AVERY

 

Five minutes.

That’s all I want. Hell, it’s what I deserve. Instead, my boss is making me question if my vacation really started two hours ago.

“Hang up the phone.” The deep voice comes from my boss’s brother. His remark is met with a chorus of feminine giggles. Kenneth leans over the back of the plush leather seat he insisted I take after I initially selected a spot at the front of the plane.

In my ear I hear the man I work for let out a frustrated sigh before he instructs me to put the phone on FaceTime. I hesitate, because I’ve been down this road plenty of times with Andrew Wilkerson.

Once the change takes place and his tired eyes and scruffy beard appear on the screen, we all hear the muffled announcements about someone’s flight boarding momentarily.

“Yo!” Kenneth calls out. In my ear. Loud as hell. Needless to say, the party started before we even boarded the plane for Outer Banks, and Mr. Baseball himself is the example. “Look at you all set to board the petri dish express. Don’t forget to ask for a packet of complimentary peanuts.”

Not missing a beat, the words I expected follow from Drew with a middle-finger salute. “Fuck. You.”

The two women in the front of the plane move quickly to cover as many little ears that are within reach. The duo had been quiet, but the silent reminders of who they—I mean, who weare, stop me from laughing with the rest of the Wilkerson crew. Drew may also be my best friend of fifteen years, but I’m also his assistant and essentially the help.

The oldest of the three Wilkerson men appear alongside Kenneth and chime in. “Give the woman a break. Avery’s off the clock.”

I appreciate the gesture, believe me I do, but there’s no such thing as off the clock when it comes to Drew. The only reason why he’s not on this flight and stuck waiting to board a flight in Phoenix is because he’s a workaholic. And when Drew’s working, I’m working.

“Shouldn’t both of you go worry about your kids trying to hijack our plane or something?”

Knowing Drew only has a few minutes before they allow first class onboard, I switch the call back to one just between the two of us.

“Your parents are pulling up now, so we’re probably about to leave. I’ll forward everything over to Bernie and CC you.” Bernie is Drew’s lawyer, which always confused me, since Drew is a lawyer himself, except his focus is his career as a sports agent. Right now we’re moving all of the clients under Drew’s agency to XS, a mega sports and entertainment agency back home in Philadelphia.

For the past three years, Drew’s been bicoastal once he realized it was time to expand his roster. Likely because his only two clients retired a few years ago. That would be the loudmouth in my ear, Kenneth, and the guy asleep with his arm protectively wrapped around his wife’s round belly in the rear row of the plane, Carlos Ortiz.

For the past two months, I’ve been working out of the XS Sports office while Drew ties up loose ends in California and wherever else he’s been needed.

“They’re right.”

“Who?”

“Jeremy and Kenny. I wanted you to come along because you need to relax. Things are about to get hectic in a few weeks, and I need you rested up before we make the announcement.”

Something sinks to the pit of my stomach as the sound of the engine revving up fills the cabin.

“Avery?”

“I think we’re about to take off. I better get going to I can send the email to Bernie.”

“Avery, if I need a vacation, I know you do. Let’s make sure you relax, okay?”

But I knew I couldn’t just relax. It wasn’t going to be that easy, especially once I delivered the news. “Remind me when I see you to give you a package from Kendra.”

“A package? You saw her?”

“She had it shipped to me because she knew I was going to see you.”

“One second, babe. I’m getting on the plane now.”

Yeah, sometimes my boss calls me babe, and I feel no shame when he does. I actually thank my lucky stars each and every time he does.

I’m only aware that I blush when an audience is present.

Drew Wilkerson is a dangerous man. Not in the physical sense. Well, yeah, technically it could be related to something physical, but he’s the type of man that could get away with the most ratchet of offenses and walk away from the incident both unscathed and with two more women fighting to give him some.

Six three. Runner’s build. Colgate megawatt smile with the charm to match. Can wear the heck out of a suit, jeans, basketball shorts… damn near anything and everything. After-hours radio voice. Hell, any time is the right time for that voice. And did I mention the brother has blue eyes? Drew says they’re hazel, but if that’s the case, it’s not the usual green-meets-brown version. When he wakes in the morning, all you see in them is a sea of crystal-blue depth. Piss him off and they remind me of steel. Whether you want to say they’re hazel, blue, gray-blue, or whatever, those bad boys are intense. Staring into them for more than five seconds will pin your ass to a wall so fast you’ll want to cosign turning over all your good credit for anything he could ask for. Although that wouldn’t be necessary.

