Chapter 3: Josh

Josh opened the door to his dorm room to find Kevin sitting at his desk firing an RPG into a crowd of soldiers.

“Suck it, bitches,” Kevin shouted into the microphone curved down along his jaw. The headphones he wore were loud enough to hear the resulting explosions from the doorway.

Josh smirked at his obsessed best friend and dropped into his own desk chair. After pulling his slim silver laptop out of his backpack, he plugged in his own headphones while it booted. Moments later he dropped into the game.

“Kev, where are you?” Despite being in the same room, he used the in-game communications to speak.

“Going up the ridge,” he said. “Come up on the left and meet me at the choke point.”

Slipping into the game, Josh’s muscle memory ran his avatar to the ridge. It was easy to get immersed in the flow. The audio and visual cues from the game had become so familiar he let his virtual body fight while his mind disengaged.

It had been five days since Lauren had walked out of her house wearing that stunning red dress with Bruce at her side. Josh’s parents had been surprised to see him that Saturday night. Despite still having his room there, he usually only came home to eat or do his laundry. Since he didn’t have an appetite and hadn’t brought any dirty clothes, his Dad had pulled him aside to ask worried questions about his grades and social life.

When Lauren came out of the house, Josh had been close enough to the front window to see her. His father had followed the direction of his glare and chuckled. That prompted a quiet man-to-man discussion where Josh found himself trying to explain something he didn’t understand himself. When he‘d come down from his room later that evening wearing his suit, Mom had looked confused but Dad had given him a nod of approval and a tight lipped smile.

Five days had passed since then. Lauren hadn’t called or texted once. And Josh couldn’t force himself to make the first move.

In the game, Josh dropped his weapon so he could beat an opponent to death with his fists, shouting a wordless cry of rage and frustration. Then game timer ran out marking the end of the battle and leaving his heart racing as he tore off the headset. He shut the computer down with a few clicks and leaned back in his chair.

“Dude, come on, one more game,” Kevin begged.

“I’ve got study group,” Josh mumbled as his computer powered off. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

“Only a couple of hours? It’s Wednesday. Is Gillian sick or something?”

“Naw,” Josh said. “I’m just not in the mood.”

“Maybe I’ll give her a call then,” Kevin said with a smirk.

“Go ahead,” Josh shrugged and packed his laptop back in his backpack. The idea of Kevin hooking up with Gillian didn’t prompt any jealousy. That made him wonder why the idea of Lauren hooking up with Bruce had made him so insane. It was the same thing, wasn’t it?

Kevin seemed a little disappointed when he didn’t get a rise out of Josh. “So were you at her place Saturday night?”

“No, just went home for the night.” Josh slung his pack over his shoulder. “See ya later, if you’re here.”

It was a hot walk to the library. Summer had arrived and the late afternoon sunlight was blinding. He hadn’t told Kevin about Lauren. It’s not like they discussed details about the girls they hooked up with, but he’d never felt compelled to lie about it before. But then Kevin had come home with Josh occasionally and had been around Lauren enough times to remember her. Thinking about that made him frown as he passed a couple strolling along the sidewalk and holding hands.

He had to admit being concerned about their age difference. Technically she was jailbait for anyone over eighteen, but when she’d kissed him it hadn’t mattered. He still polished that memory like precious treasure, obsessing over the whole weekend like Gollum with his ring. It had left him edgy and horny. Ordinarily he’d just hook up with Gillian to get it out of his system, but his crazy fixation on Lauren made him doubt it would work this time.

He pulled open the library door, adjusting the strap of his heavy backpack as he stepped through. The air in the library was cool, with the vanilla scent of books hanging in the still air. He passed by the front desk to make his way down the center of the building to their private study room. The door was open and three of his friends were already there.

“Hey,” Gillian said when she saw him come in. “Missed you this weekend. I thought you were going to the soccer game with Kevin.”

“Something came up,” Josh said as he sat and began pulling out his laptop to plug it in. He nodded at the others. “Abdul. Maria.”

