A/N: Sorry I took so long to post this. This chapter has been written, but I didn't have time to upload it until now. Several characters are introduced in this chapter. Enjoy! :) And please review if you get the chance! Your comments and feedback help a lot! Really it does. And thanks to my lovely beta, beachtree. ;)

~*~*~*~*~CHAPTER FIVE~*~*~*~*~

"Summer?" I mumble hoarsely, nuzzling my nose into one of the soft pillows clustered around my head.

Keeping my eyes closed, I stretch my arm across the bed to stroke her hair, but frown when I realize her spot is cold and empty. She's not there, which happens a lot lately. She keeps getting up earlier and earlier and leaving earlier and earlier and then she complains that I always come home late, but what is a guy supposed to do? I'm doing the best I can. It's a tough economy, and I feel like an absolute failure as a husband and parent because I can't support my family financially the way I wish I could.

I let out a frustrated sigh and slowly rub the sleep out of my tired eyes. I have to admit that physically, I feel a lot better today than I have in a long time. Glancing over at the alarm clock, I realize it's only six in the morning. As I push myself out of bed groggily, briefly scanning the room, I notice that Lani is nowhere in sight either. I guess they're both already up.

Limping my way out of the bedroom, I'm pleased to find that for the first time in months I may be able to actually walk without a cane—at least for today.

I enter the kitchen in search of my lovely wife and child, but still don't find them anywhere, which is kind of strange... I mean, it's Summer's day off. I was hoping we could do something. After all, I can't remember the last time we even shared a meal together.

It feels like there's been a standstill in our marriage lately, and it's tearing me apart. I still love her. I'll always love her. But I haven't been there these past few weeks the way I should have been. Even though the medication helps, it doesn't completely take the pain in my leg and hip away and it always makes me feel nauseous and completely run down. I always wake up feeling exhausted no matter how much sleep I get. On top of that, I've just been emotionally drained, overwhelmed, and even a bit disillusioned. These are things I have trouble admitting out loud, but I can't hide from the truth anymore. I'm scared shitless. Things never seem to go my way. It's that damn Atwood luck Trey used to always talk about. My asshole dad had it. Trey had it. Mom had it... and hell, I got cursed with it too. And now I feel guilty. Summer needs me—the old me, and I haven't been the man she married these past few weeks. I don't even know why she's still with me. I'm a terrible husband and as hard as I try, I'm a terrible father, and my biggest fear is that one of these days I'll come home and they won't be here.

"Summer?" My voice echoes through the narrow hallway as I continue looking for my family. "Lani?"

I peer through the window and notice her car isn't in the driveway. Strange. Next, I head back to the bedroom, running a hand through my hair nervously. I open the closet and notice a duffel bag and some of Summer's clothes missing, and I can feel goosebumps forming on my arms. Growing more and more anxious by the second, I leave the room again and stagger back into the kitchen, stopping dead in my tracks as a cluster of painful memories hit me all at once.

"I can't do this anymore, Ryan! I can't! You want to throw your life away too—I'm not gonna watch it."

"I'm sorry, Mom—," I choke out.

"They shoulda locked you up. Right next to your dad. Right next to that stupid ass brother of yours."

"Don't say that—"

"You're a disappointment to me. You're a disgrace. A mistake! I wish I never had you, Ry! All you've ever done is drag me down!"

I can feel my eyes burning with wetness and it's only then that I realize the tears I'm desperately trying to hold back.

"I can't do it. I want you outta my house! I want you out!"

I've never lived on streets before, and I can't go to a group home. I can't. Last time was painful enough, but this is worse. Last time my mom didn't kick me out. Last time it was the system that took me away from her. Last time I had the hope that I'd be reunited with her again. All she had to do was sober up, and for a short while she did—just enough for me to be able to move back in with her. Then the drinking started again. I stood up for her. .. helped her... worked a construction job to help pay the bills... cleaned her mess up when she'd vomit and was too hung over to do it herself. This can't be happening.

"What? But... but... Mom, where am I going to go?" I panic.

"You heard your mother, man. Get your stuff and get out," AJ barks. God I hate that guy. The way he talks, you'd think he owns all of Chino. He's a nasty, smelly mother fucker and it's 'cause of his ugly ass that my mom's gotten hooked on coke. Now they use the little money we do have on hard drugs.

"This isn't your house, man!" I retort angrily.

"Oh, you think you're a tough guy now?" AJ shoves me hard and I stumble backwards.

"AJ, don't! Ryan, just get the fuck out, goddammit!" Dawn yells. I can't believe it. She's really kicking me the hell outta here.

"Why don't you start worrying about your own kids, AJ, instead of freeloading off my m-"

My words are cut short when he pounds my jaw hard with his fist. I take a step back, trying to shake away the dizziness, but before I can defend myself, he backhands me in the face again, and next thing I know, I'm on the floor and he's kicking me in the ribs, spinning me around, picking me up and tossing me onto the hardwood floor of my room as if I'm a fucking Frisbee or something.

I spot a note on the kitchen counter, and I swear my body goes numb, and my heart stops beating for a few seconds. Oh God, Oh God, Oh God. This is the moment I've been dreading. God, I pray it's not true. Summer wouldn't... she... she... she loves me too much, right? I mean, she promised right? We made our vows. She couldn't... and.. and.. she wouldn't take my kid away too, would she? But we haven't exactly been getting along well the past several weeks. It seems that every discussion turns into an argument. It seems that I can't do anything right. Everything I do is all wrong to her. Nothing's good enough. I'm not enough.

But I'm her husband. I mean... that's gotta count for something? Sure she makes more money than me now that I don't have a job, and she probably feels I'm dragging the family down with my health problems, but... she wouldn't leave me, right? She promised! But shit... if anybody knows that promises are meant to be broken, it's me. It's the story of my fucking life. It'd be delusional for me to trust someone not to leave or give up on me eventually. I've never been worth it, and I guess I never will be. I'm damaged goods, but then why does the very thought of this hurt so much if it's my fault? Oh, God. What do I do?

After spending a week sleeping on the floor of an abandoned warehouse since my shithead uncle wouldn't let me crash with him and Theresa's visiting family in Atlanta with her mom, I decide to come home. I mean...what the fuck can AJ do about it? I'm Dawn's kid. She's gotta let me back in, right?

