Anti stepbrother, p.12
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.12
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           Tijan

  My mind was going, trying to remember what Avery had said about Claudia. Was she girlfriend number three or two? Did that mean Claudia and Caden were friends?

  “Is her name Claudia?”

  “No. And I’m not telling you her name.”

  “But it wasn’t Claudia?” Claudia who was gorgeous, tough, and a bitch because she trying to be strong for her friends. When he shook his head, I explained, “She’s the first one who made a big deal about you. It would’ve made sense then.”

  “A big deal out of me?”

  The knots, whether formed from desire or something else, were beginning to loosen now, and I sank back into the couch. My chest felt looser too.

  “When you gave me a ride home after that party, Claudia couldn’t believe it. She told me something about how you weren’t known for dealing with underclassmen, and certainly not freshmen. She said you weren’t mean, but not that nice either.”

  “She told you that?” He leaned forward. Slowly.

  My neck stiffened, but I nodded. “Yeah.”

  “Then she’s a bitch, and she doesn’t know me.” The corner of his mouth curved up again. “I have nothing against giving freshman girls rides.”

  I would’ve rolled my eyes, knowing it was a joke, but Claudia’s assessment of me still stung. I couldn’t hide it. Caden watched me. I knew he’d figure it out, and a moment later, the couch shifted. He reached over—my stomach twisted—and tugged me next to him. He pulled me into his side, his arm draped over my shoulder.

  I sagged into him. I couldn’t help myself. He was warm, strong, and fast becoming an addiction.

  “I don’t know why she said that to you, but I’ve had people around me all my life who judge and misperceive things. I have a reputation. I know that, and some of it is true, but most of it isn’t. One of the truths is that I am picky about my friends.”

  “Yeah?” I looked up.

  He tapped the cleft in my chin. “And for whatever reason, you’ve become one of them.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Yeah.”

  We sat like that. It felt nice. It felt right. We watched television, and every time Caden got up for a beer, he brought one back for me and resumed our position. Eventually he laid down on the couch. I shifted so I was half sprawled on top. I was three beers in by then, and with the feel of his arm over my back, holding me in place, and my cheek resting against his chest, hearing his steady heartbeat, I fell asleep.

  I woke once when he carried me to a bed and pulled the covers over me. He asked when I had to get up the next morning, and then the light streaming from the door darkened.

  The sun shone into the room, and it took me a few moments to realize where I was. I didn’t recognize the king-size bed, or the black sheets, but then Caden walked past the open door and all the memories flooded into place.

  I slept at his place.

  I glanced around the bed… I slept in his bed!

  “Your alarm’s about to go off in ten minutes,” Caden called from the doorway. He had a cup of coffee in hand and wore only jeans.

  I tried to keep my eyes front and center, but I lost. The tattoos were a nice little zig-zag pattern, pulling my gaze down, all the way down. Caden’s slow, smooth chuckle told me he knew what I’d just done. My cheeks only warmed a little.

  I shot him a look, falling back to the pillow. “I feel like this should be the first skip day of my school career.”

  “You’ve never skipped before?”

  I shook my head, rolling it side to side on the pillow. “Am I missing out? Should I embrace my inner deviant?”

  He smirked. “You can skip a class for any reason in the world. It’s your life.”

  I sat up, eyeing that coffee. “You were supposed to be the bad influence.”

  His eyebrow lifted. “I’m not selling it enough?” He lifted his cup. “You want some coffee?”

  “I’m wondering if today is the day I try coffee too.”

  “You’ve never had coffee?”

  “I’m beginning to think I’m lame.” I thought about it. “Really lame.”

  “You slept at some guy’s house last night. Think of it that way.” His smirk was back. “Not so lame now.”

  I could do one better. “I slept at a fraternity house.”

  “And you drank beer.”

  “It was the second night in a row that I drank beer.”

  “See? Not so lame after all.”

  “You’re right.” I sat up. “I’m halfway to total badass.”

  He grinned. “We cuddled last night, and you could think of it as dry humping. You almost got some last night.”

  Except I hadn’t, and we were in the friend zone. Why were my hands curling around the covers into tight balls? I glanced down and forced them to loosen, then shrugged, trying to be the nonchalant badass I was.

  “You carried me to bed. Almost the same thing.”

  Suddenly, the joking was gone, and his eyes burned. I could feel his heat from across the room, and my body reacted, instantly warming even before he said a word.

  “Nothing’s the same as sliding inside,” he murmured after a moment. “The feel of being in there, feeling that clench around you, knowing you can push as deep as you want, as hard or gently as you want. Nope. I’ve gotta step off the joke train for a moment here. Nothing is remotely the same as that feeling.”

