The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 15

“How’s Kat doing with driving?” my dad asks as I walk toward the construction, which looks more like a house now. He’s barely let me get two feet from the Altima. I’m not even fucking awake yet.

With a scratchy voice resembling his, I blearily answer, “Good.”

“You got in kind of late. Are you having Kat drive at night yet?”

“Early evening. Not night.”

“Is she getting better?”

“Yep.”

“Is she reading a manual, too?”

“Yep.”

“Make sure she knows how to put air in a tire and change a flat.”

Doubtful, I laugh. “Whose dad are you?”

His lips push flat together and adjusting his tie, he says, “I’m only checking to see if you’re covering the bases.”

“Got ’em.”

You’re going slow with her, right?” Painfully. In all ways possible.

“Yep.”

“Do you hang out with her after driving?”

I stop walking. “Truthfully, I make her park on the side of the road so we can have sex. You know, as a form of reimbursement for services rendered. Last night was particularly super-hot. I think we wore a hole in the upholstery. I sure hope Grandma doesn’t mind the burn marks and the flat tire.” Jesus.

“Okay, Jared. I was just asking what you two were doing besides driving.” Propping his hands on his hips in his authoritative dad stance, he sighs. “Are you and Kat friends?”

“No. I can’t stand her.” I bite the inside of my cheek, so I don’t laugh at the irritated look on his face. Pushing up on the bill of my cap, I start to walk again. Dad walks with me, and I ask, “Why’re you here? Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

“I had a meeting downtown, and I wanted to stop by.”

“To check up on me?”

“No.” Lie. “I hope you are nice to Kat.”

When I stop again, a sour expression covers my face as Dad turns around to see me not moving. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

He sweeps a hand through his graying, brown hair. “I see how you treat… certain people.”

“She’s not certain people.”

“I know you joke about it but are you… dating… Kat?” Not up for discussion.

I cross my arms. “Dating Kat? No. I just have her drive to places where we can have sex.”

He sighs heavier than last time. “I’m serious.”

“I’m not?”

“So, you don’t have any feelings for her?” My joking attitude drops like the blade of a guillotine.

Scowling at him in disbelief, I take a step back. “Fu—What? Really, Dad? Why does everybody need to analyze my feelings for her because we’re spending time together in a car? We’re friends. That’s not unheard of.”

“She’s a nice young lady, Jared. Brenda said Kat has had a hard time since her accident. Don’t give her more of a hard time.”

“I’m not making her push the car home.”

His condescending frown returns. “I’m not joking. I don’t want you breaking her heart. I know you say you’re just friends, but does she know that? I think Kat is hoping for more.” What the fuck?

“How do you know that?”

Dad shrugs. “I can see it. Her mom sees it.”

“And I’m just too stupid?”

“You’re not. I just think you need to take a step back to see it.”

“If Dash didn’t read it in an astrological forecast, then it’s not true.”

He ignores my comment, as usual. “You don’t want to ask her out?”

I laugh at his tenacity but then become further annoyed. “Come on, Dad! I’m not talking about this with you!”

His arms lift from his hips. “You know you can tell me anything.”

“Not really. You’ll only compare me to Hadley.”

My dad looks completely baffled by that accusation. “No, I won’t. I love you both.”

“Just not the same.”

“Jared, my love for each of you is unique to fit the individuals you are, but the amount is equal.”

Not wanting to argue about that subject here, I go to walk again, but he grabs my arm. “Please take what I said about Kat seriously. I don’t want you hurting her.”

I shake off his hand as I laugh because it’s not even funny. “Not only that but because your assistant’s feelings are more important than mine, right?”

“No!” He shakes his head and lowers his voice like he’s revealing KFC’s secret recipe. “That’s not what I’m saying. You’re leaving in a little over a month. Don’t bait her and run. I’ve been through that, and it still hurts.” Now, he’s comparing me to my mother? Fuck, no.

Grinding my teeth, I seethe, “I’m not doing that to Kat.”

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t give it a try, but don’t romance her and then cut her loose right before you leave.”

“I don’t even know what romance her means.”

He shoves his hands into his pockets and bows his head. “Don’t make her fall in love with you and then dump her, Jared.” If only.

“Like I have that kind of influence. It’s not my fault what she does.”

Dad lifts his head, and his tone becomes accusatory. “And right there is what I’m talking about. You never let your emotions get involved, and you’re never responsible for anyone else’s feelings. You plow through life without feeling at all.” Does he think I’m a fucking robot, too?

“I’m not an android.” I put my hands on my hips and check around us for eavesdroppers before looking back at him. “Why’re we having this conversation? Here?”

“Because I’ve noticed that ever since you started talking to Kat, there’s something different with you, underneath the contempt.”

