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Contents Copyright NOTE Want To Be In The Know? Return of The Bad Boy by Paige North Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Bonus Content: SMITH (The Beckett Boys, Book One) by Olivia Chase 1.


















10. Smith

11. Aubrey 12. Smith 13. Aubrey

Copyright Š 2016 by Favor Ford Publishing All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. Created with Vellum


This edition of Return of the Bad Boy contains the following bonus content: Smith (The Beckett Boys, Book 1), a standalone romance novel by Olivia Chase.


you want to know when the next Paige North book is released, and get alerted to the hottest I fdeals in romance—sign up now to the Favor Ford Romance newsletter!



sitting on Route 667 in a torrential downpour, trying to get the engine of my VW bug to turn I ’m over and wondering why life has decided to just kick me in the shins yet again. I didn’t want to even come back here in the first place, and especially not for the reason I’m obligated to return. It’s just my luck to have my car call it quits not ten miles from home, on the busiest drag around, though that isn’t saying much in a town with two stoplights. Still, the few cars that are behind me swerve around me, some of them laying on their horns, as if it’s my choice to be broken down in the middle of the road. Friesville people can be real assholes sometimes. I should know, because I’m one of them. Or at least, I used to be. I take a deep breath and fight hard to keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks. No, professional, mature city women do not cry over things like this. They handle drama with poise and grace. Drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, I collect my thoughts. Then I reach for my wallet. The Auto Club card my parents gifted me with on the day I left for Boston College is tucked in the back, behind my company ID and driver’s license and Starbucks card, because I’ve never had to use it until now. Dialing the number, I draw in a few deep, cleansing breaths. “Hi, I need a tow,” I say when the cheerful service agent answers. “My car won’t start.” I tell her my location (out in the sticks, with pretty much nothing worth seeing or doing for miles and miles). “Actually, hon, you’re in luck. There’s a garage right down the street.” I’d hardly call that luck. She’s referring, of course, to Harding’s Garage, which, if there wasn’t a forest between us, I could probably see from this very spot. Yep, I guess if someone really wanted to break down in the middle of nowhere, this is the place to do it. Except . . . “Isn’t there another one?” I ask hopefully. I mean, new businesses spring up all the time. Is it really out of the question to hope that a new garage might have opened nearby? She makes a tut-tut noise. “Oh. No. I’m sorry. Not one for another thirty miles.” I sigh loudly. Of course, it is really out of the question to think that a new garage might have opened to give the Hardings some competition. This isn’t Boston, it’s Friesville. People here aren’t exactly enterprising. In Friesville, time stands still. Nothing new ever happens. I gnaw my thumbnail and consider my options. “So, that one that’s thirty miles away . . . could you

call them?” “Well, dear,” she says doubtfully. “I’m sorry, but that will be an additional two-hundred dollar fee, plus mileage, since it’s out of your local area.” Of course. I do a mental tally of my checking account and remember I’d overdrawn it last week buying Thai food for Fowler’s late-night work meeting, and he still hasn’t paid me back. My eyes trail out the window, to the thick dark forest lining the narrow road. The rain has slowed slightly, but the sky’s getting darker, and rain has begun pattering the windshield. “Um. I just had a bad experience with Hardings,” I finally sputter to the agent. Not them. Him. Dax Harding. Even thinking his name hurts my stomach. And it wasn’t just bad. Sardines are bad. Gum on the bottom of your shoe is bad. What’s the word for bad to the extreme? Bad to the thousandth power? “Is that so? Hardings has a five star rating here. Well, I can put a note in their file so that—” “Oh, no, don’t.” The fact is, every one of those five stars was earned. The Hardings live and breathe cars. They’d saved my 18-year old hunk of junk VW from the scrap pile countless times. In fact, people from other towns even ship their fancy sport scars in to Friesville to get the Harding boys to work on them. If the Hardings can’t get a vehicle working again, no one can. And isn’t the definition of maturity putting aside childish fears and dealing with shit when it hits you? I just need to grow up, stop thinking of myself, and get this done. I let out a deep, deep sigh. “Forget it. Fine. Just call them.” “Will do, hon. Just sit tight and they’ll be out to get you ASAP.” That’s what I’m afraid of, I almost say, but restrain myself. When I get off the phone, a panic attack hits me full force. Suddenly, my mind whirls. My pulse is thudding in my ears and racing out of control. I throw the phone on the front passenger’s seat and reach for my make-up bag on the center console, halfwondering if it was possible to make myself look human again and half-wondering if I can hide in the trunk. All I manage to do is swipe some lip gloss over my bottom lip before I catch sight of two headlights coming toward me. My entire body’s so wound up like a top that my vocal chords shudder and I let out a mouse like squeak as the truck rumbles toward me, U-turns, and pulls onto the gravel shoulder ahead of me. I quickly zip up my make-up bag and toss it into my overnight satchel, then pick through the jeans and t-shirts I’d hastily packed when I’d gotten my parents’ call last night. Oh, hell. I forgot underwear. Just then, there’s a quiet rapping on the window. The Harding family’s well known in this town, though not exactly in a good way, but I’ve never had a problem with any of them. There’s Cal, and the twins, Eric and Tom. Vincent, the youngest, is probably in high school by now. Sure, they’ve given me dirty looks because of who my parents are, but they know cars, really well. All of them are roughand-tumble, wrong-side-of-the-track boys, with a penchant for drinking too much and raising a little hell, but they’re not total assholes. Not like their eldest brother. But it isn’t Cal or Vincent or Eric or Tom, standing outside my car in the pouring rain. It’s the textbook definition of asshole, and the biggest mistake of my life. Dax Harding.


me this slow, easy smile and motions for me to roll down the window. H e gives It’s just a window, I know. But it also feels like the last bastion separating me from certain doom. The fortress walls are crumbling. The second I roll it down, I’m a goner. But what choice do I have? Slowly, I reach down and crank the handle. He’s the same Dax Harding I remember so vividly, only deadlier. His chin is full of dark stubble, and his lean physique has filled in, in all the right places. He has a new tattoo on his forearm, some sort of reptile, snaking up under the sleeve of his white-t-shirt. That t-shirt is almost see-through now, because the rain has gone from a drizzle to something more consistent, but Dax seemingly couldn’t care less about the bad weather. He’s always been the type of guy you have to stare at, usually with an open mouth. There’s a definite reason why he was the object of so many of my teenage fantasies, and believe me, it has nothing to do with his ability to recite Shakespeare. “If it isn’t Katie Donahue,” he sing-songs, giving me a little smirk. He’s not nearly as uncomfortable as I am, but he sure is just as bitter. Not that he has any reason to be. “Never thought you’d turn up again. Especially in this car. I thought for sure you’d have traded this in years ago,” he says, eyeing me and the car all at once. “Hey Dax,” I breathe out raggedly, focusing straight ahead. I can’t very well look at his face for any length of time. He has green eyes. Green freaking eyes, like, mountain-lake, emerald green. Those eyes have this magnetic, hypnotizing power that’s nearly lethal. And I’m not going to let them work their magic on me today. “What seems to be the problem?” he says in a low voice, and I have to cough to suppress the animal groan that nearly escapes my lips. I’d forgotten the effect his voice has on me. It used to echo in the deepest parts of me back then, but now, it’s even lower, and impossibly sexy. I feel a strange fluttering down low, beneath my abdomen. I press my legs together under the steering wheel and pray he doesn’t notice how he gets to me. Of course he notices. Dax Harding likes to play it dumb, but he’s not. He notices everything. No. I’m not letting it happen. I’m not letting a Grade-A asshole like Dax Harding get the better of me. “I don’t know,” I say, sarcasm making my tone bite. “Could it be something to do with my car sitting in the middle of the road, not moving?” He puts his hands up in surrender. “Well, well, well, look who’s gone and got herself a brand new saucy attitude to go with those fancy clothes.” I scowl, though I’m secretly happy he noticed my clothing. I hope it screams I moved on, and I’m

nothing like you loud enough. I hope he knows how much better my life is without him in it. “I don’t have an attitude. I’ve driven a long way, and I’m tired, and I just want to get home. Look.” I turn the ignition and it makes the same sputter-sputter-sputter-dying horse whinny noise. “Do you know what that is?” “Yeah.” He starts to explain, as my phone dings. I hold up a finger and inspect the display. I see the name Fowler and every hair on the back of my neck stands at attention. As in, Evan Fowler, douchebag attorney extraordinaire at Banks and Hoffman, who also happens to be my boss. Shit. Shit. Shit. I don’t need this. This can’t be my life right now. Sitting in front of the guy who screwed me worse than I’ve ever been screwed, while my dick boss rides my ass from three states away. I look up at him, completely distracted. “What?” His eyes are narrowed at the phone. “Who changed your oil last?” I shrug. I can’t remember back that far. Actually, with Dax standing next to me, a solid, 6-foot-five wall of tattooed muscles, I’m surprised I can remember my own name. “I don’t know. I don’t really use my car much in the city.” “Oh, right. City girl, huh? New York?” “Boston,” I answer automatically, before the shock can creep in. Everyone who lives in Friesville knows everyone’s business. Does he really not know where I’ve been the past four years, making something of myself while the rest of Friesville just rots? Or does he not care? “I never thought I’d see Little Blue again,” he says, lovingly patting the rusty bucket of shit known as my car. One thing about Dax is that he makes it no secret, he likes cars better than people. And he and his family are big on nicknames. They nickname everything and everyone. Suddenly it springs into my head, the nickname he used to call me. I want to pound on my head and shake it out, but instead, it blossoms. I know it’s going to infect my head like a disease. Everything Dax has ever said and done has had a way of burrowing itself into my cranium. He’s still talking about the car. “That’s guts, girl. I can’t believe the Donahues let their baby cross several state lines in this. I thought for sure they’d insist you get something with a five-star crash rating and air-bags out the ass.” The truth is, even before I went away to school, my VW was on its last legs. My parents had considered getting me a new car but it eventually became a non-issue, since the T took me everywhere I needed to go. So I’d left my VW in my parents’ garage. I’d only had my parents bring it up to me three months ago, when I graduated and had to go on the job hunt. They’d wanted to buy me something new, but I told them, mature woman that I was, that they should save their meager teacher’s salaries and let me work for it. That was back when I had the world at my fingertips. When I was young and, obviously, stupid. Those idealistic dreams crashed about two minutes after I started working at Banks and Hoffman. At the current salary I’m making, I’d have to work, oh, a hundred years to be able to afford something decent. But Dax doesn’t need to know any of that, and I’m determined to keep it that way. I thrust my chin into the air. “This car is just fine. Cars never impressed me. They’re just a way to get from Point A to Point B,” I say, knowing it’s the one thing guaranteed to rile him up. It doesn’t work. He lets out a short laugh. “You haven’t quite made it to Point B, yet, Katydid.” Ugh. There it is. The nickname. I cringe inwardly, trying to think of a witty retort. Nothing comes.

“Ha, ha,” I say. Brilliant comeback. And now I’m blushing. FML. Just then, my phone dings again. I look at it. Fowler wants to know why I haven’t been answering him. Perfect. I start to jab in a reply when suddenly Dax snaps his fingers at me. He yanks open the door and hooks a finger toward me, beckoning me out. The last thing I want to do is to come closer to him, but I guess I have no choice. I swing my legs out from under the steering wheel and step outside as the sky lets out another burst of cold wet rain, dampening my skin as I push a ropey wet lock of blonde hair out of my face. I’d had it in a slick city updo, about a million years ago, but now the style is probably more like cavewoman. I can feel his eyes roaming the length of my body, stopping at my pumps. Since Friesville is a farming community, shitkickers are considered perfectly appropriate footwear for church, weddings, formal dinners. Probably the last time someone wore business attire here, it was 1979. I’d done it on purpose, so I could show everyone in this town just how mature and worldly I’ve become. I’m projecting hot, successful and way beyond Dax Harding’s reach. Fake it until you make it, right? Well, it’s not exactly having the effect I’d hoped. He manages to look better, with his white-t-shirt matted against his muscled chest and his dark hair tumbling over those hypnotizing eyes of his. I look down toward my toes, because I can’t look anywhere near him without being flooded with memories and realize that my silky shift is also starting to hug itself against my body, and my bra isn’t doing nearly enough to hide the fact that my nipples are as hard as peanuts. I try to be casual about crossing my arms over my chest but it only draws his eyes right there. Goosebumps pop up like daisies on my arms. He starts to say something, but my phone dings again. I look down at it, but there are raindrops on the display, so I can’t quite make out the message before, to my shock, he grabs it out of my hand and mimes like he’s going to throw it into the forest. I reach for my cell. “Don’t you dare!” He shakes his head. “So you’re one of those people who are more attached to their phones than their own brains, now, huh?” “I have to deal with my boss,” I explain, reaching for it. He yanks it just out of reach again, the bastard, playing a childish little game with me. I say, as if I’m speaking to an ESL student, “You know, my supervisor? For my job?” He drops the phone in my waiting palm, still shaking his head, like he’s disappointed in me. And why should he be? Having a job and responsibilities is terrible while going out and drinking all night and screwing conquest after conquest is a great thing? How did we ever get together? And then I remember how and why. It was a long time ago and we were just teenagers. “Now what?” I ask, hardening my voice, and right then I make a resolution. I’m going to do it. I’m going to look into his eyes and prove that Dax Harding doesn’t have any power over me anymore. I raise my eyes up to that well-muscled chest, past the chiseled jaw, to his perfectly kissable lips. And then I laugh. His lips are red. Not lipstick red, but the red of a little boy who’s just finished a cherry ice. “Are you still eating those things?” I ask, as his brow furrows. He realizes what I’m laughing at and quickly wipes at his lips. Scowling, he reaches inside my car, grabs my bag, and shoves it into my arms. “You go and sit your ass in my truck while I get it hitched.” Caught off guard in these shoes, which don’t mix really well with the terrain, I stumble a little,

then take the bag, and heft it onto my shoulder. I take a step toward the cab of the shiny red Harding Garage truck, and nerves creep in. I have to be alone, in that truck, with him? Oh, hell no. I stop short. “Wait, what? You didn’t even look under the hood. Maybe it’s something you can—“ “I can what?” He’s staring me, incredulous. “Wave my magic wand over and fix?” “Well, you’re the Car God.” He holds up a hand and stalks to the front of the VW. He hefts it open and stares at it for a beat, two, pretending to consider it. Then he crashes it closed. “Nope. I can’t undo the shit that happens when people don’t take care of their cars.” “Thanks for the lecture, Dad,” I mumble. “You always did treat Little Blue like trash,” he admonishes. And, car-obsessed freak that he is, he’s back to petting my car. The car has officially gotten more action from him than I ever have. Not that I care. He holds out a finger and preaches, “You love your car . . .” I roll my eyes. “I know, I know,” I say, finishing the lecture he’s told me about a thousand times. “It’ll love you back. But you obviously love it enough for the both of us. And anyway, I did do regular maintenance. Just like--” I stop. I can’t say that it’s just like he taught me. I don’t want him to think I actually remember everything he told me all those years ago. After all, he didn’t even care to know what city I’d moved to. He lets out an exasperated sigh and now he’s looking at my VW as if it’s a terminal patient. “But you obviously used a shit Pep Boys wannabe mechanic for your oil changes and got taken advantage of. Now your lines are all clogged up and I gotta take it in to get it unclogged so the pump’ll work. Got it?” His face is so serious now, like I personally insulted him. But as far as I can recall, he was the one who screwed me over. “Fine,” I say, looking at my phone. I thrust my chin into the air and plant my feet. “Forget the ride. Just tow my car. I’ll get a ride with my parents and call the garage in the morning to find out the damage.” His expression softens. “Come on, Katydid.” He reaches out to put a hand on my arm, but then must think better of it, because he stops. I stare at his hand, frozen mid-way between us. “Look. I was joking. You never could take a joke.” “Joke? It sounded like you were accusing me of murdering my car.” “Come on, come on. Don’t bug your parents. Just let me drive you home.” “That’s not my home,” I remind him. He nods and his face looks slightly pained. “Right. I know. Figure of speech.” Part of me feels a fleeting pang of sadness as I see the look in his eyes, and I try my best to brush it off and forge ahead. “Okay, you can drive me, but only if your promise not to keep lecturing me about what a bad job I did with my car.” “I won’t say a word, seeing as how everything I say gets you pissed.” He zips his lips and holds up his three fingers, scouts’ honor, as if a guy like Dax would ever be caught dead in a Boy Scout uniform. He kicks the tire with the toe of his workman’s boot, and an uncomfortable silence ensues. I look down at the display of my phone, containing my half-typed apology to Fowler. Just then, the screen goes blank. I jab at it, trying to remember how much charge I had. But my phone is old; even if it was fully charged before I left Boston, with my GPS running, it’s probably lost most of it by now. Shit. Shit. Shit.

“Thanks,” I say, mumbling a little. Hefting the bag higher on my shoulder, I march onto the shoulder, where his truck is. My pumps squish through muddy puddles and gravel pings my ankles, but I soldier on, determined to hold him to that promise of not saying another word to me for the rest of the ride. And the truth is, I’m being like this because I have to stay strong or else I might break, and I can’t let Dax know that. I can’t ever let him see how weak he makes me. Suddenly the enormous weight on my shoulder eases a little. He’s behind me, trying to take the bag off my shoulder. Alarms sound in my head. Too close. So close I can feel the head radiating from his body. I knew he had some manners buried in there somewhere, but it’s those manners that get women everywhere to drop their panties for him. And I refuse to be taken in by them. I tear the bag away from him and swat his hand away. “What? I can’t—“ He stops when he sees the wrath in my eyes. He backs away and points to my VW. “Okay, I’ll just get the hitch.” “Just . . . remember your promise. No talking,” I mumble, thinking, Let’s do this in double time. The sooner we do, the sooner I can be away from him. And I need to be away from him. After all, escaping my parents wasn’t the only reason I left Friesville. In fact, it wasn’t even the biggest reason. No, the biggest reason was Dax Harding.


it being the dead of summer, the ten-mile ride up Callow’s Hill Road to my house is D espite decidedly icy. Or maybe that’s just because Dax insists on blowing the AC full-blast, right at my face and bare arms. The boy has always had a temperature problem. He’s hot, literally. His skin is always on fire, unlike mine. We went to the movies once, and I sat with my legs and hands piled on top of his, to ward off the arctic air in the Forum theater. I find myself thinking of the way he used to sit in the driver’s seat, just like he’s doing now, and snake his warm fingers under my hairline and tickle the back of my neck. If anyone else tried that, it would’ve annoyed me. But something about Dax Harding’s callused mechanic’s fingers, that rugged, intoxicating smell of oil and grease that used to burrow itself in his every pore… No. Stop thinking about him. Remember how hard you worked to forget. You can’t fall back into old habits now. He’ll be gone soon and then you can pretend this was all just a dream and get back to your real life. Except that real life and my real job haven’t exactly been going so well either, lately. I shake off the old memories and anxieties and drum my fingers on the armrest in tune to some country song playing softly through the truck’s speakers. We are so different, it’s hard to believe I never saw it before. Everyone was shocked when we became a couple, the nerdy good-girl and the jaded bad-boy. It’s just like my parents kept telling me: We have absolutely nothing in common. Despite myself, I venture another look over at Dax. He has his arm hooked easily over the wheel and is mouthing the words to the song, looking out at the tree line as if it’s the most glorious thing he’s ever seen. The thing is, Friesville is trees. Trees and farms. And that’s it. There is barely anything new anywhere. It’s completely smothering. And yet this boy obviously can’t get enough of it. I can’t help it. I laugh. He is kind of cute when he’s peaceful like this, which makes me instinctively want to poke him. He looks over at me, confused, an amused smile creeping over his face. I wait for him to ask me what I’m laughing about, but he doesn’t. So I say, “You are such a hick.” He narrows his eyes at me, but doesn’t say a word. I realize it’s because he promised not to talk, and that only makes me laugh harder. Finally he speaks and his voice is strong and confident, as always. “Just because I’m not dressed up like some dog’s dinner, like you? You’ve spent too much time in the city, Katydid.” I reach over and change the radio station. It’s mostly static, but then I get something guaranteed to annoy him: Celine Dion.

He winces as if in physical pain. “You didn’t just touch my radio.” “Yeah. Um. This song rocks. Titanic? Only one of the greatest movies ever.” He’s staring at me as if I just announced my decision to shave my head and join a cult. “Do it again, and this hick is going to hog-tie you,” he says, switching it back. “Hmm. Not a Leo fan, I see.” He stares straight ahead. “I don’t watch chick flicks.” “It’s not a chick flick. There’s action and adventure. Spoiler: The ship hits an iceberg. Chaos ensues.” He’s giving me a warning look, but his eyes drift down to my chest. “If it’s anything like that song, no thanks, darlin’. I don’t want my eyes bleeding, along with my ears.” I’d been sitting there rigidly, with my arms folded over my chest, but I must’ve gotten too comfortable and let my guard down. Because of the frigid air blowing right at me, my nipples are still hard. I quickly cross my arms back over my chest. I can not get comfortable with Dax Harding. That’s the worst thing I could possibly do. I cross my legs tightly to hide the sea of goose bumps on them, but he catches that, too. “What. You nervous?” “No, of course not,” I snap. “Cold. It’s like the frozen tundra in this cab. I think I saw a polar bear back there, trying to hitch a ride.” “Oh. Why didn’t you say something?” He reaches down and turns off the air, sounding genuinely apologetic. That’s the closest thing to an apology I’ll ever get from him. When he removes his hand, it grazes my knee for a split second, sending fireworks straight up to my center. I flinch. He should not be allowed to make me feel that way, after all this time. He notices my reaction, too, and clears his throat. “How long are you in town for?” “Just a week.” He reaches across to the glove compartment and pops it open with his fist. An assortment of lollipops greet me. “Blow pop?” I shake my head, stunned to see such a blast from the past. Dax started smoking when he was twelve, because his dad was too busy drinking his life away to care much about him and his younger siblings. The first time he kissed me, I wanted to take the focus off the obvious fact that he was my first kiss, so I told him that I hated cigarette smoke, even though truthfully, I’d never felt or tasted anything so amazing. The next day, he told me he’d given up smoking. He went and got himself a bunch of lollipops to suck on, whenever he had a craving. One of the many things he’d done to contradict the Dax Harding reputation everyone always whispered about. But as it turned out, those nice things he did? Lies, all lies. “Are you still having cravings?” I ask as he closes the glove compartment and unwraps the candy. “Cravings?” He shakes his head and pops the head of the lollipop into his mouth. “Why, are you?” “For what?” He gives me a long, appraising look that makes me flush, but I look away and snort, trying to cover the fact that I’m weakening as we speak. “For you?” I scoff. “No. Please.” “Yeah? So what brings you back here after all this time?” he asks. “You had to find out what I was up to, right?” He’s kidding, being the jokester he always used to be, which makes me smile, even though the truth isn’t far off. I have thought of him. Often. More often than is healthy. In fact, during my first year

away, all I did was have this pathetic fantasy that he’d show up at my dorm, telling me he couldn’t live without me. I shake my head. “Sorry to disappoint, but no.” “Admit it. You staged the breakdown just so you could see me again.” I have to laugh. “No, it’s not that.” “Then what is it?” Dread pools in my stomach as we pull up to my little ranch house. My parents hate Dax. I know, hate is a strong word, but in this case, it fits. My father is big on protecting me, but he’s also big on me being happy, so if there’s something I really want, he can usually be counted on to cave and let me have it. But the last time my father and I discussed Dax Harding, my dad used a phrase he’d never used before or since: I forbid it. In fact, my father’s never called Dax just Dax, or even Dax Harding. It’s always, always been “That Dax Harding”, as if there are a dozen other ones living in town. As in, I don’t know what you see in That Dax Harding. You’re selling yourself short, spending time with That Dax Harding. Dax is obviously thinking the same because he doesn’t even pull into the driveway. He idles in the center of Callow Hill Road, grabs a Phillies cap that’s stuffed in the visor, and screws it down over his ears. “Forgive me for not coming in,” he says, pulling the cherry lollipop from his lips with a smack. “I’ll give you a call tonight.” I clench my teeth, thinking of the many secret, hushed phone conversations I’d had with him while hidden behind the piles of old model railroad memorabilia in the basement. “But—“ “About your car,” he says. “I should be able to get it looked at right away.” “Oh. Right.” Stupid, Kath. Really stupid. As if on cue, the front door to my house swings open, and out pops my father’s balding head. Perfect. I can’t quite make out the expression on his face but I don’t have to. He has an expression reserved for Dax and Dax alone: eyes narrowed, lips are set in a straight line, face flushed like a red zit on the verge of popping. I swallow hard as my thoughts trail to the real reason I’m here. I think about telling Dax, but then I decide against it. He’s history, and he needs to stay that way. The less he knows about my life right now, the better. I gnaw on my lip as I push open the door and slide out of the seat. He reaches into the back and hands me my bag. “Don’t wait for me to get inside,” I mutter. “Just go, okay?” He’s staring at my dad, who looks like he’s about to shoot death-lasers from his eyes. Dax gives a little wave and a sly smile. “Yeah. See you later, Katydid.” Oh, that nickname. It did me in, every time. He used to say it mockingly: Katy did’n do nothin’ bad. But then every time he’d coax me to doing something just a little bit dangerous, like sneaking out to meet him under the tree outside the house, he’d cock his head to the side, grin mischievously, and say, Katie did. What else can Katie do? And now his green eyes lock with mine, and I can’t help the way it forces the air out of my lungs. I open the door and step outside, and I know something for sure. I need to stay away from this man. Far away. If I don’t, I’m going to fall harder than I did last time. And last time? It was a disaster.



he rain has pretty much stopped as I step out at the curb of the home I grew up in. Dax’s tow truck growls to life and grinds slowly away. I force myself not to look after his truck as he drives off, try my best not to be aware of the churning ache in my chest and stomach as I experience the sense of loss when he’s gone. Just a few minutes of seeing him, hearing his voice, and I’m back, as if I’ve stepped into a time machine. Back to being in his grip, needing and wanting him all over again, the way I swore I’d never let myself feel again. I stand at the curb until there is nothing but the sound of the birds chattering in the tall trees surrounding our property. I walk up the long, puddled gravel driveway, bracing myself for the third degree to come. My father has disappeared from the front door, but that doesn’t mean the thought of Dax has disappeared from his head. No, more than likely it’s blooming in his head, turning into all these crazy scenarios in which That Dax Harding has corrupted his only child. The house hasn’t changed since Christmas, except now the Santa decoration on the roof is gone, the lawn is freshly mowed, my mother’s geraniums are popping up from the window boxes, and they’ve added a new red birdfeeder to the large oak at the side of the house. I met Dax at the base of that oak a dozen nights for hungry, forbidden kisses, his hot fingers skirting my ribs, searching desperately underneath my t-shirt . . . Shaking off that memory, I suck in a breath as I step onto the front porch. My father suddenly appears behind the screen door, popping it open and stepping outside. “Oh, Katie!” he says, as if he’s surprised to see me. He has a Robert Ludlum thriller in his hands and is using his finger to bookmark the place, but he wraps his other arm around me and gives me a kiss on the top of the head. I study him as he pulls away. I only saw him for graduation three months ago, but he’s changed since then. He has a smart new haircut and he looks thinner. When I’d spoken to mom a few months ago, she’d said he’d gotten pretty serious into exercising on the treadmill. But despite the new, fitter look, his eyes look . . . tired. Sad. Defeated. He pokes his head past me and searches down the hill, but Dax is long gone. “Was that a tow truck I saw?” Real smooth, dad. “Yeah, my car broke down.” “What? What’s wrong with your car?” He peers at me over his bifocals. “Why didn’t you call us?” “I don’t know. But I can handle it. I called the auto club and they sent Dax out,” I explain breezily,

but I can already see my father’s body responding in the way it always does whenever Dax Harding’s name is mentioned: eyes firing up, posture tensing, fists clenching. I add quickly, “Don’t worry, Dad. He just gave me a ride.” He presses his lips together. “I told you . . .” Yes, he’s told me lots of things. And for the most part, I’ve always listened. He’s standing in front of the door so I can’t even escape past him into the house. I give him a friendly nudge. “Come on, Dad, it’s no big deal.” I look past him. “Where’s Mom?” He steps aside, then grabs my bag from me. “In the kitchen. We were expecting you for dinner, so she made your favorite. Summer stew.” I step into the foyer, inhaling the mouth-watering aroma of tomato sauce simmering with zucchini, and look around. My mother thinks decorating a house means filling every square inch of the walls with photographs, and since I’m their favorite subject, there are about two-dozen photos of me in this room, covering the flowered wallpaper. I walk past the leaded glass mirror and smile at the newest addition: a photo of the three of us from my college graduation. Then I catch a reflection of something in the mirror and frown. Boxes. Dozens of them, all packed up in the living room. All my father’s railroad memorabilia from down in the basement, packed and ready to go. This is why I’m home after all. My parents are splitting up. My mother told me the plan: She’s moving to a retirement community in Florida to live with my aunt, and he’s going to head out to Colorado to stay a few months with cousins. But it all sounded so surreal. Like I’d come back here and find out I’d made it all up in my head. The truth crashes around me. This is really happening. They’re moving out and leaving this place, my home. I whirl back around and realize my father is still staring out the door, as if Dax is hiding in the bushes, waiting to attack. “Dad, we’re losing AC,” I tell him, pushing the door closed. He nods and looks down at the book in his hands. “All right. You’re just . . . are you sure you and he weren’t . . .” I snort. “What? Getting it on in his truck?” I laugh at the ridiculousness of it, and wrap my arm around him. My dad’s a slight man, and only getting slighter as he ages. In my pumps, I’m taller than him. “Come on, you know he’s the only mechanic around. What else was I supposed to do?” “You could’ve—“ “I know. I could’ve called you. But what could you have done? You would’ve just had to call his garage, anyway. I just didn’t want to bother you, considering the. . .” I can’t bring myself to say those words. The divorce. His eyes fill with storm clouds for a moment, but before I can ask him how he is, he says, “So, you’re looking sharp. How’s the job, my big shot legal eagle? Are you getting those applications ready?” I force a smile. My dad will never be accused of having any fashion sense whatsoever, so “sharp” to him is anyone in decent shoes. And as much as I’d rather leave thoughts of my soul-crushing job behind, I can’t refuse to talk about it with my dad. Any time I get him on the phone, it’s the first thing he wants to talk about. He brags to all his friends that I’m the Smart Donahue who’s making it in the big city and going to take the legal world by storm, as if I’m soon going to be arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court or something. “Well, it’s—“

Before I can launch into my latest lie about how awesome it is, I hear my mother calling to me. Thank god. She appears in the doorway to the living room, throwing her hair into a ponytail. “Oh, hi, beautiful!” she says. She comes up close to me, smelling comfortingly like her floral perfume I know so well, and plants a kiss on my cheek. “What’s this about your car? It wasn’t an accident, was it?” I open my mouth to speak but my father quickly fills in: “No, Gloria. It broke down.” She doesn’t even look at him. “Oh, no. Are you all right?” she asks, sympathetic. Before I can answer, my father mumbles, “She got That Dax Harding to tow it. He just dropped her off.” All sympathy on my mom’s face turns to alarm. “Dax Harding was in our driveway?” It would sound much the same if she’d said Charles Manson was in our driveway? I head her off before that seed in her brain can take root. “It was just a quick tow, and believe me —that was even too much for me.” It’s not a total lie, but the reason it was too much for me is exactly the opposite of what my parents would want to hear. I keep that part to myself. “Anyway, enough about my broken car. What’s for dinner?” My father starts to say something about Dax, but luckily, I’ve managed to sway my mom off the Dax Conversation and to the thing she loves to concentrate on most: Feeding me. She holds up a hand to stop my dad from continuing the Dax topic. “Enough, Henry. She just got home and she’s hungry, can’t you see?” She’s scowling at him. I’ve never seen her look so totally hateful at another human being before, much less my dad, who she’s always gotten along with. They hardly ever fought before. In fact, she’d always tell me the story of how they met with stars in her eyes. They were both going for their Masters in Education at Penn State and were put together as study buddies in Child Development class. They were the type of parents who still held hands and kissed and gave each other lovey-dovey looks that made me squirm. Now, he swallows his words and bows in apology, which only makes me feel bad for him. He looks so . . . small. I shift my gaze between them, wondering if this awkward moment is going to be the first of many more this week. Suddenly, she tears her eyes from him and smiles lovingly at me, magically recovered. What the hell did I just witness? They’ve been married for thirty years. When did things get so goddamned chilly between them? But she’s back to my good old mom again, as we walk, arm in arm, to the kitchen. She pinches my side and says, “You’re getting skinny. And hasn’t anyone told you to be careful about wearing silk in the rain?” I groan. Yes, she has told me that little nugget of info, at least a hundred times. My mother heats up my stew in the microwave while I pull down earthenware bowl from the cupboard and get myself a Diet Coke. The aroma is more than heavenly, making my mouth water like a fountain. It’s also comforting. There’s a reason she thinks I’m getting skinny. Turns out, adulting is stressful. Not only that, eating Frosted Flakes as one’s only meal for seven days straight will do that to a person. And when my boss didn’t reimburse me when I fronted the money for one of our takeout orders, he threw my entire budget out of whack, and a quart of milk was all I could afford at the store. Mom brings the plate of food to me, I do my best not to inhale the entire plate in record time. My mother sits down next to me with a hot cup of tea and says, “What’s wrong with your car?” I shrug, then say, mouth still full, “It just died. I don’t know. He’s going to call with the damage

later.” She purses her lips. “Dax?” I nod. Oh, here it comes . . . She takes a sip of her tea. “You should let your father take care of it.” “Fine,” I say absently. What she’s worried about doesn’t matter. Dax doesn’t have my new cell phone number anyway. He won’t be able to call me directly, so he’ll have to call the old house phone. When he does, he can speak to my father and relay all the information to him. And as much as it pains me to do it, I’m intending to stay far away from him again, starting now. Yes, Dax makes my insides turn to Jell-O, which is exactly why I have to avoid him at all costs. She reaches over and touches my hand. “I meant it about Dax, honey. Really, you have to tread carefully when it comes to that boy.” I roll my eyes. “I know, mom. I got it. I’m not going to see Dax again. So just stop.” Maybe it’s the chilly atmosphere, but I think that’s a new record: getting into an argument with my mom in the first fifteen minutes of being home. I yawn. “I think I’m just tired. I’m going to head upstairs and turn in early.” The stern look on her face morphs to concern. She reaches over and tucks a stray hair behind my ear. “Okay, honey. Leave that dress in the hallway. I’ll see if anything can be done.” I put my bowl in the dishwasher, grab my bag, and head upstairs to my bedroom. When I get there, I pause in the doorway, where I’d measured my height from the time I was able to stand. There are dozens of little scrawlings in my improving handwriting, along with my age. I sigh. The funny thing is, when I left for college, I never worried for a second that my parents might turn my empty room into a sewing or exercise room. While other parents couldn’t wait for that chance, mine made it clear on the day I left for college that this would stay my room, period. Forever, end of story. It’s all white wicker and Laura Ashley lace in pale pink and mint green. My mother took me to a department store to pick it out when I turned eight. It’s mine. Even though I was just here for Christmas, somehow, the whole place looks smaller, different. I realize I’m looking at it with new eyes, the eyes of someone who knows she might not see this room ever again. The thought of another family living here makes a knot form in my throat. This is my place. My home. I throw my bag on the ground and collapse on the bed, staring up at the Unicorn poster over my bed. During the one and only time Dax came into my bedroom, I was eighteen. Since my house is a ranch, he climbed in the window. I’d never had a boy in my room before that. He’d made all sorts of jokes about how my bedroom was perfectly fine for any six-year old. When I was officially so embarrassed I couldn’t even look at him, he swooped down and kissed me. My first kiss. Before that, I’d thought the smell of cigarette smoke was disgusting. One taste of him, and I became an addict. We’d only known each other three days. Dax had that surprising way about him; he’d make you think he was heading one way and go in a completely different direction. Sighing, I strip off my still-damp dress, leave it in the hallway for my mom to deal with, and riffle around in my bag for a new pair of clean underwear I already know I didn’t pack. Sighing, I peel off my wet undies and get into my comfy boxers and tank. I snuggle down into my familiar bed and start

to charge my phone, already predicting and dreading what I’m going to see when I open my work email, because heaven forbid I don’t look at it for an hour. I feel sicker and sicker as I scroll through each unread message. I’d had my out-of-office assistant on, of course, but obviously, no one pays attention to those. There are at least a dozen emails from Fowler. The looks he gave me when I asked for an advance of my vacation time in order to settle things back home could have frozen the Caribbean. I’d only been at the job three months, but the news of my parents’ divorce was not just catastrophic. It was so unexpected, it practically took the breath out of me. I walked around in a daze the first 24 hours after my mother’s phone call, trying to process it. I told Fowler I’d keep checking my emails, and it’s obvious the douchebag was testing to make sure I was telling the truth. I type in a text to him: Sorry. Just got in. My car broke down and my phone lost its charge. I stare at the words. Any excuse seems insufficient. Well, for Fowler, anyway. He’s short with a Napoleon complex, so he’s fond of marching around the office spitting out phrases like, “I don’t need excuses, I need action.” So it doesn’t matter if I’m lying dead in a ditch somewhere, the victim of a horrific car accident. I wasn’t at his beck and call, and therefore, I have failed him. And the sad thing is, he’s not the only one with attitude in the firm. In fact, I think they have a “douchebag requirement” in order to become an attorney there. I haven’t met a partner that doesn’t look at me like I’m a piece of gum stuck to his shoe. And so yes, while the original plan was to take a year off while deciding what law schools I wanted to apply to, right now, my answer is: None of them. But I’m going to do it anyway. Anything else would break my father’s heart. As I’m imagining the major heart attack my dad would have if I ever told him what I really feel, my phone begins to ring. It’s a number I don’t recognize, with a 570 area code, the area code for Northwestern Pennsylvania. I think of letting it ring through, like I always do with unknown phone numbers, but in the last second, I decide to pick it up. “Hello?” “Hi, Katydid.” All the air whooshes out of my lungs. His low drawl reaches into my chest and pulls at my heart like he has it on a string. I straighten like a pin on top of my lace comforter. “Dax?” I’m breathless. I swallow. Calm, Katherine, calm. “How did you get this number?” “You gave it to me.” “What? No, I didn’t.” He lets out a sigh and says, very condescendingly, “You gave it to the Auto Club, who in turn, gave it to me.” “Ohhhh. Right.” I’d been getting worried that not only had he become hotter than hell in the past four years, he’d also developed magical telepathic powers. “Can you stop calling me that? I’m Katherine, now.” “Katherine?” He says it like it’s a name he’s never heard before. “What, do all the hoity-toity types in Boston get off on all those extra syllables?” I wrinkle my nose, annoyed. “Katydid has just as many.” He seems to take it as a personal affront that I want to go and make something of myself instead of being stuck in Friesville forever. “So did you fix my car?” I say, trying to sound stronger and more in control of myself than I actually feel. “Hold your horses, there, Katherine,” he says with a laugh. “Damn, girl. I’ve had your car in my possession for less than two hours.”

“Well, I seem to remember that everyone in town raves about how good you are.” “True. But I like to go slow, and take my time,” he says, and I can’t help but think of the double meaning behind his words. My pulse increases by a factor of twenty. “Plus I haven’t quite had everyone in town,” he continues, his voice getting deeper. “You want to test me out and see for yourself?” I’m blushing now and I feel a stirring in my lower belly. Actually, even lower than that if I’m honest with myself. I throw my comforter off and stare at my painted toes. I am so not letting him do this to me. “Look. Can you fix it, or not?” “Of course I can. But it isn’t just a matter of cleaning up the clogged oil pumps. The engine’s blown.” I cringe. “That doesn’t sound good.” “It’s not. Not to mention that the transmission’s on its last legs.” “So, you won’t have it fixed by tomorrow?” He laughs. “I’m good, but I’m not that good.” “So what are my options?” I ask desperately. “With me, or your car?” “Screw you,” I groan. “If you can afford it, get a new car, Katydid. One that’ll keep you safe in that big ol’ city you call home now.” “I don’t want a new car,” I tell him, gritting my teeth to the harsh reality that I can’t afford a new car. “I want to fix that one. Isn’t there something you can do?” “Anything I do’ll be more expensive than the car’s worth.” That was not what I needed to hear right now. “Can’t you do a band-aid? Something cheap that will keep it running so I can use it now and then?” He pauses. I figure it’s a long shot, so I’m surprised when he says, “Could be.” I exhale, just as I hear something thump downstairs. A door slams closed. Then I hear my mother, voice high and screeching. I can only make out parts of what she’s saying: If you hadn’t . . . Then my father’s voice, calm but strained: I can only . . . They’re arguing. The two people who never said a cross word to each other, ever. Two seconds later, I hear the door to the basement slam shut, footsteps slamming down the staircase, and the whirring of the treadmill starting up. My dad always ran down there after a hard day teaching, and some nights, he’d run for miles and miles and not come back up until I’d been asleep for hours. A second later, I hear my mom climbing the stairs. She knocks on my door and comes inside, holding the dress she’s going to work her miracles on. “I’m going to turn in, dear. I’m tired.” I drop the phone to my chest, covering the display as if she might be able to tell it’s Dax I’m talking to, and look at the alarm clock at my bedside. It’s only eight-thirty. “Okay.” She closes the door, leaving me to wonder if this could get any weirder. My mom was the night owl, and now she’s going to bed early. They’re arguing so much that I don’t think they can be in the same room together. What the hell happened here? This feels like a war zone. Or worse than that, The Twilight Zone. “Kate—Fuck. Katherine?” Dax says. I’m holding the phone in a sweaty death-grip. I’d spent a long time dreaming about moving to the city, thinking how glamorous it would be. In a few weeks, my house will be gone, and I won’t have any reason to set foot in Friesville again. Boston might as well be my real home, because once my

parents sell this place, I won’t have one. “I’m sorry. What?” I ask, my forehead sweaty from the sudden anxiety that’s gripped me. “Are you okay?” “Yeah. My parents were just arguing.” He laughs. “Your parents? I didn’t think those two did that.” “Nobody’s relationship is perfect, I guess,” I mutter. “It’s . . . things are a little strained around here, to say the least.” “Yeah? What’s up?” I don’t speak. I can’t tell him this. If I tell him this, and it’ll just make me tell him more, and more, and more, knocking down every wall between us. It’ll be like the domino effect, the floodgates will open and then all of my quickly weakening resolve will be gone and it won’t ever come back. But at the same time, as much as I want to keep him away, right now I can’t think of any other person I’d rather talk to than him. “You want to get out of there? I’ll pick you up,” he offers, as if he read my mind. I suck in a breath. No. I can’t. I won’t. I do that, and it’s all over. My mouth opens, but instead of the definitive NO my head is telling me to say, “And go where?” comes out. “Wherever.” When I don’t answer, he says, “I’ll bring you to the shop and go over the options for your car, okay?” That sounds harmless. But nothing with Dax has ever been harmless. There’s a reason my parents said I should stay away . . . and not only that, I said I should stay away. If only I could remember what that reason was. I listen for a few moments to my father’s feet pounding steadily on the treadmill downstairs. I think of Dax as he’d looked when he came to tow my car, lifting the hood of my VW, tattooed arms flexing, the way he’d smiled that devilish smile at me through a jawline coated with rich dark stubble. Despite having nothing in common, there was something we always had an abundance of: Chemistry. I used to think of us as two magnets with opposite charge—impossible to keep apart. It’s clear he’s no longer that same boy who used to drive me crazy by saying left and going right, who used to kiss me silly under the tree outside the house when I’d meet him out there. No, he’s probably a lot more dangerous than that now, judging by his manly looks and the subtle changes I sense in his confidence and attitude. But I guess I could use a little danger right now. “Okay,” I say.


by the time Dax comes around to pick me up. I t’s dark I’m dressed in cut-off shorts to show off my legs, my best feature by far. He used to caress my thigh and tell me how soft and silky smooth my skin was. The feeling was beyond delicious. And although I realize that I’m sliding down a very steep hill now, I can’t help it—I want to look good for him. My mother’s sleeping and my father is still running downstairs, so I easily slip out the front door. Dax’s waiting next to the car, and in the darkness, I can see him faintly illuminated by the porch light from our house. He’s almost otherworldly in his chiseled strength, and from a distance, I can truly see just how gorgeous he is. Sometimes with Dax, I used to feel so connected to him and so familiar that I was able to forget how absolutely devastating he was in the looks department. So truly out of my league. But now, with the passage of so much time and the way he’s filled out in all the right places, I’m back to being just stunned. Does he even realize that he has the looks and charisma to make a million in Hollywood if he so desires? Probably not, and he wouldn’t do it even if he could. I smile as he opens the door to his car for me, carefully so as not to make too much noise. It’s a ’67 Mustang he’s nicknamed Arrow, a car so dear to him he might as well have it surgically attached to his body. It feels oddly comfortable, sliding into the seat after all this time, almost as if four years haven’t passed. In the dim light, his eyes slowly roam the length of my legs, up to my cut-off shorts, and I know I’m so in for it. “That’s the Katydid I know and love,” he says. “Katherine,” I correct, shivering. Did he just say he loves me? Really? I know, it’s only a saying, but . . . “Right. Katherine,” he says the name with some trouble. I laugh. “You can’t take change, can you? I can’t believe you’re still driving this car.” “Arrow here is a classic,” he explains, patting the dashboard. “She purrs like a kitten.” “It’s a bucket of rust, though.” “No, your car’s a bucket of rust. Why don’t you just whip out that fancy checkbook of yours and get a new BMW to match your fancy job?” I cross my arms. “I don’t want a new car,” I lie. “Plus, I have college loans to pay off and law

school to think about. Even with my fancy job, I don’t have the money to sock into a new car yet. I’m working toward it, though, but it won’t be for a little while yet.” He cocks an eyebrow at me. “That so?” Not at all. But whatever. I’m sure as hell not telling him the truth; that my apartment is the size of my hand, my boss is a douchebag, I won’t be able to afford a new car ever, and my checking account doesn’t even have two dollar bills inside it to rub together. Before long, we’re pulling into Harding’s garage. Time stands still in Friesville, so it’s exactly as I remember, a dilapidated white cinderblock building with three bays and a tiny office adjacent to it, with a neon Penzoil sign in the window. A dim light illuminates my VW, up on the jack in one of the ports, but other than that, the place is closed up and dark. “How are your brothers?” I ask him as we get out of the car. “Your dad?” He tosses his keys into the air and catches them again, his movements athletic and graceful. “They’re around. Doing the same shit. Well, except Cal. Cal’s up at state.” “Oh,” I ask, surprised. “He’s going to college?” He lets out a short laugh. “Prison.” I blush and want to kick myself over the mistake, but it’s not really all that stupid. The Harding boys are smart, every one of them. Even my parents would say that: They’re smart, but they just don’t apply themselves. Still, it’s not a stretch of the imagination that any of them could get into college. “Spar and Turk work here with me,” he continues. “Wob’s a sophomore in high school. My dad’s my dad.” That means that his dad is still drunk all the time. Dax has always watched over the other boys the best he could. That was the thing that made me fall for him the most, I think. Everyone thought he was just a stupid, no-good nobody, and yet he had this whole thing going on that only I noticed. He practically ran Harding’s garage, even back in high school. He did his best to keep his crazy younger brothers in line. And he did all this while going to school. I’d tried to tell my best friends Nevaeh and Juliet that, but they always just rolled their eyes at me and called me “whipped” by the bad boy. They certainly didn’t understand what I saw in Dax, other than his hotness. “So let’s take a look at her,” he says, snapping me out of my thoughts and memories, dragging me back to the now. Dax reaches into the pocket of those tight-fitting jeans and pulls out a ring of keys, and easily lifts the garage door, letting me walk inside. “Thanks,” I murmur as I pass by and smell the scent of him. I feel my skin break into gooseflesh, and it’s not because it’s cold, either. Dax follows me inside and moves alongside me. “I know why you’re so attached to Little Blue,” he says with a grin. “If it weren’t for her, we never would have met.” I refuse to admit that I’m attached to her for that reason, but he’s right, my VW is how we met. We went to high school together, and though he was only a year older than me, it might as well have been twenty years. I ran with the College Prep kids, and he was the kind of student who flunked everything but shop and hung out smoking with all the other burnouts behind the dumpsters in the back of the school. I heard stories about how those guys did drugs and fought hard and beat up good kids just for existing. I was afraid to so much as look at that group, because I liked my arms and didn’t want anyone to rip them off. But my car had been making a little whistling noise when I pulled into the junior parking lot at my high school, and Dax was sitting at the adjacent senior lot, smoking with a bunch of his friends on the hood of his Mustang. He’d jogged up to me as I got out of the car, and my pulse immediately shot up.

My first thought was to put a hand on my purse. I don’t know why I thought he’d try to steal it, in broad daylight. He gave me that cocky grin and said, “You need new brake pads, sweet thing.” I blushed like crazy. Guys had barely talked to me up until that point, and he was the first guy my age to ever call me sweet. And those deep green eyes with the baby-doll lashes . . . holy shit. I’d never seen anything so mesmerizing. He was wearing all black, a tight t-shirt with some obscure metal band on the front. He smelled like cigarettes and all the things I’d been telling myself I had to stay away from, but suddenly, my mind was saying something else. Get closer. He told me to bring my bug into the shop so his class could take a look at it. He and his equally scary friends fixed it by the time I got out of Honors Pre-Calculus that afternoon. But when I went to pick it up after school, he told me I needed new shocks, and gave me a coupon for his dad’s garage. He even offered to drive me to and from school if I used them. Nevaeh and Juliet, my two best friends, told me I was nuts to accept. He’d been arrested, they said. He used girls for sex, supposedly—both of my friends had a laundry list of girls who’d given him blowjobs in the back of the school. He drank and smoked weed excessively. They told me to bring a can of mace on the ride because “you never know”. Still, somehow I must not have quite believed their warnings, because I took him up on the offer to drive me. And if he was a guy with a rep, you’d never know it from our drive to school. He was gentlemanly, even sweet, opening the door to his ’67 Mustang for me, asking if the wind from the open window was too much, and talking the entire time about how his dad had gotten him into cars. Plus, he was Hot with a capital H, and his deep green eyes and sexy drawl stirred my insides up like no College Prep boy ever had. My arms prickle with goose bumps as I recall that first drive together, when I realized that I was falling hard for him. So hard. So hard that it took years to get over him, and let’s face it—I never quite did get over him all the way, did I? “I’m not all that sentimental,” I lie, looking at my car so I don’t have to look into those glorious eyes of his. I shiver. “So, what’s wrong with the engine?” He follows me underneath the lift. “Like I said, it’s blown. Well, if getting a new car is out, you can either get a new engine, or have this one rebuilt,” he explains. “Rebuilding is cheaper, right?” I ask immediately. “Yeah.” He rubs the scruff at the back of his neck, grabs a wrench off the nearest bench, and starts to twirl it. “But even that’s not inexpensive. Or easy.” “Okay. How much?” “A thousand,” he says, leaning back against the workbench. “A thousand dollars?” I nearly gag. Again, I’m back to thinking of my pathetic checking account. “And that’s the cheap option?” “Look,” he explains. “If money’s an issue, I can rebuild it in my spare time and just charge you for parts. You know that’s my hobby. But like I said, it ain’t gonna be fast. Two to three weeks, at best.” “At best?” I choke out. I’m going to have a breakdown. I’ve already pissed Fowler off enough by taking the week. I can’t just not show up for three. “Can you get me a loaner in the meantime, then?” He grins. “I’ll be your loaner.”

