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SECOND RATE CHANCES Second Rate Chances

Holly Stephens

SECOND RATE CHANCES

Copyright 2013 by Holly Stephens

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, distributed, stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electron- ic or mechanical, without express permission of the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real loc- ales are used fictitiously. Other names, char- acters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemb- lance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Edited by Fallon Clark at Snow Editing

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Cover Designed by Sarah Hansen at Okay Creations

ISBN- 13: 978-1481880138

For Stephen and Hayden And everyone who ever told me I live in a fantasy world.

SECOND RATE CHANCES

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CONTENTS

Acknowledgment

Pg 1

Prologue

Pg 3

Chapter 1

Pg 5

Chapter 2

Pg 10

Chapter 3

Pg 15

Chapter 4

Pg 18

Chapter 5

Pg

30

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Chapter 6

Pg

34

Chapter 7

Pg

43

Chapter 8

Pg

50

Chapter 9

Pg

58

Chapter 10

Pg

68

Chapter 11

Pg 75

Chapter 12

Pg

82

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Chapter 13

Pg

92

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Chapter 14

Pg 99

Chapter 15

Pg 105

Chapter 16

Pg 111

Chapter 17

Pg 118

Chapter 18

Pg 124

Chapter 19

Pg 131

Chapter 20

Pg 138

Chapter 21

Pg 145

Chapter 22

Pg 154

Chapter 23

Pg 162

Chapter 24

Pg 167

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Chapter 25

Pg 175

Chapter 26

Pg 179

Chapter 27

Pg 187

Chapter 28

Pg 191

Chapter 29

Pg 196

Chapter 30

Pg 204

Chapter 31

Pg 208

About the

Pg 216

Author

Upcoming Titles

Pg 218

SECOND RATE CHANCES

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My name might be the one on the cover, but there should a ton of other people listed there as well.

Kathryn Scott. Where do I begin? You’ve been with me from the very beginning. You’re the only person who has seen the ugly, rough draft right after Nano of 2011. The fact that you’ve stuck with me through that to what it has become makes me love you all the more. And I can’t believe we did it! After so many years and different manuscripts, we did it.

Heidi McLaughlin. My dear sweet Heidi. I’m not even sure I know where to begin. If any- one’s name belongs on the cover alongside

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mine, it’s yours. The texts, the phone calls, the emails; you helped shape this from one story to a whole other. I would not be where I am today without your guidance and friend- ship. A fun little story brought upon an amazing friendship that I simply cherish. You’re my biggest cheerleader, my partner when I need to vent, and most of all, an amazing friend. Thank you for everything. If it weren’t for you I’d probably still be looking at an ugly rough draft on my laptop.

Fallon Clark. When I was handed lemons, you helped me make the most amazing lem- onade. You helped me turn this thing from something that was too much to something that was just right. Thank you for your edit- ing and guidance, your wonderful friendship and for being there when I needed you. I can’t wait to see where the future takes us.

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Beth Suit. If it weren’t for Heidi I wouldn’t have found you. You pushed me harder than anyone else. You wanted to make this hap- pen; you wanted to make this story great. And because of you, I did just that (I hope). Thank you for calling me out on things and making me think outside the box. This story wouldn’t be what it is without you and your very scary red pen. Thank you for everything.

Sarah Hansen. Wow. There are no other words for what you created for me. The beau- tiful cover has brought Sam and Lil to life and to you I’ll be forever grateful. Thank you for bringing my story to life.

Jannie Lund. We’ve stuck together through all the ups and downs and even though a big time difference separates us, you’re still there when I need you. Your encouraging words and your friendship are the most beautiful things I could have asked for when starting

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this venture. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Liz Fong. You feed my reading addiction, you’re there when I need to talk, and you’ve become one of my best friends even though we live so far apart. I’m not sure what I’d ever do without you but I can tell you I don’t want to find out. Of course when in doubt I think, we’ll always have NOLA. (And I hope you, Becci, and Heather caught the reference to our weekend away)

Carrie Gray. When I need another set of eyes, you never let me down. Thank you for always being up for the challenge and for be- ing such a wonderful friend.

To my husband, Stephen, who is more than just my life partner. He’s my best friend. Thank you for putting up with me when I tuned you out to focus on the story. Thank

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you for believing in me and reminding me that I can do this. Thank you for being my anchor that keeps me grounded when I feel like things are going to fall apart. And thank you most of all for giving me the one thing in this world that makes me the happiest; our beautiful baby boy.

To my parents; Mama, Daddy, and Debbie. Well…I did it! After talking about it for so long, my name is on the cover of a book. Your love and acceptance in pushing me to do what I love means so much. Thank you for always making me believe that I could do anything if I set my mind to it.

And last but not least, to my special friend, Kristina Hatfield. She’s my friend first and the lady who signs my paycheck second. Thank you for being the Oats to my Hall. Thank you for not yelling when I used com- pany time to write a couple of pages. Thank

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you for being so awesome that I can spend eight hours a day sharing a desk with you. You make work fun. You make selling plumbing fun!

And if I’ve left you out, I’m truly sorry. There are so many people who have stuck by me since I wrote the first three words to my very first story. You know who you are. Just be- cause you’re name isn’t listed doesn’t mean I don’t thank you.

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PROLOGUE

They stood in front of their house, arms wrapped tightly around one another. Today was a dream. They had signed their names on all of the dotted lines. Neither was certain what each piece of paper meant, but they knew one thing; they now owned a house. Together. The craftsman-style home, barely twelve hundred square feet, sat on a shaded lot, in part because of the large oak tree that sat in the front. Its limbs hung freely, the mossy green of the stucco matched the ferns planted around the porch. White gardenias mixed with purple freesia added a spark of color to the yard. The idea to add a swing for lazy afternoons clouded her mind. She could

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imagine a witch and her broom sticking out of the tree for Halloween. Bright white lights wrapped around the trunk at Christmas. She smiled at the ideas form- ing in her head. He didn't have to see her face to see the light in her eyes; it radi- ated all around her. With their fingers inter- twined, he pointed to the porch where her thoughts had just been. “I see a swing there,” he said. Her smile grew even bigger.

“Me too.”

“Can you believe it?” he asked. She shook her head no. “We own a house. You and me.” “Yup, you and me.” “You know what this means?” She turned so that they were face to face, studying the man before her. Since the first moment she had seen him, his eyes drew her in. His big brown pools

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always looked at things with so much wonder. Like it was a puzzle he was trying to work out. What she loved was that he looked at her that way too. She hoped that he always would. There were always surprises for the two of them, always that realm of intrigue that kept them drawn to one another. She smiled and ran her fin- gers through his shaggy hair. “What’s this mean?” she

asked.

He pulled her closer, nearly crushing her to his chest. His words were a whisper against her lips. “You’re stuck with me now.”

be stuck with

someone I have no intention of ever let-

ting go.”

He buried his head deep into the crook of her neck. With a feather- light touch, he kissed the spot under her ear that made her shiver, then moved his

“I

can’t

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kisses across her cheek, down her jaw, and finally onto her lips. “I love you.” ”I love you too,” she said. “Nothing can come between

us.”

5

“Nothing.”

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 1

Three Years Later

The sun and its early morning rays shone brightly through the floor-to-ceiling win- dows of Sam Travers’ high-rise. Dust particles floated around, dancing in the light as it beamed down on the bamboo floors. Sam bustled around his spacious, open living room looking for his watch. Much like that rabbit in Alice in Wonder- land, he was late. Whether or not what he was late for could be considered a "very important date" was debatable, but it was still his job, and today, of all days, was not one to show up five minutes late for. The Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday was one of the biggest number-crunching days for the retail industry. Today, as it were, marked how high the sales from the previous weekend fared. The official kick off to holiday spending.

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As the head of the develop- ment division for Titan Gaming it wasn’t Sam’s job to question the ethics of the American people. However, as the young- est department head, his job was to over- see the gamers that tested all of the latest games. The testers were responsible for finding bugs in the programming before the games were released to the public. Titan also ran a quarterly magazine on the latest and greatest in the gaming world. The November issue was the most anticipated – and crucial – for holiday spending. Titan needed to be the best in video gaming development. The manufacturers depended on them to spread the holiday cheer, as it were, when it came to their next big money maker. And since Titan itself had a hand in the honey pot, for every game that they re- viewed and recommended to consumers, they were given a portion of the sales.

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Sam frantically searched un- der couch cushions, being careful to place them just as they were, looking for his watch. It may have seemed trivial to some, but his watch was like a child's blanket. He felt naked without it – much like someone else he knew who felt equally naked leaving the house with no makeup on. Loud footsteps, made by a pair of four-inch stilettos, began to trot their way toward him. Sam checked to make sure the cushions on the couch were just right. The last thing he needed this morning was "a word" about the up- keep of a home. He stood, eying the way the sofa sat just so and spun around in a circle, his hands firmly planted on his hips. His eyes roamed over the open area for any clues as to where his timepiece could be hiding. The footfalls come to a stop but that wasn't what told him he was

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no longer alone. It was the unmistakable scent of Chanel No. 5. “Sam, darling,” Chloe called

out to him.

His thoughts stopped as if they had been willed to do so. He turned to face his fiancée, unable to even plaster on a fake smile. The couch was upturned, Chloe’s perfume invaded the entire room, and he couldn’t find his watch. It was turning out to be shitty Monday. He didn’t see the point in hiding that fact from her with a polite smile that really screamed, I’d love nothing more than to waste time with idle chit chat when really, I’m late for work. He tapped his pointer finger to his wrist where his watch would nor- mally lie. “I'm late,” he said matter-of- factly. “You don't know where I left my watch do you?”

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“You and that stupid watch,” she said with an eye roll. She didn’t move an inch to help him. Crossing her arms over her chest, Chloe huffed, “you won’t see me crying because it’s come up miss- ing. I mean, really Sam, who can take a man seriously when he wears a lime green Swatch?” Sam was resigned to the fact that Chloe would never fully understand him. He wore suits and ties to work be- cause it was expected of him. If he could have gotten away with it, he would have worn his beat up Chuck Taylor’s as well. Apparently, scuffed toes were frowned upon at Titan Gaming. The watch, however, was his and his alone. He had had it since he first began working at Tit- an, a lowly gamer in the basement fresh out of college. It was a gift and one he had refused to part with after all of these years.

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Looking at the modern art deco clock that hung above the minimal- istic fireplace mantel in the corner, Sam realized he was going to be more than five minutes late now. Her name came out of his mouth in a frustrated groan as she ap- proached to adjust his tie. She looked up at him through long, fake eyelashes, bat- ting them as she spoke. “Yes?” “My watch. Do you know where I left it?” She huffed in annoyance. “Look under the towel in the hamper. I'm pretty sure I saw something lime green and offensive when I picked up your tow- el from the floor after your shower.” He knew his messiness was a pet peeve of hers. This was his apart- ment, though. If he wanted to leave tow- els or clothes lying around, he should be

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able to. They would get picked up, even- tually. Then again, had he thrown his towel in the hamper to begin with, maybe he would have seen his watch and this whole fiasco could have been avoided. Just like Chloe had said, Sam’s watch was lying under the towel he had used that morning. He strapped it on his wrist, vowing to never take it off, when he heard Chloe clear her throat from behind him. She stood in the door- way, smiling like the Cheshire Cat. “Don't forget, I'm leaving for New York today to finalize a few last- minute details for the wedding. I’ll be back in time for dinner tonight at eight with Marvin. He has some ideas he wants to share with us regarding the photography.” As their wedding drew near- er, Chloe started to spend more and more time in New York. With it only being an

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hour’s plane ride away, she could shop the designers she was accustomed to. Though Fair Haven had its own quaint stores, it wasn’t what Chloe desired. Fair Haven, as a whole, was divided into two areas. Downtown, where Sam lived now – with its corporate buildings and young, hip hangouts – and the Vil- lage, where Sam was from, with its mom- and-pop stores and old fashioned delis. Four weeks was all they had before their New Years Eve nuptials. He had proposed eight months ago. And eight months ago, they had decided to say their vows on New Years Eve, in front of their family and friends, with a huge party that would last well into the early morning hours. At midnight they were to depart for their honeymoon – an undis- closed location and one of the few sur- prises Sam was granted in the whole production.

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To speed the morning along, Sam simply smiled and nodded. “New York, dinner with Marvin. Got it.” “Love you, babe,” Chloe called out, blowing air kisses to his re- treating form. Sam went into full blown panic mode, cursing that he lived on the top floor where it was damn near im- possible to take the stairs but praying that no one else was running as late as him so that he didn't have to stop at every other floor on the way down. When the elevator finally dinged that he had made it to the lobby, he sprinted out of the door.

Cosmo, the doorman, stood by his perch, watching Sam move with grace out from under the eave that led to the street where morning commuter’s cars waited. Sam's BMW M3 was the only vehicle parked out front this morning.

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“Cosmo!” Sam said cheer- fully. “My man. How goes it this morning?”

“Oh, no different than yester- day. Your car is ready, sir. Should be nice and warm on this chilly morning. Make sure you're careful on the roads. Reports of black ice everywhere.” Sam smiled as Cosmo walked around the car to open the door for him. As his hand reached for the handle, Sam turned on his heel, preparing to show off his fancy footwork on the slick pavement. In- stead, his footing caught on the edge of the curb. Sam reached for Cosmo’s out- stretched hand, but he wasn't fast enough. His foot caught the curb at an awkward angle, causing him to lose his balance.

Sam's whole body twisted like a contortionist's. His waist dipped back and his feet flew out from underneath

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him before Cosmo could help him from his fall. As Sam's head came closer to the curb of the sidewalk, he expected his life to start flashing before his eyes. Instead he had one final, fleeting thought as his head made contact with the concrete and his vision turned the same murky color of the shiny car he was now staring at through hooded eyes. It ended too soon. And funny enough, Sam wasn’t thinking about his life.

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CHAPTER 2

Running late for work was a daily occur- rence for Lil Harper. Then again, when you technically had no boss to report to, running late was not an issue – unless of course she wanted to face the wrath of her best friend and assistant. But this morning she was bringing coffee. Ellie couldn't be mad when the fresh roasted smell of coffee beans from Latte da clouded her senses. Lil turned up the radio. On their own accord, her shoulders moved up and down to the beat of the tune. Without a care in the world – the skies were blue, and her coffee nice and toasty on this chilly morning – Lil star- ted to sing, Fire, a song The Pointer

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Sisters made famous and even Elmer Fudd made sound good. She drew out the chorus, us- ing her best soulful voice. It wasn't on key by a long shot, but it felt good to belt out the words so early in the morning. Nine fifteen being early. Lil drove down Main Street. There was nothing like driving down the street that connected all of Fair Haven to- gether. The car, her old Chevy Tahoe she had bought when she landed her first big paying job as a photographer right out of college, cruised toward The Village. Boutiques, antique shops, mom and pop stands, anything and everything that could keep a small town a float, thrived here. It was the place to be and be seen when her grandparents were young and hip. Lil reserved a soft spot for The Vil- lage; there was something homey about driving down the cobblestone streets.

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Some days, when she was left to her own thoughts, she'd imagine what it must have been like for her grandparents to roam these streets as teenagers, courting one another. Maybe they’d hold hands as they walked toward the Cineplex and then stop by the Tasty Freeze for ice cream. Her Grandpa might even try to sneak in a few stolen kisses after the movie. She could imagine the evening ending with their arms wrapped around one another as they stopped to admire the big open sky under a blanket down by the river. Lil sighed as she pulled her car in front of the little door that housed her very own place on Main Street. Lily Rose Photography was scripted in elegant let- ters on the black awning above her bold, red door. She had to make a statement here, where every other door was either glass or plain. Red was the boldest move

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she could make. Besides, it had worked for Elizabeth Arden. The door swung open as Lil nudged it with her knee, her hands full with two Grande lattes. Ellie didn't even look up from her computer screen to see who had interrupted her morning Facebook stalking of what had happened to her "friends" while she had been sleeping. For one, no one was ex- pected until later that afternoon, and two, she could smell the intoxicating aroma of a salted caramel mocha from down the street. “You're forgiven,” Ellie said, closing out of screen she was currently browsing.

“Well,” Ellie said in a way that Lil immediately knew she had something good to say. “Spill!” Lil demanded ex- citedly. She might not involve herself in

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social media but she enjoyed the tiny tid- bits Ellie provided. “A certain someone now has season three of Night Court in his possession.”

“Shut up! When is he bring- ing it over?” Lil dropped into her favorite chair.

“This weekend,” Ellie said laughing. “Jeez, what is it with you two and Night Court? The show has been off the air for how long, yet my best friend and my boyfriend can't seem to get enough of it. Please,” she said, folding her hands together and propping her chin on them, “what is it that gets you? Is it Bull's bald head or Roz's no-nonsense attitude?”

“Neither,” Lil said. She picked herself up from the lime green chair and began to make her way to her

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own office. “It's all about the judge and the gavel.”

“You're sick, you know that? Oh, wait, before you get settled in, someone's been trying to reach you ever since I got here this morning.” “Who?” Lil asked. Ellie shrugged her shoulders. “No clue. She won't leave a message, but she's been calling every fifteen minutes since eight o'clock.” “She?” Lil questioned. “Have I pissed off anyone lately?” “Not that I know of, but who knows. Speaking of pissed off, don't for- get that you have that consultation with the Reed family about Santa pictures this afternoon.”

Lil groaned. She loved her job. She loved taking pictures of families and couples and tiny little bundles of joy, but she hated Santa pictures. And to

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make it worse, these were Santa pictures with the children she and Ellie had dubbed the holy trinity of terror. Triplets, each worse than the next. “You promised Marcie that you'd do the girls' pictures this year. You owe her for getting you that mega wed- ding job this past summer. Besides the Ratcliff’s wedding, the only other big wedding gig for this town is–” “Don't say it.” Lil's tone was firm. She knew exactly what other wed- ding Ellie was referring to. She didn't need to hear the names to be reminded of the upcoming nuptials. “I'm going to my office. Buzz me if that woman calls back.” Ellie nodded her head, re- gretful for a moment that she had even brought up the other profitable wedding in town. She should have known better. Time may have distanced the situation

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but it never healed her wounds. Lil proved every day that her wounds were still open. She closed herself off and hardly let anyone know that the past still haunted her. But if you looked into the depth of her sparkling blue eyes, there was still a hint of despair in them. Ellie hated seeing that. She wanted her to find happiness and love. She knew not to push and that one day it would happen. Pa- tience was a virtue. Lil put the mention of the big wedding out of her head. She discarded her bags in the little closet she kept on the far side of the wall from her desk and fired up her computer. She was ready to tackle the day's events. Replying to a few emails, ob- livious to the fact that the phone was ringing, Lil sang the last song she had heard on the radio. In the car she was

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channeling The Pointer Sisters; this time around she mimicked Elmer Fudd. “Woemeo and Jewiet.” Her voice carried to the front hall where Ellie sat. The buzz of her phone next to her computer stopped her singing short. “Frantic woman on line one, Elmer.” Ellie said with a laugh. “Thanks.” Lil picked up the phone, de- livering her standard greeting. “Good morning, this is Lil. How can I help you?” “Well, it's about damn time you decided to show up for work. You know most people put in an eight-hour day beginning at eight in the morning. Not,” the woman paused, “nine-thirty.” “I’m sorry,” the woman im- mediately said. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. I’m stressed and tired and did I mention stressed?”

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“I understand,” Lil said. “With whom am I speaking?” Lil kept her tone nothing but professional. The last thing she needed was to get snippy with a paying customer on the phone. “It's Chloe.” The woman said her name like there was one Chloe in the world. Or at least only one that mattered. Lil racked her brain. She knew of Chloe Davis that had her engagement pic- tures done a year ago. The wedding had taken place in Cabo so a photographer on site was hired. Maybe she was planning a holiday-themed reception. Then again, maybe it was Chloe Keyes who, the last time Lil saw her in the grocery store, had just found out she was pregnant. Instead of debating the Chloe's in town, Lil asked the woman to clarify.

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“Chloe, what's your last name, sweetie?”

Kindness always killed. “Chloe Miles. Sam’s fiancée.” Kindness wasn't the only thing Lil wished she could kill at the mo- ment. Whatever she had said about being ready for what the day would bring, she took back. She could not be, nor would she ever be, ready to deal with the woman that was engaged to Lil's first and only love.

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CHAPTER 3

Lil sat frozen at her desk. There could have been a million reasons as to why Chloe was calling yet Lil couldn’t think of one. This woman was mere weeks away from marrying the one guy Lil had thought she’d spend forever with and she was on her phone. “Hello? Lil? Are you there? Listen, we really don't have all day.” “No, no, of course we don’t,” Lil said in a daze. “Wait, what do you mean we?”

“Something’s happened with

Sam.”

Lil felt her stomach drop. She and Sam hadn’t been together in nearly three years, yet he had been a huge part

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of her life, and regardless if their relation- ship had worked or not, he still held a piece of her heart. Maybe all of it. “Why are you telling me this?” Lil asked. She noticed after the question had left her mouth that her words had dropped to barely a whisper. It was like she was afraid to ask what had happened in fear of the absolute worst.

“Because you're the only per- son who can help him. Believe me,” Lil was momentarily shocked at the sincere tone of Chloe’s voice. “If I could find someone else I would, but I can't. They all keep telling me that you are the only per- son who can help him.” Lil shook her head. She wanted to laugh at the situation. She wanted to scream from the rooftops how the irony was not lost on her. All she could do was manage to get a few words out and she

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was lucky if those words formed complete sentences. "What kind of help?” Lil managed to ask. She had to wonder how awkward it was for Chloe to be calling her soon-to- be-husband's ex-girlfriend and asking for a favor. Lil remembered when she had heard Sam was dating Chloe. It seemed to happen overnight. One minute they were apart and the next he had moved on, as if their whole relationship meant nothing. How could he go from one girl to the next? This had been the man she fell in love with when she was eighteen. The man who was in every single college memory. The other half she co-signed her life away with on a house she still cur- rently lived in. The only man she had ever seen herself spending the rest of her days with.

On the flip side, this was the man who had turned his back on her

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when she needed him most. Who sought comfort in video games and late night work sessions rather than holding her close and telling her that everything was going to be okay. Deep down Lil knew that it didn’t matter what kind of help Sam needed. Even if once upon a time he hadn’t given her the support that she had needed, she’d be there now to offer a helping hand to him. Chloe was quiet for a moment before she answered Lil's questions, or rather, deferred the answers. "Listen, I can't say over the phone. It's honestly best if you come down and see for yourself."

“Fine. Where are you?” “Fair Haven General. We're on the third floor. And please, hurry. The sooner you can get here and hopefully do whatever it is that everyone thinks you

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can do, the sooner Sam and I can get on with our lives.” Without a goodbye or a kiss my ass, Chloe hung up the phone. Shocked beyond words, Lil held the re-

ceiver away from her and looked at the piece of technology like it had suddenly sprouted three heads.

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SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 4

It was funny how things happened. To say Lil had gone almost three years without thinking of Sam would be a bold- faced lie. Sometimes she couldn’t help but think about him, but he didn’t affect her daily life. She didn’t think about him when she saw something on TV anymore or when a song came on the radio. But now driving to the hospital in her car, a car Sam had stood by while she negoti- ated the price with the salesman, she was seeing him everywhere.

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Every song that played on the radio as she drove made her think of him. Irony had a hell of a way of intervening. Could it have been fate telling her that it was time for the closure she never received?

When Lil pulled into the parking lot of the hospital, she quickly found a place to park her SUV. The soon- er she was in there, the sooner she could do whatever she needed to do, the sooner she could be on her way and have this whole mess behind her. Lil walked through the automatic doors of the hospital into the large, open and brightly-lit reception area. An older woman was behind the desk, dispatching calls throughout the hospital. Lil veered to her right toward the elevator bank. She pushed the up arrow that looked oddly like the logo for the Starship Enterprise, and held her breath until the light

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blinked and the doors dinged open. When she stepped inside the confines of the small space she thought to herself, here goes nothing. Beam me up, bitches. ~~~~ The doors to the third floor opened with another ding. One that sounded loud in the quiet halls of the hospital. Her trip to the hospital felt like judgment day and she couldn’t help but feel that Chloe was her judge. Or her executioner. Lil had never met Chloe Miles, the daughter of an ex-model moth- er and mogul father, yet she knew enough about her to know that she was a woman who got what she wanted. Lil rounded the corner from the elevator where she saw a man stand- ing at the nurses’ station. He stood with his head bowed and his hands clasped to- gether like he was in the middle of a

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prayer causing Lil to stop in her tracks. She held off the urge to call out his name, instead taking a moment to notice all the changes in a man that she once con- sidered a father figure. Paul Travers was classically handsome in an old movie star kind of way. He stood just over six feet tall, with wide broad shoulders and a head of dark brown hair that had turned grayer since the last time she had seen him. But the rest of him looked as if it had stopped aging. His body was still fit, as if he worked out every day. From the angle at which Lil stood, she could partially see his face and from a distance she didn’t notice wrinkles or any other telltale signs of aging. Lil found herself wondering if age had caught up with Sam. Would he still take after his dad? Would his dark hair show signs of graying?

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Growing older was inevitable, but Lil never imagined it happening to Paul. She and Sam had been dating for a year when Lil's parents died in a boating accident and Paul had stepped in. She had prepared herself for facing Sam but she hadn’t considered his dad. When she and Sam had broken up she was left with a void in her chest. When she lost Sam, she lost her family too. Lil took quiet, tentative steps toward Paul. He rubbed his stubbled jaw with one hand while his other massaged the back of his neck. The clear look of dis- tress that he was under did nothing to help ease the thoughts running through Lil's mind. What if Sam was dying? A mountain of regret flooded Lil. So many things that were left unsaid would haunt her if the end of his life were near. Could she make things right this time? Could she tell him now, after year’s apart and

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extensive therapy, that she no longer blamed him for what happened? Would he even care? Finding her voice, Lil opened her mouth to say Paul’s name when an- other door opened and a much younger version of Paul stepped out of the room. Lil smiled to herself in spite of everything. Sam's younger brother, Joshua, was a product of his father. Still tall, he had a head full of dark hair much like Paul used to have. Joshua took a stand next to his father, patting the man briefly on the back in a heart-warming gesture. Paul looked over at his son, offering a small smile. When his eyes passed over Lil his whole posture changed. He went from looking like a man on the brink of losing everything to looking like a man who had just been delivered a gift from God.

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“You came.” He stated the fact even though the words flowed from his mouth more like a question. Joshua moved away from his father when he saw Lil standing like a lone solider in the battlefield. He offered her a smile that she couldn’t help but return.

