Anti stepbrother, p.13
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.13
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           Tijan

  I tried to ignore the little heart flip I always felt at the sight of him. He wore a black leather jacket over a white T-shirt and jeans. I almost missed seeing the snake. He looked like a mean, sexual being, but with muscles, and a jawline that made me want to melt. I sighed. I kept waiting for this attraction to go away, but it’d been almost a month and a half of friendship, and it was still going strong.

  In fact…

  No. I wasn’t going there. I wasn’t more attracted to him. Not possible. One of these days, something would happen and he’d settle into the brother zone, wouldn’t he? All the more reason to enjoy him now.

  When he stopped in front of me, smiling down, a delicious thrill zinged me. I cracked a grin, feeling the breath knocked out of me for a second. “What’s up?”

  “When are you going to stop walking places and just call me for a ride?”

  “Never. I’m badass like that.”

  He rolled his eyes and reached for the door. Holding it open with a hand above my head, he tapped my chin with the other. “I’m just going to start coming to give you a ride everywhere from now on.”

  “That’d be awkward.” I moved ahead of him, enjoying his presence as he let the door go and stepped close behind me. I could feel his heat. It added to that thrill, making me feel buzzed. “That’s something you’d do for a girlfriend. I’m not your girlfriend.”

  “That’s something you’d do for a friend, and you are my friend.”

  “Yeah.” A secretive smile tugged at my lips. “How’d that ever happen again?”

  He chuckled, stepping up to the desk first. He motioned to me. “One lane.”

  The attendant asked, “How many games?”

  “Reserve three, but my brother sucks. He’ll probably quit after two.”

  “I heard that.”

  Marcus and Avery came up behind us, and Marcus removed his hand from her back and pretended to pound his brother in the shoulder.

  “You’re already starting the shit-talking, huh?”

  Caden gave his shoe size to the clerk, then said to his brother, “It’s not shit-talking when it’s the truth.”

  The two did the man thing where they hit each other’s biceps while Avery and I stood and grinned at each other. I’d seen her a few hours earlier, so I didn’t feel a hug was necessary, and I eyed Marcus, not sure what to do there. I remained convinced he wasn’t a big fan of me. And sure enough, his grin fell away when he saw me. “You, huh?”

  I could get behind that. I bobbed my head. “You too, huh?”

  Avery’s laugh squeaked a bit. “Look at us, already off to a great start.”

  Caden picked up his bowling shoes. “And there’s my brother, showing off his moody-asshole side once again.” He shook his head as he passed him. “She’s my friend, dipshit. Be nice.”

  Caden led the way to our assigned lane and sat down to put his bowling shoes on. The rest of us followed, and Avery went with me to pick out a bowling ball.

  I tried a hot pink one, but my thumb would’ve been crushed. I set it back and picked up a yellow one. The finger holes made a smiling face.

  “It’s weird, isn’t it?” Avery said.

  “What?” The smiley face ball felt like it was frowning at me. I picked up a purple one and named him Barney.

  She reached for the smiling ball. “How Marcus still hates you. It shouldn’t bother me, right?” The smiling ball didn’t work for her either.

  I handed her the Barney one. I wasn’t feeling his love. “It would bother me.”

  She sighed, sinking her fingers into the ball. “I think he still has feelings for Maggie.”

  There was a rainbow-colored one. I had a feeling it might work. “Or do you think it’s just because it still stings? I’m a reminder that he was cheated on. That’s gotta suck.”

  Barney didn’t love her either. She waited for my rainbow ball. “If that’s the case, he better get over it. He did the same to me.”

  My feeling was right. Rainbow worked for me. “Get your own ball, woman.” I hugged it to my chest.

  She laughed. “Are you being a ball hog?”

  “When I’ve found my bowling ball soulmate, hell yes.” I turned a nose up at the others. “I had to try many balls before the perfect one came.”

  She reached for a white ball with a single pink streak, and my heart did little somersaults. I had a feeling I’d be a ball-cheater. The single pink streak was speaking to me. She fitted her fingers in it and lifted it up. “It’s perfect.” She sighed.

  We turned as one, Rainbow and Pink Streak held against our chests, and started back to the guys. They were already warming up.

  “Caden’s kinda…” She hesitated. “Overwhelming, isn’t he?”

  “What do you mean?” He was a big teddy bear to me now. Well, a hot and delicious teddy bear that wasn’t a teddy bear. He was more of a grizzly bear. No, not even that. What was I thinking? He was a damned panther, but I could hope one day he’d turn into a teddy bear. Much safer.

