The peer and the puppet, p.15
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.15

           B. B. Reid
 

  She’d found the ring and actually accused me of conspiring with a man I didn’t know. Only when I’d nursed her back to sanity did I convince her to give me his name with the promise that I’d never ask about him again.

  I didn’t need to.

  It had only taken a single web search to find all the information I needed about Benjamin West—more commonly known to the world as Benny West, a retired NASCAR driver. He was currently living in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife of twenty-two years and his seventeen-year-old son. It didn’t take a mathematician to know why it hadn’t worked out between Benny and Rosalyn. Not only did I have a famous father, but I was someone’s big sister, and he could never know about me. Rosalyn didn’t know that I’d discovered who my father was beyond his name. Before he retired, I tuned in for every one of his races. My fascination hadn’t been a slow burn. It inflamed me the moment I first watched my father win by a hair. Until a year and a half ago, Rosalyn always assumed my fascination with bikes and racing was a phase even though it lasted seven years and never waned.

  I could hardly believe it had been over a year since I last straddled a bike. Of course, Gruff and I still kept in contact, even after I was sent away. I’d occasionally write him letters, and he’d respond in a few short sentences, making them more notes than letters. Reading his ‘letters’ always made me feel like I was home.

  The wind blew, and I shivered. Not used to fall in the north, I’d chosen to go without a jacket and opted for a red printed thermal instead, but it wasn’t doing a good job protecting me from the elements. I wrapped my arms around myself to ward off the chill and refocused on the game, but then the heavy feel of something cloaking my shoulders stole my attention. I glanced down and saw it was navy leather with red sleeves swallowing most of my body.

  Ever had given me his jacket.

  I debated declining his offer, but his scent beckoned me into its warmth. I wanted to roll around in it until it lingered on my skin. I was still considering giving it back when he leaned over to wrap me tighter in his jacket.

  “Don’t take it off.”

  A second gust blew through the stands, and his order was suddenly one I didn’t mind obeying. I slipped my arms through the sleeves and sighed when his heat and scent surrounded me. His jacket was huge on me and a bit heavy, but man, was I warm. Tyra glanced back at Ever and then shot me an inquisitive look. Knowing how it must have looked, I shrugged, feeling guilt clawing at my skin. After one last suspicious look, she went back to watching the game.

  I bet Ever was proud of himself.

  We won the game by a landslide. Everyone in the stands was still going wild when Ever took off without a word and without his jacket. It wasn’t until the crowd began dispersing that I felt the stares. People were beginning to notice the McNamara name boldly flaunted across my back.

  Tyra had been going on and on about some celebration at the Point tonight, but eventually, even she noticed the attention.

  “People are staring,” she huffed.

  The wind was blowing steadily now, and the air was chillier, but it didn’t compare to the discomfort of people staring, so I shed the jacket. Shivering, I looked around for Ever. The team was busy shaking hands with the opposing team when I caught a glimpse of him on the other side of the gate standing with Vaughn and the coach.

  “Come on.” I started to pull Tyra with me onto the field but stopped when she resisted.

  “Um…I think I’ll just wait for you here.”

  I faced her with my hands on my hips. “Wasn’t it you who only recently proclaimed herself my best friend through thick and thin?”

  “Yes,” she answered slowly.

  “This is the thick, my friend.” I grabbed her hand again, and this time, she didn’t fight me.

  Vaughn was the first to notice our approach. His gaze passed over me and lingered on something over my shoulder before he nudged Ever. They were standing in the middle of the field, and I hadn’t even covered half the distance, but I could still tell that Ever wasn’t happy with me yet again. The coach stopped mid-sentence when Ever walked away to meet me across the field.

  “I know you’re cold,” he said with a growl. “Put the coat back on.”

  “I’ll be fine.” I held out his jacket, but he didn’t even look at it.

  “Put. It. On.”

  My arm dropped to my side, and neither of us cared that his jacket was practically lying on the field now. “Why do you care so much?”

  “You’re no use to me sick.”

