“You’re sleeping with him.”
I shrug. “He knows his way around … things.”
Sydney chuckles, but it’s not her jovial cackle. It’s tarnished with grief because not even our self-made bubble can shelter us from reality.
“You’re in deep, huh?” Her hand finds mine, and now she’s the one giving me a squeeze of understanding.
Drawing in a shaky breath, I nod. “So deep it hurts. So deep it scares me. So deep I’m certain I won’t survive whatever this is if he changes his mind. And he’s going to change his mind. They always do.”
“I married the man who looked at me the way Jake looks at you.”
“I’m not you. Had Jake met single Sydney, he would have chosen you without a second thought. I fear we’ve been out of touch with reality—out in the woods—for so long, he thinks he has feelings for me. What if we get to L.A., and I’m no longer the best choice?”
“What if you are?” His voice sounds.
We jump as Jake steps around the corner, pinning me with a look that makes me squirm. He looks offended. Maybe even angry? I can’t tell.
Sydney stands, wiping her eyes. “Hey, I’m going to take a shower before we go. And I need to call home.” Reality seeps back into the moment.
Jake nods and shares a sympathetic smile with her. When she squeezes past him, he returns his attention to me and holds out his hand.
I take it, and he pulls me to my feet, peering down at me like he can reduce me to ashes with his evil stare.
He wins. My gaze slips to his bare chest.
“I’m going to pretend that this lack of confidence you have this morning is just a side effect of grief.”
I shake my head. “It’s just the side effect of being human. Sorry to disappoint you.”
Jake lifts my chin with his finger. I wait for the lecture. I wait for that look that says I’ve let him down. I wait for the flinch of regret.
Instead, he lowers his mouth to mine and kisses me. It’s soft and patient. It’s a reminder of the words that were exchanged last night. Tears find their way down my face.
He pulls away and wipes them with his thumbs. “Swarley?”
I shake my head. “Jake.”
He smiles and it’s real. It’s … real.
“You going to shower?”
I shake my head again. “Showers are overrated. Besides, I like how you smell on me.”
Jake brushes his lips along my cheek, stopping at my ear, eliciting visible chills along my skin. “Me too,” he whispers.
I hug him. He lifts me up and carries me to the bed. Jake’s physical strength is quite possibly the sexiest thing I’ve ever experienced with a man. I’ve felt financial security, a strong social standing, showered in gifts, but never just raw, strong, all-man sex appeal. Jake is just …
He sits on the end of the bed. “Are you going to drive back home with your sister? I think you should.”
Biting my lips together, I nod several times. “You’re probably right. She’s going to have Swarley. I don’t want her making the drive alone.”
“I’ll follow you.”
“Yeah?” I can’t hide my spark of excitement.
“Ave …” He shakes his head like my questioning him is somehow ridiculous.
I can’t help it. Wanting something this much is not just scary, it’s impossible to breathe when you’re so close to having everything. Jake’s a world I never knew existed. He’s my favorite surprise. My guiltiest pleasure. The dream that finds a place in reality.
Just as I open my mouth to ask Jake for some reassurance that we will find a way to really be together, a photo on the far wall of Megan’s bedroom catches my attention. “What’s that?” I climb off his lap and take slow steps to the gray-framed photo.
“It’s Ranger. Megan’s husky. She and her ex-husband rescued him from an abusive home. Ranger died a week after their divorce.” Jake presses his chest to my back and wraps his arms around my waist, resting his chin on my shoulder.
My dad was wrong. Sometimes God does give you more than you can handle.
“What happened to his eye?” It’s hard to speak without the ability to breathe, but I manage to get five words past my airless lungs.
“Previous owner shot him with a BB gun.”
My hand moves to my mouth.
I nod. It’s all unimaginable. But nothing is quite as unimaginable as the expensive gold engraved tag hanging from the dog’s collar that I gave him.
“You said Meg’s husband cheated on her?”
No air. Where’s the air? Why can’t I breathe?
