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She cocks her head at a black and white photo of me from my very last fight. I was more ripped then, my head shaven, one eye swollen shut. Unrecognizable to anyone who didn’t know me then, except for my tattoos. It’s not a glamour shot. But … I won.

“Sometimes,” she mumbles, cocking her head to the other side.

“Rarely.” Sydney rolls her eyes.

“More than you.” Avery’s tone remains even, like she’s answering on autopilot, not at all bothered by her sister challenging her.

My lungs trap my breath as Avery’s finger brushes along the photo over my swollen eye and the trail of blood down my cheek.

Blood, sweat, and tears.

That’s what Gavin told me it would take to beat my undefeated opponent. I’m pretty sure that it’s going to take so much more than that to make things right with the woman I love.

After three quick knocks, I open the door and take the trays of food from Seth. “Thanks, buddy.”

I serve the food, giving Deedy a wink when she leaves the chair next to Avery for me.

Avery pulls her phone out of her purse and glances at something on the screen for a few seconds before sliding the phone back into her purse.

“New phone?” I hand everyone napkins.

“Yes.” She inspects my face like she’s still trying to connect it to the one in the photo.

“New phone. And she got all of her stuff back from Anthony without a fight or meeting him for dinner. Dad gave his ‘God works in mysterious ways’ speech. And Lautner’s friend owns a car dealership, and he’s loaned Ave a used car to ‘test drive’ until she gets a full-time job.” Sydney, taps her fork on her lower lip. “Which really another part-time job would work. Right, Ave?”

Avery lifts the top of the bun to her chickpea sandwich, probably looking for bacon. “Maybe.”

“Avery’s back to giving massages, mostly barefoot bar.” Deedy adds. “But it’s only part-time.”

Avery has a true fan club today. That’s good. She deserves it.

I take a bite of my sandwich and wait for Avery to look at me, but she doesn’t. “I know the owner of the cafe downstairs. He has a part-time opening if you can run a blender and a juicer.”

This gets her attention. Eyes wide. Lips parted.

I shrug. “No guarantee. I’m just saying I could put in a good word for you.”

“Sounds perfect.” Sydney grins.

Avery whips her head toward her sister, shooting her a traitorous scowl.

“What? It does. It’s a job. Not a career. It will help give you back some independence until you can regroup and figure out where you want to be long term.”

Avery takes a bite of her food and doesn’t say another word or look at anyone for the rest of lunch.

“Can we go to the beach now?” Ocean tugs on Sydney’s arm.

“Yes, sweetie. You two coming?”

“Absolutely.” Deedy sets the rest of the dishes by the kitchen sink and gives me a sideways glance while lowering her voice. “Her family wants to know what you did to her. They say she’s not the same person she was before the trip.”

I lift a questioning brow at Deedy for a few seconds then glance back at Avery and Sydney, who aren’t paying attention to us. “I … I don’t know.” My gaze returns to Deedy.

“Why’d you hurt her?”

“I didn’t mean to. I just didn’t know how to deal with … things.”

“And by things you mean you didn’t think before you lashed out about something that wasn’t her fault?”

Rubbing my hand over my face, I mumble my frustration with a low groan and take another quick glance over my shoulder. “Yes. It’s just that in the moment, when she told me about the affair, it took me back to everything Meg went through, and it felt like Avery was partly to blame.”

“She told you about the affair?”

I nod.

Deedy leans closer, keeping her voice low. “She voluntarily told you about it, and you acted that way?”

Another nod.

“You fucked up.”

My head jerks back. Missionary Deedy dropping the F-bomb is a new experience for me.

“Well …” She smirks, picking invisible lint from the sleeve of my T-shirt. “There’s really no other good way to say it. Avery is my family now, but you are too. So, figure out a way to make things amicable.”

I shrug. “They are. We just ate lunch together. We did fine at the wedding.”

