STEALING IT

Prologue

Magnolia

Present Day…

 

THE DROLL SCRATCH OF the old-fashioned radio trips, and in that rapid silence, I hear a low voice—a murmur. Seconds later the music returns, a poppy song I danced to anytime I heard it riding in the back seat of the car as a child. Smiling as I sing along, I take the dusting cloth and run it over the tapered chair leg taking care not to push down too hard. I scored the entire dining set at an antique auction for a steal, but restoring it and getting it ready to sell in my antique shop has taken over all my free time. I never spend this long on my finds, reserving the majority of my working hours for running my online store. People will buy almost anything from the past. All it takes is a tiny bit of nostalgia and someone, somewhere, is all over it. It’s my job to decide what holds the it factor with a mere glance. I’m good at it. Rather, I’ve honed my skill to decide what matters over the course of my life. Perhaps it’s because by offering someone a cherished memory I’m erasing some of my own. The ones I wish I never had in the first place.

The song ends and a new one begins after the DJ announces a benefit motorcycle ride for charity this upcoming weekend. The low voice I heard minutes ago grows louder, and while it’s not unlike Kendall to chat loudly on the phone to her plethora of friends, I can tell she’s upset. Call it mother’s intuition, or maybe it’s the fact that she’s seventeen and angry. When I was a young teenager, I wasn’t angry, I was pregnant with her, and scared out of my ever-loving mind. I married her father straight out of high school and we made it fifteen years before he had an affair with a younger woman. Which is ironic if you understand that the younger woman, Pamela, is only a few years older than I was when I got pregnant with our daughter.

Pamela is a stunning brunette who did books for our family HVAC company. We hired her straight out of high school and taught her everything she needed to know to do her job well. Eventually, she did more than accounting well, and Paul did her any chance he could get. Kendall has been irate since the divorce, and she has every right to be. She is the one who found them, in our formal dining room, naked and billowing all over each other. The therapist says my daughter is getting over the incident. Sometimes, when she’s busy being a teenager, I think maybe he’s right. Other times Kendall looks haunted, her eyes gaunt and her demeanor so withdrawn I never want to leave her in a room by herself. Pamela’s age combined with her father’s betrayal has left harrowing scars inside her heart and mind. The thought forces a shudder in spite of the tepid heat surrounding me.

Reaching over, I switch off the air conditioning unit blowing in the window and hop off the stool I’ve been perched on for the past three hours. Rubbing my sore hands together, I sigh heavily. The stifling Bronze Bay, Florida, heat has soaked into my little garage full of treasures, and it’s time to check back into the real world, a place that only recently became a location I want to be. After the divorce, I was a scorned woman, but now, I have met a man. A beautiful, confident man who is my polar opposite in almost every way. His self-confidence has rubbed off on me in so many facets. When he tells me I can do something, I believe him. When he says something, it’s truth. Good or bad. Building that trust again gives me wings, opens me to a kind of love I never dreamed of having. Kendall is my life. I fully intended to see her off to college and maybe then worry about myself and my love life. Maybe.

One thing remains true. Aidan loves me with a furious passion I’ve never experienced. Not because he has to or because he’s bound to me, he does it because he wants to. He respects me. Aidan makes me feel like my life wasn’t derailed, halted, and put on a back burner, but that all my hardships were leading me to something more. He is a man made for more. Made for battle. Made for loving. A soft passion wrapped in a steely package that marks him gorgeous by anyone’s standards. Butterflies invade my stomach, flapping around in the agony of the knowledge that he’s busy training out of town this weekend, and I won’t get to see him again until Tuesday. Won’t be able to taste his lips or see that devious smile. A grin that sealed my fate the very first night I met him.

_______________

The tight, pink dress is markedly shorter than anything I’ve worn in the past decade. This is a date. The first one I have been on in a very long time. I preach to my teenager about being confident in her own skin, never changing for anyone, and yet I can’t help but feel like I’m playing pretend. I feel like a fraud. I tug down the hemline as I peer into Bobby’s Bar, squinting through the dirty windows scored by years of salt water and sand. My friend assured me that using this app to get a date was safe in our small town, but I’m uneasy. My daughter is also part of the reason I’m here tonight meeting the handsome stranger who messaged me after we matched. I have to move on, or at least outwardly portray moving on if I’m telling her to forgive her father and move on with her own life. With confidence, and poise. Most importantly move on with a forgiving heart.

The things parents will do for their children knows no bounds. I wipe my forehead because the sheen of sweat appeared almost immediately after I got out of my friend Jenny’s car. She’s going to the beach behind the bar. She’s my backup in case I have a panic attack, or the guy is awful, and for general support as this night was born out of her persuading. I rub my hands down the sides of my dress, swallow down the lump in my throat and swing open the door. The old, jangling bells that thwack against the glass cause a few people to look my way, and stare a little longer than I’m used to. I smile at the vaguely familiar faces and nod at the bartender behind the bar when he flicks his gaze up and down my body in greeting.

