“Yeah, I know.” I smirk.
She rolls her eyes.
“But this is not an ease-it-in kind of lake. It’s a heart-stopping-take-the-plunge kind of lake.”
Her head shakes. “Nope. I like my heart beating.”
“Ave …” I don’t release her hand, no matter how hard she tries to wriggle out of my grasp.
“Nooooo!” she shrieks when I toss her into the lake and quickly follow her.
“Oh my god! Oh my god! COLD! COLD! COLD!” She slaps at the water, making her way to the edge.
Not gonna lie. It’s cold as fuck. A crisp sixty-five degrees. I grab her waist and pull her back out.
“Shh …” I laugh. “Lie back and float.”
“C-c-cold.” Her teeth chatter.
“Thirty seconds.” I relax my body and float on my back.
She does the same thing.
I close my eyes and just breathe. This … this is the good stuff in life. My hand brushes hers, and I latch a finger to hers so we drift as one. Thirty seconds pass … then several minutes pass. She’ll never admit it, but she knows it too … this is the good stuff.
“T-times … u-up.” She swims to the edge and we get out. “B-b-brrr…” Avery hugs herself as I grab our towels, wrapping her up first.
“Your lips are blue like the water.” I fist the towel by her chin, keeping it wrapped tightly around her.
“E-evil. Y-you’re p-pure e-evil.”
I envelop her in my arms and kiss the cold from her lips, sucking on them until they’re warm again. “I’ll warm you up.”
“Nah.” I squat down and slip her flip-flops on her feet.
When I stand again, her eyes shoot to mine, a bit wide.
“Were you checking me out?” I cock my head to the side.
She shakes her head.
“I think you were. You’ve seen me naked.”
“I w-wasn’t. And e-even if I w-was … s-so what.”
I think she has an actual smile on her face, but it might just be a residual grimace.
“Let’s go dry out in the sun. I’ll grab something to make for lunch. We can eat over at the park.”
I clasp my index finger with hers and guide her to the truck just as another vehicle pulls in next to us. As the couple gets out, I stop, tugging on Avery to stop too. She glances back at me with confusion wrinkling her brow.
“Let’s go over to the shop,” I mumble, turning back the other way.
“What? No. I-I’m cold.”
“Jake?” A gratingly familiar voice says my name.
I stop and close my eyes, releasing a long sigh. How the fuck did this happen?
I turn slowly. “Call me that again and it will be the last word you speak in this lifetime.”
He shuts the door to his black SUV, slipping a baseball cap on over his black and gray hair. Pulling the toothpick from his mouth, he lets his gaze sweep over Avery, a slight grin tugging his lips. I want to kill him.
“Ave, get in the truck, please.”
“Ave is it? Is that short for something?” he asks, his fucking smirk doubling.
Avery’s wide-eyed gaze bounces between us. “Um, Avery.”
“Jake, nice to see you.”
Grinding my teeth, I ignore the woman rounding the vehicle.
“It’s been too long,” the sperm donor says.
“Funny …” I take my towel and wrap it around Avery’s waist because I’m not going to stand here and watch this man stare at her. “I was just thinking it hasn’t been long enough.”
“You still baking?” He enjoys this, mocking my profession. “How does one go from a fighter to a baker?”
“He’s a chef.”
“Ave …” I grab her hand and tug it toward the truck. “Don’t correct him. He’s too fucking stupid to remember anything.”
“I’m Francine … Frannie.” She holds out her hand to Avery. I still don’t look at her. “Are you Jake’s wife?”
I let go of Avery’s hand and grab her bag out of the back of the truck to get her dry clothes.
“No.” Avery doesn’t elaborate.
“What do you want out of here?” I ask in a clipped voice.
“I’ll get it.” Avery takes the bag.
“Nice Louis Vuitton. I have the same one in black.” Francine’s voice claws at my nerves.
I slide on a T-shirt.
“Thanks. I love it. Just got it a few months ago.” Avery seems quite pleased that someone noticed her overpriced bag.
Clearly her need for that shit is hardwired.