I snap my eyes to him. “What?” “You need to be someplace, I’ll take you.” “What, like a chauffer?” I spit out, shocked at the offer. “Oh, my parents will love that one.” He leans back casually inspects his grease-stained hands. “Last I heard, you’re an adult. You can do what you want.” “Okay. I need to be in Boston for work. Are you going to drive me there?” “Yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly. “If that’s what it takes.” I snort. “Right. I’m sure.” I roll my eyes. He’s looking at me with his wide-eyed, puppy-dog expression, but Dax is never innocent. On him, that expression just makes me more suspicious. I cross my arms. “Are you serious? You’re not, are you? You’re probably just . . .” Something dawns on me. My mouth drops open. The last time we spoke, years ago, he told me some pretty vile things. He’d said to me that he couldn’t give a shit if I left town. Of course, by then he was already back on his hamster wheel, screwing every girl he could get his hands on, as if the months we spent together had meant absolutely nothing to him. Every time I’d hear a rumor about Dax Harding and another girl, it was like a knife straight to my heart, but what made it worse was that he didn’t care at all what I was up to. As hard as it was to leave my parents, to leave home, I’d had to do it. I’d been accepted to Lafayette and Lehigh and Scranton, all universities much closer, but I’d purposely chosen the one that would put as much distance between Dax and me as possible. I can still remember the indifference on his face when I said goodbye to him. “What are you, angry at me because I wanted to go away to make something of myself?” I say to him now, my blood boiling as I vividly recall just how badly he hurt me. It feels like a fresh wound again, scar tissue violently ripped open. He stares at me. “What?” His evil plan is all congealing inside my head. “I bet there’s nothing that wrong with my car,” I say, my voice growing louder. “Tell the truth.” He pushes off the workbench, drops the wrench on the table, and grabs a dirty rag. “I’m pretty sure you’re the one who ended up stranded on the road, begging me to save you.” I clench my fists. My blood is boiling over. He’s the only person on the face of the earth that can get me this riled up. “Okay, but I bet it’s not as bad as you’re saying. I bet it’s probably just a little fix. I need a second opinion.” He sucks in a breath. “Then get one. And here I thought you were the smart one. You’re unbelievable, do you know that? I offer to fix Little Blue for free, out of the generosity of my heart, and you accuse me of—“ “Admit it. You’re just trying to make trouble for me.” He throws the rag against wall and glares at me. “What? And why would I do that?” “Because of how we ended things.” “How we ended things?” He lets out a short laugh. “I got news for you, Katherine, but we didn’t end things and you damn well know it.” I can pinpoint the day it all fell apart, a few months before the end of my junior year. We went together for five months, if it could be called that. Ninety-nine percent of the time it was just Dax and me, alone. We never could go out with his friends or mine, because they wouldn’t understand. Eventually, though, everyone found out and . . . everything just went haywire. By the end of it all, he was expelled from school, my parents were notified of the incident, and it was like every single person in my life was not just begging, but demanding, that I forget him if I

wanted to have any sort of future. So I listened to them. I did what I had to do, because Dax had made it impossible to stay with him. He fought everything and everyone, and in the end he even fought me. “I don’t want to get into who did what to who,” I sigh, throwing up my hands, as my mind fights for something to hold onto. I can’t stand the thought of questioning whether I had hurt Dax first, if his reactions were all justified. That’s the kind of horrible mind games that he forces me to play. That’s why I was trying to avoid all of this in the first place. My whole body is getting hotter, and I’m not sure if it’s because there’s no air conditioning, because I’m angry as hell, or because I’m with Dax Harding. In our relationship, short as it was, we’d always have the most explosive fights. That clearly hasn’t changed. “Well obviously you don’t like us city people,” I tell him, regaining some of my composure. “You probably couldn’t wait for me to come back so that you could pull more shit on me.” He vises his head in his hands, breathing hard. His eyes are pure fire. “What? Why would I pull shit on you?” I nod, and thrust my chin up. “Because I’m probably the only girl in town you haven’t screwed, and you can’t stand to leave things unfinished.” He turns away, so incensed he can’t bear to look at me. Then he whirls quickly toward me again, comes up close to me and wags a finger in my face. “You’re fucking unbelievable. Next time someone offers to do something nice for you, ‘thank you’ would work better.” I narrow my eyes in disbelief. “Thank you? After what you did to me?” “After what I did?” He opens his mouth to say more, twisting it in different shapes, but nothing comes out. He storms up close to me like he’s going to grab me and shake some sense into me, but stops with mere inches between us when I flinch. His face softens, his muscles relax. His breathing is ragged and strained. His eyes scrape over me, as if discovering me for the first time. When his eyes lower to my chest, I am sure he can see my heart bursting out of it. I need to stop this. I need to walk away and never come back. He’s the reason I left, all those years ago. He reaches a finger out and, so gently, plucks a lock of hair from my collarbone. And then he touches my skin. The fire is immediate, radiating through my body. I try to stand still, but find myself wavering on my feet. I draw in a heavy breath, hardly able to hold it before I gasp it out. My body crackles with electricity, crying out for more. His finger trails lazily down to the neckline of my barely-there tank, stopping at the lacy edge. He flirts with the fabric, his eyes never leaving mine. “This ain’t happening,” he breathes. I try to nod, but our eyes are locked, those endless pools drawing me in. His breath, warm and sweet, flowers between us, making me woozy. I’m in a dream, where every inch I try to move away just pushes me toward him. “So stop it,” I murmur. Before I can protest any more, he swoops his mouth down upon mine, making every last bit of breath I have die inside me. His mouth consumes mine feverishly, his tongue claiming me as if he’s owned me all this time. On thing he’s never lacked is confidence, and I surrender control immediately. His tongue explores my mouth wildly and unstoppably, and his hands are on my body, roaming up my ribs then molding my breasts. “Fuck it,” he growls into my mouth, tweaking my nipple through the thin fabric of

my camisole. “Ah, fuck it, Katie, you feel so good.” His tongue trails down my jawline, and his fingers play on the strap of my camisole, lowering it below my ribs so that my breasts spring free. He cups them in his hands and slides down, planting devouring kisses on my breastbone. I arch my head back and cry out as he pushes me against the wall, his tongue licking its way across the sensitive nub of each breast. I press my back against the wall, my back arching toward his body. I’ve never felt anything like this before. I’ve never had anyone kiss my breasts before. I tangle my fingers in his thick hair, pressing his open mouth harder on my skin, wanting more. Wanting everything he has to give. A warm, aching sensation is building between my thighs, getting ready to explode. “Oh,” I moan. “Oh, god, Dax.” He breaks from my skin, and I’m suddenly cold where his mouth has been. Eyes heavy-lidded and full of fire, he looks around the garage. “Come on,” he says gruffly, taking my hand and guiding me to the office. It’s more enclosed in here, so we’re not on display in the windowed garage. He looks around the cramped room but there isn’t anything other than the tiny desk and a whirring soda machine. He leads me to the desk and pushes aside the pencil jar and the blotter. Then he guides me against it so that I’m sitting at its edge and plants himself in front of me, then covers my mouth with his. I run my hands down to his waist and lift the hem of his t-shirt out of his jeans. I need to be closer to him. Obliging me, he helps me remove his t-shirt, and I’m greeted with the most jaw-dropping chest I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. He’s gotten a few more tattoos, and he’s bulked up, and there’s just a little more dark hair over his pectorals. Oh good Lord, I feel faint. “You okay?” he asks, as I grip the edges of the desk to steady myself. I nod, still dazed and scared but so damn hot. I need him. I need this. I’m like a kid in a candy store, unsure where to go first. His skin is so hot as my lips touch the tattoo of a four-leaf clover over his shoulder, I expect to see steam radiating from it. His hands move around my waist, lifting the hem off my camisole up over my head. Before, we’d made out and fumbled around under our clothing, but that’s as far as it went. I’d always been self-conscious about my small chest, too, so I usually pushed his hands away and put a stop to things. But now, I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop. I’ve been thinking of this for four years. And maybe I am getting more mature because at this point, I don’t care. I want to feel his skin against mine. He casts aside my camisole and gazes at me hungrily. I suck in a breath, feeling an unsure pang of nervousness, but before it can fully materialize, he cups my breast in his hand and brings the nipple to his mouth, sucking it, is tongue working circles on it. I toss my head back and gasp. He gently nudges me back on the desk. “You’re so fucking sweet, Katydid,” he murmurs into my skin, reaching for the snap of my cutoffs as he trails kisses down to my abdomen. His fingers find it and expertly work the button, and I feel the fabric loosening. “I need to taste all of you.” My breath comes out all uneven. The thought of him tasting me has my body trembling all over with desire and . . . fear. The two emotions are doing a dance inside of me, each vying for top position. This is huge. I think of how long I’ve imagined and wanted this, wanted Dax above me, fucking me, and without warning, the fear pulls the upper hand. “Dax. Wait,” I whisper in his ear. “I’ve waited for this for four years,” he murmurs, intent, dragging his open mouth down to the button of my cut-offs so I can feel his inviting warm breath on my skin there. Holy shit.

It takes all my willpower to summon the energy to lift myself up and nudge him away. “But I’ve never done that.” He stops suddenly and looks at me. “Never?” “Don’t look so surprised,” I say, blushing now. My eyes trail to the dirty linoleum floor. “You knew I was before.” “Yeah, but I didn’t expect you to stay . . .” He rakes his fingers through his hair. I wish for once he would stop looking like he’s just discovered alien life exists. “All right.” He suddenly stands up and grabs for his t-shirt, quickly covering up all those glorious, hard muscles. I straighten on the desk and find my camisole, then slink into it, embarrassed. The truth is, despite four years at college, I never even had a close call. Never even wanted one. It’s like, the day I left Dax, that part of me turned off, and that well of passion he could summon inside me just dried up. Sure, I’d met all kinds of guys—studious types, party-hungry frat-boys, sophisticated graduate teaching assistants—but I never even felt one tenth of what I felt in this room, right now. Was I comparing every single guy I met to Dax Harding? I’d like to say no, but . . . Yes. Looking at him now . . . oh, God, yes. Why did I stop him? He retrieves the keys from the pockets of his jeans, and it isn’t hard to see his raging erection poking through his jeans. “I should probably take you home, huh?” Now, he’s looking at the ground. He’s doing everything possible not to look at me. What the hell? “All right,” I answer. Not two minutes ago, I was seriously considering losing my virginity to this man, and now he can’t even make eye contact with me. I slide off the desk, find my camisole and slide it on, and follow him out to his Mustang. He blasts the country music loud, so we barely talk on the ride home. To ward off the awkward silence, I play with my phone. Though it’s after midnight, that’s never stopped Fowler from sending me messages, but for once, I have none. When we pull into my driveway, I expect him to turn down the radio so we can talk, but he doesn’t. He just says, “’Night.” And that’s all, folks. I feel stupid. Used. Of course it’s what I thought. He just wanted to finally check off his list the one girl from high school he never got a chance to nail. Maybe he doesn’t want to deal with the “emotional baggage” of being someone’s first. I don’t say a word as I push open the door to his Mustang. And I slam it extra hard, with the dim hope that maybe it’ll fall off. That’s the only way to get to a guy who cares about nothing unless it has a motor and wheels, right?


I swore I’d never let Dax Harding drag me into another sleepless night. D amn.And yet, as the early rays of summer sunlight start to poke their way through my bedroom blinds, I realize how stupid I was. Total regret hangover. Why did I go with him last night? I find myself wishing I still had friends from home to text with. If I had kept in touch with Juliet or Nevaeh, maybe they could’ve talked me down from the ledge. They were always so good about painting Dax like a total asshole. Turns out, they were right. I sigh, thinking of how I left things with them. After the incident that got Dax kicked out of school, they stopped talking to me. I thought they’d start talking to me again once they learned Dax and I were no longer on speaking terms, but they never did. My senior year was so lonely, spent going directly to and from high school, taking the “scenic” route so I wouldn’t pass Harding’s Garage on the way. I didn’t have a social life, because no one knew what to make of me. I kept my head down, just waiting for the day I could escape to Boston. Once again, I’ve fallen victim to those old memories I tried to sweep under the rug, only the time spent with Dax is dragging it all back into the light once more. Coming back to the present, I’m surprised when my phone at my bedside dings with a text message. I suck in a breath, hoping it’s Dax apologizing. Fat chance. The funny thing is, as angry as I am with him, all he’d have to do is say a few sweet words, and I’d be his. Why am I such a sucker? Dax doesn’t apologize. I freeze when I see the name EVAN FOWLER on the top of the text window. Only he would be up with his nose to the grindstone at five on a Sunday morning. I open the window and read: WHERE THE HELL IS THE MASON DANIEL FILE?????? My mind is blank. Mason Daniel, Mason Daniel, Mason Daniel. I’ve been so focused on Dax Harding that Mason Daniel won’t compute. I force away the mental image of Dax, standing in front of me with his tattooed chest bare and his muscles flexing, and concentrate. Mason Daniel. The Boston pharmaceutical company, one of my firm’s biggest clients. There’s a big case coming up this week, and Rutger Jones, a senior partner and another supreme douchebag, needed me to assemble the brief. I’d done so, photocopying papers into oblivion, even staying late my last night to make sure it was done.

I type in: I left it on Mr. Jones’ desk on Friday. A pause. I see the dancing ellipsis, letting me know he’s typing something back. I brace myself for it. HE DOESN’T HAVE IT. YOU NEED TO GET IT TO HIM. NOW. Nice. All caps, so I can feel him yelling at me, even from a few hundred miles away. I wrack my brain, even though shirtless Dax keeps waltzing his way in there, and eventually my mind is playing all sorts of tricks on me because now I can’t even remember going into Rutger Jones’ office at all. I’d stayed at the office until midnight that night, long after everyone was gone, and I’d been so exhausted I almost fell asleep drooling on my desk. Maybe I’d done all that work and forgotten to put the brief on his desk? Fear grips me. A lump the size of Texas plants itself in my throat. I’ll come back and find it, I text back. Panic. As soon as I finish the text, I open up an internet window on my phone and start checking bus schedules. The only bus depot anywhere near Friesville is in Hampton, the next town over. And shit. It’s Sunday morning, so the bus line is operating at a severely reduced schedule. In fact, there’s only one bus going up there today, in . . . less than an hour. Still trying to formulate a plan, I shower faster than I’ve ever showered before, throw on one of the other professional dresses I brought with me, my still-quite-squishy wet pumps, and figure I’ll let my hair air dry. Throwing my purse over my shoulder, I race down the hall, staring at the bus schedule, hoping I can find a way to make that all-important Boston bus. When I’m in the living room, I’m startled by a snore. I look up, and nearly jump to the ceiling until I realize it’s just my dad. He’s lying on a sheet, on our old flowered sofa, still wearing his running clothes from last night. His face is unshaven and without his glasses, he looks so much younger and more vulnerable. Is this where he sleeps now? Suddenly my phone starts to ring. I quickly silence it and my heart jumps into my throat as I realize it’s the same number that called me last night. Dax. Why is he calling me? I wonder. I thought, based on the way things ended last night, he’d never call me again. Then I remember he has my car hostage, and this probably has something to do with that. I duck into the kitchen pantry and close the door. “Hello?” “Hey,” he says gruffly. “Did I wake you?” “No,” I say, trying to get a hold of my pulse. Everything happening in Boston suddenly falls away, and I realize my pulse is skittering around in my body at the memory of Dax kissing me, touching me, running his hot tongue down my abdomen . . . My phone dings again with a message, and all I can think is that it’s got to be Fowler. I check it on the screen and sigh. Good. Let me know when he has it. No all-caps. Small victory. As much as I want to see where things will go with Dax, I have to get to Boston, stat. “I’m a little busy. Did you need something?” I ask him casually. “That’s what I called to ask you,” he says. “Did you need your loaner for today?” I pause, unable to respond. I thought he never wanted to see me again, now that he knew I still had a giant V branded on my forehead. I should’ve realized. This is classic Dax, never doing the expected thing.

And it’s freaking annoying as hell. “Can you just stop already?” I mutter. “Based on the way you treated me last night, I thought you never wanted to talk to me again.” I want apologies. I want him to admit he was an asshole. But that’s not Dax. He’s silent for a minute. “So, is that a no?” Ugh. I gnaw on my lip for a moment, considering my options. I swear, I hate him. Passionately. Too passionately. It was always that way—him getting me incensed and then acting like he had no idea why. I’ve always been shy, but not around him. He pushes my buttons like no one else can. Before I can reel them in, the words escape my mouth: “Can you get me to Hampton by nine?” Oh, hell, what did I say that for? My parents will kill me. They can just as easily drive me to the bus station. I don’t need Dax. “Hampton. Sure. Where at?” “The bus station. I need to catch a bus to Boston,” I explain, stuffing my bag with granola bars for the trip. “I said I’d take you,” he says in that sex-oozing voice of his. “All the way.” All the way. We might’ve gone all the way last night, if I hadn’t told him to stop. Butterflies dance in my abdomen, and I’m back to thinking of his mouth on my skin. Oh, god. As much as I hate him, as infuriating as he can be, I realize in an instant that nothing in my life up to now even comes close to the bliss I’d felt at that moment, when his tongue was tracing lazy circles around my breast. I want that feeling again. Desperately. Rabidly. But I’m the virgin. He’s not going to touch the virgin. I might as well have said I had leprosy. “Why?” I ask, suspiciously. “What’s in it for you?” “What do you mean, what’s in it for me? You don’t think I can do something nice for someone without wanting anything in return?” “No,” I answer. “Actually, after last night, I thought you hated me.” He chuckles. “Maybe that’s what I wanted you to think.” I groan. He has to know what he’s doing to me. He’s done it to hundreds of other girls. He’s probably having fun with this. Teasing the only girl who has been in his presence longer than five minutes and managed to keep her virginity. I’m like his freaky little test-tube experiment. And if he’s using me for fun, the least I can do is use him for a ride to Boston. I’m considering it when he says, “You just caught me off guard. But it’s all good.” “It is?” That’s not what the look on his face said last night. “You know Boston’s five hours away, right?” “Yep. It’s all good.” “That’s all you have to say? Forget it. I’m not letting you drive me that far.” “Fuck that. I’m taking you. It’s final.” I grit my teeth. “And do we have to listen to country the whole way?” I expect him to say it’s all good again, but instead, he says, “Not if you play your cards right.” Whatever thought that was in my head just flies right out. He’s so blatantly toying with his virgin test-tube girl, it’s not even funny. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I snap, checking the time. Shit, if I don’t get on the road soon I’ll be toast. “Forget it. Whatever. Pick me up in ten minutes?” “As you wish.” Great, now he’s going and quoting my favorite movie. I fluff my hair in the mirror in the foyer and apply more lip-gloss. My father is still snoring on the couch—thank god—so I scrawl a vague note to my parents telling them I’ve gone to the city to put out

a fire at the office. When Dax’s car pulls up in front of my house, ten minutes later as promised, I quietly escape outside, holding my pumps in my hands so I don’t make too much noise click-clickclicking down the driveway to his Mustang. I slide into the seat and look over at him. Oh my goodness. Even in the morning, he’s beautiful. He’s wearing his trademark jeans and a black t-shirt, stretched tight over his chest, and heavy work boots, same as always…but why does even his sameness always take my breath away? “Nice dress,” he drawls, eyes lingering not on my dress but lower, on my bare thighs. “Thanks,” I say, throwing my shoes and purse on the floor and digging my toes into the plush floor mat. The dress is supposed to be professional, but since I’m long-legged it stops mid-thigh. Nestled in his bucket seat, I pull at the bottom hem but it still leaves most of my legs exposed. As he pulls away from my house, he downshifts, and his hand drops possessively on my thigh. He’s done that before, but this time, I let out a gasp. His fingers trail their way up the skirt of my dress, dangerously close. If he keeps this up, I won’t even be a virgin by the time we cross state lines. I point to his hand. “So,” I say breathlessly, “does this mean you’re okay with what I told you last night?” He doesn’t miss a beat. “Why not? It’s a temporary condition,” he says with a grin. “Oh, I know,” I say. “Virgins don’t stay that way for long when Dax Harding is in the room.” He gives me shrug. “You and I were together five months, Katydid. Did I ever pressure you?” Dax and I were together the winter into Spring. Most of that, we spent talking and flirting. He kissed me in my bedroom, and then left. When I decided that was too dangerous, I’d sneak out the front door, and meet him in the yard, under the tree, in the place farthest from my parents’ bedroom. I couldn’t get enough of him; my body kept screaming more, more. When it got warmer and the days stretched longer, we went out to the field behind the garage and spent long late afternoons after school lying on a blanket, making out. I remember my fingers trailing their way under his t-shirt, reaching for the buckle of his jeans, wanting more, wanting so much more, even then. I swallow. “No,” I murmur.

AS QUIET AND shy as I usually am, I was the reason Dax and I got together the first time. Once the shocks on my car got fixed, I didn’t have to see him again, except as a face in the hallway, whenever he decided to grace the school with his presence. But from that very first ride with him to school, I was hooked. I’ve never taken drugs, but because of Dax, I understand the addict. Before him, I’d never so much as had a conversation with a guy, much less a smoking hot, dangerous one like Dax. As threatening as he was to all my friends, he was magnetic to me. I was silent during that first ride to school with him, because my heart was firmly planted in my throat. Still, I kept taking glances at his hand on the stick shift, at the dark hairs on his arm, leading their way up to his muscular forearm, thinking, I could get used to this. God, let me have a chance to get used to this. As we approached the high school, he asked me what class I had first, and I responded Honors English. And then he said, with a challenge in his eyes, “Do you ever get tired of just reading about things?” That was it. All day long, I replayed those words over and over again in my mind. Truth was, I was tired. Tired of being the good girl and doing everything everyone told me. Everyone knew Katie Donahue was going to fall in line and do as she was told.

And I wanted different. The next afternoon after my shocks got fixed, I drove to the garage and told him I needed an oil change. The grin he gave me told me he was so onto me. I know oil changes don’t take very long. But he gave me an in-depth tutorial while I sat on a stool by the workbench, watching him work. I watched his hands moving expertly under my car, for the first time in my life, all I wanted was those grease-stained hands on me. Now I sit here in a car with Dax as an adult, watching that muscular forearm of his, this time tattooed with the tail of a serpent. He upshifts onto Interstate 84, and I feel like I’m a teenager again. I sneak a look at him. He has his baseball cap on backwards and mirrored sunglasses on, and he’s chewing on gum from the blow pop he just finished. His jaw is more defined, covered with more stubble, and he’s definitely filled out. But that same thrill surges through me as it always did, only this time, so much more intense. “So what’s the fire, Katydid?” He says, making my body quiver as he says my name. “You must be important, if they can’t do without you for one day.” “Not really,” I say, tapping my feet along to Maroon Five. He’s letting me listen to my station, which I guess is as much of an apology for last night as I’m going to get. “I forgot to do something. I’m kind of . . . not my boss’ favorite person right now.” “That right?” He laughs. “What is he, an idiot?” I smile along with him, because yeah, Fowler is an idiot. It’s nice to hear someone say it out loud. “What do you mean?” “I’ve known Katie Donahue for a long time. And there ain’t a single person who’s got anything bad to say about you,” he says, peering at me over his sunglasses with those mesmerizing green eyes. “So your boss must be an idiot.” I shrug. Then I say softly, “Nevaeh and Juliet would have bad things to say about me, I’m sure.” “Who?” He’s confused. “Oh. Those friends of yours?” “They’re not friends anymore. They haven’t been since . . .” I stop, feeling a twinge of heartache over that day. “You know. Since that day in the cafeteria.” He laughs bitterly. “Guess a lot of things went on after that, huh? It was the punch that tore the world apart.” I nod, thinking more about it. Goosebumps pop up on my arms. “What was that asshole’s name again?” “Stephen,” I whisper. I look over at Dax nervously and gather my hair into a ponytail to ward off the breeze threatening to blow my hair into a rat’s nest. “The rest of high school was hell for me, after that.” “And you blamed me,” he mutters. “Got it.” “No, I didn’t,” I assert. “Don’t give me that shit. You did. I got expelled, and you stopped coming around to see me after that.” I shake my head, but the truth is, yeah, I did. “I had to. My parents grounded me.” “Even after that, though.” I shrug. My parents were both teaching that day, so they learned right away that Dax got into a fight with Stephen Andrews over me. That blew the whole thing open. They didn’t know the full extent of my relationship with Dax, but it didn’t matter. They grounded me. They said I’d been changing over the past few months, and now they knew why. They forbade me to see him again.

If that was all, though, I might’ve tried to find a way to sneak out and see him. But at school, I became an outcast overnight. Rumors swirled about me and Dax. None of the students knew quite what to make of me anymore, so they ignored me. For months afterwards, I would go home, alone, and cry. I hated Dax for making that scene, without even asking me. I hated him for making me want him so bad and uncontrollably that I was willing to go against my parents and lose their trust. I hated him for doing things like getting himself expelled so that my parents would never, ever approve of him. When Dax threw that punch, I felt like I lost everything. So yes, I blamed him. Maybe I still do. “Well, you started going through your laundry list of girls again, so I didn’t see the point,” I grumble, scowling at him. “And then I came by to tell you I was going to Boston, hoping you’d wish me well, and you were a total dick to me.” “Can you blame me? You came by to rub it in my face that you were going to Boston, leaving all us hicks back in Friesville to choke on your dust,” he clarifies. “No, I didn’t,” I say. “I thought you would be happy for me. I guess that’s too much to have expect from Dax Harding?” He snorts. “Yeah.” “I mean, have you ever been with a woman you haven’t treated like shit?” I spit out, recalling all the rumors about him. God, there’s been so many. Once I heard that he’d slept with two different girls in the same night, at the same party. And then there was the rumor that a certain dumpster was named after him because it was where he used to take girls to give him blowjobs between classes. The more I think about it, the more disgusted I get. It’s a damn good thing I stopped things from going any further last night. The rest of the ride is silent and strained. I spend much of the time looking out the passenger’s side window. It’s only when we’re halfway through the state of Massachusetts that I sneak a glance at Dax. Though I doubt he’s ever been outside the Pennsylvania state lines, he looks just as unimpressed as ever. By the time we get into the city and we’re navigating pretty heavy traffic past the Fenway exit on Interstate 90, he only looks annoyed. “What is this, NASCAR? I’ve never fucking seen such asshole drivers before.” “They’re called Massholes. You’ve really never been out of Pennsylvania before?” I ask him incredulously. He gives me a sour look. “You know us backwoods people,” he says with a mock Southern drawl, “We’re too busy screwing our sisters to travel much.” I roll my eyes. “Oh, stop it. Take this exit.” He veers to the right onto Boylston Street. We end up at a standstill for a while, even though it’s Sunday afternoon, but I manage to direct him toward the law firm with little trouble. He pulls into a spot on a narrow cobblestoned street behind Fowler’s fire-engine red Porsche with the LITIG8 license plate. By that time, my stomach is twisted in knots. Of course Mr. Fowler is here on a Sunday. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I pull my hair out of the ponytail, fluff it, and scuff my feet into my heels. “I shouldn’t be long,” I murmur, gnawing on my lip. He jumps out of the car and leans against it, eyes darting all over the place as if he hasn’t a clue what to look at first. “Take your time,” he says, gnawing on the stick of his blow pop and checking out my boss’ ride. As he does, two women in business suits do a double take and check him out. I can’t blame them. This city has much to offer, but he’s the best looking thing on the street (and

any other street in a fifty mile radius). The way his butt looks in those jeans? Criminal. I feel a chill snake down my back as I push open the door and think, Dax Harding is waiting for me. Who the hell cares? Maybe in high school, that would’ve been a badge of honor for a girl, but he’s still just as immature as ever. Immature but also really hot, with an insanely muscular, drool-worthy body and heavenly eyes that you can see your whole future in. I try my best not to fixate on Dax as I get into the office building. I rush up the stairs. When I get upstairs, of course, the door to Fowler’s office is open and the light is on. I manage to skitter past it and slide into my cubicle without hearing his annoyingly nasal voice call my name. Breathing a sigh of relief, I start to tear the cubicle apart, looking for the Mason Daniel brief. My cubicle is about the size of a closet, but that doesn’t make the brief any easier to find. I have files stacked on every surface. I start in all the usual places, like the filing cabinet, then move on to all the unusual places, like the waste bin and under the desk. Meanwhile, I’m sweating and my face is getting hotter. I sit on the floor of my cubicle, gasping for breath. Where the hell is the file? Finally, I get to my feet and shakily make my way to Fowler’s office. I take a deep breath and am just about to knock on his door when I realize the leather chair behind the desk in his enormous corner office is empty. Creeping in, I sigh. The guy is a complete disaster. He talks about me not having my shit together, but his desk is a mess. It’s a wonder he can find— I stop. I reach down, under a pile of papers, and pull out a thick red folder. The tab says, in my neat handwriting, Mason Daniel. It was in his damn office the whole time, if he’d ever bothered doing even the slightest bit of looking for it. “Katherine,” a voice booms behind me. I jump. I whirl to see Mr. Fowler, dressed in his 3-piece suit as if it’s an ordinary weekday. I’m holding the file in my death grip. “I—“ He looks down at the folder. “It’s about time you found that. You’re lucky Jones’ doesn’t have your ass for that stunt.” “But I—“ He holds up a finger and flicks off the banker’s lamp on his desktop. “I’m on my way to a lunch meeting. Walk with me. Let’s have a talk.” I swallow. His “talks” are never pleasant things. It’s never a conversation. It’s mostly just him yelling at me, mile-a-minute, like gunfire. But I scurry after him in the narrow hallway as he strides importantly down the hallway, adjusting the collar of his expensive custom suit jacket. No small talk, no asking after my family. Instead he says, “You understand you very nearly lost your job for that stunt?” Stunt. He keeps calling it that, as if I planned it, as if I was ski-jumping over sharks for their amusement or something. “But you see, I found the folder on your desk.” He narrows his eyes. “What?” In that instant, I know what’s going to happen. He’s going to accuse me of lying. I can see it in those cloudy eyes of his, in that self-important stiff jerk of his head. He expects people to nod along and agree, and anything else is unacceptable. He will never let me, a low-life intern, be the one to school him. If I try, he’ll call me difficult and have just another thing to hold against me. “Um . . . nothing,” I mumble.

“You have an attitude problem, don’t you, Miss Donahue?” he says, taking the stairs down. “The thing you young people don’t seem to get is that nothing can substitute for hard work. You can’t just go on week-long vacations on a whim and expect the work to get done.” A week long vacation? You know that’s not what it was! I told you, asshole! And I haven’t even been gone from work yet—it’s still the weekend! I’m screaming it in my head, but doing a hell of a good job keeping my composure on the outside. I nod. “Yes sir.” I follow my boss outside, where the hot sun is baking the sidewalk, and the first thing I catch sight of is Dax, leaning against his Mustang, this time leafing through some Boston Apartment Rentals magazine, eyes goggling at the prices. I’m still gaping at how freaking gorgeous he is when Fowler spins suddenly, facing me. “And another thing . . .” I blink back to him and the smile that was threatening to creep over my face dissolves. But not before Fowler catches it, and scowls. “This isn’t a joke. You keep thinking this is funny and you’ll be out on your ear faster than you can say unemployment,” he says, clearly pleased with himself. My face heats. The last thing I need is to be reamed out by boss in public, in front of Dax, of all people. Some big, fancy, important person I am. “I understand,” I whisper to my boss, hoping he’ll drop it. He doesn’t. He shakes his head disappointedly. “It’s a great inconvenience to me to be one man down unexpectedly like this. I expect you to put in double time when you get back, with no overtime pay. Do you hear me?” Tears sting my eyes suddenly. Of course I hear him, he’s standing only inches away from my face, yelling loud enough for the entire city block to turn around and take notice, and his breath smells like old coffee. I shrink back, nodding, praying to myself, Please let this be over. “Yes,” I murmur, my eyes scanning the sidewalk for a sewer grate to climb under. “Do you understand?” He barks again, his sour breath on my face. I open my mouth to say yes but another voice breaks in, low and controlled. “She said she did.” My eyes dart toward the Mustang, but Dax is no longer lounging there, relaxed and waiting. Now he’s striding toward us, determined. His jaw is set and his lip is curled in disgust. I know what that look means. I saw that same look in the cafeteria, right before he punched Stephen Andrews. Oh, no. I put up a hand to stop him when Mr. Fowler turns toward Dax, a disinterested smirk on his face. He regards him as if he’s piece of scattered trash left on the ground, then his eyes are back on me. “If you know what’s good for you—“ “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave her alone,” Dax breaks in, edging closer. My heart jams into my throat. I put a hand on his solid, broad chest, holding him back. “Dax. Don’t,” I mumble, looking pleadingly into his eyes. That emerald green is now tinged with fire. “I’ve got this under control.” His eyes begin to soften, just as Mr. Fowler opens his mouth. “Who is this clown? One of your dimwitted friends?” I groan because I can pinpoint the second Dax hits his breaking point. I saw it that day in the cafeteria, when Stephen came up behind me and whispered You know you want it in my ear when Nevaeh wasn’t looking. Dax had been halfway across the vast, crowded room filled with kids eating lunch, and yet he was the only one who saw it. In that whole place, he was the only one who took

notice. Now, there might as well be steam radiating off of every bare inch of skin. This isn’t happening, I think. Not again. But it is. Dax whips around to my boss, staring down at him. He’s a full head taller than him, and his shoulders are twice as broad. “You fuck with her, you fuck with me, you got it?” he breathes, his eyes like cold steel. For the first time, I see a glimmer of fear in Fowler’s eyes. He swallows and adjusts his tie. “Don’t threaten me. I’ll fire her quicker--” “I don’t think that’s a wise choice,” Dax says, his voice very calm and measured. “Like I said, you fuck with her, you’ll be fucking with me.” Fowler owns the boardroom. He thrives on having complete control of the company. He can hand asses to an entire room full of attorneys with a simple raise of the finger. And I’ve never seen him look so nervous. He regards his opponent carefully, then backs away from the solid wall of a man in front of him and clears his throat. “Have a good vacation, Katherine,” he says reluctantly, not even looking at me. “Be in at seven sharp next Monday.” I nod, dazed, and manage a “Yes sir.” He starts to walk away, adjusting that too-tight starched collar of his again, his shiny loafers gleaming, leaving my mind racing, trying to come up with some way to make it up to him. I think of calling out to him, apologizing, but I’m just too humiliated. I wipe the stray tears out of my eyes, knowing nothing will be enough. Dax tries to plant himself in front of me, but I whirl and start to stomp off in the other direction. “You can’t do that stuff here,” I mumble, head down, wiping away the tears as they start to fall. “What?” he asks, again trying to plant himself in front of me. “Talk like that to him.” I bristle as I remember the look on Mr. Fowler’s face. Oh, hell, I’m in such deep shit. I look up and see an entrance for the T so I scuttle around Dax’s broad form, toward my escape. “He won’t allow it.” Dax picks up, right on my heels. He grabs for my arm, trying to spin me around, but I lurch my arm away and move faster. “Where the hell are you going?” “I’ll find my own way home.” “What? Because I told that asshole off?” I whirl back to him, incredulous. “That asshole was my boss! He’s only the second most important person at the firm and a freaking senior partner!” Dax shrugs, eyes narrowed. He thinks I’m making a big deal of nothing. Oh, god, he doesn’t know anything! He doesn’t know that at work, you toe the line and don’t make trouble, even if you do have an asshole boss, or else you can very well end up on the street, in a cardboard box. I scowl at him, annoyed. “You really don’t know how the real world works, do you?” “Maybe I don’t, Katydid. But in my world, if I see someone treating you like shit, I’m not going to stand for it,” he says, breathing hard. “You should know that by now.” I guess I should. After all, this isn’t the first time he’s done it. But he should know that I’m still feeling the repercussions from the last time. “You just don’t get it, Dax,” I say, shaking my head. “Maybe I get it too well,” Dax fires back. “And so maybe I shouldn’t be around. Because hell, Katydid, I can’t stand there and watch anyone treat you like shit,” he growls. He stares into my eyes with an intensity that nearly takes my breath away. And then it hits me like a ton of bricks. Dax Harding is trying to protect me and I’m choosing some asshole boss over him—a person who truly cares about me.

But he can’t just hit someone every time he feels like I’m being mistreated! At least he sticks up for you… The voices in my head are having a full-on argument and I feel shaken. I feel every ounce of resolve I have slipping away. When he speaks again, his voice is low and deep and soft. “Do you want me to go?” I look over his shoulder, at the T station, and suddenly it’s no longer an escape. It feels like the worst mistake ever. Well, the second worst mistake ever. The first one kept me away from him for four years. Goddamn Dax Harding. He’s doing it to me again. Right now, the last thing I want is for him to leave me alone.


Andrews was Valedictorian of our class, Student Council president, Stanford-bound, S tephen rarely seen anywhere without Nevaeh, his flawless, raven-haired girlfriend. They were the power couple, admired and fawned over as they strolled the halls together. The entire student body loved them and wanted to be them. But Dax didn’t know or care about that. Dax could give two shits about the “elite” of our high school. What Dax did know about Stephen, he learned from me. And my story didn’t quite go along with the Golden Boy imagine Stephen had managed to carve out for himself. Dax and I had gotten to a point where we were telling each other everything. So I told Dax something I’d never told another soul. Sitting with him in the garage, watching him work, we’d pour out all our secrets. He’d tell me about his deadbeat father. He’d tell me how his one brother was so deep into heroin he’d probably be dead soon and how Dax was the only Harding boy who knew how to change a diaper, because he’d become the family caretaker. And I told him about Stephen—and the time he assaulted me. It was after yet another dull party at Nevaeh’s. Stephen and Nevaeh got into a huge fight, and she went up to bed early. Stephen and I were alone and he tried to put his hand up my skirt. Then he told me he wanted a blowjob. When I said no, he grabbed me and pushed me against the wall. Stephen was strong, and I was powerless and scared to death. If Juliet hadn’t come downstairs, I know it would’ve continued. Stephen played it off like we were just joking around, and Juliet believed him. After all, Stephen was the Golden Boy. After I told Dax that story, he was beyond furious and I couldn’t calm him down no matter how much I tried. The next day at lunch, Dax approached Stephen and confronted him about the story. Stephen tried to make a wisecrack about how I’d thrown myself at him and he’d had to fight me off—and that’s when Dax truly lost it. It only took one punch from Dax to put him down. I remember it so clearly. Stephen, stunned, lying on the linoleum floor, blood pouring down his chin. Everyone looking at Dax like he was a madman, wondering why the hell he’d done it. Dax’s hypnotic green eyes begging me, and his lips moving over and over again to form the words, “Tell them.” But I couldn’t just say it like that. Not at first, at least. I was afraid. Not that the truth made any difference to anyone. After Dax got

expelled, Nevaeh tore the truth out of me. Stephen was right about one thing: they didn’t believe me. It didn’t matter what I said. She accused me of always being jealous and wanting him. And of course, Juliet took her side, because the Golden Couple could do no wrong. So I was completely on the outs. My group of friends would glare at me whenever I passed them in the hallway. I blamed Dax for that, when he was the only one who’d ever come to my defense. The thing was, he hadn’t asked if I wanted him to stand up for me that way—he’d just done it. Dax had needed to explode and vent his rage at Stephen, regardless of what it cost me. What it cost Dax and me both. And yes, after my parents found out about the fight and questioned me over and over again about it, and since everyone was whispering about us, I distanced myself from Dax. But instead of giving me that time to process it all, he moved on. Too quick. “You know, you almost got me fired,” I tell him as we walk toward Quincy Market. “You can’t keep thinking you need to defend me all the time, and do it without even asking me what I need.” He has his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans, mechanic’s grease lining the cuticles of his fingernails. “A job working for that scumbag ain’t worth it, Katydid.” “My father would say otherwise. You don’t know what I had to do to get that job,” I mutter, thinking of all the hoops I’d had to jump through. I’d called and received a big old NO from every law firm in the state, got put on waiting lists miles long, then went through a lengthy interview process in which I practically had to open up a vein before I’d get an offer of employment. All that for what? Much less than a living wage for Boston, working for the biggest assholes in town. Dax raises an eyebrow. “Let me guess. You have to pay them to work there?” I punch him playfully in his bicep. “No. But I can’t lose that job. I need his recommendation so I can get into law school next fall.” He snaps his fingers. “Oh, right. Law school. Sure you want to do that?” “What are you talking about? I’ve always wanted to go to law school,” I lie, biting my tongue when I realize that in all the hundreds of hours I spent with Dax in high school, never once did I mention to him a desire to study law. “I know your dad’s always wanted you to. I don’t think you know what you want,” he says. “Or what’s good for you.” He is so totally right. Damn him, for knowing more about me than even I do. But I’m not going to let on to that. “And I suppose you do know?” “Yeah,” he says. My eyes meet his dark green eyes, and my heart skips instantaneously. We stand there, eyes locked together, and it’s like I’m back there, behind the garage with him, in the one place and time where everything felt right. There’s no denying it. He does. He knows me better than anyone. He says to me, “Like right now, I think you need a burger.” I raise my eyebrows. “Is that so?” “Definitely.” I look around. “Well. There’s a good place down the street.” I take his hand and guide him gently down the street, all the stress leaving my body. “You’ve never walked the Freedom Trail, have you?” He shakes his head. “I don’t even know what that is.” “Oh, well, you’re in for a treat then,” I tell him.

FOUR YEARS AGO, Dax and I didn’t get much chance to be alone. Friesville may have been a small town, but we lived in fear of people find out about us. Though we never really discussed as much, I was afraid of what my parents and friends would say, and I think he didn’t want his friends to think he was softening, knowing he was actually spending time with one of those lily-white good girls who wouldn’t give it up for just anyone. So I’d lie and tell my parents I was working late at the yearbook office, then scuttle over to the garage. Sometimes he’d grab a blanket and we’d head out to the field behind the garage. Out there, we didn’t have to worry about getting in trouble. We’d lie down on the grass dotted with bright yellow dandelions, arms and legs tangled together, trading secrets and kisses, my whole body buzzing with unbridled excitement. It was a word that people would never associate with Dax Harding. Romantic. I freaking loved that he could be romantic with me. Now, that same feeling of exhilaration surges through me. It’s a perfect, quiet Sunday afternoon. The sun is shining like crazy, making the harbor glimmer like diamonds. Tourists are out strolling and enjoying the beautiful weather, and we melt right in with them. We’ve been up and down the aisles at Quincy Market, through Faneuil Hall, and now, we’re stopped for burgers at the Black Rose. Dax leans back in his chair, relaxed, so I relax, too. It’s nice, not worrying who will come through the door. No one at the tables surrounding us even gives us a second glance. When it’s just the two of us, away from Friesville, it’s easy to think we could be a couple. I realize that for the first time, I’m actually enjoying Boston. I don’t want to go back. My face must cloud over at the thought, because Dax takes a swig of his Guinness and nudges me. “What?” He does know me, even after all this time. I can’t keep anything from him. “I was just thinking how much fun we’ve had.” He laughs. “Then why’d you look like your dog just died?” He drums his fingers on the table and leans forward. “We don’t have to go back yet, girl.” I take a sip of my beer. I haven’t been drinking it, so it’s warm. “Yes we do. My parents--” I stop. I’m an adult. I don’t have a curfew. I even have my own apartment. I wrote them a note and told them where I’d be. I can take care of myself, and make my own decisions. And right now, all I want to do is be with Dax. I take a big gulp of beer, then toss my hair, embracing that feeling of freedom. “You’re right. Let’s not go back yet,” I tell him. So we don’t. We spend a long, leisurely afternoon in the darkness of the Irish Pub, filling each other in on what we’ve missed the past four years. He tells me about his father, who has gotten so bad with drinking that he barely gets out of bed anymore. He tells me about his brother, Cal, who finally got caught dealing heroin. I tell him about college, and eventually, like I suspected, the conversation swings around to my college exploits, or lack thereof. “School was really busy,” I explain to him. “Trying to keep the grades up for law school. I never really had time for a social life.” He laughs. “You make time for that. All work and no play . . .” I roll my eyes. “Right. You’re such a social butterfly. You’ve always been tied to the garage. You used to make time for one thing, and one thing only.” “I’m a red-blooded man, I’ll admit,” he says, a proud grin on his face. But it dissolves suddenly.

“I just can’t believe a girl like you wasn’t beating boys off with a stick, Katydid.” “No,” I whisper. Even with courage of three beers in my system, his gaze makes a blush crawl across my cheeks. Yes, there’d been a few guys, but it never really went anywhere. I always found my books to be more entertaining. Now that I think of it, though, none of those guys ever stood a chance, because none of them ever made me feel the way I felt with Dax. I flash back to that white-hot electricity sparking through my every nerve as his tongue circled my breast, and I feel a low, soft tingling between my thighs. My entire body is alive now, begging for him, every last inch of me wanting to reach across the table and bridge the distance between us. All I want is his hands and mouth on me. It’s the alcohol talking, I know. I get tipsy, I get stupid. And I need to make clear decisions where Dax is concerned. I push off the stool suddenly and wobble on my heels. He reaches out and steadies me, and his scorching hot skin on mine sends shockwaves straight to my heart. “You okay?” he asks me, and he’s so close now that I can feel the heat radiating from his t-shirt, smell, that deep, masculine smell of grease and soap that is so uniquely Dax. I tear myself away from him, and out of the cave-like darkness of the pub, into the cool, salty sea air of the city street. Seagulls squawk overhead. The sun is setting and stars are beginning to pop out in the sky. When I turn around and see him, eyes locked on me with this magnetic stare, everything around us falls away. I take a step toward him and my heel catches on the cobblestone street. “Take it easy,” he says, wrapping me into his solid arms. “Come on.” He guides me forward. I feel a steady hand massaging the small of my back through my shift. It feels comforting, relaxing, but the direction we’re heading in is not. He’s walking me back to the street where we’d parked his Mustang. And then he’ll bring us home, back to reality, and this warm, safe dream world, this world that is just Dax and me, will disappear forever. I whirl around to him, my eyes bleary but pleading. I suck my bottom lip into my mouth and beg him silently to make a move. Any move. Anything to keep us here a little longer. His eyes glimmer with understanding. He fixes a lock of hair behind my air. “What’s going on in that head of yours, Katydid?” “Dax,” I whisper, and my eyes fall upon my hands. They’re on his chest, gripping whatever handfuls of his t-shirt they can manage. It’s like every one of my pores is crying out to be filled by him. He has to hear them, crying for him. And then he confirms it. He dips his lips down and presses a soft kiss onto my hairline, sending shivers through my body. I waver on my feet. He takes my hand and leads me down the street a little, toward the harbor. Gloriously away from his car. My body spikes with a thrill of the unknown, as he suddenly swings me around to the side of one of the buildings into a closed off, narrow alley. He cages me in there, against the side of the building, one strong arm on either side of me. His mouth descends on mine, hard and rough, his teeth taking my bottom lip, ravaging me. His tongue slides between my teeth, his stubble moving and sliding against my skin. It’s all-consuming, not just a kiss anymore. This is thrusting, fighting, fucking with our mouths. It’s raw and hard and exactly what I expect from someone like Dax Harding. We’re in the middle of the city but even so, there is nothing at that moment but his mouth and lips and tongue, taking me, making me his. His mouth is hot and hungry, making my breath shudder as his hands move down my bare arms.

I want what I had last night. I want more than that. As if he feels that longing, his fingers trace a sweet, insane path to my breasts. He finds my nipple through with the pad of his thumb, already hard for him. I’m desperate, aching for that release, for the feeling of his tongue on my bare breasts. I want to pick up where we left off last night. I want him to taste me. I want him to taste me everywhere. He lets out a small groan and his hands climb down the sides of my ribs. I know it’s frustration because his hands are finding nothing but fabric. Finally, he reaches down to my thighs, to the hem of my dress. He’s tugging it up, letting the cool air hit my upper thighs, higher, and higher. I let him slip his hands under my backside and scoop me up, wrapping my legs around him, feeling him, so hard against my aching sex. Holy fuck. I cry out as his tongue explores its way down my neck. His hands are cupping my bare ass, and I’m exposed, but I don’t even care. I want more, and I’m not even sure I can ever have enough of this. Only he could make me feel this way. This is the bad girl Katie, the one only Dax Harding could unleash. He pulls away, eyes uncharacteristically wide. “Katie?” he murmurs, running a finger down the side of my face. “Mmm?” I say, licking my lips. “You’re not wearing underwear.” “I forgot them,” I whisper. “Is that bad?” He lets out a low chuckle. “No. Surprising, for you, though.” I smile. “I didn’t think Dax Harding got surprised.” His finger slowly makes its way to my lower lip, resting there. My tongue slips out, tasting his finger. He lets out a ragged breath as I take his finger into my mouth, sucking on it. He groans. “Oh, fuck,” he mumbles, his body falling against me. “You’re sure you’re a virgin?” I cast him a hooded gaze, through my eyelashes. I don’t know how to explain it, other than that Dax unleashes a side of me no one else can. With him, I’m only doing what feels right. Putting as much of my skin against his, tasting whatever I can of him, bathing in his essence . . . that feels right. A seagull screeches overhead. He looks up, and then lowers my dress into place. “Look. I don’t want us to fuck on the street like a couple of animals . . . “ “No?” I ask, mock-confused. He casts me a look of disbelief. The Dax who is always so in control doesn’t know what to do with me. It’s a delicious feeling of triumph, knowing what I’m making him feel inside. “My apartment’s too far away. I know a hotel right here,” I murmur into his ear, my voice low and throaty. “Good.” His whisper is thick with desire. He grabs my hand and I can’t really say with complete clarity what follows in the next moments. It’s like a flashing strobe light of events, fragments, pulsing with the excitement and adrenaline of what’s to come. In the lobby, signing a credit card receipt and getting a key card. In the mirrored, elegant elevator, just trying to hold on, not much longer. Walking the deserted hallway, watching the numbers climb, his hands on me, his hot mouth on my throat. When we get to the door he lingers there, his mouth on my neck. “Are you sure? Do you want this, Katydid?” I nod. I want nothing more than the door to be open. He holds the key card in his hand. “You want to stop, you tell me. Got it? We can always stop.”