Did I mention he’s loaded? Just dropped seven figures on his crib in Philly (and before you assume, I’m not talking about low, barely-reaching-million-dollar-status numbers, either), and that’s before the contractors were instructed to turn it into the home of his dreams.

Thank goodness that’s not the type of man he is. Yet, and still, he is a very dangerous man. At least to my sense of sanity.

For fifteen years, Drew and I shared everything, even the keys to every place either of us has lived in. I still carry a set to his parents’ house on my key ring, and trust me when I say Lourdes Wilkerson is not one to give access to her home to just anyone. That’s because Drew and I are just that close. That’s probably where the problem lies between us, and what can lead to knowing too much about a person, even secrets between the best of friends.

His postgrad fling with a professor twice our age may be privileged information, but I know. I’ll admit I was jealous and should chalk it up to being freshly twenty-one and watching my best friend transform from awkward to damn-he-fine status. (Drew was a late bloomer with a geeky sense of style and dark-rimmed glasses framing those dreamy baby-blue eyes.) I wasn’t the only one to notice. Ms. Moore evidently did, too.

At first, I overheard snippets of conversations between Drew and his two older brothers where he exchanged many of the tips and tricks experienced with a skilled, older teacher. I’ll admit, it made me curious, but I could never tell Drew. And I damn sure couldn’t reveal what I walked in on that unusually blazing day during finals week even if my life depended on it. Some truths one just has to take to the grave, because I’m not going to embarrass myself or deal with the emotions of anyone seeking out the truth on their own. Drew told me he ended things with the sex-starved professor, which is likely the reason she made the rare appearance at his apartment. It’s to my understanding that their trysts occurred at a hotel near the airport, and that detail alone should tell you something. Like any other evening after my shift when I knew my roommates would make studying difficult, I made my way to Drew’s place in University City to prep for my last two weeks.

This particular night—I remember it hauntingly well—the apartment was dark and the TV was off. I knew Drew was either asleep or not home, which made my study haven that much more inviting. All that was missing were Red Bull and snacks, so I headed to the kitchen, where I knew Drew had both well stocked.

As I approached, my gut spoke to me in whispers at the same time a woman’s moans filled my ears. You ever blank out when dueling voices come at you at once? I’d like to say that’s the reason, but I know a healthy dose of reasoning was because of curiosity. It wasn’t like there was a door I had to open—my best friend was laid out across the small breakfast table for four with legs hanging over and both hands firmly planted on the other set of cheeks belonging to Ms. Moore. And as he drove the most beautiful penis I’ve ever seen up into that undeserving perv of a woman, I stood there lusting like I was standing in front of the ice cream truck on the fifth day of a heat wave in the hottest part of Death Valley with not a penny to my name. Stroke after stroke after stroke after stroke (okay, not that many strokes; I’m not voyeuristic, it’s just that ten seconds can feel like ten minutes when in the presence of greatness). I felt the jealousy bubble and brew. From that moment on, three things could no longer be the same: I despised every woman he dated who at some point revealed “the look”—which is a cross between wanting to tell every friend you know just how good a man could give it but having the common sense to keep that sort of tidbit to yourself, because a dick that good will easily come between even the closest of friends; thinking about Drew while having sex is how I’ve gotten by many times ever since; and lastly, eating at that table was never going to happen again.

I wouldn’t be sitting here on this plane reminiscing about my best friend’s caramel-coated, honey-dipped, rock-hard, womb-slaying rod of steel if it weren’t for Kendra. I’m certain that if he was that skilled with what he was working with all those years ago, then he has to be lethal now. Crossing my legs, I shift to ward off the sensations overcoming my body.

Wait. Why am I thinking about another man, anyway? As I slide down into the seat, a blanket of guilt wraps around my shame.

“What is it?” he asks when he returns to the line and I clear my throat.

There’s no way I’m going to announce in front of his entire family that his girlfriend wants me to hand-deliver an interactive sex toy.

“Not sure.”

“Then open it and tell me.”

I can hear his patience wearing thin, but I hold my stance. As his assistant, I naturally open everything. Mail. Packages. Email. Snacks in his pantry. I’m the official gatekeeper and low-key nosey. Drew pays me to handle anything that will waste his time, because according to him, time is money, and if I wasn’t clear enough before, Drew obviously doesn’t like wasting time—and his assets are proof.

