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Sample includes adult content - 18+ recommended.

Chapter 1

Jess

 

It was official.

‘Couple love’ had definitely hit, and it was spreading through my group of friends like wildfire. Five of my closest friends were now ridiculously, stupidly, crazily in love. They’d found what I considered true love. They’d found their soul mates. Their best friends. The one person who understood them the most. They touched each other. They gave each other ‘the look.’ They laughed with each other. And they exuded something that looked a lot like genuine happiness. Blah, blah, blah . . .

It made me want to punch them.

But not really. I wasn’t a psycho. I was just a teensy bit jealous. You see, that kind of happiness was something I’d been striving for with my boyfriend for the last six months. And just when I thought we might be getting there, I would see all my friends together and realize we’re not even close.

But don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that I was unhappy. I wasn’t. Wyatt was an amazing guy. Seriously. Everyone liked him. But that was kind of the problem. He was liked so much that everyone wanted a piece of him, and at the end of the day, there wasn’t much of him left for me. Or maybe I was just a needy bitch. I had yet to work that one out.

Either way, it got me thinking. What was it that defined love? Was it something you just fell into? Or was it something you built—something you worked on and grew, like a garden that had to be tended to for months before it had a chance of becoming fruitful?

Wyatt and I had been dating for almost six months, yet neither of us had mentioned the ‘L’ word once. Sometimes I thought it—when I was lying in his arms at night, immersed in the contentment of belonging—but I hadn’t felt the true urge to say it. In those moments, I wondered if that meant it wasn’t real—that it was my higher consciousness telling me to wait. It could be better.

Then I usually just told myself to shut the hell up, because—yep, you guessed it—I may have had a slight tendency to overthink things. Just a little. I blamed my mom for that. I may not have carried her genes in the looks department, but, even if I wanted to, there was no denying I inherited a lot of her personality traits.

One side of my mouth crept up in amusement as I climbed from my car and looked up at the gray-clad house. Mom had called it her home for the last three and a half years, but I hadn’t even spent one night under its roof. I always thought that home was where you felt the love, but sometimes I wasn’t so sure.

Knocking on the door, I let myself in and closed the door behind me. “Hello?”

A split second later, Mom’s voice echoed toward me. “In the kitchen!”

Following the smell of baking pastry, I moved toward the back of the house and found her behind the kitchen counter. Norman, my stepdad, sat at the table, his nose buried deep in a newspaper.

Mom smiled as I breezed into the room. Wiping her hands on a dish towel, she came to wrap her arms around me. “Hey, there, my sweet girl. I didn’t know you were dropping in today.”

“Spur of the moment,” I said, squeezing her back. As she released me, I glanced over at Norman and smiled. “Hi, Norman.”

I watched his immobile back for a little while before giving a slight shrug and scooping up a baked goody off the counter.

“Norman,” Mom said, a hint of warning in her voice.

It was an argument that ensued almost every time I visited. It was one of the reasons I chose to stay away most of the time. Norman glanced up, his gaze falling to me blandly. “Oh, hi, Jess,” he said, his gaze back on the newspaper before he’d even finished speaking.

Mom’s jaw tightened. Norman’s lack of interest in me and my brother, Austin, had been a bone of contention between them for as long as I could remember. It didn’t really bother me that much. Norman wasn’t horrible. He just hadn’t known how to connect with kids very well when he and Mom had first gotten together. Over the years he’d learned, but it had been with his own kids. Austin and I were still something he just couldn’t quite figure out how to cope with, and it was for that reason I’d decided to move into an apartment when I started college instead of just staying at home.

Not wanting to be the cause of yet another argument, I tossed the cookie into my mouth and moaned. “Oh my God, so good. Why can I not make them as good?”

Mom turned away from Norman and smirked at me. “You’ll get there. You just need practice.” Picking up the container of flour off the counter, she went about cleaning up. “So how’s things?” she said, her voice muffled in the pantry.

“Good. Exams are nearly done, thank God. As much as I’m in no hurry to start adulting for real, I have just about reached my limit with studying.” I shook my head as I nibbled. “I don’t know how Wyatt’s continued to do it for so long. I would seriously die.”

Wyatt was in his final year of law school, meaning he’d been in college for almost seven years now. I hadn’t decided if I admired him for that, or just thought he was completely out of his mind.

“So, you and Wyatt are still dating, then?”

I rolled my eyes. “Of course we are.”

Returning the milk to the fridge, she closed the door and eyed me. “You can’t blame me for asking, Jess. You’ve been dating for how long now? And I’ve only ever seen him once.”

She was right. As much as I’d tried to get Wyatt to join me when I dropped in to see Mom, he was always busy. “Well, he breaks next week, so I’m sure we’ll have time to drop in after Christmas.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, washing the oven tray under the tap.

She may have been right to doubt. I still had no idea what Wyatt’s plans were for the break. I knew his family all lived in Portland and he’d be going home for Christmas, but I didn’t know how long he was thinking of staying at all. And it wasn’t from lack of asking, either. He just didn’t know yet.

“So, have you heard if Austin’s coming over yet?” I asked, trying to avoid discussing the awkwardness that was my life.

Austin was one of those brothers who pissed their siblings off by being complete over-achievers. Three years ago, at the age of twenty, he became one of the youngest people to be drafted into the NHL when he was picked up by the New York Rangers. Back then, we’d been close, despite the fact that he’d chosen to spend most of his time with our dad in Wisconsin. But, with his schedule being so busy these days, there weren’t many chances for us to catch up.

Mom tossed a spatula in the sink and smiled. “He gets here Christmas Eve and leaves Boxing Day. Not long, but it’s better than nothing.”

I knew the limited time she got to see Austin upset her, but I also knew she was proud of him beyond measure. She just didn’t like the reported ladies’ man he’d apparently become. Dad, on the other hand, was more upset over the fact that his grand plans of growing his snow plowing business into Montgomery and Son was now unachievable.

Mom glanced up at the clock and raised a mischievous eyebrow. “Wait for it. In three . . . two . . . one . . . ”

I had exactly one second to laugh before the sound of the front door being thrown open echoed through the house. A few moments later, my two half sisters swept into the room.

Taylah beamed at me through her blonde bangs, dropping her bag on the floor and coming to hug me tight. “Jessie!”

“Hey, squirt. How was school?”

She screwed up her freckle-splattered nose and giggled. “Mr. Turner made us touch a cow heart. It was gross.”

I released her and grimaced with sympathy. “That is gross. I hope you washed your hands.”

Her eyes rounded. “Oh, I did.”

Glancing over at Bianca, I watched her wrap her arms around Norman’s shoulders from behind. His smile as he twisted to look up at her lit up the room. “Hey, gorgeous. How was your day?”

Bianca straightened and shrugged. “Same as every other day.”

Turning, she met my gaze with an easy smile. Even though she’d stopped rushing to greet me when she turned thirteen, she still, thankfully, went out of her way to hug me. “Hey, B,” I said as she walked into my arms.

As I squeezed her to me, I watched Norman with Taylah, his gaze taking in her every word as she explained to him what a cow heart felt like.

“Are you staying?” Bianca asked as she stepped back to grab a handful of cookies, stuffing one into her mouth before I could even blink.

It always surprised me just how much she ate. I had no idea where it went. There was seriously nothing of her. “Not tonight. I have an exam tomorrow.”

She cringed. “Yuck. I’m not looking forward to college at all.”

Mom scooped the plate of cookies up away from Bianca and gave her a warning look. “Leave some for your sister.”

Taylah rounded the counter and snatched a cookie with one hand before wrapping the other around my waist. “Yeah, Bianca. These are my cookies, remember? You owe me.”

Bianca rolled her eyes. “Whatever, squirt.”

I shook my head as I gazed down at Taylah’s cheeky face. She wouldn’t have lasted a week growing up with Austin. He always ate everything before I even made it to the kitchen after school.

“When are you taking me to the movies, Jess?” Taylah asked, her little eyes pleading with me.

Kissing the top of her head, I pulled her closer. “I’ve already marked it in my diary for next weekend, squirt. If it’s okay with Mom, you can have a sleepover too.”

Her eyes widened before her hopeful gaze swung to Mom. “Mom, please!”

I watched Mom draw in a deep breath before slowly releasing it and shaking her head. “Of course I can’t say no,” she said. “I’d be the worst mother ever, wouldn’t I?”

Taylah jumped up and down with excitement, while Bianca scowled. “That’s not fair. I want to stay at Jess’s too.”

“You can stay a different night, if Mom says you can,” I offered, knowing it was most likely going to be a drama.

As both the girls beamed and danced around, I sighed with contentment. I may not have grown up with them like I had with Austin, but they were still my sisters, and I loved them all the same. Even Norman.

