Anti stepbrother, p.34
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.34
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           Tijan

  “Is that really a friendship card?”

  She laughed, brandishing the card in the air. “You’re damned straight. It’s a credit card, the best friend a card could be.”

  “We should actually make a friendship card.”

  “A friend card.” Her smile deepened. “I like it. Let’s do it.” She pointed at me. “Thirty minutes. You can get dressed in two, so I know you can manage.”

  I managed. But when we got there, the restaurant was bustling, with people spilling out to the patio in front. I wasn’t even going to pretend we could get in right away. I plopped down on one of the benches.

  Avery paused, but I waved her on. “This was your idea. I’m not dealing with that crowd in there.”

  She snorted, rolling her eyes. “Nice to see your spunk is coming back.”

  I leaned back on the bench. My spunk was always there. It was a part of me. No way would my spunk leave me. I noticed an older lady looking at me. I glanced down. Oh. My legs weren’t crossed. Feeling some of that spunk, I spread them even wider. Take that, old judgmental prude.

  She wrinkled her nose and lifted it in the air. Literally.

  I was tempted to scratch my balls.

  “Summer?” Colton was sitting on the bench next to me.

  “Hey.” I sat up. “What are you doing here?”

  Was Caden here too? I started to look—

  “He’s not here.” He made a sad attempt at a smile. His eyes were dead, and he looked like he’d lost weight. “Sorry.”

  “No.” I shook my head. What should I say here? I gestured to the empty spot next to him. “Can I, uh, can I scoot over there?”

  He patted the space next to him. “Have at it. I’m hiding from my folks.”

  “Your parents are here?” I sat.

  He nodded, slumping back the way I’d been earlier. “Our dad came home last night from Beijing, and I believe divorce papers showed up this morning. They had a hellava row last night.”

  I winced. “I’m sorry, Colton.”

  He lifted a shoulder. “This will get blamed on me, I’m sure.” He gave me a crooked side-grin. “Turns out brain injuries are hard to live with.” He paused. “Or even just be around. People don’t like when they’re lives are upended by something they can’t see.”

  Caden had said something similar once before. I remembered his anger and sadness, and seeing the utter defeat in his brother, I covered his hand with mine. “I’m sorry, Colton.”

  He patted my hand. “I’m not that torn up about it. It is what it is.”

  I didn’t believe him. “Does Caden know you guys are here?”

  He shook his head. “He and Marcus don’t even know Pops came home last night. I know Caden’s always there, but he doesn’t need to deal with everything. If I told him, he’d come here and rip into our parents, telling them to suck it up and act like adults. Marcus would just, he’d probably hide with me. We tend to leave the heavy lifting to Caden. It’s not always fair to him.”

  I knew Caden wouldn’t want Colton to deal with this. And he’d be pissed if he found out I knew and didn’t tell him. I sighed. “I have to call him, Colton.”

  He looked at me, ready to protest.

  I stood, clutching my phone, and backed away. “I’m sorry. I have to. If you want to escape, my friend and I will take you.”

  Avery came up at that moment, overhearing the last of what I said. She looked at Colton, her eyebrows pinched together. “What’s going on?”

  “It’s your choice,” I said to Colton. “We can be your getaway car.” I gave him two thumbs up. “Two hot chicks. How about it?”

  “Thanks, Summer, but I’ll stick around. If there’s going to be fireworks, I should be here for them.”

  “Okay.” I waved my phone in the air. “I’ll be back.”

  “But…” Avery watched me slip farther away, confusion evident on her face. “What’s going on?” She looked back at Colton, stepping closer as I moved out of earshot and eyesight, wading around a large group waiting to be seated.

  Cue the nerves.

  My hand shook as I dialed Caden’s number. He’d called that one night, but since then we hadn’t talked. My heart was trying to leap out of my chest.

  “Summer?”

  My shoulders sagged in relief. I clutched the phone even tighter. “Hey.”

  “Hey. Are you okay?”

  I cleared my throat. “Avery and I are at Carabera’s and Colton’s here. I thought you should know.”

  “Colton?” His voice was suddenly alert. “What’s going on?”

  “Your parents are here. He said they’re getting a divorce.”

  “And they’re hashing it out at a restaurant?” He cursed. “I’m on my way. Thank you for calling.”

  “You should know that I offered to be Colton’s getaway if he wanted to leave,” I said quickly before he hung up.

