I laugh as she walks away. To be honest, my grandmother is damn entertaining, and every now and then she does something that reminds me of my mom—like the way she sleeps on the very edge of her bed or the way she covers her mouth when she laughs. On the other hand, when she acts like a high-class snob, it’s completely annoying and embarrassing. While she intends to turn me into a clone of her while I live in her house for the next nine months until I graduate, my intention is to take the snobbery out of her. It’ll be a challenge, that’s for damn sure.

At five o’clock, my grandmother announces that she’s taking the whole family into the city for dinner. Supposedly she made reservations at The Pump Room, which she said is some fancy place where celebrities in Chicago eat. Gus has learned in the past two days that it’s better to follow my grandmother’s orders than to fight her. I think she’s what he needed all along, a crazy lady to make him interact with the family instead of escaping it. I would go, but to be honest, looking at Ashtyn all night across a table and knowing I’m leaving her in a few days isn’t what I’d call a fun evening.


I’ve managed to clean out the entire shed when it’s suddenly dark outside. I get a flashlight from the house and put the shelves up, then hang all the tools back on the wall.

“Stop, or I’m calling the police!” a familiar feminine voice says from behind me.

Ashtyn is standing in the doorway, holding her signature pitchfork like it’s a weapon. It’s dark, but the small glow of the flashlight shines on the metal in her hands.

I give her a small smile and walk up to the pitchfork so it’s an inch away from my chest. “You really don’t want to stab me,” I tell her.

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She lowers the weapon. “You’re right.”

I take the pitchfork out of her hand and toss it outside, far away from my foot. “What are you doin’ here? I thought you’d gone with everyone else to the city.”

“I decided to stay.” There’s no mistaking the seductive tone of her voice.

She steps closer. From the small amount of light, I can tell she’s wearing a hockey jersey and nothing else. My eyes rake over her half-clad body, unable to look away.

I swallow, hard. It’s dark and the flashlight is losing battery fast. When I met Ashtyn, I had no clue what she’d do to me. Every time I’m near her, I want to push her away and pull her close at the same time. She talks like a jock but has a body like an angel. She knows I’m leaving, but she’s here with me now . . .

“Why did you stay home tonight?” I ask.

The flashlight flickers, then it goes completely dark when she reaches out for me and whispers in my ear, “Because of you.”

Chapter 52


I sat on my bed for an hour before I gathered enough nerve to come to the shed tonight. I know Derek’s leaving, but I want him to remember what it felt like to be with someone who loved him unconditionally. I tell myself not to be emotional, to be happy that we could have this one last night together. I never imagined I’d fall so hard for someone, especially after knowing him for such a short time, but I have.

I never believed in love at first sight, until I met Derek. It’s all-consuming and delicious and wonderful and exciting. At the same time, it makes me nervous and self-conscious and emotional. Love exists. I know it does, because I’m madly, deeply, hopelessly in love.

Wrapping my arms around Derek’s neck, I feel his hands on my waist as he pulls me close. We kiss, and I open my mouth to deepen the intimacy. His tongue is lost in my mouth and mine in his.

“Once we start this, I’m not gonna want to stop,” he says in a hoarse, deep voice.

“Me neither.”

Without another word, I close my eyes while his fingers hook onto the bottom of my jersey, and slowly, tantalizingly, he slips the material over my sensitive skin and tosses it aside.

It’s dark. We can’t see anything, but I can hear the sexy rasp of his breathing and feel the slow, sensual feel of his hands on my skin.

I reach out and roam my fingers over the muscles of his biceps and trace the hard, solid lines of his perfect, defined abs and pecs. “I lied to you,” I tell him as my fingers move over the waistband of his shorts and follow the line of hair that leads downward.

“Mmm . . .’bout what?”

“I said I wasn’t affected or impressed by your body.” I kiss his neck and the musky scent of maleness envelops my senses. I move my kisses lower, to his chest, his abs, and lower. “I lied.”

He throws his head back, and his hand weaves into my hair as I show him how much I appreciate his body. From the ragged sound of his breathing I know he likes it. A lot.

“My turn,” he says in a strained voice after a while. I let out a surprised shriek when he scoops me up and has me sit on the empty new workbench in front of him.

He kisses me senseless and I move against him, wanting more, wanting him, wanting this night to last forever. Our bodies are slick with sweat now, and we’re both panting and struggling to make this last longer, but I sense we’re both holding on by a thin thread. My hands roam over his glorious body while I taste his mouth and he tastes mine.

He replaces his mouth with the tip of his forefinger, lightly moving it over my lips before dipping his finger inside my mouth so I can suck on it.

I lean back while he removes his finger from my mouth and moves it gently and passionately over my body. At some point his finger gets replaced by his mouth and tongue. When I feel his hot breath on my slick skin, my entire body tingles.

