Anti stepbrother, p.4
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.4
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           Tijan

  forever.”

  She turned away. “You bet your ass I can.” Then she disappeared, heading into the party. A second girl went off with her, and I remembered the buddy system they had. Did I have a buddy?

  Avery must’ve read my mind because she said, “You’re with me.”

  One of the other girls added, “She brought you in. She’s in charge of you.”

  I slid a look to Avery. “Sorry.” A feeling of being hazed as a freshman washed over me. Awkward.

  “Just don’t tell anyone who your brother is.”

  “Stepbrother.”

  “Stepbrother.” Avery corrected. “Does it really matter that much?”

  Dave had moved so he was standing behind us, and he leaned forward, sticking his head between us. “Who’s your stepbrother?” He looked from her to me and back again.

  Avery placed a hand on his forehead and pushed him back. “No one to you, and where’s Marcus?”

  I stiffened at the name. Not the Marcus I met…

  Dave frowned. “Why do you want to know where he is? He’s with Maggie.”

  I didn’t think he was referring to the guy’s physical location.

  “You mean Maggie is here?” Avery held a warning in her tone.

  “Uh.” Dave grew still. “I mean, they’re dating. I think he said something about her studying with friends tonight.”

  Avery’s eyebrows snapped together, and she turned to face him directly. I was scared to move. I glanced from the corner of my eye and saw the other girls had had the same response.

  All eyes were glued on Avery.

  Her eyebrow lifted.

  Dave seemed to realize he’d said something stupid. His eyes widened, and his mouth formed a small O, as in Oh, shit. He edged back a step. Then he scratched behind his ear, making it look casual, “Uh…I mean…” He expelled a breath of air. “Fuck.”

  Avery spoke, stiffly, “I’m aware he’s with Maggie. This is his house. I’m assuming he’s here, but I want to avoid him. That’s why I’m asking.”

  Dave bobbed his head up and down. “Got it. You’re right. And he’s out back.”

  “Is Maggie here?”

  He closed his mouth and shook his head.

  “That’s all I need to know.” Avery gave him a grin.

  “Okay. I hope you all have a great evening, and…” He edged back another step, clutching his tray of drinks. “See ya!” He was swallowed by a crowd of people.

  “What was that about?” I asked.

  Avery shrugged, her shoulder jerking up. “He must’ve thought I gave two more shits than I do.” She grabbed my hand in a tight grip, then released it and shook out her hand so it was softer. “Come on. We need to find the dancing and get back to drinking.”

  That’s exactly what we did.

  Avery led the way, weaving in and around so many people. Just like on campus, the ones who recognized her yelled a hello. Some wrapped their arms around her, giving her big drunken hugs, and like before, she returned whatever they sent her way. It took us an extra twenty minutes to find the dancing in the basement.

  We settled in a back corner, and right away a guy pulled Avery out to the dance floor. Watching her go, I leaned closer to one of the others and yelled over the music, “Is it always like that?”

  She nodded. “That’s the deal if you’re friends with Av. She’s liked by everyone.” Her eyes shifted upward and she added, “Well, almost everybody.”

  I wanted to ask more questions. I wanted to know everything, but when she turned and began talking to her buddy, I didn’t get the sense that either of them wanted to give me the rundown. The genogram would have to wait.

  I pulled out my water bottle filled with rum and orange juice and leaned back to enjoy the rest of the night, which was filled with lots of laughing, lots of booze, and lots of dancing. Avery eventually pulled the rest of us out on the floor with her. Shell and Claudia joined us again, and a couple of the girls cozied up with guys. The ones who didn’t were turning offers down.

  Avery leaned close when we were at a table later. “They’ve got boyfriends!” she announced over the music.

  “That makes sense,” I yelled back.

  She frowned slightly. “You have a boyfriend? I didn’t ask before.”

  I shook my head. “Nope. No boyfriend.”

  “What?” Her head bent closer to hear me better.

  I shook mine again. “Nothing. No! I don’t.”

  “Oh.” She gave me a thumbs-up sign. “Me neither. It’s the best! Being single is a lot more fun.”

  Yes, it was, it’s just that I thought I’d have a boyfriend by now. She didn’t know I’d been hoping for one. But it wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t just wanting a boyfriend. I wasn’t that type of girl. I’d dated a couple other guys, but I hadn’t felt for them what I felt for Kevin, or thought I felt. Things were getting cloudy about that, but this was supposed to have been our time.

  “Okay.” Avery stood up from the table. “I’m hot and sweaty, and the slow song is killing my buzz.”

