Anti stepbrother, p.10
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.10
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           Tijan

  I rolled my eyes. “Please.” The table of girls had been watching us, and two of them were eyeing Diego openly now. “I’ve got a feeling that pain won’t last long.”

  He barked out another burst of laughter, shaking his head. “I like you. A lot. If anything goes wrong, you can come here with or without Caden. You hear that? You’re welcome here.” He gestured around the veranda. “I’m part owner of this place, and what I say goes. And you go. Know that. You’re always welcome.”

  I was touched. “Really?”

  He nodded. “Yep. Always welcome. No matter what.”

  “Thank you, Diego.”

  “Oh.” He laughed again, waving his hand in a dismissing motion. “My name’s not really Diego. I’m David. Everyone calls me Diego, though. You can call me whatever you’d like. And now that we’re bosom buddies, tell me all about Caden. He’s been coming here for the last couple years, but he doesn’t talk much. I want to hear it all.” He leaned close, waiting for me to spill some Caden beans.

  I didn’t tell Diego anything, but I didn’t know anything to tell. Caden was a big deal. That’s all I knew. And Marcus. And how Caden had sicced Marcus on Kevin before we came here.

  I must’ve been grinning, because Caden asked, “Do I want to ask what you’re thinking?”

  I would’ve flushed, but my face had been on perpetual hot flash since we’d gotten to Diego’s. I hadn’t moved from our table, except to visit the bathroom. And those trips had been a quick dash with my head down as I veered right back to my seat. Only there could I relax. We were in the corner, and even though I knew people were watching, or could be watching, it hadn’t bothered me. I’d felt protected having both Caden and Diego there.

  Between laughing at Diego’s stories, and then laughing at Diego’s stories about Caden, I’d started sipping Caden’s drink. The sipping turned into having my own beer, and soon Caden wasn’t getting any at all. It was just me.

  When Diego went to the bathroom, I asked Caden if he could get in trouble since I was underage.

  “Nah.” He didn’t seem too worried. “If the cops show up, we’ll run out the back. Diego’s is a family-owned bar and restaurant. Cops like him. They like his family too. They donate a shit ton for their softball team. They won’t be checking. Just don’t pass out in the bathroom or something.” At the thought of it, he eyed me up and down. “You’re not that bad, are you? You’ve only had two of my beers.”

  Two beers, and I’d sipped one more before that, but my stomach still did a backwards flip at that moment. I pressed my hand over it. “I didn’t eat all day. I don’t think those nachos were a Tinder match with all the beer.”

  He leaned forward. “You need to go?” His expression grew serious.

  “Can you drive?”

  He nodded. “I’m good. I stopped drinking a while ago. It’s been only water for me.”

  Diego returned to the table as we were standing up. He had another two drinks in hand. “No. Are you leaving?”

  “We are. I need to check on Colt before it’s too late. I’ll miss my chance.”

  Colt? That was the second time Caden had mentioned the name, and I sensed he was involved somehow with his need to get drunk and laid earlier—which hadn’t happened. Only I was drunk, and there’d been no sexing. I should probably apologize for that, but I was distracted. Who was Colt?

  Diego nodded. “Ah, yes. I can see that. Tell him hello from me. You need to bring him here too.” His eyes fell on me and lit up. “And this beautiful one. Please bring her again.”

  Placing the drinks on a table, he wrapped his arms around me, lifting me in the air for a tight squeeze. He set me back on my feet, but his hands rested on my shoulders.

  “I’ve enjoyed her. If all your friends from the university are like her, bring more friends.”

  A quick scowl formed on Caden’s face. “They’re not.”

  That killed the mood. Or it would’ve if Diego hadn’t been Diego.

  His smile flickered, but he still beamed at me. “Well, then keep her close, and I insist she comes again.” His eyes lit up and he snapped his fingers. “For the family picnic night. I know Felicia asked you to come.” He shifted, wrapping his arm around my shoulders and pulling me to his side. “Now you have a built-in date.”

  Caden’s scowl lifted a bit, and he gave a grudging, “Maybe,” before jerking his head toward the fence. “We’re going to go. I paid our tab.”

  Diego stiffened. “You didn’t—”

  Caden waved him off. “I did. You know I pay my way. Come on, Stoltz. Let’s go.”

  I followed behind, feeling attention from everyone on the veranda again. Diego obviously knew a lot of people here, and Caden had told me he cared about the people here, but I was still surprised to see how many called out to him as he passed their tables. More than a few had come over earlier to say hello.