 

 

Chapter 2

Eli

 

Sliding the drip pan under the bike, I unscrewed the rest of the bolt and let the oil run free. “That should do it,” I said, pushing myself up to sit.

Dad nodded and tossed me a rag. “You replacing the filter while you’re at it?”

Wiping the grease off my hands, I smirked, knowing he was testing me. “Yeah, I’ll undo the lug after she drains for a little while.”

“Are you boys racing next weekend?” he asked, lowering himself down to sit on a crate.

“Nah, I’ve given up on the racing,” I said in all seriousness. “I’ll still go out to Prairie City to practice, though. I just can’t afford to take the risk anymore. The bar exam is only six months away now.”

He narrowed his eyes in thought as he looked me over. “Do you think you’ll be ready for it?”

“I goddamn hope so,” I said, resting my arms on my bent knees. “I didn’t sacrifice my dating life to fuck it all up in the end.”

One side of Dad’s mouth curled up. “Even the most well-laid plans can come crashing down sometimes, Son.”

I groaned. “Jesus, Dad. Don’t jinx me.”

“I’m not saying you could fuck up the bar exam,” he said, waving his hand in front of him. “I’m just saying that sometimes you don’t get to control when people come into your life. Things happen when they’re supposed to happen.”

I knew he was speaking from experience on this one. It was a story my brothers and I had heard many times over. He’d had grand plans to be the number one cop in the city, with no attachments to distract him from doing his duty. But along came Mom with her mesmerizing smile and bewitching laugh, and the rest, as they say, is history. The whole thirty years and five sons worth.

“We still think she did some voodoo shit on you, Dad,” I said. “I think you could break the curse if we take you to see the voodoo king.”

Dad threw his head back and laughed. “You boys just want a free trip to New Orleans.”

The door to the yard creaked open, a shadow appearing in the gap. “Hell yes I want a free trip to New Orleans. You paying, old man?”

I chuckled as my two oldest brothers sauntered in, Isaac with a bowl of chips and Adam with a case of beer. I met Adam’s gaze, not able to hold back the shit-stirring grin that molded my lips. “How’s the chicken bone stash coming along? Think we’ve got enough to bust the old man free yet?”

Adam grinned as he moved behind Dad and dropped the case on the workbench. “We’ve got plenty of chicken bones. It’s the mummified monkey hand that’s the problem.”

Dad shook his head with a laugh. “Yeah, yeah. I raised a bunch of comedians. You’re all hilarious.”

The door creaked again, and my two closest friends appeared. “Not as hilarious as this clown,” Brad said, sticking his thumb out at Jordan.

Jordan frowned. “I’m not sure if I should take that as an insult or a compliment.”

Brad patted his shoulder. “Take it as a compliment, Bro,” he said. “I’m not up for a dead arm right now.”

Bumping my fist to each of them as they passed, I tossed the rag I was holding to the ground and quickly undid the filter lug to drain the rest of the oil.

Brad nodded to the bike as he sat on the crate beside me. “How is it?”

I looked over my new Kawasaki and pursed my lips. “So far, so good. The skid plate was all bent out of shape, but there’s no damage underneath.”

Adam hollered at me from across the room. “Brew?”

“Yeah, man.”

Brad signaled Adam for a beer as well before checking under my bike. “Are you still keen to head out to Prairie City next week? Jordan says Pauly and the boys are ready.”

Interest immediately sparked. Pauly and his team had been my favorite challenge back in my amateur racing days. A little friendly race would be awesome. “Fuck, yeah. I can’t remember the last time I went up against their crew. How long are they in Cali for?”

Jordan plonked down next to Brad before handing us both a can. “Just for the week,” he said, cracking his open. “They’re touring the West Coast again.”

Isaac snorted as he straddled his bike next to mine. “I remember the last time you went up against Pauly, Eli. You sure you want to do that again?”

“Fuck off,” I said, flipping him the bird. “You know it was a faulty valve.”

He chuckled. “It’s okay, little brother. I’ll make sure I’m there with the truck in case it’s you who catches on fire this time.”

I rolled my eyes at him. Isaac was the smart ass of the family. He was also a fireman, so there was no way of escaping the constant reminder of the one day my racing bike caught on fire after a small crash.

Dad groaned. “Don’t even joke about it, Isaac. I had to listen to your mother go on about cursed motorcycles for a month after that. I’m surprised we didn’t all come home to find the workshop cleared out of everything motorized.”

Adam huffed as he sank down next to Dad, handing him a can. “She nearly did. I had to bribe her by promising that Isaac and I would be at every race after that.”

Adam was a paramedic. In our early racing days, he volunteered his time to man the track with his ambulance. But those days were over now. Not only had we all given racing up, Adam and his wife, Kara, were now expecting their first child, so he tried to be at home as often as he could be.

Isaac laughed. “And to think Mom was happy when Noah didn’t get into racing.”

I tried not to laugh, but it was a little bit funny. Noah was the youngest of all us Murphy boys, and while he’d been just as wild as the rest of us, he’d chosen his career young. As soon as he graduated high school, he more or less went straight into the police academy, graduating top of his class. Mom had been over the moon. Until she found out he’d earned himself an undercover gig infiltrating a drug ring . . .

The eighteen months he was gone was the hardest thing our family had been through. We rarely got updates of his well-being—despite the fact that Dad was also a cop—and sometimes went months without knowing if he was even alive. I swear Mom went an entire week without eating one of those times we hadn’t been able to get any news about him. She was just that sick with worry.

But he was home now. Had been for a couple of years. In fact, he was only ten units away from finishing his degree in criminal justice. I was beyond proud. We all were. His sacrifice was a large part of the reason I had decided to study law. I wanted to make sure the bad guys they caught got put away for a long time.

“Where is Noah, anyway?” I asked, starting the process of removing the old oil filter.

Adam chuckled. “Where do you think?”

“Thumbelina’s got him wrapped up tight,” Isaac said with a smirk.

Thumbelina was Isaac’s nickname for Noah’s girlfriend, Kaeli. And she really did have him wrapped up tight. He would do anything for that girl. But she was a nice chick. They deserved each other.

“She still refuses to move in with him, though,” Adam said, amusement clear in his voice.

I rolled my eyes. “Why? She’s practically living at his apartment anyway.”

Dad took a swig of his beer and shook his head. “I think it’s smart of her. There’s no need to rush. They’ll both be graduated by the summer, and then they’ll have jobs to pay the bills.”

“Unlike Micah.” Isaac laughed.

Micah was the middle child of the Murphy crew. Being an elementary school teacher, he was the first white-collar worker in the family. He made the decision to move out of home the minute he graduated college. The number of times he came home to beg, borrow, and steal had been a running joke there for a while. Of course, he had his shit together now, but he had yet to live it down.

Dad’s gaze swung to me before it fell on Brad and Jordan. “So, you boys ready for the bar exam?”

They both groaned loudly. “Why you gotta go putting a downer on the moment, Luke?” Jordan said, whining like a baby.

He was right, though. It was a downer. A massive one. But Dad knew the influence Noah’s sacrifice had on my drive to succeed. The finish line was within sight now. We had four months of law school to go, then a summer to do our bar review. Then it was D Day. There was nothing I wanted more.

Except maybe . . .

I glanced across the room at a picture of Noah with a group of his friends, my gaze zeroing in on a head full of tight, red curls.

Okay, there was no maybe about it. There was definitely one thing I wanted more. But, besides the fact that I’d sworn off dating until I’d passed the bar exam, she wasn’t mine to have.

I sighed. Jess was the biggest inconvenience in my life. At five foot ten, with fair skin and vibrant green eyes, she was ridiculously attractive and insanely sexy. The first time I’d seen her, she was with Kaeli, dripping wet and wearing nothing but a shimmery green bikini. That image was burned into my memory, and I can tell you, it had taken a great amount of restraint to ignore the need she invoked in me back then, and concentrate enough to graduate college.

Unfortunately for me, though, it hadn’t been enough to avoid Brad’s keen awareness. My sad, unrequited love was his daily amusement, and he liked to remind me of it whenever he could.

Following my gaze, he half rolled his eyes while stifling a laugh. “I wonder what she sees in him,” he mused as he stared at the picture. He knew how much I hated that her boyfriend was in it.

Choosing not to engage, I turned back to the bike. Jess had been seeing Wyatt for a little over six months now. She seemed happy, but I just didn’t get it. He was a law student like me, but he was completely full of himself. I honestly couldn’t figure out why she was with him. And I didn’t know what depressed me more. The fact that she was dating the one person I considered my archenemy, or the fact that she was attracted to someone I considered the exact opposite of me.

