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I step into my shorts and slip off Jake’s shirt. He turns away from me.

This … this hurts. Last night I was the woman he loved. This morning I’m the whore not worthy of his eyes on my bared flesh. I turn my back to him too as I put on my bra.

Tears burn.

Pride suffocates.

Hearts break.

Words fail.

And I … well, I focus on Sydney and her family who will be devastated when we bring Swarley home in a body bag. As for Jake, I regret nothing. He taught me a lot about myself.

Attagirl, Ave.

Stand the fuck up for yourself.

Show me whatcha got.

He tore me down and made me put myself back together. I’m so much stronger than I was when I left L.A. But this is still going to destroy my heart—a heart that’s been jerked around, kicked, punched, and dismissed so many times, I’m not sure it even remembers how to beat.

I close my bag and hike my purse onto my shoulder. Jake turns. My entire body tingles with pain. He reaches for my bag, but I pull it just out of his reach.

“Don’t …” My throat constricts, strangling my words. Maybe it’s my body’s way of saving face, if that’s even still possible. Maybe we’ve come full circle. He hated me when we left Milwaukee. I’ve gone from a bitch to a whore.

Funny, I just wanted to be the smile on his face. The object of his affection. I wanted to be the part of his life that felt utterly undefinable yet completely impossible to live without.

We don’t always get what we want.

“Avery?” Sydney’s voice from the other room brings me out of this suspended moment.

I angle my body to squeeze by Jake without touching him.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

“Ave—” Sydney gives me a tiny frown.

I stop her with a sharp headshake. We can’t talk about Jake just like we can’t talk about Swarley or all the other painful moments we’ve survived.

Her frown deepens. It’s been her job to put her little sister back together. That’s the motherly role she took on after our mom died. I don’t want her to feel bad for me. I don’t want her to fix me when she’s broken.

I just … I just want to go home.

I take three slow breaths, and I follow her out the door, into her vehicle, and we make our way to the clinic under a cloud of unspoken words.

“Tell me.” Sydney puts the vehicle into park and shuts off the engine in the clinic parking lot. “When I get home, my kids are going to need me. And you’re hurting right now, and I know it’s more than Swarley. I don’t want you to feel alone when I’m pulled in another direction. So … before I do one of the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, just tell me. Let me be here for you even if it’s just for the next few minutes until we walk into the clinic.”

My face contorts into a silent ugly cry, and I hold my breath until I just can’t hold it anymore.

“Ave … oh, Avery …” Sydney unfastens her seat belt and leans over the console to hug me.

I weep so hard my ribs feel like they’re cracked, poking into my heart, making each breath feel like it’s tearing me apart. Love is jagged and gritty. It’s Hell. It’s suffocating. It demands to be felt even when there’s nothing left to feel but this painful emptiness.

“Is it over?”

I keep a tight hold on her and nod.

“Are you sure?”

My lips tremble with each stuttered sob as I nod again.

“You’ll tell me why, right?”

“S-someday … b-but n-not now.”

“Alright. But I need to know that you’re going to be okay.”

I’m the furthest thing from okay, but I’ll get there. I always do. “Yes.”

She releases me, holding my face by my cheeks. “You’re going to find the one someday, and he’s going to love you with his whole heart. His eyes will only magnify the good. His heart will be blind to any imperfections. And you’ll feel safe with him. You’ll know he’s there to pick you up. He’ll be there when you need him the most because he’ll just … know. He’ll just …” Sydney glances over my shoulder and tears fill her eyes. “Know …”

I turn to the familiar vehicle parked next to us.

Lautner.

He gets out and slides his sunglasses onto his head. Sydney sobs as he walks around the front of the vehicle. She knows all about “the one.” She married him. And I’ve silently envied their love for years.

“Baby …” he says in a reverent tone as he opens her door.

“You’re here.” She falls into his arms, and I tear up, sharing their loss, mourning my own loss, aching for a man to love me like that.

“Your dad called, but I was already on my way,” he says.

