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.

Chapter 116 ~ Control

ControlKylie found him on the back porch, staring out into the yard, his arms crossed and his breath coming out in white puffs of frozen air. His chest and feet were still bare, unprotected from the weather. He looked lost, buried deep in his thoughts, oblivious to the frigid temperature. She stepped outside and went to him, the worn wooden floor like ice under her bare feet.

“You’re going to catch a cold.” She wrapped her arms around him from behind, kissed along his shoulders.

Jimmy ran his hands lightly over her arms. “I never meant to do that.”

“I didn’t either.” She rested her cheek against his skin.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“I don’t know what happened. It was too much… It happened too fast.” He laced his fingers with hers against his chest. “I lost control.”

She kissed across his shoulders again, nibbled on his neck.

“I hurt you.”

“You didn’t,” she assured him.

“I saw you crying.”

“You didn’t hurt me, Jimmy. I swear.”

He turned around in her arms, his hands coming to her face. “I love you.” He held her gently, his eyes pained, conflicted, begging her to return his words.

“I love you, too,” she admitted, to him, to herself.

“Yeah?” he asked on a hoarse whisper, his crystal blue eyes filling with tears and cautious hope.

She nodded.

He kissed her softly, slipped his hand under the t-shirt she had on. “Is this my shirt?”

“Yeah.” She smiled against his lips.

“It looks really good on you,” he whispered, his mouth still lightly pressed into hers. As he leisurely ran his hands up and down her back, his gentle touch caressed her heart, and she felt the first beats of forgiveness.

“I’ve missed this.” As she said the words, her cell phone rang in her pocket, vibrating against her hip, and he groaned.

“Ignore it.”

“I can’t. It might be Mom about Brayden.” She leaned back in his arms to pull her cell phone from her pocket. Jimmy shifted his kiss to her collarbone, so she could answer. “Hello?”

“You should have seen the sunrise this morning, Kylie. The depth of Nature’s palette is truly breathtaking,” David gushed in warm passion.

Kylie immediately ran cold. She pushed away from Jimmy, trying to physically push away the guilty knot tying up her insides. “Now’s really not a good time. Can I call you back later?”

Jimmy looked at her with confusion. “Who’s on the phone, Ky?”

“Who was that?” David asked.

“No one,” she stammered, uncertain whom she answered. Her hand trembled as she swiped the screen to disconnect and rushed to push the phone in her pocket.

“Who was on the phone?” Jimmy repeated his question.

She didn’t want to lie to him. “David.”

“Who’s David?”

Her eyes darted away and then back to his, giving him the only answer he needed.

“Un-fucking-believable.” He slammed through the door, into the kitchen, the windows rattling in his wake.

The knot in Kylie’s stomach grew so big she thought she would choke on it. She eyed the screen door on the side of the porch that led out into the yard. She could slip out the back, catch the next flight to California, put them both out of their misery. Forever. It would be so easy to run. But she didn’t.

She owed him an explanation. She owed him an apology. She owed him the right to be the one to decide to call it quits.

She owed him the same opportunity to believe in faith, in love, to dare to keep going, as he had given to her all those months ago in her kitchen. The opportunity she had foolishly thrown away.

Once again, she squared her shoulders and went looking for him, one final time.

 

***

 

He knew he had no right to be pissed, to feel betrayed, but he did. He wanted to run, but it was his house. He had nowhere to go. He was trapped, stuck pacing his shithole of a living room like a rat trapped in a cage, and when she pushed through the plastic sheeting, looking at him with her sad, fucking eyes, he lost it.

“Get the fuck out of my house!”

“Can we talk about this?”

“Get out.”

“Jimmy, please…” She reached for him, but he pushed her away.

“Fuck you.” He never wanted her to touch him again.

“Whatever you’re thinking about David, you’re wrong.”

“Oh, I know I was wrong! I was definitely wrong when I thought we might have a chance to work things out,” he agreed, his heart slamming against his ribcage in anger. “And I was sure the fuck wrong when I thought you still loved me.”

“I never stopped loving you,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

“Are you sleeping with him?” he demanded.