  “Please. You got bored toying with me weeks ago.”

  Tyra’s wide eyes shot back and forth between us, but I was too pissed to care how our argument might look.

  “Four, so help me…” He took a step toward me, but Coach Bradley clapped a hand on Ever’s shoulder, keeping him at bay.

  “Son”—the coach chuckled good-naturedly—“everyone knows you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

  Ever rudely shrugged off the coach’s hold and grabbed my hand before stalking off. His G Wagon, which was totally boss, was parked at the dark end of the football field, and we were headed straight for it. I resisted a little harder, so he threw me over his shoulders and slapped my ass. I was blushing hard as I looked around but the field and the stands were mostly cleared. When we reached his car, he trapped me between him and the hood after setting me on my feet.

  “You really need to learn some manners.”

  “Put the jacket on.” I was getting ready to deny him again when he added, “Please.”

  “If you had only listened, I would have told you it wasn’t necessary for me to wear this anymore because I’m going home.”

  He shook his head. “Tyra’s going to the campfire.”

  “And?”

  “She would have talked you into going.”

  “You don’t know that.” I had no intentions of being around Ever and his people for an entire night.

  “I do know.” His hand cupped my hip, and I could feel his fingers splayed over my ass as he tugged me closer. “I know that the last thing you want is to be stuck at home with our parents.”

  I sighed, exasperated even as my toes tingled. “You’re not seriously starting this up again, are you?”

  His nose grazed the side of my neck. “So what if I am?”

  “The last time you touched me like this, you turned to ice after you had your fun. I’m not a toy, Ever.”

  “Yes, you are, puppet. My father is a rich man, so I’ve never wanted for anything.” He fingered the end of my ponytail and stepped back. “But then you proved to me that the best things in life really are free.” I watched from the corner of my eye as he walked around to the driver’s side. “I don’t care if you come to the bonfire or crawl under a rock, but I care if you’re no use to me. Put on the fucking jacket.”

  Ever’s prediction came true. Tyra had convinced me to go to the celebration bonfire after the game. The beach was already full when we arrived. There were also a few fires burning with our classmates drinking, dancing, and making out around them. Brynwood’s finest, the football players, partied hardest amongst the crowd while music poured from the red Jeep Wrangler Sahara Jamie bought a couple weeks ago. I’d been bumming rides to school from him ever since. The back hatch was open, and I didn’t notice Jamie sitting in the back until he called my name.

  “A party ain’t a party unless Four Archer’s in the house!”

  I couldn’t help admiring how tempting he looked in the red beanie that only covered the crown of his head, hoodless Red Sox sweatshirt, and blue jeans. “You don’t mean that one bit.”

  “No, I don’t. You need to loosen up, girl. I get enough of my cousin’s stuffiness.”

  “What? I’m loose,” I defended.

  His expression turned stale as he looked me over. “You look constipated.”

  Tyra tried to be a friend and hold her laugh in, but it burst out, and I found myself joining her. “Jamie, I can’t decide if you’re the best or
worst kind of frenemy.”

  “Frenemy?” He had the nerve to look genuinely confused. “We aren’t cool, Four?”

  “Not when you use me to mess with your cousin.”

  Tyra’s ears practically pricked at my comment. Despite us being close, I hadn’t told her what had occurred between Ever and me when no one was looking. Tyra loved to gossip like no other. Sure, I trusted her, but I trusted only me with my dirty secrets.

  And Ever McNamara was most definitely my dirty little secret. And I was his.

  “Aw.” Jamie clutched his chest. “I thought you forgave me.”

  “I have, but I won’t ever forget, so maybe think twice before you put me in the middle of your feud again.”

  “You were a necessary evil, Archer.” He tugged on the sleeve of Ever’s jacket as if my wearing it made his point. Maybe it did.

  “I was not amused, Buchanan.”

  “Fine.” He groaned and pulled me into a tight hug. Unable to resist, I hugged him back. Jamie could be quite charming when he kept his mouth closed. I had only just relaxed when Tyra’s phone pinged.

