Anti stepbrother, p.20
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.20
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           Tijan

  looked at me, a frosty chill in his eyes.

  That would’ve scared the crap out of me three months ago. But now, I just smiled at him and pulled my napkin from my lap. I held it in the air between our chairs before I dropped it, letting it fall to the floor, and I lifted my chin, my smile reinforced.

  If he wanted to fight, game on. I had no problems sparring with him, though my stomach did all sorts of gymnastics.

  He snorted. “Really?”

  “What? It slipped.”

  He shook his head, leaning back in his seat. “Is this what you’d imagined for family dinner, Mom?”

  Sheila frowned at us. “Not exactly.” She picked up her menu and gave both of us a meaningful look. “How about we order? Okay?”

  We did exactly that. After ordering, all of us made a point to be polite as we talked and ate for the next hour.

  My dad’s job was going well. He was getting promoted to the level below the company’s CEO. Sheila’s last shift had been hard. They lost the patient. Kevin talked a little bit about Maggie, relaying that her father ran the hotel where Sheila and my dad were staying. Everyone was surprised by that, but no one asked any more about Maggie. Then all eyes turned my way. It was my turn to ’fess up to something.

  I could’ve said my classes were going well. I’d gotten high scores on all my tests so far. Mid-terms were in two weeks. There was the flamingo flocking to mention, or the fact that I was becoming good friends with my resident advisor, the same Avery they’d met. But considering my audience, I decided to go another route. We’d finished eating, but perhaps we wouldn’t be getting dessert

  “A guy I’m friends with punched Kevin,” I announced. “Twice.”

  Sheila’s head shot forward. “What?!”

  I heard my dad suck in a quiet breath.

  “Are you fucking kidding me?” Kevin growled.

  “Honey, someone hit you?” Sheila asked Kevin.

  “Summer.” I could hear my father summoning me from across the table.

  “Yes, Mom. But I’m fine.”

  “Summer.”

  “Why were you hit?” Sheila paused for a moment. “Did you hit him back?”

  “Summer. Look at me.”

  “I’m fine, Mom. I really am. He didn’t hit me the second time.”

  “Who is this guy?”

  “A second time? There were two separate occasions?”

  “Summer, you will answer me.”

  “Mom, I am fine. I swear. Both times were my fault, anyway.”

  “Are you dating this guy?”

  “Your fault? What’d you do?”

  “Look at me.”

  “I didn’t do anything. Well, I might’ve said some things I shouldn’t have.”

  My father fell silent, seeming to give up, but I felt his gaze on the top of my head. I twisted my hands together in my lap.

  “You were being a jackass, you mean?” Sheila sat against the back of her chair with a thud. “Why am I not surprised to hear this?”

  Kevin snorted.

  I looked at my stepmom. “What do you mean?”

  “What, honey?” She looked over at me.

  “You’re not surprised Kevin was a jackass. Why do you say that? You say that like it’s a normal thing.” I looked at him. “Is that normal?”

  His eyes closed to slits, and his hand formed a fist on the table. But then his shoulders lifted on a deep intake of air, and he forced his hands flat on the table.

  “There were problems before you and your father moved in, yes.”

  “Kevin!”

  He ignored his mom. “When you moved in, those problems got pushed to the back burner.”

  “No, they didn’t,” Sheila countered. “I had no idea how you felt.”

  He looked to her now. “You did too. I screamed at you the night you told me they were moving in.”

  She drew in a hissing breath. She’d twisted her cloth napkin into a knot, her knuckles white. “There was no screaming—”

  “There was, Mom!” He pounded the table. “I was screaming at you. I yelled like a spoiled four year old throwing a fit. I’m admitting it. Why won’t you?”

  She turned away. “Because it’s not true.”

  Kevin shook his head. “This is ridiculous. You can’t even admit to reality.” He regarded my father and me. “I didn’t want you guys to move in. I didn’t want my mom to remarry. I didn’t want a new sister. I’m sorry. It’s nothing against you two, but she’d just divorced my dad six months earlier, and I knew that if two new people moved into the house, everything else would be shifted to the back. And that’s exactly what happened. Everything was all about her new husband, making everything great with her new marriage, and when she felt that was stable enough, she moved on to the new daughter.”

