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  • Tabatha Vargo

THICK & THIN: Chapters 1 & 2

Book 3 in the Chubby Girl Chronicles, a series of standalone novels with hot alpha males and curvy heroines.

Joshua Black. What can I say about him? He was my best friend until he wasn’t. He was my childhood until I was no longer a child. Now he’s something else entirely. A man instead of a boy—a soldier instead of a high school quarterback. He’s forbidden thoughts and secret desires. Our situation has changed and so have I. I’m no longer the love-sick tomboy he left behind. I’m a woman with needs, a secret, and an extra fifty pounds. We promised through thick and thin, but I’m not sure how thin the lines are or how thick he’s willing to go.


ONE

JENNY MICHAELS


It was scorching outside. The kind of heat where dumbasses would try to do stupid shit like bake cookies on the dash of their truck or cook an egg on their hood. The summer before, a guy in town put steaks out on the tailgate of his truck and let them cook all day. He had the balls to eat them, too. Used steak sauce and everything as if he had grilled them himself on a charcoal grill.

Again … stupid.

The month of May in South Carolina wasn’t usually hot and suffocating. It was the exit of spring on the verge of welcoming summer, which meant cool nights and warm days, but that changed when the rainstorms rolled through. The moisture in the air made it feel hotter and sent the humidity skyrocketing. It had been raining every other day for the past month, so the humidity was extreme.

The good news was, lots of rain also meant tons of mud, which Josh, my best friend, and I loved. His truck, which had recently been painted black, was covered in it. The dried mud was crusted around the wheel wells, chipping off and into the wind as we drove the back-country roads.

The day before, we spent hours getting bogged down and pulled out. We had on boots and jeans, and my ponytail stuck out the back of a trucker hat I had stolen from behind Josh’s truck seat. There was laughter and mud fights—tires rolling through the brown sludge surrounding us until we caught a dry spot that was thick enough and climbed our way out.

Afterward, when I got home from playing in the mud, you couldn’t even see what I was wearing. My jeans were caked in mud, my shirt covered, and my bra full. It had taken me nearly thirty minutes to get the mud out of my hair later in the shower.

Good times.

We pulled up next to a group of familiar cars, and Josh put his truck in park. Vaughn, a friend from school, popped his head into the driver’s side window and pushed playfully at the side of Josh’s head.

“What’s up, fuckface? ’Bout time y’all got here. What took so long?” he asked.

Vaughn was a beast on and off the football field. His height alone was scary, but he was also wider than your average high schooler. He lived in the gym, but I had once heard his size had more to do with steroids than with the weights.

“You asked for beer. We brought beer. Help me get the shit out the back.”

Josh popped the door open, the hinges screaming out with age, and climbed down. Vaughn stuck half of his massive body inside the truck with me.

“You got the good shit?” he asked.

“We aren’t in the middle of a drug deal, Vaughn. It’s just beer.”

Reaching between my legs, I grabbed the twelve pack of beer and held it up.

“Good girl. That’s a good girl.” He spoke to me as though he was talking to a dog.

I set the beer down on the floorboard and pretended something had my hand.

“Something’s got me!” I called out, acting as though my hand was being pulled beneath the truck seat.

Vaughn’s eyes went wide. “Oh, shit. What is it?” he asked, ready to climb into the truck and help me.

I pulled my hand up with my middle finger in the air. “It’s this.”

He sighed and leaned back, shaking his head. “Smartass.”

And then he was gone, leaving me alone in the front seat while he helped Josh at the tailgate. My eyes traveled over the road we had just pulled off. Foggy waves of steam rose from the asphalt like a mirage in a movie. A short shower had passed when we were on the way to the river, leaving the streets sizzling and the humidity unbearable.

My skin felt wet, and my ponytail had become a frizzy mess. Quickly, I slid the tie from my hair and smoothed it down before pulling it back up. I tugged at my T-shirt, hoping to let some cool air under it, but no matter what, I couldn’t cool off. I had on a bathing suit, but I had never been comfortable showing my body. So, T-shirts and shorts it was.

