“No girl wants to be kept a dirty little secret, son,” she says, as I walk up next to her. Her line of thought immediately confuses me. She isn’t thinking about the troublemaker we thought Audrey was. She’s thinking about how I rudely kept her a secret from everyone I loved.

When she sees my wheels turning, she says, “I trust your judgment, Jace. I always have. If you say she’s a good person, then I have to trust that.”

“If Jaxon were awake, he could vouch for me. Em loves her. Quinn and Cole have become friends with her as well.”

“Em bulldogged her into telling her the story of everything that happened. Shit, Mom, we had it all wrong. So very wrong.”

“And then you shoved her out of here right before I arrived, correct?” she questions.

“Jace, your greatest weakness has always been caring too much about what others think of you. And I’m your mother, I can read you like a book.”

I groan and lean my head against the wall outside of Jaxon’s room. “Yeah, I yelled at her to leave. In front of everyone. I freaked out, Mom. Cole told me you were coming and she was trying to comfort me and...I just pushed her away.”

She gasps and asks, “Jace, didn’t you learn anything from Jaxon’s mistake? At what point did I ever teach you two that it was okay to publicly embarrass girls? Especially the ones you supposedly love.”

“You got that right,” she grumbles. When she disappears inside the room, I try to call Audrey. Three times. No answer.

Five days into my post-Jace life, I hit a groove. I’ve picked up all of Em’s shifts at work while still working my own. Ed tried to convince me to give some to others but I need the distraction. I’ve been doing schoolwork like a madwoman, and now I’ve almost completed all of my assignments for this semester.

I rarely sleep, and when it does come around, it’s only for a few hours here and there. I feel as if I’m running on pure adrenaline, but I know eventually it will hit me and I’ll crash hard. I’ve scrubbed down the apartment and even tried to hit the gym with Lane once. Going to a gym that only has men is not fun. I don’t care how hot those guys are. I never want to be that self-conscious about the way I look while working out again.

I get off work early tonight because the customers actually clear out pretty quick for once. Lane has bags under his eyes from the stress of trying to figure what he can do for me, but I don’t need anyone’s help. I’m handling this fine. I’m ready to get on with my life.

I realize that for five days I’ve kept Lane from sleeping a full night. So when I climb into bed, I force myself to stay and not roam the apartment. Just as I begin to calm down and think about the idea of sleep, my window slides open. I startle as I watch a pair of long legs slip through the window. Chuck gets up with a wagging tail to greet my intruder.

I can instantly tell by the size and build that it’s Jace. I stay quiet and watch him navigate himself through my room. He steps out of his shoes, slips off his pants, and yanks his shirt over his head. Slowly, he crawls into my noisy bed and searches for me in the dark. He doesn’t say a word, and I can’t catch enough breath to formulate one.

When his hand reaches my body, he grabs a hold of me and pulls me into the safety of his arms. He’s breathing heavily and he buries his face in my hair. His hands hold me tight and it’s hard to catch a breath from the amount of pressure he’s placing on me, but I don’t have the heart to pull away. He needs me.

“Jace...” I whisper in the dark. But he never responds and when I wake up in the morning, I’m the one left all alone this time.

I bend down to pull out my newest batch of blueberry muffins. The apartment smells delicious, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all of these baked goods.

“Jesus Christ, Audrey. If you pull one more batch of carbs out of that oven, I’ll go insane!” Lane grumbles from behind me.

“I don’t like this. I don’t like how you’re acting. You’re not dealing with this right. Shouldn’t you be crying or bitching about him or eating a tub of ice cream?” he questions, while grabbing a chocolate muffin and taking a big bite.

I look around the kitchen at all of the pastries I’ve made this past week and a half. I don’t know why I did it, except that it helps to keep my mind occupied. Unfortunately, I’m running out of ideas. Since sleep doesn’t come and I can only work so many hours, baking is the next best thing.

He looks down at the muffin that he just mindlessly took a bite out of and growls loudly. He glares at me in frustration, as if he didn’t realize he was eating the baked goodness, and harshly throws the remainder in the trash.

“See? I can’t keep eating this junk! Make it go away.”

“Shouldn’t you be happy I’m not crying all over the place?” I ask, while scrubbing down the counters.

“No, because I know you’re sad, but for some reason you’re holding it all in. Pretend I’m a chick.” He props his elbows up on the bar, rests his chin in his hands, and looks at me thoughtfully. Brat. “Seriously doll, pour your little heart out. I’m here to listen.”

“You’re ridiculous,” I reply, while searching for a container that can hold the blueberry muffins. I haven’t told Lane about Jace’s late-night visit a few evenings ago. I don’t know what to think of it myself, so I can’t say it out loud.

“Where do you think we’ll live after we graduate?” I ask, changing the subject.

“That’s not what I wanted to talk about and you know it. But I figured I’d have to follow you to Texas.”

“You would have done that?” I ask, surprised.

I walk around the counter and hug him tightly. “Now you’re just trying to make me cry.”

“No!” I laugh while pushing away from him.

“Well, just to humor you, let’s go check out my hometown.”

“Yeah. I haven’t seen my mom in a while. I don’t know if I’d ever want to live there again, but we can go look.”

“This coming week?” I ask eagerly and then quickly add, “We can afford a break from school.”

“Why are you jumping on this?” He seems unsure about my motives.

“I just want to plan a real future.”

“Oooh-kay. I’ll book it. Even though I think you need to give Jace some more time. Jax isn’t even awake yet.”

“Lane, he’s never going to get over what others think I did. And I don’t want to talk about him anymore.” I finish packing up as many muffins and cookies as I can get into our plastic containers. “I’m going to take these up to Em and Quinn.”

