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Megan grunts. “Jake Matthews, that’s your problem. You see her in this black and white … two-dimensional way, and that’s not fair to her. You don’t need to embrace her vulnerability, you need to feed her spirit. And don’t run from her vanity, simply admire her beauty in all its perfect and flawed states. Love her as a whole, not just the parts you find worthy of love.”

“The hell, Meg … what happened to my bitter friend who threatened to cut off her cheating husband’s junk? When did you channel your inner Gandhi?”

She chuckles. “I had my sink-or-swim moment. Drown under the weight of my anger and hatred or let it go to save myself—to free myself. I let it go.”

I nod several times as her words hang in the air. “I saw my father—very unexpectedly—at a stop in New Mexico. Francine too. I’m not sure I would know how to coexist with him in a world where I don’t hate him.”

“Why?”

I shrug, massaging my temples. “It’s just always been my way of coping with my mom’s death.”

Megan rests her hand on my leg. I wait for more of her voice of reason, but she remains silent. Sometimes no words are the best words.

* * *

Avery

“He’s been with me through the most defining moments of my adult life,” Sydney speaks after fifteen minutes of nothing but tears and soft whimpers while stroking Swarley’s head.

I continue to give her space, hanging back a few feet so she and Swarley can have their bubble of privacy. Her whispered confession draws a new round of tears from my swollen eyes.

Words of comfort and reassurance congest in my throat. He’ll be fine. But will he? He’s had a long and wonderful life. So what? We’ll still miss him every day. I’m sorry I took Swarley with me. But then I wouldn’t have made this trip with Jake.

Why can’t the blade of regret be smooth, quick, and painless? Why must it be jagged and messy? Why must it rip and tear with such unforgiving pain?

“Hey,” Megan’s soft voice draws our attention away from Swarley. She observes the monitor and gives Sydney a tiny smile. “I’m staying all night. You can stay too or you can go back to my place with Avery and Jake. I’ll need to keep him here for a couple more days. I suggest you consider getting sleep while you can so you’re well-rested when it’s time to take him home.”

Sydney’s forehead wrinkles as she gazes at Swarley.

“I’ll call you if there’s any change.”

Swallowing hard, Sydney clears her throat. “What if something happens and I can’t get here in time?”

Megan rests her hand on Sydney’s hand, stilling it on Swarley’s head. “Do you have other children?”

Other children. Megan’s good. She doesn’t dismiss the obvious—Swarley is one of my sister’s children.

“Yes,” Avery whispers.

“Then you know that you can’t be everywhere. And every goodbye should mean everything.”

Sydney’s lower lip quivers as she nods once.

“Do you need another minute?” Megan asks.

Sydney nods again before lowering her head closer to Swarley’s ear. Megan slides past me to exit the room. I can’t bring myself to move out of her way, or say a word, or make my lungs take another breath. Until … I see Sydney’s lips move, whispering something to Swarley and it. Breaks. My. Heart.

“Excuse me.” I brush by Megan and her nurse standing just outside of the room then hurry to the waiting room.

“Ave—” Jake stands.

My body crashes into his. I squeeze him, burying my face into his neck. “Don’t let me go.” A sob breaks, rattling my ribs. “Don’t wh-whisper something in … m-my ear and let m-me go.”

Not like Sydney is doing to Swarley.

Not like my dad did to my mom.

Not like every man who has claimed to love me.

Love me, Jake. Not for now—love me forever.

He cradles the back of my head with his hand. My body slides into the hard, familiar curves of his torso. And when my heart knocks on my chest, reaching for his heart, I lose myself.

Dreams blur.

The familiar becomes the unknown.

Life feels suffocated by death.

“We can go.”

Jake releases me as I turn toward Sydney, wiping my eyes only for them to refill with tears when I see my own sadness multiplied in the tears on her cheeks.

“It’s out of our control. His fate is in God’s hands.”

I swallow the lump of reality lingering in my throat and step away from Jake to hug my sister. She’s so much stronger than I will ever be.

