She twisted toward me. Thick brown hair slid off her shoulder as she tilted her head to the side. “Like what?”

I really wasn’t going to admit to the whole staring at myself naked thing. “Mostly I think I just need to be more aware of myself. Take some time for myself, you know?”

“You do work all the time,” she agreed after a moment. “I thought my dad worked a lot, but I think the only time you take off is when we get together.”

That would be an affirmative.

She peeked at me through the thick fringe of bangs. “Do you…want to change yourself?”

“Who doesn’t want to change themselves, just a little bit?” I laughed as I brushed my hair back behind my ear. “I mean, I could probably be a wee bit healthier. Stop drinking cappuccinos every day. But I’d rather be happy with myself than to really try to change everything about myself.”

“That’s good.” Her gaze lowered. “I wish I thought that. About myself, I mean.”

I frowned. “Do you want to change yourself?” When she didn’t answer, understanding set in. “Is that why you’re transferring colleges? To start over?”

Her shoulder rose in a halfhearted shrug. “I just want to…yeah, I want to start over, and I can. I will.”

Concern flickered through me. I reached over, placing my hand on her arm. “Is everything okay?”

Jillian nodded in response to the loaded question. The girl had never been very forthcoming with information, only dropping bits and pieces here and there. I knew she wasn’t close to many people, except…except a guy named Brock. He was some kind of fighter with her father’s organization. From what I had gathered, he’d been around her family for a long time.


And whenever she did talk about him, which wasn’t often, her face would always get this look of absolute adoration on it.


“I just don’t want to end up doing what my entire family does. Everything is about the Academy, and that’s not what I want to do. The only way I’m going to escape that is by leaving now. Anyway,” she said, pursing her lips as a thoughtful look crossed her face. “One of the things you never really see in a romance book is a woman who has self-esteem issues. I mean, I’m sure they’re out there, but they’re few and far between. Like they can have eating disorders, post-traumatic stress from sexual assault or mental abuse. They can be sold into sex trafficking and they can carry epic amounts of grief. We have female characters who have suffered every loss imaginable and ones who are scarred physically and mentality, but where in the hell are the average women? Ones who look in the mirror and cringe a little? Like, why are all those others acceptable to women, but reading or knowing another woman who has a low self-esteem is, like, worse than all that drama llama? Dude, I get reading for wish fulfillment, but you’ve got to have a little reality in the story.”

Brushing her bangs out of her eyes, Jillian exhaled loudly and then continued. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. You’re normal. I’m normal. We’re not perfect and not having the greatest confidence doesn’t make you any less of a person.”

What Jillian said was so true.

Holy crap, the raw truth of it all floored me.

Women wanted other women to have high self-esteem and confidence. No one wanted to ever admit that their confidence was lacking, that they had a hard time looking at themselves in the mirror.

It was wrong that we weren’t able to have our weak moments. That we had to hide the fact that we were uncomfortable with our imperfections. That the journey to loving yourself doesn’t exclude recognizing there were days when you just didn’t want to see yourself naked.

And that there were worse things than having some confidence issues.

I glanced over at Jillian. This was one of those moments when I forgot that she was so young, because damn, she really could be a hell of a lot wiser than me. “You’re right.”

Her face transformed prettily when she smiled. “I know.”

I laughed. “And modest.”

“Whatever.” Leaning forward, she smacked her hands off her knees. “Do you want to go out?”

“Go where?”

“I don’t know. You live pretty close to the bar near Outback.”

“Mona’s?” I started to grin. “Jillian, I don’t think you’re allowed to go there.”

“I’ve been there before. As long as they don’t serve me, Jax is cool with it.”

My brows rose. “Jax?”

“He’s the owner. He’s good friends with Brock.” She stood.

I eyed her. “So…is Brock going to be there?”

“I doubt it,” she said. “He’s usually training now.”

For some reason I didn’t quite believe her.

“Come on. It’ll be good to get out.” She paused. “Plus, you know who’s the bartender there, right?”

It took a second to click. “Wait. That’s where Roxy works and she’s dating…”

“Colton’s brother,” she finished.

The tumbling in my stomach this time was something altogether different. “How do you know that?”

She rolled her eyes again. “Brock is really good friends with all of them and I’m a really good…listener. So, you want to go? I’ll be good and order a Coke.”

I shot her a look. “Wild child.”

Jillian giggled, and I had to grin because I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard her giggle. “So?”

Glancing at the clock, I saw it was still early. I’d planned on cracking open the new manuscript I’d received, but wasn’t I supposed to start taking more time to myself? And besides, if I stayed home, all I would do is end up staring at my phone, engaging in wishful thinking.

“Okay,” I said, standing up. “Let’s do it.”

* * * *

It had been about a year since I’d been in Mona’s, and while the bar had a dive feel to it, it wasn’t a creepy place. Jillian and I took our own cars since she lived in the opposite direction, closer to the city.

The moment I saw Jax, I remembered who he was. How could I have forgotten? Even though he was a few years younger than me, he was the kind of man who gave off the vibe that said he knew how to take care of things.

He was behind the bar when I led the way to a table. Since Jillian was underage, she couldn’t sit at the bar. Jax had the greatest smile and laugh, which he handed out freely. Right now, he was laughing at something someone was saying at the bar. Tipping his head back and letting loose a deep, infectious laugh.

“You just want a Coke? Anything to eat?” I asked.

Jillian was scanning the heads bowed over one of the pool tables. “Nah. Coke is fine.”

There weren’t a lot of people at the bar when I walked over to it, so the girl behind it quickly came to where I stood. I knew who she was. This was Roxy—Reece’s girlfriend. As she drew nearer, I saw that she had a streak of color in her brown hair that matched her purple glasses. Envy filled me. I always wanted to have a wild color in my hair, but I didn’t have the face or the personality to pull that off.

Her shirt read I’m like a self-cleaning oven, and under it was a happy little oven, and then below that were the words I’m self-sufficient, bitches.