Anti stepbrother, p.21
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.21
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           Tijan

  “It’s a term of endearment now for me.”

  He scowled. “Really? You want to waste your time talking about him? Fine. I’ll indulge you.” He rolled his eyes. “I bet you $500 he has a new girl by next month.”

  “That’s a week away.”

  “My bet still stands. And that girl won’t be you. He’s moving out.”

  I frowned. “From Maggie’s?”

  He shrugged. “I’m assuming. He wants a house meeting. He’s going to ask to come back.”

  “Are you sure? I mean, are you sure that’s what he’s going to say?”

  “He has to give the reason for a meeting, and since he was never officially kicked out, we have to let the meeting happen.”

  He was leaving Maggie… No, he was leaving Maggie’s home. Why did I not want him to do that?

  I twisted my fingers together. “Are you going to let him come back?”

  “Me? Fuck no. The guys? Probably. We’re big on second chances here. A lot of the guys get arrested for stupid shit.”

  “If he moves out, that means they’re breaking up.”

  “Exactly.” His eyes hardened. “Don’t tell me I’m wrong and you’re hoping to be the next girl. You just looked like a starving squirrel who saw its first nut.”

  I scowled. “What? No, I’m not.”

  He sighed in disgust. “He’s not going to marry you.”

  “I don’t want marriage. I don’t want anything. I’m over him.”

  “Well, something’s going on with you.” He groaned. “Don’t date him. He’s a six-month guy. He dates a girl—”

  “I know.”

  My hands were wrapped so tightly around each other, a paperclip couldn’t have gotten in between them. He was right. God, he was right. “I don’t have feelings for Kevin.”

  My chest burned. I felt that void opening even more.

  “Right.” His tone softened. “That’s why you look like you’re going to cry.”

  “I’m crying for the squirrel.”

  “Summer.”

  “It must’ve been so hungry.”

  I closed my eyes and shook my head. Enough with the nonsense. A different feeling descended on us, and I had to be honest too. My throat felt raw.

  “I don’t have feelings for Kevin, but…” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t even know what was going on myself. I just felt that ache inside of me. It was so deep, all the way to my core.

  I couldn’t feel that. I’d talk about Kevin. Somehow he helped cover that up.

  “He was the popular guy. I was a nobody. Every girl wanted him, but he was going to be my stepbrother. I thought it was meant to be. Fate put us together. I was so sure of it. I mean, what else could it have been, right?”

  I laughed, then cringed, hearing how hollow it sounded. “I waited. I just kept waiting. He had one girlfriend, then another, and he was with a third when he went to college. It was like he couldn’t stand to be alone. They always had to be with him at the house, but my graduation night…”

  I’d stood there in my graduation robe. My hat was on, the tassel hanging in front of me. When I saw him sneak in through the back door, my heart had squeezed. I’d just known. He was there for me. It meant something.

  “He came alone. That meant he didn’t have a girlfriend. And that night… We were in the hallway.” I winced, remembering it clearly now. “I was the one standing there stupidly. I kept staring at him, and he stared back.” His bedroom had been behind me. “But he was just waiting to go to his room. That’s all he was doing.” My bedroom was up the stairs behind him. “I was drunk, and I just kept staring.” Then he’d touched me on the shoulder. “I thought he was making a move.” His hand had grazed my shoulder, but I closed the distance. I’d felt something else that night, a pain I didn’t comprehend. I couldn’t comprehend. “I kissed him. I made the first move. He just—” helped cover up that emptiness in me.

  “Took advantage of you.”

  “No. He’d been drinking. We were both drinking.”

  “You were drunk.”

  “So was he—”

  “Matthews doesn’t drink to get drunk.”

  “What?”

  Caden shook his head, hard-pressed rage barely blanketed in his eyes. “He drinks one or two. That’s it. I’ve never seen him drunk, or heard about him being drunk.”

  “Ever?” My mouth felt dry.

  “Ever.” His jaw clenched. “He holds a drink all night long because it helps loosen girls up. If they think he’s drinking…”

  “…then they’ll drink.”