As she closed the distance between them, she offered them both a small wave and a shy hello. As if the chime of the elevator were loud to her ears only moments before, it was nothing compared to the sound of her heartbeat. With every step she took, her heart blas- ted like a canon. Both men rushed toward her and wrapped Lil in a tight embrace. It was an awkward position, being sand- wiched between them, but Lil took com- fort from their arms. She closed her eyes as they held her tighter. So many

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memories flooded her all at once. She had missed them, but she didn’t realize just how much until that very moment. “Thank you,” Paul whispered into her ear. “I know this can't be easy for you, but thank you.” Lil was the first to pull away. “What’s happened?” she asked. “Is Sam okay? Wait, what am I saying, of course he’s not okay. He wouldn’t be in the hos- pital if he were.” Paul cracked a smile and hugged Lil again. “God I’ve missed you.” The hint of a smile began to form on Lil’s lips. She pulled out of the embrace and punched Joshua playfully on the arm. “My God, Josh, look at you! You’re not some little kid any more are you?” Lil ran her eyes over Josh and waggled her eyebrows at him. Josh laughed and squeezed her again.

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“You know some say I’m twice the man my brother is,” he teased. Lil rolled her eyes. “And I’ll have to take your word for it,” she playfully said back. “Lil,” Paul said. “Why don’t we have a seat?” He gestured to a set of white folding chairs along the far end of the wall. Lil led the way over taking one of the chairs while Paul took the other. Josh squatted down on Lil’s other side. Not beating around the bush, Lil asked the one question that had been plaguing her since Chloe had called. “Be honest, Paul. Is he dying?” “He's not dying,” Joshua

replied.

“Oh.” Lil breathed out, re- lieved. But if he wasn’t dying… Another set of footsteps sounded down the hall. Paul looked up and sighed. The reaction caused Lil to

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turn around to see who was on their way. An unfamiliar man in a white coat headed in their direction. Lil assumed this was the doctor. “Mr. Travers. Joshua,” the man said extending a hand to Paul. “How is he today?”

“The same as yesterday. Frantic; confused.” Paul shrugged. “Doc, this is Lil. We think she might be able to help.”

Lil looked at the doctor wait- ing for some kind of explanation. “Ah, yes. Ms. Miles told me that she would be coming. Lil, I'm Doctor Walker. Has anyone told you about Sam's condition?”

“We were just getting to that,” Paul said. “Lil just got here.” “Sam has had an accident. A week ago he slipped on a patch of black ice and went into a coma.”

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Lil gasped out loud. Her hands instinctively went for her mouth. “'Oh, God.” Sam had been in a coma? No wonder he was confused and frantic. He could have died! Preparing her heart and mind to see an old love was nothing com- pared to being out of it for nearly a week. “It’s as bad as it sounds,” Dr. Walker replied grimly. “He woke up a couple of days ago with no signs of in- ternal bleeding or damage.” Lil looked to Paul and Joshua, confusion masking her face. “I'm not following. No internal bleeding or damage, that’s good, right? What does this have to do with me?” The doctor took a deep breath and the words ran out of his mouth like they were being chased by fire. “From what we can gather from the CT scan's and tests we've run, Sam has dissociative amnesia.”

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Lil could feel her eyes scrunch togeth- er still in confusion. “What that means,” Dr. Walker went on to explain. “Is that when he hit his head, a portion of his memories were blocked from his mind. There have been some cases where the patient only forgets the accident. They have no recollection as to what happened. In other cases, they lose only a few days. Sam’s case is a little more drastic. We don’t foresee this being a long-term condition. Typically a person regains their memories within a few days or weeks. However, there have been cases where it’s taken years for the memories to return. With Sam, he knows who he is, where he's from, who his dad and brother are. All of these are very good signs and we’re optimistic that with the right kind of therapy he’ll regain his memories sooner rather than later.” He paused and

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drew in a breath. “I'm afraid, Lil, this is where you come in." It took a few minutes for the diagnosis to sink in. Instead of address- ing the doctor, Lil turned her attention to Paul. Her heart was racing inside of her chest. It felt like the world was caving in around her, one slow, agonizing second at a time. Paul's own face grew grim. Lil could tell by the look on his face, the fear in his eyes that he knew she had realized what this meant. She now understood why she had been called for help. “Paul,” Lil said, slowly. The words were low to the ears of everyone around them. “What year does Sam think it is?” When he didn't answer, Lil asked the question again. “Paul, what year?” Her words were sharper, angrier. Paul stood and ran his hands through his hair. He

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turned around unable to look Lil in the eye.

“Josh?” Lil asked. Josh shook his head and kept his eyes trained to the ground.

“Someone needs to answer me,” Lil spoke loudly causing the men in the small waiting room to jump. “What is…” Lil took a deep breath and prepared herself for the answer. “What’s the last thing he remembers?” “You and the house,” Paul choked out. “Sam thinks its three years ago,” he said in a defeated tone finally meeting her horror-struck gaze. Lil closed her eyes and practiced her breathing skills. In and out. In and out. Three years. They had bought a house together.

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They had started the next phase of their lives, working at their dream jobs; him testing video games and her as a photographer. They were happy, totally in love, and on top of the world. Until they weren’t. “When three years ago?” she asked, opening her eyes to find not only the wor- ried look of Paul and Josh, but that of Dr. Walker also. “Before or after?” Every bone in her body quivered. She wasn’t sure which answer she preferred. Before meant he knew nothing of what had happened to them. Before meant they were still happy and very much in love. Lil didn’t know if she could handle Sam being artificially in love with her. But what if he remembered what ultimately ended them? Lil wasn’t sure she could face that. The hurt, the an- ger, the feeling of love being lost.

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However, maybe she’d finally get the closure thousands of dollars and years of therapy denied her. “From what we can tell, right when the two of you bought the house. He keeps talking about how he needs to get home and help you hang pictures so that you don't fall and break your neck.” Lil let out the breath she had been holding. Her gaze slowly drifted to Dr. Walker’s. “And you want me to do what exactly?” “In these sorts of cases,” he began to explain, “we think that if you talk to him, maybe spend some time with him that his memory will come back.” “And if it doesn't? What if he never remembers? Or worse, what if he does? What if suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, he remembers that he hates me and that he left me?”

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“Sam doesn't hate you, Lil. He never has.” Joshua's voice rang out in the hall, his face stern in his conviction. “These things take time,” the doctor said. “Normally the memories re- turn after something happens. It could be the minute you walk into the room. Maybe as soon as he sees your face he’ll remember that you’re not together.” “Lil,” Paul took Lil's hand in his own. He gave it what was supposed to be a reassuring squeeze. “All we're asking is that you go in there and talk to him. He keeps asking for you. We can't hold him off forever.”

“Does he know about us?” “We've tried explaining to him that the two of you are no longer to- gether. Chloe has brought pictures of the two of them, hoping that would help jog his memory. Nothing has worked. The only thing we're getting out of him is

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more agitation. His mind is still with you. Nothing, as of right now, can dissuade him. That's why we think it might help if you go in there and talk to him. Maybe hearing the words from you will make him realize that things aren't as he thinks.”

Lil laughed silently. “I bet Chloe is having a field day with all of this.” Paul cracked a smile at her words. “She's beside herself. In true Chloe fash- ion she’s freaking out. It took a lot for her to call you. Please,” his voiced dropped. He looked at her through his long dark eyelashes, pleading with her to help him. “Do this for us. We're only asking that you go in there and talk to him. We can figure out the rest later.” Reluctantly, she agreed. She stood and stared at the closed door, her heart thumping wildly. Drawing upon her

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calming breaths, she turned to the three men.

“I want you to know,” she began, “that this isn't easy for me.” Tears began to well up in her eyes. She was de- termined to keep them from falling. No way was she going to show just how much stepping foot in that room affected her. She exchanged looks with Joshua and Paul. They, of all people, should have known just how hard this was. They were there. They stood on his side of the fence, which was something she would never hold against them. Blood was thicker than water and all that. A simple nod, nothing more from Sam's brother and father was all Lil needed. With a deep breath, Lil pushed the door open just a fraction of an inch. She didn't want to jump into the room like a party girl jumping out of a birthday cake. Slow and steady. If she was being

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honest with herself, she wasn't quite sure what seeing Sam after so many years would do to her. Would he still look the same? Sound the same? Would he still hold a light in his eyes as soon as she walked into the room?

Slow and steady, she re- minded herself. Perspiration beaded off of Lil’s forehead and her first thought was that it was hot in the room. As she passed under the air vent, a blast of cold air waf- ted over her. Lil said a silent thank you. The last thing she needed was to sweat through her clothes. And then, there he was. When their eyes met she was torn between running into his arms or run- ning for the door. His eyes softened when he saw her and Lil wanted to break down.

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It would have been so easy to fall back in the pattern of Sam’s girlfriend. That look he gave her once told her how much he loved her. It took every ounce of will- power she possessed to keep her conflict- ing emotions in check. He looked the same, only older. His hair was still a deep, dark brown. It was cut short to his scalp but not so that her fingers wouldn't be able to run through it. She mentally berated her- self. She wasn't there to think about run- ning her hands through his hair. She was there to talk. Help him get better. Nothing more. But still, it had been so long since she had last seen him and after today, who knew when she'd see him again. She decided to throw caution to the wind and not care what she thought about him. Yes, he was still beautiful. His

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brown eyes still had the wonderment of a little boy and with his mouth slightly par- ted she could still see the slight overbite he had. A single dimple on the left side of his cheek was present only just so. His feet hung off the end of the short bed. He had grown to look so much like his father it was uncanny. His mother would have been proud. Then again, she would have been pretty disap- pointed in Lil for wanting to bolt in the first place.

“Lil,” Sam breathed. Lil wasn't sure what to do. Did she come right out and say that they weren't together? That didn’t seem helpful.

“So,” Lil said breaking the ice. “Took a nasty bump on the head, eh?” She face-palmed herself for saying something so stupid. “Sorry,” she shook

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her head unable to meet his eyes. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” “It's fine,” Sam said. The sound of relief in his voice made her lift her head. He was staring at her at her like he could see right through her. “I’ve been asking for you.” Lil gave him a weak smile. “What's the last thing you remember?” she asked. She didn’t need to hear him go into how much he had missed her. She needed to handle one thing at a time. Sam drew his lips together in a tight line. The wrinkles in his forehead, that weren't there the last time she had seen him, creased together. “I remember us closing on the house. I remember standing in front, admiring something that was ours.” He laughed lightly. The sound was music to Lil's ears and a knife to her gut. “I remember telling you that nothing would ever come between us.”

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His eyes were sad as he recalled the final moments he remembered between them. Lil had the sudden urge to curl into a ball and cry. Cry for the loss of her one true love. Cry for what lay ahead for him. The recovery, the memories, and the heartache of knowing they weren’t to- gether anymore. She remembered that day clearly and looking back she would have laughed in the face of anyone who told her that she and Sam wouldn’t last. They were a solid unit, totally in love with one another. Funny how one moment in time could change all of that. “That's it?” “That's it. I woke up a couple of days ago confused as to where I was. The walls were white and I thought to myself, 'man we have a lot of painting to do.' Then I heard a beeping noise. I rolled over to tell you to turn the alarm off, that

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it was Saturday and against the law to hear that sound on the weekends. But when I reached out you weren't there and my boss’ daughter was asleep on the couch. I thought I had lost my mind, Lil. Then she started crying and said how happy she was that I woke up. For a second I thought maybe I had been in a car accident and she was some crazy that hit me. You know, like maybe she felt so bad and thought she had killed me and camped out in my room to make sure I was okay. I even told her I wouldn't press charges. That only made her cries harder. She thought I was the crazy one.” Sam sighed and pushed the sheet past his legs. He was wearing a hospital-issued gown and his long, lean legs were shaded with the same color hair as his head. Lil had to avert her gaze. She didn't want to be caught staring or, worse, risk seeing something she shouldn't have.

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“Things only got worse from there. The doctors kept asking me ques- tions. My dad and brother came up here. Mr. Miles' daughter kept crying. And the whole time I only wanted you. I didn't understand why you weren't here. I had a moment of panic when no one would tell me what was going on. I thought that maybe they were trying to protect me. That you had been in the accident with me and you didn't make it. Then I find out that I've lost three years of my life. I find out I'm engaged and it's not to you. That's when I thought it was all a joke. When Dad told me earlier that you were on your way I was so happy. You weren't dead, you were alive! I would finally get my answers.” He laid his head back against the pillows and sighed. “And now here you are and all I want to do is get out of this bed hold you in my arms.”

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Dear God. She didn’t realize how strong her pull to him was. A lot of tears and heartache might have broken her down, but looking at him now brought about how much she loved him and it made her realize how she never fully stopped.

“As much as I hope this is one messed up dream,” Sam continued, “I can tell by the look on your face it’s not. Three years have really passed?” Lil nod- ded. “You look older. Not bad,” he clari- fied quickly. “You look good. Your hair is longer.”

“Yeah,” Lil said softly. They were quiet for a mo- ment. Lil was letting all that Sam had said sink in. She thought back to that day he last remembered. She had everything she wanted. Then she didn't. In the last three years she had worked really hard to gain back her life.

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“How?” he asked in a whis-

per. “How did we go from being what I remember – happy and in love – to,” he waved his arms around the space that kept them apart, “this? To you standing what feels like a world away? Lil, we promised one another forever.” The tears ran down Lil’s face. She knew eventually, if Sam didn’t regain his memories, she’d have to answer this question. But for now, the only response she could give was the lamest excuse she could muster. “I’m sorry,” she said between sobs. “I’m so sorry, Sam.”

29

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 5

Lil was two seconds from bolting from the room. She couldn't take the look on Sam's face a minute longer. He was heartbroken. His world had just been turned upside down. Lil knew the feeling. She knew all too well what it felt like to have your world come crashing down around you. Before she could make a run for it, Dr. Walker stepped in. “How's it going in here?”

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“I

need to be going.” “Sam, have you had a chance to talk to Lil?” he asked, ignoring Lil altogether.

Sam didn't speak. He stared at Lil from across the room like he was still waiting for her to tell him what had happened to them. “I think it's a good idea for the two of you to talk. Sam, I know this isn’t easy for you.” “Lil has told me enough.” Sam said, his voice void of any emotion. “I see,” Dr. Walker said in a disbelieving tone. “And you’re okay with all that she’s told you, Sam? You com- pletely understand that the two of you are no longer together? That you no longer live in the same house? Did she tell you the events that led up to that point?”

“Um

Lil

stammered.

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“Stop it!” Lil yelled. “Please, just stop!” She couldn’t stand to listen to the doctor talk like she wasn’t in the room. It was her who should open up the past to Sam. Yes, it was a past they once shared, but if Sam wanted to know what happened, it was going to take time. Sam regarded Lil as her body was racked with sobs. She almost felt na- ked the way he was giving her the once over. His eyes took in her face, her body language, everything about her as she stood helpless five feet away from his bedside.

“No,” he finally said. “She hasn’t told me anything.” “Because it’s not easy for me, Sam!” Lil exclaimed, her voice rising. “And you think losing three years of my life – apparently three very important years – is easy for me?” he yelled back. “You think it’s a walk in the park for me

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to hear that you don't love me? That you don't want to be with me? Pardon the hell out of me, Delilah, for wanting to know what happened.” “Don’t you dare,” Lil said in an eerily calm voice. Damn him for using her given name. No one, but Sam had ever called her that. She pointed her fin- ger at him and moved with the stealth of a predatory cat toward him. “Don’t you even.”

“What?” he asked. “Don’t ask questions? I have a right to know.” “I know that, Sam. You have every right to know, but please, for me,” she pleaded with him. “Please don’t ask me this now. I have to live through it twice and it was hard enough the first time. I need some time to prepare for a trip down memory lane.”

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“Well,” he said, his voice re- turning to normal. “At least you have your memories. Me? I have a big void.” The selfish part of Lil wanted to tell Sam that he needed to hold on to those memories he had of her. They were happy memories. They were what she tried desperately to cling to when he walked out. He didn’t want the memories of what pushed them apart. He didn’t want the memories of sleepless nights alone, crying until her body could no longer fight to stay awake. Dr. Walker cleared his throat. Lil had forgotten the man was still in the room. “Sam and Lil, I know that this is tough for the both of you but the more function Sam’s brain has at remembering the past, the better the chance that he will regain those memories.” Dr. Walker gave Lil a sym- pathetic look as he excused himself from

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the room. When he walked past, he lightly patted her back and whispered in her ear. “Take it slow.” The door clicked shut and she looked at Sam to see if he was going to speak first or if it was all up to her. His head was down and it looked as if he was counting the thread count of the sheets on the bed. “Listen, Sam. I'm really sorry about everything. I wish there was something I could to do to help but there's not.” Sam opened his mouth to speak but Lil kept talking. “There is nothing I can say that will bring back your memories. There's nothing I can do to make you well. The best I can do is leave you right now. Just like this. If this is all you remember of me, then it's bound to be better than how you remembered me last.” The tears fell freely down Lil's face the more she spoke.

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“I know I can't compare my pain to the kind of confusion you're going through right now. It's selfish of me but this is the first time we've been in the same room together, much less spoken to one another, in three years. I’m a shell of the person you think you know. Broken, Sam. That’s what I am, that’s how I’ve been for a while. I can’t help you get better.”

Lil started to back away from Sam and to the door. “I'm going to go and I wish you the best. I do. You'll bounce back from this, Sam. You may not believe that now, but you will. Who knows?" she said with a tiny shrug. "Maybe this talk and seeing me have already helped. Maybe you’ll wake up in the morning and remember all that you’ve lost.” Lil stopped with her back against the door. She looked at Sam through the wet- ness of her tears clouding her vision.

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“Take care, Sam.”

With those parting words, she turned her back on Sam, afraid to give him one last glance but knowing that the pained and confused look on his face would haunt her dreams later that night. She had to leave and get out of there. She was telling him the truth. There was nothing she could do for him. When she opened the door, she didn't pay attention to the chorus of voices that called her name. All three Travers men were calling after her but all Lil could hear was the sound of her sobs echoing off the white sterile walls.

33

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 6

Sam called out to Lil, his voice hoarse as he strained to get her to hear him. It was no use. Once Lil had her mind set to something there was no getting her to see reason. How had life come to this? A world where they weren't together? It didn't seem possible. They were so in love. Since that first day in college when they had both arrived at the dorms with their par- ents, they were inseparable. They had been through the deaths of family

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members; both of her parents and his mom. She was family in every sense of the word. Where his mind was at the present moment, he was planning to ask her to marry him. He didn’t have an exact date set on when he wanted to pop the big question, only that he knew he couldn’t go through life without Lil beside him. Sam had to wonder what could have happened for them to lose that. To not speak or even be in the same room to- gether in the past three years Dashing into the room, his dad asked, “What happened, son?” His brother was right behind him, his gaze penetrating Sam. Sam rubbed his eyes. It would have helped if the action could erase the last fifteen minutes. Maybe then he and Lil could start over.

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“I don't know, Dad. Lil’s upset be-

cause I asked what happened between us.

I yelled, she yelled.” He sighed and

shrugged his shoulders. “She ran out of here saying she can’t help me.” Sam leaned back against the flat pillows the hospital had provided. He couldn't get comfortable. It seemed that nowhere was going to be comfortable in this new life.

“Dad,” Sam began. “What happened with Lil and me? Did I cheat on her?”

“No, you didn't cheat.” While Paul was eager to answer his question, Sam could hear the reservation in his voice.

done

something pretty bad. Just tell me. I need

to know. I have to make things right.”

“Sam,” Paul took a deep breath. “It's not my place. I'm sorry. It

“I

had

to

have

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really needs to be something you and Lil discuss.”

“But she won't even look at me!” Sam shouted. “How can I get her to talk to me if she can't even be in the same room with me?” Sam watched his father’s re- action to his outburst. The man looked like he was battling something. The tight lines around his mouth, his eyes drawn in together. Something was on his mind, something he was afraid to tell Sam. “Listen, the doctor was just telling us he's going to send you home in a couple of days. He wants to monitor you a little more. Keep a close watch on you now that Lil has been by. He thinks maybe seeing her will prompt the memories to return.” “And if they don't?” Sam looked to his father for guidance. It was apparent that from the look in his eyes that he had none to give.

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“We'll figure that out.” “I just want to go home. Go back to before I hit my head.” Joshua snorted. It was the first sound he had made since entering the room. “What?” Sam asked. “What was that for?” “Nothing.” Joshua said as he turned his back on his brother. More pieces of the puzzle kept falling to the floor. First, his dad and the information he was keeping from him, and now his brother who had this less than cavalier attitude toward him. “A couple of days and we'll take you home,” Paul said to his son. “I promise you. We'll set your room back up just like it used to be.” “You don't understand, Dad. I don't want to go to your home. I want to go to my home.”

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“Well, that ought to make Chloe happy. You've got that big fancy condo downtown.” “Downtown? Since when did they put in condos downtown? Wouldn't the historical society have a fit about that?”

“Dad,” Joshua cut in. “He doesn't know. He doesn't know that he's turned his back on The Village. That he's a preppy do good'er living the high life.” Joshua laughed while shaking his head. The reaction from his brother only fueled the anger welling up inside Sam. “You're right! I don't know! I don't know anything. Why are you being such an asshole? What have I done to you?” Sam demanded. “Nothing. That's what you've done to me. Nothing. It's all you've done to any of us.”

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“Stop it, both of you!” Paul shouted. “Josh, lay off your brother. He has enough going on that he doesn’t need you telling him how he’s changed.” Sam watched as his brother stormed out of the room.

Sam looked at his dad, his voice dropping to that of a whisper. “What have I become? My girlfriend can't look at me. My own brother can't be in the same room with me. Dad, have I hurt everybody?”

After several beats of silence Paul finally said, “You've changed Sam. Let's just leave it at that.” Sam could tell he wasn't go- ing to get anything else from his dad so he decided to drop the subject, for now. “So the doctor says in a couple of days I can leave. Where am I going to go? Does Lil even still own the cottage?”

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Paul took a seat on the edge of the twin hospital bed. “The last I heard, yeah, she still owns it. As for where you're going to go, you have op- tions. You can go to your condo or you can come home with me. You'll always have a home there.” Sam closed his eyes and prayed for sleep to take him. He wanted to wake up from this horrible nightmare. Preferably the part where he lived in a high-rise downtown and he was engaged to his boss' daughter. ~~~~ Lil could barely see through the tears in her eyes as she drove away from the hospital. She tried to regain some sort of composure because there was no way she could go to work with a tear-stained face. Pulling off to the side of the road, just be- fore the welcome sign to The Village

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greeted her, she took a few moments to dry her eyes and calm down. Seeing Sam had done a real number on her. He truly believed that they were together. That nothing had ever happened to tear them apart. It was all too much. She felt like the air was be- ing sucked out of the hospital room. She was losing focus. Her breathing became labored. She had to leave. It was a chick- en move, but had she not acted fast, she would have ended up alongside him in a bed of her own. Panic attacks were something she had learned to work through. There was no working through a panic attack of that magnitude. Lil picked up her cell phone and dialed the office. She had to catch El- lie before she left for lunch. When the fa- miliar sound of her best friend’s voice filtered through the channels, Lil breathed a sigh of relief.

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“Hey.” Lil was afraid to say

too much more knowing that her voice still sounded gravelly.

did it go?

Tell me he's bald? Oh!” Lil could picture Ellie clapping her hands and stomping her feet from excitement. “He's bald isn't he? I knew it! The boys never get their daddy's hair and his daddy,” Ellie moaned into the phone, “is one hot piece of–”

Lil cut her off before she ven- tured into how hot Paul Travers was. “El- lie, I need you to cancel my appointments for today.”

“What happened? Lil Harper, you tell me right now what's going on.” “I can't. Not yet anyway. Listen, just call and reschedule my ap- pointments. I have something I need to take care of. I won't be in for the rest of

“Hey you. So

how

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the day. I'm sorry. I gotta go. Just do this for me and I'll talk to you soon.” Lil ended the call before Ellie could say another word. She loved her best friend dearly, but she knew Ellie well enough to know that she would have beat the information out of her with a steel bat, then taken her to the bar at noon to get her wasted. The offer sounded tempt- ing, but Lil had someone else she needed to talk to first. Someone who she had confided everything in. Someone she hadn't had to speak to in over a year. Lil dialed the number she still had programmed on her speed dial and waited. When the receptionist answered the call, Lil said the familiar words she thought she'd never have to say again. “This is Lil Harper. Please tell Dr. Kingston that I'm on my way. We need to have an emergency session.” ~~~~

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Lil sat in the office of Dr. Evelyn King- ston, her therapist who helped her through the break up with Sam. It wasn’t just the break up that left Lil needing guidance; it was what had led up to the separation. Dr. Kingston had helped Lil see that she wasn’t responsible for what happened. After blaming herself for a year, Lil finally understood that it wasn’t entirely her fault. Sam held just as much responsibility as she did. Nothing had changed in Dr. Kingston’s office. The walls were still a chocolate brown. The pictures that hung were of her famed Weimaraner. Oddly, the worn leather of the couch felt com- forting to Lil. She had thought after her last session when she had deemed herself no longer in need of Dr. Kingston's help that she'd never see this place again. The door to Dr. Kingston's private office opened. Lil had never liked

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looking at the people who came and went. Therapy was a private matter and she tried to respect every person. When she heard the front door softly close, Lil looked up. Dr. King- ston stood with a smirk on her face and her arms crossed over her chest. “Well, well, well. Let me guess. You saw him?” Dr. Kingston was never anything but matter-of-fact. “Come on in, Lil.

“You look good,” Dr. King- ston said as Lil passed through the office doors. “My receptionist is still intact. Either you've been doing your breathing or you're on the edge of the cliff.” Lil smiled. “Both.” Dr. King- ston closed the door to her office and ges- tured for Lil to have a seat. The long chaise lounge was a nicer addition than some stuffy old couch that was neither comfortable nor comforting.

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Dr. Kingston took her usual perch on her Queen Anne chair. She was a stunning woman for someone who was well into her sixties. Her short, pixie cut gray hair gave her the appearance that she was in her early fifties instead. Her immaculate complexion glowed under the soft lighting that she always used in her office. She was shapely in that she re- minded Lil of her grandmother and how she liked to curl into her side. She tried picturing that with Dr. Kingston. “So let me guess,” Dr. King- ston began. “This session is in order be- cause Sam's lost his memory?” Lil stared at the doctor. “How did you know?” “I shouldn't tell you this, but the hospital called. They wanted me to take him on as a patient.” Lil's face clouded with confusion. “With amnesia patients,” Dr. Kingston explained, “as

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part of their therapy they are required to see someone. Naturally because there isn’t an influx of therapists in the area, I was one of the ones they called. Of course, I told them it would be a conflict of interest. So,” she smiled at Lil, “I've been patiently waiting for your call.” Lil sat quietly on the lounge. She should have considered this possibil- ity. Of course Sam would need to see someone.

“What happened?” Lil took a deep breath and spilled everything that Chloe had said over the phone. “And how did that make you

feel?”

“Honestly? I felt sucker- punched. How could he, after all this time, need my help?” Lil laughed al- though there was nothing funny. “How

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ironic that when I needed him he wasn't there.”

