Chapter no 11 – Auburn


hear the partition being unzipped, and then I feel a hand on my arm, followed by an arm sliding beneath my pillow. Owen pulls me against him and I immediately want to pull away, but at the same time I’m surprised at

the level of comfort I feel wrapped in his arms. I close my eyes and wait for his questions to come. I’ll just lie here and enjoy the comfort until he strips it away with his curiosity.

His hand moves up and down my arm, stroking me gently. After several minutes of silence, he nds my ngers and slides his through mine.

“When I was sixteen,” he says quietly, “my mother and older brother died in a car wreck. I was driving.”

I squeeze my eyes shut. I can’t even imagine. Suddenly my issues don’t seem like issues at all.

“My father was in a coma for several weeks after that. I stayed by his side the entire time. Not because I necessarily wanted to be there when he woke up, but because I didn’t know where else to go. Our home was empty. My friends had lives they continued to live, so I rarely saw them after the funeral. I had relatives who would stop by in the beginning, but even that faded. By the end of that rst month, it was just my father and me. And I was terri ed that if he died, too, I wouldn’t have anything left to live for.”

I slowly roll onto my back and look up at him. “What happened?”

Owen reaches his ngers to my forehead and brushes back my hair. “He lived, obviously,” he says quietly. “He woke up right before the one-month anniversary of the wreck. And as happy as I was that he was okay, I don’t think reality sank in until I had to tell him what happened. He couldn’t recall anything from the day leading up to the wreck, nor could he recall

anything after that point. And when I had to tell him that my mother and Carey were dead, I saw it. I saw the life seep right out of his eyes. And I haven’t seen it return since the night it happened.”

I wipe tears from my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I tell him.

He shakes his head, like he doesn’t need my condolences. “Don’t be,” he says to me. “It’s not something I dwell on. e wreck wasn’t my fault. Of course I miss them, and it hurts every day, but I also know that life has to go on. And my mother and Carey weren’t the type of people who would want me to use their deaths as an excuse.” His ngers move gently, back and forth, across my jaw. He’s not looking me in the eyes. He’s looking beyond me, over my head, contemplating.

“Sometimes I miss them so much, it hurts me right here,” he says, making a tight st with his hand against his chest. “It feels like someone is squeezing my heart with the strength of the entire goddamn world.”

I nod, because I know exactly what he means. I feel that way every time I think of AJ and the fact that he’s not living with me.

“Every time I get that feeling in my chest, I start to think about the things I miss most about them. Like my mother, and the way she used to smile at me. Because no matter what, no matter where we were, her smile would always comfort me. We could have been in the middle of a war and all she had to do was kneel down and look me in the eyes with that smile, and it would take away every single fear or worry I had. And somehow, even on her bad days, when I know she didn’t feel like smiling, she would anyway. Because to her, nothing else mattered but my happiness. And I miss that. Sometimes I miss it so much, the only way I can make myself feel better is to paint her.”

He laughs under his breath. “I have about twenty paintings of my mother stowed away. It’s kind of creepy.”

I laugh with him, but seeing how much he loves his mother puts the ache back in my chest, and my laugh turns into a frown. It makes me wonder if AJ will ever feel that for me, since I’m not able to be the type of mother I want to be to him right now.

Owen cups my cheek in his hand and looks me very seriously in the eyes. “I saw the way you looked at him, Auburn. I saw the way you smiled at him. You smiled at him the same way my mother used to smile at me. And

I don’t care what that woman may think of you as a mother; I barely know you, and I could feel how much you love that little boy.”

I close my eyes and let his words seep over every doubtful thought I’ve ever had when it comes to my abilities as a mom.

I’ve been a mother for over four years now. Four.

And in those four years, Owen is the rst person to ever say anything that makes me feel like I’m capable of being a good mother. And even though he hardly knows me, and he doesn’t know a thing about my situation, I can feel the belief he holds in the words he’s saying to me. e simple fact that he believes what he’s saying makes me want to believe it, too.

“Really?” I say quietly. I open my eyes and look up at him. “Because sometimes I feel like—”

He cuts me off with an adamant shake of his head. “Don’t,” he says

rmly. “I don’t know your situation, and I assume if you wanted me to know, you would have told me. So I’m not going to ask. But I can tell you that what I just witnessed was a woman who takes advantage of your insecurities. Don’t allow her to make you feel that way, Auburn. You’re a good mother. A good mother.”

