chapter one

Sneak Peek: Chapter One of Hell and a Hard Place

Chapter One

FC

My head snaps to the right, pain bursting around my eye from her punch. I clench my hands and remind myself that I’m a good man and I don’t hit women.

“Who is she, FC?” Lila shouts. “Who the fuck is Idaline?”

“No one!” I lie. “She’s an old friend who doesn’t matter.”

“You tell old friends you miss them?” she screeches, rearing her fist back again as if I told Idaline I love her. I take steps backward, but she follows me and clocks me in the jaw. God, I hate this woman.

I snatch my phone from her hand, the phone she unlocked herself while I was in the shower because apparently she knows my password, and open my contacts. “Look, I’ll delete her.” I’m only confident in this move because I have Idaline’s number memorized. I delete her contact and our conversation thread while Lila watches. “Happy?”

“No. You can sleep on the couch tonight.” She walks into our room and slams the door behind her.

I sigh, walk into the kitchen, and pour and knock back three shots of tequila before planting my ass on the couch. How is this my life? Why am I still here? I should’ve never come to the western part of North Carolina; I clearly had a better life back East. Yet here I am, living a sucky life, not quite willing to do what it takes to leave this situation. Not quite sure howto leave.

Lila and I met at a concert in Charlotte. We both traveled there to see our favorite band and had seats next to one another. It was a long, fun night of drinking and flirting. I left with her number afterward and even called her the next day to double check she got home okay. For about six months, I talked to her constantly. My phone was always in my hand as she charmed me like a skilled manipulator going after exactly what she wanted.

It took one visit to her home here for her to ask me to move in. She knew I wanted a fresh start and wouldn’t mind moving away, even if it was just four hours from my hometown of Raleigh. She was able to convince me in a week to pack up my things and move.

My family and my friends both warned me not to go. They cited reasons such as how I’d technically only met her twice and how six months of conversing every day wasn’t nearly enough to know if I should live with her. They thought I should visit her more and learn about her more face-to-face before I made such a big move. Obviously, I didn’t listen.

I should have.

I’ve been here almost a year and she’s kicked me out of the apartment at least twice a month. She hits me more times than I can count, too. We have good moments, we do. Those moments and the fact that I have too much pride standing in the door every time I decide I’m packing up and going home keep me here. How am I supposed to tell my parents my girlfriend is abusive? That I’ve been enduring it since a month after I got here? How embarrassing would that be? How disappointed would they be to find out I could leave, yet I haven’t?

At this point, it’s manageable. I don’t know when, or if, I’ll reach a limit and leave, but obviously it’ll have to get worse before I decide to make it better for myself.

My phone rings and as I pick it up to answer, the bedroom door swings open.

“Who’s calling you?” Lila snaps, demanding an answer.

“My mom. Leave me the fuck alone like you promised.”

She glares and returns to the bedroom, slamming the door.

With a sigh, I say, “Hello? What’s up, Mom? You must miss me, that’s the only reason you call.”

“Have you been drinking again, FC?”

There must be something in my voice because my mom can always tell when I’ve had a few shots too many; she hasn’t seen me in a year and she worries I’ve become an alcoholic. If she only knew. “Is that why you called?”

“That means yes, but I’ll ignore that for now. Nana’s birthday is coming up and we’re having a big party. We’d love to have you home and to finally meet Lila. It’s well past time for both a visit and to meet her.”

My heart panics while my brain shouts no repeatedly. However, I say, “I’ll ask Lila.”

“Ask her right now. Aren’t you home?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake, Mom.“Hold on.” I mute the phone, just in case Lila yells things my mother doesn’t need to hear. “Lila!” I shout. “Mom wants me to bring you home for my nana’s birthday. You want to go or not?”

She peers out of the door, now calm and serene. “She wants to meet me?” Lila smiles like I just proposed, something that won’t everhappen. “Yes, of course we’ll go!”

I unmute the phone and tell my mom, “We’ll be there. It’s next weekend, right?”

While I get the details on the party, Lila curls up next to me with a glass of wine as if nothing happened twenty minutes ago. That’s her fourth glass of the evening, so round of applause for not one, but two alcoholics in the apartment. When I hang up with my mom, she rubs her hand over the crotch of my jeans. What fucking sucks about this situation is that my body betrays me every damn time. How my dick can still harden for her not long after being hit is beyond me.

“You know, this would be a wonderful time to propose and surprise your family,” she says sweetly. Have I mentioned she’s been wanting to get married for the last six months?

I give her my standard response. “I’m not ready yet, Lila.”

She removes her hand with a huff. “You’ll have to be ready at some point, babe.”

“Well, today ain’t that day. If we’re going to talk about this shit, you’re going to have to pour me another shot.”

“You’re an asshole, FC.” She stands and walks back to the bedroom, slapping the back of my head on her way.

Before I get too comfy, I switch my phone to silent. The last thing I need is for Idaline to message or call me and Lila roar out of the bedroom again. I smile at the thought of her being jealous of someone neither of us have ever met.

Idaline and I have known each other for twelve years. My middle school wanted us to write to kids at a school in South Carolina, a pen pal of sorts. Idaline was mine. She still is, I guess. We started with letters, then emails, then texts and phone calls. She’s only about an hour away from me now; I know because one night when Lila kicked me out, Idaline called me and I almost asked her if she was ready for us to meet.

We’ve talked about it a lot over the years, but we’ve never made concrete plans to do it. We do send birthday and Christmas gifts; I had to get a separate post office box once I moved here, just for mail from Idaline, because it didn’t take long to realize Lila was the jealous type. She only discovered Idaline in my phone now because I’d forgotten to delete the latest text thread.

Idaline is easily my best friend and my closest confidante. After twelve years of talking nearly every day, it’s no surprise really. But Lila is ruining my friendship with her. I’ve had to be strategic when I talk to Idaline and I’ve talked to her less since moving here. She knows I have a girlfriend, so at least we can both blame it on her. One thing Idaline doesn’t know about is the hell I go through living here. Just like with my family and friends, I don’t talk about my relationship with Lila.

Before I can place my phone on the table again, it lights up with a text from Idaline.

Idaline: Fredrick Clark?

I smile, happiness filling up my soul for the first time today. The feelings I get when she texts, the happiness, the elation, the pure, untainted joy, are something I hope never goes away. One reason Idaline and I connected was because we both have old family names, only I go by FC, the first letters of my first and middle name because I don’t like either of them. Since Idaline doesn’t know anyone who knows me to find out what they could be, it’s one of her life missions to figure out what they may be. I’ve told her she’ll never ever guess it, but she sends about a guess a week.

Me: No for both.

Idaline: Darn it.

I crave to hear her voice, or to videochat with her and see her face, but that’s simply not possible right now.

