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If I could just hand her my heart, wouldn’t that be enough? Would it have to be served with some grand explanation?

Here, Ave. Take it. It’s yours.

If it’s not I’m sorry or I love you, then what is it?

How can she look so beautiful, so resigned to what’s happened yet so confident at the same time when this is unraveling every fiber of my heart?

She smiles. It’s stunning and real. “I’m going to find them at the beach.”

“I leave in two weeks. Maybe we could …” Desperation twists and crashes around in my head like a tornado. “Have dinner or something before I leave.” I stand, slipping my hands into my pockets, mirroring her. These hands itch to touch her, but I don’t think she’s mine to touch anymore.

Rolling her lips together, she nods a half dozen times. “Maybe breakfast or lunch downstairs? We can discuss my part-time employment at your cafe. I need another job for awhile.” She shrugs. “I’m willing to swallow my pride and admit it.”

“The job is yours.”

“No.” She holds up a hand. “You interview me. Hire me only if you find my qualifications acceptable. I don’t want any coworkers thinking I got the job out of pity or because I slept with the boss.”

“It’s running a juicer and blender. Seth makes all the other food. I’m sure you’re plenty qualified.”

Her lips twist. I want to kiss them. I want to drop to my knees and beg for time to rewind.

“But…” I step closer, leaving a few inches between her bare feet and mine “…I’ll train you before I head back home.”

“Home,” she whispers, staring at our feet.

“Ave …” I take the final step and cup the side of her face.

She leans into my touch, closing her eyes, face wrinkled like it pains her.

“I miss you so fucking much. And I know it’s somehow not enough, but I am truly sorry for what I said to you, for how I treated you. If I could take it back, I would.”

Her hand covers mine as she draws in a shaky breath. “I miss your touch.”

Inching closer, I feather my lips across her opposite check. “Then let me touch you.”

“Jake …”

My mouth covers hers, swallowing her weak plea. Her hands press to my chest and curl into fists, bringing me closer, deepening our kiss.

Please don’t stop … Please let me show you what you mean to me.

Her tongue slides into my mouth.

My hands slide into her hair.

We moan in unison.

How could I forget how much I love kissing this woman? She tastes like the orange and lime slices in the water. Her hair has a soft floral scent. And her skin … it’s all my hands ever want to touch. She’s just … all I ever want.

“St—stop.” She pulls away breathless, pressing the pads of her fingers to her lips, wide blue eyes unblinking. “I’m not her.” Her head inches side to side. “I’m not the girl you can manipulate with a kiss or empty promises. Not anymore.”

“Ave …” I run my fingers through my hair. “I’m not manipulating you.”

“You are. You’re distracting me. And you’re good at it, but … it’s all wrong. You can’t throw out temporary apologies and half-ass I love you’s just to get into my panties.”

“I …” My jaw falls open and stays there. How can she honestly believe that?

Because that’s all she’s ever known.

“I don’t want into your panties. I want into your heart, into your life.”

“I’m supposed to believe that you don’t want into my panties?” She crosses her arms over her chest, flipping her hip out to the side.

My eyes roll to the ceiling while I rest my hands on my hips, blowing out a slow breath. “I like what’s in your panties—a lot. But …” I return my attention to meet her expectant gaze. “I want you and all that that encompasses.”

“Don’t.” She shakes her head, more emotion pooling in her eyes. “When I told you about Steve, you didn’t grumble and clench your fists like I scratched the side of your truck. You basically called me a whore, a home-wrecker, a baby killer.”

“No, Ave …”

“Yes. Yes, Jake. That’s how much you love me. I was honest with you, and you punished me for it. You just … gave up on us.”

“I’m not giving up on us.” I step forward.

Avery steps back. “You did. And now that I’m put back together, you can’t just waltz into my life and decide you want me again. And you have no one to blame for it but yourself. You told me to stand the fuck up for myself. Well … this is me. And I’m not letting any man treat me like a whore ever again.” She slips on her sandals and grabs the door handle. Then … she freezes.