“Nah, Em said she’d come down to get them.”

“Just try to go and see him, doll. He was a f**king asshole, I’ll give you that, but guys have no idea how to handle emotions. Don’t you think that even if he can’t admit it, he still needs you?”

“I’m going to get ready, I’ll see you later tonight,” I smile, clearly not giving into his probing.

I arrive at the hospital and decide to wait outside in the fresh air. Hospital air is stagnant and stuffy. I would kill to be in there holding Jace’s hand, but since I can’t do that, I’d rather not go in at all. My hands bounce the plastic containers around as I wait for Em to come down.

“Audrey?” I hear my name called from close by.

I turn toward the sound of my name and freeze when I spot Jace and Jaxon’s mom coming around the outside corner of the hospital. She tosses down a cigarette and twists her foot on it slowly to extinguish the embers.

“Please, don’t tell anyone about that. I only do it when I’m stressed,” she says and gestures toward the white stick that’s now crushed into the concrete.

I turn toward the revolving doors, hoping I can catch sight of Em. Julie Riley is the last person I wanted to see today. She walks closer toward me and I begin to bounce impatiently on my toes. I haven’t seen her since the day Jaxon and I told her we had run off to get married. She was beyond furious with both of us. I never thought I would see her get so angry. I ran home that day. It was the only time I ever ran to my house and not away from it.

Em strolls out through the doors and smiles cheerfully at me. I don’t understand this weird calmness she has about her. Her boyfriend is lying in a coma and she acts like there is finally world peace.

“Thank you so much for these,” she calls out. I hand over the containers when she reaches me. “I want to thank you for taking over my shifts at work too.”

“Please, don’t even worry about it. You shouldn’t have to think about work right now. Although I am going out of town next week, so Ed will probably have a coronary.”

She laughs a bit too lightly, almost as if it’s forced. In that moment, I can see the wall she’s built. She’s trying to protect herself from the hurt and the possibility of actually losing Jaxon. My heart breaks for her. Here I’ve been feeling sorry for myself, while Em has been going through genuine pain.

“Hey, Em.” I reach out and grab her arm so I can pull her in close. I hope to speak to only her. “I left my textbook...” Lowering my voice to a whisper, I say, “In his room. Do you think there’s any way I can get that?”

She smiles and replies, “Quinn’s home. For some reason, she’s been so tired lately. She can give you the key. Don’t worry about running into...anyone.” She quickly glances over toward Julie. “They’re all here.” I sigh with relief and thank her.

“They’re about to start some physical therapy on him, so I don’t want to miss that. He likes it when I talk to him.” She smiles and walks back inside without any further conversation.

“He likes it when she talks to him?” I ask out loud, to no one in particular. I think Em is losing it.

“I’m really afraid of what this might be doing to her mental health,” Julie echoes my thoughts. “She smiles all the time. She never leaves, but then again, neither does Jace. And she just lies there all day with him, talking about nothing in particular.”

“She’s just trying to protect herself.” I attempt to think of a way I can end this uncomfortable conversation. I just can’t do this right now, especially not with Mrs. Riley.

“I know about you and Jace,” she says before I can escape. I immediately turn and face her, surprised. Shit. What does she think and how does she know? Before I can ask, she answers for me. “I’m his mom, I knew something was up.” I give her a skeptical look, not believing that she has some kind of Mom ESP. She laughs, “Okay, fine. His friend, Max, ratted him out on accident.” I nod my head while keeping silent. If Max knew what Jace said to me, then he probably didn’t take too kindly to that. I’m surprised I haven’t heard from him already.

“Would you say that even if I told you he pursued me before he found out everything he thought was a lie?” I ask. She falters a beat and nods her head. I consider leaving right this very second. I don’t need to explain myself to one more person, especially this person. Jace and I are done. She won’t be in my life. Why do I need to hash out this drama again? Because…whether I want to admit it or not, some small part of me still longs to have my name cleared.

Julie sits down on the curb and pats the spot next to her. Sitting right here on the concrete in front of the busy hospital, I pour my heart out to her. I don’t cry this time. This story can flow out of my mouth now as if it knows it by heart, without any help from me. I tell her everything up until right after Jaxon and I broke up.

“How did I not know that you and Jace met first?” she gasps. “I’m usually able to pick up on everything. I thought he had a crush on you...but this...this makes so much more sense.”

Her words startle me and I ask, “Why would you say he had a crush on me?”

“He was always watching you guys. I just thought he missed his brother at first. After a while, I caught him specifically watching you. Not Jax, just you. You know those black-and-white photographs he has in his room?” I nod my head, thinking of them lined up above his bed. “You’re in one of them.”

My mouth drops open and I try to remember what they look like. I remember one of them is a picture of his dock back home that extends out over their favorite pond. Jaxon and I spent many hot afternoons jumping into that cold water. There are people in the distance in some of them, mostly silhouettes.

I think about the middle picture and how it has a person sitting on the dock with their feet hanging over the edge, dipping them into the water. The picture was taken so far off in the distance I wouldn’t have been able to tell it was me. It’s only the silhouette of a person. I sat on that dock numerous times so it could have been any number of days.

I recall one time when Jax and Jace had been swimming and then went riding the truck through the mud. I had been waiting for Jax to finish cleaning the truck off, so I decided to splash my feet in the pond. I thought Jace had gone home, but I guess he stuck around to snap some pictures out on the land. The rest of his pictures hanging on the wall are from around the property as well. My favorite is one of his mom taken from pretty far away while she was hanging sheets out to dry.