Me: Can I call you on my lunch break tomorrow?

Idaline: I’m having lunch with my boyfriend. I’m sorry.

She even includes a sad face, which makes me smile. The woman is sweet.

Me:mNo worries. I’m taking my girlfriend home to meet the family this weekend.

Idaline: Oh, that sounds serious. Looking forward to that? And to going home?

Me: Sure.

Idaline: Totally believe you.

Me: I know you do. Talk to you tomorrow.

She doesn’t believe me, but that’s okay. I wouldn’t believe me either.


~ ~ ~

“You had to hit me this week, didn’t you?” I grumble as Lila attempts to apply makeup on and around my eye to cover the bruise there.

“It was an accident,” she insists, as if she truly believes rearing her fist back and hitting me on purpose was an accident. “If they can still tell, we went to a bar and you got into a fight protecting my honor.”

I almost snort. She can protect her own honor. There’s no way I’d get into a fight over her.

“I am sorry,” she whispers. I almost believe her too. She looks at me with these deep brown eyes, concern etched onto her face, and she softly kisses my forehead in apology. This beautiful woman who had me telling her I loved her wields her fists like weapons whenever I piss her off. Sometimes, I don’t even have to do that much. I can’t reconcile those two women. How are they one person? “There you go. Check it out for yourself, but I think it looks great.”

She moves out of the way and I see my reflection in the mirror. The ugliness of the bruise has disappeared underneath whatever gunk she put on my face.

“Thanks, babe.” And then I kiss her before I can examine the fact that I’m thanking and kissing my girlfriend for covering up a bruise she gave me before we drive out to see my family. No, my life isn’t fucked up at all.

Halfway into our drive, Lila picks up my phone. It takes her two seconds to realize I’ve changed the passcode.

“Why did you change it?”

“What fun would it be if you constantly knew it and didn’t have to figure it out all over again every once in a while? It’s like our little game, babe.” It’s supposed to sound like fun teasing because that’s all I have to give. Our conversations about boundaries were always useless. I thought we should have some, especially since I would never go into her purse or her phone. She doesn’t know the definition of privacy or boundaries. My mail, cell phone, wallet, and anything else she can access are open doors for her to walk through and examine what’s on the other side, according to how she thinks. What choice do I have but to let her do it, too? It’s either allow her or face the consequences, and I don’t need any more of those.

“If you have something to hide, I’ll find it, you know.”

“Yep.” She’s like an award-winning hound dog on the hunt, always finding what’s at the other end of the sniff trail.

We drive the rest of the way in silence, thankfully. My stomach is in knots, wondering how Lila will behave around my family. What if the makeup wears off and they find my black eye? Will Lila’s cover story hold up? Will we be able to not argue in front of them?

Sure, we have our good days, but what if today isn’t one of them?

The party is being held in my parents’ backyard. It seems as if we’re the last to arrive based on all the vehicles in the driveway and in the yard. Lila takes my hand as we walk toward the party. I take a deep breath and send up a prayer.

“He’s here! He’s here! FC!” Mom runs over, shouting and drawing everyone’s attention.

An easy smile lifts my lips and I release Lila’s hand to hug my mom, picking her up and twirling her in a circle. It is so good to see my family after being away for a year. A sudden ache of homesickness rushes over me.

“I’ve missed you too, Mom,” I say as I set her on her feet. “And this is my girlfriend, Lila.”

Mom turns to hug her while my dad and the rest of the family comes to greet us. Nana is the one to usher us over to the table of food and make sure we both fix a plate, but Mom insists we sit next to her.

With amazement, relief, and a touch of familiarity, I watch Lila act like the girl I first met and then spent so much time talking to on the phone. Our relationship transforms into a normal, almost perfect one. The happiness she shows rubs off on me. I find myself doing things I only do on our good days. Her hand is always in mine. I happily accept every kiss she gives me and enjoy her hands touching my body when she laughs or talks about me. I don’t wonder why I’m enjoying it either. And I genuinely smile.

Even her lies seem like the truth to me right now.

“We both work during the day. Oh, me? I work full-time as a receptionist for a medical office.” She works part-time at a convenience store.

“But we spend our evenings together. We only occasionally go out or invite friends over.” I have to take her out to eat once a week and she’ll invite her friends over whenever she wants at whatever time she wants.

“I told FC we should drive my Mercedes, but he insisted on his Jeep. I bought that car all by myself when I was eighteen, you know.” Her parents bought that car for her when she was eighteen.

“I was able to purchase my condo by the time I was twenty-one.” Again, her parents bought that for her.

My nana points at me and curls her finger, wanting me to come over to her. I leave Lila for Nana and bend down so she can whisper in my ear.

“Doesn’t she know bragging is annoying?” she says.

I laugh. “She’s proud of her accomplishments, I guess.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve lived to be eighty. She can shut up any time now, dear.” She pats my hand, done with the conversation and Lila apparently.

I return to my seat, unsure of how to make Lila shut up, because this is one of her personality traits. She likes to be the center of attention. Nana’s birthday or not, this is Lila’s show now. She brags, lies, and charms everyone but Nana. She pulls me back in with all her sweet talk and charm, as if nothing in the past year happened.

“Oh, I love FC a lot,” she tells my mom. “He’s very protective over me, takes care of me, and he’s such a sweet man. You raised him right, that’s for sure.”

I keep thinking about that as we drive home. That and how my mother told me she liked her and feels reassured about my life away from home now. Well, aside from the drinking, which I got a minor lecture on.

“Today was such a good day, babe!” Lila exclaims when we walk into the apartment. “I love your family. They were all so nice!” She wraps her arms around my neck. “Although, I don’t think your nana liked me.” Lila frowns.

“She did,” I lie.

Lila begins to walk backward to the bedroom and I know immediately that she wants sex. Just like that, all the good from today disappears and reality comes crashing back down. I have two options: have sex with her unprotected or insist on a condom and risk getting kicked out of the apartment again. She hates when I wear a condom and has actually kicked me out for refusing to have sex with her without one. She may be in a good enough mood tonight that I can get away with wearing one. She might be on birth control, but every precaution is necessary.

She kisses and seduces me until we’re on the bed, naked, and horny. Just as I lean over to reach for the nightstand drawer, she grabs my arm with a tight grip. Her nails dig into my skin so hard, she could draw blood at any second.

“Not tonight, FC. I want to feel you. Really feel you.”

Damn it. “You haven’t missed a single day of birth control?” I ask.

“No!” she exclaims. Outrage colors her face that I would even ask. “I donotwant a baby, FC.”

“That’s the point of me also wearing a condom, babe.”

She rolls her eyes, grabs my cock, and situates herself above me. “I’ll take that day after pill tomorrow as precaution,” she promises me.

