The peer and the puppet, p.10
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.10

           B. B. Reid

  The pretty brunette stood in a huff and bumped my shoulder when she passed. I wanted to rip her eyes out. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to sit next to him.

  Mr. Driscoll, noticing that I still stood, glowered over the rim of his glasses. “Ms. Archer, I’d like to begin.”

  Ever’s lips twitched as he sat back slowly, never taking his eyes from me as I moved down the aisle and slid into the desk. The teacher immediately began going over the syllabus. Vaughn, with his hand now groping his conquest’s ass, leaned forward to wink at me.

  They were two peas in a pod, and I hated them both.

  I tried to follow along with the teacher’s ramblings, but I couldn’t stop watching Ever from the corner of my eye. He twirled a pencil between long, tanned fingers, drawing my attention to his bruised knuckles. They hadn’t been that way during lunch.

  I hadn’t realized I was openly staring until the pencil suddenly stopped twirling.

  “See something you like?”

  The space between my thighs warmed when I envisioned him touching me with those fingers. Oh, no. Don’t go there. “Fighting?” I nodded toward his knuckles. “Are you sure the peerage would approve?”

  “The what?” His confused frown was almost adorable.

  “The peers and peeresses.” His blank stare held, so I added, “The other rich assholes.”

  Understanding dawned and he smiled. “Peer…” His finger caressed his cleft chin. “Is that my pet name when you’re whispering about me with Tyra Bradley?”

  I snorted at the same time my face heated. He’s obviously been paying attention. “What makes you think we’ve been talking about you?”

  His eyebrow perked as if the answer was obvious, and then he turned his head toward the front of the class.

  I’d been dismissed.

  I straightened in my seat.

  Fuck him and what he thinks.

  But what if he thinks I have a crush on him like every other girl in this school?

  Before I could consider my dignity, I was facing him again. “Just so you know,” I whispered heatedly, “I was talking about you, but it wasn’t about what you think. It will never be what you think. Got it?”

  “What do I think?” he retorted while focusing on his syllabus. I hated how easy it was for him to ignore me.

  “Coy doesn’t suit you.”

  A whisper of a smile graced his lips. “Lying doesn’t suit you.”

  FOUR ARCHER WAS A PUZZLE piece I couldn’t fit into place. She was equally infuriating and fascinating, and I could never let her know. It would give her the power I enjoyed dangling just out of her reach.

  Sometimes, I wondered if she was getting to me instead of the other way around. All I could think about was her. A plain Jane with no money and no class had proved the most tempting of all. Go fucking figure.

  If I were truly honest, I’d say it was only natural that I was drawn to Four. She was the trouble I’d once craved.

  I slid my shades into place the minute I stepped into the sunny September afternoon. The parking lot was full, and no one seemed to be in a rush to get home since it was the first day. Most of us spend our summers out of town or abroad, so everyone was busy getting reacquainted. I bypassed the cliques and headed straight for my car that was a little too fucking crowded. Barbette stood next to the driver’s door with her arms crossed, pretending to ignore Jamie tonguing down some chick against the passenger door. Why the hell would she stick around?

  Our little triangle irritated the shit out of me, but Barbette needed the illusion. It was complicated as hell, and one day, Jamie might forgive us.

  But if he didn’t…fuck it.

  I did what I had to do for my friend.

  “Take your bullshit somewhere else,” I hissed in my cousin’s ear.

  He flipped me off and continued to dry-hump the shit out of his playmate for all to see. I guess he was still pissed about earlier, but he fucking deserved it. I rounded the hood and swore. Barbette was on the verge of tears. She noticed me, and just like that, her mask was in place.

  I took her in my arms and kissed her cheek because it was expected. One peek over Barbette’s shoulder revealed Jamie looking two seconds from ripping my head off. He’d forgotten all about the girl he was practically fucking. I put some distance between us but kept my hands on her slender hips to keep up appearances. “You okay?”