I climbed from the passenger side of Josh’s lifted Ford and slid on my flip-flops. I rarely wore shoes in Josh’s truck, instead opting to rest my bare feet on the dash while we rode through town with the windows down. He didn’t mind. At least, he never said he did. I think he secretly liked how comfortable I was in his truck. I was the only person in the world he would let drive it on occasion. I had dibs on Josh, and his passenger seat was my spot. Everyone knew it.

The space where everyone was parked wasn’t technically a parking lot, but the top of the hill over St. John’s River was right off the road. People had parked there for years, and after years of teenagers doing the very same thing we were here to do today, an easy walking path to the water had been cleared.

Senior skip day.

It was a rite of passage. At least that’s what Josh said to talk me into going along. To me, it was just like any other day I decided to skip and hang out on the river, but I guessed since the entire senior class was coming along, it was a party.

Usually I was there with a fishing pole and some worms, but this was an entirely different event. Everyone brought floats, some people linking their floats together with rope, and coolers full of cold drinks sat on floats and were tied together for everyone. We would float the river with our feet dangling in the water and the sun on our legs.

“You want me to carry that?” Josh asked, nodding toward the twelve pack of Budweiser I pulled from the floorboard.

I rolled my eyes, hating when he treated me like I was weak, and let my shades fall over my eyes in answer. He chuckled and shook his head, knowing I would never accept his help. Even if the beer had been heavy, I never would have admitted it.

“Guess that’s a no,” he muttered.

Technically, I couldn’t buy alcohol, none of us could, but Glen, the old man who ran the country corner store in town, was too old to care. Not to mention, even if he did attempt to ID us, everyone in town knew the man couldn’t see for shit.

The tailgate on Josh’s truck squeaked with age when he pulled it down, and the truck bed lowered when he leaped inside to push the small Styrofoam cooler to the edge and grab our towels and floats. Vaughn took the cooler and towels, leaving Josh to carry our two floats. Once we collected our stuff, he locked his truck, and we started toward the path behind the large group of seniors ready to get trashed and celebrate the end of high school.

The Carolina sun blazed, burning our backs as we maneuvered our way down the steep hill to the water. The weight of the twelve pack of Bud, my contribution to our end of the year shindig, tugged my arm down at my side and knocked against my hip with every step I took. I wouldn’t drink the nasty shit, but the guys liked it. While everyone else got trashed, I was usually the designated driver for Josh. I didn’t mind it. I wasn’t much for drinking, but I did like to make sure my best friend made it home safely.

I pushed my aviator shades back against the bridge of my nose when they began to slip and then looked back to make sure Josh was close behind me. He was walking alongside Brandy, one of the less annoying females in the senior class and the prom queen to Josh’s crown. They had never dated, but it seemed everyone, including the staff at school, liked to link them together.

She wasn’t too bad, I supposed, and the guys liked to look at her. Her highlighted hair was in a messy bun. She was wearing a two piece, the straps of her top wrapped around her neck, and her flat sun-kissed stomach was on show. Her jean shorts covered her bottoms except for the strings that stuck out at the sides.

She laughed at whatever he was saying, her perfect white teeth blinding me, while she pushed his arm playfully. It was obvious she had a thing for him, but then again, most girls had a thing for him.

Joshua Black.

What could I say about him?

The ladies loved him. The guys wanted to be him, which was the most cliché thing ever, but it was true. Hell, the entire town fawned over him. He was my best friend, and I knew him better than he knew himself, yet Josh was much more than my friend.

He was my first time riding a bike and making mud pies in my backyard. He was summer days fishing and mudding with four-wheelers behind my house and lying in the grass watching the lightning bugs blink in the darkness around us. He was the reason I knew how to ride a horse and spent days playing in the hay on his daddy’s farm. He was video games and candy. He was everything—my childhood and my life for as long as I could remember.

Even though it was exciting to be graduating from high school and growing up, I was terrified of what that meant for Josh and me. Who were we if we weren’t getting into trouble and bogging in the mud? If we weren’t teasing Vaughn about his size or getting crazy at the pep rally?

I didn’t know who I was without Josh, and I didn’t know who he was without me. It was scary, and nothing scared me.

