The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 20


Hayes shifts behind me, his morning erection plastered against my backside, his heavy arm draped over my middle, and his head buried in my hair, lightly sleeping as the morning sun streams through the window. It’s the most amazing feeling.

I feel amazing.

When he said I wouldn’t be getting any sleep, he wasn’t lying. The moment I started to drift off to sleep, his hand would caress my breast or move down between my legs. His lips would find my neck, and within seconds, I was at his beck and call, waiting to see what he would do next.

And he did everything.

Something I found that he loves to do . . . oral.

God, does he love it. And he loves when I do it to him too, which was such a huge turn-on for me. I came on his tongue twice, and he came in my mouth once. I can still feel the way he tugged on my hair as his entire body strained during his orgasm, the feral moan that flew out of his mouth was so sexy.

There were moments when he took his time, and other moments when he was ravenous, twisting and turning me in all different positions, especially when we wound up on the floor, giving us more room. I very quickly found out that he loves fucking me from behind. And I worked out that I didn’t mind him lightly spanking me. It caught me off guard at first, but then I got into it, just like everything else he introduced to me.

And for the record, he had no problem finding my clit. He spent a great deal of time playing with it, playing with me, trying to get me to come every chance he could get.

Now this morning, it’s clear how much time he spent between my legs because I’m sore. But sore in the best way.

I reluctantly slip out of his grasp and tiptoe across the floor to the bathroom, where I shut the door behind me. I catch myself in the mirror, and the first thing I see is my hair, which has somehow accumulated at least three inches of volume throughout the night . . . most likely thanks to Hayes and his wandering hands.

The next thing I notice are the dark bite marks on my neck, my shoulders, and along my chest.

“Holy shit,” I whisper as I lean closer, my fingers running over the marks he left on me. God, they’re everywhere, even on my boobs. My teeth drag over the corner of my mouth as my lips curl up into a slight smile. Call me crazy, but I like them. I like having “battle wounds” from the night before; it shows me just how much his words ring true.

You drive me crazy, Hattie.

It’s what he whispered to me when we were on the floor. He was behind me, hands on my hips, driving into me viciously until we both came simultaneously. I felt it at that moment when he was ravenous and out of control. But seeing the evidence from it this morning makes me smile more.

Stepping away from the mirror, I take care of business, flush, and then wash my hands, my eyes traveling over my body, taking in the marks all over again. I drag my fingertips over them, and with every new spot I find, I grow increasingly desperate to wake him up and ask him to add to my collection.

I give myself one last look before I open the bathroom door, where I come face to face with Hayes standing on the other side. A small squeal pops out of my mouth from the surprise of him standing there, but then my eyes roam his lickable body. The cutest sleepy smile crosses his face as he tugs on his messy hair. His chest has a few marks from me, there’s a scratch mark near his right nipple, and then . . .




His fully erect cock strains between us.

When my eyes meet his, I say, “How?”

He chuckles. “You, that’s how.” And then he tugs on my hand and brings me toward the bed where he takes a seat on the floor, his back up against the side of the bed. He spins me around so my ass is right in front of his face. His hands start at my ankles and move up until they round over my butt. “Bend over, baby.”

Unsure what he wants this time, I bend over, exposing my entire backside to him. He grips my ass, and before I know what’s happening, he drives his tongue against my pussy.

“Spread your legs more.”

Already starting to feel breathless, I spread my legs and then he goes back to flicking his tongue over my clit while I reach down and touch my toes, giving myself some semblance of balance.

“Fuck, you taste so good in the morning,” he says before using his thumbs to spread my pussy and give him better access. He flicks his tongue in short, brief strokes, building up the base of my orgasm. He does it in layers. He loves it. He gets me to the point that I’m dripping wet, begging, then he pulls back and builds layers of pleasure until I’m thrashing, pleading with him to let me come.

His mouth pulls away, and he slides his fingers along my slit, making them wet, only to slip them inside me, curling them as he reaches the hilt, hitting me in just the right spot that my arms immediately go numb.

“Hayes, oh God.”

“Mmm, there’s that sound I like to hear,” he lazily says before scooping his fingers inside me again. His other hand rubs over my ass cheek right before he slaps it, just hard enough to catch me by surprise with the sting, but then he smooths his palm over my skin, soothing it. “I didn’t like waking up alone in bed.” He spanks me again, causing me to groan.

“I had to go to the bathroom,” I pant.

“Doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I wanted this warm body next to me.” He scoops and spanks at the same time, and I start to lose my balance, but he steadies me. “I wanted to feel your tits, play with your nipples, turn you onto your back and suck them into my mouth until you were ready to come.” He scoops and spanks. “But you weren’t here.” He spanks me harder, and I cry out in pleasure, for the first time actually feeling my pussy convulse around his fingers. God, what is he doing to me? “Don’t do it again.” He spanks me and then releases his fingers, only to drive his tongue against my clit with harder, faster strokes this time.

“Oh God, Hayes.” My legs shake beneath me, this position so hard to hold for an extended period, but I can’t . . . I can’t stop him because it feels too damn good. His amazing tongue vibrates across my clit, giving me exactly what I want. What I need.

And when he spanks me again, my eyes widen, noticing his erection, precum dripping down the length.

“I want your cock,” I say before I can stop myself. “I want it bad.”

His mouth lifts away. “Can’t fucking hear that enough.” He soothes his hand over my ass and says, “Grab your vibrator.”


“You heard me. Grab it.” He leans his head against the bed as his large hand moves up and down his length. Watching him sitting there, watching me, stroking himself, his cock glistening from his arousal, has to be one of the sexiest sights I’ve ever seen.

I’m in a whole other world with this man. There’s no denying it.

I move to my nightstand on shaky legs, my entire bottom half sore, and grab my vibrating wand. I hand it to him, and he says, “Turn back around and squat over my dick.”

Confused about what he has planned, I turn away from him and lower myself, thankfully with him guiding me.

“That’s it, baby,” he says as he positions his cock at my entrance. “Now sit down.”

My back against his chest, I rest on his lap, his cock fully entering me, filling me up in the most delicious way. I take a few deep breaths, letting myself settle in because when I say he’s big . . . he’s big.



And he knows how to use it.

“That’s my girl,” he says as his lips run up the back of my neck, making my nipples hard. “Hike your legs in close on either side of my legs. I want you wide and exposed.”

I bring my feet in close and place them outside of his legs, exposing my pussy.

“Such a good listener,” he says. He turns on my wand vibrator and brings it to my nipples, where he lets it vibrate the little nubs. God, that feels incredible.

As he focuses the vibrator on my breasts, he runs one finger up my slit and then sucks his fingers.

“I could eat you every morning, that’s how fucking good you taste.” And then he goes in for seconds.


On the fourth one, I’m breathing so heavily that my chest is heaving.

“I . . . I need to move,” I say, his cock twitching inside me with every taste he has of me. How can he do that? Just be submerged inside me and not lose his mind? Because that’s how I feel right now, like if I don’t start creating friction, I might pass out.

“No, don’t fucking move,” he says as he moves the vibrator lower, and when I think he’s going to bring it to my clit, he lowers it farther until he’s pressing it against his balls. “Ahh, fuck yes,” he says, his body relaxing beneath me. “Oh fuck, Hattie.” His hips shift as the vibration against his balls travels up to me, up his length, vibrating inside me. He pinches my nipple with his other hand, causing my pussy to clench around him. “Fuck yes,” he groans. “Jesus, I’m going to come so hard.”

His hips start moving as he continues to vibrate his balls. Those light pulses are driving me insane. I need to come.

“I need more,” I say, my hand falling between my legs to press into my clit.

“Don’t you dare fucking touch yourself,” he says. “Loop your hands behind my neck.”


He pinches my nipple hard in warning, so I entwine my hands behind his neck, giving him free range to my body. And I fully trust him because as I sit on his lap, full of his cock, he focuses his attention back on me despite how much he loved using the vibrator on himself. He glides the wand up my inner thigh, across my clit briefly, and then to the other inner thigh.

“I won’t last, Hayes,” I say. “Please.”

He nibbles on my neck and whispers, “I won’t either.”

Then he brings the wand to my clit, and I scream so loud that I nearly fly off him because, Jesus fucking Christ, it’s the most intense sensation I’ve ever experienced. Full of him, pressed against his chest with my back, clawing at his neck as the vibration sears through me.

My orgasm climbs at a rapid rate, my pulse skyrockets, my legs start to give out, and a sense of euphoria takes over me as I feel him twitch inside me.

“Yes, Hayes. Yes,” I yell. “Oh my God.”

“That’s it, baby,” he groans into my ear. “Squeeze my cock.”

