And I had no idea what the real world was like—had no idea that the reality of human existence meant pain.
I pushed the door open.
And saw my mom riding our lawn guy.
“Mom.” I was too numb to walk out, to run away.
“Thatcher!” she yelled, and tried to cover up her body. “Where . . . ? I thought . . . ?” Her eyes clouded with tears. “Your father, he was supposed to be here . . .”
“But he’d see!” I yelled. “He would see this!”
She was silent.
And then it occurred to me.
That was her plan all along.
To hurt him.
Like he was hurting her.
He’d been cheating on her all my life.
But I never—never thought my mom would stoop to his level, to cheat on him back, to try to make him hurt so much. I never thought that she would be hell-bent on revenge in her quest to take him down—hurting me in the process.
“Thatcher . . .” Her voice was wobbly. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart, it’s not what it looks like, it’s only been a few times and—”
“Stop!” I yelled, backing up. “Just stop!”
I cut my parents off that very day.
Our family couldn’t survive their selfishness. And I was the collateral damage.
I took out student loans and supported myself.
And didn’t look back.
“Thatch?” Austin’s voice sounded in my dream. I blinked my eyes open at her worried expression. “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” I lied. My heart was hammering against my chest, and I felt like I was going to break down any minute. They say the past always comes back to haunt you if you don’t deal with it.
“You were yelling,” Austin whispered. “Talk to me.”
I wanted to.
It was on the tip of my tongue to blurt it all out—but it would destroy our happy moment, I just knew it. Sharing any part of that would be too much, and she’d be done with me.
And I wasn’t sure I could emotionally handle having another woman I cared about hurt me—or what was worse, another woman that I loved not fighting for what we shared together.
“Go back to sleep.” I reached up and kissed her forehead, my lips lingering on her skin before I flipped her onto her back and searched her eyes for permission.
“Whatever you need,” she whispered, reaching up for me.
Her. I needed her.
I was just afraid that I was going to lose her.
That was it.
It was fear talking.
Yeah, I was a shit liar.
Especially when it came to lying to myself.
I was inside her within minutes, driving away my demons the only way I knew how—sex.
“Let me get this straight.” Lucas pointed at my black eye. “A panther ran out in front of you and you crashed a bike.”
I bit out a curse. “Yes.”
“A bike with training wheels?”
“Yes.” Clenching my teeth hurt like hell.
“And this”—he held up fake air quotes—“‘panther’ escaped from the zoo.”
“YES!” I yelled. “Look, all I’m saying is, I was having a nice leisurely training session with Austin, and she had to go to class, so I thought then why not practice on my own? So I grabbed my helmet—”
Lucas choked on his coffee.
“Whatever, why am I even defending myself right now?”
“A lot of good that helmet did. You still managed to get a black eye.”
“I fell against the handlebars!” I showed him with my hands, not that it was helping. Swear it really was a panther or the largest cat I’d ever seen in my entire existence. “And you’re a jackass—why did I even call you?”
“Oh, I don’t know, because I’m one of the only ones who wouldn’t make fun of you and take pictures?”
“You got out of the car with your phone already trained on me, and then asked how to do a live feed.”
He grinned. “Look, it’s not that bad, and I’m glad that in your moment of need, you know, mid–panther attack, you called me, not Austin.”
“She’s in class,” I grumbled. And after sleeping like shit the night before, I’d decided to take the morning off. I cleared my schedule, hoping it would clear my head.
“Well, since the panther isn’t anywhere to be seen . . .” Lucas stood, put on his sunglasses. “Should we go get lunch?”
“Fine.” I started walking after him.
“Nope.” He shook his head. “Helmet off, dude.”
I rolled my eyes. “Hell, I may need it with the way you drive.”
He flipped me off as I put the stupid Dora bike away in Austin’s parents’ garage and hopped into Lucas’s car.
My car was back at my apartment, since I’d ridden with Austin and had planned on “practicing all morning.”
I sent off a quick text that I’d crashed and was going to go day drink my sorrows away, knowing she probably wouldn’t believe me, since I’d cleared my schedule for the rest of the day.
“So . . .” Lucas tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. “How’s everything going with Austin?”
“Good.” Just stick with short answers, nothing personal. I was too worried that he’d say something to Avery and it would get back to Austin.
“Interesting. Tell me more.”
I gave him a look of disgust. “It’s none of your damn business.”
“You kissed another woman, broke up with Austin, then ignored her for a month, and now suddenly, what? You’ve had a change of heart?”
“What if I have?”
Lucas whistled. “Look, I’ve known you a long time. You don’t do commitment, you sure as hell don’t do relationships, and I’ve seen you do things with multiple women, multiple times, and not tire out.”
I spit out a curse.
“The point is that suddenly you’re . . . what? Settling down? Throwing around the L word?”
“Yes.” I gulped past the giant baseball in my throat. “Why is that so hard to believe?”
“I’m sorry, did you black out when I was listing all your sins? Dude, a week after sleeping with her, you called me, panicked that she might want a commitment. You asked me to dump her for you.”
I smiled at the memory. It had taken a week for Austin to completely consume me in a way so hellishly terrifying that the only option had been for me to break things off.
And then, I realized—I didn’t want to.
It was fear talking.
Things had been perfect.
Until that night.
It always came back to that, now, didn’t it?
I was doing the right thing.
“Look,” I said right before we pulled up to the little café, “all you need to know is that I love her. That’s enough, right?”
He whistled. “Apparently, since you’re learning how to ride a bike. If I see you adopt a frog, I’m going to be worried, man.”
I laughed and then shuddered. “No, but I wouldn’t say no to a dog.”
He stopped walking. “But you hate pets!”
“And yet, I’ve taken care of you for how long?” I fired back.
“Touché,” Lucas muttered under his breath as we made our way into the restaurant and sat in a corner booth. The waitress brought us menus and water.
I hadn’t actually hung out with Lucas sans Avery in a long time. It was nice. Not that I didn’t like Avery. I just hadn’t realized how much I missed my best friend.
And baseball talk.
And everything that didn’t have to deal with keeping lies and promises straight and a smile on my face even though the silence was eating me alive.
The waitress returned and took our orders and then brought us our sodas.
It was relaxing.
Just being with my best friend.
I was actually starting to relax.
The bell on the door clanged; both Lucas and I looked up.
My expression completely froze.
Lucas frowned. “Isn’t that Mayor Rogers?”
“Yeah.” Suddenly sick, I put down my sandwich and felt like I was going to barf.
“What the hell is he doing with your mom?”
Time froze. While I locked eyes with my best friend, my expression was a mixture of anger and irritation.
“Maybe you should start at the beginning.” Lucas ran his hands through his hair.
It took me an hour to get it out.
And once it was out, I knew it was only a matter of time before my world shattered, taking Austin down with it.