Page 48

He stared at me for several minutes without saying a word. I stared back. I don’t know if he thought his mere presence alone was enough intimidation, but he never did speak. Just sat in his chair for ten solid minutes, staring at me.

I never wavered. I did want to laugh a few times, but was able to hold it together. He finally stood up, but I remained seated. He walked around the table, poised to head toward the exit behind me, but instead he paused and looked down on me.

“Stay away from my girl, Owen.”

This is when he lost my eye contact. Not because he pissed me off or made me nervous, but because his words were an excruciating punch in the gut. The fact that he referred to Auburn as his girl is the last thing I wanted to hear, and that has nothing to do with my jealousy and everything to do with my instincts regarding Trey.

And while I have to admit I hate that I’ve screwed my life up to the point that it would negatively affect us if we were together, I hate it even more that he gets to have her. Because she deserves better. So much better.

She deserves me.

If only she knew that.

She’s staring up at me like she wants to throw her arms around me. Like she wants to kiss me. And believe me, if she did either of those things right now I would more than welcome it.

She’s standing with her hands at her sides, like she doesn’t know what to do with them. She lifts her right hand and brings it across her chest, squeezing the bicep of her left arm. Her gaze shifts to her feet.

“You’re okay.” Her voice comes out extremely unsure of itself. I’m not sure if she’s asking me a question or making a simple observation. I nod anyway. She blows out a soft breath, and her relief is something I wasn’t anticipating. I wasn’t expecting her to be worried about me. I was hoping she was, but hoping for it and seeing it are two different things.

I’m not sure what’s happening in this second, but we both simultaneously take a quick step forward. Neither of us stops until her arms are wrapped around my neck and my arms are wrapped around her back, and we’re both gripping one another in a desperate hug.

I tilt my face toward her neck and inhale the scent of her. If her smell had a color, it would be pink. Sweet and innocent with a touch of roses.

After a long but still-too-short embrace, she takes a step back and grabs my hand. She pulls me toward her bedroom and I follow her. When she opens the door, my eyes fall to the blue tent still set up next to her bed. She hasn’t taken it down and that makes me smile. She closes her bedroom door behind us and grabs the pillows off her bed, smiling gently as she tosses them into the tent and crawls inside.

She lies down in the tent, and I crawl in beside her and lie next to her. We face each other, and for several moments, all we do is stare. I eventually lift my hand and brush a lock of hair from her forehead, but I notice how she pulls away slightly. I drop my hand.

It’s like she doesn’t want to start the conversation because she knows the first thing that needs to be put out there is her relationship with Trey. I don’t want to put her in an awkward position, but I also need to know the truth. I clear my throat and somehow release the words that don’t want answers.

“Are you with him now?”

They’re the first words I’ve spoken to her since we said good-bye a month ago. I hate that these have to be the words I chose. I should have said, “I missed you,” or “You look beautiful.” I should have said words she would appreciate, but instead, I said words that are hard for her to hear. I know they’re hard for her to hear because her eyes cast downward and she can no longer look at me.

“It’s complicated,” she says.

If she only knew.

“Do you love him?”

She immediately shakes her head no. This fills me with relief, but I also hate that she’s with someone for the wrong reasons.

“Why are you with him?”

She makes eye contact with me now and her expression has hardened. “The same reason I can’t be with you.” She pauses. “AJ.”

This is probably the one thing I didn’t want to hear, because it’s the one thing I know I have no control over.

“He gets you closer to AJ, and I do the exact opposite.”

She nods, but barely.

“Do you feel anything for him? At all?”

She closes her eyes as if she’s ashamed. “Like I said . . . it’s complicated.”

I reach over and grab her hand. I pull it to my mouth and kiss the top of it. “Auburn, look at me.”

She glances up at me again, and more than anything I want to lean forward and kiss her. That’s the last thing she needs, though. It would only add more complication in her life.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers.

I immediately shake my head. I don’t need to hear how she’s sorry we can’t be together. The reasons we can’t be together are all my fault. Not hers.

“I get it. I would never want to be a part of anything that could keep you away from your son. But you have to understand that Trey is not the answer. He’s not a good person, and you don’t want AJ to grow up with him as an example.”

She rolls onto her back and stares upward. I don’t like the distance she put between us just now, but I also know that my words aren’t anything new to her. I know she knows what kind of person he is. “He loves AJ. He’s good to him.”

“For how long?” I ask her. “How long does he have to put on this act to win you over? Because it won’t last, Auburn.”

She brings her hands up to her face and her shoulders begin to shake. I immediately wrap my arm around her and pull her to my chest. I didn’t want to show up here and cause her to cry.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m sure you’ve weighed your options, and this is the only one that works for you and I get that. I just hate it for you.”

I brush my hand over her hair and kiss the top of her head. She allows me to hold her for several minutes, and I savor each and every one of those minutes because we both know the next thing she’s going to say to me is good-bye.

I don’t want her to have to say it, so I kiss her once more on top of her head. I kiss her cheek, and then I graze her jaw with my fingers, tilting her face to mine. I bend forward and gently press my lips to hers. I don’t give her time to overthink it. I close my eyes, release her, and exit the tent.