Anti stepbrother, p.24
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.24
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           Tijan

  well when it happened.”

  The first friend frowned in fierce disapproval. “Shit’s going to hit the fan when Shell finds out. You don’t have to worry about Claudia. She’s going to be clamoring for your support in no time. She’s got some damn explaining to do.”

  The two left, leaving Avery behind, and a tear fell down her cheek. “They’re wrong. Claudia will just leave the group. What do I do, Summer?”

  I shook my head. I could pat her arm, give her a hug, utter some soothing words, but I was supposed to be traveling with Caden tomorrow. I’d been avoiding him for too long. I was in a doghouse of my own.

  “I have no idea.”

  It was after midnight when someone knocked softly on my door.

  I was still up, doing last-minute packing, and I opened the door to find a girl I didn’t know. She wore an oversized North River University sweatshirt over black leggings, her hair in a messy bun with a pencil stuck through the middle of it.

  “Hi.” She held up a hand. “You don’t know me, but I work the front desk, and a guy is downstairs asking to talk to you.”

  “Oh.” I frowned. “Do you know who it is?”

  She shrugged. “No clue. I asked him, but I already forgot. I’m studying. Finals and all. Do you want me to tell him to take a hike?”

  “Uh.” It could be Caden. “No. I’ll come down.”

  She started back, but said over her shoulder, “Guys can be in the downstairs lobby all the time, but he can’t come up here.”

  “I know.”

  “I’m just letting you know because I don’t want to have to report you and deal with all that paperwork. I have a final in two days. I’ll be pissed if you take away from my studying.”

  “Well, okay then.” After grabbing my room key and phone, I shut the door behind me and headed down after her. “Note to self, the midnight desk clerk is kind of a bitch.”

  When I got down there and saw her back behind the desk, she had her head buried in a psychopharmacology book. I changed my mind. Just the name of her class stressed me out.

  No guy waited next to the desk, and I checked the other front lobby across from her desk. No one was there either, so I went downstairs.

  Someone was studying a world map, but I didn’t see anyone else around the downstairs lobby that could be Caden. “Hello?”

  I hadn’t checked the computer room. He could’ve been in there… But then the map guy turned around, and I recognized Diego.

  I stopped short. “Hey.” Ice plunged into my veins.

  The normally loud, happy, and vivacious Diego was not the guy in front of me. He had bags under his eyes and no spark in them either.

  He rubbed his hands together. “Hey. Uh, I wasn’t sure if this was appropriate or not.”

  “It’s fine.” I frowned. “What’s up?”

  It was Caden. My heart raced. I knew it was Caden.

  My voice dropped an octave. “Is he okay?”

  “I think so, but I didn’t know who else to call.” He kept glancing away.

  “It’s okay. Just tell me what it is.”

  Please be okay. Please be okay.

  “Caden was at the bar tonight when he got a call—”

  “From who?”

  He shook his head. “He didn’t say, but I know it’s about his brother.”

  Marcus?

  “Colton. He’s in the hospital.”

  Oh. My frown deepened. Oh! “He’s at the hospital?”

  “I know there’s another brother, but I don’t know his phone number. You’re the only person Caden’s brought to the bar, and I remembered that one girl said she was in the same dorm as you. She kept talking about you that night after you guys left, so the name was burned in my memory.” He grimaced, laughing softly. “I had the worst hangover the next morning with that girl’s voice on repeat—”

  I’d stopped listening. I grabbed his arm, stopping him in mid-sentence. “Thank you, Diego.”

  His hesitation slid away. His eyes warmed, and his hand covered mine. “I knew it was the right thing to come here. I told the girl your name. I didn’t know your last name, but she finally said she’d go see if you were even still awake. It took me ten minutes of arguing with her. I came down here because I didn’t want to risk getting thrown out.”

  I nodded. “Yeah.”

  My insides clenched. Caden was hurting.

  I started for the stairs. “I need to go.”

  And when I got outside, I remembered I didn’t have a car.

  Diego had followed me out. “I can give you a ride.”

  I didn’t feel relief, thankful, or even grateful. I should’ve felt all of those things, said something to indicate how much I appreciated that, but nothing else mattered in that moment. Caden mattered. That was it.

  All my usual niceties left me. Even my weird quirks disappeared, and I only uttered, “Yes, please.”

  I just had to get to him.

  I was an idiot.

