Chapter 99 ~ Hearts a Mess

Hearts a messIn the quiet hours of Sunday morning, Kylie swirled her fork in the pancake syrup coating her plate, lost in sensations she wished she couldn’t remember from the night before.

Nessa sipped her coffee, studying Kylie.

“That was really cool how Dan sang Stacy down the aisle.”

“Hmm,” Kylie agreed, not really listening.

“They seem really nice.”

Kylie nodded. “They are.”

“Same with Aria and Brent.”

“Yeah.” Kylie let out a sigh and closed her eyes. Instantly, she could feel the heat of Jimmy’s skin beneath her fingertips, the fire of the memory racing to her chest where her heart hammered in palpitations.

“Chief’s a pretty cool guy,” Nessa tried again.


Nessa slammed her coffee mug on the table, startling Kylie out of her trance. “Are you ever going to tell me what’s going on with Jimmy?”

Kylie shrugged and watched the butter and syrup swirl in the wake of her fork. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“Start anywhere.” Nessa lifted her mug to take a sip and settled into her chair with her feet tucked underneath her, ready for story time. “Just talk to me.”

Kylie dragged her eyes away from her plate. “I can’t do this with him. Not again.”

“So, do it different this time.”

Kylie shook her head. “There is no different with Jimmy. It is what it is.”

“You never told me how you guys met.”

“He was dating Ash. You knew that.”

“But how did you meet him?”

“I don’t know.” Kylie exhaled a deep breath she’d been holding onto for too long. “They’d been together a few weeks, maybe a month or so, when Ashley dragged him to one of Mom’s summer barbeques. That’s where I first saw him.”

“How long ago was this?”

“While I was pregnant with Brayden.”

Three years later, Kylie could still remember that first sighting of him as though it had happened only moments earlier.

“He was sitting at the picnic table over in the corner of the yard, wearing a dirty pair of jeans and an old t-shirt, concrete dust on his arms, looking like he’d come straight from work. He had a ball cap pulled down low over his eyes and was drinking a beer real slow, like he was pissed off at the world. He did not want to be there, and everyone was giving him space, even Ashley. He had this vibe coming off him that I can’t explain… Something powerful, almost dangerous, and for some reason, it drew me to him.”

Kylie closed her eyes and took a breath as her body reacted to the memory of him.

“He looked me over as I walked past him, like in this really intense, studious kind of way. I swear, I could physically feel his eyes travel over me. I didn’t so much turn towards him as… It was more like I was pulled. When our eyes met it was like someone stabbed a hot poker through my chest. There was this slow, deep burn that spread to the pit of my stomach. It felt amazing and terrifying at the same time, and I wanted to run, but more, I just wanted to touch him and see if he was real… I knew how he’d been treating my sister, and I hated him for it, but the way he looked at me set me on fire.”

“What did he do to Ashley?” Nessa asked.

“What didn’t he do?” Kylie laughed bitterly as she carried her plate to the sink. She leaned against the counter and thought back to the Jimmy she’d first met. “She was young and stupid, and he took advantage of it. He’d get her drunk, or she’d come home high. He screwed her six ways to Sunday, cheated on her with anything that breathed. They never went anywhere. He didn’t call her. I honestly don’t think he even liked her, but that didn’t stop him from using her for sex whenever he couldn’t get it somewhere else. And she didn’t care. She took whatever she could get from him, whenever she could get it, and went back begging for more.”

“We were all young and stupid once, Ky,” Nessa reminded her. “And your sister’s always been pretty messed up.”

“I know she has,” Kylie agreed. She couldn’t gloss over anything with Nessa. She knew Ashley’s troubled past as well as Kylie did. “But he took advantage of her weaknesses.”


“I used to work at this bar downtown called Captain Jack’s. He’d come in with his brother, Brent, and I swear Jimmy took home a different girl every night… and Ash didn’t care. I think that’s what pissed me off the most—that she just didn’t care.”

“Sounds like you were the one making more out of their relationship than what it was.”

“Ash may have screwed around on him, but she was in love with him. She still is.”

“I doubt that,” Nessa said.

“She is,” Kylie insisted.

“Let’s just forget about your sister for a minute. Pretend they never dated.” Nessa collected their coffee cups for a refill. “It’s just you and him, a guy and a girl. Why would you sleep with Jimmy if he was such a jerk?”

“I don’t know.” Kylie laughed at herself. “He wore me down… Dan and Stacy tricked me… I was stupid. Take your pick.”

“What’s your pick?”

Kylie took her time adding cream and sugar to her coffee before she confessed, “I fell in love with him.”

Nessa nodded, encouraging her on. “And how did that that happen.”

“I don’t know…” She stirred her coffee and tried to find the words to explain her heart. “He grew up a little, I guess. He quit messing around with the girls and would sit at the bar all night and just talk to me while I worked. He mostly harassed me and gave me shit, but every once in a while, he’d let his guard down and I got a peek at a different Jimmy, the one who was really sweet, and kind, and interesting…

“He’s smart as hell, Nessa, and he’s got some really big dreams that he doesn’t share with anyone, but you can hear them in his voice when he talks… He started coming to more of Mom’s holiday dinners with Ashley, and he was always great with Brayden. I started thinking about him all the time. If he didn’t come to the bar for a few days, I’d text him and see what was up. And I hated myself for it because he was still with my sister in the messed-up thing they called a relationship, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“That night we finally got together, I knew what we were doing was horribly, horribly wrong, but it felt so incredibly right that I never wanted it to end. I wanted to make love to Jimmy, be consumed by his fire, for all of eternity. I loved him… I still love him…”

“So why don’t you try to work it out with him?” Nessa suggested, her tone gentle as she ran a hand across Kylie’s shoulders. “You can’t just throw love away, not when it’s real.”

“I have Brayden to think about,” Kylie said. “As much as I love Jimmy and as good as he makes me feel, I know he’ll cheat on me again. It’s who he is, and he’s never going to change.”

“Kylie—” Nessa started to protest, buy Kylie cut her off.

“Look, if it was just me, I’d still be with him. I could handle the occasional broken heart. It hurts like hell and feels like death when it’s fresh, but it eventually heals. I know that, and I’d be willing to suffer through a few if it meant I could still be with him—”

Suddenly, she stopped, and had to laugh at herself.

“I totally understand Ashley now, you know? That’s got to be the same way she felt about him. Otherwise, she would’ve dumped his sorry ass and moved on right from the start.”

“Probably,” Nessa agreed reluctantly. “But that’s not—”

“Sharing Jimmy is a sacrifice I’d be willing to make for myself, but that’s not a healthy lifestyle for Brayden. He shouldn’t have to suffer for my weakness. It about killed me to listen to him cry every night for his Jimmy, and it would happen over, and over, and over again. We would love and fight and break up and get back together, just like the tide. I watched the exact same thing happen between my mom and Charlie for years before he finally up and left, and I refuse to force that kind of life on Brayden. It hurts, Ness.”

“But I saw those two together. Jimmy loves Brayden! He loves him more than some fathers love their own kids.”

“I know he does. And Brayden thinks the sun rises and sets on Jimmy. But it’s not enough that he loves us, and that we love him. I have to be able to trust him as well, and I don’t. Especially not with Marissa. She will always be there. He can’t seem to let her go.”

“Was Jimmy faithful to you up until that night?”

“As far as I know, he was faithful, but knowing that he cheated on me once makes me question if it was the first time he did it, or if it was just the first time he thought he might get caught.”

“Especially with his history,” Nessa said.

“Exactly,” Kylie agreed. “And he drinks so much, Nessa. It’s really bad—especially since his dad died. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to help him to bed in the middle of the night because he couldn’t even stand… It was for the best that all this happened. I was too blind in love with him to realize how bad his drinking had gotten. Looking back… Brayden never should’ve been around him.”

“Did you ever talk to him about it?”

“Only a hundred times. It didn’t do any good. He puts way too much pressure on himself, especially with the business, trying so damn hard to be perfect. And then when his dad died it was like he didn’t know who he was anymore. I don’t know what demon he’s trying to drown every night, but if he doesn’t get help he’s going to kill himself before he ever does.”

“You should talk to him, Ky. Talk to him for real.”

“I know… but I can’t. Not yet.” She sighed heavily, hoping to signal the end of the conversation. “I’m going to go call the airline. Mom wants us to stay one more night, so we can have dinner with her, but hopefully they can get us out early tomorrow morning.”

“We’re leaving?” Nessa asked, her disappointment obvious.

“I have to get out of here.”

“Oh… But… Could we stay at least another day?”


Nessa blushed.

