The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 16

HATTIE

I stare up at the ceiling of Cassidy’s room, unmoving.

Not sure I’ve moved from this position in over a week, other than some food and bathroom breaks.

The moment I walked into Cassidy’s room, I was broken.

Just destroyed.

I spent hours crying on her bed, her scent surrounding everything I touched or looked at.

Her little trinkets around her room like the jewelry box I used to play with when I was a little girl, the same jewelry box Mac will play with. Her picture frames lined up along her dresser. Pictures of me and her at my high school graduation, where she told me how proud of me she was. Pictures of her and Mac when Mac was first born. A picture of all of us in front of The Almond Store with a now open sign in our hands.

Then there’s the quilt we made together with all our old T-shirts. The scrapbook I made for her of Mac’s first year of life. The table runners we found in an antique store on our trip to the redwoods. Her favorite perfume she only used for special occasions. And so many more things that I’ve just laid here and stared at, remembering, reminding myself of what a beautiful human she was and crying over the fact that it isn’t fair she was taken so soon.

But despite falling into a deep hole of depression, I’ve made dinner for Ryland and Mac every night until Ryland told me I didn’t have to anymore. When I asked him why . . . he said because he couldn’t eat one more burnt thing, and he meant that in the nicest way.

I couldn’t even argue. I struggled to eat my own food.

So now, as I lie here, staring up at the ceiling again, not helping with dinner, I try to think about what I should do with my life. And just like every other time I think about it, I’m blank. Because I’d have spoken to Cassidy about this. “I know you wanted me to finish school, Cass, but what then? You were meant to be here with me, lending your immeasurable wisdom into my life. What should I do next when breathing without you feels too utterly painful?

My phone beeps to notify me of a text, pulling me out of my thoughts. I lift the screen up to see a text from Maggie. She’s been a freaking saint through all of this. She’s checked up on me every day, multiple times during the day, and has made me laugh. She’s listened and even used some tough love on me when Mac was complaining that I smelled at the dining room table.

The overnight delivery of hygiene products from Maggie pushed me right into the shower.

I open up her text.

Maggie: My bride for this weekend just told me she slept with the best man, and she was wondering if I could help break the news to her fiancé.

I flip to my stomach, relieved for the break in my thoughts.

Hattie: Stop. Are you serious?

Maggie: Dead serious. She showed me the text messages from the best man who’s begging her not to say anything, but she feels guilty.

Hattie: Are you going to help her?

Maggie: I mean . . . I know I said I was full service, but I think this is slightly outside the parameters of my job. I pride myself on happily ever afters, not breaking people up.

Hattie: When did the bride sleep with the best man?

Maggie: Years ago. She and the now-fiancé were broken up for a day. Like a whole Ross and Rachel type thing. She got drunk with the best man, and they did it. Well, just oral. She went into detail about the whole experience, and I learned a trick or two. According to her, the best man has a crooked wee wee, which now, when I see him, I keep looking at his crotch to see if said wee wee is trying to fit in his pocket.

Hattie: LOL. Is it?

Maggie: Haven’t been able to confirm yet, but I shall keep you abreast.

Hattie: Obviously that would be appreciated. And to circle back, if it happened years ago, I’d tell her not to say anything. The best man is already struggling with the crooked wee wee, so he’s suffered enough.

Maggie: Great advice. Also, it will only ruin what they have, so I don’t think it’s smart to say anything. I mean, the moment to say something would have been when they got back together, but she missed the mark on that.

Hattie: If I were in her shoes, I’d have probably been so happy I was back together with the non-crooked wee wee that I wouldn’t mention the mishap. So I get where she’s coming from. But the best man . . . I mean, that’s rough. Does he have feelings for her?

Maggie: Not that I’m aware of. He’s been super helpful and willing to do anything when it comes to setup, carrying things, directing. He’s been the VIP.

Hattie: Guilt will do that to you.

Maggie: Exactly. Well, this was helpful. How are you? Burn anything lately?

Hattie: Ryland took that responsibility away from me.

Maggie: Smart. I’d have done the same. Are you still catatonic in Cassidy’s bed?

Hattie: If I tell you yes, are you going to yell at me?

Maggie: Hattie! You know I love you, but lying around in your dead sister’s room isn’t going to do anything for you other than continue to put you in a deeper state of sadness.

Hattie: And it has. I honestly don’t want to do anything.

Maggie: Not healthy.

Hattie: I know, but I don’t have anything to do, anywhere to go. Ryland and Aubree won’t let me help with anything because they said I won’t be here for long, and they don’t want to rely on my help only to lose it, which I get.

Maggie: Well, why not go back to work, you know . . . with Hayes?

Hattie: I quit that, remember?

Maggie: Have you spoken to him at all?

Hattie: No. I know Ryland has, but I honestly don’t know what to say to him. I don’t know where we stand. It’s all just . . . up in the air.

Maggie: Well, that won’t change if you KEEP STAYING IN BED!

Hattie: Are you trying to tell me something?

Maggie: If I have to drive up there to drag you out of bed, I’m going to be VERY, VERY angry. Do you understand? It won’t bode well for you.

