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The Least
Amount Of Awful

Colbie Jones has worked hard to design a pain-free life. So when she catches her boyfriend cheating, it doesn’t hurt that much. But when Colbie receives a call that her estranged father, Emmett, has been badly injured, she realizes it’s time to pack her bags and finally face him — and that’s going to hurt. 


Colbie’s arrival sends shock waves through the small town, but it affects Jake Whittier most of all. Single-dad and foreman of Jones Construction, Jake sees Emmett as the father he no longer has, and that makes him an opponent of all things Colbie Jones.


Jake’s obvious animosity doesn’t bother Colbie, because she’s leaving in three days, tops. But then her dad asks her to stay and take over his business while he recovers, and Colbie hears herself agreeing before she has fully considered the proposal. Never mind that she has no idea how to build a house. 


Jake will just have to deal with having her around. 


But the more time Colbie spends with Jake, the more she sees why the rest of the town likes him. And once Colbie meets Jake’s son, it’s all downhill from there.  


Colbie thought the most challenging part of this arrangement would be having to work with Jake. 


But falling for him? 


That would be awful.

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Chapter One

Bad things happen in threes.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard. But, what about when two bad things happen simultaneously? Do they count as one? Or one, and two? 

Bad Thing One bumps my table with his gyrating hip. He doesn’t spare me a look, not even an apologetic glance. He’s too focused on making sure he’s in time with the other fifty people who are now performing a complicated dance in the middle of the public square.

Step ball change. Pas de bourree.

They’re very good. Crisp lines, and clean transitions. 

I shift in the cheap plastic chair, leaning away from the flash mob participant. When I first sat down, this large open area between stores was full of people, but mostly they were sitting around reading or scrolling their phones. I thought it would be a quiet place to FaceTime Brad. As soon as he answered, all the strangers around me jumped from their seats and began to dance. 

Turns out, this wasn’t a good place to sit down and call Brad. For more reasons than one. 

“It’s loud there,” Brad complains, stress tugging at the edges of his voice. “Maybe this isn’t the best time to talk.”

As of twenty seconds ago, Brad is Bad Thing Two.

My attention moves back to my phone. On the screen, Brad tightens his tie. People around me who aren’t dancing hold their phone aloft, recording. I wonder if the person behind me is also capturing me, in the foreground of their video, as I discover another woman in my boyfriend’s hotel room.

“It’s certainly a bad time for you,” I point out, my volume increased so he can hear me. I’m so calm, I might as well be answering a question about what toppings I prefer on pizza. Extra pepperoni, please. But not on the inside. In there, in that space deep in my chest where I keep my emotions, I’m wailing. This betrayal hurts.

Brad freezes, one hand on his tie and the other gripping the knotted fabric at his neck. The woman, standing in the hotel bathroom with the door half-open, stills.

It’s amazing, really. This is all happening because Brad placed his phone in just the right position where I could see the mirror on the hotel room wall. If not for that, I wouldn’t have seen the reflection of the woman standing in a pencil skirt and lacy black bra, running a hairbrush through her silky blonde tresses. 

Brad doesn’t look ashamed. He looks like he’s preparing his reason. “Colbie, it’s just that you—”

The music grows louder. Brad’s lips are moving, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. That’s probably for the best. 

“Brad,” I yell, anger overtaking shock, “I hope you get an STD.”

My shout coincides with the exact moment the music shuts off abruptly. 

Oh, shit.

The silence becomes the sound, the quietude bouncing off the surrounding structures.

My gaze lifts from the screen. Hundreds (millions?) of horrified expressions pile on me. The worst comes from the two people in the center of the crowd, the man on one knee and the woman standing before him. They both look like they would enjoy punching me in the throat. 

I gulp. “Congratulations?”

Then I grab my phone, tuck my purse into my chest, and flee.

* * *

“Some second-rate internet news site wrote an article about it. They made you sound like a scorned woman who ruined the proposal on purpose,” Christina, my best friend and business partner, informs me with her lips around her straw. The mid-afternoon sunlight filters through the window of the bar, illuminating her golden hair. 

You’d think after spending all our time together managing a four-location exercise business, we’d be ready for a little space. But, no. She’s the first person I called when I wanted to get a drink. 

“Don’t sugarcoat it,” I say dryly, stirring the tiny red straw in my drink and watching the ice cubes knock into each other. 

She takes a sip of her paloma, looks at me with a softened gaze, and says, “Wouldn’t dream of it. Everyone needs someone who will tell them the truth.”  

“Yeah, yeah.” I frown, but she knows I don’t mean it. It’s important to have people in your life who aren’t afraid to say things you don’t want to hear. 