“Nice watch.” Avery points to the chunky gold thing on Francine’s wrist.
“Thanks. Howie gave it to me for my birthday.”
Howie smirks at me. He’s trying to lose all of his teeth with one fucking grin. I clench my fists.
“Looks like we have the same taste in women, Jake.”
That’s it. I grab his shirt and shove him up against his SUV.
“Jake!” Francine and Avery yell at the same time.
“I hate you and I hate your fucking materialistic whore. So don’t you ever think we have one goddamn thing in common.” I release him with a sudden jerk and step back.
Francine shuffles in her heels to his aid.
“Jake …” Avery starts to grab my arm.
I pull away. “For the last time, Avery … get in the fucking truck.”
“I’m not going to jump just because you tell me to jump.” I tighten the towel he tied around my waist.
The muscles in Jake’s jaw pulse several times.
“Good for you,” Frannie says as she and Howie squeeze behind Jake to open the back of their vehicle.
Jake gives them a quick glance over his shoulder. I’m sure he’s scowling even harder at them as they get their wetsuits out of the back. His dad scuba dives. I find that very cool.
“Good seeing you, Jake. Look me up when you want to make amends. We’re just outside of Albuquerque. Good luck, Avery. You’re going to need it.”
I expect Jake to attack Howie again, but he doesn’t. When his dad and Frannie are out of earshot, he returns his attention to me. “This is a hard limit for me.” He hands me his phone. “Call your sister or your dad. I’ll get Swarley to L.A. for you. I’m sorry if you don’t like the way I need to protect you. I’m sorry if it’s not delicate and polite enough for you. But it is in fact for you.” He pushes his phone into my hand, punctuating his point like a fist punched into my heart.
“You wanted me to stand up for myself, and now that I’m doing just that, you want me to submit to you?” I take his phone.
“I’m not the enemy.” Jake walks around the truck and grabs his wallet from the bag behind the seat. He retrieves some cash from it.
I shake my head. “I don’t want your money.”
He tries to shove it toward me. “You’re not going to get very far without it.”
I stare at it. “Please,” I whisper.
“Please what?” He exhales a sharp breath.
I look up, feeling on the verge of either laughing hysterically or crying. “Please get in the truck, Avery,” I say, settling on a simple, defeated shrug. “That’s it. One tiny word.” Turning, I toss his phone on the driver’s seat and grab my clothes from the bag I unzipped a few minutes ago. After slipping on a sundress, I worm my way out of my impossibly tight and wet sports bra and bottoms, then I slip on my panties.
Before I can turn back toward him, his hands slide around my waist, hugging my back to his chest as his lips brush along my ear. “Please forgive me.”
Blinking back the pain, I drag in a shaky breath. “Francine … I remind you of her. That’s why you hate me.”
“You’re not her.”
I turn in his arms, leaning back to get a clear look at his face. “No. I’m not. But do you really believe that, or do you have to talk yourself into seeing past the part of me that is like her?”
His gaze falls to the small space between us.
Sometimes silence feels like the coward’s truth.
“It’s fine, Jake. You fucked me good today. Hope that helped you work out some of your issues. I know I figured some shit out today. My days of trusting men are over. At least my fancy bags and expensive shoes make me look good. Men are so much worse than anything materialistic. You say the right things for the wrong reasons. You lie to get what you want. You make me look bad. You make me feel bad. There’s nothing wrong with my taste in fashion. It’s my taste in men that’s fucked-up.” I push his hands off my waist and climb into the truck.
Swarley rests his snout on the console like he’s trying to show me some sympathy. How ironic that my K9 nemesis has become my source of comfort. I run my hand over his head, and he sighs.
I don’t care that Jake’s still standing at my open door. There’s no way I’m looking at him. After a few moments, he shuts the door.
Anthony and I were together so much longer than I’ve known Jake. We discussed marriage. He said he loved me. Yet, this hurts more than the chocolate incident because I allowed Jake to see me emotionally stripped. It’s embarrassing. It’s degrading. It’s just … fucking painful.