“You don’t know what you’re doing to me,” I pant.

“Yeah, I do,” he says in a hoarse, deep voice as he removes the rest of his clothes. I hear the rip of a condom wrapper and my body goes still.

“Did you get that from your wallet?” I ask him.


“I thought you didn’t carry a condom in your wallet.”

He chuckles, and I can imagine his lips are curved into a mischievous grin. “Secret compartment.”

I’m sitting on the edge of the workbench as he stands between my legs and slips on a condom.

I brace my hands on his chest. “Derek?”

“Yeah?” he says, his voice strained as he holds himself back.

I’m glad it’s dark, and he can’t see my face now, all hot and bothered and nervous. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

He puts my hand on him so I can feel his arousal. “Obviously, you do.”

“No, I mean I’ve done stuff before . . . but not . . .”

“What? I had no idea.” He lets out a long, slow breath before placing his forehead against mine. “We don’t have to do this, Ashtyn. Your first time shouldn’t be in a shed.”

“I want to.” I hold his face in my hands. “I love you, Cowboy. Unconditionally. And this is the perfect place to do it . . . the place we first met. Nothing could be more special with you, right here. Right now.”

And so we do.

Derek takes it slow.

“You okay?” he asks as we move together. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

I’m so overwhelmed and so in the moment it’s hard for me to process it all. It’s like I’m in the middle of a dream and I don’t want to wake up. “Don’t worry about me,” I say in a soft whisper.

“I always worry about you, Ashtyn. I know you can take care of yourself . . .” He grabs my butt with his hands, urging my legs to wrap around him as he lifts me off the workbench. “But sometimes it’s way better when you let someone else take care of you. Come with me and let go of your inhibitions, Sugar Pie.”

I close my eyes while Derek takes over. He’s right. I’ve never felt so loved and cared for in my entire life. He’s so gentle and patient and knows just the right thing to do and suddenly I’m crying out his name and he cries out mine. I know this dream won’t last forever and a part of me will always want him as a permanent fixture in my life.

“You own a piece of me,” he murmurs as he holds me afterward.

“Good,” I tell him. “And just so you know . . . I’m never giving it back.”

Chapter 53


In the past, I knew what I wanted and went for it with a vengeance. When I was younger, it was football. I did what I had to do in order to be the best.

The day after Ashtyn and I spent the night together in the shed, I’m on the plane headed back to Texas. My grandmother is sitting across from me with a stoic look on her face. I know she bonded with Brandi, Julian, and Ashtyn. Hell, I even saw her secretly feed Falkor scraps of food under the table when she thought nobody was looking.

After we land, Harold picks us up.

“Did you have a nice time?” Harold asks us.

My grandmother and I look at each other. “The weather in Chicago is atrociously hot and humid,” she says in a haughty tone. “But Fremont is a charming town. With people who grew on me, I suppose. Right, Derek?”

“Right,” I say.

I enter my grandmother’s house and it just doesn’t feel right. It’s too big and too empty. At night, I stare at the stark white walls and know this isn’t where I want to be.

Before the sun comes up, I walk downstairs and am surprised to find my grandmother sitting in the library all by herself. She’s got my mom’s letter in her hand.

“You can’t sleep?”

She shakes her head and puts the letter down. “It’s not for lack of trying. What about you, Derek?”

“I can’t sleep, either.” I sit next to her. “You miss my mom?”

She nods. “Yes. Very much.”

“Me, too.” I look at my grandmother and for the first time since my mom died, I realize what I want. I want to be there for Julian and Brandi, the family I never knew I wanted. I want to be close to my grandmother even though she drives me nuts. I want to show Ashtyn what it means to be loved unconditionally—because she’s the only girl I want to be with and I don’t ever want her to feel alone again.

I want to fight for her. And go for it with a vengeance.

It’s been a long time since I set a plan in motion, other than a stupid prank, but that competitive instinct kicks in as if it were never gone in the first place. I feel excitement and blood rushing through my veins as I plot out what I need to do. It won’t be easy—far from it. But I welcome the challenge.


“Yes, Derek. Did I ever tell you that I hate when you call me that?”

“It’s a term of endearment, because I love you,” I tell her, getting me a jab in the ribs. “I want to go back to Chicago. And I want you to come with me.”

“I’m a Texan, Derek,” she says.

“Me, too. Think we can be Texans who just happen to live somewhere else?”

She thinks about it for a minute, then nods. “Yes. Yes, I think we can give it a whirl and try it. I’ll have Harold help us find a decent house to live in that’s not too far from Brandi and Ashtyn. Of course Harold and the staff will relocate with us . . . and I have to come back periodically to oversee Worthington Industries. You know you’re the heir to the company, don’t you?”

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