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Do it for Deedy.

I smile, clenching my teeth as I stomp back up the hill.

Her nipples are happy to see me through her thin shirt and bra. She tugs the shirt away from her chest, cringing a bit.

“Chilly?” I scoop her up in my arms.

“Shut up.”

“Careful. This taxi runs on gratitude. I’d hate to drop you. Your other sandal could fall to the same fate as its buddy.”

“A gentleman would never embarrass a lady in distress.”

“I’ve heard fairy tales about these mythical creatures you refer to as gentlemen, but I’m not sure I’ve met any. Have you?”

“Yes.” She sighs, glancing away even though our faces are just inches apart.

“Wherever did you find one?”

“In … well …” Her face wrinkles as her lips twist. “They exist. It’s just all the good ones have already been taken.”

“Let me know if you spot one on our trip.” I set her on her shoed foot.

“Watch my hair.” She gathers it gently in her hand as I release her.

I duck into the tent. “Yeah, about your hair. Let me grab some apple cider vinegar to rinse your hair before you get in the tent.

“Let me in so I can get out of the rain. I don’t need a stupid vinegar rinse.” She nudges my backside as I sift through one of my bags.

“It’s barely a drizzle. Besides, we need to shed our clothes before we get everything wet.”

“I’m not shedding anything for you.”

“Then you’re not getting in my tent.” I slip back out, holding a bottle of apple cider vinegar.

“Just let me in so I can change into dry clothes, then I’ll face the corner while you do the same.”

“Sure. But not until we clean the mud and grass from your backside and rinse your hair with this.” I shake the bottle.

“Dude! What’s your deal with the apple cider vinegar? I hate the smell of it. There’s no way you’re putting that in my hair.” She crosses her arms over her chest.

Too bad. The most pleasant part of her is her perky nipples. I like to pretend they’re attached to a body that’s not so fake.

“You’ve been obsessed with your hair, checking your scalp every time there’s a mirror in front of you or with the camera to your phone. And you’ve been scratching it a lot.”

She pats a gentle hand over her hair. Brows drawn tightly, eyes averted to the ground. “So? I just need a shower with softened water and a good conditioning treatment.”

I shake my head, holding the bottle in her line of vision. “It’s going to take more than softened water and conditioner to get rid of lice.”

“Lice?” Her head snaps up.

“I don’t want them. You’ve already been in close proximity to me. I’m going to do a rinse too just to make sure I don’t get them too.”

Her jaw falls open. “I do not have lice, you presumptuous, arrogant, insensitive jerk!”

“No?” I cock my head. “Bad psoriasis?”

“No! Oh my god! Why do you hate me so much?”

I start to list the reasons but stop myself before actual words escape.

“Can you show a little compassion instead of speaking every cruel word that comes to mind? Not all truths in life need a voice.”

I frown. “I’m not trying to be mean. I’m simply trying to prevent the spread of lice.”

Her light blue eyes meet my gaze, cheeks streaked in dark eye makeup, questionably infectious hair matted to her face. “I don’t have lice. My issue isn’t contagious, and if you have a single sympathetic bone in your body, then you’ll not say anything else about my hair.”

After inspecting her as if I don’t trust her, because I don’t, I set the bottle down and pick her back up.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking you down to the creek to get the mud and grass washed off.”

For once, she says nothing until I ease her onto a large rock sticking out of the edge of the water. “Thank you,” she whispers.

I nod once.

Avery slips off her single sandal, stares at it, up at me, and back at her sandal. “What’s happened to my life?” she mumbles, pitching the sandal down the creek.

It’s littering, but I don’t mention it. This moment has a more significant purpose. Princess Avery Montgomery has been knocked down a few pegs because she caught a ride with a guy who doesn’t bow to anyone, instead of the never-before-seen “gentleman” with expert lassoing skills.

“It’s not your life. It’s a moment in time. The only thing defining you at this moment is your decision to throw in the towel or come back fighting. You have an injured hand. It will heal. Some guy apparently did wrong by you, he was clearly not worth your time.”

“You sound a bit hardened to life.” She eases her body down into the water that only reaches a few inches above her knees. “Jeez, it’s cold.”

As she washes her legs, I splash water onto her back.

“Cold!” She straightens like a board.

I grin. “It’s not that cold.”

Avery smiles for a split second before her eyes narrow into revenge. “It’s not that cold,” she mimics while plowing her hands through the water to splash me. “It’s cold, isn’t it, Mr. Tough Guy?”

“Don’t start something you can’t handle, Princess.”

“Enough with the princess!” She whips more water in my direction.

“Last warning.” I take a step toward her.

Stumbling back, she continues to splash me. “Last warning,” she mimics again.

A rush of adrenaline fills my veins. Avery, pampered princess, likes to play out of her league.

“Stop! Help!”

I flip her over my shoulder and haul her taunting ass a few yards down into deeper water, just above my waist. “No one can hear your pleas. Should have thought about that before you poked the bear.”

“Jake!” She pounds my back.

I heave her into the water. She goes under for a few seconds while finding her feet.

“Not cool!” She gasps, wiping her eyes.

I cant my head. “Hmm … not yet.”

“Not yet, wha—no!” She cries to the wild as I sweep her up again and drop her into the water.

This is fun—a sentiment I never imagined having on this road trip.

“You’re going to drown me, you big bully!”

I cant my head again. “Better.”

“Don’t—” She jerks back as I reach for her face. When she realizes I’m not going to pick her up, she pauses, letting me rub my thumbs under her eyes to remove the last few streaks of black eye makeup.

“Much better.” I wink. “I’m not sure why you feel the need to put so much shit on this face of yours. It’s …”

Her hands rest on my wrists. “It’s what?”

“It’s a…” I weigh my words “…a decent face all on its own.”

“Decent?” Her eyes widen.

“Decent.” I grin. “Let’s go.”

“Jake, no!”

I flip her over my shoulder again. “Chill. I’m just carrying you back to the tent.” This day has been something. I’m not sure how to describe it. I’ve wanted to wrap my hands around her neck and strangle the diva out of her, but I can also say it’s been awhile since I’ve smiled like I just did in the creek with her.

She steadies herself with my biceps as I set her on her feet.

“Strip before you go in the tent.”

Those big eyes inspect me again. I turn around. “I’ll give you ten seconds before I turn back around, so you’d better get out of those wet clothes and get your naked ass in the tent. One …”

“Jeez, did you never learn to count past ten?”

“Two …”

“I’m stripping, but it’s not easy when I’m soaking wet.”

“Three …”

She dives into the tent by seven. I glance back at the pile of her clothes, including her pink panties and matching bra.

“Behave,” I whisper to myself. “Can you dress as quickly as you strip? I don’t mean to offend you, but you’re good at stripping.”

“Shut it. And don’t you dare come in here yet. You have to let me decide what I’m going to wear before you count to ten like a big boy.”

“You’re playing with fire.”

“Can you just pretend to have manners for a few minutes?”

“Sixty seconds is my manner limit.”

“Done!” She peeks out of the tent wearing more pink—short shorts and a tank top—and a ridiculous grin.

I start to shrug off my wet shirt.

“Oh jeepers …” She hides back inside the tent. “Things I don’t need to see.”

I smirk to myself.

“I’m ready when you are,” she calls.

“Ready for what?”

“You to come inside.”

I unzip the flap the rest of the way.

“I can’t see you.”

Just when I’m certain things can’t get any crazier, they do. She’s perched in the corner in lotus pose on her sleeping bag with a pink satin sleep mask over her eyes.

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