My anger had built a protective wall around me, at least for now. And maybe I needed to take it slow, make sure I fully trusted somebody. Unlike last time. I didn’t know what Quinn wanted from me, but for now, I was fine with just living in the moment. Having some fun.

“Hmmm, I don’t know,” I joked. “It might take the same amount of time to walk to my car as it would to get to yours, parked over there in the boonies.”

“Smart-ass.” He swept me up in his arms, momentarily lifting me off the ground like he’d done at his parents’ house. It seemed so natural that when I felt him temporarily waver, I tugged his arms more securely around me.

I felt his breaths against my hair and the hard wall of his chest. His heart rate had picked up speed and seemed to match mine beat for beat.

He released his hold and then grabbed my hand as he walked briskly toward his car, like he was on a mission. Fury was parked in the last row of the back lot, taking up two spaces, as usual.

When we got to the passenger-side door, his eyes fastened on mine with such concentration that I couldn’t look away. His expression morphed into something deliberate, something that eased all the doubts I had locked up about him inside of me.

His head sloped to the side, his lips only a whisper away, and his gaze was so penetrating it seemed to devour me whole, beneath all the layers of my skin.

He was a living and breathing paradox. Laid-back and innocent just a moment ago and now so intense it left me defenseless, threatened to steal every last piece of my heart.

When his fingers grazed my jaw, I could barely catch my breath. I closed my eyes against the vulnerability I felt in this perfectly scripted moment.

His lips brushed mine so gently, in such contrast to the way he’d moved his mouth against me last time that I was momentarily transported somewhere else—maybe to the stars. There was something in his kiss. Something his lips were trying to communicate to me that maybe they couldn’t—wouldn’t—before.

I saw what was buried deep inside him—what reached far below the flecks of gold in his eyes, the rough pads of his fingers, the monosyllabic answers falling from his lips.

Something so honest and real, that it left me bare, stripped, breathless.

My knees became weak and I sagged against him. He reached around my waist with one arm to pull me tight, while lightly tugging back my hair with the other to deepen the kiss. His lips were so warm, his tongue so soft and tender, that my heart bloomed inside my chest in an array of bold and vibrant colors.

When he drew away he gazed into my eyes once more before pulling the door and holding it open for me. I stepped inside, still completely delirious over that kiss. But by the time he’d gotten into the driver’s side, his demeanor had changed.

His eyes were dark and positively on fire for me. He trailed a tingly hand across my knee, my stomach bunched in anticipation, and all I wanted was for him to kiss the living hell out of me.

I didn’t wait for him this time. I shifted forward and ran my hands along his biceps up to his neck. He inclined his head against my fingers and he huffed out a breath. “Ella.”

I traced my tongue against his bottom lip and then pulled it into my mouth. He groaned and grabbed on to my waist, tugging me closer.

The noise tumbling out of his mouth was all it took to make me come unglued. I crushed my mouth against his in a greedy and hungry kiss. He yanked me against him and I pivoted across his body, straddling his hips. I could barely register that the steering wheel was digging into my back or that we were in a public parking lot.

We stayed that way for minutes or hours or days, our lips bruised and our breaths harsh. My hands were busy beneath his shirt appreciating the firmness of his skin and the hard planes of his muscles. My skirt had ridden up my thighs and his arousal ground against my bare skin. Suddenly I was thankful for his tinted windows.

He opened his eyes and inched his fingers to the clasps of my blouse. Keeping his gaze glued to mine, he unfastened the first button. He kissed my bare skin as he continued downward, blazing a heated path as he went.

Parting the material, his fingers grazed the edges of my black bra, his thumbs slipping across my peaks. He palmed my breasts while he kissed the skin at my collarbone and then down the middle of my chest. I panted and moaned against his hot lips.

Focusing on the front clasp of my bra, he unhooked it with agile fingers. When I felt the cool air slink across my exposed skin, I bit my lip and threw back my head—half anticipation, half modesty.