“It this about Chief?”

Nessa blushed deeper yet, the kind of blush that usually only meant one thing.

“Nessa!” Kylie laughed in surprise. “Tell me you didn’t!”

“No, I didn’t, but I definitely, definitely wanted to. He’s taking me out again tonight, so I’m going to have to take a rain check on dinner with your mom.” Nessa clutched onto Kylie’s arm, her eyes pleading. “And can we stay the week like we planned? You can say no, and I’ll totally understand, but this never happens to me, Ky. Ever!”

“Omigod! Of course, we can stay!” Kylie laughed as she pulled Nessa in for a hug. “I’m so happy for you!”

“I’m happy for me, too!” Nessa laughed and squeezed Kylie tight. “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like this.”

“In love?” Kylie guessed.

“Horny,” Nessa corrected, and Kylie laughed.

“So, will you be moving to Allman Falls to be with your man?” Kylie teased.

Nessa’s face scrunched up into a grimace. “I don’t know about all that. It snows here, remember?”

“Don’t you dare break Chief’s heart when you go. He’s a sweet, sweet man.”

“Yeah, he is.” Nessa smiled again, blushing like a school girl with a crush.

“And you thought you’d hate it here.” Kylie couldn’t help but smile with her as she started washing up the dishes.

“I’ve been wrong before. Doesn’t happen often though, so don’t get used to it.” Nessa handed her a stack of plates. “So… are you going to talk to him?”

“I don’t know,” Kylie answered quietly, her voice barely rising above the noise of the water rushing into the sink. “I just want to go home and forget.”

Nessa rubbed her hand across Kylie’s shoulder.

“What would you do about Jimmy if you were me?” Kylie asked.

Nessa gave her a sad smile. “I don’t know. I don’t have a son to think about like you do, but if it were me, I would think long and hard before walking out on love.”

“You mean lust,” Kylie corrected.

“No, I mean love. Lust doesn’t hurt when it goes away, it just gets replaced. Losing love is like losing your reflection, like you’re suddenly floating around, unanchored, unsure if you even truly exist anymore.”

Kylie nodded. That was exactly how she felt.

“What are the plans for today?” Nessa asked.

“I need to get some decent clothes,” Kylie said, cringing as she glanced down at the kitty cat nightshirt she had borrowed from her mother. “And I have to find Frog Man’s damn hat. You want to go shopping with me?”

“Does a cow go moo?”

Mooo.” Brayden giggled from the doorway, instantly bringing a smile to Kylie’s heart.

“Moo to you, too, Little Man.” She scooped him up with her wet hands, and he wrapped his arms around her neck, squeezing her with one of his strong-man hugs.

As long as she had him in her world, she would survive.


Chapter 98 ~ Birthday Cheer

Birthday CheerJimmy walked through his silent, dead house, shrugged off the heavy jacket of his tux. His entire body felt as though he had been dropped off a twenty-story building, landed headfirst. He needed a Tylenol and a beer. A bullet to the head. If he could only have one, he’d prefer the bullet, but a beer would tide him over for a while.

Standing in front of the refrigerator, his eyes landed on the greeting card he’d stuck to the door with a magnet. Overtly fancy in shades of beige and brown, trying hard to be masculine yet designed to catch the eye of a woman, it read, “On your birthday, Son…”

He rested his burning forehead against the cool metal of the door and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. When she answered, he said, “Hey, Ma.”

“Jimmy!” Mary Ann answered, her delight reaching through the line to hold him. “I didn’t expect you to call tonight. Is the reception over already?”

“Not yet. I’ve got a headache, so I left.”

“Did you take something for it?” she worried.


“You’re not catching a cold, are you?”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Well, it is going around. Make sure you get plenty of rest.”


“Did you have a good time?”

“I guess, yeah.”

He could picture her clearly, sitting in her chair with her legs tucked up underneath her, a glass of iced tea on the table beside her, one finger running slowly around the rim as she talked. It was a habit of hers.

“How did your toast go?”

“Brent did it for me. He did real good, too. Everyone laughed.”

“He’s always loved being on stage.”


“Do you remember when he played Curly in Oklahoma! his senior year of high school? He had that audience at the edge of their seat the whole time.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed. He tucked the phone against his shoulder as he opened the fridge and pulled out another beer. “Except when he was singing. Then they were cringing and covering their ears.”

Mary Ann laughed softly. “He is a little tone deaf.”

“Dan sings pretty good though.” He sat at the table and drank half the bottle in one long pull. “He sang to Stacy as she walked down the aisle.”

“I bet there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

“I don’t know… Probably not.”

“Did you have a chance to talk to Kylie at all?”

“A little.”

“How does she like California?” Mary Ann asked.

“She likes it.” He closed his eyes and pressed the cold beer bottle to his forehead. He wished he’d never lied to his mother about why he and Kylie had broken up. He’d told her they’d decided they were better as friends, that they were still friends and keeping in touch with each other. But it was all lies.

“Is she all settled in out there?”

“Yeah,” he guessed.

“Did she have any trouble transferring her college credits?” Mary Ann asked.

“I have no idea.”

“I bet Brayden’s getting big.”

“Yeah.” He downed the rest of the bottle in attempt to push back the sob lodged in his chest.

He wanted to tell her the truth.

He wanted the freedom to cry in front of her.

He wanted her to comfort him, to lie to him and tell him it would be okay.

He wanted her to explain to him why he did what he did, tell him how to fix himself so he never did it again.

“Your dad sure did get a kick out of listening to Brayden jabber every time you guys came down to visit. He said it reminded him of you and Brent when you boys were little.”

She paused. He could hear the ice in her glass.

“Do you remember how he used to take you to work with him on Saturdays? You’d talk his poor ears off all day long, but he sure did love listening to you.”

“Yeah, that’s what Bray did at dinner.”

Jimmy struggled to push himself up from the table, the heavy weight of loneliness pushing against him, holding him down, but he made it to his feet and started across the room.

“He told me a bunch of stories about a frog in a stroller.”

“That boy and his imagination…” Mary Ann laughed. “Tell Kylie to call me sometime. I haven’t heard from her since she moved.”


“I went to the cemetery and sat with your dad for a little while today… Sang him ‘Happy Birthday.’” She laughed another little laugh and said, “There was a cute little elderly couple standing not too far away. Close enough to hear. They looked and looked at me, like I was crazy. Maybe I was, but I’d like to think your dad got a kick out of it.”

“I’m sure he did.”

“I wonder who they were visiting.”

“I don’t know.” This time Jimmy grabbed two beers instead of just one. He returned to the table. “I miss him, Ma.”

“I know you do, honey… It’s a hard day for you, isn’t it?”

“Not really,” he lied.

“It’s a hard day for all of us.”

They sat in a comfortable silence, their thoughts in their own places. He opened another beer and he could hear the clink of ice when she took a drink of her iced tea. He finished half a bottle before she cleared her throat and asked, “How’s your house coming along?”

“Good. Mike’s really helped out a lot.”

“It’s good you’re giving him some work, giving him a way to earn a living. It’s what your dad would’ve done.” She let out a chuckle. “I still can’t believe Ashley’s married. And in the Army!”

“Right,” he sighed, exhausted.

“You’ll have to invite me out there once the house is done so I can see what all you boys did.”

“You can come whenever you want. Hell, you ever decide to leave Florida, you can move in, live with me forever. I have plenty of room.”

“Oh, Jimmy,” she said with a dismissive laugh. “You’re a grown man with a full life. You don’t need your mother getting in your way.”

“I’ve got no life, Ma,” Jimmy confessed, his voice low, weary, ready to give up the charade.

“What’s the matter, Jimmy?” Mary Ann asked. Her concern almost broke him.

He opened his mouth to let it all pour out and confess what he had done, why Kylie broke off their engagement, how unbelievably, fucking disgusted with himself he was, but his one sober brain cell took charge and shut his mouth.

“I’m just tired. Maybe I am catching a cold.”

“You know you can always talk to me if something’s bothering you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

She paused, giving him a chance to unburden himself if he wanted to. He remained silent and took another drink.

“Why don’t you go get some sleep? You’ll feel better in the morning.”


“Happy birthday, my sweet Baby James. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Ma.”

“Goodnight, honey.”

Jimmy ended the call and tossed his phone onto the table. He drank until all the beer bottles sitting in front of him were empty. When he went to the fridge to get another, only a hollow chill stared back at him.


He slammed the door and debated driving into town to get more. He wanted to go back to Gimp’s, back in time, to the dance floor when he was holding Kylie in his arms, their hips tucked together as they moved in perfect rhythm with each other, back to the alley, back to her lips and her touch.

