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Jake’s brow tenses for a moment before the lines vanish and his lips ghost over mine. “Yes.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

Jake

Avery kisses me, curling her fingers in my hair, sliding her tongue against mine. Her long legs wrap around my waist for several minutes while we move together. Then she pushes me onto my back without breaking our connection. Her body moves along mine with uninhibited desire. Taking what she wants with a confidence that’s so beyond sexy, I think I could die. She pleases herself.

Craving me.

Tasting me.

Taking what she wants—what she needs.

Pleasuring herself with my body.

And pleasuring me with her fucking incredible confidence.

This … this is the naked, breathtaking, ineffable woman I saw long before she knew it existed within her.

“Touch me …” She pushes my hand where she wants it.

I grin, obliging her.

“Harder …” Her nails indent my skin.

I give it to her harder, mesmerized by this perfect moment.

“Kiss me …” She opens her lust-leaden eyes, gazing down at me.

Per—fection.

I have to keep myself from begging her to marry me. I have to scold myself for trying to imagine what she might look like nine months pregnant with my baby. No woman has ever made me this delirious, and I still have no logical explanation as to what exactly it is about Avery that’s clawed its way into my heart and taken up permanent residence.

“Dammit, Jake … kiss me.” Her impatience sends an extra jolt to my dick.

I sit up, bringing us face to face, and lean in to kiss her.

“Lower …” she rocks her pelvis against mine.

I kiss her neck.

“Lower …” she whispers, guiding my hand to where we are joined. “Kiss me here.”

My gaze flits up to meet hers.

Before I can grin, and believe me, this makes me happier than I’ve ever been in my whole damn life, Avery crashes her mouth to mine. Her hungry mmm brings me to the brink of orgasm, but she pulls away, mumbling against my lips. “What are you waiting for, Matthews?”

Dead.

She just buried me.

Game over.

Avery Montgomery is officially out of my league.

I fold, throwing down a pretty good hand. She just played a royal flush.

My dick will have to wait on standby because I love this woman, and she’s earned this from me.

“Attagirl, Ave.” I grab her waist and lower her back to the mattress.

Her breaths quicken even more when I mark the inside of her thighs with my whiskered jaw as I make my way to fulfill her request. “If you just ask…” her hips jerk “…there’s nothing I wouldn’t give you.”

“You …” Her head falls to the side, fingers in my hair, voice strained with emotion. “I just want you …”

* * *

Four in the morning.

My phone rings. Avery jumps. I kiss her head and reach for my phone.

“Hey, Meg.”

“Hey, Jake.” She doesn’t need to say another word. The tone of her voice says it all. “Swarley passed away. We did everything we could to revive him. I’m so sorry.”

I sit up with my legs dangling off the bed, my back to Avery. “Okay.” It’s hard to speak. My throat feels so fucking tight with the words I’m not sure I can relay to Avery and Sydney.

“There’s no need to come now, unless they feel the need to be here. Either way, I’ll be here when they’re ready to come for him.”

“No …” Avery chokes on a sob before I disconnect.

Bad news is a feeling that arrives like an executioner in your chest before the words are ever spoken. It’s a look. A sad smile. It’s an invisible poison. And no words can soften the blow after that first wordless hit.

“Thanks, Meg.” I set my phone down.

“No …” Avery’s forehead and palms press to my back. “Don’t say it … please don’t say it.” Another sob breaks from her chest.

I twist my torso, and she falls into my lap with her hands covering her face.

“I’m sorry, Ave.”

“No, no, no …” Her body shakes as I pull her closer, a ball of brokenness on my lap.

The door to the room creaks. I glance up. The dim light from the hall behind Sydney makes it hard to see her face, but I don’t miss her hand covering her mouth. No words are needed.

Unlike Avery, Sydney breaks slowly … silently … until she’s hunched down like she might vomit.