The young guy slinging drinks tips his head to the opposite side of the bar. Of course he knows why I’m here and who I’m here for. The whole bar knows. My head swims as I inhale deeply. I let my gaze travel the distance and fall on a man who can only be my intended date. He’s wearing a black shirt like he said in his last message, and he stands out among the Bronze Bay regulars. “Here4thePics” looks just as perfect in real life as he does in the photos on his profile, maybe even a little larger than life. I shift in my heels and try to gather my wits as I make my way to him, dodging casual conversation by keeping my face aimed toward the ground until I end up at the empty stool at the very end of the beat-up bar top.

I hold out my hand. “Magnolia Sager,” I say, my voice trembling. “You must be…my date. Aidan?”

He looks at me, a cursory glance up at my face, training his eyes directly on mine. “A handshake, Maggie?” he replies, looking at my hand, and then back at my face. “I don’t shake hands on dates.” He turns his head, and I let my arm drop down by my side, my heart pounding out a horrific warning. He is bad news. I feel it in my blood.

“Magnolia,” I counter. “It’s not Maggie.” His face is even more stunning in person. I know it’s all about symmetry. I remember reading about attraction when I was speed reading self-help books before I filed for divorce. I’m attracted to his symmetry. That’s it. His lips are wide and pink. His jaw is square and dimpled, and his eyes, which have to be perfectly aligned because I fail to admit the symmetry chapter can be wrong, are a bewitching hazel color. Green on the outer ring and a brown toward the center around his pupil.

While I’m busy fighting with myself internally, Aidan stands to his full height of somewhere in the clouds, and leans down, pecking my cheek. “I’m Aidan Mixx, and it’s a pleasure to meet you. We’re past hand shaking, Magnolia. You’re here with me.” He palms his chest, a chest that I can tell is sculpted through the thin material of his t-shirt. He extends a hand to the stool next to him and grabs my hand. “Will you have a drink with me?”

I forget to breathe. Most particularly, what the hell I’m doing here, and how to react when a man is giving me attention like this. Clearing my throat, I sit, adjusting my dress. Aidan watches, I can see his eyes scouring my body in my peripheral vision. “A drink or two is what we agreed to, right?” I say, trying to play it like I do this all the time.

“We agreed to a lot more than that,” Aidan croons, drawing my gaze to his. I see an entire night play out before my eyes and it is a carnal pleasure of a magnitude I have no idea how to tackle. “Didn’t we?” he asks, raising one brow.

I try to cross my legs, but my dress is too short. Aidan’s gaze darts to my hemline and he bites his lip. Tucking my heels into the stool bar at the bottom, I sigh, unable to keep my wits when a man like Aidan Mixx is undressing me with his eyes. “I don’t think so,” I reply. “I’d have to go through my messages again.”
Aidan chuckles, and signals to the bartender with one finger in the air. He asks me what I’d like to drink and then orders for me. When my beverage arrives, I take a long drag immediately. Aidan clears his throat to get my attention. “You don’t do this often despite what you want me to think. Am I right?”

“Maybe,” I breathe out. “Yeah. You’re right. I don’t ever do this.” The truth is a relief, and I turn my gaze to let him see my guard slip.

Aidan grins. It’s a shrewd, predatory move that makes everything below my belly button tingle. My breath catches. His eyes slant in response to his smile and I’m horrified to realize his facial symmetry is even more potent like this. When he’s happy.

It’s so bad or good it messes with my equilibrium and I tilt off my stool and fall onto the floor—ungraceful, poisoned by testosterone.

_______________

Walking out of the garage, I’m greeted with a salty, sea breeze and the squall of gulls in the distance. I knew this small, beach town was the place for us when we moved away from Paul and Pamela. Paul didn’t even fight me on the out of state move. He knew that Kendall wouldn’t forgive him easily, and the embarrassment of his indiscretion was too much to bear anytime he tried to look at his own daughter. Paul would give her anything she wanted if it meant a second chance at being her father. He gave me the fastest divorce in history so we could move on quickly. Kendall wanted to move away with me, and she hasn’t seen him since. He called on her birthday this past year and she sat on the other end of the line while he wished her a happy birthday, tears pouring down her face. She thanked him through gritted teeth before she hung up the phone.

Turning my head toward the bay, I watch a ship bob on the horizon. Shielding my eyes, I pretend I’m on it, trying to picture the shoreline from that angle. It’s a perfect, clear day and aside from missing Aidan, I can’t complain about much. My cell phone chimes from the back pocket of my cut off denim shorts. It’s my friend, Jenny, asking if I’m free tonight. She wants to stop by later and share a bottle of wine and gossip. Everyone in a small town gossips. I’m thankful all of my drama happened away from this place, out of earshot of Bronze Bay residents. Jenny’s daughter, Juliet, is one of Kendall’s best friends so the friendship blossomed with little effort like any good friendship should. We can go weeks without speaking, but when we get together, it’s like no time has passed at all. I text her back

Come on over. LB is out of town this weekend. Lover Boy is Aidan’s nickname.