“No.”

“Don’t lie to me.” He grabbed onto her upper arms, his fingers digging into her skin. She let out a yelp of pain, but he couldn’t loosen his grasp. If anything, he held on tighter, desperate for the truth. “Tell me right now if you’re fucking him!”

“I’m not.” Her eyes were wide, terrified, as she rushed to explain, “We went out a few times—that’s all, I swear. We never—”

“Tell me the truth, Ky!” He wrenched her arm, shaking her. “Tell me!”

You cheated on me!” she screamed, her fear morphing into rage as she shoved him away. “You have no right to be pissed about anything I do, ever again! You lost that right the night you slept with Marissa.”

“I never slept with her!” Jimmy snapped back. “Jesus, Ky.”

Her face drained to white, her eyes flashing through anger and betrayal as she processed what he had said. “Excuse me?”

He ran his hands through his hair in agitation, scrubbing at his scalp, the air in the room suddenly still, nauseating him as Kylie stared at him in silent shock. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” she parroted in a forced whisper. Tears poured down her cheeks and she started to shake violently.

“I didn’t sleep with her,” he said, knowing it wouldn’t matter, but knowing he had to try. “I kissed her, and I touched her, but I never slept with her.”

She looked at him as though he spoke to her in a foreign tongue.

“I was drunk, and I was pissed.” Memories of the night flashed through his body as though it was happening in real time, the intensity of the sensation confusing him even more. “It was raining—I wasn’t thinking straight, and she was there—”

“And you slept with her,” Kylie insisted.

“No.”

“But you told me…” She trailed off, her gaze pulling inward. “You said…”

“I never told you I slept with her. You just assumed I did.”

“No!” she screamed, her hands balling into fists, her face flushing in rage. “Don’t you dare turn this around on me! You came into my kitchen at five in the goddamn morning! You apologized to me, over and over again! You told me—” Her eyes grew wide and her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, my god… You wanted me to break up with you…”

“No!” he insisted. She was getting it wrong. She didn’t understand. How could he make her understand when he didn’t understand it himself?

“You wanted me to break up with you,” she repeated with more conviction. “You wanted out.”

“No.”  His stomach churned violently as he reached for her.

She took a step back, her features marred by betrayal. “You’ve never loved me, have you?”

“I have always loved you.” Desperate to make her understand how he felt, he pulled her roughly into him and kissed her. The tighter he held her, the harder he tried to show her how much he loved her, the more she struggled to be free. She shoved hard and slipped from his hands, fleeing from the house, into the chilled winter air.

He ran after her, screaming for her to stop. “Kylie!”

She whipped around, the winter wind swirling her hair about her face. “You broke my little boy! You used me, and you lied to him! You told him you loved him, and you let him believe it, and then, when you decided you were done playing house, you threw him away like he was nothing. And he hurts every day because of what you did!”

“I did not throw him away! I would never throw him away!” he cried, her accusation crashing into his chest in painful waves of guilt and panic, forcing to the surface anger born in his deepest fears. “You stole him from me!”

“He was never yours!”

“He is my son!” He slammed his fist into his chest, over his heart. “He will always be my son!”

“He will never be your son.” She stood ramrod straight, defiant, beside her car, anger and hatred radiating from her body in waves of scorching heat. Carefully enunciating every word, as though to ensure he fully understood, she said, “You are nothing to him.”

Barefoot, wearing his t-shirt and robbing him of his entire world, she climbed into the Mustang, shoved the key into the ignition and cranked the car to life, revving the engine to red-line levels before throwing it into reverse. He had to jump out of the way as she peeled out of his driveway, gravel pelting his face and body when she whipped the wheel and slammed the car into drive.

As he watched her tear up the road, he collapsed to his knees under the immense weight of despair, and he wept.

 

 

Chapter 115 ~ Canoodle

CanoodleQuietly, Dan cracked open the door to the bedroom to check on Stacy. He found her sitting in the rocker, feeding Emily. Opening the door the rest of the way, he leaned against the jamb.

“How long has she been awake? I didn’t hear her cry.”