Another tear escapes, and I quickly turn my head away. I know in my heart that I could be a good mother if Lydia would give me the chance. I know that the way things have turned out isn’t my fault. I was sixteen and unprepared when I had him. But I never knew how good it could feel for someone else to believe in me.

Finding out about AJ could have sent Owen out the door in a ash. Finding out I don’t have custody of my son could have lled him with misjudgments about me. Neither of those things happened, though. Instead, he used this opportunity to encourage me. To make me feel better. And no one has made me feel this way since the day Adam passed away.

ank you just doesn’t seem like enough, so instead of speaking, I face him again. He’s still hovering over me, looking down on me. I reach my hand up and around the back of his head, and I lift my mouth to his.

I kiss him softly, and he does nothing to try to stop it, nor does he try to prolong it. He just accepts the kiss as he inhales slowly. I don’t part my lips,

and neither of us attempts to take the kiss further. I think we both know that this kiss was more of a “ ank you” than an “I want you.”

When I pull away, his eyes are closed and he looks as peaceful as he just made me feel.

I lie back against the pillow and watch as he slowly opens his eyes. A smile forms on his lips and he lies down next to me, both of us staring up at the top of the tent.

“His father was my rst boyfriend,” I say, explaining my situation to him. It feels good to tell him. I don’t tell a lot of people much, but I want to tell Owen everything for some reason.

“He passed away when I was fteen. Two weeks later, I found out I was pregnant with AJ. When my parents found out, they wanted me to put him up for adoption. ey had four other children to care for besides me, and it was hard enough for them to put food on the table for all of us. ere was no way they could aord an infant, but there was also no way I was going to give up my son. Luckily, Lydia came up with a compromise.

“She said if I agreed to give her legal custody after he was born, I could live with her and help raise him. She wanted reassurance that I wouldn’t end up putting him up for adoption, and primary custody of him would give her that reassurance. She also said it would be easier for medical and insurance reasons. I didn’t question her. I was young, I had no idea what any of it meant. I just knew it was my only guarantee that I could keep AJ, so I did it. I would have signed whatever she wanted if it meant I could be with him.

“Once AJ was born, she took over completely. She was never pleased with how I did anything. She made me feel ignorant. And after a while, I started to believe her. After all, I was young, and she had raised children before, so I assumed she knew more than me. By the time I graduated high school, Lydia was making all the decisions for him. And one of those decisions was that he was going to stay with her while I attended college.”

Owen nds my hand and pulls it between us, holding on to it. I appreciate the encouraging gesture, because this is a hard confession.

“Instead of attending a four-year university, I decided to attend cosmetology school, since it was only a one-year program. I thought once I graduated and got my own place, she’d let him live with me. But three

months before graduation, her husband passed away. She moved back to Texas to be closer to Trey, her other son. And she took my son with her.”

Owen sighs. “ at’s why you moved to Texas? You couldn’t stop her from leaving Oregon?”

I shake my head. “She has the legal right to take him anywhere she wants. She said Texas was a better place to raise a child and that if I wanted what was best for AJ, I would move here after graduation. My nal class ended at ve P.M. on a Friday and I had moved into this apartment less than twenty-four hours later.”

“What about your parents?” he says. “ ey couldn’t do anything to stop it?”

I shake my head. “My parents have been supportive of my decisions, but they don’t get involved. ey don’t really have a close relationship with AJ since I moved out of their house and into Lydia’s when I was pregnant with him. Besides, they have enough to worry about. I would feel bad telling them how Lydia is treating me, because it would just make them feel guilty for allowing me to move out all those years ago.”

“So you just pretend everything is okay?”

I glance up at him and nod, slightly worried as to what I might see in his eyes. Contempt? Disappointment? When our eyes meet, I don’t see either of those things. I see sympathy. And maybe a little bit of anger.

“Is it okay for me to say that I hate Lydia?”

I smile. “I hate her, too,” I say with a quick laugh. “I also love her, though. She loves AJ as much as I do, and I know he loves her. I’m thankful for that. But I never would have given up custody to her in the rst place if I knew it would end up like this. I thought she wanted to help, but now I realize she’s using AJ to replace the son she lost.”

