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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 electronic 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 locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors imagination, and any resemblance 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 Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5

Pg 1 Pg 3 Pg 5 Pg 10 Pg 15 Pg 18 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 Chapter 12

Pg 75 Pg 82

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Chapter 13

Pg 92

SECOND RATE CHANCES Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Pg 99 Pg 105 Pg 111 Pg 118 Pg 124 Pg 131 Pg 138 Pg 145 Pg 154 Pg 162 Pg 167

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Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 About the Author

Pg 175 Pg 179 Pg 187 Pg 191 Pg 196 Pg 204 Pg 208 Pg 216

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? Youve been with me from the very beginning. Youre the only person who has seen the ugly, rough draft right after Nano of 2011. The fact that youve stuck with me through that to what it has become makes me love you all the more. And I cant believe we did it! After so many years and different manuscripts, we did it. Heidi McLaughlin. My dear sweet Heidi. Im not even sure I know where to begin. If anyones name belongs on the cover alongside

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mine, its 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 friendship. A fun little story brought upon an amazing friendship that I simply cherish. Youre my biggest cheerleader, my partner when I need to vent, and most of all, an amazing friend. Thank you for everything. If it werent for you Id 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 lemonade. You helped me turn this thing from something that was too much to something that was just right. Thank you for your editing and guidance, your wonderful friendship and for being there when I needed you. I cant wait to see where the future takes us.

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Beth Suit. If it werent for Heidi I wouldnt have found you. You pushed me harder than anyone else. You wanted to make this happen; 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 wouldnt 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 beautiful cover has brought Sam and Lil to life and to you Ill be forever grateful. Thank you for bringing my story to life. Jannie Lund. Weve stuck together through all the ups and downs and even though a big time difference separates us, youre 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, youre there when I need to talk, and youve become one of my best friends even though we live so far apart. Im not sure what Id ever do without you but I can tell you I dont want to find out. Of course when in doubt I think, well 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 being such a wonderful friend. To my husband, Stephen, who is more than just my life partner. Hes 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. WellI 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. Shes 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 company 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 Ive left you out, Im 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 because youre name isnt listed doesnt mean I dont 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 forming in her head. He didn't have to see her face to see the light in her eyes; it radiated all around her. With their fingers intertwined, 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 fingers through his shaggy hair. Whats this mean? she asked. He pulled her closer, nearly crushing her to his chest. His words were a whisper against her lips. Youre stuck with me now. I cant be stuck with someone I have no intention of ever letting go. He buried his head deep into the crook of her neck. With a featherlight touch, he kissed the spot under her ear that made her shiver, then moved his

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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. Nothing. 5

SECOND RATE CHANCES

CHAPTER 1

Three Years Later


The sun and its early morning rays shone brightly through the floor-to-ceiling windows 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 Wonderland, 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 development division for Titan Gaming it wasnt Sams job to question the ethics of the American people. However, as the youngest department head, his job was to oversee 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 reviewed and recommended to consumers, they were given a portion of the sales.

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Sam frantically searched under 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 upkeep 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 fiance, unable to even plaster on a fake smile. The couch was upturned, Chloes perfume invaded the entire room, and he couldnt find his watch. It was turning out to be shitty Monday. He didnt see the point in hiding that fact from her with a polite smile that really screamed, Id love nothing more than to waste time with idle chit chat when really, Im late for work. He tapped his pointer finger to his wrist where his watch would normally lie. I'm late, he said matter-offactly. 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 didnt move an inch to help him. Crossing her arms over her chest, Chloe huffed, you wont see me crying because its come up missing. 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 because it was expected of him. If he could have gotten away with it, he would have worn his beat up Chuck Taylors 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 Titan, 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 minimalistic 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 approached to adjust his tie. She looked up at him through long, fake eyelashes, batting 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 towel from the floor after your shower. He knew his messiness was a pet peeve of hers. This was his apartment, though. If he wanted to leave towels or clothes lying around, he should be

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able to. They would get picked up, eventually. 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, Sams 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 doorway, smiling like the Cheshire Cat. Don't forget, I'm leaving for New York today to finalize a few lastminute details for the wedding. Ill 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 nearer, Chloe started to spend more and more time in New York. With it only being an

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hours plane ride away, she could shop the designers she was accustomed to. Though Fair Haven had its own quaint stores, it wasnt 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 Village, where Sam was from, with its momand-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 undisclosed location and one of the few surprises 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 retreating form. Sam went into full blown panic mode, cursing that he lived on the top floor where it was damn near impossible 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 commuters cars waited. Sam's BMW M3 was the only vehicle parked out front this morning.

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Cosmo! Sam said cheerfully. My man. How goes it this morning? Oh, no different than yesterday. 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. Instead, his footing caught on the edge of the curb. Sam reached for Cosmos outstretched 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 wasnt thinking about his life.

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CHAPTER 2 Running late for work was a daily occurrence 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 started 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, using 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 together. 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 Village; 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 theyd 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 letters 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 expected 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 excitedly. She might not involve herself in

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social media but she enjoyed the tiny tidbits Ellie provided. A certain someone now has season three of Night Court in his possession. Shut up! When is he bringing 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 forget 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 wedding job this past summer. Besides the Ratcliffs 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 wedding 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, regretful 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. Patience 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, oblivious 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, delivering 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. Im sorry, the woman immediately said. I shouldnt have snapped at you like that. Im 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 pictures 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, sweetie?

what's

your

last

name,

Kindness always killed. Chloe Miles. Sams fiance. Kindness wasn't the only thing Lil wished she could kill at the moment. 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 couldnt think of one. This woman was mere weeks away from marrying the one guy Lil had thought shed 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 dont, Lil said in a daze. Wait, what do you mean we? Somethings happened with Sam. Lil felt her stomach drop. She and Sam hadnt been together in nearly three years, yet he had been a huge part

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of her life, and regardless if their relationship 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 person who can help him. Believe me, Lil was momentarily shocked at the sincere tone of Chloes voice. If I could find someone else I would, but I can't. They all keep telling me that you are the only person 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-tobe-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 currently 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 didnt matter what kind of help Sam needed. Even if once upon a time he hadnt given her the support that she had needed, shed 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 receiver away from her and looked at the piece of technology like it had suddenly sprouted three heads. 13

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CHAPTER 4 It was funny how things happened. To say Lil had gone almost three years without thinking of Sam would be a boldfaced lie. Sometimes she couldnt help but think about him, but he didnt affect her daily life. She didnt 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 negotiated 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 sooner 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 couldnt help but feel that Chloe was her judge. Or her executioner. Lil had never met Chloe Miles, the daughter of an ex-model mother 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 standing at the nurses station. He stood with his head bowed and his hands clasped together 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 considered 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 didnt 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 hadnt 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 distress 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 years 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 Pauls name when another 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 couldnt 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 blasted like a canon. Both men rushed toward her and wrapped Lil in a tight embrace. It was an awkward position, being sandwiched between them, but Lil took comfort 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 didnt 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. Whats happened? she asked. Is Sam okay? Wait, what am I saying, of course hes not okay. He wouldnt be in the hospital if he were. Paul cracked a smile and hugged Lil again. God Ive missed you. The hint of a smile began to form on Lils lips. She pulled out of the embrace and punched Joshua playfully on the arm. My God, Josh, look at you! Youre 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 Im twice the man my brother is, he teased. Lil rolled her eyes. And Ill have to take your word for it, she playfully said back. Lil, Paul said. Why dont 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 Lils 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, relieved. But if he wasnt 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 waiting 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 compared to being out of it for nearly a week. Its as bad as it sounds, Dr. Walker replied grimly. He woke up a couple of days ago with no signs of internal bleeding or damage. Lil looked to Paul and Joshua, confusion masking her face. I'm not following. No internal bleeding or damage, thats 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 together 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. Sams case is a little more drastic. We dont 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 its 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 were optimistic that with the right kind of therapy hell 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 addressing 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. Whats 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 werent. When three years ago? she asked, opening her eyes to find not only the worried look of Paul and Josh, but that of Dr. Walker also. Before or after? Every bone in her body quivered. She wasnt 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 didnt know if she could handle Sam being artificially in love with her. But what if he remembered what ultimately ended them? Lil wasnt sure she could face that. The hurt, the anger, the feeling of love being lost.

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However, maybe shed 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. Walkers. 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 return after something happens. It could be the minute you walk into the room. Maybe as soon as he sees your face hell remember that youre 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 together. 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 fashion shes 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 determined 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 reminded herself. Perspiration beaded off of Lils 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 wafted 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 running 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 Sams girlfriend. That look he gave her once told her how much he loved her. It took every ounce of willpower she possessed to keep her conflicting 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 herself. She wasn't there to think about running 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 parted 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 disappointed 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 didnt 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 dont 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. Ive been asking for you. Lil gave him a weak smile. What's the last thing you remember? she asked. She didnt 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 werent together 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 wouldnt 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 questions. 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 didnt 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 its not. Three years have really passed? Lil nodded. You look older. Not bad, he clarified quickly. You look good. Your hair is longer. Yeah, Lil said softly. They were quiet for a moment. 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 whisper. 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 Lils face. She knew eventually, if Sam didnt regain his memories, shed have to answer this question. But for now, the only response she could give was the lamest excuse she could muster. Im sorry, she said between sobs. Im so sorry, Sam. 29

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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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Um... Lil stammered. 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 isnt 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 youre okay with all that shes told you, Sam? You completely 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?

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Stop it! Lil yelled. Please, just stop! She couldnt stand to listen to the doctor talk like she wasnt 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 naked 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 hasnt told me anything. Because its 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 its 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. Dont 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 finger at him and moved with the stealth of a predatory cat toward him. Dont you even. What? he asked. Dont 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 dont 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 returning 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 didnt want the memories of what pushed them apart. He didnt 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 Sams brain has at remembering the past, the better the chance that he will regain those memories. Dr. Walker gave Lil a sympathetic 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. Im a shell of the person you think you know. Broken, Sam. Thats what I am, thats how Ive been for a while. I cant 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 youll wake up in the morning and remember all that youve lost. Lil stopped with her back against the door. She looked at Sam through the wetness 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

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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 parents, 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 didnt have an exact date set on when he wanted to pop the big question, only that he knew he couldnt 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 together 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. Lils upset because I asked what happened between us. I yelled, she yelled. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. She ran out of here saying she cant 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. I had to have 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

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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 fathers reaction 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 doesnt need you telling him how hes 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 going 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 options. 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 before 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 being sucked out of the hospital room. She was losing focus. Her breathing became labored. She had to leave. It was a chicken 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 Ellie before she left for lunch. When the familiar sound of her best friends 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. Hey you. So...how 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 ventured into how hot Paul Travers was. Ellie, 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 appointments. I have something I need to take care of. I won't be in for the rest of

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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 tempting, 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 Kingston, her therapist who helped her through the break up with Sam. It wasnt 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 wasnt responsible for what happened. After blaming herself for a year, Lil finally understood that it wasnt entirely her fault. Sam held just as much responsibility as she did. Nothing had changed in Dr. Kingstons 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 comforting 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. Kingston 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. Kingston 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. Kingston closed the door to her office and gestured 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 reminded 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. Kingston began. This session is in order because 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 isnt 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 possibility. 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 suckerpunched. How could he, after all this time, need my help? Lil laughed although 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, Lils voice was soft and unsure. She looked at Dr. Kingston and tried to reign in her tears. Its Sam. How could I not go? Without knowing anything that was wrong with him? Thats putting someone else, someone who you spent a lot of time in that very chair trying to get over, first. Im proud of you. I can imagine it wasnt easy. Lil shook her head no. It hadnt been easy but she didnt want to portray the role of the martyr. It might have pained her to face him but she wasnt 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 coming. He said he knew it wasnt 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 recalled 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 encouraged me to go see Sam. I did. Lil locked eyes with Dr. Kingston. For several moments 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 couldnt 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 dont think I helped at all. No, Dr. Kingston said after a few seconds of silence. I imagine you didnt 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 wasnt even there! Sam is confused. Im going to play devils 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 assumed that if he did you would have been more hysterical than you are. Dr. Kingston 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 redemption 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 Lils 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. Kingston had moved from her seat and was now standing in front of Lil. She took the girls 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 cant. 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 believed 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 appointments 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 intentions 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 Lils.

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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 hadnt jumped for joy at the chance to help him with his memories. As the minutes wore on, Sam was torn between his conflicting emotions: sadness and anger. He had no claim on Lil yet he couldnt help but feel like he did. A soft tap on Sams passenger window had him jumping out of his seat, his head nearly touching the roof. Instinctively, 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. Didnt 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 didnt. Car trouble? the stranger asked. No, Sam answered truthfully. I used to live here. Oh really? The guys eyes widened. How long ago? Three years, Sam said. Three years you said? Sam nodded. Huh, must have been before Lil moved in then. Actually, Sam said with a hint of smugness, I lived here with Lil. The guys 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. Sams total opposite. Sam, right? he asked to which Sam nodded. Zach. He held out his

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hand through the window. With reluctance, 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 cant go in. Im sure Lils busy. I insist, Zach said. Besides, her best friend is in there too and Im sure shed 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. Its 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 wasnt keen on pretending to like Lils 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 cant stand it, Zach said. For whatever reason, even if it was for him to see the look on Lils face when he walked in with her new boyfriend, Sam followed Zach up the front steps to the door. He didnt knock. Of course he didnt. He probably had a key and a drawer in Lils dresser. His own coffee cup. A space in the walk in-closet. Everything Sam used to have. Sam didnt notice anything about the interior of the cottage. Besides the back of Zachs 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, Ill be damned! If it isnt Sam I Am! The hint of a smile played on Sams face. He moved his eyes from the

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back of Zachs head and found Ellie coming 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 hadnt 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. Cant believe its been ages since I last saw you, she said. Well, Sam said with a small laugh. For me its been more like a couple of weeks.

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Ellie laughed. I guess so. You know, you dont look like a guy who has lost his mind. I feel like it, Sam admitted. Ellies 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? Lils 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 reserved, quiet, and even angry. Now, it was soft and light. Just like he remembered last hearing before his accident. 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 speaking to him again and come hell or high water, hed 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 intentions 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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wasnt sure what Zach was up to, and he was about to ask, when Zach winked at him. Winked! If Sam was confused about Zachs 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. Im 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 wouldnt he pick me up? Oh, I dont know. Sam threw his hands up in the air. Maybe because its kind of weird for Lils boyfriend to pick up her best friend. Why not just

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drive yourself, Ellie? Not to sound like an ass, but youre 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 Lils 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 Ellie 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 admiration for Night Court. Oh, thats bullshit, Sam all but screamed. This is fantastic, Ellie laughed. I cant 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 cant either, Lil said. Thats just mean. Can someone fill me in on whats going on? Because to be honest, its 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. Im afraid that my boyfriend was giving you a hard time. It took a minute for Ellies 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. So you two arent...? Sam pointed from Zach to Lil. With an exasperated sigh, Lil said, No Sam, were not. And even if we were, how could you be upset? Lil, Zachs tone was pleading. Cut the guy some slack. I understand how he feels. Id feel the same way if the tables were reversed and I thought I was meeting Ellies boyfriend. Zach turned to face Sam. Sorry, by the way. I should have introduced myself as Ellies boyfriend. At a loss for words, Sam remained quiet. He wasnt sure what to say. He had

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these crazy mixed up feelings about being in his house, only it wasnt his house. Meeting Lils boyfriend only to find out it was Ellies boyfriend. He had driven out of his way hoping for the chance to see her, talk to her, hell hed even settle for arguing with her again as long as she was near him. Ellie, Zach said, reaching past Sam for their coats. Lets 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 didnt 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 Zachs hand for a second time that evening. Yeah, you too. Lil, Ill call you tomorrow, Ellie said on her way out the door. You two dont do anything I wouldnt do. As the door shut behind them, Sam heard Zach say, That doesnt leave much. Sam had to grin. He could actually admit that he liked the guy, especially now that he knew he wasnt sleeping 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 expecting to stay?

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Well, she said, we shouldnt let this bottle go to waste. You want a glass? Sighing with relief, Sam nodded. 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 different. 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.

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Hope you dont mind, he said. The fire looked a little low and its pretty cold out. No, not at all. She stood behind him as more heat filled the small room. Whether the heat Sam felt was from the fire or being so near to Lil, he wasnt sure. When he finished, he took the wineglass from Lils 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

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CHAPTER 8 Lil wanted to laugh at the bemused expression on Sams 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. Hed have his memories and shed have the closure she had never gotten. Sam, close your mouth before you catch flies. Lil laughed softly. Im 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 insensitive. I know this isnt 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. Its so weird. As far as I know, youve never been out of my life. I know, Lil said. Thats why Im trying 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 Sams voice, but what more could she offer? She hated seeing him so vulnerable. This wasnt 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 unsure. He always had a plan for everything. Well, I dont want to cause problems with you and your Lil held back the groan in protest at saying Chloes name. Helping Sam wasnt 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. Fiance, she finished. Oh, her. Sams tone held no emotion. To be expected, when he had no recollection of the woman he asked to spend forever with. She wont 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 wouldnt be around. She didnt

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have to tell Sam that. And it wasnt 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, patting her back. Nodding Lil said, Fine. Just drank it a little too fast. She set the wineglass on the coffee table before she took a seat on the couch, offering Sam the recliner. His recliner, although he wouldnt 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. Id really rather not talk about it. If thats all right? Lil could give Sam his space regarding Chloe. If he wasnt ready to talk about her then she wouldnt push. Lord knew she had secrets of her own that she wasnt ready to bring to the surface. Okay, she softly said. His kindhearted 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 wasnt a smart move. No matter how often she thought about her and Sam reuniting, it had never been under these kinds of circumstances. And Lil couldnt picture them starting over, even though shed 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 another. Lil had to focus on helping him remember, 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 couldnt 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 couldnt believe his luck at Lils change of heart in regards to helping him. Well, he could believe it. Lil didnt have a mean bone in her body. After their fight at the hospital on Monday, he was sure shed 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 wasnt 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 Im going to get better I need to see things Im supposed to be familiar with, ya know? Lil, Sam said, his voice full of sadness. I hate the place. Its so cold and sterile. Theres no color. Its not Home? Lil asked.

