He wasn’t good for her. He never would be.
But Stevie Case had come anyway. Driven by the intensity of the looks they shared in the corridors; looks that went for so long, her stomach knotted and her muscles bunched and his friends all turned to follow his gaze. Driven by the fantasy he embodied—a rebel, wild and gorgeous, a boy who never in a million reincarnations would consider commitment. Driven by his personal invitation, murmured as he passed too close behind her locker, ‘Come to my going-away party. We can’t end like this.’
They couldn’t end with so much unspoken between them. So much untouched.
Stevie arrived late. Late enough the night was on the verge of becoming a very early morning.
She found him alone.
He was sitting on the front porch, his head resting back against a brick pillar, eyes closed and a beer bottle loose in his hand. The party’s sole survivor, surrounded by empty bottles and cans, cigarette butts, and discarded pizza boxes. The outside bulb cast him in dingy light, catching the hair on his arms, the shadow beneath the cut of his jaw, and the metal of the defaced coin around his neck.
His foot moved. His usual restless tapping.
He hadn’t noticed her.
They weren’t friends. Didn’t move in the same circles. They rarely spoke. But they looked, and God, did those looks say more than Stevie could have ever put into words.
She’d known him since primary school. He’d always been disengaged, distracted—the boy who’d arm wrestled her behind the teacher’s back for weeks before realizing Stevie wasn’t short for Steven; who’d then asked if she’d squeal if he hurt her, and when she’d shot back, ‘No, will you?’ he’d continued wrestling without gender bias or mercy.
Mercy still wasn’t his strong suit, or he’d have invited her over years ago.
Cautious, she passed through the paint-chipped front gate, breath held, wondering how many of those bottles were his. When her shoe scuffed over a crack in the concrete path, his eyes snapped open, locking onto her. His attention pressed hard into the center of her chest, reviving her heart to a heightened state of life. Pounding, contracting, aching.
‘Stevie,’ he murmured, a slow smile waking his features.
‘Hey.’ She paused, uncertain, sliding an unsteady hand into her back pocket. An act to hide how completely he undid her. Composure came naturally to her, nothing forced or feigned, but one look from Ethan and her sturdy heart leapt and her stomach wrung and her thoughts tangled together like anxious fingers.
It drove her crazy.
‘You made it.’ He rose to his feet, and she took in well-worn jeans, black boots, and a dark T-shirt with longer sleeves rolled up beneath. Masculine, almost rough, if it weren’t for the lingering cherub face of his childhood—enviably even skin, sweeping lashes, and tawny-tiger eyes. For years, Stevie had suspected those eyes were nature’s warning sign, like red on a spider’s back or the colored bands of a coral snake. Yellow eyes meant danger.
Stevie faked ease. ‘You said to get here any time after four o’clock, right?’
‘Yeah.’ Amused, he leaned a shoulder against the bricks, idle, sexy. ‘In the afternoon. Thought you’d prefer the barbeque to the party.’
She’d arrived late to catch his bluff. Surely he’d make it with another girl when she didn’t show.
‘I’m vegetarian.’ She raised a shoulder.
‘I bought gourmet veggie delights.’ His lips twitched.
‘I don’t know your friends.’
‘I told them to be nice,’ he said.
‘I’m not into rap.’ Even to her, it sounded like a question.
‘I downloaded PJ Harvey. Told the guys they’d have to deal with it.’
She paused, frowning. ‘How’d you know?’
He broke their stare, looking aside. ‘You wore her shirt on a free dress day last year.’
Stevie’s pulse glitched. ‘Oh.’
‘Your parents know you’re out this late?’ His eyes locked back on her.
‘My foster parents,’ she corrected. ‘And no, they think I’m pulling an all-nighter. They’re not into helping me prep for exams, so they won’t be checking in.’
‘I’ll help.’ Thoughtful, he ran a hand through his disordered hair. ‘What’s the name of your favorite movie?’
‘Donnie Darko.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Which will no doubt be in my physics exam, thanks.’
‘Hey, it’s quantum.’
That was the thing about Ethan. He wasn’t stupid. He just hated school. The teachers had given up on him in early high school, around the time he gave up on himself, abandoning his classroom disruptions in favor of disturbing his entire life. Skipping classes, drinking, working nights stocking shelves—which only meant more missed lessons. When at school, he hung out behind portables or at the edge of the property, and when he rocked up to class, it was without interest or textbooks. A shadow student—for even when present, he wasn’t really there.
Theoretically, not Stevie’s type.
Physically—everything she wanted.
Eyeing his mostly empty bottle, she asked, ‘Drinking alone?’
He swirled the amber liquid. ‘Calms me down.’
‘Worried about moving away?’
His index finger drummed against the neck of the bottle as he held her gaze. ‘There’s that,’ he said. ‘Then there’s the unknown quantity standing before me.’
Stevie mocked curiosity and glanced over her shoulder.
His lips curved. ‘I didn’t think you’d turn up. Once midnight rolled around, I figured it’d all been in my head—with a head like mine, that’s more than likely.’
‘Yet, you waited.’
‘I couldn’t think about anything else.’ He swigged from the bottle, his hand trembling.
