The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 10

HAYES

I stare at the flames of my gas firepit in front of me, watching the dark blue embers fade into orange. The faint twinkling of stars just visible in the clear night sky, despite the fire in front of me. With my guitar in hand, I randomly stroke some chords, not really making music, just creating a soothing sound as I think about the day.

Maggie is fucking hilarious.

When she first approached me, I could tell she was about to fangirl, but I had no clue she was going to reveal Hattie’s dirty little secret—she likes my music.

Nothing has given me as much joy as the moment I saw her face turn a dangerous shade of red while Maggie rambled on. It will go down in the books as one of the best moments of my life because Hattie will go out of her way to make sure I think she hates me. Completely out of her way, yet, all along she’s been a secret fangirl.

A fangirl.

Has a playlist of my music.

Listens to the “swill” I write.

Hell . . . I hate to admit it, but it makes me feel damn good.

Really good.

“What are you doing out here?” her soft voice says, startling me as I look over my shoulder.

Wearing a pair of silk shorts and a University of San Francisco T-shirt, she has her hair up in a messy bun and her arms crossed over her chest.

“Couldn’t sleep,” I say, knowing it’s way past midnight. “What about you?”

“Same,” she says. “I went to the kitchen for a drink when I saw the fire. I was nervous you left it on, but then saw you sitting over here in the dark like a creep.”

I chuckle. “Like a creep, huh?”

“Yup.”

I nod for her to come sit next to me, and surprisingly, she joins me on the two-person bench I have in front of the firepit.

“Are you cold?” I ask her as she takes a seat and shivers.

“A little. I didn’t think it would be cold out here, even with a fire.”

“That’s the ocean breeze for you.” I set my guitar down and slip my favorite black sweatshirt over my head and hand it to her. “Here, put this on.”

She glances at me and then down at the sweatshirt. “You’re being nice again.”

“I’ll be sure to trip you tomorrow so you land face first into a wall.”

“Deal,” she says as she takes the sweatshirt and slips it over her head, the fabric nearly swallowing her whole. She groans in frustration. “It’s annoying that this smells so good.” She takes a deep sniff of my sweatshirt and lets out a sigh. “Ugh, you smell amazing. Why can’t you smell like dirty fish guts or rotten compost?”

“Sorry, I’ll work on that. I’ll see if Coleman’s has any dirty fish guts I can stick under my armpits.”

“It’s all I’m asking.” She lightly chuckles and pulls her knees into her chest, her arms wrapping around her shins. “Thank you again for letting me and Maggie stay here. I’m pretty sure this is the highlight of her year.”

“It was the highlight of mine too,” I say as I lean back. “Found out the girl who spends every waking hour trying to convince me she hates me, actually enjoys my music. Wait, not enjoys it . . . obsesses over it.”

Hattie buries her head in her hand and groans. “I think I need to resign from my job.”

“You can’t resign. All you’ve done is make a giant mess in my house with no rhyme or reason. You’re not allowed to leave until that’s sorted out.”

“Like I said . . . I have a system.”

“Can’t wait to see how the system actually works,” I reply.

“You’ll be marveled.”

“I’m sure of it.” After a second of silence, I ask, “Is The Reason still your favorite song? Or is there a song for every year you’ve loved me that is your favorite? Maybe a song for every mood?”

“I hate you,” she says, staring out at the fire.

“So you’ve told me.” I nudge her with my hand. “Come on, tell me.”

“No. I refuse to make your head any bigger than it already is. Let’s just go back to pretending I don’t like your music.”

“That’s not going to happen,” I say. “Maggie has opened my eyes, and they’ll never be closed after this.”

“That’s creepy.”

“Perhaps,” I reply. “But it’s the truth.” I nudge her again. “Come on, the least you can do after I let you stay here with Maggie is tell me about my songs. Maybe it’ll help me write something.”

“Oh, don’t start with that, as if I have some magical power that will help you write.”

“Maybe you do. Let’s find out and see.”

From her profile, I catch her rolling her eyes, but despite being annoyed, she says, “The Reason will always be my favorite song of yours for many reasons—no pun intended. I have a lot of memories connected to that song. But when I’m in a good mood, I’ll play Heartstopper because it can keep the joy in my soul. It’s upbeat, and fun, and despite Cassidy being team Ryland, she admitted to loving that song. And when I’m sad and just want to be sad, I listen to The Day I Lost You because it helps me sit in my feelings. After I lost Cassidy, I listened to that on repeat and cried for hours.” I reach out and press my hand to her back, slowly rubbing my thumb in a soothing motion.

“And when I want to get work done and need the motivation, I listen to your Black album. It has the same vibes as Taylor Swift’s Reputation, and it makes me want to fuck things up and get things done. I think I love all the songs on that album equally. But the first song I heard of yours that I loved and would secretly listen to was Sinner Versus Saint. I remember feeling so guilty listening to it, but I immediately fell in love with your voice because it was dark, dreamy, and edgy at the same time.” She shrugs. “There you have it.”

I drag my hand slowly over my mouth. “Wow, I was not expecting that.”

She looks over her shoulder. “Consider it as a thank-you for letting Maggie stay here. It might have pained me to admit all of that, but I think I owed it to you.”

I’m silent for a second because I’m genuinely floored by her honesty. It’s such a rare gift these days, so much so that I’ve almost forgotten what it costs. True honesty. But this girl, apart from her fabrication about liking my music, has been honest. Real. “You realize you owe me nothing, right?”

She turns toward me and says, “Really, Hayes? Without you at the moment, I don’t know where I’d be. Probably speaking the truth to my siblings and sleeping in a studio above my dead sister’s Almond Shop. At least with you, I have something to look forward to.”

“Because I blackmailed you.”

“If I truly didn’t want to be here, I think we both know . . . you would have let me go.”