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Sam looked at her and smiled. Its not home. Its not here, he motioned around the room. This is home to me. This is what I know, even though I dont 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 dont remember that. We probably 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 before 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. Im not asking for anything. Im just being honest. I promise I didnt plan on stopping by. My car, he hesitated. Did he tell her he was hoping hed see her tonight? 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 dont know. It was like I was on autopilot. Im 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 Lils mind. She wouldnt look at him. Rather, she looked at the floor, the empty

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wineglass in her hand, the burning embers in the fireplace. Sam walked over to her, itching 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 didnt mean to make you uncomfortable. As if sitting in the living room with you isnt uncomfortable enough? she questioned. Sam shrugged and sat back down on the couch once Lil had resumed her seat. I guess youre 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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weve 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? Ive lost my girlfriend, I hate my job. Let me back up. He picked his head up from the couch and met Lils 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 dont seem to be my friends at all. Are they yours? Cause I have to be honest with you, knowing that weve 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 havent talked to Kane or Abe since you and I broke up. As far as I know, I havent done anything to upset

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them. Lil shook her head back and forth. I dont know what happened between the three of you. Last I heard you were all still testing games together. Not anymore. At least, Im not game testing. Ive been moved up the ladder. I work in this big, fancy office with a view of downtown. Kane and Abe still work in the basement, a cubicle separating them from the other testers. I take it youve 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 Im 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 normally done. Sam laughed and scratched the back of his head. Talking about this only made him angrier. He was so frustrated that he couldnt remember

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anything and he was angry with everyone around him who thought he didnt deserve to know the truth. Didnt go well? Lil asked. Thats 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 didnt hang with the testers in the basement. That I wined and dined with the big wigs in corporate. Im sorry, Sam. I didnt know. You really havent talked to them? Lil shook her head no. Why? Sam, Kane and Abe took your side after the breakup and Ellie took mine. I dont have any hard feelings, Lil added quickly. I mean, I totally understood. Id be lying if I said it didnt hurt but... I guess you needed them. I dont know. We never really talked Lil, Sam said, leaning forward and reaching for her hand.

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Its 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 wouldnt see the exhaustion setting in. He should have known better. Lil didnt miss anything. When was the last time you had a good nights rest? He wasnt sure how she was going to take his answer but he wasnt going to lie to her. Well, lets see, he started. I wake up almost a week ago with no recollection of the last three years. My

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girlfriend isnt my girlfriend anymore, and Im engaged to be married to a woman I dont know. I hate my job, I hate my house, and my friends wont 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 added, I have my health so I shouldnt complain too much. I mean, the accident could have been a lot worse. But it wasnt so I cant help but hate where my life is right now. He looked over at Lil and frowned. To answer your question, no Im not sleeping and the last good nights 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 couldnt 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. Ill 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 grandmothers afghan and a fluffy pillow in her hands. Sorry its not much, she said handing them over to him. We can talk in the morning. Well 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 eventually. 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

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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 wasnt 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 didnt know his condo downtown. He didnt know

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whatever kind of bed he had. He knew Lils bed, which happened to be the same bed they had shared in her apartment before 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 because he and Lil had been fighting and she kicked him to sofa city. He wouldnt recognize it was the same couch because she had changed the look of it with a simple crme slipcover. Dark green was great for college but it didnt 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 wasnt him. That wasnt the guy who would show up at her dorm with chocolate and salty chips without having to ask. He wasnt the man who would surprise her with a picnic on the waterfront. And he wasnt the man who stood by her side when her parents died or the man who wouldnt 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 couldnt be certain who that man was, only that he wasnt her Sam. A part of Lil thought that maybe realizing up front that he wasnt what she remembered 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 wasnt fair to him to be kept in the dark on how he had become the person he was today. She couldnt lend any information to help him understand. All she could do was fill in him on the what and whys of their failed relationship. When the time came to relive 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. Going 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 followed 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 couldnt 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 salivating over him and his hot body. She was, but she and Sam were on a need-to-know basis and he didnt 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. Thats 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 demanded 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. Im convinced thats the same couch you had in the apartment. Did you cover it up with one of those couch cover things? I did. The green didnt exactly go with my dcor. Lil headed to the living room, with Sam right behind her. As long as she didnt look at him below the neck she was fine. As long as he didnt sit next to her, shed 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 averted 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 didnt 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 Christmas tree. Nope. Lil said, stressing the letters 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 cant 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 positively 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, pitiful tree we had in the dorm? he asked. Lil couldnt 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 shouldwait. 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 cant ask you to get in the middle of that. Like you said, if you didnt do anything to jeopardize the relationship, then I dont want to get you caught up in some drama. He gave her a pointed, serious stare. Lil couldnt 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 swallowed 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. Dont 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 hadnt hurt to lose them. I had Ellie. It was a sliver of the truth. And besides, Ellie had been great. She wasnt 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 Rustys, the bar they frequented just about every weekend.

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Okay, Sam conceded. You talk to them and well 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 dont 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 wasnt 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 shed 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, well 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 endearing and really, really sweet. I just

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thought that it wasnt too soon for us to see each other again, yet it wasnt next weekend either. Wednesday is good, Sam. I was only teasing. Do you want my cell number 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 hasnt 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 dont recognize its me. Lils 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. Its Chloe, he said. You should take that. Im sure shes worried. Lil stood from the couch, stepping past Sam to give him some privacy. Ill 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. Ill be in the kitchen. Lil tried not to listen to what Sam was saying. It wasnt that hard considering 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. Shes not coming home? Lil asked him. Sam wouldnt meet her eyes. He shrugged. Sam? Lils 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 dont care? he asked, meeting her eyes.

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Lil, I dont know her. She cant help. All she can do is get in the way. Did you tell her to leave? He shook his head no. I didnt tell her anything. She told me she was leaving. I just said, okay. Lils body slumped. Sam, she practically whined. How do you expect to marry her in what, almost two weeks, if she isnt here to see you get better? I only have the memories in my head to work with, Lil. She isnt in them. If I dont remember Im not going to marry her. If I do, well, Ill cross that bridge when I get there. Lil wanted to throw something at him. This is what she feared. Him not remembering and him remembering. If he didnt 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 wasnt sure which was going to be the easiest path. It seemed whatever direction she went, someone was going to get hurt. The odds were stacked against her. Im going to take off, Sam said. I think a good nights rest has helped me clear my head. What are you going to do? Lil asked. She shouldnt wonder, she shouldnt care, but she couldnt help but feel the way she did. She wanted to make sure he was going to be okay. That he wasnt going to drive around town moping. Im 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. Ill 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. Shed 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 number 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 shed never see again. Even after all this time, she hadnt been able to completely delete him out of her life.

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CHAPTER 10 After Sam left Lils 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 Lils clients 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 productive without her pecking away on her keyboard or gossiping about people they once knew. Lil typically avoided answering phone calls when she wasnt working under 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 sooner, 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 rekindled that old spark and shot flames into the night sky? Now it was Lils turn to laugh. Youre right on one account. Ellie gasped loudly in Lils ear. Oh my gosh! You slept with him? Good God, Ellie. No!

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He stayed the night? Why? If you didnt 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 hadnt been sleeping. Yeah, I could see bags under his eyes last night. Poor guy looked like hell. But on that same note, hes still hot as sin. Lil didnt 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 Im not as big of a bitch as Abe? Spill the details. What happened this morning? That sounds like the juicy part. Well get to last night in a minute. Lil sighed. Images of Sam shirtless in her kitchen still danced in her head. He was walking around half naked 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? Dont leave me in the dark. Im dying, do you understand me? Zach had to tie me to the bed last night so I wouldnt 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 youre ready to go back there? Did you tell him about Toby? Are you kidding me? Of course I didnt tell him. How does that conversation even begin? So, um, Sam listen, Im not really sure its the best idea that we go to Graysons. See, I sorta slept with Toby not long after you up and left me, and I really dont want to run into him again. Oh, you remember Toby. Mr. Graysons 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 dont you think itll 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 wasnt 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. Im doing what hes asked of me. I told him Id help and thats what Im going to do. Lils 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; itll 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! Ellies excitement spread through the phone. Lil herself was actually excited about tracking down the boys. What is it? Can I help? Is it a mission that involves super tight black pants and shirts? I can really rock some black, Lil. No, Lil said laughing. Its a one woman job. Sorry. Besides, its something I need to do for me, just as much as I need to do it for Sam. Uh-huh, Ellie said. Im telling you, youre going to get laid. ~~~~

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Lil found herself at The Shoppes of the Village early Sunday morning, Fair Havens attempt at a shopping mall without being too commercial. It was snowing outside and there was something old fashioned about walking down the cobblestone streets from boutique to boutique with the rest of the holiday revelers. The Shoppes were encased in a U shaped center. In the middle of it all was a giant twenty-foot Christmas tree decorated 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 because 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 shed 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 Kanes familys holiday gathering. Flannel wasnt 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. Nicks 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 rabbits 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 mens 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. Lils 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 acted as if those words didnt 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. Ive 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 couldnt help but feel her own eyes water. Her lips quivered when she said, Im so sorry. Dont, he said in a firm voice. I dont 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. Youre damn right, sister. Now, get your sweet ass over here and give me a hug. Its been too damn long. Lil obliged and wrapped her arms around his neck. Its 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 hes yet to deliver. Jesus Christ, Abe. Kane groaned. Yes, it's his birthday we'll be celebrating, dear. And you know damn good and well youre 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 dont want to impose. Abe waved off Lils comment. The blue one looked nice, Kane. Get that one and meet us outside. Abe looped his arm through Lils 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. Im sorry, she blurted out. Please, Abe said. Dont be. You did nothing wrong. Kane and I have talked about this until we were blue in the face. We should have been more demanding with you. We should have made you talk to us. Lil shrugged. I would have just pushed you harder. Abes smile was sad. I know. We dont 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. Lets go eat! Are you sure Im 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 innocence 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 hadnt changed. If only they hadnt, 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. Im starved, Abe said. Did you get the blue shirt? He asked Kane in a sweet manner, batting his eyelashes at him. I shouldnt 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. Itll 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 terribly and she didnt realize how much until 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 Harper? We have a lot of lost time to catch up on. Where to start, Lil mused. Nothing other than work, work, and more work. Dont tell me youve become one of those business owners, Abe sneered. The ones who dont let anyone else do

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the work. Thats why you own your own business, Lil. So others make money for you. Abe, Lil said and laughed. Im a photographer. Its 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. Thats me. And how goes it? Staying busy? Kane asked. Lil nodded. The holidays are always busy. And so is the summer. Weddings, 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. Its not even noon. But its happy hour somewhere.

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Kane rolled his eyes and focused back to Lil. Are you happy with your work? Ive always been happy with it. I make my hours, set my own appointments. I can come and go as I please. Whats 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 relationship it seemed Abe still harbored for Ellie. She does still work for me. Shes actually been seeing this guy named Zach. Hes great, Lil gushed. Perfect for her. Theyve been together for almost two years now.

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Kane and Abe both raised their manscaped eye brows. Thats practically old and gray in Ellie years, Kane replied. Shes changed, guys. Once she met Zach she settled down. He grounds her. Youd 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. Im happy just being me. Before they could ask any other questions about her nonexistent 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 exfriend.

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We are, Kane said. And were 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. Thats all that matters, right? That youre happy? In the scheme of things, Kane said. Oh! Abe exclaimed. Speaking of work, youll never guess whats happened. Kane laid his hand on top of Abes, 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. Thats why you were out looking for us today, wasnt it? Lil didnt want to lie to them. Too many years had passed. Besides, Sam

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wasnt 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 didnt 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. Kanes face grew red. Remembered 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 anything 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 doesnt 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 Abes dramatics. What else can I do? She asked them. He doesnt know who hes become. He doesnt remember the woman

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hes asked to be his wife. He doesnt know why we broke up. Im trying to help him. Kane scoffed. Youre a better woman than I am, Lil. Id have told him to go straight to hell. Didnt you, though? When he saw you at Titan last week didnt you both brush him off? Guys, he doesnt know how he lost his two best friends. Hell, I dont even know what happened. You want to know what happened, Lil? You really want to know why were not friends with him anymore. Lil met Kanes 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. Ill tell you what happened but you have to tell me why youre helping him. Why, after he up and left you, are you the one who is helping him find his lost memories? Because you know whats going to happen, dont you? When he remembers, hes going to run off again. Only this time, there is another woman waiting in the wings. A woman 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 couldnt take it anymore. Lil swallowed past the lump in her throat. She would not cry, she told herself. She would not let Kanes 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! Youve made her cry! Abe came around to Lils 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 youre 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. Im not going to say that because you know Im 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. Hes Sam. What else was I going to do? Walk away like he did? You have every reason to do so. Maybe, but Im trying to be the bigger person here. Im trying to find closure. Ive gone through years of therapy to help me understand why he left like he did. A part of me is hoping he remembers and can tell me why. Its selfish, I know, but I need to know. Its been three years and I dont 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 wasnt 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 wouldnt listen. He devoted all of his time to work. He got there before the sun came up and didnt leave until it was well after dark. Mr. Miles Chloes dad? Lil interrupted. Kane nodded. Hes 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 looking for a distraction. He didnt want to come home to us. Who would besides, well, us? Lil let out a nervous laugh. Abes arm was still wrapped around her shoulders and he gave her a light squeeze. Before we knew it, Sam was spending less and less time with the

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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 Sams cubicle cleaned out. We thought he had been fired but that wasnt 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 didnt 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. Dont forget the secretary. Abe leaned in and whispered in Lils ear. He has a secretary named Florence who wears orthopedic shoes. Lil turned her head and had to laugh at the serious look on Abes 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 future. None of the suits upstairs had ever worked the games. They only knew the numbers. Sam showed promise because of all his late nights. Dont forget a certain blonde took a liking to Sam, Abe added. Kane nodded. Right. Chloe started coming around the office more once Sam had been promoted. He skipped lunch with us for lunch with her. It almost seemed like an arranged relationship. 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 dont know a lot about their relationship. Once they started dating, he ditched us. Were lowlifers, even though we are the ones who have kept Titan at the top. Chloe Miles wouldnt 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 couldnt believe Sam would do that. Kane and Abe had been his friends for years. What ever happened to brosbefore-hos? Kane shrugged. And a promotion, I guess. Doesnt matter. He moved out of our apartment and into a high-rise

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in the building Miles owns. Since then, we dont talk. He holds meetings, we do what were supposed to do, and we go home. There arent any late nights pouring over secret passageways in games. No more drinks at the bar. Theres no more of the Sam we use to know. Hes been replaced by this suit wearing corporate asshole who has a better selection of Italian leather shoes than Kane. Kanes lip turned up into a sneer. I hate him more for that than I do for ditching us. 81

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CHAPTER 12 Sam arrived at his therapists office at eight oclock on the dot, for his eight fifteen appointment. It was Monday morning and he was starting what he hoped would be a productive week. He had plans with Lil on Wednesday. That gave him something to look forward to. He hoped that after their Christmas tree outing hed 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 released. 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, standing from behind his massive oak desk. He offered his hand to Sam. When they released 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 session. All they had done was shake hands and exchange pleasantries. Good, Sam answered. Good how?

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Sam wasnt sure how to answer that. Good that he had spent time with his ex-girlfriend? Good that his current fiance was out of town for God only knew how long? Sams hesitance to answer 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 Ill be honest with you. Well, when he put it like that Im not sure how I can answer that. It was the truth as far as Sam was concerned. Okay, let me try a different approach. Have you been sleeping? Did you take any of the pills I prescribed for you? Nah. Im not much of a pillpopper. Those sleeping pills can aid you in recovery. Im 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. Its not going to hurt anything. All right, but I dont need them. In fact, Ive been sleeping pretty well the last few nights. Thats good. Do you know what triggered this? When you were in the hospital 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 hadnt planned on it. You told me drive around to familiar places. Well, thats the place I remember. I didnt want to disturb her, especially after the way she left the hospital that day. Besides, she had company and I knew I wouldnt 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 annoyed by the short and sweet, to-thepoint 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. Langdons 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 moving across the page. She agreed to help you? Yeah. Our old friends, Kane and Abe? Ive done something to ruin that friendship. Lil offered to talk to them on my behalf. So she still has a relationship with them? No, thats the weird thing. She hasnt spoken to them in years either. How does that feel knowing you dont 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 finally 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 imagine this must be hard for you, realizing that the people youve loved for so long now have nothing to do with you. Tell me on the drive to Lils 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. Im hoping that doing something as familiar as that will help me. I see. Well, it sounds to me like youre making good progress then. Im assuming seeing the house, being as its 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. Iuhspent the night at Lils. The silence in the room that followed Sams 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. Langdon 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 fiance would be unhappy about you staying over at your ex-girlfriends house. Chloes out of town, Sam said. I guess shes 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. Ive never been that guy who cheated on his girlfriends. But I feel like my brain is split in two. Theres this one side that knows Lil as my girlfriend even though shes not. I want to spend time with her because shes what I know and hearing people say Im going to marry Chloe makes me feel like Im cheating on her. Then theres the other side that apparently does know Chloe enough to love her and ask her to marry me, but I dont know her. I feel like Im betraying her too. Sam heard the scrape of Dr. Langdons 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 arent guaranteed results overnight. Your mind is in a tug of war

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between who you were and who you are now. Its going to take time. Your memories 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 didnt 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 thatll be all for today. Id 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 session. 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 alerted of a new voice mail. His heart pounded, hoping it was from Lil, but it was Titans 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 couldnt be good. Did he know he had spent the night with Lil? Yes, technically Sam was engaged to his daughter so he couldnt 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 oclock work for you? That should be fine, Sam said. Do you know what this is about? No, I cant say that I do. Ill 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 morning, 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 several 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 hadnt 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 wasnt sure how he knew, but he did. For some reason, 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 wasnt 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 doublebreasted 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 begin 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 elevator 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 button 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 congratulated on a job well done after the release 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 instinct, 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 welcoming 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 colors of reds and golds 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 working 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 lastminute details for the wedding. Sam nodded. Yes sir. He didnt want to say much for fear that his emotions 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 recover from this traumatic event.

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Thank you, Sam replied. I appreciate 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 Sams 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 regarding your memory, Mr. Miles nodded to the door and Sam took that as his cue to leave. Fine by him, he thought. The sooner he left this office, the better off hed 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 arms length from the door. You break my daughters heart and you can kiss your job and your condo goodbye. Do we have an understanding? Sam didnt give him the satisfaction 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 wasnt to crash in the place he now realized his boss and soonto- be father-in-law owned. In fact, Sam didnt 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

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CHAPTER 13 Sam drove until he saw the familiar building. Rustys 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 afternoon, 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 windows, 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 Rustys 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 always saved for them. He opened the door; the sound of the bell above dinged as he entered. He wondered if he still visited Rustys. 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, triggering the man behind the counter to acknowledge him. The man looked back to his task then jerked his head back in Sams direction. A smile grew on the old mans face. He tossed the dishrag over his shoulder, as Sam walked closer to the bar. Well, Ill be damned. Sam Travers. I didnt think Id ever see you in here again, boy. Well, that answered Sams question on whether or not he still came here. Rusty, Sam said, extending his hand over the wood top bar. Rusty took it, but didnt shake. He pulled Sams arm, tugging him nearly to the other side.

