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     “You want to cut all of this off?” the stylist asked me, winding what was nearly eighteen inches of hair around her fist.

     “Just above my shoulders,” I told her, watching her eyebrows raise speculatively.

     “I’m not trying to be difficult, Ava. I just…you’ve always had such beautiful hair and you’ve never asked me to cut it short before. Did you go through a bad breakup?”

     I swallowed hard. Yeah, you could say that…I was going through a breakup with life, as I knew it.

     Yes, my hair had always been my crowning glory, the thick blonde waves that I’d gotten from my mother. But after my first two appointments, I’d noticed I was losing more than was usual in the shower.

     Brushing my hair was terrifying.

     “Thanks, Kate. I know you’re only looking out for me.” I swallowed hard. “But if I’m being honest, this is a baby step. I’m going to lose it all anyway.”

     Kate paled and tears immediately sprang to her eyes as she absorbed my meaning.

     “Oh, Ava. I didn’t mean…I’m so sorry.”

     Don’t be. The cocktail doesn’t give a shit, so you shouldn’t either.

     Results had been in for a while. I had six rounds to go and expected by the next round I would be genuinely feeling it, hugging the toilet bowl and pulling out my hair by the fistfull.

     The best part? I’d be doing it alone.


     No boyfriend.

     No kids.

     My parents were dead and my sister Katharine no longer had anything to do with my adopted sister, Harlowe, or with me. She’d cut us off after her divorce and was living in seclusion somewhere overseas on her divorce settlement, from what I’d last heard.

     She’d always been too good for us, the girls who grew up in a bungalow in San Simeon.

     I’d had the chance to marry long ago. Nikolai and I had been together for almost ten years before he got tired of my reticence and walked out. He didn’t understand my fear of commitment, after seeing what Dad had done to Mom, even though I’d hardly been old enough to understand it myself.

     For my part, I still didn’t understand why I was so upset to see him go. He’d been comfortable and familiar and we were well suited to one another. We just weren’t…everything to one another. He wasn’t my world and I wasn’t his, which was fine until it wasn’t.

     Harlowe had settled in upstate New York and had six children with her ridiculously handsome husband, both of them well into their forties by now. I wasn’t all that far behind, if I was being honest. I was only a few years younger than Harlowe, age barrelling down on me like a bus with no brakes.

     The BRCA gene didn’t run in my family, so at least we’d ruled that out…but the lump in my left breast had been biopsied a month earlier and it wasn’t benign. My oncologist was optimistic, since it appeared to be largely contained. It hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, but he recommended a unilateral mastectomy. I would say I was thankful it wasn’t a double mastectomy, but that was a little humorous. I’d be walking around with one boob after my surgery, and there was no way I’d feel well enough to deal with much of anything for some time to come.

     Snapping out of my reverie, I looked up to realize that Kate’s lips were moving–I could see it in the mirror–and I tried desperately to dial back in. Something about her grandmother and a colonoscopy.

     “You just call me if there’s anything I can do to help,” she said, her eyes still watery, and I looked around me to realize a huge portion of my hair was already on the floor. I fought the wave of panic, because I had asked for it. I hadn’t wanted to pull great ropes of blonde hair from my head in the shower, or deal with a full wastebasket after a single brushing. But this…I swallowed hard. I’d prepared and I still wasn’t ready.

     “Thank you, Kate,” I said, my voice far smoother than I felt–thank God for that.

     Rising slowly from the chair, I paid for the cut and left Kate a large tip. She leaned over the counter and hugged me hard. We both knew I wouldn’t be back to see her for a very, very long time.

     It took me a minute, once I was out on the sidewalk, to put myself back together. I was finding it hard to breathe and I knew my eyes were watery, and when a woman on her cell phone slammed into me I didn’t even see it coming. I went down like a load of bricks, butt-first on the concrete, my palms flat to absorb the impact. Ow.

     “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” A woman with glossy, dark hair bent over me, her blue eyes only inches from mine. “Please forgive me, ma’am. I wasn’t paying attention–this was all my fault. Please…let me help you up.”

     Dazedly, I held out a palm and the woman winced when her hand touched mine, looking down as her eyes went wide.

