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Rachel and I chugged our first beers while we checked out the crowd. The usual suspects were there—frat guys and sorority girls, jocks, friends of friends, and everyone in between. It was one of the frat’s biggest parties of the year. I knew Bennett might be here, and I wondered if he’d bring a date. I planned on staying far away from him and finding my own guy tonight.

The beer felt good going down, and when Rachel moved in on a group of jocks smoking in the garage, I headed off to grab another. Jocks were Rachel’s specialty. I figured it was because she was missing her ex-boyfriend, who was a star basketball player.

I knew for certain she’d hooked up with at least two of those guys in the garage before. I told her I’d join her after my next drink, but I knew none of them would appeal to me.

And I was afraid no one would ever compare to Bennett.

I popped open my beer and stopped to warm my toes at the huge bonfire in the backyard. The smell of weed was in the air, and I noticed some blond chick passing a roach to one of the guys sitting in the lawn chairs by the fire.

Bennett was standing directly behind her, next to Nate and a tall, pretty brunette. I shut my eyes to steady my breathing. I felt like I’d never be rid of him. Like he’d haunt me until I either graduated or moved, or both. I wondered if this girl was the one he’d met up with the other night or if he’d decided the same thing as me—to move on to someone else tonight.

The song “Fix You” by Coldplay was pumping through the speakers and I couldn’t help snicker at the absurdity of this moment. Me, across from Bennett, the guy I wanted to sleep with—and who was I kidding, just be with—but I couldn’t because I needed some heavy duty fixing. And I wasn’t ready or willing to be fixed by anybody.

Nate spotted me and waved me over. I shook my head, hoping to get away with a simple nod instead. But he wasn’t going for it. He walked over and pulled me around the fire to stand closer to Bennett and the brunette, whose fingers were now sliding up his sleeve.

“Hey, Ben, look who I found,” Nate announced, slinging his arm around me.

Bennett did a double take, gave a curt expressionless nod, and then turned his attention back to the girl. My stomach clenched so tightly that I felt like I might puke. For some reason his indifference hurt worse than his anger.

What the hell was wrong with me? I came here to have a good time with my friends and find someone else to make out with. To be in control of my own emotions; not the other way around.

I thought of something to say to Nate that wasn’t as dumb as asking him what his major was. “So, are you still moving into my building at the end of this month?”

“Change of plans,” he said sheepishly. “Now it’s the end of the semester. Couldn’t get out of my other lease as easily as I thought I could.”

“Got it,” I said, trying like hell to keep my eyes on him instead of sliding them over to Bennett and the girl. In my peripheral view, she was doing some hair flipping and hip jutting. And apparently she cracked him up, too, because then he howled with laughter over something she said.

Nate leaned closer to me. “He’s not with her, by the way.”

I shrugged, trying to keep my shaking hands at my sides. “It’s okay if he is. In case you haven’t heard, we’re just friends.”

“Well, in case you haven’t heard, my boy’s got it bad for you,” he said, shooting a look at Bennett over my shoulder. “And he’s like, the best guy that I know. So you should give him a chance.”

My heart was thrashing in my chest from his words. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, Nate.”

“I hear you. No strings attached and all that,” he said, obviously having heard a few choice details from Bennett. “But if I found a girl that I had that much chemistry with, I wouldn’t want to let her go so easily, either. Just saying.”

We did have undeniable chemistry, that was for sure. I could feel the undercurrent in the air this very instant, yanking at my core. It was thick and suffocating.

Not knowing what else to say, I took a step back. “Gonna find my friends.”

I felt Bennett’s gaze bearing down on me, so I looked his way. Heat, uncertainty, and anger seemed to roll off of him. The brunette was trying to get his attention, but he wasn’t having it.

I could barely catch my breath. I backed away until I was under the canopy of the giant maple tree at the rear of the property. I tilted my head to look up at the top branches and colorful leaves. My cheek was pelted with a fat raindrop, and it cooled my heated face. The tree sheltered me as the drops came faster and heavier. Everyone else sprinted to the protection of the tents.

