Cannon, p.9
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       Cannon, p.9
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         Part #3 of A Step Brother Romance series by Sabrina Paige
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  Or maybe she won't give a shit, I think.   Because she doesn't care and it's all in my head.   That's my real fear.

  Addy turns her head slowly to look at me.   "The Marines," she says flatly.   "What is he talking about?"

  "Oh, your stepbrother is joining the Marines," Addy's mother says, dismissing me with a wave of her hand.   "I thought you already knew.   And anyway, I thought you might have another fit about public school.   That's why I found you a private option.   It's not a tutor, before you get all upset.   It's an actual private option for children who have a lifestyle like ours. "

  I hear Addy's mother speaking, but her words don't sink into my brain.   My head is swimming, and I'm just looking at Addy, who shakes her head slowly at me.   "Addy," I start, as she stands up and throws her napkin down on her barely-touched steak.   "I meant to tell – "

  "Fuck you, Hendrix," she says, her voice steady and calm but I can see her eyes brimming with tears.   "Fuck all of you. "

  "Addison Stone," her mother says.   "That is inappropriate and –"

  "Let her go," the Colonel says, his hand on his wife's arm.   "Teenagers and their emotions. "

  "She's not emotional," I hiss.   "Both of you are just assholes. "

  "Hendrix Cole," my father bellows.   But his voice gets softer because I'm already walking away, walking after Addy, through the dining room and the hallway.   I look for her in her bedroom and then the music room, even though I know she won't be there.   I find her outside, walking across the yard, her back turned to me.

  "Addy," I yell.   She picks up speed when I call to her.

  "Leave me alone, Hendrix. "

  I stomp through the grass, increasingly irritated with my father for dropping that little bombshell about me joining the Marines.   I'm also irritated with myself for not telling her before.   I should have just manned up and told her.   "Addy, come on," I yell.   "Stop and let me catch up. "

  "I'm not kidding, Hendrix. "  But she pauses, because she's at the edge of the property, and there's nowhere else to go beyond the set of trees, except down the ravine.

  "Addy. "

  "Just go. "  She's facing away from me, her arms crossed in front of her, and I can't just fucking turn around and walk away.

  I come up behind her, pull on her wrist, even though she tries to shrug me off, and I spin her around to face me.   She looks down at the ground beside us, at anything but me.   "I was going to tell you, Addy," I say.   "I just. . . shit, I didn't know how. "

  "Why?" she asks, her voice cracking.

  "I. . . just. . . couldn't come up with the right words, okay?" I say.   "I kept looking for the right time, but it wasn't ever the right time. "

  "Family dinner was a perfect fucking time," she says.   "Hearing it from your dad was just awesome. "

  "You've been gone, Addy," I say.   "You were on tour and -- "

  "You hate the military," she says, shaking her head.   She looks at me with such sadness and disappointment that the ache in the pit of my stomach threatens to gnaw a gaping hole in it a mile wide.   "Why?"

  My grip is still tight on her wrist, and I want to grab her other hand.   I can't touch her without wanting her.   "I can't -- "

  "Because you hate me more," she says, her jaw clenched.   She's looking up at me, her eyes flashing.   "That's what it is, isn't it?  You've been mad at me ever since the road trip and you hate me for some reason, but you won't tell me and you're going to join the Marines and you can't leave.   You just can't.   And you can't fucking di --"

  I know what she's going to say.   She's going to say die.   And I won't let her say it.   I bring my mouth crashing down on hers, kissing her with everything I have.   I'm only seventeen, going on eighteen in a few months, so I'm not supposed to have earth-shattering moments.   I might be young, but I know enough about life to know when a moment is different from everything else that's ever happened before, or will likely ever happen in the future.

  Page 35

  That's what it's like when I kiss her.

  It's cheesy and corny, like some romantic movie, but I swear on my life that everything pauses.   The world stops rotating on its axis, the bullshit parents and record label and adoring fans and stupid friends fade away into the background and it's Addy and I and no one else.

  I kiss her like I've never kissed anyone before, and like I know I'll never kiss anyone ever again.

