Seemingly unaware of the personal battle raging inside me, Ashlyn continued. “Aiden rented a lake house for next weekend on Lake Michigan. There are two bedrooms, so of course you’re invited. Sort of a celebration of the end of summer, before the weather turns.”

“Yeah. I’m in. That sounds fun.” Catching some late-summer sun, drinking with Ashlyn, it would be a nice end to the summer before the pain sure to follow in this fall term for us both. I only hoped I didn’t feel like too much of a third wheel on their sure-to-be-romantic getaway. I gulped down the remainder of my wine and signaled the bartender for another.

Chapter 6

After Cohen’s admission about being a virgin, I found myself inadvertently steering clear of him. I hadn’t slept over again, and I hadn’t seen Stu either. It was too strange knowing Stu was one of Cohen’s professors. Also, I couldn’t seem to shake Ashlyn’s judgments. I wasn’t ready for a relationship, plain and simple, and so I knew deep down that I shouldn’t lead Cohen on. He knew what he was looking for—and I wasn’t it, so there was no sense in fooling myself.

After my run early that Sunday morning, I saw Cohen and Bob just returning from a run themselves.

I stopped in front of our house to stretch. “Hey there,” I called as he jogged the last few paces toward me.

“Hey, Easy E.” He smiled.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the ridiculous nickname that seemed to have stuck. Yes, because being named after an old-school rapper was so endearing.

Cohen’s smile alone worked to ease some of the tension of my conflicting emotions over the last few days.

He stopped beside me, breathing hard, and Bob dropped to the sidewalk, his tongue lolling from his mouth. “Where have you been? You haven’t been over.”

I looked down at my tennis shoes. “Sorry. I’ve been busy.”

He tipped my chin up to meet his eyes. “You were weirded out by what I told you.”

It wasn’t a question, and I didn’t respond. I just held his blue gaze, searching for what, I didn’t know.

He chuckled. “Don’t get weird on me. I’m still the same guy. Sure, I’ve probably held myself to stricter standards than some, but don’t treat me different now that you know.”

“I’m sorry,” I blurted without thinking, realizing that my apology had just proven he was right—I had been treating him differently.

“Bob and I have missed you.” He reached down and ruffled the dog behind his ear.

“Do you want to grab some breakfast or something?” I offered.

He smiled at me again, but shook his head. “No, I take my mom and little sister to church Sunday mornings. You’re welcome to join us.”

“Church? Me?” Um, no thanks.

“Come on, it’s probably not as bad as what you’re thinking. Come with me, and we’ll get breakfast together after—just the two of us.”

I have no idea what possessed me to say yes, but somehow I found myself nodding. I don’t know if it was to make up for my obvious dismissal of him after he admitted his deepest secrets, or just because he was impossible to say no to, gazing down at me with those beautiful blue eyes, telling me he’d missed me, but whatever the reason, I found myself showered and dressed and back on my porch to meet him thirty minutes later. Lord, help me.

Cohen strolled down the stairs, dressed in pressed khakis and a button-down shirt. He looked handsome, and even younger somehow. Even his normally messy hair was fashioned into place with some type of styling product. It was hard to take my eyes off him walking towards me, which was why it took me a second to notice that Bob was with him.

“Does Bob go everywhere with you?”

He rolled his eyes. “My sister Grace got this dog for me when she found out that our fire station dog was killed. Bob was her birthday present to me. But she’s really attached to him too, so I bring him to my mom’s house whenever I go home.”

“Gotcha.”

We walked to the curb where an antique-looking blue Jeep was parked.

He secured Bob in the back and then came around the side to open my door and help me inside.

He surveyed my most modest knee-length black shirt and burgundy top. “You clean up nice.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled, climbing into the Jeep.

His mom lived on the south side of Chicago, about a twenty-minute drive, and we kept up an easy conversation on the way.

“How old is your little sister?”

“She’s eight. My mom had this boyfriend—a real dirt bag. He stuck around until she was eight months pregnant and then took off.”

