The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 20

I look past Rio and then up and down the boardwalk. “I told you we’d meet you back there.”

He cordially smiles at Kat. “It’s been an hour, Jare.” Shit.

Propping my hands on my hips, I probe, “Where’s the other two?”

He nods back to the way we came. “Sitting on a bench at the pizza place.”

Kat gathers her sunglasses and food. “I’ll meet up with them.”

I edgily sigh as I turn my hat around, yanking on the bill. Rio obnoxiously stares at me, and when Kat disappears into the crowd, I state my case. “I kissed her. So what?”

Rio dubiously laughs. “That was not a casual kiss.”

“How in the hell do you know if I wasn’t licking the ketchup from her mouth?”

“Why are you still trying to hide it?”

“I’m not hiding anything. You were fucking spying on me.”

His hands go into his pockets. “I wasn’t, but would you have rather had Dash or Lib find you and Kat doing that?”

I grumble to the nearby lamppost, “No.” Looking over at him, he smiles, and I roll my eyes. “Don’t make a bigger deal out of this than it is.”

His know-it-all smirk appears. “And maybe you should. It could be beneficial to your psyche.”

“There you go, throwing the psychobabble shit at me.” I squeeze past him and several people, hoping to get some distance, but he catches up to me in seconds.

“That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Are you taking notes, so you know what to tell Dash and your girlfriend?”

He sighs as he keeps up. “I’m not telling them.”

I regard him in mock horror. “Now Rio Duquesne is keeping a secret!”

“It’s not mine, but I don’t think it should be yours, either.”

“You think I should blab to everyone that I kissed her?”

“Not blab. Just don’t hide your relationship.”

“No relationship, Duquesne. We’re just friends.”

Just friends don’t kiss like that, Jare.”

I stop walking, but so does he, causing people to bump into us. “It was only a kiss.”

“That was not your first kiss with her.”

Stepping to the wall again, I sneer, “You don’t know shit.” That’s the truth.

He leans his arm onto the wall. “Kat is good for you.”

I impatiently pace next to him in a short space along the wall while he silently judges me. “You’re more annoying than Dash.”

Rio laughs as he observes me. I know he’s wearing his invisible psych hat. “Jared, come on. It’s me. I know you more than you think you do.”

I shoot him a glare. “You don’t.”

“You’re fighting a battle in your head, but your heart is the real combat zone.”

Halting my marching, I snap, “Jesus Christ, Duquesne. I think working with pussy all day is turning you into one.” A man next to us frowns, and I roll my eyes.

“I’m not blind, but you seem to be. Kat affects you, and you have no idea what to do about it.”

“I kissed her. I felt like doing it, so I do know.”

“What’ll happen when you start moving into your apartment in Philadelphia? That’s less than a month away.”

“I do it? Not sure I needed a plan.”

“This is your dream job, Jare. You’ll need the time to get ready for it. Much larger city than Baltimore. Your skills and concentration will be used more.”

I shrug. “So? I won’t be building the fucking city by myself.”

“It’ll be a whole new experience for you in Philly. You’ll meet new people. Make new friends. You’ll be dating in no time.”

“Dating? I’ve never been into that shit.”

“Why not? You’re starting a new life up there. You can look ahead. It’s a fresh start.”

“What the hell is with you?”

Rio tilts his head. “I’m pointing out that your life is about to change in a few weeks. What about Kat? Are you still helping her finish her driving hours before you leave?”

“Yeah. I promised her I would. I want her to be able to drive to work.”

He nods. “She starts working next month, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“She also has to take a driving course.”

“It’ll all work out. She should get her probationary license right before school starts.”

“Will you see her much after you leave Annapolis?”

“On the weekends.” Shit. Like my sister and Finn.

“You’ll come back to Annapolis just to visit her? Philly is farther than Baltimore. Why would you do that?”

“I come back anyway to go fishing with Dash since you’re always… busy.”

You think I’m always busy. You just don’t seem to bother with me anymore.”

“Like I said, you have other things to do.”

With the wind blowing, his hair is everywhere. “I may have moved to another city, but I didn’t leave you. You can’t say the same.”

