Sneak Peek: The Final Chance
We’re just a couple days away from the release of my next contemporary romance, The Final Chance, so how about a sneak peek of the first three chapters?
Pre-order The Final Chance here!
This book can be read alone, but it does take place after the events in The Last Summer and the short story The First Holidays. There will be some crossovers and spoilers from The Last Summer in this new book. Also, The Last Summer was YA, but The Final Chance is new adult. It’s still clean romance, but there are implications and fade-to-black scenes.
*Content Warning: This book features a character with anxiety and an eating disorder. However, these topics are not shown in this excerpt.
Chapter 1 Beth Ann
With a frustrated huff, Beth Ann smacked at the vibrating wall beside her. Loud music pumped from the room next door, making it impossible to focus on the show she’d binged all day. Groaning, she shoved her laptop over and jumped out of bed. She stomped to her door, not bothering to even grab her slippers. Classes didn’t start again for a couple days, and the building still sat mostly empty save for the few who needed to return early. She stormed to the room a few feet away and knocked as hard as she could.
When no one answered, she smacked it with an open palm, yelling, “Open up!”
Still nothing. As she went to knock again, the door flew open, startling her. The sight before her took her by surprise even more. In nothing but a towel hanging low on his hips, stood a well-toned man. His confusion turned into an amused smirk as she stared.
She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms, suddenly self-conscious in her ratty old t-shirt and polka dot pajama pants. “Please turn the music down.”
“I didn’t think anyone else was on this floor yet.” He reached up to grip the top of the doorframe.
There wasn’t anyone there yet; she was the only one. Even their RA was gone for the night, staying with a friend in another hall. She’d stopped by Beth Ann’s room before leaving to make sure she didn’t need anything. She hadn’t seen any of the other residents return. Ignoring the way the guy’s stance defined his muscles more, Beth Ann looked around him. “Where are Alan and Sam?”
“Sam dropped out,” he said, lowering back down with a shrug. “Alan’s coming back tomorrow. I’m his new roommate, Vince.”
“Beth Ann,” she said, not bothering to shake the hand he held out. “Please keep the music down.”
As she headed toward her room, he yelled, “Wait.”
She turned, barely suppressing a sigh. After the week she’d had, she was not in the mood.
“It’s the last weekend before classes,” he said, holding his towel with one hand as he approached. “Why are you being all gloomy, wanting a quiet night alone in your room?”
She raised a brow. “How do you know I’m alone?”
He glanced down at her clothes and back up to the messy bun on top of her head. Before he could say anything, she whirled around only to be stopped by her door. She turned the handle again but couldn’t get in. It must have locked behind her, and she’d run out so fast she hadn’t grabbed her keys or phone. Letting out a frustrated sigh, Beth Ann leaned forward to put her head against the cool wood. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“What was that you were saying about not being alone?”
Beth Ann turned to glare at Vince. “Shut up.”
He tried to say more, but she ignored him, walking down the hall to the elevator. As the doors began to close, she saw him shake his head and go back into his room.
Good. She didn’t have the patience to deal with him. She’d had enough of cocky men in her life for a while. Hazel eyes flashed in her mind, and try as she might, they wouldn’t leave. Biting the inside of her lip, she waited for the doors to open once more.
When the elevator dinged, she stepped out into the cool hall that led to the lobby, cursing the fact that she hadn’t put on socks or shoes before leaving her room. A sharp winter draft seeped through the doors and windows of the old building. With people entering and exiting throughout the day, the ground floor was always much colder than the rooms upstairs.
Her bare feet pattered along the cool linoleum, and she hugged herself tighter. She turned the corner and froze. The front desk was closed, the metal barrier pulled down. She looked around, but there was no one, not a single sound to indicate someone still sat behind the closed window. She knocked on it anyway and then on the hall director’s door to no avail.
“Are you kidding me?” She smacked the doorframe, the metal stinging her palm.
“It’s after midnight and hardly anyone has returned yet, did you really think people would be around?” Vince said behind her, making her jump.