If I could just continue to ignore my interest in her, I might stand a chance of making it to the all-elusive finish line I’d been striving for these past three years. I just hoped fate was on my side.

Chapter 3

Jess

 

Smoothing down my dress, I gave myself a quick once-over in the mirror before grabbing my handbag and heading down the stairs. Tonight, Wyatt was belatedly taking me out for our six-month anniversary, and if I was to be honest with myself, the night was long overdue. Between exams and parties, we hadn’t had anywhere near enough alone time lately, and I’d been dying to have him all to myself for a while.

Moving into the living room, I found my roomy, Emily, perched on the couch. “Ooh, someone looks gorgeous,” she said, her eyebrows wiggling up and down. “Where are you guys heading?”

Strangely, Emmy and I had only met this year, but we’d formed the kind of friendship that made it feel as though we’d known each other forever. The fact that she was dating one of my closest friends from high school helped. Knowing just how happy she made Aiden had given her an instant tick of approval.

Drawing in a deep breath, I let it out slowly. “I honestly don’t know. Wyatt’s keeping it a surprise.”

She gazed at me, her head cocked to the side a little. “Are you okay? You seem a little off.”

I rubbed my fingers over my eyebrow and sighed. “I don’t know.” I chewed on my bottom lip as I tried to work out how to put my thoughts into words. “Is it bad to feel like something’s missing?”

Emmy’s brow creased. “What do you mean? With Wyatt?”

I groaned, slumping into the armchair. “It’s just this feeling I have in my gut.” Looking up to the ceiling, I let out a huff. “I just feel like we should be a little more in sync or something, you know? Like we should be more connected.”

She narrowed her eyes with contemplation. “Maybe you both just need more time together. I mean, you’ve been pretty busy with exams and stuff lately,” she said cautiously.

Lifting my face to the ceiling, I sighed. “That’s just the thing, though. We might not get as much time together as most couples, but when we do, he’s perfect. He’s attentive, he’s sweet, and I know it’s not just about sex, because half the time when we sleep together, we seriously just sleep together. He really is amazing, Emmy. So I just don’t get why I feel this way.”

She smiled, the corners of her eyes softening. “Sometimes the problem isn’t always obvious, hon. But you know I’m a big believer in listening to your gut.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know, but how the hell do I work out what my gut is trying to say when it’s being so goddamn obtuse?”

Emmy sighed, reaching out to take my hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. “Just enjoy tonight—wherever you go. You’ve earned it.”

I nodded. She was right. I wasn’t going to ignore my gut, but if it wasn’t going to be more freaking specific, I wasn’t going to tie myself up in knots trying to figure it out.

Pushing myself to stand, I straightened my shoulders. “Do we have any wine left?” I asked, striding to the fridge and searching its depths. Locating a bottle in the dark recesses in the back, I pulled it out and grabbed a glass from the cupboard. “Are you guys doing anything tonight?”

Following me into the kitchen, she hoisted herself up onto the counter. “Yeah. The band’s leaving next week for a month so I’m binging while I can.”

Pouring myself a glass, I took a sip and shook my head at her slowly. I honestly didn’t know how she handled it. Aiden, along with three other guys I went to school with—Dean, Jace, and Matt—made up the rock band Fighting Fate. As weird as it was to me, they were now one of the country’s hottest bands to hit the billboards in the last five years. I mean, they were huge. I didn’t know one person who hadn’t at least heard of them in one way or another.

But I had to admit they deserved it. Aiden and Dean had been obsessed with writing songs since our sophomore year in high school. Jace and Matt had been more interested in the girls they could attract back then, and that probably hadn’t changed much for Matt, but it sure had for Jace. He and Aiden’s twin sister, Mia, were the ones responsible for starting the couple love fad. From what Emily had told me, Jace and Dean were the ones behind most of the creating that went into making their current album.

“Where are they heading this time?” I asked, taking another sip.

“Just the East Coast,” she said, running her fingertip over her bottom lip. “They’re still having dramas with the label. Apparently, they’ve reneged on the song approvals and now the band’s getting an agent or PA or some crap. Someone who’s supposed to help liaise between the band and producers or something.”

I frowned. “I thought that’s what Mia did?” Mia had been traveling with the band since they first went on tour two and a half years ago.

Emily rolled her eyes. “That’s what the guys thought too, but they’re saying this is different. Dean thinks it’s just a way for Leighton to manipulate them and avoid dealing with them directly.”

“So, they’re employing someone just to push their agenda onto them? Or are they charging the band for the privilege?”

She let out a humorless laugh. “That’s what Aiden thought too, but they checked. It’s not costing them anything.”

Scrunching up my nose a little, I gave her a withering look. “Sounds fishy.”

“I know. The guys don’t trust Leighton as far as they can throw him,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Especially after what he and Lila did, but there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ve already hired someone. They’re supposed to be meeting them at the annual awards night.”

Whenever Lila’s name came up in conversation it made me want to spew a barrage of curse words in any random order. She had been Dean’s high school sweetheart. Unfortunately, Dean had caught her screwing around with the label’s boss, Craig Leighton, about a year ago. Things had been hanging by a thread with the label ever since. Thankfully, I was stopped from cursing Lila to all eternity by a loud knock at the door.

Glancing down at my wine, I drew in a deep breath. “Looks like it’s date time.”

Emily grinned as I tipped back the wine. “Have a good time, hon.”

“Oh, I plan to,” I said, giving her a quick hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Scooping up my bag, I made for the door, determined to make the most of this time with Wyatt. I was sure things would settle down now that winter break was here. At least, that’s what I hoped.

Pulling the door open, I blinked at the sight before me, all my troubles instantly melting away. At six foot two, with short blond hair and watery blue eyes, Wyatt really was unmistakably hot.

He grinned as he held out one perfect, white rose. “A beautiful flower for a beautiful girl.”

That was all it took to remind me just how amazing he was. Taking the rose, I threw my arms around him and kissed his jaw. “Thank you!”

As we pulled apart, he smiled down at me. “I’m sorry we haven’t had much time together lately, babe. You really do look gorgeous tonight.”

One side of my mouth crooked higher. “You don’t look so bad yourself, Mr. Barton.”

With a wink, he held out his hand for me to take. “Are you ready to go?”

I beamed. “Yep. Where are we going?” Stepping out, I closed the door firmly, making sure it was locked for Em.

Towing me down the path, he gave me a wicked grin. “Nothing but the best for you, babe. I’m taking you to The Firehouse.”

I almost stumbled. “Are you serious? Am I dressed okay?”

Stopping me, he took my face in his hands and gently kissed my forehead. “You always look beautiful, Jess.”

Warmth spread through my veins as I waited for him to open the car door for me. Stupid gut feeling. Where was it now? Of course it was nowhere to be seen. Because it didn’t have a damned leg to stand on.

As I slid into the cool leather seat of his brand-new Honda, I clipped my seat belt into place and sighed. Wyatt hummed as he climbed in beside me, starting the car and adjusting the stereo to play some soft, soothing music. As he peeled away from the curb, he took my hand and held it on the seat beside me, stroking his thumb over my knuckles in time with the music as he drove.

It was right in that moment I made the decision to stop analyzing our relationship so much. So what if it didn’t look the same as everyone else’s? We may not have had that much time to spend with each other, but when we did, we made it count.

Gazing over at him, I let out a little sigh. “This is perfect, Wyatt. Thank you.”

His returning smile was pure sex. “You deserve it, babe. We’ve had a few busy months lately.”

“We really have,” I said, so much in agreement with that statement it wasn’t funny. “I’m so ready for this break.”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Me too.”

“Do you know how long you’ll be in Portland?” I asked, watching him as he pulled into a parking space. “Mom was asking about Christmas when I saw her yesterday.”

He switched off the ignition and turned to me with a smile. “Only for a few days. Just over Christmas. I plan to be back for New Year’s Eve.”

As we climbed from the car, my mind began scanning for possible dates we could drop over to see Mom and the girls. With all the Christmas activity, the dates were filling up fast.

Taking his hand again, we walked into the restaurant. I’d never eaten at The Firehouse before, but I’d heard good things. “When did you book this?” I asked, looking around as we were seated. I was seriously impressed with this romantic side of him.

He looked up at me, his smile filled with guilt. “I didn’t actually book it. Zac had a reservation but couldn’t make it. But his misfortune is our gain, right?”

Zac was Wyatt’s best friend. At times, it felt as though they were almost inseparable. It was something I sometimes struggled to come to terms with.

Watching him across the table, I tried to push the disappointment down. For me, it wasn’t so much as being here and eating the fine food. It was the thought process behind the experience. I just wanted to know he wanted to make me happy, even if it was just a candlelit picnic in the park.