Christina has always been, and will always be, my biggest cheerleader. She’s the first person to tell me when I’m right, and the first person to tell me when I’m wrong. It doesn’t always feel good, but I can’t remember a time when I wished she would have kept her mouth shut.  

Everyone should have a Christina. 

“So,” she drums her fingers on the bar. “Do you want to talk about Brad?”  

My lips roll together, rubbing in the lip balm I applied a few minutes ago. This vodka soda is beginning to do its job, loosening the tension in my neck that’s been locked in since I caught Brad cheating two days ago. Drinking during the day doesn’t usually bode well for me, but it felt right given the occasion. We should probably order fries. Fries feel right, also. 

I look down at my hands in my lap, shaking my head back and forth ever so slightly. “I keep going over it in my head, and I can’t figure where exactly I went wrong with Brad.” I tried harder with him, knowing what my prior relationships had said about me. In the end, it didn’t matter. 

Christina’s stiff pointer finger extends until it’s in my downcast vision. “Absolutely not.” She kicks me lightly under the bar in an effort to draw my gaze to her. Her face is stern. It’s almost laughable, because she’s petite and has a round, borderline cherubic face. You take one look at her and you’re instantly certain she rescues bunnies, or baby animals of some sort. In truth, she’s a honey badger. “Brad cheating on you is not your fault.” 

I tuck my legs under my stool to protect from further assault. “They are all my fault.” 

“Don’t even think of bringing up the Buffoon Squad.” 

The Buffoon Squad is Christina’s nickname for the men I’ve dated. 

Jack, the dentist. We broke up, and he married the next woman he dated. 

Quint, the restaurant manager. We broke up, and he married the next woman he dated. 

Miller, the pilot. We broke up, and he married the next woman he dated. 

I always thought the lineup sounded like a joke that didn’t have a punchline, but lucky me!, there is now a punchline. It’s me. I’m the punchline. 

Now I can add Brad, the money manager. We were still dating when he decided to poke someone else in the whiskers. 

I look knowingly at Christina. “You have to admit, a pattern has emerged.” 

She blows from one side of her mouth to push away a section of curtain bangs that has drifted into her eye. “I’m the one before The One,” she pantomimes all the instances I’ve made this statement. 

I nod once, matter-of-fact. “Correct. Ten bucks says Brad marries hotel woman.” 

Christina ignores my woeful bet. “And how do you feel about that?” 

Christina has been in therapy for the past year. What she learns in her therapist’s office seeps through into her everyday language, which means it has become a part of our conversations. 

I don’t go to therapy. Not because I don’t need it. It’s more that I don’t want to need it. But, even I can admit some sort of outside viewpoint might be helpful. Especially given where I’ve landed, once again.

There’s a pinch in the center of my chest as I admit the fear that holds me bound so tightly. “Maybe they are all onto something.” I knock back the remainder of my drink. “Maybe the writing is on the wall, and I’m refusing to read it.” 

She’s shaking her head before I can finish my sentence. “No way. Don’t do that.” 

“Don’t do what?” 

“Don’t internalize their choices.” 

“Choices they made in reaction to me?” 

“Brad should not have cheated. That’s not on you.” 

“He said what they all say about me, just using different words. Practically the same exact reason.” In my mind I see their reasons, floating by like ticker tape at the bottom of the TV financial channel. 

You are emotionally unavailable. 

You don’t seem like you care.  

I fell in love with someone else, because you weren’t emotionally present. 

Who knew men are so gung-ho for emotional women? I guess it’s time to peel my Men Love Bitches sticker off my stainless steel water bottle. I don’t actually have that sticker, but I saw it in a bookstore, and was drawn to it because of its irreverence. I didn’t buy it, but I wanted to.

Christina finishes her drink. “What was it Brad said, specifically?” 

That same tiny pinch assaults my chest once more. Yesterday he’d dropped off a few items I’d left at his place, and attempted an apology. It was the first time, I didn’t plan it, yada yada. Maybe it was the vague tone of voice, but it seemed like he was sorrier to have been caught than to have committed the infraction. The more I think about it, the more I think he was relieved. “He said he looked into my eyes one day and realized I was never going to love him.” 

“Ouch.” She blinks twice, hard. “Was he right?” 

“My immediate answer is no. But if I take more time to think about it,” I shrug, trying not to let on how much this bothers me. I’m not only disappointed in Brad. I’m frustrated with myself. Am I broken? “He might have a point.” 

I had plans to give him my heart, but when it came down to it, would I have?  