Lying, I say, “She told me it’s a surprise. I can’t ruin your surprise.”

Truth is, she only said that she hopes it fits. You have no idea how much I hate her.

What I should’ve told Drew was that she found way too much pleasure in showing it to me before she handed the thing over, but that would be just as petty as her horny ass.

“Yeah, but you’re supposed to know everything. Open it.”

I already saw it, but he doesn’t have to know that, and there’s no way I can reveal it without spending the entire time in the air with blush streaks permeating my cheeks. “It’s in the luggage. Anything else you want me to do before we take off?”

He doesn’t say anything, and I know if we were face to face or still on FaceTime, he’d give me that stare of his that always sends me squirming.

“I’ll see you in a few hours.”

When he hangs up, I’m reminded that I’m not alone.

Kenneth is never one to hold back on anything, so when he reaches for my hand to inspect the ring on my finger, I’m not surprised. This is his third time since I shared the news two hours ago.

“I still can’t believe you’re getting married. You know you should’ve warned him.” Kenneth twists my wrist a couple more times before letting go.

I finish sending the email I promised Drew I would get out before our flight and look up at the man towering over my seat. “Warned him about what?”

“That you’re getting married.”

Jeremy is busy opening up a mini bag of Goldfish crackers for his son while managing to laugh at his younger brother. “You don’t warn people about weddings, idiot. People celebrate weddings, not react like they’re preparing for a natural disaster.”

“Idiot.” Jeremy’s son Noah naturally chooses this one word to repeat, earning a reprimand from his mother Allie and a glare from Jeremy.

Despite the truth in Jeremy’s words, I understand where Kenneth is coming from.

Kenneth drops into his seat next to his wife Paige, who is engrossed in her tablet. “I know. I just…” Kenneth says. “Never mind.”

“Never mind what?”

“I just always assumed that— How do I say this? Since the day we met you, you and Drew have been glued at the hip. You two are together day in and day out. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“You really are an idiot,” Allie mutters, causing Jeremy to snicker with his wife.

Kenneth rolls his eyes and shrugs a shoulder. “I’m only saying what we’ve all been thinking.”

“What doesn’t make sense?” I ask.

“That you’re marrying some random guy out of the blue like this.”

“Jonathan is not random, and this is not sudden.”

“No?” Paige asks with her eyes still pinned to the tablet screen.

“I’ve known Jonathan since we were kids. We grew up together.”

“Then why haven’t we met him before?”

“Easy, boy,” Paige teases her husband. “Save some of the outrageous and territorial overprotective stance for when Drew’s around.”

I give Paige an appreciative smile, but she doesn’t return it.

An uncomfortable silence follows. I know they mean well. It wasn’t their intention to make me feel like crap about wearing a ring given to me by someone that loves me, but they have.

Standing, I grab my laptop and move back to the front of the plane, where I probably should’ve been seated all along.

In the section occupied by the help alongside the two nannies. If I’m lucky, Jeremy and Allie’s nanny Sierra might braid this unruly mass of hair pulled back into some sort of a ponytail slash reddish-brown puffball on the back of my head. I tried to make it to my hair appointment before I left, but as usual, I didn’t, leaving me no choice but do the usual with it. With little time to spare for salon visits because I’m always taking care of Mr. 24/7, this girl can only dream.

 

DREW

 

I tap the screen in front of me, hoping the pilot has updated the coordinates. With half of the passengers still in line waiting to locate their seats, I’m not surprised that the marker reveals nothing other than our departure city. In all my thirty-four years, I’ve never had one ill thought about Phoenix, but after three delays courtesy of a monster dust storm, I’m ready to cross this town off my future travel list.

“This is a friendly reminder that our flight to Norfolk is booked to capacity. Please make room for your fellow passengers by storing all carry-ons in the bin above or under the seat in front of you.”

The banging of overhead bins and a muffled chorus of “excuse me” and “pardon me” makes its way to the front of the plane.

As I glance at my phone, notification of a text from Avery Coleman pops up on the screen, saying the one word I was waiting for before powering off my cell. Sent.

“I loved Jerry Maguire.”

I think I’m the only person on earth that hates that damn movie. Hated it as a kid and hate it even more every time someone inserts Tom Cruise’s character’s name into the conversation whenever I reveal my occupation.

I glance at the woman beside me clutching the well-worn black backpack to her chest. Why she feels the need to secure both herself and the bag with her seatbelt is a mystery I’m certain best remains unsolved.

