The peer and the puppet, p.7
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.7

           B. B. Reid
 

  “Better than you,” I sassed.

  Drake wore a shit-eating grin as he rubbed his hands together. “All right then. Saddle up, Four!”

  I glanced at Ben, who still didn’t look convinced. With a shrug, he began racking the balls, so I walked over to the rack of cue sticks. I was contemplating my choices when the doors to the billiards room slid open.

  I felt the air in the room shift, and a tingle work its way down my spine. My back was to the room, so I couldn’t see who had entered, but given the way heat bloomed in my belly, I didn’t have to.

  “Well, if it isn’t Brynwood’s most wanted,” Drake greeted. I heard the guys slapping hands and the door shutting behind them. “You’re just in time. My future girlfriend is about to kick Ben’s cheating ass at pool.”

  “Girlfriend?” Vaughn scoffed. “Who the hell would be desperate enough to go out with your junkie ass?”

  Please don’t say me. Please don’t say me.

  “Aw, man, you just wish you had my charisma, and she’s right there.”

  Feeling all eyes on me, I sucked in air before blindly selecting one of the pool sticks and turning to face the room.

  Vaughn’s eyebrows rose while Ever lazily looked me over. When he found the pool stick in my hand, however, the bored look fled, and he was suddenly very alert. I pretended the change didn’t intrigue me and walked over to the bottle of Jameson, saluted the pair, and took a swig. There was no way in hell I’d get through this now without the liquid courage.

  After swiping chalk on the tip of the pool stick, I tested it, earning a whistle at my bent position. I ignored the feeling of their eyes on my ass as I practiced my stroke. The cue stick was all wrong, but it would have to do. My legs felt too weak to do more than stand.

  When it came time to break the balls, Ben said, “Ladies first,” with unchecked smugness.

  I didn’t waste time lining up and breaking the balls before quickly sinking a solid. I didn’t bother to watch Ben’s face as I sunk a second. After sinking a third, however, Ever moved into my peripheral, and when I realized my only possible shot meant getting close to him, my palms turned sweaty as I moved around the table. He didn’t give an inch when I positioned to line up the shot. I could feel him standing close, and if I shifted my leg back even an inch, he would be pressed against me. I chanced a look over my shoulder and saw that I didn’t have his attention after all. He had his head turned, so I followed his gaze until I landed on Drake.

  Even more surprising was Drake’s obvious displeasure as he stared back at Ever. After another tense moment, however, his shoulders slumped, and he nodded.

  What the hell was that about? Confused, I peeked over my shoulder again and found Ever watching me—challenging me. Someone cleared their throat, and I turned to refocus on the game. Ever didn’t move away, and I missed the next shot. As I moved around the table to get away from Ever’s heat, Ben eagerly took up position before sinking the next three shots, tying the game. I didn’t look Ever’s way as I plotted my next shot and lined up, but I could feel him watching me. Vaughn suddenly appeared next to me and plucked the bottle of Jameson from the table. He handed it to me.

  “You look like you need it.”

  “I’m fine.”

  “Your hand is shaking,” he pointed out with amusement. “Take a drink.”

  It wasn’t a request.

  My hand obediently wrapped around the bottle, and I took a short sip. I didn’t want to get anymore tipsy than I already was. The whiskey did the trick, and I was back in position. I heard Vaughn guzzling down some of the whiskey before walking away with it. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he handed it off to someone. He spoke a few words, and the kid nodded before leaving with my bottle.

  Well, fuck.

  After the game, I had been planning to get trashed enough to fall asleep safely behind the locked door of my bedroom, blissfully unaware of his lordship. Now that plan was shot to shit.

  I sunk the next two shots before missing the next. Ben missed his next shot and brooded as I sunk my last ball. There was only the eight-ball left, and it was a tricky one. The angle I needed brought me back to Ever’s side of the table, but thankfully, I didn’t need to be as close. A few unknowns voiced encouragement, but I ignored them all as I lined up my cue stick. In the next breath, I sunk the fucking eight ball.

  Drake, seemingly forgetting his disappointment, shouted before picking me up and twirling me around until I was ready to puke. I warned him, and he immediately set me back on my feet. When I kissed his cheek, he shot Ever a glance before quickly walking away to collect his cash. Just as quickly, Drake was back with his arm wrapped around my shoulder. Unable to tear my gaze away from Ever, the wad of cash Drake offered me went ignored. Vaughn was now speaking low to Ever, but all of his attention seemed focused on me as he scowled. It made me wonder where his girlfriend might be and why he wasn’t ruining her night with his foul mood.

  “You up for another game, Four? Ben thinks he can win back his cash.” I forced myself to look away and pocketed my half of the cash.