I stare into her eyes and admit the truth, not stopping myself. “I’d let you do anything, Hattie.”

She tilts her head to the side. “Why?”

I shrug but can feel the reason deep in my soul. I’m fucking lonely.

“Why, Hayes?” she asks, pressing me.

I drape my arm over the back of the bench. “I don’t know, Hattie, maybe because it’s fucking lonely out on the road. That I don’t have as many people close to me as I thought I did. You push me away, but still stay close. You don’t take when other people will . . . and that makes me realize you’re not here to use me, especially since you know you could leave any moment you want, and I won’t hold it against you.”

She fiddles with her hands in her lap. “You’re making it really hard not to like you.”

“Maybe I’m not the kind of guy you should be hating,” I say.

“With every day that passes, I’m beginning to think that.” She turns away, and when I think she’s about to get up and leave, she scoots back against the bench and leans against my arm. But then she scoots in closer and positions her body to lean against my chest and my arm.

Fucking hell.

It’s not cuddling, but fuck, it’s pretty damn close.

I press my lips tightly together as I stare up at the stars, the feel of her pressing into me creating a surprising inner turmoil. I like her. I’ll admit it, I like Hattie Rowley when I know damn well I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t have invited her over this weekend. I shouldn’t have offered her my sweatshirt just now, and I shouldn’t allow her to lean into me like this. But hell if I’m going to stop her because if I’m honest, I was hoping something like this would happen.

I was hoping I could grow closer to her. I was hoping I could experience something more with her. Like when we made cookies, I felt something new . . . something exciting.

She sparked some light into my life.

But like Abel said . . . she’s off limits.

So fucking off limits that what we’re doing right now should be stopped, but when her head drops against my shoulder, for the life of me, I can’t ask her to move.

I want her to move in closer.

I want her to stay here, staring into the fire with me until the early morning starts to rise.

“The stars are beautiful out here with the mountains as a dark backdrop underneath them,” she says quietly. “Living in a city for so long, you forget to appreciate the little things like the stars.”

“But the stars are the one thing that keeps us locked into home,” I say.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“No matter where you are in the world, you can always depend on the stars to keep you grounded, to remind you that you might be away from home, but you’re still connected under the umbrella of the sky.”

She sinks deeper into me as she says, “Did you look up at the stars while on tour?”

“Not at first,” I answer softly. “I was too concerned with leaving. But even though I have a love-hate relationship with this town, there were times I felt . . . lost while on tour. The stars grounded me, gave me peace. I’d ask to be driven out to the country, and I’d hoist myself onto the roof of the car and stare up at the sky. Some of my most peaceful moments were spent there.”

“Cassidy and I used to count the stars together. We’d spend many nights during the summer out on a blanket in the middle of the potatoes before she had Mac, counting and naming them. I haven’t looked up at them since she passed.”

“Naming?”

She nods against me. “We’d group them together and name them after things like . . . old rock bands, or vegetables, or TV stars. There was one time we both named the same star Jim Parsons and ended up laughing for five minutes straight with tears streaming down our cheeks.”

I don’t know what to say or how to respond that wouldn’t make it seem hollow compared to what she just shared. I always strive for less is more, so I move my arm that’s braced over the back of the bench to across her shoulders and tug her in closer.

She gently approves with a sigh.

After what seems like ten minutes, she quickly asks, “What did you do to Ryland?”

“I think that’s something you should talk to your brother about,” I answer. “Because there’s his truth, and then there’s mine.”

“Well, let me hear your truth,” she says.

“I don’t want it to skew your brother’s truth. You deserve to hear it from him and be on his side of the story, not mine.”

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”

I sigh. “Hattie, if I tell you my side first, you’re more likely to favor my story over your brother’s, and even though things are strained between him and me, I’m not about to take the loyalty of his sister. So if you want to know, ask Ryland.”

She shakes her head. “Just your response to that makes me want to believe you more.”

“Don’t,” I say. “It won’t be good for you.”

She turns her head ever so slightly, her eyes matching up with mine, the light of the fire bouncing off her cheek. Quietly, she says, “Maybe it will be.”

Jesus.

Those fucking eyes of hers. Soulful, but also so fucking naive at the same time.

Long, endless lashes frame the pale stones that are her irises.

And they’re starving.

Starving for attention.

“You paint yourself in a light that’s unflattering,” she says, lifting her hand to feel the scruff on my jaw. Her thumb slowly works over it, and fuck, my heart beats faster than I’ve felt in a very long time. “Maybe you shouldn’t anymore, because I’m not seeing the man you try to be. I see someone different.”

Her thumb drags close to my lip, the temptation to suck it into my mouth is so fucking strong.

“You’re seeing a lie.” My breath feels heavy in my chest as she leans in an inch closer.

Fuck, don’t kiss me, Hattie.

Please don’t fucking kiss me.

I won’t be able to stop you.

I won’t be able to stop myself.

She moves in another inch, her eyes matching mine so we’re at the same level.

“I think you’re telling me a lie, and I’m seeing the truth.”

Her tongue peeks out, wetting her lips.

My body stills.

My muscles tense.

My need skyrockets as she moves one inch closer.

Motherfucker, I want this.

I want those lips.

I want this girl.

I want every goddamn thing about her.

With nothing but a whisper of a breath between us, her thumb drags across my jaw. “Maybe you’ll stop lying to me . . . to yourself.”

And then she pulls back, taking the air straight from my lungs with her.

Standing, she takes off my sweatshirt, but I stop her while my pulse rockets through my body. My voice sounds garbled as I say, “Keep it.”

“Keep your sweatshirt?”

“Yeah.” I swallow hard as I stand as well.

She gathers the fabric at the collar and gently brings it to her nose before sniffing. When her eyes open, they dreamily look up at me. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

Fuck . . .

“Yeah, you smell so good, Hayes.”