Hattie: Are you talking about pulling back on your best friend card?

Maggie: Yes, and I’m not even afraid to say it. Now, get your ass out of bed and do something!


I WALK through the screen door of the house, and both Ryland and Aubree look up from where they’re eating breakfast at the dining room table. They exchange glances and look back at me.

Aubree swallows her eggs and says, “Were you . . . were you outside?”

I grip my shoe and stretch out my quad as I say, “Yes, I went for a run.”

“Like . . . exercise? Outside?” Ryland asks before taking a bite of bacon.

Mac comes running into the room, her hands still wet from going to the bathroom, and she stops as she takes me in. “You know how to walk?”

Dear God, if a four-year-old is insulting me, then it was definitely time I got out of bed.

“Yes,” I say, as I reach for her, but she jumps away and goes over to Ryland, who wraps his arm around her and pulls her into a hug.

“She’s sweaty,” Mac says.

“Better than smelly,” I say.

“I can guarantee you smell right now,” Aubree says.

“Aren’t you a welcoming family?”

“We do the best we can.” Aubree takes her plate to the sink and then walks up to me. “Glad to see you out of the room. Think you could stop by the store today?”

“Really?” I ask, excited.

“Yeah, I’d appreciate it,” she says before waving to everyone and taking off.

I head into the kitchen for some water. “What was that about?”

Ryland shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know. She’s a wild card.”

“She is.” I take his plate from him and rinse it off in the sink, then place it in the dishwasher. “Do you need anything today? I can run by the store or run some errands.”

Ryland shakes his head. “We’re headed over to By the Slice tonight, right, Mac?”

She nods as she ducks under the dining room table with Chewy Charles. “Yup, and we’re going to The Talkies to watch Frozen.”

I glance over at Ryland, who dramatically rolls his eyes. I think the poor guy has seen that movie at least three times a week since taking Mac under his care. Sometimes, I swear it looks like he enters a room like Elsa, chest forward, arms spread, but of course I’d never say that to him. I keep that tucked away, at least for now.

“That sounds like fun.”

“We’d invite you, but it’s just for me and Uncle Ry Ry,” Mac says as she rolls on her back, kicking her feet up in the air.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to impose on your date.”

“And Uncle Ry Ry said I can have Sour Patch Kids.”

“If you eat all of your veggies first,” Ryland says. “Don’t forget that part.”

“Piece of cake,” Mac says.

“So you don’t need me to do anything?” I ask Ryland.

“Take a shower. That’s what I need you to do.”

“Stop.” I push at his shoulder. “You’re going to give me a complex.”

“Good, you need one to get you out of that bedroom.” He leans against the counter and takes a sip of his coffee.

“Hey, I went for a run. That should be something.”

“It is something,” he says, growing serious. “And I think you taking the time to mourn is good. I’m not sure you did that when you were at school, but hiding out all by yourself in a room when you’re going through something like that is also dangerous. So I’m seriously glad to see you doing something for you.”

“What about you and Aubree?” I say. “You haven’t had time to mourn.”

“We have in our own way,” Ryland says. “Hey, Mac? Go get your shoes on.”

“Okey dokey,” she says, taking off.

Ryland turns toward me. “I’ve had the chance to mourn with Mac. Sure, I had to take care of her while mourning, but I’ve still had that connection to Cassidy. Aubree has mourned while running the farm and shop. It’s kept her busy, and I think both you and I know she does things her own way at this point. She’s not one to really be in her emotions. But you, you’re different, and even though I’m sad you didn’t get to graduate this semester, I think it’s important to get your head on straight.”

“Thanks. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry about not graduating.”

“I know you will,” he says. “That’s something Aubree and I have come to terms with.”

“Do you think I’m letting her down?”

“Aubree?” he asks.

I shake my head. “Cassidy.”

Ryland sets his empty cup in the sink. “No. I think she’d appreciate you taking small steps. Losing someone is one of the hardest things a human ever has to endure. Cassidy was always about being your authentic self, and that’s what you’re doing. If that means pretending to take an internship with my mortal enemy behind my back, then that’s being you.” He offers me a teasing smirk that makes me laugh.

“And you know what? I’d do it all over again.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it.” He pulls me into a hug but then regrets it immediately. “Fuck, you’re gross.”

“Shut up.” I push at his chest, making him laugh.


OKAY, so I don’t want to admit it, but those soaps Maggie sent me smell amazing. I’ll obviously never tell her that, but I keep sniffing my skin. And it’s not like I haven’t been showering, but stepping out of Cassidy’s room, all stuffy and sucking in the air I keep recycling through my body, invigorates you. I swear my eyelashes have some natural lift now from experiencing fresh air.

After a nice, long shower where I scrubbed and shaved every orifice of my body, I lotioned up, added a touch of mascara, and let my hair air-dry into waves, only adding a touch of oil to the ends for some texture. I threw on a pair of jean shorts and one of my favorite Boston shirts. When I looked in the mirror, I was impressed with myself. I looked like a human.

