I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed her and enveloped her in a tight embrace against my chest. She hesitated at first, but then wrapped her arms around my waist. Her skin was soft and warm and she smelled like almonds. In that moment, I felt like we were both in a safe and protected bubble, even though it was only supposed to be me comforting her.
My chest also ached with an insurmountable guilt. I’d been thinking about offing myself forever and here this girl had someone close to her who had actually done it. In the most fundamental sense, the most basic of truths, we had something in common. Grief, sorrow, pain. We both knew what it felt like to lose someone we loved.
Except I’d killed the person I loved. Even though it may have been an accident in some small way, I was still mostly to blame. What would she think of me if she’d known the truth? Or if she’d discovered that I’d wanted to take my own life too many times to count? Would she understand or run for the hills?
Part me of me wanted so badly to unburden myself and hope for the best. Right here and right now, while I had her in my arms. But in reality, I was still a chicken shit. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her when I was just getting to know her.
“My parents are protective about me and the twins. We’ve always been a close family, but since that night . . . It’s understandable, really.” She pulled back to look at me. “It’s one of the reasons I’m living with Avery. I tried to stay in the dorms the first year but I was still grieving and finding my way. So I moved back. But recently, I decided it was time to live at school again.”
I couldn’t live anywhere that first year, either. I’d chosen to attend classes and then come home to barricade myself inside my room. It wasn’t until I’d had a conversation with Bastian’s father about his beloved frat house that I’d decided on a more solid plan. If I was going to live his son’s life, I needed to stop hiding every part of me and just act like I was him—all the way. Like that saying—fake it until you make it.
“So you’re afraid to tell them about Joel because you don’t want to disappoint them?”
“In a way, yes,” she said.
“I can relate to that, too.” I’d felt like a huge disappointment to my parents my entire life. Nothing I’d done had ever been good enough. So I just went through the motions, trying to find my own way. Dad would have loved a son with political aspirations. But as soon as he clued in early on that that I had no such intentions, he treated me more like a guest in his house than a son.
“Joel knows my family. My dad used to coach him and Joel used to play soccer with my brother,” she said, and I began connecting the dots a bit more. She had a hard time walking away from Joel because it’d be like walking away from her brother.
Kind of how I had to wrench myself free from Amber after seeing her all the time proved to be heartrending. She reminded me too much of Sebastian.
“So I realized one of the reasons I hung in there so long with Joel was because we had that connection.” I could feel her warm breath against shirt and my heart flapping inside my chest. “And recently, I really started to see what a flimsy connection it had been.”
I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t a fan of Joel’s, that he had been cheating on her, but she didn’t need to feel any worse about their past relationship. There was enough guilt in this room to go around and then some. We could mop it up and fill buckets with it.
“Thanks for telling me about your brother.” I pulled her close again, ran my fingers through her waves, and heard her sharp intake of breath. “And about Joel.”
She stayed perfectly still against my chest, her hands gripping my shoulders.
“You’re better off without him, you know.”
“Yeah?” Her body tensed as she waited on my response.
“Absolutely.” I pulled back and winked at her. “Okay if I take a quick shower before we go?”
“Go for it,” she said, backing away dramatically. “You do smell like a grease monkey.”
“Hey!” I grabbed her from behind and lifted her off her feet, sending her into a fit of giggles. Her laughter was infectious and I couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear. “Just don’t let my father, Mr. Serious Politician, hear you say that.”
I carried her down the hallway to the threshold of my room. She was a petite thing who just happened to have a set of tits on her that would make any man lose his breath. And damn if I didn’t dream of seeing them someday. I bet they were perfect. My forearms rested on the underside of her breasts and I pushed that thought away before she could feel how quickly a simple idea like that could arouse me.
I set her down and stepped inside my room to grab a clean pair of jeans and a button-down shirt from my closet. I figured I should dress a little nicer if I was going to Ella’s house for dinner.
I looked at the clock and stepped up my pace. “I’d offer to kick your ass in Mario Kart, but we don’t have that kind of time.”
Ella was busy looking at some books on my shelf. “I’ll take a rain check.”
“Be right back.” I strode into the bathroom and closed the door behind me, not realizing I was allowing Ella into my bedroom with my personal belongings until I was under the showerhead, soaping up. The idea of her spotting something I wasn’t ready for her to see made me wash myself a little more quickly.
As I was drying off, the thought of me behind this door completely naked with Ella on the other side made the blood to rush straight to my dick.
Wasn’t that exactly what Ella had wanted to happen the other day in my room at the frat house? If I walked out there in just this towel, would she still want me like she had then?
I hadn’t been ready to make any moves that night, but today felt more intimate. She’d trusted me enough to confide in me, to let me see her vulnerable. I felt closer to her, even more attracted to her, if that were possible. And if I didn’t stop having these thoughts, I’d have to walk out there with a raging hard-on.
Somehow, I felt lighter, freer, having her here with me. I actually allowed the possibility of getting to know her more intimately enter my mind. I hadn’t dated anyone in a very long time and I wasn’t sure if I even knew how to be with someone, or let them in. But somehow Ella made it easier to open up. I looked forward to spending the rest of the day getting to know her and her family.
When I stepped inside my room, my muscles instantly contracted. Ella stood in front of my dresser, studying snapshots in frames leftover from high school days.
Ella pointed to a picture of Sebastian and some other ballplayers. “Who are the people in this picture?”
“Just old high school friends,” I said, trying to control my breathing. I hadn’t banked on her zeroing in on anything related to Sebastian.
“And this is that girl from the parking lot at Zach’s.”
My stomach bunched into a hard ball.