I wet my lips as well, staring down at her, unsure of what to fucking say. This is bad. This is really fucking bad.

“You know, you could tell me that I smell good as well.” She tugs on the hem of my shirt. “That would be the kind thing to do, though I know you hate being kind to me.”

Not even the slightest.

I want to be nice to you.

You’re the first fucking person, besides my grandma and Abel, I want to be nice to.

She peers up at me, waiting for a response, and because I’m the biggest dumbass in the world, I reply, “You smell really fucking good, Hattie.”

With a satisfied smile, she loops her finger through one of my belt loops and tugs me an inch closer. “What do I smell like?”

I can feel the heat of her body up against mine and can practically taste her heartbeat.

“Are you trying to get us in trouble?”

“Maybe,” she says, not looking shy at all, more ravenous than anything.

I’m tempted to lift my hand to her cheek, to deepen this moment into something more, but Abel’s words pump through me, his warning to stay away. So I keep my hands to myself as I say, “You smell like electric sunshine.”

“Electric sunshine?” she asks. “What exactly does that smell like?”

I shift, my body precariously growing closer. “Radiance with a zing, like soft summer meadows zapped by lightning. Like a sweet combination of fire and rain. Soft and edgy. Bright and dark all in one.”

She stares up at me, a studying look in her eyes.

When she doesn’t say anything, I ask, “What?”

“How many women have you said that to?”

“You want to know?” I ask.

“Yes.” She nods. “I do.”

I bring my finger under her chin, tilt it up and say, “None. That was for you and you alone.”

Fucking leave . . . now.

If you don’t, you will kiss her.

Don’t fucking kiss her.

Jaw clenched, I step away, and she lets go of my belt loop as I move toward the back entrance of the house. I open the heavy sliding glass door for her, and she takes the hint—the night is over for us.

When I shut the door, she turns toward me, drowning in my sweatshirt, looking so goddamn beautiful it actually hurts. “Walk me to my room?”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” she asks innocently, but there is nothing innocent in her eyes.

“You know exactly why,” I answer as I step back and then nod toward the hallway leading to her room. “Go on, Hattie, go to your room.”

She doesn’t respond, not right away. She’s almost to the hallway when she turns around and says, “You’re not the dick I thought you were, Hayes. And that should be terrifying for us both.”

Then she leaves, vanishing into the darkness of the hallway. Her words beat rapidly through me.

Because she’s right.

If Hattie doesn’t think I’m the man she thought I was, yeah, that’s terrifying for us both.


“ARE you going to get a haircut soon?” Grandma asks as I walk into her apartment.

“Good to see you too, Gran,” I say. I set down a plate of the cherry almond cookies I can’t stop consuming and offer Gran a kiss on the cheek. Hattie and Maggie helped me make more cookies this morning before they went off to have a pool day in my backyard. I knew the minute they headed to their rooms to change into their bathing suits, I needed to leave. No fucking way was I about to sit around and catch Hattie prancing around in a bikini.

No, that would destroy the crumbling resolve I’ve tried to desperately hold on to where Hattie is concerned.

A visit to my grandma’s is exactly what I need.

They’re always sobering.

“Well, are you?” she asks.

“Gran, I got one a few weeks ago.”

“That can’t be the truth. You look like you have a mop on your head.”

I toss around my thick hair on the top that I keep longer than the sides. “This is how I wear it.”

“Stop joking with me. It looks like there’s a dead raccoon on your head.”

See . . . sobering.

“What have you been up to, Gran? Besides counting the millimeters of hair growth on my head?” It’s healthy to change the subject with her. It keeps the conversation fresh, or she’ll drag down the same topic until it’s dead and buried.

“Being smart with me, I see,” she says as she adjusts herself in her chair to pull back her window curtain with her cane. She uses the end and points down to the house in front of hers. “See those children down there playing? The Macabees? They keep throwing rocks at the fire hydrant. I hope one of them knocks off the screw, and they get popped in the face with a blast of water.”

Did I mention she’s an old crotch?

Because she is.

The biggest of them all.

“I mentioned their disrespect to the Peach Society, and they said they’d have a conversation with the parents. But I don’t think it’s happened yet because I still see them throwing rocks. Is that what the world has come to? Throwing rocks at innocent fire hydrants?”

“It’s almost as if they’re forced to play outside rather than be on their electronics,” I say.

“Exactly! We have screens for a reason. Stick them in front of one.”

I chuckle and shake my head. “Some people might say that more kids need to be outside.”

“Nonsense. Screens keep them out of trouble.”

“Whatever you say, Gran.”

“When are you going to give me great-grandchildren?”

Oh Jesus, here we go again. I swear great-grandchildren and her impending death are her favorite things to discuss. I don’t think she sees the irony of the two things. If she dies, there will still be no great-grandchildren.

“Not for a while unless you want me having children out of wedlock.”

“I don’t care how you have them. Impregnate a giraffe for all I care. I just want great-grandchildren. I’m not getting any younger, you know. I broke my hip. Do you know what that means? I’m dying in six months.”

Wow, she combined them today. I’m impressed.

I pinch the bridge of my nose. “If you’re dying in six months, how could I possibly give you great-grandchildren if it takes at least nine months to make one?”

“I don’t know. You have your ding-a-ling that’s been around the block. Any accidents happen?”

Jesus Christ, did they give her an upper today?

“No accidents, Gran. I always wrap up.”

She huffs her disappointment. “Well, that’s upsetting. I’m going to die without great-grandchildren.”

“Who says you’re dying in six months?” I ask. “Abel didn’t say anything about that. He said you’ve made a remarkable turnaround since I was called to come back home, making me wonder if you made it seem worse than it is.”

Her mouth falls open, and she clutches her chest in surprise. “Do you think I’d do such a thing?”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I do. I wouldn’t put it past you.”

“Well, you’re wrong. I’m dying in six months, and when that happens, I’ll watch you eat your words.”

