Main Aflame (Fall Away #4)
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one of the best books ive ever read. HOLY SHIT!!
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Also by Penelope Douglas Bully Until You Rival Falling Away Aflame A Fall Away Novel Penelope Douglas PIATKUS First published in the US in 2015 by the Berkley Publishing Group and New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Random House This ebook edition published in Great Britain in 2015 by Piatkus An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author Copyright © Penelope Douglas 2015 The moral right of the author has been asserted. All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. ISBN 978-0-349-40888-0 Piatkus An imprint of Little, Brown Book Group Carmelite House 50 Victoria Embankment London EC4Y 0DZ An Hachette UK Company www.hachette.co.uk www.piatkus.co.uk For the girls . . . For Juliet, who thinks everyone deserves a white picket fence, For Fallon, who thinks that if we know what we really want, then there is no choice, And for Tate, who knows that fighting with someone isn’t half as satisfying as fighting for them. Carry on, ladies. Contents Also by Penelope Douglas Title Page Copyright Dedication Aflame Playlist Note from the Author Prologue 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 Chapter 19 Epilogue Letter to the Reade; r Acknowledgments About the Author Aflame Playlist Music inspires the development of my characters and inspires my scenes. Enjoy! “Adrenaline” by Shinedown “Alive” by P.O.D. “Blow Me Away” by Breaking Benjamin “The Boys of Summer” by The Ataris “Breath” by Breaking Benjamin “Click Click Boom” by Saliva “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Mötley Crüe “I Get Off” by Halestorm “I Hate Everything About You” by Three Days Grace “My Way” by Limp Bizkit “Nothing Else Matters” by Apocalyptica “She’s Crafty” by Beastie Boys “Something Different” by Godsmack “This Is the Time” by Nothing More “Weak” by Seether “Wish You Hell” by Like a Storm “You Stupid Girl” by Framing Hanley Note from the Author Aflame is the conclusion of the Fall Away series, which includes Bully, Until You, Rival, and Falling Away. While every book in the series is written to be a stand-alone, Aflame will be most enjoyed by those who have read at least Bully, as Aflame is a continuation of that story. Prologue Tate Four Years Ago “Jared Trent,” I scolded, “if I get into trouble for the first time in my life, three weeks before I graduate high school, I’m telling my father it was your fault.” I nearly jogged behind him as he pulled me along down the darkened school corridor, the music from the dance like a subterranean hum around us. “Your father believes in taking personal responsibility, Tate,” he pointed out, and I could hear the humor in his tone. “Come on.” He squeezed my hand. “Pick up the pace.” I stumbled as he led me faster up the steps onto the second floor, my royal blue floor-length prom dress sweeping the length of my legs. It was nearing midnight, and our senior prom, happening downstairs, wasn’t holding my boyfriend’s attention. Not that I thought it would. Sometimes I imagined he simply endured social activities by plotting what he was going to do to me when we were finally alone. Jared Trent had a few favorite people in the world, and if you weren’t in that group, then you received a modicum of his attention. If he couldn’t be with me, then the only other people he could stand being around were his brother, Jax, and our best friend, Madoc Caruthers. He hated dances, he hated dancing, and he loathed monotonous chatter. But while his demeanor was meant to push people away, it only enticed them to want to know him more. Much to his delight, of course. But he put up with it. All for me. And did so with a smile on his face. He loved making me happy. I jogged to keep pace and held his arm with both hands as I followed him. He swung open a classroom door and held it wide, waiting for me to enter. I pinched my eyebrows together, wondering what he was up to, but I hurried into the room anyway, afraid we’d be caught. We shouldn’t be roaming the school, after all. Once inside the deserted room, I twisted around as he followed me inside and closed the door. “Penley’s classroom?” I prompted. We hadn’t stepped foot in this room since last semester. His mischievous chocolate brown eyes flashed to me before he answered. “Yeah.” I wandered down the aisle between two rows of empty desks, feeling him watching me. “Where we hated each other,” I reminisced in a teasing voice. “Yeah.” I let my fingertips graze a wooden desktop. “Where we started to love each other,” I kept playing with him. “Yeah.” His soft whisper felt like a warm blanket on my skin. I grinned to myself, remembering. “Where I was your north.” Elizabeth Penley was our literature teacher. We’d both had her for several classes but only for one class together. Themes in Film and Literature last fall. When Jared and I were enemies. She’d given us an assignment in which we had to find partners for each of the cardinal directions. Jared ended up being my “North.” Reluctantly. My strappy silver heels—which matched the silver jewels on my nearly backless dress—struck the floor as I turned around to eye him still standing by the door. And his flat, stoic expression did nothing to hide the dangerous streak. I suddenly felt an urge to climb him like a tree. I knew he hated suits, but he honestly looked like a devil of the best kind dressed up as he was. His tailored black pants draped down his legs and accentuated his narrow waist. The black dress shirt wasn’t tight, but it didn’t hide his body, either, and the black jacket and tie completed the look in a way that emanated power and sex, as always. In the eight months since we’d gotten together, I’d become very adept at swallowing my drool before it seeped out of my mouth. Luckily, he looked at me the same way. He leaned against the door, his jacket pulled back from his waist as he slid his hands into his pockets and watched me with interest. His dark brown hair sat across his forehead in elegant chaos like a dark shadow hovering just above his eyes. “What are you thinking?” I asked when he continued to just stand there. “How much I miss watching you come into this room,” he answered, looking me up and down. My body warmed, knowing exactly what he was talking about. I’d enjoyed toying with him when I knew he was watching me in here. “And,” he continued, “I’m going to miss how your hand shoots into the air like a big dork to answer questions.” I gasped, my eyes rounding in mock anger. “Dork?” I repeated. I put my hands on my hips and pursed my lips to hide my smile. He grinned and kept joking, “And also how you huddled so close to the desktop when you were concentrating on a test, and how you chewed your pencils when you were nervous.” My gaze flashed to the side, where his old desk sat behind mine. He went on, pushing off the door and inching closer to me. “I’m also going to miss how you blushed when I whispered things in your ear when Penley’s back was turned.” He cocked his head to the side, and I looked up at him as he approached me. Shivers ran down my arms as I remembered Jared leaning forward over his desk and tickling my ear with his hot promises. I closed my eyes, feeling his chest brush against mine. “I’m going to miss sitting two feet away,” he whispered over me, “and no one the wiser as to what I’d snuck into your room that morning to do to you.” I sucked in a breath, feeling his forehead dip to mine. He continued, “I’m going to miss the torture of wanting you in the middle of class and not being able to have you. I’m going to miss us in this room, Tate.” Me, too. The pull was always there between us. Even in a crowded classroom, full of noise and distraction, there was an invisible rope cutting through the space, connecting him and me. He touched me even when he couldn’t reach me. He whispered in my ear from twenty feet away. And I could always feel his lips even when we were apart. I smiled and opened my eyes, his lips now an inch from mine. “Even though you sat behind me, I could always feel your eyes, Jared. Even when you acted like you hated me, I felt you watching me.” “I never hated you.” “I know.” I nodded gently, circling his waist with my arms. The three years he’d made an enemy out of me seemed unbearable at the time. Now I was just glad it was all over. I was grateful that we were here. Together. But I wouldn’t look back on high school as a very enjoyable experience, and I knew he had a lot of guilt about that. All of Jared’s life, he’d suffered abandonment and loneliness. From his horrible father and alcoholic mother. From the neighbors who ignored what was happening and from the teachers who looked the other way. The summer before freshman year, the parents who should’ve protected him hurt him nearly beyond repair. His father was abusive, leaving permanent scars, and his mother couldn’t be there for him. So Jared decided alone was best. He shut everyone out. But with me, he went a step further. Several steps, actually. He sought revenge. I was his best friend at the time, but he’d thought I’d abandoned him as well. It was a culmination of too many bad things happening in too little time, and Jared couldn’t be forgotten about anymore. He wasn’t going to allow it. I was the one he could treat badly to feel in control again, and so I became his prey. All throughout high school I suffered at his hands. Until last August, when I came back from my year abroad. When Jared pushed, I started pushing back. The world turned upside down for both of us, and after more shit than I care to remember, we found our way back to each other. “We have a lot of good memories in this room.” I pulled my head back and looked up at him. “But there is one place where we don’t have good memories . . .” I slipped out of his arms and walked for the door, reaching down to slip off my heels. “Come on,” I urged with a backward glance and a smile. Swinging the door open, I darted out into the hallway and bolted, running. “Tate!” I heard him yell, and I spun around, jogging backward as I watched him come out the classroom door. His eyebrows were pinched together in confusion as he watched me. I bit my bottom lip to stifle a laugh before I whipped around and started running down the hallway again. “Tate!” he called again. “You’re a runner! This is an unfair advantage!” I laughed, excitement energizing my arms and legs as I lifted my dress and hopped down two flights of stairs, racing down the hallway toward the Athletics Department. I could hear the thuds of his large body gaining on me. He was jumping stairs, and I squealed with giddy fright as I hurled open the locker room door and away from his gaining advance. Hurrying to the third row of lockers, I collapsed against the little metal doors, my heavy breaths stretching the bust of my dress as I dropped my shoes. I’d left my long blond hair down, but I’d had my best friend, K.C., blow it out and fix it in loose, wavy curls. Given the exertion, I was tempted to shove it away from my face, but Jared loved my hair down, and I wanted to drive him wild tonight. The locker room door opened, and I fisted my hands, hearing him approach. His soft steps rounded the corner as if he knew exactly where to find me. “The girls’ locker room?” he asked, discomfort written all over his face. I knew he’d be timid, but I wasn’t letting him off the hook. I took a deep breath. “The last time we were here—” “I don’t want to think about the last time we were here,” he cut me off, shaking his head. But I forced it again. “The last time we were here,” I emphasized, “you threatened me and tried to intimidate me,” I told him as I walked over and grabbed his hand, leading him back to the spot against the lockers where we’d had our confrontation last fall. I leaned backward, taking his waist and leading him in close, so he hovered over me. “You pushed into my space and hovered just like this,” I whispered, “and I ended up being pretty damn embarrassed in front of the whole school. Remember?” I laid it all out on the line for him. We couldn’t be afraid to talk about it. We’d have to laugh, because I’d done enough crying. We’d face our fears and move on. “You were mean to me,” I pressed. He’d