  Caden was silent a moment. “Did he take you up on that?”

  “No. He wants to be here to watch the fireworks.”

  He grunted. “Damn straight there’s going to be fireworks. Thank you, Summer. Are you going to stick around? I mean, can you?” His voice dropped low. “I think I’m done waiting. I don’t think I can hold off any longer.”

  I almost squeaked. My hand was so sweaty now. The phone almost slipped. “Uh…” My heart was pounding. “Yeah. I’ll be here.”

  “Thank you.” His voice softened.

  God. To hear that tenderness from him… I remembered the last time we were together. How he’d held me, touched me, gently kissed me. I gulped. I wanted that again, so much.

  “I care about him too,” I whispered.

  “I know.” Then he hung up, and I couldn’t move for a moment.

  Caden was coming.

  Here.

  Where I was.

  Where his family was.

  And he’d asked me to stay too. He was done waiting.

  “That’s Marcus’ brother?” Avery appeared next to me, pointing back toward Colton.

  I nodded. I couldn’t talk at that moment.

  “Holy crap. Marcus told me he was a twin, but I’ve never met him. You have?” I could hear the envy in her voice. “He looks just like Marcus, only thinner.”

  I nodded. But he wasn’t just like Marcus. There were differences, ones she couldn’t see on the outside. I’d forgotten about that problem.

  Avery didn’t know about Colton’s brain injury.

  I had to do damage control. “Uh, maybe you should go.”

  “What? Why?”

  “Um…because Caden is coming, and I think this is a family thing now.”

  “Caden’s coming?” Her eyebrows arched. She grasped my arm. “Do you want to leave before he gets here?”

  “He asked me to stay.”

  “Oh.” She let go and moved back a step. “So you’re just trying to get rid of me?”

  Why hadn’t I thought of a great lie? I would suck being a spy.

  “No, no. It’s not that. I’m not going to be a part of the family thing either. I’m just staying here because Caden asked me to.”

  “I can stay with you then.” She looked me up and down. “You look like you’re going to pass out.”

  I wavered on my feet, but no. I shook my head. “I’ll be fine.”

  “You really don’t look good.”

  I wanted to growl. How dare she point out the truth? “I’ll be fine. Caden asked me to stay.”

  She had to understand how important that was, how I’d been waiting so long to hear words like that from him. He was done waiting.

  “I’m not going anywhere,” I told her.

  I’d take root on one of those benches if need be.

  She sighed. “Okay. Are you sure I should leave?”

  I nodded. “Caden will give me a ride home.”

  She grinned. “You thought that through, huh?”

  “I’m not a complete nincompoop.”

  “Score one for using the word nincompoop in a conversation.


  “Thanks. It’s the largest word I’ve used in a while.”

  She laughed, raking a hand through her hair. “Okay. I’ll leave you to it, but promise me you’ll tell Caden you’re not feeling the best. And maybe try to eat something. That’s why we came here, remember?”

  “Oh fooey. I’ll be good.”

  Her concerned eyes skimmed over me again. “Maybe I should mention it to Colton.”

  “No.” I grabbed her before she could go. “He has enough to deal with. He doesn’t need to worry about me too.”

  “Okay…”

  It was obvious she didn’t mean it. I gently pushed her toward her car. “I’ll be fine. I promise. I really will get some food in me. They offer bread to the people waiting. I’ll just grab some of that.”

  “Okay, okay. I’m going.” But she kept glancing back as she made her way to the car. I was sure Marcus would be calling in the next five minutes.

  And when my phone lit up before I had even moved around two large groups, I congratulated myself on being psychic.

  I sighed, answering as I made my way back to Colton. I rounded a third group. The waiting list seemed to have doubled in the last ten minutes. “Summer Stoltz’s Fan Club Line. How may we help you?”

  “Cut the bullshit, you’re not funny.”

  “Au contraire, mis compadre. I’m a walking laughing stick.”

  He groaned. “I don’t have time for this. Av just called me and said Colton’s at some restaurant with you.”

  “He is, and I already called Caden. You can get the deets from him.”

  “He won’t answer my call. Is Colton okay?”

  “Did you try calling your twin?”

  I sat next to Colton as I asked that question, and he looked over, hearing it.

  He checked his phone, and shook his head.

  “Forget it. Call him if you want answers.” I hung up, hearing a roar from Marcus.