“How will you be able to watch if you’re dead?” I ask her.

Her eyes narrow, and she points her cane at me. “Don’t get smart with me, boy. I will haunt you so hard, you’ll fear closing your eyes at night.”

I truly believe her. This woman can pretty much will anything into fruition with an evil sneer and a call out to the universe, even her death in six months.

I hold my hands up and say, “Okay, so you’re dying in six months. What should we do to make sure you have the best six months of your life?”

“For one . . . get you married.” She brings both hands to the top of her cane and says, “Any prospects?”

Immediately, Hattie comes to mind, which fuck, that’s annoying. She’s never even been on my radar. Now she’s the first fucking person I think of? Jesus . . . no, think of someone else.

Anyone.

Maybe that big-boob girl who never sucked your dick. What was her name again?

Hattie . . .

No.

Not Hattie.

Carla?

Annise?

No . . .

Hattie.

My inner turmoil gets the best of me because before I can think of some random girl’s name, Gran stares me down, the maturity in her eyes like a pointed finger, demanding me to tell the truth.

“You’re about to lie to me. Do not lie to me. You know I have my way of finding things out, so you might as well tell the truth.”

I lean back in my chair and sigh. “Gran, there aren’t any women in my life.”

“Hayes Richard Farrow, I know that look in your eyes. There is someone. Now tell me.”

Dammit. I tug on my hair that apparently needs to be cut. “Gran, I can’t tell you because it’s really not anything, and if it becomes something, it’ll be bad.”

“Is she married?”

“What?” I ask. “No. I’d never do that.”

“Good.” Gran nods her head. “At least I taught you something.”

“You taught me a whole lot more than just that,” I reply.

Her expression eases, and she shifts in her seat, puffing her chest. “Look at you flattering me, even on my deathbed.”

“You’re not on your deathbed, Gran.”

“I broke my hip. That means I’m about to die. It happens to all the old people, so if you would please tell me who this person is so I can die in peace, I’d appreciate it.”

Christ.

I scratch the side of my jaw. “It’s complicated. I don’t know how I feel about her, okay? So don’t get all weird on me, and I swear, Gran, if you say anything, I might not come visit you on your deathbed.”

She pokes me with her cane right in the quad, and fuck, it hurts.

“Ouch,” I say, rubbing the spot.

“Don’t you dare threaten me about my deathbed.”

“You know what I mean. I need this to stay between us.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s highly sensitive, and you know this town. The minute someone says anything, it spreads like wildfire, especially with the Peach Society.”

“I think you’re overthinking it, but sure, this will stay between us. I can keep a secret like the best of them. Remember when you puked right before you went out on stage for the first time to perform at Five Six Seven Eight? I didn’t tell anyone, did I?”

“You didn’t. You just kicked the puke under the curtain and told no one, only for Ethel to find it later and scream bloody murder.”

“Served her right. She deliberately wore pink that day because she knew I was wearing pink and then flirted with Rodney right in front of me. Too bad for her, he didn’t find her flamboyancy the least bit attractive. No one constantly wants boa feathers flying in their face. Not to mention, he knew she was only interested in women and was using him as a tool.”

“I think we might have gotten slightly off topic,” I say.

“I don’t like that woman.” Gran crosses her arms over her chest and stares out the window. “She has perfectly working hips, and I bet she’s going to throw that in my face. That’s what happens when you’re loose in the hips, always spreading your legs—”

“Okay, Gran,” I say uncomfortably.

“You have loose hips when you’re older.” Okay, I guess we’re not done here. “But I was a celibate angel for many years. So many years that I sneezed once, and a dustball flew into my underwear.” Fucking Christ. “And do you know how humbling that is, Hayes? To find a dustball in your underwear?”

Lips pulled tight, I slowly nod and squeak, “Quite humbling.”

“Exactly. And what do I get for being a born-again Virgin Mary? A broken hip that’s going to kill me in six months. And there’s Ethel, kick-ball-changing down the boardwalk with her loose, whore hips.” She waves her fist toward the window out of pure agony. “Life is not fair.”

And I think we might be done with the conversation about me, thankfully. I’ll take her dustball talk over discussing Hattie any day. Because I still don’t know what’s going on with that, how I feel, and what the hell I’m doing, so telling Gran would honestly not make any sense.

“And do you know what else bothers me about that woman besides her whore hips?” Gran continues.

This will be one hell of a rant, so I might as well get comfortable. I snag a cookie from the plate, lean back in my chair, and say, “What else do you not like, Gran?”


CHRIST, I’m worn out.

Between Gran hating on Ethel to her complaining about the boardwalk planks and how they’re not walker friendly—something I agreed to—and the agony of hearing what songs she wants me to sing at her funeral when she dies in six months—Dream A Little Dream Of Me—I’m exhausted.

I took my car because I knew Hattie wasn’t going anywhere, so I parked it in front of the driveway and headed into the house through the front door. I toss my wallet on the entryway table, and just as I look up to head to the kitchen, I stop. Hattie’s walking into the house through the sliding glass door, wearing a tiny yellow bikini.

She’s fine as fuck.

Small triangles cover her small tits, and thin straps of her bottoms arch over her slim hips. The fabric’s so thin that I’m not sure how it stays in place. Her toned body is basically on full display. The word want rushes through my mind.

When she glances up and sees me, a large smile spreads across her face as she says, “I’m drunk.” And she throws her arms up as if we’re supposed to celebrate this accomplishment. “I’m so, so drunk.” She giggles and moves to the kitchen. “Want to get drunk with us?”

Yes.

And I want to tug that bikini off with my teeth.

“Uh . . . probably not a good idea,” I say as she turns away from me, showing off the thong of her bathing suit.