“Did she catch him?” I whisper, gaze affixed to the photo.
“No, Steve confessed at the worst possible time.”
His mom had cancer.
I close my eyes.
“Megan was pregnant, and she…” Jake clears his throat like he’s choking on some residual emotion “…miscarried the day after he told her about the affair.”
My eyes snap open. “W-what?”
He wasn’t married. No, no, no … He didn’t have a pregnant wife.
“Fucking asshole cheated on her when she was pregnant. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to kill him and his home-wrecking whore.”
I blink, releasing big, heartbreaking, regretful, angry, God-hates-me tears.
“Anyway … Ranger was a good dog.” Jake gives me a squeeze and kisses my wet cheek. “Ave?” He turns me toward him.
This time I don’t hide from him. My teary gaze stays on his contorted face.
“I’m sorry. I said too much. Swarley was a good dog too.”
If I lie, we will never be real. And I don’t want the lies. I want love. Real. Honest. Soul-consuming. Naked love.
“His mom had cancer. Cancer.” I shake my head and back away.
Jake’s brows pull together as he cocks his head. “Who? What are you talking about?”
“He had to move away to take care of his mother. He told me not to wait. He said sometimes life just happens.”
“Ave … I’m not following. Who said that?”
The tears won’t stop, but I don’t look away. God … maybe he’ll see how blindsided I was by this. He’ll see the truth.
“Ranger was a stray dog he found at the park. Ranger lived with Steve’s mom most of the time. A therapy dog.” I continue to shake my head as I repeat the lies I was told. “He wasn’t married. He had never been married.”
Realization softens Jake’s brow as disbelief—shock—ghosts along his face, dulling the life in his eyes.
“Avery …” His tone loses all kindness, all the love. It’s cold. The kind of cold that feels like a knife against my skin.
“He said he loved me. He said one day he wanted to marry me.” I continue to shake my head, pressing my hand against my chest.
“He wanted in your fucking pants! That’s why he said that to you!”
I choke on a sob as I gasp at his words.
Jake clenches his teeth, a hint of regret flashes in his eyes, but it fades in seconds, squashed by his anger.
“I’m not a whore.” I shove as much confidence as I can into that statement.
Jake grunts. “Tell that to Megan.”
Megan. Megan who lost her baby and her dog. Megan who was cheated on by her lying husband. Megan who tried to save Swarley. Megan who welcomed us into her home. Megan—Jake’s friend.
“You.” He shakes his head like he can wake himself up, like it’s not real. “You. Jesus … it was you? This can’t be happening.” He continues to shake his head. “He told her the other woman—you—meant nothing. Do you like that, Ave? Have you just never cared whether or not you truly mean something to a man? As long as they buy you things, then you carelessly turn a blind eye to minor details like wives? Do you know what that makes you?”
“Is everything okay?” Sydney peeks into the room, her dark, wet hair tied back into a ponytail.
She eyes me with concern. Then she shoots Jake a questioning look, but he keeps his back to her.
I wipe away my tears, no longer able to tolerate the disdain on Jake’s face. “It’s fine. Are you ready?”
Sydney nods slowly, concern still marring her face.
“Give me five minutes to get dressed.” I bend down and riffle through my bag for clothes.
“I’ll be in the kitchen,” Sydney says.
“Okay.” I keep my head down, my complete devastation hidden from my grieving sister and the man who clearly hates me. The man who wanted me dead when I was an unknown whore to him.
This defensive little voice in my head wants to jump out and spew off all the reasons Jake has no right to be upset with me. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know. Steve lied and he was good at it. I didn’t ruin Megan’s marriage. Steve did. But I can’t say any of these words because Swarley died, and Megan doesn’t need her past dug up and hashed out all over again.
“This isn’t the time or place to discuss this.” I stand, braving a glance up at Jake.
His shoulders are slumped, his jaw still cemented into a disapproving scowl. He looks angry and disappointed and … hurt. He shakes his head. “There’s nothing to discuss. I think you filled in the missing pieces.”