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Chapter One of Don’t Doubt

Available August 12, 2019

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Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Dont-Doubt-Reed-Brothers-Book-ebook/dp/B07SRDGTDP/
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dont-Doubt-Reed-Brothers-Book-ebook/dp/B07SRDGTDP/

Avery

 

For most people, going back home never seems as exciting as leaving. I’m not most people. For me, going home means going back to New York City. It means reconnecting with long lost friends and people who had, once upon a time, saved my life.

Sometimes when I say that to myself, even within the recesses of my mind, it seems trite. It seems impossible, yet it’s not. The Reeds and their families saved my life, not to mention that of my sister, Penny. I look over at her in the passenger seat of the car and marvel at the young lady she’s becoming. She’s turned into someone wonderful, in spite of me. In spite of the fact that we lost our parents when we were young, and in spite of the really bad choices I had to make at one point, she has turned into a smart, kind young girl, and the very sight of her makes my heart clench.

Sometimes she makes my fists clench too, but that’s what happens when you raise children, or so I hear. You can go quickly from loving them to wondering why you chose to have children in the first place. Only I never chose to have Penny. My parents did. Then they died. They left us alone in a city that was as ruthless as it was impractical.

With no family and no money, we had no one to lean on, until we met a family called the Reeds. They own a famous tattoo shop downtown, and almost everyone has heard of them. There are five brothers, all blond, tatted up, and amazing. Then there are their wives, who are just as fabulous. Add to them all their fabulous friends, and you have the group of people who set me on my path.

And now, my path has led me back to New York, back to the only people I’ve had on my team in a really long time, and back to the only place where I have ever felt such immense shame.

Going home hurts almost as much as leaving it.

The radio in our car quit working last year, and I’m almost surprised the car has made the trip home without breaking down. Penny lies slumped in her seat like a rag doll. She has been asleep for the past fifty miles or so. I should probably wake her up, but I’ve been enjoying the quiet.

When Penny is awake, she never stops talking. She prattles on about nothing and everything. It’s almost like she’s afraid that if she doesn’t use all the words, she’ll lose them. So she does. She uses all the words. All the time. She never stops.

It’s been me and Penny against the world for a very long time. I can barely remember the way my parents looked or the sounds of their voices. I try not to think about them because thinking about them hurts.

My family lived in a small apartment in an old building, but we were happy. Both my mom and dad worked, and I spent a lot of my time with Penny. Then after they died, I spent all my time with Penny. I was still a child, but I was suddenly raising one. Social Services came to get us, to put us in foster care, but we left before they could separate us, with the clothes on our backs and a bag with a few extra items of clothing. I took Penny out of potential harm’s way and threw her directly into its path.

Then we met the Reeds one Christmas Eve. They gave us an apartment for three months, helped me become emancipated and get custody of Penny, and helped me get my GED and get into college. I’m pretty sure they paid for my education, too, because huge scholarships don’t just fall out of the sky. But the college said that I got “some rare scholarships” and that I should feel very lucky.

I do. I feel extremely lucky. Penny and I have been living paycheck to paycheck, but we have been doing it all on our own, aside from the “scholarships.” I haven’t done anything immoral or illegal in a really long time. Yet at times the past still wakes me from my sleep, my body slicked with a cold sweat, terror in my heart and a lack of warmth deep down in my soul.

I hold tightly to the wheel and stare out over the highway. Coming home has never seemed so sweet, even if I don’t really have a home to come to. It feels like home, and that’s all that matters. I have my sister, I have a college degree, and I have a future to look forward to. I’d like to begin it with the people who’d made it possible.

Suddenly, my car swerves to the right. I grab the wheel with both hands and guide the car over to the side of the road.

“What happened?” Penny mutters with the innocence of a child who knows her world will keep turning, because it always has.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I think we have a flat tire.”

Penny sits up and grabs for the door handle after the car comes to a stop.

“Stay in the car,” I bark.

Penny mutters something under her breath and settles heavily in the seat.

I get out and see that the back tire is slack around the rim. A complete blow out. Great. Just what I need. I get back in and slam the door.

Penny rolls her eyes dramatically and makes a show of picking up my phone, and dials a number that has been programmed there but almost never used. She hands the phone to me, one brow arching with her almost-ten-years-old wisdom.

“Fine,” I grunt, taking the phone from her.

“Hello?” a voice says.

“Emily?”

“Who’s this?”

“It’s Avery.”

“And Penny,” Penny yells out. I cover my ear with my palm to block her out.

“And Penny,” I add.

“Avery and Penny?” She must turn away from the phone because I hear her say a little more loudly, “Logan, it’s Avery and Penny!”

Logan and Emily are the ones who plucked me and Penny from the streets and gave us a home.

“Hey, Avery and Penny!” I hear Logan yell from the background toward the phone.

