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Pushing Piper gently off of me, I swing my legs off my bed. Piper lays her head back down and closes her eyes. “Oh, yeah,” I tease as I walk toward him. “What could you possibly have to celebrate?”

Dad’s arm comes out¸ loops around my neck, and he pulls me in for a hug. His lips press against my head and he releases me. “Oh, let’s see. My tumor is shrinking, I’m back home, and my daughter and her mutt are here with me. Life is just damn good.”

Laughing, I loop my arm with his and we step into the short hallway that leads to the living room. “Yup, life is damn good.”

Sort of.

I mean, my heart is still broken, but honestly, if I could have only one wish in the world, it would be for my dad to beat his cancer. I’d gladly sacrifice an eternal and lasting love for my dad’s life. Just sucks I can’t have it all.

When we step into the living room I eyeball the massive balsam fir with an amazing scent drifting off the flat, needlelike, and quite prickly leaves. “Geez, Dad…we’re going to need to remove some of the furniture to fit that thing in here,” I chastise him as I notice the top of the tree is actually bent over against the ceiling. “And buy more lights and ornaments, I think.”

“I’m actually going to head out in a bit and do just that,” he says with a quick pinch to my cheek. “Up for decorating it later?”

“Well, sure. I mean, no sense in having a naked tree in the house.”

My dad chuckles and walks into the kitchen that sits adjacent. It’s small with a tiny butcher-block island that still bears wear and tear from all of the baking and cooking my mom used to do before she died. It takes up too much space, but neither one of us can bear to part with it. I lean against the counter and watch as dad pulls out a pork roast he had thawing in the fridge.

“I suppose you expect me to cook that,” I say with a pointed look.

“Nope,” he says proudly. “I’m going to cook dinner tonight, and even thought about making cookies too, for dessert.”

I arch an eyebrow at him. “Who are you and what have you done with my father?”

“Laugh all you want, missy, but truth is I’m bored out of my mind. If cooking keeps me occupied, you should be grateful.”

“I’m worried about food poisoning,” I say dryly as I open the fridge back up and pull out a bottle of water.

“Smart-ass,” he retorts affectionately. “But I have a nefarious plan. I need to fatten you up before you take off to Columbus. You’re not eating enough as it is.”

I ignore that remark and twist the cap to take a sip, idly sliding my wool-sock-covered foot over the worn linoleum. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me? I’m sure I can get a larger apartment than the one I have reserved.”

“Nope,” he says surely and without hesitation. “This is my home and I’m staying. Sure you don’t want to try to find a job here and stay with me instead?”

“Nope,” I say, without as much surety but no less hesitation. “I like the Buckeye organization. It’s a good move for me.”

“You could apply for work with the Oilers,” he suggests. “I’m sure Benny would take you on.”

Benny is the general manager of the Oilers and a longtime friend of my dad’s. That could be an option, except for the fact I’d rather any potential job go to my father. If his next MRI shows continued remission, I know without a doubt my dad will want to go back to work. I’ve tried to broach that subject with him, but he shut me down claiming, “I don’t want to jinx my recovery. It’s something I’ll consider after the next MRI.”

Luckily, we don’t have to worry about finances for the immediate future. When I took Gray Brannon up on her offer to release me immediately from the Cold Fury, I was beyond surprised when I was given a severance check for ten thousand dollars. It was completely out of place and wholly inappropriate. I didn’t deserve it, but I knew that it came down from Brian Brannon himself, who wanted to make sure my dad would not have any financial worries. His house payment and expenses would be more than covered when I deposited that amount in his bank account after a knock-down-drag-out fight with him about it. While I know I should have denied the gift, my need to make sure my dad was taken care of prevailed and I accepted the charity.

Besides, I wanted a clean, fresh start when I returned to Columbus. I’m more than feeling a burning need to start my life over again, because it’s really the only way I can leave the heartbreak behind.

“Are you going to contact Todd when you return to Columbus?” my dad asks just as I’m taking another sip of water, and his question shocks me so much I immediately choke. After several hacking coughs and one slap to my back by my dad’s meaty hand, I get myself under control.

“Why would you even ask that?” I ask on a gasp.

“I worry about you,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. “Todd would take care of you.”

“I can take care of myself,” I say firmly, still befuddled over this. My dad wasn’t the biggest fan of Todd’s. He was also just as heartbroken over the fact that Hawke and I didn’t work out a second time, so I know he really doesn’t want me with someone like Todd.

“I know you can, honey. I just want you to be happy, fall in love. I want grandbabies too.”

A feeling of utter loneliness sweeps through me. I had been feeling all kinds of blue the last few weeks since I returned home and left Hawke behind, but a renewed sense of loss engulfs me as my dad painfully reminds me that none of those things—love, happiness, children—can exist for me without the one man that I want.

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