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Damn. He hadn’t seen Georgie coming. It was a great irony that the most selfless person in the world was inspiring him to be selfish. That’s exactly what he was being. He coveted this girl. Wanted her all to himself, even though her goodness was meant to shine in other places. Watching her sleep this morning, he hadn’t been able to stop his mind from projecting her onto a different time and place, where kids ran into the room and leaped onto her sleepy form. How long could Travis keep her to himself when he knew her dream was to have a family?

Travis’s gut tied itself into knots as he pushed into the buzzing bar, the sound of the ball game and classic rock meeting his ears. No matter what happened down the road, he needed to be honest with Stephen now. About his phony relationship with Georgie and why it started in the first place. About how incredibly real his feelings were for her now. Lying to Stephen had never sat right and the guy was obviously worried about his sister. He needed to know Travis would do everything in his power to make her happy. As long as she let him. Which was why he’d called Georgie’s brother this afternoon and asked to meet him for a beer at seven. Tomorrow morning, the girls were participating in the Tough Mudder. Her siblings would be present and he didn’t want any more deception. He wanted them to see their sister with a man who’d die to make her happy, no questions asked—and not doing it for show this time.

Although as Travis scanned the room, he didn’t see Stephen yet—

A familiar face at the bar made his blood go ice cold.

His father?

His father was here in Port Jefferson?

Travis watched in horror as Mark Ford teetered to the left on his stool. It was a scene right out of Travis’s nightmares. And memories. Those visions in his mind updated themselves now, adding new details, like the extra weight around his father’s waist, the hairline that had receded and thinned. How many times as a child had he snuck in through the back door of this bar, trying to pry his father away from the bottle? The sensation of hunger and shame crept up on Travis now, as if over a decade hadn’t passed.

“Well, now.” Mark slapped the bar with an open hand, turning on the stool. “There’s my son. Knew you’d turn up here sooner or later. Always did.”

Acutely aware of the attention on them, Travis cleared his throat and eliminated the distance between them. “What the hell are you doing back here?”

Mark laughed, lines fanning out at the edges of his eyes. “That’s no kind of welcome.”

“You’re not welcome,” Travis enunciated. “There’s nothing for you here.”

“Not true.” Mark took a sloppy pull from his drink. A beer. But several empty shot glasses sat in front of him, like little sparkling badges of honor. “Got a call from the real estate agent letting me know you were selling the house.”

An invisible slap landed across Travis’s face. Of course. The deed was in both of their names. The real estate agent probably had no choice but to alert him of the appraisal. Travis’s goal was to begin burying the past, but he’d dragged it out into the light instead. Dragged a bitter, foul-breathed reminder right back into the present.

“Took a ride by the house this afternoon,” Mark continued, loudly. Loudly on purpose. Another one of the ways he’d humiliated Travis as a child. Needling him in public about a bad game, his eating habits, his mother, and laughing about it while everyone watched in uncomfortable silence. “You really let the place go to shit. Not that it was any great shakes back in the day, right? You always walked around like you deserved a fucking palace.”

He spat the last word, and Travis closed his eyes, praying for patience. A way to make this end faster. End period. He still couldn’t actually believe it was happening. “You want your cut of the sale? No problem. You didn’t have to come all the way to Port Jeff to get it.”

Mark jerked in his chair, a sneer shaping his mouth. “Don’t talk to me like I’m some kind of beggar, boy. I have an interest here and I came to see to it. I have every right.”

The bartender edged closer in Travis’s periphery. “Everything okay, gentlemen?”

Travis nodded at the man without taking his eyes off his father. “Yes, sir. I’m taking care of it.” His father started in with another angry outburst, but Travis cut him off. “I’ll write you a check for half the appraisal amount. No need to stick around and deal with all the annoying paperwork, right?”

Mark let out a long breath through his nose. “You’ve just got enough money lying around to front me? Just like that?”

“That’s right. More than enough.”

