The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 14

HATTIE

The slam of a door wakes me from a cold, dead sleep. I pop my head up just as I hear feet storm up the steps to my apartment, followed by a banging on my door.

Hayes stirs awake behind me and pops up his head as well.

“Hattie, open this goddamn door.”

Fuck . . . it’s Ryland.

Hayes and I exchange looks at the same time as fear creeps up the back of my neck.

There is no other way out of here than that door—the one Ryland is pounding on.

And if I open that door, and Ryland sees Hayes in here, there is no way Hayes will be leaving.

“I will break this fucking door down. Now open up.” He bangs again, and I scramble to get out of bed. Hayes helps me by lifting me over him and placing me on the floor.

“He’s going to murder you,” I whisper.

“I’ll be fine,” Hayes says.

“I don’t think you understand just how bad this is.”

Hayes stands from the bed, towering over me with bedhead and sleep still in his eyes. “I’ll be fine, I promise. Open the door before he knocks it down.”

“But . . . how does he know?” I ask, the night fuzzy in my head.

“You pretty much announced to the bar that I was taking you away. Probably took two seconds for someone to text him.”

“Hattie!” he yells, pounding.

“Fuck,” I mutter before I brush my shirt down and walk up to the door, fear clutching my chest. I don’t want to open the door. I don’t want to subject Hayes to whatever Ryland might do to him, but I also know I can’t let him break down the door. So with a deep breath, I unlock the door and open it an inch. “Ryland,” I say as he stares at me with murderous eyes.

He places his palm against the door and pushes it open, just enough to see Hayes standing in the middle of the apartment, hands in his pockets.

“You motherfucker,” Ryland growls right before he charges toward him.

“No,” I say to Ryland as I reach for his arm, but he shrugs out of the way, cocks back his arm, and lunges toward Hayes.

The sound of Hayes’s jaw crunching under Ryland’s fist makes me physically ill.

“What the hell are you doing?” I yell as Hayes stumbles backward. I grab Ryland’s hand, but he shakes me off as he goes in for another punch.

“You think you can just fuck my sister and get away with it?” Ryland screams, the veins in his neck popping, looking so terrifying that I don’t even recognize him. His fist plows into Hayes’s stomach, and he buckles over, letting Ryland get another punch into his side.

Oh my God!

Why isn’t Hayes fighting back?

“Stop,” I scream at Ryland before he can truly do some damage if he hasn’t done so already.

I hop on his back, trying to limit his ability to attack Hayes, but Ryland pulls me off and pushes me to the side, causing me to crash into my dresser, my back slamming against the hard wood. “Fuck,” I cry as my eyes connect with Hayes. Fury takes over him, and just as Ryland goes to strike him again, Hayes blocks Ryland’s fist and returns the punch straight into Ryland’s stomach.

Ryland steps backward, crippling over just as Hayes uppercuts him into the jaw, the crunching sound deafening. “Don’t you dare fucking hurt her,” Hayes says as he closes the distance between him and Ryland, gripping Ryland’s shirt. He cocks back his arm, and I scream at him.

“Don’t, Hayes. Please. Don’t.”

Hayes glances in my direction, which is enough time for Ryland to punch Hayes in the side of the head. As he loses his balance, Ryland hops on Hayes’s back, tackling him to the ground, where they start wrestling each other.

Two large, grown men, rolling around on the floor, tossing punches, grunting, swearing at each other, and all I can do is watch in horror, crying, begging them to stop.

Shirts are ripped.

Punches are thrown.

Blood splatters across the room.

I jump onto the bed because as they roll around, they take out the dresser and the chair, ruin the rug, and destroy the entire apartment. Cassidy’s apartment.

“Please stop,” I cry out, tears streaming down my face as I watch two important men in my life try to kill each other. “Ryland, stop. Hayes,” I sob and, just when I think there will be no end to this, Abel appears at the door, his chest heaving as he takes in the scene in front of him.

“Get Hayes,” he says to me as he sacrifices himself and pulls Ryland by the shoulders. I take a moment when Ryland and Hayes aren’t on top of each other and throw my body onto Hayes, knowing damn well he won’t hurt me. I clutch him, my arms and legs wrapped around him as he breathes heavily against me.