My head falls back, and I growl in frustration. Looking him in the eye again, I say, “I don’t know how many times I have to tell people this, but I’m the same person I’ve always been. Maybe everyone else realizes they’re the ones with the problem. And I don’t know what you see, but Kat and I are friends. Don’t read any more into it.”

“You won’t be in Annapolis much longer. I just want you to be careful with her.”

“I am. And for your information, no. I’m not having sex with her, so you can run back to Brenda and tell her that, too.”

“Jared, these were my concerns.”

“You can stop with your concerns. I’m helping her with driving. She works the steering wheel, not my dick.”

“Jared Beckett, that’s enough.” Still only two names. Damn it. I thought that was a good attempt at a trifecta.

I laugh at his exasperation. “That’s me.”

Suddenly, I’m smacked on the back. “Hey, Mr. Beckett! Jericho!”

Dad slaps on a smile, making an effort with his greeting. “Dashiell.”

“Calder,” I blandly say as I busy myself ruffling my hair before spinning my bill to the back.

My dad sighs. “Well, boys. Have fun, and stay out of trouble.” He glances at me, definitely meaning, Keep your inhuman hands off my assistant’s daughter.

Turning with one last warning look, Dad heads to his truck. Yeah, he wasn’t checking up on me.

Dash asks, “Ready for tomorrow?”

Since my dad’s debriefing is over, I peer around for Kat. “You know it.”

“The Jacuzzi is waiting for me!” Dash fist pumps the air, and I roll my eyes at his grinning face.

“Don’t let Rio and his caretaker in there alone together. It’ll need drained and scrubbed again. With bleach. Twice.”

Dash flicks his head, stray strands of his blond hair shaking against his forehead. “Oh, Jericho. They’ll behave.”

“I swear to God if I hear them fucking, I’m throwing all of you into the ocean or setting some beds on fire.”

Looking as if he just sucked a lemon, he says, “Saying that where a house burned down. Nice one.” I inhale and covertly look around. I wouldn’t have wanted Kat to hear that. Anyone else, whatever.

I lower my voice and warn, “It’s still a fact, so make sure there are extra fire extinguishers.” I’d at least have the decency to remove the mattresses from the house before I torched them.

“Rio’s bed is against the far wall in his room. We won’t hear anything from our rooms.”

From behind me, Kat asks, “Hear what?” Not awkward.

Dash laughs as he digs out a purple sucker from his pocket. “Rio having sex.”

Kat laughs with him. “What the hell did I just walk into?”

Popping the sucker into his mouth, he muddles, “You don’t want to know.”

Kat’s wavy, purple hair is bunched on top of her head, and she’s wearing another one of her thin tank tops, showcasing her perfect tits. Instantly, I think what it would feel like for her nipples to harden beneath my fingers, and on my tongue.

“Jared?”

My gaze flies to her face. “What?”

Kat smiles at me. “What were you thinking about?”

Removing the sucker, Dash retorts, “You don’t want to know that, either.” He snickers, so I shoot him an ominous look, making his stupid grin hit the road.

Looking at Kat, I nod to the street. “Ready?”

Her glowing brown eyes shine back at me. “Yes.”

As we head to the car, Dash shouts, “Have fun frolicking at the park, Jericho! Take pretty pictures!”

I yell over my shoulder, “Fun, like cleaning up scorched mattresses?”

“Hilarious!”

I ask her, “How’s he know where we’re going?”

“I mentioned it to him. Sorry.”

I shrug as I notice the basket she’s carrying. “What’s that?”

“A basket.”

“I never would’ve deduced that. What’s in it?”

She laughs. “Lunch and snacks.”

“We’ll be at the park that long?”

“You never know. We could be there all day.”

I narrow my eyes with a scowl. “Nice try. You’re driving later.”

I open the passenger door for Kat and take the basket from her, putting it on the floor of the back seat. When I’m behind the wheel, she asks, “Do I still not want to hear what that was about with Dash?”

Starting the car, I shrug. “Just setting some ground rules for this weekend, like promising that if I hear Rio fucking during our trip, there will be consequences.”

“Liberty’s going?”

As I pull onto the street, I mutter, “Regrettably.”

“Go easy on her. You like to rouse her.”

Stopping at the intersection, I turn to look at Kat, batting my eyelashes. “Me? I don’t rouse anyone.”

She employs a dubious crook of an eyebrow. “That’s false.”

Being a quiet, residential street, and we’re at a stop sign, holding onto the wheel, I lean over to her. “Really, Kat Merrick? Do I rouse you?” I smirk at her suddenly wide eyes, but her perfume and lips tease me, and I have to restrain myself from licking her neck. Fuck me. My razzing skills need work.