“Hey man,” Abdul said as he lifted his chin. “My sister said you made quite a splash Saturday night.”

Josh swallowed past the lump in his throat. Abdul’s sister, Adria, went to his old high school. Gillian raised an eyebrow and shot him a questioning look. “I took a friend of the family to her Prom after she got dumped on Saturday.”

“Oh, that’s so sweet,” Maria gushed. “Who is she?”

“Lauren Michaels. She’s been babysitting my sisters for years.” Josh felt the heat rising in his face as he waited for his laptop to boot. He risked a glance at Gillian and saw her trying to suppress a smile. Maria began typing and clicking on her laptop.

“Damn,” Gillian murmured. “You old softy, you.”

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Josh lied. It felt like a big deal. He’d been unable to get her off his mind for more than ten minutes all week.

“Oh, she’s cute,” Maria spun the laptop around to display Lauren’s online profile to the others. It featured a picture of her standing alone in front of a fireplace wearing her red Prom dress. Just then Markus and Steph came in together.

“Who’s cute?” Steph asked as she bent to look closer at the laptop screen.

“Josh’s Prom date from Saturday,” Maria teased. “A family friend got dumped and he swooped in to the rescue.” She spun her laptop back around and resumed clicking.

Steph shot Josh a look of surprise. “Since when does Jaded Josh do something like that?”

Jaded Josh?” he asked and looked around the room. Their reactions struck him hard. Maria and Steph both chuckled in obvious agreement. Abdul and Markus shrugged at him, but both nodded. Gillian just sucked in her cheeks while avoiding his eyes. “I’m not jaded.”

“You’re so jaded,” Steph said. “It’s like you’re made of teflon. Nothing ever sticks to you.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Josh asked. Even though he didn’t understand her accusation, it still stung for some reason.

Gillian turned to Steph with a wave and said, “You started this.”

“Well,” Steph stalled as they all sat around the table. “I’ve known you for most of a year and still have no idea what makes you tick. You’re smart, but detached in a way. You’ve broken the hearts of a handful of friends since school started and you don’t even seem to notice. And the weirdest part is they all still like you.” She let out a short laugh and shook her head.

Hot rage boiled up, then immediately steamed into confusion. Josh frowned, trying to come up with a rebuttal, but couldn’t argue her point. He didn’t allow people outside his family to get close. Most of his relationships were based around something specific, like playing soccer or school work. His best friend Kevin was the only person he trusted enough to bring across all the different parts of his life. He looked around at their expectant faces. Why didn’t he trust them the same way?

“Don’t we have some work to do?” he whispered as he opened his backpack.

Gillian laughed. “See? He’s like nailing jello to the wall.”

After a moment of silence, Maria looked up from her computer with a startled expression and said, “Uh… Josh?”

“Huh?” he asked as his laptop booted.

“Just a family friend?” She spun the laptop around again to display a full-screen photo from the Prom dance floor.

It had been taken right after Lauren had tucked her panties in his front pants pocket. He was holding her close with a broad grin on his face. Her hands were gripping his upper arms so hard her knuckles were white. The heat that flowed between them was palpable through the image.

“Dude, she’s my sister’s age,” Abdul said with obvious discomfort. “What the hell?”

“Oh my god,” Gillian whispered as she leaned closer to examine the screen.

Josh felt a crushing pressure in his chest as everyone looked to him for an explanation. When his father had asked about Lauren, Josh had given a halting description of the powerful attraction he felt along with the compulsion to help her. It had never occurred to him that the events of the weekend would bleed into his college life.

“Lauren lives across the street from my parents. I’ve known her for years. When she found out her boyfriend cheated on her Friday night, she was really upset.” Josh stumbled for a moment as he swallowed the lump in his throat. “He picked her up Saturday night like nothing had happened, but when he realized she knew everything he’d done, he walked out on her after dinner.”

“So you stepped in to save the day?” Gillian let out a sad laugh. “And now you’re gonna break her heart.”