“I won’t want to,” I tell him, more sure of this than I have ever been of anything in my life. When he opens the door and we explode into the room, not a moment is wasted. He presses me up against the door, and the second it clicks closed under my weight, his mouth is hot and heavy on mine. His hands roam my body. He whirls me around and presses against me so I can feel his erection, hard, against my ass. I’m caught between the flat, unforgiving door and the ever harder wall of muscle that is Dax. Pushing my hair to the side, his mouth devours my neck, making me cry out again. I’m aching, wet, more turned on than I’ve ever been as he drags down the zipper reaching from my shoulders to my ass. He spreads open the dress and I feel his tongue between my shoulder blades, sending jolts of excitement through the ends of every one of my nerves. Oh, my god, this feels so good I can already barely take it. My nerve endings are like live wires, about to overload from the jolt of current pulsing through them. He pulls my dress from my shoulders and slides it down my body until it’s puddled on the floor. When I’m standing there, naked except for my pumps, he turns me around. My nipples pebble as his hungry gaze sweeps over me. “Goddamn,” he drawls, low and lost as his eyes rake over my naked body. “You’re beautiful.” He scoops me up and places me on the bed, gazing at me hungrily. Then he pulls off his t-shirt and kneels on the ground before me. His body looms over me, not quite touching, but close enough that I can feel the sparks radiating between us. His eyes are dark now, half-lidded, primal, feral. Then, all at once he descends and his mouth slams down on mine in a feverish kiss. Soon, it’s back to fucking with our tongues, and part of me thinks I might just be able to stay doing this forever and ever and be fine. At the same time, I want so much more. Everything he has to give. I tug at his shirt, helping him lift it over his head, then my fingers trail down his hard chest, stopping at the trail of dark hair pointing the way from his belly to what’s beneath. I unsnap his jeans, and he lets out a heavy, panting breath as I lower the zipper. My knuckles graze his hardness through his underwear, and he jolts with the motion. “Is this . . . okay?” I ask uncertainly. He chuckles softly. “Anything you want to do is okay, Katydid.” Emboldened by that, I look down between us. My body shudders as I see his underwear, stretched over his erection. I suck in a breath. “I’ve never . . .” He kicks off his jeans and now he’s only in his underwear. Then he takes my hand, dips open the band of his underwear, and gently slips my hand inside. He’s hot, burning up. I feel the small wisps of hair there, and then his cock. My body shivers as I stroke its smooth thickness. I look up and see him, head tilted back, one eye gazing intently at me. I nudge down his underwear so I can see it, and he complies, pulling it down and kicking them off too, so we’re both naked. My eyes trail down his strong torso, to the V of his waist, to the trimmed pubic hair. And there it is, his cock. Glorious and rock hard and damn. Huge. I have nothing to compare it to, I know. But there is no denying it. Dax Harding is huge. And beautiful. I draw in a shaky breath as it hits home. This is happening. There are no doubts in my mind. Only me, and Dax, about to do something we should’ve done a long time ago. He closes the gap so my breasts push against his chest. I pull him closer, even closer, so close that his heartbeat is thudding against mine. He leans his head down and kisses me, soft and tender, his eyes begging me once more for permission. Does he not know that I’ve already given him permission? That I’ve already said yes? It’s far from the Dax that treats women like meaningless

conquests. It’s like he can’t believe that I would deign to be with him. “Don’t stop this,” I tell him, completely melted and gasping from the tenderness of this moment. I race my fingers down his strong back to the globes of his ass, kneading them. He growls into his kisses, then his mouth drops down, lower, lower, finding purchase on my breast. And all at once he’s licking and sucking my nipple, leaving me spasming and arching my back in pure delight. I scratch at his ass with my fingernails, pushing myself off the bed, meeting his open mouth. He stays like that for what seems like hours, just licking and kissing my breasts, cupping one and then the other, and the small fire in my belly starts to gather into a fiery inferno. Then his mouth slowly trails downward, licking and nibbling to my naval. His rough cheeks are like sandpaper against my skin but it’s an amazing friction. He slides off the bed, then suddenly grabs my leg, lifting it up, positioning himself so that I can feel his breath on my clit. I let out an animal groan as his nose bumps up against my clit. “Oh,” I murmur, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “Oh, no . . . I can’t. Please don’t.” He sits up and lays a kiss right beneath my naval. “Tell me what you want to me to do, Katydid.” “Touch me there,” I murmur. “Just touch me everywhere.” He nudges my thighs open with his knees, spreading me open. I’m dripping wet. His hand slides between my legs, fingering my clit, and then slowly, he delves a finger into my hot, wet core. I gasp as fever shoots through ever one of my nerves. His finger slides slowly and rhythmically, in and out of me, making me moan and wriggle under his touch. His touch on my clit is gentle and soft and slow, circling surely so that now the wetness is coursing out of me. I feel an ache in my belly, something inside me, yearning to be filled. “I want you to fuck me,” I hear a voice say. I’m surprised to hear that it’s my own. What is he making me into? Someone bad…and someone who absolutely loves it. I hear a packet rip, and feel his hand withdraw from me for the smallest second, so that he can roll the condom on. I rest my weight on my elbows, watching him take his shaft in his hand and guide it between my legs. He pauses at my entrance and looks into my eyes. “Sure you want this?” I nod. More than anything. He covers me with his body, and suddenly I feel him sliding slowly into me, inch by inch, filling me. For one intense moment, the pressure becomes so intense that I close my eyes tightly and grit my teeth. Can I really do this? He’s too big. “Fuck, Katie,” he murmurs, voice strained and husky. His hands are gripping my hips. “You’re so tight. I’m almost . . . in.” And then he is flush against me, hips against hips. The intense pressure and pain subsides, and now there’s just this enormous feeling of fullness, of completeness that I’ve been lacking all my life. He’s huge, stretching me, and I feel him inside me, throbbing with his heartbeat. I let out a shuddery breath and savor the feeling of his hot skin totally against mine, blanketing me. I kiss the side of his face, salty with his sweat, and wonder what comes next. “This okay?” he asks unsurely. “Does it hurt?” I shake my head. “I love it.” And it’s true. Now that he’s inside me, I’m getting even wetter and the nerve endings are pulsing, millions of them, and I moan ecstatically. Pressure is building again, an explosion just waiting to happen. Before it can, he releases his grip

on my hips and pulls himself out. I feel the tip of his shaft at my entrance for a mere breath, and then he plunges inside, slowly and steadily. I can’t help it. It rips an orgasmic shriek from my mouth. “Okay?” he asks me, searching out my eyes. “Yes. More. Faster.” Another slow, slide out, and this time, no pause. He thrusts into me, hard this time. The excitement is building, blooming deep in my core like a volcano, ready to erupt. His muscles are tense as he pulls out and thrusts again, harder, faster, deeper, and there is pain, but mostly just the desire to get more of him as far into me as possible. “Yes. Yes,” I cry out. “Fuck me, Dax. Harder. Don’t stop.” “You like it hard?” he says, voice strained as I’m now lifting my hips off the bed, meeting his every thrust in a steadily hastening rhythm. We’re both covered in sweet sweat, and the friction is threatening to make us burst into flames. I grunt my approval. My swollen sex is dripping and his skin is slapping against mine, and the feel of his drenched cock sliding in and out is turning me on beyond imagination. He feels so good I can’t even believe it. I want to taste and smell and feel him forever, and meanwhile, I feel something coming—something deep inside me, getting more urgent and desperate for release. “Harder,” I murmur, concentrating hard. This feeling . . . what is it? It started low in my belly but now it’s radiating out, threatening to take over every inch of me. Now, I feel shameless. I want his mouth on me, everywhere. I want him to fuck me forever. The pressure in my belly is now thundering through me, and I know an explosion is coming. He slows his thrusts, sliding in and out, testing the rhythm, getting even deeper. His chest slides against my hard nipples, and suddenly, I let out a cry. He’s found the right place, because the pleasure is almost too much to take, I’m getting even hotter and closer to that edge than I dreamed possible. I hook my legs around his hips and he buries himself impossibly deep inside me. I’m frantic as I find myself building to the edge of that peak. The climax. I don’t know it’s really the climax until it hits me. I’ve never had one before. My entire body ripples with such intensity I let out an animal scream. I come. So hard. So hard that I keep screaming and sobbing his name, over and over again, even as I start to come down. He rips me apart. He must’ve been holding out on me because the second I find myself coming down, he plunges deep into me, holding me there, and I feel him pulsating inside me. He lets out a long, muffled groan into my hair, then whispers my name over and over again. “Katherine,” he murmurs as the shuddering subsides, gazing dreamily into my eyes. He falls then, completely limp, into my arms. But that’s not my name. Not anymore. “Katie,” I whisper to correct him, cradling his head against my chest. “I’ll always be your Katie.”


up at the ceiling of the hotel room, I look around, seeing everything for the first time. I’d S taring been so blinded to everything but Dax that we could’ve done it in the middle of Quincy Market and I wouldn’t have cared. I look over at Dax, and a ripple of need rushes through me, catching low in my abdomen. He grabs my wrists and pins my arms over my head, kissing me. He’s hard again. As he starts to kiss his way down my breastbone, it hits me. I’m not a virgin anymore. In high school, Nevaeh had texted me when she lost her virginity to Stephen. Juliet texted me every time she slept with a new guy. I don’t have anyone to text, but the funny thing is, I don’t care. Dax is the only one I’ve ever wanted to tell everything to. The only one I’ve ever really needed. And God, it was good. All good, because it was Dax. I’d heard the details of my friends’ deflowering, and it had sounded like a huge letdown, anything but romantic. But Dax had been incredible. Gentle, sweet, yet also strong and powerful and in control. So good was an understatement. This ranked as one of, if not the best, nights of my life. And I’m pretty sure the other bests were also nights spent with Dax, talking on the phone, sneaking out, being together. It’s always been him, I realize. And the years without him have been like shadow versions of the times I’m with him. “Okay, what’s that face about?” he asks, sliding to my side and propping himself on one elbow, lingering over me. Holy hell, he’s beautiful. When he’s around it’s hard to believe anything is wrong. But when he says that, I realize something is tickling the back of my mind. I bite my lip, try to push it away. How can he know something’s wrong before I even know it? “Nothing.” He sucks in a breath. “Something.” “I feel like everything I’ve ever been told has been turned upside-down,” I explain, hyper-aware of every inch of Dax’s chiseled, naked body pressed up against mine. “You know, everyone’s always telling you to wait, because it’ll be better that way. Better, how? Instead, I’ve missed four years of this. If I knew what I was missing . . . Why did we wait that long? Why didn’t you tell me it would be that good?” He let out a low, sexy laugh. “I think I might have tried to tell you. About a thousand times.” “That’s not true. You never pressured me.” “Maybe I should’ve. I would have, if I ever thought you’d cave,” he jokes, raising an eyebrow. He

gently plays with a lock of my hair. “And sometimes you have to learn on your own that your parents aren’t right about everything.” My parents. I let out a sigh. They would kill me if they could see me now. But the funny thing is, I don’t care. My father has been saying forever that he knows what’s best for me, and that someday, I’ll thank him. But if I’d listened to him, I never would have had this amazing night with Dax. “Maybe they’re not right about a lot of things,” I mumble. He trails his warm finger on my collarbone. “Law school?” I nod. “My father thinks it’s the key to my happiness. But what does he know about happiness? I thought he knew everything, but obviously not. He and my mother are miserable together.” I think of the way I left my dad, snoozing away on the couch. “They’re getting a divorce, you know.” He raises an eyebrow but seems less than shocked. “Why?” I sigh. “No clue. They won’t tell me. They suddenly hate each other. And sometimes I think it’s because of me. You know I’m their world. Maybe I was the common thread holding them together, and without me to look after, they just fell apart.” “That’s their business, not yours,” he says simply. But it’s not that simple for me. It’s different for Dax, though. He hasn’t really had parents to depend on, ever. I try to explain what I mean. “I’ve never seen my dad look so down. He’s used to laugh and smile all the time. Now he’s like a totally different person. I feel like if I disappoint him with the law school thing, he’ll unravel completely.” I close my eyes. “I wish I had a real passion that I followed with my whole heart. I mentioned once to my dad that I might like to be a lawyer. I also said I might like to be a princess or a rock star or an astronaut, too. But he took the lawyer thing as gospel and now here I am. Stuck.” “You’re not stuck. You need to tell him.” Again, he makes it sound so easy. “But I need to have a solid back-up plan. I don’t even know what I want to do.” He looks puzzled. He’s always loved cars. Tinkering is in his blood. I guess it’s hard for him to understand how a person can be born without passion like that. “Haven’t you ever had anything that stirred you up? Made you excited to wake up in the morning? Something you couldn’t not do?” I don’t even have to think. I know I’ll come up blank. The only thing that’s ever made me feel out of control excited is, well . . . him. Maybe that’s pathetic, but it’s true. “I wish I could be like you. You know exactly what you love to do, and you do it.” A smile quirks up one corner of his mouth. “Nah. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love cars. But the garage is the garage. It’s small, falling apart. I’ve been toying with the idea of opening a real high-end shop. Even got myself pre-approved for a loan. But my father tells me that Friesville ain’t the place for that. People have sent their cars to me from as far away as Connecticut, Virginia, Ohio to have me work on them, but he thinks it’ll fail. The last thing I want to do is sink what little our family has into it and prove him right,” he says. The way he talks about it, his eyes blazing with such fierce intensity, I have a hard time believing anything he attempts will fail. “You should do it. I think it would work. Even in a small town like Friesville.” He rolls over onto his back and plants his hands behind his head. I nestle myself in the crook of his arm. “Parents,” he mutters. “Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t be born into this world without ‘em. I guess they did something right, though. If ours hadn’t decided to settle in Friesville, we never would’ve met.”

I swallow hard as I remember something else. “My parents are selling the house and leaving town, though. Soon I won’t have a home there. And I won’t have . . .” I stop, the words a reason to come back on the tip of my tongue. Because now I have every reason to come back. Now, I have the biggest reason in the world. He tucks a finger under my chin, lifting my head so I have no choice but to look into his eyes. “You’ll always have a home with me,” he tells me. “You got that?” “But your family . . . your friends . . .” I start. If he’s my home in Friesville, there will be no sneaking around. And surely they’d all have something to say about us being a couple. That was the reason everything fell apart when we went public before. Everyone turned on us, everything blew up, nobody supported what we had. And worst of all . . . “My parents. Are you saying we just . . .” He nods. “Fuck ‘em.” It feels like such a huge step. But when I think of it, it’s like a heavy weight, released from my shoulders. We’re adults now, capable of making our own decisions. And everything about this feels right, and real. If he’s willing to take that major step, then I am, too. I smile. “All right. Fuck ‘em.”


the first time I saw Dax Harding. He was sitting on a table in the cafeteria, carving I remember something into the tabletop with a pocketknife. If anyone else tried that, the teachers would’ve been all over him. But teachers, my parents included, feared Dax. They let him get away with things. I usually darted around the building like a mouse, worried about my next test or how to impress my teacher, but he lounged there, without a care in the world, surrounded by a group of loyal subjects, mostly girls. All the girls loved him, but it was clear he was as above them as he was above the rules: untouchable, immortal. Even from that very first day, I wondered what it would be like to be in his orbit. To hear him drawl my name in his low, sexy voice, or place an arm around my shoulder the way he did with so many other girls. And he’s mine now, I think, doing my best not to stare at him open-mouthed in wonder as we cruise down the highway, leaving Boston and heading back to our real lives and real problems. I push the thought out of my head before it can take root. He’s fucked dozens of girls, and none of them owns him. How can I even think he’s mine? Last night was amazing, but he’s a wild thing, incapable of being tamed. Still, thinking of the way he held me all night, the way he’d whispered my name, it’s easy to believe such a thing. And he said I would always have a home with him. Now, his hand only leaves mine in the split second it takes to shift gears. After that, it’s right back into mine. If this doesn’t mean forever, how can he be that convincing a liar? “Thinking about your parents again?” he asks me when we reach the Friesville town limits. I nod. Even though it’s a lie, even though I’ve mostly been thinking about him, I have thought about my parents. “I’m going to tell them,” I say. “About us.” He winces. “Good luck with that, Katydid. You want me to come with you?” God, no. That’ll just stir things up. I shake my head. “It’s better if I smooth things over first.” He snickers, as if the idea of smoothing things over is beyond absurd. “Think they’ll invite me to dinner?” he wonders aloud. “And poison it?” “It’s a good possibility,” I say seriously, not feeling much like laughing. We’re pulling up to my street now, and already my nerves have multiplied. But I take a few deep breaths, determined. “They may kill me. But if I am still alive, I’ll text you after it’s over.” What would have been a protracted, racy make-out scene in the Mustang ends up being seriously G-rated because of the real possibility my parents are watching. I leave him with a short kiss and a

wave, and the second he’s gone, my skin recalls the heat of his body, his rough stubble rasping its way down my abdomen. I shiver despite the hot day as I make my way up to the porch. I didn’t have to worry about them watching. When I get inside, I find my father at the back of the house, drowning in stacks of paper he’s amassed from his twenty-five years of teaching at Friesville High. “Hi Dad,” I say, navigating around the piles and giving him a kiss to butter him up. “Hey kiddo. Back from putting out fires in the big city, huh?” He waves his arms at the mess in front of him. “I think I murdered an entire forest during my career.” I laugh way too much at the stupid joke. “Where’s Mom?” I ask him. “Upstairs. She’s packing up her closet,” he says, stuffing more papers into a giant garbage bag. There was a time that they’d both tackle each room together, but now it’s rare to find them in the same room for more than thirty seconds. “Do you think I can talk to you both?” I ask him. He stops suddenly. This is serious. I don’t ever ask to have a “talk”. I’ve never really needed to, because I always just fell in line and did what they told me to. Until now. “Sure, honey,” he says, wiping his hands on the back of his jeans. He and I go up to the kitchen, and he calls up there stairs, “Gloria? Your daughter’s home, and she wants to talk to us both.” My mother appears at the end of the hallway, eyes wide with concern. “Everything all right? You didn’t get into an accident, did you?” I shake my head. We sit down at the table, me across from them, so I’ll so easily be able to see their faces morph into disgust at my news. I take deep breaths, trying to calm myself. I’ve never been this nervous in front of my parents before. I’ve never had a reason to be. When Dax and I were together in high school, the second they told me to end it, I did. I’m an adult, I tell myself. I make my own decisions. I take another breath, and the words come out in a tumble: “Dax and I are together.” Silence. Their faces already registered worry, and they don’t change much. No disgust. No lunging across the table to strangle me. My father turns to look at my mother, but she’s staring calmly at me. I wait a beat, two. One more. I wait for the world to end. Finally, she says, “Were you with him last night?” I drop my eyes to my lap. I nod. Maybe now the wrath will come? My father says, under his breath, “This is a mistake.” My mother whips her head around to look at him. “Well you’re the authority on that, Henry. Frankly, I don’t think your opinion matters here.” He crosses his arms. “Like hell it doesn’t. She’s still my daughter. And you forget, I had Dax in my classroom. I’ve seen the way he operates. The truth is that Dax is not the person you want to attach yourself to. He’ll only bring you down. I’m pretty sure we had this exact conversation four years ago.” My mother suddenly slams her hands down on the table. I jump. Her eyes are wild. “Your. Opinion. Doesn’t. Matter,” she repeats, her words hard-edged. “Maybe it did then. Not now.” I stare at her, rigid in shock. She always used to consult with him about everything, which was maybe why I always used to, too. Since when did his opinion stop carrying weight? She looks at me, and her voice becomes calm and soothing. “Is he good to you?” I nod slowly, still trying to comprehend that look of rage on her face. Have I ever seen her so

angry and out of control before. “So good. He drove me all the way to Boston, mom.” She nods. “He makes you happy?” “Yes,” I say, thinking about yesterday. It was a blast, and not just the sex part. Even hanging out with him in high school, I was never as happy as I was when I was with him. “Totally.” “Then good. Life’s too short to spend with people who make you miserable.” She stands up and walks down the hallway, toward her bedroom, without another word. Perhaps nothing was more surprising than this—my parents division never more obvious than it was during this conversation. Their disgust for one another is palpable and it makes me sad down to the pit of my stomach. My father, biting his tongue, goes back to his work. I change into boxers and a tank and spend the rest of the afternoon ping-ponging between my parents, sometimes helping my mother pack her clothes, sometimes helping my father with his sea of paperwork. When dinner comes around, my mother only sets the table for two. My father gets showered and goes out. Turns out, they don’t even eat together, anymore. They are as separate as two people who live under the same roof can be. I know I’m supposed to text Dax, but my mother just looks so sad and lonely. So my mother and I spend a quiet couple of hours, just the two of us, sitting among half-packed boxes and half-empty cabinets, chatting about nothing important. We take down all the pictures from the foyer, and memories come along with each one. It’s a nice, sad stroll down memory lane, and several times, I have to choke back the tears. The truth is, though, in another few weeks, when she moves out of the house and down to Florida to live with her sister, I’m not going to see her very much. Everything is going to change. At times, I consider asking Mom for more details on what happened between her and Dad, but everything seems way to fresh and raw. I don’t want to hurt her just to satisfy my curiosity. When my mother goes off to bed, my father still isn’t home. I head into my bedroom, shutting the door, and jab in a text to Dax. I’m alive. Two seconds later, he comes back with: How’d it go? I smile. Not as bad as I thought. My dad wasn’t so great. But my mom seems cool. His response: Are you shittin me? Then: Can I come over? I’m throwing my hair into a ponytail and getting ready to wash my face. I laugh and punch in: What, now? I’m getting in bed. Two seconds later: I’m definitely coming over. I laugh and am about to head across the hall to brush my teeth when I hear a rap on my window. I cross the room, thinking of our first kiss. I pull open the blinds and see him leaning against the bent dogwood tree out there, just as he had four years ago. My mouth drops. “Have you been out there all this time?” “Well, fuck, girl. You said you’d text me right after you told your parents, and if you didn’t, you were dead,” he whispers. “It’s been hours. I thought you were dead. I was gonna call 911.” “Sorry,” I whisper back, searching the darkness around him. No headlights coming up the street yet, but my father could be here any minute. I pull the window up higher and slide the screen back. “Come in.” He throws a leg over the window ledge and crawls in, blinking to adjust to the light. I have a lot of my old unicorn and One Direction posters off the wall, but it’s apparently not enough. He chuckles. I remember how he teased me relentlessly about my room before and jab him in the ribs with my

elbow. “Shut up.” I have my hands up to stop him, but he puts his own hands up, mirroring me, and then his rough hands entwine with mine. He kisses me softly, his lips barely grazing my lips, but that’s enough. I’m gone. His. As easy as that. Everything inside me falls like a landslide, slow at first, then all at once, into him. His eyes trail over to the bed, with this wild and dangerous look in them. He starts to guide me over there, but in a futile last effort to get myself back from the edge of abandon, I nudge at him, shaking my head rigidly. “My mom is right in the next room,” I warn in a whisper. “We’ll be quiet,” he mumbles. I glance at him doubtfully. I can’t trust myself when Dax is around. Still, he guides me to the bed and buries his face in my neck, not doing anything but breathing there. I feel his heat and his breath and I’m powerless to do anything but go the way he wants me to go. “How are you doing this to me,” I whisper, tossing my head back and closing my eyes. “Everything wrong seems right. Everything we shouldn’t do, I think we should.” “You don’t want me here?” he murmurs, not even a whisper, just a breath I feel on my ear. “Tell me to go.” I shake my head and push him off me. Then I reach down and peel off my tank top. “I want this. I want you. I want your mouth on me. I think about it all the time, now.” Dax’s eyes go wide, and he licks his lips. “I think about it, too, baby. And there’s somewhere I really want to put my mouth. I’ve been thinking about it all day. I need to taste you.” “You mean . . . oh,” I say unsurely. “But I—“ “Listen. I promise you. I’ll love it.” His eyes darken as they rove my body, becoming wolfish. Without laying a hand on me, he says, “Take those off.” I let out a shaky breath. I look down at my boxers and slip them off, kicking them away, leaving me naked and him completely clothed. His eyes rake over my body, and he must have affected me more than I realized, because for once I’m not at all ashamed. All I feel is overwhelming need. My body is so hot and there’s that same aching low in my belly. But this time I know what it is. It’s desire, and I know just how to quench it. He reaches out, sliding his fingers down my belly, which clenches at his touch. He positions me in front of the bed and gently pushes me down. I sit on the edge of the bed, him staring wickedly over me. “Lie back,” he instructs. “Spread your legs.” I do, feeling his body settle in between my legs, his breath on my thighs. Then suddenly, it’s his tongue, his amazing hot tongue, right on my clit. “Oh!” I mumble, biting it back as soon as it escapes my lungs. He expects me to be quiet for this? The knowledge that I’m so close to getting caught doesn’t help me to resist. I spread my legs wider to give him better access. “Yeah, that’s right,” he breathes onto my folds. “God damn, you’re sweet.” I blush at first at his words, but then all shame falls away. He really, really likes this. I toss my head back and try desperately to stifle my moans as he sucks at my clit, and now I’m soaking him with my juices and that only seems to give him more energy. His chin and lips are coated with me, and he’s licking and sucking as if it’s his mission to make me scream and wake the neighbors. And that actually might happen because I’ve never felt anything like this. I writhe on the bed, arching and bucking in time to his tongue’s lapping. I coil my fingers in his

thick hair and push his face into my cunt. And just when I think it can’t get better, he slides a finger into my wet canal. And holy shit, I just go insane. I let out a scream and then grab for a pillow and throw it over my face. “No!” I mumble hoarsely. “Oh, god, no! No more!” “You want me to stop,” he breathes into my folds, but he doesn’t. He slowly eases another finger into me, making me shudder uncontrollably. He slides them in and out in time to my thrusts against him, and all the while his mouth is nipping and nibbling on my clit. I don’t want him to stop. I’m coming to the edge again, and I can’t back down now. I scream into the pillow, sobbing and arching and bucking against his face in a whirlwind. “Oh God, Dax, please . . .” I’m begging him. Please what? I don’t even know what I want from him. Just more of this. Suddenly I’m exploding. Falling to pieces, with his tongue buried deep inside me. He carries me over to oblivion, staying there to make sure I’m okay. Then he climbs up my shuddering body, the stubble around his mouth glistening with my juices. I’m blushing, hard and hot. “Oh my god,” I mumble. “What was that?” He chuckles. “I wanted to do it last night. You weren’t ready.” “I was scared,” I murmured. “Embarrassed you’d—“ “Fuck, girl,” he says with a grin. “I’ve never tasted anything as sweet as you.” He kicks off his boots and pulls off his shirt, then holds me in his arms for the rest of the night, not trying another thing. In the morning, when the sun comes up, he’s already gone. But for the first time ever, I don’t even question whether I’ll see him again. I know I will.


days later, and I’m standing in front of an old-style gas stove in Dax’s house, about to freak A few out. I look frantically around the house for something or someone to save me. Nothing pops out from the clutter. Dax’s home could definitely use a woman’s touch. The men of the house have Eagles sheets over the windows. They have an old carburetor as a centerpiece on the kitchen table. There are dirty dishes in the sink and layers of dust on all the surfaces. The house is a total sty, with laundry everywhere. This is the way they’ve lived most of their lives. I’m not in Kansas anymore, that’s for sure. I grew up in a spotless home with an electric stove. Stupid me, thinking all I needed to do was turn the switch and the burners would light. I’ve been standing here for ten minutes in Dax’s ultimate man-cave of a home, waiting for something to happen, which is throwing a serious wrench in my plans to impress Dax’s family by making them all dinner tonight. So now, four hungry brothers are going to come back from the shop to a box of uncooked spaghetti, raw meatballs, and a salad. This isn’t exactly working the way I’d hoped. “What are you trying to do, burn the house down?” someone snaps from behind me, making me jump. It’s Vincent, Dax’s youngest brother. But Dax always called him Wob, short for Wobble, because he’s never been the most coordinated of kids. The kid was a walking band-aid, all skinned-knees and scabs, or so Dax once told me. When I was in high school, I’d seen him once at the shop, when he was an innocent and scrawny eleven-year old. Now, he’s almost a perfect copy of high school Dax in every way, except that he’s pierced his ears and eyebrow and his hair is a lot longer. He’s wearing a long-sleeve, black Slipknot t-shirt and baggy jeans despite the fact that it’s probably a hundred degrees today and the Harding’s house doesn’t have air conditioning. I’m sweating like a pig in my camisole and short-shorts, part from the heat and part from the stress, but Wobble looks way cooler than I do. “I’m trying to make dinner,” I explain dumbly. In the recent days since Dax and I decided not to sneak around, there hasn’t been much to test us. Probably because when I haven’t been helping my parents pack and Dax hasn’t been at the shop, we’ve been together in his bedroom late at night, enjoying alone time. Which means some really mind-blowing sex. This is the first time I’m in Dax’s house, without him, though, and it feels a little like a minefield.

“You’re mom and dad teach at the high school, right?” Wobble mumbles, less-than-thrilled. He pulls the ear buds attached to his phone out of his ears and comes up close to me, a sneer on his face. I understand that look. I’m sure he was in one of the Deadly Donahues’ classes. My parents taught all the Harding kids. They called those kids hellions. I’m sure my father’s gray hairs are a direct result of Cal, Eric, Tom, and Vincent. But I’m sure the hate was mutual. It’s no wonder those boys used to look at me like I’m infested with worms. Wobble slides open a drawer and smoothly pulls out a box of matches. “Got to light the pilot,” he drawls, sounding eerily Dax-like. I wrinkle my nose. “But it is lit,” I protest as he opens the top of the stove. “I—“ I stop when I realize that nope, the blue light that used to be there the last time I checked is definitely out. “This one goes out all the time,” he explains as he lights it up. He switches it on and the burners light. “Voila.” “Thank you,” I say, smiling at him gratefully. And he actually smiles at me, too. “No sweat.” Progress! He starts to stuff the ear buds back into his ears. The music is so loud, he’ll probably go deaf one day. “You’re listening to Slipknot, huh? They’re cool.” He nods. “Yep.” Just when I think that maybe this is going to be okay, the smile morphs into this sly smirk. “Yeah. Well. I got to listen to it loud. I share a bedroom wall with Dax. You’re fucking loud when you come.” And then he walks away, leaving me with my face red and my mouth hanging open, like a goldfish’s. I spend the rest of the time alternating between mortified over what Vincent said and petrified that I won’t finish dinner in time. It’s not easy, figuring out a kitchen that’s not my own, especially one that’s been ruled by men for the past dozen years, but eventually I set the table and get the dinner ready. Then I sit down at the table and cover my face in my hands. I think about Vincent, listening to everything Dax and I have been doing the past couple days. We’d tried to be quiet, but it obviously wasn’t quiet enough. I’ve had countless mind-blowing orgasms the past few days, but knowing that Dax’s little brother has heard them . . . Moments later, the door opens and Dax and his twin brothers stomp in, throwing their greasy stuff down in a heap in the middle of the living room. Eric and Tom are a year behind me in school, and back then they were both arrested for drag-racing cars down Main Street, drunk. I’d never seen Dax so pissed as when he got the call and had to go bail them out. Both Eric and Tom have Dax’s height, but where Dax is lean, these boys are built like linebackers. As far as twins go, they have different personalities—Tom is the type A, go-getting kind who will be first to help out when Dax needs it, and Eric is the slug. That’s why Tom is Sparrow, and Eric is Turkey, because Dax’s mom thought the names fit them, even when they were babies. “What smells good?” One of them says. Then they pile through the kitchen doorway and catch sight of me. Dax’s eyes light up, making my insides flutter, but his brothers’ eyes narrow in unison. “Hi,” I say, giving them a wave, wondering if they heard Dax and me fucking last night, too. “Hey,” Sparrow says unexcitedly. Their eyes drift to the bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. “I made dinner,” I say brightly. Looking at them, then back at the table, I wonder if I made enough food. I bite my lip as Dax moves close to me, and my heart thrums as he kisses me, cupping my

backside and massaging it while the boys can’t see. God, I love it when his hands mold my ass. I could probably get off having him do that all day. His eyes drift wolfishly to my camisole, and now I know the true meaning of undressing a person with one’s eyes. “I’m only hungry for one thing, Darlin’,” he whispers. I swat him away as Vincent quietly appears in the doorway like a black ghost. He rolls his eyes at me. Great. He’s caught us again. Dax pulls out a chair for me and says, “Where’s dad?” I shrug, surprised he has no idea. “I haven’t seen him. I thought he was with you at the shop?” Dax and his brother share worried glances. Dax pulls out his phone and starts to jab in a number, then brings the phone to his ear and disappears into the living room. The boys waste no time digging into their food. No conversation, no thank you, the only sound the scrape of utensils on the plate. They pile it down, mouthful after mouthful. By the time Dax gets back only a minute later, their plates are nearly clean. Dax sits down, tosses his phone on the table, and rubs his face tiredly. “Well?” one of the twins asks. “Where is he?” “Where do you think, Spar?” Dax mutters. “Guess he’s been there all day.” I don’t have to be a Harding to know the answer to that. Murphy’s is the Friesville’s shithole bar. It’s the place where people go to drink away their paycheck after a long week at work. The only reason I know anything about it is because Dax’s dad practically has a VIP barstool reserved for his ass, he’s there so much. Mr. Harding hasn’t worked in the shop for years, so instead of blowing his own paycheck, he’s pissing away everything his sons make at the garage. “Fuck,” the twins says in unison. Wobble pulls his ear buds out of his ears and groans, “What do we do?” Dax stands and pockets his phone. “Guess I’m gonna go get him. Can’t have him total his car like last time.” “I’ll go with you,” I say, rocketing to my feet, though I haven’t eaten a bite of my meal. Truthfully, I don’t have the appetite to sit around and take in a meal with three boys who can’t even stand to look at me. Dax agrees and we hop into his tow truck. We ride out of the country, toward the downtown, an area with not much else than a rundown liquor store, Murphy’s, and a seedy hotel. As he drives, one arm hooked over the steering wheel, his other hand downshifts, lands on my thigh, then works its way up between my legs. “I’ve missed this all day, baby,” he says. “Dinner was great.” I spread my legs, giving him better access. Since I’m not wearing underwear, his finger finds its way up to my folds. I’m already soaking wet as he parts them, finding my clit. “You didn’t even eat dinner,” I point out, letting out a sharp gasp as he starts to stroke there, sending ripples of electricity straight to my heart. He nods. “You have to be starving. You can have some when we get back,” I offer. “Shit, girl, you’ve obviously never lived in a house with five boys before,” he says with a laugh. “I guarantee all of it’s gone now. They’re probably licking the bowl as we speak.” “Really?” I’m trying to act surprised but at this point I don’t even know what we’re talking about. He just said licking. And so now all I can think of is him, slowly nibbling his way down my body, pressing his mouth hard against me as I clutch handfuls of his hair . . . “It’s okay, I’ve got my dinner right here,” he says, as I let out a low moan. Holy fuck. He’s going to make me come before we even pull into the parking lot. I spread my legs even wider, letting him

slide a finger up into my core. I’m so wet, so turned on. “I’m gonna make you come again and again tonight. That’s a promise.” Suddenly, I think of Vincent. I press my legs closed. “You know, your brother told me he heard everything. Of, us…you know . . .” Dax moves his hand back to the stick, then looks over at me, slightly amused, but not ashamed. “That perverted little prick.” Why the hell am I the only one who feels uncomfortable about this? “So, you’re okay with that?” “No. But I’m also not going to stop being with you in the privacy of my own room. What do you want me to do, tell him to get out of the house?” he asks. He sighs heavily and bangs a first against the steering wheel. “It’s not like I can get my own place. Not with my dad as bad as he is.” I know that. I share a wall with my parents’ bedroom, so now I’m wondering if my mom heard me the night we were there. I’d had that pillow clamped over my face, but still, it felt so damn good I couldn’t be quiet. “And your brothers don’t really like me much,” I say. “I feel like an intruder whenever I’m at your house.” He waves it off. “They’re like me. Not good with change. They’ll get used to it. Give it time.” As we pull into the parking lot of Murphy’s, I tell myself to shut up and stop complaining. After all, he’s doing the best he can. “Stay here,” he says, climbing out of the truck. I’m relieved, to tell the truth, because the place is so scary. Having Dax with me would give me courage, but even so, the place is frightening. I watch as he walks toward the box-shaped, windowless building and disappears inside the door with the neon Coors sign on it. A few unsavory characters are hanging out in the lot, smoking and talking really loud. Moments later, Dax comes out, supporting Mr. Harding on his shoulder. The man is a lot thinner and grayer than the last time I saw him. He’s probably my father’s age, but he has deep lines on his face that make him look a lot older. He has his son’s emerald eyes, but his are glassy and unfocused. I scramble out of the truck and into the cramped back seat to allow Mr. Harding to climb into the passenger’s seat. I hear him slurring words of anger at Dax: “You din’ hafa come an’ get me. I was fine! Can’t a guy haf a good time?” Dax doesn’t say anything. He helps his father into the car, slams the door, and jogs over to the driver’s side. The stench of booze and cigarettes makes my eyes water the moment the door is closed. In front of me, Mr. Harding lolls his head to the side, clearly having trouble keeping upright. He drops his head to his shoulder and his bleary eyes slowly focus on me. “Hi, there, darlin’,” he says in a charming drawl. Now I know where Dax gets it from. My stomach starts to churn. I’ve “met” his dad a couple of times, but he likely doesn’t remember that, not because of all the years that have passed, but because he wasn’t exactly conscious. Most often, when I’d come to the garage, he’d be locked in the office, “doing the bookkeeping” with a sixpack. After we’d talk, the last thing Dax ever did, each night, was wake his dad and help him into his truck. I always thought it was sweet, the way this rowdy, tough bad boy would take care of his father like that. After Dax and I broke up, though, I heard through the grapevine that Mr. Harding had gotten sick and Dax had taken over all the books. Dax says, very simply, “You remember Katie, right, Pop?” He looks at me through the rear view mirror as he prepares to pull out. “Katie, this is my dad.” His dad throws a hand over the seat, I guess for me to shake. I shake only the tips of his fingers.

They’re ice cold. Then he says, “Donahue?” There’s a long pause. “Henry and Gloria’s girl?” I swallow. “Yep.” He laughs, long and hard, which dissolves into a hacking, wheezing cough. By the time I’m thoroughly confused, he says, “Went to high school with your dad. He was always so high and mighty, talking about how he was going to move away and make his mark on the world. And what did he do? Moved right back here.” I freeze. It’s weird to think my parents were ever right where I am now, ready to start their careers and conquer the world. To me, they’ve always been teachers. But I’ve pieced together my father’s story. He got away to Penn State, got his Masters in education and was thinking of law school himself, but he met my mom, and family duty called him back to Friesville. “My dad’s mother was sick and they didn’t want to leave her, because she didn’t have anyone else. And by the time she died, they had good careers here, teaching at the high school.” “Yeah,” he mutters. “That’s the problem with this place. This place gets its hooks in you, and you’re stuck.” My father had said something like that. It was one of the reasons he let me go to Boston, instead of keeping me close by. As much as he loved to helicopter over me, he also wanted me to do what he’d never had a chance to do. “What you gotta do is not wait. Don’ think you got all the time in the world cause one day you wake up an’ you’re an old man, like me. Get out while the getting’s good, and don’t let nothin’ turn your head.” I start to nod, but then I look over and spy Dax’s face in the rearview mirror. His mouth is a straight line. When we get back to the house, I see that Dax is right—the boys left not a single strand of spaghetti for us, but what they did leave was all the dirty dishes. I start to clean them off while Dax gets his father settled in his bedroom. When he comes downstairs again, I crank off the faucet and say, “Do you want me to order you a pizza?” I turn to see him staring hard at the ceiling, his hands behind his head, deep in thought. “Are you okay?” I ask him. He shakes his head. “Don’t know. The whole thing with you . . . being here. Making dinner. It’s not that we don’t appreciate it, it’s just that . . .” He lets out a deep sigh. “I think we’re getting carried away.” I narrow my eyes at him. “What?” He leans against the kitchen counter, besides all the dishes I just cleaned for his family. “You’re leaving in a few days. Right?” I nod, not sure where this is going. “Yes, but I’m only a few hours away, and--“ “You’re a world away, Katie. You knew this had a time limit. When I said I didn’t want to sneak around, I meant that as adults we shouldn’t have to anymore. But you know who I am. You knew it going in. Don’t shit me by telling me you thought this meant something more than what I can give you.” I suck in a breath. I’m not sure, because I’ve never been through this before. And yet I have. His eyes are dark, cold and aloof, the way they were when I told him I was going to Boston. But this time, it sounds awfully like he’s trying to say goodbye. “What is this? Kick me to the curb before I can do it to you again?” “You were going to, weren’t you?” “No, I—“ I stop. “I can come back every weekend. We can make this work.”

He scoffs. “When? While you’re going to law school? You’re fucking going to come back every weekend to hang out with your dumb mechanic boyfriend while you’re getting your law degree?” “Yes. I mean, no,” I plead. “You’re not dumb. I never thought that. I . . . what about . . .” What about the past few days? I sound pathetic. I know what sex is to Dax Harding, and in his book, it sure doesn’t spell forever. I fight back tears stinging the corners of my eyes, do my best to keep my voice from cracking. “So, are you breaking up with me?” His face is stone, his words are steel. Those green eyes leak no emotion. “We were never together.” I blink, trying to pinpoint where everything suddenly went to shit. The past few hours flash through my mind—making dinner, him being happy to see me, the ride in his truck where he couldn’t keep his hands off me and told me I’m going to make you come again and again tonight— It’s not an hour later, and he’s a different person. Rigid, posture tight. He’s not the Dax I was falling for again. He’s that one that I left, all those years ago. “So this was only about sex?” I ask. He nods. “I’ll drive you home.” “No,” I manage, doing my best to keep my body from trembling. “Don’t bother.” He stands there for a minute, considering it. Then he pushes open the screen door and stalks out into the dark backyard. I calmly put down the dishtowel and gather my things. I pause on the front stoop, my finger hovering over my mother’s name in my cell phone. I’m an adult. I’m not supposed to want to call her for every little tragedy. But damn, how I want to. Closing my eyes, I think of what I’d said to her. He treats me so good. Pocketing my phone, I head down the driveway in a daze. I don’t stop when I reach the end of it. I just keep walking. I need to put as much distance between Dax and me as possible. Even Boston seems too close. And miracle of all miracles, somehow I manage to make it all the way home before I burst into tears.


the next two days doing exactly what I should’ve done this week, if I’d known what was I spend good for me: helping my parents get the house ready to go on the market and being the busy little worker bee for Mr. Fowler. Even though I’m not in the office, I’m a workhorse. I answer emails, volunteer to help the other interns, conduct an entire board meeting from three states away, and offer to bring breakfast for Monday when I return. I set up a rental car so that come hell or high water, I will be back in Boston by Monday, by the time my “vacation” ends. I drown myself in busywork so I don’t have to think about Dax. Not that it helps very well. Or even at all. When I’m in bed, I don’t sleep. I writhe around in physical pain, tangling myself in the sheets. All I do is replay my last conversation with Dax over and over again in my mind. You know who I am, he’d said. But I didn’t know that side that he showed everyone. I only knew the person he was when he was with me. But it doesn’t matter, does it? I’m the moron who let him fool me twice. On Saturday after dinner, I finish packing up my room. Now it’s down to nothing but bare furniture, a mattress, and fuzzy pink carpeting. I guess I’m not feeling very sentimental about my life in Friesville because there’s only one small box of things I want to keep; the rest I throw in the trash. When my parents are gone, there will be nothing in this town left for me. I’m counting the moments until I can get in my rental car and blow town for good. I’ve lined up a car transport that will deliver my VW to Boston so I don’t have to come back to town. Expensive, but worth it. My mother raps on the door as I’m finishing tossing things into a garbage bag. She has a little crinkle in her brow and is inspecting the ceiling as if she’s hearing distant thunder. “Oh, this is sad,” she says, wiping a tear from her eye. I nod. I’m numb. Maybe I’ve cried myself out, but I can’t even bring myself to care that in another few days, my childhood home won’t be mine anymore. I want to leave. I can’t fucking wait. She massages my shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right. Dax coming to take you back tomorrow?” I shake my head. How do I explain to her two seconds after I told her Dax and I were together, it all fell apart? I’ve become convinced that sweet, different side he showed me was nothing but a lie to get me to fall for him again. He wanted to nail the “one that got away”, and he did, game over. “I’m getting a rental.” She cocks her head to the side in question. I wait for the “Why?” Instead she strides to the now curtain-less window and tilts the blinds. “Speaking of your car . . . “ she says, motioning through the

window. “Looks like he got it running again.” I scramble off my mattress, nearly falling on my face trying to haul myself across the room. It’s darkening outside, but it’s easy to make out my bug in the driveway. The door opens and Dax coolly steps out, and runs a hand through his unruly dark hair, still wearing his body-defining grease-stained t-shirt. Then he looks right at my window and sees me gawking at him. I cringe and back away, turning all shades of red. I peer down at the same boxers and tank I’ve been wearing since Thursday. They have a stain from last night’s Chinese food on the front. I haven’t even showered in two days. I am the picture of beauty. FML. I know that I’m never going to see him again. That’s the plan. Even so, this is not the last image I want Dax Harding to have of me. “Mom! Tell him I’m not here. Tell him I went out,” I plead, wishing I hadn’t thrown away my old comforter because I’d really like to suffocate myself with it right now. She gives me a tsk. “Don’t be silly. He already saw you through the window,” she says, pushing a strand of flyaway hair behind my ear. “Did you two have a fight or something?” “No. I . . . I was wrong. I guess we’re not together. It’s complicated.” “Oh, baby,” she says, smoothing my hair. “Well, it’s probably for the best. You two do live very different lives. Long distance relationships are hard.” Maybe I could believe that was what Dax was worried about, if he had even called this a relationship. No, he said we were never together. Clearly, he doesn’t do relationships of any sort, long-distance or not. Dammit. I told myself I wouldn’t think about it again, but of course suddenly I am, so deeply that when the doorbell finally rings I jump sky high. “Fine, I’ll get it,” I say, daring myself to open the door without brushing my hair or my teeth. Let him see you looking like scum. That’ll show him you really don’t care. Right. Not happening. I quickly stop in the bathroom, smoothing my hair up into a ponytail and squirting a bit of Crest into my mouth. I know he won’t apologize, so I’ll play it cool. I will take the keys, write him a check, and send him on his merry way. I take a few deep breaths when I reach the door, to steel myself. I will be tough. I will be iron, I chant to myself. “Hey,” he says when I answer. My resolve crumbles immediately. He has his baseball cap backwards and his hands dug deep in his pockets, like a little boy. I melt like a popsicle on the hottest day of summer. I look past him, at the car, because those eyes will do their thing and make me even more his than I already am. “You fixed it,” I say, trying to keep my voice hard. He nods, pulls open the screen door, and motions me to follow him outside. “Yeah. The engine’s so fucking sweet it puts all other cars to shame. Your brakes were shit, too, so I got new pads. . .” He keeps going on and on. I walk behind him, into the fading daylight, as he leads me around it, showing it off. There’s no doubt—the car is beautiful now. Not good as new, but better than I’ve seen it looking in years. Did he . . . give it a new paint job? What the hell . . . are those new hubcaps? He keeps talking about a mile a minute, about all the improvements he made. Half of the things he says go right past me. Most of it goes right past me. Because all I want him to do is stop talking about the fucking car and hold me. “It’s nice, but I can’t pay you for all this,” I break in, while he’s going on about how he changed

all the fluids. “I don’t have the money.” He pulls the key out of his pocket and lays it on my palm. “No charge.” I take the key and step away. This is his penance. It’s his way of apologizing for screwing me over. But I’m not going to tell him it’s all right, because it’s not. “Thanks,” I mumble, turning to go back inside. This is it. This is the end. How can it be the end when every pore in my body is still screaming out for him? “Wait,” he says. Thank God. I whirl around. “Yes.” “I shouldn’t have done that to you, Katydid. I tried not to. But you’re so damn sweet, and sexy, and . . . I tried to control myself. I really did.” He squeezes his eyes closed for a second. “It’s no excuse. It never would’ve worked between us.” The excuse only makes me angrier. For me, this was real. Maybe it was even love. But for him, it was his inability to control his stupid libido? Pathetic. “I’m so sorry for your lack of control. Maybe you should see a doctor for it.” It takes every ounce of strength I have to shrug with indifference, like him walking away won’t be the most painful thing that’s ever happened to me. “And, sure. If you keep saying it’ll never work, that’s one way to make sure nothing ever works,” I say. “Goodbye, Dax.” I stomp toward the porch and thankfully, he’s on my heels. He puts his warm hand on my bare arm and whirls me around. “Come on, Katydid. You really think someone like me could ever . . .” I laugh bitterly. “What does it matter what I think? It’s what you want. You always got on me for doing what my parents expected me to. But you’re so much worse, trying to do what everyone expects you to, keeping up this image as a bad boy who doesn’t care about anyone but himself.” He holds up his hands. “Now, that’s not right. I—“ “It’s true. And really, at this point I think you’re right. All you’re good for is screwing girl after girl. You said it yourself. That’s who you are and you’re not about to change. And I know why. It’s because you’ve always been scared of change.” He lets the words sink in, and for a split second, I think that maybe I’ve gotten to him. Maybe I’ve wounded him, just a little bit. But then he rubs the back of his neck and looks at the ground. “Yeah. Huh. That’s what I said.” He lets out a heavy breath and looks back at my VW. “But I’m not all bad, am I, Katydid? Fixed your car.” He gives me this little boy grin that makes it impossible to hate him. But I fucking do hate him. I hate him for being such a man and for not being enough of a man. “How will you get home?” “I could do with the walk,” he says. “It’ll give me time to think. You leaving for the city tomorrow?” I nod, wondering if he’ll have room in that brain of his to even think of me while I’m gone. Or if he’ll forget so easily, like last time. “Guess this is goodbye, then, huh?” I don’t want it to be. I need him to grab me and tell me to stay. I think back of when I left for college, and how he told me to go. How I kept wishing he’d show up at my dorm and say he made a mistake. It didn’t happen then, and it won’t happen now. Yes, this is really goodbye. Suddenly, he steps forward and pulls me against his strong body. His hands tighten around my arms just the way I’d wanted to grab for him—desperately, with no intention of ever letting go. His

heart is beating in my ear and he’s warm and pleasant and safe and all those things that Boston is not. It’s more than that, though—it’s a sensation I’ve only had a handful of times in my life, of being one hundred percent comfortable and happy and home. With him. I’ve only had it with him. He doesn’t say anything though. He just holds me there. I have to remind myself that he was the one who threw me away. The seconds tick by, making this home feel so temporary, and futile. I feel my every nerve weakening inside me. If I stay here any longer, I will be powerless to stop him from hurting me, over and over again. And I can’t do this anymore. Standing on my tip-toes, I kiss him on the cheek, and push him away. I don’t look in his eyes. That would be my undoing. I mumble a goodbye and rush into the house before he can see my eyes fill with tears. Turns out, I’m not all cried out, after all.


“M iss Donahue! This brief is incomplete!”

His words hit me like gunshots fired from Fowler’s office across the hall. He’s so loud that every head in cubicleland swings in my direction. They’re all eating their bagels and cream cheese, courtesy of me, but do they show me any sympathy at all? Nope. The other interns look like they’re enjoying my crucifixion, because at least it isn’t them. Not that it’s ever them very often. No, Fowler has made it pretty clear I’m his number one target. Shoving away from my desk, I wipe the cream cheese from my thumb. They didn’t save a bagel for me so I’ve managed to cobble together my breakfast by scraping out the remains of the spread container and putting them on a couple stale saltines I found in the kitchen. I take a swig of lukewarm coffee, and hurry across the hall. “Yes?” I ask. My car drove like a dream all the way to Boston. It didn’t even protest when I gunned it to eighty on the interstate. I couldn’t stop thinking the inside smelled like my mechanic, like that heady combination of grease and soap, despite the orange-scented air freshener he’d hung from the rearview mirror. When I finally got back to my apartment, I had nothing but a quart of spoiled milk and a few handfuls of Frosted Flakes left, so I went to bed hungry, listening to the couple in the unit next door arguing all night about something unintelligible, and likely unimportant. But that’s what people do to each other, isn’t it? My parents had tucked a couple hundred dollars in my purse, but I spent a good chunk of it on this bagel breakfast in attempt to make things right with my boss. And now, where is Fowler, but right up my ass again. He’s getting me back for the Dax thing, I know. But I didn’t know he’d be quite this vindictive. “Do you have excrement between your ears, Miss Donahue?” he seethes, shoving the file across the desk toward me. “I told you that the red folders are only for the cases that are still pending.” I take the folder. “I’m sorry.” He takes a bite of a bagel. I watch him do so, disgusted by the way it looks being chomped by his overly whitened teeth. He stands and starts to pile case files in front of me, slamming each one down with increasing ire. “You see?” he says, like I’m three. “Do it like this. You understand?” I nod obediently. Then I watch, horrified, as he tosses the rest of his barely-nibbled bagel into the trash.

As I gather the shitload of files into my arms and start to scoot away, the only thing in my mind is what Dax had said to me. Face it. A job working for that scumbag ain’t worth it, Katydid. No, I tell myself. This is my father’s dream for me. But what about my dreams? Truthfully, I haven’t been sleeping much, but I know if I did, my dreams would only be of one person. And he threw me away. And what have I been thinking about ever since? Our last few seconds together. How he’d held me there, desperately, as if wanting me to say something he couldn’t, or didn’t think I could say myself. Maybe he wanted me to say what I should’ve said four years ago. I’m staying. What if I had said that? What would he have done then? I trudge back to my desk, red-faced, trying to make sense of Fowler’s orders. But he isn’t done yet. He follows me out into the sea of cubicles and stands behind my chair as I slump into it. “Make it snappy. I need this before ten. In fact I should’ve had it an hour ago. My last intern—“ “Probably committed suicide,” I mutter under my breath. He stops short. “What?” I look up at him innocently. “Nothing. I’ll get it done, sir,” I say, trying to roll my chair under my desk and hoping he’ll get the hint and leave me alone. He takes the chair and whirls it around so I’m facing him. He’s so small that I’m not much shorter than he is, sitting down in my task chair, but he must love the power of putting me in this position. “Your attitude is unacceptable, Katherine.” The way he says my name only grates on me. Or maybe it’s just the name. It’s too formal, too professional, too . . . not me. Once again, Dax was right. “Katie,” I murmur, my eyes drifting to the never-ending pile of work laid out upon my desk. “What?” he snaps. “Enunciate when you speak. None of this mumbling like a child. Has no one taught you proper elocution before?” “My name is Katie.” I stand up so that in my heels, I’m towering over him. I stare him down so that he has no choice to take a step backwards. Then I say, “You want me to enunciate properly? THIS. JOB. IS. BULLSHIT,” I shout into his face, making his hair blow back from his face and so loud people in other offices can hear. Heads swing towards me. Fowler is staring at me too, ready to spit out something about my being out of a job, but I don’t give him the satisfaction. I shove the offending brief into his arms and say, “Find another person to treat like garbage. I’m done here.” I pull my badge from the lapel of my dress and toss it so that it hits him square in the forehead. He grabs it, blubbering, and says, “You can forget ever getting a job with a decent law firm in this city, state, or country. This is a smaller industry than you might imagine.” “If you think that you have any power over my life or career from this point forward, you must be as delusional as you are short and rude,” I sneer at him. I gather my things, then I stalk into his office, grabbing a sesame bagel for good measure. Every eye is on me as I come out, holding it in front of me in victory, like a trophy. “And another thing,” I shout at him. “You never fucking paid me for the Thai food, asshole.” The last thing I see is his bewildered expression before I hurry out of the building and into the street. The second I do, it’s like a massive burden slides off my shoulders and into the gutter. The sun is shining, and birds are singing overhead, as if approving of my latest act of insanity.

By the time I get back to my apartment, my stomach is full of bagel and I’m determined. I kick off my shoes and my silk dress and throw them in the trash. Then I change into my cut-off jean shorts and tank top, take my still-unpacked duffel bag, and shove it into the back of my VW. I drive straight through, without stopping except for a little rush hour traffic in Worcester. By the time I get into Friesville, the sun is setting. Since Dax has always put in 12-hour workdays, I head straight for the garage. I’m surprised not to see his Mustang parked out front. I pull up and see Tom stepping out of the office, wiping his hands on a dirty rag. “Hey,” he grunts. “Hi. Is Dax here?” I ask hopefully. He shakes his head. “Nope. He called it a day early and went to Murphy’s.” He called it a day early? The boy gets his lifeblood from cars. He doesn’t simply call it a day early for any reason. I get back in my car and drive across town, my palms sweating when I pull into the Murphy’s parking lot and see his Mustang. I get out of the car and walk into the dim, dark cave of a bar. It’s just as scary as I expected. The second I set foot inside, a bell overhead jingles, announcing my presence, and a dozen grizzled, time-worn faces much like Mr. Harding’s glare back at me. I suck in a breath, searching through the haze of cigarette smoke for Dax. My heart does a little flip in my chest when I spot him, slumped over his beer, unruly hair tumbling into his face. I take a step in his direction, and freeze. His broad shouldered body was hiding a slight girl with bleached blonde hair and a halter-top exposing the tattoos on her shoulders. The girl is hot, definitely, and just the type of girl someone like Dax ought to go for. Someone who fits with him. I steel myself and crane my neck around the bartender to get a better look. Upon second glance, they don’t fit. She’s hanging onto him for dear life and giggling at something he said, but his mouth is a straight line. He isn’t enjoying himself. As much as he wants to think that this is his life, that screwing girls with no attachments makes him happy . . . it doesn’t. And for the first time ever, I really know it. I know what makes him happy. Every eye except his is on me as I move into the bar. Past the pool table, where a man setting up his shot suddenly looks up and scratches. Past the jukebox belting out lonely country songs. Past the drunks arm-wrestling in the corner. By the time I am close enough to reach out and touch him, he still hasn’t noticed me. I take another deep breath. “Dax,” I say, over the twang of the music. He straightens on his barstool. He turns around, and his bleary eyes focus on me. For a split second, I get what I drove eighty all the way home for—a bewildered smile. He’s happy to see me. For a split second, I know everything will be okay. I know I made the right decision in coming back. Suddenly, the corners of his mouth turn down. He twists back to his beer, hanging his head in it once again. “Go away.” Everything inside me crumbles. I look at the blonde on his arm, who’s giving me a triumphant sneer. I step closer. “You’re not happy to see me?” Bleached girl drapes her arm tighter around his back. “He said go—“ He shakes the girl’s arm off of him and stands up. “Brenda. Order me another beer, would you, please?” he drawls, clamping a hand around my wrist. I try to shake him away but he holds tight to my hand like I’m a recalcitrant child. He leads me past the gawking patrons, out to the corridor in the back, by the pay phone and the restrooms, where it smells like a nauseating combination of pee and ammonia.