“But you went?” With a dejected sigh Lil said, “Yeah, I went.” “Why?” “Because,” Lil’s voice was soft and unsure. She looked at Dr. Kingston and tried to reign in her tears. “It’s Sam. How could I not go?” “Without knowing anything that was wrong with him? That’s putting someone else, someone who you spent a lot of time in that very chair trying to get over, first. I’m proud of you. I can ima- gine it wasn’t easy.” Lil shook her head no. It hadn’t been easy but she didn’t want to portray the role of the martyr. It might have pained her to face him but she wasn’t the kind of person who kicked a man when he was down.

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“What happened after you got to the hospital?” “His dad and brother were standing together in the hall. When they saw me standing there they both ran to give me hugs. Paul thanked me for com- ing. He said he knew it wasn’t an easy thing for me to do.” “That's good news. Two people who cared for you, and I'm willing to bet, still do.” Lil nodded. “Yeah, it was good to see Paul and Joshua. Good and bad. It's been so long and they had changed so much. And their faces.” Lil re- called the worried looks from both men. “They were so stressed.” “Naturally. A loved one was in the next room, clearly confused out of his mind. Did they tell you his diagnosis?”

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“No, the doctor came out and explained it all to me. Then he encour- aged me to go see Sam. I did.” Lil locked eyes with Dr. Kingston. For several mo- ments they stared at one another. “And how did seeing Sam make you feel?” “Conflicted?” Lil said the word like she was looking for the right answer. “His eyes lit up when he saw me like they used to do. He even told me he wanted to run and wrap his arms around

me. I couldn’t do a thing except fall apart.

I wanted to run to him, I wanted to

scream at him. Instead, I avoided his questions and we argued. I don’t think I helped at all.” “No,” Dr. Kingston said after

a few seconds of silence. “I imagine you didn’t help.”

“How can I?” Lil stood from the chair and began to pace the room.

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“It's been three years. How can I help him? And why me? I haven't been a part of his life for so long. He's moved on. He's about to be married. She should be the one helping him but she wasn’t even there!”

“Sam is confused. I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second. Put yourself in his shoes,” Dr. Kingston said. “What if you woke up and thought the two of you were still together when you weren't? How do you think you'd feel? And if he shut you out? How would that make you feel?” When Dr. Kingston put it like that, Lil had to rethink her whole not helping strategy. “He thinks we just bought the house. He doesn't know…” “You don't have to say it. I as- sumed that if he did you would have been more hysterical than you are.” Dr. King- ston was quiet while she thought over

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how to say what she was thinking. “I'm going to be honest with you. I think it would be good, not just for Sam, but for you as well to consider helping him. You need the closure you never got the first time. This is like a second chance at re- demption for you. Maybe to finally get past these pent up feelings that are still buried deep within your soul, you need to forgive Sam once and for all.” Lil couldn't believe what Dr. Kingston had said. She knew her mouth was partially open and her eyes had to be three times their normal size. There was no way she was serious. Lil knew she needed closure but could she really mean spending time with him? Hanging out, doing the things they used to do? “Listen to me,” Dr. Kingston began, clearly seeing the look on Lil’s face. “Sam doesn't know what happened between the two of you, but he will find

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out. This is monumental news for him. One day he's buying a house with you, the next day he wakes up and he's engaged to another woman. He's going to want to know what happened. He deserves to know what happened. It's best he hear from you than someone else.” Dr. King- ston had moved from her seat and was now standing in front of Lil. She took the girl’s hands in her own. The act was so motherly it almost made Lil tear up. “I know you think that you can run away from this, but you can’t. You've told me how it felt when he left, but you never told Sam. This is your chance to finally get out those words.” Lil closed her eyes and when she reopened them, Dr. Kingston had a solemn look on her face. She truly be- lieved that helping Sam could help her.

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“I'm not asking you to go out and make a decision today but think about it. I only want what's best for you.” Lil nodded and withdrew her hands from Dr. Kingston's grasp. A single teardrop had fallen and instead of wiping it away, Lil let it fall. Dr. Kingston gave her a kind smile and stepped away, moving toward her desk. “I want to keep regular appoint- ments with you until I see fit. Make sure Charlotte sets up the next one at your earliest convenience.” Lil couldn't speak. Instead, she bowed her head slightly to let the doctor know that she had heard her. She had a lot to think about. Helping Sam for Sam. Or helping Sam for Lil.

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CHAPTER 7

Sam sat in his car looking at the cottage he once called home. An unfamiliar car was in the driveway but Sam had no in- tentions of getting out and knocking on the door, even though it killed him not to know who was inside with her. He was driving aimlessly with no destination in mind when he ended up at Lil’s.

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So why after twenty minutes was he still sitting in his car like a stalker? For all he knew, Lil had a boyfriend. It would explain why she was so hesitant to be around him. Why she hadn’t jumped for joy at the chance to help him with his memories. As the minutes wore on, Sam was torn between his conflicting emo- tions: sadness and anger. He had no claim on Lil yet he couldn’t help but feel like he did.

A soft tap on Sam’s passenger window had him jumping out of his seat, his head nearly touching the roof. In- stinctively, his hand flew to where his head hit as he looked over to a man, not much older than himself, with his palms drawn up. Sam pushed the button that rolled down the window. “Didn’t mean to scare you,” the man said.

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With his heart beating a mile a minute, Sam lied to him. “Oh, you didn’t.”

“Car trouble?” the stranger

asked.

“No,” Sam answered truth- fully. “I used to live here.” “Oh really?” The guy’s eyes widened. “How long ago?” “Three years,” Sam said. “Three years you said?” Sam nod- ded. “Huh, must have been before Lil moved in then.” “Actually,” Sam said with a hint of smugness, “I lived here with Lil.” The guy’s mouth broke out into a wide grin. Sam merely stared at all six feet of him. He had blond hair that hung down to his shoulders. He was broad and wide like he used to play football. Sam’s total opposite. “Sam, right?” he asked to which Sam nodded. “Zach.” He held out his

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hand through the window. With reluct- ance, Sam took his hand with a firm grip. “How about you get out of the car? We can go inside.” “Oh no,” Sam said, shaking his head. “I can’t go in. I’m sure Lil’s busy.”

“I insist,” Zach said. “Besides, her best friend is in there too and I’m sure she’d love to see you.” “Ellie Mae?” Sam questioned. Zach laughed. “She hates to be called that.” Sam smiled his first genuine smile at the man he was trying really hard to hate “I know.” “Just give me a second? I came outside to get something out of the truck when I saw you.” Sam stepped out of his car and stood by, looking more closely at the place he once called home. The house

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appeared to be well cared for and Sam briefly wondered if Zach was the reason for that. When Zach rejoined him, he held up a DVD case for Sam to see. Sam shook his head. “She always loved her Night Court,” Sam said with a sigh. “Used to make me stay up and watch reruns with her in college.” “It’s one of the reasons I love Lil.” Sam cringed at the L word. His gut clenched and he wanted to run as far away as he could. There was no way this night could go well for any of them. Sam wasn’t keen on pretending to like Lil’s new boyfriend. He should walk away now while he still had a sliver of his dignity left.

It was bad enough losing three years of his life. It was something else altogether to know that your one and

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only true love was now in love with someone else. “Ellie can’t stand it,” Zach said. For whatever reason, even if it was for him to see the look on Lil’s face when he walked in with her new boyfriend, Sam followed Zach up the front steps to the door. He didn’t knock. Of course he didn’t. He probably had a key and a drawer in Lil’s dresser. His own coffee cup. A space in the walk in-closet. Everything Sam used to have. Sam didn’t notice anything about the interior of the cottage. Besides the back of Zach’s head, the only thing Sam saw was red. That was until a familiar voice broke up the violent thoughts that were going through his mind. “Well, I’ll be damned! If it isn’t Sam I Am!” The hint of a smile played on Sam’s face. He moved his eyes from the

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back of Zach’s head and found Ellie com- ing out of the kitchen with a bottle of wine in her hands. “Ellie Mae,” Sam said. Ellie rolled her eyes and walked across the living room. Sam scooped her up in his arms, and hugged her lightly, but the return hug from Ellie was much stronger. The simple act only reinforced the fact that Sam hadn’t seen Ellie a week or so prior, but that this was probably the first time they had seen each other since him and Lil split. Ellie pulled back and smiled at Sam, looking over every inch of his face. “Can’t believe it’s been ages since I last saw you,” she said. “Well,” Sam said with a small laugh. “For me it’s been more like a couple of weeks.”

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Ellie laughed. “I guess so. You know, you don’t look like a guy who has lost his mind.” “I feel like it,” Sam admitted. Ellie’s eyes were sorrowful as she said, “sucks, dude.” “You have no idea.” Ellie stepped away from Sam and a fraction closer to Zach, which Sam thought was kind of weird. Then again, for all he knew, Zach and Ellie were thick as thieves. Kind of like the two of them used to be. “Ellie, did you find that bottle of wine?” Lil’s voice rang out. The tone of her voice was so different than how it was when she had come to visit him in the hospital. She had been re- served, quiet, and even angry. Now, it was soft and light. Just like he re- membered last hearing before his acci- dent. He had to admit it hurt, the changes

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in her tone. To know how she once spoke to him versus how she had a few days ago. He wanted that carefree tenor speak- ing to him again and come hell or high water, he’d find out what made it change. “Sam,” she said, her voice sounding startled. “What are you doing here?” As far as lame excuses went, Sam used the only one he could think of. “I was passing through. I had no inten- tions of stopping by,” he clarified. Color rose in his cheeks as he delivered a pitiful lie. If Lil knew it, she hid her reaction well. “Yeah,” Zach cut in. “I walked outside to grab the DVD, which by the way, I must have left at home, when I saw Sam sitting in his car.” Sam looked at Zach with a puzzled frown. Forgot the DVD? Sam had seen him get it out of the truck. Sam

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wasn’t sure what Zach was up to, and he was about to ask, when Zach winked at him. Winked! If Sam was confused about Zach’s motives, Lil looked disappointed. “You left it?” she asked. “But that was the whole reason for coming over tonight.” Zach shrugged. “Sorry, Lil, I must have left it on the kitchen table.” “Are you sure?” Ellie asked. “I could have sworn I saw you put it in the truck.”

“Wait,” Sam said, holding up his hands. “I’m confused. You came over to watch Night Court with Lil, but you picked up Ellie on the way over?” “Well, duh,” Ellie said with a chuckle. “Why wouldn’t he pick me up?” “Oh, I don’t know.” Sam threw his hands up in the air. “Maybe be- cause it’s kind of weird for Lil’s boyfriend to pick up her best friend. Why not just

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drive yourself, Ellie? Not to sound like an ass, but you’re kind of a mood killer. I should know – no offense, Zach.” Zach laughed. “None taken.” “Hold up,” Ellie said, looking back and forth between Sam and Zach. “Zach, did you tell Sam that you were Lil’s boyfriend?” Like a man caught with his tail between his legs, Zach looked away from Ellie. “No.” “No?” Sam asked with his voice rising. “You confessed your love for her outside.” Sam pointed to the picture window that was in the living room. “You what?” Lil shrieked. “Now, just wait a minute,” Zach said in a calm tone. He looked at El- lie first. “I never confessed my love for Lil outside.” He turned his focus on Lil. “I swear. What I said was that what I love

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about you is that we share a mutual ad- miration for Night Court.” “Oh, that’s bullshit,” Sam all but screamed. “This is fantastic,” Ellie laughed. “I can’t believe you, Zach.” She punched him on the shoulder but Sam could see that it was all in good fun. He was missing something. “I can’t either,” Lil said. “That’s just mean.” “Can someone fill me in on what’s going on? Because to be honest, it’s starting to get a little weird in here.” Sam said, his eyes darting from Zach, to Ellie, before landing on Lil. “Oh, Sam I Am,” Ellie said with mock sincerity. “I’m afraid that my boyfriend was giving you a hard time.” It took a minute for Ellie’s words to sink in for Sam but when they did he felt

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like a complete idiot. A good for nothing jealous idiot. “Your boyfriend?” he asked to which Ellie smiled and nodded. “I just assumed…”

“And you know what that word says,” Ellie chuckled.

Sam

pointed from Zach to Lil. With an exasperated sigh, Lil said, “No Sam, we’re not. And even if we were, how could you be upset?” “Lil,” Zach’s tone was plead- ing. “Cut the guy some slack. I under- stand how he feels. I’d feel the same way if the tables were reversed and I thought I was meeting Ellie’s boyfriend.” Zach turned to face Sam. “Sorry, by the way. I should have introduced myself as Ellie’s boyfriend.” At a loss for words, Sam remained quiet. He wasn’t sure what to say. He had

“So you two aren’t

?”

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these crazy mixed up feelings about being in his house, only it wasn’t his house. Meeting Lil’s boyfriend only to find out it was Ellie’s boyfriend. He had driven out of his way hoping for the chance to see her, talk to her, hell he’d even settle for arguing with her again as long as she was near him.

“Ellie,” Zach said, reaching past Sam for their coats. “Let’s go home.” “What?” Lil questioned. “We just opened a bottle of wine.” “So? Drink it with Sam. He drove all the way out here. The two of you can play catch up.” “I didn’t drive all the way out here,” Sam said trying to defend himself. “I told you I was in the area.” “Riiiight,” Ellie said with a smirk. “In the area.” She leaned into him once Zach slipped her coat on and kissed him on the cheek. “You were always a

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terrible liar, Sam I Am,” she whispered in his ear.

“It was great to meet you,” Zach said, his hand outstretched. Sam shook Zach’s hand for a second time that evening. “Yeah, you too.” “Lil, I’ll call you tomorrow,” Ellie said on her way out the door. “You two don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” As the door shut behind them, Sam heard Zach say, “That doesn’t leave much.” Sam had to grin. He could actually admit that he liked the guy, espe- cially now that he knew he wasn’t sleep- ing with Lil.

In the awkward silence that followed, Sam realized he still had his coat on. Would it be too forward of him to take it off? Would Lil think he was ex- pecting to stay?

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“we

shouldn’t let this bottle go to waste. You want a glass?” Sighing with relief, Sam nod- ded. “That would be great.” Lil walked to the kitchen, presumably to fill a glass for Sam while he took off his bulky coat. He hung it neatly on the rack by the door and took it upon himself to look around the cottage.

It looked the same, but differ- ent. Lil had painted the walls. It had more of an updated feel from when they bought it. New light fixtures, polished wood floors, even a mantle hung over the wood-burning fireplace. As the fire died down Sam took it upon himself to stoke the flames a bit. Without turning around, he could sense Lil behind him.

“Well,”

she

said,

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“Hope you don’t mind,” he said. “The fire looked a little low and its pretty cold out.” “No, not at all.” She stood be- hind him as more heat filled the small room. Whether the heat Sam felt was from the fire or being so near to Lil, he wasn’t sure.

When he finished, he took the wineglass from Lil’s extended hand and mock saluted her. “To…” He was at a loss as to what to toast to. Thankfully, Lil filled in the blanks for him. “To old friends helping one

another.”

49

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 8

Lil wanted to laugh at the bemused ex- pression on Sam’s face. It had taken a lot of soul searching to determine that she needed to help him. It was a help him, help herself scenario. In the end, maybe both of them would be better for it. He’d have his memories and she’d have the closure she had never gotten. “Sam, close your mouth be- fore you catch flies.” Lil laughed softly. “I’m not a horrible person.”

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“So you want to help me?” Sam asked hesitantly. “I need to apologize for how I acted at the hospital. I was being insens- itive. I know this isn’t easy for you. In the moment I was only thinking of myself, having lingering doubts about you being in my life again.” “In your life again?” Sam said softly which made Lil wonder if he intended to ask the question aloud. “It’s so weird. As far as I know, you’ve never been out of my life.” “I know,” Lil said. “That’s why I’m try- ing to be a little more understanding of the situation. We can start small. Maybe talking once or twice a week.” “Once or twice a week?” Lil could hear the broken notes in Sam’s voice, but what more could she offer? She hated seeing him so vulnerable. This wasn’t the man she had known since she was eighteen.

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The man she knew then was confident, if not cocky at times. He never sounded un- sure. He always had a plan for everything. “Well, I don’t want to cause problems with you and your…” Lil held back the groan in protest at saying Chloe’s name. Helping Sam wasn’t going to be as easy as she tried to tell herself if she wanted to throw something every time she thought of the two of them marrying. “Fiancée,” she finished. “Oh, her.” Sam’s tone held no emo- tion. To be expected, when he had no re- collection of the woman he asked to spend forever with. “She won’t be a problem.” “If you say so.” Lil took a sip of wine so she could hide the smile that threatened to spread across her face. So, she was slightly giddy on the inside that Chloe wouldn’t be around. She didn’t

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have to tell Sam that. And it wasn’t like Lil had any ulterior motives to move in on her man. But it did make the situation a little easier. “She left town.” Lil nearly spit the wine out of her mouth. She coughed as it went down the wrong pipe.

“You okay?” Sam asked, pat- ting her back. Nodding Lil said, “Fine. Just drank it a little too fast.” She set the wineglass on the coffee table be- fore she took a seat on the couch, offering Sam the recliner. His recliner, although he wouldn’t remember purchasing it. “Where is she?” Sam had set his glass next to hers on the table. Instead of taking a seat in the chair, he opted to sit next to Lil. A breath away it seemed, as he threw his arm over the back of the couch. Lil tried to keep

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her expression guarded but oh how she wanted to cuddle into his chest. “I’d really rather not talk about it. If that’s all right?” Lil could give Sam his space regarding Chloe. If he wasn’t ready to talk about her then she wouldn’t push. Lord knew she had secrets of her own that she wasn’t ready to bring to the surface. “Okay,” she softly said. His kind- hearted smile made her insides flutter. He was so close yet so far away. She wanted to be closer, she could sense he did too, but falling back into a routine with Sam wasn’t a smart move. No mat- ter how often she thought about her and Sam reuniting, it had never been under these kinds of circumstances. And Lil couldn’t picture them starting over, even though she’d never loved anyone but him, like this. If she were going to rekindle anything with Sam, there would have to

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be honesty up front. And as it was, both of them were keeping things from one an- other. Lil had to focus on helping him re- member, not helping herself to a side of Sam. Shaking off the tingle that zipped through her body at having Sam close again, Lil excused herself and took both wineglasses to the kitchen for a refill. When she returned to the living room, Sam had laid his head on the back of the couch, his legs outstretched and his eyes closed. Lil allowed herself a moment to really look at him. He looked exhausted. She had to wonder if he had gotten any sleep since waking up. “You going to stare at me all night?” he asked with his eyes still closed. She smiled, knowing he couldn’t see her. “You look tired.” “You have no idea.” He opened his eyes and sat up. She

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handed him his glass. Returning to her perch on the couch, she folded her legs underneath her and took a sip. “Start from the beginning. Tell me how you ended up here tonight.” ~~~~ Sam couldn’t believe his luck at Lil’s change of heart in regards to helping him. Well, he could believe it. Lil didn’t have a mean bone in her body. After their fight at the hospital on Monday, he was sure she’d ever want anything to do with him. He had to find out why she was so mad at him. Maybe not tonight, but soon. Soon she would have to fill in all the holes of how their relationship ended. For now, Sam was content on just talking to Lil. He wasn’t pleased with her idea of one or two times a week. He had a therapist for that. What he needed was a friend. His old lover.

He needed Lil.

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And it was obvious from her body language, the way she rested her head against the couch and faced him with her legs drawn underneath her that she wanted to invite him closer. She was afraid. The blank look on her face told him as much. Lil was scared of him or of something about him and before long he would figure out what it was. Instead of dwelling on what it could be, Sam dove straight into his story. “I was released on Wednesday,” Sam began. “My dad signed me out. He offered to take me back to his house but I wanted to go to the condo. If I’m going to get better I need to see things I’m sup- posed to be familiar with, ya know? “Lil,” Sam said, his voice full of sad- ness. “I hate the place. It’s so cold and sterile. There’s no color. It’s not…” “Home?” Lil asked.

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Sam looked at her and smiled. “It’s not home. It’s not here,” he motioned around the room. “This is home to me. This is what I know, even though I don’t remember picking out these colors for the walls.” His head swiveled around, taking in everything he missed when he arrived. His eyes drifted over the fireplace and then back again. There hung the white washed mantle they had both talked about when they had first seen the house. “The mantle,” Sam gestured. “We hung it?” Lil nodded her head up and down. “I don’t remember that. We prob- ably had pictures lined up on it, too.” Sam stood from the couch and walked over to the mantle. Instead of pictures of him and Lil that he had envisioned, there were pictures of Lil and Ellie at the beach. Lil, Ellie, and Zach sitting around a bar table. The only photo Sam had seen be- fore was a candid shot of Lil with her

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parents before the accident. He knew this picture because he had taken it their first day of college. “Sam,” Lil started as she moved to stand from the couch. Sam turned around and held out a hand to stop her. “I’m not asking for anything. I’m just being honest. I promise I didn’t plan on stopping by. My car,” he hesitated. Did he tell her he was hoping he’d see her to- night? Did he mention how lost he felt without her? “I just got in my car and drove. My therapist thought driving around town might help. I don’t know. It was like I was on autopilot. I’m sorry if I interrupted your evening or made you feel obligated to invite me in.” Both said nothing and Sam wondered what could be running through Lil’s mind. She wouldn’t look at him. Rather, she looked at the floor, the empty

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wineglass in her hand, the burning em- bers in the fireplace. Sam walked over to her, itch- ing to brush the stray piece of hair that had fallen wayward behind her ear. Any excuse to touch her. She cocked her head to the side and looked at him. He took her hand in his and led her back to the couch. “Sit,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” “As if sitting in the living room with you isn’t uncomfortable enough?” she questioned. Sam shrugged and sat back down on the couch once Lil had resumed her seat. “I guess you’re right.” “Well,” Lil said after what felt like hours of quiet when Sam was certain not even a minute could have passed them by. “You hate your condo that much

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we’ve established. What else? What about work? Have you seen Kane and Abe?” He rubbed his eyes with the pads of his palms. “My life really sucks, you know that? I’ve lost my girlfriend, I hate my job. Let me back up.” He picked his head up from the couch and met Lil’s eyes. “The me I know, hates his job. The me that is this suit-wearing, condo-living, corporate asshole loves his job. “And then there are my friends, our friends, who actually don’t seem to be my friends at all. Are they yours? ‘Cause I have to be honest with you, knowing that we’ve both done something to piss them off and not want anything to do with either of us would make me feel a whole lot better right now.”

“I haven’t talked to Kane or Abe since you and I broke up. As far as I know, I haven’t done anything to upset

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them.” Lil shook her head back and forth. “I don’t know what happened between the three of you. Last I heard you were all still testing games together.” “Not anymore. At least, I’m not game testing. I’ve been moved up the lad- der. I work in this big, fancy office with a view of downtown. Kane and Abe still work in the basement, a cubicle separat- ing them from the other testers.” “I take it you’ve seen them?” Sam took a deep breath and let it out. “Yeah. I went by work yesterday. The doctor thinks that if I reacquaint myself with things I’m supposed to know that the memories will return sooner. Hence the condo. So I went to work and headed to the basement like I would have nor- mally done.” Sam laughed and scratched the back of his head. Talking about this only made him angrier. He was so frus- trated that he couldn’t remember

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anything and he was angry with everyone

around him who thought he didn’t de- serve to know the truth. “Didn’t go well?” Lil asked. “That’s an understatement. They both gave me this pitiful glare and that was it. I tried to talk to them but they told me that I didn’t hang with the testers in the basement. That I wined and dined with the big wigs in corporate.” “I’m sorry, Sam. I didn’t know.” “You really haven’t talked to them?” Lil shook her head no. “Why?” “Sam, Kane and Abe took your side after the breakup and Ellie took mine. I don’t have any hard feelings,” Lil added quickly. “I mean, I totally under- stood. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt

I guess you needed them. I don’t

but

know. We never really talked…” “Lil,” Sam said, leaning forward and reaching for her hand.

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“It’s fine, really.” She gave him a half smile and pulled her hand free from his. He hated that feeling of rejection. He was simply trying to comfort her. He knew losing Kane and Abe must have been hard on her. They were the four musketeers in college. Wherever Sam and Lil went, Kane and Abe followed. At least he could justify that she still had a best friend in Ellie. He on the other hand had no one. Sam yawned. He tried to turn his head so Lil wouldn’t see the exhaustion setting in. He should have known better. Lil didn’t miss anything. “When was the last time you had a good night’s rest?” He wasn’t sure how she was going to take his answer but he wasn’t going to lie to her. “Well, let’s see,” he started. “I wake up almost a week ago with no recol- lection of the last three years. My

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girlfriend isn’t my girlfriend anymore, and I’m engaged to be married to a wo- man I don’t know. I hate my job, I hate my house, and my friends won’t talk to me. No one will tell me what has happened that made me the person I am today.” He sucked in a sharp breath before he ad- ded, “I have my health so I shouldn’t complain too much. I mean, the accident could have been a lot worse. But it wasn’t so I can’t help but hate where my life is right now.” He looked over at Lil and frowned. “To answer your question, no I’m not sleeping and the last good night’s rest I remember having is the night we moved in here.” Another bout of silence hung in the room. Sam thought that maybe he had dumped too much on her too soon. Did he expect her to jump on his pity party bandwagon? Was he looking for her

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to soothe away his stress? It had been a mistake coming here, he realized. He should have never stopped in front of the house. He should have driven to his dad's and stayed there. He should have never bothered Lil with his mountain of problems. When the silence became too much for Sam to take, he stood from the couch and looked down at Lil who looked up at him with guarded eyes. “I should go. Thanks for the wine and the company.” As he walked to the door to grab his jacket, Lil stopped him. She lightly touched his arm. “Stay,” she whispered. Sam wanted to pull her in his arms and hug her, kiss her, take her to their bedroom and make love to her, but he couldn’t do any of those things. “Are you sure?” he asked.

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“Yeah, you look like hell.” “Jeez. Thanks.” That earned him a tiny laugh. “I’ll go grab you a blanket and a pillow.” Lil left Sam alone in the living room. He walked back over to the couch and sat down to untie his shoelaces. When she returned, she had her grand- mother’s afghan and a fluffy pillow in her hands.

“Sorry it’s not much,” she said handing them over to him. “We can talk in the morning. We’ll figure it all out.” He had to trust her. He had no reason not to. Besides, he was beginning to see that the only person who could help him was Lil. Whatever deep, dark secrets she harbored would surface even- tually. In the meantime, Sam would take whatever he could get. Even if that meant sleeping on her couch until they had a game plan. At least he was with her.

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“Hey Lil,” he called out as she headed back to the bedroom. She stopped and turned her head just slightly without twisting her whole body around. “Thank you.”

She nodded. “Goodnight, Sam.” “Night.”