come in after I’d showered, rushed my teammates out of the room, and issued a few threats as I tried to stand tall dressed in nothing but my towel. Then some students came in and snapped pictures of us, in which nothing was happening, but being nearly naked with a boy in the locker room didn’t look so great to everyone in school who saw the pictures. Jared’s eyes, always soft with me now, always holding me close, turned heated. I clutched the lapels of his jacket and melted my body into his, wanting to make a good memory here. His face inched closer to mine, and my breathing faltered as I felt his fingers glide up the inside of my thigh, clawing my dress higher and higher. “So we’re back to where we started,” he whispered against my lips. “Are you going to hit me this time like I deserve?” Amusement threatened, and I could feel the corners of my mouth turn up. I slid out of his shadow, hopped up on the center bench behind him, and stood over him, loving his wide-eyed expression as he turned around to face me. Placing both of my hands against the lockers, now behind him, on either side of his head, I bore down, crowding his space as I leaned in close. “If I ever lay my hands on you,” I whispered his same words to me from all those months ago, “you’ll want it.” He let out a quiet laugh as his lips grazed mine. I cocked my head, playing with him. “Do you?” I prompted. “Want it, I mean?” He cupped my face with both hands and begged, “Yes.” And then he snatched up my lips. “Hell yes.” And I melted. I always melted. Chapter 1 Jared Present Day Kids are crazy. Batshit, certifiably, without-a-brain-in-their-head crazy. If you’re not explaining something to them, then you’re reexplaining it, because they didn’t listen the first time, and as soon as you explain it, they ask the same damn question you just spent twenty minutes explaining the answer to! And the questions. Holy fuck, the questions. Some of these kids talked more in one day than I have in my entire life, and you can’t get away from it, because they follow you. Like, take a hint, you know? “Jared! I want the blue helmet, and Connor had it last time, and it’s my turn!” the half-pint blond kid whined from the track as all the other children climbed into their go-kart cars, two rows of six each. I tipped my chin down and inhaled an aggravated breath as I gripped the fence surrounding the track. “It doesn’t matter what color helmet you have on,” I growled, tensing every muscle in my back. Blondie—what the hell was his name again?—scrunched up his face, getting redder by the moment. “But . . . but it’s not fair! He had it two times, and I—” “Get the black helmet,” I ordered, cutting him off. “It’s your lucky one, remember?” He pinched his eyebrows together, his freckled nose scrunching up. “It is?” “Yes,” I lied, the hot California sun beating down on my black-T-shirt-clad shoulders. “You wore it when we flipped in the buggy three weeks ago. It kept you safe.” “I thought I was wearing the blue one.” “Nope. The black,” I lied again. I really had no idea what color he’d been wearing. I should feel bad about lying, but I didn’t. When children got more reasonable, I could stop resorting to rocket science to get them to do what I wanted them to do. “Hurry up,” I shouted, hearing little go-kart motors fill the air. “They’re going to leave without you.” He ran for the other side of the gate to the shelves of helmets, snatching up the black one. I watched as all the kids, ranging in age from five to eight, strapped themselves in and shot each other excited little thumbs-ups. They gripped their steering wheels, their thin arms tense, and I felt a grin pull at the corners of my mouth. This was the part that wasn’t so bad. Crossing my arms over my chest, I watched with pride as they took off, each kid handling his or her car with increasing precision every week they came here. Their shiny helmets glistened in the early summer sunshine as the tiny engines zoomed around the bend and echoed in the distance as they sped off. Some kids were still pushing the pedal to the metal for the entire race, but others were learning to measure their time and assess the road ahead. Patience was hard to muster when you just wanted to be in front the entire race, but some quickly caught on that a good defense was the best offense. It wasn’t just about getting ahead of that car; it was also about staying ahead of the cars already behind you. And more than just learning, they were also having fun. If only a place like this had existed when I was that age. But even at twenty-two, I was still grateful for it. When these kids first walked through my door they knew next to nothing, and now they handled the track like it was a walk in the park. Thanks to me and the other volunteers. They were always happy to be here, full of smiles, and looking to me with anticipation. They actually wanted to be around me. What the hell for, I didn’t know, but I was certain of one thing. As much as I complained or escaped to my office, struggling to scrape up just a little more patience, I absolutely, without a doubt, wanted to be around them, too. Some of them were pretty cool little shits. When I wasn’t traveling and working the circuit, racing with my own team, I was here, helping with the kids program. Of course, it wasn’t just a go-kart track. There was a garage and a shop, and lots of drivers and their girlfriends hung out, working on bikes and shooting the shit. Godsmack’s “Something Different” played over the speakers, and I looked up at the sky, seeing the sun beat down, blinding me. It was probably raining back home today. June was big on summer thunderstorms in Shelburne Falls. “Here,” Pasha ordered, shoving a clipboard into my chest. “Sign these.” I grabbed it, scowling at my black-and-purple-haired assistant from under my sunglasses as the go-karts roared past. “What is it?” I unclipped the pen and looked at what appeared to be a purchase order. She watched the track, answering me. “One is an order for your bike parts. I’m just having them shipped to Texas. Your crew can sort through it when you get there in August—” I dropped my arms to my sides. “That’s two months away,” I shot out. “How do you know that shit’s still going to be there when I get there?” Austin was going to be my first stop when I went back out on the road racing after my break. I understood her logic. I didn’t need the equipment until then, but it was thousands of dollars’ worth of parts that someone else could get their hands on. I’d rather have it here with me in California than three states away, unprotected. But she just shot me a glare, looking like I’d put mustard on her pancakes. “The other two are forms faxed over from your accountant,” she went on, ignoring my concern. “Paperwork to do with establishing JT Racing.” And then she peered over at me, looking inquisitive. “Kind of vain, don’t you think? Giving your business your initials?” I dropped my eyes back down to the papers and began signing. “They’re not my initials,” I mumbled. “And I don’t pay you to have an opinion about everything, and I certainly don’t pay you to get on my nerves.” I handed over the clipboard, and she took it with a smile. “No, you pay me to remember your mom’s birthday,” she threw back. “You also pay me to keep your iPod fresh with new music, your bills paid, your motorcycles safe, your schedule on your phone, your flights booked, your favorite foods in your refrigerator, and my personal favorite: I’m to call you thirty minutes after you’ve been forced to go to some function or party and give you a dire excuse as to why you need to leave said social gathering, because you hate people, right?” Her tone dripped with cockiness, and I was suddenly glad I didn’t grow up with a sister. I didn’t hate people. Okay, yes. I hated most people. She continued, “I schedule your haircuts, I run this place and your Facebook page—I do love all the topless photos chicks send you, by the way—and I’m the first person you seek out when you want someone to yell at.” She planted her hands on her hips, squinting at me. “Now, I forget. What don’t you pay me to do again?” My chest inflated with a heavy breath, and I chewed the corner of my mouth until she took the hint and left. I could practically smell her smug smile as she made her way back to the shop. She knew she was priceless, and I’d walked into that one. I might take a lot of sass from her, but she was right. She took a lot of it from me, too. Pasha was my age and the daughter of the man I co-owned this bike shop with. Although the old man, Drake Weingarten, was a racing legend on the motorcycle circuits, he chose to be a silent partner and enjoy his retirement in the pool hall down the street when he was in town or in his cabin near Tahoe when he wasn’t. I liked having this as a home base near the action in Pomona, and I’d found I actually took an interest in the kids program he sponsored here when I started hanging around the motorcycle shop almost two years ago. When he’d asked if I wanted to plant some roots and buy into this place, it was the perfect timing. There was nothing left for me back home. My life was here now. A cool, little hand slipped into mine, and I looked down to see Gianna, a bright-faced brunette I’d grown pretty fond of. I smiled, looking for her usual cheery expression, but she squeezed my hand and brushed her lips into my arm, looking like she was ten kinds of sad instead. “What’s the matter, kiddo?” I joked. “Whose butt do I need to kick?” She wrapped both of her little arms around mine, and I could feel her shaking. “Sorry,” she mumbled, “I guess crying is such a girlie thing to do, isn’t it?” The sarcasm in her voice was unmistakable. Oh, boy. Chicks—even eight-year-old chicks—were complicated. Women didn’t want to tell you what was wrong flat out. Oh, no. It couldn’t be that easy. You had to get a shovel and dig it out of them. Gianna had been coming around for more than two months, but just recently she’d started in the racing club. Out of all the kids in the class, she had the most promise. She worried about being perfect, she always looked over her shoulder, and it seemed as if she always figured out how to argue with me even before she knew what I was going to say—but she had it. The gift. “Why aren’t you on the track?” I pulled my arm out of her grasp and sat down on the picnic table to meet her eye to eye. She stared at the ground, her bottom lip quivering. “My dad says I can’t take part in the program anymore.” “Why not?” She shifted from side to side on her feet, and my heart skipped when I looked down and saw her red Chucks. Just like the ones Tate wore the first time I met her when we were ten. Looking back up, I watched her hesitate before answering. “My dad says it makes my brother feel bad.” Leaning my elbows down to my knees, I twisted my head to study her. “Because you beat your brother in the race last week,” I verified. She nodded. Of course. She’d beat everyone last week, and her brother—her twin—left the track crying. “He says my brother won’t feel like a man if I race with him.” I snorted, but then I straightened my face when I saw her scowl. “It’s not funny,” she whimpered. “And it’s not fair.” I shook my head and grabbed the shop cloth out of my back pocket. “Here,” I offered, letting her dry her tears. Clearing my throat, I got closer and spoke in a low voice. “Listen, you’re not going to understand this now, but remember it for later,” I told her. “Your brother is going to do a lot over the years to feel like a man, but that’s not your problem. You got that?” Her expression remained frozen as she listened. “Do you like racing?” I asked. She nodded quickly. “Are you doing anything wrong?” She shook her head, her two low pigtails swinging across her shoulders. “Should you be afraid to do something you like just because you’re a winner and other people can’t handle that?” I pushed. Her innocent storm blue eyes finally looked up at me, and she tipped her chin up, shaking her head. “No.” “Then get your butt on the track,” I commanded, turning to the go-karts flying by. “You’re late.” She flashed a smile that took up half her face and shot off toward the track entrance, full of excitement. But then she stopped and swung back around. “But what about my dad?” “I’ll handle your