He holds the vibrator steady, right where I need it, right where I can’t escape it, and it starts at the tips of my toes. It screams up my legs and tightens every muscle in my body, pulling together, tying in a deep knot in the pit of my stomach and my hips buck up as it crests over me, a splash of pleasure like a tidal wave, hitting me so hard that I cry out his name as I come.

“Hayes, fuck . . . oh my God.”

“Ahh, Jesus, baby,” he groans as he moves the vibrator lower. “Pump my cock.”

I rock up and down on him, my legs doing most of the work, the vibration still creating this afterglow of pleasure through my body as he tenses, the vibrator falling to his balls again. His chest tightens beneath me, his cock swells, and then he’s coming, his groan turning into a bite mark on my shoulder as he rides out his orgasm.

It takes a few seconds to come back to earth, but when we do, he switches off the vibrator and tosses it to the side before I drop my legs down, and he wraps his arms around my waist, just under my breasts.

“Fucking hell, Hattie,” he says while squeezing me tight. “I’ll never get enough of your pussy. Never.”

I rest my head against his shoulder, and I’m about to tell him I’ll never get enough of his cock when there’s a knock on my door.

Oh shit.

What time is it?

“Hattie,” Aubree’s voice comes through the door. “I know you’re in there . . . everyone knows you’re in there.”

“Oh my God,” I whisper, forgetting a freaking business is below us.

My sister just heard us.

Customers probably heard us.

The town will soon know what I sound like when I come.



And out of control.

The freaking humiliation.

“Hattie,” Aubree calls again.

Cheeks heated from embarrassment, I lift from Hayes and rip the comforter off my bed as I walk to the door, feeling his cum start to drip down my leg, just the way he likes it. I wrap the blanket around me and part the door open a smidge.

Smiling nervously, I say, “Uh . . . hey, sis.”

Her expression is flat as she says, “I don’t care what you do in your private time, but during business hours, for the love of God, I don’t need the entertainment of your bedroom extracurricular activities. Got it?”

“Yup. Sorry about that. Lost, uh, track of time.”

“Well, you’re going to apologize to Ethel because she left the store with bright red cheeks and a horrified look on her face.”

Great. Out of all people to hear us, it had to be Ethel. Now the town will think we’re some sex sycophants.

Although, after the past twenty-four hours, maybe we are.

“Sorry,” I say again.

Aubree shakes her head and moves down the stairs without another word. When I shut the door, Hayes wraps his arms around me from behind, not the least bit apologetic.

“They heard us, Hayes.”

“So?” he asks, kissing my neck.

“So . . . people are going to think we’re sex fiends when they talk to Ethel. I mean, I screamed when I came. Actually screamed. My voice is a little hoarse from it.”

“You did. It was really fucking hot.”

“Hayes,” I complain as I turn in his embrace. He pushes down the blanket and pins me against the door.

“What?” he asks as he bends at the knees and takes one of my breasts into his mouth, momentarily distracting me.

“You . . . you can’t . . . we can’t . . .” He tugs on my nipple, and a small moan falls past my lips again.

“If you don’t want them thinking we’re sex fiends, you have to be quieter than that.” He scoops me up and lays me down on the bed, with my legs dangling off the bed. He spreads them and swipes at his cum, only to smooth it across my stomach.

When our gazes match up, his markings now all over me, I know I’ll have to cover my mouth with a pillow because he’s not going to take it easy on me.

Poor Aubree. Well, she did tell me to go after what I want . . . 

HAND ON MY THIGH, Hayes drives his SUV toward the farmhouse with the other, the back of the SUV piled up with everything we need to redo the room today.

After he made me come again on his tongue, I convinced him to shower, which he’d only do if I joined him, which of course meant I went down on him.

Maybe we are sex fiends . . .

Either way, we finally made it out of the apartment, clothed, and avoided Aubree altogether. I’m pretty sure I was quiet when he had me on the bed, but honestly, I can’t be sure. He tends to make me forget everything when he’s between my legs.

And now that we’re driving, breakfast sandwiches ready to be consumed when we arrive, I can’t help but notice just how right it feels to sit next to him, his hand on me, claiming me every chance he can get. It almost feels like this was meant to be. Me and him.

“Why did you cover up my bite marks?” he asks as he glances over at me.

“Are you serious?” I ask.

He nods. “Yeah, you should be proud of those.”

