Anti stepbrother, p.7
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.7
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           Tijan

  I’d wanted to go with them.

  I didn’t want to watch The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles on my weekends like my floormates and a lot of my freshman classmates seemed to. I didn’t want to order pizza—at least not on a Friday or Saturday night. Maybe during Saturday, when I was hungover after I’d been living it up. That’s what I wanted, but Claudia had stopped me from reaching out.

  I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t do anything because of her. Bitch. I’d be stupid to try to enter her world of friends again, not when I was a lowly freshman. So I’d watched them go.

  Avery settled in next to me in the grass now, her books ignored at her side. She had a determined look in her eye.

  “Claudia,” she said.

  “What about her?”

  “She has this disorder.”

  “Really?”

  “It’s called Bitchitis.” Avery’s shoulder lifted up and down in a breath. “She was a bitch to you after we went out that time, wasn’t she?”

  She didn’t wait for my response.

  “I saw how you looked at her in the hallway this weekend, and I cornered her later. I made her tell me what happened. She didn’t explain everything. I’m sure of that, but it was enough. I can read between the lines. I’m really sorry, Summer.”

  “Oh.” I had no clue what to say now.

  “I’m not making excuses for her, and she will apologize to you too, but some of her attitude was to protect Shell. She thinks if you’re around, Kevin will be around. She doesn’t want that.”

  I sat back. “Well, after that ringing endorsement…” I laughed, looking away. The sound was hollow. “I mean, wow.”

  “You should know something else, but you can’t tell because the other girls don’t know.”

  I regarded her again. “What?”

  “She dated your stepbrother. She was two girls before Maggie.”

  “Wait. Shell dated him too, right?”

  She nodded. “She doesn’t know about Claudia. And Claudia didn’t know about Shell until the summer. She felt horrible when she found out. I’m the only one who knows, and now you too. Please don’t say anything. Kevin dated a ton of girls last year, and he had everyone keep quiet, saying some bullshit line about how he’s private about things.”

  I grunted, tugging on the bottom of my shirt. “Yeah. People are idiots sometimes.”

  “That’s why you haven’t come with us the other times I’ve invited you, isn’t it? Because of Claudia.”

  I nodded.

  I could feel another invitation coming my way, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I shifted, wrapping my arms around my knees, and I held tight to my jeans.

  “You don’t have to, but the girls and I are part of this program called Community Core Services, and a couple other groups on campus teamed up with us for this big flamingo fundraiser. I was just going to one of the meetings. We’ll all be driving around, handing out flyers.” She bit her lip. “You want to come?”

  There it was.

  I didn’t know what a flamingo fundraiser was, and I had no intention of finding out, but at that moment, two freshman girls from our floor passed us on the sidewalk. They waved, their bags slung over their backs, and I recognized the look in their eyes. Fear.

  They were feeling the freshman fear—fear of getting to class, fear about finding friends, fear of being rejected, being alone, having no one else.

  I changed my mind.

  “I’m in,” I told Avery.

  I wouldn’t be afraid. I was going to have friends. I wasn’t going to be alone.

  An entire parking lot was filled with vehicles, guys and girls milling around. Some taped banners that said Community Core Services in big bold letters to the sides of trucks, with the phrase Flock Your Neighbors underneath. Pictures of flamingos were everywhere, and large flamingo lawn ornaments had been taped to the tops of the trucks. One truck had a pool in the bed, filled with the same flamingo ornaments and a group of guys wearing swimming trunks. Some had pink flamingo inner tubes around their waists and drinks in hand.

  Avery waved to someone, heading across the parking lot. I paused. I had to take in all the pink glory.

  “Hey.”

  I turned to find Kevin coming toward me.

  “What are you doing here?”

  I gestured around the lot. “What? And miss this flamingo haven? The real question is why didn’t you invite me first?”

  He stared at me, then let out a laugh. “I’ll steal one for you at the end of this.”

  “Speaking of, what is this?”

  Avery stopped talking to her friends and glanced back over to find me. Seeing Kevin, the corners of her mouth turned down, but she waved. I waved back as she turned to her group again.

  “It’s a fundraiser,” Kevin said. “A bunch of us are members of CSC. We’re raising money for the Brain Injury Association of America.” He grunted. “Banks suggested it, of all people.”

  I pointed at the nearest flamingo banner. “What’s up with the pink birds?”