‘Got the shakes?’
‘Never been so nervous.’
Imagine how she felt. At least he knew this game. Stevie was playing blind. She shifted, swallowing, her own shaking hands still locked in her pockets.
His head tilted. ‘I didn’t think you were the shy type.’
‘I’m not the random-hookup type.’
‘Years in the making is hardly random, Stevie.’ His eyelashes cast whiskered shadows over his cheeks as his attention dipped. ‘You dressed up for me.’
Warmth curled around her middle. He’d noticed. She wore black skinny leg jeans and her favorite Elliot Smith band T-shirt, complete with a vest over the top. Her flat canvas shoes were graffitied with permanent marker and her short, blonde hair stuck out from under a plaid newsboy cap. No heels, bare legs, or dress hugging whatever figure she usually hid under loose clothes, but it was sharp, slick, and carefully selected for the occasion.
Ethan’s appreciative gaze had her skin tightening, nerve endings aching for his touch. ‘No one else home?’
‘My brother’s at that warehouse party, and Mum’s doing the graveyard shift.’ Then he said, ‘Your sister was here earlier.’
Regan. Willful, careless, and only sixteen. Too similar to Ethan—skipping school, partying, thoughtless of her grades or future. She was a constant source of anxiety balled up in Stevie’s stomach. ‘She okay?’
‘She’s not one for pacing her drinks, but we got pizza into her.’ He spoke quietly. ‘She was all right by the time she left—but she’d heard I was waiting for you and threatened a lifetime of pain if I went anywhere near you.’
‘She got into specifics. Trust me. She meant it.’
‘I imagine, like the rest of us, she knows you’re too good for me.’
A shadow slipped through Stevie’s conscience, all too aware of their differences. She was smart, with plans to go to university and become a structural engineer—he had no plans and was moving away from Melbourne three weeks before final exams. He drank, he debauched, he drove too fast—she studied hard and used soccer to vent her energy.
He continued, voice growing rough. ‘Another study question. If there’s a magnetic force acting between oppositely charged bodies, an attraction pulling them together, do they have any choice but to connect?’
It sure as hell didn’t feel like it.
‘Depends on how close they get,’ she murmured.
‘Huh.’ Ethan leaned down and set his bottle on the top step. He straightened, eyes finding hers, and something on his face seized her pulse and doubled it. They’d skirted around their attraction for years, but they knew. Had always known. Eye contact was too intimate, too close to mind reading for them not to be aware of their mutual sexual chemistry.
Extending his hand toward her, he asked, ‘Will you come closer to me, Stevie?’
Nerves twisted her insides into wire, tight, hard.
She’d thought about this moment all week—tried to use the facts to convince herself it was a bad idea. Stevie’s neighbor and closest friend Felix had done his best to help. ‘He’s leaving town. Nothing can happen between you two. Why knowingly turn down a dead-end road?’
Because it was a dead-end. Serious sexual chemistry didn’t make a perfect match, but it could make a perfect moment, and she ached to be touched like she mattered. No one seemed to want a tomboy. Not when they couldn’t see the size of her breasts or envision where their hand might rest on her waist. Most teenage guys made no secret of wanting a girl to be hot and cute and sweet, and Stevie couldn’t stomach the idea of even pretending to be those things. But Ethan noticed her, and he wanted what he saw.
She’d come tonight knowing they weren’t couple material. She’d disdain his lack of ambition. He’d resent her goals. They would be toxic together.
They were made to end.
And to end like this.
She took his hand, thrilled by the feel of his fingers closing around hers. Gently, deliberately, he guided her onto the porch beside him. For the space of a shaky breath, he waited, watching her, a silent warning of her last chance. Then his lips covered hers, hands sliding around her as if they’d done this a thousand times. She held still, enlivened by the leathery scent of him, the coarse stubble against her chin, the firm press of his palms at her back. His head tilted, lips easing apart, seeming to sense her nerves and leading the kiss so very carefully. Heat slithered to her core when he teased her tongue into his mouth, and fire sparked in her heart when he moaned, kissing her deeper. He kept it slow, savoring, building the tension in her body until she was grasping his back, drawing him closer, and he spun, pressing her spine against the brick pillar.
He sank against her, unrestrained, and their movements roughened. He dragged off her hat, burying his hands into her hair. She lifted a foot and planted the sole on the bricks behind her, inhaling raggedly when he grasped her raised knee, guiding it outward so his hips could press down against hers. A new tension wrung through her body, tightening her breasts, and she knew she wanted this…wanted more.
Ethan drew back, pressing his forehead to hers and catching his breath.
He said softly, ‘Tell me why you’re here.’
She swallowed and flicked a glance at his parted lips. ‘Three guesses.’
‘You want me. I want you.’ Even his hot breath on her face made her ache for him. ‘And I’m leaving in the morning.’
She stiffened at the accuracy of the last.
His features twisted, cynical. ‘You can finally do this without consequences.’
No point lying. ‘Okay. I like that school’s almost over, so I don’t have to deal with everyone who thinks this is their business.’
‘What about the consequence of us getting into some kind of relationship?’
