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The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 17


Shit, I’m nervous.

I haven’t been able to focus all day. I attempted fine-tuning a melody in my head but gave up after an hour and resorted to mindlessly watching reruns of The Office while doing a set of push-ups and then sit-ups every ten minutes.

Now I’m sore as fuck, slightly exhausted, and still nervous.

Before I left my house, I changed my outfit seven times.

Yup, seven.

And guess what? The shirts I rotated through were all variations of black and gray. There wasn’t much difference at all, but it didn’t prevent me from getting all fussy in front of a goddamn mirror and checking the sleeve length of each shirt to make sure it showed off enough bicep to entice Hattie, but not too much that I look like Danny fucking Zuko strutting down the high school hallway.

And my hair, out of all days to try to style it and not wear a hat. I fidgeted with it for twenty minutes, threatened to flatten it with a hat multiple times, then finally rewet it and started all over.

And I’m still not happy, but I didn’t want to be late picking up Hattie.

I’m also concerned that I put on too much cologne. It’s all I could smell while driving to the farm. I even rolled down the windows to air some of it out, but I went by a cow farm that smelled like last week’s garbage under the hot sun, which caused me to close the window, capturing the hot garbage smell in my car . . . so . . . it’s hot garbage cologne in here.

In addition to the parade of monochromatic shirts, the endless tousling of hair, and the dip into a pool of cologne, I’ve taken down ten Altoids.


I no longer have taste buds. I fried them right off.

Jesus Christ, what is wrong with me?

Oh, I know.

I care about Hattie. She’s probably the first girl I’ve cared about in a long time, and I’m on the fence with her brother, whose approval I now need to win. And I thought it would be a good idea to win his approval by bringing him flowers like a goddamn nimrod.

Yup, fucking flowers.

It was funny at first, but now, now I’m concerned it might come on too strong.

I put my car into park as I stare up at the farmhouse. Small and quaint, it’s seen better days under the sun with the chipping paint on the exterior and a cracked floorboard on the porch. I can’t imagine the kind of pressure Cassidy was under while living here. The farm, the store, taking care of a child . . . while being sick at the same time. She truly was Superwoman.

I grab my flowers and step out of my SUV and walk up the front steps of the porch where I knock on the screen door. It immediately opens, and a little girl with bouncy brown curls stares up at me.

MacKenzie Rowley.

Hell, she’s adorable.

“You’re here for Aunt Hattie, aren’t you?”

I squat down in front of her, and I nod. “Yup.” I hold my hand out to her. “I’m Hayes.”

She stares me down, one eye deeply examining me while her hands prop up on her hips. “I know who you are. We aren’t supposed to like you.”

Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.

I hold one bundle of flowers in front of her and say, “What if I gave you these? Would that help?”

She looks down at the flowers and then back up at me before snagging them. “Chewy Charles loves flowers.” And then she takes off, leaving me in the entryway.

Who the hell is Chewy Charles?

I stand up and step farther into the house, the open floor plan offering a view of the tight living room with one couch and a TV. It’s decorated modestly with mainly pictures of family and the farm. To the left is the dining room attached to the kitchen, where cabinets all line one wall and a wheelable butcher’s block is in the middle. Decorated with blue gingham curtains and stone pottery, I can see how this could easily feel like home.

“Hey,” Ryland says as he comes down the stairs.

“Hey.” I wave awkwardly because seeing him not curl his nose whenever we’re in the same room is still uncomfortable. “Uh, here.” I extend the flowers toward him, and he pauses mid-stride and looks at them. When he gives me a confused expression, I clear my throat. “I got you, uh, flowers.”

“Me?” He points at his chest.

“Yup. Thought it would be nice.” God, kill me now.

He doesn’t move, doesn’t reach for them, doesn’t take another step forward, and I know it’s because I look like an absolute moron.

Here you go, Ryland, I got you flowers—what a fucking idiot!

“They’re daisies. I thought you liked daisies.” Stop talking, Hayes, you’re not doing yourself any favors. You have no fucking clue if he likes daisies or not.

“What makes you think I like daisies?” he asks as a tiny trickle of sweat forms on the back of my neck. See, that’s why you should have stopped talking.

“Uh . . .” I swallow. “Your eyes.”

“My eyes?” he asks.

Yeah, Hayes, how exactly do his eyes remind you of daisies? They’re neither shaped like them or white or yellow for that matter.

“I mean, your complexion.”

“My complexion?” He raises his brow.

And yup, that sweat trickles down my back.

“You know, did I say complexion? I meant your smile. Your smile reminds me of a daisy.”

“When was the last time you saw me smile?”

Great point.

“I don’t know, man,” I say, giving up because the more I talk, the more I’ll embarrass myself. “Just take them.” I step toward him but fail to notice the pink fire truck right in front of me.

I trip over it, attempt to catch my balance, but step on a smaller car and fly forward, bouquet stretched out in front of me and plaster the flowers right into Ryland’s chest, sending us both tumbling to the floor together.