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Rusty hugged Sams neck and Sam noticed 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 babys bottom. He was an ex-marine who obviously continued his workout routine. Been a long damn time, son. Its true what they say? Sam nodded. Dont 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 Im mighty glad. Sam had to laugh. I guess Im sorry I havent been by. With a shrug of shoulders Sam added. Not sure why I stopped coming in.

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Oh, its all right, Rusty said, waving off Sams apology. People, they come and they go. Cant live in a bar, Sam. If you do you either own one or youre a drunk. You were too smart to own one and that pretty girl of yours always made sure you knew your limit. Speaking of Rusty began. Lils 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. Itll 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. Ive moved up in the

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world. No more whatever truck comes in to refill my keg. Sam smiled. In that case, Ill take something new. Something you didnt 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 ones 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 wasnt sure if they would welcome him, or chase him away with pitchforks. Kane shrugged like he didnt 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 wasnt bitter like some beers were. It had a nice flavor and no bad after taste. Listen guys, Sam said, as the silence began to weigh in on him. Im sorry. I dont know what Ive done in the past and I dont 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 Kanes words stopped him. Youre forgiven, he said. Sams eyes widened. Really? He looked at Abe for reassurance that he felt the same way. Yes really, Abe said. We cant fault you for something you dont remember. 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, dont go back to being the jackass weve come to know. Ill 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, Ill 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 havent talked to Lil? Kane asked. Id assumed she'd have told you. Told me what? I havent talked to Lil since I left the house Saturday morning. Kane raised a questioning eye in Sams direction, and then looked at his boyfriend, a smile playing at his lips. Saturday morning? Oh, Miss Lil didnt mention shed 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 hed ran into them

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at Titan after he came home from the accident. Kanes 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 Kanes, with the jawdropping news. Seriously guys, Sam said laughing. 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. Dont play coy with us, Sam. You know we talked to her. No, Sam said. I didnt. At Kanes expression that said, dont 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 cmon guys! Sam exclaimed. It was Lils idea of helping me and I wasnt about to turn her away. I want her help. Hell, I need her help. Besides, she told me shes 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 finding 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 oldest friends? Who put work ahead of fixing his battered relationship with his girlfriend 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, flabbergasted. 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 dont hurt his beloved daughter. Oh, and if I do, I can kiss my job and my condo goodbye. Abe and Kane both winced at Sams words. Ouch, Abe said. Thats brutal. I have paid time off, which is great, but Im to the point where Im ready to say, fuck Titan. Fuck Mr. Miles and fuck wearing a suit every day. Fuck my office. Why would I leave gaming, something Ive 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 wouldnt believe the shoes in my closet. I was there today doing laundry because apparently in all this new found money I have, I havent 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 whos 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? Yeah. Sam nodded, still laughing. Kane looked at Abe like he had just won a monumental battle. His condescending smile had Sam doubled over in tears. When the laughter died down, Sam took the conversation in a more serious direction. Lil hadnt 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 dont know what broke Lil and I apart.

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Kane and Abe looked down at their drinks, unable to meet Sams eyes. Guys? What did I do? he pleaded. Kane shook his head from side to side. Its not our place, he whispered. When he looked at Sam, he saw the sadness 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. Its one thing for Abe and I to sit here and tell you what you did to us, its a whole other thing to talk about you and Lil. For her, Abe said, downing the rest of his beer. Its reopening an old wound. Theres still that risk that if she

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opens up and tells you everything, shes breaking her heart all over again. I dont 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 wont be a chance for you to explain why you left the way you did, because you dont remember ever leaving her to begin with. Give her time. She will tell you and when she does, shes going to need you. Dont walk away from her like you did the first time. I know none of this makes sense to you now, but just know that its going to be really hard for her. Sam couldnt 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 werent 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 stories and laughing like the past three years hadnt separated them. In the back of Sams mind all he could think about was how he had apparently broken Lils heart. What scared him was the fear of it happening again. 97

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CHAPTER 14 Lil decided that for tree picking one had to have on a practical outfit. Proper walking 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 oclock. 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, smoothing 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 Taylors. 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 dont want to strap it to the roof and risk ruining that expensive 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 drivers side. And so did Sam. She wasn't sure what his excuse was. They bumped into each other awkwardly 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 didnt know what to say to keep the discomfort out of the air. She realized she hadnt 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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You did? she asked 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 Rustys 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. Thats 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 Lils twisted face. She had scrunched up her nose and furrowed her brow.

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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. Graysons 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 toward the lighted sign that read, Graysons Farm, her gloved hands rubbing 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 started 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 started 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 appreciate 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 going 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 attention to the man at her side. Longtime no see. The two men reached out their

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hands and shook them. Actually, longtime 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 prelit 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 together. Still, she enjoyed watching Sam squirm under the elder mans 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 always loved you two together. Never understood 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 another 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 rounded the corner from the opposite end. He was dressed in the same kind of flannel that he always wore. His traditional earflap hat sat upon his head and the same sinister eyes she had long forgotten 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 Lils spine. I've been waiting for you. 103

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CHAPTER 15 Lil stared at Toby from down the lane of Christmas trees. He was just what she remembered. Tall, a little on the lanky side and his brown eyes. They once looked at her with concern, but were now menacing. 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 arms 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 question. 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 demanded. 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 Tobys 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 giving 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 Tobys 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 wouldnt be able to escape answering 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 moments 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 Sams 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 wasnt going to ask anything. Maybe he didnt 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 cottage. They set it in front of the picturesque windows in the living room. Immediately 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, Im going to go. This was what Lil wanted. For him to not question Tobys words. For him to walk away like it didnt matter. She didnt 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, Youre not going to ask me about Toby? Sam froze and his body visibly tensed. He didnt 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. Ive asked you numerous times about what happened with us and you wont 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 dont know. I just You just what? he asked, his voice rising. That Id want to hear about my girlfriend sleeping with another guy? Oh, he let out a short laugh at her stunned expression. Im not stupid, Lil. I know thats 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 havent lost the ability to know when another guy wants you. Sam? He held up his hand to stop her. I dont want to hear it. I really dont. You dont want to hear it? she asked, the tears at bay but her anger at

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the forefront of her words. Well, Im going to tell you, Sam Travers, because its 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 werent! 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 werent, she mumbled. Sam strode closer to Lil. He hovered over her, but she wasnt 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 wasnt I? he sneered. Lil swallowed back the bile rising in her throat. This wasnt how she wanted

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to tell him. She didnt 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 didnt want him to go. She wanted him to understand that she hadnt gone out looking for his replacement. She wanted him to stay and fight for her unlike all those years ago when he walked away like they hadnt had years together. She wanted him to make up for lost time but she wasnt about to tell him that. He took her silence as her answer. God damnit Lil! I cant be responsible

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for something I dont remember. Its not fair that you keep using it against me when I have no idea what happened! If youre not going to tell me then stop because I cant defend myself, he pleaded. He turned and walked away but Lil wasnt 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 fleeing her house, he stopped and turned around, his expression appalled. You? What reason do you have to be pissed at me? Youre 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 Lils body. She didnt want to tell him how hurtful it was for her to know he had put a ring on another womans finger. Her emotions had clearly gotten the best of her and now she couldnt 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 replaced it. And somewhere along the way we lost us. You quit me just like you quit Kane and Abe. Maybe thats why I asked someone else to marry me. Lils 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 doesnt 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 didnt 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 squealing out of her driveway was the only clue she had that he was gone. Lils knees gave out from under her and she fell to the floor, her body convulsing with sobs. She wasnt sure where Sam was headed and she knew she shouldnt care.

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She didnt 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 didnt know if this was the Sam she knew talking, or was he remembering things he had forgotten? 109

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CHAPTER 16 Sam didnt care how much noise he made as he peeled out of Lils driveway. He was pissed. So she had slept with Toby Grayson. He knew they werent together. Lil, along with everyone else made sure he understood that. It was one thing for his head to understand that, it was another 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 didnt 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 Rustys. He stepped out into the cold night, the air leaving his mouth like wisps of smoke. The bell dinged as he entered but nostalgia wasnt on Sams 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? Thats 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 didnt return the mans 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 youre 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 didnt 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 wasnt sure what pissed him off more. The fact that Lil slept with someone that wasnt 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 together, 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 another person, or in his case, work?

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Rusty slid Sams 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 couldnt bring himself to say the words out loud that Lil had a one-night stand with Toby. Was it a one-night stand? He hadnt 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 Sams. 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 punctuated 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 its 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 didnt know? he asked. A part of him slightly relieved that this hadnt 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 cats 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 Americas Most Wanted? That Toby Grayson? Was it really necessary for Abe to say his name over and over again, Sam thought? He didnt 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 dramatic effect of sounding the word out slowly allowed Sam to read his lips. Thats, 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, Im not defending Lil. Please understand that, but she made a mistake and she knows that now. Hell, Im 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 dont think she was talking to Ellie much either. He happened to catch her at a vulnerable moment. She was weak. You cant 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 anyone else. But its okay for you to be with Chloe? Abe questioned. No, Im sorry, friend. Thats not how this works. Im not with Chloe! Sam cried out. Arent you? Abe asked with a raise of his eye. Abes right, Kane said. Have you thought about what happens when you remember? You have a life to go back to, a fiance. Lil doesnt have that, Sam. She has her job and Ellie.

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Abe covered Kanes 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 wont have you. Dont punish her for the sins of her past when youll 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 didnt 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 Lils house. He didnt 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 wouldnt leave until he at least apologized 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. Hed 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, keeping it open so she couldnt 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 maneuver her five foot two, one hundred and ten pounds. Lil, please, he said again. Im sorry. I had no right. She eased back from her linebacker stance to openly gape at him.

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Youre sorry? she asked incredulously. You come at me tonight like I was Hester Prynne. I wasnt marked, Sam! she yelled. I was broken! Sam used her moment of weakness 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 hed 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 together, 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 request to enter. She granted him the access he sought by allowing him to ease in his tongue. Lil sighed against his mouth and he had to suppress a smile. Now wasnt 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 woman he would always love. Im so sorry, Lil, he whispered. I hate this. I hate not knowing the past three years. I hate not knowing what Ive done to us. But most of all, I hate knowing you arent mine anymore. Lils hands traveled up Sams 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. Im sorry. Im so, so sorry. He was on the verge of tears himself as he apologized again. Hed say he was sorry till he was blue in the face if that was what it took. 117

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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 remembering 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 wasnt a rush order before the holidays. She didnt think shed be able to get much work done with Sam on her mind. Nothing, Lil lied. Bullshit, Ellie said, hands planted firmly on her hips. Ive seen that look before. Plenty of times. That look has Sam written all over it. And I know you didnt get laid or youd be humming. Lil sighed. It was a happy sigh. A dreamy sigh.

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He came over last night. Yeah? And? It didnt start off so well. Im assuming it ended better? Lil smiled and nodded. Ellie pulled up the chair in front of Lils 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 shed be able to while Sam was around. It starts with the bad news, she began. We went to Graysons to pick out a tree. Ellie grimaced. Toby. Lil nodded. Ouch. What did he do? He creeped me out and then made a big deal of telling me that when Sam left hed be there to pick up the piecesagain.

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Ill bet that went over well with Sam. So what did Sam do? Pretty much what youd expect Sam to do. He was pissed, got pretty territorial 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 wasnt there so I turned to someone who was. He yelled and told me that maybe that was why he was marrying Chloe. Because she didnt 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. Ellies quietness on the news unnerved Lil. She wanted Ellie to be happy with her. She wanted her to take her hands and jump around the office, giggling with excitement like two teenage girls. But that didnt 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 another 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 happens when Sam remembers? What happens 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 before 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 wouldnt let you, so I know firsthand how bad it was and I'm telling you, this has the makings 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, Ill 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 hadnt fallen out of love with him. He was the reason why she hadnt dated since he left. She compared every guy to him. Even ones that she wasnt interested in, shed pick them apart because they werent 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 moments 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, Lils 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 wasnt Chloes 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 wouldve have knocked it out of her. He didnt 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 wasnt 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 midsummers 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 wouldnt happen. I shouldnt 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 wasnt 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, admiring the muscles under his shirt. Was I not supposed to do that? he asked. What? Oh! Ium How as she supposed to tell him that he rocked her world and they hadnt 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 dont have to make this harder than it is. Okay? Im sorry, maybe I reacted too soon its just He paused. His fingers caressed the backs of her hips. Its just that, Ive 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 understood what he meant. Did that make it right for them to kiss every time they were together? Probably not, but Lil wasnt going to turn away from him. She couldnt. Not when he looked at her through his long eyelashes, his lips forming 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 bodies 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 thats 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. 123

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CHAPTER 18 Sam loved the feel of Lil in his arms. He had imagined holding her like this, kissing 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 couldnt fathom loving anyone like he did Lil. The pizzas 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 shouldnt have been kissing her, but he couldnt seem to tell his mind or his heart that. Lil was his. She wasnt Tobys. He wasnt Chloes. They were each others. 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 didnt know how much he had left. He could wake up tomorrow 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. Lets 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 immediate. He wanted to pull her back to him. Kiss her again. Feel the curves of her body under his fingertips. Right now hed have to settle for pizza and beer and the excuse of decorating her tree. Yeah, it might help him remember something from the last three years, doing something as normal as putting lights and garland on the tree, only he couldnt care less about that right now. He didnt care if he ever remembered. As long as he never forgot how much he loved her. He followed behind her to the kitchen 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, drawing 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 Mazzios 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. Yeah? he teased. Was something on your mind?

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She bowed her head but the telltale 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 dont know what you said, but thank you. I cant 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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Im glad for you, Sam. Lil smiled at him, warming him from the inside 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 hadnt 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 theres Abe, answering 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 mans ass. Especially at, Sam held up his hands making air quotes and said, brunch. Lil fell back onto the couch, holding her stomach, she was laughing so hard. Im 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 drinking, while Ellie and I had dinner and saw a movie? You called me from their house, after walking back from Rustys, 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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werent 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. Wasnt that the first time Ellie had seen him in it? Yeah, Lil said. And I think thats 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 dont 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 advantage at pulling the knob to lower the door and stairs. When he climbed up, he noticed that there wasnt 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 mentioned. One by one, he lowered them down. He closed the attic door and carried 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 wrapping 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 always 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 followed the same movements with the garland. 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 together. 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 remembered. The year they bought the house. The same year she said they broke up.

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He didnt 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 traditional ornament together. When his box was emptied, he spied a ball of mistletoe in Lils box. Knowing she wouldnt 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 dont play fair, Sam, she teased. He could tease right back. Oh, I dont, 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. Hows 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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Dont, she said, breathing heavily. Dont come any closer. But I want to show you how I can play fair, Miss Harper. He faked innocence, knowing once he had her pinned down from the tickle monster, his kisses werent going to let her up. Im not kidding, Sam! Put the mistletoe down and finish the tree. Youre no fun. He pouted, setting 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 careful to open it, afraid it might be a memento from Lils parents. When he opened the lid, his breath caught. This wasnt something from Lils childhood. He knew for certain it wasnt. This was something more recent, given the date engraved on it.

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The pewter rattle shook as he lifted 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 regret, 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 youre thinking. Did she? Did she know that he thought of going down to Graysons and ripping Tobys head off? Did she know that his heart was now in a million pieces and he wasnt sure if knowing Lil had once carried the life of another man inside her body made him seethe with rage? No. She couldnt have known any of that. Sam, she said again, stepping closer to him. It wasnt Tobys.

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His eyes widened but before he could ask who, she told him. The baby was yours. 129

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CHAPTER 19 This wasnt how she had planned to tell him. Sure, she had planned to spill all their dirty secrets tonight, but she hadnt wanted him to find out like this. Sam, sit down. Please, she added. 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 nearness 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 tonight, she clarified. I just thought We had a baby? he asked, his voice scratchy like he hadnt 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 Sams 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. Its 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 wasnt in the traditional sense. I mean, you hadnt even asked me to marry you. I had planned to, he interrupted. 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 Id ask you at Christmas. It was in my plans all along, Lil. He hung his head in shame. I hate that I cant remember past that day, Lil. I cant 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 together 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 ornament 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 werent 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 didnt 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 couldnt 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 werent? 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. Ill be right back, she assured him. Theres something you need to see. She went to her bedroom and hidden in the very back of her closet, on the highest shelf, was a box she hadnt opened in nearly three years. She cradled it to her chest and rejoined 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 doctors 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 believe that something was living inside of me. Something you and I had created. We were going to be great parents, Sam. We spent the whole day talking 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 couldnt 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 finger from the moment she took her first breath. You were still determined to teach her all the things youd 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 cant 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 didnt want me driving behind buses. She slid him a

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sideways glance. He was smiling. You wouldnt let me lift anything heavier than a pen. You dont 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 wasnt a time when you didnt have your hand on my belly, talking to the baby telling it everything you, we, were going to do. I swear this kid was going to be so spoiled. Lil laughed again, but it wasnt long lived. It was a Friday, just four days after we heard its heartbeat. I wasnt feeling well so I didnt go into work. Everyone told me that my first trimester would be draining. That all Id want to do, when I wasnt throwing up, was sleep. They were right.

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This is where the story got difficult 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 didnt know what to do. I tried calling your office 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 emergency room. I called and called you but you never picked up. It wasnt until later that I remembered you saying that you had a meeting that morning. Lil sighed heavily. 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 dont know, but she left a message for you to call her. That still bothered Lil. She

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didnt know who took the message, but they failed to pass it on to Sam. It wouldnt have saved their baby, but maybe him being there for her earlier than he was, would have helped saved their relationship. You didnt show up until I was already home. Ellie stayed with me until you got off work. You never got the message 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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wasnt 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. Its taken a lot of therapy for me to realize that it wasnt your fault, that I was just as much to blame. At Sams perplexed expression, Lil added, we stopped talking. I didnt talk to you. I didnt tell you how bad it hurt that you pulled away from me. It was like you couldnt look at me. I was afraid you thought I was a failure 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 Sams 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 hed 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 remember thinking, isnt that what weve 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 couldnt 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 didnt. 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 its like a piece to the puzzle is still missing. I cant fully come to terms with what happened to us until you tell me. You never did tell me, she mumbled into his chest. Im sorry, he whispered and kissed the top of her head. Lil, I dont know what else to say other than Im sorry. His voice hitched as he apologized for sins he couldnt remember

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committing. She didnt have to see his face to know that he was crying too. She sank further into him as he continued to hold her. She wasnt sure if he was trying to make up for lost time and she didnt care. Until Sam remembered she wouldnt get the answers she so desperately sought. But for now, for now shed 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

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CHAPTER 20 Sam held Lil well into the early morning hours. They stayed, wrapped in one another, 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 didnt want to ever

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remember the last three years. A man who wasnt 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 wasnt sure wanted him for him but wanted him because he excelled and would be a great leader in her fathers company. The same man who let her father dictate his life. He knew hed 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 wasnt that he doubted Lil. There were always 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 coffee? She nodded into his chest. He continued to hold her as she burrowed herself 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. Whats so funny? Sam shook his head. Nothing. I just cant 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 careful not to open her mouth for him, he noticed. 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 comfortable, but having Lil in his arms allnight 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 herself 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 appreciation 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 dont 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! Sams eyes widened. As the son of a plumber, he had a feeling he knew what the problem was, and it wasnt good. Shit, he cursed. Lil, have you winterized the house this year? Lil shook her head no. Zach normally does that for me before Christmas because the snow doesnt get bad until then, but this year its come early. With everything going on lately, I havent given it a second thought. We need to turn off the water. Sam, Lil said in a shaky tone. Whats going on?