  “I’m out. I have a date with a bottle of Jameson and a good night’s sleep.”

  He groaned and tried harder to convince me, but I pried myself away and got out of dodge.

  The house was even more crowded than before, and most of the party had shed their inhibitions. I passed more than one topless guest on my way to the dining room. After reuniting with the whiskey, I headed for the main stairs, but then the music cut and multiple cell phones started going off. Suddenly everyone seemed to move at once, and I was being pushed and herded in the opposite direction. When we reached the stairs that led below ground, I had no choice but to follow or be trampled.

  We ended up in the theater room, which couldn’t accommodate everyone, so some of them lingered in the hall or went back to the party. The large screen was blue, and I was wondering whose bright idea it was to play a movie at a house party when I recognized the guy bent over his laptop as the mohawk—one of Ever’s lackeys.

  “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. If you haven’t heard, this is an auction, so take your wallets out and get ready to bid.”

  “An auction for what,” a guy from the crowd shouted.

  “I’m glad you asked, cupcake.” The mohawk tapped a few buttons, and my heart plummeted to my stomach as a racy picture of Rosalyn appeared on the screen. My fists balled at my sides as I listened to the increasingly vulgar comments from a few guys. I pushed through the crowd until I was standing in front of the mohawk.

  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” How did they even get this?

  He seemed even more amused when he noticed me standing there. “Well, if it isn’t the lady of the night! Good people of Brynwood, if you didn’t know, Ever McNamara has a new sister, and she’s been feeling pretty undesirable, so this auction is just for her. Found in the swamps of Virginia, her fuck-hot mother went for the low price of nineteen thousand a year to one of the richest men in America!” That bit of news earned a few snickers from the crowd. “This model before you, ladies and gentlemen, is newer and my guess is she doesn’t have as many miles, so I’ll start the bidding at nineteen thousand and one.”

  “I’ll take her,” someone shouted.

  My breaths came hard and fast as bid after bid was shouted. The room became a blur. My ears rang. The blood in my veins boiled. I hadn’t realized I was moving until the mohawk was falling and the last of the broken bottle of Jameson fell from my hand.

  No, no, no! What did I do?

  The pounding of my heart drowned out the sound of their gasps and curses, but I could feel their gaping stares. And worst of all my tears didn’t fall until I turned and saw Ever standing there.

  “Jesus, fuck,” Vaughn whispered as he stared wide-eyed at his friend passed out on the floor. Ever, however, only had eyes for me. I could only cry harder when I saw the regret on his face. He did this. A whimper escaped my throat before I pushed past him and ran from the room.
>
  I furiously dumped my backpack before stuffing some clothes and all the cash I had inside. Fuck the game and fuck Ever. If Rosalyn wanted these people, she could have them. I was done. All I needed was a car.

  I rushed through the bathroom and found my first fortune of the night. The door leading to Ever’s room was unlocked. I used the light from the bathroom to search his room and found what I needed on his nightstand. I didn’t stop to consider if the grand theft of a ninety-thousand-dollar car would only make matters worse. Snagging the keys, I rushed back through the bathroom and didn’t bother looking back. The only thing I’d regret leaving behind were my helmets I’d worked so hard to collect, but they were just things, and at least I’d be leaving a part of me behind for Rosalyn. If she even wanted it.

  The hush as I descended the stairs unnerved me. People talked and whispered amongst themselves as they poured from the house. No one noticed me slip into the garage. I hopped in the Range, and with a pocket full of cash, I left Blackwood Keep and swore to never look back.

  I FOUND THAT I MISSED the smell most of all. It smelled like home. I caught the rag Gruff threw me, and I wiped the oil from my hands.

  “You ready to tell me why you’re back in Cherry?”

  “I told you. I was homesick.”

  “Showing up on my doorstep first thing in a fancy truck that ain’t yours and a sad little backpack tells me you left in a hurry. Then there’s the river I heard you crying in my spare this morning.”

  I sighed, knowing he wouldn’t let it go until I gave him answers. “Blackwood Keep chewed me up and spat me out. I can’t go back.”

  Gruff shook his head in disappointment. “You know you can’t face your problems running away.”

  “I don’t want to face them. I want to forget them.”

  “That’s coward’s talk,” he spat.

  Little did he know that I was okay with being a coward if it meant not having to face Ever again.

  The next morning, I arrived at the shop and found Thomas having coffee with Gruff.

  He took one look at me and said, “It’s time to come home, Four.”

  “I am home,” I retorted with my arms crossed.

  “You don’t think you’re being a little selfish? Your mother is worried sick.”

  “Then why isn’t she here?”

  “She’s been ordered to stay in bed. My doctor had to sedate her when I told her you ran away.”

  “I—I didn’t mean to—to…” I let the words die and sighed. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going back.

