“Daddy, watch this!” Daisy May exclaimed excitedly. As if she didn’t already have my complete attention.
“I’m watching,” I assured her.
She ran and began doing cartwheels across the backyard before flipping backward into what I now knew was called a back handspring. My baby girl was a little gymnast, and with that came a lot of practices. But every time she beamed at me and said, “Daddy, watch this!” I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather watch.
The past two and a half years of being my little girl’s daddy had been some of the best years of my life. Only one other smile moved me as much as Daisy May’s.
Trisha stepped out the back door, smiling at me, with two glasses of lemonade in her hands. That smile was the other one that owned me. Daisy May had become my little girl a few years ago, but Trisha had been my girl for much longer. I had been entranced by the teenager who wouldn’t give me the time of day, and completely captivated by the woman she had become.
She was the best mother in the world if you asked Daisy May, Brent, or Jimmy. She was the most incredible woman in the world if you asked me. And she knew damn well we all adored her.
“You nailed that, Daisy, baby,” Trisha cheered, and Daisy May instantly lit up. Our little girl had lived the first seven years of her life without the love of a mother. The woman who had given life to our children hadn’t been able to love anyone. She’d been angry and bitter and had neglected not only the children we now claimed as our own but her oldest son too—one of my best friends, Preston Drake. He’d been the only love these kids had known until their mother overdosed, leaving them in need of a home. Preston had been ready to take his younger siblings in, but Trisha and I had fallen in love with all of them. When we’d asked him to let us adopt the kids, he had agreed. He’d wanted them to have a home life with parents who loved them. Something he had never experienced.
They all worshipped the ground Preston walked on. He was still their older brother, and he watched them every Thursday night and any other time Trisha and I needed a night out alone. It was a family unit that worked.
I was one lucky son of a bitch.
“Momma, do you think I’ll make the team next week?” Daisy May asked as Trisha handed her a glass of lemonade.
“I think you’ve worked hard and you have as good a chance as anyone. But no matter what happens, you are number one to us.”
Like always, Trisha knew the right answer to everything, and Daisy May beamed at her.
“Preston said he would be there,” Daisy May said, plopping down on the grass beside me.
“Then he will be. You know he wouldn’t miss your tryouts for anything,” I replied, taking the glass Trisha held out for me—then pulling her down onto my lap. I liked having my woman in my lap. Always had.
“I’m nervous,” Daisy May added, then took a sip.
Trisha reached over and pulled Daisy toward us and tucked her under her arm. “We will be right there cheering you on. You’ve worked hard, and no matter what happens, you will be our star. We will be so proud of what you’ve accomplished. Most of those girls have been taking gymnastics since they were very young. You’ve managed to get a chance at the team in only two years! That right there is a reason to be proud.”
I loved this woman. She could make anyone feel better. I was sitting out here, getting nervous thinking about Daisy May trying out to make the competitive team, and Trisha wasn’t making just Daisy feel better—my nerves were easing too.
Truth was, I didn’t like the idea of anyone telling my baby girl no. But Trisha kept reminding me I couldn’t fight all their battles in life. It was so damn hard, though. They’d suffered enough in their earlier years.
“Next week I get to be a flower girl again,” Daisy said, grinning up at us. She didn’t stay focused on one thing too long. She was already thinking about Preston and Amanda’s wedding.
“You have several weddings coming up. But I imagine next week’s is the one you’re most excited about,” Trisha said, ruffling Daisy May’s brown curls.
“Yep! I can’t wait. Amanda said me and Brent and Jimmy get to all stand up there with them when they say their . . . uh . . . them things they say. I forgot what it’s called.”
Trisha leaned back against me as I chuckled. “While they say their vows,” I said, and Daisy May nodded.
“That’s it. We get to stand up there. And Jimmy gets to hand Preston the ring. The one he puts on Amanda’s finger. And I get to give Amanda the surprise . . .” Daisy’s eyes got big and she shut her mouth.
“What?” Trisha asked before I could.
Daisy May shook her head and grinned, then twisted an imaginary lock on her lips and tossed away an equally imaginary key.
Apparently, Preston had some kind of secret only Daisy May knew about.
“Well, now I’m even more anxious for the wedding,” Trisha said as she sank farther into me. My arms were wrapped around her waist, and I was beginning to think about where I’d like to move my hands. My wife was smoking hot. She always had been. It never got old seeing her in a pair of tiny shorts and a tank top. This body could stop traffic.
Our fifth wedding anniversary was coming up in four months. I had already prepared Preston that I’d need his help. I intended to take her somewhere special. We’d never had a real wedding. We couldn’t afford one. But I had been desperate to make her mine. Back then I kept thinking she’d figure out she could do better and leave me. When I had convinced her to go to the courthouse and become mine forever, I hadn’t thought about the fairy-tale wedding she deserved. I had just wanted Trisha.
It was time my woman had the fairy-tale wedding she deserved right before we went on the honeymoon we’d never gotten.
The first time I’d seen her, she had taken my breath away. Getting her attention had been one hell of a ride. She’d been so determined to stay away from me. Or any man. Then I’d found out why . . . and I’d sworn to myself she’d never have to live in fear again.
Falling in love with Trisha had changed my life. My friends and family had said I was an idiot. I was throwing away my future. Butch Taylor, my father, had never been a big part of my life until I had become a high school football star. For once I had a parent who gave a shit about me. It had been something I’d craved since I was a kid. Making him proud and proving I was worth loving had been what drove me to work harder. My dream was within my reach. I had my father cheering me on, and I would make it to college and then—I knew—I’d play pro ball.
Until my dream changed the day a pair of the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen stared at me across the parking lot one morning before school started. That was the first day of my sophomore year, and it would be another twelve months before I would be able to get Trisha Corbin to even speak to me.
With one look, that girl had changed my dreams.
Eight years ago . . .
Most kids agonized over going back to school. I sat on the bus, listening to others talk about their summers on the beach, sleeping late, going to parties, and how much they dreaded school. It was like they were speaking a different language. A foreign world I knew nothing about.
I glanced over at the seat across from me, at my younger brother, Krit, and his best friend, Green. Krit was as relieved as I was to be going to school. We had looked forward to this day all summer. Having an excuse to escape the life we lived at home was a blessed relief. Green was excited because they were eighth graders now. Two years ago Sea Breeze had moved the eighth grade to a section of the high school building because the middle school had gotten too full. They were still separated from the high school students for the most part, but they would use the high school’s cafeteria and gym.
My brother had grown at least six inches this summer. He reminded me of a weed. Overnight he’d gone from scrawny kid to tall and slightly intimidating. Didn’t mean his mind had caught up to his almost six-foot-tall frame, though. He was still a kid. A scared kid. One who needed me to protect him. Even if I did have to tilt my head back to talk to him now. He had passed my five feet eight inches sometime around June.
