“Just leave it, Ellie. I’m going to wear it home in the morning.”

He watched me with confusion and then surprise when I slipped it over my head and padded over to the bed, climbing in next to him. He wrapped both arms around me, burying his nose in my hair, and sighed.

“You’re half naked, wearing my shirt. This isn’t exactly fair.”

I reached into my nightstand, and then turned to face him, staring into his eyes while I peeled open the package in my hand. “We can still be friends,” I said, reaching down, sliding my hand between the towel and his skin. He immediately hardened in my hand.

“I don’t know how to do this,” Tyler breathed, leaning in to graze his lips across mine while I slipped the latex over his skin. “This in-between shit, Ellie. I don’t think I can. You’re either mine, or you’re not.”

He planted his mouth on mine, kissing me hard and deep.

“We don’t have to fit into any special box,” I said. He pulled away, looking for more answers in my eyes. “It is what it is. Can’t we just do that?”

Tyler slowly climbed on top of me, scanning my face for half a minute before leaning down to claim me with his mouth.

I tugged on his towel until it slipped away, and it fell somewhere next to the bed.

“You’re right,” he whispered. “This is a bad idea.” He swept the fabric of my Calvins aside, just enough for him to slide inside me.

I took a deep breath and sighed. Tyler felt too good … too safe. I could see in his eyes that he was willing to try me like poison; even after the first taste, we were already wondering how excruciating the end would be.

Tyler seemed to be in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood, chomping on his pancakes and smiling at everyone who passed by our table at Winona’s, waving with his fork.

I’d woken up in his arms, his nose pressed against my neck. Once he began to stir, I half expected our night together to end in this awkward walk of shame, not sweet kisses and cuddles while he schooled me on doing a load of laundry. He’d loved removing his shirt from my body to drop it in the machine. He’d taken a lot longer to do that than he had chucking in his pants, underwear, and socks.

We’d barely gotten through the first cycle before he lifted me on top of the machine and settled between my legs, reminding me why I’d woken up so wonderfully sore.

In spring fresh clothes, he’d held my hand out to the truck and opened the door for me at Winona’s. Now he was looking down at his nearly empty plate, grinning like a fool.

He looked up at me, trying to subdue the smirk on his face and failing. “I wasn’t laughing.”

“No. I was just wondering what you were think—”

“You,” he said immediately. “The same thing I’ve been thinking about since the night we met.”

I pressed my lips together, trying to keep them from curving upward. His good mood was contagious, making it easy to forget what Sterling had said on my front steps the night before, and the worry that he was right.

Finley hadn’t called or texted in twenty-four hours. Maybe Sterling was right. Maybe she did know.

Tyler’s phone chirped, and he held it to his ear. “Hey, dickhead,” he said. His expression changed as he listened, at first concentrating on whatever was being said. Then his eyebrows bounced once. He glanced up at me for half a second, and then looked down, blinking.

“But he’s okay,” Tyler said, listening again. “He … he what? No they didn’t. Are you fucking serious? Wow … Yeah, no. I won’t. Who might come here? What kind of questions? About Trav? What do you mean? Oh. Oh, fuck. Do you think it’ll work? All right. Yeah. Yeah, I’ll tell Taylor. I said I’ll tell him. I get it. We’ll circle the wagons. Love you, too, Trent.”

He put down the phone and shook his head.

“Uh … yeah. I think so,” he said, lost in thought. “He just got married.”

“Yeah … Abby is … she’s amazing. He’s crazy in love with her. I’m just surprised. They’ve been split up.”

“They’re like that. I guess there was a fire at the college where I graduated. It’s in my hometown.”

“It was pretty bad. Broke out in a basement, and a lot of people were trapped.”

“Uh … that college is sort of known for underground floating fight rings.”

“It’s kind of like a betting ring. Two guys are set up to fight. No one knows where until an hour before. The coordinator calls the fighters, their guys call ten people, then they call five, on and on.”

He shrugged. “Then they fight. People bet. It’s a shit ton of money.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

“I started it. Taylor and me with the coordinator, Adam.”

The look in Tyler’s eyes when I’d bet on him at my house the first night we met now made sense. “So was Travis there?”

Tyler’s expression fell, and he looked at me for several seconds before answering. “He eloped to Vegas.”

“Yeah,” Tyler said, rubbing the back of his neck. “More OJ?”

“No, I’m good. We should probably head in.”

Tyler paid the check, and then held my hand to the truck like it was the most natural thing in the world. When he dropped me off at the MountainEar, the air between us felt heavy and awkward. It was that should we or shouldn’t we kiss moment and what does it mean if we do?

“Hang on a sec,” Tyler said, reaching for me. He slid his fingers between mine, and then lifted my hand to his lips.

“Thanks for staying with me last night,” I said.

“I’m glad I was there to run off your uninvited guest.”

He took my phone, tapping in numbers and then letters. “If he bothers you again,” Tyler said, the crease between his brows deepening. “Call me. But just … you know … call me, anyway.”

I stepped out of the truck and waved to him as he pulled away. He bumped up the volume on his radio, and I could hear the bass thumping until he turned onto the highway toward the hotshot dorms.

The door chimed as I walked in to the office. “Morning,” I said, waving to Jojo on my way to my desk.

Not only was Wick’s door was closed, but a stunning bouquet of butter-yellow and vivid violet roses reached out from a simple glass vase. I circled my desk, crossing one arm across my waist, touching my lips with my fingers, trying not to let my entire face erupt into a smile. Flowers, romance, and theatrics were last on my list of things I wanted from Tyler, but I sat down, soaking in how absolutely giddy it made me.

Jojo poked her head in the doorway. “Who are they from?”