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My hand jerks then, and I have to take a deep breath before continuing. Then, on second thought, I put the knife down. We have plenty of fucking vegetables.

I reach for my beer, which will better prepare me for this conversation than carrots.

The thought of Parker marrying Lance…blech.

“She seems to be doing okay with the breakup,” I say, dodging the marriage reference altogether.

“Yeah, but that’s just the thing,” Mrs. Blanton says, pursing her lips. “Doesn’t that seem odd to you? They dated for four years, almost five years, and toward the end there, she started talking about how he was the one.”

My beer doesn’t seem be settling well in my stomach so I put it aside. “Do you think Lance was…the one, or whatever?”

She hesitates. “Well, it’s not up to me, is it? But he seemed like a good enough sort. Made her happy.”

Did he?

I think back, trying to ignore the last two months in which Lance had all but ignored Parker.

I guess Mrs. Blanton’s right.

Parker had been happy with the guy. Or at least, pretty damn content. The two of them had never fought much, he’d taken her on date nights…they’d been completely compatible, in a sort of boring, rigid kind of way.

It’s strange, but after that first night, when Parker cried her eyes out and I wanted to gouge Lance’s eyes in revenge, I realize that I haven’t done much thinking about her ex.

For that matter, it doesn’t seem like Parker has done much thinking about her ex, but maybe Mrs. Blanton’s right.

Maybe that’s a problem.

“She’ll find someone new,” I say. “Someone better.”

“She will. And I don’t want her to rush it. It’s just…I want her to have someone who’s there for her.”

I glance at Sandra.

It’s an odd sort of thing to say about an independent twenty-something woman with a solid job and a thriving social life, but maybe it has something to do with the whole surviving-cancer thing.

I sometimes forget that the woman beside me stared death in the face. It makes sense that she’d have done some thinking about what life for her only child might be like without her.

“She has me,” I say quietly.

Sandra gives me a surprised look. “Oh, Ben, sweetie. I know that!” She reaches over and squeezes my arm. “It’s just…Parker’s your number one girl now, and you’ll always be there for her, but as a mom, I can’t help but thinkthinking about the day when you and Parker meet your true loves, and things change.”

My brain rebels against this. “They won’t.”

“But they have to,” she says, her voice gentle as she turns to face me. “I know you’ve got your whole bachelor thing right now, and that’s great, but you’ll fall in love someday. You’re too good of a guy not to. And how do you think that woman’s going to feel about being number two in your life?”

I open my mouth. Then shut it. I can’t imagine another girl replacing Parker.

But then, neither can I imagine my future eventual girlfriend, or wife, or whatever, being completely thrilled if I tell her that Parker comes first.

“Exactly,” Sandra says kindly, seeing the second I put the pieces together. “Your friendship with Parker won’t fade, per say, but it will change. I want her to have that perfect guy for whom she’ll always be number one. The one who will drop everything for her. Who will die for her.”

I open my mouth, but for the life of me, I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what I feel.

“Oh God,” she says, putting a hand over her mouth and letting out a little laugh. A gesture that makes her look just like her daughter. “Sorry. Sorry, Ben. I don’t mean to get…I bet you’re thinking I sound like a fuddy-duddy old person.”

I force a smile.

“It’s a mom thing,” she says, patting my arm in apology. “We fret. I don’t mean for a single second to imply that you’ve been anything but a wonderful friend to my daughter and that you won’t always be that friend for her.”

I pick up my beer again, tilting it back as I wait for my thoughts to sort themselves out into something that I can at least half-comprehend.

They don’t.

She claps her hands together. “Now, what did I do with those oven mitts? I think those baked potatoes are just about done, don’t you?”

The back door opens, and Parker steps through holding a foil-covered plate. “Steaks are ready, girls!”

She grins at me, but her smile slips just slightly when she sees me, and she tilts her head as though to say You okay?

I mentally shake myself and force a grin in response. I’m good.

Except I’m not good. Not at all.

I can’t help but think about that moment that Mrs. Blanton is talking about.

The one where Parker and I have found people more important to us than each other.

And I don’t like it at all.

Chapter 21


Whatever weirdness crawled up Ben’s butt while I was out on the deck with my dad has disappeared by the time we get to dessert: a delicious, locally made marionberry pie with vanilla ice cream, of which I have two pieces and don’t feel even remotely guilty about it.

By the time we finish the dishes and my parents have headed to bed, I’m feeling the most content I have in a long time.

“Want to start a puzzle?” I ask.

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