“Somewhat.” She turns her head, but I see her smile in the window’s reflection, and with every ounce of will I have, I sit back and make the right turn, smiling as I glance out my side window.

When I drive into the park and stop at the gate, Kat speedily reaches over me, handing the employee the park fee. As much as I relish her scent in my face, her arm brushing against my chest, and her hand on my thigh to balance herself, I’m baffled.

She returns to her seat, and I pull forward, asking, “What the hell was that for?”

“It’s my treat today, so get over it. Park at the Dogwood Pavilion.”

Parking and getting out of the car, she heads for the trail, walking ahead of me, and I have to jog to catch up to her. “What’s the hurry, Kit Kat?”

Kat keeps up the pace, and I soon match hers. She peers over at me and smiles. “No hurry. Just excited to be somewhere other than an unconstructed house or in a car.” I remember the comment she made yesterday about being stuck in a car, and I make a face. Quickly, she adds, “I’m glad to be here with you.”

I shrug. “You don’t have to say that. Let’s just do what you wanted to do here because you still need to practice today.”

Her eyebrows dive. “You know how to ruin a good mood.”

“Such a raving endorsement.”

“I’ll always endorse you, but I’d like to keep you to myself.” She bumps my arm with hers and laughs. She’s killing me.

“For what?”

Kat doesn’t answer me as she walks faster, seemingly with a renewed purpose, and I pick up my pace slightly but not to outrun her. When we reach Harness Creek, she spins around and orders, “Stay here.”

Before I can question her, she goes to the boat rentals stand. What the hell is she doing?

As Kat talks to the male park employee, I stare at her ass, imagining rubbing my impatient cock against it before bending her over, and at long last, drill into her. All these years and I still can’t stop fantasizing about being everywhere on her body, bringing each other to places I know I’ve never been before.

I could make a move.

For what? I can’t. The threat of rejection still looms as she rejected me in school. Also, there’s the possibility I won’t be able to keep it to fucking her just once. Maybe twice—three times, with oral for each of us. That’s it.

Goddamn it to hell.

“You still with me?”

“What?” Twitching from being yanked out of my exhaustive deliberation, I uneasily scratch my jaw and peer at the ground.

“You’ve been doing a lot of daydreaming lately. You okay?” When I look at her, Kat’s eyes and smile are bright and anticipative. “I wouldn’t want you to zone out on me totally.”

Sighing, I give her my full attention. “I’m here. What did you just do?”

“We’re going on a paddleboat.”

I cringe and probably pout. “Damn it, Kat. Not those things.”

“What’s wrong, Jericho? Scared?”

I scoff, “They’re kind of lame.”

“Lame? Have you ever been on one with me?”

When I can’t refute that, she grins and follows the guy carrying two life jackets to the dark green boats. I adjust my hat, so it’s facing the front again. “Fine, but only if you’re in the driver’s seat.”

“You can steer the boat from either seat.”

“You have to sit on the left while you steer us. Deal-breaker.”

She shrugs as she takes the lifejacket and puts it on. “If you say so.”

After we’re suited up in our ridiculous, puffy vests, and we get into the boat, Kat backs us out of the dock.

“Nicely done, Kit Kat.”

She laughingly frowns. “It’s a paddleboat.”

“The technique is similar to backing out of a parking space. You still have to watch what you’re doing and not run into something.”

Still doubtful, Kat scrapes hair out of her face. “I guess so.”

I angle my head at her, watching her fingers move over her skin. “I know so.”

We leisurely pedal, taking in the scenery and observing only a few other insane paddle-boaters out this early on a weekday.

Kat slows her pedaling. “Is the beach house actually on the beach?”

“It’s in a beachy, subdivision-type area across the street, but you can see the ocean from all the front windows. It’s a short walk and not a busy street to cross.”

“What will you all do on this trip?”

I shrug. “This and that. We’ll fish, sit around a bonfire in the backyard—talking shit about each other—watch fireworks on the beach, and if it rains, watch movies. That’s about it.”

As I shift the bill of my cap, she asks, “No dick measuring?”

Holding onto my hat, I swing my head to her, shocked she just suggested that. “Uh, what?”

Her lips gather to the side, and her eyes study the surprise on my face. “You guys haven’t whipped them out to see who has the longest?”

“I… um…” I clear my throat with a laugh. “Shit. No, but Dash would be at a serious disadvantage. I wouldn’t want to ruin his vacation or his life.” What a lie about Calder. It’s not even fair.

She leans on my arm. “I knew you were nice, deep down.” I encircle my left wrist with my right hand to fight the urge to put my arm around her. I’m again fighting the need to touch her in some way.

Not nice. I just don’t want to hear him crying about his small dick. What a vacation that would be.” I’m sadly jealous of the fucker.