I inwardly groan as my eyes fall to her pert little ass, cheeks smooth, the faintest stretch marks along the side. The girl is all-natural, just what I fucking like. And I’m not surprised she has them because compared to her body’s structure, she has a juicy ass, something I can sink my fingers into and grip tightly while pounding into her.

“Are you staring at my butt?”

“Huh?” I ask, snapping my eyes up to see Hattie has turned around now with a pitcher of pink liquid.

“You were staring at my ass. Hayes Farrow, how dare you?”

I grip the back of my neck. “What did you expect me to do when you walked in here wearing that?” I ask.

“Be a mature adult.”

“I’m mature and an adult, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to look at a sexy ass when I see one.”

“Sexy, huh?” she asks as she spins around and jiggles her butt in my direction. “You like this?”

I smile and nod. “Yeah, I fucking do.”

She turns back around and clutches the pitcher to her chest. With a smile on her face, she says, “Pervert.” And then takes off toward the backyard. “You should join us. It might be fun to have a man to stare at. I like Maggie, but her boobs are just obnoxious. I’m getting jealous.”

“Yeah, like I said, I’m going to pass,” I say.

“Shame, you could have a good time with us.”

“I’m sure, but I should work on some music,” I lie. “Have fun.” Without another look, I take off toward my studio, and when I step inside, I shut and lock the door behind me before flopping on my couch and dragging my hands over my face. Christ, the sight of her ass in that thong will stick with me for a very long fucking time.

Too long.

I reach for my guitar but then stop myself. Instead, I reach for my notebook as a thought pops into my mind. The color of her bathing suit matches the way she smells and the joy she seems to bring into the room. Electric sunshine.

I can’t describe it any other way.

And that’s what I write down in my notebook.

Electric sunshine, from there . . . I describe exactly what that is and how Hattie embodies everything about it.


BOTTLE OF TEQUILA IN HAND, I lean back on my couch and let out a deep breath as I drunkenly stare up at the ceiling. The feeling of euphoria screams through me.

I did it.

I wrote a song.

A fucking good one.

It was as if something of greater power had taken over me, and the words flowed with the image of Hattie in my mind.

My pen flew across my notebook.

My mind was rabid with descriptions, with the need to taste her through my words.

The desperation.

The forbidden temptation.

The powerful yearning.

It drained out of me, leaving me spent and drunk.

And Jesus Christ, it’s so good. Probably one of the best songs I’ve ever written.

The only problem is . . . since every last word is about Hattie, I can’t share it with the world.

Why? Because she’d know. She’d know it was about her when she heard the lyrics. It’s why I can’t give it to the studio.

It’s why I’m currently drinking.

And it’s why I’m staring at Ruben’s text, feeling agitated.

Ruben: Just checking in.

Yeah, that’s all he’s doing, checking in. And I know it’s his job, but Jesus fucking Christ, I can’t just perform when he says perform.

I tip my bottle back in my mouth, take a giant swig, then wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and text him back.

Hayes: You’re annoying the shit out of me. Fuck off, Ruben.

There. That should do it. I set my phone to the side and clutch my bottle close to my chest just as my phone rings next to me.

Of course, the fucker calls. I shouldn’t have expected anything less.

I lift the phone, answer it, then press it to my ear.

“What?” I say.

“Want to talk about it?” he says, knowing me all too fucking well.

“No,” I answer.

“Hayes, come on . . . what’s going on?”

Ruben is the type of guy who presses, who won’t let you get away with not speaking your feelings—hence the phone call. Normally, I’d tell him everything is fine, but everything doesn’t feel fine.

Everything feels out of control.

Uncomfortable.

Agonizing.

And I need to get it off my chest.

“What’s going on?” I ask. “Well, besides the fact that I think I like a girl who I shouldn’t like, and fuck is she beautiful, and sweet, and her freckles, fuck, Ruben, her freckles. She’s . . . she’s charming, and she listens, and she makes me feel less alone, and I don’t like that because I shouldn’t like her, I shouldn’t want to talk to her, to be near her, but hell do I want to be near her, all the goddamn time. I want to go talk to her right now, and she smells . . . she smells so damn good, and the song I wrote, yeah, that’s about her, but there is no way in fuck I can hand over the song to you despite it being really fucking good because if she found out I liked her then everything would be ruined, ruined for her and I can’t ruin her, she’s so much sunshine and promises, and I can’t ruin that . . . so, yeah, despite that, everything is just fucking great.”

“Okay,” Ruben says calmly. “That’s a lot to process. Let me see if I’ve got this right. You like a girl. You shouldn’t like this girl. But you wrote a song about her. But you can’t turn it in.” Wow, he’s good. “Why can’t you hand over the song?”

“Because she’ll know it’s about her. Immediately. She’ll know, and she can’t know.” I shake my head. “She can’t know that I like her. No one can know.”

“That’s fair,” Ruben says. “Can I ask, why can’t anyone know?”

“It’s Ryland’s little sister,” I say, dragging my hand over my face.

“Ryland, the guy who hates you?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought his sister passed.”

“He has three sisters. Hattie is the youngest. Fucking twelve years younger than me, Ruben. Twelve years. Like . . . fuck, I’m a pervert for even looking at her.”

“No, you’re not.” Ruben pauses. “Wait, is this the girl who’s working for you?”

“Yup,” I say, popping the P in yup. “The same girl. At first, it was easy just to ignore her, but she got under my skin. I think about her a lot. I catch myself staring, wanting to talk to her more. I thought maybe it was because I’m lonely. This job is so fucking lonely, Ruben. Everyone wants something from you besides friendship, you know? And she . . . she just stuck around. Talked to me. Joked around, despite us pretending to hate each other, and I saw her in a fucking bikini when I got home, one of those thong ones, you know what I’m talking about?”

“Yes, I do,” Ruben says. “Hard to look away.”

“Exactly!” I nearly shout. “And I couldn’t look away. I just kept staring, and I lost it. I lost all will. I kept looking, and last night, fucking hell, last night.”