Finally, he throws down my wrist and raises his hands in exasperation. “What the fuck are you doing here, Katie? This isn’t the place for you.” “It is,” I tell him feverishly. “I realized something today. Wherever you are, that’s the place for me.” “What?” He’s looking at me as if I’m speaking Swahili. I start to say it again, but he rakes a hand through his hair, annoyed. “Naw. You’re wrong. Boston—“ “Screw Boston,” I tell him, talking a mile a minute. “I hate it there. I only liked being there when I was with you, to tell you the truth. So I quit my job, and—“ “Wait, wait, wait. Back up,” he says, holding out his hands and blinking hard. I can tell he’s drunk, or close to it, because he’s wavering a little on his feet. “You quit?” I nod. “It’s like you said. It’s not for me. I was wasting my time there.” He frowns. He doesn’t look happy for me. In fact, he looks downright disappointed. “You belong there. Not here.” The smile on my face starts to crack. “But—“ “You think you’re going to find your passion here? In this nothing town?” he growls, crossing his arms. “Get your ass back to Boston.” “You said you only wanted me to be happy, Dax. Why can’t you accept that you are what makes me happy?” He studies me for a moment, his expression hard. My words don’t penetrate that thick armor he has built around himself. “It was okay when I was younger. But I see the way your parents look at me,” he says earnestly. “It’s the same way your boss looked at me. You’re too good for this place. It’s like they constantly need me to prove I’m worthy of you,” he mumbles, pushing off the wall and having to brace himself with his shoulder against the other wall. He’s not just drunk, he’s sloppy drunk. He can barely walk. I try to grab his hand but he shrugs me off. “I’ll never be worthy,” he says, and then moves slowly away and back to the bar once more. I stand there, alone, listening to an old Johnny Cash song drifting from the jukebox, then step outside to the eyes of everyone in the bar. Dax is at his barstool, with his back to me. He doesn’t even look at me as I pass. The blonde’s still standing next to him though, and now she’s whispering something in her ear. Apparently, she’s bad enough for him. He’ll probably just take her home and fuck her senseless and leave her in the morning. So why do I feel jealous of her?


nowhere to go, so I get into my VW and drive home. As I pull into the driveway, my I have headlights illuminate the white Re/Max sign on the lawn. When I cut the engine, I sit in the car for what might be minutes or hours. Then I climb out, use my key, and go inside. My father is standing in the foyer as I come in. He’s holding his sheet, ready to turn in for the night. “Katherine?” he asks, bewildered. “Why aren’t you at your job, honey?” My eyes flood with tears. “I don’t have a job anymore.” “What?” My dad wraps an arm around me and leads me to the sofa. “What happened, kiddo?” “I quit the job, Dad,” I take a deep breath. “I don’t think I want to be a lawyer anymore.” He’s already shaking his head. “What? What made you make such a rash decision?’ “It wasn’t rash. I’ve thought long and hard about it.” He stares at the ground for a while. “If law school is out, what do you want to do, then?” he asks me. “Have you thought about that?” “I have, and I don’t know.” He starts to shake his head again, and I say, “But I know it’s not in Boston. I’m miserable there. I’m sorry. I know you’re disappointed but I just can’t lie about this anymore.” I start to sob some more. He puts an arm around me. “Okay, okay, Katie. Just calm down. It’s okay.” “I thought . . . “ I say between sniffles. “I know you are both leaving, but maybe I can stay here until I figure out what to do?” He lets out a sigh. “Well, that’s a problem. We sold the house. We’re closing at the end of the summer.” I swallow. “Really? So fast?” Then my father says the most unhelpful thing ever: “Did you say anything that would make it impossible for your company to take you back?” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “Dad. No. I told my boss off. He’d never consider taking me back, and anyway, I don’t want to. I—“ “Well, rule one of the business world. Sometimes you have to learn how to swallow your pride and eat crow,” he says gently. “Besides, you want to stay here for good? In this one-horse town?” I nod. “I do. I don’t mind it so much anymore.” He studies me, something dawning in his eyes. “Oh, I see. Dax, right?” He stands up and distances himself from me. “Dax put you up to it.”

“No, I—“ His eyes scrape the ceiling. “I should’ve known. Even in high school it was the same thing. You started staying out past curfew, acting out, become a different person when you were seeing him. He’s always had that hold on you. But you’ve got to realize, you can do so much better—” “I know, I know. I can do so much better than him. You tell me that all the time. But did you really even get a chance to know him?” He starts to speak, but I cut him off. “The real him, not the rumors. Because dad, I’m telling you, I have and . . . there’s no one better for me. No one. There can’t be.” By the time I finish, tears are streaming down my cheeks. “That’s just wonderful. So you’re going to stay here and . . . do what? You have so many opportunities, Katie, and you’re throwing them all away because some guy tells you to.” I shake my head. “No, dad, you don’t get it. Do you know what he did? He told me to go back to Boston.” My father snorts. “That’s the first intelligent thing I’ve ever heard him say.” I throw up my hands. “That’s right, he is intelligent! You won’t give him the time of day!” I say, shocked to find myself still defending Dax, even as he walked away from me and rejected me yet again. But I still continue, because my father needs to hear the truth. “He told me to go because he knows what you and everyone think of him. He thinks he can never measure up or be good enough for me. But he is good enough, Dad. He really is. I just need to make him see that.” He sucks in a breath and lets it out slowly. “No. No, Katie. That Dax Harding is a dead end, and hell if I’m going to let me only daughter ruin her life by running off with him!” He’d said nearly the exact same thing to me four years ago. But this time he’s not going to scare me away, because I’ve seen more of the world now, and I know better. “Dad,” I say gently. “You don’t have any say. I’m an adult now. And you have to let me do this.” He won’t look at me. His face is rigid as I plant a kiss on his cheek. I grab my things and climb the stairs to my empty bedroom. Lying on my bare mattress that morning, I’m both thrilled and scared to death at the prospects. Even in this one-horse town, I’m more excited about the future than I ever was in Boston. I throw a plan together in my head. I’ll go through the online want ads and see what places nearby are hiring. Then I’ll look for an apartment in the center of town—the ones across the street from Murphy’s looked cheap. Maybe my parents will front me the money for a security deposit. I’ll show Dax I’m not going to leave again. Am I crazy for planning all of this when Dax himself has basically told me that he doesn’t want to do this? That he doesn’t believe we’re right for each other? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m finally willing to fight for him, and then we’ll see if he will step up for me in return… My phone starts to ring on the floor near my mattress. I inspect the display and my heart lodges in my throat. Speak of the devil. I pick up. “Katie,” he drawls. He doesn’t have to say more. I know he’s drunk. I just hope he didn’t end up screwing that blonde before calling me. I pray he’s better than that. “You didn’t go back to Boston,” he says, after a bit of silence. He just knows, he didn’t even need to ask. “I told you, I’m not going back,” I tell him. “With or without you, I’m done with Boston. I’m staying here for good.” “You’re fucking up your life. You know that, right?”

“Everyone keeps telling me that. But I don’t care. I told you, I don’t care anymore what people say. Even you. Maybe I won’t be a douchebag lawyer like my boss, but I’ll get over it.” A pause. “Katydid?” “Yeah?” “I want to show you something tomorrow. Will you be around?” My heart skips. “I said I’m not going anywhere.” His voice is uncharacteristically excited. “That’s good, because I think you’re going to want to see this.” I smile. Anything Dax wants to show me, I want to see.

I SNEAK downstairs and out the door before my parents can even know I’m gone. Dax only says “hey” when I get inside the car, his eyes running the length of my body, catching on my bare thighs beneath my frayed denim skirt. He’s done that every time, but this time, it’s even more noticeable as I grab hold of the handle and hoist myself in. “What?” I ask him. “Nothing,” he says, pulling out of my driveway. But it’s definitely something weighing on his mind. The ride to wherever we’re going is quiet, almost icy. He makes a series of turns that get us to the center of town, but keeps driving once we hit Murphy’s on Main Street. We end up almost near the interstate. I can tell he’s fidgety, maybe even nervous about wherever it is that he’s taking me. Where the hell are we going? Without warning, he hooks a right and pulls into a large parking lot. There’s a large, gleaming white building there, but the windows are boarded up. The lawn in the front is overgrown, and the sign on the front is covered with graffiti. He pulls into the first parking spot and cuts the engine. “What do you think of it?” “Uh. Wow. It’s a lovely abandoned building in the middle of nowhere. Why are we here?” I ask him, sliding off my seatbelt and pushing open the door. He grins. “Come on.” I join him on the sidewalk in front of the building and it’s then that I notice the Available sign in one of the windows. Suddenly it hits me. I whirl around to look at him. Dax starts talking. “The guy who built this place misjudged how much space he was going to need to house his automotive business. Upkeep killed him. He was looking for something a lot smaller,” he says, kicking the curb with the toe of his boot. “And it just so happens that I’m looking for something bigger to house my business.” It sounds almost too good to be true. “You’re going to buy this place? But how?” “I’m tossing the idea around. My mom put money in trust for us before she died. Money she wouldn’t let my dad touch. A lawyer contacted me last month and told me how much it was, and I nearly fell off my chair, Katydid. Sixty-thousand dollars.” My jaw drops. “I’m sending Vincent to college with half of it. But the other half is going to be my down payment,” he says. “At least, that’s where my head is right now. I’m putting the offer in today. You’re the first person to hear it, so let me have it. What do you think? Stupid?” He takes my hand and guides me through the broken parking lot, toward the arched entrance. The

building is probably three times the size of Harding’s garage, and even boarded up, in much better condition. I shake my head. “No, not even remotely stupid. More like perfect.” He rubs the back of his neck anxiously as he leads me to the side, where there are six garage bays. One of the garage doors is slightly open. “My dad would say stupid.” “This isn’t your dad’s money,” I tell him. “It’s yours.” “It’s my brothers’ too. I want to do right by them. I think they’ll be into this. And besides, I have to move on with my life. You know, be a real adult and shit.” He grins at me, and his grip on my hand tightens. “Embrace change.” I stare at him, hardly daring to believe what he’s saying. “Really?” He tries to lift the half-open garage door, but it seems permanently stuck in place. He bows in half and ducks underneath, motioning me to follow. When I do, we’re in an enormous garage that easily dwarves his old one. Despite being abandoned, it’s already cleaner and brighter, too. The walls are painted white and a covered with framed photographs of fancy sports cars. He guides me over some equipment and into an office and waiting room area that’s already full equipped with all the necessary furniture. Sure, it’s musty and covered in layers of dust right now, but I have no trouble picturing him at the front desk, or working on cars here. I have no trouble seeing the waiting room full of customers. “Come with me. I haven’t showed you the best part,” he says, his voice echoing slightly in the space. He leads me out of that area to a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. When he opens it, he flips on the lights and I find that we’re in a little apartment. I walk down the narrow hall, peering at the kitchen with the gas stove, the small bathroom with the outdated pink tile, and a small living room with a misshapen, rust-colored couch, and something sticks in my brain. It’s the thought of us sharing this place together. Of me making him coffee in the morning. Of us elbowing each other out of the way, trying to brush our teeth before bed. It’s stupid, because I doubt Dax wants that right now, but it makes me smile anyway. “This is great!” I announce. “Yeah,” he says, once we’ve stopped at the end of the tour. “So when I’m done working, I can just crash here instead of having to drive home.” Suddenly, the idea of us living here together pops like a cartoon thought bubble over my head. “Oh. Right. It’ll be useful for that.” He leans on the door to the outside and says, “Are you ready?” “For what?” I raise an eyebrow and motion to the apartment. “I thought this was the best part.” “Nah. I mean, that’s good, but it’s not the best part.” I grin, curious to see what has him hanging on the door like he’s about to pull back the curtain on a brand new car. He does a one-two-three countdown and pushes the door with the weight of his body, opening us up to a rolling field, dotted with yellow dandelions. I gasp. It looks just like the field outside Harding’s garage. Like the place where I fell in love with him. That’s what it is. I know that now. I love him. Why else would I have come all the way back here? “Okay, this is definitely the best part,” I say, breathless as he takes my hand. A stiff breeze is blowing, and since it’s barely eight in the morning, the grass is coated with dew and there’s a chill in the air. But with his warm hand in mine, I don’t feel cold. He guides me down a slope in the hill, then takes off the flannel shirt over his t-shirt and lays it down on the grass like a blanket. When I kneel on it, he says, “When I saw this, I thought it was a sign. Do you think so?” I nod as he sits down beside me, lying back on his elbows. Suddenly I’m transported to four years ago, when he and I used to spend those lazy afternoons

after school behind his garage, with nothing else but the warm sun on our skin and insects buzzing around us. “It was me,” he says, looking up at the lightening sky. “Huh?” I fall to my backside and hug my knees to my chest. “All those years ago. I was an asshole. You said you were leaving, and damn, all I wanted to do was hold you here. But everyone was saying that was where your future was and who the hell was I to deny you your future?” He lets out a long, heavy breath. “So I let you go and damned if I haven’t regretted it every day since. I even went all the way there to tell you that.” I stiffen. “What?” “Couple times. I wanted to tell you I made a mistake. I stood outside your dorm. Each time I chickened out.” “You came to my dorm?” I squeak out in surprise. All this time we were in Boston, he never said he’d been there before. “Really? I kept wishing you would show up. I wanted you to, Dax.” He tilts his head back to the sky. “I keep letting you go, and you keep coming back. And last night I got to thinking there’s a reason for it. That you’re meant to be here, with me.” I nod, tears pricking my eyes. “I was always doing what everyone wanted me to do. Not what I wanted. Even at school, the more I kept going down that path, the more I wished I’d told my parents what I wanted, then.” “What did you want, Katydid?” he asks softly. I reach behind me, my fingers tangling with his. “You. I’ve always wanted you.” A slow smile spreads across his face. “Well, you have me now. What are you going to do with me?” I grin. “I’m sure I can think of something.” He takes a hold of the silky fabric of my camisole and gently tugs me toward him. “Get up here, girl.” “Wait,” I say. “Yeah?” he asks, brow creasing. “I just need to ask. That blond girl from the bar—“ He shakes his head, a crooked grin turning into a laugh. “No way, Katie. She aint my type. Not even close. I got shitfaced and went home, passed out for a while and then called you. That’s it.” I scramble up and throw my leg over his body, straddling him. My skirt rides up, exposing the V of my red lace underwear. “Promise me that this is real?” I whisper. He watches this intently, then presses a finger right into my slit through the fabric. I’m already wet, my body aching for him, so I squirm closer to his touch. He lets out a groan. “The realest thing I ever felt.” I start to wiggle on top of him, feeling his erection pressing against me, sending fireworks straight up to my core. I hike up my skirt and put a finger on the strap on either hip. “I can take them off.” “No,” he murmurs, his fingers sliding across my wet slit, making me squirm against him. I reach for his belt buckle, undoing his belt and the snap of my jeans. “I like them. Keep them on. He puts his head back and stares up at the sky. “You gonna ride me, girl?” I nod, biting my lower lip as I unzip his fly and pull his jeans open. I think. I slide down his boxers and his cock springs free. “Condom?” I ask. He motions to his pocket. I reach in and pull it out, rolling my eyes. “You were totally planning this.” He gives me that trademark innocent-mischievous look I can’t get enough of. I tear open the condom and hold his cock up erect. He rests his weight on his elbows and watches me intently, a sly

smile on his face. “You ever done this before?” I nod, intently squeezing the tip and settling it down over his cock, sliding it over his sheath. “Sex Ed. Banana,” I explain, rolling it down to the base, then proudly inspecting my handiwork. “This good?” He grins. “That was one lucky banana. You good?” I nod, pushing into place on my knees until I’m directly over his cock. I lift it and position it at my entrance, then slowly slide down onto it. And there it is, that fullness, that amazing feeling that tells me I’m home. He sits up, pulls off his t-shirt, and takes my mouth in a hot, demanding kiss. “Fuck, Katie. Never thought I’d be here again.” “I did,” I whisper, laying my chin on his shoulder as the insects buzz around us. “We belong together, Dax.” “Yeah,” he admits, reaching under my camisole to cup my breast. “We do.” I lift up onto my knees, push aside the barely-there fabric of my thong, lowering myself down onto him, riding him as he buries his face in my neck. I lift up, pausing with him just barely inside me, hovering there, letting him groan in frustration. His hands slide around me, cupping my ass, begging me to push down again. Then I do, hard, so hard I feel him nearly in my throat. He lets out a groan. “Fuck, girl. Ride me like that,” he says, in a voice not even a whisper. He lifts me, lowering me, until I get into a deep rhythm, and then he lets me go. “You’ve got it. Do your own thing. Whatever feels good.” So I do. Fully stretched by his cock, I slide myself back and forth on him, rubbing my clit against his skin. I bounce up and down, my hard nipples rubbing against his bare, hard chest through my tank top. That, and the cool, dewy morning air on my skin is enough to set every inch of me into a state of overdrive. It’s almost too much arousal. Soon I’m on my way to completely lost, tossing aside all inhibitions, building to that point where nothing else matters but sensation. We tangle our hands through each other’s hair and grasp for each other desperately, and soon I’m screaming out his name. We come together, at once, our bodies pressed together, panting and trembling. “Damn girl,” he says. “This, here? It’s my favorite place on Earth.” I laugh. “Then let’s not move.” So we don’t. At least, not right away. We stay that way for what seems like forever, until my legs are numb. I peel myself off him and collapse amidst the grass and dandelions. He looks over at me, grinning from ear to ear. “I didn’t bring you out here to do that,” he says sheepishly. “That’s okay. I did,” I tease, smiling smugly at his astonished expression. “What can I say? I love your cock.” “I love you, Katydid,” he murmurs, bringing my hand to his lips and kissing it as we lie together, staring up at the bright blue sky.


ride back to with Dax’s hand resting in its proper place on my thigh and both of us sporting W eshit-eating grins on our faces. I’ve been drunk before, but I’ve never felt so high. I’ve always been scared about the future. But this time, for once, I’m excited about the possibilities. He tells me that when the offer is accepted he wants to begin work on the place right away, and try to open sometime in the early fall. He’s talking a mile a minute about his plans, and I realize it’s the way he is whenever he’s around a car he loves. But even so, I’ve actually never seen him quite this excited. “My parents sold their house,” I tell him. “They’re closing at the end of August. I was thinking of getting an apartment in town, maybe near the bar.” “Above Murphy’s?” he says. “Fuck that. That’s no place for my girl. Why wouldn’t you just stay with me in my apartment?” My girl? I smile, about to have a heart attack for the second time that day. That’s almost as astonishing as him telling me he loved me. “Because you never asked me to?” He grins. “I’m asking you. Damn, girl. Stop waiting for me to ask if you want something. Just take it. Like I said, you own me. I’ll give you everything I have and then get you anything I don’t have yet.” Oh, hell, that invitation is like a thousand birthday parties, all rolled into one. Except that the only thing I want is him, and I want it forever. I shiver once again and the thought of his cock buried deep inside me and say, “I’m kind of hungry. I didn’t have breakfast.” Or dinner last night, or lunch yesterday afternoon. In fact, that sesame bagel I stole from Fowler was my last meal. But the truth was, for the past day, I’ve only had an appetite for Dax. But now that that’s sated, if only for a little while, I feel ravenous. “Why didn’t you say so?” He hooks a right into the Denny’s—the one restaurant Friesville has— and pulls the truck into a spot in the crowded lot. I push open the heavy door. I’m already tasting the Grand Slam breakfast I’ll be having when I realize that Dax is sitting behind the wheel, frozen with his hand on his seat belt clasp. “What?” I ask, giving him a playful nudge. “Come on, I’m starving.” “You want to go somewhere else?” he asks quickly, but it’s too late. I’m already following his line of vision past the windshield, across the lot to a Jeep parked a couple rows over, in the back of the lot. It’s my dad’s. He rides the Wrangler in the summer with the top down and what little hair he has left blowing around. I’m about to wonder aloud why he’s here when I see a head with long, shiny dark hair in the passenger’s seat. At first I think I made a mistake. It’s just another army-green Wrangler that looks very like my

dad’s. But then I crane my head a little to get a better look at the driver. It’s my father’s same, sandy windblown hair, my father’s same ruddy face that begs for SPF in the sun, the same mirrored sunglasses he wears everywhere. He’s talking to the mystery woman very animatedly, smiling a toothy smile that was missing the entire week I spent at the house. Then he reaches over, locks the woman in an embrace, and they begin to make out. My whole body rockets off the seat. I’m going to be sick. Dax is already trying to pull away, but I push open the door with the truck in motion, causing him to slam on the brakes and the truck to lurch forward. “What the fuck?” I shriek as I jump from the cab of the truck and stomp past the rows of cars toward the Jeep. “Wait, Katie!” Dax is calling from behind me, but I don’t pay attention. I stalk forward, watching my father going at it with a girl I’ve already determined to be a floozy of the first order. He has his hands in her hair and they’re completely oblivious to me stalking up to them until I reach through the opening and shove his shoulder. He jumps sky high. “Katie!” “What the fuck, dad?” I scream at him. People in the lot turn to look at us, but I don’t care. “Is she why you and mom are getting a divorce? Her?” He holds out his hands. “Katie, I was going to explain—“ “When?” I shout incredulously. “I was home for a week and you never told me anything!” He pats the air in front of him, trying to get me to calm down. “Look. This is Patsy. I’m not moving to Colorado like I said. Patsy and I are getting married as soon as the divorce is through, and we’ll be living here.” I stare at him in horror. “How long have you been doing this?” He presses his lips together, so I know the answer isn’t one I’ll want to hear. “Since last summer,” he finally admits. I explode. “So a whole fucking year?” I snort. “Sure you were going to tell me.” He’s speaking softly and rationally, like he usually does whenever something other than Dax Harding is the topic of conversation. It’s so false, so fake. Everything about him is just phony. “Look. Calm down, Katie. I never wanted to hurt your mother. But this just happened . . .” Just happened? Hell no, I won’t be calm. I refuse to. After everything he’s had with my mom, he’s going to throw it away for . . . this? I study the woman, who’s looking genuinely sorry for me, as if she played no part in tearing my world apart. Pathetic. I can see what men see in her—she’s young, probably not much older than I am, and pretty—but I never thought my own dad would be taken in by that. I never thought he would be one of those cheating, home wrecking low-down assholes. He was one of the few good guys. I had him on a pedestal, and now it’s crumbling before me. Mom was mom. His one love. They were a team. I open my mouth to say something. But nothing comes out. Instead, I stifle a sob and hang my head. I think of everything I’ve ever done, running away to Boston, all those years of school. For him. To please him and live up to his expectations and dreams for me. My daddy. “Oh, Katie,” my father says, sorrowfully. “I—“ I yank my head up. “No! Don’t say another word. All this time you’re lecturing me about what a big mistake I’m making with Dax? Well, it turns out you don’t know a fucking thing about relationships, if you think this--” I wave my hand and the woman in the passenger’s seat “—is a good idea.” I grab Dax’s hand and make sure my father can see that I’m with him, that we’re together. “This is

what a good man looks like, Dad. He’s smart and loyal as hell, which you’d have known if you’d just taken the chance to get to know him. But you were more concerned with being a phony snob then what truly makes me happy.” My father runs his eyes over him, the same distaste leaking from them. But whereas a week ago, that kind of disapproval would have torn at my heart, now it does nothing. He’s wrong. My father is one-hundred-percent, totally wrong. About everything, it turns out. “I thought you were everything,” I sob. “Everything I did, I wanted to make you happy. But Dax is a million times the man you are. You pretended to put me and Mom first, but it was a lie. Dax actually did put me first, and now that I know the truth, I’ll never fall for your lies again.” My father’s face is ruddy, stricken. Before, I’d do anything to keep that look from his face. Now, I’m numb to it. Dax wraps an arm around me and leads me back to the truck. I’m sobbing, oblivious to everything around me, but it’s all crystallizing in my mind. Why my mother looked as him as if she hated him. Why she told him he had no business lecturing me about Dax. Why she couldn’t stand to be in the same room as him. My stomach is suddenly twisted in knots and I can’t breathe. I’m not sure what happens during the next few minutes. All I know is that I end up at Dax’s house. He lifts me gently out of the cab of the truck and carries me up to his bedroom, where he places me on the bed and holds me close, letting me sob against his t-shirt until it’s soaked through. He doesn’t say a word at first, but he doesn’t have to. He just doesn’t leave, and that turns out to be all I need. I fall asleep in his arms, and have nightmares of my father and the dark-haired woman, driving away from my mother and me. When I wake, he’s sitting on a chair across from me. “Hey,” he says. “We missed breakfast. You still hungry?” I wrinkle my nose. No, I’m nauseated. He sits down on the edge of the bed. “You want to talk about it?” I shrug. “What’s there to talk about? My dad is a hypocritical asshole of the first degree. You saw that yourself. Everything I believed was a lie.” “True. But don’t go too hard on him, Katydid,” he says. “It’s like, we’re all born thinking our parents can do no wrong, right? But sooner or later we find out that they’re human. I learned that lesson when I was six, when my dad came in drunk and smacked me across the face, and broke my tooth. Your dad kept up the illusion for twenty-two years. My hats off to him. He had a damn good run.” How can he be so understanding and kind after the way my father treated him these past few years? I have to let out a little laugh, because I realize that character shows in time. My father has shown his character, and Dax, one again—is showing what he’s made of. And it’s pretty good stuff. “Was I just stupid?” I sigh. “Nah. All it means that as far as parents go, you’ve got pretty good ones,” he says, smoothing my hair behind my ear. “And I saw that look in your eye, girl. Don’t do nothing stupid like disown him because of this, okay? Give it some time.” Truthfully, I had been thinking of sending my father a strongly worded letter, telling him what an asshole he was and that I never wanted to see him again. I swallow and decide that maybe Dax is right. I need to think on it some more. I nod. “I think I am hungry, actually,” I tell him. “Do you have anything here? I don’t really want to go out.” He stands. “You’re in luck. I just went shopping and the mutants haven’t raided the pantry yet.

Bacon and eggs?� I nod, my mouth watering, and manage a smile. He cooks, too? How did I get so lucky?


and Tom stalk around the side of the newly purchased building, looking pissed off. “This rat E ric hole will take forever to fix up,” Tom says sullenly. “Yeah. Like, how are we supposed to work on that? In our free time?” Eric snorts. “I’m not fucking giving up my one day a week off to come and clean up here.” Dax punches his little brother’s arm. “God forbid your lazy ass gives up Cheetos and Xbox One Sunday, Turk.” His brother scowls at him. I’ve been living at their house for the past week, and it’s true. Eric spends most of his free time in the living room, his butt plastered to the couch, drinking beer and eating junk food. The room would be covered with dirty dishes and fast food wrappers if it wasn’t for me and Dax. Tom is different, though. He’ll be the one who helps out the most. But if we have to deal with their murderous glances every time we talk about this place, we’re not going to get far. Dax must know this, because he rubs the back of his neck nervously, then rolls his eyes to the sky, about half-a-step away from total defeat. It’s just been bitch-bitch-bitch since he told them his offer on this place had gotten accepted. He looks at me and I smile encouragingly. “Sixty thousand dollars,” Tom mutters to the ground. “If we split it five ways, we would’ve each gotten over ten thousand dollars, dude. I could’ve gotten that Camaro I wanted in Hampton.” “A fucking Camaro, Spar, really?” Dax snaps. “Why don’t you fix up that heap of shit Charger you just had to buy last year?” Eric says, “You had no right to take that money and—“ “Listen, you two. I had every right,” Dax says pointedly. “I’m twenty-five this week. The trust is in my name. I and I alone got to decide how we spent that money. You’re fucking lucky I didn’t take it and spend it all on a Camaro for myself and tell your sorry, ungrateful asses to fuck off. This is for us to build something for our entire family’s future.” Eric’s mouth snaps closed. He looks at the building again, narrows his eyes and shakes his head. Vincent is sitting in the cab of the truck, ear buds stuffed in, listening to music on his phone. We couldn’t even get him to leave the truck. At least the other two got out, if that can be seen as progress. Vincent didn’t even thank Dax for setting aside the money for his college education. Dax said he wants to go the Camaro route, too. He has a new girlfriend he’s trying to impress, so all he’s been doing is making back-handed remarks about how Dax can have me, but god forbid anyone else in the family tries to get some. Without warning, Dax bangs on the side of the truck. “Wob! Out!” he shouts. Vincent doesn’t move. He mutters something about sucking his dick.

Dax’s face turns rigid. He stalks around to the side of the truck, pulls open the door, and yanks Vincent out of the car. Vincent, deer-in-headlights, stumbles into the lot, then as he’s trying to straighten, Dax grabs the wires for his ear buds and pulls them out of his ears. The three brothers straighten into military ranks immediately. They know not to mess with their older brother when he’s pissed. “I don’t give a shit what you three think,” he barks at them, glaring at each one in turn. “This is what’s going to happen. Whatever we have to do, even if it means giving up your fucking blessed Cheeto Sunday for the next few months, we’ll make it work. Got it?” They all look at each other and then nod. I grin and reach into the back of the truck, pulling out a broom, mop, and a crate with other cleaning supplies. Dax takes the heavy crate from me and starts to head into the apartment so we can get to work. Now that we’ve closed on the property, Dax and I have every hope of staying in the apartment tonight and making as much noise as we damn well feel like. Dax suddenly switches direction and comes back up to me. He smacks Vincent on the head as I struggle to bring in another heavy crate of stuff. “Help her, Fuckface,” he seethes. “For god’s sake, show that someone raised you right.” Vincent glares at me as he takes the crate from my hands. The rest of them do the same as they stalk past me. I whisper to Dax, “I think they think I pressured you into this.” He considers this. “They won’t for long.” I follow him into the apartment, where he drops everything on the ground, picks up a broom, and bangs it hard on the ground. “Listen. I made this decision. Alone. And why? The old garage is falling apart. It needs a lot of work. The building needs a new septic system and all the equipment is shit. We could either invest the money in fixing that place up, or we look forward. We move onto bigger things,” he says to them, waving his arms around, his green eyes fierce. “We have to embrace change. This place isn’t just my future. It’s our future. Not just Katie’s and mine. Yours, too. Katie is a part of this, like it or not. But if you don’t like it, know that I’m going to make your life a living hell.” Their gazes all drop to the ground, rather than look at me. “Got it?” he barks. They all nod half-heartedly. As Dax takes his brothers back to the garage to start the workday, I have to grin. I throw my hair into a ponytail and get started. I work like a woman possessed on removing the thick layer of dust from everything, opening the windows and getting the musty smell out, and scrubbing every surface of all the grime. By the time Dax comes back, the sun is starting to set. I smell the pizza the second he opens the door. “Food!” I scream, lunging at him like a charging bull. He holds up a six pack. “And beer.” He looks around the kitchen. Even with all my hard work, it still needs a lot more TLC before its presentable. From the look on his face, I know he’s not thrilled. “It’s slow going, but we’ll get there —I promise.” He looks down at the floor. He grins appreciatively. “Floors look great.” He unbuttons and sheds his work shirt, then drops the pizza on the counter and starts to wash his hands at the sink. It’s funny, he’s standing there next to a pizza, and I haven’t eaten all day, and yet what I’m drooling for right now is him. I wrap my arms around him from behind and kiss him on one

exquisitely sculpted bare shoulder blade. His body is so rigid. “You think your brothers are okay with this?” He shrugs. “They have to be, right? It’s done. I just have to work twice as hard to make sure it ain’t a mistake.” I know he will. Without him, Harding’s garage would’ve failed years ago. He took it upon himself to manage the books when it was failing. He was the one who worked extra shifts to keep things afloat. He was the one who paid off the debts his father had accrued. He will break his back to make this work. I press my cheek against the searing warm skin of his back, then run my hands up his chest, to his tense shoulders. I work my fingers into his muscles, and he stretches his neck and back and groans against me, finally letting out that breath he’s been holding all day. “That’s magic,” he groans. I coax him to turn around so he’s facing me, and I drop kisses down on his chest, slowly tracing my lips over his nipples and the soft dark hair there. Then, smiling at him, I walk my fingers down to his belt buckle and in one quick motion, pull is belt open. His eyes widen in surprise. I unzip his fly, shoving down his pants and underwear, finding him hot and hard and ready. I wrap my fingers around him, and his body jolts upright. He lets out an animal growl of desire, his breath ragged. I sink to my knees on the hard floor. Then I wrap my hand around his thick shaft, admiring the pink, veined flesh. I hold it in my palm, feeling it grow and spark to life. Ever so slowly, I drag my tongue from the base to the mushroom tip. “God, Katie, I love your mouth on my cock,” he murmurs, his voice shaky and hoarse. He puts his hand at the base of my neck and I feel his knees buckle and turn to jelly when I bring the tip to my lips. He tastes of salt and heat and soap, delicious. I open my mouth, pull his body closer to mine and take him totally in my mouth. His whole body shudders. He lets out a groan as I suck deeper, until I feel him almost at the back of my throat. I back away, then slide onto him once more. He reaches is hand behind my head, pulling the tie out of my ponytail, and runs his hands through my hair. “Fuck.” I set into a rhythm, backing away to his tip, then descending upon him, taking him whole, almost to the point of gagging. He groans and starts to get into my rhythm, one hand on the back of my head, the other clenching the side of the counter. I glance upward to see his face, but he has it tilted back. All I can see is his Adam’s apple bulging and trembling along with my motions. His fingers against my scalp, he is pulling and pushing on my head gently, encouraging me, and as he lets out a low moan, I know I am doing something right. His hips tremble slightly as my hand reaches down to cup his balls. They’re tight, swollen. I massage them tenderly, loving the way he feels in my throat as I pump him in and out of my mouth. Loving that I can help him this way, take away all the tension at the end of a long day. This is everything. “I’m gonna come,” he growls. And he does. I keep my mouth on him as he spasms, feeling the salty-sweet liquid bursting into my mouth. I swallow all of it hungrily. “Holy shit,” he murmurs, a satisfied smile on his face as he drags me up to him. “Katy. Did.” He kisses me again, then hoists me up so that my backside is on the kitchen counter. I wrap my legs around him, feeling more, wanting more of him. “Now it’s my turn. When you come,” he murmurs, “I want you to scream as loud as you want, okay?”

Soon, he’s thrust his wet cock inside my pussy, which is soaked from how turned on I am. Even after all the sex we’ve been having—and it’s a lot—I haven’t tired of this feeling. It’s even more exciting now that I know we’re real, we’re in love, and it’s not going anywhere. I feel hot and turned on and taken care of all at once, as his cock slides in and out of me, our hips joined as he fucks me hard and fast, making me come with a scream as I pull him into me and my clit pulsates with orgasmic relief. I scream as loud as I want to, for the first time ever—knowing he’s mine and this place is ours. It’s a good thing we don’t have neighbors or else I’m sure they’d think someone was being murdered here. Afterwards, we lay out our clothes on the clean floor and lie on them, naked, eating cold pizza together by candlelight. It’s romantic. “Oh! I forgot something,” I tell him, rushing off to get something from the refrigerator. When I return, I’m holding a tiny chocolate cupcake that I got from the supermarket while he was working. I have a candle in it. I start to sing happy birthday, and he’s grinning at me like I’m insane. “You know my birthday is tomorrow.” I shrug. “I couldn’t wait.” He blows out the candle and I feed him the icing on my fingers. He licks it off and we share it. “This is a damn near perfect almost-birthday,” he says. “The pizza and cupcake?” I ask innocently. “Everything. The pizza. The place. Your tight little ass on full display for me, and not having to worry someone’ll come in and catch us. I could get used to this,” he says. I nod, smiling. It’s only been a day, but I have gotten used to it. Too used to it. It feels as if I’m putting on blinders, though, ignoring something huge and troubling, just because it’s easier to do than face it. “But . . .” he says, reading my mind. “It’s your dad, right?” He’s right. I haven’t spoken to my father since that day. He’s called my cell a thousand times, but I’ve ignored him. I haven’t even gone to the house to see my mom, because dealing with all of it just brings back too much pain. I’ve been living in this dream world with Dax, pretending that fucked up part of my life doesn’t exist. The truth is, I miss my mom like crazy, and hell, I even miss my dad. I used to call them every week when I was in Boston, just to check in. Now, she’s moving away and I haven’t been there for her the way I need to be. I nod. “I wanted to cut him off. But I don’t think I can.” He rubs an absent circle on my knee with the pad of his thumb. “I should probably tell you. I went to see them today.” I stare at him, aghast, heart pounding. “Wait, what? Why?” “I knew you said you weren’t ready, but your mom is leaving for Florida in a week. I wanted to tell them you were okay. And I wanted to talk to your dad.” “Ohhhkay,” I ask, thoroughly confused. “They didn’t chase you out with pitchforks?” “No. They were nice. We had tea. And a chat.” I blink again and again to make sure I’m not dreaming. This is definitely Twilight Zone stuff. I can just see my parents and Dax, gathered around the kitchen table, sipping tea from her special dainty china, chatting. Actually, no, I can’t see that. “It went good,” he says, nodding. “We talked about the old times. Like in English class, when I set

his Shakespeare collection on fire with my cigarette. Your dad offered up that flowered sofa in the living room for our place. No one bought it at the yard sale.” “Okay. Awesome,” I say, still not believing what I’m hearing. My dad and Dax, just shooting the shit? My dad giving him a couch as what . . . a peace offering? “So, are they okay?” He nods. “They miss you, and even with the divorce and all that mess, they don’t hate each other so much as you might expect, Katie. So I invited them to the house this weekend. We’re having a barbeque,” he explains. “Oh,” I murmur. I’m still having a hard time processing this information. I jolt upright. “Wait. What?” “You know. Burgers and dogs. Your mom’s bringing her potato salad.” There’s another thing I really can’t picture. My mom is all scones and pretty tea sets. She won’t hang out in the Harding backyard, where they have an old Studebaker on blocks and I’m pretty sure Vincent’s growing weed. Suddenly I’m a bundle of nerves. “Is his girlfriend going to be there?” He shakes his head. “Nah, he’s not that stupid, for god’s sake. But it won’t be just us. My friends. My cousins. I invited all of them.” That doesn’t do much to calm my mood. “But . . . why? I mean, we have so much going on right now. A party is just another thing to worry about. And you and I . . . ” He runs a hand along my bare back, smoothing the tension there and sending fireworks exploding up and down my spine. “It’ll be good,” he assures me. “I’m gonna announce the new Harding Automotive Works in style. Figure if I do that, we can beg ‘em all for help when we need it. And we’re gonna need it.” I nod slowly, imagining my parents at the Harding’s home. Talk about sore thumbs. “Oh, my god, Dax. Your family? And mine? Oh, my god. It’ll be a disaster.” He nods, conceding. “It could be. But there’s a bright side. If it turns into World War Three we can always escape back here,” he says, reaching forward and grabbing me by the waist with his hot hands. I crawl forward, sitting in his lap, straddling him. He lays a kiss on my breast and drawls, “This ain’t so bad, is it?” No. Hell no. If this is what I get to escape to, then I can’t complain at all.


the weekend, things have begun to take shape in the apartment. We’ve managed to clean the B yentire place and move in all the furniture from Dax’s bedroom at home, plus a bunch of yard sale finds. The place almost looks like a home. Saturday morning, I go shopping and show up at his family home with all the fixings for the barbeque. When I pull up into their gravel driveway, I’m surprised to a canopy set up on the side of the house with half a dozen folding tables spread out on the newly mown grass. It looks like someone has actually gone through the effort of weeding the overgrown flowerbeds outside. For a few seconds, I wonder if I’m in the right house. Then I step outside and start lugging grocery bags out of my trunk. When I take a step toward the front door, Wobble steps out from nowhere, making me jump again. I swear, the kid is the black ghost of death. “Hey,” he says. I wonder if he’s going to make a complaint about something I did wrong again, but he just reaches into the back of the VW, grabs a couple bags, and heads toward the front door. Then, he actually holds the screen door open for me. I stare after him, as Dax comes down the stairs and plants a kiss on my forehead. He’s wearing another tight t-shirt and loose cargo shorts. “You look hot,” he says. I stop gaping after Vincent and look down at my short, flowered sundress and flip flops. It’s pleasantly middle-ground between dressed-up and laid-back, since I figure that’s where I need to tread today. “Thanks. Um. Did you talk to Vincent and tell him to play nice or something?” I ask him, twirling my hair up into a loose knot at the base of my neck. He shrugs innocently. “Why, is he?” He doesn’t wait for me to answer. In a beat, he’s out the door, grabbing the rest of the groceries. I’m shocked that there really isn’t much to do. The inside of the house is relatively clean, and all the windows are open, letting a nice breeze blow through. There are coolers set out with enough Yuengling to drown a small elephant and even a Quoits pit set up. All I have to do is get the sides ready, and now that I’m slightly more familiar with the kitchen, it isn’t so hard. Even so, by the time people start to arrive, my stomach is tied up in knots. Dax introduces me to a bunch of family members, and though I can’t remember all the names, they’re all friendly. Some of his formerly scary high school friends show up, too; Abel, a large, redheaded guy with a ridiculously loud laugh, and Win, a skinny guy with long dreadlocks.

I recognize them because though they’ve filled out, they still have the same tattoos and piercings and fuck-you look on their faces. Their girlfriends are wearing too much makeup and too little clothing, and one of the girls has her purple hair up to bare a long tattoo of vines that starts at the back of her neck and snakes over her shoulder, down over to her bare midriff, all the way down her leg, stopping at her toe. I approach them, swallowing, and they give me more than a once-over. They look me over three, four times, obviously wondering what the hell Dax sees in me. Finally, Abel extends his hand. “Hey,” he says gruffly. Then he punches Dax. “So this is your little lady, huh?” I smile stiffly, wondering why that makes me feel like I’m a hundred years old. “Where’d you find her?” Win asks, which is the million-dollar question. Dax laughs and looks at me. “I won her in a lucky round of poker,” he deadpans, and then gives his friend a shove. “I told you. She went to high school with us, dumbass.” They all regard me, eyes narrowed, as if I’m an alien from the planet Nerd. It’s obvious they never saw me at Friesville High, especially since I was one to hang out in classrooms, instead of detention and behind the dumpsters. Dax mimes smoking a joint and mumbles, “Don’t mind them. They were all kind of wasted those four years.” “Hell yeah,” Abel says, laughing his big, belly-shaking laugh. Dax brings them beers and I sit down with them at a table. Abel leans over to me and says, “What the hell are you feeding that boy? I’ve never seen him so whipped.” I grin. He’s actually nice. They both are, because I’m instantly at ease. I end up having a great conversation with this group of people that I once thought would tear my arms off if I so much as looked at them the wrong way. Abel keeps making jokes about Dax and how he could probably fix a blown motor with a button and a little bit of dental floss. Win and his girlfriend, the one with the long tattoo, ping Doritos at unsuspecting people at other tables. They’re loud and raucous and irreverent and . . . I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in all my life. And then my parents show up. My mother always has this thing about being fashionably late, so I expected her to be forty-five minutes behind. But Dax’s family and friends don’t give a shit about social etiquette, so my parents end up being the last ones to arrive. When the Jeep pulls up, the party is in full swing. People are starting to do shots and there’s the definite scent of weed wafting from Vincent’s bedroom window. I see my father and mother approaching up the driveway, my mom wearing pearls and clutching her Tupperware dish of potato salad, my dad in his loafers, both of them looking like they’d rather be anywhere else, and I have the urge to slink away. I can’t do this. I jump from the table I’m sitting at with Dax’s friends and as I pass the bar where his uncle Ryan is doling out shots, grab a plastic cup of Fireball and down it. It burns my throat as I hurry to the edge of his property, taking deep breaths to calm myself. I feel a presence behind me, and don’t have to look. I know it’s Dax before he even puts his warm hand on my bare shoulder. “Is this a good time to escape?” I ask him, managing a strangled laugh from deep within my throat. “Katydid,” he says, his low drawl soothing me. “If your mom is willing to be here with him, you can do it, too.” I know he’s right. But that doesn’t keep my feet from feeling like they’re encased in cinderblocks.

I manage to turn around and see my parents sliding onto a bench at a picnic table, across from Mr. Harding, who has promised his son twice that he’d go easy on the sauce today. Even so, he has two empty beer bottles in front of him. I swallow. Talk about people who are total one-eighties from each other. This is never going to work. Dax takes my hand and guides me back toward the crowd. As I approach, I hear my father laughing at something Mr. Harding said. And not just polite laughter, a real, big, loud, belly laugh. His body is still shaking as I approach. It’s then I remember that my dad and Dax’s dad went to high school together. I’d assumed from what Mr. Harding said that they were on opposite sides of the social circle, like Dax and me, so foreign to each other that they’d barely recognize each other. But then my father exclaims, “I miss those days. That was a good time.” Wait. My father and Dax’s father actually had good times together? My father suddenly looks up at me, and his laughter dies in his throat. “Hi, sweetheart,” he says, and I can almost taste the remorse hanging in the air between us. “Hi.” I look at my mom and say, woodenly, “I’m glad you guys could come.” “Of course, sweetheart,” my mother says, making room for me on the bench next to her. “We couldn’t miss this.” I manage a smile, though I’m not sure what she means. Like they really care about Dax’s announcement that he’s opening a new business. Maybe they are finally accepting it; that Dax and I are together and anything he chooses to do will impact their daughter. Dax shakes hands with my father and it’s all very cordial and friendly, even if it is still so surreal. For the next few hours, Dax grills burgers and dogs. My father downs a few beers with Mr. Harding, talking about the old times. Turns out, they were friends in high school, and hung out in the same group. From what I piece together, they even dated a few of the same girls. My mother and I talk about how Aunt Ellie’s house down in Florida and how it has a swimming pool right on the ocean, plus another guest room, if I ever want to stay with them. I keep sneaking looks at Dax, who looks utterly edible, manning the grill, making the most delicious burgers I’ve ever tasted. Vincent and I team up against Tom and Eric for a game of quoits and beat them handily. A lot of trash talk ensues. Nothing explodes. The world doesn’t end. The biggest scene gets caused when a few people get a little shitfaced. My parents included. I get a little shitfaced, too. It doesn’t really matter, though, because everyone is having fun. And perhaps most surprising of all—even I’m having fun. The sun begins to set. More drinks flow. The music gets louder. Dax had strung up strands of tiny white lights on the porch, and they sparkle overhead like stars. Soon people are dancing on the lawn. Dax lifts me to my feet and then I’m swaying against his body, his strong arms around me, warding off the late August chill. The only way this could be more perfect would be if we were alone, making love . . . I feel a pang of longing deep within my abdomen as he suddenly whispers, “Katie” into my ear. “Mmm?” I close my eyes and press my cheek against his broad chest, content. “I need to tell you something.” “I’m listening,” I murmur, even though what I’m really listening to—what’s my world right now— is the beat of his heart. So steady, so strong, so fierce, so like Dax. “I lied to you.” I break out of whatever trance I was in and look up, searching out his eyes in the bare light.

Always calm, always in control Dax is gone, and now, he looks a little worried. More than a little, actually. He’s fidgeting. Since when did Dax ever fidget? “What? About what?” He kisses me absently on the side of the head, then sits me down in a lawn chair. Kneeling in front of me, he says, “We can talk about this later. I have to make the announcement.” I stare at him, feeling every hair on my body pricking up. That content feeling of two seconds ago has been completely eaten away by unease. “No. Wait. Don’t leave me hanging like this. What do you mean, you lied to me?” He puts a finger to his lips, signaling me to be quiet, then starts to shout, “Everyone, I have an announcement!” Meanwhile, all I can think of is the thousands of lies that he could possibly have told me. Maybe he lied when he told me he loved being with me. Maybe he lied when he came inside me and told me that was his favorite place on earth. Every lie I can think of only means the end of the world for me. Looking over at my father, whose lie is still sending shockwaves through my system, I’m not sure if I can handle another one. I start to squirm in my seat, ready to take flight as the people around me start to quiet down. For the second time today, I feel the flight response. Escape. I’m about to run when Dax sees me. He sets his arm on either side of me, caging me in, and his green eyes bore into mine. “Calm down. It’s okay, Katydid,” he says, his voice low and soothing. If only. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears, thrumming a maddening march. My face is so hot. Is this what a panic attack feels like? The crowd is now silent, staring at us, waiting for his big announcement. He digs his hands into the pockets of his cargo shorts. “Hey, all,” he says, all trace of nerves gone. Another way we’re so different: He’s born to lead, born to be in front of an audience, and I’m just not. I find my face heating up to the point I start to fan myself as he continues. “Thank you for coming out today. Everyone having a good time?” The crowd roars. It’s a unanimous yes, all except for me, having my minor heart attack. Nothing to see here. “You all know how I bought the old Miller property, and how we’ll be opening it up in the Fall as the new Harding Automotive Works,” he says, pacing in front of the group, his hands laced in front of his chest. “Let me make it clear; the way we do business ain’t changing. While we’re open to servicing high-end automobiles, we ain’t gonna go all fancy on you. What we do hope to do is have a little better facility and more room so that we can help out more people and cut your wait time down. So while I know it ain’t over yet and there’s still a lot of work to do, I want to thank each and every one of you for the support you’ve given us so far.” Everyone starts to applaud. I try to bring my hands together, but I feel weak. Dizzy. The twinkling lights above us blur and separate, and the alcohol tastes bitter on my tongue. “But as you all know, that’s not the reason I brought you here today,” he says, turning to look at me. His eyes are full of intense meaning, of something I can’t quite place. I jolt upright. Wait, what? What did I miss? I look around at the eyes in the crowd. His brothers. His friends. Mr. Harding. My mother and father. They’re all staring at me. Some of them are smiling at me as if I’m about to be handed my ass, and they can’t wait to see it happen. What the hell is going on? Dax continues, “I know that when you’re about to take a big step in life, it’s not good to start on a lie. But I hope that she’ll forgive me because I wanted it to be a surprise.”

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out something that glimmers in the twinkling lights. Before he can kneel down in front of me, past, present, future—everything collides in this one moment, leaving me gasping with realization. Tears sting my eyes. I watch the whole scene play out, thinking it must be a joke. When I walked into that cafeteria that first day and saw that dangerous boy carving up the table with a switchblade, I was intrigued for sure. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine he’d be here before me, now, asking me this. Asking me for forever. He holds the diamond solitaire out to me, magnetic green eyes sincere. “Katydid,” he says. “Marry me.” It’s not a slow drizzle of emotion; it overtakes me at once like a hurricane. Suddenly I’m sobbing. I can’t see the ring straight but I can tell that it’s an antique. It’s his mother’s. It has to be, knowing the way he used to talk about her like she was the brightest thing in his sky. He loved her. Like he loves me. Everyone else falls away, because this time, I don’t need help from anyone to make this decision. This time, I’m going to let my heart lead the way. It’s never let me down before. “Hell, yes,” I whisper. He slides the ring onto my finger, and what do you know? It’s a perfect fit. The crowd erupts in applause as he gathers me into his arms and kisses me. I look around and see my parents applauding, his brothers pumping their fists, all of them rushing forward to be the first to congratulate us. They all approve of this. Finally. But even if they didn’t, I still know it’s right. I one-hundred percent, no doubts, know that this is where I’m meant to be. I don’t remember what else happens that night. I think there’s a cake and more dancing and a lot more alcohol, and the party doesn’t really end until the wee hours of the morning. But the only thing I’m completely sure of is that I don’t leave Dax’s side for the rest of the night. I do remember staring at my finger a thousand times, falling asleep against his shoulder in the truck on the ride back to the apartment. I remember telling myself from now on, I’d be letting my heart make all my decisions. Turns out, it knows best.



hree months later, and two weeks before the official Grand Opening of Harding Automotive Works, is the official start of our happily ever after. The church is small, and so full of people that the air is cramped and stuffy, even in the coldest day of late fall. My father chats with me, telling me I’m so beautiful and nervously adjusting his tie as we get ready to take the long, life-changing walk. His girlfriend Patsy is there, and even if she won’t ever be my favorite person, it turns out she’s not a complete wench, either. My mother has cried a lot about this day, but I don’t let that fool me. She’s brought her new boyfriend up from Florida. He’s very tan, a retired business owner whose wife passed away a few years ago. It’s weird seeing her not with my dad, but I guess I’ll have to get used to it. She doesn’t have to say anything-- I see from the light in her eyes that she is deliriously happy. I keep asking her why she’s crying when everything is so very right, and she tells me that these are the good tears. Dax’s brothers actually look like different people. They’re wearing button-down shirts and ties, their hair is slicked back neatly off their faces, and their hands are scrubbed clean of oil and grease for once. Wob has a girlfriend named Emily who he spends nearly all his time with. She’s shy and polite and looks a little . . . bookish for the Harding clan. Obviously, I’ve been trying to encourage him with her wherever I can. When people say they can’t possibly fit together, I tell him that they most certainly can. Seeing all of these people seated in the pews, waiting for me, brings me enough happiness to make my heart burst. But then the music begins to play, the priest steps out of his vestibule, and Dax follows. He’s wearing a tuxedo. Waiting for me. And I can’t help it. I lose it. Lots, and lots, and lots of those good tears fall down my cheeks. The little lace handkerchief my mother gave me as my “something blue” isn’t nearly enough. When I get to the altar and my father lifts my veil and kisses me, I turn to Dax and nearly wobble right off my heels. Dax reaches out and steadies me. His hair still tumbles over his forehead, and he has the same intense green eyes, but so much is different. He shaved. I’d expected him to be all fidgety and uncomfortable in the tuxedo, but he owns it. Damned if he doesn’t look like a GQ model dressed up to the nines like that, covering all his tattoos and everything that makes Dax, Dax. Still hot as hell. “Hi,” I whisper to him. He takes my hand and leads me up the steps before the priest. “I see you bought a new dress for the occasion.”