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He ran his fingers through his hair. Lil, you might have a frozen pipe somewhere. If we dont get the water off and one of the taps gets turned on from inside the house, it could burst. Im 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 Lils dumbstruck expression. He knew it wouldnt bode well if he did so he sprinted 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 because of the sharp inhale of breath she took and the adorable curse word she let slip. Get the shovel, Sam said. This isnt 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 determine 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 disaster, Lil nearly had a nervous breakdown 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. I called Dad, Sam said. He should be over in a bit.

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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 nothing but that damn t-shirt, Im pretty sure Ill be okay by myself. Im a big boy. Lil licked her lips and Sam smirked. Go, he urged, helping her into her coat. Ive got this. He spun her around and pulled her tight against his chest. Tell your dad Ill pay him, she said, her mouth inches from his. He kissed her on the lips, silencing her words. You wont. You know Dad wont take your money. Now, he said, giving her a flirtatious smile. Go make pretty pictures. Ill 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 thats okay, he said. I mean, I dont have to stay the night again, I just thought maybe wed do something tonight. Dinner or He shrugged. Honestly, he hadnt 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. Id like that. Sam grinned; her saying yes and the smile that graced her face was enough to make him feel warm all over. With another 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 Lils 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. Id do anything for that girl, he said. With a wink he added, and you too. Im going to go ahead and winterize her pipes while Im here, Paul commented. Dont want it to be worse

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next time. At least the house isnt 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 couldnt 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 youll bring Lil by the house tomorrow night for the Christmas party? Everyone would love to see her. Sam had forgotten about his dads yearly party. Even with Lil bringing it up the night before. Ill ask her. He wasnt sure if shed agree to go or not. Considering the last one she had been to, Sam had announced to all of his family and his

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dads 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 uhstayedthenight. Pauls smile grew. Run that by me again. Sam inhaled and said slower, I stayed the night. Oh you did? Its not what you think, Dad. Lilshe told me about the baby. The smile on Pauls face dropped. Oh, son. Im sorry. He laid his hand on

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Sams shoulder and gave him a gentle squeeze. Howd 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 dads 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 dont know what was going through Lils head. I cant begin to imagine. But you? Yeah. He nodded. 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 didnt 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 butyou wouldnt hear it. You said Lil would come around when she was ready to. You werent going to push her. She needed time and so did you. Personally, his dad added, Ive always thought it was a bullshit excuse, one Im 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 fathers 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 corrected 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 relaxing 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, excited 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. Technically he already had. Twice. But, those werent premeditated. They just happened. Tonight, however. Tonight they were playing a whole new ballgame. Slowly so that she didnt slip because Heavens knew she didnt 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, Im 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 couldnt 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 underneath. 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-triedto-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 wasnt 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. Grateful 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 Rustys? he asked. Lil thought it was an odd question but she answered none the less. I dont know. A while I guess. I thought wed start there. I know Rusty would love to see you.

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Lil nodded. Rustys would work. It was their familiar old stomping grounds. Besides, shed love to see Rusty herself. I hope your dad fixed the plumbing because if not, Im afraid Rustys 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 wouldnt have taken it, you know that. Besides, he said, leaning in, stealing 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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couldnt bring herself to call him. It would have inevitably lead to discussions of Sam, or how she was, and she hadnt been ready to travel down that road. Hell, up until a few weeks ago she still wasnt. Amazing what a little communication did for people. I need to shower, she stated. Maybe give me half an hour? Ill 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 Rustys. 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 werent 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, squeezing her hand in the process. Its cold out, she whined. You wouldnt want me to catch pneumonia would you? She batted her eyelashes at him while simultaneously poking out her bottom lip. Sam brought their intertwined fingers to up to his mouth and kissed her hand. Id 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 wasnt 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 crme off-the-shoulder sweater. Thank you, she whispered. You look pretty great yourself. They pulled into the parking lot of Rustys and Sam nearly had another accident as he rushed to her side to open the door. Hand in hand, they walked through the cars and into the neon lights of Rustys. 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 andOh, who was she kidding. Lil had no one to blame but herself. She hadnt stopped in because she didnt want to remember 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 gangs all officially here! Rusty bellowed. Sam slid his arms around Lils 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. Ill bring over your drinks. He laughed more to himself when he added,

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And if I get too backed up, Ill just holler for Ellie to get her ass up here and bring them to you. I can tell the way shes giving my waitresses the stink eye shes dying to put an apron back on and show them how its 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 nothing 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 boys 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, wont 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, delivering 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 doesnt want what youve got. I keep him perfectly satisfied. She leaned over and nuzzled her face in Zachs 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 Abes new crush. What brings everyone out tonight? Its Friday night, Kane said as if nothing had changed and they all still hung out at Rustys 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 decidedwell as you can see, Abe hasnt 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 were all here, Sam said, throwing his arm over the back of Lils chair. As if it were the most natural 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 didnt want this night ruined with questions she didnt know the answers to. Zach on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the close nature Lil and Sam had acquired.

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I have those DVDs in the truck if you want them, Zach said to Lil. Great! Ill get them from you before we leave. What DVD's? Abe inquired. Lil please tell me this hunk and I share a love for Balki. You know, Abe said, lifting one side of his mouth in a grin, we can happy dance later if you'd like. The whole table erupted into laughter. Night Court, Lil finally said when she caught her breath. Ugh. Really? Zach you just went down, like, two notches in my book. Abe scooted away from Zach and closer to Kane. What? Zach can appreciate the fine art of Harry T. Stone. Lil said in Zachs defense.

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Zach took a drink from his beer bottle and said, Actually, I kind of dig Roz. She's a bad ass. The only person worth watching on that show was Bull, Abe said, stressing his opinion by pointing his finger at Zach. Now that was a man of worth. The friends laughed and joked around like they had never been apart. It was easy. Almost as if they had picked up right where they had left off. Before all the breakup drama. This is nice, Kane said wistfully. Just like old times. Plus one, Abe said, eying Zach again. It's nice to be able to sit across from Sam and not want to gouge his eyes out with my pen. Kane said. Everyone laughed, including Sam. Tell me, Ellie said getting excited. How awful is Sam as a boss?

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If were going to have this conversation, I think Im going to need another drink. Kane said, standing from the table. Anyone want one? Sam stood as well, kissing Lil on the check as he backed away from his chair. Ill go with you. Lil watched the two friends head to the bar together and signal for Rusty that they needed another round. Worry took over when she saw Sams face harden as he lowered his head to Kane and started speaking. He had been easy going all night long. Was there still some sort of trouble between them he hadnt told her? Was tonight too much for him? Oh, God, she realized. Had being with all of them tonight suddenly brought on his memories? Was he confiding in Kane, asking for advice on what to do? What do you think those two are talking so seriously about? Ellie asked.

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Lil shook her head. She had no clue what it could be about and was suddenly too afraid to ask Sam herself. ~~~~ Sam couldnt take his eyes off of Lil as he asked Kane if he could speak to him for a minute, without the eyes and ears of everyone else around. She looked worried, her brow furrowing, her posture suddenly changing. He gave her a reassuring smile and winked at her for good measure. The bar was packed so it took a little longer for their drinks to arrive. Sam used that time to grill his one-time best friend. Not to beat around the bush, Sam said, Lil told me. Sam could feel Kane stiffen beside him. He didnt need to be looking at him to know that he was shocked Sam had so

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casually brought up what had happened between him and Lil. She told you? Kane asked slowly. Everything? Sam nodded. He looked at his friend and said, The baby, the miscarriage, the breakup. Yeah, she told me. How are you? Kane asked. I mean, are you okay? Sam shrugged. What could he say? It had happened in the past. A past he couldnt remember. I guess, although, Im sure its going to suck when I do get my memories back. Knowing how I hurt her. Hearing her side of the story. What I want to know though, Sam said, turning his back on Lil who kept glancing at him in between talking with Ellie. Why in the hell didnt you kick my ass? Kane looked down the bar, no doubt hoping Rusty would hurry. When

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he faced Sam again he said, It wasnt for lack of trying, believe me. We tried to talk to you, hell we tried to talk to her but you are two of the most stubborn people Ive ever met. And I live with Abe! Kane sighed and leaned his forearms on the bar top, mimicking Sam. You stayed with us after you moved out to give her space. We tried to convince you to go over there and talk to her but you said you tried. She wouldnt listen to you. So I told you to make her listen. But I didnt. Sam stated. Kane shook his head. No, you didnt. Sam heard his deep exhale of breath before he added, You only stayed a few nights. Then you didnt come back. Abe and I thought you were working things out. That was until we showed up for work one morning and saw you passed out at your desk. Instead of going

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home or coming over to my house, you resorted to sleeping at the office. You stayed up all night long working on games. I guess you could say your hard work paid off because within the week, Mr. Miles had put you up in one of the condos in his building. Then you got the promotion and you were out of the basement and in the offices. Thats where things between the three of went downhill. But, Ive already told you all of that. No need to dig up old dirt. I seriously fucked up with her, and you, didnt I? Kane didnt say anything at first. Finally he answered with, You did, but I can tell youre trying to make things right again. Thats what counts, Sam. It sucks you had to lose your memory to do it, but... He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, what can you do.

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Yeah, thats my catch twentytwo, Sam said. I dont want to remember because I feel like things are right where they should be. Or at least, with some time they would be. But then, I want to remember so I know what was going on in my head. Im just afraid that when I do remember, Im going to hurt her all over again. He looked at Kane, his eyes pleading with his best friend. I cant hurt her, Kane. I love her. 153

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CHAPTER 22 When Sam and Lil arrived back at her house, he walked her to the door, ending the night on more of a real date note. There was a kiss goodbye, a promise to call, and Lil inviting him in. He hated to turn her down but he wanted one thing to be right. If he and Lil decided to take that next step, he wanted it to be perfect. Not after a night at a bar smelling like smoke and alcohol.

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He had remembered to invite her to his dads annual party and was relieved when she agreed to go. Here he was now, walking into her house, not bothering to knock, like it was his own. He didnt call out to her. He wanted to take her by surprise as she readied herself for his familys Christmas party. Maybe catch her primping in the mirror, putting her shoes on. If he were lucky maybe shed be half-naked. It was only fair. He walked to the bedroom, the first time he had taken that path since she had allowed him back in her life. He stood in the doorway, using the door jamb as a stabilizer. Lil turned around in circles to watch the white silk of her dress spin out around her. It should not have surprised him how beautiful she was yet every time he saw her he was blown away by her sheer beauty. He had known this

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girl for the better part of his life. Even waking up first thing in the morning she was breathtaking. Jumping back in with her hand over her heart, she yelped. "You scared me!" He said nothing in return, only continued to stare at her from his perch against the doorframe. His hands were stuffed in his front pockets, his feet crossed at his ankles. His eyes traveled up her body. He held back a smile as she shivered from the way he drank her in. Sam took measured steps across the room. When he reached her, his hands went to her waist and he pulled her close to him. Slowly, as if time around them had stopped, he dipped his head and brushed his lips against hers. She moaned at the contact and from the effort he put into making her feel like she was the sexiest woman alive.

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When he drew back he whispered, "You look amazing." Sam stood back, keeping Lil at arms length by holding on to her hands as he took in the stunning dress she wore. The top half of the dress had thin straps that lay perfectly against her shoulder. The neckline dipped to form a heartshaped cut that was adorned with thousands of tiny beads and crystals so that each time the light hit her, she sparkled. A thick strap of white silk flowed in two tiers down her thighs and stopped just short of her knees. When she spun around, she looked like a dancer in flight. She paired the stunning dress with a pair of silver glittered heels that made her more equal to Sam's six foot frame. At almost his level, she hardly had to look up to meet his eyes. And for once, they were going to leave the house as just that, equals. Neither of them knew what

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to expect from the partygoers or what to expect at the end of the night. But if he played his cards right, maybe they'd end up right where they were now. He was ready to cross that line with her and tonight seemed like it could be the right time. Before they stepped outside, Lil picked up a white, faux fur wrap from the kitchen table. Sam took it from her, his mouth drawn in a tight line as he draped it over her shoulders. He wanted to run his tongue over her shoulders, up to her neck, and tease the sensitive spot just below her ear. He wrapped his arm around her waist as they walked down the slippery sidewalk to his car. He held the door open for her and softly shut it when she was safely inside. Sam eased himself in and started the car. The engine gave a tiny purr. If he had to name one thing he liked about his new

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life, it was his car. Given the right motivation, he had no doubt this piece of precision could go. This is a pretty amazing car, she said once they were down the street. So unlike you; so posh. He could see her, through the corner of his eye, feeling the leather of the seats. Sam wondered if Lil felt self-conscious about being in a car that Chloe had more than likely had a say in. Did she feel awkward sitting in the passenger seat that Chloe had probably sat in often? Not allowing the thoughts of the girl he didnt know taint their evening, he lightened the mood and said, "I know, right?" He smiled. "I must have really good taste." While his right hand held the job of shifting gears, it didnt deter him from holding Lil's left hand.

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They drove the same route as the day they went to Graysons. When they sped past the tree farm, Sam felt Lil give the tiniest squeeze of his hand. He gave her a reassuring squeeze back, letting her know he no longer cared about Toby Grayson. It happened. It was over and done and Sam had no right to be angry. His dads house was on the outside of the city limits of the Village where the residential neighborhoods began. It took nearly twenty minutes to get there from Lil's. The drive was nice in a way that most of the area they passed were residential homes lined on Main Street with the sidewalks on each side of the road and the large colonial homes all dressed up in their Christmas lights. When they pulled up to the house, it was as beautifully decorated as the other houses they had passed. The one story, modest home had icicle lights

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that extended all the way up to the pitch of the roof. The columns on the porch all had wrap around strands of lights twinkling about and elaborate wreaths hung in every window. His dad kept it simple. No blow up snowmen or Santas on motorcycles in his yard. Hand in hand, Lil and Sam walked up the stone path to the front door. You ready? Sam asked one hand in hers while the other hesitated on the doorknob. Lil nodded and the front door opened to a house full of merry folks dressed in their best. Merry Christmas, a voice boomed from the dining room. Paul Travers stuck his head into the hall to see who had arrived. When he saw that it was Sam and Lil his face lit up just as bright as the lights on his house. He politely excused himself from whomever he had been speaking with and

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stepped into the hall to pull Sam into a handshake hug. Reluctantly, Sam had to let go of Lils hand so that his father could properly hug her. Thank you for coming, Lil, Paul said. This has never felt the same without you here. Sam watched as Lil nodded her head and blinked several times, trying to keep the tears at bay. Leave it to his dad to have Lil crying when they hadnt been there all of two minutes You two get in there. Watch the eggnog. Peter has started early this year. It was only tradition for Sams Uncle Peter to spike the eggnog with whatever his poison of choice was that he kept in his flask. Don't forget to say hello to your Aunt Edna, Sam. Sam groaned just like a little boy. Paul gave him a stern look before returning to his guests in the dining room.

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Aunt Edna, Lil said covering her mouth with her hand so no one could see. I forgot about her. Lucky you, Sam muttered. Look who it is, a voice rang out behind them. If it's not my favorite brother and the most beautiful girl in the world. I'm your only brother, Sam retorted. Doesnt mean you have to be my favorite. Although, Joshua said, appraising Lil with his eyes. You are quickly becoming my favorite by bringing this lovely lady tonight. Been hitting Uncle Peter's stash? Lil teased. Joshua picked her up and spun her around, her dress splaying around her body. Sam bit his bottom lip to keep from groaning out loud as the dress rose up and revealed a quick peek at her butt cheek.

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Hey now, Sam said in what was supposed to be a joking tone but really, he wanted his brother to put Lil down. No telling who else was watching Joshs display and Sam wanted to keep what Lil had going on under her dress for his eyes only. Can I talk to you for a minute? Alone, he added with emphasis. Ah, don't be like that Sam. Its Christmas. Lets not get into tonight. Lets save it for when you remember and then we can go back to being dickheads to one another. In the kitchen. Sam glared at his brother. Now. He leaned over and brushed his lips against Lils cheek. Give us just a minute. Lil nodded and made her way to the living room where, without seeing her, Sam could hear his Cousin Anna squealing Lils name.

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Sam led his brother into the kitchen, where Joshua fixed himself a drink. You want one? he asked. No. Sam shook his head then asked, want to tell me why you ran out of my hospital room like I had the plague? No, Joshua said, after taking a drink from his glass. Not really. Too bad. I do. Fine! Josh threw his hands in the air. You want to do this now? Well do this now. Youve got no time for Dad or me anymore. Its Chloe this and her dad that. Or work, work, work. Fuck man! I miss my brother. You havent stayed at one of these parties since that last year you and Lil were together. All you do now is stop by with some god awful expensive champagne that Chloe probably duped you into buying thinking it would be a, Josh twirled his fingers

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like it was a big to do, wonderful gift, when really, all we do is throw it away the next morning. Joshua drained the rest of his drink while Sam stood there dumb founded. You are, were, Josh corrected, my best friend. He looked at his brother, his eyes glassy. Josh, Sam said, his voice betraying him. Im sorry. I know its not enough, but Im sorry. Josh lifted one shoulder in a shrug. Youre here. Thats enough. Justdont leave us again. Whatever happens, dont treat me and Dad like we embarrass you. Unable to stop himself, Sam drew his brother in a fierce hug, holding him tight. The hole Sam had dug himself in just kept getting deeper and deeper. When he remembered the past three

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years, he was going to make sure he had a shovel nearby. Sam, Joshua croaked out. I cant breathe. Sam pulled away hastily, mumbling his apologies. Josh nodded his head to the living room. Go save your girl. I think Uncle Peter is hitting the hard stuff tonight. ~~~~ A firm hand clamped down on Lils shoulder causing her to jump and nearly spill her drink all over her white dress. "Lookie, lookie, a slurred voice called. If it isn't Lily Willie. Lil groaned. She had always hated the nickname Uncle Peter had given her. Uncle Peter she turned, plastering a fake smile on her face. It's so good to see you. You still taking those pictures? he asked.