I crossed my legs and tugged at my shorts. Not that it helped. There had been no money for me to go buy any school clothes this year. I had to wear last year’s things. Krit had grown way more than I had, and he’d required an entirely new wardrobe. Every dime I’d made lifeguarding at the pool went toward buying him decent clothing at the consignment shop.
The problem with me wearing last year’s things was that, although I hadn’t grown in height, my br**sts and butt had gotten bigger. So although I was still five eight, same as last year, my shorts were shorter. I wasn’t sure how my legs had gotten longer, but they had—or my butt was just taking up the extra room.
My h*ps seemed wider too. That probably wasn’t helping either. Krit turned his head to see me tugging on my shorts, and I stopped. The frown that wrinkled his forehead told me he wasn’t happy. We had argued about me spending all my money on his clothes. He’d said he needed two pairs of jeans and two shirts. He could wash them every day. I refused to let him go to school in only two outfits that fit him. I had plenty. I would just need to go on a diet and make them fit me right again.
I wasn’t sure how I had managed to gain weight, but that was all that made sense. This was my fault. Not his. I smiled at him reassuringly and acted like the short length of my shorts was no big deal. Picking up my book bag, I placed it in my lap as the bus pulled to a stop in front of the high school.
“We’re here,” I said, standing up.
“They’re too short. I told you to buy new ones,” was Krit’s response. He wasn’t going to let that go.
“My butt and h*ps got big. I just ate too much over the summer. I’ll lose weight and it’ll be fine,” I told him. “Now, forget it and focus on school.”
“We don’t get to eat enough for you to have gained weight,” he snarled.
“Please, for the love of God, don’t lose weight. It would break my heart,” Green said with a flirty grin.
Krit shoved him back down in his seat and scowled at him. “Don’t. Seriously, dude. Don’t.”
I was used to Green’s flirting. He’d been at it since last year when he discovered he loved girls. It was only getting worse. I knew he was harmless, and I remembered when he was scared of the dark and wore Superman underwear. He was like my other little brother.
“I don’t like you in those shorts. Shows too much,” Krit said in an angry whisper as we stepped off the bus.
“I’m fine. No one is looking,” I told him.
He lifted his eyebrows at me. “Really? You’re gonna tell me shit like that and expect me to believe it?”
I started to tell him to shut it, when my heart rate picked up and my breathing hitched. He was here. I hadn’t seen him yet, but I knew he was here and he was close by. My body always reacted that way when Rock Taylor was around. It had been like that since I’d stepped off the bus the first day of school last year and made eye contact with the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.
For almost three hours I had waited anxiously for another glimpse of him. Then finally at lunchtime I saw him again. He had a girl on each arm, and one even sat on his lap while he ate. His friends were all the same. Girls acted ridiculous to get their attention, and threw themselves at the guys, who seemed to think it was their due. Like they were supposed to get to pick and choose females. When Rock had gotten up to leave the cafeteria, he had looked back at me and winked. Right before another girl grabbed his arm and he walked out the door with her. By the end of the day I knew more than I wanted to know about Rock Taylor.
“Is that Rock Taylor?” Krit asked in awe. As if Rock were a celebrity. The guy was a high school football star. So what? He was gorgeous and talented, I would give him that much. But he wasn’t anyone I wanted my little brother idolizing. Rock Taylor used girls. I’d seen it firsthand. Over and over again.
But no matter how many girls I’d seen in the bathroom in tears on a Monday morning when Rock had ignored them after sleeping with them on Friday night, my body still reacted to him. Like it was on high alert. I understood why girls always went willingly into his arms, even while knowing it would end badly.
The difference was, I had real issues to deal with. Survival being the number one issue. For me and my brother.
Ignoring Krit’s comment, I changed the subject. “Do you have your schedule? And remember, give yourself at least five full minutes to get from the upstairs classrooms to the downstairs classrooms. Don’t be late for lunch or you won’t have enough time to get your tray and eat. And eat it all. Okay?”
Krit gave me a crooked grin. “I got this, Sis. Seriously, chill.”
He was going to be a hit here. He had been in middle school. Krit had always been a beautiful child. Girls were noticing that more and more. I was proud of him, but I also hated for him to define himself by his looks. He had so much more inside him.
“I know you do. It’s just a big day and I want it to go well for you,” I replied.
“That’s them. See ’em?” Green said, pointing back toward where I knew, without even looking, Rock stood. “They own this school. See the girls all over them? Day-um, that’s awesome. We’re so gonna be them in two years.”
Krit turned to look back, but I fought the urge. I knew what I would see. Dewayne Falco, Preston Drake, Marcus Hardy, and Rock Taylor looking like the kings of the world while the females did everything in their power to get their attention. They personified every cliché in the book. Dewayne was the bad-boy rebel, Preston was the playboy with the smile that dropped panties everywhere, Marcus was the wealthy privileged kid, and Rock was the football star. All of them had bodies and faces that sent girls into a frenzy.
“Y’all get to your side of the building. It takes longer to get over there than you think. Be good. I’ll see you out here at three. Don’t be late or we’ll miss the bus.”
They both rolled their eyes, then headed right, toward the eighth-grade side of the school, while I turned left toward the high school section.
It had been almost three months since I’d seen her. I had tried everything to get that girl out of my head, but damn if she still didn’t take my breath away. Last year she had been new. She was a transfer student from a nearby city. Her name was Trisha Corbin, and she starred in every fantasy I had. That was all I knew about her. Not from my lack of trying. She just wouldn’t give me the time of day.
Admitting that I’d been looking forward to school starting again just so I could see her was pathetic. But damn if it wasn’t the truth. Even if she ignored me, I got to watch her. Every gorgeous inch of her.
Today she had stepped off the bus with a guy walking close to her like he was warning anyone who looked her way. Didn’t know who the f**k he was, but he was young. I could see that in his face. His body hadn’t grown into his height. He was lanky.
“Looks like her brother. That hair color. He has to be related,” Dewayne said beside me. He’d been watching me watch her. Shit.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said, jerking my gaze off her and back to the swarm of females trying to get some attention.
“Fuck, whatever,” Dewayne muttered.
Hiding anything from my friends was impossible. We’d been close since second grade. They knew me well. My fascination with Trisha Corbin was something they had all picked up on last year.
But after she’d shot me down not once but twice, I had backed off. Being turned down wasn’t something I was used to. Ever.
“I heard you and Gina broke up,” a blond cheerleader—Kimmy something or other—said, running her nails up my arm.
“Never dated Gina,” I replied, annoyed. Kimmy was cheap. I wasn’t interested in that. Not when I had just seen Trisha Corbin looking like a dream.