“I am,” I say. “But I’ll also be seeing my niece and brother later, and I don’t want it to be obvious that you spent the past twenty-four hours licking, kissing, and biting every inch of my body. Do you really think Ryland will be cool about it?”

He pauses for a moment and then chuckles. “Jesus, I completely forgot about his reaction. He’s going to murder me.”

“No, because I covered everything up. You’re welcome.”

He sighs heavily. “I completely forgot about the world around us.” He glances over briefly. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

I shake my head. “No, not at all.” I feel a blush creep up my cheeks as I say, “I liked everything . . . and I mean everything.” I had absolutely no idea sex could be so . . . animalistic. Wonderful. Euphoric. That squatting position . . . using my vibrator . . . I need to stop thinking about it. I doubt I’ve ever been that turned on in my life. I’ve never felt so connected to someone during sex either.

A smirk pulls at the corner of his mouth. “Good answer. But if I’m ever too rough, you have to let me know. I feel like I lost my mind around you last night. I couldn’t get enough.”

“I could tell.”

“Are you sore?”

“Yes,” I answer, and he squeezes my thigh. “But in a good way.”

“I’m sorry,” he says softly.

“Don’t apologize.”

“No, I’m sorry, because the moment I can get my hands on you, I’m not going to take it easy.”

That makes me laugh. “God, Hayes. You’re so old. Where do you get the energy?”

“Excuse me?” he asks in disgust. I laugh even louder. “I’m not fucking old. Watch your mouth or I’ll shove my dick in it the minute we stop this car.”

“As if that’s a punishment.”

“Watch it,” he says in a threatening tone. “Your brother might kill you if I fuck you in his house, but it will be well worth it.”

I place my hand on top of his and slip my fingers under his palm so we’re holding hands. “Is this how it’s going to be? You just fucking me every chance you get?”

“Do you have a problem with that?”

“Nope, not as long as you still wine and dine me. Just don’t want to be treated like a fling.”

“Trust me, babe, you’re anything but a fling.” He pulls down the dirt road to the farmhouse and parks in front of it. Everyone is gone at this point, so we have the house to ourselves.

I go to exit the SUV when he keeps me in place. When I turn toward him, he cups my cheek and sincerely says, “You heard me, right? You’re anything but a fling.”

“I heard you,” I say.

“And I mean it.” He moves in an inch. “I might be fucking greedy with your pussy right now, but that doesn’t negate the fact that I like you, a lot. I like your mind, your heart, your quick wit, the way you care for me, and the way you make me feel when you walk into the room. There’s so much more to us than just sex, and I don’t want you to think I lost focus of that.”

“I didn’t,” I say. “But it’s good to know.”

“Good.” He closes the space between us and brushes a very light kiss on my lips. When he releases me, he says, “Stay there.”

He exits the car and rounds the hood, where he opens my car door. Before pulling me out, he leans in and rests his forehead against mine.

I loop my hand behind his head and whisper, “You okay?”

“Perfect actually,” he answers when he looks up at me. “So fucking perfect, Hattie, that it doesn’t feel real. This doesn’t feel real.”

“I know what you mean,” I say. “I woke up this morning feeling so happy that I almost didn’t trust it.”

“Same,” he says. He lowers my hands from his neck, and he grips them as he looks me in the eye. “I’m scared I’m going to fuck this up, Hattie.”

“Why?” I ask as I actually see the fear in his eyes.

“Because the only other relationship I was in, I fucked up. I don’t have good examples of love in my life, and I don’t have a good fucking track record.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” I say. “That’s all in the past.”

“I know, but I still have this looming fear.” His scared eyes meet mine. “This is too good to be true. Like . . . I don’t fucking deserve you.”

“Yes, you do.” I never would have thought that such a confident, charming . . . virile man could have any self-doubts. “Why would you say that?”

“Because when it comes to relationships in my life, I tend to lose them. You’re loyal to your core.”

“So are you,” I say. “Look at your relationship with Abel. That’s stood the test of time through some really rough patches. You cheated on your girlfriend back in high school. That was a long time ago. And you said you learned from your mistakes.”

“I did.” He sighs. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be worrying you with this. Let’s . . . let’s get the stuff in the house and get painting.”

“Hold on,” I say, keeping his hands in mine and not letting him leave. “Hayes, look at me.” When his eyes match up with mine, I say, “I trust you with my heart. You haven’t done anything to prove me differently. In fact, every chance you’ve had, you’ve protected me. You’ve put me and my needs first. The pickles, the job, letting Maggie stay at your house, my relationship with my brother, the apartment . . . you’ve always put me first, no matter what. This isn’t too good to be true. This is real because we’ve worked at it. You’ve worked at it. Okay?”

