The peer and the puppet, p.34
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.34

           B. B. Reid
 

  “Thanks, but I can handle your son.” I pushed my hair behind my ear, wishing for a do-over of the last twenty-four hours. Then again, if I could alter time, I would go back a year, instead.

  Thomas’s eyebrows bunched when the movement drew his attention to my neck and the hickeys my hair had been covering. Shit! Casually, I pushed my hair back in place only for the nervous chord in my stomach to tighten when he cast a worried glance up the stairs.

  “Is there something you want to tell me?”

  “Um…nothing comes to mind.”

  My prayers were answered when he didn’t mention the marks his son had left on my body. He then excused himself, leaving whatever he needed to speak with me about a mystery. Was it possible he suspected that Ever or even Jamie had been the one to mark me? After a moment of deliberation, I shrugged it off, deciding that if he had suspected his son or nephew, no way would he keep silent.

  Eager to check on Jay D, who had been unexpectedly left alone overnight, I flew up the stairs and burst into my room. The damage I found was about what I expected. An excited Jay D hopped from my bed covered in the feathers and cotton that used to make up my bedding. His food and water bowls had been tipped over, the bottom of the curtains chewed, and in one of the far corners were his droppings.

  He whined as he pawed my legs with wagging tongue. “I’m sorry, Jay.” I picked him up and scratched behind his ears before taking another look around my room with a wince. “I guess I deserved that, huh?” He barked and licked his answer all over my face.

  It took an hour to clear out Jay D’s handiwork, and other than the barren bed and the small carpet stain that my mirror did a good job of covering, my room was back to normal. I’d replace my bedding with some of the cash I’d won, and then I’d buy Jay D’s forgiveness with a new chew toy or two.

  I was clipping Jay D’s leash to his collar to take him for a well-deserved walk when I heard a throat clear. Standing in the open doorway was Jamie, accompanied by Ever. Since coming home, they had both showered and changed into fresh clothing. Jamie wore a distressed denim jacket, yellow long-sleeve bearing a white hand flipping the bird, skinny brown joggers that sagged at the crotch, and chocolate leather Timberland boots. Ever’s choice of clothing was also casual though far more uptight: forest green sports coat, white cowl-neck sweater with the front tucked into dark blue jeans, and brown leather belt with matching hiking boots.

  Jamie took a slow look around my room while Ever pretended I didn’t exist.

  “You two looking for something?”

  With a shrug, Jamie threw a thumb over his shoulder. “Ever here decided to take the scenic route.” I didn’t miss Ever’s jaw clench when Jamie exposed him. “We’re heading over to Vaughn’s.”

  His announcement reminded me that I needed to call and check on my friend. Getting a gun pointed at you wasn’t easy to bounce back from. A year later, I still had the occasional nightmare.

  “Oh, well, have fun.”

  I stood to my full height and grabbed my not-as-stylish, not-as-expensive windbreaker from my closet. I heard them whispering and told myself I didn’t give a shit what they might be saying even though I lingered in my closet longer than necessary. The whispering stopped, and hoping they’d gone, I emerged only to find them still hanging around.

  “Got any plans today?” Jamie questioned.

  I studied their faces, seeking motive, but neither of them gave anything away.

  “None that will get me killed.” Sometime between almost dying and my life spared a second time, I decided that my illegal racing days were over. I wasn’t surprised that Mickey still did business with the Exiled. Trying to kill me didn’t make their money any less green. He owed me nothing, so he offered nothing. I also realized that risking my life and freedom no longer made sense. Now that I was eighteen and didn’t need Rosalyn’s consent, I could feed my addiction legally, and one day, I will have my season in the Grand Prix.

  “Well, if you change your mind, just use the bat signal.”

  “Or don’t be fucking stupid,” Ever acerbically inserted.

  Usually, I’d give as good as I got, but this time, words eluded me. Was it because I’d given him everything only for him to discard it like yesterday’s trash? After what I cost him, I wasn’t entirely sure I didn’t deserve his hatred. That didn’t stop me from getting pissed though.

