My patience snapped. “Okay, you know what? I’m not going to rake myself over fucking hot coals for this. Fuck it.”

The moment those words left my mouth, part of me wanted to take them back. The other part of me wanted to scream them again from the top of my lungs. I headed for the door and then stopped, cursing under my breath. What came out of my mouth made me wonder if I was a glutton for punishment.

“Look, I’m heading home for winter break. I’ll be back and forth, so if you need anything . . .” She continued to stare at me like she had been, and I laughed again, realizing that all I was doing was making a complete and utter ass out of myself. “Yeah, you don’t need anything.”

I stepped out into the hall and then my body seemed to demand that I make an even bigger ass out of myself. I faced her. Avery hadn’t moved from her spot.

“You’re staying here, all break by yourself, aren’t you?” I asked. “Even Christmas?”

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Her arms wrapped around her chest and she said nothing.

I worked my jaw, keeping me from saying a whole shitload of things that wouldn’t help this situation. But that was it. I realized it then. There was nothing that would help this situation. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t tried. Avery was there, in my life, at one point, and then gone the next, as if she had never been there. And that was that.

An ache burst through my chest, and with startling clarity, it felt real. Too real. “Whatever,” I said, my voice hoarse. “Have a good Christmas, Avery.”

I’ve never in my life wanted to leave home and head back to my apartment as bad as I had over Christmas. Normally I stayed right up until the start of spring semester, but I couldn’t do it with all the questions.

Where is Avery?

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How is she doing?

Did she go home?

On and on they went, and I wondered those very same questions a hundred times over during break. I had no answers, and every time I picked up my phone to text her, I stopped myself. She had made it as clear as humanly possible that she didn’t want anything to do with me.

Whatever we had, as brief as it was, it was over.

My mood was somewhere between shitty and shitastic the day after New Year’s. I packed up my stuff early that morning and was out by my truck when Teresa followed me out.

Stopping beside the front of the truck, she pulled her heavy sweater close to her body as wind whipped between the house and the garage. Sleep clouded her blue eyes. “You’re leaving without saying good-bye?”

I shrugged as I shut the passenger door. “Didn’t want to wake them up.”

She stepped back as I rounded the bumper. “That’s never stopped you before.”

I didn’t say anything.

“What’s up with you, Cam?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I glanced at her. “Shouldn’t you be wearing shoes? It’s freezing out here.”

“Flip-flops are shoes.” She hobbled back and forth, squeezing her arms tight against her body. “And you didn’t answer my question.”

Taking my hat off, I scrubbed my hand through my hair and then pulled the cap back on. I opened my mouth and I had no idea what I was about to say, but there turned out to be no words. The hollowness in my stomach, the empty, achy feeling, had grown and now it throbbed with such intensity, there was no ignoring it.

My sister looked up, squinting in the harsh, cold sun. “It’s Avery, isn’t it? You haven’t talked about her at all. And Mom really thought she’d be coming home with you since—”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” I cut her off, and her eyes widened. The last thing I wanted to think about was the fact that Avery had spent Christmas—Christmas, for God’s sake—alone. I didn’t want to feel bad for her. I didn’t want to feel anything. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just need to get back to school.”

“For what?” she asked, frowning. “You have days before school starts.”

“I know.” I stepped forward, hugging my sister. For a moment, she didn’t move and then she hugged me back. As I stepped back and opened the door, I looked over my shoulder at her. “Tell Mom and Dad I’ll text them or call later.”

She didn’t immediately respond and then she nodded. “You’re going to be okay? Right?”

I climbed in the truck as I barked out a short laugh. Of course I was okay. Wasn’t like Avery and I had this extended history and it wasn’t like I had that strong of feelings for her. My attraction had to have been an infatuation, because she was something new. She was something different. That was all.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling in a way that made my lips feel weird. “I’m okay.”

Teresa watched me with a look that said she didn’t believe me at all, and I didn’t really believe myself.

I’d just stepped out of the shower and pulled on a pair of sweats when I heard a knock on the front door. Knowing it couldn’t be Ollie because he was still back home, I expected to see Jase or someone else when I opened the door.

Brittany stood there, her blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail and hands clasped together under her chin. It looked like I interrupted her mid-prayer or something.

“Hey,” I said, unable to hide my surprise. I wondered how she knew what apartment was mine and then I remembered that she’d been here once before with Ollie, like half the college female population had been. “What’s up?”

She sucked in her bottom lip as she glanced behind her, toward Avery’s apartment, and knots twisted in my stomach. I knew Avery was home. Her car had been outside and hadn’t left since I returned.

“I hate to bother you and you look . . . um, busy.” Her gaze dipped over my bare chest, and I raised my brows. “But I need your help. Well, Avery needs your help.”

