The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 22

HATTIE

Maggie: That’s it. I’m taking a vacation.

Hattie: What happened now?

Maggie: The father of the bride kicked the mother of the bride in the actual crotch! Like shiny tuxedo shoe straight to the vag.

Hattie: What? Why?

Maggie: Oh, you know, rotten divorce. They were out on the dance floor, and he claimed kicking was how he danced, but he just happened to peg her between the legs, buckling her over. Bad move wearing a pantsuit. Men claim women don’t have it bad when getting kicked in the crotch, but I beg to differ. I saw the pain on that woman’s face, and it’s now buried deep in my soul. The only way to release it is a vacation.

Hattie: Wow, that’s quite the wedding. What happened after?

Maggie: I, of course, had to take care of father dearest and escort him away. Claimed he needed ice for his foot from the chastity belt the old hag wears—his words, not mine. I spent the rest of the night babysitting them so there wasn’t any retaliation. The groom tipped me one thousand dollars for my troubles, and I’m investing that money into a vacation.

Hattie: I think that’s smart. You work so hard.

Maggie: I do. And you know what? I’m going to go somewhere warm. Somewhere where the men wear Speedos and maybe . . . maybe even a naked beach where I can hide behind a palm leaf and just stare at all the willies walking about. I can’t tell you the last time I actually saw a penis in real life.

Hattie: A vacation fling doesn’t sound like you.

Maggie: It doesn’t, but I think I need a change. The business is thriving. I’m exhausted, and the beach is calling my name. Can you hear it? Maggie . . . Maggie . . . come to us.

Hattie: Have you gotten enough sleep lately?

Maggie: No, can you tell?

Hattie: Just a little.

Maggie: Soon, when I’m on vacation. I will get so much sleep. Have you gotten much sleep, or have you just been living it up with all the sex?

Hattie: LOL. I’ve gotten sleep.

Maggie: Shocking!

Hattie: I have my period, so it’s all been put on a break right now.

Maggie: You know, some people still do it while they’re on their period.

Hattie: And more power to them if that’s their thing, but I feel so gross and bloated that the last thing I need right now is for Hayes to strip me down to nothing.

Maggie: I’d let him strip me down if I was suffering from food poisoning. Nothing would stop me.

Hattie: What did I say about your creepy narrative about my boyfriend?

Maggie: I’m a lost soul. There’s no fixing me.

Hattie: You know, your vacation could always consist of visiting me.

Maggie: And watch you be all lovey-dovey with your hot-as-shit, famous boyfriend who has the voice of a god? Yeah, I think I’ll pass. Let me have my island fling, and then I’ll come visit you. Can’t promise if I visit you first, I won’t accidentally have my boob fall out right into Hayes’s hand, and I think that would be uncomfortable for all of us.

Hattie: Fine, but after you have your fling, you come visit.

Maggie: Deal. So have you figured out what you’re doing with your job and everything?

Hattie: Not really. Aubree and Ryland want to talk with me soon, though. They want to go over some things.

Maggie: Are you still working for Hayes?

Hattie: Yes, sort of. The last two days since I’ve had my period have been very productive. I’ve cleaned up all of my piles, and I’ve been able to get through a lot and even straighten up his office. But obviously, I don’t want to do this forever.

Maggie: I wouldn’t be mad if you came back to San Francisco in the fall.

Hattie: I know, but I just don’t want to do it, Mags. I think going for my master’s was a mistake. I should have just stayed in Almond Bay with Cassidy. I keep wondering what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone on to earn my master’s degree.

Maggie: You wouldn’t be with Hayes, that’s for sure. You’d probably still be with Matt. Yuck.

Hattie: He wasn’t THAT bad.

Maggie: All I have to say is clit. He didn’t know where your clit was.

Hattie: Hayes sure does.

Maggie: Ugh, I hate you. Think he would know where my clit is?

Hattie: MAGGIE!

Maggie: I know, sorry. Jesus, I really need to book that trip.

Hattie: Please! For the sake of both of us.

Maggie: On it. Let me know what Aubree and Ryland want. I want to hear all about it.

Hattie: Okay. Talk to you later.


“YOU OKAY?” Hayes asks as I’m curled on his couch.

He’s been in his studio all day, finessing one of the songs he wrote about me. It’s called Electric Sunshine. He played a little for me, and let’s just say, it ended with me on his lap, naked. It was so good. Heartfelt, sexy, edgy. Everything a Hayes Farrow song is.

I have no doubt it’ll be a number-one hit for him, especially the chorus with the rasp in his voice. Ugh, it’s so good.

I grip one of his throw pillows and say, “Just breathing through some cramps. I’ll be fine shortly.”

His brow creases. “How long have you been like this?”

“Twenty minutes? The Ibuprofen should kick in soon.”

“Hattie,” he says softly as he comes up behind me and curls his chest to my back, pulling me in tight. “You need to tell me when you’re hurting.”