  “Don’t worry. What I do is no longer your concern. Actually, it never was, but you insisted, so the next time you’re feeling chivalrous, spare me.” Unwilling to spend another moment in his presence, I shoved past them with Jay D and didn’t look back.

  Hours later, I still wasn’t able to shake my anger. I so badly wanted to vent to Tyra when I called to check on her, but I forced my drama with Ever to the back of my mind and focused on consoling my friend.

  “If you don’t want to be friends anymore, I totally get it.” That was a total lie. I’d be completely broken up over losing a good friend.

  “Please,” she scoffed. “You’ll never find a better wingman than me.”

  We talked until it was time for her shift. I tried to talk her into calling in sick, but she insisted on using the distraction. She also admitted that Vaughn had excelled at damage control last night and this morning. Whatever that meant.

  Sick of twiddling my thumbs, I decided to check my email. Not long after Rosalyn handed over my birth certificate, I took the exam and submitted the application for my license. Now I was just waiting to hear back. I was marveling over the convenience of having my email at my fingertips when I remembered it was Ever who made it possible. Without a second thought, I grabbed the packaging from my desk before heading over to Ever’s room with the phone and Jay D trailing. Once inside his room, I carefully arranged the phone inside the box, placed it on his nightstand, and then grabbed the notebook and pencil he used for sketching and writing despotic notes. I flipped through the drawings, begrudgingly admitting his talent until I came to a blank page. I told Ever it was over if he walked out that door, but even then, I held onto hope. Maybe it was time I set myself free.

  You were never worthy of my strings.

  Sunday came around, and I was more than ready for the weekend to end. I desperately needed the distraction school offered. I was in the family room eating my weight in carbs and sugar for breakfast while watching Marquez, Lorenzo, and Rossi battle for the lead in last Sunday’s race when Rosalyn sauntered in holding a royal blue dress in one hand and nude patent leather flats in the other. My eyebrows nearly kissed my hairline when she carefully set the items down and sat beside me.

  “How are you, dear?” Those four words had been the most she’d spoken to me since our fight a couple of weeks ago.

  “I’m okay.”

  “I wanted to apologize for how I’ve acted. I may not think much of your dreams, but they are your dreams.” Gee, thanks. “Just please promise me you’ll be careful?”

  “Seeing me race might ease your fears. Not to brag, but I’m pretty good.”

  She stiffened at my suggestion and offered me one of her practiced smiles. “I think that would be nice.”

  I was pretty certain she’d never step foot inside a circuit. Rather than voice my doubts, I changed the subject.

  “What’s all of this?”

  “I picked out something for you to wear to dinner tonight.”

  Since when had dinner gotten so formal?

  “You didn’t have to do this. I’m fine wearing my normal clothes.”

  “The Montgomery family has invited us to dinner, and I’d like to make a good impression.”

  I wondered if the churning in my stomach was from all the junk food I’d eaten or the idea of spending the evening being cordial with Barbie and her parents. “Could I sit this one out? I have a lot of homework,” I lied.

  “Then you probably shouldn’t have spent the last half-hour watching TV, dear.”

  I sighed and made a mental note to use the cash I won to buy a TV for my room. “What’s the o
ccasion for the invite?”

  “I have no idea, but I’m sure we’ll find out at dinner. Make sure you wear your stockings.” Oozing grace, she rose from the couch with a reassuring smile.

  Shortly after she disappeared, I raced upstairs to Jamie’s room, leaving the frilly dress and shoes behind.

  “Jamie!” I called as I pounded on his door with one eye on Ever’s. It was a big house and hard to tell when anyone was home, but I knew Jamie rarely rose before noon on the weekend. A few more seconds of knocking and the door finally swung open, revealing a sleepy-eyed Jamie with hair sticking in every direction, wearing nothing but red boxer shorts and a sock on his left foot.

  “Yeah?”

  I shoved past him and waited for him to shut the door just in case Ever was home. “Know anything about dinner with the Montgomery’s?”

  He scratched his defined abs and yawned. “What?”

  “We’re having dinner with them tonight.”