  When I pull away from her, I inhale the breath I've been holding, her face in my hands.   Her lips plump and swollen, she speaks, breathless.   "Don't leave. "

  PRESENT DAY

  "Don't you find it strange that they never moved out of this place?"  I ask.   We sit in the driveway in the car as rain pours down on the windshield, runs down the glass in rivulets.

  Addy rolls her eyes.   "Why would they?" she asks.   "It was paid for with my record deals.   Who wouldn't want a free mansion?"

  "You could sell it," I tell her, as we walk inside.   "Talk to that attorney of yours. "

  Addy shrugs.   "My mother hasn't been as horrific as she used to be," she says.

  "They orchestrated you winding up stuck with me," I note.

  "Exactly," she says.   She winks at me, then turns away, walking ahead down the hallway before I can even respond.   So now she likes being stuck with me?

  "Mother," Addy says.   The Wicked Bitch greets her with air kisses on the cheeks, like we're in Paris and not Nashville fucking Tennessee.   She makes a move to air kiss me as well, but I hold up my hand and shake my head.

  "Hello, Wendy," I say.

  "Well, the two of you are late. "  That's the extent of the greeting I get before she turns, cocktail in hand.   She's wearing a bright turquoise silk pantsuit and heels like she's hosting a dinner party.   "We're in the dining room already. "

  "We?"  Addy asks.   "You didn't tell us this would be anyone other than family. "  I can hear the irritation in her voice, and I know she's considering walking out of here.

  "Oh, don't be ungracious, Addy," her mother says.

  The Colonel stands, gesturing toward the people at the table, an older couple and a guy around my age.   The guy stands up, his napkin in hand, and I can see him checking Addy out.   I decide that if I catch him doing that one more time, I'll obviously have to kill him.

  "This is Martina and Rudolph Benton, and their son, Tustin," he says.

  "We should just do this another time.   We're not really dressed for a dinner or anything," Addy says, looking down at her clothes.   She's wearing black leggings and a long shirt made out of some kind of pink material that shimmers when she moves.   She looks amazing, but then Addy could make a paper bag look like a ten thousand dollar dress.   "Since we didn't know we were coming to anything but a family dinner, Mother. "

  "Nonsense," the Wicked Bitch says, laughing nervously.   She puts a hand on Addy's back to guide her.   "I thought you could have a seat by Tustin.   You two have a lot in common, actually. "

  Addy's forehead wrinkles, but she walks slowly around the table to sit down.   And I realized immediately what this is.   It's our parents setting Addy up with this obvious tool, Tustin.   They're pimping her out.   I'm sure they have some kind of agenda, since they only really operate out of self-interest.

  I'm so disgusted and enraged by the entire thing that I don't realize I'm the only one standing there, my hands clenched by my side, until my father says, "Hendrix, there's a seat for you right there. "

  Great.   My options are to walk the hell out of here and leave Addy with some douchebag my parents are trying to set her up with, or sit across from her at dinner with the douchebag my parents are trying to set her up with, silently seething and swallowing my rage.

  Fucking awesome.

  Addy gives me a long har
d look across the table.   I recognize that look.   It's the you'd-better-not-do-anything look.   I take a sip of water and wink at her.   Challenge accepted.

  I'm silent while our parents make small introductions and small talk.   I learn that the Bensons finance independent films.   There's the Wicked Bitch's angle.

  "I didn't know you were even interested in acting, Addy," I say pointedly.

  Her mother interrupts before she can.   "Addy would be a brilliant actress, and she's always been motivated to expand her career and her brand into as many different avenues as possible, which is exactly why we're doing the clothing line and the perfume.   It's going to be carried in all the major department stores, you know. "

  Page 36

  "That's impressive," Tustin says.   "For someone so young. "

  Addy laughs and sips her water.   "You're my age, aren't you?" she asks.   "My parents said you have an MBA.   What, are you some kind of child prodigy?"

  "I've been very fortunate," Tustin says, shrugging with obviously false modesty, and I roll my eyes.   Addy isn't falling for this guy's bullshit.   He's so. . . fucking smarmy, with his carefully disheveled hair and chiseled jawline and manicured nails.   He's wearing a suit I'm certain cost more than my piece-of-shit car.

