“Up you go, Little Man.” Jimmy swung Brayden high above his head, eliciting a squeal of joy from the little boy before he gently lowered him into his bed. He settled a light sheet around Brayden and his Boo Bear, tucking in them both. “Did you have fun today?”
“Uh huh!” Brayden exclaimed, nodding and yawning at the same time.
Jimmy leaned into place a kiss on his sweet face. He was fresh from his bath, his hair still damp, scented of watermelon from his shampoo, his breath a hint of mint and sweet bubble-gum from his toothpaste. And yet, Jimmy could still 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 was forced to concede that it had.
Brayden rolled onto his side, curling his body around Jimmy as 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 get a place right on the beach and sleep outside under the stars. How does that sound?”
“’Morrow?” Brayden asked hopefully, pleading.
“Not tomorrow, but very soon,” Jimmy promised. He rubbed his hand around Brayden’s back in a slow, soothing pattern. “I’ll call you every night, so we can count down the days together.”
“Oh tay.” Brayden let out a sigh of disappointment and Jimmy saw a shadow of the memory of all the time they had missed out on reflecting in his tired eyes.
“Do you want a story or a song tonight?”
Brayden picked at Boo Bear’s stitching as he thought it over, finally deciding, “Song.”
Jimmy smiled. It had been a long time since he had sung James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” but the song was as much a part of him as the color of his eyes. It was the song his mother had lulled him to sleep with every night of his childhood. After Brent had been born, she changed the lyrics to “Sweet Brent and James,” but he had always considered the song his. 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 her soft 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.
He placed another kiss on Brayden’s soft cheek, turned down the lights and left the door open a crack so the boy could find his mother if he needed her in the middle of the night.
Kylie sat in the living room, still wearing her uniform from the diner, folding a basket of laundry and silently fuming, waiting for him. Keeping her focus trained on the tiny pair of Levis in her hand, she asked, “Is he asleep?”
“Yeah.” Jimmy grabbed his jacket from the hook by the door and shrugged it on.
For the briefest of seconds, he allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy of loosening Kylie’s thick hair from the ponytail she had it trapped in, of taking her in his arms, of kissing her until she forgot her anger, all her worries and doubts, and thought only of making love to him. But he pushed the desire aside and focused on his reason for coming to California; Brayden.
“My flight leaves in an hour, but I’ll be back next weekend. We can figure out a more permanent visitation schedule then.”
She held her jaw tight as she wadded the jeans into a ball and slammed them into the laundry basket. Before she could figure out how to say whatever it was she was struggling with, Jimmy pulled a 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 stated, throwing her hateful words back at her. “I am his father, and he is my son. And that is never going to change. I’ll be back next Saturday morning at ten. Dress him for a day on the beach.”
He walked out the door 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 back all day long 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?
How dare he barge into her life, make his demands, and 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 ripped 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!? Like what I want doesn’t matter!”
“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, barbecue and lime from his dinner, the woodsy notes of his soap. She caught a slight undertone of fear. That fear emboldened her.
“I want you,” she whispered, her lips a breath from his. “That is, if you want me, too.”
“Of course, I want you,” he quickly replied, his voice thick, husky, his body temperature rising. “I’ve always wanted you.”
“We did everything wrong last time.”
“I know,” he easily agreed easily. Too easily. He wasn’t listening.
She pushed him away. “No.”
“Ky?” Confused, he reached for her.
“I don’t want what we had before. It was forced and 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 date you.”
She watched as silent confusion slowly brightened into a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “If that’s what you want.”
“It’s what I want,” she confirmed, stepping close to him again. She allowed her body to relax against his, in the familiar way she’d missed. “I want to lie in bed at night and think about you, anticipate when I might see you again in the daytime. I want talk for hours over the phone, and then enjoy a comfortable silence over dinner in a restaurant. I want to sit in a dark movie theater with you, not touching, but wanting to. I want to make out in the backseat of my car, or lie beside you on the beach under the stars, and whisper naughty desires. I want to take the time to figure myself out while I take the time to get to know the real James William Rogan, Jr. To truly know you.”
“You know me, Ky,” he insisted.
“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. He turned away, silent for a long moment, before he looked her straight in the eye and stated, “You should know, first off, that my middle name is Wendall, not William.”
“What!?” She gasped in surprise. “Are you serious? But I thought your dad— Oh, my gosh, Jimmy, I’m so sorry, I…”
She trailed off as he started to laugh.
“I’m just giving you shit.”
“Asshole,” she chastised and smacked at his chest.
He caught her hands, holding her close to him. “I’m sorry. For everything.”
She nodded, whispered, “Me, too.”
They stood silent in the courtyard, slowing it down, their bodies close, their breath mingled, her hands 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.