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I follow Oliver out the front door, both of us grabbing our coats from the rack in the entryway. We step out onto the stoop lit by a single yellow bulb and he lights up.

“Nasty habit, dude,” I say as I flick my eyes to the cigarette.

“Yeah, so is scratching my balls, but you don’t see me giving that up anytime soon, do you?” he says, and then proceeds to show me just such a move.

I laugh and shake my head, leaning back against the iron porch rail that trails down the steps. “What Nina sees in you is beyond me.”

“It’s true love,” is all Oliver says as he takes another drag. Then he gives me a grin. “Dude…I can’t believe you just showed up.”

“I had some time,” I say with a shrug. “And a visit with your parents is long overdue.”

I really shouldn’t have taken the time to come here. The Cold Fury just finished an afternoon game in Ottawa and we play Montreal day after next. That gave me a very small window of opportunity to hop a regional jet here so I could visit my old stomping grounds.

And perhaps a chance meeting with Vale?

Oh, who am I fucking kidding? As much as I want to visit with Oliver and the gang, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pulled here by Vale. I can barely seem to go two minutes without thinking about her. Obsessing about her.

Missing her.

So fucking much it almost makes me sick to my stomach.

Oliver nods and takes another drag, looking out over the yard. I hesitate a moment, then finally take a deep breath. Scratching my hand through my hair, I ask, “How is she?”

His head snaps my way and his eyebrows raise up in surprise. “Who? Vale?”

“Well who else?” I snap at him. “Of course Vale.”

Oliver gives me an appraising smile, takes another drag, and exhales slowly. “I haven’t seen her much. Avery sees her almost every day.”

“And?” I prompt.

“And what?” he plays stupid, and I think he’s enjoying this.

“How is she doing?” I grit out.

“Oh,” Oliver says with mock sudden awareness. “You mean, is she dying of a broken heart? Or maybe you want to know if she’s dating someone? I heard Jeff Conklin over at the hardware store was going to ask her out. He seemed a bit hesitant at first, but I told him to go for it. Vale’s as single as they come, right?”

Jeff Conklin? You got to be fucking kidding me. That douche is nowhere good enough for the likes of Vale. We played hockey together for the Oilers but he was a hack. Got cut after the second year and stayed behind in Sydney trying to capitalize on his brief fame and glory with the team. Oliver told me he’s been married and divorced twice since then.

“She’ll say no,” I say confidently, hoping beyond hope she’d say no to someone like him.

To anyone, really.

The thought of her with someone else…

Oliver shrugs his shoulders, takes another drag of his cigarette. His lips turn upward in an evil grin. “You’re probably right. I mean, isn’t her ex in Columbus? She’ll probably go back to him.”

The snarl that comes out of my mouth surprises me as much as the fact that my hands involuntarily tighten into firsts, feeling an uncanny need to punch Oliver. I know what he’s doing…trying to goad me into something, but I’m just not sure what.

“What in the hell are you doing here?” I hear from behind me, and turn around to see Avery walking toward us, holding hands with an adorable little boy that is clearly her son, Thomas. A tall man with a buzzed haircut follows behind.

“Well, hello, Avery,” I greet her mildly, no surprise over her snotty tone. I shoot a quick smile to the little boy, who looks up at me with wide eyes. I squat down so I’m not towering over him as he stares up at me from the bottom porch step. “And who are you?”

He flashes me a grin and says, “I’m Thomas. Who are you?”

“He’s no one,” Avery says as she walks up the steps with his hand still firmly gripped in hers. He stares at me as they brush past, Avery refusing to look at me. I stand back up, watching as Avery opens the storm door.

“That’s rude, Av,” Oliver chides as he flicks the cherry off the end of his cigarette into the surrounding darkness.

Avery’s husband walks up the steps, sticks his hand out to me. “I’m Rob. Nice to meet you.”

“Hawke,” I say as I shake his hand. He doesn’t seem to hold any animosity toward me.

He nods, gives me a sympathetic smile, and moves past me to follow Avery into the house. The door shuts quietly behind them.

“Well, that could have been worse,” I say as I lean back against the iron railing. When Carly said she was having everyone over for dinner, I figured Avery would be baring her teeth at me. I’m quite sure Vale filled her in on everything that went down between us, and I know based upon my last conversation with her at The Fox and Hound that she’s got to be feeling some major disappointment in me.

The front door flies open again, and then Avery is barreling back outside. Oliver steps hastily back to avoid getting hit by the storm door.

“It’s about to get worse,” he mutters.

Avery walks right up to me and I stand up straighter, preparing myself for her rage. Better get it over with so we can move past this.

“You’re such an asshole,” she hisses at me. “A complete and utter fucking asshole.”

“Avery,” Oliver says in warning, but she spins on him.

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