The peer and the puppet, p.26
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.26

           B. B. Reid
 

  Not wanting him to have the satisfaction of knowing I was hiding from him, I quickly snatched open my bedroom door. “I’m sure there are plenty of our classmates eager to entertain you.” And by ‘classmates’ I meant the lusty-eyed girls in their come-fuck-me outfits.

  “None as fun as you.” He was back to looking expensive and untouchable in his gray V-necked sweater and jeans that probably cost more than a month’s wages at Gruff’s shop.

  “You promised you wouldn’t be an asshole.”

  He leaned in until there was barely a finger-length of space between us. “And I’m keeping that promise or else you’d be over my shoulder right now. No more lip,” he rushed to add when I started to speak. “Let’s go.”

  He seized my hand and pulled me toward the stairs. I looked over my shoulder and met Tyra’s wide-eyed gaze as she followed closely behind.

  Ever led us to the billiard room where I was surprised to find maybe twenty people and all of them guys. Some of them played pool or darts while the rest sat around drinking beer. Among them were Max, Daniel, and Adam: the Franco clone, the mohawk, and the bruiser. Daniel’s eyes lingered on me when I entered the room. I probably would have hauled ass if I didn’t think Ever would make a scene hauling me back.

  “Where are the girls?”

  “Jamie invited them, and I sent them home.”

  A cloud of smoke suddenly engulfed us, and I choked on the heavy stench of weed. My head whipped toward the source and found Drake and Ben standing in an intimate circle of five as they passed a joint around. I dropped Ever’s hand and darted across the room.

  “Drake!”

  He was slow to recognize me, but when he did, he yanked me off my feet and enveloped me in gangly arms. “Goddamn,” he whooped as he swung me around before setting me on my feet again. “You know how to keep people in suspense. Did you just get back?”

  I couldn’t help giggling. His happiness was infectious. “Drake, you saw me at the homecoming game four days ago. Leave the weed alone.”

  “Can’t. She was my first love.” He was momentarily distracted when Ben offered the joint, but to my surprise, he shook his head and faced me again. “So—”

  “Any particular reason you need your arms to hold a conversation?”

  I squeezed my eyes closed. Ever getting possessive in front of twenty witnesses wasn’t exactly keeping whatever we were doing on the low.

  “Believe it or not, this is his good side,” Drake mumbled before letting go and stepping back. To Ever, he said, “You made your claim, and I’m a stand-up guy.” He threw up his hands in surrender while the guys around us snickered and eyed me knowingly. The more daring ones allowed me to see their newborn interest.

  Ever had just made me the hottest girl at school.

  “There’s no claim. McNamara’s overinflated ego is tampering with reality.”

  “Careful,” Ever whispered in my ear. “I promised I wouldn’t kiss you at school. I made no promises about showing you that you’re mine at home.”

  I spun around and nearly collided with his chest since he was standing as close as he could get without touching me. “Don’t you dare.”

  “Don’t you dare.”

  “This isn’t a competition.”

  “Damn straight because it never was.”

  “There’s a word for guys like you.”

  “Charming?”

  “Swine.”

  He pushed me against the wall, and after a nervous glance around, I noticed everyone was keeping their gazes purposely averted.

  “They won’t say anything,” he assured.

  “How do you know?”

  “Because I’ll break their bones if they do.”

  “Something you picked up from Exiled?”

  “More or less.”

  I looked into his eyes, searching for a monster but only found a boy haunted by demons that could probably chew mine up and spit them out.

  “I want to be alone with you.” His hands cradled my hips as he pulled me close.

  “But I just got here.”

  “Because you hid in your room for an hour.”

  “Doesn’t matter. Tyra’s here, and I’m not leaving her alone with a bunch of guys.”

  “Vaughn has her, and he’s not letting anyone get to her. Not even you.”