Facing him, she was glad he’d at least dressed before following. “Someone has to be on duty. One of the other RAs or something.”
“So, you’re just going to go to each floor knocking on doors till you find them?” He nodded toward her feet. “Barefoot? You’ve got to be freezing.”
It was the only way to get in her room before the next day, but he was right. Besides, she didn’t want to deal with other people. It was bad enough trying to get away from this new neighbor who seemed intent on sticking around. With an idea forming, she walked past him and back to the elevator. She held the door open, knowing he’d follow, and he grinned as he joined her.
The silent ride up shocked her, but she didn’t complain. On the eighth floor, they both stepped out. She was grateful to be back on carpet.
As they reached his door, she said, “Goodnight.”
But she didn’t stop. She passed her door and headed to the far end of the hall where a small study lounge stood open. Leaving the light off, she moved to the window and pulled the blinds up. The city around her brightened the room just enough for see the table, chairs, and two couches. Outside, snow drifted through the air in the light, and she watched in wonder as it floated down to the street. Indiana had its own winters, but something about the bitter cold air in New York had a different feel to it. It was harsh and unrelenting.
The thought twisted her stomach. She missed Summersville and her friends. But she knew she’d made the right decision. Following her dreams was a good thing.
If only she could convince her heart of that.
She turned from the window and made her way to one of the couches closest to the radiator along the wall. At least it was warmer than the lobby. She curled up, pulling her knees to her chest. She’d wait there until the RA on duty did their rounds, then she’d have them unlock her door.
A soft blanket covered her, and her eyes snapped open.
“You can’t stay in here,” Vince said, standing over her. “I don’t know where you’re from, but you can’t sleep in public places like this in New York. It’s not safe.”
“It’s a locked dorm, no one who doesn’t live here can get in, and there are only a few people back as you pointed out.”
“And how many of those people do you know?” he asked, moving to the adjacent couch.
She realized he had a blanket too. “What are you doing?”
“You’re not getting into your room for a while, so either you’re coming to sleep in my room or I’m sleeping here.”
Sitting up, she said, “You were just lecturing me about it not being safe because I don’t know people. I don’t know you at all. At least most of the others are RAs I’ve seen around the halls.”
He let out a sigh and shoved a hand through his short brown hair. “Beth Ann, if I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn’t have said anything. I wouldn’t have given you a blanket and taken a separate couch.”
The sincerity in his tone and the concern in his eyes she’d seen earlier made her believe him. She knew deep down that he told the truth. “Fine, but I’m not going to your room.”
A hand shot out to her, and she flinched. He chuckled. The outside light glinted off the phone in his hand.
“Here,” he said. “Take this if it makes you feel safer.”
She took it with caution. The back screen lit up as she lifted it, telling her it was nearly one in the morning. Without unlocking it, she could still make emergency calls, and the battery was full. She sat it beside her as she laid down. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” The absent smug attitude left his voice soft, almost sweet. It did nothing for her nerves. She heard him shift on the cushions before he asked, “So, what are you studying?”
Beth Ann almost laughed. Of course he wouldn’t just go to sleep. “Apparel design. You?”
“Graphic design. Are you from New York? I assume not with the accent.”
“I don’t have an accent.” She rolled to her side to see him better.
“Well, you don’t sound like you’re from the east coast.” He faced her the same—his tall body scrunched into the small space of the couch.
Guilt wracked through her. Rolling her eyes, she stood, pulled the blanket around her shoulders, and snatched up the phone. He stared at her in confusion, slowly moving to sit.
“Come on. That couch is way too short for you. I will wait for the RAs from your room.” At the door, she turned back. “Are you coming or not?”
With a grin, he jumped up and led her down the hall. He unlocked his door and held it open as he flipped on the light. The small room had the same layout as hers. The only difference was the lack of cozy decorations—her fuzzy pillows and rug, the lights she and her roommate hung up the previous semester.
Alan’s side of the room was easy to spot, even if she hadn’t known him. Everything sat in its organized space. Tidy to a fault. Meanwhile, Vince had boxes and bags sprawled out—half unpacked and clothes tossed all over. He quickly grabbed a bunch, shoving them into open drawers and luggage.