I can’t help but laugh. I try to stifle it as the priest looks down his nose at me, but I can’t. I’m grinning from ear to ear. And so what? This is a day for happiness, for celebration. And so I let the laughter come. “What, this old thing?” I whisper back. He chuckles. After the ceremony, we have the reception in the church hall. I’d wanted to have it out in the field, in back of the shop, but that wouldn’t work considering it’s only forty degrees outside. We wanted to get married as soon as we could. But it’s not the place that makes the day special. It’s the people. One person in particular. My Dax. He says he has a surprise for me after the band announces us as man and wife. I grit my teeth. I’m scared to death about his surprises after the last one he pulled. When the cheering dies down, I see him across the dance floor. He signals to the band to start playing, and I listen for the first song we’ll dance to, as an official married couple. The first notes scrape my eardrums. It’s country music. I burst out laughing. I put on my scary game-face and point at him, signaling that he’s going down. But strange thing is, the song is kind of familiar. When the singer begins to belt out a tune that’s on the very tip of my tongue, I know why. It’s Celine Dion. My Heart Will Go On. In country. He takes me into his arm, pulling me close against him, as I laugh and laugh. Honestly, I’ve never heard this song sound better. “Is this your way of saying we’re going to have to find a way to compromise on a lot of things?” I ask. “Nah. Here’s a secret. You keep giving me that cute little pout of yours, and hell, you’ll win every time.” He kisses my forehead sweetly. “I love you like crazy, Katydid. In my mind, losing to you ain’t nothing but winning.” The rest of the night is amazing. Even in a church basement, I’m on cloud nine. After midnight, he carries me over the threshold to the apartment, but instead of having a romantic night, we spend most of the time pulling 500 bobby-pins out of my hair. Once that’s done, I say, “do you want to see my wedding lingerie?” He’s lying on the bed, head propped up on one elbow, chewing on one of those plastic stirrers and just watching me, like I’m the most precious thing in his life. The five o’clock shadow is back, his hair is rumpled, and he has his tie and jacket off and his shirt undone. Damn, he’s my husband? Yes, yes he is. I am really that lucky. “Is that a trick question?” he asks. I grin. I get this naughty idea half in my head about doing a sexy strip tease, but then I realize that just like I couldn’t get into my dress without the help of my mom and Aunt Linda, I can’t get out of my dress without help, either. It’s all laces and buttons in back. I turn to him. “Could you . . . free me?” He nods. Very carefully, he starts working the buttons on the dress. I feel it loosen little by little until finally it gives way. I breathe a sigh of relief and turn around. Okay, Sexy Strip Tease, Take Two. I start to lower the dress, then suck my lower lip into my mouth. I have no idea how to be sexy. So I just let the thing fall, revealing my corset, g-string, and garter. He watches all this intently, then breathes, “I have the sexiest wife,” a look of complete awe on his face. He thinks I’m sexy. Somehow, he thinks I’m sexy, even standing here, feeling foolish, having absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to do. He hooks a finger toward me, beckoning me forward.

I look at the monstrosity of a dress, puddled around my knees, and say, “Um. Hold on.” I kick off my heels, then climb out from the mess of white silk, crawling catlike onto the bed. “Free!” I sigh. “I’m free!” “Not for long.” He grabs my wrists with one of his hands and vises them over my head, then rolls on top of me, smiling smugly. “Why, hello, there, Mrs. Harding.” I grin. “Hello, there, Mr. Harding. You’re looking especially well tonight.” “Thank you for being my wife.” “Thank you for being my husband,” I reply. “Did you have fun tonight, my wife?” I laugh. He clearly just likes saying that phrase. My wife. I understand, because I get the same giddy feeling every time I think that Dax is my husband. “Best time ever,” I gush. “In fact, tired as I am, I’m not ready for it to end, are you?” He shakes his head, running a finger down the lace of my corset, letting it linger lazily on the top of my breast. “Nah, baby, I’d say it’s just beginning.”


“Y es, Mr. Farley, if you get your Ferrari to us by tomorrow, he should be able to take a look at it

by the weekend and let you know what the problem is,” I say from behind the reception desk at the office of the brand new Harding Automotive Works. I hang up the phone and type Farley’s information on the schedule for Wednesday, leaving not so much as one empty spot on the calendar, from morning to night for Dax. That’s practically heaven for him, damn workaholic. Luckily, we have the apartment, and usually I can coax him into taking extended lunch breaks. It’s crazy busy for a snowy Tuesday in January, making me long for those warm ocean breezes at Myrtle Beach, the site of our honeymoon. I pull my sweater tighter on my shoulders and peer into the busy waiting room, checking to make sure it’s relatively straightened and that there’s still coffee in the pot out there. Then I crane my neck to see through the adjacent window, where Dax is just finishing up with the Beamer’s brakes. He looks up at me, and I wave at him frantically, those butterflies alighting in my chest. Finally. I’ve been feeling neglected. He comes through the door, chewing on an apple, and says, “How goes it?” “Farley’s Ferrari, tomorrow,” I say, pointing out his schedule. “Transmission problem.” He nods and rests his backside against the reception desk. “Cool. Is that all?” I shake my head. I’ve been trying to wrestle him away from work all day, but it’s been one fire after another. “Can you take a break?” He raises an eyebrow, because he knows what our breaks mean. Then he frowns. “Shit babe, I’d love to. But I’ve been backed up all day with Tom out sick.” I sigh. “You need more mechanics. What about that guy from Hampton?” “He don’t start ‘til next week,” he says, noticing my obvious disappointment. He wraps a hand around my wrist, spins my chair out of the desk, and sweeps me to my feet, straight into his warm arms, a little grin on his stubbly face. “Why, babe? Can’t wait til tonight?” I pout. “I have something to show you.” “That so?” He finishes chewing the apple and swallows, his eyes heavy on mine, trying to gauge what that means. “Anything of yours, I want to see, babe. Believe me.” He thinks it’s another line to get him to go to the apartment with me. Lately, we’ve been coming up with the dumbest excuses to lure each other back there. I lost a contact, can you help me find it? I heard a noise back there; it could be a burglar. Can you help me move the sofa? There isn’t a single mechanic on the floor that buys it, I’m sure of it.

He looks over his shoulder toward the work area, where the rest of his mechanics are busy servicing all kinds of cars. It’s surprising and overwhelming, in a good way, how well the new business kicked off. We thought we would have time to adjust to the new business and work out the kinks. By the time we got back from our honeymoon, we already had a waiting list, which has only grown. I guess you can say it went from zero to eighty, super-fast. “Can you spare a couple seconds, at least?” He waggles his eyebrows and tosses the apple core in the trash. “So you can show me your thing? Yeah, baby, I’d love to see your thing. Come on.” He takes my hand and leads me over to the hallway that leads to the apartment. His brother, Eric, punches another mechanic as we pass, and they both snicker and mouth something about newlyweds. Then Eric rushes to the door, pulls it open, and shouts after us, “Have a good quickie.” Dax shoots him the look of death as he pulls open the door and ushers me through it. When he closes it, he’s on me in seconds, pressing me against the door, kissing me, his hands roving under my sweater. He pulls off his t-shirt, glorious abs front-and-center, and starts to fumble with his belt buckle. “Hurry. I got to get the Chevy looked at before Havens gets off work,” he breathes out, his open mouth roving over the skin of my jaw. “Wait,” I say, nudging him back. He’s running his tongue down the side of my neck, sending jolts of sensation everywhere, almost but not quite making me forget why I brought him here. “Can’t wait,” he murmurs into my skin. “I want you.” I press two hands solidly on his muscled chest and say his name gently until he pulls back and stares into my eyes. “What?” he asks, breathless, confused by my inaction. “I didn’t come back here for a quickie,” I tell him, smoothing down my shirt “Well, it would be nice, but—“ “Are you okay, Katydid?” he asks, voice rising in alarm. I nod. “Better than okay,” I tell him. “I came to show you this.” I reach into my pocket and pull out the white wand with the double lines. I’d taken it this morning. I’d wanted to tell him the second I suspected, but I also wanted to make sure. I hold it out to him, and understanding slowly dawns on his face. He looks from it, to me, back to it again. “That what I think it is?” “It’s not a magic wand,” I say with a grin. “It’s positive.” A slow smile spreads across his face. He runs both hands through his hair, letting it tumble back into his eyes. Then he rubs his jaw. “What? You saying we’re having a little Katydid?” For once, I’ve definitely surprised him. I grin smugly. “Or a little Dax.” He blinks. “A little Dax might drive you crazier than I do already.” I shake my head. “I beg to differ.” He’s still standing there, half-undressed, frozen. I think a stiff wind would blow him over. “Holy shit,” he breathes. He doesn’t bother getting his clothes back on. Suddenly, he tears open the door, preparing to race through it, and then remembers me, standing there. He puts his hands on either side of my face and kisses me hard. “I love you, you know that?” I nod, laughing, and reach over and zip up his fly, since I know there’s no stopping Dax Harding when he gets something in his head, and I don’t want him running out there with all his stuff hanging out. The second I do, he’s off like white lightning. He rushes out into the crowded floor, and I grin after him. I can hear his shouts, even from here.

Soon, everyone in the place knows that we’re expecting. In seconds, the clanking of machinery is replaced by whooping and hollering, with Dax yelling the loudest of them all. A second later, he comes rushing back to me and takes me in his arms. “Hell, girl, why didn’t you say something in the first place? The Chevy can wait.” Then he closes the door and locks it. And our happily ever afters just keep on coming.

THE END If you want to know about the all of Paige North’s books, and get alerted to more of the hottest deals in romance—sign up now to the Favor Ford Romance newsletter! Continue reading this ebook for Olivia Chase’s standalone bonus romance novel, SMITH!




he moment I walk into Outlaws, I instantly realize how much I stick out. Worse than a sore thumb. More like a sore limb, or a sore whole body. Silly me, I thought my skinny jeans and slim-fitting T-shirt would be appropriate for a bar, but many of the women in here are wearing tiny, skin-hugging skirts and sexy shirts that make me look like a nun in comparison. My face burns when several burly, greasy-looking men turn and stare my way, their gazes raking me up and down for a moment before visually dismissing me, but I make myself continue walking through the propped-open front door into the bar. The floor crunches underneath my ballerina flats. I think it’s peanut shells I’m walking on but I can’t say for sure, and I’m kinda too scared to look at what it is. Instead, I find a space at the end of the beat-up wooden slab of a bar and slide onto the rickety bar stool. Some kind of rock with a heavy thudding beat throbs through the large room, which is dimly lit. I hear the crack of a pool cue hitting a ball, dozens of people laughing and talking. The air in here smells like beer and warm sweat—there’s no air conditioning, but thankfully there’s a fresh breeze wafting in through the open door. I suck in a deep breath, pressing my hand to my lower belly, and steady myself. Today, I begin again. This is my new life. My new hometown. The place where I can leave my shitty past behind and start over. Rock Bridge, Michigan, a town chosen completely at random. A town that includes the seediest bar I’ve ever seen in my life. I didn’t think joints like this existed outside of movies. I was totally wrong. I study the beer to see what’s on tap. Most are the usual offerings, but there are a couple of brands I don’t recognize. Maybe local? I should try one out to help me acclimate myself even more to my new town, my new state. I peek down the length of the bar but don’t see a bartender. No one else at the bar seems to care, though. They’re all caught up in talking to each other, waving hands in the air, yelling over the music. Their voices mingle around me. Minutes pass. Nothing happens—I’m completely ignored by everyone, and behind the bar is still empty. I shift nervously, second-guessing my impulsive decision to stop in here. Maybe this wasn’t my best idea after all. But I spent all day moving into my cheap but furnished apartment, unpacking my meager belongings and getting settled in. I passed the bar on my way to my new place and saw it’s within walking distance.

For whatever reason, I didn’t want to stay in that apartment by myself. Not tonight. I needed to be around other people. To remind myself that I’m safe. So here I am, sitting by myself at the dirtiest, grittiest bar I’ve ever seen. Like a fucking loser, I think, then correct myself. No, not like a loser. Like a new girl in town—there’s no shame in that. I’m not letting his voice insinuate itself inside my head anymore. He can’t control me, can’t tell me how I should feel about myself. My chest lightens with the realization that finally, finally, I’m out of his grasp. I take my first real deep breath in what feels like months, and my shoulders relax of their own volition. So what if I’m alone here? I don’t care. I don’t want anyone talking to me right now anyway. I just want to drink a beer and relax. Be around people, but not necessarily worry about integrating myself. Besides, how would someone “integrate” herself in a bar like this, anyway? Offer blowjobs in the bathroom? The thought makes me laugh. “Uh, hello,” a deep voice says from behind the bar, clearly irritated. I blink, realizing I’ve been staring blindly at the nocked bar surface, and peer up into the sky-blue eyes of the sexiest man I’ve ever seen in my life. His dark blond hair is clipped short on the sides and pushed up in the front, and his black T-shirt barely fits over his well-formed chest. His curvy lips are pressed together in a thin line, surrounded by a red-blond close-clipped mustache and beard, and he has one brow arched at me. He doesn’t look happy to see me. So much for customer service, I think. “Um. Sorry. Yeah, hi,” I stumble. Something about the intensity of his gaze makes me clench, unnerves me. He’s raw sexuality personified. He quirks his brow even higher. “I don’t recognize you.” “I’m new to town,” I reply. “Just moved in today, actually. I came from upper New York.” Why in the hell am I telling him all of this? Something about him makes me really nervous. And when I’m nervous, I ramble. “So, did you come from upper New York to just stare at the bar, or do you actually want something to drink?” His voice is flat. My cheeks burn, and I tilt my chin up. “I would like a beer.” He just stares at me like I’m a total moron, not speaking. The heat slides down my throat and over the rest of my face. Dumbass. Of course I want a beer. I’m in a damn bar. He must think I’m a total idiot. I clear my throat. “Something local, please. Not hoppy though. Anything you recommend is fine.” He doesn’t say a word but saunters away and grabs a thick mug, tucking it under one of the taps. It’s hard to not stare at his ass in those faded, fit jeans. The fabric cups him perfectly; his thighs are strong, too; I can tell that much. My belly throbs in response to his blatant potency—he’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in real life. His arms are covered in tattoos, and I can see another tattoo peeking over the top of his T-shirt at the base of his neck. So not my type. And how well has your type worked out for you? I question myself in a stinging inner voice. Because the last guy who was my so-called type, clean-cut with a good job and a polite demeanor that pleased my parents, turned out to be the worst mistake I ever made. The reason I left behind everything and everyone I know to start over in some random town I picked off a map. After what I went through with my ex, I should know better than to judge a book by its cover again.

At the thought of him, my pulse picks up and my lungs squeeze tight. He isn’t here, I remind myself. He has no idea where I am. I’m fine now. The mug of beer slides across the bar toward me. I grab it before it spills on my lap, cupping the cool glass in my palms. Hot Bartender is quite the charmer, isn’t he? He didn’t even wait to see if I caught the drink before giving me his back in order to flirt with a woman wearing the smallest tank top I’ve ever seen in my life. I think it was made for a toddler. “Smith,” she coos, leaning over the bar to give him a flash of her perfect cleavage. “I thought you were gonna call me.” He murmurs something in response that I can’t hear, and she licks her lower lip, sexing him up with her eyes. Clearly she isn’t really that upset that he never called her back. I fight back the urge to roll my eyes at them and sip my drink. Whatever. I don’t care about him, anyway. Let them flirt. I’m content to just sit here and enjoy my drink. I have to give him credit—he picked something good for me. It’s rich but not too heavy, with slightly sweet undertones. I’ll have to ask him what it is. That is, if I can tear his attention away from the chick. I close my eyes and let the taste roll around in my mouth. This is my new life, having new experiences, trying new beer. Baby steps. No more having someone tell me what is best for me. I can tell myself. A small smile slides over my lips. I take another big gulp, then barely keep from spitting it out all over the bar when something hard slams into my back. I spin around to see what’s happening—two men are shoving at each other with a group of people half circled around, yelling at them. “Fuck you!” the dark-haired man yells to the shaved-headed guy. “You fucking cheated!” “I didn’t cheat, asswipe,” the other man says in a warning tone, his eyes slit narrow. “You’re just too fucking drunk to be any good. You suck at pool.” “And you suck my dick,” the first guy says, then gasps when the shaved-headed guy slugs him right in the jaw. I blink and jerk back in shock. What the hell? When I turn to see what Smith, the bartender, will do to handle the brawl, I see him staring at the two men, looking bored. He gives a weary sigh then strolls around the bar and waves at the men. “Knock it off, assholes,” he grunts. “Take that shit outside.” The guys ignore him at first, shoving at each other. I see Smith’s jaw tick, and then he steps up and grabs them at the scruff of their necks. “I said, take it the fuck outside.” His words are low, barely heard over the thudding music, but effective. I even find myself responding to the bold command in his voice, the confident and firm grip of his hands, my spine straightening. What the hell? The two men stop and while they’re both panting and glaring at him, they do as he asks and pull away from his grasp, shooting nasty glares in each other’s directions. The crowd groans and gripes about the fight breaking up, but they disperse, going back to their regular activities of drinking and playing pool and hitting on each other. Wow. I’ve never actually seen a bar fight before. I realize I’m clenching my beer mug and loosen my fingers’ death grip on the glass. My heart is fluttering wildly, in fear and…if I’m honest, a little bit of excitement. Just a tiny bit. Because here I am on a Friday night, in a crazy-ass townie bar, having some random beer and being brave, all by myself. Two weeks ago, I was cooped up hiding in the apartment, popping anxiety pills like candy, desperate to stop feeling the tension and fear that came with almost every encounter I had with Roger. Wishing I could make him happy, knowing that something had to change because I

was reaching my breaking point. Two weeks ago, the big incident happened that pushed my life in this new direction. “Hey, sweetness,” a voice says right in my ear from out of nowhere. I slide around on my stool and see a short, stocky man with a neck like a football linebacker. His brows are a dark slash on his forehead and he’s eyeing me greedily. I can smell beer on his breath. “You here alone?” I give him a polite smile and try to find a way to give him a nice brush-off. “Just enjoying a beer before I head back home, thanks.” I start to turn back toward the bar when his hand slides along my lower back and grips my side. The intimacy of the gesture makes my skin crawl. “My name’s Dan. I haven’t seen you in here before. You’re gorgeous.” Dan moves closer until there’s barely an inch between us. I lean back. Dan may be short, but he’s built and strong. And after seeing that earlier fight, I’m trying to figure out the best way to blow him off without ending up in a bad situation. I wiggle away from his hand and put my beer mug on the bar. “That’s nice of you. I’m new here and just trying to enjoy some quiet time.” “What’s your name?” he presses. My pulse picks up. I’m so not in the mood to deal with a pushy guy. “I really want to be left alone right now.” Dan’s brow furrows and he frowns. “What are you, some kind of snobby bitch? I’m just being nice.” He moves closer again, and I can see red rimming his bloodshot eyes. He’s really drunk. His gaze is barely focused on me. “I can be real nice, baby. Make you feel right at home.” Those hands reach out again to grab my waist and he yanks me off the stool, tugs me flush against him. I feel his hardness pressing against me, and a rush of panic floods my system. My heart thrums. I try to pry myself out of his grip, but he’s too strong. “Let me go,” I tell him in the firmest tone I can manage. “Just relax,” Dan breathes against me, and the warm beer breath puffing on my face makes my stomach turn. “You don’t have to be so uptight. Have some fun with me, huh.” I’m in full-blown panic mode, about to let out a scream. Then suddenly, he’s jerked back, his hands releasing me. I stagger in response to the sudden freedom, and see Smith gripping Dan’s shirt at the throat, and then Smith’s fist slams into Dan’s face with a sickening crunch. Dan’s head whips back, blood gushing out of his nose. His hands fly up to cup the injured part. “What the fuck?” he cries out. The whole room has gone quiet, so Smith doesn’t have to yell. “Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back to my bar. Ever.” His bar. He’s not the bartender—Smith owns Outlaws. With his face obscured by his hands, blood pouring out between his fingers, Dan staggers his way outside and disappears into the night. My heart is beating so hard I’m sure Smith can see it when his laser focus turns to me. I open my mouth to thank him for intervening, even if his method was a little…barbaric… but he speaks first, cutting me off. “You okay?” He looks me over, his hot eyes raking my entire body. I feel myself flush in response. The excitement of yet another fight peaks and subsides, and the bar goes back to its regular action. All in a day’s work, I suppose. I nod. “Um. Yes. Thank you.” “You should leave, too.”

“Wait, what?” I blink in surprise. He’s kicking me out, for real? “What did I do? He’s the one who—” “Sweetheart, this place isn’t for you.” Smith takes a step toward me, and I can smell his rich, spicy scent. My pulse kicks up again, this time in a sheer sexual response. He stares down at me hard. “Outlaws is too rough for someone like you.” I see the moment his eyes fill with dismissal. Just like that, he’s deemed me too soft, too delicate. “Try Foley’s Sports Bar at the other end of town. They’re better suited for you.” Smith walks away and goes back to his place behind the bar. The girl who was flirting with him eyes me, shakes her head with a little smirk of pity, then turns her attention to Smith, reaching over to stroke the back of his neck. My entire face burns with anger, with embarrassment. How dare he treat me like that? He doesn’t know what I’ve gone through. He thinks I’m just some scared little girl, but I’m not. I set my jaw, slide back into my stool, and face my beer again. Fuck that. I’m not leaving here, at least not until I finish my drink. Smith just threw a big, fat challenge my way, and I’ll be damned if I cave. I’m not slinking away with my tail between my legs. Rock Bridge is my new town. I’m not going to be scared anymore. No one else around the bar talks to me while I drink—either my body language tells them to leave me alone or, more likely, seeing Smith punch the shit out of Dan warned them off. The beer is room temperature at this point, but I don’t care. Over the next twenty minutes, I stubbornly finish the entire thing. And the whole time, Smith ignores me. Either he’s completely forgotten I even exist or he’s trying to prove something to me. That I don’t belong. When my mug is empty, I just sit there with a slight buzz, debating what to do. Pride keeps me seated on the stool for longer than I probably need to be. “Can I get you another?” a purring male voice says. I glance up to see a dirty-blond guy who looks like Smith, but a couple of years younger and with a smooth-shaven face, eyeing me from behind the bar. He cocks a crooked grin my way, a practiced smile that I bet probably dissolves a lot of girls’ panties. Before I can talk myself out of it, I nod. Fuck it. I’m not letting anyone control me, not exboyfriends or rude bar owners. “Yes, thank you.” I shove the mug in his direction. He rinses it and refills it, handing it to me. With a wink, he says, “Hi, I’m Jax. Welcome to Rock Bridge. Quite the welcoming committee we’ve gathered for you tonight, huh?” I can’t help it. I laugh. This guy knows he’s hot, is a ridiculous flirt, and I needed the release of tension right now. “I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting all of this.” Jax’s mouth quirks. “Outlaws is a rough place. Can take a while to get used to.” With that, he gives me a nod then swaggers away to serve other customers. He’s cute, of course. But he doesn’t have the same effect on me as Smith, who is probably his brother or cousin. Something about Smith makes my whole body feel alive. Damn him, because I don’t want to be attracted to him. He’s a jerk. I can see what Jax means about Outlaws. This whole night has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced—scary, yet also kind of exciting, if I’m honest. Maybe I need a little excitement in my life. Something to shake me up and remind me I’m alive. I stubbornly refuse to look at Smith as I work on my new beer. I can sense him behind the bar, moving around, waiting on customers. Knowing this is his bar makes him seem even bigger and more powerful than he was before.

Powerful and intriguing. Damn him. When I drain the last of my beer mug, I toss a twenty on the bar—I’m sure it’s more than enough to cover the two beers and a tip—and hop off the barstool. I can feel Smith’s eyes on me, and my skin vibrates. I make myself turn and stare boldly at him. Tension crackles in the air between us. He wants to challenge me? I’ll take that challenge. I’m going to come back and prove to him, and to me, that I can handle this.


One week later

“SMITH,” Maria says to me in her high, breathy voice. She leans over the bar and parts her lips in a seductive manner, one finger sliding along her lower lip. “I’m soooo thirsty. Can you give me something to fill my mouth?” That’s the thing with Maria. I never have to guess what she wants. And what she usually wants is a hard fuck. Still, she’s loaded right now, more so than usual, so I grab a glass of water and push it toward her. “Drink this.” She pouts and thrusts her pert breasts in the air. “But I don’t want water. I want something else, thick and creamy.” I admit, it’s tempting. The girl can suck a dick like she was born to do the job, and it’s been a while since I’ve indulged. Probably her mini stint in the amateur porn industry gives her an edge. But she’s been clingy lately, not just wanting sex. Hinting that she’d like more. As in a real date—dinner, movies. “Not tonight, sweetheart,” I murmur to her then move away from that end of the bar before she can say anything else. Maria shrugs and turns her attention to the guy on the stool beside her. I focus on cleaning the glassware. The crowd is unusually small for a Friday night, but it’s because there’s a home football game at the local high school. The town goes nuts for the Warriors. Not me, of course. Fuck that place. Nothing but bad memories there. I’m in the middle of pouring a fresh beer for Sam, one of the locals who practically lives in the same stool he frequents every night, when she walks in. Miss Innocent. My chest tightens a fraction. The fuck? I thought last Friday would have scared her enough to keep her away. Fresh meat like her shouldn’t frequent a bar like Outlaws. She’ll be torn apart. Yet here she is, strolling toward the bar, a stubborn set to her face. Her soft brown shoulderlength hair sways, and even in the dim light I can see it’s glossy. I bet it feels good, clenched in my fist as I jerk her head back and lick— Oh, fuck no. Not going there.

But it’s hard not to when I see her long expanse of curvy bare legs in a tiny fucking black skirt with a little flare. Her tank top is hot pink and her breasts spill over the top. Definitely different than last week’s outfit. Is she trying to pick someone up here? She sits down at the same spot she was in last week and just gives me a look. Her eyes don’t have the same skittishness they had before. There’s a stubbornness in her, that’s for sure. So she wants to hang with the bad boys, does she? Maybe she’s some pampered, spoiled new girl who’s looking to slum a bit. Wouldn’t the first time we’ve had them walk in here, spending Daddy’s money to buy a bunch of shots, then hooking up with one of the Beckett brothers. Normally it doesn’t bother me. Hell, I end up winning both ways—the bar makes money and I get laid. But something about this girl makes me feel uneasy, a little off center. I can’t quite figure out what it is. And I don’t like it. I rarely lose my temper fast, but watching that idiot Dan pawing all over her last week, the tension and edge of fear in her eyes as she tried to get away…I fucking lost it. Broke his fucking nose for good measure. Luckily he slunk out of here and didn’t file charges—it was a stupid, impulsive move on my part. Whatever. I’m not going to let her get under my skin. I ignore her for a solid ten minutes, serving other customers, cleaning glassware, keeping busy, anything to pretend she isn’t sitting there quietly, waiting for me to acknowledge her and bring her a drink. I guess she isn’t going to just slink away, despite me silently willing her to go away. I walk over to her. “So you’re back,” I say, and my voice isn’t any friendlier than last time. She lifts her chin. “I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. I haven’t had shitty customer service in a whole week, and I’m way overdue.” The smartass answer makes me chuckle unexpectedly. Okay, so she’s funny, I’ll give her that. “What do you want?” “A beer. You guys do still serve those here, don’t you?” Her lips curl into a small smirk. “Whatever you gave me last time is fine, if you remember what it is.” Oh, I remember, all right. I remember lots of things about her—what she drank, how she smelled, how she bit her lower lip. I thought about her randomly over the past week, wondering what made her come to the bar in the first place. Figuring I wouldn’t see her again. Wouldn’t hear her husky voice. Thinking it was definitely for the best that way. I let my gaze rake over her breasts, then raise then with deliberate slowness to her face. Her cheeks are a delicate blush of pink, but to her credit, she maintains eye contact with me, unwavering. I grab a mug and fill it, then hand it to her. She gives me a nod and sips the brew, and I hear a small, happy sigh escape her lips. Something about the way she takes simple pleasure in a thing as unimportant as a beer makes me wonder how she’d react in other situations, like my face buried between her thighs. My cock twitches at the thought. I shake it off and make myself move away. Fuck no, I’m not going down that road with her. If she isn’t a virgin, she’s pretty damn close; innocence practically radiates from her. The dirty shit I’m into would probably shatter her already fragile psyche. This bar is hell, and seems to me she’s an angel with a broken wing who wandered her way into the wrong place. Despite her bravado, there’s still an air around her that speaks of pain and sadness. But I’m not getting caught up in that.

Still, she’s fucking gorgeous. It’s no wonder I see several guys checking her out. I shoot a few warning glares out at the crowd. I can’t have her, but I’ll be damned if I let any of these other mutts pollute her, either. Miss Innocent doesn’t take her time finishing her beer; she drinks it like she’s on a mission. When it’s empty, she sets the mug on the bar surface and doesn’t say anything, just eyes me quietly. Waiting to see what I’ll do. If I’ll continue to ignore her. I tell myself I’d be a shitty bar owner if I didn’t try to serve my customers, and I go over to her. “Another?” “I think I want a shot,” she declares. “I see.” I fight back the smirk that threatens to erupt and say, “And what kind of shot are you looking for?” “A blowjob.” Hearing the word slide from her mouth makes my cock twitch again, and I imagine my dick pressing between her swollen lips, her on her knees in front of me, panting and licking and wet. I keep my breathing steady and pretend I’m not affected. “You got it.” I start to move away to make her shot. “Do one with me,” she blurts out. With this, I pause and turn back to her. “I don’t do blowjobs, sweetheart.” “Oh, I’m sure you don’t give ‘em, but I bet you receive enough of them.” There’s a definite flirtiness in her tone, and she licks her lower lips. The angel is trying to tease the demon, is she? Get a response out of me? I need to resist this, but I’m finding myself pulled to her. The fact is, last Friday was crazy, yet here she is again, pretending like it didn’t bother her. Maybe she’s trying to pick me up. I can’t let it go that far—won’t let it. But I can’t resist flirting back. “Fine, but next we do a shot of my choice.” She swallows a little, then nods. “Deal.” I mix the blowjobs for us and hand her one. We clink the shot glasses on the counter, then raise them in the air. I give her a small nod, and we swig them back. She gasps and rubs her chest. “Oh, that’s hot going down.” “Pretty sure it’s suppose to be,” I lob right back. She laughs, and her whole face lights up. The sudden shift in seeing her like this makes my pulse throb. Holy fuck, did I say earlier that she’s gorgeous? She’s ethereal when she’s smiling. “You make it good,” she says, and her compliment warms my chest in a way I find slightly disconcerting. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” I find myself asking. “Aubrey.” The word is a small breath, and she licks those sexy lips again. “I’m Smith. Welcome to Rock Bridge.” Her eyes widen in mock surprise. “That was actually polite, Smith. I hope you’re not losing your surly demeanor. I’ve so come to enjoy our encounters and I’d hate for you to change just for me.” The half grin that had been working its way across my face grows bigger. Aubrey is…refreshing. She’s definitely flirting with me, that much is clear. But I like that she’s busting my balls too. Not afraid to throw it right back at me. This one’s full of surprises, I decide. “You ready for your next shot?” I lean toward her and stare into her eyes. Fuck, her gaze is so intense as she looks back at me with increasing sexual interest, like she has no filter at all. I can see everything on her face, every nuanced emotion. How the hell has she made it through life exuding this level of innocence, of naivety, and not been utterly broken yet?

I can almost smell her heat; the thought of how expressive she probably would be in bed makes me bite back a groan. I’m sliding into dangerous territory here—this girl is so not for me. I’d do well to remember that before I get caught up in her. She nods. “What’s our drink of choice?” “Jameson.” “Whiskey.” Aubrey gives a nervous laugh. “I…really haven’t had a lot of that.” “Seems like a good time to try something new,” I tell her, knowing my words are loaded and that I shouldn’t be saying it. “Smith!” Maria bellows. “My new friend here wants to buy me a drink.” There’s a sharpness in her voice that I don’t quite care for. Clearly she wants me to feel jealous over some other guy trying to bang her. I walk over to them, flinging a dishtowel over my shoulder. I keep my face expressionless; best to start cooling shit with Maria so she doesn’t think it’s ever going to be more than casual hook-ups. I give the guy a nod. “She likes rum and Coke, if you’re trying to get anywhere with her.” Maria gives a little shocked gasp and blinks. She huffs and swivels to the guy, plastering a smile on her face. “That’s what I used to drink. Now I really like Jim Beam and ginger ale.” I can’t help but laugh a little—it’s what the guy is drinking. Maria gets over shit fast, I’ll give her that. I mix one up for her and slide it to her, and the guy hands me a few bills. Then Sam is ready for a refill, so I pour him another beer. “Thanks, man,” he slurs. His mussed brown hair is flopped over his brow, and he squints at his watch, trying to read the time, moving it closer and further away. “It’s ten thirty-five,” I tell him. Sam hasn’t told me much of his story—unlike most drunks, he doesn’t treat the bar like a personal confessional. But I can tell he’s avoiding going home. Of course I wonder why, but I’ll never pry. The man has a right to his privacy; in fact, most of our “clientele” frequent Outlaws because no one gives a fuck what you’re doing. We all just mind our own here. Sam nods, and I sidle back to Aubrey. She’s quietly watching me, taking in everything going on. “So.” She clears her throat, and the pink on her cheeks deepen. “Um, we’re doing a shot of Jameson?” She digs in her purse. “This one’s on me,” I say, waving her off. With deft, practiced moves, I pour the shots and give her one. Her thankful smile makes something in my chest tighten. How is it she can look so fucking appreciative over someone buying her a shot? The more I’m around her, the less I think she’s a princess. No, she doesn’t have that air of easy money about her. That demeanor that says she naturally expects to get things handed to her. This girl is different than that sort of bullshit. “What should we toast to?” she asks me in that sweet tone that simultaneously makes me want to grab the back of her head and kiss her, but also run the fuck away. This girl feels dangerous to me in all the worst ways. “Let’s toast to more blowjobs,” I say in a distancing tone, then down the shot without looking at her. I hear her clink the glass on the counter, and I take it and walk off, rinsing them out and putting them back. My brother Jax slides behind me and slugs me in the shoulder. “Hey, you almost look fucking happy for once in your life. What gives?” “Shut up and go pour something,” I tell him. He pauses and eyes Aubrey. “Oh, she’s back. Mmmm, she’s looking mighty nice tonight.” I shoot him a glare. “No. Just no.”

Jax quirks a brow at me and says in an overly innocent tone, “I’m merely being friendly with the customers. And you left her without a drink. Tsk-tsk. That’s lost money, isn’t that what you’re always telling me?” Jax smirks; he knows how to push my buttons better than anyone else. “I’m going to go help her, because she looks like a little lost lamb in a den of wolves.” “More like an angel in a den of demons,” I mutter. Maybe it’s better if Jax serves her though. I’m finding her too charming anyway. Jax goes over to her, and within two minutes, she’s giving that sparkling laugh again, the one that lights up everything around her. And I kind of hate that Jax is the one making her laugh this time. Because a stupid part of me wants it aimed all at me. My gaze is drawn over to the pool table, where I see a couple of guys standing in front of each other, posturing with each other, trying to be overly macho. I give a heavy sigh and head over there to talk them down before shit explodes. The joys of co-owning a bar—guys get drunk and fucking stupid, and they start having dickmeasuring contests. Jax, my middle brother, and Asher, our youngest brother, leave most of the business operations to me, so I have to admit, the bar feels more like “mine” than “ours.” I walk up to the two men. “Is there a problem? If so, take it the fuck outside.” I don’t care if people are rowdy in here. I just don’t want them breaking my shit. It costs money to replace tables and glasses, and we’re not quite flush with cash. One of the guys, a regular at Outlaws named Shep, huffs. “No problem, except that this guy is a total pussy.” “Your mom didn’t think I was a pussy last night when I was banging the fuck out of her,” the guy tosses back. Shep lunges toward him, and I hold him back and roll my eyes. “Grow up and stop being idiots. Come on.” I grip their shoulders and make them look at me. “Chill the fuck out and have a beer.” They both give reluctant nods and separate, Shep with his tall and skinny girlfriend, the other guy by himself. Good. I don’t have time to deal with this horseshit. Too much on my mind. Like how my body keeps wanting to turn back toward Aubrey and see what she’s doing. To see those sexy-as-hell legs crossed, with a good portion of her thigh exposed… Without giving in to the urge, I head down the dim hallway and go out back. The air is thick and muggy tonight, and my skin is instantly slicked with sweat. My hand reaches for my back jeans pocket before I remember my cigarettes aren’t in there. Brilliant idea I had, giving up smoking a couple of months ago. But Aunt Roselyn wouldn’t stop hounding me about it until I caved just to shut her up. I rub the nicotine patch on my upper arm, wishing I could roll it up and smoke it, when the door creaks open and Aubrey walks through. She pauses, startled. “Oh, sorry,” she says shyly. “Is this area employees only?” Fuck. I sigh. “No, you’re fine. I’m going back inside.” Aubrey takes a few tentative steps up to me. There’s a softness in her eyes, the haze of alcohol, and I can smell its delicate flavor on her breath. “Um, did I do something to offend you? I mean, at first it seemed like you hated me, and then like you didn’t, and now it feels like it again—” “I don’t hate you. I don’t even know you.” I keep my voice flat, willing myself to not respond to her body language, her tone. The way she’s leaning toward me, her lips parted, her eyes wide, her breath coming in small pants…she wants me. And fuck if my body doesn’t instantly respond. My cock jumps to attention, slamming against my zipper. My pulse is a throb in my limbs, and I suck in a deep breath.

“I just…” Her lips thin and she glances at the ground. “It’s… I don’t know how to feel around you. I think you like me and then you act weird. It’s throwing me off.” Her honesty startles me, silences me. I’ve never met someone as open and blunt as she is. The girl holds nothing back. And it’s magnetic. I can tell where I stand with her, how she feels about me—it’s all over her face, in her body language, pouring through her tone. She’s attracted to me and struggling over it. Before I realize what’s happening, I cup the back of her head and tug her to me. The moment my lips press against her, I release a sigh that feels like it’s been in my chest for years, and then I part her lips with my tongue. She opens to me, eager, pliant, submissive. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I yank her against me, our bodies flush, and she gives herself to me as I plunder her mouth, taste her. She gives a small whimper, her chest heaving, breasts pushing against me. I’m drawn to her, wrapping my hands around her small waist, aching like fuck to feel her naked skin against mine. My fingers slide of their own volition to her waistband and pull her tiny tank top out from inside her skirt, and then I touch her bare flesh and I moan in her mouth. My dick aches so badly I can barely take it. “Oh my fucking God,” I mutter. Her skin is like silk, soft and ready for me. I’ve never felt skin so soft. I want to touch her everywhere. Aubrey whimpers and her body grinds against me in what seems more like an unconscious motion. “Yes,” she breathes against my mouth. I push my hand under her shirt and grip her upper back, squeeze my fingers to dig into her skin. She grunts and sucks in a deep breath, arching against me. God, yes— What the fuck am I doing? Making out with a customer in the back of the bar? I draw all my strength and remove my hands from her body, then step back. Aubrey’s standing there, lips swollen, breath panting, eyes heavily lidded. She’s so innocent but so fucking primed for me. I could probably take her upstairs to my apartment and spread her wide and plunge deep inside her. But I can’t do that. Because she deserves better than to be one of my random booty calls. I can’t ruin her. The kind of life I lead—it’s not for a girl like her. Aubrey’s too good for me, and if she doesn’t realize it—I’ll have to help her figure it out. The thought sobers me, and my cock deflates a little. “This can’t happen,” I make myself say. I see a riot of emotions flash across her face, but I continue. “Go home, sweetheart.” I make myself use the generic endearment instead of her name. I don’t want her to feel like something could happen with us. Because there’s no fucking way it can. “You’re drunk. Sleep it off.” Aubrey just stares at me for a moment, her chest rising and falling. Her eyes are filled with things I can’t quite interpret. But I see the moment the shutters fall, and I feel the instantaneous pangs of disappointment, despite it being my fault, my intent. She gives a curt nod and without saying a word, spins on her heel and vanishes back into the bar. I should be relieved. I should feel like I did something good, something noble and selfless. Instead, I feel like I cheated myself out of something amazing. I spend another twenty minutes outside, cooling down, convincing myself that I’m doing the right thing. Clearly she and I would not be good together. She doesn’t seem like the hook-up kind of girl, which is all I’m looking for right now. I can’t give anything else, and I don’t want to. So why make things harder for both of us?

When I go inside, she’s gone, and I spend the rest of the night telling myself I’m not feeling like I lost someone special. Not at all.


won’t stop pounding. M y head I smother a groan, squinting my eyes open, and try to avoid staring at the light pouring in through my bedroom window. My head is a fog, my brain sluggish. At first I can’t quite remember what happened last night. But the blissful naivety passes all too soon, and then I remember. My stomach sinks with mortification. Fuck. I groan and tug the covers over my face. Maybe I can just lay here and die, and then I don’t have to face how fucking embarrassing last night was. How I had the hottest damn kiss of my life…and then he basically pushed me away and told me he didn’t want me, in so many words. I am the world’s biggest moron. And now I want to jump off a bridge. How did this happen? Smith is a jerk. A jerk and smarmy and rude and so ridiculously hot— Okay, I know how it happened. Because I was so turned on by him that when the moment presented itself, and he grabbed me to kiss me, I practically threw my desperate body on him. Wanting him beyond reason. I was so turned on last night, I would have done anything he asked me to do. And then he asked me to go. And I did. Because I was so embarrassed I wanted to die on the spot. So much for feeling sexy. I dressed to kill last night, wearing my cutest outfit, ready to show him I was worth paying attention to. And he did, all right. Until he apparently came to his senses and decided I wasn’t what he wanted. Was I that bad a kisser? I’ve never had complaints before… And he did seem into it, at first anyway. I groan again. My life officially sucks. My cell phone rings. Despite the slight heave in my stomach, I reach my hand out of the blanket and grab it, then check the caller ID. It’s Michaela. The one person who could possibly pull me out of this funk. Michaela knows me well. Knows everything—the bad and the good about my life and what I’ve been through. I can trust her, and that’s about as rare as it gets in my world right now. A wave of sheer missing her almost overwhelms me as I answer. “Oh my God, how did you know I needed you right now?” I ask. “Because I’m psychic, you crazy bitch,” she declares. “How are you doing? You were supposed to call me last night and I didn’t hear from you. I thought you were dead in a ditch or you fell in a

well.” “I only wish that had happened.” Fuck, I hadn’t necessarily meant to say that, but some stupid part of me must want to purge this off my chest. Damn my big mouth. “Don’t talk like that.” “It’s not actually that bad,” I admit. “Just vaguely humiliating.” Michaela’s curiosity is piqued, and once she gets on a scent, there’s no detracting her. “Go on. Tell mama everything.” Reluctantly, I spill the beans. I talk about meeting Smith my first night, the creeper who hit on me, how Smith punched him, and then our kiss and his rejection. I end with, “And now I’m hung over and feeling like a total moron.” “Wow.” I can hear the awe in her voice. “When you start over, you really start over.” “Come on now.” “No, seriously. I’m so fucking proud of you I could puke. I was afraid that Roger had scared you into never trying again, but here you are, going out there and meeting new people. Do you realize how amazing you are?” My eyes burn, and I blink back tears. “Oh, shush.” “You shush, bitch.” But I hear the love in her voice, and I know she’s happy for me. “I’m sure you’re embarrassed, because I know you, but you shouldn’t be. You went out and had a little fun— don’t make it into such a big thing.” I want to do as she says, but the burn of rejection I feel so strongly still aches my chest. “He told me to go home and sleep it off.” She laughs “Sounds kind of funny. Were you that drunk?” “I guess. I don’t know.” I sigh, confused about whether I’ve read too much into the entire thing. It was a flirty, drunken hookup and he was smart enough to admit as much. He probably kisses women like that on a daily basis. I can’t let myself obsess over it or him any further. “Are you going to try and see him again?” My chest sinks. “I doubt it.” I shake my head and do my best to put him out of my mind—which is nearly impossible. “Anyway, tell me everything I’ve missed at work since I’ve been gone.” Michaela laughs. “Oh shit, you have no idea. Things have been insane this week.” She and I met at the nursing home we worked at. Michaela was the one who oriented me to life around old people, how to stay on top of the surprising chaos and manage their stubbornness so I could get my job done. Without her help, I never would have got the expertise and confidence to apply for a job at the nursing home in Rock Bridge…and get the job. Michaela fills me in on the shenanigans that have happened, how Mr. Carter decided he hates pants and refuses to wear them. And Mrs. Carter, his long-suffering wife, keeps begging the nursing staff to help her manage her husband’s nakedness during group activities. The stories make me laugh and ease the heaviness in my chest. A pang of homesickness hits me. “That’s so funny,” I tell her. Michaela sighs. “I miss you. You sure this is what you want to do? You know we’d take you back in a heartbeat.” “I know.” My lungs tighten. “But as long as he’s there, I can’t.” Michaela is the only person who knew in advance about my escape plan. I hadn’t even told my mom or dad, because they both have soft spots for Roger, not knowing the real him. I was afraid of them spilling the beans to him, and while it hurt that I couldn’t trust them with the truth, I had to do

what would protect me. I still haven’t called them. I’m not even sure they know I’m out of state. But I can’t worry about that right now. “I selfishly miss you,” she says. “But I’m so ridiculously glad you got yourself out of that situation. Roger’s a psycho asshole. You deserve so much better than him. Maybe this hottie bartender dude will work out.” I snort. “Right.” “Hey, you never know.” I hear Michaela mumble something, probably to one of her kids. “Fuck, I gotta go. Brian’s being a little douche and drawing on the bathroom walls.” “Well, he is your kid,” I prod. “You shut your sass mouth,” she tells me. We both laugh and with kisses and goodbyes, hang up. I sit there for a moment, savoring the sound of her voice still echoing in my head, wishing I could be hear her. Michaela was my rock. I miss her painfully. I tell myself I’ll see her again soon, that I’ll have her come visit me. Yeah, my apartment isn’t the best ever, but she doesn’t care. Maybe she’ll like Rock Bridge. I sure hope so, because I’m planning to be here for the indefinite future.

“MR. DANVERS, you need to take your medicine,” I coax. He frowns at me, his brow furrowing with a hundred deep-etched lines. “I don’t need that shit,” he declares. My first day on the job, and I can’t even get my patients to take their meds. To be fair, I was warned about him, how difficult he was with new staff. I have to take control now, today, or he will run all over me for the rest of my days at this nursing home. I stiffen my spine and shoot him a stern look. “Your doctor says you need it. I may be new, but I wasn’t born yesterday. Take your medicine, Mr. Danvers.” He eyes me warily for several long moments. Then he gives a painful sigh and extends his shaky hand. “Fine, but I’m doing this under duress. I want it noted in my files.” “No problem.” I drop the pills in his hand, and he swallows them. “Have a good evening.” My last patient, done. As I walk toward the nursing station and finish all the last-minute stuff to prepare the next nursing shift, I stretch my aching back. This nursing home is bigger than the one I left. There must be a lot more older people in Rock Ridge than I realized. And they all are stubborn…and live in this nursing home. A challenge, but I’m up to it. My soles ache, and my lower back is one big throbbing muscle pain, but I made it. And I have to admit, I do have a few patients who are awesome and made my first day on the job great. If this job hadn’t come through, I wouldn’t have been able to leave the apartment Roger and I lived in. Snuck out in the middle of the afternoon while he was at work. That morning I’d gotten a new number assigned to my phone so he wouldn’t be able to find me. My heart had been a furious beating drum for hours until I crossed state lines. Once I reached Michigan, I was finally able to relax. But even now, when I picture his face, hear his voice in my head, I feel my throat constrict and my stomach aches. My palms sweat and I feel nauseous. Getting away from Roger was probably the bravest, and scariest thing I’ve ever done.

So I don’t really care how hard this job is—I’m staying put. At least for a while. Thankfully, the nursing home isn’t far from my place. Just under a mile. I lucked out on apartment location—everything I need is within a mile or so walking distance, from work to the store to even a small hair salon. I step into the warm afternoon air and start the stroll toward the grocery store. Last week I stocked up on a few essentials, but I need some stuff for lunch breaks at work. Seems like a good time to do so. My time in the store is quick; I grab lunchmeat, chips, and juice. While I’m not destitute, I don’t get paid for three weeks, so I want to be savvy on how I’m spending my money. I load the bags into my arms and head toward home. The blocks pass by in relative quiet. I hear a few kids giggling in the distance, not unexpected for summer break, and find myself smiling. The neighborhood is on the older side but quaint. The houses are brick, with nice lawns and inviting porches. Maybe someday I can save up enough to buy a house of my own. I wanted a house so badly in the beginning, but Roger put his foot down, saying it was a waste of money for us to do so. I make myself stop thinking of him. He’s out of my life, irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what he said in the past. He said so much and did so much. What matters now is what I want. The thought puts a spring in my step. I continue the walk home. When I turn the corner, I see Outlaws a couple of blocks away. The sight of the bar makes my heart trip with mortification. Despite what Michaela said about not taking it so seriously, I’m still dying of embarrassment. Maybe there is something unattractive about me. Maybe he could sense how fucked up my past is, and he doesn’t want any part in that. Maybe I’m just not sexy enough. My mood sinks a little, and I force myself to keep moving forward. It doesn’t matter. I’m not here to look for a guy right now anyway. I’m here to make a new start, without drama, without the fears of my past. I don’t need a man. I need to rely on myself. To know that I am strong and independent. It’s for the best that Smith pushed me away anyway. Because if he hadn’t, I probably would have… God, I probably would have done anything he asked me to. In that moment, I was so wet, so turned on, I would have given him whatever he wanted. I approach the next block and see a guy turn the corner and run toward me, shirtless, his tattooed chest gleaming with sweat. I instantly recognize the clipped beard, the spiked hair, the surly face. Shit. I draw in a steadying breath and cool my nerves. He probably won’t say anything to me, anyway. He’ll probably just pass me by and— “Aubrey,” he says as he nears, then stops, barely panting. A small drop of sweat slides down his throat, down his chest, to the waistband of his running shorts, and I find myself leaning toward him and pull back. What the hell is wrong with me? How does this man evoke such a strong reaction from me? I’m not supposed to want men right now. I’m on a break. For good reason. I don’t need to be attracted to someone who doesn’t even want me, anyway. I give him a curt nod. “Hey.” My left arm aches with the bags in the crook of my elbow, so I shift them up. “I…have groceries to get home, so…” He gives me a long look, as if evaluating me. It’s not what I want right now, especially when I know he finds me lacking in some way. But then, without saying a word, Smith slides the bags out of my arm and into his large hands.