“Ooof,” Ryland exhales while I mutter, “Christ,” under my breath, our arms and legs getting tangled together.

“Noo!” Mac screams at the top of her lungs and runs over to us. I have about one second to figure out what happened before a plush ball whacks me over the head with surprising force. “You get off him. Don’t touch Uncle Ry Ry.”

“Ouch, fuck,” I say as a hard piece of plastic surrounded by fur hits the side of my head.

Ryland struggles beneath me. I struggle on top of him with the flowers sandwiched between.

“Get up,” Ryland says, pushing at me.

“I can’t with the whacking.”

“Don’t hurt him. Don’t hurt him!” Mac screams, walloping me in the head over and over again.

“Jesus Christ,” I say as I attempt to roll but can’t navigate with the beating I’m taking to the head. I locate the floor with my hand and move my leg forward just as Ryland screams at the top of his lungs.

“Shit, that’s my dick.”

“What’s your di—” Klunk. I’m smacked in the eye with what I’m assuming is a stuffed animal. “Motherfucker,” I yell as I grip my eye. She caught it when it was open.

“Your knee,” Ryland groans. “Your knee is on my dick.”

“Get off his dick!” Mac screams.

“I don’t want to be on his dick.” I scramble but take another beating to the head, a one-two knock-knock.

“Don’t say dick,” Ryland groans.

“What the hell is going on down here?” Hattie says just as she pulls Mac away, ending the abuse and allowing me to roll to the side and lie flat on my back. As I stare up at the ceiling, my head pounds.

Ryland rolls the other way, giving us just enough room between us to no longer have any issues.

“That man was on Uncle Ry Ry’s dick.”

“Mac,” Ryland groans, crunched over. “I said don’t say dick.”

“I don’t even know what a dick is,” Mac replies, tossing her hands in the air. “How am I supposed to know?”

“Because I said don’t say dick.”

“Can we drop the dick talk?” Hattie asks.

From the horse snout to the eye, my vision is a little blurry, but from what I can see, Hattie is dressed in a pale-yellow floral sundress with thin straps and brown buttons all the way up to the middle. It’s tight around her torso but flares at her waist. Really fucking pretty. Her hair is down in soft waves with half of it pulled back on top into a messy bun, and her eyes look greener than ever with the way she accentuated them with her makeup.

Fuck, she’s gorgeous.

And she’s giving me the stink eye.


“Were you two fighting again?”

“Yes,” Mac says while Ryland and I both say no. “They’re lying. I saw that bad man we’re supposed to hate attack Uncle Ry Ry. He tackled him to the ground.”

“Seriously, Hayes?” Hattie asks. “What is wrong with you?”

“No,” I say. “I didn’t attack him. I was handing him flowers.”

“You were what?”

I catch my breath and lower my hand from my eye as I try to blink a few times, begging for it to work again. “I brought him flowers as a peace offering. See?” I hold up the flowers, but the bouquet sags to the side from the crush of two grown men’s bodies. “I thought it would be nice, but then I got fucking nervous trying to explain why I brought them, decided to just shove them into his chest so I didn’t say anything else stupid, wound up tripping over toys, and face-planted into Ryland’s nipple.”

“Right into the nipple,” Mac says, her arm jutting up.

“Don’t say nipple,” Hattie says.

“The bad man said it,” Mac argues.

“I’m not a bad man, I promise,” I say.

“He kneed me in the dick while on the ground,” Ryland says, the pain seeming to ease just enough for him to chime in.

“See?” Mac points at me. “I told you he was attacking Uncle Ry Ry’s dick.”

“Don’t say dick!” Ryland and Hattie say at the same time.

Hattie then presses her fingers to her brow. “Mac, please go upstairs and play in your room for a moment, okay?”

“Fine.” She grabs her horse stuffy, the half-mutilated bouquet, and heads toward the stairs. “I didn’t want to be here with the dick stuff anyway.”

“Jesus,” Ryland mutters before lying flat on the ground and taking a few deep breaths.

“Are you okay?” I ask him.

“No.” He drags his hands over his face. “You kneed me several times. I nearly threw up in front of Mac.”

“That would have been the icing on the cake.” Hattie moves over to the kitchen, pulls an ice pack from the freezer, and then tosses it at Ryland. “Here, ice your balls. I’ll get Aubree to come over and watch Mac while you nurse your manhood.”

“Nah, don’t bother her,” he replies while slowly trying to rise to his feet. When I notice him struggling, I get up, grip him under the arm, and aid him. He’s crouched over but standing now, so I help guide him to the couch where he sits, spreads his legs, and puts the ice pack right on his crotch. Not sure that will help, but when a man’s in that situation, we will pretty much do anything to make it better.

When I turn around, Hattie has her arms crossed, and she says, “So you’re telling me you accidentally tripped and fell into Ryland while handing him flowers, and while you were trying to get up, you kneed him in the dick?”

