“The truth.” Sean glances at me, like he doesn’t know what to do with me. “Avery’s friendships are questionable at best. Everyone has something on her, except you. If people find out what she does, you go down with her. I don’t extend trust often, so don’t blow it.”

I expect Mel to go all cray cray on his ass, but she just rolls her eyes. “Like your trust matters to me, tightey whitey. I’m done with this conversation.” She turns to me, “Avery, you’ll have to put up with this loser for a little while longer. Don’t do something stupid while I’m gone. And if you decide to give him that ring, you should shove it up his ass.” She walks away muttering obscenities. I can tell she likes Sean, a little, but still thinks he’s more trouble than he’s worth.

“Uh, Mel,” I call after her. She gives me a super-irritated look after turning around. Giving her a half smile, I hold up my keys. “You need these. And when I get back, we can hit IHOP. Promise.”

Mel snatches the key ring from my hand. There’s a unicorn on it from when I was in seventh grade. My mom gave it to me after Missy Walker humiliated me in the girl’s locker room. My boobs were virtually nonexistent then, and Missy made sure everyone knew it. There’s a story my mom told me, about seeing through the surface and recognizing the magic that lies beneath. No one notices that the white animal is a unicorn at first. They see a snowy mare and nothing more. It isn’t until you really look at the thing that you see its horn. It’s transparent and gleams against the silver plate, and it’s the kind of thing a person misses if they look quickly.

My mom taught me to look beyond the surface and I can’t help but smile because Mel is like that. On the outside, she’s beauty and fire, fang and tooth. She’ll rip a person to shreds for the fun of it. At least it seems that way at first. It isn’t until you spend time with her that it becomes clearer that she’s been hurt beyond repair and that her nature is protective more than anything else.

We’re all like that, all three of us. We’ve been destroyed by this life. The thing is, I don’t want it to be over. I don’t want to resign, dig my grave, and jump in. As long as there’s still air in my lungs, I want my life back. I want to have a family again. I want to love and be loved. I refuse to keep treading water, because it’s getting me nowhere. Day by day, I grow wearier and I’m sick of it. I want to live again and I know the path to that life lies with these two friends.

Mel rubs her thumb over the metal unicorn. She smiles and shakes her head at me, like she knows me better than she should. “You know I love me some pancakes. And Avery—everything is going to work out.” Her voice catches in her throat when she says it, like she knows worse things will be coming.

CHAPTER 3

I’m stuck inside the house, watching the construction crew for a few hours, before Sean shoves a helmet on my head and tells me to get on the back of his bike.

I take it off, jump to my feet, and follow him outside to where his motorcycle is parked at the curb. Shoving the helmet back at him, I say, “I’m not taking your only helmet.”

Sean’s eye twitches slightly before he rubs his hands over his face to hide the tic. I’m not being annoying enough to cause that, but Sean seems to think so. “Then what do you suggest?”

“That you put it on, so you don’t have to wear scrambled brains on your shoulders for the rest of your life. If you add a face that’s been smeared like roadkill to that growling and eye-twitchy thing you got going on, well, people will talk, Sean, dear.”

Sean glances up at me, cocking an eyebrow. “When did I growl?”

“Not right now, but you do it frequently when someone pisses you off and since everyone pisses you off—” I shrug my shoulders.

“Avery, what’s it going to take to get your ass on this bike?” I’m quiet for a moment. My mind is still stuck on the fact that Sean growls at people, but he doesn’t make that noise in the bedroom. He must read my thoughts, because his annoyed pout turns into a sultry smirk. “Avery, stop thinking about sex.”

My jaw drops. “I was not!”

“You were too. Your eyes get this doe look before you space out and fail to answer important questions.” Sean is straddling the bike, and I have no recollection of when he got on. My eyes can’t help but rove over his jeans which are hugging his thighs. I’d love to feel those thighs around me again, but I won’t do it. I know whatever we had is done, unless I want to be his mistress—and I don’t.

I won’t settle. If I do, I’ll be stuck in limboland, pining over some guy who isn’t courageous enough to try again, and I can’t fathom being paired with Sean if he feels that way.

I mean, the man is amazing, but I’m not happy staying like this. I want to move on, and it seems like he’s content to stay stuck. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a spouse and a child. I can’t imagine what Sean felt sitting through the trial that followed their deaths, either. Is it bad that I want Sean to let go of that? Can’t he hold onto the good and let go of the bad?

I smile to myself, because it sounds so simple, but it’s f**king hard. If I could separate the good memories from the bad, then I wouldn’t be talking to my parents’ tombstone when things get bad. I’d be able to accept that they’re gone and look back at the time we had together with joy instead of gut-wrenching remorse.

I’m a hypocrite. How can I expect Sean to let go of his demons when I visit mine on a weekly basis?

