Anti stepbrother, p.5
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.5
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           Tijan

  choir and orchestra played out in my voice. “Behold the gloriousness!” Then I dropped my arms and was met with silence.

  He tilted his head. “How much did you drink?”

  Yeah, maybe it was the booze. Shrugging, I got inside. “Sorry. I’m just surprised,” I explained as he pulled away from the curb. “Kevin’s car is always a mess. The floor of the front seat where my feet are supposed to go is his personal garbage can. He throws everything there. I always have to move a bunch of junk aside so I can get in.”

  “He doesn’t clean it for you?”

  I shrugged again. “He cleans it for his dates.”

  “Not even for his mom?”

  “If they go anywhere together, they take her car. Nope. Just his dates.” I was rambling. I sat on my hands.

  He noticed. “What are you doing?”

  “I do this when I feel like I’m saying stuff I shouldn’t, and I’m only doing that because I’m nervous.” I blinked a few times at him. “You make me nervous. Though that’s better than being enraged.”

  “I enrage you?”

  I nodded, then thought about it, and my head bobbed down as my shoulder jerked up. “You did earlier, but I don’t know why. I think it’s just you. I call you Asshole in my head.”

  “You what?” We stopped at a stoplight, and he looked fully at me. “I didn’t do anything to you.”

  I bristled, remembering the first time we met. I echoed his words from my memory, “‘Something wrong with you?’ That’s not the nicest thing to say to a girl. Especially one that just got her hear—” I clammed up.

  Oh dear God. I’d almost spilled the beans to him.

  “I mean…” I had nothing to cover that up. It really was the booze speaking. I couldn’t even attempt a redirect, so I just sat in humiliating defeat.

  The light turned green, and we started forward again. He threw a sideways glance my way. “You mean that wasn’t a nice thing to say to a girl whose heart was just broken? Did I get that right?”

  “No.” Yes. So much yes.

  He grunted, taking another turn, and I saw the top of my dorm approaching.

  “That’s what I thought,” he said.

  He knew I was lying. He knew a whole lot more than what I’d just lied about. And I couldn’t do anything. Panic rose in me as I imagined how upset Kevin would be. I’d covered for him. He was counting on me, and I just blabbed to the guy who seemed to be one of his enemies, or rivals, or something. Or the brother to one of his rivals/enemies/whatever. Kevin always had those.

  Although, the guys who’d wanted to pummel my stepbrother in the past were usually boyfriends from other schools. Kevin must’ve had some sense of self-preservation because he’d steered clear of the girls with the big boyfriends at our high school. And now that I was thinking about it, he’d always made sure he had friends bigger than he was. There’d been a few close calls, but once his friends had showed up, the fight suddenly dwindled. The guy had backed down, or Kevin got away.

  “Huh.”

  “Huh what?” the asshole asked.

  “What?” I glanced over and saw that he was watching me again.

  Then I saw the rest. We were at my dorm. He’d parked right in front of the main entrance.

  “Never mind. Thank you for the ride.” I grabbed for the seatbelt, but he caught my hand, stalling me.

  “Wait a minute.”

  Good Lord. I gulped. The touch of his hand sent tingles through me. That snake tattoo was right there, so close to me. I pulled away hastily. What was that? But then he was talking, so I tried to focus. All the other sensations and emotions that he’d unleashed should be shoved down. Way down. Way, way down.

  “What?” I asked.

  He shook his head, exasperation showing across his face. He held his hands up, like he was surrendering, and he leaned back in an exaggerated manner. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk about your stepbrother.”

  I flushed. He’d given me a ride back, and he knew I was lying about Kevin. So hearing him out was the least I could do. I sat back, releasing the door handle. “Okay.”

  “Okay?”

  I nodded. “Okay.” My eyes cut to the side as I said, “I know you weren’t going to hurt me.”

  He waited, studying me. I almost flushed again. I wasn’t looking at him anymore, but I could feel his scrutiny. He was acting like I was a feral animal, just waiting for the right opening to scurry away. I wasn’t. I had some decency, even though I was acting like an idiot. But that was him. He made me act like a nervous, rabid bat. I wasn’t like this with other people. I was normal, sane. Fuck, I was almost boring.

  Not with Asshole Caden, who I was starting to think maybe wasn’t that much of an asshole. He wasn’t acting like one anymore, and maybe he hadn’t been when I’d first labeled him as such. I had been acting weird, and he’d really only just asked me if something was wrong.