“Because you’re not allowed to do shit with me.”

“That’s not true.”

I turn my head, muttering, “Whatever.”

“Yes, I do spend a lot of my time with Lib, but I’m always open to spending time with you, too. I’ve told you that.”

“You’ll just bring her along, and I’ll have to pass.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

Looking back at him, I shout, “You did it for dinner!”

“That was once! I do think you should get to know her better. You’re both important people in my life.”

“Right.”

“How will you feel when you find Kat dating more since she has her license?” What the fuck?

I don’t know what to say to that, but the thought of Kat seeing other men when she said she wouldn’t enrages me. I did ask her not to see anyone else while I’m in town. She didn’t promise anything for when I leave.

Fuck me.

He asks, “Is her ex around? Does she talk to him?”

“He’s gone.” I think he is. I hate thinking about Kat being married before. It makes my skin crawl. Becoming more irritated, I ask, “Why in the hell are you bringing up this shit? Him?”

“Because you and Kat are together now.”

“We’re not together in that way. We talk.” I sigh, and he stares at me, waiting for me to say more. I roll my eyes. “And I fucking kissed her. Lay off.”

“You don’t want her in your life?”

“She is in my life.”

“But not when you leave.”

“I’m not moving to the fucking moon.”

“You were often in the same city as her, but you still haven’t spoken over the years.”

“I thought she moved.” I irritably dig my hand into my hair, lifting my hat. “It’ll be different this time.”

“Why don’t you make sure she stays in your life? Stake your claim before someone else does.”

I sputter a laugh. “My claim? We’re not… I don’t…” I shake my head, hoping he doesn’t see that he’s rattling the truth. “Don’t, Rio.”

I push off the wall, determined to ignore him, but I can’t. He’s on me more than my shirt. “You know she’ll get married again, and this time she’ll have another man’s kids.”

Pushing past people, I clench my fists. “Shut the fuck up, Duquesne.”

He’s relentless. “She’s supposed to have yours?”

“I said shut up.”

“So, you won’t even date her?”

“I told you I don’t do that shit.”

“She’s not yours. Even if you think she is, if you’re not willing to commit to her in some way, you’ll lose her. Kat told me how you met in high school, and how you lost each other, but I don’t know your side of it.”

Stopping, I get in his face. “That’s right. You know nothing. Kat was free then to do whatever the fuck she wanted, just as she is now.” Fuck. No, she’s not. It’ll… It will demolish any heart I do have.

“But you’re not free.”

I glower at him. “Whatever the hell that means.”

He self-righteously grins. “You don’t want any other woman, Jare.”

Turning, I start walking again. “However, I am in the market for new friends.”

“You won’t find any better friends than you have right now. I promise you that.”

Reaching the bench where Dash and Liberty are sitting, I see Kat standing next to it, gazing out at the ocean with her arms wrapped around herself. Even behind her sunglasses, she looks deep in thought. I wish I knew what to say or do for her that’s within my abilities. I’m not smooth like Dash, and I’d most likely fuck up.

Dash and Liberty gawk at me. I doubt Kat told them what we were doing, but it still unnerves me the way they’re eyeballing my every move.

“What’s with you, Calder?”

“I should ask you that. You look guilty. Did you set fire to something?”

Liberty stands and goes up to Rio, pawing him. “Kat and I are off to sit on the beach to find her a man.”

Dash says to Kat, “Now that I think of it, didn’t we make a pact in college that if we didn’t find our soulmates, we’d marry each other? You might as well give in to fate now.” He grins, and I look to the ocean, estimating how far I need to drag him. Unfortunately, too many witnesses.

Kat softly laughs. “I’m sorry, Dash. I can’t marry a Pisces. They’re too complicated.”

“Well, shit.” He glances at me, and his grin widens, and I know whatever he says next will royally piss me off.

Looking back to Kat, he nods to me. “You could always marry Jericho.”

Son of a stripping bitch.

Without looking in my direction, Kat half-smiles and half frowns at Dash. “He’d have to exchange eternal vows with me. He’s not into that.” Eternal. Right. Like she did with her last marriage?