“I need you, Jimmy.”

“I need you, Ky.”

But he couldn’t go back. She was too beautiful to look at, too beautiful to stand next to him.

She was so beautiful…

So perfect…

So sad…

He did that to her.

He brought his hands to his face and closed his burning eyes. Shit.

“Are you okay, Jimmy?”

He dropped his hands and turned around to face his brother. “What do you want?”

“Aria sent me out here to check on you.”

“Did she send beer with you?”

Brent held out a foil-covered plate. “Cake and mints.”

“Leave it on the counter,” Jimmy said as he brushed past, headed for the back stairs.

“Where are you going?” Brent asked.

“Gotta take a leak.”

“Don’t pass out up there. You might fall through the floor.” Brent opened the fridge and peered at the empty shelves. “Damn, Jim, why do you even bother plugging this thing in?”

Jimmy ignored him and started up the back stairs. Never grand, they were steep and narrow, poorly lit. A broken neck waiting to happen. If only he could be so lucky. A bare bulb hung from the ceiling to light the way, but Jimmy didn’t turn it on. He knew which steps would support his weight, which ones were questionable, suffering wood rot from years of rain water pouring through the holes in the roof. The staircase was on his list of things to renovate, but the list was a mile long, and it resided down toward the bottom.

When he got to the landing, he froze, momentarily forgetting his destination. The staircase tipped. He leaned heavily against the cracked plaster wall while he waited for the weathered step to stop moving so he could climb aboard. Kylie’s world had always moved at a different speed than his. No matter how hard he ran, he couldn’t keep up with her. She was smart—so smart—and he was stupid. He’d even fucked up his marriage proposal. All of them. He’d asked her, and she’d said ‘no’ so many times he’d lost count.

Why the hell had she finally said yes?

She should’ve kept saying no.

“Say no, Ky,” he warned.

He climbed the last of the stairs, passed by the bathroom, continued down the hall. He was so fucking tired. He’d kill for just ten minutes of sleep—ten fucking minutes—but every time he closed his eyes Ky was there, screaming in his face, making him cry.

Brent hollered up the stairs, “You plannin’ on eating this cake, or can I have it?”

Jimmy collapsed onto his unmade bed, closed his eyes to the emptiness surrounding him, and prayed for the nightmare to end.


Chapter 97 ~ A Good Man

BlueSharp bricks dug unforgiving into Jimmy’s back as he pressed against the building, crouched down in a tight, hot ball of pain. Sitting on his heels, with his elbows to his knees and the heels of his hands digging into his eyes, he tried to fight back the intense boil of anger and frustration that burned him up from inside.

He never should have come. He should have left as soon as the ceremony was over. He should have refused to dance with her. He should have stopped as soon as the first song ended, or the second, or even the third. But he couldn’t leave, and he couldn’t stay away. He’d had to see her, one more time.

And Brayden…



His heart ripped as he remembered the weight of Brayden in his arms, Brayden’s head on his shoulder, the scent of his watermelon shampoo still clinging to his jacket…

A low, agonized wail erupted from deep in his chest as the tears poured in a burning river. Screaming out the pain, he popped up in a violent burst, turned and punched the wall, not registering as the bricks scraped open his knuckles, as his hand cracked from the force.

He needed to escape, to run, but there was nowhere for him to go. He couldn’t cut Kylie out of his head, out of his heart. No matter what he tried, no matter where he went, she was there. He’d gone to hell, and she’d hitched a ride, screaming at him while he’d burned.

He couldn’t drink her away. She refused to drown, always there when he closed his eyes, smiling at him, kissing him, stroking him, loving him—and then hating him, her face distorted, burning in anger and loathing. But her eyes, so fucking dry…

The back door swung open and Dan came through, carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, looking for him. “You alright?”

“No.” He looked down at his bloody hand and squeezed where it had started to swell.

“That was stupid,” Dan said, nodding at his busted knuckles.

“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed.

“Brent’s going to be pissed if he has to work next week by himself.”

“Fuck Brent.”

Jimmy crossed the back lot, to the weathered picnic tables set up along the fence. He slid onto the table with his feet on the bench, the dry wood creaking beneath his weight, and turned to face the road. “Did he send you out here?”

“No.” Dan joined him, the table creaking again, swaying slightly, and set the bottle between them. “We flipped for you.”

“Did you win or lose?”

Instead of answering, he asked a question of his own. “What happened, Jim?”

“I fucked up.”

“That’s nothing new. You fuck up all the time.”

His tone was light, trying to ease the tension, but it only tightened more.

“I really fucked up. I thought I could handle being around Ky. I honestly did. I wouldn’t have come if I’d thought I would… Shit, Dan, I had her in my arms, and she was so… I don’t know… just so…” Jimmy trailed of, unable to find the right words.

“Real?” Dan asked softly.

“Yeah.” Jimmy closed his eyes. “She was real, and she was here, and she was all I could feel. In my arms, in my hands, against my skin—she was everywhere. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t control myself. I know it was wrong, but I kissed her, and she kissed me back. She kissed me like she used to, like she still loved me, and I fucking lost it. She was clinging to me, like she never wanted to let me go, and it was like everything sped up in this confusing… fuck, I don’t know. I didn’t know anything except she was holding me and saying my name, and it felt right, so fucking right, that I almost—” Jimmy buried his face in his hands as his body flamed and his insides seized violently. “Shit!”

“Hey, it’s okay.” Dan placed a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, squeezing hard. “Relax.”

“It was so right and so perfect and so how it used to be… And then she remembered. And she was gone. She’s never coming back, and it fucking hurts! I can’t do this! It hurts so bad I can’t fucking think! I can’t do this again.”

“So, fight for her this time.”

She’s not mine to fight for!” Jimmy screamed.

“What about Brayden, then? Will you fight for him?”

“God, Dan…” Jimmy’s heart seized at the mention of his little boy. “When he called my name and jumped into my arms it was like… I don’t know… like I was centered. Like I could finally breathe again. You know what I mean? But I can’t have him without her and she’ll never take me back. Not after what I did.”

“You lied to her, Jimmy.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Dan sighed. “Yes, you did.”

“What would you have done?” Jimmy demanded. “What would you have said to Stacy?”

Dan looked at him for a long moment before admitting, “I don’t know.”

“And you’re never going to have to figure it out, because you never would’ve done what I did.”

“It was a messed up night. It wasn’t your fault,” Dan insisted

Really?” Jimmy laughed bitterly. “Then whose fault was it? Yours?”


“Hers? Brent’s?”

“Yeah, if we’re being honest, Brent should have taken you home instead of to Jack’s. And Marissa—”

“Brent’s not my fucking keeper, and Missy’s Missy. She is who she is. No one forced me to do anything. It was my own dick doing the thinking that night.”

Dan sighed in frustration. “I still think you should sit down with Kylie and talk to her, for real. Tell her everything.”

“What, so I can destroy her piece by piece as I tell her every little detail? Fuck that. I’m not putting her through it.”

“No, I mean—”

“I know what you meant, Dan, but I’m not going to do it. It’s better if she thinks I slept with Missy. I probably would’ve at some point anyway.”


Jimmy shrugged it off. “If not with her, then with someone else.”

“You wouldn’t do that to Kylie,” Dan insisted.

“But I did.”

Turning his back to Dan, Jimmy watched the slow-moving traffic. They sat in silence, Dan waiting for Jimmy to come to his senses, Jimmy wishing Dan would simply leave him alone. Finally, Dan grunted his concede, picked up the bag sitting beside him, and held it out to Jimmy.

“Happy birthday, Applehole,” Dan said, using the PG endearment Jimmy had long forgotten.

“I don’t want it.”

“Just take the fucking bag.”

“What is it?”

“Open it and find out.”

With apprehension, Jimmy took the bag and looked inside. He gave a short laugh, smiling despite himself, and pulled out the smallest bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label he had ever seen.

“Think you could’ve found a smaller bottle, ya fucking cheapskate?”

“Tried. That shit’s expensive.”

“You’re killing me, Dan,” Jimmy said with a laugh.

“Think of it as a symbolic gesture.”

“Symbolic of what?”

“You are the closest I’ll ever come to having a brother, and I wanted to say thank you for standing up with me today… I want to say thank you for being there for me after Millie…” Dan drew in a deep breath and watched traffic as he exhaled. “There’s a lot I want to thank you for, Jim, and this is the only way I know how… unless you’d prefer I kiss you instead.”

Jimmy laughed. “No.”