The tires on my bike squeak as I pedal as hard as I can on my way home. It's that fucking rusty chain. It needs to be replaced, but we can't afford it. It's okay though 'cause the irritating noise is actually keeping me distracted. My stomach is growling. Shit. I haven't had a decent meal in days. I really hope there's something in the fridge when I reach the house, but I wouldn't be surprised if fucking AJ left the fridge empty again with nothing but booze. I wish my mom would dump his grungy ass. What does she see in the guys she brings home?

After about a half hour, I finally spot the familiar uncut lawn and cracked front window that sets our dingy house apart from the others lining the neighborhood. Don't get me wrong. It's not like all the other houses are mansions, but at least the other owners take enough pride in themselves to make their property look somewhat respectable. Shit. We don't even own a lawn mower because Dawn refuses to spend money on anything that doesn't involve drugs or alcohol.

I pedal slowly into the driveway and jump off my bike, reaching into the pocket of my hoodie for the house keys. As I approach the front door, I make a mental note to myself to save up some money to buy a bucket of paint and a brush. The chipped yellow paint on the door looks terrible. The least I can do is make some part of the house look presentable.

I open the door, and immediately I can feel the blood drain from my face. I'm breathing heavily now, but all I feel is numbness. Fuck. It's empty. The furniture is gone and the only thing left behind is the trash littering the floor. I run aimlessly to my room and then to my mom's room and then into the kitchen, and I begin to feel overwhelmed. This is too much. Really, it's too much. That's when I notice a note on the kitchen counter. It's written in crayon. Crayon! Reluctantly, I pick it up and begin to read, tears welling up in my eyes.

Ryan,

I put up with too much. I'm sorry. Have a good life. Don't come looking for me. It's better this way.

-Mom

As I stumble towards the kitchen counter, I can barely feel my legs. So many thoughts are passing through my mind right now, and I can barely think straight. Fear... dread... apprehension... it all hits me at once. I don't even know if I can get my trembling hands to pick up the note. I don't want to know what it says. I don't want to believe that Summer would leave me—rip my heart out and shred it to tiny pieces. I know there's a possibility the note just says she's out to the grocery store with Lani or something like that, but then why am I so afraid?

Finally, my hand grips the thin sheet of loose-leaf paper before my brain can even process what's happening and my eyes scan the bubbly handwriting apprehensively.

Chino,

You fell asleep so early tonight, and I was bored so instead of picking Lani up at Taylor's, I've decided to just stay over. You look so peaceful sleeping right now and as adorable as your Chino glare is when you're sleepy and grumpy, I don't want to wake you up. Please don't worry. This is totally a spur of the moment thing. I just need some space. I love you. You know that. I just need some girl time—some time to think, and I think our daughter does too. I may be home tomorrow night or it may be in a couple of days. Have a fun-tastic Friday! Maybe you can call up Luke or something and have a guy's night out.

Love,

Wifey

I can't really explain how I feel right now. On the one hand I feel relieved that this wasn't a farewell note, but on the other hand, I still have that same unsettling feeling in my stomach. What if she stays at Taylor's for more than a couple of days? What if days turn into weeks? What if she's pissed at me and doesn't want to see me? I wish I could just trust that she'd stay and rid myself of every insecurity, but I don't know how. I love my daughter and Summer with every ounce of life I have, and I'm terrified of losing them. I decide to call up Luke. Maybe he'll have some good advice.


Luke picks up on the third ring, and I let out a breath I didn't even know I was holding.

"Hello?"

"Hey, man. It's me."

"Chino. Dude, what's up? You alright?"

"Yeah. But um... I was wondering... are you busy later?"

"I've got some work to finish up at the dealership, but I should be free after four. Why?"

"Well... I, uh... was wondering if we could maybe meet up?"

"Yeah, sure. I'll swing by Jenny's house at around 4:30."

"Actually, I've gotta talk to Mr. Cohen today at around that time. Could you maybe come around 6:00?"

"Mr. Cohen? That's the dude who's trying to rent your house right?" He asks.

"Yeah," I confirm. "Why?"

"Just wondering. Sounds familiar. I knew someone with that last name back in high school."

"Yeah?" I ask, curious.

"Yeah, this kid named Seth. I was a real dick back then. He went to boarding school or something and I never saw him again, but if I saw the guy today, I'd seriously apologize—not that he'd have a reason to forgive me."

"Interesting." I really don't know what to say to that.

"So anyway... I gotta get back to work, but... see ya at 6:00?"

"You got it."

"Later, man."

"Later. And Luke?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."

"No worries." Typical Luke. I can tell he's smiling on the other line and just knowing I've got someone I can count on makes me smile too.


She needs me now, but I can't seem to find the time

I've got a new job now on the unemployment line,

And we don't know how—how we got into this mess,

"Oh my God, we should go shopping!" Taylor squeals, rubbing her palms together excitedly. I swear... sometimes this girl has way too much energy. "We can pick out a cute outfit for Lani. I saw this scarf on sale at Bloomingdale's that would look cute on her, and then we can come back and make cheese souffles. I took this cooking course when I worked in France last year... oh, and tonight there's this Korean barbeque at my friend Sung Ho's place. Don't worry... Lani can come too. He has a son her age. Oh my God, I'm so excited!"

"I should probably call Chino." Honestly, I didn't even hear a word Taylor just said. I can't stop thinking about him. It's been plaguing me all morning. I hope he's not hurt that I'm not spending my day off with him. It's just... I miss the way things were before, and I needed a break from him since obviously things right now aren't how they used to be. Lately I feel like I can't even talk to him. It's like... I never say the right thing, and it's hard to read him these days. It doesn't help that I've been acting like a spoiled brat. God, ever since I met Ryan, I began resenting Newpsies, and my biggest fear now is that I'm turning into one.

"Summer, were you even listening to me?" Taylor asks, sounding a little confused.

"What? Oh, sorry T. Uh, what were you saying?" I ask, finally meeting her gaze.

She sighs, and then sits down on her bed next to me.

"It's not important. I'm just worried about you."

"Well don't be. I'm fine," I lie, biting my lower lip.

"You do remember that I happen to be a certified emotional therapist, right? You are definitely not fine, and I'm going to get to the bottom of this. Summer Atwood, we need to have a serious girl talk. What's going on? You didn't even tell me why you came over last night with Lani. Is everything okay with Ryan?"