“He’s an Aries. You just have to kick his stubborn ass into gear.”

I shove Dash’s shoulder. “How about I kick your stupid ass off a pier?”

Liberty yips, “You want a man who would do anything for you, Kat, even take a bullet for you. One who would be willing to exchange vows.”

I sneer, “AKA: taking a bullet.”

The bitch shakes her head. “Obviously, you won’t find a man here.”

Shooting up a surprised eyebrow, I dart my gaze to Rio. “Wow. Sorry, Duquesne.”

Liberty huffs, “He’s not single.”

“He’s tethered.”

“Jare…”

Dash says, “I made reservations for dinner at the all-you-can-eat buffet across the street. It’s very casual and an outdoor table so no need to change out of T-shirts and shorts.”

Rio’s warden pulls on Kat’s arm, yelping, “You’re more than welcome to join us, Jerry. Maybe you can weed out the wrong men, being one yourself.”

Rio sighs. “Lib…”

I clench my teeth, and Dash says, “Jericho’s coming with us. I think he needs a breather.”

I wordlessly plead with Kat to not break her promise to me, but without raising her sunglasses, she turns away, heading for the beach.

Dash rubs his hands together. “Let’s play some pool, gentlemen. There’s a bar down the boardwalk.”

Rio puts his hand on Dash’s shoulder. “But you’re so bad at it, Douche.”

Laughing with Rio, Dash nods his blond head toward me like I don’t notice. “Right, but Jericho’s not paying attention, so I think I might have a chance.” When I don’t look away from watching Kat, he adds, “See?”

Rio asks, “You with us, Jare?”

Looking to Rio, I nod before grabbing the back of Calder’s blue shirt. His sickening sweet cologne burns my nose. “I thought I told you to stop marrying off Kat.”

You’re making no effort to marry her! If she doesn’t marry me, she’ll marry a stranger.”

“Why in the fuck would I want her to marry you?” There’s no way he’d marry Kat. He’s too tied up in the unreachable hope of marrying Hadley.

“Jesus, Jericho. I was only kidding, but it is a reality. Some indiscriminate jackass will snatch her up soon.”

“Just keep your damn mouth shut, Dash.”

He throws his hands up as I hold him like a trapped cicada. “Why does it matter to you who she marries if you don’t even believe in it?”

“Because you’re fucking annoying.”

Letting go of his shirt, Dash straightens it out as Rio frowns at me. Disregarding his silent scolding, I watch Kat talking to Rio’s bitch. Is she talking about our so-called first kiss? Our having sex here? My having sex with her while she was drunk? The promise we made to each other?

I’m quiet for the rest of the way to the bar as I contemplate the conversation she could be having. It’s probably best if I keep tabs on Rio’s mouth around Dash. I don’t think he’d tell Dash, but his knowing isn’t my problem. If Rio can’t keep his word to me, then that is my problem.

At the bar, I soon find Dash is right. I’m not paying much attention, still thinking about Kat. Dash could be beating me with his pool cue, and I probably wouldn’t notice.

During my game against Rio, Dash stops to take a piss break and to make a phone call. When we’re alone, Rio puts his hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Jare, talk to me. And before you say there’s nothing wrong, there is. After that, you’ll say you don’t need to talk to anyone. You do.”

I scowl as I bend, priming to take my shot. Keeping my eye focused on the cue ball, I see her face in the reflection of the white ball but, at the same time, feel Rio’s judging stare. Snapping my shot, I send the cue ball and the blue-striped ten rolling, banking them off the side and knocking Rio’s solid red three into the corner pocket.

I hang my head. “Damn it.”

“You’re usually better than this,” he says with a smirk as I straighten.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, okay? Does that satisfy you?”

He thoughtfully twirls his cue as he scrutinizes me, taking a swig of my beer. “Does it have to do with what happened earlier?”

Setting down my beer, I look at the nearby eight ball. “I already told you it wasn’t a big deal.”

“I can tell it is.” He leans down and angles his cue, peering up at me. “Was that the first time you kissed her?” I irritably roll my eyes, and he smugly grins. “Didn’t think so.”

