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.”

 

Chapter 120 ~ Shattered

ShatteredIt was supposed to be an easy trip home—a short visit with her mom, a quick roll in the hay with her husband—before she hopped on another airplane to fly halfway around the world, onto her next adventure. Now, thanks to her selfish bitch of a sister, she was forced to commit a teeny, tiny misdemeanor as well.

Standing on the front porch, in the dark of night, freezing her ass off as a brutal north wind sliced through the hills and cut through her jeans, Ashley hefted the largest rock she could find, and smashed it through Jimmy’s front window.

“Have you lost your mind?” Mike panicked.

Ignoring him, Ashley tucked her hand into the sleeve of her jacket and knocked out the remaining shards of glass. As she climbed through the window, Jimmy winged an empty beer bottle in her general direction. It missed by a mile, shattering against the far wall.

Mike let out a curse of defeat and used the key he had been withholding from Ashley to enter Jimmy’s house like a normal person.

“I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry,” Mike sighed in apology.

“You’re paying for that,” Jimmy grumbled as he struggled to stand. He lost the fight against gravity and collapsed back onto the couch.

“I’ll find a board,” Mike offered as he slowly wandered off, in hangdog fashion.

“What the hell, Jimmy?” Ashley muttered in disgust. She glanced around, taking assessment of the house, at the holes punched through the new drywall, at the trash and beer bottles littered about. The air felt heavy, stale with the stench of misery and despair. She’d be willing to bet Jimmy hadn’t moved far from the room all week, which was probably the last time he had showered, as well.

“When’s the last time you slept?” she asked.

“Go away.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you get off your ass and do something—do anything—besides drink alone in the dark. I don’t care what.” Ashley crossed the room and flopped down in the armchair next to Jimmy, in close enough proximity to confirm her suspicion. She damn near gagged. “I suggest you start with a shower.”

“Get the fuck outta my house,” he slurred.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Jimmy shifted his eyes, blinking for so long she almost believed he had fallen asleep. His head rolled, and he faced the television, his bloodshot eyes narrow slits in protection from the harsh light coming from the screen.

“What are we watching?” Ashley shifted in the chair, but Jimmy turned off the television before she could see. She rolled her eyes. “What, were you watching porn or something?”

“Yeah. Leave me alone so I can jerk off in peace.”

Jimmy pulled a fresh bottle of beer from the six pack on the floor and twisted off the cap. He flicked it at her, missing again. Before he could bring the bottle to his lips, Ashley reached out and ripped it from his hand. She winged it across the room, smashing the full bottle against the wall.

As the beer foamed and poured down the drywall, she commanded, “Stand up.”

“No.”

“Stand the fuck up,” she repeated. “Start living again.”

“I am living.” He took a deep breath in and blew it out through his nose. “See?”

“You’re not living, you’re hiding. You just going to sit here and wallow in self-pity until you die? Well, guess what, Baby James!? Miserable people live really long lives.”

“Fuck you,” Jimmy muttered.

“Fuck you,” Ashley parroted, exhausted as she slumped back in her chair. She studied Jimmy, his bloodshot eyes, his haggard face. She couldn’t tell how much of it was from the beer and how much was from not sleeping in a very long time. He looked to pass out at any second, so Ashley kept pushing. “Do you love my sister?”

“What?”

“Do you love her?” Ashley repeated.

Jimmy turned away.

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life without her?”

He closed his eyes, refusing to answer.

“Without Brayden?”

He swallowed hard, fighting it, but still the tears escaped.

Softening, she went to him, held his face in her hands, forcing him to look at her.

“Get your shit together.”

He jerked away from her touch. “I can’t do this with you.”

“If not me, then who?”

“Go away.”

“Everyone else loves you too much to tell you the truth.”

“Go. Away.”

“You’re a drunk. You need help.”

“Get the fuck out of my house!”

“You’ve had a problem for a long time.”

Jimmy hissed, scrubbed his face with his hands.

“You can’t fix this by yourself.”

“There’s nothing left to fix! Everyone’s gone. Dead.”

“Nobody’s dead.” She paused. Slowed down. “Your dad’s gone, I’m sorry. And I know you’ve lost your heart before. It hurts like hell. I understand. Believe me, Jimmy. I see you. But you can’t live in the past. Everyone here and now is very much alive. Except for you. You’re the only one who refuses to live.”

“Fuck this.” He pushed off the sofa, started for the stairs. “I need to go puke, or pass out, or something. Fix my fucking window before you leave.”

Disappointed, but not defeated, Ashley watched his struggle to climb the stairs. Once she was certain he wouldn’t tumble down and break his neck, she went looking for a broom to clean the broken glass. As she passed the television, curiosity got the best of her. She picked up the remote, pressed play.

Brayden’s chubby, little, baby face filled the screen, his eyes bright, the drool fierce as he crawled across the carpet toward Kylie’s outstretched arms. She scooped him up and cheered for her baby’s new-found skill. Jimmy came into view as Kylie handed Brayden up to him. Standing proud, he held the little boy close, waving his tiny fist in victory.