“Oh, well, she sure is telling people you f**ked her good up against the wall, on the car, and over the table,” she said, then giggled, batting her eyelashes at me.
“I f**k. I don’t date,” I replied, then threw her arm off me and stepped around the girls. I was a glutton for punishment—I was going to see if I could find Trisha and get her to talk to me.
“I like it hard,” Kimmy said as I walked past her.
“I can help you with that,” Preston drawled, and I knew pretty boy would get her off my back. She’d found just the guy to scratch her itch.
The guys with Trisha turned toward the eighth-grade wing. Dewayne was probably right. The blond was more than likely her brother. I hadn’t paid enough attention to the guy to notice.
Trisha stood looking at the schedule in her hands. The way she pressed her lips together when she was thinking was f**king cute. She had the best facial expressions. You could almost read all her thoughts just by watching her face.
“Ain’t fair that you get prettier every time I see you,” I said as I came up beside her and stopped. It was lame, but the girl made me nervous. I said stupid shit whenever I was around her.
Trisha tensed up just like she always did when I got near her. I hated that. Not once had I done anything to make her dislike me. I’d been knocking myself out to get her to notice me for more than a year now.
“You gonna talk to me this year, or do I continue to get the silent treatment?” I asked.
Her frown deepened, but I waited. I wasn’t going to let her lock me out. She could at least speak to me. Why she was the one girl at this school who didn’t want to talk to me, I didn’t know. Hell, even the girls I’d pissed off thawed easier than she did when I wanted them to.
“I’m not giving you the silent treatment. I just don’t want to encourage you. I’ve tried to be nice about it.”
Ouch. Damn, the girl was mean. Problem was, I didn’t believe her. I had seen her watching me when she didn’t think I was paying attention. And there had been interest in her eyes. Something else was making her put up a wall.
“I’m real nice. Wish you’d at least give me a break and be my friend.” Had I really just asked to be put in the friend zone with this girl? Dammit, I was slipping. I didn’t want her to be my friend.
She finally turned her head and tilted it back to look up at me. She was tall for a girl, but I was taller. The confused expression on her face almost made me laugh out loud. She was thinking I had lost my mind too.
“You don’t have girls who are friends. You have your little gang, and none of you are friends with girls.”
She had me there. But she was different.
“I’m thinking I want to test the waters. Besides, if the only way I can get you to talk to me is to offer friendship, I will.”
She raised her eyebrows in disbelief, and then she laughed. I had never seen or heard her laugh before, and goddamn, it was something else. I wanted to record it and play it over and over again, soaking in the fact that I had made her laugh. Memorizing the way her eyes danced with amusement. I forgot where we were and everything else around me.
“You think that’s funny?” I asked, unable to keep from grinning like a fool.
She let out one more soft chuckle, then shook her head. “No, I think that’s hilarious. You wouldn’t last a day without flirting with me.” As she said those words she snapped out of her moment of amusement. The tense, frustrated girl was back. “I need to get to first period. Excuse me,” she said, and started to walk off. But I wasn’t caving in now. This was the most she’d talked to me, and I didn’t want it to end. I needed reassurance she’d talk to me again.
“Give it a chance. Be my friend.” I was begging. The boys were going to tease my ass for weeks over this.
She let out a sigh and turned back to look at me. “Sure. Whatever. Now I need to go to class, friend.”
At that, I flashed her a grin that had most girls wrapping themselves around me and I let her go. “See you later, buddy,” I called out as she hurried down the hall without looking back.
I watched as guys did double takes at her retreating form as she passed them. She was oblivious. The urge to shove them all into their lockers so they never glanced at her sweet ass again was hard to resist. But that wouldn’t stop them, and I would end up suspended.
I settled for giving warning glares as I walked toward my locker. They all needed to know she was mine. Friend or not, Trisha Corbin was off-limits. Every one of their horny asses needed to understand that.
Friends? Was I crazy?
After three classes this morning I was still replaying my conversation with Rock Taylor over and over again in my head. It was like watching a train wreck on repeat. I couldn’t be Rock’s friend. He didn’t want me as a friend. He wanted in my pants. Or panties, to be specific.
Ignoring him was so difficult. He was huge. Bigger than life. Those arms of his looked like they could protect anyone. Guys in high school shouldn’t look like him. He was built like a wall. The men our stepmother brought home didn’t have anything on Rock. He could take care of them.
No. Shaking my head, I cleared that thought right out. Rock had no clue what baggage came with me. He wanted to add me to his list of girls he’d nailed. He didn’t want to protect me from the men who enjoyed slapping me around when I didn’t let them touch me.
Focus, Trisha. Focus. Keeping Krit safe was my only goal in life. Well, that and getting us the hell out of her house. The only thing I could find any solace in was that there was a line with Krit she would never cross. Fandora Daily didn’t let the men she screwed around with hurt her stepson too much. She preferred they hit me. Her unwanted stepdaughter who she also liked to hit. My mother had taken off when I was eight, and I’d been left with my father and his current wife, Fandora. When he took off, he’d left Krit and me behind. The only thing that kept Fandora from tossing me out with the trash was that I took care of Krit. She could go out on dates and live her life knowing she had a built-in babysitter.
So I was given a home. By the time I was ten years old, both my mother and father had deserted me. All I had left was my little brother. And I made it my goal to keep him safe and to keep us together.
Krit was the only person on earth who loved me. I would sell my soul for him. He was what kept me from just giving up and letting Fandora’s men beat me to death. I fought to live for my brother’s sake.
Touching my side, I inhaled sharply. I was afraid this time my rib was broken. I didn’t know what to do about that. I’d taken medical wrap and wound it around my ribs tightly. That was all I knew to do. Going to the hospital could land both Krit and me in foster homes, and I couldn’t risk being split from him. He needed me.
Yeah . . . Rock Taylor didn’t have a clue. Next time he hit on me, I should show him the black-and-blue bruises under my shirt. Or maybe the ugly green tint of the bruise healing on my ass. Or the scar that marred the skin on the left side of my hip where I’d been whipped with a belt so hard it sliced me open. I’d definitely needed stitches for that, but I’d never gotten them. Fandora was smart. She didn’t want me to be harmed where people could see.
She was also completely selfish and bitter. And yet she loved Krit—well, to a degree. She was proud of the handsome man he was turning into, and I think she assumed he’d take care of her one day. So she kept him. And because he loved me, she kept me.
But she made sure I understood that I was a burden on her and always had been.
The end-of-class bell rang and I grabbed my books before standing up. Riley Owens stepped in front of me and grinned. Her dark brown hair was cut into a cute chunky style this year, and she was wearing more makeup than she had last year. I had always thought she was pretty, but she was really attractive now.