I sit down hard on the curb and let out a sigh. Staring at the spokes, I ask, “So, why’d you buy Peter a house here? I can’t picture you living in a place like this. I mean, I assume you like it since you bought it for him. At least on some level, but this is the kind of house that I’d want to grow old in, not you. I can’t imagine the bad-ass Sean Ferro with little flower gardens and a sweet Cape Cod with white gingerbread trim on a tree-lined street.” I place my hands on my stomach and lay back on a patch of grass and smile up at the sky.

“Are you wondering if you chose the wrong Ferro?” There’s a teasing tone in his voice, but it’s laced with a tension that tells me he really wants to know.

I don’t look over at him. I know he’s sitting on his bike, looking like a modern god with that toned body, tight dark shirt, and the perfect dusting of stubble on his strong jaw. “No. I chose the right guy, he just didn’t choose me back.”

“Avery—”

Smiling, I say, “No, Sean. It’s the truth and it’s something that I need to realize. There’s no future for us. You’ve been saying that from day one, but I didn’t listen. I thought I could change you, or that you’d come around, but this house proves it—it shows how different we are and differences like that can’t be changed. They’re too big. The chasm is too wide. The only thing that moving forward will ensure is that one of us ends up at the bottom of the ravine, smashed to bits, and I seriously doubt I’m up for that right now.” Plus, I know I can’t fly and I’m not so stupid that I’d try.

Sean slips off his bike and sits next to me. He doesn’t lay back and look at the way the leaves dapple the light and cast lacy shadows on the ground. I’d never expect him to even notice. It’s not that Sean’s oblivious, that’s not it. It’s more that he only pays attention to the important things in life. He’s paying attention to you, the little voice inside my head whispers. I tell her that she’s stupid and shove her back into the closet at the back of my head. She’ll have me picking out a wedding dress if I listen to her ideas. Idiot.

To my surprise, Sean leans back in the grass and asks, “What are we looking at?”

A smile spreads across my lips. I can’t hide how much it means to me. “My future. I want a house with a big maple tree and a grassy lawn. I want to lay on it in the summer and feel the blades of grass between my fingers and toes. I want the sensation of the cool dirt on my back as I try to figure out where the sky ends and the heavens begin. I want a toddler that runs out and jumps on my stomach, begging me to play. I want to take him to the beach and kiss his little toes.” My smile fades as I look over at him. “Do you ever feel like your life is right in front of you, but you have no idea how to step into it? I mean, it’s right there. There’s a guy that’s crazy about me who offered me all of these things and I said no.” I said no. I didn’t give that guy a chance. Marty wants the same things I do. That match would have made sense, and stepping into that life would be easy.

Sean stiffens because he knows exactly who I’m talking about. “I thought you didn’t feel like that toward Marty?”

I shrug. “Does it matter how I feel? He’s a great guy and we have fun together. I know he’d take care of me and give me everything I could ever want.” I speak to the branches at the base of the massive tree, wondering how horrible it would be to marry Marty. I’d get the house and the kids. I could have my life without being a call girl. Marty would take me in a heartbeat. I know he would. Turning my face to the side, I look at Sean. “Does it bother you to hear?”

He’s quiet for a moment and then swallows hard. “I didn’t realize that he was so serious about you.”

“He is. The guy is larger than life. He doesn’t do things small and I can’t help but notice that Marty wants me the way I want you. It’s easy to see. Irony’s a bitch, huh? Or is that karma? Either way, I’m screwed no matter how you look at it. The guy I want doesn’t want me, and the guy that wants me, well, he doesn’t compare to you.”

Sean’s voice is flat. “I ruined your life.”

Smiling softly, I glance over at him. “No, you didn’t.” Sean makes a face that says he doesn’t believe me. “No, seriously, you made it better. You made me see that I can choose to stay where I am or try to claw my way out. I plan on clawing, and it would have been nice if you were somehow factored into that equation, but I’ll take what I can get. That’s the way the world works. Besides, I’d rather have you as a friend than nothing at all.”

Sean takes my hand in his, and the both of us lay there for a while as buddies. Amigos. Compadres. I can totally do this. I can ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach and the way my arm tingles because he’s holding my hand. Everything doesn’t have to be sexual, even though I want him that way. I won’t think about the fact that Sean didn’t correct me, that he didn’t say our relationship is nothing like mine and Marty’s, and that it’s not completely lopsided. No, I won’t think of any of those things. I’ll lay here and hold his hand, because that’s what he’s offered—his friendship.

Yeah. Being stuck in the friend zone sucks.

CHAPTER 4

Sean takes my new helmet and puts it on the desk. We’re in his tiny hotel room, which is nothing like the nice suite we had back in New York. I’m exhausted and flop down on the only bed. It looks like a double, which totally sucks. I guess I’m sleeping on the floor.

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