I remember this moment with my mom. It’s when this space in your heart feels most raw, hollowed, yet heavy—like grief rushes in to fill the void. And there is a void, no matter what anyone says. We don’t remember them in our heart, we remember them in our mind. All the heart can do is feel, and when someone dies, the only thing left to feel is pain.

“I’m sorry …” It’s all I can say. It’s all that anyone can say.

When Avery realizes my words are not just meant for her, she glances up and flies off my lap. “Syd …” Avery envelopes her sister, and they collapse the rest of the way to the floor.

An audible cry escapes from Sydney.

I pinch the bridge of my nose, resisting the urge to fix the unfixable.

Avery has my shirt on, but I’m naked beneath the sheet, so I wrap it around my waist and grab my shorts, slipping into them. Squatting next to them, I rest my hand on Avery’s back. “I’ll be in the living room. Take the bed. Let me know what you need from me.”

She doesn’t respond. They cling to each other—sobbing and shaking.

“He-he’s gone …”

I cringe, rubbing the back of my neck as Sydney’s words bleed behind me.

Easing onto the sofa, I bring up Deedy’s number and hit the green button.

“Jake?” Deedy answers on the first ring. She’s in a different time zone and an early riser. “Oh my gosh, I forgot to call you back. Was it important? It’s early there—what’s wrong? Something must be wrong. Please tell me nothing has happened to Avery.”

“Swarley died.”

A few seconds of silence steal the line.

“What?” It’s barely a whisper.

“It’s …” I blow out a long breath, running a frustrated hand over my face. “It’s messed-up. I don’t understand how this happened so quickly. And I have no fucking clue what I should do about it. Sydney and Ave are on the floor in the hall, crying. I don’t know what to do or what to say. I don’t know Sydney’s husband’s number, or if it’s even my place to call him. I just …”

“Jake, just take a breath.”

I do. I take a breath.

“Just be patient. Be there for them when they need you. I’ll wake Tommy and we’ll deal with the rest. Okay?”

I hum my acknowledgement.

“I’m sure this is nobody’s fault. It’s life. You know about life. So just know that you’ve done your part—more than your part. I can’t tell you how much Tommy and I appreciate all you’ve done for his family.”

Yeah, I tortured his daughter, stripped her down to tears, then fell in love with her. Oh … and his grand-dog died on my watch. I’m sure Tom Montgomery will be so grateful.

“Thanks, Deedy.”

I end the call and toss my phone onto the sofa next to me.

“Fuck …” I lean my head back and close my eyes.

* * *

Avery

“I need to c-call h-home.” Sydney wipes her nose with her arm as we lean against the wall, still on the floor after what feels like an eternity of crying.

The pain has settled into a miserable numbness.

“How do I tell my kids?”

Swarley owned my niece’s heart, possibly more than her parents did. She dressed him up like a unicorn and he let her. He’s been there for every step of her life. He’s been her best friend and loyal protector.

“It’s going to feel like he’s dying all over again when I get home.”

I nod. “I know. Ocean will be …” My words crack under the gravity of what’s happened and what will happen when Sydney arrives home with Swarley. “Crushed beyond words.”

“Yes,” Sydney whispers, hiccupping on another sob.

I squeeze her hand as we stare at our outstretched legs.

“Oh my god … I haven’t seen you without toenail polish since you were … six months old.”

I wipe a few stray tears and laugh. “My fingers are naked too.” I hold out my hands.

“What happened to you?”

I welcome the new topic, even if it’s about the demise of my appearance, knowing the second we leave here to get Swarley, the emotions will return. “Jake happened.”

“Is that like shit happens?” She sniffles and I sense she, too, needs a new topic.

“He’s awful. Just … the worst. He’s crude, and he calls me names. He doesn’t understand my need to have nice things and look pretty. And he’s a vegan. Gah! How does one eat a keto diet and be a vegan? I can’t do it. He likes tents. I like hotel suites. He has tattoos, and I don’t like tattoos. And he likes just … staring at the sky like the stars are the most fascinating thing he has ever seen. I honestly think he was deprived of fireworks as a child.”

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