The peer and the puppet, p.19
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.19

           B. B. Reid
 

  I racked my brain for a witty or sarcastic response. Something that screamed ‘I am a woman and not a cup of jello.’ My legs shook under his stare, and I felt gooey inside when he said, “You want Tyra, you’ll have Tyra.” He dipped his head and whispered, “And later I’ll have you.”

  I didn’t respond and spent the short ride nestled in the crook of Ever’s arm, pondering his sudden change in attitude. When we reached the gate barring entry to the castle Vaughn lived in, I tried not to gape.

  But I did balk at the burly guards wearing perfectly blank expressions and visibly brandishing large guns. “Jamie, I think you made a wrong turn. This is clearly Fort Knox.”

  Ever squeezed my hip as one of the guards approached the window. Jamie rolled it down, and the guard said, “No visitors.”

  Before Jamie could respond, Vaughn, already dressed for a day in the city, appeared around one of the bushes and said, “Let them in.”

  “Your father said—”

  “Then take it up with him.” He opened the front passenger door and hopped in. “And please remind Father that if he wants to do something about it, he’ll actually have to come home for once.”

  Jamie rolled up the window, and the guard had no choice but to open the gates. The other was already placing a call to who I assumed was Senor Rees.

  “So that’s your deal,” I said when the silence and Vaughn’s obvious irritation grew uncomfortable.

  He regarded me over his shoulder and lifted a brow.

  “You have daddy issues.”

  Ever squeezed my hip a little harder this time while Vaughn snorted.

  “And you don’t?”

  I shrugged as the car came to a stop. “I never knew my father.”

  “You’re lucky,” he spat.

  Jamie climbed out, and Ever followed, lending me his hand and keeping hold of mine as we walked through the front doors.

  “It’s your birthday,” Vaughn announced, “so I’ll forgive you for being a complete bitch.” He pulled me into a hug, and only after nearly crushing me in his arms, I caved and hugged him back. “You can change in the first room on your left,” he directed after letting me go.

  I took in his appearance: red long-sleeved thermal, blue jeans, and light brown hair slicked back.

  “Thanks.” I climbed the set of stairs he pointed to and changed into jeans ripped at the knee, plain white long-sleeve, and an olive-green utility jacket. When I made it back downstairs, I found Vaughn in the middle of a heated argument with Tyra.

  “Why do you have to misbehave all the time, huh?”

  Tyra glowered with her arms crossed. “You’re the one who threw a tantrum.”

  His response was to push her against the front door, and I watched as he held her wrists above her head. “I like your fire, babe, but you need to learn who’s in charge.”

  “This is the twenty-first century. Get over yourself.”

  His voice deepened when he spoke next. “I’d rather get on top of you.” They were kissing hard and heavy a moment later.

  “I didn’t know you were into exhibitionism,” Ever whispered in my ear. He stood on the step above me wearing a black sweater with a gray collar, black jeans, and a solid black Rolex. His hair was perfectly mussed, making him look like trouble and salvation all at once.

  “He’s bad for her.”

  He shrugged and pulled me by my elbow into the kitchen. “If she couldn’t handle him, he’d have moved on already.”

  “You better be right.”

  He pulled two bottles of water from the fridge. “Or what?”

  “Or after I’m done kicking his ass, you’ll be next.”

  I took the water he offered just as Jamie ran into the kitchen wearing black jeans, T-shirt, and a thin puffy vest with a silver chain hooked on his jeans.

  “You two are so cute that I throw up in my mouth every time I lay eyes on you.”

  “Jealous?” I quipped even though there was nothing to be jealous of. Ever and I weren’t a thing. We were a giant meteor heading straight for Earth with nothing in its path to stop it.

  Jamie looked ready to say something, but then he shook his head and began raiding Vaughn’s refrigerator. I kept forgetting Ever’s relationship status was a touchy subject for him. Maybe because it also meant admitting he already belonged to someone.

  Tossing a bag of bagels and cream cheese on the island, Jamie started slathering as Vaughn entered holding hands with Tyra.

  “No one said you could eat my food, Buchanan.”

