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“No shit,” Andrea muttered under her breath, and I was sure Corie hadn’t heard her.

Tanner pressed his lips together as he suddenly became invested in the food on his plate.

“Yeah, I’m home for a little while.” Kyler dropped his arm along the back of the seat behind me. “Then we’re heading back to school.”

If “we’re” was a hidden code for something, no one got it, especially not Corie. She tossed pretty blonde waves over her shoulder, and then crossed her arms. Even my eyes went straight to her cleavage. “I’m on break, too, from Shepherd, until the fifteenth of January. We should get together.”

It was like I wasn’t even sitting there.

“I don’t know about that,” Kyler replied diplomatically. “I’m going to be real busy, but it was good seeing you, okay?”

Corie blinked, and her lips formed a perfect O. I was doing the same thing. I couldn’t even think of a time that Kyler had shot down a pretty girl. Granted, it could be because I was sitting right there, and given our newly acquired history, he was being a little more discreet than normal.

My gaze caught Andrea’s and she had this biggest cat-ate-every-canary-in-the-cage grin, and I couldn’t help the smirk that graced my lips.

“Well, call me. I’ll make time for you, if you make time for me.” Corie smiled, but it lacked the confidence of earlier. “See you around.”

Kyler nodded.

After Corie bounced off somewhere, silence descended on the table and the smirk slipped away from my lips. Unease turned the food in my stomach and I wished I hadn’t eaten what I had. Tanner was still studying his food like he was going to be tested on it. Andrea was remarkably quiet, which meant the apocalypse had started, and Kyler was staring off in the distance, a muscle working in his jaw. I don’t know exactly what made it all sink in then, but I suddenly realized, like really understood, that what had happened between us affected every aspect of our lives.

Even our friends.

Because right now, Tanner and Andrea were most likely experiencing a mad case of secondhand embarrassment, or they just didn’t know how to handle the situation. Maybe they felt bad for me, or they felt awkward on behalf of Kyler. They were probably waiting to see how I’d react, if I’d get mad or jealous or run off in tears.

Even if Kyler and I got past this and moved on as friends, our friends would always be uncomfortable. The weight of that knowledge settled on my shoulders and I slumped down, wanting nothing more than to go home and crawl into bed.

The truth, no matter what Andrea said or I wanted to believe, was that Kyler wasn’t the kind of guy who was into commitments. And if he wanted to be with me, he would’ve called or done something after I left. Anything other than drinking himself into a stupor, and of course he probably wanted to salvage our friendship. He was…he was a good guy like that.

Andrea smiled at me, and she seemed to sense how far my mood had plummeted. “You ready to get out of here?”

Ignoring Kyler’s sharp look, I nodded. I don’t think at that moment there was anything I wanted more than to get the hell out of there.

Chapter 23


The girls made a quick exit, leaving Tanner and me to our own devices. He ordered a beer, and if I weren’t driving, I would’ve ordered an entire bottle of Jim Beam.

“That went brilliantly,” I said, rubbing my temples.

Tanner snickered. “I didn’t think it went that bad. Well, when Blondie showed up, that was about ten kinds of awkward, but…”

“That was just awkward?” I couldn’t believe that Corie had popped by our table. Syd and I seemed to be getting somewhere and then BAM, a blast from the past. Perfect fucking timing. “I’m sure Syd enjoyed that.”

He took a swig of his beer. “Buddy, you need to tell me what happened between you two, because a week ago, Sydney probably would’ve been irked about that, but she wouldn’t have cared that much. So stop with the bullshit and tell me what happened.”

I arched a brow at him.

Tanner winked. “Or I’ll get the girl version from Andrea, in which you will come across as a giant ass. Tell me your side of the story.”

“I am a giant ass.”

He tipped his chin down. “Do tell.”

The last thing I wanted to be doing was talking female problems with Tanner, but shit, I could tell by the way Andrea acted, she knew. He’d find out sooner or later. So I told him the bare basics. No way in hell was I going to go into detail, not about Syd, because that was just wrong. When I finished, I really didn’t feel any better. Sort of just confirmed how much of an ass I’d been this entire time—years of being the King of Assdom.

Tanner sat back, shaking his head slowly. “I think I need another beer to digest all of that.”

“Shit. You and me both.” I ran a hand through my hair. “So yeah, I fucked up. Royally.”

“Well, people have fucked up more than you have, bro. Trust me on that.” He leaned forward, expression serious. “The shit with Zach is fucking terrible, but you didn’t know that stuff was going to happen. Sydney’s a reasonable girl. She’ll get over that.”

“I don’t think I can get over that.” I paused, staring at the table. “The fucker hurt her because of what I did in my past. If it wasn’t for me, she never would’ve gone through that.”

“But you didn’t do that to her.”

“Is there really a difference?”