“Apparently, and in my defense, I was getting pummeled in the head over and over by your niece, so my vision was blurred, and my wits weren’t quite there.”

Hattie turns to Ryland. “Is this true?”

Ryland glances at me and then nods.

“I mean, if he just took the flowers, none of this would have happened,” I say in my defense.

“I wasn’t expecting to receive flowers from someone I haven’t talked to in over a decade, let alone a man who is supposed to be taking my sister out, not me.”

“It was a kind gesture,” I say, exasperated. “Can’t we just accept that? I brought some for Mac too.”

“Aw, really?” Hattie asks. “That’s cute.”

“So it’s cute when I bring them for Mac, but not for Ryland? Why can’t we be comfortable in our masculinity and accept flowers from another man?”

“It’s not that they’re from another man,” Ryland says. “It’s that they’re from you.”

“So if Abel brought you flowers, would you have been okay with that?” I ask.

Ryland shrugs. “I would have asked him what the occasion was, but I would have accepted them.”

“So you’re telling me we’re not at flower-exchanging level yet?”

“Dude, I can barely look at you, so no, we’re not at flower exchanging yet.”

I nod and stuff my hands in my pockets. “Good to know.”

Hattie clasps her hands together. “Well, this is not how I expected to start this date, but I guess we should get going before anything else happens like you slip and fall and I find your head in my brother’s crotch.”

Ryland shakes his head. “We’re definitely not at face-to-crotch level.”

“Not sure we should ever be at that level,” I say.

“For the love of God, I hope not.” Hattie moves toward the stairs. “Let me grab my things, and I’ll be right down.”

She jogs up the stairs, and I turn back toward Ryland. I nod at where he holds his ice pack and say, “Still shriveled up?”

“It’s going to take a week for my dick to release itself from my scrotum.”

“Fair,” I say. “And hey, sorry about that. Your niece has quite the beating arm on her. She can hold her own.”

“Good to know. Your eye looks a little swollen. Do you need some ice?”

“Nah, I think it’s just a little shocked right now. And if I get a black eye from your niece, I’ll wear it with pride.”

“You better,” he answers just as Hattie comes down with a small backpack draped over her shoulders and a smile on her face.

“Ready?” she asks.

“Yeah, ready,” I answer. I nod at Ryland. “Nice seeing you, man.”

“Remember what we talked about.” He gives me that older-brother glare, reminding me that I might have brought him flowers, but he’s nowhere near ready to trust me with his little sister.

Fair. I get it.

I’ll have to earn that trust back, a task I have no problem putting the time into.

I open the front door to the house and let Hattie out first before taking her hand in mine and bringing her over to her side of the SUV. Before I open the door, I twirl her toward me and say, “You look really fucking good.” I run my finger over the strap of her dress. “I like this. A lot.”

Her cute cheeks blush as she says, “Thank you.”

I lean in and press a soft kiss on her lips before pulling the car door open. I help her in, then grab the seat belt and buckle her up. I smile up at her and then shut her car door.

Once inside the car, I place my hand on her thigh and back out of the driveway with one hand on the wheel.

“How was your day?” I ask her, my nerves starting to ease. I mean, it can’t get worse than getting whacked in the head by a horse and kneeing her brother in the balls several times. Can only be up from here, at least that’s what I hope.

“It was good. I was full of nerves all day in anticipation of tonight, so I kept myself busy with cleaning up Cassidy’s room. I started to go through her clothes, deciding what should be kept and what could possibly go.”

“Wow, really?” I ask. “That’s a big step.”

“I know. I talked to Aubree about it briefly. She said she wanted to go through everything before I donated it, but she also thought it was time. There’s an old cardigan with large flowers on it that Aubree wanted. Cassidy used to wear it whenever she got cold. It has some holes in it, and I thought I’d get it dry-cleaned for her and take it to Elizabeth Gomez.”

“The veterinarian?” I ask. “One of four members of the Peach Society? Why would you do that?”

“She’s an expert crocheter, and I’m pretty sure she could help patch it up. I want it to last forever. I know one of the reasons Cassidy stopped wearing it so much was because it started to unravel. Thought it would be a nice present for Aubree.”

“Thoughtful, Hattie.”

“Thank you.”

“So tell me why you were nervous?”

“Why did I think you would let that little snippet go?”

“Not sure. It’s not my style, though.” I squeeze her bare thigh and slide my hand an inch higher. “Why are you nervous? You’ve been alone with me plenty.”

“I know, but this is different. I feel like I have to impress you.”

“Untrue,” I say. “And hey, want to know a secret?”

“Yes,” she answers.

“I was nervous too. I changed my shirt seven times.”

She glances at me. “And you went with plain black after seven choices?”

“The others were also black and gray.”

She leans her head back and laughs. “So what you’re telling me is that you don’t have any other clothes?”

“Pretty much,” I answer.

“I’m glad you were nervous too. That makes me feel better.”

“I was also nervous to give your brother flowers.”

“Oh my God, I can’t believe you did that.”