“How are you guys?” Emily asks. “How was graduation?”

“It was great. Glad to be done. I got the flowers you sent. Thank you for them. They were lovely.” I’d invited them to come to my graduation, but one of their children was sick with an ear infection and they were unable to travel.

“It’s the least we could do. We really wanted to be there.” She pauses and I know she’s being honest. They did want to be there. “So what are you up to now?” Emily asks. When I talk to Emily, I feel like I get all her attention. While I was away at school, I tried not to bug her too often. She has a job and a husband and two kids. But it’s really good to hear her voice.

“We’re on our way back, actually. We’re about a hundred miles from where you are.”

“Well, hurry up and get here! We can’t wait to see you.”

“That’s just it,” I rush to explain. “We have a flat tire.”

“Oh,” Emily says. She speaks to Logan again. “They have a flat tire.” I hear them mutter to one another for a moment, and then Emily says, “Tell me where you are and I’ll send someone.”

“We’re still a long way away,” I say, feeling ridiculous and totally unworthy.

“You’re almost home, dummy.”

That warm feeling settles inside me when she says the words, the words that always make me feel like I belong. “I’m almost home,” I whisper back, emotion clogging my throat and making it tough to swallow.

“Tell me where you are,” she prompts again. I tell her the closest mile marker and she says, “Hang tight. Logan is sending someone to pick you up. Lock the doors and keep the windows rolled up, okay?”

“Yes, Mom,” I say with a laugh. But deep down inside, it’s nice to know that someone has my back. “I don’t have any money,” I suddenly blurt out.

“Oh, pish,” Emily scoffs. “Do you want me to stay on the phone with you until help arrives?”

“Oh, no, I’m sure you have things to do.”

“Nothing is more important than catching up with you,” Emily says softly.

So that’s what we do. I talk to Emily, telling her everything about everything, until I hear the beep of the tow truck as it backs up in front of me.

“They’re here,” I tell Emily.

“Oh, good,” she says. “I’m so glad.”

“I had better go.”

“Avery,” she says, her voice urgent.

“Yes?”

“I want you to come here. I won’t take no for an answer, so I expect to see you tonight.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I whisper. I clear my throat. “We’ll be there.”

“I don’t care what time it is or what happens. I want you to come home. Here. Do you understand?” Her voice is firm and unyielding.

“Yes,” I reply, but I can barely get the words out. “I’m on the way.”

“I’m glad you’re coming home, Avery,” she says, and then the line goes dead.

The sharp rap of knuckles striking my window gets my attention. I roll it down to find the one person who I am sure never wanted to see me again, ever. My breath stalls in my throat, and I look out the front window, avoiding his gaze.

“Avery,” he says. His tone is brusque. He has never been a man of many words. He passes them out like good behavior tokens. But that one word—my own name—falls on my ears like the strike of a hammer.

“Edward,” I reply. I continue to stare straight out in front of me because I’m afraid to look at him.

“Edward!” Penny suddenly yells when she recognizes him. She climbs over me to get to him, elbowing me in the side of my head and poking me in the thigh with her knobby knee, trying to hug him through the window. He grabs her and pulls her right out and into his arms.

“What’s up, Nickel?” he asks as he spins Penny around, her feet flying out behind her as he hugs her tightly.

What’s bad is that I want to react the same way Penny is, but I’m pretty sure he won’t be so happy if I hug him. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if Penny wasn’t with me, he’d already be gone.

He sets Penny down.

“My name is Penny,” she corrects him. He has always called her Nickel just to tease her. He tousles her hair and she beams up at him.

“What are you guys doing here?” he asks her.

“We’re going home. To stay.” Penny smiles up at him, her hand still threaded with his.

His eyes finally meet mine. “Is that so?” he says quietly, more to himself than to either of us.

Edward is tall and lean, with green eyes and a slender face. He has a light shadow of beard stubble on his chin, and he reaches up to scratch it. He pulls a New York Skyscrapers ball cap from his back pocket and puts it on, making it even harder to read his expression.

“Go climb in the cab of the truck,” he says, giving Penny a nudge. She scampers away, and I finally get out of the car.

“Thank you for coming to get us,” I say quietly as I move to stand beside him.

He nods and says, “I’m guessing you don’t have a spare.”

“No.” If I did, I would have already changed the tire myself.

He gets to work hooking the car up and pulling it up on the flat bed. He says nothing else to me, not a word the whole time he works on loading the car.

When he’s done, he dusts his hands together and looks at me. “Is it going to kill you to ride with me?” he asks carefully.

“I’ll be fine,” I toss back, squaring my shoulders and lifting my chin. I don’t cower for anyone. Not anymore.

“You always are,” he says softly. Then he opens the driver’s side door and ushers me into the truck. I slide across the bench until I’m next to Penny. It’s a tight fit, and I have to sit with my legs on each side of the gear shift.