“Yes,” Tanner said adamantly. “It’s not a huge difference. You did create the situation, but you didn’t force that fucker to do anything. That’s not on you, bro. It’s not.”

I got what he was saying, but it would take a lot to absolve me of that guilt.

“And that’s not the big issue,” Tanner said, eyeing me. “Did you lie to her about Sasha?”

“Shit.” I raised my hands. “I really don’t know. I mean, when Syd asked me about her, it was before anything went down between us. I didn’t think Syd really thought of me any different. All I said was that Sasha and I weren’t like that. And we’re not. We hooked up once over a year ago. I just wasn’t thinking when I said it to Syd.”

“Hmm, technicalities are a bitch.” Tanner finished off his beer, eyes narrowed. “Did you really think Sydney didn’t have it bad for you?”

“No. I didn’t. I couldn’t think that, because if…”

“If she didn’t, then it would ruin your friendship. I get that, but damn, that girl…you must’ve been rocking some serious denial.” He shrugged. “Makes sense, though—you secretly wanting her and shit.”

“It does?”

Tanner laughed. “Yeah, man, you didn’t like it if a guy even looked in her direction. Hell, if I looked at her too long, you’d get pissed. And when you went after Nate? That’s some pretty hardcore ‘friendship’ right there.”

“Shut up,” I growled.

He smirked. “So what are you going to do? Be a pussy, or fix this?”

“Excuse me?” I shook my head. “Dude, you’re lucky I like you.”

“You’re lucky I don’t bullshit around.” He winked as he pulled the sleeve of his sweater down, covering one of the intricate tattoos etched into his arm. “Look. I’m being serious. You love this girl, right?”

For once in my life, I didn’t hesitate. “Yes. I love her, Tanner.” Holy shit, that was the first time I’d said it out loud. It shook me up and my voice was thick. “I love her more than anything.”

“Then what’s the deal?”

I stared at him. “I’m pretty sure I listed all the problems.”

“You listed a bunch of unfortunate shit is what you did. Nothing not fixable. It isn’t like you did something unforgivable. It’s not like one of you two is dead.”

I didn’t know what to say at first. “Damn…” And that was all I could say.

Tanner sighed. “A lot of people would kill to have the chance to be with the one they love. Don’t mess it up.”

He never really talked about his past, and other than the weirdness between him and Andrea, he didn’t really talk to girls. Slipping in and out of their beds? That was more up Tanner’s alley. “What about you?” I asked.

“Me?” He laughed again. “I am allergic to that shit. Love? Nope. All I’ve seen that do is tear people down and fuck up lives. I don’t want any part of that.”

My brows shot up in surprise. “Whoa. That’s…that’s positive.”

“Whatever. We aren’t talking about me and we aren’t going to, so get that look off your face.”

I raised my hands. “Message received.”

Tanner cocked his head to the side and gave a tight smile. “Anyway, all I’m saying is, why are you still sitting here talking to me?”

Staring at him a moment, I shrugged. “Who else is going to drive your grumpy ass home?”


Changing into my pajama bottoms, I tugged a long, thick cardigan on over my tank top as I padded downstairs in my slippers. Feeling incredibly mommy-needy, I was disappointed to find her already passed out on the couch next to Dad, the multicolored lights from the Christmas tree flashing over their forms. I resisted the urge to wiggle between them and demand attention.

I headed into the kitchen and grabbed the box of cocoa out of the cabinet. Once done, I took my chocolate goodness upstairs and set it on my nightstand to cool down. I pulled my hair up into a messy bun as I shuffled over to the bookcase. What I needed was to lose myself in a good book—one with tons of sex and angst, complete with an unbelievable happily-ever-after that made me love and hate the book at the same time.

As my gaze traveled over the spines, some straight and others warped, my brain wandered right into annoying territory. It had a name—Kyler. God. I didn’t want to think about him. I didn’t want to think about how he’d looked at me when I’d left with Andrea, like I’d hurt his feelings or something.

Pulling out an old favorite, I headed back to my bed and plopped down. I dropped the book on the bedspread and picked up my hot cocoa, wishing I’d had the foresight to grab some of those tiny marshmallows.

I tried getting into the book, but I found myself reading the same paragraph two or three times and still having no idea what I was reading. Flopping onto my back, I placed my arms over my face and groaned. I wanted to cry, to scream, to rage, and to shove my head under a pillow.

In a weird way, it felt like a year had passed since I’d left for Snowshoe. So much had changed in such a short span of time. Had it really only been last week that I’d briefly considered seeing if Paul was interested in me? Was it only a week since my heart had been slightly bruised but completely whole? Now I couldn’t even think about going out with anyone.

And my heart was utterly demolished.

What was I supposed to do from here? Try to pretend like nothing happened? That wasn’t going to work. Avoid him? That would be so hard, almost impossible to consider. I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears. How could I avoid him when he was such an intricate part of my life?