I pivoted around, about to apologize when I hadn’t apologized for any other time I’d busted up into her apartment, but she was in the kitchen, practically airborne. Coming at me the way Teresa had when she greeted me. The same way my sister had launched herself at Jase.
I caught her, wrapping my arms around her waist as I stumbled back, hitting the counter. Shock radiated through me, quickly followed by a wild warmth that lit up my veins.
My arms tightened around her as she pressed her cheek to my chest and held on just as strongly as I held her. I dropped my face to the top of her head, inhaling her scent and soaking her response in, holding her close to my heart.
Avery inhaled a shaky breath and said, “I missed you.”
A cold snap hit our little speck of the world right before Halloween. Chilly air whipped through the campus, creating a sheer, frigid wind tunnel between the buildings.
Jase was staring at Ollie with a dumbfounded expression on his face. As cold as it was, Ollie was wearing shorts and sandals. At least he had a hoodie on, but I doubted he wore anything other than that. Or even felt the wind.
But Shortcake was a different story.
The four of us stood in between Whitehall and Knutti, waiting for the next class to begin. She was hunkered down in her sweater that was fitted to her slim waist and the flare of her hips.
“I’m doing it,” Ollie said, grinning. “No one can stop me.”
Shortcake brushed a strand of hair that had come loose from the twist at the nape of her neck. “It will really look weird.”
Jase nodded. “I have to agree.”
“I don’t care,” Ollie announced. “I think it’s perfect.”
Wind whipped its way across the clearing, smacking into Shortcake. She pressed her lips into a tight line as a shiver worked its way through her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone put a leash on a tortoise.”
“Doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” Ollie replied, rocking back on his heels. “And I kind of like the idea of being the first.”
Jase rolled his eyes as I shifted toward Shortcake, hoping to block some of the brutal burst of wind. “How are you even going to get a leash around Raphael?” Jase asked, sounding genuinely curious.
Another gust of wind rattled our bones, and Shortcake’s lips started to tremble. I’d had enough of just standing here. From behind her, I wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hauled her back against my front. She stiffened and her breath came out in a harsh exhale. Jase and Ollie didn’t notice because they were busying arguing over whether or not it was considered animal cruelty to tie a ball of yarn around Raphael’s shell.
“Don’t fight me,” I said, voice low in her ear. “You’re freezing cold. So am I. If you don’t like it, then go inside.”
Her back was stiff against my chest. “Why don’t you go inside?”
“I will if you do.”
She muttered something very unflattering under her breath, but she didn’t pull away, and my grin spread, and as each second passed, her muscles relaxed. “This is probably the stupidest conversation I’ve ever heard,” she said, watching Jase and Ollie.
“I have to agree.” My body reacted when she leaned into me. There was no helping that. “The thing is, I’d bet a thousand bucks when I go home tonight, there will be a string around Raphael.”
She giggled. “I want a picture of that.”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to do that for you.” I closed my eyes, knowing that if Ollie or Jase happened to look over, I’d never live it down, but having her in my arms was too good of a thing to not risk.
“I hope he doesn’t take him outside though,” she said softly. “It’s too cold for the little guy.”
Surprised, I opened my eyes and tilted my head to the side. “How do you know that?”
She shrugged as she turned her head toward mine, putting her lips within kissing distance of mine. “Raphael is a Russian tortoise, right?” When I nodded, she bit down on her lower lip and almost groaned. “I was bored one night and looked them up. He has to be kept in a warm environment, right?”
“Right.” For some weird reason, that pleased me to no end to know that she had looked that up. “I won’t let Ollie take him outside.”
Shortcake let out a little sigh. “I need to get to class.”
“I don’t want to.”
I grinned. “We should skip.”
“You’re a bad influence.”
“I’m the kind of influence you need.” When she laughed at that, I felt lighter somehow. “So you’re really going to go to the Halloween party?”
“Between you and Brittany, I don’t see a way out of it.” She started to pull away, but I tightened my grip. “I told you I was going to go. I will.”
I wasn’t sure I believed her. I had a feeling that come tomorrow night, she would make up some excuse for how she couldn’t make it, so I wasn’t holding my breath. Avery hadn’t gone to a single party since she started college, even though I knew Brittany and Jacob had.
Sighing, I let go and stepped back. My class was over in Byrd. “You sure you don’t want me to give you a ride tomorrow night?”
Ollie’s head whipped around so fast you’d think I said nachos. “It would be a ride you’d never forget, Avery.”
I shot him a dark look. “That’s not what I meant.”
Her cheeks were flushed, either from what Ollie had said or from the cold. “I know. And it’s okay. I don’t need a ride, but I’ll be there.”
I really didn’t believe her.
