I was going to kill Avery Hamilton.
Sweaty palms gripped the steering wheel as I told myself I needed to get out of the car. It was way past time, but I knew I’d rather walk barefoot across broken, heated glass than go into that restaurant.
Sounded excessive even to me.
But all I wanted to do was go home, change into a pair of leggings that were probably not suitable for public viewing, curl up on the couch with a bowl of sour cream and cheddar potato chips (the ruffled kind) and read. I was currently going through this weird stage where I was devouring historical romances written in the eighties, and I was about to start a Johanna Lindsey viking romance. There was a lot of bodice ripping and alpha men on steroids awaiting me. I loved it.
But then, Avery would kill me if I bailed on tonight.
Well, okay. She wouldn’t kill me, because who would babysit Ava and little Alex so she and Cam could have a date night? Tonight was a rarity. Cam’s parents were in town, so they were watching the babies, and I was here, sitting in my car, staring at one of the Japanese maple trees that lined the parking lot and looked like it was seconds from toppling over.
“Ugh,” I groaned, tipping my head back against the seat.
If I was doing this any other day, it wouldn’t be so bad, but this had been my last day at Richards and Decker. There’d been so many people in and out of my tiny office. Balloons. An ice cream cake that I may have had two . . . or three slices of. I was all peopled out.
Leaving my job of five years had been weird. I’d convinced myself for so long that I’d loved it there. I went to work, closed my door and, for the most part, was left alone while I processed insurance claims. It was a quiet, simple job I could lose myself in, and I had no risk of ever bringing it home with me at the end of the day. It paid for the two-bedroom apartment and covered the loan on my Honda. It was a quiet, boring, and harmless job to go along with a quiet, boring, and harmless life.
Then my father had finally, literally, made an offer I’d be an idiot to walk away from, and that offer had unlocked something inside me, something I’d long since thought was dead.
The desire to start really living again.
Yeah, that sounded cheesy to even think it, but it was the truth. For the last six years, I’d existed from one day to the next. Not looking forward to anything. Not doing any of the things I used to dream about.
Taking the offer my father made was the first step—the biggest step—in finally moving forward with my life, but I still couldn’t believe I was doing it.
My parents hated . . . they hated how things had turned out for me. They had all these dreams and hopes. I had those same—
A tap on my car window startled me and I jumped. My knee cracked off the bottom of my steering wheel as I looked to my left.
Avery stood outside my car, her hair a fiery red in the fading evening sun. She wiggled her fingers at me.
Cringing because I felt foolish, I reached over and hit the button. The window slid down silently. “Hey.”
She leaned over, resting her forearms on the door and all but stuck her head in the car, speaking directly to my left side. Avery was a few years older than me and had two kids, one of them less than a year ago, but with those freckles and warm brown eyes, she still managed to look like she was barely in her twenties. “So, whatcha doing?”
I glanced from her to the windshield and then back again. “Um, I was . . . thinking.”
“Uh-huh.” Avery smiled a little. “Do you think you’ll be done doing that anytime soon?”
“I don’t know,” I murmured, feeling my cheeks heat.
“The waitress just took our drink orders. I got you a Coke,” she offered. “Not diet. I’m hoping you’ll join us before we order appetizers, because Cam is talking soccer and you know how my attention span is when he starts talking soccer.”
The right corner of my mouth curved up a little. Cam had played pro soccer for several years. Now he’d moved onto coaching at Shepherd, which meant he got to be home way more often. “I’m sorry to leave you hanging like that. I wasn’t going to bail.”
“I didn’t think you would, but I figured you might need a little coaxing.”
Peeking up at her again, the small half-smile slipped from my face. Letting Avery talk me into this was also a part of the whole getting out there and living again thing, but this also wasn’t easy. “Does . . . does he know about . . . ?” I gestured at my face.
A soft look crept onto Avery’s face as she reached inside and patted my arm. I was back to gripping the steering wheel like a freak. She nodded. “Cam hasn’t gone into detail, of course, because that’s not our story to tell, but Grady knows enough.”
Meaning he wouldn’t have that “WTF” expression on his face when he saw me.
Granted, he probably would still have that expression at some point. From a distance, there didn’t appear to be anything off about me. It was upon closer inspection that my face just didn’t add up.
And that’s what I was dreading about tonight, what I dreaded whenever I met anyone for the first time. Some people just blurted it out, having absolutely no care if the question embarrassed or bothered me, or made me think of a night I’d rather forget for a multitude of reasons. Even if they didn’t ask what happened to my face, they were thinking it, because I would think it too. Didn’t make them terrible people. It just made them people.
They’d stare, trying to figure out why my right jaw looked slightly different than my left jaw. They’d try to hide that they were looking, but they’d keep glancing at my left cheek, guessing about what could’ve left such a deep notch just below my cheekbone. Then they would wonder if the deafness in my right ear had anything to do with what was going on with my face.