“Everyone’s got their own brand of shit to deal with,” she said.

“No doubt about that,” I said, thinking about Avery’s miserable upbringing, too.

“I had Bennett do some investigating for me,” Avery said, cutting her eyes at me.

My blush brush stopped midstride as a cold dread seeped into my stomach. “What do you mean?”

“I told him to ask Nate about Quinn.” Nate was always at the frat house. He’d be the guy equivalent to our player friend, Rachel. They had so much in common I’d wondered why they never hooked up. But maybe that was the problem. The challenge would all but disappear for both of them.

“And?” I was almost afraid to hear what she had to say. I gritted my teeth so hard my gums hurt.

“Apparently Quinn’s a good guy.” She winked through the mirror at me and I pumped out a breath. “On the quiet side. Since he comes from a political family, the guys think that he’s been in the spotlight for so much of his life that he just wants to be invisible for a while.”

“That seems to fit. He’s definitely a private person,” I said. “The only time I saw him get really animated was talking about his beloved cars.”

“Bennett mentioned that. Guess he asked Quinn about restoring the paint job on his Jeep when it got keyed last year. Quinn seemed really knowledgeable about it.”

“He seems really good at it, too,” I said, trying to keep the pride out of my voice. “Sounds like he’s only getting his business degree to make Daddy happy.”

“Is his dad a real prick?”

“I don’t know, maybe,” I said. As far as I knew, his parents weren’t around a lot. Were they shitty to him, too? My stomach clenched at the thought.

“So, did Nate say anything about any . . . girls?” I bit my lip and tightened my fist.

“You knew I’d never leave you hanging,” Avery brushed her hair into a low ponytail. “I guess he’s only hooked up with a couple girls at Zach’s bar. And it was always on the down low.”

I huffed out a breath and sagged against the counter.

“Feel better?” Avery asked.

I nodded. My instincts about him had been right so far.

“So . . .” Avery met my gaze in the mirror. “Did anything else happen between the two of you?”

I shrugged, trying to act nonchalant. “We walked to Seymour Park and ended up by the pond.”

“You’re kidding, you asshead,” she said. “And you didn’t tell me this information sooner?”

Heat climbed up my neck. Instead of looking her in the eye, I acted like I was cleaning up my mess on the counter.

Her hands went to her hips. “You were alone at the park?”

“We were alone when we went back to his house for him to change, too, and nothing happened.”

“And at the park?” Avery asked in her impatient, I’m-going-to-kick-your-ass voice.

“He kissed me.” There. I’d said it out loud.

“Shit! Tell me everything, dickhead,” Avery said, gripping my shoulders. “No holding back.”

I spun out of her grasp and strode out of the bathroom. “It was the best kiss of my life.”

She followed me into my room, where I threw myself across my pillows.

“Seriously?” She scooted up on the bed. “So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is: I don’t even know what we’re doing.” I turned on my stomach and buried my face in my pillow. “He goes from telling me nothing can happen to an all-out groping session.”

“That’s understandable,” she said. “There’s been buildup for weeks.”

“You’ve got that right.” I hadn’t been able to think of much else since. “And he said the most amazing things to me. I’ve never . . . had these kind of feelings before.”

“Like what?” Avery said. She picked up a pillow and whacked me with it. “Talk, bitch.”

“He told me I was sexy.” I mumbled into the sheets. “No guy has ever made me feel that way before.”

“No one?” Avery asked, her voice falling an octave.

“No one,” I admitted. I took a deep breath, sat up, and crossed my legs in front of me.

“I knew it,” she said, her voice all smug. “I could totally sense some crazy-good attraction between you two.”

“What kind of crazy-good attraction?” I asked, a giddy smile tugging at my lips. “The kind where, if I ripped off all my clothes, he’d look at me like I was his last meal?”

“That’s the kind I mean,” she said and glanced away wistfully, possibly recounting her crazy-good-looking boyfriend and the chemistry between them.

“What the hell do I do?” I said, gripping my bedsheets like a woman possessed. “Maybe it was just an impulse. Maybe he didn’t mean it. I can’t imagine never kissing those lips again.”

I jumped up and started pacing. I felt like I was losing my mind. “I mean, damn, have you seen those lips?”

“Someone’s got it bad.” Avery laughed. “It’s okay to live in the gray for awhile, Ella. I know you like to have your life all planned out.”

Avery stood to pull a pair of jeans from a shelf in the closet. “Take it from me, I know.”

She and Bennett had quite the roller-coaster ride last fall. Avery had only wanted a one-night stand. Bennett had wanted more and her feelings had gotten all messy. The end result was that she fell hard. They both did.

She tugged the denim up her tiny legs. “Plus, you might get some good sex out of it.”

Just thinking about getting physical with Quinn made all my girl parts shiver. “I’ve never done that before.”

She zipped up and then looked at me. “Had sex with a guy you weren’t in a relationship with?”

I nodded and squirmed. The thought of Quinn’s lips on my neck. His hard-on against my skin. Hot damn.

“Guess you haven’t,” she said, pulling a black shirt over her head. “Do you want to have sex with him?”

“God, yes,” I said, probably a little too quickly.

“So just roll with it,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.

“Even if it means this guy has the potential to wreck me?” Something constricted in my chest at the very thought. How was I going to protect myself from this gorgeous guy whose kisses had me panting for more?

“Maybe you have the potential to wreck him—ever think of that?” she asked, nudging my chin so that I looked at her. “You are a gorgeous and sexy beast and you better start recognizing that about yourself.”