*  *  *

A persistent, droning vibration broke into the sleep that had elude Kylie much of the night. With a groan, she fumbled around on her nightstand for her cellphone. The instant she lay hand on it, the vibration stopped. She shoved her head under her pillow, closed her eyes, and no more than thought of sleep before the vibration started up again.

Cursing under her breath, she snaked her arm out from under the blankets and swiped to reject the call. A few seconds later, it buzzed again.

“Shut up!” she growled in frustration, chucking the cellphone out into the hallway. All she wanted was five minutes of sleep—just five, blissful, uninterrupted minutes, void of Brayden crying, or Jimmy invading her dreams.

Just as she felt herself drift, just as she started to believe she might actually get her wish, she heard Nessa’s cellphone chirp from the other side of the wall, followed by the unmistakable thud of Nessa falling out of bed.

Cursing once more, Kylie lifted the pillow from her head and snuck a peek at the clock. There was only one person she knew who was stupid enough to call at an ungodly hour like three in the morning, and stubborn enough to keep calling until someone answered.

Nessa stumbled into Kylie’s room, tossed her cellphone onto the bed. “Ashley.”

Eyes closed, Nessa turned around, and smacked her face square on the doorjamb. “Ow.”

“Just sleep with me,” Kylie offered.

Mumbling her disgruntled gratitude, Nessa collapsed onto the bed. Immediately, she resumed her soft, whistling snore.

Kylie left Ashley to sit on hold for a full minute before she searched the blankets for Nessa’s phone. “What do you want, Ash?”

“I want you to get off your freakin’ high horse and get your bony ass back to Allman Falls.”

“For what?” Kylie asked, confused in the early hour.

“For Jimmy, you selfish bitch.”

“For Jimmy?” A hysterical laugh escaped before she could stifle it. “What do you care about Jimmy?”

“I care a lot about him. A hell of a lot more than you do, obviously.”

Not in the mood to argue, Kylie disconnected the call. Almost two full minutes passed before the phone rang again.

“What the hell was that?” Ashley practically shrieked. “Making me talk to myself like a freakin’ idiot!”

“What?” Kylie played dumb. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you’d hung up. Bad connection, I guess.”

“You really are the most self-centered, heartless piece of human garbage that ever existed.”

“What is your problem with me?” Kylie demanded.

“Gee, I don’t know, Ky. Maybe it’s that I’m sitting here, at Jimmy’s house, watching over his passed-out-drunk, practically lifeless body, making sure he doesn’t puke in his sleep and you’re—”

“Why does everyone act like Jimmy’s drinking is my fault?”

“I didn’t say it was your fault. I said you didn’t care!”

“Why should I care? He’s a grown man. If he wants to drink, let him drink.”

“Have you ever, even once in your life, thought of someone besides yourself?”

“Seriously? You’re the one asking me that?”

“Yes, Ky, I am.” Ashley huffed. “I am sick and tired of you acting like I’m the one who’s always making a mess of things. I may be impulsive, and yeah, I make a lot of really stupid mistakes, but at least I learn from them. At least I try. And at least I don’t make everyone else around me feel like shit, just so I’ll feel better about myself!”

“When have I ever—”

“It’s all you’ve ever done! My entire life, you’ve done everything in your power to make me look stupid, to make me feel like a fool, and you’ve never once let me live down a single one of my mistakes.”

The accusations weren’t true, but they still stung, leaving Kylie without a response.

“You belittle my marriage, dismiss my feelings. Do you even remember that I joined the Army? Do you even care that I got stationed in Germany? That you aren’t going to see me for years?”

“How can I care about these things, Ashley? You don’t tell me anything.”

“You never ask!” Ashley let out a long, low grunt of frustration. “You don’t care anything about my life except controlling it. You don’t care anything about Jimmy except controlling and criticizing him. Do you honestly think he drinks as much as he does because he wants to?”

“Of course not,” Kylie snapped. “We all know he has a problem.”

“And do you know why he has that problem? Do you think he’s a happy guy? Do you think he likes himself? Do you even care what he’s trying so damn hard to drown?”

Trying hard not to cry, Kylie bit the inside of her cheek. “Please, stop.”

“Why should I stop?”

“Because this has nothing to do with me! Jimmy is not my fault. I didn’t make his choices, I didn’t pour his drinks, and I sure as hell didn’t invite anyone else into his bed.”

Ashley huffed out a laugh. “See? It is all about you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If you ever loved Jimmy as much as you swore you did, you’d forget about your stupid, butt-hurt feelings and help him.”

“It’s not hurt feelings, Ashley. He cheated on me!”

“Oh, he did not, and you know it. You’re just using your obsession with Marissa as an excuse to belittle him whenever you feel like it and abandon him when shit gets too real.”

“Good bye, Ashley.”

“But that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what this is all about.” Ashley let out a laugh of disbelief. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. You’re scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Kylie immediately denied.

“You’re freaking terrified, because you actually love him.”

“Of course, I love him!” The tears started, burning one angry track after another down her flushed cheeks. “I love him, Ashley. I love the holy living shit out of him. And I really, truly, deeply, fucking despise him. So, please, please, just stop. Okay?”

“I’m sorry, Ky.”

