The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 5

HATTIE

“How was your first day?” Maggie asks into the phone as I drive from Hayes’s house to the farm to visit with Mac and Ryland.

“Weird,” I reply.

“Weird, how?”

“Well, once again, he was sitting outside on his porch, this time waiting for me. I was a minute late, and he made a big deal about it.”

“The man needs his coffee, what are you doing being late?”

“Shut your pretty mouth.” We both laugh. “And then he showed me how to make his coffee, gave me a quick tour of his bedroom, and took me to his office. When I say this man receives fan mail, I’m not kidding. I spent eight hours working today and got halfway through one bag. And Maggie, oh my God, the naked pictures he gets.”

“Really?” Maggie asks, her voice full of humor.

“Yes, like . . . so many naked pictures, and these girls are gorgeous. Some of their boobs . . . I’m really jealous.”

“You’re jealous of anyone with boobs since you don’t have any yourself.”

“Facts, but seriously, like even their nipples are perfect, not the slightest bit wonky. Although, I guess if you take a picture of yourself naked and send it to a popular singer, you wouldn’t have wonky nipples.”

“What is a wonky nipple?” Maggie asks.

“You know, like if one is a hamburger and the other is a hot dog.”

“What?” Maggie laughs.

“Like . . . if one nipple is longer horizontally and the other is longer vertically.”

“You think that’s wonky? I call that exciting. My right nipple is longer than my left, and I always tell myself it’s because that nipple was trying harder when growing. And you know what, I’d totally send a naked picture to Hayes Farrow if I weren’t worried that picture would somehow resurface and come back to bite my wedding business in the ass. Or else Hayes would be staring down the barrel of two non-wonky yet exciting and puzzling nipples.”

I let out a light laugh. “Puzzling nipples, now you know that’s something I could get on board with. And if I think about it, my nips are a touch wonky too.”

“I bet if you looked closely, the pictured nipples have a wonkiness to them too. That or the ladies facetuned them.”

“Can you facetune a nipple?”

“I think you can facetune anything at this point. Technology is freaky,” she says.

“I guess so, but yeah, lots of nipples.”

“What are you going to do with the nipples? Make them into a collage? Turn them into a puzzle? Oooo, imagine a puzzle of just nipples.”

“I’d do it,” I say.

“I know you would, and you would take it seriously.”

“I would. No matter the picture, every puzzle deserves the same amount of time and attention.”

“You are so . . . perfect,” Maggie says with a laugh. She’s always thought my puzzling was, as she put it, cute. “So what do you do with the pictures?”

“He told me to shred them, but I feel bad just shredding the pictures. These women took their time to pose and print a picture for him, so before I send them down the shredder, I offer the lady in said picture a silent compliment.”

“Stop, no you don’t.” She chuckles.

“I do!” I say. “I tell them how I liked the angle they chose, or wow, good job shaving everything, or lovely piercings.”

“Only you, Hattie.”

“They deserve the praise. It takes guts to send those and worry why you don’t get a response. So a silent praise, I think, is good. But I have to say, a few of them have made me consider a nipple piercing.”

“We’ve gone over this, the minute they clamp your nipple, you’re going to be kicking anyone in sight to get away from you. You could never do it.”

“I know, but these ladies make me dream that I could.”

“Don’t let them convince you.” Maggie laughs.

“I won’t. But anyway, the naked pictures weren’t the weird part.”

“That’s a plot twist. Color me intrigued. What was the weird part?”

“Well, I noticed he didn’t have snacks or any food for that matter. It was eerily weird. Not even a bottle of ketchup. So I told him I needed snacks.”

“Naturally. You can’t function without at least a granola bar in hand. I hope he understood that.”

“He got the hint real quick. He gave me money to go get snacks and asked for some healthy shit, which annoyed me—”

“Like what? Vegetable crudités?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Ugh, that makes me hate him. Try a donut, Hayes. It won’t break the finally stacked abs you’ve created.”

“Tell me about it,” I agree with her. “Anyway, I returned with everything you would expect in my grocery bags. Chips, cookies, candy . . . some fruits and veggies for him. Some of those pretzel peanut butter things I love and my coveted pickles.”

