Whoa. Hold up. “Avery, I wasn’t sneaking through your stuff. The damn text came through. I looked before I could stop myself. Maybe that was wrong.”

“It was wrong!”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. It was wrong. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t change the fact that I saw that text.”

She stopped in the middle of the room and there was no mistaking the look of panic darkening her eyes.

“Avery,” I said carefully. Her gaze darted to me. “Why would you get a text like that?”

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She crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t know.”

I didn’t believe her.

“I don’t know,” she said again, and then rushed on. “Every so often I get a text like this, but I don’t know why. I think it’s a wrong-number kind of thing.”

I still didn’t believe her. “You don’t know who that’s from?”

“No. It says unknown caller. You saw that.” She continued on before I could speak. “I’m sorry for freaking out on you. It just surprised me. I was asleep and I wake up and I could tell something was wrong. Then I thought . . . I don’t know what I thought, but I’m sorry.”

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“Stop apologizing, Avery.” I hated it when she did that. “I don’t need to hear that you’re sorry. I want you to be honest with me, sweetheart. That’s all I want. If you’re getting messages like that, I need to know about that.”

She took a step back. “Why?”

Sometimes I wondered if we spoke the same language. “Because I’m your boyfriend and I care if someone is calling you a whore!”

Avery flinched.

Taking another deep breath, I looked away. “Honestly? It pisses me off, even if it’s an accidental text. No one should be sending you shit like that.” I paused, finding her gaze and holding it. “You know you can tell me anything, right? I’m not going to judge you or get mad.”

The moment those words left my mouth, I realized how absolutely fucking fake I was. Here I was telling Avery she could tell me anything, getting pissed off because I knew she wasn’t, and I was keeping secrets.

“I know,” she whispered, and then louder, “I know.”

My heart kicked in my chest as I stared into her eyes. “And you trust me, right?”

“Yes. Of course I do.”

“Shit,” I growled, and my muscles tensed even further. A ball of ice formed in my chest. Telling her was a risk. She could think I was a violent person and walk away, but I needed to be honest, especially if I expected her to be.

I was scared shitless.

Closing my eyes, I said, “I haven’t been entirely honest with you.”

“What?”

I scrubbed my hand along my jaw. In for a penny, in for a pound or some shit, right? “I tell you that you should trust me and that you can tell me anything, but I’m not doing the same thing. And eventually you’re going to find out.”

Avery hurried around the coffee table and sat on the edge of the couch.

“What are you talking about, Cam?”

I could lose her, I realized, but I had to tell her the truth. “You know how I told you we all have done shit in our past we aren’t proud of?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“I can say that from firsthand experience. Only a few people know about this.” I paused. “And it’s the last thing I want to tell you.”

“You can tell me,” she said, scooting closer. “Seriously, you can talk to me. Please.”

I didn’t know where to start. It took me a few moments. “I should be graduating this year, along with Ollie, but I’m not.”

“I remember you telling me you had to take some time off.”

“It was sophomore year. I hadn’t been home a lot during the summer because I was helping coach a soccer camp in Maryland, but whenever I did go home, my sister . . . she was acting different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but she was super jumpy and when she was home, she spent all her time in her bedroom. And apparently she was rarely home, according to my parents. My sister, she’s always been this bleeding heart, you know. Picking up stray animals and people, especially stray guys. Even when she was a tiny thing, she always buddied up with the most unpopular kid in the class.” I smiled at the memory. “She met this guy. He was a year or two older than her and I guess their relationship was serious—as serious as they can be when you’re sixteen. Met the kid once. Didn’t like him. And it had nothing to do with the fact he was trying to get with my little sister. There was just something about him that rubbed me the wrong way.”

I dropped my hands to my knees as I felt the familiar anger building inside me. “I was home over Thanksgiving break and I was in the kitchen. Teresa was in there and we were messing around. She pushed me and I pushed her back, on her arm. Not even hard and she cried out like I’d seriously hurt her. At first I thought she was just being dumb, but there were tears in her eyes. She played it off and I forgot about it for that night, but on Thanksgiving morning, Mom walked in on her in a towel and she saw it.”

Avery took a deep breath, and I shook my head. “My sister . . . she was covered in bruises. Up and down her arms, on her legs.” I closed my hands into helpless fists. “She said it was from dancing, but we all knew you couldn’t get bruises like that from dancing. It took almost all morning to get the truth out of her.”

“It was her boyfriend?” she asked quietly.

