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“All right, all right… come on, Birthday Hero, you need to go use the bathroom and get back to your party.” Before I stand up, I pull him into my arms and give him a big hug. His little arms wrap tight around my neck, and he squeezes me hard. “I love you, Cohen. You’re right, that cape sure does work.”

“I know!” He gives me a kiss on my cheek before rushing past me and slamming the door to the bathroom.

Well, guess I’ll join the party by myself. I stand up and dust off my rear. When I look up, I notice that Beck has joined Greg in the kitchen. He gives me a warm smile, and I can tell just by looking in his eyes that he caught that moment with Cohen and me, too.

“I love hearing that laugh, Dee. It’s been too long.” And with that, he turns and walks back through the doorway and into the living room.

I must have been standing there for a while, just zoning at the doorway that he walked through, because when Greg clears his throat, I jump slightly.

“Must have been pretty far away just then. You didn’t even notice Cohen run flying right past you.” He smiles, but it’s guarded.

“Yeah, must have.”

“Are you doing okay? I know things have been pretty crazy around here lately, but you know you can come to me if you ever want to talk.” It’s times like this that I just want to scream at him. It’s not his fault. He’s had a lot going on in his life the last few months, but it still hurts to know that someone so close to me, has been completely blind. I want to scream for all the times I needed him, but he was too worried about Izzy. All the times I needed him, but he was too busy falling in love. I know it’s not fair to pass any blame onto him, but for someone who knows me better than most of our other friends, he doesn’t know me at all.

“I’m fine. Just going through some stuff, that’s all.” I plaster on my perfectly practiced, ‘I’m on top of the world’ smile, and wait to see if he can see past my mask.

God, I’m so sick of this mask.

He looks at me a beat before he shakes his head. “I’ve been a shit friend lately. I know that, but it’s no excuse. You might be able to fool the girls, but I’m on to you, Dee. I wouldn’t have even noticed if it hadn’t have been for that little breakdown I saw. And before you flip the hell out, no one else saw it. When I saw Beck had you, I cleared the kitchen and kept them out of the back hall. You don’t want to tell me what’s on your mind? Tough. We’re talking, and we’re talking soon.”

I’m thoroughly shocked when he basically stands there and scolds me like a child. What the hell is going on today? No one, not a single one of these people, has noticed anything at all ever since I first crashed and burned. They didn’t notice when I slipped so far past the level of okay. They didn’t notice when I thought about taking my own life. And, they didn’t even notice when I started trying to drink away the fear.

Not a single one of them, except for Beck.

“Can we please just forget about it for the day? Let’s not let my issues be the dark cloud on your son’s birthday. Please, Greg.”

He gives me a look of sympathy before holding his arms open. I walk into the familiar, comforting arms of one of my best friends, and take the support he’s offering.

“And don’t you dare mention Cohen’s little wiener story,” he says against my temple. “You had your laugh, but damn, Dee, that little kid was born with an internal cockblocking sensor. I’m just now living down the last time that Cohen told the group about him seeing Melissa ‘hugging Daddy under the covers’.”

I start laughing again, and just like that, my mood lifts slightly.

“My lips are sealed, but G, you might want to consider getting a deadbolt or something more secure for your bedroom activities.” I laugh even harder when I notice he’s really considering my comment. “Come on, you freaking weirdo, let’s go have a birthday party.”

The rest of the party passes with laughter, presents, and a few tantrums, all of which are from Coop when we tell him that he can’t drive Cohen’s new, kid sized, four-wheeler. I swear that man is just a child trapped inside a grown man’s body. When Sway offers to hug it better, Coop shuts his mouth real quick.

“God, I’m so glad those kids are gone,” Melissa says as she drops down onto Greg’s lap. “But I’m definitely not ready to clean up this mess.” She laughs before laying her head against his shoulder. I watch as Greg subconsciously tightens his hold, never once breaking his conversation with Axel and Maddox, and brings his palm up to rest on her adorable belly.

“That was an unbelievably long day. Even Nate crashed before his lunch, and that boy never misses a meal.” Izzy laughs, shaking her head a few times.

I look around the room and take in my ‘family’, getting lost in my thoughts again. It seems like just yesterday that our Greg, Izzy, and Dee trio turned into this big, loving family. Even at my darkest, I think I knew that these guys wouldn’t hurt me. Just the opposite, they would protect the women in their lives to the extreme. I didn’t always think that, but they have proven themselves over and over again. It still stings when I think about how well my protective mask hides my pain from every single one of these people I love… well, all but one of them.

That one person who is currently looking at me from across the table without hiding a single one of his emotions. Nope, not John Beckett. He’s looking at me like he always does. With love, longing, and complete rapture.

Jesus, between my issues with the company, my screwed up head, and my heart that beats for just one man, I can’t even tell which way is up anymore. With a mental note to make an extra appointment with Dr. Maxwell this week, I shake myself from my checkout and focus back on the conversation around me.

