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“I’ll think on it.” But she knew he wouldn’t it. He’d keep doing what he always did: Gambling and chasing married women. Popping open the trunk of her car, he placed her suitcase inside and closed it.

She hugged her dad one last time, threw her duffle bag in the backseat and got in the car. The last thing she saw in her watery vision was Louis staring after her, his body all dejected. No way she could leave him looking like that.

Slamming on the breaks, Melanie rolled down the window. “I’ll be okay,” she shouted, and he gave her a thumbs up and a smile. “I’ll be okay,” she said again to her reflection in the rear view. “I’ll be okay.”

Only she wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince more: Her dad or herself.

***

Melanie blinked at the acceptance letter from Coast Community College. She’d gotten in and would be able to take Introduction to Photography as soon as the second part of the spring semester started.

“Well?” Zoe said, sitting on Melanie’s bed. “Are we celebrating or drowning our sorrows tonight?”

Biting her lip, Melanie glanced up at Zoe. “Guess.”

“Celebrating,” he best friend said in a voice filled with such confidence that it made Melanie thank God she’d ended up in Holland Springs as a little girl.

Letting out a whoop, Melanie jumped on the bed. “Ding, ding, ding. And for your correct answer, you get a night out with me! Complete with dinner and a movie. I was thinking the newest Ian Romanov flick.” She fanned herself. “That man is so verra, verra hot.”

Zoe shrugged. “He’s okay, I guess, if you like that sort of thing.”

“We’ve been over this before, you’re allowed to look at other men while dating one. Lust is a perfectly healthy emotion.” Melanie dropped to her knees and stared at her best friend. At Zoe wouldn’t meet her gaze and she sighed. “You’re right…it’s highly illogical to lust after men that don’t exist in our universe. I mean it’s not like we’d ever meet Ian Romanov and he’d fall madly in love with us.”

Zoe remained silent, her dark eyes downcast as she traced a pattern on the comforter. “A guy like him fall in love with m—us?” She snorted softly. “Different woman each week.”

Rolling on her back, Melanie stared up at the ceiling. “Please, I’m a certified catch and so are you. Even if you’re already caught.”

“Men are stupid, and so are we for loving them,” Zoe said sharply, completely unlike her usual bubbly and go-with-the-flow self. Joining her on the bed, Zoe grasped Melanie’s hand and they stayed like that for a long time, just lying on their backs and staring at the ceiling while saying nothing.

“You’re not talking about Gabriel, are you?” Melanie asked softly. It dawned on her how much she didn’t know about Zoe’s time in California.

Zoe sniffed. “No.”

“Someone you met in Los Angeles?”

They turned to face each other at the same time, Zoe’s eyes were filled with tears. She nodded, her lower lip trembling. Melanie sighed and tucked a thick lock of hair behind her best friend’s ear. Zoe had been listening to her mope for weeks now, years really, about Carter, and not once had she heard her best friend complain about men in return. Well, nothing beyond, the typical stuff that women usually griped about. But this, this felt more than the usual complaints.

“Did you go fall in love with some no-good wanna be actor, honey?”Melanie asked.

Zoe gave a little shrug. “Maybe.” There was so much meaning behind that maybe. So much her best friend was and wasn’t saying, and it broke Melanie’s heart.

“Need to talk to about it?”

Another shake of the head and Zoe squeezed her hand tight. “I’m fine. It’s fine. I’ll be okay.”

I’ll be okay. The words echoed in her ears. Exactly what she had told her Louis and herself as she left Holland Springs. Melanie closed her eyes, then opened them. “I hope that sorry son of a bitch’s dick drops off and he never becomes famous. That he has to be a waiter forever, serving really snotty people that leave really shitty tips.”

“Oh My God, Mel.” Zoe snorted, then sniffed and giggled. “You have the foulest mouth sometimes, and I love you for it.”

Melanie grinned. “How about we stay in?”

“And watch Persuading My Lady. Ian Romanov’s character dies in it. I brought it with me, just in case.”

“I thought that movie was your favorite because of the dancing and all the nice manners,” Melanie asked, cocking her head to one side. “The costumes, and the bowing and curtsying to Lord and Lady Pompous Pants.”

An unholy light gleamed in Zoe’s eyes. “All that and the rake gets his, so…”

“Well, I’m all for the rake getting his.” Melanie hopped off the bed and fished the DVD out of her bag. She cracked open the case and popped in the movie, turning on the television. “Plus, the rake is very easy on the eyes and the love scenes—“Melanie fanned herself with the empty case, then flung it on her dresser. “Oooh, la, la, Ian Romanov. Bet his co-star was one happy girl.”

“I heard he’s horrible in bed and has halitosis,” Zoe said primly.

Melanie gave her a blank look. “Hali-what?”

“Bad breath—I thought you moonlighted as a dental assistant while I was gone. And he’s a horrible kisser, or so the gossip goes.”

One of the many things she loved about her best friend, Zoe never dumbed things down for her-unless she asked. She just assumed Melanie knew what she was talking about. “Dental office assistant. Anyway, I think the gossip you heard is wrong.” The actor appeared on screen and they both sighed in appreciation. “Just look at him!”

Zoe muttered something, and Melanie tore her eyes away from the screen. “Sorry, got all distracted by the mancandy.”

“I said I’m going to pop some popcorn.” As Zoe left Melanie’s room, she couldn’t help but think her friend was lying, because she could have sworn her friend had said, “He kisses like a dream come true.”

Melanie turned her attention back to the movie, studying the man on screen. “No way,” she whispered. Zoe would never keep a secret about something like that. Like him. If her best friend had fallen in love, with someone who wasn’t Gabriel, she wouldn’t have settled on coming back here and getting engaged.

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