57

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 9

Lil laid awake in bed most of the night trying to make sense of the fact that her amnesiac ex-boyfriend was asleep on her couch. The dark circles under his eyes gave away that he wasn’t sleeping. And if Lil were being honest, Sam was too pretty for dark circles. It tore her heart in two at how he described her house as home. She had to remind herself that in his mind, this was still home. He didn’t know his condo downtown. He didn’t know

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whatever kind of bed he had. He knew Lil’s bed, which happened to be the same bed they had shared in her apartment be- fore they bought the cottage. He knew the couch, which was why she offered it to him the night before. It had been the same couch he had slept many a night on, whether it was because a night of drinking with friends left him unable to make it to the bedroom or be- cause he and Lil had been fighting and she kicked him to sofa city. He wouldn’t recognize it was the same couch because she had changed the look of it with a simple crème slipcover. Dark green was great for college but it didn’t exactly scream grown up or shabby chic. Her thoughts drifted to how he had ended up at her house. His not-so-subtle way of saying he was in the area when she could see the truth written all over his face. And then his confirmation of how

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his car just led him to her when it was just the two of them. They always had a way with one another. Kane and Abe would pretend it made them sick to see them both so happy and in love. Stolen kisses, secret looks from across the room, jokes between the two of them that would cause fits of laughter that no one else understood. But the man that arrived last night wasn’t him. That wasn’t the guy who would show up at her dorm with chocol- ate and salty chips without having to ask. He wasn’t the man who would surprise her with a picnic on the waterfront. And he wasn’t the man who stood by her side when her parents died or the man who wouldn’t let her out of his sight when he had lost his mother. That was a kind, compassionate man. A man who made her soup when she was sick. A man who laughed and cried with her. The man that

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he was now, well, she couldn’t be certain who that man was, only that he wasn’t her Sam. A part of Lil thought that maybe real- izing up front that he wasn’t what she re- membered would help her reign in her feelings. But then there was a nagging part, the part that was hard for her to imagine him being anywhere else. The selfish part was telling her to help him so that man, the man she loved, would return. For her. Sam had been right. It wasn’t fair to him to be kept in the dark on how he had become the person he was today. She couldn’t lend any information to help him understand. All she could do was fill in him on the what and why’s of their failed relationship. When the time came to re- live that tale, Lil knew it would weaken the armor she wore around her heart.

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Living it once had been hard enough. Go- ing through it all over again could damn near kill her. As she lay in bed, she wondered how long she could avoid Sam. The smell of coffee ended any and all conflict she was having with herself. On autopilot, she slipped on a pair of pajama pants and fol- lowed the delicious aroma into the kitchen. The best part of waking up was… Not coffee in your cup, Lil thought as she watched Sam pour coffee into one of her mugs. This morning, the best part of waking up was the half-naked man in her kitchen. Who knew a back could be so sexy? She could see the muscles flex with every small move he made. Even from where she stood, when he lifted the coffeepot from its base, his forearms bulged, his shoulders tensed and released.

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Sam turned around like he could sense her behind him staring at all his glorious flesh. He brought the cup to his lips and smiled. “Morning sleepy head.” Lil couldn’t move. Did Sam have an eight pack when they were together? No. She would have remembered that. She would have run her tongue over each divot. She would have traced over his abs and pecs with her fingers. She would not have forgotten how hard, and hot, his stomach alone was. “Lil?” Sam said, bringing her out of her lusty daydreams. Afraid she had drool running out of her mouth, Lil licked her lips. When Sam smirked, Lil realized her mistake. It looked like she was saliv- ating over him and his hot body. She was, but she and Sam were on a need-to-know basis and he didn’t need to know what she thought about doing to his body so early in the morning

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“Morning,” she said. “Sleep well?” Lil held in her breath as she walked past Sam to the coffee maker, pouring herself a cup, wishing that it were something stronger. She took a sip, not trusting herself to turn around and look at him while making conversation.

There was no denying she could feel him in the room. He gave off a heat that could send the house up in flames. Or maybe that was her. “I did,” Sam whispered in her ear. His was so close. Lil swallowed past the lump in her throat. “That’s good.” She turned around, keeping her eyes up. He was a good foot taller than her. If she looked straight ahead she would have been met with mouthwatering pecs that practically de- manded to be licked.

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“You look better,” she told him. To his puzzled look she replied, “Last night you had bags under your eyes. You have more color this morning.” “Ah,” Sam said nodding. “The power of sleeping on the couch.” He chuckled. “I’m convinced that’s the same couch you had in the apartment. Did you cover it up with one of those couch cover things?” “I did. The green didn’t exactly go with my décor.” Lil headed to the living room, with Sam right behind her. As long as she didn’t look at him below the neck she was fine. As long as he didn’t sit next to her, she’d be okay. He plopped down on the couch; right at the same moment she bent to take her seat. So much for keeping distance. She was strong. She could keep her eyes aver- ted from his luscious body. Or she could just ask him to put on a shirt but would

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that make her seem like she was having problems being around him half-naked? She didn’t want him to know the affect he had on her. That was like showing your hand too early in poker. Lil had a great poker face. She could manage this. “You know what I noticed?” Sam mused. He had kicked his feet up on the table that sat in front of them like it was any other day and they were your most normal couple sitting down for coffee talk. He didn't wait for her reply before he continued. “You don't have a Christ- mas tree.” “Nope.” Lil said, stressing the let- ters of the single word. “Why?” Lil swallowed her caffeine and said, “because I haven't had the chance to ask Zach to get it out of the attic for me.” “Lil, real trees can’t be put in the attic.” Lil remained quiet, sipping her

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coffee as she waited for him to grasp the meaning of her statement. “Unless…” He trailed off and she looked over to gauge his reaction to the bombshell of her owning an artificial tree. When he caught on, she smiled a posit- ively fake smile at him. “Please, no,” he said, his eyes wide. “Tell me that you don't have a fake tree that has color coded limbs that you have to put together.” She nodded and her smiled turned genuine. “But, the limbs aren't color coded. It's in three parts. Oh! It's even pre-lit.” Her voice rose with excitement. Sam groaned. “That's wrong on so many levels. When did you start doing that? We always, always, had a real tree. Half the fun was going and picking it out. It was our tradition,” he said sadly.

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Lil remembered all too well them going each year since their freshman year in college and selecting a tree. She also remembered her disastrous final attempt to keep some semblance of tradition alive after he had left. “Do you remember that puny, pi- tiful tree we had in the dorm?” he asked. Lil couldn’t fight the smile on her face. “Yeah, and Linus was not puny or pitiful. He was just the right size for the room.”

Sam laughed. “It was God awful. It barely had limbs that held up the ornaments.” “Yeah, well.” Lil said, feigning hurt. “I thought it was precious.” “You know what we should do?” he asked, cocking his head to the side to look at her. She felt like she was under a microscope the way his eyes traveled over her face.

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“Find out what happened with Kane and Abe?” she asked innocently. “No, we should…wait. What?” Diversion attempt successful. “I was thinking last night,” she began. “That maybe I could talk to Kane and Abe. Find out what went down between you three.” “Lil,” Sam said, shaking his head. “I can’t ask you to get in the middle of that. Like you said, if you didn’t do any- thing to jeopardize the relationship, then I don’t want to get you caught up in some drama.” He gave her a pointed, serious stare.

Lil couldn’t help but snicker. Sam was right. Drama seemed to follow them everywhere they went. Then again, Lil could remember it was usually their fault. It wasn’t until graduation that Kane finally admitted his true feelings for Abe. Since that moment they were happy

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as clams. If they argued it was because they were polar opposites in every sense of the word, yet it worked for them. Kane was the anchor that kept Abe tied down. Abe was the fun and excitement Kane needed in his life. “Sam,” Lil said. “I pretty much shut them out of my life. Believe me, it wasn’t for lack of trying on their part. They tried to keep in contact. They called to check up on me after I lost…” Lil had to catch herself. She swal- lowed down the impending words that she knew would surface in the days or weeks to come. Sam arched an eye at her, clearly catching on to her hesitation. She shook the bad memory from her mind and recovered her explanation. “When I lost you.” “Oh,” Sam whispered. “Don’t think of it as me getting in the middle. Think of it as me trying to

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bridge a gap in friendship. For you and for me. Besides, I do miss them. They were a huge part of our lives and I let them go.” “Is that why you decided not to stay friends with them? Because of me?” What could Lil say? How could

she tell Sam that what he said was the truth? That she had, in her own way, set them free because they were too much of

a reminder of him and everything the four of them had been through.

“You needed them.” Lil shrugged

as if it hadn’t hurt to lose them. “I had El-

lie.” It was a sliver of the truth. And be- sides, Ellie had been great. She wasn’t an original member of their pack in college. None of them had even met Ellie until after college when she was working her way through college at Rusty’s, the bar they frequented just about every weekend.

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“Okay,” Sam conceded. “You talk to them and we’ll make plans to get you a

real tree.” He smiled like he had just won

a long forgotten battle. Damn. And here she thought the subject had been dropped. Lil sighed. “I don’t know.” “You want to help me by talking to

Kane and Abe, right?” Lil nodded. “Well,

I want to help me by doing something

that seems normal. Going and picking out

a tree seems normal. And before you try

and reason your way out of it, it only seems right to go with you.” He gave her those sad puppy dog eyes she never said no to. “Please?” Lil closed her eyes, hoping the moment of darkness would bring some sort of resolve to her mind. All it brought on were bad thoughts of the last time she had gone tree shopping. The one and only time she had gone without Sam. Instead

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of coming home with a tree, she'd come home with Toby Grayson. He wasn’t Sam. He was far from it. He was scruffy and slightly dangerous. He was a diversion. An escape from the hell she was going through. He was a shoulder to cry on. He was a one-night stand she regretted ever since.

She had to buck up and do this for him. She told him she’d help and now he was asking. Besides, what were the chances Toby would even be there? Slim to none, she figured. She opened her eyes and nodded at him. “All right, we’ll go.” Sam beamed at her. His smile made the corners of his eyes crinkle. “Great! Is Wednesday good for you?” Lil laughed. “Been thinking hard on this, huh?” Sam blushed. It was cute and en- dearing and really, really sweet. “I just

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thought that it wasn’t too soon for us to see each other again, yet it wasn’t next weekend either.” “Wednesday is good, Sam. I was only teasing. Do you want my cell num- ber in case something comes up?” “Already have it,” he said. Lil straightened. Could that mean he had saved her number after all this time?

Sam leaned back and pulled his phone out of his front pocket. “Good thing technology hasn’t changed much in the last three years. At least I know how to work an iPhone.” Lil let out a nervous laugh. Her mind was still reeling from the fact that he had her number. “I called the number I have in my phone for you. Your phone is sitting on the bar so I heard it vibrating when I called. So when you see a missed call

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from a number you don’t recognize it’s me.”

Lil’s heart soared. He had kept her number? After all this time, he still had her programmed into his phone? Lil had so many questions, none of which he could answer. Yet. “Oh,” Sam said, holding his phone. Lil could hear the vibrating sounds of the device he held in his hands. “It’s Chloe,” he said. “You should take that. I’m sure she’s worried.” Lil stood from the couch, stepping past Sam to give him some privacy. “I’ll give you some time,” she said. “You want me to take your coffee cup?” “Lil,” Sam said, lightly touching her wrist as she reached for his mug. His expression was sad, his eyes pleading with her.

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“Sam, take the call. I’ll be in the kitchen.” Lil tried not to listen to what Sam was saying. It wasn’t that hard consider- ing he did a lot of humming and giving one-word answers. ~~~~ Lil walked back to the living room where Sam stood by the door, gathering his coat.

“She’s not coming home?” Lil asked him. Sam wouldn’t meet her eyes. He shrugged. “Sam?” Lil’s voice was firm “Can I just say that for someone who loves you so much she sure has some nerve to leave you to deal with this on your own.” Her words wavered with an icy chill. “Is it wrong that I don’t care?” he asked, meeting her eyes.

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“Lil, I don’t know her. She can’t help. All she can do is get in the way.” “Did you tell her to leave?” He shook his head no. “I didn’t tell her anything. She told me she was leaving. I just said, okay.” Lil’s body slumped. “Sam,” she practically whined. “How do you expect to marry her in what, almost two weeks, if she isn’t here to see you get better?” “I only have the memories in my head to work with, Lil. She isn’t in them. If I don’t remember I’m not going to marry her. If I do, well, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.” Lil wanted to throw something at him. This is what she feared. Him not re- membering and him remembering. If he didn’t remember did he think that they would rekindle their relationship? Would he expect that? And if he did remember, would he hurt her all over again?

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Lil was at a fork in the road and she wasn’t sure which was going to be the easiest path. It seemed whatever direc- tion she went, someone was going to get hurt. The odds were stacked against her. “I’m going to take off,” Sam said. “I think a good night’s rest has helped me clear my head.” “What are you going to do?” Lil asked. She shouldn’t wonder, she shouldn’t care, but she couldn’t help but feel the way she did. She wanted to make sure he was going to be okay. That he wasn’t going to drive around town moping.

“I’m going to head to the condo and shower. Maybe try and make sense of things around there. Then I might go and visit my dad.” Family was good. Paul would be able to handle this ten times better than Lil could.

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“Okay,” she said. “Drive safe. The roads look nasty.” “I’ll call you,” he said, leaning into her only to pull back. He was going to kiss her and all Lil would have done would have been to stand there and let him. Dodging that awkward bullet, Lil nodded. She saw that he made it to his car in one piece and drive away with no problems. The cold air drifted into her house so she shut the door before she caught a cold. The blanket and the pillow she had lent him were neatly folded on the recliner. She’d put those away later, she told herself. Her cell was where she had left it the night before. On the kitchen bar just like Sam had said. And true to his word, she had one missed call. The num- ber would be familiar to her, she knew this. As she looked at her missed calls,

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there at the top of the list was a name she thought she’d never see again. Even after all this time, she hadn’t been able to com- pletely delete him out of her life.

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CHAPTER 10

After Sam left Lil’s house she decided to go into work and wrap up a few last minute projects she had been working on. With Christmas nearly a week away, people were depending on her to have their pictures ready for the holidays. Nothing screamed Merry Christmas quite like a family picture. Several of Lil’s cli- ents had called for extra prints as gifts for

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those relatives that decided to come to town at the last minute, or those they had left off of their shopping lists. It was quiet in the office without Ellie around. Lil was able to be more pro- ductive without her pecking away on her keyboard or gossiping about people they once knew. Lil typically avoided answering phone calls when she wasn’t working un- der normal business hours. So when her cell phone rang she considered ignoring the call without even looking to see who it was. But then she thought of Sam and how he had her number and what it would be like to see his picture flash across her screen. Lil picked up the phone and her gut clenched. She felt stupid for getting her hopes up that it was Sam. Instead, the photo of Ellie and Lil at the beach stared at her. She knew why Ellie was

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calling and it was useless to postpone the call. She had to face the inquisition soon- er, rather than later. “Hello, dear friend,” she said in greeting. “My, you sound positively chipper today!” Lil could only picture the smile Ellie had on her face. “If you call waking up and being alive reasons to be chipper, then consider me downright giddy.” Ellie laughed. “Oh, someone has something to tell. Let me guess, Sam stayed the night and the two of you re- kindled that old spark and shot flames in- to the night sky?” Now it was Lil’s turn to laugh. “You’re right on one account.” Ellie gasped loudly in Lil’s ear. “Oh my gosh! You slept with him?” “Good God, Ellie. No!”

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“He stayed the night? Why? If you didn’t get it on like Donkey Kong, what was the point?” Lil rolled her eyes. Leave it to her best friend to be crass. “Because it was obvious he hadn’t been sleeping.” “Yeah, I could see bags under his eyes last night. Poor guy looked like hell. But on that same note, he’s still hot as sin.”

Lil didn’t need reminding. “You should have seen him this morning,” she muttered. “What was that?” Damn. Lil should have kept her mouth shut and those thoughts in her head where they needed to stay. “You had wild monkey sex with him this morning? You go girl! The two of you always had undeniable chemistry.”

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“Ellie, remind me again why I kept you over Kane and Abe?” “Because I have better fashion sense than Kane and I’m not as big of a bitch as Abe? Spill the details. What happened this morning? That sounds like the juicy part. We’ll get to last night in a minute.” Lil sighed. Images of Sam shirt- less in her kitchen still danced in her head.

“He was walking around half na- ked in my kitchen, helping himself to coffee.”

“Oh my! Is he still ripped?” “You have no idea.” “Shut up! Are you serious? Man. I hate that I missed that show.” How wrong was it of Lil to hope for a repeat performance? No. She would not go there. No more slumber parties with the ex-boyfriend.

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“Did you talk to him? Don’t leave me in the dark. I’m dying, do you under- stand me? Zach had to tie me to the bed last night so I wouldn’t come spy on you.” Lil relayed the conversation with Sam, the phone call with Chloe, and how they were going to shop for a Christmas tree on Wednesday night. “You sure you’re ready to go back there? Did you tell him about Toby?” “Are you kidding me? Of course I didn’t tell him. How does that conversa- tion even begin? ‘So, um, Sam listen, I’m not really sure it’s the best idea that we go to Grayson’s. See, I sorta slept with Toby not long after you up and left me, and I really don’t want to run into him again. Oh, you remember Toby. Mr. Grayson’s creepy great nephew? The one who walked around with his mud flap hat on? The same one that we were sure owned

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more flannel than Abe?’ Yeah, Ellie, not a topic I wanted to broach right then.” “But if you see him there don’t you think it’ll be weird and that Sam will catch on? The guy had a sixth sense when it came to other guys checking you out.” Lil remembered. Sam wasn’t the kind of person who started trouble if a guy looked at Lil like he wanted to test drive her, but he could sure pick up on them the instant their eyes roamed over her body. Toby Grayson was no exception. “I’m doing what he’s asked of me. I told him I’d help and that’s what I’m go- ing to do.” Lil’s first plan of action in helping Sam was going to take place tomorrow. She knew where she could find Kane and Abe on a Sunday, a week before Christmas.

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“Besides, I have my own idea on how to help him.” “Lil,” Ellie said in a dead serious tone. “Opening up your bedroom door will not only help him; it’ll help you too.” “Get off me and Sam having a sex for one second.” Lil shook her head. “Listen, I have a mission tomorrow.” “Oh!” Ellie’s excitement spread through the phone. Lil herself was actu- ally excited about tracking down the boys. “What is it? Can I help? Is it a mis- sion that involves super tight black pants and shirts? I can really rock some black, Lil.”

“No,” Lil said laughing. “It’s a one woman job. Sorry. Besides, it’s something I need to do for me, just as much as I need to do it for Sam.” “Uh-huh,” Ellie said. “I’m telling you, you’re going to get laid.” ~~~~

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Lil found herself at The Shoppes of the Village early Sunday morning, Fair Haven’s attempt at a shopping mall without being too commercial. It was snowing outside and there was something old fashioned about walk- ing down the cobblestone streets from boutique to boutique with the rest of the holiday revelers. The Shoppe’s were encased in a U shaped center. In the middle of it all was a giant twenty-foot Christmas tree decor- ated to the nines with ornaments and lights. Bows hung from the branches and a beautiful five-pointed star adorned the top.

The first place anyone passed as they entered the U, as the locals called the shopping village, was the coffee shop. Like everyone else out and about doing last minute Christmas shopping, Lil stopped in for a pick me up. She spent the

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next hour browsing the stores and buying last minute gifts. Lil loved the holiday season be- cause of the gift giving. It was the only time a year she enjoyed buying for others rather than herself. If Kane and Abe were creatures of habit, Lil knew she’d find them amongst the shoppers. They always spent the last full weekend before Christmas in the U. Kane, being the responsible man he was, usually had his shopping done by Thanksgiving. Abe ordered things online because he hated the crowds. But it never failed; this weekend was the time when they would brave the crowds for a nice shirt for Abe to wear to Kane’s family’s holiday gathering. Flannel wasn’t something a man of taste sported to a Ryker family get together. Besides, Kane always bribed Abe with lunch at The Sushi Sioux.

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Lil strolled down the path into the next store. Nick’s Knacks was new in the U so she decided to see what kinds of knacks Nick was selling. She browsed antique tea sets and costume jewelry. Nothing unique caught her eye until she spotted a lone rabbit’s foot in a velvet box under the glass counter. She fingered the glass, thinking she knew someone who might appreciate the irony behind this good luck charm. She signaled for one of the salesmen to help her. When he brought the dusty white foot out of the case, she knew she had to get this for Sam. It was perfect for all the wrong reasons. Maybe it would serve as a reminder of her time helping him when his memories resurfaced. With her purchase tucked away in a brown paper bag, Lil was out of the store and on her way to finding Kane and Abe.

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She passed a men’s upscale boutique and scanned the people inside through the window display. There inside was one of the men she had come looking for.

An older gentleman held the door for her as she walked through. With a nod of her head and a thank you from her lips, she walked into the store, and through neatly folded tables of scarves and ties. In the back, fingering through crisply starched shirts, was her old friend Kane. Stealthily, Lil walked behind him, a smile on her face. “Fancy meeting you here,” she

said.

In slow motion, Kane turned around, his eyes as round as the moon. His hand went to cover his gaping mouth. Lil’s smiled widened. “Are you real?” he asked in barely a whisper.

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“Every bit of me,” she replied. In the blink of eye, he had her in his arms, crushing her to his chest. He stood almost as tall as Sam did, so that his chin rested on the top of her head. He pulled back and looked at her, his mouth slowly forming a smile. “You look fantastic,” he said. Lil shrugged one shoulder and ac- ted as if those words didn’t mean more than they should. “Eh, like a fine wine I only get better with time.” Again, Kane pulled her to him, his body vibrating with laughter. “My God, Lil. I’ve missed you. So damn much.” “Me too, Kane,” she said into his

chest.

When they pulled apart, it looked like tears were forming in his eyes. She felt awful. She should have never pushed two of her best friends away from her. She should have accepted any kind of

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condolences and offerings they had for her.

Seeing Kane look so torn up about seeing her, Lil couldn’t help but feel her own eyes water. Her lips quivered when she said, “I’m so sorry.” “Don’t,” he said in a firm voice. “I don’t want to hear it and neither does Abe. Speaking of…” Kane craned his neck, moving it from side to side and over the crowds of people in the store. “Well, well, well,” a familiar voice said from behind Kane. “What do we have here?” Lil looked around Kane, the start of a smile on her face. “Abe,” she said in a breathless whisper. “You’re damn right, sister. Now, get your sweet ass over here and give me a hug. It’s been too damn long.” Lil obliged and wrapped her arms around his neck. “It’s so good to see you.”

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“You too.” He pulled back, grabbing her wrists and holding on to her hands. “Now, are you here to spring me from this joint? He promised me sushi two hours ago and he’s yet to deliver.” “Jesus Christ, Abe.” Kane

groaned. “Yes, it's his birthday we'll be cel- ebrating, dear. And you know damn good and well you’re just going to buy whatever shirt you like so you might as well pick it out so we can go have lunch with our girl.” “Oh no,” Lil said. “I don’t want to impose.” Abe waved off Lil’s comment. “The blue one looked nice, Kane. Get that one and meet us outside.” Abe looped his arm through Lil’s and escorted her out of the store. A park bench not far from where they stood was

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vacant. He led her over there to wait for Kane to pay for his purchase. They sat, their bodies turned in, facing one another. “I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “Please,” Abe said. “Don’t be. You did nothing wrong. Kane and I have talked about this until we were blue in the face. We should have been more de- manding with you. We should have made you talk to us.” Lil shrugged. “I would have just pushed you harder.” Abe’s smile was sad. “I know. We don’t hold you responsible. You had to spread your wings.” His arms fluttered out to his sides, which made Lil giggle. “You needed space. Unfortunately, we gave you too much. All of us,” he said, his head leaned in slightly so he could touch her forehead with his own.

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“Ready,” Kane said. He lifted up his bags and smiled. “Successful day. Let’s go eat!” “Are you sure I’m not imposing? I know this is your thing.” Kane and Abe stood side by side. They shared a knowing glance and looked back at Lil with matching grins. “Why, Lil. Were you looking for us?” Kane asked, flanking her on one side while Abe took the other. Lil gasped. Her tone held inno- cence while her eyes were mischievous. “I would never!” “Uh-huh,” Abe said. “Just you wait till we sit down. We have some juicy gossip to share with you.” And just like that, it was like three years of absence never existed. They walked to Sushi Sioux arm in arm like the times hadn’t changed. If only they hadn’t, Lil thought.

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71

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 11

They were sat at a small table in the corner of the restaurant. Women dressed in kimonos flitted about, taking orders and delivering food and drinks. Kane and Abe sat next to each other on one side, while Lil sat alone on the other. “I’m starved,” Abe said. “Did you get the blue shirt?” He asked Kane in a sweet manner, batting his eyelashes at him.

“I shouldn’t have. I should have gotten the seersucker shirt.”

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Abe grimaced. “I told you I hated that shirt.” “I know.” With a dramatic sigh that had Lil giggling to herself, Kane said. “But alas, I got the blue one. It’ll look amazing against your complexion.” They shared a quick kiss, and then turned their attention to Lil who was grinning ear to ear. She missed them ter- ribly and she didn’t realize how much un- til this very moment. “So, tell us,” Kane said, folding his hands together under his chin. “What has been going on in the life of Lil Harp- er? We have a lot of lost time to catch up on.”

“Where to start,” Lil mused. “Nothing other than work, work, and more work.” “Don’t tell me you’ve become one of those business owners,” Abe sneered. “The ones who don’t let anyone else do

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the work. That’s why you own your own business, Lil. So others make money for you.”

“Abe,” Lil said and laughed. “I’m a photographer. It’s not like I can hire a team of people to take pictures under my name. People want Lily Rose,” she said with a flourish of her hand. “That’s me.” “And how goes it? Staying busy?” Kane asked. Lil nodded. “The holidays are al- ways busy. And so is the summer. Wed- dings, engagements, babies.” The waitress came over to take their order. Lil was certain Abe ordered one of everything just to spite Kane. When he asked for a carafe of Sake, Kane shook his head and huffed. “It’s not even noon.” “But it’s happy hour somewhere.”

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Kane rolled his eyes and focused back to Lil. “Are you happy with your work?”

“I’ve always been happy with it. I make my hours, set my own appoint- ments. I can come and go as I please. What’s not to love?” “Is Ellie still working for you?” Kane asked. Abe groaned. “Skankalicious Ellie Mae? That girl took in more men from the bar than she did tips.” Lil laughed at the love/hate rela- tionship it seemed Abe still harbored for Ellie.

“She does still work for me. She’s actually been seeing this guy named Zach. He’s great,” Lil gushed. “Perfect for her. They’ve been together for almost two years now.”

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Kane and Abe both raised their manscaped eye brows. “That’s practically old and gray in Ellie years,” Kane replied. “She’s changed, guys. Once she met Zach she settled down. He grounds her. You’d get a kick out of seeing her now.”

