The peer and the puppet, p.4
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.4

           B. B. Reid
 

  The irritated officer muttered to himself as he followed behind the car until it turned off in another direction.

  “I’m going to offer more unsolicited advice, although it might not be worth much considering the person you’re living with.”

  “And that is?”

  “Stay away from Vaughn Rees. Ever too…if you can manage.”

  I met Officer Trip’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

  “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” Thomas and Rosalyn were waiting on the front steps when Officer Trip pulled into the circular drive.

  Ignoring Rosalyn’s puffy eyes and Thomas’s tight jaw, I slipped inside while Officer Trip had them distracted.

  I only made it halfway up the stairs before Ever appeared at the landing, wearing the same clothes from earlier but with his shirt mercifully buttoned. For a moment, he didn’t move, and neither did I, but then he blinked, and the threat was there. He descended the stairs, and I had a hunch he wanted to push me down them. I carefully backed down, but he kept coming, his eyes only for me. A single step was all that separated us when his father appeared and ordered us into the family room. Ever simply shifted and kept going as if nothing had happened.

  “Why did you leave this house?” Thomas questioned when everyone except Ever was seated.

  “I didn’t know I was a prisoner.”

  “You’re free to come and go, but you should be reachable at all times, and curfew is midnight during the summer and weekends.”

  I nodded and hoped that would be the end of his interrogation. I wouldn’t give that prick leaning against the wall the satisfaction of admitting he’d been the reason I ran.

  “Why did you leave?” Rosalyn demanded.

  “I just needed some air.” Behind the couple, a mocking smirk appeared.

  “Ever says you ran out of here crying,” Thomas pointed out.

  “I…” I dug my fingers into the cushion to keep from scratching Ever’s eyes out. There was no way I could correct them without admitting that I attacked his precious prince. “I’m still adjusting.” Saddle up, McNamara. I’m staying. And because I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, I saw Ever’s smile spread as if he’d read my mind and was hungry for the challenge.

  Thomas cleared his throat, stealing back my attention. “Yes, well, we take responsibility for tonight. We shouldn’t have left you alone your first night in a new home. I didn’t consider your point of view.”

  “And what exactly is my point of view, Thomas?”

  His gaze narrowed thoughtfully. “That you’d give anything—absolutely anything—to be back in Cherry.” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his hard thighs. “I know it’s hard leaving home, but understand this…running away will not be tolerated.”

  I felt my lip curl. “Is that a threat?”

  Rosalyn extended her hand, but I moved away before she could touch me. She was clearly on his side.

  “It’s a very serious warning, Four. Your mother and I are trying to do what’s best. Try with us.”

  Rosalyn was back to gnawing her lip again, a wordless plea for me to heed Thomas’s warning—for her sake, not mine. Never mine. I could already feel myself capitulating.

  “May I be excused?”

  They gave their nod of approval, but I faltered when I realized I’d have to pass Ever. It wasn’t like he’d pounce in front of his father, so with my head held high, I left the family room. It wasn’t until he spoke that I realized he’d followed me. I whirled around on the stairs to face him. With our parents out of the way, nothing was keeping either of us on our leashes.

  “What did you say?”

  “Your smell has a habit of lingering after you’re gone.”

  Mortification had me hurrying up the stairs again. Sure, I’d worked up a sweat, but I didn’t think it had been offensive. Drake definitely didn’t seem to mind, although he had been high out of his mind. I could feel him on my heels as I rushed down the hall. He didn’t speak again until I reached my door.

  “I thought maybe Mrs. Greene was trying out a new air freshener.”

  I’d turned to face him when the epiphany came swift and hard. He knows I was in his room. “I—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  He crowded me until he trapped me against the door and only a finger of space remained between us. I could hardly draw my next breath as his own breezed over my skin.

  “Yes, you do.”