     Now it was my turn to be sorry, because I was bleeding all over her.

     Quickly pulling me into a standing position, the woman dropped her phone into the tote over her shoulder and started fishing around in it for something. She quickly located a napkin and gently dabbed at my palms, not hers, which I found impressive. 

     “I’m so sorry.” She was almost in tears. “I didn’t see you–I was rushing and I was upset, and…” She dissolved then, folding in half right in front of me.


     I leaned over, folding my arms carefully around her. “Hey, it’s ok. Breathe. Come on…”

     Come on, it can’t be all that bad.

     I was distinctly uncomfortable.

     The woman shivered a few times, movements I thought might be suppressed sobs, and I waited until I felt her muscles relax, at which point I straightened and she followed my movement.

     She dashed at her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I’m…I’ve been distracted. Please tell me I haven’t seriously injured you.”

     I wanted to laugh. A few scrapes were nothing compared to the poison that was surely still coursing through my body, or the great indignity I would suffer in the space of only a few weeks. The third treatment, I’d been told, was when shit would start to get real.

     “I think the question is whether you’re ok.” I tried to deflect with a smile.

     “I will be.” She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “You know…poor decisions that come back to haunt you and all.”

     I had a few of those in my past, but given the way she was twisting at her ring finger, she was giving it all away without me having to ask the question.

     “Come on.” I smiled and held out a hand. “I’m celebrating a few more days of appetite–come have drinks or something with me?”

     I didn’t dare tell her it was because I felt like I didn’t have a friend in the world right now.

     What it was that led me to invite a complete stranger to dinner, I would ask myself time and time again in the future. I was not that person. I was friendly, but I didn’t go out of my way to meet new people. That was the old Ava, the one who hadn’t lost touch with herself. 

     The one who hadn’t lost touch with her family.

     The one who had a great, fulfilling job with a defense contractor.

     I held out one bloodied palm. “Ava Christensen.”

     She took my hand without hesitation, but was careful to avoid the scraped spot. “Julia. Everyone just calls me Jill. DuPont–er, Bannock.”

     “Well, Julia–Jill.” I ignored the slip and pointed at the Mexican restaurant just across the road. “Feel like a carne asada coma and maybe a margarita or four? I’d like to drink until I can’t feel my boobs anymore.”

     She giggled. “Yes, please,” and we crossed the street and were quickly directed to a table inside the restaurant. Considering it was only two in the afternoon, there wasn’t a lot of competition for the space, most of the lunch crowd already long since through.

     As we ate, Julia let it slip that her divorce had been finalized just before lunch and she’d been wandering around downtown, having a serious existential crisis and maybe a complete emotional breakdown. That had been when she mowed me over she said, ducking her head in shame. 

     She had been desperately in love with her husband of twelve years and admitted she’d ignored all the signs he was choosing to drift away from her.

     I listened quietly, nodding, giving her a supportive squeeze every time her eyes welled up again. I didn’t mind listening, because dealing with someone else’s problems was so much easier than dealing with, or even worrying about, my own. I had plenty of time and space to do that later.

     After a while I lost count of how many margaritas we had, but Julia’s eyes were finally sparkling with something that wasn’t tears, and I could no longer remember how to get home in a city I’d lived in for almost twenty years.

     “I’m gonna call my dad,” Julia hiccuped, pulling her phone from her bag and when I pulled my card from the folder, I glanced over to realize it was nearly dark outside. The restaurant was beginning to fill for dinner and chances were good we were going to have to be carried out.

     “Probably a good idea,” I agreed, pulling up a ride app on my phone. My place wasn’t far, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember how to get there and I didn’t trust that I wouldn’t just curl up on someone’s front step and go to sleep.

     We’d eaten so much, we didn’t have any leftovers and I was pretty sure that between the two of us the Blue Agave was going to have to be restocked before the night was out.

     I did a quick check while Julia hiccuped and giggled into her phone: handbag, keys, phone, wallet…wallet. Right. I slid the card into it that was still in my hand.