“Me neither. I think he might hate me more now. Not sure that won me any brownie points.”

“I don’t think it did either,” she replies.

“Looks like I’m going to have to give him candy next time.”

“Just don’t trip over toys and smash it in his face.” She chuckles.

“Trust me, I’ve noted to look where I’m walking in that house from now on.”

I HAD a few thoughts when I thought about where I wanted to take Hattie for our first date. I know she likes By the Slice, but we just had pizza. And I wanted to do something more intimate. So I stopped by Coleman’s and picked up some cheeses, crackers, and her favorite pickles to make a charcuterie board. I also stopped by The Sweet Lab for some assorted cookies. I considered making some of the almond cherry cookies but didn’t want to burn them, so I thought better of it.

There’s this spot over in Almond Bay, the actual bay where it’s dry, where there’s a beautiful view of the ocean and the cliffs that flank the west side of Almond Bay. Not many people go down there, so I’m hoping it’s uninhabited tonight.

“You okay?” I ask Hattie as we make our way through the sand. I have my backpack full of food and a blanket. I thought about bringing my guitar but decided not to at the last moment. I don’t want this to be about me. I want it to be about us learning more about each other.

“Great,” she says as she takes my hand and smiles up at me.

“We’re almost there.”

We round the corner that leads into Almond Bay, and thankfully, it’s abandoned. Like I said, not many people would be here or even know about it, for that matter. There are more old people in Almond Bay at this point than young, and the older residents would never make the trek.

“I’m sorry if this was longer than you expected, but this is one of my favorite places.”

“I don’t mind at all. It’s beautiful down here. I can see why it’s your favorite.”

I lead her to the very center of the bay and set my backpack down. Cliffs as tall as five-story buildings surround us, an almond-shaped opening leading out to the ocean, giving us the perfect view but also seclusion at the same time.

“I also brought a light in case we’re still out here when it’s dark.” I pull out the blanket, and I lay it down on the sand.

“You thought of everything,” she says while taking a seat.

I pull out the pickles. “I tried to.”

Her eyes soften as an appreciative smile passes over her beautiful lips. “Oh God, you’re going to make it really hard to keep my hands to myself, aren’t you?”

“Just trying to show you that I care about you is all. I haven’t really done this, at this capacity, so tell me if I do something wrong.”

I take a seat next to her, and her hand slips behind my neck as she says, “You’re doing pretty great so far.” She presses a kiss to my lips, and I inwardly sigh as her soft mouth moves over mine. I could easily sink into this, lie down on my back, and drag her with me, but that’s not the point of this date. So I pull away and take a deep breath as my head spins with desire for this woman.

Christ, ever since she walked into my life, I hadn’t allowed myself to taste her and now that I’ve broken the seal, it’s like I’m crazed and unable to get enough.

“Jesus,” I mutter as I reach into my backpack.

“What?” she asks.

“Your mouth.” I meet her eyes. “It’s what sins are made of.”

She smirks. “I could say the same about you.”

“Something you’ll find out about soon.” I wink and then pull out the cheese I put in a small cooler, as well as the drinks and crackers with some grapes. I lay everything out and say, “I wish I had some fancy plating for you, but this will have to do.”

“It’s perfect,” she says as waves lapping the shore set a relaxing soundtrack for the evening. I don’t think I could have picked a more perfect spot for us.

“This looks delicious,” she says as she picks up a piece of Colby jack cheese and pairs it with a cracker.

“I also brought a fork for your pickles so you don’t have to dip your fingers in the juice, leaving you with a pickle hand.”

“Is there something wrong with pickle hand?” she asks.

“Depending on what kind of pickle you’re touching,” I answer with a wiggle of my brows, causing her eyes to widen.

“Gross.” She pushes at me, making me laugh. “That was such a typical male response.”

“Oh . . . fuck, sorry, did I not mention I’m a man? That must have slipped by me.”

“Is this how it’s going to be? You’re going to be a smart-ass?”

I push a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Unfortunately, for you, yes. You want to know the real me? This is it.”

“If that’s the case.” She stands, but I tug on her hand.

“Sit the fuck back down.”

She laughs and then crosses her legs, draping her dress in just the right way so nothing shows. “Guess I’ll stay then.”

“Damn right, you’ll stay.”

“I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT YOUR PARENTS,” Hattie says as she leans back on her hands. We just finished eating, and I packed up the empty bins. We joked around a lot, talked about Mac and how strong-willed but sweet-hearted she is, like Cassidy, the loss of her dad—I’d had no idea he died in a tour bus accident when Mac was one—and how she’s doing since she’s lost Cassidy.

“What do you want to know about them?” I ask as I pull her closer to me, our shoulders now bumping up against each other.

“I’m assuming they’re not really in your life. You speak to your grandma, though.”

“Because she raised me,” I answer. “My dad wasn’t a great guy. Didn’t know much about him, only can truly remember seeing the taillights of his car as he drove away. Haven’t heard from him since. He didn’t have the balls to try to come back into my life when I started hitting it big. My mom, well, she just decided one day she didn’t want to be a parent anymore. Told me that in a letter she gave me and left me with my grandma.”