  I followed Caden to the fence, feeling all those eyes on my back. A little tingle warmed and spread all through me. I couldn’t hold back a smile, and I didn’t want to. I felt special.

  But this wasn’t real. I wasn’t really with Caden. I’d forced my way into his vehicle, and he’d let me come with him. Still, I’d had a taste of what it would be like as his girlfriend, and it had been magical. Whoever he dated, I envied her.

  Then he was over the fence. I waited, anticipating. Like last time, he merely reached for me. His hands found my waist, and lifted me up and over—like a girl in any fairy tale.

  He placed me in front of him, and I closed my eyes for just a second, and savored the feeling. It wouldn’t last. I didn’t know if it would ever happen again, but I was buzzed enough to admit something to myself.

  I wouldn’t have minded being his girlfriend.

  “Ready?” He stepped around me, and just like that, the moment was done.

  “Mmm-hmmm.” I walked beside him the short distance to the Land Rover, but it wasn’t until we pulled up in front of my dorm that I thought about asking the obvious question.

  “Why did you let me go with you tonight?”

  His forehead wrinkled, but he didn’t pretend about what I was really asking. He shrugged, relaxing back in his seat with the engine still running. “I thought you were another Matthews groupie.”

  My gaze fell to the floor.

  “Then I thought you were another one of him—a pain in the ass—but you weren’t.”

  I looked back up, but Caden wasn’t looking at me. He peered out the window, almost lost in his own thoughts.

  “I don’t know Avery very well, but I know she dated my brother, and I know he wasn’t as much of an ass when he was with her. And that girl seems to like you. I figured out you weren’t much like your stepbrother at Marcus’ party.” A twinge of humor lined his voice. “You made me laugh when you stood next to those girls and stared right at us. Marcus was on edge because Avery was there, and they’d all been pretending he wasn’t there, but then you came out.” He turned to look at me and grinned.

  My heart fluttered.

  “I liked that you didn’t pretend,” he said. “I’m surrounded by too many people who do.”

  I stamped down the fluttering. That was a bad idea. Very bad. I coughed. “So, what you see is what you get with me.”

  “I guess so. You’re a little awkward in some social situations, but you’re not fake. You’re honest. And you’re funny.”

  I am?

  “I like that about you.”

  I was warm all over. “Thank you for letting me come.”

  I reached for the handle and was about to open the door when he stopped me. “I didn’t let you, Stoltz. You kept me company. That’s different.”

  My throat swelled. “Thank you for that, and I’m sorry you didn’t get drunk or have sex tonight.”

  He smirked. “The night’s still young.”

  “Oh.”

  He laughed. “I’ll see you tomorrow, I’m sure. Have a good one.”

  I got out and headed inside, this time not caring abou
t the girls who noticed I’d gotten out of Caden Banks’ vehicle. I was funny, honest, and awkward. He liked me.

  The flutters started again, and I didn’t try to stop them.

  I was on cloud nine all day the next day, and my classes sailed by. The girl I was partnered with for a project in my last class had kept giving me weird looks, but I didn’t care. I kept on doing me, and I only felt better as I headed back to the dorm at the end of the day. I hummed under my breath as I passed Avery’s room on the way to mine. She was just leaving.

  “Hey,” she called.

  “Hey back.” I smiled on the way to my room.

  “Have you talked to Caden today?” Her gaze shifted away. “Or anyone else?”

  My smile faded, and I stopped. I looked over my shoulder. “What are you talking about?”

  “Caden. You took off with him last night, right?”

  I nodded. “Yeah.” She’d mentioned anyone else. Why’d she say that?

  My euphoria was leaving. Avery was about to pull the rug out from under my feet. I waited for it. “Why?”

  “Was he pissed when he dropped you off?”

  She should’ve asked what we did last night, where we went. She wasn’t saying anything about that. She didn’t ask if I got laid. There was no excitement. She was all business. The rug started to move.

  I swallowed tightly. “He was fine.”

  “Was he drunk? Everyone’s saying he was drunk.”

  “No. He had a couple at first, but he was sober. He drove home.”

  “Oh.” I heard the worry in her voice.

  “Did something happen last night?” I slowly pulled my bag around to hug it to my chest. “Is Caden okay?”

  She snorted. “Caden’s just fine.” She began backing away. “I wasn’t there, and I have to get a meeting, but you might want to call him. I know you guys have some type of friendship going on.”

  “What happened?” I started after her.