dad.” Her smile flashed again, and I had to fight to hold back my own. “Oh, and I’m not supposed to tell you this,” she taunted, “but my mom thinks you’re hot.” And then she twisted around and darted off toward the cars. Great. I let out an awkward breath before glancing over to the bleachers where the moms sat. Jax would call them cougars, and Madoc would just call them. Well, before he was married, anyway. It was always the same with these women, and I knew some of them enrolled their kids simply to get closer to the drivers and riders who hung out here. They showed up in full hair and makeup, usually in heels and tight jeans or short skirts, as if I was going to pick one and take her into the office as her kid played outside. Half of them had their phones in front of their faces to look like they weren’t doing what I knew they were. Thanks to Pasha’s big mouth, I knew that while some people used their sunglasses to disguise that they were staring at you, these women were zooming in with their cameras to stare at me close-up. Super. I then and there made it another part of Pasha’s job description not to tell me shit I didn’t need to know. “Jared!” Pasha’s bark boomed over every other sound here. “You have a phone call on Skype!” I cocked my head to the side, peering over at her. Skype? Wondering who the hell wanted to video chat, I got up and walked through the café and into the shop/garage, ignoring the faint whispers and sideways glances from people who recognized me. No one knew me outside of the motorcycle world, but inside it, I was starting to get a name for myself, and the attention was always going to be hard to deal with. If I could have the career without it, I would, but the crowds came with the racing. Stepping into the office, I closed the door and rounded my desk, staring at my laptop screen. “Mom?” I said to the woman who was a female version of me in looks. Thank God I didn’t look like my dad. “Aw,” she cooed, “so you do remember who I am. I was worried.” She nodded condescendingly, and I leaned down on the desk, arching a brow. “Don’t be dramatic,” I grumbled. I couldn’t tell where she was from the furniture behind her. All I saw was a lot of white in the background, so I assumed it was a bedroom. Her husband—and my best friend’s father, Jason Caruthers—was a successful lawyer, and their new Chicago apartment was probably the best money could buy. My mother, on the other hand, was perfectly recognizable. Absolutely beautiful, and a testament to the fact that people do take advantage of the second chances they’re given. She looked healthy, alert, and happy. “We talk every few weeks,” I reminded her. “But we’ve never video chatted before, so what’s up?” Since I had quit college and left home two years ago, I’d been back only once. Just long enough to realize it was a mistake. I hadn’t seen my friends or my brother, and even though I’d kept in touch with my mother, it had been only via phone and text. And even that was kept short and sweet. It was better that way. Out of sight, out of mind, and it worked, too, because every time I heard my mother’s voice or got an e-mail from my brother or a text from someone back home, I thought about her. Tate. My mother leaned in close, her chocolate hair, same as mine, falling over her shoulders. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s start over,” she chirped and straightened her back. “Hey, son.” She smiled. “How are you doing? I’ve missed you. Have you missed me?” I let out a nervous laugh and shook my head. “Jesus,” I breathed out. Aside from Tate, my mother knew me better than anyone. Not because we’d shared so much mother-son time over the years, but because she’d lived with me long enough to know I didn’t like unnecessary bullshit. Small talk? Yeah, not my thing. Plopping my ass down in the high-back leather chair, I placated her. “I’m doing fine,” I said. “And you?” She nodded, and I noticed the happiness that made her skin glow. “Keeping busy. There’s lots going on back home this summer.” “You’re in Shelburne Falls?” I asked. She spent most of her time about an hour away in Chicago with her husband. Why was she back in our hometown? “Just got back yesterday. I’ll be staying for the rest of the summer.” I dropped my eyes, faltering for a split second, but I knew my mother saw it. When I looked back up, she was watching me. And I waited for what I knew was coming. When I didn’t say anything, she egged me on. “This is the part where you ask me why I’m staying with Madoc and Fallon instead of in the city with my husband, Jared.” I averted my eyes, trying to look disinterested. Her husband used to own the house in Shelburne Falls, but he gave it to Madoc when he married. Jason and my mother still stayed there when they were in town, and for some reason my mother thought I was interested. She was playing me. Trying to get me intrigued. Trying to get me to ask about home. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Or maybe I did . . . Talking to my brother had been easy these past two years away. He knew not to pry, and he knew I’d bring up anything I felt like talking about. My mother, on the other hand, was always a time bomb. I always wondered when she’d bring it up. She was in Shelburne Falls, and it was summer break. Everyone would be there. Everyone. Instead, I rolled my eyes and leaned back in the chair, determined not to indulge her need for playing games. She laughed, and I looked up. “I love you.” She chuckled, changing the subject. “And I’m glad your disdain for small talk hasn’t wavered.” “Are you?” She tipped her chin up, her rich eyes sparkling. “It’s comforting to know some things never change.” I gritted my teeth, waiting for the bomb to detonate. “Yeah, I love you, too,” I said absently and cleared my throat. “So get to the point. What’s up?” She tapped her fingers on the desk in front of her. “You haven’t been home in two years, and I’d like to see you. That’s all.” I had been home. Once. She just hadn’t known it. “That’s it?” I asked, not believing her. “If you miss me so much, then get your ass on a plane and come see me,” I teased. “I can’t.” I narrowed my eyes. “Why?” “Because of this.” And she stood up, revealing her very pregnant belly. My eyes grew wide, and my face fell as I wondered what the fuck was going on. Holy shit. I felt the vein in my neck throb, and I just stared at the ski slope running from her neck to her waist, and . . . and it couldn’t be real. Pregnant? She was not pregnant! I was twenty-two. My mother was, like, forty. I watched her flatten her palms on her back and slowly lower herself back down into a sitting position. I licked my dry lips and breathed hard. “Mom?” I hadn’t blinked. “Is this some kind of joke?” She offered a sympathetic look. “I’m afraid not,” she explained. “Your sister is due to arrive within three weeks . . .” Sister? “And I want all of her brothers here to greet her when she does,” she finished. I looked away, my heart pumping heat throughout my body. Holy shit, she’s fucking pregnant. Sister, she’d said. And all of her brothers. “So it’s a girl,” I said, more to myself than to her. “Yes.” I rubbed the back of my neck, thankful that my mother was light on the chatter, so I could process this. I had no idea what to think. She was going to have a baby, and part of me wanted to know what the hell she was thinking. She’d been an alcoholic for about fifteen years while I was growing up, and while I knew she always loved me and she was ultimately a good person, I’d also be the first person to burst her little bubble and tell her she had sucked as a parent. But the other part of me knew that she’d recovered. She’d earned a second chance, and after five years sober, I guessed she was ready for it. She’d also been a perfect surrogate mother to my half-brother, Jax, when he came to live with us, and she had an amazing support system now. Just one that hadn’t included me since I’d been absent. Her stepson, Madoc, and his wife, Fallon; Jax and his girlfriend, Juliet; my mother’s husband, Jason; the housekeeper, Addie . . . everyone was there for her except me. I shook my head clear and turned back to the screen. “Jesus . . . Mom, I . . . I’m . . .” I was stammering badly. I had no clue what to say or do. I wasn’t touchy-feely or good with this kind of stuff. “Mom.” I swallowed and looked her in the eye. “I’m happy for you. I never would’ve thought—” “That I wanted more kids?” she cut in. “I want all of my kids, Jared. I miss you very much,” she admitted. “Madoc and Fallon are watching over me, since Jason is finishing up a case in the city, and Jax and Juliet are being wonderful, but I want you here. Come home. Please.” I cleared my throat. Home. “Mom, my schedule is . . .” I searched for an excuse. “I’ll try, but it’s just—” “Tate’s not here,” she cut me off, dropping her gaze. My pulse echoed in my ears. “If that’s what you’re worried about,” she explained. “Her father is in Italy for a few months, so she’s spending the summer there.” I tipped my chin down, inhaling a hard breath. Tate’s not home. Good. My jaw hardened. That’s good. I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I could go home and spend time with my family, and it could be done with. I wouldn’t have to see her. I hated to admit it, even to myself, but I’d been afraid of running into her. So much so that I hadn’t gone home. I ran my palm down my thigh, ridding myself of the sweat that always came when I thought about her. Even though I’d left to make myself whole, there was still a piece of me that seemed forever hollow. A piece only she ever filled. I couldn’t see her and not want her. Or not want to hate her. “Jared?” My mother was talking, and I evened out my expression. “Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m here.” “Listen to me,” she ordered. “This isn’t about why you’ve been away. This is about your sister. That’s all I want you to think about right now. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but I . . .” Her eyes fell, and she looked to be searching for words. “I never know what you’re thinking, Jared. You’re so guarded, and I wanted to have you to myself to tell you this in person. You never find time to come home, however, and I’ve waited as long as I can.” I didn’t know why it bugged me that my mom had a hard time talking to me. I guess I’d never really thought about it, but since she’d put it out there, I realized I didn’t like that I made her nervous. She took a deep breath and looked at me, her eyes kind but serious. “We need you,” she said softly. “Madoc will be the one playing with all of her toys with her. Jax will be climbing mountains with her on his shoulders. But you’re her shield, Jared. The one who will make sure she is never hurt. