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“You don’t have to do that.”

“Do what?”

“Laugh when nothing’s funny.”

“Yes, I do, because otherwise…” As he stared at me that way, I had to turn away because I felt my emotions finally catching up with me as my heartbeats slowed down. A small, uncomfortable laugh fell from my lips. “Because otherwise you’re going to be annoyed by me,” I warned him.


My bottom lip trembled, and I felt my body start to shake as my hands covered my face. “Because this is the part where I cry.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. His hands brushed against mine, and he took them into his hold, lowering them from my face. “And this is the part where I let you.” He moved Tucker from my lap onto another couch cushion. Next, Jackson placed his hands into mine and lifted me up from the couch and wrapped his arms around me. He held me close to him, and he became the one who held me up as I began to fall. I sobbed against his T-shirt, thinking of all the years of struggles, all the years of pain as I tried to create the life that Autumn had stolen straight from under my feet.

Every now and then, Jackson’s hand gently rubbed my back, bringing about an odd sense of comfort.

As I pulled back a little, I thanked him for holding me, for allowing me to fall apart. He brushed his thumb against my cheeks, wiping away my tears that kept falling.

I laughed nervously. “Hot mess,” I said, stating what he’d been calling me for the longest time.

He kept wiping my tears. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice deep and smooth. “For calling you a hot mess when I met you.”

“Don’t be. It’s true, after all. I am a hot mess.”

“Everyone’s a hot mess,” he insisted. “Some people are just better at hiding it.”

I didn’t know why, but that statement eased my mind a bit.

Jackson rubbed the side of his neck and cleared his throat. “You want water?”

“Yes. Please.”

He hurried into the back of the cabin, toward the kitchen, and I took deep breaths. My fingers lightly touched the Band-Aids against my face, and I walked toward the walls to study the sunsets more closely. They were stunning. So stunning and realistic that they almost looked like photographs. Each one had the initials H.E. in the bottom corner.

“These are beautiful,” I told him as he reentered the room with the glass of water. He handed the glass my way. “Who’s H.E.?” I asked.

“Hannah Emery,” he quietly replied as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. “My mother.”

“She was an amazing artist,” I told him.

He nodded once. “She was more than that.” Before I could ask him anything about his mother, he shifted the conversation back to me. “Are you all right?”

I snickered. “Truth or lie?”

“Truth,” he replied. “Always truth.”

I took a deep breath, and tears fell as I exhaled. I couldn’t even reply.

“I’m sorry you’re hurting,” he told me.

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not.”

He was right, it wasn’t all right, and I wasn’t certain that it would ever be all right.

“You were right about everyone in town. They were just comforting me so they could get more gossip. They didn’t care about my heart or how it beat. They just wanted something to talk about.”

“I’m sorry I was right.”

“It’s okay. I just…I feel like I have no one, you know? I mean, I can talk to my sister and my father, but that’s pretty much it, and I don’t want to burden them. Everyone else in this town just feels like a stranger to me.”

“Even your mom?”

I huffed. “Especially my mom.”

He cleared his throat and rounded his shoulders forward. “I’m Jackson Paul Emery,” he calmly stated, locking his stare with mine. “I can’t whistle, but I can do three backflips in a row. I got my car skills from my dad and my art skills from my mother. Last summer, I ate twenty-five hot dogs in a row like a professional badass. Alex recorded the whole thing. I can make the best shrimp fried rice, and—”

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Telling you about myself.”

“Yeah. But…why?”

He brushed his hand against the back of his neck and slightly shrugged. “So I’ll no longer be a stranger and you can talk to me.”

Oh, Jackson…

First, he’s sour, then shockingly sweet.

The gentle monster.

His gesture surprised me, but perhaps he was learning to zoom in like I was learning to see him. Maybe, for the first time, the two of us were truly seeing one another.

“I don’t know how to talk about it,” I confessed. I didn’t have a clue what to say.

“What’s the hardest part?” he asked me. “What hurts the most?”

“Oh, that’s easy.” I lowered my head and wrapped my arms around me. “The betrayal of the situation, and the next hardest part is being alone. I don’t know how to be alone. When Finn and I got married, I believed it was set in stone. You build your whole life around another person, and you think you’ll never be alone again, but then you are. It’s the hardest feeling to deal with. Loneliness hurts. It burns in a way that feels worse than fire.”