  I watched as he leaned forward just the tiniest bit and…inhaled. The sudden hum between my thighs and stirring in my stomach alarmed me. I looked away to hide my reaction and didn’t move until I heard the soft snick of his bedroom door closing. Not wasting time, I threw open my own door and rushed inside. It felt good to breathe again.

  I stood frozen as I listened to him move around the bathroom. Moments later, the shower was running. I was still rummaging through the boxes Thomas must have had brought up when the shower shut off. I pretended I wasn’t listening to every sound coming from within that bathroom, but ten minutes later, when the hair dryer shut off, I realized I hadn’t moved the entire time. With a self-loathing curse, I toed off my sneakers and grabbed my toiletries before padding across the room.

  When I turned the knob, however, I found the door locked.

  He must have flipped the lock for privacy but forgot to unlock it. My fist slammed into the door when I realized I’d have to get him to unlock it, which completely ruined my plan of never speaking to him again.

  Not that he’d care.

  I wanted to scream and rage when I reached his door, but I’d catch more flies with honey, so I used my knuckles to knock lightly. Maybe I’d hate myself less after I washed away the sand and sweat sticking to my skin.

  “Ever?” I called when a few seconds passed. I knocked again but was met with the same silence. “I know you’re awake. I need you to unlock my door.” I knocked harder this time and for a minute straight to no avail. Growling, I prowled back to my room and tried the door again, but it was still locked. “Asshole,” I muttered before grabbing my clothes and toiletries and heading to one of the guest rooms.

  I bet he wanted me to run and cry to our parents about how he was being a big, bad bully.

  Fuck him.

  As long as he didn’t want me here, I’d pretend to play for keeps. After all, you don’t grow up in Cherry without learning how to milk a cow. Smiling to myself, I entered the first guest room I could find and locked the door for good measure. Locking me out of our bathroom was the last battle he’d win tonight.

  After a steaming hot shower, I was much more levelheaded when I returned to my room, but just to settle my curiosity, I checked my bathroom door.

  It was unlocked.

  THE SOFT KNOCK ON MY door had me looking up from the text Vaughn sent in response to me quitting the team. It was a dick move considering the season was about to start, and Vaughn and I had just made varsity, but we’ve also been best friends since the day we ate a fistful of sand together on the playground. While he couldn’t know what I’d do with the vital information he shared, he knew me well enough to know I’d do something.

  “Ever,” the southern voice called followed by another knock when I refused to say shit. It was amusing the way she attempted to conceal her anger. I was willing to bet there was not a damn thing sweet about Four Archer. “I know you’re awake. I need you to unlock my door.”

  I smiled at her whining as I texted Vaughn my plan. My father had naively expected me to be hospitable and share a bathroom with some swamp girl who probably never even received all of her vaccinations. I had never cared much about being the bigger person. I only cared about getting my way, and Archer would learn that soon enough.

  There was a chance she’d run and tell my father, but my gut told me she was the type to fight her own battles and even if she weren’t it wouldn’t stop a thing. I’d only make her life hell another day.

  My father was still very much a mar
ried man when he moved his whore and her wild daughter into the home he once shared with my mother. The day he broke the news I had half a mind to walk out just as she did. I had still been considering it up until the moment I laid eyes on Four Archer. I couldn’t explain why but at that moment I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.

  I couldn’t say the same for her.

  My phone beeped just as I heard Archer mutter something that sounded like “asshole” before walking away.

  #17: Are you out of your mind???

  I rubbed my temple and considered the possibility that I might be before texting my reply.

  What did you expect, V? He can’t keep her. No fucking way.

  I threw my phone down not caring about what he had to say. My mind was made up, and nothing was going to change it. It’s been three years, and since then I’ve lost hope until my best friend unknowingly gave it back.

  Except for this time I was no longer willing to sit back and pray.

  Hope was for the weak and the foolish.

