The peer and the puppet, p.3
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.3

           B. B. Reid
 

  Shoulders and arms left bare in the slender white dress, her natural makeup applied with precision, and her dark golden mane was swept into a simple bun. Around her elegant neck, she wore a string of pearls I’d never seen before while matching earrings adorned her ears. Her forced smile died quickly when I simply stared back at her. “I just wanted to see how you were getting on. You haven’t left your room.”

  “It’s been a long day.”

  She nodded while fidgeting with her pearls. “Thomas arranged for us to have dinner on his boat, but Ever still hasn’t come home.”

  I held in my laugh when her cheeks colored. Of course, he wouldn’t bother showing his face. Thomas and Rosalyn were the only two living under the delusion that we’d all be one big happy family.

  “I just wanted to say goodnight and tell you the cook set aside some dinner for you if you get hungry.” She started to walk away when I reached out to take her hand.

  “Where is he taking you?” Even with a grudge, I couldn’t help feeling protective of her. She was just so goddamn fragile.

  Her answering smile was soft and indulgent. “To meet some of his friends.”

  “And you’ll be back tonight?”

  With a nod, she waved delicate fingers in goodbye. “See you in the morning.”

  Only if I don’t decide to hot-wire one of Thomas’s cars.

  I watched her strut away on white pumps with red bottoms before I ducked back into my new room.

  Fuck my life.

  My stomach’s growls and the curiosity I had for my new home amplified until I could no longer ignore them. Free from scrutiny, I decided to put off food a little while longer and explore.

  Questions about the fugitive prince had been the hardest to ignore. Maybe that’s why I didn’t keep going like I should have when I reached his door. Hand hovering over the knob, my teeth sunk into my bottom lip—a telling habit I inherited from Rosalyn.

  What if he was on the other side?

  Pressing my ear to the door, I heard nothing.

  For some reason, I wanted on the other side of that door. But how would I explain my obvious snooping if I were caught?

  Maybe it won’t be unlocked.

  With the promise of only a peek, I took a deep breath and tried the knob.

  Of course, it turned.

  Taking that as a sign, I pushed open the door far enough for me to…slip inside.

  I really should have known better than to trust myself to have control.

  Lost in shadows, I dared not move. My only light came from the moonlit sky. As soon as my eyes adjusted, I moved deeper inside. The nightstands on each side of the bed held lamps with metal shades, so I tiptoed to the right and switched on the lamp. The dim glow allowed me to see just enough.

  And what a disappointment it was.

  Empty and passionless.

  The walls were a dark gray, matching the sleek headboard, which had a black shelf built into the wall above it. There wasn’t much occupying the space. A glass jar filled with coins, a full pencil cup, a trophy, and a picture frame. I picked up the trophy to study it closer. It was a football trophy with a guy poised to run. Dated a year ago, the inscription read, Ever “Speed” McNamara and was awarded for the fastest running time in Brynwood history.

  I guess we both lived in the fast lane.

  Smiling, I set the trophy down. Finding nothing interesting in the pencil cup or jar of coins, I leaned forward to view the picture.

  “Shit!” I yelled in a loud whisper. I’d lifted my knee onto the bed without thinking and disturbed the neatly made bed. The dark gray comforter and matching sheets underneath were stretched tight on the other side, an obvious contrast to the wrinkle under my knee. Maybe he won’t notice. Not wanting to disturb the bedding any more than I already had, I stretched until my body strained and peeked at the woman in the photo. Short dark hair curled stylishly around delicate ears, and olive skin glistened under the sun, but somehow, honey golden eyes outshone the sun. The picture was faded and marked with lines where it was once folded, but even then, her beauty was unmistakable. She couldn’t have been much older than her late twenties. Thomas had claimed to not have a daughter… So could this have been his wife?