“I wasn’t going to bother you over cramps. You’re making such good progress.”

“That wouldn’t bother me,” he says as his hand finds my lower abdomen, and he holds me gently. “I want to take care of you.”

“Seriously, it’s not a big deal.”

“It is to me,” he says, kissing my cheek. “Everything that happens to you matters to me.”

The past few weeks since we’ve been together have made me realize one big thing. The difference between dating a man older than me rather than a man my age is astounding. Whereas Matt was more about having fun, Hayes is deeply intimate in every aspect of our relationship, not just the bedroom. And sure, there are probably men my age who are more mature than, let’s say, someone like Matt, but Hayes is so different.

He’s attentive.

He listens.

He cares more about what’s going on in my life than what video game level he’s on.

He’s mature, sexy, skilled . . .

And moments like this, when he treats me with such care, solidify the thought I’ve been harboring for a while now.

I love him.

There’s no question about it. I love him, and I’m waiting for a moment to say it. When I think he’ll be ready. I don’t want to come off clingy and scare him.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

I shake my head. “No. Just stay here with me.”

“That’s not a problem,” he whispers as his head snuggles into my hair.

We stay there for a while, his hand holding me gently, helping with my cramps, and when they finally start to abate, I say, “I don’t know if you know this, but my birthday is this week.”

I feel him stiffen behind me and then lift. “It is?”

“It is. I wasn’t sure if Ryland or Aubree told you, but I didn’t want you not to know and then be upset about it.”

“I would have been livid if you didn’t tell me.” He lifts me up and gently brings me to his lap. He rests a pillow behind me, and I lean against that for support while he strokes my thigh with his thumb.

“I know. And don’t think you have to do anything special—”

“I already know what I’m going to do.”

“Really?” I ask, stunned.

He nods. “I’ve been planning a special day for us for a while, and I’ve been trying to think of a good time to do it. This gives me the perfect opportunity.”

“That’s really sweet,” I say as I curl in closer.

“You deserve it.”

I look up dreamily at him. “You were such an asshole to me when I first came up to your house, and look at you now, spoiling me.”

He lets out a deep chuckle. “Denial will make you do stupid things.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re no longer in denial.”

“Me too,” he says as he leans down and presses a kiss to my forehead.


MAGGIE: HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I wish I was there to celebrate. I’m going to call later when I’m not in the church, listening to a priest tell the bride and groom about what it means to be bonded for life.

Hattie: Are you texting while in church?

Maggie: Never claimed to be a saint.

Hattie: More like a sinner.

Maggie: Listen, I wish I was a sinner at this point. What I wouldn’t give for a little romp in the confessional. I would easily confess my sins for an orgasm.

Hattie: LOL. We need to find you a man.

Maggie: Vacation fling, it’s happening. Me and Mr. Speedo. I’m going to enjoy snapping that fabric against his thick man thigh.

Hattie: I’m frothing in anticipation.

Maggie: I bet you are! So what are you doing today? I sent you a package. It should get to you today or tomorrow.

Hattie: Actually, I’m finishing up my makeup. Going to Hayes’s place today. He said he has something special planned.

Maggie: Why didn’t you stay at his place?

Hattie: We had a mini celebration last night for my birthday with Mac. I just stayed at my place last night, but Hayes wasn’t happy about it.

Maggie: I bet. The man is possessive. So you headed to his place soon?

Hattie: Yup. No idea what he has planned, but he said it would be epic. We shall see.

Maggie: Keep me posted. I want to know every fine detail.

Hattie: I will.

Maggie: And happy birthday, my bestest friend. I love you and can’t wait to see you again.

Hattie: Love you, too.


I PULL up to the front of Hayes’s house and spot him sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs on his porch. I smile to myself, remembering the first time I saw him in that chair. He startled me to my very core. This time, though, seeing him there just makes me exit my car quicker.

Not sure what he has planned for the day, so I chose a simple pair of jean shorts and a navy-blue sleeveless blouse that’s super comfortable but also very flattering. I left my hair wavy and pinned it half up so it was out of my face.

As I approach, Hayes stands, wearing a pair of worn black jeans and one of his signature gray V-neck T-shirts. He skipped the hat today, opting to style his hair. He looks so incredible that I hope whatever he has planned for today includes me pulling his clothes off him.

“Happy birthday,” he says softly as he pulls me in by the waist and places a kiss on the top of my head. “How are you, baby?”

I inwardly smile and rest my head against his chest as he holds me tight. “Better now.”

“I wish you’d stayed here last night.”

“I know, but it was late.”

“As if I’d care. I didn’t sleep anyway with you gone.” He kisses the top of my head again and then loops his hand with mine, tugging me toward his house.

When I walk in, I immediately smell the bacon he’s been cooking as well as the eggs. Then my eyes spot the bakery box from The Sweet Lab. Next to the box is a vase of flowers and a card.

