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She shook her head.

“It doesn’t scare me! I just know from experience that that’s when everything gets bad, that’s all.”

Dana sighed.

“Justin really did a number on you, didn’t he? Just because he was an asshole doesn’t mean they’re all going to be like that.”

She leaned her head on Dana’s shoulder and thought about denying that this had anything to do with Justin, but what was the point? Courtney got up and fetched the bourbon bottle and poured more into all of their coffee cups. Nik took a sip and sighed.

“I don’t think about him that much anymore, except for that time I profiled the quarterback of his favorite team for GQ and pictured his face when he’d see my byline. Well, and those times when I have low moments and I hear his voice in my head. But Justin, in his terrible way, did me a favor. First, he made me feel like there was something wrong with my writing, then he made me feel like there was something wrong with me for loving writing and my career. But the end result of all of that was that he made me sure that I don’t ever want to let anyone make me feel that bad ever again.”

Courtney pushed her chair around the table so the three of them were all shoulder to shoulder.

“I know, honey,” Dana said. “But that doesn’t mean you have to close yourself off to everyone forever. You are great at being strong, and there’s no one else that either of us would have on our side in a fight. But it’s okay to be vulnerable with more people than just the two of us, you know? Letting yourself have feelings for people is scary, I know it is, but you can’t go through life with most people at arm’s length. Not everyone is going to be like Justin.”

Nik buried her head in Dana’s shoulder.

“I know,” she said. “But—counterpoint: what if I don’t want to be vulnerable with people other than you guys?”

Dana and Courtney didn’t even respond to that.

Nik sighed.

“I hate this. This is all Fisher’s fault. If he hadn’t done that stupid proposal in the first place, none of this would have ever happened, and I never would have even met Carlos.”

“Would you really want that?” Courtney asked.

“Yes! Okay, fine, no. I just wish Carlos had listened to me!” Nik said. “Okay, maybe telling him he was being emotional was a shitty thing to say, but I didn’t know how to react and I didn’t want this to ruin everything, but everything is ruined anyway.”

She put her head down on the table. Dana and Courtney immediately put their arms around her.

“I’m so mad at him for how mean he was to me this morning, but I hate that I hurt his feelings. See, this is another reason why I never should have dated him in the first place. I should have stuck to my streak of dating guys I couldn’t care less about. When I do that and we break up, I feel fine! Look at Fisher—did I care if I hurt his feelings? Not really! I need to find another Fisher.”

“No you don’t,” Dana and Courtney said in unison.

She shook her head.

“There must be something wrong with me. Here I have this great, smart, kind, hot man telling me he loves me, and I recoil. Everything was so great, and now it’s over, and he thinks I’m an unfeeling asshole. Maybe I am.”

Courtney got up and grabbed a box of tissues out of a cabinet and brought them over to her. She sat up and took a handful.

“Okay, first of all, if he thinks that, Carlos doesn’t know you at all. You are loving and kind and funny and the best damn cheerleader anyone has ever had.”

Damn it, now Courtney was going to make her cry even more.

“Second, there’s nothing wrong with you. I’m not saying that you’re perfect, but who is? It’s okay to not react perfectly all the time; it’s okay to say no to people; it’s okay even to not love someone back.”

Nik wiped her eyes and nodded.

“What if I want to be perfect though?”

Dana laughed.

“As my mother would say, it’s nice to want things.”

All three of them laughed.

“Your mom would say that,” Nik said. “Have you told her about Natalie yet?”

Dana shook her head. “It’s only been a little while. I just told you guys! But . . .” she smiled. “Hopefully soon.”

Nik reached for her now cold bourbon and coffee drink and drained the cup.

“I’ve got to try to make a bourbon and coffee cupcake,” Courtney said. “Oh fuck. Speaking of cupcakes, I have to get back out there.”

Nik stood up.

“Give me an apron, I’ll help. You don’t want people complaining on Yelp about your long, slow line.”

Courtney tossed an apron to her from the closet.

“Good, you owe me for all the cupcakes you just ate.”

* * *

• • •

Carlos forced himself to turn off the shower. Usually when he took a shower it helped him figure out the answer to whatever he was stressed about, but this shower had just made everything worse. As soon as he stepped inside, he saw the empty space where Nik’s bottle of conditioner used to be. She really had made sure to take every reminder of her existence out of his house, hadn’t she? Not that he could forget her.

Nor could he forget how ashamed of himself he was. He was thirty-four, not fourteen; he was a little too old to storm out of his house full of righteous anger. Granted, he was still furious at Nik for the way she’d reacted this morning, but he was probably just as mad at himself for blowing up at her.

Maybe he’d been naive, but he hadn’t expected her reaction this morning at all. It wasn’t that he was so arrogant he thought any woman who was lucky enough for him to fall in love with her should be overjoyed . . . okay, fine, a little part of him may have thought that. He’d always just figured that when he got ready to seriously date someone, finding the someone would be the easy part.

Maybe she was right. Maybe he wasn’t in love with her after all. Maybe this was just a momentary feeling, because of all of the emotion from last night and then all of the sex they’d had afterward. Maybe he could just . . .

He put his jeans on and sighed. Bullshit. He knew he loved her; he knew it to his core. He loved her for her kindness, her ability to laugh both at him and at herself, and her intelligence. But most of all, he loved her for that feeling he had when he sat next to her on his couch in silence or woke up next to her in bed, that feeling of peace and happiness. That he was with someone who understood him and everything about him. That everything was right with the world.

He sat down on his bed to put his shoes on. He had to pick up Angela, go to the hospital with her to check in on Jessie and the baby, and potentially throw his weight around if anything wasn’t perfect. What he wanted to do was to go for a long run or play basketball all afternoon with people he didn’t like or drive his car really fast along winding roads for three hours. Anything to not have to think or talk to people.

“Hey!” Angela hugged him when she got in his car, and he hugged her back. Great, now he felt like an asshole for being so grumpy about this visit.

“Hey. Have you talked to Jessie today? I texted her this morning, but she hadn’t seen the doctor yet.”

“Yeah.” Angela settled back into the car. “That’s what she told me, too. She sounded anxious about the baby. I think it’s killing her that she can’t be there with her the whole time.”

One of Angie’s feet tapped against the passenger-side door. It was a nervous habit she’d had since she was little. It drove him crazy, but he forced himself not to yell at her to stop.

“Of course it is. It’ll be easier once she can move around more.”

“The baby is going to be okay, right? They weren’t just saying that last night?”

He nodded. There were no guarantees, but everything he’d heard last night had satisfied him.

“Nothing is certain, but let’s put it this way: if I’d been really worried, I would have been at the hospital and inside that NICU by dawn.”

Angie stopped tapping her foot.

“Okay, that does make me feel better.” She turned and looked behind her. “No Nik? Where is she?”

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