  We stopped a few lanes down from them and watched. Neither seemed to notice us, but I knew that wasn’t true. Caden knew we were staring; he just didn’t care. He did what he wanted, no matter the audience. He didn’t give a damn.

  He was raw power, the kind that was primal, rippling over everyone in a room, overtaking them. Avery loved Marcus, I could tell, but she wasn’t immune to the effect Caden had on people. It just seeped into your pores, lining your lungs as you breathed. It wasn’t a conscious manipulation. He wasn’t purposely affecting everyone with his presence, he just did.

  “Picture him wearing only underwear,” I suggested. “It offsets him a little bit.”

  Her eyes widened.

  “Grandpa underwear,” I added.

  Her eyes went back to normal, and she shook her head. “It doesn’t work. He’s Marcus’ brother too. That adds to the intimidation factor.”

  I tried to look at him from her perspective—someone getting back together with his brother—and she was right. Caden was downright scary.

  I flashed her an apologetic look. “I’m sorry.”

  “It’ll be fine.” She switched Pink Streak to her side. “Besides, it might not work out with Marcus. It didn’t before.”

  “Because of him.” I’m not even sure he’s good enough for you, Av. I didn’t say those words. She already loved him.

  There was no reaction on her face, but she aged in front of me, looking tired and worn for a moment. I noticed a glimmer of sadness in her eyes.

  She was scared. He could hurt her again.

  I nudged her shoulder with mine, gently. “Let’s not think of the hurts right now.” I patted Rainbow in front of me. “It’s only about Rainbow and Pink Streak tonight. Mano a mano.”

  “Our bowling balls are male?”

  “Chica a chica.”

  Avery laughed.

  Marcus called, “Is the girl talk portion of this evening done with? Avery, we got a game to win.”

  “My rainbow ball laughs in the face of your arrogance,” I told him.

  “There’s nothing wrong with feeling sure of yourself,” Marcus countered.

  “Said the lone camper when he didn’t realize a hungry lion was behind him.”

  “What?”

  I placed my ball with theirs. Avery did the same, snickering under her breath.

  Marcus looked at his brother. ‘What the hell?”

  Caden shrugged, sitting down behind the score sheet. “Just nod and smile. That’s what I do.”

  I plopped down into the seat beside Caden. “And let the games begin!”

  Caden won. Marcus was second, but I got the best prize: Most Gutter Balls. Apparently Rainbow and Pink Streak both liked to curve to the left—all the way left. Avery tried to take my win from me, but alas, I had three more gutter balls than her. I was a little miffed there were no trophies. Marcus informed me that I had to join a league for those, but the type of trophy I wanted wasn’t handed out.

  I sniffed as we headed for
the doors. “It’s their loss really.”

  Marcus glanced back with a question in his eyes, but he didn’t say anything.

  I didn’t expect him to. He’d been giving me those looks all evening. Since settling in at college and becoming friends with Caden, I’d embraced my tendency toward random statements. Even I didn’t know when they were coming, but they always meant something.

  Caden and Avery were used to me. Marcus wasn’t. His loss too.

  “Dude.” Caden placed his hand on his brother’s back and urged him forward. “Just keep going. Her comments will hit you as being funny a couple hours later.”

  “Yeah?” He didn’t look convinced.

  “Trust me.” Caden eyed me. “Once she grows on you, you can’t get rid of her.”

  I perked up. “Like mold.”

  And again, no reaction from Caden and Avery, but Marcus’ eyebrows arched.

  Bowling had been fun. It had soon become more fun to watch Marcus’ reactions to me than the actual bowling itself. Avery was reserved at first, but she relaxed once she realized Caden didn’t care about her. He wasn’t mean, he just focused on talking to me or his brother. Then Marcus began teasing her, and the flirting commenced. After that they flirted all night long.

  The only bad part had been earlier in the evening when I’d returned from the bathroom.

  I’d come back to find Caden’s seat empty. Marcus was up on the lane to bowl, and Avery had scooted into Caden’s seat.

  She’d poked my arm. “How was the bathroom?”

  I poked her back. “An adventure to check off my bucket list. I sailed the golden seas and cleansed myself in the Greek sinks. I’m quite proud.”

  A line marred her forehead. “You keep getting a little bit weirder the longer school goes on, you know?”

  I shrugged. “It’s like crack cocaine.”

  “Wha—never mind.” She shook her head and gestured over her shoulder. “Who’s the girl?”

  This had been the bad part.

