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“If Doug Mann weren’t part of the equation, would you still feel this burning need to know more? Would you have let Griffin leave without you?”

An unvoiced snort-laugh escapes her nose. “It’s a moot point. But after what happened between us …” She turns back to me.

I want to shrivel up and die like the asshole I am for kissing her.

“I had to let him go.”

“It was just a kiss.”

Her face contorts into a painful scowl. “It wasn’t just a kiss. And you downplaying it only pains me more.”

“If not just a kiss, then what was it?”

“Stop.” Tossing the blanket aside, she paces the room. “In college I had sex that was less stimulating than that kiss.”

I bite back my chuckle. “Maybe you just had low standards.”

“Fuck you.” Her eyes narrow at me.

“Yeah, fuck me.” I stand.

“Why?” Her voice loses all fight. “I get the kiss. There’s this part of me that’s wondered what it would feel like. This deep-seated curiosity grew more with every story you shared about you and Daisy. The more I felt like I had to be her, the more I wanted to feel what she felt. And…” she shakes her head, arms hugged to her chest “…the one thing I wanted to feel more than anything else was you.”

“Swayze …”

Continuing to shake her head, she steps back as I step toward her.

Her hand presses to her neck just below her ear. “I thought you’d kiss me here, like you kissed her. Like her dad kissed her mom.”

After a few seconds of staring at the floor between us, or years into the past, her eyes find mine. “I wanted red and orange popsicles and stolen chocolates. I wanted to feel that young love. The butterflies. The anticipation. I thought it would flip this switch for me, and I’d remember what it was like to be that girl who fell in love with you. I thought one kiss could make that life real in my head.”

Popsicles and chocolates. I’m an asshole.

“But you didn’t kiss me like a fifteen-year-old boy would kiss a fifteen-year-old girl. You kissed me like an animal emerging from hibernation. Like a man coming undone from the inside out. Like if you didn’t kiss me, you would cease to exist.”

Like I was looking for that piece of myself that you took with you when you died.

Glancing away for a brief second, she draws in a shaky breath. “And I kissed you back like I just … needed to know.”

“Needed to know what?”

Her gaze meets mine again, and I feel her pain bone-deep. I don’t know if what’s happened is fate or irresponsible. Can fate be this reckless? I just don’t know. I love her—even if I’m not sure on any given day who she is or how to define this love.

“I needed to know if another man could make me feel the way Griffin made me feel. In my heart, I knew that was impossible. But you’ve been in my head, in my dreams, a picture in my pocket … and I needed to know if my heart would betray me.”

Don’t ask. Don’t ask. It doesn’t matter. She’s not yours.

“The heart can be quite fickle and a foolish slave to desire.”

“So I shouldn’t trust my heart?”

I shrug. This isn’t the conversation I want to have with her. I’m no expert on love. All of my experiences have ended in tragedy. That’s why I need to protect her.

“I’m just saying there should be a good checks and balances between your mind and your heart. Neither one should have total say in big decisions.”

“Kissing you wasn’t really my decision.”

Because I’m an asshole.

“It wasn’t really a decision for me either. It was total impulse. My mind didn’t catch up until I was in my vehicle, pulling out of the garage. I’m sorry.”

“Then why did you kiss me?”

I turn and pace the same path she paced just minutes earlier, head down, hands on hips. “I don’t know. Do we have to discuss this? It was wrong. I can’t take it back. It won’t happen again. I’m truly sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

“Did you stop by to discuss the kiss?”

I stop my motion. “What? No. Of course not. You brought it up.”

“Then what did you want to discuss?”

“I just wanted to make sure you’re doing okay. I know Griffin left town, and … I don’t know. I assumed you might be having a rough time.”

“Who told you he left town? We haven’t talked since before Christmas.”

Fuck.

“He contacted me. Asked me to keep an eye on you. To check in after a few days.”

“Bullshit.” She shakes her head. “There’s no way.”

“Not bullshit.”