  “Can you come over for dinner tomorrow tonight?” She’d completely blown off my concern. “My parents are wondering why you haven’t been around.”

  I’d rather swallow nails than have dinner with her creepy fucking parents, but I made a vow to her four years ago. “I’ll be there.”

  Relief flooded her eyes. “Thank you.”

  I wanted to ask her if anything happened, but Barbette was a vault. The only people who could crack her perfect exterior were her parents…and my douchebag cousin.

  For a moment, I searched for the girl she’d once been—for Bee. When only Barbette stared back at me, I kissed her forehead and sent her on her way. Across the parking lot, Jamie was hopping in a car with the girl he’d been making out with, and together, they sped away. The rest of the school followed suit, and minutes later, I was alone in the empty parking.

  Where the fuck is she?

  Thinking she’d caught a ride with her friend, I started to text the number my father made me program. I didn’t feel like getting shit from him if I left her ass stranded here. Four didn’t know that when my father warned me of her return, he also threatened to send us both away if there was a repeat of last year. Under no circumstances could I allow that to happen. Four would learn her place even if I had to teach her myself.

  I was still typing out a text when I heard a familiar chime. My mind had already shifted gears by the time I pulled the burner phone from the locked glove compartment.

  “This is Boyd.”

  If someone were to search ‘Ever McNamara,’ they’d find one person with that name—one of Conall McNamara’s four heirs.

  So when I was initiated, I became Daniel Boyd.

  To the world, I was no one.

  But to Exiled, I’d be so much more.

  “You’ve been MIA,” Shane, Exiled’s head enforcer, greeted. “That makes me nervous, Danny Boy.”

  “I had personal shit to deal with.” It was a struggle to keep my voice level when I despised the man.

  You’re no better than him. Not anymore.

  “Don’t give a shit about your personal life,” he barked. “You pull this shit again, and I’ll find ways to keep you motivated. Are we clear?”

  “We’re clear.”

  “Good. I’m calling a meeting. Make sure you show up, or I’ll start with someone you love.”

  Just then, Four came into view, her steps hesitant and brown eyes wide from seeing me still hanging around. An image of Shane with his hands around her pretty little neck flashed through my mind, and I heard myself saying, “I’ll be there,” before ending the call.

  What. The. Fuck?

  This girl was more than just trouble.

  She was dangerous.

  I WAS SURPRISED TO LEARN that the prestigious Brynwood offered auto mechanics as an elective until I arrived and found that the entire class roster consisted of five students including myself. Still. I could walk through those doors every day knowing I’d have something to look forward to doing. The instructor seemed to know his stuff, and his grumpiness was nostalgic. It was like being in the shop again, although no one could replace Gruff. Dave—he’d insisted Mister was his father—had taken notice of my way around car parts. I told him all about Gruff and his shop back home, and he seemed excited to finally have someone with a real interest in mechanics in his shop.

  My next surprise came during Track and Field, my final period. I’d been obsessed with bikes and racing since I was ten years old, so I never bothered learning what else was out there. When Coach Lloyd put us on the track, the world faded away, and it was like being on the back of a bike a
gain. I ran until my lungs burned and my legs turned to jelly.

  School had ended thirty minutes ago, and I wouldn’t put it past Ever to leave me stranded, which was why I couldn’t conceal my surprise when I spotted the Range in the deserted parking lot. Ever stood with his foot propped on the bumper as he talked on one of those cheap throwaway phones. From his scowl, I guessed the conversation was unpleasant. I was more than a little curious about the phone call when he ended it seconds after noticing my approach.

  He didn’t move, and I pretended disinterest, but as I reached for the door, he issued a clipped, “No.”

  Oh, I’m so not in the mood, McNamara. “Is there a problem?”

  He shoved his hand into his pants’ pocket, and it was a struggle to keep my jaw from dropping when he handed me his keys. “Take my car home.”

  “Without you?” I glanced at the empty parking lot. “How will you get home?”

  “Don’t worry about me.” He was his usual surly self, yet somehow this felt different. Something was up.