  “That’s because I didn’t ask,” he said with a mouth full of bagel.

  While Vaughn and Jamie traded insults, Tyra rolled her eyes at Ever and pulled me into a hug.

  “Loving the tiara, birthday girl!”

  “I got that for her,” Jamie bragged, abandoning his bickering with Vaughn, who then cuffed him on the back of the head.

  “Stop hitting on her,” he chewed out.

  Unfazed, Jamie winked at me and headed for the door with Vaughn and Tyra on his heels.

  I started to follow, but a tug on my belt loop and the sudden wall of flame at my back kept me rooted.

  “You better not be blushing,” Ever warned.

  “Jealous?”

  “Murderous,” he growled.

  “Yeah, well, you should work on that.” I felt him staring as I walked away, so I swayed my hips. Jamie hadn’t made me blush, but the deep trill of Ever’s appreciative groan sure did.

  The Statue of Liberty had been our first stop. We then rode to the top of the Empire State Building while Jamie blasted Jay-Z and Alicia Key’s ‘Empire State of Mind,’ frolicked in Central Park, and eventually, stopped for my first taste of authentic New York style pizza.

  If anyone ever asked, I’d say it was the best day of my life. Every year, I pretended to forget my birthday so Rosalyn would continue to take her pills.

  My friends—well, it was still under review whether I could call the guys my friends—sacrificed their grades and risked their parents’ wrath to celebrate me. I wasn’t sure if it should, but it felt good.

  “How do you like the pizza, princess?”

  My stomach did that fluttering thing again as I took another bite. “It’s greasy perfection,” I said with a mouth full. I eyed the loaded foot-long sub Ever opted to eat instead. “You don’t like pizza?”

  “You always talk with your mouth full?” He seemed amused rather than disgusted, so I shrugged.

  “Told you I’m no princess.” I reached up to take off the tiara.

  “Leave it.”

  “Why?” I questioned even as my hand slowly fell to the table. I didn’t care about the tiara, and my birthday was just another day, but Ever seemed determined to prove me wrong.

  “Because today, the world should be yours.”

  “And you think this piece of plastic will give me that?”

  “Maybe not, but it’s a start.”

  Jamie was busy chatting up some redhead by the door, and Vaughn and Tyra were too into each other across the booth to notice Ever hammering away at my walls. Since arriving, I’d worked to keep a physical and emotional space, and he’d worked even harder to make sure that didn’t happen. His hand would find mine whenever we crossed a street or be at my back, steering me through the crowd. Even when he hung back and offered me space, his eyes never left me. As close as he kept me, somehow, I never felt suffocated.

  “Why are you being so nice? Why now?”

  He leaned back with a sigh. “I told you I’m making up for last night.”

  “The note you left me this morning was different from the others. You didn’t write once upon a puppet. Why?”

  “It was an apology, Four. I can’t force you to forgive me.”

  “Oh.” I can’t say why I was disappointed in his response. I guess I was hoping that after touching me the way he did, he’d finally release me from our deal. I needed to know Rosalyn was safe before I went any further with him. “So the notes are your twisted version of Sim
on Says? Once upon a puppet means I don’t have a choice?”

  “In a way.” He glanced across the booth before changing the subject. “What else would you like to do today?”

  “Is it possible to experience the entire city in one day?”

  “Not really, no.”

  “Then maybe we should get going. School will be out soon.”

  Ever didn’t argue and paid the tab. On the walk back to the car, Ever dipped inside one of the shops, and Vaughn and Jamie followed, leaving Tyra and me on the sidewalk. Tyra was telling me about some naked cowboy when something slammed into me.

  “Sorry,” a dark-haired girl mumbled as she sped by with her head down.

  I was still staring after her when someone roared, “Louchana!”

  A much bigger force stormed by me, and my eyes bucked as I watched the guy grab her by her hoodie. “Give it back,” I heard him growl.

  “How did you find me?” she hissed. He didn’t respond and shoved his hands in her hoodie pockets.

  “Um…should we do something?” Tyra questioned.

