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Wicked Paradise: An Alpha Billionaire Romance by Tia Lewis (35)

Amanda

He always had a way of getting through to me. I could never hold him at arm’s length for long. Back when we were kids together, our friends used to take bets on how long I’d stay mad when we fought. Both of us were hard headed and never the type to enjoy saying we were wrong. So fights would go on for days, weeks sometimes. He’d be over it long before I was. And that would piss me off even more. How could he not care that I was mad? How could he not want to talk to me? Didn’t it rip him apart the way it ripped me apart?

But it never lasted. I couldn’t be away from him for too long or else I’d die. It was as simple as that. It was always as simple as that for a hormone-crazed teenager. I had gone twenty years without him and survived just fine, hadn’t I? I hadn’t died, and I wouldn’t die just because he was dredging all that old stuff up for me.

I took the pie to the kitchen and pulled out two plates. I heard him moving things around in the living room and left him to it for the moment while I got my head together. How did he always make me do what he wanted me to do? When I was determined not to give in. Pride already kept me away for too long; I reminded myself. I couldn’t let it screw me over when I needed help.

The house was tidy and free of obvious clutter, but there was a good forty years of life stored inside. Craig was always a sentimentalist. He got rid of only some of the things his parents had collected over the years—he’d replaced the cookware, given away the clothes that didn’t hold any emotional value. But there was so much left. The basement, the attic. I’d already had a good cry after a short temper tantrum when the enormity of it hit me.

“Do you want coffee?” I called out to Dawson as I sliced.

“Oh, God, yes.” He sounded just about as overwhelmed as I’d felt earlier.

“So you started looking through the boxes,” I smirked. I had pulled a few up from the basement in a futile attempt to start organizing.

“I never took him to be a packrat,” he said. “Maybe we should just take out storage space and put it all there and be done with it.” I walked out to the living room with a tray and saw him standing there with hands on hips, shaking his head.

“Like shoving everything under the bed instead of cleaning your room.” I set the coffee and pie on the coffee table and sat next to him.

“I never did that.”

“Yes, you did. I checked once or twice when you left me alone in there. You have a bad habit of shoving things away, don’t you?”

A smile played at the corners of his mouth as he took a bite of pie. I couldn’t help watching as his tongue darted out to catch a crumb before it fell from his lips. I swallowed hard.

“So what do you think we should do?” he asked, looking around. “Do you really think we’ll get through this?”

“Let’s be realistic. We’ll get it done. We just have to do it and not waste time. No reminiscing. No Memory Lane. Let’s just get through it.” And that would help avoid arguments and misunderstandings, too. Not to mention making it easier for me to leave when I needed to.

To my surprise, he got right to work, deciding which sections of the living room would contain boxes of garbage and boxes of things to donate. I followed his lead and started making a list of what had to go. “What do you think about the TV and stuff? Could we sell it?”

He shrugged. “For what? I mean, to what purpose?”

“I don’t know. I thought maybe the clinic could use the money? I’m sure he would like it if there was a fund, maybe, for people who can’t pay their bills.”

“That’s not a bad idea. We could sell the big items—but clothes and stuff? They’ll do just as much good for people who can’t afford to buy off the rack.”

“That’s true, too.” I glanced at him over my shoulder. “Did he tell you anything about a Will?”

Dawson shook his head. “We didn’t talk about post…death.” He lowered his eyes. “He didn’t want to talk about what would happen after he was gone.”

I sat crossed legged in front of a box and started going through it. “I guess it would be a weird thing to talk about. The world going on after you’re gone.”

“I guess so. But some people do it, you know. They manage to talk about what they want their loved ones to do once they’re gone.”

I looked up at him. “Who?”

“People.”

It didn’t take long for me to figure out what he meant. “Oh, no. Your mom. I didn’t think.”

He shrugged it off. “There was nobody else here to help her through that, so…”

My chest tightened. I could’ve been there. I could’ve helped him through that. But no. And that wasn’t my fault. I squeezed my eyes shut against the memory of that last night together. We weren’t there to rehash old hurts, though I had just opened one up for him. I hadn’t thought about what happened to her or how he dealt with it. I had done everything possible to push him out of my heart after he pushed me out of his.

To change the subject, I asked, “Who stuck around? After school, I mean? Are you friendly with a lot of the people we used to know?”

“Yeah, lots of people stuck around. Jake and Shana got married. They have three kids now.”

I swallowed down the ache that popped up when he mentioned children. “That’s right; they were going to get married right after graduation.” At least one couple had managed to make it. I was glad it was them if it couldn’t be us.

“They did. Who else? Scott works with Frank over at the garage. Billy and Christa are teachers over at the high school now; Billy coaches the football team. I could name a dozen more, maybe two dozen.”

“I guess you see a lot of them at the diner,” I offered.

“Yeah, it’s like a reunion, especially on the weekends when everybody comes in after church.” He stacked two boxes in the “trash” section of the room. “Old papers and magazines,” he explained. “His mama saved everything. Lots of recipes in there.”

