The peer and the puppet, p.5
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.5

           B. B. Reid
 
She beamed as I devoured another strip of bacon. “I wanted to make sure you had a good breakfast.” She resumed staring out the window when I didn’t respond. I was too busy hoping that I hadn’t completely lost her to the McNamaras.

  I finished eating and kissed Rosalyn’s warm cheek before running upstairs to grab my backpack. I didn’t know the protocol for being forced to accept a ride from a person who hated you, so after checking the time, I decided to just wait outside. I’d seen Ever come and go in a blacked-out Range Rover, so when I emerged and saw his ride waiting in the driveway, I awkwardly stood by it. Ten minutes passed before Ever emerged in a long-sleeve navy sweater, with the collar of his white dress shirt popping from the neckline, and black pants. He’d dutifully worn the red tie and shiny black oxfords that I had wrinkled my nose at before stuffing mine in the darkest corner of my closet. He had his two-toned hair brushed back and controlled with gel that made his thick hair shine.

  If there ever were a preppy God, Ever would have been him.

  “If I’d known you were such a diva, I would have slept an extra five minutes,” I quipped as he approached.

  He took his time looking me over before speaking. “The option to walk is always available to you.” His tone remained perfectly flat, and I began to wonder if he even had a personality. He was always so refined and in control. Nothing seemed to ruffle his royal feathers.

  I hopped in after he unlocked the Range Rover and waited while he tossed his backpack in the back. I didn’t realize I was tapping my foot until I caught him eyeing my bare legs. He seemed unimpressed, however, when he met my gaze again.

  “Problem?” he questioned.

  “We’re going to be late.”

  He smirked as he turned the ignition and put the car in gear. “And?”

  “And I’m in enough trouble thanks to you,” I reminded.

  “Me?” He couldn’t have sounded more disinterested.

  “Yeah. You.”

  His lip curled as he drove us down the tree-lined driveway. “I’m not the dumb hick who thought she could be the next Patsy Quick in a fucking swamp.”

  “Fuck you.”

  Ever’s condescending snort had me flushing with humiliation even before he said, “Not even with a paper bag and a thousand condoms.”

  Self-preservation flew out the window when my fist collided with his temple. Too far. He swerved into the next lane and cursed as he quickly regained control of the Range before slamming on the brakes. By the time I unfastened my seatbelt to fight or flee, he was already yanking open my door and pulling me out by my arm. My warning growls went unheeded as he slammed the passenger door shut and pushed me up against it.

  “The first two were free. You hit me again, I hit back. Are we clear on that, Archer?”

  I stared into the angry depth of his eyes, and the only thing I could do was smile, knowing I’d finally gotten to him. “Go to hell.”

  “I am hell, so you’d better wise up.”

  Feeling as if he’d carved the warning into my skin, I didn’t respond, and he finally let me go. I debated getting back in with him until he threatened to run me over if I didn’t. Guilt didn’t rear its ugly head until the red bruise appeared on his temple. I sighed, knowing it was wrong for me to hit him, but I still couldn’t bring myself to apologize. Ever didn’t speak another word as he drove, and ten minutes later, he was pulling onto a huge campus with brick and glass buildings and fields of green. I was still gawking when he parked, grabbed his bag, and hopped out. Ever’s name could be heard from every direction when I slid from the car. He ignored them all. The moment the door closed, he engaged the lock.

  There would be no hiding.

  I became all too aware of the stares and whispers.

  Just apologize.

  My lips parted to speak, but then the words died in my throat when the asshole from the beach suddenly appeared next to Ever. They stood of equal height and build, but their features were noticeably different…and fucking remarkable. Where Ever was regal, Vaughn was boyish, and that had to be where the trap lay because under the aristocracy and allure brewed a storm. Vaughn had chosen to wear a red sweater vest over his white button-up with the sleeves rolled up with a navy tie and navy pants.

  “Glad to see you made it home in one piece,” he smugly observed.

  “No thanks to you.”

  He simply smiled as if he knew something I didn’t.

  I crossed my arms, forgetting my nervousness. “It’s a good thing you weren’t too busy wrapped around a tree to notice.”