“Let me the fuck go,” Ryland says, and when I glance over at him, my stomach twists with nausea as blood drips down his eye, across his face, and under his lip.

“You’re going to kill each other, and you have a little girl to take care of,” Abel says, the voice of reason. That’s all it takes for Ryland to let go of the tension and to fall backward on the ground, where he clutches his forehead.

Hayes relaxes as well while his arm snakes around my back soothingly, my heart still pounding erratically. Quietly, he whispers in my ear, “Are you okay?”

I shake my head because I’m not okay.

Nothing about what just happened is okay.

I feel so hopeless. That was so . . . brutal.

I have no idea what I would have done if Abel hadn’t shown up and pulled Ryland off Hayes.

I put a few inches between me and Hayes and look him in the face for the first time. His eye’s already swollen, and blood drips from his nose and a spot above his eye.

Tears stream down my cheeks as I run my thumb over his cheek.

“I’m fine,” he says, understanding my concern. “Promise.”

I turn toward Ryland now, his hands still clutching his head as he breathes heavily.

“Ryland . . . I—”

“Don’t,” he says as he sits up, the murder in his eyes gone, and in its place . . . emptiness. “I don’t want to hear your apologies because they’ll fall on deaf ears. Nothing you say will make this right. You’re dead to me, Hattie.” He runs the back of his hand over his nose as he bends forward, still catching his breath.

D-dead to him?

Without even letting me explain?

My lip trembles, a sob on the tip of my tongue just as Hayes says, “I did nothing to her. Nothing happened between us. I . . . I wouldn’t let anything happen.”

“I don’t fucking believe you,” Ryland snaps back, the anger pouring off him.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Hayes says defensively. “You’ve never believed anything I’ve told you because you’ve decided to assume the worst about me instead of hearing me out.”

“Why would I hear you out when you got my girlfriend pregnant?” Ryland shouts.

Uh . . . what?

I turn to Hayes. “You got his girlfriend pregnant? You have a kid? Is that why you guys don’t talk? That’s the reason? Wait . . .” The dots start connecting as I think about when their friendship dissolved. It was a few summers after their high school graduation. Ryland was dating his longtime girlfriend and crush, Samantha Horbach, while trying to make it in the big leagues. Hayes was playing music in small bars, trying to get noticed. Both of them trying to make something of themselves. “You got Samantha pregnant?”

“He did,” Ryland says. “And then left her to fend for herself. She ended up having a miscarriage and then left town. Losing her was the downfall of my goddamn career and all because he betrayed me.”

I crawl away from Hayes just as he says, “I didn’t do it.” His eyes stay on mine the entire time, never wavering. “I didn’t fuck her. I wouldn’t do that to a friend.”

“Don’t call me your friend.” Ryland stands, and so does Hayes.

“Ryland,” Hayes says, his voice full of sincerity. “I didn’t touch her. At the summer party, she tried to make a move on me while you were in Pittsburgh for a game. I turned her down, and she was pissed about it. She ended up fucking Nick that night in the back of his Jeep. I swear on my goddamn life, it wasn’t me.”

Ryland pauses, and I can see him thinking it over, questioning himself and his assumption.

Abel steps up and places his hand on Ryland’s shoulder. “I swore I’d stay out of this, but what Hayes is saying is the truth. I spoke to Nick a few years ago, and he admitted it. I’ve wanted to tell you, Ryland. I’ve wanted to get the truth out between you for years, but then Cassidy got sick . . . Hayes, this should have been settled years ago. I shouldn’t have listened to you and kept quiet. I’m sorry I’ve held on to it, for both of your sakes.”

Feeling like I’ve been through a car crash with terrible whiplash, I sit down on my bed and glance between the desperate look on Hayes’s face and the confused look on Ryland’s face. I can tell by Hayes’s expression that he wants to be trusted. And Ryland? He’s believed a massive lie . . . for over a decade.

“But . . . she said you got her pregnant.”

“She lied,” Hayes says softly.

More confusion wraps around Ryland as he takes a few steps back, his hand on his head. “I . . . I can’t fucking deal with this right now,” he says as he wipes the back of his hand over his mouth, smearing blood across his cheek. “It’s Cassidy’s birthday, and I have a little girl wanting to celebrate.”

