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“Okay, how much will it cost to get it road-ready again?”

“Fifty-five hundred.”

“What the fu—” I grimace as my dad gives me a disapproving look. “Fudge stripes are you talking about? I don’t think the whole vehicle is worth that much.”

“I’m afraid I have to agree with you there. It has over 200,000 miles on it, and from what we can see, it doesn’t look like you’ve had regular maintenance on it.”

After setting my glass on the railing, I rub my temples, taking a deep breath. “Thanks. Bye.”

“Wait, ma’am, what do you want to do?”

“Nothing. Just keep it.”

“Wait—”

I press end. “My Honda is dead. I need a car.”

“Avery, you can borrow mine.” Deedy gives me a sympathy frown that matches the one my dad’s wearing.

I shake my head. “No. I don’t need to borrow a car. I need a new one, but I don’t have a job.” I hold up my injured hand. “Or a way to make money.”

Or a sugar daddy.

“Since I can’t afford one at the moment, I’m going to have to just take a rental car back to L.A. and figure things out from there.”

“Avery, I don’t want you driving all the way back there by yourself. I’m not at all happy that you drove to Illinois without someone with you. It’s not safe for you to travel alone.”

I nod toward my nemesis. “I have Swarley.”

“An old dog. Not good enough. Maybe we should drive you home.”

“No!”

Even Swarley jumps to attention at my adamant refusal to drive all the way to Los Angeles with my father and the Deedy.

My apology comes in the form of a stiff smile. “Swarley likes to sprawl out, taking up more than half of the backseat. It would be a miserable trip for the three of us with him and all of my luggage.”

“Avery, I’m not letting you go by yourself.”

“Let’s not worry about this right now. I’ll get something figured out.”

Hitchhiking.

Leaving Swarley behind and flying home first class.

Slitting my wrists.

Anything that doesn’t involve road-tripping with them.

“Deedy, do you need help with dinner?”

“Thanks, but it’s all in the Instant Pot. Just twenty more minutes.”

“Okay.” I smile. “Then let’s uh…” I jab my good thumb over my shoulder “…get your things unloaded from the van, Dad.”

“Your hand.” Deedy removes herself from my father’s lap. “You go inside and rest, Avery. I’ll call over a few neighbor friends to help out. We’ll have this unloaded in no time.”

“I have one good hand. I can carry some light stuff.”

“Sit.” She points to the empty chair that my dad vacated because it’s a new law that he and Deedy have to stay within fondling distance of each other at all times.

“Fine.” I roll my eyes and take a seat in the chair, having had no real intentions of helping unload the truck. I’m trying to not pop anymore pain pills for my hand, but it aches at the moment.

Ten minutes later, half the neighborhood arrives to unload my dad’s stuff. As the worker bees pass in and out of the house, I hug my injured hand to my chest so they know I’m wounded and not simply lazy.

“Hey, handsome dog, fancy seeing you again.”

My head snaps up from my phone screen at the sound of Bethanne’s voice—one of the nice ones from Sage Leaf Cafe. She shoots me a grin while carrying a box up the steps. “Hello again.”

“Hi, wow. Small world. You live in the neighborhood?”

She jerks her head to the side. “Two houses over. I love this neighborhood, especially Deedy. She’s the bomb.”

Before I can add my opinion on Deedy being the bomb, Bethanne continues into the house with the box. When she returns, she wipes her brow and leans against the porch railing. “I’m Bethanne, by the way.”

I nod. “Yes, I heard Jake say your name. I’m Avery.”

She nods. “How do you know Deedy?”

She’s my father’s belated midlife crisis.

“My dad met her online.”

“Oh my god! You’re one of Tom’s daughters?”

With a tightlipped smile, I nod.

“Deedy has been talking about him nonstop. She’s so in love. I talked her off the ledge of a nervous breakdown the night before she asked him to marry her.”

“Wait. She asked him?”

Bethanne makes a quick glance out to the yard and lowers her voice. “Yes. She said he wouldn’t agree to meet her in person because he was lonely and he knew he wouldn’t be able to let her go.”

