The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 13

HATTIE

“How long have you been working for Hayes?” Odette asks as she comes up next to me at the drink station.

I glance in her direction, taking in her soft features, plump lips, and dark lashes. God, she’s so pretty. Talk about feeling inferior.

“Uh over a week?” I answer, unsure of the timeline. I think it’s been almost a week, but honestly, I can’t be sure. It’s all meshing together.

“Wow, congrats on the job. I’ve heard nothing but great things about Hayes. I’ve met my fair share of assholes when it comes to this business, so when my agent told me I’d be working with Hayes and affirmed his kind reputation, I was excited.”

I nod and smile, unsure what to say as I grab a bottle of water.

“To be honest, I’m a touch nervous. I’ve done intimate scenes before, but I’ve sort of crushed on Hayes for a bit, and I want to make sure I remain professional, you know, not let my fangirl get the best of me.”

“Understandable,” I say awkwardly because my mind is still trying to wrap itself around the whole intimate thing. Like . . . how intimate are we talking? And why is this bothering me? It shouldn’t. Especially after last night, I shouldn’t care less what Hayes does or who he touches, but my brain doesn’t seem to get that memo. Not as a sickening feeling forms in the pit of my stomach. As much as I want to hate him and ignore the man and act like he doesn’t affect me, that would be a massive lie.

With just one glance, he can make me weak in the knees.

“I’m just glad it’s a closed set,” she says. “Being naked in front of a lot of people is uncomfortable.”

N-naked?

Like . . . no clothes?

“You have to be naked?” I ask.

She nods. “For the most part. I’m wearing a nude G-string right now and some nipple pasties that are uncomfortable. But other than that, I’m naked.”

“Wow.” I swallow hard and quickly glance down at her, noticing her larger chest pressing against her robe. “I, uh, I don’t know how you do it.”

“Normally, it’s not that big of a deal, but I don’t know, it just feels different with Hayes, you know? He’s so popular, and everyone seems to have a crush on him. It’s like I’m fulfilling every girl’s fantasy today.”

Tell me about it.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll do great. And if you need anything, just let me know.”

“That’s so sweet of you. I appreciate it. Normally, other women on set haven’t treated me this nice, so I’m happy you’re here.”

I smile at her and then move away from the drinks. “Break a leg . . .” I wince. “Is that what I’m supposed to say in situations like this?”

“I can’t be sure, but I’ll take it.” She smiles back, and dammit, she’s just so freaking pretty.

Dimples and everything.

I wonder what Hayes must think of her. She’s older than me and clearly has her life together if she has a great job like this. She’s breathtaking with her dark features and sultry-sweet voice. Not to mention, from what I saw with her robe covering her, she makes my curves look like a stick figure.

If we stood side by side and Hayes had to pick, there’s no doubt he would pick her based on that alone, which makes me feel so inferior . . . and so young.

When I return to the makeup room, Hayes has his shirt off, and his hair is styled in a sexy, messy way while Jacklyn bronzes his face. He glances in my direction and says, “Everything okay?”

“Yes,” I say as I hand him the water. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Yes,” Jacklyn says as she finishes up. “I could use your help with oiling his skin.”

“Oi-oiling?” I ask as I watch Hayes sip his water, the column of his neck contracting as he swallows, making him look even sexier than before.

“Yes. It isn’t baby oil or anything like that. It’s a special lotion we use, but I like to go in with some highlighter once it’s applied, so it would be great if you could rub him down, and then I can follow you.”

Hayes smirks at me. “You asked if you could help.”

Yeah, but I didn’t think oiling him was going to be the answer.

“Where’s the lotion?” I ask.

“Right over there on the counter,” Jacklyn says as she finishes up his face. “The blue bottle.”

I find the lotion, and just as I turn around, Hayes stands from his chair, and I get a good look at him.

His chestnut hair is pieced out, styled slightly to the side but messy. A sexy, purposeful style that would stop anyone in his path. Jacklyn didn’t do much to his face, but what she did only highlights his light eyes, making them seem more dangerous and mysterious. And then there’s his bare chest, not a fleck of hair on it, smooth, thick, contoured . . . just impossibly attractive. God . . . I hate him.

I hate him so much for being that attractive.

I hate him for bringing me into his life because I was doing fine without him.

I hate he won’t even look at me the way I wish he would.

And I hate that even though he’s broken me a few times, I still very much want him.

Especially at this moment.

I want to walk up to him, wrap my hand around his neck, and bring his lips down to mine. And I want to not just kiss him, but I desperately want him to kiss me back . . . and that’s why I hate him the most.

He’s made me desperate for him.

It’s why I need to stay away.

After today of course.

“Everything okay?” he asks, a quirk to his brow.

“Yup,” I say as I squirt some of the lotion on my hand, the consistency not what I expected. It’s thinner and has that oily texture, but it’s not pure baby oil, which I’m sure will make it easier for him to get off.

I set the bottle down, rub the lotion in my hands, then step up to him. Jacklyn is busy cleaning one of her brushes, so it’s almost as if we have a small moment of privacy. I lift my hands to his pecs and then press my palms to his heated skin. I focus on anything but his face as I gently rub the lotion over his thick, strong chest. A chest I’ve never felt on a man before. Matt’s body had nowhere near this kind of physique, and anyone I dated before Matt was just a child.

Hayes is on a different level.

A much different level.

“Don’t do that,” he says quietly, catching my attention.

I look up at him and say, “Do what?”

“Bite the corner of your mouth like that.”

I didn’t even realize I was doing it.

“I wasn’t doing it on purpose.”

“Well, don’t.”

“Why not?” I ask as I move my hand down his abs. He sucks in as my hands skim over the individual stack of muscles.

Through clenched teeth, he says, “Because it’s hot.”

My eyes shoot up to his in surprise just as Jacklyn joins us. “Okay, sorry about that,” she says. “I had to clean my brush, but I’m ready. Looks like you’ve done his chest so far, perfect. I’ll follow in closely.”

And then, for the next few minutes, I rub lotion over Hayes, rubbing it in as Jacklyn teaches me, and she follows along with her highlighter. The entire time, I feel Hayes’s eyes on me, following my every stroke to the point that my heart’s nearly beating out of my chest when I finish.

When I step away, I can still feel every contour and flex of his muscles against my palm. I can hear his soft intakes of breath when I pay attention to a new part of his body. And I can feel the blaze of his eyes on me when Jacklyn goes to wash her brush again.