“You were in a zone, chick. I tried all class to get your attention. I haven’t seen or heard from you all summer. What gives?” Riley asked, bumping my shoulder with hers as we began walking toward the door and into the hallway.
Riley was one of the two good friends I had here. There were others who were friendly, but coming into this close-knit crowd last year was hard. They didn’t accept new faces that easily.
“Sorry. I was working mostly. How was your summer?” I replied.
She sighed in a dramatic fashion that made me smile. “Well, I had to go visit my dad and his new wife up in Pennsylvania. And, girl, let me tell you, they have rednecks up there too. Some people would give folks around here a run for their money. He lives out in the country, and his wife went barefoot to the grocery store! Seriously! Who does that?”
That was another thing about Riley: She always made me smile. “Sounds traumatic,” I replied.
She almost nodded in agreement, then squinted at me. “You’re being a smartass, aren’t you?”
I bit back a grin and started to say something when her dark green eyes went wide as she looked up at something behind me. I started to turn and stopped. I could smell him. Peppermint and leather. Why did that smell so good?
Riley’s eyes went from amazed to flirty real fast. She was preparing to grab my new friend’s attention. With her new look, I had no doubt she could. She would be an easy target. I needed to save her.
“Hello, Rock,” I said, turning to face him. He was completely focused on me, missing Riley’s fluttering eyelashes and come-hither smile.
His lips did a sexy smirk. “What lunch period did you get?” he asked me, keeping those determined eyes directed at me.
“Second,” I said, wishing my voice didn’t sound affected by him. But he was so close and he smelled so nice. I liked peppermint and leather. It worked. Totally worked.
“Me too,” he replied, his smirk turning into a pleased smile. “Let me walk you.”
Walk me. Rock wanted to walk me to lunch. Deep breaths, Trisha. Deep breaths. “Oh, I was going to walk with Riley to lunch.” It was the only excuse I could think of.
Finally Rock shifted his gaze from me to Riley, and I am pretty sure she made a swoony sigh. “Care if I join y’all, Riley?” Rock asked her.
“No. Not at all. I mean, you can walk us both. I don’t mind. Or if Trisha doesn’t want to, you can walk me. Anywhere at any time.” She was babbling like an idiot.
I shot her an annoyed frown. She had just told him he could walk her anywhere at any time. Really? Dear God. No wonder the guy thought all women should fall at his feet. Apparently they all did.
He chuckled. “I’d really like to take Trisha. She’s my new friend, and I’m working hard to get her to keep me.” His gaze was back on me.
Riley nudged me hard in my battered ribs, and I fell into Rock’s chest as I let out a small cry. Pain shot through me, making my vision blur and my eyes water. I was going to be sick. If only I could breathe, I would have run to the restroom.
Two strong arms wrapped around me and held me steady as I focused on not throwing up. “You okay?”
I couldn’t answer him. The pain was still shooting through me, and I was struggling to breathe.
“Shit, how hard did you hit her?” he asked angrily. His arms were gentle but held on to me firmly. I didn’t fight him. The pain was ebbing, and I could hear Riley apologizing as the pounding in my head eased. I needed to tell her it was fine, that this wasn’t her fault. But I was still fighting back the nausea.
“You okay? You need me to walk you down to the nurse? Have her take a look?” He was concerned. If he hadn’t held on to me, I would be on the floor in the fetal position.
Pushing past the lingering pain, I managed to nod and take a deep breath. Straightening my shoulders, I stepped back, trying to move out of his arms. At first I didn’t think he was going to let me go, but he dropped his arms slowly, reluctant to let me move away.
“I’m so sorry,” Riley whispered. “I didn’t mean to hit you hard. I was just trying to get you to go with him. I mean, it’s Rock Taylor, for crying out loud. He’s . . .” Riley paused.
“It’s fine. I think you just hit the wrong spot and, uh . . . hit my, uh . . . funny bone.” That didn’t even sound believable.
Riley scrunched her nose up and frowned. “I thought I hit your side. . . .”
I glanced back at Rock. He was going to think I was crazy. But maybe then he’d give up on trying to get me to like him. “I’m not going to lunch. I need . . . to go get a book from the library,” I said in a hurry, then turned and walked as fast as I could down the hallway. No footsteps followed me, and I took that as a good thing.
With me gone, Rock would probably turn the charm on Riley and she’d let him sweet-talk his way into her panties. The idea of that made me ill. I didn’t want Rock hooking up with Riley.
Shoving that thought away, I passed by the library and headed toward my next class. Lunch was one of my favorite things about school: I got a hot meal. I was hungry, and I doubted I would get much, if anything, to eat tonight. Fandora was in a bad mood. Her latest boyfriend had left her.
I had gone longer than this without food. I could make it until tomorrow at lunch if needed. What I wasn’t ready to do was face Rock after that fiasco in the hall. I doubted he’d try to speak to me again. He and Riley probably thought I was insane.
I didn’t like Trisha’s friend. First she hurt her, then she didn’t run after her. Instead the brunette had started flirting with me. Which pissed me off.
After grabbing the burger off my tray in the cafeteria, I headed for the library to find Trisha. Eating would have been impossible while worrying about her. Something had been off about that whole scene. Riley had only elbowed her in the ribs. I’d seen it and I hadn’t liked it, but I didn’t think it was hard enough for the reaction it caused. Hell, if I hadn’t gotten a look at how pale Trisha’s face had gone and the pain in her eyes, I would have thought she was acting just to get my attention.
Her body had been trembling as I held her. She’d really been in some serious f**king agony. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. The only reason someone would react like that was if they were hurt already. And if she was hurt there already, why not just tell us instead of making up some library bullshit and running off?
Preston had lipstick smeared on his face and messy hair, plus a blonde on his arm whose name I couldn’t remember, when I stepped back into the hallway from the cafeteria.
“You leaving already?” he asked, frowning at me.
“Got somewhere to be,” I replied, and headed past him before he could ask me any more questions.
“Need me to go with you?” he called out after me.
Preston was always ready for a fight. He assumed that was the only thing that would pull me out of the cafeteria. He had his future riding on his baseball career just as much as I had my future riding on my football career. Pisser didn’t think about that, though. He’d jump into a fight without thinking about it if he thought we needed him.
I would too. But I’d worry. I would be careful. I was too close now. I didn’t just have a college career waiting on me. I had a dad for the first time in my life. He was proud of me. Someone cared, and that meant something. I hated that I needed my dad’s attention like a damn kid. But he’d never been around before.
If I could keep us out of a fight, I did. For me and for Preston. Dewayne and Marcus had parents. Good parents who would make sure they went to college. They had parents who loved them. Preston and I had to work a little harder. Hell, we had to work a lot harder.