“The ones that you and Cassidy would snack on every summer?”

“The exact ones.” Maggie gets it. She knows all about my pickle obsession with Cassidy. One summer, when she came to visit, Maggie was drawn into the pickle eating. She went home with a few jars. “I was so happy to see them that I nearly cried in the store. So I bought them, obviously, brought them back to his place, and when I was trying to open them, I dropped them.”

“Nooo,” she replies in distress. “Not the pickles.”

“Yup,” I say. “And guess who has concrete floors?”

“Hayes fucking Farrow.”

“Oh yes,” I answer, still mourning the illicit drop of the jar.

“What a disaster. And who has concrete floors? You don’t see that choice in houses often.”

“Yeah, and since the man is so minimalistic with his decorating, there was not an area rug in sight to save the glass from breaking. I was so distraught I almost started crying. Thank God I didn’t because he came to check to see what the ruckus was. And then do you know what he did?”

“Kick you in the ear and demand you clean it up?”

“What?” I ask with a laugh.

“Just trying to keep the conversation lively.”

“Take it down a notch.” I chuckle. “He didn’t kick me in the ear, but he did leave the house for almost an hour, and when he came back, he had a bag full of pickles. All for me.”

There’s a pause on the other end and I’m about to ask her if she heard me, but then she says, “Wait, he got you pickles?”

“Yup, every flavor the general store had.”

“Oh my God,” she whispers.

“Yeah, I know, weird. He dropped the bag off and left. I didn’t know what to do when he left, so I just sat there, staring at them for probably ten minutes. I’m still confused. The conversation we had before that was tense and irritable. We were both going at each other and then . . . pickles.”

“Pickles,” she says softly.

“Yeah . . . pickles,” I mutter, still utterly confused about the action.

This is Hayes Farrow we’re talking about. He has been nothing but rude and obnoxious to the town and to us as a family. He doesn’t care who he hurts, he just takes what he wants. The only people he’s nice to are his grandma, Abel, and Rodney. That’s it.

He couldn’t care less about the town he grew up in.

Doesn’t participate in any fundraisers.

And will walk all over you to get what he wants, hence my current situation.

So the pickles . . . yeah, that was very confusing.

“What if . . .” Maggie pauses for a moment. “What if he likes you?”

Oh Maggie, how did I know she would jump to that conclusion?

“Please, Maggie, please don’t start with that. I know your little romantic heart always thinks the best of everyone and every situation—except icky Matt—but Hayes Farrow liking me is completely off the table. So off the table that he actually made it a point to tell me, straight to my face, that he had no desire to take my clothes off.”

“Oh God, he said that to you?”

“Yup, made it quite clear he’s not attracted to me in the slightest. So the pickles have nothing to do with any attraction.”

“Maybe he was masking—”

“He said it several times. Even looked me up and down a few times. It was . . . it was rude. Trust me, I think he’d rather make love to the broken jar of pickles than even consider peeling my bra off me.”

“Huh, well that’s disappointing, but also confusing, because he’s never been nice to you, so why would he give you pickles?”

“The question of the day. I told you, it was weird.” I see the farm up ahead and inwardly sigh as I spot the split-rail fence I helped Cassidy build. We started it with the best of intentions, dreaming up how beautiful it will make the farm, but very quickly got sick of putting it together and never finished because mentally, we couldn’t do it anymore. However, the portion we did build still stands.

And it stands beautifully.

I can still hear her frustrated laughter as we’d slip one end in, only for the other end to pop out.

God, this will be hard. Memories are already flooding me.

“Not sure how to take this pickle delivery, but I’m going to think on it because . . . how weird.”

“Yup,” I sigh into the phone. “Okay, I’m here. I should go.”

“Have fun and if you need someone to talk to after, I’m here for you.”

“Thank you,” I say, knowing damn well I have the best friend ever. I hang up the phone and pull down the dirt road leading to Cassidy’s farmhouse. It’s quaint with two bedrooms and one bath and has everything she needs for her and Mac. Needed. It’s everything Cassidy and Mac needed.

