Anti stepbrother, p.16
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.16
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           Tijan

  was.

  Apparently I was Shotgun Sally.

  I found a folder in the Land Rover, and I hurried to hang one of the signs: “You have been flocked by your friendly neighbors. Please don’t disturb. All birds will be removed within 24 hours and moved to their next nesting home.” A phone number was attached for further information, and the bottom noted that all proceeds would go to the Brain Injury Awareness Association.

  I was impressed with everyone’s efficiency, and we were at the fourth house within an hour. Once the Land Rover was emptied of birds, we followed the second truck and helped them, but I wasn’t in charge of the signs anymore. Now I was able to help stuff the birds into the lawns, which gave me a perverse thrill. It was quite satisfying to wind up and slam a flamingo rod into the ground, leaving the grass thoroughly flocked.

  We were at the eighth house when I saw someone walking toward us, his hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched forward. I would’ve recognized him anywhere, and I paused. The guys were a well-oiled machine by now, so I knew the house would be done within seconds.

  Caden stood next to me as Kevin approached. “You want me to stay close?”

  “He’s got the perp-walk look to him. I don’t think he’s here to be a dipshit.” I hoped not.

  “I’ll be waiting back here.”

  The guys finished when Kevin stopped in front of me, his baseball cap pulled low. My heart twisted. I always liked how he looked when he wore that hat. Somehow it made him seem angsty, more mysterious. Now I couldn’t help but wonder how Caden would look in a baseball cap.

  Kevin assessed me with tired eyes before taking in the guys behind me. They were heading to the second truck. Caden waved them on, gesturing to me and Kevin at the same time. I had no doubt he was explaining that the Land Rover might be a while.

  “Hey.”

  I was right. He didn’t sound like a dipshit tonight.

  “Are you here to apologize or attack?” I asked.

  He gripped the back of his neck, letting his arm hang there a moment. “Neither. I was hoping just to talk.” He gestured to the truck that was now pulling away, moving past us. “I was told the fraternity was helping out with the flamingos tonight. I was coming to lend a hand. I see some of Marcus’ crew is here too. I didn’t know you’d be here, actually, but I’m glad you are.” His hand slid into his jeans pocket. “I wanted to come see you.”

  “I thought you were pissed at your fraternity.” He wanted back in. I could see it on his face, in his envious look when the truck left.

  “I am. I’m not. I don’t know. I’ve had time to think stuff over, and I was an idiot.”

  I snorted. “Just this one time?”

  “Summer, come on.”

  We stood on the passenger side of Caden’s Land Rover. I knew he was on the other side, listening. I folded my arms over my chest. “You need to apologize to me. You attacked me at the bowling alley, and you had no right.”

  He grew quiet, shuffling his feet around, but staying in one place.

  My chest tightened. Was he not going to say anything? At all?

  Then he did, half-mumbling. “Why’d you lie to me?”

  “About what?”

  “You couldn’t stand Banks. Then the next time I see you, he’s protecting you. From me.”

  “He’s my friend, and the first time you saw me, he wasn’t. It’s as simple as that.”

  “You could be a little nicer about it.”

  “Why? What do I owe you?”

  “You know he’s my enemy.”

  I shook my head. “You were dating his brother’s girlfriend. That makes you Marcus’ enemy. Caden is your fraternity brother.”

  “Come on. Seriously? You could’ve told me you were friends.”

  It wasn’t his business, but he was right. I hadn’t told him on purpose. I sighed, leaning back against the Land Rover.

  “I knew you wouldn’t like it. I guess that’s why I didn’t tell you. And he is, you know. He’s a good friend to me.”

  “Caden Banks doesn’t have female friends, Sum. You should think about that.”

  “Well, now he does.” My tone cooled. He needed to back off. That was also none of his business. “And stop, Kevin. You don’t have a right to use a nickname for me. We were housemates, remember?”

  He looked up, eyes blazing. “Don’t start with that.”

  “With what?”

  “Summer, I…” He kicked at the gravel on the road. “Listen, what we had—”

  I didn’t want to listen. “Our one-night mistake, you mean?”

  “Stop.”

  I pushed off the Land Rover, but wrapped my arms around myself. “What do you want, Kevin?”

  “Stop. I haven’t said anything.”

  “I can see it. I don’t even want to talk about this. What we did was a mistake. I see that now, but I’m doing my own thing. I don’t care if you don’t like it. It’s none of your business.” My lungs were stinging. “What, are you jealous that I might be interested in someone else?”

