Wildcat: Chapter 22




The drive to Lake Laurie takes two hours. Enough time for me to feel human. The coffee helped. So did breakfast about an hour back.

Leo has one hand on the wheel, the other drums along his thigh absently to the beat of the music. He pulls into the driveway of a brick home. It’s serene. Trees line the property, and I can imagine how green and pretty it must be in the summertime with all the landscaping.

“This is nice,” I say as I step out.

Leo comes around and takes my bag. I hold tight to my camera equipment.

“He stays here during the offseason.”

“You don’t have a matching one down the street?”

His lips curl up. “Not yet. Wanna help me pick one out?”

This guy. He’s too freaking much.

I follow him to the front door where he knocks and waits a beat before going right in. “They’re probably out back.”

He sets my bag on the couch in the living room and leads me out the back door, where we’re throwing distance to the lake. It’s overcast and windy, but it’s still breathtaking.

“You made it,” Ash calls. He and Tyler are sitting at a table with plates of food in front of them.

“There’s more inside if you’re hungry,” Ash says, around a mouthful.

“We ate on the way up.” Leo pulls out two chairs, and we sit with them.

“You missed a hell of a run this morning. I took Tyler down our summer trail.”

These two already went for a run on their day off? Upon closer inspection, they’re in workout clothes and sweaty.

“I got a quick five in before we hit the road.” Leo leans back and laces his fingers together at his waist.

“You did?” I need some of his energy. He couldn’t have slept more than four or five hours tops.

“He’s a morning person,” Ash says and lifts his brows like it’s an awful thing to be. He’s not wrong.

“Gross. Really?”

“I’m a morning person, a day person, a night person. I don’t need a lot of sleep.”

“Wow. It just gets worse and worse. Well, thanks for a great time.” I place my hands on the table like I’m going to stand.

“Okay wise-ass,” Leo says. His foot finds mine under the table. He looks to Ash. “Are you taking the fishing boat out today?”

“Yeah. We already got the cooler and gear loaded up. Do you fish?” Ash asks me.

“I have before.”

“Not an outdoorswoman, eh?”

“I like the outdoors just fine, but I prefer activities where I can photograph along the way.”

“You can do that from the boat,” he says.

“The four of us won’t fit in that boat,” Leo says. “Not comfortably anyway.”

“It’ll be cozy.”

Leo looks to me. “We can go on the boat or walk around and explore. What do you say?”

I do enjoy being out on the water, even if fishing isn’t my favorite thing, but spending time with Leo alone is far more enticing.

“I’d like to take some photos along the water and maybe some in the wooded area.” The weather isn’t the best for pictures, but I need to practice in all conditions.

Ash and Tyler stand with their empty plates. “We’ll be back in a few hours. Hopefully we can have fish for lunch.”

Once we’re alone, Leo leans closer. “Are you ready? Need to grab anything?”

“Just my camera.”

He dons a hat and sunglasses, and I get my camera before we head out. Leo guides us from Ash’s house down to the beach. The lake is quiet today. The wind comes in gusts that make me thankful we’re not on the choppy water. I do not need to spend the morning with my head hanging over the side puking.

“What’d you get up to while I was gone?” he asks as we walk along at a slow pace.

“I worked another promotion for Mike, hung out with Jade. I even sang some Backstreet for you at karaoke last weekend.”

He holds both hands over his heart. “Dream girl.”

I roll my eyes, but secretly love it when he calls me that.

We come up on a wooded area that has a path heading away from the lake. The trees help shield us from the wind, but my nose and fingers are cold.

I snap a few pictures looking back at the water, and then we move off the path, and I play around, shooting all the various fall colors displayed proudly on the leaves. Even with the clouds, the trees this time of year are beautiful and vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red.

Leo is quiet beside me.

“Sorry. I’m not very good at shooting and talking.”

“I don’t mind.” He pulls his hoodie over his head and holds it out to me. He has only a T-shirt on underneath.

“I’m fine.”

“Your cheeks match the color of that tree,” he says, pointing toward a nearby tree with reddish-orange leaves.

I place a hand to my face, but my fingers are cold too.

“Now you’ll be cold.”

“Nah, I’m used to it. I spend a lot of time in the cold.” He continues to hold out the sweatshirt toward me.

