Page 27

But … I do it.

Good thing I didn’t die. Who the hell would take care of her?

A shaky breath rattles her body as I scoop her up and set her on the bed.

“I’m not going to wrangle shorts onto your limp body, so I found this dress in your bag.” I hold up the black sundress.

She stares blankly at it. I remove her nightie, her hands cover her breasts.

Really?

I know what her most intimate part looks and tastes like, yet now she’s showing some modesty? If only she could be a little more modest with her emotions. She cringes when the dress catches on her hair or nest or whatever we’re calling that situation on her head.

“Am I carrying you or can the broken princess walk?”

She stands, staring at her feet, wiggling her toes in her flip-flops. I didn’t take the time to find matching flip-flops. If that matters, then she’d better snap the hell out of this.

“This ends today.” I grab her hand and pull her out to the truck.

Forty-five minutes later, with a refueled truck, we pull into a strip mall. Avery hasn’t said a word. I should do flips over it, but her constant sniffling is worse than her bitching.

“Cheer up, buttercup.” I lift her out of the truck.

She stares at her feet, shoulders curled inward.

“You’re going to look like a million bucks—or according to the sign in the window, $14.99—by the time we leave.”

Her head eases up as I pull her by her hand into the building.

“No.” She tries to pull away.

“Yes.” I tighten my grip.

“What can I do ya for?” The perky purple-haired girl asks.

“Her hair is falling out. I need you to make it stop.”

“No!” Avery’s fight comes back.

I still don’t let go of her hand.

“I’m not doing this.” She looks around, using her whole weight to try to pull away from my hold. “What is this place?” Her head shakes continuously.

“Savvy Savings Salon.” Purple Hair smiles.

“No. Hell no! I can’t let you touch my hair.”

I grit my teeth behind my smile, getting in my fucking annoying little princess’s face. “Here’s the deal. You get a haircut right here, right now, and I take you all the way to California. You have another ridiculous meltdown and I leave you here. No ride. No money. No phone. What’s it going to be?”

Another sob escapes Avery. I’m so numb to it at this point.

Purple Hair sticks out her lower lip. “Oh, no … it’s okay. I’ll get you fixed up. I promise.”

I drag Avery toward the chair. She shuffles her feet like the death row walk, eases into the chair while hiccupping on another sob, jerking her hand away from me while Purple Hair puts a cape around her.

“Looks like someone hasn’t been taking care of her hair extensions.” Purple Hair sticks her lower lip out again, giving Avery puppy dog eyes.

“It-it’s h-his fault.” Avery shoots me a scowl. “We’ve b-been camping.”

“It’s okay. I’m going to fix you right up.”

“Great. You do that. I have a dog to feed and walk.” The bell at the top of the door jingles when I push my way out of the cloud of estrogen and sheer male hatred.

An hour later, the door jingles again. I look around for Avery. No Avery.

“She’s in the bathroom … with my nail polish remover.” Purple Hair grimaces. “She’s been in there awhile. I had to take quite a bit off. I told her short hair is in. I think she looks really cute.”

Avery’s locked herself in the bathroom again. Just great.

I drop $40 on the counter.

“I’ll get you change.”

I shake my head, walking to the ladies’ room. “Keep it. I’m sure you deserve it at this point.”

“Avery?” I knock on the door.

“All … most …” Her voice sounds strained. “… done.” The door swings open.

No more tears.

No more fire breathing.

Just Avery with layered, chin-length hair. No makeup. No polish on her fingernails or toenails.

Just. Avery.

She stares at my chest, but I’m not wearing a special shirt for her. What is she staring at?

“Much better.” I smile, but she doesn’t look up at me. “Let’s go.”

She follows me, still scuffing her mismatched flip-flop clad feet along the ground. I open her door for her.

She doesn’t look at me.

I get in.

Nothing.

I don’t sense she’s mad at me like she was when I left her to get her haircut. This Avery is just … sad.

Insecure?