“Oh my God,” Hattie says, turning toward me. “That’s awful. How old were you?”

“Twelve,” I answer. “She went to live in Arizona with Ray, her now husband. They own a pawn shop together. The first time she heard me on the radio, she called me to congratulate me and asked if I wanted to celebrate. I told her to fuck off. She’s come back a few times since then, wanting to celebrate my accomplishments, but I haven’t let her. The night Samantha cheated on Ryland, I actually got in a fight with her on the phone. I resorted to old habits, got so fucked up. It’s why Samantha found it easy to say I fucked her, because she didn’t think I’d remember either way. But trust me, I remember everything from that night. Every goddamn thing.” I pause. It took me so long to see that my mom was in the wrong, but it certainly wasn’t that night. I’ve never told a soul, as who have I had to tell? But now I have Hattie. “That was the night my mom told me she should have never had me in the first place because I was a selfish prick who wouldn’t help her out with money. You don’t forget things like that.”

“I’m so sorry,” Hattie says softly. “I . . . I didn’t know. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“I’m glad you did,” I say, taking her hand in mine. “I want to be honest with you about everything. The more you ask, the more I’ll tell you the truth, and the more you’ll know.”

“Well, you deserve better,” she says. “I’m glad you have your grandma. I assume you’re close.”

“We are. She has her moments when I know she resented me at points in my life. I mean, I was a twelve-year-old punk broken by abandonment. I lashed out every chance I got. It’s probably why I haven’t had any real relationships, and most certainly why I didn’t fight for Ryland, because if he wanted to leave too and not listen to my side of the story, then I was good with him leaving. Wouldn’t be the first person, wouldn’t be the last.”

“Do you still have that mindset?” she asks.

“I like to think that I don’t since it’s something I’ve worked on, but I can’t make any promises. I struggle deeply with abandonment.”

“I can see why.” She gets on her hands and knees and crawls between my legs, leaning her back against my chest. I wrap my arms around her and as she turns her head up to look at me, she puckers her lips. I place a soft kiss on her mouth, and she turns back around.

I grip her tightly, soaking in the comfort from her warm, soft body, the sweet scent of her perfume, and the understandable hold she has on my heart. I have no idea how I’ve existed without this level of closeness. Hattie’s showing me exactly what’s been missing in my life. Genuine care and affection. Warmth. Acceptance. And I never want to lose this.

“I never knew about that side of your life because you were shunned from the family by the time I was old enough to be a part of these conversations. Did Ryland know?”

“Ryland and Abel know everything. The only thing Ryland doesn’t know is what my life has been like since the fight.”

“Has anything changed since then?”

“Nothing of significance,” I answer. “Honestly, it’s almost as if I’ve been walking around in a haze for the last decade or so. There aren’t many things that stick out to me other than professional accomplishments. Those are great and all, but not when you don’t have anyone to share them with.”

“You had your grandma and Abel.”

I nod. “And Ruben, he’s my agent. But that’s pretty much it.”

“How do you feel now? Still feel like you’re in that haze?”

“No,” I answer. “The moment you stepped onto my porch with a box, it was like the haze lifted. I was intrigued that you were Ryland’s sister. The dangerous side of me wanted to play around to fuck with him, but as I spent more time with you, I realized the damage I could do, and that’s when I started to pull away, which proved to be too hard. I tried to return to that haze, but it was impossible with you walking around the house every day.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re not back there now.”

I kiss the side of her neck gently and ask, “What about you? Do you ever miss your parents?”

“Sometimes,” she says. I can’t imagine what losing your mom to breast cancer and then your dad to a heart attack does to such a little girl. She was lucky to have Ryland and Cassidy, who stepped up and took care of their younger sisters. “I didn’t know my mom all that well, but from what I heard, she wasn’t entirely the most loving, caring mom. And Dad, well, secretly, I was kind of glad he died. He was . . . just awful.”

I hold her tighter. I have strong memories of how Mr. and Mrs. Rowley treated their kids. That’s what I had to refer to them as too. They weren’t warm people. The day Mr. Rowley beat Ryland with his own glove after a game where he struck out three times has been imprinted on my mind. He berated him behind the dugout, telling Ryland he wasn’t working his way to the grave to see his son strike out. Their parents might have put a roof over their heads and food on the table, but they were cold. Mean. I place a kiss on Hattie’s forehead, hoping desperately she never received her father’s wrath, something that got worse after Mrs. Rowley died.

“Dad . . . well, you probably know this, but he hit Ryland. He never raised a hand to me, but he was awful to Ryland. Would make sure Ryland had a hard time waking up the next morning. It’s why I was so attached to Cassidy, because she was the main adult figure in my life who offered me the comfort and love every little kid desired. Even when she got married and had Mac, I was still very much a part of her life.”

“I’m glad you had her and I’m sorry that she was taken away.”

