She leaned back, tucking her knees against her chest. “After he stopped, I really don’t think he had a clue that he’d done anything wrong. He just left me there on his couch and when I could get up, I knew I needed to tell someone. I knew I needed to go to the hospital. I was in so much . . .” Pain. She didn’t finish the sentence, but I could see it in her eyes. “I couldn’t find my friends, but I found my purse, and I ended up walking out of the house and I kept walking until I remembered I had my phone with me. I called 911.”

She stood suddenly. “I ended up at the hospital and they did an exam. The police showed up and I told them what happened and it was the truth.”

“Of course it was the truth.” I watched her pace, her steps quick and agitated.

“By the time the police left the hospital, the party was over, but Blaine was at his house,” she continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “They arrested him and took him in. I went home and I stayed out of school for the next two days, but everyone found out that he’d been arrested for what he’d done. And then his parents showed up.”

“What do you mean?”

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“His parents and mine were—are—country-club buddies. All they ever cared about was image. My mom and dad have more money than they could ever want, but . . .” Her voice turned thick and hoarse. “The Fitzgeralds offered my parents a deal. That if I dropped the charges and remained quiet about what happened, they would pay me and them an ungodly sum of money.”

I gaped at her. “And your parents told them to go fuck themselves, right?”

She laughed, but it sounded broken. “They showed my parents the picture that was taken of Blaine and me at the party and they said that if this went to court, no one would believe the girl in the ‘slutty costume sitting in his lap.’ And my parents, they didn’t want to deal with the scandal. They’d rather it all go away, so they agreed.”

“Holy shit,” I whispered hoarsely.

“It happened so fast. I couldn’t believe what my parents were telling me to do. They hadn’t really talked to me about it before, but they . . . they had been so worried about what everyone would think if the whole thing went public—the pictures and the fact that I had been drinking. I was just so scared and confused and you know, I’m not even sure they believed me.” She tugged her hair back, squeezing her eyes shut. “So I signed the papers.”

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Not only did I want to kill the fucker who did this, I wanted to add her parents to the list.

“I agreed to take the money, half of which went into my account so that when I turned eighteen, I had access to it, and I agreed to pull the charges and to not speak about it again.” She lowered her hands as she looked at me. “That makes me a terrible person, doesn’t it?”

“What?” Oh no . . . “You’re not a terrible person, Avery. Jesus Christ, you were fourteen and your parents should’ve told them to fuck off. If anyone is to blame, besides the fucker who did that to you, it’s them. You don’t have any fault in this.”

Relief flashed in her eyes, but as she dropped into the recliner, I knew there was more. Fuck. There was more. “Within days, everyone at school turned on me. Apparently, there was nothing in the agreement about Blaine keeping his mouth shut. He told people that I had lied. That I had done all those things with him willingly and then falsely accused him. Everyone believed him. Why wouldn’t they? I dropped the charges. I wouldn’t talk about it. School was . . . it was terrible after that. I lost all my friends.”

Things started making sense. “This is why you stopped dancing?”

“Yes. I couldn’t stand people looking at me and whispering about what they’d heard or talking openly about it in front of my face. And I did this . . .” She raised her left arm. “My mom was so pissed.”

I couldn’t believe what she had just said. “She was mad because you . . .” I shook my head. “No wonder you don’t go home to see them.”

“It’s why I picked here, you know. It was far enough to just get away from all of it. I thought that was all I needed to do—to distance myself.”

“That message I saw? It was someone who knew about what happened?

“Whoever came up with the saying you can’t escape your past really knew what they were talking about.”

I could feel the muscle in my jaw thrumming like crazy. “What else has been going on, Avery? You said this Blaine was in jail? But who’s been messaging you?”

She hunched over, pressing her head into her hands. Her face was shielded with a veil of shimmery hair. “I’ve been getting these messages since August. I just thought it was some asshole and ignored it. And my cousin had been trying to reach me, but I ignored him, too, because . . . well, for obvious reasons. I finally talked to my cousin over winter break, the night before I came over to your apartment.”

“The night of the fight?”

“Yeah . . . he was trying to get in touch with me to tell me that Blaine had been arrested for doing the same thing to another girl at the start of summer. He actually apologized. That meant a lot to me, but . . . I didn’t know that this girl had been the one who has been contacting me this entire time.” Taking a deep breath, she lifted her head. “Blaine had done it to another girl. And she apparently had tried contacting me, because she didn’t know about the money. She contacted the police and held her ground. She put him in jail and I . . . All she thought when I didn’t respond was that either I lied about Blaine or whatever. And the longer I didn’t respond to her, the madder she got. If I hadn’t signed those papers, he would’ve never been able to hurt her.”

