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“Good, everyone is here. Let’s get started,” the minister says.

Sydney and I sit in the front row next to Ocean. Through my peripheral vision, I caught a blurry glimpse of Jake before I sat down, so I know he’s right behind us. I know he’s got some sort of product making his hair look fuckable—Pot. Kettle. Black.

I know he’s wearing a sharp blue button-down with the sleeves rolled up to show off his ink. It’s possible I stole more than just a glimpse, but I definitely didn’t make eye contact with him.

The minister chats it up a bit about how he knows my dad. Then he gives a brief summary of the ceremony before we do an actual test run.

One groomsman.

Two bridesmaids.

I’m such a third wheel.

Luckily, my uncooperative eyelashes make it easy to keep my gaze at my feet the whole time as I dab my watery eye and keep pushing the lashes back into place. I manage to survive the forty-five minutes without making eye contact with Jake—or anyone else for that matter.

“Avery.” Lautner smirks, holding open my door as we load up to head to the rehearsal dinner.

“Shut it.” I scowl.

He chuckles.

On the way to dinner, I replace my bad extension with a new one and fix my smeared eye makeup.

When we arrive, I chat with anyone who is not near Jake as we wait a few minutes for our reserved table to be ready.

“Avery, sit next to me!” Ocean calls as everyone files into the private dining room.

I smile at her until I notice my dad has already taken the seat to her left, which means if I sit by her, it will be on her right—in the chair next to Jake.

“Avery, take my seat.” My dad starts to stand. But if he moves, he won’t be sitting next to Deedy. And the fact that he’s offering must mean Deedy or Sydney gave him the whole scoop on Jake.

“No. You stay.” I smile and take the seat next to Ocean, scooting my chair as close to hers as possible.

“Before we eat, I’d like to pray.” Dad holds out his hands. Deedy takes one, and Ocean takes his other hand as everyone else joins hands.

“Hold his hand.” Ocean nudges me, peeking open one eye.

Jake opens his hand, palm up on the table. I move my hand above his in a hover mode, jerking it back a fraction when one of our fingertips actually touch.

“Avery …” Ocean grits my name through her teeth. “Hold it.”

Freaking hand-holding police.

Before I can make up some excuse to leave the table during prayer, Jake grabs my hand, holding it hard like he’s pissed off about something. While my dad gives thanks for the food, his family, Deedy, and the many years we had Swarley in our lives, I completely chew Jake’s ass up one side and down the other—in my head.

Don’t hold my hand so damn hard. YOU have nothing to be upset about. I was your sex toy. Your experiment. Your punching bag. I gave you everything I had to give. I bared everything right down to my soul and my ugliest secrets. You … you stupid asshole! You gave me nothing! NOTHING! So stop holding my hand so fucking tight!

“In your name we pray, amen.”

I open my eyes and rip my hand away from Jake. He has the audacity to give me a questioning look like he has no idea why I’m acting like he has the plague.

“Hi,” he says in a soft voice, followed by a kind smile.

No. NO! NO! NO! He doesn’t get to say hi to me like some stranger. He doesn’t get to be kind with his smile. Awful words were said. Hurtful assumptions were made.

Hearts broken.

Dreams shattered.

Jake holds my attention without saying another word. I hate that he has that effect on me and the way everything and everyone else in the room disappears. The moments we shared replay in my head. We had good moments—the best moments.

“Why did it have to be you?” I whisper.

Jake’s smile fades.

The muted voices come to life.

And it’s no longer just the two of us in the room.

The moment … is over.

We are over.

“Have you arranged to get your stuff back?” Sydney asks.

I bite my lips together, laying my napkin across my lap. “Not yet. He refuses to budge on any of it until I agree to have dinner with him.”

“Dinner?” Lautner looks up from across the table. “Tell him to make reservations for four. Sydney and I will go with you.”

Chuckling, I glance over the menu. “Hmm … is this brotherly love or your way of getting me out of your house?”

“Definitely brotherly love.” He smirks. “What’s not to like about a live-in babysitter?”