  He was such an asshole. I’d had enough. I reached for the door.

  “Yeah. Maybe I am.”

  I turned back. He had no right, no right at all. I felt punched in the chest. “Oh my God.”

  Kevin stepped in front of the door so I couldn’t close it after I got inside. “I’m sorry, Summer. I am.”

  “Just stop it.” I tried to move him out of the way, but he pressed even farther inside, resting his hand on my leg.

  I shoved his hand off. I wanted to tell him not to touch me, but Caden would’ve been there in a flash. I bit back the words, for now.

  I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t look at him either.

  “I should’ve stayed and faced that night head-on, together, but I didn’t. I’m a coward, Summer, and I’m used to my old ways. Being a coward is easy for me. I’ve been that all my life, just like my father. He’s a coward. He ran out on my mom and me.” He paused for a moment. “I always have to have a girl. I loved that you came to see me in the beginning of school, but what could I say? I was with Maggie. I am with Maggie. I…I can’t say anything to make that situation right, but I’m trying to change. Coming here is a first step for me. I want to change.”

  I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it didn’t matter. I was over it. I was over him. I reached for his hand, squeezed it, and then pushed him back so I could close the door.

  He didn’t fight me, instead he rapped on the window so I’d roll it down. “Our parents are coming up for family weekend.”

  “I know.” Why was he telling me this?

  “You know they’ll want to do a family dinner. Don’t bring Caden.”

  “What?”

  “I won’t bring Maggie, if you won’t bring Caden.”

  “You have no right to ask that of me. If you don’t bring your girlfriend, that’s on you. If I don’t bring a friend, that’s my decision. It has nothing to do with you.”

  “Please?” His hand curled over the window. “Can we have it really just be family? You, me, my mom, your dad? The four of us.”

  The driver’s door opened, and Caden climbed inside. I didn’t look, but I felt the tension in the air. Kevin looked past my shoulder, and a wall came over him. He let go of the window and without a word, he backed away. Caden started the vehicle and we drove off.

  I watched Kevin the whole time, until he blended in with the night.

  Marcus drilled holes in the back of my head during Intro to Physiology again. He hated me. I was okay. Now he hated me again. He must have seen me talking with Kevin the night before.

  Even Shayla, my study partner noticed. “I can’t figure out if Marcus Banks hates you or wants to screw you.”

  “Hates me.” The horror of the other option. “I’m friends with his brother.”

  And that was the wrong thing to say. She suddenly wanted to be more than study partners. She wanted to be lunch buddies, hanging-out-on-weekends buddies, and before she babbled out any other id
ea she could think of, I said my goodbye and slipped away at the end of class.

  Avery came to my room when I got back, and I filled her in on everything that had happened last night.

  “So Kevin just showed up and dropped all that bullshit on you, and then Caden drove you away?” Her nose wrinkled. “I’m so sorry, Summer. What an asshole.”

  “Pretty much.”

  “Guys like that piss me off.” Her hand formed a fist, and she hit her leg. “If he’s going to be in a relationship with you, he should say something.” Hit. “If he’s not, he should say that too.” A second hit. “You know he’s a douche. And you know you shouldn’t be with him, or wait for him, but until he actually says the words, you can’t. Asshole! He should actually say the words.” Three. Four. Five hits.

  I frowned, watching the way her other hand tugged on the side of her jeans. She’d wrapped a string there tightly around her finger, cutting off the blood supply.

  “Okay.” Grabbing the scissors, I bent forward and snipped her string. “Let’s not lose a finger over this. And wild guess, I’m betting we’re no longer talking about Kevin?”

  She let out a breath, her shoulders sagging forward. “Ugh. You’re right. Marcus won’t come out and say what he wants. It’s driving me crazy. Men drive me crazy. Why can’t they just be transparent? Tell us their thoughts, and then we’ll know.”

  I shrugged. “Being transparent sounds scary.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Think about it. If you told everyone your thoughts and feelings…I don’t know.” Another shrug. “I’d feel exposed. Someone could come and hurt me.”

  A light turned on in her eyes. “You think that’s what it is? Marcus doesn’t want to get hurt by me?”

  “What?”

  She perked up. “I never thought about it that way.”

  What had just happened? “No.” I touched her arm. “I was talking about myself. I didn’t mean Marcus. If you were totally transparent about your thoughts and feelings, he could hurt you.”

  “No.” She shook her head, eyebrows knitted together.