“Dare I ask what happened last night?”

“She bombarded me outside by wearing my sweatshirt and cuddling into my side, and we watched the starry night sky, and that’s when I realized how much she smelled like electric sunshine, and I just like her, Ruben, I fucking like her, but I can’t. Abel will kill me. Ryland will kill me. I’d destroy her. She’s so innocent and perfect. I’m not the guy for her, so I came into my studio and started writing. The more the words flowed, the more I drank, and now, I’m halfway done with a bottle and done with a song at the same time. And it’s all about her, how she smells, how I’m desperate for one taste of her cherry lips, how I’d ask for one night to explore her and . . . and she would know it’s about her.”

“Which is bad.”

“Yes, very bad,” I say. “So bad.”

“Okay, well . . . this is good.”

My nose curls from his response. “What do you mean this is good?” I ask. “How is any of this good?”

“You’ve told me that you write your best when you’re tortured, and it seems you’re currently tortured.”

“But I can’t turn this song in.”

“Then don’t. But at least it got you writing. This is just the start. It might not feel good, but this is a good thing, Hayes.”

I pause. “I want to punch you.”

“I know.” He chuckles. “Hang in there. This is where the good comes.”

“Well, what the hell do I do about the girl?”

“That’s up to you. I can’t tell you what to do with your life, but if you’re this tortured over it, you need to see which will be worse—not being with her or being with her and facing the consequences of that decision.”

“Not . . . helpful,” I say as I stand from the couch, bottle in one hand, phone in the other.

“I’m sorry, but this is a decision you’ll have to make on your own.”

“That’s what I thought,” I say. “I need to eat something.”

“Okay, call me when you’re sober.”

“Doubtful,” I say as I hang up and toss my phone onto the couch.

I open my studio door and bring my bottle as I make my way to the kitchen, the house sounding pretty quiet. Thank God they went to bed. I’m not sure I could take one more look at Hattie in a goddamn bikini.

I turn the corner to the kitchen and stop when I see her, leaning against the counter, a cookie in hand, wearing my goddamn sweatshirt.

Fuck.

When she sees me, she says, “I’m eating a cookie.”

I lift my bottle to my lips and say, “I’m drunk.”

A smirk passes over her lips. “Getting drunk all alone? Why didn’t you join us?”

“Because I didn’t want to,” I say as I move into the kitchen and set my bottle on the counter. My eyes fall to her bare legs, then slowly climb to her eyes. “You’re eating my cookies.”

“We made them together, so our cookies.”

“My house, my rules,” I say as I take the cookie from her and shove the rest of it in my mouth, causing her eyes to widen.

“Hey, I was eating that.”

“And now it’s in my stomach. Your loss, my gain.” I walk over to the fridge and open it up, looking for anything but pickles to eat, but of course I come up short, so I shut the fridge and lean against it as I watch Hattie pick up my bottle of tequila and bring it to her lips. She takes a swig and smirks at me. “That’s mine.”

“And now it’s in my stomach. Your loss . . . my gain.”

I close the distance between us and take the bottle from her, only to step away, my eyes remaining on hers the entire time. “You should go back to bed.”

“Why’s that?” she asks.

“It’s not safe for you out here.”

“Maybe I don’t want safe.”

“You do,” I say as I take another swig of tequila, my brain feeling too fucking fuzzy to be close to her.

“Or maybe I want to do something dangerous for once.”

I shake my head, but she moves toward me and dances her fingers up my chest. “I’m trouble,” I say.

“Good,” she replies as her hand trails down my stomach, but I stop her, my hand gripping her wrist. And then, in a flash, I twist her so she’s pinned against the fridge, her arm extended above her head where I lock it in place.

Don’t do it, man.

Don’t play with fire.

Drop her hand and leave.

You’re too drunk to even consider being near her.

But common sense never wins when tequila is involved.

“I told you I’m trouble,” I say as I bring the bottle of tequila up to her mouth, and I slowly move the opening of the glass over her plump lips. She parts them, and I tip the bottle up so the liquid flows into her mouth. She swallows the small amount I give her and licks her lips, soaking up every last drop. “Don’t you see that, Hattie? Don’t you see that I’m trouble?”

“I do,” she answers.

“So you shouldn’t be out here with me, you should be in your room, sleeping.”

“Maybe I came out here on purpose, knowing you were in your studio.”

“Why didn’t you just go to my studio?” I ask, lifting the bottle to my lips, wishing I could taste her lips on the glass, but I’m not that lucky.

She watches me swallow the tequila right before I set the bottle on the counter beside her. When she stares up at me, her hand still clasped by mine, she says, “I was too afraid.”

“Good. You should be afraid,” I say as I bring my free hand to her thigh and drag it up to her hipbone. Her breath hitches in her chest. Fuck, she’s not wearing any underwear. “Are you wearing anything under my sweatshirt, Hattie?”

She shakes her head. “I’m not.”

“Bad move.” And then I slide my hand up her side, dragging up my sweatshirt until I reach her rib cage. “Tell me what you want,” I say, my breath heavy, the feel of her soft skin under my calluses so goddamn extraordinary.

“I . . . I don’t know.”

“Wrong answer,” I say as I spin her around so her chest and hands press against the fridge. I grab her elbows and push them up so her hands extend toward the ceiling, and then I force her to grip the top of the fridge. Speaking close to her ear, I say, “Don’t fucking let go of that.”

She nods as I take a step back and look her over. The bottom of her ass is showing, giving me just enough of a view to make my mouth water, my body needing more.

In the back of my mind, I’m telling myself to walk away, to leave this girl alone, but my body has other thoughts as I smooth my hand under the sweatshirt and lift it to show off the rest of her ass.