The potato fields are scattered all around it, giving the whole place a very earthy scent.

And yes, I said potato, not almond.

I know what you’re probably thinking—why would she have a potato farm when she has an almond store?

It was a question we all asked too, until she unveiled her master plan.

You see, she harvests the potatoes and makes vodka with them. A special vodka she sells around the town, as well as in her store, even almond flavored. She did. She made . . . 

It’s still so hard to believe she’s gone. And that everything about her is now past tense.

This was also where she excelled. At business. She sold the leftover potatoes to the local restaurants to use for fresh-cut fries. Provisions, the burger place in town, is best known for their fries and has even started a fry bar so people can load up on whatever toppings they want.

With the vodka, she bottled it and sold it but also made almond extract with it.

Famous almond extract.

The best almond extract in the state. California is known for producing the most almonds in the country, and Cassidy took advantage of that. Homemade vodka turned into almond extract that she then sold to some of the top pastry chefs in the state. It’s what Aubree continues to do now.

And the reason Aubree was probably freaking out about the bottles was because the extract is in high demand.

It’s an odd, eccentric business model, but boy, did it work. Now, The Almond Store is a main stop for anyone traveling up the Pacific Coast Highway or in Northern California in general. They come for the almond vodka, the almond extract, and the toasted, roasted almonds. They come for the almond butter, the creamer, the milk. They come for the pastries, the candles, the illustrated almond cards. It’s easily the sweetest store I’ve ever walked into, perfectly executed, and it kills me knowing that she’s no longer here to see her hard work pay off.

I park the car in front of the white farmhouse and unbuckle my seat belt just as Mac flies out of the screen door and down the porch.

A head of bouncy brown curls and freckles just like mine, but blue eyes like her father, she is the spitting image of Cassidy. And with a horse stuffy named Chewy Charles tucked under her arm, she bounds over to my car door and knocks on the window, a bright smile on her face.

Jesus, seeing the joy on her face nearly breaks me in half because this girl has been through more than any person should go through, and she’s only four. Yet look at that smile. Look at her excitement. If I were her, I’m not sure I’d exude such joy.

I open the door, and she leaps into my arms. “Aunt Hattie,” she squeals while giving me a large hug. “You’re here. You’re here. You’re here.”

“Hey, baby girl,” I say as I return the hug just in time to see Ryland walk out the door as well and lean against one of the poles on the porch, arms crossed.

Just from one look, I can tell he’s been run ragged.

And he probably has.

I don’t think it was ever in his plans to have kids, yet here he is, a single dad to a little girl who just lost her mother a few months ago. Not to mention living in his dead sister’s house while being a full-time math teacher and varsity baseball coach for one of the most prestigious high schools in the state, specifically known for its athletics program despite the town’s size.

Friday night lights mean something completely different here. Instead of hitting up the gridiron, the town rallies around the fences of the baseball diamond.

“Chewy Charles is so excited to see you,” she says as she makes a licking sound and mimics her horse licking my face.

“Hi, Chewy Charles,” I say. “I’ve missed you too.”

“He says you taste like broccoli.”

“Oh, I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not.”

She curls her nose. “He says it does not taste good.”

“Soooo not a compliment.”

“What’s a complent?”

“Compliment.” I chuckle softly while correcting her. “It’s when someone says something nice about you.”

“Oh.” She brings Chewy Charles to her ear and listens as he “speaks” to her. The whole time, she nods.

“What’s he saying?” I ask.

Her eyes narrow at me. “That’s private, Aunt Hattie. And we respect privacy.”

I nod. “That we do.”

She hops off my lap, and with Chewy Charles under her arm, she says, “But between you and me, he doesn’t want to lick you again.”

And then she takes off.

Insulted by a goddamn stuffy. I can’t imagine what Chewy Charles says about Ryland.

She runs back into the house, and Ryland waits for me as I get out of my car and walk up to him. He pulls me into a hug, tighter than Aubree but not as tight as Cassidy. A solid medium between the two.

“Hey, brother.”