“Good.” Dan reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out two plastic cups. He took the bottle from Jimmy, cracked the seal, and poured. He handed the first one to Jimmy, kept the second for himself. “Cheers then.”

Jimmy took a healthy sip, holding the whiskey in his mouth for a moment to savor the flavors. He hadn’t had Blue Label in years. Not since the night James Rogan turned over ownership of Rogan and Sons Construction to Jimmy and his brother. In that bittersweet moment, his father’s hands had shaken violently, his motor skills still hindered by his most paralyzing stroke, by the multitude of medications he’d been prescribed. As he’d poured, the expensive whiskey had spilled down the sides of the glasses, onto the walnut bar, but neither Jimmy nor Brent dared to take the bottle from him. The stroke had already stripped their father of most of his pride. They’d refused to steal away the rest.

The bottle he’d poured from that night was one Rich Handley had given James at least ten years earlier, only days before he’d died of a sudden heart attack. After his funeral, James had poured a single shot from the bottle and stood silently on the deck, watching the clouds roll across the sky, seemingly for hours, before bringing the whiskey to his lips. The remainder of the bottle had sat, untouched, for a decade. The significance of James’s decision to toast his sons with that whiskey had not been lost on Jimmy.

In his memory, and the memory of Dan’s father, Jimmy raised his glass again and quoted his father’s favorite toast, “May you never go to hell, but always be on your way.”

Dan took another slow drink. “I miss your dad, Jim. He was a good man.”

“Yeah… He tried to be.”

“That’s all any of us can do.”

They sat on the picnic table, side by side, and silently watched traffic pass by until the whiskey was gone. When it was, Dan went back inside. Jimmy gave up on the night, and on himself, and headed home.

* * *

As soon as Dan stepped through the door, Brent demanded, “Well?”

“Is he okay?” Aria asked, her expression anxious.

“I don’t know,” Dan said with a heavy sigh. “He went home.”

“What did he say?” Brent asked

“Nothing new.”

“Maybe I better go talk to him.” Aria started for the door, but Dan grabbed her by the arm to stop her.

“Don’t you think you’ve already done enough for one night?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded.

“This whole mess is yours.”

“Blame it all on me if it makes you feel better, but you can’t claim innocence either,” she snapped. “You made him your best man.”

“Alright guys, that’s enough,” Brent said, stepping between them.

There wasn’t anything left to say about Jimmy that they all hadn’t already discussed a thousand times before, so he turned his back on Brent and Aria and went to find his beautiful wife.

“How is he?” Stacy asked the moment Dan returned to their table.

Dan looked deep into Stacy’s eyes and said with sincerity, “Jimmy and Kylie are their own problem tonight. What do you say we sneak out and get started on our honeymoon? It’s only one day long and I want to spend every second of it making love to my beautiful wife.”

Stacy smiled as she tucked her hand into his. “I’d say I married a very smart man.”



Chapter 96 ~ Memories of Us

Shoes2Through Aria’s incredible talent and a touch of her personal magic, Gimp’s Pub had transformed into a chic, rustic woodland for the wedding reception. Grapevines, floral twists and twinkling lights canopied the ceiling. Rich drapes and airy sheers textured the walls. The smaller tables had been replaced by family-style, wooden farm tables with mismatched chairs. Hydrangeas and roses, dyed leaves and eucalyptus filled the room with deep fall colors and fresh country air. The room glowed warm with candlelight, heady with the scent of Cheryl’s dinner of pumpkin soup and beet tart, roast turkey and potatoes, chestnuts and bacon, creamed spinach, cranberry sauce and fresh breads.

Each course looked more delicious than the last, but Kylie could only manage to bring the occasional bite to her lips. The rest she pushed around with her fork between glasses of wine, using the pretense of eating as a distraction from the heartache of staring down the head table to where her son sat on Jimmy’s lap, his little hand to Jimmy’s face to hold his attention while he chattered freely, finally sharing all those precious words he’d saved.

The dinner noise gradually turned into animated chatter as the meal came to an end. Aria and Brent stood to toast the bride and groom once more. Brent’s made them laugh, Aria’s made them cry, and shortly after, it was time to cut the cake. They took delicate bites, shared a frosting-laced kiss, and then Dan took Stacy’s hand in his and led her onto the dance floor.

“Dan?” Stacy whispered.


“We don’t have a song.”

“Sure, we do. That one, by AC/DC, right?” Dan couldn’t keep from smiling.

She answered with a wrinkle of her nose and a smile of her own. It was a gorgeous combination. He held her in his arms, close to his heart as the lights dimmed and the music started.

With the first note of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the song he had horrifically crooned to her at karaoke night one year before, her eyes lit in delight. Lifting to her tiptoes, she gifted him a soft kiss that eased the butterflies in his stomach.

“So, I did okay today?” He pulled her in closer and their bodies began to move together in easy rhythm.

“You did real good today, kochanie.” Her hand slid up his back and down again, riding slow along his spine, the way he liked. “You do really good every day.”

“Loving you makes it easy.”

Watching from across the room, Aria rested her head against Kylie’s and sighed. “They are so cute together.”

Wine glass cradled in her hand, Kylie sat mesmerized by the newlywed’s intimacy. She envied their connection. Rare and beautiful, it was a blend of the innocence of youth, the passion of new lovers, and infallible trust that can only be built by a lifetime together. They had it all, but what she coveted most was the solid confidence Stacy had in him. Quite simply, Dan loved her too much to ever bring her harm.

When the song ended, the room filled with the sound of forks clinging against wine glasses, the guests signaling for the couple to kiss. Kylie’s heart smiled, and she laughed as Dan dipped a very pregnant Stacy back against his arm, so he could plant a huge wet one on her lips.

Aria hopped up as though cued. “Our turn!”

“What?” Kylie asked, suddenly unbalanced.

“It’s time for the wedding party dance.”

“Oh, no!” Kylie stated, shaking her head. “I never agreed to that.”

“You have to Kylie.” Martha suddenly appeared behind them. “It’s tradition.”

“Screw tradition. I’m not doing it.”

“Oh, come on, Kylie. It’s only three minutes of your life. Four tops,” Aria insisted.

“Let me dance with Brent then,” Kylie pleaded.

“Maid of Honor and Best Man always dance together,” Martha stated firmly, as if it was a law punishable by death if broken. “Come on, everyone’s waiting.”

She pulled Kylie’s chair away from the table and stole her wine glass.

“Mom!” Kylie cried in irritation. “Why are you making me do this?”

“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Her smile looked slightly evil in its intention and did nothing to calm Kylie’s frayed nerves.

Kylie glanced around the room, feeling the guests watch her curiously, as though she were no more than a toddler throwing a tantrum. Nessa caught her eye and gave her a nervous, but encouraging, smile. Dan and Stacy waited on the dance floor, whispering to each other while Brent physically yanked Jimmy to his feet. He looked even less thrilled to dance with her than she felt about dancing with him. It gave her an ounce of satisfaction.

“I think I might actually hate you a little bit right now,” Kylie hissed at Aria as she slammed her napkin onto the table and stood up.

“I’d hate me, too.” She gave Kylie a little push toward the dance floor. “Go get ’em, Tiger.”

Kylie may have bared her teeth in growl just then, but she couldn’t remember. The fear in her core burned too intense to commit much of anything to memory.

Brent shoved Jimmy closer Kylie, giving him a nasty glare until Jimmy held out his hand for her. Her eyes shifted from the floor to his hand; strong—tanned and work-roughened as she remembered. Longingly, she gazed at the fingers he used to trail across her skin, riding lazy over her curves long after they’d made love, her insides flushing hot from the memory.

With a deep breath, she tentatively placed her shaking hand in his, closing her eyes as a million, tiny volts of electricity coursed through her body, settling in her stomach where they slowly smoldered. His hand tightened in response to the flash of heat her body produced.

Neither spoke a word as they walked together to the middle of the dance floor. Kylie couldn’t have if she’d wanted to. Her throat constricted, strangling the words out of her, stealing her ability to form complete thoughts. She felt trapped, caged like a skittish, feral animal. As every eye in the room bore down upon her, she struggled to suppress the deep, wailing sobs of agony she longed to release.

He stepped into her, encircled her waist, placing a familiar hand on the small of her back. She tried not to breathe in his intoxicating scent, but it consumed her. Her body heat flamed in response. Except for where their hands made contact, their bodies did not physically touch, but she could feel every inch of him as though he pressed solidly into her. Lust rolled through her as a thousand buried memories resurfaced at once, nearly bringing her to her knees.