  The girl seemed more annoyed than distressed, making it clear they knew each other. The guy found what he was looking for and headed our way with her hoodie still in his fist, forcing her down the sidewalk. I slipped my hand inside the pocket that held my phone so I could call the police if needed, but it was completely empty.

  My phone and wallet were both gone.

  Thinking they somehow fell out, I searched the sidewalk. Nothing. When I looked up, the dark-haired girl and the fuming guy now stood in front of us.

  “This belongs to you.” It wasn’t a question, and sure enough, in his hand was my cell and wallet.

  She picked my fucking pocket!

  “Thanks…how did you know?”

  “She does this a lot.” He glowered at the dirty girl who looked my age, possibly younger, but I couldn’t be sure with the dirt coating her face.

  “Big fucking deal,” she said with a sneer. “I’m homeless, and I have a better phone, and her wallet only had forty bucks. What kind of rich kids are you?”

  “Lou,” he warned.

  For some reason, my heart pounded as I studied him. Why did he seem so familiar? He had brown hair, blue eyes, wore a distressed brown leather jacket, and a white T-shirt over his broad shoulders and blue jeans over his muscular legs. And he had this aura that promised a thrill if you dared get close.

  “Her mom was a hotel maid,” Tyra volunteered, “and my dad coaches high school football. What makes you think we’re rich?”

  “Been trailing you since the Pizzeria. If you’re not rich, your boyfriends definitely are.” A huge smile graced her face, and I was positive that under all that dirt was a beautiful girl. “Here they come, bestie, and man, do they looked pissed, but you can take them.” Her smug smile said she had zero doubt.

  Sure enough, the guys stepped from the shop ready to do battle.

  “We got a problem?” Vaughn questioned as he and Jamie surrounded them.

  Louchana eyed them curiously while her friend stared directly at Ever and greeted him by a name that didn’t belong to him.

  Who the hell is Danny Boy?

  “Harlan,” Ever greeted back with a stiff nod of his head. I could tell by the sudden tension that running into this guy wasn’t a good thing.

  Harlan made a point to look at each of us as if committing our faces to memory. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”

  Ever shifted, blocking me from view when Harlan’s gaze lingered. “Why would I do that?”

  Harlan didn’t answer. Instead, he leaned around Ever and held out his hand. “I didn’t catch your name?”

  I didn’t answer or shake his hand. It felt too much like a trap. He didn’t seem bothered by my rejection when he stood to his full height. He was just as tall as Ever, and judging by the lean muscle barely hidden by his clothes, just as powerful.

  “You trained her well.”

  “We’re going now.” Ever reached behind him and seized my hand. His grip was harsh, but I doubt he noticed, and I didn’t complain as he led me away.

  “I’ll see you soon, Danny Boy!”

  I glanced back, but Harlan was already walking in the opposite direction with Louchana at his side.

  His head was bent as he listened to something she said, allowing me to see the tattoo peeking from beneath his jacket collar. Suddenly, the familiarity made sense. He had been at the abandoned building in Queens! If this Harlan guy was Exiled, that could only mean one thing.

  Ever had just been made.

  I NEEDED TO GET MY shit together. How could it be that in a city with over eight million people, I run into the one person eager to unmask me? Running into Wren was bad news, and every five seconds, I was looking over my shoulder. Jamie, knowing what running into Exiled could mean, was breaking every traffic law to get us back to Blackwood Keep.

  “The way you guys were acting, you’d think that guy was part of the mob,” Tyra joked.

  If only she knew how close to the truth she really was. When no one responded, she fell quiet. I could tell the encounter was still on her mind when she kept sneaking glances my way. I sighed and forced myself to relax for appearances. This was the last thing I needed. Someone else in my fucking business. Four hadn’t spoken since we left the city, and I preferred it that way. She had a great fucking birthday, so I mentally patted myself on the back and considered myself redeemed. After this, I could go back to pretending she didn’t exist and that I didn’t want seconds.

