The peer and the puppet, p.6
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.6

           B. B. Reid
 

  I took a deep breath and chose my next words carefully. “This Barbie didn’t break up with him?”

  “That’s the weirdest part. I don’t think she really cared. They’re a weird couple if you ask me. Don’t think I’ve even seen them kiss before.”

  My mouth became as dry as a desert. “Maybe he isn’t big on PDA.” I opened my carton of milk and took a sip when I wanted to chug it.

  “Could be…except I caught him fingering a girl once.”

  Some of the milk I spat out landed on Tyra, and she squealed, drawing attention, before quickly grabbing some napkins.

  “Sorry,” I forced through my choking.

  “I guess I deserved that.” At my look, she fell over laughing, drawing even more attention. “I totally got you.”

  “What?” I took an angry swipe at my mouth.

  “I kid. No one ever sees Ever do his dirt.”

  “So how do you know all of this?”

  “Because girls talk and because fucking Ever McNamara is like climbing Mount Everest or winning the lottery.” I rolled my eyes at that. “I know you hate him, but it’s true. He’s incredibly selective. Vaughn Rees, too.” She rolled her eyes at the mention of his name. “You aren’t hot unless they say you are.”

  “God forbid a girl thinks more of herself.”

  “You don’t understand. They aren’t just a meal ticket. They’re the ticket.”

  I couldn’t deny that my interest was piqued. “I know the McNamara’s are rich, but what makes Vaughn so special?”

  She shrugged. “His mother’s family founded Blackwood Keep. They’re pretty loaded, too.”

  “Is that why they call him the Prince of Blackwood Keep?”

  “Yeah, but there’s a rumor that his father is into some real heavy shit.”

  “What kind of shit?”

  “Don’t know,” she answered nonchalantly. “His father might as well be Voldemort. We don’t speak his name.”

  I snorted. “And I thought only the folks in Cherry were heavy on superstition and rumors.”

  Her expression turned serious, and she grabbed my hand. “I’m serious, Four. I agree that Ever deserves a good kick in the dick, but if you go looking for trouble, they’ll bring it to you. Ever and Vaughn are not to be fucked with.”

  I smirked. “Been there, done that.”

  “What do you mean you did that?”

  It was my turn for nonchalance. “I kneed him in his special place my first night here.” When she stared back at me as if I’d just told her I once kicked a puppy, I shrugged and added, “He deserved it.”

  Her gaze narrowed. “Did you also give him that bruise everyone’s been talking about?”

  I fought a smile. “Maybe.”

  “Everyone’s been wondering who was crazy enough to fight Ever, but he’s been tight-lipped, as usual.”

  “Maybe he doesn’t want anyone to know it was a girl.”

  She giggled and let go of my hand. “You’re crazy, and I must be insane for daring to be your friend.”

  This time I did smile albeit hesitantly. I’d been a loner for so long that I wasn’t sure I even wanted a friend. When she smiled back, bright and honest, I decided the idea wasn’t entirely loathsome. “You only live once.”

  Her reply was cut off by the sudden appearance of three girls. Two of them—both brunette—wore navy blazers, but not the blue-eyed blonde leading them. Red painted lips stretched wide as she eyeballed me. “You must be Flower.”

  “Four,” I corrected.

  “Oh.” She giggled, and on cue, the two behind her echoed. “How silly of me. I’m Amanda.”

  “Okay.”

  Without invitation, she sat down next to Tyra, who didn’t bother to be subtle when she scooted her chair over. If Amanda noticed, she pretended otherwise as she beamed at me. Her friends chose to remain standing, which gave me hope that whatever this was wouldn’t last long.

  “I’m sorry for the intrusion. I just had to know if the rumors were true.”

  “What rumors?” Tyra barked. I was taken aback by her sudden hostility, though Amanda’s phony charm never faltered.

  “Oh, just that Ever McNamara has a new stepsister.”

  “I wouldn’t count that as newsworthy, and I’m not his stepsister.”

  Her perfectly arched brows pulled in at my statement. “So, you’re just living together?”

