Anti stepbrother, p.25
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.25
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           Tijan

  The real questions were burning my tongue. Where was his mother? Was his dad coming back? Where was Marcus? Had this happened before? Had Caden done this alone before? And the worst—how many times?

  I held on to his hands tightly, on top of my shoulders. “I can wait in the front lobby. Would that be easier for you?”

  His shoulders relaxed. “Yeah. I think so.”

  “Okay.” I moved forward, closing my eyes, and stepped into his arms. I rested my head against his chest, and after a second, his arms closed around me. His cheek rested on top of my head, and we remained there, leaning against the wall, until the door opened again.

  The nurse said, quietly, “We’re ready for you, Caden.”

  He didn’t move. Not at first. He held on to me a moment longer, then took a breath to ready himself before he pulled away. I stayed in the hallway for a beat, standing there as the door closed. Whatever was happening inside that room made my heart ache.

  I brushed a tear away as I found the front lobby. I had intended to go right for the coffee stand, but I stopped when I saw Marcus sitting in the farthest corner of the room. He was hunched forward, his elbows resting on his knees, and his head in his hands.

  I couldn’t tell if he was sleeping or crying, or just sitting there.

  A seed of anger lit inside of me. He was here? When he could’ve been with his other brother, with Caden? Caden wouldn’t have had to feel alone the entire night. But as soon as those thoughts flashed in my mind, a second wave of sadness washed them away.

  I had no right to judge.

  My family had its own problems, and I remembered the morning when my mom had passed away. I’d sat like he did, in the farthest seat in the lounge. I was there, but I’d wanted to hide, and I didn’t want anyone to tell me it would be okay. It wouldn’t be okay. It was never going to be okay, and all I’d wanted to do was sit there and pretend my mother was sitting next to me.

  I filled two cups of coffee and put one on the windowsill beside him.

  He looked up as I sat down in the seat across from him, my own coffee in hand.

  I managed a small smile and lifted the cup in greeting. “Morning.”

  Then I looked away. No judgment. No questions. No unwelcomed opinions would come from me. Just silence and companionship.

  And coffee.

  “You were here all night?” He sounded guarded as he asked that question.

  I nodded. “Diego told me, and I came here after that.”

  “Diego?”

  He didn’t know him. My heart ached even more. “He’s a friend of Caden’s.”

  “Oh.” Marcus picked up the coffee and leaned back in his chair. “Thank you.” He glanced out the window and murmured, almost as an afterthought, “Caden has a lot of friends I don’t know.”

  “I’m sure you do too.”

  “No.” He shook his head. “Caden knows all my friends. Caden knows more about my life than I do.”

  And there was the elephant in the room. If Colton was Marcus’ twin, why was it Caden in that room?

  Marcus cursed silently. “This is fucked up. Let me guess, it’s just Caden back there?”

  “You don’t know?”

  “Caden called and left a message. That was it. But since you’re still here, I’m betting my mom’s not back there. I know my dad’s sure as hell not back there. Am I right?” His anger grew as he kept talking. “It’s fucking bullshit. This is all fucking bullshit.”

  There was an air in the hospital. It didn’t extend to other patients or visitors, but I’d felt it with Caden, with the nurse, the doctor, and I saw it hanging over Marcus now. It enveloped him like a blanket he didn’t want, and I realized what it was. Finally.

  A secret.

  There was a feeling that whatever had happened with Colton, it was wrong. Like it was shameful. They couldn’t properly grieve whatever had happened because it shouldn’t have happened.

  I didn’t like the feeling.

  I felt suffocated and paralyzed all in the same moment, and if I was feeling that way, I wept for the ones who had really been hurt by whatever this was.

  I heard myself ask, wincing as I did, “What happened to your brother?”

  No. I closed my eyes. I shouldn’t ask. It was Colton’s secret to tell, but I wanted to know. I felt I could help better if I knew. I’d know the right things to say. I think…

  “You don’t know?”

  “I haven’t asked. I was trying to be considerate.”

  “Oh.” He paused, pain evident on his face, and then he shrugged. “Caden will never tell you because he’s big on that. If it happened to him, he wouldn’t want anyone to know, but Colton won’t care if I tell you. He was never secretive like that. Hell, he’d probably love you. Did you meet him? Was he awake?”

  “I didn’t meet him. I stayed in the hallway when Caden went in.”