He reaches around me and pulls me into a soft hug before tilting my chin up and pressing a light kiss to my lips. “Fuck, I like you, Hattie.”

“I like you, too,” I say. “A lot.”

He kisses me again. “Good, because I’m so fucking attached to you that I’m not sure I could let you go at this point.”

“You better not,” I say, and he smiles that beautiful smile of his.

As he helps me out of the car and we start unloading everything into the house, I think about how different Hayes is compared to the image I had of him in my head. Growing up, I didn’t know much about him, just that he was my older brother’s friend, and when everything went down between him and Ryland, he became the Antichrist in our house. That summer, it was Ryland’s downfall. He stopped playing baseball and came back to Almond Bay. Dad treated him like absolute shit every chance he could get, and we all thought it was because of what Hayes did. In reality, it wasn’t Hayes at all. So I developed this image of him in my head that he was a bad person. A terrible person. I felt so guilty for liking his music.

And now that image has been completely obliterated. Hayes is not that person at all. He’s very loving and caring with a heart of gold if he lets you in to experience it. He’s protective, loyal, fierce. And he’s sensitive and slightly insecure, which makes him human . . . and makes me like him that much more. If he wasn’t a little insecure, he’d almost come off as pompous. Like he’s better than everyone, and given his popularity and profession, that would be understandable.

But he’s not like that.

He’s anything but that.

And it’s one of the reasons I’m falling fast and hard for this guy.

HATTIE: It happened.

Maggie: What happened?

Hattie: The sex.

Maggie: Whhhhat?!? Like . . . penis met vagina last night? And shook hands?

Hattie: How could they possibly shake hands?

Maggie: I don’t know . . . tip and clit?

Hattie: God, Maggie!

Maggie: You asked!

Hattie: I honestly think there’s something seriously wrong with you.

Maggie: Stop diverting me from the real meat of this conversation. You had Hayes Farrow’s penis inside you.

Hattie: You don’t need to put it like that, but yes . . . multiple times.

Maggie: Dear God, where’s my fan when I need it? Tell me everything. I want to know length, girth, rotation.

Hattie: What the hell is rotation?

Maggie: How did that boat float? Was the motion of the ocean good?

Hattie: If you keep talking like that, we’re not having this conversation anymore.

Maggie: Help a girl out! It’s been so long for me. I need this. Tell me, please.

Hattie: Fine, but don’t be creepy. He was very long, I mean, stretched passed his belly button.

Maggie: *whispers* Jesus.

Hattie: Girth was really tight. Like, he had to pause for me to relax so he could fit.

Maggie: *wipes drool* Mother of God.

Hattie: And “rotation,” not sure how to describe whatever this is for you, but he was bottoming out every single time.

Maggie: And I am now weeping in my purse. Thank you for that.

Hattie: And that’s just his penis. That’s not the rest of him. His hands, his mouth . . . his demanding, unyielding voice. He kept asking for more and more.

Maggie: I’m legit sobbing into an old peanut butter cracker wrapper because that’s all I have at the moment. I am JEALOUS!! I’m assuming he had no problem finding your clit.

Hattie: None. Maggie, it was so freaking good, like I didn’t think sex could be like that. And the things he whispered in my ear when he was deep inside me. I can’t stop thinking about it. Ugh, and then this morning, I completely forgot where we were, and he had himself fully inside me while using a vibrator against my clit, and I screamed so loud . . .

Maggie: Where were you?

Hattie: Above The Almond Store. Aubree came and knocked on the door. Ethel heard everything.

Maggie: Oh my God! The old crotch probably had her spirit reawakened.

Hattie: Probably. But seriously, he makes me forget everything around me, and it’s just us. I think I’m falling hard for him.

Maggie: Aw, that makes me so happy.

Hattie: But don’t you think it’s soon? I mean, I’m still a few weeks out from Matt breaking up with me. This isn’t a rebound thing, is it?

Maggie: No. Not from the way I’ve heard you talk about him. This is so much more, and let’s be honest, it’s not like you and Matt were fully immersed into each other’s lives. You were drifting apart.

Hattie: We were.

