasure. “How the hell did that kid find religion?”

“I’m not sure, but he’s not a kid anymore. He’s married, with two little boys of his own, and has a Masters of Divinity.”

“Did he buy it online.”

“People change, kochanie,” Stacy said, her tone chastising.

“Not that much.” The first hint of a headache pulsed behind Dan’s eyes and he stood to go in search of coffee. “At least it’s going to make Chief and Nessa’s wedding interesting.”

“How so?”

“A criminal presiding over the chief of police’s wedding ceremony? We could sell tickets.”

“Tyler’s not a criminal,” Stacy said, her eyes twinkling in amusement. “Just misguided youth.”

“Are you sure about that?” Dan asked with an arch of an eyebrow.

She shrugged. “Either way, it doesn’t matter. Pastor Tom’s promised to perform the ceremony.”

“Well, that’s no fun.” Dan bent and placed a kiss on Stacy’s lips.

“Do you want to hear the rest of my news?”

“Later,” he promised. “I need coffee and a shower, first.”

“Jimmy’s back.”

That stopped Dan in his tracks. “Did you see him?”

“No, Mike came to church with Kitty Vasek. He said Jimmy texted him late last night and asked him to come to his house at sunrise Monday morning to start work again.”

“How is he?”

She shrugged. “Mike didn’t know much else. You and Brent should stop out there later today. Maybe take him a plate of supper.”

“Yeah, we will.” Dan allowed himself to feel a hint of relief without getting too optimistic. He turned toward the kitchen, but Stacy reached out and grabbed the hem of his t-shirt, holding him back.

“What’s this stain on your shirt?” she asked.

“Where?” Dan looked down at the old t-shirt he wore, one he’d had for years and had relegated to work clothes. The screen-printing had cracked and faded; the fabric thinned. With so many old stains seeped into the cotton, it would be impossible to identify a new one. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“It’s something.” Stacy pulled him closer. She scratched at the suspicious spot with her fingernail. “What is this? Glue?”

As Dan looked down and saw the dried and crusty, cream colored stain, his heart plummeted. His breath caught. The sweet memory of that first bite of Vivian’s delectable cream puffs flashed across his taste buds, slipped down his throat in a suffocating gasp, and landed in his stomach with a sickening thud.

He’d been careless with Vivian’s treats, and he was about to be caught. Shit.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said quickly, the lie flaming his cheeks with a guilty flush. He tried to pull away from Stacy’s grasp, but she only held on tighter.

“It’s not glue… It looks like…” She gasped, her eyes widening in disbelief. “Daniel Joseph!”

“What? Wait! I—I can explain,” he stuttered in shame.

Anger flashed in her eyes, but as she leaned in to sniff the fabric, her expression changed to one of amusement. She let out a hearty laugh.

“Is that vanilla pudding?”

“Of course, it is. What did you think it was?” Dan asked, confused by her reaction. What could possibly be worse than eating another woman’s cream… Oh! “Seriously, Stace! What kind of husband do you think I am?”

“I’m sorry.” She blushed. “Overactive imagination, I guess, or these stupid hormones.”

He tried to huff in indignation, but the guilt flamed his cheeks hotter yet. He scraped at the stain with his thumbnail, desperate to erase the evidence of his illicit food affair.

“It’ll come out in the wash, Dan. Don’t worry about it.”

“But it’s my favorite shirt,” he said, a lie, and scrubbed harder.

“Where did you get pudding from?”

“Uh…” He grasped at the first thought that crossed his mind. “Little Debbie.”

“Mm hmm.” Stacy narrowed her eyes in disbelief, but she said nothing more, not teasing him or cursing him, in English or in Polish, her silence more unsettling than her accusations.

Damn you, Vivian!

* * *

Marissa Vasek awoke on Sunday morning with a tequila hangover and fuzzy memories of awkward, regrettable sex with a fat man named Sam in the men’s restroom of Captain Jack’s. The combination kept her holed up her drapery-darkened bedroom long into the afternoon. She emerged around suppertime, beckoned by the enticing aroma of her mother’s spicy pan-fried chicken and cheesy potatoes. Immediately upon stepping foot into the kitchen, she regretted the decision to abandon her solitary sanctuary and immerse herself in the land of fools.