“Wow,” she said, sitting in Alan’s desk chair.
“I know, I know. I was in the middle of unpacking when you showed up.”
She nudged a tipped over bag with her toe. “What time is Alan getting here?”
“Not until late tomorrow night,” Vince said.
“Good.” She moved to look at the photos and books on his desk. “Because he’d freak if he saw this. He likes things clean.”
“I noticed,” Vince mumbled.
Turning back around she looked at Alan’s bed. The sheets were gone. She had no doubt they’d be clean, but she also knew he wouldn’t like anyone sleeping in them. She walked over to lean back against the mattress. Exhaustion hit her hard, and she knew if she laid down, she’d fall asleep almost instantly and not hear the RAs walk by.
“I’ll help you tomorrow,” she said before glancing up.
She met Vince’s deep brown gaze. He stared at her with a brow raised in confusion, but the heat in his eyes never faltered.
She swallowed. At barely a whisper, she asked, “What?”
“You’re going to help me?”
Beth Ann shrugged. “As a thanks for letting me stay.”
She hoped she hadn’t overstepped, but he had offered. When Vince nodded, she let out a breath. He opened his mouth but seemed to reconsider. The heat in his stare stirred the butterflies in her stomach.
Clearing her throat, she broke eye contact. She quickly climbed onto the bed. “Goodnight.”
With a soft laugh, he shook his head and moved to turn off the light before getting into his own bed. “Goodnight, Beth Ann.”
Chapter 2 Beth Ann
“No, you can’t put them in there,” Beth Ann said, grabbing the hoodie from where Vince tried shoving it into a drawer of t-shirts. “Seriously? How do you not know where to put clothes?”
As she draped it on a hanger, he said, “Not all of us care about clothes that much.”
She handed it back and pointed to the wardrobe in the corner. He mumbled something under his breath but did as she directed. Needing to see when her roommate, Manny, returned, they had propped open his door. Greetings and conversations drifted in from the hall, and hearing the buzz from the excited students brought a smile to her face. Despite missing home, she really did love Harleson.
“I vote we take a break for pizza,” Vince said, plopping down on the floor beside her.
She shook her head. “Order the pizza, and we’ll take a break once it gets here.”
“Has anyone ever told you how bossy you are?”
She met his grin with her own. “No veggies on the pizza.”
He laughed and reached for his phone, stretching backward over the edge of his bed they sat against. As his shirt raised to reveal the abs that would haunt her dreams, she looked back down and started folding another pair of pants.
By the time the pizza arrived and Vince retrieved it from the lobby, all of his clothes were folded or hanging in the wardrobe. He handed her the box before turning to grab a couple drinks from the mini fridge.
“Coke or Sprite?” He sat back down beside her.
She grabbed the Coke, needing the caffeine. They sat and ate, talking about their home lives. He grew up outside of the city and had two sisters. It was simple and average, but she could hear the love in the way he talked about his family. Beth Ann told him about Summersville and her best friend, Lila. She rambled on about Lila’s bucket list and how her archnemesis, Gavin, helped her check off every item before her surgery.
Vince laughed. “Archnemesis?”
“Oh yeah. They grew up next door to each other and were best friends until their eleventh birthday party. Then, they fought for seven years non-stop.”
“Because boys are idiots.” When he raised a brow, she added, “No offense.”
He just rolled his eyes. “So, they checked everything off and became friends again?”
“Nope,” she said, popping her P. “They checked everything off, he confessed he’s loved her the whole time, and now they’re living happily ever after.”
“Aren’t they like eighteen?” He closed the half-empty box of pizza—mostly eaten by him. She’d picked at her piece, slowly eating it, but talking about Lila’s tumor made her emotional.
“Fine, they’re living happily for now.” She twisted the napkin in her lap. “He was a mess with the surgery.”
“That had to be hard,” Vince whispered, putting a hand over hers. “She’s okay now though, right?”