Unable to stand here under his stare, I give myself a few moments to collect myself as I wash my hands. Pull it together, Hattie. Be professional. No one else is on the verge of panting while in his presence.

“We’re ready for you,” Kevin says, popping his head in.

“Coming,” Hayes says but doesn’t move toward the door. Instead, he steps toward me and places his hand on my lower back before whispering, “You ready?”

His fresh mountain scent, mixed with the lotion, swirls around me, pulling me out of my safe space and right back into his world, where I find myself drowning and searching for any air to breathe.

“Are you?” he asks again, reminding me that I’m on a job.

“Yes,” I answer, attempting to hold it together.

“Then follow me.” He heads out of the room, and I follow close, watching each muscle in his back flex and contort with his every step.

When we step into the main space, there is now a four-poster bed in front of an ombre screen of pink to purple. Sheer curtains are draped around the bed, hanging off the posts, and a large fan is placed just behind the bed as well as a smoke machine.

As we approach, Odette stands nervously next to Kevin, still wrapped up in her robe. Her eyes land on Hayes, starting at his chest and moving up to his face. I catch her gently licking her lips as she practically eats him alive with her temptress eyes.

Hayes places his hand on my lower back and leans in close as he says, “Mind holding my water for me?”

“Nope,” I answer, and when he places the water in my hand, his fingers brush against mine right before he steps up to Odette, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans. Not even shoes.

There’s no doubt every woman in this room is thinking the same thing as me . . . I wish I was Odette.

“Wonderful,” Kevin says. “Can you undo your jeans?” he asks Hayes. “I think it would look less formal that way.”

“Sure,” Hayes answers, and I watch his large hands undo the button of his jeans and unzip them halfway. “That good?”

“Perfect.” Kevin brings them closer to the bed, and I take a step forward as well, wanting to hear everything he has to say. “Now, this will be simple. We’re doing all of the shots right here. We’ll start in the bed because that’s where most of it will happen, and then a few individual shots of you walking in the smoke toward the camera. It shouldn’t be very long. But we’ll need you to hold your positions as we get close-ups as well as distants.”

Hayes places his hands in the front pockets of his jeans, which tugs them down just enough to show off his boxer briefs. “Not a problem.”

“Okay, let’s get into position. We’ll have Hayes sitting on the bed at first. Odette, you straddle his lap. This shot will be from behind, and I’ll just need to see your hands sliding up her back. Odette, I’ll need you to arch and play with your hair.”

“Sure thing,” she says. She then turns to me and asks, “Hattie, would you mind taking my robe?”

Yes!

I’d prefer you keep it on actually.

“Um, sure,” I answer while she undoes it, giving me a full frontal view of her naked body other than a thin strap of fabric between her legs and two pasties right on her nipples. Jesus, her tits are perky and huge, and everything I could ever dream of. Her stomach is flat, toned, and her legs are long and lithe like a ballerina. Quietly, she asks, “Do I look okay?”

I swallow, my jealousy rearing its ugly head as I realize I’m going to have to watch Hayes fondle this woman, this gorgeous, everything-I-wish-I-was woman. I smile kindly at her and say, “You look amazing.”

She places her hand on my forearm and whispers, “Thank you.”

She then turns and faces Hayes. I watch his eyes as he slowly takes her in and then clears his throat as she gets up on the bed and straddles his lap. His hands immediately fall to her hips and his eyes fixate on her face.

I fist the robe tightly as Kevin positions the camera behind them, and he calls around for production to turn on the smoke machine and for the music to start, which is Taylor Swift’s Don’t Blame Me, and he instructs Odette to lift her hair as he calls action.

Odette reaches up and grips her hair as she tilts her head back. Hayes’s hands slowly slide up her back, and Kevin calls out, “Move in close to her, Hayes, and press kisses to her neck.”

Pardon me?

He’s going to kiss her?

And as if he doesn’t even have to think about it, he leans closer and gently moves his mouth along her neck, kissing and sliding his hands up farther.

“Just like that,” Kevin says. “Keep kissing her and . . . ugh, Hattie, can you jump in and lower her G-string? I’d love to see a little of her ass.”

“I can,” Hayes says as he slides his hands down Odette’s body and moves his hand under her G-string, lowering so you get a full picture of her butt.

“Great. Now go back to kissing her neck. Slide your hands up her back, then down to her ass. Yes, perfect, Hayes. Dig your fingers into her backside. Let’s get a zoomed-in shot of that. Great.” Kevin continues to direct them until he calls cut. Hayes leans back against the headboard, and Odette whispers something to him.

I see him nod and then say something back to her, but I can’t tell what it is. He’s probably apologizing for being hard. Because how could he not be hard? Odette is breathtaking, and he’s kissing her, feeling her up while she straddles his lap. He has to be hard.

And that makes me sick to my stomach.

As much as I’d love to say watching him fondle another woman doesn’t bother me at all, I’d be lying. This bothers me.

Tremendously.

Because Odette is getting everything I wish I could have with Hayes without even trying.

“Jacklyn, makeup check before we get to the next position. Hattie, bring Odette her robe,” Kevin calls out.

“I’m good,” she says as she moves to the side of the bed where Jacklyn touches her up. My eyes fall to Hayes, with his head propped up against the headboard, staring up at the ceiling as he takes a few deep breaths.

Why did he think I needed to be here? I’m a certified coatrack and cup holder. Was it really necessary for me to come with him? Is this another way of him showing me just how much I don’t fit into his world? If so, it’s cruel.

“Hattie,” he calls out. “Can you come here?”

Stiffly, I walk up to him as Jacklyn tends to Odette. “Yes?” I ask him.

“Can I have some water?”

Trying not to flare my nostrils over the menial task I was brought here for, I hand him his water, and he thanks me, his eyes connecting with mine. After a gulp, he hands me the bottle and then leans back on the headboard again.

“Anything else?” I ask him.

“No, that’s it.”

I step away, so irritated with him that I clutch the robe tighter as Odette gets back into position. I watch his hands slowly move over her skin as if he’s committing the feel of her to memory.

“Now, I’d love to see you flip her onto her back,” Kevin says, “and hover above her.”

“Sure,” Hayes says over the music.

Smoke billows around them, and Kevin calls out to me, “Hattie, grab one of those hand fans and wave the smoke around them.”

I set the robe and water down and snag one of the large flat fans and start waving it lightly over the smoke, swirling it around Odette and Hayes as Kevin calls out action. Hayes grips Odette tightly and then flips her onto her back. I watch her breasts jiggle from the sharp movement and hear her gasp over the music from her surprise. Why is she gasping? She knew exactly what he was going to do.

