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A minute later, I’m out the door, shrugging off one shirt and pulling on my new one. Avery slaps the visor mirror shut when I open the door. Of course she was messing with her hair.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She eyes my new shirt.

“If I have to explain it, then it’s clear why you’ve had relationship issues.”

Karma is Like 69

You Get What You Give

“I’m not a fan of Karma at the moment.”

I start the truck. “And 69?” Rolling my lips together, I hide my grin.

“It’s …” She shrugs, drumming her fingers on her legs, lips twisted. “Efficient.”

Chuckling, I pull out of the parking lot. Most of the time I want to wrap my hands around her neck and shake, but there have been moments, like now, that I find myself intrigued, mildly entertained by her remarks.

“And if you ask me if I’m efficient, I will jump out of the truck. I don’t like talking about that stuff.”

“Are you efficient?”

She giggles, shaking her head while giving her focus to the window. It’s a surprisingly pleasant sound. “Sorry. I’m still mad at you. We’re not having this conversation.”

“No conversation works for me.” I turn up the radio.

She grabs a container that Addy sent with her. I give her a quick sidelong glance.

“I’m not sharing. You didn’t share your berries with me yesterday.”

I grin, returning my focus to the road.

“God …” She hums. “This is the best chocolate zucchini bread I’ve ever had.”

“It is.”

Avery licks her fingers. “No Pilates. No calorie counting. I’m going to pay for this.”

“How so?”

“Hello? Hips, ass, abs. All the places excess food likes to settle on my body.”

At the stoplight, I give her the once-over. “Nothing seems to be settling on your hips, ass, and abs.”

“Yet,” she mumbles over a mouthful of bread.

“Happy, healthy, helpful.”

Wrapping up the rest of the bread, she shoots me a questioning glance. “I’m not following.”

“Instead of hips, ass, and abs, you should focus on happy, healthy, and helpful. Are you happy? Do you have your health? At the end of every day, can you say that you helped someone?”

“Helped someone?”

I nod. “It doesn’t have to be grand, like donating a kidney. Something as simple as opening the door for a stranger. Did you make someone feel good? Did you put the needs of another above your own? Did you make a difference in the world?”

After a few seconds, she releases a long exhale, turning her attention back to her window. “Are you happy, healthy, and helpful?”

“Well …” I shoot her a quick look. “There’s a stranger in my passenger seat and her dog in my backseat. I’d say I’m quite helpful. I exercise every day and eat real food. Yes, I’d say I’m healthy.”

I pull into an angled parking spot in the downtown.

“And happy? Are you happy?”

Turning off the ignition, I shrug. “I’m content.”

“Cont—”

Shutting the door before she can respond, I glance up at the partly cloudy sky.

Happy? Two out of three ain’t bad.

My phone vibrates.

Deedy: Hey! Just wanted to thank you again for taking Avery and Swarley back to L.A. : ) You are a kind human, Jake Matthews. Please never forget that.

“Deedy …” I mumble, walking around to the other side of my truck. “I’m enduring this for you—only you.” Opening Avery’s door, I hide my gritted teeth behind my tightlipped smile. “S’up, Princess?”

She rubs her lips together, focusing on her reflection in the visor mirror while capping her lip gloss. “Freshening up.”

“For what?”

“For getting out. By the way, where are we going?” She uncaps a tube of mascara.

No. No, no, no …

I grab it from her hands, shove it back in her makeup bag, and toss the makeup bag into her fancy purse. “We’re grabbing lunch before setting up camp. Nobody here cares about the color of your lips or the length of your lashes. Get out.”

Flipping the visor up, she turns toward me, still rubbing her lips together. Her gaze scans up and down my body, pausing an extra few seconds on my arms. “Funny … you seem to feel the need to mark your skin—to express yourself outwardly to the world. Yet I’m a princess for wanting to fix my makeup?”

I grin—a real one. Why? Hell if I know. Lifting my arm between us, I twist it to show her some of my self-expression.