“That’s what Dad said about Mom,” I whisper.

Sydney nods.

“I’ll call if there’s any change.” Megan’s gaze sweeps around the waiting room.

It’s hard to walk away, so I wait for Sydney to take the lead. She does, and Jake rests his hand on the small of my back to usher me out the door behind my sister.

“Towels and bedding are in the hall closet.”

“Thanks, Meg,” Jake replies.

“I’m going to drive Sydney.” I turn to Jake as we reach his truck.

“Good idea.” He nods, taking my hand to give it a quick squeeze.

“I’m never getting a dog,” I whisper as Sydney distances herself, bringing her phone to her ear. Probably checking in at home.

Jake’s lips curl into a doleful smile.

“They’re terrible creatures. They …” I shake my head. “They’re impulsive and needy. They piss all over stuff. They lick their butts and beg for food. They whine and bark. And then they …” I pinch the bridge of my nose to push away the emotions burning my eyes. “They give you this look. Stupid, puppy dog eyes that they never grow out of. They rest their snout on your leg and just look at you. Always reminding you that when everything else in life fails, they will be there for you. They listen and never interrupt. They come when you call. They’re always loyal … to the very end.”

“He’s not dead.”

I return a tiny nod. “But he’s old. And …” I fight past this stupid ball of pain choking me. “He looks tired. My mom looked tired.”

Sydney says “I love you” to someone on the phone.

I clear my throat. “See you at Megan’s?”

Jake nods as he bends forward to kiss my cheek. It’s incredibly intimate, like a whispered promise that doesn’t require a single word. Like Swarley gave me when I needed it the most.

Inside, I smile. Is Jake my Swarley? Can he hurt me but still love me? Can he be loyal? That would be a first for me.

I take the key fob from Sydney and nod for her to get in on the passenger’s side.

“I’m so incredibly sorry,” I say as we follow Jake’s truck out of the parking lot.

“You have no reason to apologize for this.” Sydney exhales, staring out her window.

“But if he doesn’t make it—”

“Then he doesn’t make it.” She sniffles.

* * *

Jake opens Sydney’s door for her when we pull into Megan’s driveway. He shows her to the guest bedroom, gets her clean towels, and offers to make her something to eat.

I watch the man I’ve fallen in love with treat my sister like family, like he’s known her forever. Jake’s compassionate side blinds me, wraps itself around my heart, and infiltrates my soul.

“I’m not hungry, but thank you, Jake.” Sydney’s smile falters. “I’m going to try to get a little sleep in case Megan calls about Swarley before morning.”

“Night.” She gives me one more hug before disappearing into the guest bedroom.

We play with Megan’s dogs for a few minutes before taking turns using the shower. I tell him to go first because I need a longer shower, the kind that washes away these desperate emotions—the fear of what’s to come. By the time I emerge from the steamy bathroom, wearing Jakes shirt—

My heart has no room for you,

but the trunk of my car definitely does.

—he’s changed the sheets on Megan’s bed. Perched on the side with his tattooed back to me, his thumbs ghost across his phone screen.

“Megan?”

Jake looks over his shoulder as I crawl onto the bed behind him. “Nice shirt.” He smirks.

“You should see what’s underneath it.” I match his grin.

“Are you texting Megan?”

He shakes his head and sets his phone on the nightstand. “Deedy. But I think she was in the middle of doing something. She seemed a little short and frustrated in her replies. Said she needed fifteen, maybe twenty minutes to finish up.”

I hug his back and kiss his shoulder. “What do you think she was doing?”

“Your dad.”

“What? Ew …” I push away and fall onto my back, covering my head with a pillow. “No. Yuck! That’s so wrong. Why would you say that?”

Laughter rumbles from his chest as he tugs the pillow away from me. I cover my eyes with the heels of my hands as he covers my body with his, nestling his narrow hips between my legs.

A satisfied grin slides up his face when I uncover my eyes. “You have nothing on under my shirt.” Restrained by his boxer briefs, his erection nudges me like an arrow pointing due north.

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