“Yeah.” Beth Ann nodded and wiped an escaped tear from her cheek with her free hand. The phone call she’d received, telling her everything, played on repeat in her nightmares. She hadn’t even waited to end the call with Dylan before looking for flights home.
Dylan. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back against the bedframe. The past few weeks at home had gone so well. Since that first phone call, she had talked to Dylan nearly every day. When she arrived home for the holidays, the four had spent a lot of time together. She’d gone on a date with him—no matter how much she denied it, that’s what it was—but then she’d pushed him away. That didn’t stop him from going to her aunt’s house for the holidays so she wouldn’t have to spend over five hours in the car alone with her parents. He’d said he was fine being friends and that he just wanted to be there for her.
And then she’d kissed him. Twice.
They’d always gotten along. He flirted with everyone, so she brushed off his attention as his personality. Until that week. She kissed him at her aunt’s house, and then, by the time Lila and Gavin’s New Year’s party came around, she was tired of worrying about the distance of their schools. Dylan had slipped outside after someone made a joke about him causing trouble. She’d seen the hurt flash in his eyes and followed him out. They stood in silence on Gavin’s back deck, listening to the party go on without them. They heard the crowd counting down, and she decided she didn’t want to push him away anymore. She let her guard down. She let him in.
Shaking her head, Beth Ann focused on the present—on the nice, good-looking man sitting next to her. She didn’t want to think about someone hundreds of miles away who wanted nothing to do with her.
“You okay?” Vince asked.
She turned, realizing just how close they sat. With a slight nod, she leaned closer. The corner of his mouth tugged up, and he slowly lifted a hand to cup her cheek. His breath tickled her lips.
“Well, don’t we look cozy?”
Beth Ann drew back and turned to see Manny standing in the doorway. She forgot it was open and scrambled to her feet to hug her roommate. While they’d only known each other since the previous summer, they’d become great friends fast. They’d participated in the same advanced summer program, getting into their coursework early and exploring the campus.
“This is Vince, Alan’s new roommate.” Beth Ann turned back to the man getting to his feet. “Sam isn’t coming back apparently.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Manny.” She shook his hand before looking to Beth Ann. “So, no Dylan?”
Beth Ann hissed, “later,” but she saw Vince stiffen. He met her gaze, a question lingering in his eyes. To Manny, she said, “I got locked out and no one was around to let me in. He let me stay here.”
“I bet he did.” Manny raised her brows twice.
Ignoring the heat climbing to her cheeks, Beth Ann added, “No, he let me sleep on Alan’s bed. It was either that or sleep in the study lounge.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Vince.” She hefted a bag up higher on her shoulder. “I want to get settled, but I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.”
Manny turned to leave, and Beth Ann whispered, “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Her friend nodded then left them alone. Beth Ann closed the door, no longer needing to see who passed by and wanting some privacy for the inevitable conversation she knew was coming.
When she faced Vince again, he stood with arms crossed. “You have a boyfriend?”
“No.” It came out too fast. “No, Dylan is—was just a friend. I thought maybe there’d be more, but he is back in Indiana.”
“I’m sorry,” Vince said, cutting off her rambling as he stepped closer. He stood mere inches away. “You still care about him?”
Refusing to acknowledge her feelings out loud, she peeked down at her feet. When a gentle finger tilted her chin back up, she whispered, “I just want to move on. Forget about home for a while.”
Understanding filled his stare as he seemed to think through his next words. “You want a distraction?”
She bit her bottom lip and nodded. and his smile spread.
“I can do that.”
His lips crashed into hers as he closed the space between them, pushing her back to the door. Fingers trailed along the underside of her chin to her neck and shoulder. They moved down to her sides, gripping and pulling her against him. She twisted her arms up behind his neck to deepen the kiss.
When they finally broke, he chuckled and rested his forehead against hers. He kissed her once more. “This is going to be a fun semester. I might like this school after all.”
She grinned up at him as he stepped back. If that kiss was any gauge, it would be a fun few months indeed. With a wink, she reached for the door handle. “See ya around, neighbor.”