  "You're being modest. "  Addy smiles and wipes her mouth with her napkin.   Then she tucks her hair behind her ear.   That gesture almost makes me lose my fucking mind.

  "No, I'd say he's pretty fucking fortunate," I say.

  "Hendrix," the Colonel cautions.   "This is not the time nor the place. "

  "Your parents tell me you're Addy's bodyguard," Tustin says, lifting a forkful of fish to his mouth.   "So I'd say you're much more fortunate than I am. "

  Addy laughs nervously.   "I'm not sure Hendrix would agree with you," she says.   "He didn't exactly ask to be stuck with me. "

  "He didn't have many other options," the Colonel says, half under his breath.

  The Wicked Bitch is chatting with Tustin's parents, and Tustin seems too distracted by the fact that he's sitting beside Addy to give a shit, but I watch Addy's face go chalk white when she hears my father speak.   She clears her throat.   "That's not true," she says.   "Hendrix was a Marine. "

  "I see," Tustin says, wrinkling his nose like the word itself is distasteful.   "An officer, at least?"

  "No," I say sarcastically.   "Not a officer.   Just a Sergeant. "

  "Oh, I would have expected you'd be an Army officer, like your father. "  Tustin's father leans around his wife to make sure I can hear his stupid southern drawl.

  "Sorry to disappoint," I say, not bothering to hide the bitterness in my tone.

  "So what did you do in the Marines, Hendrix?"  Tustin is suddenly interested in my job.   I think he's intentionally trying to provoke me.   If he isn't, he's just idiotically bumbling onto the wrong subject.

  "I killed people," I say, my voice flat.   "And I watched my friends die.   And I tried to come back from Afghanistan in one fucking piece.   So I guess since I didn't get blown to fucking hell, I'm one of the most fortunate people you'd meet.   The guys that didn't – my friends – they weren't so lucky.   And I get to think about just how goddamn lucky I am every single day for the rest of my life. "

  Tustin's mother chokes on her food, downing a sip of water and finally standing to excuse herself.

  "Hendrix," Addy's mother cautions.   Addy is staring at me, her eyes big, shaking her head almost imperceptibly.   "This is not appropriate dinner conversation. "

  "Hendrix. "  Addy looks at me, her expression pained.

  "Well," Tustin says.   "I don't know about you, but I'd prefer to turn the subject to a slightly more cheerful topic of conversation. "

  I don't look at Addy, or any of them, when I leave.

  FIVE YEARS, THREE WEEKS AGO

  I pull at the dress I'm wearing, this little black dress my mother said was completely inappropriate but that I bought anyway.   I'm practically an adult, at least in music industry terms.   And screw her, anyway.   She's attempting to control me, trying to dictate which boys I date or don't date.   Mostly don't date.

  Not since the kiss.

  The kiss, the one that changed everything.   The kiss that made Hendrix pull himself away from me like he was in the worst kind of physical pain, then turn and walk away.   He's barely spoken to me since it happened, nothing more than a handful of sentences, and even though he doesn't parade a string of slutty high school girls through the house the way he did once upon a time, I know he's still screwing his way through a slew of girls.   He has to be.

  It shouldn't bother me.   He's leaving for boot camp in three weeks and tonight is his graduation party.

  He should never have kissed me.   I should have never kissed him back.

  And I should be able to stop thinking about that kiss.

  I push my way through the bodies of people from Hendrix's high school, all of his friends, stopping when someone asks for a photo or begs me to squeeze into their graduation selfie.   The whole time, I'm scanning the crowd in our house, looking for Hendrix, before I finally give up and head outside.   There are kids in the yard, stragglers, but most of the crowd is inside, and I round the corner of the house before I take off my heels that are digging into the lawn and just walk barefoot in search of someplace quiet.

  Page 37

  I stop short when I see Hendrix and his friends, passing a bong back and forth as they lean up against the guesthouse.   I almost say hello, and then I hear my name, and freeze, standing out of sight.

