The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 11

HATTIE

“How do you feel?” Maggie asks as I drive us back to my studio apartment, sad because I have to leave my best friend after our fun weekend. A weekend when I didn’t have to worry about school, my family, or the loss of Cassidy. A weekend when we forgot, where we pushed the real world away, and now that we’ve popped our bubble of joy, all the problems in my life are resting on my shoulders again.

The weight of my lies.

The weight of my grief.

The weight of last night . . .

Frustration weighs so heavily on me that I actually feel sick to my stomach. I don’t know what I was thinking, but the copious amounts of alcohol went to my head, and I nearly threw myself at Hayes—only for him to basically pat me on the ass and send me back to my room. It was humiliating and frustrating at the same time. All I could think about was how it felt to have him touch me. It was so maddening that I had to finish myself off.

And this morning, when he was playing his guitar out on his deck, I skulked out of his house, trying to put on a happy face for Maggie despite this war of embarrassment spinning through me.

How could he rev me up like that, get me so hot, and then just . . . walk away as if I have zero impact on him and don’t matter? I’m not enticing enough for him to even finish the job?

It makes me feel undesirable, cheap, and like the age difference between us is a deciding factor . . . like I’m naive and far too inexperienced for him to grant me the time of day.

Humiliation is what I feel. But that’s not what I say to Maggie to answer how I feel.

“Okay,” I say.

“You’re quiet,” Maggie points out. “Which means you’re thinking. You shouldn’t be thinking.”

“Hard not to,” I answer as I turn down Almond Ave and head straight toward The Almond Store. “It was fun while it lasted, Maggie, but now I have to return to the regular world.”

“I can understand that,” she says. “But remember what we talked about? Ryland and Aubree are going through a lot of changes. Give them a moment.”

And she thinks I’m talking about my brother and sister when, in reality, the perplexing confusion I feel now is all because of Hayes.

How he treated me with care last night but yet, set impossible boundaries . . . an impenetrable barrier.

The rift between him and Ryland. It bothers him.

Despite him not reciprocating last night, his restraint has made me like him that much more. He cares.

Fuck, I really do feel sick.

Not to mention the importance of this week . . .

Too sick to even talk about Hayes, I say, “Cassidy’s birthday is this week. It’ll be her first birthday since her death. I think Ryland and Aubree are doing something, but I haven’t heard from them.”

“Are you going to ask them?”

“Do you think I should?” I ask, keeping the subject on them and not on Hayes. That’s why Maggie came here in the first place.

“Yes,” she says. “They’re still your brother and sister. Just because things are awkward doesn’t mean you should pull away. If anything, you need to keep pushing to be close to them. Maybe offer to make dinner one night this week. Or to watch Mac. I’m sure Ryland could use a break. I know Aubree doesn’t want help with the shop, but there has to be something you can do to support her. Maybe clean her house or do her laundry. You have spare time when you’re not at Hayes’s place, so why not find out what little things you can help with?”

“Yeah, I guess I can do that. Watching Mac would be a good one for Ryland. And Aubree, I think I might have to work on her, but there has to be something.” It might also help me get my mind off everything with Hayes. Distraction. I need distractions.

“Exactly. Just keep trying. Maybe they’ll stop pushing you away when they see how you can help.”

“Smart,” I say. “Okay, I’ll text them and see what I can do.”

“Perfect.” We pull into the back parking lot of The Almond Store. When I put the car in park, Maggie turns toward me and hugs me. “And now about Hayes . . .”

Crap, and here I thought I was going to avoid that.

I wondered this morning if she heard us, if she heard me moan for him, but she never said anything. She just went about her morning as if nothing happened.

“What about him?” I ask, trying to play it cool.

“Don’t get involved unless you can handle the ramifications.”

“What do you mean? You were encouraging me to get involved with him this weekend.”

“And that was advice built up on dreamy lust. You should know that about me. Now that we’re out of his house and we don’t have that haze over us—get it . . . haze.” She wiggles her brows.

“Yes.” I roll my eyes.

“I can thoroughly say if you want him, don’t deny yourself, but you have to know he might hurt you if you go for it.” He already has. “I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but his reputation doesn’t speak well for him. You’re already struggling. Don’t let him come into your life and break you. And not to mention, if Aubree and Ryland found out, it could quite possibly break any thread you might still have attached to them. If you’re willing to risk that, then take what you want.”