Shit. Maybe bringing her here wasn’t such a great idea.
“Uh-huh,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. The picture was a generic one: just a bunch of us huddled together at a party.
“Were you in love?” Her voice was so soft I wasn’t sure if I had heard her right.
“With Amber?” I asked, having never considered the question. Sure I’d had a major crush, but the idea of being in love with her was pushing it.
Ella was still turned away from me. Like she couldn’t meet my eye as she awaited my answer. Probably because she questioned whether I still had a thing for Amber after seeing us together.
And she couldn’t have been more wrong. I didn’t have feelings for Amber.
I had feelings for Ella.
And I didn’t know what the hell to do about it. Ella was mesmerizing. A force so captivating she was difficult to resist. Like a powerful tide washing over me, pulling me under, and compelling me along a path that was terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
“No, I wasn’t,” I said, coming up behind her. “I’ve never been in love with anyone. Not yet.”
Her shoulders relaxed and her fists unclenched—as if she’d allowed all of her uncertainties to roll off of her.
“Look at me, Ella.”
She turned around and her eyes widened as she took in my appearance. I had on a pair of dark jeans and had draped my shirt over my shoulder, ready to be pulled on and buttoned up. My hair was combed away from my face and her eyes roamed over the curve of my jaw, down my neck and chest, making my stomach flip completely over.
Damn, she mouthed.
I cleared my throat. “What?”
“Did I say that out loud?” she said, parting her pouty mouth.
I smirked. “Either that or I read your lips.”
“It’s just . . . I’m sure you know that you’re hot, Quinn,” she said, her gaze generously roaming over me. “You have an amazing body.”
Ella’s words turned me on like no one else’s. I’d felt girls up with less provocation. And this girl had only uttered a simple sentence and I was already there. “So do you, Ella.”
She shook her head like she didn’t believe me. I closed the distance between us and gathered her face in my hands. “Don’t you realize how gorgeous you are?”
Her breaths were broken and rough as her gaze aligned with mine. I felt myself tipping, plunging—falling headlong into those ocean-blue eyes.
I ran my thumb along her bottom lip and just as I was about to throw all caution to the wind, her phone chirped—loud and insistent—penetrating our perfect little bubble.
Leave it to my mother to be a romance wrecker. It was almost like she knew I wasn’t being honest about Joel, so she was messing with me. She was the one who’d told me to bring Quinn to our house for dinner and now she must have been tapping her foot wondering where the hell we were.
“We’re on our way, Momma,” I said into my phone.
Quinn came out of his room completely dressed and ready to go in his button-down shirt and black shoes. “I don’t want to piss off your parents—let’s get a move on.”
I lamented the loss of his hands on my face. The whisper of his deep voice. And the sight of his sculpted chest.
No man, besides my own father, had ever called me gorgeous. That moment between Quinn and me felt sincere. Real. Heartfelt.
Despite the building urge to kiss him for weeks, in that instant, it felt like we had something more together. Like I had penetrated the wall he had carefully crafted. Had been let inside a tiny crack in the façade.
And it only confirmed how much I wanted him. Damn, I wanted him.
And now we were back in Quinn’s hot rod and I could hardly believe we were headed to my house for a family dinner.
When Quinn pulled in the driveway, I spotted my father outside, smoking cigars with Uncle Roman and Uncle Martin. It was their tradition whenever our families got together. Mom always banished them away from the house because it stunk up the joint.
Now they stood alongside the flower bed in a heated discussion in their native language. Most likely about politics, the economy, or their jobs. My father was a building contractor and complained that the younger generation didn’t appreciate his work ethic. It was the same argument, different decade.
We exited the car and I introduced Quinn to my father and uncles.
“I understand you’re one of Joel’s frat brothers?” my dad asked.
Quinn never faltered at hearing Joel’s name. “Yes, sir.”
Quinn twisted his car keys round and round his fingers as my father and uncles studied him and I was beginning to understand what he meant about not being used to large family gatherings. Being publicly scrutinized as the son of a politician was probably totally different from being judged by the members of an extended family.
He’d mentioned an aunt and uncle but didn’t seem to want to talk about them. I couldn’t help wondering what kind of parents traveled during a holiday rather than make time for their only child. Was that the reason for the meticulously built structure Quinn had erected around himself? Maybe he’d been disappointed too many times to let anyone in.
When Quinn had confessed at Basia’s Diner that he’d be alone all weekend, my heart lurched. I’d also entertained the thought that maybe he’d made plans with someone else, since he was adamant about not wanting to kiss me the other night.
So why had he seemed so ready to kiss me just an hour ago?
He was still a mystery and it made me want to get to know him even more.
“Quinn’s a star catcher for the Titans, Tata,” I said, and Quinn dipped his head as if embarrassed by my gushing statement.
Dad gave me an odd sort of look. Did he know I’d been lying about Joel?
Baseball was the only American sport my father understood. If it wasn’t baseball or soccer, he just wasn’t interested.
My brothers darted out of the house, one with a Nerf football in hand, and went into insta-worship mode with Quinn once I told them that he played for the university. The twins participated in football, basketball, and baseball and revered any local sports team. To Quinn’s amusement, they even spouted off TSU’s stats.
Christopher had only played soccer and he was the son you’d most likely see out in the garage with my father working on cars. My father had lost his little buddy and I certainly couldn’t replace him, and neither could the twins.
Quinn tossed the football around with my brothers while he answered their questions about his upcoming schedule on the road.
“Enough with the sports talk,” my dad said. “Show me this little classic beauty.” He patted Quinn on the back and then headed toward his car for a thorough inspection.