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“Jesus …” he says on a tight, labored breath when he sinks into me. “It’s hard to breathe when I’m inside of you.” He kisses along my neck. “Another anomaly I’ll spend countless hours trying to figure out.”

I curl my fingers into his hair and smile as my hips lift to feel him as deep as possible.

Yeah … right there. Take everything, Jake …

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Jake

“Never thought I’d be so happy to see a laundromat.” Avery twists her lips and sighs, staring at the building as I grab our bags of dirty clothes out of the back of the truck.

“Never thought I’d have to carry so many clothes into a laundromat.”

In spite of the grin that steals her mouth, she manages to feign irritation with an eye roll. “You’re my hero.” She holds open the door.

“Actions speak louder than words, Ave.” I give her a look.

“I’ll polish your saber later. Deal?”

I chuckle. “I think that’s what you did in exchange for me letting you shower first.” I drop the bags on the floor by the last row of washing machines.

“No, pumpkin, that wasn’t for letting me shower first. That was for the forty dollars I borrowed from your wallet while you were in the shower.”

“Forty-dollar blow job? That’s a little steep considering I’m driving your fine ass to California. Can I ask what you’re doing with my forty dollars?”

Avery starts sorting clothes into several washing machines. She has domestic skills. Why does that surprise me? I keep my shock to myself.

“I’m going to pay you back. The blow job was just the interest.”

An older lady an aisle over gives us wide eyes.

“Still doesn’t answer my question.” I slip money into the slots.

“It’s a surprise.” She makes a separate pile with just her bras and panties.

I resist the urge to slide it onto the floor and roll around in it. Instead, I play to our audience of one. Bringing a pair of Avery’s satin and lace panties to my nose, I take a long, slow inhale.

There they go … the old lady’s eyes roll onto the floor as she gasps, clutching her invisible pearls.

“Jake!” Avery rips the pink panties from my grasp and shoots the lady a tight, apologetic smile.

I chuckle and lift my hand, giving the unsuspecting woman a no-hard-feelings wave. She hides behind her book to cover her face.

“You’re an animal.” Avery puts her undergarments into another washer on delicate cycle.

I add money to the machine. “The forty dollars. What’s the surprise?”

“Not telling. Let’s go.” She nods toward the door. “There’s a deli across the street. Let’s grab lunch.”

“Are you paying with my forty dollars?”

Avery turns, walking backward while giving me a flirty grin. The wind catches her hair and blows the now-shorter strands across her face—her makeup-less face. Her wrinkled dress hugs her curves. I know every pair of panties she brought with her is in that washing machine, along with her bras. She’s naked under that dress.

I stop just before stepping off the sidewalk, feeling like the wind has been knocked out of me.

Her smile fades. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re beautiful.”

Avery gives me a nervous smile then shakes her head, averting her gaze. “Whatever … not all blow jobs will involve a forty-dollar loan.”

I don’t react to her insecurity, no matter how much I hate it. Instead, I wait for her to really look at me. I wait for her to see the absolute truth in my words.

“Don’t.” Her head inches side to side.

“Why?”

Her wavering self-esteem fills her eyes with unshed tears. It’s tragic.

“Because I don’t see it. Not now. Not when I’m such a mess.” Her hands wring together as her shoulders fold inward like a wilting flower in need of water and a day of sunshine.

“It’s not your hair or your dress. It’s the way you rub your lips together to hide your smile—and the way your teeth break through because you have to smile. It’s the little lines that form at the corners of your eyes when you do smile. It’s not that your eyes are blue like the sky, it’s that when you look at me like you are right now … it’s a truly beautiful day. And it’s pretty fucking incredible to be the recipient of that look, that glimmer in your eyes.”

Her lower lip quivers just before she turns her back to me. I give her a minute because I’m not done stripping her down. But … that’s good for today.

“I don’t care what you say,” she says after clearing her throat. “I’m getting a sandwich with tons of meat and cheese, no veggies, extra mayo, and a bag of cheesy ranch and bacon flavored chips.”

Stepping off the curb, I wrap an arm around her shoulders, pulling her back to my chest and kissing the top of her head while she takes another moment to wipe the emotion from her eyes. “Okay, Ave.” I chuckle.

“Okay.” She draws in a shaky breath, pushing some confidence into her spine. “I’m glad we got that straight.”

“Me too.” I take her hand and guide her toward the restaurant.

We grab lunch and perch on the truck’s tailgate to eat it in the scorching sun. Terrible idea. Swarley stretches his legs before begging to get back in the shade of the backseat.

“My dad cheated on my mom.” I stare at the busy road beyond the parking lot, legs swinging from the tailgate while eating my hummus wrap. “He asked for forgiveness. She gave it to him. He did it again—told her it was because she’d let herself go. She got pregnant when I was eight and lost the baby before it was born. I just remember her being sad all the time. She fed her grief with food. He fed his with other women. The things he said to her … the way he made her feel … I hated him. Now there’s not a word strong enough to describe how much I despise him.”

Avery stills her swaying legs and drops the last third of her sandwich into the paper bag. “I should have just gotten into the truck,” she whispers.

“No.” I blow a quick breath out of my nose. “That’s not why I’m telling you this. I was angry. I think I’ll always be angry. But can you fucking believe it? I grew up outside of Los Angeles. My dad left four years before my mom died. Just … left. As a ten-year-old, I didn’t really know what that meant. She said he was angry, and when he cooled off he’d be home. He came home four years later. With fucking Francine.” I laugh. It still hurts. God … I think it will always hurt.

“He brought his whore to my mother’s funeral. It was the day I found out that I could land a punch … that I could break someone’s face. That I wanted to break someone like that. And after all these years, having no idea where he lives, we run into him at a fucking swimming hole in New Mexico. What are the chances?”

Avery rests her hand on my leg. “Did you have to live with your dad after your mom died?”

“No.” I grunt a breath of sarcasm. “I lived with my uncle—my dad’s brother. He was more like a cousin to me because we were only eight years apart in age. He’d just gotten an apartment in L.A. after being abroad for two years.

“After the incident at the funeral, everyone knew there was no way I was going to live with my dad and Francine. She was twenty. Six years older than me. Skinny … big boobs … and she had it all on display at the funeral. My mother killed herself because she’d gained over one hundred pounds, was morbidly obese, and diagnosed with diabetes. My father never missed a chance to make her feel ugly and worthless. Kids at school made fun of my mom before she died. I hated them. I hated my dad. I hated every person who reminded me of the women he slept with while my mom ordered takeout and cried herself to sleep.”

Avery starts to slide her hand off my lap, but I grab it.

“Don’t.” My gaze remains fixed on the busy road. “You’re not her. You’re not them. You’re not my revenge.”

“I think you’re saying that because I’m here, out of my element. But you didn’t feel that way the day I walked into your cafe. Had we not been forced to be together for this long, you wouldn’t have asked me out on a date. You wouldn’t have given me a second look because, upon that first look, all you saw was another Francine.”

“And all you saw was another guy who would break your heart—monkey-spanking dick cheese. Had I asked for your phone number, you would have taken one look at me, made a shitload of assumptions, and walked out without a single glance back.”

She pulls harder, freeing her hand from mine, and hops off the tailgate. “We don’t make sense together.”

I slide off the tailgate and close it. “Probably not.”

Avery turns toward me. “Eventually, we have to go home. And there will be questions to answer.”

“What questions?”

“Questions like, what are we doing?”

“We’ll answer them later.”

She shakes her head. “You’re delaying the inevitable.”

I take the sack from her and walk toward the door to the laundromat. “I’m not.”

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