Some kind, she noted. Not exclusive or long term, but something messier, murkier. He was right—some kind of relationship was exactly what she’d been avoiding.
‘Ethan.’ She nudged a few bottles off the porch with her foot. ‘We have nothing in common.’
‘We’ve got one very fierce thing in common,’ he corrected, tightening his hold. Her chest pressed up against his, and arousal opened inside her, a lush flower. ‘But it’s only okay to act on it now because there’s no future in it.’
She stared him down. ‘You invited me here, knowing you leave in the morning, so it clearly doesn’t bother you that much.’
He looked aside. A hand rose to swipe over his chin, nudging emotion off his face. ‘I wouldn’t be good for you; we both know that,’ he said quietly. ‘Guess I just wish it weren’t true.’
Wariness rose in her. Her feelings for Ethan confused her. For years, she’d desired him, ached for his attention, hoped every day to see him around school. She’d imagined them together, holding hands, walking to class, and—because she’d even gone so far as to imagine having a positive influence on him—studying together. But then, her head would pipe up, accusing her of knowing better.
Every time, her heart relented.
Of course she knew better.
‘I guess I’ve been thinking about why I’m leaving,’ he said, leg jiggling slightly. ‘Trying to convince myself it’s the right thing to do.’
‘Turns out it is.’ He looked down at her. Maybe it was the result of a long, sleepless night, or maybe it was her, but his gaze bared all. Grim, agitated, with a blackness that hinted at despair. ‘This life isn’t for me. Suburbia. Institution. Routine. It’s overwhelming in its banality, like a thousand boring voices all talking at the same time. Impossible mind noise. I can’t focus. Or the good part of me can’t, so the lowlife has taken over.’
She twisted a knuckle between his ribs. ‘You’re not a lowlife.’
Ethan huffed out a humorless laugh, edging away. ‘That’s nice of you, but I am. I’ve got to get out, or I’ll never be better.’
The student in her couldn’t help saying, ‘Wait until after exams.’
‘I’ve failed, Stevie.’ His gaze was bleak. ‘Failed it all. Mr. Jefferson told me a few weeks ago.’
She stared, dismayed. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I’ve never been smart enough.’
‘That’s bull.’ His interest was the problem, not his intelligence. But it was too late now. ‘Where will you go?’
‘No idea. But Beau’—his brother—‘reckons I’m the only person in our family who has a hope of succeeding, and he’s not going to let me throw that away by ending up like him.’ He gave a halfhearted smile. ‘I said his life looked good to me, and he told me to get a grip and punched me in the face. Strangely, that silenced the mind noise for a second, and I realized he was right.’
Stevie grimaced. Brotherly love came in all forms.
‘I don’t know what I’ll do.’ He exhaled hard. ‘But I’ll find something. Get on track. Make myself better.’
Stevie nodded, hiding a chill of premonition. By moving away with no family and no support, the odds were against him. Good habits were hard to make, and bad habits hard to shake. Her stomach dropped as his future all but materialized before her.
A better life wasn’t in the cards for Ethan Rafters.
‘Good luck,’ she murmured, looking down.
His hands found her again, pressing along her waist, her back, drawing heat from her core and calling it forth to her skin. Her body sighed, and she leaned into him as he said, ‘I want to become the kind of person you’d want to stay around.’
She frowned. ‘I’m really not your type.’
‘You define my type.’ He lowered his lips to her neck and dragged them across her skin. Reaction zapped through her veins and throbbed hot between her thighs. He kissed the hollow behind her ear, sending shivers over her scalp. ‘You’re tough. You do whatever the hell you want, and you do it unapologetically. You’re you, and not many people go through school as themselves.’ His hold tightened, thrilling her hormones with a simple slide of his hand over her bottom. ‘Your smile drives me wild. When you hang out with Felix, he makes you laugh.’ Jealousy tinged his words. ‘Some days, it travels across the oval. It’s so infectious that sometimes the guys ask what I’m smiling about. Your outfits are sexy. And your hair—damn—it’s the coolest thing.’
His attention shifted in the dimness, roaming over her blonde spikes. Stevie managed to haul in a half-breath before he locked eyes with her and reached out. Large, gentle, his hand spanned across her scalp. Warmth flooded her, chased by arousal, as his fingertips tightened, massaging slightly, and shivers rushed down her neck, her spine, mellowing her muscles.
Her inhale was ragged. The underside of his wrist rested against her cheekbone, his skin hot, and she gave in, pressing her lips to his pulse. The pad of his thumb stroked her temple, and she closed her eyes for several sweet heartbeats.
‘I didn’t want to leave without telling you the effect you have on me,’ he said.
She opened her eyes, pained.
He smiled ironically. ‘Too deep?’
A little too deep, because now she knew this went beyond attraction on his end. And she…she was blinded by infatuation. She didn’t know what she’d think of him if she could see clearly. ‘Ethan—’
‘Do you want to go inside?’ His murmur cut her off; cut them both off from the conversation.
Stevie pressed her forehead against his, knowing it was now or never, with sunrise spreading pale grey across the eastern sky. Finally surrendering to the physical pull that had commanded her for so long, she whispered, ‘Yes.’
It was how they were made to end, after all.
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