Hand still on his shoulder, Abel says, “Come to the office, I’ll clean you up.”

“Ryland . . . wait.”

He glances over his shoulder, not a single ounce of brotherly love directed at me. “Be at Cassidy’s grave at nine. Don’t be late.”

And then Ryland and Abel walk out of the apartment and down the stairs.

Silence fills the room as regret, guilt, and sorrow consume me in a chokehold, making it impossible to fully fill my lungs with air.

“Are you okay?” Hayes finally says.

“Does it look like I’m okay?” I ask as I swipe at my tears.

“I don’t want to hear your apologies because they’ll fall on deaf ears. Nothing you say will make this right. You’re dead to me, Hattie.” He’s done with me. His own sister. What the hell was all this for? I look at Hayes, and once again, I see his contrite expression. I am so fucking over this. My heart has just been torn apart. “You took a brutal beating from him . . . all for what?” I toss my hands up in the air. “You said it all along, to stay away from you, not to get involved, yet there was no point. There was no reason for it all, for all of this.” Snot drips from my nose. “This . . . this feud was pointless. The agony I’ve been going through, it was pointless. The trashing of this room was all pointless.” I gesture to the floor, taking in the blood splatter, the mangled rug, the . . .

My eyes narrow in on an envelope on the floor. A familiar envelope.

“What is that?” I ask as I stand from the bed and pick up the envelope, the handwriting shocking me to my very core. I hold it up to Hayes. “Where the hell did this come from?”

He swallows. “That’s what I came to give you last night, but you were drunk.”

Hand shaking, I run my fingers over the return address: Cassidy Rowley.

The envelope is addressed to Hayes Farrow.

“How long have you had this?” When he doesn’t answer, I yell, “How long, Hayes?”

“A few months.” His hands fall in his pockets.

“You’ve had a letter from my sister for a few months, and you’re just now mentioning it?”

“I forgot about it. Matt gave it to me on tour. I stuffed it away somewhere, and I found it yesterday when I was shuffling through some of my shit.”

“Why didn’t you mention it? I would have helped you look for it.”

“I didn’t want to make any promises in case I couldn’t find it.”

I flip it over and see that it isn’t open. “You didn’t read it.”

He shakes his head. “Anything Cassidy wanted to say to me, I didn’t think I needed to hear.”

I check the postmark date and notice it’s from a week before she passed. My throat closes in on me. “This . . . this was important. You should have opened it. You should have told me.”

“Hattie, I’m sorry. The moment I found it, I brought it over to you.”

“No, you didn’t.” I shake my head. “You watched me get drunk at the bar.” He takes a step toward me, but I back away. “You shouldn’t even have sung a song. You should have texted me the moment you found it and told me it was important.” I clutch the envelope to my chest. “But you didn’t. Instead, you tried to what . . . get on my good side? I’d say seduce me, but we both know how last night went. I just . . . I don’t get it, Hayes. If you cared about me—”

“I do care about you.”

“No, you don’t,” I shout at him. “If you cared about me, you wouldn’t have ever fucked around with my feelings. You wouldn’t have strung me along. You would have found a way to make things right with Ryland rather than let him believe you were a horrible man, which affected me.”

“I didn’t think I was going to . . . going to—”

“Going to what? Fall for me?” I ask. “God, you can’t even say it.”

He pulls on the back of his neck, staring down at me. “Hattie, I’m . . . I’m sorry.”

“Just leave, Hayes.” I shake my head.

“Hattie, please,” he says, his crushing tone drawing my attention. His shirt is ripped across the chest, giving me a glimpse of his bare skin. There are blood smears across his face, and his eyes are full of sorrow. “Please, don’t shut me out.”

“Don’t shut you out? Coming from the man who has done nothing but that to me this entire time.” I press my hand to my chest. I’m so fucking sick of crying over this man. I am so, so done. “I don’t want to even look at you right now.”

His lips seal together as he slowly nods. Quietly, he picks up his hat from my nightstand and heads toward the door, his shoulders slumped, and when he makes one more attempt to get my attention, I feel my body turn to stone, unwilling to give him a second look.

“I’m sorry,” he says one last time before he exits my apartment, leaving me in the wake of the destruction.

But I don’t care.