I don’t know.

She angles her body away from me, one foot covering the other with her toes curled and both of her hands fisted and locked between her legs.

“Lunch. My treat. Any place you want to go.”

“I’m not hungry,” Avery murmurs barely above a whisper.

She grabs her purse and digs through it. After a few seconds, she closes her eyes and deflates.

Her phone.

I think she just remembered she doesn’t have one. Her hand slides along her hair, stopping at the end by her chin. She swallows hard, returning her attention to her window again and sliding her hands back between her legs like she’s hiding them.

I turn up the radio, searching for a station she might like, then I just drive.

* * *

Welcome to Texas

Drive Friendly – The Texas Way

We pull into a campground about fifteen miles out of Amarillo. Avery doesn’t sigh. She usually sighs when we pull into the campgrounds.

“Come, Swarley,” she says, sliding out of the truck.

I don’t recognize her voice. It’s timid and lacking any sort of confidence, sass, or that signature princess snoot. Again, I should be jumping for joy that she’s not being her annoying self, that she’s not trying to poison me again.

But … I’m not.

After erecting the tent and starting a fire, I make us both dinner, a can of veggie chili.

“I’m sharing my dinner tonight.”

Still … she doesn’t look at me. Her attention remains on the fire. Her posture in the camping chair mimics how she sat in the truck—her whole body folded in on itself. I set the bowl of chili beside her and sit across the fire from her, eating my dinner and trying to figure her out. But more than that … I’m trying to figure out why I feel the need to understand her.

I know why she drives me insane.

I know why I want to see her knocked down a few pegs.

I know why my dick betrays me around her.

But … hell if I know why I feel this need to fix her.

When the fire dies to small glowing embers, I whistle for Swarley to get in the tent. Avery doesn’t move. I set the bucket of water next to her chair instead of extinguishing the rest of the fire. She doesn’t resist me when I lift her from the chair and sit my butt down with her cradled on my lap, her cheek resting on my chest.

I press a hand to the side of her head and kiss her soft hair. “My favorite songs are acoustic. Just a piano or a guitar and a voice. Sometimes I don’t even realize how much I like a song until it’s stripped down. The words mean more. The emotions are magnified. It’s like the stars … During the day we don’t see them, but at night when the world around us feels stripped and bare, they shine so brightly.”

I rest my cheek on the top of her head. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything as beautiful as you are in this very moment.”

And oh so slowly … she looks up at me.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Avery

I let my hand touch his face, let my fingertips ghost along his jaw. Jake doesn’t move. When a man says something like that, it’s hard to not want to give him everything. Tears fill my eyes, because I want to give him something I’ve never really given to a man.

The truth.

“My mom died when I was eight. I look just like she did.” A bittersweet smile pulls at my lips as my hand slides down to rest on Jake’s chest. I lay my head next to my hand and stare at the orange and red embers. “She was too pretty to be a preacher’s wife. Beautiful curves hidden behind conservative clothes. My dad used to tell me physical beauty should be a gift given to your husband on your wedding night. A man should fall in love with your heart.

“But sometimes when my dad traveled on mission trips and Sydney would spend the night at a friend’s house, my mom dug black satin and silk slips from her dresser drawer and we’d wear them like sexy dresses. She curled our hair and pinned it up with little ringlets hanging down. She applied her makeup, extra heavy, and put some blue eyeshadow, pink blush, and red lipstick on me. Then we slipped on high heels from her closet, which weren’t very high, and we tied scarves around our necks and danced in her bedroom to Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff,’ using hairbrushes as microphones.”

Jake’s chest vibrates with a soft chuckle.

“I had no idea what the lyrics meant. And I didn’t feel sexy, because I didn’t know what that meant either. All I knew was my mom looked really pretty, and she was deliriously happy. I don’t know … we probably did this a dozen or so times before she died. But they are some of my most cherished memories. When you feel pretty, you smile bigger, and it’s fun to feel pretty.”

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