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My loving family goes silent when I walk in the house, all eyes on me.

“Sorry. Here’s your phone.” I set Sydney’s phone on the end of the kitchen counter.

“No big deal. I just need a phone number out of my contacts. Is … everything okay?”

I frown at my dad and Lautner. They divert their gazes. Cowards. Tattletales.

Homeless. Phoneless. Carless. Yep, I’m great.

“Everything’s great. So … what’s the plan for dinner?”

“We’re going out. Lautner made reservations. It’s sort of a … rehearsal dinner.” Sydney smiles, giving our dad and Deedy a warm expression.

“Rehearsal dinner?”

Deedy opens the top of a shipping box that’s on the kitchen table. “Tommy arranged to have my dress shipped here.” She holds up the white dress. It’s pretty, but she’s right; it’s not a wedding gown.

Dad rests his hand on Deedy’s lower back. “We’re getting married tomorrow. I arranged everything. It’s at a small church near Lautner’s hospital. An old pastor friend of mine, it’s his church. He’s agreed to marry us.”

Everyone watches me like I’m the final say in this plan. I’m not. I don’t have anything at the moment. Are these people really going to entrust me with blessing a wedding?

“Alrighty then.” I smile.

A collective sigh spreads across the room. Geesh … am I really that bad? Everyone scatters like there are a million things to do to beat the clock.

“Grab your purse. We’re going for manis and pedis in ten minutes,” Sydney says just before leaving the kitchen.

“I can’t afford it.”

“My treat.”

“I don’t want it!” I cringe as Deedy and my dad look at me, and the scattering bodies freeze. Clearing my throat, I paste on an apologetic smile. “I just mean, I’m giving my nails a break from polish. They haven’t seen freedom in years.”

Sydney nods slowly. “Just a mani and pedi. You can do that without getting them polished.”

“Um …” I feel so stupid and lost and … out of my mind because Jake messed me up. “Sure. That would be great. Thank you.”

Dad kisses Deedy on the cheek then me on the head before leaving the room.

“There’s one other thing,” Deedy says like she’s getting ready to end my already fragile existence. “Gosh, this is hard.” She rests her hands on her hips and stares at her feet.

“What is it? Just say it. As long as you’re not planning on leaving my dad at the altar, then we’re good.”

“My father passed away the year before Gavin died. And my mom lives in Florida, but she’s afraid to fly. My brother died, and my sister lives in Germany.”

“Oh Deedy…” I smile “…of course I’ll be your maid of honor.”

“Oh …” She returns a stiff smile. “Um … actually I asked Sydney, but only because Ocean is the flower girl and Lautner is standing up with Tommy. I just … I mean …”

“No. Totally fine.” I flick my wrist at her and make some stupid sound like I’m blowing a raspberry on my nephew’s cheek. “Silly of me to assume it.”

Now it’s just awkward. I’ve made her feel bad.

“It’s not silly. In fact, you should absolutely stand up with me too. There’s no rule saying bridesmaids and groomsmen have to be equal in number.”

“I’m fine, Deedy. Really. So, what were you going to say before I interrupted you with my assumptions?”

“Oh, yeah … I uh … asked Jake to walk me down the aisle.”

I don’t react at all. It’s like that moment you step in gum or dog poop and you just freeze, too afraid to assess the damage.

“I’m not trying to put you in an awkward situation. I worried about asking your dad about it too. He didn’t know the whole story with Jake and Gavin, but I told him everything last night, and he’s good with it. So …”

“Nope.” I manage to squeeze out one word without blinking or even moving my jaw. “It’s fine.” Yay me! Three, stiff, constipated words.

“Are you sure? It’s just that he’s here in L.A., and he’s the closest thing that I have to family around here.”

Slowly, I reach around and pull the stick out of my ass. Once my body relaxes, acclimating to reality, I reach for Deedy’s hand. “It’s your day. Despite what my family may believe or even what you’ve witnessed since we’ve met, I have self-control. I can be in the same vicinity as Jake and not make a scene. I can be amicable.”

Controlled. Medicated. Partially drunk. Whatever it takes.