Her physical senses already on overloaded, she feared if she looked at him she would collapse. She kept her eyes adverted, looking at nothing, unable to focus on any one thing as the room started to sway.

The lights dimmed, the music started, Keith Urban began to sing.

They stood together. Motionless. Barely breathing.

And then, as one body, one mind, they began to dance.

Time sped up and slowed down, stopping completely before racing forward again as her body moved in rhythm with his. They danced fluidly, intuitively, their bodies intimately familiar with each other as lovers. The tension between them became heavy. Sensual. His hand seared her hip, burning through her dress, imprinting on her skin, the heat radiating from the inside, born from every memory of his hands cradling her hips as she danced above him, their sweat-slickened bodies moving in perfect harmony.

From the very first time they had made love, they knew instinctually what the other needed—every touch, every caress, every stroke perfectly drawing out heightened pleasure in each other. His body had taken hers places she never knew existed, every orgasm powerful. Complete. As their bodies moved together now, hers reacted to those memories, longing for the kind of release only he could provide.

With a gentle hand, he nudged her hip, sending her out in a slow, sensual spin. The room disappeared when he pulled her back in, her eyes locking into his for a fraction of a second before she had a chance to steel them over. He looked straight into her, reading through her defenses, recognizing her pain. It was the same pain she saw reflecting from his heart, weakening her resolve.

When his hand slipped lower on her back, a rush of fire raced along her spine. Her heart slammed against her ribcage, screaming at her to erase that final breath of air between them so it could rest against his once again. Tears filled her eyes as she struggled to fight the aching need. Lightheaded from holding her breath, Kylie felt herself spinning out in Jimmy’s steady hands once again.

When he pulled her back in, she did not stop, could not stop, until her body pressed along his. She closed her eyes and clung to him desperately, locking onto him, holding him tight. Cautiously, he wrapped his arms around her body, his muscles taunt from his struggle to control his own desires, his heart pounding in his chest, slamming hard against her breast as his breath chugged out in ragged bursts. Her heart spoke with his in frantic, passionate beats of wanting as their chests melted into each other.

As though trying to sculpt her, his hands kneaded into her flesh, molding her anew from his memories. She longed to feel his naked heat beneath her touch, the thick fabric of his tuxedo a frustrating barrier. The only skin she could find was his neck, and she buried her face into his scent. His usual stubble shaved clean for the evening, she fought the temptation to run her lips along his jaw line. Instead, she simply breathed him in, slow and deep, her body reacting like a junkie, relaxing with every hit.

The tempo in the room changed as more people filled the dance floor. She dared to open her eyes. His were closed, his face contorted in pain, belying his struggle under her touch. Feeling her eyes upon him, he slowly opened his. Her heart hammered as she gazed into his clear, crystal blues, shimmering darker and darker with desire. He ran a rough, fiercely-controlled hand through her hair, every muscle in his body going rigid as he tipped her face up to his. His gaze shifted to her lips and she unconsciously moistened them, eliciting a barely audible moan from deep inside his core.

He dipped his head down with such excruciating slowness she feared she would explode from sheer anticipation, but when Jimmy’s lips finally touched hers, the explosion she felt was far from death. It was orgasmic in its release. If she could climb inside and surround herself in him, she would have, and she tried. Time stood still as his tongue stroked and explored her mouth, sending heady, liquid waves of pleasure roaring through her body.

Oh God, how she’d missed his taste.

With hooded eyes, he lifted her slightly and whisked her off the dance floor, out the back door of the bar, into the chilly night air. In one quick movement, he slammed her against the rough bricks of the building and kissed her so completely and deeply she thought she would melt into a puddle and float away.

Unable to resist the silky heat of his skin any longer, she pushed her hands into the jacket of his tux and ripped up the tail of his dress shirt, untucking it from his slacks. As her hands dug into his skin and skimmed up his back, his breath caught, and he paused to savor her touch.

“I’ve missed you, Ky,” he whispered out on a thick, pained moan. His mouth raked down her neck, his teeth biting her tender skin as his hands gripped her hips and pulled her tight against him.

Losing her mind from her intense desire, she moved her hands to the front of his pants and struggled with the clasp. She wanted to feel him inside her—she needed him inside her—the need so painful she would stop at nothing until he was buried hot and deep and pounding hard.

His hands gripped hers, clamping tight, stopping the frenzy.

“Slow down,” he whispered rough in her ear. “Let me take you home.”

He released her hands and pulled her into him, threading his fingers through her hair. He ravaged her mouth with another penetrating kiss and trailed down her neck and across her bare shoulders, sending shivers of want through her body. His blatant need pulsed against her through the fabric of his pants. She longed to ease both of their suffering, but he stopped her as she reached for him again.

The physical aching too painful to bear, she took his ear lobe into her mouth, sucking hard, begging him to do what she wanted. “Jimmy.”

His name was the only word she ever needed to say.

He groaned hot as he lifted the skirt of her dress in one, swift movement, and skimmed his hand along the waistband of her panties, kneading the flesh on her hip as she kissed her way back to his mouth. She lifted onto her tiptoes, inviting him to do what she longed for, begging him with a deep moan as she dug her fingers into his neck and kissed him greedily.

“Ky,” he groaned in agony as every muscle in his body tightened into a hard knot of restraint.

His rough fingers and one touch would be all she’d needed to dive completely into insanity, to allow animal cravings and desires take over. It was too much, too fast, and she turned her face to steal a moment’s breath before she lost all control.

She placed a firm hand against his chest, whispered his name from deep inside her heart. A string of whispered curses followed; his or hers, she did not know.

Gradually, he pulled away from her. When his body no longer pressed into hers, the cold night air whipped around her, bringing a chill to her skin, clarity to her mind.

They stood with life on pause, not saying anything as their breathing slowed and their eyes read the other’s confusion, their embarrassment, both unsure who should move first.

She shivered. He suggested they go inside.

With a nod, she reached to brush a smudge of her lipstick from his mouth. He held her hand to his lips, kissing her palm, his eyes locked into hers.

“Jimmy…” she started but didn’t know what more to say.

The silence between them became more pronounced, more uncomfortable. He kissed her palm again, closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Ky.”

When he opened his eyes, the blue of his irises stormed dark in pain and lust. Blame mixed with remorse. For one quick moment, despite the chill of the night, it felt as though they were back in the heat of summer, standing in her kitchen once again. She jerked her hand away from his grasp.

“Ky, wait.”

The pain, the rage, set fire to the wanting, burning her inside out.

“Don’t do this again.” He moved so fast she didn’t have a chance to run. His hands dug into her upper arms as he spun them around, using his body to block her escape. “Don’t fucking leave me again.”

“Don’t you dare put this on me!” With everything she had, she shoved into his chest, forcing him to let her go.


She was stupid when it came to Jimmy, stupid when she was around Jimmy, and it pissed her off.

She would not fall for him again. She would not do that to Brayden. She had to protect him at all costs. She had to protect herself.

“I love you, Ky.”

He was crying.

But so was she. Angrily brushing away her tears, she left him standing in the alley and went back inside.

She pushed her way across the dance floor looking for Nessa, who was hard to miss with her round body pressed into Chief’s sturdy frame. He stood head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd, the disco lights bouncing off his bald head, guiding her to Nessa like a beacon in the night.

Kylie choked on the anger burning her throat as she grabbed Nessa’s arm and yanked her away from Chief, more forcibly than she intended.

“What the—” Nessa gasped in horror when her eyes landed on Kylie. “Holy heck, Ky! What happened to you?”

“Nothing, I just… I want… I’m not feeling well, at all,” Kylie lied, trying to keep her voice even as her insides screamed. “I need to go home, but I was worried about getting you back to Mom’s.”

“What?” Nessa asked in confusion. “But Kylie, you look…”

“It’s nothing, Nessa. I swear. I just don’t feel good,” Kylie assured her.

“Well okay, but…” Nessa’s eyes slipped up to Chief, warming instantly at the sight of him.

“I’d be happy to make sure Nessa gets home safe,” Chief offered, smiling down at Nessa.

Kylie looked at the two of them gazing into each other’s eyes and her stomach lurched violently. Turning away from Nessa and her Norse God, she frantically scanned the room for Brayden, so she could leave. Before she could find him, Brent caught her eye. He was on her in an instant, grabbing her arm before she could escape the dance floor.

“What happened?” he asked, scanning the room for Jimmy.

“I messed up and forgot my head for a minute, but now it’s back on straight and I’m ready to go home,” Kylie answered in a rush. “Now, please, let me go.”

“Where’s my brother?”

