As a woman with a past full of heartache, I’d heard the words “you deserve better” more times than I cared to admit. And while I thought Jacks was my definition of better, his betrayal certainly was not. The idea we’re all destined to find some great love was a reality I wanted to give up on. I had known true happiness, and it was in the arms of Jackson Carmichael.
I was supposed to say I didn’t miss him, but that would have been the biggest lie I’ve ever told. He’d been my best friend, the one who had understood me, the one who had known my deepest secrets and admired me in spite of them. That kind of love was hard to erase. I’d tried to move on with someone else, but the memory of what Jacks and I shared always lingered in the back of my mind. When he had asked to reestablish our friendship, I knew better than to agree. But after tragedy struck, the need for friendship and truth destroyed the walls I’d built around my heart. As the time came for me to choose between the man I always wanted and the safety my heart so desperately craved, I was forced to answer the question I’d been avoiding for months: Are second chances worth the risk?
Goodreads Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16102410.A_P_Watson
Chapter One: Putting Up Walls
A single stream of light filtered into my room through a gap in the curtains. I stared at it, my mind trying to comprehend its foreignness. How long had it been since the last time I existed in daylight? I racked my brain, trying to recall a day, an hour, or even a few minutes, but my search proved futile. My existence solely depended on the light of the moon. It was the way I functioned while stripping, and as much as I tried to deny the thought, it really was the only way I knew.
I was still in bed, even though it was almost five. It’d almost been four months since the night my world collapsed. The ruined existence I now maintained in the wake of that night wasn’t a life—it was survival. I worked as much as I could, and when I wasn’t working, I danced. This time, I didn’t need the money from dancing, I needed the escape. Work and dance were the distraction I had sought after Liam, and the same held true for Jacks as well.
The sound of a knock on my door disrupted my train of thought.
“It’s me. Can I come in?” Ter asked.
Ter slowly eased the door open and slid inside my room, barely making a sound. To her, I was like a wild animal, and the slightest disturbance would cause me to flee. She laid on the bed beside me, wrapping her arms around my waist. “I ordered takeout from Wong’s.”
“That sounds good.”
“Are you working tonight?”
“No,” I answered, sighing heavily.
“Okay, good. We’re going to pamper ourselves then.”
“I certainly need some pampering.”
“I invited Nate too. I hope that’s okay.”
“Yeah, of course. You know how much I love my work hubby.”
Her fingers delicately combed through my hair as she played with the long locks. “I thought it’d be fun for the three of us to hang out.”
“Yeah, I think so too. Besides, I need to leave my fucking room.”
“I wasn’t going to push you, but I think that would be a good idea.”
I laughed slightly. “I’m sorry you have to take care of me again.”
“You know I don’t mind, and you helped me when everything was a mess with Ryan.”
“True.” I moved so my head was now resting on her lap. “Has Ryan left yet?” Ryan was heading to New York for the weekend. He had to visit Jacks for work, not that I cared.
“Not yet. He’s finishing packing up right now.”
Not a minute later, there was another tap at my door. “It’s me,” Ryan said through the door.
“Come on in.”
He stepped inside my room, moving to sit on the foot of my bed. “Hey.”
“You’re heading out to New York?” I asked.
“Yep. I’m all packed. I just requested an Uber to take me to the airport. There is no way I’m paying to park my car there.”
I nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I don’t blame you.”
“I haven’t seen Harlow parked outside in the past week,” he stated.
“I left her in the parking garage at Nameless’s place.”
I sat up, moving across Terayn as I hopped off the bed. “Which reminds me. Can you give these to Nameless? They’re the keys to Harlow and his mother’s emerald necklace.” I picked up two small boxes and stacked them in Ryan’s hand.
“I’ll pass these along,” he replied, clutching the boxes tightly.
Ter scooted over on the bed, making room for me again. “So, you’re not going to keep Harlow?” she asked.