* * *
8 Months Earlier
Beth Ann stared at the wall, unable to process her friend’s words. Her heart pounded, her eyes burned with tears, and her throat constricted.
“Beth Ann, are you still there?” Alarm filled Dylan’s voice.
She took a shaky breath. Gripping the phone tighter, she whispered, “I’m here.”
“She’s going to be okay,” he said. “It’s operable.”
Beth Ann nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. She stood, moving to the window. The strange, new city beyond carried on, unaware that the world was crashing. Her world at least. The rain streaming down the glass pane mirrored the tears she could no longer hold back.
“How long has she known?”
Dylan hesitated. “She found out a couple weeks before Christmas.”
“Christmas?” Seven months. For seven months, her best friend battled a brain tumor without telling anyone outside her family.
“Yeah,” Dylan said. “She had a weird reaction to the chemo, so they had to stop. They decided surgery was the best option, but because it could damage her memory, she begged them to wait until after graduation.”
“And they agreed?”
“It wasn’t growing or causing any real harm yet, so yes.” He sounded as frustrated and confused as she felt.
Tucking the phone against her shoulder, Beth Ann moved to the wardrobe in the corner of her small dorm room. When accepted into Harleson’s advanced summer program, she’d moved to New York nearly three months before her first official college term. She arrived less than two weeks ago, and the homesickness warred with the excitement inside. She’d hated leaving her best friend earlier than anticipated.
Now, she almost wished they hadn’t accepted her. At least then, she’d have been home with Lila before her surgery.
Grabbing a small suitcase, Beth Ann began shoving clothes inside as Dylan continued to talk. He did that when nervous. And if the easy-going Dylan was anxious, things weren’t good.
“So, one of the last items on her bucket list is to go to a party,” he said.
The bucket list sounded morbid, but she knew her best friend. Lila had shied away from everything throughout high school. She focused on school and work so much that she didn’t really have a social life outside of Beth Ann. Beth Ann understood exactly what he meant when he said Lila wanted to create memories. While she hadn’t been quite as closed off, Beth Ann had been content spending most of her time at the Scoop, eating ice cream while Lila worked.
“Gavin has this whole plan to make the party special for her.” Dylan’s words brought her back to the present.
“I still can’t believe she’s doing all this with Gavin,” she said, moving to the bed. She pulled her laptop to the edge of the mattress and began searching for flights to Indiana.
“You can’t?” he said, the amusement clear in his tone. “He’s been in love with her his whole life.”
Beth Ann rolled her eyes. They’d had that discussion many times. “Yeah, but that doesn’t erase the constant fighting for the past seven years.”
“They talked it all out in Chicago.”
She sighed. She hated being so far away and missing out on everything. “I know. You told me…”
Clicking through the available flights, she found one and pulled out her emergency credit card.
“She would have told you,” Dylan said softly. “It’s been a rough week. I don’t think she knows how to tell you about the tumor, which would come out when talking about everything else.”
That made sense, but Beth Ann still hated it.
“I only know because Gavin tells me everything,” he went on.
The corner of her mouth tugged up. They were chattier and gossipier than her and Lila. She’d always admired their friendship, even when she was supposed to hate Gavin. Lila had never told her the full truth about their fall out, but if she didn’t like him, Beth Ann couldn’t. Dylan, on the other hand, was hard to dislike. He was friends with everyone—accepted by all the cliques in their school.
Beth Ann clicked the confirmation button then shut her laptop. She glanced at the clock and cursed.
“What?” Dylan asked.
She’d nearly forgotten she was still on the phone with him. “I am going to be late for my next workshop. It starts in ten minutes, and it’s on the other side of campus.”
As she grabbed her purse and keys, she slid on her shoes and headed toward the door. Her roommate had left earlier that morning, and Beth Ann hadn’t seen her since. She assumed she’d see her at the workshop, but she quickly wrote a note on their dry erase board just in case.
“I will let you go then.” Dylan didn’t hang up right away though. After a moment, he whispered, “I miss you, Bethy.”