“Thank you,” she says softly. “There are days where I still can’t believe she’s gone, like this is some sort of sick prank, but after spending a week in her room, I think it’s starting to sink in.”

“Do you think it helped?”

“Yes,” she says. “I think I needed to have that connection with her, that moment. She passed when I was still at college. She wouldn’t let me come home. She said she was fine and she was going to make it. Well, I think we know how that turned out. Coming back into town, not feeling her warm hug, or seeing her brilliant smile, or hearing how proud she is of me . . .” I hear the waver in her voice so I pull her in even closer.

“It’s okay, Hattie.”

She sniffs. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. It’s good to talk about it. It’s good to cry.”

“But on our first date? That doesn’t seem right.”

“There are no rules about first dates. We can make it how we want it.” The wind picks up the edge of the blanket, flipping it over her feet, but she doesn’t move. Instead, she cuddles in even closer.

“I just miss her, Hayes. I wish I could have spent one more day with her before she left.”

“What would that day have been like?” I never really saw them together, but I do remember how maternal Cassidy was. She always seemed to just . . . know what people needed and when.

“It would start with our favorite breakfast of eggs, bacon, and donuts from The Sweet Lab. She loved the maple ones. Then we’d spend hours going antique shopping. She collected vintage tablecloths and runners, but only certain ones. They had to be stained and well loved.”

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“Because the pristine ones, someone would buy, but the stained ones with tears, those still needed a home. After that, probably pick up a puzzle at Pieces and Pages. She loved puzzles just as much as I did and we’d have spent the rest of the day eating pizza, pineapple and pepperoni of course, watching old-school movies from the early ’90s, and putting together our puzzle. She would have talked about how Jake Ryan from Sixteen Candles was the best movie boyfriend of all time, and I’d have argued with her that it was Ronald Miller from Can’t Buy Me Love because Patrick Dempsey is so hot.”

I chuckle. “I don’t know, Jake Ryan had the car. Ronald Miller had a lawn mower.”

“It was endearing,” she says, exasperated as if she’s had this conversation a million times.

“Well, either way, it sounds like the perfect day to me.”

“It would have been.”

She shivers under my arms, and I ask, “Are you getting cold?”

“A little.”

I kiss the side of her head and say, “Let’s pack up.”

“But I don’t want the night to end.”

“It won’t,” I answer as I stand and pull her up with me. “I still have other things planned.”


“Very,” she says as she snuggles into me.

After we packed up and made the trek back to my car, I warmed her up with my heated seats and pre-controlled climate so she didn’t have to wait long to be warm. I then drove her north to a spot just past my house, where the field grass is high, there’s zero light pollution, and the sound of the ocean still fills the air.

I laid out two cushioned mats on the ground, covered them with blankets, added two pillows, and then helped her down onto the makeshift bed so we could stare up at the stars.

“This is beautiful, Hayes.”

“I’ve been here many times, especially when I need to clear my head but don’t want to be directly on the beach. It’s the best place to watch a meteor shower.”

“Have you ever taken a girl here?”

I shake my head. “Never. You’re the first.”

“I’m honored,” she says. “Your sacred spot. I can see why you’ve gatekept it for so long.”

“Not afraid of sharing it with you, but you better not take anyone else here.”

She chuckles. “Who would I take here?”

“I don’t know . . . your brother?”

“Ew.” She pokes my side. “What is wrong with you that you think I’d take my brother to a romantic spot like this?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. I’m still recovering from the flowers incident.”

“I think we’ll all be recovering from that for a while, including Mac.”

“I don’t know. She seemed to shake it off pretty quickly. But good luck getting her to stop saying dick. I think that’s ingrained as a core memory now.”

“Something Ryland will have to deal with. He started it, so he’ll have to try to take it back,” she says, her hair brushing against my chin as she snuggles.

“I still can’t believe he’s technically a dad.”

“I know. Despite being a teacher, he never showed interest in having kids, but he’s always had a soft spot for Mac. I think Cassidy knew he’d be able to step into the role naturally. I’m not saying it’s been easy for him, but he’s finding his way.”

“And are you finding your way?” I ask.

Her head tucked into my shoulder and chest as her hand rests on my pec, she says, “Umm, not really. I mean, I’m getting my master’s in business management, but I don’t know what to do with that. I always thought after I was done, I’d come home and help Cassidy at the store. But I don’t know now. Maggie has told me I should help her with her wedding business, but in all honesty, I don’t think I want to stay in San Francisco, and I’m also not into her hours. I swear she’s always working and I’d always feel I should work the same hours.”

“I can understand that. Not to mention, you should never go into business with friends.”

“I’ve heard that as well. So that leaves me with no ideas regarding what direction I want to take.”

“You have time to figure it out.”

“Not really,” she says. “I mean, it’s not like I’m swimming in cash over here. I’ll have to get a job. And after a failed semester, my scholarship is on the line.”

“You have a job with me,” I say.