“Lead the way,” he says. “You don’t have to—” “Lead the way, Aubrey.” There’s no room for argument in his tone. Smith gets what he wants, that much is clear. And some stupid, ridiculous part of me wants to please him. What the hell is that about? As soon as he gets that tone, that look in his eyes, I find myself snapping to attention, homing in on him, shutting everything else out, pliant and ready to be told what to do. What does that mean? And I have to admit, I’m so happy that he’s not totally repulsed by me. He didn’t have to stop and say hello, offer to take my groceries. This was all him. Smith nods toward me, which I take as my cue to go home, so I do. I try to pretend I’m not aware of the sweat dribbling down his chest and neck and back. That I’m not aware of the tattoos covering him. That I’m not aware of the muscles of his arms and legs. I try to pretend my core isn’t tightening in response to his raw sexuality, pretend I don’t want him to drop those bags, push me to the sidewalk, and thrust his hard cock inside me. God help me, I’m so attracted to him I can barely focus. Worst situation ever. We walk in silence for a block or so. Then he says, “So how was your hangover on Saturday?” Great. Yes, let’s bring that up. A slow burn crawls up my throat. “I’m fine, thank you.” Hopefully we can leave it at that and not talk about what happened Friday night. That kiss. That fucking kiss that has haunted me, oh, every hour of every day since then. We get to my apartment building and turn on the sidewalk toward it. I open the main door, and we stroll toward my door, him close behind me. I can practically feel his heat pouring off his skin, warming my own flesh. And here I am, looking unsexy as hell in my nursing scrubs. Splendid. I open my door and let us in. It doesn’t matter if I’m sexy or not. I’m not going to go anywhere with him or do anything else. It was a random kiss and that was all. A random kiss that practically knocked my panties off. But whatever. I don’t need another one. It’s fine. I keep repeating that sentiment in my head over and over. Smith follows me to the kitchen and puts the bags on my countertop. He’s in my kitchen and his presence fills up the entire space and I don’t know what to do. How to respond. How to pretend like I’m not affected by him when I am. I just hope he can’t read it on me. I hope my pretense of not caring is somehow working, and he can’t tell just how badly I want him. I press my backside against the stove. “Um. Well, thanks for helping me carry my groceries.” He gives a short nod. Turns. Before I can stop myself, I find more words flying out of my mouth. “I’ll see you tonight.” I don’t even know if he’s at the bar tonight, or why I said that. Why I invited rejection again. What is wrong with me? It was nothing but pure panic, just me saying anything to kill the silence and not feel so overwhelmed in his presence. Smith slowly spins back to face me, takes a couple of steps forward until there’s just an inch or two between our bodies. My heart slams against my ribcage and my skin vibrates with the need for him to touch me. God, I’d give anything for him to reach his hands up and caress my skin. To feel his fingers on me again, the way he did on Friday, when he stroked my back. Smith levels his gaze on me, and there’s a distinct challenge in his eyes. The look penetrates me to

the bone, rips open my soul and bares me to him beyond my control. He can see me, deep inside, see exactly how I feel for him, how badly I want him. And his responding look is so hot and intense it makes me melt. “I look forward to it.” With that, he walks out of my kitchen, the front door quietly snicking closed behind him. I stand where I am, body pulsing with need, throat closed, lungs tight, heart racing. It takes me several minutes to steady myself. To pretend that Smith isn’t totally changing everything in my world. That he hasn’t flipped my plans upside down. I wasn’t going to go to Outlaws tonight. But suddenly I can’t wait to see him again.


“A sher, I need you to see if we have another keg of Barstones,” I bark to the back room as I

release the tap. Fucking foam—someone should have replaced this keg by now. Why does it seem like I’m always the one to notice this shit? “Get on it—we have a customer waiting.” I hear Asher sigh from the office behind me. “Fine, fine,” he mumbles. I wonder if he’s regretting coming home for summer vacation from college to help out at the bar. I tried to get him to stay on campus, find a local job, stay away from here, but he insisted on coming home. He’s a Beckett— stubborn to the core. But Asher is going to be the one to escape this shit soon enough. To live his own destiny. Get his degree and forge his own path outside of the family business, the one that was dumped on our shoulders when Dad died a few years ago. I don’t begrudge what I had to do. I made my choices, and I’m okay with it. And I knew before I even said anything about keeping the business afloat, that Jax would stay by my side. He’s an arrogant asshole most of the time, but he’s loyal as fuck. Not one to leave my side and make me handle Dad’s bar on my own. Besides, Jax isn’t cut out for anything but this little world we inhabit. Asher’s different. Asher is our golden child, the one who excels in school and football, who’s going on to bigger and better things. Move out of our shitty town and be someone. Make our name proud. And here he is, not quite twenty-one, stuck in Shitsville with the rest of us losers because he’s too stubborn to take my advice. Asher gets the fresh keg hooked up to the tap. When he’s done, he brushes his hands and looks at me. I know he’s seeking my approval, for me to not be irritated about him coming home. “Done,” he says. I give him a brief nod. “Next time, don’t wait until it’s fucking tapped. Keep an eye on it. If you’re going to be here, at least do your job.” He sighs and rolls his eyes at me, walking away. In the end, I just want the best for him. He may not like it, but so be it. I can’t worry about his frustration right now. I have bigger things on my plate. Like how the fuck we’re going to pay all our bills when we’re not making enough money. I’m barely paying the three of us as it is. I peer around the Monday night crowd. It’s thin, too thin. A couple of people by the pool table. A few scattered around the bar, drinking cheap beer. How do I get more customers to bring their asses in here, spend their money? What should we do? The pressure of keeping Dad’s business alive is

squarely on my shoulders. We’re barely floating by each month. Fuck, I can’t even afford to hire anyone else outside of our family. Yeah, I’m pissed that Asher came back this summer, but it did relieve our stress a bit, giving us a cheap helping hand. The main door opens, and in walks Aubrey, wearing the tightest fucking jeans I’ve ever seen and a black T-shirt that looks painted on her skin. The outfit is simple but effective. Fuck me, she looks so good I want to jump over the bar and eat her alive. My whole body is thrumming upon seeing her, and my cock pulses, pressing against the fly of my jeans. Shit. I will myself to lose my instant engorgement. I’m not going to entertain this attraction I have for her. I can’t. Not only am I wrong for her, she’s wrong for me. She’s innocent and naïve, not my type. I like my women experienced. Hardened, distant, even cynical. I can take them to bed and we have some fun, but it never goes past that, and the kind of women I’m used to understand that. They enjoy it. But Aubrey is different. Aubrey wouldn’t be okay with the occasional fuck, the late night drinks followed by a blowjob. She would want to be wined and dined and she deserves that much and more. Only, I know I can’t give her any of it. I’m hardly keeping my head above water and the last thing I need is another person counting on me. Jax slides up beside me. “She is pretty,” he murmurs, giving her an appraising look. “Probably amazing in bed, too.” “Don’t even fucking thinking about it,” I retort. I don’t have any right to be possessive of her, I know, but I am. And I don’t want to spend any time mulling on the reasons why. Jax shoots me a knowing look. The fucker can see right through me. Always could. He’s so good at reading unspoken thoughts. A couple of women have asked him if he’s psychic. “You like this girl,” he says. It’s not a question. “Not at all.” I give a casual shrug, hoping he’ll buy it. “She’s not well suited for our bar. But I don’t want to be a dick to her or anything. We should just leave her alone.” There, a nice and easygoing answer. Nothing that reveals the true depth of my strange, unwanted feelings. The deepdown longing I have to tug her toward me again, taste her mouth again. To taste more. To rip those tight jeans down, shove her panties aside, and lick the fuck out of that wet pussy. I bet her come tastes amazing on my tongue. My cock throbs harder at the thought. I can’t seem to push the images aside quite so easily. Because looking at her, perched on the bar stool, so innocent and unknowingly sexy, makes me want to do wicked, dirty things to her. Mess up that glossy hair and watch her unravel for me. Jax shoots me a long look, then turns his back on me deliberately and moves over to her. “What can I get you?” he asks Aubrey. She murmurs something to him, and he nods, strolls over to the bar, and pours her a beer. I bet it’s the beer I recommended for her that first night. I studiously keep my attention on the tasks at hand, cleaning the bar and serving other customers. I can’t let myself fall into this…whatever I’m feeling. Because this girl isn’t like Maria. She doesn’t seem like the person who would flit from one sexual encounter to another, not caring too much, not getting attached. She seems like the forever type, and I don’t fucking want that at this point in my life. Right? I finish pouring a beer for Sam when Aubrey’s eyes connect with mine. I feel it square in my gut, a pull toward her. There’s a crackle of attraction between us so strong, I’m surprised no one else in the bar is winded by it. It almost knocks me off my fucking feet. The heat in her eyes, the smoky

promise… No, no, no, I keep chanting, but I feel myself weakening. I want her. Plain and simple truth. I want her. I want to push inside her. I want to grip her hair and tug her scalp and lick her bared throat. I want to tie her wrists and ankles to my bed, make her helpless, weak, wet for me. I want to leave my marks on her, bruise that delicate flesh, have her sore and aching after I ravage her. But my cravings are most definitely too dark for her. And even if they weren’t, I’m not going to be any good for her. My life is way too fucked up and complicated to have anything to offer a girl like her. I’m not the white-picket-fence kind of guy. I can’t let myself start thinking otherwise. Just having her here in Outlaws worries me. She shouldn’t even be within ten miles of me or this fucking place. It’s not safe—I’m not safe. Jax lingers by her, talking with her, and she gives him a beatific smile. I find my own heart clenching in response. Fuck, how can she be so beautiful? Even still, with the glow on her face, I can see something deeper lingering underneath. An emotion that seems to haunt her, that has haunted her since I first met her. I shouldn’t let myself care about what’s going on with this chick. But I want to know. Why did she move to our town, our state, of all places? Why does she have that sadness around her? Is she as pure and innocent as she seems? Could she ever be interested in entertaining my dirtiest desires? The way I’d love to bend her over and smack my hand on her ass, just to start? Leave my handprint on her skin as a mark of ownership, of possession? How I’d like to sink my teeth into the back of her neck? Cuff her to my bed? Brand the insides of her thighs with the suction of my mouth, the clench of my teeth? My hunger is deep and wicked, always unsatisfied. There’s no way Aubrey could fulfill that. She looks too fragile and innocent to be into any sort of pain. Then she shoots me a look. Her eyes connect with mine over my brother’s shoulders, and there’s a heat in there that surprises me, floods my body. Like she knows she’s driving me crazy and she wants to. Like she wants me hungry for her. I see the way one side of her mouth crooks in the corner. How her eyes lower ever so slightly, hooded, aroused. She wants me too. I can see it plain as day. God, I need to fuck her. Right fucking now. It takes a herculean effort to make myself turn away from her and move toward the office. My refuge. I can’t think straight around her, can’t focus. My whole body is on fire for Aubrey, my fingers itching to grip her hard and leave small bruises on her flesh. I’m dirty, filthy, unworthy, but God help me, I want to pollute her a little with my sin. Make this angel learn how to love the darkness. I spend a good half hour in the office, shuffling papers around blindly. Trying to convince my raging cock to calm down and lose its erection. But every time I do, I think about Aubrey’s sexy mouth, her on her knees, peering up at me with those innocent eyes. And my dick screams to be released from my pants and allowed to come. She can’t keep showing up at Outlaws, right? If I ignore her, she’ll eventually stop dropping by. I should be happy at the thought, but it leaves a heavy feeling in my chest. Something about her smile is addictive; I want more. I nearly thunk my head against the desk. Stop being a fucking shithead, I chastise myself. This isn’t like me. I don’t lose my cool over girls. They’re fun to touch and kiss and fuck, but that’s it.

I never want more from them. Finally, I manage to cool myself down enough to emerge from the office. I’m back in control. Back to myself. Chill. Collected. Unattached. I walk to the bar and will myself to not look at Aubrey. I’m not going to fucking look at her. She’s just a customer, that’s all. Nothing else. My gaze slides, unbidden, over to her. There’s a slim but fit guy I don’t recognize, wearing a tight, faded blue shirt. He’s leaning toward her, his teeth flashing, and she’s smiling at him. He’s charming, clean-cut. Engaging too, from what I’m seeing. Probably a better fit for her than I am, that’s for fucking sure. Tell that to my chest though, because it’s so tight it feels like my lungs are going to squeeze out. Jealousy burns my veins. I don’t want anyone else getting that smile. The one that makes a man feel like the center of her world. I need that smile for myself. It’s one thing to convince myself I don’t want her. Another to be faced with the possibility of her bringing a different man back to her apartment tonight. Before I can question myself, I walk over to their side of the bar. I ignore the guy completely and lock eyes on her, giving her the full weight of my stare. Letting her know exactly how far I’m willing to go, letting her see what I want—no holding back. Aubrey’s breath catches; I see the hitch in her chest as she swallows, stares back. The heat in her eyes slides beneath my skin, thickens my dick. I need to taste her mouth so badly right now I can barely see. I have to get her away from this guy. That’s the sole thought throbbing through me. I want her. I want her so much it hurts. The guy clears his throat. “I’d like another Bud Light, please.” I don’t take my gaze off Aubrey, though. I want to hear what she’s going to say. Can she read the desire in my eyes? Aubrey licks her upper lip, a small swipe of her pink tongue that makes my dick pulse. “I’m… going to, uh, go to the restroom.” Then she pauses, gives me a meaningful look. A loaded look. Fuck. Fuck yes. It takes all my patience to wait, pour the Bud Light for this asshole. Give her a moment to work her way slowly to the hallway toward the bathroom. Then I move. My pulse pounds so hard as I walk toward the women’s bathroom. I hope to God no one is in there, because I’m going to kick everyone out. I need to taste her pussy right fucking now, and there isn’t any force on earth that can stop me. I whip the door open and see Aubrey spin around from the center of the room, her gaze a little nervous, her fingers twisting in front of her. A quick glance around and at the bottom of the two stalls shows no one else is in here. I turn the lock and click it closed behind us. Stalk toward her. “You came here tonight for me, didn’t you,” I say. She swallows, nods. Releases her fingers and presses her hands to the sides of her jeans. “I hope you’re ready.” “For what?” Her words are barely a breath when I grab her by the waist and angle her ass toward the bathroom sink. In a moment I have her jeans unbuttoned. In another, they are unzipped and sliding down her skin. My hands glide along her thighs and I can’t fight the sigh that escapes my mouth. Her skin feels like heaven.

Fuck me so badly, because Aubrey’s thighs are curvy and fleshy and beckoning me to bury my face between them. And that little scrap of black lacy fabric she calls panties aren’t going to keep me away from tasting her cunt. I rip her jeans down, and she gasps, reaching a hand out to grip my shoulder to steady herself. She lifts her legs and gets out of them, then does it again when I tug down those panties. I scoop them in my hand and bring them to my nose. Smell her pussy heat. God help me, my dick pounds hard when I breathe her scent in. Fuck, if she smells this good, she probably tastes like everything I’ve ever dreamed of. I grab her bare ass and lift her onto the bathroom countertop. She sucks in a sharp breath, her lips parting. I reach up and grip her hair and tug her mouth to mine. Yes, fuck yes. Her mouth slants over mine and opens easily, without me even having to ask. Her body grows soft, pliant against me. She stays right where I put her, not moving even an inch. Fuck me. Aubrey is submissive. Every part of her body, of her reactions toward my natural dominance, screams it. How far do I dare to push this? The thought of having such a beautifully raw, moldable woman makes me throb so hard I want to explode. I’ve never had someone so vulnerable and open to me. Her body language tells me in no uncertain terms that Aubrey likes to be taken, dominated. Mastered. I plunge deeper into her mouth. Savor her exquisite taste. My body hums when she reaches around my neck and her fingers play with the short hairs at the base of my neck. She moans into my mouth, arching those pert breasts toward me. I slide my hands along the generous curves of her hips, digging into them, giving a strong pressure with my fingers to see how she reacts. Her body jerks in what I’m sure is an involuntary gesture, and she bucks her hips toward me. God. Oh, God, the fun I could have with this woman. So innocent but so fucking hungry to learn. How far would she let it go with me? I let my hands glide slowly along her thighs until my fingertips are brushing near her bare mound. I hear her pant, and my pulse triples in response. Something about the way she holds nothing back, doesn’t hide her reactions to my touch, makes me want to ravage her so fucking hard. I pry her legs wide and then push her ass until she’s barely sitting on the countertop. Her pussy is bared to me, lips smooth and delicate pink, her inner labia slightly darker and just peeking out. I can smell her feminine heat pouring off her down there and a dark surge overcomes me. I lean down and push my face so close I can almost taste her. If I stick my tongue out, I could feel that velvety soft skin part for me. But I make myself pause for a long moment, breathe deeply. God, her wetness is a siren’s call to me—tangy, sweet, heady. I hear her begin to pant. “Aubrey,” I growl. “I want to eat this pussy so badly. Will you give yourself to me right now?” I need her to say the words, to give me permission to take her how I want her. I need to see how she responds to my request. “Yes, please,” she whispers, and she arcs her pelvis a fraction closer to my mouth. I don’t wait another moment. I move in and slide my tongue along her already damp slit. Her moan shudders across my skin, and her fingers dig into my hair. I grip the outsides of her thighs and nudge my nose along her clit, feeling it swell from the touch. Aubrey gives a small moan and when I look up, I see her head is thrown back, the expanse of her neck bared to me. She’s so open to me, willing to let me lick her right here in the bar’s bathroom. So fucking dirty.

My cock is hard enough to pound nails. My blood pulses in my veins. But I ignore my needs and let my mouth caress her damp pussy lips, my tongue dancing along her slit. She’s already so wet with barely a touch. I want to see how much wetter I can get her. I move my hands to grip her hips and dive into her pussy, feast on the flesh. Fuck, she tastes so good I could come right now, just from eating her. Aubrey shudders beneath my ministrations, her whole body vibrating. “Oh God, Smith, God, God, yes,” she breathes, her small fingers digging into my scalp, and suddenly all I want to do is make her explode so hard she sees stars. I want to give her the best orgasm she’s ever fucking had in her entire life. I want to drive out that quiet sadness from her eyes. I double my efforts, licking, sucking her pussy lips into my mouth, flicking her clit, then reach one hand down between her thighs and slide two fingers into her cunt. That makes her jump, and she cries out, bucking wildly. Her cunt is so impossibly tight, so wet, that her channel hugs me as she accepts my hard finger fucking. “I want that come, baby,” I tell her as I swipe my tongue along her rigid clit. “You’d better fucking come for me.” “I’m so close,” she pants, her hips thrusting with wild abandon. I love how she isn’t selfconscious at all. How she gives herself to me because I asked her to. I want to bend her over and spank that ass so hard. She makes me want to do more than even spanking… My mind flashes on an image of me using a paddle on her ripe ass and I need to calm myself a little to get it out of my head. It’s hard to make myself stop thinking along those lines. But I focus on this moment, focus on edging this beautiful, wet, aroused woman toward orgasm. I can feel her cunt begin to pulse around my fingers, tighten, and I know she’s close. Her breathing grows shallower. She is gasping air, her hands gripping the countertop, her hips bucking in what I’m certain is an involuntary movement. “I’m…I’m so close now, oh God,” she whispers. Her whimpers hit me straight in the dick. I begin to fuck her cunt with my fingers in earnest, pounding her hard, the sloppy sound of her juices filling the air between us. I make my two fingers stroke her inner walls, her G-spot. She pulses against my hand, so eager, so pliant. God, this girl is fucking incredible. Aubrey suddenly gets still, and I can tell she’s going to come. I can feel her opening tighten until I can barely move my fingers inside her. “Yes, yes, right there,” and then her keening cry echoes throughout the bathroom, and I want to push my cock inside her so hard right now that I can barely keep from unzipping my pants. Holy fuck. I don’t stop fucking her until she jerks and presses her hand on my shoulder, a gentle request asking me to lighten up. I move to a slow thrust in and out, my fingers coated in her come. Aubrey sucks in a slow breath and lowers her head until we’re staring at each other. We’re both sucking in deep gulps of air. I can’t read the expression on her face right now. The tension is so tight between us it’s about to explode. I’m waiting to hear what she’s going to say. I don’t know why, but it feels like everything hinges on the next moment. “That was the hottest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she finally says on a small laugh, and I feel my lips curving up in response. The knot I didn’t even know was in my chest releases, and I feel light, free. If she liked doing this, what else might she like? What other ways could I bring her to ecstasy? This woman does things to me I never expected. “You think that was hot?” I say with a quirked brow. “You have no idea.”

“I suppose not,” she murmurs, and her fingertips brush the tips of my hair as she gives me a shy smile. “But I want to find out.”


half past midnight when I leave the bar and head toward my apartment. The air is thick and I t’swarm around me, but the breeze flowing along my skin makes it bearable. I hope my bedroom isn’t scorching hot—I may try to sleep with the window open tonight if I can. Save a few bucks by not running the air conditioner every night. I wanted to hang around Outlaws for another hour and a half until it closes, but I have to work the evening shift tomorrow, so I should get some errands done in the morning. Be well rested and fresh for the new day. And also not spend the rest of my night just staring at Smith… Yeah, I tell myself I’m going to sleep when I get in my apartment, but odds are, I’ll be lying in bed all night thinking about Smith’s head between my thighs. That was the hottest sexual experience of my entire life, hands down. Oh God, I want to do it again and again. And then drop to my knees and please him right back. Lick him, draw him into my mouth and make him release. Taste his come, too. Something about that low growl in his voice, the confidence, the self-assured masculinity in his presence, makes me want to give him anything he asks me for. Smith is intense, and I should be petrified of it. I should be, but I’m not. Because the truth is, after I slipped out of the bathroom and went back to my bar stool—that other boring guy had left, probably tired of waiting for me—and nursed another couple of beers, I couldn’t help but feel the ripples between us every time our eyes connected across the bar and we shared a secret smile. Remembering what we did earlier in the bathroom made me feel hot beyond all belief the entire rest of the evening. Made me ache to do more dirty things with him. I’ve never felt so worshiped in my entire life the way I did during that brief interlude. Like someone focused everything on my pleasure. Giving instead of just taking, not even a moment of expecting reciprocation. I hadn’t expected that at all. I draw in a deep breath of the night air, exhale slowly, and walk up to my front door, key the entrance. I drop my purse and keys on the little table beside the front door and don’t even bother flicking on the overhead light in the living room. I just go right to the bathroom and strip to take a quick shower before bed. The walk back to my place made me a little sweaty. My rinse-off in lukewarm water is fast, and I dry myself with a new towel I bought at Target my second day in Rock Bridge. My skin is still humming a little from feeling Smith’s touch on me. I want more of him. So much more. I never felt as alive, as free, as I did in that bathroom—the sheer

wildness of the moment and my massive orgasm made me giddy. Does he want more, too? Was that a one-off incident, or will something else happen between us in the future? And if it does happen, will I have to be the one to instigate it again? Because it took all my courage to even be so suggestive to him, and I’m not sure I could repeat it. When I told him I was going to the bathroom, I thought he’d just grab my hand in the hallway and take me into his office or something. I didn’t know he’d lock the damn bathroom door behind him. The impulsive, wicked move was so hot. I open my window, close my eyes, and stretch out on my bed in the dark, on top of the covers. Allow myself to fantasize about Smith lying above me, our skin touching and sliding along each other, his hands clenching my hips as he thrusts into me. Something about the man is so wicked but also makes me feel like I’m in good hands. Like he’d care for me. Even if it was just to see to my sexual needs. Roger was never like that. Even at the beginning, I noticed his selfishness in the bedroom and everywhere else. But by the end it was so much worse… I push out all thoughts of my ex and focus back on my moment of pleasure earlier tonight. How good Smith’s mouth felt licking me. Holy hell, the guy could have a doctorate in oral sex. I’ve never had someone do the things he did to me. Never felt those sensations before of my pussy lips being sucked into a mouth. My clit throbs as I think about it, and I reach down, slick my fingers between my damp lips. I can still hear Smith’s breath drawing in that second before he first licked me, the one where he looked up at me and told me what he wanted. Made me give him permission. Why did that arouse me so? Why does the thought of turning myself over to him drive me wild, make me almost shake with desire? I should be scared—I told myself on the long drive to Rock Bridge that after Roger, when I was ready to date again, I’d never date someone who wanted to control me. I’d find someone who made me feel free. But it’s strange—even though Smith took control during our brief encounter, I never felt like he would take advantage of me or hurt me. In fact, I’d never felt so safe in all my life, despite the excitement and danger inherent in the situation. Still, despite my attraction to him, I know Smith isn’t as safe or simple as I’d like to believe. Something about Smith makes me feel like he would have many demands of me. Would they only be in bed, or would they extend elsewhere? I think about him whispering in my ear, telling me all the things he wants to do with me, and my lower belly tightens in response to the fantasy. Smith isn’t a boring-sex kind of man. He’d push my limits. It was easy for me to give in at the bar because I knew the bathroom door was locked. But what if he’d left it unlocked? The thought both scares me and makes my clit pulse. Then someone could have walked in on us, seen him licking me, seen me coming on his hand… My breath catches in my throat and I can’t resist stroking myself more at the thought. My pussy gets super wet, the juices sliding around on my lower lips as I run my finger along the slit. I’m panting, and my nipples bead and harden when I imagine Smith sucking the tips into his mouth. My orgasm builds fast. I let the fantasy continue, and in my mind, Smith grips the base of my neck as he drives into me. His eyes consume me, his cock fills me, his other hand slides along my skin, and my flesh grows hot and sensitive and tingling, and I’m frantic as I finger my clit, the small bud pulsing beneath my strokes. I feel a surge crest in my pussy, and then it crashes over me and I give a sharp cry out before remembering that my window is open. I swallow back the rest of the sound and buck on the mattress,

my channel dripping juices along my slit, my body radiating my orgasm all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes. I turn my head and press my mouth to my pillow and let the sensation subside slowly. A lethargy sweeps in then, and I sink into the mattress, let the drowsy post-orgasm feeling lure me into sleep. The last thing I think of is Smith’s brilliant eyes.

I BLINK awake and sleepily look at my bedside clock. It’s a little before three in the morning. Did I hear something? It sounded like… There’s a rapid knock on my door. My heart lurches in surprise. Roger. It’s Roger—has to be. Oh God, he’s here. He found me. I scramble to throw on a pair of jeans and a shirt, and I grab my phone and dial 9 and 1. The baseball bat I also bought at Target is in my other hand. I inch to the front door, pulse jumping hard, stomach a mass of knots, and peek through the peephole. No one is there. What do I do? Do I stay inside, or do I risk it and peek to see if Roger is out there? I swallow and stiffen my spine. I’m not going to let him make me afraid anymore. Plus, my phone is right here. I prop the bat against the wall, whip the door open, and step outside, finger hovering over the last 1. And see Smith turning the corner on the sidewalk away from me. “Smith,” I find myself calling out as the tension leaks from my body. I exhale hard in sheer relief. Thank God. Not Roger at all. But why is he here? He spins to me and seems hesitant to walk back in my direction, pausing for a moment. When he nears me, he says, “I woke you up, didn’t I. It was a dumb impulse to come here so late at night. But…” I can’t see his eyes well in the dark; they’re hooded, unreadable. I turn my phone off and stick it in my back pocket. “But?” I nudge him. “But I can’t stop tasting you in my mouth and I needed more.” Smith stares at me hard, not moving still, just sexy as hell and intense, the streetlights glinting off his dark blond hair. Fuck. My pulse jumps in response to his reply. That’s the hottest thing anyone has ever said to me. I draw in a steadying breath. Earlier I wondered if I’d have to make the next move. But he’s here, and I’m not letting him get away. I step forward and let myself gingerly stroke the column of his throat, his Adam’s apple, right below the clean line of his beard. The knot jumps under my fingers as he swallows. I stare up at his mouth. “I want more, too,” I admit to him. Let my fingers dance up to his lower lip and glide it along the smooth flesh there. I force myself to also admit, “I…I touched myself in bed thinking about it.” There’s a long moment where neither of us move, and then he darts his tongue out to taste my fingertips. And before I realize what’s happening, Smith’s hands are around my waist and he’s pushing me in the apartment, the door thudding closed behind us. He blindly fumbles with the doorknob lock behind him, tugs the phone out of my back pocket, puts it on the small table. “I need to fuck you, Aubrey,” he states bluntly. There’s no shyness in him like there is in me. Smith owns his sexuality, and it’s so alluring. “Yes,” I tell him. I want it, too. As soon as I saw him out there, all my fear had vanished, replaced by the vision of Smith. He’s here. He’s really here. Seeking me out. I did this to him, made him find me after work. A small, feminine thrill runs along my skin. Smith pushes my hair to one side and his tongue strokes my neck. I shudder, and he sucks the wet

area. “I need to taste every fucking inch of your body.” When he says it, I feel like he legitimately means every inch. The thought has my pussy clenching. I don’t speak, just nod, let his mouth drift along my throat, up my jawline, him giving me small licks and sucks everywhere. Then he stops and grabs the hem of my shirt, jerking it over my head in one smooth move. “Fuck,” he groans as he sees my bare breasts—in my hurry earlier, I didn’t bother to put on a bra. My chest is heaving under his heavy scrutiny. I refuse to squirm, just let him get his fill. He reaches up, cups their weight, gives a soft squeeze that has me gasping, arching under his fingers. “Take your jeans off,” he tells me, stepping back. I remove the jeans, letting them slide down my bare hips, puddling on the ground. I’m now fully naked before this man, while he’s still completely clothed. The vulnerability should make me uncomfortable, but instead, I’m throbbing and wet at the thought of what’s going to come next. Smith gives me a slow smile and moves one hand to stroke the back of my neck. “Such a good girl,” he murmurs, and something in those words unfurls a need in my core. I want to hear him say that to me again and again. I don’t have much sexual experience, but if I can please him by doing these small things, I will. Smith’s hand strokes down my spine, a smooth movement ending at my hip. That heat, the promise, are in his eyes. My breath catches. “Are you…going to get undressed?” I asked him. His lip curls in one corner. “All in good time. I need to taste more of you first. Take me to your bedroom, sweetheart.” I slip my hand into his, feeling my heart give a strange squeeze at the gesture, and lead him to my room. The lights are still off, the sheets in disarray. He takes me to what is obviously my side of the bed, from the dent in the pillow, and gently nudges me down to sitting. The light is thin in here, but I can see him somewhat, his strong frame, the darkness of his tattoos. I want to ask him to strip and let me touch them, but a bigger part of me wants to wait and see what happens. “Lie back on the bed,” Smith tells me in a gruff voice. I do ask he asks, my thighs trembling a bit in anticipation as I’m exposed to him, and he gives a small groan. “Fuck. Your body is so beautiful, Aubrey. It’s all I can do to keep from spreading your legs apart and fucking you right now.” The bed dips down when he sits on the edge, and then his hands are sliding along my calves. Smith’s fingers are deft as he skates them around the muscles, dips to the dents behind my knees. The gesture is light, but it sends sensations rioting through my body. I feel myself starting to clench, tighten. He pulls back in order to quick strip off his clothes, and I watch, in awe as his amazing body is revealed to me. But then he’s back on the bed, pushing his strong body between my thighs, parting my legs for him. I wish I could see him in full, really explore all those tattoos on his body. His mouth glides across the arch of my left foot, and I gasp at the way his tongue licks and swirls. Oh God, who knew having your foot kissed could feel so good? There is no rush. Smith takes his time, tasting my flesh, leaving me quivering with every second that passes. My breath comes in small, shallow pants. By the time he reaches the apex of my thighs, I’m throbbing in earnest, soaking wet. I grip his hair and silently nudge him toward me there, needing to feel that mouth on me again. The first swipe of his tongue along my slit makes me cry out. At this point, I don’t even care if the

window is open. I don’t want to hide the way he is making me feel. I can’t keep quiet. He grips my hips and licks me, the movement becoming faster, more frantic. I hear him groan against my wetness, and I almost lose it. “You taste so fucking good, I want to eat you all day,” he growls. “Good God, your pussy is a sin.” I feel the orgasm surging close, so close. “Please. Right there.” His tongue is doing deliciously wicked things to me, and I need more. I’m tightening, so ready to explode any second now. I feel his fingers stroke along my lower lips, and then he pushes deep into my pussy, curving the digits up. I groan. I’m almost there, almost there… And then his teeth sink into the tender flesh right on the inside of my thighs, and I lose it. Something about the small flare of pain, mixed with the thrusting of his fingers in me, makes my orgasm erupt, and I gasp, then cry out my release. It feels like the orgasm goes on forever and ever, and he keeps his teeth locked on the skin, his tongue licking as he moves his jaw ever so slightly. Oh God, it’s so erotic and dirty, and it makes my pussy drip. He releases the flesh and gives it small kisses as I slowly fall back to earth, then his tongue takes a thick swipe along my slit. “Fuck yes, God, you’re so fucking sexy and I want to tear you apart.” In this moment, I would give Smith anything he wanted. The possessive edge to his voice, the way his fingers dig into my hips as he slides up my body, the soft warmth of his breath when he’s fully on top of me and staring down into my eyes…it’s a rush, and it leaves me heady and desperate for him. I clench his back and blindly grind my pussy against him. His cock is massive and hard and it fits in my cleft perfectly. I am nothing in this moment but sensation and arousal, and I need this so much that my body hurts for it. “Slow down, sweetheart,” he murmurs, his hand fisting my hair and pulling me back into the moment. “I gotta get a condom on. Gimme a sec.” Before he moves though, he takes my mouth in a raw, hungry kiss, one that thoroughly owns me. His tongue, which tastes like me, plunges into me, stroking my tongue. Far too soon, he pulls away and leaves me panting on the bed. Then he’s back on top of me, and I part my thighs and welcome his weight on me. My heart is a thrumming bird. Suddenly I’m nervous. I’ve only been with two men before, both in serious relationships. I’ve never done this, never met a guy and had casual sex with him. How will I feel tomorrow morning? Smith reaches a hand up and strokes my jaw. I can see the concern in his eyes. “Hey. Where are you right now?” I give a shaky smile. “Sorry. I’m here. I’m just…this is kind of new for me…” He gives that crooked grin that melts me a little. “Kinda figured.” “Oh? How so?” His low laugh slides across my skin. “You don’t exactly scream ‘casual hookup.’” At first I’m a little taken aback. Is that a bad thing? Yet here he is, despite him reading me so well. “So why are you…” “Why am I here then?” Smith leans down until there’s barely a breath between us. I can feel his heat and my own body surges in response. He’s lying naked on top of me, his cock pulsing between my thighs, and I’m so aware of my body that I’m growing more aroused and less afraid by the moment. “Because I can’t fucking seem to stay away from you.” Then he takes my mouth in a searing kiss, and I find my pelvis arching toward him, seeking him inside me. One smooth move, and he’s fully nestled in my pussy.

Smith groans into my mouth. “Sweet Jesus, you’re so fucking impossibly tight. Oh God.” I squeeze my inner wall around his thickness, savoring the way it fills me. I want him to move. I want to feel what it’s like to fully let go and be swept away by passion. I need to. “Please, I…” I can’t seem to find the words to articulate what I want. But he knows. He pulls out with a slow moan, then surges back in, out, and suddenly he’s pounding me and I’m hanging on and almost unable to breathe. His cock stuffs me so deeply he’s almost hitting my cervix, and the sound of our bodies slapping against each other is insanely erotic. Smith’s hand buries in my hair as he clenches my scalp, and the other hand slides under my back to pin me against him. He pistons in me, plunges hard, relentlessly. The action rubs my clit as well, and impossibly, I feel another orgasm approaching. “Does this feel good?” he murmurs in my ear. “Tell me what you want.” “I…” I swallow a gasp when he hits my G-spot with the head of his cock. “I want it hard. Really hard.” “God, yes,” he says on a groan, and then he withdraws fully, pausing one second, then jackhammers my pussy like a man possessed. I can’t think. I can’t breathe. I am overwhelmed, gloriously taken by this man who makes me feel so fucking alive that I’m not even myself anymore. I let my legs fall wide open and dig my nails into his back. The bite of my fingernails seems to encourage him; his eyes darken as he looks at me, and he almost seems primal. “You loved being bitten, didn’t you,” he growls. I whimper and nod. His teeth latch on to the tender flesh above my nipple and he sucks, still pumping into me. His hands are grabbing my hips so hard I’m sure I’ll have bruises there. He moves his mouth down and tugs my nipple between his teeth, sending shockwaves straight to my clit. Oh my God, oh God, oh yes… When his teeth bite the tip of the nipple and pull it away from my breast, I explode right on his cock. Pulsing wave after wave, erupting in my body and sending me crying out against him. “Fuck yes, baby,” he pants against my nipple, licking the rigid tip. His thrusts grow more erratic, his breathing unsteady. He’s close. I want to push him over the edge. Give him some of the pleasure he’s given me. “Please come,” I breathe. “I want it so badly.” The words seem to unleash him. Smith gives one last hard thrust and then he grows stiff, his body completely flush with mine, his eyes locked on me with a heat and an edge of some other emotion that makes my lungs lock. In this moment, as he pours his seed into the condom, I feel like he sees right through me. Like there’s nothing between us, no walls, no pretense. And I can see him too, and it’s an intensity I’ve never experienced in my life. Smith closes his eyes, seems to struggle to breathe. He presses a tender kiss to my forehead, and for some reason, that simple, unexpected gesture gives me a lump in my throat. This felt like more than just fucking. This felt dangerous. Exciting. Addictive. Neither of us speaks; the air is thick with our silence, the weight of what just happened at the end of our sex. I don’t know what to do, and I lie there, feeling awkward. Then he stretches out beside me, shifting my body so my back is curled against his chest.

And the tension seeps out of my bones. Smith’s gentle strokes on my hip, my back, lure me into a drowsy satisfaction. I let my eyes close and I fall asleep.


peeks through the blinds as I open my eyes and awaken. As consciousness comes to me, I S unlight realize I’m not in my bed, in my apartment above the bar. And I’m not alone. There’s a soft body curled against my back, small fingers resting on my hip, gentle breaths puffing along my skin. Aubrey. I’m in her apartment after we had sex last night. Sex that was so fucking hot it was ridiculous. Sex that ended in a weird moment where we had some kind of deeper connection. Discomfort makes my body hot, and once again around her I feel the urge to both get closer to her and run the fuck away. She saw me last night, saw beneath my normal demeanor. And I could tell that she was nervous, so I tried to get her to relax and go to sleep. Then I fell asleep beside her, and I slept better than I have in months. I let myself indulge for just a moment in the pleasure of her against me, still asleep. Sex with her was different than any I’ve ever had. I shift to lying on my back, and Aubrey moves in her sleep in response, pressing against my side. She’s so vulnerable and small in her sleep that I feel a surge of protection over her. I move my arm so she’s lying on my chest. Above her right breast is a small bruise, where I bit her last night because I fucking couldn’t hold it back. I bet she has a matching mark on her inner thigh. My cock bounces. Images flood my mind, of me putting cuffs on her hands and wrists, her helpless and wet and writhing below me. I haven’t played in so long, too absorbed with work at the bar, stress over my brothers. That old hunger fills me as I let my thoughts wander. Would Aubrey even be open to something like that? She seemed to really like me taking control. But there’s a difference in having a small bite mark and the pain that comes with BDSM. I shouldn’t even ask her. But I can’t seem to stop thinking about it now, and I am so fucking tempted to palm my cock and stroke myself. Maybe see if she’d be interested in round two. Something about her is getting under my skin far too fast. I need to cool my shit before I get in too deep and someone gets hurt. At this point, I don’t know if that someone would be her or me. Because at the core of things, nothing has changed. I’m still the same man I was. My last girlfriend was so freaked out by my dark hunger that she called me a pervert and a creep and told her whole family that I’m messed up in the head. They still shoot me dirty looks when they see me in public. The accusations she flung at me in the heat of our last fight still sting. How she called me an animal, a user, said my needs were degrading and made her feel cheap.

Maybe she was right about me. After all, this sweet woman is lying beside me, trusting me, and I’m thinking about wanting to tie her up and spank her. She’s too good for me. I need to get the fuck out of here. I delicately remove myself from her side and slide out of bed. She barely moves, just gives a small, sleepy exhale as she digs deeper under the sheets. It’s a shit move, sneaking out when she’s not awake, but I need to get my head on straight without being swayed by her eyes. It takes just a moment to get dressed and in my shoes. I don’t let myself turn back to look at her as I exit her bedroom door. I know if I do, I’ll be far too tempted to get naked and crawl back in bed by her side. When I reach the front door, I see a baseball bat propped up on the wall. Is Aubrey extra paranoid about someone breaking in or what? This neighborhood isn’t that bad. Something about that niggles at me, but I push the thought aside and leave her apartment, closing the door quietly behind me.

THE WEEK CRAWLS by in a tedium of work. Bar business keeps me busy enough, and when I’m not at work, I’m either getting shitty sleep or running. My already surly attitude is brewing over into the red zone. Jax tried to crack a joke about me needing to get laid and I shot him a look so angry that he just walked away, hands up in the air. I know I shouldn’t take my mood out on them. Because I know the reason I’m feeling so fucking off. I haven’t seen Aubrey in days. And why should I expect to? I snuck out of her apartment like a total asshole. I don’t have her number. The only information I know about her is where she lives. When Friday comes, I’m extra on edge the whole night. The minutes tick by in a painful slow cadence. Maria tries to flirt with me but I pretty much ignore her. My gaze keeps being dragged back to the door. The door where Aubrey never comes through. And it’s my own fucking fault. Even though I know it’s best for both of us, I still want to see her face, hear her laugh, push her buttons and make her snipe right back at me. Run my tongue along her skin and elicit a groan so sexy it makes my dick throb. Aubrey intrigues me, compels me, attracts me like no woman has in a really long time. But I can’t have her, because I’ll end up fucking it all up and ruining her. Ruining myself, too. For once in my life, I’m trying to do the noble thing. The selfless thing. And I hate it so damn much. “Are you okay?” Asher asks me as he brings a tray of dirty mugs over to wash. “You’ve seemed…especially angry this week.” I roll my eyes. “I’m fine.” Asher’s lips thin as he presses them together, and he turns to face the sink and wash the mugs. When he finishes that and puts them on the rack to dry, he faces me yet again. “Smith, I’m fucking tired of this.” “Tired of what?” The anger in his eyes both takes me aback and brings my own surliness back to the surface. “Of you punishing me for coming home for the summer. I have the right to make my own choices, whether you like it or not.”

“Yeah, you do. And you made a stupid one. You could have stayed there and gotten an internship in your major and building up experience, but instead you’re here, slinging beer at this place. You’re not going to get anywhere by working here.” The words are blunt. I’m not filtering myself with him about this topic. He fucked up on this one. “Maybe I should’ve stayed, but I came back. It’s my right to do what works for me, though. Keep being pissed if you want, but I don’t regret it.” His eyes flare as he lobs the words at me. A customer waves at me; I pour her a beer, trying to keep my frustration from boiling over, and shoot her a tight smile. Then I make my way back to Asher. “Of course you don’t regret it. You have the luxury of being able to just do whatever you want.” “You can go to school too, you know,” he retorted. “You’re not dead.” “There’s no way this business will make it without me.” “God, you’re so fucking arrogant.” His voice is filled with shocked wonder. “You really think Jax and I are so stupid that we couldn’t handle things here ourselves? That we’d just drive Dad’s business into the ground without your saintly presence to keep us all alive?” My lungs tighten at the accusation in the words. Because the truth is, that is how I feel. That neither of them could handle it. And given the fact that Jax is a complete fuckup and Asher just started growing facial hair recently—I’d say that my gut is pretty accurate on this one. Without me saying a word, Asher can still read it on my face. “Fuck you,” he tells me quietly, then leaves. A flood of emotions are surging through me—anger, guilt, frustration. My life isn’t what I wanted it to be, not at all. Not even close. I had my own dreams and aspirations. Then Dad died, leaving me with two teen brothers to raise and a failing bar to tend to. My chest is tight as I serve customers. I can barely keep a restraint on my rampant feelings. They threaten to explode. I cannot lose my shit right now. I have to be the responsible one, the father figure. Asher might not like it, but I do have a point to how I’m feeling. He could have used the experience to help him after he graduates next year. I pour a beer for myself and take a long draw of the refreshing liquid. Maybe alcohol will take the edge off. I rarely drink at work unless a customer buys me something, but I need it tonight. The tension keeps ramping up in me, tightening my chest. God, why am I so fucking worked up right now? I know exactly why. It’s because I keep screwing shit up in my life. I try to make things right and I end up making people pissed. And I’m tired and need to feel good. I want to feel Aubrey in my arms, to hold her close and feel her warmth—forget all of this nonsense. But that’s not going to happen and I need to put it out of my mind for at least a little while. When I head back to the office, Jax follows me in there. “Not now,” I tell him, a warning clear in my tone. “Dude, you’re a fucking mess. You need to go. Take a night off. Pretend you remember how to just be a man and not a business owner.” “I can’t take a night off,” I reply. I dig through the papers on the desk, looking for last night’s totals for comparison against tonight’s. It seems like a better crowd in here right now. “As part owner, I insist. Get the fuck out of here. You’re stressing the customers.” I stare hard at him. Jax gives me a small smile and laughs. “Okay, not really. But you’re stressing me. Please. Just go. You can’t keep working at this pace, man. Take the night off and enjoy yourself. Have fun. Find a chick to bang. I promise we’ll be okay. We can always text you if there’s an issue.” I have to admit, it’s tempting. I haven’t taken a night off in so long I can’t remember the last time.

Jax can see that his words are working on me. He goes for the death blow. “Dad would not want to see you killing yourself like this. You know it would hurt him.” My breath exhales in a hard whoosh, and I run my fingers through my hair, over my beard. “Fuck.” All the fight leaves me at the mention of Dad. No, he wasn’t the best businessman, but he did the best he could for me and my brothers. Made sure we went out and did things together. Fishing, baseball games, skiing. The familiar pain that I always feel when I think about Dad comes creeping back in, and my chest grows tight. He comes over and pats my shoulder. “One night. It won’t be the end of the world. Stop being our dad and remember that you have a right to a life, too.” “You have to text—no, call—if anything goes wrong.” “We will.” “And if someone starts a fight, make sure to break it up immediately so it doesn’t get worse.” “Yeah, we know.” “And keep an eye on the kegs—” “Fucker, we know. Shut up, idiot, and get out of here.” Jax shoves my back. I growl at him, and he laughs. “Yeah, yeah, big guy. Don’t forget, I can take you.” “One time, when you were like twelve.” “Best day of my life.” He winks. “I was thinking of getting a trophy for it.” I can’t help it. I laugh. Asshole knows how to work me. I glance at the time on my phone. It’s only nine-thirty. A whole night off…what am I going to do? I grab my keys and head out the crowded bar toward my motorcycle. Crank it up, rev it, then back out of the spot and just drive. I’m not sure where I’m going. I just need to feel nothing but the street beneath my tires, the power of the bike. It was my dad’s, and he left it to me in his will, knowing how much I loved helping him restore it. Whenever I ride it, I feel closer to him. Mile by mile, the tension starts to fade, and my shoulders loosen. The wind whips through my hair. I take the back road up to the small lake in the park. A good place to be alone with my thoughts. Think about what it is I want and how to get it. When I get to the parking lot, there are a few other cars there. I hear a couple of kids playing in the playground at the far end of the park. The air is warm but not humid tonight. I park my bike and head right to the water’s edge. There are a few ducks swimming on the surface; the sun has already set, so it’s dark over here, lit by a couple of ambient lights around the park. The sky is an explosion of stars above me. I work my way around the perimeter of the water to my favorite thinking spot, a small grassy patch in the back. Been a long time since I’ve come here. This used to be one of my retreats from the world, where I’d lie on the grass and not worry about anything. I bet Aubrey would like it here. The thought stops me right in my tracks. I’ve never brought a woman to this place. Not because it’s that big of a secret or anything—it is in a fucking public park, after all. But something about doing a thing as regular as going with a woman to a park seems like real dating. When the fuck have I last gone on a real date, not just a one-night stand? And why does Aubrey make me think about these things? That’s not what I’m interested in. I’ve been telling myself that very thing all week, that I don’t want more than just fucking. And the

entire time, I’ve known I’m lying to myself. Because dating Aubrey would give me a chance to hear more of her laugh, make her smile. Give us the chance to tease until we’re so sexually aroused we can’t see straight. Maybe trying a date wouldn’t be so bad. Just one. If she’ll even have me. I did creep out of her place without a goodbye. Shit move for sure. Jax, the king of one-night stands, would even kick my ass for that. Is she pissed at me? Regretting what we did? Guilt sinks my stomach hard, and I sigh. This week has fucking sucked because I’ve been running from the truth, and I know it. I want to know Aubrey more. Maybe take her out to dinner or whatever. One date couldn’t hurt, could it? Fuck me, I want to see her again. Feeling that tight cunt wrapped around my cock was one of the hottest moments in my life. Her innocence, mingled with that dirty curiosity, that eagerness…I need it right now. Aubrey could drive away the shithole this week became. I just have to get her to give it a chance. I go back to my bike and hop on it. Get back on the roads and weave my way to her apartment. I’ll convince her to see me. I know she feels our sexual connection too. That look in her eyes wasn’t manufactured. That pussy was drenched for me, her body craving my hands, mouth, dick. Aubrey’s name is a pulse in my head as I ride to her place, pull into the open spot in front of her building. Stroll to the door. The front light is on—good indicator she’s home. Which means she is avoiding Outlaws, that I pushed her away. I can make it up to her though. I refuse to acknowledge the small flutter in my gut and push that shit right aside. Knock on her door with a firm rap. After a moment, the door cracks open. Aubrey’s wearing a pair of faded jeans and short-sleeved pink shirt. Her breasts are molded by the fabric; it’s hard to fight the way my mouth waters at the sight. Holy fuck, her tits are gorgeous. I look up into her eyes and see wariness. “You can’t possibly be this desperate for customers,” she says in an airy tone, contradicting the tension I see around her eyes, her mouth. “Not for customers,” I tell her. “Let me in, Aubrey.” “No, thanks. I already met my quota for guys running off in the middle of the night while I’m sleeping.” She moves to close the door, but I block it with my foot. “It wasn’t night. It was morning.” She huffs a frustrated breath. “Oh, awesome. Thanks for the correction. That’s good to know.” “Come out with me tonight.” I look down at her lips and watch them part ever so slightly. Aubrey might be trying to play cool, but she still responds to me. A small thrill whips through me. “Let me take you to dinner.” “I already ate.” She glances at the ground. “Why are you here, Smith? Seems like you got what you wanted.” Fuck. I can tell she’s trying to sound casual, but I see the tension in her shoulders. Her feelings got hurt by me running off like that. I scrub my face with my hands. “Look. I’m shitty at all of this. I haven’t been on a date in probably well over a year.” That makes her look up at me. She raises a brow. “I wouldn’t exactly call what happened between us a date.”

