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PROLOGUE

  

CHARLOTTE

“Jake, do you want—?” I stumble in the doorway of the baby’s room.

“Shh.” Jake Ramirez, my best friend, local football god, and the object of all my high school fantasies, shoots me a boyish grin as he drags a finger over his sleeping son’s perfect nose. Asher, his almost-one-year-old, is sprawled across his father’s bare chest. “Just got him to sleep.”

“Sorry!” I whisper, desperately trying to ignore how handsome Jake looks. His dark hair is in disarray, damp from the shower he took when he got home. The muscles in his shoulders bulge enticingly as he cradles Asher, but it’s the sweet, soft look in his beautiful brown eyes as he stares at his baby that really does it for me.

No, Charlotte Darling. We do not ogle this man!

When I can’t remember why I came into the nursery, I scramble to say the first thing that comes to mind. “How did your econ exam go?”

“Great. Those flashcards you helped me make did the trick. You’re a genius.”

His compliment makes me jittery like I’m on a sugar high. I finally remember the question that prompted me to search him out. “I’m making sandwiches. Do you want one?”

“Thanks, Charlie. You’re the best.” His smile goes crooked, and my heart batters my rib cage.

No, I’m not the best. I’m actually the worst person on the planet, and I’m likely going to hell.

Or maybe I’m already in hell.

Because the thoughts in my head are so, so wrong.

For a flash, for just a second, I’m staring at my boyfriend.

Who’s cradling my baby.

And not my sister’s.

I shake my head, ashamed and embarrassed. Thank God no one can hear what I’m thinking or I’d have to move to Bolivia.

It was so easy to fall for the charming, epically handsome Jake Ramirez.

With dark, soulful eyes, a smile punctuated by dimples, and a body like a Greek god, Jake has been my quiet obsession for years.

To be fair, he was my friend first.

My best friend. The reason I got up in the morning and dragged myself to high school.

But that was before he met Kota at a party our senior year, and everything changed.

My stunningly gorgeous older sibling sidles up to me and lets out a huff of annoyance when she sees Jake. “Are you seriously still trying to get him to bed?”

The baby jerks awake at the shrill sound of his mother’s voice, and Jake glares at her. “I’m doing my best here, Dakota.”

“But does it really need to take an hour? I’ve barely seen you this week. I thought shit was supposed to get easier once football season ended. The second semester is almost over, and if anything, you’ve been busier.”

Actually, Jake’s been around quite a bit, but if I butt in, she’ll bite my head off.

His nostrils flare as he whispers harshly over Asher’s head. “Just because we don’t have games doesn’t mean I can sit on my ass. I’ve explained this. I still have daily conditioning, a heavy class schedule to make up for the easy one I had last fall due to football, physical therapy on my shoulder, finals…”

As their voices get louder, I tiptoe out of the room and distract myself by making ham and cheese sandwiches.

“Please don’t tell me you’re going to be a gym rat all summer!” My sister streaks out of the baby’s room and crosses the hall into their bedroom, slamming the door behind her. A minute later, Jake follows without the baby. It’s miraculous the kid isn’t wailing right now, but Jake is so good with him. I shouldn’t be surprised he was able to put him down despite the ruckus.

I sigh. This is what they do. They bicker all day, but when the lights go out, they bang like the world is ending. Or at least that’s what my sister tells her friends. I make a point to never spend the night. Because the very last thing I want in this world is to know whether Jake and my sister fuck like fiends.

After I plate two ham and cheese sandwiches and some steamed veggies for my sister, because God forbid she consume a carb, I wait for them to join me. My attention snags on the photos next to the flatscreen TV. Most are pics I took of Kota for her social media, but my favorite is the one of me, Jake, and my sister at our high school graduation last May. We’re wearing caps and gowns and smiling like loons. Towering over us, Jake has us wrapped in those big, strong arms.

My sister is super pregnant in that pic, but still so gorgeous. She has a natural charisma that’s hard to miss.

Kota and I couldn’t be more different. Where she’s outgoing and fun, I’m quiet and shy. Where she’s adventurous and loves to party, I prefer to stay home and read a book. Where she loves being the center of attention, I’d rather blend in and not cause a fuss.

Or as my mother tells everyone, I’m the wallflower and Kota’s the prom queen.

She’s not wrong.

