Chapter One – Avery

“I swear to all that is holy, if you don’t get your ass back up here, I’m gonna lose my shit.” The words come out before I can stop them, and the frozen look of terror on my nephew’s face says it all.

“Aunt Avery!” Rett screeches the way only a five-year-old could and still get away with it. “You’re not ’posed to say bad words to me. Daddy doesn’t like it.”

“Deacon can kiss my ass,” I mutter under my breath.

My brother doesn’t know shit when it comes to raising his son, which is why more often than not, he drops him off with me for quality ‘auntie time.’ I’m the one who taught Rett how to ride his bike, swim, and now I’m teaching him how to paddle board. Deacon isn’t a bad dad, by any means. He is just busy, running a business and keeping a handle on his club. Besides, it takes a village to raise a healthy and safe child. Especially after Deac’s wife died in childbirth.

I grab the back of Rett’s life jacket before he can float away and pull him back onto the board with me. In the process, I almost slip off the board myself. Somehow, I manage to keep hold of the paddle that we definitely need to get back to shore.

“Wow,” he gasps. “I thought for sure you’d fall over too.”

“This,” I huff. “Is why you don’t get a paddle of your own, Everett James. At least, not until you figure out how to stay on the board with me.”

“My name is Rett,” he insists with a grimace. “And Dad says paddle boards are for pussies,” he announces proudly, and really loud, right in my face.

“I got nothing to say to that.” I start maneuvering us back to shore. “But I’d like to see your father climb up on here and not fall off with you jumping around like a hyper monkey full of sugar.”

Paddle boards take a lot of effort. My stomach and feet are already starting to throb, and we haven’t even made it back to shore yet.

“Oh,” I add belatedly. “You’re not supposed to curse, either. Sittin’ here and yelling at me for it. Then you turn around and say something worse.”

Rett looks up at me from where he is sitting between my feet, rubbing his wet head all over my legs like a dog would, and smiles a nearly toothless grin.

“You love me.” He leans back against my legs and I wince against the cold. With a deep sigh that could have come straight from his dad, Rett closes his eyes. “Take me home, Aunt Avery. I’m hungry and my party won’t wait forever.”

“Yeah, yeah… Hold on, Rett. I’m gonna try to get there faster.”

Except, as soon as we leave the cove we’ve been sitting in for most of the morning while we practice, a gust of wind blows across the pond and straight into my face.

“Scoot up,” I snap after five minutes of paddling just to keep from going backwards. “I’m gonna kayak us home.”

Rett giggles but scoots up enough that I can sit behind him and wield my paddle like the weapon it is going to become.

Switching sides every few strokes isn’t easy. “I wish this thing had a paddle on both sides.” Despite that, I make it work. Otherwise, we’ll be sitting out here until someone decides to try and rescue us. Knowing my family, it won’t happen, either.

When we finally make it out of the cove, I’m covered in sweat and ready to give Everett back to his dad. Once I do that, there is definitely a beer somewhere with my name on it. Or a shot. Or both. Yeah, as I paddle us back to the dock, both sound like an amazing idea.

“Told you the party didn’t wait.” Rett pouts as we see people milling about and hear music blaring from the shore. There is nothing I can do about it, though.

“Seriously, man.” I grunt as I use the little bit of energy I have left to get us back and tied off to the dock. “You can’t even say thank you for getting us back without tipping over?”

“No.” Rett stares at me with the same hard eyes that his father has. “I can’t. I’m cold.” He holds up a finger, counting my offenses. “I’m hungry. And I’m late to my party.”

“I guess I’ll give your birthday present away, then.” I shrug as I help him back on the dock and then climb up myself. “If you’re mad at me for being an awesome aunt who takes you on paddle board rides on your birthday, you must not want the present I got you.”

I turn away, but not so far that I can’t see him out of the corner of my eye. We might be on a dock with less than three feet of water, and the kid might have a lifejacket on, but he is still my responsibility.

“Hurry up,” Rett whines from behind me. “We gotta go. I smell cake.”

Rolling my eyes seems like the only possible option. Especially when I can’t shove him over the edge of the dock, like my fingers are suddenly itching to do.

“I doubt you can smell cake from all the way over here.” But the kid has a point. The faster we get up the dock and to the crowd of people that no doubt includes my parents and brother, the faster he isn’t my responsibility anymore. “Let’s go.”

I pick him up, soaking wet and dripping lifejacket and all, and book it up the hill.

“Are you alright?” My little sister, Bailey, calls out when she sees the frazzled expression on my face. “You look like you’re dying.”

Sure, I’m huffing and about ready to keel over, but she doesn’t need to announce it to the world.

“Shut it,” I gasp as I try to catch my breath. God, Everett weighs way more than I thought he did. “Where are Mom and Dad?” Looking around, I don’t see them or Deacon anywhere.

“Mom got a flat tire on her way here, so Dad and Deac went to save her.” Bailey stuffs a handful of chips into her mouth and munches loudly on them. “Why?” She barely manages to mumble.