Kat laughs and letting go of the silver steering bar, she smacks my arm. “Speaking of a stick, do you miss driving your car?”

Holding onto the front of my jacket, I laugh. “Yeah, but it’s okay. I’m liking the Altima.”

Kat giggles. “Because it’s a hot car?”

Smiling, I shake my head and watch her feet pedaling but don’t elaborate. The less I say, the better.

I change the subject to something that’ll make her talk. “Blue contacts?” She flinches and fidgets with the folded hem of her jean shorts on her left leg.

“Because brown is lame.”

“I said paddleboats are lame, not your eyes.” Uh… Shit.

And those brown eyes of hers pop open, making me stare, knowing I shouldn’t. “You like my eyes?”

I lift my hat, pushing my hand into my hair as I uneasily laugh. “You’d look scary without them. True story.” Nice recovery, Beckett.

“I could always wear those glasses with the springing eyes.”

My laugh is sincere this time. “I guess you could, but I’d refuse to drive you anywhere, freak.”

She shoves me again, and it’s harder than I had anticipated. I grab onto the side of my seat, laughing harder. “You’re going to push me into the water, Kit Kat!”

“I know,” she quips with a giggle.

Sitting up, I tease, “Save that shit for Dash. He’s used to it.”

Kat halfheartedly laughs. “I guess I changed my eyes when I had my nose redone. The accident broke it, but even though it was fixed, there was still a bump, and it looked crooked.”

“I never noticed.”

“I did.” She takes a loud, deep breath. “Since you asked me if I dated Adam—not your dad—I think it’s fair for me to ask.”

I’m not sure what she’s alluding to, so I’m cautious. “Okay… By the way, Adam is also my middle name.”

Her stressed look dissipates. “You’re named after your dad?”

“Unfortunately.”

“That’s cool. Mine is Elyse.” I knew that…

“I like it.” Katriona Elyse. My favorite name.

“Um, that girl who wore your jersey your senior year… Were you dating her?”

Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck.

I stare at my hands in my lap. “I don’t really remember her.” Her voice clearly says she doesn’t believe me. “Come on, Jared. You don’t remember a girlfriend?”

I pretend to contemplate it, still avoiding the glare I know she’s giving me. “Uh, Amie?”

“Was that her name? She was a pretty brunette.”

I go for a limited version of the truth. “She wasn’t my girlfriend.” That’s the most I’ll tell her. Kat doesn’t need to know Amie was a setup.

“She wasn’t?”

When she sounds upset, it piques my curiosity, so I look at her. “No. Just friends.”

“Why’d you give her your jersey?”

I pretend to swat at a fly, unable to look at her when I go for the lie. “She asked me if she could wear it, so I let her wear it.”

Above the sound of the water whooshing beneath the boat as we—mostly me—pedal, I hear Kat swallow.

“You asked me to wear your jersey, but you never gave it to me. Why?” What’s with the questioning today? Goddamn.

I shrug, studying my hands again. “I don’t know. I didn’t think you were serious about wanting to wear it.”

I was the one who thought you weren’t serious.”

“You didn’t seem that excited when I asked you.”

“You must’ve had a pocket full of girlfriends.”

“If I did, they certainly weren’t doing their job. I would’ve had a smile all damn day.”

“You know what I mean.” She laughs, and I realize we’re not pedaling anymore.

“No. I didn’t have many girlfriends in high school.”

“Why?”

“Got bored.”

When she doesn’t respond with a smartass remark or facial expression, I touch her arm, and she faintly moves it against my fingers before I drop my hand. The small touch has a big impact on my ability to speak, but I manage. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sort of shocked. I thought you and that girl were dating.”

“Why’s it matter?” Please tell me you wanted me as much as I wanted you.

“It matters because I feel stupid now.”

“I didn’t know it was a big deal to you.” Say it is.

Kat looks at her watch. “Our hour is up. We’d better take this back in.”

“Are you mad at me?”

She can’t even look at me when she answers, “Why would I be mad at you?”

“You tell me because it seems like you want to push me into the creek.”

We pedal in silence, and when we’re almost to the dock, Kat says, “Jared, I think we need each other. I want us to be close.” Holy hell.

I lick my lips and quietly clear my throat, hoping my voice doesn’t crack. “Close? How?” Fuck-me close? Because I really need that.

“We need to be able to talk to each other without secrets. Do you think you’re up for that?” I’m up for a lot of things with you. “I want our friendship to be better than it obviously was in high school.”

“Yeah. I get it. Me, too.”

As we dock, I swiftly hoist myself up on the pier, secure the boat to the dock, and then offer my hand to Kat. The feel of her hand in mine is still tremendous, and I don’t want to let go, but if I don’t, she’ll see through the fissures in my resolve.