“Spread your legs,” I say, and when she does, I slide my hand down one globe to her hamstring and then to her inner thigh, causing her to tip her head forward and moan. “You planned this, didn’t you? Putting on my sweatshirt, knowing it would make me feel possessive, not wearing anything under it because it would make me feel unhinged. This was all thought out so you could manipulate your way into my goddamn bed.”

“I thought you didn’t want me in your bed.”

I push up against her, letting her feel my erection against her leg. “You know goddamn well that was a lie.”

She sucks in a sharp breath. “Why are you so mad?”

“Because you’re off limits,” I say, dragging my hand down her ass again and then pulling up between her legs, getting so close to where I want to touch her that I feel the heat of her arousal on my fingers.

“I thought you make the rules.”

“I do, and the rules are . . . you’re off limits.”

“Then why are you touching me?”

“Because you’re tempting me,” I growl and move up behind her, her ass pressing against my crotch as my hands fall to her hips.

“You’re so hard.” She wiggles her butt against me, turning me on even more.

“Don’t do that,” I say, keeping her hips still. For the love of God, don’t do that.

“Afraid you might fuck me?”

“Afraid I might destroy you,” I growl as I move my hands back to her ribs, feeling every bone, every divot.

Her lungs work feverishly under my touch, and as I slowly slide my fingers directly under her breasts, I can feel the pause in her lungs, the catch of her breath.

“God, Hayes,” she groans, her ass pushing against me. “T-touch my breasts.”

“No,” I say, even though my need for her screams yes. I move my forehead to the back of her head and slide my index fingers up an inch, just so I can feel the slight plump of her breasts. “Fuck,” I grumble as a war battles deep inside me.

Touch her.

Take what you want.

Don’t . . . don’t ruin her.

I bite on my bottom lip as my index finger slowly runs north until it hits the point of her nipples.

“Yessss,” she moans, and I snap.

Momentarily.

I glide my index finger over the hot nub, flicking it back and forth a few times, making me so goddamn hard that my erection presses painfully against the zipper of my jeans.

“Tell me to stop,” I whisper.

“No,” she says. “No, I want this. Please don’t stop.”

The devil inside me wonders how much I could turn her on without touching her where she wants to be touched.

How much will she allow me to feel her, to experience her without giving her what she wants?

Only one way to find out.

Don’t do it, a tiny voice in my head says, but I ignore it as I bring my hands back down her sides, past her ribs, to her hips. The sexy moan of betrayal that falls past her lips only spurs me on as I run my fingertips inward, right to her pubic bone, where she’s completely bare.

Fuck.

Me.

“Touch me,” she whispers. “Please, I’m so wet.”

“Christ,” I groan as I’m tempted to dip my fingers inside her, so tempted that my pinky slips lower, passing over her slit just once. She sucks in a harsh breath, her hips seeking relief, but I give her none.

“Hayes, please.”

“No,” I say softly into her ear. “I refuse to touch you like that.”

“Don’t leave me like this. I’m so turned on. Stop teasing me,” she complains.

“This is all you’ll ever get,” I say as I bring both my hands to her inner thighs and then drag them so dangerously close to her pussy, that the backs of my thumbs barely touch her labia. It’s the lightest touch, but enough for her to groan in frustration.

“Please, Hayes.”

“No,” I say, my brain finally kicking in, taking over as my dick cries out in protest.

“Feel how wet I am.”

“No,” I reply as I drag the tips of my fingers to her breasts, allowing my index fingers to pass over her nipples one last time.

One flick.

One more.

Fuck . . . one more.

“God,” she cries out in frustration as she turns around and faces me.

Her eyes are wild in the moonlight.

Her chest heavy with desire.

And when she stares up at me, I feel this demanding need to crash my mouth against hers.

To claim her.

Mark her.

I slap my hand against the fridge and prop myself up as I grip her hip, steadying myself.

“Fuck me,” she says.

I drop my head and shake it. “No, Hattie. I won’t.”

Her response . . . she cups my length, taking me into the small palm of her hand.

“Mother . . . fucker,” I cry out, a hiss passing my lips at the same time. When I open my eyes, I find hers wide, surprised.

“You’re . . . huge.”

“Another reason you can’t have me. You won’t be able to handle it.”

I remove her hand and then say, “Spread your legs.”

“Hayes, I’m not—”

“Spread them. Now. I will not say it again.”

She spreads them. I cover the back of her hand with mine and bring it between her legs.

I won’t touch her, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use her hand to touch herself and give her what I want.

“Have you ever touched yourself before?” I ask.

“Only . . . only when I’m alone.”

“How do you like it?” I ask. The thought of her masturbating spurs my need for her.

“Two fingers,” she answers.

I wet my lips and press her two fingers against her clit. She exhales sharply as her body leans against the fridge again.

“Tell me what your pussy feels like. Describe it to me.” I move her two fingers in tight circles, rubbing against her clit. Her hand falls behind her, steadying against the fridge as she trembles from the touch.

“Warm,” she answers. “So fucking wet, Hayes. Drenched.”

“Hell,” I mutter, leaning in closer.

“I’ve never been this turned on, ever.”

“It’s why I shouldn’t be doing this,” I whisper, picking up the speed, knowing she’ll fall over quickly from the reaction I’m already getting from her. “This is dangerous. You’ll want more, and I can’t give that to you.”

“Give me what you can,” she says, her breathing more labored. I reach down and take her loose hand in mine. I clasp her hand with mine and bring it above her head while we massage her clit to the point of no return.

“This is it,” I whisper. “Nothing else and never again. Don’t ask for it. Don’t beg. This is all it will ever be.”

“Fuck,” she says, her body shaking. I release my hand from between her legs and prop it against the fridge, not wanting to feel her come close to my fingers. I won’t be able to withstand it. “Hayes, I need you.”

“Make yourself come,” I say as I release her other hand and step back.

Her eyes widen in surprise as I move all the way to the island and place my hands on the counter, holding myself in place.