“It’s not like that,” Josh snapped. “She’s not naive. The asshole that cheated on her got his ass handed to him at dinner. She invited the person he cheated with to their table and basically trapped him in a lie and outed them in front of everyone.”

Steph was studying him like an insect under glass. “You really like her,” she whispered in wonder.

“Of course I like her,” Josh huffed. “Can we just drop this?”

“No,” Gillian said with a serious expression on her face. “Are you gonna see her again?”

“I don’t know. She hasn’t called me since I dropped her off.” Josh tried to hide the anxiety it had raised in him, but Steph’s chuckle told him he hadn’t done a good job.

“And that’s killing you, isn’t it?” Steph asked. “Holy crap, Lauren stuck. She actually stuck!”

Josh put his face in his palms and pressed against his closed eyes. Maria continued bringing up different pictures from the evening. That prompted the others to get on their tablets and computers to stalk Lauren’s profile for more tidbits about her. She was an only child. Her best friend was named Breezy. Taking advanced classes had her on track to graduate early.

The pressure in his chest forced him to pack up his books and laptop again. When he stood, the others were giving him amused looks.

“Where are you going?” Gillian asked with a smirk.

“Somewhere else to study,” Josh mumbled.

“Should I wait up tonight?” she purred.

Her invitation to hook up made his mouth twitch. Being mocked by the study group hadn’t done anything to improve his mood. “No.”

“You got it bad,” Gillian’s smirk grew to a grin. “Tell Lauren I’d love to meet the person who finally got a hook in you.”

Josh stomped out of the room to the chuckles of his study group. His heart raced and he clenched his teeth so hard his jaw ached. Knowing Maria and Steph as well as he did, the story would be all over by morning.

As he hurried back across the quad towards his room, Josh struggled with conflicting emotions. The biggest irony was that they thought he would hurt Lauren. On Sunday, Josh had mentally practiced what he would say to keep things casual when she called. By Monday night he had been tempted to call to see if Bruce had given her a hard time at school. The continuing silence was killing him, but he stubbornly refused to call her first.

Josh went into his dorm and took the elevator to his floor. When he got to the door of his room he found a sock hanging on the doorknob and the unmistakable creaking sounds of his roommate’s bed. Whoever Kevin was with kept moaning, “Oh God! Oh God!”

“Fuck,” he muttered and turned back towards the elevator.

He kept walking when he got outside, his feet taking him towards the parking lot while he tried to figure out what he wanted to do next. If he was being honest with himself, he wanted to see Lauren. Since he refused to give into that temptation, he decided to go home and eat dinner with his family. At least he could get some quiet time to study in his room there.

He arrived at home twenty minutes later and carried his backpack through the front door to the inviting scent of garlic. “Hey, Mom, it’s just me.”

“What are you doing home on a Wednesday night?” she asked as she greeted him in the living room with a warm hug.

“I could smell the spaghetti sauce and garlic bread from campus,” he teased.

“Visiting twice in one week. I could get used to this,” she teased back.

His three sisters came running up to hug his legs. Gracie was eight going on sixteen, Riley was six, and little Kate was four. Josh got down on their level and tickled them while he hugged them all together.

“Stop it,” Riley giggled, but stayed close to let him get her again.

“You girls get bigger every time I see you,” he said as he stood back up.

Josh’s mother had passed away from breast cancer when he was six. When Dad started dating Billie, Josh hadn’t felt the typical resentment toward someone stepping into his Mom’s role. Billie was warm and approachable without being pushy, and it was so great seeing his father happy again. He started calling her Mom the day of their wedding, confident his own mother would understand and agree if she could.

“Come on, all of you go set the table,” Mom said as she returned to the stove.

Josh put his backpack on the couch in the living room and went to get the dishes down for his sisters. He was counting out the silverware for them all when Gracie came bouncing up.

“Is it true you took Lauren to Prom?”

Josh closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. So much for escaping the inquisition on campus. “Yeah.”

“Cool. She’s awesome.”