  Those words punched me in the chest.

  He softened his tone. “I’m sorry. I really am. I ignored both of you that year. I ignored everything that year. I didn’t want to deal with what she’d done to me, pushing me off like I was a burden to her.”

  He focused on his mom again. “I wasn’t a burden to you. Your failed marriage was, and you took it out on me. When your marriage to him fails, don’t take it out on Summer. She already lost one mother; she shouldn’t lose a second one.”

  “Kevin! I would never—” She started out harsh, but her voice trembled by the fourth word.

  He cut her off with a brisk motion of his head. “You would.”

  Placing his hands on the table, he looked right at my dad. “You seem like a great dad. Things have been distant between us, but don’t let her hurt your daughter the way she hurt her son.”

  He stood. “And with that, I have to leave. I’m sorry, Mom. No family meeting for me tonight. What I have to say is between you and me—and your ex-husband who is still my father, just so you haven’t forgotten. He’s still my dad.”

  Sheila blinked, trying to hold back tears as her son walked away behind her. She didn’t get up and go after him. She didn’t even watch him go. She sat straight ahead, tears rolling down her face, staring at something beyond us.

  My stepmother had never looked as lost as she did then.

  I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I sat there, and after a few more beats of silence, my dad murmured, “Summer, let’s give you a ride back. Sheila and I need to go to the hotel. It seems we have some things to discuss.”

  I got up. “No. That’s okay. I can call a friend. You guys talk.”

  “Are you sure?” His hand covered mine. He squeezed. “Your mother, your stepmother, and I love you very much. I never want you to feel like a burden.”

  Sheila couldn’t stop the tears now. At my dad’s words, they rolled freely.

  “I know, Dad.” I felt my own tears building. I covered his hand with my free one and squeezed. “I’ve never felt that way.”

  “Good.” His voice had grown hoarse, and he seemed to be struggling as he smiled. He squeezed my hand once more. “Good.”

  “I’m, uh, going to go. I’ll get a ride.”

  I gave both a reassuring smile, but it didn’t matter. Sheila looked broken. It was the first time I’d seen my stepmother anything other than bubbling and happy. It tore at me, but when I stepped outside and saw Kevin, I knew he was broken as well.

  He was waiting on the curb, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumped forward. He stared at the ground, and I could see the little boy inside of him, the one who’d been hurt by his mother.

  I took in a breath.

  He glanced over and grimaced. “She never wanted to talk about him, and I finally snapped today.”

  I lifted a shoulder. “You’re still a cheating jackass, and you were a jerk inside, but I was the bitch first this time.”

  “You’re not a bitch.”

  “I was today.”

  He smiled. “Maybe you should be more often.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You liked fighting in there, didn’t you?”

&nbs
p; I shrugged. “It wasn’t for a good reason. I don’t really know why I was doing it.”

  He laughed, but it sounded sad. “I do. You got sick of the shit that they won’t talk about. Your mom died, and she’s barely talked about. My parents divorced, and my mom acts like my dad doesn’t exist. I took my anger out on you instead of focusing on her from the start. I really am sorry, Summer.”

  My heart felt tugged all over the place. “I like your mom.”

  A second laugh came from him, this one a bit more lighthearted. “I do too, but she hasn’t wanted to deal with divorcing my dad, and she has to. It’s hurting me. She can’t sweep it under the rug. I let her get away with it, and that’s on me. Talking to her didn’t work. Screaming didn’t work. So I tried ignoring her back. I ignored the whole situation.” He snorted again. “We both know where that ended up—you and me in bed because I finally noticed you that night, and I wasn’t ready.”

  I looked up to find him staring at me. There was a look in his eye I wasn’t sure I wanted to see. My mouth dried up.

  “I wasn’t prepared for you when I saw you, when I finally saw you,” he said softly. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “Did you mean it? What you said in there about Banks—or do you really like him?”

  I…wasn’t prepared for that question. I kicked at the ground, unsure what to say.

  “Or were you trying to get a rise out of me?”