“Just take your fucking shot.”

He successfully sinks his orange five ball in the side pocket. “Do you have feelings for her?”

Scoping my next shot, I warily say, “We all do.”

As I drag the cue ball across the green felt, he sighs. “You know that’s not what I’m asking you.” Looking up from the table, I stare at him, not wanting to hear what he’ll say next, yet I can’t look away or stop him. “Your feelings for her are none that you’ve ever had for a woman before, and it’s scaring you to fucking hell and back.”

Suddenly anxious, I grab the chalk cube. “You’re way off, Duquesne. Kat doesn’t scare me.”

As I chalk the end of my cue stick, he says, “You’re different with her. In the past, you haven’t held women in high regard, and you always refer to them as something disrespectful, childish, or derogatory.”

Focusing on my menial undertaking, I mutter, “You’re on crack.”

“It’s true.”

“What is?” Dash asks, leaning against the table.

Setting down the cube and lightly tossing my cue stick upward and catching it, I say, “Rio thinks you need to be thrown into the ocean again. I wholeheartedly agree.”

Dash shoves his phone into his pocket. “I just texted Liberty and Kat to meet us at the restaurant.”

“Good. This game is a bust,” I say, hanging up my cue.

“Only because Diet Dr. Pussy is whipping your ass.”

“No, because I’m hungry.” Correct on both counts, but neither one is the real reason I want to leave.

We clean up our game, and I finish the last of my beer before we head over, where I order another as soon as we’re seated at the round table with a maroon umbrella. Rio sits on my right while Dash leaves a seat empty between us on the left.

When Liberty slithers to our table and sucks face with Duquesne, I have to turn my head. That’s when I see Kat walking past me to take the seat on the other side of Dash.

Impulsively jumping up, I grab her hand, yanking her to me. Dash puts his foot on the chair between us. “Sorry. You’ll have to sit on Jericho’s lap.” The knowing twinkle in his eyes has me in a goddamn quandary. Do I smack or thank him?

Kat hesitantly looks at me as I sit. Pulling on her hand, I direct her onto my lap, wrapping my arms around her waist. Close to her ear so I can smell her perfume, I say, “Yep. You’ll have to sit here.”

Liberty squawks, “Whoa!”

Kat squirms on my lap, and I wonder if she also imagines me fucking her like this. Christ. Not helpful.

Kat smiles but is still somewhat undecided. I don’t make any effort to let go of her.

Then surprising the fuck out of me, she leans down, giving me a quiet kiss on my lips, yet one that would be fuel for their yammering.

Waiting for the fallout, I look to Dash, who is texting, and then at Liberty, who is digging into her wallet. Even though he’s not looking directly at us, Rio doesn’t hide his smile before taking a drink of his beer. Dick.

Dash says, “By the way, dinner is on me. It’s my gift to Jericho for his new job and kind of like a goodbye dinner.”

“Jesus, Calder. I’ll be back plenty. You won’t even notice I moved.”

He sadly smiles. “I doubt that.” I always keep my word. I didn’t in high school. I vow to change that.

As Kat continues to squirm on me, her hand brushes my leg, only hardening me faster. Feeling the stirring against her ass, Kat moves to the chair next to me, turning to talk to Dash as I shift my chair closer to the table.

We all order the buffet and not being as hungry as I had previously thought, I’m the first to return.

Seconds later, when Kat pulls out her chair and sits down, she whispers, “What did Rio say?”

Looking into her worried brown eyes, I shrug. “He’s cool with it.”

She ruefully smiles, glancing at the patio entry. “I’m sorry that happened.”

“I’m not.”

Her eyes widen. “Now he knows. You didn’t want that.”

“I told you I don’t care what they think.” Angling my head, I kiss her lips without checking to see if we’re being watched, and as I begin to reluctantly pull away, she kisses me again.

Throat clearing again forces our mouths apart. We simultaneously peer to the other side of the table, where Rio says, “Sorry.”

When he takes his seat, he doesn’t say more, but Dash and Liberty soon round the corner laughing about something idiotic, I’m sure.