Shoving open the door to the stairwell, she clenched her jaw. That was the other part that made it difficult to be so far from home. She didn’t want to miss him so much—she’d tried to keep her distance—but she did. “I will be there late tonight.”
“Of course,” she said as she made her way down the last few steps. “I just booked a flight. I’ll be there around midnight.”
“I’ll pick you up from the airport,” he said.
“Nope,” he interrupted. “You’re not going to call your parents so last minute and have them get you that late.”
She sighed. Pausing under the awning just outside her building’s door, she said, “Fine. Thank you.”
“I’ll see you tonight.”
He ended the call before she could respond. As she stuck her phone in her purse, she whispered, “I miss you too,” before running out into the warm summer rain.
Chapter 3 Dylan
“You’re an idiot.”
“Yeah, I think we’ve all established that already,” Dylan said, tossing the baseball up in the air again. He swiveled back and forth in Gavin’s desk chair as he caught the ball over and over. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Not sleep with her cousin,” Lila said from her spot on Gavin’s bed.
Guilt flooded him, and he refused to look at his friends. She and Gavin started their classes at Maslair that week, and Lila looked so at peace. They deserved their happy ending. But while he was thrilled for them, it also sent pangs of jealousy and loneliness rippling through him.
When he finally glanced up, she was glaring at him. Before either could say anything, the door opened. Gavin strolled in, unaware of the tension as he sat the bag of Chinese takeout on the end of the bed. He divvied up the containers before sitting beside his girlfriend and leaning over to kiss her cheek. Her sweet smile back at him twisted Dylan’s stomach.
Beth Ann had looked at him like that. Before he ruined everything.
“So, what were we talking about that made Dylan tense up?” Gavin asked, apparently not as oblivious as he seemed.
“Just how stupid your best friend is.” Lila popped a piece of orange chicken in her mouth.
Gavin coughed, trying to cover up a burst of laughter.
Dylan stabbed at a piece of his own chicken, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat it. That night kept playing on a reel in his mind. Standing out in the cold as the rest of the party continued without them. The girl he’d wanted for so long standing at his side, as if she knew something was eating away at him. She was the only one who’d noticed he’d disappeared from the celebration.
“Are you going to tell us what really happened?” Lila asked, her tone softening.
She knew there was more to the story. Somehow, she could read him better than his own best friend now.
“I kissed Beth Ann,” he started.
“I know that part,” she said. “I mean what happened to make you go off with Sarah when you’ve been pining after Beth Ann for so long?”
“I have not been pining.” He pushed the rice around on his plate.
When he met her gaze, she raised a brow.
As he sat his food on the desk beside him, Dylan sighed. “Fine.” He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “I kissed Bethy, but then I remembered nothing could happen because she lives in freaking New York. We went back into the party and had a good time. But that impending distance just kept hanging over us, and she acted like it didn’t exist.”
“Dylan…” Lila said. “What did you do?”
“You know what I did.” He crossed his arms, fidgeting with the end of one sleeve. “I found Sarah and decided to ruin my life.”
Gavin stayed quiet. He knew the truth of what happened, but he didn’t know why. Dylan hadn’t told him. “Beth Ann was leaving a couple days later, and I needed her to… I don’t know.”
With a frustrated groan, he stood and shoved a hand through his hair. He paced back and forth across the small dorm room.
Gavin reached out to grab his arm and stop his movements. “What?”
“I needed her to hate me,” Dylan whispered, looking at his feet. “I thought it would be easier for both of us when she left.”
The mattress creaked as Lila shifted and moved over Gavin to get off the bed. Once on her feet, she wrapped her arms around Dylan’s middle. He welcomed the embrace and held her close with one arm as his other hand pinched the bridge of his nose. He took a deep breath as he closed his eyes. Hurting Beth Ann was the last thing he’d wanted to do, but he knew it was necessary.
“Why are you two both so stubborn?” Lila asked as she leaned away. She sat on the edge of the bed. Gavin slid a hand around her waist to pull her close before kissing her shoulder.