She honestly sounded sorry, but Kylie no longer cared about her sister’s feelings, or anyone else’s. “Goodbye, Ash.”

She disconnected the call, powered down the phone, and slipped it onto the nightstand.

“Your sister sucks the life outta me,” Nessa mumbled.

“She tends to have that effect on people,” Kylie agreed. She slipped her hand around Nessa’s, giving her a squeeze. Nessa squeezed her hand in sisterly reply.

She closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but her mind was wide awake, arguing with her heart again. And Nessa’s sweet snores had started to resemble a fog horn. She watched three turn into four in the morning, and then five, before she picked up Nessa’s cellphone, turned it on, and called her sister.

“How long are you home?” Kylie asked as greeting.

“I don’t know,” Ashley grumbled, her voice heavy from sleep. “A few days.”

“Can you meet me in Albuquerque?”

“No,” Ashley replied on a yawn. “But I’ll meet you in Tucson. Charlie moved a few years ago.”

“How did you know that?” Kylie asked in disbelief.

“Duh, Ky. Haven’t you ever heard of the internet?”

 

 

 

 

 

Intermission

Good morning, Allman Falls Family!

Just wanted to drop a quick note to let you know I haven’t forgotten about you or our story. I recently started a new job and am a little brain fried from both the training and the commute. I hope to have a brand new chapter for you yet this weekend. But, just in case I zone out in a Netflix fog until Monday morning, I wanted to give you a little something.

This song by Robert Ellis is a favorite of mine. It comes up at least once a day in my playlist. Every time I hear it, I think of Kylie and Jimmy, and I’m anxious to get back to writing again. I hope you love it, too!

 

Chapter 119 ~ Fear and Loathing

FearDan sat in his pickup and polished off three of Vivian’s massive blueberry crumble muffins while Brent paced the Wheeler’s driveway and argued with Jimmy over his cellphone. They were behind schedule and needed to hustle, but Dan was having a hard time finding the motivation to get the day started. There was a bit of demo to do, which he loved, but they’d be stringing electrical wire by lunch. He hated stringing wire. But he did love blueberry muffins. Unfortunately, there was only one left.

Brent shouted a stream of angry curses into his phone, then climbed into the truck, slamming the door behind him.

Not hopeful, Dan asked, “Is he coming in today?”

“He says he’s never coming back.”

“Never?”

“Nope.” Brent tossed his cellphone onto the dash. “He says he quit.”

“He can’t quit. He owns the business.”

“That’s what I told him. He said he’s giving us his share.”

“And then what?”

“Hell if I know.” Brent tipped his head back against the headrest and let out a heavy sigh of frustration. “Drink himself to death, probably.”

“How’d he look the last time you went over there?” Dan had stopped by Jimmy’s house the past few nights after work. His truck was usually in the driveway, but the house was always locked up tight, the lights turned low. No matter how long Dan stood out in the cold, Jimmy refused to open the door to him.

“Like complete shit. I don’t know what to do. Mike’s got himself camped out over there, babysitting him, making sure he doesn’t do anything stupid, but he’s not talking to anyone, not even to Missy this time. I’m seriously thinking about calling Mom and having her fly up and straighten him out.”

“How much does she know about all this?”

“Just the bullshit story Jimmy fed her back in August.  I let her believe it because Dad had just died and she didn’t need to be worried about anything but herself back then, but now I’m thinking it’s time to tell her what’s really going on. She might be able to help.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Dan agreed, but if he knew Jimmy like he thought he did, the last thing he would want was for his mother to see him a broken, drunken mess. “But maybe you should wait, at least until after the holidays. Let’s keep trying.”

Brent clenched his jaw and scrubbed at his stubble. “I don’t see this getting better any time soon.”

Dan didn’t see it getting any better, either. “You know what? Fuck it. If he wants to quit, let him. I’m tired of this shit. First thing in the morning, I’m putting an ad in The Monitor for a couple of permanent guys. We’re behind enough as it is, and we’ve still got to start Charlene’s kitchen after the New Year.”

“Fuck,” Brent hissed out. “You sure know how to destroy a guy’s already crappy mood.”

Dan pulled the last muffin out of Vivian’s goodie bag. “Wanna split it?”

“Yeah.” Brent took his half and said, “Hold off on the ad until I can get a hold of a couple of my regular guys and see if they’re interested. I want to call Jason back, for sure.”

“If you call him now, we could make him string all the wire on this one,” Dan said with a tip of his head toward the Wheeler’s house.

Brent slowly nodded as he chewed. “And hang all the insulation.”

“Yeah, insulation sucks, too.” Dan licked the brown sugar crumble from his fingers. “You know, if we hire a whole crew of people, we could kick back and just supervise.”

“And eat Vivian’s goodies all day long.” Brent grinned. “She’s making donuts tomorrow.”

Dan groaned in longing. “I hope she puts powdered sugar on them again.”

“Or chocolate glaze.”

“Ooh, chocolate would be real good.”

They sighed in unison, lost in daydreams of melt-in-your-mouth, deep-fat-fried heaven. Dan’s jeans grew tighter just thinking about it.