“Yeah, she is pretty awesome.” He smiled to himself as he put the silverware in her hands.

Dad came home a little later and the whole family sat down together for the meal. It felt so wonderfully normal after days of tension. Josh ate two full plates of spaghetti and enough garlic bread to have a bad breath war with his sisters. Riley won.

The girls were rounded up and shipped off to bed by Mom while Josh and his father did the dishes.

“So why are you really here?” Dad asked with a wry look.

Josh took a deep breath. “Word got out that I took Lauren to the Prom. My study group gave me a hard time so I decided to work here.”

“She is a little young.” Dad made the observation without judgment in his tone.

“I know.” Josh’s dinner grumbled in his guts as he closed the dishwasher. “I’ve got a paper to write.”

He took his backpack up to his room and began setting up on his desk. Just as his laptop booted he heard the chime of his cell phone. Pulling it out to look at the message from Lauren made his heart race. “i see you over there”

He smiled at her words and thumbed a response. “got a paper to write”

His phone rang and he swiped to answer her call. “Hey.”

“Paper or not, I don’t think I’ve seen you home midweek before.”

Just hearing her voice soothed him like aloe on a burn. “I usually have study group, but I couldn’t concentrate tonight and Kevin had someone in our room. How was it this week?”

She was quiet for a moment. “Rough.”

“Trouble with Bruce?” he growled, his stomach tightening at the thought.

“No, actually. It’s Breezy. Kind of a long story.”

“I’ve got time if you want to talk about it.”

“Would you mind?” she asked, her trust touching him.

“Of course not. Over here or over there?” he asked.

“My parents are here and I’d prefer a little privacy.”

“My sisters are already in bed. Come over here and we can sit in my room if you want.”

“Be there in a sec,” she sighed. “Thanks.”

Josh got up and went downstairs. His parents were watching television in the living room when the quiet knock came through the front door. “It’s just Lauren coming over to see me,” he said to keep them from getting up.

Opening the door, Josh was unprepared for the impact of seeing Lauren again. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. The lack of makeup made her look younger than he remembered. A long white t-shirt partly covered her black thigh-length yoga shorts. She was nervously flaking the red nail polish off her fingernails as she looked up at him.

Josh opened the door wider to let her in. “Come on in.”

“Thanks again.” She followed him to the stairs, but leaned into the living room before heading up after him. “Hey, Mister and Missus Alexander.”

“Hello, Lauren,” Mom said with a puzzled look at them both. “Are you free this Friday?”

“I should be,” she said. “Mom and Dad are going to see Aunt Julie for the weekend, but I have finals coming up and need to stay home to study.”

“Okay, can you pencil us in? I’ll let you know for sure by tomorrow,” Mom said.

“Will do.”

Josh watched Lauren bounce up the rest of the stairs before she gave him a shy smile and walked into his bedroom. He closed the door most of the way while Lauren sat cross-legged in the middle of his bed.

“So what’s up?” Josh said as he sat back against the headboard. He didn’t know what to expect from her and it was driving him insane. The compulsion to kiss her was making it hard to concentrate on anything else.

“It’s Breezy.” Lauren said with a grimace. “She and Todd were planning on hooking up after Prom. When you and I left the hotel, they were already in the other room and I assumed things were going okay.”

“Todd didn’t hurt her, did he?” Josh had met him at the dance and didn’t think he was the type.

“No, nothing like that.” Lauren put her elbows on her knees and leaned closer. “Breezy was raped by a family friend while they were out camping a couple of years ago.”

“Holy shit,” Josh mumbled. No wonder Lauren hadn’t called him all week.

“Breezy never told anyone at the time. The guy was a little older and she was flattered by the attention at first. From her description, they were just fooling around and got carried away. She tried to make him stop, but he just kept going until he finished.”

“So she panicked when she was alone with Todd on Saturday?” Josh guessed.

“Exactly,” Lauren sighed and reached to take his hand. “Todd was great about it. I mean, he knew something had happened in the past and was careful with her. After he dropped her off at my house, she had a complete meltdown. It’s taken me three days to talk her out of dumping Todd and swearing off men.”