  “Oh.” He laughed again. “I don’t even see them, I’m so used to them by now. People pay us to ‘flock’ their friends’ front lawns. It’s three dollars a bird. We put ‘em in overnight and leave a sign that says they’ve been flocked. Then we take ’em out the next day. It’s all in fun and for charity. We’re just driving around today to hand out fliers and raise awareness that the next opportunity is coming up.”

  He folded his arms over his chest, yawning, as he nodded at me. “How’d you get pulled into it?”

  I pointed to Avery. “She asked if I wanted to come. I had no idea what I was signing up for.”

  He leaned back against the nearest truck. “It’s all good, but I think we’re taking off pretty soon.”

  “PEOPLE!” A girl shouted, clapping her hands and waving her arms near the truck where Avery was standing.

  When people didn’t stop talking right away, she put her fingers in her mouth and let out the loudest wolf whistle I’d ever heard.

  “People! Fellow CSCers and friends!” People were still talking, so she yelled, “ASSHATS!”

  A few girls gasped, but a couple guys laughed. One hollered, his deep baritone booming over the group, “SHUT UP, FUCKERS!”

  “Flockers,” the girl corrected him.

  “Flockers. That’s what I said.”

  “Yeah, right!” came from the back.

  Kevin leaned in close and murmured, “That’s Jill. She’s the CSC president and the fucker next to her is her boyfriend, Niall.”

  He was being nice, but I wasn’t going to remember their names. Still, trying to be polite, I glanced over my shoulder. I searched for the fucker, but my gaze collided with a pair of hostile eyes I wasn’t expecting.

  Maggie stood two trucks down with her arms crossed over her chest, glaring at me. I stiffened and narrowed my eyes, cutting to the rest of her group. I didn’t have to look far. Marcus Banks stood beside her, his arm holding on to the truck over her head as he spoke to someone behind him. His shoulders shook with laughter.

  “Kevin.”

  My one word was enough. He twisted around and saw what I was seeing. He cursed under his breath, and his hand came to rest on my shoulder. “She doesn’t believe we’re just siblings. Forget about her, though. She’ll see we’re really like brother and sister.”

  Except we weren’t. I gritted my teeth. We’d been lovers.

  His hand burned into my shoulder. It was like I wasn’t wearing a shirt, like he was touching my naked skin. Maggie saw his touch, and her eyes narrowed even more. She started forward, but when Marcus turned around, she jerked back in place.

  I pressed my lips together, almost daring her to say or do something. Bring it. I wanted to open my arms and bob my head at her. I wanted her to do something. Say something. Come over here and stake your claim. Forget you have a boyfriend at your side. Bring it.

  But she didn’t. She forced a smile when Marcus said something to her, pulling her to his chest. But a
s soon as he looked at someone else, her glare returned to me.

  No matter what Kevin said to her, she could see my feelings.

  “Okay!” The leader shouted, pulling my attention back to her. She paused, then circled her hands in the air. “Let’s get on it. We’re out of here in FIVE MINUTES!”

  As soon as she finished, a frenzied rush came over the group. People ran across the lot. Guys climbed on top of trucks and stood in the beds. Car doors slammed shut and everyone began hollering and whistling.

  Shit.

  Everyone was leaving. I’d completely missed whatever the leader had been saying. I turned to Kevin, but he was gone. I saw him climbing into an SUV down the row. Wait. Avery? I began searching for her as vehicles pulled out of their spots and passed me.

  I hurried forward, still looking for Avery. I couldn’t find her. Then I stopped as I saw the last of the trucks pull out. I twisted around, and there was one left—the heavily decorated one with the pool. A group of guys and a few girls were in the back, and the leader prepared to join them.

  “Hey, uh…” I called to her, but paused. I didn’t know her name.

  She looked up. “Yeah?” Her eyes darted around. “Your friends left you?”

  I nodded. “I was with my stepbrother. My friend must’ve thought I’d go with him, but…” I gestured to the empty lot now.

  “Gotcha.” She looked over her truck, a frown forming. “Listen, we’re full. You’re a volunteer? I don’t remember your name. You must not be a part of CSC. I’m Jill.”

  “Summer. I came with Avery. You know, it’s fine. I can head back to the dorms.”

  “Okay. Sorry about your friend and brother.”

  I waved it off. It was fine, just the small burn of humiliation, but then I heard the sound of another vehicle pulling into the lot. I turned around, expecting to see Avery or even Kevin, but nope. Caden pulled up, and my welcoming smile faded.

  His window rolled down. “Is my brother still here?”

  Jill stepped up next to me. “Hey, Caden! Are you joining the cause?”