Everyone laughs as I shoot him a teasing scowl. Well, I don’t think Jake’s laughing.

“No need to worry about furniture until you have a place to put it, which requires a job, which usually requires transportation. We need to tackle one obstacle at a time.” My dad leans forward past Ocean and shoots me a reassuring smile.

Parents have a way of bitch-slapping their kids with a heavy dose of reality under the guise of love. Yep. I definitely don’t need furniture at the moment.

“She needs a job to afford a car, and she won’t take money from us, so …” Sydney eyes me over the top of her menu.

Nope. There’s nothing degrading and completely embarrassing about this conversation. I should be angry with my family for discussing my situation in front of Jake, but he’s seen me naked in every sense of the word. None of this should be a surprise to him.

“I don’t want your money, Sis. I just want your Lexus. I’m certain I could live out of it until I save up for an apartment.”

“You know …” Deedy sets her menu down and rests her hand on my dad’s leg. “You should borrow my car. We’re leaving for another mission trip in six weeks. When I am home, I ride my bike and walk most places. We have Tommy’s car for longer trips and bad weather.”

“Or you could take public transportation,” Lautner murmurs, hiding his grin behind his glass of water. “Have you ever taken public transportation?”

I scratch my chin with my middle finger. “That’s like a limo, right? Yeah, I’ve taken public transportation a lot.”

Sydney shoves her elbow into the ribs of her snarky husband. “Play nice, you two.”

“So, Jake …” My dad clears his throat. “I really do appreciate all you did for Avery.”

Whoa!

Okay, so my dad must not know everything. He missed the newsflash—we hate Jake. He did nothing but break me down. No appreciation needed for that.

Jake takes a long sip of his water, probably sorting out the best response to my dad’s misplaced gratitude.

“You’re welcome.”

I stare at my index finger tapping the end of my fork.

And I wait …

Nothing.

Really? You’re welcome? No elaboration. No “It was my pleasure.” No “Anything for Deedy.” Or “We had a good time.”

“She can be a bit of a handful sometimes.” Dad laughs.

Sydney and Lautner stifle their reactions.

Jake rubs the back of his neck. “A bit.”

I ram the heel of my shoe into his shin.

He grunts, bending forward slightly and fisting his hand at his mouth as if to mask his reaction as a cough.

“Can I get everyone’s drink order?” the waiter asks.

We order drinks and food. The conversation shifts to the wedding, Dad’s and Deedy’s upcoming trip, my niece and nephew, and Jake’s restaurants. I fall off the grid of conversation, which ends in everyone (except me) singing Happy Birthday to Jake.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Jake

I need to talk to her.

Of course, I have no idea what I can say to undo the things I have done. To say I’m ashamed of the things I said to Avery and the way I said them would be a monumental understatement. It’s like I broke a vase and all I can do is stare at the shattered pieces with no fucking clue how to fix it.

I follow Avery and her family to the restaurant parking lot. A million words sit idle on my tongue. If I don’t say them the right way, it will make things worse. If I don’t say them at all, I will choke on them and die.

“I’m sorry.” I lean down by her ear and whisper as she waits for her niece to wedge her way out of the restaurant’s entrance.

Avery coughs on a laugh and shakes her head, keeping her back to me as she follows Ocean.

“Please let me drive you home so we can talk.”

Avery stops in the middle of the parking lot, letting her family continue toward their vehicle. “Home?” She turns around. “I don’t have a home. Or a car. Or a job. I don’t have furniture, a majority of my clothes, pots and pans, forks, knives, spoons. I don’t have a fucking flyswatter! But…” she takes a step toward me and holds up her thumb and index finger a fraction of an inch apart “…I have nothing but a teeny tiny shred of dignity. And I’ll step in front of a speeding train before I let you take it from me.”

“Avery? You coming?” Sydney yells.

“Twenty minutes. Give me twenty minutes.” I can’t mask the desperation in my voice. Hell, I don’t want to mask it.

Avery shakes her head and laughs, the kind that borders on insanity. “Anthony wants dinner. You want twenty minutes. You know what I want?” Her eyebrows inch up her forehead.

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