     “Pick us up right ousside,” she slurred, and I realized suddenly that the alcohol was still soaking into her system. She was a mess now, but she’d be so much worse in another half hour. I was going to have to wait with her to make sure she got into the right vehicle, then instruct her dad to keep flushing her with water. This was my fault, I was pretty sure. Well, maybe not…maybe mostly a shitty day and a shitty divorce, but I hadn’t meant for tequila to get quite so involved in either of our lives.

     Our waiter was giving us serious side-eye by the time we stood, and Julia swayed dangerously when she leaned over to pick up her bag. “Won’t sit still!” she giggled, groping for the straps and missing three or four times. 

     Looping my own bag over my shoulder, I put an arm around her waist to steady her and she leaned into me gratefully. “Ava, I think yer m’new bessfrend.”

     “You’re not going to think that in the morning,” I joked, and her grin was sloppy.

     “Thanks fer the…not lettin’ m’be ‘lone,” she said, and without warning my eyes filled with tears. That had been the very reason I’d invited her to have lunch with me, right? So I wouldn’t be alone.

     We lurched out onto the sidewalk and Julia blearily scanned the oncoming cars. “Shouldn’t take ‘im long; think was…at work.”

     I glanced at my watch when she said that, because it was well past seven. 

     A sleek black car with blacked-out windows pulled smoothly to the curb and the most beautiful silver fox I’d ever seen stepped from the car. My brain stopped working at that very moment, and I swear to you that the world stopped spinning. All I could see was the hottie in the sharp suit in front of me, fixing me with a glare that probably should have had me quaking. He looked pissed.

     “Julia Bannock,” he barked, and Julia hiccupped and giggled again.

     “Yessir, Daddy.”

     Daddy? Oh have mercy, I was in so much trouble. The things I wanted to do to her father, even in my state. Please, please, please let me call you Daddy too.

     “Get your ridiculously drunk little butt in the car, young lady. We’ll talk about this in the morning, once you’ve gone through the uncomfortable process of sobering up.”

     “But, Daddy…” Her face folded suddenly and she lurched toward him. 

     I saw it then, the softening of his expression when he saw her eyes filling, and he stepped forward to catch her. “I know, Tink. Forgive me, I’d forgotten that was today. I was supposed to be there.”

     Maybe for the first time, he seemed to realize that I wasn’t just an innocent bystander, and he lifted his cold blue eyes to sweep over me disdainfully. 

     “Daddy, c’we give…Ava’s need a ride home,” Jill said into the man’s shoulder and I quickly shook my head, which was a bad idea because it felt like something was sloshing around in there.

     “No, no,” I insisted. “Fine, just fine. I’ll use a ride app.”

     “You’ll do no such thing,” he barked. “Not in the state you’re in.”

     I bristled immediately at his tone. I didn’t take orders from anyone, thank you very much, especially men with grown-ass daughters who still called them Daddy.

     He must have interpreted my stubborn expression, because his nostrils flared. “Get in the car, young lady. This instant.”

     What was I, fourteen?

     I made a face at him and while he tucked Julia into the back seat, I pulled open the passenger door and sank into the low leather seat. I planned to scowl at him for the entirety of the very short trip to my doorstep.

     The man’s jaw was set when he dropped into the car, and I stole glances at him out of my peripheral vision.

     “Stop it,” he barked as he pulled away from the curb and into traffic.

     Oops, maybe not so peripheral.

     “Grumpy pants,” I muttered, and Julia erupted into laughter in the back seat. Something told me this man wasn’t teased–maybe not ever–and it seemed the protective father/submissive daughter relationship was firmly in place with these two.

     It took me a minute to realize we were leaving the city altogether. When I drank my sense of time and distance was absolute crap and I looked around, a little alarmed.

     “I’m not kidnapping you,” he rasped, and for the very first time I realized that the side of his face was scarred. Disfigured in a way that looked like he’d been on the wrong side of an acid attack, or maybe fire. It wasn’t horrifying, it was just noticeable in a way that made him less pretty, but somehow no less attractive.

     “If you have a question, ask it.” His voice was hard.

     “You were injured,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

     “Most people are at one point in their lives or another,” he responded, and I admired the way his wrist draped casually over the wheel. The man drove like the vehicle was an appendage, leaning gently into curves and braking smoothly.