Owen scoots toward me until I’m looking straight up at him and he’s staring down at me. “You’ll get him back,” he says. “ ere’s no reason a court wouldn’t want your son with you.”

His compliment makes me smile, even though I know he’s wrong. “I’ve researched all my options. A court wouldn’t take a child away from someone they’ve legally been with since birth unless there’s a legit reason. Lydia will never agree to let him live with me full-time. e only option I have, really, is to do whatever I can to appease her, all the while saving every extra penny

I can to pay the lawyer I’ve hired to help me. But even he doesn’t seem hopeful.”

He rests his head in one hand and brings his other hand to my face. His

ngers trail lightly across my cheekbone, and his touch makes my eyes want to fall shut. I somehow keep them open, despite the soothing feel of his skin against my cheek. “You know what?” he says with a smile. “I’m pretty sure you just made determination my favorite quality in a person.”

I know I barely know him, but I de nitely don’t want him to move on Monday. I feel like he’s the only good thing to happen to me since I arrived in Texas.

“I don’t want you to move, Owen.”

His eyes shift down, and he stops looking at me. His hand moves to my shoulder and he traces an invisible pattern with the tip of his nger, following it with his eyes. He looks apologetic, and it’s more than just the fact that he’s leaving. He’s upset about something deeper, and I can see his confession wanting to fall off the tip of his tongue. He’s holding something back.

“You didn’t get a job,” I say. “ at’s not where you’re going Monday, is it?”

He still doesn’t look at me. He doesn’t even have to respond, because his silence con rms it. He answers anyway, though. “No.”

“Where are you going?”

I watch as he winces slightly. Wherever he’s going, he doesn’t want to tell me. He’s afraid of what I’ll think. And honestly, I’m afraid of what I’m about to hear. I’ve had enough negativity for one day.

He nally lifts his eyes to meet mine again, and the regretful look on his face makes me wish I didn’t bring it up. He opens his mouth to speak, but I shake my head.

“I don’t want to know yet,” I say quickly. “Tell me after.” “After what?”

“After this weekend. I don’t want to think about confessions. I don’t want to think about Lydia. Let’s just spend the next twenty-four hours avoiding both of our pitiful realities.”

He smiles appreciatively. “I like that idea, actually. A lot.”

Our moment is disrupted by the erce growl of my stomach. I clench it in my hands, embarrassed. He laughs.

“I’m hungry, too,” he says. He exits the tent and helps me out as well by giving me his hand. “Want to eat here or my place?”

I shake my head. “I’m not sure I can wait fteen blocks,” I say, heading toward the kitchen. “You like frozen pizza?”



All we’re doing is cooking pizza, but it’s the most fun I’ve had with a guy since Adam. Getting pregnant at the age of fteen doesn’t leave a lot of time for social interaction, so saying I’m a little inexperienced could be an understatement. I used to grow nervous at the thought of getting close to another guy, but Owen has the opposite eect on me. I feel so much calmness when I’m around him.

My mother says there are people you meet and get to know, and then there are people you meet and already know. I feel like Owen is the latter. Our personalities seem to complement each other, like we’ve known one another our whole lives. I had no idea until today just how much I need someone like him in my life. Someone to ll the holes that Lydia has created in my self-esteem.

“If you weren’t in such a hurry to graduate, what career would you have chosen other than cosmetology?”

“Anything,” I blurt out. “Everything.”

Owen laughs. He’s leaning against the counter next to the stove, and I’m seated on the bar across from him. “I suck at cutting hair. I hate listening to everyone’s problems while they sit in the salon chair. I swear, people take so many things for granted, and hearing all their whiny stories puts me in such a bad mood.”

“We’re kind of in the same business if you put it that way,” Owen says. “I paint confessions and you have to listen to them.”

I nod in agreement, but also feel like I could be coming off as ungrateful. “ ere are a few really good clients. People I look forward to. I think it’s not so much the people that I don’t like, but the fact that I had to choose something I didn’t want to do.”

He studies me for a moment. “Well, the good news is, you’re young. My father used to tell me that no life decision is permanent other than a tattoo.”

“I could argue with that logic,” I say with a laugh. “What about you?