  After circling around all over the hospital and finding nothing, I was given directions to a second waiting lounge. That’s where Caden was, and once I saw him standing in the hallway, with his head down and his phone pressed against his ear, I knew how utterly and completely stupid I had been. He’d called a few times during the week, and I’d always made up an excuse. I was a dumbass. It’d been almost a week since I last saw him—a week too long. An invisible weight pressed down on my chest, and I had to stop to swallow a lump in my throat.

  I went to him.

  His back was turned to me, and he nodded his head as he spoke. “Yeah. I know. Yeah. Okay.” He paused. “If Marcus could come, that’d be good. He’s going to be moved there tomorrow morning.” Then he turned. He saw me, and he went still. “Uh, yeah. A seventy-two-hour hold… Mom, I gotta go. I’ll call you back.”

  My hand ached from wanting to touch him.

  He hung up, and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

  “Diego came to my dorm. He said you got a call about your brother, that you were here.”

  He cocked his head to look behind me.

  “He’s not with me. He just gave me a ride here.”

  “Oh.” His Adam’s apple moved up and down as he swallowed, then a hardness came over him. “You should go.” He started past me.

  I caught his arm. “Wait.”

  “Summer, now’s not the time for your weird mind fucks. I’ve got serious shit to deal with here. My brother—” He lifted a hand to point behind me, but stopped. “My brother…”

  “What?”

  Please tell me. Please let me in, even though you have no reason to.

  He looked down at my hand. So did I, and holding a breath, I moved it to his chest.

  I asked, a tiny whisper even to my ears, “What happened to your brother? I’m here for you. I just want to be here for you.”

  “Where’ve you been the last two weeks?”

  “I—” Crap on a stick. I shook my head. “I’m here for you tonight.”

  “Just tonight?”

  That lump jumped back up in my throat. I had to swallow over it again. “And this weekend. For the trip.” And forever, if you want that.

  He leaned back against the wall, folding his arms over his chest. His face was just as gorgeous as the last time I’d seen him, but it was exhausted, like Diego’s had been. No, that wasn’t true. Caden looked like he might be the definition of exhaustion. But over all of that, a hard mask came over his face. His jaw clenched, and I knew this was the no-bullshitting Caden.

  “Just tonight and this weekend?” he asked.

  I let out a small breath and glanced down to the floor. My hands twisted around the end of my shirt. “No, not just for then.” I looked back. “I can’t tell you why I’ve been avoiding you.”

  “So you have been avoiding me.”

  I paused. “Was that a trick question?”

  He rolled his eyes, shifting so he rested against the wall. I moved so my side was against it to
o, and we stood even closer now. “Just tell me what’s going on with you.”

  “I can’t. That’s the problem.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because if I did, that’d lead to a whole other conversation, and to be honest, I’m almost shitting my pants even thinking about that conversation. So yeah. I’m here, but I don’t want to talk about why I haven’t been here, and I just want to be here for you. That whole last sentence doesn’t make sense, but I don’t care. Can we truce it for the night?”

  “No.”

  My shoulders slumped. “Why not?”

  “Because I don’t like it. Why the disappearing act? I won’t let you stay until you tell me. Is it because you have feelings for me?”

  “WHAT?!” My eyes snapped open.

  “Because if you think you have feelings for me, you’re wrong.”

  “I am?”

  He shook his head, a slight smirk there, and hooked a finger into a loop on my waistband. He pulled me closer, lowering his head. “There’s lust between us. I’m going to give that to you, and knowing how screwed up you are about your stepbrother, I can understand if you got it twisted. You don’t have feelings for me.”

  “I don’t?”

  He was wrong. But he was making it okay to be around him, and I was going with it. I needed to be here. I couldn’t have stayed away any longer anyway.

  I was so weak.

  “No.” He pulled me the rest of the way until there was no distance between us.

  I felt him. I felt the thump of his heart. I felt the heat of his body, and I especially felt how he wanted me. I was salivating.

  He lowered his head until his breath warmed my lips. “But here’s my warning for you: I need you tonight. Don’t run.” He pulled his head back, his eyes searching mine. “Please don’t run.”

  He delivered a bomb to me and stepped back as it detonated. I felt wrecked, but I could only nod, because in that moment, I would’ve given him anything. I was his for the night. I was maybe his for more than the night, and if he wanted to call it a lie, I didn’t care.

  I whispered, “I won’t.”