I should know by now that she can’t be trusted, but that thought doesn’t hit me for a couple of weeks.

Get it on Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Kobo

Sneak Peek: Chapter One of Defend

Chapter One

Jamie

I’m suffocating.

This campus sucks all the air from my lungs and prevents me from inhaling. All the assignments, all the parties, all the people, and all the pressure is a burden with two hands around my throat. What started out as a way to lose the fifty pounds I gained freshman year and soon became therapeutic for me won’t be happening on campus today like usual. I need to get away from this place.

Running around campus won’t relax me. Hell, just standing here coils my muscles and locks up my joints. I hate this place. I need to get away from here. Without a second thought, I change, grab my keys, and jog out of my dorm room. A few minutes later, I’m in my car driving. I don’t know where I’m going yet, but campus isn’t where I need to be. Overall, college isn’t too bad, I guess, but I don’t like it. I pretty much despise it.

School has never been my cup of tea. Tests? Suck. Teachers lecturing for hours on end? Sucks. Homework? Sucks. The only reason I’m in college is because I disappoint my parents enough. They’d have a fit if I didn’t go to college, and well, if they want to pay for me to earn Cs in all my classes, then they’re more than welcome to do so.

I spot someone running on a sidewalk along the road and immediately pull over. If someone else runs here, then so can I. After locking the car doors, I put my earbuds in place and turn on the music on my phone, which rests in an armband, and I take off running on the sidewalk.

Sometimes, I start out slowly before increasing to a full speed run.

Sometimes, I switch from slow to fast, slow to fast, and so on.

Sometimes I run like today. No preparation. No buildup. Just full-fledged running.

My lungs soon burn as my feet pound on the sidewalk with every step. My music drowns out the sounds of any traffic or people. I run until my entire body aches and I can’t breathe. I run until college is a distant memory and not a current nightmare.

Then, I stop. Take a deep breath. Realize I have no idea where I am or where I parked my car.

Damn it.

Time to turn around. Considering I don’t know where my car is, I take off running just like when I started, only paying more attention to my surroundings. It doesn’t help that the sky changes from a bright blue to a more subdued blue by the second as it slowly gets dark. None of this looks familiar. It should, considering I ran past it all, but I was too lost in spacing out that I didn’t pay attention to anything.

Where is my car? It should be around here somewhere. Feeling discouraged, I press my panic button, hoping to hear my alarm. It’s not until I’m further down the street that it finally goes off. I parked just past someone’s house. I turn my alarm off, but then curse when I see my front driver’s side tire.

I must’ve run over something on the way here because it’s completely flat. I sit on the curb, the tears falling before I can stop them. Great. Another problem to deal with. At least this one is fixable. Resting my head on my knees, I decide to get all the tears out now before I change my tire to my spare. These tears have wanted to trail down my cheeks for months, as I’m one of those people who likes to bottle up my emotions, but today must be the day I break.

“Ma’am?”

I jump at the sound of a man’s voice and glance up; I didn’t even hear him approach. He’s tall with dirty blond slightly wavy hair, green eyes, and a body built for ogling. Holy hell, he’s hot. I wipe my tears and point at my tire, which causes him to walk over and look at the problem. I get a good view of his backside. He wears jogging pants and a white T-shirt that makes me want to drool, which is crazy because it’s not like he’s half-naked, but he’s still insanely hot right now.

“Do you have a spare? I can change your tire for you,” he offers as he crouches to be eye level with me.

My breath is stolen at seeing him up close. He’s even more gorgeous. He’s probably thirty-five, tops, but I still wouldn’t mind him taking me home. Not at all.

“Ma’am?” he repeats. “Are you okay?”

“It’s Jamie.”

He holds out his hand. “Brent.”

I shake his hand and nearly swoon. It’s a rough, callused hand. Good lord. “I know how to change it,” I manage to say, not yet releasing his hand.

“Offer still stands. I can even fix your tire if it needs patching or get it replaced with a new one if you want. My shop isn’t too far from here.” A shiver runs through me. Even his voice is sexy. “Come on, Jamie.” He pulls me up since we’re still holding hands and I’m thankful because the cold concrete under my butt was really starting to get to me. It may be March, but I get hot when I run no matter the time of year, so I dressed in shorts and a sports bra. “Let’s get your spare and I’ll change your tire,” Brent says, taking over the situation.

We get everything he needs from my trunk and I stand off to the side in front of my car, at Brent’s orders, while he begins to change my tire.

“Are you okay, Jamie?” he asks me again with a sideways glance.

I nod. “Rough, long day. The tire pushed me over the edge. You can really fix it?”

“Yeah. I’ll do it right now if you want.”

It’s six in the evening, so I have to wonder if there are any reasons behind him offering to help me after business hours, other than simply being nice.

“That’s my house right there.” He points at the house whose driveway I parked closest to. “But I started my run from the shop, so I don’t have my truck. I can drive us back to the shop, or I can give you the address and run back if that makes you more comfortable.”

He’d run back to his shop instead of riding with me if it makes me uncomfortable to have him in my car? That’s both crazy and sweet. And he called me ma’am, which would normally be a turn-off because I reserve that term for older women, but when he says it? I’ll repeat, swoon.

“You want to do it today?” I ask.

He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter to me. If you want it fixed today, I’ll do it for you. It’ll be one less thing for you to worry about on your rough day.”

“Thank you.”

He looks up at me and smiles. “Your day should end on a good note, Jamie.”

He goes back to work and we don’t speak. He offers to let me drive to his shop, but I’m not too keen on driving with a spare—I hate doing it—so I hand over my keys. This could be stupid to do with a stranger, but I’m too tired and stressed to care. While in the car, I remove my armband and my earbuds from my phone, slipping my phone into my pocket.

We don’t speak until Brent has my car in one of the bays and working on my tire. “You trust too easily,” he says, glancing over at me while I walk around and look at all the different tools and machines. “What if I was a serial killer or something?”

“You’re too hot to be crazy.”

He laughs but shakes his head. “There are real threats out there. You should be more careful.”

“I should,” I agree. He isn’t crazy or a serial killer. Now that my emotions are contained, I focus on Brent. “Does your girlfriend mind that you’re working late?”

“No girlfriend.”

“Wife?” I question, glancing over at him to see a smile play on his face.

“No wife, no girlfriend, no friend with benefits, Jamie.”

I smile because he’s as free as a bird. “Do you always offer to help women when you see them crying on the sidewalk?”

“Only the pretty ones.”

I laugh. “What will I owe you for this?” I ask as he puts my tire back on my car.

“It’s on the house.”

With a frown, I walk over to him. “No, really. What do I owe you?” He didn’t have to change my tire, bring me here and do this tonight, and he definitely deserves to be paid.

