She smiled as she dug a cigarette out of her bag. “I know.”

A certain edginess had me strung tight as I pulled the black sweater over my head and then went in search of my shoes. I couldn’t remember the last time I was this nervous, but it made sense. How many weeks—hell months—did it take for me to get Shortcake to say yes? I had a reason to be nervous.

I slipped out of the apartment before Ollie could make an appearance. My heart was pounding way too fast and my head was full of too much to deal with whatever smartass comments that would come from him.

When I knocked on Shortcake’s door, it opened almost immediately, and the nervousness turned into something completely different when I laid eyes on Avery.

The deep green blouse she wore mixed with the loveliness of her hair and complexion. Part of me couldn’t even believe I noticed that and was about to start waxing poetic verses in my head. The ever-present bracelet was in place. My gaze traveled down the skintight jeans tucked into black boots and then back up, straying where the soft red waves curled over her breasts.

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I cleared my throat. “You look . . . really, really great.”

She ducked her chin as I stepped into her apartment. “Thank you. So do you.”

Grinning, I leaned against the back of her couch. “You ready? Got a jacket?”

Shortcake spun around, practically darting back down the hall. She returned with a black coat and started for the door. I picked up her purse and handed it over.

“Thank you.” Her cheeks flamed and then she breathlessly added, “Ready.”

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“Not quite yet.” I stilled her, brushing the strands of hair back over her shoulders and then set about buttoning her jacket. “It’s freezing outside.”

Shortcake stared up at me as I continued up her coat, slipping the buttons into the holes. My knuckles grazed where her jacket swelled sweetly and she shuddered in a way that made me want to pull her close.

“Perfect,” I murmured, forcing myself to lower my hands. “Now we’re ready.”

I held the door open and the moment we stepped out into the hall, Ollie burst out from our apartment, cell phone in one hand and a wiggling Raphael in the other.

What the . . . ?

“Smile!” Ollie snapped a picture. “It’s like my two kids are going to prom.”

Oh. My. God.

“Putting this in my scrapbook. Have fun!” Grinning, Ollie bounced back into the apartment, closing the door behind him.

Shortcake looked up at me. “Um . . .”

I laughed loudly. “Oh God, that was different.”

“He doesn’t normally do that?”

“No.” I put my hand on her lower back. “Let’s get out of here before he tries to go along with us.”

She grinned. “With Raphael?”

“Raphael would be welcomed. Ollie, however, would not be.” I grinned as we hit the steps. “The last thing I’d want is for you to be distracted on this date.”

“Why me?” Avery blurted out, and then squeezed her eyes shut. “Okay. Don’t answer that.”

The small candle on the linen-covered table flickered in the space between us. We’d placed our orders with the waiter, and Avery had nervously bounced from one topic to the next as she nibbled on her bread.

What had provoked that question had been the truth. I had told her that she didn’t have to worry about impressing me. And she had stared at me like I was a crackhead and had asked that question.

I couldn’t even believe she had asked the question. Sometimes the woman absolutely dumbfounded me.

The waiter arrived with our food, deterring me for about two minutes. “I’m going to answer that question.”

She cringed. “You don’t have to.”

I picked up my glass, eyeing her over the rim. “No, I think I do.”

“I know it’s a stupid question to ask, but you’re gorgeous, Cam.” Her fingers clenched the silverware. “You’re nice and you’re funny. You’re smart. I’ve been turning you down for two months. You could go out with anyone, but you’re here with me.”

A grin pulled at my lips. “Yes, I am.”

“With the girl who’s never been out on a date before.” She looked up, meeting my gaze. “It just doesn’t seem real.”

“Okay. I’m here with you because I want to be—because I like you. Ah—let me finish.” The look of doubt that crossed her face was obvious. “I’ve already told you. You’re different—in a good way, so get that look off your face.”

She narrowed her eyes at me.

“And I’ll admit, some of the times I asked you out, I knew you weren’t going to say yes. And maybe while I wasn’t always being serious when I did, I was always serious about wanting to take you out. You get that? And I like hanging out with you.” I popped a piece of steak into my mouth. “And hey, I think I’m a pretty damn good catch for your first date.”

“Oh my God.” She laughed, crinkling the skin around her eyes. “I can’t believe you just said you were a good catch.”

I shrugged. “I am. Now eat your chicken before I do.”

And she did.

More importantly, she finally relaxed enough to be enjoying herself. And wasn’t that the whole point of a date? I liked to think so.

“So, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I asked. “Going back home to Texas?”

She made a face. “No.”

