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She let out a long breath she obviously had been holding. “Is that why his arm was bandaged up the night he walked out the door?”

I’d been proud of that moment. Proud of myself. I had seen the fear in his eyes. Had the sharp utensil slipped just an inch the other way, I would have gouged his heart. “Yes.”

We were silent for a long minute, just listening to each other’s breaths. Would this woman ever tell me she was sorry? Or that she was proud of me? Or . . . something that showed me she was a mother?

“That’s why he beat me up.”

“What?” My heart raced a thousand miles a minute. “Damn it, Mom. Tell me what the hell happened the other night.”

“We got in an argument . . .” I heard the tears coming. “About you.”

“What about me?” I saw the nursing home in the distance so I slowed my steps. No way could I head into work without knowing what went down.

“He’d been asking questions about you every time I saw him lately—when had you moved out. If you were ever coming back. What you looked like now.” She was sniffling and coughing and all worked up. “I got the impression he was either afraid of you or had some kind of sick desire to see you again.”

She caught her breath for a moment while I let all of that sink in. My stomach churned just thinking about the low timbre of Tim’s voice.

“So I pressed him about it that night. I needed to know.”

Shit. This is where her story was about to get ugly. “What did you say?”

“I asked him if what you accused him of was true.”

I had trouble swallowing. “And?”

“He denied it up and down, of course,” she said. Now her words were rigid and hate-filled. “But this time, I wasn’t buying it.”

Was this finally Mom’s light bulb moment?

I knew my mother would never apologize for betraying me. She didn’t have it in her. And I’d gotten to a place in my life that I didn’t need it. Not anymore. Besides, this was as close to an apology as I would get.

“Were you alone somewhere with him?”

I could picture this going down. Tim getting more manipulative, more irate. Switching from his soft and soothing words to his harsh and threatening tone.

“We were in the parking lot outside the bar.” One, two, three puffs of her cigarette. “So I warned him that people would see us inside his car and call the cops.”

“God, it could have been so much worse, Mom.”

“I told him if he stayed away I wouldn’t go to the police,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll come around again. He doesn’t have buddies on the police force like he once did.”

“What else, Mom? I know there’s something you’re holding back.”

“So . . . I don’t think this restraining order is necessary.” And there it was. She was still protecting him. “It’ll only draw more attention to the situation, mess up his other family.”

“You assume his other family isn’t already messed up.” A cynical laughed escaped my lips. “How many times will Tim get away with stuff, huh? He got away with it years ago and now you’re letting him off again.”

“I’m not saying I won’t go through with it,” she said. Yes, she absolutely was saying that. “I just . . . I’ll think about it.”

“Geez, Mom, do you realize how f**ked-up your relationships with men are?”

There was a long, drawn-out silence before she said, “Is that why yours are, too?”

*** I checked in at the front desk ten minutes late. Thankfully my supervisor was in a staff meeting down the hall.

“I’m so sorry, Lillian,” I said to the nurse I was replacing on the floor.

“Uh-huh. Thought someone forgot to tell me you called in sick or something.”

“Won’t happen again,” I said. “Shift change report?”

Lillian grabbed her purse from the drawer beneath the desk and then handed me the notes. “Mr.

Brody in room 105 is waiting on an EKG, and Mrs. Jackson in 108 needs another vitals check in an hour.”

My stomach clenched. “What are her symptoms?”

“Some blurred vision, slurred speech, and weakness in her limbs. Doc wonders if she had another small stroke last night. Scheduled her for a CAT scan.”

I loaded the med trays, trying not to get choked up about Mrs. Jackson. The logical side of me said that I worked in a nursing home and patients didn’t stay here forever. They either recovered or died.

Which led to my emotional side. I wanted to pull away from her, stop talking to her so damn much, so that it would be less painful when she left. But that would only hurt her.

Just like I was hurting Bennett. I immediately shook that thought away.

When I entered her room, she was resting on her side. Here normally dark complexion looked a bit paler. I ran my fingertips over her forehead to wake her up. “Med time.”

Her breaths were short, and she squinted at me through slits. “H . . . Hey, sunshine.” I noticed how the words broke from her lips in a lazy, sluggish pattern.

She blinked the sleep away, and I positioned her pillows to help her sit up. She studied me with concerned eyes. “Nah, I take that back. I’d say someone got rained on instead.”

She couldn’t be closer to the truth if she tried.

“It did rain a lot last night,” I said, trying to keep my voice light.

“You could say that again,” she said, and then narrowed her eyes. “But I wasn’t speaking literally.” “I know,” I said, my voice strained and quiet.

She grabbed for my hand. “S . . . something happen with that gorgeous man who’s chasing after you?”

I didn’t want Mrs. Jackson to know that I was in fact worried about her today, so this time I relented on her Bennett questions.


“He’s getting too close, isn’t he?” She raised her eyebrows. “And you . . . you’re pulling away.”

This lady needed an award for mind reading.

“Why do you always think it’s me causing trouble?” I asked, my hand on my hip. “Maybe he did something wrong.”

“If he did something wrong, it was only out of fear,” she said, downing her pills and water. “And fear is the flip side of love.”

“Huh?” I massaged her weak and trembling fingers.

“Honey, I know there are things you haven’t shared with me.” She squeezed my hand with the little strength she had. “Painful things.”

Wow, this lady was good. Damn good. I didn’t deny it or try to make light of what she saying.

“Your whole life can’t be defined by that one single moment. Or even a series of awful moments.”

She held my gaze, and it was difficult not to want to look away. “You are strong and courageous. But it doesn’t mean you can’t lean on others sometimes.”

