Ducking my chin, I said, “I’m trying to.” I laid the strap over her shoulder, brushing the side of her neck with my fingers. It wasn’t on purpose that time and when she jumped, so did my heart. Backing away, I picked up the flashlight. “See? I was just being a gentleman.”

“I don’t think you’re a gentleman, but thank you.”

Her words were an odd mix of sincerity and frustration, and she didn’t say anything else as we started back with only the narrow swath of light from the flashlight.

“This place is kind of creepy at night, don’t you think?”

She nodded as she looked over at the dark, looming shadows of the monuments. “Well, I guess, if there’s going to be any place in the world haunted, it would be a place like this.”

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“You believe in ghosts?”

Shortcake shrugged. “I don’t know. Never seen one.”

“Me neither.”

One side of her lips curved up. “That’s a good thing I suppose.”

I stopped at the passenger side of the truck. “Milady.”

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“Thank you.”

Since there was a little less frustration in her voice, I decided to test my luck. I leaned against the open door, watching the interior light caress the edges of her face. “So, what about it?”

“What about what?”

I tilted my head to the side. “Go out on a date with me.”

She stiffened. “Why?”

“Why not?”

“That’s not an answer.” She grabbed the seatbelt, whipping it around her.

“What kind of question was that? How am I—hey, it’s just a seat belt. Not that hard.” I leaned over, taking the belt from her. As our hands brushed, she plastered herself against the seat. It was such a strange reaction that the tiny hairs on the back of my neck rose as I lifted my gaze. “Why shouldn’t we go out on a date?”

Her hands balled into fists in her lap. I wanted to let go of the damn seat belt, take her hands in mine, and ease them out of the tight ball. “Because . . . because we don’t know each other.”

I smiled slightly as I moved my gaze up, centering on her mouth. “That’s what a date is all about. Getting to know each other. Go out on a date with me.”

“There’s nothing to know about me,” she whispered.

“I’m sure there is tons to know about you.”

“There’s not.”

I leaned closer, inhaling her sweet scent. “Then we can spend the time with me talking.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“Oh, it will be more thrilling than watching Raphael cross a road.”

“Ha.” Amusement flashed in her dark eyes.

“Thought you’d like that.”

Her gaze flickered to where her bag rested against her legs and then back to mine. “Can we go yet?”

“Can we go on a date?”

A sound of frustration came from her. “Good God, you don’t give up.”

“Nope.”

Shortcake laughed, and I couldn’t stop the smile from forming on my lips. I liked the sound of her laugh, when she really laughed. “I’m sure there are plenty of girls who want to go out on a date with you.”

“There are.”

“Wow. Modest aren’t you?”

“Why should I be? And I want to go out on a date with you. Not them.”

She shook her head slightly. “I don’t understand why.”

And I didn’t understand why she didn’t get it. “I can think of a few reasons. You’re not like most girls.” True. “That interests me.” And it really did. “You’re awkward in this really . . . adorable way. You’re smart. Want me to list more?”

“No. Not at all,” she replied. “I don’t want to go out on a date with you.”

I didn’t believe it. Call it intuition, experience, or plain old cockiness, I didn’t believe her at all. “I figured you’d say that.”

“Then why did you ask?”

I leaned back, grabbing the side of the door. “Because I wanted to.”

“Oh. Well. Okay. Glad you got it out of your system.”

What did she think this was? Hell, I didn’t even know what this was. “I haven’t gotten it out of my system.”

Her shoulders slumped. “You haven’t?”

“Nope.” I smiled. “There’s always tomorrow.”

“What about tomorrow?”

“I’ll ask you again.”

She shook her head. “The answer will be the same.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” I tapped the tip of her nose, grinning as she narrowed her eyes at me. “And maybe you’ll say yes. I’m a patient guy, and hey, like you said, I don’t give up easily.”

“Great,” she muttered, but there was a glimmer in her eyes, the same sheen that had been there when she was checking me out.

“Knew you’d see it that way.” I tweaked the tip of her nose, and she smacked my hand away. “Don’t worry. I know the truth.”

“The truth about what?”

I moved back in case she swung again. “You want to say yes, but you’re just not ready.”

Shortcake looked like she actually did see a ghost.

“It’s okay. I’m a lot to handle, but I can assure you, you’ll have fun handling me.” Before she could respond, I tapped her nose and then closed the door, grinning to myself as I loped around the front of the truck.

I watched Avery head into her apartment. She stopped halfway in, tucked the glossy copper strands behind her ear as she peeked over her shoulder at me.

A small, shy smile pulled at her lips as she waved good-bye and then slipped inside, quietly closing the door behind her.

Standing there a few more moments, like a creeper, I finally turned toward my door. As I reached for the knob, the door swung open.