  “Call him, Summer.”

  “Why? What’d he do?”

  She was at the door to the stairs now. She paused and let out a sigh. “He beat the shit out of someone last night.”

  “Who?”

  “Your stepbrother.”

  One quick yank and the rug was gone. I was on my ass.

  I didn’t have Caden’s phone number so I tried Kevin. No answer, so pulling on my big-girl panties, I marched the eight blocks to their frat house.

  Okay, I didn’t march. I started out marching. I was dragging myself when I finally got to their block. My calves were tight and burning.

  Note to self: I needed to work out more—or at all. This was embarrassing for a sports medicine major.

  I walked up their front sidewalk and rang the bell.

  I wasn’t sure who to ask for, Caden or Kevin. For some reason, the sympathy card wasn’t there for my stepbrother. With the shit he’d been doing, he probably had it coming. I knew Caden wouldn’t kick me out this time, but as I waited for someone to answer, I still felt some nerves in my gut.

  …and I kept waiting.

  And waiting…

  I frowned, knocking again, this time harder.

  “It’s a frat.” A girl spoke up behind me, reaching around me to open the door. She held a box in her hand and stepped inside. “Just go in. No one’s going to answer the door unless there’s a cop on the other side.”

  That made complete sense.

  I followed her in, and sure enough, the living room was full of guys playing a video game. Across the hall two other guys stood around the pool table. The girl yelled out a greeting. The guys gave her distracted hellos before she disappeared down the hallway and up the stairs.

  I stood in the foyer.

  And no one cared.

  The pool game finished, and both guys walked past me, into the kitchen. The video game ended, so the guys rotated. One of the players who’d finished sat down on the couch to watch, and the other started to walk past me.

  “Hey!” I stood in front of him.

  “Hey.” He looked me up and down. A second, and much warmer, “Hey” came out, and he stepped closer to me. “Who are you here for?”

  I scratched my chin. Kevin or Caden? “Is Kevin Matthews here?”

  “Oh.” He sounded disappointed, and he pointed to the basement. “If he’s not in his room down there, who knows. He got his ass kicked last night. You’re the new chick already?”

  “New chick?”

  “He and the old one split yesterday, in a nasty way. He got his ass handed to him last night, so if you’re going down for a quick poke, expect to be on top.”

  “I’m not here for that.” I frowned. “And not with him.”

  “Oh?” Interest bloomed in his eyes.

  “Not with you either.” Then, screw it. “Is Caden here?”

  His shoulders dropped completely. “Him too?”

  “No.” Everyone just assumed sex all the time. Was that normal? “We’re kind of friends, I think.”

  “I don’t know if Matthews is here, but I know Caden isn’t.”

  “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

  He headed down the hallway, shaking his head. “Caden doesn’t really answer to anyone.”

  Kevin’s door was slightly ajar, and I pushed it open to see him putting clothes into a box. With his back to me, he was flinging shirts, pants, socks, and shoes across the room. I wasn’t sure what to say. I could tell he was upset, but this wasn’t a situation where he would want my opinion. Support. That was my purpose here. I was here in the family capacity, because that’s where our relationship needed to go.

  “Hey.”

  He whipped around, instantly tense, but when he saw me his shoulders dropped back down, loosening. “Oh. It’s you. Hey.” He turned back and grabbed a pair of shoes, tossing them into the box on the floor. “What are you doing here?”

  I circled around him. “Stop.”

  He had two massive black eyes, half his face was swollen and bruised, and he had a cracked lip. I checked his knuckles. They were split open as well, dried blood covering them. “When did you clean these last?”

  He snorted, tucking them back by his side. “Right. It’d be nice if someone helped me with that.”

  “No one did?” I sat on his bed as he went back to his closet, pulling out more clothes. “What are you doing?”

  “What do you think? I’m moving out. This fucking fraternity isn’t a brotherhood. Loyalty, my ass. They all chose him.”

  “They kicked you out?”

  “No.” He whipped a sandal at the box, but it hit the side and fell to the floor. “I’m leaving. I’m not staying here, not when they take his side over mine.”

  “Okay.” Pressure built behind my temples. I felt a headache forming. “What happened? Avery told me Caden beat you up last night?”

  “Avery?” He shifted back to me, going still.

  I gulped. “Yeah.”

  “She hates Maggie. You know that, right?”

  I was confused. “No, they’re friends. But wait—are you still with Maggie?”

  “Why wouldn’t I be? She’s my girlfriend now.”

 
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