“Hey, Mike,” she said to her mother’s B.F.F. and quasi-permanent house guest, who sat in his usual spot, slouched on one of the mismatched chairs at the kitchen table.

He pulled his eyes away from the video on his cellphone, tipped his chin in a half-ass greeting. “’Sup?”

Marissa gathered the sash of her silk kimono robe and loosely tied it around her waist to conceal her thin tank and panties. Mike spent so much time lurking in the shadows of her house she was certain he had already seen any goodie she may have to offer, but she still preferred the pretense of modesty. “How’s it hanging.”

“Dunno.” He shrugged. “Hadn’t thought about it.”

“Not much to think about, though, is there?”

Marissa waited, but Mike didn’t react to her jab. Disappointed, she filled a glass with tap water and eyed him over the rim as she sipped. The guy always carried a bit of a hangdog expression, but he seemed a little more ragged, a little more pathetic than usual. His pup, Bella, lay at his feet, chin on paws, eyes droopy, ears down, parroting her master’s emotion.

“Why so glum, chum.”

“Ashley’s flight left early this morning,” Marissa’s mother, Kitty, answered for Mike. “She’s on her way to Germany.”

“Well, that sucks hairy donkey dong,” Marissa said, though she truly couldn’t care less what Ashley did or did not do, or where she went. It wasn’t like Mike and Ashley were married for real, anyway. It was just insurance fraud. She moved over to the stove, poked at the chicken with a fork. “How much longer?”

“Not long,” Kitty said. “Toss a salad for me.”

While Marissa gathered vegetables from the refrigerator, washed, peeled, seeded and chopped, Kitty talked, and talked. And gossiped some more.

Marissa marveled at the recent changes in her mother; the brightness of her eyes, the joy in her voice, the pep in her step. For years, Kitty had cowered in her dank and darkened house, barricaded by her hoard of crap. But now, she explored the world freely, eager to meet as many new people as she could find. She collected the lost souls, often bringing them home for a meal, a warm shower or bed.

Kitty hoarded friends in much the same way as she had once hoarded scrap wood and porcelain dolls, but Marissa figured it was a healthier addiction than the one she had before. At least, until Kitty accidentally collected an arsonist or serial killer, or a hoard of feral cats, at which time, Marissa would be forced to step in again. Until then, she enjoyed listening to her mother laugh.

She wasn’t much listening to the words her mother spoke, however, until she heard the name Tyler Tomek. Startled from her reprieve, Marissa dropped the knife. “What did you just say?”

“I said Tyler Tomek is the elders’ choice,” Kitty repeated.

“Choice for what?”

“Interim pastor,” Mike said, his tone defeated, a perfect match for how Marissa suddenly felt.

“Seriously?”

“Oh, yes!” Kitty nodded in excitement. “I think it’ll be nice to have someone we already know replace Pastor Tom. It should make the transition that much easier. And I hear Tyler has turned into a fine young man. If I’m remembering right, Marissa, didn’t you use to date him?”

“We went out one time…” Marissa corrected, forcing her tone to remain light while her heart raced in terror from the memory, too chickenshit to speak the truth aloud; …and he raped me.

Chapter 125 ~ What a Girl Wants

What a Girl Wants“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.”

“Which one?”

“Your 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?”

“Positive.”

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.

Chapter 124 ~ Case Study

Case Study“Is he going to wear that damn hat every day?” Kylie whispered to Nessa as they watched Frog Man scramble, flip and fry his way through the breakfast rush, a foam rubber Nebraska Huskers Cornhead hat perched precariously atop his head.

“I’m sure,” Nessa replied on a weary sigh. She’d picked it up on her latest whirlwind trip to Allman Falls to spend the weekend loving on her Norse god, Chief.

Frog Man hadn’t taken it off since.

“I still think he’s going to catch himself on fire.” Kylie grabbed the coffee pot and made a round through the café. When they met back at the counter, she added, “He’s going to look ridiculous with no eyebrows.”

“I think he could pull it off,” Nessa said with a hop of her shoulders as Frog Man hollered out “Table seven!” from the kitchen. Nessa hooked a glass dispenser of maple syrup onto the pocket of her apron, scooped up two plates heaping with pancakes and rushed off as the door to the diner opened again.

Quickly, Kylie bussed table twelve before seating a family of four at it.