“I’m so sorry,” Josh said and squeezed her hand. “Can I do anything?”

“Maybe,” Lauren said and looked down at their hands. “This is gonna sound really weird and I have no idea if she’ll even agree to it.”

“Just say it,” Josh said, curious what she had in mind.

“My parents are gonna be away this weekend. I’m planning to have Breezy over to keep me company. I was thinking if you and Todd came over to spend some time, maybe it would help her to adjust to getting closer to him without panicking.”

“So, like a double date. Lower pressure because she won’t be alone with him.”

“Right, but enough privacy that if something does happen she’ll at least know I’m close by.”

“But if she panicked that bad about this, shouldn’t she see a therapist?” Josh asked.

Lauren shook her head. “She never told anyone she was raped. Her parents are overprotective as it is and would want to know why she wants to see a therapist. And if she told them, they’d never let her out of the house again.”

“What about the asshole that did this to her? She’s just gonna let him get away with it?”

Lauren shrugged and gave him a weak smile. “Good luck with that. I’ve been after her since Sunday to do something about it and got nowhere.”

“You’re a good friend,” Josh said as he took both of her hands in his and met her eyes.

She was quiet for a moment before whispering, “I missed you.”

The words sizzled through his chest. All the practiced words to keep his distance were forgotten. He leaned closer, tilting his head a little just before their lips met. The same honey sweetness woke his hunger. They opened their mouths together, tongues touching as the kiss deepened. They both scooted closer.

Lauren released his hands to reach for his face, cupping his cheeks as she broke away to stare in his eyes. “I want an orgasm,” she whispered with a grin.

“Fuck,” he muttered at her lidded look. He glanced at the open door for a moment. “How quiet can you be?”

“Very quiet,” she whispered. “And very quick.”

Josh slipped off the bed and silently shut and locked the door. By the time he turned back, Lauren was pulling off her t-shirt to expose the white bra that cupped her breasts. He tugged her legs straight and she lifted herself to let him pull down the tight yoga shorts. The gusset of her panties was already damp.

Kissing her as he climbed back on the bed, Josh cupped her breasts and pushed her back against the pillows. The front bra clasp came apart at a touch, releasing warm flesh for him to explore. While he suckled at her breasts, she rocked her hips and sighed. The nipples rose to points in his mouth while her skin prickled all around. Her fingers gripped his hair as she writhed beneath him.

He took his time to bring her along, not rushing to a quick end. How had he ever thought she had small breasts? Her breasts were perfect and she let him know exactly how much she appreciated his attention. When she began to whimper and push his face down towards her panties, he let her guide him.

“Please,” she begged.

Slipping his fingers over the elastic, he tugged the panties down past her knees. She lifted each dainty foot for him to pull them off, then he pushed her knees apart to kiss his way home. Each touch made her jerk and hold her breath. In moments his eyes were gazing at her gorgeous cleft. The short brown hair that framed it was glistening. He opened her with his tongue, tasting her as she arched her back. The unique scent and flavor drew him all the way in, splitting her open for his fingers to fill.

That was the moment Lauren dragged a pillow out to cover her face. He could hear her muffled responses while he drove her closer to the edge. Her hips kept a steady rhythm, guiding Josh as he sucked her little nub out from under its hood. Inside, his fingers found her magic spot and he pressed it in time with her motions. That made her shudder and whimper through the pillow until every muscle around him tightened hard for a moment as she teetered on the edge.

The pulses came with a frenzy of motion. She bucked and jerked, moaning louder into the pillow as her body arched off the bed. Her legs shook as her inner muscles sucked at his fingers. Keeping his mouth on her and his fingers pressing deep inside worked for a while, but she finally let the pillow go to pull him up.

The mad kisses that followed slowed until she was panting against his cheek. “Oh, God, Josh…”

He placed soft kisses on her cheek and along her damp hairline. She snuggled into him, her arms keeping a tight hold around his back. His own arousal was keeping his attention focused on her like a laser.

