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I choke on my laugh. “No … don’t … that’s just … wrong.”

“Tell me!”

I lean forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “Come here.”

Avery eyes me with caution for a few seconds before taking two steps forward. She jumps when I touch the pad of my finger to the inside of her knee. What can I say? I like torturing myself.

Sliding it up her leg, I whisper, “Are your panties still wet?”

Her lips part, releasing a ragged breath.

I don’t wait for an answer before dipping my finger under the crotch of her shorts. Her breath catches as I rub my finger over her damp panties. “I’d say yes,” I whisper.

Her teeth lay claim to her bottom lip.

“Why are they wet?”

Her forehead wrinkles a fraction.

“Did you clean my windshield with them?”

The wrinkles deepen for two seconds before realization ghosts along her face. “Oh my god!” She jumps back, dropping her T-shirt like it stung her. “You jerked off on my shirt? Who does that? What is wrong with you? Eww …” She jumps in a circle shaking out her hands. “Gross!”

Swarley barks from inside the tent.

Leaning back to enjoy the show, I untwist the cap from my water and take a long swig. As her energy wears off, she levels me with a death glare. An hour ago, I had condoms on my list of things to pick up in town tomorrow. I don’t think I’ll need them after all.

“Come here.” I draw out the word come because she brings out the evil side of me.

“Fuck you.”

I shake my bottled water.

Avery scowls. After the steam stops flowing from her nostrils, she holds out her hands. I pour some water onto them while she performs a surgical scrub.

“Some women swallow it.”

“Water?”

I glance up at her, lifting an eyebrow. Okay, she’s not as smart as I thought.

“Oh.” She rolls her eyes, drying her hands on her sweatshirt. “Why are you so mean to me?”

“Mean? You think I’m mean?”

“I don’t think chasing me in a grocery store parking lot, calling me a bitch, ruining my shirt, saying I’m bad at sex, and then teasing me about it is exactly what I’d call nice.”

My lips twist to the side while I inspect this insecure mess of a woman before me. “Maybe I’m just flirting with you.”

“That’s not flirting.”

“No? Then what do you call flirting?”

She shoves her hands into the hoodie’s pockets and shrugs. “Compliments. Flowers. Chocolates. Jewelry.”

“Sounds like ass kissing to get into your pants.”

Avery tips up her chin. “You could learn a few things from men who do that.”

I laugh. “Avery, Avery, Avery … I ruined your shirt, called you a bitch, and suggested you’re shit at sex. Yet, in the next breath I had two fingers shoved in your … vagina.” I wink.

Heat crawls up her neck. I’m not a jerk. Really, I’m not. But Avery is one messed-up chick, and I feel like putting her in her place isn’t a bad thing. She might not thank me now. In fact, I predict her hand making another shot for my face. But some day … she might thank me when she finds a guy who doesn’t treat her like a doormat, because she demands respect that can’t be bought with elaborate gifts and her self-esteem reaches deeper than fake eyelashes and designer clothes.

“Don’t touch me again. EVER!” She disappears into the tent.

“Good job, Ave. Stand the fuck up for yourself.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Avery

My life is a game of limbo—how low can I go? By four in the morning, I slip into jogging shorts, a tank top, and my most sensible shoes. If Jake’s awake, listening to me get dressed, he doesn’t let on. I slip out of the tent and climb to higher ground in search of a decent cell phone signal.

Satisfied with two bars, I call my sister.

“It’s the middle of the night, Ave. What’s the emergency? And why have you been ignoring my messages?” Sydney’s groggy voice bleeds into my ear.

“My fucking phone won’t work half the time. No damn signal.”

“Whoa, sailor, what’s with the language?”

“Don’t start with me. I’m stuck in the Ozarks, and I fear I could be in Oklahoma or Texas by tonight. I can’t do this. I thought I could, but I can’t. It’s unbearable.”

“Is Swarley okay?”