  “For fuck’s sake.” Marcus rolled his eyes. “That’s ridiculous. Colton would’ve made some lame joke about dressing better if he’d known he was going to meet you, or something stupid like that. And he would’ve laughed, thinking he was so funny. He would’ve wanted to meet you. Caden should’ve taken you in.”

  “The nurse said it was family only. She was watching.”

  “Oh.” He jerked up a shoulder. “Whatever. I still think it’s bullshit. Caden could’ve at least told you.”

  And yet, he wasn’t telling me either.

  He doesn’t want to. The reason he wasn’t telling me was probably the same reason he hadn’t ventured past the front lobby.

  I ignored his gruff exterior and said, “Caden was going to talk to the doctor, then fill out some paperwork. He thought he’d be able to leave after that. I came out here to wait for him.”

  Marcus had gone back to looking out the window, but now he regarded me again. I saw fear buried deep in his eyes, past the annoyance and anger.

  I spoke to that emotion when I added, “You should go now, if you want to go. I won’t say anything.”

  “What?” he sputtered, the annoyed and angry Marcus flaring up before he quieted himself. The scared Marcus then hung his head. “Thank you, Summer.”

  I nodded.

  He stood, and I reached for his hand, giving it a small squeeze before letting go. He paused. I didn’t look up, but I felt his surprise at that small gesture, and a second later, he left without a word.

  Twenty minutes later, Caden came over and touched my shoulder. “You ready?”

  I stood, trying to look bright and bushy-tailed for him, but as his own grin slipped, I knew my act wasn’t convincing.

  “Sorry,” I murmured. “I’ve been told recently that I’ll never win an Oscar.”

  “I don’t care.” He rested an arm around my shoulders, pulling me against his side. “Thank you for coming, and staying.”

  My throat tightened, and I nodded again. “Of course.”

  I expected us to leave, but when he didn’t move, I glanced up.

  He was looking at the coffee cup on the windowsill. Marcus had left it behind. I tensed, not wanting to lie, but then Caden cleared his throat.

  “Mind if we go back to my place and sleep ’till we leave this afternoon?”

  My hand lifted to link with his. I held tight. I could miss a couple classes. I’d get the lecture notes later. “That sounds amazing.”

  He never mentioned the coffee cup, but I knew he knew.

  And for that reason, my heart ached even more.

  “Colton tried to kill himself.”

  Caden and I were in his bed. The dawn was just sneaking through the bedroom window. It trickled through the crack in his curtains, and we’d just gotten to his place. I’d thought Caden would fall asleep right away, but I knew now I wasn’t alone in laying here, staring at the ceiling.

  His words struck me deep, where only memories of my mom resided.

  “Caden.” I looked at him, my head rolling over on the pillow. He was staring up, like I had been, and I had no other words. I reached fo
r his hand, linking our fingers together. “I’m sorry.” My voice was a whisper.

  “He was in a fight two years ago. A stupid fucking fight,” he said. His fingers curled around mine. “Colton was on the Ivy League track. Not me. Not Marcus. It was Colton who wanted to be in this fraternity. He wanted to follow in our dad’s footsteps. He was planning on one day taking over the company, but he was leaving track practice one night, and that ended everything. And it was so fucking stupid. It was one of his friends. Can you believe that? One of his own goddamn fucking friends. They thought it’d be funny to try out these new helmets. They told Colton to put one on, and they whacked him with a bat. Twice.”

  His hand gripped mine so hard. Our fingers were both white.

  I didn’t say a word.

  “The helmets were defective. They weren’t properly lined, so he wasn’t protected. He suffered a brain injury, and he’s never been the same since.”

  “He tried to kill himself because of his head injury?”

  Caden nodded. “One in three people with a traumatic brain injury has suicidal ideation. Do you know what that means?”

  “They think about suicide?”

  “Yeah. One in three. I don’t know the stats about those who actually attempt suicide, but it’s fucking huge. It’s bigger than it should be.”

  My free hand covered our joined ones. I’d hold onto him with everything I had.

  “This is Colton’s third attempt. Attempt. Like he’s fucking going for gold or something. That’s the terminology. That’s what they say, and you know the term they use for people who kill themselves?”

  I didn’t answer. This was about him. I just wanted to help him.