Jase appeared, blocking the door. A curious look crossed his expression. “What are you doing standing in the hallway of your apartment building like a loser?”

“What are you doing in my apartment like a freak?”

He shrugged. “I was hanging out with Ollie, but he ran to Sheetz to get some nachos.”

“Ah, a nachos night.” Which meant Ollie would be up all night. I shifted my weight. “Are you going to let me in?”

“Well, since it is your place.” He cocked his head to the side, casting half of his swarthy face into a shadow. “I guess so.”

Jase stepped aside, allowing me to squeeze past him. I went straight to the fridge, grabbed a beer and then dropped onto the couch. “You’re not at the farm?”

He shook his head as he joined me, picking up a bottle from the coffee table. “No. Jack is with the grandparents.”

“Ah . . .” That explained it. Jase was usually at his family farm on the weekends.

Jase glanced at me. “Sooo, you were out with the redhead?”

“Shortcake?”

His dark brows slipped out of the wave of hair and knitted. “Huh?”

“Avery’s the redhead. And no. We were doing an astronomy assignment. We’re partners.”

“Oh.” He took a swig of his beer and made a face. “Sooo,” he said again, and I rolled my eyes. “Why were you staring at her apartment door?”

“How do you know?”

“I watched you through the peephole.”

“Nice.” I laughed, taking a drink. A couple of minutes passed and then I said, “I asked her out.”

Jase didn’t look that interested. “Okay.”

“She turned me down.”

His head swung toward me, his dove-gray eyes sparkling with interest. “What?”

“Yep.” I fell back into the couch, grinning. “Turned me down flat.”

Leaning onto the arm of the couch, Jase laughed so hard I think he hurt his stomach. “I like this girl.”

“So do I,” I said, sighing. “So do I.”

Seven

Fresh banana-nut bread cooled on the counter, filling the apartment with its savory scent.

I glanced at the clock on the stove. Five till eight.

Shoving my hands through my damp hair, I gave up on the idea of actually sleeping. In the living room, Ollie was passed out on the floor snoring, and the last time I’d checked my bedroom, Jase was sprawled across the foot of my bed. And there was no way in hell any part of my skin or clothes were touching any part of Ollie’s bed.

It wasn’t so much that Jase and Ollie had kept me awake. At any point during the never-ending night, I could’ve locked myself in my bedroom, but my mind wouldn’t shut down. Some of it had to do with the meeting on Friday and how Dr. Bale had laid everything out. I couldn’t stop thinking about how Jase was going to make things work, because after Ollie had passed out and Jase was more drunk than an entire frat, he started talking, and well, I didn’t know how to help him.

And I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl a few doors down.

Shortcake had turned me down.

I grinned, thinking of how I was going to turn that no into a yes.

Pivoting around, I reached for the fridge and came to a stop. Was that it? The challenge? From the moment I met Avery, she was running from me, and females ran toward me.

But what I said to her last night about why I wanted to go out on a date was true. Avery did interest me. She wasn’t like the girls I hung out with—the well put together, coy and flirtatious ones. Not that anything was wrong with them, but Avery was different. She made me laugh. Maybe not on purpose, but I loved watching her flush over the simplest things, and when she smiled?

Shortcake shone brighter than any chick I knew.

Perhaps it was all that, combined with the challenge. I really didn’t know, and at that moment, as I opened the fridge and grabbed some eggs, I really didn’t care.

I liked her.

And I wasn’t sleeping anytime soon, so why should the object of my current restlessness be sleeping in on a Sunday morning?

The moment the idea sprung to mind, I didn’t even think twice. Shortcake probably wasn’t going to be happy with the plan, but no one—not even her—could resist my banana-nut bread.

Gathering up my items, I strolled toward the front door. There, I heard Ollie mumble, “No tomatoes. Extra bacon.”

“What the?” I looked over my shoulder at him. He was still on his stomach, his check plastered to a throw pillow my mom had given me, dead to the world. “Freak,” I muttered, slipping out of the apartment.

At Avery’s door, I knocked softly at first, not wanting to wake the neighbors, but when a full minute passed and I hadn’t heard footsteps, I knocked hard and kept knocking.

After what felt like an eternity of me banging on her door like the police and turning around to make sure I didn’t have anyone seconds away from shooting my ass, I finally heard footsteps and then the door swung open.

“Is everything okay?” she asked in what was possibly the sexiest voice I’d ever heard.

I spun back to the door, getting an eyeful of a bedraggled Avery.

Coppery hair hung in loose tangles, flowing down her shoulders and grazing the golden skin of her arms. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her in a short-sleeve shirt before. My gaze, all on its own, traveled sideways and stopped, devouring the way the thin shirt she wore stretched across the swell of her breasts. With a will I didn’t know I possessed, I forced my eyes to her flushed face.

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