“She didn’t cry.” Stacy smiled a guilty little smile. “I just wanted to hold her.”

“Did Jimmy and Kylie wake you up?”

“Yeah, but that’s okay. It was nice to hear them talking to each other again.”

“They left together,” Dan said. “That’s a good sign.”

Stacy nodded. “Very good.”

He crossed the room to the two most beautiful girls in the world, placed a soft kiss on Stacy’s lips before running a light hand around Emily’s downy head. She startled a bit then settled back into nursing. “Is it wrong to be jealous of her right now?”

“Very.” Stacy laughed softly.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better. I’m sorry I freaked out on you earlier this morning. It was silly to be scared.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“I think I’ve got this whole ‘Mom’ thing under control if you want to go in. Brent’s probably having a conniption being there by himself.”

“He’s called a few times but he’s not in full-on panic mode yet. He’ll be fine.”

“You still should probably check on him.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Dan teased.

“No,” Stacy said with a smile. “I just know you really want to go in and check on things. I’m giving you an excuse to go.”

“I do want to go in,” Dan admitted. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, kochanie. I understand.”

“But the instant we hire someone to run the office, I’m taking a day or two off. Maybe even a whole week. I promise.”

“I’m holding you to that. One of these days, I expect a real honeymoon.”

“And you’ll get one,” Dan agreed. “I just thought we’d wait until it’s elk season in Montana. We could rent a little cabin up there.”

“Uh-uh.” Stacy smiled and shook her head.

“Fishing in Alaska?”

“No.”

“I suppose you expect me to take you somewhere exotic—like Georgia.”

Stacy cocked an eyebrow and asked doubtfully, “Georgia’s exotic?”

“Sure.”

“And just what would we do in Georgia?”

“Oh, what couldn’t we do in Georgia? There are tons of places to go. They’ve got mountains and canyons, beaches, big cities, little cities, old cities, battlefields, mining towns. We could even go see the world’s biggest peanut.”

“I don’t think so.”

“We could nibble on some sweet peaches.”

She bit back a smile. “Would they be in cobbler?”

“Oh, for sure. We could get you some peach cobbler or peach pies, peach ice cream, muffins, pancakes, salsa, marmalade. I could get you grilled peaches, baked peaches, fried peaches, frozen peaches—”

“Got it, yep,” Stacy cut him off with a roll of her eyes. “Lots of peaches there.”

“Or maybe you’d rather see the tree that owns itself.”

She laughed, causing Emily to startle again. Stacy rocked a bit to calm her. “How can a tree own itself?”

“I don’t know how, but it does. At least, that’s what the little plaque says.”

“You’ve seen this tree?”

“I have.” Dan nodded with a smile. “If I remember right it’s the son of the tree that owns itself, but still, it’s pretty cool.”

“I bet.”

“You know, while we’re in Georgia, checking out the peanut, and the peaches, and the tree, it would be criminal not to do a little catfish noodling.” He wiggled his eyebrows and she rewarded him with a sexy smile.

“Ah, now the truth comes out… You woo me with the peaches just to trick me into canoodling with you. I see how you are.”

“You make it sound kinky.” Just thinking about it made him flush with heat.

“I don’t have a clue what noodling is.” She laughed. “I just guessed.”

“Noodling is wrestling gigantic, slimy catfish out of their hidey holes under stumps and rocks in mucky, shallow water using only your bare hands. True warrior style.”

“Ah.”

“Trust me, you’ll like it.”

“You think so, huh?”

“I do.” He grinned. “When do you want to go?”

“Umm… how about the fifth of Never,” she suggested.

“You’re no fun.”

“I know,” she agreed. “But here’s a crazy thought… How about we go somewhere that actually is exotic, in all the right ways, and we do my kind of noodling?”

“What’s your kind of noodling?”

She said nothing, but her smile was so vividly naughty, his jeans grew tight.

“Hmm…” Dan said, feigning debate. “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”

“You do that and let me know.” She shifted her gaze down to Emily and let out a sigh of wonderment and peace. “How did we make such a beautiful baby?”