“Because I want to be done babysitting the birthday boy,” I snap and nod toward Everett, who I’m still carrying on my shoulder.

Speaking of which, I drop him noisily to the ground and watch as he scrambles to get his lifejacket off.

“Off,” he whines some more. “Get it off, Aunt Avery. I’m hungry.”

I do as he asks and in the next moment, he’s all the way on the other side of the yard. Leaving me standing with my sister, looking like something that washed ashore in a storm.

“You should probably change,” Bailey whispers loudly. “I’ll watch Rett while you head in and change.”

I flip her the bird, discreetly of course, and head into the house. Camp, as we call it, is actually our parents’ retirement plan. They bought a shitload of land on the pond and built a house. Taking my time, I wander through the house and grab a beer out of the fridge before heading to the bathroom so I can shower in peace.

Bailey brought it on herself, honestly. Taking on our hellion of a nephew like that is a godsend, and one I full-on plan to take advantage of. Rett always wants to spend the night at my house when his dad is out of town for work. Whenever he is there, I feel like I can’t even shower without him interrupting, or me freaking out about the silence. He is the best birth control ever. Well, him and the classroom full of sixth graders that I teach on a regular basis.

Yes, I take the beer I pulled from the kitchen into the shower with me, too. Nothing tastes better than an ice-cold beer in a steaming hot shower. At least, not after spending the day trying to keep Rett from killing himself.

“Are you almost done?”

I slip and fall in the shower at the sudden intrusion.

“What the fuck, Bailey?” I screech as I try not to die in the water and find my footing.

“Mom and Dad are back, but Deac has to go get more beer I guess, so no more Everett duty for me.” She croons. “Sometimes, it’s good to be the slacker in the family.”

“Whatever, asshole.” I grunt as I try to get up but slip on the conditioner that still coats the shower floor. “Help me out of here.” I push the shower curtain to the side and hold out a soap-covered hand for Bailey to help me up.

“You’re lucky I love you.” Still, she helps just the same. Once I’m standing up, she lets go and shuts the curtain for me. “I brought you another beer. And I snuck the vodka away from the bar, too.”

Getting out of the shower fast becomes my top priority, and I happily grab the towel Bailey is holding out with a smile on her face once I’m finished rinsing off.

“I hate you,” I tell her while taking the proffered beer she hands me after I wrap the towel around my body. “But I love you too.”

“I mean, you should be happy I sent you inside.” Bailey chugs her own beer and then burps, loudly. “Nobody wants to see all that.” She motions toward my body. “In a two-piece.”

Without even needing to look down, I stare her straight in the eyes and laugh. “Don’t be jealous that my boobs are bigger than yours.”

Bailey snorts, and then watches as I finish my beer with one hand while holding the towel around my body with the other. Bailey dutifully avoids looking at the scar that now takes up most of my lower abdomen when I finish my beer and start to dry my body off.

Grateful doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions at her acceptance of my injury. I don’t even look at it in the mirror anymore. Not if I can help it. Ignoring it works, but I haven’t been able to let anyone else touch it. Not since Will broke my heart and made me feel like I was less than a woman.

“You’re such a bitch,” she mutters darkly. “You know that, right?”

I shove her out of the way so I can get to my clothes, still sitting on the counter waiting. “You were insinuating that I’m fat. All’s fair in love and war, Little.” Little, the nickname I’ve called her since the day our parents brought her home.

She cracks open the vodka bottle while I get dressed, and hands it over dutifully once I finally squeeze into my compression leggings and the oversized t-shirt that has become my standard outfit when I don’t have to be at school. My brown hair, long and curling slightly, even without being brushed, falls down my back since I don’t like to put it up when it is damp.

“Think we could finish this beast off before Mom and Dad come looking for us?” I stare longingly at the clear depths, but Bailey’s snicker reminds me that I am not alone.

“Not a chance in hell. It’s Everett’s birthday, and he’s their favorite grandchild.”

“He’s their only grandchild,” I correct her. “I’m not having any crotch-goblins. So it’s not like they can get any from this side of the family.”

“Don’t look at me,” she counters as she steals the bottle and takes a long slug. After a cough, she goes on, handing it back to me. “I’m only twenty-one. I’ve got a life ahead of me before I start popping out little hellions for Mom and Dad to spoil. I know our sister isn’t, either.” Bailey tilts her head to the side and looks at me with a strange expression. “Did you just call kids crotch-goblins?”

Taking a drink, I nod and laugh. She shakes her head in response. “I don’t think you can call them that. You’re a teacher, for Christ’s sake. You’re supposed to be a good influence, Avery.”

“That doesn’t change what they are. I mean, I’ve got Karen Zucker’s kid in my class this year. Do you remember her? She was in Deacon’s class in school. An outright bitch, for sure. She literally always made a point of showing that I was just tagging along during their fun.” Bailey nods while taking the bottle from my hand to get another drink. “And her little asshole of a son is seriously just as terrible. I caught him trying to cut off a girl’s ponytail last week. He even tried to say it was an accident.”

I take the bottle back and swallow some of the burning liquor, relishing the way it feels as it floods through my veins.