“I don’t—” Panic stole her voice. She struggled to free her arm from his grasp. If she didn’t run, she would lose it in front of everyone.

“Hey…” He pulled her closer, forcing her to face him.

“Brent,” she protested and tried to look away, but she couldn’t. Looking into his eyes felt like falling into a well of revelation. He let go of her arms and cupped her face in his hands, stroking her cheek with his thumb.

“What did he do, Ky?”

The tenderness in his voice was the final assault. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks in a flood, and she lost it. Heavy, aching sobs burst from her chest as Brent wrapped her up in his arms. Gently rocking her, he danced her in a slow circle. He stroked her hair and whispered question after question in her ear, but his words got lost, drowned out by her sorrow as she clung to him.

Aria came up behind her and rubbed her back, silently communicating to Brent to let her take over. As soon as he let go, Kylie fell into her arms.

“Shh. It’ll be ok.” As Aria held on tight, a calming wave of vanilla and lavender washed over Kylie, slowing her tears.

“I can’t do this, Aria,” Kylie whispered into Aria’s neck. “I can’t get messed up in him again. I was doing good in California. I could almost forget him for days at a time. Why did you make me come back?”

“Because you need to talk to him, Ky. Talk for real. And you need to listen.”

“Why should I listen? Just so I can hear all over again how he loves me but screwed around on me anyway, just like he did to my sister? That’s not love, Aria. It’s sick and twisted and I don’t want to live like that again. I can’t live like that.”

“I know,” Aria agreed. “But you still need to talk to him, even if it’s just to say good-bye. What you’re feeling right now isn’t healthy. You’ve got to get it all out. Tell him exactly how you feel. Don’t just run like you did before.”

“I can’t talk to him. I can’t look at him. I can’t think about him. If I’m close to him I lose my mind because he’s just so goddamned addictive,” Kylie cried. “Why does he do this to me?”

“Because what you have with him is real,” Aria answered. “That’s why it feels so good when you’re together and hurts so bad when you’re not. You two are connected on an eternal level.”

“If we’re so goddamn perfect for each other, then why is he always fucking someone else?” Kylie demanded, pulling out of Aria’s arms.

The couple dancing near them glanced over and Kylie blushed in horror over what she’d said. She rushed off the dance floor, running headlong into Dan. He grabbed her arms to keep her from losing her balance, but she only felt trapped.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he soothed, holding her tighter as she struggled to free herself from his grasp.

“How could you do this to me?” she demanded.

“What did I do?”

“You know goddamn well what you did! You and Stacy both! There was no reason to push us together like that again! You could have had Brent as your best man! Or Stacy could have picked Aria. It didn’t have to be me! Just butt out of my life for once. It didn’t work the last time you guys pushed us together, and it’s not going to work now!”

“You’re right. I’m sor—”

“Why did he do it? You were there. You have to tell me why.”

“I wasn’t there,” Dan denied. “But I know he didn’t—”

“He didn’t even fight for us. He just gave up. He never loved me at all, did he?”

Dan released her hands in sudden frustration, practically shoving her away. “He has always loved you, Kylie. He’s been fighting for you for so goddamn long you don’t even remember when he started.”

His devotion was with Jimmy, not her, his posture making that abundantly clear.

“What he did is not love.” She brushed past him, blindly wandering through the crowd until she found her mother and Brayden. He sat on her lap, licking a smudge of icing off his fingers, as he stabbed at his slice of cake with a plastic spoon.

“Are you ready to go home?” Martha asked, her voice gentler than it had been all day.

“Yeah,” Kylie whispered through her tears. She lifted Brayden into her arms. His weight heavy, he solidly anchored her. He was the only person in the world who mattered, the only person who would ever matter, and she cradled him to her heart, keeping him safe as they walked out into the cold night air.



Chapter 95 ~ Intermission

IntermissisonIf Pope Francis himself had presided over the wedding ceremony, Kylie never would have known. Her every attention, her every bit of concentration had been focused on not passing out, not throwing up, not pushing past Dan and Stacy to leap into the arms of the man who had broken her heart and left her with nothing. It took every ounce of willpower she possessed to stand politely beside him in the receiving line, to smile pleasantly for endless photographs, to not beat him to a bloody mess with the pointy end of her high heel shoe, to remember how to breathe.

The moment the wedding party trolley parked in front of Gimp’s and the reception guests cheered the arrival of the kissing newlyweds, Kylie bolted for the restroom, unable to keep it together a moment longer. Aria followed two steps behind her as she slammed into the room and locked herself into the last stall, finally releasing the volatile emotions she had been pushing back.

“Are you okay?” Aria asked, softly knocking on the stall door.

Unable to stop the tears, Kylie cried hard, her heart breaking in painful sobs. Another wave of nausea hit, and she leaned over the toilet again.

“Let me in, sweetie.”

Kylie closed her eyes tight and silently prayed to be anywhere in the world besides where she was. She begged, she pleaded, but no matter what she promised to God, she remained wedged in a cramped stall, kneeling on the gritty floor, feeling like a goddamn fool.

“Kylie?” Aria tapped on the door again.

She hated herself for loving him. She hated herself for craving him. She hated herself for being so goddamn stupid for believing in him.


Choking back a sob, her mind replayed her son flying into his arms, the love in his eyes, the joy in his voice, his world set right, his heartache instantly forgotten.

“Kylie, open the door.”

She had to get them out. She had to keep Brayden away from Jimmy forever. If she didn’t, Jimmy would destroy him.

She would make it through the evening because she had promised Stacy she would, she would give Brayden and Jimmy a chance to say a real goodbye, one that would give her son closure, and then she would hop the first morning flight to California and erase Jimmy from her life, and Brayden’s, forever.

Her son would heal. He would forget. He would survive. She would survive. Together, they would pull through, and they would begin life anew, stronger than ever before.


“Yeah, hang on.” Kylie drew in a shaky but confident breath, straightened her dress. She could do this. She had to. She had no choice. She unlocked the stall door, stepped outside.

“Are you okay?” Aria worried.

“I’m fine,” she answered with more confidence than she felt. She crossed the room toward the sink, her knees threatening to buckle at any moment. “I could use a toothbrush, though.”

“I might have some gum in my purse,” Aria said, automatically reaching for a purse she was not carrying. “Shoot.”

Kylie made do with rinsing her mouth. “I’m sorry about all this.”

“Oh, no, I’m the one who should be sorry! If I had known it would be this hard, I never would have… I’m so sorry, Ky. I should have warned you Dan asked Jimmy to be his best man. I honestly didn’t know for sure if he would do it, but still, I shouldn’t have let you believe… I wasn’t thinking—”

Nessa charged into the restroom, interrupting Aria’s babble.

“Are you okay?” Nessa clamped tight onto Kylie’s arms and whipped her around, firing questions in rapid succession, “That was Jimmy? Holy heck, Ky! I don’t remember him looking like that on Facebook. He’s flippin’ hot—Wait! No! He’s not. Not hot, at all. He’s gross. Super gross. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Ness. Just forget about it,” Kylie dismissed, trying to make light of her burning emotions before they exploded again. She pulled away from Nessa and paced toward the stall, feeling as though she may need it as her stomach churned in earnest.

“I think you should talk to him,” Aria suggested. “From what Brent’s been saying lately, I don’t think it happened quite the way we thought.”

“Brent’s the brother, right?” Nessa asked.

“How else could it be, Aria?”

“Brent said he never actually had sex with her.”

“Her who?” Nessa asked, her head whipping from Aria to Kylie and back again. “His ex?”

“He told me he did, Aria,” Kylie cried, the tears flowing freely down her cheeks. “Why would he tell me he did if he didn’t?”

“I don’t know, honey,” Aria said, rubbing Kylie’s back. “He won’t talk about it, not to me or to Brent. I think Dan might know what’s going through Jimmy’s head, but he’s keeping a tight lid on it, even to Stacy.”

Nessa placed a gentle hand on Kylie’s shoulder and spoke carefully, “Ky, girl, I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but there’s still something crazy-real going on between the two of you. It’s so heavy I could feel it from the pews.”

“All that’s left between us is hate—pure unadulterated hate. That’s what you were feeling.” Kylie turned to the mirror, catching the reflection of her red face and puffy eyes, and dabbed angrily at her running mascara. “God, I’m such a fool.”

“No, you’re not—”

“Yes, I am,” Kylie insisted. She ripped a handful of paper towels from the dispenser and wiped away what remained of her tear-streaked make-up. “Let’s just go get this stupid night over with so I can get the hell out of here and go home.”

“Ky, I think—”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass what you think, Aria!”