"Yeah... I mean... no. No, nothing is okay," I choke on my words. "And it's probably my fault. I've been putting a lot of pressure on him. God, I'm a monster."

"You're not a monster. Just talk to him. I'm sure whatever you said or did, he'll understand," She placates me.

"I'm not so sure about that," I mutter. "It seems like we don't get each other at all anymore."

"You're in a rut, huh?"

"More like rut squared." I frown, folding my arms on my lap in front of me. "If our relationship was like a tropical island, then we're in danger of getting hit by a category 5 hurricane."

"That bad? I'm so sorry, sis. I had no idea. You haven't been talking much about it the past few weeks beyond the basics. I thought you guys were coping well... considering everything. What's wrong?"

"Everything, okay! Just... everything!" I throw my hands up, frustrated. "We don't talk the way we use to, we don't spend time together anymore, every discussion turns into an argument, which... may I add is my fault almost every single time... He's rarely even home when I'm home because he's out looking for jobs only to get rejection after rejection, and he doesn't get back until night and when he does, he's either in too much pain or too damn tired to talk and then when we do talk, I end up saying crap I don't mean and..."

"Summer... Summer... slow down. Let's take it one problem at a time. Why do you think the arguments are your fault?"

"Because they are, okay! I blame him for crap that isn't his fault. Hell, if Lani's upset and crying, I even put that on him. I stress him out even more than he already is. I know he's frustrated over not having a job, yet for whatever reason I ask him every single day if he finally got one. I see the way it affects him, and I haven't done anything about it and now he's become so closed off. It's almost like he avoids me just to escape the tension."

"How's your sex life?" She asks.

"Non-existent," I answer flatly. "You remember that time you came along when I took Lani to the doctor to get her second MMR shot?"

"Yeah, I remember that!" Taylor snorts. "She can be a stubborn little thing. I'm surprised the doctor was able to even give it to her."

"Well trying to get Atwood to have sex these days is like ten times worse."

"Ouch. You guys have lost the magic, huh? You know the Karma Sutra can..."

"Taylor," I cut her off, glaring at her intently. She shuts up immediately so it seems to have worked. I guess some of Chino's personality traits have rubbed off on me.

"Sorry. You know me... gotta have my fix of tasteful erotica, and Ryan is hot... well when he's a little beefier. Lately he's looking a little..."

"I know, Taylor. You don't have to tell me he needs to gain weight. I know. That has nothing to do with our sex life. Sciatica doesn't exactly put someone in the mood for making sweet love..."

She gives me a rueful smile and slowly nods in understanding, but I have to admit I'm relieved she's dropped the subject. Talking to Taylor about my sex life isn't exactly my favorite pass time. Besides, it's kind of a shallow topic. Okay, okay. I know coming from me that sounds a bit off since sometimes I can be queen of the shallow. I mean my favorite hobbies are shoe shopping, tanning, and celebrity gossip, but... when it comes to Atwood, I don't think anything can make me stop loving him. His teeth could fall out and he could grow like... bald or something, and I'd still love him... though the thought of that definitely screams out 'Ew.'

"So have you apologized for how you've been treating him?" Taylor's voice pulls me away from my thoughts.

"No," I answer regretfully. "Well... not enough."

"I remember you telling me when you first started dating him back in college that you were scared to take the relationship to the next level because all guys get bored with you and move on and you were afraid he was going to be one of those guys. I also remember you once telling me about your mom, and how she left you and..."

"Taylor, where are you going with this?" I ask abruptly. I don't mean to be a bitch, but sometimes I wish she wasn't a therapist. Every time she starts playing psychologist with me she's usually right, and she gets a big head. I can only imagine what she's about to ask me.

"I just don't like to see your marriage suffer like this. You guys are like family to me. I mean, you're Rymmer... Summeryan—the cutest couple. I was just wondering if your insecurities with Ryan are rooted in things you've gone through in the past. Are you afraid he's going to walk out on you? Ask for a divorce?"

"Actually... I think it's the opposite." I drop my gaze, focusing on the chipped red polish on my finger nails. Gosh, I really need a manicure.

"What do you mean?" She asks.

"I think he's afraid I'm going to walk out on him," I answer honestly.

That's really how I think he feels. I can see it in his eyes. He's scared I'm going to bolt, and right now I don't know how to deal with it because while I have thought about spending some time apart from him to give us both time to reflect, I could never divorce him. I love him too much.

"Well maybe that's the problem then," Taylor replies with a sad smile. "Maybe you need to let him know once and for all that you're not going anywhere, and I think I can help."

Suddenly I'm glad I came here. As quirky and annoying as she can be, Taylor really is a great person, and she can be pretty wise too.

"Come on." She smiles. "Let's go shopping—"

"But—"

She must catch on that my main concern is lack of spending money because she quickly cuts me off saying, "Don't worry... it's my treat. It'll help cheer you up, and we can figure out a plan."


"So how am I going to make this scrap book without going back to Jenny's?" I ask as Taylor and I arrive at South Coast Plaza with Lani in tow. "All the photo albums are over there in boxes."

"No need to fear, Madame Summer Roberts-Atwood. Taylor Townsend est ici [is here]. I still have all the pictures you've sent me over the years including some from college, your wedding, and a few others. We can scan and print them in high quality and go from there."

"I always knew there was a reason we became friends," I smile. She claps her hands together in delight—flashing me one of her quirky Townsend grins, and I can tell she's pleased with herself.

"Mommy, can we get ice cweam?" My daughter asks, tugging at my purse and interrupting our conversation.

"Maybe later, sweetheart. If you're good today."

"Okay!" She squeals. "Aunt Taylor?"

"Yes, gorgeous?"

"Guess who?" She asks—her tiny hands hiding her bright blue eyes.

Taylor chuckles. "Who?"

"Peek-a-boo!" Lani giggles, uncovering them.

And as I watch the interaction between my best friend and my daughter, I can't help but laugh along too. It's going to be a good day.


A few hours later, I'm strolling through Nordsrom around the Chanel counter, and I overhear a few of my co-workers talking. I've always hated them. Okay, hate is a strong word, but they are so freakin' annoying. And to think if I hadn't met Ryan I could have ended up just like them...

"I feel so sorry for Summer. That poor thing. I can't believe she's married to that guy from Chino," Holly chirps. Gosh, I can't stand Holly. We used to be close in high school, but she's such a bitch. How dare she talk about Ryan like that.