“Thank you.” His scent and warmth envelop me as I put it on. He comes forward and lifts the hood up over my head. Nobody looks sexy in a hoodie. Nobody. But the way he looks at me, the butterflies in my stomach refuse to believe that.

We walk the path and then backtrack along the beach again. I’m not sure how much time has gone by, but I can see a lone boat out in the distance.

“Is that Ash?”

“Yeah, looks like it. There’ll be more people out this afternoon when it warms up a little.”

“You’ve been here a lot then?”

We sit together on the grass just beyond the beach.

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “I guess I have. Ash and I go way back. We both went to college in the northeast and played against each other, then came to the Wildcats.”

“And now you’re BFFs who buy homes in the same neighborhood and vacation together?”

That sexy smile graces his face. “Jack started it. He bought a house in that neighborhood first.”

“It is a nice neighborhood. Neighbors are questionable.” I aim my camera at him and snap.

“Oh no.” He holds up a hand. “You don’t want to break that thing.”

I look at the picture on the display. His eyes are half-closed. Laughing, I show him.

“I told you. I have never taken a good picture.”


“I mean, they’re varying degrees of bad. From acceptable to flat-out awful.”

I turn the camera around to take a selfie. He grimaces.

“Smile,” I instruct. “Actually, maybe don’t. One, two, pretend I’m flashing you.” I click the button and then bring my camera to my lap to see it.

“You’re looking at my boobs!”

“You said pretend I’m flashing you.”

I set my camera down, and we stare out at the water. He rests one palm on the ground behind me, angling himself so my shoulder brushes his chest.

“I forgot how much I love it here.”

“The lake?”

“Minnesota.” I lean into him. “We left when I was in middle school. Dad got a coaching job in Maryland.”

“You didn’t like it?”

“It was fine. We were only there for two years before he got a job in Michigan. We were there for three years, and then we came back here.”

“How come you decided to go to London?”

“Sounded fun.”

He laughs.

“My high school boyfriend broke up with me about a month before graduation.”

“I’m sorry.”

“We never would have worked. I know that now, but I was heartbroken and wanted to do something drastic.”

“Were your parents supportive?”

“Yeah. Mom did a gap year, and she always talked about how it changed her life.”

“Did it change your life?” He uses the strings on his hoodie to tug me closer.

“Mhmmm. I learned to trust myself and be independent. It was easier there. Since I’ve been back, I feel like everyone is watching and waiting for me to get my life together.”

My eyes dart to his lips. He’s so close now I can feel his breath. My pulse kicks up a notch, and my stomach is doing somersaults. I wasn’t kidding when I told him I wanted to make sure that I liked him fully clothed (aka not naked and kissing me) before we told my dad. I convinced myself that I’d imagined the chemistry between us. Maybe I wanted to protect myself or him, but I’ve dated enough to know that what I’m feeling is rare, and it’s absolutely real.

“You couldn’t have just been a regular guy.”

He chuckles. “Sorry.”

I reach out and cup his cheek. It’s rough with a day or two’s worth of stubble. “Don’t be.”

I make the first move this time. That dimple on the left side of his mouth appears as my lips drop to his. Somehow he’s warm, even though I’m wearing his sweatshirt. He wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me against him. I might have started the kiss, but he takes over.

And I give in. Not just to his kiss, but to him.

This is happening.

We spend the rest of the day at Ash’s house. He and Tyler come back from fishing, and the four of us sit outside, enjoying the sunshine that finally came out. We play bags (which Ash and Leo insist on calling corn hole), and as the afternoon fades into evening, we get ready to head back.

I walk down to the lake one more time to capture the late sun over the lake. Leo comes with me, but stands off to the side while I snap a dozen or more photos. I glance back to find him watching me.

“I’m almost done. I promise. I just need to get one more shot.”

“No rush.” His smile is easy, stance relaxed and unhurried.

I bring up my camera and take the photo before he realizes what I’m doing.

“Are my eyes closed? Am I holding my mouth weird? Sometimes I pull my bottom lip behind my teeth. Not a great look in photos.” He walks toward me.

“See for yourself?” I hold it out for him to look.

“I’ll be damned.” He clears his throat. “I’m going to need a copy of that.”

“You’re serious?” I ask through laughter when he doesn’t break a smile.

“Hell yeah, I’m serious. It’s a one in a million shot.”

“You just needed the right photographer.” I smash my cheek to his and extend the camera out in front of him, taking one more of the two of us just for me.


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