Maybe he should’ve stopped at two muffins.

***

California’s eternally optimistic sunshine reflected off the windshields of the cars driving by the café, blinding Kylie as she wiped down the long counter and stared out the wall of windows. The beauty of the day mocked her, dragging her mood down to an abysmal low. It had been almost a week since she’d left Nebraska for good, but she still felt cold from the winter chill she’d left behind, the freeze seeming to originate from deep inside her chest.

Whistling an annoyingly cheery tune, Frog Man came through the swinging door from the kitchen into the temporarily empty dining area. “You’re wearing a hole in my counter, girlie.”

“What?” Through a fog of confusion, she looked down at the rag in her hand.

He lightly bumped into the back of her leg with his wheelchair. “Move down a couple inches and start polishing another spot.”

With a shake of her head to clear it, she picked up a salt shaker and wiped away the greasy fingerprints the lunch crowd had left behind. “Sorry, Frog Man.”

“Are you gonna tell me what’s goin’ on, or do I have to play Twenty Questions?”

“Nothing’s going on.” She shrugged, feigning ignorance and moved onto the next set of shakers.

“Don’t lie to the Frog Man. We’ve got a connection, me and you, and I can tell you’re hurtin’.” He followed her as she moved even farther down the counter. “The only way you’re gonna feel better is to let it all out. Lay it on me.”

Kylie sighed and said, “I’m a horrible person and a horrible mother and I totally suck at the whole love thing.”

“Ah, I see…” He nodded solemnly. “Come and sit with me a minute.”

He started for one of the red and white striped booths under the windows, and she had no choice but to follow. She sat on the edge of the bench seat with her legs in the aisle. Frog Man positioned himself in front of her, sitting knee-to-knee, and held both of her hands in his.

“First of all, you’re a good person and a great mom, so just stop with all that.”

She gave him a weak smile. “Sorry.”

“And second, everyone sucks at the whole ‘love’ thing. Even the Frog Man’s been known to screw it up a time or two.”

“You have?”

“Well, no, not really. I just said that to make you feel better.” He winked, and she found a smile. “So, you finally figured out David’s a putz. No big deal. Put your dancing shoes on and get back out there again.”

“You didn’t like David?”

“No, and neither did you.”

“You’re right,” she admitted.

“I’m always right.”

“I know you are.” She squeezed his hand, pulling strength from him before admitting, “I wasn’t talking about David, though. It’s someone else.”

Frog Man leaned into her and said, “This ‘someone,’ he’s the reason you came out here in the first place, right?”

Kylie nodded.

“And this someone drives you crazy when you’re with him, but you feel like you’ve lost your mind when he’s gone.”

She nodded again.

“And you want to be with him, but you refuse to admit it… even to yourself?”

“I don’t want to be with him,” Kylie corrected with emphasis.

“Because you think he’s no good for you.”

Her throat tightened as tears threatened. “I know he’s no good for me.”

“And his name is Jimmy.”

Kylie let out a gasp of surprise. “How did you know?”

“I told you, we’ve got a connection, me and you.”

“Mm hm,” Kylie grunted in skepticism.

Frog Man laughed, his eyes twinkling.

“Who do you think Little Man talks about when he helps me in the kitchen? All day long, all I hear is, Jimmy this, and Jimmy that; Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy.” He winked and added, “Thought I was psychic for a second, though, didn’t ya?”

“I thought something,” Kylie said, trying not to smile.

“So, why you are sitting here with old Frog Man instead of makin’ sweet Nebraska love with Jimbo?”

She pulled her hands away from Frog Man and reached over to straighten the napkin dispenser on the table. “Because he cheated on me and I’m having a hard time forgiving him.”

“Ah.” Frog Man nodded. “The ultimate betrayal.”

“I guess,” Kylie said with a shrug, making light of her emotions.

“Well, anyone who cheats on my girl deserves to be strung up a flag pole by his balls and beat black and blue with a big stick.”

An involuntary laugh rose up in her chest and a smile followed.

“But you wouldn’t be so tore up about it if you weren’t still in love with him.” He tipped his head and squinted his eyes, scrutinizing her. “And maybe thinking about giving him another shot?”

She set her jaw and shook her head. “Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“I refuse to let him hurt Brayden again.”

“Ah…” Frog Man nodded and sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers together across his chest. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”

Kylie felt her face flush as her anger pushed to the surface. “I have to protect my son.”

“But, you see, Ky, that’s where you’re wrong. Jimmy didn’t cheat on Brayden. He cheated on you. You’re not taking Jimmy back because your heart is broken. You’re protecting yourself.”

“What he did hurt Brayden,” Kylie insisted.

“What he did destroyed the family you thought you had,” Frog Man corrected. “If you’d stayed in Nebraska, Jimmy and Brayden would still have a relationship. Maybe not like they’d had before, but it would’ve been something. Brayden would’ve adjusted to its limitations. You’re here because Jimmy betrayed you, and you’re hurt, and you want to focus on hating him. You’re here because you think distance will prevent you from loving him.”

Her throat clamped closed, her chin quivering uncontrollably, and Frog Man grabbed her hands.

