Fallen crest forever, p.4
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       Fallen Crest Forever, p.4
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         Part #7 of Fallen Crest High series by Tijan

  don’t know what’s going on with me. A few months ago, I would’ve been exhilarated that you wanted to run with me in the morning. But this summer . . .”

  Things had started to change this summer. I’d started to change.

  “What?” he asked.

  I bit my lip. I didn’t want him to run with me. It punched me hard in the chest. Even I wasn’t ready for that one, but as soon as I realized it, I knew it wasn’t the real issue here. I wanted space, that was the issue, but it wasn’t. It was all confusing in my head. I didn’t want to say what the real issue was, but I had to. Mason deserved the truth. He deserved that respect.

  “Things changed when everyone started getting married.”

  His eyebrows lifted, but he didn’t say anything.

  I started to walk again. Mason stayed right next to me. I held my phone and earbuds in one hand, while the other clenched and unclenched. I didn’t know what to do with it as I spoke.

  “It didn’t bother me when David and Malinda got married,” I told him. “That wasn’t in the cards for us—not yet anyway—but then I started thinking about Analise and James getting married. I had begun stressing when we went home for the summer, and I thought it was just because of my mom being there. But then one night I made a joke to Heather about her and Channing getting married, and she said Channing wanted to. That shocked me.” I stopped walking.

  Mason was still right with me. He was listening.

  “It threw me because then I realized that could be you and me. I think it’s early, but I know a lot of people get engaged their last year of college or right after. And that’s where you are, so when I started thinking about that, all this shit came up inside of me. It was all about Analise, about how she and David were, about the stories you’ve told me about your dad.”

  My eyes found his. “And some of it’s about hearing how angry you were at your dad,” I said softly. “You still are angry. I know it’s not as much, but it’s there. He’ll never be a normal dad to you. That relationship will never happen, and the same for Analise and me. She let me go, for real, and I like it. There’s no weight or pressure from her anymore, but I’m sad too. I have a choice now, and I have to say goodbye to the kind of relationship I should’ve had with my mother. Does that make sense?”

  He nodded. “And all that’s connected to us getting married?”

  “Because it’s what I know. It’s what I grew up in.”

  He touched my arm and rubbed back and forth with his thumb, soothing me. “You know Malinda and David. They’re a good example of what we didn’t know.”

  “I know.” I’d tried telling myself that. Malinda and David were good. Analise and James were not. “Our parents might beat the odds and make something good with each other, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. The jaded part of me knows Analise is going to start cheating in two years. And David and Malinda . . .” I pressed a hand to my forehead. The pressure was mounting there too. “Who knows? They’re still early, but I hope they remain good.”

  “Sam.” Mason’s hand slid down my arm to catch my hand. “Do you want me to take it back? Do you want me to wait a couple years? Because I can do that.”

  Did I? I wasn’t caught off-guard here, but I took a moment to really ask myself that question.

  I liked being engaged.

  But I was scared too.

  I shook my head, squeezing his hand. “I’m not asking you to take it back. I’m asking you to be patient with me. I’m afraid of marriage, and I don’t want to ever feel like that about anything that’s connected to you.”

  He stepped closer, his forehead resting on mine. “You sure?” He grazed my bare finger, where the ring should’ve been. “I have something to put on here, you know.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “I was waiting to surprise you at a better time. But I can wait and ask you all over again later. I have no problem waiting.”

  Warmth flooded me.

  I felt myself grinning back at him, matching his smile. Some of the pressure lessened.

  “I don’t want you to take back the question, but maybe you could still ask again when you give me the ring?”

  He was trying to read me, watching intently. “You’re sure?”

  I didn’t have a clear-cut answer. But I liked knowing we were engaged, and I liked knowing that others didn’t know. I also liked knowing he was going to be patient with me, and that he was going to ask again at some point. He wasn’t taking it back. It was more a “making sure” sort of thing. That was all.

  I shook my head, rolling my eyes. “I’m messed up.”

  “No. Your mother is messed up. You just got affected by some of it. It makes sense.”

  “You’re not mad?”

  He shook his head. “Never.”

  I expelled a deep breath, feeling tears behind my eyes. “Thank you, Mason.”

  His lips rested over mine, so softly, so tenderly, and he whispered right before he sealed our mouths together. “You never have to thank me. That’s part of loving someone.”

  I kissed him, standing on my tiptoes. He wrapped his arms around my waist and lifted me as the kiss deepened.

