“Oh.” She blushes. “Thank you.”

“No, thank you.” He opens up the trunk of my car and picks my bag up, putting it in.

I take Charly’s bag and the garment bag containing my sister’s wedding dress from her. She didn’t let me carry it at all on the way here. I kid you not; it had its own seat on the plane, next to her. I was relegated to sitting across from her the whole way here, which wasn’t too bad, because the view was pretty as hell.

“It was real good of you to fix Sasha’s dress on such short notice.”

“Oh, it was no problem.” She waves him off, her face reddening further.

I open the back passenger door for her, and she climbs inside.

“You driving or me?” Dad asks, closing the trunk as I shut Charly’s door.

“I’ll drive.”

He tosses me the keys, and I go around to the driver’s side. Climbing in, I buckle up.

“Nice car,” Charly muses as my dad climbs in. “Yours?”

“Yep,” I answer, smiling, as I start my car. She purrs like a kitten.

My Range Rover Sport is top of the line. She cost a pretty penny. I bought her a year ago when my Dodge pickup had seen her final days. I love this car, and I don’t get to drive her too often.

“So, your mom’s stocked up your fridge. Steaks, chicken breasts, pork chops, sausages, and God knows what else,” he tells me. “She went a little crazy at the store.”

“She does realize I’m home for only three days, right?” I chuckle, pulling out of the parking space and heading for the exit.

“You know your mother. She likes to make sure you’re well fed when you’re home.”

“Well, considering I eat mostly at your house, Jester’s gonna be in meat for weeks. How is Jester? Still in the doghouse?”

“Sasha still hasn’t forgiven him, but hopefully, when she sees her dress—thanks to Charly here—it will put him back in her good graces.”

I glance at Charly in my rearview mirror to see her blushing again.

She’s being oddly quiet.

Maybe she’s just nervous about meeting my dad. Feeling a little out of her element. Once she gets to my parents’ house, she won’t have time to feel shy. Not with the women in my family.

I drive the usual route on the OR 66, heading west, soaking up the greenery of home.

I can feel the dirt of Hollywood falling away from me and the clean of Oregon seeping into my pores.

Charly starts to chat a little more on the drive, asking questions about the place I call home.

She seems enthralled by the roaming fields and greenery that sit off the highway.

We cross the bridge over Klamath River into Keno, and I’m home.

I drive past my old elementary school.

“Is that where you went?” Charly asks.

“Yeah.” I smile.

“Looks like a nice school,” she observes.

I wonder what her school was like back in Philadelphia.

“So, where are you from, Charly?” my dad asks.

“Philadelphia originally. But New York is home now.”

I know the question is coming, but I can’t stop it.

“And your family? They still back in Philly?”

“No, sir.” She clears her throat. “I was raised by my grandma, but she passed years ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” my dad says.

“Thank you,” she says politely.

I glance back at her in my rearview, but she’s not looking my way, her eyes on the window. Something pulls in my chest for her. Protectiveness. I feel like I should’ve protected her from my dad’s innocent questioning.

I’ve never felt this protective over a woman before.

Maybe it’s because Charly was dealt such a bad hand in life, and I was raised with a great family.

Or maybe it’s just because I’m crazy about her.

I turn on the long drive, taking me up to my parents’ house.

When I pull up outside, Jester, the dress destroyer, comes bounding up to the car, attacking me the moment I step out of the car.

“Hey, buddy.” I crouch down, picking him up, and he covers my face in sloppy licks.

Charly comes over, scratching Jester’s ear. “So, this is the little man who caused all the problems.”

The moment he sees her, I’m totally forgotten about. He all but leaps into her arms and starts smothering her in doggie kisses.

She laughs, scratching his ear, and he’s putty in her hands.

I know how you feel, bud.

“I’ll get the dress,” Dad says.

“Oh, can I?” Charly says, putting Jester down. He’s at her feet, following her to the trunk of the car. “No offense,” she says to my dad, “but I wanted to give this to Sasha. When I do a job, I like to be the one to deliver it.”

“No worries.” My dad winks at her, handing the garment bag over.

He shuts the trunk, leaving our bags in there, as we’ll be driving over to my house soon.

“Now, Jester, no chewing on this dress again, do you hear me? It took me a long time to fix it after your last playtime with it,” she chats away to Jester as we walk up the steps of the porch, making me smile.

Jester is just trailing along behind her, gazing up at her, like a puppy in love.

“We’re home,” Dad calls out as we step through the door.

My mom comes bustling out of the kitchen. “Vaughn!” she calls, walking toward me, arms outstretched for a hug.

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