I flinch as he reaches across my lap to slip the truck into first gear.

His gaze jerks up to meet mine.

“What?” I ask.

“You flinched.”

“Habit,” I reply.

 

 

Edward

 

I broke every speed limit law trying to get to her. And now…now all I can think about is how I can make this ride last a little longer so I can keep her for a few more minutes.

I could call her “the girl who got away,” but I’d be lying to myself. Avery is the girl who ran as far and as fast from me as she could. She went to a different state, for fuck’s sake, just to get away from me. Well, college was also waiting for her, but at the root of all of it was her desire to put a few states between me and her that sent her packing. All because of a few poorly chosen words. They’re words I still regret.

The words I said in anger are the reason why she sits, her back straight as a board, next to me. She flinches and jerks her leg away every time her knee brushes mine. When I reach over to change the gears, she holds her breath until I take my hand away.

It’s my fault, all of it. I just hope that while she’s in town she’ll give me an opportunity to tell her how sorry I am. Words have the power to heal, but they also have the power to hurt, and the words I said to her dredged up a past she wanted to forget. They also judged her for it. It was wrong, and I’m sorry.

Penny has talked nonstop ever since we got in the truck. I swear, the kid has barely taken a breath since I closed the door.

“Where’s Susan?” Penny suddenly asks. Susan is my younger sister and Penny met her before they moved away.

“She had better be at home waiting for me,” I say quietly. If not, I’m going to kill her.

“She lives with you now?”

I nod and shift the gears as I come to a stop light. Avery heaves in a breath and doesn’t let it go until I move my arm away. “She came to live with me about a year ago,” I explain.

Susan was in foster care for a while, and I had some legal issues I had to straighten out before I could even think about seeking custody of her. Susan is older than Penny. She aged out of the foster care system before I could petition for custody. Now she’s a Junior at NYU, a college that’s close to where we live. Susan lives at home with me and attends classes. She also has a part-time job and a boyfriend, so I don’t see her quite as often as I’d like.

I make a mental note to check in with her and see how she’s doing. I try to do that as often as I can. I try to make dates to check with my sister about her life; otherwise, I fall out of the loop and don’t know what’s going on with her. And that simply cannot happen. I let it happen before, and I’ll never let it happen again.

“Is she still dating Gonzo?” Penny wants to know.

Thinking of him makes me smile. “Yes. They’ve been together for a while now.”

Penny nods her head. “He’s cool.”

He really is. One of my favorite kids of all time. Technically, he’s not a kid anymore. I met him at a camp for kids with disabilities many years ago, the same camp where I met Pete Reed. I can’t help but think I’d like Gonzo better, though, if he wasn’t sleeping with my little sister. They try to keep it a secret, but sometimes a man can see the look in another man’s eyes and just know.

I try to stay out of their love life, but it’s hard.

Gonzo is good for Susan, though. He accepts everything about her, and she does the same for him. They’re good for one another. Gonzo is in a wheelchair and has some serious medical issues that necessitate him having a tracheostomy tube. He uses a special machine to talk, or sign language when he’s with us.

Avery clears her throat. “I’m glad Susan came to live with you,” she says, her voice as soft as a whisper. “I know it was important to you.”

“Thanks. It was.”

I pull over and find a parking space when I see Logan’s building. Parking a tow truck isn’t easy, and I can’t take it into the underground garage, so I take up two spots on the street and turn on my lights.

“Sit still,” I say. “It’s a big jump down.”

I get out, slam my door, and run around to the other side. I open the door and Penny jumps right out into my arms. She does it with blind trust, knowing somewhere inside herself that I’m going to catch her. Hell, I’d fall onto the ground and let her land on me if I couldn’t catch her. I’d do anything to break her fall.

I spin her around and set her down. Then I look up to find Avery staring at me, her eyes watchful and worried. She turns herself around and starts to climb down using the foot holds. I reach out to steady her, but then realize she probably doesn’t want my hands anywhere on her, and I just hover there over her back in case she slips. She doesn’t, though, and she lands safely on the sidewalk.

“Thanks for coming to get us,” Avery says. “How much do I owe you?” She worries her lower lip with her teeth.

“I’ll send you a bill,” I say casually. I’m not going to do anything of the sort, of course.

“Are you going to unload the car here?” she asks, her brows drawing together.

“I’m going to take it with me,” I inform her.

She jerks to face me. “When will I get it back?”

“Tomorrow, probably.”

“Oh.” She scuffs the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe, looking everywhere but at me. “Well, thanks,” she says.

“You’re welcome.”

“C’mon, Avery!” Penny says. “I want to go see Emily and Logan.” Penny tugs on the hem of Avery’s shirt, and Avery brushes her hands away, only to take one of them firmly. With her free hand, she reaches into her pocket and pulls her keys out. She holds them out to me.

“You might need these,” she says.

