Anti stepbrother, p.29
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.29
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           Tijan

  She sighed. “Me too. Let’s go.”

  I was ready for anything. Blood. Shouting. Punches. I was even prepared to find Marcus unconscious on the ground, but I hadn’t planned for what they were doing when we found them.

  They were laughing.

  I shook my head. “I have no words.”

  “Me neither.”

  Marcus looked over first, and his face warmed. “You guys finally thought about checking on us, huh?” He walked over, opening his arms, and hugged Avery to his chest. “My girl. Being all concerned.” He looked down, flicking her ear. He wasn’t smiling, but it was obvious how much he adored her.

  “You told me to stay. What was I supposed to do?”

  “Nothing.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You did exactly what you were supposed to do.”

  “Ignore you?”

  “Get backup.” He turned to me. “I thought you narced on me. You didn’t. Thank you.”

  I kinda had, but I looked at Caden. He gave me a tight smile back. His eyes weren’t smiling, not like his brother’s. “Who do you think I am? Some kind of crappy promise-keeper.”

  Caden’s smile eased, but just a bit.

  Marcus snorted. “Never that. Ever.” He winked at me, rocking Avery back and forth. “Right?”

  I stepped closer to Caden, but he didn’t touch me, and I didn’t touch him. I leaned toward him, though. I couldn’t help myself.

  Avery noticed and clapped Marcus on the chest with both hands. “You and me, let’s go back to the party.”

  “Why? I’m liking it here.”

  “Because…” She couldn’t think of anything. “Just because. Come on.” She tugged him with her, raising her eyebrows at me. “I’ll keep an eye out for your friend.”

  “Thank you.”

  Caden watched them go, then looked down to me. “Why do I feel like I’m the one in trouble now?”

  “Because you kind of are.” I touched his chest. “What’s wrong?”

  “I’m good. Marcus and I were just catching up.”

  I dug a finger into his chest. “You said no lies. You lied to me.”

  He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

  “Fuck,” he finally managed. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

  “So make it up to me by telling me what’s wrong.”

  That was when the tension left him. The lines around his eyes eased, the rigid corners of his mouth softened. He reached for me, and his hands fell to my hips, pulling me to him. He anchored me there, right where it felt perfect.

  He sighed and lowered his forehead to rest on mine. “Thank you.”

  “For what?”

  “For making me let it go.”

  I didn’t know how I’d done that, but okay. I’d take it. I pressed both my hands against his chest, and I could feel his heart there. I knew I was part of the reason it sped up a little bit.

  My own heart skipped a beat. I murmured, “You need to tell me what’s wrong.”

  “I know.” His hand tightened on my waist. “I’ll tell you later, but it was about Colton.”

  I glanced at one of his hands. They had moved back to my sides. “Those don’t look bruised or, well, more bruised.” One was a little red. I touched it, knowing that had come from the chanting guy in the hallway.

  “You inspire me,” I told him.

  “I do? What?” He leaned back to see my face.

  I turned up to him. “You do the right thing.”

  “I try to do the right thing.” He winced. “I had a whole lot of years where I didn’t. If you’d met me two years ago, even a year ago, we wouldn’t have been friends. I was a dick.”

  “Maybe.” Maybe not. I had a feeling he still would’ve been hot. “Thank you.”

  “For what?”

  “For organizing this whole trip.”

  He laughed. “Now I know you’re just making shit up. I didn’t organize this. The guys did.”

  “They did?”

  “They did.”

  “I’m thanking you.”

  He traced some of my hair and tucked the strands behind my ear. His hand lingered there, resting on my neck. He rubbed my cheek. “You should hang out with your friend while you’re here.”

  “I will. I wanted to make sure you were good.”

  “I’m good.” His eyes darkened, and we were no longer in this feel-good moment. The air spiked, and my body instantly heated. “I’ll be better tonight, later tonight.”

  I laughed. “And on that note, I suppose we should head back?”

  “No.” He hugged me against him. “Not quite yet.”

  So we didn’t.

  The weekend was beyond words.

  There were no other words for it. Clarissa couldn’t get over the me+Caden thing. That’s what she kept calling it. The thing.

  I knew part of that was because I refused to give her a label, mainly because Caden and I never got back to that conversation. I didn’t want to stick a title on us he wouldn’t agree with, so Clarissa made it “the thing.”