  “Pretty much.” I had no intention of discussing Rosalyn’s love life with strangers.

  “Interesting.” She suddenly looked a little less friendly as she sized me up. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’re really pretty.”

  I could see where this was going. This scene felt like a Mean Girls reenactment, but instead of Africa, I was the new kid from the swamps. “I’m not interested in Ever.”

  She feigned being startled as her claws sheathed. “No one would blame you if you were. I mean, even you can admit that he’s insanely hot.”

  A light bulb suddenly flickered on. “Well, between you and me…” She leaned forward, and I ignored Tyra’s bulging eyes. “I think his looks are just God’s way of compensating for… you know…other…inadequacies.”

  Amanda lifted manicured nails to cover her surprised gasp as her mouth formed a perfect O.

  “Do tell, Four.”

  So I leaned in and told them a story.

  It started as a little white lie. Some well-deserved payback. A distorted secret that no one else was supposed to hear. By fifth period, it had become a rumor doused in gasoline. Tyra had stared at me in horror from across the table after Amanda and her crew of gossips left the scene.

  “What?”

  “That was a bad idea, Four.” I could swear her shoulders shook as she whispered, “A really bad idea.”

  I’d waved her off and ignored the turning of my stomach, but now, as the stares, whispers, and looks of pity followed me, I knew it was only a matter of time before he uncovered the source.

  Fingers curled angrily around my bicep as I was switching books, and then I was turned and pushed against my open locker. I could feel the cold chill from inside my locker breeze past the bare skin of my neck, but it was nothing compared to the glacial bite of Ever’s eyes boring into me. It seemed the aristocratic ass had more bite than I gave him credit.

  “What the fuck, McNamara? Hands off the merchandise.” I tried to shrug off his hold, but he only tightened his fingers.

  “You find humor in spreading lies, Archer?”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  He stepped closer, forcing me to accept the bite of the metal to avoid the press of his hips against mine. “You don’t?”

  “Nope.” My lips made an audible pop, drawing his attention.

  His thumb gently brushed my bottom lip as if he had the right. “I think you do.”

  I could hear the whispers and feel the stares, but Ever didn’t seem to care. He continued to brush my lip and gaze at me thoughtfully as if he were deciding what to do with me. He wasn’t fooling me, though. His gentle touch was a trap. His power was in his restraint. As if he’d take his time with me…

  Our gaping classmates abruptly parted like the Red Sea, and my silent prayer was answered when Headmaster Burns appeared. He looked uncertain, however, when he saw who was causing the commotion. Thankfully, he recovered and cleared his throat with a stern look.

  “Mr. McNamara. Ms. Archer. You need to put about two feet of space between you and get to class.”

  Ever seemed unperturbed as he calmly focused on Burns, but then my little sigh of relief drew him like a moth to a flame, and in his eyes, I saw his promise of retribution.

  “We’ll settle up soon, Four. Welcome to Blackwood Keep.” Ever speaking my name for the first time felt forbidden, and the lingering threat he’d whispered in my ear before walking away felt very real. Suddenly, Tyra and Officer Trip’s warning that Ever was trouble didn’t seem so empty.

  Not only did I tell the biggest gossip at Brynwood t
hat Ever McNamara had much to compensate, I may have also told her that I’d innocently walked in on Ever as he was leaving the shower and that he had a shrimp dick—a dick so small it curled into itself for love because no one else would.

  I may have screwed up.

  Tyra offered to drive me home when I found Ever’s Range Rover missing from the parking lot after school. I guess I should have expected that. By the last bell, the rumor that spread like wildfire was completely extinguished. That didn’t mean it was over for me, though. Ever would come for his pound of flesh, and I’d be waiting.

  I think it was safe to say we were no longer dancing around each other. Ever and I had locked horns.

  “Do you think you’ll be okay?” Tyra said as she parked next to Ever’s Range Rover in the driveway.

  I nodded, but she was too busy ogling McNamara manor to notice.