“I’ll try my best,” I mumbled and dipped my head.

And maybe she was right. Maybe Quinn was protecting himself as well. That much might have been obvious. He’d said he wasn’t with Amber and wasn’t in love with her. But I just knew something had happened between them, even if he was unwilling to share exactly what it had been. He’d said in his frat house bedroom that he didn’t want to get involved again. Did I remind him of her in some way?

Nate had said that Quinn was rarely with any girls, so what was holding him back? At first I thought maybe it was his attraction to me, but after the kiss at the park, it was pretty evident that wasn’t it. You could still lust after someone and not want to date them, that was for sure. So maybe that’s all it’d been.

“Avery?” I figured I’d ask since I had her full attention on this topic. “What does it feel like to be in love?”

I’d never been in love before. I’d thought I was falling for my boyfriend in high school. But looking back now, it just seemed juvenile and superficial.

“Love can seem so damn messy. You might not get there at the same instant or even want to admit it at the same time,” she said, staring off into the space of her own thoughts. “But one thing’s for certain. When you’re together—and actually trusting your feelings and the honesty of the moment—you’ll feel calm inside. Still. It’ll feel right. Like . . . magic.”

She walked over to the widow and watched the traffic out on the street. “And you’ll know you’re there because the very thought of being without him shakes you to your core.

Then she turned back to me. “And when he’s in the room? Everything else fades to black.”

“Listen to you,” I said, staring at my friend in wonder. “What a difference a year makes.”

“I know,” she said, shaking her head. “I have no idea if my brain’s been invaded by aliens or what. Trust me—I had no expectations of this ever happening. I didn’t believe in it and I certainly didn’t want it.”

That was for sure. She’d fought it practically the whole way through.

“But hope is a funny thing,” Avery said. “It reveals itself in different forms, even when you’re trying to squash it down.”

Her mention of the word hope made me think of Daniel and our conversation the other day. “Remember that guy I’ve been telling you about who calls the hotline?”

“Yeah,” she said. I was careful not to give away too many details about my callers. It was against the confidentiality agreement that I’d signed. “Did he call again?”

“Last night,” I said. She didn’t know his name or what his specific issue was. Just that he reminded me of Christopher and that he was suffering from extreme guilt over something he’d done. “We talked about hope. And, damn, it was an amazing conversation.”

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you had a crush on that dude, too.”

“Ew, no, Avery. This is my job. We aren’t allowed to get messed up with the people we help.” I said. I didn’t have a crush on Daniel, did I? While I marveled at Daniel’s bravery, his resilience, and his determination, it wasn’t in a romantic way.

I didn’t know anything about him except how his voice sounded during the different emotions he’d expressed. How it was rougher when he was on the verge of tears. Had a dignified inflection when he was more optimistic. There was an undeniable familiarity between us. And in some cathartic way, he helped me work through some residual feelings I had about Christopher. Feelings I might continue to have on and off for the rest of my life.

And maybe in my subconscious somewhere, I was healing my brother, too.

“I know. I’m just messing with you,” Avery said, pushing playfully at my shoulder. “It’s just that you get this look in your eyes when you talk about him.”

“I admire him. For hanging in there. Trying to make it through. And on a very basic level, I understand him.” I turned toward my dresser and located the family photo I had placed there. “Because of Christopher.”

“I can understand why you’d have a connection with this guy. And it sounds like you’re helping him,” she said, slipping into her thong sandals.

“My supervisor said that some callers will affect us more than others because our own experiences or emotions might register in some way. The important thing is to keep a level head and use our familiarity to help them.”

“Makes sense.” Avery shrugged. “You should feel proud of yourself. You’re going to make a great psychologist someday.”

“Thanks. I hope so.” I picked my phone off my side table and sat back down on the bed.

“Speaking of Christopher,” Avery said and then cringed, “how did Mom and Dad take the news about Joel?”

“You know, they were pretty cool about it,” I said, scrolling through my messages.

I finally told my parents the night of the dinner, after all of our guests had left the house. And after my amazing kiss with Quinn. I didn’t know why I thought they’d be upset. It was me who had held on to that connection Joel had with Christopher.

“My father actually looked relieved,” I said. “He said he wasn’t sure if Joel was the kind of guy to settle down with. Wonder what made him say that.”

I could tell Avery was biting her tongue, waiting to say something as she gripped the keys in her hand.

“Out with it, asshead,” I said. “There’s something you want to say about Joel. So get it over with already.”

She moved backward toward the door, her face a map of worry. I knew she had plans with Bennett but she wasn’t going anywhere until she told me what was on her mind. “Please tell me you always used protection?”

“Always. I’m no dummy.” I threw my hands up in frustration. “Why?”

Her back rested against the door. “Something else Nate told Bennett.”

I groaned as my stomach went into a tailspin. What the hell was she about to tell me? Did Joel have a venereal disease that he picked up from one of those girls I’d always wondered about?

“He said that Joel was a pretty big flirt when you weren’t around,” she huffed. “The guy hooked up with different chicks while you were together.”

My head fell into my hands. “How could I have been so stupid?”

I wondered if Quinn knew about Joel, too. I must have looked like an idiot. Why hadn’t I listened to my gut? I knew there was something off about our relationship. And now it looked it had never been real.

“Don’t you dare beat yourself up about this! That’s the exact reason why I wasn’t sure whether to tell you.” Avery’s strong voice broke me out of my pity party. She sat down facing me on the bed. “Don’t go blaming yourself about something he’s done. Sure, you were probably too loyal—but he made you believe he was, too.”