I glance out the window because I tried taking what I wanted and did a shit job at it. He played around with me, but in the end, he backed away. Probably because I was nervous, probably because I seemed inexperienced, probably because even though I’ve caught him glancing at me, he doesn’t actually find me that desirable. He thinks I’m too young, and that could not have been more obvious last night.

“Why are you avoiding eye contact with me?”

A tear falls down my cheek as last night’s embarrassment hits me harder than expected, and I’m unable to keep it to myself. I quietly say, “Because I tried taking what I wanted from him last night and failed miserably, and now I’m really freaking embarrassed.”

“What do you mean?” she asks.

I turn toward her, more tears falling down my cheeks. “I mean, I saw him in the kitchen last night and came onto him. He touched me a little but never where I wanted, pinned me against the fridge, yet he wouldn’t cross that line when I asked for more. He kept saying I was off limits. So I really don’t think there’s anything there.”

“He touched you? In what way?” Maggie asks.

“I wasn’t wearing anything under his sweatshirt, so he, you know . . . came close but never really went there. I was turned on to the point I was practically begging, and he still wouldn’t do anything.”

Her lips twist to the side as she thinks. “You know, if he almost went there, that means he wants it. He just needs to get past a mental block first.” She wipes away my tears for me. “I don’t think it’s a matter of if he wants you, Hattie. I think it’s a matter of when you’ll break him. The question you need to ask yourself is . . . are you willing to break him, but in return, possibly lose your family?”

“You think I’ll lose them?” I ask even though I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that.

She gives me a get real look. “The moment they find out you’re working for him, they’re going to lose their shit. If they find out you’re actually with him, with him, I don’t think they’ll talk to you.”

I bite down on the corner of my lip. “I know you’re right. This all just . . . sucks. Everything about it. It’s unfair because I was with Matt for many years and never felt like I do around Hayes. I swear, one look from him feels like an electric shock.”

“I can only imagine. But I worry about you and your family. You were so close before. I think that’s why you should build up your relationship with Ryland and Aubree first, then maybe, if you think it won’t destroy what you’ve gained, ease them into the idea of giving Hayes a second chance. I think it’s the only way to win both sides of this.”

“Yeah . . . I think you’re right. I’m sure there’s a way I can get Ryland to open up, and when he does, I can show him how generous and kind Hayes has been.”

Maggie nods. “I think that’s a great idea.” She grips the handle of the door. “And you know, you can call me anytime. I’ll try to come up here again soon. I have a few weddings but think I have some weekdays off.”

“Sounds perfect,” I say. “And thank you, Maggie.”

“Anything for my girl.” She hugs me over the center console and then gets out. I pop the trunk for her to grab her bag. She waves at me and gets into her car when she’s done.

Instead of returning to Hayes’s house right away, I decide to clear my head and head up the boardwalk.

Phone in one hand and wallet in the other, because I know I’ll end up buying something at Pieces and Pages, I walk past The Almond Store, where I see Aubree helping a customer pick out some almond extract. I avoid the inn—in case Ethel waits at the window to jump out and talk to me—and cross the street, where I run directly into Abel on his way to work.

“Hattie, hey,” he says with a smile. “How are you?”

“Good,” I answer.

He nods. “Great to hear.”

And then an awkward silence falls between us because there’s a giant elephant in the room, an elephant so large that I honestly don’t know how Abel can walk around with a monumental secret on his chest about both of his best friends.

“Have a good weekend?” he finally asks.

“Yeah, my friend Maggie came to hang out.”

“Cool.”

“What about you?”

“Oh, uh, went up to the redwoods with Ryland, Mac, and Aubree. Surprised you didn’t head up with us. You were missed.”

I feel my brow crease. “You went up to the redwoods?” With my siblings . . . without me?

“Yeah, but it makes sense why you weren’t there with your friend in town.”

“I wasn’t invited,” I say, feeling embarrassed.

He adjusts his messenger bag on his shoulder and looks visibly uncomfortable. “Uh, are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Maybe they didn’t want you to have to choose between them and your friend.”

“They didn’t know she was visiting.”