  The news seemed to rouse him finally.

  “The fuck?” He padded over to his bed and searched around the covers until he found his phone. I watched him sit and dial and text and then stand to pace and dial and text before finally giving up. “Ever’s not answering.”

  He left the room without a word, so I reluctantly followed him and watched from a safe distance as he pounded on Ever’s door.

  At least I wasn’t the only one freaking out.

  When Ever didn’t answer, he pushed into the room. A few seconds later, he was back in the hall looking perplexed and holding a sheet of paper that I instantly recognized. My heart pounded when he held it up and moved closer for me to see. It was the note I’d left him.

  “What exactly happened between you two?”

  “How did you know about that?”

  “It was sitting on his bed. You may be part boy, but your handwriting is still girly as shit.”

  Thinking there might be a clue, I ran to my room with Jamie on my heels. I immediately zeroed in on the identical slip of folded paper waiting on my nightstand. For some reason, my hands shook as I opened the note. He’d only bothered to write two words.

  I know.

  Evening came and Ever never returned home. I opted to ride with Jamie to the Montgomery home, although neither of us spoke during the drive. I just stared out the window while Jamie puffed on a cigarette, something he only did when agitated. Fifteen minutes later, we passed through the gates. The home was smaller than the McNamara mansion but still grander than anything I could imagine for myself. Thomas and Rosalyn had beaten us there by minutes, and I no longer wondered if Ever would even be in attendance when I spotted his car parked out front. Jamie, wearing a red dress shirt, black tie, and slacks, and I in lace and chiffon, approached the front door side by side. He rang the bell, and we glanced at each as if to say ‘this is it.’ The door opened moments later, and a man with hair salted at the temples and peppered on top appeared.

  “Jameson,” the man greeted with his hand out, “good to see you again.” It didn’t sound the least bit true.

  Jamie politely shook his hand but didn’t bother with false pleasantries. The disdain the two shared for one another seeped from their pores.

  Soon, the older man’s gaze slid to me and became assessing as if determining my worth. “Hello, young lady. I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Elliot Montgomery, Barbette’s father.”

  “Four Archer,” I returned.

  He didn’t bother with a handshake or even a smile before stepping aside and inviting us in, and even then, it seemed reluctant. We followed him into the living room where everyone waited. Rosalyn was chatting with who I assumed was Barbie’s mother while Thomas sipped from his drink and stared into the lit fireplace. Unable to resist his pull, I glanced to the side of the room where Ever sat broodingly on a love seat next to Barbie. I couldn’t help but notice how complete they looked together.

  I felt bile rising as I became flushed. I needed a way out of this.

  Of course, Rosalyn chose that moment to notice me. “Four, you look beautiful.” Her ill-timed compliment put every set of eyes in the room on me. “Come and meet Melissa, dear.”

  I couldn’t even begin to describe how much I didn’t want that. Jamie placed his hand on my lower back and gently nudged me forward when I would have stayed in place. I couldn’t do this. No way, no how.

  A few steps and I was standing next to a beaming Rosalyn, who pled with her eyes for me not to embarrass her.

  “It’s nice to meet you,” Melissa primly greeted. “Four, is it?”

  “Yes.” I then proceeded, ineloquently, to string together a sentence. “Um…thank you…for…um…inviting me to your home.”

  “We’re glad you could come. Your mother was just telling me how dedicated you are to your studies.”

  I fought to keep my face schooled. I guess Rosalyn had been covering her ass in case I was a no-show.

  One of the staff announced that dinner was ready to be served, so we all moved into the dining room. I was glad to end the small talk, though I had a feeling the worst was yet to come. It was hard keeping my eyes off Ever, especially when he did such a great job ignoring me. Elliot sat at the head of the table with Thomas and Ever on his left and right. Melissa dined at the other end with Rosalyn on her right and Jamie on her left, which left me sitting across from Barbie and her sandwiched between Ever and Jamie.