"I know! How does she put up with him? He is totally wrong for her!"

Ugh, Sabrina is even worse, and working with her is pure torture...

"Yeah, she should like... totally divorce his ugly ass and take Alana with her. Summer and Alana would be much better off. He's probably a terrible father. I heard he's a formal criminal!"

Oh. My. God. I can't believe her! Uh-uh. Nobody talks about my man like that! And he is so not ugly or a criminal! I am totally giving her a black eye! Maybe two!

"Really? I heard that too! I heard he used to be a big time car thief and drug dealer! How could she even marry someone like that?"

Okay, make that two black eyes for Sabrina as well.

"I bet he's an alcoholic. I saw him walking down the street one night a few months ago and he could barely walk upright."

An alcoholic? How the hell do these air-headed bitches come up with this stuff? Chino barely even drinks!

"God, seriously? But if she divorces him, it's not like she'll get much money in alimony..."

"I know what you mean. Summer makes more than he does!"

"I heard he doesn't even work! Can you believe it? He's using that poor girl for her money and her rich family roots and she fell for it! How could she even have had a kid with him? To put that poor little girl through all that?"

"I know! I bet he got her pregnant on purpose so she'd stay with him, and now that poor little girl has to grow up with such a horrible father. I totally agree, Holly. Summer should divorce that loser! He's taking her money!"

"Well she was rich, but let's not forget the other reason to feel sorry for her. I heard Neil Roberts is a total mess right now. He needs some serious help after he lost that malpractice case and that lady he was married to... what's her name again? Gloria?"

"Yeah, that's her name. She divorced him and even sued him..."

"Hey, Holly," I interrupt, smiling smugly. "Sabrina," I add, glaring at the bleach blonde haired, overly tanned bitch. They both look shocked to see me—embarrassed even. Looks like I'm going to have more fun than I thought.

"Summer, hi! I thought... I thought it was your day off...," Holly replies in her annoying, high-pitched voice.

"Hey bitch," Sabrina greets me with her plastic smile and even more annoying and high-pitched voice. 'Hey bitch' may be a friendly greeting among Newport skanks, but I'm way over that. It's so high school. Botox, plastic smiles, plastic noses, and boob implants are so not my thing. Nope! I can't stand Newpsies.

"Yeah, well... I like to shop on my days off, and clearly you like to talk about my husband," I say aggressively, placing a hand on my right hip and tilting my head with attitude.

The look on each of their faces is priceless. I wish I had a camera right now. Sabrina especially. She looks like she's about to piss her pants. They obviously weren't expecting me to respond like this.

"Look, I don't know what you think you heard but—"

"I know what I heard! According to you my husband is an alcoholic, bad father, terrible husband, a criminal, and after my money!"

"Well isn't he?" Holly asks. God, is she really that dumb?

"No, he's not! He has a severe injury you stupid sluts! That's why he walks funny! In fact, if you saw him recently he has a cane! Chino barely even drinks! He's a damn good husband and father! He busts his ass to take care of us! He's better than any stupid jock we went to high school with, and I would never divorce him!" I lash out. I better calm down or they both really will have black eyes. If I aim lower, their silicon boobs may even explode. "And my life is my life! I don't need you to approve of—"

Next thing I know I'm swinging at these girls until I feel someone pulling me back.

"Come on, girl. Let's go," Taylor interjects, alerting me of her and Lani's presence. She had taken Lani to get cleaned up in the bathroom after the little darling spilled chocolate ice cream all over her pants. Lani! Oh gosh. I can't believe she just saw me lose control like this. This can't be good.

"Oh my gosh," I reply, totally embarrassed that right now the entire store is probably gawking at us.

"They're not worth it. Let's go," Taylor says, tugging me away from Holly and Sabrina. For a second I turn around and swear I see Luke from a distance looking in our direction, but why would he be in the make-up and beauty section? He doesn't have a girlfriend. I shrug, deciding it's probably just a look-a-like. Half of Newport's men probably resemble Luke anyway. It's not like his Abercrombie good looks are unique to this hell hole.


Is it God's test? Someone help us 'cause we're doing our best.

Trying to make it work, but man these times are hard.

"Thanks for coming, Mr. Cohen," I greet the man on the other side of the door. Something about him seems so familiar—almost as if I'd seen him in another life or something.

"It's great to finally meet with you in person," He smiles, shaking my hand. "Please call me Sandy. Formal greetings make me feel so old."

"That's not the first time I've heard someone say that." I give him a small half smile and lead him into Jenny's house where he takes a seat on her living room couch.

"Can I get you anything?" I ask politely. "There's water and juice in the fridge. I'd offer you more, but... we need to go shopping..."

"Thanks for the offer, Ryan. A water would be great! I'm parched," He grins. He seems like a good guy. It's his eyes. They seem warm and inviting once you get past the large, bushy black eyebrows. I think I can feel comfortable with this guy living in my house.

I return holding a glass of water, which I give to him before sitting down in the adjacent loveseat.

"So how'd you like the house? I know Summer let you in a couple of days ago to take a look." I figure easing into a conversation will be the best approach.

"It's terrific! You and Summer kept it in great condition, especially for having a kid and no maid."

"Thanks," I blush slightly, glad to know our hard work paid off. "I know it's not as big as a lot of the other houses in Newport, but it's still a nice place to raise a family."

"Hey, I'm with you 100% on that. You've done a great job with it."

"So when would you like to move in?" I ask, a little bit anxious. The sooner the better really.

"As soon as possible. I've already signed the paperwork, which I brought with me today."

"Good. Good. So the month-to-month agreement was okay with you then?"

"Yeah, everything's fine. I can tell you're a good guy, and it's really been a pleasure doing business with you. I'm going to hire some landscapers to take the load off you too. I know you're going through a rough time so you won't need to worry about any of that. I'm just grateful I was able to find some reasonably priced property to rent. It's not easy starting over, and living here for the time being will give me some time to try and get back on my feet."

He's helping us too so I guess there really is such a thing as a win-win.

"You like the neighborhood?" I ask kindly. "Mr. Grigsby, who lives next door, is pretty nice once you get to know him, and Mrs. Applebalm sometimes comes by with baked cookies." I smile just thinking about her. Lani loves that lady.

"Yeah, yeah! Everything's great. I actually know Mrs. Applebalm. She's a sweet lady. She was one of Seth's teachers in the ninth grade."

