“Your dad’s cheating.”
Her shoulders slumped as she went completely still and then whispered, “That doesn’t explain why you’d be meeting with my mom.”
I sighed, feeling like pouring hot coffee all over my face to at least give me a brief reprieve from the cold rain before I confessed all my sins.
“Your dad’s cheating on your mom . . .” I cleared my throat and made sure to look directly into her eyes. The bomb was about to drop. I hesitated. Because what type of person wanted to have this conversation? “With mine.”
She frowned. “Your what?”
“My mom,” I said slowly. “Your dad.”
Austin’s jaw dropped a few inches. “What?”
“This has been going on for three months,” I ground out. “I found out about a month after we started dating.”
“My father found out and ran to tell me he had proof . . .” And here came the really uncomfortable part. “He had pictures of our parents together. And said he was going to go to the press, was going to finally ruin my mother and ‘show the world what a slut she is.’ Mind you, my father’s a raging alcoholic, so I’m not even sure he’d make it to the news station without stopping at the nearest bar and getting drunk off his ass.” I paused. “And then . . . he saw you. Put two and two together and . . . well . . . suddenly it was like I was nineteen again, walking in on my mother with our gardener. My father blaming her for ripping apart our family even though he’d made the first mistake.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “Damn it, Austin, I didn’t want you to know this way. I didn’t want you to know at all. I thought if I just pushed you away . . .” I didn’t want to keep talking. At all. It hurt finally telling her the truth, because every word caused her to flinch like I was delivering a physical punch to her gut.
Finally Austin asked, “Where are the pictures now?”
“I have them.” I shifted uncomfortably. “In my apartment.”
“You have pictures of your mom and my dad . . . naked?” she hissed.
I groaned into my hands. “It’s not like I’m keeping a sordid private stash, Austin!”
Her eyes welled up with tears and then narrowed. “When did you say you found out?”
I was silent and then said, “I was angry at you. But it was misdirected, the anger. I was angry at myself. At my family for ruining one more good thing in my life—you.”
Her expression almost killed me, so lost, so full of hurt and pain, pain I had caused.
“I was angry at your dad, angry at my mom, and even angry at my dad for telling me that I was just like them. Both of my parents are cheaters. And it scared me, scared me that he was right. And the closer we got, you and I, the more panicked I felt. What if I was capable of that? And when I finally realized I wasn’t, that I wanted to be with you, I realized a relationship was impossible. It would destroy you.”
Austin looked down at the table. “So you did exactly what they did, right? You became the man you never wanted to turn into—and cheated.”
“I kissed Brooke. I didn’t like it. And it was enough to make you so angry that you’d break up with me, or so I thought—and then you came back, and I almost told you the truth. But my father, he opened his door just a crack and—”
“Whoa, whoa, back up. He was in your apartment?”
I frowned and then tried not to wince. “No, he uh, he lives across the hall.”
“Creepy neighbor man is your dad?”
“Smells like whiskey?”
“Looks like hell?”
She reached for my hand, but I jerked away. I didn’t want her pity or her sadness, not right now. I still had more to say.
“I broke up with you to protect you. Eventually, the affair will come out. They’re careless, our parents. And you’ll be caught up in all of it.” I stood and backed away.
“Thatch.” Tears filled her eyes as she clenched her jaw. “Thatch, what are you doing?”
“What’s best.” I almost couldn’t find my voice. “Weathering this storm together is always an option. Or I could leave.”
“No,” Austin growled. “You don’t get to decide for both of us. That’s not how these things work.” Her eyes flashed as she shoved against my chest and then gripped my shirt between her fingers, pulling me close. Her eyes glittered with anger. “Did you ever consider that I would want you by my side when the scandal came out? That I would need you to survive it? All of it?”
She shoved me away.
I let her.
And stared in shock.
I blinked and opened my mouth but didn’t really know what to say. Because in every single scenario, I’d never thought of this one, the one where the girl wants to be by my side come hell or high water.
Because my mom had chosen to hurt my dad.
My dad had chosen to hurt my mom.
All I had seen in their relationship was pain.
I never saw love.
I never saw them look at each other the way Austin was looking at me right now. The way I’d always wanted to be looked at—with complete trust and confidence that no matter what, we’d still be holding hands in the end. And as if to prove her point, she reached for my hand and squeezed it hard.
“Are you going to go kiss someone to piss me off again?” she asked in confusion.
“What? No. Why the hell would I do that? I love you.”
“Then that’s really all I need to know.” She held out her hand. “One step at a time.”
“Austin, I don’t think you’ve really thought this through, all of it, what it will look like.”
“Funny you should say that”—Austin wiped at a few escaped tears—“since this really smart doctor once told me that it’s how you feel about yourself that defines the person you are, not what others say. He also said this really awesome thing about eating all of your dessert.”
“You would fixate on that part.”
“He buys me MoonPies.”
“Because he loves you.”
“And he lets me drink Mountain Dew.”
“And he prays every night it won’t kill you.”
She smiled and walked into my open arms. “I love you. Let’s just . . . wait and see what happens. Let me talk to my mom and . . . well, the good news is this. I’m on Team Mom, and I know a thing or two about revenge.”
“Believe me, I know, but you can’t just go keying your dad’s car.”
“Um, yeah, I can.”
“I know a really easy way to slit his tires.”
“I’m not helping you commit a crime.”
“Fine, I’ll just call Avery.”
I jerked the phone out of her hand and shook my head. “I refuse to bail you out of jail. If you want to get even, I think I have a great idea, but let’s just . . . wait and try to get through the day for now, alright?”
She nodded and kissed me softly on the lips. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Thank you for not being angry.”
“Oh, I’m angry as hell that you thought by breaking my heart in a million zillion pieces, you’d be fixing things for me—”
I backed up slowly.
“But I also know angry sex is the best kind, so you’ll just do hard time in the bedroom, plus I had my eye on that stethoscope of yours. Think you could bring it home?”
“Something’s wrong with you.”
“Or very right?”
“No.” I shook my head. “Just wrong.”
“You love me.”
“I do.” I kissed her again. “Let’s go.”
A loud knocking sounded on Thatch’s door.
I opened it and took a step back as Avery held her hand in the air and then sucked in breath after breath before finally stumbling into the apartmen
t. “Hold . . . just one sec . . . can’t breathe.”
Lucas followed and shook his head slowly. “She ran.”
“She needs to start power walking or something,” I mumbled, biting off a huge piece of a Twizzlers licorice.
“Heard that,” Avery said on another wheeze. “And I was worried, okay? You texted me a picture of two MoonPies, a Snickers bar, and a six-pack of Mountain Dew! It wasn’t Diet, Austin.”
“Gross, Diet?” I scrunched up my nose. “And why would that freak you out?”
“Need I remind you of last time?” She threw her hands in the air. “I had to rescue you from your own filth!”
I waved her off. “Well, I’m not in need of rescue, though Thatch did the honors at least a few times this afternoon.”
Avery made a gagging noise and then looked around the apartment. “Where is good Thatcher?”
“On his way home.” I shrugged. “Why?”
“Are you living here?”