“Hey, hey, don’t cry. Crying gets you nowhere. It’s time to be honest with yourself and make some decisions. Decide what you want. Decide what your heart can handle.” Frog Man’s expression softened. “What’s your biggest fear?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. Her mind was all over the place. She could barely remember her own name, let alone pinpoint one single fear as her biggest. She was afraid of so many things, so much of the time, that sometimes it felt as though she feared her own shadow.

“Are you afraid he’ll do it again?”

“Cheat on me? Of course, I’m afraid he will. It’s like, I know he will, but I don’t… It’s not that I don’t care…”

“Or are you afraid he’s going to leave you?”

Her heart clutched tight, preventing her answer.

“I see.” Frog Man gave her a weak smile as he listened to her silence. “Only life will reveal that answer. So, the big question is, are you willing to risk your heart to find out?”

“No—I don’t know…”

“Take your time. Think it over. It’s a big decision to make. You don’t have to decide today or tomorrow. The answer will come to you when it’s right.” He touched her cheek, caught her tear. “But it’s a decision you have to make, Sweet Ky. Either take a leap of faith and go for it all, or let him go, completely. Continuing to pine over what you lost will only destroy you—and your son—in the end.”

“I know.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out slow as she wiped at the mascara running down her cheek. “I’m a mess.”

“Ah, but you’re a beautiful mess.” He pulled a handful of napkins from the dispenser and handed them to her. “You know, you could always take the easy way out, and marry me.”

She let out a laugh as she dabbed at her eyes with the harsh napkins. “Maybe I will.”

“Of course, I’m kinda upset with you right now, so you’ll have to do a whole lotta sweet talkin’ to get me to propose.”

“Why are you upset with me?” she asked in confusion. “What did I do?”

“It’s not what you did. It’s what you didn’t do.”

“What didn’t I do?” she asked, even more confused.

“Notice anything missing from this picture?” He backed up from the table and tipped his head side-to-side, modeling as he spun his wheelchair in a slow circle.

“Umm…” She looked him over carefully as he spun, but he looked fine to her. “No.”

“Doesn’t my head look a little naked?”

“Your hat!” she cried out as hands flew up to her mouth. “I’m so sorry, Frog Man! I ran out of there so fast I forgot it!”

“I see how you are,” he said with a pretend sniff. “Everyone always forgets the Frog Man.”

“I’ll get you one for Christmas,” she promised.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Promises, promises,” he dismissed with a wave of his hand. He returned to her and said, “I don’t need the stinkin’ hat for Christmas. All I really need is to see my girl stand in the sunshine and smile.”

“I’m trying, Frog Man.”

“I know you are, girl.” He pulled her into his lap and she rested her head on his shoulder. “I know you are.”

With his arms wrapped around her in the comfort of a father’s embrace, she felt loved and cherished and incredibly safe, secure in a way she hadn’t felt since Charlie left. Once more, the tears flowed.

 

Chapter 118 ~ Left Alone

Left AloneMike’s crap day started when his Gator was run off the gravel road by a wild Mustang. It ended with the news his wife had been stationed five-thousand miles outside of his probation radius. In between the two, he had to deal with Jimmy. If he could do anything about the day over, he would have listened to the wishes of his pup, Bella, and stayed in bed.

When he’d swerved to avoid the sports car, he’d overcorrected and ended up ass-down in the ditch. The utility vehicle had survived abuse far worse without as much as a scratch, but it was heavy, and he got it good and stuck. Bella hopped out, shook off the adrenaline rush, and then retired to the harvested field to lay in the sun while Mike fruitlessly spun his tires in the partially frozen mud. He sent a text to Jimmy, then waited.

The road was hardly traveled. A middle-aged woman with bird-like features driving an obsidian Lexus slowed to look but did not stop to help when he waved. Three other vehicles sped past without noticing, one of them a work truck with Rogan-Handley Construction emblazoned on the side. Mike texted Jimmy again, told him to turn his ass around, and then waited some more.

Bella snored. Mike texted Ashley. She’d been short with him recently, sending one-word responses, not answering his calls. She was preparing for graduation from basic training, awaiting her first assignment, about to make another big change in her life. He could sense her stress, but she didn’t need his support, didn’t want his advice. She also didn’t want her family to attend the ceremony, or to even know it was happening.

She wanted to do it all alone, test her inner strength, prove…. Something.

He didn’t know what the hell she was trying to prove, or who she intended to prove it to. All he knew, she was kicking ass and he was damn proud of her, even if she didn’t want him to say so.

A cloud of gravel dust rose from the horizon. Mike stood at the edge of the road and waved his arms high above his head, determined to flag down the older Chevy K30 approaching from the west. Thankfully, the truck slowed to a stop. When the driver hopped out, Mike was surprised to see the same bird of a woman who had driven past in the Lexus.

“Well, that took longer than I thought,” she chirped. “Bet you’d given up hope.”

“Uh,” Mike stuttered. “No. Not at all.”

Dressed more appropriately for a church service than tow service, bathed heavily in a rose-scented perfume, she went around to the back of her truck and dropped the tailgate. Swinging up into the bed with ease, she rifled through the tool box near the cab until she found a tow strap. She tossed it down to Mike.