  Mason had proposed, and I didn’t want to hurt him, but I wasn’t being honest with myself either. Being nervous about marriage wasn’t going to go away. I couldn’t force it away. It was a part of me. I learned the bad shit as a child, and I couldn’t mess up a life with the man I loved. I loved him more than myself. He was better than both our parents put together, and what we had was the best thing I would ever be a part of.

  I never wanted to lose it.

  But I couldn’t let it be contaminated either.

  We pulled apart, and I vowed to deal with my insecurities.

  “You ready to run now?” He smiled down at me.

  The need to go was back, and I nodded. “I’m going to go fast today. Think you can keep up?”

  Mason barked out a laugh, taking off at a light jog. “Pretty sure I can handle myself.”

  I laughed, softly punching him in the arm as I caught up to jog with him. He might be some well-toned and trained athlete for the pros, but I was Samantha Fucking Stratton. I could outrun anyone and, nine miles later, I pulled into the lead.

  An hour and a half after that, Mason started back for the house, but I had a few more miles in me. They were itching to get out, so I veered down a new running path and amped up my music.

  A river wound around Cain, and a part of it wasn’t far from the house. I’d been eyeing the path alongside it since last spring. Now that Mason and I were on sure footing again, nothing could weigh me down. I picked up my pace, swung my arms a little wider, and was almost sprinting within half a mile.

  This run felt different. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was just different, and I couldn’t put my finger on why.

  Then, after two miles, it hit me.

  I braked suddenly.

  Nothing was wrong. That was what was different. I hadn’t felt like this since . . . ever.

  I’d lost everything I had four years ago—a family, two best friends, a boyfriend. After one weekend, I lost all of them.

  I barely survived the first year, but formed a different family with Mason and Logan.

  Then I got David back.

  I got a loyal friend.

  I got a new stepmother.

  I started an actual relationship with my real dad.

  And the last thing: Analise finally set me free.

  The last two things that had been bothering me were the future of Mason’s football career and my concerns with marriage, but both seemed under control now. I’d gotten everything back that had been taken from me: a family, a soul mate, a loyal friend—and now Mason had offered me a future.

  But even as I recounted all these good things, something that wasn’t quite right rose to the surface.

  I’d been so focused on keeping my new family, on never losing Mason and Logan, that these last four years had passed by without me doing something else important
: finding myself.

  I still didn’t know my major, and I still didn’t know who Samantha Strattan was—not completely.

  I turned and began walking back to the house. After a few hours, I found a curb and called Mason.

  He was showering, but Logan answered his phone and agreed to come. It wasn’t long before the yellow Escalade pulled up in front of me, and when we got back home, Mason was dressed in comfortable sweats. He lounged at his desk, looking delectably refreshed.

  Those old knots were back in my stomach.

  Mason looked up, a smile gracing his features right away. “Hey. How was the rest of the run?”

  I stepped inside our room and shut the door.

  His smile faded. “I thought we were good when I started back. What’s wrong?”

  “Me.”

  His smile vanished completely. He sat up straight in his chair, rolling it back to face me. “What are you talking about?”

  “When Analise and I moved in with you guys, I lost everything. And over the last four years, you guys became everything to me. I’ve only been focused on not losing you or Logan.”

  I sat at the edge of our bed, folding my hands on my lap. “I haven’t really done my own thing. It was always about you guys. I took a job at Manny’s to occupy my time when I wasn’t with you two. I moved into a dorm, and I was going to find my own friends, but it became about you guys again. I got my roommate because of you. Then this last summer, I took that job at a freaking carnival because I had no idea what I was doing. Logan was gone, you were working, and I went along with Mark because that’s what I’ve been doing the last four years. I’ve been just going along with things.”

  My throat hurt, and my lungs were constricting.

  “Sam.” Mason leaned forward. His voice was soft.

  I closed my eyes for a beat. It was that voice I loved so much, and he was going to say what he always said. That’d be okay. That everything would be fine. That he would be there for me. This was part of why I loved him so much, because his love for me was pure.

  I shook my head. “Don’t say whatever you’re going to say.”

  He frowned. “What do you want to do then?”

  “I don’t know, but I think this is another reason why I’m scared of marriage. I don’t know me anymore. I’m a junior, and I should know what I want to do. I should have a major declared by now.”