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. Quinn Caruthers needs all of her brothers.” I couldn’t help it—I smiled. Quinn Caruthers. My sister. She had a name already. And hell yes I was going to be there for that. I nodded, giving her my answer. “Good.” A relieved look crossed her face. “Jax emailed you a plane ticket.” And then she clicked off. Chapter 2 Jared Two Years Ago I love mornings like this. Mornings when I wake up first, and I can just watch her sleep for a few minutes. The smooth, glowing skin of her chest rises and falls with her shallow breaths, and I know that if I slide my fingers up her back, underneath her tank top, I’ll feel her sweat. She overheats when she sleeps. I relax into the chair by her window, watching her soft pink lips purse as she starts to stir. Her long, slender neck calls to me, and I’m desperate. Fucking desperate never to leave her. Wanting never to do what I know I have to do right now. Tate holds my heart, and I could choke trying to swallow and bury my need for her. I try to remember the good things. The things that will keep me alive in her heart while I’m away. The rainy nights in my car. How the skin of her neck tastes different from the skin of her lips. How hot she gets under the sheets. How I hate sleeping alone now. Her phone starts vibrating on her nightstand, and I tighten my fists, knowing that everything is about to fall apart. When she wakes, I have to hurt her. Her head turns to the other side, and I see her eyes flutter open, her body coming to life. She inhales a deep breath and slowly pulls herself to a sitting position. She notices me right away and holds my gaze across the room. A small smile dances across her face until she sees me not smiling back. I nod to her phone, hoping she’ll answer it and give me a minute. Heat floods my chest, and my heart pounds. I need to be able to do this. For her, and for me. For our future together. She looks at her phone, swiping her thumb up and down the screen, and then back up at me. “They made it,” she whispers. “They’re in New Zealand.” She’s talking about Jax and Juliet. I’d driven them to the airport yesterday, and they must’ve been texting to let her know that they arrived safely. I probably had the same text, but my phone was in my duffel bag at my feet. “Where are you going?” she asks, noticing the bag. I drop my eyes but look up again, determined not to be a fucking coward. “I’m leaving for a while, Tate.” I try to keep my voice soft. Her eyes turn worried. “ROTC?” she asks. “No.” I lean forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “I . . .” I let out a breath, speaking slowly. “Tate, I love you—” But she throws off her sheets and starts breathing hard, already knowing where this is going. With her long blond hair pulled back into a low ponytail, I can see the realization written all over her face. “Jax was right,” she rasps. “Jax is always right,” I admit, wishing I could keep doing what I’d been doing for the past two years. Just take her lips, turn off the lights, and shut out the world. My brother can voice what everyone else is afraid to face, and he knows me like he knows himself. I’m unhappy, and I can’t use Tate to hold me up anymore. “Continuing like this . . .” I shake my head. “I’d make you miserable.” My brother knows that I hate ROTC. He knew without my telling him that I hate my life in Chicago. I hate school. I hate the apartment. I hate feeling like I’m a lost puzzle piece. Where the hell did I fit? And since Tate had overheard Jax and me the other day, now she’s on to me, too. It’s time to own up. Fuck up, own up, and then get up. Her eyes shoot to mine, and I can see the tears pooling there. “Jared, if you want to quit ROTC, then quit,” she cries. “I don’t care. You can study anything. Or nothing. Just—” “I don’t know what I want!” I burst out, yelling so I won’t cry. “That’s the problem, Tate. I need to figure things out.” “Away from me,” she snaps. I stand up, running a hand through my hair. “You’re not the problem, babe.” I try to soothe her. “You’re the only thing that I’m sure of. But I need to grow up, and it’s not happening here.” I’m twenty, and all I know about myself is that I love Tatum Brandt. Two years ago I thought that was enough. “Here, where?” she prods. “Chicago? Shelburne Falls? Or around me?” I clench my jaw and stare out her French doors. I just want to grab her and keep her. I don’t want to leave. But I can’t do what she wants me to do. I can’t quit school to find myself and be around her at the same time. What do I do? Stay home all day, wander the city, take on odd jobs as I explore my options for who knows how many years while she comes home every day from her classes, which keep her life moving forward? I hate to put it like this, but the raw truth? My pride can’t take it. I can’t be the deadbeat boyfriend doing shit with his life as he figures himself out while she’s there to see it. But I will come back. I’ll always want her. She sits on the bed where we’ve slept next to each other for nearly ten years. The bed where I’ve made love to her countless times, and I feel like a candy-ass right now. I’m a fucking coward because I need to leave, and a coward because I don’t want to. I feel myself giving in. But I clear my throat and meet her eyes, pushing forward. “The apartment is paid up for the school year, so you don’t have to worry—” “A year!” she cuts me off, shooting out of bed. “A fucking year! Are you kidding me?” “I don’t know what I’m doing, okay?” I admit. “I don’t feel like I fit in at college! I feel like you’re moving a hundred miles an hour, and I’m constantly trying to catch up!” She shakes her head at me, unable to believe what’s happening. I steady my voice, speaking firmly. I have to do this. “You know what you’re doing and what you want, Tate, and I’m . . .” I steel my jaw. “I’m fucking blind. I can’t breathe.” She turns away to hide tears I know are falling. “You can’t breathe,” she repeats, and my stomach knots. Did she think that this didn’t hurt me, too? “Baby.” I pull her around to face me. “I love you.” I look into her storm blue eyes. “I love you so goddamn much. I just . . . I just need time,” I plead. “Some space, to figure out who I am and what I want.” Her eyes search mine as she lowers her voice. “So what happens?” she asks. “What happens when you find the life you’re looking for?” I straighten my back, taken by surprise. There was no future without her in it. She had to know that. “I don’t know yet,” I admit. I didn’t know where I’d end up, what I’d be doing, but she was mine. Always. I would be coming home again. She nods. “I do,” she says, her voice turning clipped. “You didn’t come in here to tell me you’ll be back. That you’ll call or we’ll text. You came in here to break up with me.” She pulls away and tries to turn around, but I catch her. “Baby, come here.” But she brings her arms down, severing my hold. “Oh, just get out!” she shouts, looking up at me with fire in her eyes. “You cut off everyone who loves you. You’re pathetic. I should be used to this by now.” “Tate—” “Just leave!” she shouts and walks for her bedroom door, yanking it open. “I’m sick of the sight of you, Jared. Just go.” I shake my head, narrowing my eyes on her. “No,” I argue. “I need you to understand.” She lifts a defiant chin. “All I’ll ever understand is that you needed to live a life without me in it, so just go and do that.” “I don’t want this.” I search for the words to get her back. “Not like this. I don’t want to hurt you. Just sit down, so we can talk. I can’t leave you like this,” I press. Why can’t she understand? I’m not leaving her. I’m coming back. But she shakes her head. “And I won’t let you stay. You need to be free? Then, go. Get out.” I swallow the hard lump in my throat and watch her. What the hell’s happening? Regret races through my brain as I think that maybe I should’ve done this differently. Sat her down and eased into it. But I don’t know how to do that shit. I don’t know how to be gentle. Fuck, I’d blindsided her. Even though we’d been distant the past week, I knew she wasn’t expecting this. After everything I’d done to her over the years, she still doesn’t trust me. She doesn’t see that I’m trying to be strong. That I’m trying to be a man. All she sees right now is me causing her more pain, and she’s had enough. “Now,” she orders, her tears drying on her face. I let my eyes fall, and every muscle in my arms tenses with the urge to charge her. Take her, hold her to me, and will her to melt into me like she always does. I have to have Tate in my life. She’ll wait for me. And as I grab my bag and leave, I know that I’ll be back. I have to do this, but I will be back for her. I didn’t even need a year, either. Only six months. Turns out six months was too long. *** “Awesome,” Pasha bit out, peering out the window of her first-class seat. “I totally get what they mean by ‘flyover state’ now.” I ignored her distaste for whatever she was seeing out there and stuffed my iPad into my carry-on, nudging it back under my seat with my foot. “Cheer up,” I sighed. “We have cars and liquor and cigarettes in Shelburne Falls, too. It will feel just like home to you.” She settled back into her seat, and I could feel her little scowl directed at the seat in front of her. “Looking forward to it.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “I do get to get drunk tonight, right?” she confirmed. I grinned and closed my eyes against the popping in my ears as we descended. “As long as you are glued to my side, I don’t give a shit what you do.” I could hear her short, aggravated breaths, and I wondered—probably as much as she did—why I felt the need to drag her with me. “This is weird,” she grumbled. “You’re weird. Why do I have to be here?” “Because I pay—” “You to,” she finished. “Well, someday when you want a kidney, it’s really going to cost you, man.” I licked my lips, envisioning an invisible hand pressing on my heart to slow that fucker down. In a minute, I’d be back at home base, and even though Tate wasn’t there, I was nervous. Seeing my house, her house next door, our old high school . . . and my best friend, who wasn’t talking to me . . . Jesus, I was a little bitch. I twisted my head, still lying on the headrest. “Pasha?” I mumbled softly. “What do you want me to say? That I can’t chew my food without you these days?” I shrugged. “I’d rather have you around and not need you than need you and not have you.” Her dark eyebrows—the right one adorned with two barbells—pinched together, and she looked over at me like I’d grown a horn. I’m sure she knew it, but I’d certainly never admitted it before. I relied on her a lot, and it was a perfect arrangement, because she liked to be needed. Neglect did that to people. As much as I liked her dad, he was about as good a parent as my mom was when I was growing up. Pasha turned out well, though. She reeled me back in when I was drowning and made a lot of decisions for me when I couldn’t. She got me out of the pit crew and turned me on to motorcycles, hooked me up with sponsors and investors, and convinced me to buy into the shop. None of this happened over calm and reasonable business dinners—more like her screaming at me to get my head out of my ass—but before I knew it, I had so much shit going on, there was no time to think. She filled my life with noise when the quiet was too dangerous. I not only needed her, but I wanted her around. And now she knew it. She was probably going to ask for another fucking raise. *** Jax was waiting outside the terminal even though I’d told him I would text when we were at passenger pickup. But I grinned anyway the minute I saw him, barely noticing Pasha zoom past us to go outside for a cigarette. “Hey.” I hooked an arm around Jax’s neck and pulled him in, dropping my duffel on the floor. “Hey,” he said for only me to hear. “I missed you.” I let my eyes close for a second, all of a sudden weighted down by how long I’d been away from him. We’d kept in regular contact, and even though I’d stayed away only to avoid one particular person, Jax had suffered the price, too. I was his blood. The only blood he had. Pulling away, I took stock of everything that hadn’t changed. His black hair, styled to look like he’d just run his fingers through it, and his blue eyes were the same vibrant azure as the last time I’d seen him. No scars or bruises that I could see, so I knew he was keeping out of trouble. Not that Jax got in regular fights anyway, but instinct told me to make sure. He still dressed in jeans and black T-shirts, matching me almost to a tee. I shook my head when I realized he was also taking stock of me, and then he finally relaxed, putting an arm around his girlfriend’s shoulders. “Juliet.” I finally looked over, seeing her slip a hand around his waist. She smiled and then greeted me. “It’s good to see you.” I wasn’t sure if that was true, but I didn’t really care. She and I got along fine, but we weren’t—and probably never would be—besties. I had a limited tolerance for mindless chatter, and she seemed to regard me with less and less cordiality as well. Probably because of Tate. Back in high school, Juliet went by her sister’s initials, K.C. When she started dating my brother two years ago, she reclaimed her birth name, and it still took some getting used to for me. I picked up my bag and looked at both of them. “I hear congratulations are in order,” I told Juliet. “Teaching in Costa Rica? You two ready for that?” Juliet had just graduated with her teaching degree, and since Jax had also beaten the clock and finished college early, the two of them were headed to Central America in the fall. Jax had told me a few weeks back that she had signed a one-year contract, but I hadn’t talked to Juliet about it at all. She turned to look at him, a knowing smile playing on her lips as if they shared a private joke. “There’s no adventure too big,” she teased, speaking more to him than to me. I cleared my throat. “So where’s our mother?” Jax stuck his hands in his pockets. “Doctor’s appointment.” “Is everything okay?” “Yeah.” He nodded and turned around, starting to lead us out of the airport. “She’s perfect. When you get close to term you have to go in every week, apparently. You should see her, man.” He laughed under his breath. “She’s shopping like crazy and eating ice cream after every meal, but she’s on top of the world.” I followed, seeing Pasha coming toward us, having just come back in. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me that she was pregnant?” I prodded Jax. I knew why my mom had kept it from me, but Jax could’ve warned me. He shook his head, smirking at me. “Dude, it’s not my business to tell you your mom is pregnant. Sorry.” By his amused tone, I could tell he wasn’t sorry. “Besides, she really didn’t want you to find out over the phone. That’s why she’s been trying to get you home.” A pang of guilt started jabbing at me from several directions when I thought of all the shit I was going to have to smooth over. Answering my mother’s questions, Madoc’s silent treatment, and getting reacquainted with my brother . . . “Um . . . hi.” Juliet turned around as we kept walking, looking at Pasha. “Are you with Jared?” I swung my bag over my shoulder, looking to Juliet. “Sorry,” I shot out. “You guys, this is Pasha.” I jerked my chin at the girl next to me. “Pasha, this is my brother, Jax, and his girlfriend, Juliet.” “Hey,” Pasha said casually. Juliet shook Pasha’s hand quickly and then turned around, looking confused. I caught her sideways glance at Jax. “Hi, Pasha.” Jax gave her a quick shake and then glanced to me quickly before crossing the walkway to the parking garage. “Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone, man?” I let out a bitter laugh but was cut off. “Aw,” Pasha cooed as we headed into the parking garage. “You didn’t tell him about us, honey?” And she kneaded my biceps with her hot pink fingernails. I rolled my eyes. “My assistant, guys.” I tossed my bag in the trunk of my old Mustang, now Jax’s car. “She’s just my assistant. That’s all.” Jax swung his pointer finger between us as he walked to the driver’s side. “So you two aren’t . . . ?” “Ewwww,” Pasha grumbled, disgust written all over her face. “So you’re gay, then?” he shot back. I snorted, shaking with laughter as I opened the passenger side door for the girls. Pasha planted her hands on her hips. “How did . . . what . . . ?” she stammered, looking to me accusingly. I held up my hands, feigning innocence. Jax narrowed his eyes on her over the hood. “When you think about the women who aren’t interested in my brother, it pretty much just leaves the lesbians.” Pasha grumbled and climbed into the backseat behind Juliet. I slammed the door and headed to the driver’s side. Jax straightened, seeing me coming. “This is my car now.” He knew what I was doing. I pinned him with a pointed look. “And I don’t ride. I’ll wait for you to come to terms with that.” After about three seconds, he realized he wasn’t going to win. He finally let out a hard sigh and walked his ass around to the passenger side. Climbing in, I started the engine and stilled, slowly easing back into the seat. The old, familiar rumble of the engine reminded me of a time so long ago. Back when I was the king of a small pond. When I thought I knew everything. The long, late-night drives, my music filling the small space, as I planned my life around Tate and how I was going to torment her in the only universe that mattered. An image of her flashed in my mind, walking to school. Her back would straighten when she’d hear my engine coming, and I’d blow past her, seeing her hair whip in the wind in my rearview mirror. I almost wished she was in town this summer. I’d give almost anything to make her feel me again. Not to mention, she’d turned my best friend against me. He wasn’t talking to me, and I knew it was because of her. I buckled up. “So let’s have it,” I told Jax. “Where’s Madoc?” He hesitated, speaking softly. “Around,” he caged. “He commutes to his summer internship here in the city, but he’s still staying at his house in Shelburne Falls.” “Good.” I nodded, remembering that it was early Friday afternoon. “I’m going to hit his house before we go home.” “Dude,” Jax urged as I drove out of the garage. “I don’t think Madoc’s going to be up for—” “Screw it,” I gritted out. “It’s been two years. I’m sick of his bullshit.” Chapter 3 Tate Summer breaks no longer exist once you reach college. Maybe you start taking a summer class, or you pick up a summer job, or you have a reading list or an extra credit to pick up, but free time slowly starts to ebb away, and before you know it, you’re doing one thing a day that you like and fifteen that you hate. Welcome to adulthood, my father would say. I should be grateful. All in all it wasn’t so bad. Opportunity abounded in my life, and anyone else would be gracious and appreciative. My education would secure my future. I had it made. I’d be a doctor someday. Maybe close to home. Maybe far away. I’d undoubtedly marry and have children. The house and car payments would come. The stock portfolios to ensure a comfortable retirement. Maybe I’d have a time-share in the Bahamas. I’d laugh at my children’s school plays and hug them when they were scared. My patients would hopefully bring a feeling of worth into my life. I would help some and lose others. I was prepared for that. I would comfort many and cry with a few. I would take everything in stride and with the knowledge that I did my very best. My professional life would be devoted to curing illnesses. My private life would be the dutiful spouse and mother. Patients and patience. And up until two years ago, I was excited for all of it. I had wanted all of it. “There you are.” Ben took my hand, brushing a kiss on my cheek. “They’ve been paging you for five minutes.” I smiled, placing a hand on his chest and leaning in. “Sorry,” I whispered, kissing him again, gently on the lips this time. “I couldn’t exactly drop the bedpan, could I?” I joked, pulling back and setting my charts down at the nurse’s station. The corners of his bottom lip turned down at the disgusting thought. “Good point,” he acquiesced. “Besides,” I continued, “I’m a woman worth waiting for. You know that.” He lifted his chin and hooded his blue eyes. “I’m still deciding,” he taunted. “Ouch.” I laughed. “Maybe Jax was right after all then.” His face fell, the humor gone. “What did that guy say about me now?” he grumbled. I grinned, pulling my blue scrub shirt over my head, leaving me in my white tank top. “He said that you’re awesome,” I teased. Ben cocked an eyebrow, knowing better. Jax, my ex-boyfriend’s brother, didn’t like anyone that tried to take his brother’s place in my life. Good thing I didn’t need his approval. I shrugged and kept going. “But he does think that I am far too much for you to handle.” His eyes bugged out, and he smiled, challenge accepted. Sliding his hand around the back of my neck, he stepped up and crashed his lips down on mine. The warmth of his body surrounded me, and I relaxed into the kiss, savoring the hunger I felt rolling off of him. He wanted me. I might not be reeling from need of him, but he made me feel in control, and I definitely liked that. Pulling away, he smiled like he’d just proved a point. I licked my lips, tasting his Spearmint gum. Ben always had a flavor and taste I could pin down. Mint or cinnamon on the lips, cologne on the clothes, Paul Mitchell in the hair . . . and it occurred to me that I didn’t really know what he smelled like without all of that. Cologne preferences change over time. So do shampoos and breath mints. What would he smell like on my pillow? Would it change or always be constant? He gestured to the black container and package of wooden chopsticks on top of the counter. “I brought you dinner. It’s sushi,” he pointed out. “Salmon is supposed to be, like, some super brain food.” He waved a hand in front of us. “And you’ve been burning the midnight oil, so I thought you could use it.” “Thank you.” I tried to act excited, knowing it was the thought that counted. I hated sushi, but he didn’t know that. “But I’m actually about to get off work. I thought I told you that.” He narrowed his eyes, thinking, and then they went wide. “Yes, you did.” He let out a breath and shook his head. “I’m sorry. Your schedule changes so much, I forgot.” “It’s okay.” I unwrapped my messy bun, feeling instant relief as the cursed bobby pins were removed. When I wasn’t working at the hospital—giving sponge baths and administering Band-Aids—I was at the library getting ahead on my reading list for my fall classes, or at the Loop, blowing off steam. I was a hard girl to pin down lately, but Ben rolled with it. “I can still eat it,” I offered, not wanting to be ungracious. “And now I don’t need to worry about dinner, so you see? You really are a lifesaver.” He grabbed hold of my waist and pulled me in, kissing my forehead and nose, always gentle. Ben and I had been seeing each other for about six weeks, although most of that time was long-distance. During spring break, we were both home, and one day I’d lost control of my car on a rainy, slick road. And I’d slammed right into his car. As it was parked at a curb right in front of him and all of his friends. Yeah, great moment. But I played it off. Got out of the car barking at him about his lousy driving and that he better have good insurance or I was calling the cops. Everyone laughed, and he asked me out. We spent some time together, went back to school to finish the semester, and reconnected when we came home for summer break. Since we’d gone to high school together and actually had a date senior year that ended pretty badly, it was kind of fun to catch up after so much time had passed. We got to know each other, and I enjoyed the time we spent together. It wasn’t pedal to the metal from day one. Ben was slow. And calm. It was always when I was ready. Not when he was ready. And I was nowhere near ready yet, so that was a relief. And the best part? He wasn’t intense. He didn’t get angry or rude. He didn’t have problems that would make me unhappy, and I didn’t have to worry that he would have so much of a pull on me that I would make decisions based on him. He never pushed or challenged me, and I liked that I dominated the relationship. I never took advantage of it, but I knew I was the one in control. It was comfortable, but more than that, it was easy. I was never surprised with Ben. He was safe. He’d finished his bachelor’s degree in economics at UMass in May and would be going on to graduate school at Princeton in the fall. I’d be heading to Stanford for medical school, so we were looking at more time apart. I wasn’t sure if the relationship would continue, but right now, I was content to keep things light and easy. He’d already hinted to me that I should move to New Jersey with him and apply to medical school there or somewhere at least in the vicinity. I’d said no. I’d compromised my college plans once—for a good reason—but I was sticking to the plan this time. Come hell or high water, I was going to California. “Will you be at my race tonight?” I asked softly. “Aren’t I always?” he answered, and I knew there was a sigh that he’d held back. Ben hated that I raced. He said he hated the crowd, but I knew it was more than that. He didn’t want the girl he was dating racing the boys while he sat on the sidelines. But even though I liked Ben, I wasn’t quitting the Loop, either. Wisely, he never asked me to stop—just suggested—and I expected that he thought it was something I would grow out of or give up when I went off to Stanford. But I wouldn’t stop for anyone or anything. I wouldn’t stop until I was ready. Madoc whined about my safety, my father chided me about the car costs when I needed parts or repairs, and at least a dozen assholes made snide remarks when I climbed into my car every weekend to race against them. But none of it made a difference. That’s the beauty of knowing your own mind. No one tells you what you can and can’t do. Once you’re sure of something, it really is that easy. “I’ll meet you at the track, then.” I