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“Why aren’t you with them?” I asked.

“I’m flying there this afternoon.” She spoke slowly, carefully. “But I wanted to be here for your intervention. And to ask if maybe you wanted to come with me.”

I just stared at her blankly.

“I think he would really appreciate you being there, Anne. I know things got left in a bad place between you two. But I think he could really do with your support right now. Lori would probably like to say good-bye.”

“I turned down her son’s proposal of marriage, so I highly doubt that.”

Ev gave a one-shoulder shrug. “She was sad, but … I don’t think she was mad at you exactly.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway. I can’t go.” I wandered into the bathroom, put away the toilet brush, and peeled off the rubber gloves. Ev, Lauren, and Lizzy huddled in the doorway, watching me. I washed my hands, soaping them up super well. “Look, guys, I appreciate the intervention, not that I believe I needed it. I was just keeping busy before I had to go back to work.”

“Sure you were,” said Lizzy. “That’s why you scoured the ceiling.”

“It was dusty.”

“Focus, ladies.” Lauren clicked her tongue. “Anne, you need to go with Ev. Talk to him.”

I dried my hands with a towel. The girl in the mirror was a bit of a mess, hair lank and skin greasy. They were right there, I had looked better.

“You two were good together,” said Ev. “He got carried away with the wedding idea, but I think he gets that now.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s so many good ways to take someone refusing to marry you.” I huffed out a laugh. “Not sure there’s any coming back from that one. Thanks for the thought, Ev. But he doesn’t want me there.”

She shook her head. “You don’t know that–”

“Yes, I do.” I put my hands on my hips. It didn’t feel quite right so I swapped over to crossing them over my chest instead. “I texted him the other day, asked if there was anything I could do. If he wanted me there even just as a friend. He said no.”

And yes, Mal’s one-word, two-letter answer had pissed me off and hurt. The fact that I bought myself a new phone for my birthday was somewhat related. As was the mark I needed to paint over on my bedroom wall. Turns out I had a better throwing arm than I was aware of.

Ev, Lauren, and Lizzy just stared at me. Awesome. I could do without yet again having my heartbreak on display for one and all. And that was a shitty, stupid thought. “Seriously, thanks anyway, guys. For everything. I’m going to take your advice and have a shower.”

“That took balls, reaching out to him,” said Lizzy.

“I had to try.”

Lauren frowned at the floor. “We need booze. Food.”

“Yeah,” sighed Lizzy.

My smile started twitching at the edges. I couldn’t quite make it. “Sounds good.”

Ev nodded somberly. Then she paused. “Anne, be smarter than him. If he means something to you, if you get another chance … don’t give up so easily.”

I had nothing. I just stared at her, lost, not a clue how to react or what to do with myself. It was the same damn way I’d been feeling since the night Mal walked out on me.

“Go get cleaned up.” Lizzy hugged me from behind, wrapping her arms around me and squeezing tight. “I’ll organize some food and drinks.”

“Oh, I can do that after I-”

“Anne, please. Let me look after you for a change.”

I nodded slowly, on the verge of tears yet again. “Okay. Thanks.”

Lizzy set her chin on my shoulder, not letting go. “You’re my amazingly strong big sister and I love you. But you are allowed to need help now and then. You don’t have to fix everything on your own anymore, you know?”

“I know.” I didn’t know it exactly, but I was beginning to feel it. And it was warm, wonderful, and everything it should have been. Not being alone in this, having them all here was a beautiful thing. “Thank you.”

***

My birthday didn’t feel like my birthday. The last two had been nice, shopping with Lizzy and going out to dinner with Reece. But this year’s? Not so much. It was a lot like being back with Mom and pasting a smile on my face for Lizzy’s sake. Making a cake and then getting sick after eating half of it because it was what you did.

I’d been back at work for three days now. The “intervention” had stuck. I hadn’t indulged in anymore crazy cleaning marathons. To be fair, the apartment couldn’t get any more hygienic if I tried. I hadn’t heard from Mal again and I didn’t expect I would. End of story.

My stripy jersey dress was definitely the go-to look for dinner with Reece. It made me happy. Heartbreak could be covered over by a million and one things including cake and happy stripy dresses.

Fucking rock stars with their f**king ridiculous marital demands and their f**king incredible smell, face, body, voice, sense of humor, mind, generous spirit, and all the rest (Not necessarily in that order.).

Fuck them all. But especially f**k Mal.

Reece was fifteen minutes late. I tapped my knee-high brown boots on the scuffed wooden floor, beating out a hectic rhythm. No need to mention whom I might have picked up the habit from. Maybe waiting outside was a better idea, out in the cold wind. I trudged down the stairs and out the door while firing off a text message to Reece making sure he hadn’t broken down or anything.

He hadn’t.

I knew this because he was rolling around on the small patch of front lawn with someone. Not in ecstasy so much as agony. Lots of agony, if the groans and grunts were any indication. A battered bouquet of roses lay tossed aside. What the hell?

“Reece?”

No response.

I blinked, double-checking my vision. Was that really … “Mal?”

