The peer and the puppet, p.16
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.16

           B. B. Reid
 

  I was completely thrown when he shrugged and smoothly lowered his body until he sat in the sand.

  Did he care so little for his girlfriend’s feelings?

  Disgust rolled through me and on its heels…elation. I had to be the worst human being on the planet.

  He suddenly reached up and tugged me down next to him. I frantically looked around, scared of who might see, but the bonfire was only streams of smoke in the distance.

  “It’s all right,” he said with a secret curve of his lips. “You’re safe with me.”

  Alone in the dark on the beach?

  I’d be safer in the sea with hungry sharks.

  As we listened to the waves crash, I wondered what his mother would have to say about her son, the rake. “Tell me about your mom.”

  He looked away, letting me see his tight jaw and nothing else. “What about her?”

  “I was told she disappeared. That she might have even…left?”

  He shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “She did leave.”

  My head was spinning from all the questions that seemed too insensitive to ask. With a lump in my throat, I could only choke out, “I’m sorry, Ever.” They were the only words that seemed right. Fisting my hands in the sand to keep from pulling him close, I watched his nostrils flare as he stared out at the water.

  When he spoke again, each syllable was laced with shame and regret.

  “My father and I didn’t really give her much reason to stick around. He was always working, and I was always causing trouble.”

  “You were growing up.”

  “I was making her sick.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “The morning she left, she was going to visit her sister in New York. She hated the city, and I never knew why. I only knew that I made her desperate enough to go back.” In a much quieter voice, he added, “She was only supposed to be gone for the weekend.”

  “What did you mean by you were making her sick?”

  “She had anxiety. Before she left for her sister’s, she had an attack. Her blood pressure had gotten so high her doctor recommended she get away from whatever was causing her so much stress.”

  “What happened?”

  “My mother found out a girl tried to kill herself…because of me. I was too stupid to know she was suffering before I—”

  “Before you slept with her?”

  Ever simply stared back at me through sad eyes. My heart felt strangled in my chest as I recalled Jamie’s claim that Ever had changed. Maybe guilt had been the reason. Ever still went to parties, but I’d never actually seen him enjoy them. He didn’t dance, drink, or hookup with girls even though there was always a line of them waiting to be chosen.

  “Was her name Olivia Portland?”

  Adam’s apple bobbing, he looked away.

  “I shouldn’t be surprised that you know,” he said after a while.

  “You didn’t think the most popular boy at school would be excluded from gossip, did you?” My teasing was meant to lighten the mood, but his expression only became more solemn.

  “I’d rather you get your facts from me. At least then I could be sure you believed only the truth.”

  I was startled by his admission but smart enough not to let it show. “Why should I trust you not to lie to me?”

  “There are worse things I could do to you. Lying should be the least of your concerns.”

  “I see Exiled is training you well,” I remarked snippily.

  “Good.” His smile was faint but dripped with deadly intent. “I’ll need them to.”

  Ignoring the phantom feel of icy fingers trailing down my spine, I hastily tried to dissect his meaning. It was the first indication he’d given that he was Exiled for a reason other than simply seeking a thrill.

  “Why join a gang? You have everything you could ever want.”

  Eyes shooting flames, he said, “You don’t know shit about what I want.”

  “Then enlighten me. You seem to know all of my secrets. Level the playing field.”

  He bared his teeth and smirked. “I know your secrets because I’m clever.” Amber eyes that reminded me of autumn dropped to my lips where a sneer was forming. “And you’re reckless,” he whispered.

  “I’m reckless because I have to be. It seems to me like you joined a gang because spending Daddy’s money got boring, and you needed a thrill.”

  Only a millisecond passed before I was shoved onto my back. I had to quickly close my eyes to keep the sand from getting in my eyes. Ever didn’t move or make a sound, but he didn’t have to.

  I could feel him.

  When I opened my eyes, he was crouched low over me with his elbows resting on his thighs.

  “You constantly bring up my family’s money as if it’s what truly separates us. Would you like to know the difference between you and I, little troublemaker? You run from your demons. I chase mine.”