“Again,” Kevin says, and they perform it a few more times. Every time, her body becomes more and more sexualized with the arch of her back, the press of her boobs in the air, and the way her fingers slide up his thick biceps. “Great, next position.” Kevin moves the camera to the side now, where they get a better shot of Hayes on top of Odette. “Okay, from here, I want you to wrap your legs around Hayes’s waist, and Hayes, I want you to run your hand up her side and then over her breast where you lightly grip it.” Excuse me? Kevin turns toward Odette and says, “Are you still okay with the instructions from the intimacy coordinator?”

Odette nods, of course, because who wouldn’t want to be in her position right now?

“Hattie, keep wafting the smoke.” Oh shit, right. Your job isn’t to scowl. It’s to blow smoke around them. I lift the large fan and start waving it up and down as Kevin calls action, and I watch there, in horror, as Hayes’s hand slides up Odette’s body to her breast, where he grips it, causing Odette to arch her back and dig her hand into his hair. “Perfect,” Kevin calls out. “Again.”

My stomach roils with nausea.

My eyes are glued to every single thing he’s doing.

My heart rips out of my chest with every kiss he places on her cheek, her jaw, her neck.

My breath escapes me every time his palm connects with her breast, gripping tightly.

My hope shatters as she gasps every time his jean-clad pelvis pulses into her.

It’s all too fucking much, and I feel tears starting to tickle the backs of my eyes.

This . . . this right here is torture.

I’ve become hopelessly attached to this man, something I truly didn’t expect. Odette is wrong about him. He’s arrogant, conceited, and drives me mad most of the time. But, at this moment, I realize how much I’ve craved his touch. His affection. His friendship. Him. But this has shown how far out of his league I am. Physically. Emotionally. I feel so . . . unsophisticated. I couldn’t even graduate from college.

And I can’t help think of one of the first things he said to me when I first started working for him: he has no interest in me physically.

I’m not his type.

That much is clear.

Stunning Odette, with her beauty and maturity, is.

I take deep breaths, willing back the tears and telling myself to look at anything else other than the two of them.

After what feels like hours, Kevin finally calls the shoot a wrap, and in a catatonic state, I robotically walk over Odette’s robe to her while Hayes offers Kevin a handshake. “I’m going to take a quick shower,” he says to me and then takes off, leaving me with Kevin.

Odette walks off as well, and I don’t know what to do until Kevin asks me to help collect the linens on the bed and stuff them in carts to be laundered.

Sighing, I assist the other production assistant, and we clean up while the smoke slowly dissipates from the set. The entire time, I feel broken, cut, and so raw . . . I just want to go home. So once I know there is nothing left for me to do, I walk back to Hayes’s dressing room. I’m about to knock on the door when it opens, and Odette stands in the doorway.

“Oh,” I say. “Sorry, I thought this was Hayes’s room.”

“It is.” She smiles. And when I glance over her shoulder, I catch Hayes slipping his shirt over his head.

Right . . .

Fuck . . . I feel the tears wanting to form again, but I take a few deep breaths. Not here, not now. Hold it together, Hattie.

I try to smile, but I know it doesn’t come off that way. Luckily, Odette is oblivious as she says, “Thank you again for your help and encouragement today. It meant a lot. And congrats on the job again. You couldn’t have found a better guy to work with.” She looks behind her and says, “Catch you later, Hayes.”

Hayes nods at her but doesn’t say anything as he sits on the couch to put his shoes on.

When Odette takes off, I stand there in the doorway, feeling like . . . like a child, waiting for the adult to be done with his . . . adult things.

He stands from the couch and says, “You ready?”

“Yes,” I answer as I step aside, letting him out of his room, but instead of walking in front of me, he once again places his hand on my lower back and guides me toward the exit. He says goodbye to a few more people, and then we make our way to his SUV. I expect him to go to his side, but instead, he follows me to my side and opens the door for me.

I move past him to get in, but he doesn’t put much distance between us. Rather, he steps up to the door and places both hands on the top edge as he leans in.

When I don’t look at him, he grabs my chin and forces me to look him in the eyes.

That’s all it takes, one look from him, and the tears fill my eyes.

Dammit.

I don’t want to cry in front of him.

I don’t want him to know how today affected me.

But it’s next to impossible to hold back the feelings raging through me.

I’m embarrassed. Humiliated. And my heart . . . it feels broken.

“It was a job,” he says softly as a tear rolls down my cheek. He wipes it away from my cheek and repeats, “That’s all it was, Hattie. It was a job.”

“I know,” I say.

“Then why are you crying?”

I shake my head, hating myself at this moment for letting him see my weakness. “It’s stupid. Nothing you need to worry about.”

“I’m worried,” he says. “So tell me.” When my eyes connect with his, he whispers, “Please, Hattie.”

Damn him. A tear falls down my cheek, and I wipe it away as I say, “You don’t care about me, Hayes. So please don’t pretend that you do.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. I care about you more than I should.”

“Stop.” Another tear falls down my cheek. “Don’t bullshit me, Hayes. I saw Odette walk out of your dressing room. If you remotely cared about me or my feelings, you wouldn’t have had her in your room. And please, don’t act like nothing happened in there.”

“Nothing happened,” he says, his eyes never wavering from mine. “She tried to make a move, but I stopped it . . . because of you.” He lifts my chin again when I try to look away. “Because I can’t stop thinking about you, Hattie.” He blows out a heavy breath and says, “I can’t do this. I can’t be the asshole you want me to be. Not when . . . not when I care so much about you.”

I shake my head. “Just . . . stop. I can’t do this, Hayes. I can’t hear you say things like that, but turn me down and grope another woman right in front of me. It doesn’t add up.”

“It was for a job,” he repeats.

“I understand that.” I wipe my tears. “But this job comes right after last night after you groped me and then made it a fucking point to tell me you have no problem controlling yourself around me. Do you know how undesirable that makes me feel?” I wipe another tear. “And you can’t tell me you didn’t feel anything when kissing her, cupping her beautiful breasts, basically dry-humping her in front of the camera.”

“What do you want me to say, Hattie? That I got an erection while on camera? Yes, I did. I got fucking hard, but only because the entire time, I was picturing you under me, not her.”

“Oh bullshit, Hayes. Don’t feed me lies. After last night, there’s one thing I know for sure. I’m just someone to play around with but never someone to desire.”