I looked back once more, taking him in from the top of his ball cap, which was turned backward, to his strong feet, covered in a pair of Adidas slides. I couldn’t help myself when I grinned. Josh was beautiful, though I would never tell him that. His head would likely explode if I did. While he was my best friend in the entire world, that hadn’t stopped me from noticing how fine his contribution to the female eye was.

He had taken off his shirt and slung it over his shoulder. He too was wearing aviator shades so I couldn’t see his eyes, but it didn’t matter anyway since he was facing Brandy as she talked animatedly at his side. The bill of his hat was curved in with a thick fisherman’s hook stuck on the side, and while everyone else was already wearing their swim trunks, his were peeking over the waist of his ripped jeans.

His hair was wild and sticking out from beneath his hat from having the windows down on the backcountry roads, and his skin was tan even though we hadn’t reached summer yet. His skin was always a brown tone, no matter the season, but that probably had something to with the fact that he worked on the farm in the sun every day. We didn’t really get winters in South Carolina, which meant sometimes it could get hot enough in December for him to have to take his shirt off while he was working, and it showed.

My eyes slid over his wide shoulders, thickened from weight training during his final season of high school football, before dipping over his chest and washboard abs. Dark hair trailed beneath his navel, dipping into his jeans and the blue and white trunks beneath them. His clothes hung loosely from his hips, showing just enough of the cut outs on his sides. I exhaled, wishing I could rid my mind of the thoughts that filled my head lately.

Thoughts like Josh’s lips on mine.

His hands on my body.

It felt unnatural to think these things about my best friend, yet my body agreed so perfectly with the sins of my mind.

Josh has changed over the years, going from a skinny boy with a bird chest and a gapped smile to a teenager on the brink of manhood. He grew tall, his chest wide and hard. His hair, which has always been unruly, grew darker and his eyes more intense. His voice was deep, rumbling like a dark cloud across my skin every time he spoke to me. It was unbearable, and I found myself thinking about skipping out on our usual activities.

It was a slow change; one I didn’t see coming. I had seen him almost every day for the past twelve years. We had grown up together—meeting in elementary school, the years when we refined our mud pie making skills, before tackling middle school, the time in our lives when after school meant lounging in his room and playing video games until my daddy called me home. Once we entered high school, our best friend status was known county-wide, and together, we dominated West Ridge High School.

Well, it was more like he dominated, being the hot quarterback and all. I was in by association since I was the best friend. He could have become the golden boy and left me in the dust, but he didn’t. Instead, he pulled me along to every game. Every party. Every event. No matter how much I hated being social.

We were opposites in so many ways but alike at the same time. While he was being the playboy, I was his wing woman, which meant girls only befriended me to be close to Josh. The guys treated me like one of the team, even slapping my ass after a winning game as though I had been on the field with them. It didn’t bother me. Even if I was feminine and the guys saw me as a girl, they still wouldn’t dare come near me. Though none of them would admit it, every one of them was afraid to get on the bad side of my big brother, Devin, who was known around town as lethal.

That had been our life for the past twelve years … school, life, and fun, but always together unless I was working at the garage with Daddy and Devin. On those days, Josh worked the horses on his parents’ farm, which was less than five miles away from my house.

Josh and I had a rhythm, and we were comfortable in that beat until our vibe changed sophomore year. At least, it changed for me. Josh got his first real girlfriend that year, a chick named Amanda who had more boobs than brains. The jealousy and anger of losing my best friend’s attention pushed me into doing something I would have never done before.

I went on my first date with Justin.

Little did I know, my date with Justin was to a house party full of people old enough to drink. Justin was a heavy drinker and passed out on the stairs, leaving me to fend for myself in a house full of drunken men. I ended up in the hospital and almost got my now sister-in-law, Lilly, killed when two guys decided they wanted to try to take from me.

Even now, two years later, I could taste their forced kisses and feel their touches on my skin. It was a night I refused to talk about—a night I pushed to the back of my brain and locked away—a night that changed me forever.

Jealous and angry or not, dating wasn’t something I was ever going to bother with again. It wasn’t until our senior year and Josh’s fifth girlfriend that I realized my jealousy stemmed less from sharing my best friend’s attention and more from me wanting the part of Josh his girlfriends were getting.