“Would you like some coffee while you look over the—”

“We’re ready to order,” the woman interrupted. Dressed younger than her age, overly made up and highlighted, the woman plucked a series of napkins from the dispenser and briskly scrubbed the table Kylie had just cleaned. “The kids will have the FrogCakes with a side of apples, I’d like scrambled eggs, whites only, with fruit salad. My husband will have the Denver omelet with bacon and wheat toast. Bring milk for the kids, coffee and juice for us.”

She held the wad of napkins in pinched fingers for Kylie.

“Yes, ma’am,” Kylie replied with a forced smile that disappeared the moment she turned her back to the table. She tossed the napkins into the trash and slipped their ticket in line on the clip.

“Play nice,” Nessa whispered in warning to Kylie as she twirled past.

“No promises,” Kylie’s eyes twinkled in reply.

As she worked her tables, Kylie’s attention kept returning to the family. The children, a boy of around seven and a girl close to Brayden’s age, both dressed in designer brands and hundred-dollar shoes, fought over the crayons as they colored their placements. The parents did not speak to each other, or to their children. The woman’s thumbs danced across the screen of her cellphone as she texted. The man scrolled mindlessly through his phone, never pausing long enough to register more than a headline.

When Nessa passed by their table, carrying a tray heavily loaded with beverages, the husband’s eyes shifted from his phone to Nessa’s backside, following her journey through the diner, to the corner booth. Unabashedly, he watched every bend and twist of Nessa’s figure as she distributed juice and water, hot coffee and cold sodas amongst the table.

A slight turn of her body away from her husband, an increase in flurry of her thumbs across the screen of her cellphone, gave indication the wife noticed. Her silence gave indication she didn’t care.

Once again, Frog Man hollered from the kitchen. “Table twelve!”

Kylie loaded her tray and delivered it to the table.

“Here we go guys!” With a flourish, she placed the pancakes in front of the children.

The boy grabbed his fork and stabbed it repeatedly through the center of the stack, growling on whisper, “Die, die, die, demon frog!” while the little girl’s eyes sparkled in delight at the smiling frog prince and princess faces Frog Man had created out of halved grapes, kiwi and apple slices. Kylie couldn’t help but chuckle when she noticed the pineapple chunks on top looked remarkably more like Cornhats than crowns.

“Look, Mommy!” the little girl tried to get her mother’s attention.

“Cute,” the woman answered without looking up from her phone.

“Do you like my picture?” the girl asked, holding her paper placemat high for Kylie to see.

“Very pretty,” Kylie praised. “I like way you colored the frog blue.”

Her cute features scrunched in frown. “Wyatt hogged the green.”

“Did not!” he protested.

“Did so!” she countered and stuck out her tongue.

Wyatt pinched his sister.

With a squeal, she smacked him.

“Knock it off,” their father chastised.

With a weary sigh, their mother finally set down her phone and picked up her silverware. Without pause, she sliced the frog princess in half, then quarters, then into bite-sized pieces. The sudden destruction of her joy brought a tear to the little girl’s eye, but she did not cry. She didn’t eat the pancake, either.

While his wife was distracted, the man ran a light touch down Kylie’s arm. “Would you bring some cream for the coffee, Doll?”

His request was innocent, but the way he asked sent a chill creeping down Kylie’s spine. More, she despised being called ‘Doll.’ Still, she smiled and pulled a handful of creamer packets from her apron pocket. “Can I get you anything else?”

Neither adult at the table answered. She’d become invisible.

Kylie moved onto the other diners; to the pair of teenagers in the back booth, who shared a single plate and sat close enough to fuse together. To the middle-aged couple who sat in a comfortable silence, not speaking, but no cellphones in sight as they shared a meal together. To a trio of elderly gentlemen who sat shoulder to shoulder at the counter, the one in the middle talking enough for the three of them. To the single father, fully engrossed in his tween daughter’s animated reenactment of her cheer audition.

Kylie found them all fascinating, but her eyes kept drifting back to the cold and distant couple at table twelve. They could have been having an off day, Kylie told herself, but it felt too much like the norm. They ate in silence, paid by credit card, and left the diner without exchanging even a single glance with each other.

As quickly as it started, the morning rush died. Frog Man disappeared out the back door to take a smoke break. Kylie wiped down the last booth and sunk into the worn, vinyl bench. Nessa slipped in across from Kylie, her back against the wall, and sighed.

