I glanced at the scribbled-on world map tacked to the wall above my desk. The map to everywhere I planned on eventually visiting. The red and blue circles drawn all over it brought forth a grin as I grabbed a massive red-and-black hardcover from my desk, which was pretty much used only to stash books now. When we first moved in, Dad had built shelves lining the wall where the dresser and TV were, but those bookshelves had been overflowing for years now. Books were stacked in every spare place in the room—in front of my nightstand, on both sides of the dresser and in my closet, taking up more room than the clothes did.
I’d always been a reader and I read a lot, usually sticking to books with some sort of romantic theme and a classic happily-ever-after. Lori used to make fun of me nonstop for it, claiming I had cheesy taste in books, but whatever. At least I didn’t have pretentious taste in books like she did, and sometimes I just wanted to...I don’t know, escape life. To delve headfirst into a world that dealt with real-life issues to open my eyes, or a world that was something else, something completely unreal. One with warring faes or roaming vampire clans. I wanted to experience new things and always, always, reach the last page feeling satisfied.
Because sometimes happily-ever-after existed only in the books I read.
Sitting down on the edge of my bed, I was just about to crack the book open when I heard a soft rapping coming from the balcony doors. For a split second, I froze as my heart rate spiked. Then I hopped to my feet, dropping the book on my bed.
It could be only one person: Sebastian.
After throwing the lock, I opened the doors and there was no stopping the wide smile from racing across my face. Apparently there was also no stopping my body either, because I propelled myself through the threshold, arms and legs moving without thought.
I collided with a taller and much, much harder body. Sebastian grunted as I threw my arms around his broad shoulders and practically face-planted on his chest. I inhaled the familiar fresh scent of detergent his mom had been using since forever.
There wasn’t a moment of hesitation from Sebastian as his arms swept around me.
There never was.
“Lena.” His voice was deep—deeper than I remembered, which was strange, because he’d been gone for only one month. But a month felt like an eternity when you saw someone nearly every day of your life and then suddenly didn’t. We’d kept in touch over the summer, texting and even calling a few times, but it wasn’t the same as having him here.
Sebastian hugged me back as he lifted me up so my feet dangled a few inches off the floor before he settled me back down. He lowered his head as his chest rose sharply against mine, sending a wave of warmth all the way to the tips of my toes.
“You really missed me, huh?” he said, fingers curling through the wet strands of my hair.
Yes. God, I did miss him. I’d missed him way too much. “No.” My voice was muffled against his chest. “I just thought you were the hot guy I waited on tonight.”
“Whatever.” He chuckled against the top of my head. “There was no hot guy at Joanna’s.”
“How do you know?”
“Two reasons. First, I’m the only hot guy that ever steps one foot into that place and I wasn’t there,” he said.
“Wow. Real modest, Sebastian.”
“I’m just speaking the truth.” His tone was light, teasing. “And second, if you thought I was someone else, you wouldn’t still be attached to me like Velcro.”
He had a point.
I pulled back, dropping my arms to my sides. “Shut up.”
He chuckled again. I always loved his little laughs. They were infectious, even when you were in a bad mood. You couldn’t help but smile.
“I thought you weren’t coming back until Saturday,” I said as I stepped inside my bedroom.
Sebastian followed. “Dad decided I needed to be back for the scrimmage game tomorrow night, even though I’m not playing. But he’d already worked everything out with the coach. You know how Dad is.”
His father was the stereotypical football-obsessed father who pushed and pushed and pushed Sebastian when it came to playing ball. So much so that I was downright shocked when Sebastian announced that they would be out of town while there was football practice. Knowing his dad, I bet he had Sebastian up every morning at the butt crack of dawn running and catching.
“Your mom’s asleep?” he asked as I closed the balcony doors.
“Yeah...” I turned around and got a good look at him now that he was standing in the light of my bedroom. As embarrassing as it would be to admit, and I would never admit it, I completely lost my train of thought.
Sebastian was... He was effortlessly beautiful. It wasn’t often you could say that about a guy...or about anyone, to be honest.
His hair was a shade somewhere in between brown and black, cropped close on the sides and longer on the top, falling forward in a messy wave that nearly reached dark brown eyebrows. His lashes were criminally thick, framing eyes that were the color of the deepest denim jeans. His face was all angles, with high cheekbones, a blade of a nose and a hard, defined jaw. A scar cut into his upper lip, just right of a well-formed Cupid’s bow. It had happened our sophomore year during football practice, when he’d taken a hit that had knocked his helmet off. His shoulder pads had caught him in the mouth, splitting the upper lip.
But the scar fit him.
I couldn’t tear my gaze from his basketball shorts and a plain white T-shirt as he glanced around my bedroom. When he was younger, back in middle school, he’d been tall, all arms and legs, but now he’d filled out in every way, with muscles on muscles and sculpting that rivaled Greek marble statues. Years of playing football would do that to a body, I imagined.
Sebastian wasn’t simply the cute boy who lived next door anymore.
We’d been doing this for years, ever since he figured out it was easier than going to my front door. He’d head out his back door and come into our backyard through a gate, and then it was a short walk up the steps that led to the balcony deck.
Our parents knew he could get to my bedroom this way, but we’d grown up together. To them—and to Sebastian—we were like brother and sister.
I also suspected they didn’t know the visits occurred at night. That hadn’t started until we were both thirteen, the first night my Dad was gone.
I leaned against the door, biting the inside of my cheek.
Sebastian Harwell was one of the most popular guys in school, but that wasn’t surprising. Not when he was gorgeous. Talented. Funny. Smart. Nice. He was in his own league.
He was also one of my best friends.
For reasons I didn’t want to examine too closely, he made my bedroom appear smaller when he was in it, the bed too tiny and the air too thick.
“What in the hell are you watching?” he asked, keeping his voice low as he stared at the TV.
I looked at the screen. There was a guy with bushy, crazy-looking brown hair waving his hands around. “Um...Ancient Aliens reruns.”
“All righty, then. Guess it’s less morbid than the forensics show you watch. Sometimes I worry...” Sebastian trailed off as he faced me. His head tilted to the side. “Is that...my shirt?”
Oh. Oh my God.
My eyes widened as I remembered what I was wearing: his old freshman practice shirt. A couple of years ago he left it over here for some reason or another, and I kept it.
Like a stalker.
My cheeks flushed, and the blush raced down the front of my body. And there was a whole lot of body on display. The shirt hung off one shoulder, I had no bra, and I fought the urge to tug on the hem of the shirt.
I told myself not to freak out, because he’d seen me in bathing suits a million times. This was no different.
But it was.
“It is my shirt.” Thick lashes lowered, shielding his eyes as he sat on my bed. “Wondered where that went.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was suddenly petrified, plastered to the door. Did he think my wearing his shirt to sleep was weird? Because yeah, it was kind of weird. I couldn’t deny that.
He threw himself down on the bed, then immediately sat up. “Ow. What the hell?” Rubbing his back, he twisted at the waist. “Jesus.” He picked up my book and held it out. “You’re reading this?”