  If a girl asked me that question, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But it had been him, and that question coming from a male someone who was obviously strong, muscular, gorgeous, and self-assured—holy shit, Asshole Caden was confident with an extra layer of authority too. It rolled off him in waves, very sexy and alluring waves, and I couldn’t believe I was having these thoughts.

  My gaze jerked to his. “What were you going to say?” A traitorous blush warmed its way up my neck. I prayed it didn’t spread over my face.

  He gentled his tone. “Why are you covering for your stepbrother?”

  “You mean for your fraternity brother?”

  He didn’t reply, only clenched his jaw.

  “I can’t say anything.” I can’t say what you want me to say. “Call it family loyalty?”

  “So you are covering for him?”

  I held my breath. “What?”

  He leaned forward a tiny bit. “Was he with Maggie?”

  He was testing me. He didn’t know for sure. Realizing that, I kept my mouth shut. I would not incriminate myself.

  I started to open the door again. “Uh, thanks for the ride. That was nice of you.”

  “Wait.”

  I opened the door enough to clamber down. I shut it and had to walk around the front to go into my dorm.

  He opened his window and called out, “He’s not worth it.”

  I was close to ten feet away from him, but I stopped and looked back.

  His eyes bore into mine. “Whatever reasons you have for being loyal to him, he doesn’t share the sentiment.” There were no doubts. No questions. Nothing in Caden’s statement besides dead-set resolve.

  The wind picked up, sending shivers through me. “What are you talking about?”

  He put the Land Rover into drive. “He wouldn’t have your back. Guys like him never do.”

  Claudia was coming out of Avery’s room when I got upstairs.

  Her eyes skimmed over me. “You’re back.”

  She didn’t smile. I took note of that. I didn’t smile either. “Yeah.”

  “Listen,” she said as she started toward me, sliding her hands into her back pockets. “Avery was your buddy, and, well, she was upset. She and Marcus dated last year. They broke up, and two months later he was with Maggie.” Her disdain came through loud and clear when she added, “I don’t understand why Avery won’t stop saying she’s Maggie’s friend. The girl’s a bitch.”

  I frowned. What was I supposed to do with that? “I feel bad for Avery, but I was told you guys don’t leave your friends behind. You left me behind.”

  She stared at me.

  I stared back.

  She should’ve had some reaction, but there was none. I guess that told me everything. She wasn’t going to apologize, and I wasn’t her friend. I nodded to myself.

  “Okay then.”

  She shrugged. “It wasn’t personal.”

  We were at an impasse, and I had two options. I could ignore her and pretend it was fine, or not.

  I sighed. “But it was, you see.” I was going with option
B.

  “What?”

  “It was personal.” My hand touched my chest. “To me. You left me.”

  “Look, Avery will apologize to you tomorrow. We got her back, and she’s sleeping now, but if you’re the type to need that sort of thing, you’ll get it tomorrow.”

  Her eyes moved past me. She straightened up like she was going to leave, but I had a bee up my ass.

  I stepped to the side, as if to block her. Her eyes found mine again, and her pathetic half-grin fell flat. “What?”

  I was about to start a confrontation with an upperclassmen. I didn’t really know her. I didn’t really know my RA, but something was going on with me. I suddenly wasn’t willing to let anyone roll over me. I braced myself for whatever was going to happen and forged ahead.

  “Look,” I said. “Avery might apologize to me tomorrow, but you’re the first one I’m seeing from the group. I have a hard time imagining that you guys completely forgot me. I don’t think it was a mistake leaving me behind.”

  Her eyes narrowed.

  I kept going. “So yes, I’ll probably get an apology from Avery tomorrow, but you don’t seem sorry. That makes me wonder if you have a problem with me.”

  What had gotten into me? I was more wallflower than confrontational, or at least I used to be.

  She folded her arms. “How did you get back?”

  That was it? Nothing? I cocked my head to the side. “I got a ride.”

  Her left eyebrow lifted. “Someone gave you a ride home?”

  I nodded. “Not everyone forgot me.”

  She snorted, rolling her eyes. “Who gave you a ride?”

  “Marcus’ brother.”

  Her eyes widened. “Caden?”

  He might’ve been an asshole to me, or maybe not—my head was all muddled about that now—but I enjoyed seeing the surprise from Claudia. “Yeah.”

  “Are you sure?” She gave me a dismissing look. “I’m not trying to be mean, but Caden’s a big guy around here. He’s not known for dealing with girls like you.”

  I hated asking, but the question burned in the back of my mouth. “Girls like me?”

