Anti stepbrother, p.23
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.23
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           Tijan

  not that bad.”

  “You are that bad. You’re the six-monther, remember? #Sixmonthguy.”

  “Don’t start doing hashtags.”

  “#Sorry.”

  He let out a breath, sliding his hands in his back pockets. “Look. Truce, okay? There really is no girl. Ever since you said something about my pattern, it’s been bugging me. It’s not healthy, you know? To always have a girl with me? So I figure I should try to do something about it.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like—” He motioned between the two of us. “—what we’re doing here. We’re just talking. Nothing else. No flirting. No sexual innuendos, no signals being sent about hooking up later.”

  “You do that sort of stuff?”

  “Don’t you?”

  I couldn’t even figure out my signals to myself. “No. You do all that in a regular conversation?”

  “More or less.”

  I had things to learn. “Wow.” So much to learn.

  He grinned, seeming to relax. “It feels good. Refreshing.”

  “What is?”

  “A conversation that’s just about what we’re talking about.”

  I felt a headache starting. “Okay. I can’t wrap my head around the kind of conversations you usually have, so let’s let it go.”

  “Okay. Good.” His grin went up a notch, and his hands came to rest on my shoulders. He squeezed. “This is what being normal is like. Huh.”

  I tensed and looked at his hands. “Not in the slightest.”

  “What?”

  I bounced my shoulders up. “Those.”

  “My hands?” He let go and backed away, his palms spread out toward me. “That wasn’t a normal thing to do, was it?”

  “Nope. That’s totally normal to do,” I paused. “If I were your girlfriend.”

  “Right.” He backed away another step and slid his hands back into his pockets. “I might have some things to learn.”

  “Don’t think about sex when you’re talking to a girl.”

  “Well, don’t get ahead of yourself.” He grinned ruefully at me. “No guy can do that.”

  “Then I’ve got nothing for you.”

  “That’s okay. I’ll figure it out.”

  And now cue the uncomfortable silence. Everything in me wanted to go see Caden. Marcus was there, talking to him. He could be saying things about me, about how I was leading him on, how I was hanging out with Kevin. I couldn’t defend myself. But instead of bursting in and protecting my relationship with Caden, I was stuck trying to teach my stepbrother how to be a normal, nice guy.

  This conversation blew.

  “Am I bothering you?”

  “What?”

  Kevin motioned to my face. “You did like eight eye-rolls in a row there. Is it Caden?”

  My eyebrows shot right up. “Caden?”

  “You do like him, don’t you?”

  I couldn’t even think about lying because I already felt the heat inching up my neck, and my cheeks warmed. I looked down at the ground.

  “It’s okay, you know.”

  It wasn’t. He could say something. He could turn Caden against me, or worse, tell him what I was convinced Marcus was already saying. He could tell Caden I was obsessed with him. Or how delusional I could be.

  Oh, God. Kevin knew my crazy better than anyone. I was already in the pre-stalker phase. I was beginning to recognize my phases.

  Step one: realize you’re in love.

  Step two: deny you’re in love.

  Step three: start staking out his hangouts.

  Step four: obsess every minute about him.

  Step five: I gulped. I didn’t want to name it because I was pretty sure I was there. I didn’t want to know how far away I was from sneaking into Caden’s bed wearing lingerie. A restraining order came after that.

  “Hey.” Kevin put his hands on my shoulders again.

  I tensed.

  He shook his head. “I know. I know, but I’m not being flirty here. I’m being a friend, or trying to be. It’s okay if you have feelings for Caden. I know a lot of girls do. Half the girls I’ve hooked up with were just using me to get to him.”

  “Really?”

  “Really.”

  I nudged his hands off my shoulders.

  He backed away, his hands in the air. “Listen, I’m glad you’re here. I was coming to find you.”

  “I knew it!”

  He lowered his hands to his side. “Not for that.” He sounded hurt.

  I shrugged. He’d get over it.

  “I was thinking we could start fresh, try to be the way my mom wanted us to be in the first place.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “We should be more like family, you know? So I was thinking you could help me learn how to be a nice guy, and in the process, we could maybe become actual stepsiblings. What do you say?”

  My eyebrows locked forward. “What’s the catch?” There always seemed to be one with him.