When I pull Kat up on the dock next to me, she squeezes my hand and smiles. I respond with a quick smile, and before I blurt out something else or get a fucking hard-on, I let go of her hand. Her smile abruptly becomes reserved, and she looks down. As I untie my vest, I ask, “What?”

She shakes her head, but I hear her sigh as she works on her jacket.

After turning in our vests, she asks, “Hungry?”

I nod, and she wraps both arms around my arm, leading me on the path back to the parking lot.

I need to fuck her. It’s that simple, but then again, it isn’t.

We grab the basket from the car and proceed to walk to the nearest picnic area, but on our way, Kat pulls me off the trail to cross the white-railed footbridge to a large gazebo. “What’re we doing?”

“I thought we could sit on the grass here.” Still holding onto my arm, Kat tows me over the bridge to a patch of grass near the gazebo. She takes the basket from me, unpacks a light blue blanket, and hands it to me.

“What’s this for?”

She nods behind her with a slight smile. “So you can sleep on the gazebo steps. Use it as a pillow.”

“I guess it was a dumb question,” I mutter as I open the blanket and spread it on the grass. Kat takes her phone out of her pocket and gently tosses it onto the edge of the blanket, and we sit.

Pulling sandwiches out of the basket, Kat hands me one and then twists away, searching. She then hands me a water. “And I brought potato chips, too.” She opens the bag and puts it in between us. “I love being here.”

I grab a handful of chips. “I’ve never been to this part.”

“Never?”

“Why would I want to come to a damn gazebo?”

She laughs as her purple and brown hair shakes with her head. “It’s so peaceful and pretty.”

I tease, “Words that are foreign to me.”

Laughing, she looks up at the sky and then shifts to lie on her back.

Swallowing my last mouthful of chips, I ask, “What are you doing?”

“Watching the clouds. You should try it. It’s relaxing.” I can’t relax when I’m with Kat.

Moving the bag of chips, I lie next to her. As I fold my hands behind my head like she is, I accidentally elbow her arm. “Sorry.” I laugh, and she elbows me back but leaves her arm against mine.

“I doubt it.”

Looking up at the sky and then to her, I whisper, “What’re we looking for, exactly?” I try to concentrate on her answer, but I can’t stop staring at the side of her face, her lips, her eyelashes, or her nose.

Christ. I’m fucking losing it.

“Shapes.”

I blink as I register her answer and then peer up to the sky. “Um, I see a cloud shape. What do I win?”

“An eyeroll and one less friend on Facebook.”

“I’m not on Facebook, so I guess I lucked out on that one.”

“You don’t post a bunch of needless pictures or mundane statuses?”

“I leave that all to Dash to do for me, whether I like it or not. He may have opened an account in my name. I wouldn’t put that shit past him.”

“I see a horse!”

I pivot my head to look around us. “Here?”

She laughs and kicks my foot with hers. “In the clouds, Jericho. Look over there. A heart!”

“I see nothing.”

“I think it has my name on it.”

“That’s some cloud talent.”

I cross my legs at my ankles as she says, “You know, we probably should have each other’s phone numbers in case we need to change driving times.” Her phone number. I still remember the anxiety about having it but not using it.

Scratching my jaw, I mumble, “Yeah. You’re right.”

“But if I give you my number, will you call me this time?” Shit. How can I be fucked so many times in one day without even having sex?

I uneasily yank on my bill, hiding my eyes more. “Uh…” Fuck.

Kat looks over at me, but I keep my gaze upward. Mostly. “No excuses?”

“We were going through an Amish trial period?”

“Jared.”

I blow a sigh above me. “To tell you the truth, I was…” Still unable to face her, I quietly admit, “Nervous.”

“You were?”

I nod but don’t offer anything more. Jesus Christ. I’m a loser, and she’s finally figuring it out.

“You really did want to ask me out?”

Again, I nod heavenward, yet don’t look at her, appalled that I have no control whatsoever of what I’m revealing to her.

Hearing Kat giggle, I automatically turn my head to see why. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“I thought you said no hiding anything.”

“I’m not. Where’s my phone?”

I angle my head left and right, seeing it on the blanket to the right of me. “It’s over here.”

“Can you give it to me, please?”

I settle my head back into my hands. “Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Not until you tell me what you’re laughing about.”

“I said it was nothing. Just hand me my phone. Pretty please?”

“Come and get it.” I pick the phone up, waving it out of her reach. “Here, kitty, kitty.”

“Jared Beckett!” No trifecta from her, either. Kat dives onto my body, reaching for her phone, which I’ve all but forgotten. I’m too busy staring at her tits near my face, tempting me. I could easily reach up to slide my fingers into the side of her tank top or raise my head to lick her nipple through her shirt.