“Nothing, Jamie.”

“Do you normally work for free?”

“Making an exception for you.”

I fold my arms over my chest. I don’t like this. It’s nice, but he deserves something. Soon, my car is all ready to go. I lean against the hood, in no rush to leave, and Brent stands in front of me, wiping his hands with a red rag.

“Can I take you out to eat as a thank you?” I ask.

My heart falls as he shakes his head and tosses the rag onto a nearby counter. “No, but I will be more than happy to take you out.”

“Right now?” I grin as he nods, but then I glance down at myself with a frown. While I may be comfortable running out in public like this, I wouldn’t go into a restaurant wearing just a sports bra and shorts.

“Stay right there.” Brent disappears toward an office and returns a moment later with a white T-shirt, much like the one he’s wearing. “Will this make you feel better?”

“Yes, thank you.” Slipping on his T-shirt does crazy things to me. I almost shiver again and it takes every ounce of willpower not to inhale heavily because damn, does it smell good. It has this manly scent tinged with the smell of the shop, but it’s not too overpowering. It’s too big, so I tie a knot at my hip.

“Okay if I drive?” Brent asks.

“Sure.”

He shakes his head as he holds out his hand for me. “Way too trusting, Jamie.”

“Do you want me to say no and go home?” I ask as we walk outside into the frigid air and to a truck.

“No, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

He opens my door for me.

I repeat. He opens the door for me. He even closes it once I’m in the passenger seat! Where did this man come from and can I keep him? It hits me that this isn’t the first time. He opened the door for me when I was getting into my car on the way here, too. I wonder if I waited, if he’d open the door for me to get out.

“Any particular place you’d like to go?” he asks.

“You can pick.”

I sneak glances at him, wondering how old he truly is. I’ll be twenty-two in four months and this is my last semester in hell—I mean, college. A man like Brent might want nothing more than a roll between the sheets. He looks good enough that I might be okay with that, especially if he can be a distraction from the stress college gives me.

At heart, I’m a hopeless romantic; I want the kind of love where it consumes me. Where even his annoying flaws cause me to love him a little more. Where I would fight for him and for us. Where he would be able to calm me in the simplest of ways when I’m stressed. Where I’d feel like I’m living in a fairytale, even the road bumps feeling worth it because I’m with the person I love with every breath I take.

But I’d take a fling until I could find that love if that’s all Brent offers. Then again, I’m getting ahead of myself. All he’s doing right now is taking me to dinner, specifically to a diner that serves nothing but breakfast food, and as soon as I realize that’s the type of restaurant we’re at, I realize breakfast for dinner is exactly what I want.

The place is surprisingly busy, but there’s an empty booth we’re able to claim. Once the waitress takes our order, I pick up my drink and ask Brent what’s been on my mind the entire ride over.

“So, how old are you?”

I take a sip as he answers, “Thirty-nine, but I turn forty soon.”

The drink gets caught in my throat and I choke with surprise. “Seriously?” I ask as I cough. There’s eighteen years between us? How is this possible?

There’s a small smile on his face. “How old did you think I was?”

“Thirty-five at the most, late twenties at the least. I’m only twenty-one; I turn twenty-two in July.”

His face pales and he shifts in his seat. I think this dinner just went to hell and we haven’t even been served yet. Brent clears his throat. “I have kids, a daughter and a son. Twenty and sixteen, and they haven’t had their birthdays yet this year.”

“Oh.” Wow. That’s crazy.

“Yeah. Oh.”

“Well, how about we forget those little facts?” When he nods in agreement, I ask, “Do you run every day?”

“No. Three to four days a week. It clears my head, keeps me in shape, and makes me feel good. You?”

The waitress drops off my waffles and eggs and his pancake platter as I answer him. “Every day if I can. College is...” I shudder at the thought of that horrid place.

“That bad, huh?”

“I can’t stand it. Did you go to college? Did you like it?”

“My dad had my brothers and me working in the shop as soon as he felt we were capable of helping. Right after high school, I found out my then-girlfriend and now ex-wife was pregnant. I needed money right then to support them and staying home to work in the shop was the best way to do that. I eventually went to learn more than what my dad taught me, and now, my brothers and I own the shop while my parents are retired and living in Florida.”

“Do you enjoy what you do?” It sounds like he had no choice but to do the work he does now.

Brent nods. “I didn’t care for it as a teenager, but it grew on me. Now I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

“That’s good. How old are your brothers?”

He grins. “Thinking of trading me in already?”

“Nope,” I say with a smile. “I already know I picked the right one. I won’t get rid of you yet.”

Get it on Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Kobo 

Sneak Peek: Chapter One of Worth the Risk

Chapter One

Raelynn

“You’re fired.”

My mouth drops. “What? You can’t do that!”

“We need people who are dependable, and you are not,” my jerk of a boss says calmly.

“My son was sick, and I’m the only one who can be with him. What was I supposed to do? You can’t fire me over this.”

“I just did.”

He hangs up on me like the bastard he is and I lean forward, clutching the steering wheel. This can’t happen to me. My eyes water with tears and I take deep breaths because I can’t cry. No matter how badly I want and need to. It’s been one bad thing after the other for months and now, I’m jobless and homeless.

“Momma,” Jackson’s soft voice says from the backseat.

I take a quick deep breath and turn to look at him. “What’s wrong, baby?”

“I don’t wanna go to school.”

We sit in the school’s parking lot. There shouldn’t be a reason why he doesn’t want to go. I unbuckle my seatbelt and lean over the console to reach him in the backseat, resting my hand on his knee. “Why? What’s wrong?”

He frowns. “I don’t feel good.”

I touch his forehead with the back of my hand; he doesn’t have a fever. He was sick earlier this week, but he’s been doing better. “Try and if you feel really bad, tell Mrs. Solomon, okay?”

He nods. I get out and walk around to his door. He unbuckles himself because he’s a big boy and Momma can’t do it anymore. He hops out and I reach in to grab his book bag. I have until he gets out of school for the day to find a job and a place to live.

He holds my hand and we walk up the breezeway and into the school. The closer we get to his classroom, the closer Jackson walks next to me. He’s always been a quiet kid, but when it comes to new people, he’s super shy. It’s only ever been the two of us, so it takes some adjusting when new people come into the picture. He has been in school for about three months, but he still refuses to walk in without me.

Mrs. Solomon smiles when she sees us and crouches to be eye level with Jackson. “Hey, Jackson.” She holds out her hand and after a few seconds, Jackson takes it. He walks away, glancing over his shoulder to wave goodbye to me. The tears can’t be helped now. I wait until he takes his seat before I leave. Not that I have anywhere to go. I was already trying to find another job because my boss is a sleazy bastard. I put in applications everywhere I can think of, but nothing has panned out so far.