Dylan shook his head with a chuckle. He moved to take his seat again. “You’re one to talk.”
Ignoring him, she said, “You both care about each other. You both want the same thing, yet neither of you will talk about it.” When he started to argue, she cut him off. “With each other.”
“What difference does it make? She lives in New York.” He grabbed his food and took a bite. “What am I supposed to do, drop everything and…”
His words trailed off, and he froze with his next bite halfway to his mouth.
“Dylan?” Gavin asked.
He looked up at his friends, forgetting about the food as an idea began to form. He knew exactly what he needed to do. And this time, he wasn’t going to mess it all up.
* * *
Dylan twisted his fingers together, waiting for the onslaught of questions.
“Absolutely not,” his dad said. “No, you’re not doing this.”
“You can’t just leave, you have school,” his mom added.
Dylan swallowed. Time to rip off the Band-Aid. “I already withdrew from all my classes for the semester. It’s too late.”
His mom gasped. His father’s face turned red as he pushed to his feet, bracing himself with both fists on the table. He looked down at Dylan sitting across from them. “You what?”
“I have to go.” Dylan glanced to his mom, hoping she’d be more sympathetic. “Beth Ann’s not replying to any of my texts or calls. I need to make things right.”
Behind him, he heard the soft sound of the stairs creaking—no doubt one of his younger siblings sneaking down to find out what was going on. Their parents generally didn’t get angry. Yelling was not common in their home, and the longer his dad stood fuming before him, the louder Dylan knew he’d get.
Standing with hands out in front of him, Dylan tried a different approach. “You have to understand; she’s one of my closest friends. I can’t let her just cut me out and move on as if I never existed. I… just for a few days. Please.”
“A few days?” his dad asked.
Dylan nodded, hope filling his chest.
But his dad shook his head. “You dropped out of school for a trip that would only last a few days?”
Wincing, Dylan said, “I didn’t drop out. I just put college on hold for a bit. Which, to be honest, is probably for the best anyway. I wasn’t enjoying the criminal justice courses. I don’t think I want to do that anymore. Plus, I couldn’t focus with this situation—”
He bit down on his lip to stop from rambling. The fury in his dad’s eyes was something he’d never seen before. Not aimed at him at least. Usually that look was reserved for those he was trying to prosecute.
“Sweetheart,” his mom started, but his dad interrupted.
“I said no.” His dad straightened, crossing his arms over the stiff blue dress shirt he hadn’t changed out of yet. “You are not going. And if you’re not going to school, you’re getting a job.”
“I am going to see her.”
“With whose money?” his dad asked. “I’m sure as hell not paying for it.”
Dylan blinked, trying to calm his racing heart so they wouldn’t call his bluff. “I have some savings.”
It wasn’t a complete lie—he’d saved a bit back but not enough for airfare and a hotel. He moved away from the table, pushing in his chair.
“I’m eighteen; I don’t need your permission,” Dylan said, mirroring his dad’s stance as he crossed his own arms. “I’m going no matter what you say.”
He turned to head toward the stairs.
“If you leave, I’m cutting you off completely.”
Dylan hesitated with one foot on the bottom step. He looked up at his sister leaning against the wall, out of sight from the kitchen. Pity filled her eyes. With a deep breath, Dylan began climbing the stairs, ignoring the huffing behind him.
He passed Callie without a word, slammed his door shut behind him, and stomped across his bedroom. Yanked his closet open, he shoved things aside to find luggage. It didn’t matter what his parents said, he was going to New York.
A soft knock sounded at his door, but he ignored it. He turned as it opened, ready to yell at whichever parent barged in, but he stilled at the sight of his brother pulling a suitcase into the room.
“Thought you might need this,” Carter said, shutting the door behind him.
Letting out a breath, Dylan said, “So, Cal wasn’t the only one eavesdropping.”
Carter shrugged with a grin.
Dylan crossed the room and pulled him into a hug. “Thank you.”