  The corner of my mouth lifted. He could take that as the answer.

  He let out a sigh. “I lost my chance with you, didn’t I?”

  This was what I’d wanted, for so damned long. Here it was—right in front of me. Looking back at me. Those words… My chest swelled tight. I could only swallow a lump in my throat.

  “You’re saying this to me now?” I didn’t want to hear it, but I didn’t know why. It wasn’t about any feelings for him. It was something else…

  “I know. Bad timing, right?”

  I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. “Take it back.”

  “What?”

  “Take it back. What you just said, take it back. Say you didn’t mean it.” My lungs burned. “Say you’re just doing what you do. You’re playing with me. You’re testing to see if I still have feelings. That you don’t mean it, and you’re actually being cruel. Really, truly cruel right now.”

  “I’m not—”

  “Say it!”

  A car pulled up in front of us. Music blared out the windows, and Maggie’s voice came from inside, “Kevin?”

  He continued to look at me.

  I couldn’t look away.

  “Hey!”

  Then he murmured, “I can’t lie anymore. I can’t take it back.”

  I heard a whooshing sound as all the air left my lungs.

  Kevin walked around the car and got in on the passenger side. He never looked at Maggie. His eyes held mine the entire time, and even as she pulled away, he watched me as he left.

  I felt a void in my center that was the size of an ocean. I think it had been there the whole time.

  I could’ve called Avery. I should’ve, but I didn’t. Caden said he’d been driving home anyway so he pulled up in front of me ten minutes later.

  “Yeah. I’m rethinking this now,” I told him.

  His eyebrows lifted. “This?” He pointed between us. “Us?”

  “Calling you.”

  He motioned me to get in. “Come on. Let’s head back.”

  Once I got inside and he pulled away, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Are you rethinking us?”

  “Our friendship?”

  “Of course.” I tucked my hands behind me. “What else is there to rethink?”

  He studied me a moment before pulling ahead at an intersection. He didn’t respond, not the entire time it took to get to his place. We went inside, and he looked at his bedroom. His head turned back toward me, and I saw the teasing grin.

  “I’m not sure what you mean by rethinking us, but I was hoping for another round. You game?”

  Yep. I definitely called the wrong person. “I think Kevin has feelings for me.”

  “Fuck.” He turned and headed for the bedroom. “Now I get your drift.”

  “Should I stay?”

  He motioned for me to follow. “Sure. Pretend I’m your girlfriend. Call me Carrie tonight.”

  “Are you serious?”

  “No.”

  “Oh.”

  He sighed as I sat across from him. “So the stepbrother reared back up, huh?”

  There were knots galore in my stomach, but I had to talk to him. Avery was a friend, but Caden was…more. I didn’t know what more, but I wanted to be here, with him, having him listen to me.

  I nodded and spilled everything. I was talking about Kevin, but he wasn’t what I really wanted to talk about. The other thing scared me. I didn’t know if I could talk about it. My hands twisted together on my lap, and I had formed a new yoga pose by the time I was done.

  “What do you think?” I asked.

  “You called me.”

  “Yeah.”

  “You told me this stuff.”

  I wasn’t sure if these were questions, but I nodded again, just going with it. “I sure did.”

  “And you know I’m not a bullshitter.”

  “It’s part of your intrigue.” I waved a hand at him. “It completes the whole intimidation factor. Also makes girls wet their pants for you.”

  That didn’t even faze him. He didn’t blink. “So I’m going to give you my honest opinion.”

  “Oh.” Now I could see where this was leading. “Okay. Yeah. Give it to me straight.”

  “What the fuck are you doing?”

  “What?”

  He got up for a beer, placing one in front of me as well when he returned. “That’s why you came to me. You know you’re being an idiot, so stop being an idiot.”

  “How am I being an idiot?”

  “Why are you talking to me about your asshole stepbrother? You might’ve had feelings for him before, but I know you. Those are long gone, so what’s really going on here?”

  My lip twitched.

  “What?”

  “That used to be my name for you. Asshole.” I sighed, taking a sip of my beer. “Those were the good old times.”

  “Kevin’s a better fit for the name.”

 
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