The peer and the puppet, p.12
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.12

           B. B. Reid

  Wren seemed calm by the time we reached the compound, but I quickly learned he had merely been lying in wait. I didn’t see the blow coming, but goddamn, I felt it. Growing up, Vaughn, Jamie, and I would beat the shit out of each other as well as a few others, so I knew how to take a hit, but Wren packed a pretty powerful punch. I’d never been hit that hard. I was both pissed and in awe.

  I spat out the blood while glaring back at him. He hadn’t said a word, hadn’t voiced the question, but I knew why he’d attacked. I would have done the same. “You’re still breathing because of me,” I warned. “Don’t force me to rectify that.”

  “If you wanted to be a coward, that’s on you, but you should have left me.”

  “To die?” I questioned incredulously.

  “To help my brothers!” he roared.

  “They were already dead, Harlan.”

  His gaze narrowed, and I realized I’d said the wrong thing. “Why are you so sure of that?”

  “None of us had silencers, so trust me…it wasn’t Siko and Eddie doing the shooting.” It was the only truth I could give him. Anything more could expose my hand in their deaths.

  He was silent for a long while before turning away. The crumbling house where we’d met only a couple hours before loomed ahead in the shadows, and just when I thought I was in the clear, he threw over his shoulder, “I will never trust you…Danny Boy.”

  I WAS HAVING A DREAM. A very good dream. A dream I’d never in a million years admit to having under any circumstances. Not even torture.

  Sadly, my dream ended, and I was jarred awake drenched in sweat. The T-shirt I’d worn to bed was bunched around my waist, showing off my cotton panties. I blushed when I recalled in vivid detail what caused such disarray.

  And then I froze when I realized I wasn’t alone.

  A quick glance at the foot of my bed showed a figure in dark clothing leaning forward with his forearms casually resting on his knees. The scream that tore from my lips was silenced when the figure leaned over and calmly rested his palm over my mouth.

  “My father is a light sleeper,” Ever calmly warned. “And I’m sure you don’t want to explain to your mom why I’m in your bedroom at three in the morning.” My heart continued to race even after he lifted his hand, but I didn’t scream. “Good girl.”

  “Why are you here?” I hissed while scrambling to pull down the T-shirt still bunched around my waist. I lifted the comforter I must have kicked away in my sleep and covered my lower half.

  Oh, God, he’d seen everything. I felt like I had been caught red-handed considering he’d been the one I’d—

  Fuck my life.

  “You told my father I went to the store for deodorant.”

  “And?” I sounded as exasperated as I felt.

  “He didn’t buy your story.”

  I could imagine considering he was sitting in my room fully dressed at three in the morning. It didn’t take seven hours to buy deodorant.

  “Not. My. Problem.”

  “But it is. We made this deal together, and we’ll honor it…together.”

  I sighed. “So, what did he do to your highness? Take a spoon?” I mocked.

  “Grounded,” he grunted.

  “Poor you.”

  I didn’t expect his smile. It was soft. Indulging. My overly large T-shirt had slipped from my shoulder, so he trailed his finger over my skin. “I’ll have to punish you, Four.”

  “Punish me?” That was laughable. “I’m not your child.”

  “No, swamp girl. You’re a puppet. My puppet.” He stood from my bed and headed for the door. “If I’m grounded, so are you.”

  I told myself I was still dreaming and that he wasn’t actually saying these words. “What does that even mean?”

  “It means I’ll have fun anyway.”

  Too exhausted to argue, I sighed and met his gaze. “Get out of my room, McNamara.” I thought there was nothing else he could say or do until his parting words.

  “You sound lovely when you come, Archer.”

  I knew the moment he had entered the kitchen the next morning. He didn’t speak and hardly made a sound. I simply felt him. I ate breakfast at the island and was already dressed in my uniform when he sauntered in shirtless with long gray pajama bottoms hanging loosely around his hips. He didn’t acknowledge me as he filled his plate with the food Mr. Hunt, the cook, had made. After last night, I expected more.