My eyes felt glassy and full. I blinked to keep the tears at bay. I was overwhelmed with emotions today. About Bennett. My mom. Mrs. Jackson.

“Especially very handsome others.” She winked. “Take a chance on him, girl.”

Man, people were dishing out advice left and right today.

Maybe the universe was conspiring against me.

“Let me get the circulation going in those feet,” I said, to change the subject. I pulled back the covers to reveal her swollen legs. Water retention made the skin bloat and stretch, giving it a shiny and fake look, almost like plastic.

As soon as I began rubbing her ankles, her forehead relaxed, her back slumped in relief, and she became more animated.

“I want to hear about your grandmother today,” she said, her voice still a bit rough. “You’ve only mentioned her a couple of times.”

How had she known I’d been thinking a lot about her lately?

I couldn’t help wondering whether, if Grandma had been alive when mom dated Tim, she would have believed me, and held me those nights I lay shivering and crying?

I knew, without a doubt, the immediate answer to my question. Of course she would.

Mom had a blind spot when it came to handsome and charming men, and Grandma always called her on it. Asked her where she’d ever gone wrong for Mom to want to rely on a man so completely.

I’d asked myself the same question a thousand times. Wondered if there was something in Mom’s past that I didn’t know about. Would never know about. Something that made her cling so recklessly to any string of false security.

Was it the death of her father at an early age? Or seeing how Grandma had worked two jobs to support them? Did Mom hope that by getting pregnant with me, she’d snag the guy who knocked her up? It didn’t work the first time—or the second time, either, for that matter.

I heard Mrs. Jackson let out a whimper at a certain sensitive spot around her ankle, and that snapped me out of my thoughts.

“My grandma was a lot like you. Feisty, compassionate, and wise.” I massaged her calf muscles and up to the back of her knee. “A pain in the ass, too.”

That got a grin out of her. “No wonder you like me so well.”

I returned the smile as I started on her other leg.

Mrs. Jackson closed her eyes and let out a sigh. “What happened to her?” “She died of cancer when I was twelve.” I remembered the day we got the call, how it brought me to my knees. I’d never prayed before in my life, but that day, I prayed and begged and pleaded that the news wasn’t real. That she’d come waltzing through that door and scoop me into her lap once again.

“Well, isn’t that a damn shame.” Mrs. Jackson was looking at me now, her eyes soft around the edges. “I’ll bet she taught you a lot. Had a hand in making you the woman you are today.”

“Absolutely. I learned to be independent and go after what I wanted.”

And if I was being honest, my own mother had pushed me to become the person I was, too—by forcing me to take up for myself. Lord knows she never did.

Mrs. Jackson’s cheeks lifted. “If she was still around, I bet she’d agree with me.”

“About what?”

“About giving pretty boys a chance.’ I shook my head and laughed. “See, I told you—a pain in the ass.”

Chapter Seventeen

A few nights later, I stood at Bennett’s door, my hand poised to knock.

I’d hung his drawing in my bedroom and studied it every night before bed. It reminded me of Bennett. His laugh, his eyes, his warmth.

The fact of the matter was that I missed him. And I owed him an explanation, at the very least.

I wasn’t ready for anything, but at least it was a start. I’d never opened up to any guy before, but something told me he was worth it. That he’d understand.

He lived by a preconceived code to protect himself. And so did I. And he needed to know why.

I knocked three times and waited. I heard movement inside, and then a voice. A female voice.

“Someone’s at your door, Benny.”

Benny? I’d only ever heard his family call him that.

Did someone else know him as intimately?

The door opened just as I considered making my escape.

It was Rebecca. The ex-girlfriend that I’d met at the art show. My heart froze instantly. I couldn’t blink, move my lips, or walk away. I could only stare at her blue eyes and shiny red hair. Her pretty face and impressive figure.

“Hi,” she said. “You’re Avery, right?”

And then I became unstuck, for self-preservation’s sake. “Hi, Rebecca. I was just going to talk to Bennett about something. But he has company, so I’ll come back later.”

“He’s in the shower,” she said with a hint of satisfaction in her voice. “We’re going out for a bite to eat. But I’ll tell him you stopped by.” I practically sprinted to the elevator, my stomach throbbing. He had definitely moved on. Maybe seeing Rebecca again made him curious about rekindling something with her.

I lay on the couch, the TV turned to a random channel, a tub of ice cream melting in front of me. I told myself I couldn’t get upset over this. I was the one who’d pushed him away. Just because I was ready to open up to him didn’t mean that would fix or even define our nonexistent relationship.

We were in limbo. He was in limbo.

So I could understand him wanting to forget, to move on.

I thought I heard them walk by my door, joking and laughing, so I blasted the volume on the television. Not two minutes later, my phone buzzed on the coffee table. Bennett: Rebecca said you came by. It’s not what you think, Avery.

Me: I’m not thinking anything.

Bennett: Don’t pretend. Not with me.

Me: Okay. How about this: I have no right to think anything.

Bennett: True. But I still wanted you to know.

Me: Why?

Bennett: You know why. How come you stopped by?

Me: It was nothing.

Bennett: When it comes to you, Avery, it will never be nothing. It will always be something. BIG somethings that I’ll always want to know about.

A shiver raced through me. Even the tone of his damn text message got to me.

Me: J Get back to your friend. I’ll catch you later.

After eating a good chunk of that ice cream and watching a lame comedy, I decided to go to bed.

Apparently my sappy button was fully charged tonight.

I realized I was practically standing guard over Bennett’s purity; his damn virtue. And I needed to cut that shit out. Just because I couldn’t have him—at least not according to his conditions—didn’t mean that nobody else could, either. So why did the very thought of him being with Rebecca—with any girl really—make it so f**king hard to breathe?