  Fuck. My pulse spiked.

  He tossed me a look. “Maybe I’ll cop a feel the next time.”

  I pretended to groan. “One more notch on my badass peg. You better cop a feel next time.”

  “Is that all I am to you? A notch on the bedpost? I feel so used, Stoltz.”

  Okay. My last name. We were back on familiar ground here. But my grin was still a little shaky.

  “Get used to it, Banks. I’m only disguised as this plain Jane. Inside there’s a wild woman just waiting to be let loose.”

  He didn’t reply.

  He stared at me for a few more seconds, then straightened from the doorway. “There’s nothing plain about you, Summer. Don’t let some dickhead like your stepbrother make you think like that.” He saluted me with his coffee. “I’ll make you something special. There’ll be no turning back for you after this morning. You’ll be a coffee lover.”

  He left, and I felt a tiny bit faint. “Only a coffee lover?”

  Caden gave me a ride back to my dorm, and there was nothing awkward about it.

  Nope. Not at all. Just friends here. Here was me, getting a ride back from a pal…who was gorgeous and I was currently fantasizing about. Yep, just platonic. Nothing more.

  I was lying to myself, but I still enjoyed the looks I got when I exited his Land Rover and headed inside. More than a handful of girls did double-takes when they saw Caden.

  I had a couple classes that day, and one I made it to was Intro to Physiology. I picked my seat and sat back, then shot upright as Marcus came down the aisle with two friends. It was a big class, but I know I would have noticed him in here. What was he doing?

  He saw me and glared as he passed my seat.

  Whatever. I wasn’t his enemy. I wasn’t Kevin. I looked away, slumping forward on the desk. I could feel his hot gaze on the back of my neck the entire class. If he could’ve given me a sunburn, I had no doubt he would’ve. The girl next to me tried talking to me. I must’ve responded because she didn’t seem to think I was rude, but if someone had asked me what we talked about, I would’ve had no idea. Where had Marcus been the first two weeks?

  The girl must’ve noticed that I kept sneaking glances back at him. “You got a thing for Marcus Banks?”

  “No.” I frowned. “How do you know him?”

  She gave me a wry look. “Everyone knows him, and his brother.”

  “I didn’t know he was in this class.”

  “He wasn’t. A friend of mine has a mad crush on him. Don’t ask me how, but she knows his schedule. He switched hours for some reason, so he’s in here with us now.”

  “Oh.
Joy.

  When class was done, she stood with me. “Hey, uh. Would you like to study together sometime?”

  I was going to say yes, but Marcus’ gaze found mine and I forgot everything else. His jaw set in a determined look, and I gulped.

  “I gotta go,” I told the bewildered girl. I hot-footed out of there and didn’t slow until I was a few buildings away. Looking back, I didn’t think Marcus had followed me, so I calmed a little.

  I needed to catch up on some studying, but Avery stopped by my room later that night. I thought maybe she’d ask about Caden, but she didn’t. She wanted to gossip about Kevin.

  I had to remind myself that was a good thing. If she only came to talk about Caden, it would be weird. I told her what I knew about the Kevin situation. He was still with Maggie, and he was moving in with her parents. I’d agreed to be a lame ass and help him move this weekend.

  I never called my dad, though. The line was drawn there.

  I was surprised when Avery said she’d help too, and when she showed up that Saturday morning, she’d gotten a few others to help, including a couple guys. Kevin and Maggie were shocked, but Maggie and Avery hugged at the end of the sweaty day.

  I wondered then if Avery came more because of their friendship, rather than just to help me. Over the next few weeks, I was right. Maggie started coming over to the dorm to see Avery, a lot. At the same time, I settled into a pattern of going to classes and eating dinner or lunch with Avery and the girls. I began to study with my physiology classmate, and sometimes some of our floormates sat with Avery and me at lunch. Of course, her friends weren’t ecstatic about that, but it was Avery. Everyone loved her, and to their credit, I’m sure my floormates were confused when they saw me with her. I don’t think they realized we were friends outside of the dorm.

  One night, I was heading out to see Caden as Maggie was coming into the dorm. I asked Avery later if she’d told Maggie about Caden and me. She shook her head, and I was relieved.

  My friendship with Caden wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t something I broadcasted. I knew other girls would misinterpret how much time I spent at his place. I hung out there most nights. Sometimes I studied. Sometimes I watched movies, but I mostly watched sports and drank beer with his fraternity brothers. They never hit on me, and they never acted weird when they saw me. I was accepted.