His father took a cocktail straw off the bar and popped it into his mouth, chewing on the red plastic. “Real out of the blue, isn’t it? Why are you selling the house now?” Mark pointed the straw at Travis. “It’s a woman, isn’t it?”

The volume of his father’s voice had steadily risen to the point where it could be heard by everyone, even over the music and ball game. It would be a cold day in hell before Travis voluntarily said Georgie’s name to this man who blackened everything he touched, though, so he remained silent.

“I won’t play dumb. Saw in the papers you’re dating that Castle girl,” said his father, setting off a sour bomb in Travis’s stomach. “Bet you fit right in with a family that thinks their shit doesn’t stink.”

Anger hit him hard. “Shut your fucking mouth, old man,” Travis snapped, his fingers stretching and curling in his palms. “They’ve been better to me than my own family.”

A spark of regret lit Mark’s eyes, but it was gone as soon as it appeared. “And you’re going to repay them by tarnishing the reputation of one of their daughters?” Mark laughed and it was an ugly sound. “Yeah, everyone knows how you carry on. You’re a whore like your mother.”

When Travis walked into the bar, he’d been Travis Ford the man. The man who’d had some bad runs of luck in a career he loved, but had managed to come through with perspective. He did an honest day’s work with his hands, had good friends. He was about to embark on a new career path that scared him a little, but he had the confidence to throw his all into it. Most importantly, he’d landed a girl who made him so happy he couldn’t see straight. But in one fell swoop, he was transported back to the boy who’d sat shivering on the porch until the middle of the night, feeling unworthy of anything but doubt. And that boy slowly became the man who’d been slapped like a Ping-Pong ball between teams until he stopped memorizing the names of his teammates, because what was the point, when he’d be gone before the ink dried on his contract?

Travis could only listen numbly as his father continued. “You should do that girl a favor and cut her loose before she gets her hopes up that you’re actually a decent person.”

“You honestly think I’d change for a girl?” As soon as the words were out of Travis’s mouth, he hated himself. Acid rolled to a boil in his stomach, on his tongue. But he didn’t want this man who poisoned everything to focus on Georgie another fucking second. His girlfriend was the best thing in his life, and he’d fight to keep the worst part away from her. Travis wouldn’t put it past his father to find a way to hurt them, if he knew how important Georgie was to him. That was how Mark Ford operated. “She’s a kid with a kid’s crush,” Travis rasped, the lies razing his throat. “All I did was use it to my advantage. You’re looking at the new voice of the Bombers.”

“Knew it. A leopard doesn’t change its spots. Let’s hope you do better behind a microphone than you did behind the plate.” Mark laughed into his drink. “I’ll leave my address with the real estate agent. Looking forward to that nice check.”

“Enjoy,” Travis rasped. “It’s the last thing you’ll ever get from me.”

Disgusted with himself for betraying Georgie, Travis turned to leave—

And ran straight into Stephen. With an uncapped beer in front of him on the bar, he’d clearly been there long enough to hear everything.

Travis couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe as Georgie’s brother gave him a look of pure revulsion, his eyes running the length of Travis, before he vanished from the bar.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Can you believe him, Georgie?” Bethany cried, screeching to a stop at a red light. “My own brother. Warning the other realtors in town not to sell me a property. You know what I think? I think he’s afraid I’ll do a better flip.”

In hindsight, driving to the Tough Mudder with Bethany might have been a mistake. Her sister was hyped up and not in a good way. And honestly, her sister had every right to be pissed. But Georgie’s head—and stomach—just wasn’t into the bitch session today.

Travis never came over last night. He’d texted her around eight o’clock to say he couldn’t make it. No excuse or reason. Just I can’t make it, baby girl. She’d been half tempted to drive over to his apartment with a few cartons of lo mein but stopped herself. She was definitely new at this couple thing, but they weren’t required to spend every waking moment together. Maybe he’d just felt like watching baseball and scratching in places he couldn’t scratch in her company. No big deal, right?