I don’t care about the blood splattered across the floor and the rug that used to lay flat across the floor. I don’t care about the broken dresser or the upturned chair, or the pictures that somehow fell to the ground while they were wrestling.

The only thing I care about is the letter in my hand. Why did Cassidy write to Hayes? Did she have something going on with him?

With shaky fingers, I slide the envelope open from the back and slowly pull out a folded piece of paper. On a deep breath, I unfold it, and the moment I see her handwriting scrolled across the paper, more tears fill my eyes, clouding my vision.

I tip my head back, not wanting to get any of my tears on the paper and ruin her letter. It takes me a moment, but I hold the paper up and read once I’ve gathered myself.

Dear Hayes,

I know I’m probably the last person you expected to hear from, but as you might know—or might not know—I’m really sick, and I’m getting my affairs in order. Morbid, I know, but as I lie here in my bed, knowing my time is coming to an end, I realize I don’t want to leave this earth without at least trying to make my mark.

I know about Samantha, I know about the miscarriage, but what I don’t know is why. You were a part of the family growing up. Aubree and Hattie were too young to truly know you, but I knew you. I knew you well. Some of my best moments in high school are from bonfires on the beach with you, Ryland, and Abel. The Samantha thing never made sense to me, and I know I’ll leave this earth without knowing why, but you know why.

And this is where my request comes in.

I’m asking the world from Ryland, to take on the responsibility of raising my child. And I know he’s too much of a proud man to ask for help, but he’s going to need it. So from my bed where I’ll take my last breaths, I ask you, please, please reach out to him. Please break this feud.

Give me the peace of mind knowing I can trust that you two can move past your differences and be the friends you once were. If anything, do it for Mac because the more strong, passionate, loving people in her life, the better.

Thank you, Hayes.

Cassidy

P.S. I know you don’t know Hattie very well, but she could do with a friend like you too. Our whole family has grieved your loss. Please be someone in her life too.

P.P.S. She’s also a huge fan. She pretends she isn’t, but she is. I hear her playing The Reason all the time.

I cry and snort at the same time.

Why, Cassidy?

Why didn’t you leave me any part of you? Your baby girl . . . your store . . . a letter. Anything.

Ryland and Aubree have such big parts of Cassidy and knew what she wanted. But I was sent away with nothing but the largest hole in my heart that nothing will ever take away. I’ve felt so alone in my devastation. With nothing but silence.

And even fucking Hayes Farrow got a letter.

But why couldn’t you have written to me too, Cass? All I’ve wanted was your words.

And why, of all the days for Hayes to find this, to give me this letter, does it have to be today?


“UNCLE RY RY,” Mac says, tugging on his hand. “I think I had too much pie.” Ryland turns toward her where he’s sitting at the dining room table and places his hand on her belly.

“Are you full?” She nods.

“I feel sick.”

“I told you a third piece would have been too much.”

“But I needed to eat my piece and a piece for Chewy Charles and a piece for Mommy.”

“I understand,” Ryland says. “How about we rest you on the couch, and then we can make the cookies when you’re feeling better?”

“Can I watch a show?”

“Yes.” He glances at Aubree. “Can you help her out?”

Aubree stands, patting her stomach. “I could use the rest too.” Together, they walk off to the living room, leaving me alone with Ryland.

We didn’t mention anything about the early morning wake-up call when I arrived at the grave earlier. He explained to Mac that he ran into a door, and that’s why his face was bruised and he had a stitch above his eye. She asked him why on earth he would run into a door, and he told her it was because he wasn’t paying attention.

Meanwhile, I felt Aubree staring me down, not necessarily angry but confused. I think we’re all confused at this point. We were able to honor Cassidy. I silently sobbed as I watched Mac hug Cassidy’s gravestone for what seemed like forever, telling her how much she misses her. I thought my heart was shattering all over again. It’s not fair. This little girl needs her mommy. At the glass beach, Mac picked out a few stones for the collection she started with Cassidy. We then made grilled cheese sandwiches and had pie at the farm. It’s exactly what Cassidy would have wanted.

All the while, the awkwardness from this morning floats over us, and now that Mac is off in the living room with Aubree, I know it’s my time to talk to Ryland.

