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“You’re going to have to explain the falling apart and chocolate craving later, but I’m truly sorry you were in need of someone and I wasn’t here for you.”

I know it’s not her intention, but she makes me sound so needy. Gah! Am I really that needy? Did she always feel like I needed her to fix shit in my life? I roll my eyes while drying my tears, clearly the middle-of-the-night phone call proves that theory correct.

“Ah, good …”

My gaze flies over my shoulder. He’s awake. Fabulous.

“You’re up,” Jake continues, stretching his arms over his head in one direction then the other, “and dressed for a quick hike. What a nice surprise. Let’s do it so we can pack up and hit the road.”

After I look for as many physical flaws in his body as I can find—too many tattoos is all I can find in this lighting—I point to my phone planted against my ear. “I’m on a call. Where’s Swarley?”

“He marked the area and went back into the tent.” Jake nods to my phone. “East Coast, I hope. If you’re calling California, I bet whoever is on the other end of that call really hates you right now.”

“Oh my gosh, he’s adorable.” Sydney laughs. “I don’t hate you, Ave, but I don’t hate him either. Sorry. And good to know someone’s keeping track of my dog.”

“Yeah, I agree, Sis, even his voice is obnoxiously annoying.”

“Avery, stop! I didn’t say—”

“Love you too, gotta go.”

“The money, Avery. How much?”

“No worries for now. I’ll let you know.” I press End. “Were you awake when I was getting dressed?”

“Of course.” He covers his yawn with his fist.

“You just like to play dead?”

“It’s better than being dead.”

“In your case, I disagree.”

“Ouch.” He presses a hand to his chest.

“Let’s go.” I start marching off.

“This way, Ave.”

Huffing while coming to a stop, I pivot. He smirks.

“Fuck the hike. Let’s take a jog. I have a lot of energy and anger to burn off.”

“Now we’re talking.” He grins.

I roll my eyes at his cocky enthusiasm and start jogging in the right direction. Maybe I’m a princess in his eyes. Maybe not all of my shoes are camping-worthy. And maybe I try to give people more credit than slurping chocolate mousse from their employee’s pussy or jerking off into someone else’s T-shirt, but I’m not out of shape. It takes hard work to maintain my figure.

Jake, no doubt, can punch harder and lift more deadweight than I can, but he’s not going to outrun me. Not today. Not ever.

“Jesus Christ, woman! There’s not a bear chasing us,” he calls from a fair distance behind me after thirty minutes of fast-paced jogging on the somewhat level dirt trail.

Seeing the truck and tent up ahead, I slow to a walk, feeling so much better. Not a single step I just pounded changed my unfortunate situation, but my mental health feels completely recharged like I will survive another day.

“I bet you’re too protein deficient to keep up with me. Maybe we should stop for hamburgers today. Your treat.” I glance back and he shakes his head, chin tipped toward his feet as they scuff along the dirt. I bet those muscle-bound legs of his feel like two stumps of dead weight.

Off to my right are a few mushrooms that I recognize from my days of foraging mushrooms with my dad. I don’t know the name of this species, but I do remember what happened to us when we mistook it for a morel. Giving Jake another quick glance, assuring his head is still bowed, I snatch one of the mushrooms.

“You making a smoothie today?” I ask.

He has a travel blender. I keep turning down his nasty-looking green concoctions, but it might be time for me to show a little interest.

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you show me what you put in it? I’ll make it for you while you get a shower. I want to stretch a bit before showering.”

Turning at the tent, I flash him my best smile while holding the mushroom behind my back. He narrows his eyes a tiny bit, giving me the once-over.

“You’re hungry. You want me to share my smoothie today. Am I correct?”

Yes. I’m starving, but I’ll again forego food to have an opportunity to take the lead. My conscience scolds me for being so immature in my thoughts. I blame it on too much time in the woods. Jake might think this is refreshing and a place to clear his head, but I’m dying for an eight-dollar cup of caffeine, shopping therapy, and a full day at a salon getting myself pieced back together.