  Feeling as if I were disturbing something sacred, I stood and fixed the sheets as best I could before looking around. I’d never been inside a teenage boy’s room, but shouldn’t there have been smelly socks, Penthouse magazines, and video games lying around or something? There were no posters of busty women adorning the walls. Ever’s room was simply sleek gray lines and cool, crisp smells. I was tempted to peek under the mattress for porn magazines and dirty pictures, but it seemed a little desperate. I wasn’t even sure why I cared so much.

  A sleek, silver laptop rested on a desk that blended well with the decor, but other than a few journals and pads, and a tin cup full of pencils, nothing was exciting there, either.

  I tiptoed over to his closet and flipped the light switch. Predictably, clean, pressed, and starched, and clothing filled the space. I was, however, surprised to find a pair of dirty cleats sitting in a corner. Blazers, vests, and sweaters of red and navy, each bearing the gold insignia of Brynwood Academy, hung neatly in one section while in the next were black, tan and navy slacks. The shelves had built-in lighting, casting a glow over polished black dress shoes. Pulling out one of the drawers, I found navy and red ties with gold lines crisscrossing the length and matching cuff links.

  Such pompous bullshit.

  Just as a laugh trickled out, I remembered I would soon be suffering the same fate as this kid.

  Stomach twisting, I rushed from the closet and quickly slipped from Ever’s room. My heart thundered as if I’d just run ten miles. I couldn’t believe I’d gotten away with that.

  I was feeling a bit light-headed when I sat down with a plate of roast beef, carrots, and potatoes, so I ravenously tore off the saran wrap, but then my phone vibrated in my back pocket. I considered ignoring it, but I had a pretty good guess who was calling. Ignoring my hunger pains, I quickly flipped open the receiver, hopped from the stool, and ran for the stairs.

  ONE SHORT CONVERSATION WITH GRUFF made it clear that I’d left home, but home hadn’t left me. As I skipped down the stairs, I decided nothing could bring me down.

  But then I rounded the corner into the kitchen.

  And the smile I wore died.

  The steaming plate of food I’d left behind had been scraped clean until nothing remained but a single drop of carrot juice. It was the only evidence there had even been food at all. It was as if the perp had licked it clean after devouring the food.

  Thinking I was mistaken, I searched the countertop for a second plate of food, but instead, I found a jar of peanut butter that hadn’t been there before.

  Someone had eaten my food.

  And I was no longer alone.

  I tore my gaze away from my emptied plate and noticed a large hand with tanned skin gripping the handle of the refrigerator door, and clean forest-green high-top sneakers and gray jeans peeking from underneath. The only sound was of him moving things around inside, completely oblivious to my presence.

  Before I could consider a more polite greeting, I cleared my throat and watched as more of him appeared until his head was completely visible over the top of the door.

  Jesus, fuck, he was tall. The thief easily topped my five foot six with nine or ten inches.

  With dark roots and dusty ends, he wore his hair slicked back. His eyes were a dark gold just like the woman in the picture, but rather than warmth, they held the same glacial intensity as his father’s blues.

  A dark eyebrow quirked, and I realized I was gawking. “Is there something you need?” he prompted flatly. It didn’t help that his voice was like velvet.

  “Hi.” I awkwardly waved. “I—I’m Four.” No response. “You must be Ever?” More silence. “Um…” I glanced longingly at the exit, but then my gaze fell on the empty plate, and I remembered why I even opened my mouth. Stick
ing my hip out, I threw a thumb over my shoulder. “Did you eat that?”

  “I was hungry.”

  “But it was my dinner.”

  “Thought it was for me.” He stepped back with a shrug and allowed the refrigerator door to close.

  I couldn’t think beyond the wide shoulders encased in a very open short-sleeved, button-up of the same forest green as his shoes. The subtle cut of his abs and chest had definitely earned the right for him to show them off so confidently. Still…I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling tongue-tied and flushed. I never noticed boys. Not even when puberty hit and Della Grady, my sole and now former friend, got into boys while I got into bikes.

  Ever moved to the island with a bag of celery and orange Gatorade and deftly unscrewed the jar of peanut butter before making quick work of peanut-butter-coated celery. Thankfully, his casual demeanor as I stood by with an empty stomach allowed me to forget how goddamn smoldering he was.