“He beat you up. He doesn’t ask the guy who kissed his fiancée to look after her. I’m young and sometimes a little naive, but believing that would make me stupid. What’s your angle? Why are you saying this? Who told you he left? Dr. Albright?”

“Dr. Albright would never discuss you with me.”

I’m going to Hell. Or in my next life I will return as a cockroach.

“Then who.”

“Griffin.”

“You’re pissing me off.”

“What do you want me to say? Call and ask him.”

She deflates. I grimace. It’s over. She really ended it with him. All for a past—a lifetime ago.

“It doesn’t matter. I see Dr. Albright tomorrow. I’m going to remember what Doug did to Daisy—to me. And I’m going to make sure he pays for what he’s done. I’m tired of looking over my shoulder, walking to my car with my heart in my throat, jolting from my sleep every time I hear a noise. I’ve been sleeping with a steak knife under my pillow since Griffin left. I want to stay with my mom, but I don’t want to worry her, so I play it off like I’m not scared. But … I’m scared shitless.”

I still the forward motion of my hand. I want to hug her, touch her, comfort her so she knows there’s no need to be scared. Instead, I shove both hands into my pockets to keep them from caving to such urges.

“You’re in good hands. I know Dr. Albright will give you the help you need.” That’s it. That’s all I have to give her.

Pathetic.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

“I don’t understand.”

Dr. Albright has this pained expression on her face. I’m used to the empathetic one, but not this one. “Swayze, the mind has a natural instinct to preserve your wellbeing.”

“But it worked last time.”

She returns a slow nod. “I’m sorry. We can try again later. You’ve been under a tremendous amount of stress lately. We need to listen to what your body and your mind are trying to tell us. It’s just not ready.”

“Fine. I’ll get some good sleep. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. Maybe you could prescribe something for me, and we can try again tomorrow.”

“I think we should give this more than a day. Perhaps I can show you some relaxation techniques instead. Chamomile tea. A good book. Maybe you could get a massage.”

“A massage? A good book? Chamomile tea? Are you serious? I could be dead by tomorrow. That murderer could be hiding in my backseat at this very moment. And tomorrow you could find out that I drove off a bridge. They’ll call it suicide—after all, I’ve been awfully troubled lately. All because he’s mastered how to get away with murder, and I can’t remember a damn thing to stop him!”

“A little Xanax as needed might be a good fit after all.” She holds up a finger. “Prescription pad is in my office, give me a quick sec.”

Fisting my hand at my mouth, I nod. That wasn’t a finer moment for me.

Dr. Albright sends me home with a “chin up” and a prescription that I’m only supposed to take if absolutely necessary.

After checking the backseat, I pick up my prescription and drive home. What if I never remember? I didn’t really think that hard about it being a possibility. I don’t have a plan B. There was only plan A.

I call my mom as soon as I walk in the door and deadbolt it behind me. What if he’s in here? Hiding in the closet. Behind the shower curtain? The hypnosis not working today has messed with my mind. It’s skyrocketed my paranoia.

My mom doesn’t answer. I open the little white bag and pull out the bottle of pills. Maybe I just need sleep. But who will protect me if I fall into a deep sleep and don’t wake up when he breaks into my house?

For safe measure, I grab another knife out of the drawer and slip it into my back pocket. Maybe I should call Sherri and Scott. No … what if they tell Griffin. I don’t want him to know how fucked-up I am right now. He’ll feel bad and rush back to save me. One of the reasons he left was to avoid watching me self-destruct.

Fuck! That’s what’s happening.

I have a bottle of Xanax in my hand and a knife in my pocket.

A bottle of Xanax and a knife.

Setting my phone on the kitchen table so my mom thinks I’m here, I open the door and go back to my car with nothing more than my purse, a knife, and a bottle of Xanax.

It’s a little past two in the afternoon. Most of the world is still working, with the exception of some college students relishing the last day of winter break. Dougly Fucking Creepy Mann is a night owl. It’s possible he’s not even out of bed. Erica used to roll her eyes at his odd hours, which coincided quite well with her manic hours at the hospital.

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