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“I’ll make us something to eat, and we can take dinner to Megan since she’ll be there all night.” He hands me his vibrating phone. “Your sister.”

Any change?

I type back.

No. Sorry :(

“I get to watch you cook in a kitchen, not just over a campfire. Exciting.”

He glances over his shoulder at me as he inspects the contents of Megan’s refrigerator. “I aim to please.”

“Yes, I know.” My skin heats from memories of all the ways Jake has pleased me.

He pulls out produce bags of various veggies, beans and cashews from the pantry, and a slew of spices.

“Where do you stay in L.A.?” I say this instead of “I’ve never had a guy cook for me.” Jake is the epitome of everything that’s missing in my life. In other words … a life.

“I have an apartment above my restaurant, similar to my apartment above the location in Milwaukee.”

“I’ve been to Sage Leaf in L.A. I asked someone who worked there what was above the cafe, and they said ‘nothing.’”

“As they should.”

“How long do you stay there?”

He shrugs with his back to me as he chops onions like a ninja. “Maybe five or six weeks out of the year.”

“You ever think of making L.A. your permanent home and spending five or six weeks in Milwaukee instead?” I miss subtle by the full length of an ocean.

“Too many fires and not enough snow.”

This is when we talk about us. Right? I’m giving him every opportunity, but nope. Is this it? Are we just two bodies keeping each other warm on cool nights in a tent? I can’t do this. Jake has seen me naked in every possible way. I have to stop here. No begging for more.

Stand the fuck up for yourself.

He finishes dinner while I play with Jord and Odin and keep my panicking sister at ease with “no news is good news” messages. We eat—it’s amazing. Then I do dishes, earning me another disbelieving brow raise.

“Meg just messaged me.”

I turn, holding my breath while drying my hands. Jake stands from his spot on the sofa with the two mammoth dogs.

“She asked us to feed Jord and Odin before going back to the clinic. And Swarley is awake and still stable.”

I exhale as my whole posture melts in relief.

“I’m sorry. Really.” He slides his hands in his jeans’ front pockets, pushing his shoulders up toward his ears. It makes him look vulnerable. “Deedy expected me to get you and Swarley safely home. I just should have…” he shakes his head “…taken you straight home. I could have stayed for a week or two and made my trip back to Milwaukee the one where I stopped to camp. I was just …”

I fiddle with the towel, twisting and tugging it, but it does little to settle my nerves. “Pissed off that you had to bring us along.”

He nods once, regret creasing his brow.

“And now things have changed.”

Another nod.

“And you don’t know what to do with me because we’re going to run out of places to go, and eventually we will need to be somewhere.”

His lips twist as he lets his gaze fall to his feet with one last tiny nod.

“Well …” A nervous laugh stumbles from my mouth. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe you should have taken us to L.A. as quickly as possible. Maybe we should have kept things less … messy.”

I’m scared.

I’m scared to say I don’t regret any of it. I’m scared to ask him if he’s ready for it to be over. I’m scared because I have nothing to offer.

My nonexistent life awaits my return. Still … this hurts. I like Jake for Jake.

His smile when he’s being playful.

His brooding need to protect me.

His sexy voice when he says “Ave.”

Every tattoo.

Every touch.

Every word that strips me to my very soul, that makes me question who I am and where I’m going in my life.

He holds out his phone. “Sydney’s calling.”

I take it and swipe the screen. “I hate that you keep calling and texting when you’re driving alone.”

“It’s the life of a doctor’s wife. I feel like he’s always on call. And the time he took off from being sick doesn’t help. Luckily our neighbor was willing to come over and watch the kids. Ocean wanted to come so badly, but I …” She clears her throat, and I can feel the emotion she’s suppressing.

“You didn’t want her to see him if he’s not the Swarley she’s used to seeing.”

“Yeah,” she whispers.

Jake feeds the dogs then crawls around on the floor with them, giving them more love. I smile even though he’s not looking at me.