“She has a beautiful mommy. It was bound to happen.” Dan brushed Stacy’s hair from her face and kissed her cheek then her lips. “You want some lunch before I go?”

“Sure.”

“Chili dog?”

Stacy groaned. “Never again. How in the world could you let me eat those things?”

“It wasn’t a choice, Stace,” Dan answered seriously.

“I hope I never have another food obsession like that again. It was weird.”

“I think most women have cravings when they’re pregnant. It’s probably normal.”

“Seven chili dogs a day is not normal,” Stacy said with a shake of her head.

“That’s true,” Dan agreed. “Those chili dogs owned you, woman. I’m surprised Emily doesn’t smell like a pickle.”

She laughed. “You’re a dork.”

“But a damn sexy dork.” Dan winked and headed downstairs to make lunch, relieved he’d never have to smell another of Cheryl’s disgusting chili dogs, ever again. Stacy truly had been possessed by those chili dogs. If he ever got obsessed with a food like that, he’d have no choice but to commit himself.

 

Chapter 114 ~ Solid Foundation

Solid FoundationWith her stomach twisted in nervous knots, Kylie followed Jimmy’s truck down the gravel drive and around the country section. It was stupid to follow him anywhere, she didn’t have to remind herself, especially to a place where they would be alone. She wasn’t afraid of Jimmy. She was afraid of herself. Watching him hold a newborn baby in his arms had pulled hard on her most precious memories and had left her wanting him even more.

Jimmy pulled into a long, deeply rutted driveway. She followed his exact path, inching carefully around the worst of the craters time and nature had carved into the partially-frozen ground. Once safely parked beside his truck, she allowed herself the luxury of looking around through the windshield.

The one other time she had been to the property, a few years prior, had been in the middle of the night. With only moonlight to brighten their path, they had explored the grounds with careful steps through overgrown landscaping, half-buried trash and junked cars. Still, she remembered every detail as clearly as though it had been her childhood home. She’d even dreamt about it, once upon a time.

Though the house had been abandoned for years, and abused long before that, the quality of the craftsmanship still shone through. The house itself was huge, two and a half stories with five bedrooms and three bathrooms, built right around the turn of the century, Victorian in design with a massive, wraparound porch on the front and a second, screened-in summer porch off the kitchen. Her last visit, the porch roof had been partially collapsed, hanging precariously by a few stalwart nails, the wooden floor rotted through and caved into the crumbling block foundation. It was all just a memory now, the decay ripped off and hauled away, a solid foundation poured in its place.

The worst of the siding had been patched in places, but the exterior still needed a lot of work. The windows were the original, heavy leaded glass, clouded with age. The roof had so many layers of shingles on it she imagined the foundation would rise a few inches from relief of the excess weight when Jimmy got around to scraping them off. The cellar was original and dirt, but the house stood straight and strong.

Over a hundred years old and horribly abused, the house was beaten, but not broken. Now that someone who loved it had become its caretaker, it had another good century of life to look forward to.

“You want a tour?” Jimmy asked, pulling her from her respite. He lifted his ballcap in nervous habit, repositioned it with the bill to the back.

“Maybe in a minute.” Hesitantly, she climbed from the car, dropped her keys on the driver’s seat. “What was it you wanted to show me?”

“This.” He tipped his head toward the house, squinted into the winter sun. “I wanted to show you the house.”

“Oh,” she answered on a breath of surprise and confusion.

“I just wanted you to see what I’ve done to it… where I’m going with it… What it could be like…”

The need to flee twittered in her stomach like nervous butterflies, but curiosity emboldened her. “Show me then.”

“It’s still pretty rough,” he wavered.

“Have a little faith in me, Jimmy. I’ll be able to see what you see.”

“You always could.”

Jimmy kept his hands in his pockets, his shoulders tight as he led her through the tangle of dormant landscaping, to the makeshift front porch. He had built temporary steps and laid out plywood for a landing. In the rough draft, Kylie could easily envision the porch as it would be, with thick columns and rafter scrolls, the floorboards stained redwood. She imagined the front door anchored by planters overflowing with ivy geraniums or vibrant calibrachoa. Heavy, potted ferns, along with a wind-chime, would hang from hooks in the ceiling. Matching rockers would sit side-by-side, angled for the best view of the setting sun.