The bartender stops by, and I place an order for a basket of fries and a chicken sandwich. Christina shakes her head when I order a second round. “Not for me,” she says to the bartender. He turns around to his computer. “I’m teaching in a couple hours,” she reminds me. Christina teaches a handful of classes each week, while I stay firmly on the management side of the business.  

“Ahh right. The after-work crowd.” I lift invisible weights and chant, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.” 

Christina laughs and presses her boobs together. “If only it were that easy.” She pushes away her empty glass. “Do you want to take tonight’s class? Might be good for you to ballet barre it out. Embrace the burn.” 

‘Embrace the burn’ is Christina’s favorite thing to say when a class full of people are shooting daggers at her while their thigh muscles melt with sheer exhaustion. 

“Can’t.” I take the second drink the bartender places in front of me. “I have to sit here and feel sorry for myself.”  

Her intrusive gaze pins me. “Can I speak bluntly?” 

I eye her warily. “Do you know any other way?” 

Her lips quirk in a smile. She takes the drink from me and sets it on the fresh napkin that accompanied my second drink. Then she grabs my now-empty hand and squeezes it gently. “I say this with all the love I have in my heart. You have daddy issues. And you need to figure them out.” 

“Ouch. There’s probably a nicer way to say that.” 

“I know. I’m sorry.” She grins in a not-actually-happy way. “But not really.”   

I don’t mind when Christina’s right, but this time is the exception. I blow out a heavy breath, lips vibrating, and give voice to thoughts that don’t feel like they belong to me. “Maybe I should go see him.” I sip my liquid courage, enjoying the sting. 

“He’s invited you to Green Haven, like, a dozen times. At least you know you’re welcome.” 

Somewhere deep inside, hidden in a shadowed corner, my seven-year-old self steps forward. She wants to see the man she loved with all her heart. She wants to know him again. 

Dammit. Thirty-year-old me doesn’t want to see him, right? My dad is a lovable guy, and I don’t want to love him. If I can keep feeling hurt, I can keep punishing him for leaving me and eventually tapering off his presence in my life.  

Only, I kind of don’t want to anymore. I’m so tired of it all. It takes more energy to nurture the resentment and pain than it does to let it go. And look what it’s doing, how it’s affecting me now, how far the pain of yesteryear can reach. 

I sigh, rubbing under my eyes with my fingertips. I’m making the decision, right here and now. I need to do something different, because what I’ve been doing for years clearly isn’t working for me. “I’m going to visit my dad.” I take a deep breath, letting those words sink in. Then I repeat them, for good measure, with a shred of thrill ribboning through. “I’m going to visit my dad.” 

Christina’s plump, lip-gloss slicked lips press together. Her hands steeple, and she slips them between her knees. 

I laugh at her. “You don’t have to physically restrain yourself to keep from clapping. You can be happy for me.” 

She releases her hands and claps twice. “I’m proud of you. Look at you, growing and shit.” 

 “Yes, that’s me. Growing and shit.” My tone is dry, but inside I’m quaking with fear. 

She laughs loudly. The bartender drops off my food, and Christina stands. “Those fries are my cue to leave. I’m wearing white leggings for class today, and they show every little everything.” She smacks the bottom swell of her rear end. 

I lift a fry and point it at her. “Including your camel toe.” 

“What?” she whisper-shrieks. 

I nod and pop the fry in my mouth. “True story.” 

“I have worn those stupid pants”—she holds up three fingers—“thrice. How are you just now telling me this?” 

“I forgot. Besides, shouldn’t your husband tell you this stuff, too?” Christina and Daniel have been together since we were in college, and they got married a few years ago.  

“He probably likes it.” She reaches over and takes an entire handful of my fries, wielding them at me like swords. “Dead to me, that’s what you are.” 

“As long as I don’t have to embrace the burn.” 

She laughs again, and swats at my behind. “Here,” she says as she rummages through her purse. She locates what she’s after and presses it into my hand. 

I turn it over. A business card? 

Avery Woodruff. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. 

“Thanks,” I say dryly, “but I’m not married, and there’s a negative chance of me getting on a couch with my mom or dad.” 

“Those are her specialties, but she’ll still see you. I promise, you’d love her.” Christina backs away with a wave, then turns for the door. “Thanks for the drink,” she calls over her shoulder. 

I’m still laughing when she’s gone, and it hits me what a good friend Christina is. An hour with her, and somehow I feel better. Lighter. Brad cheating is not my fault. Rationally, I understand that. 

But the heart is not a rational creature. Later tonight, when I’m alone at home, this brightness will fade. 

May as well enjoy it while it lasts.  

I signal the bartender for a third drink. Why not? 

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