“But—”

“I’ll let you know if I find her.” I already started walking and then I was jogging to where my truck was parked near the cul-de-sac.

Slamming the door shut, I turned on the engine and gunned it down the residential street. Unease formed an icy ball in the pit of my stomach. The fear in her voice . . . she had been terrified when Tony grabbed her. The wigged-out feeling was back. As much as I wanted to deny it, to push it out of my thoughts, I couldn’t any longer. Something had happened to her. What, to be exact, I wasn’t sure.

I tried calling her on the way home, but as expected, there was no answer. My hands clenched the steering wheel until my knuckles bleached white. I pulled into the first parking spot I found at University Heights and raced across the parking lot. There was no point in checking for her car. In the darkness, it would be like looking for a needle in a pile of fucking needles.

My stomach was in knots when I reached our floor and rapped my knuckles on her door. If she didn’t answer, I would kick this door in, and if she wasn’t here, I would scour this damn county for her.

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Then the door opened and Avery was standing there, eyes swollen and red, mascara and tears laying tracks on her cheeks.

But she was okay.

She was okay.

With my heart reaching my throat, I went inside and wrapped my arms around her, hauling her against my chest. Reaching up, I cradled her close, dropping my chin to the top of her bowed head.

I didn’t trust myself to speak at first and when I did, my fingers curled around the strands of her hair. “Jesus Christ, why haven’t you answered your damn phone?”

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She didn’t lift her head as she spoke. “I left my phone in the car, I think.”

“Shit, Avery.” I pulled back, cupping her cheeks. “I’ve been blowing up your phone—so have Jacob and Brittany.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t—”

“You’ve been crying.” Anger rose again. “You’ve been fucking crying.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Have you looked in the mirror?” When she shook her head, I closed the door behind me and then took her small hand. “Come on.”

She swallowed hard, but let me tug her along. I took her into the bathroom and flipped on the light. She sucked in a sharp breath as she caught sight of her reflection. “Oh God . . .” Our gazes met in the mirror, and then she dropped her head into her hands. “Perfect—just perfect.”

“It’s not that bad, sweetheart.” The knot in my chest ached as I gently pulled her hands away. “Sit down.”

Avery sat on the closed toilet seat and stared down at her fingers. “What are you doing here?”

Grabbing a washcloth, I ran it under the tap and then knelt in front of her. Disbelief kept me from speaking at first. “What am I doing here? Is that a serious question?”

“Guess not.” She hadn’t lifted her gaze.

“Look at me. Dammit, Avery, look at me.”

Her chin jerked up, eyes narrowed until only thin strips of dark brown showed. “Happy?”

My molars cracked as I grinded my jaw. “Why would I come here? You left a party without saying a word to anyone.”

“I told—”

“You told Brittany you were getting some fresh air. That was three hours ago, Avery. They thought you were with me, but when they saw me later they knew you weren’t. After what happened with that asshole, you scared them.”

Her face fell. “I didn’t mean to. I just left my phone in the car.”

Silent, I swiped the washcloth under her cheeks, erasing the streaky makeup. “You didn’t need to leave.”

“I overreacted. The guy . . . he really hadn’t done anything wrong. He just surprised me and I overreacted. I ruined the party.”

“You didn’t ruin the party. And that son of a bitch shouldn’t have been grabbing you. Fuck. I heard you say ‘let me go’ and I know damn well he did, too. Maybe I shouldn’t have reacted as . . . strongly as I did, but fuck it. He was grabbing you and I didn’t like it.”

Her shoulders slumped forward. “You didn’t need to come here. You should be at the party having fun.”

I honestly couldn’t believe that she thought I should be at the party while she was here crying. She watched me, her features pinched with confusion. “We’re friends, right?”

“Yes.”

“This is what friends do. They check on each other. Brittany and Jacob would’ve been here, but I made them stay there.”

“I need to get my phone and call—”

“I’ll text Brittany. I got her number.” I sat back, watching her. “The fact that you wouldn’t expect anyone to check up on you is . . . I don’t even know what it is.”

Her mouth opened, then she shook her head and started to look away. I palmed her cheek, stopping her. Using my thumb, I chased away the last of the tears that had been there. Her damp lashes lifted, and I would give anything to take back every one of her tears that fell.

“Why were you crying?” I asked. “Wait. Did that fucker hurt you, because I will—”

“No! Not at all.”

“Then why?” I held my breath as she turned her cheek into my palm. “Talk to me?”

“I don’t know. I guess I was just being a girl.”