“Hook her up while I get the truck turned around.”

She had him out of the ditch and back on the road with only a slight rev of her engine. He offered his gratitude, Bella paid her in puppy kisses, and she was gone before he even thought to ask for her name.

“She’s an Angel,” Mike decided.

Bella danced a circle, barked in agreement, and jumped into the Gator, anxious to continue their journey.

Mike arrived for work at Jimmy’s house an hour late, but he may as well have taken the whole day. Two Rogan-Handley Construction trucks sat outside the house, and a tense shouting echoed down the drive. Something heavy crashed, followed by the sound of shattering glass. With her head low, Bella skittered off to the bushes to hide. Mike decided to work outside.

The brothers argued for the better part of an hour before Brent took off with a slam of the door. Gravel sprayed from under his tires. Another crash came from inside the house. Mike continued to busy himself cleaning up the yard. Eventually, curiosity got the better of him. He ventured inside.

Jimmy sat in the kitchen, his head in his hands. An empty bottle of whiskey lay broken on the floor.

“Hey,” Mike dared.

“Go away,” Jimmy replied, his voice flat, dead.

Mike ignored the warning.

“What’s going—”

In the next breath, he was pinned against the wall, Jimmy’s hand a vise around his neck, strangling him of air.

“Get the fuck out of my house.”

He released his grasp, punched the wall beside Mike’s head and disappeared up the stairs. Mike coughed, brought his hand to his throat. He left the house, but not the property and went back to working outside for the rest of the morning.

Around noon, Jimmy disappeared in his truck. He returned just past nightfall, falling out of the passenger side of Marissa’s car, so drunk he couldn’t figure out how to climb the stairs to his porch. Between her and Mike, they managed to get Jimmy into the house and onto the couch before he completely passed out. Tears in her eyes, Marissa glanced back at him with a volatile mix of affection and distain, then walked out the door without a word to Mike.

“I think we should stay,” Mike said to Bella.

She bumped his hand with her nose in agreement.

He heated a frozen dinner in the microwave, shared it with his dog, then flipped channels on the TV while he listened to Jimmy’s uneven breathing. He debated calling his sponsor to ask his advice, but Ashley sent a text that distracted him.

“I got Landstuhl!”

She added a happy face emoji.

It took him a full minute to type his reply.

“Congrats.”

***

The air was hot and thick, verging on muggy under the pile of blankets, wrapping Kylie in a protective cocoon. It was dark, quiet, almost as she imagined death would be. It was how she intended to spend the rest of her life, if only the rest of the world would leave her alone.

“Come on, Ky,” Nessa pestered. Home for barely five seconds, she had already invaded Kylie’s space. “Talk to me.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Kylie mumbled into her pillow.

“Okay, I totally didn’t hear anything you just said. It sounded like ‘wah blah wah wah.’ Maybe you should try it again without that wad of crud in your mouth.”

Kylie pulled the pillow tighter over her ears. “Go away.”

“Not gonna happen, Ky Girl. You can ignore your mom all you want, but you can’t ignore me. I don’t go away just because you tell me to.” Nessa ripped back the blankets and gasped. “Holy heck, Ky! You look like crap.”

“Bite me.” The sudden rush of cold air a shock to her body, Kylie rolled onto her side and curled into a ball to fight off the chill. She clamped the pillow over her head and closed her eyes, avoiding the sight of the sculpture she had made of Jimmy’s hand holding hers.

After a brief vacation in Pittsburg, her luggage had returned home, safe and sound, the sculpture still nestled inside. Now, it sat on her nightstand, mocking her.

“Tell me what happened, or I’m going to call Jimmy and find out from him,” Nessa threatened.

“Go ahead and call him. I don’t care.”

“What’s his number?”

“666.”

“Wow, Ky, that was so funny I forgot to laugh.” Nessa pried the pillow away from Kylie and tossed it across the room. “What happened?”

Kylie covered her eyes with her hand. “We fought.”

“About what?”

“Everything.”

“Fighting can be good. It gets everything out in the open.”

“It’s definitely all out in the open.” She rolled onto her back and uncovered her face. “Apparently, he never cheated on me.”

“What?”  Nessa asked, her brow furrowed in confusion. “But I thought you said…”

“He said all he did was kiss her.”

“Kiss who?”

Kylie sighed in frustration. “Marissa.”

“I keep forgetting who everyone is.” Nessa shifted on the bed, turning to face Kylie, as though direct eye contact would help her better understand. “Which one’s Marissa?”

“Just this stupid girl, an old high school girlfriend who never went away.”

Kylie pushed herself up and tried to run a hand through her hair, but her fingers caught in the tangled knots.

“He always claims there’s nothing between them anymore, but he can’t seem to stay away from her. Ever. He’s always finding her… He said he kissed her and he touched her, but they didn’t—” She felt like screaming but could only manage a low groan of frustration. “Whatever, I don’t believe him…”

Tears burned her eyes, and she shook her head, trying to find clarity in the mess of lies, misunderstandings and wrong assumptions cluttering her mind.