He sighs and glances down at the ground. “I really don’t want to be in the middle of this.”

“In the middle of what?” I ask. “Is there something you know that I don’t know?”

“No,” he says.

And then I stand on my toes and push my finger to his chest. “Did you tell them about who I work for?”

“No,” he says quickly. “I wouldn’t do that. You should know by now I’m not that kind of person.”

He’s right, he’s not.

“I’m sorry.” I tug on my ponytail. “I just . . . I feel like they’re pulling away, and it seems I’m not crazy in thinking that from how they didn’t invite me to the forest this weekend.” I glance back at The Almond Store and say, “Maybe I should find out.”

“Hattie,” Abel says, grabbing my hand. “Please don’t do something stupid.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“Like . . . get me involved.”

I roll my eyes and walk away. Coward. Why is he only worried about himself here? “Don’t worry, Abel, you’re safe.”

I cross the street again and head right back into The Almond Store. The customer Aubree was helping moments ago walks out with a bag. I hold the door open for her and then shut it.

When Aubree sees me, she says, “Shouldn’t you be at your internship?”

“Late start,” I say as I approach the counter. “What did you do this weekend, sis?”

No reason not to get straight to the point.

She averts her eyes to her iPad, but I slap my hand on the screen, covering it up. “I’m looking for a second of your attention. I don’t believe that’s too much to ask for.”

Her face contorts, irritation clear in her eyes. “What’s going on?”

“I’m asking you the same thing. What’s going on? Why didn’t you invite me to go to the redwoods with you this weekend? And before you ask how I know, I ran into Abel. He casually mentioned what he did this weekend when I asked him.”

“We didn’t see your car, but we saw Maggie’s in the parking lot. Thought you two were out and about, so we didn’t want to bother you.”

Oh . . .

Huh.

I guess that makes sense.

Jesus, Hattie, you’re losing it.

“Oh, sorry,” I say. I release her iPad.

“Care to tell me why the hell you’re freaking out on me?”

Yup, that’s exactly what’s happening. I’m freaking out.

I’m feeling humiliated. Hurt. Shut out of everyone’s lives and interests as if I’m a fucking bother to them all. Everything is so jumbled up, and the only person I can lean on just started driving back to San Francisco. Leaving me feeling so fucking alone. I have no idea how much honesty Aubree will tolerate, but I have to set these feelings free.

“Because . . . it feels like you don’t want me to be a part of your life. When I heard you went to the redwoods without me, I assumed it was because of that. I’ve been here for two weeks, and . . . well, honestly, it feels like you and Ryland have been pushing me away.”

Aubree sighs heavily and shuts her iPad. She rubs her temples and mutters, “This is why I wanted to tell you.”

“Tell me what?” I ask.

“This can’t be done with just me. It has to be done with Ryland too. Think you can come up to the farm for dinner?”

“Yes,” I say. “I don’t have anything planned.”

A customer walks in, and she whispers, “Then see you tonight. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” I say as I move to the back of the shop, the tension in my chest easing.

Maybe I’ll finally get some answers tonight.


I PULL up to the dirt driveway of Cassidy’s house—I don’t think I’ll ever think of it any other way—and gradually drive my car across the bumps in the road until I reach the front.

Today went by so freaking slowly that I almost lost it. I spent the entire day sorting envelopes. Finally shredded some piles that I didn’t think warranted Hayes’s attention, and all the while, I avoided Hayes at all costs by keeping my headphones on and my eyes down.

He slipped into the living room a few times, saw him moving around in the kitchen, but I think he had the idea I was avoiding him. Therefore, he should avoid me.

It worked.

My phone beeps with a text, and when I glance down, I roll my eyes.

Hayes: Great avoidance today. Expert level.

God, he truly is the most infuriating man.

Hattie: Just getting work done.

Hayes: Liar.

Hattie: What do you want? You turned me down. Want me to get on my knees and beg?

Hayes: No, but I thought you could be mature about it. Guess that’s what twelve years of difference does.

My mouth drops open in shock as I stare at the blatant insult. What an ass!

Hattie: Wow, Hayes. Resorting to being a dick. See, old age does that to you.

Hayes: Is this how it’s going to be?

Hattie: You tell me, you came in guns blazing.