Have you always wanted to be an artist?”

e timer goes off on the oven and Owen immediately opens it to check the pizza. He shoves it back inside. I know it’s just a frozen pizza, but it’s kind of a turn-on to see a man take over in the kitchen.

He leans against the counter again. “I didn’t choose to be an artist. I think it kind of chose me.”

I love that answer. I’m also jealous of it, because I wish I could have been born with a natural talent. Something that would have chosen me, so that I wouldn’t have to cut hair all day.

“Have you ever thought about returning to school?” he asks. “Maybe majoring in something you actually have an interest in?”

I shrug. “One of these days, maybe. Right now, though, my goal is AJ.”

He smiles appreciatively at my answer. I can’t think of any questions I want to toss his way, because the silence is nice. I like the way he looks at me when it’s quiet. His smile lingers, and his gaze falls all over me like a blanket.

I press my hands onto the countertop beneath me and look down at my dangling feet. I suddenly nd it hard to continue watching him, because I’m afraid he can see how much I like it.

Without speaking, he begins to close the distance between us. I bite my bottom lip nervously, because he’s coming at me with an intention, and I don’t think his intention is to ask more questions. I watch as the palms of his hands meet my knees and then slowly slide upward. His hands graze my thighs all the way up until they come to rest on my hips.

When I look into his eyes, I get completely lost in them. He’s staring at me with a level of need that I didn’t know I was capable of producing in someone. He wraps his hand around my lower back and pulls me against him. I place my hands on his forearms and grip tightly, not sure what’s about to happen next but completely prepared to allow it.

e faint smile on his face disappears the closer his lips come to mine. My eyelids utter and then close completely, just as his mouth feathers mine.

“I’ve been wanting to do this since the moment I laid eyes on you,” he whispers. His mouth connects with mine, and at rst his kiss is like the one I gave him in the tent. Soft, sweet, and innocent. But then the innocence is

stripped away the second he runs one of his hands through the back of my hair and slides his tongue against my lips.

I don’t know how I can feel so light and so heavy all at once, but his kiss makes me feel weighted to a cloud. I slide my hands up his neck and do my best to kiss him the way he’s kissing me, but I’m afraid my mouth doesn’t even compare to his. ere’s no way I could make him feel like he’s making me feel right now.

He pulls my legs until they’re wrapped around his waist, and then he lifts me off the bar and directs us toward the living room without stopping our kiss. I try to ignore the smell of pizza being overcooked in the oven, because I don’t want him to stop. But I’m also really, really hungry and don’t want the pizza to burn.

“I think the pizza is burning,” I whisper just as we hit the couch. He gently lowers me onto my back as he shakes his head.

“I’ll make you another one.” His mouth reconnects with mine, and I suddenly couldn’t care less about the pizza.

He lowers himself onto the couch but not completely on top of me. He keeps his arms locked on either side of my head and doesn’t do anything to show that he expects more than just this kiss.

So that’s what I give him. I kiss him and he kisses me and we don’t stop until a smoke alarm begins to sound. As soon as we realize the sound is coming from inside my apartment, we both separate and jump up. He rushes to the oven and opens it while I grab the cardboard pizza box and begin fanning the smoke alarm.

Owen pulls the pizza out of the oven and it’s so burnt, it’s completely inedible. “Maybe we should just go out to eat on the way back to my place.”

e smoke alarm nally stops, and I toss the pizza box on the counter. “Or we can just eat some of the years’ worth of food you bought at Target today.”

He pulls the oven mitt off his hand and drops it onto the stove. He reaches for my hand and pulls me against him, lowering his mouth back to mine.

I’m pretty sure his kisses are the best form of dieting there is, because every time his lips touch mine, I forget all about the fact that I’m starving.

As soon as our tongues meet, there’s a sudden, loud knock on the front door. Our mouths separate and we both turn and look at the door as soon as

it swings open. When I see Trey standing in the doorway, I immediately back away from Owen. I hate that my rst instinct is to separate myself from him, because the last thing I want Owen to think is that I’m involved with Trey in any way. e truth is, I would have backed away from him no matter who was at the door.

I just really wish it wasn’t Trey.

“Shit,” Owen mutters. I glance at him and his face has fallen, along with his shoulders. I can tell immediately that he must have the wrong idea about Trey’s bursting through the front door.