  Jamie got us back to Blackwood Keep in record time. After dropping off Tyra and Vaughn, we made our way home with only music to drown out the tension. I knew Jamie was itching to question me about Wren, but he wouldn’t say anything in front of Four. No one knew about our deal, and I was keeping it that way. After hopping out of the Jeep, he shot me a look before disappearing inside the house. I peeked at Four lingering on the other side of the hood and twiddling her fucking fingers.

  “You have something on your mind, so speak it.”

  Her eyebrows rose as her hands curled into fists and dropped to her sides. “I didn’t know I needed your permission.”

  I rested my forearms on the warm hood and met her glare. “It’s in the contract.”

  “Fuck you.” She was damn cute when she got all snarly, but letting on how tempting it was to oblige her was out of the question.

  “I’m pressed for time.”

  My double entendre thickened the tension.

  Her gaze lost focus.

  She sank her teeth into her bottom lip to keep her excitement at bay, and my dick got rock hard.

  Careful to hide my need, I twirled my index finger in a gesture to get her talking and fast. Jamie’s back seat was only a few feet away.

  “Thank you for today.” After starting for the house, she muttered, “Prick.”

  She only made it two steps before I caught her and pushed her against the hood. Her grunt ended with a growl when she felt me close in behind her.

  “You’re welcome,” I whispered in her ear. And then I walked away before I did something idiotic. Jamie lingered in the foyer with a mocking smile.

  “Hundred bucks she’s pissed but wet as fuck right now.”

  I felt my lip curling, so I quickly turned my back. “Shut up.” Four’s pussy wasn’t anyone’s concern but mine.

  “I like her,” Jamie rambled on. “I see more of the old you every day, and she’s the reason, cousin. I just know it.”

  “There is no old me.” I headed for the stairs with him hot on my heels.

  “I beg to differ. My former favorite cousin would have ridden her hard by now.”

  “What the—she’s not a horse.” I felt my nostrils flare when I turned on him.

  “Give me a fucking break. Of course, she’s not a horse. You can’t fuck a horse.”

  I ran my hand down my face and counted to five. “Why are you so interested in my love life?”

  “Who said anything a
bout love?” He looked way too pleased about my slip. I knew it was time for me to shut the hell up. “You don’t…do you?”

  “Don’t what?” I knew what he was asking but was hoping he’d just go the fuck away.

  “Do you love Four?” he spelled out.

  Did I love Four? What an interesting fucking question. Particularly because I hesitated when answering. Four was smart but naïve. Stubborn yet selfless. Fierce yet broken. And she could hold one hell of a grudge. She was pretty without being obvious, yet she made my dick harder than any girl had before. The cherry on top was how she made me feel alive again.

  “Why the fuck would I?”

  I heard a sound, and Jamie must have too because we both twisted at the same time. Four stood at my door staring back at us. Since her bedroom was closer to the stairs, I knew it wasn’t by coincidence that she was standing there. She had come to my room for a reason. When she turned and walked away, my stomach tightened, and a sour taste filled my mouth.

  “Fuck,” Jamie cursed. “Do you think she heard us?”

  “Of course, she did.” My response was sarcastic and my tone nonchalant when I felt anything but.

  Unconsciously, I ran my hand down my face. This shit between us was starting to resemble a dance. One step forward, and two steps back. I tossed my bag on the floor a little harder than needed, and Jamie wisely took that as his cue to leave quietly.

  Fuck it.

  And fuck her, too.

  MY BIRTHDAY HAD STARTED WITH a bang and ended with a boom. It was the sound my heart had made after dropping to my stomach. Now it was nothing but shattered pieces.

  It didn’t make sense.

  I didn’t love Ever, either, but hearing him toss aside the notion so callously hurt more than I would ever admit to anyone. Most especially Ever. He had too much power as it was.

  “You’re awfully quiet today,” Tyra remarked as we walked the hall the next day. “Something happen?”

  I avoided her gaze and shrugged. “Everything’s back the way it should be.”

  “That’s awfully cryptic.” She was still frowning as we entered the crowded cafeteria. Lunch was just another social affair. Hardly anyone ate the food even though it was heaps better than the slop served at a public school. It could almost pass for gourmet. I wasn’t surprised given the price tag on tuition. It was obvious the money was being used well.

 
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