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“Look, Matthew. Viper sent us a picture too.”

Matthew’s eyes squinted through my dark room to look at the picture, his face breaking into a huge smile as soon as he saw his friend.

“I like him,” he said casually, turning back to the TV.

Don’t do it, Michelle. Don’t go there. There’s nothing but heartache there.

All right, me and the little man are heading to bed. Hope you sleep well.

V: You too. Talk to you in the morning.

I already can’t wait.

BEING AWAY FOR three days royally sucked. In the past, road trips meant fucking new girls in different cities, but not anymore. Not since Dr. Roberts made me promise not to. I was pretty sure that even if Dr. Roberts weren’t in the picture, I wouldn’t be fucking any girls anyway. My thoughts lately had been too consumed with a certain blonde, who I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about yet I couldn’t wait to get home to.

The minute my plane touched down in Minneapolis, I shot Michelle a text. I was anxious to hear how Matthew’s first soccer practice went… and talk to her.

Hey! We just landed. How was your day?

M: Hope you had a good flight. My day was awful. I’ll explain everything tomorrow. I’m too tired now and heading to bed. Text me in the morning?

I didn’t like that answer at all. It stressed me the fuck out, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep without knowing what had happened. Instead of heading ten minutes south from the airport to my house, I headed north to hers.

I pulled in the driveway and cut the lights.

I’m in your driveway.

M: What? You are?

I looked up to the second floor master bedroom window. The curtains moved back a couple inches, then shut again quickly. I stayed in my car, not knowing if she was going to come let me in or text me and tell me to go home. The front door opened and relief flooded through me. She was wearing a light blue tank top, blue and pink plaid bottoms, and her hair was in a messy bun with all those sexy pieces falling down around her face. For a minute I worried she might have already been sleeping.

“Hey,” she said, offering me a tight smile as I walked through the front door.

“What’s going on? Are you okay?” I’d barely let the question leave my mouth when her chin started quivering and her eyes welled up. “Whoa, whoa. What happened?”

She shook her head and covered her eyes. I reached out and gently pulled her head against my chest, thankful that she didn’t resist. She didn’t say anything as she cried silently in my arms, her shoulders shaking. I’d planned on standing there in her foyer, holding her for as long as I needed to, but she pulled back after just a couple of minutes.

“I need a tissue.” She sniffed and walked to the kitchen, flipping the light on as she passed it. In the light, I could see her eyes were puffy and her nose was all red. She’d been crying before I got there. She blew her nose and took a deep, shaky breath. “Wanna go sit in there?” She motioned toward the family room.

“Sure.” I nodded, following along behind her.

We sat down on the couch and she pulled her legs up to her chest, hugging them tight. I wanted desperately to ask her what was wrong, but I knew that whatever it was, she’d tell me when she was ready.

Finally, she turned to face me. Laying her cheek on her knee, she took another big breath. “My dad died today.”

Holy shit. I wasn’t expecting that.

“What?”

Her face crinkled up and she started to cry again. “My stepmom called. Apparently he went to sleep last night and never woke up this morning. They think he had a massive heart attack in his sleep.”

I scooted closer and put my arm around her shoulders. “I’m so sorry.”

She pulled the tissue out of her pocket and wiped her eyes again as she leaned against my chest. “We weren’t close. He’d never even met Maura. I feel silly being as upset as I am.”

“He was your dad. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t talk often. It doesn’t matter if you hadn’t talked in years, it still sucks. Don’t feel silly.” I kissed the top of her head, leaving my mouth against it as I rubbed her bare shoulder with my thumb.

She sniffed again. “He was the only family member I had left. Now I’m completely alone.”

Right there, sitting on the couch in her living room, my cement heart broke into a million tiny pieces.

“You’re not alone,” I reassured her. “I may not be family technically, but I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

She pulled away from my chest and leaned back against the couch, picking at the tissue in her hands. “How long do you really think you’re gonna want to keep hanging out with your dead best friend’s wife?”

“Listen, at the beginning, yes… I came over here because it was something I told Mike I would do, but it quickly evolved into more. Much more.” I turned to face her on the couch, pulling one leg up in front of me. “I like being here. I like hanging with Maura and Matthew. I like hanging with you. You guys make me less lonely too.”

She turned her head toward me, blinking a couple times as she searched my face. The moonlight peeked in through a slit in the curtains, shining right on her face as her blue eyes sparkled. Her head lay back against my arm and she bit her lip like she was holding something in.

“What?” I asked, tilting my head to mirror hers.

“Why don’t you talk to your parents?”

“Oh,” I groaned. “That’s a long story that you don’t want to hear and I don’t want to tell.”

“What if I do want to hear it?” she asked softly.

I shook my head and stared down at the couch. “It’s not pretty.”

She pressed her lips together and sighed. “None of those stories ever are.”

“You’re right.” I nodded slowly. “Okay, here goes… When I was little, my life was normal. Like you, I was an only child. I don’t know exactly why, but in fourth grade, everything changed. It started with getting picked on in school. Ruthlessly. I walked through the halls and the kids bounced me around like a Ping-Pong ball, literally shoving me back and forth. Eventually, that wasn’t enough. They would take my lunch and throw it away before I could eat it or trip me in the halls.” I finally looked up at Michelle, who was staring back at me so deeply I just wanted to lay my head in her lap and stop talking. Reliving my childhood was so exhausting.

“Anyway,”—I cleared my throat—“finally I’d had enough and decided to defend myself. I started punching anyone from that group of boys who came near me, and of course, I was the one who got in trouble because they never got caught. The principal called a meeting with my parents and I was actually relieved. I had told them about the bullying many times, and I remember thinking, this is it. It’s finally going to end. My parents will give the principal a piece of their mind and all this will be over. But it wasn’t. My mom wanted to take me to a doctor who would pump my body full of pills that would calm me down, but my dad had other ideas. He thought the key to ending the bullying was to teach me to be tougher, so that’s what he set out to do.”

Michelle reached out and put her hand on mine, squeezing it as her brows pulled in tight.

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