circled his neck and leaned in for a kiss, his gentle lips leaving a feathery kiss on mine. “I need to shower and clean up after I leave here.” He leaned over, nuzzling my ear. “And then after the race, you’re mine, right?” I could hear the playfulness in his voice, but my heart still skipped a beat anyway. Mine. A shiver ran down my arms, and I closed my eyes, feeling a hot mouth move across my cheek and then his breath glide over my lips. I want to feel what’s mine. What’s always been mine. Heat fanned across my face, and need gripped me low in my stomach. His lips brushed mine, never taking, just teasing, and I inhaled a shaky breath as excitement burned under my skin after so long. It wasn’t Ben. It wasn’t his lips or his breath that I dreamed about. I want to touch you. I pushed up on my tiptoes, pressing my body into his and pulling him close. Jared. And just like that, I melted at his memory. “It’s too late to beg,” Jared whispers as his hand threads through the back of my hair, gripping it tight as he pins me against the wall of the janitor’s closet. “This is what you get when you eye-fuck me in the middle of class.” I squeeze my eyes shut and squirm as he pushes his hand inside the front of my jeans and dips his fingers inside me, bringing the wetness back out to swirl around my clit. “Oh, God,” I whimper, my breath shaking as I clutch his shoulders. “Jared.” He leans in, and I can feel his breath hot across my lips. “I want you naked, Tate,” he commands. “Everything off. Now.” I brushed my nose against his neck, smelling Ben’s exotic cologne instead of Jared’s woodsy body wash with that hint of spice I still remembered. I lowered myself back down to my feet, releasing Ben. Dammit. Why did the memory of him get me more excited than anyone else could in the flesh? Ben treated me better. His easy demeanor was no threat to me. There were no expectations, and the conversation was safe. But old habits die hard. I craved dirty words and rough hands, possessiveness and everything that wasn’t Ben’s style. I missed being the breath in someone’s body and being craved like water. It was dangerous, but that was young love, and once I had been nearly consumed with it. “You okay?” Ben asked, looking concerned. I gave him a casual smile. “I’m fine,” I assured him, leaning in for a quick kiss. I might not feel the fireworks with Ben that I wanted yet, but there was no rush. Never any pressure. I pulled back to say good-bye, but he dove in for another quick peck on the lips before walking back down the hallway, leaving me smiling at his easy attitude. After logging out on the computer, I jogged to the locker room for my backpack and keys, dumping my scrub shirt in the laundry basket which left me in my super-stylish matching blue pants. The wind was calling, and I couldn’t wait to get outside. I could already feel the chills of anticipation running through my body. I sent a mass text to Madoc, Fallon, Juliet, and Jax, letting them know I’d be skipping dinner to tweak a few last things on my G8 before the race tonight. I’d meet them at the track. As soon as I walked through the automatic doors, I broke into a run and couldn’t help the laughter that escaped. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, giggling like a child. But I loved my damn car. It was fast and hot and all mine. I’d owned my Pontiac G8 since my senior year of high school, and I would admit it only to myself, but it owned more of my heart than Ben did right now. Driving was like a drug. Climb in, sit down, shut up, and hold on. It was the only time in my life when I felt like I was moving but also didn’t need to work to accomplish anything. I was going places but not really getting anywhere. For hours on end, I’d drive and listen to music—lost in my own head—but I always seemed to find myself, too. My shower used to be the one place I’d escape to. Now it was my car. Sliding into the driver’s seat, I threw my backpack—loaded with some books and a change of clothes—onto the passenger seat and set down the sushi I was probably going to give to Madoc. I started the car, rolling down the windows and jamming up the music. Saliva’s “Click Click Boom” raged out of the speakers, vibrating off my body, and I inhaled the sweet, early evening summer air. It was a little after five, but the sun still shone bright in the sky, and the warm breeze blew through the windows, tickling my hair. I tightened my hands around the leather wheel, cruising down the two lane highway well over the speed limit and feeling so much more alive behind the wheel than I did anywhere else. This was the one thing I did with my time that I loved. It wasn’t always like that. Two years ago I was connected to everything, each day built the foundation for a tomorrow I couldn’t wait to jump into. But now . . . Now I couldn’t help the fear that crept in when I thought about what would happen when I finally got to tomorrow. When I was done with school, when I was a doctor, when I achieved the future I’d worked for . . . what then? For some reason, driving—racing—kept me connected. Connected to a time when my blood ran hot under my skin and my heart craved more life. Always more. Sticking my arm out the window, I smiled at the gush of wind pushing against it as the air blew between my fingers. Cranking up the volume, I inhaled an excited breath as my stomach dropped with the increased speed. I loved those butterflies. I got back to the house quickly, even though the last thing I wanted to do was get out of my car. But I reminded myself that the wind was waiting for me later on tonight, and it would all be good when I was on the track. I had a lot of work to do before I left, though, so I parked the car along the side of Madoc’s house and grabbed my phone off the seat, instantly feeling it vibrate in my hand. Peering down, I saw Juliet’s name. “Hey,” I answered. “Did you get my text?” “Did you get mine?” she burst out, sounding excited. I narrowed my eyes in confusion as I climbed out of the car. “No, but I saw you called.” I swung my backpack over my shoulder and slammed the door shut. “I just got off work, so I haven’t checked my messages yet. What’s up?” I rounded the stone staircase, jogging up the steps to my private entrance. Jared and I used to keep a room here, and I still used it from time to time. Madoc and Fallon were like family, and I’d needed a place to escape to while the entire downstairs of my house was being repainted. “Where are you?” she asked, and I could hear her excited breathing. “I just got home.” I unlocked the door and dropped my backpack inside, switching the phone to the other ear. “At Madoc’s?” she rushed out. I nearly laughed at her urgency. “Alright, spit it out. Is something wrong? Did Katherine go into labor or something?” “No,” she shot back. “I . . . I just need you to stop and listen to me, okay?” I groaned. “Please tell me Jax didn’t hack into Ben’s Facebook and flood it with gay porn again,” I said, kicking off my shoes and walking toward the private bathroom. “No, Jax didn’t do anything,” she answered, but then continued. “Well, he kind of did. We all did. I should’ve told you, and I’m sorry,” she rambled, “but I didn’t know he was going straight to Madoc’s, and I didn’t want you to be ambushed, so—” “What is going on?!” I shouted, pushing open the bathroom door. “Jared is at Madoc’s house!” she finally cried out. But it was too late. I’d already halted. A lump stretched my throat as I stood there, locking my eyes with his dark ones staring at me through the bathroom mirror, her warning coming a second too late. Jared. “Tate, did you hear me?” she yelled, but I couldn’t answer her. I tightened my fist around the doorknob and glued my teeth together so hard my jaw ached. He stood at the mirror, with his back to me, and every muscle in his naked arms and torso was steel-rod tight as he leaned down on his hands and held me with a hard stare. He didn’t seem surprised to see me. And he definitely didn’t look happy. I inhaled short, shallow breaths. What the hell was he doing here? “Tate!” I heard someone shout, but all I could do was watch as he straightened and picked his watch up off the counter, fastening it to his wrist as he held my eyes the entire time. So calm. So cold. It was like a razor cutting through my heart as I resisted a need to rush him. Maybe to hit him or maybe to fuck him, but whatever it was I was going to hurt him. I cemented every muscle in my body to keep myself in check. He wore fitted black pants that hung low on his waist, his feet and torso were bare, and his hair was chaos, like he’d just towel dried it. Our childhood tree filled his back in a stunning black tattoo, and I looked over his shoulder and arms to notice a few new ones. My stomach shook, and I tightened my abs to resist it. It had been so long. His black clothes, his black moods, his nearly black eyes . . . My heart pounded like a drum, and I gritted my teeth, feeling my core tighten. He looked exactly like he had in high school. Gone was any trace of his ROTC days in college. He was a little more muscular, with more angle to his jawline, but it was four years ago all over again. I tipped my chin up, seeing him grab his belt off the counter and turn around, walking toward me. “Tate?” Juliet pressed in my ear. “Tate, did you hear me? Hello?” He stepped up to me slowly, threading his belt through the loops, and my chest was on fire. My heart couldn’t possibly beat any faster, and I hardened my eyes and expression as he stopped a few inches in front of me and hovered. “Tate,” Juliet yelled, “I said that Jared is at Madoc’s!” And the corner of Jared’s lips tilted in a smile, telling me he’d heard her futile warning. “Yes,” I answered, clearing my throat as I glared up at him. “Thanks for the heads up,” I told her. And I brought the phone away from my ear and clicked End Call. His arms worked, fastening his belt, but he didn’t break eye contact. Neither did I. This was natural for Jared. Hover, make me cower in his shadow, threaten with just his presence . . . but it was all in vain. Because that’s just how well I knew myself now. No one dominated me. I kept my voice calm, trying to sound bored. “There are about twenty other rooms in this house,” I pointed out. “Find one.” His eyes turned from threatening to amused, and it was the exact same look I got in the lunch room the first day of senior year in high school when I’d decided to fight back. Jared always got a rush out of challenging me. “You know,” he started, reaching behind the bathroom door and pulling out a white T-shirt. “I smelled you as soon as I stepped foot into the room. Your scent was everywhere,” his velvety voice sent chills over my skin as he continued, “and I thought maybe it was just leftovers from our time here, but then I noticed all your shit.” He gestured to the beauty products on the bathroom counter and then threaded his arms into his short sleeves and pulled the shirt over his head. So he’d come here not knowing he’d find me. At least he wasn’t planning anything, then. He patted his pants pocket and cocked his head, smirking. “I hope you don’t mind, but I borrowed a few of your condoms.” My hand suddenly ached, and I realized I’d been squeezing the doorknob this whole time. I didn’t know if I was angry that he was referring to my sex life or insinuating plans about his own, but the asshole hadn’t changed. He was waiting for me to react. The condoms were leftovers from a year and a half ago, the last time I had sex. They were probably expired anyway. “By all means.” I plastered a tight smile on my face. “Now, if you don’t mind . . .” I cleared the doorway, waving my arm wide and inviting him to get the hell out. A million questions raged through my head. Why was he here? At this house? In my room? Where was his little entourage I’d seen him with on TV and YouTube when I’d given in on lonely nights and Googled him? But then I reminded myself that Jared Trent wasn’t a part of my life anymore. I didn’t need to care about him. He brushed past me, grazing my arm, and I started breathing through my mouth, because the smell of his body wash messed with my nerves. With my memories and a time when I was completely his. I couldn’t stand here with him. Not in this room. I’d never let Ben stay the night when I