My brows shot up “You sure that’s all?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

There was more, there had to be, but how did one ask a question like that? I didn’t know. “You okay?”

Shortcake nodded.

I moved my hand down, brushing my thumb over her lip by accident, but when I did, she inhaled softly. Our eyes locked. The same feeling I had while we were at the party hit me in the chest. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to make her forget Tony and the party and all those tears. But the first time I kissed her I didn’t want her to taste her own tears.

Closing the space between us, I pressed my forehead to hers and let out a tired breath. “You drive me fucking insane sometimes.”

“Sorry.”

I pulled back, searching her face. “Don’t run off like that again, okay? I was worried shitless when I couldn’t find you and no one knew where you were.”

Shortcake stared at me and then she scooted forward, pressing a kiss to my cheek, surprising the ever-loving shit out of me. My eyes widened as I leaned back, unable to look away from her. I started to say screw the not kissing part right now, but I stopped myself. “Avery?”

“Cam?”

With all seriousness, I held her gaze. “Go out on a date with me.”

There was a tiny second of hesitation where her lips parted and two tiny pink spots bloomed on her cheeks, but then she spoke and at first I didn’t think I heard her right, but I did.

“Yes,” she said.

Fifteen

When Brittany cornered me outside of sports management the following Wednesday, I really had no idea what she wanted.

“Can we talk?” she asked, huddled down in her neon-pink hoodie. Short strands of blonde hair framed her face.

“Sure.” I guided her over to one of the empty benches. “Is Avery okay?”

Her lips tipped up as she leaned forward. The faint smell of smoke lingered on her clothes. In her hand, she turned a lighter over. “She’s as okay as Avery ever is.”

I turned my head toward her, frowning slightly. “What does that mean?”

Her eyes fastened on mine. “Come on, Cam. As much as you hang out with Avery . . .” She trailed off, shaking her head as her lips pursed. “Anyway, she told me that she finally told you yes? That she’d go out with you?”

My frown faded, but I really had no idea where this conversation was going. “Yes, she did. We’re going out Saturday night.” Or at least I believed so. “Unless she’s changed her mind and is planning to bail on me.”

Brittany shook her head. “No. I don’t think she’s going to bail.”

“Think?”

She laughed. “Well, you never really know with her.”

“That’s true.” I paused, turning toward her. “So, I doubt you wanted to confirm that she said yes.”

“No.” She took a deep breath as she sat back, twisting the blue lighter between her fingers. “I’m going to be straight with you, okay?”

“Okay.”

She looked up, her bright eyes landing on mine, and I fought a grin at the seriousness in her expression. “Avery really does like you. I know she probably doesn’t show it, but she does.”

I relaxed. “I know she does.”

She arched a brow. “But do you really like her?” Another class had let out and a rush of people filled the walkway, blocking the wind. “Because I know what you were like in high school and you could seriously have any girl here, but you want the one who’s turned you down.”

“So?” I folded my arms. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Is it because she’s a challenge to you?” she asked, not looking away. “Because if you’re going out with her because she’s not easy, I swear to God, I will cut you.”

I burst into laughter. “Cut me?”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m not joking.”

Struggling to stop laughing, I nodded and hopefully plastered a serious look on my face. “I believe you.”

“Good.” She nodded. “But you didn’t answer my question.”

I bit the inside of my cheek. “I like her, Brittany. It has nothing to do with a challenge or any shit like that. And the way I was in school is obviously not the way I am now.” I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “And I know she’s . . . different.”

Brittany nodded again and she didn’t say anything to that. Part of me was glad that someone else had picked up on a few of Avery’s behaviors, or she could’ve confided in her, but there was another part that was uneasy. I glanced at her. “Did she tell you anything?”

“About you?”

“No,” I laughed. “Did she tell you . . . ?” Still, I had no idea how to ask the question. Luckily, Brittany got what I wasn’t willing to say.

“It was the way she acted at the party, so I asked her the other day.” Brittany stood, slipping the lighter into the pocket of her jeans. My stomach tightened as I waited. She gripped the strap on her bag. “She told me nothing happened to her.”

Air stopped somewhere in my throat. “Do you believe her?”

She stepped back and then forward, lowering her voice. “She looked me straight in the eye and said nothing happened. I don’t know what to believe. How about you?”

“I don’t know, but you’re her friend, she would’ve told you.” I hoped that was the case. “Right?”

“I guess,” she replied, smiling tightly. “I’ve got to run before I’m late to history. Yay.”

“Hey.” I stood.

Brittany turned. “What?”

“You’re a good friend.”

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