Shoving open the library doors, I stepped into the quiet room stacked full of books. I only came in here if I absolutely had to. The place gave me the creeps. Too many damn books and no one was supposed to talk. Then there was the librarian. She was older than a human should be and mean as hell.
Her sharp eyes squinted at me and I froze like a naughty child. She was all of five feet tall and hunched over slightly. The little bit of white hair she had left was on top of her head in a tight bun. Seriously, I think she might have been sipping some everlasting life concoction.
I scanned the room, but none of the tables had the pretty blond head I was looking for. She had lied. This wasn’t where she had been headed. Deep down I’d known she was lying. But I’d still hoped I would find her here.
Turning, I stepped back out of the library and began my search of the empty classrooms. I didn’t know what her schedule was or this would have been easier.
“Rock! Come on! Coach just called an early meeting in the field house. We’re supposed to go directly there,” Marcus called out as he, Preston, and Dewayne came walking down the hallway.
“We have fifteen more minutes left of lunch,” I pointed out, annoyed.
“Coach is fired up about the game Friday night,” Marcus said with a smirk.
Shit. After lunch I went to the field house to work out that period, then came back for Algebra II before heading out to practice. Coach was messing it all up. I wanted to find Trisha and make sure she was okay.
“Heard we’re leaving after a half day on Friday to get on the buses and head to Rock Creek. Coach told Simmons he wants us rested and ready to go by game time. So he’s getting us there three hours early.”
Glancing back into the hallway, I looked for the white-blond hair that fascinated me, but I saw nothing. I’d have to find her later.
Krit and Green were already waiting at the bus stop in front of school when I got there. Both of them had big smiles on their faces and were talking animatedly about their days. I didn’t have to ask how they liked eighth grade. Just watching them talk answered that for me.
My problems vanished as I watched my little brother grinning like he owned the world. He hadn’t been given many things in life to smile about. Knowing he’d had a good day was a relief. My ribs had throbbed the rest of the day, but I had managed to dodge any questions from Riley because we didn’t have any other classes together.
“Hey, babe,” Green called out when he saw me.
I shot him a warning glare and he started laughing. Krit rolled his eyes, not amused by his friend’s constant flirting with me.
“Don’t call me ‘babe’ again if you want to live,” I informed him.
Green waggled his eyebrows at me, and Krit shoved him and said, “Dude, stop it. Seriously.”
Green’s tall, lanky body hadn’t had time to adjust to his overnight height either. He stumbled back, then laughed. “Jeesh. You two are uptight.”
“Was your day good?” I asked Krit, ignoring Green.
Getting Krit through a school day without him losing his temper or having some kind of emotional snap was an accomplishment. He was severely ADHD, and I was beginning to think he also suffered from some sort of personality disorder that we didn’t know about. Fandora wouldn’t take him to have him checked out. She hated giving him meds at all. It took time out of her day to get them.
When one of her boyfriends had slapped me and Krit threw a brick at his head, she had gone and gotten his meds. But we were getting low again. Krit tended to get addicted to things. He was like a live wire, unable to stay still. Ready for the next adventure. And if you stood in his way, he lost it.
Keeping him calm was my job.
“I was an angel today,” he informed me, then gave me his crooked grin. My heart squeezed. I loved my brother. So many times I felt like he was mine. I wasn’t old enough to be his mother, but the way I felt about him was what I believed a real mother’s love would feel like. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Krit. Nothing. When he was happy it made me happy.
“Don’t lie to her. You got sent to the office once,” Green added.
“What?” I asked, my heart sinking.
Krit shrugged, then glared at Green. “Nothing big. I told the teacher I’d get to the assignment in a minute. I was finishing up something. She got all pissy.”
That was typical Krit. He didn’t like being bossed around. Not by anyone but me. I could get away with it. In his eyes, everyone else needed to step back. Even his mother.
Krit started to say something else but stopped as his eyes lit up at something behind me. Frustrated with his erratic attention span, I turned to see who had his interest.
Rock Taylor was walking up from the football field dressed in pads and that tight uniform they wore. His helmet was in his hand, hanging forgotten by his side. As impressive as all that perfection was, the breathtaking part was that his eyes were locked on me. Me.
“He’s headed this way, I think,” Green whispered.
I wasn’t ready to deal with him again. What if he asked about my side in front of Krit? Crap. I had to get out of here.
I reached for Krit’s arm. “Let’s go. Bus is almost here. We don’t want those back seats with the thugs. Let’s be sure to get in line.”
“But I think Rock Taylor is coming this way. Like, to us. Or . . . you,” Krit said, watching Rock carefully now. He wasn’t so mesmerized anymore. He seemed to be thinking this through.
“He’s not coming for us. Let’s go,” I said, pushing them both toward the bus line.
“Trisha.” Rock’s voice stopped me. Green’s jaw dropped, and Krit’s eyes no longer held fascination. He was studying Rock hard now. A tight frown came over his face, and I watched my little brother turn into a man as he stood up straighter and stepped in front of me.
“What do you want with my sister? She don’t seem real excited about seeing you,” Krit said in a hard, cold tone.
Rock was a wall of muscle, and Krit had to tilt his head back to make eye contact with him. But Rock didn’t seem to care or back down. He was determined to protect me. He was doing that a lot now. I was so worried he was going to get hurt. It was my job to protect Krit. Not the other way around.
Rock’s jaw twitched, and it looked like he was trying not to smile. “Trisha and I decided to be friends today. Didn’t we, Trisha?” he said, looking over my brother’s shoulder to me.
I had to calm my little brother down. I nodded and stepped around Krit. “Yes, we did,” I confirmed.
“Then why were you trying to get us on the bus before he could get to you?” Krit asked, not buying this at all.
“Yes, why were you doing that, Trisha? Hurts my feelings,” Rock added. This time he was smiling. Dang him. He was amused by all this.
I stepped in front of Krit and lifted my eyes to meet Rock’s. “I just didn’t want to be left with the seats in the back of the bus. I don’t like those.”
Rock’s grin grew even bigger. “I got a truck. Lucky for you, I like giving my friends a ride.”
Oh, no. I wasn’t letting him see where we lived. Not today. Not ever. “Uh, no, that’s okay. The bus works just fine.” And as if on cue, the bus rolled up and Mr. Freds called out over his megaphone for the riders of A138 to board.
I grabbed Krit’s arm. “That’s us. I’ll see you tomorrow,” I told Rock quickly, and pulled my brother to the bus line. I didn’t look back, and I was almost afraid Rock would get in line with us. Even though he was supposed to be at football practice.