Aria flinched as though she had been slapped, and Kylie burst into tears.

“Oh, Ky.” Nessa and Aria both wrapped her up in their arms and held her until she ran out of tears. Aria stepped into the stall returned with a handful of toilet paper. She handed it to Kylie with a weak smile.

Nessa gave her a weak smile. “At least the reception has one thing going for it that the wedding ceremony certainly did not.”

“What?” Kylie asked through her sniffles, drying her eyes.



Chapter 94 ~ Out of His League

LeagueDan’s heart exploded at the sight of her. She was too exquisite for words, radiating the purest form of beauty he had ever seen. Her hair hung loose the way he loved, falling in masses of chestnut curls across her shoulders, her dress strapless and simple, the bodice embroidered and beaded, the waistline accented with a fabric in an incredibly soft shade of pink. She was beautiful, she was perfect, she could bring him to his knees with a smile, and he was totally, completely, deliriously out of his league.

Cheryl gave him a little nod, and he locked eyes with Stacy, stepping forward as he brought forward the microphone he had hiding behind his back. Confusion mixed with delighted surprise in her eyes, and she stopped dead in her tracks with a gasp when he started to sing one of her favorite songs, “Out of My League” by Stephen Speaks. She stood frozen for one heartbeat, two, then squeezed Cheryl’s hand tighter as she started to move again. She blushed an extremely sexy pink, her body gliding up the aisle, as he heard her heart ask his, “What are you doing, kochanie?”

“Loving you,” his heart answered as the room disappeared. She was all that he needed, and all that he saw, the history of their lives together flashing through his heart’s memory as he sang straight to hers.

They were two years old again, her wispy, baby curls standing on end, her face decorated in a chocolate smudge, giggling as she peeked at him around the well-loved blanket she always carried pressed to her cheek.

They were six, her smile capped with a cherry red Kool-Aid moustache, her body a blur of tangerine swimsuit and deep summer tan as she turned endless cart-wheels through the sprinkler in his backyard.

They were eight, wide-eyed and breathless in the dark, her bubblegum filling the closet in the back bedroom of Gram’s house with the intoxicating scent of strawberries, his mouth watering in anticipation before she pressed her lips to his and he tasted her sweet breath for the very first time.

They were twelve, her feet bare, her skin tanned into caramel, a child developing into a woman, wearing a pale pink sundress as she danced around catching fireflies in the moonlight on Chelsea Lake.

They were sixteen, she was pink-cheeked, a mass of chestnut curls on a bed of pure white, making angels with her eyes closed in the first snowfall of the season.

They were twenty-two, her head resting on his shoulder, their fingers laced together, his heart bursting with pride as they sat side-by-side and watched his brand-new bride dance with her father on his wedding day.

They were thirty-two, her incredible strength bearing his full weight as he collapsed into her arms, their tears falling in a shower around them as the sun set in a blaze of orange the day his heart died.

And then, after a cold, black night that lasted a lifetime, she took him into her arms once again, resurrecting his heart and his soul as she made love to him for the very first time.

In that moment, the sun finally rose again, and it had not stopped shining since.

As Stacy let go of Cheryl to take the final step toward him, she smiled a smile that stole his voice along with his heart. The song trailed from his lips and his eyes filled with tears as he reached for the woman he had loved his entire life.

“Aw, kochanie, you made yourself cry,” she whispered in her sweet, teasing way. She wiped the tears from his cheek and then brushed her own away with the back of her hand. “I love you so much I can’t breathe.”

“I can’t either,” he whispered and kissed her light on the lips. She squeezed his arm tight and lifted on her tiptoes, so he could kiss her again. He couldn’t bring himself to stop kissing her until Pastor Tom cleared his throat and giggles filled the air.

Cheryl kissed them both on the cheek as Dan handed her the microphone. She took her seat in the front pew beside Martha, who couldn’t take her eyes away from Jimmy and Brayden, silent tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Are you ready, kochanie?” Stacy asked on a breathless whisper. He could only nod in reply. She smiled and gave him a little wink as they turned toward their next chapter together.

The actual ceremony happened so fast, Dan barely knew what was happening before he was told to kiss the bride.

“And, this time, I won’t make you stop,” Pastor Tom promised.

Their first kiss as husband and wife took him back to the first real kiss they shared exactly one year earlier, on Thanksgiving night, complete with the crowd cheering them on and the room spinning, just as it had before.

When the kiss ended, Stacy rested her forehead against his. “Kocham Cię.”

Dan whispered, “Milcz i całuj.”

She laughed in surprise, but she did as she was told. She shut up and kissed him, and he kissed her again and again and again.


Chapter 93 ~ Procession

Procession.jpgFrom the moment the sun rose in the eastern Nebraska sky, the day of Stacy’s wedding was a crazy, emotional flurry of manis, pedis, flowers, chiffon, and hair spray, with little time for anything else. Except nerves.

Before Kylie could catch a breath, she had been whisked from the beauty salon to the church, sequestered inside a Sunday School classroom. The heady aroma of poster paint mixed in a nauseating fashion with the lighter fragrance of the calla lilies in the bridal bouquets.

And there were screaming children everywhere.

“What in the world…” Kylie muttered, trying to comprehend the chaos.

“I couldn’t decide on just one flower girl, so I asked my entire class to help me out.” Stacy beamed in pride at the madness before them. “Even the boys volunteered.”

“You are insane, you know that, right?” Kylie laughed.

“Oh, I know,” Stacy agreed. “It’s a requirement of all first-grade teachers.”

Martha rushed into the room, her pincushion attached to her wrist, tape measure dangling from her neck, and Kylie’s maid of honor dress draped across her arm. “Okay, Kylie, hun, come over and try this now. I think I’ve finally got it taken in enough on the sides.”

Stacy lifted the dress from Martha’s arm and held it up. “It’s so tiny.”

“Are you eating at all in California?” Martha asked. “I swear you’re wasting away to nothing.”

“I eat fine,” Kylie insisted yet again, for what felt like the hundredth time in less than twenty-four hours. If one more person shoved food in her direction, instructing her to, ‘Eat, eat,’ she was going to scream.

Nessa arrived soon after Martha, holding Brayden by the hand. All dressed up in a mini tux with tails, his wild blonde hair slicked back into submission, he was a heartbreaker.

“Bray, you look so grown up,” Kylie said, pride welling in her chest.

“You are one handsome cookie, Macho Man.” Aria knelt in front of him to adjust his lapels. “Will you save me a dance tonight?”

Brayden hid his face behind his hands as he nodded, blushing a vivid, rosy red. Aria moved his hands to kiss his cheek, and he whispered, “Ah-ree-ah?”

“Yes, Bray?” she whispered, the tip of her nose kissing his.

He patted her face with both of his little hands, then giggled and ran away.

She brought her hands to her heart, smiling in absolute delight. “Oh, I missed him.”

Tears slipped down Kylie’s cheek and her heart quickened as she watched him run and play with the other children. It was good they came. He needed to be here, if only for a few days. The outpouring of love surrounding him made him stronger, reminded him who he was.

Kylie quickly brushed her tears away before they ruined her makeup. “Okay, let’s see this dress.”

She followed her mother into the adjoining storage closet that temporarily doubled as a dressing room and slipped out of her clothes. Once Martha helped her into the dress, they returned to the mirrors set up in the main room.

“Oh, wow, Ky,” Nessa whispered, stepping up to adjust the back.

As she turned to look at her reflection in the mirror, Kylie was eternally grateful for Aria’s impeccable taste. The dress was stone-colored, luminescent chiffon with a cowl-draped, baby-doll skirt, a deep V-neckline and an empire bodice, accented by a thin coffee-colored ribbon just below her breasts. The coloring made her skin look like fine porcelain and deepened the lowlights in her long hair until they shone of deep mahogany.

“You are unbelievably beautiful, Ky.”

“Oh, Ness.” She turned again, admiring her foreign reflection from another angle. The lay of the fabric flattered Kylie’s body perfectly; minimizing her waist and emphasizing her breasts, creating the illusion they were much fuller than reality. Damn, that girl knew fashion.

Nessa brushed a curled lock of hair from Kylie’s shoulder. “If David could see you now, he’d dip you in chocolate and preserve you for all eternity.”

Aria and Stacy whipped around, demanding in unison, “Who’s David?”

Kylie cringed. Shit. “He’s nobody. Just a guy.”

“You didn’t mention a guy the last time we talked, Kylie,” Martha said, her brow furrowing in confusion and concern. “Are you… Are you seeing him?”

“No, it’s… It’s not like that,” Kylie tried, but Nessa interrupted.

