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I stand, slinging the straps of my bag onto my shoulder. “Two days is perfect. The sooner I get home the better.” I offer my hand.

“I said I’m leaving earlier, but I’m still not rushing. You won’t hurry me. You won’t complain. You won’t be a child, nagging me with incessant Are we there yet’s. Got it?”

How long does he think it takes to drive to California? I withdraw my proffered hand since he shows no interest in sealing the deal with a friendly handshake.

“Got it. Give me your phone and I’ll give you my number.”

Bethanne grabs his phone from the counter behind them and holds it up to his face to unlock it. He ignores her, giving me a blank stare accented with the occasional blink. I enter my information into his contacts.

“I don’t know Deedy’s address. Message me and I’ll send it to you when I get there. Or … duh. She’s Bethanne’s neighbor. Deedy, for some reason, thinks highly of you.” My eyes start to roll, but I stop myself.

He nods slowly.

“She’s planning on marrying my father. Reason number one why I need to leave as soon as possible. I’ve hit my limit of shocking, life-changing news.”

Jake shoots Bethanne a squinted look.

Her nose wrinkles. “I forgot to mention the new man in Deedy’s life is in town. I helped move him into her house yesterday. And … they are getting married. Sorry … I should have told you.”

“What am I missing?”

They both say, “Nothing,” at the same time, which means it’s something.

* * *

Two days later, I say a sad goodbye to my father. A part of me feels like I’ve lost him. Maybe this is how a father feels when he gives his daughter away at the altar. He gave Sydney away. Will he ever give me away? Or will this be it … me giving him away?

“What’s happened to you?” I sit on my larger suitcase to close it.

My dad leans against the wall by the door, arms crossed over his chest. “I’m not following.”

“You’re letting your baby girl hitch a ride with a complete stranger. A guy. And you have no misgivings about it?”

“Deedy trusts him implicitly, so I trust her judgment. And I’ve prayed for your safe return to L.A.”

I lug both suitcases to the door of the sewing room. Hopefully Deedy trusts Jake implicitly to carry my suitcases to his vehicle.

Dad cradles my face, and I rest my hands over his. “Did you call Sydney back yet?”

I nod. “Yesterday.”

“Good.” He smiles.

I miss his fatherly touch, the comfort only a father can give.

“Have you heard the saying Love doesn’t divide, it multiplies?”

I blink back the tears.

“My precious daughter, how do you think God can love every single person on this earth? I’m sharing my life with Deedy, but the love I have for you and Sydney can never be shared. Not with each other and not with Deedy.”

I set a few tears free.

“And I’m not giving Deedy the love I had and will always have for your mom.”

“Bethanne said you were lonely.”

He gives me a small smile. “I was but that’s life. Peaks and valleys. I thanked God for my life, and I even thanked him for the years I’ve had by myself to reflect on my life—the love and loss. Then I asked him for … something.”

He rubs his thumbs over my wet cheeks. “I didn’t even know what that was until a friend of mine told me about the church chatroom.”

“Anthony cheated on me.” A sob breaks free. I’ve been waiting to say those words that have been locked up in a prison of denial for days. “And he’s taking away the spa. Now I don’t have a job. And my hand may never be the same. A-and … and I’m almost thirty with no direction, no other skills.”

“Oh, Avery, Avery, Avery …” He pulls me into his arms and kisses the top of my head. “Have faith. Embrace this time in your life and be open to the lessons life has to teach you.”

“I am. I’ve learned to hate all men except you.”

He chuckles. “I fear you’re distracted by the little details and therefore missing the bigger picture. Be open to let miracles grace your life.”

“Jake’s here,” Deedy calls from the living room.

I fish a tissue from my purse. “My makeup …”

“Go do your thing in the bathroom. We’ll get your stuff loaded up, and I’ll make sure Swarley is ready to go too.”

I kiss my dad on the cheek. “Thank you.”