“This is nice,” Kylie commented. She could even imagine a gentle, lazy dog napping on a colorful rag rug, snoring in the shade—a Bassett hound with sinus problems, maybe, or a Mastiff. “You should get a dog.”

“I’ve thought about it.” He pushed open the front door. “Just remember, it’s a work in progress.”

He stepped aside so Kylie could enter. When she did, it took her breath away. The history in the air was so thick it was palpable, begging her to reach out and feel its story, to listen to its secrets. Despite the years it had housed a bitter spinster, the house had always been, and always would be, a family home.

The house held dear the memories of those who had lived there before; those who had worked hard and loved passionately, who had cried tears of joy, and those of sorrow. Within her first few steps, she felt the house surround her in warm welcome, as though she an old friend who had been greatly missed.

“Wow… Jimmy.” She exhaled a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “This is gorgeous.”

“Not yet, but some day.”

“No.” She shook her head as she slowly walked the room. “Already…”

The front room was rough and the furniture temporary, but it held great potential. The ceilings were high, the room open and bright. The crumbling plaster had been removed and replaced with drywall that had been taped and mudded, but not yet painted. The trim was missing, and the floors were freshly-laid, bare oak waiting to be stained. It would be beautiful when he finished, especially with the stone fireplace that stood prominently against one wall.

She crossed the room and ran her hand along the heavy mantle. “Have you tried this out yet?”

“Not yet. I have to re-sleeve the chimney first.”

There were still hooks in the wood where a previous family had hung Christmas stockings. She ran a light touch along the aging wood, traced along a jagged “K + J” that had been carved into the side.

She gasped in surprise. “Did you—”

“No,” he answered before she could ask. “It was already there.”

She retraced the initials, trying to imagine the person who had carved them, what had made them do so. Was it no more than a child, a foolish girl with a crush? Newlyweds in a new home? An older man, remembering a younger self? “Who do you think K and J were?”

“I don’t know. There were a lot of Maleks.”

“You should look into it,” Kylie suggested.

“Yeah, sure,” Jimmy agreed, but she knew he wouldn’t. He possessed a passion for structural restoration, but the thrill of unraveling the history behind the paint was all hers. He pushed through the plastic sheeting hanging in the archway. “This is the dining room…”

He paused, allowing the room to speak to her first. It stood quiet, a blank slate of unfinished drywall and subfloor, void of any furnishings, cold even with the sun shining in. But Kylie could easily visualize it draped in deep, harvest colors, a long oak table sitting prominent in the center of the room, laden heavy with Thanksgiving dinner, the room warmed by the glow of candlelight, the joy of dear friends and family gathered around.

“It wasn’t too bad in here,” Jimmy said, talking as though to help fill the room. “Mike and I are almost done fixing the floors and I only have a little bit of trim to replace, but the china hutch was destroyed. I’ve been looking through salvage yards for a replacement, but I’ll probably have to make something myself.”

She looked to the opening in the wall, imagined a built-in, quarter sawn buffet with leaded glass doors and a beveled mirror backing nestled in the vacant space.

“There’s enough of it that wasn’t rotted out that I can duplicate it pretty close, but I might have to ask the Schmidts down the road if I can look at theirs as reference for some of the detail work—if they even still have their original. Most people took them out.”

“People are stupid.”

“I did find the original chandelier down in the cellar. I don’t know why the hell anybody would’ve taken it out in the first place. They had some awful kitchen bar light stuck up there instead.”

“At least they saved it.” Kylie stepped over to the bay window that overlooked the yard. Typical of older houses, the window went almost to the floor, letting in as much light and air as possible. “Oh, wow, you can see Dan and Stacy’s house from here.”

Framed in the window, Dan’s land was incredible. Spotted with groves of red cedars and thickets of wild plums, the gentle hills were covered in tall grasses that had turned rich, honey brown in their dormancy. A creek cut through Jimmy’s property a hundred yards or so from the window, and wound through the hills, feeding into Chelsea Lake on the other side.