“Because I wouldn’t go through with what you wanted?”

“Exactly why, Hayes. You say you can’t stop thinking about me, yet you turn me down every chance you get.”

“Because you shouldn’t be mixed up with me,” he yells at me, his body taking up the entire opening of the door. “Because you’d lose that relationship with your brother, with your sister, and I’m going to tell you right now, Hattie, I’m not fucking worth it.” He grips my chin, forcing me to look at his steel-gray eyes. “I’m not worth it.”

I’m not worth it.

He’s said this to me numerous times already, but given that Ryland and I haven’t touched the subject of Hayes since I’ve been in Almond Bay, I still have no clue what happened between them. And it’s been years. And despite how much Ryland and Hayes loathe each other, Abel’s still friends with both of them. It can’t have been that bad.

It seems that Rowleys are the masters at holding grudges, though. I’ve heard nothing from Aubree all day, so any sisterly love I sought with her seems to be irrevocably destroyed. Because of the damn clause in Cassidy’s will, and my own failure, I can’t see any chance of restoring a relationship with my siblings. So right now, while I’m feeling so raw and wrecked and so alone, why not lose everything? Why not tell this man that I’ve seen below the surface and what I see, I like. I want more of. He says he’s attracted to me, so what can I say to show him that I want him? That he is “worth it.”

I wet my lips, his gaze nearly tearing me apart as I say, “What if . . . what if I think you’re worth it?”

He shakes his head. I thought I saw a moment of relief on his face, but it’s as if he’s been conditioned to think only the worst of himself. Which he confirms when he says, “You don’t know me well enough to make that kind of decision. Trust me, I’m doing you a favor.” Right. A favor. There it is, folks. His shields are up. Again.

“I don’t need your favors, Hayes.” I press my hand against his chest and attempt to push him away, but he doesn’t move. “Please, just get in the car and drive me back to Almond Bay.”

Of course he doesn’t listen. He brings his hand to my thigh and smooths it up my leg. Quietly, he says, “If I gave myself the opportunity to give you what you wanted, what I want, I’d dismantle every thought you ever had of being with a man. I’d break you. Then I’d slowly worship every inch of your heavenly body until you realized that no other man will ever give you the unequivocal pleasure I’ll give you. There’d be no going back for you.” He wets his lips as he stares down at my mouth. “And despite desperately wanting to bury my dick so far between your legs, I won’t. I won’t fucking break you. Because, Hattie, it would fucking break me too.”

He pushes off the car and shuts my door, leaving me breathing heavily in my seat, my mind whirling with his proclamation.

He would break me . . . I believe that. But how would I break him?

I’ve already experienced short bursts of pain from him casting me aside. But knowing it would break him?

I know I shouldn’t want that. But I’ve had small tastes of Hayes-given pleasure . . . and sadly, my body still yearns for him.

Time to give up, though, Hattie—something you seem very capable of doing.


HAYES DROPPED me off hours ago.

The car ride back to Almond Bay was quiet. We just listened to music but didn’t say anything to each other. When I got out of his car, he asked me to come by tomorrow to finish what I started in the living room. If I wanted to leave after that, that was fine.

I agreed that I’d clean up the rest of the living room and finish that bag of letters, but when I was done, I wasn’t returning. For my own sanity, I can’t go back.

Now in my small studio apartment, I stare up at the ceiling while lying in my bed, thinking over the past twenty-four hours, hell, the past week. How did I go from dating one man to being infatuated with the wrong person? Is that the kind of effect he has on people? Must be, especially if Odette tried to make a move on him. I’m not surprised by that, but I am surprised Hayes denied her.

She was everything I’m not. I assumed he wanted to be with her, to finish what they started in that bed—especially because she’s everything I’m not—but I was wrong.

I was so wrong.

My phone beeps next to me, and I glance down at it, seeing that it’s a text from Ryland.

Perfect.

Ryland: We’re going to Cassidy’s grave tomorrow for her birthday. Want to meet up and drive together?

Holy shit . . . it’s her birthday tomorrow. How did that slip my mind? I knew it was happening this week, but Jesus, I completely forgot about it. What kind of shitty sister does that make me? Guilt swarms me as I text Ryland back.

Hattie: Yes, let me know when and where, and I’ll be there.

Ryland: I took tomorrow off to be with Mac. Aubree is leaving Glenda to run the store as well. Mac wants to make Cassidy’s cookies and sing her happy birthday.

I suck in a sharp breath as I think about what that’s going to be like, seeing a little four-year-old girl sing happy birthday to her dead mother . . . fuck, not something I want to witness. But I don’t really have a choice in the matter.

Hattie: Okay. Want me to drive out to the house?

Ryland: Probably be best. Grab a strawberry rhubarb pie from The Sweet Lab and a new puzzle. Mac mentioned those were Cassidy’s favorite things to do with her.

Hattie: Sure, I can do that. Anything else?

Ryland: That’s it. I’ll see you tomorrow.

I look at the time and realize if I don’t get out of bed now, the stores will close, and I won’t be able to get the puzzle and pie. So I slip on a sundress and shoes, feeling far too emotionally exhausted for any of this.

I head up Almond Ave toward Pieces and Pages. To the left, Five Six Seven Eight is bustling with music as an outdoor salsa class takes place on the lawn. With a pink feather boa wrapped around her, Ethel waves to me and motions for me to join, but I politely smile and shake my head.

No way will I be doing any sort of salsa dancing right now.

I pass Sozzled, the saloon, aka bar, in town and consider popping in for a quick drink. Maybe I will tonight. Nothing like getting drunk alone to block the feelings of having to deal with your dead sister’s birthday.

Rodney’s Railroad Museum is next, a small red shop plastered between two buildings. It’s one of Almond Bay’s treasures because Rodney has spent countless hours building a replica of the town in model train scale. It’s really cute. There’s even a person with a pink boa near Five Six Seven Eight. Ethel was “tickled” by the addition.

I skip past The Sweet Lab because I don’t want to carry a pie around while looking for a puzzle and head straight for Pieces and Pages, my favorite store in town. And that’s where I get lost for the rest of the afternoon.


HATTIE: Pie and puzzle has been secured.

Ryland: Thank you. What are you up to?

Hattie: Going to get drunk.

Ryland: Think that’s a good idea?

Hattie: No. But after attempting to find a puzzle Cassidy would like and picking up her favorite pie, I need some shots in my system.

Ryland: Be careful.

Hattie: It’s Almond Bay, Ryland. What can happen?

