“I understand why you’re leaving. I understand you wanting to find yourself, you deserve that. There’s no one in this world that deserves to find themselves more than you. But if it’s okay with you, I would like to say everything that’s been screaming in my head for the next forty-five seconds. And when I finish, I want you to pull away from me, and walk toward your car.”

“Daniel…” she hesitated.

“Please? Please, Ashlyn.” Her stare found the ground and when she looked back toward me, she nodded. I stepped in closer. My lips met the edge of her left ear and I whispered. “I thought I made you up. I thought that I was living in a world of darkness and I imagined you into existence. That somehow my mind crafted you, placing you on that train months ago. But then I realized I could never dream of something so beautiful.

“You’re the reason people believe in tomorrow. You’re the voice that scares the shadows away. You’re the love that makes me breathe. So for the next few seconds, I’m going to be selfish. I’m going to say things that I don’t want you to listen to.” My hands ran up and down her back as I pulled her closer, feeling her nerves rocking throughout her. I kissed the edge of her ear. “Don’t go. Stay with me forever. Please, Ashlyn. Let me be your everything. Make me your golden. Don’t. Go.”

I pulled away from her, and felt guilty for her tears. She gave me a smile and nodded. Her footsteps toward the car were slow, and she turned back to face me. “You’ll be here? When I find myself?”

“Promise, promise.”

I walked into the school building to see Ashlyn laughing at her locker with Jake and Hailey. Walking past it, I saw pictures of watermelons covering it from top to bottom. I laughed right along with her as I watched Jake and Hailey mocking her with the pictures they’d clearly put up.

Ashlyn’s green eyes locked with mine and I felt my heart pound harder. She smiled and frowned all within two seconds before I looked away.

“That was the most romantic look I’ve ever seen in my life,” Hailey muttered to Ashlyn. I kept walking.

“No lie,” Jake muttered, “I think I just got a hard-on from watching you two.”

I laughed at that one, but I didn’t turn back. Because I knew if I looked back, I wouldn’t be able to let this happen. I would hold her against me and whisper, “Please don’t go.”

“Dan.” Henry walked over to me, a grim look on his face. “Can I see you in my office really fast?”

He was hurting knowing that Ashlyn was heading back to Chicago. It was bleeding out of his eyes. I knew the feeling.

We walked into his office and he closed the door behind me. Before I could sit down in the desk, I felt a hard fist connect with my eye. “Holy shit, Henry! What the hell was that?!”

“You f**king bastard! You used my daughter!” He swung again, slamming me in my gut. I whined in pain as the wind was knocked out of me. I bent over, trying to fight off the pain. “She’s my daughter!”

Another punch to the gut.

“My ex-wife called me, making sure everything was in place. Making sure Ashlyn was doing okay. But she was so worried.” He swung again, but this time I blocked it. “She was so worried about Ashlyn having to leave her boyfriend. And I thought to myself, ‘What boyfriend?’ Ashlyn didn’t have a f**king boyfriend.”

“Henry, let me explain—”

He didn’t. “And then Kim recalls his name. She tells me his band’s name. Guess what it was?”

The office door opened with me on the ground and I saw Ashlyn’s face. Her mouth hung open and she stepped in quickly, closing the door behind her. Her eyes shot to her father and she stood in front of me as I stood up.

“Henry, look at me,” she said, putting her hands up in the air.

“Ashlyn, he used you!” Henry screamed, tossing his arms in the air.

I wiped off the bit of blood dripping from my mouth.

“No. No he didn’t.”

“You’re confused. You’d been through so much,” Henry sighed, running his hands through his hair.

“Dad, look at me,” she whispered, taking his hands into hers. “He saved me. If you have ever loved me, you will let me explain. You will listen to me, and you will not get Daniel into any trouble.”

He stood still, thinking of his daughter’s words. Then he turned toward me. “I never want to see you near her again.”

“Henry—” I started.

Ashlyn cut me off. “I’m leaving! I’m leaving, I swear. It’s over.”

Those words cut into me, and I wiped my hand across my brow, agreeing with Ashlyn. “It’s over.”

Chapter 42

No such thing as a second chance,

Only first chances that never end.

~ Romeo’s Quest

She was gone. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to feel.

Randy sat with me at the kitchen table and sipped on a beer. He hadn’t known what to say to make me feel better, and he didn’t try to make me feel better. “I’m sorry, man.” He lowered his head and shook it back and forth.

“Yeah. Me too.”

The back door to the house opened and Jace walked in. His eyes were bloodshot from tears as he slipped his hands into his jean pockets. There was a clear sign that he’d received a black eye from someone, and my gut twisted from looking at him. His lip was cut open, and he looked way too much like he had when I saw him the day Mom died.

“I asked Red to let me out.” His body shook with nerves and he laughed, shrugging his shoulders. “They were never going to tell me who killed Mom, were they?”