  I’d lain awake for at least an hour after he left my room, thinking about what would happen come morning. And when I finally slept, he’d invaded my dreams once again, but this time, the hands that roamed my flesh had been covered in blood. It was obvious Ever had been out doing Exiled’s bidding, and it was surprising just how much it bothered me. What evil deed had they demanded from him, and more importantly, what price would he eventually pay for those deeds? The boy who invaded my dreams had brought warmth, and light, and love, but the boy who caused my nightmares… I shuddered.

  After filling his plate high, instead of keeping the table between us, he sat next to me, giving me a whiff of his shampoo.

  Or maybe it was his body wash.

  Whatever it was, the intoxicating scent had me forgetting all about the ruthless gangbanger. No way could anyone other than Ever McNamara make me blush. I could feel him everywhere without even touching him. It was distracting.

  “Why are you sitting so close to me?”

  “Because I make you nervous.”

  I could feel my lip curl. “Gets your rocks off, does it?”

  He licked his lips and grinned. I felt kicked in the stomach.

  “No, but I like how my nearness takes your breath away.”

  “It does not.” It so does.

  He put his arm on the back of my chair and leaned in to whisper, “I can even hear the need behind your lies.”

  “Stop it.” He was driving me crazy, and he didn’t even need to touch me to do it.

  “I don’t think I can.” His lips skimmed my ear, and I barely bit back a moan.

  “Ever, please.” Common sense told me that he was only getting back at me for getting him grounded, but my body didn’t care as it responded to his touch. I clearly needed to take notes on vengeance. What method was more clever than making your victim beg for it? “We’re enemies,” I said more firmly.

  “Says who?” When I felt him nip my ear, then lick the abused flesh, I wanted to give in to whatever this was, but then I remembered a year of isolation that had been all his doing.

  “You did,” I answered through gritted teeth. “When you told your father to send me away.” Before he could get inside my head and succeed in making a fool out of me, I hopped from the stool and almost knocked Jamie over when I tried to flee.

  “Whoa,” he cautioned. His hands on my arms halted my escape. “Where ya headed, Speedy?”

  “Let me go.”

  “What’s the password?” he teased. Either he was completely oblivious to the tension in the room or he just didn’t care. Perhaps he was using me again to get under Ever’s skin. Whatever his reason, I was ready to knee him when Ever’s growl froze us both.

  “Take your hands off her.”

  I looked over my shoulder and saw that he’d abandoned his breakfast and now stood with his fists clenched.

  “Why would I do that, cousin? You seem to enjoy having your hands all over what’s mine.”

  “I’m not going to ask again,” Ever shot back. I didn’t miss that he’d completely ignored his cousin’s accusation, and apparently, neither had Jamie.

  Without warning, Jamie gently pushed me behind him and was ready to charge his cousin when Thomas suddenly appeared between his son and nephew. I never even noticed him enter the kitchen. A minute more and Ever and I would have been caught.

  “What the hell is going on here?”

  “Ask your son,” Jamie sneered.

  Thomas wasted no time regarding his son, who looked positively murderous. My heart skipped a beat. Knowing Ever was Exiled, I wasn
t so sure I shouldn’t heed his current mood.

  “Well?” Thomas demanded.

  Ever’s gaze had fallen on me while he blatantly ignored his father.

  I stopped breathing.

  Why must I anticipate his every move with bated breath?

  It was all for nothing anyway. He rolled his eyes and calmly strolled from the kitchen, leaving his father without an explanation and me feeling more empty than ever.

  PROMISES WERE SOMETHING I FOUND impossible to break, which was why I rang the doorbell ready to play the gentleman. I was surprised when Bee, dressed in a white cocktail dress, appeared on the other side of the door. Her parents were the type who felt it was beneath them to answer their own doors because of their wealth.

  The panicked look on Bee’s face cleared the moment she saw me.

  “You came.”

  I sighed and handed her the bouquet of roses. Elliot and Melissa would have expected nothing less for their daughter. “I said I would.”