I get in my car and break down like I’ve wanted to do for the past few months. The sobs rip through me, tearing me apart so easily while this voice in my head berates me for letting things get this bad in the first place. How could I let Jackson down? What kind of mother loses her job and home in one day? A terrible one. That’s me. How did I become like this?

I’ve been a strong person for so long, but life has finally broken me. Everything I own is in this dingy car. It’s loaded down with what few possessions we own since we had to be out today. What am I going to do now? Why does everything have to be so hard for Jackson and me? We’ve managed to get by just fine until a few months ago when everything started going wrong left and right and sucked my money away faster than I could make it.

You’d think in the five years I’ve been on my own, I would’ve made some friends and have someone to help me, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’m as alone now as I was when I left the hospital with a newborn in my arms. My parents were strict, hypocrites of preachers. They told me that I made the bed, and I would lay in it. They had as much issue with the fact that I was pregnant at sixteen as who the father was.

My parents got on my nerves so bad and stressed me out so much during my pregnancy that I nearly had him early twice. I went into labor on my seventeenth birthday and Jackson was born early the following morning. Everything was set. I had a job and I was able to move out and in with a family friend. As soon as I scraped up enough to move away, I did. I went across state lines and never looked back. My parents don’t know where I live and haven’t ever seen their grandson.

I’ve had to grow up, learn how to be not just a parent, but a single parent completely on my own, and survive for the two of us. I’ve managed to do it. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but my son has always been fed and had a place to sleep.

Until today.

I can’t fail my son now. Something has to give. There’s only seventy bucks to my name. My son needs a place to sleep and I need to be able to feed him. I wipe my tears and sniff a few times. The time for Raelynn’s pity party is over. I need to move forward for Jackson’s sake. First, I stop by the public library, type up a résumé, and print off fifty copies. Hopefully paying the library to use their printer lands me a job before I go broke. With résumés in hand, I visit places of business and with more confidence than I actually have, demand to speak with whoever is in charge of hiring new employees and plead my pathetic case.

Like how I’m currently in a quilt shop faced with a pretty blonde and a tall, intimidating man. With a quick, steadying breath I hope they won’t notice, I hold out my hand, which the woman takes. “Hello, my name is Raelynn Woods. I’m sorry if I bothered you while you were busy,” I glance to the man, his black eye and busted lip particularly, but force the words to continue out of my mouth, “but I wanted to make sure I talked to the person in charge.” I find my résumé in my purse and hand it to her. “I don’t know if you have any positions open, but I’m in desperate need of a job, so if one opens up, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep me in mind.”

She tells me what everyone has told me today. “I will. I don’t have anything right now.”

My shoulders fall. Is it too soon to give up hope and cry again? I’m nearly out of résumés. Someone has to have job opening. Someone has to be willing to hire me.

“Are you open to any kind of job?” the man asks, surprising me. He seemed content to stand and hang around.

“Yes.” If he’s offering, I’ll take it. I don’t care what it is, I’ll do it. I’m desperate.

“What about as a nanny?”

“I can do that. I have references, experience, and I’m CPR-certified.” The words can’t leave my mouth fast enough. At this point, I’ll take what I can get and figure out details later.

“Stay here for a second,” he says.

“What are you doing?” the woman asks him.

He says a name as he steps away with a phone in his hand. I watch him talk on the phone, hoping that this is my chance. The one that will ease the tension in my muscles, that will start me back on the up and up with Jackson. I don’t know how being a nanny will work, considering I have my own son, but surely it’s just babysitting during the day and maybe late at night, right?

Before I can worry too much, the man is back.

“Here’s the deal. I have a friend who is a single parent and he needs a nanny to help with his little girl, Bree. She’s almost nine months old. He can explain everything to you during the interview, which he’d like to do as soon as you can make it to his house because he’s in between interviews right now. Deanna, where’s a pen and paper?” She walks around the counter to grab him what he asked for and he asks me, “Can you go now?”

My anxiety returns as it hits me. It’s a single father? I don’t know any of these people. “To this man’s house?” I manage to say. I’m supposed to go to some random guy’s house? Is he insane?

“He’s a good guy. I can go with you if you’re uncomfortable going alone; that’s totally understandable,” Deanna says.

Is a potential job worth this? Her reassurances help, but I don’t know. I glance at the man. What if his friend looks like him? I’m being a judgmental bitch right now when I have no choice, but I also have no clue what he does or what I’m walking into here.

“Can you read that?” He holds out the piece of paper with his handwriting and I nod. “Are you going? He doesn’t have all day.” Deanna slaps his arm from across the counter. “What?” he asks.

“Don’t pressure her. She doesn’t know us and you’re trying to send her to a man’s house and she doesn’t know him either. And you got beat up at work, so you look a little sketchy.” What kind of work does he do where he walks away looking like that?

He frowns. “I’m not pressuring her.” He glances at her. “I look sketchy?”

“Intimidating,” I correct, using the word I first thought of when I saw him.

He smiles. “That’s a better answer.” He looks at me. “We’re all good people, but Deanna can go with you if you want. Here.” He pulls his phone back out and after a moment, he turns it toward me to show off a picture of a little baby girl. “That’s his daughter. How dangerous does she look?”

Okay, he has a point. I debate it while the two banter until I hear Deanna ask, “Anyway, would you like for me to ride out there with you?”

“You don’t mind?” It would make me feel more comfortable, if she’s willing.

“Not at all.”

“His mom is probably there too,” the man adds.

I nod. That works for me. I follow Deanna outside and then to this man’s house. It’s a nice house in a nice neighborhood. I could never afford to live here, that’s for sure. The house almost reminds me of a doll house from the outside. I wonder what this man’s job is.

I glance into my rearview mirror. I look frazzled and out of place. I tried to freshen up in the bathroom at the library, but obviously, I did a bad job. No wonder people don’t want to hire me. With a deep breath, I run my fingers through my hair again and get out to meet Deanna. It’s now or never. Deanna and I walk up the pebbled walkway. There’s a sign on the door.

Sleeping baby. DO NOT RING DOORBELL. Knock. Quietly.

Deanna raps her knuckles on the door softly. I want to ask her what his name is again, but he answers before I can.

“Hey, EJ,” Deanna says. “This is Raelynn Woods.” She looks at me. “Are you good?”

I nod and she waves as she leaves. EJ is a handsome young guy in jeans and a T-shirt that flaunts strong arms covered with tattoos. He appears to be not too much older than myself if I had to guess.

He sticks out his hand. “EJ Bertuzzi. Nice to meet you.”

I shake it. “You too.” No need to repeat my name when he already knows it. He steps aside for me to walk in.