After fixing my smeared makeup and using the bathroom one last time, I grab my handbag and meet everyone in the driveway. Jake scratches his head while staring at my luggage, one hand planted on his hip.

“Hi.”

He looks up at me with slightly narrowed eyes. My gaze drops to his T-shirt with a duct tape X over the front of it.

Silence is Golden

Duct Tape is Silver

“In case you needed a reminder.” He grins.

I frown. “That’s a red pickup truck.”

“Sorry, did you request a different color?” Jake slips his hands in the front pockets of his jeans.

“Where’s the RV?”

“RV?”

“Recreational vehicle.”

He shakes his head. “I know what it stands for. I just don’t know why you’re talking about it.”

“Because you said we’re going to camp along the way.”

“We are.” He points to the bed of the truck. “See, there’s a tent, two sleeping bags, a cooler, a camping stove, a hand-powered blender, camping chairs, food, and other miscellaneous supplies. But there’s no room for two large suitcases, a duffel bag filled with dog supplies, and a dog bed.”

“You think I’m going to sleep in a tent? In a sleeping bag?”

Jake gives my dad a polite smile. I’m sure behind it he’s choking on his words, but why would he offer to give us a ride if he didn’t have room?

“Avery, how would you feel about us shipping one of your suitcases to your apartment?” Deedy asks.

“I have stuff I need in both suitcases. I’d have to repack both of them, and I can’t guarantee I can get everything I might need for the trip into just one of them.”

Jake grumbles as he hops into the bed of the truck, reshuffling everything. After a few minutes, he retrieves ties from under the backseats, heaves my two suitcases onto the pile of camping supplies, and secures everything with the straps.

My dad whistles for Swarley to get in the backseat, then he and Deedy thank Jake for his generosity, which is crazy because how well do any of us know this tattooed, muscle-bound serial killer?

Deedy hugs me and whispers in my ear, “I’ll take care of him.”

I start to refute her assumption that my dad needs someone to take care of him, but I choke on my stupid emotions that are a culmination of my hand, Anthony, Swarley, my joblessness, the death of my vehicle, and the fact that I’m leaving on a long road trip with a man who feels a bit cold toward me—oh, and we’re camping with a tent. A. TENT!

“And this too will pass.” My dad gives me an encouraging smile before hugging me. “Be grateful and God will bless you, Avery. I love you.”

The lump in my throat feels like it could asphyxiate me, so all I manage to get out is, “You too.”

Jake opens my door for me. I’m sure it’s just for show. Something tells me by our next stop, I’ll be chasing the vehicle so he doesn’t leave me—unless I’m dead. He’s going to kill me.

Startling me with his close proximity—the warmth of his body and his clean, woodsy scent—he helps me fasten my seat belt so I don’t fumble it with my injured hand. After it clicks, our gazes lock, his face a breath away from mine. I squeak out the words that I’ve been dying to say. “Make my death quick, and please don’t tie me up. I’m claustrophobic.”

Now it’s his turn to roll his eyes and disregard my request as preposterous, but he doesn’t.

“Noted.” He winks. A very conspiratorial, evil wink. “Paws in, Swarley,” he says louder just before closing both doors.

CHAPTER FIVE

Day One

Destination: Chicago, Illinois

“Do you hate me?” I break the silence after thirty minutes into our road trip.

A tiny smile quirks the corner of Jake’s mouth as he keeps his eyes on the road. “No. I don’t hate you. I don’t really know you.”

“But I annoy you?”

“Your kind annoy me.”

“My kind? You mean women?”

“No.”

I wait for further explanation, but he doesn’t give any.

“Are you going to stare at me the whole way?”

My head jerks forward. “How uncouth of you to call me out on it. I was just …”

He makes a quick sidelong glance. “What? Scowling at me?”

“Wondering what girl pissed on your kale salad.”

“Oh, we’re back to this? You think I hate women. I like women just fine. Some more than others.”

“Some kinds more than others?”

Another amused purse of his lips. “Yes. I suppose that would be accurate.”

“I’m not stupid.”

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