I can see the ways Shep’s changed over the years. In college, he walked around like he was big man on campus, and he was in many ways. Now, though, he’s humbler. He’s settled into his fame…into himself. He’s passionate about the charities he works with. He’s not trying to be the cool guy anymore. He’s just Shep.

Those parts of him I adore.

But the parts that don’t own up to his mistakes? The Shep who continually blames everyone else for his actions? That’s the same eighteen-year-old boy who shut me out because he was too afraid to admit he loved me because of someone else’s failures.

Those parts of him I hate.

“Then prove it, because I want to believe you, Shep. I want to believe you so badly my bones ache with the desire to give in to you, to tell you it’s all okay and sweep it under the rug—but I can’t. This is about so much more than Delia. It’s about what happened five years ago. It’s about what happened last month.”

“Denny…” He takes a step toward me and I retreat from his advances.

“No. Until you stop blaming everyone and everything else for your mistakes, I can’t. I can’t do this anymore.” I wave a finger between us. “I can’t do us anymore. It doesn’t feel healthy or right. It feels toxic and wrong. It feels like unfinished business, and I want to be so much more than that.”

He shakes his head, not wanting to hear what I’m telling him. “You are more than that—so much more.”

“Tell that to all the people you’ve hurt and taken shots at because of your unresolved feelings for me.”

We stand there in silence, letting the reality of what just unfolded hang between us.

I can’t build a future with Shep when he’s still hanging onto the past. We said clean slate, and none of this feels like a clean slate. It feels like we’re just covering up old wounds.

“What can I do to change your mind?”

“Right now, I don’t know. I need some time.”

“Are we breaking up?”

“Yes. No. I really don’t know, Shep. I wasn’t aware we’d labeled this in the first place.”

“Don’t act like we had to. You know we didn’t.”

“Fine, but right now, I need space, okay? I need to think.”

“Okay, okay. Fine, I get it.” He holds his hands up in defeat. “But Den?”

“Yeah?”

Shep crosses the gazebo, and this time I don’t run from him. His hands cup my face, and I worry he’s going to kiss me—worry because I’m certain even now, I’d still kiss him back.

He’s not a bad guy. I know that. He’s made mistakes—too many to count—but deep down in his heart, I know he’s not bad.

I read somewhere one time that good people sometimes do bad things, but that doesn’t make them bad people.

That’s so fitting for Shep, but it doesn’t make me any less mad at him.

His fingers swipe over my cheeks and his hazel eyes bore into me. “For what it’s worth, this was never unfinished business. It can’t be, because I never stopped loving you.”

He doesn’t try to kiss me.

He just walks away.

And I’m left standing there feeling relieved, angry, and so goddamn confused.

Thirty-Two

Shepard

“I told you she should have heard it from you.”

I sigh into the phone. “I know, AJ. I fucking know, okay? But I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud. It just felt…gross.”

“That’s because it was a gross thing to do. I didn’t talk to you for months after that stunt, remember?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“She’s not entirely wrong, though,” he says. “You do make excuses for your actions.”

“What the hell is this? Shit on Shep week?”

“No. This is Shep needs to get his shit together before he loses the love of his life week.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon?” I growl at him.

“Yes—and, again, thank you for paying for it, you fucker.”

“You’re welcome.”

“But,” he says, continuing like I never spoke, “I couldn’t leave my best man hanging. I had to check in on ya. You were kind of a wreck when we left.”

“You mean when Denver tore my heart out and then your wife slapped me?”

“You have to admit, that slap was pretty badass.”

“If it hadn’t hurt so bad, I might have even gotten a boner.”

“Shepard…”

I laugh dryly. “I’m kidding…kind of.”

“Have you talked to her at all this past week?”

“Not a word. It’s making me anxious as hell too.”

“Have you reached out to her?”

“Too fucking chickenshit,” I admit. “She’s scary when she’s mad.”

“She’s mad for a good reason.”

“I know. You keep reminding me. Makes me wish I had ignored your call.”

“For the tenth time this week? You wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh, AJ, it amazes me sometimes how little you know me.”

I can’t see him, but I’m certain he’s flipping me off right now.

“Look, man, you just need to buck up and talk to her. You’re not that guy anymore.”

“I told her that. She didn’t buy it.”

“Then show her.”

“How in the hell am I supposed to do that? Take out a fucking billboard that says how much I love her?”

“If that’s what it takes, do it.”

“Babe! I’m back from my massage! Let’s have sex!” Allie shouts in the background.

“Shit, man. I gotta go. Fix shit with Denver and don’t tell Allie I called you. She’ll say I’m betraying her again.” He pauses. “Wait, no, go ahead and tell her—the makeup sex was amazing last time. Bye.”

He ends the call.

I groan and toss my phone onto the counter, apparently a little too hard because the fucker bounces right off and smacks onto the tile floor of my kitchen. I cringe, because I just know my screen has cracked.

“Fucking hell,” I mutter, covering my face with my hands. “This day blows!”

Steve lets out a bark, and I’m going to pretend that’s his way of backing me up on this.

If I had just told Denny about what happened, maybe this wouldn’t have—oh, who the hell am I kidding? She still would have been pissed, and rightfully so.

She’s right, though, and so is AJ: I do hold on to the past. I use it to my advantage. It took Denny standing there pointing out all my fucked-up flaws to make me realize that.

She was wrong about one thing though.

I have changed.

Now I just have to find a way to prove it to her.

My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy—but I most definitely do not have my mom’s spaghetti vomit on my sweater, especially considering she’s still pretty fucking pissed at me.

I rub my hands down my jeans for the millionth time. My nerves are absolutely shot right now, and I can’t bring myself to do anything other than stand around like a moron.

The door in front of me swings open.

“How long are you going to stand out here? You’re starting to creep out my neighbors. Janet called to tell me there’s a ‘strapping young man looking ready to faint’ on my front porch. Since I’m not about to perform CPR on your ass and I’m too goddamn stubborn to call 911, why don’t you just come in already?”

Zach stands before me, brows furrowed and jaw set with anger.

This is going to be fun.

He steps aside, waving me into his home for the first time in…well, way too fucking long for siblings who live in the same town half the year.

“Thanks, man,” I say as I step over the threshold.

“Take your shoes off.”

He leaves me standing in the foyer feeling unwelcome and awkward as hell.

See? It’s already fun.

As I’m toeing off my shoes, an all-white pygmy goat wearing Ryan Gosling Hey Girl jammies and a diaper comes running up to me, butting his head against my shin in a way that almost hurts.

“Knock it off, you little shit.”

“He’s a really good judge of character.”

I glance up to see Delia making her way down the hall. She has a small smile playing on her lips, but I know it’s not for me.

My right cheek begins to tingle when I see her, and I know that’s just the permanent reminder of the slap she gave me when Caleb dragged me to her apartment to “apologize”. We both knew back then it wasn’t much of an apology, but she let it slide anyway. I don’t get how she let me off so easily because I deserved so much worse, and she deserved so much better than that half-assed apology I gave her.

Why am I just now realizing this?

“Yeah,” I say. “I can see that.”

“Leave him be, Marshy.” She bends down and scoops up the goat then drops him off in a bed set up beside the stairs. “You can follow me.”

I trail behind her as she leads us into the kitchen, where Zach is moving around the space like it’s his domain.

“We’re having personal pizzas for dinner. Hope you brought your own.”

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