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I am. You need some done? As a matter of fact I do. He leaned in so that no one could hear him. I was actually hoping to make a portfolio to send to Playgirl. You know they're hiring models, right? Lil choked on her drink as it went down her throat. The unfortunate image of Uncle Peter, hairy old Uncle Peter, striking poses to send to Playgirl was now sadly, in her brain. Leave the poor girl alone, Peter. Paul said. Lil's very own personal savior. She doesn't want to hear about your plans to be People's next sexiest man alive. You sure know how to ruin a good time, you know that? Uncle Peter said with a pout. Keep in mind what I said. If you decide to do it, when I make it big I'll make sure you're rewarded.

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Uncle Peter stepped away. His hand was buried in the breast pocket of his tweed jacket where he had his flask of whiskey stowed away. Paul was laughing softly next to Lil. Sorry about that but He shrugged. You know how he is. That I do, she commented. So, how are you? I'm doing really well. You? Sam seems to be in better spirits. Seems that way, Lil agreed. Youre good for him Lil. Always have been. That boy has never loved anyone quite like the way he loves you. Loved, Lil corrected. Chloe had the promise of a lifetime from Sam, not her. Paul shook his head no. I beg to differ. I don't care if he's lost his memories. You never lose the love you once felt for someone and that boy? He pointed

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over his shoulder to Sam who was no longer talking with Joshua, but another member of his family. He'll never stop loving you even if he gets his memories back tonight. I'm scared, Lil said to Paul but just barely loud enough for him to hear. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close for a fatherly hug. I know you are. I am too. I've only ever wanted happiness for my kids. Only the best that this life can give them. Sam lost a little of that when he lost you. What do I do? she asked. She knew that if anyone could give her an honest answer, it was Paul. Follow your heart. If you love him, tell him. If you want him, do your damnedest to keep him. And if he won't have me? She looked into the eyes that resembled Sam's.

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Then he's a damn fool and doesn't deserve you. But Lil thats not going to happen. He lost you once. He won't take that risk and lose you again. As the night wore on, Lil mingled with Sam's family and friends that were like her own family. Thankfully, no one mentioned the last time they had seen her. Instead everyone was just so happy to see her and Sam reunited. She was talking to Sams cousin Anna when she felt a set of arms wrap around her midsection and warm breaths tickle her neck. Let's go home, Sam whispered into her ear, which sent goosebumps against her flesh. Nodding her agreement, too afraid to speak in fear that her voice would crack, Lil allowed Sam to take her hand as they moved through the throng of people. There was no doubt in Lil's

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mind that the dynamic of the evening had shifted. The wall Lil tried to barricade her heart in didnt stand a chance where Sam was concerned. Tonight it was going to crumble at her feet. 161

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CHAPTER 23 The charge in the air lasted throughout the drive back to Lil's house and well past the front doors once they were inside. Both of them were aware that things were about to change. Whether for the good or bad, she wasnt sure. They were about to cross a line and that was a good thing. It was the aftermath that might end up bad. With jackets and shoes deposited at the front door, Lil casually walked into the kitchen.

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You want something to drink? Her voice was not her own. Instead it was replaced by a husky, hungry version of herself. When Sam didn't answer, Lil turned her back to the refrigerator to find him towering over her. He grabbed her by the waist and kissed her hard and deep. Her hands flew to his hair, feeling the thick texture between her fingers. Sam was the first to pull away and when he did, both of them were out of breath. When my brother hugged you right after we arrived, he spun you around and I saw a flash of your bare ass. He had moved his lips from her mouth where they started to kiss a trail down the bare curve of her neck. Ive been thinking about that little glimpse I saw all night, he murmured against her skin.

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I didn't know, she replied hoarsely. Lost in the feel of Sam's hands traveling under her dress until he gripped her thighs, Lil pushed herself up on her tiptoes, giving him that boost he needed to lift her up. She wrapped her legs around his waist as he carried her to the counter. I don't want this to just be about putting your curiosity to rest. Lil had closed her eyes as his mouth continued to travel further south down her breastbone. Her head fell back until it met the cabinets overhead. I want this to be because you want it. Oh, I want it, he replied. I've wanted it since the moment you walked into the hospital room. It's been driving me crazy every day since. Do you know how hard it is to be so close to you yet so far away? I want to be with you the only

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way I know how. I want to be over you, under you, and inside of you. Lil pulled his head from her chest. She remembered what Paul had said to her earlier. If you love him, tell him. Besides the sexual craving running though her bones, that was the only other emotion she was feeling. It wasn't lust. It was pure uninhibited love. A love that had never been truly lost. I love you, she whispered, looking deep into his eyes. I always have and I always will. With those three words, the fire in Sams eyes ignited the spark between them. His lips crashed against hers and he lifted her off of the counter and toward the bedroom that they had made love in so many times before. Inside the bedroom, Sam whispered against her wet, swollen lips,

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I love you too. As he laid her across the bed he said, so much, Delilah. Straddling her body, he sat up on his knees and began to unbutton the shirt he was wearing. She watched him, branding the image to her memory in case this, heaven forbid, was the last time she was ever like this with him. The muscles in his biceps flexed as he pulled the shirt free from his shoulders, the white tank underneath showing off his hard body. With nothing in the way of his hard, muscled chest, he leaned down, supported by his arms, and kissed her. Pulling away, he stood from the bed, slowly unzipping his pants until they pooled at his feet. Lil sat up, mesmerized at the way he undressed for her. Their eyes never wavered. Even when he reached for the waistband of his boxer shorts, her eyes remained trained on the love looking back at her. When he was

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completely naked, he held out a hand, offering her to join him. She took his hand. When she was standing face to face to him, he turned her around so that her back was pressed against his naked chest. She could hear each metal tooth of the zipper being extracted as he released it at an agonizingly slow pace. When finished, his hands palmed the smoothness of her bare shoulders, pushing the thin straps down her arms. The dress fell on its own, pooling at their feet, leaving Lil in nothing but a white satin thong. Her breath came out in shallow pants when she felt Sam's fingers dip into her hips to gather the thin elastic at her waist. He kissed the back of her shoulder blades as he lowered the material down her hips. Lil felt like her body was on fire. Once the satin hit her ankles, she turned around to face Sam, stepping out of the

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material at her feet in the process. Her hands found his shoulders and she stepped up on the tips of her toes to kiss him. Gently at first, then as he led her to the bed, the kiss became more heated, spreading an inferno throughout the bedroom. Sam covered just about every inch of her body with his lips. The burden of his weight was finally on top of her, although it was no burden at all. Their eyes locked while he pushed her legs apart and in one thrust, he consumed her completely. Heart, body, mind and soul. Together they were finally one. ~~~~ Tell me something, Lil asked. Sam held Lil against him with just a sheet covering them. He had his arms raised above his head, his forearm serving as a pillow for her head.

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What? he asked in a soft sated voice. Are you scared? I mean, of remembering everything? Because, quite frankly, I'm terrified. There was no mistaking the tremor in her voice as she said the words aloud to him. Sam lifted her chin with his long index finger, tilting her head so that she was looking into his eyes. Slowly, he lowered his head and automatically Lil closed her eyes. Instead of his mouth touching hers, he kissed each one of her eyelids, the tip of her nose, and then his lips pressed against hers. Against those lips he replied, Why should I be? I'll still remember all of this. The love I have for you will never go away. You're in my heart, Lil, and I don't understand how it could have ever left. But, what happens when you remember the moment you fell out of love

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with me? This wasn't exactly the kind of pillow talk she had envisioned but with his wedding day looming, there were certain things that needed to be out in the open. I love you, he stated without conviction. Right here, right now I love you and no one else. The cuckoo clock in the living room began to chime and it didn't stop until twelve rings rang out into the silence of the house. Sam looked at Lil with a smile to match a lottery winner. Merry Christmas. He moved off the bed and Lil had a brief panicky thought that she had just become Cinderella and reality of the real world around then was going to come crashing down. She pulled the sheet over her body, feeling very vulnerable. Sam returned a short moment later, holding a blue box in his hands.

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I wanted to give this to you on Christmas. He laughed, clutching the box in his hands. Technically it is Christmas and I dont want to wait. He crawled back in bed, holding her close again and handed her the box. She took it with shaky hands. I found this at my condo when I was doing laundry last week. I dont know how I know, Lil, but I know this was meant for you. She opened the box and inside was the most beautiful silver infinity bracelet she had ever seen. It was delicate, almost so delicate she was afraid to lift it up and inspect it further. Sam, not one for patience, lifted it for her and pulled her hand so that her wrist was bared for him. He slipped the band of silver over her left wrist, turning her hand over afterward and kissing the vein that ran straight to her heart.

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She looked up at him, tears rolling down her face. I love it, she said. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed every inch of his face, expressing her love with every peck. Sam laughed at her exuberance. Im glad, he said. Oh! Lil shot off the bed, not caring she was naked now. She ran into her closet and pulled out the brown bag she had gotten at Nicks Knacks. I know its not wrapped or anything, and its not nearly as nice as this, she held her wrist to her heart. But, when I saw it I thought of you. Lil held the bag out for Sam who took it with one hand and pulled her back into bed with the other. Once she was back at his side, where she hoped shed always be, he opened the bag. She couldnt see his face and judging by the

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way he said nothing, Lil suddenly feared the gift was stupid. Sam, she began, sitting up so that she could see him. Lil, he stopped her. He held up the tiny rabbits foot, rubbing the fur between his fingers. I thought that maybe it would be something to help you to always remember. She shrugged, nervous now that his face said nothing of his reaction. He looked at her then, pulling her closer to him, which had her practically in his lap. He kissed her once, softly, then a second time with more dominance. When he pulled his lips from hers, he said, their foreheads pressed together, Ill never forget. I swear to God, Lil, Ill never forget. Lil whispered into the night, "Merry Christmas." Sam laid them down against the mattress. Her eyes closed and

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she drifted off to sleep pretending that maybe the day that she dreaded would never come. Maybe they could live inside their fairytale bubble for the rest of their lives and that Sam would never truly forget. 167

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CHAPTER 24 Like a freight train speeding down the tracks, the last three years came at him all at once. Sam gasped for air as the memories came flooding back. The life, the great life he had shared with Lil, how they were so happy one minute and the next he was sleeping his nights away at the office until he was put up in the condos owned by Jonah Miles his soon-to-be father in law. The love he had for Lil. The loss he felt when she slipped through his grasp.

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The heartache he still felt knowing he had messed up with her. Had messed up with her, he told himself. She was here, at this very moment in his arms. How had it come to this? Him losing all this time with her, only to end up where he only ever imagined himself being. In his house. In his bed. With his girl. It truly was a Christmas miracle, only he feared Lil wouldnt see it that way. What would she say when he told her he remembered? Would she send him packing? He had obligations; he knew this. He had promised forever to another woman. A woman who was miles away at the moment dealing with their impending wedding rather than the health and the well being of the man she claimed to love. While on the other hand, Lil had been the one to see him through his progress. She had put her life on hold, a life she no

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longer shared with him, to see to his recovery. If there was ever a moment to doubt how much he loved this woman, now was not that time. She was strong, capable of putting her own feelings aside feelings he now understood and hands down, the greatest woman he had ever met. He looked down at Lil, her head buried in the crook of his shoulder. It was like he was seeing her for the first time. How had he let her go? Just walked away without any sort of fight? That wasnt them. They were stronger than that. They always had been. How had they let things get so bad between them? He had answers now. Answers he didnt before. He knew the pain, the anguish she had gone through. The loneliness she felt without him being there for her. Sam had to figure out how he was going to handle

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everything, but for right now all he wanted to do was revel in the fact that she was snuggled next to him. He wanted to re-memorize every curve of her body. Every sound she made as his fingers traced over her skin. He wanted a repeat of last night because he finally had the woman of his dreams back in his bed. Her bed. Their bed. Any bed. Should Sam tell her he remembered as soon as she woke up? Would she be happy? Or would she retreat, insisting he call Chloe and give her the news? Sam was caught between doing what his head wanted and what his heart wanted. He knew he needed to call Chloe, but did that mean it had to be today? Couldnt he enjoy this day with Lil? Yes, he decided. He could. And telling her first thing would not make the day what it should be. It should be about family and

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friends. Not figuring out what he was going to do from here. What was he going to do? He wondered. Again, the tug of war between his brain and his emotions pulled back and forth. What happened the last time he had used his brain instead of going with what his gut told him? He lost Lil. Not today, he concluded. Today they would be Sam and Lil. Two people in love celebrating Christmas however they wanted. If she wanted to curl up on the couch and watch the all-day marathon of A Christmas Story (even through he prayed she wouldnt), he would do it. If she wanted to go to church, hed dress up and hold her hand, thanking God for all the blessings in his life. If she wanted to stay right here in bed and allow him to love her all over, well then, that was fine with him.

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Maybe his conscience should have been telling him that wanting to make love to Lil over and over again was wrong. How could his brain argue with him that something was so wrong when it felt so right? Being with Lil felt right. It felt better than right. It felt amazing. Lil stirred in his arms and he couldnt stop himself from kissing the top of her head, then rolling onto his side and propping his head up on his hand, watching her slowly wake. His finger traced over her eyelids, down the slope of her nose to her plump lips. Lips he had to kiss. He leaned over and put his mouth on hers, taking her top lip between both of his. She responded by moving her bottom lip over his own. With his hand resting on her hip, Lil moaned as it moved higher and higher until he was meet with the soft, supple flesh of her breast. He

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cupped the mound in his hand, tweaking her budded nipples between his fingers. She moved slowly, throwing her leg over him and sitting up until their naked bodies were aligned. She opened her eyes and smiled feeling Sams reaction hard between them. Good morning, he said, pushing her hair off of her face. Its about to be an even better one, she said as she sat up enough to grasp his erection in her hands and glide him to the second warmest part of her body. Her heart had already warmed him from the inside out. ~~~~ They lay glistening from sweat in each others arms, their hands linked together over his heart. The heart that would always beat for her. Had sex with Lil always been like this for him? Had it always made him want to tackle the world? Had

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he always felt so complete, so sure of everything? How could have left her? He had to tell her his reasons but again, in doing so, it brought up the fact his memories had returned. He would tell her why he left. She needed to know. What did you have planned today? she asked him. She moved their joined hands over the light dusting of hair on his chest. Spending it with you, he replied. He felt her smile without having to see it. Ellie does a Christmas lunch every year. She tilted her head up to see his face. Would you like to go with me? Love to, He brought their hands up to his mouth, placing a kiss on her palm. It was a little past noon when they arrived at Ellie and Zachs house. Lil led

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them into the house, holding Sams hand as she pulled him behind her. Merry Christmas, Lil called out. Ellie and Zach came out of a room, Sam assumed was the kitchen, to greet their guests. Hugs, kisses, and more well wishes for the day were passed along by each of them. Sam helped Lil out of her coat, before removing his own. Zach took them from him, offering Sam something to drink as he moved out of the room. Whatever you have, Sam replied. Lil gave Sam a quick kiss as she left with Ellie to help prepare the meal they were about to eat. Sam took that moment, alone in the modest living room, to look around. Pictures he was sure Lil had taken of Ellie and Zach were all over the walls. There were some of just the two of them, and some with Lil included. His gut tightened when he realized that the

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three of them had been taking trips together, Lil acting as the third wheel. He should have been there with them. She shouldnt have had to act like the best friend they included in their vacations because she had no one. She could have had him, if only he had pulled his head out of his ass all those years ago. Sam didnt realize Zach had reentered the room until he spoke from behind him. The three of us went on a cruise a year and a half ago, Zach said nodding to the picture of them in front of the southernmost point in North America. Zach laughed as he looked at the memory on the wall. Lil was sick for most of it. It was her first time on a boat and the ocean was too much for her. Sam nodded, hating himself a little more than he already did as Zach told him stories about all the trips they

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had been on. Each picture had a story behind it. Zach and Ellies first Christmas. The first trip they had all taken together. One-year anniversary pictures. Two-year anniversary pictures. Sam felt overwhelmed looking at them all. Lil had a life after he left. Granted, it didnt appear to be the kind of life she, or he, had imagined for her, but she moved on. Then again, so had he. He was going to make up for the last three years. Come hell or high water, he was going to do what he could to make sure her house, their house, was filled again with pictures of old memories and the new ones he intended to make with her. He would have to call off the wedding. Sam took a long pull from the glass of sweet tea Zach had handed him. He

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had a few days to figure out what to say to Chloe. He had time. Dinners ready, Lil said, coming around the corner to where the boys were standing in the living room. What are you two looking at? She walked deeper into the room, sliding in next to Sam and wrapping her arms around his waist like it was the most natural thing in the world. He loved that she was so comfortable with him. Had he told her his memory was back, he knew she wouldnt be this way with him. He was selfish to keep such important, vital information to himself, but for one more day he wanted what he had been missing. These precious moments with Lil. Lil laughed as she punched Zach in the arm. I take it you told him about my seasickness? She turned her head to Sam, her eyes crinkling in the corners

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from her smile. He tells everyone how sick I was on that trip. Hey, wasnt my fault you couldnt handle the rocking of the boat. Sam noticed the blush rise on Lils face and he had to wonder if she was thinking about the rocking of their own they had done last night and first thing this morning. He pulled her closer and kissed the side of her head. You give yourself away when you turn red like that, he whispered in her ear, which only caused her to flush to deepen. Sam chuckled. Zach led them into the kitchen where a feast fit for a king was spread out on the table. Ellie, Sam said, eying the turkey, ham, cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn all the food set out before them. Sit, she instructed, officially cutting Sam off.

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The four of them took their seats, making small talk between bites. Sam and Lil told them about Pauls party, causing both Ellie and Zach to laugh at the antics of Sams Uncle Peter. Lil joked with Ellie that she had booked her first photographer session. Ellie was going to have the honor of photographing Uncle Peter in the nude. The whole table erupted in laughter; even Ellie took the joke in stride. Sam even went as far as to tell them about his conversation with his brother. Lil had taken his hand in hers as he recalled how hurt his brother had looked. Inside, Sam was beginning to feel ill as he thought back on what everyone had told him about the man he had turned into. Kane, Abe, and his brother: they all had said the same thing. Sam was a grade A asshole. Just another thing to

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change now that he knew how his actions had hurt everyone he cared about. When dinner was done, Sam offered to help Ellie with the dishes. Lil and Zach nearly ran out of the room, glad that they wouldnt have to have any part in the clean up. They stood side by side at the kitchen sink. Ellie washing while Sam dried the dishes. Thanks for having us over, Ellie, Sam said. She looked over at him, her arms elbow deep in soapy water and smiled. I have her over every year. At that statement, Ellies face fell. I hate shes been alone. I hate shes never gotten over you. But, I guess I should be glad youre here now. For however long that may be. Sam thought back on the words that Lil used to express her love for him

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the night before. It wasnt just saying I love you in the heat of the moment. It was saying those words for all the years that passed between them. I always have and I always will, her sweet voice had said. Sam swallowed and said softly, Ive never gotten over her either. As soon as the words left his mouth, Sam realized what he said. The dish Ellie had been washing dropped with a loud clatter against the sink. She turned ever so slowly to face him. What did you say? Sam winced. The wrath of Ellie was not something he wanted to face. He had seen too many guys at the bar coping one feel too many see just how deadly Ellie was. Sam looked away, not able to meet her death glare. Sam, she said in a menacing tone. Do you remember?

