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I try to remain calm, but my hands are shaking as I hand the paperwork to Cal. Lydia stands up and walks to the door. Before she exits the room, she looks back at me. I can tell she’s on the verge of tears, but her tears are nothing compared to the tears I’ve shed because of her. “I’ll pick him up from preschool on my way home. You can stop by in a few hours. It’ll give me time to get some of his things together.”

I nod, unable to speak due to the sob I’m keeping lodged in my throat. As soon as the door closes behind Lydia and Trey, I burst into tears.

Cal puts an arm around me and pulls me to him. “Thank you,” I say. “Oh my God, thank you so much.”

I feel him shake his head. “No, Auburn. I’m the one who should be thanking you.”

He doesn’t elaborate on why he’s thanking me, but I can’t help but hope that somehow, seeing the sacrifices his son has made for both of us will give him the strength to do what he needs to do.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Owen

When I walk into the room and see my father’s face rather than Auburn’s, my heart sinks. I haven’t seen or spoken to her in over twenty-four hours. I have no idea what’s transpired or if she’s even okay.

I take a seat in front of my father, not even concerned with whatever it is he wants to discuss with me. “Do you know where Auburn is? Is she okay?”

He nods. “She’s fine,” he says, and those words instantly put me at ease. “All the charges against you have been dropped. You’re free to leave.”

I don’t move, because I’m not sure I understood him correctly. The door opens and someone enters the room. The officer motions for me to stand and when I do, he removes the cuffs from my wrists. “Do you have any belongings you need to retrieve before you leave?”

“My wallet,” I say as I massage my wrists.

“When you’re finished in here, let me know and I’ll sign you out.”

I look at my father again and he can see the shock still registered on my face. He actually smiles. “She’s something else, isn’t she?”

I smile in return, because how did you do it, Auburn?

The light is back in my father’s eyes. The light I haven’t seen since the night of our wreck. I don’t know how, but I know she had something to do with this. She’s like a light, unwittingly brightening up the darkest corners of a man’s soul.

I have so many questions, but I save them until after I sign out and we’re outside.

“How?” I blurt out before the door closes behind us. “Where is she? Why did he drop the charges?”

My father smiles again, and I didn’t realize how much I missed that. I’ve missed his smile almost as much as I miss my mother’s.

He hails a cab as it rounds the corner. When it stops, he opens the door and tells the cab driver her address. He takes a step back. “I think you should ask Auburn these questions.”

I eye him cautiously, debating whether to get in the cab and head to Auburn or check him for fever. He pulls me in for a hug and doesn’t let go. “I’m sorry, Owen. For so many things,” he says. His hold around me tightens and I can feel the apology in his embrace. When he pulls back, he ruffles my hair like I’m a child.

Like I’m his son.

Like he’s my dad.

“I won’t be seeing you for a few months,” he says. “I’m going away for a while.”

I hear something in his voice that I’ve never heard before. Strength. If I were to paint him right now, I would paint him the exact same shade of green as Auburn’s eyes.

He takes several steps back and watches me get inside the cab. I stare at him from the window and I smile. Callahan Gentry and his son are going to be okay.

Saying good-bye to him was almost as hard as this moment. Standing in front of her apartment door, preparing to say hello to her.

I lift my hand and knock on her door.

Footsteps.

I inhale a calming breath and wait for the door to open. It feels like these last two minutes have taken two whole lifetimes. I wipe my palms down my jeans. When the door finally opens, my eyes fall to the person standing in front of me.

He’s the last person I expected to see here. Seeing him in the doorway to Auburn’s apartment, smiling up at me, is definitely a moment I’m going to paint someday.

I don’t know how you did it, Auburn.

“Hey!” AJ says, grinning widely. “I remember you.”

I smile back at him. “Hey, AJ,” I reply. “Is your mom home?”

AJ glances over his shoulder and opens the door wider. Before he invites me in, he crooks his finger and asks me to bend down. When I do, he grins and whispers, “My muscles are really big now. I didn’t tell anybody about our tent.” He cups his hands around his mouth. “And it’s still here.”

I laugh, just as he spins around at the sound of her footsteps approaching.

“Sweetie, don’t ever open the front door without me,” I hear her say to him. He pushes the door open wider, and her eyes lock with mine.

Her footsteps come to an immediate halt.

I didn’t think seeing her would hurt this much. Every part of me hurts. My arms ache to hold her. My mouth aches to touch hers. My heart aches to love hers.

“AJ, go to the bedroom and feed your new fish.”

Her voice is firm and unwavering. She still hasn’t smiled.

“I already fed him,” AJ says to her.

Her eyes leave mine and she looks down at him. “You can feed him two more pellets as a snack, okay?” She points in the direction of her bedroom. He must know that look, because he immediately retreats toward the bedroom.

As soon as AJ disappears, I take a quick step back because she’s running at me. She jumps into my arms so hard and fast, I’m forced to take several more steps back and hit the wall behind me so that we don’t fall. Her arms are locked around my neck and she’s kissing, kissing, kissing me like I’ve never been kissed before. I can taste her tears and laughter, and it’s an incredible combination.

I’m not sure how long we stand in the hallway kissing, because seconds aren’t long enough when they’re spent with her.

Her feet eventually meet the floor and her arms lock around my waist and her face presses against my chest. I wrap my hand around the back of her head and hold her like I plan on holding her every day after today.

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