Tess? Two what the fucks just happened. When had that nickname occurred? I knew the two of them had grown close, but dayum. And that piece of advice coming from Jase of all people?

A faint pink flush stained her cheeks. “I don’t do it often.”

My brows shot up.

Jase winked at me.

Finally, Teresa left us and I snuck Jase off to the basement. Dad had created one hell of a man cave down there. Pool tables, a bar, air hockey and TV the size of a wall.

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Picking up a pool cue, Jase arched an eyebrow at me. “Who pissed in your Cheerios?”

“Teresa has a crush on you,” I said, knowing I sounded like I’d tasted something bad.

Jase chuckled as he glanced at me. “Is that so?”

I shot him a look as I grabbed a stick.

“What?” He laughed again. “Are you surprised? It’s my stunning charm and good looks. It’s hard to resist.”

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“Well, she better resist.”

Jase watched me as I racked the balls. “Dude, as hot as your sister is—sorry.” He raised his hands as I straightened. “As beautiful as your sister is, that’s your sister. I wouldn’t even dream about what you’re worried about.”

I smiled tightly. “Good to hear.”

“Do you really think I would? She’s a kid.”

“She just turned eighteen, Jase. She’s not a kid anymore.” I scowled as that little ditty sunk in. My stomach roiled. “Damn, she’s really not a kid.”

“She’s still your sister,” Jase said, pointing the pool stick at me. “And that’s never going to change.”

Go out with me.

Grinning, I put the phone on the table and waited for Avery’s response. Across from me, my dad studied his cards. There was more gray peppered in his hair, but his face was still absent of wrinkles.

“Anytime now, old man.” I sat back in the chair. “I’m not getting any younger.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” Dad looked up at me, eyes narrowed. “You cannot rush perfection.”

Jase chuckled under his breath. Beside him, Teresa’s head hung forward. She hadn’t been able to get out of dance practice since it was Saturday and that had been an all-day event. She would’ve crashed by now, like Mom, who’d dozed off in the living room, but I knew why she was still up.

I glanced over at Jase, and he arched a brow at me as he took a swig of beer.

My phone vibrated. Asking me over text is no different from in person.

The grin spread into a full smile as I texted her back. Thought I’d give it a try. What r u doing now? I’m beating my dad at poker.

As Dad threw two cards forward, she responded with a Getting ready for bed.

Wish I was there. And then I sent, Wait r u naked?

No!!! came the immediate response.

I could almost picture her, face blood red and eyes wide, and I grinned. Even miles away, I couldn’t resist teasing her. Hell, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. It seemed odd to have not seen her on Friday and facing a Sunday without eggs just didn’t seem right. We exchanged a couple of more texts and then I tossed my phone aside before Dad had a shit fit and threw it out the window.

In the next round, Jase bowed out and then Teresa quickly disappeared and the poker game fell apart after that.

“How’s school?” Dad asked once we were alone.

Nursing my beer, I leaned back in the chair. “It’s going good. Got a really easy semester.”

He nodded as he picked at the label on his bottle. “And the meetings? You’re going?”

I sat my bottle down. “Dad, you’d be the first to know if I wasn’t going. And I talked to Dr. Bale about this weekend. He was cool with it.”

“Just want to make sure.” He sat back, hooking his knee over his other leg. If anyone saw my dad now in his flannel shirt and ripped jeans, they wouldn’t believe he was a successful lawyer. “What about soccer? You give any more thought about next year?”

“Dad . . . I won’t be able to join the team at Shepherd my senior year.” I ran my hand through my hair and then dropped my arm. “And I’ll be twenty-two by then.”

“What about afterwards?” he asked, not ready to let it go.

My gaze settled over his shoulder, landing on the fridge. Photos of me scoring goals and Teresa dancing covered almost the entire door. “I don’t know, Dad.”

“Can’t fail unless you try,” he said, drinking deep.

My brows knitted. “Isn’t that you can’t succeed if you don’t try?”

“Does it matter?” He flashed a grin. “Cam, you’re a damn good player. Soccer is, or at least, was a passion. We have videos to send to coaches. And you know the coach at Shepherd would help you take new ones.”

“I know.” I sighed, shaking my head slowly. “And I keep up my workouts and practice with the guys when I can, but . . . I don’t know. Maybe next year, when I’m about to graduate . . .”

“Uh-huh.” His gaze was shrewd. “Cameron . . . Cameron . . .”

Yakking on about soccer was hard for me. Wasn’t like a future playing was completely out of the question. That was why I kept up the training, but there was nothing I could do about right now.

“Is there a young lady in your life now?” he asked.

Perhaps I should’ve let him ask about soccer. “Dad . . .”