  His lips twitched as he leaned against his car. “Wouldn’t that be the pot calling the kettle black?”

  My gaze switched to Ever, who glared at his friend as he shouldered his pack. “It seems I’ve become a hot topic.”

  Ever snorted as he stepped onto the concrete and into my space. We now stood so close that his every exhale blew a strand of hair that had escaped my messy ponytail. “Don’t flatter yourself.”

  He walked away without another word and the ball of nerves inside my stomach finally unraveled. Vaughn’s gaze flickered back and forth between Ever and me before he pushed away from his car and followed.

  The parking lot and manicured lawn quickly emptied.

  What the hell?

  I rushed for the arched entrance.

  Jefferson High looked nothing like this with its simple white structure and a ceiling that occasionally leaked when it rained. No one ever bothered to complain, knowing there would never be money in the budget to fix it.

  Luckily, the headmaster’s office wasn’t hard to find. I picked up my schedule along with a new student slip, but when I tried to leave for my first class, the secretary informed me that I was to see the headmaster.

  I stifled my groan and took a seat like a dutiful Brynwood academic. Almost immediately, the door to the headmaster’s office opened, and a stout man with a receding hairline of gray and a kind smile appeared.

  “Miss Archer?” I stood and shook the headmaster’s offered hand. “I’m Headmaster Burns. Brynwood Academy is pleased to have you, young lady.”

  He then showed me into his office where another student with mocha skin, whiskey eyes, and brown hair pulled into a neat bun waited. The lower her gaze swept over me, the higher her eyebrows rose.

  “This is Tyra Bradley. She’s one of our finest students. I’ve assigned her to be your guide for the next couple of weeks to help with your transition. If there is anyone who can get you settled in, it’s her.”

  “Hey, I’m Four.”

  She nodded politely but didn’t lose that wary look.

  All right then.

  “Miss Archer, if you have any questions, I have an open-door policy. Brynwood also enforces strict but necessary rules that we would like to see all students follow.”

  I noticed him studying my uniform with a deep frown, so I glanced at Tyra for help. We looked the same minus the tie and pompous shoes, of course.

  “Is something wrong with my uniform?”

  “The tie and oxfords aren’t an option, Miss Archer. I also advise that you do not pass through those doors again with your shirttails untucked from your skirt.”

  Heat bloomed on the back of my neck as I shifted from one foot to the other. “Sorry, I didn’t know.” He nodded but continued to stare curiously. “Is there something else?”

  “I’m just surprised that Mr. McNamara didn’t educate you on uniform policy. As Brynwood’s president, it’s one of his duties to ensure it’s being enforced.”

  And the aristocratic ass must have known I’d have to see the headmaster before class.

  Motherfucker.

  I was saved from offering an explanation by Tyra. “First period will be over soon. I think we should get going so I can show Four around in time for second.”

  “Good idea, Miss Bradley. And Four…” I shook the hand he held out as he flashed a warm smile. “Welcome to Brynwood.”

  “Why do I have the feeling we got off on the wrong foot?” I ques
tioned after I caught Tyra stealing her third glance. We’d been walking and speaking only on a need-to basis since leaving the headmaster’s office.

  With a sigh, Tyra stopped in the middle of the empty hall. “We didn’t…not really,” she fumbled to explain. “It’s just that when I heard you were living with Ever McNamara, I expected the worst.”

  “A rich bitch?”

  “Exactly.”

  “Well, as it turns out, I’m just some rich man’s charity case…and I assumed the same about you.”

  “Then we have something in common. I’m also some rich man’s charity case.”

  “Oh?”

  “I’m here on scholarship. You?”

  “That’s not exactly how I’d define my situation. Rosalyn is dating Ever’s dad.”

  “Rosalyn?”

  I often forgot that normal was not calling your mother by her first name. “My mother.”

  “She lets you call her by her first name? How cool.”

  “Sure.” I cracked a smile to hide the truth, and she did the same. “So I barely said two words in there. What made you change your mind?”

  Her eyebrows rose as she looked me over. “Honestly?”

  Catching her drift, I chuckled. “Yeah, okay.” I started walking again.

