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Standing Outside the Fire

"I'm glad we got these sweatshirts because, oooohh-weeee would I be cold out here!"

"Then scoot closer to the fire, silly girl."

"I'll cook my tootsies!"

"I bet they taste like chicken. C'mere tootsies!"

Brian leapt over Baylee, scooping Tibby up. She squealed, yet at the same time clung to him tightly. "No! No! I'm not chicken!"

With a laugh, he put her down in my lap. Tibby wrapped her arms around my neck but looked up at him, her face flushed but happy.

"It smells good here," she said. "Not like peaches, but like smoke and marshmallows."

"That's cause you ate like five s'mores, shrimp," Baylee said. He leaned forward, spearing yet another marshmallow into the fire.

"Baylee," Brian warned, but Tibby cut him off.

"My name isn't shrimp. It's Tabitha Caroline Bridges and I TAKE CARE of BUSINESS!"

Somehow in obsessing over the baby name books, I had never stopped to consider her initials were TCB. Last year, Mikael had figured it out and ever since then, that had been Tibby's catch phrase. Brian's eyes crinkled in amusement. Baylee looked at Tibby dumbfounded for a second until he too just grinned.

It had been the shortest, yet busiest day ever. After dinner, Brian had offered to take us to get some clothes. After a short argument that ended in me getting my way, we went to Wal-mart where I paid for a few things that would last us a few day. Brian had bought some firewood and s'more fixings. Changing into warmer clothes, he had talked us into going on a short hike that had led us to a perfect area for a bonfire.

Now it was almost eleven. The fire was dying down, the kids were once again looking tired, and I felt guilty for not taking any time to start making a new gameplan.

"Okay, bedtime," Brian declared. He lifted the large bucket of water he had brought with him and doused out the fire. I clicked on a flashlight. The shadows from the trees suddenly made the area look ominous. Tibby lifted her head and squeaked.

"That you, Jill?"

"No, it was Tibby!"

"It's dark!"

"Don't worry, your mama got scared out in the woods once too."

I rolled my eyes. "Because of you!"


"You told me there was a bear!"

"There was a bear somewhere in the world at the time. Probably more than one. Otherwise they'd be extinct now."

"You know what I mean," I muttered.

"Oh c'mon, it ended well."

I was glad it was dark so that my blush remained hidden. I knew exactly how it had ended.

"How did it end?" Cole asked.

"Let's see," Brian handed Cole a flashlight. "Cole, why don't you and Baylee lead the way? I bet if you guys tried, you'd find you have at least one thing in common."

Grateful that Brian didn't expound on the subject, I watched Cole flip on the flashlight. Baylee lit up his own and they reluctantly took the lead. I didn't hear much chatter coming from them, but then again I knew all boys that age muttered no matter what.

"That was a great night," Brian whispered in my ears. Tibby shifted in my arms and I could tell she was already drifting off. I smiled.

"Yeah, it had a pretty good ending."

"It was the first and last time we spent the whole night together." His breath tickled my ears. "You, me, and one sleeping bag." Goosebumps rose on my arms from a combination of sensation and memory.

"The beginning of the end."


"It's getting cold. Hurry up, slowpoke," I chided. I didn't want to go down that road and besides the temperature was dropping rapidly. Even my teeth were beginning to chatter by the time we made it to the back door. Brian produced the key and we stepped in single file to the warmth of the mudroom.

"James is better than Kobe," Baylee declared.

"Noah's better than all of them put together."


"Good job, nitwit. Noah is a bull."

Baylee practically growled. "That's not what I--"


Baylee stared at Brian angrily. "You know I go back to mom next week."

There was an underlying threat there that I didn't fully understand, but it didn't seem to have the desired effect Baylee had anticipated. Brian pointed in what I thought was the direction of the stairs.br>
"Bed," he repeated.

"Cole, you too," I said, feeling as if I needed to step up. "And remember we're guests here."

"Well, I'm ready to go if you are," he said.