Yes, Mal and Reece were fighting on the front lawn. Blood wept from a cut on Mal’s brow and on Reece’s lip. A dark mark covered Mal’s cheek and Reece’s shirt was ripped open. They wrestled on, throwing punches and making animalistic-sounding noises.

“Motherfucking little …” Mal’s drove his fist hard into Reece’s stomach.

Reece grunted and countered by attempting to kick him in the groin. He caught Mal’s thigh instead. Given the way Mal’s face twisted, it obviously stung.

“You’re the asswipe that left her,” sneered Reece.

They came clashing together again, fists and blood flying. Bile stung the back of my throat and I swallowed it back down. Shit, shit, shit. What to do? I fished out my cell phone, dialed Lauren’s number.

“Hi, Anne.”

“Are you guys here? I need Nate out front now, please. Hurry.”

“What’s going on?”

“Mal and Reece are trying to kill each other.”

There was swearing and muttering. “On our way back. We’ll be there in five minutes.”

I hung up. Five minutes. They could hurt each other worse in five minutes and do some real damage if they hadn’t already. I couldn’t wait five minutes. I needed to do something now.

I cupped my hands over my mouth, standing on the front step. “Hey! What the f**k do you two idiots think you’re doing?”

Reece looked my way and Mal clocked him on the chin. Beyond enraged, they fell on each other again.

Well, that didn’t work.

Then Reece swung hard, catching Mal in the face, knocking him back a step. Mal stood, stunned for a moment. And no damn way could I stand there and watch him get hurt any more. It just wasn’t in me. Reece pulled back his arm, his bloody lips drawn, baring his teeth.

“Reece, no!” I didn’t stop and think. Instead, I made like a fool and rushed in, hell-bent on defending my man.

Mal turned. “Anne.”

I ran straight for him. Reece’s fist hit me in the eye and I dropped. Pain filled my world, blanking my mind. Fuck, did it hurt.

“Are you okay?” asked Mal.

“Ah …” was about the best I could do.

“Anne, oh f**king hell, I’m so sorry,” Reece babbled.

“Easy,” said Mal. My head was carefully lifted and placed upon a firm jeans-clad thigh.

“Hey. Hi,” I said, somewhat dazed and confused. I covered my battered eye with both hands, breathing through the exquisite agony.

“Pumpkin, what the f**k were you thinking, running in like that?”

“I was saving you. Or something. You know …”

They had stopped fighting. It was sort of a success.

Excited whimpering came from the box beside me. A little head popped up, then disappeared. What the hell? To the whole scene basically, I couldn’t restrict the question to any one thing happening tonight on the front lawn. The grass was cool and damp beneath me. I lay on my back, staring up at the night sky. My brain pounded. Mal stared down at me, his eyes tight with concern, his face a bloody mess.

“How you feeling?” he asked.

“Ouch.”

“Anne, I’m so damn sorry,” said Reece, looking about as contrite and torn up about it as possible. “Are you alright?”

“I’ll live.” Mostly. “Advil and ice would probably be good.”

“Yep, let’s get you upstairs.” Mal carefully brushed the hair back from my face.

Panting this time came from the box, along with a high-pitched yelp.

“It’s alright, Killer. Mommy’s okay.” Mal put a hand in the box and lifted out a wriggly little body covered in black-and-white fur. A fancy, studded collar sat around his neck, topped off by a big red bow. The bow was bigger than the dog. “Mommy was trying to save Daddy from evil Uncle Reecey, wasn’t she? A nice thing to do, but Daddy is still going to spank Mommy for being so silly and jumping into a fight. Yes he is, because Daddy’s the best.”

“Oh for f**k’s sake,” mumbled Reece.

“Happy birthday; I got you a puppy.” Mal held the puppy near my face and a wet, pink tongue darted out, licking my chin. He had the darkest, sweetest little eyes. “I named him Killer.”

“Wow.” God, he was cute–the man and the dog both. “Mal, you can’t call something that small Killer.”

“He earned it. Killed one of my Chucks right after I picked him up this afternoon. Chewed a hole right through it.”

The puppy licked me again, nearly getting me on the lips this time.

“Gross, little dude.” I smiled. “I know what you do with that tongue.”

Mal smiled, then handed the puppy to Reece. “Here, carry him up. Don’t drop him.”

“I won’t drop him.”

“You better not.”

More grumbling from Reece and some yips from Killer the puppy. Truly, this night was surreal.

“Wait, Mal. What about your mom?” I asked. “How is she?”

His mouth firmed and his brows descended. “Not good. She doesn’t have long now.”

“What are you doing here?”

His bloody face screwed up and gave me a pained look. “That’s kind of a long story too. I’ll tell it to you upstairs.”

A car pulled to a screeching halt at the curb, and Nate and Lauren rushed out. I waved groggily at them. “It’s okay. They stopped fighting.”

“Ooh, look at the puppy!” cried Lauren.

“You two f**king idiots. What did you do to her?” Nate squatted down next to me, scowling, studying my rapidly swelling shut eye. The world was a blur on that side. “How’s your head, Anne?”

He turned back to Lauren, who was still busy petting and cooing at Killer. “Lauren, leave the dog and call that nurse friend of yours. If we take Anne anywhere like this people will ask questions I’m assuming she won’t want to answer.”


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