  He shook his head, looking between us, then at me as he answered her. “No, just need to find my brother. His phone is off. I knew he was doing this with you guys.”

  She glanced down at her clipboard. “Uh…his group is supposed to cover the Rose Creek neighborhood. No surprise there. You could head up there to find him.”

  “Okay. I’ll do that. Thank you.”

  “Is something wrong?”

  Caden shook his head. “No. That’s fine. I’ll track him down.” He glanced at me again, lingering one more time.

  Jill noticed. “Oh, hey—” She jerked her head toward me. “Do you mind a stowaway? She got left behind by her buddies. She can hop in with the others if you find them.”

  I closed my eyes a moment. The burn of humiliation went up a notch.

  Caden grinned. His cold look lifted, just a bit, and he pointed to the passenger door. “That’s fine. Hop in, little Matthews. This is starting to become our thing.”

  Jill regarded me, her attention suddenly more focused when she realized Caden knew me.

  I felt my face getting red, and I shook my head, backing away. “Nah. That’s okay.” I pointed over my shoulder. “I should get some studying done.”

  “Summer.”

  Caden’s voice stopped me. I wanted to make my escape. The thought of being in his vehicle again, in such close proximity with him, had sent a whole host of sensations through me. I had knots in my stomach, and stupid butterflies doing somersaults around them, but as much as I tried to make my legs leave, they didn’t move.

  “Get in.”

  It was a softly worded command, but those two words had more power over me than my own brain did. I found myself going around the Land Rover and getting in. As I shut the door, I saw Jill get in her truck, still watching me.

  I’d come to this event a nobody, but suddenly, with the acknowledgement that Caden Banks knew me, I knew I wouldn’t be a nobody for long. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that or not. Girls who were somebody were also targets. Maybe I still wanted to be a nobody?

  “Why’d you do that?” I asked Caden as he pulled away. “And it’s Stoltz. I’m not a Matthews.”

  I couldn’t keep that question in. A touch of panic settled at the bottom of my stomach, lining my insides, and I couldn’t get rid of it. I knew I was overreacting, but I couldn’t shake the look that Jill and everyone else in her truck had given me.

  Maybe I liked being boring after all. I could be invisible.

  Caden threw me a frown, turning at an intersection. “Say what?”

  I twisted in my seat, facing him, and ignored all the other emotions going on in me. It was him. He made me crazy. I only acted like this in his presence. “They were all looking at me. Why did you do that?”

  He gave me a crazy look, like I’d grown two heads. “What the fuck’s your problem?”

  A new, more-alarming sensation dipped low in me, all the way down between my legs. I was attracted to him. I slammed back into my seat. I couldn’t be attracted to him. He was Asshole Caden. Granted, he was my asshole, and that was the wrong thought too. I took a breath. I had to calm down.

  I had to be reasonable.

  “Now people know that I know you.”

  “Is there something wrong with knowing me?”

  “Yes.”

  “What? What was I supposed to do? Pretend you weren’t there?”

  “Yes.”

  “You might not like me, but I’m not a complete dick.”

  “You’re an asshole.”

  He grunted, turning onto the interstate. “Don’t hold back, Stoltz. Tell me what you really think.”

  “I—” was being the dick. Not him. “I’m sorry.” I sighed. “I’m not used to this.”

  He glanced over at me. “What are you used to?”

  Being invisible. “Kevin was the popular one in high school. I…”

  “Wasn’t?”

  I nodded. “I wasn’t an outcast or anything, but I wasn’t what he is, or was back then. I just was.”

  He gave me a half-grin. “If it makes you feel better, the only people Kevin’s popular with here are girls who want to cheat on their boyfriends.”

  I raised an eyebrow. “Touché.”

  He chuckled, and I closed my eyes. His laugh slid over me like a warm caress, and a tingle shot through me, giving me an excited buzz low in my stomach. I pressed a hand there, trying to calm my nerves.

  “You shouldn’t do things like that,” I told him.

  “What?”

  “Laugh like that.”

  “First you didn’t want me to acknowledge you, and now I’m not supposed to laugh?” He shook his head, rubbing a hand over his jaw. “You have issues.”

  I sat back, dumbstruck for a moment. It was true. Kevin was my issue. “I meant that when you laugh like that—” I stopped. I was about to confess all the tingles and warm feelings. He was right. What the hell was going on with me? I’d never been like this before. I frowned to myself as I thought back.

  I’d been nice.

 
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