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“I ruined what was a perfectly great night,” she says apologetically. “Let my tongue and tripped-up feelings mess things up.”

This does not sit well with me. Which is odd, because for the last four days, I’ve wanted nothing more than Vale to come to the same conclusion that I did that this was moving too fast. And now that she seems to be saying that, I should be feeling immeasurable relief. Instead it makes me slightly nauseated.

That she’s apologizing for her feelings.

“Vale,” I say, intent on trying to ease her conscience without devaluing what was in her heart.

“I’m leaving,” she says, and pulls her head up from my shoulder.

My head snaps to the right, my eyes lasering onto hers. She holds my gaze, doesn’t look away in cowardice or shame for her proclamation. She’s owning this decision, and I have to wonder how she came to this.

“Leaving where?”

“I’ve been offered a job back at Ohio State…as an assistant athletic trainer for the women’s lacrosse team. Tryouts are in January.”

My head spins, and while my inclination is to squeeze her hand in denial, I’m further thrown off balance when she pulls her hand away. She turns on the concrete step to look directly at me. “I’ve already talked to Gray Brannon. She said I can continue on until the end of the year or leave now. Dad wants to move back to Sydney, so I’m going to help him get settled back there and then head to Columbus.”

“Wait,” I say, coming out of my stupor to ask with incredulity, “Just wait a minute. Is this because I couldn’t say the words back to you?”

I expect her to deny it and give me the runaround, but Vale gives me blunt honesty. “Yes. That’s the exact reason. While I’m sorry that things went down the way they did the other night, I’ll never apologize for my feelings. I do love you, Hawke, and you cannot know how painful it is knowing you don’t feel the same.”

“Actually, I do know how bad that feels,” I say bitterly, hoping to hurt her just a tiny bit the way she’s hurting me now. “Seem to remember you doing the same to me.”

Anger and hurt war within her eyes. “So I guess that makes us even, right?”

“Not the same, Vale,” I say tiredly as I stand up from the concrete step and brush my jeans off. “Back then, you cut me out of your life without any explanation. You let me go and never thought twice about me after that. I’m quite sure this makes me sound like a pussy, but it’s a bit hard to get over something like that. I’d have hoped you’d give me a little time to grow back into this, but you want everything right now.”

“I can’t deny my feelings,” she says as her eyes drop down to her hands, where she fiddles with her bracelet.

“And I can’t conjure up feelings that may not exist,” I throw back at her. Total ass comment, but I’m feeling cornered and confused.

Vale presses her lips together in dismay as sorrow filters her gaze. She nods at me in agreement. “I know. And that’s exactly why I’m leaving. I can’t stay here and continue on with a man I love down to my soul…always have…and continue to be hurt by the fact that it’s not a two-way street. I thought you had left all of that behind us. I know I have.”

“Well, yeah,” I say sarcastically. “It was a little easier for you to leave it behind. You weren’t the one swinging in the wind.”

Vale opens her mouth and I know that whatever she’s going to say is going to have a remarkable impact on me. I can see it in her eyes, almost as if she’s decided to lay all the cards on the table and I have the uneasy sensation that she’s holding a royal flush. I brace for it, ready to have her throw me for some type of loop that will either cement our demise or possibly shake us back to some reasonable reality.

Instead, her mouth closes and resignation sets into the firm line of her jaw. She stands up, leans forward, and places her hands on my chest. She kisses my cheek. “Goodbye, Hawke.”

I’m a proud man, yet still I’ll admit that those words almost cause my knees to buckle. Something deep within my chest rumbles and a searing need to scream at her to stay wells up inside of me. But because I’m a proud man, I swallow against it hard and push it down. I am unwilling to see past my wall of hurt and betrayal and try to see the truth of what she may have just said a moment ago to change the direction in which we were headed.

Which is a lonely street of heartbreak and abandonment yet again.

Except at this moment, I’m just not sure who is abandoning whom.

Chapter 26


The knock on my bedroom door startles me. I had been so deep into Dean Koontz’s latest thriller that icy shivers race up my spine from the jolt of the noise. But my dad opens the door and grins in at me, and I realize it’s not a paranormal psycho maniac coming to get me. Piper lifts her head from my lap and thumps her tail in greeting.

“Hey, honey,” my dad says, his cheeks rosy from the cold outside. “Want to come see the tree?”

I dog-ear the page, close the book, and set it aside. My hand goes to Piper’s head and scratches at her lazily. Best thing since returning to Sydney was taking possession of my pup back from Avery. “I can’t believe you got a Christmas tree already.”

We normally put our tree up on Christmas Eve and that’s still ten days away.

Dad chuckles. “I feel like celebrating early this year.”

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