“Mallory?” His gaze takes me in, from my usual messy topknot, to the stain on my shirt from dinner, to the dust clinging to the hem of my leggings. Instead of giving me a disapproving look like Karl would have, he gives me a look that could probably burn all my clothes off by sheer will if he wants. “Have fun on your date tomorrow night.”

Then he is gone, disappearing around the side of the house while I stand there blinking and wondering why in the hell a lingering disappointment has settled in my stomach. It has to be nerves. After all, Monday is my first day at my new job, which would make any woman feel a little off.

Yeah. That has to be it.

As I close the sliding glass door and lock it, I can’t help wondering what color suit and tie Nick will be wearing to work next. Good Lord. Am I developing a suit fetish?

Chapter Twenty-Nine

   I spend most of Friday cleaning out the rest of the clutter in my bedroom that Nick and I didn’t get to. It feels less sad today and more a celebration of my aunt’s life. And also, cathartic. I cry more than once as I pack her favorite hat or dress or earrings into boxes for charity to pick up.

But at the same time, no matter how sad it makes me to see her things and know she will never use them again—to know she is well and truly gone—it also feels like a proper goodbye in a way that the staid, boring funeral my father insisted on giving her never did. She left money for the funeral she’d wanted, along with plans about how to cremate her and what to do with her ashes—I’m pretty sure Bora Bora was involved.

Instead, my father ignored all her wishes and buried her in the ground in a plain black casket that was as different from her as she was from my father. At the time, I was too distraught to do more than put up a cursory argument, but now that a few weeks have passed and I’m more clearheaded, I’m ashamed.

Ashamed of my father for doing it, ashamed of my mother and myself for allowing it, and ashamed of everyone who stood around my parents’ house after the funeral talking about what a beautiful service it was.

There was nothing beautiful about that service, and as I fold her favorite shawl, her favorite dress, and her favorite gloves just to put them in a box, I can’t help thinking that she deserved more. And that maybe, just maybe, I can find a way to give it to her.

Around four o’clock, I stop cleaning and wolf down an apple and some water before jumping into the shower to wash the grime off me yet again. Mikey said he’d pick me up at seven for our date tonight, and while I’m looking forward to seeing him because he is a sweetheart of a guy, that’s about it. There isn’t even a hint of a zing that tells me I’m hot for this guy.

Instead, all I can muster is a pleasant anticipation—as if a friend were coming to visit—but that’s it. No spark. No excitement. Nothing.

It’s too bad, not because I want anything to happen with him, because I don’t—and I’m not lying to myself about him. Seriously, the last thing I’m ready for right now is a man in my life on a regular basis. But the spark would be fun. And exciting. And maybe even hot.

As soon as I think it, an image of Nick shirtless and mowing my lawn dances through my mind. He might be—okay, he totally is—a bit of a curmudgeon, but apparently it isn’t just assholes I’m attracted to anymore. I have to add eighty-year-old men trapped in thirtysomething-year-old bodies to that list as well.

After my shower, I take my time picking out what I want to wear and put on my makeup. Hey, there is nothing wrong with a little extra va-va-voom to make yourself feel good. Anyway, if I look like a million bucks—or at least as close to it as I can manage—maybe Mikey won’t notice that I’m glancing at my phone instead of hanging on his every word.

Guilt about that thought trips me up as I walk over to get another pair of Stella & Dot earrings. I had a great time with Mikey on our lunch date, but the truth is, there’s a part of me that wants to like him just to prove to myself that I can. But I don’t. I just don’t. And that sucks because the man really is adorable.

I’ve just slipped my new earrings into my ears and done a little fun and flirty headshake when there is a knock on my back door.

Mikey’s probably a few minutes early. After a quick spritz of perfume and a final look in the mirror, I head down the stairs.

But when I get to the family room, it isn’t Mikey on the other side of the sliding glass door. It’s a woman with her back to me, but from the way her shoulders are shaking, it’s obvious she’s crying.

I have no clue when my backyard became a gathering spot for the neighborhood—especially since I know, like, five people in the entire town—but it seems to be true.

As I get closer, though, I realize it isn’t a stranger on my patio. It’s Sarah, the woman I met at Christee’s party. I have no clue how she ended up on my doorstep, but she obviously needs a friend.

“Hey,” I say as I slide open my back door. “Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry.” She looks up at me with tear-soaked eyes. “I didn’t mean to just drop in on you like this. And I’m sorry I came to your back door. I saw the signs on your porch about it being unsafe and I started to leave, but I knew if I left without talking to you, I’d never come back again. And I really, really want to talk to you.”

There’s a lot to unpack there—in words and in emotions—but I try to do it anyway, even as I steer Sarah toward my aunt’s Victorian-style purple couch.

“It’s okay,” I say as we sit down a few feet apart. “Can I get you some water or some tissues?”

She holds up her right hand, and it’s filled with a clump of half-used tissues. “I’m okay.”

“No offense, but that’s a big ol’ lie.” I reach over and pat her back as softly as I can.

The contact only makes her cry harder, which is absolutely not what I intended. I pull my hand back, hoping it will calm her down. But it doesn’t. It’s as if the floodgates have opened and nothing is going to stop the onslaught. Seriously, she starts to sob like her world just ended.

And since I know very well what that feels like better than most, I don’t interfere. Instead, I walk to the kitchen and get her a glass of water and some more tissues.

I feel bad for her, this woman I barely know, but I’m also curious as to how exactly she ended up on my couch. Did Angela tell her where I live? And if so, why?

Her sobs wind down to occasional soft whimpers by the time I get back to the family room, so I silently extend the tissues and the glass of water.

She takes both with a murmured “thanks,” then doesn’t say anything else until I’m sitting next to her. “I’m sorry,” she finally whispers.

“It’s okay.” I offer an encouraging smile. “How can I help?”