  “I’ll be fine. What’s he going to do, kill me?” I’d meant to lighten the mood and ease her worry, but Tyra’s frown only deepened.

  “Just be careful, okay?”

  I assured her I would because she seemed to need it. I damn sure wasn’t afraid of that pompous prick. We had exchanged numbers hours before, so I promised to call her later before I headed inside.

  “Oh, there you are,” Rosalyn greeted. “Ever said you made a friend and caught a ride with her instead.” I was getting sick of that cunning bastard’s web of lies. “I’m so happy for you.” Most mothers would hug their daughter at hearing the news, but Rosalyn and I weren’t most mothers and daughters. Rather than a warm hug she offered a wavering smile. “I suppose I don’t need to ask how your first day went.”

  “Uneventful,” I lied. “Headmaster Burns said I have to wear the tie.”

  “Honey, I have to be honest. I was shocked that you even wore the skirt.”

  “Yeah, well, it was the lesser of two evils.” There was no way in hell I’d wear the dress. The dorky pants were even worse. I used the excuse of homework to escape upstairs before she could ask more questions. Homework assigned on the first day was a tradition I was unfamiliar with, but I wasn’t surprised. Brynwood’s sole mission was to prepare their pupils for the finest universities.

  And with Ever declaring war, I welcomed the distraction.

  My room would be my safe haven until I figured out how to deal with him.

  A couple of hours later, I closed my textbook. The work had been challenging but not too grueling. I stood, stretched, and considered a shower before dinner. Thomas had come up an hour ago and announced that we’d all be having dinner together.

  I could hardly wait.

  After my shower, I threw on a pair of cotton shorts and a tank and then followed the flavorful smells into the dining room. Thomas and Rosalyn were already seated, as was Ever, who slouched in his seat, his attention completely fixed on his phone.

  “There you are,” Rosalyn greeted, drawing Ever’s gaze. “I was just about to send someone up for you.”

  I found it hard for some reason to focus on anything but Ever. He looked rather smug about it as he slid his phone into his pocket and sat up. He’d taken off the sweater but kept on the rest of his uniform.

  Thomas sat at the head of the table with his hands steepled, and Rosalyn sat at the other end clutching her glass of water. My place was set in the middle…directly across from Ever. Moments after I took my seat, someone appeared with my plate and a glass of water. I was eagerly slicing my steak when Thomas turned to me.

  “So how was your first day at Brynwood?”

  I paused and thought my answer over. “It was…interesting.”

  “Interesting? How so?”

  “The atmosphere was different.” Brynwood had privilege written all over it, making my old high school seem like a jungle in comparison. The teachers were far more innovative, and even the student’s engagement exceeded the norm. Thomas was waiting for me to explain, but I didn’t want to admit that it had been intimidating, especially with his son as a witness, so I said, “It was nice not having to share a textbook.”

  “Everything you’ll need was taken care of in your tuition. I saw your transcripts. You’re a smart girl. Money shouldn’t impede your education.”

  I wasn’t moved by his attempt to win my affection with fine things, but I was also playing a game with his son that I had every intention of winning, so I flashed a darling smile and thanked Thomas for his generosity. Rosalyn beamed proudly from her end of the table while Ever watched me through narrowed eyes.

  “I also learned something interesting about Ever.”

  “Oh?” Thomas’ gaze flitted to his son, but Ever’s mask had already slipped into place.

  “Yes.” I took a sip of my water for suspense. “He has quite a few admirers. Everyone seems to look to him at Brynwood. They care about what he thinks and does.”

  “Ah.” Thomas’s nervous chuckle made me wonder if he knew all along that his son was an asshole. “Well, he did make the winning touchdown at the junior varsity championship last year and Ever has always had a leading personality. It doesn’t surprise me that the other kids look up to him.”

  Thomas was beaming with pride for his son, and if I wanted, I could disgrace his little prince. Maybe he’d back off if I showed him I could fight just as dirty. I’d never survive here if I didn’t. Even now, I was the one playing defense.