Sitting down, Liberty yaps, “River, Dash says my horoscope predicts I’ll receive good news next week.”

Sighing and tugging on the bill of my cap, I finally ask, “Can’t you call him Rio? We all do.”

She instantly frowns, waving her fork. “Because it reminds me of Rio Pacheco, and he’s an asshole.”

“Who?”

Kat laughs and lightly pounds her fist on the table. “Oh, my God! Jem and the Holograms!”

Dash says, “I remember that cartoon!”

Liberty nods, screeching, “That douchebag was so stupid! He was always hesitant to fully commit to Jerrica Benton since he was fixated on Jem. He didn’t even realize what he already had and could’ve lost her completely. All in vain, since Jerrica and Jem were the same.” That’s a fucking cartoon? Sounds like a soap opera.

Liberty pointedly glances at me, and I frown in return. What the hell is her problem?

Dash laughs. “Seriously, Liberty! Brilliant!”

“What the hell, Calder? You watched it?”

He grabs his beer. “My mom did. She dressed as Jem for Halloween at the strip club one year.”

“That just ruined my dinner.”

“So, that is why I won’t call him that name. He’s nothing like that jerk. River is the total opposite.”

Rio grins. “Thanks, babe.” He leans over and kisses her, making me roll my eyes. She turned Duquesne into such a pussy.

“It’s a damn cartoon, and his name didn’t come from that.”

She yips, “It also should be noted that River’s BFF’s name is close. Jerrica/Jerry. Coincidence? Weird. So, no thanks.”

“Yeah. Don’t call me Jerry, and there won’t be a problem.”

Dash says, “You know what else is weird? Tom and Jerry. Jerry is the mouse. Tom is the cat.” He waves his finger at us. “Right there. Our own version with Kat and Jared.”

Liberty squeals, “That’s funny!”

Picking up my beer, I glance at Kat, who’s looking down at her food, and then I make a face at Dash. “That’s a stretch and stupid, Calder.” I nod at Rio. “Go back to talking about our resident, pretty boy.”

Rio’s mouth opens mid-chew. “I’m a damn what?”

“Come on, Duquesne. Dash is the charming one, I’m the smart one, and you’re the pretty one.”

Rio incredulously laughs. “You are the smart one, Jare? That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day!”

Cracking his crab, making a mess all over the table, Dash says, “You are the pretty one, Diet Dr. Pussy. Ladies love that hair of yours and the orgasmic blue eyes.”

Rio cringes. “Holy shit. Never call them that again.”

Liberty laughs. “Aww, Dasher.” She turns to Rio with a gross grin. “Your eyes are orgasmic, babe.”

Borrowing my sister’s motto, I grumble, “I’m going to puke.”

Kat sighs and sits back, not eating her food either. I shift my leg closer to her and casually reach for her hand. Taking it, I rest our joined hands on my leg under the table, so it’s not apparent. Kat’s fingers stroke mine as my thumb circles the top of hers. She gazes at me, and I watch her, trying to decipher her expression, but I can’t stare too long, or I’ll draw attention.

Dash says, “I think Jared is pretty, too.”

Looking away from Kat, I glower at Dash. “What the hell?”

He points his crab pliers at me. “Your eyes aren’t orgasmic, though. They’re a moody color, which certain women may find a turn-on. Back me up, Kat.”

Kat gapes at Dash. “Uh…” She then looks at the table, nodding. “Yeah.”

Leaning to her, I teasingly ask, “Really? Do I turn you on?”

With a gleam in her eye, Kat shrugs. “You’re okay, I guess.”

Okay?” Still holding Kat’s hand, I hastily burrow my face into her neck, making her giggle. I try not to linger there or kiss her, but I do graze my lips on her skin before I move away.

Unable to help my smile, I also can’t help staring at Kat’s pretty smile. It’s even more magnetic when it’s because of me.

Liberty shrieks, “Oh, my God! Stop denying it already! You two should be a couple!”

Kat and I both jerk our attention to her at the same time. Feeling my muscles tense, I slowly reply, “We’re just friends. Not dating.”