There were a lot of angels and cats in high heels, so much so that I had a hell of a time not wanting to separate the girls into two groups: the fallen and the catty.
Brittany, Avery’s friend, was in the group of the fallen, her white dress absolutely no protection against the chilly night. She was with Jacob, who looked remarkably like Bruno Mars, but I hadn’t seen Avery.
I’d spent a good part of the evening wondering if she’d really show and if she did, what she would wear. Would she be an angel? A cat? Really stupid, considering that I did have better things to dwell on.
Irritated, I roamed from one room to the next. The house was packed, standing room only, and people spilled out onto the front porch and the lawn. If the cops didn’t show up at some point tonight, breaking up the party, I’d be amazed.
There was too much going on inside the house for me. Music thumped loudly, but not quite drowning out the shouts and laughter. Couples were in every corner, some who appeared to have forgotten who their boyfriend/girlfriend was. I used to love this scene, but now, it made my skin itchy.
I’d retreated outside to the garage with Jase, in the midst of a mean game of beer pong.
“You look thrilled to be here,” Jase said, squinting an eye as he held the white ball, lining it up with the plastic cups.
“Not feeling it tonight.”
“Uh-huh.” Jase bounced the ball into a cup in the first row. The guys on the other side of the table groaned. “Is that because I haven’t see Shortcake around?”
Why I had made the mistake of calling her that in front of Jase was beyond me. I didn’t respond as the ball from the other side bounced right off the table.
Jase chuckled. “Amateurs.” He turned to me. “But do you know who I do see? Steph. And she’s been looking for you.”
“Just thought I’d share that knowledge with you.” He tossed me the ball. “Let’s kick some ass.”
With nothing else better to do and wanting to get out of my own head, I joined the game. Jase had been right. The group across from us really were amateurs. Fifteen minutes into the game, our opponents were swaying like weeds in the wind.
“This is actually shameful,” I muttered, eyeing one of them, who punched the end of the table to hold himself up, rattling the cups.
Jase grinned evilly. “They should’ve known better than to challenge me.”
I laughed as I folded my arms, running a hand over my bare bicep. Jase bounced another perfect throw and the other side erupted in curses. Straightening, Jase raised his hands out to his sides and then he stopped, eyes widening.
He elbowed me and turned, voice low. “Well, look at who just wandered in here.”
My brows lifted as I followed his gaze, looking past a group dancing. Air punched out of my lungs. I couldn’t believe it. Unfolding my arms, I stared for a second, absolutely shocked.
Avery was here.
Standing next to Brittany and Jacob, she stood out and not because she wasn’t in a costume. Her formfitting black turtleneck revealed a small section of her flat stomach. It was the first time I’d seen her stomach. Crazy.. My mouth dried.
A big, old goofy-ass smile broke out across my face and I set my cup down. I didn’t even say anything to Jase as I crossed the crowded garage. Jacob said something to her that caused her cheeks to flush and, a second later, I had her in my arms.
Lifting her up, I spun around as she clutched my shoulders. “Holy shit, I can’t believe you’re actually here.”
Her warm brown eyes met mine. “I told you I was coming.”
I set her down, but kept her tucked close. God, she looked gorgeous with her coppery hair falling in waves down her shoulders, curling around the swells of her breasts. “When did you get here?”
“I don’t know. Not that long ago.”
“Why didn’t you come say hi?”
“You were busy and I didn’t want to bother you.”
She had been staring at my lips, which was entirely distracting up until those last words left her mouth. I bent my head, my lips brushing her ear as I spoke. I didn’t miss the way she shivered. “You are never a bother to me.”
When I lifted my head, our gazes collided and held. The hue of her eyes deepened, almost blending in with her pupils. There was a connection there between us. No mistaking the electricity shimmering in the tiny space between our lips. And when hers parted, I lowered my head, wholly intent on kissing her.
“Yo, Cam!” Jase yelled, obliterating the moment. “You’re up.”
I smiled tightly. “Don’t go too far.”
“Okay,” she said, her hands slipping away.
Stalking back over to the table, I shot Jase a dirty look. “Perfect timing.”
“What?” He watched me pick up the Ping Pong ball. “Did I interrupt Avery turning you down?”
“Funny.” I bounced the ball, missing my target. Cursing, I picked up the cup. “Fuck you all.”
Jase let out a loud laugh and said something, but my narrowed gaze found Avery. I could barely see her. Her friends flanked either side and a red cup had ended up in her hands. She really wasn’t drinking and, for some reason, I was glad to see that. Their group grew and every so often, she disappeared from view, reappearing a few minutes later. Once this stupid game was over, it was her and me, and no interruptions. And, dammit, tonight she would tell me yes when I asked her out.