“Hayes.”

“Do it, Hattie,” I say in such a dark, sinful tone that her hand pauses momentarily. “Make yourself . . . come. Now.”

She gulps, and to my fucking demise, she slips her other hand under her sweatshirt, dragging it up until it reaches her breast. There, she cups her breast, kneading it and flicking her nipple. I stand there in fascination, watching the whole time as she brings herself closer and closer.

Her breath frantic.

Her legs shaking.

Her head falling back as her neck tenses . . .

“Fuck,” she cries out as her fingers wildly fly over her clit, her body shattering before me as she comes. Once she catches her breath and her eyes meet mine, she says, “If I didn’t do that, if I didn’t make myself come, would you have left me like that?”

“Yes,” I answer.

“Why?”

“Because I told you I was trouble, Hattie. You were warned.” My brain snaps out of the haze I was just in, reality smacking me so hard in the face that it feels like I’m suffering from whiplash.

You stupid motherfucker.

What the hell did you do?

“You would leave me turned on? That’s shitty,” she says, her post-orgasm haze dissolving quickly.

“That’s what I am, Hattie. A shitty person, I never tried to be any different.”

“That’s such bullshit, Hayes,” she replies, stepping forward, but I move past her and grab my bottle of tequila. “You’re not that man.”

I lean in right next to her face and say, “And I’ve told you over and over again, I am that man. You’re off limits, and that’s all you’ll ever be. Go to bed. Forget this ever happened.”

And with that, I head toward my bedroom with one thing on my mind, getting my cock in my hand and the rest of this bottle into my stomach.

I fucked up.

And now I need to erase it from my memory. Pathetic, Farrow, just pathetic.


TEQUILA DID me fucking dirty last night.

Usually, we get along. Usually, we have a good time. Usually, we can easily forget the next day.

Not this time.

Tequila didn’t let me forget one goddamn thing.

Not the sound of Hattie’s gasps in my ear.

Not the feel of her tight nipple under my finger.

Not the way she shuddered under her own hand as she came.

Not one goddamn thing.

Instead, tequila imprinted every fucking moment of squaring her off against the fridge in my mind to the point that I woke up with such a huge erection that I had to take immediate care of it in the shower, despite making myself come last night the moment I got back to my room.

And I still feel uneasy.

I still feel like I could explode at any minute.

Like the key to the release of this pain, this pent-up desire rests inside Hattie only. Fuck, to be inside her hot pussy.

It’s a brutal reality that forced me out of my house so I didn’t have to see her this morning. Not sure I could withstand seeing her morning hair and the semi-unsatisfied look in her eyes.

It’s why I’m in town right now, headed to The Sweet Lab for some coffee. Anything to get this crushing feeling out of me.

I set my helmet on my bike, pocket my keys, and then head toward the front of the store. Hands in my pockets, I round the corner just as another person collides with me, spilling coffee between us.

“Fuck,” he says. “I’m sorr—”

But his voice dies off as we look up and make eye contact.

Ryland Rowley.

It was bound to happen. The town is small enough for us to bump into each other, but this . . . this feels so much heavier than when we ran into each other in the past. Because this time, I have the sounds of a turned-on Hattie lingering in my brain.

Ryland’s brows drop, and he backs away. Luckily, neither one of us got coffee on our clothes, just over his hand and on the ground between us.

Unsure what to do, I tug on my neck and point at his coffee. “Want me to replace that?”

The man I once called my best friend scowls at me. “I don’t need your fucking charity.”

“Wasn’t offering charity.”

He transfers his to-go cup and shakes his wet hand to get the coffee off.

“Fuck,” he mutters.

“I can grab napkins . . .”

His eyes snap up to mine. “Does it look like I want your help? Jesus, read the room.”

That just makes me stuff my hands in my pockets as I let him figure it out on his own. And I don’t know what comes over me, maybe it’s the bitterness in me, or the internal burning from not being able to take what I want, or the fact that he treats me like such shit when I don’t deserve it, but I say, “I see Hattie’s in town.”

That makes him lock eyes with me again. “Why the hell would you say that?”

“Just making conversation.”

He takes a step forward, the smell of his coffee wafting between us. “Stay away from her.”

“What makes you think I’d go near her?” I ask, standing my ground.

“To fuck with me,” he replies.

“Yes, because my mission in life is to fuck with you, Ryland.”

He gets in my face now, nose to nose. This man does not resemble the Ryland Rowley I used to know. I can honestly say he does not look good. Stressed. Beyond exhausted. He was once so easygoing. He was once someone I knew better than anyone else. But this guy is beyond angry. At me. At life? “Listen carefully, Farrow. Leave my sisters and my family the fuck alone. Got it?”

“Boys, boys, boys,” Ethel O’Donnell-Kerr says as she walks up to us. “Now, now, I hope we’re not getting into anything spirited here while we have visitors in our town only a whisper away.”

Ryland stares into my eyes. “No, I was just leaving.”

“Good,” Ethel replies.

“See you around,” I say with a smirk because if anything, I thrive for trouble when I feel out of sorts. He starts to move past me, and I lean into him, bumping his shoulder with mine. He shifts backward just slightly, but his eyes remain on mine.

“Stay. Away,” he repeats and then takes off.

“Well, what a tense reunion,” Ethel says.

Tense is a nice way of putting it.

Honestly, if I had it my way, I would have loved to feel Ryland’s fist this morning. Craved it actually.

There’s nothing better than physical pain taking away the mental pain. The physical pain I can draw on—I can live off it—but the mental anguish I’m going through right now . . . it almost makes it too hard to breathe.

But if there’s one thing I learned from this interaction is that nothing has changed between me and Ryland. Backing the hell away from Hattie . . . it was a smart move.

Because he wouldn’t forgive her. And I don’t want that on my fucking conscience too.

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