I roll my eyes. “Yeah, no shit. I mean I want you to come out with me tonight. I’ll buy you dessert or get you drunk. Your choice.” She furrows her brow, studying my face. I try to keep myself steady, tell myself that this isn’t that important, but I can’t help feeling like everything is hinging on her response right now. The more she thinks, the worse it gets for me. So I throw out another possibility, hoping to catch her interest. “I know a place that makes the best damn key lime pie you’ve ever had in your entire life.” It’s a stab in the dark, a random hope that she might be tempted enough by food to give me a chance. I’ve never had to work to get with a woman before. Why am I pushing this so hard? I know the answer when I look down into her eyes, see nuanced emotions flickering right in front of me. Because the moment she opened the door, I felt like I could breathe after living underwater for a week. Aubrey is oxygen. She draws her lip between her teeth, and I see in her eyes that she’s getting swayed by my argument. “I haven’t had a good key lime pie since I visited Florida a couple of years ago,” she admits. “This woman is a Key West native who moved here when she got married. She’ll make your panties melt off.” That makes her quirk a smile. “Don’t think that a slice of pie is going to make anything happen to my panties, Smith.” We’ll see about that. I wisely refrain from saying that and just give her what I hope is an innocent smile. She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, and the laugh she gives sinks down beneath my skin, chips away at the hardness that had surrounded my chest all week. I feel alive with her, elated, aroused, warm. “God, I’m a walking cliché. Swayed by sweets.” “It happens to the best of us. We all have our weaknesses.” “Somehow I don’t think you have any,” she murmurs as she cracks the door open, grabs her purse off the side table, then locks up. “You’d be surprised.” I leave my comment at that. Because Aubrey’s beginning to feel like a weakness, an addiction. Something I crave beyond sensible reason. If I were smart, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d let her slip away. For once in my life, I’m kind of glad I’m not smart. We stroll to the parking lot. “Where’s your car?” she asks from directly behind me. I point to the motorcycle. “Right there.” “Oh. God. I should have guessed.” There’s a breathlessness in her voice. “You’ve never been on one, have you,” I say as I turn around to peer down at her. Her eyes are wide, locked on mine, and in this moment I feel like I’m the only man on the planet. Aubrey has a way of making me crave that look, making me want to keep her looking at me like that. “I don’t have a helmet,” she says weakly. “I have one on the back of my bike. Next argument.” She crosses her arms and squints at me. “You’re kind of arrogant, you know.” I laugh, and it feels freeing. My laugh makes her lose her irritated look, and she gives me a small smile. “You’re not the first person to tell me this today.” I take her hand, feeling the slender bones, the soft skin, feeling like maybe this week won’t be so bad after all. “Hop on the back. You’re about to learn what real freedom feels like.”


takes all of my strength to approach the motorcycle after Smith climbs on. He looks so I tridiculously hot that I can barely believe it. Meanwhile, this helmet probably looks stupid on me in comparison. But I can hear my mom’s voice in the back of my head, telling me how many people die on motorcycles from being improperly protected. Because of her, I grew up petrified of them. So of course, Smith rides a motorcycle, because fate likes to push my buttons in every possible way. I’m looking like a doofus for you, Mom, I say to myself. Hopefully that will appease her. I’m sure that at home, she’s probably got some kind of Mom alert warning her that her baby girl is doing something dangerous. Smith takes a couple of minutes to coach me on how to be a safe backseat rider, to lean with him into curves, not squeeze him too hard, not move my feet off the foot props so I don’t get burned on the exhaust pipes. I nod and try to remember all of the details. Then I hike my leg up and slide onto the back of the bike behind him. And suck in a shaky breath when he tugs me closer so that he’s nestled right between my open thighs. The feel of his smooth back pressed against my breasts makes my nipples bead right up; since I’m wearing a thin, unlined bra, I can’t help but wonder if he can feel my reaction. Oh fuck, I hadn’t anticipated needing to be this…near him. With his hand stroking my outer thigh as he revs the engine, I feel myself sinking into a space with him I swore I wasn’t going to feel again. After waking up alone that morning, hurt and embarrassed that he didn’t bother to even say goodbye, I was determined to avoid Smith. Even though I thought about him all the time since then. But the hole I felt in my heart since waking up to find him gone has made me feel empty and sad and jaded in a way that is unexpected. I didn’t intend to start falling for this tattooed guy who runs a bar and seems like the type that doesn’t ever settle down. I hoped I’d learned my lesson after he ran out on me, hoped the hole in my heart would start to repair itself and I’d lose interest in Smith Beckett, as impossible as it seemed. And then he showed up at my door not asking for sex, but for a date. Seeming awkward and trying to talk me into it, even when I initially refuse him. Not like his usual self, the version of him that is so self-assured that he never has to work for a girl’s attention. The version I’ve seen of him at the bar, in bed. The fact that he put himself out there for me made my heart weaken. So despite me swearing him

off a few days ago, here I am, on the back of his bike as he pulls out of my apartment complex and onto the road. I must be a fool to open myself up to yet more heartache. Will I never learn? When we pick up speed, I can feel the wind whipping at my bare skin on my arms. I try to be careful not to move my head too much so he can stay balanced, but I’m riveted by the sight of everything streaming by us fast, the world open, unlike in a car where we’re closed in metal and glass. Here, I’m not just riding. I’m almost a part of the road. Smith navigates turns expertly, and I lean with him into them. His body is firm between my legs, and my clit grows warm and begins to throb. I can’t help but be reminded of the last time he was there. Something about sitting on such a powerful piece of vibrating machinery with the sexiest man I’ve ever met is arousing me more than I ever realized would happen. God help me. I refuse to get off this bike and jump on his body the way I want to. After about ten minutes, we pull into a parking lot of a small diner. Despite its size, the lot is filled, with people lingering outside in a row along the building. When the motor cuts, I take off my helmet and get off the bike. Smith takes the helmet from me and locks it into place in a resting spot on the back of the bike. I can’t stop staring at him. He’s radiating sex, and several of the younger women—and a couple of older women—are eye-fucking him so hard it makes me feel a small surge of jealousy. But when I turn back to look at him after scoping out the crowd outside, his eyes are locked on me, and I forget everything else. “Um. Thanks for the ride,” I tell him. When his mouth quirks in a half smile, I chuckle and say, “I mean on the motorcycle, you perv.” “Let’s go get some pie.” Fuck, his voice is just as sexy of a rumble as that motorcycle. Is there anything about him that doesn’t turn me on? It’s almost embarrassing how much I feel in heat around him. “It, uh, seems like a really long wait,” I tell him. “I have connections.” Smith takes my hand and leads me in front of the crowd. He weaves his fingers in mine, and I tell myself it’s just to get us to the building, because if I start thinking it’s anything more, I’ll just get hurt again. I can’t let him make me feel bad about myself, the way I did when I woke up alone, mortified, thinking maybe the night wasn’t as impactful for him as it was for me. I’m only here because he made an obvious effort in this, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to drop my guard. Besides, it would be good for me to explore more of Rock Bridge. Right? The door dings when we come in, and the older black woman at the register waves Smith over. “Holy shit on a shingle, it’s about damn time you get your ass in here, you overworked moron. I was wondering if you ever take a day off from that skank hole you call a bar.” A barking laugh erupts from my chest at her blunt words, especially when I see Smith narrow his eyes but not lash back out at her. I have no idea who she is, but I already like her. She seems like she can tame the beast in a way no one else can. “Aunt Sylvia, can you fit us in?” he asks her, obviously exasperated but reining it in. “Aubrey’s new to town, and I told her the key lime pie here is the best.” “Well, damn right it is. I make it myself fresh every day.” She gives a matter-of-fact nod then eyes me. Her eyes are the same color as dark amber, and her skin is smooth, despite her advanced age.

“You’re pretty. Sweet-looking. Not his usual type.” I feel my face flush. “Sounds like that isn’t such a bad thing,” I mumble. She cackles and smacks my upper arm. “This one’s got spitfire. I like her.” She leads us through a room packed with tables to a small two-top table right by the fryer. “Best I can do, so suck it up.” “This is fine,” I assure her. “We appreciate you fitting us in.” Aunt Sylvia moves away back to the register, and we sit down. Due to the location of the table, we’re forced to be right beside each other, since the table is pressed in between the building wall and the half-wall of the fryer area. A teenaged waitress brings us waters, and I take a deep gulp as I try to pretend I’m not totally nervous about being out with him. I can’t believe I’m here with him. That we’re on what is definitely looking like a legitimate date, something he said he doesn’t do. So why me? I can’t help but ponder it as we sit in silence for a minute, then two. I shift in my seat. “So you got today off work, then? Sounds like you never leave the bar.” Smith groans and reaches for his water. I see the snake tattoo peeking out from his sleeve, wrapping around his forearm. “Aunt Sylvia exaggerates. Kind of.” “Is she really your aunt?” I’m not sure if that’s a rude question to ask or not, and my cheeks get a little warm. “Sure is. My granddad married her and brought her here from Key West. She’s his second wife after his first passed away young. But she hates being called Grandma, so she makes me and my brothers call her Aunt.” His face softens and he seems different, less edgy, as he talks about her. “After my dad died, she got us through the hard time.” “Oh God, I’m so sorry,” I say, a heaviness in my chest at the thought of his sorrow, losing a parent at such a young age. “I can’t imagine how difficult that had to be for you. Your mother must have been devastated.” The softness fled his face until the hard lines returned. “I wouldn’t know. She ran out on us when I was five. Dad raised us, and then he had an unexpected heart attack and passed a few years ago.” My heart lurches, and I realize this probably explains a lot about Smith and why he is the way he is. He’s the oldest brother, that much I can tell. I bet he had to step in and be a parent to two teens when he was barely an adult himself. “So…how did you come to own the bar?” “It was Dad’s. He always wanted to run a bar. Be that place where the regular locals loved to come.” He gives a wry smile. “Unfortunately, as you’ve seen, the locals that frequent our spot tend to be on the rowdy side.” I laugh and nod. “Ummm…yeah, I did notice that.” “We’ve got an unfortunate reputation and some people are afraid to even try us out.” “It probably doesn’t help that you send new customers to the competition,” I reply, watching to see if he gets it. His face is momentarily blank and then he breaks into a grin. “You’re never going to let me live down the fact that I was rude to you that first night, are you?” “Definitely not,” I say, trying not to smile too widely. My heart squeezes in my chest, and I hate the fact that I’m enjoying this time with him so much. Aunt Sylvia arrives with two slices of key lime pie, golden and delicious on top of a thick graham cracker crust. I didn’t think I was really hungry, but my mouth waters upon the sight. “Oh wow, these look so good,” I tell her.

“Duh. Just wait until you eat it.” She saunters away. “I see where you get your confidence from,” I say. That makes Smith laugh. The earlier tension from his eyes vanishes, and he gives her an affectionate look. “She’s nuts, but we love her.” I dig into my pie and take my first bite. And die of pleasure. Holy hell, it’s creamy and tart and exquisite. I can’t help but moan as I lick the last bits off the fork. I close my eyes for a second and just taste, savor. “Okay, she has a right to be arrogant. This is incredible. I would marry her just to have her make this pie…” As I open my eyes, my words drawl off, because Smith is looking at me like he wants to spread my thighs and eat me the same way. My pussy clenches in a tight spasm. “You have no idea how sexy you are with how you enjoy things,” he says in a low rumble. The intensity pouring from his eyes almost overwhelms me. A room full of people, but I almost get the feeling that if I told him I wanted to have sex, he’d brush everything off the table and prop me up there and fuck me. In front of everyone. Something about that thought makes my clit throb harder. I try to sit still in my seat and not shift, not give away my arousal. I’m not doing anything else sexual with this man, I chant to myself. I can’t risk him running off on me again like that. My pride won’t take it. Pie is fine. Pie is safe. Unless I have pie with him, it appears. I don’t respond to his statement. Instead, I make myself finish the pie. It’s so damn good that it isn’t a hardship. But Smith’s body heat beside me, the look I’m seeing in his eyes—because he still hasn’t taken them off me—it’s all making my body surge and my nipples harden and my pussy swell and dampen. This man makes me have dirty thoughts. I can’t cave. I cannot cave. Smith’s hand slips down to stroke my jean-clad thigh, and I fight the instinctive urge to arch under his touch and purr like a fucking cat. One night of sex, and he already figured out how I like to be touched. The man is a sex genius, that’s for sure. I can’t cave. I drop the fork on the plate and declare with as much casual attitude as I can muster, “That was so good. Thank you.” I force a lightness in my tone. “But you haven’t finished your piece yet.” “Why are you here in Rock Bridge?” he asks me out of nowhere, his fingers dancing along my kneecap. My stomach tightens, and I have dual feelings of discomfort and arousal at the same time. I don’t want to talk about Roger. Don’t want to think about him. But Smith opened up to me a little and shared something difficult with me. I should do the same. I select my words carefully so as not to give everything away. “Well, I got this job opportunity, and I took it. I had some stuff happening in my personal life, so coming to a new town was a good way for me to start over.” “Who was he?” That incessant hand keeps touching me, sliding up my thigh to caress my hip, nudge under the band of flesh exposed above my jeans and touch my back. “You just assume there’s a guy involved,” I lob back at him. I mean, he’s right, but I don’t want to admit it like that. “So there isn’t?” His brow is quirked, his gaze heavy on mine. He already knows the answer; I can see it in his eyes. He’s just waiting for me to confirm it. “My ex,” I relent. “Things didn’t end well with us. I needed a new scene.” His hand pauses in caressing my back. “Did he hurt you?” The words are said quietly, but I can

hear the concern in them. “Not…” My hand flutters to my throat as I’m suddenly inundated with mental images of the rocky, tumultuous relationship I escaped. “Not…in the way you think. It was just a bad thing for me.” I clear my throat. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore right now, if you don’t mind.” “He’s why you have the baseball bat. Makes sense.” With that, Smith resumes stroking my back, inching his hand up to the middle of my spine. “When’s the last time you’ve gone skinny dipping?” I blink at the rapid conversation change. “What?” He gives me a wide-toothed grin that knocks me back in my seat. Smith’s smile at full wattage is devastating. Oh God, this man could really do me in. My brain is screaming danger, danger! “You’ve never been, have you.” “Swimming naked is not a requirement of graduating into adulthood,” I say defensively, trying to pretend I’m not fully absorbed in him. Smelling his scent, listening to the rough timbre of his voice, feeling his fingers swirl circles on my skin, now inching closer to my waistband. “Not everyone is as pervy as you.” His hand stills again, and he seems to pull back into himself. Aunt Sylvia chooses that moment to come over. “Now you tell those two hooligan heathen brothers of yours to get themselves in here soon. I don’t even have to tell you what I’m gonna do if they don’t.” Smith gives her a tight smile. He moves his hand to the table surface, and I suddenly feel bereft. What did I do? What did I say wrong? Somehow I fumbled things; all the talking we’d done seems to be over now. “I’ll be sure to tell them.” He goes to dig in his wallet, but Aunt Sylvia shoots him a glare so hard, he finally lifts his hands in the air. “Fine, but one day you have to let me pay you. This isn’t how you make money in a business.” “Trust me, I’m doing just fine.” She moves away. When she’s gone, he grabs a twenty out of his wallet anyway and leaves it on the table. I guess that’s our cue to go. I feel deflated when we rise from the table. I want to say something, but I don’t know what. We step outside into the mild night air, and before he mounts on the bike, I touch his shoulder. He shifts his head so I see his profile. “Hey. I…don’t know what happened back there.” His walls are up; I can’t read his face at all. “Nothing. Totally fine.” “Right. That’s why you just suddenly pulled away.” Frustration wells in me. My ex used to play these games—tell me nothing was wrong, nothing was wrong, then explode at me when I didn’t react the way he wanted me to, didn’t comfort him about whatever phantom injury I committed against him. I can’t do that again. Can’t spend my days walking on eggshells, afraid I’m going to set someone off. My chest tightens, and I turn from him, fighting back the emotion welling in me. “You know what? I’m going to get another ride home. Thanks for the pie.” I grab my phone and start walking in the direction we came from. I can find an Uber ride to take me, I’m sure. “Aubrey.” His hand wraps around my upper arm. I lift my chin and glare at him. “I’m not stupid. Don’t tell me nothing is wrong, because I know it is. And I’m not going through that anymore, so if that’s the bullshit you want to pull with me, I can’t do this.” “This?” Smith steps forward. There’s a dark menace in his eyes, but I’m too heated myself to care if I’m pissing him off. “What is this?”

“How the hell should I know?” I swallow and try to ignore the feeling of his strong fingers on my bare skin. “Obviously ‘this’ is nothing.” “It’s not nothing, and you know it.” He leans down until our mouths are an inch apart. “I spent all week telling myself to stay away from you. That we’re better off this way. You not getting dragged down by someone like me. I can’t let you.” “You’re not dragging me down, Smith. I don’t know why you’d think that, either.” “I don’t know. Maybe because I’m such a perv,” he says, a trace of bitterness in his voice. It suddenly hits me that I’ve insulted him. “It was a joke,” I say. “I thought you’d laugh.” “But that’s the problem. It’s not a joke,” Smith says, and there’s real emotion in his voice now. “I like things dirty. Rough.” Something about that admission makes me throb, awakens all my nerve endings. “How dirty? How rough?” He sees my reaction, and his nostrils flare. Smith brushes his mouth on mine, a delicate touch that belies his next words. “I don’t think you could handle how rough I want it with you.” “Is that…is that related to why you left while I was sleeping?” I have to know. To know it wasn’t that I did something wrong. That maybe he’s struggling with this demon inside him. I go to drop my hand when he captures it and brings my fingertips to his mouth. He sucks them in, then licks them, and the desire that floods me from the tugging sensation is almost too much. God. “The things I want to do to you…” He stops and drops my hand, steps away. “But I can’t.” “Please, stop playing games with me,” I reply. I’m tired of the big, bad Smith acting like he’s the only one who wants dirty things in bed. Yeah, I’ve only been with two men—well, now three—but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a healthy sexual appetite. “I have a feeling I can handle whatever it is that you’re into.” Even as I say the words, I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. He narrows his eyes and when he speaks, there’s a warning in his tone. “That sounds distinctly like a challenge, Aubrey. One I’m not sure you’re ready to undertake.” Some boldness makes me assert, “Well, there’s only one way for us to find that out, isn’t there.”


“M y liver hurts,” Jax complains as he drinks another beer. He kicks his bare feet up on my

coffee table. “Put your feet down,” I say to him, a complaint I’ve been lobbing at him for years. It’s a fruitless effort; I already know he isn’t going to. I take a swig of my own beer and settle back on my worn couch. From his spot on the other end of the couch, Asher shifts, swigging his dark beer. “So, you’ve been busy lately,” he says in a casual tone, shooting a side glance at me. He’s so wanting to question me but he’s too nervous to do so. Jax, however, has no fucks to give. “You and Aubrey are practically inseparable,” he murmurs, making sure to adjust his feet so they’re even sturdier on my coffee table. Dick. He gives me a careless smile. “You guys must be fucking like bunnies.” “It’s none of your business,” I tell him as I turn my attention back to the TV. There’s a soccer game on but we’re not paying much attention. I watch the men run up and down the field chasing the ball. Sip my beer. Hope that they’ll drop the subject of Aubrey. Because honestly, I don’t quite know what to think. After we went out for key lime pie a few nights ago, we’ve seen each other every day. But I’ve tried my best to keep my dark urges at bay. I don’t know why I’m not just banging the fuck out of her. I want to. Especially after she issued that challenge to me, her eyes glowing with fire. But Aubrey has no idea what she was asking me for. Because to fully release myself, to let her see the “perv” I really am, would destroy any chance we have together. She might think she wants to see what I’m all about, but she doesn’t. A girl as pristine and angelic as Aubrey would melt in my fire. I can’t do that to her. I won’t do it to her. I want more time with her, even if it means we aren’t fucking. Aubrey is quickly working her way under my skin. “So she must be a tiger in bed if you’re still hitting that.” Jax tosses the crude words at me with almost a leer. “Shut the fuck up about her,” I say. “You like her.” It’s thrown out as almost an accusation. Jax’s eyes narrow. “She’s not just a piece of ass for you, is she.” “I’m not having this conversation.” I turn away from him and drink my beer, trying to push down the irritation swelling in my chest. Fucking Jax and his fucking attitude. He’s the one who encouraged

me to get out and go live a little instead of working so much. Now he’s giving me flack about it? No. “No, of course you’re not having this conversation with us,” he counters in a harsh tone. “And why am I surprised about this? You’re a fucking uptight as a virgin lately, and as closed off as one too.” “Where is all this coming from?” I ask him, turning to give him the full weight of my stare. “What’s your problem? Is hooking up with one or two different women a day not keeping you busy enough anymore?” “At least I’m still me. You’re just…” Jax waves a dismissive hand at me. “You’ve changed. And not even since she came to town. You’ve been a fucking dick to everyone lately. Look at how you talk to Asher. He’s too nice to tell you, but you need to chill your shit out with him.” I spin my head to glare at my youngest brother, who’s brow is furrowed, and he’s shooting deathly daggers from his eyes at Jax. “Don’t drag me into your fucking argument,” he says. “I already said my piece about all of this shit.” “And yet I get the feeling you haven’t said it all, since you and Jax seem to be talking about me behind my back.” Anger is a quiet pulse in my lower belly. I can feel the heavy frown line between my eyebrows. What the fuck is this all about? Today is supposed to be a chill-out afternoon, unwinding before the craziness of Thursday nights, our weekly ritual. Drink some beer, what whatever the fuck is on TV, bust each other’s balls, and so on. This feels like more than just busting my balls. This feels like I’m being ganged up on. Asher sighs and puts his beer on the side table. “Look, we’re just….You’re not acting like yourself.” “Maybe I’m too fucking tired from running the bar to act like myself.” The words fly out before I can stop them. Jax stills. “Complain much, tough guy? No one is asking you to carry the weight on your shoulders. But you act like we’re still little kids and you have to herd us into place. News flash, Smith—we don’t need you to be our parent anymore. Maybe we can, oh, I don’t know…try to be brothers or whatever.” The pulse is throbbing at the base of my throat, and I struggle with my words. “Maybe if you guys, oh, I don’t know…pulled your own weight with managing the bar, I wouldn’t have to parent you.” “Fuck you,” Jax says, standing and glaring down at me. The change in his attitude hits me hard. He’s not normally one to get this angry. He’s the jokester, the charmer, the guy to smooth things over. But apparently not today. No, Jax is letting me feel the brunt of his anger. “We’re trying to do our best if you’d chill the fuck out a little. And maybe if you weren’t distracted by Aubrey, you’d see how we’re keeping the bar running just as well as you are.” Asher sighs and holds up his hands. “Shit is getting too out of control right now. Let’s all relax and take a moment before things explode. Our Beckett tempers are raging.” Jax sits back down and drinks his beer with a purposeful casualness that irritates me. Fucking dick. It’s nice of him to throw out a bunch of shitty opinions then not have to answer for them. Aubrey isn’t a distraction. At least, not in a bad way. Spending time with her has become the bright spot of my day. She reminds me what it feels like it have a real life outside of parenting my brothers and running the bar. She reminds me what it feels like to be a man—not just hooking up, but more. With her, I feel like all my troubles slip away. Aren’t as important. I get an absurd amount of joy just watching her be happy.

Silent tension bubbles between the three of us for several minutes. The soccer game is still raging on in the background, the crowd cheering on the big-screen TV. We’re all staring blindly at the game but not really giving a fuck. Nursing our drinks and our injured feelings. Jax exhales hard and smooths a hand over his jaw. “Okay, this is fucking dumb. I don’t want to argue right now, especially when we have bigger shit to worry about.” “Like what?” Asher asks. “Like the fact that the town is ganging up on us,” he says. I ask, “What do you mean?” Jax hops off the chair and moves to my kitchen, whipping open the fridge door. I hear another beer crack open. “So, I was driving yesterday and got pulled over by the police.” I roll my eyes, and a little of the tension from earlier leaks from my shoulders. Jax getting pulled over for speeding is not an unusual occurrence. About as unusual as the sun rising in the east. That fucker loves the gas pedal a little too much. “Is this the part where we’re supposed to be shocked? You being pulled over for speeding isn’t some kind of town conspiracy.” Asher laughs. “Seriously.” “Very fucking funny,” he says, moving back to the living room. He swigs his drink and exhales. “I wasn’t even speeding when they pulled me over. The cop claimed I did a rolling stop when turning right on red. Total bullshit claim. He gave me a ticket and then told me that our bar is bad news and he has a few ‘friends’ working on driving us out of business. The cocksucker didn’t even try to be smooth about it.” I sigh and rake my free hand through my hair. “The guy was probably just talking shit,” I say, knowing somehow that it’s not the case. Our bad rep is getting worse every day and I’ve been aware of the rumors and whispers around town for awhile now. But this takes things to an entirely new level. “I guess they’re stepping up their game,” Asher comments. A couple of months ago, we had two police offers saunter into Outlaws, making a big show of looking around. They eyed all our customers to the point of making them nervous; several even left. It was easy to see what they were doing—trying to psych us out. Okay, yeah, we’d had a few fights erupting before that, but it wasn’t anything unusual for our bar. “I’m not letting them bully us,” I vow. “Fuck them. We’ll figure out what to do.” “They can’t actually close us down, can they?” Jax asks. “No,” I say, though truthfully, I don’t know. I never told my brother about the guy who came to our bar a couple of weeks ago offering to buy it from us. He’d lowballed so badly that I’d easily laughed him off. But given the pattern emerging here, the town is working against us. It’s highly possible that guy was setting the stage for the police to shake us down, scare us enough to sell the property to him. And then what would happen? My dad’s dream would disappear and a big part of him along with it. Nothing left to show the world he made a mark. Nothing left to remember him by. I swear, sometimes in the bar, especially alone before it gets busy, I can actually feel the old man’s presence in there. I can’t lose that. The thought makes me depressed and angry at the same time. We were robbed of our father. No fucking way is anyone gonna rob him of his one legacy. Outlaws might be a shithole, but it’s our shithole, and we’re fucking keeping it. I don’t have the answers. I need time to think. A run after my brothers leave might help clear my mind, open me up to new possibilities and options before I head into work tonight. I’m tempted to ask

them to go now, my body itching to feel the burn of muscles, the release of all my stress and escape into the moment. I need space and time to think about everything my brothers unloaded on me just now. It’s clear my brothers aren’t too happy about me seeing Aubrey…or whatever the hell it is between us. It sure as fuck isn’t just sex. There’s something deeper emerging. Something that makes me feel strange, not my usual self. That makes me crave her in my presence all the time. I can’t label it right now. I’m not even sure I want to. I just want to enjoy it and know her better. See what else makes her tick. Maybe Aubrey is a distraction, after all. But if she is, she’s the best kind.

MY FEET POUND hard on the pavement as I run through the woods. Rhythmic slapping, my lungs burning, my muscles flexing, nothing on my mind except getting through this next mile. I needed this escape, needed to clear my fucking mind. I can’t keep carrying the weight of everything on my shoulders—my brothers are right about that. But can I depend on them to help me? Jax is a loose cannon who’s more into partying and fucking There’s a gap in the trees, and the late afternoon sun washes me in its warmth. Sweat trickles down my bare back, into the waistband of my shorts. I’ve run this path every day since I was a young teen. Rock Ridge is my home. My haven and my hell at the same time. The place where I have the best memories of my brothers and I spending time with my dad. The place where I felt the worst grief after he died. Where I feel like I’m living here but don’t quite belong. We’re the rebel boys, bad to the bone, insert your own cliché. Wanted in bed, hit on in the bar, but in public? Barely acknowledged. But not Aubrey. We went to the park the other day. I showed her my spot. And she held my hand and sat with me as we watched the ducks. In that moment, I felt a peace, a stillness in me I’d never experienced with another woman before. It was fucking intoxicating. Addictive. Aubrey is my fix, and I want more and more of her. I also want to fuck her so badly I can barely stand it. I make my way out of the wooded area and back on the sidewalk toward my apartment above the bar. Just another mile to go until I hit home. Shower and get my shit together for work tonight. My whole body is drenched in sweat at this point. Jax’s comment about the police nudges its way back to the forefront of my mind. Fuck. We have to do something about it. If we can get the bar to pull in more money, maybe we can prove why we deserve to remain here and we’ll be in a stronger position to not let them fuck with us. I need ideas. Fast. I cross the street and make it to my neighborhood. Kids are playing on small grassy lots in front of their homes, jumping in sprinklers, throwing balls, screaming and acting like little shits. I feel a grin lighting my face despite my troubles when I see a small boy tugging the hair of a small girl, and she hauls off and hits him on the ear. When I turn the corner and make it to the sidewalk leading to my entrance, I find myself slowing in surprise. Aubrey’s sitting on my stoop, a plastic bag in her lap. I suck in several breaths and try to get my heart to slow down.

The pounding of blood in my veins isn’t just because of me running. Aubrey’s wearing nursing scrubs. She’s either home from work or on her way to it. She stands when she sees me, a shy smile on her face, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and putting the bag on the stoop. “Hi,” she says as I near her. I don’t say a word in response. I cup her face and tug her mouth to mine. All I want right now is to fucking taste her mouth. I need it so badly that the ache is a throb in my entire body. I need to sink into her, escape from everything, let her drift me away from the stresses of my life. Aubrey gasps and opens her mouth to me without hesitation, and I slant my mouth over hers and glide my tongue on hers. She tastes like mint and warmth, that flavor that’s uniquely her. I thread my fingers in her hair, careful not to press my throbbing body and quickly rising cock against her clean uniform. But oh, I want to mess her up, make her leave her disheveled, feeling thoroughly owned. Why the hell have I been holding back from her? As I kiss her, I realize I have no idea. Can’t remember a single fucking good reason for it. Aubrey whimpers, which makes my blood boil. I plunge deeper, possess her mouth, and she buries her fingers in my hair and kisses me in earnest. I can feel her shaking a little with her desire, which ignites my own hunger. My cock is so hard I’m sure everyone could see it. And I have zero fucks to give about it. My woman, something in my head growls. I run my hand down to her side and squeeze. I am feeling animalistic, primal, and I need her so much right now. Aubrey pulls back with a wide, open smile, panting. Her lips are swollen, her hair mussed, and I suppress the urge to gloat that I made her look this way. “Wow, that was the best greeting I’ve ever had in my life.” “I want you so badly right now,” I tell her. My entire body is on fire for her. I want her hands and mouth everywhere. Aubrey’s eyes darken and her chest rises and falls with her shallow breaths. “God, I…” Her lips part and she swallows. “I told myself I wasn’t going to, uh, that we could just… We’d be nothing more than…” Her cheeks burn a delicate pink and she presses her lips together and looks away. Fuck. I know what she’s driving at. She’s hurt by how I slipped away from her that day. I want to kick myself again for hurting her feelings. Yet despite her embarrassment, she’s still been going out with me. This woman is going to be my downfall. I know it right now as surely as I know my name. “I shouldn’t have left like that,” I tell her. “It was a shit move, and it hurt you.” I cup her chin and tilt her face to look at me. The vulnerability in her eyes, tinged with fear, makes a swell of protectiveness rise in my chest. “I won’t do that again, I promise.” “I’m just…scared. I really like you.” The soft admission makes my heart skip. I swallow back the response and make myself say with a cocked brow, “Do you like me like me?” That gets the laugh I was hoping for. Her eyes are light again, and she punches me on the arm. “You’re rotten.” With that, Aubrey spins around and grabs the bag that’s on the stoop. “I, uh, just swung by before going to work to bring you food. I know you said before that Thursdays are crazy for you, and I wanted to make sure you had something to eat. I went to Aunt Sylvia’s diner and she told me what your favorite meal is.” Aubrey thrusts the bag in my hand. “One cheeseburger, extra cheese, mayo, ketchup, no mustard or pickles. And fries.” I go still, just staring at her. She seems to sink a little at my silent scrutiny. “Sorry, was that a dumb thing to do? It was a silly

impulse, wasn’t it. I hope I wasn’t overstepping—” I lean over and kiss her hard before she can continue. My chest is so full right now I can’t think, can’t speak. I don’t know how to articulate what I’m feeling, so I let my mouth do it for me. I show her my appreciation and with my free hand, caress her nape. I slide my tongue along her lower lip, delve into her mouth, kiss her with a sensuality that has me rock hard in moments. I want to fuck her, yes. But more than that…I find myself wanting something deeper. When we pull apart, our eyes lock, and something passes between us. The same emotion that did when we last had sex, but even deeper. Like the past few days have bonded us. She brought me food. When was the last time someone took care of me, without any strings attached, without any other incentive but just to make me happy? I can’t fucking remember. I’ve spent the last several years being the one to care for others. Make sure bills are paid. Help them when they needed me. Give advice, keep the bar running. And here comes this woman into my life, and she brings me a meal before I go to work. It’s so intimate and domestic of a gesture. Aubrey strokes my chin, her fingers dancing along my beard. She sucks in a shaky breath and exhales, giving a shy laugh. “Shit. I gotta go to work. I’m on the night shift.” “I’m glad I got to see you,” I tell her. I feel like the outer layer of my skin has been shaved off and my nerves are all exposed. It’s uncomfortable and strange, and I don’t know how to handle it. Aubrey kisses the corner of my mouth, then leaves, hopping into a Corolla and driving away. I make myself walk into my entrance, up the stairs to my cool apartment. It’s quiet in here, only the sound of the air conditioner whirring. The scent of the food is warm and makes my stomach growl. I can’t fight the grin that spreads across my face. I finish every fucking bite of dinner. In the shower, I scrub down, ignoring my cock, which is still semi-hard for her. Instead, I’m distracted by other things I’m feeling. Something distinctly akin to a romantic affection. I’m developing real feelings for Aubrey. And I have zero fucking idea what I’m going to do.


“M r. Dextry, I need you to stay still so I can get your blood pressure.” I try to gently cup his

arm to get him to stop wiggling. He turns to me, his face deeply lined and droopy. His eyebrows are furry caterpillars with wild hairs erupting everywhere, and I see gray hairs sprouting out of his ears. “What?” he yells at me. I bite back a smile. “Please sit still,” I say in a much louder voice. “Well, you don’t have to yell it,” he grouses, but he stops moving on his bed and lets me work. I get his vitals and thank him, then move on to the last room I have to cover on the floor. I’m doing a round to check on patients who have been ill or are currently sick. Mrs. Maze is a feisty woman when she’s sick—hopefully she’s in a good mood tonight. She seemed pleased with dinner earlier and ate all her food, so that should help. I pause before entering her room and try to stop thinking about Smith. But how can I? Something happened between us earlier. Some kind of shift in our relationship, or whatever the hell you’d call it. I don’t know what is going on with us, but I felt a change in him. Those kisses he gave me scorched my bones. Every encounter with him changes me on some kind of chemical level. I’m never going to be the same. Smith and I have been doing a slow, torturing tease with each other the last several days. I wondered if that challenge I issued him outside the diner would spur him into acting. It didn’t. At least, not sexually. But I can tell he’s feeling as sexually hungry as I am. Something is going to give between us, soon. I rap on Mrs. Maze’s door, which is cracked open, then peek in. She’s lying on her bed asleep. I gently touch her shoulder. “Hi, it’s time for me to get your vitals.” Mrs. Maze blinks up at me. Her eyes are a little glassy still, but she seems better than she did yesterday. “Hey, Aubrey.” I run through obtaining and recording her vitals. As I do, I ask, “How are you feeling?” That opens the floodgates. She spends the next five minutes giving me a litany of things wrong with her, from how much she aches to how she’s constipated. Nothing to really be concerned with. I murmur in empathy in the appropriate spots. “Well, your temp is greatly down. You’re barely registering a fever.” I give her a smile and pat her hand. “Try to get some sleep. It’ll help.” “I could sleep if you guys would quit interrupting me.” Ah, there she is. The sassy mouth I’ve grown to know and love. I laugh. “I’ll quit interrupting you if you get better,” I shoot back, then close the door to her earthy chuckle.

I head to the nurses station and rest my feet, which are already aching. It’s going to be a long night, but at least evenings are quiet. There are some fashion magazines spread out on the table, and I grab one and flip absently through the pictures. After peering blindly at images of beautiful women for about twenty minutes, I tug my phone out and send Michaela a quick text saying hi. I don’t want to bug her if she’s up, but I miss my friend. Times like this, quiet nights on our shift, were when we got into the most trouble. A moment later, my phone buzzes with a reply from Michaela. OMG you will not believe what just happened!!!! I AM SCARRED FOREVER. Don’t keep me in suspense! I text her. I caught Mr. and Mrs. Carter having sex in the activities room. He had her tied up to the chalkboard with two of his ties. Apparently he read Fifty Shades of Grey and decided to try it out, and he talked his wife into it. It’s so hard to keep my laugh quiet. Don’t lie, I reply. You were so turned on, weren’t you. I think Mrs. Carter wanted to crawl in a hole and die. LOL A fresh wave of missing her hits me, and I stare at our texts. I made the right decision. I know I did. There was no way Roger was going to accept our breakup. He proved that loud and clear; it took the bruises on my upper arms almost two weeks to fade away. It just makes me kinda mad that I had to give up my life to find safety. Though I have to admit, I’m starting to like Rock Bridge. When I saw Aunt Sylvia earlier while ordering dinner for Smith, she told me to come back anytime and said she’d save me a seat whenever I wanted to visit. That any real friend of Smith’s was a friend of hers. It’s nice to feel like I’m planting roots. I hope you took pics, I write Michaela back, then tuck my phone away. We’re allowed to use our cell phones during slow times, but I don’t want to look like a slacker. I need this job and am so fortunate to have found it on short notice. Felicia and Tawny, two other nurses working the shift with me, stroll over and plop down at the table. They’re both older than me, with Felicia in her thirties and Tawny in her early forties, but they’ve been nice so far. I enjoy shifts with them. Tawny groans and presses her hands to her lower back, stretching. “Fuck, I’m whomped already, and we still have hours to go before we’re done.” “Living the glamorous life,” Felicia says with a laugh as she sips on her water. “No, the glamorous life would include a wealthy husband and a pool boy,” Tawny replies, her toothy grin wide. We both chuckle. “I just want a margarita and a bar of chocolate right now,” I say. They groan. “That sounds divine,” Tawny says with a nod. “We should make that happen.” “Foley’s Sports Bar serves the best margaritas I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Felicia says. She pats her dark red hair to make sure it’s still in a bun and eyes us both. “We should go soon and get some.” “Oh, hell yeah.” Tawny pauses. “I work tomorrow evening and then I’m off Saturday. What about you guys?” My heart jumps in my throat. I’m actually being asked to join coworkers for a night out. I’m making real friends. Deepening my roots. “I work Saturday morning shift, so that evening would be good for me.”

Felicia wiggles in her chair in excitement. “I’m working Saturday morning too. Sounds like we have a date, bitches.” “I haven’t been to Foley’s,” I tell them. “Is it good?” I remember the name though. Foley’s was the place Smith told me to go that first night I showed up at Outlaws. Where he said someone like me would be better suited. “So have you been drinking out of town or something? Because that’s really the only place around,” Tawny says. She scrutinizes her perfectly painted nails. “I’ve gone to Outlaws.” Both women stare at me. “The bar,” I add. Felicia’s lips quirk. “Oh, we know what Outlaws is, trust me. But it…” “Isn’t my type of joint,” I say with a laugh. “Yeah, I heard. They have good beer though.” “And good-looking bartenders.” Tawny waggles her brows. “Those Beckett boys are hell raisers, but I hear they’re wild in the sack.” I think about the night Smith and I had sex, the way he went down on me in the bathroom. God yes, he’s wild. I wish I knew how wild though. “No fucking way,” Felicia says in shock, as she sees the look on my face. “You bagged a Beckett? Oh my God, you did!” she practically shouts, pointing at me. My throat burns, a slow crawl that works its way up my cheeks. “I…” I swallow. “I’m kinda talking to Smith.” “Sweetheart. No one talks to Smith.” Tawny lays a hand on my shoulder and gives me a sympathetic squeeze. “The Beckett boys are good for one thing. Fucking. Okay, two things—fucking and fighting. But they don’t date anyone, and they sure as hell don’t talk.” It’s not true, though I don’t bother to correct the women. Smith and I have talked. I’m the new girl, though, so I know I’ll just hear how I don’t know enough yet. It’s like the script writes itself—I can almost predict it. Tawny sighs and picks up a magazine near her. “I sure wish I could find out how well they are in bed. I’m far too old for them though. I don’t think they’re into cougars.” Felicia laughs. “Please. I saw the way that guy at Foley’s was hitting on you. Remember him? The black-haired one who barely had enough facial hair to indicate he was out of puberty?” They both cackle and talk about him, the Beckett Boys forgotten. But my stomach is unsettled now, uneasy. Am I really naïve as to think that maybe what Smith and I are doing is different? Or is this just me being blind? Sometimes I can see every emotion on his face. Other times, I can’t tell a damn thing he’s thinking. Hot and cold. The rest of my shift crawls by. I’m plagued by doubts, feeling a little silly, yet also trying to convince myself that I know what I know. I’m not just a booty call to Smith. There’s more between us than that. What that “more” is, I don’t know. But it’s there. Either that, or he’s the world’s greatest actor. Because the emotion in our last kiss was so strong it almost blew me over. At seven, I wrap up my shift, tired down to my bones, and get in my car. The morning sun is peeking over the horizon, and the trees are awash in a golden glow. There aren’t a lot of cars on the road, just tree-lined avenues and quiet houses waking for the day. Rock Bridge is a lovely town, and for the first time, I let myself really start to observe it for what it is. Really, does it matter what Smith and I are right now? We’ve only known each other a few weeks. I should stop hyper focusing, overanalyzing, and just let it be what it is. Enjoy his company, his

kisses, the way I feel when I’m with him. Smith isn’t perfect—he’s surly and abrasive at times, hard to read, and his temper is quite strong. But he’s also got this vulnerability underneath all of that. His kisses make me feel alive. And God, do I crave him again, despite my best efforts not to. I want him inside me so badly I could scream. He’s spent the last few days showing me who he is. Slowly dropping his guard, giving me a hint or two about his life, his stresses. What he wants. And every bit of information I get is like a drop of rain on the desert. I soak it up and instantly want more. I weave my way to my apartment, getting a string of green lights. I’m in a good place right now. I need to stop being so on edge. Rock Bridge is turning into home for me. I pull into my parking lot and kill the engine. Lock my car door and head to my apartment. There’s a folded-over note for me taped on my door with no text on the outside. Maybe Smith thanking me for bringing him dinner? I rip it off and flip it open. The words are stark and accusing. I FOUND YOU I can’t believe that he’s been here. Roger. Just thinking his name, just seeing his handwriting, makes me feel like I’m going to be sick. My hands shake so badly that I drop the note, and it flutters quietly to the ground in front of my feet. Oh God, oh God. I spin around and eye the hallway around me. Empty. My entire body is trembling, and it takes all my effort to bend over and retrieve the note, cramming it into my purse, then walk back to my car. Every nerve ending has roared to the surface of my skin. I’m just waiting for Roger to jump out and grab me any second. The walk to my car takes a year, and it doesn’t help that I’m feeling lightheaded. It takes me far too long to get the key in my lock, but I finally do and dive into the driver’s seat, locking the car doors and gasping for air. I’m on autopilot as I pull away from the parking lot. I drive in random patterns for a good half hour, looking to see if anyone is behind me every thirty seconds. I don’t think I’m being tailed, but I’m so scared that I can’t be sure. Roger is out there somewhere. He knows where I live. He’s found me, and I’m in real danger now, because me running away like that surely angered him beyond reason. I know him—he’s going to make sure I am fully aware of how he feels. When I’m pretty certain that I’m not being followed, I use GPS to navigate me to Outlaws. I park two blocks down the street on a residential road, then practically run the whole way to Smith’s entrance. I bang on the door, praying he’s here, glancing around me. I hear thudding as someone walks down the stairs. The door open, and Smith stands in front of me, looking sleepy and disheveled, his hair mussed on top. He blinks when he sees me. “Hey, what’s—” He stops talking and jerks to full attention, staring at my face. “What’s wrong, Aubrey?” The knot that has been slowly building in my chest gets so big it’s unbearable, and I feel myself unravel. Hot tears burn the backs of my eyes, slide down my cheeks. “I…I’m scared, and I didn’t know where to go—” That’s all I get out before Smith jerks me inside the doorway and locks the door behind me. He has my hand in a death grip and tugs me up the narrow stairwell to his apartment. I follow him, my

palms clammy, clenching his hand so hard I’m almost afraid I might break his fingers off. He sets me on the couch then takes a seat between my legs on the coffee table. Grips my shoulders and makes me look at him. “Aubrey. What. The fuck. Is going on. I need you to tell me everything.” I sniffle and feel another sob erupt from my chest. I try to suck it back. “I…” I shudder and swipe my hands across my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m just…” Deep breath, Aubrey. “I’m scared. I didn’t know where else to go.” I sob again, and again, and then I can’t stop crying. With a move that happens so fast I can barely blink, Smith scoops me into his arms like I’m a doll and shifts us so he’s sitting on the couch, me on his lap. I wrap my arms around him and breathe in his scent, let the feel of his strong arms around me comfort me. My tears come, hot and heavy, and we sit there as he lets me cry for a few minutes. He says nothing, just silently stroking my hair, my back. I accept his comfort and nuzzle into his neck. I know I’m getting him wet from my tears, but I try not to be self-conscious about it. Finally the tension in my lungs releases, and I can breathe again. I find myself drawing in a slow gulp of air, then releasing it. Smith kisses my brow, and the tender gesture eases the pain in my heart. “Sweetheart, let me help you. Please. I’m worried.” I swallow and sit back, looking him in the face. I swipe my eyes again to clear the tears. When I go to move off his lap and give him room, he frowns and clenches my hips to lock me into place. I give a weak smile. “Sorry. I’m…really tired. And I came home to find a note from my exboyfriend on the door saying he’s found me.” “I’m guessing that’s a bad thing,” he says quietly. “I need you to tell me why.” I squirm a little, discomfort blooming in my lower belly. I bite my lower lip and look away. I don’t want to look at him while I tell what happened. “Roger and I met at a party. He was really sweet and attentive at first. Totally into me. He told me he felt connected and vulnerable in a way he never had, and I was drawn to it. I’d…” I clear my throat. “I’d only ever been with one man before him, and he was an emotional dud. So I found Roger’s focus flattering and compelling.” Smith doesn’t say anything, just lets me continue. His hand rubs soft circles on my back, soothing me in a silent gesture. I close my eyes and let the sensation give me strength to confess. “Things moved fast. Roger thought we should move in together a month after we dated, but I managed to hold him off another couple of months. I skipped out on my lease and moved in with him, because his place was bigger and he felt it was a good start for us to grow. That eventually we’d find a home together.” Images of those early times flash through my mind. Roger’s gentle coercion to get his way. How he made me feel that what he wanted was best for both of us. “Roger grew more…controlling as time went on. It started with him chastising me about how I spent my money and spare time. He tried to make it sound reasonable at first, like he was just giving me advice and I was overreacting for getting upset. But then it became that he wanted to mesh our bank accounts together. Which I stupidly did.” I can feel the old, familiar sickness over my stupidity swirling in my gut. “Go on,” Smith urges me. I can’t tell what he’s feeling right now; his voice is even and quiet. I’m kind of afraid he’s probably questioning the wisdom of being with someone like me, but I make myself continue. “Having access to my spending gave him more control over me. He was constantly harping on how much money I blew. If I drew cash out, he wanted to know what I was spending it on. I had to start keeping receipts to prove it.” I duck my head in shame and stare at my lap, fiddling with my fingertips. “A big source of contention for us was that I didn’t want to quit my job. He wanted me home, taking care of our place, but everything I did was wrong. I folded towels wrong. I didn’t buy

the brand of toilet paper he wanted. One time I forgot to check the pantry and brought home duplicates of things we already had. I came home from work that night to find all the duplicates lined up on the dining room table. It was his way of shaming me. Making sure I know the he knew I fucked up.” As I confess all of this, I find my old anger at Roger surging up in me again. My breathing gets quicker, and the blood pounds in my veins. “I wanted out, but I felt stuck. Our lives were intertwined. I wasn’t in love with him anymore, but he controlled everything. He’d taken over paying all the bills, including mine, so I had no idea where it all was. He’d even started doling out cash to me for spending money to ensure I didn’t go crazy. I told my friend this at work one night and she said he was abusive and I needed to get the hell out of it.” I swallow, thankful once more for Michaela. She helped me understand just how bad our relationship was. “She pushed me into getting my independence for a couple of months, and I quietly started searching for another job, casting my nets out of state, even.” I pause. Smith is stiff, not saying a word. I wish I could read him. I turn to look into his eyes and he stares hard at me. A long moment passes. It’s difficult, but I make myself keep looking at him as I reveal what happened that night. “When I had a lead on a position in a different state, one that seemed promising, I finally gathered my courage and told Roger that I was done. That I don’t love him and I want us to break up and separate all our entanglements. Upon retrospect, telling him when he was drinking wasn’t my best idea. He got super angry with me, called me a whore, asked me again and again if I was cheating on him and leaving him for another man. Said he’d followed me at work and had seen me talking to men when I was there, or running errands. I…was shocked.” All the tension from learning about that reveal came back into me, and I started to shake again. “He’d put keystroke detection on my laptop and was monitoring everything I was saying. All this time, Roger had been watching me. Checking my text messages on my cell phone when I wasn’t looking, seeing who I was talking to, reading my emails.” I close my eyes. “He grabbed me hard and shook me. I tried to get away from him but he wouldn’t let go. I got scared and shoved at his chest, and he screamed at me to stop fighting him, that I was making a mistake leaving him. That he’d make me sorry if I thought I could walk away like this. That he had a say in our relationship and he wasn’t done yet.” I press trembling fingers to my stomach and make myself breathe. The horror of that night, the overwhelming fear I felt, shudders through me. “So I stayed, because I was petrified. I stayed for another couple of weeks. During that time, Roger was his usual self—and why wouldn’t he be? He got his way. I was still there. Until one day, my cell phone rang and I got the job offer from here. I accepted on the spot. Then the next day, I waited until he was at work and I packed everything I owned and left. I drove to the bank and took out enough money for me to live on. When I made it to a friend’s house, I contacted my bills. Turns out Roger hadn’t paid any of them. He was hoarding my money and keeping me indebted to him. I worked out a payment plan to get me back on track.” Shame burns me all over. I get up and move from his lap, and he doesn’t stop me. The rawness I’m feeling hurts so badly. Telling him that story, confessing it all, makes me realize what an utter fool I was with Roger. How did I let him control me like that? What is wrong with me? I go to a window and press my forehead to it, looking down. I don’t see anyone out there who looks like Roger. No cars parked nearby. I finally let my guard down and Roger came back into my life, destroying everything again. And now that I’ve finally found someone I connect with, someone who excites me and stimulates me, he ruins it all. I hate him. So deeply. And I kind of hate myself for being stupid and weak.

Soft hands touch my upper arms, then wrap around me, and Smith tugs me to his chest. He’s holding me tightly, pressing small kisses to the side of my brow, then he turns me in his arms and grips me. I can feel his body is so tense he seems like a live wire, and it makes me pause. “If this fucker ever tries to harm you again, I’ll fucking kill him,” he says in such a cold, furious tone, it takes me aback. “I will protect you from him, I swear it. You will never have to be afraid of him or anyone else.” His words are breathed against my forehead, rustling the small hairs there. “I will find him and make sure he knows he will leave you alone for good.” Listening to Smith, I’m convinced he means it. Some of the fear dissipates from my body, and I sag against him. He grabs me and scoops me into his arms again, carrying me down a dark hallway, kicking open a door. Then I’m delicately laid on a bed, and he’s curled up behind me, cupping me. My back is warm against his chest. “Sleep, baby,” he tells me in a gentle tone. His hand rubs my hair, my back. “Trust me. I’ll protect you. Sleep.” I didn’t think I could, but I find my eyelids drifting closed. I’m so tired, and crying made me even more fatigued. Between the low hum of the fan above us and Smith’s steady warmth, I find myself drifting into a dreamless sleep.


not sure what time it is when I awaken, but I realize there’s a curvy form arched against me I ’m in my bed, and my cock is aching so hard I could hammer nails. Everything surges back to me— Aubrey’s horrifying story, how her insane ex tracked her down. There’s no fucking way I’m letting that man anywhere near her. He has no idea who he’s dealing with now, but he’ll find out very soon if he pushes his luck. When she gives a small groan in her sleep, I realize I’m gripping her hip and relax my fingers. I look down at her sleepy form, the dark lashes brushing the tops of her cheeks, her pink lips relaxed as she dozes. This girl is insanely gorgeous and sweet, and that asshole took advantage of her goodness. I might not be perfect, and I might be the worst kind of man slut, but I would never want to treat her that way. I know that much for certain. My hunger comes from wanting to please her, give her the kind of pain she’d crave, not fear. Consensual. I would cut myself before I made her afraid of me. Before I shamed her or guilted her or abused her. For once, I’m glad I know enough questionable people. I have friends who will keep an eye out for this dick… Aubrey deserves that. I stretch out against her, willing myself to calm down. This is not the time to be horny for her. But it’s hard to help it when she’s so soft and pliant right now. And having her trust me after what she went through… I won’t fuck that up no matter what it means I have to do. I make myself get out of bed, despite every cell in my body screaming at me for it, and pad to the kitchen to make coffee. She’ll want some when she wakes up, I’m sure. Seems like every nurse I ever met lives on the shit. Maybe some breakfast too. I dig through my fridge. Fuck, I need to go shopping. I do see lunchmeat and cheese—a quick sniff confirms they’re still okay. I have bread on the countertop too. Small hands touch me from behind, setting my skin on fire. I turn to face the sleepy eyes of Aubrey, peering up at me, wearing only her scrub top and panties. Her legs are bare, and my cock throbs painfully at the sight. Holy fucking God, this woman is so beautiful. “Whatcha doing?” she asks in a sleep-thick tone. “You left the bed. I wasn’t sure where you were.” I draw her close to me and kiss her brow. “I didn’t leave.” I hear her chuckle. “I can see that, goof. Just…well, we really didn’t talk much about what you felt about what I said, and…”

“Sweetheart.” I tug her head back so she’s looking up at me. The way she’s so open and lets me see everything just makes me want to kiss her endlessly, to plunge deep inside her. But this is so not the time for that. Not when she’s afraid. “It’s fine. I was just getting you some food and coffee. Figured you’d be ready for it.” “Oh.” She tugs her lip between her teeth and worries it. “But…” Her shrug is light, and she glances away. “I dunno, I thought that maybe since…” Her cheeks go bright pink, and she peers up at me, and I see her eyelids go heavy. Fuck. She wants to have sex. It’s all over her face, in her body language, the way her nipples hardening under her shirt as she’s talking. Aubrey wants me. And I’m trying so fucking hard to be noble that I want to kill myself. The irony is bitter. “I…” I cough. “Look, this probably isn’t the best time for us to do anything.” She quirks a brow, feigning casualness even though the redness burns down her throat now to disappear into her shirt. “Oh? Are you on your period or something? I know cramps totally kill the mood.” I can’t help the laugh that bursts out of me. “You know what I’m saying, Aubrey.” Her lips part and she presses her chest to me, lets me feel that she has no bra on underneath, that her nipples are rigid and aching for my touch. “Maybe I don’t. Maybe I just know that I want to feel good right now, and I want you to make me feel that way.” I shoot her a warning glance. My cock is pulsing between us in my shorts. I know she can feel it, because she’s wiggling her lower belly against it. “Aubrey…” Her eyes widen as she drops to her knees and when she eyes my cock, I groan. Before I realize what’s happening, she’s unzipping my fly and pulling me out, and my dick is pulsing in her hand, and then her tongue is on me and I’m soaring. God, yes. Yes. Her mouth is everything that’s perfect in this world. I need to stop this, but I can’t make myself fight it anymore. Aubrey’s had enough people controlling her. If she wants us to have sex, I want her to feel like her opinion matters. She needs it. So noble of yourself, my dark side chides. Because truth is, while I do want her to have control, I also want to fuck her brains out. I let my fingers dive into the silk of her hair and close my eyes, allow myself to feel the sheer pleasure of her soft, puffy lips around me. She is earnest and eager, her little tongue licking the underside of my head, and she makes these small noises that let me know she’s enjoying it too. I can feel myself twitching in her mouth. I fight so hard the urge to push deep in her throat. Stay still, I warn myself. Let her lead right now. Aubrey’s mouth slides further toward my root, and her guttural groan makes my cock vibrate in her throat. Fuck, fuck, fuck. “You taste so good,” Aubrey manages to say around a mouthful of my dick. Her hands clench my hips and she draws me deeper, and then I’m hitting the back of her throat and she’s sucking me all the way in and my whole body is my throbbing pulse, and I ache for her, to come down her throat, but also to fuck her so hard she can’t walk for three days. When she pulls off me and her tongue slides along the underside of my dick, back and forth in a teasing pattern that makes my balls tighten, I grip her hair and find myself bucking against her mouth. “Aubrey,” I gasp, “I want so you fucking badly.” “I want you too,” she groans as she grips the base of my dick and pops the head in her mouth. She slurps and sucks and licks, and then sighs. “Your precome taste so good, oh God. I want more.” The innocent way she says this makes me want to come off in her mouth. It takes every fucking ounce of will I can muster to tug her off my feet. She looks disappointed

until I grip the bottom of her shirt and practically rip it over her head. “In my bed, right fucking now, Aubrey.” My patience is wearing super thin. I need inside her in the next few minutes or I’m going to explode. But I want to try something with her first. Aubrey goes to my room, her ass swaying in front of me in lacy pink panties. When we get in there, I jerk her around, reach for the waistband of the panties, and rip them right off her. She stiffens, and I see her nipples get hard. “Oh God, that was so hot,” she breathes. “I’ll buy you a hundred more panties if I can tear them off you,” I tell her. “Now get on the bed.” Aubrey obeys, lying down. I nudge her into the center and stretch her arms and hands out wide. “Any time you want to stop, say red,” I tell her, staring into her eyes. “You wanted to try some things I’m into. This is your chance. Red to stop. Do you understand me?” She nods. “You need to tell me, Aubrey. Be vocal. Do you understand me?” “Yes.” Her voice is barely a whisper, and I can see her body shaking a little. But it’s not in fear. It’s desire. I can smell the damp heat pouring from her pussy, see her slick lower lips already aching to be touched. “Red is stop. Yellow is slow down. Green means good.” “Yes. I understand.” Aubrey stays still, and I reach over and grab the black leather cuff I have on the end of a chain in the corner of my bed. I can’t remember the last time I even had a chance to use these. But it doesn’t even matter, because clamping these on her wrists feels like it’s my first time. Her skin is soft, her wrists tiny in my grip. I tighten the cuff and then straddle her stomach so I can fasten the other. Her eyes are locked on me. I see her breath rising and falling in rapid pants. Her pupils are small, her lips parted, and those nipples are begging to be kissed, nibbled. You’re next, I silently tell them. I finish her wrists, then pull her feet wide enough apart so she’s completely spread eagle on the bed. I make fast work of binding her ankles. Then I stare at her naked body for a moment, let myself savor the sight. Aubrey isn’t freaking out. She’s staring hard at me, almost writhing in her hunger. She wants this too. Something in my chest releases, and I feel an old weight fly away. I dig into my bedside table and procure two nipple clamps. Let’s see how this dove likes to play, if she can handle these. Her eyes widen but she doesn’t speak. “We still green?” I ask her. She nods, then remembers she’s supposed to speak. Licks her lips and says, “Yes. Um, green.” I finally let myself touch her breast, feel her chest arch under my hand. Squeeze and mold the flesh. She’s so pliant for me right now, so eager for whatever is about to happen. When I clamp it over her nipple, she gives a whimper that shoots straight to my dick. “Oh God, oh, wow, that feels…” Aubrey shudders and closes her eyes, and her body goes soft. I quickly put on the other one. I need to be inside her right fucking now. I cannot wait another second. Her nipples are pinched in the clamps, and I swipe a hand along her cunt slit, and the wetness there drives me fucking mad. Just from tying and clamping her, she’s dripping for me. She’s a dirty girl, Aubrey is, and I’m heady with my arousal for her. I blindly fumble for a condom before I lose my mind and rip the foil open, roll it on my painful dick. Then I move on top of her, my forearms resting on the sides of her head, and I press my dick at her entrance.

