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I chuckle, but it’s the kind that hurts, the kind that steps up to take the pain when you’re just too cried out. “The English language has hundreds of thousands of words. There’s always … something to say.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

A week ago, we said goodbye to Dad and Deedy as they headed off on an impromptu honeymoon in a rental car pointed toward wine country. Today, I had a job interview.

“I got the job,” I interrupt Lautner as he drones on about some object he pulled out of a kid’s nose today.

Sydney hands me another slice of pizza as everyone at the table gives me their attention. Lautner doesn’t look bothered by my interruption. He holds a hopeful gleam in his blue eyes.

“It’s just part-time, so I’m not quite ready to move out.” I give him a tiny cringe of apology.

“No one said you have to move out.” He grins.

Why does he have to be so perfect? And why did he fall in love with Sydney before I had the chance to take him for myself?

“That’s great, Ave. And you think your hand is good? You’ll be able to massage people?” Sydney nods to the kids when Ocean asks if they can be excused from the table.

I want a table with kids who ask to be excused, and a husband who lovingly welcomes the homeless and jobless.

One step at a time.

“It’s barefoot bar. I’ll be fine. But I need to find something else to supplement that income. Also, I’ve been contacting some friends, looking for a roommate. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be awhile before I can rent on my own.” I take a bite of pizza.

Sydney and Lautner stare at me, eerily still and expressionless. On second thought, they look utterly shocked. Yeah, that’s the vibe I’m getting.

“What?” I shrug.

“Who are you?” Sydney chuckles, a nervous kind of laugh. “What happened to you between Milwaukee and here?”

I sigh, wiping my mouth. “The past month has bestowed several heavy doses of reality upon me. Love. Heartbreak. Loss. Humiliation. Maybe I found God again. Wouldn’t that make Dad proud?”

Sydney nods in micro increments, eyes slightly narrowed. “Give us a minute, babe.”

Lautner pauses the pizza at his mouth.

“Take the rest.” She shoves the box in his direction, tossing him a wicked smile.

I love their story. Their looks. The exchanges that say so much about how hard they worked to get to this point in their life. Will I ever share that same smile? The same kind of love?

He stands, bending over to bite her neck. She jumps and giggles. Her smile settles into something more somber and sympathetic when he saunters off with the rest of the pizza. Her attention returns to me.

“If Jake said he’s sorry, and you love him, what’s holding you back?” Sydney sets her napkin on the table and leans back in her chair, arms folded across her chest.

“Why did you wait so long to tell Lautner about Ocean?”

She frowns.

I shake my head on a slow sigh. “It’s not a real question. I know the answer. I know you were crippled by fear, the idea of rejection, and the need to protect your heart. Well …” I lean forward, resting my arms on the table. “I’m doing the same thing. I’d say it’s a Montgomery trait, but I think it’s a human trait. If Jake were emotionally stable, free of a troubled past, if he simply had this knee-jerk reaction to my confession … I think it would be easier to …”

“Forgive him?”

I shake my head. “I forgive him. I just don’t trust him. He has too many demons, and I’m a trigger for all of them.”

“So you love him. You forgive him. But you don’t think you can trust him?”

“Bingo.”

Sydney’s lips twist to the side. “Deedy thinks he’s quite the catch. Kind. Loyal. Protective. I don’t sense she feels he’s not trustworthy. But … I’m Team Avery. So, if he’s not trustworthy for you, then I support your decision. I never imagined you’d be the calm in the storm these past few weeks, but other than the makeup incident at the rehearsal dinner, you’ve been helpful with the kids—”

“I love Ocean and Asher. That’s nothing new. And what do you mean by makeup incident?”

“Really?” She curls a few strands of hair around her finger. “So you didn’t panic at the thought of seeing Jake? You didn’t want to prove to him that you’re your own person?”

“Pfft … I didn’t panic. I had an epiphany. Two totally different things.”

Laughter bubbles from Sydney’s chest. “An epiphany?”