“… in concert next month,” Emmy says in her soft voice. She’s looking right at me, so apparently, I’ve missed something.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” I ask.

“Dee, get your head out of the clouds.” Izzy laughs. Oh, my stupidly wonderful best friend. If she had any clue about how my life has been, she wouldn’t make jokes. But, it isn’t her fault that she’s looking at life through her rose-colored glasses and is completely oblivious that I’ve needed her more than ever.

“You caught me.” I laugh, but even to my own ears, I can hear how fake it sounds. “Who is coming to town? Sorry, Em, all I heard was concert.”

“That’s okay, Dee. Sam Grow’s coming back to town. I think it’s the last weekend, next month. They’re doing a big charity show. I think it would be neat if we made a girls’ night out of it.” She smiles and I can’t help but return it. Emmy is so easy to love, and even though she’s in a situation similar to Beck and me, it never stops her from making the best out of life.

“And I told her how much I love that idea. Ever since Greg used his Rico Suave skills and serenaded me with one of Sam’s songs, I’ve been a huge fan.” Melissa smiles at Greg, who is still rubbing her rounded belly.

“That sounds good to me. I think Izzy gave me his CD a few weeks ago, so I’ll make sure and listen to it beforehand. It’s been a while since we’ve had a girls’ night.”

We make plans, with Emmy promising to purchase the tickets tomorrow. After a few more hours, pizza, and more conversation, we all head to our separate homes. When I tuck myself into bed that night, even with all the worry still on my shoulders, I feel lighter than I’ve felt in a really long time.

Chapter 10

After Cohen’s party, things got crazy again at work. Chelcie, my personal assistant, calls and tells me that she needs me to go up to the North Carolina branch. We have another big client that is requesting a meeting, and only wants to speak with me. In my gut, I know what the issue will be, but I still hope I’m wrong.

Not knowing how long I will have to be gone this time, I pack heavy and hit the road before lunch. Thankfully, traffic is light since it’s a Sunday afternoon. After checking into the hotel and grabbing dinner, I settle in for the night. Not much different from when I’m at home, just this time, I don’t have my stockpile of ice cream.

Having my phone ring in the middle of my Sunday Bravo TV shows is a sure fire way to have my mood go straight to crap. When I see ‘Greg Calling’, I hope that he’ll take a hint when I send the call to voicemail. Not even two seconds later, he’s calling again. Sighing deeply, I grudgingly answer. “Hey, G.”

“Oh, she speaks. Thanks for sending me to voicemail. Really sweet of you.” Sarcasm is dripping from every word.

“Sorry about that. I hit ignore instead of answer. I was just about to call you back.” I lie smoothly.

“Ha, try that on someone a little more gullible than I am.”

“Anyway, what can I do for you Greg?” I turn off the TV and toss the remote to the side in frustration.

“I told you yesterday that we would talk, and I meant it, Dee. I went by your apartment, but you weren’t there. Figured that you were either ignoring me, or you were out, so which is it?”

I could lie to him, but really, there isn’t any sense in it. He won’t think anything is up just because I’m out of town. “I had to come up to the North Carolina branch. Chelcie called me right when I got home last night and said I was needed up here. So, here I am.”

“Chelcie called you… on a Saturday night, to tell you to drive right up? What the hell, Dee? Did you just jump in the car first thing to avoid talking to me, or do you really have a need to be over there?”

I shouldn’t get pissed, but the flash of annoyance that washes over me is so overpowering that I can’t keep my mouth shut. How dare he act as if I’m doing something wrong here? I’ve been living my own life without one damn care from them for a while, and now that he wants to chat, he’s pissed that I’m gone.

“I’m not really sure why you feel like I need to check in with you? I’ve been doing just fine for a while now. Just in case you missed the memo, I’m a big girl now, Greg. I don’t even need my training pants anymore.”

“Whoa, snappy much. Someone must be on the rag.” He chuckles before sobering. I know he isn’t going to just drop it, so I wait, my breath held, for him to ask the questions I don’t want to answer. “I’m worried about you, Dee.”

“I’m fine,” I snap, a little too harshly.

“You’re not fine, and I’m insulted that you think I would believe that lie.” His voice, which had been friendly and calm, now has a hard tone to it.

“Excuse me, but you’ve been believing it for two fucking years!” I scream into the phone. It takes me about two seconds to realize my mistake. Shit! I slap my hand over my mouth to stop the overflowing verbal vomit before I say anything else.

“What did you just say?” Dammit. Damn. Shit. I know Greg doesn’t mean to ignore everyone around him. He has every right to be worried about Izzy and his recovery from his injuries sustained that God-awful day. It isn’t fair to hold anything against him, but in my mind, I just can’t seem to separate my pain and loneliness.

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