“Can we talk?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says, surprising me. I thought I’d have to work a little harder to get his attention. But I’m sure he’s emotionally exhausted and has no fight left in him. He looks so exhausted.

He stands from the table and brings the empty plates to the sink before nodding toward the back porch. Following him, I open the squeaky screen door and step out onto the small back porch with a view of the potato fields.

He sits in one of the white wicker chairs, and I take a seat in the other.

He doesn’t give me a chance to speak as he starts the conversation. “Are you seeing him?”

I shake my head. “No. But I’ll be honest, Ryland, it’s not from my lack of trying. He wouldn’t make a move. He’s told me no several times.”

He glances up at me. I can see anger in his expression, but there’s also heart-wrenching pain. This has been a weird day for him. “You were trying . . . given everything between me and Hayes?”

Yeah, this won’t be easy because technically, I betrayed my brother, but I figure I should at least try to explain to him.

“I want to tell you the truth, Ryland, but I need you to stay and listen to the whole thing, okay? Promise me, you won’t walk away.”

His jaw clenches, but he leans back in his chair and nods. “Promise.”

“Thank you.” I smooth my hand over my leggings and mentally tell myself I can do this. “So as you know, I failed out of this semester. I didn’t know what to do, so I came back to be with Matt, and I was going to figure out my path from there. Matt broke up with me immediately and told me he only stayed with me because Cassidy was sick. He told me to gather my stuff, and that’s when I found the Grammy he stole from Hayes. Technically, I was there when he stole it, but I thought I’d be the bigger person and return it while trying to get Matt fired because I’m spiteful, apparently.”

That causes Ryland to smirk, but only for a moment. “It’s why no one wants to cross your path.”

Seeing that he’s a little more at ease than this morning, I feel better with my story as I move forward. “Hayes caught me dropping the Grammy off and told me that he knew I was a part of it. He had already fired Matt, and well, he told me he needed help with some stuff around his house. He was going to pay well, and I needed money. So I took the job.” Ryland rubs the side of his jaw but doesn’t say anything, so I keep going. “I was organizing his life, and he was trying to write some new songs. Pretty sure he still is. To keep it a secret, I lied about where I was going every day because I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t on your side with whatever had happened between you and Hayes. But the more I got to know him, the more I saw a different side of him, a side that I’m sure you saw in him before you two lost your way. I’d never known that side of him, so it was fascinating, and I started to like him.”

Ryland glances at me, and I shrug.

“I’m sorry, but I did. And the more I showed him that, the more he pushed me away. The more he told me he wouldn’t go there. The more he told me that you, Ryland, you are the one who matters, not him. He wouldn’t let me grow close out of fear that it would ruin my relationship with you.”

Ryland slowly nods as he goes back to staring out at the potato fields.

“Yesterday, I was upset about a lot of things. I won’t get into it, but I decided to get drunk. I made an ass of myself, and before I could hurt anyone or myself, Hayes brought me back to my apartment. He stayed the night because he knew I was drunk and wanted to keep an eye on me. Trust me when I say he wouldn’t make a move. He made it clear he’d never cross that line with me. What you saw today, what you heard about last night was just him taking care of me.”

“I got a text from Ethel that she saw you and Hayes walking back to your place last night. I saw the text this morning and saw red.”

“I completely understand. I wasn’t honest with you, and it must have been a shock. I’m sorry, Ryland. I should have told you the truth from the very beginning, but I was embarrassed.”

“So this entire time, you’ve been working for him? It hasn’t been an internship?”

I shake my head. “No, no internship. I’ve been sorting through fan mail.”

“Jesus, Hattie.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do after I failed my midterms. I was scared, nervous to tell you. You and Aubree were already dealing with so much. When Hayes offered the job, I knew it would at least give me an excuse for being back in town. Trust me, I know it’s not right, and I felt guilty when I lied to you.”

He rubs his temples with his fingers. “So you’ve been sorting mail.”

“Mainly.” I swallow hard. “And trying to figure out what I want to do with my life.” He leans back in his chair again and sighs. “I’m sorry, Ryland.”

“I know you are,” he says softly. “None of this has been easy on us, and navigating through what I can only describe as a masterclass of how to fuck over a family has been a goddamn nightmare.”

“Mostly for you and Aubree.”