“I feel weird working for you now. When we hated each other, I had no problem taking money from you. It felt great, actually.” I chuckle. “But now that we’re, you know, seeing each other, it doesn’t feel right.”

“Listen,” I say, tilting her chin up to look at me. “My house is a goddamn disaster because of you. You started a job, and you will finish it. After you’re done with that job, you can do whatever the hell you want, until then, I own you.”

She laughs. “Do you really think that kind of attitude will get you what you want?”

My hand that’s wrapped around her back slides to her hip, and I tug on her dress, pulling up the hem so I can feel her skin under my palm. “Yes, I do.”

“Why did you bring me out here?” she asks, her fingers making a slow circular motion on my chest.

“Remember when we were sitting by the firepit when Maggie visited?”

“Yes. That was one of the first times I felt butterflies in my stomach. I’ve always heard Cassidy talk about that feeling you get in your stomach when something truly excites you. Do you remember giving me your sweatshirt because it was chilly? The moment I put it on, it felt like my stomach was being lifted by thousands of butterflies.”

“Fuck, if only I knew that,” I say, sad that I couldn’t capitalize on that moment.

“You wouldn’t have done anything. You and I both know that.”

“True, I wish I could have.”

She tilts my face toward hers with her fingers. “Do something about this moment.”

My teeth fall over my lip, and my hand draws up to cup her bare ass. The solid palmful immediately makes me hard.

But I control myself as I say, “That night, as we stared at the stars, I told you how they’d become the key to keeping me sane, to remembering where I’m from and who I am.” She nods, her fingers toying with the collar of my shirt. “I wanted to bring you out here so I can add another grounding spot. So I can look up at the stars and remember this moment with you.”

“Hayes,” she says softly.

“We had a brutal beginning, Hattie. I hurt you several times. And I don’t want you to recall those moments when you look back at us. I want you to remember this moment, where we lie under the stars, grounding us in time to this spot, and started something new.” I cup her face. “I don’t know where this will take us or what’s going to happen in the future, but I do know I like you, a lot, and I want to try with you. In the future, there will be moments like commercials with Odette, or tours, or my attention being pulled in different directions, but this right here, us under the stars, it’s what I’ll always come back to in my mind. You, me, and a blanket of the peaceful night sky.”

She wets her lips and shifts so her delicate mouth can find mine. The smell of dried grass and the damp night air surrounds us. I get lost in her heated touch, her passionate kiss, and her tentative tongue.

Our bodies press together, our mouths part wide, and my tongue dives against hers, tangling as her grip on me grows stronger.

Fuck . . . her mouth is so delicious. Naive but sexy.

And with every dip of her tongue, every move of her hand, my control starts to slip further and further until I knowingly pull away before I do something she’s not ready for.

“Hattie, we need . . . we need to take a second.”

Her dreamy eyes open, and as she stares down at me, her teeth roll over the corner of her mouth and her hand lowers down my stomach.



“Careful,” I tell her. “You don’t want to start something you can’t finish.”

“But I haven’t finished in so long,” she coos into my ear as her hand finds the waist of my jeans.

“Hattie.” I breathe heavily, feeling my pants grow tight just from the thought of her hand slipping past the waistband. “Seriously, I won’t be able to control myself.”

“Good,” she says as her fingers dip under my jeans and my boxer briefs.

“Fuck. Hattie, seriously.” I smooth my palm over her thong-covered ass, gripping the string tightly.

“I’m being serious,” she says as her hand slips farther and farther . . . and farther . . .

I focus on the courage in her eyes as her fingertips pass over my erection. Then the most delicious expression crosses her face.



An appetite for me.

They’re all there, and unfortunately, nothing can stop me as I growl and flip her to her back so I’m hovering over her. She spreads her legs, welcoming my body.

Surprised at first, it takes her a second to adjust, but when she feels my pelvis press against hers, she asks, “What can you do to me that will make me come but will keep our clothes on at the same time?”

“A lot,” I say, my control completely gone, my dick leading the way now. “Name what you want. It’s yours.”

I hike her dress up around her waist so the fabric isn’t in our way.

I lower my mouth to hers, not pressing all my weight into her but just enough so she can feel me. Languidly, I kiss her, taking the lead, not using tongue at first, but teasing her with my lips.

Her hand drives through my hair, tugging on the strands as her legs wrap around mine, pulling my pelvis closer to hers, but my jeans can’t possibly feel good rubbing against her, so I lift and stare down at her.

“Undo my jeans and push them down.”

“Wh-what?” she asks, looking cutely nervous.

“Keep my briefs on but push down my jeans. It’ll feel better.”

“Okay,” she says. She reaches for my jeans and undoes them, then slowly pushes them down my thighs until they’re out of the way, leaving me sitting up on my knees in my boxer briefs and my massively large bulge stretching for release.

“Oh my God,” she says quietly as her hand runs along my length, her fingertips tantalizing me. I can feel my cock twitch under her touch. “You’re so big, Hayes.”