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Hattie,” Joe, the owner of Sozzled, says.

I take a seat on a barstool and sigh. “School will do that to you.”

“What can I get you?”

“Something that will get me drunk,” I answer. “And before you question me, tomorrow is Cassidy’s birthday. I need something strong.”

Lucky for me, this is a moment when everyone in the small town knows each other, and that simple request is understood without any more questions.

Joe gets to work, mixing a drink, and I pull up my text thread with Maggie.

Hattie: I’m about to get drunk.

What I wouldn’t give to have her here with me. She’s my rock. Unfortunately, she has her life together, something I’m struggling with.

Joe hands me a concoction and winks at me before heading to the other side of the bar to serve someone else. As I take a sip, Maggie texts me back.

Ooof, that’s strong, just the way I need it.

Maggie: Alone?

Hattie: Yup. Just me and my phone.

Maggie: Cassidy’s birthday?

Hattie: Yeah. I had to pick out a puzzle she might like and her favorite pie. I dropped them off at my apartment and then came straight to the bar.

Maggie: Understandable. Is there any other reason you’re drinking . . .

Hattie: If you’re referring to Hayes, the answer is no.

Maggie: Good. He doesn’t deserve your drunkenness.

Hattie: He doesn’t! He deserves nothing. Even though he said this one thing to me today that made me want to simultaneously punch him in the esophagus and pull down his pants to suck his dick.

Maggie: That’s quite a spectrum. What was it?

Hattie: Just how much he wants me but won’t have me because of Ryland. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about him. I just want to drink.

I tip back my drink and quickly gulp it down. Yup, it’s going to be one of those nights. I flag down Joe with a wave and point at my empty glass. His eyes read shock, but he nods, letting me know he’ll fill me right up.

Maggie: What are you drinking?

Hattie: Can’t be sure, but it’s strong.

Maggie: Please don’t drink too much that you end up sifting through a dumpster looking for food.

Hattie: That happened one time, Maggie. And I thought the dumpster was a fridge, so you can’t blame me.

Maggie: Yes . . . yes, I can. I’ve never seen anything so vile in my life. You smelled like rotten cheese curd when you finally resurrected.

Hattie: Some people like that smell.

Maggie: No one likes that smell.

Joe brings me another drink, and I thank him before taking another large sip. He then returns and places a bowl of pretzels before me. Smart man. I pick one up and take a bite as I text Maggie back.

Hattie: Did you know there are jobs where you can be practically naked and dry-hump famous people?

Maggie: Are you talking about strip clubs? Because I know what those are.

Hattie: No. That girl, Odette, rode Hayes hard today. I got to watch him palm her huge boob.

Maggie: Nooooooo, you did?

Hattie: Yup! A big old breast, right in his hand. But it’s okay. She was wearing nipple pasties.

Maggie: That was the fragrance commercial? Did they happen to say when that’s coming out? I’d be interested in viewing it.

Hattie: Maggie!

Maggie: Sorry, you’re right . . . how dare he! How big was the boob?

Hattie: Like three of mine put together.

Maggie: Oof, that’s a blow. I know how much you wish your boobs were bigger.

Hattie: Would it have hurt them to grow a touch more? I mean . . . when I was a teenager, I’d push hard, focusing all my efforts on my chest to make them sprout more.

Maggie: That . . . is something I could have done without hearing.

Hattie: Aubree told me once to put Miracle-Gro on them . . . and I did.

Maggie: I can imagine how that played out.

Hattie: Not well. I was so worried I would blossom weeds right out of my nipples.

Maggie: LMAO. Did you?

Hattie: I think you know nothing has ever blossomed on my chest by now.

Maggie: Your boobs aren’t that small.

Hattie: Compared to Odette’s, they’re seedlings.

Maggie: Were they natural?

Hattie: Very. I honestly wanted to squeeze them myself.

Maggie: I’d probably have been the same.

Hattie: And get this, he admitted to being hard. Granted, I think I was even hard watching it all go down, although I was too ripe with jealousy, anger, and nausea to notice just how hard I was.

Maggie: Can you stop saying you were hard? I don’t like that.

Hattie: It’s facts.

Maggie: So he said he was hard. That was generous of him to share that with you.

Hattie: Sort of pried it out of him. It’s a long story. Either way, he said it was because he was thinking of me the whole time. I’m going to tell you right now, if he was thinking of me while squeezing that voluptuous tit, he’s going to be disappointed . . . well, I mean, not that he will ever squeeze my boob. Huh, actually he did . . .

Maggie: Uh, what now?

Hattie: **SIGHS** It was last night. We ended up sharing a bed, another long story, and he squeezed my boob in another one of those teasing situations. I’ll be honest, I was ready to sit right on his face.

I down the rest of my drink, and Joe, the good man he is, brings me another.

Maggie: I haven’t ever sat on a man’s face, but the bridal party I was working with the other day talked about sitting on faces.

Hattie: Did you get any good detail on how to execute the face sitting?

Maggie: They just texted their guys. They did it while at knitting club.

Hattie: Does knitting give you confidence?

Maggie: No idea, but it makes me want to try it.

Hattie: What about crochet? What kind of confidence does that give you?

Maggie: I feel like knitting gives you more confidence because you’re using two sticks instead of one.

Hattie: Hmm . . . how about needlepoint? What does that do to you?

Maggie: Make you lose your eyesight.

Hattie: Maybe that’s the way to go then. If I lose my eyesight, I won’t ever have to look at Hayes again.

Maggie: Frankly, it’s a solid plan. What about his songs, though?

Hattie: I can escape those easily.

I lift my glass just as a chord strikes through the speakers.

What the . . .

I glance over at the stage, and sure enough, Hayes sits on a stool, a spotlight highlighting him in that stupid backward hat of his, holding a guitar.

“What the fuck?” I mutter to myself as people in the bar start cheering and growing closer to the stage. What happened to this town not liking him?

Not quite seeing that.

Hattie: Dear God, Mags . . . he’s here.

Maggie: Who? Hayes?

Hattie: YES! And he’s on stage, about to sing a freaking song.

Maggie: What are the odds? Just when you claim you can escape his music. It’s almost as if an author is fucking around with your life, pulling all the strings.

Hattie: What do I do?

Maggie: Well, depends. You can show him how much you hate him by taking your shoe off and throwing it at him.

Hattie: Tempting.

Maggie: You can boo him off the stage, but that might get you kicked out of the bar, and from what I’ve been able to gather, our goal tonight is to stay as close to alcohol as possible.

