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I wanted to show her how bad I could be, but she didn’t want me.

“How are things going with Berta?”

“I’m keeping Lily updated.” I’d been sending her detailed emails. It was businesslike and left no room for small talk.

After eating dinner in the waiting room of the garage, I’d kept my distance. I didn’t want my body to think pursuing Lily was a good idea because my brain was firmly in the I’m-all-wrong-for-her camp.

Ryan raised a brow. “Yeah?”

“Is that supposed to mean something?” I asked, worried about what I was opening myself up for. Ryan never sugarcoated things with me. We’d both had fucked-up pasts and had been there for each other through everything.

“You never give out the loaner to anyone.”

My stomach tightened. “Lily needs something to transport her flowers.”

Ryan’s lips twitched. “You’re kind of proving my point.”

Impatient with this conversation, I asked, “Which is?”

“Do you like Lily?”

“Fuck no.” The denial was immediate. I didn’t want to discuss what had been going through my head the last few weeks. He’d try to convince me to give it a try, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to shut this conversation down.

But something on Ryan’s face had me turning around to see Lily’s face. She looked hurt.

Fuck. She must have heard me. I was an asshole. This was why I couldn’t be with someone like her. I fucked everything up. I’d crush her like a flower in my fist.

“You want to see Berta?” I asked her over the burning sensation in my throat.

She swallowed hard and nodded.

I touched her elbow and guided her to the van. When we were outside, I let go of her and asked, “Did you overhear Ryan and me talking about you?”

Lily nodded, not meeting my gaze.

I ran a hand over my face. “I didn’t mean for you to hear.”

She looked away. “It’s not a big deal.”

I rocked on my heels, not sure if I would make things worse by trying to explain what was going on in my head. “But it’s not true.”

Her brow furrowed as she turned to face me. “So, it’s not true that you don’t like me?”

I nodded.

“Then why did you say what you did?” she asked, nothing but genuine curiosity in her face.

“I didn’t want to talk about it with Ryan. He’d try to convince me of things that aren’t possible.”

Her forehead wrinkled. “What’s not possible?”

I stepped closer to her, allowing myself to brush a strand of hair that had fallen out of her braid to the side. “You and me. We don’t make sense.”

She sucked in a breath. “How so?”

“We’re too different. You’re light and sunshine, and I’m heavy and dark.” That’s how I’d always felt growing up in Nana’s house.

“I’ve told myself the same thing.”

“You have?”

“I have a history of dating guys like you.” Her face flushed.

That was interesting. “Guys like me?”

“You know, guys who give off this bad-boy vibe.” Her face flushed a deep pink, as if she were embarrassed to admit that.

I let out a laugh. “Is that how you see me?”

“Obviously, I’m generalizing. I don’t know anything about you, but I sense that there’s something going on. Something holding you back from your potential. That you don’t see yourself like others do.”

We barely knew each other, yet she’d read me accurately.

“Am I right?”

“Close.” I wasn’t ready to tell her about my history, although she might have already heard about my past from Hailey or their friends. Hailey’s memory of our mother was different from mine. I was six years older, forced to grow up and care for my sister, even when we lived with my mother. I made sure Hailey ate, went to school, and did her homework.

“I’m attracted to you, and clearly, you feel the same, but I’m not looking for a relationship right now. Not that that’s what you want either,” she finished in a rush, clearly flustered.

“I am attracted to you. But you’re right. I’m not interested in a relationship.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever want something serious, and she deserved more. She’d given me an easy out, and I’d taken it.

She nodded as if I’d confirmed what she’d been thinking. “Good. We’re in agreement then.”

She seemingly brushed off the conversation, then asked for an update on Berta. The entire time I circled the van, updating her on the progress, I was on edge, irritated by the way she’d dismissed me so easily.

When I finished, Lily said, “Thanks for taking good care of her.”

There was this chasm between us. A distance I couldn’t breach. She’d put up her boundaries, and I was powerless to knock through them. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to.