  She kept it up right until the moment we got back in the Land Rover and drove away, and I was okay with it, I’d decided. It was loose, elusive, mysterious. It couldn’t be pinned down. Free.

  Did I mention loose? Like, it could run away? That’s what being free meant too. Free to go away. Free not to stick around. Free to be not committed—and I was working myself up again.

  Caden wasn’t that type of guy. He hadn’t been all weekend. He’d been tentative, kind, considerate, tender, amazing, wonderful, and the kind of guy a girl like me didn’t end up with. Cue my paranoia. I felt a ride coming soon.

  The phone interrupted my emotional roller coaster ride through my dorm room. I picked it up, sighing from relief. “Hello?”

  A male voice replied, “I can pick up my little brother.”

  “What? Caden?”

  Oh, man. He sounded so wonderful. Warm. Strong. Steady. Not crazy like me.

  “Yeah. I was calling to tell you the doctor released Colton.”

  “Oh.” I dropped the phone this time. Shit. Fuck. I grabbed for it, sitting down on my chair. “Sorry. Are you going to get him?”

  “I was wondering if you wanted to come?”

  And my brains were scrambled once again. “Are you serious?”

  “Apparently Marcus called Colton yesterday, and you were a big topic between them. Colt’s insisting you come. He doesn’t care about the circumstances.”

  “I…” had no idea what to say. “Is that—I mean—he’s okay to be around someone who’s not family?”

  “He doesn’t care, honestly. Once he found out you’d been at the hospital the entire night, his mind was made up. He said you’re a girl he has to meet, said you had meat.”

  “Meet? Like meet and greet?”

  “No. Meat like beef or chicken.”

  “Oh.” I chuckled, thinking about that. “He sounds kind of funny.”

  “He is. He still has that.” He paused for a beat. “Do you want to come with then? It’s last minute, but I’m going right now.”

  “Yes!” I didn’t need to think about it. “Of course.”

  “Good, because I’m outside your room.”

  “What?”

  I looked over, and at the same time, the door opened. Caden stood there, tucking his phone back into his pocket. He gave me a smile that had my heart skipping a beat and my stomach flip-flopping.

  I hoped that’d never go away.

  I put on a big smile, maybe with a little extra oomph because I saw the dark shadows in his eyes, and I went over to him. “Hey.”

  And like it was the most natural thing in the world, he lifted his arm and I stepped into his embrace. My head went to his chest, my cheek against his heart, and his arms closed over me, holding me to him.

  The most natural thing in the world, like breathing.

  “Thank you,” he said.

  I looked up. “I’m honored to be asked.”

  He was tense, but he tried to sm
ile back. It faltered. “Colton is…” He stopped.

  I shook my head. “You don’t have to say anything. You love him. That says it all.”

  He cracked a grin. “That’s really cheesy.”

  “I don’t care.” I didn’t. It was the truth.

  I didn’t know anything about head injuries, but I’d done some research over the weekend. I snuck it in when there were moments of quiet, which had been few and far between. Some of the testaments I read on the internet broke my heart, and I ached, thinking that Caden’s brother was going through something similar.

  I was nervous too.

  The feeling didn’t go away. Half an hour later, I was sitting in the parking lot, waiting in the Land Rover as Caden went inside to get Colton. I tapped my foot on the floor. I tugged on my shirt. I pulled on some loose threads, and if I kept going, my shirt would probably unravel from the bottom up.

  I’d been there ten minutes when another truck wheeled into the spot next to me. I looked over to find Marcus. He was alone, and he held a hand up in a hello, but he was just as tense as Caden—more than Caden. His face was a little green.

  When he got out, I rolled my window down. “You look like you’re going to throw up.”

  He grimaced, pressing a hand to his stomach. “I don’t know if it’s from this, or if I actually am sick. I think Avery got sick from the weekend. She was puking this morning when I left.”

  “Avery, huh? At your place?”

  He rolled his eyes. “Don’t even start.”

  “But you see, I have to. I have to start. Avery’s my friend. I’m hanging out with your brother. You and I are classmates. I think we can develop our friendship to the stage where I give you shit. We should even start sitting next to each other in class.”

  “Don’t press your luck.”

  I kept going, “It’s a natural progression. Don’t fight it, Marcus. It’s like evolution. Don’t fight evolution. You’ll never win. Mother nature is a bitch. She’s always going to win.”