“Is that for me?” I ask, knowing very well that it is.

“What do you think?” he asks, leading me to the island, where he has me sit on one of the stools. Hands on my shoulders, he leans down and presses a kiss to my neck. “Open the card.”

He moves around to the other side of the island while I take the card in hand and slide my finger under the sealed flap. I pop it open and pull out a simple card with an almond on the front. I chuckle knowing he got this from The Almond Store.

I open the card, and on the inside, he’s taken up nearly the whole page with a note to me. I look up at him, and he leans down on the counter, hands in front of him, and nods for me to read it.

Hattie,

I can remember the moments before you walked into my life.

Dark.

Dreary.

I was lost.

I was stuck in a rut, going from city to city but never feeling anything. I’d spend hours in my dressing rooms, staring up at the ceiling, not a thought running through my mind, barely a pulse to keep me moving. I felt so . . . numb.

And then I came home to Almond Bay where you stepped into my life, replacing that numbness with light. Hope. As you know, at first, I didn’t respond well to your light, to how your presence in my home resurrected something deeply lacking within me. But you brought humor. You brought joy back into my very mundane life.

Your electric sunshine . . . it consumed me, and now that I can call you mine, I know I’ll never be able to go back to a world where you’re not in it.

Look up at me because I have something to say to you . . .

Tears welling in my eyes, I lower the card and look at Hayes. His eyes are so sincere, his expression soft and handsome, those steely eyes making me feel weak.

“I love you, baby,” he says, stealing the breath right from my lungs.

I slowly lower the card to the island, my heart hammering. I wasn’t sure he was there yet. I wasn’t even sure he’d say those three little words anytime soon.

“And I don’t expect you to say anything in return,” he continues, “but I couldn’t go another day without telling you how much I care for you, how much you mean to me, and I figured today would be the best way to do that.”

“Hayes,” I barely say above a whisper, my throat choked up from the elation, the surprise, the relief flying through me. I reach for his hand, and he offers it to me. “I love you, too.” A smile breaks out over my lips, and I repeat, “I love you so much.”

His shoulders relax, and the sexiest smirk passes over his lips. “Christ, that feels good to hear that.” He sighs. “And this is exactly why I put an island between us because I desperately want to show you just how much I love you.” His eyes are full of innuendo.

“Show me,” I say.

He shakes his head. “Not now, baby. Tonight.” But he rounds the island and comes up to me. He grips my face, and his thumb presses under my chin, angling my head up for him. He leans down and places a soft kiss on my lips. “Fuck, I love you.”

My fingers lace through his belt loop, holding him close. “I love you, too.”

He sighs and rubs his nose against mine. “Hearing you say that is like a sin ricocheting through me, like I shouldn’t be hearing such sweet words from your lips, but fuck will I hold on to them.”

“You deserve them, Hayes. You deserve everything we can give to each other.”

I slip my hands under his shirt, and he freezes.

“Hattie . . .”

“What?” I ask, my fingers brushing over his abs.

“I said tonight.”

“And it’s my birthday, so I say now.” I lift my hands, taking his shirt with them, and he groans while letting me take it off. I toss it to the side and lean in, pressing soft kisses to his chest.

“Breakfast is going to be cold.”

“It’s in a warmer,” I say as I move my hands up to his thick pecs. “I want to feel you, Hayes. I want you to . . . make love to me.”

Groaning, he lifts me up by the ass. I wrap my legs around his waist, and together, he walks us down the hallway to his bedroom, where he places me gently on his bed. Eyes on me the entire time, he undoes his pants and pushes them down along with his boxer briefs. His delicious cock springs forward, and I feel my mouth water from the sight of him. Brawny biceps flex as he grips his cock for a moment, slowly gliding his fist up and down his length while his eyes stay trained on me and his teeth pull on his bottom lip.

While he slowly strokes himself, I lift and peel my shirt off and push my shorts down, leaving me in just my thong and bra. That’s when he leans down on the bed, hovering over me, and grips my cheek before pressing his lips to mine.

Soft and sure, there’s no question this man wants me and loves me. I can see it in his eyes, in the way he touches me, holds me . . . kisses me.

He gently tugs my bra strap down my arm right before trailing kisses along my chest, all the way to the other strap. He tugs that down as well, the thin fabric and the feel of his fingers sending chills up my arms.

“You’re so beautiful,” he whispers while he brings his mouth back to mine. His large hand wraps behind my neck, and he lifts me to unsnap the clasp of my bra with one hand. Gently, he removes it from my body and drops it to the ground, then laces his fingers through the waistline of my thong and pulls it down my legs, leaving me bare.

His eyes work over my body, taking in every inch of it. He drags his hand over his mouth. “I’m so lucky.”

“I’m the lucky one,” I reply as he scoops me up and brings me to the head of the bed, where I rest on a pillow, and he moves over me.