Seth. Seth must be his son. So Sandy must be the father of the guy Luke was telling me about.

There's an awkward silence between us before he finally says, "I don't mean to change the subject, but that's quite a limp you've got there. Can I ask what happened to ya?" He holds my gaze and I take a deep breath. Normally I'd be reluctant to reveal too much about my injury, but he seems genuine. It helps that I know he's a public defender and funds a low-income housing development just outside of Chino.

"Uh, well... I was in an accident a few years ago and... needed hip replacement surgery. It never healed properly so what you're seeing is the result...," I trail off, averting my eyes and taking another deep breath as the memories hit me all over again.

"I'm sorry to hear that. From everything I know about hip replacement surgeries, usually they are successful unless the physicians and nursing staff botched up."

"Yeah... but I didn't exactly have health insurance at the time. They had to... wait several weeks to operate, and while waiting, I got an infection." I wince as I remember my stay in the hospital.

"I can relate," He says. I wrinkle my forehead, trying to figure him out and our eyes lock again. I'm not sure what part of my life he's claiming to relate to. The part about being too poor to have health insurance? The part about being temporarily disabled in a serious accident? I know he doesn't know about my life pre-Newport: the group home, the abuse, the abandonment...

"Where are you from again?" I search for answers. I find this man intriguing.

"Oh, that's a long story. How much time do you have?" He asks thoughtfully.

"I've got time," I simply say.

"Well I'm from the Bronx originally. My mom was always working and my dad wasn't around so I moved across the country at sixteen to make a life for myself. I ended up later going to Berkeley for both undergrad and law school and became a public defender. Berkeley is also where I met the love of my life, Kirsten."

"I wasn't aware you were married. I thought you moved in by yourself." I knit my eyebrows in confusion.

"I'm not married," He frowns, and suddenly I regret saying anything. "We separated back in 2003. My son became really antisocial and she blamed me. After her mom died of cancer, she started burying herself in her work. Her father, Caleb, wasn't my biggest fan either and conspired to turn her against me. My son ended up going to boarding school on the east coast and not even a month later, she filed for divorce. She's now married to Jimmy Cooper, who was our next door neighbor and also her first love."

He shutters and it seems that he's fighting to keep his emotions in check. Now I feel like an ass for opening up this can of worms.

"I'm so sorry." It's lame, but what else am I supposed to say? It sucks and nothing I say is going to change how he probably feels. I guess he can relate to me though. I see what he means now.

"About your dad too," I add. "And your mom. I've been there," I inhale deeply and wet my lips with my tongue.

"I know."

I'm momentarily paralyzed. Know what? What does he know? I can feel a knot forming in my stomach.

"Wha—what do you mean? I've never... what do you know about my past?"

I'm really hoping Summer didn't tell him anything.

"We've met once before," He replies, leaving me baffled. "In 2003."

In the next minute, I study his face carefully. He does seem familiar. I know he's a public defender. Wait, I went to juvie in 2003.

"Did you sometimes take clients over at the Chino penitentiary?" I swallow a lump forming in my throat, my eyebrows knitting together in a pensive expression. If this is a mystery, I'm determined to solve it.

He nods and answers, "Yes. Several times."

Suddenly it all comes back to me—the kind blue eyes, the bushy eyebrows, hell even the name. He looks a lot older now. Maybe that's why I didn't recognize him at first. He's also a bit heavier than he was back then. His once black hair is mostly gray now, and I can see several more wrinkles that weren't there eight years ago, but the eyes and eyebrows are still the same. I remember.

"You defended my brother. Trey Atwood," I say softly, my words fading into a whisper.

"You figured it out, kid." Strangely it doesn't bother me that he just called me 'kid.' He is a lot older than me and I can tell this is his way of letting me know he wants to be a part of my life—not just my tenant. He continues: "I was assigned to your case originally, but my son got sick that day and another public defender took the job instead, but about a month later I met you in the group home you were assigned to."

"You came to ask me a few questions about Trey to help with his case," I nod slowly. I must sound dazed right about now. This is surreal. This man has seen Trey's file. He may have even seen my file. I don't know that I'm comfortable with him knowing this much about my childhood, but I guess I have no choice but to deal with it.

"Are you still his lawyer?" I ask, feeling slightly dizzy. I haven't seen Trey in five years, but I know he managed to get thrown back into prison for violating his parole. Typical Trey.

"No. My life fell apart after my son left and Kirsten divorced me. I had a break down and moved back to New York. Now all these years later, here I am again... hoping to start over."

"I appreciate everything you did for my brother." I hold his gaze intently, hoping to convey how grateful I am to him for caring enough to work on Trey's case. I remember Trey telling me how hardworking his lawyer was, and I remember him getting out a year early. Too bad he had to screw it all up not even a year later. I feel bad for Sandy though. Here he was making sacrifices for my brother and his whole life crumbled. "And... I'm really sorry things didn't work out for you at home," I finish.

"Thanks... and really I've wanted to say this to you since I realized it was your house I was renting. You've done well for yourself. Not many kids make it out of those group homes. I know life isn't perfect, but you've come a long way, and if my conversation with your wife a couple of days ago told me anything... she loves you, kid. You could have done worse."

I don't know why, but his words really connect with me. He seems to really care, and even if he's just trying to make me feel better, at the moment I can't help but smile.


She's in line at the dole with her head held high,

While I just lost my job, but didn't lose my pride,

Thanks to Taylor, Lani and I spent the majority of the day shopping for art supplies to make Ryan a scrapbook. I can't believe I've never made him one before. I've made him collages, and I've gotten him nice gifts, but somehow I'd never thought to make him something like this. On our way back to Taylor's house, we decide to stop at Burger King. I know I shouldn't be eating fast food, but what the heck... one day won't kill me, right?

I decide to go ahead and order since Taylor said she'll be a few minutes. She's outside talking to her friend Sung Ho on the phone so I don't doubt it.

"I'll have a junior whopper, large fries, and also a chocolate milkshake please."

"Mommy, can I have chicken stwips pwease?" Lani tugs at my arm.

"Yes, honey. You want the kids meal? They have toys from that movie you like... the one with that chubby, green ogre."

Her face lights up and I feel a small smile tugging at corners of my lips. "His name is Shwek, Mommy! And yes, pwease. I wuv kids meals. And... and can I go pway in the ball pit?"

