That’s what he does for me, too. My world was gray before I met Nick. And I’m afraid of what I would give up of myself to stay with him, to never go back to that gray existence. That’s the real power he has over me—and it’s so much more than I ever gave Karl. If that doesn’t just scare the bejesus out of me, I don’t know what would.

“It’s okay to take your time, Mallory. You deserve that. But don’t give up on love. You deserve that, too.”

I swipe at the tears on my face but don’t even try to speak again. I can’t. My throat is choking with sadness and fear and regret and what feels an awful lot like hope, too.

This time, when my mom goes to hug me, I let her. At which point Sarah jumps in on the hug and squeezes us both so tightly that it makes me laugh. More, for the first time in a really long time, it makes me grateful to be part of this specific family, with these specific women. Because there’s nothing in the world quite like finding a couple of women to like, or love, who understand you better than you understand yourself.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to watch Mom and Sarah leave a few minutes later. I carry their bags to their cars for them—it’s not like I’m going to let my pregnant sister or my sixty-some-year-old mom carry their own bags if I can help it. And then I stand on the driveway and wave as they drive away.

I really hope my mom is right. And I really, really hope she knows what she is doing for her and for Sarah’s sake. Once their cars are out of sight and I have no reasonable excuse for being out here anymore, I turn to go—determined not to look over at Nick’s house at all.

Of course, I lose that battle with myself. I stand there staring at his place, willing him to come into view for just a second—or better yet, to walk out of his house and across the street to my driveway so we can have a second chance at our discussion from earlier.

But he doesn’t come outside and I never get that glimpse. Eventually, I head toward the backyard again, determined to do something to take my mind off the mess that is my life…and the punches I keep throwing at myself.

Chapter Fifty-Five

   A month later, it’s just me, myself, and the few remaining stacks of Aunt Maggie’s hoarding. Work still hasn’t replaced me, but soon my job will be gone. My mom is gone. My sister is gone. Nick is gone—or at least he hasn’t come by to help clean, not that I can blame him. Oh, he’s in the neighborhood, all right. The lights are on at his house. I even spot him walking past the windows watering his plants once or twice.

Not that I’m watching.

What do I care if he waters the same one four times?

I’m just making a natural observation as I stand at my own front window, staring at my neighbor’s house like a stone-cold stalker because of reasons.

I spend a whole ten minutes watching people pull into their driveways after a long day at work, only to be greeted by bounding dogs and happy families when they park and get out of their cars. Then I can’t take it anymore and go back to handling the last stack of Aunt Maggie’s things.

At the bottom of the stack of nineties Elle magazines is a small wooden jewelry box. I pick it up and open the lid, then stare at the contents. Plastic rings. Not just any plastic rings but a bright red one and a bright green one that are overly large and gaudy as fuck. We won them when we went to the fair when I was twelve. We giggled and joked about each of the Prince Charmings who must have given us the ring, telling stories about what they were like and how they loved us so completely. Aunt Maggie had kept our fairy-tale wedding rings.

I think back to that day, to my description of the Prince Charming who was going to sweep me off my feet… He was brave and kind and smart and loved animals (especially dogs because I wanted one badly and my parents had told me no) and loved Aunt Maggie and most importantly, he loved me just the way I was. That last one was very important because even then I was annoyed by how often my father pointed out everything I could do better. But my Prince Charming, he was going to love me just the way I was. I ran my finger along the smooth edges of the plastic ring, my eyes misting. Nick is literally my damn childhood dream hero, and I threw him away. But what can I do about it now?

My mom’s words play over and over and over again in my mind. I deserve love, too.

And suddenly I’m done letting my reactions—the fear, the panic, the insecurity—control me. If I deserve love, then surely I have the strength to fight for it.

Of course, that means I have to go apologize—something no one in the world likes to do. But Nick is worth that and so much more.

I get to my feet and shove the ring in my jeans pocket, grab my favorite cherry-red Rothy’s, and take off, making a beeline for Nick’s house. Ignoring all the neighbors working out in their yards or hanging out on their front porches who are watching me as if I’m the evening’s entertainment, I walk up to Nick’s front door and knock.

He opens the door, his expression wary. “Hey.”

I clasp my sweaty palms behind my back and try to take a relaxing, mindful yoga breath without being obvious. “Can I come in?”

He doesn’t say anything, just steps back and lets the door swing open so I can walk inside. His house is spotless. His shoes are lined up by the door. His keys and wallet are in a small wooden bowl on the coffee table. There isn’t a speck of dust, stray takeout menu, or crumpled receipt to be found. How in the world can someone so together ever want to be with someone who is as big of a mess as I am?

Nick stands a few feet away from me, his arms crossed, looking way too good for my heart.

“Why are you here, Mallory?” he asks, sounding as tired as I feel.

I let out a deep breath, straighten my shoulders, and lay out my plan. “To say I’m sorry and to see if there’s a way that we can work something out. Maybe a friends-with-benefits type of thing again.”

There. It’s all out there. So why hasn’t that prickly nugget of misery disappeared from my belly?

He lets out a low chuckle that sounds anything but amused and shakes his head in disbelief.

“Let me get this straight,” he says, stalking toward me. “You came over here to offer up a quote friends-with-benefits situation unquote, and you think that is not only a solution but also an apology?”

I hold up my hands palms-first and he halts his approach. Okay, when he puts it that way, it doesn’t sound so great.

“I don’t want to lose you, but I just want to take things super slow,” I say, grasping for some way to be able to explain my idea without it sounding so cold and impersonal. “I’m still learning how to live this new life, and I can’t afford to get into another situation where all I’m doing is trying to please another person no matter what it costs me.”

“All of that seems fair,” he says, the muscle in his jaw throbbing. “But how does that get to us not being able to be more than a neighborly booty call?”