“Oh, thank you, Avery.” Deedy attacks me with a suffocating hug. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And …” She releases me. “It’s actually one day and one night. He’ll be at the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner tonight. It’s his birthday today too.”

I smile and swallow past the lump in my throat. I know it’s his birthday. After snooping through his wallet to find out his age, I discovered his birth date. And I stole/borrowed forty dollars to buy him something nice. That was the forty dollars. I still have it. Never got around to finding that something nice. “Good. Fine.” I grit my teeth. Stupid emotions.

“You’re sure?”

I nod. “Sure.”

“Great. Let’s go to the salon. Oh … and we’re going to stop by Dress Barn. Tommy and I want to buy you girls new dresses for tomorrow.”

Dress Barn …

* * *

How is it possible to feel completely broken and yet stronger than ever at the same time? That’s the war battling inside of me at this very moment as I can’t make myself get out of the car to walk into the church.

“Come on, Avery.” Ocean waves me out of the car as she holds open the door.

I return a nervous smile.

“Sweetie, go inside with your dad and brother. Avery and I will be inside in a few minutes.” Sydney kisses Ocean on the head then slides into the backseat next to me. “Do we hate Jake?”

My eyes narrow at her.

She rests her hand on mine. “You never told me exactly what happened between you two. So … he’s here as Deedy’s family. I won’t knee him in the nuts or anything, but I just need to know if we hate him? I’m Team Avery, with or without an explanation.”

“Damn you …” I glance away, fighting back the tears. “Not today. Today I just need you to tell me to pull up my big girl panties, plaster on a fake smile, and be on my best behavior for the good of the family.”

“Fine, don’t cry. I don’t want your mascara running.”

I grunt a laugh. “I’m not wearing mascara. Or lash extensions. Or foundation. Or … fuck … I’m wearing a tiny bit of eye shadow and lip gloss.”

“Oh, well, you look amazing.”

I turn back to her.

She shrugs. “You were the lucky one who inherited Mom’s natural beauty. If Jake’s the one who helped you see that, then maybe we don’t hate him.”

No. Way.

I’m not giving that asshat credit for anything. “We hate him. That’s the law today. Got it?” I grab my purse and fish out my makeup bag.

“Um …”

“Sydney…” I pin her with a firm look “…we hate him. You asked. I’ve confirmed it. Now go inside and get the hate vibe going. I’ll be in as soon as I fix my face.”

Her eyebrows shoot up her forehead. “O … K …” She mouths while easing out of the vehicle.

I unzip my makeup bag and get to work. By the time Ocean knocks on the window, a good twenty minutes later, I’m satisfied with my transformation.

“Hey, girly girl. Did they start without me?” I hop out, making sure I don’t rub up against the vehicle in my white pants and black, sleeveless blouse.

“Not yet, but everyone is waiting for you.”

I follow her into the church, blinking my right eye several times and pressing my extensions back into place. I think the adhesive went to shit on the trip. Probably too many days in the hot truck. They’re not my favorite fake lashes, but they work in a pinch. Just barely …

“Hey.” Sydney smiles, waiting for me just outside of the sanctuary. “I see you did a little more than fix your makeup.”

I smile through my dark red lips.

“It’s on your teeth.” Sydney’s nose wrinkles.

I rub my finger over my teeth. “Better?”

“Sure. You uh … went extra smoky with your eyes. Interesting choice for a wedding rehearsal at a church.” She loops her arm around mine and guides me into the church.

“It’s past five. Evening makeup is always darker.”

“Well, you definitely nailed it.”

I pinch her arm. She chuckles as the rest of the family gathered in the front pews turns toward us.

My eyes keep laser focus on Asher, my nephew, because he’s not Jake, and he’s the only family member who’s not giving me the WTF-did-you-do-to-your-face look. It’s not that I look bad. I followed proper makeup application rules. I just went a little heavier—a little darker. It’s the look I’d wear with a black teddy, garters, thigh-high hose, and stilettos while touching myself at the foot of a four-poster bed. OR … an evening wedding rehearsal for my father and his younger bride-to-be. It really is a versatile look.

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