“But he had leaned forward, and the scissors in his hand were wrapped around her hair. That poor girl had a high pony, too. She would have been practically bald.”

With the warmth of the alcohol flowing through my system, all the stress and worries from earlier vanish and I’m left feeling slightly tingly.

“Party’s started,” Bailey says a few minutes later. “And there’s a difference now, Big. You’re not tagging along on one of Deac’s adventures. You’re a force all on your own.”

I smile, unable to help myself, but Bailey doesn’t stop there.

“A ton of kids, adults, and people we generally want to avoid at all costs. Now that you’ve got your liquid courage, though, wanna go laugh at the single moms who try to get Deac’s attention?”

“That sounds like an amazing plan.” Watching all the women who are obsessed with getting a piece of Deacon’s attention is easily one of my favorite pastimes. Especially when we can spot them from a mile away. “When he finally finds someone, it’s not gonna be one of the wannabe groupies.”

Bailey snorts. “You’re not joking. If Deac hadn’t put his foot down about his kid’s birthday, I’m sure it would be almost X-rated out there.”

I take another longing look at the bottle, laughing when I see that we haven’t even made a dent, and decide enough is enough.

Anxiety is a bitch. Anxiety, mixed with a group of people I don’t know, and a bunch of random kids would normally be enough to send me into my room for a week. In the classroom, I control the rules, the environment, all of it. But out here, in the middle of the woods, for Rett’s birthday party? Not a chance in hell. Bailey knows, no doubt, and brought the alcohol as a mediocre coping mechanism. Usually, I’d just leave. That isn’t really possible, though.

“Let’s get it over with.”

Bailey grabs my arm, and that should have been my first clue to run in the opposite direction. Instead, I smile and pick up the still-mostly-full bottle of vodka and walk through the door with a smile on my face. A smile that promptly falls when I see the very devil of a woman that I’ve been dealing with since childhood hanging on my brother’s arm.

Karen Zucker, the woman who won’t lift a finger to do anything about her son terrorizing other students. The woman who’d stolen my first boyfriend. And now, the one who has apparently turned her eyes on Deacon.

“What. The. Fuck.” I let go of my sister’s arm and hand her the bottle.

Rage doesn’t even begin to convey the emotion pouring through my veins.

“She has no right,” I hiss. “None at all.”

“Too late to run,” Bailey snips cheerfully. “You’ll just have to get rid of her.”

My smile turns feral, and I go to do just that. The crowd parts, albeit reluctantly, since there are children running around everywhere. That, and the fact that I only stand about five-feet tall on a good day.

“Move…” I demand through clenched teeth as someone steps into my path. “Now!”

My order falls on deaf ears, though, when I look up and see one of the club hangarounds.

“Your brother is busy,” he says cheerfully. “I don’t think he’d want you bothering him.”

I put one hand on my hip and look up at him while biting my bottom lip while I think about the best way to handle this ignorant brute. Finally settling on blunt, I let him have it. “That’s your first mistake.” I move around him, but he steps in front of me again.

“I’m serious, Avery. Your brother’s busy.”

Though I don’t even know how this guy knows my name, because I don’t have a clue who he is. His short black hair and dark eyes might look intimidating to most anyone else… but not me. I deal with children who could tear him apart without even thinking about it.

“Leroy,” he says when it is clear that I don’t know him at all. “My name’s Leroy.”

“Look, Leroy.” I say with my tone overly saccharine-sweet. “You really don’t want to get in my way. Not today.”

When he puts his arm around me, he makes the biggest mistake he possibly ever could. He doesn’t need to fear my brother, or any of the men who actually belong in his club. He should have thought twice about touching me since I’m a force to be reckoned with.

Too late, I hear someone call out my name in warning. Deacon is too far away, though, to stop what is going to happen next.

I grab the wrist that is currently digging into my shoulder and twist it so hard an audible popping sound fills the air. “You made a mistake, Leroy.” He drops to the ground, the pressure I applied to his wrist too much for him to keep standing.

Normally, I’d just drop his hand and walk away. I hate being touched. Literally, every person in my life knows it. My brother has told the members of his club not to touch me.

“You laid your hands on me.”

Leroy’s eyes dart in the direction that Deacon had been standing with Karen. Clearly, he isn’t concerned with me, but with what Deacon will do to him for touching me.

“Not only that, Leroy. My brother isn’t the one you should be afraid of. I am.” I lean down into his face, noting that he might actually be attractive if his eyes weren’t filling up with unshed tears. “You shouldn’t ever touch a woman without her permission.”

I drop his wrist and turn away, ready to lay into my brother for bringing that hussy to his son’s birthday party.

Unfortunately, the brick wall I ran into wasn’t wearing a leather jacket. He is wearing a badge and the handcuffs in his hands aren’t fuzzy or fake-looking in the slightest. When I look up into a pair of the most intense eyes I’ve ever seen, I almost pass out.

I open my mouth, ready to apologize to the god of a man standing in front of me, but that’s not what comes out.

“The vodka made me do it.”

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