  Shell leaned forward, resting her elbow on the table, and gazed up at Avery with drunken, tired eyelids. “Where’s Marcus?”

  Claudia came off the dance floor and plopped into the chair beside Shell. She grimaced, picking off strands of hair that had been plastered to her cheek and neck with sweat. “What’s going on?” She had a glazed-over look similar to her buddy’s, but she seemed a bit more alert.

  Avery answered, “I’m ready to go outside.”

  “Marcus is out there.”

  No outside. No Marcus. I silently willed the girls to come up with another plan. I should’ve left as soon as I found out whose house this was. This was Marcus’ territory. If he remembered me from the other night, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t want me here.

  I stood up. “You know, I’ve got more dancing in me. They’ll change the song soon, I’m sure.”

  Shell snorted. “Not likely. Once the slow stuff starts, they keep it up. It’s how they get people to leave. The kegs must be empty.”

  “I don’t care what we do except for Marcus,” Avery announced. “Wherever he is, we should not be.”

  I agreed, pumping my head up and down. I so agreed.

  Avery rolled her eyes as her hands found her hips. “But I still want to go outside.” She sent a puff of air out, blowing a strand of hair off her forehead. “Come on, guys. We can do this. I can do this.”

  Shell said, “You’re drunk. It’s not a good look.”

  Avery’s eyebrows shot up, and her head cocked to the side. “Excuse me?”

  “Marcus is still in the backyard. You’re drunk. It’s not going to look good for you. We all know that you speak first and think later when you’re like this.”

  “I can handle Marcus.”

  “No, you can’t.” Claudia joined in. “Not when you’ve been drinking.”

  The more they talked, the more intrigued I became. The more anxious I felt, too. Avery and Marcus? He’d been proclaiming his love for Maggie two nights ago.

  “I told you guys, I can handle this, and I will.” With that, Avery whipped around and shoved through the crowd, heading for the stairs.

  “Fuck.”

  I wasn’t sure who said that, but Shell and Claudia scrambled to their feet and ran after her. Another girl that had been dancing caught the exchange. She tore out of her partner’s arms and grabbed her buddy, pulling her behind. I was the last to go, because I was a little bit more drunk than I realized. I stood, but the dance floor spun with me. I had to wait until the couples righted themselves, and once they did, I headed off too. The girls were long gone by the time I got upstairs.

  I grabbed a guy passing by. “Backyard?” I asked.

  He pointed farther ahead.

  I came to the rear of the house to find Avery and the girls huddled together in a corner outside, their backs to the rest of the yard. They kept glancing over their shoulders toward a bonfire on the other side. A group of people lingered the
re, but I could tell the two everyone was focused on: Marcus and Asshole. Both sat in lawn chairs, their legs sprawled out and beers in hand. At first they looked like they were just relaxing, chilling, not paying attention to anything, but Caden was watching the girls. So was Marcus. He looked a little tense, but Caden… I frowned, studying him a bit more. I didn’t see the annoyance and anger from two nights ago. He actually seemed to be enjoying himself, and when his eyes darted from Avery to his brother, I got the feeling he was enjoying watching his brother squirm.

  That pissed me off for some reason.

  I pushed open the door a little harder than necessary. The thought of Asshole having fun at the expense of his brother didn’t sit right with me. I stepped outside and down the stairs. Joining Avery’s group, I turned squarely to face Caden and his brother. I thought they both saw me, but neither showed a reaction. I mean, I wasn’t sure if they did. It was dark. I was clear across the yard and a bit drunk. I didn’t think so, though, and I was going with that.

  “What are you doing?” Avery hissed at me.

  I stood next to her, but faced the guys while she faced her friends.

  I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m not pretending, that’s what I’m doing.” I was almost glaring.

  “What?” She sent me a horrified look. “Why are you acting like this?”

  I didn’t know, but there had to be a reason… I think.

  Marcus leaned forward. Caden’s amusement was evident, and now he zeroed in on me. Completely. I raised my chin, challenging him.

  He grinned, lifting his beer for a drag from the bottle.

  “Stop, Summer. I don’t want Marcus to come over here.”

  I frowned, breaking whatever kind of stare I had going with Asshole, and looked at her. “What? I thought you did.”

  “No.” But it was too late. Marcus had left his chair.

  Avery groaned, turning around. “Oh, no. He’s coming over here.”

  The other girls drew closer. “What’d you do?” someone asked.

  They weren’t talking to Avery. All were now glaring at me.

  “Oh.” Oops.

  “You here to come clean?”

