Anti stepbrother, p.14
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.14
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           Tijan

  “Too late.” I’d opened my throat and thrown the rest back, letting the booze burn all the way to my liver.

  “She’s fine,” Avery spoke up for me. “She’s just tired.”

  “We can go,” Caden had said. “We don’t have to play the last game.”

  Oh, yes, I’d thought. So you can get home and still have time to call the stunningly beautiful hussy up for a night plow.

  I’d forced a smile. “Sure.”

  Avery had been watching me when we handed our shoes back, but Marcus pinched her butt. She’d swatted him back, and the flirting distracted her again.

  Marcus reached forward now to open the first set of doors on the way out of the bowling alley, but then he paused. He stood there, holding the door open. I’d been waiting for Avery to go ahead, but she didn’t. Her shoulders went rigid, and she didn’t move.

  Two people stepped inside. I could see the top of the guy’s head and held my breath. I recognized that hair.

  Caden moved forward, his hand sweeping me behind him. He stood between Avery and Marcus, facing the two new people with me tucked in the back. Normally, I’d be all, Screw that. I want to see the action, but in this particular moment, I was content to burrow into Caden’s backside.

  “You guys are back together?”

  I felt the growl coming back from earlier. I could hear the disdain in Maggie’s voice. Why was Avery friends with her again?

  “We’re hanging out. Yeah.”

  “Don’t even go there, Maggie.” Marcus’ voice was a warning. “You’ve got no say in who I see.”

  She laughed.

  I winced at the sourness.

  “You’re right,” she said. “I have no say, but Avery’s boring. You told me so yourself. You think taking her out with your brother and whatever floozy is with him is going to make her fun? Think again, hotshot.”

  Avery wasn’t boring.

  I waited, expecting Marcus to say something. He didn’t. I waited some more, expecting Avery to say something. She didn’t.

  My hands balled into fists, pressing into Caden’s back. Fuck it. I was going to say something. I pushed forward, but he held firm. He knew I was pissed. One of his hands swept back, touching my side, as if to calm me down. I didn’t need calming down. I needed to back my friend up, and I tried again to get through.

  He held me back. Again.

  So I yelled from behind him, “Avery’s not boring!”

  “What?”

  That came from Kevin, in a sharp strident tone.

  “Summer?”

  The crowds parted for me. Or, well, Avery and Marcus stepped aside. Caden didn’t. He was a big boulder that I couldn’t move an inch—not that I minded trying—so I stepped around his side.

  Kevin’s eyes were narrowed as he took in the way Caden tried to block me with an arm in front. I pressed into it, ignoring the guys and glaring at Maggie. “You’re stupid.”

  She started laughing. “Really?”

  “You say stupid things. You sound stupid.” It wasn’t the best argument, but hey, it was true. She was stupid.

  “What are you? Five?”

  Maybe, but I wasn’t done. I gave her a savage smile. When she saw it, she started laughing again. Obviously, she was not taking me seriously. All the better.

  I softened my voice. “I don’t know who you dated before Marcus, but you messed up. Big time. You should’ve stuck with that guy.”

  I cut to Kevin, ignoring how angry he seemed. “You’re stupid too. You picked a girl who’s just like you. Congratulations. Are you going to cheat first or is she? Or are you both already cheating?”

  Maggie’s laughter dried up.

  Satisfaction bloomed in me. I threw all caution to the wind. “Kevin, what are you thinking? You’re like the bitch in this relationship. You were hiding in your room from Caden and Marcus. Then when you got caught, you threw a temper tantrum. You didn’t even man up when you moved. You had to sneak behind everyone’s backs, like a sulking little kid, and now where are you? You’re still hiding, but at your girlfriend’s house. Do you really love her that much? She’s going to get sick of you. It’s obvious she wants Marcus back. What do you think when she leaves the house and you’re not with her? Do you remember all the times you’ve left a girlfriend behind to go see the next one? Are you thinking about all the excuses you’ve used? Has she used any of the same ones on you?”

  “You’re such a bitch.”

  I turned back to Maggie. “I can graduate fast from being a five year old.” I lifted an eyebrow, throwing my head back in a defiant challenge. “But can you? Because that’s what cheating is. It’s immature, and selfish, and narrow-minded thinking. Anyone who dates you after knowing what you’re like is a goddamn idiot.”

  I could feel Kevin’s anger rising. I’d handed him his ass on a platter and served it up hot. I was done supporting him, or at least done being his wallflower. I felt a stirring inside of me. The hole that my feelings for him had helped cover up was opening. I gulped. I didn’t want to feel that hole, so I tore my thoughts away. I had a few more moments before he’d explode, and when that happened, I didn’t trust what Caden would do.