I try to hide my flinch. He was lonely. I press my hand closer to my chest, but not because my hand hurts—this time it’s my heart.

Loneliness is the side effect of solitude starving the soul. I know it quite well.

“I didn’t know,” I whisper.

“Don’t feel bad. He found Deedy.”

My gaze inches to Bethanne’s. “He’s not rich.”

She chuckles. “Deedy doesn’t care about money. It’s all about love. I can promise you, she loves him.”

My attention shifts from Bethanne to my dad and Deedy unloading the truck with her village of friends. He looks happy.

Really.

Truly.

Happy.

“Thank you.” I smile. “I just didn’t see it.” Probably because I’ve never had a man look at me like my dad looks at Deedy.

“So how long are you staying in Milwaukee?”

“Just until I figure out how to get back to L.A. with my sister’s dog. My car took its last breath. Flying isn’t an option. And my dad refuses to let me drive by myself. I already tried closing my eyes and snapping my fingers three times, but it didn’t work. I’m still here.”

She grins. “Ya know … I might have just the ticket you need.”

“Ticket?”

“Yeah. I bet I can get you a ride if you’re willing to wait until next week.”

I frown. “I was thinking of sneaking out before my dad swallows his erectile dysfunction pill.”

“Ha! I get that. But seriously, if you don’t mind waiting, I can get a ride for you and your sister’s dog.”

“You’re not planning on stowing me in the back of a semitrailer filled with cheese are you?”

“I would never.” She grins. “Meet me at the cafe around ten tomorrow morning, and we’ll get it all planned out.”

“Can we meet somewhere else? I think I should avoid that Jake guy at all costs.”

“I’m working tomorrow, but I can take a break at ten. And the last thing you should do is avoid Jake.”

“Why would you say that?”

Bethanne skips back toward the moving van. “You’ll see.”

* * *

“You going to sleep all day?”

I hide my head under the pillow of the twin bed in Deedy’s sewing room. She said the bed belonged to her younger brother who died. Nothing creepy about sleeping in a dead person’s bed on sheets that must be the lowest thread count ever.

“Dad, I’m still on West Coast time. Leave me alone.”

He tickles my foot peeking out from the veil-thin sheet.

I jerk and draw my knees to my chest. “Stop!”

“It’s 9:30. Deedy made breakfast, and yours is cold. I’ll warm your coffee up, just come share your beautiful face with us.”

I shoot up, batting at the matted hair on my face. “9:30? Shit! I’m going to be late.”

“Late for what?”

I stumble toward my suitcase, rifling through its contents. “I’m supposed to meet Bethanne at the cafe at ten.”

“Deedy’s neighbor?”

After failing to find my Alexis floral romper, I unzip my second suitcase. Of course, it’s at the bottom. “Yes. Bethanne works at that Sage Leaf Cafe. She’s finding Swarley and me a ride to L.A. so you don’t have to stress over me going by myself.”

I shove him toward the door. “I have to get ready. My makeup will be hideous at this rate and don’t even get me started on my hair.”

“But Ave—”

Click.

I jump into my outfit, paint on a terribly hurried layer of makeup, a little antiperspirant, and gather my long hair into a messy bun before flying past my dad and Deedy canoodling on the sofa, straight out the door. “Would someone feed Swarley?” I call just before the door shuts behind me.

CHAPTER FOUR

I make it to the cafe by 10:05. Deedy probably would have loaned me her car, but I haven’t decided if I’m ready to ask her for favors. She might misconstrue my desperateness as approval of her engagement to my dad.

My lonely dad … I still can’t shake the guilt from Bethanne’s revelation.

“I’m so sorry I’m late. I forgot to set my alarm, and my body is on West Coast time, and—”

Bethanne waves off my apologies. “It’s fine. I’m running a few minutes late for break anyway. We’re pretty chill around here.” She slides a pile of chopped mango into a container and snaps the lid on it.

I glance around at the vacant cafe. “Are you open?”

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