  He’d had a beer all night at Clarissa’s graduation party. “I thought he had a new beer every time I saw him.” My hand had brushed against it when he’d put it on the counter before we left. “The bottle was warm.”

  “He knows what he’s doing with girls, Summer.” Caden leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Did he say he had feelings for you?”

  “I wasn’t prepared for you when I saw you.”

  My hands were sweating. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t the reason for this conversation anyway. That ache in me…

  “You know he’s a bad guy. You know he’s a serial dater. You know he doesn’t date longer than six months. You know all this. If he was so serious, why did he leave with someone else?”

  I nodded with each statement. “I know all these things. You’re right.”

  “Don’t fall for him.”

  The truth bloomed in my chest. It was the way he’d said those words: fall for him. He wasn’t Kevin. He was about as far from Kevin as it was possible to get—the anti-stepbrother. Kevin was a flashy light. He was the bobber on a hook, distracting the fish so they’d get caught.

  Caden was so much more. He was the real deal. Suddenly that ache in me took on a different form of pain. It throbbed, and I felt a slice of panic.

  I couldn’t look away from Caden.

  Kevin had already hurt me, or I’d thought he had. But that hadn’t been real. It was empty. A game I had played with myself. This with Caden. This was real. What happened with this could shatter me.

  A wall fell away as if I were seeing Caden for the first time.

  It was Caden.

  It was Caden…

  “Oh, no.”

  Caden frowned. That gorgeous face of his—shadowed at times, mysterious, elusive, but so beautiful and so addicting. Even his frown didn’t stop me from wanting to kiss him.

  His head inched back. “You okay?”

  “What?”

  I was in love with Caden.

  The realization was a bomb exploding inside of me. I knew there were feelings, but this… I wasn’t prepared for this. I couldn’t take a risk like this.

  I loved Caden.

  “What is it?” he asked again. “You’re starting to worry me, and that’s saying a lot. I’ve gotten used to your quirkiness.”

  I fumbled out, “I just remembered Avery called earlier. I should check in with her. Make sure she’s okay with, you know, Marcus and all. He’s not being that nice to her.”

  I was up and backing away.

  “Summer.” Caden followed me to the door.

  “I’m good. She texted me, but I wanted to talk to you. I didn’t really think.” I backed into the door. I reached for the doorknob. “I’m going to go find her.”

  “I’m pretty sure they’re at the Homecoming bonfire tonight.”

  “See? Exactly. She’s with him. I really need to find her now.”

  “Summer,” he said again.

  I opened the door and hurried out, yelling over my shoulder, “I’ll call you later.”

  I didn’t hear his response. I was running. It was wrong, but I was acting on pure instinct. If he hurt me, I’d never come back from that.

  “You’re coming Friday?”

  “What?”

  I was on the phone with Clarissa, and it took me the next second to realize what she was talking about. The road trip.

  “Oh! Yes. The road trip in two weekends. Y
es. Friday we’re coming.” Wait. Now the wheels were turning, and I remembered Caden saying something about Thursday. “No. We’re coming Thursday.” Or was it Saturday?

  “Thursday? Okay. We can do that.”

  I chewed my bottom lip. “It could be Saturday.”

  I couldn’t remember. I’d have to call Caden and ask, and that would be awkward. I’d been avoiding him since Friday night, since I realized my feelings for him. I got out of there before he realized, or I hoped I had.

  Caden was a great friend, and I knew he had fun with me, but he didn’t have feelings for me. I didn’t think… Caden wasn’t going to date me. He dated girls who were out of my league. He might kiss me, hold me, have sex with me—yes to all those—but date me and have real feelings for me?

  It wasn’t going to happen, and I wasn’t about to make Caden into another Kevin. I wouldn’t let my daydreams and fantasies go off to Fairy Neverland this time. Nope. I wasn’t going to get carried away.

  I already missed him.

  Saturday and Sunday had been bleak. I’d spent Saturday afternoon with my dad and Sheila, but they’d headed home in the early evening. Apparently whatever they’d needed to work through on Friday wasn’t fully resolved.