He strummed his thumb against the steering wheel, as if lost in thought. “She was such a wreck that the baby came early. I was fifteen and began working full time to help take care of her, and help out with a newborn. I don’t even remember most of my freshman year of high school.”

No wonder he’d chosen to remain celibate. If that wasn’t a solid birth control method, I didn’t know what was. “So you’ve been working since then?”

“Yeah. And when I was eighteen, I enrolled in an EMT and firefighters course so I’d always have something to fall back on.”

“Smart.” I nodded.

“There have been times when it didn’t feel so smart—like when rushing into a burning building in the middle of the night , not knowing if I’d make it out again.”

“That must have been a crazy way to grow up—so fast and with such responsibility.”

“Sort of. But it was all I knew. I had a choice. I could rebel and go the path of some of my friends—get into drugs, parties and girls—but I knew if I did, that’d make me no better than my own father, or Grace’s.”

Cohen’s strength and character continued to impress me. I watched him maneuver through the Chicago traffic with ease, smartly navigating the Jeep into the fastest moving lanes and dodging backups like he was quite used to driving these highways. It was impressive to watch. I rarely drove, and being from a small town, the Chicago highway system still scared me.

Soon, we were stopping in front of a tiny brick house with a patchy yellow lawn.

“Home sweet home,” he said, putting the Jeep into park.

Before we were even out of the car, a little girl with messy blonde hair was running through the yard toward us. Cohen unlatched the back of the Jeep, releasing the restraint that held a very excited Labradoodle in place.

“Boo Boo!” she called and Bob happily darted toward her. She fell back onto the lawn under the weight of the dog and giggled while he lapped wet kisses all over her cheeks.

“Boo Boo?” I cocked an eyebrow at Cohen.

“Don’t ask. I’m not calling a damn dog Boo Boo. I changed it to Bob.”

Bob continued slobbering all over the little girl for several minutes and I couldn’t help but laugh. Eventually, Grace extricated herself from the dog and ran over to stand in front of us, her eyes wide and curious.

“This is my sister…um…” Cohen hesitated, scratching his head. “What’s your name again?”

“Grace!” she shouted, shoving against his stomach with all her might. He didn’t even budge.

Her grin couldn’t be dampened though and she threw her arms around his waist, hugging him with abandon. I’d grown up with a brother two years older. I didn’t recall being that excited to see him. Ever. It was sweet. Cohen leaned down to kiss the top of her head. “Come on, short stuff.” She clucked to Bob, who stood and dutifully followed her. It was clear both the dog and her big brother adored her.

“This is my friend, Liz,” Cohen introduced me to his mom and sister when we reached the front porch.

His mom was shockingly young and pretty with high cheekbones, and big blue eyes. She was a thin bottle-blonde, dressed in a modest coral-colored dress. She gave me a suspicious glance before shaking my hand. Clearly she was nervous about her son bringing a girl home.

“Hi, I’m Liz.”

“Denise,” she offered.

“It’s nice to meet you.” I was usually good with parents, but the way she’d already noted my too-long, unruly hair, full C’s and her son’s interest in me, we were off on the wrong foot.

But luckily, after getting Bob settled inside the house, we set off for church.

The service wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to church, but I was pleasantly surprised—not that I was ready to make it a regular habit. But there was something comforting about the church itself, and it was nice sitting next to Cohen, especially when he placed his hand on my knee and squeezed after we sat down.

The young pastor delivered a message about the possibility of God being a woman. I’d leaned forward in my seat, along with Cohen’s mom and sister, who were clearly intrigued by the idea. Even Cohen’s expression was one of genuine interest. I couldn’t help but notice and appreciate the fact that having been raised by a single mom, he had strong and healthy relationships with the women in his life.

After the service, Cohen’s mom led us to the front of the church. “There’s a really nice girl I want to introduce you to. Pete and Margaret’s daughter.”

“Do you mind?” Cohen leaned down to whisper in my ear.

I shook my head quickly, watching as his mother pursed her lips.

“Sure,” he said.

She led the way over to a petite girl standing alone at the front of the church.