He drags his hand down my body between my legs and runs a finger along my slit, finding that I’m already wet for him.

“My baby is ready,” he says as he spreads my legs.

“So ready,” I say as he lowers and captures my mouth in a kiss. There isn’t any urgency behind his kisses, just desire. Like he can’t get enough of my mouth, my tongue, of our connection. And I’m the same way. I can’t get enough of him, and I don’t ever want to be satisfied when it comes to him. I want to always yearn for him. I can’t think of a better feeling.

His hand moves down between us to grip his cock. He gently rubs the tip along my clit for a few passes before bringing himself to my entrance, where he deliciously enters me at such a slow pace that I have to pull away from his mouth to catch my breath.

When he’s fully inserted, he doesn’t move. He stares down at me, his light eyes a shade darker as he says, “I love you, Hattie.”

I bring my arms around his neck. “I love you, too.”

And then he starts pulsing inside me.

It’s slow.

It’s thought out.

It’s everything I want to hold on to and never let go.

His forehead connects with mine as his hips start to pick up slightly.

“Nothing will ever feel this good,” he says, his hips thrusting into mine. “I want this with you, always.”

I grip his cheek. “Only with you.”

“You’re mine,” he whispers, his nose touching mine.

“All yours,” I say as his hand falls to my breast, and he kneads my nipple, tweaking it just enough for my back to arch off the mattress and my orgasm to build higher. “Oh God, Hayes.”

“Mmm,” he growls into my ear and then lifts to push at my legs, bringing them to my chest. “Hold your knees and keep your legs wide.”

I grip my knees, and the next time he thrusts into me, I feel all of him, every last inch of him.

“So . . . full,” I say as he picks up his pace even more, his hips now flying, his abs flexing with every pulse.

“Jesus, this pussy. Fucking love it.”

He brings his hand to my nipple again, and when he pinches the nub, I feel a jolt of pleasure rock through me, causing my pussy to clench around him.

“Fuck,” he mumbles as he does it again, but this time, he times it with his thrust so when he buries into me, my pussy clenches around him. “Baby, I’m close.”

I can’t respond because, with the next thrust and pinch of my nipple, my body goes numb, the room darkens, and my orgasm rips through me faster than I expected.

“Hayes . . . oh fuck!” I yell as my body convulses and my pussy constricts around him.

“Jesus fuck,” he roars as his neck muscles strain, and he stills, his orgasm hitting him just as hard.

I can feel him come inside me, the way his cock twitches against my pussy, and it’s the most delicious feeling ever.

After a few moments of letting our bodies settle from our orgasms, he releases himself from me and lowers my legs to the bed, but he stays close, leaning over me, cupping my cheek and staring into my eyes.

“We were supposed to do that tonight.”

“What did you expect to happen when you told me you love me?”

He smirks. “I don’t know, a hug and a kiss and then breakfast?”

I chuckle. “Yeah, you miscalculated that by a long shot.” I drag my finger over his bare chest. “Maybe for my birthday, we can just stay here all day.”

“As much as that appeals to me . . .” He squeezes my hip. “I have plans for us.”

“Better than all day in bed?” I wiggle my brows.

In a pained voice, he says, “You can’t really compare the two.”

“Then let’s stay here.” I drag my hands down his stomach to his waistline, where he captures my wrist.

“Baby,” he says, heaving a deep sigh. “I promise you, when we get back from our plans for today, we’ll spend the rest of our time right here. But I have some things I want to do with you first.” He places a kiss on my nose and then rises from the bed. He scoops me in his arms and carries me to the bathroom, something I’ve become quite used to at this point.

After taking care of business, he helps me get dressed, which is very sad, and he puts his briefs and jeans back on before taking my hand and leading me back into the kitchen, where he retrieves his shirt and puts that back on as well.

Yup, all very sad.

I sit at the island like I always do and cross my legs.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he says.

“Like what?” I ask.

“Like I just took your favorite toy away.”

“But you did. I love your penis, and I want to play with it.”

He chuckles. “Trust me, you’ll get plenty of time with it today, but first . . .” He pushes the pink Sweet Lab box in front of me. “This is for you.”

I pop open the lid, and a wave of maple wafts in the air as I glance down at two large maple donuts.

“Oh my God, I love these,” I say just as he pushes a plate of eggs and bacon toward me as well. “Do you know who used to love these?”

“Cassidy,” he says.

“Yes. And with eggs and bacon,” I say, chuckling at the coincidence. “And she used to pair it with chocolate milk too.”

Hayes walks over to the fridge, opens the door, and pulls out two Nesquik bottles of chocolate milk.

He sets it down in front of me, grips the counter, and looks me in the eyes as I feel my heart beat faster.

“How did you know that?” I ask.

“Because I listen to you.”

I glance at the plate, the donuts, the milk . . .

“This . . . this is the breakfast I described when I talked about what I’d do for my last day with Cassidy if I had one.”