Hayes: If we’re going to work together, I’d expect you to acknowledge me at the very least . . . and arrive on time.

Hattie: Yes, your majesty.

Hayes: And for the record, I denied you because I’m looking out for you.

Hattie: Whatever you need to say to convince yourself.

The bubbles on his side of the text thread pop up and disappear. I’m about to tuck my phone away when it starts ringing in my hand.

Ughhh . . .

“What?” I answer.

“Surprised you answered,” he says.

“What do you want?”

“Tomorrow, I have to drive down to San Francisco for work, and I need you to come with me.”

“Uh . . . why?”

“Ruben won’t be there, and I’ll need an assistant on set.”

“Set?” I ask.

“Shooting another fragrance commercial. It’s last minute, hence why Ruben can’t get there.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Assistant things. Whatever production asks, whatever I ask, just be helpful . . . and not scowling with your headphones on.”

“I wasn’t scowling today.”

“Did you look in a mirror?”

Growing irritated, I say, “You know, just when I thought you were a good guy, you change my perspective so quickly.”

“Good, that’s the way it should be,” he says. “Since you don’t want to be seen with me, meet me at the barn no later than five in the morning.”

“Five? Have you lost your freaking mind? That means I’m getting up at . . . I don’t even know what time.”

“It’s either that or we leave tonight and spend the night at my condo.”

“Well, Jesus, I choose to leave tonight. What is wrong with you that you’d want to leave so early in the morning?”

“How about the fact that you wouldn’t even look in my direction today? How the hell was I supposed to talk to you about it?” he asks, proving a point.

“You could have tapped me on the shoulder rather than sending passive-aggressive texts afterward.”

“And risk getting my arm chomped off by the snarly beast? Yeah, I’m good.”

“Aren’t you just freaking humorous?”

“Speaking facts,” he replies with his annoyingly quick wit.

“I have dinner with my brother and sister, but after that, I can meet up. I’ll just have to grab some overnight stuff.”

“Fine, but don’t be too late, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive.”

“I know how long it is,” I shoot back. “Just to be clear, do I need anything special to wear tomorrow?”

“Comfortable clothes. I’m sure you’ll be running around.”

“Perfect. Can’t wait to spend a lot of time with you,” I say sarcastically.

“Bitter much?”

“Goodbye.” I hang up the phone and then get out of the car.

God, he’s such an ass.

If he’s trying to piss me off on purpose, he’s doing a good job.

My humiliation about last night turns straight into anger, and I revel in it. It’s such a better feeling.

I head up the stairs of the porch to Cassidy’s farmhouse. Not needing to knock, I open the creaky screen door and walk right in, where I catch Mac playing on the floor with Chewy Charles and some Duplos while Ryland is in the kitchen, pulling out a frozen lasagna from the oven.

“Aunt Hattie,” Mac says when she spots me. She runs up to me and plasters her little body to my leg.

“Hey, kiddo,” I say, squeezing her back. “What’s Chewy Charles up to today?”

“Making friends with spiders,” Mac answers. “But these spiders are special spiders.”

“What makes them special?” I ask as I take a seat next to her Duplos.

“They like sucking blood.”

“Oh my,” I say. “Whose blood?”

“Duplo blood,” she says in a menacing tone and then she runs her fingers—the spiders—over the Duplos, making sucking noises and then throwing her head back in a maniacal laugh. “Ha ha ha, sucking the blood.”

I glance over at Ryland, clearly concerned about this new development, and he just shrugs as he sets the lasagna on the table.

Okay, so I guess we’re not concerned about the blood-sucking finger spiders. Noted.

“Look at them. They’re so full of blood,” Mac says, moving her fingers in front of my face.

“Yes, plump and juicy with the red stuff,” I say. I’ve never been super great with kids, kind of awkward actually, so I don’t know how to handle or process blood-sucking finger spiders.

“Oh no, the spiders are falling,” Mac says as she tumbles her fingers down in the air. “Chewy Charles, save the spiders.” She picks up her horse and says, “Chewy Charles to the rescue. Catch those spiders. Place them on the ground. Lick them.”

Ahh, the classic narration of MacKenzie. She started it around three, narrating her every move while playing make-believe.