Maggie: And with Hayes, it seems you guys are on a different journey. You have a deeper connection. With Matt, it was more of that high school type of love, which sometimes grows stronger with years or, in your case, faded as you grew up. With Hayes, you’re in a more mature relationship.

Hattie: True, and he told me this morning how much he likes me. He made it known he had no intention of ending what we have.

Maggie: Eeep, really?

Hattie: Yes, and he wants me to meet his grandma. There’s a town gathering at Five Six Seven Eight that Aubree texted me about. Mac wants us all to go, and Hayes said we could take his grandma as well because she needs to get out of her apartment.

Maggie: Oh, Ryland and Aubree must be THRILLED about a town gathering. Aubree especially.

Hattie: I think she’d rather listen to me and Hayes go at it in the apartment above. But you know Aubree, she’ll do pretty much anything for Mac. All of us will.

Maggie: So this is good. You’re all going to hang out together. Even Ryland and Hayes?

Hattie: I think so. I mean, things aren’t comfortable between them, but I think they’ll get to a point where it’s not awkward.

Maggie: It should get better once you reveal the bedroom, don’t you think?

Hattie: I think so. I also think it’s a peace offering from Hayes.

Maggie: How’s it coming along?

Hattie: Good. Hayes is touching up some paint—with his shirt off—and I’m resting on the bed, texting you because I just got done ironing curtains.

Maggie: Send me a picture. I want to see him with his shirt off.

Hattie: That’s my boyfriend! You can’t drool all over him now. And saying things like he impregnated you in your mind.

Maggie: My thoughts are my own thoughts. You can’t take those away from me. And are you actually official? Is he calling you his girlfriend?

Hattie: I don’t know, I mean . . . we haven’t had the chance to do introductions, but I’d assume he’d call me that after the conversation we had this morning.

Maggie: And the multiple orgasms.

Hattie: So many orgasms.

“What are you doing over there?” Hayes asks, startling me so badly that I nearly toss my phone in the air.

Hand to chest, I say, “Jesus, you scared me.”

He sets his paintbrush down and walks up to me. “Whoever you’re texting, I don’t like it.”

“Why?” I ask as he lays me down on the bed and hovers above me, his pecs flexing.

“Because you have this smirk on your lips that’s only meant for me.”

“That smirk was because of you,” I say. “I was texting Maggie about you.”

One single eyebrow lifts, and he says, “Were you now? What were you saying?”

“Nothing of your concern.”

He leans in closer and presses a kiss to my neck. I really love those kisses, something that’s surprised me. Maybe it’s because it’s Hayes, and I like everything he does.

“Seems like it’s something that should concern me when you’re smirking like that.”

His lips move up to my mouth, and I settle in for his lips to control mine. He doesn’t kiss me, just hovers right above me. He’s within reach but not giving me what I want.

“Tell me,” he says.

“No. It’s embarrassing.”

“Nothing to be embarrassed about when you’re with me,” he whispers. “Was it about last night?” I nod, and he smirks. “Tell her how you basically made me addicted to your body?”

“No, I told her how you made me addicted to you.”

“Looks like we have a difference in opinion.” He leans down and presses a kiss to my lips. “I’ll never be the same man after last night.”

Butterflies take flight in my stomach as he stares down at me, his words so real. I know he means them because he never looks away. He’s not one to blow me up with false rhetoric. He’s true. He’s real. He’s raw, and I love all of it.

“When you say things like that, it makes me feel all gooey inside.”

He chuckles. “Gooey, huh?” I nod. “That’s cute, Hattie.” He kisses my nose. “What else did you say?”

“Just about last night and how you showed me what it was like to be with a real man. I might have told her you have a huge penis.”

He shakes his head and laughs while pulling me up so I’m sitting, and he’s standing in front of me. “Not going to complain about that.”

I snag my finger through his belt loop and pull him closer. His hand falls to my cheek as I stare up at him. “I said something about being your girlfriend, and she asked if that’s what you called me. I said I didn’t know because we haven’t done any introductions. It seems so juvenile to have that conversation, don’t you think?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t think so. I think it’s an honest conversation to have.” His thumb rubs over my cheek. “And just to clear the air, because I’m not sure what you told Maggie, but you are my girlfriend, and there better not be any other fucker in the picture. Got it?”

My stupid, giddy smile stretches over my lips. “Got it.”

“Good.” He steps away. “Now put the phone down, we need to finish this room before your brother gets home, and you lying on his bed, looking sexy as shit in those shorts, isn’t helping.”