  I looked around my room seeing only change and nothing of the past. Stepping into my room had once been like looking inside a kaleidoscope. Typical of any teenager, after forging through puberty, I went through phases faster than I could change my underwear. My parents had encouraged me to embrace my ever-changing curiosities, assuring me that it was perfectly normal…until I took it too far. Because of one night that I could never take back, I made a point to surround myself with only what was necessary so that there was no risk of temptation.

  Because once I found trouble, it was impossible to stay away. I lived for it and would have probably died for it.

  I could recall with vivid clarity the time I came closest to death. It was the summer before my last year of junior high—before everything went to shit. Jamie and Bee—my cousin from Boston and my other best friend—had ditched us to be alone so it was just Vaughn and me—along with some kids from school—watching football tryouts when I boasted that I’d make first cut when the time came. I was a runner and a fast one too. The fastest Brynwood had ever seen. I had considered joining the track and field team, but Vaughn had convinced me to focus my talent elsewhere when he pointed out that the football players got more pussy.

  At thirteen it seemed like a pretty fair argument.

  Of course, my classmates had their doubts and challenged me to prove my speed. And of all the ways I could have, I chose the most daring. In front of six witnesses, I had claimed I could outrun a train. When I look back, it wasn’t my proudest moment, but it was the memory that always made me feel alive.

  My phone chimed bringing me back to the present:

  BEE: Meet your new stepsister yet? ;-)

  I heard my teeth grinding as I typed.

  The hick and I will never share a last name.

  The fact that it felt like a lie pissed me off even more. There was no way my father would actually marry the gold digger. Not when my mother was still out there. My parents had been in love, and I knew if I could just get them in the same room together, we could turn back time. Four Archer would be back in the swamp where she belonged, and I’d have my family again.

  BEE: She must be pretty…

  Knowing Bee was fishing, I closed my eyes to pray for patience. Instead, I pictured big brown eyes, pink lips forever pursed in a defiant pout, golden hair wrangled into a disheveled ponytail, and the most exquisite ass I’d ever come to behold.

  NOPE, I texted back.

  I tossed my phone on the bed and ignored the answering chime as I headed for the bathroom. After taking a leak and washing my hands, I flipped the lock on Four’s door. I thought I’d just walk away. I really wanted to. But then I realized I wanted to be on the other side even more.

  Not giving a shit if she was in her room or not, I yanked open the door and stepped inside. As I looked around, it became clear that whoever had decorated this room didn’t know Four Archer at all. Hell, I’ve only known her for less than a day, but even I knew frills and pastels were not her style. She was bolder without intending to be, and it was because she didn’t give a shit. This room had been decorated for someone who wanted to be handled with kid gloves.

  There was a small pile of boxes in the corner that one of the help must have brought up sometime while Four was out looking for the nearest exit. The fact that she was willing to do it on foot told me just how much I’d pissed her off.

  I still felt a slight ache in my balls for my trouble. When she fled, I had every intention of running after her and showing her the proper way to handle the family jewels, but that had been out the question. It took me over five minutes just to pick myself up from the goddamn floor. By then the little troublemaker was long gone.

  You better believe I looked while picturing my hands wrapped around her pretty throat.

  After too much time passed and she didn’t come back I told myself I was only worried about what story I’d tell my father. Under no circumstances was I concerned about what might have happened to her.

  Unfortunately, my father and his whore made it back first but seeing an opportunity to get my pound of flesh, I told them without being asked that Four had run away in a fit of tears. I had no idea if she was crying or not, but I knew my saying so would piss her off either way.

  Vaughn had called shortly after my father and Four’s mother lost their shit to say he’d found something of mine lost on the beach. I didn’t need to ask what he’d meant. Once I informed my father of Four’s whereabouts he wasted no time calling in one of the many favors owed by the Sheriff’s department. I covertly cashed in a favor of my own and told Vaughn to stay on her ass in case she spotted one of the Sheriff’s boys first and bolted.

  There was no way in hell she was getting off that easy. Four’s presence in Blackwood Keep had awakened something within me, and I wanted more of it.