     Whatever it was, maybe that was when his vocal cords had been injured, I thought. His voice was rough, sandpapery, raspy, like he was working on a wicked case of laryngitis that hadn’t yet fully taken hold. 

     A vision flashed behind my eyeballs, of pushing this man down on the floor and making him gasp my name in that sexy voice.

     Instantly my face flamed and though he didn’t seem to be looking at me, the man sensed it. “Why are you blushing?”

     “How can you even see that in the dark?” I sputtered, just as a loud snore rattled through the car.

     He didn’t answer me and the world was starting to spin, so I leaned my head back on the headrest and stopped worrying about where the angry man was taking me. The truth was that I wasn’t sure I cared right now, given the prognosis I was facing. 

     So what if life was a little more interesting than usual for one night, even if that meant this guy was a serial killer? 

     When the latch on my door popped, my eyes flew open. An arm was sliding beneath my legs, another around my back and before I knew what was happening, I had a mouthful of very expensive wool and my nose was filled with something that smelled incredible, like sandalwood and leather.

     “Ummm…” I turned my head to lay it on my shoulder and succeeded instead in pressing my face into his neck.

     Oh, well. You only live once.

     “You smell nice,” I sighed and a sound rumbled out of his chest that I thought might have been laughter, but it could have been a sound of disapproval as well.

     “I am not in the habit of taking strange women home.” His voice was right in my ear. “But you are in no state to be left alone. Do not make me regret this.” It sounded like he said something else, something muttered so low that it may have been nothing at all.

     The world spun and I closed my eyes, letting myself enjoy the feeling of being held by someone. It had been a long time. The last time I could remember was…well, I couldn’t exactly remember.

     The world pitched and shifted a bit as he carried me up a set of stairs, turning to angle us in through the doors and his shoes rang out sharply on polished wood floors as he carried me through a space filled with bright light. I shut my eyes tightly against it, a premonition of what the morning would feel like.

     Then there was blessed darkness, the quiet of a thick rug underfoot, and when he leaned over there were the softest sheets touching the bare skin of my arms and the backs of my legs. 

     It was like being tucked into a cloud.

     “If you’re going to throw up,” there was that sexy voice again, “lean over the side of the bed. I’ll leave a bucket on the floor.”

     I rolled blearily away from the sound, the room spinning mercilessly, and the next thing I knew I was being lifted into a sitting position.

     “Take these or you’ll be quite sorry in the morning.” Two tablets were pressed into my hand and when I placed them in my mouth a glass of water took their place. I must have kept missing my mouth, because he helped me keep the glass steady and when I finished it he chuckled, “Good girl.”

     Yes, Daddy.

     Oh boy, I was going to need something stronger than painkillers.

     Blankets were tucked up around my shoulders and thick fingers gently brushed the hair back off my face. I might have imagined it, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t. I felt like he lingered. Or maybe…maybe it was all some kind of weird dream and when I woke in the morning, I’d be in my own bed with a banging headache.



     There was a gorgeous blonde in my bed and I wasn’t in it, which was a crying shame–the lower half of my body thought so anyway. Little Brain had perked right up when I laid the barely-conscious woman in my bed and her dress rode up far enough to reveal smooth, golden thighs.

     Yeah, I was a leg guy. I made no excuses for that.

     Problem was, now I had to go find another place to sleep and I didn’t like any of the other beds in the house as well as my own.

     Why had I put the woman in my bed? She’d probably vomit all over the sheets and then I’d have to burn them and buy another set. That would be the real shame, waiting for another set to arrive from France, the waste of too many zeroes.

     There were a number of things I was particular about, and sheets were one of those things. Buddies teased me that I’d gone soft after time in the Army, but the truth of it was that I couldn’t sleep on anything rough or scratchy. It chafed at my nerve endings and set my brain on fire, and the only way to get a decent night’s rest was to shell out the big bucks for sheets that felt like they’d been knitted by the angels.

