Anti stepbrother, p.30
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.30
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           Tijan

  “SA?”

  “Suicide attempt.”

  He said it casually, and a shiver wound down my spine, but I shoved that away. If he could handle it, I’d be damned if I’d be the one who squirmed.

  “It wasn’t that?”

  “Nah.” He pulled his sleeve down now and propped his elbows on the table. Then he nodded toward the line. “You guys go order. Summer and I can talk like good little boys and girls.”

  Caden stood, squeezing my hand once under the table, and headed off without a word. Marcus remained behind, his hesitation obvious.

  “Go, douch—” Colton started.

  I cut in, “I’m going to start rhyming, Marcus.”

  He groaned, but nodded. Rapping his knuckles on the table, he stood and pointed at me. “Don’t start. I’m going to be dreaming that shit.”

  I winked at him as he went around the table. “You calling me a nightmare?”

  I heard his laugh before he was past two more tables and out of earshot.

  Colton gazed at his twin with his head tilted to the side. A soft smile accompanied his soft words, “He likes you.”

  “I’m a rhyming genie. I can work some magic.”

  “No.” He shook his head, his eyes still thoughtful and eerily somber. “Marcus respects you. I can tell. That’s impressive. I’ve never seen it before.”

  I scoffed. “Oh, come on. I’m sure he respects lots of things.”

  “No—”

  “Hooters. Porn. Wet T-shirt contests.”

  Colton laughed.

  “Christmas presents. Shoes. Jock itch. A future dog he might have. Morning sex.” I waved at him. “I could keep going all day.”

  “I see it.”

  “See what?”

  “Why they both like you so much.”

  He’d been through hell, and was still there, trying to get back, yet he was focused on me, on his brothers.

  I felt a pang in my chest. “He respects you too, you know.”

  “No, he doesn’t.”

  “He doe—”

  “He fears me.” Colton’s eyes were clear and focused. He meant what he said, and he was okay with it. There was no sorrow, just a concise analysis. “I make him nervous because it could’ve been him. That makes him feel guilty for not becoming what Caden has become. It’s easier to deny something than accept it.”

  I…any words I might’ve formed died in my throat. I had nothing. I glanced down at my lap before looking at him once again. My eyes had a traitorous mist over the top of them.

  “Marcus isn’t that bad,” I said.

  “You’re right. He’s not. Caden was worse.”

  “What do you mean?”

  His smile faded. “Nothing. I think that’s for Caden to say. And look at me, I’m talking shit about my brothers when they were nice enough to pick me up, take me to get some food, and introduce me to a pretty girl.” He tried to bolster his smile so it was less haunting. He failed. “You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve just met you, but my smooth social skills aren’t what they once were. I tend to rush things now. My therapist keeps telling me to slow shit down.”

  “You don’t have to slow anything down with me.”

  “Still.” He pointed to my face. “I can tell I’m scaring you. That wasn’t my intent. I’m sorry for that.”

  “You didn’t.”

  “It’s okay.”

  “You didn’t.” I leaned forward and whispered since Caden and Marcus were coming back with our food. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m not the smooth social skiller you were either.”

  “Smooth social skiller.” He bent his head toward the table, his shoulders jerking in silent laughter. “You’re right. We can’t all be smooth criminals, you know.”

  I shook my head, dead serious. “Fuck no.”

  Caden and Marcus were sitting down.

  I added, “But it’s something to aspire to.”

  Colton barked out an abrupt laugh. “Yes. Yes, it is, I guess.” His laughter continued until he had tears in his eyes, but they were the good tears. The healing kind. The kind you wanted to see because they brought relief. They brought out the side that was good, like the sun appearing for the first time in months.

  Caden and Marcus went still, and I knew what they were thinking.

  I wasn’t the sun.

  I was just a reprieve in the darkness.

  Colton grasped my hand across the table and squeezed it. “Thank you.” He seemed a little choked up, but moved right on to his food.

  An hour later, we were going to take Colton home, but Marcus volunteered.

  “You sure?” Caden asked, a slight frown on his face.

  “Yeah.” Marcus stood and flicked a hand toward his twin. “Come on. I owe you a heart-to-heart anyway.” His jaw firmed. “And I owe mom a piece of my mind too.”

  A sheen of tears appeared over Colton’s eyes, but he blinked them back and cleared his throat. “No, it’s good.” He stood next to Marcus, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “I think it’s time too.”

