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My eyes release one round of tears after another as I remain idle, rooted to the ground, and numb to my bones. I remember the call in the middle of the night. Steve flew out of bed, frantic because his mom had been taken to the hospital and was in the ICU. His mom.

Fuck you, Steve.

I want to say something—anything. This isn’t me. I don’t sleep with married men. I’m probably too materialistic sometimes, and I should spend more time cultivating friendships than looking for the perfect handbag and the perfect man. But I’m not a home-wrecker. I would never knowingly be with a married man. I’m a lot of things, not all of them good, but I am. Not. That. Woman.

I’m not Francine.

“Ave, ready?”

I turn toward Lautner’s voice as he carries …

Oh god …

Swarley’s in a black bag in Lautner’s arms. Sydney silently weeps as she opens the back door to his vehicle. Megan steps outside and wraps her arms around her body. She looks tired and mournful—kind and innocent.

I turn back toward Jake. Before this trip, I would have been a slave to my ego and coddled my wounded pride. I would have bit my tongue and hopped in the vehicle, content with no goodbye. Jaded by yet another failed relationship.

Jake changed things. I’m not that Avery anymore.

The car door behind me closes, and I hear the heart-ripping sob of Sydney.

“We’ll survive this, baby,” Lautner says to her as he gets in on his side.

I don’t have to see them to know that he’s holding her, loving her, and being the one for which all other men should strive to be. He forgave her of so many things. His love never wavered. They were stronger than bad days, bad decisions, and bad timing.

I want a love like that.

Clenching Jake’s shirt in my fists, I lift onto my toes and kiss the angle of his jaw next to his ear. “Thank you.”

He swallows hard, hands limp at his sides. I step back, seeing something resembling true emotion—painful emotion—in his reddening eyes.

I turn and make the five steps to Megan. “Thank you.” I offer my hand to her.

She pulls me in for a hug, squeezing out several tears. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t do more.”

My reply can’t wedge its way past the aching heart lodged in my throat, so I just nod and hope she knows I appreciate all she did. I embrace her tighter, praying she’ll remember this moment if Jake ever tells her the truth.

I’m so incredibly sorry.

“I hope we get to spend more time together under better circumstances next time.”

I release her and find a tiny smile. There won’t be a next time. This isn’t a love story. It’s a tragedy of the heart.

Rolling my lips together to muzzle the pain that’s screaming to be heard, I wipe my tears and nod.

Lautner starts his car. I tap on his window, and he rolls it down.

“I don’t have a phone,” I whisper because anything more than this will involve me vomiting my heart.

He hands me Sydney’s phone. “The code is 870100.”

I swat away more tears and take the phone, giving a quick glance to the black bag in their backseat.

Swarley …

Jake stands on the edge of the curb as I get into the driver’s seat of Sydney’s Lexus. I slip on my sunglasses, fasten my seat belt, and start the engine—but I don’t look his way.

As soon as I back out of this parking spot, I can let go of these emotions. I can try to breathe, even if it hurts. I just need to hold it together for ten more seconds.

Ten.

Nine.

Eight.

Seven.

I start to back out.

Bang!

I brake.

Jake’s hand is pressed to the window. He closes his eyes and curls it into a fist, his chest expanding like he’s taking all the oxygen from the air. His hand slides to the door handle and he waits, blinking open his eyes and giving me an expectant look.

I put the car in park and unlock the door.

He opens it and emotion fills his eyes. “Why did it have to be you?” His hand cups the back of my head and he kisses me.

Five four three two one.

I release a muffled sob as he kisses me.

Just as quickly as his lips crashed to mine, he peels them away. “Bye, Ave.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Sydney and Lautner send me home when we get to L.A., leaving me with a temporary phone and Sydney’s Lexus. They want time alone with the kids to break the news about Swarley. I don’t argue. I’m nothing more than an empty vessel with a pulse. Watching Ocean react to Swarley’s death would end me completely.

“Your stuff is gone.”

I glance back at my neighbor, Dave, as he steps out of his apartment across the hall and locks his door.

