Staring at me for a long moment, she smiled. “Got any plans this weekend?”

“Jesus.”

Shortcake placed the tips of her fingers against my cheek. “I need to do this.”

I dropped a kiss to the tip of her nose. “I don’t think you do, sweetheart, but if you think you do, then that’s what matters.”

“You really want to come with me?” she whispered.

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“That’s a stupid question, Avery. And yes, there is such a thing as stupid questions. That was one of them. Of course I’m going to be there with you.”

Her lips spread into a wide, beautiful smile. “I love you.”

“I know.”

“Cocky.”

“Confident.” I kissed her softly. “I love you, sweetheart.”

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She started to wrap her arms around me, but I moved away, climbing over the side of the bed. “Hey!” She frowned. “Get back here.”

“Nope. We got stuff to do.” I took her hands, hauling her off the bed. “And if you start feeling me up, we aren’t going to get anything done.”

The look on her face was bemused. “What are we doing?”

I bent, picking her up over my shoulder, and then pivoted toward the door. “We got some tickets to book.”

Twenty-Eight

Texas was ungodly hot. Like the circles of hell kind of hot. Even in the shaded interior of the rental car with cool air blasting from the vents, the heat seeped in from every tiny crack.

I couldn’t believe that I was actually in Texas.

My gaze drifted from the marble fountain to the monstrous-sized house. Avery hadn’t been joking when she said her parents were rich. They were like the 1 percent. Hell, maybe even the half of a percent.

Leaning back in the driver’s seat, I blew out a long breath. “Fuck.”

Shortcake was inside that place, with a mom that made Anthony Bates mommy look stable and loving. And I was out here, waiting in the car, half tempted to dive into the fountain.

She’d been in there for at least ten minutes and she hadn’t wanted me to go inside with her. Probably because she knew I’d lose my shit with a quickness. When she had opened up to me that day, she really hadn’t gone into a lot about her parents with the exception of how they had responded to what had happened to her, but over the last couple of weeks she’d told me about them.

And what I did know, I didn’t like.

At the fifteen-minute mark, I couldn’t sit any longer. I climbed out of the car and stepped into the sweltering heat. Sliding my cap around, I pulled the brim down to shield the sun.

I walked around the rented sedan, eyeing the entrance to the house. The marble columns were a nice touch. As I turned, gazing out over the manicured landscape that went as far as I could see, there wasn’t a single person moving about.

The place was empty, and in spite of the body-breaking temps, it was cold. I couldn’t picture Shortcake growing up in this kind of atmosphere or figure out how she’d come out as warm and loving as she was.

My shirt was already beginning to stick to my shoulders as I returned to the fountain. Closing my eyes, I willed my legs not to turn around and bust up into that house. I knew Shortcake needed to do this on her own, but I hated that she was facing them without me by her side.

I stuck out my hand, letting the warm water trickle across my open palm. What would her parents think if I took a dip? I was half tempted. I was also five seconds away from barging into the house when I heard a door shut behind me. Turning, I saw Avery heading down the wide stone stairs.

She was smiling broadly.

I hadn’t been expecting that.

Tension seeped out of my shoulders as I jogged around the car, catching her in the middle of the circular driveway. “How’d it go?”

“Ah . . .” She rose onto the tips of her sandaled feet, slanted her head and kissed me. “It went as expected.”

I held on to her hips, my fingers tightening as a surge of lust and love and a thousand other complicated emotions roared through me. “Want to tell me about it?”

“Over dinner?” She started to move away, but I captured her hand, holding her in place. “I’m going to take you to Chuy’s—”

“Avery?”

Steel poured down my spine at the sound of her name and I tightened my hold on her hand. She turned as my gaze narrowed on the tall man walking down the front stairs.

This was her father.

I knew it immediately.

His dark brown hair was gray at the temples and he didn’t look a day over fifty. He was dressed as if he were heading out to the golf club, pants pressed and polo shirt tucked in.

“If he says something ignorant, I cannot promise I will not lay him out right here, right now,” I warned her.

She squeezed my hand. “Hopefully that won’t become an issue.”

“Just saying.”

Her father stopped in front of us, his eyes—identical to Shortcake’s—looked from his daughter to where our hands were joined together. I dared him to say one thing.

“This is Cameron Hamilton,” she said, clearing her throat. “Cam, this is my father.”

Since it would be rude to give him the middle finger or punch him in the face, I extended my free hand. “Hi.”

He shook my hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“What’s up, Dad?” she asked when I didn’t return the polite greeting.

Mr. Morgansten dragged his eyes from me, and his gaze landed on his daughter for maybe a fraction of a second before flicking away. I could see the age on him now, settling in the creases around his eyes and mouth.