“What?” He smiled again and then finished off the beer. “I like to have the four-one-one on my son’s life.”

My head dropped back. “Four-one-one? Are you drunk?”

“I’m buzzing.”

I laughed out loud. “Nice.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Reaching for the bottle, I eyed my father and then laughed at myself, because I knew what the words that were forming on my tongue were before I spoke them. “There’s . . . there’s someone.”

“Do tell.” Interest sparked in his eyes.

I smiled as I took the last gulp from the bottle. “We’re friends.”

“Friends as in . . .”

“Oh, come on, Dad.” I groaned, shaking my head.

“What?” He cocked his head to the side. “Like I don’t know what you kids are doing. Like I didn’t do the same thing when I was your age.”

I might vomit. “We’re not like that. Avery isn’t like that.”

“She has a name? Avery?”

Shit. I couldn’t believe I even said her name. Was I buzzing? “We’re friends, Dad. And she’s a . . . she’s . . .”

Dad’s dark brows rose. “She’s . . . ?”

Perfect. Beautiful. Smart. Funny. Prideful. Infuriating. The list could go on and on. “I’ve asked her out a couple of times.” A “couple of times” was literally the understatement of the year. “She’s turned me down each time.”

“And you keep asking?”

I nodded.

“And you think she’s going to say yes eventually?”

Smiling a little, I nodded again.

Dad leaned forward, crossing his arms on the round, oak table. “Did I ever tell you how many times your mother turned me down before she agreed to go out me? No? A lot of times.”

“Really?” I hadn’t known that.

Dad nodded. “I was a bit of a . . . rakehell in college. Had a reputation.” One side of his mouth tipped up, revealing a dimple in his left cheek. “Your mother didn’t make it easy.”

“So what changed it?”

He shrugged. “Ah, she was secretly in love with me from the beginning, but you know what? I had to chase her, and to be honest, if you don’t have to chase a woman, she’s probably not worth the effort. You get what I’m saying?”

Not really. There was a good chance my dad was more than just buzzing, but I nodded, and then he said something that sort of clicked in my head.

“Surprise,” he said, winking. “Surprise the girl. Do something she’s not expecting. Always do something good she’s not expecting.”

Surprise her? There were a lot of things I could do that would surprise Shortcake, but I doubted he meant any of those things. But as I said good night to Dad and started toward the stairs, I knew what to do.

And I wanted to do it.

I smiled as I took the steps two at a time. As I rounded the second floor, I caught sight of Teresa slipping into her bedroom. I opened my mouth to call out to her, but the door closed quietly before I could utter a word.

Okay.

Shaking my head, I continued on to the guest bedroom Jase was in—the green room. Or at least that’s what Mom called it, because the walls were painted a deep olive green.

The door was cracked and I pushed it open. Jase sat at the foot of the bed, bent forward slightly, his arms resting on his thighs, hands over his face.

“Hey, man.” I entered the room, concerned. Had something happened back home? “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah,” he said, standing up and smoothing both hands through his hair. He walked over to where his duffel bag was and pulled out a pair of nylon shorts. “I’m just not feeling . . . well. Beer didn’t settle right, you know? What’s up?”

Hadn’t he only drunk like two beers? I watched him toss the shorts on the bed, his back a tense, rigid line. “I was thinking about a change of plans.”

“Oh, yeah?” He moved to the nightstand, dug out his cell and dropped it there. “What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking about leaving really early in the morning,” I told him. “Probably close to five or so. Is that cool with you?”

His shoulders relaxed. “Yeah, man, that works perfectly. Just wake me up.”

“Cool.” I backed up and stopped at the door. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Perfect,” he replied, sitting down on the bed again. “See you in the morning.

As I shut the door behind me, I realized Jase hadn’t looked me in the face the whole time I was in there.

It was a little before nine a.m. the following morning when I stopped in front of Avery’s apartment and knocked. Hopefully my dad’s advice of “surprising her” didn’t equate to “freaking her out.”

Doubt rose swiftly, like fire to a stick house, and I turned around, about to dive-bomb into my apartment. But the door whipped open like she was trying to pull it off its hinges.

“Cam?”

Taking a deep breath, I faced her and smiled crookedly. I held up a grocery bag. “So, I woke up around four this morning and thought I could really eat some eggs. And eggs with you are so much better than eggs with my sister or my dad. Plus my mom made pumpkin bread. I know how you like pumpkin bread.”

Eyes wide and lips parted, she slowly stepped aside, allowing me in. She wasn’t freaking. That much was good. But she also wasn’t saying anything. I carried the bag into the kitchen and placed it on the counter. Closing my eyes, I cursed under my breath. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. That ache was back in my chest, this time a different, piercing feeling.

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