  An uh-oh feeling dropped in my gut. I could see the wheels turning in her head, and this wasn’t a good idea. “Wait. What? I didn’t mean—”

  She scrambled to her feet. “You’re totally right. I’ll do it. I’m the one bitching about not knowing what he wants, so I’ll make the first move.”

  “You will?” The uh-oh feeling had formed a ball, and it was lodged in my throat. “Can we talk about this before you do something?”

  “Like what?”

  “I don’t know. Like, what are you going to say? You looked more than friends-with-benefits at the bowling alley.”

  She slumped, her bottom lip sticking out. “No, that’s it, I think. I want to either get together for real again or nothing. I can’t do the benefits stuff any more. I thought I could, but I can’t. It’s eating me up inside.” Her hand grabbed her shirt where her heart was and formed a fist.

  I felt a pang in my chest. “I’m sorry, Avery.”

  “It’s my fault. I was stupid and thought I could handle it. I can’t. I’m realizing that now.” She eyed me intently. “Are you and Caden FWB too?”

  “FWB?”

  “Friends with benefits?”

  My eyes went wide. “No. No!” I couldn’t shake my head enough to emphasize that point. “We’re just friends. You know, the whole p-l-a-t don’t know why I’m spelling it. Platonic friends. That’s me and Caden.”

  A platonic friend who cuddled, who carried me to bed and tucked me in so gently…who held my hand for an entire ride. Yeah. We were that type of friends.

  “I don’t know how you do it,” Avery said.

  “Do what?”

  The ball fell from my throat, but it was in my chest now. I felt it pressing against my sternum, like it was trying to burrow its way out of me.

  “Be friends with Caden and not develop feelings.”

  Really? I cringed, hearing my own thought like a high-pitched squeal. I almost laughed out loud and said “You don’t say.” But I held it together and only responded with a casual-sounding, “Mmm-hmmm. Yeah.”

  “Claudia was talking about you guys at lunch the other day. She doesn’t get it either. She’d be all over him within a day of trying to be a friend.” Avery laughed. “But then again, Claudia’s always had a thing for Caden too. The others had crushes on him too when we were freshmen last year. They’ve moved on. Caden’s picky about who he dates, but Claudia’s still hung up there.”

  “She dated Kevin too?”

  “Yeah. That turned out horribly.”

  “And she still hasn’t told Shell?”

  Avery frowned at me. “She doesn’t want to make it awkward. That’s the only reason.”

  I’d spent enough time with that group of Avery’s friends to know that was bullshit. I’d heard their stories. Claudia knew Shell had dated Kevin early in the year, and she dated him later that year. She’d kept her mouth shut not because she didn’t want to make things awkward, but because she’d violated girl code. You aren’t supposed to date a friend’s ex.

  I pressed my lips together now. “That’s…” I tried to control my voice so no cynicism slipped out. “…nice of her.”

  “I thought so too.”

  I didn’t understand Avery. I wasn’t super socially savvy, obviously, but May and Clarissa never went after guys I said I liked. Shit, if they had, we wouldn’t have remained friends all through junior high and high school. A sudden longing washed over me. I missed my friends. A lot.

  “Is something wrong?”

  “What?”

  Avery was studying me. “You just sighed. Is something wrong?”

  “No.” I waved that off. “Just stupid thoughts.”

  “Like what?”

  “What?”

  She leaned forward, matching my grin. “What were you thinking? Tell me.”

  “I was just missing two of my best friends from high school.”

  “Have you kept in touch with them?”

  I shrugged, feeling that stupid ball moving back into my throat. “I’ve called a few times.” And emailed, and texted, and left a lot of voice messages. Spending time with Caden had consumed me. I wondered if something similar was happening with them.

  “Where’d they go to college?”

  May went to New York, and Clarissa was a few hours away. “One’s not far. The other’s across the country.”

  “Do you want to go visit her?”

  I’d been picking at the carpet, but I lifted my head. “What?”

  “We could go see your friend, the one that’s close. I mean, as long as it works for her schedule. I know some of the girls would totally be up for a road trip.”

  “You mean you and Shell? That group?”

  “Maybe even Marcus.”

  Lovely. He could drill holes in the back of my head close up.

  “Caden might go, since it’s you,” she added.

  My head was swimming. “You guys would go on a trip for me?”

  “Of course. Road trips are fun.” She laughed, leaning forward and pressing her hand over mine. She squeezed. “It’ll be fun. Where’s she at? Let’s plan something.”

 
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