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I sat down on the sofa and Brian lowered himself down next to me.

“Are you doing okay?”

I fidgeted under his watchful stare. “Fine. Just a little tired. It was a long week.”

“You work too hard. You’re always running, always on the go. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

I blinked at him, wondering what had inspired his little speech. “I like staying busy, you know that.” It helped me. I would hate to think what I’d do with an entire day alone with my thoughts. I shuddered at the idea.

“I’m your family now.” Brian’s hand came to rest on my knee.

I no longer had a family. Brian might be a nice guy, but he didn’t feel like family. Sure, we’d grown up together and I was totally comfortable around him, even in my holey sweatpants and my mom’s ratty old slippers. But something was missing. It wasn’t his shoulder I wanted to lean on when things got tough. The image of Knox cradling baby Bailee against his shoulder rushed into my brain. She’d rested her head on him and let out the softest little sigh. I hadn’t felt that kind of comfort in ages.

“I could take care of you, McKenna. My job pays enough, you could stop working around the clock. You could just be happy.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. Happy? How could I ever be happy not working? And I certainly didn’t do it for the money. Most of my hours were unpaid volunteer work. Brian didn’t really know me at all if he thought that. His words reminded me that I had no one, no family, and a rush of wetness filled my eyes. Perhaps it was because I was starving and bone tired, but I couldn’t handle this conversation right now. Silent tears threatened to overflow, so I excused myself to the bathroom where I could cry alone like the loser I was.

Ignoring Brian’s hurt expression, I scurried away and shut myself in the small room. I locked the door firmly behind me, then closed the toilet lid and sank down. I had spent all day pretending everything was fine, that I was in control, but one tiny conversation about the current state of my life and I broke down, sobbing like a baby.

I’d taken my parents for granted, but now that they were gone, I realized just how much they meant to me. I was an only child, their miracle baby, since they were told they’d never have kids. It broke my heart even more for them. All the years of struggle, all they went through to have me, and I was so oblivious, totally ungrateful and self-centered in the years before they died. A voice of reason chimed in, reminding me a lot of teens were that way, but I forced the thought away. I deserved to feel every bit as sad and lonely as I was in that moment.

I wiped the tears away with the back of my hand and grabbed a wad of toilet paper to blow my nose. All day I had been cheerful and helpful, fixing a brave face firmly in place as I helped others. But the harsh truth was that I was totally and completely helpless.

Watching Knox interact with his brothers only reinforced what I already knew. Family was everything. Without one, I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. And definitely not here in Chicago, with Brian as my only friend and pseudo family.

The crazy thing was, when I was near Knox that painful ache in my chest vanished. It was like his presence alone had some strange impact on me. I could stop worrying and planning my next move. I could just be. It was a feeling of total relief. Maybe the craziness of his life balanced out my own. He certainly had a lot on his plate and a truckload of issues to work through. Those were things I recognized. They made sense to me.

I was struck by the sudden realization that I wanted to see him. I wanted to spend time with him and his brothers. I wanted the distraction and company they provided. Their loud, messy household and camaraderie. A pang of guilt hit me as I realized it was for entirely selfish reasons, but I didn’t care. Not enough to keep me away from him.

Making a plan in my head, I blew my nose one more time and splashed cool water on my cheeks. I straightened my shoulders and leaned over to inspect myself in the mirror, only to see splotchy pink marks had discolored my cheeks and neck, and my eyes were rimmed in red. Crap.

I dabbed on some concealer and ran a brush through my hair. If I was going to catch them before they made other plans for dinner, I needed to get moving and go buy some groceries.

By the time I left the grocery store, the sky was a pretty pink color as the sun was starting its descent. I was hopeful and excited for the first time that week.

Guilt had stabbed me as I’d lied to Brian about where I was headed, but something told me he wouldn’t have taken the news well that I was going to Knox’s. The label of sex addict was enough to immediately dissuade him from liking Knox. I was willing to suspend judgment. There seemed to be so many more sides to him.

I didn’t even notice the cooling night air. A bit of chill would do nothing to dampen my mood as I strolled purposefully toward Knox’s place. I hadn’t realized how badly I’d needed to see him after lusting after him these last several days.

Anticipation gave me a little rush as I climbed the steps leading up to his house, balancing a big bag of groceries on my hip. I’d gotten a package of chicken, potatoes, bread, frozen peas, and a cake mix too, hoping it would be enough to feed all the boys. I briefly wondered if they were watching Bailee again, and imagined Knox smashing up some of the peas and potatoes for her dinner. Was she even big enough to eat vegetables yet?

As I started up the steps, it occurred to me how dark the house was. There were no lights burning inside and a pang of nerves hit me. I didn’t know what I’d do if they weren’t home. My entire mood hinged on getting to see Knox tonight. Not healthy, I know.

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