  “No catch. I promise.” He offered up a grin, one that seemed genuine. “I mean it. I want to change, and since you’re the closest thing I have to a sister, I thought you’d be the perfect one to help.” He held his hand out. “Deal?”

  I glanced at his hand, then back to his eyes, and I caught his small smile. Then an all-business look took over, and he nodded as if to reassure me. This could go all sorts of wrong, but I found myself reaching out. My hand slid against his palm, and I sucked in my breath. Maybe I hadn’t thought this through…

  Then he said, “Deal.”

  And it was too late.

  I never found out if Marcus said anything to Caden. I was a chicken shit. I made that deal with Kevin and as soon as I did, a part of me felt like I was betraying Caden. The next day already, Kevin started coming over. I would’ve loved this new development a few months ago, but it was weird now.

  He showed up in the mornings. We had breakfast together. He would point out the girls he “would do,” which was almost all of them. I made him tell me what lines he would use to pick the girl up, then I dissected each statement and explained how it could be rephrased or redelivered so the sexual innuendo wasn’t there. Most of Kevin’s lines weren’t sexually suggestive, but they were when coupled with the boyish grin he always seemed to have on his face.

  After breakfast, we’d depart for classes and resume our “lessons” in the evenings.

  Avery and her friends weren’t ecstatic to find the enemy in home territory, but once I told Avery there was no new girl and explained the new Kevin, they slowly warmed up to the idea. Avery began coming around after the first night. The rest took a few more days and Claudia joined the next week, a few days before the big road trip. Except Shell. She wasn’t allowed because she began flirting with Kevin within five minutes of being around him. She was banned from any event that involved my stepbrother.

  “Kevin, are you going this weekend?” one of the girls asked from the couch.

  Kevin and I hadn’t discussed the road trip.

  As I looked down at my lap, I could feel his gaze on me as he answered, “Uh, I’m not sure.”

  Avery asked, “You’re back in the frat house, right?”

  “Yeah.”

  I could hear caution in his voice.

  “Then you should go. Why wouldn’t you?”

  “Is that your personal approval?” He sounded like he was joking. “You guys used to hate me. Now you’d be okay hanging out with me over an entire weekend?”

  “Well…” Avery coughed, clearing her throat. “I mean, you’re trying to change. Who are we to judge that? You know?”

  “Thank you for that, but I really don’t think it’s up to me whether I go or not.”

  I felt all the attention on me then, and I looked up. Yep. Four pairs of eyes were looking right at me. Avery. Claudia. Two of their friends. The only one not looking was Kevin, and I knew he was trying to be nice. A twinge of guilt flared up.

  “You should come,” I said.


  He shifted, turning to look at me. “You sure?”

  The girls didn’t know about my feelings for Caden, but Kevin did. My neck was stiff as I nodded. “Yeah. I think you should come.”

  “Well, fuck. This weekend just got a lot more interesting,” Claudia said, shifting back in the desk chair. “Marcus, Caden, and now Matthews. Dude, if you smart off to either of the brothers, I’m not wading in for your defense. I’m clarifying that off the bat.”

  Kevin’s dimples formed, but his lips didn’t move as he held back a grin. “Thanks for the warning.”

  “The more you know, Kev. The more you know.”

  Avery’s eyebrows furrowed together, and she kept glancing at me. Then the girl who’d brought up the weekend plans in the first place said, “He’s not with Maggie anymore, so why would it even be a problem?”

  I winced. There was no reason. I had feelings for Caden. Kevin was my stepbrother. Yes, there were lingering issues between Marcus and Kevin, but—oh, hell. I was lying to myself. I’d been avoiding Caden for two weeks, and it was only partly because of my feelings for him. The other part of it was Kevin. I knew Caden wouldn’t have been happy about my spending time with him, even though it was about strengthening my family relationship with Kevin.

  “Um…” Kevin’s voice was soft. “You’re right. It wouldn’t matter anymore, unless Maggie’s going too.”

  Claudia snorted. “No way. She’s not invited. The only person who still talks to her in here is Avery.”

  “Hey,” Avery said. “She’s friends with all my high school friends. There’s history there. It’s really hard for me to walk away from—”

  “We know.” Claudia cut her off. “I’m not giving you shit. I hope you’ll be as forgiving with me if I ever mess up like that.”

  Avery frowned. “Thanks, Claudia. I appreciate that.”