  “Do you always go around eating random plates of food?”

  He paused from dipping another piece of celery into the jar of peanut butter.

  “Since I was the only resident home at the time,” he shot back casually, “it didn’t seem so random to me.”

  My fingers curled into fists. The prick had only made it more obvious that he’d known who the food had been meant for.

  “What’s the matter, Ever? New kid on the block made you feel less special?”

  He went utterly still.

  A second later, he was in my face.

  “Except you aren’t,” he sneered. “Your mother’s little housekeeping salary couldn’t afford for you to live within fifty miles of here.” I stood frozen as he slowly looked me over and quickly discarded what he saw. “Think of your time here as a temporary upgrade in your mother’s benefits package.” His smile was predatory. “You know…for all the overtime.”

  Did he really just call Rosalyn a whore?

  I felt tears sting the back of my eyes even as I gripped muscular shoulders and shoved my knee between his legs. I didn’t wait to see if he went down, but his grunt of pain followed me out of the kitchen, so I ran like hell for the front door.

  I was once again at the mercy of my emotions. I thought I’d just walk out of Blackwood Keep and never look back. No big deal. Two or three hours later, however, I realized I was as far from the exit as I could get when I wandered onto the beach.

  Exhaustion had me accepting defeat quicker than I’d like, but I’d deal with that in the morning, too. My legs felt like twigs, and each step was more painful than the last. I had only begun to consider sleeping on the beach when I smelled the smoke.

  It was the sound of Maroon 5’s “Animals” that had me limping across the sand, and when I cleared the dunes, I spotted a group partying around a bonfire. Solo cups littered the ground around them, and I didn’t bother questioning if those coolers contained alcohol.

  All but one seemed to be having a good time. He sat far enough from the flame that I couldn’t see much of his face, but I could tell he was brooding as he stared at the water. A girlish scream tore my attention away, and I watched as a guy holding a cup with liquor pouring over the rim gave chase to a leggy blonde.

  “Fresh meat!” Heads turned, and I realized I’d been spotted. The guys began to hoot and holler while the girls sized me up. I was still mostly in the shadows, but it wouldn’t matter how I looked. The guys were drunk and horny, and to the girls, that alone made me competition. I backed away when a bare-chested blond in red board shorts and his darker, lankier cohort eased closer. “Don’t be shy,” board shorts cooed. “We don’t bite.” Their wolfish grins said otherwise.

  “Yeah, come party with us.”

  I snorted. “You two sound like you belong in a bad vamp movie.” I ignored the snickers and focused on keeping space between us. My pursuers didn’t seem offended, but that was likely because they were completely stoned.

  “I’m starting to think you’re the one who bites,” board shorts said with twinkling blues. “For future reference, I’m single.”

  “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m just passing through.”

  “Not without a beer, you’re not.” He was close enough now to grab my hand, and against my better judgment, I let him pull me toward the bonfire. When I stood amongst their circle, someone handed him a beer, which he then shoved in my hand.

  “Got a name?”

  “Four.”

  He barked a laugh and then cocked his head. “That’s not a name, girl. That’s a number.”

  I was careful not to look him in the eye as I shrugged. “Well, I’m Four,” I repeated. He wasn’t the first to find my name strange. No one knew why Rosalyn named me Four, and for her sake, I kept it that way.

  “It’s cool. I’m Drake, and this”—he pointed to his friend with the mop of dark curls—“is Ben.”

  I nodded and looked around at the rest of the group who had lost interest and returned to partying. There were maybe fifteen people, mostly male and my age.

  “You’re not from around here.” Drake hadn’t bothered posing it as a question.

  “What makes you so sure?”

  “Your lack of entitlement.” I lifted my unopened beer can in salute. “And no offense, new friend, but those are the shittiest pair of chucks I’ve ever seen.” The stoners peered down at my dirty green and white sneakers, but there wasn’t even a hint of malice.

  Feeling self-conscious, my feet shifted in the sand as I muttered, “I think they have character.”