I shook my head. “What happened to her is fucking terrible and I’m glad that bastard’s ass is going to jail. Better yet, he should be fucking castrated, but what happened to her isn’t your fault, sweetheart. You didn’t make him do that to you or her.”

Her eyes filled. “But me not telling anyone allowed him to do it again.”

“No.” I stood. “Don’t fucking tell yourself that. No one knows what would’ve happened if you didn’t drop the charges. You were fourteen, Avery. You did the best you could in the situation. You survived.”

“But that’s it, you know? All I’ve been doing is surviving. I haven’t been living. Look at what I’ve done to us. And yes, I’ve done this! I pushed you away again.”

“But you’re telling me now.”

“I’ve let what happened to me five years ago still affect me! When we almost had sex? I wasn’t afraid of you or if there’d be pain. It wasn’t that. I was afraid that once we started, that what Blaine had done would ruin it for me or that I would ruin it for myself. I am a coward—I was a coward.” She shot to her feet, face flushed with tears. “But it’s too late, isn’t it? I should’ve been honest with you months ago so you knew what you were getting into and I’m so sorry that I wasn’t.”

I reached out for her. “Avery . . .”

“I’m so sorry, Cam. I know telling you now doesn’t change anything, but I needed to tell you that you didn’t do anything wrong. You were perfect—perfect for me—and I love you. And I know you can’t look at me the same now. I understand.”

What? My arms fell to my sides as I stared at her. And then I was in front of her, cupping her cheeks. “What did you say?”

“That you can’t look at me the same?”

“Not that. Before that.”

“I love you?” she whispered.

“You love me?”

“Yes, but—”

“Stop,” I told her. “Do you think I look at you differently? I told you I always suspected that something happened—”

“But you had hope that it wasn’t that!” She tried to pull away, but I wasn’t letting her run away again. No more. “You looked at me before with hope and you don’t have that anymore.”

“Is that what you really think? Has that been what has been stopping you this whole time from telling me?”

She lowered her gaze. “Everyone looks at me differently once they know.”

“I’m not everyone, Avery! Not to you, not with you. Do you think I still don’t have hope? Hope that you will eventually get past this? That it won’t haunt you five more years from now?”

Avery looked too afraid to speak as I guided her hands to my chest, above my heart. “I have hope.” I held her gaze. “I have hope because I love you—I’ve been in love with you, Avery. Probably before I even realized that I was.”

Her eyes widened. “You loved me?”

I pressed my forehead to hers. “I love you.”

“You love me?”

I smiled slightly. “Yes, sweetheart.”

Avery held my gaze for a few moments, and I saw the very second she cracked. When the walls she had built around herself to just get by every day finally crumbled. Tears poured out of her eyes, so many I honestly believed it was possible for someone to drown in them. With everything in the open, she was laid bare, for the first time in years.

Emotion crawled up my throat as I circled my arms around her tightly. She came willingly, clutching my shirt. And she kept sobbing, and I knew I couldn’t stop her. That she had to get this out.

I lifted her into my arms and carried her back into my bedroom. I laid her down on the bed. I crawled in beside her, cradling her against my chest, and she held on to me as she continued to cry, like she was afraid I would leave her.

And leaving her was something that would never happen again.

Twenty-Seven

It was after midnight when my phone vibrated off my nightstand. Half asleep, I rolled over and smacked around until my hand landed on my cell. The soft white glow lit up the one word text from Shortcake.

Incoming.

Things were definitely different in the weeks following the day she had opened up to me.

I grinned as I threw the sheets off me and hurried through the living room and opened the front door. Avery stood there, barefoot and wearing a pair of tiny sleep shorts and a thin shirt. In the still cool night of early May, the shirt left very little to the imagination.

She smiled as I took her hand and pulled her inside, quietly shutting the door behind us.

“What the . . . ?” she whispered, staring at the floor between the coffee table and the couch.

Ollie lay facedown, cheek propped on the pillow I’d shoved under his face before I’d gone to bed. His soft snores would soon turn into chainsaws.

“Don’t ask,” I whispered back.

Giggling quietly, she squeezed my hand. We quickly made our way back to the bedroom and once inside, I spun her into my arms. “What are you doing?” I asked. “You have a nine-A.M. exam tomorrow.”

“I know.” She walked backward, guiding me to the bed. When she sat, I remained on my feet. “But it’s my last exam and I’ve already studied so much I think my brain is broke.”

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