His chest rose with a deep breath and then said, “You know what I’ve missed most of all? I miss watching you dance.”

Shortcake was handling everything better than I thought she would, which meant I hadn’t given her enough credit. The girl was stronger than any of us realized.

Over dinner she told me how everything had gone down, and I was angry and disappointed for her when it came to how she was received by her so-called mother, but Avery had done what she had come here to do.

And it seemed her father expressed at least some amount of remorse or distress. The dancing comment . . . I got what it meant. There were so many things that Avery lost out on, and due to their own ignorance, so had her parents.

She still wanted to see Molly tomorrow, and no matter what I tried over dinner to change her mind, she was determined and I was going to support her the best I could. But to be honest, I wanted nothing more than to get her back home and away from all of this.

When we returned to the hotel room that evening, Shortcake immediately disappeared into the bathroom to take a quick shower. I watched her retreating form with an arched brow. She had been acting weird since the end of the dinner, in a hurry to get back here. I had no idea what she was up to, but I forced myself to lie down instead of joining her in the shower, which was something I wanted to do really, really badly.

I discovered the remote control and was still trying to figure out what channel was what when steam rolled out from the opened bathroom door about twenty minutes later. I looked up and the air halted in my lungs.

She stood in the doorway, her hair a dark red, clinging to her shoulders. She wore only a white towel.

Holy shit.

I sat up, speechless as my gaze swept over her, starting at the tips of her painted toes and ending at her flushed cheeks. My skin tightened as she walked to where I sat, her fingers curling around the knotted towel between her breasts.

I closed my eyes. “Avery.”

She placed a hand on my shoulder and climbed up, like she had done the evening on the couch, straddling me. “Cam?”

A small grin split my lips; it was all I could manage as I clutched her hips.

“What are you up to?”

“Nothing.” She paused. “Everything.”

My gaze dipped to the knot. “Those are two opposite things.”

“I know.” She pressed down on my erection, sending a bolt of red-hot pleasure through me. “Kiss me?”

She didn’t give me a chance to respond, which was fine by me. Her lips brushed over mine, a sweet sweeping of her lips. My hold on her hips tightened when she parted my lips with her tongue. The kiss went on until I was aching for her.

Hell, I was always aching for her.

“Touch me,” she whispered. “Please.”

Who in the hell was I to deny her? I ran my hands under the hem of the towel, gliding them over her thighs, coming close to the center of her heat.

“Now,” she demanded.

I laughed at her bold demand, but I wouldn’t be rushed. I brushed the back of my hand over her dampness, smiling when she moaned. “What do you want?”

She made a sound of frustration. “I want you to touch me.”

Bringing my fingers close to where she wanted me, I retreated quickly. “I am touching you, sweetheart.”

Her eyes flashed. “You know what I mean.”

“I don’t.”

“Please.” She pressed her forehead to mine. “Please touch me, Cam.”

I leaned back, brushing our lips together. “Well, when you say it like that, I think I get what you mean.”

“Finally,” she groaned.

I laughed again and then nipped at her chin. Her body jerked when I cupped her between the thighs. “Like this?”

“Yes.”

As I kissed the center of her throat, I slipped a finger into her wetness. “And this?” My voice was gruff, heavy.

Her back arched. “Uh-huh.”

Wrapping an arm around her so she didn’t tumble backward, I pressed down on her clit. Her body tensed in the most amazing way. “What about this?”

Her hips tipped forward. “Oh, yeah. Definitely that.”

“Definitely that?” I pumped my finger in and out of her slowly.

Avery moaned, and I could listen to a chorus of them all day, but then she reached between us and unraveled the knot. The towel slipped away from her, fluttering to the floor.

My hand stilled.

My heart jumped.

My cock hardened and throbbed.

Rosy breasts thrust up, cheeks flushed, and legs spread wide over mine. . . . Dammit, she was . . . she was stunning.

I ran my other hand over her breast, fixated when the tip puckered. “Fuck, Avery . . .”

She placed her hand over mine. “Don’t stop.”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“Not what I meant.” Reaching with her other hand, she found the zipper on my jeans. “I want you, Cam.”

“You have me.” I moved to her other breast. “You so fucking have me.”

Avery smiled as she wrapped her hand around my wrist, pulling my hand away from her heat. “I really want you.” She unzipped my pants, her fingers brushing me, and I shuddered. “Don’t you want me?”

“More than you know.” I groaned as she palmed me. “Avery . . .”

Her hand disappeared, and I didn’t know if I should be grateful or if I should start cussing. But then she tugged my shirt up, over my head. “I want this, Cam.”

When her words sunk in through the red haze fogging my thoughts, I inhaled deeply. “Are you sure, Avery? Because if you’re not, we don’t have—”

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