“Nope. I’ve saved up some money, so I’ll start looking at cars in a few months. I just don’t want the reminder.”
“But you love your car.”
“There are quite a few things I loved.”
Ryan stood and made his way back to the door. “You know, every time I talk to him on the phone, he sounds miserable.”
“Good.” I sighed loudly, tucking my feet underneath me. “I’m sure anyone who would have to live with a bitch like Elise would be miserable.”
Ryan glanced at me over his shoulder as he placed his hand on the doorknob. “They never lived together, and from what he told me, they barely speak, even while working.”
Ter slid her arm around my shoulders. “Wren—”
“Look, I know you guys have listened to his explanation, but honestly, I’m all out of fucks to give. Whenever we have to start planning stuff for the wedding, I’ll be polite and courteous, but that will be the extent of my niceties. Otherwise, I don’t care what he has to say, I don’t care how his life is, and I sure as hell don’t want to have anything to do with him.”
I watched as Ryan’s mouth straightened into a grim line. He nodded once. “Zero-tolerance policy.”
A faint honk sounded from outside. Terayn pushed my curtains out of the way and glanced at the street outside the townhouse. “Your car is here, babe.”
“Be safe while traveling, Ryan. We’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss both of you too.” Ryan bent to kiss my forehead before turning his attention to his fiancé. Despite everything I went through with Jacks, I was still ecstatic that my two best friends were getting married. Their love was an inspiration. Even though I would never have a bond remotely close to theirs, it certainly was beautiful to witness.
“I’ll call you when I get settled.” He kissed Terayn again before sweeping out of my room.
“When is Nate coming over?”
“He should be here in the next thirty minutes or so,” she answered.
“Alright, sounds good.” I planted my feet on the floor and stretched as I stood. “I’m going to take a shower real quick. What kind of pampering are we doing?”
“Nails of course,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Hair conditioning treatments, mud masks, and paraffin wax treatments for our hands and feet.”
“That sounds really nice.” I smiled at her. “And what movie are we going to watch while we do all this?”
“Our go to chick flick.”
“Please say Miss Congeniality.”
“Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner.” she shouted.
“Yes!” I followed Terayn into the hall. “You know how much I love that movie.”
“Exactly why I picked it, babe.”
“Misty keeps asking me about her husband’s friend Kenneth. Apparently, he stopped by the intensive care unit one night with Misty’s husband and saw me. Ever since then, Misty says he’s been pestering her to set us up.”
“What are you going to say?”
“I told her yes,” I answered hesitantly.
“That is so awesome!”
“It’s definitely time, and he’s pretty cute too. And since he’s a pharmaceutical sales rep, it’s not like we won’t have anything to talk about.”
“Yeah, that’s a good point.”
“You really think it’s a good idea?” I questioned uncertainly. I was afraid of jumping back into the dating ring too soon and becoming a disaster.
“Yes! So, when are y’all going out?”
“Has he said where y’all are going?”
“We’ve been communicating through Misty, but we’re going to a Cuban restaurant with a rum bar.”
“Sounds yummy. You’re not getting drunk, are you?”
“No. I learned my lesson with that one.” I made my way to the bathroom and started the shower, waiting for the water to heat up. My body and hair were washed within a matter of minutes, and after shaving my legs, I shut the water off. The doorbell rang while I was drying off. Rushing back to my room, I changed into a pair of purple pajama shorts and a matching tank top. After my hair was brushed and I applied a little makeup, I joined Ter in the living room.
Takeout containers lined the countertop of the bar, and Terayn pulled two bottles of wine from the fridge. Apparently, Ter had the same idea I did. because she donned a set of matching pajamas as well.
“We almost match!” She filled three glasses with wine and handed one to me.
“I was just thinking the same thing!” I took a sip, savoring the taste. “Is this blackberry wine?” I asked.