  Caden had been in the bar of the bowling alley, leaning against the counter with his arms crossed over his chest. A girl stood in front of him. She was close, so close I’d felt a growl building in the back of my throat. She was stunning—long blond hair that fell almost to her ass, and it was a cute, tight little ass.

  I knew how guys thought. Plus, a table of guys across from them had been checking it out. She wore a short white skirt. If she’d bent over, I was sure her underwear would show, and that was if she was even wearing underwear. She turned to give us a side view of a cropped white shirt that was skin-tight and dipped low. She had long, dark eyelashes and a mole just above her lip, seemingly placed there to give her a Cindy Crawford look. Her lips were a pale pink, and Caden had been watching them intently.

  “Dickhead.”

  I could feel Avery’s pity as I spoke. I didn’t want to look any more. I slumped in my chair.

  I was doomed.

  Avery’s voice had dropped low. “His arms are crossed over his chest. That means he’s closed to her.”

  I looked again, and as if he’d heard her—even though they were clear across the bowling alley and I knew he couldn’t have—his arms dropped to his sides.

  I groaned. “He’s open to her now.”

  They’d continued to talk, with smiles, batting eyes, and pouting little lips—that was the girl, not Caden—and then she’d reached out and touched his chest. He didn’t bat her hand away, or shift to the side so it would drop. He continued watching her, but his smile seemed more welcoming. She inched closer so her hand and half her arm lay against his chest, then her hand trailed down, all the way to his stomach.

  Avery had sucked in her breath.

  In the back of my mind, I knew Marcus had probably finished his turn. We needed to turn around, pretend we weren’t spying on his brother, but I couldn’t bring myself to look away. It was like watching a car accident. People were going to die. Hearts were going to be shattered. And it was my heart getting stomped on.

  Caden had wanted to sleep with her. I could tell. Being around him for the last few weeks, I’d started to know when he was interested. There wasn’t really a look in his eye, but I felt it in my gut every time, and I’d felt it as I watched him with that girl.

  He would’ve said he wanted to plow her. Judging by how she kept flicking her hair back and touching her face, her other hand still lingering on his stomach, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d taken her to the bathroom.

  I didn’t know what would be worse, if he took her now, or if he took me home and called her for an actual date later.

  My throat had burned when I got my answer.

  The bartender brought over Caden’s drink. The girl had leaned forward, brushing her breasts against his chest as she reached behind him for a pen. Grabbing it and holding Caden’s arm, she wrote something on him.

  “She’s giving him her number,” Avery had hissed.

  “Duh.” Marcus had sat in one of the side chairs. “She’s hot. I’d get her number too.”

  Avery had twisted around. “Really?”

  “If you didn’t exist,” he’d quickly added.

  “Better.” Her tone had been cool, but I’d heard the smile. “Quick thinking, Banks.”

  Marcus had chuckled, and the fondness in it had me gritting my teeth. I’d torn my gaze away. Finally. Pain smoldered in my stomach.

  “Hey.” Caden had come walking back. “Who’s up?”

  “You.”

  I loved my friend at that moment, so much. Avery’s voice had just the right amount of scathing mixed with niceness. I knew Caden had noticed, but he couldn’t say anything. I glanced over and saw that she’d covered it up with a fake smile.

  “Okay.” He’d set his drink in front of me and touched my shoulder. “I got that for you, if you want it.”

  Fuck him, I’d thought. Fuck his niceness. Fuck his thoughtfulness, and fuck how he didn’t notice when I didn’t respond. I could see her phone number scrawled over his arm like a cute tattoo.

  Yes. Fuck him.

  I’d taken the drink and gulped down half of it.

  “Summer, you drink?” Avery asked.

  Caden had his ball in hand, poised to take his shot, but he looked back. “She drinks all the time.”

  Avery gave me an incredulous look.

  I shrugged. “I drank at Marcus’ party.”

  “You did?”

  Marcus laughed, stretching out his legs and resting an arm across the back of the seats next to him. Avery moved into one of them and relaxed as Marcus began drawing circles on her shoulder.

  “If I’m remembering right, you were wasted that night,” he told her. “Doubt you’d have the best memory.”

  “Oh, yeah.”

  She’d given him a dreamy smile, and I’d wanted to gut punch anyone happy at that moment.

  “You okay?” Caden had dropped into his chair again.

  I’d given him two thumbs up, stuffing everything down inside. “I’m gut punchy and happy.”

  His eyes had fallen to my drink. “Maybe you shouldn’t have the rest of that.”

 
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