A sharp set of tingles spread along the back of my neck as I stepped forward. “What do you mean, Avery needs my help?”

“She’s really sick. I think she has the flu,” she explained in a rush. “She hadn’t been returning my calls so I checked in on her and found her passed out in her kitchen and—”

“What?” I brushed past her, heading for Avery’s door. “Did you call an ambulance?”

“No.” Brittany hurried behind me. “It’s just the flu and I need to get her some meds, but I can’t get her into her bed. She’s too heavy. So I was hoping that you could carry her back and maybe . . .”

I really wasn’t listening anymore. My whole focus was on Avery as I entered her apartment. The smell of sickness was strong—too strong—and I could see her denim-clad legs and bare feet.

Darting into the kitchen, I sucked in the sharp breath. Avery was curled on her side, compressed into a fetal position with one cheek plastered to the floor. Dark, sweat-soaked hair clung to the side of her face. Every few seconds, her body would shake and a tiny, breathy moan would come from her. Concern rose swiftly.

Brittany sighed. “I had her sitting up before I left.”

“Are you sure we don’t need an ambulance?” I asked, kneeling down. Carefully, I scooped the strands of damp hair off her face. Her lashes twitched, but her eyes did not open.

“I called my mom—she’s a nurse. She told me Avery should be fine as long as her fever goes down and she gets fluids in her, but I need to get her some meds.”

“I’ll stay with her while you go.”

Brittany said something else, but I didn’t hear it. I was only vaguely aware of Brittany picking up her purse from the back of the couch as I slipped an arm under Avery.

“No,” she moaned, twisting toward the floor feebly. “Cool . . . feels good . . .”

“I know, but you can’t sleep on the floor.” I lifted her up, wincing when her hot cheek landed against my chest. God, she was burning up. I turned, with her in my arms, realizing that Brittany had already left.

Avery mumbled something as she turned her face, but the words were too muffled and too slurred for me to understand.

“It’s okay,” I told her, because I really had no idea what to say. “You’re going to feel better soon.”

She didn’t respond as I carried her back to her bed. When I laid her down, I sat back and got a good look at the shirt she wore. Areas of the damp material clung to her skin. There were patches that were suspicious and made me think of the stench of sickness.

“Shit,” I said.

I looked around the room, finding a pair of pajama bottoms and a sleep shirt folded on her dresser. Taking one look at her, I made up my mind.

Many times over since I’d met Avery, I had imagined undressing her. The very fantasy of doing so had kept me up many nights. I hated to admit that it still did, even though I knew that it would never happen, at least in the way I wanted.

Stripping her of her ruined clothing happened faster than a heart attack and was just as about as fun as one. Especially considering she was mostly unconscious and was nothing more than dead weight.

I didn’t peek. Okay. I might’ve peeked at the pink lacy bra, but it was a brief and totally innocent accident.

Once I had her in fresh clothes, I tucked her legs under the blanket. It was only when I noticed the bracelet did I remember that she didn’t sleep with it on. Wanting her to be comfortable, I slipped it off her wrist and placed it on the nightstand.

I grabbed two wet cloths from the bathroom and ran them under cold water. When I returned, she hadn’t moved, but she sucked in a sharp breath when I pressed the cloth to her forehead.

I don’t know how much time passed, but the first cloth warmed and I replaced it with the second one. Avery turned onto her side, wrapping her arm around mine. It was like she was holding me there, but the girl was in a fevered state and was delusional. She didn’t know what she was doing. Several times, she murmured things I couldn’t understand. At one point, she smiled, and my chest tightened.

“I miss that,” I said hoarsely.

She wiggled closer, and I smoothed the wet towel to her cheek. As the smile faded from her lips, the knots in my chest eased.

Brittany returned, and between the two of us, we coaxed flu meds and water down Avery’s throat. It wasn’t pretty. A sick Avery made for an extremely disagreeable Avery.

“I’m going to open the windows and air out the funk. Clean up the kitchen and stuff.” Brittany hovered by the door. “You don’t have to stay, you know, if you don’t want to.”

I shouldn’t stay. I’d done my good deed for the day, and if Avery woke up and saw me here, she’d probably accuse me of being a creeper. Biting the inside of my cheek as yet another soft whimper reached my ears, I turned to her. Under the rapidly warming cloth, her brow was pinched in discomfort. Her body was still curled toward me and that one arm was still wrapped around mine.

Adjusting the cloth, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. “I’ll stay.”

Nineteen

I only knew that Avery was feeling better because she had stopped by the apartment. I wasn’t sure why she had and I wasn’t willing to find out. I told Ollie to tell her I wasn’t there. In a moment of rare seriousness, he’d asked if I was being serious.

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