And now that I’m headed into The Almond Store, I think Aubree might keel over from the sight of me.

I push through the door and notice a few tourists milling about, but when Aubree catches sight of me from behind the counter, her eyebrows shoot up.

Smiling, I walk up to her and say, “What do you think?”

“Am I supposed to compliment you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m glad you smell better.”

I roll my eyes and then join her behind the counter. “So what do you need help with?”

“I don’t need help with anything. But I do think you should see something.” She nods toward the back. “Go check out the apartment.”

“You mean the trashed apartment? If you wanted me to clean it up, I wouldn’t have worn my nice shirt.”

She glances at my shirt and then back up to my eyes. “That’s your nice shirt?”

“Glad you have no problem being a dick to me.”

She chuckles. “Just go look at it.”

Confused but also intrigued, I head up the stairs to the apartment. I open the door and—oh my God. It’s spotless. Freshly painted. Pristine.

There is a new dresser to the right, next to a pink, retro mini fridge and matching microwave. A new beige and fluffy area rug covers the hardwood floors, while a soft olive green is fresh on the walls. A new bed positioned under the angled ceiling is now made up in soft white bedding, with one of Cassidy’s quilts folded on the end. Pictures of the family in black and white hang around the space, and the chair in the corner has been reupholstered.

It’s . . . gorgeous.

I can’t believe she did this.

I walk back down to the store. Once Aubree’s checked out the customers in front of her and sends them on their way, I pull my sister into a hug. “I can’t believe you did that. When did you find the time?”

“I didn’t,” she says.

“What do you mean you didn’t?”

She smirks. “Hayes has been working on it the last few days.”

I feel my stomach dip from just the sound of his name. “H-Hayes did that?”

Aubree nods and leans against the counter. “Yup. I think he likes you . . . a lot. He asked me constantly if what he was picking out would be something you’d like. He even asked for pictures of the family. Did you notice the one picture with the lyrics of The Reason on it?”

“What? No.”

“I suggested that. He was hesitant at first, but he ended up doing it. Super cute.”

“So . . . he did that? For what? For me?”

She nods. “Yup. Now, I’m not saying to run over there and have his baby, but I do think there’s an opportunity there, and if you’re ready, you should at least explore it.”

“I don’t know, Aubree. I’m such a mess.”

“You are,” she says, not sugarcoating a damn thing. “But sometimes when we’re a mess, we need someone to help us clean it up. Hayes might be that person.”

I bite down on my lip, thinking about it. In all honesty, I’ve missed seeing him. I’ve missed going to his house, hearing him lightly strum his guitar in the background. I’ve missed his teasing and his interest in the little things like how to make cookies.

“I can see you’re thinking about it,” Aubree says, cutting through my thoughts. “How about this? When he was done, he begged me not to tell you he did it.”

“He did?”

She nods. “Yup, he didn’t want to take credit for it, but I don’t know, I’m feeling generous. I think he deserves the credit.”

“What am I supposed to do?” I ask.

“I think you go over there and at least talk to him. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’d be relieved to see you.” When I don’t move right away, Aubree walks up to me, takes my hand in hers, and drags me toward the door.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving you the push you need. Now get out of here.”

“Aubree, wait.” She pauses, and I turn toward her. “What is this?”

“What is what?”

“This.” I motion between us. “You’re being . . . nice.”

She looks at me confused. “Am I supposed to be mean to you?”

“When I first arrived in Almond Bay, it was almost like you couldn’t even be in the same room as me, but now you’re . . . well, you’re talking to me. Engaging. What’s with the change of heart?”

Understanding falls over her face as she says, “You know, sometimes when you’re trying to stay afloat, you put blinders on to keep you from getting distracted. Ryland just helped me lift those blinders.” She offers a soft smile. “Sorry if I made you feel like you didn’t belong.”

“You don’t need to apologize. I can’t imagine the kind of stress you and Ryland have been and are going through. I just wish you would let me help more.”

“You will,” she says. “In good time, but for now, you fix you. That’s what Cassidy would want the most.” I know she’s right. “Now get out of here. I have a call with a lawyer, and I don’t need you distracting me.”

“A lawyer?” I ask. “Everything okay?”

She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, just some semantics to work out. Nothing you need to worry about.”

“Okay,” I say. “But you would tell me if something was wrong.”

“Always. And nothing is wrong, okay? Don’t come back here unless you have a story to tell about Hayes.” I can only hope it’s a good story and not another one where I feel like I’ve failed you and Ryland.


I GLANCE over at the Adirondack chair on Hayes’s porch out of habit. Once you’re scared twice, you don’t forget it. During the whole drive over here, I was a ball of nerves.

Do I want to see Hayes? Of course. My heart has wings whenever he’s around, and I feel it takes off with just one glance from him. But he’s also turned me down so many times at this point that it’s easy to fall under the impression he would do the same thing all over again.

With a very unsteady breath, I raise my hand to his door and knock loudly in case he’s in his studio. From the living room, I hear him say, “Come in.”

Was he expecting me?