“He looked like shit when he came into my kitchen that morning, like he hadn’t slept in a year. The way he hung onto me, I thought he was sick, or that someone had died. He was scaring the crap out of me, but he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. He just apologized over and over and over again. I’m sorry, Ky, I’m so fucking sorry. It took everything I had to hold him up, and he just kept apologizing to me. We’d fought the night before and at first I thought that was what he was sorry for, but then I realized what he meant…”

She trailed off as waves of guilt and livid anger crashed against each other in her gut.

“He knew exactly what he had done that night—and what he hadn’t—but he wouldn’t tell me the truth. He didn’t tell me anything! He let me assume the worst, and then he just walked away! And he never came back. God, I was pissed, but if he would have just told me…”

Silent, Nessa chewed on her bottom lip and studied Kylie, her expression pensive.

“I can’t do this anymore.” She lifted the sculpture from her nightstand and slipped her hand around Jimmy’s. She had every detail right, but he was cold against her palm, the passionate heat of his soul nontransferable. “I can’t keep loving him and hating him at the same time.”

“Ky… You know I love you, right?”

Unsure what to make of Nessa’s cautious tone, Kylie kept her eyes adverted.

“Did you ever stop to think maybe Jimmy let you believe whatever you wanted to believe about that night because he knew you wouldn’t have believed the truth?”

“No,” Kylie immediately denied. She sat up straight, her body tense and ready to fight. “He let me believe he’d slept with Marissa because he wanted out. He wanted me to break up with him.”

“That’s a load of crap and you know it.”

“You weren’t there, Nessa!”

“No, but I’ve seen the way he looks at you. I’ve seen the way he kisses you. I heard the pain in his voice when he found out Brayden was sick. The man is in love with you, Kylie. He loves your son. He wants to spend the rest of his life with you. What more do you want from him?”

“I want him to be faithful to me!”

Nessa sent a humorless laugh to heaven in prayer. “He messed up. He’s human. It happens. At least he had the balls to come and tell you himself.”

“But he didn’t tell me. He just stood there. He gave up on us before he’d even walked into the kitchen.”

“He didn’t give up. He didn’t stop fighting for you. He quit fighting with you. There’s a big difference, Ky. Maybe once you get that through your thick skull you’ll be worth the kind of love your stubborn pride threw away.”

Nessa pushed off the bed and started to walk away, but she paused in the doorway.

“Oh, and not that you care or anything, but since my best friend abandoned me in Allman Falls, Chief drove me to the airport.”

“I’m sorry,” Kylie said, knowing it wasn’t enough.

“At security, when we kissed goodbye, he told me he’s falling in love with me.”

“He’s a very smart man.”

Nessa smiled. “Yeah, he is.”

With a light touch, Kylie ran her fingers over every inch of Jimmy’s sculpted hand. “You’re leaving me, aren’t you? You’re moving to Nebraska.”

“I don’t know. Probably.” She shrugged. “It’d be a shame to let Lil’ Blue go to waste.”

“It is a sexy coat.”

“Damn skippy, it is.” Nessa rested her head against the door frame, her expression turning serious. “This has never happened to me before.”

“Chief’s the perfect guy for it to happen with.”

“I’m scared.”

Kylie met Nessa’s gaze. “I know you are.”

“But I’m even more terrified what’ll happen to me if I never try.”

“I’m going to miss you, Ness.”

“You going to be okay without me?”

Not trusting her voice, Kylie nodded. Silently, she wondered, how many more people would have to walk out of her life before the loneliness finally broke her?

Chapter 117 ~ Too Good to be True

TooGoodtobeTrueBrent sat tipped back, staring at the ceiling, slowing spinning in one of the desk chairs when Dan walked into the construction office.

“Finally!” Brent sprung from the chair on a burst of energy. “I was beginning to think I was the only owner who bothered to work anymore.”

“Nope, you still got me.” The smell of fresh brewed coffee beckoned him into the kitchenette. Brent followed, close on his heels.

“Where the hell’s my brother at?” he asked. “He’s not answering his phone.”

“He came to my house early this morning and left a few minutes later with Kylie. He’s probably got his hands full.”

Brent snorted a laugh at the dumb joke. “About fucking time. I’m tired of Bitchy Jimmy.”

“You and me both.” Dan took a sip of coffee. It was good—very, very good. “You make damn good coffee, Brent. It’s your new job.”

“I didn’t make it. Our new office manager did.” Brent smiled a smug grin. “She started today.”

Dan’s stomach flipped in dread. “You were only supposed to interview them, not hire one.”

“I know, but she was perfect for the job and anxious to start.”

“How big were her boobs?”

Brent huffed in indignation. “Hell, I don’t know!”

“Uh-huh,” Dan grunted his disbelief. “What’s her name?”

“Vivian,” Brent answered on a sigh, his voice taking on a dreamy, faraway tone.

“There weren’t any ‘Vivian’s on the schedule.”

“I know. She came in last night, just as I was about to lock up. She was so perfect I hired her on the spot.”

Narrowing his eyes, Dan grumbled, “I don’t like her. Get rid of her.”

Brent’s jaw dropped. “But you haven’t even met her yet!”