He slowly nods and takes my hand in his, squeezing it. He then grabs a wrapped present on the opposite counter and hands it to me.

“What is this?” I ask.

“Something I thought you could wear,” he says.

Pulse beating rapidly, my heart in my throat, I open the present, and Cassidy’s old cardigan that has now been patched up rests in my hands. “But this is—”

“Aubree said you could borrow it for the day.”

I look at the old cardigan, the large embroidered flowers colorful against the beige of the fabric. “Who fixed it?”

“I found someone who could help bring it back to life. Like I said, Aubree expects it back, but for today, she said it’s all yours.”

Tears flood my eyes as I look up at Hayes. “What are we doing today?”

“If it’s all right with you, I thought we’d eat breakfast here and then go to some antique stores to look for some stained and damaged vintage tablecloths.” Tears stream down my cheeks. “From there, I thought we could go to Pieces and Pages to pick out a puzzle, bring it back here, and then watch these.” He pulls out two Blu-ray discs from the drawer in front of him.

Sixteen Candles and Can’t Buy Me Love.

My hand rises to my mouth. More tears.

“Hayes,” I say softly.

“It’s your first birthday without her,” he says quietly. “I can’t bring her back, but I can bring back her memory.”

Reaching for him, I pull him in and wrap my arms around his neck, clutching him tightly. He runs his hand up and down my back as I squeeze him.

I know for a fact Matt would have never done something like this for me. He wasn’t ever really thoughtful and didn’t express a deep interest in my life on this level. And that’s probably one of many reasons why I wasn’t broken when Matt broke up with me. Thinking back to it now, I’m free to do what I want with my life without feeling like I was being held back.

Hayes would never hold me back.

He’d never make me feel less than I am.

He’d never cruelly tell me I was boring or not entertaining.

He doesn’t have a compassionless heart.

And that’s exactly why I love him, because even though he might be closed off and quiet when it comes to his personal life, when he wants to open up, he gives you every last inch of him, and that’s what he’s giving me now.

I release him and press my hand to his chest. “This is the best gift I could have ever asked for. Thank you.”

“Anything for you,” he says before pressing a chaste kiss to my lips. “Now let’s eat breakfast so we can start our day.”

“Donut first, then protein.” I smirk.

“You lead the way, baby.”


“WHAT ABOUT THIS ONE?” Hayes asks, holding up a white tablecloth with strawberries along the edge. “It looks like it has a mustard stain on it.”

I walk over to him, and he holds out the tablecloth, showing a yellow stain right near the corner, distorting the color of one of the strawberries.

He’s been so adorable while going from antique store to antique store. He’s been invested in the search, offering to buy every tablecloth we’ve come across, but I’ve been very picky. Just like Cassidy. It can’t just be any tablecloth. It has to have a printed design, it needs to be vintage, and it needs to be marred in some way. We’ve come across some gorgeous ones, but that’s what the problem is—they’ve been beautiful, and we don’t want beautiful. We want the rejects.

I examine the strawberry. “I don’t know. It doesn’t look that bad, like someone could hide this edge.”

“Could they hide the giant brown mark in the middle?” he asks, showing off a stain that makes me question what ended up on this tablecloth. I’m going to say it’s pudding.

“Wow, look at that. It’s huge.”

“Exactly what you said to me this morning,” Hayes jokes. I give him an exasperated look that makes him laugh out loud. “You walked into it, babe.”

“And I thought you were better than that.”

“I might be more mature than others, but I’m still a man.”

“That much is true.” I continue to examine the large brown stain. “You know, I think this might be a winner. Not sure anyone could get out that stain.”

“Would you try?”

I shake my head. “That’s part of the game—loving the tablecloth for what it’s worth. I mean, would you look at an old person and say, the wrinkle between your eyes makes you hideous, and therefore, I won’t dare associate with you?”

His brow cocks up. “I’m not sure anyone would say that to an old person.”

“You never know,” I say as I gather the tablecloth and fold it neatly. “People have real problems with wrinkles.”

“I don’t mind wrinkles.”

“I gathered that, given the wrinkles by your eyes, old man.”

His brows raise as shock passes over his features, causing me to smirk. “Excuse fucking me?”

I’m laughing as he wraps his arm around my waist and pulls my back into his chest. Speaking closely to my ear, he says, “If I were an old man, I wouldn’t have been able to fuck you the way I have the past few weeks.”

“Call it late-term adrenaline.”

“Guess I won’t be able to deliver tonight then, won’t want to wear out my geriatric hips.”

“I’m surprised you can walk without your cane right now,” I say just as he bites down on my neck, causing me to squeal.

“Watch it,” he mutters into my ear. “You won’t want to see me prove my vitality.”

“Oh no,” I deadpan. “That would be horrible.”

He chuckles and kisses my cheek. “Come on, smart-ass. Let’s purchase that tablecloth. We have one more store to hit up.”