“Maybe you should rethink that because you look hot together.” As my teeth clamp, she turns to Rio. “Right, babe?”

He warily nods. “Uh, yeah.”

Liberty yelps, “Dasher, come on. Don’t you?”

Dash unapologetically grins as he snaps open a crab. “Volcanic.”

Liberty hits the table with the palm of her hand. “There you go! What are you waiting for, Jared? Ask her out!”

Reigning in my fury, I say, “We spend enough time together driving.”

“You’re seriously not going to date her?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Picking up my beer, I snarl, “River…”

“Lib, stop.”

“Why don’t you want Kat for your girlfriend?”

Pushed past my breaking point, I sneer, “Because maybe I don’t want to be her pussy-whipped bitch like your boyfriend.”

Rio finally snaps to attention. “Jared, come on!”

Kat jerks her hand from mine as if I burned her, and her scorching eyes match the sentiment. I say, “Shit. I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, you did, Jared. You always mean what you say. You just don’t want me to react to it.” She turns to Dash, which angers me even more.

I seethe to Liberty, “Why do you have to purposely get on my nerves?” Hearing Kat’s chair scrape over the cement, I look to see her standing. “Where’re you going?” Ignoring me, she leaves the table, and Liberty jumps up to follow. As I watch Kat leave, swerving in and out of people, I debate whether to follow her.

Rio says, “Where in the hell is your damn filter? Don’t you realize how much you hurt people? This time it wasn’t just Kat. I’m always here for you, Jared. Yet, you couldn’t give a shit. You push people away, and one day they’re not going to come back.” I guess as a toddler, I pushed too much since my mom also got tired of my shit.

“If that were true, you and Dash would’ve been gone years ago.”

“That says a lot, don’t you think?”

Slumping forward, propping my elbows on the table, I sigh. “Look, I know I’m a shitty friend, but I’ve never led you astray of that. I’m just me. I don’t candy-coat shit, and I’d rather not be an open book. It’s not who I am. You both know this, so for you to think I’m not myself, well then, you’re both delusional.”

“Jare, you’ve got to bend some. We’ve adapted for you. That’s what friends do. Nobody stays the same. People grow, mature, and learn from their mistakes. You refuse to do those.”

“Why in the hell haven’t you guys ditched me then? Everyone else does.”

“Not true, Jericho.”

“Jare, we wouldn’t ditch you out of spite. We just can’t keep trying to help you if you don’t want it. There’s give and take in every kind of relationship. You give your advice, your ear, and your time, but you won’t take any of those in return. Some people would be okay with taking all the time, but Dash and I aren’t. We want to be able to return the favor. Staying closed off like you are doesn’t help any of us maintain a friendship.”

The waitress stops at our table, and Dash grabs the bill and says, “I know you think I can’t help you, but I’d like to think I can if you let me.”

Rio nods. “Same here. We know you have a lot of shit going on, but talking to us will help. Don’t shut us out. Utilize Dash and me as your sounding boards, not as your punching bags.”

“Christ, Duquesne. You either have balls of steel or are complete morons to stay friends with me.”

Rio shrugs. “Probably more of the latter.”

Dash tosses his credit card onto the bill folder. “I’ve been using you to buy me beer since we were kids.”

I abruptly smile. “That’s the truth, you baby-faced prick.”

After Dash takes care of the check, he jumps up to go to the restroom. When he’s far enough away from the table, Rio shifts to face me. “Jare, I know you don’t want to hear it, but if you want to keep Kat in your life, you need to have a serious talk with her. If your feelings for her are becoming deeper, you need to do something about it. If they’re not, then you need to let her know that, too. Don’t lead her on.”

I truthfully confess, “I don’t know what I want, Rio.”

“She does. So, decide what you do want because if not, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. For both of you.”

“Let’s hit the road, boys,” Dash says, shoving my arm as he breezes past our table.

I give Rio another heavy glance before I get up and follow Dash.

When we get back to the house, we notice Liberty’s car is gone. Oh, shit. Rio eventually gets a text from Liberty saying they won’t be back until later.