Hattie: Correct.

Maggie: So then, the shoe seems promising, or you can just listen to him . . .

Hattie: And think about the fact that he’s turned me down like three times at this point? That seems like fun.

Maggie: Three times? Okay, I think we need to have a different goal when it comes to this man. He’s clearly not helping.

Hattie: No, he’s not, and why is he even playing music at the bar? He always says no one likes him, so what’s he doing?

Maggie: Maybe trying to spark some creative juices. Isn’t he struggling with writing?

Hattie: Can you not defend him? I know you have a hard-on for him, but come on, Mags.

Maggie: Stop saying women have hard-ons! And I wasn’t defending him, just trying to state the facts.

“Thanks for having me tonight,” Hayes says into the microphone as he strums his guitar. “This song is dedicated to a girl I can’t seem to get out of my head.”

My stomach drops, and I watch as he glances in my direction before dipping his head and focusing all his attention to his guitar.

No fucking way.

Hattie: OMG OMG OMG!!! He just looked at me and dedicated the song he’s singing to me.

Maggie: He said your name?

Hattie: No, but he said it’s dedicated to a girl he can’t get out of his head, and even though he spent his morning groping perfect boobs, I know he’s talking about me.

Maggie: Dear . . . God . . .

His fingers play along the guitar strings and then a familiar melody starts forming. The back of my neck tingles as I realize exactly what he’s playing. I set my drink down and turn toward the stage, my eyes fixated on him as he begins singing the acoustic version of More Than a Feeling. The acoustic version I told him I was absolutely in love with.

Hattie: He’s . . . he’s playing More Than a Feeling.

Maggie: Uh-oh.

Hattie: Uh-oh, is right.

I place my phone in my lap and focus all my attention on him, watching as his throat contracts while he sings, his eyes close when he hits the higher notes, and how his fingers so effortlessly slide along the guitar strings.

I feel myself fall into this transfixed state where there is no one else in the room, just me and him, and he’s singing to me, his voice feeling like a warm blanket wrapping me up into a gentle hug.

My phone buzzes in my lap, but I ignore it. Nothing could tear me away from this moment, from listening to him.

Not my brain telling me to pay him no attention.

Not the audience around me, probably noticing just how enamored I am.

Not even the texts from Maggie.

Because he’s singing to me.

“Here’s another one, Hattie,” Joe says next to me, and I take it without looking, bringing the drink to my lips. The alcohol’s starting to cloud my brain. Just like I wanted.

While he plays the instrumental section, my eyes zero in on his fingers, how they expertly press against the strings of the guitar, on the concentration on his face, the way his teeth pull on the corner of his lip, the muscles flexing in his forearms. He’s everything I want, and it hurts my very longing and desperate soul that I can’t have him.

That he’s off limits.

That he won’t give in to temptation like I so easily have.

He finishes the song, and the crowd around him claps and cheers as he sets down the guitar and thanks the room. His eyes on me, he says, “I appreciate it. But I know you’re really here to listen to Jacob Latter. So put your hands together for him.” The crowd cheers as Jacob . . . Dee Dee Coleman’s son—the owner of the general store—walks out onto the stage and shakes Hayes’s hand.

“Thank you, Hayes,” he says into the microphone. “Couldn’t have asked for a better opening act.” The crowd chuckles and then Jacob goes into what he’ll be playing, but I block him out as I watch Hayes work his way through the crowd and straight to the end of the bar.

He glances over in my direction and that’s when I take a moment to give him a long once-over.

Worn jeans that aren’t too tight but not too loose, accompanied by a pair of stylish dark brown Timberlands. He’s wearing a heather-gray T-shirt tight around his chest but loose around his waist and a faded backward hat. His heavy, dark five o’clock shadow makes his steely eyes seem much more dangerous. And in the back pocket of his jeans is a piece of paper, barely hanging out the back. I wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for the contrast against his jeans. When my eyes draw back up to his face, I also catch him looking in my direction.

When I got home after he dropped me off, I took a shower and changed into a simple navy-blue sundress sans bra because when you have little boobs like me, you can get away with it. I also let my hair dry naturally, which has led to soft waves framing my face.

His eyes remain on mine from across the bar as he licks his lips.

“You doing okay?” Joe asks.

“Yes,” I practically shout. Good God, Joe startled me from my need to walk up to Hayes. But the problem with a small town is everyone is watching everything you’re doing, so I turn toward the bar and glance down at my phone to read Maggie’s text.

Maggie: Is it weird that I’m playing the acoustic version on my phone while you hear it in person? Have to admit, I’m hard for you.

I chuckle and text her back.

Hattie: I thought we weren’t saying women can be hard.

Maggie: You know, I think we need to think of this as an equal opportunity thing. Everyone can be hard! Also, from the delay in texts, I’m going to guess you either started drooling while listening or fell off your chair from being so captivated.

Hattie: Neither. But he keeps looking in my direction. He’s at the bar now.

Maggie: I can feel the tension from here! Are you going to do anything?

Hattie: No. What can I do? There are too many eyes in this place for anything to happen. And I don’t think it’s a good idea. I can’t keep throwing myself at him.

Maggie: So what are you going to do?

Hattie: Get completely wasted.

Maggie: It’s not a great plan, but it’s a plan. Bottoms up, bestie.


“JOE,” I say, leaning over the bar now, half my body on the counter, the other parts dangling in the air. “I’m thirsty. Why won’t you give me more drink drink?”

“Because you’re calling it drink drink,” he says.

“Just squirt it in my mouth,” I say, picking up his bar gun. “Right here, in the gullet.” I press one of the buttons and shoot a stream of water right into his bucket of ice. “Oopsie doopsie.” I giggle.

“Hattie, I suggest you get off my bar or I’ll have you removed.”

I perk up and whisper, “By the cops?”

“I’ve got her,” a male voice says before two hands grip my waist and pull me back into a seat. When I glance up to see who dares interrupt my fun, I come face to face with Hayes Farrow.

“Gah!” I scoff. “The enemy touched me, Joe.” I slap the counter. “Are you going to let the enemy touch me like that?”

“As long as you’re not hanging off my bar, I’m going to let him do whatever he wants to you.”

“That’s not safe,” I mumble and cross my arms at my chest. “What if he wants to tie me up in his sex dungeon? Would you let that happen?”

Joe wipes down his bar, where I must have over-sprayed some liquid. “I trust Hayes. If he took you to his sex dungeon, he’d be gentle.”