My noise-canceling headphones are calling me, but my gut stirs, insisting I wait before blocking out any further conversation with this stranger. No matter how peculiar and annoying she may be.

“Work with anyone famous?”

I’d laugh, but the tentative voice behind her question cues me that such a move might be taken the wrong way. Instead, I spend the time waiting for the flight attendant to announce the doors have been closed so we can take off entertaining my row-mate’s Hollywood-inspired fantasy that’s been my life since I took on the role of representing Major League all-star Kenneth Wilkerson.

It’s his fault—yes, I said that correctly—that I became a sports agent.

I might be the baby of the family, but my older brother Kenneth is the spoiled one. He convinced me that I should go to law school so he’d have someone he could trust negotiating deals on his behalf. So I went to Georgetown. He wanted the undivided attention of an agent, so I took him on as my only client. He kept me busy, but that move was dumb as hell, and it took me a few years to take on others, including our boy Carlos Ortiz. Some don’t count him on the roster because he was retiring when he signed with me, but that’s their misguided way of thinking. An athlete is always valuable whether living, retired, or dead. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know how to build on a legacy like I do.

One of the biggest names on my list was deceased when I agreed to work with his estate. Warren Scott was a beast on the court and a complete waste of a father who damn near ostracized my sister-in-law Paige every day they both walked this earth. Even after more than twenty-five years of pain, as crazy as this sounds, it was actually Paige who sat me down with his sons Trent and Warren to make it happen. Proof that even the wildest of miracles can occur. It hasn’t been easy, and none of us have let bygones be bygones, but they own the name and I have the connections. We’re now in the midst of a killer deal, including a docuseries on Netflix that’s been renewed before it even airs about Paige being the center of a major dynasty.

You don’t get it, so let me break it down for you.

One. Her father was basketball legend Warren Scott.

Two. My boy Carlos has his name on her daughter Melody’s birth certificate.

And three. Her other two kids are the spitting image of baseball’s top earning player of all time.

They don’t build generations like the one she’s raising with my brother every day, and it’s my mission to help my nieces and nephews recognize their blessings. Now she’s flipping her name and access into something that reaches way more than any of these reality show checks can supplement, while helping to save the very same people that treated her like a piece of crap. I’m proud of her, but she wouldn’t care to hear that from me. You know what she told me the other day? She’s only doing it because, at the end of the day, this is her family, and she loves them. She made sure I understood she was also referring to her two jackass brothers.

Since I heard the woman next to me mention she’s connecting to Norfolk like me, I play nice. No one wants to be on the receiving end of hostility for nearly six hours courtesy of an angry seatmate. “Ever hear of Kenneth Wilkerson?”

“I’m Sarah, by the way.”

I hesitate, but remind myself that I don’t want her to think of me as rude. “Andrew.”

“You know him? KW?”

Know him? “My whole life.”

“You do favor him. Except the eyes.” Then she sniffles. “And facial hair.”

I wear a little more than a shadow, and Kenneth rarely lets his beard grow in. As for the eyes… they’re just like my daddy’s. My mother reminds me every chance I see her of how much I remind her of the man she fell in love with all those years ago, and saying it creeps me out when she does is an understatement. Who wants their mother looking at you with dreamy eyes and seeing the man she… Ugh.

I look to my left and see the shimmer in her eyes as she squeezes the backpack tighter.

“I’m sorry.” She turns toward the window after her soft apology.

“No need to apologize. I know my brother’s not much of a looker.”

Her quiet laugh precedes the relaxing of her limbs and shoulders.

“Oh, please, he’s adorable, and so are you. He’s one of the few baseball players Tommy idolized. I know he would’ve been thrilled to know he’s finally this close to someone related to KW.”

I look around first class to see if I can spot this Tommy person. Maybe he’ll want to sit beside his woman and give up his seat. Then it dawns on me—Tommy probably selected another row on purpose to avoid the chatter, like I wanted to.

One of the flight attendants steps into my view just as I’m about to take one last look for Tommy. I recognize Simone from a previous flight, and the upward tilt of her lips lets me know she remembers me, too.

“Hi.” I don’t miss the smile in her voice when she acknowledges me. Her eyes stay with mine for a moment before she moves her attention to the woman next to me. “I can assist you with placing your belongings in the overhead bin.”

“No.” The firm, adamant response surprises even me.

“Ma’am?”

Sensing a shift in the flirty attendant, I know I’m smack in the middle of a brewing situation.