This is another red-alert situation if I don’t want her to notice my adamant hard-on, which is rapidly becoming fully displayed in my nylon Bermudas.

Kat sits up more, stretching to reach it that way. Desperate to distract both of us, I lightly toss her phone into the grass. “Hey!”

I’d laugh, but instead, I’m freaking out. If Kat saw what she’s doing to me, besides her possibly getting upset, it could make things beyond awkward for us, and she could give up trying to get her license.

As Kat moves to stand, I impulsively grab her by the hips and twist her, and before I realize what I’m doing, she’s straddled over my abdomen. Fuck. Fuck. Not a good move. At. All. Counterproductive as hell.

She nearly looks as panicked as I feel. “Wh-what are you doing?”

I force a grin as I imagine what she’d look like riding me, and though we’re in a public place, we’re physically so close that screwing could become a reality if I took her hand and reached it behind her. It doesn’t help that Kat won’t sit motionless on me. She’s shifting and squirming, which only fuels my imagination of her gliding up and down my long-suffering cock.

Fuck…

The look on her face is undeterminable. I close my eyes, and only the sunlight can be seen behind my eyelids. I concentrate on that to somehow cool me off.

When I crack my eyes open, she’s staring at me. So, we end up staring at each other as she continues to shift her hips on me, close to rubbing my frustrated dick with her ass, driving me past insanity and close to me pleading for us to fuck in the open at a park. I’d have a great time explaining that one to anyone I’d have to call to bail us out of jail.

Unthinkingly, I raise my hand to brush the hair that fell over her eye, my fingers slowly trailing over her cheek, feeling the rush of tingles spreading throughout my entire body. Her lips part, and with my curled fingers resting on her cheek, I move my hand to the back of her head and instinctively tilt mine, but I hesitate to urge her closer.

Kat whispers, “Jared.” She shifts again, the inside of her thigh grazing my shaft, and like a shot, I sit us up. My hands go to the back of her legs, lifting her off before she unknowingly dry humps me. Setting her on the blanket, I pull my legs up, crossing my arms over them.

Kat regards me with gloomy suspicion. “What’s wrong?”

Clearing my throat and checking my watch, I say, “We need to get you behind the wheel soon.” When I look up, her confusion is now a perceptive smile, which unsettles me. “What?”

“Let’s check out the gazebo for a minute.”

“Go ahead. I’ll be over after I check my email.” Shit. I yank my phone from my pocket to go along with my excuse.

She sighs. “Okay.”

As Kat walks to the gazebo, I watch her. What the fuck just happened? I’m a grown man, and I’m having performance anxiety about damn kissing.

After a few minutes, it’s safe for me to stand. When I go up the stairs and into the gazebo, I see Kat walking across the benches lining the perimeter. She reaches the end of the bench at the gazebo entrance and promptly turns around to retrace her steps. “You ever seen The Sound of Music?”

“Once or twice. Another unfortunate fact.”

Kat grins and tucks hair behind her ear as she hops to the next bench. “I love that movie!” She stops walking to look at me. “I’m Liesl, and you’re Rolfe!”

“Who?”

“The messenger who danced with Liesl in the gazebo during a rainstorm?”

“Yeah. I guess. I believe my dad used that movie as a punishment when I was grounded for something, so I really didn’t pay attention.”

“Not even funny.”

“Not even joking.”

Kat holds out her hand and beckons me with her index finger. “What?”

She laughs. “Come here.”

When I approach her, she holds out her hand. I take it, and she pulls me along with her as she returns to walking the benches. Halfway to the other side, she stops and turns to peer down at me. “I’ve had such a great time with you.”

“Me, too.” Those two small words say too damn much for me.

Kat stoops and puts her hands on my shoulders, bringing our faces close together once more. Vowing not to lose it this time, I inhale a steady breath.

Smiling, she wistfully looks around us. “I want to get married here someday.”

“Oh.” Even though I know I’ll never get married, the thought of Kat marrying someone else pillages me. Yes, she was married before, but I didn’t know about it or had to watch her marry him.

“You’d come to my wedding, wouldn’t you?” Seriously?

“Why would you want me there?”

“We’re friends. So, you’d be there for me?”

I bite the inside of my cheek as I nod. “I would.”

Kat smiles. “I’d love that. Maybe I’ll even name my first baby boy after you.”

I wince. “What?”

Clutching my shoulders, she broadens her smile. “You wouldn’t like that?”

I irritably roll my eyes. “Kat, come on.”

“You don’t have to name your son after me.” She laughs, but I don’t find this conversation entertaining at all.

“I’m not having kids.”

Her smile falls, and she oddly looks disappointed, which makes no sense. She just told me she’s going to have a baby with a man she’s never met.

I restlessly say, “Let’s go so you can drive.”