      Julia was tucked into her room upstairs, in the bed she’d slept in every night from the age of twelve until she left at twenty-three to marry that DuPont jackass. That had lasted longer than I’d expected, but it ended exactly the way I’d feared, with DuPont falling dick-first into some other woman and breaking my daughter’s heart.

     Oh, I made sure the settlement saw Julia set up, but no amount of money would undo the hurt he’d caused and there was one thing I set out to do when my baby had been hurt: destroy.

     When Julia called me from a restaurant downtown, I remembered suddenly that today was the day her divorce had been finalized and I felt like the world’s worst father. I had promised to be there for her, then promptly lost track of entire days of the week, thanks to a job that was all-consuming on the best of days.

     Most days, I liked it that way. There was nothing else to fill my time–I didn’t even keep a goldfish at home–and my daughter always teased that I was the only guy she knew who could pack a bag and be out the door in under five minutes.

     Truth was that I had next to nothing keeping me in Washington, D.C.–just my daughter, and she was only there because of the asshat she’d married and now divorced. I had yet to decide whether that was a relief.

     Finally, I settled on the fourth bedroom in the house. It was upstairs, at the opposite end of the house from my room, and the sheets on the twin bed were passable enough that I wouldn’t wake up feeling like I’d been rolling around in glass shards.

     I used the bathroom in the hall to clean up for the night, then stripped off my jacket and shirt and wandered back downstairs for a glass of milk. Considered pouring a little vodka into it too, after the day I’d had at work, but that felt a little hypocritical after sternly dressing down both women for their overconsumption. Especially since if anyone needed something during the night, at least one of us needed to be sober.

     Despite going from my comfortable king size bed to the twin I wasn’t sure was large enough for a cat, I crawled beneath the soft blankets and managed a halfway decent night’s sleep.

     As usual, I was up before the sun in the morning. Didn’t matter that it was a Saturday; there was always more shit to get done, and on my way back from my morning run I picked up fresh orange juice and a selection of bagels and toppings. It was the breakfast Julia and I started having when she was in high school and she learned about lox, still one of her favorite bagel toppings, as long as cream cheese and capers were involved. 

     She’d have made a wonderful wife to a Jewish man, I’d teased, yet she’d married that English asshole.

     The house was utterly silent when I let myself inside and I looked at the sports watch on my left wrist, impressed by my own distance, time and the number of steps I’d already shaved off the day’s total. However, it was nearing eight and the house wasn’t stirring.

     Putting some coffee on to brew and arranging the breakfast spread, I tripped over something near the kitchen island.

     Smirking, I leaned over and snagged the delicate high heel from the floor. It appeared I had tucked a woman into my bed wearing one shoe, something I would have certainly remedied had I realized she hadn’t kicked both of them off when we walked into the house.

     I poured a tall mug of coffee and shook out two pain pills before grabbing the shoe and walking down the hallway.

     “Good morning, Cindy,” I called as I set the coffee and the pills on the bedside table, then moved across the room to open the blinds and let some of the daylight in. The space could become dark and oppressive if the windows remained closed too long into the day.

     “Not Cindy,” I heard the woman mumble like she had a mouthful of fur.

     “If the shoe fits,” I responded, noticing at some point she’d apparently kicked off the other shoe because it was halfway between the bed and the bathroom door.

     A gorgeous blonde pushed herself up to a sitting position and I realized what a great disservice last evening’s low light had done her and what a fool I’d been not to take a closer look. She was a knockout.

     “I’m Ava.” Her voice sounded like her throat must hurt.

     Collecting the other shoe from the middle of the room, I set the pair next to the side of the bed and observed the bucket was still empty.

     “Whatever you say, darlin’. Just know I found one of the glass slippers in the kitchen–damn near broke my neck tripping over the thing.”

     “Suppose that makes you the king of the castle then,” she grunted, clearly having caught on. “Don’t suppose there’s a handsome young prince kicking around here looking to kneel at my feet and help me into my shoes.” She lingered pointedly on the word young.

     “Pffft.” I blew out an irritated breath. “Stupid kids don’t know their asses from their elbows. You want a job done right, you find the guy who’s been ruling the country a while.”

     She snorted, and I knew then that she’d baited me and I’d fallen right into her trap.