“Of course.” I wanted Berta to be everything Lily envisioned—the symbol for the shop and the farm.

Lily smiled apologetically. “Sorry if things got a little awkward before. But I’m positive we can continue working together.”

Something about the way Lily was able to walk away from our conversation, like it meant nothing, got to me. I wanted to close the distance between us and pull her into my body. I wanted to crush my lips to hers. I wanted to know if she tasted like sunshine or something sugary and sweet. I wanted to show her how bad I could be, but she didn’t want that. She didn’t want me.

"The Ever After Series is a must for 2023!" - World of Books 65

"A Top 2023 read for me!" - Latte and Bookz

"I love these Annapolis couples – keep them coming!" - Lisa, Goodreads Reviewer

"Looking for a book-boyfriend, then look no further as Ms. Coll delivers Jake, a man that is definitely swoon-worthy. The Way You Are is one book that I highly recommend picking up. In fact, the Ever After series is one to add to your TBR list as Ms. Coll never disappoints with her writing as well as her storylines." - Kelchickbooklover

"Lea Coll just keeps writing fantastic books. Back in the Ever After Series, Lily and Jake are the focus of The Way You Are. Jake is a rough around the edges mechanic & Lily is a bright, upbeat flower shop owner!" - The Original Mrs. P

Have you already read Lily & Jake's story? Harrison and Everly are next in Love Me Like You Do, a best friends to lovers, fake relationship, reverse grumpy sunshine, single dad romance.

I was asking her to pretend not only to be in a relationship but to be engaged, as well. And how far would this go? Would we have to live together? Would we need to set a date? Actually go through with it and get married?

Jackson wanted it to look real. We were asked all the time if we’d ever gone there with each other. Most couldn’t believe we hadn’t. So, no one would question if we did.

If we told everyone we were a thing and later broke up, my grandmother would be heartbroken. I couldn’t tell her the truth. If we were going to lie in a court of law, everyone needed to believe the lie.

On the drive to Max’s, I wondered why I never thought of Everly as more than a friend. The obvious answer was that her friendship was too important to me. I just hoped that pretending to be together didn’t have the same effect. Everyone knew custody cases were stacked against dads. And there was nothing technically wrong with Lola’s parenting. There was no reason why a judge would reduce her time other than me wanting more of it. I wasn’t sure how judges handled those situations, and I wanted to present the best case.

As Jackson said, this was my best chance.

I parked and walked slowly toward the restaurant. My feet felt heavier with each step. The space between my shoulder blades tightened.

For the first time, I was nervous to see Everly. I wasn’t sure how she would react. If she’d be on board or if she would think I was completely crazy and laugh at me. I wouldn't blame her, no matter what she did. The entire situation was unreal.

When I opened the door, Everly was already waiting. As soon as she saw me, her blue eyes brightened.

For the first time, I really looked at her—long, dirty-blonde hair curled into waves. She wore a dress as if she’d come straight from her office job. She described herself as shy, but I rarely saw that side of her.

She moved into my arms, hugging me like she always did, except this time, I was hyperaware of the way her breasts pressed against my chest.

She pulled back slightly, leaving me wondering if I could feel her nipples through her dress or if I was losing my mind.

Her brow furrowed. “Is everything okay?”

I nodded tightly. I’d never been more aware of her physically. My body still tingled where she’d touched me.

We followed the hostess to our table. Sitting across from each other, we ordered drinks, and Everly said, “You met with your attorney today. How did it go?”

I sighed, knowing I needed to get this over with. “He said I had to make some changes in order for me to look better in front of the judge.”

Everly leaned in and lowered her voice. “What are you talking about? You’re responsible and mature. You own a business. What would you possibly need to change?”

“He said, ‘It would look better if I was in a serious relationship, engaged, or, better yet, married.’” I let the bitterness seep into my voice.

“Well, that’s ridiculous. You’re not seeing anyone, are you?”

