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“I’m good, but thank you.”

Deedy gives Sydney a wave just before my sister and her family head out the door. “Well, I assume we’ll have the ceremony as soon as we return to Milwaukee. Everyone is invited; we just didn’t want to make a big deal out of it or have anyone feel like they had to make the trip, so that’s why we said we’d get married then come out here for a family reception of sorts.”

“Well, it’s kind of a big deal if you bought a wedding dress.” Okay, our friendship is a work in progress. It’s none of my business what Deedy wears for her second wedding. Maybe she eloped with Gavin and never had a chance to wear the white gown. No judgment here.

Dammit!

Maybe a little judgment. Old habits …

“Wedding dress?” Deedy chuckles. “Your dad is something else. I heard him telling you about my wedding dress. I love him, but he’s still such a guy. I bought a dress. It’s white. I’d wear it to church or someone else’s wedding. There’s no train. It hits just below my knees. No rhinestones. No lace. Just a simple white dress.”

With my back to her, I grin. Fucking hell anyway …

Sorry, Heavenly Father.

Darn it anyway … I think I like Deedy. How did this happen?

“It sounds perfect.”

“Yeah, it’s still a church wedding, but small. Mainly our church family. But I’m excited. And for what it’s worth, I’m just as excited to walk down the aisle to marry your dad as I was when I married Gavin.”

I nod, keeping my gaze firmly planted to the sink. No way. Friends or not. Deedy is not going to make me cry. I’ve hit my yearly limit of tears in the course of a month.

“You know …” Deedy resumes her dish-drying job. “Jake told me about your relationship with Megan’s ex-husband.”

Relationship. “Huh … that’s interesting. Last I checked, being someone’s whore is not really a relationship.”

“Avery, don’t say that. Please … that is not true at all.”

“Yeah, well, tell Jake that.”

“I did. What happened to Megan when she lost her baby, that really affected Jake because he was the one there for her, even when they weren’t sure if she’d live. His anger was sharp and unforgiving.”

“I know. I felt that sharp and unforgiving anger.” I can’t help the anger in my words.

“Whatever he said to you, it was not Jake. It was anger over what happened to his friend and fear of his feelings for you. Give him time. He’ll come around.”

I laugh and it grows into something bordering hysterical. “That’s …” I catch my breath and calm my painful amusement. “That’s just it … I don’t care if he comes around.” Drying my hands, I pace the kitchen to expend some of this energy before it explodes, sending me into a ranting lunatic.

“Don’t get me wrong, being the object of Jake’s affection is incredible. His brooding attitude—his need to protect—it’s like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. And when he’s kind and loving, well … it’s so intense I could die and not regret a single moment of my life. But when he’s not nice, when he’s degrading, when he’s as you say not Jake, I feel stupid. And I’m not stupid. I have to stop being a disposable girlfriend.”

“I can assure you, he doesn’t think you’re a disposable girlfriend.”

“He does. The girlfriends you keep? The ones you marry? You don’t let them walk away. You. Keep. Them. And you don’t have sex with your cook and develop a sudden affinity to chocolate all while claiming to love your girlfriend!”

So much for averting the ranting lunatic.

“Whoa … wait. Jake had sex with his cook? An employee at his restaurant? When?”

“No. Not Jake. Anthony. Just … never mind. My point is, Jake treating me like every girl he’s ever hated makes him like every asshole I’ve had the displeasure of dating. I’m not going to train him to be worthy of me. That’s bullshit. I’m worthy of a good man. A good, honest, loving man. A man who really sees me, even if I don’t see myself, even if it’s not always a beautiful sight … he loves me. And I thought that was Jake, but it wasn’t. Jake didn’t see me. He saw what he wanted to see to justify his attraction to me. I will never live up to his expectations of me. It’s too exhausting. It’s … too much.”

Deedy leans against the counter as I pick up my pacing speed, preparing for her to jump to Jake’s defense.

I wait.

And I wait.

“Good for you. You absolutely deserve that kind of man. Don’t ever think otherwise.”