  A quick peek over Ever’s shoulder showed her sitting in Vaughn’s lap as he talked football with a guy lounging on the couch next to them. Just then, our eyes met, and she glanced between Ever and me before smiling sneakily.

  Before I could make another excuse, he snuck me out of the room with a tight grip on my hand, then led me down another level and a hall that I didn’t even know existed.

  “I’ve never been to this part of the house.”

  “You’ve been to the theater room.”

  We both tensed at the reminder.

  After clearing his throat, he added, “The wine cellar and indoor pool are down here, too.”

  Why anyone would need two pools was beyond me. We stopped in front of a door at the end of the hall, and I watched as Ever pulled from his pocket a single key attached to a strip of black leather.

  “What’s in there?”

  “My workroom.”

  “I didn’t know gangsters needed a workroom.” I laughed, but it only gave my discomfort a voice.

  He smiled as he shoved the key inside the lock while I prayed he didn’t have someone tied up inside. I was slowly falling for this boy, and I secretly dreaded what might ruin it.

  I held my breath as he pushed open the door and guided me inside. The dim lighting from the hall seeped inside but was quickly cut off when he shut the door. It became obvious after a few moments spent in the dark that he was up to something.

  “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I don’t have night vision.”

  “Are you afraid?”

  My heart rate sped up at his sinister tone. I whirled around but could only make out his shadow lingering by the door.

  “A little creeped out.”

  “Some people are turned on by their fear.”

  “I’m not one of them. Turn on the light.”

  For a moment, the only the sound was that of my heart beating. Then light swept the room. I frantically searched every inch of the room as Ever’s arms slid around my waist. The French doors and large windows were covered by bronze shades, shutting out the moonlight. There was a raised wooden platform spanning the length of the room with a black cloth covering whatever rested on its surface. A smaller table with its white surface slanted downward was positioned against the back wall with a high desk chair pushed under. Two black lamps extended from the shelf over the table, and there was a small bookshelf filled with books and large rolls of paper.

  When nothing jumped out at me, I drove my elbow into Ever’s gut. His grunt as he dropped his arms and doubled over put a smile on my face. “Asshole.”

  “When I fantasized about you driving your body into mine, that was not what I had in mind.”

  My skin flushed at his meaning and the vision of us naked and tangled. “And I thought all you and Jamie had in common was Barbie. Interesting.”

  His pained expression instantly morphed into a fierce scowl. “Say what?”

  He closed in, but I held my ground even when I was forced to tilt my head back. Looking into his eyes was like watching the stars and the dawn collide.

  “Jamie came onto you?”

  “Not lately.”

  “I’m going to break his fucking collarbone.”

  “That’s really specific. But before you attack your cousin…again…you should know I only meant the two of you share an unnecessary use of sex euphemisms. Jamie’s weren’t all directed at me.”

  “Unnecessary?”

  “Very.”

  His gaze sharpened as he inched closer, and I suddenly felt as if I were being hunted. “So I should just come out and say I want you bent over that table with your panties around your ankles and my name on your lips?”<
br />
  “Now you’re just being crude.”

  Strong hands cupped my hips as if he might do just that. “And you care?”

  “Hey, I can be as classy as you.”

  The lustful gleam in his eyes suddenly faded away. “You were never beneath me, Four. I was a shit to make you believe otherwise.”

  “Don’t worry about it. I’m a tough girl.”

  “I know you are, princess.”

  “Stop calling me that,” I growled as I gripped his sweater. “I hate the way it makes me feel.”

  “How does it feel?” His voice was husky now.

  I had to swallow the lump in my throat before speaking.

  “It tingles.”

  “Where?”

  All over.

  I didn’t reply, so he added, “Don’t make me go searching.” His gaze was already scanning my body.

  “I’ve been meaning to thank you,” I quickly said to distract him. “For Jay D’s stuff. You didn’t have to bribe Dave, though. He was willing to help out.”

  “It was insurance to make sure he continued to be.”

  “Well, thanks to you, I couldn’t ask him about a job.”

