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I loved Reece.

A knot formed in the back of my throat as I lifted my head. I really did love him. I was in love with him. There was no more playing around with how I felt, no more lying.

Reece looked at me, his brows knitting. “You okay?”

I opened my mouth to tell him yes. No! To tell him the truth, and I didn’t care that people surrounded us, because I was going to scream it—scream it right in Reece’s face.

But my butt vibrated.

“Oh.” Drawing back, I pulled my cell out of my jean pocket. My stomach dropped the moment I saw the caller ID. “It’s Charlie’s parents,” I mumbled.

Reece stiffened.

Going cold, I sat up straight as I answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Roxanne?” Charlie’s mother never called me Roxy. Never in my whole life had she ever used my nickname. And never in my whole life had I heard her sound as hoarse and shaken as she did now.

Hands shaking as knots formed in my belly, I slipped out of Reece’s embrace and stood. I stepped over Jax’s legs, giving myself space as I walked away from the fire. “Yes. This is Roxy. What’s going on?”

I don’t even know why I asked the question. I knew what she was going to say. Deep down I already knew, and everything inside me started to unravel like a loose thread that had been tugged.

“I’m sorry,” she said into the phone.

“No,” I whispered, turning around. I saw Reece standing a few feet behind me. Concern poured into his expression and so did realization. He stepped toward me, and I stumbled back.

Charlie’s mother let out a broken sound—a sound I didn’t even know she was capable of making until that moment. “It’s over. He . . . Charlie passed away this evening.”

Chapter 23

I never knew pain could hurt so bad that it made you numb. That the pain could cut so deep it took every bit of emotion out of you, just sucked it right out. That was what I was feeling. Empty. Bottomless.

I didn’t cry that night.

Not when Reece took me back to his place. Not when he helped me undress or when he got me in bed. Not even when he wrapped his arms around me and held me until I fell asleep.

The weekend and the days coming after that phone call were a blur. Jax gave me the week off from the bar, and I hadn’t even pretended to fight his decision. My head wasn’t in the right place to be working with the public. My head wasn’t anywhere it needed to be.

I didn’t cry when I went to the facility on Tuesday to get all the paintings and the little personal mementos I’d loaded Charlie’s room up with. Three large boxes went out, placed side by side in the back of Reece’s truck. I didn’t cry, not even when I saw his empty bed. Not even when I learned that he’d gone in his sleep from an aneurysm. Not when I discovered that he’d died alone.

There would be no autopsy and the funeral was scheduled for Thursday. I couldn’t believe it was going to happen so soon, as if his parents were waiting for this to happen, as if the grave had been dug all those years ago and was just waiting to be filled.

I didn’t cry when Reece took me to my apartment or when I stacked the paintings I’d done for Charlie in the corner of my studio. Nor did I really notice that my place had been wired for security, all the windows and doors. Actually, I did notice but I just didn’t care.

It was Thursday morning, as I slipped on the only pair of black dress pants that I owned and were now a little too loose, that I noticed Reece hadn’t gone to work at all this week. Smoothing my hair back into a low ponytail, I squinted at my reflection. The purple streak had faded, becoming barely noticeable. What was glaringly visible were the dark shadows under my eyes.

Slipping my glasses on, I left Reece’s bathroom. He was in the kitchen, fixing his black tie. Freshly shaven and shoulders broad in his suit, he looked good. Real good. I guessed that even though I felt so incredibly hollow, all my lady bits were still functioning.

He looked up, his head tilting to the side as he studied me. We really hadn’t talked much since Saturday. It wasn’t for lack of him trying. Obviously, he’d been here this entire time without me even asking. The same with the funeral. Not once did I ask him to go, but he was ready before me, and I lo—I appreciated him for that.

I stopped at the edge of the kitchen counter. “You’ve been taking off time from work.”

Reece nodded slowly as he fixed the cuffs on his suit. “Yeah. I didn’t want you to be alone.”

The burn in my chest was renewed. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I have the time. Plus everyone is understanding.” He came around the counter, stopping in front of him. His eyes searched mine intently. “I go back to my shift next week.”

I swallowed—swallowed hard. “Thank you. You’ve been . . . you’ve been so good about everything.”

Reece cupped my cheeks with both hands. “Babe, that’s just what someone does in this situation.” His thumbs trailed along my cheekbones, a gesture I looked forward to. “I’m here for you.”

My gaze flicked away and then I squeezed my eyes shut as he hauled me against his chest, wrapping his arms around me. I was stiff for a moment. I wasn’t even sure why, but then I clung to him, my fingers clawing through the clothes to get a piece of him—to hold a piece of him.

“It’s not fair,” I murmured against his chest.

He pressed a kiss against the top of my head. “No, it’s not.”

Chest aching, I pulled away from him and drew in a deep breath that didn’t seem to loosen the pressure wrapping around me. “I’m ready,” I told him.

That was a lie.

I think he knew that.

The service was held at a funeral home situated in the middle of a cemetery the size of a small town. With its winding roads and tall, graceful oaks that still had all their leaves, it truly was a calm place. Peaceful. Beautiful in a morbid way.

Mom and Dad were already there, waiting outside, along with Gordon and Thomas. Megan stood next to her husband, her hand resting lightly on her swollen belly. All of them, even Gordon, hugged me, and I wished they wouldn’t. I wished they’d greeted me like they’d greeted Reece, with a handshake or a nod. I could deal with that.

“Honey,” Mom murmured, kissing my forehead. Tears gathered in her eyes. “There really isn’t anything I can say right now to make this better.”

“I know,” I whispered, pulling away and squinting up at the cloudless sky. Too pretty of a day for a funeral, I thought. I glanced at my dad, who looked as uncomfortable in dress pants and shirt as Gordon did.