“And what about you?” Abe mused. The waitress had brought over his mid-morning cocktail to which he sipped like it was a fine wine. “You have a special man in your life?” Lil shook her head. “No time. I’m happy just being me.” Before they could ask any other questions about her nonex- istent love life, Lil changed the subject. “What about you guys? Still gaming away at Titan?” Lil knew from Sam they still were but she needed to keep the friendly conversation going before she blind sighted them by bringing up their ex- friend.

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“We are,” Kane said. “And we’re working on some stuff on the side.” Abe leaned across the table to whisper. “Super-secret gamer stuff.” Lil chuckled. “And do you still love it?” she asked. They both nodded. “Good. That’s all that matters, right? That you’re happy?” “In the scheme of things,” Kane

said.

“Oh!” Abe exclaimed. “Speaking of work, you’ll never guess what’s happened.” Kane laid his hand on top of Abe’s, halting him from speaking further. “Abe, I think Miss Lil here might already know what happened.” He arched an eye daring her to refute his statement. “That’s why you were out looking for us today, wasn’t it?” Lil didn’t want to lie to them. Too many years had passed. Besides, Sam

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wasn’t the only reason she had decided to find them. With a heavy sigh she said, “I know about Sam.” “What?” Abe shrieked. “I figured as much. Did he send you here?” Kane, ever the pessimist. “No,” Lil said sternly. “I came of my own free will.” “How did you get roped into this mess?” Kane asked. “Did he really lose his mind?” “First off,” Lil began, “He didn’t lose his mind. Only the last three years. Second, Chloe called after he woke up.” “Why?” They asked in unison. “Because when he woke up, I was what he remembered.” Kane’s face grew red. “Re- membered what exactly? That he walked away from you when you needed him

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most? That he turned into the biggest jackass this side of the Mississippi River? That he lost everyone who meant any- thing to him?” Thankfully, the waitress chose that moment to walk up with their food. After several minutes of letting the food fill the awkward tension that had grown around them, Lil took a sip of water, ready to face the barrage of questions Kane and Abe had. “He doesn’t know what happened to us. The last thing he remembers is buying the house.” “Oh, Lil,” Abe said sadly. “How can you face him? Knowing what came in those final weeks? How can you look him in the eye and not want to gouge it?” Lil had to laugh at Abe’s dramat- ics. “What else can I do?” She asked them. “He doesn’t know who he’s be- come. He doesn’t remember the woman

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he’s asked to be his wife. He doesn’t know why we broke up. I’m trying to help him.” Kane scoffed. “You’re a better wo- man than I am, Lil. I’d have told him to go straight to hell.” “Didn’t you, though? When he saw you at Titan last week didn’t you both brush him off? Guys, he doesn’t know how he lost his two best friends. Hell, I don’t even know what happened.” “You want to know what happened, Lil? You really want to know why we’re not friends with him anymore.” Lil met Kane’s fierce stare. She leaned slightly forward and nodded. “Yeah, Kane. I do.” Kane sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. He studied Lil, his eyes drilling holes into her own. There was one thing Kane Ryker was good at, and that was never wavering from eye

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contact. He could make a calm person nervous under his glare. “Fine,” he finally said. “I’ll tell you what happened but you have to tell me why you’re helping him. Why, after he up and left you, are you the one who is help- ing him find his lost memories? Because you know what’s going to happen, don’t you? When he remembers, he’s going to run off again. Only this time, there is an- other woman waiting in the wings. A wo- man who wears a ring on her finger that he put there. He promised you the moon and the stars, yet he left you at the first sign of trouble. He left when it got too hard, when he couldn’t take it anymore.” Lil swallowed past the lump in her throat. She would not cry, she told herself. She would not let Kane’s words cut through her heart. Yet, as a single tear fell down her face, she knew she had lost that battle.

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“Damn it, Kane! You’ve made her cry!” Abe came around to Lil’s side of the table and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her into his side. He patted the top of her head like she was a sick child and he was the consoling parent.

“Say you’re sorry,” Abe demanded. Kane closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He opened them again and looked Lil straight into her own watery gaze.

“I’m not going to say that because you know I’m right. You know what could happen. So why?” His voice had gone soft. He cared. Lil knew that. It was why he was offering her a little bit of tough love.

Lil sat up and wiped her face with the cloth napkin. She looked across the table at Kane and explained her reasons

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why. “Because,” she shrugged and fought back another round of tears. “He’s Sam. What else was I going to do?” “Walk away like he did? You have every reason to do so.” “Maybe, but I’m trying to be the bigger person here. I’m trying to find closure. I’ve gone through years of ther- apy to help me understand why he left like he did. A part of me is hoping he re- members and can tell me why. It’s selfish, I know, but I need to know. It’s been three years and I don’t have the answers from the one person who can give them to me.”

Kane looked away from Lil and out of the window at the people walking down the street. He kept his arms drawn across his chest but his face wasn’t nearly as angry as it was moments before when he looked back at her.

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“After he left you, he stayed with us for a little bit. We tried talking to him. I swear. He wouldn’t listen. He devoted all of his time to work. He got there be- fore the sun came up and didn’t leave un- til it was well after dark. Mr. Miles–” “Chloe’s dad?” Lil interrupted. Kane nodded. “He’s the CEO of Titan. He noticed Sam was putting in all these hours– working all hours of the day and night – he thought he was trying to prove himself. In reality, Sam was look- ing for a distraction. He didn’t want to come home to us. Who would besides, well, us?” Lil let out a nervous laugh. Abe’s arm was still wrapped around her shoulders and he gave her a light squeeze.

was

spending less and less time with the

“Before

we

knew

it,

Sam

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gamers and more time with the big wigs. Gone were the nights of beer and pizza. “We came to work one morning to find Sam’s cubicle cleaned out. We thought he had been fired but that wasn’t the case.” “It was worse,” Abe added. Kane nodded. “Sam showed up at nine that morning, from upstairs, in a suit and tie. Lil, you know we didn’t wear suit and ties to work. We wore Call of Duty shirts and beat up sneakers. Sam left gaming for a big office with a view.” “Don’t forget the secretary.” Abe leaned in and whispered in Lil’s ear. “He has a secretary named Florence who wears orthopedic shoes.” Lil turned her head and had to laugh at the serious look on Abe’s face. “Anyway, we heard through the grapevine that Mr. Miles was looking to retire in the next ten years and he was

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looking for a replacement. He wanted someone young and experienced with the games to take his company into the fu- ture. None of the suits upstairs had ever worked the games. They only knew the numbers. Sam showed promise because of all his late nights.” “Don’t forget a certain blonde took a liking to Sam,” Abe added. Kane nodded. “Right. Chloe star- ted coming around the office more once Sam had been promoted. He skipped lunch with us for lunch with her. It al- most seemed like an arranged relation- ship. She obviously knows nothing about video games or business, and Sam does. Mr. Miles killed two birds with one stone. Find his daughter a suitable husband and himself a CEO to train.” “Wait,” Lil stopped them. “You mean to tell me that Mr. Miles is

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grooming Sam to take over Titan and Chloe is kind of like an offering?” “Yes and no. I don’t know a lot about their relationship. Once they star- ted dating, he ditched us. We’re low- lifers, even though we are the ones who have kept Titan at the top. Chloe Miles wouldn’t be caught dead hanging around the basement.” “Well, there was that one time I saw her down there when we were in a meeting. This was before you and Sam broke up.” Abe said to Lil. “Let me get this straight then. Sam ditched his best friends for a girl?” Lil couldn’t believe Sam would do that. Kane and Abe had been his friends for years. What ever happened to bros- before-hos? Kane shrugged. “And a promo- tion, I guess. Doesn’t matter. He moved out of our apartment and into a high-rise

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in the building Miles owns. Since then, we don’t talk. He holds meetings, we do what we’re supposed to do, and we go home. There aren’t any late nights pour- ing over secret passageways in games. No more drinks at the bar. There’s no more of the Sam we use to know.” “He’s been replaced by this suit wearing corporate asshole who has a bet- ter selection of Italian leather shoes than Kane.”

Kane’s lip turned up into a sneer. “I hate him more for that than I do for ditching us.”

81

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 12

Sam arrived at his therapist’s office at eight o’clock on the dot, for his eight fif- teen appointment. It was Monday morn- ing and he was starting what he hoped would be a productive week. He had plans with Lil on Wednes- day. That gave him something to look for- ward to. He hoped that after their Christ- mas tree outing he’d have more dates lined up with her. When the receptionist called Sam back, he followed her into a small dark

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office. He had only met Dr. Langdon once before at the hospital before he was re- leased. The man seemed nice enough. Tall and thin with black rimmed glasses and a voice that let Sam know the man was intelligent. “Sam,” Dr. Langdon said, stand- ing from behind his massive oak desk. He offered his hand to Sam. When they re- leased hands, Dr. Langdon indicated for Sam to have a seat in one of the burgundy leather chairs that sat in front of the desk. “How have you been since I last saw you?” he asked, making notes on a yellow legal pad. Sam wondered what he could be making notes about so early on in the ses- sion. All they had done was shake hands and exchange pleasantries. “Good,” Sam answered. “Good how?”

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Sam wasn’t sure how to answer that. Good that he had spent time with his ex-girlfriend? Good that his current fiancée was out of town for God only knew how long? Sam’s hesitance to an- swer the question made Dr. Langdon set his pen aside. He looked at him, no smile on his face, through his glasses. “There are no wrong answers here. Just be honest with me and I’ll be honest with you.” Well, when he put it like that… “I’m not sure how I can answer that.” It was the truth as far as Sam was concerned. “Okay, let me try a different ap- proach. Have you been sleeping? Did you take any of the pills I prescribed for you?” “Nah. I’m not much of a pill- popper.” “Those sleeping pills can aid you in recovery. I’m not telling you to abuse

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them, but if you lay down for the night and you feel like your mind is racing, take one. It’s not going to hurt anything.” “All right, but I don’t need them. In fact, I’ve been sleeping pretty well the last few nights.” “That’s good. Do you know what triggered this? When you were in the hos- pital the staff told me they had a sleeping aid running through your IV.” “The first couple of nights after I was released were pretty rough. Maybe a few hours a night. I took your suggestion last Friday and decided to drive around to familiarize myself with the area.” “And did it help?” Yeah. It helped all right. Sam decided not to answer the question directly. “I drove around the city and ended up in the Village. Before I knew it, I was parked in front of my old house.”

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“The one you shared with Lil Harper?” Sam nodded. “Did you go in?” “I hadn’t planned on it. You told me drive around to familiar places. Well, that’s the place I remember. I didn’t want to disturb her, especially after the way she left the hospital that day. Besides, she had company and I knew I wouldn’t be a welcome addition. “Her best friend's boyfriend, Zach, came out and saw me sitting there. He invited me in and then he and Ellie ditched me there with Lil.” “How did that go?” Sam was really starting to get an- noyed by the short and sweet, to-the- point questions. Not that he expected some in depth analysis on his feelings but it still would have been nice to hear at least a little bit of emotion in Dr. Lang- don’s words.

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“Fine, I suppose. We talked some, not about what happened to us, but about her helping me.” Dr. Langdon had long ago picked up his pen and began writing again. He looked up from his pad, the pen still mov- ing across the page. “She agreed to help you?”

“Yeah. Our old friends, Kane and Abe? I’ve done something to ruin that friendship. Lil offered to talk to them on my behalf.” “So she still has a relationship with them?” “No, that’s the weird thing. She hasn’t spoken to them in years either.” “How does that feel knowing you don’t have a relationship anymore with your two best friends?” Dr. Langdon took off his spectacles and cleared them with a tiny towel he kept on the side of his desk. He placed them back over the bridge of

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his nose, and folded his hands together in front of him. “Just as confusing as not having a relationship with Lil. The four of us were inseparable in college and afterward. Lil and I were there when Kane and Abe fi- nally confessed their love for one another. They were there for us when we bought the house. If I was in the dog house with Lil, I went to them for guidance.” Sam sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “The three of us worked together. We were all hired at Titan at the same time. We had these dreams of designing our own game one day.” Dr. Langdon nodded. “I can ima- gine this must be hard for you, realizing that the people you’ve loved for so long now have nothing to do with you. “Tell me – on the drive to Lil’s – did you remember anything? When you

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were at the house, did something there trigger a memory?” “No, but we did make plans to go buy a Christmas tree on Wednesday.” When Dr. Langdon furrowed his brow, a clear sign of confusion, Sam explained. “It was something we had done together since our freshman year in college. I’m hoping that doing something as familiar as that will help me.” “I see. Well, it sounds to me like you’re making good progress then. I’m assuming seeing the house, being as it’s where you remember living, is what helped you get some rest.” Sam felt uncomfortable. He bit his bottom lip and looked away from Dr. Langdon. “I…uh…spent the night at Lil’s.”

The silence in the room that fol- lowed Sam’s news lingered for several minutes. Finally, Sam looked at Dr.

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Langdon who stared back at him with an unreadable expression. He really hated that this guy showed no emotions. “You spent the night?” Dr. Lang- don asked slowly like he was trying to process the information. “Not spend the night, spend the night.” Sam tried to explain. “I slept on the couch and she slept in her room. There was no funny business.” “I have to ask, what does Ms. Miles say about all of this? Surely your fiancée would be unhappy about you staying over at your ex-girlfriend’s house.”

“Chloe’s out of town,” Sam said. “I guess she’s giving me my space.” “How does that make you feel, her being away and not seeing you through this ordeal?” Sam sighed and threw his head back, his hands rubbing his now tired

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eyes. “I’ve never been that guy who cheated on his girlfriends. But I feel like my brain is split in two. There’s this one side that knows Lil as my girlfriend even though she’s not. I want to spend time with her because she’s what I know and hearing people say I’m going to marry Chloe makes me feel like I’m cheating on her.

“Then there’s the other side that apparently does know Chloe enough to love her and ask her to marry me, but I don’t know her. I feel like I’m betraying her too.”

Sam heard the scrape of Dr. Langdon’s chair against the wood floor. He lifted his head and followed the man as he moved around his desk and took a seat on the edge right in front of Sam. “This is normal, Sam. Amnesia patients aren’t guaranteed results overnight. Your mind is in a tug of war

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between who you were and who you are now. It’s going to take time. Your memor- ies may come back tomorrow; they may come back next week. It could even be six months from now. Stop beating yourself up about this and just be the you that you know. If that means spending time with Lil, then do that. If it means calling Chloe and getting to know her all over again, then do that. You need to do what you think is going to help you get better.” When Dr. Langdon said it that way it made perfect sense to Sam. He had been beating himself up over everything. Between wanting to spend time with Lil and guilty that he didn’t care for a woman he obviously did care about. He needed to slow down and take things one day at a time. One woman at a time. Right now, his mind was telling him that woman was Lil.

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Dr. Langdon had made his way back to his chair behind his desk. “I think that’ll be all for today. I’d like to see you a week from tomorrow, same time.” Sam nodded and stood. He took the reminder card Dr. Langdon had filled out for him and thanked him for the ses- sion. He smiled and said goodbye to the receptionist outside the door and made his way to the elevator. While waiting for the doors to open, Sam turned his cell phone back on and was immediately aler- ted of a new voice mail. His heart poun- ded, hoping it was from Lil, but it was Titan’s office asking him to call them back.

Sam rode down the elevator and waited until he was outside the building, before he called them back.

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“Thank you for calling Titan Gaming, how may I direct your call?” the dispatcher asked. “Mr. Miles please.” “One moment.” Sam waited for the call to be put through to Mr. Miles. He had a nervous feeling that whatever the man had to say couldn’t be good. Did he know he had spent the night with Lil? Yes, technically Sam was engaged to his daughter so he couldn’t imagine him being happy to hear that his ex-girlfriend was helping him through his recovery. “Mr. Miles’ office. Heidi speaking.” “Heidi, this is Sam Travers.” “Oh, Mr. Travers. This is Heidi Nicholson, Mr. Miles’, CEO of Titan Gaming, personal assistant.” Sam rolled his eyes. He figured that much was true. She could have saved

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herself from the spiel. He lost three years of his life, not all of it. “Mr. Miles would like to speak with you this afternoon. Will four o’clock work for you?” “That should be fine,” Sam said. “Do you know what this is about?” “No, I can’t say that I do. I’ll let him know to expect you at four sharp. Have a great day Mr. Travers.” The line disconnected before Sam could offer a proper goodbye. He looked at the time and wondered what he was going to do with his day. It was nine in the morning, so he had a good seven hours before he had to face whatever wrath he was sure he was going to get. ~~~~ Sam spent the next several hours in his condo. He had reacquainted himself with the staff downstairs. Cosmo was someone he sensed looked after him. They talked

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about the accident, Cosmo had told him in detail what had happened that morn- ing, and he was starting to feel better about the place he now called home. He kept his mind from wandering by doing mundane tasks he had neglected since coming home from the hospital. Laundry had piled up so he started sever- al loads and ordered takeout for lunch. It was later in the day, as he was putting away socks and boxers when his hand touched a soft velvet box in the back of his drawer. It was packed tight in the back, so he removed the drawer from the dresser to get a better grip on it. The box was a deep red. It was a long skinny box that made Sam think there was a piece of jewelry inside. The hinges on the box creaked when he opened it, like it hadn’t been pried apart in a longtime. What lay inside made his breath hitch.

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It was a stunning, thin silver bracelet with an infinity symbol in the

middle. He lightly touched the cuff, afraid

if he applied too much pressure it would

tarnish. This was for Lil. He wasn’t sure

how he knew, but he did. For some reas- on, he had kept something he had meant

to give to her, pushed away in the back of his underwear and sock drawer. Sam had planned to buy Lil something for Christmas, he wasn’t sure what. Now he knew. This belonged to her

