I took the clipboard from her grip and walked over to the sitting area.

The overhead television was tuned to Animal Planet, and there was a train set in the far corner, which Emma and Bubba quickly occupied. Stranger kept staring at me, his stance hard and distant. “I need some information,” I said. He approached slowly, sat down beside me, and rested his hands in his lap.

“What’s his name? Your pet?” I asked.

He parted his lips and paused before saying, “Zeus.”

I smiled at the name. Such a perfect name for a large golden retriever.

“And your name?”

“Tristan Cole.”

After finishing the paperwork, I handed it back to the receptionist. “Anything Zeus needs, just put the charges on my card.”

“Are you sure?”


“It could add up quickly,” she warned.

“Then add it up quickly.”

I sat back down beside Tristan. His hands started tapping against his shorts and I observed the nerves rushing through him. When I looked at him, he was staring with the same confusion that’d been there since we’d crossed paths.

His lips started muttering something as his fingers rubbed against each other quickly before he put his headphones against his ears and hit play on his cassette tape.

Emma walked over to me every now and then, asking when we could go home, and I’d tell her a little longer. On her way back to the train set, she stared at Tristan, taking in all of his features. “Hey, mister.” He ignored her. She placed her hands on her hips. “Hey, mister!” she said, raising her voice. A year staying with Mama had made my mini-me a sassy-monster. “Hey, Mister! I’m talking to you!” she said, tapping her feet. Stranger looked down at her. “You’re a big, fat, giant TICK!”

Oh my gosh.

I shouldn’t have been allowed to parent. I sucked at the parent thing.

I went to scold her, but for a second I saw a tiny smile creep behind Tristan’s thick beard. It was almost nonexistent, but I swore I saw his bottom lip twitch. Emma had a way of making even the darkest souls smile; I was living proof.

Another thirty minutes passed before the vet came out to inform us that Zeus would be fine, just a few bruises and a fractured front leg. I thanked the vet, and as he walked away, Tristan’s hands loosened and his body stood still. Every inch of him began to shake. With one deep inhale, the angry asshole disappeared and was replaced with despair. He lost himself in his emotions, and when he exhaled, he began to sob uncontrollably. He wailed, his tears harsh, raw, and painful. My eyes watered over, and I swore a part of my heart broke right along with his.

“Hey, Tick! Hey, Tick! Don’t cry, Tick,” Emma said, tugging on Tristan’s T-shirt. “It’s okay.”

“It’s okay,” I said, echoing my sweet girl’s words. I placed a comforting hand against his shoulder. “Zeus is okay. He’s good. You’re good.”

He tilted his head toward me and nodded as if he kind of believed me. A few deep breaths were taken, and he pinched his fingers over his eyes, shaking his head back and forth. He tried his best to hide his embarrassment, his shame.

His throat cleared, and he moved away from me. We stayed at a distance until the vet brought Zeus out to leave. Tristan wrapped his hands around his dog, who was tired but still managed to wag his tail and give his owner puppy kisses. Tristan smiled, and it was almost impossible to miss this time. It was a big smile of relief. If love was a moment, this would be where it existed.

I didn’t invade their space. Emma took my hand, and we walked a few steps behind Tristan and Zeus as they exited the hospital.

Tristan began to walk away with Zeus in his arms, uninterested in a ride back into town. I wanted to stop him, but I had no real reason to ask him to turn back. I buckled Emma into her seat and as I closed her door, I jumped out of my skin when I saw Tristan standing a few inches from me. His eyes locked in with mine. My eyes wouldn’t look away. My breathing became jagged, and I tried my best to remember the last time I’d stood that close to a man.

He stepped in closer.

I stayed still.

He took a breath.

I took one too.

One breath.

That’s all I could manage.

Our proximity made my stomach knot, and I was already prepared to say ‘you’re welcome’ for the ‘thank you’ I was certain he was going to give me.

“Learn how to drive a fucking car,” he hissed before he walked off.

Not a ‘thank you for picking up the bill’, not a ‘thank you for driving me’, but a ‘learn how to drive a fucking car.’

Well then.

With a small whisper, I responded into the wind that swept against my chilled skin. “You’re welcome, Tick.”

Chapter Three


“Well, it took long enough for you two to get here!” Kathy smiled, walking out of the front door of the house. I hadn’t a clue that she and Lincoln would be meeting us at the house, but it made complete sense seeing as how they hadn’t seen us in so long, and only lived about five minutes away.

“Grammy!” Emma shouted as I unbuckled her from her car seat. She jumped out of the car and dashed toward her grandmother, happier than ever. Kathy wrapped her arms around Emma and lifted her up for a big hug. “We’re back home, Grammy!”

“I know! And we are so happy to hear that,” Kathy said, giving Emma kisses all over her face.

“Where’s Poppi?” she asked, referring to Lincoln, her grandfather.

“Looking for me?” Lincoln said, walking out of the house. He looked so much younger than his actual age of sixty-five. Kathy and Lincoln would probably never truly grow old—they had the youngest hearts in the world and were more active than most people my age. Once I’d gone on a run with Kathy and died after about thirty minutes—and she said we were only one-fourth of the way into the jog.