Getting this guy to back off wasn’t going to be easy. Getting my heart to stop going into a frenzy whenever he spoke to me was also not going to be easy. He was every daydream I had allowed myself to have since I was a little girl. A big, beautiful, strong man who could keep me safe. Someone who would love me and ride in on his horse and wrap me up in his arms so that no one could hurt me again.
Rock Taylor did not want to save me and my brother. He was a teenager with a football career ahead of him. Everyone knew the college scouts were watching him. He was going to be big one day. I would be a waste of his time.
“Rock Taylor has the hots for your sister,” Green announced to Krit as we sat down. I ignored his comment.
“Yeah, I saw that,” Krit replied, sounding pissed.
I turned to look at my brother. I would have thought he would love any excuse to get to talk to Rock Taylor. “He doesn’t have the hots for me.”
Krit scowled. “Yes, Sis, he does. I saw it. He’s not what you need, though. He ain’t got time to deal with our shit. He won’t stick around, and you’ll get hurt. Then I’ll have to kill him.”
Green let out an amused, hard laugh. “You can’t kill Rock Taylor. He can step on you and squish you like a bug.”
“You have no clue what I can do,” Krit said, staring straight ahead with a determined gleam in his eyes.
I had to deal with Krit. But not here on this bus where people could hear us.
Rock needed to understand I didn’t have time to be his friend or anything else. I wouldn’t fit into his world. I had my world to survive.
“You good tonight?” I asked Preston as we walked from the field house out to Marcus’s truck. This was a daily thing. Preston’s home life was shit. If it weren’t for his younger brothers and baby sister, he wouldn’t ever go home. His mother was a user. In a very bad way.
“Yeah. It’s all good. I’m anxious to hear about Jimmy’s first day of school,” Preston said with his easy smile that the world believed. But I knew better. Behind his pretty-boy looks and carefree smile was a guy who had seen bad shit. He was basically a father at seventeen. He was the only love and protection his siblings got.
“Jimmy start kindergarten?” I asked.
Preston nodded, then sighed. “He was scared as hell this mornin’ too. It was hard not going with him. I wanted to sit in his class with him all day. You know?” He chuckled and shook his head. “I can’t imagine doing this with Daisy May.”
Daisy May was the baby. She was only one. Preston had been taking care of her since she was born. His mother had come home from the hospital and then left for a week. Preston had lost his job that summer because he couldn’t leave the trailer they lived in. Jimmy was only five then and Brent was about two, I think.
“We’ll all go sit with Daisy May on her first day of school. Threaten anyone who looks at her. She’ll be the most protected first grader there is,” I assured him.
Preston laughed, and then his smile turned into something real. I was reminding him that he wasn’t alone. That all he had to do was let us know when he needed us. We were his family too. Sometimes he needed reminding. He was bad about figuring shit out alone.
“Saw you talking to Trisha Corbin today,” Preston said with a smirk. “Two days in a row.”
Trisha had been hard to track down today. It was like she was avoiding me. I found her anyway. Chasing a girl like this wasn’t something I excelled at. But damn, she smelled good. And that smile of hers. . . . If I could get her to smile, then it made everything worth it.
“She’s not gonna be easy,” Preston warned.
He had no idea. “Yeah. I got that. I wasn’t looking for easy. It ain’t about f**king.”
Preston tossed his bag into the bed of Marcus’s truck and frowned. “Then what the hell is it about? Have you seen her tits and ass? Day-um.”
I would have snapped if it was anyone else who had said that. But it was Preston, and he graded all girls on their tits and ass. He was a player in a very bad way. He didn’t have a good opinion of females, thanks to his mom. Daisy May was the only female he put on a pedestal. Well, Amanda Hardy, Marcus’s little sister, too. But she was so off-limits it wasn’t f**king funny. Like any of us, Preston would beat anyone’s ass who touched her. But he wouldn’t talk about her body or go near it.
“It’s more. Something about her . . .” I wasn’t getting into this with him. He’d make fun of me for weeks. Months. Hell, all f**king year.
“Y’all ready to go?” Marcus called out as he slapped Rachel Mann’s ass and left her staring after him longingly. Rachel had been after Marcus all last year.
“You finally decide to dive into the Mann girl pu**y?” Preston asked, amused.
He’d messed around with Rose Mann, who was Rachel’s cousin. Both girls had rocking bodies and heads full of brown curls. They were hot. But I wasn’t going there. They paled in comparison to Trisha.
Marcus rolled his eyes and tossed his bag into the back of his truck. “Stop being an ass.”
“She’s clingy. Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Preston said as he put his hands on the sides of the truck, then jumped up and slung his legs over into the bed. It was his turn to take the back. “Where’s D?” he called out, looking around for Dewayne.
“He was preoccupied with two of the cheerleaders. Can’t remember their names, though. They’re new ones,” Marcus answered him.
“Shit. Does this mean he won’t be home so we can’t go swing by and get some of Mrs. T’s cookies?” Preston whined.
“We can still go get some cookies. Mrs. T doesn’t care if Dewayne is with us or not,” Marcus assured him.
Sometimes Preston reminded me of a kid. But it was part of his charm, I guess. Girls loved it. Until he brushed them off once he got some. Then they didn’t love it so much.
Marcus closed his door and looked over at me. “Do you think he’ll always be this way?”
Chuckling, I shook my head. No. I knew he wouldn’t. He had three kids to raise. When he was with us, he was free to do what he wanted, so he lived wild. When he went home, he became a dad.
“He needs this. When he isn’t home, he needs to live,” I replied.
Marcus frowned. He had the easiest life of us all. Although Dewayne’s was pretty sweet. Marcus had the happy family and the money. The life Preston had was something Marcus didn’t completely understand. He’d been trying to take care of Preston since we were kids and Preston would come to school without a lunch. But he didn’t know just how bad shit was. Preston didn’t talk about it much.
I only knew because my life wasn’t roses either and Preston felt like he could talk about it with me.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Marcus finally said.
I leaned forward and turned up the radio as Marcus pulled out onto the road.
I had to wait until tomorrow to see Trisha. Damn.
“Just go,” Krit snapped at me. He was scared. I could see it in his eyes. He knew his stepmother wouldn’t hit him too hard. But she had no limits with me. I didn’t care, though—I wasn’t letting her hurt him.
“No,” I replied, standing up from the table where Krit and I had been having an after-school snack. We weren’t supposed to eat the cereal without permission. It was for breakfast only. But we had both been hungry and thought we had time before she got home. If she wasn’t lying on the sofa watching trashy talk shows with a beer in her hand when we got here, it meant she was out and wouldn’t be home until later.
“What the FUCK?” she screeched as Krit shot up out of his chair to stand in front of me. Granted, he was taller than me now, but he was still younger. I was supposed to protect him. Not the other way around.
I tried to shove him aside, but he wasn’t budging. “Stay behind me,” he warned with a much more commanding voice than I was used to hearing my little brother use.