“Okay, but if you need your afternoon nap, just let me know.”

He wraps his arm around my shoulders and pulls me into his side. Kissing the top of my head, he whispers, “You’re in so much fucking trouble tonight.”


“WHAT ABOUT THIS ONE?” Hayes asks, holding up a garden landscape puzzle.

My nose cringes at his suggestion.

Well, at every suggestion he’s made.

“What’s wrong with this one?” he asks, visibly insulted that I don’t like his puzzle choice.

“Nothing about it is interesting,” I say.

“What do you mean nothing about it is interesting?” He glances at the picture and then shows it to me again. “The flowers are vibrant. There’s grass, a blue sky, and look . . . a pigeon.”

“Ew, who likes pigeons?”

“People like pigeons,” Hayes counters.

“No one likes pigeons. And if someone likes a pigeon, they might need to rethink their choices. I’d never associate myself with a pigeon lover.”

“Jesus, that’s harsh,” he says as he sets down the puzzle. “What’s with the hate on pigeons?”

“I lived in San Francisco for many years, and the pigeons there are out of control. And get this, there’s a pigeon rescue where people actually donate money to save them. Who’s deranged enough to do that? The homeless people need food, water, and shelter, and billionaires donate to save the pigeons. Honestly, what is the world coming to?”

He picks up another puzzle. “Making a mental note never to bring up pigeons again.” He shows me the box. “What about this one?”

It’s a picture of a library, but all the books are the same color, making it one of those impossible puzzles that a crazy aunt or mother-in-law would purchase for you for Christmas, thinking you’d like it. However, it was made purely to make the novice puzzler lose their mind.

I prop one hand on my hip. “Hayes, I love you. You know that, right?”

“As I found out today, yes.”

“Okay, then you need to know that your puzzle choices are atrocious, and I truly hope you never buy me a puzzle.”

He sets the puzzle down and sighs. “Then tell me what you look for in a puzzle that would appease you.”

“Well, I’m glad you asked.” I turn toward him. “Cassidy and I have always loved a puzzle we could do in a few hours. We never wanted something that would take us longer than one night. It needs to be easy but also be slightly challenging. We like color blocking, so when you separate the edge pieces from the middle, you could also separate by color. Landscapes are okay, but there can’t be too much of one thing, like . . . too much grass is stressful. Too much sky, etc. And the picture has to be clear, none of this pixilated bullshit. And bonus points for a wooden mosaic puzzle. Those are our favorite.”

“Okay.” He nods and looks around. “Well, I think I’m going to sit this one out and let you make the choice.”

“Smart.” I pat him on the shoulder. “Give me twenty, and I’ll find us the perfect puzzle.”

“YOU UNDERSTAND the irony in all of this, right?” Hayes asks as he pulls the puzzle he bought me out of the bag.

“I told you, we’re not talking about it.”

He sets the puzzle on the counter, letting me stare at the picture.

“It’s pigeons.”

“I know,” I groan. “We don’t need to keep talking about it. I told you I understood the relevance of my choice, and I’m not happy with myself, but the portraits of pigeons got to me, and the one with a piece of bread around its torso made me chuckle, and I know it would have made Cassidy chuckle. So let’s just move on and be happy we found a puzzle.”

“Makes me wonder if we should donate to the pigeons in honor of your birthday.”

I point my finger at him. “You watch your mouth. It’s bad enough I had to eat my words on my birthday. I refuse to give in to the absurdity of saving the pigeons.”

I carry the puzzle to his large dining room table that can easily accommodate two adult bodies without a problem. I know this from experience.

Hayes grabs something from the fridge while I open up the puzzle box, where I’m pleased to see the pieces in a paper bag rather than plastic. Ugh, stupid pigeon puzzle hitting all the marks for me. It was also made of recycled materials.

“Thought you might want a snack,” Hayes says as he sets a jar of pickles in front of me. But not just any pickles . . . THE pickles.

I look up at him, then back down at the pickles . . . and back up at him. “Wow, you realize I’m a pretty easy bet when it comes to sex, right? You don’t need to be breaking down every wall I’ve ever erected.”

He chuckles and presses a kiss to my cheek. “Not looking to get in your pants, baby, just looking to show you how much I love you.”

“And it seems like a lot.” I grip the pickles and softly say, “Thank you. This means a lot to me.”

“Once again, anything for you.” He pulls a chair close to me, takes a seat, and drapes one arm over the back of mine. “Now, what are we doing?”

“Well, we need to put a movie on first, then start sorting the pieces.”

“Right.” He gets up and grabs the Blu-rays from the island. “Which one first?”

“Well, Cassidy would make us watch Sixteen Candles first, but I’m thinking we do Can’t Buy Me Love.”

“Saving Jake Ryan for last, I get it.” He winks at me as I scoff.