“No. She’s being fake friendly for my benefit. She’s secretly hating you because she loves you, and you changed her. Now she doesn’t know what the hell to do with herself. You fucked her up. Fix it.”

“Ocean used the restroom. Let’s go, ladies.” Sydney interrupts our hushed conversation. “Ave?” Sydney tugs on the hem of Avery’s shirt to get her attention.

Avery looks up over her shoulder, standing close to the window by my bed. “No.” She glances at me. “I need to have a few words with Jake.”

Sydney nods, jerking her head toward the door to the stairs. Ocean and Deedy follow her.

“We’ll be back in an hour or so. Sound good?” Deedy lifts an eyebrow at Avery.

She nods.

Then Deedy scowls at me with a stern warning in her eyes, just before the door clicks shut behind them.

Avery walks to the middle of the room again, rubbing her hands down the front of her skirt three times. I ease into my recliner and wait for her to set the tone for whatever is supposed to be said.

“Deedy told me about Gavin’s death.”

I try to clench my jaw and hold still to hide my reaction. The day will never come that his name alone doesn’t cause every muscle in my body to tighten with regret. It was an accident. I know it, but it doesn’t change the consequences. Bad things happen all the time as a result of an accident. Gavin died. He was a good person. My mom died. She was a good person. Megan’s baby died. He was perfect and completely innocent. But my father—the opposite of good and innocent—still walks the earth.

So. Fucking. Unfair.

“I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I unknowingly slept with a married man. I’m sorry I tried to poison you. I’m sorry you got roped into taking Swarley and me on your special road trip. I’m sorry for every second of inconvenience, for the oxygen I stole from your sacred little bubble.”

“I never asked for an apology.”

“I’m not apologizing for you. I’m apologizing to you.” She turns her back to me, once again, staring at the black and white photo.

I just want to hold her and make things right.

After a minute or two of silence, her posture deflates. “Part of me wishes I would have known you when this photo was taken. I would have loved to have been the girl waiting in your corner. I would have loved to have known that Jake … the fearless one who didn’t hold onto his anger. This …” She steps closer to the photo.

“This was the stripped-down version of you. This was your acoustic song. I know this because when I left Megan’s house, I felt like how you look in this photo—battered. Nearly broken. Exhausted. Unrecognizable. But…” she turns back toward me with tears in her eyes “…also victorious. Stronger. Changed. You did that. You gave me a fight when I needed it. You taught me to take a punch and get back up. You showed me that what we see on the outside can be very deceiving. A scar doesn’t mean you were weak. A scar means you survived. A scar is a badge of strength.”

When she blinks, several tears slide down her cheeks, but she doesn’t move to wipe them away. “You left scars, but now I’m stronger. So … thank you.”

“I love you, Avery.” The words tumble out. I hate how empty they probably sound to her, but it’s all that’s in my head and my heart.

She nods, slowly brushing away the tears and sniffling. “I know you do. But it won’t last because it was built on something weak—your expectations of me. And I can’t stand on those forever. I will stumble and fall. I will crash and crumble. And eventually, I won’t be recognizable to you because you’ll always remember me at my best, when loving me was easy.”

“That’s not true.” I lean forward, resting my elbows on my knees.

“Isn’t it? I think you see your mom in my fragility. You definitely see Francine in the things I like. And I think when I told you about my relationship with Megan’s husband, you saw your father in me. I’m this all-encompassing demon you’re determined to slay. If you can love me in spite of all the things you hate about me, then you win.”

“You’re running. That’s what this is. You’re running, and you’re blaming it on me.”

She chuckles, shaking her head and slipping her fingers into her front pockets again. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. You’re the runner. You’re the one who will be leaving for Milwaukee. And that’s okay. I’m okay, Jake. But not in spite of you. I’m okay because of you.”

There’s a clawing need just under my skin, a need that makes my heart race. I don’t want us to end, but I don’t know what to say.

The words. The fucking words.

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