“What?” I turn my key and open the door to my empty apartment. A sigh escapes my mouth, a slowly deflating tire. This should cue the tears, but I don’t have any more tears. I gave them to Swarley and Jake. Then I drained the last few drops of salty grief on my way home.

Home.

Where the hell is that?

“Three days ago. That fancy-suited guy of yours arrived with a small moving crew. Everything was gone in just under two hours. Honestly, I was afraid to ask, but I thought maybe something had happened to you. I even checked the obituaries yesterday. Glad you’re not dead.”

“Well, that makes one of us,” I murmur.

“I overheard the manager out here yesterday. They’re changing the locks tomorrow. There goes your deposit.”

I nod, entranced by the emptiness of my apartment.

And my heart.

My life.

It’s numbing. But numb is good at the moment.

“Do you have a place to stay?”

The Lexus. I’m going to sleep in a vehicle, then I’ll stay with Sydney tomorrow, but I’m not going to their house tonight.

Leather seats.

No bugs.

It will be a huge upgrade for me.

“Avery, if you need a place to stay for a few nights, Randy is out of town until next week. You can crash in his room.”

Everything. Anthony took everything.

Jake … well, he took all the intangibles.

“Avery?” Dave dangles a key in front of my face. “Yes? No? You look like a zombie. Listen, it’s up to you, but I have to get to the hospital for a soul-draining twenty-four-hour shift.”

Leather seats versus neighbor’s likely old mattress and a shower.

“Shower,” I whisper.

“What?”

I shake my head, trying to bring it above the surface to keep from drowning in my ugly reality. “Um, yes. Thank you. I’d be so grateful if you’d let me stay tonight. I’ll go to my sister’s tomorrow.”

“Cool.” He hands me the key. “Make yourself at home.”

I muster the closest thing to a smile that my lips can form. “Thank you.” Taking his key with my left hand, I drop my apartment key from my right hand. It clinks on the hard floor.

Dave glances at my discarded key for a few seconds before giving me a sad smile. “Chin up, buttercup. I’ll see you later.”

“Later,” I whisper as he takes the stairs to the main level. Grabbing the one suitcase I brought up with me, I wheel it into Dave’s apartment, shut and lock the door, and collapse onto the sofa. I don’t need a bed or even a shower at the moment. I just need to sleep to escape the pain for a few hours.

* * *

The next day, we say a final goodbye to Swarley with a proper burial, a tree planted next to him, and lots of tears. Dad and the Deedy arrived last night and stayed at a nearby hotel to give Sydney’s family the privacy they needed to break the news to the kids. They planned on getting married before making the trip to California, but life tends to laugh at plans.

It’s presumptuous of humans to think we have one bit of control over what happens in life. I may be a little angry at the moment.

“We are going to the beach. Lautner took a personal day. Thought it would be a good idea to spend the day with the kids. Take some pictures. I haven’t had my camera out in a long time. Dad and Deedy are staying here, but you should come with us.” Sydney puts the brunch leftovers in the fridge while I wash the dishes, staring out the window at the Deedy standing next to Ocean by Swarley’s grave just beyond the fenced-in pool.

Ocean hugs Deedy, wiping her teary face on Deedy’s sundress. They’ve bonded quickly. Good for Ocean; she’s more mature than her Aunt Avery. I bet she’s never thought about Deedy and Papa naked, doing things that could cause Papa to have another heart attack. Her innocence is enviable at the moment.

“I need to find a job.”

“Lautner said you need to see a physical therapist about your hand.”

“Those cost money.”

“We’ll loan you money until you find a job and get some health benefits.”

I shake my head as Sydney retrieves a towel from the drawer next to me and dries the dishes. “I’m not looking for charity. Well … I could use a place to stay until I get something figured out.”

“Stay? What do you mean? Where did you stay last night?”

“On my neighbor’s sofa. Actually …” My lips twist. “I suppose ex-neighbor since I no longer live there.”

“Ave …”

“Gone.” I draw in a shaky breath, keeping my focus on the sudsy serving tray in my hands. “All of my stuff was gone. Anthony took everything.”

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