I swallowed hard. “The little fuck had been hitting her. He was smart about it, doing it in places that weren’t so easily noticeable. She stayed with him. I didn’t know why at first. Come to find out that she was too scared of him to break up.” Unable to sit still, I stood and prowled toward the window. “Who knows how long it would’ve continued if Mom hadn’t walked in when she did. Would Teresa have finally told someone? Or would that bastard have just kept hitting her one night and killed her?”

My head hung forward. All of this felt like yesterday—the anger and helplessness. “God, I was so pissed, Avery. I wanted to kill the fuck. He was beating up my sister and my dad wanted to call the police, but what were they really going to do? Both of them were minors. He’d get his hands slapped and get counseling, whatever. And that’s bullshit. I wasn’t okay with that. I left Thanksgiving night and I found him. Didn’t take much, fucking small town and all. I knocked on his door and he came right out. I told him he couldn’t come around my sister anymore and you know what that little punk did?”

“What?” she whispered.

“He got all up in my face, puffing his fucking chest at me. Told me he would do whatever the fuck he wanted.” I laughed, but there was no humor in it. “I lost it. Angry isn’t even the word to use. I was enraged. I hit him and I didn’t stop.” Pulse pounding, I faced her. “I didn’t stop hitting him. Not when his parents came out or when his mom starting screaming. It took two police officers to get me off him.”

Avery didn’t say anything as she stared at me.

I rubbed my palms over my cheeks. “I ended up in jail and he ended up in a coma.”

Her mouth opened in shock, and there it was. Ducking my chin, I looked away as I sat in the moon chair. “I’d been in fights before—normal shit. But nothing like that. My knuckles were busted wide open and I didn’t even feel it. My dad . . .” I shook my head. “He worked his magic. I should’ve gone away for a long time for that, but I didn’t. Guess it helped that the kid woke up a few days later.

“I got off easy—not even a night in jail.” I smiled wryly. “But I couldn’t leave home for several months while it got worked out. I ended up with a year’s worth of community service at the local boys’ club and then another year’s worth of anger management. That’s what I do every Friday. My last session is in the fall. My family had to pay restitution and you don’t even want to know how much that cost. I had to stop playing soccer because of the community-service gig, but . . . like I said, I got off easy.”

Avery looked away, brows pressing together. Her face was pale and the longer she was silent, the sicker I felt. What had I—

“I understand,” she said quietly. I stared at her, not sure I was hearing her correctly.

“What?” I said hoarsely.

“I understand why you did it.”

Did she hear anything I had done? I stood. “Avery—”

“I don’t know what it says about me, but you were defending your sister and beating the crap out of someone isn’t the answer, but she’s your sister and . . .” She paused, seeming to search for the right words. “There are some people who deserve an ass kicking.”

I stared at her.

She unfolded her legs. “And there are probably some people who don’t even deserve to breathe. It’s a sick and sad thing to say, but it’s true. The guy could’ve killed your sister. Hell, he could have beaten some other girl to death.”

“I deserve to be in jail, Avery. I almost killed him.”

“But you didn’t.”

I opened my mouth, but there were no words. How could she be so understanding?

“Let me ask you a question. Would you do it again?”

The million-dollar question. “I still would’ve driven to his house and I would’ve hit him. Maybe not as badly, but honestly, I don’t think it would’ve changed anything. The bastard beat my sister.”

She inhaled deeply. “I don’t blame you.”

I continued to stare at her, feeling as if I should drop to my knees. “You’re . . .”

One slim shoulder rose. “Twisted?”

“No.” I smiled, absolutely dumbfounded. “You’re remarkable.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said, grinning slightly.

“Seriously.” I sat down beside her on the couch. “I thought you would be disgusted or angry if you knew.”

Avery shook her head, sending strands of coppery hair everywhere.

My God, she was . . . there were no words. Dropping my forehead to hers, I cupped her cheeks. It felt like a gorilla had been lifted off my shoulders. “It feels good getting that off my chest. I don’t want there to be secrets between us.”

Her lips curved up and I kissed their corners. Overcome with relief, I sat back, cradling her to my chest. This girl was . . . she was perfect in all the ways that mattered.

I kissed the top of her head, and her chest rose sharply. The relief I felt was staggering, and I honestly hadn’t prepared myself for Shortcake to be so accepting. Sighing, I closed my eyes and gathered her as close as I could.

Avery had accepted my secret. Now if only I could get her to see that I would do the same for her.

Twenty-Four

“You don’t think that’s enough roses for today?” Ollie asked, nodding at the single-stem rose I held in my hand. And then he glanced at the newest addition in the corner of the living room. “Plus that? You’re making the rest of us guys look bad.”

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