“Are you just saying that to make me feel better?” she asked. “Because if something happened to you there, you can talk to me. You know I won’t tell anyone, not even Gunnar.” Her perfect features were even more stunning when she was sad, her bottom lip even fuller when she pouted.

“Nothing bad happened to me at Dartmouth. I told you, I liked it there, but my tuition came with conditions I couldn’t agree to anymore.”

A knock on the door sounded again.

The knob turned, and in walked a mammoth man-child with the sweetest baby face and more muscles than his T-shirt could handle. He flipped his trucker hat backward with a quick motion, and caramel wisps fanned out in every direction from beneath the black mesh, refusing to behave. He rushed to the sofa to sit next to Kirby. “Damn it, baby, I’m sorry. Fucking night class and fucking traffic.”

She leaned over with a stoic expression, letting him kiss her cheek. She batted her long eyelashes.

She wasn’t fooling anyone. He was already forgiven.

He peered over at me. “I apologize for the language.”

I waved him away, dismissing his apology. “There are no rules here.” I looked around my loft with a grin. “That’s part of its charm.”

“How was work?” Gunnar asked, his eyes bouncing between Kirby and me. His tongue fell just behind his teeth when he spoke, causing the slightest hint of a lisp that I found undeniably adorable.

Gunnar was naturally polite and considerate, yet when I joined him and Kirby on nights out, his foreboding glare would keep any unwanted male attention at bay. On many occasions, Kirby had mentioned what being the love interest of a superhero felt like, never feeling afraid or worried because Gunnar had it handled at all times. Although he spent his time in the gym when he wasn’t studying or with Kirby, Gunnar didn’t have the girth of a serious bodybuilder, but he was tall and just bulky enough to be intimidating. His only fault was that he was too nice, trying to be everything for everyone, often making him late and overwhelmed in the process.

Exhaling, Kirby stretched her legs over her boyfriend’s lap. “It was wonderful. Falyn has a date.”

Gunnar looked to me for confirmation.

I shrugged. “My parents showed up. They were there when he asked. I kind of had to say yes.”

He shook his head with a smile, already knowing where the story was headed. “Poor guy.”

“Oh. Then it’s his own damn fault,” he said.

I pulled a throw pillow from behind my back and hugged it to my chest. “It’s just dinner anyway. It’s not like I’ll break his heart.”

“That’s what I said when Kirby asked me out,” he said, chuckling.

Kirby yanked the pillow from my grasp and chucked it at Gunnar’s head. “Stop telling people that! They’re going to think it’s true!”

Gunnar was still grinning when he plucked the pillow off the floor and playfully tossed it back at her. “Maybe I want you to believe it. That version at least makes it seem like I haven’t been chasing you the whole time.”

With little effort, Gunnar pulled Kirby onto his lap and gave her a quick peck on the mouth. He stood up, lifting her with him, before quickly setting her on her feet.

Kirby stuck out her tongue, letting Gunnar lead her by the hand to the door. He stopped, and she did, too.

Kirby’s features sharpened into a mischievous grin. “The guy is the one who needs the luck.”

I reached over the arm of the sofa and snatched up the pillow, throwing it at the door. At the same time, Gunnar pulled Kirby through, closing the door behind her. The pillow bounced off the old wood and fell to the tan carpet below.

My entire body felt heavy as I pushed myself up off the chair and trudged to the bed. The covers were already pulled back from when I’d crawled in earlier. I sat down and slipped my legs underneath, pulling the blanket up to my chin and snuggling with myself and the empty space around me.

I took a deep breath, breathing in my freedom after five full years of dealing with my grief and guilt on my own terms. I might have let my parents make one too many decisions for me, but against all reason and fears, I had liberated myself. Although my parents would stop by on occasion, they couldn’t hurt me anymore.

My eyelids grew heavy, and I blinked a few times before letting myself nod off to sleep with no nightmares about bright lights, white walls, strangers grabbing at me, or screaming in the distance. Those hadn’t happened since a month after I moved into my tiny loft. Now, I would imagine omelets and cheesecake and sun tea along with Chuck’s expletives over the stove and Phaedra’s insistence on seating patrons. Normal came with the absence of suffocating impossible expectations.

I took a deep breath and exhaled, but I didn’t dream of the Bucksaw.

The alarm bleated, yanking me out of unconsciousness, and I reached over to smack the snooze button with my palm. The sheets were wrapped around my legs, and the blanket had fallen to the floor like it did every night.

I stretched and slowly sat up, squinting at the bright sun pouring in through the bedroom window. The white walls made it even more severe, but I wouldn’t dare ask Phaedra to change a thing. She and Chuck had already given me this loft apartment for nearly nothing, so I could save money.

I dressed in one of the dozen or so V-neck shirts stored in my tiny closet and stepped into my favorite jeans that I’d found at the local ARC Thrift Store. The faded skinnies were the pair I’d purchased just a couple of days after moving into the loft, after my first paycheck from the Bucksaw, and after Phaedra had found out I was sleeping in my car, exactly ten days before my parents had towed and sold it.

Even though I’d had a bedroom full of designer clothes and shoes at my parents’ house, my closet in the loft still had plenty of space. Aside from the things I had stashed in a bag—like toiletries, water, snacks, and the shoebox—before my getaway, all I’d had was my car and the clothes on my back. Five years at the Bucksaw had gained me five more pairs of jeans, three shorts, and a dozen or so shirts. It was easy to do without when you had nowhere to go.

I pulled back the top section of my hair into a clip, letting my bangs fall, which would catch my eyelashes every time I blinked.

Always in my damn eyes!

The time for a haircut at The Falyn Salon was overdue. I glanced down to the drawer that held the scissors and decided against it since it was just before my infamous date with a cute but decidedly unlucky hotshot. There was no way he would be able to compete with my perfect dream version of him, who could make me orgasm with just a side glance, so my mind had already written him off as a disappointment.

After scrubbing my face and completing the rest of my morning routine, I grabbed my apron and pushed open my door. With a quick flip of the wrist, I locked the door behind me. After just a short jaunt down a narrow hallway and fifteen stairs, I was in the Bucksaw again.

Chuck was at the prep table, and Phaedra was counting the cash in the register, the morning sun highlighting the silver strands in her hair.