I stopped paying attention to his highest scores on our favorite games and started noticing other things like the way his ab muscles flexed when he threw the ball or the way his football pants hugged his perfect ass. How he calmed a horse with soothing strokes and how sexy he looked when he rinsed off with the water hose by the barn and shook his dark hair dry.

These were all things I never mentioned to anyone. It was hard enough to admit those things to myself. And when those nasty little thoughts of Josh’s smile or laugh, of his body or the way he looked when he was hot and sweaty, began to creep into my mind, I would push them away and try to replace them with disgusting things only I knew about him. Like how he once ate a beetle on a dare or peed the bed until he was seven. Our junior year, he puked out the window of Marshal Wade’s truck after drinking too much at a party and sprayed the car behind us with chunks of pizza.

Thinking these things worked.

Kind of.

My flip-flop caught on a rock, and I stumbled, but before I could fall, Jimmy Jones, aka JJ, caught my arm. He grinned down at me, his eyes moving across my T-shirt covered boobs, and I jerked my arm away.

“Whoa, Scrappy. I was just making sure you didn’t trip and drop the beer.”

I had earned the name Scrappy our freshman year when I had climbed over the lunch table to punch Jody Samuels for calling my dad an alcoholic. Sure, he was a drunk, but only Devin and I could call him that.

“Nice.” I chuckled. “Worried more about the beer than me falling on my face.”

He laughed. “Basically.” He reached down and took the twelve pack of Budweiser from my grip before trotting the rest of the way down the hill to the landing.

“Eat a dick, JJ!” I called after him.

“I would if you left some for the rest of us.”

I shook my head, laughing at his words.

The truth was my mouth had never been near a dick, and everyone knew it. With all the testosterone around me, I wasn’t sure my sleeping with anyone would fly. My brother would have a heart attack and kill someone, and Josh … well, I wasn’t sure what Josh would do. We never talked about our sex lives much. I knew he had been with girls, but while we talked about everything, that subject was still weird for us.

I paused just before reaching the landing and took in the sight before me. Almost the entire senior class was there. People I had known most of my life, since we lived in a small town, and we were almost finished with high school. Some of us would leave for college. Some wouldn’t. And others, like Josh, would leave us all behind and go into the military.

I couldn’t think about that right then, though. If I did, my day would be ruined, and I would spend the day floating down the river bitchy and sad.

“What did JJ say to you?” Josh asked, stopping beside me.

Now that I had two empty hands, I took my float from him.

“Nothing. I almost tripped, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t drop the beer.”

Josh snorted. “Yeah. I bet that’s all he wanted. Asshole.”

I pulled my shades from my eyes and pushed them into my hair. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. You want your float linked with mine or what?”

“Yeah, the usual.”

Once we reached the small beach area, we threaded a slim red piece of rope between our two float handles and attached the Styrofoam cooler so we could grab drinks when we wanted them. I stood to the side and watched as he pulled his jeans down and tossed them next to everyone else’s stuff. After floating all day, we would eventually end up at the same beach, so it worked.

He pulled his hat from his head, pushed his hair back, and adjusted the hat back on his head. The actions drew my eyes to the muscles of his arms and chest, sending a wave of heat over me that had nothing to do with the sun and everything to do with my hormones.

We walked out in the river, the cold water shocking me and making me shiver, until we were knee deep. Then we climbed onto our floats, Josh holding mine until I was settled in, and drifted off along with the rest of the group.

I leaned back and relaxed, letting the cool water rush up through the center of my float and rinse away the sweat from my back. It probably would have been better to take my shirt and shorts off, but again, showing my body made me super uncomfortable.

Josh floated with his shorts and shades on, his hands dragging along the sides of his float, making the water ripple at his fingertips. His long tan legs were submerged from the calf down, and every now and again, I would get a peek at his upper thigh when his shorts shifted.

I did the same, my fingers and feet skimming the surface of the water, except instead of facing the sky with my eyes closed as I was sure he was, I took in the scenery. The way the large oak trees seemed to drip into the water from the banks as we passed. The large rocks we navigated, one with a turtle sitting on top.

Around us, our classmates splashed and laughed. A few guys swung from a tree rope and into the deep parts at one of the banks. Still, Josh and I stayed put, gliding along the brown river water without words, knowing that somehow things were about to change.