  “And Jamie?”

  “He caught a ride.”

  “Oh…so you were waiting for me?” A raised eyebrow was my answer. “Thanks, I guess.” I finally took the keys and ignored the heat blooming in my lower tummy when our fingers touched.

  Ever walked away without looking back, and I couldn’t help but watch him go. He moved with such masculine grace and—was going into the woods?

  I told myself not to follow him.

  Begged myself not to follow him.

  I tossed his keys into my backpack and followed him.

  Fortunately, I was born and raised around nothing but trees, so it was easy for me to move through them without being heard. It was a short walk to the edge of a clearing where he stopped. I ducked behind a tree, and it was a good thing I did since Ever glanced over his shoulder before stepping into the opening. I peeked around the tree and watched him head for an open-planned shed that had seen better days. Parked underneath it was a green Crown Victoria that had also seen better days. I held my breath as I watched him open the trunk and lift a duffle from its depths. I jumped when he slammed the trunk closed, then felt foolish. Still, my reaction was the least silly thing I’d done all day. Following him in the first place was definitely at the top of that list.

  He threw the duffle on the trunk and began stripping out of his uniform. My fingers dug into the bark.

  I should turn away.

  I knew I should.

  But…I couldn’t.

  With his back to me, piece by piece he bared his body: shoes, jacket, tie. I couldn’t see as he released the buttons on his dress shirt, but my breathing quickened anyway, and when he slipped the shirt from his body, my breathing shuddered to a stop.

  The bold marking between Ever’s shoulder blades mocked me. It couldn’t be a coincidence. It was too bizarre. Too real. Tattooed on Ever’s back was an X, and underneath it an inscription I couldn’t make out but had a pretty good idea of what it read. I am not led.

  Ever was Exiled.

  I ran back to the parking lot after Ever drove off in the Crown Victoria. Nothing in the last five minutes made sense. Why would Ever, a boy who had everything, join a gang of murderers?

  Inside the Range Rover, I turned the AC up as high as it would go, closed my eyes, and imagined it was the wind whipping at my face as I defied death. Suddenly, my heart was racing in a good way. My skin tingled as I chased the high. It felt better than ever before.

  Because I’d finally found revenge.

  A quarter mile from the school, on my way back to the palace, I spotted the Crown Vic. The tint shielded the driver, but I knew it was him. That left me with two choices. I could go home and tell Thomas what I knew or follow him and see what he was up to.

  An hour later, I was trailing Ever through seedy New York neighborhoods until he turned down a street with an abandoned building at the end. There was no way I could go unseen, so I parked on the main road. It was a good thing this part of the city seemed deserted. A Range Rover wouldn’t be easy to miss. I hopped out and prayed his truck would still be there when I returned.

  Jogging down the path, I spotted the Crown Vic parked among a sixties model Impala with gleaming black paint and chrome grilling, a red Porsche Cayman, and a black Camaro with white stripes. It was probably stupid—no, definitely stupid—but I inched closer until I reached the shadows hugging the condemned building.

  With my back pressed against the side of the building, I sifted through the voices spilling over the moss and vine-covered threshold until I recognized one. There was a window above me, and if I stood on my tiptoes, I could see inside. I didn’t have to question if they’d kill me if I were caught.

  My life had become one big irony. Rosalyn uprooted us from our home to protect me from these monsters only to have one of them living across the hall.

  I’d laugh if I didn’t want to live.

  I glanced up at the window again and realized I was much too curious for my own good. Standing on my tiptoes, I rested my fingers on the brick windowpane to keep myself balanced. I took in the intimate group of menacing men. I could hardly believe Ever was one of them, but there he was in all black with a skully cloaking his gorgeous hair. He had his mask in place as a man who looked like he ate babies raged. The tattoo on the back of his shaved skull marked him as Exiled.

  There were three others. The one closest to me had brown hair swept back from his forehead with the sides shaved close. His back was to the window, so I couldn’t see his face, but I could see the mark at his nape. The other two stood in the shadows of the building, making it impossible to see their faces, but I was willing to bet they were Exiled.