“You’re here.” She wraps her arms around him, and he holds her like she’s his world, all the stars, the oceans and mountains, the air he breathes.

“Of course I’m here.”

“The kids—”

“Home with my dad. Your dad and Deedy are on their way now.”

After he calms her down, his attention shifts to me. “Ave.”

“Pool guy.” I find a small smile for him.

“You okay?”

I nod.

“She’s not.” Sydney pulls away, wiping her eyes.

“I am.” I shrug. “I will be.”

Jake’s truck pulls in two spaces to the left of us. He gets out of the truck and introduces himself to Lautner like nothing has happened between us.

I get out of Sydney’s Lexus and head to his truck, using this opportunity to get the rest of my stuff out of it while he’s distracted with Lautner.

Unfortunately, the distraction doesn’t last.

“I’ll get it.” Jake eases the tailgate down just before I can release it.

I step away. I look away. I wish I could just fly away.

He sets my other bags down on the ground and gets Swarley’s stuff out of the backseat. Without saying a word, I open the back of Sydney’s SUV and start loading the stuff with Jake’s help.

He shuts the back when we’re done. Sydney and Lautner already went inside. I assume they’ll ride together with Swarley in Lautner’s vehicle while I follow them in Sydney’s Lexus.

“I’m not going to tell Megan.” Jake slides his fingers into the front pockets of his jeans. “Nothing good can come from it.”

I blink several times as I process his words, but really it’s his tone that says the most. He’s genuinely angry with me. And maybe part of his anger is the letdown of thinking he loved me, of thinking that he could love me. “I don’t care if you tell her or not. If you want me to tell her, I will tell her. If you want me to leave without a word, I will do that.”

Again, I stop before I go into full defensive mode. I want to scream at him. I didn’t know he was married! But maybe I should have known. Right now I can’t think past the grief and pain, so I question my memory. I wonder if I missed some clues along the way. Did I see Steve how I wanted to see him, instead of how he really was? Did I miss the tan line from a wedding band? Secret texts? Should I have questioned the traveling he did for “business,” or his mother’s supposed cancer diagnosis? The dog? The apartment he rented instead of owning a house? Did I blindly let our relationship be what I wanted it to be instead of what it really was?

“I won’t say anything. And I’m sorry. I—”

“Don’t.” He shakes his head. “She lost a child. Do you get that? How can you be with someone and not make actual connections to their life? Did you meet his ‘sick’ mother? Did you meet his best friend? An uncle? A coworker? The only reason you should have agreed to let me give you a ride was because of my relationship to Deedy. There was a connection. That meant you knew I didn’t have a hidden life. For the love of God, Avery … know something about a man before you crawl into his bed!”

“Don’t!” I shove his chest. “You don’t get to lecture me.” I shove him again, but he doesn’t budge. “You weren’t in my shoes. You fell in love with me. So it shouldn’t be some fucking surprise that maybe someone else did too. It’s not my fault. I didn’t know he was married. Do you have any idea how many men travel to L.A. for business and even own apartments there? YOU own one there!

“I asked about his family. He said his dad died and his mom had cancer. He said he was an only child. I don’t have that many close friends, so I didn’t question him not introducing me to his BFF. And I’m sorry Megan miscarried, but maybe it was somehow meant to be since Steve was cheating on her. She can find someone else and start a family and just …” I press my palms to the side of my head and close my eyes on a long exhale. “Just forget about him.”

When I open my eyes, Jake clenches his fists and his jaw. There’s not forgiveness in his eyes. It wasn’t my fault. Why can’t he see past this?

“She was twenty-two weeks pregnant. He told her about the affair and then he left. She asked him to leave, but still … he fucking left her. Need I say where I suspect he went? The next day, she started bleeding. Over the next twenty-four hours, I was by her side when she lost her child, twelve units of blood, and her uterus when they had to perform a hysterectomy. Then I held her hand while she was in the ICU on life support. I said I was her husband because Steve wasn’t … fucking … there!”

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