  “What the fuck are you talking about?”

  “How I get to give you shit. It’s an amazing experience in life, like giving birth. It’s painful for one person, but breathtaking for another. I’m the baby here. I get to feel air for the first time on my skin. Let me breathe, Marcus. Let me put my baby lungs to work and scream.”

  “I swear you’re making me even sicker.”

  “If you gotta puke, don’t suppress. It’s a natural body process.”

  He eyed me a moment. “Did you rhyme that on purpose?”

  “Maybe. Or I might be crazy?” I winked. “Or just a classy lady?”

  “Stop. I’m really going to puke now.” He groaned, pressing his arm against his forehead. “I was going to tease you back about Caden, but forget it. I don’t think I have the energy to deal with your rhyming.”

  “I’ve been told I’m amazing like that.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “Who hasn’t is the real question.”

  “You’re not making sense.”

  “I do that too. That’s very true.” I wondered if I should find him a bag, in case he actually was going to upchuck.

  “You just made me excited for when Caden and Colton finally show up. I thought I was nervous about seeing them, but no. It’s you. My nerves can’t handle you.”

  I had another joke ready and was about to let it fly when I looked across the parking lot. The words died in my throat.

  Caden and a guy that had Marcus’ face and Marcus’ height—close to six feet—walked toward us. Colton’s brown hair was lighter and longer than Marcus’, the ends framing his face in a wispish manner. As they approached I could also see that their eyes were a little different. Colton’s had slight hints of amber in them, like Caden’s. Marcus’ mirrored his hair color, a dark mocha.

  My nerves came back in an instant. My hands shook, so I smoothed them down my pants.

  Marcus straightened and looked over his shoulder. He took a step toward them.

  Taking a deep breath, I got out of the Land Rover. I had no words. For once.

  “Hey, man.” Marcus held a hand out.

  His lookalike looked at that, lifted the corner of his mouth in a crooked grin, and grabbed Marcus’ hand. He jerked him forward. “What the fuck is that? You hug a brother. You don’t shake hands.” He wrapped his arms around Marcus. After a second, Marcus lifted his arms and hugged him back.

  When they stepped back, Colton kept a hand on Marcus’ shoulder. “It’s good to see you.”

  “You too.”

  Marcus bobbed his head up and down, grabbing a fistful of Colton’s shirt. He rested his hand on his shoulder and tugged him back in for a second hug.

  Caden stayed back, watching the exchange. His eyes found mine, and I saw the same strain from before, but some of it had lifted. After his brothers separated a second time, he held up a closed fist. “What are you doing here, man?”

  Marcus met it with his own fist. “Stepping up.”

  Colton grinned from ear to ear. “About damned time. Now that Caden’s settling down, I’m going to need you to take me out. I need a girlfriend too.”

  Caden laughed. “I think Avery’s got some friends. Right, Marcus?”

  “Avery?” Colton looked between his brothers. “Who’s Avery? Is she the girl from before?”

  Marcus stiffened. “That was Maggie.”

  “Avery was before her.”

  “And she’s back again? Damn. I really do need to hang out with you more.” Then Colton turned to me and held his hand out. “You gotta be Summer.”

  I couldn’t do anything.

  I saw the pain, the sadness, and the storm in his eyes. I could see into him. He wasn’t just Marcus’ lookalike. He was Caden too. He had Caden’s eyes. He was so much like Caden, it took my breath away. Then I saw an undercurrent of strength, a determination to keep going, and more. I couldn’t put my finger on everything, but suddenly, and so completely, I was awed.

  My voice came out a hoarse squeak. “Hi.”

  His hand reached for mine, and a warm smile spread over his face. “I’m Colton.”

  Colton was amazing.

  He laughed. He teased. He interrogated me with a wink and wiggling eyebrows. He gave Marcus shit—extra points for that one—and he worshiped Caden. And he was who he was.

  We stopped at an outdoor restaurant, and when he sat down, his shirt rode up, exposing more than a normal share of scars. He reached for his sleeve, like he was going to pull it back down, but saw my gaze.

  He let it go and instead laid his arm out over the table and turned it over so I could see it better. He pointed to a scar that ran the entire length of his arm. “This is the one people think is the SA.”

 
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