a longtime ago and it was time he finally gave it to her.

~~~~ Titan Gaming was three blocks from Sam's building. He stepped out into the cold winter air, wrapping his double- breasted wool jacket tighter around his body. Instead of having Cosmo bring his car around, Sam opted to walk the short distance to his office. Considering what

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had led him to the hospital he found it silly that he drove the three blocks to be- gin with. The Miles Tower, where Titan Gaming was located, was one of the tallest buildings downtown. Its high-rise concept structure and gleaming windows were intimidating upon first glance. The lobby was quiet and clean, no sign that video gaming took place anywhere in the office. A receptionist sat at a very modern desk, her legs crossed at the ankles. On the lobby floor there was a coffee shop, the chain joint that was on nearly every corner of downtown but nowhere in sight in the Village. Sam walked to the triple set of el- evator doors and punched the up button. He waited, tapping his foot gently against the shiny floor, until the doors dinged open. When he stepped in, he hit the but- ton for the twenty-third floor, and waited

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in silence as the elevator carried him

nearly to the top floor. When the doors opened, Sam walked slowly out into the lobby, which like the main floor, had a glass desk with a young woman behind it. He had only ever been to this floor once when he had been called in with his team to be con- gratulated on a job well done after the re- lease of a highly anticipated game that was experiencing technical problems due to the real-life nature of the system. His team had been able to work out the kinks and still meet the deadline for the release. As he approached the girl, who appeared to be a little younger than him, she smiled and stood, closing the distance that separated them. “Mr. Travers, it's so nice to see you out and about. Can I get you something to drink while you wait for Mr. Miles?”

“Um

no

thank you.”

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“Alright, he'll be with you in just a few moments. Perhaps you'd like to take

a seat in one of the chairs.” She gestured

to the row of modern metal chairs that looked like they belonged in a space ship.

Again with the monochromatic color scheme. He and Mr. Miles must have used the same decorator. If he had to guess, he would have assumed Chloe was

a person of interest. It wasn't long before Mr. Miles strode out of his office and with long strides, made his way toward Sam. On in- stinct, Sam stood to meet the man who challenged him in height. Both men stood at a little over six feet tall. Where Sam was on the slim and lean side, Mr. Miles had a stocky build. His gray hair combed back over his head, his eyes looked anything but friendly. In fact, Sam thought, they looked like those of snake about to consume its prey.

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“Sam,” Mr. Miles said with what was supposed to be a friendly and wel- coming smile. “It's good to see you. Please, come into my office.” He ushered Sam to a set of double oak doors on the far side of the room. “Heidi, hold my calls until we're done, please.”

When the doors shut behind them, Mr. Miles asked Sam to take a seat. Instead of the uncomfortable chairs that no doubt came from IKEA that were in the waiting area, Mr. Miles’ office was stocked with plush furnishings. Rich col- ors of reds and gold’s adorned the tapestries of the chairs and the curtains. Doing as he was told, Sam took a seat and waited for Mr. Miles to continue. “So tell me, how the recovery is coming along?” he began.

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“I'm not quite sure, sir. I still don't remember anything but I'm work- ing on it.” “Good, good. That's real good. Chloe tells me she'll be in New York for a couple of weeks finishing up a few last- minute details for the wedding.” Sam nodded. “Yes sir.” He didn’t want to say much for fear that his emo- tions regarding his daughter leaving would be written all over his face. “It's important, Sam, that your memory return. For the sake of my daughter and for you.” Mr. Miles gave Sam a pointed stare as the warning words hung in the air. “With that being said, I'm here to help in any way that I can. In fact, I'm going to start with giving you time off, paid of course, so that you can do whatever it is that you need to do to re- cover from this traumatic event.”

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“Thank you,” Sam replied. “I ap- preciate that considering I'm not even sure what my job is.” Sam gave a nervous laugh, hoping to ease the tension from the room. “Exactly.” Mr. Miles said, with no hint of a smile at Sam’s uneasy laughter. “With it being the holiday season and all, I'd hate for something to be screwed up just because I need another man around the office. Your primary job is to focus on getting back your memory. Chloe has been planning this wedding since she was a little girl and it's important to me that she gets what she wants.” Sam really couldn't understand how his life had come to this. Engaged to be married to a woman who thought only of herself. A soon to be father-in-law who was more like a viper than a father figure. Sam needed answers on how he had come to be in this situation.

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“Until I hear from Chloe regard- ing your memory,” Mr. Miles nodded to the door and Sam took that as his cue to leave. Fine by him, he thought. The soon- er he left this office, the better off he’d be. As Sam stood and nodded to Mr. Miles, he turned around and made his way to the doors. “One more thing,” Mr. Miles called out when Sam was an arm’s length from the door. “You break my daughter’s heart and you can kiss your job and your condo goodbye. Do we have an understanding?” Sam didn’t give him the satisfac- tion of a reply. He calmly walked out of the office, leaving the same way he came in. Once outside, he started walking back to his condo but it wasn’t to crash in the place he now realized his boss and soon- to- be father-in-law owned. In fact, Sam didn’t want to step back in the space ever again. No, he headed there for his car. He

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had only one place in mind to go and wind down.

91

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 13

Sam drove until he saw the familiar building. Rusty’s Bar was housed in the fire station that once serviced all of Fair Haven before there was downtown and the village. He pulled into the parking lot that was on the side of the building and sat in his car, looking at the name painted in white script letters on the brick. He stepped out into the frigid af- ternoon, the sun going down just behind the bar and the adjoining shops, turning the sky into evening. There was a chill

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was in the air without the sun there to provide warmth. Sam walked to the building, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. As he stood in front of the door, he looked up at the two-story building. The win- dows, both upstairs and the two on either side of the front door advertised different beers. Neon lights flashed, hypnotizing people who passed by. Sam had spent a lot of time in Rusty’s over the years. From college days to post graduation, it was a place he and his friends ended up after a long day. They had a table in the back that was al- ways saved for them. He opened the door; the sound of the bell above dinged as he entered. He wondered if he still visited Rusty’s. If not, did Rusty still own the place? Had one of his kids taken over?

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The well-worn wood floor looked as if it were from an old saloon. It had nicks in places where bottles had busted. It was lighter in other places where the continuous flow of feet moved. The door shut behind Sam, trig- gering the man behind the counter to ac- knowledge him. The man looked back to his task then jerked his head back in Sam’s direction. A smile grew on the old man’s face. He tossed the dishrag over his shoulder, as Sam walked closer to the bar.

“Well, I’ll be damned. Sam Travers. I didn’t think I’d ever see you in here again, boy.” Well, that answered Sam’s ques- tion on whether or not he still came here. “Rusty,” Sam said, extending his hand over the wood top bar. Rusty took it, but didn’t shake. He pulled Sam’s arm, tugging him nearly to the other side.

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Rusty hugged Sam’s neck and Sam no- ticed the man still smelled like the inside of his bar – like stale smoke and week old beer.

He looked the same, other than the graying hair in his goatee. Rusty was about five seven, with a head he shaved as smooth as a baby’s bottom. He was an ex-marine who obviously continued his workout routine. “Been a long damn time, son. It’s true what they say?” Sam nodded. “Don’t remember a thing from the last three years.” Rusty shook his head. “Damn shame, boy. Though I have to say, if it brought you back in here then I’m mighty glad.”

Sam had to laugh. “I guess I’m sorry I haven’t been by.” With a shrug of shoulders Sam added. “Not sure why I stopped coming in.”

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“Oh, it’s all right,” Rusty said, waving off Sam’s apology. “People, they come and they go. Can’t live in a bar, Sam. If you do you either own one or you’re a drunk. You were too smart to own one and that pretty girl of yours al- ways made sure you knew your limit. “Speaking of…” Rusty began. “Lil’s here?” Sam asked, hopeful that maybe he would get to see her before Wednesday. “No, but your buddies are. Kane and Abe,” Rusty pointed to the corner of the bar where their table still stood. “All I need is Lil here and Ellie in an apron serving up drinks. It’ll be like old times. What can I get for ya?” “Whatever you have on tap is fine,” Sam said. “Son, I got ten different kinds of beers on tap now!” Rusty laughed, his eyes gleaming. “I’ve moved up in the

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world. No more whatever truck comes in to refill my keg.” Sam smiled. “In that case, I’ll take something new. Something you didn’t have three years ago.” Rusty nodded and grabbed a mug from under the bar. He filled the glass, keeping it cocked to the side so that there was more beer than foam. Sam pulled out his wallet as Rusty slid the glass across the counter to him. “Put your money away, kid. This one’s on the house.” “Thanks, Rusty.” Sam walked away, his beer in hand, over to Kane and Abe. They were sitting side by side at a small table, talking low to one another while their eyes took in the changes to the space. Sam noted that not much had changed. Neon signs took up most of the wall space, along with pictures of patrons that were regular customers. Sam knew

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somewhere on these walls there was a picture of him, Lil, Kane, and Abe. If memory served him correctly, there was more than one on these walls. “Mind if I join you?” he asked. Kane and Abe looked up as Sam spoke. His stomach twisted in knots. He wasn’t sure if they would welcome him, or chase him away with pitchforks. Kane shrugged like he didn’t care what Sam did. Sam took that as a yes, and settled in across from his old friends. A few moments of silence passed. Sam sipped the unfamiliar beer Rusty had served him, enjoying the crisp, clean taste. It wasn’t bitter like some beers were. It had a nice flavor and no bad after taste.

“Listen guys,” Sam said, as the si- lence began to weigh in on him. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’ve done in the past and I don’t expect you to forgive me

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for whatever it was. But regardless, I must have fucked up pretty bad to lose my two best friends and my girlfriend.” Neither Kane nor Abe looked at Sam as he asked for their forgiveness. He was about to take his beer back to the bar to visit with Rusty when Kane’s words stopped him. “You’re forgiven,” he said. Sam’s eyes widened. “Really?” He looked at Abe for reassurance that he felt the same way. “Yes really,” Abe said. “We can’t fault you for something you don’t remem- ber. But I will say this.” Sam pulled up his height and sat back a fraction of an inch. Abe was kind of scary when he meant business. “When you do remember, don’t go back to being the jackass we’ve come to know. I’ll kick your scrawny ass.” He looked Sam thoroughly over. Even going

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as far as leaning over the edge of the table to check him up and down. He arched one eye higher than the other and said, “Well, I’ll kick your finely-toned skinny ass if you do.” Sam laughed softly and nodded his head. “You got it. So, either of you want to tell me what I did?” “You haven’t talked to Lil?” Kane asked. “I’d assumed she'd have told you.” “Told me what? I haven’t talked to Lil since I left the house Saturday morning.” Kane raised a questioning eye in Sam’s direction, and then looked at his boyfriend, a smile playing at his lips. “Saturday morning? Oh, Miss Lil didn’t mention she’d seen you on Saturday morning.” It felt good to have Kane teasing him about Lil. He had seen the way he cut his eyes at him when he’d ran into them

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at Titan after he came home from the ac- cident. Kane’s look was out to kill and Sam was his target. Sam looked sheepish. “It was nothing,” he tried to tell them. “I stopped by and she let me stay the night.” Sam looked up when he heard Abe gasp and cover his mouth with both hands. His eyes were round, as were Kane’s, with the jawdropping news. “Seriously guys,” Sam said laugh- ing. “I slept on the couch. We talked. That was it. Wait.” Sam stopped. The news of them talking to Lil had finally hit him. “You talked to Lil?” he asked. Kane rolled his eyes. “Don’t play coy with us, Sam. You know we talked to her.”

“No,” Sam said. “I didn’t.” At Kane’s expression that said, don’t bullshit me, Sam explained. “I mean, I knew she wanted to talk to you two. She had told

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me she was going to help me by finding out what happened between us. I never asked her to, I swear it. “But c’mon guys!” Sam exclaimed. “It was Lil’s idea of helping me and I wasn’t about to turn her away. I want her help. Hell, I need her help. Besides, she told me she’s lost contact with you two as well. I thought it would be just as good for her to talk to you just as much as find- ing out what went down with us.” “Fair enough,” Kane said a sigh. He then dived into the story he had told Lil about the man Sam had turned into and how it had broken their friendship apart. When he was done, Sam leaned back in his chair, shocked to learn the kind of person he had become. What kind of friend turned his back on his two old- est friends? Who put work ahead of fixing his battered relationship with his girl- friend – the love of his life?

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“Well, that would explain the meeting I had with Mr. Miles today,” Sam said.

“What?” Abe asked, flabbergas- ted. “You went to see him?” “Not on my own free will, believe me. I was summoned.” “About what?” Kane inquired. “He wanted to make sure I was putting one hundred and ten percent into my therapy. That I don’t hurt his beloved daughter. Oh, and if I do, I can kiss my job and my condo goodbye.” Abe and Kane both winced at Sam’s words. “Ouch,” Abe said. “That’s brutal.”

“I have paid time off, which is great, but I’m to the point where I’m ready to say, fuck Titan. Fuck Mr. Miles and fuck wearing a suit every day. Fuck my office. Why would I leave gaming, something I’ve loved for as long as I can

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remember, for number crunching? Why would I give up wearing whatever I want for three piece suits and shiny shoes?” he said, holding up his hands. “You wouldn’t believe the shoes in my closet. I was there today doing laundry because apparently in all this new found money I have, I haven’t hired a maid. Anyway, I have rows and rows of brown and black patent leather shoes.” “Oh,” Kane said, with bitterness in his tone. “I know the kinds of shoes you wear, brother. I have to watch you walk into the basement every day with those things on.” “Kane hates you for that,” Abe said. “What?” He looked at Kane who’s own expression was appalled he had said that he hated Sam. “You do! You mumble to yourself when he walks by about how those shoes should be on your feet. That you know how to wear them properly.”

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Sam

let

out

a

gut

wrenching

laugh. “Buddy, you can have them. All of them.”

Kane looked at Sam. His eyes lit up like a warm fire on a cold night. “Really?”

still

laughing. Kane looked at Abe like he had just won a monumental battle. His con- descending smile had Sam doubled over in tears.

When the laughter died down, Sam took the conversation in a more seri- ous direction. Lil hadn’t given him any insight as to what happened to them. Now that he knew how he had abandoned his friends, his next task was working to fix what he had broken with Lil. “I still don’t know what broke Lil and I apart.”

“Yeah.”

Sam

nodded,

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Kane and Abe looked down at

their drinks, unable to meet Sam’s eyes.

he

pleaded. Kane shook his head from side to side. “It’s not our place,” he whispered. When he looked at Sam, he saw the sad- ness reflected in his eyes. “Lil has to be the one to tell you.” Sam opened his mouth to argue that they could tell him just as well, when Kane held up his hand to silence him. “Sam, Lil knows you want to know and she will tell you, but it has to be on her terms. It’s one thing for Abe and I to sit here and tell you what you did to us, it’s a whole other thing to talk about you and Lil.” “For her,” Abe said, downing the rest of his beer. “It’s reopening an old wound. There’s still that risk that if she

“Guys?

What

did

I

do?”

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opens up and tells you everything, she’s breaking her heart all over again.” “I don’t understand,” Sam said

quietly.

Kane exhaled a long breath. “She has to relive the nightmare a second time. In telling you what happened, she has to think about it all over again, with no chance of hearing your side of the story. There won’t be a chance for you to ex- plain why you left the way you did, be- cause you don’t remember ever leaving her to begin with. “Give her time. She will tell you and when she does, she’s going to need you. Don’t walk away from her like you did the first time. I know none of this makes sense to you now, but just know that it’s going to be really hard for her.” Sam couldn’t imagine what he could have done that would hurt Lil a second time to talk about it. Not to

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mention, never explaining to her why he left. They weren’t the kind of couple that hid things from each other. They talked things through, they worked them out. It was why they had been together for so long. Nothing got between them, only something major had. As the night wore on, the three of them sat at the table, rehashing old stor- ies and laughing like the past three years hadn’t separated them. In the back of Sam’s mind all he could think about was how he had apparently broken Lil’s heart. What scared him was the fear of it hap- pening again.

97

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 14

Lil decided that for tree picking one had to have on a practical outfit. Proper walk- ing shoes, a heavy coat, perhaps even a hat to keep the chill off of her head. As she turned and looked at the mess of clothes that lay on her bed, she wondered why she had just about every article she owned off its hanger and thrown on her bed. It didn't matter what she wore. She was helping Sam pick out a Christmas tree as part of his therapy, and possibly even hers.

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So why, she wondered, was her cable knit sweater dress and thigh high boots amongst the clutter? Why was the low cut red top that she only wore when Ellie forced her to wear it also mixed in? What she needed was a baggy sweater, her UGGS, and just a simple hat. It shouldn't be that hard. But it was. Sam had called that morning, asking if he could pick her up at seven o’clock. It was far from a date, but the butterflies in her stomach and the jitters made it feel like one. A knock on the door resounded as Lil rushed to throw on her snow boots. She walked to the door, smooth- ing down her hair which meant tucking stray strands behind each of her ears. With a deep breath, she opened the door to find Sam on the other side, a smug smile on his face. It really was a crime to be so pretty, she thought. He was dressed

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in a black sweater she could see from the opening of his gray pea coat. His jeans were dark denim distressed, not from all of the wear but because he had no doubt bought them that way. This wasn't the Sam she had known and seeing him dressed like this helped her keep that thought in her head. This was Chloe's Sam with all of his expensive, designer duds. When her gaze drifted to his feet, she silently cursed. Of course he couldn't pair a Banana Republic outfit with the right pair of shoes. That would be too much for the Sam she no longer knew. No, this Sam, the small part of the Sam she had known, was rocking his ratty Chuck Taylor’s. “Hey,” she greeted him, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Hey.” He smiled and she almost melted at his feet. He reached around his back and produced a small bouquet of

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lilies. How appropriate, she thought with a smile. Sam had always brought her lilies. “These are for you.” “Thanks.” She motioned for him to enter. “Come on in. Just let me put these in some water and grab my hat and gloves and we can leave.” She rested the flowers she had placed in a mason jar on her cabinet, adding a little bit of life to her country kitchen. Her hat and gloves were on the end table, so she picked those up and put them on, then grabbed her coat and keys. Sam allowed her to lead the way and when they were both outside in the frigid night air, she locked the house up. When she turned around, the sight of his car parked in her driveway made her snort. “You're kidding, right?” she

asked.

“What?”

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“Sam.” She sighed. “You don't honestly think that we're going to take your car to get a tree, do you? Where do you think we're going to put it? In the trunk? I'm sure you don’t want to strap it to the roof and risk ruining that expens- ive paint job.” “Oh,” he said. “I hadn't thought of

that.”

“Let's take my car.” Lil lead him to the detached garage at the side of the house.

When she opened the doors, she headed for the driver’s side. And so did Sam. She wasn't sure what his excuse was. They bumped into each other awk- wardly and both reached for the door handle, their fingers intertwining in the process. Lil decided she wasn't going to be the first to let go. Instead, she looked up at him, her expression saying, move your hand.

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“Sorry,” Sam mumbled. He stepped away and walked around the Tahoe to the passenger side. Lil started the car and let it idle for a moment while the warm air swirled around them. Once satisfied with the toasty nature of the car, she pulled out of her driveway and drove to the lot on the outskirts of town. Grayson's Farm was on the other side of the village leading to the gated neighborhoods and deserted farmlands. Lil didn’t know what to say to keep the discomfort out of the air. She realized she hadn’t talked to him since she had met with Kane and Abe, so she decided to broach that subject first. “I saw the boys on Sunday.” She could feel Sam turn to look at her as she kept her eyes on the road. “I heard.” There was a hint of a smile in his voice.

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puzzled.

“How?”

“I happened to run into them too,” he said. Lil took her eyes off the road for a brief second to give him a questioning glare. “I had a bad day Monday so I went to Rusty’s to unwind. Kane and Abe were there and we ended up talking all night.” “Wow,” Lil said. The words a breath of a whisper leaving her lips. “How did that go?” “Once we got past how big of a dick I turned into, pretty good actually.” “That’s great, Sam! So you three have mended fences?” she asked, hopeful for Sam to have his two best friends back in his life. “We have, to a degree.” Sam laughed at Lil’s twisted face. She had scrunched up her nose and fur- rowed her brow.

“You

did?”

she

asked

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“They threatened me with bodily harm if I ignored them when and if my memory returns. Well, actually, Abe did.” Lil had to laugh. “Sounds about

right.”

Grayson’s was just past the last stop light in town. It was a large lot with rows and rows of different types of trees. Lil pulled into the make shift dirt parking lot noting that it looked just like she had remembered. Lil jumped out of the car and to- ward the lighted sign that read, Grayson’s Farm, her gloved hands rub- bing together. She needed something for them to do. The urge to reach out and grab Sam's was almost too good to pass up. The atmosphere, the lights, the smells, everything about this place star- ted to come back to her. Even the last time she had been

here.

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Lil stopped short of the gates and breathed deeply. A sudden warmth star- ted to spread throughout her body as if she were standing next to an open fire pit.

“You all right?” Sam asked. The warmth was his arm around her shoulder, rubbing her forearm as if to ward off the cold. “Yeah. Just been a while since I've been here. That's all.” Lil didn't say anything when Sam kept his arm around her shoulder. They stepped under the lighted gates of Grayson's, the smell of hot chocolate burned deep into Lil's senses. She sighed happily and closed her eyes to fully ap- preciate the aromas surrounding her. Sam's hand squeezed her shoulder and she had to wonder if he did it out of habit or to reassure her that everything was go- ing to be okay.

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“Are my eyes deceiving me?” the old man asked, leaving his post behind the table of yummy goodness. When he stepped around, the image of the graying man that had been imbedded in Lil's brain didn't falter. He looked exactly the same. White hair on top of his wrinkly round head, he was a short man with a stomach that could have rivaled Santa Claus’. Lil had always thought that maybe Mr. Grayson was the man himself. Add a beard to him and he could have easily sat in the oversized chair that was in town square the entire holiday season. “You still look as young as ever,” Lil said sweetly as she stepped away from Sam's hold to embrace Mr. Grayson with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You know how to make an old man blush. Sam,” He redirected his at- tention to the man at her side. “Longtime no see.” The two men reached out their

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hands and shook them. “Actually, long- time no see to the both of you. Lil, what's this I hear about you buying an artificial tree a few years back?” Lil looked at him with wide eyes. Mr. Grayson chuckled. “Nothing gets past me, missy. I know every family in town who thinks that pre- lit plastic trees are better than my real, nature-fed ones.” “I'm trying to get her to see the error of her ways,” Sam joked. “Speaking of errors,” Mr. Grayson narrowed his eyes at Sam. “You see yours yet?”

Lil had to hold back a laugh. Mr. Grayson, as most people, was not aware of why Sam and Lil were no longer to- gether. Still, she enjoyed watching Sam squirm under the elder man’s stare. Sam fumbled for the right words to say. “Actually, Mr. Grayson, Sam's had an accident.” Lil explained. “He's lost his

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memory and I happen to be the last thing he remembers.” “Son,” he said, clapping Sam on the back in a fatherly fashion. “If it's one last memory to have, it's a good one. I al- ways loved you two together. Never un- derstood what happened. I always thought you two would be like my Martha and me. Together till the end. Oh well,” he said as if it was no big deal. “Maybe this is the second chance you both need.” “Actually,” Lil started but Mr. Grayson held up a hand to stop her from speaking. “No, don't say anything. Two of my favorite people just waltzed back in here and I want to keep the illusion alive in my mind that you'll pick out a tree and go home and solve all of your problems. Let an old man dream,” he added with a wink in Lil's direction. She nodded and gave him a small smile in return.

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Lil and Sam stood, toes facing, but heads turned to the rows of different breeds of trees in front of them. “You start at the Douglas Fir,” Sam said. “And you start at the Scotch pine,” Lil replied automatically. Together they both said, “And we'll meet at Noble Fir.” Sharing a laugh, their bodies lined up, and like so many times before, they leaned into to one an- other for that parting kiss. Lil could feel the crackle of the electricity that ignited between them. It would have been so easy to close the space between them and let her lips graze his like they had done so many times before. Catching herself before she acted on impulse, Lil added, “Good luck.” Sam nodded and turned his back and walked to the stiff, dark green needles of the Scotch pine.

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The Douglas Fir trees weren't far from where they had been standing. Lil looked each side over, letting her hand graze across the needles as they brushed against her gloves. She was almost down the first row when a familiar face roun- ded the corner from the opposite end. He was dressed in the same kind of flannel that he always wore. His tradi- tional earflap hat sat upon his head and the same sinister eyes she had long for- gotten drank her in. She had hoped and prayed that maybe he had found another job. No such luck. She had come face to face three years later with the reason for her emotional break down the last time she had returned to Grayson's farm. The only man she had been with since Sam. The night she regretted more than the night Sam had left. Toby Grayson. And from the look on his face, he was more than pleased to see her.

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“I knew you'd come back,” he said, his voice low and deep sending chills down Lil’s spine. “I've been waiting for you.”

103

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 15

Lil stared at Toby from down the lane of Christmas trees. He was just what she re- membered. Tall, a little on the lanky side and his brown eyes. They once looked at her with concern, but were now men- acing. Before that night she had always thought of him as a little on the scary side. Maybe it was the eyebrows and the way they arched as he drank in the sight of her. Never the less, that night she had looked past the crazy look in his eyes. The only thing she saw was a warm body

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intent on listening to her and comforting her, if only for a few hours. “Miss me?” he asked with a sneer. “Toby,” she said his name slowly. She didn't want to appear surprised or say his name in a way that might suggest that she had missed him. “You're looking good.” Lil didn't respond. It wasn't as if she could return the compliment. Toby laughed. “Hard to get. I like that. It has been a while.” He stepped closer to her. “So why the change of heart? Decided that the baggage you were carrying around then was finally too heavy? Thought maybe you'd come back around and we could finish what we started?” “We didn't start anything,” Lil stressed. “Oh, but we did. As I recall, we started something beautiful.”

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For whatever reason, Lil couldn't move. Maybe it was the cold, or the fear that had planted her feet to the ground, but as Toby drew nearer and nearer, she stayed firmly where she was. When he was within arm’s reach, she closed her eyes and prayed that he wouldn't make a move on her. She really hated to kick his ass at what was supposed to be a nice family outing for so many people. He touched her shoulder, his arm running up and down the bulky material of her jacket.

Lil bit her lip and curled her fists at her sides. She was two seconds away from punching him wherever she decided to make contact. Stomach, face, arm, groin, none of those places really mattered. A voice from down the way called out and it was music to Lil's ears. “What the hell is going on?” Lil opened her eyes to find Toby staring back

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at her like he was a deer in headlights. He turned around as she looked up only to see Sam all but running toward them. His long legs took three steps at once to reach them and when he did, he threw Toby's arm off of Lil. “I asked you a question.” Toby had the nerve to laugh. He looked at Lil, a smile on his face but it was obvious he found nothing about the situation funny. “You two are back together?” Lil decided not to deny the ques- tion. The less Toby knew the better for her. Sam looked at Lil like he was waiting for her to go into the whole spiel about his memory loss but it never came. “Get your hands off of my girlfriend,” Sam de- manded. The admission, a lie none the less, sent butterflies dancing in Lil's stomach. She stepped away from Toby and into the safe haven of Sam's arms.

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Immediately, Lil felt the warmth that was lost in Toby’s presence. “Really?” Toby asked. “Wow. Who would have thought it? Not me. Definitely not me.” Toby shook his head and started to walk away from them. Lil blew out a huge breath thankful that Toby was giv- ing up. Of course, that would be too simple. “Oh,” Toby said, stopping and turning to face them again. The sinister smile was back on his face. “Lil, when he screws you over again, I'll still be here. Just like last time and I can promise you, you won't leave next time. I'll make you remember how good it was. I'll make you forget this loser once and for all.” Sam held on to her and his grip tightened at Toby’s words, but as they watched him walk off, Lil felt Sam pull himself away from her. She felt the loss of his touch, his warmth. She was starting to feel the loss of Sam all over again and she

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had yet to tell him what that was about. And she knew the question was coming. Unlike her attempts to brush past the subject of why they had broken up, she knew she wouldn’t be able to escape an- swering for what Toby had said Sam cleared his throat. “Um, I found a tree I think you might like. Why don't we go ahead and get it and get out of here.” Lil nodded dumbly; glad for the moment’s reprieve and for Sam not jumping into a round of twenty questions. After Lil approved the tree Sam had chosen, not like she really cared at this point, he paid for it then strapped the tree to the roof of Lil's SUV. On the drive home, Lil risked a glance every so often in Sam’s direction. Gone were the feelings of being able to detect him watching her. Now he turned

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his body away as he looked out of the window of the town passing by. Lil waited for the shoe to drop. Then again, maybe, he wasn’t going to ask anything. Maybe he didn’t care enough to wonder what Toby had meant. When they arrived back at her house, Sam lifted the tree at one end, while Lil carried the other, into the cot- tage. They set it in front of the pictur- esque windows in the living room. Imme- diately the house filled with the smells of pine needles and Christmas. “Thank you,” Lil whispered into the room. She wasn't just thanking him for helping with the tree, but also for not asking questions. Distressed, Sam ran a hand through his locks. She had noticed that his hair was staring to get long. It curled over his ears and at the nape of his neck.

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His expression was blank as he said, “I’m going to go.” This was what Lil wanted. For him to not question Toby’s words. For him to walk away like it didn’t matter. She didn’t want to relive that night with him, of all people. So why did hearing him say he was leaving feel like a knife to her gut? Before she could stop herself and before he could turn the knob and walk out of the door, she said, “You’re not going to ask me about Toby?” Sam froze and his body visibly tensed. He didn’t turn around to face her. He kept his eyes glued to the door in front of him. “What do you want me to ask, Lil?” Slowly, he turned around and the pain and anguish was notable in his stare. “I’ve asked you numerous times about what happened with us and you won’t tell

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me. What makes you think I want to know about you and Toby Grayson?” Lil could feel the tears brimming in her eyes. Her bottom lip trembled as she said, “I don’t know. I just…” “You just what?” he asked, his voice rising. “That I’d want to hear about my girlfriend sleeping with another guy? Oh,” he let out a short laugh at her stunned expression. “I’m not stupid, Lil. I know that’s what happened. I could see it written all over his face. The way he looked at you, like he was remembering that night all over again. “I may have lost my mind, but I haven’t lost the ability to know when an- other guy wants you.” “Sam?” He held up his hand to stop her. “I don’t want to hear it. I really don’t.” “You don’t want to hear it?” she asked, the tears at bay but her anger at