When I go to text Kat, I can’t find her name or number in my phone. The third time I scroll through my contacts, I notice Ball and Chain with an Annapolis area code. That unexpectedly makes me smile, but it’s short-lived. Many reasons come to mind, mainly the labeling thing is nerve-wracking, but also because I may not be able to call her a friend still.

I spend the rest of the day lying on my bed while Dash relaxes in the Jacuzzi. I’d find that funny, but I can’t find it in me to care enough.

Finally, around 8:00, they return, and from upstairs, I hear them talking about heading to the beach to find a spot for fireworks.

I bound down the stairs and immediately receive a grubby look from Liberty, but that’s more than I get from Kat, who won’t acknowledge me at all. I notice her hair is out of her bun and hanging over her shoulder. I want to run my fingers through it, watching the purple ebb and wane.

Liberty and Kat leave first, but we trail close behind to the crowded beach, which makes me wish we would’ve just sat on the front porch.

Kat sits with Rio and Liberty, but Dash sits with me. Jesus. Why didn’t I just stay in my room?

I’m quiet until the middle of the fireworks. Oddly, they seem to mirror the scene in my head. Taking a risk, I lean up and whisper to Kat, “Can I talk to you?”

Without looking away from the sky, she mumbles, “You’ve already said quite a lot, Jared.”

Moving closer to her, turning my hat backward, I prop my bent knee between her and Liberty, which gives me another dirty look from the wench. I serve her one of my own and successfully curb the urge also to flip her off.

Next to Kat’s ear, I smell her pretty perfume. “I’m sorry I said that.”

“But you meant it.”

I sigh. “Not all of it.”

“There wasn’t much to it, so the truth prevails, and you really don’t want to be friends with me.”

Catching another look from Liberty, I indignantly roll my eyes at her and plead with Kat, “Can we please go somewhere else?”

“I’m not your extended one-night stand anymore.”

“What?” She looks back to the sky, leaving me gaping at the back of her head. That’s exactly what I was trying to avoid, a one-night stand.

I lean closer to Kat, most likely drawing attention from the other three. “How can you think that’s what I’ve been doing with you?”

She mutters to the sand, “What are you doing with me?” Besides having the most mind-blowing sex of my life and spending every day with her, I honestly don’t have an answer to that.

As the finale barrels on overhead, I watch her watching the sky above, wishing I had answers to her questions. She still rejected me. That fact remains, and I’m left riddled with doubts about whether I can trust her with not ripping me apart.

On the way back to the house, I walk next to her, but she refuses to acknowledge me, which stings. With the crowd around us and the other three distracted, I grab Kat’s hand, but when she tugs her hand free from mine, the sting is harsher.

Without thinking, I retake her hand, only now, clamping my fingers around her wrist. When she tries to jerk her hand away, she can’t.

She testily asks, “What are you doing?”

“We’re going to talk.”

“You can’t force me to talk to you.”

“Then I’ll do the talking.”

“No, thanks.” Even though she’s arguing with me, she doesn’t make it known to the other three. When Dash stops to unlock the front door, she doesn’t overtly struggle as I grip her wrist.

Upon entering the living room, Dash says, “Okay. What now?”

Plopping down on the couch, Rio says, “I don’t know.”

Liberty yammers about having to check her messages but not before she and Calder get into a fucking movie debate.

Bypassing them, I tow Kat to the stairs, and she hisses, “Jared.” She finally pulls to break from my grasp, but I tighten my grip as I lead us up the stairs.

From below, Dash yells, “Hey, where are you two going?”

Liberty shrieks, “Do you think…?”

Rio says, “Just leave them alone.”

Marching us to my bedroom since it’s the closest, I drag her in and promptly shut the door, locking it.

Releasing her wrist, she lightly rubs it. “Are you kidnapping me?”

Crossing my arms, I shrug. “Call it whatever you want. If it’s the only way I can get you to listen, then yes.” I sigh, scratching my jaw. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“Say something stupid and childish? You did.”

“It just came out in the heat of the moment. She knows how to get to me.”

“She said we’d make a hot couple. That’s horrifying to you?”

“Not horrifying, just unexpected.”