I took another sip and rounded the bar to help Ter. We pulled out three plates and three forks, setting everything beside the takeout boxes. No sooner had we finished than the doorbell rang again.
I handed off my wine glass, rushing toward the door. “Coming.” I called out.
“Good! It’s more frigid out here than the inside of Marion’s vagina,” Nate said from outside. “And God do I hate working with that bitch.”
I unlocked the door and practically pulled him inside. “Hey!” I wrapped my arms around his neck.
“Hi, wifey.” He glanced at Terayn over my shoulder. “And second wifey.”
“Hey,” she replied enthusiastically.
“So, what are my best bitches up to?” he asked.
“About to dig in to some takeout,” I answered.
He shrugged out of his coat and hung it on a coatrack next to the door. Snowflakes melted in his blue-streaked hair. Nate followed me to the kitchen, accepting the glass of wine I offered. We each filled our plates with food and took a seat on the couch. Ter had arranged three blankets and plenty of pillows for us. Once we had our drinks and plates of food, Ter started Miss Congeniality.
Over the course of three movies, we finished both bottles of blackberry wine and were now on to the beauty portion of the evening. I grabbed Nate’s leg, giving me better access to his toes.
“Can I see it yet?” he asked, straining his neck to watch my progress.
I laughed, lightly blowing on the fresh polish. “Not yet.”
“I just want to see what color you picked!”
I painted the last three nails on his right foot before starting on the left. “I’m almost done, Nate. Don’t get your panties in a wad.”
I had already finished painting my toes a deep plum, and Terayn was working on hers. The nail polish she picked was pink and glittery. I had just finished the last toe on Nate’s left foot when Ter’s phone started ringing. She answered it on the second ring.
“Hey, babe. You’re on speaker phone,” Terayn announced. She waved her hands over her toenails, trying to dry them. “Did you have a good flight?”
“Yeah. I’m getting settled in my room right now.”
“Good. I’m glad you made it okay!”
“Me too. What have you been up to?” Ryan asked.
Ready to answer his question, I shouted. “We ate takeout from Wong’s and watched three movies. And now we are painting our toenails!”
“I’m sad I missed that. You guys know how much I love having my toenails painted.”
“Don’t worry, Ryan. I’m taking your place tonight.”
Ryan’s laughter sounded through Ter’s phone. “Is that Nate?”
“In the flesh,” Nate shouted.
“I’m not even gone a few hours and I’m replaced by another man!” The three of us burst into a fit of laughter at Ryan’s exclamation. “Hold on a sec. I’m putting you guys on speaker while I change.”
“You can put it on FaceTime if you want!”
Ryan’s laughter emanated through the phone. “Nice try, Nate, but I’m not as dumb as I look.”
“Hey, you can’t blame me for trying,” Nate countered.
“I suppose not.”
“What time will you be back?”
“Sunday night.” Ryan answered my question just before the phone cut off. Two seconds later, another call came through. Ter clicked to accept the FaceTime call, and Ryan’s face filled the screen. “Hi, again.”
“Hey.” I waved at the phone as Ter propped it up against a wine bottle.
“Hey again, babe!”
“Hi. It’s nice to see my girls again so soon. What movies did you watch?”
“Miss Congeniality, Bridesmaids, and Dirty Dancing,” Ter answered, picking up a bottle of clear nail polish to seal the paint on her toes.
“Nice. Those are all great movies.”
“Hey, Ryan. Will you pick me up a souvenir while you’re in New York?” I asked.
“Of course. Is there anything in particular you want?”
“Nah, surprise me.”
“Will do,” Ryan said with a grin.
“I want one too,” Ter cried.
“I can make that happen, babe. What about you, Nate?”
“If the wifeys are getting souvenirs, then you know I want one too.”
Ryan nodded and picked up his phone. The camera followed him as he walked around. “Alright, three souvenirs it is.”
