The Fill-in Boyfriend

Chapter 36

The pile of balls I’d found littered the tall weeds by my feet. I’d found more than a couple. It took me about thirty minutes, but I’d collected at least twenty. I held one in my hand, poised to throw it at the Camaro. A memory of sitting in that car with Hayden came to my mind and I almost dropped the ball. Then another memory surged to the front to stomp it out, Bec’s words from that same day: “Did you use the ‘climb over me into the car’ move on her?” she’d said. He’d done that with another girl. Probably Eve.

I pulled my arm back and threw the ball with all my might. It hit the door with a loud clank then bounced off and rolled across the ground. The ding it left in the rusted door was hardly noticeable and only heightened my need to do damage. Real damage. I picked up another ball and hurled it. Then another.

Soon it wasn’t just Hayden I was trying to crush but Jules and my parents, Drew and myself. I reached down for another ball and felt nothing but dirt. I had thrown them all. My heart rate was high and my cheeks were wet with sweat and maybe a few tears.

I started to gather the balls when behind me I heard, “Do you want to throw a few at the actual person those are intended for or is the car satisfying enough?”

I whirled around. Hayden held out his arms like he was really giving me permission to pelt him. It was tempting.

My shoulders rose and fell several times. After the week I’d had, I just wanted to wrap myself up in him and forget what had happened. But I couldn’t. As I stood there staring at Hayden I wondered if he was playing a role right now. The calm and collected humble guy. Was he putting up a front for me? Because he didn’t look like the mess Bec claimed he was. I threw the baseball I held after all. Not hard and it didn’t even hit him but it almost did.

His eyes went wide with surprise.

“So you weren’t really offering me a target?”

He gave a small laugh. “I didn’t think you’d take me up on it.”

I picked up another ball and threw it up in the air twice before I tossed it back to the dirt. He scooped up a ball by his foot and walked to my side then turned to face the car. He brought his arm back to throw and I grabbed his hand, ball and all. “No. Don’t do that. You love this car.”

My all-out effort had amounted to a few dings but I knew he could do some serious damage.

He relaxed his arm and let the ball fall to the ground. My hand still gripped his for two beats before I realized and let go, taking a step back to put some space between us.

“I have trust issues,” he said to the ground.

“After Eve and Ryan, I’m sure you do.”

“I messed up.”

“I know.”

“Do you want me to leave?”

“I haven’t decided what I want yet.”

He raised his eyebrows then went still. Like for the first time since our fight he thought that maybe there was hope for us. “What’s the deciding factor?”

I tried not to smile when I remembered we’d had this conversation before on the way to Eve’s party. But back then we were talking about whether I was going to call Bradley back or not. Whether he was going to get back with Eve or not. “Right now, I guess.”

He nodded slowly. “I can give you lots of reasons why you should probably just walk away.”

“Oh yeah?”

“The first one being that I called you a liar when I’d been lying too.”

“That’s a good reason,” I said.

“Yes. The second one is that I have the world’s worst taste in friends.”

“You seem to.”

“And I’m still not sure what that says about me.”

I wanted to reassure him, but I still hadn’t made any decisions and reassuring him would only make him think I had.

“Plus I like you too much.”

Why did that statement make my heart race?

He clenched and unclenched his fist. “And that scares me because apparently those trust issues I mentioned before extend to not even trusting myself or my feelings and that can only mean I’m going to hurt you. Again. I don’t want to see you cry. It rips my heart out. I’m an idiot and I’m sorry.”

I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to stare at him looking so vulnerable. He was listing reasons not to like him. These weren’t reasons to throw myself into his arms like my entire being seemed to want to do. “Before you,” I started slowly, “I had a plan. I knew what I wanted. I thought I knew myself. I knew how every week of the next four years of my life was going to play out. But now I don’t have the roommate I was supposed to have or the boyfriend or the plan. It’s gone. I don’t know what I want anymore.”

“You don’t know what you want?” His voice was husky.

I opened my eyes expecting to see him staring at me with that smoldering look he had perfected at prom but it wasn’t that look. It was a soft, open look. One that wasn’t an act. I shook my head. “No, I know what I want. I want to go to college, with or without the roommate I always thought I’d have.”

He nodded.

“And I’m going to use my scholarship to study political science and hope that I can make a difference in the world one day.”

He smiled.

I took a step toward him, and when he didn’t step back, I took another. I put my hands on his shoulders. “And I want . . .”

He let out a breath, his entire being seeming to relax. “Don’t do it unless you mean it,” he said, repeating a line I’d used before.

I smiled. “I mean it.” I took his face in my hands and pushed myself to my toes.

Before our lips met he said, “I feel like this is the biggest buildup to a kiss ever. That no matter what I do you’re going to be disappointed.”

I laughed. “Should we play Twenty Questions?”

“How would that work in this situation?”

“I could try to guess your preferences.”

“My preferences in a kiss?”

I nodded, our faces still very close together.

“My preference is simple—you.”

“That was not a yes-or-no answer. You just broke the ru—”

He cut me off by pressing his lips to mine. They were so warm that my whole body seemed to melt against him. He slipped his arms around my waist and pulled me closer, deepening the kiss as he did. My hands found his hair, not needing an excuse to touch him this time, knowing I could do this whenever I wanted.

A shiver went through me and he smiled against my lips. “So, not a disappointment?”

I didn’t answer, just kissed him more.

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