That would be weird if he was unless Aubree told him.

Either way, I open his door and walk in only to find him sitting on his couch, guitar on his lap, his head turned down toward the strings, and the stacks of paper I made look untouched.

“Hey,” I say softly, causing him to whip his head to the side in surprise.

“Hattie,” he says, straightening up.

Okay, so he wasn’t expecting me.

“Can I come in?”

“Yes, of course.” He sets his guitar to the side and goes to stand, but I wave him off.

I move around the piles and approach him, taking in the soft waves of his hair on top of his head, the sharpness of his beard, and the surprise and awe in his eyes. Hell, I’ve missed this man. I’m not sure how it happened, but I grew attached to him over the small amount of time we spent together. And now that I’m near him again, I feel my pulse pick up and my mind begin to hope all over again.

Maybe this time will be different . . .

“How are you?” he asks as I stand in front of him, nervous.

I push my hair behind my ear. “Did you redo the apartment?”

He shifts uncomfortably but lightly nods. “I did.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because I ruined it, and I didn’t want you to feel like you couldn’t return. I wanted it to be a place for you to feel comfortable to stay.”

“You didn’t do it for any other reason?” I ask, still standing in front of him.

He pushes his hand through his hair. “What reason would that be?” he asks.

Taking one last chance, I push him back on the couch and straddle his lap so I’m facing him. I rest my hand on his chest, and his hands immediately fall to my legs.

“Did you do it because maybe you were trying to impress me?”

“Impress you? No.” He lets out a heavy breath, and from where my palm rests, I can feel the rapid beat of his heart. “Did I want to show you how much I care about you? Did I want to show you I’m not the monster you last saw? The one who attacked your brother? Then, yes.”

“And why wouldn’t you want me to see you as a monster, Hayes?”

He wets his lips right before saying, “Because I really like you. Because I want to have the chance at dating you, taking you out, doing this the right way.”

A much-needed smile passes over my lips. “Really?”

He cups my cheek and nods. “Really. It’s never been a question if I want you, Hattie. That’s been apparent since the moment I saw you dropping off that box at my front door.”

“But you said—”

“I lied,” he says. “Every chance I had, I lied because I knew if I gave in to the temptation that is you, I wouldn’t be able to let go.”

“So why now?” I ask, my fingers moving up to his face where I drag them across his coarse beard.

“Because of Cassidy,” he answers.

And that’s the exact answer I needed. I take his face in both my hands and crash our mouths together. His hands slide up my back, bringing me in tight and holding me in place as he reclaims my lips, but nothing is between us this time. It’s just me and him. No restrictions. No fears.

And he commands every second of it.

His tongue traces the plumpness of my lips, edging me to open, and when I do, he doesn’t dive his tongue in right away. Instead, he gently runs his tongue against mine until the embers between us ignite into a burning inferno.

Hungry, he delivers open-mouthed kisses, his grip moving all the way up to the back of my head, his tongue dancing across mine, owning every inch of my mouth.

This kiss is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

The passion.

The demand.

The pent-up need. It crashes together. It’s in the way he holds me and the way his mouth possesses mine. It’s addicting, making me want so much more.

“Fuck,” he says, releasing my mouth and pulling away, his eyes falling on mine. “I don’t want to push you too far.”

My body begs him to take anything he wants—to strip me down and make me his—but my mind, my fragile, barely healed brain is pumping the brakes . . . because he’s right. If I went any further, it would be pushing me further than I want to go. Further than I’m ready.

I lean back and take a deep breath. “I want to take it slow.”

“That’s totally fine,” he says.

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yes, Hattie.” He cups my cheek. “Do I want to fuck you until you don’t have a voice anymore? Of course.” I gulp. “But I want to do it when you’re ready.”

Not sure I’d ever be fully prepared for that.

“I’m just barely getting my mind straight,” I say honestly. “I’ve spent the last week or so letting myself live in my feelings, remembering Cassidy and letting myself mourn. Today’s one of the first days I’ve gotten out of bed, put some makeup on, and gone into town. Aubree showed me the apartment, and I just . . . I had to come over here and thank you.”

“No need to thank me, Hattie.”

“What you did was really sweet. I appreciate it. I’m not sure I’m ready to stay there yet. I’m still kind of attached to Cassidy’s room right now.”

“That’s fair.”

“But I know I can’t stay there forever, especially since Ryland has been sleeping on the couch for months now. I was actually thinking of clearing it out for him and giving him a bedroom. He needs one badly.”

“Do you want me to help you?” he asks.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

“I’d like to,” he says, sincerity ringing through his tone. “That’s not something you should do alone, and if you haven’t noticed, I have some experience fixing rooms.”

I chuckle. “Is that going to be something on your résumé now?”

“Might as well add it.” He smiles and then brings his hands to my thighs. He rubs his palms along my skin. “So would I be able to take you out on a date sometime?”

“I think we can arrange that.”

“Yeah?”

I nod. “Yeah. As Ryland said, I need some fun in my life.”

“I can provide the fun. I can provide whatever you want.”