“Yes. I realized that I let him in my head to the point that I didn’t know if my thoughts were mine or his.” I shrug. “The fact is … I like makeup and clothes. I like it when my hair looks nice and my nails are painted. If I don’t use these things to measure my self-worth, then I don’t see why it’s a problem.”

She stands, gathering the dirty plates. “Maybe you did find God.” A smirk tugs at her lips. “You do you, Ave. Just make sure you’re not letting your ego and pride steal something that has great potential.”

I help her clear the table, opening my mouth several times before clamping it shut. Sydney gives me several knowing glances, taunting me to react, to say more.

“He’s a good kisser.” I break the silence.

“Yeah?” Sydney gives me a raised eyebrow.

Biting back my grin, I nod. “If he could love me the way he kisses me … you’d be the jealous sister for once.” I wink at her.

* * *

Jake

Two weeks later.

Sage Leaf Cafe, Los Angeles

“Yo, Jake! A group of women out front are asking for you. Hot ones.” Seth wipes his hands on a white bar towel and grins at me before pushing his way back through the swinging door to the front of the restaurant.

I finish entering a few sales figures into my accounting program and shut my laptop.

“You didn’t think I was going to leave without saying goodbye, did you?” Deedy saunters around the counter and gives me a big hug and kisses me on the cheek.

My gaze falls over her shoulder to Sydney, Ocean, and Avery, and my chest tightens. “How was wine country?” I force confidence and enthusiasm into my words. Avery makes me nervous and anxious—and awkward. It’s not easy being friendly but not overbearing. Confident, even when I want to beg her to just tell me how to make things right.

“Beautiful. We stayed at three different B&B’s. I don’t want to go home, but duty calls. The honeymoon is over.” She grabs my hand and pulls me around the counter. “I wanted to have lunch with you and my new favorite girls before leaving. Know a good place to eat?”

Sydney chuckles when I smile, and Avery’s lips turn up just a fraction. Her airy white top accentuates her tan. Her denim miniskirt is probably designer, like her bag and shoes, but her hair is messy, perfectly windblown, and her face bears very little makeup.

However, that gaze of hers … it ping-pongs around the room like it’s too much to look at me for more than a few seconds. This intensifies the pain in my chest. Deedy gave me Avery’s new phone number. My thumb has hovered over the call button a hundred times. I’ve driven past Sydney’s house at least another hundred times.

Words.

So many damn words.

I can’t find the right ones. When I think I’ve figure it out, this little voice in my head convinces me to find new ones, better ones. But right now, I can’t find a single one.

“Or … do you not have time for us?”

“What?” I shake out of my Avery daze and refocus on Deedy. “Real funny. Yeah, I do happen to know a place. Hey, Seth. We’ll be upstairs. Can you please bring up an assortment from the menu?”

“You got it.”

“Upstairs? Did you finish repainting?” Deedy asks.

“Yep, last week. Follow me.”

I lead them up the backstairs to my apartment. At the top of the stairs, I hold open the door for everyone. Avery is last in line. She risks a quick glance at me while bending down to slip off her platform sandals. I give her my best smile. Maybe it will help me channel the best words.

“This table is amazing!” Sydney runs her hand along my irregular-shaped table made from several old tree stumps.

“Thanks. It was custom made from an eco-friendly furniture store up in San Francisco.”

“And your view. Ocean, come look at the surfers.” Sydney waves Ocean toward the wall of windows.

Avery takes slow steps around my studio apartment with her fingers dipped into the front, shallow pockets of her miniskirt. She says nothing but seems to give everything a thorough inspection.

“Can we walk down to the beach?” Ocean asks.

“Maybe after lunch.”

“You guys surf?” I get everyone glasses of fresh citrus water.

“Ocean and Lautner surf. I take pictures.” Sydney sits at the table, running her hand over the glassy-smooth surface again.

“Ave, do you surf?” I ask like she’s a recent acquaintance, not like having her here, in my space, has my heart hammering against my chest because all I want to do is go back in time and change how I reacted to her confession.

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