  “Ever, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you.” I bat my eyes for good measure, but to his credit, he didn’t react. What a robot. “I just hope you don’t abuse it. A lesser person in your position could make it easy for someone to feel isolated and…undesirable.”

  Ever played his part with a charming smile, but the storm in his eyes warned me to turn back now. “If you ever feel unwanted, I’m sure there are ways I can fix that.”

  I didn’t miss the veiled threat even though it went completely over our parents’ head. “I’m a big girl. I’ll manage.”

  Thick lips twitched with humor.

  “We’ll see.”

  EVER’S PARTY WAS THE HOT topic at Brynwood the next day, and everyone seemed to have forgotten about the rumor I’d started. Since I lived with the host, I couldn’t exactly be uninvited, but when I learned that Thomas and Rosalyn would be spending the night on his boat, I called Tyra.

  “Sorry, Four. I can’t hang out tonight. One of the girls called in sick, so it looks like I’m stuck here until midnight.”

  After hanging up with Tyra, I growled and ran my fingers through my hair. Ever had brought home the entire football team, and they were currently downstairs pregaming and setting up. If I couldn’t get out of the house, I would be stuck hiding in my room all night.

  Wincing, I began to consider attending his stupid party. Hiding like a social pariah was exactly what Ever would want. But what if I showed that rich prick that he wasn’t getting to me?

  Feeling wicked, I threw on the oil-stained overalls I wore when working at Gruff’s shop and my most threadbare pair of Converse.

  He wants a hick? I’ll show him a hick.

  Deciding I’d be fashionably late also gave me time to work up the courage to crash his party. I passed the time by studying, and when the music became deafening, I closed my textbook and finally made my way downstairs.

  I was put off by the number of people crowding the house and was tempted to turn and run, but my getup had already earned a few stares, so I made my way to the booze. They had turned the formal dining table, which could easily sit ten, into a bar with bottles, discarded solo cups, and shot glasses filling almost every inch of the surface. Ever was nowhere to be found when I grabbed a bottle of Jameson and forced my way into the overflowing living room. The furniture was pushed against the wall, turning the formal space into a dance floor.

  It wasn’t my scene, so I pushed my way into the less crowded yet smoke-filled billiards room. I found the room mostly occupied by guys, and I considered moving on until I spotted two familiar faces playing pool. Stacked on the wooden rail closest to Ben was a wad of cash,
and Drake wore a sour expression as he lined up the balls. I stood back to watch them play, and five minutes in, I realized that Drake was stunningly poor at pool. Lucky for him, I wasn’t so bad. I waited until the round was over before tapping him on his shoulder. He paused from hurling insults at his friend to look over his shoulder. I waited for him to recognize me, which, thanks to all the weed, took longer than normal.

  He whooped and pulled me into a bear hug without warning. “Was wondering when I’d see you again!” He then twirled me around once before setting me on my feet.

  “Almost thought you didn’t remember me.”

  “Nah,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I always remember the hot ones.” He lazily scanned my oil-stained coveralls. “And you look damn hot in this get up. Got to love a dirty girl.”

  This guy. I rolled my eyes but couldn’t hold back my grin. I was quickly learning that Drake had no shame.

  He noticed the bottle in my hand and quirked a brow. “What are you going to do with that, girl?”

  I simply smirked and said, “Sine Metu,” before downing two shots worth in one swallow.

  Drake whooped and hollered again and patted my back when I coughed. I’d been drinking since Gruff caught me in his stash when I was twelve, so I recovered quickly and offered the bottle to Drake, who downed two shots worth and handed it to Ben.

  “So,” I said as I nodded toward the pool table. “You suck.”

  “Nah, Ben’s just a cheating shit.”

  Ben flipped Drake off as he downed a shot worth of Jameson and plunked the bottle onto the rail.

  “How about I win some of your cash back?”

  Both of their brows rose at my offer. “You any good?” Drake asked skeptically. I was beginning to wonder about the girls they bred in Blackwood Keep since I was pretty sure some of them responded to this chauvinistic crap with open legs.

 
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