  Caden didn’t seem convinced, and to be honest, neither was I. Since meeting Colton, even in this short amount of time, I’d grown protective of him. Maybe I’d inherited some of Caden’s feelings concerning his brother, or maybe I’d caught Marcus’ hesitation. Either way, I found myself holding my breath, hoping everything would be okay between the twins. I didn’t want Marcus to do more damage than was already done.

  Staring at the two side by side, the similarities were glaring. So were the differences.

  Marcus had personality just standing there. While despite his jokes and teasing, Colton looked like a shell of a person. If his pain was an ocean, his facade was the whitecaps on top. They were there if there was enough force to conjure them, and they distracted from what was underneath, but I saw through them.

  Colton’s eyes dropped to mine, and the good-natured smile on his face dimmed into his real emotion: fear. He was scared just like I was, and like I guessed Caden was too.

  “Okay. I see the judgment.” Marcus cursed, stuffing his hands in his pockets and shifting back on his heels. “Chill the fuck out. I’ve been around, but I’ve not waded into the foray, if you can call it like that. I’m doing it now. So I’m going to take Colton home. I’m going to grovel and probably cry trying to make it up to the guy who shared the womb with me.” He closed his eyes, and his shoulders lifted as he took a short breath. He coughed again. “You guys know what I mean.”

  “And Mom?” Caden asked.

  “Mom’s been worse than me,” Marcus said.

  Colton looked at the ground, shifting away so his back was to the conversation. He began picking at imaginary lint.

  Marcus gentled his tone. “I was never in denial. I knew it was bad, I was just—”

  “Scared.”

  Marcus looked over, but Colton hadn’t looked back as he cut in.

  “Yeah. I was scared,” Marcus said. “But Mom’s in denial. It’s time we talked to her.”

  “I should be there for that,” Caden said.

  “Why?”

  Colton started laughing, bitter and dry.

  Marcus repeated his question to Caden. “Why do you have to be there?”

  “We need to do it together. She won’t listen otherwise.”

  “She won’t listen anyway.” Colton turned back now, shaking his head. “You guys have no idea. Caden, you’ve been there the most, but you don’t know what Mom’s like when you leave. She pretends to be supportive in front of you. She knows. But then she tells me ‘to get over it.’ She asks when I’m going to college. She asks why I don’t have a job, and why I’m not exercising anymore.” He added, hoarsely, “I spend more time with the dog than anyone else. Gus is more supportive than anyone.”

  I had no words. Marcus was the same, half turning away. The only one who responded was Caden.

  “That’s why Marcus and I will do it together,” he said. “You shouldn’t be there at all. Your fight is to keep going. Our fight is to st
and up for you.”

  Colton looked away.

  Marcus’s head hung low.

  Caden looked to the sky.

  The emotions were high, and the air was thick. These three loved each other. It was glaringly obvious, but they were limited in how they expressed it. They needed a girl—someone who’d say what needed to be said, explain what needed to be done. Their mom should’ve been that person, but it sounded like she’d abandoned them in a way.

  I decided. “Colton, you can hang out with me that day.” I was going to be their girl.

  All three looked at me, with varied expressions of relief.

  “And how could you have a dog and not tell me?!”

  They broke into chuckles.

  Caden raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware you liked dogs, and besides—”

  “It’s mine,” Colton added. He slid his hands into his pockets, mirroring the way Marcus was standing, and faced me squarely. “You can come see Gus anytime you want.” His eyes skirted to Caden. “If that’s okay with you?”

  Caden nodded his head. “She can go whenever she wants.” His voice sounded raw.

  Colton jerked his head up abruptly, giving a shaky smile. He tapped his brother’s arm. “We should go. I’m kinda keen on hearing you grovel.”

  Marcus groaned, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’re going to put me through the wringer, aren’t you?”

  “Shovel and rake. Get ready to dig deep.”

  Marcus nodded to us. “We’ll see you guys later.”

  “Don’t say anything to Mom, not without me there.”

  “Yeah, yeah.”

  With that, Colton and Marcus headed over to Marcus’ truck. They were gone not long after that, and I let out a soft sigh, my heart breaking. I didn’t understand Colton’s injury, but I understood pain, and he had more than anyone should carry. I knew that much.

  Caden cursed under his breath, then folded me into his side.

  I broke for someone who couldn’t break.