“Fine, I’ll meet her, and then you can fire her. Where is she?”

“At the city office pulling the demo permit for Jedlicka.” Brent crossed his arms, daring Dan to keep arguing.

Dan paused and thought about it for a minute. She could make coffee and pull permits without help? It sounded too good to be true. “What does she look like?”

“She’s beautiful and smart and funny and all of our customers are gonna love her.”

“Even the female ones?” Dan challenged.

“Even our wives, Dan.” Brent reached behind Dan and pulled a Tupperware container off the counter. “Before you say anything else, try one of these. She baked them fresh this morning and brought them in for us.”

Brent popped off the lid and revealed soft and fluffy cinnamon rolls the size of softballs covered in thick, sweet, white-as-the-freshly-fallen-snow icing. Dan’s mouth watered.

“Huh, what did I tell ya?” Brent lifted one of the delectable goodies out of the container and handed it to Dan. “Take a bite. You’ll see.”

Dan brought the roll to his lips, the heavenly aroma of cinnamon and vanilla accosting his senses, and he moaned in anticipation. As his teeth sunk in to the billowy-goodness, he groaned. It melted in his mouth, the sugar flowing across his taste buds in an orgasmic wave, and he died, merrily drifting up into diabetic heaven.

“Oh, my.” He sighed and licked his lips.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about.” Brent smiled.

“Did she bring these to the interview?”

“No… She brought cheesecake.”

“Cheesecake?” Dan breathed out in wonder.

Brent grinned. “With strawberries.”

“Strawberries…” Dan moaned as he took another bite of the cinnamon roll in his hand, chewing slowly, his eyes drifting closed as he savored the flavor. “We’re going to need a lot of demo jobs to work these off.”

“And gym memberships.”

“Yeah.”

“And a lot of sex.”

Dan groaned in agony. He buried his pain in a mouthful of cinnamon splendor.

“It’s only been like two days, Dan!” Brent laughed.

“I know, but I got six whole weeks ahead of me.” He shoved the last bite in his mouth and just about cried. “Omigod, this is good.”

“So, she can stay?” Brent asked hopefully.

“Abso-frickin-lutely!”

Brent pumped his fist in victory. “Yes!”

“Do you really think we should we tell the girls though?” Dan asked, thinking fast as he licked the frosting off his fingers with gusto.

“Why wouldn’t we?”

“Stacy takes her baking very seriously. I’d don’t know that she’ll understand. And Aria…”

“Aria… yeah…” Brent faltered, his face displaying his dawning realization of the consequences. “Yeah, no, probably shouldn’t tell them…”

“But… if we don’t tell them, aren’t we’re kind of… I don’t know… cheating on them?”

“No… Nope. Not at all.” Brent shook his head back and forth in rapid denial. “Noooo.”

“But it’s kind of like an affair… with food.”

“We can’t say anything, Dan,” Brent said, his voice hushed. “They won’t understand… and they’ll take it out on poor Vivian. We can’t let that happen. This has got to stay between us—our little secret. You get me?”

“Yeah,” Dan agreed. Stacy definitely would not understand. “Are we sharing with Jimmy?”

“Hell no! Let him keep snacking on the Little Debbie’s. That’s what he gets for not showing up for work today.”

Dan nodded in agreement.

The front door opened. Brent leaned into him with a whisper, “That’s her. Isn’t she the most gorgeous creature you’ve ever seen in your life?”

Dan looked over his shoulder as Vivian took her place at the reception desk. She was a petite, well-endowed woman, gloriously blessed with full hips and soft, creamy skin. She wore her hair in a short, fluffy bob that framed her angelic face, and she smelled of fields of fresh, summer flowers. And she was seventy if she was a day.

Dan was in love.

He turned to Brent. “I could kiss you right now.”

“I have that effect on people.” Brent grinned. “It’s the Rogan charm.”

“I guess this means I can help you today.”

“I’ll go load the truck.”

“I’m going to run a few things by Vivian. Holler when you’re ready,” Dan said and went to meet his new Office Goddess.

They made their introductions, and Dan explained a typical day to Vivian, emphasizing some of the invoicing particulars and his filing system, and correcting everything Brent had taught her wrong. Vivian listened attentively, took notes, and asked appropriate questions.

After ten minutes working with her, Dan gave her a raise.

“Hey, Dan?” Brent motioned him over the shop door. “We’ve got a problem.”

“What now.”

“Aria just called.”

“Is she okay?”

“Yeah, but Jimmy’s not. She just got off the phone with Martha. Kylie took off again.”

“Shit,” Dan swore under his breath. “What happened?”

“I don’t know, but from what little bit Aria said, it’s not good. I’m gonna head out and go talk to him.”

“Yeah, go. Go. I got this covered,” Dan said and waved him off. Brent started for his truck and Dan called after him, “Hey! Do you think I should call the temp service, just in case?”

“I don’t know… maybe he won’t be so bad this time,” Brent said with an uncertain shrug. “Let’s give him a day or two before we decide.”

“Yeah,” Dan agreed, but he had a sinking sensation that this time it would be a whole lot worse.