  Maggie jerked toward me, “I don’t think—”

  Marcus and Caden both moved forward, but Avery stepped in front of them, her hands on her hips. “I don’t think you have anything more to say here, do you?”

  There was a warning in those words, and everyone felt it. Avery threw down the friendship gauntlet. She’d been hurt by Maggie, but she got over it and remained friends with her. Now Maggie was throwing it all away. Correction—Maggie was stomping all over their friendship tonight. There was no going back, for any of us.

  I felt Kevin’s gaze and snuck a peek.

  He was simmering, his eyes locked on me, and I could almost see the steam rising out of his ears. We’d have words. I had no doubt about that. His eyes slid to Caden’s hand, which was on my stomach as he was still half holding me in place.

  Maggie said something. Avery responded. Then Marcus joined in. The three of them were having an exchange, but Kevin, Caden, and I were involved in a different sort of exchange. Okay. Maybe it was really just Kevin and me, but even though it was silent, I felt it was the loudest.

  I didn’t want to stay there. I ducked around Caden’s hand, but Kevin stopped me.

  He snarled down at me. “How long have you been sleeping with him?”

  I went still. Could he—no. Kevin couldn’t see how I felt about Caden…could he?

  Kevin wasn’t done. “Was I just the warm-up, or did I give you the taste for screwing? Everyone’s been talking about Banks’ new friend, but I didn’t know it was you. Or maybe you think of me when he’s inside you—”

  He went too far.

  Caden grabbed Kevin’s throat and lifted him up, holding him against the wall.

  Avery gasped. Marcus swore, launching forward and trying to pull his brother off. Maggie, for once, had no words. Her eyes got big, and she fell back, standing next to Avery. Her hand reached for Avery’s, as if she would comfort her. I snorted at that, feeling white-hot panic at the same time. I didn’t know what Caden was going to do.

  I hurried forward, right alongside Marcus, and while he was trying to pull Caden’s hand away from Kevin, I yelled, “Stop!”

  Caden ignored both of us. He was that damn boulder again, and he leaned close to say something in Kevin’s ear. I paused, my heart slamming against my chest, and watched as Kevin went completely still, his eyes sliding to me before he nodded.

  Caden pulled back. “Got it?”

  “Yeah.” Kevin’s head bounced up and down. “Yeah. Got it.”

  Then Caden’s hand relaxed, and Kevin slid out, landing on the floor. He went to Maggie’s side, grabbing her hand.

  Two security guys appeared, rushing toward us.

  “We gotta go.” Marcus pushed his brother out the door, yelling over his shoulder. “Avery! Come on.”

  Avery and Maggie shared a last l
ook, and I felt a pang in my stomach. Tonight’s words couldn’t be unsaid. Avery had officially lost a friendship this evening. She knew it. So did Maggie.

  Kevin was coughing, massaging his throat.

  One of the security guards asked, “Are you okay?”

  Kevin looked up at me. He could call off the guards, have them let Caden go, or he could have them call the police. I was sure there were cameras in the building. The evidence was plain as day, but I narrowed my eyes. If he did, we really were done.

  Kevin gave me a small nod as he spoke to the guards. “Yeah, I’m good. I smarted off when I shouldn’t have.”

  The guard didn’t look convinced. “Are you sure?”

  “Yeah. Yeah.” Kevin waved at the door, dismissing the situation. “Leave him be.” He stared right at me when he added, “It’s not worth it.”

  I took his meaning loud and clear: I wasn’t worth it.

  The cat was out of the bag.

  I felt like a trap door had opened underneath me, and I’d fallen through. No one had known I slept with Kevin, but they did now. Everything was going to change. I knew it.

  I wanted to talk to Caden, plead my case, explain Kevin away, but his jaw was set and he wasn’t looking my way. I knew not to push him, so I stuffed down all my questions and begging, and slid out of the Land Rover when he dropped me off.

  I felt like I was kicking my heart ahead of me as I walked away from him. It was there on the sidewalk and—one kick, two kicks—I just kept going until I was in my room. Avery texted me that she was staying with Marcus and would check in with me the next day.

  I stayed huddled up in my room all day long.

  “I didn’t know about you and Kevin,” Avery said right away as she came in to sit on the floor the next afternoon. “When did it happen?”

  I went back to my bed and tried not to cry. “My graduation night.” My throat swelled up. “It was a mistake.”

  “But you have feelings for him?”

  I wrapped my arms around myself. “No. I mean, I did then. I do now, but I don’t at the same time.” That hole. I felt it gnawing at me, wanting to be revealed. It wanted to wreak havoc over my life. I closed it back up. “None of that matters anymore, anyways.”

