“Yeah. Me too.” My mind danced with something I wasn’t sure I should tell him, but I knew he needed to hear it. “There weren’t any drugs”—I shifted my weight from one leg to the other—“in his system. Ryan drove the car into the tree fully aware of what he was doing.”

“It wasn’t my fault?” he breathed out, resting his hands on top of his hair.

I shook my head back and forth.

A strained smile plastered on his face and he started to turn around. I saw one single tear roll down his cheek as he jammed his hands in his jeans pockets. I knew he didn’t mean for me to hear his next comment. He was speaking to himself, but I did overhear.

“I’ll get clean. I really will this time…” As lightly as the wind blew, his last words left his lips and floated away toward the clouds. “I just wanted back into the band. Maybe he’ll let me back in.”

If there were a heaven, I hoped Jace’s words flew toward its path.

And if there were a God, I hoped he was listening.

Chapter 33

Goodbyes hurt most when they’re one-sided.

~ Romeo’s Quest

It had been a long day.

At the cemetery, I stood next to Ryan’s mom, who was breaking down. Henry held her left hand, and I took her right. I knew she didn’t know me other than my being the guy who’d taught her son, but she squeezed my hand back.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

My eyes moved back to Ashlyn, who had her arms wrapped around Hailey. She gave me a weak smile, and I frowned.

What if I was ruining her life by loving her? What if, somehow, I was putting her in danger? Jace was dangerous, and the people he dealt were even more of a risk.

I knew it was a stupid thought, but death was becoming too common in my life. I wasn’t sure how much more I could handle. Especially if something happened to Ashlyn.

Did Jace give Ryan those drugs? Would Ryan have been alive if I’d turned down the offer of letting them stay the night? He would’ve been alive right now if I weren’t dating my student.

Guilt was treacherous.

And it was filling my head with all the reasons why I shouldn’t love Ashlyn.

I hadn’t seen Ashlyn in four days. It was the longest we’d ever gone without seeing one another. I’d been sitting in my Jeep parked outside the library for the past fifteen minutes. The sky was drunk on blackness, and snow was falling at a steady pace. Under the street lights, I saw her walking toward me, a large paper bag in her arms.

She’d told Henry she would be spending the night at a friend’s house, promising to check in with him every hour. Which meant I had her for at least fifteen hours. The way the lights lit her up and the snow danced against her face made me think why someday everything would work out.

Because I needed it to work out with Ashlyn Jennings. After she graduated this coming June, I would love her out loud—the way she deserved to be loved. We would deal with college when college came, but not a day before.

Yeah, guilt was harsh, but hope was just as powerful a weapon.

She opened the passenger’s door and climbed in, setting the bag in her lap.

“What do ya got there?” I asked.

Her head shook back and forth. “Kiss first, questions later.”

I leaned in, held my mouth against hers, and smirked as her tongue escaped and she ran it against my bottom lip. “What’s in the bag?” I repeated.

“My treasure chest with the letters from Gabby. And Jack, Jose, and Morgan,” she replied. “We’re getting drunk tonight and opening letters.”

Laughing at her response, I rolled my eyes. “No, really. What’s in the bag?” She arched an eyebrow and tilted it toward me. A shitload of alcohol and letters. “I don’t think tonight is the right night for this, sweets.” Her eyelids were so heavy from lack of sleep. “Plus, you don’t drink.”

She smiled. “No, I don’t.” Her hand slipped into the bag and she pulled out a letter. “But number eight requires it.”

“Ashlyn…” I warned, not wanting her to drown herself in alcohol. She hadn’t really dealt with Ryan’s death yet, and I feared that one day she would just snap.

“Daniel. Fun. Remember that? Let’s just have fun tonight, okay?”

I breathed out and nodded. “Okay.” I narrowed my eyes and leaned in her direction. “Come here.”

She inched her body closer to me. My eyes fell to her lips. I placed my hand on her lower back, pulling her closer. She exhaled as I ran my finger slowly around her top lip and slowly around her bottom lip. She parted her mouth and slowly licked my finger before she sucked on it gently. My hand cupped around the back of her neck and I pulled my mouth to hers.

We stared into one another’s eyes, my heart pounding against my chest. “I love you.”

“I love you,” she breathed against me, sending the words into my entire being. Her back arched against my touch, and I tugged on her bottom lip. She sighed, repeating herself. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

When we pulled up to the lake house, I saw that the living room lights were on. Then I saw two women walking back and forth in their bras. Shit. I glanced over to Ashlyn, who of course had noticed the bodies, too. Her face turned to me with a smirk.

“There are naked women in your house.”

I sighed when I saw a shirtless Randy come into view through the window. My fingers rubbed against my forehead. “There are indeed naked women in my house.”

She had a smart-ass smile glued to her face. “Is this a…normal thing that happens at Mr. Daniels’s house?”