Her pelvis jerks toward me, and she says, “Please, oh, please, I need you inside me.” Her chest is panting so hard the clamps are bobbing with the movement. I slam into her, and she cries out. I let my fingers drift in her hair, touch her, tug her scalp, and I hammer her soaking wet pussy. Aubrey’s cries grow louder to nearly screams as she takes all of me in. I drop a hand down to caress her clit and I feel the hard bud pulse under my fingertips. “You’re a wicked girl, aren’t you,” I breathe in her ear. “You like being fucked like this, dirty and spread open for me. Your nipples clamped and your wrists and ankles bound.” “Yes,” she gasps. We move together, and my body starts to slick with sweat. She’s slippery beneath my hand, around my dick, wet like I’ve never seen a woman before. Aubrey begins to buck her pelvis, her head pushed back on the pillow, body bowed. “Are you going to come for me, my dirty girl?” I growl. I speed up my strokes on her pussy as I fuck her harder. I want to drive her crazy. I want to make her crave more of me, of this. I need it more than I need oxygen. My own orgasm is swelling, and I fight it as best as I can. My balls are tight and tugged to my body, and my limbs are tense. “I’m…so close,” she says, and then her eyes fly open. “Almost there.” On impulse, I shift down until my mouth is over a clamp, and I pull it up and away from her body so her nipple is stretched harder. Aubrey screams and erupts all around me. I feel her cunt juices gushing on my dick, and then I can’t hold my own orgasm back and I shoot my load into the condom, bucking on her, body vibrating, heart racing, lungs locked. Fuck, fuck, my brain is a jumbled mess and all I can think about is her name. It takes a while before our orgasms subside. I pull myself together, withdraw from her, and then gently remove the clamps from her nipples. Her sudden inhalation turns into a sigh when I lick and kiss the tips. Then I remove her wrist cuffs, massaging the limbs to get blood back into them, then the ankle cuffs. Aubrey’s body is lax and malleable as I maneuver her to lie on her side. I remove my condom and toss it away, then curl up against her, heart still racing like I’m on speed. She melts against my chest and gives a soft little sigh that tears me apart. Fuck me, this woman is everything. I’ve never had someone give herself to me so willingly, especially after everything she’s been through. Aubrey trusted me to take care of her, to not hurt her. I tug her tighter against me and swear that I won’t let her down. I can’t. This woman has shaken me apart in every way, has turned my life upside down, and I need her. We remain silent for several minutes, just breathing, relaxing through her aftercare. “How do you feel?” I finally ask her. I brush damp hairs from her brow. “Like…melted butter.” Her voice sounds so sated and drowsy from our sex that I can’t help but crow internally. I did this to her. Me, giving in to something I hunger for, something I always thought would ruin a girl like Aubrey. I took a chance, and she responded and loved it. My chest swells and I wrap my hand around her hip to cup her belly. “I want you to stay here. With me,” I say out of nowhere, voicing the tiny thought that has been niggling at the back of my mind. I can’t bear to let her go back to her apartment, unprotected. Unsafe.

She stiffens, and the reaction makes me start thinking of reasons on how to convince her this would be a good idea. I don’t want her to think it’s because I’m trying to control her. The truth is, I care. A lot. More than I want to admit to her. I care, and the thought of her being in danger without me there to protect her freaks me out. “Are you going to tell me it’s for my own good?” she says in a low tone. I draw in a slow breath and search for the right words. “I can tell you all I like what I think is good for you. But in the end, you have to make that choice for yourself. You can go to the police, of course.” She snorts. “Right. Because they’re so responsive in these situations.” Sad truth. God only knows how our local police would react if they knew about her connection with me, anyway. Probably give her an even harder time. I press my forehead against the back of her head and breathe in the scent of her hair. Let myself just enjoy the feel of her satiny skin. “Aubrey, it’s not safe for you to be out there alone. I don’t want to smother you. I want to protect you from someone who is a danger to you, as you already know. Let me help you.” She sighs. “I know. I just…I tried so hard to be independent, and I can’t seem to make it happen.” I hear the disappointment, the failure in her voice, and I want to sooth her. “You are independent. It’s not your fault your ex is a psycho.” I add, “Besides, I won’t bust your balls if you buy food here. Hell, I’m just glad to have any food at all. I live on beer and pizza. Order duplicates of anything you want.” That makes her chuckle. “Beer and pizza are two essential staples.” “Stay with me.” I try not to make the words sound like an order, but I’m a little too nervous to let them sound like I’m begging her. Because I still have my pride. The thought of sleeping beside her for a few nights is tempting as fuck though. Aubrey’s quiet for a stretch, and I start to wonder if she fell asleep. Then she says, “Okay.”


vibrates in my pocket. I’m just finishing up my afternoon shift, so I ignore it for now. M yI’llphone check it later when I’m in the car or whatever. “Bye!” I tell my coworkers. They wave at me from their spot at the table in the nurse’s station. “Have a good day!” Mary Ann, one of the older STNAs, tells me. I step into the glass-and-chrome front lobby and wait for Smith to come pick me up. When I got that note from Roger a little over a week ago, we came up with a plan of action. I insisted on still going to work, but I conceded to let Smith pick me up and take me home sometimes when it isn’t inconvenient for him. Late that afternoon, we both went to the apartment together and got enough of my belongings to last for a little bit. I have to admit, I think as I’m waiting for Smith, it’s been incredible getting to sleep beside him. We sometimes work different shifts, but on the nights when our schedules match up, it’s so…satisfying to slide into bed beside him. He often wakes up when I’m coming back from my morning shift and we have sex, then fall asleep. A girl could get far too easily used to this. Being able to roll over and touch him in the middle of the night, curl against his back, watch him wake up and look at me with a sleepy smile…it’s addictive. But I rushed things with Roger, and look where it got me. Hiding from my ex in this town while trying to see what his next move will be. Surely he’s going to pop up somewhere. I just have to be ready. When Smith pulls up, I find the tightness in my chest release a bit. I’ve been walking around with a small knot of anxiety in me since all of this started. Just waiting for something to happen. Hoping it does to get it over with, yet also fearing it. I hate this limbo so much. I jump into Smith’s car and give him the bravest smile I can muster. “Thanks for getting me.” His eyes are sparkling in the afternoon light, and it glints off the light red in his beard. The anxiety I experienced is replaced by a much warmer feeling that moves down to my lower belly and makes me breathy. “It’s no problem at all,” he says. We weave our way through the roads and make it back to his place. Once inside, I plop down on the couch and sigh, toeing off my shoes and stretching out. My bones are tired. The soles of my feet are throbbing. My back is in pain. I worked an extra four hours this morning because another nurse

had to leave early for her sick son, so I’m ready for a good nap. Smith comes over and drops to his haunches in front of me. He strokes my hair, and my chest unfurls at the tender gesture. I’m filled with warmth that tingles down to my fingers and toes. Something I’ve noticed about him is that he likes to touch me a lot, even just casual brushes of our skin. It keeps me constantly aware of him. Don’t get caught up in this, I warn myself. It would be so, so easy to let myself start fantasizing about what we are, where we’re going. After all, Smith isn’t like Roger. He wants me to feel free, not restrained. Well, not in the bad way, anyway. Every day I spend with this man makes me sink deeper and deeper into this thing I’m feeling for him. I refuse to put a name to it right now. It’s too early for that…isn’t it? Smith says, “Hey, I gotta go run some errands before I open the bar with my brothers. Will you be okay here?” I yawn and smile. “I’m going to take a nap. I’ll be fine. Go, get your stuff done.” My eyes are growing heavy. Smith leans over and presses a soft kiss right above my right brow, and my heart catches. “Come down tonight and have a beer when you’re up and around. I’ll save your regular seat for you.” He gives me that crooked smile I’ve grown to be fond of, to say the least, and then leaves, the door clicking softly behind him. I lie there and let my mind wander as I think about what it’s been like staying here the past few days. Smith isn’t uptight about things at all. He has three full bottles of ketchup in the fridge, because he says he keeps forgetting and then buys another. Clearly not someone who’d get mad and shame me for a duplicate now and then. And in the quiet of the morning or night, when we’re lying together, we talk. He tells me what his childhood with his dad was like—how his father was a hothead just like them, quick to bellow, but he always had a big smile and a big heart, and he made time for his boys. He even was careful to spend one-on-one time with each of them. Smith’s love of the man is evident in how he speaks of him. He’s even talked about his mom, a couple of memories he has. Mostly of the way she smelled like flowers, and how she liked to sing as she washed dishes. He doesn’t know why she left, and I think the open-endedness is what hurts him most of all. No closure. I told him about my parents, how they’re kind but distant, not very affectionate. I grew up an only child. Listening to stories Smith tells about the trouble he and his brothers got into as kids—setting the middle school Dumpster on fire, trying to skateboard down the smooth rail of the library’s steep steps, making a potato gun and accidentally searing off Asher’s eyebrows… I find myself smiling and wiggle my aching toes. I want to know his brothers better, though I think maybe we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. They’ve only come by once since I’ve been here, and they spent all of five minutes in the apartment, barely giving me a hello. Does my presence bother them? Are they upset about Smith putting himself in danger to help me out with the Roger situation? I yawn again and sink deeper into the couch cushions. I should make an effort to talk to his brothers. After all, I’m living here now. I need all the friends I can get. The tiny voice in the back of my head says that I also want to know them simply because they’re related to Smith. I want to know more about him. I find myself drifting to sleep. I’m not sure how long I’m conked out, but my phone vibrating in my pocket jerks me awake. I rub the sleep from my eyes and glance around the room. The late afternoon sun has dimmed the living room quite a bit.

Crud, someone texted me earlier too, and I forgot to check it. I dig into my pocket and procure the phone, then look at the messages. They’re both from a number I don’t recognize. Do you miss me? I haven’t seen you at your place. Where are you?

AND THEN THE NEXT, sent only a moment ago. What the fuck. I just saw you with a man. Is he the one you left me for, you fucking bitch? I knew it. You’re a lying whore. My heart jumps to my throat. How in the hell has Roger found me? How does he know where I live and my new cell phone number? Only a few people have that information right now. I know Michaela would never have told on pain of death. Hell, she’s the one who encouraged me to get the hell out of the relationship. A sinking feeling hits my gut as a suspicion blooms in my mind. They wouldn’t, would they? My hands are shaking as I pull up my mom’s number and call her. It rings twice, then she picks up. “I was wondering when I was going to hear from you again,” Mom says lightly. “You’ve been so busy working. Don’t they give you days off?” I swallow and struggle to keep my emotions level. My mom responds poorly to me being emotional, a fact I learned a long time ago. “Mom, I need to ask you something.” “Sure, what’s up?” “Have you talked to Roger since I left?” Her end of the line goes silent. And now I have my answer. Betrayal hits me square in the chest. How could she? I told her our relationship was bad, though I didn’t give her the details so as not to upset her. And still, she talked to him. Maybe I should have given her all the gory details though. Maybe then she’d finally get it and stop viewing him as someone who should be given another chance. Mom clears her throat. “Well, Roger came by a week or so ago and he just seemed so contrite. I felt bad. He was even crying. What was I supposed to do, be cruel and tell him I couldn’t help him? He just wants to be with you—he loves you so much and he doesn’t understand what happened.” Her tone turns sharp. “And by the way, you didn’t tell me you just left him while he was at work. I didn’t teach you to run away from your responsibilities like that.” I’m so mad right now I’m shaking. Is she really chastising me over protecting myself? It’s tempting to hang up, but I’m not letting it go like this. Not this time. I suck in a breath and then I tell my mom everything. How the abuse started, what happened when I did try to break up with him, how I felt this was my only option, how scared I am right now and how he’s found me and is bothering me. Mom is silent the whole time. When I finally stop speaking, I hear only her heavy breaths. I feel my cheeks grow cold in streaks and realize I’m crying, even though I feel numb inside after telling all of that to her. “It’s…” Mom pauses. Starts again. “It’s so hard to believe, Aubrey. We’ve never seen anything of the kind in him, not once.” “That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?” I charge back. “To make sure no one else knows what’s really happening? You do believe me, don’t you?” Mom’s sigh cuts me right to the bone. I know that sigh. It’s the one where she’s struggling with

what to say. And in this situation, she’s struggling to believe me and is trying to find the right words to neutralize this situation. Because to believe me means she made a grievous error in judgment. And my parents hate to be wrong, no matter what it costs. “You know what? I don’t care,” I finally tell her, my voice trembling with pent-up emotions. “Believe or don’t believe. I know what’s true and I don’t need to waste my breath trying to convince you of it. But thanks a lot.” I hang up before she can reply. My phone buzzes again, but I don’t feel like talking to her or anyone else right now, so I shut it off. No, wait, I do feel like talking to someone. I want to find Smith. When I came to him, scared and vulnerable, he believed me without a second thought. Didn’t ask me to even show him the note Roger left. No, he held me in his arms and let me cry and then he told me he was going to protect me. My legs are little unsteady as I rise from the couch. I comb my fingers through my sleep-mussed hair then make my way down the stairs to the bar’s entrance. I see Jax, who is startled to find me standing in the hallway. “I’m sorry,” I say, fighting with everything I have to sound even and not like I’m about to lose it. I can’t stop shaking. The stress of the text messages, of my mom, are weighing on me, and I just want to cry. “I need to speak to Smith if he’s available.” Jax’s brow furrows as he eyes me. He steps closer. “You okay?” My throat gets so tight I can’t even speak. I just look down at the ground and shake my head. “Fuck. Did that asshole ex of yours do something?” Jax says, his voice changing now. I hand him my phone and let him see the text messages. “Oh, hell no.” Jax’s voice raises. “Fuck that. No. We’ll find Smith and take care of this. That guy is gonna regret ever coming here to find you.” I look at Jax, who doesn’t know me, yet he too is standing by my side, and I burst into tears. He looks startled. “Shit. Did I say the wrong thing?” He scrubs a hand over his hair. “I’m trying to help. Sorry.” “No, I’m just…” I sniffle and blink. “I’m sorry. I’m stressed. This is difficult. Thank you for your help—I appreciate it. I don’t want to be a burden.” “The only burden is this motherfucker who’s going to quickly realize you don’t screw with us,” he says vehemently. And just like that, I’m enveloped into the lives of the Beckett boys. Jax waves Asher over as he walks by and pulls his brother aside, whispering to him. He shows him the texts. Asher’s face pinches in anger and he looks over at me. “Don’t you fucking worry about a thing,” he says to me hotly. “This shit don’t slide, not at all. We’ll take care of it.” “Take care of what?” Smith says, appearing behind the brothers. He takes one look at my face and storms over in front of me, gripping my arms. “What happened? Are you hurt?” He pulls back to eye me from head to toe. “Tell me.” Jax hands Smith my cell phone. Smith looks at it, his face unreadable but for the jaw line ticking as if he’s grinding his teeth. Smith doesn’t say anything at first. He gives me my phone back, then wraps me in his arms and strokes my hair. “Oh sweetheart, I’m sorry. I promise you we’ll make it all okay.” Enveloped in his warmth, surrounded by his brothers, in this moment I believe Smith. I feel overwhelmed by their protectiveness, these wild boys who have such a bad reputation yet such deep hearts. How is it no one sees this in them? It’s clear as day to me that they care strongly. After a few moments, I withdraw from Smith’s arms. “We should go to the police,” I say. “I didn’t

want to before, but he texted me. They can trace that stuff, right? Find where it came from? I have evidence now of him trying to harass me.” Smith stiffens. “Um. Yeah, I guess we can.” “Is it not a good idea? I don’t know what else to do. You don’t think they’ll take me seriously?” Panic hits me. Where the hell can I turn if even the police can’t help me against Roger? How much can the Beckett brothers really do? The other two brothers stand there, staring at Smith. An unspoken message passes between the three of them. “What is it I don’t know? Are the cops corrupt or something?” I ask. Smith gives a dark laugh. “Aren’t all cops?” I blink. “Wow, that’s bitter.” “You gotta forgive him,” Jax says smoothly. “We’ve had some shitty run-ins with the local fuzz. They don’t exactly…like us.” “And since you’re associated with our family,” Asher continues, “they’ll probably give you shit for it.” Smith gives them both a heated stare, then turns to me. “Aubrey, we can go to the cops if you want. It’s your choice.” I stand there, emotions roiling in me. Part of me wants to go to the police and try, because I feel like that’s the responsible thing I should do as a citizen. And Smith will go with me even though he’s clearly uncomfortable with it. “Are they mad at you because of things you’ve done as kids?” I ask. It seems like this is something important to know, given the way they’re reacting. Smith takes my hand and leads me into the office, closing the door behind him. We sit on the beatup couch in the corner of the room. “Look. Outlaws is having…problems. We’re a rough bar with a bad clientele, and not only that, we’re not making enough money to sustain our business for much longer. The police are trying to strong-arm us into closing, and people are coming in attempting to buy the bar. Probably to knock it down.” He’s even-toned as he tells me all of this. But I remember our talks about his dad. How much he misses the man. This bar is a connection to his father. Of course he wants to keep it. My heart bleeds for Smith’s struggle. He has to feel like the world is against him, given all the shit he’s going through. Yet here he is, trying to help me, putting himself in a situation to get harassed by the very people who are supposed to protect us. I reach over and cup his face with both hands, drawing him to me and kissing him. I want to help this man any way I can. I want him to know what it feels like to be supported. He’s spent so long being the backbone of his family. He needs someone to nurture him, too. Smith’s mouth opens and I tentatively slip my tongue inside. He groans, and the kiss deepens when he tilts his head, takes control. His hands reach down to my hips and he tugs me onto his lap. I can feel him already starting to get hard. God, can I ever get enough of this man? He makes me feel everything so vividly. Not just in bed, but outside of it. My pulse throbs in my body, and I feel my skin growing hot. We kiss for what feels like forever, our bodies pressed hard together, our hands roaming each other, just pouring everything out. Everything I’m feeling is bubbling right to the surface, and I want to drop my final walls and tell him how much he means to me. How I’m falling in love with him, despite my efforts to keep my heart protected. I wasn’t planning for this to happen, but it’s here. I can’t fight it, pretend this isn’t what is happening to me.

When he pulls away, panting, I take a moment to breathe and collect myself. This isn’t the time to be spilling the beans on my feelings, I know. But God, I want to, if only to get this gigantic feeling out of me and out there. Some kind of weird self-torture, I guess. I don’t have a clue how he’d respond. Smith’s eyes are dark and hooded. “Damn if kissing you doesn’t make me forget just about everything.” “Well, don’t forget how to pour beer,” I tell him sassily, trying to get myself back under control. “We’re going to save your bar. No one is going to buy Outlaws. We’ll keep it in business, in Beckett hands, and help it thrive.” “Ah, so here’s where you pull out your checkbook and leave a massive donation to the cause,” he retorts in a dry tone. “No, smartass. Here’s where we brainstorm ideas to keep the business afloat until we can turn things around. Get you a better clientele. Freshen things up. Not make this place feel so…” Smith quirks a brow, waiting to hear what I’m going to say. “So…in need of a makeover,” I finish as gently as I can. He gives a chuckle, and his face lightens. “You’re upbeat, I’ll give you that. It’s surprising in the face of everything you’re dealing with right now.” “Easier to look at what’s on your plate than on mine,” I point out. “I have no idea what to do about my situation.” My lightness dampens a bit. Fucking Roger. Why can’t he just let me go? I know why. It’s because I was in his control, and controlling people hate losing that. Not to mention me leaving injured his pride. Roger is pissed at me. “Will you trust me to deal with your situation?” Smith asks me. There’s a weight in his eyes as he stares at me. I can tell there’s a lot more involved in this question. He’s asking me to trust his way of dealing with things. To trust that he isn’t like Roger, that he won’t treat me that way. “But you already have so much to do,” I tell him quietly. “I can’t put this on your shoulders, too.” “It would make me feel better if I could help you. I want to.” Simple words, but powerful. “Only if you let me help you with the bar.” It’s a fair exchange. My brain is already whirring with ideas on how they can make business stronger. He narrows his eyes. “Take it or leave it,” I reply. “Those are my terms.” A dimple pops up in his cheek as he gives me a crooked grin. “You’re quite a handful, aren’t you, Aubrey?” Smith’s chest rises and he gives a steady exhale. Something in him changes, just a bit, a small difference. The weight he carries around his eyes is gone. “You have no idea.” I laugh. I don’t know what he’s going to do, but I have to trust that Smith will be okay and he won’t do something insane or self-injuring. I reach over and take his hands, stroke the length of his fingers. “For your bar, I was first thinking you should talk to Aunt Sylvia.” He groans, then flips my hand over so he’s running his fingers along the creases of my palm. The gesture sends shivers skating across my skin. “She’ll rub it in about how bad the bar is doing.” I shake my head. “No she won’t. That woman loves you, Smith. She wants to help. Let her in— trust her. I bet she can help you come up with some food specials.” He opens his mouth to protest, but I press on. “Yes, you should have meals, even something easy to make. Drunk people like to eat, and eating means they’ll linger and thus buy more drinks.” He gives me a grudging shrug. “Yeah, I guess.” “If I’m going to trust you, you have to trust me. My uncle owns a restaurant and he’s talked to me a little bit about how it works. I’m not an expert or anything, but he is—and he has good connections.” Connections that can help us iron out a game plan for Outlaws.

I can tell it stings Smith’s pride a bit to have to rely on strangers for assistance. He doesn’t know my uncle. But he gives me a quick nod. “I’ll talk to Jax and Asher about it,” he says. “As they keep pointing out to me, they’re part owners of the bar. They should have a say in it.” He gives a chuckle. “I have a feeling they’ll be on board with the food idea, though. Asher’s been nagging for us to do so for a while.” I know that Smith and I are going to help each other. And together, we’ll sort all this shit out.


Aubrey settled back in upstairs, telling her I’ll be back up tonight and not to leave the I get apartment or answer the door for anyone. It’s obvious from the text messages that her crazy ex knows where I live, that he’s been following her. The thought makes my blood boil, and I want to choke the shit out of him. Unfuckingbelievable, his nerve. I have Aubrey’s cell phone in my pocket. I asked her to let me have it, and she gave it right to me. Her faith in me, her trust, makes me honored. After everything Roger has done to her, the way he’s violated her personal space, and yet she still believes that I’m not going to use access to her phone against her. I don’t know what I’ve done to earn her trust but I’m not going to fuck that up. Aubrey means too much to me. More than anyone else ever has. I head back to the bar and try to focus on my job. But a plan is brewing in the back of my mind. If he won’t show himself, I’ll draw him out. And her cell phone is the best way to do that. A guy like him is trying to provoke her into responding. It gives him control if he can get her to cave and answer him, whether it’s lashing out or defending herself. It opens the door to conversation and allows him to manipulate her. I’ve encountered more than one of this type in my life. What he doesn’t know is that he won’t be dealing with Aubrey anymore. He’ll deal with me. I’m not letting him anywhere near her. Jax comes over. “How’s she doing?” “She’s okay. Not as freaked out. I told her we’d handle it.” “Damn straight. That’s fucked up. No wonder she was upset. I bet you’re already planning how we’re going to kick his ass, aren’t you.” He laughs when he sees something in my eyes. “I knew it. You’re so easy to read. You’re totally falling for her.” I start to protest, to deny it. But it’s true. I can’t deny it. Aubrey has totally entranced me. She’s witty, spunky, and she doesn’t take my bullshit. She gives it right back when I start getting too much attitude. But she’s also beautiful and emotional and she opens herself right up to me. And in bed… “Yeah, okay, I do have feelings for her.” Jax gasps and looks up at the sky in an exaggerated fashion. When I just stare at him with my brow raised, he says, “I’m looking for the four horsemen to come galloping from heaven, because surely this is the end of times. This event was foretold in the Bible. Smith Beckett has fallen in love.” “Don’t make me have to hurt you, little brother.”

We both grin, and he pats my shoulder. “I’m fucking happy for you, asshole. Being tied down is not for me, but hey, someone’s gotta populate the world with more of us sexy Becketts.” “Excuse me, I’d love a beer,” some girl calls out from the far end of the bar. She waves at him and bounces, her breasts heaving up and down with every move. “Ah, the siren’s call. I think I found tonight’s conquest.” He waggles his brows and sidles over to her, giving her his full-wattage smile. I just laugh. Jax is the wildest out of the three of us, by far. I can’t see him getting attached to a girl or being responsible in any way. Though he is trying harder at the bar; I’ll give him credit for that. I tug out Aubrey’s phone and pull up the texts from her ex. I feel the hot surge of anger sweep over me again, and I don’t try to swallow it down. This fucker will learn the hard way. I quickly tap out a text to him: Look, we have to talk. I don’t want to do this over phone. I continue slinging drinks and washing dishes and doing whatever else I need to do, waiting for his response. It’ll come—I know that much. Just a matter of when. He’ll take the bait, no doubt. I’m whistling as I straighten up around the bar. I’m almost joyous. When Asher comes over to check the taps and make sure the kegs aren’t empty, I give him a small nod of thanks. He gives one back and goes to leave, but I grab his upper arm. “Hey. Thanks for the help with Aubrey. And around here,” I tell him. He narrows his eyes, looking at me with suspicion. Not that I blame him—given how pissed I’ve been about him being here this summer, it probably seems like something’s up. But talking with Aubrey about all the good memories we had as kids, seeing him step up without question to help Aubrey out, made me realize I need to back off a bit. The decision was already made, and he’s here. Continuing to be pissed is only injuring myself. He finally sees that I mean what I say and gives a quick nod. “You’re welcome,” he says, then I see him smile proudly as he turns and walks away. I head back to the office to crunch numbers, mulling over Aubrey’s suggestion in the back of my head. After this shit with her ex is dealt with, I’ll bring the idea up to Jax and Asher. Food at the bar…not a bad idea. We’ll have to keep it limited at first, of course. I don’t want us getting overwhelmed. Maybe stuff that can be prepared in bulk ahead of time—dips and shit like that. She’s right though. Aunt Sylvia will have good ideas on what I can do. What we can do. I have to stop viewing this bar as just mine. Not only is it too much to deal with, it’s causing issues with me and my brothers. If they want a bigger role, fine. I’ll give it to them. I can make Jax start with balancing us out every night. A wicked grin creases my face. I’m such a bastard—Jax hates doing anything with math. Too bad. My pocket buzzes, and I instantly snap to attention. It’s the pocket with Aubrey’s phone in it. Let’s see what he has to say. Yes, we do. You owe me an explanation. I need to know why you did this to me… To Us… Ah, he’s trying to play on my guilt—well, on Aubrey’s guilt. I write back, We should meet somewhere and talk instead of doing this over the phone. I fire off a location at the end of the message, asking to meet tomorrow morning at six—purportedly before “my” shift at the nursing home, and send it. Aubrey’s off work tomorrow, so she’ll be safe and sound up in my bed. Meeting up so early in the morning will likely keeps his suspicion from being aroused. A moment later, another buzz. I’m looking forward to hearing the TRUTH. I’ll be there.

I put the phone away. Finish my work with a smooth calm that has swept over me. First things first, get this accounting work done. Close the bar out tonight. Then, tomorrow, I’ll deal with Aubrey’s ex. “No fucking way are you going alone,” Jax says as we finish cleaning the bar. It was a surprisingly quiet night—no fights, no drama. Which is good, because as keyed up as I am to get this shit done and meet with Aubrey’s ex, I probably would have gotten into trouble. Asher’s sweeping the floor while I’m restocking the booze in the bar to ensure we’re ready for tomorrow’s crowd. “I can handle this,” I tell Jax assuredly. He just eyes me and whips a dish towel over his shoulder. “I’m sure you can, but why would you? Besides, I’m just going to follow you anyway, so you might as well have us come.” I shake my head. “You are stubborn as hell.” “Got it from Dad.” He gives me his trademark smirk. “Just like you.” “I’m helping too,” Asher says from across the room. I consider telling them no, keeping them out of it, but decide that it’s better to have backup just in case. We finish up on the bar then brew a pot of super-strong coffee. It gurgles as it fills the pot. Still the same coffee pot Dad used back in the day. “How many fucking pots of coffee did Dad go through during the course of a day?” Asher asks as he pours himself a mug. He fills up two more and slides them across the bar’s surface toward us. “Seemed like he always either had a beer or a coffee in his hand.” “That’s about right,” I say with a half smile. “I think he had coffee running through his veins.” We remain silent and drink our coffee. I’m flooded with thoughts of Dad. Funny how he’s been on my mind a lot lately. Why is that? “You know he’d be proud of you,” Jax says. I turn to see he’s looking at me over the top of his mug. “For how hard you’ve worked to keep this place floating. And for all the shit you dealt with otherwise.” He’s referring to himself and Asher, of course. “We’ll do the best we can to keep the bar running, but Dad never expected us to be superhuman.” His praise is out of character, but it means a lot for just that reason. I find the usual tension I have when thinking about the bar fades a bit. We’ll sort it out somehow. I have to trust in that. Trust. Funny how that word keeps cropping up a lot lately, too. I need to trust my brothers more, depend on them. Let them help me. I can’t carry this all on my own—they’re right about that. And trust in Aubrey too. The way she’s trusted me. She deserves it given right back to her. Trust means not trying to control her, the way her ex did. Yes, I want her, in every fucking way I can have her, but I never want to smother her spirit or make her afraid. Jax glances at his watch. “We have some time to kill. You assholes wanna lose a little money before we go take care of some unfinished business for Smith’s girl?” I smirk at him. It’s been a while since I’ve raked him over the coals in poker. I move around the bar, lower three chairs at a table, and wave them over. Something about the camaraderie of us doing as regular a thing as playing cards makes me feel less alone. “Let’s do this.”

JUST BEFORE SIX, we’re sitting in Jax’s car, staring at the coffee shop. It’s still a bit on the dark side out, and the glow of the shop is the only real sign of life so far on the street. I told him to meet there

because I figured Aubrey would consider it a safe and public location, and her ex would think that as well. Now to wait. “What does he look like?” Asher asks from the back seat. “Like a psycho,” Jax says. Asher slugs him on the arm, and he grunts. “Stop fucking punching me. You suck.” I laugh. “Knock the shit off, boys. We have a job to do.” “He’s the one who started it,” Jax murmurs, but I hear the amusement in his voice. “Oh, look. Someone’s coming now.” I see a man in his late twenties, clean-cut and wearing a suit, walk hesitantly toward the café door. He steps inside and moves to a table. Gotta be him. The three of us exit the car and follow him in. No one else is in the café—Jax has had “relations” with the manager and asked her to open up the shop an hour early so we could have a business meeting there. She didn’t ask too many questions—Jax’s girls never do. We walk inside, and when the door dings behind us, Aubrey’s ex spins around. Sees us and his brow furrows. He gives a haughty look and offers us his back, peering over the counter. “Excuse me,” he says loudly, calling out to the empty café, peering to see where the employees are. “Are you Roger?” I ask. His back stiffens. I can see his gaze darting around. He’s evaluating the situation. My brothers move to either side of him. “How about we move to the back,” I tell him in a quiet voice. “We need to talk.” Roger’s entire body is rigid. He wants to run so badly, but we have him surrounded. He lifts his chin. “I’m not bothering anyone. Just getting coffee and waiting for a friend. You folks should be on your way back to whatever hillbilly hole you crawled out of.” Jax gives a loud, barking laugh. “That’s fucking hilarious. Hillbilly hole. This guy’s witty! I can definitely tell what Aubrey saw in him.” At the mention of her name, her visibly startles. Studies us closer. When his gaze locks on me, I see fury unleashed in his eyes. He recognizes me. “Oh, good. You know who I am. That saves me the trouble of having to introduce myself.” My voice is ice. My fists are clenched at my side. “Get your fucking ass in the back room or I’ll pick you up and carry you there myself.” “And why would I want to go back there with you?” He’s trying to sound brave, but I hear a thin hint of fear in his voice. I step closer to him, look at the face of the man who’s petrified the woman I’ve fallen for. Who’s made her life hell to the point where she had to move away from him to escape his abuse. All the rage I feel rushes to the surface. “Because we’re going to talk.” “Fuck you,” he spits at me. I punch him right on the nose. He gasps and holds it as blood gushes out, spattering on the floor. “Fine with me. I’d rather fight anyway. Ready to go?” My brothers cross their arms and stand there to make sure he doesn’t try to run off. Roger holds his nose with one hand and raises his other in the air. “Fuck. Fuck. I think you broke it. I’m going to call my lawyer.” I grip his hair so tight it makes him cry out, and I force him to walk behind the bar then drop to his knees. Jax moves over to flip the Open sign to Closed, his back to the door.

Roger stares up at me, blood streaming down his face in thick gushes, eyes watering. “You aren’t calling anyone,” I tell him. “If you even think of doing so, I’ll fucking wreck you so hard you won’t be able to move, much less dial a number. Any man who would hurt a woman to try to control her is a fucking dog and deserves to be put down.” I squeeze his scalp tighter, and he whimpers. “You are never to contact Aubrey again in any format. You will never contact her family or friends again. You will go home quietly, and you will stay the fuck away from Rock Bridge for the rest of your life. And if you call anyone about what happened here today, I will find you, and I will fucking kill you.” I tilt his head up to make sure he can see how serious I am. “No one is ever going to hurt Aubrey again. I’m protecting her now. Do you understand me?” He swallows and swipes a hand along the bottom of his face to wipe away the blood running. I snap his head back and bend over him. “That’s not an answer. Do. You. Understand. Me.” “Y-yes.” I jerk on his hair to force him to standing. “Give me your phone.” “What?” He blinks in surprise. I raise and pull back my other fist, and he cringes away, fumbling in his jacket pocket. “H-here, okay, fine, just take it.” His fingers are shaking so hard he can barely hand it to me. I release his hair, then I drop the phone and stomp on it. Crush it beneath my boot. He groans, and Jax claps. “Just to give you a little incentive to not call anyone when you drive your sorry ass home.” I’m so tempted to beat this man senseless right now. I want to unleash everything. But I’m trying to restrain myself. I don’t want to be a man Aubrey’s afraid of. I’m her hero, not another man who uses his strength to intimidate her. And while she hates and is afraid of Roger, doing any further damage to him will only make her feel bad. “Get the fuck out of here before I change my mind and do what I really want to do to you right now.” Roger scrambles to move around the coffee bar counter, cupping his nose, then dashes outside. I see him struggle to open his car door. He backs out of his parking space and his tires squeal as he leaves. “Do you think he’ll leave her alone?” Asher asks. I sigh. “If he knows what’s good for him. Pretty sure he shit his pants when I threatened to punch him again, though.” I shake my fist out—decking him felt so good, but it did hurt my knuckles. I grab a wad of paper towels and clean the crime scene of his bloodied nose off the ground. Don’t need to freak the poor manager and baristas out when they come back. I toss the soiled paper towels. This was supposed to be a business meeting, after all. And I suppose in some ways, that’s exactly what it was. Tying up some loose ends. Jax yawns. “I’m fucking whomped. Watching you punch a douche made me more tired than I expected.” Asher laughs, and I clap him on the shoulder as we move to the exit. The door dings behind us, and we hop in Jax’s car. He drops me off back at the bar, and I make my way up the stairs to where my girl is lying on my bed. She is my girl if I have anything to say about it. I need this woman so badly, would do anything for her. I don’t know how, but in the span of a few weeks, Aubrey’s flipped me upside down and given me life. She’s broken me out of my darkness, shown me hope, affection. Made me feel like I’m good enough as I am. I want her to feel the same. I want her to be mine.

I kick my boots off and strip out of my clothes. Weariness makes my bones tired. I need sleep. But more than that, I need to curl against her warm, inviting body and find my solace, my salvation, in her arms. Aubrey is the one who saved me, who changed me. I crack open the door. She’s breathing softly, my gray sheet tangled in her limbs. Her breasts are bare, moving in an even rhythm. Something in my heart cracks wide open. I move to her, unable to pull away. I slide against her body and cup her breasts, feel their weight in my palm. Aubrey gives a gentle sigh and arches against me. “Smith,” she says in a whisper, stirring, and my cock pulses to life, pressing along the slit of her ass. “I missed you.” The admission makes be even more aroused. “I missed you too.” I turn her to face me and rain kisses all over her brow, her cheeks, ending with her mouth. She opens to me, my sweet and willing Aubrey. I bury my hands in her hair—not hard. Tender. I need to feel close to her right now. She gives a sleepy, satisfied sigh against my mouth. “I’m falling in love with you,” I find myself murmuring on her lips. Aubrey goes still in my arms. I see her blinking herself awake in the pale glow of morning through the slats of the blinds. “I…did I hear…” She rubs her eyes and sits up. I sit up with her. My heart is pounding so hard I feel like it’s going to erupt from my chest. I tug her to me, needing her closer. “God, Aubrey, you don’t know what you do to me. Tell me you feel this too. That it isn’t just me.” Her breath catches, and she reaches a shaky hand up to caress my jaw. I can’t see her eyes, but everything I need to know is in the tenderness of her touch. “I’m falling in love with you too.” Then I’m kissing her and we fall back into bed, lost in each other.


Three Months Later

“AUNT SYLVIA IS GIFTED. Why is this pie the best I’ve ever had?” I ask as I feed a spoonful of key lime pie to Smith across the bar. I’m sitting in my stool, after the bar has closed. Jax left after finishing cleaning up for the night, so it’s only the two of us in here. “I’m glad it’s been a hit. I had a feeling everyone would want it.” Smith gives me a wicked grin. “Well, it’s not the best pie I’ve ever had.” I shake my head and swat at him. “You’re insane.” Insane, but I love it. We’ve been inseparable, spending as much time together as possible…and as many nights. The things we’ve experimented with —various types of bondage, clamps, spanking, even paddling—have made my toes curl with glee. Apparently I’m into dirty shit. Who knew? I never would have guessed this about myself. Or maybe it’s just because I’m into Smith so much that anything we do together feels wicked and fun. I watch him as he checks the taps and removes one. He’s so efficient and confident in his work. I really enjoy observing him, seeing him move with his usual prowess. No matter what Smith does, it’s sexy. He bends over and pulls out a new tap handle, one that’s distinctly shaped like… I laugh. “Do you realize how phallic that is?” I ask. He raises that trademark brow at me. “Why do you think I ordered this beer?” “Um, for its hoppy flavor? Or its exquisite mouth feel?” I tease as I move around the bar to his side. “I’ll show you mouth feel.” Smith hauls me up to sitting on the bar, and he cups my ass to tug me close to him. Being in his arms, in his presence, feels so good, so right. I’ve never had a man wreck me so completely as Smith has. I lean down to capture his mouth in a kiss. God, how I love this man—this hotheaded, crass, surly, protective, beautiful man. The last few months have been heaven, especially since Roger has left me the fuck alone. Thank God. I caress his lips with mine, just a little tease, and he grips my hips tighter, a silent plea for me to give him more. But I refuse. I dart my tongue out and swipe it along his lower lip, along the seam. He groans, and then he’s spinning me to lie fully on the bar, and he jumps on top of me. “Smith!” I cry out with a giggle. “Can the bar handle both of us being on here?”

His answering smile is so wicked it makes my pussy pulse in anticipation. “I guess we’ll find out. A little edge play for you, huh, sweetheart?” I reach up to cup his firm ass, squeezing the globes through his jeans. My God, this man has the perfect body. He rests on one forearm to whip his shirt over his head, and I slide my hands along the lines of his tattoos. I’ve tasted each one intimately. “You’re so fucking beautiful,” he says as he stares at me in what looks like awe. “I can’t believe you’re mine.” My cheeks turn a little warm from the compliment. “You make me feel beautiful,” I tell him. “That’s because you are. And you deserve to feel it every damn day.” I can see the sincerity in his eyes. The heat radiating from him. His cock bobs between us, evident even though his jeans. I lift my legs and wrap them around his waist to get him as close as possible. “I want to feel you every damn day,” I tell him hotly. His eyes turn dark, and I can tell he’s thinking something naughty. I feel my body erupt in tingles. God, every time he gets that look, I end up coming like crazy. I swallow and feel my breasts swell, my nipples harden. My pussy throbs with my pulse now. Smith sits up enough to unbutton my long-sleeved shirt and tug it off me. Then my jeans follow. Both are tossed to the floor without another thought. He slowly looks me over, his hands following his gaze, his rough fingers squeezing and kneading my flesh. “I want to fuck you so badly right now.” I arch my breasts at him and cup them with my palms, offering them to him. “Then why don’t you?” He growls, and my bra is almost ripped off and then thrown to the ground. Last are my panties. I’m lying on the cool bar surface, shivering, hungry, needing this man inside me so much I can’t breathe for wanting him. I’m shaking now. He adjusts my legs until my feet are planted firmly on the bar. I’m exposed to him, naked. When his tongue hits my clit, I jump. I feel his hot hand press my lower belly to keep me in place. “Don’t you fucking move,” he growls at me. “I want you right here, that sweet pussy open and dripping wet.” His mouth goes back to licking me, and I sigh and shudder from the expert movements of his tongue. He sucks my labia into his mouth, which makes me cry out. God, that feels ridiculously good. I want to touch him but I do as he commanded and lie still. Smith rewards me when I obey him, makes me feel so good that I want to please him as much as I can. He laps me and I’m dripping on the table; I can feel it sliding down my crack. “Good girl,” he purrs. “Yes,” I moan, as he continues fucking me with his amazing tongue. “Does getting that wet pussy eaten on my bar make you feel dirty?” I swallow. My pulse is skittering through my limbs now. My fingers and toes tingle and my breathing is shallow. “So dirty,” I admit. He kisses my inner thighs and draws a small portion of flesh between his teeth. Bites down. “Oh, God, Smith. Please…” “Please what? What do you want, Aubrey? Tell me.” “P-please…fuck me right now. I need it.” “You’re so fucking sexy. I’m going to make you come all over my dick.” Smith takes out his cock and slides it in me, raw, and I feel every ridge and line on his perfectly bare dick, and oh God, it makes me start to thrust against it just to get it deeper. I can’t help it.

He pulls it out, pushes it inside me again, this time a little faster. He’s angled the tip so it rubs against my G-spot. “How hard do you want to be fucked?” His voice is so low I can barely hear him. “As hard as you want to give it to me,” I find myself saying. It’s a challenge, a dare, me offering myself to him completely. Trusting him to give me what I want and need. He groans. I feel him shift between my legs. “Oh, fuck yes.” Then he begins to pump into me, and I feel that familiar heat build in my belly. My clit is swollen and desperate to be touched. Like a mind reader, he says, “Stroke yourself as I fuck you, baby. I want to watch you pleasure yourself.” I reach my right hand between my trembling thighs and brush my fingers on my clit. It pulses in my touch. I can’t stop moaning, arching, needing this, wanting to be his dirty girl. The waves ripping through me as he fucks me are impossible to stop. I’m bucking and stroking and squeezing my channel, and my pussy is so wet I can smell myself. My orgasm starts to near. I pant, and Smith says, “Oh, fuck yes, give me that come. I want it. Come on my dick. Right. Now.” My whole body is vibrating, moments from shattering apart and flying into pieces. My clit is pulsing beneath my frantic fingers, and he’s now slamming the full length of his cock inside me. “God oh God oh God—” I arch and then as my orgasm hits me, I scream, scream, unable to bite back the enormity of sensations drowning me. It just keeps coming and coming, and I’m burning alive for Smith. It seems to take a year for the orgasm to subside. My hands go limp, my legs sliding down the bar surface, and I gasp for air. Smith pulls the handle out of me and bursts, his cock shooting hot ropes of cum onto my lower belly. “Oh fucking sweet Jesus, that felt so fucking good,” he says in a guttural tone. He moves to stretch out on top of me and takes my mouth in a hot, possessive kiss. I give it to him, my body languid and sated, the stickiness of our body juices between us, my mind blissfully numb. He wraps his arms around me and kisses me, and I kiss him back, pouring all of my emotions into it. I’m overwhelmed by the love I’m feeling for him, my dirty, sweet boy. After we kiss for a good minute, Smith pulls back. He bends down to pick up his T-shirt from behind the bar and slides it over me. I love wearing his shirt—it’s like being wrapped in one of his hugs. At the sight of me in his big shirt, he smiles. Cups my cheek. “I fucking love you so much.” I smile back. “I love you too. I can’t even tell you how much. It just grows bigger every day.” “I miss feeling you in my bed every night.” His admission stills me. After the shit storm with Roger was over, I went back to my apartment, though we spend at least three nights a week together. But on the nights I’m not with him, I lie in bed wishing I was. “I do too,” I tell him. Suddenly, he licks his lips and seems to get an anxious look on his face. He seems lost in thought, his brow creasing, his eyes faraway. “Is something wrong?” I ask, nervous suddenly. He shakes his head. “Just…just hold on one second.” Smith fishes in his pocket. Pulls out a small velvet box. My heart slams against my ribcage so hard I’m sure it cracks a bone. Oh God, is it… “I wasn’t going to do this like this.” He cracks the box open, and there’s a large, sparkling diamond sitting there nestled in black velvet. He looks up at me, and I see love shining in his eyes. “I wanted to do a fancy proposal. Really knock you off your feet. But in the end, we don’t need fancy. We just need us, you and me, together. What makes us work is how we satisfy each other’s needs, no

matter how simple.” My throat closes, and I feel a burn in the backs of my eyes. I nod. “You’ve made me so happy, Aubrey. I know this is fast, but fuck it. I love you. I want to marry you. I need you to be mine, and I need to be yours. Will you marry me?” I gasp and grab the back of his neck, tugging him to me. “Yes. Of course I will.” I hear him exhale hard, and then his arms are around me and he’s hugging me so tight it’s like we fuse into one. “Oh, thank fucking God. Thank God.” His hands are stroking my hair and he’s almost overwhelming me with a surge of his love. I begin to actually cry and I cover his face in kisses. My hands are shaking. He pulls back and puts the ring on my finger, and I swallow, then kiss him again. My beloved. My fiancé. The man who believed in me when I needed someone. Who opened my eyes to pleasures I couldn’t fathom. Who accepts me as I am, frees me, cherishes me, protects me. How could I possibly want anything more than Smith? There’s no way. I hold my fiancé in my arms, and we sit there, me on the bar in his shirt, him wrapped around me. Our own little bubble of happiness.

“MICHAELA?” I say later that morning after Smith and I went to bed in his apartment, had sex, then fell asleep wrapped in each other. I’m whispering into my cell phone in the kitchen. “How do you feel about visiting me in Rock Bridge?” I ask her. “Hell yeah. It’s not that far of a drive. When can I come?” “I’m not sure yet.” My heart skips a beat. “I’ll need your help.” “With what?” “With planning my wedding.” Michaela screams so loud into the phone that I’m sure Smith can hear her from the bedroom. “Are you fucking pulling my chain right now? Because if you’re fucking with me, I’m going to beat your ass, you bitch.” “I’m not!” I squeal and look down at the ring on my finger. “He proposed to me early this morning after the bar closed!” I decline to tell her what our activities were before said proposal—that’s our dirty secret. “Oh God, I’m so fucking happy for you I could cry. I can’t wait to meet him. I’m coming this weekend, okay? And don’t say no, because I’m, like, already packing a bag as we speak and I’m going to call in dead to work.” “I love you so much.” I’m laughing and crying again, and I feel so happy I could explode. “So have you told your parents yet?” Her words are gentle; she knows about the fight that happened. I haven’t spoken to them in months, too upset to return their calls. Surprisingly, she’s left me messages every couple of weeks, nothing big, just saying she wants to talk. I just haven’t been ready to. “I guess I should,” I say, discomfort tightening my chest. “They might want to know.” Michaela’s voice is soothing. “But you do what feels right, okay?” A pair of warm, familiar hands slide across my waist and cup my breasts through the shirt I slipped on before padding down to the kitchen. I lean back against Smith’s chest and look up at him.

Michaela, I mouth as I point to the phone. He nods and kisses my forehead. “Okay, bitch, I should go then,” I say. “I have shit to do and a fiancé to have more sex with.” “Hell yeah. I support this.” We blow each other kisses over the phone and hang up. Smith gets his coffee pot going and turns to me, leaning against his kitchen counter. “Everything okay?” “Yeah, I guess. I just…don’t know how I feel about calling my parents right now, to be honest.” He looks at me without judgment, but his face is serious. “Call them. I’d give anything in the world to call my dad right now and tell him about you. He’d love you, you know.” The words pinch my heart with guilt. Fuck. “That was insensitive of me. I’m sorry.” He gives me a small smile and rubs the back of my neck. “I know you weren’t trying to be. But I think if you talk to them, you’ll feel better. Just something to think about.” “Will you stay here while I call them?” “There’s nowhere else on the fucking planet I’d rather be than by your side.” The warmth in his voice helps me gather my strength. I can do this. I suck in a slow breath, exhale. Turn to rest once again against the solidness of his chest. My fiancé. Soon to be my husband. The most amazing and complicated man I’ve ever met. I dial my mom’s number, and she picks up after a couple of rings. “Hello?” I hear the tentativeness in her voice, tinged with hope. It’s been so long since I’ve heard her voice that I feel a bunch of emotions slam into me hard. My stomach twists in a hard knot, and I steady myself. Smith squeezes my shoulders. “Mom? Hi. It’s me. And I have some news for you.” And then I start telling her our story, and I’m smiling, because finally it’s not just “I” anymore— it’s “we.” Smith and Aubrey. Forever.

THE END OF SMITH (THE BECKETT BOYS, BOOK ONE) Start reading JAX (The Beckett Boys, Book Two) immediately, by clicking here! If you want to know about the all of Olivia Chase’s books, and get alerted to more of the hottest deals in romance—sign up now to the Favor Ford Romance newsletter!

Paige north returm of the bad boy  
Paige north returm of the bad boy