“The trees’ll block the view when they’re leafed out, but, yeah, you can see them.”

The creek carved out the hill, creating a natural path that connected the two houses, perfect for Dan’s children and Jimmy’s children to run back and forth from one property to the other on hot summer days. In a few years’ time, she imagined horses and four-wheelers would beat that path so many times the earth would become hard-packed, the trail permanent, blazed by childhood memories cherished for a lifetime.

“It’s nice to have them so close,” Kylie said.

If she closed her eyes, she could easily imagine Brayden taking that path to play with Emily. But she knew he never would. Only Jimmy’s children will leave their footprints in that soil. Her children will make their memories on a different plot of land, in a different part of the country.

“Close is good,” he agreed.

She turned and gave him a weak smile, and they moved on with the tour.

“Kitchen’s over here,” he said, and pushed hard on the stiff, swinging door. It opened with a splintered creak.

“Oh,” Kylie gasped as strong wave of déjà vu took her by surprise. The room was stripped to the studs, standing naked and exposed, almost unrecognizable as a kitchen at all, but she felt instantly transformed to her six-year-old self, stepping into her grandmother’s kitchen. The feeling was so vivid she could almost smell the chicken frying in a cast iron skillet on the stove.

“Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” he said, misunderstanding her surprise. “Aria’s got some sort of plan for it though.”

Once she looked beyond memories already seen, she saw the room as it stood, with a secondhand refrigerator in one corner, a folding card table with a single chair set up in another. A makeshift, plywood countertop held only a microwave and coffee maker. The original farmhouse sink remained in place, but it was cracked and heavily rusted, probably slated for removal soon. There were no cabinets to store dishes, no pantry for food. From what she could see, he had to be living on takeout and frozen dinners.

“Do you at least have a grill?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I don’t cook.”

“Yeah, you kinda suck at that, don’t you?”

“I do make a damn good s’more, though.”

“Brayden always thought so.” She let out a laugh, remembering. “Five o’clock in the morning, still in his pajamas, crushing a big bag of marshmallows against his belly, begging, ‘Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy! Make some ore!’ And you’d do it every time.”

“Your neighbor thought I was insane.”

“He thought you were high,” Kylie countered, and Jimmy laughed in surprise.

“I probably was.”

She smiled in the moment, but as his amusement died, an uncomfortable silence filled the kitchen. They stood awkwardly, uncertain where to go or what to say next. She stepped away from him, feigning interest in the cracked and rusted sink.

“How’s California treating you?” Jimmy asked.

“It’s good…” She searched for something else to add. “The weather’s nice.”

“How’s the fishing?”

Kylie laughed. “I have no idea.”

“You should go sometime.”

“I’ll get right on that,” Kylie lied.

She could easily picture Jimmy on a boat, out in the middle of the ocean, kicked back and drinking a beer, the sun baking his shoulders and bleaching his hair while he waited for his line to take off. Fishing was the only time he ever felt comfortable sitting still. When he worked, he pushed himself hard from morning until night, hardly ever stopping to take a break. But when he fished, he took his time. He could sit and wait for the perfect bite for hours.

“Some of Nessa’s friends have a boat. We went out with them a few times. Didn’t fish, but we did do a little water skiing.”

“That would’ve been something to see.” Jimmy laughed, knowing her all too well. She was a terrible swimmer, barely able to keep her head above water. He’d had to save her on more than one occasion because she refused to admit it.

“We had life jackets, so I did okay. Nessa only had to rescue me once.”

“Nessa seems nice.”

“She is,” Kylie agreed. “I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her. She gave me a place to stay, got me the job at Froggy’s, and she just adores Brayden. He gets a kick out of her, too, so that’s been a lifesaver…”

Jimmy nodded. He ran his hand across the rough surface of plywood counter, swiping at the dust, and avoiding her eyes. “What’s Froggy’s?”

“A diner.”

“Do you like it?”

“I do, actually… The pay sucks, but the tips are surprisingly good. Better than I ever got at Jack’s. The guy who owns it, Frog Man—”

“Frog Man?”