  His eyebrows bunched. “Why not?”

  “Because I didn’t want him to think the money came with a catch!”

  He simply shrugged like it was no big deal. Maybe to an elite with the world at his feet it wasn’t. “My dad gave you a credit card.”

  “That I haven’t used once, and I don’t intend to.”

  “Then I’ll cover Jay D’s expenses.”

  With a huff, I stepped away from him, putting space between us. Thankfully, he didn’t follow. “I don’t want your help. He’s my responsibility.”

  The depth of his eyes deepened. “And you’re mine.”

  “We discussed this, and the vote was divided.”

  “Then hang on tight, little troublemaker. I’m going to make you fall for me.”

  I closed my eyes to keep from seeing the promise in his own. There was still so much that stood between us. Namely, the secret pact he had with Barbie and the fact that he risked his life for seemingly no reason at all. My eyes popped open and narrowed. “Why did you skip school today?”

  His jaw tightened as he stared back at me without shame. “I was searching for a way back into Exiled.”

  “But I thought you were done with that. Why are you trying to get back in?”

  “I’m looking for someone.”

  “Who?”

  I expected him to avoid answering so imagine my surprise when he said, “Nathaniel Fox.”

  Hiding my surprise, I decided to get as much truth out of him as I could before whatever judgment that told him to keep secrets returned. “Who is he?”

  “He’s one of Exiled’s founders.”

  I sucked in a breath, fighting for composure, but my voice trembled anyway when I spoke. “How do you know him?”

  “I don’t.”

  “Then why do you want to find him?”

  “Because he has something that belongs to me.”

  I could feel my frustration building. “What? What could he possibly have to make you risk your life?”

  He shook his head and looked almost as if he felt sorry for me. “You wouldn’t understand if I told you.”

  “How do you know?”

  “I just do,” he answered quietly.

  “Are you sure you’re not just aspiring to be the next Gambino or Capone?”

  He barked a genuine laugh despite the sadness radiating from him. “I’m sure.”

  “So if your dream isn’t to be the next American gangster, then what is? Football?”

  For a moment, he looked as if he were debating something. “Turn around.”

  After a brief staring contest, I did as he ordered and faced the table that nearly took up the entire room. He moved to the other side of the room and whipped off the black cloth.

  I stared down in wonder at the 3D model covering almost every inch of the table. “Is that the academy?”

  “It is.”

  I gaped until I realized how I must have looked and then I shouted, “Ever, it’s incredible! How did you learn to do this?”

  “I’ve been taking courses since the ninth grade, but it all started with popsicle sticks. For my twelfth birthday, my mother bought my first Lego set. It was the Empire State Building. I loved it so much I collected as many Legos as I could. I never liked following the instructions. Sometimes I’d play it by ear or sketch shapes that meant nothing, but I just had to build. They were never anything special, but she treated them like masterpieces.”

  I couldn’t believe it. Ever seemed almost shy as he spoke about his passion. He watched me closely as I gingerly moved around the table scanning every piece. He’d modeled what seemed like every inch of the grounds down to the very last bush. I wanted to touch it, but it seemed like one of those things you admired with your eyes only.

  “How long did this take?”

  “A few months. There was a bit of trial and error.”

  “But you were determined as always.” I flashed him a smile that fell at his blank stare.

  “She would have wanted me to.”

  He moved over to the slanted table and ran his hand over the surface. “My mom bought me this drafting table when I told her I wanted to be an architect. We even talked about building my first model together.”

  “What about your dad? Did he help you with this?”

  With a sad smile, he picked up the discarded cloth and started arranging it over the model again. “My father was thrilled that I found something to call my own, but he was always too busy running the company.”

  For a moment, he looked frustrated and angry, but then he blinked, and it was gone. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Ever never wore his heart on his sleeve. He kept it locked away in a box that put Pandora’s to shame.

  “Do you think she’ll come back?”