“Oh and when you get back, I think it’s time we try making a Baked Alaska.” I finished painting another coat on Nate’s toes, shifting my focus back to Ryan. “It looks super tricky, but I think we can do it!”
“Yes! I’ve been wanting to make that one for forever.”
“You know I call dibs on eating it,” Ter called out, clearly elated at the prospect of eating cake.
“Of course you do.” Ryan let out a long yawn. “Well, I’m going to let you guys go. We’re going to watch a movie and then sleep. Night everyone. I love you, babe.”
“I love you too.”
“Bye!” Nate waved goodbye as I leaned forward to snatch up the phone.
“Really, Ryan, I don’t get any love?”
I could see shadows behind him changing as he started walking again. “Forgive me, dear lady.” He cleared his throat and stared at me. “Wren, you know I have nothing but love and friendship for you in my heart.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at how over the top and serious he was being. “Ditto, Ryan.”
“Ryan?” In the background, I heard another person’s voice. “Are you talking to Wren?” Shock stilled the breath in my lungs. I recognized that voice better than any other sound in the world. The sound of it emanated through Terayn’s phone, its familiarity gently caressing my ears. “Wren?”
Jacks’s voice was growing louder, and I had no desire to see him over FaceTime. The way he called out my name was filled with desperation, and I wouldn’t put it past him to attempt wrestling the phone out of Ryan’s hand.
“Bye, Ryan. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.” I ended the call and set Ter’s phone back on the table. “I didn’t realize Ryan would be staying with—”
“He didn’t tell you because he didn’t want to upset you,” Terayn added quickly.
I contorted my face into the best smile I could muster. “I’m not upset.”
“Wren, you don’t have to be so tough all the time.” Ter’s arm slid around my waist as she set her head on my shoulder.
“Yeah, you can be a mortal weakling like Terayn and me.” Nate mirrored Ter, resting his head on my left shoulder.
“Do you really?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I answered, sighing.
“Hey! I just realized you matched my toes to the blue streaks in my hair.” Nate bent over to look at his feet and examine the color I’d selected.
I grinned at him, thankful for the obvious distraction he provided. “Bet your ass I did.”
The thee of us stayed up until dawn before eventually calling it a night and passing out.
A searing pain in my head forced my eyelids open. “Ter, why did you pull out that third bottle of wine?”
“Huh?” She rolled over, flinging one of her legs over Nate’s body while mumbling incoherently.
The tips of my fingers massaged my temples as I assessed my surroundings. The three of us had fallen asleep on Ter and Ryan’s bed. “Does anyone else have a raging migraine?” I asked, my voice croaking.
Nate sat up beside me, his arms stretching over his head. “Oh my God. This is the first time I’ve woken up in bed with two women. I need to FaceTime my mother!”
“We’re all wearing clothes. Wouldn’t she notice that?”
He shot me a glare. “Damnit, Wren.”
“I mean, Ter and I can take off our tops if you want. Might make it seem more plausible.”
“My mother knew I was gay before I did. She wouldn’t believe it even if she saw you straddling me in the nude.”
“Who are we straddling naked?” Terayn bolted upright, combing dark strands of hair from her eyes.
Nate scooted backward, resting his back against the padded headboard. “And Snow White awakens.”
Ter blew Nate and me a kiss. “Morning, babes.”
“Wait, which Disney princess am I?” I asked.
Ter stared at me and then rolled her eyes in a slow circle. “Really? You mean you don’t know?”
“Girl, you’re too sassy to be Ariel. You’ve got Megara written all over you.”
I clapped my hands together in excitement. “I always did love her.”
“Ter’s right. Meg is a sassy man-hater. That fits you perfectly.”
“You got me there.”
Ter jumped off the bed, stretching her arms and legs. “Alright, who wants to shower first?”
“Not me. I have to eat before I can take a shower.” Nate rubbed his belly as he turned to me with the most pitiful expression on his face.
“Okay, okay. I’ll cook us some breakfast.”
