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I shake my head slowly, afraid to make any sudden movement around her.

“No?” Her head cocks to the side. “Then you don’t deserve twenty minutes.” Avery pivots and clicks her heels to the vehicle.

“Good job, Ave. Way to stand the fuck up for yourself,” I whisper just before blowing out a long, defeated breath.

I pull my phone out of my pocket and text Deedy.

I need a favor.

* * *

Avery

“You’re up early.” Sydney sits across from me at the kitchen table. “And you already went for coffee.” She nods to the to-go cup fisted in my hand.

I frown, take a sip, and slide the half-empty cup to her. “Not exactly.”

She reads the writing on the side of the cup.

Good morning, my sexy wife. Had to check on a patient, see you at the church. Xo

Sydney tosses me a scowl and peels the lid off. “You drank half of my chai tea latte from my husband? Have you no shame?”

On a big yawn, I stretch my arms above my head. “You’re loud. Embarrassingly loud. Seriously, our father is in the house.”

Sydney snorts and covers her mouth as her face reddens. “Oh god … it was the wine I had with dinner. Wine makes me …”

“Loud. It makes you loud yet oddly distinct—well enunciated in your demands.”

“Ugh!” She covers her face.

“I mean … every woman has a there. What’s yours? Because you were pretty elated when he got there. Do your kids wonder why Mommy screams, ‘Yes! There! Right there! Don’t stop!’?”

“Shh … stop!” She drops her hand-covered face to the table next to the latte that’s a bit too sweet for my taste.

“What does Lautner do when he sees Dad? Like … a high-five for thoroughly nailing his daughter? Dad has some health issues, but I don’t think impaired hearing is one of them.”

Sydney lifts her head to speak then clamps her jaw shut as Deedy walks into the kitchen, tying her robe.

“Good morning.”

We smile at Deedy and return pleasantries.

She pours a cup of coffee and joins us at the table. “Someone had a good night.” Deedy takes a sip of coffee but not before smirking.

“Oh god!” Sydney covers her face again.

“Don’t be embarrassed. I have a feeling Tommy will make me sing later too.”

“NO!” Sydney and I yell at the same time.

I shake my head. “Sorry. You can call him Tommy, Dicky, or Harry, but he’s still our dad. And in our naïve, little world, our Daddy doesn’t ever go there like Lautner or—” My posture deflates.

Deedy and Sydney stare at me, sympathy pouring from their tiny frowns.

“Jake …” I say his name on a slow sigh. “He was good at going there. Really, really good.”

“And by there you mean—” Deedy bites her lower lip.

“Wherever your there might be.” I cut her off.

Deedy nods slowly. “Oh … my there is—”

“Nope.” I hold up my index finger and wave it side to side. “It was a statement, not a question.”

Sydney snorts, and Deedy grins while nodding. “Fair.”

There’s a knock at the front door. Sydney slides the cup back to me as she stands. “I don’t want your backwash.” She answers the door and returns with an envelope. “Special courier delivery.”

I take the envelope with my name on it and open it.

“Who’s it from?” Sydney asks while taking a seat again at the table.

I shake my head, reading his message. “Anthony,” I mumble as a key drops onto the table. “It’s the address for a storage facility where he’s keeping my stuff.”

“You have a month to empty out your stuff, a grand in your checking account, and a new phone will be delivered tomorrow to your sister’s house. Don’t ever contact me again.”

“Wh—are you serious?” Sydney picks up the key and inspects it. “Did you message him or call him after dinner last night?”

“No.” I set down the letter and stare at it, rereading his words. “Don’t ever contact me again. Sounds like he’s mad. How did he go from begging for dinner to this?”

Sydney slides the key back to me. “Who cares? We’ll get that storage unit emptied tomorrow. You need to take that grand and open an account at a different bank and make sure the phone is brand-new and with a different provider. You need to completely cut him out of your life.”

“Amen.” Deedy holds up her mug of coffee like a toast.

Me? I read the letter a third time. It makes no sense. Anthony thrives on winning. This isn’t him winning. It’s him surrendering.