  She scanned my gray wool blazer, white dress shirt, black tie, and chinos before nodding her approval and waving me inside. Her parents, dressed in their dinner finery, waited for us in the sitting room.

  “Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery,” I greeted with excitement I didn’t feel. I played my role well, shaking her father’s hand and kissing her mother’s cheek.

  “Son, I told you before. Call me Elliot.”

  “Habit, sir.” I fought an eye roll.

  “I can’t find fault with a good upbringing, can I, son?” He clapped me on my back and offered me a drink even though I was underage.

  I shook my head, knowing it was a test.

  One of the help came to announce that dinner was served. Bee was standing dutifully by my side, probably as rehearsed, when her mother beamed at the bouquet she held. “What lovely flowers, young man.” To her daughter, she said, “Shouldn’t you put those in water?”

  “Excuse me.” My girlfriend wasted little time fleeing the room and leaving me with her parents.

  “Shall we?” Melissa announced.

  I followed them to the grand dining room. The feast was a little much for a casual Friday dinner, but over the top was the Montgomery way. And how I got into this mess.

  Bee returned just as we were seated.

  “Son, I’m glad you could find time in your schedule to join us for dinner. Barbette tells me that you are no longer playing football.”

  “That’s right. I had to make room for more important endeavors.”

  “I see. Care to share?”

  Not a chance. “It’s mostly extracurricular. I’m hoping it will improve my chances of being accepted into a good architecture program. I figured it was time I was serious about my future.” Just keep feeding them bullshit.

  “Yes, the future is exactly what we wanted to discuss.”

  Bee was damn near catatonic when I glanced across the table. We both knew what was coming, had prepared for this moment, but it didn’t stop my skin from crawling. I just wish Bee had given me a fucking heads up. The look on her face told me she knew what would happen tonight and even after everything she still hadn’t trusted me to keep my promise. I felt my jaw clench as I recalled just how much I lost and how far I’d gone to help my friend. Too fucking far.

  “And that would be?” I questioned with a hint of hostility. Fuck pleasantries. He was just lucky I was still seated and not headed for the door.

  “You and my daughter have been an item for years now. Long before I can say I cared for Barbette to start dating,” he lied through his teeth.

  “We have.”

  “So I assume that her best interests are your priority.” His words felt like shackles slamming shut, and it was all I could do not to chew off my own leg and get the hell out of here.

  But Elliot Montgomery wasn’t wrong. Bee was one of my best friends, and I cared about her. I definitely wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.

  “I’d do anything for your daughter.”

  I should have been able to lie with practiced ease and profess that I was in love with his daughter, but a vision of brown eyes and a messy ponytail kept the words locked away.

  I gritted my teeth.

  Four’s been nothing but trouble since she kneed me in the balls. It was like she’d been holding me by them ever since. I needed to get over this infatuation I had with the troublemaker like I needed my next breath. If I took her to my bed, it would never stop there. She’d want more, and I would take everything she had to give before destroying her. Just like Olivia Portland.

  And even if Four turned out to be unbreakable, I already knew that I wasn’t. Four will unleash me if I let her. I couldn’t allow that to happen.

  “And her honor?” Elliot probed. “What would you do to protect that?”

  Tired of this dance, I met Elliot’s stare dead on. “What is this about?” All pretenses abandoned, I needed him to get to the fucking point.

  Elliot steepled his fingers as his demeanor shifted from gracious to stern. “We’d like to know if you plan to marry our daughter.”

  I was turning eighteen in a couple of days, and Bee was barely seventeen fucking years old, but that didn’t seem to bother Elliot as he sat at the head of the table expecting a proposal for his daughter’s hand in marriage as if I’d knocked her up. My fists balled on my thighs. If I turned him down, Elliot Montgomery would have someone else seated at his dinner table the very next day, ready to offer his daughter on a platter to a man who didn’t care about her honor or her interests.

  I stared into the eyes of the girl who taught me how to climb a tree and who lit a candle for my mother every Sunday. This was the moment Bee and I had been anticipating since that night four years ago. I promised to protect her no matter what it took, but at fourteen, I had no idea how much that promise would one day cost me.