But I chose to disappear behind the trunk of the tree instead. I caught my breath and had a good talk with myself about burying my feelings for Bennett once and for all. Focusing on school, and Adam, and my career. It was quiet and dark, like I was in my own little secluded world. Until the rain came down in hard sheets and drenched me. I pushed away from the tree to make a run for the tent.

All at once I saw a blur of red as I was forced against the tree trunk, the bark digging into my sweater. Bennett’s soaked hair swung against my forehead, his hands gripped my face, and his mouth sealed over mine, fusing our wet lips and tongues together.

I scraped my fingertips up his chest to his hairline and felt him tremble against me. My heart thudded against my rib cage as Bennett’s mouth devoured me—like he was pouring all of his frustration into me.

We were sopping wet, our clothes clinging to us, and the rain wasn’t letting up anytime soon.

I swept my tongue across his lips and the hottest f**king growl erupted from his mouth. He flattened his body against mine, crushing me with the weight of his passion.

“Is this how you like it?” he mumbled, but my mind couldn’t register what he was asking. It had turned into a foggy haze and I couldn’t even remember the letters of the alphabet at that point.

Bennett was entirely lips and fingers and raw passion and I felt his arousal pulsing against my stomach. His hands were rough and they rushed down my body to palm my ass. He lifted me off the ground, and my legs gripped his waist.

“Tell me you want this.” He slid down to the grass with me straddling him, and all I could do was moan into his lips. It was as if all the pleasure receptors in my brain had expanded and then shot rapidly into my core, setting me on fire.

He licked the water from my neck and then moved up to my mouth. His lips fastened around my tongue and he sucked it hungrily while I whimpered against him.

His hands moved to my br**sts and he thumbed my ni**les in a frantic and angry rhythm. “Is this how the other guys do it?”

I jerked back from him and went completely still as a memory washed over me.

Is this how you let your boyfriend touch you? He’s too young to know what he’s doing. Let me make you feel good.

Bennett kissed me hard again and I wrenched myself out of his grasp.

“You let every other guy have you. You give away pieces of yourself like they’re candy.” I went rigid trying to make sense of this different side of Bennett. He looked lost and miserable and desperate.

“Maybe this is the only way. Maybe if I pretend to be like them.”

And then another memory made my throat seal shut as I struggled for a decent breath.

What is with you, Avery? We’ve been planning our first time for weeks. I’m so f**king hard, I need a release. Let’s just do this.

I smacked Bennett hard across the face and then pushed myself off the ground. Bennett was stunned into silence. He shot up, his hands shaking, and tried to reach for me, but I backed away.

“They don’t make me feel anything. Not one. Damn. Thing.” I shoved against his chest and his face crumpled. “But you . . . you already own a piece of me. Don’t you get it?” I yelled, stumbling back.

“Wait, Avery. I’m so sorry.” His voice sounded rough and tortured. “Please don’t walk away.”

I stood frozen under the tree, the rain pelting my body, my eyelashes gluing together.

“I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I want you so damn much.”

I turned to him. “What you want from me is too goddamn scary. I can’t . . . I can’t . . .” My shoulders shook as sobs wracked my body.

“What happened to you, Avery?” His arms gripped me from behind and his lips closed in on my ear. “Please. Please tell me.”

“Just”—I pushed out of his grasp—“leave me the f**k alone!”

I took off running. Away from Bennett. Away from my memories. Away from my f**ked-up feelings.

As soon as I got home I jumped in the shower and stood under the scalding hot water to wash it all away.

Ella left me a dozen texts messages until I finally replied that I was fine and going to bed.

Bennett banged on my door and pleaded with me to talk to him. I ignored him until he finally gave up and went away.