  He didn’t need to ask who I meant. “No.”

  I gnawed on my bottom lip as I pondered the right words to say. Anyone else would offer false hope thinking he’d want to hear it. That it would cure his broken heart. Thanks to my history with mothers, I offered him something else instead. “Maybe it’s for the best. I bet it’s painful to be constantly reminded that you’re regretted.”

  He was silent for so long that I wished I had just kept my mouth closed. I had no right sowing doubt in his mind about a woman I didn’t even know. “Why?”

  “Why what?”

  “Why does your mother regret you, Four?”

  Shame cast my eyes to the floor. I should have known he’d see right through me.

  “Four?” he pressed when I said nothing.

  “If the third time’s the charm, the fourth must mean tragedy because I didn’t just break Rosalyn’s heart—I broke her mind.”

  He was silent for so long. Whatever he had been expecting me to say I was sure it wasn’t that. “You were the tragedy?”

  I nodded. “She had three miscarriages before me. Rosalyn couldn’t understand that her body didn’t reject them simply because she didn’t love them enough, so when I was born, she suffered. The guilt, the pain it…it broke her.”

  “Three miscarriages,” Ever echoed. I could practically hear the wheels turning in his head. “Four isn’t really a name, is it?” His horrified whisper ate at my soul.

  “Not to her.”

  “But why did it matter if she named you?”

  “Without a name, I don’t really exist. She thought dehumanizing me would make them finally go away.”

  “Them?”

  “The three she lost…she hears them. When it’s really bad, she sees them.”

  “If this is true, why keep you? She could have given you up.”

  My stomach turned.

  How many times had I wished she had?

  “Rosalyn was seventeen when she ran away from home on the back some biker’s hog, and eight years later, she returned knocked up and broken. My
father had been the fourth man to impregnate her and the fourth to break her heart. Nana and Pop mistook her depression and delusions for a broken heart and hormones. They were lying to themselves, but if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have survived.”

  “Do you hate them for it?”

  “How can I? They must have fought so fiercely for me. By the time I was born she was a full-blown schizophrenic, and so I lived the first few months of my life nameless. Nana and Pop figured once she was better she’d want to name me herself. They were wrong. I imagine it wasn’t an easy battle but they eventually convinced her. Or so they thought.”

  “Did they know why she choose your name? Did they know what it would do to you?”

  I drew in a shaky breath. “They knew…but Rosalyn was a minefield and they were more afraid of setting her off.”

  Ever swore but didn’t say more. We both knew it was a shitty way to grow up

  “I once read a pamphlet that said with a strong, loving support system Schizophrenics can lead normal, fulfilling lives.” I laughed but it was an empty sound. “I bet whoever wrote it didn’t count on Rosalyn looking for it in all the wrong places or how deep her grief welled when they made those promises. Still…she got better.”

  Ever moved closer, but sensing it was space giving me courage, he kept only enough distance so that he could touch me if he chose. “And then?”

  “And then I said my first word, and she relapsed.” I didn’t need to tell him what I could have said to break her. “It depressed her so much she stopped taking her pills.”

  I hugged myself to calm my trembling body.

  “Rosalyn recovered, but she was even more afraid of me than before.” Taking a deep breath, I willed myself not to fall apart. I’d been too young to remember much of the beginning, but life with Rosalyn was like a bad record stuck on repeat. It was easy to fill in the blanks.

  “My grandparents forbade me from calling her anything but her name, hoping it would keep her sane. They didn’t realize that I was only one of her triggers. A broken heart was the other.”

  A harsh sound spilled from Ever. “So you she could stay away from but not men?” Ever’s anger wasn’t a surprise but I fully expected it to be me who disgusted him.

  Anyone would sympathize with a mentally ill mother who rejected her daughter. They’d say she couldn’t help it. That it wasn’t her fault. Who could sympathize with a daughter who resented her mother anyway? Why should they when even I hated myself for how I felt?

 

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