  “Yes,” I answered, feeling Bee’s relief as if it were my own. “There’s nothing and no one I want more.”

  Those words burned.

  Like someone had just poured acid down my throat.

  I FOLLOWED TYRA INTO A blue two-story home sitting on stilts with two stacked balconies facing the beach. She was teeming with excitement next to me, which was no surprise since she had begged and begged and begged until falling dramatically onto the floor and crying that she’d be a virgin forever.

  “Whose place is this?” I shouted over ‘My House’ by Flo Rida.

  “It belongs to the Rees’, but Vaughn’s the only one who ever puts it to use, which doesn’t surprise me. They live in this grand castle, and the guest list is so exclusive that hardly anyone other than family has ever stepped foot inside. I heard that their security is tighter than a virgin’s ass.”

  My brows rose at her bitter tone, but I decided it was best not to peek behind that curtain right now.

  “Really? That’s not suspicious at all,” I responded sarcastically. It made me wonder why someone who wasn’t a celebrity or the President needed that much security.

  Tyra shrugged while looking around the party. “I told you. There’s a rumor that Franklin Rees wears suits, but it isn’t to punch a clock.” With all the wealth and prestige surrounding this town like a bubble, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but that was before Ever McNamara made the impossible ordinary.

  I looked around too and spotted Jamie deejaying near the speakers with a gang of girls surrounding him. He seemed in his element as they swayed their hips in low-cut tops and skintight bottoms.

  Things had been staler than usual since his almost fight with Ever yesterday morning, but the tension quickly fizzled when Vaughn announced he was throwing an eighteenth birthday bash for Ever. Apparently, Thomas had banned parties at the palace after last year. I just hoped there wouldn’t be a need to crack open another skull this year. I never did get to apologize to Daniel Kim, whose parents had been furious. Even though Ever hadn’t ratted me out, fingers were still pointed. Thomas sending me away had kept the Kims from pressing charges, but the bad blood remained. I
could practically feel the target on my back whenever I crossed paths with Daniel Kim.

  Ever’s actual birthday wasn’t until tomorrow, but partying on a Saturday night ensured everyone would be well and sober come Monday morning. Not to mention, he was still technically grounded, but Thomas had temporarily lifted the ban because well…you only turned eighteen once. As for me…I didn’t consider myself his to punish.

  I hadn’t made it far inside the party when I felt an arm over my shoulder. “You have on too many clothes,” Jamie shouted over the music. “I can barely see your skin!”

  I’d worn black jeans with a white and black Evil Dead T-shirt and Vans that had seen better days. Tyra had begged for me to wear my hair down, but I refused. The natural bounce and volume of my wavy tresses made me feel too…feminine.

  “That’s the point!” I yelled back.

  Jamie had apologized yesterday, and it was hard not to forgive him since he’d chosen to do it in the most embarrassing way. In the hallway, as the entire school was changing classes, he literally threw himself at my feet. Ever, on the other hand, went back to pretending I didn’t exist. He also didn’t show up for dinner last night. I guess everything had returned back to normal. Maybe. When I told Tyra about this morning, while leaving out the parts that had made my panties damp, she gave me a strange look but said nothing.

  “I’ve been instructed to give this to you.”

  My stomach did that fluttering thing again when Jamie handed me a folded note. The paper was all too familiar as I recalled the note I’d receieved two nights ago.

  Ever obviously knew I was here, but how did he know I’d come?

  I searched the crowd and every dark corner and almost gave up looking when I saw him. Above the dance floor, with his hands resting on the balcony railing, Ever lorded over his subjects with his trusty sidekick, Vaughn, by his side. He wore a white button-up with the sleeves shoved to his elbows, a tie the color of blood, black jeans, and kicks. Vaughn wore only a destroyed denim vest, showing off his abs and chest, with black jeans and kicks. The two of them together looked like trouble. Like a conqueror and corruptor.

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