That made her cackle—a hard, sadistic laugh. “What, boy, you think you’re gonna protect that mooching sorry-ass slut from me just because you’re bigger than me?”
She took a step toward Krit, and his entire body tensed. “You. Won’t. Hurt. Me,” she said in a soft voice that gave me chills. “I’m your momma. You won’t touch me.”
“We wanted a snack. We’ve been at school all day and we were hungry. Lunch didn’t fill us up,” Krit explained. I heard the little boy come out of him. The scared one who always tried to reason with his crazy-ass stepmother. I wasn’t going to let him touch her to protect me. He’d never forgive himself.
I moved fast and jumped in front of him. “Get out of here, Krit,” I yelled at him, and barely had time to prepare myself for the slap across my face.
“SHIT! Mom, stop it!” Krit demanded, and I felt his hands clasp around my arms.
“Stupid, stupid, ugly slut.” She hurled words at me that she thought hurt me. Coming from someone I cared about, maybe they would. But she’d been calling me names all my life. I didn’t care what she said about me.
She pulled back at first, and Krit tried to move me out of the way. But instead her swing hit my hurt ribs. The scream that erupted out of me sounded like it was coming from somewhere else as black spots formed in my vision and I crumpled to the ground, trying to breathe.
I heard Krit yelling, but I couldn’t move. The pain was paralyzing, and I hadn’t been able to draw a breath yet. The black spots all bonded together until there was just darkness.
“Dammit, Trish, wake up.” Krit’s desperate voice worried me.
I fought to open my eyes. The pain had started to subside. I was breathing again. Looking around, I tried to sit up in case the crazy woman we called Mother was getting ready to strike again.
“Be still. She’s gone,” Krit said, pressing a hand to my shoulder to keep me from getting up. “She probably won’t be back tonight.”
“You sure?” I asked, then winced because I had tried to shift. The pain was there, but if I didn’t move I was okay.
Krit looked angry as he nodded. “Yeah. I hit her. I’ve never hit her. I was scared because you weren’t moving, and so damn mad that you had to deal with her shit. I just lost it.” He sighed and hung his head. “She said she was calling the cops.”
Krit had hit his mother. Exactly what I’d been trying to protect him from. He’d feel guilty about it later. And he’d question himself.
“If the cops come here and see me like this, she’ll get locked up. She isn’t calling the cops. She was trying to scare you,” I assured him.
He nodded and straightened his shoulders like he was trying to be brave. “You need to see a doctor. Your ribs look bad, Trisha.”
If I went to the hospital, they’d take us away from her and we’d be split up in foster homes or group homes. I wasn’t letting that happen. I couldn’t protect him there. He needed me.
“Not chancing that. Just help me stand up, and then I’ll need help wrapping it tight,” I told him.
He stared down at me with a frustrated frown. Then growled angrily. “I’m not a little kid anymore. When are you gonna see I can take care of myself, Trisha? Stop getting hurt for me! I can protect us both. And I want you to see a doctor.”
“They will split us up,” I reminded him.
He looked defeated. “Maybe. But at least you won’t be beat on.”
“There is no promise of that if we escaped from here. At least here I know what to expect, and I have you.”
Krit leaned down and kissed the top of my head. “One day we won’t live like this. We will have a real life. We will be free.”
Tears burned my eyes. When had my little brother become the one who comforted me?
Trisha wasn’t at school today. I’d watched her brother and his friend get off the bus, but she hadn’t been with them. The kid studied me as he walked by where I was standing. As if he was trying decide something. His blue eyes were so much like his sister’s. And there was a haunted look in them that I remembered seeing in Preston’s when we were younger.
Something was wrong.
That feeling stayed with me all day. When the last bell rang, I didn’t head to the field house. I made my way to the eighth-grade hall. I was finding her brother.
Krit was walking toward the door leading outside when I got to his side of the building.
“Krit,” I called out. There was a crowd of kids between us, and I knew if he got out that door then I’d lose him in the rush.
He turned and his eyes found me immediately. Which probably had to do with the fact that I was more than a head taller than most of these kids.
After telling his friend something, he pushed through the crowd and made his way back toward me. Thankfully, his friend continued on outside. Krit pulled his book bag up higher on his shoulder and stood up straighter, making his tall, lanky frame seem even taller. “What do you want with her? She’s not some chick you can just screw and move on from. She’d never sleep with you. She’s a good girl. She’s also got shit to deal with, and a player like you wouldn’t understand. So back off her if you’re just after her as one to add to your many.”
I was impressed. Not once did he falter in his demand. He was standing up for his sister, and he wasn’t afraid of the fact that I could snap him in two. I liked this kid.
“Not after her to sleep with her. I like her. A lot,” I assured him. “Where was she today?”
Krit frowned like he wasn’t sure he believed me. But I could see there was hope in his eyes. He wanted me to like her. “She’s hurt,” he replied slowly, and I could tell he was holding something back.
“How is she hurt?” I asked, wishing I’d not waited all damn day to figure out why she wasn’t in school.
He looked away from me and his jaw clenched. After a few too many beats of silence, I was beginning to think he wasn’t going to tell me. Finally he turned his gaze back to me, and the pain in his eyes didn’t make me feel better.
“Mom hit her. She already had messed-up ribs. And she punched her there again. I tried to help her.” He stopped, and his eyes watered as a hardness came over his face.
“She at home with your mom?” I asked, trying not to let the horror pounding inside my chest show on my face. The kid needed me to be strong. He was about to break down, and he was fighting it.
“I . . . I, uh, hit Mom. When Trisha crumpled to the ground, I lost it and I just . . .” He looked down and I saw him swallow hard.
“Did your mom leave?” I asked him.
Motherfucker. Why did her mother hit her? Sick f**ks didn’t need to reproduce. God should have made that a rule.
“Yeah. She was angry but she was bleeding. She left and wasn’t back this morning. Trisha was in a lot of pain and I convinced her to stay in bed. She needs to get better.”
“I’m taking you home,” I told him, and grabbed his arm and headed for the exit doors. I wouldn’t get any f**king sleep tonight if I didn’t see Trisha with my own eyes.
Krit tried to jerk his arm free. “Dude, let go. I’ve already missed my bus. I need the ride. You don’t have to break my arm.”
I wasn’t aware my grip was so tight. I let go of him.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
He shook his arm as if to get feeling back in it, but he continued to walk beside me.
“Don’t you have football practice?” he asked, glancing back at the field I had been due at twenty minutes ago.
“Yeah,” I replied, jerking open the door to my dad’s beat-up truck. I only got to drive it when he was working nights and sleeping all day. That was this week. I just had to fill it with gas and wash it.
