His bulky shoulders rose as he pushed his fists further into his pockets. I got the feeling it was to keep from connecting one of them with William’s jaw.

Taylor’s movement caused my father to notice his arms. “Hotshot crew, eh? And part-time doodle pad by the looks of it.”

Taylor chuckled, glancing down at his right arm. “My brother’s a tattoo artist.”

“You’re not really dating this deadbeat, are you?” As usual, my father’s question was more of a demand for an answer.

Taylor looked at me, and I grinned.

“No,” I said. “We’re in love.” I strolled over to Taylor, who looked as surprised as my father, and I planted a soft kiss on the corner of his mouth. “I get off at eight tomorrow night. See you then.”

Taylor smiled and reached around my middle, pulling me to his side. “Anything for you, baby.”

William sneered, but Blaire gently touched his chest, signaling for him to stay quiet.

“Falyn, we need to talk,” she said, her eyes making note of every tattoo on Taylor and every frayed edge of every hole in his jeans.

“We’ve talked,” I said, feeling confident while being hugged to Taylor’s side. “If I have anything else to say, I’ll call you.”

“You haven’t spoken to us in months. It’s time,” she said.

Blaire’s eyes fell from my face to look down my body and then came back again. “Quite a lot has changed. You look atrocious.”

Taylor held me away from him, gave me a once-over, and then made a show of his disagreement.

Blaire sighed. “We’ve given you space and time to figure this out on your own, but enough is enough. You need to come home.”

“So, his upcoming campaign has nothing to do with it?” I nodded toward my father, who puffed out his chest, indignant.

His audacity to even pretend to be insulted made it almost impossible for me to keep my cool.

My face contorted. “I want you both to leave. Now.”

William angled his body and stepped forward in an offensive move. Taylor steadied himself, ready to defend me if necessary. Chuck had stood up to my parents before, but standing next to Taylor was different. He barely knew me, yet there he was, in a protective stance in front of me, glowering at my father, daring him to take another step. I hadn’t felt that safe in a long time.

“Good night, docs,” Phaedra said in her shaky Southern twang.

Taylor took my hand and led me past my parents into the dining area of the café.

Phaedra shut the door in my father’s face and cranked the key in the lock as Blaire watched. As Phaedra turned her back to them, my parents continued on to their original destination.

Taylor looked down at me even though I could claim all of five feet nine inches. “You did that just to piss off your parents, didn’t you?”

I flattened out my apron and then met his eyes. “Yep.”

“Do you still want me to pick you up at eight?” Taylor asked. “Or was that just for show?”

I glanced at Kirby, who looked entirely too happy about the situation.

“C’mon”—Taylor flashed his teeth, a deep dimple sinking in the middle of his left cheek—“I played along. The least you could do is let me buy you dinner.”

I blew my bangs out of my eyes. “Fine.” I untied my apron as I left him for home.

“Did she just say yes?” Taylor asked.

Chuck chortled. “You’d better take it and run, kid. She hasn’t said yes to anyone in a while.”

I jogged up the steps to my apartment above the café, hearing the front door click after someone had let Taylor out. After taking just a few steps to the window overlooking Tejon Street, I watched as Taylor walked to his pickup truck in the parking lot.

A long sigh separated my lips. He was too cute and too charming, and he was on a hotshot crew. I was already one statistic. I wouldn’t let him turn me into another. One dinner wouldn’t be hard, and I sort of owed him for playing along while I’d pissed off my parents.

I was well practiced in walking away though. One dinner, and we’d be done.

My fingers flitted under the cool water gushing from the showerhead. The pipes sang a sad song, expanding and trembling within the thin white walls of my quaint two-bedroom loft above The Bucksaw Café. It seemed like it was taking forever for the hot water to kick in.

The carpets were worn, and it smelled of grease and mildew when a candle wasn’t burning, but for two hundred dollars a month, it was mine. In comparison with other apartments in the Springs, the loft was practically free.

Leftover decorations from Phaedra’s eclectic collection hung from the walls. I had left home with nothing but the clothes I wore and my Louis Vuitton purse. Even if I had wanted to take some of my things, my father wouldn’t have let me.

Dr. William Fairchild was feared at the hospital and at home but not because he was abusive or ill-tempered—even though he was the latter. William was a renowned cardiologist in the state of Colorado and married to Dr. Blaire Fairchild, one of the best cardiothoracic surgeons in North America, also known as my mother … and queen bitch of the universe by some of her nurses.

My parents had been made for each other. The only person who didn’t fit into our family was me, and I was a constant disappointment to them both. By my junior year of high school, I had been introduced to my favorite friend, my secret comfort, the promise of a stress-free good time—cheap beer. The more obsessed and well-known my parents had become, the more I’d nursed my loneliness and shame—not that they’d noticed.

The water began to turn warm, bringing my thoughts to the present.

“Finally,” I said to no one.

The button of my jeans easily popped open, the slit worn and a bit stretched out. I unzipped my pants and then realized, with the millions of thoughts swirling around in my head, I’d forgotten an important part of my nightly routine. I swore aloud while rushing to my bedroom closet. Bending down, I uncovered a size-nine shoebox. I carried the cardboard to the kitchen and set it next to my apron on the counter.

A thin stack of twenties and fewer small bills peeked out from the apron that was folded neatly on the speckled gray-and-rose Formica. I removed the lid from the box that held over five years of letters, pictures, and cash instead of Adidas. I carefully placed half of my tips inside, and then I hid it back in the dark corner of my closet.

I returned to the kitchen to tuck the rest of the money inside a plain black wallet that I’d purchased from the local discount store shortly after I’d sold the Louis Vuitton online. One hundred and eleven dollars in cash fit right in with the rest of the stack. I would have rent by the end of my shift the following day. With that thought, I smiled and tossed the wallet onto the counter on my way to the bathroom.

My T-shirt was stuck to my skin from sweating throughout the day. I peeled it off and easily kicked off my ratty white Converse high-tops, and then I maneuvered my way out of my skinny jeans, pulling them down over my ankles and tossing them to the corner.

The large pile of dirty clothes made me happy, knowing that would never have existed in my former life. With a houseful of staff—Vanda, the housekeeper, and the three maids, Cicely, Maria, and Ann—overlooked laundry at the end of the day would have meant somebody’s termination. My bed had been made the moment I climbed out of it, and my clothes had been laundered, pressed, and hung up by the next day.