Not just the end of high school or the fact that he was leaving for the military and I was leaving for college. Something else slid along the glassy water with us. An unspoken thing that made me feel tense and awkward, which I had never felt before with Josh.

“I can’t believe this is almost over,” he said, his fingers dragging into the water.

I couldn’t believe it either. It felt sad and depressing. Even after years of waiting to be done with school, all I could think about was how badly I wanted things to stay the same.

“I know.”

“Think we’ll be okay?”

He turned his head my way, but his eyes were hidden behind his shades. Still, I could see the sadness in his brow.

I nodded, swallowing hard since I knew I was about to lie. “Yeah. I think we’ll be fine.”

“I hope you’re right.”

I hoped I was right, too, but I knew I wasn’t.

Once we walked across that stage and went our separate ways, we would be altered. Living lives the other wasn’t familiar with it and meeting new people the other didn’t know.

We would be strangers.

We floated for an hour, the clouds above us covering the sun and then revealing it while it moved across the sky. When we finally reached the first bank break, I was glad to get up and stretch my legs. Stopping, we worked together to pull our linked floats up and onto the sand.

The first bank break was a small patch of land located right below Jones Bridge, an old bridge that was almost in the center of town. It was higher than most of the bridges that went over the river, which meant it was one of the few no one could fish off. Still, that didn’t stop people from climbing up to the bridge for the thrill of jumping off.

I sat in the sand, the clumps clinging to my wet shorts, and watched as a few of the guys in our group climbed the rock-covered hill to the bridge. Jumping from the side of the bridge was supposed to show how brave you were, but really, it showed a bit of stupidity. Not that I wouldn’t do it. Everyone thought it was dangerous, but it didn’t look all that bad to me, and I happened to know the part of the river below the bridge was deep. It used to be my daddy’s favorite fishing spot on his little John boat.

I didn’t realize someone was standing close to me until they shifted and blocked the sun. Looking up, I sighed when I saw JJ grinning down at me. He held out a Mason jar full of a clear liquid.

“Here. Drink some of this.”

Taking the jar from his hand, I shook it a little and watched the liquid slosh around. “What is it?”

He chuckled. “Just drink it. It’ll put some hair on your chest.”

I tilted my head to the side and peered up at him. “Do I look like I need hair on my chest?”

At my words, he laughed and shook his head, sending droplets of river water sprinkling over my legs “I don’t know. Lift your shirt and let me see.”

I was about to stand and dump the liquid over his head when Josh stepped up and slugged JJ in the arm.

“Hey. Chill out, man. Stop trying to see Jenny’s tits.”

The group closest to us snickered when JJ said, “Jenny ain’t got no tits.”

Fire sizzled at the end of my spine, sending a wave of anger up to my brain.

Asshole.

“How do you know what the hell I got?” I asked, ready to stand and punch him in his conniving smirk.

“We’re done talking about this.” Josh pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Well, are you going to drink it or not?” JJ asked again.

I lifted the Mason jar to my nose and sniffed. The smell singed my nose hairs and made me flinch.

Moonshine.

With my eyes locked on JJ’s, I lifted the jar and took a large gulp. Fire rolled over my tongue before streaking down the back of my throat when I swallowed.

“Whew,” I said, trying to remain in control of the burn.

JJ’s grin grew. “Damn, girl!”

“What can I say? I guess my balls are just bigger than yours.”

I knew I was adding fuel to the fire. JJ had already been drinking quite a bit, and his eyes were red and watery.

“You think so, huh?”

I nodded, handing him the jar. “Yep.”

“Prove it.”

“She doesn’t have to prove anything. Shut the fuck up, J. Leave her alone.”

Josh’s words didn’t penetrate JJ’s glare. He stared me down, daring me, and I never walked away from a dare.

JJ stepped closer, blocking my view of the water, his body cut perfectly yet still smaller than Josh. My eyes dipped over his chest, and he shook his hair out and grinned at me when he caught me staring. “Come on, Jenny. Put your money where your mouth is. A hundred bucks says you won’t jump with us.” He nodded to the bridge over us.

“You’re full of shit,” I said, piling more sand over my toes.

“I’m serious. You jump, and I give you a hundred dollars.”

“You’re stupid.”