“Oh, my feet are killing me,” she moaned. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“I can’t either,” Kylie agreed, but not because of the ache in her feet. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Me, either.” Nessa closed her eyes for a moment. “But I already got a job waitressing at Charlene’s lined up for when I move.”

“I still can’t believe you’re leaving me in a few weeks.”

Nessa reached across the table for Kylie’s hand. “I still can’t believe you’re not coming with me.”

“I will. Eventually,” Kylie said. Without Nessa, Huntington Beach held no meaning. She missed her mother and her friends, the town. But she still needed more time to herself, time to think, to reflect. To figure out who the hell she was, who she wanted to be. “I still can’t believe Ashley. I almost didn’t recognize her at the airport. She looked like a whole different person, like she was all grown up.”

“She looked happy,” Nessa added.

“Fulfilled,” Kylie agreed. She laughed. “Maybe I should join the Army, too.”

“What you need to do is focus on your art.”

A week ago, Kylie would have argued a million reasons why it was foolish—selfish—to draw pictures and play with clay all day. Any more, she felt foolish denying her own talent. She was good. Every day, she was getting better. Why couldn’t she find a way to turn her passion into a livelihood. Why shouldn’t she at least try?

“I signed up for a few classes at the college for the next semester.”

“You’re staying through spring?” Nessa asked, disappointed.

“Yeah,” Kylie nodded. “I think I need to.”

Nessa didn’t argue. “What are you taking?”

“The fundamentals of illustration, and an introduction to art therapy. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Ashley said about wanting to study psychology, and I thought about how those sculpture classes helped me find my focus, and… I don’t know, it just feels right.” She shrugged, thought of the detached couple at breakfast, of her own struggle to find joy in life, peace with herself. “If I like it, I think I’m going to enroll in college full time in the fall, work toward a degree.”

“To be a psychiatrist?”

“To be a therapist,” Kylie quickly corrected. “Using art.”

“That’s really cool, Ky.” Nessa squeezed her hand. “So, four more years in California?”

“Nebraska. The only way I can afford it is to move back in with my mom.”

Nessa squeezed tighter. “That’s the best part!”

A bright flicker of reflected sunlight flashed across the far wall of the diner as a car pulled into the parking lot. Late for breakfast, early for lunch, Nessa and Kylie flipped a quarter to see who would have to get off their ass to wait on the customer. Kylie lost.

The bells attached to the handle of the door jingled in warning an instant before a wave of heat rushed inside, filling the diner with an energy so heady, so raw and sensual, Kylie didn’t have to look up to know who had walked in.

Still, she did.

The sight of him stole her breath away, silencing her disbelieving whisper, “Jimmy?”

“Hey, Ky.”

Chapter 123 ~ In the Wash

In the WashGrowing up, the Johansens had not been wanting. They’d been fortunate to never know hunger, or find themselves lacking life’s necessities; shelter, clothing, medicine, education. Still, many activities considered everyday for most families were instead moments of occasion; a Happy Meal, new shoes, a trip through the automatic car wash.

As an adult, Kylie occasionally felt a shimmering reminder of those basic, childhood joys. Sitting in the drive thru lane, the smell of greasy and French fries mingling with hot blacktop and car exhaust. Slipping her foot into a brand-new pair of running shoes, the laces brilliant white, the soles stiff and treads pristine, yet untarnished by filthy concrete.

Now, in the last moments of a $10 car wash on a chilly Tucson evening, as hot wax sprayed onto the windshield, reds and yellows mixing into the blue and greens, Kylie watched her sister sitting in the passenger seat of their rental car, her head tipped, her eyes wide and mouth slightly agape in fascinated wonder, reminiscent of those special childhood moments with their mother.

She wished she could turn back time, to the moment of Ashley’s birth, and do it all over again. Their entire childhood. Every second of Ashley’s life. This time, she would strive be her sister’s best friend and confidant, her playmate and partner in crime.

Not her second mother.

She had so much she wanted to say, a million apologies to make, but she couldn’t find the words, and her eyes were tearing up from the scented wax and humid air.

“Hey,” Ashley whispered. She squeezed Kylie’s hand. “You okay?”

“I’m good,” Kylie lied. “Just tired.”

“You can sleep on the plane.”