“Hey, sis,” he says before opening the door to the house for me. “How are you?”

“Good,” I say even though I’ve definitely been better. I don’t want to tip anything off.

“Handling the breakup okay?”

“What breakup?” Mac asks as she jumps on the recliner chair beside the window that overlooks the potato fields.

“Mac, I said no jumping on the chair,” Ryland says in an authoritative voice I heard many times growing up. He’s raised me just as much as Cassidy. Tag-teaming me whenever we were home together.

She flops down on her bottom and asks again, “What breakup?”

“Matt and I are no longer dating,” I answer.

“Oh . . .” She looks to the side and then brings Chewy Charles to her ear. She nods and says, “We didn’t like him. He poked my shoulder, and I didn’t like that.”

“I can understand that.” I mutter, “He tried poking me but always seemed to miss.”

“Hattie,” Ryland says under his breath.

“What?” I whisper, “She didn’t hear me.”

Ryland whispers back, “She hears everything.”

“Uncle Ry Ry, what’s for dinner?”

“Hot dogs and beans,” Ryland answers as he moves toward the kitchen. “Go potty and wash up. It should be ready soon.”

She flings Chewy Charles in the air and then bolts upstairs as I follow Ryland into the kitchen, taking in the house and how nothing has changed. Not one picture is out of place, not one piece of furniture. The only thing missing is Cassidy’s warm presence and superior cooking.

“Hot dogs and beans, huh?” I ask as I sit on the counter in the corner of the kitchen like I did many times when Cassidy was cooking.

Ryland lights up the stove and pours a can of opened beans into the pot. “It’s the best I’ve got right now.” He goes to the fridge and pulls out a pack of hot dogs. “I want to take some cooking lessons but haven’t had any fucking time. Trust me when I say I feel like shit serving this to her. I know Cassidy would be pissed.”

“I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I know you’re doing the best you can, Ryland.”

“I could be doing better.” He pulls out a knife and then looks over at me. “Did you know they have spirit days in preschool? Apparently, all last week was spirit week, and I had no goddamn idea. I picked her up from day care, and she was crying hysterically because she didn’t have crazy hair like everyone else.” He shakes his head and starts cutting the hot dogs straight into the pot, not bothering to use a cutting board. “The girl has crazy hair every day because I don’t know how to fucking do it. You would think she’d fit right in.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” I say.

His eyes fall to mine. “I’m not. Cassidy would expect more.” He shakes his head and blows out a heavy breath. “Tell me about the internship.”

“Ryland,” I say softly. “Don’t change the subject like that. If you’re struggling, it’s okay to admit. I can help—”

“You need to focus on school.”

“Jesus,” I say. “What is with you and Aubree? You know there’s more to me than school, right?”

“There shouldn’t be,” he says. “That’s what you should focus on. That’s what you should be figuring out. Hell . . . you should be graduating this semester, but you took an internship instead.”

My brows pull together. “It was a smart move.” We all know I’m in defense mode, so ignore the lying on my end. Thanks.

“Better than graduating?” he asks. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”

“Can we not talk about it?” I ask. “I didn’t come over here to get lectured, Ryland.”

“You’re right,” he concedes. “Sorry. It’s just been . . . stressful.”

“If it’s so stressful, why won’t you and Aubree ask for help?”

He finishes cutting the hot dogs and picks up a wooden spoon to stir his concoction. “Because you’re in school. And there’s a transition stage. We’re just trying to figure that out. It will take us a second.”

I nod. “I can understand that, but I can help.” He grunts in disapproval. I won’t get anywhere with that narrative, so I switch things up. I look around the open space, noticing the stack of blankets in the corner as well as the pillow. That must be Ryland’s bed, pushed out of the way so Mac doesn’t notice. “Are you sleeping on the couch?”

“Yeah.” He sets the spoon down and then turns toward me, leaning his hip against the counter. My eyes roam over him, noticing how his eyes are sunken with dark circles under them. He’s always been extremely fit, but he’s lost weight, and not in a good way. Now it’s almost like his skin sits on top of muscle. And the smile he used to carry as a fun-loving guy is nowhere to be found. In its place seems like a ball of stress rests directly on his chest.