I interject only because I don’t want air marshals dragging this woman across my lap tray kicking and screaming. “We’ll take care of it soon.”

The attendant gives Sarah a once-over before responding to me with a curt nod. “We’re preparing for take-off in less than three minutes.”

Once it’s just Sarah, her backpack, and me alone again, I position the headphones around my neck before issuing a warning of my own: “I think she means business. Do want me to—”

Sarah shakes her head and tears appear. “No!”

What. The. Hell?

“Is this some sort of support… bag?” If people can fly with chickens and goats, I won’t be surprised if a backpack also made the list.

Another sniffle.

“Sarah?”

“I can’t risk something happening to him.”

“To who?” I ask with one hand on the call button. There’s no way in hell I’m going to fly on the same plane as an irrational woman clinging to a backpack for dear life.

“It’s Tommy. My fiancé.” She pulls on a zipper, revealing something glossy in black and gold. Sarah opens the bag further and angles it so I can see its contents.

The urn gives me a better idea of her emotional state, but still. 

Wait a damn minute. Is that an urn?

She wipes her nose with the back of her hand and zips the backpack up. “I researched traveling with ashes. Knowing the horror stories, I can’t let him out of my sight. Not until it’s time.”

Sarah is unaware of the scene playing out just outside the cockpit, but the way Simone is pointing in our direction, I’m sure she’s about to find out.

“Be right back.” I unbuckle my seatbelt and hop up just as the pilot steps out from behind a closed door.

A male attendant steps in my path once I reach the small flight crew congregating in front of the beverage station. “Please take your seat.”

“Hey, Simone?”

The male attendant rolls his eyes at Miss Fly My Friendly Skies and crosses his arms firmly in front of his chest.

“The woman next to me is traveling with something she feels is very precious. Can you make an exception, please?”

“I’m sure every passenger on this flight considers their luggage as precious. They followed the rules. So. Can. She.”

“But I’m sure very few are traveling with a deceased loved one.”

The horror in their eyes tells me that I probably could’ve explained that a little differently. I slip into my negotiation stance, hands lifted in steeple position, and make eye contact with the apparent guardsman for the flight crew. The Night’s Watch would be proud, because little man doesn’t flinch.

“Her fiancé’s remains are in an urn, in that backpack. She’s taking him, I mean it, to a final resting place and is worried about the contents spilling. If turbulence jostles that urn open in one of your overhead bins, do any of you want to be responsible for cleaning it up? Or worse, having his ashes fall on you as you make your way up and down the aisles?”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“It’s probably best if she holds on to her, umm, fiancé.”

The two attendants’ voices blend together, and the pilot shakes his head and returns to his space.

Fifteen minutes later, with the crisis averted, I pull my headphones over my ears and closedmy eyes, hoping to catch a quick nap.

 

Tap, tap, tap.

My eyes pop open at the intrusion, and I look around, expecting to see people pouring off the plane. Instead, I meet the face of my row-mate… and Tommy.

“I need to use the ladies’ room. Do you mind?”

I nod and move to shift my legs so I can stand to let her out.

“Can you hold him? Please?”

“What about your seatbelt?” Yeah, I’m indulging her. The last time I participated in the fastening of a seatbelt around an inanimate object was when my niece Gabby asked me to put her baby doll in a car seat.

The tip of Sarah’s nose is red, but I’m not about to let her tears run me again. I run a hand down my face and return my headphones to their heavenly position, and she slouches back in her seat.

“If you have to go, go.”

She looks down at the backpack before she shakes her head and clutches Tommy. I check the screen and notice we aren’t even at the halfway point. I close my eyes and reprimand myself for not flying private.

Instead of stepping around me to handle her business, Sarah remains in her seat, squirming and twisting with each passing minute.

Doing what any person on the brink of losing his mind at cruising altitude would do, I reach for the bag and nod for her to go before I change my mind.

“Figures you’d be a fan of Kenneth’s. Both of you are a pain in my ass.”

As I’m left holding the bag, the only thought running through my mind is if anyone is capable of feeling the way about me that Sarah feels about Tommy.

 

 

DREW

 

“Hello?” I call out to an empty house just in case my instincts are wrong. The lack of a response proves I’m right. No one’s arrived yet.

There’s not a single vehicle outside, and none of the lights are on—and with a family of our size, there are always lights being left on somewhere. I’m starting to wonder what happened to everyone.