“No, starting the movies off with a bang! Patrick Dempsey sets the standard.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” He puts the movie in and presses play as he walks back over to the table. The open-concept living, dining, and kitchen combo makes puzzling and watching movies ideal. He drapes his arm over the back of my chair again, and I hand him a pile of pieces.

“Don’t miss any. We’re in no rush. Nothing makes me angrier than missing an edge piece.”

“Why does this seem like a sport for you even though you claim it’s a casual hobby?”

“I just know what I like. You’re lucky I’m even letting you help me.”

“This is a side of you I’ve never seen before. I’m not sure how I feel about it.”

I sort a few edge pieces into the edge pile. “When you love me, you have to love all of me, which means loving this side of me. I never claimed to be perfect.”

“You’re far from perfect, babe, but that’s one of the reasons I can’t get enough of you.” He leans in and kisses my neck, dragging his tongue along the column, and I swat at him.

“Stop that. We’re puzzling, and this is serious business. None of that tongue stuff.”

He chuckles. “Wow . . . okay.”


“HATTIE,” Hayes says as he leans back in his chair, letting me put together the last few pieces of the puzzle . . . after I slapped his hand away, telling him I could handle it from here. “I hate to tell you this, but your sister was right. Jake Ryan is superior.”

I pause and turn toward him. “Why would you say that on my birthday?”

He chuckles. “I’m not going to lie to you. It’s the truth. Something about him just . . . makes you fall in love with him.”

“Oh please, you just like his car.”

“Yes, true, but that sweater vest also calls to me. And the beret Patrick was wearing was very off-putting.”

“It was in back then!” I throw my arms up. “Honestly, how many times do I have to tell you that?” I pick up the last puzzle piece and place it in the center, adding a finished bow tie to a stoic picture of a pigeon. For God’s sake, whoever made this puzzle needs help. “Done,” I say as I run my hand over the finished puzzle, loving the smooth feel of it under my palm. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“I could think of something more beautiful,” Hayes says, bringing his lips to my cheek.

“Cheesy much?” I ask.

He growls in my ear. “You’re spicy today. I’m not sure I like it.”

“You’ll like it later,” I say as I slip onto his lap and place my hands on his chest, as Sixteen Candles plays in the background.

His hands fall to my hips, and he lazily smiles up at me. “Why wait?”

“Because our pizza is about to be here,” I say. “And I’m starving.”

“Are you thirsty? Because I could give you something to suck on until the pizza arrives.”

“What is wrong with you?”

He chuckles. “I don’t know. I think this is what happens to me when I’m happy.”

“Yeah?” I ask, playing with the collar of his shirt. “You’re happy?”

“Insanely happy,” he says, his hands smoothing over my thighs.

“Well, I might have something that’ll make you even happier.”

“What’s that?” he asks.

“I’m not going to go back to school.”

He frowns, his brow knitting together. “Why would that make me happier?”

“Because that means I’m staying here . . . with you.”

“Babe, don’t stay here because of me. Whatever happens with school, we can make it work. It’s just one semester.”

“That’s the thing,” I say. “I don’t want to go back. Not because of you but just because I don’t see the purpose. It’s not what I want.”

“What do you want?” he asks, the playfulness vanished from his expression as he listens intently.

“I want to be here in Almond Bay. I want to be close to my family. I want to grow those relationships. I want to help at the store . . . be closer to you.”

“You know I want to be near you, Hattie. But I thought you couldn’t help with the store.”

“I know, but I want to see if there’s a workaround. I mean . . . how can it truly be enforced?”

“Not sure. I have a lawyer if you want her to look at the will. See what can be done.” He pauses for a moment and then says, “But I want you to know that if you went back to school, we would make it work.” His eyes meet mine. “I don’t want you staying here because you’re worried, if that’s the case.”

“I’m not worried,” I say as I play with his shirt.

“Are you lying to me?” he asks.

I look up at him and sigh. “I don’t think I am. I know for sure that I don’t want to go back to school. Maggie was the only reason I’ve been able to make it as far as I did, but she’s not even in school anymore. She’s thriving and doing her own thing. My family is here, doing their own thing, and I just feel like I’m doing something that doesn’t matter to me. Why finish it if it doesn’t matter?” I take a deep breath. “And then there’s you. We could make it all work, but I don’t want to leave this space. I’m comfortable here, and I’ve found myself here. I feel like I know what I want for the first time in a while. And I want you, Hayes. I want to be here with family. I want to be closer to Cassidy, and I’m closer here.”

“Have you told Ryland and Aubree yet?”

I shake my head. “Not yet. I’m afraid of what they might say. I don’t want them to tell me to go back to school. I feel like we’re in a position where we’re building back our relationship, and if they tell me to return to school, that could ruin everything we’ve built.”

“But you have to talk to them about it, babe. Especially if you want to work at the shop. Unless you want to continue working with me.” He rubs my thighs. “I wouldn’t mind that at all.”

