Anti stepbrother, p.3
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.3
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           Tijan

  the sidewalk, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

  “Your room is on the sixth floor?” my dad asked.

  I nodded. He had a friend come with them to help take the heavier stuff up and he was standing behind us, already holding a box.

  “Room 614.” I pointed to the side of the building. “My room’s at the end of the hallway. You could probably use the back stairs to get to it. It’ll be easier.”

  “Okay.” He went to the SUV to move it closer to the door while his friend headed inside with the box. “We’ll get everything up there within an hour, I’m sure.”

  “Well.” Sheila clapped her hands together, beaming at us. “We should get you unpacked, and then you’re stuck with us for one more day.” She bumped me with her hip. “Start thinking now, Summer. We’ll go anywhere you want to eat tonight. Kevin will probably be busy with some girl, but he’s got no choice. I’m pulling the mom card tonight. We’re going to have one last family dinner. Your choice.”

  That sounded fine with me. I’d have all day to prepare to see Kevin once more. I hoped he wouldn’t bring the current girlfriend.

  But later at the restaurant I’d chosen, I looked up and sighed as he came in.

  Not so much.

  He walked in holding Maggie’s hand.

  The dinner sucked. Like, seriously sucked.

  But I wasn’t surprised. Kevin had the habit of bringing his girlfriend to family dinners, so why would he suddenly change now? And this also told me something had changed between last night and tonight. Kevin no longer seemed to care about getting caught.

  I snorted, thinking about that. No, no. Last night had been about him not getting his ass kicked. Tonight was about not giving a damn. I eyed the two of them—holding hands, giggling, blushing. They kept giving each other those stupid looks only people who’ve had sex share, like the rest of us are idiots and don’t know what those long, lingering sighs mean. Right. Kevin + Maggie = me throwing up.

  And yes, I knew it was my problem because of my stupid feelings. But dammit, when Kevin showers you with attention, combined with how he looks, and there’s always this softness to his words—there’s a reason he can get so many girls.

  The only upside to the dinner was that Kevin and Maggie’s glorious coupledom overshadowed the reserved politeness between him and my dad. I caught a few moments, though. When Kevin kissed the back of Maggie’s hand and my dad coughed, tugging his collar from his neck, or while Sheila gushed about the family weekend when they came up last year. Neither Kevin nor my dad said a word. They just sat there, lips pressed together, no facial expression on either of them.

  I suddenly wondered what the hell else had I missed all year.

  When the two lovebirds left and Sheila asked if I wanted to stay in my dorm for the night or bunk with them in the hotel room, I was feeling a bit more raw than normal. The hotel it was. And I spent the next day with them, too, doing some more school shopping before they dropped me off for my first night in my place. Alone.

  I spent my first official college night on the internet. How sad was that?

  So of course, trying to convince myself how unsad I was, I decided to go to bed early. Because I was being responsible. Not sad. Responsible. I’d get up early. I might go for a run? Register for classes…by being the first in line. See? Responsible. I’d be the most prepared freshman there was, and I had actually convinced myself this would be great when my resident advisor breezed into the bathroom.

  Avery literally did breeze in.

  A burst of wind opened the bathroom door, and she stepped forward, her hand pushing the door the rest of the way. She was going so fast that I felt that same wind as she hurried past and slammed the stall door behind her. A second later, she asked through the door, “Are you going to bed already?”

  I glanced around. No one else was in here.

  “Summer?” she called.

  “Huh?”

  “You’re in 614? You got here yesterday. You’re the sports medicine girl, right? Am I remembering that correctly?”

  She meant me. “Yeah. That’s me.”

  The toilet flushed. The door opened a moment later and she eyed me, coming to wash her hands. “You’re Summer, right?” A confused look appeared. “Wait. Are you Autumn? It’s a season, I thought.”

  “No. Summer. I’m Summer.”

  “Yeah.” She finished washing and grabbed for the paper towels. “Your brother is Kevin Matthews?”

  I gritted my teeth. “Stepbrother. Yes.”

  “You’re not related by blood?”

  “No.”

  She snorted after drying her hands, then crumpled the paper towel up in a ball. “Wonder if Maggie knows that.”

  I stilled. “You know Maggie?”

  She tossed the crumpled ball in the garbage, opening the door and holding it with her foot. “Yeah.”

  I grabbed my bathroom utility bucket. She kicked the door wide for me and stepped out into the hallway. We fell in line together, heading to our rooms.

  “The ‘great love’ of Kevin Matthews.” Her fingers formed quotation marks, and she grinned. “I love Maggie. We roomed together last year, and there’s a whole group of us that are friends from high school. However, no offense to your stepbrother, but she’s delusional.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Avery opened her mouth, then paused mid-step and mid-speech. Her head cocked to the side and she seemed to realize what she’d been about to say. She grinned ruefully at me.

  “Sorry. I probably shouldn’t say anything. I’m not being a good friend.” She waved her hand. “Forget I said anything.”