  “Yeah.” She smirked. “Nobodies like you. Freshman and forgettable.”

  My lips were stiff. “Is he a senior?”

  “Junior, but it doesn’t matter. He’s known, if you know what I mean. I have a hard time believing he just gave you a ride here. What’d you do? Blow him?”

  “Why? Is that what you do to get rides?” I stepped closer. “Is that what you’re implying?”

  “Maybe I was implying that that’s the only way someone like Caden would pay any attention to someone like you.”

  God. She really was a bitch. “I thought you guys were nice.” I shook my head. “That’s the joke here. Not me.” I patted myself on the chest again. “Me looking up to you, thinking how cool you guys were, that’s the joke. I liked Avery.”

  Claudia wasn’t the only one who could be cold. I iced my tone, letting her hear my disdain too. “Too bad about that. Too bad about you.”

  She’d looked bored while I was talking, but now she perked up. “Wait a minute. Kevin is Caden’s fraternity brother.”

  So now it was because of my stepbrother.

  I reached for the wall. I needed it to ground me because I was about to launch at her, consequences be damned. “What does Kevin have to do with it?”

  “Caden was being nice to you because of Kevin. That’s why you got a ride home, not because he’s interested in you or anything.” She looked me up and down again. “Can you really question why I was confused?” She laughed, moving past me down the hall. “Give Avery hell tomorrow. She’ll be groveling, because unlike me, she likes you for some stupid reason. Have fun!”

  She left me alone in an empty hallway, with an empty feeling inside me.

  I was back to square one of no friends. Lovely.

  Claudia was right about one thing. Avery did apologize the next morning. She did it with bags under her eyes, oversized sweats on her body, messy hair, and a slight green tinge to her skin. She had a water bottle in her hand.

  She was hungover.

  I didn’t say anything about my encounter with Claudia. It wasn’t Avery’s fault her friend was a bitch, but when she invited me to dinner the next night with the same group of friends, I declined. She asked me to lunch the day after, and I had the same response. She wore a puzzled frown after that, but I didn’t think she was going to invite me anywhere else. I hoped it wouldn’t matter. My roommate would move in soon.

  The next day was finally the official move-in day for freshmen, but even while the hallway was busy with people bringing in stuff and unpacking in their rooms, I sat alone in mine. That night I found out the reason.

  Avery knocked on my door to let me know she was holding a floor meeting in a few minutes, and that I wasn’t getting a roommate.

  “Why? What happened?”

  She held a clipboard to her chest. “I got a phone call this morning, but I haven’t had the time to let you know. There was a death in the family, so she’s coming next semester. She’s starting late.”

  “Oh.” I glanced over my shoulder to my room. It was all cozy, but just with my stuff. There was still an empty bed, an empty desk, an empty dresser, and an empty closet.

  “Don’t get comfortable. They might move someone else in, or you’ll get lucky and have your own room for the semester.”

  “When will I know?”

  She lifted a shoulder. “People transfer in late all the time, or someone could ask for a room transfer. If you move your stuff around, just be prepared that you might have to move it back.”

  “Okay.”

  She smiled now, resuming the professional advisor demeanor she’d worn when she’d first met me and my parents. The Avery that had invited me to the party faded.

  “I’ll see you at the meeting then?” She checked her phone. “You have two hours. The campus ice cream shop is open tonight just for incoming freshman, so I was going to invite everyone over there. It’ll be a great way to meet new people.”

  During the meeting, Avery told me and my freshman floormates the rules as we shared similar nervous looks with each other. When she finished, she gave us a half hour to change or freshen up, or whatever we needed, before we were supposed to meet back in the hallway to go for ice cream.

  I went back to my room, still alone, and puttered around for a few minutes. I was heading back out the door when my phone buzzed. I glanced down and saw a text from Kevin.

  It was only three words. Can we talk? But those three words had my heart racing. My hand closed around the phone, and I couldn’t move for a second.

  I knew my feelings weren’t going to magically disappear, but this was ridiculous.

  A rush of memories flooded me. How he’d leaned in close, a hand on my shoulder as his lips grazed mine. Heat had spread through my body. I could feel his lips again now. His hand on my shoulder, pressing lightly there before sliding down my arm and curving around my waist. My chest had pressed to his as his mouth opened over mine, demanding more. I gave it to him. Lifting my arms to twine around his neck, my heart had stampeded against my chest. I would’ve given him anything.

  I did give him anything. I gave him me that night.

 
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