“Oh. I’m not pretty enough?”

Closing my eyes, I groan. “Shit. Again, that’s not what I meant. I can’t fucking win.”

“I’m going downstairs.”

My eyes fly open, and I move with her to block the door. “No, you’re not.”

Kat frowns, and her irritated gaze drills me. “Why not?”

“How could you say I’ve only used you for an extended one-night stand?”

She crosses her arms, looking at the left wall. “That’s what it feels like.”

Tossing my hat onto the chair, I agitatedly ruffle my hair. “Then, you’re not feeling it with the right organ.” Swinging her head to me, her eyes widen. I slowly slide my hands underneath her shirt, brushing my fingers over her stomach. “I would never use you. You’re all I wanted since my junior year.” I lean down and kiss up to her ear.

Kat shakily gasps. “For what? Random sex?”

Shaking my head against her, I whisper, “You’re the only one I wanted to have sex with.”

I lift her shirt, pulling it up and over her head. Tossing it behind me, I untie her bikini top, letting it fall, and I bend to take a nipple into my mouth, lapping until it’s hard, and she’s moaning. I push my hand into her shorts, down into her bikini, and swirl my fingers into her, feeling how wet she is. Kat steps out of her shoes and removes her shorts and bikini bottom as I switch tits.

“How do you do this to me?”

Releasing her nipple, I say, “I could ask you the same thing.”

Taking more of her into my mouth, she whispers, “They’ll wonder what we’re doing up here.”

Kissing up her chest, I mutter, “Screw it. Screw me.”

Her hands go through my hair while I straighten and dive for her lips. When she reaches into my swim trunks to pull out my dick, I groan as her fingers eagerly wrap around it.

She whispers, “Put it inside me, Jared.”

“Fuck, you’re goddamn hot, Kit Kat.” I shove my shorts down and kick them off, along with my shoes. I don’t even care about my T-shirt.

She stops kissing me to ask, “How hot?”

Tugging her to the bed, I sit down and move to the middle, pulling her down onto my lap. Gazing into her brown eyes, I say, “Ride my cock, baby, and I’ll show you.”

Kat kisses me, and we tongue each other as I guide her to straddle me. She slides onto my more-than-willing cock, and she gasps into my chest, “It’s so hard to be quiet.”

“Don’t be, then.” Lifting her, I haul her back down onto me. “Kat. Oh, fuck.”

“Shh.”

I lift her again and then slam her into my lap, so I’m all the way inside her. “Shit. You feel fucking good.”

Kat stutters, “Jared…”

“You’re not riding me, Kitty Kat.” Holding onto my neck, she pushes off me and then glides back. “There you go.”

My hands go to her tits, and my mouth returns to her nipple, lightly biting her, hoping she yells my name, but she stays to a subtle whimper. “Even your tits taste good,” I whisper. Although I don’t care if they hear us, I don’t want them to hear details about her body. They’re only for me to know.

Grabbing her ass, I steer her onto my cock at the perfect speed. She breathlessly says, “You’re all I’ve ever needed, Jared Beckett.”

My hands drive into her loose hair, holding her close to my mouth as she gets us both off. Panting, I whisper, “Kat Merrick, you have no idea what you’ve done to me.” I don’t even know what exactly, but I do know she has roused my soul.

We go faster, and our lips touch, but we don’t kiss. We only huff our heavy breaths over each other, and the sound is electric.

Looking almost scared, she whispers, “Jared, I… Fuck.”

As she narrows, making it harder for me to burrow into her, I whisper, “Come, Kitty Kat. I want it over me.” She moans into my neck as she rocks onto me, tensing. Her muffled shrieks do it for me.

“Fuck! Katriona!” I gutturally growl as I yank her hips into a fast, grating rhythm. “God!” I gasp along with the bed squeaks.

She urgently whispers, “Jared, they’ll hear us!”

“Holy shit! Oh, fuck!” I restlessly and noisily groan, erupting into her, which grips my entire body. My groans echo the room.

Loudly panting and before she can object again, I pull her mouth to mine, ravenously kissing her because all hell is about to break loose.

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