  I clipped my head in a quick up-and-down motion. “Said what?”

  She laughed. “Thank you.”

  Her room was closer so we paused outside her door. I could hear techno music blaring inside, and she gazed at the door for a moment, her forehead wrinkling. “You know,” she chewed on her bottom lip. “Do you want to come with us?”

  I widened my eyes. “You and Maggie?”

  “What?” Understanding dawned. “No.” She laughed again. “Sorry. No, no. Maggie’s probably off with your stepbrother or—” She caught herself again. “Some friends and I are going to a house party. This is a totally different group. Maggie won’t be there.”

  “Oh.” Now I chewed the bottom of my lip. What to do? Be pathetic, or…party? “I’m in.”

  “Great.” She straightened up, her shoulders rolling back. “Okay.” She pulled her phone from the back of her jeans and scrolled through it. “Okay, yeah. We’re meeting at my friend’s room in twenty, so want to come back here in ten? My friend’s room is all the way across campus and…” She paused for another beat, her chest lifting and holding. “Uh, we’re going to be drinking. I shouldn’t invite you with, but you’re here, and you seem cool, and we’re in college.”

  I nodded. “Not another word. Kevin’s a big partier. I have no problems with it.”

  “Okay.” She gave me a relieved grin, her shoulders loosening up. “Okay. Yeah. Go make yourself more gorgeous, and let’s head out in ten.”

  “On it. Be back.”

  I didn’t know what kind of party I should dress for, but I decided to assume this would be the normal deal: Kegs. Making out. And more kegs. Right. So that meant jeans, black tank top, and sandals.

  When I got to Avery’s room, I could see I’d dressed right. The only difference between her outfit and mine was a black bra underneath her almost translucent tank top. It was white, but so thin that I could see her belly button clearly. She’d pulled her hair up into two high side braids. With hoop earrings and her tight, faded jeans, she looked edgy and ready to party.

  When I met her yesterday morning, I never would’ve suspected she’d go out partying, with me, dressed like this. In her official role as RA, she wore khaki shorts and a red, collared shirt, her bleached blond hair combed and loose, resting beyond her shoulder blades. Seeing her blue eye shadow and red lipstick, I realized she must’ve be
en wearing natural-tone makeup when I met her, or none at all. I remembered how she’d stood, holding a clipboard, when she met my parents. Her head had been lowered, her shoulders slumped a little. She’d looked demure, and really sweet.

  Now she flashed me a grin with blinding white teeth. “Two minutes!”

  Typing on her laptop, she paused a moment, then shut it off. She pulled her purse strap over her head and across her body as she came out, keys in hand.

  I stepped back as she came into the hallway, and she locked her door. Then she scanned me up and down. She nodded, a look of approval on her face. “Looking good, little Matthews.”

  I frowned. “It’s Stoltz.”

  “Oh.” She nodded. “Sorry. I gotcha.”

  Avery would’ve fit in with the popular girls at my high school, so I wasn’t surprised to find out she knew Kevin. She was beautiful, but it wasn’t just how she looked. She was confident, and sexy too. May would’ve been jealous of her, and that meant we all would’ve hated her because one of us did. This was different now, though. Avery seemed easygoing, and that made me feel comfortable with her. I wasn’t being judged as Kevin’s stepsister. In fact, it seemed the opposite. I almost felt like Avery didn’t care for Kevin, and for some reason, I liked her even more.

  As we trekked across campus, Avery had a way of asking me questions, but also talking so I never felt put on the spot. I could see why she was a resident advisor, except that I was pretty sure RAs weren’t supposed to party or drink with students on their floor. Still, Avery was good with people. We ran across different groups along the way, and almost everywhere someone knew Avery—not only knew her, but liked her. They waved, said hello, or threw out a joke to her.

  She returned it every time. If it was a quick, teasing insult, she gave a grin and sent one right back. If it was as simple as a hand wave, she did the same. She was very even keel.

  That made me relax even more, and when we got to her friend’s room, I wasn’t worried. I would’ve expected to have my stomach tied up in knots, but not with Avery. Whatever happened, I knew it’d be fine. I wouldn’t be left out, or left behind, or made to stand out like a social outcast. In the past, being around girls like Avery and her friends had always made me feel those things.

  As she introduced me, her friends seemed to be a lot like her. There were six of them, and I didn’t get all their names during the introductions. We had to wait for one more girl, and as we did, they prepared their drinks. Wine, rum, soda, vodka—all of it was poured into water bottles. Each girl had a backpack, and they stuffed the containers inside, sometimes two of them. They offered me one, I took it.

  I’d had drinks before. The act of drinking or getting drunk wasn’t a big deal to me—it was who I drank with. In a group of strangers, I wouldn’t have taken one, but I trusted Avery. She asked if I wanted to stash a back-up in her bag, and I nodded.

  We’d just finished when the last of the group arrived, and the whole alcohol-prepping process started again. The last girl took three bottles.