  "Addison is a hot piece of ass.   That's all I'm saying," one of Hendrix's friends says.   I don't think I've ever met these friends, although I recognize a couple of them.

  "I hear she screwed one of the producers on that show she was on," another says.   "It's how she got on the show in the first place.   I knew she was a slut. "

  My cheeks flush warm.   Hendrix is standing there, letting his asshole friends talk shit about me like that, when he knows none of it is true?

  "She was like twelve years old when she was on that show, you idiot," Hendrix says.

  "I'm going to tap that as soon as you're out of here, you know," one of them says.

  "Whatever," Hendrix says.   "I'm sure she's not going out with your dumb ass. "

  "Who says I'm going to take her out anywhere?" he asks.   "She has a great voice.   I bet she has an even better mouth. "

  "Gonna give her some vocal lessons with my dick, dude," the other guy says, and they hi-five each other and bust into raucous laughter.   My face is burning hot, and I stand there with my feet rooted in the ground, listening to the exchange instead of walking away, because apparently I'm some kind of masochist.

  "Yeah, I understood what you were saying," Hendrix says.   "Well you're too late, because I already tapped that. "

  My heart races, my blood pumping so loudly in my ears that I can barely hear what they're saying.   I'm leaning against the house listening to Hendrix tell his friends he fucked me.

  "You're a lying sack of shit, dude," one says.

  "Don't believe you. "

  "Believe me or not, I don't give a shit," Hendrix says.   "You want my sloppy seconds, go right ahead. "

  "I'm not sticking my dick where you've been.   She was a fucking great lay, though, yeah?  Someone that hot has to be. "

  "One of the worst," Hendrix says.   "Dead fish. "

  "Maybe cause you weren't doing it right. "

  "Or cause you're her fucking brother, man.   That's pretty foul, even for your low standards. "

  "Stepbrother," Hendrix says.   "We're not related.   But you want to take her for a ride, be my guest.   Just remember what I said.   Cold fucking fish.   And she has cellulite on her ass. "

  I st
umble away from the house, walking through the grass in my bare feet as quickly as I can, before I break into a run across the lawn behind the house, one hand clutching the fabric of my dress and the other holding my shoes.   I'm breathless when I reach the trees on the far side of the property, and I stand with my hand on the trunk of a tree, my chest heaving, feeling like I'm going to vomit and trying unsuccessfully to choke back the tears that begin to run down my face.   But once the floodgates open, there's nothing stopping them, and I sink to the ground.

  PRESENT DAY

  "Hendrix. "  I'm trying to open the stupid umbrella while I totter on my heels.   Meanwhile, Hendrix is storming across the backyard with a purpose, and I know where he's going.   He's headed straight for the grove of trees.   My grove.   Our grove.   The place where he kissed me.

  It's the last place I want to follow him.   I don't want to look at it again.   I don't need reminders of the past.   And in the pouring rain, no less.

  "Fuck. "  The stilettos on my ankle boots sink into the grass.   "These are brand new shoes, Hendrix.   Two thousand dollar shoes.   In case you care!"  He doesn't respond, and I yank my boots out of the stupid grass and peel them off, one at a time.   Then I throw them as hard as I can, and watch them bounce on the lawn.

  I should just finish dinner.   I should ask the too-handsome Tustin about banking and investments and whatever the hell he does in his suit and tie, buy companies or fund movies, or order people around all day.   I should find a normal fucking boyfriend.

  I shouldn't traipse across the lawn in my bare fucking feet in a downpour, chasing after a ghost from my past.

  But I don't turn back toward the house.

  When I reach Hendrix, he has his back toward me.   "Will you just stop for a second?"  I yell.   "You're soaking wet. "

  "Can't I get five goddamned minutes of peace without you coming after me?" he asks, not turning around.   "Go back to your dinner, Addy. "

  Page 38

  "It's not my dinner," I say.   "You're the one who dragged me to it, not the other way around. "

  "It's your date," he says.

  "You're jealous," I say.   I'm standing behind Hendrix.   I want to reach out and touch him, spin him around to look at me, but I don't.

 
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