“I can’t convince myself to sleep in Cassidy’s room. I barely go in there.”

“Does Mac?”

He shakes his head. “Not really. She said it makes her sad to go in there. She doesn’t like to remember the place where her mommy passed away.”

“God,” I say as my throat chokes up. “That’s heartbreaking.”

“Tell me about it.” He crosses his arms. “I try to talk to her about Cassidy, but she just shakes her head and tells me Mommy will be back. She’s just gone for now, but she’ll be back.”

Well, fuck me.

Tears cloud my eyes, and I take a few deep breaths because I don’t want Mac to walk in and see me crying.

“What do you tell her?”

“Nothing,” Ryland says. “I don’t have it in me to tell her any differently.”

Just then, Mac comes barreling down the stairs, her feet pitter-pattering across the hardwood floors. When she flies into the kitchen, she has her pants on backward and one side of her hair tied up into a ponytail.

“Oh yeah!” she says, shaking her bottom. “I went potty.”

Ryland smiles softly at her. “Good job, Mac.” He reaches into the cabinet and says, “Can you set the table for us?”

“Can I use the fancy napkins?”

“Always,” he says as he pulls out the cloth napkins Cassidy made from a drawer.

“I’m going to make cats out of them.”

“Can’t wait,” Ryland says and turns back to me.

“Can she make animals out of the napkins?”

He subtly shakes his head. “No, it’s just a balled-up mess on the plate, but I act impressed every time.”

“Now that’s a good uncle.”

Just then, Aubree pushes through the door. “I could smell your beans all the way from outside.” Mac runs up to her and hugs her. “Hey Mackie, where’s Chewy?”

“Chewy Charles.” Mac stomps her foot. “You have to use his whole name.”

Aubree winces. “Sorry, where’s Chewy Charles?”

“Outer space,” Mac says casually. “Don’t worry, he won’t be late for dinner. You know he loves the dogs.”

That makes me chuckle.

“Hey, sis,” Aubree says, walking into the kitchen and taking a seat at the island. “Telling Ryland all about how his nemesis is back in town?”

Did I mention Aubree has also been known as the pot stirrer? Yeah, she holds the title, and I think she holds it with pride.

And the mention of Hayes, or rather the suggestion of him, makes me internally sweat. They might not know about my new arrangement, but it still doesn’t negate the fact that I know the implications if they find out.

Ryland flips off the stove burner and turns toward us. “Abel told me.”

Here’s the thing.

Back in high school, Ryland, Hayes, and Abel were the three musketeers and the best of friends. They all played baseball together, partied together, and even helped each other cheat on tests. And then something happened, a truth I still don’t know to this day, and it drove them apart. Hayes went one way, Ryland went the other, and Abel stayed in the middle, not wanting to choose sides. He’s remained a good friend to both, being able to keep them separate. Honestly, it takes a strong man to be friends with two rivals, but Abel has always been the sweet one of the group, the caring one. No wonder he’s a doctor now, and he’s handled the challenge gracefully.

“You knew Hayes was here, and you didn’t burst into flames? I’m shocked,” Aubree says.

“It’s not like our paths will cross,” Ryland says. “Whenever he’s around, he usually sticks to his place and doesn’t venture into town.”

“He came into town today,” Aubree says. “Dee Dee told Ethel, who told me that he went into the general store, bought every pickle jar in the place, and then left. That was it, just pickles.”

Sweat creeps down my neck as I remember how talkative this town is. Did Dee Dee think it was weird that I was in the store only moments before buying a jar of pickles as well? Did she make the connection? Did she notice that he bought the same pickles that Cassidy and I used to buy? Am I overthinking this?

Can they see my sweat?

God, why did he have to buy the pickles?

He’s making this more complicated than it should be.

“He doesn’t even like pickles,” Ryland says.

Great!

He doesn’t like pickles. Information I didn’t know, but do you know who does? Me. That’s who likes pickles. They’re probably connecting the dots as I sit here, palms sweaty, back sweaty . . . ass sweaty.