  “They call it successful. Some doctor was spitting out facts to us and rambled on about successful and unsuccessful attempts. Like we should give them a pin or a medal. ‘Good job, you killed yourself. Oh, you didn’t? You were unsuccessful? Too bad. Better luck next time.’” He stopped, drawing in a ragged breath. “I wanted to rip the doctor’s throat out when he said that. Successful. Like all those fucking stats after Colton’s first attempt were going to comfort us or something.”

  My heart pounded, pressing against my chest cavity like it wanted to go to him. I wanted to take his pain from him. But I couldn’t do any of those things.

  “I’m so sorry, Caden.”

  He let out a ragged breath, this one sounding like it was ripped from his guts. “Yeah. I don’t want to talk about it any more. I tend to go apeshit when I do.”

  With reason.

  I hated this. I hated hearing a story so miserable, so pain-filled, and with no happy ending. There should always be a happy ending.

  “I’m so sorry, Caden.”

  That was all I could say.

  “Yeah.” He paused. “It hurts, that’s all.”

  We laid there.

  In silence.

  Holding hands.

  Maybe I moved. Maybe he did. I don’t know who started it, but it didn’t matter because then we were kissing. His mouth was on mine. I was underneath him. I wanted to be more than underneath. I wanted to be with all of him. And his hand was under my shirt, trailing a blazing path up as he lifted it free. His hands were on my breasts. His mouth was there. He was kissing, licking, tasting. He was loving me.

  My legs wound around him, pulling him down to me, as far as he could go.

  I could feel him.

  He ground against me, and dear God, I wanted that. I wanted everything. I wanted all of him. I was starving.

  This wasn’t like the first time we’d kissed.

  This wasn’t the hot and sudden combustion I’d felt then. This was more. This was so beyond more. This was a need we had for each other.

  Maybe it was about comfort. Maybe it was one small way to make something good out of a fucked-up situation. Maybe it was because he was hurting, and therefore I was too, and together we could ease that pain.

  Or maybe it was because I was in love.

  Whatever it was, my brain had stopped working the moment he’d told me he was hurting. My heart took over, and it raced as I slid my hands up his chest. He was strong. He was beautiful. And as he dipped down, his mouth finding mine once again, he was mine.

  “Caden,” I whispered. I wound my arms around his shoulders and raked them down his back as he arched above me.

  His hand went to my jeans, and he paused, waiting for my permission.

  I nodded.

  “Are you sure?”

  “God, yes.” I pushed his jeans off as he tugged mine all the way to the floor.

  We had to get up in a few hours, finish packing, and travel with a bunch of people I didn’t want along. They’d be in the way when it was only Caden I wanted to be with. As he reached for a condom, I knew this was what I wanted for the weekend.

  Him. Me.

  Then he was inside of me, and I closed my eyes, not feeling my heart hurting. It was filled, and as he went back to kissing me, I moved my hips and matched him. I moved with him, savoring the feel of his body above mine, because I didn’t know the next time this would happen, and that was okay.

  I had him for the morning. I would do for him what I could.

  “You look different.”

  I leaned against Caden’s Land Rover, waiting as everyone packed their vehicles for the road trip. I’d agreed to ride with Caden, and only Caden, but Avery had ventured over to wait with me.

  I didn’t feel like talking. The emotional upheaval from going to the hospital, being there for Caden, and then being with Caden had rendered me incommunicado. I couldn’t think, much less form a sentence, and I’d been worried Avery would want to talk about Claudia. She hadn’t, thank goodness. The only thing she’d said was that Claudia wasn’t coming anymore. A big thank goodness on that one too. The less drama, the better.

  “I’m tired,” I told her. “That’s it.”

  “You sure?” She sat on the curb and tilted her head back to look at me. I could hear her suspicion.

  I shrugged, keeping my face neutral and everything else about me relaxed. I couldn’t break. There’d be no beads of sweat on my forehead. No, ma’am. “Yeah. I was up late packing.”

  “You skipped lunch to finish packing.”

  I’d forgotten my earlier lie. “Yeah. I mean, I did as much as I could last night, but I was up late.”

  “How late?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “I was up late too.”

  Oh, dear God. When did Avery turn into a private dick?

  “I don’t know. Late. Like, four in the morning.” Keep it as close to the truth as possible. I learned that from watching Veronica Mars. “How late were you up?”

  “Not that late.”

  Finally. She said that begrudgingly, and I was going to take it and run with it. I cocked my head to the side. “Oh yeah. It might’ve been later than that.” And now I was going to add another truth to further distract her. “I’m nervous about seeing Clarissa too.”

 
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