Staring unabashedly at her sister, Kylie marveled at the strength of Ashley’s jaw, her shoulders. Her hair, smart in pixie cut, had been dyed deep and highlighted like rich honey. She wore her makeup modest, with new-found confidence in her own natural beauty. She had conquered her lifelong battle against baby fat, her body sculpted in strength, lean with discipline.

Even the scent of the air around her had matured, no longer a nauseating musk of stale cigarette and knockoff body spray. Instead, the slightest hint of jasmine danced delicately around her.

“I’m sorry.”

Kylie said the words in her mind, in her heart. Aloud, the sentiment was inadequate.

“I still can’t believe Charlie’s bald.” Ashley’s eyes twinkled in merry smile. “Like, bald-bald. And not like he shaved it.”

“He’s shorter than I remember,” Kylie added, still amazed. In her memories, Charlie had always been larger than life, standing tall and proud with her high on his shoulders, presenting the world to her.

“Yeah, that was weird. I always pictured him bigger.”

“He was to us. We were kids.”

“True.”

The car wash complete, Kylie inched through blowers. Blindly, she stared through the windshield as water drops pushed across the glass in bursts of invisible energy.

They’d surprised Charlie, ambushing him in the parking lot of the office complex where he worked. It wasn’t intentional, to catch him off-guard or gain the upper hand. They were just short on time, impatient. And slightly worried he would be unresponsive to a request.

It had been a good visit, more than Kylie had hoped for, a confirmation she’d spent her life loving a decent man, an honest man. A father.

It was impossible to catch up in a single afternoon, over Sonoran hot dogs and three hearts trying to talk at once, but they’d done their best. In the end, she’d hugged him goodbye, heartbroken they had missed out on so many years, but confident they could still share many more. She’d promised to bring Brayden next time.

He’d stepped aside with Ashley for a long, private moment with his daughter. Instead of jealousy or envy, or embarrassment, Kylie had watched with pride as her sister spoke freely, gestured wildly, and cried openly. Charlie had done much of the same. He’d held her face in his hands, kissed her forehead. She’d wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed him tight, clinging to him like she would have as a child, if only he’d given her the opportunity then to say goodbye.

The dryers stopped, bringing a sudden silence to the inside of the car. Lifting her foot from the brake, Kylie rolled away from the dark cocoon of the car wash, into the warmth of a winter sunset. She still hadn’t said everything she’d wanted to say to her sister.

She hadn’t told Ashley she was proud of her, that she admired her commitment to her country, her devotion to her friends.

She had not admitted she was wrong about Mike, that she had been insensitive to his plight. She had not expressed how impressed she was by his journey to recovery.

She hadn’t complimented her sister’s strength. Her determination. Her bravery. Her humor. Her heart.

She had yet to apologize for lying about her feelings for Jimmy, for falling in love with him while chastising her sister for having done the same.

For a lifetime of criticizing her every decision, interrupting her every word.

For never listening to her dreams.

She’d run out of time to say in a million ways, I’m sorry.

Please, forgive me.

Instead, she parked alongside the bank of high-power vacuums, unbuckled her seat belt, and turned in the driver’s seat to face her sister directly.

“I love you, Ash.”

Amused, Ashley smiled. “I love you, too, Ky.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered in her mind, in her heart, into the jasmine scented air, and she hugged her sister tight.

Chapter 122 ~ Homemade

HomemadeDan sat on the tailgate of his truck, parked in the alley behind Charlene’s Diner, eating banana bread and watching his new employees haul out the kitchen demolition. In addition to bringing back Jason, Brent had hired two kids fresh off a Folsom job. Dan could already tell they wouldn’t last, but while they still pretended to work, he slacked off and savored the sweet, wholesome goodness his love, Vivian, had baked for him.

Brent hitched his ass onto the tailgate beside Dan and stuffed his hand into his own goodie bag from Vivian. Around a mouthful of banana bread, he grumbled, “Aria won’t let me find out if we’re having a boy or a girl. She wants to be surprised.”

“Stace was the same way.”

“I want a boy,” Brent said. “Girls look like too much stress. I mean, look at you. You’re already getting pudgy and going bald, and Emily’s only a few weeks old. What’re you going to look like when she starts to date?”

“That’s never going to happen. I’ve already decided she’s going to be a nun.”