  The two of them chortled, and then Drake smoothly wrapped his arm around my neck and drew me even closer to him and the fire. The flames licking at my face, arms, and legs kept me from pushing away. It felt good against the chill at my back.

  “So is everyone in Blackwood Keep rich?”

  “No, but people who come to this portion of the beach usually are. Everyone thinks we’re snobs.”

  “Aren’t you?”

  He snorted and squeezed me against his side. “Not all of us. Beach is a beach.” His smile grew as he gazed down at me. “And some of those girls whose daddies make shit money are really hot.”

  Deciding I didn’t feel like being hit on all night, I pushed away and chucked my beer in the sand. “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll be going now.”

  “Aw, don’t go,” he whined. “I’ll be good. I promise.”

  “If you mean that, let me use your phone.”

  His eyebrows bunched. “Why?”

  “I need a ride home.”

  He quickly downed the rest of his drink and crushed the cup before tossing it in the sand. “Phone’s dead, but I’ll drive you.”

  I started to turn down his offer when I heard, “You’re shitfaced, Cromwell. You won’t be driving her anywhere.”

  I turned my head at the new voice. At some point, the brooder had abandoned his seat to stand closer to the flames. Green eyes stared back at me over the fire while the ocean’s breeze ruffled light brown hair.

  “What do you mean, Rees?” Drake spread his arms wide and grinned. “I feel like flying.”

  “Yeah, into a ditch.” He cut off Drake’s response with a sharp shake of his head and said, “She can find her own way home.” This Rees guy then dismissed me with a flick of his eyes.

  Drake looked as disappointed as a stoned person could. “Sorry, Four.” He shrugged though I could see his frustration. “The Prince of Blackwood Keep has spoken.”

  I didn’t care about losing a ride from Drake. Rees, otherwise known as asshole, had made a valid point, but it was clear this prince didn’t speak up out of concern. He’d merely used Drake’s intoxication as an excuse to alienate me.

  I walked away but not without a backward glance. Rees’s back was turned, but I could just make out the phone plastered to his ear. I had already been forgotten.

  Ten or fifteen minutes later, I reached the main road with goose bumps crawling up my bare arms. I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me, and just as I hoped that not
hing lurked in the dark, blue and red flashing lights lit up the night. Despite my relief, I kept walking until my name was called over the loudspeaker.

  There was only one way he could know my name.

  I turned and waited as the cruiser stopped, and a muscled officer with a bushy brown mustache and bald head exited.

  “Four Archer?” he asked again.

  “Yeah?”

  “I’m Officer Trip. I’ll be escorting you home.”

  It didn’t really sound like I had a choice, but I still found myself saying, “I’ll be fine.” I turned away only to stop dead at the stern turn in his tone.

  “It wasn’t a request, and I don’t want to have to place you in cuffs, miss.”

  I considered my options—haul ass or face the music. If I ran, and he caught me, I’d still have to face the music while feeling like the biggest idiot. Not to mention, Rosalyn would freak. She was only one fuckup away from locking me in the tallest tower she could find.

  “How do you know my name?” I questioned as Officer Trip led me to the cruiser.

  “The name Thomas McNamara mean anything to you?”

  I sighed as he opened the back door. “Yeah.”

  “He reported you missing an hour ago. Young lady, there are things out here that bite that you wouldn’t see coming in the dark. I don’t recommend you try this again.” He shut the door, and I laid my head back with my eyes closed. Maybe it was hunger and exhaustion, but the world began to spin when he hopped in and reported that I’d been found.

  It was another minute before he began to pull away from the shoulder and another when his curse had my eyes popping open in time to see a white Lamborghini Aventador flying past. Officer Trip cursed again before speeding after the car. He quickly activated the loudspeaker when he managed to catch up.

  “This is your only warning. Slow down!”

  My heart beat faster as the driver seemed to ignore the cop’s orders and sped down the unlit road. Just as Officer Trip was ready to turn on the siren, the brake lights flashed.

 

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