  Avery asked me one time if I was heading to Caden’s, and I stopped short. I felt like I’d been caught cheating, but then she laughed and waved me on.

  “Go have fun. Don’t feel bad about being friends with Caden Banks. I can tell you do. People might not understand it, but they don’t need to.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Nothing.” She gave me reassuring smile. “I mean it. People just don’t know you, so there’s buzz about who you are. People have noticed that you walk there, and he drops you off later. His fraternity brothers always say hi to you on campus too.”

  I knew all that, but hearing it made it more real.

  “Has Kevin said anything about it?” Avery asked.

  My panic bloomed, and I shook my head. “I think he’s still in MaggieLand.” I wasn’t looking forward to him checking on me, though. I was friends with someone he considered an enemy. #betrayal

  She snorted. “I think Maggie’s getting sick of him.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “She’s been here a lot. She said something the other night how her parents asked Kevin if he was going to find his own apartment or move back to campus. He got all upset about that, and Maggie came here, saying she was fed up with him.”

  That wasn’t his normal method. “Kevin usually cheats first, and then gets dumped. The girl doesn’t get tired of him.”

  “Until now. A girl is finally going to get fed up with him. It’s inevitable.”

  “Yeah. Maybe.”

  “And because I really suck at transitioning, I’m just going to drop the bomb on you.”

  “What?”

  She glanced down, picking at her nails. “Um. Okay…” Her throat worked up and down. “I have a weird favor to ask you.”

  Why was she suddenly nervous? This was not like Avery at all.

  She took a breath and let it out. “Marcus and I might be…maybe…I don’t know what we’re doing really, but I think we might be getting back together.”

  “What?!” I started to smile.

  She waved that off. “No. Don’t get all excited. I don’t know what’s going on or even if something is happening again. He’s been calling, and we’ve eaten lunch together a few times at the cafe on campus. I mean, there’s more. We’ve been fooling around a little, but only a little. Please don’t judge.” She drew in a ragged breath. “I’m almost pissing my pants just thinking about it, but ugh. Anyway, I was thinking that since you’re friends with me and Caden, maybe the four of us could go bowling together.”

  I furrowed my eyebrows together. “Bowling? I thought Marcus hated me?”

  “He doesn’t hate you.”

  I was pretty sure he did. Class was always awkward. I always felt him glaring at me, but she sounded excited. “You sure Marcus is okay with that?”

  “Oh, yes. It’ll be great.” She brushed my concern away. “You. Caden. Me. Marcus.”

  “That sounds like a double date.”

  “No. Yes. I mean, kinda? It’s not really. Unless you and Caden are dating. Are you guys dating?”

  “What?”

  “Dating. Is that what you’re doing?”

  “No.” I shook my head, maybe a bit too quickly. “No way. We’re friends. That’s it, but wouldn’t that be awkward for you and Marcus? Unless that’s the intention? You really would be dating again then?”

  She groaned, pressing her fingers to her temples. “I don’t know if I can handle dating Marcus again.” She dropped her hands and true agony shone back at me.

  My heart clenched.

  “He broke me last time. He says he didn’t start seeing Maggie until a couple months later, but I’ve always felt like he dropped me for her. Obviously it’s not something she and I talk about.”

  I surged forward, grabbing her hands. I squeezed them. “Then it’s a friend thing. I’ll mention it to Caden, but I’m sure he’ll be fine with it. And just friends.” I raised her hands between us. “I mean it. Just friends. Just focus on that. Don’t get ahead of yourself with Marcus, not unless you really want to go there.”

  “Okay.” She nodded to herself, closing her eyes. “Okay. You’re right. I’ll just focus on being friends with Marcus first. First friends, my new motto.”

  I nodded with her. “Thatta girl.”

  Her grin became crooked. “Well, the benefits are there too, but nothing more. I won’t focus on anything more.”

  “What?” My head went the other way, left to right. “No, no, no. First friends, only friends. Say it with me.”

  She laughed and repeated with me, but it was bullshit. We both knew it.

  I had assumed Avery and I would drive together to the bowling alley, but she had other plans. She said she was coming with Marcus because they were doing something else before they met us. She’d launched into a long explanation, but it was too complicated. The truth was that she wanted to spend more time with him, have an opportunity to be alone.

  The bowling alley wasn’t too far away, so I walked from campus.

  I was crossing the street as Caden pulled into the parking lot. He slowed and leaned forward to see me better as he turned in. I waited for him. He was shaking his head as he pocketed his keys, coming toward me.

 
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