  “Sam.” He scooted his chair closer. “Logan just realized that himself. I think it’s kind of normal. I only knew what I wanted to do because I’ve known since junior high it was business or football. I’ve always loved taking pieces of shit down on the field.” His mouth twisted up in a rakish grin. “Or I’d be my own boss. No way is someone else going to give me orders. I’ve got some authority issues, just like Logan. I just show them in a different way.”

  I nodded. “I know, and I know Logan just figured out what he wants to do, but I still have no clue. How can I commit to a future if I don’t know who I want to be in the future?”

  “We talked about this. It’s okay. We’ll take our time. We don’t have to do anything right now. Shit. We technically still have a month left of summer, too.”

  He made sense. I tried to tell myself that, but I didn’t like this feeling. Now that I’d realized what was wrong, I wanted to fix it. I didn’t want to be lost anymore.

  “Sam.” Mason scooted even closer, his knees touching mine now. He took my hand in his. “You can take all the time you want. I’m not going anywhere. Logan isn’t either. You’re not going to lose us, no matter what you do.”

  I laced our fingers together.

  “I don’t like not knowing myself,” I admitted.

  He squeezed my hand. “Then get to know yourself.”

  I laughed. “It’s so simple to you. You’ve always known.”

  He shrugged. “You will too. It’s just coming at a different pace.”

  “Thanks, Mason.”

  His eyes darkened and, then I was on his lap. His hands found my waist, and leaning back in his chair, he held me anchored over him.

  “You never have to thank me, but if you really feel obligated . . .” He winked, and his teasing intention was clear as his hand slid under my shirt, and he sat up to find my lips.

  We moved to the bed after a moment, and all talk ceased.

  “Where exactly did you lose yourself? Maybe we could retrace our steps. You could find yourself where you last saw yourself?”

  “Har har.” I rolled my eyes.

  Logan was walking me to the career center on campus. It was Monday morning, which would normally make the quad filled with students, except we were a month early. The only students around were those who’d stayed to take summer classes, or athletes, like Mason, who were starting their practices already.

  I looked over the lush green lawns and sidewalks crisscrossing the quad. It was peaceful and eerie all at the same time.

  “I’m going to talk to someone and probably take a test, because I have no idea what I want to do with my future.”

  He grinned, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Let me help you with that. I’m Logan Kade.” He pointed to himself, then to me. “You’re Samantha Strattan. You’ve been boning my brother for almost four years.”

  He held his hand out, and I ignored it. “Har har. So funny.”

  “I amuse myself.”

  “You make jokes, but you know what I mean. I was picking up trash at the local carnival this summer. If that isn’t a cry for help, I don’t know what is.”

  “Don’t knock the carnies. They have deep pockets we may need someday.”

  And I really ignored that one. I could see the career center ahead on our right and picked up speed.

  “I know you could’ve spent all day with Taylor,” I told him. “So I appreciate you coming with me.”

  He shrugged. “Your guy’s in football all day. My woman’s hanging out with her posse. Seemed fitting that you and I spend the day together.”

  I reached for the door, but he grabbed it, holding it open for me.

  “I’ll admit, I didn’t envision the career center when you asked if I’d go to campus with you. I thought we’d hit up the cafeteria—sneak in and get free food or something.”

  “We can do that later.”

  We were crossing through the lobby when I heard my name being called.

  I looked up to find one of my track coaches coming down the stairs.

  “Coach Carillo. Hey.”

  In his mid-forties, with dark black hair and a few specks of gray, he was dressed completely in Cain University apparel. A whistle hung from his neck.

  He eyed Logan as he held out his hand. “Logan Kade, right?”

  “Yes, sir.” Logan shook his hand. “We’ve met once or twice over the years at Sam’s meets.”

  “Mason Kade’s brother.”

  “Right again.”

  He nodded, a look of approval on his face. His turned back to me and narrowed his eyes slightly. “What are you doing here?”

  “I was going to see a career counselor.”

  “No, I mean, what are you doing in this building?” He pushed back his sleeve and looked at his watch. “Cross-country is starting today. Why aren’t you there?”

  “Oh.”

  I never joined the cross-country team because of the time commitment it would require. It was a fall sport, just like football, and finding time to spend with Mason was already challenging enough when he was playing. It’d be almost impossible if I joined a sports team with a season at the same time. Besides, track had been my forte since freshman year.

  “I never joined,” I confessed.

  “What?” His eyes bulged, and he crossed his arms over his clipboard. “Are you kidding me? Why wouldn’t you join? Your running times are amazing. You’d be one of the best on the team.”

  “I . . .”

 
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