  “Sorry!” she rushed to say as she followed. “It’s just that none of the girls here would ever be caught dead not giving a shit.”

  “I get it,” I murmured. “I don’t belong here.”

  “It’s refreshing.”

  “Why’s that?” I questioned as I spotted the bathroom and headed for it.

  She followed me inside and took a look around to make sure we were alone before she answered.

  “Because I don’t, either.”

  I eyed her curiously. She definitely looked the part of a Brynwood elite. “But you’re wearing the tie and the shoes.”

  “Yeah, because they cost my dad a fortune.” She blew out a breath and squared her shoulders as if readying for a brutal blow. “I’m only here because my dad coaches the football team. They gave me a scholarship that I can only keep if I maintain a perfect average. I can’t even afford to get a B.”

  I shrugged as I tucked in my shirt. It didn’t matter to me how much money her dad didn’t make. “It seems like you’re holding up your end of the deal pretty well.”

  “I don’t date. None of the guys here would date beneath them anyway. And the only students who would be seen with me are scholarship students, too. All they do is study. All I do is study. That and work at the coffee shop.”

  It seems I’d found another loner.

  I couldn’t wait to tell Gruff.

  I tapped my finger against my chin and studied her. “How do you feel about spending your Sunday nights watching sword fights, dragons breathing fire, and people doing it?”

  Dimples appeared on both cheeks as her smile spread. “It sounds awesome.”

  “Well, Tyra…” I linked my arm through hers and walked us to the door. “I guess this makes us friends.”

  She began opening the door just as a group of guys approached. Recognizing the tallest one, my hand quickly curled around the door to keep her from opening it further.

  “What is it?” she whispered.

  I didn’t answer her. I couldn’t. The group had stopped mere feet away from the bathroom door. Tyra stood on her toes to peek over my left shoulder.

  Ever stood in the middle of the hall with Vaughn and three others—a real bruiser with dark hair, a Korean kid with a mohawk, and a Dave Franco look-alike—as they tossed a football back and forth between them.

  “You should reconsider quitting the team,” the bruiser said to my darling ‘stepbrother.’ “The only players I know that are as fast as you are playing for the pros.”

  “Yeah,” the Franco clone agreed. “We really need you as our running back. Stephens is good, but he’s not quick enough to catch Turner’s girly throws.”

  The bruiser, who was obviously Turner, shoved him into the wall and threatened to use him for target practice.

  “Besides,” the mohawk spoke as he tossed the football to Ever, “if you and Vaughn get drafted for the same team, you won’t have to end the bromance.”

  Ever flipped him off and tossed the ball to Vaughn.

  “Is your dad still pushing for you to work for him?” Turner prodded Vaughn, whose jaw tightened as he nodded.

  “I can’t believe he tried to bribe you with a Lamborghini,” the Franco clone tittered. “What does he do again?”

  “He dabbles in a few trades. None that I’m interested in.”

  The mohawk clapped Ever on his shoulder. “That settles it. What do you say?”

  Ever gave a sharp shake of his head. “Too busy.”

  The guys’ shoulders dropped.

  “Is it because of that chick you rode in with this morning? What’s her name again?”

  “It was a number or something,” the mohawk pondered. “Six or Seven, I think.” Only when they continued to list and argue numbers did Ever deign to correct them.

  “It’s Four,” he enlightened with zero emotion.

  “Wait, her name is Four?” The Franco clone doubled over. “Four…Ever…forever.” Thinking himself clever, he laughed even harder. “The universe is really screwing with you, huh?”

  Ever didn’t respond.

  “Dude, she looked like Dorothy in Wonderland when she climbed from your ride,” Turner chortled. “Who is she, anyway?”

  “She’s nobody.”

  “Asshole,” Tyra whispered.

  My only reaction was to clutch the door tighter.

  “A nobody wouldn’t make you tense like that,” Turner observed. Maybe he wasn’t as dumb as he looked, after all.

  “I’m probably going to inherit the mansion, and she’s bringing down the property value.”

  “That’s cold,” the mohawk murmured.

  Ever shrugged, and only Vaughn remained silent as the rest of them laughed at my expense.