  Heart pumping and skin flushed with shame because maybe he was right, I could only muster through gritted teeth, “Get off me.”

  “You’re free to go,” he replied matter-of-factly.

  Still, he didn’t move an inch.

  And because he wasn’t actually restraining me or even touching me for that matter, I realized he expected me to crawl if I wanted to leave.

  Feeling murderous by the time I stood, I furiously brushed the sand caked on my skin and clothes, then started the short trek back to the bonfire without looking back.

  Maybe Ever was right about being the clever one. I couldn’t help but feel as if I had drawn the short stick. We lived in the same house, rode to school together, shared meals, and have even kissed, but while he seemed to know my every thought, desires, and fear, I realized that I was not even close to discovering his.

  Once I reached the bonfire, I headed straight for one of the large blue coolers. Before I could reach for the white lid, however, some guy shoved a fresh beer in my hands.

  Returning his smile, I lifted the can. “Cheers.”

  I had only just popped the top when the beer was plucked from my hand by Ever. I was too shocked to do anything but watch as he took a healthy gulp of my beer and gave who I assumed was our classmate a threatening look that sent him running to the other side of the party.

  “Why did you do that?”

  Rather than respond, he began rummaging through the cooler until he pulled out a beer, popped the top, and handed it to me.

  Clutching the cold can to my chest, I repeated my question.

  “Don’t take a drink from anyone else except Vaughn or Jamie,” he ordered.

  “Afraid I’ll smear the McNamara name?”

  “Nothing you do will be worse than what I’ll do if someone—” His eyes seemed to glow while heat bloomed in my belly, and desperation for him to finish that sentence filled me. Instead, he looked me up and down and said, “I still haven’t decided if you’re worth the trouble yet.”

  I was still sneering at his retreating back when Tyra appeared out of nowhere and grabbed my shoulders.

  “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!” she yelled.

  “Are you okay?” Even while she shook me, it was hard to miss her flustered appearance.

  “Where were you?” she demanded.

  “In the corner feeling abandoned,” I deadpanned.

  She managed to look guilty and satisfied all at once.

  “Weren’t you just talking to Ever?”

  “Are you really hooking up with Vaughn?” I shot back.

  Her mouth fell open, and she resembled a fish as she stared back at me. “Where did you hear that?”

  “Does it matter?”

  She shifted from one foot to the other and studied the sand. “I guess not.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me?” Hypocrite. Aren’t you keeping secrets of your own?

  “Thought you’d be upset. You hate Ever, and Vaughn’s his best friend. I felt like I was betraying you.”

  I almost corrected her about my feelings for Eve
r until I reminded myself that I did hate him. Or at least, I should. I came back to this town with the sole purpose of getting back at Ever McNamara, and instead, I found myself wanting to get close to him for entirely different reasons.

  “I’m a big girl, Ty. You should do what makes you happy.”

  It sounded like the truth, but it felt like a lie. I wanted to lash out and tell her that I did think hooking up with Vaughn was a betrayal. That she’d chosen their side. I couldn’t help but be wary and afraid. I’d lived my life having a mother who chose men over me every single day. Why would Tyra be any different?

  “Really?” she squealed with her eyes wide and her hands clasped.

  Just then, I felt her excitement and hope, and I realized these feelings she had weren’t a fleeting or sudden thing. Tyra had wanted this—wanted him—for a while. Likely before she ever knew I existed.

  When I nodded, and she pulled me into a hug, I vowed that Tyra’s heart wouldn’t be a casualty of my war with Ever. Not by his hand or mine.

  “Good!” She gave me one last squeeze of gratitude before letting go. “Because I have soooo much to tell you like what an amazing kisser he is.”

  I groaned, now realizing the trap I’d fallen into. Gossiping about boys was so not my thing.

  “I didn’t expect a guy like him to be so…attentive.”

  My eyebrows rose at the direction this conversation was going. I also couldn’t help but wonder how far they’d gone. “Have you…”

  “Slept with him? God, no. I’ve been holding him off because—” She nervously chewed on her lip, and I filled in the blanks.