“You know, people can change within the eighteen years since you last spoke to them. He might have an acquired taste for pickles . . .” Aubree suggests.

“Yeah,” I chime in, my voice cracking. “Or maybe they were for his grandma.” There, maybe that will help them steer clear of me.

“True, they could be for his grandma,” Aubree says, and I inwardly heave a sigh of relief. “Or maybe he brought a girl home. Dee Dee said she saw a car driving up toward his house.”

Oh, sweet Jesus Christ.

Yup, sweat just rolled down my ass crack.

This godforsaken town and their inane nosiness.

“Either way, I’m not interested,” Ryland says. “He can fuck off.”

“Ooo, Uncle Ry Ry, that’s a bad word,” Mac says from the table where she’s sitting cross-legged on top, bunching napkins together.

“Sorry,” Ryland says just as my phone buzzes in my hand. I glance down at the screen and see a strange number. Speak of the devil—literally.

I hop off the counter. “Be right back. My new boss.”

Happy to pull myself away from that conversation—I don’t need them seeing my sweat mark—I move out of the kitchen and to the back den where Mac has her playroom. Full of stuffed animals, beds for her stuffed animals, and clothing for her stuffed animals, I unlock my phone and stare at the text.

Hayes: The code to get into my house is 6935. Don’t be late.

I text him back quickly.

Hattie: About that. People are already starting to notice a car driving up to your place, and since my car is bright red and all, it’s not looking good on my end.

Hayes: If you’re trying to get out of this, you’re not going to.

Hattie: I’m not. I’m just . . . trying to figure out a way I can serve my time without getting caught.

Hayes: Serving your time, that’s how you see it?

Hattie: Uh yeah, when you say things like you’re not getting out of it, I’m serving time, so a little help on how I can be inconspicuous would be appreciated.

Hayes: What do you have to hide?

Hattie: Uh, the fact that I’m working for the Antichrist.

Hayes: According to your brother.

Hattie: And a lot of people in town.

Hayes: Because they have their head so far up your brother’s ass that they’ll take his side.

Hattie: None of that matters. What matters is if I’m seen with you, it will be the talk of the town, and my brother very well might disown me. I’ve already lost a sister. I don’t need to lose a brother too. So what the hell should I do?

I stare down at my phone, waiting for a solution from Hayes, so when I find Mac standing right in front of me, I nearly scream.

“Christ,” I say, bringing my hand to my chest. “MacKenzie.”

“Who are you talking to?” she asks, swinging Chewy Charles around in a circle.

“My . . . my boss,” I answer.

“Uncle Ryland told me to tell you the dogs are ready, and it’s rude to make everyone wait for you.”

“Sorry,” I say. She holds her hand out to me. I take it, and she pulls me back toward the kitchen just as my phone buzzes in my hand. I glance at the screen as I’m dragged by a four-year-old.

Hayes: You know where the old barn is outside of town? I’ll leave my car behind it so you can swap and drive that to my house. There are enough bushes and trees to hide yours. Be here at seven.


“WHAT THE HELL kind of car is this?” I ask, staring at the SUV I’ve never seen before in my entire life. “And how the hell am I supposed to drive this?”

Of course he’d have some fancy vehicle no one has heard of. What is a Rivian anyway?

I pull up my phone and type the brand into Google.

Your electric adventure awaits.

Oh . . . an EV. I’ve never driven one of these.

I thumb through the website, locating his SUV, and then my eyes nearly bug out of my head.

“Oh my GOD!” I shout. “Over one hundred thousand dollars for a used one? Who spends that much money on a used vehicle? I thought when buying used, you’re trying to save money. Ridiculous,” I mutter and then set the phone down.

What I could do with one hundred thousand dollars.

Not take this job, that’s for sure.

Skip another semester of school.

Build an extension on the farmhouse so Ryland doesn’t have to sleep on a freaking couch!

But nope . . . I’m driving one hundred thousand dollars instead.

“Okay, how do we start this?” I look in the console for a key, but don’t see anything. So I look in the glove box. Nothing. I search the car, now becoming frantic as I see the time staring me in the face. Two minutes until he’s going to bitch about me being late again.