  Claudia snapped her fingers and pointed at Avery. “That’s what friends are for.”

  Kevin smirked. “Forgiveness.”

  Claudia shrugged, sending him a sly smile. “Appreciation.”

  “AH! No. Right there.”

  Claudia’s head snapped around to the other girl on the couch. She’d been quiet almost the entire time, so I kept forgetting her name, but pointed at Claudia now. “You were flirting with him. Stop flirting.”

  “I was not.”

  Avery looked at everyone. “What? I missed it.”

  “She was totally flirting. I saw that little smile you sent him. All seductive-like.”

  “I wasn’t.” Claudia said to Kevin, “I wasn’t flirting. Tell her.”

  Kevin didn’t say anything, looking to me instead.

  Well, crappers. I knew where this was going. Claudia scared me.

  He raised an eyebrow. “Were you watching?”

  Claudia turned to me, waiting too.

  I groaned, covering my face with my hands. “Don’t put me in the middle of this.”

  “I wasn’t flirting!”

  Kevin snorted. “Right.”

  “I wasn’t.”

  The quiet friend threw her hands in the air. “Even the guy is admitting to it. ’Fess up, Claudia. It’s okay if you admit it.”

  “That’s all bullshit.” Claudia’s shoulders stiffened. “Kevin, you know I didn’t mean anything by that.”

  He leaned back and spread his legs out. “Uh, pretty sure that same smile was why we hooked up in the first place.”

  Everyone went still after that, and I heard Avery mutter under her breath, “Oh, no.”

  “Wait.” Their first friend snapped to attention as she looked from Kevin to Claudia and back again. “You two hooked up?”

  Kevin shot Claudia a look. “That wasn’t known?”

  “Nope.” She made a grumbling sound in her throat. “Thanks for that.”

  “Oops.” He sent me an apologetic look. “Did you know?”

  “I—” was so fucking busted. I felt Avery’s attention at the same time Claudia looked at me. I had one second to cover my ass, and Avery’s. I feigned surprise and shook my head. “I shouldn’t be surprised, but I had no idea.”

  Avery muttered next to me, “Seriously?”

  Claudia snorted. “Don’t ever do theatre, Summer. You suck at it.” She gave Avery a scorching look before heading to the door. “Thanks for sharing that private information, which I told you not to tell anyone.”

  Avery jumped to her feet. “You didn’t like her in the beginning. I thought it would help smooth the way.”

  “It did.” Claudia yanked my door open. “It smoothed the way for me to not hang out with you again.” She left, letting the door slam shut behind her.

  Kevin smiled, looking relaxed and cheerful. “I just had an epiphany.”

  “What?” the second friend asked.

  “This is why I like girls so much. You guys are way more entertaining than guys.”

  “What do you mean?”

  He shrugged. “Guys are all about sports, sex, or beer. Girls are about everything else. That kind of dramatic exit would never happen with guys. If it did, there’d be a beat down involved, but nothing like this. No wonder I date so much. I gravitate more toward girls in general. I’m a straight guy, with this face.” He gestured to himself. “No wonder I have girlfriends all the time.”

  He stood, smoothing out his jeans and shirt. “Thank you, Summer. I’d been thinking I was messed up, but I’m not. I just like girls, a lot.”

  “So are you coming this weekend?” The question came from Avery.

  “Nah.” Kevin glanced at me. “I think it’d just cause problems for this one.” He bent and collected his bag, putting his notebooks and textbooks back into it. “You take off tomorrow, don’t you?”

  I nodded.

  He threw his bag over his shoulder. “Let’s catch up when you come back. I want to hear how it went.”

  Avery groaned, collapsing on the bed. “Claudia is going to be so pissed at me.”

  The first friend laughed. “She already is.”

  Avery gave her a dark look. “I mean for a long time. She’s going to be pissed for a loooong time. What am I going to do?”

  “She’ll get over it. Claudia’s just mad because now we all know she should’ve been honest with us in the first place.”

  The second friend chimed in. “Yeah. Shell had no idea about Claudia’s past with Kevin. She should’ve been upfront about it, unless it happened afterward. If that happened…” She fell silent as her eyes widened. “Shit.”

  The first friend shared a look with her. “Claudia broke the girl code.”

  “Now, we don’t know—” Avery paled. “She didn’t know Shell that
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