“You gonna get to play Friday night if you miss? I heard that you had scouts watching you all season.”
If my dad found out I’d missed a practice, he’d be furious. The only reason he hadn’t kicked me out was because I could play football. He liked knowing his boy was going to be something.
When I was younger, he had left me with my mom and had barely come to visit me. Then one day in middle school I had begged him to let me play football and he’d been excited about it. When the coaches praised me and I became the star of the team, Dad had taken me away from my mother more and more.
The day I had come home from school to find all my things packed up in the back of his truck, my mother had been standing on the porch with the man she was dating. She explained that she needed a life and it was my dad’s turn to take care of me. Plus, she couldn’t afford it anymore.
The next month she moved to another state, and I hadn’t heard from her since.
So Dad was all I had. A man who only loved what I could do. Not me.
“If you don’t get to play, everyone’s gonna be pissed. We can’t beat the Dolphins without you.”
I would get to play. Coach would be mad and he’d make me pay for it with longer practices. But he’d let me play.
“I’ll play. Tell me how to get to your house.”
Krit pointed to the left. “Take the main street until you’re almost out of town. Then turn right onto Forts Road. Fifth trailer on the left.”
Forts Road was in the bad area of Sea Breeze. I’d been on that road once before with my mother when I was a kid. She’d been buying pot from someone there. We didn’t live in a great part of town, but it wasn’t this bad. And Dad had an apartment that wasn’t so bad. It was better than the house I’d lived in with Mom.
But Forts Road . . . Shit. Trisha shouldn’t be there by herself.
“It ain’t all that bad. Stop looking so damn horrified,” Krit grumbled.
I started to argue with him, but I let it go. No need to make him feel bad.
From my bed, where I had lain all day, I could hear the school bus pull up by the road. Mommie Dearest came home sometime after noon. She stumbled down the hall, and I heard her door slam. Then nothing else. She was hungover or still high and sleeping it off. The door to my room was closed, so she never thought to look inside.
I waited for the front door to open and Krit to come in, but I never heard it. Once the bus was gone and he still hadn’t come inside, I knew I had to get up. Something was wrong. If he missed the bus, he’d need me. I held my breath and tried not to groan as I sat up and slowly moved my legs off the bed. Once I had them both on the carpet, I stood up and took short breaths.
Today I had babied my side. Tomorrow I couldn’t do that. For starters, the wicked witch was now home. Then, of course, if I missed more school, they’d start calling here. That would be bad. Very bad.
Just as I took a step toward the door, I heard someone pull up outside. I froze and waited. Krit’s voice drifted through the window. I let out a sigh of relief. He’d gotten a ride. I continued to walk to the door, but then I heard another voice.
Once again . . . I froze.
Rock Taylor was here. Oh no. What had Krit done?
“That’s Mom’s car. She’s home,” I heard Krit tell Rock freaking Taylor! What was he doing?
Forgetting the pain, I opened my door and made my way down the hall and into the living room just as the front door opened up and in walked my brother, followed by Rock. Holy crap.
He was so big. Stepping into our trailer, he looked so out of place.
“Krit,” I croaked out, while my eyes were locked on Rock.
His gaze dropped to my ribs, and I remembered what I had on. Wrapping my arms around my waist, I tried to hide the tape we had used on my ribs. I hadn’t wanted my clothes to touch my injured ribs, so I was wearing a sports bra and a pair of cutoff sweatpants.
“I missed the bus. He gave me a ride,” Krit started to explain.
That didn’t make sense. “Why did you miss the bus?” I asked, still trying to figure out why Rock was here. In our trailer.
“He asked about you. When you didn’t show up at school. I told him . . .”
I snapped my gaze off Rock and glared at my brother. Surely he hadn’t told Rock what had happened. “You told him what?”
Krit shuffled his feet nervously. He had told him about Mom. Why would he do that? Rock Taylor wasn’t going to run in and save the day. He was interested in me. Now that he’d seen me like this, I hoped his fascination with getting in my pants would go away. My hair wasn’t washed and I looked awful.
“Thanks for bringing him home,” I bit out, trying to sound like I meant it. But I had a feeling it was Rock’s fault Krit had missed his bus. “But we got this. You can leave now.”
Krit’s eyes went wide. “Trisha! Seriously, why are you being like this? He isn’t—”
“He’s seen enough, Krit. Mom will wake up any minute, and he needs to be gone.”
“It doesn’t matter what he said. I am telling you that if you care about me at all, you’ll go back to your room and start your homework quietly. I don’t want her waking up, and you don’t either. She’ll be angry we woke her. I’m not up for another round just yet.”
Krit hung his head, then nodded and started walking toward his room. He stopped and gave Rock a nod. “Thanks, man.”
“Anytime,” Rock replied.
Krit glanced at me, and I could see the frustration on his face. I knew he thought Rock was here to save us. That little boy inside his big body still held on to the hope of a hero. Finally he went on down the hallway.
I waited until his bedroom door clicked closed before looking back at Rock.
“Don’t talk to him again. He doesn’t need you using him to get to me,” I said in the coldest tone I could muster.
Rock didn’t move. He held my gaze, then looked down at my ribs again.
“You need to see a doctor,” was his reply.
I let out a hard laugh. “Really? Aren’t you brilliant. News flash: If I see a doctor, DHR steps in and I lose my brother. Not gonna happen. Back off, Rock. I’m not up for grabs. I’m so off-limits to all men it’s not even funny. You are wasting your time and playing with my brother’s head. He thinks you can do something to help us. Stop it. Just. Go. Away.”
“She hit you a lot?”
Really? Did he not hear anything I just said?
“I said to go away,” I hissed.
“Let me help you. I know a doctor who can see you. It won’t get back to DHR. I swear.”
“GO. AWAY.” I bit my tongue and closed my eyes. I had yelled. Shit. He was making me so mad. I needed to keep my voice down.
“Can you stay in bed tomorrow? Will she make you go to school?”
Either he was deaf or he thought he was above listening to what others told him. “Rock, I need you to leave. I need you to forget all of this. Go play football and be the star this town loves to talk about. They want you. I don’t.”
He stood there and watched me for a few more seconds. Then, just when I thought he wasn’t going to listen yet again and I started to feel a small twinge of hope that maybe he wanted more than to get in my pants, he turned and walked outside.
His perfect, beautiful body walked down the small steps and back toward his truck. He didn’t look at me when he climbed inside and pulled away. He left. Just like I thought. He wanted something I wasn’t going to give him.
Guess he got the message.
If I admitted it to myself, it hurt. But I wouldn’t admit that. Or think about it. I didn’t have the luxury of fantasizing about anyone. Especially a guy who would be leaving for a college of his choice in two years.
Friday was finally here. The first game of the season.