As I gazed into his puppy dog eyes across from me, I melted. God, why was I such a bitch? So what if he didn’t book the table? He still brought me here when it was offered to him.

Forcing myself back into the moment, I smiled. “So, Noah’s having a little party on Sunday, and we’re invited.”

Wyatt frowned. “I can’t do Sunday. What’s it for?”

The party was actually a celebration of the end of the drug ring he’d gone undercover to bring down, but I wasn’t able to tell Wyatt that. I’d been sworn—like the rest of our circle—to help keep Noah’s undercover identity a secret. “Just a little Christmas thing,” I said instead.

“Oh, well, sorry. I’m catching up with Zac on Sunday.”

Again, I swallowed down my disappointment. I’d lost count of the number of celebrations I’d been forced to go to solo. I thought that may have been one of the main reasons for my couple jealousy.

Wyatt reached out and took my hand, running his thumb over my knuckle. “You know things are going to be crazy like this until we’re both settled in a job, babe. We just have to get through the next six months.”

His blue eyes delved deep into mine as I watched him. The fact that he was talking about us still being together when we graduate and get jobs spoke volumes. It put things right into perspective. He was right. We just needed to get through these next few months until graduation, and we’d be fine.

I just needed to convince my gut to agree.

 

 

Chapter 4

Eli

 

Weaving through the crowd, I held my red solo cup in the air, not entirely certain I could actually make it back to the other side of the room without wearing half my beer or more.

Passing a girl I remembered from my days at Sac State, I smiled, trying to avoid her gyrating hips as best I could. If I hadn’t been so tired, I probably would’ve seen her wandering hands before they slid under my shirt.

“Hey, Eli,” she crooned. “Dance with me.”

I squirmed away from her under the guise of avoiding an obtuse dancer who was thrashing around wildly beside her. As the guy turned and grabbed her hips, I shrugged with an apologetic purse of my lips. “Maybe later?”

Not waiting to see what she had to say, I turned and continued through the crowd. Brad raised an eyebrow when I finally stopped beside him, his lips curled up into a smart-ass smirk. “Anything left in the cup?”

Barely refraining from rolling my eyes, I huffed. Brad knew I wasn’t much of a party animal anymore. That shit left my system when Noah had gone undercover. “I’m almost over this shit, man.”

He nodded his agreement. “I hear you. It feels like we’re so close to the end, but I know we’re still so far away. The bar exam scares the shit out of me.”

Looking out at all the laughing bodies, dancing and swaying and acting like they didn’t have a care in the world, I couldn’t agree more. As much as I was ready to see the end of my schooling days, what came next was seriously daunting. The need to succeed that ran through my veins was like an itch. Failing just wasn’t an option.

“Maybe it’s time for a little distraction,” I muttered, searching the room for options.

“What did you have in mind?” he asked, instantly on board with whatever I decided. “Blonde or brunette?”

The omission of ‘redhead’ as an option was how I knew he was a true friend. Because I’d been doing everything I could to avoid looking across the room to where the one redhead who was my weakness stood.

As my gaze fell on a sweet little brunette through the crowd, her gaze already taking me in with heated interest, I gave Brad a slight nod. “Looks like it might be brunette tonight.”

Discreetly, he shifted until he saw what I saw, then he drew in a calculating breath. “Five minutes.”

My eyebrow twitched as I met his gaze. “I was going to say ten, but we’ll go for five if you want.”

Our time bet had been one we’d joked around with since our freshman year of college. Jordan had started it when he’d discovered a senior checking him out and bet Brad he could get her to come talk to him within ten minutes. It wasn’t a game I got into back then, but since I’d made the decision to put dating on hold, the only relief I could get was from the odd casual night every now and again. The only rule I placed on myself was that she had to come to me. The last thing I wanted was to chase a girl and give her the wrong idea.

Looking back over at the girl, I smiled when I found her still watching me. If she was too shy to come talk to me, she was too good to play around with.

“Is the party still on for tomorrow?” Brad asked, obviously trying to keep some form of conversation going. Of course, it was Noah’s party he was asking about. The one I was excited for, yet dreading at the same time, because the number of times I’d been tormented by Jess’s appearance whenever I was around Noah made my life a living hell.

“Yeah, are you still coming? I might need someone to stop me from making an idiot out of myself,” I said, already knowing how painful it was going to be.

Brad laughed, but he didn’t comment on my sad life. “How’s Noah doing with his degree?”

Happy for the easy conversation, I nodded, my gaze making contact with the pretty brunette who looked very much like she was making her decision on me. “He’s killing it, man. He only has another ten units to go and he’s done.”

Brad coughed, obviously impressed. I was too. I was seriously proud of my little brother. “Damn, dude can work,” Brad said, shaking his head. “Makes me feel like a total slacker.”

Taking a swig of my beer, I nodded. “I know. Fucker kicks my ass in the gym too.”

Narrowing his eyes, Brad huffed. “Whatever, Mister Muscles. You and your brothers disgust me with all your twelve-packs and bulges and shit.”

I laughed. I couldn’t argue with him. The Murphy brothers’ love of fitness was strong. We got it from our parents. “Dude, you know I’m a stick compared to my brothers,” I said, chuckling because it was true.

Brad pinned me with a look of disgust. “A stick my ass.”

Another red solo cup appeared in my line of vision before it clicked against mine, splashing beer up the sides. Jordan raised one bushy eyebrow and smirked at Brad. “You want who to stick what in your ass?”

Unable to stop the laugh that burst free, I held my fist out for Jordan to bump, while Brad tried to glare through his smothered smile.

“No, seriously,” Jordan said, looking quite amused. “Whose ass are you talking about? It’s Jess’s, isn’t it?”

As I watched his gaze swing across the room to where I knew Jess was draped all over Wyatt, I grunted. “Fuck off.”

“She looks pretty hot tonight too,” he said, his shit-stirring motor in fine form, as usual.

Brad chuckled before trying to conceal it by taking a sip of his drink.

Lifting my chin, I gazed at Jordan and quirked my eyebrow. “Do you really want to start on me, dude? Because I saw Amber yesterday, and I could probably describe what she was wearing and exactly how it clung to her if I had to.”

The smile slipped clean off his face at the mention of Amber’s name. She was another one of Kaeli’s friends, but she was tall, blonde, and made strictly for trouble. Jordan’s infatuation with her wasn’t anywhere near as bad as mine with Jess, but it was still as funny as shit.

“Fair point, Bro,” he said, his expression morphing into one of contriteness. But then he raised his cup and grinned. “A toast. To the end of another round of fucked-up exams.”

Now that was something I could agree with. Bringing my cup up the same time as Brad, we knocked them all together, before tipping them up and draining them completely.

One semester to go. I could do this.

Looking back at the brunette, I let the corners of my mouth curl up, finding her slowly making her way toward me, her gaze burning intently into mine.

“Time?” I asked Brad as I finished my drink.

“Jesus,” he muttered. “You make me sick. It’s been, like, three fucking minutes.”

As the girl weaved her way closer, I heard Jordan laugh from somewhere behind me. “Dude has swag.”

He called it swag. I called it desperation, because the truth was, I wanted what I couldn’t have, and this was the only way I knew how to stop it from driving me insane. Even if it only worked for an hour or two.

But I knew it would end the same way it always did. And that was with me wishing the hair draped across my chest was the one color I dared not touch.

 

 

Chapter 5

Jess

 

Lying back on the couch, feet tucked to the side and a blanket pulled up over me, I snuggled into Wyatt’s side. On the flat-screen, Keira Knightly hoisted up the hem of her dress and trudged over the muddy ground, fierce and determined. I sighed a little sound of contentment and felt my lips curl upwards.

I’d missed this. I couldn’t even remember the last time we just chilled and watched a movie together. It was a welcome change from the constant parties we’d been to lately. The party scene was wearing thin for me these days, so I was happy Wyatt had agreed to a quieter night in. He’d chosen the first movie, and now I was making him watch one of my all-time favorites, Pride and Prejudice.

As Elizabeth Bennet narrowed her eyes and let loose with a barrage of eloquently spoken reprimands, I vowed to make more time to chill like this. I just needed to find a few more things Wyatt would enjoy doing with me.

Feeling his hand moving under the blanket and over my thigh, I grinned. Of course, I knew this was one of the things he enjoyed doing, but admittedly, it was another thing we hadn’t had much time for lately. But that was how I knew he was one of the good guys, because he didn’t get all pissed off when it happened to be a long time between sex. He was kind and patient, and he never minded if I wasn’t in the mood.

Wriggling my body, I slid my hand over his stomach, letting him know I was very much in the mood if he wanted it. As his hand slowed, tensing, I tilted my head back, moving my hand over his muscular chest until my fingers were stroking his jaw.