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the forefront of her words. “Well, I’m go- ing to tell you, Sam Travers, because it’s been eating at me for three years. I wanted you,” she said, pointing her finger at him. “I wanted you to be here for me but you weren’t! You were off doing who knows what and sneaking in late at night to sleep on the damn couch! I made a mistake, Sam but so did you.” The traitor tears rolled down her face now. She wiped away what she could with her hands. “He was there when you weren’t,” she mumbled. Sam strode closer to Lil. He hovered over her, but she wasn’t scared of him. They had gone nose to nose plenty of times before. She had no reason to feel anything but safe with him, even when he was at his angriest. “And why wasn’t I?” he sneered. Lil swallowed back the bile rising in her throat. This wasn’t how she wanted

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to tell him. She didn’t want him to find out what happened between them in the midst of an argument. She wanted to be able to sit him down and show him things. Words only told so much and Lil had a shoebox full of memories that would be able to better explain. “I thought you were leaving.” Sam ran his hands through his hair, a sure sign that he was frustrated. “Is that what you want?” he asked. Lil didn’t want him to go. She wanted him to understand that she hadn’t gone out looking for his replace- ment. She wanted him to stay and fight for her unlike all those years ago when he walked away like they hadn’t had years together. She wanted him to make up for lost time but she wasn’t about to tell him that.

He took her silence as her answer. “God damnit Lil! I can’t be responsible

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for something I don’t remember. It’s not fair that you keep using it against me when I have no idea what happened! If you’re not going to tell me then stop be- cause I can’t defend myself,” he pleaded. He turned and walked away but Lil wasn’t ready to give up yet. She still had some fight left in her and it was about time, Sam Travers knew just how big of a dick he had become. “You have no right to be pissed about Toby. If anything I should be mad at you.”

Again, mere steps away from flee- ing her house, he stopped and turned around, his expression appalled. “You? What reason do you have to be pissed at me?” “You’re marrying someone else. It should be me, Sam!” she yelled at him. “I should be the one planning our wedding.”

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Sobs wracked Lil’s body. She didn’t want to tell him how hurtful it was for her to know he had put a ring on an- other woman’s finger. Her emotions had clearly gotten the best of her and now she couldn’t hold back exactly how she felt. He narrowed his eyes at her, and when he spoke, gone was the anger. A calm, icy chill that made her shiver re- placed it. “And somewhere along the way we lost us. You quit me just like you quit Kane and Abe. Maybe that’s why I asked someone else to marry me.” Lil’s blurry eyes suddenly sharpened at his words. She was sick with hurt over having to tell Sam about her one night fling with Toby, but now she was furious. How dare he say something like that to her! “Yeah well, she quit you too. Where is she now, huh? Planning a

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wedding to a guy who doesn’t even know who the hell she is.” Lil fired a big gun at Sam. It was only a matter of time before she ran out of bullets. “You know nothing about her. She didn’t cause our problems.” Lil could take only so many jabs thrown at her, but defending a woman who had gotten her man was the last straw.

Lil kept her voice steady even though her body was vibrating with anger as she said, “Get out, Sam.” Sam turned on his foot and wrenched the door open, slamming it on his way out. The sound of his tires squeal- ing out of her driveway was the only clue she had that he was gone. Lil’s knees gave out from under her and she fell to the floor, her body convulsing with sobs. She wasn’t sure where Sam was headed and she knew she shouldn’t care.

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She didn’t know what was worse. Knowing she had hurt him because of something that happened in the past or hearing him tell her that he may have chosen Chloe because their relationship was stronger. The problem was she didn’t know if this was the Sam she knew talk- ing, or was he remembering things he had forgotten?

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SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 16

Sam didn’t care how much noise he made as he peeled out of Lil’s driveway. He was pissed. So she had slept with Toby Grayson. He knew they weren’t together. Lil, along with everyone else made sure he understood that. It was one thing for his head to understand that, it was anoth- er to accept it. He loved Lil. He knew he wanted to beat the shit out of Toby for looking at her the way he did. His eyes roaming over her body, taking in all of her curves

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through the clothes she had on to keep her warm. Toby didn’t have to use his imagination regarding what Lil looked like naked. He knew firsthand. Sam sped through the streets, not sure where he was going until his car pulled into the parking lot of Rusty’s. He stepped out into the cold night, the air leaving his mouth like wisps of smoke. The bell dinged as he entered but nostalgia wasn’t on Sam’s mind. Getting hammered and doing his best to erase the image of Toby making love to his girl was at the front. Had it been making love? Did Toby hold her tight and whisper promises in her ear? Did he tell her that she was beautiful and worship her body like the goddess she was? That’s what Sam would have done. If Sam were given another chance to share a bed with Lil, he would

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tell her all of those things. He would make sure she knew how special she was. Sam nodded to Rusty, who was behind the bar pouring drinks. “Two nights in one week,” he mused with a smile. “Like old times for you boys.” Sam didn’t return the man’s smile when he said, “What do you mean?” Rusty nodded to the back of the bar. “Your boys are here again too.” Sam looked over his shoulder and saw Kane and Abe sitting at the same table as Monday night. “You like that beer the other night?” Rusty asked. Sam nodded. “Another coming up, but you’re paying for this one.” Sam gave Rusty a half smile and waited for his drink. As he leaned his hip against the bar, his thoughts strayed from Lil and whatever kind of relationship she

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did or didn’t have with Toby to the last thing he said to her. He knew he struck a nerve as soon as he defended Chloe. He was speaking in the heat of the moment. The argument had gotten the better of his judgment. She was pissed. He could see the fire dance in her eyes when she told him to get out. Sam wasn’t sure what pissed him off more. The fact that Lil slept with someone that wasn’t him, even though apparently he had no room to be pissed because he was engaged, or the fact that in all the years he and Lil had been to- gether, never did they let an argument push them away from one another. It made Sam wonder, what could he have done that made Lil resent him so much? What was so bad that they pulled apart from each other and into the arms of an- other person, or in his case, work?

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Rusty slid Sam’s beer mug to him. Sam pulled out his wallet and laid down a twenty-dollar bill. When Rusty went to the register for his change, Sam told him to keep it. It was the least he could do for not coming by his old stomping grounds in the last three years. He took his glass and walked the same path to Kane and Abe as he did the night before. Both looked up at him as he approached their smiles dropping when they took in the frown on his face. “What happened?” Abe asked. Sam sat down and took a pull from his beer before he dove into the ugly details.

“Lil told me what happened.” Sam couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud that Lil had a one-night stand with Toby. Was it a one-night stand? He hadn’t asked. The thought of her with

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him for one night sent him into a jealous rage but repeat performances made him feel like he was walking around with a loaded gun. He held the handle of his mug tight like it was the vice that kept him from throwing the chair he sat in across the room. He stared at the condensation that had formed on the sides of the glass as he waited for his friends to say something. An encouraging word that it would be okay. An assurance that it was a one night affair. Something! What his friends provided was far from what Sam was expecting. “And you left her?” Kane shouted. “Again!” He looked around the bar to the patrons who had turned at his outburst. Kane lowered his voice and leaned in, his eyes never wavering from Sam’s. “What did I ask you last night? I asked you,” he said in a rush, not giving

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Sam the opportunity to respond. “Not to leave her. I asked you to be there for her. To talk to her.” Each statement was punc- tuated with a fierce tap of his finger against the Formica top. “And you left.” He leaned back against his chair and shook his head. “Typical, Sam.” “Typical?” Sam asked, his anger boiling to the surface once again. “She tells me she slept with Toby Grayson and you expect me to hold her and tell her its okay? That it’s no big deal?” The wide-eyed looks of both Kane and Abe had Sam realizing that they thought he was talking about something else. Most likely the break up. “You didn’t know?” he asked. A part of him slightly relieved that this hadn’t been the talk of the town.

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Abe opened his mouth as if to say something only to shut it like a fish out of water.

“Well,” Sam said. “Guess that cat’s out of the bag.” “Toby. Grayson.” Abe was finally able to say. “The same Toby Grayson whose great uncle owns the tree lot? The one,” Abe waved his hands in the air and around his face, “that has those awful, bushy eyebrows? Like he should be on a poster for America’s Most Wanted? That Toby Grayson?” Was it really necessary for Abe to say his name over and over again, Sam thought? He didn’t need a reminder of who the guy was. He was pretty sure that if his memory ever decided to leave him again, this would be the one thing that would be stuck with him. “Yeah.” Sam nodded.

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“Wow,” Abe said, even though no words came out of his mouth. The dra- matic effect of sounding the word out slowly allowed Sam to read his lips. “That’s,” Kane began. “Disgusting,” Abe finished. Sam had downed his beer and signaled to Rusty for another round. “And she openly told you this?” Kane asked. “No,” Sam said, and then filled his friends in on the events that took place an hour or so before he walked into the bar. It felt like days had passed since this bomb had dropped on him. When he was done talking, Abe wore a look of distaste and Kane pursed his lips together. On a sigh he said, “Sam, I’m not defending Lil. Please understand that, but she made a mistake and she knows that now. Hell, I’m sure she knew it then.

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“Lil was in a rough place at that time. She pulled away from you. She shut us out. Honestly, I don’t think she was talking to Ellie much either. He happened to catch her at a vulnerable moment. She was weak. You can’t fault her for that.” “It makes me ill to think of her with him.” Sam released a dry laugh. “It makes me sick thinking of her with any- one else.” “But it’s okay for you to be with Chloe?” Abe questioned. “No, I’m sorry, friend. That’s not how this works.” “I’m not with Chloe!” Sam cried

out.

“Aren’t you?” Abe asked with a raise of his eye. “Abe’s right,” Kane said. “Have you thought about what happens when you remember? You have a life to go back to, a fiancée. Lil doesn’t have that, Sam. She has her job and Ellie.”

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Abe covered Kane’s hand with his own. He looked over at him with a small smile and said. “And she has us.” Kane returned his smile then looked back to Sam. “Yes, she has us. But you? She won’t have you. “Don’t punish her for the sins of her past when you’ll be asking for her forgiveness.” With those words, Sam knew they were right. What was going to happen when his memory returned? Would he remember his love for Chloe and go on with the wedding? Would all that happened with Lil and spending time with her make him realize the mistakes of his past? Would he rectify those mistakes and beg her to forgive him or would be turn a blind eye and go on with his life? Without her. “I fucked up didn’t I?” Kane and Abe nodded in agreement.

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“The question is,” Kane said, “what are you going to do about it?” ~~~~ Sam drove like a bat out of hell toward Lil’s house. He didn’t know what he was going to say once he got there, only that he knew he had to go to her. He pulled into her driveway, quieter than when he had left. The light in the living room was still on. He felt better about not waking her up. When the engine shut off, he jumped out of his car and practically leapt up the steps to her door. He started knocking, once fierce hard rap after another. He was a man on a mission and he wouldn’t leave until he at least apolo- gized to her. Lil opened the door and, before the door started to close in his face, he stared into her red, blood shot eyes.

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Damn. He’d made her cry even after he left. The tears she shed while he had been there earlier had dried like the last drops of water in the desert when she told him to get out. He strong-armed the door, keep- ing it open so she couldn’t totally shut him out.

“Please,” he pleaded. “Hear me

out.”

“Hear you out?” she asked, trying her best to close the door. It proved futile since his six foot two; one hundred and ninety pound frame could easily out man- euver her five foot two, one hundred and ten pounds. “Lil, please,” he said again. “I’m sorry. I had no right.” She eased back from her lineback- er stance to openly gape at him.

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“You’re sorry?” she asked incred- ulously. “You come at me tonight like I was Hester Prynne. I wasn’t marked, Sam!” she yelled. “I was broken!” Sam used her moment of weak- ness against the door to his advantage. He stepped in and without giving it a second thought he cupped her delicate face in his hands. He wanted to kiss her, feel her against his lips. He moved closer, his forehead pressed against hers, his thumbs wiping away her tears. All Lil needed to do was give him a sign; any sign and he’d make a move.

Her hands gripped the lapels of his jacket pulling him closer. “Samson,” she whispered, her lips barely grazing his. It was all the invitation he

needed.

His lips moved over hers like they had done so many times before. It had

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killed him, in these last few days, to be so close to her yet so far away. He wanted to be able to kiss her whenever he wanted. And right now, with their lips pressed to- gether, he wanted to kiss the hell out of her.

Her mouth was soft against his own. He took a risk and slipped his tongue out, parting her lips in a silent re- quest to enter. She granted him the ac- cess he sought by allowing him to ease in his tongue. Lil sighed against his mouth and he had to suppress a smile. Now wasn’t the time to get cocky about having her in his arms. Now was the time to relish the feeling because who knew when it would happen again. He pulled away to catch his breath. He hated the disconnected feeling immediately. He pressed his forehead against her and closed his eyes. His

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thumbs traced over her cheekbones as he breathed in the alluring scent of the wo- man he would always love. “I’m so sorry, Lil,” he whispered. “I hate this. I hate not knowing the past three years. I hate not knowing what I’ve done to us. But most of all, I hate know- ing you aren’t mine anymore.” Lil’s hands traveled up Sam’s coat until they were on either side of his face. Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks and he did what he could to brush them away. She looked at him through brown eyes he could easily lose himself in. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” He was on the verge of tears himself as he apologized again. He’d say he was sorry till he was blue in the face if that was what it took.

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SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 17

Lil sat at her desk daydreaming about Sam. His smile. The feather light touches of his hands on her face. The way it felt to have his lips on hers. How his hair felt between her fingers. He had turned her world upside down with the kisses from the night before. And not just the kissing, but his honesty. He wanted her.

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She wanted him too, and that was a huge problem. But for the time being, she was going to enjoy the playback in her head. Like a lovesick fool, she smiled remem- bering every touch of his hands, of his mouth.

“What has you looking so wistful this morning?” Ellie asked, stopping in to deliver Lil a new order for prints. Lil looked down at the paper and was glad it wasn’t a rush order before the holidays. She didn’t think she’d be able to get much work done with Sam on her mind. “Nothing,” Lil lied. “Bullshit,” Ellie said, hands planted firmly on her hips. “I’ve seen that look before. Plenty of times. That look has Sam written all over it. And I know you didn’t get laid or you’d be humming.” Lil sighed. It was a happy sigh. A dreamy sigh.

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“He came over last night.” “Yeah? And?” “It didn’t start off so well.” “I’m assuming it ended better?” Lil smiled and nodded. Ellie pulled up the chair in front of Lil’s desk and sat, an eager smile on her face. “Spill the details, sister. I want to hear it all.” Lil laughed. It felt good to laugh when just a week and a half ago she would have never thought she’d be able to while Sam was around. “It starts with the bad news,” she began. “We went to Grayson’s to pick out a tree.”

Ellie grimaced. “Toby.” Lil nod- ded. “Ouch. What did he do?” “He creeped me out and then made a big deal of telling me that when Sam left he’d be there to pick up the pieces…again.”

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“I’ll bet that went over well with Sam. So what did Sam do?” “Pretty much what you’d expect Sam to do. He was pissed, got pretty ter- ritorial in true Sam fashion. We may have let Toby believe we were back together.” “So, did he ask you about Toby?” “No. When we got back to my house, he helped get the tree inside and then said he was leaving.” Lil studied her fingernails and through her thick lashes she looked up at her best friend. “I kind of pushed the subject on him.” “Of course you would,” Ellie

retorted. “Well? What was I supposed to do? Let it hang over our heads? Like it was some elephant in the room? Ellie, I had to tell him it meant nothing. That Toby was just a means to an end.” “And Sam? Did he go for that excuse?”

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Lil swallowed thickly. “No. We sort of had a fight about it all. I yelled and cried, told him that he wasn’t there so I turned to someone who was. He yelled and told me that maybe that was why he was marrying Chloe. Because she didn’t quit him like I did him and Kane and Abe. I told him to leave and he did.” Lil shrugged. “But he came back?” Ellie questioned. “Yeah,” Lil said softly with a smile. “He did. He apologized for what he said. We made plans to decorate the tree tonight.” She looked at Ellie, her smile widening, “He kissed me, El.” Ellie’s quietness on the news un- nerved Lil. She wanted Ellie to be happy with her. She wanted her to take her hands and jump around the office, gig- gling with excitement like two teenage girls. But that didn’t happen. Ellie

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remained somber until she released a deep breath and opened her mouth to speak.

“You really think this is a good idea?” Ellie wondered aloud. “Why not? I'm supposed to be helping him and as part of his therapy we had planned to revisit some of our old traditions. Tonight we're just doing an- other one.” “Speaking of therapy,” Ellie cut in. “How's yours going?” Lil gave her friend a pointed stare. “It's fine. I plan to see Dr. Kingston again next week.” “No doubt an emergency session will be needed after tonight,” Ellie muttered loud enough for Lil to hear. She leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms over her chest.

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“It's just decorations, beer, and pizza!” Lil's patience was starting to wear thin. “Nothing harmful in that.” “So he's wining and dining you? How classic Sam. Lil, I'm just worried about you. You're going to fall for him all over again, although the jury is still out on whether you ever fell out. Despite what you may have told me, I still think you've never gotten over Sam. You haven't even dated since the epic Toby incident.” “I haven't dated because I don't have time. Work takes a lot out of me.” “Right,” Ellie exaggerated. “So much work. Let me ask you, what hap- pens when Sam remembers? What hap- pens when he knows what happened to you two before you have the chance to tell him?” Not giving Lil the opportunity to answer, Ellie kept talking. “I'll tell you what happens. You crawl back into your

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hole while he goes on with the wedding.” Ellie paused then said to her friend with a softened expression. “Life will go on for you, separately.” “But that's what we want!” Lil fired back, standing from her chair. “That's the whole point of this therapy. The whole reason why I'm helping him. He remembers and can move on and then so can I. I can go back to how it was be- fore he waltzed back into my life.” “You are so in over your head that even a life raft can't keep you afloat.” Ellie's tone softened. “I just don't want to see you get hurt. I was there last time. Oh,” Ellie said with a sarcastic laugh, “you tried to push me away but I wouldn’t let you, so I know firsthand how bad it was and I'm telling you, this has the mak- ings of a sequel all over it. He is your greatest downfall. The problem is, after

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he leaves you on the floor, I’ll be the one there to pick you back up.” ~~~~ Lil sat in her living room, waiting for Sam to show up. She kept thinking about everything Ellie had said to her that morning. One thing in particular kept her from getting much work done. Ellie had been right. Lil had trouble admitting that she hadn’t fallen out of love with him. He was the reason why she hadn’t dated since he left. She compared every guy to him. Even ones that she wasn’t interested in, she’d pick them apart because they weren’t Sam. How had she let her feelings get this far? How had she not stopped herself from loving him? It was easy. He was it for her and always would be. The only thing that could make Lil move on would be for another woman to share his last name and the clock was ticking on that.

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Should she enjoy these precious mo- ments she was given with him, or should she push him away, refusing to share old memories? Their old memories? But that kiss. That kiss was everything she remembered and more. He was gentle, yet commanding. He held her face in his hands like she was fragile, yet he poured every ounce of desire he had in kissing her. Absentmindedly, Lil’s fingers brushed where their lips had touched. Would he kiss her again tonight? Should she let him? The question she should have been asking herself was would she let him?

She knew the answer. If Sam wanted to kiss her, then by God, she was going to let him. This wasn’t Chloe’s Sam. This was her Sam, at least for a few stolen hours. Until she told him the devastating

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news from their past. Which she intended to do tonight. The knock at the door nearly had Lil jumping out of her skin. She moved to the door, taking a deep breath before she opened it. She was glad she did because otherwise, Sam would’ve have knocked it out of her. He didn’t look any different than he had the other times she had seen him. Maybe it was the Earth-shattering kiss from the day before. He smirked at her, like he could tell she was thinking about the kiss. Lil composed herself long enough to say, “Hey, come on in.” He stopped in the threshold of the door and leaned over to kiss her gently on the lips. Lil closed her eyes and for the briefest moment, she let herself believe that with a little bit of faith, they might be able to make things work. When he

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pulled away, reality crashed in on her. He wasn’t hers to have. No matter how bad she wanted him, he was going to leave. “Hey,” he whispered, his breath dancing off her lips like fairies on a mid- summer’s night. He pulled up to his full height and held up a pizza box and a six pack of beer. “I have dinner.” Lil plastered a smile on her face. She was torn between asking him to kiss her again or asking him to leave. “Great! Just set those in the kitchen.” As she shut the door, she watched as he walked to the kitchen. He moved with such ease and grace in the house. It was a pity he no longer shared it with her. Lil had to shake her head to clear the thoughts of Sam living with her again. It wouldn’t happen. I shouldn’t happen. Sam took off his coat and walked back to the living room to hang it on the hook beside her door. She stood with her

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feet planted on the floor, for no other reason than she wasn’t sure what to do. He had thrown her off course with his kiss. Sensing her trepidation, he closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around her waist. Out of habit, Lil let her hands travel up his arms, ad- miring the muscles under his shirt. “Was I not supposed to do that?” he asked. “What? Oh! I…um…” How as she supposed to tell him that he rocked her world and they hadn’t even had sex? This is what Sam Travers did to her and this was why it was mistake to get involved with him again. “Lil, we don’t have to make this harder than it is. Okay? I’m sorry, maybe I reacted too soon it’s just…” He paused. His fingers caressed the backs of her hips. “It’s just that, I’ve wanted to kiss you since the moment you walked into my

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hospital room and now that I have, I want to do it all the time.” Lil nodded because she under- stood what he meant. Did that make it right for them to kiss every time they were together? Probably not, but Lil wasn’t going to turn away from him. She couldn’t. Not when he looked at her through his long eyelashes, his lips form- ing a perfect pout. She once loved this man. This man who knew her, not Chloe, and damnit, she was going to enjoy him while she had him. “Kiss me again,” she said in a low, seductive whisper. He obliged, snaking his tongue out as their lips met. She gripped his forearms while his hands traveled further up her back, ghosting over every inch. He pulled her closer to him so that their bod- ies nearly became one. Playfully, she nipped at his bottom lip and his hand

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came down to tap her on the ass. She jumped further in his arms and that’s when she could feel the hardest part of him. She had to tell herself that under no circumstances was she to find out if sex with him was just as mind blowing as she remembered. For tonight at least. Tonight, she had bigger plans. Plans that might send him running back out of the door, and out of her life. For good.

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SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 18

Sam loved the feel of Lil in his arms. He had imagined holding her like this, kiss- ing her until her lips were the red, swollen shade they were now, since he laid eyes on her in the hospital. Everyone said he was in love with another woman, but he couldn’t fathom loving anyone like he did Lil. “The pizza’s going to get cold,” she said. He wanted to say screw the pizza so he could lay her across the couch and

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remind her of all the ways he loved her, but it was too soon. He probably shouldn’t have been kissing her, but he couldn’t seem to tell his mind or his heart that. Lil was his. She wasn’t Toby’s. He wasn’t Chloe’s. They were each other’s. And for as long as he could, he was going to kiss her whenever he wanted. Touch her as often as he could. He could see it in her eyes, the dark shade of blue they turned when she wanted him. He wanted her just as much, but it was all about timing. The catch with that was Sam didn’t know how much he had left. He could wake up to- morrow and remember everything. But one thing he knew he could never forget was the feel of Lil wrapped in his arms. “Fine,” he playfully huffed out. “Let’s eat instead of making out.” He rolled his eyes for dramatic flair.

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She swatted his chest and walked away to the kitchen. The loss was imme- diate. He wanted to pull her back to him. Kiss her again. Feel the curves of her body under his fingertips. Right now he’d have to settle for pizza and beer and the excuse of decorat- ing her tree. Yeah, it might help him re- member something from the last three years, doing something as normal as put- ting lights and garland on the tree, only he couldn’t care less about that right now. He didn’t care if he ever re- membered. As long as he never forgot how much he loved her. He followed behind her to the kit- chen where she had set out two plates and two slices of pizza each. He grabbed the beers, fighting the urge to lean over and put his lips against her cheek. Her hair was tucked behind her ear, so the shot was lined up perfectly.

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“You want to eat in the living room?” she asked, turning to him, draw- ing him out his vision. He nodded dumbly, then followed her back to the couch.

They ate in silence for a moment. Both of them filling their bellies with Mazzio’s Pizza. It was the only kind he and Lil ever ordered: meat lovers with onions and peppers. “How was your day at work?” He asked between bites of food and pulls from his beer. She shrugged. “Unproductive.” She turned to him and offered him a shy smile. He knew all too well what had been on her mind because it had been on his too.

“Was

something on your mind?”

“Yeah?”

he

teased.

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She bowed her head but the tell- tale sign of the blush creeping in gave her away.

“Something like that.” He bumped his shoulder against

hers and when she looked over at him, he smiled. “I was unproductive too.”

A few more bites of pizza went

down before she asked him about his day.

“I hung out with Kane and Abe

playing video games all day. They had the day off.” “You hung out with them? Things are getting better?” She asked with wide,

hopeful eyes. Sam nodded. “Thanks to you. I don’t know what you said, but thank you. I can’t imagine what it was like for them not to be in my life. Doing something as simple as playing games all day? How could I miss that?”

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“I’m glad for you, Sam.” Lil smiled at him, warming him from the in- side out. “Really glad.” “Like I said, it was all you.” Lil took a long swallow from her beer bottle. “So video games, huh? Like old times?” “Oh, you have no idea. Did you know Abe still wears that short, silk robe?”

Sam hadn’t realized Lil was drinking when he asked this. She snorted, held her nose, and almost coughed up beer all in one second. She looked over at him as she set the bottle down. “Are you serious?” “Dead serious. They asked me to come over around brunch. What in the hell is brunch time, ya know?” Sam laughed. “So I showed up at like, ten after ten this morning and there’s Abe, an- swering the door in that damn robe.

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“You know when I lived with them in college and even after college when I crashed at their apartment, I saw him in it countless times. But nothing ever really prepares you seeing a grown man’s ass. Especially at,” Sam held up his hands making air quotes and said, “brunch.” Lil fell back onto the couch, hold- ing her stomach, she was laughing so hard.

“I’m glad my discomfort amuses you,” he said dryly. She wiped her eyes and calmed down long enough to say, “Remember that time the three of you went out drink- ing, while Ellie and I had dinner and saw a movie? You called me from their house, after walking back from Rusty’s, for me to come and get you?” “Yeah, and if I recall correctly, you told me to stay there. That you

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weren’t coming to get me so I could throw up in your new car,” he added. Lil nodded her head up and down, the laughter returning. “Yes! I had just bought the Tahoe. The next morning, Ellie and I came to pick you up and Abe answered the door in his robe.” Sam laughed along with her. “Wasn’t that the first time Ellie had seen him in it?” “Yeah,” Lil said. “And I think that’s what started the feud between them. She realized he had a better ass than she did.” They laughed about that story for a good five minutes. Lil stood with her plate and held out her hand for Sam. “You want me to take that?” “Sure,” he said. He stood from the couch after she passed over him. “Why don’t I get the boxes down from the attic while you do that?”

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“Sounds good. There should be four boxes up there. They all should say Christmas on them. One is lights, another two are tree decorations, and then I have a fourth that is table stuff.” Sam nodded and walked down the hall until he was under the door for the attic. His height gave him the advant- age at pulling the knob to lower the door and stairs. When he climbed up, he no- ticed that there wasn’t much in the way of storage up here. He saw a big box with a tree on the outside, and he considered pulling it down so he could put it on the curb for the trash man to pick up. Over to the side were the four boxes Lil men- tioned. One by one, he lowered them down. He closed the attic door and car- ried each box to the couch, setting all four side by side. He opened the first box, labeled lights, just as Lil rejoined him, two fresh

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beers in her hands. They clinked bottles and took a sip before tackling the lights on the tree. After a few moments of wrap- ping each strand around and around Sam asked, “Lil, if you have a pre-lit tree, why the lights?” ”Because I always add extra. It makes it brighter and with the tree in the window like this, I want people passing by to see how pretty it is.” Made sense to Sam. He had al- ways loved that picture window. A brightly-lit Christmas tree had been the first thing he pictured there when they looked at the house. Once the lights were on, they fol- lowed the same movements with the gar- land. Lil had to show him how she liked for it to be looped through the branches in some places, and sticking out in others. She said it made the tree look fuller.

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And when that was done, it was

time for his favorite part-the ornaments. He and Lil had collected a new one each year. From their first tree in the dorm, to, well, the last year he could remember, he supposed. One by one, they hung them from the branches. Neither said too much to the other. Sam was lost in his thoughts, remembering the trips they made to pick out the perfect symbol of their year to- gether. Whether it was college life, buying

a new car, graduation; they had a story for each one they hung on the three. He came to a small box and as he

opened it, a silver house that hung on a red ribbon fell into his hands. He rubbed

it with his thumb, creating streaks in the

silver. It was the last year he re- membered. The year they bought the house. The same year she said they broke up.

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He didn’t want to ask her about it in fear that it would dredge up bad memories and he was having too nice of a time with her, to have her cheerful mood sour. Carefully, he placed the ribbon on a limb that was in view of anyone who entered the house. Maybe he did this as a reminder for himself, the next time he came over, that he and Lil had been happy that year. They had bought a piece of property together. They had planned to start a life together. Things must have been okay for them to buy their tradition- al ornament together. When his box was emptied, he spied a ball of mistletoe in Lil’s box. Knowing she wouldn’t make any sort of move on him with it, he crept up behind her, took the fake mistletoe out and held it behind his back. She was busy fixing lights and ribbon to notice him until he wrapped one arm around her waist and