  My attention returned to Ever, and my heart stopped when I saw him staring straight at me. I ducked and considered what to do. It was too late to run. I could already hear them moving. I had no chance of making it to the car and even less of fighting them off, but I searched for a weapon anyway. There were bits of broken glass lying around, so I picked up the biggest one and ignored the pain when it bit into my hand.

  Moments later, instead of fighting for my life, I listened as the cars started and drove away. I dropped the glass but waited an extra minute before peeking around the corner.

  Ever was a mere foot away with his shoulder propped against the wall looking seconds away from strangling me. I screamed and landed on my ass.

  “What the fuck are you doing here?” he demanded as he stalked me.

  I crawled backward on my hands until I realized I couldn’t fight from this position. As soon as I hopped up, he gripped my biceps and turned our bodies, pressing my back against the wall.

  “I asked you a question.”

  “Let go of me!”

  His fingers tightened, but when I grimaced, he immediately loosened them. Maybe he wouldn’t kill me after all.

  “Why did you follow me?”

  “Isn’t it obvious? You were up to something, and I wanted to know what.”

  His hands fell from my arms, and I was grateful. The rage in his eyes shook me to my core. “How much did you hear?”

  Not a damn thing. “Enough,” I lied, satisfaction lacing each syllable. I had a death wish.

  “Fuck!” he exploded. The curse sounded foreign passing through his lips. It seemed beneath him, yet it intimidated me as nothing ever had.

  “I saw their tattoos. I know they’re Exiled.” I purposely left out that I’d also seen his mark because it meant admitting to watching him undress in the woods. Whenever I closed my eyes, I could still see the muscles that hadn’t been there a year ago.

  “How exactly would you know that?”

  “Had a run in with them last year. It’s how I ended up in Stepford.” He glowered at my reference. “I’m guessing your father didn’t give you the whole story?”

  “Doesn’t matter. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He took a step back and started to walk away until my next words stopped him.

  “Maybe your
father can figure it out.”

  Before I could say more or take a fighting stance, my back was against the brick again, and this time, he had my wrists locked above my head while honey brown eyes blazed.

  “Rethink your next move, Archer, or I promise to make you regret it.”

  “The only thing I regret is the day you were born.”

  He leaned close, head bent, until his lips almost brushed mine. “Back at you, baby.”

  The endearment had me shivering. Afraid he might feel my reaction, I bucked against him. “I never said you could touch me!”

  Chuckling, he swept his lips across mine. “I never asked.”

  Desperate now, I moved to knee him, but he quickly shoved his thigh between mine. My breath caught as I watched his Adam’s apple bob. Why must everything he does be so goddamn enticing?

  “Let me go.”

  Thick lips brushed mine again, and his voice was smoother when he spoke. “Promise not to tell?”

  No, no, no. I hated the whimper that escaped me, and even more, I hated the boy who drew it out of me. I needed his kiss as much as I needed his downfall. When Ever’s hips pressed against mine, and his mouth skimmed my neck, I feared I’d be burned alive.

  “Promise me,” he demanded softly.

  “I promise—” Words eluded me when Ever softly bit into my neck, and his cock pressed against my fluttering stomach. I was grappling to keep my wits. “I promise you’re gonna regret knowing me, McNamara.” Slowly, he freed my skin from his teeth, and then our eyes met as I lifted my head from the wall and growled, “Now let me go.”

  I expected his wrath. Instead, he shrugged and stepped away, ending the pretense of seduction. I was left a ball of flame while he became a shard of ice. “You want revenge for the humiliation?”

  “Yes,” I hissed.

  “What about your time in Europe?”

  Logic was screaming to turn back now, but I couldn’t. I had to know. “What are you talking about?”

  “Did you think it was my father’s idea to send you to reform school?” His tone suggested I’d been naïve. “I practically put the brochure in his hand, Archer.”

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