Collared by Nicole Williams

THIS IS THE happiest moment of my whole life. I know it.

Of course I can’t tell Torrin that since he’s got a whole theory that those happiest moments are usually followed by the worst moments. He’s a little biased after what happened to his dad—not that I can blame him. I’d probably feel the same way if the day I’d scored the winning goal at the state championship was the day my dad had been killed by a drunk driver in the middle of a crosswalk.

So instead of telling Torrin about my happiest moment ever, I curl a little tighter against him and wedge my head under his chin. I like this spot. A lot. I can hear his heartbeat at the same time my head rises and falls in time to his breath.

His heart’s still beating. His lungs are still working. I don’t know why I find this so comforting—such a relief—but maybe Torrin’s happy moment theory is starting to rub off on me. My leg slung over his hips tightens around him. My arm stretched across his stomach does too.

“What are you thinking right this very second?” His body stirs a little, like he’s just waking up, but I know better. We might be in his bed, but we weren’t using it for its general purpose. He tilts his head down toward me when I stay quiet. He’s probably making sure I haven’t fallen asleep.

My thumb scrolls down one of his ribs. I can’t tell him the truth, so I tell him what I would be thinking if it wasn’t for the happiest-feeling-ever thing.

“That I just lost my virginity to the boy next door.” My voice sounds the same as his—like we’ve both just woken up from a nap or are about to fall into one.

“You make that sound so lackluster—losing it to the boy next door—and technically, I’m not the boy next door.”

I hear the smile in his voice, which makes my own form. Torrin’s got one hell of a smile—the kind that makes a girl’s stomach wring dry—but I’m too happy nestled on his chest to lean back and check it out. Besides, I memorized that smile years ago. Perks of growing up next to Torrin Costigan.

“The house beside mine has been empty for years, and the one beside you is owned by an eighty-three-year-old widow.” My smile stretches when I see where Torrin’s jeans landed—over the top of the lamp on his nightstand. “You’re the boy next door, Torrin. My boy next door.”

“I’m your whatever you want me to be. How ‘bout that?” His hand combing through my hair stops at the ends to give them a soft pull.

I melt a little more. Whatever was left of me to still melt at least. “What are you thinking?”

Torrin’s both an open book and a book of secrets. Some days I feel like I know everything there is to know about him, and others I wonder if I’ve barely scraped the surface. Losing his dad messed him up for a long time, and even though he says that’s behind him, I know better. It never will be—people can’t just put that kind of thing behind them. Some days it’s just more in front of him than others though.

“That all I want to do is fall asleep like this and wake up and do it all over again.” His chest opens like he’s stretching, but both of his arms stay tightly around me.

“I like your idea. That’s what I’m thinking now.” My leg stretched across his hips slides lower.

I feel something stir inside me again when I feel him. We just finished. Not even five minutes ago. This was my first time. I should be sore and tired and maybe even freaking out a little—according to my friends who ditched their virginity cards before me. Why do I want to do it again? Why is it the only thing I can think about?

I know the answer though. It’s the same reason as always—I can’t get enough of Torrin. I know it isn’t a one-sided feeling either. My friends say being this into a guy when I’m only seventeen isn’t healthy. My parents have threatened to move across the city and put some distance between us if we don’t slow things down. No one seems to get it. We get it though. When you love someone, you love them. You can’t “slow that down” or portion out whatever “healthy” doses your peers deem acceptable.

You love them as hard as you can, as best you can.

“I thought you were coming over to yell at me for covering for Caden again.” His voice is quieter. I know why.

“You mean for taking the fall for him? Again?” My voice is louder. He knows why. “Actually, I was coming over to do that, but then I saw you, and you gave me that sad smile of yours with that apologetic little shrug, and my emotions got crossed, and I decided this was the night.” I have to pause to take a breath. When I exhale, I notice the skin stretched across his chest just below my mouth rise. I love knowing I have this kind of an effect on him—even if I was just exhaling. “It felt right.”