My chest tightens and it’s everything I can do to get the answer out past the emotion clogging my throat. “I can’t afford to fall for another Karl.”

Nick’s entire body goes slack, his shoulders drop, his gaze loses its intensity. The Nick I know, the one who cracks jokes and fusses about HOA violations, who has carried me up those stairs two at a time, has been replaced by a stranger.

“That’s what you still think of me?” He stares at me as if he’s looking at someone he wrongly thought he knew, too. “Really?”

“Nick. You know I don’t. Not really. But I can’t afford to be wrong—”

“Yeah?” He cuts me off with one harsh syllable. “I can’t, either, Mallory. I can’t afford to get involved with someone who is only willing to see the worst in me. I can’t afford to be in a relationship with someone who can’t see past her own baggage. I can’t afford to fall for someone who is never going to be able to trust anyone again—especially not herself.”

I stumble back, his words hitting me harder than a Mack truck and my whole body aching.

“That’s not me,” I croak out.

“How long are you going to lie to yourself about that?” he scoffs, walking to his front door. “Look, I was all in. I was more than ready to take a relationship—not a fuck buddy—slow, to get to know each other, to really give the idea of us a chance. But you aren’t there. You aren’t ready. I don’t know if you ever will be. So I’m going to do what you can’t.” He opens his door wide and stands to the side, leaving me no illusions about what he wants me to do next. “I’m gonna have the courage to watch you walk away because you don’t.”

Shell-shocked, hurting, and lost, I walk out the door, trying to process what in the hell just happened.

He shuts it behind me without another word.

I make it halfway across the street, going back to my house, fired up on indignation and pissed-off-ness, muttering “how dare he say that” and “what in the hell was he thinking” and “oh my God could he be more wrong?” before I shove my hands in my pockets and discover the ring again. And realize that he’s right.

I stop dead in the middle of the street and suck in a deep breath.




Really, is there anything worse than being the wrong one in an argument where you let your ass hang out there in the wind like a chump? In reality terms, yes, there is, I know that. I don’t have to have a Kim-there’s-people-that-are-dying moment, but in the circle of my little world, it’s pretty cataclysmic.

Hands fisted at my sides, I throw my head back and let out the mother of all angry groans at the perfect, cloudless sky. The anger in my gut fizzles like Pop Rocks until there’s nothing left but sticky-sweet regret. It isn’t fair of me to demand he do exactly what I want in terms of having a relationship. Have I learned nothing from being with Karl? I have to be able to unbend the stick up my own ass enough to be able to bend with the wind at least a little. Otherwise Nick will never be anything more than my neighbor across the street who makes my heart speed up, my toes curl, and actually gets me to watch (someday anyway) three really long movies about short guys with huge, hairy feet and some possessed jewelry.

I know what I have to do.

I have to turn around, go back to Nick’s house, and make a real apology—not the half-hearted, self-protective one I offered up before.

I’ve lived through trying to mow my jungle of a lawn with the beast. I can do this.

Turning, I set my shoulders and march back across the street, right up the sidewalk to Nick’s porch, up the stairs, and—finally—with a please-God-don’t-let-me-fuck-it-up-again sent heavenward, I knock on his front door.

Nick whips open the door. Jaw set, he’s listening to someone on the other end of his phone talk really loudly. His entire body is tense and stress wafts off him in waves as he paces from one end of his living room to the other. Despite the truly epic volume of the person on the other end of the call, I can only catch a few words.


Jail time.

Had enough.

Need an ambulance.

He hangs up without a goodbye and stands there in the middle of the room, staring at his phone and looking more alone than I’ve ever seen another human being. Witnessing him like that turns my insides out.

“It’s my mom.” He rushes out of the house, heading toward his car in the driveway. “I gotta go.”

I follow at his heels.

“Not by yourself.” Whatever is waiting for him at the end of this drive, he’s going to need a friend—and whether he likes it or not, that’s going to be me.

I’m his friend no matter what. That connection between us is stronger than my bullshit—stronger even than the friendship, I am willing to admit to myself, but that’s for figuring out another day. Right now is about being there for Nick the way he’s always been there for me.

My apology—and it’s going to be a big fucking one—will have to wait. He needs me more than I need to clear my conscience.

I’ve barely gotten my seat belt clicked when Nick throws the car into reverse and the Mercedes’s tires squeal as he peels out of his driveway. I have no idea where we’re going, but even as he drives like a Texas cheerleader’s mom on the way to take out her daughter’s rival, I know I’m with Nick and I trust him completely.

His driving? A little less. That has me sending up a few Hail Marys as we merge onto the parkway at light speed and head for his parents’ house and God knows what disaster is waiting for us there.

Chapter Fifty-Six

   Nick’s car needs an oh-shit handle. As it is, I’m using all three of my butt muscles to hold on to the supple leather passenger seat, wondering if I missed my opportunity to tell him, to apologize, because it seems like there’s a damn good chance he’s about to launch us into space. He makes a sharp right into a neighborhood so fancy, it has an actual security guard sitting in a little building by the functioning gates instead. Mercifully, Nick slows down as he approaches.

A woman with the bearing of someone who has spent time in the military and raised at least six boys who caused all kinds of good trouble comes out of the guardhouse.

Nick unrolls his window. “Hey, Ms. Geraldine.”

“Mr. Holloway, you going to see your parents?”

“Yeah,” Nick says with a grimace. “Mom’s about to start World War III.”

“Knowing your mama, she’s gonna end it, too.” Geraldine chuckles as she writes a note in her clipboard marked Visitors. “Don’t take that turn by Mrs. Lauder’s house too fast; you know she’ll complain.”