  Two seconds later, Colton’s phone was blowing up. He pressed the ignore button, looking pleased with himself. “He’ll have to come here to find out what’s going on.”

  “Did he and Caden have a talk with your mom about accepting your brain injury?”

  He nodded, frowning. “Yeah. It didn’t go well.”

  “So she’s still denying?”

  “Yeah. So’s our dad.”

  I scratched behind my ear. “I have to ask, why are they talking in a restaurant if they’re actually getting a divorce?”

  “They booked a private room here, and they can only talk about stuff out in public. People just end up leaving the room at home or throwing and breaking things. Mom and Dad both have horrible tempers.”

  “Gotcha.”

  “Colton.”

  Caden was here.

  Holy mother of my ovaries. My mouth was already watering. He looked delectable in low-riding jeans, a white shirt, and his leather jacket over the top. He’d lost weight. I hadn’t been the only one. Marcus had told me, but seeing it was another thing. He had on a cap. It didn’t hide his features like a baseball cap did, but it gave him a serious no-nonsense vibe. I almost asked him if it was a serial killer stocking cap, if he could pull it down and do some damage, but I bit the words back. He didn’t look to be in the joking mood.

  It was also my nervous rambling habit talking—or trying to.

  A whole host of nerves blasted me as he stepped closer, his eyes lingering on me before moving to Colton.

  “You should’ve called me,” he told his brother.

  “Why? They’re going to get a divorce anyway.”

  “You don’t need to be here for that.”

  Colton stood and placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Hate to break it to you, Caden, but you can’t protect me from everything. Mom and Dad might be pains in my ass sometimes, but they’re still my parents. They’re stupid when it comes to my disability, but they still love me.” He added, “In their way.”

  “They’re in the private room here?”

  Colton nodded.

  Caden looked at me. “You’ll stay?”

  I’d stay forever. “Yeah.”

  “Okay.” He turned to Colton. “You want to come in for this or stay out here?”

  “I’ll stay out here.” He gestured back to his seat beside me. “Marcus is coming, too. He won’t know what to do without a greeting chorus.”

  One corner of Caden’s mouth lifted, but the half-grin didn’t reach his eyes. He looked serious, and a tingle went through me—he looked dangerous too. I pitied his parents.

  “I’ll be back,” he said.

  Once he was gone, I turned to Colton. “And down to two.”

  He laughed, leaning back in his seat. “He’s really only going in there to yell at them for being selfish. That’s all he’s doing. He can’t stop the divorce. I don’t even think anyone wants to stop the divorce. It’s been coming since I got hit.”

  I covered his hand with mine. There were no words.

  He patted my fingers. “I’d turn my hand around, but I don’t think Caden would like that. Speaking of, what’s the issue with you guys? He said you needed time, but it doesn’t seem like you’re the one who wanted time away.”

  I pulled my hand back and clasped my fingers together, pressing them down in my lap. “That was part of the problem. I wasn’t dealing with something.”

  “Have you now?”

  Had I? I thought about my mom every morning when I woke up. I could smell her perfume. I felt her fingers when she’d tucked my hair behind my ears. I could hear her whispering, “I love you, my little Summer.” I’d heard, felt, smelled, and thought about my mom nearly constantly over the last two months. Every time that hole hurt, but it was getting smaller and I didn’t always feel like I had to shove it down anymore.

  “Yes.” I hadn’t realized it myself until then, but the answer was yes. I hadn’t lost my mom. She was still with me. She wasn’t ever going to leave me.

  “Good. Not that I don’t love having him around, but he’s been at the house almost every night. You know it’s bad when he’s choosing to spend that much time with me and not staying at the fraternity, or with you, who he really wants to see.”

  “You make it sound like he doesn’t want to hang out with his brother. I know that’s not true.”

  He patted my hand again before pulling away. “I’m not throwing my brother under the bus, but no one wants to spend time with a brain-injured person. Trust me. You’ve seen me on some good days. For a while I can put up a good front. Wait one more hour and you’ll see the real Colton. I’m not a picnic anymore.”

  My throat swelled. “Don’t talk like that.”

  “It’s true.” He tried to smile. He failed. “We’re like walking zombies that don’t want to eat people. It wears on a normal person. Caden will never admit it, but I know it’s hard on him to see me like this.”

 
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