  “Uh, I’m going to catch up with you later, Four.”

  My head lifted quickly from Jamie’s chest. Was she seriously ditching me after begging me to come? “What?”

  She was already backing away with a sheepish look. “You’re good with Jamie, right?”

  “Tyra…”

  “I’ll be right back. Promise!”

  I was left gaping after her as she hurried down the beach.

  “This will be the last time I let her drag me anywhere.”

  “Aw, don’t be too hard on her,” Jamie advised. “It’s not her fault, after all.”

  My nose wrinkled as I looked up at Jamie. “What do you mean?”

  His eyebrows lifted. “You really don’t know?”

  “Know what?”

  “Vaughn and your friend…they’re hooking up.”

  “No, they’re not.”

  “Yeah, Four. Have been since Ever’s birthday bash.”

  “She would have said something to me.”

  “Would she? Have you even told her about you and my cousin?”

  “Why would I when there’s nothing to tell?”

  “Tell that to someone who doesn’t see the way you two look at each other when you think no one is paying attention.”

  “Have you ever considered telling stories for a living? You have quite the imagination.”

  “You must be driving my cousin’s head wild,” he said as if I hadn’t spoken. “He’s never been rejected before.”

  “I don’t know why. His personality sucks.”

  “Yeah, but they don’t want him, they want our money.”

  I sometimes forget that Jamie was just as privileged as Ever. Maybe because he was down to earth while Ever kept his nose in the air. “No amount of money could make me suffer through life with that spoiled prick.”

  Jamie playfully brushed his thumb down my cheek while gazing at me lovingly. “And that’s why you’re his one, lass.”

  I batted his hand away and grumbled, “You won’t be saying that when I knock him off his pedestal.”

  “Ever’s need to protect and avenge gave him one hell of a mean streak. You shouldn’t push him.”

  “Why should I listen to you? You push him all the time.”

  He shrugged, but I could see the torment in his eyes. “I’ve got nothing Ever hasn’t already taken.”

  “Why don’t you get even? No one can be that forgiving.”

  His eyebrows rose as a lascivious smile brightened his features. “Is that an invitation?”

  “I’m just curious why you hang out with him even though you claim he betrayed you. The two of you fight all the time, but you’re hardly ever apart.”

  “We’re at each other’s throats, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have his back and he doesn’t have mine. No one’s allowed to fuck with him but me.”

  “But why are you still loyal to him?”

  “We’re family,” he answered with exasperation. “And no girl will ever change that.”

  “Even if she’s your one?”

  His nostrils flared. “She showed me years ago that she wasn’t.” He took a sip of his beer and looked off into the distance.

  “If that were true, then seeing her with him wouldn’t torture you so much.” His gaze met mine. “Anyone can see that it does.”

  “Maybe I just don’t want her to be happy.”

  “I’m having a hard time believing you’re that selfish.”

  “You don’t know me well.”

  “But I have good instincts.” It was the only thing keeping me from crossing the line with his cousin. If I strayed too close, Ever would find his way into a part of me that was forbidden to him.

  He smirked. “Instincts won’t be enough to save you from falling for my cousin.”

  Laughter burst from my stomach, though my heart sobbed with despair. “First, I’m making eyes at him, and now I’m falling in love?” I was bent over, wiping tears from my cheeks when Ever spoke from behind me.

  “Who’s the lucky guy?”

  I straightened up immediately and caught the satisfied look on Jamie’s face. He must have seen Ever coming and set me up. With a look, I promised retribution and turned to face Ever.

  “Where’s your girlfriend?”

  Jamie stiffened beside me, and Ever’s jaw hardened. I can play, too, boys.

  “Four,” Ever warned.

  “Shouldn’t you be more concerned about her and less with me?” You could cut the tension with a knife. Jamie’s jealousy was palpable, but it was the emotion in Ever’s eyes that sent a chill down my spine. I knew antagonizing them was a little more than petty, but I was getting sick of them playing me like a fiddle.