“Goddamn. You’re gorgeous, Ella,” he whispered as he gazed at me in wonder. I’d heard guys compliment my breasts before, but this was somehow different. This was Quinn—yet again making me feel sexy. And powerful. And all woman.

His palms remained cupped against my breasts, his thumbs brushing my buds while he kissed me with such tenderness it was as if I were a fragile and delicate work of art.

It was intense. Mesmerizing. All-consuming.

We stayed that way—fingers splayed and lips joined—until the ball of light that had once shone higher in the sky sank lower still, in the twilight of sleep.

Chapter Twenty-Two


It was a couple of hours before my next game and I laid on my bed thinking about my phone call with Gabby last night. Somehow in that conversation, I had told her about Ella.

Ella had never asked any further questions about the best friend I’d played baseball with. And when she finally did, I’d probably tell her that Bastian was dead, and I needed to prepare myself for that revelation.

“What’s the worst that could happen if this girl did ask questions?” Gabby had asked.

“She’d want to know more—like maybe when and how it happened,” I said. “And that scares me.”

The accident happened days after high school graduation. The horror of seeing Sebastian in that wooden box at the funeral, in that black suit with the damn paisley tie, his hair neatly combed back, was second only to seeing him lying unmoving on the side of the road, caked in blood. My stomach bottomed out—my heart felt like it had been wrenched from my body—as I trembled and almost lost my cookies at his casket.

My father had given me a stern look as I stormed away from them—from Sebastian, from his parents, from everybody. But my aunt and uncle had intervened, told my parents to let me go. After the cemetery, I’d spent the rest of that day sitting on the side of the cliff, considering whether or not to jump in.

How could I tell Ella that?

“True, she might want to know more,” Gabby said. “And you’d have to be brave enough to tell her. What scares you most about having to tell her?”

“My best friend’s parents seem to have this unbelievable ability to forgive me,” I said. “But maybe she won’t.”

I figured Bastian’s parents were either going to straight to heaven or they were good at steeling their emotions around me. Regardless, it was difficult to be around them for long. Their showing up at my games probably put them on the level of fucking sainthood or something.

“If his parents have forgiven you, Daniel,” Gabby said, “is there a way you can finally forgive yourself?”

“I . . . I don’t know.”

“I have a feeling you will,” she said. “Someday. And maybe this girl will be the one to convince you that you’re worthy to live the kind of life you’re hopeful about. I think you should give her a chance. I bet she’ll surprise you.”

Spilling my guts to Gabby again had made me feel better.

Or maybe just empty.

Ready to fill myself back up again with something new. Something different.

Something better.

If only I’d given myself permission to let that happen.


I threw the ball back to Smithy on the mound and positioned myself behind home plate. No parental units were here to root for me tonight, and by the seventh inning I was beginning to feel some respite. I’d been able to get lost in something else for a while. No expectations to live up to except my own. I didn’t know what would happen with my newfound lease on life, but for the first time in a long while, I wanted to try.

To live. To do something more meaningful. For me.

Outside of Gabby, Ella had gotten closer to me than anyone else—she’d been to my parent’s house, and she knew stuff about me that others didn’t. Even though she didn’t know everything.

But I was working up to that. I was feeling more comfortable with the idea. Because the alternative was worse. Being without her. And if I didn’t take that chance I’d never know. And I’d already had too many regrets in my life.

Ella and I had texted every day since our pizza date. And, of course, my fantasies were ramped way up since our insanely hot make-out session in my car, while the windows steamed up around us. I mean, fuck—the girl made me want to worship her, revere her, build a fucking altar in her name.

Nonetheless, Ella was still holding back. I could feel it. Not in her kisses. If anything, that’s where I felt her emotions were on display. Instead, it was in her heart. Like maybe she’d decided that we’d just be friends with benefits and she’d be all right with that.