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He nodded instead of verbally answering her as his throat felt suddenly dry. How long? She inquired. And dont give me some bullshit answer. Sam licked his lips. This morning. Does Lil know? What am I asking, of course she doesnt know. If she did, you wouldnt be here and shed be like a fucking zombie. Ellie dried her hands off with a dishtowel, and put one hand on her hip. God damnit, Sam! She said her voice low and stern. When are you going to tell her? Tonight? he said the word in the form of a question, silently asking Ellie if that was the correct answer. Youre damn right you are. She deserves to know, she said. She punctuated her words by poking her finger, hard, into his chest.

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I know, Sam said, stressed. I know that. I plan to tell her everything, Ellie, I swear, but Lil isnt the only person at stake here. Whether you, Lil or even I like Chloe, I still have to be honest with her. And whys that, Sam? Because the way I see it, you have two options. You tell Lil the truth and vow to spend the rest of your pathetic life making the last three years up to her while calling Chloe and calling the wedding off, or you tell Lil you appreciate her help in the last few weeks, but youre going through with the wedding. Either way, know this. You hurt her once before and it took her a damn longtime for her to recover. I should know, I was there. Youve been given a second chance with her, Sam. You hurt her again and I can guarantee you there will not be a third. So, she said, crossing her arms over her chest.

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Someone is going to get hurt in all of this. You have to decide whose heart you can live with breaking. 175

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CHAPTER 25 It was early evening when Lil and Sam returned to the house. It was so easy to begin thinking of it as theirs again when he had been spending so much time there. She wanted to joke with him that he should just move his stuff in but Lil knew that would like asking for trouble. Or in her case, asking for her heart to get broken. Sam was unnaturally quiet on the drive, which caused a thousand and one different scenarios to run through her

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mind. Did he regret the night they shared, or that morning? Was it too much to ask him to spend Christmas with her, having lunch with Zach and Ellie? Did he hate himself seeing all the pictures on their walls of the countless trips she had taken with the couple? No point in worrying over any of that. What happened, and she wouldnt change any of it. Well, except for being the third wheel on vacations. It would have been nice to have Sam by her side. They took off their coats once inside and Sam readied a fire. Lil took two mugs down with the intentions of making them each a cup of her grandmothers homemade hot chocolate. She didnt get as far as taking out the ingredients when she felt Sam wrap his arms around her waist. I need to talk to you, he said, kissing her on the cheek. She turned

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around, afraid her face would give away the emotions spiraling through her head. About what? she asked. He took her by the hand and led her to the living room. He sat on the couch, tugging her hand so that she would follow suite. Lil didnt like this. She had a bad feeling in her gut that was telling her something was wrong. Judging by the look on Sams face, she knew her instinct was right. Lil watched him struggle for words by running his hands through his hair then burying his face in his hands. She wanted desperately to reach out to him, take his hands in hers, and tell him that whatever it was they would get through together. When he finally settled long enough to look at her, his expression was grim. Lil, he started but suddenly stopped himself. He took a deep breath,

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sucking all of the air in the room leaving Lil none. He could have it all. She wasnt going to be able to breathe until he said whatever had him looking so worried. I remember, he said so softly Lil wondered if she had heard him correctly. You He nodded. Remember? Everything? He nodded again. Lil sat with her hands in her lap, looking down at the scuffed boots on her feet. Anywhere other than having to see the pitiful look in his eyes. She had feared this moment, knowing it would come eventually. For a moment she thought she was going to be sick. All that food she had devoured earlier was threatening to come back up. What did this mean for them? Was he going to walk away, back to his life? Should Lil let him go? Give him a friendly hug and tell him everything would be okay? She did what was asked

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of her and she understood that he had to move on? All of those questions were replaced by the sudden anger Lil was feeling. She raised her head and hoped that he could see the daggers being thrown his way in her eyes. When? She said through clenched teeth. When did you remember? He reached for her hand but she snatched it away before he could touch her. When he touched her she lost all train of thought and right now, she needed a clear, level head to face this. He seemed even more defeated when his eyes grew pleading with her. He needed her touch to ground him, keep himself secure as he spoke. She needed answers and she needed them now. This morning, he said. Lils eyes grew wide.

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Before or after I climbed in your lap and rode you like the prized pony at the horse show? Her words made him wince. He must have hated the analogy she used but she couldnt exactly call it what it was. She had made love to him that morning. She had let her body take over and do all the things she knew he loved. Now, she wasnt sure if love played a part anymore. Before, he answered. But Lil, you have to knowyou have to know that I wanted it. I wanted you, he stressed. Lil stood from the couch and began pacing the length of the room. Sure, she had had sex with Sam the night before, but it was easy for her to get lost in the feeling of him again when she knew he didnt know how he felt for Chloe. She knew how he felt about her and that was all that mattered.

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But this morning? This morning was different. He knew good and damn well how he felt about Chloe. He remembered he was about to be a married man, sleeping with his ex-girlfriend. Lil shivered. She suddenly felt dirty and used. Sams phone decided to ring at that moment, snapping Lil out of her burning a hole through her hardwood floors. She looked at him, noticing his face- the way his eyes widened when he looked at the screen. Lil knew, without seeing the name, who it was. You should take that, Lil said. Sam looked at her, a frown lines deepening across his features. Im sure shes going to want to know. That is, if you havent already called her to share the wonderful news. Maybe shes calling to let you know shes at your condo waiting

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for you so that you can have an epic reunion. The words spun out of control as Lil accused him of telling Chloe before he told her the truth. Lil, he said, standing to face her. The ringing of his phone silenced. I swear to you, I havent called her. I havent told her anything. Lil closed her eyes and finally took a breath. Everything they had been doing these last few weeks was all in preparation for this moment. He was going to remember, he was going to leave, and Lil was powerless to stop him. When she opened her eyes, it broke her heart to say the words, but she knew, if she had any chance of recovering from losing her heart to him a second time, it was best to say it so they could both begin to move on.

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You need to go. You have a fiance to get back to and a wedding waiting to happen. I helped you; thats what you wanted. Its done. She turned her back on him, unable to watch him walk out of her life. When she heard the door shut, she fell to her knees and cried, feeling the loss of losing Sam a second time and the love that never went away. 179

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CHAPTER 26 Sam was on autopilot as he drove through the Village back toward the City. He didnt want to go back to his condo; he wanted to be at the cottage with Lil. But if Sam knew one thing about Lil, it was that she needed space. He laughed to himself thinking thats what ended it all for them to begin with. Him giving her space. This time it would be different. This time, Sam would come back. Hed give her some time to cool off, some time to allow him to prepare for what he

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needed to do. Then hed come back. He would come back this time around. Being that it was Christmas and he had already ruined it for one person, going to visit Kane and Abe was out of the question. He wouldnt burden them with this on today of all days. As he drove through the downtown streets with high rise after high rise on either side of the road, Sam slowed as he turned into the parking garage of his building. He wasnt sure if Cosmo would be working tonight. People needed time off to spend with their families, not open doors for the rich and spoiled who couldnt pull the handle themselves. Besides, he wasnt in the mood to make small talk with anyone. His phone vibrated in his pocket as the waited for the elevator to reach him. He pulled it out and looked at the screen, seeing the missed call from Chloe

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and a new voice mail. Hed have to talk to her sooner than later, so he hit the button to retrieve her message. Hey Sam, she said. I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. I dont know how youre spending the day, but I hope whatever it is, youre enjoying yourself. Call me when you get a chance. Ive missed the sound of your voice. She laughed lightly into the receiver. Even if you dont remember me yet, I remember you. I love you, Sam. Sam hit end and took the elevator up to his floor. He shed his jacket, not bothering to hang it up. Instead he threw it down on the decorative chair no one ever sat in. Why did he have this chair if no one used it? He looked around the condo that was furnished, not by him, and wondered why he had agreed to any of it. He hated neutral colors. He liked color in

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his belongings, vibrancy. He liked things that shined and gave off radiance. That stuff he liked? They made him think of Lil and he instantly felt a pain in his chest. He had hurt her, he knew that. He should have told her sooner, the moment he had woken up. Maybe he was wrong to want the day to be perfect. Maybe he wanted to feel alive again. He was selfish; there was no denying that. But Lil? She hadnt even given him the chance to explain anything to her. He wanted to tell her everything he remembered from their past. He wanted to make right, all the wrongs he had done. Sam had to face the inevitable. He had to call Chloe and tell her the news. The longer he put it off, the harder it would be. He picked his cell phone up from the coffee table. He sat back on the couch

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and hit redial, listening to the rings, waiting for her to answer. Sam, she breathlessly said when she answered. I wondered if you would call. Merry Christmas, he said. He could hear the smile in her voice as she said, Merry Christmas. Did you have a good day? He wanted to say, yes. I spent it with the greatest woman in the world. But it was also a no, because he had broken her heart, for a second time. Instead he avoided her question and dove right into the reason behind his call. I remember, Chloe. The squeal of her delight could probably be heard from three states over. She screamed her excitement into his ear causing him to pull the phone way, where he could still hear her like she was in the same room as him.

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Oh, Sam! she gushed. Thats the best news ever! When? she asked. Was it hearing my voice on your voicemail? Did that trigger your memories? What could he tell her? No, it was actually this morning after waking up with Lil in my arms. This morning, he replied. Oh, her voice dropped. Why didnt you call...never mind. It doesnt matter. What matters is that you remember. Im coming home, Sam. Im coming home and you and I are going to be married. Chloe, he said but it fell on deaf ears. Oh shit, she cursed. I forgot Daddys pilot is off today. The earliest I can leave is in the morning. Unless he could hear the peck of her manicured nails against a keyboard. Crap. No flights out tonight, either.

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Chloe, Sam said again. Its okay. It was more than okay. For the first time he could remember, he was thanking her father for something and meaning it. Sam wanted a night alone to process his next move. What he was going to say, how he was going to move forward. Its not okay, Sam! she cried. Its been nearly two and a half weeks since Ive seen you. I miss you, her voice dropped. I want to see you, baby. Sam ran his hand through his hair, realizing he did it out of frustration. She could have easily stuck around instead of jet setting off. Chloe, just relax. Get some sleep and fly out tomorrow. Ill be here at the condo. Im not going anywhere. Her exuberance at his confession of waiting for her to arrive caused another squeal. Unfortunately, Sam didnt

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mean it the way it sounded. Sam was going to be waiting for her because he wanted answers. He wanted the night alone to formulate everything he needed to ask. As Sam stared at his reflection in the window, all he saw was the type of man he loathed. In one fell swoop he went from a man that everyone loved and laughed with to a man who was taught to only care about what someones daddy wanted. ~~~~ Sam didnt sleep. He couldnt. Not after having the joy of Lil in his arms. This bed? It wasnt his. It was something Chloe had chosen. The mattress was too firm and the style too contemporary the tall headboard with its clean lines and the streamlined look of no footboard. Lils bed, their bed, was comfy with all of its pillows and soft, pillow top mattress. The curved woodwork made it feel homey.

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Instead of sleeping, he dug through every inch of his home, looking for anything and everything that might let him see a glimpse of the man he once was. He had gone through his closet, the cabinets in his kitchen, even his dresser. Everything he once knew, all the old jeans with holes in them from normal wear and tear the concert t-shirts he had collected all through college all of it had been replaced by designer denim that was distressed by a machine and starched button down shirts and ties. It wasnt until he was searching through the bottom drawer that held his gym shorts, did he find what he realized he had been searching for all along. Tucked in the very back, Sams hand ran across a small box. Slowly, afraid that it might disappear once he laid his eyes on it, he pulled it out and stared at the black box, his heart beating

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ninety to nothing. The hinges creaked as he opened it. He swallowed past a lump in his throat as the diamonds sparkled, reflecting off the light in his bedroom. He had bought Lil an engagement ring. The same day he had bought the infinity bracelet for her. He had loved the design; he felt like the meaning signified exactly what their relationship meant. His love, no matter what, would go on and on. And it had. He slipped the ring out of its slit and held it up, turning it around to inspect all sides. It was platinum, he remembered the salesman telling him. The band crisscrossed, like a figure eight, forming the infinity symbol. Inside they were studded with tiny diamonds covering the band in its entirety. The round diamond in the center with a row of smaller diamonds, mimicking those on the band, surrounding it. Sam loved the

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timeless setting. He had imagined it on her finger when they were old and gray, holding hands as they rocked side by side in their rockers on the porch. Even after the news of the baby and then finding out they had lost their first child, Sam still had every intention of asking Lil to marry him. But she pushed and he didnt push back. He allowed her to shut the door in his face, turn her back on him and effectively shut him out. When Sam left he told himself he was coming back. He was going to marry her because he loved her more than anything. So why was the ring still in its box? Sam understood now how he and Lil had gotten to that place, but he wasnt going to let it happen again. No, this time Sam was prepared to fight for her. ~~~~

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Sam thought of Lil all the next morning. When he showered, she was at the forefront of his mind. As he dressed, he thought of how she looked when he took off her clothes. He didnt know how many times he had picked up the phone to call her between last night and this morning, but he always stopped himself. He wanted to hear her voice; he was just afraid of what shed say. At eleven that morning, Sam was in his kitchen, mixing a protein shake. His nerves knowing Chloe would be on her way had him unable to eat solid foods. Instead, he drank the nutrition he needed. He had run through the list of things he wanted to talk about in his head. By the time their reunion was over with, it could go one of two ways. The door opened, and Sam heard the loud clank of high heels across his bamboo floors. He braced himself by

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holding on to the counter and counting to five. He got to three before she wrapped her arms around him from behind. He held her hands and turned himself around, holding her far enough back so that she wouldnt assault his face, leaving traces of her red lipstick behind. It took a moment for her huge grin to slowly turn downward into a frown. She looked at their adjoined hands, kept a space apart, and cocked her head to the side. Whats wrong? she asked. Arent you happy to see me? We need to talk, Sam said. He took her hand and led her into the living room, depositing her on the couch. He opted to stand with his feet apart and his arms cross over his chest. His finger tapped his chin and he thought of where he should begin.

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He started with, Why dont we go to my dads for Christmas? Chloe gave him an incredulous look. What do you mean? We go over there. We stop by every year with a bottle of champagne. Sam shook his head, silently asking her not to patronize him. We stay for about five minutes. For the past two years weve stayed for five minutes, he stressed by holding up his hand with five fingers at attention. Chloe scoffed. Sam, we have other things to do. My dad, he throws a huge party on Christmas Eve. Your dads party interferes. She shrugged letting him know just what he had concluded. We make sure to show our faces and then we leave. Daddy expects us. What is it about my family that bothers you? he asked her. Is it that my dad isnt a CEO of some big company? Is

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it because we dont live in a penthouse or a sprawling estate? Where is this coming from? she asked, standing from the couch, and closing the distance between her and Sam. Were supposed to have a happy reunion. Ive missed you. Her voice dropped and she batted her eyes at him. Sam had to fight not to roll his. Answer the question, Chloe, he demanded. She huffed her annoyance. Nothing is wrong with your family, Sam. Its just that they arent like us. You and me, she said motioning between the two of them, were destined for big things. Bigger than Fair Haven can give us. Your dad, hes nice, he really is, but he isnt chasing after the big picture. Hes a retired plumber for Christ sakes! Sam yelled. The big dream for him is enjoying life now. No work, no

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annoying customers, just him fishing or hunting or going on trips. Thats his big picture. Sam had to take several calming breaths before he continued. He could feel his blood pressure rising with every word he said. Chloe? She looked up at him, her face worried. She had every right to worry about what was going to come out of his mouth next. Why dont I have my own friends? Why does it seem like your friends are my friends? Chloe threw her hands up in the air, clearly frustrated. What the hell does that mean? They are our friends, Sam. I dont just hang out with Todd and JoAnn or Billy and Mischa on my own. We do things as a couple, making them our friends.

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No, he said. They were your friends before; they turned into our friends because we did things with them. What about Kane and Abe? Her brow furrowed and then like a light being turned on, her eyes widened. You mean the boyfriends in the gaming department? Two of your employees? Sam nodded. Yeah, those two. Did you know they were my best friends in college and somehow I got too big for my britches and tossed them aside? What does it matter? You were promoted. You couldnt keep hanging out with the testers in the basement. Besides, she said, inspecting her nails, They would have probably tried to sabotage your rise to the top. I know people like them. They see an in and they take it. You were their in. They would have ruined you.

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Sam had never felt such anger in all of his life. It felt like at any moment the lid to the boiling pot was going to flip off, burning everything in its wake. How could she say all of this? He had to respect her honesty. He didnt like it, but he had to give her credit for not telling him what he wanted to hear. I need some time, he said after several beats of silence passed between them. Time? she repeated. He nodded. And what are you going to do with this time? The word came out like a sneer from her painted lips. Im going to think about my future, Chloe. Our future. Does this have anything to do with Lil? Everything, he wanted to say but he refrained. When he didnt answer, Chloe laughed, even though there was no humor behind it.

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Okay, she said. You take your time to figure out whatever it is that you think you need to figure out about your future. I know mine, Sam. I dont need you figuring anything out for me. She picked up her purse that lay on the table next to the couch and threw it over her shoulder. Take the rest of the week if you want, I dont care. I have a wedding to push forward. But Sam, if you want to be with me, you make damn sure shes out of your system before Saturday. If that means fucking her until your blue in the face and youll no longer wonder what one more time would be like, then be my guest. But know this. She pointed her long fingernail at him. If you show up to that church on Saturday, you better be prepared to spend the rest of your life wanting me and not thinking about her.

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Chloe left, her footsteps heavy across the floor. The door slammed in her wake as he watched her walk away. Sam knew what he had to do. He knew before Chloe had shown up. Now, it was up to him to make sure it happened. And before it did, he had a few phone calls to make. 187

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CHAPTER 27 Lil lay across the sofa in Dr. Kingstons office. For todays visit she opted not to sit in one of the straight back chairs. She would have thought for all the lying around she had done since she had told Sam to leave the night of Christmas that shed be tired of lying horizontal. Turned out, she wasnt. Dr. Kingston was quiet as Lil closed her eyes and practiced her deep breathing exercises.

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Lil, Dr. Kingston said. Tell me whats going on. With one final deep cleansing breath, Lil said, Sam remembers. She turned her face to Dr. Kingstons desk, opening one eye to see her reaction. It was still as calm and cool as ever. You knew this would come, she replied. Lil moaned. I know. I just You had hoped that things would be how they were? Im guessing you and Sam grew close while you were helping him? Lil snorted. They had grown close all right. So close that before he dropped his bombshell on her she was thinking of asking him to move some stuff in. Talk about going overboard. Lil was thankful the words never had a chance to leave her mouth.