Her reply is quick, I still can’t believe you landed that man.

Her hesitance to accept I’m in a relationship with Aidan Mixx is out of concern. Everyone knows the SEALs that established a small Navy base down on the beach changed everything. They also know that several of the muscle filled monsters tear through the town one woman at a time. They use the same tactics they use in battle—pop smoke before morning and you’ll never hear from them again. Oh, and leave destruction in their wake. Lots of it. I text Jenny, We can talk about it over a bottle tonight.

A bottle or two. I’ll ride my bike over. Juliet is spending the night at your house tonight.

Glad someone told me.

They don’t tell us anything anymore, Magnolia. Don’t feel bad. Be happy she still wants to be at home and not down at the beach getting blitzed on hunch punch. I laugh out loud and slip my phone back into my pocket.

The kitchen window is cracked, and I hear Kendall cry out in anger. Narrowing my eyes at the window, I try to see if I can glimpse her. I can’t, so I move closer. Eavesdropping is a big part of parenting once your tween blooms into a hormone filled teenager pushing adulthood. I push down the mom guilt and glide closer, trying to keep my old tennis shoes quiet on the pathway between the garage and my house.

“You’re such a liar,” Kendall shouts. “Like all men. Every one of you! All you do is lie!”

I swallow down the unease and peek in the window. Kendall isn’t on the phone, she is shouting at someone in the doorway, someone just out of view. She’s visibly upset, her face blotchy and red as she aims a finger toward the person. “You want me,” Kendall accuses, jutting her chin up. I creep around to the back of the house. Laying my hand on the doorknob, I open the door and step into the mudroom and slide off my shoes. I pad barefoot into the kitchen, walking through the saloon-style doors that separate the entrance from the house.

My heart crawls into my throat and stops completely when I see the scene in front of me. Kendall has her arms wrapped around Aidan’s neck and they are…kissing. Heads tilted, his hands on her shoulders. “Aidan,” I shout, tears stinging the corners of my eyes as the confusion turns into blazing fury. “What the hell is going on?”

Aidan pushes Kendall away, his eyes wide, and focused on mine. “Magnolia. No. No.”

I finally take a breath, unable to peel my eyes away from his face. Kendall runs out of the room, feet pounding on the stairs. “Aidan?” I repeat because I have no idea what to say. My heart splinters and it takes all of my control not to collapse on the floor in a heap of broken bits. The same bits that the man in front of me helped put back together not that long ago. Thoughts of murdering the adult man I just saw kissing my seventeen-year-old daughter flood my brain in a flash. I push those thoughts down in an attempt to deal with the situation on hand. That is not him. This is not my Aidan Mixx.

He holds out two massive palms. “That was not what it looked like. It’s not. Kendall is upset about something else.” His low voice trips, and my heart sinks. Aidan’s demeanor is wild, a side of him I’ve never seen. Obviously. “She’s confused. I promise.” Aidan shakes his head. “You can’t think that I’d do that. You can’t. Magnolia, please. Just listen to me explain for a goddamn second. Please. Ask her!” His tone is condescending. Like I’m the crazy one in this messed up equation instead of him. The man with his lips on my daughter.

“Get out of my house,” I say, the stone wall rising around my heart in a single second. Returning to the cold, untrusting fortress it once was. “Now,” I add, taking a deep breath.

“Please. I need to explain. Don’t be ridiculous. You know me. I’d never hurt either of you,” Aidan pleads, his throat working as he swallows. His beautiful eyes turn down in the corner, his lips still wet from my daughter’s lips. Closing my eyes, I bring forth the person I have to be for Kendall.

“Get out of our life, Aidan. Get the fuck out and never come back here again. How could you?” Any explanation he could possibly give for his mouth on hers wouldn’t suffice anyway. It wouldn’t. No misunderstanding, no moment of bad judgment would explain it away.

I’m not sure how I make my legs work, but I forge forward and exit the kitchen, heading upstairs to find Kendall sobbing in her room. Aidan doesn’t follow. I hear the chimes sound as he exits through the front door and his feet stomping down the front steps.

“Kendall,” I say, shaking my head. “Tell me everything.” Wrapping my arm around her, I pull her toward me. I close my eyes and shudder when I smell Aidan’s cologne lingering on her skin. A scent I used to equate to happiness and satisfaction now makes my skin crawl.

“Mama,” she replies, her eyes reflecting a pain I know all too well, yet don’t understand at all. I’ll never be able to fully dissect deceit, I never want to know what it truly means to live inside of lies. “I’m so sorry,” she sobs.

“It’s okay, baby,” I soothe, kissing her head as she starts hissing out sentences I can’t make sense of as her jagged crying increases in volume.

I tell her again that it will be okay, but I know she’ll never be okay. I’ll never be okay. This time it was my fault. I can’t blame Paul for her collapse. This monster was inside our world because I brought him here. Because I let my guard down. I fell in love with the wrong man.

Again.