“Are you almost to the clinic?”

“Forty-five minutes out.”

“We’ll head that way too. Jake just heard from the vet, Megan. She said he’s awake and stable.”

“K.”

K … she’s so choked with emotion. I want to crawl through the phone and wrap my arms around her. I want to apologize to her with as much sincerity and regret as Jake just did to me.

“Drive safely.” I disconnect.

Jake glances up, sitting back on his heels. He’s so handsome in those faded jeans and old tee, tattoos all down his arms. I want to ease onto his lap and taste his mouth, die in his hunger for me, let the world around us fade into another life.

“We should go. Sydney will be there soon.”

His gaze slips from mine. It’s like we’re a sinking ship, but there’s no hole or crack to fix. We just carry too much baggage to stay afloat—or maybe it’s just that we have nowhere to go but down.

Jake finds a bag for Megan’s dinner, and we make our way to the truck in silence, drive to the clinic in silence, sink in silence.

I climb out and stare at the dim light coming from the front window of the clinic. Jake steps in front of me and sets the paper bag on the ground by our feet. My gaze sticks to the bag because I can’t look into his blue eyes. I can’t watch the night’s shadows dance across his handsome face. I just can’t …

His fingertips feather along the inside of my palms, touching me deeper than should be possible. “What if I can’t let go?”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Jake

“Jake …” Avery bites her quivering lower lip.

Instant regret hammers my chest. Why did I say that? Before I say more or attempt to erase the words I just said, an SUV pulls into the parking spot next to my truck.

“My sister…” Avery jogs away, hugging the brunette that gets out of the vehicle.

They embrace as if they haven’t seen each other in years. I feel like the idiot stranger waiting for an introduction. Hi, I’m Jake. I’m the reason you’re here instead of home with your family and healthy dog.

“I’m so sorry.” Avery chokes on her words. “I shouldn’t have left L.A. with him.”

Sydney pulls back, pressing her palms to Avery’s cheeks. “Stop. This isn’t your fault.”

Avery releases a tiny sob.

“Let’s go inside.”

Avery nods. “Oh … um … this is Jake.”

I hold out my hand.

Sydney takes my hand, offering a forced smile shackled with worry. “Nice to meet you.”

I nod toward the door. “You too. Let’s see how he’s doing.”

Avery loops her arm around Sydney’s arm. I’m not sure who’s supporting whom. I hold open the door, and Avery gives me a sad smile.

Megan shuffles into the waiting room with a cup of coffee in her hand. We make quick introductions, and I wait here while Sydney and Avery go back to see Swarley. A few minutes later, Megan reappears.

I hand her the bag of food. “Is he going to be fine? Don’t sugarcoat it with me. There’s no need. We’ve been through too much together.”

Megan eases into a chair. “I don’t know yet. It’s hard to say. The surgery went well, but he’s an older dog. Too many uncontrollable things could still happen.”

I sit next to her, blowing out a slow breath.

“Quite the sigh. Is it about Swarley or Avery?” She opens the container and gives me a wry smile.

“Hell if I know.” I run my hands though my hair and bend forward, resting my elbows on my knees.

“Sounds complicated.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be. It was a favor for Deedy. An inconvenience. Avery was a nightmare. High maintenance. Whiny …”

“You’re in love.” Megan taps the fork on her lower lip.

“You’re crazy.”

“I saw you with her earlier. The tender side of Jake Matthews. The way you looked at her. Really, the way you couldn’t stop looking at her. Steve used to look at me like that.”

“She’s …” I rest my forehead in my palms.

“Beautiful? Sexy? Blond? Just like you?” She nudges her arm into mine.

“She’s nothing like me. She’s nothing I thought I’d ever like. Avery’s …” I blow out another sigh, shaking my head. “She’s stereotypical and completely blindsiding at the same time. It’s messing with my head. She’s Francine one minute and my mom the next minute. I don’t know if I should embrace her vulnerability or run from her vanity.”

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