  “A few more weeks and my dad will be done playing house with the gold digger.”

  “A few weeks, huh?” The Franco clone rubbed his chin. “I bet I can smash in one.”

  Turner sucked his teeth and eyed him skeptically. “Why would she waste good pussy on you when the King of Brynwood sleeps in the next room? If anyone fucks her first, I bet it’s him.”

  Ever leaned against the wall and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t want her.”

  “What?” his three lackeys hollered.

  “I know she’s a little less sophisticated than what you’re used to, but she’s sort of cute,” Turner argued. “Definitely fuckable.”

  “Yeah, she’s a little plain, but did you see her ass?” The Franco clone whistled.

  “Maybe if she ditched those homeless man sneakers…” the mohawk suggested.

  “Who cares about what she’s wearing?” the Franco clone argued. “It’s what’s underneath that counts.”

  “Yeah, but nicer wrapping wouldn’t hurt.”

  Turner turned to Vaughn for judgment. “What do you think, Rees? Would you fuck?”

  Vaughn tossed the ball rapidly between his palms, but the smirk he tossed at Ever made me wish I was anywhere else. “She gives too much lip. Pass.”

  “Damn,” the mohawk muttered. “I guess that settles it. Four’s an undesirable.”

  The guys didn’t look completely convinced, however, and Ever definitely took notice. “I’ll tell you who I’d fuck,” he said slowly.

  The way they leaned in, you’d think Ever was about to tell them who killed Tupac.

  “Who,” the Franco clone eagerly prodded.

  “Marianne Little.”

  The lackeys moaned appreciatively, and I was good as forgotten as they listed her best assets and what they’d like to do to her. I barely felt the comforting hand Tyra laid on my arm. I was ready to fling open the door and rip into them, but the bell chose that moment to ring, prompting Ever and Vaughn to finally walk a
way with their lackeys trailing behind.

  I didn’t have an appetite when the lunch bell rang, so I sat in a corner stewing while Tyra talked my ear off.

  “Four?” I looked up from staring at the green beans in the corner of my lunch tray to find Tyra staring back at me. “Are you okay?”

  I groaned and pushed away my tray. “I’m not very good company, am I?”

  She shook her head and stabbed at her meatloaf. “After what those assholes said about you, I’d be upset, too.”

  It wasn’t just those cronies’ words that upset me. Ever had just let them say those things. In just one day, I’d learned who held power in this school, and it wasn’t Headmaster Burns. Ever could have shut them up if he had wanted.

  “If you don’t want to go to Ever’s party tomorrow night, you can come over and watch Outlander…” She had been ready to say more, but her voice trailed off at the look on my face.

  “What party?”

  “The back-to-school bash. Well…it’s also a party for Ever’s seventeenth birthday.”

  I swallowed down the lump in my throat. “Where is it?”

  “His house. I mean…it’s your house, too.”

  I shrugged. “You were right the first time.”

  “So are you going? Barbie has been handing out invitations all day. Of course, I didn’t get one. Not that I’d want to go.” Her button nose wrinkled as she stabbed her meatloaf again. I was beginning to think she was picturing someone’s face.

  “Who’s Barbie?” I’d question who would name their kid Barbie, but considering my own name, judgment was off the table.

  “Ever’s girlfriend,” she answered matter-of-factly.

  The cafeteria, the other students—it all faded away.

  Since the moment he’d stepped around that refrigerator door, I hadn’t been able to break free of his spell. Not even when he was being an utter dick. How had I never considered that he belonged to someone?

  The reality felt like a heart-stopping blow, and I had no idea why.

  “They’ve been a thing since the eighth grade,” Tyra chattered obliviously. “Barbie is a total bitch, but if you ask me, I think she can do better.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  Tyra took a look around before whispering, “Because everyone knows Ever sleeps around. He lost his virginity three years ago, and people say it wasn’t to her. They say Olivia Portland was his first love.” Her voice dropped even lower when she added, “After he fucked her, she wanted him to break it off with Barbie, but he refused. She stalked him, it became a shitstorm, but then her family left town, and everyone moved on.”

 
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