“Frog Man.” Kylie smiled with him as she thought of Frog Man. “I don’t know how he got the name, but that’s what everyone calls him. He’s something else. Super sweet and funny as hell. Loves his music.” She pulled in a deep breath of air before admitting, “He’s the type of guy I always wished I’d had for a dad.”

“Sounds like everything’s working out for you.” Jimmy’s words sounded encouraging, but his tone belied the sadness in his heart.

“Yep,” Kylie agreed but turned away before he could see the truth in her eyes.

Huntington Beach was wonderful—almost perfect—but it wasn’t home. Home was wherever Jimmy was, and her heart longed to be there. But her mind knew better, and her mouth started to ramble as it tried to sell it to her heart, and to Jimmy.

“I love it there, and Brayden’s doing great now. He’s starting to make friends in daycare and he loves the beach. Frog Man went all out on his birthday—hundreds of balloons and this huge cake. He even named a sandwich after him. It’s called the Bray-Nini. Ham and cheese on Panini bread topped with apple slices and a sweet mustard sauce. Of course, Brayden gets his without the mustard.”

Jimmy turned away from her as she talked. She felt bad lying to him, but she didn’t know how else to protect herself. She couldn’t tell him the truth—that Brayden was miserable, that she was miserable, that two months later they still had nights when they cried themselves to sleep.

“You want to see the rest, or should we call it a day?” Jimmy asked. By his tone, Kylie knew he was ready to call it a day.

“Whatever you want to do.”

“I should probably get to work. With Dan being gone, who knows what kind of trouble Brent’s getting himself into.”

“Yeah… okay. I should go check on Brayden anyway.”

They stood on opposite ends of the kitchen, silent again, neither of them moving to leave, mixed emotions filling the air between them.

“Ky… before you go, I have to tell you something…”

He took a step toward her. When he moved, her eyes landed on the refrigerator behind him, at the birthday card stuck to it with a magnet.

“Oh, shit…” she whispered to herself, a fluttery feeling of guilt and panic filling her heart.

“What?” Jimmy asked in confusion.

She rushed across the room, past him, and pulled the card from the fridge.

It was from his mom, covered in nature scenes and poetic verse, exactly the kind of card she knew Jimmy would have hated but loved at the same time.

“I can’t believe I forgot. I knew, I remembered the day, but I forgot… shit, Jimmy. I’m so sorry.”

His confusion evaporated as his eyes clouded over. “Don’t worry about it.”

“We were going to go to Florida…”

“It’s fine.”

“… to the cemetery…”

“Kylie, stop.”

“… and eat birthday cake with your dad.”

“Just forget about it. It doesn’t matter.” Jimmy turned away from her and pulled his hat from his head, running a hand through his hair in frustrated emotion.

The card slipped from her hands and fell to the floor as she reached for him, automatically pulling him into her embrace.

Her lips settled into the cave of his neck, resting on his rapid pulse. She whispered against his skin, “I knew, and I forgot… I am so sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

She took a step back, brought her hands to his face, his stubble two days old and soft to the touch.

“Why didn’t you go?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.

“Because I would’ve missed seeing you, Ky.”

The way he said her name sent a ripple of need deep through her heart. It wasn’t born in lust but in memories of the life they had lived together, the life they had lost. The life she still saw every time she looked into his eyes, still felt whenever his hand held hers.

“I’m sorry…” She lifted onto her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his.

The muscles in his jaw tightened and his eyes closed tight, a visible struggle against his own desire, but the battle was short-lived. With a hot curse, he kissed her hard, gripped her tight, as his body hardened into steel.

Without preamble, or even a thought, his hands skimmed up her sides, peeling away her shirt, her bra disappearing along with it. She made to protest, but her hands had already betrayed common sense, stripping him of his shirt, tugging at his belt.

“Jimmy…”

At the sound of his name, his eyes darkened, and he lifted her up. She barely registered the narrow stairwell, the hallway walls they stumbled against on the way to his bedroom. She clung to him, rising in his arms, pressing her breasts into his solid chest, exploring his mouth with such fervor their teeth clicked together and she tasted blood.

