Dad pushes back from the table and stands, ignoring it when his chair tips over behind him. “Lucky for you it’s not an option anyway. You’ve proven yourself to be unreliable and unprofessional, and I’d rather throw my money into a fire than spend it on a business left in your hands.” He turns to Mom and nods toward the exit. “Come on, Harriet. I can’t look at her anymore.”

I’ve heard those words so many times before. I keep waiting for the day they don’t hurt, but today’s not that day. My father knows where to land his punches.

Cami returns to the table with a smudge of chocolate on her mouth. “Why does everyone look so mad?”

Dad’s eyes blaze with fury. “Because your mother is a fool and a disgrace.”

“She is not!” Cami folds her arms and glares at him.

“Cami, baby . . .” But what do I say? It’s fine? It’s not, and I don’t want her believing it’s okay for people to treat others the way my father treats me.

Dad turns on his heel and stomps off.

Mom watches him, then shakes her head. “I wish you wouldn’t provoke him so much.” Then she too heads for the exit.

Cami fights a frown as she watches them leave. And I hate them for putting that hurt in her eyes.

“I’m sorry, baby,” I whisper. “I shouldn’t have told them here.”

She shakes her head and pats my shoulder. “I don’t think you’re a fool.”

A sob catches in my throat, and my eyes burn as I pull her against me for a hug. “Thanks, baby.”

Chapter Nineteen

Brinley

March 10th, before

“This has to be the most beautiful spot on the planet,” I say, turning a slow circle and trying to take in the beautiful day. When I turn back to Marston, he’s smiling up at me from his spot on the picnic blanket. “What?”

He shakes his head slowly. “I’ve never met someone like you. Most people walk around taking the beauty around them for granted, and here you are, seeing it in your own literal backyard.” His smile seems to flicker.

“What’s wrong?”

“This place gives you so much joy, and I think I’m just realizing what an asshole I am to ask you to leave.”

My heart squeezes in my chest and I sink to my knees in front of him. “There are beautiful backyards all over the country.” I take his hands in mine and intertwine our fingers. “Have you heard back from any of them?”

He nods, knowing what I’m talking about. College is all we talk about lately. “UCLA and Washington University both offered special financial aid packages since, you know, my mom and stuff.”

“So that’s California and . . .”

“St. Louis.”

My heart sinks. Even if I follow him for college, two years apart feels like way too much. “Which do you like better?”

He laughs. “Based on their websites, you mean?”

“You should visit the one in St. Louis. You could drive that, couldn’t you?”

“It’s about eight hours away, so I could, technically, but I don’t know if Uncle Henry’s car could handle it.”

“Wow. That’s farther than I thought.” I was hoping he’d go somewhere I could visit on the weekends, but sixteen hours round trip? Alone and hiding my real destination from my parents? I deflate as the reality of it hits me. We’ll never see each other.

He cups my face in both of his hands and leans his forehead against mine. “I wish you could come with me. I’d do anything to get you away from him.”

I stiffen at the mention of my father, and that old guilt for revealing private business to someone who’s not family trickles like familiar poison in my veins. “That’s not why I wish I could go with you.”

“I know, but that’s why it’s so hard for me to leave.”

I fold my arms. “And here I thought it was hard because you wanted to be with me.”

He shifts, rolling to his knees in a posture that mimics mine, and then pulls my body against his. “I do want to be with you. I want us to be able to walk down the street holding hands and to sleep in the same bed.” He sweeps gentle kisses across each of my cheeks. “I don’t just want to plan a life with you. I want to live it. Someday, I want to watch you walk down the aisle toward me and know you’re mine and I’m yours. But I want all that without having to sacrifice your heart to that fucking asshole.”

I flinch, jerking back like he’s hit me. Some days when I’m angry with my father it’s easy to hate him for his cruelty, for the way he always cuts me down, for his inability to treat my sister like anything other than a porcelain doll. But some days, Marston’s criticism of Dad feels like criticism of me. “He is my father, and I don’t want to feel like I have to choose between having my dad in my life and having my boyfriend.”

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