We thought it was odd but also funny, and now, we’re just used to it. I’m just so glad it continued after Cassidy died. One of the many things I’d feared for this little girl was that she’d lose her vivid imagination in her grief. Are you watching your precious girl, Cassidy?

“Good job, Chewy Charles,” I say as I stand. “I need to talk to the captain of the house now—”

“This isn’t a boat, Aunt Hattie. You can just say Uncle Ry Ry.”

“My apologies,” I say, working my way into the kitchen. “I need to speak to Uncle Ry Ry.”

“Much better,” she says, slowly nodding at me and smiling.

Ohh-kay.

I turn toward Ryland and say, “She’s something else.”

“Tell me about it.” He keeps his eyes on the garlic bread that’s in the oven, keeping the oven door partially open. “She screamed at me this morning because I sat on one of her imaginary spider babies. It took me fifteen minutes to calm her down. She was late to preschool, and I was late to school.”

“Did you know the spiders were there?”

He glances over his shoulder at me. “Do you think I would have sat on them if I did?”

“True,” I say and adjust my ponytail. “Uh, so I was just talking to my boss, and he said I have to go to San Francisco tomorrow. We leave tonight. Any chance we could talk and eat at the same time?”

“I don’t want to talk in front of Mac,” he says.

“Any chance she could watch a show and eat?”

“I guess so,” he says. “It’ll be her best night, that’s for sure.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“Sure,” he says as he slips on an oven mitt, eyes laser focused on the bread. “Are you liking the new internship?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty good,” I say, feeling awkward.

“Learning anything?”

“Uh . . . a little,” I answer. “It’s mainly condensing information. Elements of business.” Facts. I’ve learned that women have no problem printing and sending naked photos to strangers, and I’ve also been very busy sifting through letters. “I’m gaining experience with the bonus of an income.”

The front door opens, and Aubree walks in with a pastry box, most likely almond cherry cookies.

“Hi, Aunt Aubree,” Mac says as she tosses Chewy Charles up in the air. “Flies into the air. Lands on his butt. Breaks his butt.”

“Hey, Mac. I brought home some cookies.”

“Yay!” Mac cheers and reaches for the box, but Aubree holds it high.

“Dinner first.”

“And you get to eat dinner and watch a show,” Ryland says as he removes the perfectly toasted garlic bread.

SuperKitties! Can I watch SuperKitties? Please!”

“Sure,” Ryland says. “First, potty and wash hands.”

Mac takes off toward the bathroom, and we spend the next few minutes setting up our plates, then getting Mac situated with SuperKitties and her dinner. Once everyone is seated, I say, “I told Ryland I have to leave for San Francisco tonight. So I was hoping we could talk during dinner.”

“Why are you going to San Francisco?” Aubree asks.

“For my internship.”

She nods. “Oh, cool. Well, I’ll let Ryland talk.” She picks up a piece of garlic bread and takes a giant bite.

I turn toward Ryland, and he’s cutting his lasagna as he says, “I don’t even know where to fucking start.”

“What do you mean?” Aubree says. “Start with the conversation Cassidy had with us in the hospital. That’s all there is to talk about.”

“What conversation?” I ask, looking back and forth between the two of them.

Ryland sets down his fork and knife. “It was a few days before she passed when you couldn’t make it into town. She wanted to talk to us before you arrived because she knew her passing would take the biggest toll on you and Mac. She was worried about the both of you and how you would handle her death.” Ryland takes a deep breath. “Her biggest wish for you was to finish school. She knew how hard you were working and how important it is for you to earn your degree, so she said she didn’t want you getting distracted by losing her and trying to help out around the farm, the store, and with Mac. She wanted you to finish school. That was the top priority. She didn’t care if the farm or store failed, but she wanted Mac to be loved and taken care of and for you to finish school. She made us promise.”

“She . . . she did?” I ask, guilt swarming me, swallowing me whole. Oh great. I’m letting Cassidy down as well? Fuck. Why the hell could I not have just passed the stupid courses?

“Yes,” Aubree says. “And so if we’re distant, if it seems like we’re pushing you away, it’s because we’re trying to get you to a point where you can finish, where you can accomplish that goal. You’re not to worry about us here back at home.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense. We’re family. Why wouldn’t I help you?”