“The days before Pinterest,” I chuckled. “I remember making scrapbooks and folders full of things I pulled out of magazines.”

That memory brought up even more. “Is Miss Connie still running the beauty parlor?” I asked with a smile. So much for not going down Memory Lane. It was impossible to stay away.

“She handed the management over to her granddaughter, but she’s still booking appointments and sitting at the cash register.” He grinned. “She comes in every Saturday morning for the same breakfast. Rye toast, almost burnt, sliced strawberries and a mixture of cranberry and orange juice.”

“She’s such a character,” I said, smiling fondly. She was one of the many people who gave the town its charm, a charm even I could admit existed. A charm that hadn’t meant much to me when I was in the middle of it, a kid desperate to get the hell out and see more of the world, but one which had grown on me over time when I looked back with the sort of maturity time helped develop. Continuity was one thing I’d missed like hell in my adult life. Things moved so fast; work consumed so much of my time. It was nice to know some things hadn’t changed, and that some high school romances—like Jake and Shanna’s—could go on for decades.

I took the chance to ask him something that had been on my mind since walking into the diner that afternoon. “What made you decide to manage the diner?”

He opened a box labeled “Misc”—there were a lot of boxes with that label, I noticed to my chagrin—and talked while he sorted through. “It wasn’t a decision to manage the diner,” he murmured after a long pause.

“What do you mean?” I was only making conversation.

“I mean I didn’t wake up one morning and decide that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” His tone was sharp, and I recoiled behind his back like he had slapped me. I’d hit a sore spot. But how? It was an innocent question.

His voice was tight when he continued. “When I got home, there wasn’t much else for me to do. I had to find a job. Things didn’t go the way they were supposed to.”

“Things?”

“In the Navy.”

A lightbulb went on in my head. The close-cropped hair, the ridiculous body, the ink peeking out from beneath the cuffs of his t-shirt. His posture and bearing, both of which had changed dramatically in twenty years. I could just make out the outline of dog tags between his barrel chest and his shirt—he must’ve gotten in the habit of wearing them that way when he started working in a busy kitchen.

“You were in the military,” I breathed as it all came together. “I would’ve figured that out sooner if I were thinking clearer.”

“I joined on 9/13,” he said, and I didn’t need to ask which September thirteenth that was. I had just started law school at Columbia. “And I was in for five years. When I came home, I needed something to do.”

“You could’ve gone anywhere,” I reasoned.

“I like where I ended up just fine. I’m sorry it’s not good enough for you.” He brushed past me just a little harder than he needed to when he moved another box from one place to another. He slammed it down a little too hard, too.

“I never once said it wasn’t good enough. Why are you putting words in my mouth and getting mad?” He said he was happy, but how could he jump to the wrong conclusion? Was I the problem?

“I’m not mad.”

“You are. I still know what it looks like when you’re mad.” I sighed. How did it always end up that way?

He turned to me, and his jaw was tight. “You wanted more. You got more. When will you stop trying to get other people to want what you want?”

“Did I just step into an alternative universe? I wasn’t trying to get you to want anything!” It was all a mess. I never intended for things to go off the rails—and that, I reminded myself, was why Memory Lane was a dangerous place.

“No, but you’re letting me know that my life isn’t good enough for you. I should’ve gone to school. I should’ve made something of myself. Don’t forget, I know you, too. Say what you want, but I know what you mean.”

I was starting to wonder if he wasn’t a little insane. Where did he get that idea from? Yes, I was probably a little snobby when we were kids—more than a little—but that was a long time ago. He knew nothing about me anymore. He didn’t know anything I’d been through.

He took a step toward me, then another. The enormity of him was overwhelming—not just his size, but the size of everything between us. I wished I had the guts to say what I was feeling. He was dead wrong about me thinking he wasn’t good enough. He was being a little too selective when he thought about the old days. It was easy for him to remember things his way, not the way I did. The night he told me to leave him alone, for good, when I was under the illusion that we would be together forever. Pretty convenient, leaving that part out. But I couldn’t throw that back in his face, not just then, anyway. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough not to dissolve into tears. I had cried enough over that night.

Instead, I said, “You only think you know. You’re talking to a girl who existed twenty years ago, not to the person I am now. I can’t say it more simply than that. If this is what makes you happy, I’m happy for you.” It was easier for him to see things his way. If that made him happy, so be it. I wouldn’t disrupt his life when I wasn’t going to be part of it for much longer.

“It is. I’m actually, genuinely happy. I like my life.” He shrugged, palms up. “I like going into work. I like seeing my friends and neighbors every day. I like watching their kids grow up. I like feeling like I run a place that brings people together, corny as it might sound. It’s not exciting, but it’s real. And one day, when I get the money together, I’m buying the place.”

All I could do was nod. He looked around with a frown, running a hand through his cropped hair. “I think I’m finished here for the night. I’ll be back tomorrow. It’s been a long day—we both need some rest.” He didn’t look at me. He just left, and the slamming of the door felt more like a slap in the face.

I sank back against the couch cushions with my hands over my face, wondering how it went to hell so quickly.

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