“Deedy, I’ll get Ocean up and have Dad watch Asher. We are going to get our hair done because it’s your wedding day!” Sydney’s so much better at Team Deedy than I am, but I’ll get there.

I stare at my fingernails. They are neat and trimmed, but I should’ve gotten them painted. Men are done ruling my life, toying with my emotions, and trampling my self-esteem. “Do we have time to stop someplace so I can get a couple coats of polish on my nails?”

Sydney grins. “Absolutely.”

* * *

“Fuck me …” I whisper.

“Shh!” Sydney nudges my elbow. “We’re in church,” she grits through her fake smile as Jake walks Deedy down the aisle.

Jake Matthews in a suit. My ovaries just exploded, sending a volcano of heat down to disintegrate my panties. I didn’t think I could possibly hate him more, but I do. He gets an extra dose of hate from me today because of how fuckable he looks in that black suit and mustard and white tie that matches the color of our strapless Dress Barn dresses.

I think it’s that Jake looks completely out of place in a suit, which makes him look vulnerable despite everything else about him that screams confidence.

Peeling my gaze off Jake, I watch my dad. He often looked at my mom that way. I don’t remember all the looks he gave her, I was young, but I remember this one. It’s bittersweet because I’m happy for him, but I miss my mom. It’s bittersweet because I caught a few glimpses of Jake looking at me like that on our trip. But that’s all they were—glimpses.

I deserve a man who looks at me like that, even on my worst day. And the most bittersweet reality of all is that I might not have ever realized my true self-worth had I not met Jake Matthews.

A tear releases from one eye. I quickly wipe it off my cheek.

The minister starts to speak of second-chance love.

Another unavoidable tear.

My dad mouths “I love you” to Deedy, and ten more tears insist on breaking free.

Lautner winks at Sydney.

More stupid tears.

Jake, from the front pew next to Asher, hands Ocean a handkerchief to give me, and … I die.

“Pull it together,” Sydney whispers.

I blow out a slow, shaky breath and think of something … anything to dam the emotions. Focusing on Deedy and my father, I think about tonight—their wedding night—and how she’s going to ask him to go there. And then I imagine where there might be and what he might do to her when he gets there.

Yep, that dries up all the tears. Now, I need to deal with the bile crawling up my throat.

“I pronounce you husband and wife.”

Our tiny gathering cheers as my dad kisses Deedy. It’s soft and fairly quick. PG for the grandkids. He takes her hand and leads her out of the sanctuary. Lautner follows them with his wife and two beautiful children.

The minister waits, but after a few moments of me staying rooted to the same spot and Jake unmoving from his seat on the pew, he exits the sanctuary as well.

And then there were two …

I can’t not look at him. Just his presence manages to demand my attention.

“I know what you want.” He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

I tighten my grip on my small bouquet, tighten my jaw, tighten the chains around my heart.

“Acceptance. You want me to accept you for who you are. The good, the bad, and everything in between.”

Acceptance.

I play with that word in my mind, applying it to the things that I’ve done, the person I am, the dreams I have, and the fears that haunt me.

“No.” I take three steps to walk toward the back of the sanctuary.

Jake grabs my wrist. “Ave …” Like his grip on me, his voice leaks desperation.

I jerk my arm from his grasp. “I don’t want you to accept me. I don’t accept how you’ve treated me. I don’t accept Anthony cheating on me. But here’s the thing with acceptance … it’s not really a choice. Not accepting something doesn’t change the fact that it happened or that something just is. Acceptance is this illusion that we’re in control. I unknowingly had a relationship with a married man. It. Happened. You choosing to accept it doesn’t change a single thing. So if your acceptance is simply your brain finally wrapping itself around reality, then yay for you. Good job, Jake. Whatever helps you sleep at night.” My feet move on their own, spurred by the self-preservation signal from my brain.

Just as I reach the back doors to the sanctuary, Jake’s defeated voice stops me. “So, that’s it? We’re over? There’s nothing I can say to make things right between us? Not a million sorry’s for what I said to you? Not begging you to forgive me for letting my past and all my resentment toward my past tear us apart? Nothing?”

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