  After they left, I’d watched movies with some girls on my floor, and I studied all day in the library on Sunday with Shayla. I’d ordered a pizza with Avery that night. Pre-the big fucked-up emotions unveiling, I would’ve hung out both nights with Caden. I sighed just thinking about it.

  He would’ve been going to a party. He would’ve asked me to go. I would’ve said no, and we would’ve hung out at his place instead. Sunday night might’ve been spent the same way. Nothing special, but everything that made me feel seen and important and like I belonged, because Caden was my people. He was mine.

  I really missed him.

  “Okay, what the hell is going on with you?”

  “What?”

  I could hear the scowl on Clarissa’s face through the phone. “We’ve been talking for an hour, and it’s like pulling teeth to get details from you. And you’re sighing like a damned train signaling it’s coming to a crossing. What the hell is going on? Don’t lie to me. We’ve been best friends since fifth grade. I will sic May on you if I don’t think you’re being straight with me.”

  I shuddered. “Not May. Never May.”

  “Well, then start spilling, Stoltz. This is bullshit. Tell me what’s going on.”

  “I can’t.” I squeezed my eyes closed.

  “It’s a guy.”

  “How’d you know?”

  “I’m not even dignifying that with an answer.”

  “Right.” I grimaced. “Best friend.”

  She harrumphed. “Since fifth grade.”

  “Yeah.”

  “So who is it? And please don’t say it’s Kevin.”

  “How’d you know?”

  “It is Kevin?!”

  “What?” Oh! “No, but how’d you know about Kevin?”

  “You mean how’d I know you used to like him?”

  “Yeah.”

  She sighed this time. “Summer, every girl in school liked him. Trust me. You weren’t alone.”

  “You too?”

  “I’m human.”

  “And May?”

  “Her too. She slept with him. Did you know that?”

  “Shut up.” I kicked against the desk, pushing my chair back on its hind legs again. “When?”

  “Our senior year. He came back for a visit.”

  “Where was I?” Wait. “Didn’t he have a girlfriend then?”

  “He always had a girlfriend.”

  I groaned, smacking my hand to my forehead. “I really feel dumb now. Please tell me you didn’t sleep with him.”

  “I didn’t.” She got quiet. “Wait, did you?”

  I switched to chewing the inside of my cheek. This was so fucked up.

  “When?” she demanded.

  My cheeks were flaming red. “Graduation night.”

  “Summer! You told me you were going to kiss him, but I didn’t think it would happen.”

  “I did? When?”

  “At the party, but you were drunk. We were all drunk.”

  “Matthews doesn’t get drunk.”

  “Was Kevin?” I asked.

  “Was he what? Drunk?”

  “Yeah.” My word came out raspy.

  “I don’t know. He’d been drinking, but now that you ask, I can’t remember if he was drunk or not. I don’t think he was.” She paused. “Does that matter?”

  Yes. So much yes.

  “He took advantage of you.”

  I couldn’t get Caden out of my head. I murmured into the phone, “Not anymore.”

  “Oh, Sum.”

  There was the best friend doing the best friend thing. She heard the hurt in my voice. “Did he hurt you? Is he coming that weekend? I’ll rip off his balls.”

  I laughed. “I’ve missed you so much. You know that?”

  “I’ve missed you too. We’ve all been so busy, but we need to talk twice a month.”

  “Agreed.” My chest felt lighter. I could breathe easier. “Or once a week.”

  “Yes. Daily emails.”

  “Group chats.”

  “Hangout chats.”

  “Yes!”

  “No more of this not keeping in touch. It’s bullshit.”

  “Agreed.” I wanted to thrust my fist in the air. I was getting inspired. “Friends make the world go round.”

  “Damn straight.” She cursed. “My roommate just got back. I have to go. You’ll like her when you come.”

  “Okay.” I was back to chewing my bottom lip. “Oh hey, before you go, the guys have rented some house for us, I think. But it
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