“Do you need any of your luggage?” I ask. Her backseat is packed full of boxes and bags.

“There’s a backpack in the front seat that has what we’ll need for one night,” she says. She appraises the truck like she’s trying to figure out how to climb up the side.

“I’ll get it,” I say. I climb up and get the bag, lowering it down to her. “Do you need anything else?”

“Not tonight,” she says.

I lock her doors and climb back down. “I’ll try to get it back to you tomorrow.”

“Thanks again for coming to our rescue.”

I’d do just about anything for you. “You’re welcome.”

“Be sure and send me a bill. I can’t pay it immediately, but…well…soon, okay?” Even in the dark, I can see the way her cheeks turn pink.

“I know how to find you.” I smile at her, suddenly worried that sounded a little pervy.

“We’ll be staying with Emily and Logan.”

I nod. “It’s good to see that you’re doing so well.”

Finally, she smiles at me, although it’s definitely a cautious smile. “You too. ’Night.” She turns Penny with a hand on her shoulder and they go into the building.

I pull out my phone and text Logan.

Me: All her stuff is in her car. Where do you want me to put it?

Logan: She’s going to stay in the empty apartment on your floor. 4D. Hang on and I’ll come help you.

Me: Okay.

I climb back up and start to unload her car, putting all her things gingerly on the platform of the truck so Logan can reach them with me when he comes down.

But it’s not just Logan who comes down. It’s Logan, Paul, Pete, Sam, and Matt, all at once. And right behind them rolls up their friend Josh.

“She didn’t bring much, did she?” Paul says as he starts to hand out the boxes and bags. They all grab a few.

“I don’t think she had much to bring,” Logan says as he loads Josh’s lap with a couple of unwieldy boxes.

I notice that one of the boxes says “Mom and Dad” on the side. It’s written in black magic marker. I carry that one myself.

In one trip, we get it all upstairs and leave it for her to unpack.

Everyone leaves to go back to their apartments, but Logan lingers. “Something on your mind?” he asks me.

“No, nothing.” I shake my head and let myself out of her apartment. It just happens to be the apartment right next to mine. I can’t decide if I should be happy or sad about that.

I take her car to the shop, drop it off, and then drive my car back to the apartment building. I let myself in my front door and find Susan sleeping on the couch, her mouth open wide, her books spread across her lap.

She stirs when she hears the door click shut behind me. “You’re home,” she mutters.

“Yeah.”

“How was your day?” She closes her books, gets up, and pads into the kitchen on her bare feet.

“Interesting.”

She grins. “So I heard the craziest thing tonight.”

“Oh yeah?” I get a bottle of water from the fridge. “What did you hear?”

Her grin grows even wider as she props her elbow on the counter and holds her chin up with the heel of her upturned hand. “I heard Avery and Penny are here.”

I nod and glug down the whole bottle of water. I toss it into the recycling bin. “They are.”

She raps her fingertips on the countertop like she’s a drummer waiting for someone to thwack a cymbal. “And?” she prompts. “How long is she staying? Have you seen her?”

“I don’t know. And yes. I just saw her.”

She leans back, stunned a little. “And how did that go?”

It hurt like a motherfucker. “Fine.”

“Fine,” she repeats, glaring at me. “Just fine?”

“Yes. Just fine.” I walk over and give her a quick kiss on the forehead. “Go to bed.”

She heaves out a sigh. “You suck.”

I turn back before walking into the living room. “Do you want to have dinner with me tomorrow?”

Her gaze softens and she smiles. “I’d love to.”

“Seven?”

She nods, and then she takes a bag of chips off the counter and goes back to the couch. “’Night!” she calls out.

I wave a hand in her direction and head for my bedroom.

I hear the door next door close, and I know that Avery and Penny are on the other side of the wall, probably checking out the apartment. I press my ear to the wall and hear the faint whine of a complaining voice. Then I hear Avery’s firm voice, and Penny’s voice goes quiet. Apartment walls can be pretty thin.

A few minutes later, my phone chimes and I look down to find a text from Emily.

Emily: She’s all settled in the apartment next to yours.

Me: That’s good.

Emily: Thanks for taking care of her. Will you send me the bill for the tow?

Me: It’s already taken care of. Tire too. I’ll give her car a once-over tomorrow too, just to be sure it’s safe enough.

Emily: Send me the bill for that, okay?

I don’t respond, because she knows I could never send her a bill. Not any of them. Not for any reason.

Emily: Should I assume that’s taken care of too?

Me: That would be wise.

Emily: Good night, Edward. We love you.

Me: Love you too. Good night.

I hear a sudden thump next door, and then it happens again. In my head, I can see Penny jumping on the bed, and it makes me smile.

Everything about them makes me smile. I just wish it didn’t. It would be easier to keep my distance if I didn’t still love Avery so fucking much.

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