She sighs, suddenly perturbed. “Can I not do that today? How about you take me back to my apartment, so I can change? We can grab takeout and sit outside one of the runways at the airport to watch planes take off and land.” I can’t be totally alone with her. In the dark. Without an audience hovering nearby. I have absolutely no willpower left.

“Kat, you’ve got to practice.”

“I will. When you get back from your trip. I promise.”

She pulls me closer, sticking out her bottom lip, and I can’t resist her plea. “Fine.”

Kat squeezes my shoulders. “Can you help me down?”

“Here.” I put my hands on her hips and pick her up, stepping away from the bench to set her on the ground.

When I let go of her, she grabs my wrists. “Jared, when—” Voices and stomping interrupt her, and we both look to see people encroaching on us. Kat heaves a sigh. “Let’s get out of here.”

Packing up the blanket and the rest of our shit, we make it to the parking lot in record time. Not because I’m rushing her, but because she seems to be in a hurry to leave. She had wanted to stay here all day.

As we head to her apartment, Kat’s phone vibrates, and when she looks at the screen, she loudly groans, “Shit!”

I instantly look at her. “What?”

“My dad is at my apartment, waiting for me on my porch.” I’m suddenly irritated by that, even though I shouldn’t be. I’m trying not to fuck her… yet. Maybe if I wait until I’m close to moving. However, what my dad said about romancing her and then leaving enters my mind.

She’s currently looking for her second husband. After I move, the next time I hear from her could be from a fucking wedding invitation. Though I can’t live with the what-ifs anymore when she’s right here in front of me again.

I glare at the road. “Why is he there?”

“He brought pizza. He wanted to surprise me. You can come in and eat with us.” Not what I had in mind.

My knuckles ache as I clutch the wheel. “No. It’s cool. Thanks, though.”

Pulling alongside the one-car driveway behind her dad’s Range Rover, she says, “I’ll let him in. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” She jumps out of the car and tears up her stairs.

Holy fuck. I’m more than ready to consummate our friendship, not caring about the aftermath anymore.

“Did you miss me?”

I jump as she slides back into the car, but I smile. “I did.” Her perfume grabs me by the nuts, and I squeeze tighter through the pain in my knuckles.

She drops her gaze and falters, “Jared, I need to tell you something. I don’t know if you’ll laugh at me or say you don’t care.”

“I would never laugh at you or say that.”

She quietly says, “In high school, I liked you.”

I lick my suddenly dry lips and tentatively admit, “I liked you, too.”

She shakes her head at the console before peering up at me. “No. I mean, I had a massive crush on you.”

“Uh… What?”

Taking my blank expression as a negative, she recants, “Shit. I don’t know why I just told you that. You must think I’m… I’ve wanted you to know that for years.”

She reaches for the door handle, but I grab her arm faster, making her freeze. “You can’t drop a bomb on me like that and leave. Kat, I had no idea you liked me.” She gave me no signs that she liked me while I was throwing myself at her.

“Not past tense.”

What the hell? I hear my dad’s self-righteousness.

“I… I… I’m…” I’m a fucking clueless idiot.

She gives me a side-glance as I stare at her in astonishment. “Did you like me, even a little?”

I swallow and hoarsely whisper, “Kat…”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.”

“It was more than a little.” Fuck. There’s no turning back now.

Kat swings her head to me, her eyes widen, and she inhales a cutting breath. I’m not the only one who was clueless?

She shifts toward me. “I have another confession to make. We’ve been going out on dates.”

I’m confused. “What?”

“Don’t you realize we’ve spent every day this week together, all day? Talking, driving, eating, laughing. Did you hate spending so much time with me?”

That renders me speechless, but I’m aware that we’ve unconsciously leaned closer to each other. My heart hammers in my chest as if I’m a grade-school kid getting his first kiss. Christ. This isn’t my first kiss, but it’s with Kat, and I honestly want to kiss her. Shit. I need to do more than kiss her.

Our noses touch, and I’m done for. When I lick my lips and slowly inhale to calm myself, it only serves to rattle me more. I know Kat is waiting for me to kiss her, so I can’t fuck this up by freezing again. I faintly angle my head to the left, but my apprehension refuses to let me close my eyes or allow me to even look at her.

Our collective breathing heats the small space between our mouths, and I can taste her, causing my entire body to throb for the real thing. My wheels are squealing pavement, and I’m going nowhere.

As I spin through my inner chaos, Kat’s hand sneaks to the back of my head. Her fingers digging under my cap, she flings it off my head and brushes through my hair. My breaths become faster and shorter, and I noisily swallow. I’m derailing right in front of her. This is my worst fucking nightmare come true.