  “Because you’re afraid he’ll lose interest once you do?”

  She nodded and looked bashful as she said, “I really like him, Four, and sometimes, I believe he’s truly interested in me.”

  “Vaughn is probably used to having pussy served to him on a platter, so if he’s sticking around, I’m sure it’s because he likes you.” Or saw her as a challenge. I couldn’t voice my fear and risk erasing the happiness etched all over her face. Tyra was practically glowing. “Does your father know about you and him?”

  The glow was instantly shrouded by panic. “No, and I plan to keep it that way. He’d never approve of me dating one of his players. Especially his quarterback.”

  “You can’t keep it a secret for long, Ty. People will talk.”

  “We’re keeping things low key.”

  “And whose idea was that?”

  “Both of ours.”

  I could sense she was becoming defensive, so I dropped the subject, chugged some of my beer, and tossed what was left into one of the blue barrels.

  “I’m surprised you’re drinking after Ever’s party.”

  If she only knew how I had to battle more than a hangover the next morning. “Uh, yeah. Have I apologized for that yet?”

  “You did,” she called over her shoulder as she searched the cooler, “but I doubt you were sober enough to remember.”

  Oh, but I remembered so many other things about that night. Ever driving me home, carrying me to my room, undressing me…

  “Damn. There’s no more beer. Only the hard stuff.”

  “Hey, I’ve got you covered, ladies.” Some guy with shaggy brown hair dug into the cooler next to him and produced two beers. He handed one to Ty and the other to me.

  I shook my head and told myself I was just avoiding another hangover. He shrugged and introduced himself as Ryan, and then Tyra and I introduced ourselves. The guy mistook that as an invitation to hang around. Tyra started to take a sip when Vaughn appeared over her shoulder. I watched with wide eyes as he snatched the drink from her hand and shoved it into Ryan’s chest. Some of the beer spilled on his yellow and white striped shirt.

  “Hey, man. What’s your problem?”

  “You. Now leave my fucking party.”

  “It’s a beach. It’s public property.”

  “You’re either stupid or you don’t know who I am.” No one anticipated Vaughn fisting the guy’s shirt in his hand and lifting him as if he weighed nothing. “This all belongs to me, jackass. Including her.”

  “Vaughn!” Tyra screeched in horror. “Put him down right now.”

  His eyes flashed with irritation when he regarded my friend. She folded her arms and cocked her hip.

  “I’m not kidding. I’ll leave,” she threatened.

  Wordlessly, he tossed Ryan into the sand and stepped into Tyra’s space. Since she was bite-sized, she had to lean her head back pretty far to return his glare.

  “Don’t take drinks from anyone,” he ordered and then stalked off. Vaughn’s scene hadn’t gone unnoticed, and I knew Tyra wouldn’t be able to keep him a secret for long.

  I WATCHED THE WHOLE THING go down from the moment that eager fool approached the girls to the moment Vaughn returned looking like he’d swallowed piss.

  For once, she hadn’t disobeyed me.

  I was a little disappointed. I’d been looking forward to a second chance at spanking her ass, but knowing Four had finally learned her lesson got me just as hard. Go figure.

  I had a hard time keeping my laughter in check when Vaughn stood in our circle again. “Everything okay?”

  “Eat a dick.”

  “Tyra really got under your skin, huh?”

  Vaughn blew air through his nose. “That broad’s impossible. I’ve used all my best moves, and she’s turned me down every time.”

  “So move on.”

  “Can’t,” he said with a grunt. “She’s too interesting.”

  “Yeah, but blue balls make you crabby,” Jamie instigated. “Besides, there are plenty of interesting girls who aren’t stingy. Donna Hill? She gives an interesting blowjob. Vicky Clark? Her handjobs are mind-blowing.”

  “One of these days, you’re going to catch something you can’t get rid of,” Vaughn warned. “You’ve only been back for a few months, yet you’ve slept with more of the girls in this town than Ever and me combined.”