“Why do you wear so much makeup?” I glance up at her as she inspects my arm.

“My lips are pale,” Avery murmurs, tracing her finger over the script on my arm for a brief second before her hand balls into a fist as if I burned it. Vulnerable, blue eyes flit up to meet my gaze.

If she weren’t such a pill, I would say beneath her ten thousand layers of vanity, Avery just might be pretty fucking beautiful.

If …

“My lashes are too thin. My skin tone is uneven.”

“I get tattoos to remember where I’ve been, people I’ve loved, and what’s important in life.”

Her focus slips, eyes averting to the distance beyond my shoulder.

“I’m not hiding anything behind the ink on my skin. It doesn’t cover any perceived imperfections.”

Keeping her gaze over my shoulder, she twists her lips and grunts a laugh. “Well…” she shoves me out of the way and hops out of the truck “…lucky you. Come on, Swarley.”

He jumps out, running straight to the light post to paint it with yellow graffiti.

“I’m not eating.” She nearly stumbles over the curb, trying to reel Swarley back in on his leash with her good hand. “You’re killing me, dog. What did I ever do to you?”

Swarley glances back at her, cocking his head. I think his expression says, “Are you talking to me, Princess?”

“Then I’ll get my food to go so we can get to the campsite quicker.”

The fake smile on her fake face pleases me. Why do I find such pleasure in bringing out the jilted-woman side of her?

“Perfect.” Her lack of sincerity doubles. “There’s nothing I love more than watching you re-live your failed childhood. How old were you when they kicked you out of Boy Scouts for being the only kid roasting a piece of tofu on the campfire?”

And … that’s why I felt content letting her bathe in the creek this morning.

“Careful, Princess, snarky comments lower your metabolism. If you don’t watch what you say, you won’t be able to fasten your fancy Penelope shorts tomorrow.”

“Paige shorts, you stupid grass grazer. And if you don’t stop calling me princess, I’m going to bludgeon you in your sleep.”

It’s really hard to take all one hundred and twenty (at most) pounds of Avery Montgomery seriously when I know she would never lift a finger to hurt me because she might break a nail. But damn! I sure do find her feistiness oddly addictive. So of course, I can’t resist …

“Paige, Penelope, Princess. I can’t keep them straight. Sorry.” I wink, rolling my lips between my teeth.

“Sleep with one eye open.” Her eyes narrow as she stabs me in the chest with her finger.

I chuckle. “Hang tight while I grab my lunch.” Sidestepping her, I laugh some more. “Don’t lose anything or step in anything … and for the love of God … don’t stick your head into anything.”

* * *

Avery bestows another round of the silent treatment upon me while we drive to the campground. It’s not my usual stop, but after adjusting my travel dates to accommodate the princess and her steed, I had to scrounge for a new place to camp.

“I’m going for a hike.” I hop onto my tailgate and change my shoes.

Avery remains silent, still sitting in the passenger’s seat of the truck, flipping pages of her fashion magazine while Swarley overdoses on all the smells around our tent—the tent I put up by myself.

“I’d invite you, but the trails are not paved in gold or lined with red carpet.”

The door to my truck clicks open.

I grin.

“For your information …”

Give me all the information, Ave.

I inwardly smirk, shutting the tailgate.

She slams the door and arches her back, moving it from side to side. “I’m in excellent physical condition—except for my hand.” She frowns, holding it to her chest. “I do Pilates, yoga, cardio, strength training—”

“Great.” I nod toward the direction of the trailhead. “Grab your dog. Let’s get in a few miles before we settle down for the pre-bludgeoning campfire.”

My new favorite game is called Make Avery Smile because I find her tolerable—just—when she fights back a grin or laughter. Life is too short to take yourself so seriously.

“Come on, Swarley.” She whistles.

“Shoes?” I stare at her rhinestone flip-flops.

“How long is the hike?” She tips her chin up.

“More than ten yards. Change your shoes. I’m not carrying you.”

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