Before I crash and burn at her feet, I vaguely see Kat’s lips slide into a gentle smile, and she whispers, “Like this.” She slowly leans in, and for the first time, our lips meet. Initially, I’m stunned. The feel of her lips is nothing like I thought it would be. I’m irreversibly hooked.

When she pulls away, she whispers, “Thank you for letting me do that. Have a safe trip.”

Suddenly, my apprehension is gone. I need more.

Kat gives me a sweet smile and turns to open the door. Without any forethought, I grab her arm and jerk her back to me. “Huh-uh. You can’t kiss me like that and then leave.”

Her smile is shaky, and she blinks fast before dropping her gaze to the console. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… I thought—”

“Like this.” I reach up, putting my hand on the side of her head, and I guide her back to my mouth. As I hold her to me and my lips take on a hungry rhythm, she whimpers. This is the hottest thing I’ve ever done, which says a lot about every one of my experiences. I never kissed any of my girlfriends this way. I was only present.

I already can’t get enough of Kat, which I knew I fucking wouldn’t. So, this is all my fault again with her. When her lips part, I go for more by plunging my tongue into her mouth, feeling her gasp into our kiss. I eagerly lick her tongue, and her breathing is rushed, making mine quicken with hers.

Now, this is the first time I’ve kissed someone.

Her hand goes to my chest, and I silently beg her to slide it down to grab my dick through my shorts. That would be enough to make me come, without a doubt. I’ve been close all damn day.

Kat moves her hand from my chest, holding my jaw as she removes her lips from mine. As our panting fills the car, her thumb slowly glides across my bottom lip, and I whisper, “I told you I was starting to like this car.” I softly laugh, but Kat appears awestruck.

“Jared, what’s this mean for us?” Her hand falls from my face. “This changes things.”

“It doesn’t have to… much.”

“But it will.” Fuck. Her gaze goes to my lips before her hopeful eyes look into my guarded ones. “Are we… I know you don’t…” She impatiently sighs. “Can we be together now?”

I close my eyes as my head falls back, and I groan, “Fuck. Don’t ruin this. I’ve done the girlfriend thing before.” I look at her disappointed face and frown with her. “Can’t we just…?”

Kat sits back some. Having had too much distance between us for so long, I impulsively lean forward and kiss her neck. When she doesn’t respond, I lick up to her ear, tasting her skin and making me ache for her when she stifles a moan, masking it as clearing her throat.

She whispers, “You want me as a fuck buddy?”

I whisper over her collarbone, “It’s not like that. We’re friends. Let’s just add benefits.”

“Jared…”

Before I can stop myself, I move up to her ear. “I want you, Kit Kat. Not just present tense.” I fucking laid my cards out on the table I promised myself I never would. Fucking stupid, but it is what it is now.

“Jared.” I return my mouth to her neck. “My dad is in my apartment.”

“I’ll fuck you in the back seat.”

“It’s still daylight.”

“I don’t care.”

“I have neighbors.”

“You have a garage. Is there a chair in there?” She shakes her head against mine. “Isn’t your mom at work? You have a key. Don’t you?”

“Jared, stop. I don’t want a quickie with you.” She moves away, breathing hard. “Sex. That’s all you want from me?”

It’s like she slapped me across the fucking face. Sex is all I can have from her.

“Kat, I already told you my deal. Plus, I am moving to Philly when you go back to work.”

“You’ve never heard of long-distance relationships?”

I return her scowl. “Relationships don’t work or last.”

“But you’ve had girlfriends.” Looking out the windshield to her dad’s car, I idly shrug. “So, you don’t even want to give us a try?”

“I don’t want it to get complicated.” I swipe a hand over my face. “Kat, be realistic. I’m trying to avoid a bad situation.”

“Oh. Being with me would be a bad situation?”

“I did not mean it that way.”

“What do you mean? Is this your idea of a trade for helping me get my license?”

“Jesus, no! This has nothing to do with me helping you! I’ll help you, no matter what!”

“You would just rather do it if I’m putting out.”

Bowing my head, I shake it. “I never fucking said that.” Reaching behind me, I pick up my hat, putting it on my head backward. “Kat, you wanted us to be closer. Isn’t this a chance for us to do that? Maybe not the way you were thinking, but…” I swallow and leaning to her, I gingerly whisper, “Don’t you want me?” Jesus Christ. I just bared my soul to her.

Without giving me another look, Kat shakes her head and grabs the door handle. “Have a good trip.” She swiftly gets out of the car, and I watch her storm off until she disappears from my view on the other side of the garage.

What in the fuck?

I fell into a trap. I was lying in the middle of the goddamn road, and she ran over me without even kindly tapping the brakes, and she loves riding those fuckers. Rejection is ruthless the second time around.

I’ve been trying to avoid a bad situation, but I just fucking slammed into one.

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