"Of course you can. I'll be waiting for you right here."

She runs off to the play area while I wait for our food. About a minute later, I feel a hand tapping my shoulder and I turn around to see a fairly tall, gangly guy with curly, dark hair and brown eyes standing next to me. He's wearing blue jeans, green converse sneakers, and a fitted black t-shirt with X-Men or Ice Man or one of those nerdy superheroes on it. I think I've seen him before, but I can't really remember. He can't be much older than me though.

"Hey, Summer." He waves, grinning from ear to ear.

"Do I know you?" I ask, confused. I'm not trying to be mean. I just really can't remember where I've seen this guy before, but obviously he knows me.

"Ouch," He makes his best 'hurt' face, and I can't tell if I really hurt his feelings or if he's just kidding around. He seems really sarcastic.

Just in case I did hurt his feelings, I quickly assure him: "Oh, I didn't mean it in a bad day. I mean...you seem cool and everything. I just don't remember ever talking to you."

"I lived next door to your best friend in high school."

"Wait, you lived next to Coop? I didn't know her neighbors had a kid!"

"And again I have to say it. Ouch."

I don't know what I should say next, but luckily they hand me my order at the counter, and Taylor arrives just on time saying, "Oh, hi, Seth. Wow, it's been so long."

Maybe the gods summoned her to show up right at this very moment. That would explain a lot because right now, the less I say, the better. I'm totally digging a hole for myself.

"Taylor Townsend. You remembered my name. That's nice," He jokes, smiling.

"What can I say? You, Seth Cohen, are unforgettable," She winks.

That's interesting. Wait his last name is Cohen? After a few seconds the light bulbs flash in my head.

"Oh. my. God. Is your dad Sandy Cohen?" I ask, astonished.

"Uh, yeah. Why?" He seems puzzled.

"Your dad is totally renting our house! That reminds me that I need to call Ryan and see how his meeting went with Sandy."

"This is getting weird," Taylor cuts in.

"Ah, great to know you're doing business with my old man. I knew he was renting a house here now, but I didn't expect it to be yours. By the way, who's Ryan?"

"Her husband," Taylor answers for me.

"Right. Got it. Sorry," He says. He almost looks a little bit hurt though I have no clue why. Strange.

"So who is he?" Seth asks, almost bitterly. "Wait, let me guess... Ryan Anderson... most popular water-polo player in the ninth grade. Peed in my shoes multiple times along with Luke Ward and Chip Davis."

I'm really confused. He's being kind of rude right now. Actually rude would be a major understatement.

"No. His name is Ryan Atwood. He's the love of my life. And no. He didn't go to Harbor. He's from Chino."

"Oh." His entire body relaxes slightly, and he seems less upset now.

"You never struck me as the type of girl to marry a guy from outside of Newport."

"Why are you being like this? What did I ever do to you?" My tone isn't angry or confrontational. I'm just a little bit hurt and confused. I'm not sure what he means by what he just said, but it sure as hell sounds like an insult.

"That was actually a compliment," He counters. "And you didn't do anything to me. That would have required you to speak to me back in high school. I had the biggest crush on you, but no matter what I did to get your attention, you'd ignore me. But right now I'm being sincere. I thought for sure you'd settle down with some Newport asshole jock, but it seems you found someone else, and I hope he's a good guy because, Summer, you deserve it."

Okay, well that's actually kind of sweet.

"Ryan is a great guy," Taylor pipes in. "You should meet him sometime. I think you'd like him... well as long as you don't dis Luke Ward in front of him," She laughs. "That's his best friend, but don't worry. Luke's changed since high school. You wouldn't even recognize him. He's a good guy. He's not the same person who used to pee in your shoes."

"Yeah, people change. And... your dad's renting our house now... so I don't see why not," I agree. "Atwood's a bit under the weather, but when he gets back on his feet, I'm sure he'd love to meet you," I add, choosing my words carefully.

"What's wrong with Ryan?" Seth asks. "Is he okay?"

"He's looking for a job still. And like I said, he's under the weather, but he'll be alright," I reply, trying not to say too much.

"What kind of job is he looking for?"

"Why, would you like to help him find one?" Taylor asks, hopeful.

"Maybe."

"He wants to be an architect," I explain. "That dream got shattered along with his right hip in an accident a few years ago. Since then, it's been a struggle. He can't do manual labor because he's in too much pain, but at this point he'll take any job that helps us pay the bills so if you know anyone who will hire him, that'd be great."

"What are his credentials?" Seth asks with what seems like genuine interest.

"He's got three years of community college under his belt. His focus was pre-architecture and mathematics. He's worked with a couple of architectural affirms before... once as an assistant and once as a secretary."

"I'll keep that in mind," Seth nods.

"So what have you been up to these days?" Taylor asks him, smiling brightly. If I didn't know better, I'd think she's developing a crush on him. Or maybe she already has one.

"Just staying busy. I majored in art at Brown University and then I studied in Japan for two years. Now I write graphic novels and draw characters for manga."

"Oh my God, Seth! That's so cool!" She beams. "I love manga and anime! Kimi no Iru Machi is my favorite, and I also love Hajime no Ippo..."

"I've drawn a few graphics for both of those," He says proudly. "It's just a little thing I do."

"Well I'd love to see your drawings sometime and you've gotta see my Katana action figure collection! We totally have to exchange numbers!"

"You collect those too? I thought I was the only one," He replies. "And I really like Bloodbath 4."

"Oh my God, really?"

With almost too much enthusiasm, Taylor quickly claps her hands together and adds: "Me too! Right before bed! I know several people who don't like it because it's so violent, but I really think they are missing out because despite all the blood and gore, it is intricate and artistic. It's just so beautiful and soothing at the same time..."

"I couldn't agree more," He chuckles.

"We're like soul mates!" She squeals.

Wow, okay. It's confirmed. Somebody has a crush...

I excuse myself, leaving Taylor and Seth to their conversation while I check on my daughter, who I notice sitting by herself in a corner away from the other kids in the play area.

"Lani, come here, sweetie." She slowly obeys and I gently stroke her long hair. "What's wrong?" I ask, worried.

"I miss Daddy," She whispers, a frown forming on her delicate features. "It's more fun playing in the ball pit with Daddy." Trying to comfort her, I hold her in a loving embrace. "When are we going home?" She pouts. She looks so much like her dad when she does that.