“Because Cassidy wanted you to focus on school,” Aubree repeats.

“But why? It’s not like I truly know what I’m doing after all of this,” I say. “Why does it matter if I finish this semester or next?”

Ryland and Aubree exchange glances, and I know they’re not telling me the whole truth.

“What’s that look for?”

Ryland cuts into his lasagna again. “You just need to finish, okay? So this internship will give you the credit you need to graduate, right?”

“Uh . . . no,” I say, causing both of them to snap their heads up.

“What do you mean, no?” Ryland asks.

“I mean . . . I’ll have to attend another semester to finish up my master’s.”

“Why would you do that?” Aubree asks. “I was under the assumption that instead of classes, this was going to give you the credit you need.”

Crap. The look of anger in her eyes sends a wave of nerves straight through me.

“No,” I say in a shaky voice. “Like I said, my professors and I thought it would be best to focus on this rather than classes for now because of my grief. I just couldn’t focus.”

“Wait,” Ryland says, holding his hand up. “So . . . you started your classes this semester and then just . . . stopped? Isn’t that wasting money? Why wouldn’t you just finish?”

Sweat trickles down my back as I realize I didn’t fully think this through. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to tell them the truth . . . the whole truth.

About failing.

About working for Hayes.

About my interest in Hayes . . .

“Hattie?” he asks, his expression waiting for an answer.

I swallow hard and realize that if I lie at this moment and they find out the truth, I might never be able to recover our relationship, so I decide to be partially honest, even though it’s not going to be pretty.

Composed yet nervous, I say, “Well, I actually, uh . . . I didn’t do that well on my midterms.”

“What do you mean?” Ryland asks.

Oh God, here we go.

“I failed them . . . all of them.”

“What?” they ask at the same time, their voices rising.

“I c-couldn’t focus,” I say. “Cassidy’s death hit me hard, and before I knew it, midterms were here, and I wasn’t prepared. I failed, and with my classes, if you fail the midterms, you have to retake the class.”

“Wait . . . so you failed out?” Ryland says, looking angrier than I expected.

“Not because I was fucking around or anything,” I say. “I was mourning my sister, Ryland.”

He leans back in his chair and stares me down. “Why the hell did you lie to us?”

“Because I was too scared to tell you the truth. I thought that maybe if I took this internship near you guys, we could, I don’t know . . . help each other out, and I could recharge for next semester.”

“So we’re talking like six to seven more months before you graduate?” Aubree asks, looking pissed.

“Yes,” I answer.

“Jesus,” she says, pushing back from the table. “You realize we’re all mourning here, right? That you’re not the only one?”

“Aubree,” Ryland says under his breath.

“Come on, Ryland, all she had to do was graduate. That’s it. And she couldn’t even do that. You’re taking care of a goddamn child, sleeping on a couch every night, barely making it day to day while putting on a happy smile. I’m drowning in responsibilities I never fucking asked for while helping you any chance I can, and all she had to do was graduate.”

Caught off guard by her anger, I say, “I could help you, Aubree, but you won’t let me.”

“Because you can’t!” Aubree says. “It’s in her goddamn will.”

What? I glance between my siblings. Ryland is pinching his brow, and Aubree looks like she’s about to have a mental breakdown. What was in her will?

What is she talking about? And why don’t I know about her will? And that’s when it hits me. They shuttled me back to school before the will was read. They pushed me away from them even then.

“Aubree, enough,” Ryland says.

“No, she needs to know.” Aubree turns toward me and places her hands on the table, looking deep into my soul. “As much as we would all LOVE your help, we can’t accept a goddamn hand from you until you graduate. Cassidy required it. She knew that instead of finishing school, you’d want to cling to her memory when she passed. And she was so fucking right.” She tosses her hand in the air. “Ryland said to give you a chance to finish. It’s why we didn’t say anything at first, but like I told you from the beginning, Ryland, we should have said something because at least maybe she would have applied herself.”

“You’re not being fair,” I say.

“None of this is fair, Hattie,” Aubree says, tears forming in her eyes, something I’ve only seen a handful of times. “Losing Cassidy, taking on these responsibilities, working until we pass out every fucking day, none of it is fair. Trust me, if I could have you help, I would. I’d return to the things I love rather than running a store that was always a mere job to me before we lost Cassidy.” She stands from the table, and as she walks away, Ryland stands as well.