  “When we go to a big party, we bring our own booze,” Avery told me. “We might know the guys who live in the house, but we don’t always know everyone. We’ve heard too many stories, and none of us feels like getting drugged or raped. That’s why we look like full-on alcoholics.”

  I nodded. That made sense. These girls were smart.

  Another girl chimed in. “And we move in a buddy system. It’s not obvious at the parties, but none of us is ever alone unless we explicitly tell the others we’re doing a one-nighter.”

  “One-nighter?” I echoed.

  “One-night stand.” A different girl shrugged. “It happens. There’s no judgment here.”

  “Unless someone has a boyfriend.” A third girl nudged the one who’d explained. “Right, Shell?”

  Shell rolled her eyes. “I still wouldn’t regret a night with Caden Banks.”

  I paused. “Wait. What?”

  The girl who’d nudged Shell laughed and looked back over her shoulder at me. Her eyes twinkled. “Caden Banks. He’s one of the bigwigs in a fraternity around here. If you meet him, trust me, you’ll know it.”

  I was pretty sure I had.

  Avery glanced sideways at me. “She might already have met him. Kevin Matthews is her stepbrother.”

  I wasn’t prepared for the effect those words had.

  Everyone stopped and turned around. I suddenly found myself the center of attention as seven girls each gave me a different look—surprise, caution, intrigue, nervousness. Everyone was silent for a moment until Avery laughed out loud, forcing the sound a little bit.

  Her hand perched on her hip, and she lifted her chin. “What? Don’t hate her because of what her stepbrother’s done.”

  Wait. What? I fixed Avery with a look and raised an eyebrow. “What haven’t you told me?”

  One of the girls stepped forward. “Your brother’s an asshole.”

  “Claudia,” Avery reprimanded.

  I held my tongue on that one. I couldn’t really argue with her, but I did say, “Stepbrother.”

  Shell let out a sigh. “He dated me last year and slept with two of my best friends.” She paused before adding, “In the same weekend.”

  “We’re an against-Kevin Matthews group. Neither of those girls is friends with us anymore.” Claudia looked at Avery. “Well, the rest of us. They’re not friends with us.”

  Avery shifted back on her feet, letting out a small sigh. She crossed her arms over her chest. “One of those they’re talking about is Maggie.” She said to them, “And I went to high school with Maggie. There’s a whole group of us who are still friends. I can’t just leave them.”

  Shell said, “We know. We’ve talked about it, but you know how we feel about him and Maggie.” Claudia raked me up and down. “And if you think bringing his stepsister around us is going to make us soften, think again, Av.”

  “I’m not,” she protested. “I didn’t bring her because of that. I’m no fan of Kevin either, but she’s cool. That’s why I brought her.”

  I felt a full-body flush coming on. Avery had taken pity on me. I knew it, and she knew it, but she didn’t tell them that. I’d been alone in that bathroom and looking pathetic. She’d invited me out because she was nice.

  “Look.” I gave them a tight grin. “I’m under no illusions about Kevin.” Liar. “He’s my stepbrother, so he’s family, but trust me, I’m well aware of his history with women.”

  And you need to remind yourself of it. Over and over again. And again, I chided myself as I waited for the hostility to cool to a simmer. When it did, I knew I’d said the right things.

  Now I just needed to listen to them myself.

  The party was huge, and we had to walk three long blocks from campus to get there. As we went up the driveway, a guy held open the front door. I ducked under his arm and voila—I was inside my first party of college. With the hip-hop music blaring and girls in bikinis running around, I felt like I’d stepped into a music video. I could practically see the champagne spilling in slow motion and girls washing each other, bending over a Lamborghini. But no wads of cash were waiting for me inside; Avery and her friends were instead.

  A deep chuckle sounded behind my ear, and an arm appeared, extending a tray of red plastic cups. “Only the finest beer for my ladies.”

  Avery had said they didn’t trust the booze offered at these parties, and I stiffened, looking at her first.

  She rolled her eyes. “Take it away. You know we bring our own.”

  As if they had rehearsed it, the girls all raised the bottles they’d been sipping on the walk over. The tray was lifted back over my shoulder, and I stepped to the side. That arm was seriously big. I needed to see who this guy was.

  My eyes met his chest…then trailed upward. If I was ever going to meet a bodybuilder in person, I knew this was the guy. He had muscles in his throat, wrists, everywhere—including places I didn’t want to think about.

  He smiled as he rubbed his jaw.
“Oh, come on. You know this house is different. We’re rape-drug free.”

  Avery snorted. “No offense, Dave, but you know how we are.”

  “Yeah, yeah.” He waved her off. “Got it.” He pointed over his shoulder. “Can I offer up a wet T-shirt contest? We’ve got one about to start in the back. Ten minutes.” He wolf-whistled, assessing us. “I do think you all have a chance at winning.”

  “You say that to every girl.” Claudia rolled her eyes.

  Dave winked at her. “You can’t hold that night against me
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