“Good. I get first shower then,” Ter yelled.
“So, what is the plan for today?” I glanced between Nate and Ter, patiently waiting for them to answer my question.
“I’m meeting Eric this afternoon and then we’re going to dinner,” Nate answered.
“I have my appointment at Mignonette Bridal this afternoon. I’m picking up my dress, because they finished the alterations on it.”
“Oh, that’s right! I can’t wait to see it again.”
“You’re going to be the most beautiful bride, Ter,” Nate added.
“I agree; you’re going to look like a damn princess.”
“We can only hope!” Ter grinned at us, practically skipping to the bathroom.
I slid out of bed, pulling my hair into a tight bun. “Alright, well, I’m going to make breakfast.”
Nate slid off the bed. “I’ll come provide moral support.”
“What do you want?”
“Pancakes and bacon?” I asked, shrugging my shoulders.
I headed to the kitchen and pulled out all the ingredients to make pancakes. After downing two Tylenol pills with half a bottle of water, I finally felt ready to stand over a hot skillet. While the bacon cooked, I mixed up the pancake batter and poured a little bit into a buttered pan. As the pancake browned, I searched the living room for my phone. My search proved fruitful because it was hidden beneath one of the couch cushions. I straightened up the couch and returned to the stove.
“Nate, do you want coffee?”
“Is that a real question?”
I stuck my tongue out at him and set up a pot of coffee to brew. Nate scurried around the living room, cleaning up our wine glasses and takeout boxes from the night before. I flipped the pancake, letting the other side cook.
My phone laid on the counter beside the stove. I focused on the dark screen, wishing I had the resolve to deny my curiosity. I hadn’t heard Jacks’s voice in months, and yet, my initial thought was how wonderful it sounded. Once he realized Ryan was talking to me, his tone held so much longing. Was he as miserable as I was? Ryan seemed convinced. He even sympathized with Jacks’s plight. But why? Ryan cares for me. He doesn’t want to see me in pain, so why would he demonstrate any kind of friendship toward Jacks?
I turned the bacon over and poured more pancake batter into the freshly buttered pan. Picking up my phone, I unlocked the home screen. I’d probably regret this decision, but at least my questions would be answered. I quickly typed out a message to Ryan.
Me: How is he?
Part of me hoped Ryan was still asleep or that he was ignoring his phone, but within seconds of receiving my text, he typed up a reply.
Ryan: Not good. Jackson is miserable. He’s lost about ten pounds, he hardly sleeps, and he looks exhausted all the time.
I’d be lying if I said Ryan’s words didn’t strike a chord within me. Did I want Jacks to suffer? Yes. But did I want his torture to become some interminable cycle? No, not really.
Ryan: He drinks a lot.
Me: That makes two of us then.
Ryan: Yeah, I know.
Me: Why are you still his friend? Why do you sympathize with him?
Ryan: Because I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to lose the love of your life.
Me: Jacks didn’t love me.
Ryan: You know he did.
I removed another finished pancake and added more batter to the skillet. The bacon would only need a few more minutes to finish browning. My eyes darted all around. Terayn was still getting ready and Nate was lying on the couch. His eyes were closed, and it looked like he had fallen back asleep.
I tapped on the screen of my phone and called Ryan.
“Is everything you said true?”
“You know I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“I know.” What the hell was I even doing? You reap what you sow. Jacks broke my heart, and now he was dealing with the repercussions of his actions. I wanted to be heartless, I wanted to hate him, but more often than not, I was simply brokenhearted. He understood me on such an intimate level, I doubted it could ever be replicated. When I told him about my past, he didn’t blink an eye. He admired my tenacity and understood the choices I made in order to survive. And Jacks was no stranger to making hard decisions either. “Put him on the phone.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I answered with more confidence than I felt.