  We were served salmon, wild rice, and asparagus. Barbie, as if a little carb would actually kill her, was served only salmon and asparagus. I forced myself to eat even though my appetite was non-existent. Elliot and Thomas discussed portfolios, although Elliot’s questions were borderline intrusive, but what did I know? Thomas didn’t seem to mind. Rosalyn and Melissa talked about the latest fashions. Jamie remained remarkably silent as dinner progressed. I was also content to poke around my plate in silence, but I found it strange that Ever and Barbette didn’t speak and barely looked at each other. Barbie seemed resigned while Ever showed no emotion at all.

  “So, Elliot, while I appreciate the invitation, I was curious as to the nature.”

  Jamie finally lifted his head from his plate, and Melissa clapped excitedly.

  “Ah.” Elliot nodded good-naturedly. “It seems my daughter and your son have great news to share.”

  Thomas turned to his son, and I think we all held our breath as we waited to hear the news. Ever, however, only had eyes for me when he broke me for the second time today.

  “I asked Barbette to marry me.”

  JAMIE WAS BEATING THE SHIT out of me, and I took each of those blows without returning a single one. I deserved them. It took Thomas and Elliot to pull him off me, and by then, I was pretty sure he’d broken my nose. While Thomas kept Jamie restrained, I staggered to my feet and just…walked away. I drove myself to the hospital to get my nose looked at—luckily it wasn’t broken—and my lip stitched before driving out to Vaughn’s to crash.

  “Jamie really fucked you up,” Vaughn commented with a shake of his head.

  I closed my eyes so I couldn’t see the disappointment in his. I knew Vaughn would have tried to talk me out of betraying Jamie any more than I already had, so I’d kept my decision to marry Barbie to myself. Bee’s parents had been waiting for me to pop the question since I entered the farce of a relationship four years ago.

  “Are you and Bee really going to do this? You don’t love each other. Anyone with eyes can see that.”

  “She doesn’t have a choice, and I—”

  “You’re what?” Vaughn prodded.

  I’m self-destructing. “I don’t know anymore.”

  The Montgomerys were broke.

  Using Barbette to increase the family’s wealth had always been Elliot’s plan from the moment her beauty was realized. Now that their ship was sinking, he was hell-bent on selling his daughter to the highest bidder. It didn’t matter if the suitor was decrepit or cruel as long as their offer pulled the Montgomerys out of the hole Elliot had dug them into and kept them wealthy. Be
lieving I was firmly in his daughter’s snare had been what kept him from selling her to one of his golfing buddies.

  Bee, Vaughn, and I had been thick as thieves for as long as I could remember. We had never known another girl who ran as fast, fought as hard, and challenged as fearlessly. She had been just another one of the boys until Jamie blew into town one summer and reminded us all that underneath the red ball cap and baggy clothes was still a girl.

  The day she met Jameson Buchanan was the first time we’d ever seen her blush, and Jamie, despite his arrogance, couldn’t stay away. They were best friends by the end of the summer. I was there when Bee made Jamie promise to return the next summer. She even cried a little when my uncle drove away and threatened to break my nose if I told anyone.

  The doorbell rang, so Vaughn got up and looked out the window. I sat up when he blew out a harsh curse. “Well, you better figure it out…Jamie’s here.”

  I was hoping to get some rest before round two, but it wasn’t like my cousin to take the time to cool down. He’d much rather explode.

  “I’m going to send him home.”

  “Nah…let him in.” I took a look around the living room elegantly decorated with original paintings, crystal vases, and antiques. Mrs. Rees had spared no expense. “On second thought, how expensive is all this shit?”

  “Very.”

  I stood from the couch built for style rather than comfort and started for the door when Jamie rounded the corner. He looked worse than I did even though I was the one with the fucked-up nose and busted lip. His tie was gone, my blood still stained his knuckles, and his hair looked like he’d been tugging at it.

  “Call it off.”

  “Can’t.”

  “I don’t give a shit what you think you’re protecting her from. She’s not yours to protect.”

  “She’s my friend. That gives me just as much right. You’re too worried about if she’s spreading her legs for me to ask yourself why she doesn’t trust you with the truth.”

  “There is nothing she could say that would make me understand why she betrayed me.”

 

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