“This is Maggie,” Cohen’s mother beamed proudly, urging her son forward by placing her hand in between his shoulder blades and giving him a firm push.

“Hey.” Cohen offered her his dazzling smile.

I felt an unexpected pang, like I’d been hit in the stomach.

“Hi.” Her mouth turned up in a small smile, before she trained her eyes to his feet. She had mousy brown hair left unstyled and wore little to no makeup. She looked eighteen, maybe nineteen years old.

“Maggie’s a greeter at the mega-mart,” his mom added.

“That’s nice,” Cohen said, managing to sound sincere.

I didn’t know what was so nice about it, but I kept my mouth shut.

I couldn’t help but notice Maggie looked down at the floor. While the adults were speaking, I mused.

“This is my good friend, Easy E,” Cohen said, placing his hand on my shoulder.

I elbowed him in the side and we both laughed. His mother frowned. And Maggie looked from Cohen to me, then back to Cohen again, not understanding the inside joke. “It’s nice to meet you…Easy…”

“Call me Liz,” I interrupted offering her my hand. She returned my handshake with a limp-noodle grip.

Though I knew I shouldn’t care, somehow it would bug me to see him end up with someone so distinctly lacking in a personality. Plus, she was too young for him. He grew up taking care of his mother and sister; he wasn’t your typical twenty-one-year-old college junior. And he needed someone strong and worthy of his love.

“Liz?” Cohen interrupted my thoughts.

“Hm?”

“You ready to go?”

“Oh, yes.”

“It was nice meeting you.” I nodded to the meek girl, and let Cohen’s hand on the small of my back guide me toward the exit.

After dropping off his mom and sister, we were back on our way into the city. During the drive, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that that Cohen’s willingness to introduce me to his mother was unexpected. I felt like my own family background was best pushed under the rug and not dealt with. Ashlyn hadn’t even met my parents in all the years I’d known her.

“What are you thinking about?” Cohen patted my knee, drawing me out of my serious line of thinking.

“I was just remembering that you owe me breakfast. I’d like pancakes. Now, please.” I smiled, letting some of the tension fall away.

He chuckled. “You got it. Let’s just ditch Boo Boo first.”

If only it was as easy to ditch bad memories. I shrugged that thought off and instead pictured a stack of fluffy flapjacks oozing with butter and syrup. Pancakes weren’t a cure-all, but sharing them with Cohen would certainly make my day a whole lot better.

Chapter 7

I was sitting in the center of Cohen’s bed, jabbing frantically at the buttons on the game controller, and waving my arms wildly as if that would control the race car on the screen, when my cell chimed signaling the arrival of a new text message.

I dropped the controller and reached for my phone, ignoring Cohen’s chuckle as he calmly maneuvered his car around the track, easily beating me in the game.

The message was from Ashlyn, asking if I wanted to go to the mall to get some things for our upcoming weekend at the lake. I cringed. I’d forgotten I’d agreed to go, and as the date got closer, I started to regret saying yes. Being around Ashlyn and Aiden’s loving relationship was hard on me for reasons I didn’t care to explore.

Inspiration struck and I sent her a text. Would it be okay if I invited Cohen this weekend?

Yeah, good idea! Your room has bunk beds too, she replied. ?

I left out the detail that Cohen and I had been sleeping in the same bed for over a week now. I turned to Cohen, putting on my sweetest, most persuasive smile. “Would you be interested in coming to the lake with me and my friends this weekend?”

He nodded. “Sure. Sounds cool.”

And suddenly a shopping trip with Ashlyn sounded perfect. Though Cohen was fun and easy to be around, I needed some space from him—well, mostly from my unrequited attraction to him. And I could get some sexy clothes to bring along. I bit my lip to avoid grinning.

Cohen flipped through the menu screen and chose another course.

“I want a do-over!” I was just starting to get the hang of it.

“We’ll do this track. It’s easier.”

I shook my head. “Oh, you don’t need to go easy on me, sugar. I’ve got this.” My confidence level sooo did not match my skill level, but I liked seeing him laugh.

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