  Tipping over to the only open box, I peered inside. Navy blue coveralls stained with oil was the first to catch my eye. Lifting it, I smiled as I studied Four’s name written on the white patch belonging to Russell’s Repairs.

  So my little troublemaker liked to get her hands dirty.

  Good.

  So did I.

  FOUR DAYS OF PLAYING THE docile prisoner for the McNamara men left me exhausted. Who knew being pleasant twenty-four seven packed could be so…unpleasant? And it all seemed to backfire because, after that first day, I saw little to nothing of Ever McNamara. Thomas didn’t even bat an eyelash at his son’s constant absence.

  Today was now the morning of my fifth day in Blackwood Keep and my first day at Brynwood Academy. A couple of days ago, I was given the same red and navy uniforms I’d found in Ever’s closet along with a credit card for my ‘needs.’ Thomas then forced me to sit through a lecture on financial responsibility before informing me that Ever would be driving me to and from school until other arrangements could be made. He didn’t explain what he’d meant, but I wondered if the man had actually been implying he’d buy me a car.

  Eyes at half-mast as my toes sunk into the plush carpet, I stretched and listened for signs of bathroom occupancy. Hearing nothing but the birds chirping, I quickly grabbed the caddy I picked up when Rosalyn had driven us to town in the Navigator for supplies. Along with everything else, she’d ditched the Taurus before leaving Cherry. Rosalyn had questioned why I needed a caddy, but I’d refrained from telling her that I didn’t trust Ever not to dip my toothbrush in toilet water. Not that I had considered it or anything…

  I made sure to lock both doors before eagerly stepping into the shower. I’d spent thirty minutes under the spray the first time. The water jetting from all sides had felt like a full body massage, one that I desperately needed this morning but didn’t have the time to spare. After blow-drying, my hair fell in shiny waves around my shoulders before I threw it into a ponytail. Rosalyn loathed them. She thought it was ‘shameful to hide such beautiful hair.’ I thought it was a goddamn nuisance, which was why I’d had Patty free me of the long tresses. Rosalyn had mourned for mon
ths.

  Once I collected everything, I unlocked his door. I’d only taken a few steps when a wicked smile spread across my lips, and I hurried back to his door. I was reaching for the knob when the door was pushed open. I just barely saved my face from being clobbered.

  “What are you doing in here?” I hissed as I clutched my towel to me. Black boxers were all Ever wore.

  “Door wasn’t locked.” His head cocked slightly. “What were you doing if the door was already unlocked?”

  “I—I didn’t know I’d forgotten to lock it,” I lied.

  He grunted and moved around me. I couldn’t help stealing another peek at his body even though he hadn’t bothered looking anywhere beyond my face. One day, I’d question why I found that insulting. I watched as his gaze landed on my yellow caddy. Without permission, he reached out, lifted my bar of soap, and brought it up to his nose.

  Fuck.

  A lump lodged in my throat as he wordlessly returned the bar and handed over the caddy.

  “Get out.”

  I grabbed the caddy and fled.

  Downstairs, after donning the navy blazer, white blouse, and khaki skirt, and opting for scuffed Vans instead of the shiny black oxfords, I found Rosalyn in the breakfast room, robed in turquoise silk, sipping her coffee as she stared out the window. The terrace doors were thrown open, inviting the morning breeze inside.

  “Morning.” She faced me with a smile that became genuine when she took in my uniform.

  “You look lovely.”

  I smiled as I slid onto the bench across from her. “Thanks. Is this for me?” My mouth watered as I stared down at the scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and fresh fruit.

  “Yes. Ever had some orange drink, and Thomas already left for the office.”

  I nodded as I chewed on a piece of bacon. It was the right ratio of crispy and chewy just as I liked it. “Did you make this?” I already knew the answer. Why else would Ever pass up a hot meal for Gatorade? Eating something else would have been too obvious, and his father didn’t seem like he messed around.

 
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