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What happened? Dr. Kingston asked. Lil started from the beginning. She told Dr. Kingston everything, from reuniting him with Kane and Abe and bridging her own relationship with the two. To telling him about Toby and the fight they had about it. Sam coming back to her, decorating the tree, telling him about the baby and miscarriage and then how everything fell apart. She then moved to their date with the old gang, to feeling like a part of the family again when she went with him to his dads Christmas party. Then there was the night he consumed her, the morning she seduced him, lunch at Ellies and thenthen the biggest heartache of all. Her telling him to leave and him not putting up a fight. When she was finished, Dr. Kingston kept quiet, probably allowing Lil to

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adjust to saying everything that had happened to her and Sam in the week leading up to him regaining his memories. And how do you feel now? she asked. God. Lil groaned. I hate that question. Sighing, she answered anyway. I feel used, cheated out of something Ive wanted for a longtime. Mad at him for remembering and walking out of the door. Did you expect him to stay and fight for you? Lil honestly didnt know. What would have happened had she not told him to leave? Would he have stayed and tried to work things out? Lil began to start second-guessing herself. Maybe she should give him the benefit of the doubt. He was only doing what she asked; leaving her was all he knew to do when the tough got going.

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Let me ask you this, Dr. Kingston said when Lil didnt reply. Did he give you any reason to think he didnt want to be with you? No, Lil said softly. He told me he loved me. He made this Christmas the best one Ive had in three years. So maybe he was looking out for you. Lil shrugged. He could have been, she guessed. It wasnt like he said anything other than that he remembered. She had flown off the handle before giving him the chance to say anything else. Lil, given that youve been a patient of mine for three years, Id like to think that I know you. She rested her forearms on top of her desk and clasped her hands together. Im assuming you didnt get any answers from Sam regarding your past because you didnt give him the chance to talk.

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Damn the woman for being so perceptive. She was right, and Lil could admit that. She knew she had jumped the gun. She should have been more reasonable with Sam. She should have allowed him to tell her everything because who knew if shed ever have the chance again? But it was hard for Lil to step past the shards of glass at her feet that resembled her broken heart. Lil, any man worth his salt, especially a man who chose to spend Christmas with his ex, is going to want the chance to speak his peace. I suggest when that time comes, you listen to him. Yeah but when would that happen, Lil wondered. Before or after the wedding? ~~~~ Sam had nearly forgotten his appointment with Dr. Langdon. With everything going on it almost slipped his mind. He

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was glad he had set a reminder in his phone to alert him of the time. He sat in the chair, across from the doctors desk, ready to dive into todays session. Hopefully if things went as Sam had planned, the only therapy hed need was the kind Lil could provide. Sam, Dr. Langdon said, smiling as he set his pen down. How are things? I remember, Sam blurted out. Dr. Langdon showed no signs of surprise, or even that he knew this was coming. And how are you coping? he asked. Sam had to laugh. How was he coping? He left the woman he loved, sent the woman he wasnt sure he liked, much less loved, out the door with the excuse he needed time. He had moved out of his condo and in with his dad. As well as expected, I suppose. You suppose?

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Sam shrugged. What do you want me to say? I was able to spend time with Lil, something Ive thought about from the moment I walked out of our house three years ago. How stupid I was that I never went back when I knew I should have? She needed me and I left her and never came back. Hell, Sam said, raking his fingers through his hair. I needed her. Swallowing hard, Sam continued. I was able to mend a broken friendship with two of my best friends. My brother? He apparently hated me because I had turned into this uppity hot shot who didnt give a damn about his family only his fiances. Sam shot Dr. Langdon a perturbed look. But I still I have my health, so I suppose Im fine. Do you not like the man youve become?

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Sams gaze was fixed on Dr. Langdon. He felt his breathing become labored like the lava in a volcano about to erupt. I hate him, he seethed. He doesnt care about anything. Sam let out a humorless laugh. Literally, not a thing. The furnishings in his house, what clothes he wears, what kind of car he drives. He doesnt even care that he doesnt spend more than five minutes with his own family at Christmas. The Sam I turned in to? He doesnt have any real friends. He hates his job but is too afraid to quit. Dr. Langdon gave the briefest of nods. Do you think you can incorporate the two? The person you used to be and the one you became? Sam shook his head. I dont see how. Especially when the old Sam had Lil and the new one had Chloe.

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How would Lil like this Sam? The one who spent all his time at work, who would drag her to after hours business parties. Make her play the part of the doting girlfriend. That wasnt Lil. Sure, shed support him; shed do anything to help him. That much was evident. But Chloe was the one who was good at working a room, schmoozing her daddys clients and colleagues. What does Chloe say about all of this, Sam? Not much. I told her I needed some time to think about my future. And how much time do you intend to take? Dr. Langdon questioned. Until Saturday, Sam thought to himself. Then hed have to break someones heart. But this time, he was going to do what was right. Not what was expected of him. 189

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CHAPTER 28 Lil decided to close up shop the week following Christmas and leading up to New Years. That of course didnt mean she sat at home and wallowed because she was missing Sam. How could she have missed him as much as she did in the short amount of time he had reentered her life? They were together since college, all of those years seeing each other every single day, yet the two weeks he was in her life, when he

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shut the door behind him and left, those had been the hardest to get through. Maybe it was because Lil had believed she had gotten her second chance with Sam. Maybe this time, with everything out in the open, they could move forward, past everything that had ruined them. But Lil hadnt allowed Sam to tell his side of the story. She didnt know what made him leave and never come back. She thought about calling him. For almost three days now, she picked up her phone to dial his number, but ended up only staring at the old picture she had taken so long ago. That was her Sam, she had to tell herself. The man who remembered, who had been missing for three years, he wasnt hers. And she was a fool to think he ever could be. The sign on the door was turned to closed as Lil busied herself with getting

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ready for the new year. Christmas props were stored away and Valentines were taken out of storage. Just the thought of sappy cards and heart-shaped candies had Lil wanting to close up until Easter. But thats what the old Lil would have done. This Lil was determined to make the best out of her situation. She wouldnt cry and mope or drink herself stupid. No, this Lil was more mature. She would take one day at a time and move forward with her life. Not backwards. The bell above the door dinged and Lil silently cursed. Apparently the closed sign on the door meant nothing. She hated to turn around and send a paying customer on their way, but she had things to do and people to forget. When she turned around, she recognized the woman instantly even though neither of them had officially met.

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Lil? she questioned. Lil Harper? Lil nodded her throat suddenly dry. The woman smiled. Hi. She waved. I know we havent had the chance to meet yet, but Im Chloe. Chloe Miles. Yeah, Lil knew who she was. She knew this woman had the one thing Lil wanted. Sam. Hello, Lil managed to say. Is there something I can help you with? Oh, no, Chloe said. I just wanted to stop by and thank you. Thank me? Chloe nodded. For helping Sam. I dont know what you did or how you did it. Lil could hazard a guess. She slept with him. Twice. And shed be lying to herself if she said she hadnt enjoyed

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every single second of it. But there was no need to tell Chloe any of that. Lil wasnt a vindictive person. It was inevitable for one of them to get hurt. No sense in it being both of them. Sam, Chloe said, is back to normal. Her smile, as she said the words, stretched across her face. Normal. One word told Lil all she needed to know. Sam had returned to the suit-wearing city-life, engaged man that he was. To Chloe this was normal. For Lil this was her worst nightmare. Anyway, Chloe continued, oblivious to the fact Lil had hardly said two words since she waltzed into her closed shop. I just wanted to stop by and say thanks. Youve sent him back to me. You bet she did and she had hated herself every moment since, Lil thought. I cant believe it! I mean, everything can go on as planned.

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Lil didnt even try to keep her face a blank mask. She had to wonder if Chloe was catching the I-dont-give-a-shit look she knew she was throwing off. Thats part of why Im here. Chloe reached into her purse and took out an envelope. She held it out for Lil to take, but Lil made no move for it. When Chloe realized Lil wasnt accepting whatever it was she was trying to give her, she lowered her hand and the smile on her face finally faltered. I wanted to invite you to the wedding. I had to have the printers print an extra copy because it was so last minute. My parents, theyve invited practically the entire state, not to mention most of the surrounding states, she said with a chuckle. I know itll probably be weird for you, you know, since Sam is your ex and everything, but if it wasnt for you then I

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wouldnt be having my dream wedding. So, she started to stick her hand out again but pulled it back midway. Seeming very uncomfortable, for which Lil was glad, Chloe sat the envelope on the Ellies desk. I understand if you cant make it. I just wanted to include you as our guest. Itll be fun. Her words came out sounding like she was trying to convince Lil. Like attending the wedding of her ex-boyfriend, lover whatever he was would be the place to be. Its going to be at Saint Marks and the reception is on the roof of the Miles Tower. It has a great view of downtown and the river. Sam and I plan to leave right after the fireworks. What was Lil supposed to say? Sure! Ill come. Make sure you save me a spot right next to you when we do the

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electric slide. No. There was nothing she could say so she didnt. Taking the hint that Lil wasnt going to gush about how romantic it seemed that there would be fireworks to send them off, or how convenient it was that her daddy owned such a pristine building with an amazing rooftop view, Chloe started to back away to the door. Thanks again, Lil. Hopefully Ill see you Saturday. And with those parting words, Chloe Miles walked out of the closed shop and back to the man Lil hated a little more than she did fifteen minutes ago. She would see Chloe when she decided to talk to Sam. Which was going to be never. ~~~~ Sam sat alone at Rustys, opting for a glass of water at noon on Wednesday,

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rather than the beer he needed to get through the meeting he had called. It could go one of two ways. Either Ellie was going to help him or she was going to yell at him. He was glad Kane offered to come because Sam already knew he had his best friend on board with his plan. Abe had to work but was also in the know. It was for the best he wasnt here anyway. With the way his and Ellies relationship hadnt seem to change, Sam didnt need his other best friend throwing insults at the one woman he needed on his team for his plan to be successful. He was surprised Ellie hadnt called him in the days that had passed since he left Lils. It shocked him that she hadnt hunted him down and made good on her promise that shed hurt him if he hurt Lil.

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The door opened, the bell sounding off loud in the empty room. Sam turned his head and was grateful it was Kane. He walked over, patting him on the back as he sat in the vacant stool to Sams right. You holding up okay? he asked. Were about to see, Sam replied. Just then, the door opened again and Sams stomach knotted up. He looked at her walking toward them, determination in every step. Her face was drawn tight, a sure sign that Ellie wasnt happy. She stood at the bar, keeping the empty stool on his other side as a barrier between them. Ellie put her purse on the wooden top, and then placed her hand on her hip, cocking it to the side. With a cool tone and an inverted brow to go with her penetrating stare,

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Ellie said, You know Im going to kick your ass, right? Let me explain, Sam reasoned. Oh, Ellie said in a dramatic fashion and rolling her eyes. You damn well better. And I expect it to be good. No bullshit, Sam. Not this time. By the time he explained his side of the story with what happened with Lil, which had coincided with what Ellie had been told, he started the pitch that could help him get the love of his life back in his arms. When he was done, he waited for what seemed like days for Ellie to speak. To help ease some sort of response out of her, he added, If you help me, I promise you Ill make this up to you. Whatever it is, consider it yours. Sam, you dont owe me anything. Lil on the other hand, you owe her so much more than some second rate, second chance.

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Hoping Ellie could see the honesty reflecting in his eyes he said, Im not asking for a second chance with her, Ellie. Im asking for forever. 197

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CHAPTER 29 Sam had finished buttoning his shirt when his dad entered the living room. To keep up pretenses, Sam had gone ahead with his wedding party for the days festivities, by getting ready at his condo. After today, hed no longer call the sparse, bland place home. As for where home would be? He hoped where his heart was. With Lil. You ready? his dad asked, dressed like James Bond ready to have cocktails

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with the ladies while kicking ass at the same time. Sam nodded. You sure about this, son? You sure this is what you want? Sam had to laugh. After everything he had been through the last several weeks, his dad was questioning his judgment. Now, of all times. Why? You think Im making a mistake? he asked. Paul shook his head and took the steps that brought him closer to his son. He gripped Sam by the shoulders. No, he said his voice soft. I think youre finally doing the right thing. For you. Me too, Sam agreed. Cars here! Joshua said, entering the room dressed in his matching tux just like Sam and their father. You two go ahead and ride to the church in it. Im going to take my car,

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Sam told them. Im sure when all of this is over with youll need to stick around and field off questions on my behalf. Paul pulled his son into a tight embrace. When they pulled apart, Sam saw unshed tears in his fathers eyes. I love you, Samson. Dont let them give you hell. You understand me? Sam nodded. Well be here for you. He added with a pointed stare, No matter what happens today. Ill see you tomorrow? Sam asked his father who nodded. Well meet you at the airport if everything goes as planned. If not, well, Paul chuckled, I guess Ill see you at the house later tonight. Sams gut tightened. He couldnt think of the worst happening today. He had to remain optimistic that his plan would work. He had made a decision and he prayed to God that Lil would be along for

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the ride. If she wasnt then Sam had his work cut out for him because come hell or high water he was going to make an honest woman out of her. He should have felt regret once he remembered the last three years. Especially the part where he had made love to Lil. Technically he had cheated on Chloe. But a part of his brain told him that she had cheated him out of so much more. So much more than he ever realized. She didnt just cheat him out of his friends, or doing the things he loved. She had sunk to a whole new level with her ploy to get him to notice her. One that had a huge role in how he lost Lil. Granted, he wasnt going to put the blame solely on Chloe. She played a part but she wasnt the main game changer. That lay with Sam. He considered leaving the car running as he pulled into the church. Guests were already beginning to mill about in the

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front, kissing each other on the cheeks and offering fake hellos. All in the name of being seen at the biggest wedding Fair Haven had seen in a longtime. He opened the door to the bridal suite slowly, not wanting to draw too much attention to himself. He and Chloe had visited the chapel several times during the planning stages so he knew just where to find her. She was standing in front of the floor length mirror, fixing the crown on top of her head. He shouldnt have expected anything less. A tiara for the princess she thought she was. Daddys princess, perhaps, but not Sams. The sight of her should have left him weak-kneed. The dress, strapless and diamond studded on the bodice pulled in at her waist making it seem smaller, as the skirt ballooned out down to the floor. The fact was, seeing Chloe in her wedding dress did nothing but remind him that he

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didnt love this woman and the wedding she had planned. The wedding she thought was so important she couldnt be there for her fianc when she should have been. It was ironic, him and Chloe. She left him at the first sign of trouble the same way he had left Lil. But Sam was a changed man. He had paid for the sins he had committed. He wasnt about to let another chance at redemption slip through his fingers. Sam! Chloe suddenly shrieked. She turned to face him, picking up the dress so she could move forward. You cant be in here! Its bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding. Her tone might have indicated that she was put out with him for showing up before the ceremony; the smile on her face told him she considered him showing up at all a victory. Little did she know that when he said everything he had to say, the smile

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would be wiped clean from her face as he drove off with one of his own. We need to talk, he said, stepping further into the room as he shut the door behind him. Talk? Cant it wait until after the ceremony? We have a church full of people waiting on us. No, it cant wait. Chloe put her hands on her hips. Sam, whats this about? What is so important you couldnt wait half an hour to ask? Sam drew in a deep breath as he said, Do you remember taking a phone call for me before we started dating while I was still working in the basement? She scoffed at his question. How am I supposed to remember something like that? It was ages ago. Her posture relaxed and she moved closer to him. Sam put a hand up to stop her.

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Answer me, he demanded, then added, it would have been the day we had the meeting in your fathers office after we finished reviewing the Holy Wars game. The game that single handedly earned millions upon millions of dollars. Realization registered on her face. She stood a little straighter and said, Yes. I took a phone call for you. Whats it matter now? Because, he seethed, that phone call was Ellie, Lils best friend, calling to tell me they were headed to the emergency room. Lil lost our baby that day and I wasnt there for her because you took it upon yourself not to pass the message along. Chloes eyes widened. A baby? she whispered. You and Lil were going to have a baby? Why didnt you ever tell me?

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Because it was my business, not yours. Im asking you why. Why didnt you tell me she called? First of all, Chloe said holding up a single finger to signify her point, this Ellie never said you were needed at the hospital. Chloe pleaded with him, If I had known that was why she was calling I would have interrupted the meeting, I swear. But the fact that it was an emergency, which I know for a fact she told you, didnt constitute you telling me immediately? Hell, even writing the message on a post it note and sticking it on my computer monitor would have been better than not telling me at all! Sam saw rage and hatred behind his eyes. He knew that with the broken look Chloe now shot him that she saw it too.

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Everything was ruined after that day, Chloe. My job, my life, the woman I love. At his admission, Chloes face turned hard. I did what I had to do to get you out of the basement and into the towers where you belonged. I moved you up from some lowly gamer to the head of the department because I saw promise in you. No, Sam said, shaking his head. You saw an opportunity for yourself and your father. Well guess what, Chloe? Im no ones opportunity. You made a decision for me that day that has affected my life in the worst possible way. But not anymore. From this moment on, I make my own decisions. Ill decide who I hang out with, where I live, what clothes I buy, and most importantly who I love. The seconds ticked by as the silence filled the room. Chloe stood across the

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room from him, on the brink of tears. She knew what was coming next. Im not going to marry you, Sam finally said. Not today, not next year. Not ever. Sam turned around to open the door just as a vase crashed to the side of his head. Without acknowledging her fury, Sam walked out of the door and out of her life, for good. He started his descent down the hall when Jonah Miles rounded the corner. He smiled when he saw Sam approaching him. Thought youd sneak in a visit before the wedding? He asked, nodding to the bridal suite Sam had just left. Mr. Miles laughed and slapped Sam on the back. I understand all too well. Especially given how you havent seen each other in a couple of weeks. Mr. Miles --

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Jonah, he said correcting Sam. Were about to family, son. I need to speak with you, Sam said. In private. This only caused Mr. Miles to laugh harder as he ushered Sam into a vacant room. Need some advice before you slip the ring on my daughters finger? Perhaps some tips for the wedding night? When they were safely in the room where prying eyes couldnt see them, Sam broke the news to Chloes father. Sir, Im not going to marry your daughter today. You need more time? Thats fine, Sam. We can arrange that. Im sure it seems very sudden after you regained your memory. Chloe will understand. Yeah, Sam thought. If throwing a vase across the room at his head was

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understanding, Chloe had the art down to a tee. I tell you what. We have everyone already here, why dont we postpone the wedding and use the reception as a celebration of your recovery. No sir, I dont think I can do that. Sam looked at Mr. Miles, a man that almost became his father-in-law, a man that he worked for, a man who was going to do worse than throw an object at him. Im not marrying your daughter at all, Sam said with a steady voice. Sam could see the veins in Mr. Miles forehead throb. He was angry and that anger was seconds away from being thrown at Sam. After everything shes done for you? After everything Ive done for you? he asked. And youre not going to marry her? I dont think so. Youre going to

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march your happy ass out of this room and stand at the end of that aisle with your plumber father and good for nothing brother and you're going to marry Chloe. I own you, boy. You work for me; you live in a building I own. You're nothing without me. An argument was on the tip of Sams tongue. He was everything without the Miles name connected with him. So much more that he had forgotten who he was. Instead he said in a surprisingly calm tone, although underneath his words were venom. Dont you ever talk about my family like that again. Im not walking down that aisle. Im not making your daughter my wife. Youre fired! Mr. Miles shouted. He walked over and stood toe to toe with Sam.

