“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 came out before I could stop them, and the frozen look of terror on my nephew’s face said it all. 

“Aunt Avery!” Rett screeched 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 muttered under my breath. 

My brother didn’t know shit when it came to raising his son, which was why more often than not, he dropped him off with me for quality ‘auntie time.’ I’m the one who taught Rett how to ride his bike, swim, and now I was teaching him how to paddle board. Deacon wasn’t a bad dad, by any means. He was 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 grabbed the back of Rett’s life jacket before he could float away and pulled him back onto the board with me. In the process, I almost slipped off the board myself. Somehow, I managed to keep hold of the paddle that we definitely needed to get back to shore.

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

“This,” I huffed. “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 insisted with a grimace. “And Dad says paddle boards are for pussies,” he announced proudly, and really loud, right in my face. 

“I got nothing to say to that.” I started 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 took a lot of effort. My stomach and feet were already starting to throb, and we hadn’t even made it back to shore yet. 

“Oh,” I added 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 looked up at me from where he was sitting between my feet, rubbing his wet head all over my legs like a dog would, and smiled a nearly toothless grin. 

“You love me.” He leaned back against my legs and I winced against the cold. With a deep sigh that could have come straight from his dad, Rett closed 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 left the cove we’d been sitting in for most of the morning while we practiced, a gust of wind blew across the pond and straight into my face. 

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

Rett giggled, but scooted up enough that I could sit behind him and wield my paddle like the weapon it was going to become. 

Switching sides every few strokes wasn’t easy. “I wish this thing had a paddle on both sides.” Despite that, I made it work. Otherwise, we’d be sitting out there until someone decided to try and rescue us. Knowing my family, it wouldn’t happen, either. 

When we finally made it out of the cove, I was covered in sweat and ready to give Everett back to his dad. Once I did that, there was definitely a beer somewhere with my name on it. Or a shot. Or both. Yeah, as I paddled us back to the dock, both sounded like an amazing idea. 

“Told you the party didn’t wait.” Rett pouted as we saw people milling about and heard music blaring from the shore. There was nothing I could do about it, though. 

“Seriously, man.” I grunted as I used the little bit of energy I had 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 stared at me with the same hard eyes that his father had. “I can’t. I’m cold.” He held 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 shrugged as I helped him back on the dock and then climbed 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 turned away, but not so far that I couldn’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 was still my responsibility. 

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

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

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

I picked him up, soaking wet and dripping lifejacket and all, and booked it up the hill.

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

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

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

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

“Because, I want to be done babysitting the birthday boy,” I snapped and nodded toward Everett, who I was still carrying on my shoulder. 

Speaking of which, I dropped him noisily to the ground and watched as he scrambled to get his lifejacket off. 

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

I did as he asked and in the next moment, he was on the other side of the yard. Leaving me standing with my sister, looking like something that’d washed ashore in a storm. 

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

I flipped her the bird, discreetly of course, and headed into the house. Camp, as we called it, was actually our parents’ retirement plan. They’d bought a shitload of land on the pond and built a house. Taking my time, I wandered through the house and grabbed a beer out of the fridge before heading to the bathroom so I could shower in peace. 

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

Yes, I took the beer I pulled from the kitchen into the shower with me, too. Nothing tasted 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 slipped and fell in the shower at the sudden intrusion. 

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

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

“Whatever, asshole.” I grunted as I tried to get up but slipped on the conditioner that still coated the shower floor. “Help me out of here.” I pushed the shower curtain to the side and held out a soap-covered hand for Bailey to help me up. 

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

Getting out of the shower fast became my top priority, and I happily grabbed the towel Bailey was holding out with a smile on her face. 

“I hate you,” I told her while taking the proffered beer she handed me after I wrapped the towel around my body. “But I love you too.” 

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

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

Bailey snorted, and then watched as I finished my beer with one hand while holding the towel around my body with the other. Bailey dutifully avoided looking at the scar that now took up most of my lower abdomen when I finished my beer and started to dry my body off. 

Grateful didn’t even begin to describe my emotions at her acceptance of my injury. I didn’t even look at it in the mirror anymore. Not if I could help it. Ignoring it worked, but I hadn’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 muttered darkly. “You know that, right?”

I shoved her out of the way so I could 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’d called her since the day our parents brought her home.

She cracked open the vodka bottle while I got dressed, and handed it over dutifully once I finally squeezed into my compression leggings and the oversized t-shirt that had become my standard outfit when I didn’t have to be at school. My brown hair, long and curling slightly, even without being brushed, fell down my back since I didn’t like to put it up when it was damp.

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

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

“He’s their only grandchild,” I corrected 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 countered as she stole the bottle and took a long slug. After a cough, she went 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 tilted her head to the side and looked at me with a strange expression. “Did you just call kids crotch-goblins?” 

Taking a drink, I nodded and laughed. She shook 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 nodded 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 took the bottle back and swallowed some of the burning liquor, relishing the way it felt as it flooded 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 vanished and I was left feeling slightly tingly. 

“Party’s started,” Bailey said 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 smiled, unable to help myself, but Bailey didn’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 were obsessed with getting a piece of Deacon’s attention was easily one of my favorite pastimes. Especially when we could spot them from a mile away. “When he finally finds someone, it’s not gonna be one of the wannabe groupies.” 

Bailey snorted. “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 took another longing look at the bottle, laughing when I saw that we hadn’t even made a dent, and decided enough was enough. 

Anxiety was a bitch. Anxiety, mixed with a group of people I didn’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 controlled 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 knew, no doubt, and had brought the alcohol as a mediocre coping mechanism. Usually, I’d just leave. That wasn’t really possible, though.

“Let’s get it over with.” 

Bailey grabbed my arm, and that should have been my first clue to run in the opposite direction. Instead, I smiled and picked up the still-mostly-full bottle of vodka and walked through the door with a smile on my face. A smile that promptly fell when I saw the very devil of a woman that I’d been dealing with since childhood hanging on my brother’s arm. 

Karen Zucker, the woman who wouldn’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 had apparently turned her eyes on Deacon. 

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

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

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

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

My smile turned feral, and I went to do just that. The crowd parted, albeit reluctantly, since there were children running around everywhere. That, and the fact that I only stood about five-feet tall on a good day. 

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

My order fell on deaf ears, though, when I looked up and saw one of the club hangarounds. 

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

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

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

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

“Leroy,” he said when it was clear that I didn’t know him at all. “My name’s Leroy.”

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

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

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

I grabbed the wrist that was currently digging into my shoulder and twisted it so hard an audible popping sound filled the air. “You made a mistake, Leroy.” He dropped 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 hated being touched. Literally, every person in my life knew it. My brother had told the members of his club not to touch me. 

“You laid your hands on me.”

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

“Not only that, Leroy. My brother isn’t the one you should be afraid of. I am.” I leaned 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 dropped his wrist and turned 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 was wearing a badge and the handcuffs in his hands weren’t fuzzy or fake-looking in the slightest. When I looked up into a pair of the most intense eyes I’d ever seen, I almost passed out. 

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

“The vodka made me do it.”