“I am.” I spread my legs for him last night. It’s killing me to submit to him again, even if it’s just a guise.

“A handful of spinach, a banana, two dates—pitted—coconut water, and a scoop of Cordyceps powder.”

“Cordyceps?”

He shrugs off his tank top. I remind my eyes to keep my gaze above his neck.

“Mushrooms.”

“Reeeally …” I fail at keeping cool. Jake likes mushrooms in his smoothie. Well, isn’t that just fate?

“Yes, really. You should try them.” He slips into the tent. “Do you know where everything’s at?”

“Yes, Jake. I’ve watched you flaunt your morning routine. It’s predictable.”

When he comes back out, I flash him a smile.

“You’re in a good mood today. You forgive me for your shirt?”

Not ever, you monkey-spanking asshole.

“Mmm …” I nod, biting my tongue.

“I’ll be back in ten.”

I continue nodding as he disappears around the trees toward the shower facilities.

In the back of the truck, I riffle through the cooler and plastic containers to get his smoothie shit out. He has three bananas left. I scarf down two. If a guy goes down on a girl, all food becomes communal. Cringing, I try to forget about what his tongue did to me because that same tongue probably did that same thing to Deedy.

Retch …

I contemplate how much of my special mushroom to add to his smoothie, not wanting it to impart a noticeable taste. Half-sies feels about right. It’s not like I want him dead—okay, maybe I do, but …

Dear Heavenly Father,

Please don’t let this kill Jake. Seriously, I mean it. My gut says it won’t, but I need your magical powers as a backup in case things go wrong. I would never survive prison, but I’m sure you know this. Oh, and of course the guilt and remorse. I’m not suggesting prison is my number one concern, clearly human life trumps that—even Jake’s. Once things between us feel a bit more even, I promise to act my age, and try to do what Jesus would do a little more often. Please forgive my moments of sin. I’m only human.

“The water is extra cold today.”

My heart springs into my throat as I turn toward Jake’s voice.

Be cool, Avery!

“Big surprise.” I hand him his smoothie, once again reminding my gaze to ignore his bared chest, dripping hair, and those perfect flip-flop clad feed.

“Where’s yours?”

“My what?” My eyes narrow.

“Your smoothie?”

“Already drank it.”

“What did you think?”

“It was good. Hope you don’t mind, but I used two bananas in mine.”

He takes a sip of his smoothie. “Mmm … you did good.”

I hold my breath, waiting for him to keel over.

“Go shower. Let’s hit the road as soon as possible.”

“Good idea.” I hustle to get my stuff and run to the shower. Of course I want to get on the road, but mostly I need to be close by if he dies. There will be a body to bury—I mean … 9-1-1 to call.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Oklahoma. Just as I suspected.

We make it two hours down the road. I start to think I should have used the whole mushroom. The good news—if I can really look at it like that—is Jake’s still alive.

“Fucker!”

Jake’s body tenses with my outburst. Swarley whines, making his own adjustments in the backseat to hide behind Jake instead of me.

“I hate you! I. HATE. YOU!” I roll down my window and throw my phone out into the ditch.

“Av-er-y …” Jake rolls up my window.

Clenching my teeth, I will away the tears. Anthony Fucking Asshole, chocolate-mousse liar, cheater, hateful man doesn’t deserve my tears.

“Ave?” Jake rests his hand on my leg—this brings out the tears.

I don’t want his kindness and sympathy.

“He had my cell phone disconnected,” I whisper, swatting at my tears.

Jake squeezes my leg.

“Anthony wanted to marry me and he wanted to fuck his cook. Oh … and he wanted me to be okay with it. I said no. Now he’s …” I shake my head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Do you want me to kick his ass?”

My head snaps to the side, meeting his quick glance filled with concern and sincerity. “You’d beat a man up to defend my honor?”

“I’d do it as a favor.”

“For me? Or …” I wrinkle my nose as that stupid reel of Deedy in the throes of passion flashes in my head again. “How do you know Deedy?”

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