I jerk my head back and hold the phone out as if I can’t believe I’m talking to my sister—my flesh and blood. “Swarley? I’m calling you in the middle of the night confessing that I’m living under the most unbearable conditions, and you react with ‘Is Swarley okay?’ What the hell, Syd?”

“Sorry. It’s just that you can be …”

“What?”

“Well, a bit dramatic.”

“I’m not being dramatic. I have less than five dollars to my name; Anthony had all my accounts frozen. I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally a mess. And I’m roughing it with Satan and your dog that hates me.”

“He doesn’t hate you.”

I bite my lips together. She doesn’t know about my hand. I didn’t want to ruin her trip with my grievances, but … desperate times. “Before I left L.A., he chased a cat while I was walking him, and he ruined my hand. Major ligament damage. I may never work again.”

Too much? Maybe.

“Oh, Ave—”

“No. I don’t want you to feel bad or responsible. It was an unfortunate situation, but it’s put me and your beloved dog on the outs of sorts. I’m just … well, I’ve hit rock bottom. I thought I could make it to L.A. with Swarley and Satan, but I can’t.”

“Ave … Lautner has a bad stomach bug. I think he caught something toward the end of our trip. Otherwise, I’d see if he could meet you somewhere, bring Swarley home, and let you fly back to L.A. But I can’t leave the kids with him, and I don’t want to pack them up for another long trip. If it’s a true emergency, you should check with Dad and Deedy.”

“Deedy?” I say slowly. “You know about the Deedy?”

Sydney chuckles. “All of us video chatted a few days ago. She’s pretty great. I’m so happy for Dad. They’re going to make a trip to California after they get married. We should plan a surprise party or reception type thing for them when they come to visit.”

I glance around for the nearest tree to lean against so I don’t fall down, even if everything else in my world is crumbling. “My life is shit,” I say with a shaky voice as tears sting my eyes.

“Is it that Jake guy? Deedy told us he’s incredibly kind and trustworthy. She and Dad feel confident that you couldn’t be in better hands.”

“He’s a terrible person. I don’t know what Deedy sees in him. Unless …” I cover my mouth, swallowing a bit of bile.

“Unless what?”

“Oh … my … god …”

“Jeez what? I’d like to get back to sleep, Ave.”

“What if Deedy and Jake were …” I retch again. “Intimate.”

“You think Deedy was involved with the guy she suggested drive you back here?”

This horrible vision fills my head, replaying like a nightmare on a loop—Deedy naked with her head thrown back in ecstasy with Jake’s head between her spread legs doing to her what he did to me, then in the next frame it’s … my dad!

I gag some more, spitting excess salvia onto the ground while coughing.

“Avery, what the heck is going on?” Sydney asks in a whisper-yell. She must still be in bed.

Jake tasted the Deedy, and my dad probably has too. It’s like there’s this unimaginable two degrees of separation between my dad’s mouth and my … Here they come, up my throat … my Pasta O’s from last night.

Dammit! I don’t have calories to waste with so little money left in my wallet.

“Avery, answer me. You’re scaring me.”

“If it’s true … oh god … if it’s true …” I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.

“So what? I’m not trying to be insensitive, but you have very little room to talk about anyone else’s number of sex partners.”

“It’s not the number! It’s that he was with her and with me and dad’s been with her and now—”

“Wait … please tell me you didn’t sleep with Jake.”

“Of course I didn’t sleep with Jake.” I amaze myself with my quick response.

“Thank goodness.”

“I let him go down on me, just once, and it will never happen again. He’s the bane of my existence.”

“Avery …” Total defeat seeps through my phone. She’s disappointed in me. A real shocker. I’m disappointed in me. “I’ll send you some money. Just tell me how much. But I can’t come get Swarley. If you’re too stubborn to ask Dad and Deedy, then I don’t know what to tell you. You shouldn’t have left L.A. with Swarley until we got home.”

“I had to leave. My life was falling apart. Anthony developed a craving for chocolate—one I couldn’t satisfy—and I …” I wipe the streams of tears from my cheeks. “I needed someone and you were gone, so I went to Dad.”

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