I glance back at Trey, who, for some reason, is making his way toward the kitchen with a death stare directed at Owen. “What are you doing here?”

I look at Owen, and he isn’t paying attention to Trey. He’s looking directly at me. “Auburn,” he says. “We need to talk.”

Trey’s laugh makes me wince. “What do you need to talk to her about, Owen? Have you not already told her?”

Owen’s eyes close for several seconds, and then he opens them and xes his stare on Trey. “When will it be enough for you, Trey? Fuck.”

My heart is hammering away in my chest and I have a feeling I’m about to nd out why they feel this way toward each other, but at the moment I’m not sure I want to know. It can’t be good.

Trey takes two steps toward Owen, until he’s inches from his face. “Get out of her apartment. Get out of her life. If you can do those two things, then I’ll probably be satis ed.”

“Auburn,” Owen says rmly.

Trey takes several steps toward me, standing between Owen and me so that I can’t see him anymore. I look into Trey’s eyes now and see nothing but anger.

He points behind him. “ is guy you brought back to your apartment?

e guy you allowed near your son? He was arrested for possession, Auburn.”

I shake my head with a disbelieving laugh. I don’t know why Trey is saying these things. He steps aside and I can see Owen again.

My heart grows too heavy to hold, because the look on Owen’s face says it all. I see the apology and the regret. is is what he was going to tell me earlier. is is the confession I told him could wait until Monday.

“Owen?” I say his name in almost a whisper.

“I wanted to tell you,” he says. “It’s not as bad as he’s making it sound, Auburn. I swear.”

Owen begins to take a step toward me, but Trey immediately turns and pushes him against the wall. His arm connects with Owen’s neck. “You have

ve seconds to get the fuck out.”

Owen’s eyes are still locked with mine, despite the arm that’s pressed against his throat. He nods. “Let me get my things out of her room, and I’ll go.”

Trey eyes him carefully for several seconds and then he releases him. I watch as Owen walks into my room to retrieve his “things.”

I know for a fact Owen didn’t show up here with anything.

Trey is eyeing me now. “Your child’s uncle is a fucking cop and you don’t think to get a background check on the people you allow into your life?”

I have no response to that. He’s right.

Trey shakes his head in disappointment, just as Owen exits my bedroom. Before Trey turns to face him, Owen brie y glances toward the tent. His eyes are telling me something he’s not willing to say out loud. He brushes past Trey and walks out the front door without looking back.

Trey walks to the door and slams it shut. He stands with his hands on his hips, facing me, waiting for an explanation. If I didn’t think he would go back to Lydia and tell her everything that just happened, I’d tell him to fuck o. Instead, I do what I always do. I say anything that will please them.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

He walks toward me and gently squeezes my forearms while he looks me in the eyes.

“I worry about you, Auburn. Please don’t trust anyone until you run them by me rst. I could have warned you about him.”

He hugs me, and it takes everything I have to hug him back, but I do. “You don’t need his reputation coming between you and your son. It

wouldn’t be good for you.”

I nod against his chest, but I want to push him away from me for the disguised threat. He’s just like his mother. Always using my situation with AJ to manipulate me. It burns me and strips me of any con dence I momentarily gained from being in Owen’s arms.

I pull away from him and attempt a smile. “I don’t want anything to do with him,” I say. e words are hard for me to say, because there might be actual truth in them. I can’t even think about how angry I am at Owen right now when Trey is still standing in front of me. “ ank you for telling me,” I say as I head to the door. I open it so that he’ll take the hint. “I want to be alone for a while, though. It’s been a long day.”

Trey walks toward the door and backs out. “I’ll see you Sunday night at dinner?”

I nod and force another fake smile to appease him. As soon as I close the door, I lock it and rush to my bedroom. I crawl inside the tent and nd a piece of paper on my pillow. I pick it up and read it.

Please come by my studio tonight. We need to talk.

I read Owen’s note so many times, I could likely rewrite it with perfectly matched handwriting. I lie down on the pillow and sigh heavily, because I have no idea what to do. ere’s nothing that could excuse the fact that he’s going to jail, or the fact that he lied to me. But despite everything that just happened, every part of me is aching for him. I barely know the guy, yet somehow I can feel that familiar clench of a st gripping at my heart. I have to see him one more time, even if it’s just to say good-bye.

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