  The question came from behind us, and I turned to face forward again, but I already knew who it was. Marcus. He was right there, holding his beer in front of him, an almost lazy smirk adorning his face. His eyes kept skirting from me to Avery, but when she stood facing him too, I realized his question had been directed at me.

  I jerked upright. “What?”

  Marcus narrowed his eyes. He skimmed me up and down before lifting his beer again. “My girlfriend. Your brother. I assumed you came here to ’fess up about what you really saw.”

  Sooo uncomfortable. I wanted to squirm. I could feel the attention from Avery and her friends. “Uh, I mean, why would I?”

  He arched an eyebrow. “This is my house. My party. And here you are.” He took another drink. “That is why you’re here, isn’t it?”

  Avery cleared her throat, her arms folding to mirror my stance. “She came with me.”

  Marcus just stared, but his amusement was now evident, just like his brother’s.

  “She lives on my floor,” she added, shifting her feet.

  “The floor where you’re an advisor?”

  “Yes.”

  His eyes fell on her water bottle. “Setting a good example already, huh, Av?”

  She flushed. “Like you have any place to say anything.”

  He indicated me with his beer. “You know who her brother is, don’t you?”

  I corrected, “Stepbrother,” but it didn’t matter.

  Avery rolled her eyes. “Again, like you have any place to say anything.”

  That got a reaction. Marcus had been all easygoing, slightly cocky, but now any trace of humor vanished. A flash of anger sparked in his eyes. “We used to be friends, Av.”

  She snorted. “Right. Because friends screw each other over.”

  His eyes darkened. Smoke could’ve come out of his eye sockets. I was getting heated just watching the two.

  “Okay.” Shell stepped up, a disapproving glint in her eyes. “We’re separating the two of you before a full fight ensues.” She took hold of Avery’s arm. “Marcus, it’s been a lovely party. Thank you for letting us come here, dance our asses off, and get drunk, but it’s time to head out.”

  Marcus said something, but I began to tune them out. Avery was going willingly with Shell. There wouldn’t be a fight.

  My eyes followed Marcus. I didn’t intend to look for Caden. I didn’t even like him. I’d named him Asshole for a reason. But somehow, I’d been aware of him the entire time. He was like a bug, always buzzing at the periphery, nagging at my concentration. I’d half expected him to step in, take over the situation, and pull his brother back like he had at the fraternity house. He’d done none of that. He wasn’t even still sitting in his lawn chair. He now stood with another group of people, like he was part of their conversation, but he wasn’t. The beer bottle was gone, and his arms were crossed over his chest. A girl even put her hand on his arm, but he wasn’t paying attention.

  He was watching me.

  Our eyes caught and held, and I frowned.

  There was no hostility, not like the other night, just a slight flicker of amusement—like he was finding me funny, or the situation funny. I glanced behind me, but there was nothing comical there. Wait—I started to look back at him, but whipped around again.

  There was nothing behind me at all. The girls were gone.

  Shit.

  I had no idea how to get back to the dorm. I started back to the front of the house. The girls weren’t there. They weren’t in the living room, kitchen, or bathrooms. They weren’t upstairs or downstairs. I went back to the backyard for one last futile attempt, and again, nothing.

  Then I felt him.

  He came to stand next to me, his hands in his pockets, and looked over with those eyes that could see through me. “They took off while you were glaring at me.”

  “I wasn’t glaring.” I didn’t think I was, anyway. A headache formed behind my temples. I lifted a hand to rub at my head.

  One side of his mouth curved up. “You were, but that’s fine.” His eyebrow raised. “You need a ride back?”

  I sighed. “We had a buddy system.”

  The other side of his mouth lifted, and the distinct feeling that he was laughing at me washed over me again.

  “Come on.” He gestured toward the street. “I’ve had one beer. I can drive, and I’m heading out anyway. Trust me enough for a ride?”

  I held my breath. He’d been laughing at me earlier, now he was outright making fun of me? I weighed my options. I could call a cab and hope the driver knew where my dorm was, or walk and try to find it myself. A third option was calling Kevin. A part of me wanted to do that, and I reached for my phone. What if he didn’t answer? I let go of my phone. I didn’t want to test that theory.

  My last option stood in front of me.

  I nodded. “After you.”

  Caden/Asshole drove a Land Rover.

  I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that.

  And it was clean. I paused after I opened the door and could only stand there. It was impeccably clean.

  He’d already gotten inside. “Please don’t tell me the leather offends you.”

  “It’s so clean.”

  “Yeah?”

  I had no clue what came over me, but I broke out in a “Ta-daa!” and my arms lifted like heaven’s gate had been thrown open. A full
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