“My God,” I say as I tip back and start falling off my stool.

Hayes is immediately at my side and propping me back up.

“See,” Joe says. “Gentle.”

“Maybe you should go back home,” Hayes says quietly.

“Maybe you should mind your own business,” I reply, shaking him off me.

“Hattie.”

“What?” I ask, turning toward him.

He glances around the bar and says, “People are looking.”

“Oh . . . heaven forbid you’re seen with me, right?” I look around as well and catch a few people staring. I wave to them, a smile plastered to my face. “Nothing to see over here. Just the enemy touching me.”

“Hattie . . .” he says in a warning tone.

“He never wants to touch me,” I shout. “Never ever, ever—”

Before I can finish, he scoops me up, tosses me over his shoulder, and he turns to Joe. “Put her on my tab.”

“Sure thing,” he says as Hayes walks away.

“Put me down, you anus!” I yell. “People are going to see up my skirt. Hey, what are you looking at?” I say to an old lady I’ve never seen before, most likely a tourist. “Keep your eyes to yourself.”

“Hattie, please,” Hayes says, working us through the bar.

“And you didn’t want to draw attention. You carrying me like a sack of vodka potatoes isn’t going to lessen the staring. Look, there’s Ethel. Ethel, yoo-hoo,” I say, waving my hand. “Yup, this is happening. This right here is happening. Sound the sirens. Alert the press. Hayes Farrow is touching Hattie Rowley. Weeee-oooo, weee-ooooo.”

“Shut the fuck up, Hattie,” Hayes says just as he pushes through the door of the saloon and walks me down the street.

“Unhand me, you monster,” I say, scratching at his back.

He doesn’t say anything but walks me across the street and behind the back of The Almond Store. It’s nearly pitch-black besides the streetlights lining the boardwalks. The town is silent, the only establishment open being the bar.

“This is ridiculous,” I say. “You’re treating me like a child.”

“Because you’re acting like one,” he says as he reaches the back of The Almond Store. “What’s the pin code to get in?”

“As if I’d tell you that. Turn me around, and I’ll plug it in.” He spins so I face the pin code, and I plug in the number, unlocking the door.

He pushes through and then with ease, climbs up the steps that lead to my apartment. When he jiggles the doorknob and it opens, he grumbles under his breath. “You don’t lock this?”

“We lock the store. What’s the point?”

He steps into the apartment and finally sets me down. I stumble backward for a second, but he catches me and rights me on my feet before I take a spill. Once steady, I slap his hands away and push down my dress, holding my chin high.

“How dare you manhandle me like that?”

“A thank-you would suffice.”

“I would never,” I reply as I catch him looking around my space. “Stop observing my room.”

“It’s small in here.”

“I know,” I say. “But I don’t need much. Not all of us need mansions like you, Hayes.”

I walk over to my dresser and pull out an oversized shirt, only to stumble against the dresser and crush my finger in the drawer. “Motherfucker!” I yell as I hold my finger with my other hand. “Oh fuck, that hurt.” I stumble to the ground, unable to keep my wits about me, and Hayes is quickly at my side, taking my finger into his hand.

“You okay?” he asks, examining it.

“No,” I say as I slouch on the floor. “I hurt my finger.”

“I can see that,” he says softly. “Do you want some ice?”

“No. I want to change and get ready for bed.”

“Do you need help?”

I shake my head, my anger dissipating as he holds my finger, the throbbing starting to settle. It takes me a few seconds, but I finally say, “That’s better.”

“Good.” He stands from the floor and pulls me up with him. He hands me my shirt, and I hold it close to my chest. “Sooo, are you going to change?”

“Yes,” I answer but don’t move.

“Do you want me to do it for you?”

I shake my head but still don’t move.

He bends at the knees to look me in the eyes. “You’re not moving, Hattie.”

“I know.” I sigh.

“Is there a reason?”

I shake my head, the alcohol doing funny things to my brain. “You . . . you made my finger feel better.”

Yup, I’m drunk.

His eyes soften.

“Matt never made my finger feel better.” My eyes meet his. “But you made my finger feel better.”

“Hattie,” he practically whispers.

“I know.” I nod. “You’re trouble, but how can someone be trouble when they make your finger better? I don’t understand.” I twist my lips to the side. “I just don’t get it.” And then I head into the bathroom. I shut the door behind me and strip out of my dress, crashing into the cabinet with my knee, unable to keep my balance.

“You okay?” he asks. Of course he wants to know I’m okay because . . . because past the trouble, past the denial, past the fact that he’s my brother’s enemy, he’s . . . he’s amazing and sweet and kind, and cares about me. That’s what he said—he cares about me.

Maybe the only person besides Maggie who cares for me.

“I’m okay,” I say as I right myself.

I spend the next few minutes going to the bathroom and brushing my teeth. Once I change into my shirt, I head out of the bathroom to find Hayes standing in the middle of the room, waiting for me, his hands in his pockets. He looks so handsome, so sexy, his triceps popping.

“Well”—I pull on the hem of my shirt—“I guess I should get to bed.”

“Yes, you probably should,” he says.

Our gazes lock, and this heavy, electric energy passes between us both, this gravitational pull dragging us together, but where he’s doing everything in his power to pull away, I could easily give in.

“I’m tired.”

“I’m sure you are,” he responds.

“You know, lots of drinks and all.”

“Yeah, I could tell.”

I bob my head, unsure of what else to do.

“Here,” he says, reaching out his hand. I take it because I have no self-control, and he moves me to my bed where he pulls back the covers for me. He’s already plugged my phone into its charger, which is extremely thoughtful.

As I settle on my pillow, he takes a seat on the edge, having to duck just because of the angle of the ceiling. He rubs his thumb across my cheek.

I feel myself lean in to his touch as he says, “Why did you drink so much tonight?”

“Do I need a reason?” I ask.

“No, but it doesn’t seem like something you’d normally do. Was it because of what happened today?”

I shake my head. “No, not everything is about you, Hayes.” Although, a little bit of what happened today motivated me, maybe half and half. Definitely after he sang his song, I went full on let’s get plastered mode.

“Then what?” he asks.

“Do you really care?”

He nods. “I fucking do, Hattie.” His voice grows soft. “I care far too much about you than I should.”

“Is that why you dedicated your song to me tonight?”

“Yes,” he answers without looking away.

“Ugh,” I groan. “You’re so frustrating. You realize that? I don’t want to like you, Hayes, but you make it hard.”

“I’m sorry.” He strokes my cheek again.