crashed here, and no one knew, but Jared’s and my homecoming photo still sat in its frame, hidden in the dresser drawer. Along with my charm bracelet he’d given me senior year. I’d wanted it out of my house but not gone. Not yet. This room had played a crucial part early on in our relationship. It was the first space, away from our parents, that was ours—where we could do what we wanted and act the way we chose. To wake up next to each other, to shower together, to make love without fear of who would hear us, to stay up all night talking or watching movies . . . Whether it was the bed, the floor, the shower, the wall, or the bathroom fucking counter, every surface had a memory of him attached to it. I still couldn’t face the fact that I loved being in here, and what’s more, I couldn’t face the fact that I had never let Ben—or anyone else—stay in here. It didn’t matter, though. It was my room, and I didn’t need to explain anything. I crossed my arms over my chest and watched him clip his wallet chain to his pants and tuck his wallet into his pocket. I glanced over, seeing his duffel on the bed, a few clothes—all black, gray, or white—strewn about. “Make sure you take everything with you when you leave,” I ordered, sliding off my socks and tossing them into the hamper by the door. “This is my room now.” “Absolutely,” he said smoothly, and then finished in a hard voice, “Tatum.” I straightened, suddenly feeling the first spark of excitement under my skin—outside of racing, anyway—in a long time. I hated being called “Tatum,” and he knew it. We were back there again. I looked over at him, tilting my mouth into a smile. “Tatum?” I repeated. “Those are tactics you come home armed with?” I asked. He turned his head, eyeing me over his shoulder with a stern expression. I laughed. “The players might be the same, Jared,” I said, untying my scrub pants and letting them fall down my leg, “but the game has changed,” I warned. His deep brown eyes flared just slightly as his gaze swept down the long legs that he used to love and back up to my lacy, white underwear. I turned to step into the bathroom, but I stopped to regard him over my shoulder. “This isn’t high school,” I said, eyeing him playfully. “You’re way out of your depth.” And then I slammed the bathroom door, cutting off his view. Chapter 4 Jared I’d been played. Of course, my mother’s pregnancy had forced me back home, but I should’ve been warned instead of lied to. Tate wasn’t in fucking Italy. She was staying with Madoc and Fallon, which Jax should’ve told me when I’d insisted on coming here first. But no, he’d let me trail my ass upstairs to shower and clean up while we waited for Madoc to get home, and as soon I opened the damn door to that room, her smell hit me like a ten-ton tranquilizer. I was almost dizzy. But then I remembered . . . No. She wasn’t here. She was out of the country. The bed was made. The room was spotless. There was no one staying in here. I’d put my bag down and started to strip as I walked into the shower, but then I noticed that someone was very much staying here. The same products that Tate used to use for her hair and face hugged the back edge of the sink counter, and then I saw her brush, clogged with her blond hair. And that’s when I knew. My eyes fell closed, and I froze. Tate was home. She was home, and she was staying with Madoc and Fallon, and I immediately wanted to see her. Was she okay? Was she happy? What would her face look like when she saw me again? After so long, I just wanted to see her. Until I noticed the condoms. She had a small box sitting in her makeup bag, and they damn well weren’t ours. After she’d gotten on birth control in high school, we’d stopped using them. I pushed away from the sink and nearly ripped off the rest of my clothes, diving into the shower before I broke anything and everything in the bathroom. I hated her. I wanted to hate her. Why did I still want her? Fuck! I kept my head under the hot water for a long time, the loud cascade of heat drowning out my thoughts as I slowly brought myself back down. The condoms were a trigger—a reminder—that she was having sex with someone else. I knew that, and she was free to do it. We weren’t together, and I shouldn’t be upset. She’d never judged me for all the ass I took before we were dating, and her life was none of my business. I shouldn’t be mad. But that didn’t stop me. Reason never stopped me from trying to keep her in my orbit. After I got out of the shower, I emptied the box into the toilet and flushed, and whomever she was screwing could go fuck himself. And that was even truer the second I heard her voice drift in from the bedroom when she’d arrived. I could tell by the one-sided conversation that she was on the phone, and I leaned down, bracing myself on the countertop, knowing she was about to walk in at any second. And then I lifted my head, she opened the door, and . . . And I held her. Everything flooded back. Every breath, every kiss, every smile, every tear, everything about her was mine. Her stormy blue eyes, which have held me captivated since she was ten years old; the heavy rise and fall of her chest, which I’d held flush with mine so many times; and the ten different emotions that crossed her face, each of which had been directed at me at some time or another during high school. They all hit me at once. I still loved her. My pulse raced and I could feel it all through my body. But then she’d stunned me. My natural inclination was to challenge her as I always had, and the words left my mouth without thinking. But she didn’t engage. She didn’t react. I was used to Tate’s bite. She was a wildcat who pushed when you pushed, but this Tate was on a different level. She was condescending and almost cold. I didn’t know this game. I left the room and charged down the stairs and out the front door, trying to push her out of my mind. She wasn’t the reason I was home after all. My mother. My unborn sister. My friends. I headed for the garages, having seen Madoc’s GTO finally sitting in the driveway. The house featured four two-car garages, so I went for the open one and stopped at the entrance, crossing my arms over my chest as I glared at my best friend. “You don’t even look for me when you get home?” I challenged, seeing him pause as he pushed a box onto a shelf. Turning around, he met my eyes with his annoyed blue ones and arched a brow. “Yeah, that’s how it is, isn’t it?” His bored tone kind of made me nervous. “Everyone else has to make the first move with you?” Stepping inside the garage, I kept my stare on him. Madoc wasn’t just my friend. He was my family, and no matter what we went through, that never changed. Anger, trouble, differences, and even distance and time wouldn’t take my best friend from me. I wouldn’t allow it. “I made the first move,” I pointed out. “And the second and third. How many times have I called you, texted, e-mailed—who the fuck even e-mails anymore? But I did it.” I inched closer, lowering my voice. “You never wanted to talk to me. Why?” He crossed his arms over his white-T-shirt-clad chest and dropped his chin, looking like he was searching for words. His blond eyebrows dug deep, and I was floored by how different he seemed. Madoc never shut up. He could vomit story after story and argue any point at the drop of a hat, but now . . . I shook my head. He was actually speechless. Or there were things he clearly wasn’t sure how to say. I heard footsteps behind me and turned my head to see Jax slowly stepping into the garage. He hung back and remained quiet, like he was waiting to see what was going to happen. I twisted my head back around, narrowing my eyes on Madoc. “What the hell’s going on?” Madoc’s eyes flashed to Jax, and then he looked at me, letting out a sigh. Okay, screw this. I got in his face. “Do you remember when Fallon showed up after high school and left you hanging? You left for Notre Dame and cut everyone off. No calls. No contact. Just gone. We had to track you down. You were our friend and we weren’t letting you go. Now I left and you don’t even show the same concern for me?” I bared my teeth. “What the fuck is going on with you?” Madoc ran a hand though his hair and shook his head. Finally, digging into his pocket, he pulled out his keys. “Jax and I want to show you something.” *** As much as I hated riding instead of driving, I decided it was best not to challenge Madoc in his own car right now. Since Jax still drove my old ride, I could push him around, but Madoc and I weren’t at our old comfort level . . . yet. He sped out of his ritzy community of upper-crust homes and down the quiet highway, the day’s last light still glowing through the trees on both sides of the road. Jax sat in the back, fiddling on his phone next to Pasha, who had insisted on coming—because she was bored—and Madoc still wasn’t talking to me. Framing Hanley’s “You Stupid Girl” played over the stereo, and I was still clenching my fists over the buzz running through my body after seeing Tate. As we entered the more populated part of town and Madoc began navigating the residential streets, I figured out where we were going. We passed our old high school and the same street leading in where I used to watch Tate walking to and from school every day. The same corner where I used to catch the ice cream truck with her when we were younger. And then we turned onto Fall Away Lane, and Madoc pulled to a halt in front of my old house, which now belonged to Jax. I rubbed my sweaty palms down my pants, praying like hell that this was going somewhere good instead of bad. But it took only a glance out the window before I noticed it. I tried to speak, but my chest tightened and my words came out breathless. “What the hell happened?” Not waiting for them to answer, I climbed out of the car and traipsed up the incline into the space between our houses. The closer I got, the more I didn’t want to face it. Two cables looped around two branches on both sides of Tate’s and my tree and ran into the ground, securing the heavy maple in place. And at the trunk, what looked like some sort of steel brackets cut into the bark on top of and beneath a nearly two-foot slash across the width of the tree. I ran a hand through my hair, stopping mid-stroke as I took in the sight and tried to wrap my head around what could have done this. “Tate.” I heard Madoc’s raspy voice from behind me. But I barely heard him. I approached the tree, running my hand down the jagged trunk to the shallow gash, letting my fingers dip into the cut. And then the bark bit into my skin as I curled my fist. “She wouldn’t do this.” I swallowed down the trembling in my throat. This tree was us. She would never do this. She would never try to cut it down! “After you left, she went cold,” he started, and I felt him approach. “She wouldn’t talk about you. She wouldn’t come home on the weekends . . .” He trailed off, and I wished I didn’t have to hear this. “I let her have time,” he continued. “I remembered how it felt when I lost Fallon. First loves are the worst pain.” Except Tate never lost me. I was coming back for her. “I came home one day the September after you left,” I heard Jax chime in. “And workmen were bringing down the tree.” No. I closed my eyes. He continued, “But when they sliced into it, she stopped them. She couldn’t do it.” “I think she knew you would never have forgiven her,” Madoc added. “And she would never have forgiven herself once she got her head out of her ass.” I bit the inside of my mouth to stifle my shaky breath. And then I opened my eyes, taking in the damage and almost hating her in that moment. How could she? “I understood at first,” Madoc told me. “I was with you the whole way, man. I knew what you needed to do.” I finally turned around and met his eyes. He and Jax stood back, while Pasha had sat down on the grass with her bag of Sour Punch Bites, playing on her phone. Madoc continued, “But then she stayed distant—she kept pulling away—and it was like slowly the family was breaking. All of us. She wasn’t Tate without you, and without you both, the rest of us had to struggle to keep things together. To feel normal.” I dropped my head back, looking up at the bright green leaves fluttering in the early evening breeze. Aside from the gash, the tree looked healthy. It was