“For all of us,” he says, now looking me in the eyes. And there he is, my older brother. The anger is gone. The betrayal has disappeared, and to my surprise, he reaches over and takes my hand in his, offering me a gentle smile. It’s enough to cause tears to well in my eyes. “Don’t cry,” he says.

“Hard not to,” I say. “I thought . . . I thought you were going to hate me forever.”

He shakes his head. “No, I could never, and I’m sorry I said some shitty things to you. I never should have said any of it.”

“I get it,” I say. “I probably would have reacted the same way if the roles were reversed.”

“Nonetheless, it was uncalled for, and you must know, no matter what, I’ll always love you, Hattie. That will never change.”

“Thank you,” I say softly.

He pulls his hand away. “How did, uh, things end with you and Hayes when I left?”

I shake my head. “Not well. I found this on the floor. I think it was in his back pocket and fell out when you two were wrestling.” I hold out an envelope and watch his eyes fall on it.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a letter from Cassidy. She sent it to Hayes. He knew about it and never told me. We got in a fight over it, and I told him to leave.”

Ryland scratches the side of his jaw. “What did she say? That she wants me to be friends with Hayes again?”

Stunned, I ask, “How did you know?”

“She said the same thing to me in my letter,” he replies.

“Wait, you got a letter too?”

“I did. Aubree and Abel as well.”

“What?” I sit taller. “Did she leave me one?”

Ryland shakes his head. “Not that I know of. There was nothing given to us to give to you.”

“Really?” I ask, feeling the wind knocked straight from my lungs. “Why wouldn’t she leave one with me?”

“Can’t be sure.” Ryland pushes his hand through his thick hair. She really didn’t write me anything. Why? Why was school the only thing she thought I needed? They all got letters. Everyone but me. “She told Aubree she believed she could make the farm bigger and better than it is, since Aubree cares so much about the earth and plants. She told me that I’d make a great father, and it’s why she chose me to take care of Mac, and then she told me to clear things up with Hayes because I needed the help.” But what could Hayes offer that I couldn’t? He’s off touring the world . . . 

“What did she say to Abel?” My throat is tight, so I can only whisper the words out.

“That she would always love him,” Ryland says, his voice tightening. “They were close, closer than I think you ever knew. I truly think they were in love at some point, but he never made a move because she was my sister.” He pulls on the back of his neck, looking sick about it. “Abel and I never talk about it because I know how much it hurts him that she’s gone.” He pauses. “Those flowers you saw at Cassidy’s grave were from him. He visits often. It’s why he’s so involved in Mac’s life because he wants to hold Cassidy close to him.”

“Jesus,” I say, my throat tight from the emotions running through me.

“But she also told Abel to help bring me and Hayes back together.”

“She did?”

He nods. “She did. She’s told everyone.”

“So why didn’t you listen?”

“Taking care of Mac, working at the school, and coaching the baseball team is hard enough as it is. Reaching out to someone touring around the country would only add to the mess of my life. It was easier to ignore it. Easier to stay angry.”

“Are you angry still?” I ask.

“I don’t know what I am,” he answers. “This entire time, I was convinced it was Hayes. The transgression had him written all over it. At that point in our lives, he was drinking a lot, doing some drugs. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind, so when Samantha said he was the one who got her pregnant, it was easy to believe. Especially since he started to get noticed by some labels, and I . . . well . . . I was struggling to make something of myself. Sam’s confession—her infidelity—did me in. I was done. I settled back into Almond Bay and clung to my grudge, not willing to let it go.”

“Are you willing now?” I ask.

“I don’t know.” He drags his hand over his face, avoiding the laceration over his eye. “I think I might need some time.”

“I understand.”

“I need some time with everything,” he continues. “I know why you lied, but I’m still trying to comprehend it all.” His eyes meet mine. “But in the meantime, you can stay here, at the house, in Cassidy’s room.”

“What?” I say, confused.

“Do you really think you can live in that apartment after we trashed it?”

“I guess I haven’t thought about it.”

“Well, you’re welcome here unless you want to go somewhere else.”

“I mean . . . I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Not Hayes’s house?” he asks me with a quirk to his brow.

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s going anywhere.” I twist my lips to the side, thinking about the dejected look on his face as he walked out of my apartment. “Plus, I don’t think I’m his type.”