     “Breakfast is on,” I snapped, opening the last set of shutters with a sharp snap and leaving the room before I could perv on her and watch her slip from the bed to slide her feet into those incredible shoes.

     Julia was down the stairs five minutes later, one hand over the left side of her face like she needed to hold it onto her head, and she grunted as she shuffled into the kitchen. “Gringo’s margaritas are the devil,” she groaned, and I slid a mug of coffee and a cup of orange juice across the island to rest in front of her as she collapsed onto a stool.

     There was a delicate tapping noise and I looked up to see the other woman emerge from the back hallway and into the living area, shoes already on her feet. I probably made a face, because I could just imagine what those shoes were doing to my pristine hardwood floors.

     “How are you feeling, Jill?” The blonde settled right next to my daughter and put a hand on her shoulder. 

     “Mmmfff,” Julia responded from where she’d collapsed onto her forearms on the island.

     Seeing she’d been clever enough to bring the coffee with her, I poured a glass of orange juice and pushed it across the counter to her.

     “Thank you so much for everything,” the woman said, squeezing Julia’s shoulder and rising again from her stool. “I really should get out of your hair.”

     “Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped. “Eat your breakfast.”

     Julia’s snort echoed on the marble, as her face was pressed to it. “Such…a daaaaaaddy.”

     Amusement sparkled in the blonde’s eyes, and I had to move quickly closer to the counter when an image flashed through my brain of her on her knees, calling me Daddy. It made me lick my lips, and she totally caught me.

     “I really should be going,” she said, sifting through her small bag to retrieve her phone, and I had a strong suspicion she was searching for the ride share app.

     “Sit down,” I barked. “Have your breakfast and I’ll drive you home.”

     “Don’t be ridiculous,” she chuckled, still not looking up from her phone. “I don’t let strange men drive me home.”

     It was meant to provoke me and it did. All I had left was shock value: “I hardly think I’m a strange man now that you’ve spent the night in my bed.”

     Julia choked, orange juice shooting from her mouth and nostrils simultaneously and the other woman looked utterly horrified. 

     “Why did you put her in your room?” my daughter sputtered, rather than making the fairly obvious retort I’d been sure would come flying out of her mouth.

     Julia started coughing and I handed her a stack of napkins before grabbing a paper towel to run damage control.

     Yeah. Why did I put her in my room?

     When there was no response from me, just a hard look, her eyes went big and the woman hastened to explain, “He didn’t sleep in there.” Though why she–or I–felt an explanation was necessary was entirely beyond me at the moment.

     Julia groaned when she tried to stand and I hurried over to the coffee pot to fill another enormous mug for her, topping it with an amount of cream I considered an abomination. I took it black, which was no surprise to anyone, since I didn’t have time for any of the frills in life. I didn’t make time for them. 

     The woman sat on the stool next to Julia and I watched her eyes travel slowly around the room, taking in the tasteful but purposely vague decor. There were no family photos or tchotchkes lying about. I had no need for extra crap and besides the furniture in leather and velvet and solid wood, a few rugs on the floor and a few huge photos of the ocean, there wasn’t much else to be seen. My house said almost nothing about me; she wouldn’t find any hints here.

     She helped herself to a bagel and ate it at a pace I’d never seen from a woman. Then she hopped off the stool and wandered into the back; I heard the sound of water running somewhere in the house.

     “My ride’s outside. Thank you for everything,” she announced, watching my face pointedly and I felt my teeth clamp down. The woman didn’t take orders well and I wasn’t particularly used to that.

     “Julia.” Ava leaned in, wrapping an arm around my daughter and I watched as Julia snuggled easily into Ava’s one-armed hug.

     “Thanks, Ava,” she mumbled into the woman’s side. “Gimme your cell phone number, k? We’ll do this again soon–not this, right? But you know…”

     The woman nodded down at her and pulled a cell phone from a small bag I didn’t remember seeing the night before. She indicated with a raise of her eyebrows that Julia should dictate her number, which she tapped in and when my daughter’s cell phone buzzed, I couldn’t help but smile to myself, because now I too had the irritating woman’s number.

Copyright 2022, Erin FitzGerald

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