His gaze moved over my features, a little crease forming between his brows as he watched me. When he looked like this, I often wondered what he was thinking. I always thought he looked kind of tormented, but he’d assured me on more than one occasion he was only thinking.

I took him in as he sat there, looking over his neatly cut hair, freshly shaved skin, and strong, masculine jaw. He really was a gorgeous specimen.

As his mouth crashed down on mine, I melted, letting the feel of him wash away the niggling worries that had been plaguing me lately. Something that felt this good couldn’t possibly be bad. Sliding my hand under his shirt, I pushed against him harder, knowing just how much he preferred me to be firm over gentle.

He growled before pushing me back on the couch and coming over the top of me. “Tie your hair up,” he commanded.

That was another thing he was particular about. I called them his fetishes. I thought they were cute. With quick movements, I twisted my hair into a bun on the top of my head and wrapped an elastic hair tie around it.

“I’m going to tie you up one day, Jess,” he said, his fingers stroking up the inside of my thigh until they were tracing the edge of my panties. “Would you like that?”

I exhaled shakily and nodded. If I got to see more of this side of him then I was all for it. His finger slipped under my panties and skirted around the spot I really wanted him to touch, making my breath catch. Clenching my hands in his hair, I arched, squirming underneath him. “I want you so much, Wyatt.”

The crease between his brow deepened before his finger stroked over my clit, sending shivers through my body. “Do you want me to fuck you, Jess?” he murmured as he slipped a finger inside me.

“Oh my God, yes,” I breathed. It had been too long. I needed to feel him close to me.

Before I could blink, Wyatt withdrew his hand from my underwear and gripped the sides of my panties, yanking them down to my knees. “Turn over,” he growled. “I want you on your hands and knees.”

I paused. It wasn’t really the way I wanted him right now. I wanted close and sensual, but I knew doggy was his favorite position, and I wanted to please him. Flipping myself over, he grabbed a hold of my hips and pulled me toward him. Then I heard the sound of a zipper, followed by the unmistakable rustling of a condom wrapper.

His hand ran over my ass, his thumb moving down the crease, stroking over my butthole. “I want to take you here, Jess,” he said, his voice deep and rumbling. I tensed. “Not now, Jess. But soon. Soon I’m going to fuck your ass.”

My mind ran wild. The desire I heard in his voice made me want to give it to him, but I didn’t know if that was something I’d ever want to try. But as his fingers ran over my pussy, one long finger pushing inside me, all thoughts of anal faded from my head. Pushing my ass back against him, I felt my breath growing faster. This was what I wanted. As he gripped his cock and rubbed it over my folds, pressing forward, thrusting inside me until he was buried deep, I whimpered. God, he felt so good.

Gripping my hips, his fingers tensed, digging into me, pulling me and pushing me as he pumped, slow at first, but then his control loosened, and his movements became faster and more frantic. In front of me, Mary Bennet practiced on the piano as the girls milled about, but all I could hear was the sounds of our heavy breathing and our bodies slapping together.

I knew I wouldn’t come like this. I never did. But I really wanted to. I wanted to feel the release. I wanted to feel myself clench around his cock as I lost control of all my senses. The sound of his grunting told me he was close, and I wanted to finish with him. I wanted to share the post-coital bliss, worn-out and unable to move for the pure pleasure pulsing through my body. “Wyatt,” I moaned, unsure how to tell him to touch me.

His growls grew louder, his thrusts harder, faster. I was so close. Need spread through my body, taking over my mind. Reaching between my legs, I pressed the tips of my fingers to my clit and worked them quickly, bringing myself so close to the edge, and just as Wyatt’s body jerked against mine, his loud grunt telling me he’d reached his end goal, I crashed, waves of euphoria pulsating through my core.

Collapsing onto my stomach, I took quick, deep breaths, trying to catch my breath. My body sang, tingling with utter contentment. Rolling onto my side, I pulled the blanket to me and moaned, knowing I needed to go clean myself up. “Oh my God,” I muttered, struggling to my feet. “That was so good.”

Wyatt chuckled as I leaned down to give him a quick kiss. “Happy to be of service,” he murmured against my lips. “You have a sexy ass, Jess.”

I giggled before clutching the blanket tighter and darting off to the bathroom. All I wanted to do now was take him up to my room and snuggle until the late hours of tomorrow morning. It would be the perfect ending to the perfect day.

Cleaning myself up, I checked my flushed face in the mirror before smiling at my reflection and heading back downstairs to Wyatt. “I’ve had such a good time today,” I said, my gaze swinging to the couch where I’d left him, but instead of finding him spread out waiting for me with open arms, I saw him on his feet, shirt already tucked in and shoes laced up tight.

He gave me a sad look as he tucked his wallet into the pocket of his pants. “I’m sorry, babe. I just got a message from Zac. I forgot I had a textbook of his he needs before his appointment tomorrow.”

He was leaving? My head scrambled for a solution. “You can’t take it to him in the morning?”

He shook his head, coming to stand in front of me. “Unfortunately, no. He’s leaving first thing.” Disappointment flickered deep in his eyes and he sighed, pulling me into his arms. “I know, babe. I don’t want to go, either.”

Taking a little breath to push the upset away, I nodded. I knew it wasn’t his fault, but all I wanted was one night without interruptions. “Okay. How long will you be?”

Gently, he took my hips in his hands, then he sighed. “Would you mind so much if I just stayed back at the dorms? I’m pretty beat. I think I just need to have an early night, you know what I mean?”

I didn’t. I didn’t understand anything in this moment. But I’d vowed to never be one of those needy kind of girls, so I nodded anyway. I felt like I was on some sort of autopilot mode or something. “Oh, okay. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

He took my face in his hands and brushed his thumb over my cheekbone. “Of course. I love how easygoing you are, Jess. You’re the best kind of girlfriend there is. Curl back up on the couch and finish watching your movie. I know how much you love it.”

As he kissed me gently on the lips and stepped away from me, I pulled the blanket tighter again. I didn’t know why I felt so disappointed. It wasn’t like he wanted to go. He’d said as much. “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Running the backs of his fingers through my hair, he smiled softly. “Night, babe.”

Standing where he’d left me, the unease in my gut rearing its ugly head again, I watched him walk out the door, trying to figure out exactly what it was that I was missing, because I knew there had to be something.

Chapter 6

Eli

 

It was a nightmare. Like, seriously. I was sure I actually had a nightmare that went exactly like this. I was standing in the kitchen with a beer in my hand, my backside leaned up against the counter, while, across the room, the bane of my existence laughed like she didn’t have a care in the world. The only thing missing was the egotistical snot she called her boyfriend.

Tipping the beer back, I forced my gaze to the opposite side of the room, pondering the missing snot. I didn’t give a fuck that the guy wasn’t here, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing for me. As much as I hated seeing her with him, it was at least a sure way of keeping me away from her. Without him here, I couldn’t guarantee I’d be a good little boy and keep my distance. That was usually where Brad came in handy, but the fucker had pulled out of coming at the last minute.

It wasn’t so bad, really. Our family get-togethers were usually pretty awesome these days. Especially the ones where Noah’s new extended family joined in. They seemed to fit in with our family scarily well—the guys from the band even more so.

I watched Dean, their lead singer, laugh before nudging Isaac and pushing past him as he came toward me. I hadn’t been too sure of him when we’d first met. He’d been very reserved and cautious. He just always seemed so serious. But since he’d broken up with the chick he’d been seeing, it was like he was a different person. He looked so much more relaxed and happy.

“Hey, bud,” I said, holding my hand out for him. “Good to see you again. How’s things?”

Dean grinned as he took my hand. “Life’s good, man. How’s school going? How long have you got to go?”

“On the homeward stretch now, thank God,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I’ll be trying for the bar this summer.”

Grabbing a couple of beers from the fridge, he nodded at me intently. “I bet that feels good.”

Raising an eyebrow, I inhaled deeply. “I’ll feel better when it’s all over.”

He smirked as he cracked a can. “True. That’s how I feel about the end of our contract with Leighton.”

I could only imagine. “How long have you got left?”

“Possibly eight months, but even that feels like a fucking eternity,” he said, his lip curling up in a sneer.

The story of the guys’ troubles with Leighton’s label was an interesting one to me. It stirred something inside me when I heard them talk about it. It made me see entertainment law as something I could really enjoy.

Dean waggled his eyebrows a little, mischief sparking in his eyes. “We’re going to end it with a bang, though. We’ll be going on our first world tour. The UK, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.”