How does a guy this young afford a place like this? Much less a nanny. Maybe he’s into something shady with all of those tattoos. Shut it, Raelynn. No judging. I follow EJ through his gorgeous house and into the kitchen. It feels rude to gawk at his house, even if he can’t see me, so I stare at his back. It’s broad and leads to a huge ass and thick legs. Damn. I shake my head. No ogling the potential boss either!

“Have a seat.” He motions to the dining table. “Would you like something to drink?”

“No, thanks. Does EJ stand for anything?” It’s a stupid thing to ask, considering he’s supposed to be interviewing me, but I can’t help it. I see a name like that and I’m always curious.

“Elias James, first and middle name, but only my mother calls me that. Most of my friends just call me EJ.”

Elias. That’s a pretty name. He seems more like an Elias to me for some reason. “So, I could call you Elias?” I ask.

He shrugs as he grabs something for himself from the fridge and then sits down across from me. “If you want. I don’t care.” He’s a bit intimidating between his size and those tattoos. What is it with intimidating men today? “Okay, here’s the deal,” he starts, getting down to business. “I haven’t liked or trusted anyone I’ve interviewed so far, and I’d like to finally find someone so my mom can return home. If I like you and I think you’ll work out, then I’ll give you a chance. Do you happen to watch hockey?”

I’m so thrown off guard by his question that it takes a second to shake my head. I’d need something other than an antenna to watch that.

“Well, that’s what I do. I play for the Carolina Rebels. I travel and have a rigorous schedule for most of the year. I need someone I can trust to be with Bree and who is willing to keep in contact with me while I’m on the road. You’d live here, and you’d be paid well. We can go over specifics if I decide I like you. So far, what do you think?”

I’d have to live here? Oh, boy. I wasn’t counting on that. He’s going to shun me the moment I tell him I have a little boy. But maybe if he likes me enough first, then we can somehow work out an arrangement? I don’t know. But I find myself saying, “I think I’m still interested.”

Elias smiles. It’s such a pretty smile. “Great. Other possible duties would be tidying up. Your number one priority would be taking care of Bree. You’d have vacation time during the offseason and—”

“When is that?” I interrupt, curious. “Sorry, I don’t know much about hockey. Or anything about it at all, really.”

“It’s okay. Season ends in April, unless we make it to playoffs. So, let’s just say late June to early September. You could take that entire time off or as little as two weeks. Up to you. I get one mandated day off every week during the season; that can be your day off, but if for some reason you need another day, let me know with plenty of advance notice if possible.”

Elias goes on and on about his schedule and things he’d want from me. Maybe Jackson and I could live here with him while I’m a nanny. That would solve both my job problem and living arrangements. But is that the right decision? Should I even contemplate that? Would Elias?

Soft cries comes from a nearby baby monitor and Elias jumps up.

“She’s awake,” he says with a crooked smile. The man just got hotter.

I shake those thoughts from my mind. “Can I come with you to meet her?”

If possible, his grin widens. “Sure. Come on.”

I follow him up the stairs. “You have a beautiful home,” I say what I’ve been thinking since I walked in.

“Thanks,” he mumbles. “My mom had a hand in decorating.”

The room we enter is a pink explosion fitted for a princess. Elias picks up his baby and rocks her gently. I step next to him.

“She’s beautiful,” I whisper, even though she’s awake.

“That she is.”

Elias seems enthralled by his daughter and it tugs at my heart. Bree reaches her arm out to me.

“Can I hold her?”

He hesitates, but then nods, handing her over to me like she’s his most prized possession.

“Hey, pretty girl,” I coo. She smiles. Holding her makes me wish Jackson was still a baby. Bree makes baby noises and I laugh when she tugs on my hair.

“You’re a natural,” Elias says. “You seem like you know more than I do,” he chuckles.

I shrug it off.

“Come on.”

I follow him out of the room, but in the opposite direction of the stairs. He walks two doors down and opens the one on the opposite side of the hall.

“This would be your room. If you’d rather have your own things in here instead, I can move this stuff to storage, no problem.”

I nod, my stomach churning and tying in knots. I need to tell him about my son. Elias leads me back downstairs to the kitchen. Bree has dozed off again with her head on my shoulder, so he lets me continue to hold her.

“Any questions or concerns? Because I’m ready to make an offer.”

“I have the job?”

“If you want it.”

The relief at hearing those words overwhelms me and I squeeze my eyes closed to stop the tears. I will them away. This isn’t a sure thing yet. “Um, yes, I do have some concerns.”

Elias frowns, not expecting that. “What are they?”

Bree stirs and I take the opportunity to look at her instead of him. “I...I’m a single mom of a five-year-old. If I accept the job offer, if you’re still offering, then it would be my son and myself moving in.”

“How old are you?”

I lift my head. He doesn’t think I could be the mom of a five-year-old. “Twenty-two,” I answer curtly. I hope like hell he tries to judge me. That is one thing that brings out my inner momma bear. Judge me for almost anything else, but not that.

“Oh, man. I wasn’t expecting the kid.”

My heart sinks and my inner beggar makes an appearance. “Please. I need this job. I’m completely qualified seeing as how I’ve been taking care of my son for five years by myself. He’s in school for most of the day, and he’s a good kid, I swear. I can do this job and take care of your little girl. You wouldn’t have to worry about feeding him either. I can buy the food for him.” Elias said he would cover the grocery bill for me. “Please, don’t let this cause you not to hire me. I need this job. Please.”

Elias just stares at me. That can’t be a good sign.

Get it on Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Kobo

Sneak Peek: Chapter One of Steady!

Chapter One

Logan

Life sucks. It has ever since I graduated from college last year. My best friend, Carey, has moved in with her boyfriend. My sister, Sydney, has gotten married and given me a nephew to love on, in addition to my niece. Yet, here I am. Single. Struggling to find a job that fits the degree I earned. Bored as fuck with life. I almost want to go back to college when life was more fun. Almost.

Everyone made out as if life after college would be like cruising on a highway. Easygoing and you’d go places. That has not happened for me. I’m still working the sucky job I got while in college because I can’t find one more appropriate. The girls I would see don’t appeal to me anymore. Life has turned into a cycle where I go to work, come home, mope, and sometimes beg Sydney to let her kids come over. I don’t actually have to beg, but it’s sad that a baby and a three-year-old are the highlights of my life right now.

My sigh echoes around my lonely apartment. When Carey left, I decided to move too. A one-bedroom apartment made more sense money-wise and space-wise than a three-bedroom. Sydney told me I could move in with them, but that would make me feel even more pathetic than I already do. Besides, I do not want to be in the Rhett household. I’m over there enough as it is. I can’t see her husband, Ian, being happy with me spending even more time there. I like my own space, too.

