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Second Down Darling
Author: Lex Martin








“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!”

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