Carter patted his back and then stepped away. He moved to sit on the bed as Dylan began throwing clothes in the bag. “You’re really doing this—going to New York after some girl?”
Dylan straightened from his crouch to face him. “She’s not just some girl, but yes. I have to.”
Carter gave him a smile, but Dylan knew his younger brother didn’t understand. Not really.
“One day, you’re going to find someone,” Dylan said.
“I have a girlfriend,” Carter argued halfheartedly.
Dylan shook his head. “Well, one day, you’ll find a girl who doesn’t irritate you with every word she says.”
“It’s not that bad…”
Dylan raised a brow.
With a sigh, Carter rolled his eyes. “Fine, it’s that bad. But she’s cute and fun when she’s not a fire-breathing demon.”
“There’s a better girl out there for you,” Dylan said laughing, moving to sit beside him. Carter was only two years younger, but sometimes Dylan couldn’t help talking to him like the wise, older sibling he tried to be. “And when you find her, you’ll understand. Because you’ll want to do whatever it takes to keep her in your life.”
A knock sounded a second before the door cracked open.
“Is Carter in—“ Callie’s question trailed off as she spotted her twin. She came in the rest of the way with her best friend—their neighbor—right on her heels.
Reagan stood awkwardly as Callie closed the door, flopped onto the end of the bed, and said, “Look who I found climbing through my window.”
With their houses close together, they’d built a treehouse on the property line as kids. It was more of a rickety platform hanging for dear life to the tree, but it lined up almost perfectly to Reagan’s room across the way. Dylan couldn’t believe they were still using it to get back and forth.
“Hey, Reag,” Carter said, getting to his feet. He pulled her into a hug that seemed to relax the girl. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, just didn’t want to be home alone.” She nodded and stepped back. Looking to Dylan she said, “Sorry for intruding.”
Callie bounced up, sitting on her knees. “Oh, he doesn’t care.”
Dylan laughed and playfully shoved his sister. “No, by all means, let’s make this going-away party bigger.”
Callie’s smile fell, and she wrapped both of her arms around his neck as she laid her head against his shoulder. “I’m going to miss you.”
He held her tight. He’d always been close with his siblings, but Callie was like a miniature version of him growing up. When they were kids, she followed him around everywhere. And he secretly loved it.
“I’m going to miss you too, Callie-Ballie.”
She chuckled at the nickname he’d given her when she was a toddler. He kissed the side of her head.
“I can’t believe you’re going after Beth Ann,” she said, pulling away.
“It’s so romantic,” Raegan added from across the room.
Carter playfully rolled his eyes, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Dylan smiled. Maybe the girl his brother needed was closer than he thought.
Dylan shook off thoughts and got to his feet. He’d successfully played matchmaker with Gavin and Lila the previous summer, but he needed to get his own love life under control before meddling with others’.
Grabbing the suitcase, he began packing clothes inside.
“So, what’s the plan?” Carter directed Reagan to sit on the bed, then he dragged the desk chair around to take a seat himself.
“Find Beth Ann and find out why she’s not responding.”
“But like… how? Callie asked. “Do you have enough money for a flight? What about a hotel?”
Of course she’d think of the very obstacles making him nervous.
“I have enough for the flight, but hotels are expensive there…” He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. A thought crossed his mind, and his mouth tugged up on one side. “Unless Beth Ann lets me stay with her.”
Callie snorted. “Yeah right. She’s not even talking to you right now.”
He sighed and sat back on his feet, hating that she was right. He needed somewhere to stay in case she threw him out on his butt. There had to be some way he could— “Gavin.”
“What?” Carter asked.
With an idea forming, he pulled out his phone to text his best friend. “Gavin’s dad gave him a credit card. If he helps with the hotel room, I can pay him back eventually.”
Although, he knew Gavin would never let him. Gavin was angry at his father. He didn’t want his money—he wanted him home—but he had no qualms about spending it for others. It was how he made Lila’s bucket list happen last summer. Dylan shot off a text and smiled when he got an immediate response.
He glanced up at his siblings and neighbor. “Looks like I’m going to New York.”