“No, I’m just sure you won’t do it. You’re not as tough as you let on.”

I chuckled and shook my head. These fuckers really had no idea who they were messing with. Guess I was about to be as stupid as the rest of them and jump from the bridge like a moron.

I stood, swiping the sand off the back of my men’s swim trunks. I walked up to him, his six-feet-one height towering over my five-feet-two self. Reaching out, I snatched his hand, the sand from my palms sticking to his, and shook it. “Deal. I’ll take twenties.”

I turned to follow a small group of guys headed for the rock-covered hill, but before I got too far, Josh reached out and grabbed my arm, stopping me.

“You’re not seriously going to jump, are you?” His brows were pulled low.

He was worried.

Josh worried about me a lot.

It was what friends did.

“Um … yes.”

“Fuck him. You know you don’t have to do this, right?” His long, slender fingers wrapped around my wrist, holding me back.

“I know. I want to.”

“Don’t be stupid, Jenny. It’s dangerous.”

I pulled my arm free and grinned. “It’s like you don’t even know me.”

“Yeah, Jenny. Listen to him. It’s too dangerous,” JJ said as he passed me on his way to the hill.

“She won’t do it!” someone called out.

I grinned, knowing I was about to be a hundred dollars richer.

“Hide and watch, bitches,” I said, pulling my arm from Josh’s grip and following the group of guys.

Maybe it was the moonshine talking, but my balls were bigger than JJ’s, and I was going to prove it.



TWO

JOSHUA BLACK


Jenny Michaels was going to be the death of me. Either she was going to give me a premature heart attack at nineteen from all the crazy shit she pulled, or I was going to get beat to death when I finally met my match and tried to fight some fucker who wouldn’t keep his eyes and hands away from her.

The worst part was, she was clueless. She was blind to the way guys reacted to her. They openly flirted, and she laughed it off as if they were joking.

They weren’t.

The fuckers were never joking.

Why would they be?

She was the full package. A guy’s wet dream. Hot beyond measure with her flowing dark hair and piercing green eyes with a body I knew was gorgeous hidden behind the comfortable clothes she wore. Baggy or not, I had been around her enough to get peeks of skin every now and again, and I knew what was hiding under those large T-shirts.

What guy wouldn’t want a woman who could wear his clothes better than him, eat wings without fear of barbecue on her face, and watch football like she was coaching the team? There was nothing cuter than Jenny screaming at the TV and knowing the plays before they even got a chance to play it.

She was damn near perfect, yet she was untouchable to me. Years of being her best friend made it so. I wasn’t even sure how it was possible to look at someone you had grown up with and see them as more than a friend, but it happened, and I fucking hated it.

She drove me crazy with her wicked tongue and amazing sense of humor. She wasn’t afraid to be herself, no matter who was involved. She wore what she wanted to wear, said what she wanted to say, and did what she wanted to do, which was exhausting since I was usually the one cleaning up whatever mess she left behind.

Along with those things, she never listened. These were the things I loved and hated the most about her. She was one of a kind, and I was lucky enough to watch her bloom into the amazing creature she had become.

Beautiful.

Smart.

And so headstrong I wanted to strangle her some days.

It was the most irritating shit ever, yet it filled me with pride.

“Seriously, Jenny!” I called out after her.

She didn’t turn back, instead stomping her way up the side of the hill as if she was queen of the fucking bridge above them.

“She’ll be alright, man. We’ve all done it,” Tony said, tapping me on the arm.

He was right, but that didn’t matter.

“It’s different,” I snapped.

He chuckled, took a swig from his beer, and stepped away.

I didn’t care that I was being a dick. I didn’t like people telling me what I should and shouldn’t worry about when it came to Jenny. It was a game to them and all in fun. But for me, it was the girl I cared about more than I would ever admit putting herself in danger.

I prayed she would chicken out as she reached the top and realized how high it was, but I knew it wouldn’t happen.

Rocks rolled down beneath her flip-flops, and she pulled them from her feet and threw them down toward the sand below. She had no problem keeping up with the guys, even with her dainty feet bare to the rough rocks.

Her long men’s swim shorts reached her knees, and her T-shirt, which was wet on the back from floating, clung to her ass and her shoulders. Her long ponytail was wet at the end, weighing it down and keeping it from bouncing.