The only presence I feel is the sense that my beach house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean has been prepped and fully stocked for our arrival. 

I make my way upstairs via the elevator so I can drop off my bags and charge my phone. While it’s getting some juice, I check out all the rooms to make sure each one meets my standards. The only things missing in each one are the occupants and their luggage.

On my way back to my room to check for any missed calls, I hear the phone ring. My girlfriend’s name appears on the screen, and I tap to answer.

“You make it?” she asks before I can even speak.

“Yeah. Phone died and I’m just getting a chance to charge it.”

“Did you see your assistant give you my present?”

“I hate when you refer to Avery as my assistant.”

“That’s who she is to you.”

“That’s only part of who Avery is. If you’re going to act like this, I’m getting off the phone.”

“Did Avery give it to you yet?”

Kendra cleaned up her question, but the tone is still testing my patience. With one hand, I scratch the top of my head and use the other to toss one of my bags on the bed to unpack it. “They’re not here yet. I was just about to check on them when you called.”

How I managed to beat everyone to the house when they’re the ones with premier door-to-door service, I will never know.

“Can I call you—”Avery’s melodic laughter gets my attention. “I gotta go, babe. Av— Everyone’s here.”

“Tell them hello for me,” she says just before the line goes dead.

I still don’t understand why she didn’t want to come along. She claimed she had too many irons in the fire to walk away for a week from work, which doesn’t surprise me. Kendra and I mesh because of our legal backgrounds, and that’s why I know she needs a few days just as much as I do. She practices international law, which is why we get each other’s temperaments.

At first we were just hooking up when the desire struck. Her legal counsel position with an international modeling agency, pro bono work, and frequent visits home to New Zealand lent to infrequent schedules. Sure, Kendra is gorgeous, just like many of the models she works with, but the sex is incredible, and once dominated what little time we had together. So right before my last birthday, I came to the understanding that I didn’t want to spend every few dates relearning a different woman, something I’ve spent most of my adult life doing. We made it a point to visit at least every two weeks if work keeps us apart for too long, and that led to one of the longest commitments I’ve ever made with a woman.

No, I’m not saying I want to settle down. I’m only thirty-four. It just feels good connecting on a regular basis with someone who knows how to give and receive without hassle or the drama. Kendra just works.

“Hey, bossman.”

My Avery. I turn around to see her standing in the entry to my room, but she brings a smile to my face simply from the sound of her voice and the warm vanilla bean and coconut scent filling the air. She never can decide which is her favorite smell, and to be honest, I like the combination on her.

The smile on my face is there because I haven’t hugged my girl in weeks, and I’ve missed her, but it doesn’t take long for it to slip off.

“Hey.” She pauses mid-stride toward my open arms and frowns. “You okay?”

I should probably explain. I didn’t expect to see Avery looking the way she does. I’ve seen her hair in countless ways, from her usual Freddie on A Different World go-to style, to weaves, to bohemian braids hanging past her ass, to the small cornrows on the side with a mass of curls piled high on top vibe she’s going for now, so her curly ’hawk look doesn’t surprise me.

It’s seeing the roundness of her adorable caramel apple cheeks slimmed out and revealing a hint of cheekbones, making the diamond and pearl studs I gave her stand out a little more. Hell, it makes even her mouth look… 

Shit, I don’t have time for a sexual harassment lawsuit, so I better not say. But what I can mention is the mustard tank she has on shows off shoulder blades that are more defined than the last time I saw them, when she wore a single-shoulder gown to a fundraiser a few months back.

And her waist. Jeans hug curves, but these curves aren’t hers. She still has one of those asses folks sing about, saying a beat was made for, but that’s not why I sometimes catch myself staring at her.

I do just because she’s Avery.

“Wow,” I say before pulling her in for the hug I’ve waited weeks to give her. “Wow. You look… good.”

“Lost twenty-two more pounds. Well, we stopped to grab a bite at this incredible seaside spot, so I’m pretty sure I gained half of it back.” She pulls away to give me a twirl, and it gives me a moment to regain my composure. I’ve never had a problem masking my thoughts, but Avery knows me all too well, and she probably senses something, which makes me that much more uneasy.

“I knew you were working out, but you already lost the ten I thought you wanted to shed.”

She shrugs and smiles. “It felt too good to stop. Plus, I have a small incentive to keep going.”

“Incentive?”

Okay, this is confusing. Avery was beautiful just the way she was. Yes, she’s just as gorgeous after losing a few pounds, but when my eyes lands on her left hand, I suddenly know why.