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held the mistletoe above their heads with the other. “Sam, what are you…” She looked up and breathed in deeply when she saw what was hanging over her head. He turned her around, and without so much as a warning, he pressed his lips to hers. “You don’t play fair, Sam,” she teased. He could tease right back. “Oh, I don’t,” he said faintly against her mouth. He took her top lip between his teeth, then traced her bottom lip with his tongue. She moaned into his mouth, and the erection that had sprung up earlier when he had her in his arms, sprang back to life. “How’s this for playing fair?” he asked, tickling her sides. She laughed and jumped back, holding out her hands for him to stop.

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“Don’t,” she said, breathing heav- ily. “Don’t come any closer.” “But I want to show you how I can play fair, Miss Harper.” He faked inno- cence, knowing once he had her pinned down from the tickle monster, his kisses weren’t going to let her up. “I’m not kidding, Sam! Put the mistletoe down and finish the tree.” “You’re no fun.” He pouted, set- ting the plant down on the coffee table. He went over to her box of decorations, pulling out the last two ornaments. One was in a delicate ivory box. He was care- ful to open it, afraid it might be a memento from Lil’s parents. When he opened the lid, his breath caught. This wasn’t something from Lil’s childhood. He knew for certain it wasn’t. This was something more recent, given the date engraved on it.

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The pewter rattle shook as he lif- ted it out of its cradle. He looked it over with expectant eyes, wishing that it would tell him its secrets. He heard Lil gasp and his eyes flickered up to meet hers. The re- gret, or was that shame, in her watery eyes made his gut tighten. He started to see red. He was going to kill that no good son of a… “Sam,” Lil said quietly. “I know what you’re thinking.” Did she? Did she know that he thought of going down to Grayson’s and ripping Toby’s head off? Did she know that his heart was now in a million pieces and he wasn’t sure if knowing Lil had once carried the life of another man in- side her body made him seethe with rage? No. She couldn’t have known any of that.

“Sam,” she said again, stepping closer to him. “It wasn’t Toby’s.”

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His eyes widened but before he could ask who, she told him. “The baby was yours.”

129

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 19

This wasn’t how she had planned to tell him. Sure, she had planned to spill all their dirty secrets tonight, but she hadn’t wanted him to find out like this. “Sam, sit down. Please,” she ad- ded. Her eyes were blurry from the tears that threatened to spill over. Every year when she opened that box, she cried not only for the loss of her unborn child, but for the man she loved. He did as she asked and she took the seat opposite of him. For whatever

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reason, she felt like she needed his near- ness to get through the story. He was a calming presence and right now, she needed all the calm she could muster. “I had planned on telling you to- night,” she clarified. “I just thought…” “We had a baby?” he asked, his voice scratchy like he hadn’t spoken in years rather than a few passing minutes. She shook her head no, looking down at her hands. “We lost a baby.” “What happened?” he suddenly demanded. Lil drew in a deep, shaky breath, and started the story from the very beginning. “It was several weeks after we moved into the house,” she began, “when I got sick. We thought it was the flu. I was throwing up, fever, and chills. “But when I realized I was late, well, I took a pregnancy test.” Lil wiped

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past the tears that had fallen silently down her face. “You came home from work and found me in the bathroom, knees drawn to my chest, staring at the stick.” She let out a small laugh at the memory of Sam’s face when he walked in and saw what she was holding. He looked so scared yet so happy. “You fell on your knees and held me and we cried.” She chanced a look at him to see that he was turning the rattle over in his hands. She blinked past the tears as she said, “We were going to have a baby.”

“We conceived it that night,” he said. “Our first night in the house, the day we closed. I remember making love to you that night.” He lowered his head and looked at her through his long lashes. “It’s the last memory I have of you. My mind, when I woke up in the hospital, was the day after.”

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Lil nodded. He was right. “I know it wasn’t in the tradition- al sense. I mean, you hadn’t even asked me to marry you.” “I had planned to,” he interrup- ted. When he looked at her, his eyes were misty. “That day we closed on the house, my next step was buying you a ring. I had thought that maybe I’d ask you at Christ- mas. It was in my plans all along, Lil.” He hung his head in shame. “I hate that I can’t remember past that day, Lil. I can’t remember if I bought you a ring or not.” When his eyes met her again, she had to swallow past the lump in her throat. He looked so haggard, so defeated. “I wish I could remember.” Lil gave him a half smile. Too little, too late now, she thought. She nodded her head to the piece of metal in his hands. “We bought that to- gether as our yearly ornament.”

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“But the house?” he asked. Lil had to think for a moment on what he meant. When she realized he had hung the orna- ment symbolizing their first house she shook her head. “Your dad got that for us. He knew how much we liked documenting our firsts.” “So what happened?” he asked, his voice barely a whisper. She knew he was afraid to hear the rest. About losing the baby, and then losing her. “Your dad had his Christmas party early that year. He and Josh were spending the break visiting schools. “We weren’t going to tell anyone about the baby until after the first of the year. I mean, it was Christmas and we wanted to celebrate that, not to mention, your brother was leaving for college. We didn’t want to take the focus off of all of that. And I think a part of us wanted to be

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a little selfish too.” She smiled at him and was glad when he smiled back. “But, you couldn’t keep your mouth shut and after we had been at your dads for not even an hour, everyone knew.

“They were so happy for us, Sam. We,” she stressed, “were so happy.” “And then we weren’t?” he asked. Lil sighed. “Looking back now I realize that was our last normal weekend. On Monday we had an appointment with the OBGYN.” She stood from the couch but Sam grabbed her hand. “I’ll be right back,” she assured him. “There’s something you need to see.” She went to her bedroom and hid- den in the very back of her closet, on the highest shelf, was a box she hadn’t opened in nearly three years. She cradled it to her chest and re- joined him on the couch. Taking a deep

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breath, she passed the box to Sam who took it with shaky hands. She waited until he opened the lid and when the first tear fell down his check, she continued. “We had a doctor’s appointment on Monday. They took a picture of our baby.” He held the picture up and studied the little bean that was captured on film. “It was no bigger than an apple seed, but it had a heartbeat,” she said through her tears.

“You held me when we heard the first thumps play and we cried right there on the exam table. Neither of us could be- lieve that something was living inside of me. Something you and I had created. “We were going to be great par- ents, Sam. We spent the whole day talk- ing about what kind of person he or she would be.” She wiped the tears from her face and laughed. “You were convinced it was a boy.” He looked up from the

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ultrasound picture and smiled at her. “You couldn’t wait to teach him how to play video games and baseball. “I was convinced it was a girl who would have you wrapped around her fin- ger from the moment she took her first breath. You were still determined to teach her all the things you’d teach a son.”

Sam laid the picture back in the box and took her hand in his. He squeezed it as if giving her the courage she needed to proceed. “You were so protective of me it got on my nerves!” He smiled at her and she loved seeing the look on his face. “I'm sure I was,” he teased. “Oh, you can’t begin to know what all you did.” She rolled her eyes, but her tone was playful. “You drove me to work every day because you didn’t want me driving behind buses.” She slid him a

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sideways glance. He was smiling. “You wouldn’t let me lift anything heavier than a pen. You don’t know how annoying that was for me.” He laughed this time and it was like music to her ears. “In those few days, when everything was perfect,” she recalled, “There wasn’t a time when you didn’t have your hand on my belly, talking to the baby – telling it everything you, we, were going to do. I swear this kid was go- ing to be so spoiled.” Lil laughed again, but it wasn’t long lived. “It was a Friday, just four days after we heard its heartbeat. I wasn’t feel- ing well so I didn’t go into work. Every- one told me that my first trimester would be draining. That all I’d want to do, when I wasn’t throwing up, was sleep. They were right.”

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This is where the story got diffi- cult for her. Retelling the part that led up to them losing each other. “When I woke up a little later on, I was bleeding. I freaked out. I didn’t know what to do. I tried calling your of- fice but it went straight to voice mail. I knew I had to get to the doctor. I called them and explained what was going on. They told me to go straight to the emer- gency room. “I called and called you but you never picked up. It wasn’t until later that I remembered you saying that you had a meeting that morning.” Lil sighed heav- ily. “I called Ellie. She rushed over and took me to the hospital. She took over trying to call you because I was cramping so bad I could barely speak. “She got through, to who we don’t know, but she left a message for you to call her.” That still bothered Lil. She

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didn’t know who took the message, but they failed to pass it on to Sam. It wouldn’t have saved their baby, but maybe him being there for her earlier than he was, would have helped saved their relationship. “You didn’t show up until I was already home. Ellie stayed with me until you got off work. You never got the mes- sage and I knew you were telling the truth. That night, we cried and held each other but after that…” Lil shrugged her shoulders. “That was the last night we were us.” “Lil.” Sam sighed, but Lil held up her hand, halting his words from going any further. “Please,” she said through her tears. “Let me get this out.” After taking a deep breath, she continued to the worst part of it all. Not that losing a child

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wasn’t awful, but losing Sam tore her world upside down. “After that night, we retreated in our own shells. We tried being there for one another, I can see that now, but it was hard for us to console each other when I hardly came out of the bedroom and you hardly came in. “It’s taken a lot of therapy for me to realize that it wasn’t your fault, that I was just as much to blame.” At Sam’s per- plexed expression, Lil added, “we stopped talking. I didn’t talk to you. I didn’t tell you how bad it hurt that you pulled away from me. It was like you couldn’t look at me. I was afraid you thought I was a fail- ure of a woman.” Her sobs racked her body. Lil felt the couch dip next to her and before she saw that he was next to her, she felt Sam’s arms as he pulled her close to him.

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This is what she had wanted all those years ago. She wanted him to hold her tight and tell her it was going to be okay. She wanted to be able to tell him all her fears then maybe he’d still be here now. She rested her head on his chest. The tears fell like rain, soaking his shirt. The harder she cried, the tighter he held her.

Finally she said, “When you left, you said we needed some space. I re- member thinking, isn’t that what we’ve been giving each other? Space? We were both hurting, Sam, and instead of turning to the other to get us through the hardest time in our relationship, you turned to work, and I turned into a walking zombie. “The problem with you giving me space was that you never came back. I should have gone after you, but I was so lost in myself that I couldn’t fathom how torn up you were too.” She looked up at

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him, her face streaked with tears. “My therapist has been really great at helping me see things. I just wish I had been smarter. That both of us would have been smarter. We should have fought for each other and we didn’t. Along with the baby, I lost the only man I ever loved.” The only man she still loved, she wanted to add but was afraid it was too soon after telling him about their break up. “The thing is,” she said, gripping his shirt in her fist. “I can see we were both to blame but it’s like a piece to the puzzle is still missing. I can’t fully come to terms with what happened to us until you tell me. You never did tell me,” she mumbled into his chest. “I’m sorry,” he whispered and kissed the top of her head. “Lil, I don’t know what else to say other than I’m sorry.” His voice hitched as he apologized for sins he couldn’t remember

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committing. She didn’t have to see his face to know that he was crying too. She sank further into him as he continued to hold her. She wasn’t sure if he was trying to make up for lost time and she didn’t care. Until Sam re- membered she wouldn’t get the answers she so desperately sought. But for now, for now she’d settle for being in his arms, and being held. Being the one who once carried his unborn child. The woman, Lil now realized who was still madly in love with him.

133

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 20

Sam held Lil well into the early morning hours. They stayed, wrapped in one an- other, on the couch, until the sun coming in through the window roused him. He hated that he had caused her so much pain in the past. What had he been thinking? How could he have pulled away from her? How could he have let her push him away?

If this was the kind of man he had turned into, he didn’t want to ever

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remember the last three years. A man who wasn’t there for the woman he loved in her greatest time of need. A man who had abandoned his best friends all for the sake of a job. A man who was going to marry a woman, who he wasn’t sure wanted him for him – but wanted him because he excelled and would be a great leader in her father’s company. The same man who let her father dictate his life. He knew he’d never truly be homeless. He had Kane and Abe he could turn to. He hoped he did. Things had taken a turn for the better between them but Sam knew how much they regarded their space. He also had his father. And speaking of his father… Sam needed to talk to him. It wasn’t that he doubted Lil. There were al- ways two sides to every story and he needed to hear from those, other than Lil, who knew him best.

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The angel in his arms started to stir. He gave her a gentle squeeze and kissed the top of her head. She sighed dreamily further into his embrace. “Good morning,” he said to her. A smile danced on his face. “Morning,” she said in a thick voice, a reminder of how she had spent most of the night crying. “You want me to make some cof- fee?” She nodded into his chest. He con- tinued to hold her as she burrowed her- self against him. He laughed silently, sending vibrations across both of their bodies.

She picked her head up and looked at him, her eyes drawn together. “What’s so funny?” Sam shook his head. “Nothing. I just can’t make coffee if we stay like this all day.”

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Lil grumbled and pushed away from Sam but not before he caught her wrist and pulled her to him again. He placed a chaste kiss on her lips and moaned. “That makes a better morning,” he said. She kissed him back, being care- ful not to open her mouth for him, he no- ticed. Not that morning breath would have deterred him. Lil finally extracted herself from Sam and went to the bathroom. Sam stood from the couch, stretching his sore muscles. Sleeping so awkwardly on the couch might not have been the most com- fortable, but having Lil in his arms all- night more than made up for it. Sam pulled the coffee and filters out of the cabinet and picked up the carafe to fill it with water. He heard the shower in the bathroom cut on and he

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instantly pictured Lil naked, soaping her- self up.

“Sam!” he heard her holler. It was nothing like how he imagined her calling out his name in the throes of passion. Why would she sound so frantic? He ran the small distance from the kitchen to the bathroom, throwing the door open in his haste. Lil stood in front of the tub, the curtain pulled back, with her toothbrush in her mouth and nothing but the T-shirt she had slept in and a pair of panties. “What happened?” he asked, doing his best to keep his eyes averted to hers. He would not look down at her legs, so long and lean. He would not. Okay, he did.

Lil, too caught up in whatever had her screaming to notice his silent appre- ciation of her body, spit toothpaste out of her mouth. She then began waving her

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toothbrush frantically at the open shower.

“I don’t know,” her voice said, rising. “I turned the shower on and,” she waved her poor toothbrush back and forth, up and down, “nothing! No water is coming out!” Sam’s eyes widened. As the son of

a plumber, he had a feeling he knew what the problem was, and it wasn’t good. “Shit,” he cursed. “Lil, have you winterized the house this year?” Lil shook her head no. “Zach nor- mally does that for me before Christmas because the snow doesn’t get bad until

then, but this year it’s come early. With everything going on lately, I haven’t given

it a second thought.”

“We need to turn off the water.” “Sam,” Lil said in a shaky tone. “What’s going on?”

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He ran his fingers through his hair. “Lil, you might have a frozen pipe somewhere. If we don’t get the water off and one of the taps gets turned on from inside the house, it could burst. I’m going to go out to the meter and turn the water off.”

“Okay,” she said. “What do I need

to do?”

Sam closed his eyes and took a long, deep calming breath. “Put some pants on before I say fuck the pipes and take you straight to bed.” Sam wanted to laugh at Lil’s dumbstruck expression. He knew it wouldn’t bode well if he did so he sprin- ted out of the bathroom to the living room where he put his shoes on without tying them. He grabbed his coat and headed out the front door to the meter buried in the front yard.

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He took one step outside and froze. Not just because of the chill in the air, but because snow was everywhere. At least a foot or so deep covering the lawn. “Lil,” he yelled. He heard her footsteps as she ran across the hardwood floor. He knew she was behind him be- cause of the sharp inhale of breath she took and the adorable curse word she let slip.

“Get the shovel,” Sam said. “This isn’t going to be as easy as I thought.” ~~~~ After Sam and Lil had shoveled their way to the meter, he turned off the water to the house. They then went inside and turned on every single faucet to determ- ine where the frozen pipe might be. In the kitchen, water trickled out, unlike the other taps in the house. Sam had located the problem.

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He called his dad to come over and help. As a retired plumber, Paul Travers had been the best in the biz. It could have been because he was one of the few plumbers in Fair Haven but, as far as Sam was concerned, he was the best.

In the midst of the plumbing dis- aster, Lil nearly had a nervous break- down when she had gotten an unexpected call from a client needing a last minute ordered filled before Christmas Eve. With no way to take a shower, and no way to tell her client no, Lil had no choice but to go into the office and fulfill her customers wishes.

“I hate to leave you with this,” she said as she tied her hair up on top of her head, then wrapped a scarf around her neck.

“He

should be over in a bit.”

“I

called

Dad,”

Sam

said.

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“Are you going to be okay? You know, by yourself here?” Sam laughed. “Lil, if I made it through this morning seeing you in noth- ing but that damn t-shirt, I’m pretty sure I’ll be okay by myself. I’m a big boy.” Lil licked her lips and Sam

smirked. “Go,” he urged, helping her into her coat. “I’ve got this.” He spun her around and pulled her tight against his chest.

“Tell your dad I’ll pay him,” she said, her mouth inches from his. He kissed her on the lips, silen- cing her words. “You won’t. You know Dad won’t take your money. Now,” he said, giving her a flirtatious smile. “Go make pretty pictures. I’ll be here when you get home.” “You will?” she asked.

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Sam nodded and kissed her once again. This time, his tongue slipped into her mouth. Her hands tightened on his shoulders. He pulled back and tucked a stray piece of hair that had fallen across her forehead. “If that’s okay,” he said. “I mean, I don’t have to stay the night again, I just thought maybe we’d do something to- night. Dinner or…” He shrugged. Hon- estly, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. Sam only knew he wanted to spend all the time he could with Lil. “Yes,” she said in a small voice. “I’d like that.” Sam grinned; her saying yes and the smile that graced her face was enough to make him feel warm all over. With an- other kiss, they said goodbye. Sam now had a plumbing problem to sort out. ~~~~

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Three hours later, Sam stood next to his father who was under Lil’s kitchen sink. He sat up, careful not to hit his head on the cabinets. He wiped away the grease and pipe dope from his fingers with the rag he carried in his back pocket on all of his jobs.

“You did good, son,” Paul said standing up. “If you had been able to turn on the water to make coffee I have no doubt it would have burst.” Right. The coffee. Sam had long forgotten about making the coffee. “Thanks, Dad. And Lil says thanks too.” His dad brushed the thanks away with the wave of his dirty rag. “I’d do any- thing for that girl,” he said. With a wink he added, “and you too. “I’m going to go ahead and win- terize her pipes while I’m here,” Paul commented. “Don’t want it to be worse

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next time. At least the house isn’t on a slab; it's a little more bearable.” For the next several minutes, Sam assisted his dad in securing the pipes for the onslaught of a freezing winter. They worked in a compatible silence that drove Sam crazy. He had all these questions for his dad but he couldn’t bring himself to ask any of them. Deep down, Sam was afraid of what his dad was going to tell him.

“So,” Paul said, before Sam could open his mouth. “You think maybe you’ll bring Lil by the house tomorrow night for the Christmas party? Everyone would love to see her.” Sam had forgotten about his dad’s yearly party. Even with Lil bringing it up the night before. “I’ll ask her.” He wasn’t sure if she’d agree to go or not. Consider- ing the last one she had been to, Sam had announced to all of his family and his

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dad’s friends he and Lil were going to be parents. “Things seem to be going well for you two,” Paul said. “You could say that.” His dad grinned, one that said he knew his son was full of shit. “Uh-huh,” he replied. “Lil call you this morning and ask for your help?” Sam scratched the back of his neck and looked down at his feet. “I uh…stayedthenight.” Paul’s smile grew. “Run that by me again.” Sam inhaled and said slower, “I stayed the night.” “Oh you did?” “It’s not what you think, Dad. Lil…she told me about the baby.” The smile on Paul’s face dropped. “Oh, son. I’m sorry.” He laid his hand on

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Sam’s shoulder and gave him a gentle squeeze. “How’d you take the news?” “What part? The part where she told me I was going to be a father? I was going to have a baby? Or the part where she told me that I pulled away and gave her space and never came back?” He watched his dad’s head lower, unable to meet his eyes. “It's true then?” he questioned. “I left her?” “Sam,” Paul said, sighing. “You were both hurting. Lil, I don’t know what was going through Lil’s head. I can’t be- gin to imagine. But you? Yeah.” He nod- ded. “You pretty much let her grieve on her own.” “Fuck,” Sam mumbled. His dad finally met his stare and what Sam saw nearly did him in. His dad looked at him, not like a father proud of his son, but of a man who didn’t respect him.

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“Did no one try to talk to me? Make me see that the best thing that ever happened to me needed me?” “We did but…you wouldn’t hear it. You said Lil would come around when she was ready to. You weren’t going to push her. She needed time and so did you. Personally,” his dad added, “I’ve al- ways thought it was a bullshit excuse, one I’m not sure is the whole truth but then again what do I know?” Sam braced himself for the biggest question of all. The one that he feared knowing the answer to. The one that could honestly, break him at this point.

In a tone barely above a whisper, Sam asked, “Dad? What kind of person am I?”

It felt like minutes passed before Paul answered him. When he did, Sam was thankful his hands were braced on

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the bathroom sink. Without it, he would

have surely fallen at his father’s words. “Not the kind I raised you to be.”

145

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 21

Lil had to take it slow on the roads on her way home from work, but her heavy foot had other intentions. Sam was waiting for her at their house. At her house, she cor- rected herself. But still. It was like it used to be. Him arriving home before she did. A date night in the works. She wondered what he had planned. Would he wine and dine her? Take her to their cove down by the river? Or would he settle for a relax- ing evening at home? She quickly nixed the relaxing evening idea. She was

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pumped to get out of the house, to be seen around town with him. Hold his hand, steal kisses as often as she could. She pulled into her driveway, ex- cited for whatever the night brought on. What would she wear? What would he wear? Had he gone home to change, or better yet, to pack a bag to stay over? Lil was getting ahead of herself in thinking that he wanted to stay the night. Technic- ally he already had. Twice. But, those weren’t premeditated. They just happened. Tonight, however. Tonight they were playing a whole new ballgame. Slowly so that she didn’t slip – because Heavens knew she didn’t want to end up in the same predicament as Sam – she walked up the few steps that lead to her front door. She opened the door, the urge to call out ‘honey, I’m home’, almost too good to pass up. The words caught in her throat when she saw Sam, leaned

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against her kitchen bar, his foot crossed in front of the other, doing something on his phone. He was dressed in a pair of brown trendy loafers – ones Lil couldn’t help but admire on his feet. They might not have been his signature ratty Converse, but they made her think he had put in a real effort to try and impress her tonight. His shirt was a blue oxford button down, with the first two buttons undone and his white T-shirt peeking out under- neath. And his jeans were dark denim, faded from the thigh down just past the knees. Because his hair had gotten a little longer than he was probably used to wearing it now, he had tried to style it with some kind of gel. It had that I-tried- to-make-it-look-messy look. Lil approved. Sam took that moment to look up from his phone and smile at her as she

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shut the door behind her. He pushed off the bar and had a swagger in his step as he closed the distance between them. Lil on the other hand, was unable to move. She hoped she had at least closed her gaping mouth. His grin turned into a smirk that had Lil wanting to spend the whole night in his arms, in bed, doing things that people did in beds. Or couches. Wherever. She wasn’t going to be picky. He undid the buttons of her coat and slipped his hands inside, tugging her closer until his mouth pressed against hers.

Lil had missed this. This feeling of completeness from the man she loved. That wonderful feeling of having someone waiting for you when you came home from a long day at work. To be kissed like she was the most important person in the world.

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“Hi,” he whispered against her

lips.

“Hi,” Lil repeated, unable to get much else out. “How long do you need to get

ready?”

“Depends. Where are we going?” Sam helped her out of her jacket and hung it on the hook for her. She laid her purse down on the couch and flopped down, grateful to be home at last. Grate- ful to be coming home to him. Sam took a seat next to her, his hand moving gently up and down her thigh.

“When was the last time you went to Rusty’s?” he asked. Lil thought it was an odd question but she answered none the less. “I don’t know. A while I guess.” “I thought we’d start there. I know Rusty would love to see you.”

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Lil nodded. Rusty’s would work. It was their familiar old stomping grounds. Besides, she’d love to see Rusty herself.

“I hope your dad fixed the plumb- ing because if not, I’m afraid Rusty’s will be the only place we can go to tonight.” Sam laughed, his eyes twinkling when he did. “Everything is good to go and he even winterized the pipes for you.” “He did not!” Lil exclaimed. “Sam, I could have paid him for that.” Sam shrugged her comment off. “He wouldn’t have taken it, you know that. Besides,” he said, leaning in, steal- ing a kiss. “He loves you. You should have been calling him all these years to have him do it.” He was right, of course. Paul Travers was the first person she thought of each year when the weathermen warned of the impending snow. But, she

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couldn’t bring herself to call him. It would have inevitably lead to discussions of Sam, or how she was, and she hadn’t been ready to travel down that road. Hell, up until a few weeks ago she still wasn’t. Amazing what a little communication did for people. “I need to shower,” she stated. “Maybe give me half an hour? I’ll be quick.”

“Take all the time you need. We can afford it,” Sam said. But could they? ~~~~ Forty-five minutes later, Sam and Lil were in her car headed for Rusty’s. She had let him drive, without even giving it a second thought. He glanced over every now and then as he drove with one hand on the wheel and one hand holding hers. Every time he glanced her way, she could see out of the corner of her eye that he

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had a smirk on his face. If she weren’t in such a good mood, she would have knocked it right off of him. Sighing Lil said, “Fine! I know I said half an hour but it took longer to blow dry my hair.” Sam laughed, squeez- ing her hand in the process. “It’s cold out,” she whined. “You wouldn’t want me to catch pneumonia would you?” She bat- ted her eyelashes at him while simultan- eously poking out her bottom lip. Sam brought their intertwined fingers to up to his mouth and kissed her hand. “I’d hate myself if I would have rushed you. You look beautiful, by the way,” he said. Lil thought the darkness of the car would help hide her smile but she was mistaken. She knew Sam saw just how his words affected her. It wasn’t anything special, what she was wearing. A pair of skinny jeans tucked into her knee length brown boots.

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The shirt, hidden at the moment by her jacket, was a crème off-the-shoulder sweater. “Thank you,” she whispered. “You look pretty great yourself.” They pulled into the parking lot of Rusty’s and Sam nearly had another acci- dent as he rushed to her side to open the door. Hand in hand, they walked through the cars and into the neon lights of Rusty’s.

Lil looked around as they entered; the place looked exactly the same as she remembered. She should have stopped by more often to see Rusty, but with work and…Oh, who was she kidding. Lil had no one to blame but herself. She hadn’t stopped in because she didn’t want to re- member the good times she used to have here or risk the chance of running into Sam.

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Rusty spotted them as soon as they entered, whistling their arrival. Lil smiled and walked in long strides up to the bar top, practically dragging Sam in her wake. She released his hand and hopped up on the edge, balancing herself on her forearms and kissed Rusty on the cheek. He blushed at her affection but smiled when he noticed Sam behind her. “Well, the gang’s all officially here!” Rusty bellowed. Sam slid his arms around Lil’s waist. “What do you mean?” Rusty nodded to where their table sat. “The boyfriends and Ellie and her new man are in the back.” Sam and Lil turned their heads at the same time and sure enough, the gang was all there. “You two go on ahead,” Rusty said. “I’ll bring over your drinks.” He laughed more to himself when he added,

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“And if I get too backed up, I’ll just holler for Ellie to get her ass up here and bring them to you. I can tell the way she’s giv- ing my waitresses the stink eye she’s dy- ing to put an apron back on and show them how it’s done.” Sam and Lil said their thanks to Rusty and headed to the table of their friends. They walked through the tables, hand in hand, until they arrived at the place they had sat at many nights. Four pairs of eyes looked up when Sam and Lil towered over them, their gazes glued to their intertwined hands. Thinking noth- ing of it, Lil released Sam's hand when he made work to remove her coat. “Hello longtime friends,” Lil said brightly. “Thanks for the drink, doll.” She grinned at Kane and popped the cherry from his glass into her mouth. Sam held out her chair then took the empty seat next to her and Kane. Abe

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was next to Zach, practically in the poor boy’s lap. “Lil!” Abe squealed. “I think I'm

in love.”

 

“You're

cut

off,”

Kane

said

blandly.

Zach's eyes cut to Abe as he inched closer and closer to Zach. Lil giggled in front of everyone. “Abe, babe, Zach is clearly hetero.” “So.” Abe pouted, crossing his arms over his chest. “I can look. This ass,” he said nodding to his boyfriend, “won’t let me touch.” “You're scaring him,” Kane

replied.

“Am not. I'm not scaring you, am I?” Abe's looked at Zach and batted his lashes.

Rusty brought their drinks, deliv- ering refills to almost everyone at the table. Everyone except for Abe. Kane

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mouthed a silent thank you to Rusty who chuckled as he walked away. “Abe,” Ellie said in a serious tone. “My man doesn’t want what you’ve got. I keep him perfectly satisfied.” She leaned over and nuzzled her face in Zach’s neck. Zack kissed the top of her head, smiling down at Ellie and keeping his eyes off of Abe.

“Zach,” Abe said, his voice sickly sweet. “Who has a better ass?” Ellie lifted her head and glared at

Abe.

“Anyway,” Lil said, hoping to get the focus off of Abe’s new crush. “What brings everyone out tonight?” “It’s Friday night,” Kane said as if nothing had changed and they all still hung out at Rusty’s every Friday night. “We were going to go to the movies,” Ellie said, “but we decided to run in here and say hi to Russ

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beforehand. We saw these two and de- cided…well as you can see, Abe hasn’t let Zach out of his sight.” Ellie looked at her watch and let out an exaggerated sigh. “That was almost an hour ago.” “I for one am glad we’re all here,” Sam said, throwing his arm over the back of Lil’s chair. As if it were the most natur- al thing in the world, Lil scooted closer until she was tucked away under his arm. Kane sipped his drink while Abe took a swallow of his glass of water, their eyes asking a million questions that neither wanted to ask aloud. Ellie arched an eyebrow to Lil but Lil shook her head briefly. She didn’t want this night ruined with questions she didn’t know the an- swers to. Zach on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the close nature Lil and Sam had acquired.