She was strong, but she couldn’t do everything.

When was she going to realize she wasn’t one of the guys?

Sure, she could play alongside us, but the fact was she was still a girl.

Smooth skin.

Delicate beneath her tough exterior.

And so fucking tempting it made me feel sick.

She would kill me if I ever said it out loud, but Jenny was all woman, even if she wanted to play with the big boys.

I held my breath as she climbed the steep rock-covered hill up to the road. They paused on the side of the asphalt as a group of cars flew past them before continuing to the bridge that went over the river. Once they were standing on the edge, JJ reached out and put his hand on her back. I held my breath and swore if he pushed her, I would kill him, then I got angry all over again when I realized he was smiling and rubbing her back soothingly.

I didn’t like his hands on her.

As a matter of fact, I fucking hated it.

So, when she reached out and pushed his arm away, relief filled my chest.

It was around freshmen year when I started noticing things about Jenny. Her boobs were the first thing. At first, it was weird. There were no more chest bumps or titty twisters. We stopped making jokes about the girls at school and their boobs. Although, once Jenny grew them, I stopped noticing the breasts of the girls at school altogether, yet I had a hard time keeping my eyes away from her chest. My focus went to shit. Whether I was playing a football game on the field or we were together kicking some ass on my PlayStation, I would catch myself checking her out.

It was also around that time I began to warn the guys to stay away. I had too much going on around me with school and the farm and football to worry about them sniffing around her like a bunch of dogs. The last thing I wanted to worry about were my friends chasing after my best friend, and that was what she was.

My best friend.

Even with my brain packed with memories of our lives over the years, I could no longer deny that my feelings for Jenny had grown into something different.

Something wild.

Something so fierce it scared me.

Jenny was different from the rest. She wasn’t the princess type who wore makeup and fussed over her hair. Half the time, she wore men’s shirts. Her style consisted of cutoffs and T-shirts, but in the South, that was a yearlong wardrobe. Most of the time, those clothes had dirt on them or grease from the garage, but something about a girl who wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty was attractive.

She could handle the guys and knew how to put us in our place. She was adventurous and brave. She was funny with a filthy mouth. She could change a tire with her eyes closed, thanks to her dad and Devin, who were motorheads. And on occasion, when she would drink, she had no problem whatsoever drinking every one of us under the table.

When the other girls were too afraid to jump from the rope swing at St. John’s River, Jenny was the first to jump on. With her eyes closed and her ponytail swishing in the wind, she would smile until the rope was high enough to let go and fly.

The other girls would stand on the shore too worried about how they looked in their bikinis and re-applying lip gloss as though they were at the club instead of a dirty river. Not my Jenny. She went to the river to have fun, splashing around with the guys in a sleeveless T-shirt and a pair of sweat shorts that left a ton to the imagination.

Finally, her and the guys reached the edge of the bridge. The fall had never seemed so far away. I had jumped off the side a few times, and I wouldn’t lie, it was a long way down. Jenny waved down at me, wearing a huge smile on her face.

My heart paused for a beat as JJ and our buddy Robbie jumped first. I prayed she wouldn’t do it, but I knew better. Jenny wasn’t one to back down. I swallowed hard, trying to control my nerves as she stepped closer to the edge, her toes dangling over the side.

Then she jumped.

She was falling feet first into the river, her long body looking like an arrow shot into the darkness of the water. Her arms were at her sides, her eyes closed, and her face toward the sky. Her ponytail flew above her, swishing in the wind from the fall.

She hit the river in a great explosion of water, and I sucked in a breath that I held until she broke the surface. It wasn’t until the crowd around me exploded in joy that I realized how silent the moment had been for me. They cheered her on as if she hadn’t put herself in danger, but not me. I was beyond pissed.

Instead of cheering, I ran to the water, swimming out to her without thinking about what it made me look like. Once I made it to her, I reached out for her arm, angry and ready to get her back to my truck so I could take her home, but she tugged her arm away from me, laughing with everyone else.

I swam behind her, ready to implode once we were safely on land, but when we made it to the shore and she came out of the water, she was missing her shorts. Every thought I had about exploding on her for putting herself in danger was swept from my brain as my neurons misfired.