I tug on the collar of his shirt playfully. “So all those times you turned me down, it really was because of Ryland?”

“Yes, Hattie. Trust me, I was fucking burning for you.”

My smile grows wider. “Oh my God, wait until I tell Maggie that. She’s going to be so jealous.”

He laughs and then brings me down on the couch so my back is on the leather, and I’m staring up at him. He pushes a strand of hair out of my face as he lightly presses another kiss to my lips. “I will say this. We’re not working on that bedroom until you clean up my fucking living room. The papers are making my skin itch.”

“Why didn’t you clean them yourself?”

“You made the mess,” he says, his nose sliding up the column of my neck, the feel of him so close, making my nipples hard. “You clean it up yourself.”

“Where’s the chivalry in that?”

“No chivalry when I was paying you to do a job. A job you didn’t finish.”

“Because my boss was a maniac, demanding coffee at seven in the morning.”

He kisses my jaw, my cheek, my nose. “A task you never completed correctly.”

“Should have fired me then,” I say as I bring my hand up to his face, in disbelief that this is happening right now. That I’m allowed to touch him, kiss him, feel him without guilt swarming me.

“And miss out on being able to see your fuckable ass in those bike shorts every day?”

My eyes widen. “Fuckable ass?”

He smirks and then pushes off me. “I have a lot to teach you, Hattie.”

Oh dear God.


“TELL ME HOW THIS IS FAIR?” Hayes asks as he digs into the sack of fan mail and places them in front of us. “This is your job.”

“But isn’t it more fun when we do it together?”

“No,” he deadpans, causing me to laugh. “I prefer to watch you do it.”

“These are your fans, Hayes.” I pull out a letter and another naked picture falls out, this one from one of his serial fans. The tenth naked picture from this particular lady. I flash him the picture. “You need to appreciate them.”

He swats the picture down. “You’re doing this just to torture me.”

“No, I think we should spend more time together, and if you happen to help me with this task while spending time with me, then it’s a win-win.”

“For you.”

I shrug. “Best you realize now that I’ll win more in this relationship.”

He undoes a letter and says, “Is that what this is? A relationship?”

“What else would you call it? Romantic involvement?”

“Yes, that’s much more eloquent.” He chuckles, and I nudge my shoulder against his.

“You act like this is new to you. You found Cassidy’s letter, which means you were looking through things.”

“Not through these bags of mail. I was looking through my tour shit,” he says. “I was pissed the night I found it and ended up kicking a box. Her letter fell out.”

“Pissed about how things went down in San Francisco?”

“Yeah, that trip was . . . fuck, it was miserable. So many things went wrong. I couldn’t comfort you the way I wanted. And then you told me to treat you awfully, and because I’m a stupid, prideful man, I decided to do just that, only hurting you more.” He takes my hand in his and brings my knuckles to his lips. “And then . . . Odette. The . . . job. Jesus Christ, I’m surprised you’re letting me hold your hand right now after all of that.”

“It was a breaking point, that’s for sure,” I say.

“For me too. I was so mad at myself because I pushed you away too much. When you said you were quitting, the realization that I wouldn’t see you every day, that hit me really fucking hard.” His battered eyes plead with me. “Would you have not come back?”

“Probably not,” I say. “It was too hard being around you and not being able to give in to my feelings.”

“Same, but I was taking every second, every moment I had with you. I was not giving that up.”

“Good thing we don’t have to worry about that now.” He kisses my knuckles again. “So when you found the letter from Cassidy, what did you do?”

“Had a minor meltdown because I was so fucking grateful.” He chuckles. “Then I went to The Almond Store, but when you weren’t there, I decided to go to Sozzled because Joe told me to come sing a song whenever I wanted. I thought it might help with my writing, getting out there again, but then I saw you, and well . . . I decided to sing you a song instead.”

I feel my cheeks blush. “You did such a beautiful job. I was transfixed. I think it’s the main reason I had enough courage to kiss you that night.”

“I’m glad you did. It’s been more than a feeling for a while with you, Hattie.”

I look to the side at him. “You’re going to make it hard for me to ever think of another man, aren’t you?”

“It’s my number one priority right now.”


“YOU CAN SIT on one of the barstools, you know,” Hayes says as I cross my legs on top of his island counter.

“I like it better here.” I lift my piece of pizza and take a bite. “Thank you for dinner, by the way. Would you consider this to be our first date?”

He shakes his head as he stands next to me, not taking a seat either. “Nah, I’d need to pick you up, bring you flowers, the works. Make it official.”

“You don’t have to bring me flowers, but I bet Mac would like some.”

“Yeah, get on her good side?” He smirks. “But to answer your question, this is just a hangout.”

I love that smirk so much. It’s odd seeing him use it so freely. It makes me realize how guarded he was before. It was so rare to see his smile. But this Hayes, he’s relaxed, like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders, and I’m sure it has. “Okay, so when is our first date?”

He picks at the cheese on his pizza. “Whenever you’re free.”

“Do you think I have a complicated calendar? I just got done crying in my sister’s room for a week. I’m pretty free.”