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You cant fire me, Sam threw back in his face. I left my letter of resignation on your desk this morning. I quit. And not just me. There are two other letters there also. Two of the best gamers your company has. As for living in your building, Ive already moved out. Sam spun on his heel and wrenched the door open determination to get to Lil with every step he took. He didnt know if Mr. Miles followed him, or if he went straight to Chloe, and Sam didnt care. For the first time he was going after everything he had ever wanted. And he hoped she wanted him too.

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CHAPTER 30 Lil picked up her purse and overnight bag as she headed out of the door of her

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house. Ellie had called the day before begging her to spend New Years Eve with the whole gang at Rustys. The whole gang. Without Sam they wouldnt be whole. Lil wouldnt be whole. But she was trying. Damn it, she was trying. What Ellie didnt know, was that Lil didnt plan to ring in New Years with her friends. This year, Lil had a date. And she planned to leave the details as just that. She didnt have to explain to her friends as to what, or whom she was ringing in the New Year with. Ellie had Zach; Kane and Abe had each other. Wasnt it only fair that Lil have someone too? When she pulled into Rustys parking lot, she wasnt surprised to find the place overflowing with people. Since college, this was where she and her friends spent the end of one year before

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embarking on another. Except for the last three. Pushing past the people milling around the door, Lil spotted her friends at their regular table. A table for six that tonight would only seat five. That empty seat was mocking her. Reminding her that her friends were happy and in love while Lil wasin love. There was no point in denying the fact that yes, she was in love with Sam. She had never been out of love with him. Which was why she had to do something for herself tonight. Not ring in the New Year surrounded by couples who would be kissing at the stroke of midnight. Tonight Lil had to spend it with Lil. And her mysterious date. Hey, she greeted them and pulled up the chair next to Kane. Abe and Zach were in a friendly discussion that seemed to sit well with Ellie. She wasnt

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throwing daggers in Abes direction so apparently they'd made progress. Hey, Kane said, pulling Lil into a hug as she sat down. Ellie poured a glass of champagne for Lil from the ice bucket Rusty had provided for all of the tables and handed it to her. Thank you, Lil said. But Im not having more than one. Im not going to stick around that long. Lil almost missed the look that passed between Ellie and Kane. She wondered what it could be about. If Lil had to guess, it was probably two people worried about a friend and not wanting that friend to spend the evening alone. Where are you going? Kane asked, his arm on the back of her chair. Lil took a sip of her champagne, the bubbles tickling her nose. I have a date, she said.

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Ellies eyes bugged out and Kane stiffened at her side. What was up with them tonight? A date? Ellie asked. Lil nodded. Yup. I need to be at the river by eleven. Parking is a bitch down there with the fireworks and I need to make sure Im there early enough to find a spot. Eleven? Kane questioned. Thats what I said, Lil repeated. Why? You two are acting weird. Whats going on? Nothing, they both said a little too jumpy at the same time. We just thought youd want to ring in the New Year with us, Ellie added. What? Abe yelped. Lil, you arent going to be here at midnight? He poked out his bottom lip and Lil couldnt help but laugh.

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Sorry guys, Lil shrugged. Ive got things to do. You cant stay a few minutes past eleven? Kane asked. I mean, this is the first time weve all celebrated in a longtime. Im with Kane, Lil. Any way you can call your date and reschedule? Like for tomorrow? Ellie asked. No, Lil said drawing out the word. Ive made plans and its rude to back out. Besides, she looked around at all the other couples paired off in the bar. I dont think Id be the best company tonight. The subject was dropped after that, but Lil still couldnt fend off the feeling that something was up. Ellie had never been one to try and get Lil to stay longer than she had planned. She always understood when Lil was ready to go.

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Kane and Abe, she could understand. They hadnt spent the holiday with her in a while and she hated leaving them this year, but she needed to do this for herself. If she had any hope of making the New Year better than the last three weeks had been, Lil needed to go down to the river and pray. ~~~~ Sam had just finished packing the last few things from his condo into his car when his cell phone rang. It was half past ten, and he was about to head to Rustys, where hopefully he would meet Lil and profess his undying love for her. Kanes number flashed and Sam smiled. He was probably calling to tell him that Lil had arrived and that they were all set. Hey man, Sam said. Shes gone! Kane said, frantic.

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Sams heart dropped. What do you mean shes gone? There was a rustling on the other end like the phone was being covered by something. Sam? It was Ellie. We tried to keep her here. We didnt know what to say without sounding up to something. That ship has sailed, Sam heard Abe say in the background. If Sam had to guess from the slurred speech, hed bet Abe was three sheets to the wind. Where is she? Sam gunned his car through the snow-covered streets. Silence met him on the other end. He thought the connection might have been dropped until he heard the faintest of whispers. Something wasnt right. Sam turned the wheel, taking the curve a little too fast. Ending up back in the hospital was not the evening he had in mind. He

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needed to regain control of his car and his emotions. Ellie? Kane? Yeah? Kane answered. Where did Lil go? I can still carry on with the plan if you just tell me where she went. Sam, Kane said hesitantly. Lil went down to the river. The river. They had a secret cove at the river. Actually, professing his love to her and pleading with her to take him back might work out better than a bar full of drunken people in paper party harts and blowing on noisemakers. The fireworks would be going off at midnight and it could provide the perfect backdrop. The river? he asked again to make sure he had heard him right. Then I know exactly where she went. Thanks Kane.

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Sam, Kane said again with a little more force. Shes not alone. 207

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CHAPTER 31 Lil rarely came to the little hideaway spot she and Sam had discovered. The Fair Haven River had the promenade that went all along the front side of the river. The pavilion, the parking spaces, vendors and merchants, they were all set up along the river causing it to be a crowded party when there were events. No one came to this side because it was so far out of reach from the food vendors and the beer stands. There werent even bathrooms on this side. But

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thats what she and Sam had loved about it. Nestled under rock cavern was a tiny alcove that they had deemed theirs. Now here she stood, waiting for her night to begin. She looked at her wrist to the bracelet Sam had given her for Christmas. The infinity symbol staring back. She couldnt seem to take it off even though its meaning of everlasting love was lost on her, especially when she was afraid that all she would ever feel was everlasting heartache. ~~~~ Like a bat out of hell, Sam drove his car through the town square toward the manmade river. He maneuvered his car to the open field that was serving as a makeshift parking lot. He ran across the field and over the bridge until he saw her shape begin to take form. The thought that she was out here with another man nearly killed him

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but he was determined for her to hear him out. Sam controlled his heavy footsteps as he walked, coming to a standstill when he saw a blanket laid out with a basket holding down one of the sides. In front, a camera tripod being adjusted by Lil was front and center. Her date was her camera. He shook his head not believing that she had convinced their friends she had a hot date. Sam studied her for a moment while he was undetected. The full moon in the sky shone brightly down upon her, making her dark brown hair reveal mahogany highlights. Delilah, he whispered into the night. The sound of his voice caused her to jump. With her hand clutched to her chest she said, You scared the crap out of me. What are you doing here?

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Looking for you. His hands were shoved deep into pants pockets, the tuxedo jacket doing little to take the chill out of the air. Well, you found me. Can I explain, please? Sam took a minute to catch his breath now that he was facing her. Standing a mere three feet away was torture to him but he wouldn't force himself upon her. I didn't go through with it, Sam said before she could deny him the chance to bear his soul. He watched as her expression went from pissed to shocked in a matter of seconds. Why? Her voice remained strong. He watched her cross her arms over her chest. Because of you, Lil. I couldn't marry her because of how I feel about you. And how is that?

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He took a timid step forward not breaking eye contact with her. You're my everything. Always have been and always will be. You may want nothing to do with me after this but at least I can say I tried. I have to try, Lil. Because last time I did nothing. I hurt, his hand pounded his chest, right where his heart was. My God, how I hurt when we lost the baby. I was so happy. A part of you, a part of me was growing in your body. How amazing was that? No matter where we went in the world, there would be this forged being who was you and me. I was so excited. It was a whole new chapter of our lives and I was looking so forward to watching your body change and grow. But that day you miscarried, I lost a part of myself. Not only in the form of our baby but in you. You held the light in my eyes and without that light I couldn't see the world in front of me. I

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was losing you and I didn't know how to pull you back. I didn't know what to do to save you. I thought giving you space would help but all it did was distance us even further. I wanted to reach out to you but for the life of me I didn't know how. Staying late at work, sleeping on the couch, I honestly thought you couldn't stand to be around me. That's why I was away so much. I thought you didnt want me. Like I wasnt good enough for you anymore. So, I left. I didnt know what to do. I know now I should have made you talk to me, but I was afraid of what you might say. I took the coward's way out and let you drift further away. That space I tried to give you by moving out wasn't supposed to be long term. I never meant to be gone forever but, I did. Work took over because it helped me not think about how

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much I missed you. I created my own personal hell that I couldn't escape. Before I knew it, I was promoted and then Chloe was always around. You didn't call, I never saw you. It was like you dropped off the face of the Earth. I thought that you were trying to make a clean break from me without hurting my feelings so I let you go. I devoted every waking minute I had to Titan. I got so caught up in the hoopla of after dinner parties that I lost my friends. At the end of the day, the only person who was still there was Chloe. Sam took a few steps toward Lil testing the waters. She stayed put. He took that as a good sign. At least she wasnt backing away from him. I know it's not right and it doesn't excuse my behavior but she was there. When I thought you weren't, she was. I was at the top of the Titan ladder. I never said anything but I always felt like

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our relationship was one of convenience; for her to have a provider and for her father to have a successor. I felt trapped and I didn't know how to break free. Sam regarded Lil before he went any further. The next part, the most important part of his speech had nothing to do with Chloe or Titan. It had everything to do with her. You asked me not long ago what I was going to do when I woke up and remembered the day I fell out of love with you. Well, I don't remember that because it never happened. Lil, I could never fall out of love with you because I never stopped loving you. I've been here like I'm waiting on you to come back to me when I should have been the one going back to you. Through the tears that leaked down her cheeks and into the creases of her lips, Lil spoke. Why now? Why tell

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me this now and not a few days ago? Youve had four days to come to me and tell me all of this. Lil. Sam sighed. It doesnt matter what I say to you, it doesnt justify that I didnt call you. I wanted to, he stated. I picked up the phone so many times in the last few days to tell you everything but I wanted it be perfect. This moment? he said, pointing to the ground. I needed for this moment to be perfect. Sam laughed, despite the serious mood around them. I tried for this to be perfect, but you? He looked up at her with a lopsided grin. You never did make anything easy for me. Whats that mean? she questioned, her tears subsiding for the moment. I had this whole big moment planned out, Sam said, throwing his

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arms out to his sides. Ellie and Kane helped. Recognition registered across her face. Her mouth parted to form a soft o that her hand covered. Thats why they wanted me to stay at Rustys, she realized. You were coming up there all along? Sam nodded. Yeah, he said laughing again. I wanted to show up and profess my love to you in front of all our friends. And a room full of drunk people? she asked skeptically which only caused Sams laughter to increase. He bowed his head and looked down at the black patent leather shoes that went with the tux he was wearing. I realize now it wasnt the greatest of ideas. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers through his hair, clearly frustrated.

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He felt her before he saw her. She had moved to him, close enough that he could reach out to her and pull her to him, touch her face. He opened his eyes and nearly stumbled at the softness, the tenderness in her eyes. With so much on his mind, all of it on the tip of his tongue, with her standing this close to him, all of his words, his promises of love and forever faltered. Instead he said, I quit my job. His words elicited a tiny smile from her. Kane, Abe, and I. We all quit together. Were going to start our own gaming business. With all of our experience as testers, and my knowledge on the business end, were pretty confident we can compete in the market. Lil silenced him by placing her index finger over his lips. Her smile widened as she took that final step forward, breathing the same air as him.

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You look really handsome, she said, her hands trailing up the lapels of his jacket. Didnt want a good tux to go to waste? Sam threw caution to the wind when he picked her up off the ground and held her close to him. Her legs wrapped around his waist; her arms tightly wrapped around his neck. It was all part of my master plan. If telling you how much I cant live without you and want to be in your life forever and ever didnt work, I was banking the suit would. Lil threw her head back and laughed. In an instant, her smile faded and a frown started to form. What are we doing, Sam? Weve been down this road before and look how it turned out. You had to lose your memory to find your way back to me.

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But Im here now, he whispered against her lips. He was so close he could have touched them with his own. He wanted to. It was killing him to have her in his arms and not kiss all of her doubts and fears away. He set her gently down on her feet and reached inside his breast pocket for the box he had put there when he retrieved his last things from his condo. The other box, the one that he had kept with him for the last three years, the one he wasnt going to wait too long to give her this time, burned a hole in his pants pocket. Right next to the rabbits foot she had given him. A reminder that hed never forget his love for her. She watched him, the lines between her eyes, crinkling as he clutched the box in his hands. Delilah Rose Harper, he said, taking both of her hands in his. I love

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you. Ive loved you since that first day at school when you told me your name. Lil laughed and Sam joined in with her. Who would have thought we would have come as far as we did. Sam got down on one knee and Lils hands immediately flew to her mouth. He opened the long box that didnt hold her ring, but the beginning of their new memories. When she saw the papers that lay inside, he could tell she had to fight back the laughter. Im not going on your honeymoon with you, she said. I traded those in, he told her. Lil, go away with me. I want pictures of you and me and our travels, our memories, on our walls. I want to start over with you. I want to build a life with you and make you the happiest girl in the world. Where are they to?

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Anywhere, Sam breathed. Her eyes flew to his, a hint of longing in them. Anywhere? she asked, lifting the airline tickets out for a better look. As long as Im with you. He shook his head and looked down to regain his thoughts. When he looked back into Lils eyes, all he saw was the same love and devotion he felt for her. Ive already been to hell and back. This time, I want to go to paradise. I want to do whatever it is you want. Because all I want is you, by my side, from this moment until forever. Forever? she wondered aloud, her bottom lip trembling as she said the one word. Sam stood up and cupped her face in his hands. Slowly, he moved in, brushing his lips against hers. The fireworks went off as the clock struck midnight, as well as the bright flash of a

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camera. Sam didnt question the timing of the camera that was behind them, because he knew the images of them unifying their love would forever be captured on film and in his mind. This moment, this precious wonderful moment would remain with him for all of his days. The love of a relationship rekindled that was brighter than any light in the sky. Lil broke the kiss first. She cradled Sam's face in her hand, studying his face. I thought you were going to ask me to marry you, she said. There was a hint of sadness in her voice. The only thing Sam could do was smile. Oh, its coming. Im not waiting this time, he said. Im thinking itll happen on our trip. Maybe in the security line at the airport or, he said, his voice dropping to a seductive whisper, when I make love to you again. The possibilities are endless. His grin turned wicked.

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Either way, its going to happen this time. You and me? Were in it for the long haul. No more giving the other space. And no more hiding, Lil said. We have to be up front and honest with one another. Something's wrong? You tell me and vice-versa. Sam nodded. Anything for you. I promise you, I'll do anything and everything for you. For us. I love you, Sam, she said against his lips. I love you too, Lil. Oh, one more thing, he said. She looked at him through her long thick lashes and tilted her head to the side. I kind of dont have a place to live. Thats okay, she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. Ive got a great couch youre already familiar with.

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Had it not been for the teasing tone she used, or the flirtatious smile on her face, he would have thought she was serious. He had no plans to ever sleep on the couch again. They were brought together all those years ago on the green grass of their college campus. Sam realized that everything they had been through the laughter, the tears, the separation was all leading up to this moment now held by their love under the explosion of fireworks signifying a new year, a new beginning. For it is said that a love of epic proportions would stand the test of time from here until all eternity. For if he was the day and she was the night, one cannot be without the other. Just like Samson and Delilah. 219

SECOND RATE CHANCES ABOUT THE AUTHOR People have often told me that I live in a fantasy world. Little did they know, I was building an empire of stories in my head to one day share. I'm a mother first, a wife second, and a writer third. I'm so thankful to have been given this chance to get my stories out of my head and onto paper. When I'm not writing, I sell plumbing (no, I'm not kidding) and read romances that leave my heart a flutter. I know a ridiculous amount of pop culture information and can quote certain movies word for word. Music drives me to write and to also sing off key. Connect with Holly on the following sites:

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Twitter- @HollyGeauxLitly Facebook- www.facebook.com/ hollystephenswrites Her blog- hollystephenswrites.wordpress.com

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Stay tuned for upcoming novels from Holly Stephens.

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Risqu BusinessComing late July, 2012 Sawyer Thomas lives the kind of life hes always dreamed of. He owns his own auto body business that has expanded into three successful shops in his hometown of Houston. Sawyer isnt strapped for cash; far from it. So when Thompson Oil & Gas starts calling him with top-dollar offers to buy the mineral rights of the land his late grandfather left him in Summit, Texas, Sawyer laughs in their face. Layla Reynolds spends her days working in the male-dominated field of oil and gas acquisitions in Dallas. As the youngest project leader at Thompson Oil & Gas, Layla is given the biggest deal the company has ever seen. And shes determined to show those men that a woman can succeed in a man's world. However, if they knew Layla spent her

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weekends slinging drinks with more sass than Tom Cruise in Cocktail, shed only further their assumptions that a woman has no place in the oil field and is better suited as the eye candy or weekend flings they brag about every day of the week. For some, relaxing at the end of the day might mean a long hot bath or an ice-cold beer. For Layla it means being the hottest bartender who puts on the best show for the college kids in Summit. And Layla has a rule: no mixing business with pleasure. That is until Sawyer rides into town on his vintage Harley Davidson and his black leather jacket like hes the king of the motorcycle circuit. Theres something about scruff and blue eyes that gets Laylas motor running. After one night together, Sawyer knows that theres more to Summit than saving his grandfathers land, even if he's

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sworn not to let a great pair of legs cloud his vision. But when true identities are revealed, can the spark of something wonderful offset the price on Sawyers land. And Layla will have to decide whats more important; getting ahead in a mans world, or getting the man she loves. 219

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