  “Because of Caden?”

  I looked at her. She could see through me. She could see my pain, and she understood.

  “I guess. I don’t know. We’re just friends. There’s nothing more.”

  “But you’d like there to be more?”

  I didn’t know why she was asking. “It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t see me like that.”

  “You don’t know that.”

  “I do. He barely talked to me last night after we saw them. He couldn’t wait to get rid of me when he dropped me off.”

  “Marcus offered to drive us both home.”

  “When?”

  “When we went to the parking lot. You were there, but you must not have been listening. Caden said no. He wanted to drive you home.”

  I shook my head. “Because he wanted to give you and Marcus time together.”

  “Marcus could’ve come to my room last night, if that was the case. He’s been staying here sometimes. I sneak him in and out.” She gave me an impish smile, ducking her head slightly. “Don’t tell anyone.”

  “Oh yeah,” I joked. “Like that’s the first thing I’m going to turn you in about.”

  She laughed, her eyes brightening. “You never know.”

  “I’m sorry about Maggie.”

  Her smile dimmed, and she lifted a shoulder to shrug it off, but it didn’t work. “She’s not a good person. I knew that, but it still sucks.” Avery let out a deep breath, grabbing hold of her knees and locking her arms in place. “It’s not really about Maggie. It’s more about the rest of our high school friends. They’ll take her side. That’s how it was in high school too.”

  So she hadn’t lost just one friend. She’d lost more than a few. “I’m sorry.”

  “It is what it is.” She tried again to shake it off, rolling her eyes. “People usually fade from high school anyway, right?”

  “Sometimes.” I thought about my own two high school best friends, May and Clarissa. I hadn’t heard from them since starting college, and I suddenly missed them so much. I hadn’t realized how much. We’d emailed, then called, but lately it had been nothing. I hadn’t thought about them even.

  “Do you think you’re going to hear from Kevin?”

  “I have no idea.” I was okay with that too. The confrontation would come, but I had no burning desire to meet it head-on. “I think I’m going to go see Caden today.”

  “What are you going to say to him?”

  There wasn’t anything to say really. “Well, I might apologize for beating him in the Most Gutter Balls competition.”

  She laughed, shaking her head. “Only you thought that was an actual competition.”

  I scoffed at her. “Says the runner-up by only three gutter balls. If you’d won Most Gutter Balls, you’d be demanding a trophy too. Admit it.”

  “Okay.” She kept laughing. “Maybe. I’ll get you a sash to wear.”

  My eyes lit up. “And a tiara too.”

  I was nervous going to Caden’s.

  What did he think of me now? Did he look down on me because of Kevin? Was he disgusted? Did he hate me because I’d lied to him? I hadn’t felt nervous around him in so long, but it slammed back to me now, like a two by four across the chest.

  I’d grown used to our evenings. Studying. Sometimes movies. Most of the time beer. I watched the games with him. He liked sports. He watched them more than I think others realized, and he knew information even the commentators didn’t. I never cared; whatever was on television I was happy to watch, and he returned the favor. If I didn’t want to miss an episode of The Walking Dead, he flipped the channel for me, no matter what game he was watching.

  When he’d started recording Gilmore Girls for me, everything melted.

  I had feelings for Caden. They’d been there, under the surface, constantly being stirred up, but now they were on top—ripe for everyone to see and me to feel. I couldn’t deny them anymore. I wasn’t about to lose his friendship. I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to let that happen, and I couldn’t even summon a joke. That’s how serious I was.

  My hand shook as I knocked on the door. Please don’t let Bowling Bar Girl be in there. I prayed internally, and when Caden answered the door, I blurted, “Is that girl here?”

  “What?”

  I gestured to his arm. “Arm tattoo girl.”

  He glanced down. “I didn’t call her.”

  Instantly I could breathe easier, and I walked inside. “Why not?”

  He shut the door behind me, following me to the living room as I plopped down on one of his couches. “Why didn’t I call that girl?”

  “She was gorgeous. She wanted sex. Seemed like a sure thing to me.”

  He shook his head. “You completely confuse me sometimes.”

  “I’m used to that reaction.” I sat up when he went on to the kitchen, and pulled a pillow onto my lap. “But why didn’t you? Call her, I mean.”

  “You want something to drink?”

  “A diet soda?”

  He reached inside his fridge and pulled out a can. “Because she hit on me in a bowling alley bar. That’s why.” He handed it over, sitting on the chair next to me.

  I popped it open and sunk back into the cushions behind me. “But she was beautiful.”

  “She’s not my type.”

 
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