I tried to call him so many times, his number was seared into my memory. Sometimes I’d simply stare at the numbers, my mind desperate for some semblance of familiarity. The hole someone leaves in your life after they are gone was the part which hurt so much. And no matter how hard you tried to fill the gap, things could never go back to the way they were.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m fine. And you?”
“You know my theory on what’s about to happen when a woman says she’s fine.”
“Good . . . that’s good.”
“I’m planning an engagement party for Ter and Ryan,” I announced.
“I can help you. I’ve been wanting to do something nice for them.”
“Okay, it would be a relief to have some help.”
“Just tell me what you need me to do.”
“I’ll let you know.”
He only uttered two words; yet, the swell of emotion behind his apology was almost overwhelming. I couldn’t help but wonder how long he’d been wanting to express his regret. The last time we spoke, I never wanted to see him again. And now? Was I still bitter or was it just a façade to hide the truth?
“Okay,” I said, swallowing thickly. How could such a simple reply require so much resolve to speak?
“I just wanted you to know.”
“Well, I have to go because I’m in the middle of something, but I’ll contact you about the engagement party.”
“Alright . . . bye.”
“Take care of yourself. We still have a wedding coming up, okay?”
“Okay,” I whispered.
The moment I hung up, a strangled breath forced its way through my airway. What the hell was I thinking? I could barely manage speaking to him, so how were we supposed to plan an engagement party together?
Ter chose that exact moment to reappear. “Yay, you made coffee!”
She set the mug she’d just grabbed on the counter and turned toward me. “What’s up?”
I tried to meet her gaze, but my eyes stared past her. “I talked to him.”
“I called Ryan and told him to put Jacks on the phone. I don’t know why, I just—”
“Needed to hear his voice?”
“Something like that.”
“Ryan told me something just before he left for New York yesterday.”
“He told you that he flew to New York for business, but he’s really helping Jackson pack so he can move back here.”
“What?” My heart seized inside my chest. At any moment, the sucker would become epileptic.
“Apparently, he put in to transfer back here as soon as he started working in New York. His boss there made him find a replacement and train them before he’d let him leave.”
“So, he’ll be here?” I hadn’t intended to ask my question so slowly, but my mind was in a state of shock and I desperately needed clarification.
“Yeah, I know Ryan told you that he never sold his apartment.”
“I just thought that was because he could afford it.”
“He can, but by tomorrow night, he’ll be back.”
“Why did he want to leave as soon as he got there?”
“Why the hell do you think?” She filled her mug with coffee and turned off the stove. “He knows he made a huge mistake, Wren. That’s why he’s coming back here.”
I removed the skillets from the stove. “To make things right?”
“To sure as hell try.”
I caught my lip between my teeth, chewing on the fleshy tissue. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
“Because you miss him?”
“Because I miss what we meant to each other.”
“Do you think you can ever be friends again?” Ter pulled three plates from the cabinet while I grabbed the same number of forks. I placed two pancakes and a few slices of bacon on each plate.
“I don’t know.” I opened the fridge to find the syrup. “What do you think I should do?”
“Whatever makes you happy.”
I contemplated her words for a moment while I filled two mugs with coffee and creamer. “He understood me. I just miss my friend.”
“I have it on good authority he feels the same way.”
I swallowed audibly and attempted to smile. “Some things can’t be mended.”
“Well, you’ll never know unless you give it a try.”
I didn’t know what to say so I nodded instead. Nate, on the other hand, was still asleep on the couch. For someone who wanted breakfast so badly, he sure wasn’t showing it. “Nate!”
In a flash, he was sitting upright, his eyes open wide. “I’m up!”
“Come get some breakfast.”
“Oh, thank God.” He accepted the cup of coffee I handed him, immediately sitting in front of one of the plates Ter and I arranged on the bar. “I swear, Wren, you are a saint.”
I shook my head, staring at him sarcastically. “Eat your damn breakfast.”
Nate glanced at Ter, who shrugged her shoulders. “Better just do it, babe.”