  “Barbette knows how to behave.”

  Jamie’s low growl raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

  “Wow, McNamara. She’s your girlfriend, not your pet,” I instigated. I could practically hear the steam blowing from Jamie’s ears.

  Ever’s eyes narrowed, and then he was reaching for me, but Jamie’s next words stopped him cold.

  “I don’t know what she fucking sees in you.”

  In the blink of an eye, Ever’s demeanor shifted from mildly annoyed to ruthless. “No…you don’t, which is why she’s no longer yours.”

  I didn’t expect my heart to plummet or bile to rise at seeing Ever so possessive of another. Jamie looked ready to rip Ever apart, yet he shoved his cousin, which was less than he deserved, and stalked away down the beach.

  I’d forgotten Ever was standing there as I watched Jamie go until he growled, “Happy with yourself?”

  Not really, no. “I’m not the one dating your cousin’s ex.”

  Ever fell into step beside me as I walked away.

  “Barbette and Jamie chasing each other’s tails for a couple of summers doesn’t make me a traitor.”

  I whirled on him, but he was already a few paces away. Jogging, I caught up and swiftly cut him off. “What the hell are you talking about, McNamara?”

  “Their so-called relationship happened when we were kids. It was over quicker than it started.” With a bored looked, he moved around me, but I quickly fell into step beside him. I’d worry that someone might mistake this for a romantic stroll on the beach later. It was time I got some answers.

  “Why did it end?”

  “I don’t know, Four.” He sounded annoyed while avoiding my gaze, which told me he wasn’t being entirely truthful. “They don’t talk about it, and I don’t ask. When those summers ended and Jamie returned home to Boston, they would write to each other, but one day, the letters just stopped.”

  “Why did he stop writing her?”

  Ever shot me a look and said, “She stopped writing him.”

  “Oh.”

  “Jamie didn’t waste time hopping on a train to Blackwood Keep to find out why.” He smiled faintly at the memory. “My aunt and uncle were furious wh
en they discovered their fourteen-year-old had snuck away to travel two-hundred miles alone.”

  “So what happened?”

  “Jamie got his answer, and Barbette went home with a bruised knee and scraped hands. The next day, her parents showed up at our house and demanded that Jamie stay away from her.”

  “And did he?”

  “He didn’t have a choice. A few months later, Jamie’s father moved his career and his family to Scotland. Jamie visited before he left. Probably to make up with her but…”

  “By then, you and Barbie were an item.”

  He looked at me quizzically.

  “Tyra told me.”

  “You shouldn’t believe everything someone tells you.”

  “It’s not as if I could ask you.” I clutched his jacket a little tighter when the wind blew. “So, why are you going steady with your cousin’s ex?”

  He stopped short and tapped the side of his forehead as if the question was trivial. “Has it ever occurred to you that I might just be into her?”

  “No…and that’s the problem, my dear prince. You don’t touch her, you don’t kiss her, you don’t look at her like…”

  “Like what?” he snapped.

  Like you look at me. I shoved the truth down and locked it away as he shifted closer with cruel eyes.

  “Why do you care anyway? I’m blackmailing you to keep your mouth shut, yet you’re worried about my love life?”

  Yeah, my priorities were really screwed, but I had my reason, and it followed me into my dreams. I cleared my throat, erasing the vulnerability from my voice. Now if only I could do the same for my heart. “I care because of those kisses you stole a month ago. I never imagined my first kiss would be with a boy who belonged to someone else.”

  He closed his eyes while I held my breath.

  Too much. I said too much.

  When he opened them again, there was a gleam that suspiciously resembled satisfaction. “If you’re feeling guilty, don’t.”

  “That’s not good enough.”

  He sounded resigned to a fate he didn’t want when he said, “It will have to be.”

  I tried to cross my arms, but the weight of his jacket made them heavy, so I settled for balling my fists even though they’d been completely swallowed by the sleeves. “Or maybe I’ll tell her what a cheating asshole you are.”

 
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