His lips soften. “How about tomorrow night?”

“Wow, don’t you think that’s a little soon?” He gives me an exhausted look, and I chuckle. “Just kidding, that would be perfect. What do you have planned? Do I need to dress up?”

“Nothing fancy,” he says. “But you know . . . if you want to wear a dress like you wore when you were at Sozzled, I won’t be mad about it.”

“Ooo, you liked that, did you?”

He nods, the sultriness in his eyes making me feel all warm inside. “I did. You looked really pretty.”

Really pretty.

Can’t tell you the last time someone said that to me. Matt never doled out any compliments.

Head tilted down, I quietly say, “Thank you.”

His finger lifts my chin as he says, “You know, you blush a lot. It makes me think you’re shy around me.”

“I wouldn’t say shy.” He releases me as I wipe my fingers on my napkin and pick up my Diet Coke to take a sip. “But you know . . . I’ve never been spoken to how you speak to me. You’re honest—well, when you’re not trying to push me away—”

“Not because I wanted to,” he adds.

“I know. But you’re honest. You say what’s on your mind, and before, with Matt or any other guy I’ve dated, they weren’t particularly vocal about my looks. They rarely complimented me. Not that I needed them to survive, but it’s always nice to hear every once in a while. So yeah, I might blush because I’m not used to someone telling me I’m pretty or that they liked my dress.” I shrug, feeling awkward.

His brow pulls together. “Those boys you were with before clearly didn’t know how to treat you the way you deserve. Their loss, my gain.”

And that’s the kind of answer I’d expect from Hayes. He’s passionate and possessive, everything Matt was not. I know this will be different. I have a feeling that being with Hayes will be unprecedented, and I’m excited to see where it goes.

“What about you?” I ask as he picks a pepperoni off his pizza and plops it in his mouth. “What kind of women have you dated?”

“Not many,” he answers and leaves it at that.

“Is that all you’re going to say, or will you be honest with me?”

“Do you want me to tell you the truth?”

“I do. The more I know, the better.” I’ve seen the tabloids, and I’m actually hoping he tells me it hasn’t been as . . . lurid as that.

He leans his hip on the counter and wipes his mouth with his napkin before tossing it next to his plate. “Had a girlfriend back in high school. You were probably too young to even know who it was, but she was my first for pretty much everything besides a kiss.”

“Who was it?”

“Flavia Gotchen. Did you know her?”

“Nope.”

He chuckles. “Didn’t think so. But yeah, we were each other’s first everything. We fumbled a lot, but we also learned. She broke up with me when we were seniors because I cheated on her.”

“What?” I ask, surprised by this information.

“Listen, I’m not proud of it. It was the one and only time I’ve ever cheated. I learned my lesson quickly after her brother nearly beat me to death. I apologized to her multiple times, but the damage was done. I still remember the look on her face when I told her I cheated. If it wasn’t for her brother’s fists, her expression of utter defeat would have prevented me from ever doing that again.”

“And you haven’t?”

He shakes his head. “No, I haven’t. I’ve also never been in a serious relationship. You might have seen love connections in the media throughout the years, but that was all press. Nothing serious. I got into drugs, alcohol, and fucked a lot of roadies.”

My nose curls up from his confession. I know I asked for the truth, but I wasn’t ready to hear that. His sordid past is out there for everyone to know. He’s done his fair share of drugs—he even admitted to it when we were baking—and it doesn’t take a genius to realize he probably has a lot of sex on the road. But it still doesn’t make his confession any less impactful in my head.

“Want me to stop?” he asks.

I shake my head. “No. I asked for the truth. I’d rather hear it from you than someone else.”

He nods and folds his arms across his chest. “There was a brief relationship, and I mean brief, with a girl who used to open for me on tour, but it was short-lived because I quickly found out . . . she had a boyfriend back home. I ended it immediately. Like I said, I cheated once. I was never going to be involved in it again.”

“Oh God, really? Who was it?”

“Karla Moore.”

“Oh, she’s beautiful,” I say, thinking of her killer legs. “I tried her leg workout once that was posted on one of those lifestyle blogs. I got halfway through and gave up.”

He chuckles. “She used to do that workout every single day. It was impressive. But after her, it was just random fans that I’d fuck. Nothing serious at all. The only woman in my life was my grandma.”

“That’s sweet,” I say.

“She keeps me grounded.”

I turn toward him, my pizza now a second thought. “So why change now? Why ask me out? Why give us a chance?” I ask. “I mean, I’m assuming this isn’t a fling for you. Because it’s not a fling for me.”

“It’s not a fling.” He takes my hand in his and brings my knuckles to his lips. His mouth lightly rubs against them before he says, “I changed because I realized quickly that I’m fucking lonely.” He pauses for a moment, pressing a kiss to my knuckles. “I was struggling with finding my voice again, my writing voice, and I realized it was because I had nothing to write about. No one to write about. My life was . . . empty. It’s been empty for a while. And then, well, you popped into it and things started to change.”

“Wait . . . are you saying I’ve helped you write a song?”