“Ky’s been dating him for three weeks now.”

“Three weeks!” the Aria and Stacy stereo cried out in disbelief.

“It’s nothing serious.” Kylie shot a glare of accusation at Nessa, but she only had herself to blame. She should have had the foresight to warn Nessa to keep her mouth shut about David around Stacy and Aria. “We’re just talking. That’s all.”

“Kylie’s the one just talking,” Nessa said, not taking the hint. “David would prefer to do something else with his mouth.”

“Oh… What’s he like?” Stacy asked, having a hard time hiding her emotion.

She obviously wasn’t happy with the idea of Kylie dating, even if it was ‘just talking.’ Of anyone, Kylie thought Stacy would have understood her need to move on. Apparently not.

“He’s nothing special,” Kylie said.

“Nothing special, my ass! He’s tall, dark and handsome, with a body made of caramel marble,” Nessa mused, blessedly oblivious to the look of betrayal passing between Aria and Stacy. “He spends his days sculpting in sinfully rich chocolate, his nights melting into luscious erotica, and if he hasn’t already, he’s well on his way to falling in love with our girl, Ky. But she’s being evasive.”

“Is it… serious, between you guys?” Aria asked, the pain in her eyes unmasked.

“Nessa’s exaggerating. He’s a nice guy who’s interesting—that’s all there is to it.”

“How did you meet him?” Stacy asked.

“Let’s go, my dear. You’ll have all kinds of time to catch up later.” Cheryl, looking as sharp and coifed as a Southern lady in her lavender pantsuit, clapped her hands, mercifully breaking into the middle of their uncomfortable circle. “Time’s ticking away here, and the bride still needs to get dressed.” She turned to Nessa and asked, “Would you mind running up to tell Pastor Tom we might need another five minutes?”

Nessa rushed off. Once Aria took Stacy to the adjoining room to help her into her wedding dress, Cheryl focused her attention on the children, lining them up and preparing them for their flower-scattering duties. Martha turned to Kylie, her mouth open and her expression confused, but she only shook her head and walked away, out of the room completely.

“Mom,” Kylie called after her, but she continued down the hall toward the sanctuary. There was no mistaking the disappointment in her eyes, the intensity of it surprising.

The chaos in the room built into a feverous pitch, matching Kylie’s anxiety. After what felt like an eternity, Nessa popped her head through the door.

“You might want to speed it up in here! The groom looks like he’s about to pass out.” She then turned to Kylie, her smile one of childlike wonder. “Good gracious, Girlie, there are a lot of fine looking men in your little town. You guys have a hottie factory here or something?”

Kylie laughed. “Not that I know of.”

“You should see the best man! Ooh, la, la, that man is pure sex! You better believe I’m hittin’ that tonight!”

She pretended to swoon and gave Kylie a wink as she ducked back out. Kylie’s heart froze, her body went numb, slowly registering what Nessa had said.

No. Please, God, no, no, no, no…

She could feel the blood drain from her face as she choked out, “Who’s the best man?”

Aria ignored her question and ran to the door to cue the pianist.

“Who’s the best man?” Kylie asked again.

“No time for this now, Ky.” Handing her a bouquet, Aria refused to meet Kylie’s eyes.


Before Kylie could grab her and wring her neck, Aria squared her shoulders and took her first step out the door.

Cheryl pulled Kylie aside, out of the way. “Okay, the kids are next. Hurry! Hurry! The music’s started.” Cheryl ushered the boy/girl pairs toward the door, making sure they all had their baskets. “Remember to smile. And walk slow. Make the petals last all the way to the end of the aisle.”

Stacy gave Kylie a squeeze and whispered, “It’ll be okay, Kylie. You can do this.”

Her words confirmed Kylie’s fears—the best man was Jimmy. Shit.

“You said you didn’t even know if he was coming… You said it would only be fair to warn me…” Kylie stammered out in accusation, not sure if Stacy had fooled her, or if she had fooled herself.

Hadn’t she known, all along, he would be there?

Wasn’t that why she had returned?

To see him.

To be near him.

To convince herself she no longer needed him. No longer loved him.

“You look beautiful, Ky.”

“I think that was supposed to be my line. I’m so sorry.”

Stacy winked. “We’re improvising.”

Kylie forced on a smile. At least, she hoped she was smiling. Her stomach had twisted into knots and she couldn’t feel her face. Brayden clung to her leg, but she couldn’t feel him either. Her entire body had gone numb.

Stacy bent to adjust Brayden’s jacket. “Do you remember what you have to do, Bray?”

He shook his head.

“Follow behind the big kids, and then go stand next to Dan. And remember to be very, very quiet… Okay?”

He nodded. Cheryl took his little hand in hers. Together, they joined the end of the crooked line of children slowly squeezing through the door. Stacy slipped her hand into Kylie’s and gave her another squeeze of reassurance as they watched the last of the children file out of the room.

She was going to pass out. She was sure of it.

What the hell was she thinking? She should have said no.

She could still say no.

She could just run out the back door and forget the whole thing.

She could pretend to be sick. She felt like she was going to throw up anyway.

All she had to do is stop holding it back, and it would come on its own. Then she wouldn’t have to do this.

She didn’t want to do this.

She couldn’t do this.

There was no way she could do this…

She closed her eyes, whispered the first prayer that came to mind, the one she recited to Brayden every single night, “I hear no voice, I feel no touch, I see no glory bright, but yet I know that God is near, in darkness as in light…

“Okay, Kylie,” Cheryl urged. “You’re up.”

Kylie felt a gentle nudge in the middle of her back, felt her feet begin to step forward.


Slowly, she made her way through the door and down the hall, through the archway and into the sanctuary. She kept her eyes to the floor, not looking at the altar. If she looked, she would lose it. The raging emotions she had been holding onto so tightly since that morning in her kitchen threatened to boil over as her stomach lurched violently.

She drew in a deep, deliberate breath through her nose to squelch the nausea. She straightened her back, squared her shoulders, as she took the first step amongst the petals, onto the fabric running the length of the aisle.

She could do this. She was strong. She could handle seeing—


Brayden’s call lifted her eyes to the altar, mesmerized as he started to run. The pillow flew from his hands and he danced the last ten feet, jumping straight into Jimmy Rogan’s arms.

Jimmy scooped him up and hugged him hard. Brayden’s little arms and legs wrapped around him as though he would never again let go. With his eyes closed tight, Jimmy held her son to his heart, kissing his face and stroking his hair.

It happened so fast her heart shattered, sending waves of agony straight through her core.

They were beautiful together.

Jimmy was as gorgeous as he had ever been—even more so in his black tux with his sandy hair cut close, shorter than usual. Even in winter he wore a permanent tan from spending his life outside, and she knew under his jacket his body was hard, pure, lean muscle. If she closed her eyes she could feel the silkiness of his skin beneath her fingertips, the memory of his strong, calloused hands on every inch of her body. She had loved him since she first saw him, long before he was hers to love, and even through the excruciating pain in her chest, she couldn’t deny seeing him again made her love him infinitely more than she ever had before.

Brent leaned into Jimmy and whispered a quick few words. Jimmy slowly opened his eyes and looked straight into Kylie, right into her soul. His expression became somber as he shifted Brayden in his arms, resting her son on his hip, almost daring her with his refusal to let him go. Aria retrieved the pillow with the rings still tacked in place, handed it up to Brayden, and kissed his cheek. Dan caught Kylie’s eye for a split-second, long enough to give her strength, and encourage her feet to move again.

As Kylie made her way up the aisle, she kept her eyes on Jimmy. She couldn’t have pulled them away if she’d wanted to. Her breathing became labored and a flush of heat rose up her neck as her proximity to him sent alternating waves of passion and hatred throughout her body.

Oh, how she hated him…

The piano chords of the music Dan chose for Stacy’s wedding march began as soon as Kylie took her place beside Aria. The room stood as one and turned to watch Stacy and Cheryl make their way down the aisle, but Kylie couldn’t take her eyes off her little boy in the arms of the man she hated. The man she loved. She stood watching helplessly as Brayden rested his head on Jimmy’s shoulder, tears shining in his eyes as he clutched onto Jimmy’s lapel for dear life.

Jimmy was watching Stacy, but Kylie could feel the tension radiating from his body as he struggled to keep his eyes away from hers… the eyes that had gazed into her soul as they made love in the late-night hours… the eyes that could make her blush with a glance and strip her bare with a lazy wink… the eyes she couldn’t stop dreaming about, that kept her awake until morning, wishing she could lose herself in them… just one more time… and cry out his name.