Well, how the hell am I supposed to be on time if he doesn’t leave me a key to drive the damn thing?

What an idiot.

I grab my phone again, but this time, I call him.

It rings twice, and then he answers.

“You’re going to be late.”

“Yeah, because you’re a moron,” I say. “You didn’t leave me a key to start this spaceship.”

“You don’t start it. And yes, I did leave a key.”

“What do you mean you don’t start it?”

“You just activate it.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Jesus, Hattie,” he groans. “Do you see the key card in the middle console?”

I look down and see a white key card with a yellow symbol in the middle. I pick it up and say, “This is what starts your car? Like you’re opening a hotel room?”

“Yes. Hold it against the driver’s side door and that will activate it, then put the car in drive and press down on the pedal.”

“So there’s like . . . no engine you have to start?”

“It doesn’t have an engine, it’s an electric vehicle.”

Huh . . . interesting.

“Leave it to you to have some nonsensical car.”

“It’s not nonsensical. It’s just not what you’re used to. Now stop jabbering and get here.”

With that, he hangs up.

God, he’s cranky in the morning . . . or every hour for that matter.

Looks like the momentary lapse of pickle niceness has subsided, and I’m entirely okay with that.

Okay, so we just hold the key card up to the door because that makes sense. Doors drive cars after all . . . right.

I press the key card up to the door and the screen lights up.

Would you look at that?

Fascinating. I put the car into drive and press down on the pedal to go, only to fly forward at a speed I wasn’t expecting, shooting me nearly across the small ravine in front of me.

With a death grip on the steering wheel, the hair on the back of my neck standing to attention, I breathe out heavily, “Good fucking God.”

That . . . that could have been very bad. If I drove Hayes’s car into a ravine, I could only imagine the caustic mood that would put him in.

Not the pickle-buying mood, that’s for damn sure.

Okay, let’s try this again. I reverse the SUV and then slowly—and I mean slowly—pull away from the ravine and then put it back into drive where I maneuver my way out onto the road.

Ah, there we go, just takes a second to get used to. And even though I feel this vehicle could take me to another planet if I press on the pedal hard enough, I have to admit, it drives smoothly. I feel fancy driving something that isn’t rumbling beneath me, on its last leg, coughing and sputtering down the road.

I smooth my hand over the steering wheel. Oh yeah, a girl could get used to this.

The drive to his house is too short. I’ve just started getting used to the car when I pull into his driveway, but since I’m three minutes late, I hop out of the car quickly, type in the code to his house, and let myself in.

I decide to make his coffee first and skip the protein shake for after the first delivery. Maybe he’ll be grateful for the coffee first.

Because I like to do things my way, I pour the creamer in the mug first, stick it under the coffee maker, and press start once I load it with one of his pods. I smile to myself as I watch the brown liquid mix with the creamer, stirring itself. See, genius and I’m not dirtying a spoon.

Satisfied, I pick up the mug and carefully walk it down to his bedroom. Such a lazy ass that he makes me do this. Just his way of holding control over the situation. When I reach his bedroom door, I part it open and stick my head in.

“Coffee delivery.” I push the door all the way in just as Hayes walks into the bedroom from the bathroom, wearing nothing but a low-slung towel around his waist.

Dear.

Mother.

Of.

God.

I feel my jaw slack as my eyes fall on his wet, toned body. Still wearing the necklace he doesn’t seem to ever take off, my eyes scan over his thick pecs, his toned, sinew-covered shoulders and biceps, and his stack of abs covered in droplets of water. Water that slides down each curve and bump of his fit stomach, all the way to the light patch of hair just below his belly button that extends to . . .

Oh God.

There’s a bulge.

My eyes snap up to his, and my mouth goes dry as his wet hair falls over his forehead and a light smirk plays on his lips.

Damn him.

Damn him and his sexy, mouthwatering body.

And damn that knowing smirk.

Yup, he’s not going to let that once-over slip by.

I can only imagine what he’s conjuring in his head.

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