Ever since I graduated, it’s like I immediately fell into this rut. A rut which keeps getting deeper and deeper. If something doesn’t happen soon, I’ll be convinced that there’s no way out. I need a new job. I need some excitement. I need something other than the exact life I’m currently living.

My phone rings with a call from Sydney. It’s tempting to ignore it, just because I’m in no mood to pretend like my life is where I want it, but I don’t ignore her calls.

“Hey, Syd.”

“Hey! I haven’t heard from you all week! What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” I answer honestly. Absolutely fucking nothing is happening in my life. That’s the problem.

“Well, what are you up to this weekend?”

“Nothing,” I repeat.

Sydney is quiet for a moment. “What’s going on, Logan? Please don’t say nothing.”

“It’s nothing to worry about, Syd. Just in a mood. How’s my niece and nephew?”

I’m thankful that she lets it go. “I think we’ve finally nipped her jealousy in the bud.” It didn’t take long after baby Andrew was born before Savannah decided while she loved her baby brother, she didn’t like all the attention he was getting. He was born back in October; it’s now January. “Or have a handle on it, at least,” Sydney continues. “Andrew is cute and adorable and a good baby as usual. Except for when he’s not.”

I laugh. “Maybe he has more of Ian in him than we thought.”

“That’s probably it,” she agrees. “Savannah wants to see her Lo-Lo.”

I snort. “Ian must be gone on a trip.” Ever since Ian entered Savannah’s life, she only wants to see me when her daddy’s gone. Well, that’s when she wants to see me the most.

“She asked me yesterday before he left, actually. Want to come over for dinner?”

“Sure. I’ll be over in a bit.”

I pack a bag, just in case Savannah wants me to spend the night. She often does. Before I can deal with an active little kid, I need some coffee. The lack of energy pulsing through my veins is equivalent to the energy in my life. Quite simply, there is none. With my bag all packed, I head out for my favorite coffeehouse.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I mutter under my breath.

They’re closed for remodeling. Great way to lose customers. I pull up the map on my phone and see there’s another one close by. I like to go to non-corporate coffeehouses, so while there may be five that are closer to me than the one I’m going to, they are not for me.

When I walk into the store, my brain acknowledges that music is playing. However, the only thing I clearly focus on is the relief that there is not a line. I step up to the counter and order my coffee. That’s when I hear the most angelic, magnificent, powerful voice. Whirling around, I discover it’s not just music, but live music.

There’s a small stage in the corner by the window. A girl sits on a stool with a guitar in her lap. Her hands move fluently; her eyes are closed. Her lips move with the words of the song.

“Hello? Here’s your coffee.”

I face the cashier and take my drink. My body seemingly moves on its own to find a seat to watch her. Her foot taps. Her body sways as if she’s completely lost in the song. Her hands move with such grace on the guitar. The song reaches its height and man, the girl has a set of lungs on her. I’m completely mesmerized. She’s beautiful, too. Well, from what I can see. The guitar hides some of her. She has ridiculously long, wavy black hair. It looks to be almost to her hips. What color are her eyes? When will she open her eyes?

At some point, I should look away, but I can’t. She’s too lost in her song, and I’m too lost in watching her sing.

The song comes to a close and green eyes flash open, landing right on me. Again, I should look away instead of staring at her, but hell, she’s pretty. Fuck, a slow smile rises. I smile back and mouth marry me before I can think better of it. I’m too swept away to think clearly. She laughs; the mic echoes the sound and intensifies my infatuation. She thanks the clapping crowd as she steps off the stool. Once she collects her tips, she leaves the tiny stage.

With her guitar in hand, she walks over to me. I stand and shake the hand she offers.

“Kayla.” The smile on her face is enough to make me want to drop me to my knees and propose again.

“Logan.”

“Did you propose to me, Logan?” she asks with a giggle.

“Depends on what your answer would be.”

She sweeps her eyes over me. “I deserve a date before I can answer, don’t you think?”

“When are you done here?” I ask.

Her eyebrows rise in surprise. “That was my last song.”

“Then let’s go.” I hold out my hand. It hovers in the air for a solid thirty seconds.

“I’m driving myself.” When I nod in acceptance, she finally takes my hand. Hers is soft and slightly smaller in mine. She waves to the cashier as we walk out. I show her what my car looks like before we walk to her car. I stand silently, enjoy how she glances over at me while she puts her guitar safely away in its case, and then I open the driver’s door for her.

“Just follow me.”

“I will.”

At the second stoplight, my phone lights up with a text from Sydney and the plans I made crash down on me. Damn it. We’ll make a pit stop. She’s likely told Savannah I’m coming. I can’t let that little girl down. I’ll drop in for five minutes and tell Savannah I have to go, but I’ll come back tomorrow. It’ll be easier for me to let her down in person than to let Sydney be the bad guy.

We pull into Sydney’s driveway and I get out to see Kayla rethinking this entire thing. I told her we were going out and we come to a person’s house. I walk to her car. She rolls down the window.

“So, here’s the thing. I forgot I was supposed to come to my sister’s for dinner; I just need five minutes and we can go.”

Skepticism creeps into her eyes. “You couldn’t call her instead?”

“No. This is simpler.” She probably doesn’t understand how, but that’s okay. “Would you like to come in with me?” I’d hate to leave her sitting in the car.

“To meet your sister?” Her head tilts a little bit and the skepticism continues to rise.

I laugh. “I’m starting to think you don’t believe I’m meeting my sister at all. That settles it.” I open her car door. “Come on.” I hold my hand out.

She gets out of the car and takes my hand. “Were you hoping I’d say no? What will your girlfriend think?”

I laugh again. “It’s my sister. Well, technically, she’s my stepsister, but she might as well be my sister.” We walk up to the door and I open it without knocking. “Savannah, Lo-Lo is here!” I shout.

Kayla gives me another one of those brow-raising looks. Little pounding footsteps come and there she is. I release Kayla’s hand to crouch and pick her up.

“How’s my favorite niece?”

“Good. Who’s that?” She points to Kayla.

“That’s my new friend, Kayla. Where’s your mommy?”

She points upstairs. I start walking and motion for Kayla to follow us. We find her in Andrew’s room, changing his diaper. “Oh! You didn’t tell me you were bringing someone. Sorry,” she says to Kayla.

“I can’t stay,” I say, earning a glare from Sydney. “I’m sorry!”

“You told me you were coming for dinner and all I’ve heard since then is how Lo-Lo is coming over. Now, you’re telling me you aren’t staying? Why? Did you just meet her?” She glances at Kayla and smiles. “No offense and I’m not angry at you.”

“You’re leaving?” Savannah pouts.

“See,” Sydney says as she picks Andrew up.

“We can stay.”

Everyone looks at Kayla. “For real?” I ask.