“Fuck, yeah,” I said, seriously impressed. I knew the guys were awesome, but playing overseas? That shit was like a huge mark of success. “That’s fucking awesome, dude.”

“Yo!” Isaac hollered from across the room. “Are you fucking brewing that shit or what?”

Dean gave me an amused look before holding up Isaac’s can. “Apparently, I’m a bar bitch now.”

I laughed as he started to walk away. “Next time, tell the pretty boy to get his own.”

“Next time the pretty boy can fetch mine for me,” he called back over his shoulder.

Sighing, I glanced around the room. I knew I should stop being so antisocial, but I just wasn’t sure which conversation I could be bothered to participate in. It definitely wasn’t the best idea for me to join Amber, Emmy, and Jess, that was for sure, but I wasn’t really in the mood for Isaac’s antics, either.

“You doing okay, Bro?”

I turned at the sound of Adam’s voice and found him staring at me with a curious gaze. Tilting my head from side to side, I gave him a little shrug. “Just contemplating how much beer it’ll take to put me out cold.”

One side of his mouth curled upward as he glanced over at Jess. “That bad, huh?”

Rolling my eyes to the side, I groaned. “You have no idea.”

“Why don’t you just go talk to her?” he said, lifting a shoulder as though it was the only solution he could come up with.

I still found it weird that almost all of my family and friends knew how I felt about Jess, yet she didn’t. Or maybe she did and she just pretended she didn’t because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me I had no chance. That would also make sense to me.

Hitting him with a deadpan look, I huffed. “Oh, I don’t know. I could probably think of a couple of reasons,” I said, unable to stop the surly tone in my voice. “The biggest one being that I swore off dating until I’d passed the bar exam.”

My body hummed, the beer well and truly filtering in through my system. But my brain couldn’t be fooled by my words. How was it that the biggest issue I had with the whole situation wasn’t the fact that she already had a boyfriend?

Adam swiped his hand in front of me, his expression dismissing my concern. “News flash for you, little brother. Pining over someone is more distracting than actually dating someone who supports your goals. Trust me. Getting where I am now would’ve been ten times harder if I didn’t have Kara there to keep me sane.”

“Okay, but you’re missing the part where she already has a boyfriend, Adam. So none of that fucking matters anyway,” I said, done with the conversation.

Picking up his beer, he held it to his mouth, turning his body slightly away from me. “Okay, well, if your plan was to avoid her,” he muttered so I could barely hear him, “you failed.”

I frowned as he started walking from the room. What the hell did he mean, I failed?

“Hi, Eli.”

I closed my eyes in a long, slow blink. Fuck.

Drawing strength, I prepared myself for what was to come. Then I turned.

“Jess.” The only way I knew how to describe it was torture. Pure torture. My gaze swept over her long, silken curls, soft, creamy skin, and vibrant green eyes. Everything about her made me want to touch. Forcing my walls to go up, I offered her an easy smile. “How are you doing?”

Her return smile was kind, but it was locked well and truly in the friendship zone. I was lucky I had the alcohol swimming around in my system or it would’ve hit me right in the feels.

“I’m good,” she said, sliding herself up to sit on the counter across from me. “How’s everything with you?”

“Oh, you know. A slave to the study, as usual.”

Inside, I cringed. Could I be any more fucking lame? Taking a gulp of my beer, I prayed for it to be over so I could just go bash my head against a wall somewhere.

She rolled her eyes with understanding. “Wyatt’s been the same. I’ve hardly seen him lately. I can’t wait for us both to graduate so we might have a chance of looking like a normal couple for a change.”

Her words confused me, but before I could tell myself to shut my mouth, I was talking. “Exams are over now, Jess. There’s no reason why you can’t do that now. And if you think he’s going to have more free time when he’s trying to make his mark in a new law firm, then you’re going to be sadly disappointed.”

Her stunned expression had me kicking myself harder than ever before. Why couldn’t I have just smiled and nodded? It wasn’t that fucking hard.

She frowned as my words sank in. “Is that why you haven’t dated anyone lately?”

Then it was my turn to frown. The fact that she was aware that I hadn’t been dating surprised me. “Yes and no,” I said, trying to keep my cards close to my chest. “Part of the reason Anna broke up with me was because I wasn’t available to her as much as she wanted me to be. And she was right. That’s not what dating is about. If you only want sex or someone to hang out with when you’re bored, then get a friend with benefits.”

Jess blinked at me, seeming a little stunned. “O . . .kay.”

I shrugged, trying to tone down my intensity. “Obviously, that’s just my opinion, but I just think that if you’re going to go to the effort of dating someone, they at least deserve to have your attention. And if you don’t have time to give it, then don’t date. It’s pretty simple, really.”

Lowering her gaze to the floor, she wrapped her arms across her stomach and drew her teeth over her bottom lip. She looked so dejected in that moment, I was ready to give myself a good hard clip to the back of the head.

Meeting my gaze again, she cocked her head to the side, an inquisitive crease appearing between her brows. “So, are you saying that it’s impossible for a lawyer to have a successful relationship when they’re just starting out? That sounds incredibly lonely.”

I shifted my position against the counter, wondering if I was going to be able to dig myself out of the mess I’d just dropped myself into. “That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that if Wyatt hasn’t got the time for you now, he’s not going to have the time for you later. It doesn’t work like that.”

If I had an angel and a devil sitting on each of my shoulders, I was sure the angel was sitting there with his jaw dropped open right now.

“But you didn’t have the time for Anna. Are you saying that you’re the same as Wyatt, then?” she asked quietly.

Her question made me bristle. “Not at all,” I said, unable to stop my gaze from burning into hers. “It comes down to priorities, Jess. If the person you’re dating comes in equal or greater to that of your chosen career, then you’ll do everything you can to make them both work.” I wondered if the penny had dropped for her yet. Pushing away from the counter, I took a step toward her. “Anna broke up with me because she knew she wasn’t as important to me as passing my exams or racing my bike. But if she was the right girl for me, I would’ve made time for her.”

As her gaze drilled into mine, switching from eye to eye, I saw the denial flaring in their depths. She wasn’t ready to believe me.

Giving her a humorless smile, I raised my cup and winked. Then I turned and walked away. If I ever fucked something up to the point of rendering it irreparable, then that was it. Fuck my life.

 

 

Chapter 7

Jess

 

All around me, music blared and voices murmured. Some people made jokes while others laughed, heads falling back and hands pressed to chests. Girls flirted, flicking hair and batting eyelashes, and guys puffed their chests and gave knowing grins.

At a quick glance, it didn’t look too different from the scene I’d observed at the Murphys the day before. But if you sat long enough, the distinctions became a little clearer. It was the little things, like the topics of conversation, or the slightly different tones of voices. The air just had a richness about it, like everyone in the room knew that one day they would all be someone of great importance. Wyatt called it the way to success.

It was a scene I was finally getting used to, but I still felt as though I was slightly out of my depth—like I was a fraud just being here.

As I stood beside Wyatt with the same drink I’d had in my hand for the past hour, I watched him laugh and joke with Zac. I couldn’t deny they were good friends. It was obvious in the way they interacted. They were the kind of friends who knew what the other was thinking, and would sometimes finish each other’s sentences. They just seemed to get each other. It was nice, but in a strange kind of way, it made me jealous. It was something I knew I needed to work on, but right now? I didn’t know how to take it other than ignore it.

Pushing the thoughts aside, I smiled and tried to listen to what Zac was saying, but I was interrupted by a smiling face stepping in front of me.

“You must belong to Wyatt,” the girl said, holding her hand out to me. “I’m Cindy. Wyatt and I are in the same class.”

Taking her hand, I smiled, thankful to have someone to talk to. “Nice to meet you. I’m Jess.”

“So, what do you do, Jess?”

Both Wyatt and Zac paused their conversation as Cindy settled in across from me. “I’m studying to be a child care worker.”

Her brow twitched a little, as though my words had confused her, before dismay settled in her eyes. She smiled again, but the action was painfully fake. “Oh, well that’s . . . interesting. What made you decide to do that?”

I heard Zac snicker a little before trying to disguise it as a cough. Confusion flared inside me. I didn’t understand what was so amusing. Was there something wrong with being a child care worker in their eyes?

Glancing to Wyatt for a little insight, I saw him give Zac a warning glare before shifting uncomfortably. Focusing back on Cindy, I met her gaze with determination. “It was one of my friends, actually. She had a baby last year, and it got me thinking. It kind of clicked for me that this was what I wanted to do.”

Cindy blinked. “You have a friend with a baby?”

My smile grew. I wasn’t sure why I got a kick out of her shock, but I did. “I do. She and her husband got pregnant almost as soon as they were married.”

“They’re older friends, then?” she asked, a slight bewilderment falling over her features.