“I think you and I both know that can’t happen. I’ve barely done anything since we started dating.”

“You barely did anything when we weren’t dating,” he says in a teasing tone.

“Hey!” I poke his stomach, causing him to laugh. “It was a process. You can’t hate on the process.”

“There was no process. It was just you trying to make me crazy with all of your piles. And all I have to say is good job. You made me crazy.”

“It was not that—”

Ding.

The doorbell sounds, and Hayes glances over at the door. “That’s the pizza.”

“Thank God, because I’m starving.”

He lifts me off his lap and stands from the couch, tugging on my hand.

“Grab plates.”

“Or . . . we can just sit on the island and eat pizza from the box.”

He shakes his head as he moves toward the door. “You realize you’re the only person I know who forgoes the island chairs and chooses the counter as their seat.”

“Good. I wouldn’t want anyone else sitting on your counter. I’ve marked my territory.”

“We marked it the other night,” he says with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

We did, and it was one of the best orgasms ever.

While I take out some napkins, Hayes opens the door to grab the pizza. I’m situating the napkins on the counter when I hear him say, “What the hell are you doing here?”

From the kitchen, I find him standing stiffly in the entryway, his hand gripping the door handle while he stares at an older woman wearing a pair of worn jeans and a faded long-sleeved T-shirt. Her hair is a mixture of gray and brown, peppered heavier along her hairline. Deep wrinkles cover her face, especially around her mouth and her eyes . . . steely-gray eyes.

“Is that how you greet your mother?” the woman says as my jaw falls open.

This is Pam Farrow?

Wow.

I’ve never seen her. I’m not sure I was even born when she left Hayes to be with his grandma, and he sure as hell doesn’t have any pictures of her around, but now that I’m looking at her, I can see the slight resemblance.

Very slight.

“What do you want?” he asks, standing taller now. From where I’m standing, I can see the tension in his shoulders, and I know deep down that I need to be there for him. So I move away from the counter and walk up to him.

When I come into view, I see the change of look on her face, the surprise and almost . . . shock.

“Well, who do we have here?” she asks as I put my hand on Hayes’s back. He stiffens to my touch and pulls away.

“No one you need to be concerned with,” he answers.

“Is she your girlfriend or just another girl you’ve brought back to fuck?” She makes eye contact with me. “You’d be one of thousands.”

Hayes steps in front of me, blocking me from the view of his horrible mother. “Is there a purpose as to why you’re here?”

“As a matter of fact, there is,” she says. “It would be nice if you let me in.”

“Whatever you have to say, you can say to me right here.”

She winces. “You know, that might not be what you want.” From her back pocket, she pulls out an envelope and smacks it against her palm. “This isn’t a front porch kind of conversation.”

I feel him tense even more before he steps to the side, pulling me with him. He lets her inside the house, and she walks in as if she owns it, chest puffed, a sadistic smile on her face. While she heads into the living room, Hayes pulls me to the side while shutting the door.

“You need to go home,” he says quietly so only I can hear him.

“What?” I ask. “Hayes, I’m not going to—”

“It’s not up for discussion,” he says in a deep, commanding tone. “Go home, Hattie.”

Caught off guard, I say, “But my birthday—”

“Hattie,” he says, his patience growing thin. “I said, go home. Don’t fucking argue with me.”

I wet my lips, my heart starting to crack. “But, what about our plans?”

He leans closer and says, “I’ll come to you when she leaves. Okay?”

That puts me at ease—only slightly—and I nod. “Okay.” I step in for a kiss, but he moves away from me and to my keys and purse. He hands them to me and says, “Put your shoes on outside.”

And before I even have a chance to respond, he shoves me out the front door to his porch and places my shoes on the pavement in front of me. I turn around to at least offer him an encouraging smile, but before I can, he shuts the door in my face.

What the hell just happened?

I slip my shoes on and walk out to my car, where I open the door and sit in the driver’s seat. Hands gripping the steering wheel, I stare out the front windshield. My pulse races, and my mind swirls.

Should I really leave?

I know he asked me to, but he also tensed up to the point that I felt like he could snap the door in half. Shouldn’t I be there to support him?

I don’t want him to face his mother alone, not after what I know about her.

Then again, I don’t want to step in when he clearly doesn’t want me near her.

I bite down on my bottom lip, and I feel my hand itch to open my car door back up. No, Hattie. Trust him. He knows what he wants right now. If I walked through that door, he’d be pissed. Even if I thought I’d be doing what’s best for him, trying to support him, he wouldn’t be happy.

He made me leave for a reason, and I think I need to respect that.

So with a heavy heart, I start my car and drive away from Hayes’s house. He gave me the best birthday today, the most thoughtful, and the most loving.

This is about her. A woman who has only ever done him wrong.

He said he’d come get me when he’s done, so I just need to trust that he will. Because if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I trust Hayes Farrow with every fiber of my heart.

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