My sister and I are only ten months apart, but she got held back when we were young because she got really sick for a while, which landed her in my grade. It’s been a blessing and a curse.

A blessing because despite my current heartache, I love my sister. I’d do anything for her. Almost losing Kota when we were young screwed us both up, and I’m not immune to the difficulties she faced.

A curse because…

I look down the hall, my stomach clenching.

But then I remember how sick she was, how we almost lost her, and I feel like the lowest scum of the earth.

Doctors could never pinpoint what caused Kota to projectile-vomit and waste away. It was terrifying. All those machines and needles. The antiseptic smell of the hospital. The way my sister would cry so desperately when they came to draw blood.

Kota’s illness is what kicked off her reality show stardom.

It happened one day when a producer was trolling the pediatric ward, looking for a story.

Well, he found one.

Who could resist a sick seven-year-old with a smile like hers? I’ll tell you—no one. Kota was an immediate sensation, even with an oxygen tube taped to her face and IVs hanging from her scrawny arms. The show, Little Darlings, which featured stories of sick kids but centered around my sister, smashed all kinds of records.

Once she got healthy and landed on that other show, Winchester Prep High, she skyrocketed to superstardom.

I know what you’re thinking—I sound bitter. I know I’m a terrible person. Because who begrudges their sister happiness and success after everything she’s been through?

It’s just that sometimes, when I’m lying in bed at night and thinking about Jake, I wonder if my sister is as innocent as she claims to be.

I’m grateful Kota is alive, I remind myself. I can deal with anything, even my dreadful case of comparisonitis. Her health is the only thing that matters.

I pick at my sandwich, wondering how long the argument will last.

Glancing down the hall again, I’m about to ask if I should wait for them when I hear a giggle. “Stop, Jake, my sister is going to hear you and then she’ll know you’ve got a huge dick.”

My heart stops, then plummets to the floor.

Jake’s low voice mumbles something in response, but I can’t make out what he says.

Nor do I want to.

I’m frozen for the next two seconds before I spring out of my chair, grab my backpack, and fly out the front door. But not before my sister wails, “Fuck me harder, baby!”

Jake texts me later that night. All it says is, Thanks for dinner. Sorry about… you know. It wasn’t what you think.

Um, sure.

I’m so tortured by what I overheard, I can’t sleep or eat. It’s so pathetic, I want to bury myself in a deep hole and wallow in shame.

For the next few days, I can’t bring myself to go over there. I bail on babysitting twice, but make sure someone fills in so it doesn’t screw up Kota’s schedule. It’s not her fault I’m in love with her boyfriend.

Deep down, I know I can’t go on like this. I can’t deal with their sex life or references to Jake’s giant member or the fact he trips all over himself to do things for Kota, who acts like he owes her.

If I’d gotten knocked up at a party, perhaps I’d feel the same way, but as a bystander and his friend, it’s hard to watch.

I grab the envelope I hid under my laptop.

Charlotte Darling, welcome to Lone Star State University! Attached you’ll find everything you need to make your transition to our fine institution.

Lone Star State has always been my dream school. Jake’s too. But after my sister got pregnant, she argued we should stay close to home so our families could help with the baby. Even though I resisted for a while, I couldn’t really say no when Kota begged me to attend North Texas U with her and Jake.

If all that babysitting I do is any indication, my nephew is my Achilles’ heel. Because the last thing I wanted was to tag along while the guy I’d been infatuated with for years dated my sister.

And yet that’s exactly what I did.

But no matter how frustrated I am, I’m not sure I can pull the trigger. Can I really bail on my sister, nephew, and best friend?

Maybe if I set some clear boundaries and make sure I’m never at their apartment in the evenings, I can decrease the odds of overhearing Jake and my sister having sex.

I’m so torn up about everything, I take a shower and cry into the tile until the water runs cold. I don’t have anyone I can talk to about this. I obviously can’t tell my sister, who used to be my main confidante. I can’t tell my best friend I’m in love with him when he’s very seriously committed to Kota. And my mother would freak out if I even suggested I had feelings for Jake.

Plus, I’m not a home-wrecker. I would never do anything to come between Jake and my sister.

But I need someone to talk to.

It’s a depressing thought—I’ve been at NTU for an entire year and literally have no friends here. I’ve been too busy babysitting my nephew to have any kind of social life. I’m gone so much I barely see my suitemate.