“Get used to it,” I say. “When you’re ready, I’m going to fill you up with my cock . . . in your mouth, pussy, and ass.”

Her eyes flash up to mine, and before she can make a retort, I carefully lower her back down on the cushion and blankets and then settle myself between her legs. This time, I press into her with my length, causing her to gasp out and grip my shoulders tightly.

“Hayes,” she says breathlessly. I thread my hand into her hair, grip the strands, and pull her head back so I can run my tongue along the column of her neck. I drag it down and then kiss my way up, nipping at the same time.

I move over her jaw and say, “There’s one thing you need to know.” I bring my mouth to just above hers, and I nip at her lower lip, giving it a light tug before saying, “This body, these lips, this pussy”—I thrust into her, and she gasps loudly—“they belong to me now. If we’re doing this, we’re doing it my way, meaning you”—I drop kisses down her neck—“are . . . mine.” I run my tongue along her collarbone and then to the juncture of her shoulder, where I bite down on her skin while driving my cock over her pussy, dragging and pressing into her at the same time.

“Fuck,” she whispers as her fingers dig into my T-shirt.

“That’s it, Hattie. Don’t hold back,” I say as I drive into her again. This time, her legs widen more. “Hold your knees, and spread your legs wider. I don’t want anything in my way.”

“H-how?” she asks. I’m starting to realize she’s not as experienced as I thought she was.

I lift and spread her legs wide, then push them up. I glance down at her barely-covered pussy and feel my mouth water at the sight of it. I want to bury my head between her legs, taste her, make her come on my tongue. I want to hear her moans, feel her shiver beneath me from just my mouth, but I also know she wants this. She wants the friction, the passion, the temptation without going too far.

“Grip your knees and keep them like this.”

She nods and places her hands on her knees while she leans back on the pillow. Her eyes are wild as I bend down, my head falling between her legs. I might not lick her, but that doesn’t mean I can’t at least get close. I run my nose along the fabric of her thong and see the shake in her body as I slowly climb up until I reach her mouth. I glide my tongue over her lips, parting them, and then thrust my tongue against hers while I thrust my hips as well.

She groans against my mouth and then matches the strokes of my tongue with hers, so they dance, suck, and tempt. She’s an expert with her mouth, how she kisses, and how she teases. How good would she be at sucking my cock?

My guess . . . really fucking good.

I tear my mouth away again and move it over her jaw, this time going down the other side of her neck, past her collarbone, just above the swell of her breast. I drag my tongue over the top of her dress and then suck her skin into my mouth as I thrust onto her.

“God, Hayes,” she says, her voice breathy now. “Feels . . . so . . .” Her words are cut off with a moan as I bring my mouth over the fabric of her dress and suck on one of her hard nipples, the floral material inconvenient. It doesn’t seem to bother her because her back arches, moving her breast deeper into my mouth. “Fuck,” she says, her body starting to tense, so I move over to the other breast, where I do the same thing. I bring her nipple into my mouth and then she arches her back so I can suck it harder.

Unable to keep my hands to myself, I grip the breast I’m not sucking on, igniting the flame for both of us. I’m such a tit man, any size, and Hattie’s are fucking perfect. Not too small, not too big, just right, and it takes everything in me not to pull down her dress and expose them. Instead, I pick up the pace of my hips, creating more heat, driving up the friction until she’s panting, squirming beneath me.

“Fuck, Hayes . . . fuck, I—”

“Tell me, baby,” I say. “Tell me you’re going to come.” I pause on her breasts, prop my hands on either side of her and focus only on my hips, driving them up and down, rubbing against her clit, putting her in a position of no return. Her head tilts back, her mouth falls open, and a long moan falls past her lips as she shatters beneath me.

I pump against her a few more times, letting her ride out her orgasm until she releases her arms and she relaxes. That’s when I pull off to the side, my back toward her, and whip my cock out. I smooth my hand over the precum on the tip of my dick and use it as lubricant while I pump my length, the sound of her orgasm still fresh in my ears. It takes me a few seconds, but I’m coming in the grass, my back tensing, my groan loud enough to draw attention from anyone nearby. When I finish, I sit back on my knees and slip my cock back in my briefs, catching my breath.

I glance over my shoulder at Hattie, watching me from behind. I lift on my knees, pull my pants back on, and then I hover over her, dipping my head down and kissing her on the lips.

“Fuck me, you have the sweetest lips,” I say, cupping her cheek and letting my mouth take over. I need to taste her. Just one taste. So I move down her body, between her legs, where I slide the thin piece of fabric to the side and drive my tongue up her slit, tasting her arousal with one swipe. Fuck. She’s so sweet.

She gasps, and just as quickly as I tasted her, I cover her up and bring her dress down. Her eyes wide, she stares up at me, and I take the moment to wet my lips, dragging her arousal over my mouth.

“Fucking delicious.”

And just like that, even under the moonlight, I can see that sexy blush of hers.

Fuck, I’m going to have so much fun with her. And this is only the beginning.


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