Chapter Sixteen

The following morning I slipped into my scrubs to get ready for my shift. I turned my phone back on and saw there were dozens more text messages from Ella. My finger hovered above the delete button before I decided to just weed through them all.

Ella: If you’re not going to pick up the phone and talk to me, I’ll just text bomb you all night.

Ella: Damn it, Avery! What happened tonight between you and Bennett was bound to happen with any guy you got close to.

Ella: You have to tell him what happened to you. Please tell him already!

Ella: He would stick around and work through it. That boy has deep feelings for you.

Ella: And I think you might feel the same way. In fact, I KNOW you feel the same way.

Ella: And I know you don’t want that, it scares you shitless, you feel out of control, but please, bitch, for the sake of all the fake players everywhere, take a chance on somebody.

Ella: You should have seen him last night. He tried to go after you, but Nate stopped him. He looked miserable. Felt sick about what he said to you.

Ella: Don’t worry, I told him nothing. Only that you’ll talk when you’re ready.

Ella: That boy is a damn good egg. Just like Adam.

I let out my breath slowly and stared at myself in the mirror. At my puffy and swollen eyes. The light rash on my jawline from Bennett’s rough stubble last night.

He’d been sensual and passionate and fiery. I felt safer with Bennett than I’d felt with anyone else, ever.

I knew he’d never hurt me on purpose, but his harsh words rocked my world. I felt off-kilter, unglued, out of control. The same feelings I’d successfully stamped down for years.

And did Bennett seriously think I gave myself away so easily?

Was that what I was doing?

He was so damn frustrated with me. Just like I was frustrated with myself.

Adam. Bennett. Mr. Jackson. Maybe there were decent guys out there.

But I didn’t let myself see it. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to feel it.

I grabbed my purse and keys to head to work. I heard a thump as I swung open my apartment door.

A large package that had been leaning against the doorjamb had fallen over. It was wrapped in shiny silver paper with a note attached.

I went back inside, rested the package on my coffee table, and opened the letter.

A, I’m sorry. Please believe that I never meant to hurt you. I’m so ashamed of myself.

But I heard you loud and clear. You’re not ready for this. For me. For us.

So I’ll leave you alone—I’ll walk away.

But if you decide you want to talk, you know where to find me.

I’d planned on giving this gift to you someday. I figure now is as good a time as any.

Take good care, B.

P.S. Here’s what I think of you in five words or less: Fierce, determined, scorchingHOT (yes, that’s one word), incredible, beautiful.

Fat tears rolled down my cheeks as I ripped open the pretty wrapping. I inhaled a lungful of air when I saw his gift. It was my favorite drawing from the art show.

He’d never sold it. He’d saved it for me.

My fingers were trembling so badly that I had to set it down before it fell from my grasp and broke.

But the drawing looked different today.

Now it seemed like the one figure was trying hard to reach across all the junk—in the spaces between—to the other side. But the other figure was so well hidden he could barely find her.

And she didn’t plan on coming out anytime soon.

I read Bennett’s letter three more times, dried my eyes, fixed my makeup, and left for work. The rain had cleared and the air felt warm. The walk would do me good.

My phone buzzed while I was crossing Albert Street, and I saw it was my mom. I so wasn’t ready to talk to her—to anybody, really—but because of recent events, I needed to.

“Hey, Mom. On my way to work. Everything okay?”

She was silent, but I heard her breathing. Prepping herself for something she needed to say. I gripped the phone tighter. “Just spill it, Mom.”

Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “What did Tim do to you?”

I stopped in my tracks, nearly tripping over my own two feet and causing a collision at the crosswalk. My voice was low and rough. “You know what he did. I told you everything, hoping my own mother would believe me.”

I heard her take a long drag on her cigarette. I could picture her sitting at the kitchen table chain smoking. “Is that why he left us?”

What the f**k. Is that what this was about? She had some sick need to know he didn’t leave her because of something she’dT done? She was always so weak when it came to Tim.

“He left because of what I threatened him with.”