“I’m engaged!”

Forgive me if I’m not doing backflips in my head along with her.

“I see.”

“Uncle Drew’s here!” My niece Gabriella rushes through the doorway. She runs around Avery to hug my leg, and I bend to give her a squeeze, but I can’t take my eyes off Avery’s face.

“Hey, Gabby.”

The rest of the half-pint crew—my nephews and nieces KJ, Noah, Melody, and Noelle—follow her lead. With the kids wrapped around both legs and waist, I feel their love, and it feels pretty damn good, but Avery just…

“Drew, I’m going to check on everyone to make sure they’re all settled.”

This doesn’t surprise me. That’s why she’s my main point person, always on top of things, but I’m certain that’s not why she’s rushing off.

Through the bodies clinging to me, I reach for her wrist. “Wait. We need to talk.”

She shakes her head and gives me a weak-ass smile. “The kids really miss you. They’ve been chatting about you the whole way here. We have plenty of time to catch up.”

Between the pleas from the kids to take them everywhere but to bed for a nap, I let her go.

And give myself space to digest the news.

 

The guys have filled up one of the fire pits on the deck with ice and beer. I grab a bottle and drop into one of the lounge chairs away from the house that’s facing the water.

“Jonathan asked me last week.”

I turn toward the voice, just noticing Avery is curled up on one of the other loungers with a magazine in her lap.

“Cool.” I raise the bottle to take a swig and swallow hard. I can feel the clench in my jaw and have to tell myself to chill before I crack a tooth. “Is this the same cornball you were giggling around at the church thing you dragged me to a few months ago? The one looking like he stole everything on him out of Dwyane Wade’s closet, suit shorts and all?”

The few minutes in the presence of the guy, I didn’t get a vibe from him. Nothing good, nothing bad. He just was, like a man who didn’t stand for anything and wasn’t aware of his own purpose. I don’t need some lost boy relying on Avery to turn him into a man worth half a damn.

And I know Avery. She’s a good girl in every sense of the term. From what she’s shared, albeit in inebriated moments, she hasn’t been laid in years. I’m talking about born-again virgin status. And she trusts some Elmer Fudd-looking clown to work that ass like she deserves after waiting more than a decade? Till death do they part? If he can’t find the men’s department to shop, then he damn sure won’t know how to even locate a woman’s g-spot, even if Siri pinned it with a flashing blue dot to guide him.

Her eyes reveal more than her words could ever tell. Instead of admitting shock that I remember the clown, she pretends to not know what I’m talking about, which pisses me the hell off.

“Church thing? What are you talking about?”

“Bowling. Dozens of thirsty women asking me to give them personal coaching lessons on ball handling? Ring a bell? How about words like Too Blessed to be Stressedand Won’t He Do Itspelled out in sequins across cleavage and straining, nipple-revealing tiny tees from a few slipping me phone numbers and promising to slip into my DMs? You insisted I go with you to that thing so you wouldn’t be alone, but you really were there to meet ol’ boy and left me to fend for myself. Dragged me there for some bull—”

“No, I did not. And for the record, I didn’t know for sure if he was going, but yes, that’s Jonathan. Besides, you enjoyed every single minute of the pouncing.”

She’s got me there. “So he’s a church boy.”

Her frown sets in deep. “What does that even mean?”

“Is that why you’re doing this?”

She cuts her eyes at me so hard it cuts me harder than if the glass in my hand had shattered and been dragged across my face.

“I thought you’d be happy for me. Jonathan’s a good man. He treats me like a queen. What about that is causing you to act like a douche right now?”

She’s right, but I don’t have an answer. I set the empty bottle down and extend a hand toward hers. Avery stares at it before placing her much smaller one in mine. Giving it a squeeze, I say, “It’s just been you and me forever, and you know I’m not a fan of sharing. Gonna take some getting used to, that’s all.”

The only thing to change on her face is the way her mouth shifts from a grimace to a pout, and I’d be a liar if I pretended like that didn’t bother me.

Tapping her foot with the toe of my shoe, I say, “Hey, if you’re happy, I’m happy.”

“I am.” She lets go and collects her magazine before standing. “I need to go check on Chef Laurel to make sure he’s on schedule for dinner.”

When she walks away, I know she lied to me. Just because dude put a ring on her finger doesn’t mean a thing. There’s no way in hell Avery’s happy.