I stop, mouth agape.

More waiting.

“And?”

Deedy shrugs. “And nothing.”

“You’re not going to sing Jake’s praises and convince me to forgive him if he comes around and wants my forgiveness?”

“Nope. Honestly, while Jake is family in my heart, I try to let him make his own decisions. I try to let him distance himself from the past where I was married to Gavin. I haven’t even told your dad everything about Jake and his relationship with Gavin. I want Jake to share those details if and when he’s ready.”

My clenched hands relax along with my tense shoulders and stiff jaw. “Okay then. Just …” I blow out my pent-up anger. “Know that I do love him. I just need to love myself more—in an emotional, self-preservation way. And thank you for not telling my dad every detail. Even now, I don’t want him worrying about me.”

“I’ll eventually tell him because I don’t want to have secrets between us.”

I nod slowly.

“But Avery … going back to what you just said …you don’t have to love yourself before you love someone else, but it sure is a gift to them if you do. And you owe me no explanation for whatever you decide about Jake.”

Ouch. Did I expect Jake to love me enough for both of us?

“I think I need time,” I whisper.

“Time is good.” She walks toward me.

We are not hugging it out.

Crap.

She wraps her arms around me. I stiffen. She hugs me tighter. I hold my ground.

Hold it.

Hold tightly.

Hold my breath.

Double dammit, Deedy! Here come the tears.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

“Where’s my stuff?”

“Hey, baby. You back in town? We should have dinner and discuss your dilemma.” Anthony’s once honey-smooth voice feels like a nasty case of road rash on my nerves.

Dilemma? My knee will show his shriveled nuts a dilemma, right after I knock out his stupid capped teeth so all he can do is lick chocolate mousse from Kim’s loose lower lips.

“My stuff, asshole. I had a place to live filled with furnishings before I met you.”

“I got you a bigger apartment.”

“I didn’t ask you to do that. So you can hand it all back over to me or my attorney will make sure you pay out the ass for all the emotional stress you put me through over the past month.”

“I let Kim go.”

“I don’t care.”

“I miss you.”

“I despise you.”

“Sounds like a recipe for angry, make-up sex. Remember that, baby? Remember how you used to get all pissed off at me for something and we’d fuck like rabid animals.”

“Don’t flatter your geriatric ego. I’d hardly call doggy style fucking like rabid animals. I’m not sure you ever actually finished that way. You’d get a cramp in your leg, and I’d have to ride it out on top and finish you with a hand job because you forgot your ED medication. Now, if we’re done pretending you’re young, sexy, or even a remotely decent human, can you just tell me where my stuff is, so I can never talk to you again?”

“One meal. Dinner. If you still want us to be over after dinner, I’ll have all of your stuff delivered wherever you’re living now. Deal?”

“YOU HAVE MY STUFF! WE’RE NOT PLAYING LET’S MAKE A DEAL. I’VE BEEN FUCKING ANOTHER MAN WITH A MUCH BIGGER COCK FOR WEEKS. WE. ARE. OVER!”

Someone clears their throat. I turn from my hiding spot on the side of the pool house. I thought I was the only one out here.

“Uh … Syd was looking for her phone,” Lautner says with my dad standing next to him.

Dear Heavenly Father,

I’ll make this one question quick. Why? Just … why?

“Gimme a sec. Okay?” I whisper, returning a tight smile. Just lovely. My brother-in-law—Mr. Perfect—and my minister father now know about my extracurricular activities on my road trip—and the approximate size of Jake’s cock.

Lautner nods. Dad scowls. I roll my eyes and turn my back to them.

“Baby—”

“Nope. Not your baby. Not having dinner with you. Just going to call my attorney as soon as I hang up which is right…” I glance over my shoulder to make sure the eavesdroppers have scattered “…fucking now.” I press end.

Three nights with my sister and her perfect family is too much. I need a place of my own. I need out. I need space. I need quietude and freedom from constant, sympathetic glances.

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