“If I have a boy, she could date my son. He’d treat her right.”

Dan laughed at the asinine suggestion.

Brent took offense. “What would be so horrible about my boy dating your girl?”

“Emily’s not dating a Rogan,” Dan stated firmly.

“And why not?” Brent huffed. “I’ll have you know the Rogans are excellent stock. We’re strong, healthy men, with rugged, good looks.”

“No.”

“We work hard, and we love our mothers.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“We are exceptionally romantic and naturally talented lovers.”

“You’re making it worse.”

“As a matter of fact, every country song ever written was inspired by a Rogan.”

“You’re full of shit,” Dan laughed.

“I speak the truth. You’re just jealous.”

“You wish it were true.” Dan finished the last bite of his banana bread and said, “I tell you what; if you have a girl, Emily and your daughter can be the best of friends. But if you have a boy, we agree that the two of them never meet. At least not until Emily joins the sisterhood.”

“And why the hell not?”

“Because of the whole ‘talented lover’ thing. Emily’s not allowed to have one of those. At least, not until after I’m dead.”

“That’s fair,” Brent agreed. He reached into his bag, came up emptyhanded. “I think Vivian shorted us today.”

“Yeah…” Dan mused, shifting uncomfortably in guilt. He’d stolen one of Brent’s pieces while the guy was distracted pouring coffee. He hadn’t intended to. It was just Vivi’s banana bread was so warm, so cinnamony, so fresh-baked, melt-in-your-mouth delicious he couldn’t control himself.

“I bet one of Folsom’s guys stole it,” Brent decided, glaring at their new employees.

“Yeah,” Dan repeated around a guilty cough.

Brent turned toward Dan, his expression serious. For a panicked second, Dan feared he had been caught. He tensed, a breath away from confessing, when Brent said, “Jimmy’s gone. Just up and disappeared.”

“What?” Dan asked, stunned. “When?”

Brent just shrugged. “Mike says he hasn’t seen him since Tuesday.”

“He’s probably at Marissa’s.”

“Not anymore.”

“Well, he’s got to be somewhere.” Dan hoped for the obvious, “Did you call Ky?”

“If he was there, we’d know… Wouldn’t we?”

Dan shrugged. “Not necessarily.”

“I guess.” Forlorn, Brent peered into his goodie bag, one more time, as though hoping for a miracle. None were to be had. He wadded the empty sack into a tight ball. “Let’s get Charlene’s stupid kitchen started.”

Dan slid off the tailgate, as graceful as a blob of lead. He was having a hard time finding motivation lately. He figured it was just the long winter, or too much of Stacy’s good cooking over the holidays. Stress, maybe. Or lack of sex.

Oh, how he missed sex.

He had to be getting close to the end of Stacy’s post-baby hiatus, but every frustrated night seemed to stretch longer than the last. The more he thought about it, the more he wished he’d stolen two pieces of Brent’s banana bread. He needed another hit of Vivian’s sweet, scrumptious, homemade lovin’ to bury his pain.

*  * *

Jimmy slowly awoke to the robust aroma of fresh brewed coffee and pan-fried bacon, but it was the subtle undertone of ocean air that sat him upright. His head protested the sudden movement with throbs of pressure in time with the erratic beats of his heart.

“Fuck,” he cursed his head. His heart. The previous thirty-six hours.

Somehow, he’d put his own drunk ass on an airplane.

First class.

The stewardess had been blonde. Enamored by him. Or indifferent.

Either way, she’d kept his glass full.

He didn’t remember landing. Leaving the airport. Traveling across town.

He did remember knocking on her door, falling into her arms. Crying.

His eyes still hurt, he’d cried so much.

He pushed himself out of bed, stood on unsteady legs, fully dressed. Except his boots.

He’d lost those somewhere.

He found her on the lanai, her legs curled under her, reading. A gentle breeze tussled her hair. She tucked a stray lock behind her ear, felt his presence. She lifted her eyes to his.

And he shattered again.

“Ma…”

Chapter 121 ~ Consolation

ComfortWith his head heavy in his hands, Jimmy sat naked on the edge of the bed and tried to remember how the hell he had ended up where he was, the last few hours of his life nothing more than a whiskey haze. Every minute, of every day, since the very second he had watched Ky drive away, seemed to lay buried in the same thick shroud of semi-consciousness, his failed attempt to drink her from existence. No matter how much he drank, no matter how hard he fucked, she refused to die. He closed his eyes, shifted his hands to his ears, desperate to block out her voice. He could still feel her breath, hot and damp on his face, her words an eternal echo, “You are nothing to him.”