“Are you really?” I ask.

He nods. “I am. Trust me, if circumstances were different, you wouldn’t be frustrated with me.”

“What would I be?” I ask.

His voice grows dark as he says, “You’d be full of me.”

I squeeze my eyes shut, hating how one sentence made my muscles tighten and go from loose drunk to full on aroused.

I bite down on my lip. “How full?”

His thumb drags over my jaw. “Fuller than you’ve ever been, that’s for damn sure.”

“Show me,” I practically beg him.

“You know I can’t, Hattie. I can’t cross that line.”

“But you want to . . .”

He breaks eye contact for the first time and drops his hand from my face. “Not a question I should answer.” To my surprise, he leans down and places a soft kiss on my head, the kind of kiss that screams friend zone. There’s nothing passionate about it. And all it does is anger me. “Get some sleep.” He pulls away, but I grip the nape of his neck, holding him in place. When his eyes meet mine, they plead with me. “Don’t, Hattie.”

I tug him an inch closer.

“Hattie . . .”

I sit up some more, making it so our faces are at eye level.

“Tell me you don’t want this,” I say to him, taking one more risk.

“I . . . I . . . think you need to sleep.”

“That’s not saying you don’t want this.”

The space between us zaps with the electric need bouncing between us, and as I close the space, making sure there’s only a whisper between our mouths, I feel the stuttering in his breath and the heat of his body.

“Please . . . don’t.” His voice drips with desperation, but he doesn’t pull away. He remains still, and the moment he wets his lips, I know I’m not going back.

This is it.

I’m taking what I want.

And I do.

My mouth covers his for the first time, my kiss shattering the fine line that’s been drawn. He stiffens under my touch, but it’s only for a millisecond as I work my mouth over his. With every kiss, he relaxes, and then to my absolute pleasure, he presses his thumb under my jaw to angle my mouth how he wants it.

And he kisses me back.

The fullness of his lips.

The demand of his mouth.

The energy he gives me.

The passion.

I melt under the feel of him taking control, finally giving in to my need for him . . . and it’s the best feeling I’ve ever experienced.

His lips part, and I reciprocate, then he’s kissing me with such intense passion that I’m panting. The sharp scruff of his five o’clock shadow rubs against my sensitive skin as he opens his mouth, looking for more, his tongue seeking out mine. I let out a long moan, swiping against his tongue as well, trying to soak up every moment.

But that one swipe is all it takes to wake him up, and before I can kiss him one more time, he’s standing from the bed, shoulders tense, a look of disbelief in his eyes.

“Fuck,” he says, dragging his hand over his mouth. “Shit, Hattie, I shouldn’t have done that. You’re . . . you’re drunk.”

“Not that drunk,” I say, desperation clawing at me, telling me to pull him back down.

He shakes his head. “Your eyes are glassy, and you’re having a rough night. I shouldn’t have . . . fuck, I shouldn’t have done that.”

Of course.

This is how it always goes, right? I take one step forward, and he sprints two miles away.

I know he enjoyed that kiss. I felt it with how tightly he gripped me and with the way his mouth worked over mine. If he wasn’t into it, he never would have kissed me back, and never with tongue.

But this is how it is with us—he won’t let this attraction between us be something.

I stare up at the angled ceiling, frustrated, and say, “Just leave, Hayes.” The short euphoria I just experienced evaporates with every look of guilt I see flash through his eyes.

I don’t want his guilt.

I want him.

All of him.

His hands.

His kisses.

His heart.

Feeling his gaze on me, I turn away and bring the blankets up to my chin, tucking myself away from the world.

“You know why, right, Hattie?” he says. Credit to him for at least sounding tortured.

“Yes, you don’t have to repeat yourself, but you do have to leave. Don’t bother locking up.”

I hear him step away from me, his shoes sounding against the hardwood. I squeeze my eyes tight, holding back the tears until I hear the door shut behind him, but when the light turns off, and I hear the distinct plop of his shoes coming off instead of hearing him walk down the stairs, I grow confused.

What is he doing?

I turn around just in time to see him grab a pillow from a chair in the corner, and he plops it on the floor next to the bed. With a throw blanket in hand, he lies on the floor.

“What are you doing?” I ask him.

“Going to sleep.”

“Why aren’t you leaving?”

“Because I don’t want to leave. Not when you’re drunk. Not when you’re clearly going through something. I want to be here for you.”

“But that’s the thing, Hayes,” I say, unable to hold back my emotions clawing at my tight throat. “I don’t want you to be here for me. I don’t want you near me, not when . . . not when I can’t have you.”

“Trust me, Hattie, you have me in every fucking way. Whether you want to believe it or not.”

“If I had you, then you wouldn’t be sleeping on the floor.”

“You’re right.” He stands from the floor and lifts the covers to my bed. When I look up at him, he nods toward the slanted ceiling. “Scoot over.”

“Hayes.”

“You want to see how you own me? This is it. Now scoot over.”

I bite on my bottom lip and contemplate the implications of this. If I scoot over and he lies down next to me, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over the feel of him tucked in behind me, but if I don’t scoot over, I give up the chance of being able to feel him wrapped around me all night.

My muddled brain can’t quite seem to figure out just how bad this might be, so instead of properly weighing the pros and cons, I scoot over, and he slips in behind me, wrapping his bulky arm around my waist and pulling me in close to his chest.

“This is what you want, isn’t it?” he asks, his mouth right next to my ear.

“I want more,” I say.

“I can’t give you more, especially when you’re drunk. But I’m willing to give you this.” His hand slips under my shirt, and his palm presses against my stomach. The warm feel of his grip soothes my aching soul immediately.

“If this is all I can get, then I’ll take it,” I say right before turning toward him and taking one more chance. I kiss his lips, and thankfully, he doesn’t turn away. He lets me explore for a few seconds before I pull back.

He sighs heavily, his teeth tugging on his lower lip, and when I start to turn around, he stops me, bringing his hand to the back of my head and covering my mouth again with his.

I melt into his hold, knowing this is temporary because he doesn’t part my mouth with his tongue. He doesn’t deepen the kiss, just skims the surface of what could be so much more before he ends the kiss.

His eyes bore into mine, the expression in them so sad that I can’t take it and turn back around.

His grip on me tightens as he buries his head into my hair.

“Fuck . . . I like you, Hattie.”

My heart nearly shatters. His rough, tortured voice pierces me to my very core.

“I like you too, Hayes.”

And that’s the last thing we say to each other before we fall asleep.

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