He holds up two fingers. “Two, actually. I haven’t sent any to Ruben, my agent, yet because they were about you, and I didn’t want you to think I wrote songs about you.”

“Why not?”

“Because you weren’t talking to me. It would have looked desperate. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“It wouldn’t have made me uncomfortable,” I say. “It would have been really sweet.” I pause and then add, “Actually no, not sweet. It probably would have melted me into a puddle of nothing. I don’t want to admit it, but . . . there were many nights, listening to your music through my headphones that I thought about you singing them to me.”

“Seriously?” he asks in disbelief.

“When Maggie said I had an obsession, she wasn’t kidding. I played your songs on a loop during some of my darkest times.”

He moves in closer. “Did you play my songs this past week?”

I shake my head. “I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to stomach hearing your voice, not when I was trying not to think about you.”

He tugs me to the edge of the counter, where I drop my legs, and he steps up between them. “While you weren’t thinking about me, I was thinking about you every goddamn second.” He pushes a strand of hair behind my ear. “Thinking about holding your hand, looking into your arresting eyes, running my finger over the pulse in your wrist . . . counting your freckles. Fuck, Hattie, I thought about you so much.”

“Is that . . . is that what you wrote in your songs?”

“I did.” He cups my cheek.

Staring up into his shadowless eyes, I ask, “Think you’ll play them for me one day?”

“I want to,” he answers as his thumb strokes my jaw. “But they need some finessing. They’re pretty raw right now.”

“Can I be the first one to hear them when you’re ready?”

“Of course,” he answers.

“Thank you.” I lift my chin, searching for his lips. He places his hands on my hips and offers me a soft, gentle kiss.

When he pulls away, he asks, “So I didn’t scare you away with my past?”

Is his past different from anything I’ve experienced? Of course. Is that something I’ll hold against him?

Never.

I shake my head. “No. I think we all have the opportunity to change, and from the sounds of it, you’ve changed.”

“I have.” He picks up his pizza again. “The only vice I have now is alcohol, but that’s not every day, just apparently when I’m trying to forget you.”

“Well, I hope you don’t pick up a bottle then. I’d be devastated if you tried to forget me now.”

“Not going to happen,” he says with a wink.


WHAT A FREAKING DAY.

Woke up to run and spent the day with Hayes, but not like every other day. I got to hold his hand, lean into his embrace, kiss him whenever I wanted . . . guilt free. It’s been one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. In fact, if I think about it, it’s probably the most at peace I’ve felt since before Cassidy was diagnosed. Every day since has just been . . . hard. Today was like taking a deep, full breath.

Hand in hand, we walk to my car. The night settles above us, a dark blanket of sky and stars. He gently presses me up against the car door with his hands on my hips while I smooth my hands up his chest, staring into those beautiful eyes of his.

It was a really fun evening.

When I came over here earlier, I didn’t expect to stay so long. I didn’t even expect to leave with his lips imprinted on mine, but that quickly changed the moment I saw him. We spent the evening talking, joking, learning more about each other, and the more he told me, the more I liked him.

Hearing that he cheated on his girlfriend stung a bit, but I liked that he was honest about it, putting it all out there so nothing was hidden between us. I think it takes a big man to recognize when they’ve fucked up and the changes they’ve made to avoid making that mistake again. I appreciate that about him. It has given me more faith that he wouldn’t cheat on me.

I learned about his love for his grandma. His love for model trains because of his grandma’s close relationship with Rodney. His first love song was written about this girl he had a crush on back in middle school. How cute. He told me how he once stole one of Ethel’s boas—Abel dared him—and they buried it in Abel’s parents’ backyard, so scared that Ethel would find out and then kick-ball-change them all the way down to the police department.

And I loved every second of his stories, watching how animated he became, the expressions on his face, such a vast difference from the serious—guarded—man I spent time with.

“I wasn’t expecting this at all today,” he says, stealing the thoughts right from my head. “I planned on getting drunk tonight, writing some more lyrics that pertained to your eyes, your freckles, your idiotic piles of papers.” I chuckle. “But then you gave me the best fucking surprise ever by coming over and kissing me.”

The best surprise was him kissing me back rather than telling me no and he can’t do this. I’m so glad I didn’t have to beg and plead for him to give me a chance. Us. Give us a chance.

I play with the hem of his shirt, tugging on the thin fabric. “After I saw the way you redid the apartment above The Almond Store, I had to see you. Thank you, Hayes. I really love what you did there.”

“You’re welcome, Hattie,” he says, moving in closer. “It was cathartic, actually, and gave me some space to think on things too.” I wrap my arms around his neck, and he connects his forehead to mine. “Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up around six, okay?”

“Okay,” I say as I lift on my toes and press a kiss to his lips.

He sighs against my mouth before parting his lips and pressing into me.

It’s a delicious kiss, full of promises of what’s to come.

“Why are you smirking?” he asks when he pulls away.

“Nothing.”

He tilts my chin up. “Tell me.”

“I was just thinking how I want to take things slow, but now I’m unsure how slow I can really go when you kiss me like that.”