  I was sprawled over Caden’s chest two weeks later, replete after a climax that I’d felt all the way through my tippy toes. I never would’ve considered myself a nympho, but the last couple weeks I’d entered the realm of that possibility. Okay, maybe not. Nymphomaniacs were doing it a few times a day. I wasn’t that bad—or Caden and I weren’t that bad—but who cares. Logistics. I felt I’d entered a new chapter in my life, one where sex was an active component.

  A stupid smile stretched over my face.

  I was completely naked. Normally I’d be self-conscious. Not anymore. I’d begun to adopt Caden’s whole I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, and it was amazing. I’d had my first incident a few days ago when Maggie cornered me in the mail room on campus.

  She was all, “You want Kevin for yourself.”

  And I was like, “Fuck no. I have someone else.”

  But I didn’t elaborate, because there’d been no actual conversation that made Caden and me official. I’d brought it up once, but the conversation never happened again. I was scared to hear what Caden would say, so mum had been the word since then.

  Maggie had spouted out a bunch of other accusations, but I’d tuned her out, not sure where this was coming from.

  Kevin and I still hung out, but it wasn’t as much. Okay, it was hardly anything. I’d seen him twice, but he hadn’t asked for more lessons, and I was preoccupied. The brother/sister bonding could happen some other day. He was usually with some other guys, and he seemed happy. Maybe not having Maggie in his life was part of that.

  “Your breakup to Kevin had nothing to do with me,” I’d told her. “Yell at him.”

  She’d huffed, sucking in a breath, but before she could blast me again, I held my hand out. “I don’t give a fuck. Get away before you piss me off.”

  She smirked. “What are you going to do?”

  “I’ll tell Claudia you vowed to sleep with all her future boyfriends.”

  That worked. She fell silent, and I’d slipped away. Exit to the right.

  I hadn’t seen her since, but I kept a watchful eye out every time I went to my dorm and while I was on campus. She was a slippery bastard. She could attack at any moment, like a hyena with rabies.

  I asked Avery about their friendship, but she said they were done. She and Claudia were still on the fritz as well. I was happy about the first one. Avery deserved better, and that helped lower the chances of Maggie lingering for a dorm-floor ambush, but I wasn’t sure about the latter.

  Claudia shouldn’t have been so pissed. Based on the Girl Code Rules of Etiquette, she messed up. But Claudia was also scary. Still. It would be better if she were on our side and not against us. If Maggie kept pushing me, though; I might have to follow through on my threat, but only with Avery’s permission. No one was a better weapon than Claudia.

  “Hey.” Caden smoothed a hand up my back, returning me to the present. “What are you thinking about? You just tensed up.”

  I groaned, kissing his chest softly, before I rolled over to lay by his side. “Stupid girl stuff.”

  “The Maggie thing?” he asked as I gathered the sheet to cover me, tucking it under my arms,

  I nodded. “Guys are easy. You either punch each other, threaten each other, or just stop hanging out. That’s it. Girl warfare is way harder to tackle.”

  He grinned as he traced my arm and hooked a finger over the sheet, right where it covered my girls. “That’s not true all the time. Guys can be catty too.”

  “Really?”

  He nodded, his eyes darkening. He rolled to his side and moved to kiss under my ear. “Oh yeah. Especially the House. There’s a whole bunch of gossip. Cliques, exiling—all that sort of stuff.”

  His breath tickled me and sent my heart racing once again. I stretched away from him, exposing my neck so he could kiss it. His hand moved to my hip and rested there. I knew what was coming next. He’d guide me to my back, continue to torture me with kisses and caresses that should be illegal, and then when I was begging for him, he’d finally slide inside.

  My eyes closed. Pleasure and lust mingled together, intertwining and sending my body afloat. His mouth slipped down to my throat, then to my breast.

  Hot damn. Caden was a sex weapon. No guy should be this good in bed. It was too dangerous.

  “Dangerous, huh?” He lifted his head.

  I paused. “I was talking out loud, wasn’t I?”

  He laughed, bending down to rest his lips over mine. “You do that quite often.”

  “I do?”

  “I rather like the play by play of how awesome I am.” His mouth brushed mine, sending my heart into somersaults.

  “That’s so embarrassing.”

  “It’s a real ego-booster. I liked being compared to a hot Italian stallion.”

  “Stop.” It was so cringe-worthy. “I can’t take any more.”

  He laughed, his lips pressing mine again before he whispered, “But my absolute favorite was when you said I was the Santa Claus Magic Mike, and I could bring my presents down your chimney all year round.”

  I couldn’t even laugh. “I did not say that.”

 
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