I didn’t sense anything other than genuine curiosity in her tone. We rarely discussed our relationships unless one of us went through a bad breakup and needed the other to commiserate. I didn’t think too closely about why that was. I didn’t particularly like hearing about her dating anyone.

“What are you going to do?”

I couldn’t even look at her. “You’re going to hate me for this.”

Everly laughed. “I could never hate you.”

Knowing what I had to say could change everything, I drew in a deep breath before I told her the truth. “I told him I was going to propose.”

“You did what?” Her voice raised, and she looked around at the other tables to see if anyone was staring at us.

I held up my hands. “Before you freak out—”

“I'm already freaking out,” Everly hissed.

“Just wait a second. Let me explain.”

She waved a hand at me as if to tell me to go ahead.

“I’m a single guy. The judge might assume I’m bringing women in and out of Wren’s life.”

“You don’t do that, do you?”

“Of course not. Apparently, custody cases can get ugly. Lola’s married with another baby on the way. The fact is, she looks stable. I don’t.”

“I can’t believe you told your attorney we were getting engaged.”

“The case will come down to who’s reliable and steady. And let's be honest, it tends to be stacked against the guy.” I wasn’t positive if that was true or just the way it felt to me. But I wasn’t above appealing to Everly in a way that would get her behind my idea.

“That’s not fair. I cannot believe that you have to be engaged or married in order to get more custody of Wren, and I’m still stuck on the fact that you need me to do it.”

“Honestly, I panicked when he said it would look better if I was engaged. Your face immediately popped into my head because we’ve been friends for years, and everyone’s always asked us if something’s ever happened between us.” At the irritated look on her face, I rushed to continue. “And, of course, it’s not true. We know that. But at the same, no one is going to question if we get together. It’s assumed we will.”

“It is?”

“I’m talking about, in everyone else’s mind, we make sense. We’ve been friends for years. We help each other. We’re there for each other. You’re always at my house.”

“That’s because of Wren, too. I love her. She’s like a niece to me.”

“Everyone will believe it. No one will question it.” The more I thought it through, the more it made sense. “But if you’re not okay with it. I can tell him I made it up. You obviously get a say in this.”

“Let’s say I wanted to help you. What would it entail?”

“Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead. But I would think it means a few dates, being seen around town.”

“Do I need a ring?”

“I’m sure Gran wouldn’t mind if I use hers.”

Everly dropped her head into her hands. “We have to lie to your grandmother?”

“I don’t want anyone to lie for us, so it’s best if we’re the only ones who know the truth.”

Everly nodded. “That makes sense. But if we’re going to do this, we need to go all-in.”

A thrill shot through me that she might be on board with my plan. “How so?”

“I think we’re going to have to live together and set a date. Really show the judge we’re serious about this.”

“Wren’s worth it.” Was she worth me living with my best friend? What if wires got crossed and one of us started having feelings for the other?

Everly’s forehead wrinkled. “You know I’d do anything for you.”

I could hear the but coming. She was my best friend. She was always there for me. She was the one I called when I needed help when Wren was sick. It was natural that she’d be the one I would go to for this, too. I didn’t consider all the possible ramifications. Or what it might mean for Everly.

“So, let’s make a plan.”

“We’re doing this?” It was almost too good to be true.

“I’d do anything for you and that little girl. I hate to lie, but it’s for a good cause.”

I tried not to think about what might happen if anyone found out it was fake.

It would be an issue for the custody case and my business, but there was an elephant in the room that neither of us had mentioned. What if one of us liked the arrangement a little too much? Everly had never made any move toward me. Not even when she was drunk or when we’d commiserated over a breakup.

It was only me who wondered what would have happened had I not gotten a one-night stand pregnant. Would Everly look at me differently? Would she see me as a man and not just her friend who needed her help?

There were so many questions swirling in my brain; my head was throbbing. But we needed to plan our arrangement before I could consider the consequences.

Releasing soon on my shop!

Pre-Order on other retailers for a June 13th release.

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