His eyes turn dark, hungry. “It will be torture, but I’ll go as slow as you want. Snail’s pace. Even though right now, if it were up to me, I’d have you bent over the hood of your car, pulling down your shorts, and sucking on your clit in seconds.”

Dear God.

I wet my lips as my chest grows heavy. I can practically feel him doing that. He’d own me, every inch of me. His hands would hold me down while his mouth did all the work, and it would be the best orgasm of my life. Just from the way he kisses me, I know it would be the best.

“Hattie,” he says in warning.

“What?” I ask, my gaze snapping up to him, falling out of my thoughts.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you would let me drape you over the hood of your car.”

I run my fingers through his hair. “I wouldn’t be opposed.”

He groans and steps away, making me sad. “No, you said we’re taking this slow. That’s anything but slow. Shoving my tongue into your pussy until you’re screaming is not taking it slow.”

God, why does he have to talk like that? It makes me all itchy and needy inside.

“I know . . .” I close the distance between us. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t . . . I don’t know, dry-hump or something.”

His brow raises in question, and it’s so cute, it makes me laugh. “No one dry-humps past high school.”

“Then they’re missing out.” I lift on my toes and press a chaste kiss to his lips. “See you tomorrow.”

I reach for my car door handle, but he beats me to it and opens my door for me, hanging on it. “See you tomorrow.”

He shuts my door, and I turn on my car as he walks back to his house. I wave and then pull out of his driveway. The minute I hit the road, I call Maggie.

“I have about ten minutes,” she says into the phone. “Please tell me you showered today.”

“God, why is everyone so concerned about my hygiene? I wasn’t that bad.”

“That’s cute, keep telling yourself that,” she says. “So did you?”

“Yes. I showered, shaved, did my hair, put on mascara and real clothes, and then I went to Hayes’s house and sat on his lap and kissed him, and he kissed me back and asked me out on a date.”

There’s silence on the other end of the phone.

“Maggie, you there?”

“Ummm . . .” she draws out. “Is this Hattie? I feel like this is a prank call because the last time I spoke with Hattie, she was still contemplating why fuzzy socks are so popular, and I had to say because they’re fuzzy repeatedly.”

I laugh. “It’s me, Maggie.”

“Okay, because something funny just happened. I thought you just told me you kissed Hayes, and he asked you out.”

“I did.”

“Hmm, I don’t know how to take that.”

“Maggie,” I groan, making her laugh. “Can you tell me you’re proud of me?”

“Of course I’m proud of you, but excuse me for being slightly shocked. You went from not doing anything to seizing your life. I’m just trying to connect the dots.”

“Well, nothing is truly seized, but I feel good. I feel like I’m on the right path.”

“Uh, if your tongue is down Hayes Farrow’s throat, then yes, I can guarantee you’re going down the right path. Care to explain how this happened?”

“Simple. He renovated the apartment.”

“Oh God,” Maggie says, a hitch in her breath. “I think . . . I think I just had a mini orgasm.”

“What is wrong with you?” I laugh.

“I don’t know. Weddings make me emotional and a little nuts. But God, how sweet. So what, are you a couple now?”

“I mean, I think we’re taking it one step at a time, but I do know that after today I feel happy.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear it.”

“But I told him I wanted to take it slow.” Saying it out loud makes me cringe because God, there’s nothing more that I want than to hump that man . . . let him pleasure me until I’m a puddle of a woman in his bed.

“What?” she yells into the phone. “Have you lost your mind? When I stayed at his place with you, I had sex with him in my head at least a dozen times, and I know he wasn’t ready for that, but it happened anyway.”

“Why are we friends?”

“You have me questioning that very statement right now.” She huffs. “Why aren’t you having sex with him?”

“Nervous, unsure of myself. I think I’ve been through a whirlwind of events the past few months, and I just need to slow down, you know? Find myself, figure out what the hell I’m doing with my life.”

“What the hell you’re doing is graciously taking your clothes off for Hayes Farrow. You can find yourself while holding his dick in your mouth. You’re multitalented. You. Can. Multitask. Have I not taught you anything?”

“You haven’t,” I say on a laugh. “You’ve literally taught me nothing.”

“Clearly,” she replies in exasperation. “Okay, so you’re not having sex with him. Well, good luck with that. Tell me how it goes and how long it lasts because, according to my calculations, it won’t last long.”

“And what calculations are those?”

“Easy, I take your neediness to experience a well-executed orgasm by a real man, combine it with his mad sex appeal, and blamo, two days tops.”

“Is that real math?”

“The most real.”

I chuckle. “Well, we’ll see. It might be fun to just . . . tease around a bit.”

“Ha!” She laughs so loud that I can feel my phone shake. “Teasing, uh-huh, you were ready to pounce him in San Francisco. There is no way you’ll be able to ‘tease around a bit,’ whatever the hell that means. But I think it’s honorable that you’re putting up a front. Shows character.”

“I’m going to go now.”

“Best that you do. I need to go direct a flower girl on how to toss flower petals down the aisle, not eat them. Love you.”

“Love you.”

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