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Feeling annoyed, I asked as gently as possible, but there was really no way to take the bite from my words, “Melanie . . . why are you here?”

Her cheeks colored again. “I know this is unexpected . . .” She shook her head and smiled weakly. “This is more awkward than I thought it would be.”

Suddenly she riffled through her bag and pulled out two envelopes. “I know you probably got these already. We mailed them, but here are the invitations to the wedding and the rehearsal dinner. It’s next weekend.”

“I know,” I said through numb lips. “I got them.”

“Yes, well. I’d love for you to be there. Justin and your mother . . . well, they’ve told me all about you.”

They did?

“Did my mom send you? Or Justin?”

Her pretty blue eyes widened. “Neither one actually sent me. But they know I’m here. Your mother is heartbroken that you won’t come.”

I swallowed back a snort. In order for her to be heartbroken she would have to possess a heart. “What did she tell you?”

“Er, just that you two had a fight a while back.”

Try five years ago.

“I know it’s none of my business. I’m not trying to pry. It would just mean so much to her and Justin if you came. And, well, me. I’m an only child . . . I kind of thought it would be nice to have a sister-in-law.” She smiled that smile again, her hands fluttering self-consciously in front of her. Genuine and self-effacing, and the insane urge to tell this girl to run as far as she could from my stepbrother and mother seized me. I wanted to warn her that she was marrying into one ginormous hot mess of a family. Mom. Justin. Even my blah of a stepfather. All three of them equated the family from hell. A crazy impulse, of course. If I did that I would have to explain why, and I wasn’t having that conversation. Especially not in front of Shaw.

Not for the first time I entertained the thought that my stepbrother had changed. The possibility—the hope—had been there ever since that phone call. Melanie seemed like a smart girl. I doubted she was diving into marriage without knowing the man she was marrying. She at least knew him better than I did. These days anyway. I couldn’t claim to know Justin at all anymore. Could I still hold him to the same judgment of five years ago?

“Here, just take them . . . . in case you lost the others.” She thrust the invitations into my hand. “Feel free to bring Shaw.” She flashed a sparkling smile at him. “It should be a lot of fun. The menu is amazing. Daddy pulled some strings and got last year’s James Beard winner to cater the wedding.”

“Sounds fabulous,” I murmured.

“Friday night’s rehearsal dinner is at the Four Seasons, overlooking the Public Garden. Your mother would have nothing less. It might even outdo the wedding.” Melanie started to edge out the door, but she hesitated before turning back around and folding me in a hug. “I hope we can be friends, Emerson.” Her lips brushed my hair as she spoke.

I patted her back awkwardly. Damnit. Why did she have to be so nice?

Releasing me, she stepped back, her cheeks pink again. She really was a Girl Scout. “Well. I hope to see you soon. At the wedding or . . . maybe Easter.”

Easter? Did she think I regularly spent holidays with my mother? I nodded rather than explain how that wasn’t going to happen. “Bye.” With a flutter of her fingers, she turned and disappeared down the hall. I closed the door behind her.

Shaw arched an eyebrow. “What was that about?”

I shrugged. “Family.”

“Yeah. Apparently yours wants you to attend a wedding.”

“I’m not going.” I moved for my closet and grabbed my shower caddy, still bewildered by Melanie’s visit and needing something to do with myself.

He reached for my hand, stopping me. “Why does it sound like there’s a story there and you’re trying to avoid sharing it?”

I shrugged. “I’m not tight with my mom. Even less so with my stepbrother.” I lifted my robe off the hook.

“Why?”

Why?

Such a simple question, but loaded with so much pain. I lifted my gaze to Shaw, my chest tight and aching. For the first time there was a longing to unload, to unleash everything that I’d kept bottled up inside me all these years. Maybe because of last night. Maybe because he knew almost everything about me already. He was closer to knowing the real me than anyone else. Could I tell him the rest?

He must have seen something in my face because he squared himself before me, both of his hands on me now, gently chafing my arms. “Hey, it’s okay. You can tell me, Em. I want to know. You can tell me anything.”

I nodded jerkily, the scald of tears rising up in my throat. He tugged me toward the bed and forced me down on his lap.

“I’m a mess,” I choked, warm tears dashing down my cheeks.

“Hey. Ssh.” His fingers ran over my cheeks, the callused pads wiping the tears away. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

I sniffed noisily. And I couldn’t believe I was crying. I wasn’t the type of girl to cry in some guy’s arms. I wasn’t weak like that.

“It’s not you.” I sniffed again, wiping at my nose. “She just . . .” I motioned to the door where Melanie had just stood. “She seemed so nice, right?”

“Yeah.” He nodded, his expression worried as he watched my face.

I sucked in a wet breath. “I can’t believe she’s marrying Justin. He’s such a douche.” I stopped and exhaled, shaking my head. “No. I always blame my stepbrother, but he’s not really the one who’s turned me into this.” I waved at myself.

“And what is ‘this’?” he asked. His fingers stilled on my cheek. His touch was feather soft, and my heart squeezed a little. “I happen to like this.”

I snorted. “This is a girl who flirts and parties and acts a big game but is really just a big phony. I’ve used guys for years. Played them.” Until you.

He was quiet a long moment, staring at me. I laughed humorlessly. “No denial there.”

He nodded once. “I kind of figured out that you had less experience than you pretended to have. Even before last night, I knew. The real question is—why? Why have you been doing this?”

I sucked in a breath. He was going there, poking around all those raw and tender places. I’d started this though. No backing down now. “I did it because it made me feel in control . . . and I guess I got off on calling the shots and manipulating boys.” There was so little I controlled. I had parents who didn’t really want me around. My mother put everything else before me. She always had. When I was fifteen I’d learned how little she valued me. It was a harsh lesson. I was still a kid then. I thought mothers protected their daughters. Not mine. My world flew off its axis then. It had been off course ever since.