“As if you walking around with your shirt off is helping.”

“It’s not, but it’s my choice to torture you. You don’t have that option.”

My mouth falls open as I stand up. “Pardon me?”

“You heard me.” He slaps my ass, the sound echoing in the barely empty room. “Get to work, babe.”

And then he walks out of the room, the dimples above his ass pulling my attention.

Damn him.

“I’M GOING TO PUKE,” I say to Hayes as we stand in the living room. Ryland will be here any minute. Mac is with Aubree at the shop helping her make some cookies, so she’s taken care of in case this surprise goes haywire.

We had a little extra time, so we cleaned up Mac’s room, added a few of Cassidy’s items, touched up the paint, hung new curtains, and Hayes even put together a mini bunk bed for Chewy Charles and his friends.

“It’s going to be fine,” Hayes says as he holds my hand.

“What if he’s pissed, though? Like, what if he doesn’t want to live in Cassidy’s room? What if he wanted that room to live on forever?”

“We both know that’s not healthy for anyone. You did this because Ryland needs a place to stay other than the couch, because there needs to be a new normal. And we even moved pictures and trinkets into Mac’s room so she has more of her mom in her room. I promise you, this will be okay.”

“I should have asked Ryland for permission. I mean, this is his house now, and I just went and renovated a room without asking.”

“You painted it; you didn’t renovate. And he’s not going to be mad. He’ll be grateful.”

“I don’t know,” I say, starting to feel nauseous.

The telltale rumble of Ryland’s large truck sounds. Oh crap. Oh crap. Oh crap.

He flies down the driveway and parks in front of the house. We have the door open, but the screen door is closed. With a backpack over his shoulder, he walks up the porch and then stops when he opens the door and sees us standing in the living room.

“Uh, what’s going on?” he asks. His eyes fall to our connected hands and then back up to us. “Are you here to tell me something?”

Oh God, I can see how this looks.

I quickly release Hayes’s hand. “No. Nothing to announce. We’re not announcing anything, just holding hands, but not like here to surprise you and be like a baby is on the way or anything like that.” Ryland lifts his brow. “Not that we have done anything to make a baby.” Hayes shifts uncomfortably next to me. “I mean . . . yes . . . we have. We’ve done the baby-making stuff, but with no intention of making a child.”

“Jesus,” Hayes mutters.

“But I’m on birth control, so no need to worry about that in case you were worried, but from the look on your face, you weren’t worried, more horrified because I just told you, your little sister is having sex with your former best friend, turned ex-enemy, who is now your mere acquaintance.” I look up at Hayes. “Is that what you are? Acquaintances?” When he doesn’t answer, I continue. “So yeah, we’re having sex, but you probably already knew that since Ethel heard us this morning. I completely forgot about The Almond Store below us, so that was a fun treat for everyone. Did Aubree tell you? I’m sure she told you. Ethel probably put out a newsletter about my screaming. Uhh, not that you need to know I was screaming—”

“For the love of God, Hattie,” Hayes says next to me.

“I’m sorry. Jesus, what am I even saying to you?” I gesture toward Ryland as he just stands there, blinking.

“Uh . . . I have no fucking clue, but if you could stop talking about you having sex, I’d really appreciate it,” Ryland says, looking slightly green.

Don’t blame him. I’m a little sick myself.

“Yup. All done with that topic and moving on,” I say, sweat forming on the back of my neck. “We’re here for a reason, and it’s to show you something.”

Tentatively, Ryland sets his backpack down in the entryway. “Okay, what is it?”

“Well, you see, it all started back when—”

“Come upstairs,” Hayes says, cutting me off from whatever tangent I was about to go on, and I’m grateful for it.

Hayes takes my hand in his, and he leads us up the stairs, Ryland trailing us. When we reach the room, Hayes steps to the side and pushes the door open, revealing the bedroom we set up for my brother.

A deep slate-gray paint coats the walls—Hayes picked out the color, and I love it—black curtains frame the windows, and a charcoal area rug covers the light-colored floor. A fake ficus is in the corner of the room, bringing a pop of color, and the hunter-green bedding almost looks black when the light isn’t shining on it. The wood and iron nightstands we chose go great with the aesthetic, and the black and white pictures of a baseball field add that personal touch I know Ryland would appreciate.

Hayes wraps his arm around my front and holds me close as Ryland walks into the room with a look of shock on his face.