You know how you can erase your computer and reset it to the factory settings? That’s what I need to do with my life. I need to start over.

But how?

***

A few days later, my laptop chimes. Without looking, I know it’s my sister. It’s much earlier than she usually calls, but I’ve been MIA lately, so maybe it’s thrown her off too.

Every week, we video-chat so Kota can plan out her social media. You’d think having a kid would slow her down, but if anything, it’s only made her more focused on building her online following, which is now two million strong.

I prefer doing our calls by video so I don’t have to haul my crap over to her apartment. She gets mad when I forget to bring one of her calendars or social media planners, and the last thing I’m in the mood for is an argument.

As much as I shudder at the thought of displaying my whole life online, I admire her focus and drive. It’s probably why Kota and Jake got together. He’s been singularly focused on playing D1 football since he was a kid, and now he’s living his dream. I’m so proud of him. Both of them, really. They have a bright future ahead of them, and I’ll always cheer the loudest for their success.

After taking a deep breath, I accept the call and my sister’s face fills the screen.

“Hey, loser. Did you edit those pics? I need them by noon.” She leans over her dressing table and flicks on some mascara. She’s wearing some kind of sheer, lacy lingerie and her boobs are spilling out.

I manage to stop myself before glancing down at my modest chest. Comparison is the thief of joy, Charlotte. You’ll never be Dakota. That’s okay. You do you.

“Yes, I uploaded the pics to your drive last night.”

“Did they include the ones of me and the baby napping? The ones where the light is filtering in from the window? It made my skin look really good.”

“Yes.”

She pauses applying her makeup and turns to face me. “Are you over… your stomach bug?”

The look she gives me makes me think she knows the real reason I bailed, and I feel horrible for lying, but I needed to tell her something plausible. Something that would help me save face the next time I see Jake, which I hope isn’t for a few weeks because I need to lock down my emotions first. “Mostly.”

“Good, because I don’t want you to give me the shits.”

Feeling my ears go hot, I’m grateful no one is around to overhear her. I swear I’m the only person she talks to like this. With everyone else, she’s as sweet as pie. Well, she’s snarky with Jake, but having a baby just before college and then trying to get through freshman year as a parent while your boyfriend plays D1 football is not a cakewalk.

Still, she was never mean before she starred in three seasons of Winchester Prep High. I swear those producers turned her into a snob.

I miss my sister. The one who always shared her toys and clothes with me. The one who gave the neighbor kid a shiner when he kicked sand in my face. She’s in there somewhere, and I’m not giving up until I find her again.

We talk about the plan for the week. She keeps glancing backwards and eventually angles the screen until she’s mostly cropped out.

“Kota, I can’t see—”

“Hold on.” She mutes herself. I can see her profile. She’s saying something, but I can’t hear the words.

That’s when it happens.

The bathroom door behind her swings open, and Jake steps out through a billowing cloud of steam.

Freshly washed and completely naked.

I blink, a strangled whimper lodging in my throat.

Holy crap. He’s perfect.

I knew he was beautiful, but my fantasies fall short of the reality. His wet hair falls in his face as he towels off. First his damp locks. Then his wide, muscular chest. Down his washboard abs. And finally his groin where an enormous erection bounces against his stomach.

I’m frozen until the sound mysteriously pops back on again, and his deep voice fills my room. “Let’s make this quick, Dakota. I gotta jet.”

They’re definitely going to fuck.

“Oh God.” I slam my laptop shut. My hands are shaking as I fling it away from me.

Nausea sweeps over me so hard, I barely make it to the trash can before I lose my breakfast.

Five minutes later, my phone buzzes from my nightstand, but I ignore it. The calls and texts keep coming. I don’t bother to check them because nothing my sister or Jake say will change my pathetic situation.

Later that afternoon, Jake knocks on my door, calls my name, apologizes for not knowing I was on a video conference with my sister. My suitemate thinks I’m home, but since I don’t answer, they decide I must be out. I don’t budge from where I sit on the floor with a box of tissues.

The sun sets and rises again. My suitemate comes and goes as the dorm comes alive, and by the time I finally dust myself off and stand, I’ve made my decision.

I’m going to transfer schools.

As quickly as possible.

Chapter one starts two years later when they're seniors! Click below to find out what happens with Charlotte and Jake!

Audio coming soon!
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