“Do you think your parents heard?” Lauren whispered at last.

“No,” Josh chuckled. “You really were pretty quiet.”

“I’m surprised the bed didn’t creak.”

“I did some work on it back in high school. I packed the joints with cotton batting, put rubber feet on all the posts, and added locking washers on all the bolts.”

She chuckled soundlessly. “So can you be that quiet?”

“As a mouse,” he said. “Wanna let me try?”

“Please.”

Lauren released him and he stood to undress quickly. He got a condom from the nightstand and rolled it on while she watched. After guiding Lauren to lay on her stomach, he lifted her hips and pulled her to the edge of the mattress. With an excited look over her shoulder, she grabbed her pillow to hug tight and stifle her cries.

Seeing her ass right there, Josh couldn’t help kissing her cheeks a few times. She tilted her hips out for him to kiss lower, which he did with gusto. Her arousal was evident in the drops that leaked down her thighs. Placing one last kiss deep between her cheeks, he stood closer and pressed himself against her opening.

Spreading her slowly with his hard shaft, he watched the erotic show as he filled her up. By the time his nest of pubic hair was pressed against her ass, she was shivering with goosebumps all over her body. He backed out just as slowly, then filled her again in one smooth motion.

“So good,” Lauren moaned as she pulled her mouth away from the pillow. “Faster now.”

He picked up the speed, careful not to let the bed creak. She rocked with him, pushing against his thrusts and tilting her hips to increase the sensation. When he found the right pace, she hugged the pillow tighter, her body coiling like a winding spring. He felt the same tension, but counted the books on his bookcase to wait for her release.

She came like an earthquake—motionless at first, then shaking all over as she cried out into the pillow. He kept the motion up until she looked back over her shoulder to beg him to join her. That pushed him over the edge and he drove himself into a series of deep, slow thrusts. Biting his lips to keep his mouth shut, he gripped her hips tighter, holding himself inside until the last pulse faded. Then he gripped the condom and withdrew carefully.

Lauren collapsed in a tangle on the bed. Her hair was damp, with strands escaping her ponytail to stick across her face. Josh tied the condom off before slipping into bed next to her. When he folded her into his arms, she snuggled closer to kiss him.

“I’d hoped we could do this again,” she purred.

“Me, too,” he said as he cupped a soft breast and rubbed his thumb over her nipple.

“I guess I should go before my Mom calls me.” She sat up with a contented sigh and reached for her panties. “So why couldn’t you concentrate at your study group? You told me you liked it.”

Josh sat up and picked his own clothes up off the floor. He wanted to tell her, but worried she might take it the wrong way. “You know a girl named Adria?”

Lauren stood to get her yoga shorts up. “I introduced you to her on Saturday night. She’s in chemistry with me.”

Josh was distracted by her breasts while she slipped on her bra. “Her brother Abdul is in my study group.”

Lauren stopped with her shirt in her hands to stare at him. “So now your college friends know you took me to Prom.”

Josh shrugged without meeting her eyes. After he got his shirt over his head, he glanced up to see her worried expression.

“Is that a problem?” she asked in a small voice.

“No,” he insisted as he crossed over to her. She looked up at his face as if searching for the truth. “I don’t care what they think.”

“But it was bad enough that you left and came here.”

Josh couldn’t stop the smirk as he took her into his arms. “And I’m glad I did.”

“I’m serious.” Lauren rested her cheek against his chest. “I never thought about how this might affect you.”

“You’ve been a little preoccupied.” Josh kissed her hair. “Don’t worry, it’s fine.”

She pulled back to look at him. “Tell me the truth. What did they say?”

Josh decided to put it out there and trust her to understand. “At first, that I was sweet to step up and help you. Then someone found a picture of us slow dancing at the end of the night and it became obvious I wasn’t just helping a friend of the family.”

“Shit,” she grimaced. “Breezy posted that one. I’m so sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for.” Josh gave her a crooked smile. “I’d do it all over again in a second.”