“She deserves better than you…”

“You are nothing to him.”

The two, relentless truths he could never drink away.

The bed shifted behind him as she roused from sleep. He bit back a curse. He hadn’t left fast enough, sabotaging himself once again because he feared being alone. He was so fucking tired of being lonely. But being with her only intensified his desolation.

Moving in close, she ran a gentle caress across his shoulders, down his back. His body involuntarily shuddered from her touch.

Her voice thick from the long night, she asked, “Can’t sleep?”

“No.”

The bed shifted under her weight as she rose to hold him. He tensed as the breasts he’d paid for pressed unyielding against his back. Her breath, hot from sleep, still laced with tequila, sent him into a deep chill. He brushed her away, rougher than he intended to, but he didn’t apologize, and she didn’t remove her hands from him.

Marissa held him tighter, her lips playing along his shoulder. “Come back to bed.”

With her arms around him, her hands stroking and massaging his body, her skin still wearing the musky scent of sweat and sex, she enveloped him in her body heat, but the chill inside him spread, until his every cell felt dead.

He extracted himself from her embrace. “I have to go.”

By the soft, twinkling glow of the Christmas lights strung outside her bedroom window, he hunted down his jeans and slipped them on.

She let out a heavy sigh and propped herself up against the pillows. She reached to the nightstand for her glass of lukewarm tequila, taking a sip before handing it to him. He downed the rest, numb to the burn, and watched as she lit a cigarette. She drew in a deep drag, studying him with an intense gaze, and exhaled a slow stream of smoke.

“How much longer are you planning on doing this?” she asked.

“Doing what?”

“Using me as your substitute.”

He returned to sitting on the edge of the bed to pull on his boots and shot a sideways glance at her unabashedly nude form. His eyes traveled up her long, toned legs, around the gentle curve of her hips, over her tight abs and the swell of her breasts. His journey stopped when his eyes met the blue of hers. Framed by mussed, honey-blonde hair, her beautiful face hid behind a layer of heavy make-up, painted in sorrow.

“Can you even remember the last time you were thinking about me when your hands were on my body?”

He turned away from her, but couldn’t escape her gaze, their eyes meeting in the mirror hanging over her bureau. He had never intentionally lied to her, and she demanded truth from him now.

“No.”

Her smile did not reach her eyes. “I think we were seventeen.”

“That’s not true, Miss.”

“Close enough.” She took a short drag of her cigarette, exhaling another blue stream before snubbing out the wasted length of it into a glass ashtray. She pulled her legs in and rested her chin on her knees, watching him as he stuffed one foot and then the other into his work boots. “I didn’t mind because I knew I was the only girl in your life who never changed. You and I always found each other when we needed someone. Even when you had Ash, you still came looking for me more often than you turned to her.”

He stood and fished his t-shirt out of a pile of discarded clothing on the floor, desperate to escape her voice.

“When you and Ky first got together, I figured she’d be like all the others who came before her. But she wasn’t, was she?” She laughed, the sorrowful sound of it souring the tequila in his stomach. “For the first time in my life, I was jealous. I never thought that was an emotion I would ever waste my time on, especially when it came to you, but it was.”

“Missy, don’t…”

“The funny thing though, Jimmy, it wasn’t until after Ky left for California, and you came to me totally destroyed, that I realized I wasn’t jealous of her.” She waited until he turned to look at her before she said, “I was jealous of you.”

He silently watched the flickering rainbow of Christmas colors play across her features, highlighting her pain and shadowing her fear, and she gave him a weak shrug.

“You found love.”

“Miss…” he breathed out in a pained whisper around the lump lodged in his throat.

She climbed from her bed and crossed the room, her arms coming around him just as he lost the battle, the first tear racing down his cheek, followed by a million more.

“You know I love you, baby, and I’ll never turn you away from my bed if that’s where you truly want to be,” she whispered. “But you don’t belong with me anymore.”

He buried his face in her neck, her familiar scent both a comfort and a torment as she rocked him in her arms. “I don’t know where else to go.”

“Just go home.”