repairing, thank goodness. “After a while,” Madoc kept going, “and a lot of persuasion from me, she started to come around. To find her place without you. I think she felt like the fifth wheel all of the time.” “I couldn’t be there for you and for her, Jared,” Madoc explained. “I don’t want to go into it. It’s Tate’s business, but I had to choose, and I’m not going to apologize for that. She needed me more.” While I had a damn hard time understanding why he couldn’t be Tate’s and my friend at the same time, I was glad that if he had to choose, he chose her. Tate had shut me out, she’d kicked me out, and she wouldn’t return texts or calls. But then I realized it wasn’t just me. She must’ve been different for everyone. “There’s more,” Jax said hesitantly. I let out an aggravated laugh, shaking my head. What now? They started walking back from where we came. “Take a look in the front yard,” Madoc called out, gesturing in front of Tate’s house. I didn’t have to walk far. When I spotted the FOR SALE sign on the other side of the driveway, the ache Madoc’s story had created in my gut turned to full-blown rage in my head. “What the hell is going on?” I growled, eyeing the tall white wooden pole planted in the grass that hung the FOR SALE sign in full view of anyone who drove by. Her house is for sale? My eyes shifted from side to side, the flood of thoughts keeping my feet planted to the same spot. Jax stepped forward. “Tate’s off to Stanford in the fall. Her dad is spending most of his time abroad,” he explained and then approached me. “Last week, he decided to sell, since they’re both home so rarely. He’s buying a house closer to work when he’s in the country.” “And Tate was okay with that?” “She had no choice,” Madoc stepped in. “James wouldn’t let her spend her inheritance on buying the house from him. She needs it for medical school.” I squatted down, running my hand through my hair. I breathed in and out, trying to stay calm, but this shit was flipping my world upside down. Tate’s coldness, the tree, the house . . . What did I think was going to happen, anyway? That she was going to stay in this house forever? I knew shit was going to change, and I had to accept it. Tate fell away from me, and her life was as it should be. She was moving forward and on track. But as my lungs filled and emptied, I wished the knots in my gut would hear what my brain was trying to convey. Tatum Brandt isn’t yours anymore. But then my fists tightened, and I looked up at her house. And then at our tree. And then at my house. And I couldn’t accept that. Even after all the good in my life—my business, my career, and how I’d grown—I was satisfied but not really happy. I still loved her. I’d only ever wanted her. “Are there any offers on it yet?” I asked, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “They’ve had two,” I heard Madoc say. Of course. No one could refuse a Leave It to Beaver house like this. The offers would come fast, and there would be plenty. “James rejected both, though,” he continued. “He doesn’t seem to be in too big a hurry to sell. That’s why Tate’s staying at my house for a few days. They’re doing some touch-ups inside for new buyers.” I ran my hand through my hair again, ignoring the fact that Pasha now had her full attention focused on me as she stared wide-eyed, eating her candy. There was only one other time she’d seen me really angry, so she was probably damn well enjoying this show. I looked up at Tate’s house. Perfect white with some summer green trim. A big, beautiful porch. Her manicured lawn sprawling down an easy little hill. I remember loving the sight of the lights glowing inside on cold winter nights as I pulled into my own driveway. And my fucking eyes started burning, and I had to look away. The backyard where we made love the first time. Our bedroom windows facing each other. The tree that connected us. I bared my teeth, inhaling a sharp breath. I’d thought nothing would change. “Jared.” Madoc cleared his throat. “We just told you that your girl tried to cut down your tree. The one you tattooed on your back.” His hard voice got louder. “That the house she’s lived in ever since you’ve known her is up for sale.” “She’s not my girl,” I barked. “She’s not anyone else’s, either!” Madoc shot back. “Tatum Brandt loves one person. You. She will always love you.” His threatening growl was almost a whisper. “She breathes for you, no matter how much she denies it or tries to hide it.” I wanted to believe that was true. That buried inside this new, cold Tate was the girl that still held my heart. Standing up, I slid my hand into my pocket, my fingers fisting around the familiar round of clay that held her fingerprint. After all this time, I still needed the little thumbprint fossil she’d made as a kid. I couldn’t live a day without her. “You should’ve come back for her a long time ago,” Madoc scolded. “I did,” I growled, lashing out at Madoc. “Six months after I left I came back, and she was with somebody else!” I inched back, my limp hand releasing the fossil and falling to my side as I looked at his shocked expression. I nodded breathlessly when he remained speechless. “Yeah, I came back, and it was too fucking late, okay?” Jax knew, but Madoc and I hadn’t been speaking, and from the looks of it, Jax hadn’t told him. I could still feel everything as if it was yesterday. I stand at my old bedroom window, stunned and angry. Frozen and hard. I vaguely recognize the guy. Gavin something. He was from one of her study groups at Northwestern; I’d met him a year ago. I ball my fists. How long did she wait after I left? Tate is in her bedroom, her arms wrapped around his neck as he holds her close, slow dancing with her. He kisses her, and my stomach coils into a knot. His blond hair—matching hers—is cropped short, and she laughs as he hugs her close and swings her around. Six months. She couldn’t even wait six fucking months. I’d waited. I hadn’t screwed anybody. Not a damn thing but my hand—a pathetic loser still pining for her and believing she would wait. Holding out hope that I could get her back. My chest caves, and I zoom in on them, hating that she laughs, hating that he dances with her, and hating that she’s moved on. I still love her. Nothing has faded for me. I fall into the window, my hands gripping the frame as I watch him kiss her neck. His hands are all over her, and she’s smiling. Why is she smiling? She can’t want him. He falls on the bed, taking her with him. She straddles his waist, and I lunge back, jutting my leg out and kicking the glass, hearing it shatter but not staying to survey the damage. Let her move on if that’s what she wants. I will, too, and everything will be done. Bolting out of the house, I jump in my car and head back to my hotel in Chicago, where my team is racing. I’ll forget her. I try to forget her. But I don’t. I didn’t know when she started seeing that guy, but I knew one thing. She was back in the game before I was. “Gavin,” Madoc remembered. “She tried to move on after you left. They dated for a couple of months, but then she broke things off.” He looked me dead in the eyes, but I didn’t want details. “I don’t care,” I maintained. I didn’t want his name or the name of anyone else she’d been seeing. But Madoc pushed on. “She’s been single for over a year, Jared,” he pointed out. “She wasn’t over you, so she cut things off with him when she realized she’d tried to jump back in too fast. It took her a long time to heal, but she needed to try to move on with her life.” He looked at Jax and then back at me. “She only recently started dating someone again,” he said quietly. I cast an angry glance at him but kept my voice low. “Who?” “She started seeing Ben Jamison over spring break.” Jesus. Ben Jamison? “As far as I know, though,” Madoc continued, “they’re taking it slow. It’s not serious yet.” I noticed Pasha staring, unblinking, at the spectacle before her. “What are you staring at?” I growled. She popped a gummy candy in her mouth. “This is better than TV.” I crossed my arms over my chest, forcing my breathing to calm down as I dipped my head. “If she wants him,” I told Madoc and Jax in a calm tone, “then let her be with him.” Madoc let out a bitter laugh. “Take off your pants.” I popped my head up. “Why?” “Because I want to see what a man with a pussy looks like.” Mother . . . I moved right into Madoc’s space, standing chest to chest and glaring down at him. He fell back a step but stood strong, looking like he wanted to drive a hole through my head with his eyes. Jax cut between us, pushing me back as I held Madoc’s stare. “Pasha?” Jax stood in front of me, arms crossed over his chest and looking into my eyes as he spoke to my assistant. “Does my brother drive with a charm hanging on his rearview mirror?” he asked. “It has a thumbprint on it.” I dropped my glare to Jax. “Yeah,” she answered. “And it’s around his neck when he’s on his bike.” Jax continued, his smug smirk pissing me off. “Does he avoid blondes like a preacher in a pink shirt?” I swallowed, hearing Pasha’s snort. “Can’t stand ’em, actually,” she answered. Jax continued, holding my eyes, “Does he have an almost unhealthy obsession with Seether? Specifically, the songs ‘Remedy’ and ‘Broken’?” “I’m to make sure they’re on every playlist,” she shot back, repeating my directions to her. Goddamn it. Jax dipped his chin, eyeing me defiantly. “Now, we can spend weeks going back and forth. You want her. You hate her. You can’t live without her one day. You can’t stand her the next. And we’ll all be ready to strangle ourselves as you two go back and forth, but let me ask you this.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly. “What would you do if Tate was in her room right now, curled up in bed and wearing only a sheet? Where would you want to be?” My face fell, but my body flooded with heat at the idea of her warm body curled up between the sheets. He inhaled a deep breath, knowing he had my number. “We want everything the way it was,” he said firmly. “And so do you.” I shook my head and turned around, away from their eyes. Yeah, I was still attached to her. So what? I was happy with my life. Pretty happy, anyway. I was the man I had set out to be for her when I left. With a job I loved, I was able to invest in my future and start my own business. The freedom to make decisions—to spend my days doing work I loved—gave me not only security but peace as well. I had the kids at the track, the work at the shop, and the time and resources to explore my ideas and passion. I was proud of how I spent my days and of the man I’d become. But my brother was right. She was and would always be the last image in my head when I fell asleep at night. I turned around and dug my cell out of my pocket, deciding that he was right. No more fucking around. “Call my accountant.” I tossed the phone to Pasha. “Buy the house.” “Jared!” She scrambled off the grass, shock flaring in her eyes. “This house is going to cost everything you have!” I did no more than raise an eyebrow at her. She held up her hands and looked away, shaking her head. She was pissed off, but she knew the argument was over. I knew why she was worried, and she had every right to be. She’d put in a lot of work building me, my name, and my business up, and even though it wasn’t her money, she cared about my security. I really liked her for that. I ignored the slight grins Madoc and Jax flashed to each other and started back toward the car, calling over my shoulder. “And call the guys,” I shouted to Pasha. “I want my car here.” Tate was right. The game had changed. She had no idea. Chapter 5 Tate I slink through a glob of people, carrying my red Solo cup into the kitchen to refill. Madoc’s house is a mess. Fallon is having fun—alternating between picking up used cups and chatting with our friends, while her husband is downstairs with Jax, playing pool with some guys. Juliet and I mingle around the party, which is overrun with guests. Everyone had come home for the weekend, and I’d brought Gavin, as well, trying to get my father used to a new guy in my life. “Hey,” he whispers in my ear, coming up from behind. “I’m thinking it’s time to get out of here.” I smile, taking Gavin’s hand off my stomach and spinning around. “I don’t know if we can,” I state. “We’ve both been drinking.”