I knew it was wrong to feel so much pleasure over someone’s discomfort, but I couldn’t help it. She was acting like a snob, and I’d never really done well with those types of people. “Oh, no. Amy and I went to high school together.”

Cindy’s eyes rounded before one corner of her mouth curled up with ridicule. “How cute,” she said, glancing over at Zac and taking a small step backward.

I watched her exchange a patronizing look with Zac with an odd sense of intrigue. I wondered what it was that made her feel as though she was so much better than me. But then I saw Zac smother a laugh, and irritation rose.

With a slow-rising anger building up inside me, I watched them have their silent judgmental conversation. What complete assholes. Looking to Wyatt to put them both in their places, I balked when I found him gazing at the ground, his jaw clenched with irritation, instead.

Straightening my shoulders, I searched my head for a reasonable explanation to their condescending attitudes, but finding nothing but contempt, I placed my drink on the table beside Wyatt and smiled. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go to the bathroom.”

Turning my back on them all, I moved toward the back of the room with my head held high and an extra bounce in my step. Once I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I studied my reflection intently, as though she held all the answers to my questions.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time I’d felt slightly out of my depth around Wyatt’s friends, but that was certainly the first time anyone had been so blunt about me not measuring up.

My jaw clenched as I considered Wyatt’s reaction. What the hell had that been about? Why didn’t he stand up for me? Was he embarrassed by my chosen career? My head was just filled with so many questions. Questions I didn’t come close to having the answers to. Like, did I actually want to stay with someone who obviously didn’t have the balls to stand up for me?

Eli’s words from the day before echoed inside my head. I’d tried not to let them get to me, but here they were, creeping back to slap me in the face.

I sighed. I was trying so hard to be rational about it. The last thing I wanted was to be one of those girls who reacted with dramatics before thinking things through. But I didn’t want to be one of those girls who put up with shit she didn’t deserve, either.

Straightening my shoulders, I drew in a deep breath and looked myself square in the eye. The smart thing to do would be to talk to Wyatt—tell him what I thought, and go from there. I wasn’t waiting, either. I was done with this party, and if Wyatt wasn’t ready to go, then I would be going on my own.

With my chin raised high, I placed a pleasant smile on my lips and strode back through the room. Wyatt met my gaze as soon as I reached his side. Calmly, I picked up my drink and raised it to my mouth. “I think I’m ready to go now,” I said, before tipping it back with one big gulp.

I smiled as I placed the now-empty glass on the table, waiting to see what he would do. Giving me a slight nod, he took my hand and turned to Zac. “We’re heading off. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Zac’s eyes narrowed a little, his lips pressing together with displeasure. “Message me later,” he said.

Seriously? Why the hell did Wyatt need to message him later? I didn’t get it. Internally, I shook my head. This was exactly why I had that damn feeling floating around in the pit of my stomach. Shit just didn’t make any sense.

As Wyatt led me outside and unlocked the car for me to climb in, I thought about how I was going to say what needed to be said. But before I had a chance to even come up with an opener, he turned to me and took my hand. “I’m really sorry, Jess,” he said, his gaze oozing regret. “Cindy and Zac were way out of line speaking to you like that. I want you to know I spoke to Zac while you were in the bathroom. I think he forgets that it will be someone like you who will be taking care of his kids when he starts a family. It’s an important job.”

As I took in his words, I tried to work out if that changed anything for me. I wasn’t sure. “Why did you wait until I was in the bathroom before you said something?”

He sighed. “Cindy’s a snob and a gossip, and she definitely deserves to be taken down a peg or two, but her father is a partner at Patten and Johnson. It would be career suicide for me to start a war with her right now, Jess.”

His excuse made sense, but how many other people were out there who would fall into the same category? How many other people would have a free shot at my expense, all because Wyatt didn’t want to risk stepping on their toes? I didn’t want to be anyone’s punching bag. Ever.

Reaching up, he brushed a few strands of my hair away from my face. I swayed in my seat a little, a weird kind of light-headedness coming over me. Damn, that drink must’ve been more potent than I’d thought.

Wyatt’s finger drew over my cheek. “I know it’s crap, babe. I really do. But I promise you it won’t be long before I’m in a position where no one will dare speak to you like that again. You know that, don’t you, Jess? You’re my future.”

I blinked stupidly. Between his words and the way the car was starting to spin, I was so confused. How could he talk so easily about me being his future, when neither of us had even murmured anything that came close to the ‘L’ word? It just seemed . . . misguided or something.

“I don’t know, Wyatt,” I said, rubbing my forehead. My words slurred a little as I tried to speak my mind. God, I sounded like a drunk. “I just don’t like being around people like that. I don’t know if I can be what you want me to be.”

It felt good to say it out loud.

“What are you trying to say?” he asked, a worried crease forming between his brows.

Jesus. I didn’t know. What was I trying to say? Turning in my seat a little, I squeezed his hand back. “I’m not trying to say anything in particular, Wyatt. I’m just trying to be honest where I can.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding as though that made any sense at all. And who knew? Maybe, to him, it did. “I get that. And I totally understand. But I’m going to show you that you don’t have anything to worry about.”

His smile was full of all the confidence in the world. It made me want to trust him. I just hoped I was making the right decision.

 

 

Chapter 8

Eli

 

Lowering the gate of the pickup, I dragged the ramp out from the back and positioned it near the back wheel of my bike.

I grinned at all the mud spread through the tray. It was going to take some extra time to clean it all up, but it’d been worth it. So had spraying it all over Jordan’s face when I left him behind at the race track.

Jumping up, I untethered the bike and eased her down the ramp, ready to give her a good wash down.

“Looks like someone had a good time.”

I looked up to see Noah striding down the path toward me. Putting the stand down on the bike, I clasped his hand and thumped him on the back. “Hey, little brother. How are you doing?”

“Awesome, man,” he said, giving me a wink. “I think I’ve finally convinced Kaeli to move in with me.”

“Took you long enough,” I teased, but I was genuinely happy for him. He’d earned everything good after all the crap he’d gone through undercover.

He beamed. “I know, right? I was starting to doubt my charm.” He looked over at the bike, his eyebrows rising as he took in the amount of mud. “You need a hand?”

I gave him a dry look. “Like I’d say no.”

Patting me on the shoulder, he strode to the hose and turned the tap. “How’s things been at school?” he asked, unwinding the coils.

“Fucking hard, but I’m getting there. Happy for exams to be over,” I said, feeling the relief inside me.

Pulling the trigger, he aimed the spray of water at the back wheel and started washing it down, but after a minute, he paused, his gaze meeting mine with a serious edge. “Zac Schuler,” he said. “You know him?”

I frowned. I already didn’t like where this was going. Wyatt was the last person I wanted to think about, and if Zac was the topic of conversation, then Wyatt wouldn’t be too far away. “I do.” Giving him a sharp look, I prepared myself. “Why do you want to know?”

He watched me for a little while, his gaze intent and assessing. “This is confidential, all right?”

I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to get involved in what he had to say. I already didn’t like the guy. I didn’t need any more reasons not to. But Noah obviously needed to have this talk with me, whatever the reason was, so I inhaled, and gave him a swift nod. “All right.”

He sighed heavily before rubbing his hand over his chin. “He was seen making an exchange with a known dealer the day before yesterday.”

I kept my mouth shut as I watched him talk. As much as I didn’t like Zac, it wasn’t uncommon for some of the students to take a little something to get them through all the exams and assignments.

Shifting on my feet, I cocked my head to the side a little to let him know I was listening. “Do you know if he definitely bought anything?”

He conceded with a slight shake of his head. “No. Nothing has been confirmed yet. Walt wanted to watch the dealer for a bit longer.”

His jaw tightened as he spoke, making me think he wasn’t too happy about this. “What’s the guy known to sell?” I asked, intrigue sparking.

Noah’s gaze darkened. “Ecstasy. GHB.”

My eyes narrowed. “GHB?” Understanding was starting to dawn on me. “You think that’s what he bought.”

His expression immediately started to close up. “I don’t know what I think just yet.”

“Fuck off,” I said, turning away from him a little as I scuffed my boot in the dirt. “Don’t give me that shit, Noah. I know you. You think Zac bought a potential date rape drug, and it pisses you off that you might not be able to bring him down before he does anything with it.”

My brain instantly started searching for what I knew about Zac. He didn’t particularly strike me as a dude hard up for girls to offer their services to him, so if he was buying GHB, it had to have been for his own usage.

Noah huffed. “I’m not jumping to any conclusions, Eli. I just want to make sure he’s watched. Just in case.”

My eyebrow snaked upward. “You don’t want me to watch him, do you?” I couldn’t think of anything worse.