“Before you freak out or question what happened to Cassidy’s things, I went through it all and put almost everything in storage. I put some items in Mac’s room as well as dressed it up a bit for her in there. But we saved a good portion of her clothes that we knew would have sentimental value and donated the rest. All blankets have been saved, one placed on Mac’s bed. And the pictures on her dresser have been placed around the house for everyone to enjoy.”

Ryland glances around the room, still in shock, so I approach him and place my hand on his back.

“You deserve this, Ryland. You can’t sleep on the couch forever, and I know you’d never have done this yourself. So Hayes and I did it for you. You’re taking on a huge responsibility by raising Mac and giving her a loving home. You deserve a space where you can relax.”

He drags his hand over his mouth. “I can’t believe you did this.”

“Is that a happy you can’t believe we did this or a mad one?” I ask, fear prickling up my spine.

Ryland turns toward me. “A good one.” And for the first time in my freaking life, I see tears fill his eyes. I didn’t even see him cry when Cassidy died. He’s always kept it together for us. He’s always been our rock, but to see him get emotional over his new room? It . . . it brings tears to my eyes as well. “This is . . . wow.” He shakes his head in disbelief and then glances at Hayes. “You helped?”

Hayes stands in the doorway, his hands stuffed in his jeans pockets. “I did.”

Ryland nods. “Thanks, man. That means a lot.” He then turns toward me and takes my hand in his. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to thank you enough for this because you’re right; I never would have done it myself. I’d have slept on that couch until Mac turned eighteen.” Then he pulls me into a hug and holds me tight. It’s all I need to turn into a bumbling mess.

Because he deserves this so much. Ryland hasn’t had the easiest life. Being the firstborn, with expectations of becoming a professional baseball player held over his head, he’s never had any leeway. And when he quit baseball to become a teacher, our father harassed him constantly. But he made his way. He became head coach at Almond Bay High. He’s built the program to where it is today, a hotbed for colleges to recruit from, and he’s won Teacher of the Year twice. He’s built his life around a community, he’s been there for all of us, put his life to the side to help Cassidy when her husband passed, and when the unthinkable happened with Cassidy, he stepped up. He’s always thinking of others, and it’s about time someone thought about him.

When he releases me, I wipe at a few tears and say, “I’m so glad you love it.”

“I do. I’m so grateful for you.”

I look up into my big brother’s eyes, the same color as mine, and I say, “No, Ryland, I’m the one who is grateful for you.”

He smiles softly, and that’s when Hayes says, “Want me to give you guys a moment?”

“No,” Ryland says with a chuckle. “But I do want to know why there’s a poster of you on the back of my door.”

Hayes smirks. “Thought you might need to become reacquainted with me. It’s been a while, after all. I’ve done some things you might not be aware of.”

“Despite hating you for a better part of a decade, it’s hard to escape the things you’ve done.”

“Well, in case you wanted to listen, I left you two records next to your new record player. The song Dark Liar is about you.”

“Is it?” Ryland asks, and I totally love this playful energy between them. “Looks like I need to hold the record case to my chest, stare up at the ceiling, and give it a listen.”

“The only way to do it.”

Ryland walks up to Hayes and holds his hand out. Hayes takes it right before Ryland pulls him into one of those one-armed bro hugs, and I swear to you, the moment they do it, this cloud that’s been resting over Almond Bay lifts. A weight has been lifted from all of us. A friendship renewed. Sure, they have a way to go, but this is the start, the beginning. “Thanks, Hayes. I really appreciate this.” Ryland pulls away. “After the way I treated you, I don’t think I deserve your help.”

“Water under the bridge, man.”

They both turn to me, and tears stream down my face, which causes both of them to laugh.

I swipe at them. “Don’t laugh at me. This is . . . this is a huge relief for me. I spent so much time worrying about you two getting along that it’s a weight lifted off my chest to see you as best friends again.”

“Whoa, hold up,” Hayes says, holding up his hands. “Best friends is a bit of a stretch. The man did wrongfully accuse me for many years. I’d say we’re categorized under friendlier acquaintances.”

“I agree,” Ryland says. “Don’t be calling us best friends if we haven’t even hung out alone yet. We’ll see where we are after that happens. Maybe graduate to texting acquaintances.”

“The obvious next step,” Hayes adds with a nod.

“God, you’re both annoying.”

They laugh together as I leave the room . . . a pleased smile on my face.


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