“You’re not going home?”

Shortcake finished off the last of her chicken. “I’m staying here. Are you going home?”

“I’m going home, not sure exactly when.” I didn’t like the idea of her being here alone. “You’re seriously not going home at all? It’s more than a week—nine days. You have time.”

“My parents . . . are traveling, so I’m staying here.” Her gaze flicked away. “Do your parents do the big Thanksgiving dinner?”

“Yeah,” I said, distracted.

As the check arrived and we headed out into the chilly night air, I dropped an arm over her shoulder, tucking her close as we walked across the dark parking lot. She didn’t resist, instead staying pressed to my side.

“Did you have a good dinner?” I asked once inside the truck, smacking my hands together and rubbing them.

“Yes. And thank you for the food. I mean, dinner. Thank you.” She closed her eyes and even though it was too dark for me to see, I knew she blushed. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I grinned. “Thank you for finally agreeing to let me take you out.”

She sent me a tentative smile, and a comforting silence fell between us, which was good. My thoughts kept going back to the fact she wasn’t doing anything for Thanksgiving. It seemed wrong and lonely and about a hundred other things to spend a holiday alone. An idea formed in my head, one I doubted Avery would go for, but I had to try.

When we got back to University Heights, we stopped in front of her door and the most awkward moment in any date was about to occur. Part of me couldn’t wait to see how she handled this.

Shortcake turned to me, gaze fixed on my chest as she fiddled with the strap on her purse.

“So . . .” I drew the word out, silently praying that she didn’t say good-bye.

“Would you like to come in?” she asked, and I did an internal fist bump. “For something to drink? I have coffee or hot chocolate. I don’t have any beer or anything more—”

“Hot chocolate would be good.” Tap water would be good enough. “Only if you have the kind with those tiny marshmallows.”

Shortcake’s wide smile did something funny to my chest. “I do.”

“Then lead the way, sweetheart.”

While she headed into the kitchen, I went into the living room. She joined me on the couch with two cups of hot chocolate. She’d kicked off her boots and tucked her feet under her. I decided there was no one cuter than her. Ever.

“Thank you.” I took one, watching the steam billow from the top. “Got a question for you.”

“Okay.”

Little marshmallows nudged my lips as I took a sip. “So, based on your first-date experience, would you go out on a second?”

She smiled lightly. “Like a second in general?”

“In general.”

“Well, this was a very good first date. If second dates were like this, then I guess I would.”

“Hmm.” I watched her closely. “With just anyone or . . . ?”

Her lashes lowered. “Not with just anyone.”

“So it would have to be someone in particular?” I asked.

“I think it would have to be.”

“Interesting.” When she lifted her gaze to mine, her eyes were soft and endless. “Is this someone in particular going to have to wait another two months if they ask you out?”

Her grin formed around the rim of her mug. “Depends.”

“On?”

“My mood.”

I laughed. “Get ready.”

“Okay.”

“I’m going to ask you out again—not dinner, because I like to change things up. It’s to the movies.”

She tapped a finger off her cheek. “Movies?”

“But it’s a drive-in movie, one of the last ones around.”

“Outside?” Excitement glimmered in her eyes.

“Yep. Don’t worry. I’d keep you warm.”

She shook her head, grinning. “Okay.”

“Okay to the movies?”

Sucking her bottom lip in between her teeth, she nodded.

Wait. What? It would be that easy? “Seriously, it isn’t going to take me another two months?”

She shook her head no.

I laughed under my breath, knowing the hard part waited. “Okay. How about Wednesday?”

“Next Wednesday?” she asked.

“Nope.”

She settled against the couch. “The following Wednesday?”

“Yep.”

Her brown eyes pinched into a frown. “Wait. That’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”

“It is.”

“Cam, aren’t you going home?”

“I am.”

“When?” she asked. “After the movies, in the middle of the night, or Thanksgiving morning?”

“See, the drive-in movie theater is just outside of my hometown. About ten miles out.”

Avery stared at me, her eyes widening. “I don’t understand.”

Drinking the rest of the hot chocolate, I set it aside and then scooted over until very little space separated us. “If you go on this date with me, you’re going to have to go home with me.”

“What?” She burst my eardrum as she sat up straight. “Go home with you?”

To keep from laughing, I pressed my lips together and nodded.

“Are you serious?”

“Serious as my pierced eardrum,” I told her. “Come home with me. We’ll have fun.”

“Go home with you—to your parents’ house? Basically for Thanksgiving?” I nodded and she smacked my arm. “Don’t be stupid, Cam.”

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