We stared at each other. He quickly backed down. Staring at the ground, he stomped off.

"They should always stay five," Brian muttered. He reached out and touched Tibby's cheek. She turned her head in his direction, but didn't stir.

"Will you come down to the living room after you put her down?" he asked. He looked hopeful.


"I just want to talk. Please," he added.

I wanted to say no, but I couldn't. He was letting us stay at his house. I owed him at least some form of conversation. I nodded, not quite able to articulate a spoken response to the question, but I hesitated as I stepped out of the mudroom.

"Where exactly are the stairs again?"


"There were a lot of jealousy issues. She had me on a short leash. It didn't get really bad until last December. We had our second annual cruise and I got a little buzzed and goofy with the fans. It wasn't like I cheated on her, but she flew off the handle and I just realized that I couldn't take another year of it...I couldn't take another month of it. So, I filed for divorce."

"So that's it? You just couldn't take her being jealous?"

Brian sank back into the leather couch. He still smelled of fire, his hair was windswept, and there was evidence of windburn on his face.

"I meant what I said. I've always had you in the back of my mind. You don't forget your first love, Jill."

"Sure you don't forget, but you move on."

"When you're forced to move on, it's different. And," he wiggled his fingers. "before you say anything, I know how weak that sounds. But I was a gullible kid. I had the world laid out at my feet and the only condition was that I did what I was told every step of the way."

"That's a pretty big condition," I said softly.

Brian's eyes closed. I pressed my cheek into the leather. We had only been in the living room for ten minutes and already the conversation was getting deep. I was at least thankful that it wasn't my deep mess that we were mucking through.

"Y'know it's stupid," he paused and opened his eyes. We stared at each other. "Tonight I looked around and I thought that if things had been different it might have been us sharing a fun family night around the fire with our kids. Baylee would have been yours and Cole and Tibby mine and then we would have come in and--"

He trailed off. My heart thudded. I couldn't deny the thought hadn't crossed my mind for a fraction of a second earlier. "And?"

"And then we would have gone to bed and I would never know how lonely a bedroom could be because you would have been there always from the start. I would have held you in my arms and warmed you up the way I really wanted to when I saw you shiver as we stepped inside."

"Bri," I shook my head. "No--"

"Jilly," he cupped my face and as much as I knew I should, I didn't pull back. His thumb ran along my jawline.

"I don't know the real reason you're here, but I don't care right now. And I know that I shouldn't be thinking the way I do or touching your face like this, but I can't help it. Time stood still when I saw you in Wal-mart that night. I wanted to fall down at your feet right then and there."

His eyes were sinking into mine and the sexual need that emanated from him was nothing like it had been when we were kids. It wasn't the hormonal sense of new exploration and experience.

This was raw, open honest need at its most basic.

"I'm not good for anyone anymore," I whispered.

"Jilly, Jilly, Jilly," he shook his head and his lips brushed against mine. "You can't even begin to see what I see in you."

"It's the jet lag," I whispered even as he kissed me. My hands snaked around his neck. "You're delusional."

"Uh-uh," he whispered. We kissed again, this one longer and slower. His lips barely moved from mine even as his hand slid along my side. "I'm--"

"Stop it!"

It was an automatic reflex. I tore away from him like a wild animal. His mouth dropped open in shock.

"What's wrong? What did I do?"

I blinked rapidly. Aside from a doctor, I hadn't had anyone touch me where I had been stabbed. The moment his fingers had even gotten close, the response was automatic.


"Don't touch me," I whispered. I felt a ridiculously large tear slip down my face. Brian seemed to struggle to keep his distance, his face filling with empathy.

"It's okay, I won't," he promised. "Jill, you've got to tell me what happened. You've been hurt and I need to know."

I shook my head. I wasn't going to relive it again. I couldn't.

"Shh, alright, not tonight." My tears were coming faster now. Brian held his hands out, but he kept his promise not to touch me. His jaw tensed, but he didn't say what he was thinking.

I just knew whatever it was, it wasn't good.