She shrugs with a smile. “You proposed, only makes sense that I meet the family.”

You what?” Sydney exclaims as I grin at Kayla. I think I’m in love already.

“Do you have enough for one more, Syd?” I ask.

“Of course.”

“Then, let’s eat.”

We head back downstairs while Sydney talks to Kayla. She finally introduces herself, learns Kayla’s name, and finds out that I did indeed just meet her. They leave me with the kids while they bring dinner to the table. Kayla doesn’t look like she feels out of place. She looks like she belongs here.

“What’s this proposing mess, Logan?” Sydney asks as we sit down to eat.

“She was singing in the coffeehouse. When she finished, I asked her to marry me. She laughed, but agreed to go out with me first.”

“He didn’t ask. He mouthed it at me,” Kayla corrects.

“And you just said yes?”

“I am a catch, you know,” I say with a roll of my eyes.

“Lo-Lo,” Savannah says, stealing my attention.

The bad thing about having dinner here is that Kayla is free to talk mostly to Sydney. Savannah talks to me too much for me to talk to Kayla. Regardless, it’s nice to hear her voice. I keep imagining her singing. We need to escape. I need to know more about her than Sydney does.

The moment dinner is over, I stand. “I love y’all, but we gotta hit the road.”

“No, Lo-Lo!” Savannah shouts.

“I’ll come back tomorrow or tonight to see you, but you have to be a good girl.” She pouts her lips, which makes me laugh. I lean over to kiss her forehead and then stand to kiss Andrew on the forehead, too. “Thanks for dinner, Syd. I’ll call you later. Call me if you need anything.”

“Have I called you once while Ian is away?”

I snort. “All the time.” It’s an exaggeration, but she does call here and there.

“Thank you for letting me intrude,” Kayla says. Impatiently, I wait while goodbyes are said once and for all. “Where to now, Lo-Lo?” she teases.

“Somewhere we can talk. Ideas?”

“Follow me.”

I’d follow her anywhere. To Antarctica to freeze to death? Done. To the pits of Hell? Done. To Heaven? I’m practically already there with her. But for right now, we get into our respective cars and I follow her to a park. It’s a bit chilly outside, but if this is where she’s comfortable, it works for me. I grab a hoodie from the backseat and an extra in case she needs one. It turns out she doesn’t have one, which makes her smile as I offer one of mine.

“Thanks.”

I shrug and pull mine over my head while we walk over to a picnic table, straddling the bench.

“So, what did you want to talk about?”

“You.”

“What about me?” she asks. She goes to stick her hands in the kangaroo pocket, but I grab them in mine first. Wow. Her hands are soft. I wasn’t imagining it earlier. Kayla flicks her gaze back and forth between our hands and my eyes with pure curiosity.

“How long have you been singing?”

“Since I could talk.”

“Do you know you’re amazing?” I give her a little smirk; that, my question, or both makes her laugh.

“I think I’m decent, but thank you for the compliment.”

My thumbs rub over her knuckles. “Why do you sing in the coffeehouse?”

Kayla shrugs. “It’s a great way to earn extra cash and a way for me to perform, even if it is just in a coffeehouse.”

“What do you normally do, if this is extra cash?”

She frowns for a moment. “Nothing. I’m a sophomore in college.”

I sit upright. “What? For real?”

“You don’t go to Whaley Jones University?” Her eyes fall to the WJU hoodie I’m currently wearing.

“No, I graduated last year.” My gaze falls to our hands. Well, this puts a new spin on things. I hadn’t considered where she’d be in life or her age or anything of the sort. I simply assumed we were in the same place and the same age.

Kayla dips her head and leans forward. “Well, then.” Her voice changes with a tone of conspiracy. “It sounds like I have an older man after my heart.”

I laugh. “Sounds like. Is music your major then?”

Kayla sighs. It’s such a heavy, disappointed sigh. “No. I’m declaring anthropology as my major and music as my minor.”

“How come? It doesn’t sound like you’re thrilled about it.”

“I can’t see my parents approving of it.”

“But music is what you want to do?” She nods. “Do you know what I’ve learned?”

“What?”

“When you grow up, you have to make the decisions you want because guess what? Your parents won’t be living your life and as an adult, they lose control anyway. They’ll get over it. It’s your life; do what you want.”

Kayla chuckles. “Yeah, I’m not that brave yet. Music is what I want to do, but I’m not sure what they would think of it. I would like their approval, whether I technically need it or not. And right now, I do rely on them, so I feel like they have a say.”

“Understandable.”

“Have you always been close to your stepsister?”

I flare my eyes. “Ooh, the girl is becoming interested in me now. About time.” She laughs and I gather my thoughts on my relationship with Sydney. “We didn’t care for one another at first, but we became friends.” I shrug a shoulder. “I don’t know. We just got close and have stayed that way. It’s why I call her my sister instead, because I consider her my sister. Do you have siblings?”

She nods. “A younger brother, but we never get along. Or never as well as you seem to get along with Sydney.” Her mouth opens, but she hesitates. “Can I ask you something personal?”

“Sure.”

“What was it like when your parents divorced? How did you feel about it?”

Out of all the questions she could’ve asked me, I never would’ve thought of those. I try to think back on my parents’ divorce. “I don’t know. It happened when I was seven. My dad didn’t marry my stepmom until way later. All I really remember about it is my dad saying he wasn’t gonna live with us anymore, but he still loved us, and me begging to live with him.”

“Oh.” Kayla seems disappointed in my answer.

“Are your parents together?”

She shakes her head. “They’re officially divorced as of last year.”

“Not taking it so well?”

“Not really,” she admits. With a deep breath, her eyes find mine. “Let’s talk about something else. What was your first impression of me?”

“Well, I heard you before I saw you. I was hooked. And when I saw you, I was swept away because you were so beautiful and I wanted to see what color your eyes were. You?”

She smirks, which gives me a heads-up that something funny is coming. “My exact thought was why is this creepy hot guy staring at me?”

“Hot, huh?” I smile.

“Don’t forget creepy.”

“I think you threw that in there for your own amusement. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here with me now.”

“Maybe. Maybe I like to be a stupid college kid sometimes.” Kayla pulls her hands from mine. “It’s dark out here. I should go.”

I stand with her. “Can I have your number?”

Kayla glances around, stalling. She’ll say no. I don’t know why when nothing has gone wrong, unless she’s here to humor me.

“Yes, you can,” she finally says. I whip out my phone so fast and have it ready before she can take her next breath, making her laugh.

Once she recites it, she goes to take the hoodie off. “Keep it for now,” I say. “I don’t want you to be cold on your way home.”

The smile she gives me is a killer. “Thanks, Logan. I’ll see you later.”

Yes. Yes, you will.

Preorder on Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Kobo