“Wait,” I say before he can leave too. “Ryland, I had no clue, I . . . I’m sorry.”

“I know you didn’t,” he says as he goes after Aubree, leaving me to sit at the table, alone, stewing in my own thoughts.

In my own guilt.

Why did you do this, Cassidy?

Why wouldn’t you let me help them?

You thought you were helping me, but in reality, you’ve just driven a wedge between me and my siblings.

A wedge that seems to get bigger and bigger with every day that passes.


BAG IN HAND, I get out of my car and lock it up before heading over to Hayes’s waiting vehicle.

It wasn’t long after Aubree left the table that I left. I waited for Ryland to return so Mac had eyes on her, but I took off. I thanked him for dinner and apologized one more time. He didn’t say anything. I’m not sure he has much to say to me other than he’s disappointed in me.

I don’t blame him.

I’m disappointed in myself as well.

And I hate to admit it, but Aubree had very valid points. I’m not the only one mourning. I had one simple task—to focus on school. Aubree juggles two businesses that she isn’t one hundred percent familiar with, and Ryland takes care of a four-year-old with spider fingers. In the grand scheme of it all, I was the one who got off easy.

Yet I’m jealous of them.

They have a piece of Cassidy, and I have . . . I have nothing.

I’d rather have the stresses they feel daily than the feeling of loss and disconnect.

I should have been part of the team to keep her memory alive.

Why didn’t she allow that?

Why . . . why was she pushing me away as well?

I open the door to Hayes’s back seat and set my bag down, only to move forward to the front seat, where I buckle up.

“No hello?” he asks.

“Not in the mood,” I say as I stare out my window, my phone clutched in my hand.

“Care to talk about it?”

“No,” I say.

“Okay,” he says as he takes off down the road.

Tears well in my eyes as we drive south toward San Francisco, the conversation running through my head—Aubree’s tears, her words of truth, the look of disappointment on both of their faces as they realized I failed out . . .

My lip quivers.

Not only did I fail them but I failed Cassidy as well. All I had to do was graduate, and I couldn’t even fucking do that.

Before I can stop them, a tear cascades down my cheek. I wipe it away, but another follows.

And then another.

And then another.

I try to keep up, but it’s useless.

“Come on, Ryland, all she had to do was graduate. That’s it. And she couldn’t even do that. You’re taking care of a goddamn child, sleeping on a couch every night, barely making it day to day while putting on a happy smile. I’m drowning in responsibilities I never fucking asked for while helping you any chance I can, and all she had to do was graduate.”

My heart feels like it’s shattering all over again. I thought I’d only lost one sister . . . but I’ve lost them all. Tears stream down my face. My brother’s life is fucked up, my sister is drowning, and all I had to do was graduate.

“Are you crying?”

“No,” I say even though that one word sounds full of tears.

“Yes, you are,” he says just as we leave town. He pulls off to the side, near one of the lookouts of Almond Bay, and puts the SUV in park before turning toward me. “Why are you crying, Hattie?”

I wipe at my tears. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Did I make you cry?” he asks in such a tender, caring voice that it actually makes me cry more.

“No,” I say. “This has nothing to do with you.”

“Okay . . .” He pauses. “Do you want me to take you back to your place? I can manage without you if I need to.”

I shake my head. “I can’t be there right now. Just drive, okay?”

“Okay,” he answers as he puts the car in drive again and pulls out onto the road.

With one hand on the steering wheel, he remains silent, allowing me to just sit in my feelings, and surprisingly, I appreciate it. The last thing I want to do is talk about my brother and sister.

Thankfully, he turns on some music, and it fills the silence. Tracy Chapman filters through the speakers, her cool, raspy voice pulling me away from my thoughts as I focus on the lyrics and the instrumentals. I turn away from the window and face forward, more comfortable now, and just as I settle into my seat for the long ride, Hayes reaches over the console and takes my hand in his. When I glance at him with questions on the tip of my tongue, he doesn’t lock eyes with me. Instead, he just squeezes my hand and remains like that . . . offering the support I never thought I’d find in him.

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