  “That’s because they can’t get enough. I have a fresh and…exotic…perspective on things.”

  “Bullshit,” Vaughn spat. “You’re no more Irish than Ever. Just because you’ve lived in Ireland doesn’t mean you aren’t an American shit like the rest of us.”

  I lost my composure then. Jamie pretended to be offended for all of three seconds before he split his sides.

  “True, but I can fake the accent and chicks dig it.”

  After Jamie’s father died two years ago, my aunt had left Scotland to live closer to my grandparents in Ireland. It hadn’t been enough to keep Jamie out of trouble. When he was expelled, Aunt Dilwen washed her hands of him and shipped her eldest son off, thinking my father could set him straight. Lot of good he’s doing.

  “Just sounds like you’re gargling mouthwash to me, but whatever gets you laid, man.”

  “McNamara!” Turner called. He struggled to keep his hulking frame upright as the drink from his cup sloshed over the rim.

  Vaughn scowled seeing Turner violate one of his rules: No getting hammered during the season. And for a guy Turner’s size to barely keep from face-planting in the sand, he’d probably have to drink half a fucking keg.

  “We have a prop-sit-ion for you.”

  Cooper and Kim weren’t far behind, and luckily, they seemed sober enough as they grinned my way. “Yeah, what he said…or tried to,” Cooper guffawed.

  “Why is Turner shitfaced?” Vaughn was seething.

  “We told him to quit,” Kim answered with a shrug, “but he kept saying he was fine. I guess the drinks snuck up on him.”

  Vaughn didn’t respond, so the three blind idiots, too stupid to know better, visibly relaxed. I knew he would wait until they were each sober to dole out punishment, so I turned to Turner. “What do you want?”

  “You. Back on the team.”

  Before I could turn them down for the fifteenth time, Cooper rushed to add, “And we’ve got a way to convince you.”

  “And how are you going to
do that?” Vaughn questioned with mild interest.

  “Barnes,” Kim answered. “We want Ever to race him.”

  “He’s our new running back, and he’s fast!” Cooper gloated. “Could even be faster than you one day.”

  I looked to Vaughn for confirmation, but he simply shrugged.

  “So what? He beats me and…” By now, we’ve drawn a considerable crowd, including Four, who appeared way too invested for my liking.

  A curious Four was a dangerous thing.

  “If Barnes wins,” Kim dictated, “you have to come back to the team.”

  Vaughn sucked his teeth. “If Barnes beats Ever, we won’t need him back on the team, jackass.”

  “Oh.”

  The crowd roared at my former teammates’ expense.

  “Who’s got the fastest run time?” Everyone turned to the person who voiced the question.

  Of course, it had to be her.

  There was a pause, and I couldn’t help but notice Kim staring Four down with unmasked hatred.

  I wanted to pluck his eyes from his head and feed them to him.

  Cooper was the one to finally answer. “McNamara. By two hundred milliseconds.”

  She smiled and chuckled at some secret joke. “Well, boys, you could do this one of two ways.” She made eye contact with each of us, even Kim, and only when she was assured that she had our attention did she continue. “If Barnes beats Ever’s run time, he gets to keep his spot on the team.”

  “And if he doesn’t?” Cooper questioned.

  “Then Ever will still hold his title, and the Knights get their fastest runner.”

  “What’s the second option?” The nervous voice that rose above the rippling of the crowd sounded like it belonged to Barnes, but I was too busy picturing my hands around Four’s pretty throat to verify.

  “Ever has to beat his own time. If he doesn’t, he’s still the fastest runner and will rejoin the team. If he succeeds…he does whatever the hell he wants.” Discreetly, she rolled her eyes, and I might have been the only one to hear her unspoken as usual.

  The guys, including my treacherous best friend, didn’t waste time huddling to discuss their options. If they were smart, they knew which option to pick. Shaving more than a couple hundred milliseconds at a moment’s notice would seem improbable even if you’ve kept up your training. But shaving even ten milliseconds when you haven’t…impossible.

 
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