Ryland shakes his head. “Not from what I could tell. The moment I pushed you off me, he went feral.” Ryland touches his sore jaw. “Not sure I’ve ever taken a punch that hard.” He turns to me. “Sorry about pushing you away. I was out of my mind. Are you okay?”

I nod. “I’m fine.” And then, for some reason, looking in my older brother’s eyes does something to me. I get emotional, and tears well up in my eyes. I wave my hand in front of my face and say, “Jesus, I don’t think I’ve ever cried this much.”

He reaches out and takes my hand in his again. “You’re allowed to cry, Hattie. To feel emotion.”

“I know, but I don’t know what I’m crying over.” I let out a deep sigh as Ryland squeezes my hand. “I just feel so lost. I failed at the one thing Cassidy wanted me to succeed at. I fell for a guy I shouldn’t have fallen for. I betrayed your trust and made a complete fool of myself.” I shake my head. “I’m just . . . I’m not in a place I should be mentally, and I don’t know how to get out of it.”

“Maybe you need to slow down,” Ryland says. “Take some time to find yourself again.” He wets his lips and adds, “And if you like Hayes, maybe you pursue that.”

“Ryland—”

“I’m serious.” He looks me dead in the eyes. “Life is too short, Hattie, not to go for the things that matter. Cassidy didn’t go after what she wanted out of fear that it might hurt me. And I don’t want the same thing to happen to you. If you like Hayes, go for it.”

“But what about your relationship with him? Cassidy wanted you two to figure things out, to reconnect. If I get in the way of that—”

“You won’t,” he says, squeezing my hand again.

“Does that mean you’re going to try to make things right with him?”

“I mean, for Cassidy, I probably should, but it won’t happen overnight. I see the toll it’s taken on Abel, and I’ll be damned if I get in the way of the happiness of another one of my sisters. Because you, Aubree, and Mac are all I’ve got. You’re my core. I might have been absent, strict, and bossy over the past few months, but this morning, with the fight, with watching Mac’s heart pour into her mother’s grave, it’s been a swift kick to the balls. You’re what I care about. You three are what makes me happy. And I can’t lose that.”

“I don’t want to lose you either,” I say, tears streaming down my face. “I thought . . . I thought you and Aubree were moving on without me. Getting Aubree to slow down and take a breath felt impossible. You were both guarded when I came back, and I know we talked about it, but I don’t know, our lives are headed in different directions. I feel like I’m clinging on . . . holding on to a part of yours.”

“I’m sorry we made you feel that way,” Ryland says. “But in all honesty, I think Aubree and I have both been trying to just stay afloat. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a way of life right now.”

“Then let me help.”

Ryland shakes his head. “You need to focus on you right now. Because you’re only as good to us as you are healthy. You were so close to Cassidy. You need to mourn. You need to find who you want to be after the death of your sister. We’ll be here, but we need you to find you first. If failing your midterms has taught us anything, it’s that.”

“How is that fair?” I ask. “You’re sacrificing so much.”

Ryland shakes his head. “No, we’re finding a new normal, and I think I’m starting to come around to it.” He dreamily looks toward the porch screen door. “The other night, Mac came up to me and cuddled on my lap, resting her head on my chest. She told me she loved me and that I’m her best friend.” That, of course, brings more tears to my eyes. Ryland’s eyes well up too. “I love that little girl, and I think we’re finally starting to find a new normal, even if it’s hard. I’m not saying we’re fully there yet, but there’s promise. Aubree is the same way. You don’t need to worry about us. Worry about you.”

I bite the corner of my lip as I realize he’s right. How can I possibly help if I’m struggling with who I should be. I’ve lost so much in the last couple of months—my sister, my school, my tool of a boyfriend . . . my purpose. I might need to take a second to breathe.

I might need to take a second away from everything, even Hayes, so I can truly find some inner peace.

“Thank you, Ryland.”

“No need to thank me. That’s what big brothers are for.” He stands from his chair. “Now, let’s go check out that room.”

“Why don’t you take it?” I say. “I can take the couch.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t stomach it. But I know it’s something that might help you, being close to Cassidy again. Who knows, maybe you might find what you need in there.”

He tugs me to my feet, and together, we walk into the house.

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