It takes me a few seconds to figure out what’s captured her attention. Releasing the handle, she picks up a ripped piece of paper from the entry table next to the door.

“Oh my god …” she whispers.

I close my eyes and sigh.

“You … you did this.”

My eyes open as she slowly turns toward me, holding up the paper with Anthony Bianchi’s address on it.

“You’re the reason he gave me back my stuff. The money … the phone … it was you.”

I don’t respond. Not even a flinch.

“How …” She shakes her head, brow wrinkled. “How did you get this address? Sydney?”

Deedy got it from Sydney, but I don’t say that.

“What did you do? Did you threaten him? Beat him up?”

I paid him a visit. There were subtle threats. He cooperated, so I didn’t have to beat him up. I would have. I would kill for her. But I don’t say that either.

“Why?” she whispers.

“You know why.”

Her gaze slips. She lets the piece of paper fall from her hand. And then she leaves.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Avery

A week later, I stare at the string of texts from Jake. It was so nice of Deedy to give him my new number.

Jake: The job is yours.

Jake: We can have an interview if you feel better about it. Noon tomorrow? Bring a resume.

Jake: Are you getting these messages?

Jake: I tried calling you. The voice mailbox isn’t set up.

Jake: Fine, Ave. It’s been a week with no response. I get the message. Hope you found another job. I’m heading back to Milwaukee this weekend. I’m sincerely sorry. I wish you only the best.

This weekend. That’s three days away.

“Taking off?” Heather, my friend who hired me to do barefoot bar massages, looks up as I slide my purse strap onto my shoulder.

“Yeah. If anything comes up, let me know. I can definitely fill in if one of the other girls calls in sick.”

“Will do. Thanks, Avery.”

I resist the urge to take my tiny paycheck and shop for a new handbag … it’s still hard to live on a budget. Old habits. Instead, I drive to Sydney’s house and hope to catch lunch with my sister and my favorite little people.

“Hello?” I slip off my sandals and shut the back door.

“Mom’s sick. I want to swim. Will you watch us?” Ocean shuffles into the kitchen, still in her pink nightshirt.

I cringe. “Well, I don’t want to get sick, and you two squirts don’t need to get sick, so yeah … let’s hang out by the pool today. Have you had lunch?”

She shakes her head.

“Okay. I’ll make some snacks. We’ll eat outside.”

Ocean runs off. “Asher, put on your swimsuit!”

I peek into Sydney’s room. “Hey.”

“Hey,” she mumbles, not opening her eyes or even moving from her fetal position.

“Did you call Dr. Lautner?”

“No. He has a conference today. I’m sick, not dying.”

“Anything I can get you?”

“No. The kids want to swim.”

“I’m on it. Text me if you need anything.”

“A bowl. I need a bowl. In case I don’t make it to the toilet.”

“Eww … Okay.” I get her a bowl, surgically scrub my hands after leaving her room, and change into my bikini.

I perch myself in the shade, on lifeguard duty. As the kids play, I stare at Jake’s texts again. “Why did it have to be you?” I whisper.

Me: Can we do the interview tomorrow?

I stare at my screen for a good five minutes, waiting for a response that’s not coming. As soon as I slip my sunglasses back on, my phone chimes.

Jake: I hired someone this morning. Sorry.

Did I do this to myself? Is this my pride and ego? How do I know where that line is if I can’t see it? And I can’t … I can’t see the line. Everything in my life is blurry.

Grunting a laugh, I shake my head. I honestly thought he was making up the job opening—for me. Because he loves me. Because he’d do anything to keep us connected, even if it’s in a small way like making me his employee halfway across the country. Another epic fail on my part. More bad judgment and inaccurate assumptions.

Me: Glad you found someone.

Jake: Thank you.

Me: You’re welcome.

“Nice, Avery …” I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose. Really? I just had to say you’re welcome. Why? Clearly because I can’t let go.

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