  His hand cupped the side of my face, his thumb resting on my cheek, and I felt the tension leave his body. Everything relaxed, and his forehead came down to mine. “Thank you.”

  I cupped the side of his face, too, but I bit down on my lip. I kept the words from spilling out, the ones that wanted to be released so badly.

  He was wrong. My feelings weren’t just misplaced emotions. They were a lot more than that.

  “Mr. Banks?”

  A nurse came down the hallway in blue scrubs.

  Caden stiffened, readying himself, and turned around. “Yeah? Is he okay?”

  She nodded, a tight smile on her face. “He’s awake and asking for you.” Her eyes moved to me. “Family only for now. Doctor’s orders.”

  “Yeah. I know. That’s fine.” He reached behind him and grabbed my hand. He held on tight. “Thank you.”

  “No problem.” She started to leave, but paused a few steps away. “Would you and your guest like some coffee? I was going to take a quick break myself. I can bring some back.”

  “That’d be great. Thank you again.”

  She nodded, and a sad and weathered smile filtered across her face. “I can bring you coffee all night, if you’d like. That’ll never be a problem.”

  I had a flashback to when my mom was in the hospital. Another nurse had said the same thing, “I’ll be here with you all night.” She’d offered blankets, a pillow, coffee, water, snacks. She’d come in every hour to check on us. And I knew she looked through the door more often than that, just to make sure my mother was still breathing.

  I felt tears threatening, so I concentrated on Caden and touched his hand. He caught mine and held on tight, only releasing it when he stepped inside his brother’s room. As the door opened, I looked down. It wasn’t fair for me to see his brother the way he was, not the first time I met him. Every time Caden went to his brother’s room, I looked away until the door closed.

  That’s how we spent the next two hours.

  Caden would go in, stay for a bit, and I would wait in the hallway. After the second time she noticed me, the nurse brought me a chair, then a blanket, and I had my perch there. Caden wouldn’t stay inside long. He’d do ten or fifteen minutes, then come out when his brother fell back asleep. He’d always grab my hand when he returned, and that made it all worth it. Whatever this was, whatever was going on with us, it would all be worth it.

  After the third hour, Caden leaned against the wall beside my chair. The bags under his eyes were drooping further and further. “Maybe you should head back for the night?”

  “What are you going to do?”

  He glanced in the window, through a crack in the blinds. “I have no idea. I hoped Marcus would come tonight.”

  Caden hadn’t told me what happened. It was on the edge of my tongue to ask, but even before Diego dropped me off at the hospital, I knew it had something to do with Colton’s secret. I ached seeing the pain on Caden’s face, and I ached even more not understanding what had put it there.

  I squeezed his hand. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

  He glanced down with a faint grin. “They’re going to kick you out of here once morning shift shows up.”

  “I know. I can wait in the lobby.”

  “You sure?”

  The same nurse we’d been seeing all night now came toward us with another woman beside her, wearing a long white coat.

  “You’re Colton’s brother?” she called. “I’m Dr. Holbreck. I’m the physician on call today, and Dr. Reinier briefed me with everything going on.” She held her hand out, and as Caden shook it, she turned to me. “Are you Colton’s girlfriend?”

  “She’s with me.”

  Her eyes fell to our joined hands. “Okay, well, I’m going to step in and check on your brother. I’d like some alone time with him, and then I’ll pull you in to go over everything once more.” She paused, her eyes scanning the hallway. “Is there any other family with you?”

  “My dad’s in Beijing, and my mom couldn’t leave the house.”

  “There’s another brother, isn’t there?”

  Caden’s jaw clenched. “He’s not here. It’s just me.”

  The doctor didn’t move, but the lines around her mouth softened in sympathy. “And your girlfriend.”

  “Yeah.” Caden’s hand jerked in reaction, but he only tightened his hold before stepping back so the doctor and nurse could enter the room. After they passed his hands found my shoulders, and he closed his eyes, letting out a deep breath when the door closed behind them.

  My hands came to rest on top of his. “You okay?”

  “No.” His eyes opened, haunted. “But I will be. Thank you for being here with me.”

  “But…” I knew it was coming. “Is this when you send me away?”

  He started to answer. His mouth opened, then closed, and his eyebrows pinched together. “You know, no. I’m going to talk to the doctor for a little bit. I’ll have to sign some paperwork, and then I’ll be able to leave.”

 
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