He walked her backward until she fell unceremoniously onto the rumpled, unmade bed. He ripped off her shoes, kicked his own aside. “The room’s a mess.”

“I don’t care.” She hadn’t even looked at it. All she could see was him.

She reached for him, pulling him closer by the waistband of his jeans, until her mouth claimed his again. His hands were everywhere, digging into her skin, sliding roughly up her back and around to her breast then down to her hips and pulling her closer and tighter to him and then moving on again. Her hands had only one mission, and she worked frantically at buttons and zippers, denim and cotton until she had them both free of restrictions.

He was solid perfection on top of her, his body lean and defined. His taste, his smell, the touch of his lips against hers, the silk of his skin, the rumble in his voice, his heat, the fit of his hips cradled into hers, the scrape of his teeth on her delicate skin as he sucked and nipped at her neck, everything about him was everything she had been missing, everything she had been needing, and she longed for the final connection. She felt hollow with wanting and tipped her hips, begging him to fill her. He held her tight as he entered her hard, and she cried out at the intensity of the pleasure the pain brought.

Jimmy stopped breathing and closed his eyes, his body rigid with emotion. “Oh fuck, Ky.”

“Don’t move,” she begged, pulling his hips tighter into hers, locking him in so they could stay exactly as they were, frozen, forever, in that moment. He was her heaven and she never wanted to let him go again.

He pulled out slightly and pushed back into her, burying himself fully. Her heat spread around him and he bit hard on her shoulder as he tried to fight it.

She stroked his hair and whispered, “I love you, baby. Just let it go.”

He rasped a deliciously low groan and pushed into her again and again, driving deeper and faster with every stroke. There was nothing gentle about the way he made love to her, about the way her body responded to his. It was as though it was their first time again, the fire at it hottest, their passion finally unleashed, allowed to spin dangerously out of control. She loved him when he was tender with her, but when he was selfish, she was at her best.

With no one to hear them, she held nothing back. Heat and friction built up the pressure, taking her higher and higher, and she begged for even more. She needed it all, everything he had ever given her, everything he had stolen away.

What they had never said with words they expressed with their bodies—the anger, the fear and frustration, painful deep burning love, the lust, the guilt, humiliation and regret—every emotion boiled to the surface as they battled against each other for their own relief. Heaven turned into hell then back into heaven as she fought him and her heart, the emotion of it overwhelming her.

Her orgasm hit like an explosion. She dug into him, tears burning her eyes as her back arched and she cried his name. He came as suddenly and violently as she had, swelling and pulsing and driving deeper yet as he filled her. She held him tight to her heart as his body flexed, every inch of him solidly shuddering.

As his muscles relaxed, she loosened her grasp and shifted under his weight, moving in to kiss him, but he turned away. His breathing ragged, he avoided her eyes, withdrawing from her quickly and pushing off the bed. He grabbed his jeans off the floor and pulled them on, the door slamming behind him before she fully registered he was gone.

 

Chapter 113 ~ Sweet Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s Stacy feeling?”

“She’s fine.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah.”

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

Jimmy shook his head.

“You didn’t tell her, did you?”

“I can’t.”

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

“It’s not going to change anything.”

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

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

“Meaning?”

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

“Yeah,” Jimmy admitted. It was.

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

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

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

“I had to see you, Beautiful.”

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

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

Stacy smiled. “Dan said the same thing.”

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

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

“She looks pretty comfortable where she is.”

“She won’t mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anytime, Ky.”

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

“No, it’s mine.”

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

“It did. I got it fixed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She looks just like a little Stacy.”

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

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

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

“You? Take a day off?”

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

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

“Moroccan.”

“What room?”

“Kitchen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Did you forget?” Kylie asked.

“I didn’t forget.”

“Can I see it?”

“No.”

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

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

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

“My place.”

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

“Please. Ky.”

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

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

“You moved?” she asked in surprise.

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

“The Malek place?”

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

“When did you buy it?”

“September.”

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

“Gorgeous.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” he whispered back.

“Don’t let her leave again.”

“She has to want to stay.”

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