"I miss him too, sweetie, but we're not going home until tomorrow evening." I take her hand and lead her towards the front of the restaurant, handing her her kids meal.

"Wait, she has a kid?" I hear Seth ask my best friend as I approach them with Lani in tow.

"Yeah, why?" Taylor answers.

I admit Seth's attitude is throwing me for a loop. First he seemed hurt when he found out I was married and now he's being all weird about me having a child.

"Wow. I...I didn't know."

"Lani, this is Seth. He's a new friend of ours," I interrupt them, introducing my daughter.

"Hi Sethy!" She smiles and I can tell she likes him already.

"Seth, this is Lani. It's short for Alana."

"Hi, Lani. Wow, you're really pretty just like your mom."

I can feel my cheeks flushing as he flashes Lani a lopsided smile, stretching his hand out for her to shake. His awkward movement tells me that either he's really nervous or he hasn't been around a lot of kids, but he's trying and he's being so sweet so it's okay.

"Well, we've gotta go now, but it was nice meeting you, Cohen. My number's on here," I say, handing him one of my business cards.

"And here's mine. Also, if you keep up with online blogs, I've got one," Taylor adds, sounding a little too excited.

"I do keep up with blogs," He blushes. I can tell Seth likes Taylor just as much as she seems to like him.

"Oh, yay! Well let me give you the url!" She scribbles down her web address and e-mail and hands it to him as we begin walking towards the exit.

"We'll talk to you soon."

"Okay, talk to you fine ladies soon. And I feel good about this! Looks like the cosmos are finally aligning and everything's going to be A-okay. And bye, little lady," He waves to Lani and I chuckle at what he said. He's certainly a one of a kind. That's for sure.

"Bye, Sethy," Lani coos, and I have to admit, I feel good about this new friendship too.


And we both know how—how we're going to make it work when it hurts.

When you pick yourself up you get kicked to the dirt,

Trying to make it work, but man these times are hard

"How'd I get dragged into this again?" I ask, shutting the passenger door to Luke's truck and stretching out my right leg. God it hurts. "You know I'm not really into... live music."

"You're not getting outta this. You never go out. You need this. Besides, even the doctor said you shouldn't stay cooped up in the house and we're already here," Luke counters. My fucking leg is killing me, and I can feel a bead of sweat drip down my forehead as I start walking towards our destination—if you can even call it walking. I'm beginning to regret not bringing my cane.

Luke must notice my discomfort because he asks, "Didn't you take your drugs today?"

I give him my best glare. I hate when he refers to my medication as drugs. I know he doesn't mean it like that, but for some reason a light bulb always flashes in my head when I hear the word. I just automatically associate it with all things negative. My uncle did heroin. Dawn was an alcoholic and got addicted to several uppers to balance her downer-phase. My fucking poor excuse for a dad was addicted to crystal meth. Trey did a lot of coke. Those are drugs. Vicodin? Okay, so yes, someone can get addicted to it, but I only take the amount I'm supposed to, and it's prescribed. It's not harming anybody, and it's the only medication so far that has brought me any kind of relief. I just wish it didn't make me feel so buzzed and drowsy when I'm on it. You can't exactly get a lot done when you're falling asleep.

"If you're referring to my meds, then yes, Doc. I took them this morning," I answer, annoyed.

"No wonder you're so grumpy," He snorts.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Chino, man... I love you, but you should see yourself when you're on that shit. It makes you look high as a kite. When you're not on it? The Grouch, definitely. Anyway, it's good that you took it this morning. It's obviously wearing off by now and—"

"How is that a good thing?" I wince, stepping onto my bad leg. He opens the door and I limp into the pub behind him. "Can we sit down already?"

"That bad, huh? You seemed fine just minutes ago," He frowns. "I thought you were having a good day. The pain didn't seem that bad earlier."

"Yeah, well... that was before I spent half an hour cramped in your stupid truck...," I mutter.

"Hey, don't insult Black Beauty. And you agreed to come. Besides, you need to get out more. Live a little."

"I still can't believe you named your truck. And I agreed to come because as much as I hate to admit it, you can be pretty damn persuasive," I say, scanning the spacious, dim-lit room for a place to sit. "It's cool though... just... let's please sit down."

My eyes focus in on an unoccupied booth in the far left corner and Luke must catch on because he pats me on the back and begins walking in that direction.

"Sorry, man. Let me put you out of your misery," He replies, slowing his pace so that I can keep up with him. I turn my head just enough to catch the thoughtful glance he sends my way, and after reaching the booth, we get settled and begin talking.

"So this is the Bait Shop?" I ask, my eyes wandering around the room and taking in my surroundings. It's noisy in here, and the band playing is giving me a mild headache, but other than that it's okay.

"Yeah, it was my high school hang out spot. I thought it would be cool to finally take you here. Show you how my world used to be. You like?"

I shrug my shoulders. "It's cool."

"So how'd it go with Mr. Cohen?" He changes the subject.

"Good."

"Very descriptive, Chino."

"He gave me the signed paperwork and we talked. He's a nice guy," I shrug, not in the mood to go into detail right now about my conversation with Sandy. I'll tell Luke eventually, but I'm too drained at the moment and all I can think about is Summer.

"Great! So it worked out. By the way, when exactly is Summer coming back?"

I draw in a deep breath and shift my weight in the bar stool so that I am facing him. Almost absentmindedly tapping my fingers against the concrete counter top, I answer: "Not sure. She says she's coming back with Lani tomorrow evening, but..."

"But you worry she may not," He finishes my thought and I slowly nod.

Just as he's about to say something else, a curvacious woman with shoulder length blonde hair approaches our table. Her short black dress and high heels look great on her, but I can tell it's work attire. She must be a bartender.

"Hey babe," Luke flirts. Still facing the mysterious woman, I quickly glance over at Luke through my peripheral vision and fight to suppress laughter as he swallows hard, visibly turned on by her.

"Hey, yourself," She teases. "So, Luke. You brought a friend." Interesting. So she knows him already.

She looks me up and down and says in a sultry voice, "I approve."

Since I'm not used to being complimented in this town, I can feel my cheeks turning red, but not even seconds later, my stomach churns with guilt. Summer's the only woman I have eyes for.

Luke meets my gaze and frowns a little bit. I'm guessing it's because he notices how uncomfortable and out of place I'm feeling right about now.

"Already taken," He answers her flatly, giving me a knowing smile and relieving the tension.