Except I wasn’t okay with that. It might’ve taken the pressure off—but not enough for me to live with the idea of just being a fling to Ella. I had this intense need for her to know that I could barely go five minutes without thinking about her. If I could only get the words out. It’s like they got lodged in the back of my throat and the only way I knew how to get beyond it was to show her instead. With my lips, my hands, and my body.

I was hoping to see her before the team hit the travel bus in two days. So I texted her that morning.

Me: Fury got a flat tire last night.

Ella: Poor thing. Sounds like your baby needs some TLC.

Me: Absolutely does—from a certain brunette with beautiful blue eyes and kissable lips.

Ella: I’d be happy to offer up some lovin’.

Me: Hopefully soon? Fury’s owner has one home game left before he hits the road.

My frat brothers and the girls from our sister sorority were hollering in the stands because McGreevy had thrown a player out at first. When my eyes darted over to them, I spotted her. Ella had shown up to my game and somehow, having her here bolstered me. Made me want to work harder to finish this game on top, just so I’d be proud of myself when I saw her afterward.

She was sitting between Tracey and her friend Rachel.

I watched how Joel had looked behind him and waved at her. And how Ella’s jaw had ticked as if she was clamping down tight on her tongue—holding herself back from telling him off or whacking him in the head. Maybe I’d knock him the fuck out for her.

I hadn’t considered how it’d go down when Ella and Joel first saw each other again. But Joel seemed oblivious as usual, like the huge blockhead he’d always been. Besides, he had a blond chick sitting next to him. Apparently his new conquest.

The other night at poker he’d been a drunken sloppy mess again. He’d spouted off about Ella’s amazing tits, how he missed looking at them, and I’d basically lost my mind. I jumped up, the chair clattering to the ground behind me, and had my fist drawn back ready to pummel him. Brian had to plant his hand on my arm to stop me. He yanked me into the other room to play Call of Duty and talk.

He hadn’t asked me straight out what was going on between Ella and me, but I got the impression that he and Tracey had figured it out. Probably along with everyone else by now.

I hated that Joel treated Ella like she was only made of body parts. There was no denying that Ella had a beautiful body, but she was also perfect in every other way, too.

She was plain amazing. And I wanted more.

Maybe I wanted everything.

The game ended with a pop fly at home plate. I caught it, tossed it to the umpire, and headed for the locker room to change. Before leaving the field, I looked up at the stands once more and locked my gaze on Ella. I’d expected her to have waited for me in the parking lot with the other family, friends, and fans, but that hope was obliterated when she wasn’t anywhere near the team bus.

Instead, I saw Ella up at Zach’s Bar, drinking a beer at a back table with Tracey and Rachel. We made eye contact, but she looked hesitant to come up to me. It killed me that we didn’t know how to be around each other yet. What we were to each other. I think she was as scared and confused as I was.

Plus, there was Joel to contend with. Not that I gave a shit what he thought. It was more that I wanted to respect Ella. Didn’t want people to think she’d left him to be with me. Girls got a bad rap when it came to that kind of stuff—it was a ridiculous double standard. Guys could do whatever the hell they wanted, but girls were immediately turned into sluts.

I ordered two beers at the bar, hell-bent on joining Ella at her table, everyone else be damned. We were friends first and foremost and it wasn’t like I’d planned on groping her in public, no matter how much I wanted to.

While we were waiting on our drinks, I got pulled into a discussion with some baseball fans. They’d asked about our upcoming schedule and whether we could keep ahead of our competition. When I next looked toward the back of the bar, Ella was nowhere to be found.

Her friend Rachel had moved to a table in the corner with one of my teammates. When my eyes skated past Brian’s girlfriend, Tracey, I saw the tiny movement of her head.

I raised an eyebrow at her. She motioned to the parking lot. Her way of telling me Ella had taken off. Shit. I nodded in thanks.

I chugged back my drink, deciding what to do. At about the same time, my phone buzzed with a text message.

Ella: Headed home. Sorry, don’t feel like being in the same room as Joel.

Me: Understood. It won’t always be this awkward. I won’t let it be.