“Son of a fucking bitch,” I groan out as I look up toward the sky, clasping my hands on top of my head. My lungs constrict and I feel on the verge of hyperventilating.
“Are you seriously trying to act like you didn’t know?” Avery asks skeptically, but I can hear the heat has gone of out of her voice.
I don’t turn back to look at her, but continue staring up at the sky. It’s dark and cloud covered, not even the moon visible. It makes the gulf between me and Vale seem very bleak at this point.
“I lost my phone not long after I got to Pittsburgh,” I say quietly. “I got a new one. New number.”
“But her email,” she presses.
“Never saw it. Got a new email too,” I say, the urge to bend over and vomit now hitting me hard. “Got a whole new fucking life and never looked back.”
“Oh,” Avery says quietly, and I can clearly hear the pity in her voice right now.
“That sucks, dude,” Oliver says.
Yeah, this fucking sucks, and my knees almost buckle as I realize that Vale had already forgiven me for that. She let that go and didn’t hold it against me. She was honestly trying to make a new and fresh start with me. She gave in to feelings and emotion, and she let herself love me again without an ounce of regret or fear, even thinking I had ignored her attempts.
She’s completely the bigger person of the two of us. That’s one thing Avery got right.
Spinning around, I look at Avery, daring her to lie to me. “Where is she?”
She blinks at me in surprise but immediately says, “At Dave’s house. They’re decorating their Christmas tree.”
I spin back around and trot down the steps, reaching into my pocket for the key to the rental car I got at the airport. Calling over my shoulder, I say, “Tell your mom I’m sorry but I can’t stay for dinner.”
I hear Oliver’s laugh, hearty and pleased, and then I leave that all behind.
I’ve got some major groveling to do if I’m going to get my girl back.
“I can’t believe how good these cookies are,” I say as I take another one from the plate sitting on the coffee table. Just one more, I promise myself.
“Makes up for the completely dried-out pork roast, right?” my dad says with a chuckle as he carefully places a metallic green glass ball on the tree.
“It wasn’t that bad,” I say kindly, but oh, wow…it was bad. No wonder I’m eating my fifth cookie of the night.
“Baking is apparently my forte,” he muses, choosing to accept my kind sentiment about what was possibly the world’s worst roast.
“You be in charge of baking, I’ll take back cooking duties.”
“Deal,” he agrees, and reaches into the box for another ornament. As he places a hook through the small wire loop, his voice takes on a bit of a dreamy cast. “I know you probably can’t remember, but decorating the tree is one of my best memories of your mom. She loved this stuff so much.”
I smile sadly, because my memories of her are so faded. It just seems like it was always dad and me together, my memories of her coming at the hands of dad’s sentimental recollections. But I know their love was true. He never sought anyone else after she was gone, preferring not to fight a losing battle in the quest to find that perfect love again.
And boy, do I understand that sad thought. I know I might be shortsighted at the moment, but I can’t imagine finding anyone else like Hawke. I think he was the perfect one for me. Well, at least I thought that until I realized his power of forgiveness just isn’t that strong, and unfortunately, that’s a deal breaker.
I chew on my cookie and pick up an ornament from the box. It’s silver with frosted snowflake patterns, and twinkles at me merrily from the white lights that are glowing brightly on the tree. I try desperately to call forth some Christmas spirit, try to remember how I used to love this time of the year and would just be warm and gooey inside from the peace that seems to permeate the air.
Unfortunately, I feel cold and hollow inside, and I know that I’m only going through the motions to appease my father. But that’s okay. Like he said, we have a lot to be celebrating this year. And hopefully we’ll have the year after, and the year after that. I need to be happy with those unique and special gifts.
A knock on the door has both Dad and me turning that way. He arches an eyebrow at me and I shrug my shoulders. Piper gets up from her place in front of the fireplace and trots down the hall, her tail wagging eagerly at the prospect of company.
“Probably Avery,” I muse as I place the silver ball on the tree and brush the remaining cookie crumbs from my hands onto my jeans. “She probably just wants our cookies.”
“I’ll go put the rest on a plate and start a kettle for some tea,” my dad says as he turns to the kitchen.
I saunter down the hallway, grinning as Piper’s tail starts wagging even harder as I get closer. I give her a quick scratch on the butt and grab the door handle, twisting the knob and pulling it open.
And there stands what I think may be a mirage. Tall, piercing blue eyes, trimmed beard set over a gorgeously fantastic face.
I blink and my mouth parts, a soft gasp of surprise whispering out.
“Hey,” he says quietly, his eyebrows furrowed in what looks to be pain.
“What are you doing here?” I blurt out as Piper steps onto the porch. She shoves her muzzle into his crotch, tail wagging a hundred miles an hour. Hawke bends to gently push her head back and scratches it absently while his eyes never move from mine.