Lila shook her head. “No. Even if she’s pregnant, which I don’t believe she is, it’s not his. Women have been claiming pregnancy trying to hold on to a man they’ve lost since the beginning of the human race, I’d guess. At first, I believed her but I was devastated. I’ve had time to think about her actions. The way she told me. How she said it. She isn’t a mentally stable person.”

I had to agree with the mentally stable part. If she’d started fucking Cruz when he was sixteen then something was off in her head. “Are you going back soon?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I’ll have to eventually. I have my studio to finish. My life to get back to. It’s going to be hard. Cruz didn’t lie to me because I never asked about his past sexual experiences. But he had known this thing with Kelsey was about to blow up and he didn’t tell me. Maybe having sex with her when he was young and stupid can be forgiven. But the video I saw was more recent. He was older. He was still seeing her. How can I trust him if he had no guilt over screwing a married woman?”

She had a point. And I wasn’t sure I had an answer for her. What I did know was that everyone had their secrets. Their own darkness. Something they hid from the world. Choosing to forgive them was a choice. Was losing a chance at having that “more” we all wanted worth being unable to forgive? Or could love be enough? To cover all of it and heal them both?

“Did this . . . video, or this woman’s words kill any of that love? Weaken it in any way?”

She paused then shook her head. Her shoulders drooped sadly as she admitted it.

“Then you owe it to yourself to listen to him and forgive him. If you don’t you’re only hurting yourself.”

Lila’s eyes filled with tears. “But I may not be enough to hold him. I’m not . . . I’m not experienced. I don’t do things like what I saw and heard. I’m . . . I am boring.”

That made me want to laugh. The woman in front of me was anything but boring. But I didn’t laugh because I had enough females in my life to know when they say shit like that they believed it. Laughing at it didn’t turn out well.

“You are anything but boring. Sure, you’re polite, prim, and proper. You’re kind and thoughtful. You don’t use your beauty as a weapon. You are completely fascinating. Men watch you. They are stunned by you, and you miss it because you’re oblivious, which makes you more appealing. Cruz Kerrington and I have very little in common. But the one thing we do is we are both heterosexual males. I know what he sees when he looks at you. I also know that the man came running after you when you had left town. He didn’t want to lose you. He loves you, Lila. I saw it at your apartment that morning. Go back. Let him explain.”

She gave me a small smile then. “You think all that about me?”

“Why couldn’t it have been you? Why did my heart have to love him?”

I laughed then. I wondered the same thing at first but I had time to think about it and I knew I had some things to face. Things to admit to myself. And before this past month, I wouldn’t have been ready to move on. I would be wasting my life wanting a woman who was never going to feel the same. I would still be messing up every date I had because I was comparing them to Bliss. But things were different now. I was different.

I had her to thank. It was all because of Lila.

IT HAD TAKEN me three hours to get my parents to leave. Once I texted them that I was home they had come over with food within the hour. They hadn’t talked about Cruz or the reason I left. We ate. I told them where all I had gone. It was awkward small talk at first. When my dad mentioned dealing with some issues, I immediately warned him I’d never forgive him if he said or did anything to Cruz. He’d looked very unhappy about that, but with my mother’s encouragement, he’d agreed to leave it alone.

Getting them to leave and give me alone time had been another issue. When Ophelia came home they finally left. I let out a sigh of relief when they walked out the door.

“They been here awhile?” she asked as she poured herself a glass of water.

“Yes. But they were worried and needed to know I was okay. Just glad that’s over.”

Ophelia walked over and sat down across from me on the sofa. “You talk to him?”

I knew the him she was referring to was Cruz. I shook my head.

I had thought about everything Eli had said on my way home yesterday. “Yes. Eventually. We will have to talk.”

“Kelsey wasn’t pregnant,” she said watching me closely to see my reaction.

“I never really thought she was. But how do they know?”

“Mom said that Woods threatened to press charges for child pornography. She had videos in her office of sex with . . . well, when he was sixteen.”

I couldn’t respond to that. I hated those videos.

“Sorry . . . I shouldn’t have brought it up but I thought you would want to know. I mean, I was shocked you were with Cruz. The two of you, well, you don’t really fit. He’s Cruz. Sex videos, a different woman every night, drunk partying Cruz.”

That was all people saw when they looked at Cruz. What he’d done. Not who he was. Had anyone ever looked closely enough to care? Anyone but me?

“He’s smart, and he’s thoughtful. He has a big heart and he doesn’t mean to hurt anyone. He loves his family. He doesn’t want to disappoint his dad. There is a lot more to Cruz than what he’s done.”

Ophelia sat quietly, her eyes studying me. “You really do love him, don’t you?” It wasn’t a question.

“My loving him isn’t the question. What worries me is if that is enough.”

Ophelia got up and walked over to me and put her arm around me. “It’s about finding your own twisted perfection, letting yourself fall too far and taking a chance. If you’ve done all that. You have no reason to give up. Not now.”

“What if it’s not giving up but accepting reality?” I asked her.

She smiled. “You don’t know what that reality is just yet.”

That all sounded easy. But I knew none of it was. Loving Cruz was like playing with a very hot flame. I was going to get burned eventually. I went to sleep that night wondering if that was worth it.

One week later, I realized all my worry over forgiving him was pointless. Cruz hadn’t come to talk to me. He hadn’t called to check on me. All the voicemails and texts begging me to forgive him the day I left were it. He never called or texted again. This town wasn’t small. He knew I was back and he wasn’t coming to explain. He wasn’t doing anything.

I spent the days working in the studio, ordered take out, cried in the shower until I was too tired to cry anymore and then went to bed. It had become a routine. My mom had called about us having lunch but I’d told her I was too busy. She was eventually going to show up with food at the studio one day.

Ophelia left for Sea Breeze with her family. They were going to visit Nate and Bliss for a few weeks. The apartment was quiet. All I had were my thoughts, and those were always about Cruz. I was starting to look forward to the day I could take a shower and not cry until there were no tears left. I wanted my happiness back.

The painting was done. Mirrors were being installed along with bars along the walls. Next would be the floor. The sounds of construction and workers gave me something to focus on other than Cruz.