“What about your other friend?” she asked with a wrinkled brow. “With benefits?”

“Gillian?” Josh chuckled. “She’s in my study group, too, and said she wanted to meet you.”

“Oh, God, no!” Lauren looked horrified. “No, no, no. This has been weird enough without having to talk to another person you… no.” Josh wanted to reassure her, but what could he say? She pulled away to slip on her sandals. “I’ve been gone too long and need to get home.”

He unlocked and opened the door. “I’ll walk you over.”

His parents were still up watching television. “G’night, Mister and Missus Alexander.”

“Good night, Lauren. I’ll call you tomorrow,” Mom said.

Josh opened the front door and followed Lauren outside. It was dark, and cool for a summer night. Before he thought about it, he slipped his fingers between hers. She squeezed his hand as they walked across the yard.

“I had no idea this was going to become an issue for you. If you don’t want to come over on Saturday, I’ll totally understand.” Lauren looked up as she said it, but Josh was already shaking his head.

“I’d like to see you,” he said. His fixation was going to be so much worse after being with her again.

They stopped in her yard and faced each other, their hands still joined. She turned her face up and glanced between his lips and eyes. Her features were beautiful in the pale amber glow of the streetlights. Taking her expression as an invitation, he leaned in and gently kissed her goodnight.

“I’m glad.” She turned away without another word and headed up to her front door alone.

Josh watched her go with a smile tugging at his lips, then after she went inside he turned back to his parents’ house. When he walked through the front door, Mom was just coming back from the front window where she had been watching them. Fuck.

“As a mother of daughters myself, I’m a little disturbed to see my adult son kissing the teenaged babysitter.” Mom wrapped her arms around her body as she studied him.

Josh felt the heat rising in his face. First his study group, now his Mom. Before he could think of how to respond, she continued.

“Ana is my friend, Josh. She expects her daughter to be safe when she comes to work in my home.”

“I’d never hurt Lauren,” he breathed.

“You certainly wouldn’t mean to, but you have no idea how easy it would be. She’s had a crush on you since the day we moved in.”

Josh felt an irrational guilt eating him up from the inside. “I know. We’ve talked about it.”

Mom shook her head slowly. “You may be an adult, but this is my house. No more taking Lauren up to your room. And no coming over when she’s working here. I’m paying her to keep an eye on the girls and she can’t do a good job when she’s distracted by you. When your sisters are old enough to babysit I’d expect the parents hiring them to do the same thing.”

Josh nodded. “I understand.”

“So I assume the whole suit thing on Saturday night had something to do with her?” Mom frowned.

“Her boyfriend dumped her before her Prom. She let me take her so she wouldn’t have to go alone.”

“That explains the pictures I keep getting sent,” Mom muttered. “She’s too young for you, no matter how mature she acts. And our families have been close friends for years. Don’t you hurt her, Josh.”

That comment forced out a single, sad laugh. “It’s more likely to end up the other way, Mom.”

Her eyes narrowed as she studied him for a moment. “You really like her, don’t you?”

Biting his cheeks to keep control of himself, Josh shifted from one foot to the other. “I need to finish my paper and head back to school.”

“Wait.” She reached for him before he could go back upstairs. Mom was shorter than he was but taller than Lauren as she embraced him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see it until now. Oh my boy, when you fall, you fall hard.”

Being hugged by his mother broke his control. His breath hitched as he returned her embrace. “I didn’t mean for things to get so complicated.”

“And I didn’t mean to come down so hard on you.”

“You were easier on me than my friends at school.”

She chuckled at his dry complaint. “Just remember I love you, Josh, no matter what.”

“I know.”

“Why don’t you go take a shower? You smell like sex. And I need to figure out how to tell Ana her daughter’s all grown up.”

The words hit him like a sucker punch. “Jeez, Mom.”

“What? You think you got away with everything all these years?” Mom shot him a wry look as she let him go to head back to the living room. “Just be careful. Please? I’m too young to be a grandmother.”

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