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“I didn’t realize how dim everything felt until I woke up today. I saw the light coming in, heard you in here . . . and the shadows of the past were gone. Vanished. Then I looked at this and thought”—she lifted her arm with the tattoo and traced it with one finger—“I’m really glad I didn’t get anything bigger.”

They both laughed.

Her smile lit up her face.

“You can always have it removed,” he told her.

“No. I want it. A forever reminder to learn from the past and let it go. From my parents and the things they did to make me spend money on a therapy couch, to Cedrick’s walk on the dark side, where I was caught in the cross fire.”

“Past relationships that keep you from entering a new one . . . like your previous marriage?”

“Oh, hon . . . no. That has nothing to do with my resistance to all things relationships.”

Liam fixed her with a questioning look. “You were married. That had to have some impact on you.”

Avery placed a hand to the side of his face. “What’s my ex’s name?”

He opened his mouth to respond, closed it. “Mr. Grant?”

God, he loved her smile. “No. I never took Bernie’s last name.”

“Bernie?” What man had that name?

She slid off his lap and grabbed the phone on an opposite counter.

Who was she calling?

“Bernie. It’s Avery.”

Liam sat dumbfounded. She was calling her ex?

“Well, of course you know my voice. Everyone should remember the ex-wife’s voice.” She smiled at Liam as she spoke. “Listen, I don’t have a lot of time . . . no, no. I’m doing well, but thank you. Yes, I know.”

Had Liam ever heard an ex talking to an ex as happily as he was witnessing right now?

Nope.

Right on up there with never.

“I met someone.” She was silent for a beat. “No. Stop. He’s important to me, and I wanted you to meet him.”

Liam lifted his hands in the air and mouthed, What?

“Next week would be great.” Her eyes lit up. “Seriously? Congratulations. She’s not after your money—”

Liam felt he needed popcorn for the conversation he was witnessing.

“Okay, if you say so. But I can kick some ass these days.” She laughed. A wholehearted belly laugh Liam wasn’t sure he’d ever seen her do. “Perfect. I’ll see you then. I adore you, too.”

Avery hung up.

“What the hell was that?”

“Bernie’s getting married. I can’t believe it.”

Liam watched her pour a cup of coffee. “You set us up on a double date with your ex?”

“Sure did. Because as your girlfriend, I get to do that.”

“But your ex-husband?”

Avery leaned on her elbows across the counter and took a sip of coffee. “I married him as a means to get out from under my parents. He married me because he wanted a trophy wife and the confidence it gave him. He gave me money. I helped him find his backbone.” She took another drink. “We never slept together.”

“Holy shit, you really did marry him for his money. That wasn’t a joke.”

“Not a joke. Not a lie. He just asked me if I needed more. He is that guy. I think you two will get along great.”

“This is surreal, you get that, right?”

“Yup. Even more odd is that you will meet him before my parents. Maybe he can convince you how they are so you don’t hold it against me when my mother disapproves.”

“Mothers love me.”

“If you look up pretentious in a dictionary, you’ll see her picture. So unless you’re hiding a couple hundred million somewhere, be prepared.”

“Can’t say I am.”

He paused and watched her drink her coffee.

“Is that going to be an issue?”

Avery narrowed her eyes. “What?”

“That I don’t have that kind of money.”

She lowered her cup from her lips and set it down. “Is it an issue that I do?”

He saw her point and smiled. “No.”

She released a sigh. “Good. Because I really don’t want to throw it away. In fact, I have some serious retail therapy to do as soon as the Brentwood project is tied up. If I still have that job, that is.”

“I’m sure a truthful explanation will keep you in good standing with Lankford.”

“We’ll see. What’s done is done. I’m not going to stress about it.”

He stood and moved to her side of the counter. “Now sit down and let me make you something to eat. I need to get some of that meat back on your bones.”

“Oh my God, you’re going to cook for me again? I feel like I hit the jackpot.”

He kissed her, hard, and pushed her into a chair. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

Two weeks later Avery stood outside the Brentwood estate as the last of the Lankfords’ belongings were shipped off to Goodwill. Many of the estate’s treasures were at auction houses, sold, or now just given away. But outside of collecting a check when everything sold, Avery was done. Three weeks behind schedule, but that didn’t seem to matter.

“So that’s it?” Sheldon asked when he walked out of the empty house to stand by her as the Goodwill truck pulled out of the driveway.

“That’s it.”

Avery had heard a sigh like that from her own lips just a few weeks before.

“Sheldon.” She pulled her nerve in and lifted her eyes to his. “I found some pictures a while back, hidden in your father’s desk.”

He stared down at her, blinking.

He said nothing.

“I left his desk in the office, in case you wanted to see where they were. I removed them so they wouldn’t end up in the wrong hands. I’m not sure if you want to see them, or—”

“What kind of pictures?”

She picked up her oversize purse and removed an envelope and handed them over. “I think your dad had an affair.”

Sheldon seemed unfazed as he removed the old photographs and barely gave them a look. He turned his head and stared blankly at the disappearing truck.

He knew.

“I’m sorry,” she said, laying a hand on his arm.

Sheldon attempted to smile. “Don’t be. I always assumed he had other people in his life. He always had time for everyone other than me.”

It was sad to think the man went to his grave never changing his relationship with his chosen son.

Noise from the drive had her turning around.

Liam and two of his workers pulled up in trucks. When her boyfriend stepped out, she couldn’t stop her heart from reaching her smile.

“Liam is a lucky man,” Sheldon said.

“Thank you.”

Holding a sledgehammer, Liam climbed up the stairs. He dropped a quick kiss to her lips and shook Sheldon’s hand. “Good morning. Ready to get started?”

“Nope,” Avery said. “I have some shopping to do.”

Liam and Sheldon both laughed.

“We’re going to start the demo. Lots of noise, dust, and trash.” He offered the sledgehammer to Sheldon. “Some of my clients like to take the first swing.”

Sheldon immediately shook his head. “I’ll leave that to the profess—” He paused and accepted the tool. “On the other hand, there’s a desk I wouldn’t mind taking a hammer to.”

With that, he walked back into the house.

“First Wives Club meetings shall always include shopping, shoes, and champagne.” Avery lifted her glass to the other three club members as a toast.

“Cheers.”

Their club meeting was being held at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.

“I needed this!” Avery exclaimed. “I can’t remember the last time I managed any serious shopping.”

Their bungalow looked out over the Pacific Ocean with endless sunshine. They sat on a private deck, enjoying the last rays of heat as the sun started to set.

“Wade and I did our share of damage on our honeymoon,” Trina told them. “I’ve never known a man who likes to shop more than him.”

“That’s because he’s loaded,” Avery teased.

“It’s because he looks good in everything he puts on.” Everyone turned to stare at Shannon.

“Is it possible the woman who seems impervious to the male species is finally starting to open her eyes?” Avery asked.

“I fall hard, and fast . . . and for the wrong men. You flitter from one flower to another until a Venus flytrap grabs your leg to keep you from running away.”

Lori tilted her flute glass Avery’s way. “She has a point.”

“So are you dating?” Avery asked Shannon.

“Not yet. Before you ask, yes, I’ve been going out a little more. I’m not sure I want to date in LA.”

“What does that mean? Where would you date?”

She shrugged. “I’m thinking of selling the house and moving.”

“What? Why?”

“Because Paul bought it for me.”

“That was part of your agreement,” Lori said.

“I’ll use the money from the sale to buy something else. Granted, he didn’t have much to do with the purchasing process other than writing a check, but it still feels like it’s part of him.”

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