A long time ago, I once saw Jenny in her undies. At the time, she was flat chested, sporting a training bra and a pair of panties with cartoon characters on them.

Not anymore.

There were no more training bras and cartoon characters. There was only silky wet flesh that shined in the blazing sun and perfect curves I wanted to glide my palms over. Her shirt was plastered to her breasts, a bikini top I hadn’t known she was wearing beneath her shirt showing through, and to her stomach, which was flat, enhancing her tiny waist.

The shirt didn’t seem as long without her shorts, and her thick thighs and long legs glowed in the Carolina sunshine. She had pulled her hair out of the ponytail to squeeze the water from it, and when she let it go, it fell down her back in long chocolate waves, knocking my breath from me for a totally different reason this time.

Jenny Michaels was gorgeous, and every guy there saw their first hint of the beauty she was hiding beneath her baggy clothes. I silently thanked the good Lord it was the end of the school year. Otherwise, I knew my job of guarding Jenny was going to get a hell of a lot harder.

The guys whistled, and her cheeks grew pink before she walked up to JJ and punched him in the arm.

“Shut the fuck up. You act like you’ve never seen a girl in a bathing suit before.”

She rushed to our towels, wrapping one around her waist to cover her bikini bottom.

“Did that just happen?” JJ asked at my side when I reached where he was standing.

“What?”

“Jenny’s fucking hot, dude.”

I crossed my arms and turned to face him. I didn’t need to speak. My expression said everything he needed to know.

Stay the fuck away from my Jenny.

He held his hands up and backed away with a grin. “I’m just sayin’, man. We all see it.”

And then he turned away and went back to his Mason jar.

I retrieved Jenny’s shorts and looked away when she pulled them back over her bottoms. It wasn’t much longer before we were back on our floats, everyone else seeming to forget the moment Jenny stepped from the water like a goddamn river goddess.

The sun slid across the sky with the hours until we found ourselves pulling our floats back up to the beach where we started and collecting our things. Jenny helped me flatten the floats and pack our things, and once we trekked back up the path to my truck, she helped me load everything.

By the time we climbed onto the bench seat of my truck, we were mostly dry. She climbed into the passenger’s seat of my old Ford, and I let her since I hadn’t had but a few beers earlier in the day, and I knew I could drive.

Tim McGraw played on the radio as we rode home with the windows down. I sang along, taking in our little town as I passed old shops and familiar sights. Every now and again, I would peek over at Jenny, taking in her relaxed face and the happiness on her plump lips as she too watched our world as we passed by.

We were halfway to her place when she finally gave in and let sleep take her. I took that time to look at her without judgment when I stopped at the few red lights we came to. Soon, I would be leaving her and going to basic. She was the one thing holding me back. Every time I thought of my day without Jenny and her smartass remarks and glorious smile, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Still, I knew I had to go. The only future for me in Walterboro was the farm, and I was sick to death of farm life. I wanted more. I wanted to be more. So, I would leave, knowing it was the best thing for me. No matter how badly I knew it was going to hurt to walk away from Jenny.

The sun was dipping into the horizon when I pulled into her yard. I hit a pothole in her dirt driveway that shifted her, but she didn’t wake. When I stopped in front of her small house, I put my truck in park and reached out to wake her.

“Hey, wake up,” I said, pushing at her shoulder.

Her eyes popped open and she yawned. “Damn. The sun took it out of me today.”

“Me too. We still going to play pool with the guys tonight?”

She nodded, covering a second yawn with her small hand. “Yeah, I’m down. Let me go shower and take a quick nap. What time are you picking me up?”

“I guess around eight thirty?”

“Sounds good. See you then.”

She popped the door open, slid her feet into her flip-flops, and then climbed down. When she shut the door, she stuck her head in the window and smiled.

“Think I can hustle another hundred out of JJ tonight?”

I chuckled, putting my truck in gear. “Probably.”

And she would.

He was stupid enough, and she was good enough at everything she tried.

I pulled away from her place, feeling a heavy weight on my chest. Soon this would be over, and we wouldn’t be carefree teenagers anymore. We would be so much more, yet we would be less.


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