“Not necessarily watch him,” he said. “Just keep your eyes open if you happen to be around the guy.”

The thought of that almost constituted one of my worst nightmares. I groaned. “You know it could just be a little study boost.”

His gaze hardened. “Really, Eli? Even when exams are done for now?”

Tilting my head back, I stared up at the sky. “Party drug, then,” I said sourly.

“Or,” he said, taking a slight step forward, “while we’re each taking turns at guessing what it was he bought, he could be slipping it into some girl’s drink and getting ready to take advantage of her.”

I sighed. Thinking about it like that, I could see his frustration. “Okay, fine. I’ll watch the guy if I see him. Happy?”

Lowering myself down to sit on the edge of the tailgate, I rubbed my hand across my forehead. I just didn’t get it. Zac was a smart guy. He was up there with the top of the class. If he really did buy himself an illegal substance, that was his entire career, gone. And if it was GHB—and he was intending to slip it into some girl’s drink—why the hell would he risk his entire career, just to get laid? I knew plenty of chicks who would jump into bed with him in a heartbeat, despite my opinion of the guy.

Glancing up at Noah, I shook my head. “I just can’t see it, Bro. He could get almost any chick he wanted. Why would he drug someone?”

Noah shrugged and gave me a sad smile. “I don’t know, man. Control? Fantasies? Maybe he likes some freaky shit that chicks don’t dig.”

“Yeah, like fucking a corpse.”

He sighed before dropping down beside me. “I just don’t like it, man. I have a gut feeling about these things since being in TJ’s gang, and it’s telling me it’s not good.”

I groaned. “Awesome.” My thoughts shifted to Jess. I didn’t like that she was so close to the situation at all. I mean, I didn’t think she would be in any danger. Zac was unlikely to drug his best friend’s girlfriend, but I still didn’t like it. “How long until you question him?”

Noah’s jaw tightened. “I’m not officially on the case, so I can’t really say. But Walt shouldn’t wait longer than the weekend before he drops the dealer. If he does, I’ll fucking go do it myself.”

If it were any other time in the year, I’d rest easy with his words, but we were all on vacation now. The entire week was one long fucking weekend. There was a party every damn night. “You know it would help if we knew what kind of drug we were dealing with here, don’t you, Noah? There’s a massive fucking difference between buying something for yourself and buying something to slip into someone’s drink.”

“I know, man,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “I wish I fucking knew too. If it was just a little E, I wouldn’t even be having this conversation with you.”

“But you don’t think it just a little E,” I finished for him. And for some reason—maybe it was my gut too—I thought he just might be right.

 

 

Chapter 9

Jess

 

I never used to consider twenty-two to be old. Not by a long shot. I mean, I was still technically in college, so that kind of implied an element of abandoned recklessness in itself. But here I was, at ten o’clock at night, my head spinning after only two drinks, and I was seriously pining for my bed. I had no idea how I’d become such a lightweight. I was trying to tell myself I was just over the ridiculous number of parties Wyatt had been dragging me to every night, but I thought it might’ve been more of a case of just not enjoying the scene anymore.

As I leaned against the wall, half watching Wyatt say goodbye to Zac—weird, I know—and half making sure I stayed upright, I thought about how Wyatt had been with me since the snobby debacle the other night. He’d said he would show me that I had nothing to worry about, and so far he’d been true to his word. Probably a little more than necessary. But I couldn’t deny that he’d been trying, and I guess that was all I’d been wanting for the last six months.

Tonight, we’d planned on staying at my apartment. Aiden had taken Emmy away for the weekend, trying to have a little alone time before he had to leave. I thought it was a little dumb scheduling gigs the week before Christmas, but it meant Wyatt and I had the place to ourselves, so who was I to argue?

Drawing in a deep breath, I let it out in a huff, my eyes widening a fraction when my body started to slide to the side. Whoa. Okay, it was seriously time to get myself under control, or I would be on the floor in no time.

Straightening, I pulled my shoulders back and focused on my breathing. It was a little harder than it should’ve been. My head was starting to feel like it was filled with cotton wool, and I was having serious trouble getting my eyes to focus on anything for longer than a few seconds at a time.

I sighed with relief when I finally saw Wyatt break away from Zac and start walking toward me. He was scowling, but when he got close enough to take my hand, he smiled. “All good?” he asked.

I nodded. “Yup.” The P made a popping sound when I released it, making me giggle.

Wyatt frowned down at me as he began towing me toward the door. “Are you drunk?”

I mirrored his expression as I thought. “I only had two drinks, but I think I might be,” I said in all seriousness.

Unlocking the car, he opened my door and held it open for me. “What the hell were you drinking?” he asked, slightly incredulous.

I shrugged as I climbed in. “I don’t know,” I murmured. “Vodka?” For some reason, my tongue didn’t want to cooperate with me. Normally, it would’ve frustrated me, but it seemed my brain was too tired to care. “But the last one tasted gross.”

Wyatt closed my door and moved to his side of the car, sliding in behind the wheel before glancing over at me again. His expression was kind, but it bordered on intense. Something about it made me pulse inside.

My apartment wasn’t very far away—only three blocks from where we’d been—but it felt like an eternity before Wyatt was pulling into a parking space and helping me from the car again. Wrapping his arm around me, he pulled me into his side as we moved down the path. I didn’t even bother pretending I’d be capable of unlocking the door. I just pulled the keys out of my handbag and passed them over to Wyatt without a word.

Once the door was open, he waited for me to move inside, but I hadn’t gone far before his hands claimed my hips from behind, his breath warm and arousing as it touched my ear. “And I had such grand plans to do very naughty things to you tonight,” he said, his voice deep and dangerous.

Heat spread through my body. “I like naughty,” I said, but instead of sounding aroused, I sounded like I had a dozen marbles crammed inside my mouth. “What kind of things?”

Edging me forward, he spun me around so we were chest to chest, then he slowly pushed me back until I was spread out on the couch and he was crawling over the top of me. As his hot breath blew over the exposed skin on my neck, I arched my back, baring my neck to him further. Then, with a touch so soft I thought it may have been my imagination, he brushed his lips down my throat, his wet tongue taking slow, erotic licks.

“I want to tie you up, Jess,” he said. “I want to see you spread out before me, at my mercy.” Taking my hands, he lifted them until they were above my head, crossed at my wrists. “I would tie you up like this, and then I would blindfold you, so you could only hear and feel me.”

My eyes closed as I listened to him, his words sending messages to different parts of my body, bringing it to life. But the alcohol in my system didn’t want anything to do with it. It forced a darkness behind my lids. One I wasn’t ready for. I wanted to hear what he had to say. I wanted to know what his fantasies were.

Fighting it back, I opened my eyes again, the room spinning and blurring as I tried to focus on his face.

“That’s my fantasy, Jess. I want to see you just like that. Mine to stroke, touch, kiss, taste, until you’re insane with desire.” His hand tightened on my wrists as he ran the tip of his nose down the side of my neck. “And then, while I’m teasing you, bringing you closer and closer to falling apart, someone comes into the room.” I stilled, confused by his words. “They don’t do anything,” he said. “They just watch us, so aroused by what they see, they need to touch themselves.”

My head spun. Holy shit. I couldn’t believe he actually fantasized about someone watching us. I didn’t know why, but the image his words brought to my head did something strange to my body. And I thought I actually liked it.

“I love the idea of what the sight of us fucking could do to a guy, Jess,” he said huskily. “He’d be so fucking turned on—so hard he’d have to touch himself, make himself come—all because of what we were doing.”

Somewhere in the dazed state I was in, I knew I was aroused, but both my mind and my body were failing me. I just couldn’t seem to make myself respond. I didn’t know why the idea of a guy getting himself off while watching us sounded so hot, but it did.

 “Does that turn you on, Jess?” he growled, lightly biting my lobe. “Would you like someone to watch us fuck? While I take my cock and slowly push inside you?”

Wyatt emphasized his words by brushing his fingers over my crotch. I moaned something that sounded a lot like yes—even to my own impaired ears.

His hand paused between my legs, pressing. “You want someone to watch you, Jess? You want someone to pound their cock while I make you come?” His fingers started moving again. “Is that what you want, Jess?”

Somewhere inside my head, I was confused. Wyatt hadn’t spoken to me like this before. Ever. I mean, he’d talked about fucking me in the ass and other such things, but nothing so graphic. I wondered if it was because I was so drunk.

But I couldn’t think of that right now. I was seriously struggling to stay awake. All I knew was that the arousal in his voice turned me the hell on. It made me want to agree, to it all, right here and now, but there was still one tiny part of my brain that seemed to be able to think clearly, and she knew it was a seriously crazy idea.

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