"I know. Summer's very lucky to have you," The blonde woman smiles, and I can tell she's being genuine. I'm not sure how she knows I'm married to Summer unless Luke told her something, but given how gossip spreads around this town, I guess everybody knows.

"Jess Sathers," She introduces herself, holding out a hand for me to shake.

"Ryan Atwood," I reply, returning the handshake.

"I'm one of the bartenders here. Luke and I went to high school together," She clues me in on how they know each other. I nod in understanding, giving her a weak smile.

"So can I get you guys anything?" She asks, winking at Luke.

"Yeah, can we have two beers please? Corona Extra?" He asks.

"Luke–"

"Come on, Chino. It'll loosen you up a little," He insists. I think he realizes that's not what I'm worried about because he adds, "It's on me."

I sigh and give Jess a tight smile.

"Okay," I agree. It's a nice gesture on Luke's part—not that I'd expect anything different. He's always trying to get me to go out and have a little bit of fun, and it's cool that he always remembers which beverages I like. My mom sure as hell didn't.

"Damn, she's hot," Luke says as Jess walks away. I roll my eyes.

"Then why don't you go out with her?" I ask, quirking an eyebrow. "She seems nice enough."

"We'll see," He replies. "She was into drugs and was crazy wild back in high school, but she's really changed... really mellowed out. She got her life together and went to USC. Now she works here on the weekends, but she manages a little clothing boutique on the weekdays."

"That's really cool, man. It's about time you get a girl and settle down anyway. I'm all for it."

"Yeah?" He asks, clearly seeking my approval.

"Yes. Definitely."

"Thanks," He says. "You know, I take your advice very seriously."

"Glad to hear it," I smile.

Almost on cue, Jess returns with our beers and flirts a little more with Luke before leaving to attend to another customer.

"So what else is on your mind?" Luke meets my gaze, concerned.

After a few swigs of cold beer, I'm definitely feeling a little bit more relaxed and open so I decide to tell him everything.

"I'm scared she's gonna leave me," I answer honestly. "For good. I keep thinking that one day I'm going to get home and she and Lani will be out of my life forever."

"Come on, Chino. She's not gonna leave you."

"How do you know?" I scratch the back of my head, feeling my jaw clench nervously.

"Because I saw her in the mall today before I came here," He assures me.

"You were in the mall?" I raise an eyebrow, surprised. "Doing what?"

"My mom's in town for the week and asked me to pick up some lotion for her."

"You talked to Summer?" I ask probably a little too quickly. I don't want Luke to notice how desperate I'm feeling.

"No. I saw her with Taylor and Lani. But she stood up for you, man. You shoulda seen it. A couple of Newpsies were putting you down and Summer went off on them. The last thing she yelled is that she'd never divorce you."

I really don't know what to say to that. I don't know what to say or even what I'm actually feeling right now, but I'd imagine it's a combination of bewilderment, pride, relief, and doubt among other things.

"Wha—what?" I manage to say.

"Dude, you should see your face right now," Luke snickers. "But seriously, you have nothing to worry about. I saw it with my very own eyes. She loves you, man. She's in love with you. She won't leave you."

"Wow. She did that, huh?" I ask as the realization hits me. She stood up for me even when people of power in the community were putting me down. I admit I had been a little worried that she'd choose her reputation over me if things got to be too bad. Now I feel like an ass for ever doubting her.

"Yeah, she did. So what else is on your mind?" He asks, finally beginning to sip on his beer.

"Well, I want to do something special for her, and I want it to be a surprise. When she comes back tomorrow, she'll have the time of her life. She deserves it."

"You know, instead of Chino, I should probably call you the Romantic," Luke jokes.

"I'm not...romantic." It's true. I don't see myself as a romantic guy. I just...care. That's all.

"Yeah, that's why you're blushing right now," He laughs.

"I'm not..."

"For Chrissakes, man... you proposed to her at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary—giving her a strawberry cheese cake that read "Summer Roberts, will you marry me?" in fancy chocolate letters."

"Well I was proposing to her. That's kind of a big deal... and she loves sea otters and strawberry cheesecake is her favorite..."

"My point exactly," Luke snorts. "You care enough about her feelings to know everything she likes and go out of your way to rock her world. That's romantic. I always knew you were a girl at heart." He's really taking this whole 'romantic' thing too far.

"Calling me a girl, Ward? That's not the way to forge a bond." I glare at him. Maybe that'll get him to shut up.

"Dude, you like The Notebook."

"Hey, that was a good—never mind," I catch myself before he can tease me any further. "Summer made me watch it."

"I'm sure she did," Luke teases.

"Okay, I'm about to kick your ass if you keep this up."

"Yeah, but if you kick my ass, then you're on your own with this shit," He smirks.

"You've got a point," I sigh. "Okay, but no more girl jokes. And don't use the 'R' word. My right leg might be fucked up, but I can still club you with my right fist."

He throws his hands up in mock surrender – feigning fear, and we both share a laugh.

"Alright, so how are we going to do this?" He asks.

"Well the first time Summer and I had dinner together, I made her tortellini alla panna and..."

"Dude. To this day I still don't get where you learned to cook all this shit. You should be on Iron Chef or something."

"I worked in an Italian restaurant back in Chino," I shrug. "Anyway, so we can get a couple bottles of Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's."

"What the hell is that?"

"It's the wine we had on our first date," I snort. Of course Luke wouldn't know about cheap wine. He's from Newport. "It's Charles Shaw wine. It's actually pretty high quality, but it costs $2 a bottle – hence the name."

"Okay, so I help you get the wine and ingredients for dinner and what else?"

"Her favorite flowers are purple dahlias. We can pick up a bouquet... and some purple rose pedals too."

"Purple?" He asks. "Why not red?"

"What do you think, man? Purple is her favorite color."

"You know, for someone who grew up having one night stands, you put me to shame when it comes to the ladies."

"It's called research. Theresa taught me some stuff too."

"Yeah, I remember when you introduced me to her at your wedding. She's got a killer rack, dude."

I give him a dirty look, and he busts out laughing. "What? It's true," He adds.

"Whatever. Anyway, so we good? I think we covered everything."

"What about dessert?" He asks, finishing off his beer.

"Strawberry cheesecake, of course," I smile, thinking about the day I proposed to my wife.

"Alright, then let's hit the road."

TBC.