  “Why did you run?”

  “You should ask your son.” I tried to keep my voice level and failed when the vision of his friend bleeding from his skull flashed in my head.

  “He’s had his hands full. Apparently, Daniel Kim slipped and hit his head at the party.” Thomas took a deep breath and exhaled. “What did Ever do?”

  I didn’t know how to answer that since Ever hadn’t ratted me out to our parents. It didn’t mean I owed him a damn thing, but if he decided to talk, I wouldn’t just have Thomas and Rosalyn to deal with.

  “Nothing. I just saw an opportunity and took it.”

  “You’re saying that kid needing a few stitches isn’t the reason you ran away?”

  “Yes.”

  His eyes bore into me, searching for proof that I was lying. When I couldn’t take his scrutiny any longer, I turned to Gruff for help, but there was only disappointment.

  “Can you please tell him I’m okay here?”

  Gruff closed his eyes tight as if in pain before shaking his head slowly. My arms fell to my side.

  “Your mother needs you, girl, and if you got demons waiting for you, it’s time you faced them.”

  I wanted to rail and scream at him for his betrayal but hadn’t I done much worse? Besides, Gruff could get into heaps of trouble if I stayed, so I considered my options. If I became a runaway, my life would suck, and Ever would win. If I went back and faced him, the next two years could get very interesting.

  I said goodbye to Gruff and returned to Blackwood Keep with Thomas, ready to do battle, but there was one thing I hadn’t considered…

  One Year Later

  “OH LUCIFER. I’M GOING TO puke.”

  I glanced at my roommate’s pale face. Becca had begged me to take her when she caught me sneaking out of bed, and it had been fun to have a wingman, but with less than five minutes until we’d be caught, I was beginning to regret it. Becca’s stepmother had her sent here so she could jet set all over the globe, spending her dead husband’s fortune.

  “We just need to hop the fence.” It didn’t seem wise to mention the second-floor window we still had to climb through—we’d cross that bridge when we got there. We made it to the chain-linked fence, and I quickly climbed up twenty feet before scaling down and jumping the last few feet. The blue-eyed Texan was still slowly making her way up the other side when I glanced nervously at my watch.

  Three minutes.

  “Becca, not to be insensitive but light a fire, yeah?”

  She groaned as she swung her leg over the fence. “Why did I let you talk me into this?”

  “That’s not quite how this happened,” I said once she dropped down. I ran the last couple hundred feet to the rope of sheet dangling from the window, and she groaned some more as she followed me. “We just have to get through the window, and we’re home free.” I ignored the burning muscle in my arms as I climbed. It was nothing compared to the fear of another year here if I was caught.

  At the top, I slid open the window and flung my leg over the sill just as I heard the sound of Becca’s retching and footsteps approaching our door.

  “Becca, someone’s coming,” I yelled down to her bent form. “Stay there.” She didn’t answer as another bout of retching rendered her speechless. I hastily pulled up the rope of sheets and shut the window before stuffing the sheets under Becca’s blanket. I barely had enough time to make the shape look human and get into bed before one of the attendings stuck her head inside. I’d pulled my own blanket up to my chin and shut my eyes, but I could feel the light she shone on my face. The light quickly passed, and I chanced opening an eye to see her flashlight now lingering on the lump. A few seconds later, the door creaked shut, and I waited until her footsteps faded before rushing to the window.

  “Are you okay?”

  “I think so,” she croaked.

  I tied one end of the sheet around my bedpost before tossing it down.

  “Fucking-A, Four! That was close.” She was panting as she sprawled on the floor.

  I didn’t respond as I shed my leather jacket and peeled off black jeans before climbing back into bed.

  Becca eventually picked herself up from the floor and mumbled something about never drinking again before dressing in her nightclothes and slipping into bed. “Thanks for tonight, Four, but if you don’t mind, I think tonight will be the last of my adventures.”

  I chuckled, completely unsurprised that my prudent friend got her fill in one night. “I told you to slow down on the drinks.”

  “Yeah, but that cutie with the glasses kept giving them to me so he could see my panties.”

  “For sure,” I mumbled.

  It wasn’t long before her drunken snores filled the silence. Sleep didn’t come as easily for me. Instead, I stared at the ceiling and wondered if I could survive another year in exile. I never believed in a million years that she’d go through with it—not when she took me to apply for a passport and not even when she had my things packed, but just days before my seventeenth birthday, Rosalyn sent me away.

  Every phone call from home had gone ignored, and her letters remained unopened. When Thomas and Rosalyn showed up for Christmas, I refused to see them, and they hadn’t forced me. Up until a month ago, Rosalyn never gave up trying to get through to me, and in return, I mourned the daughter she deserved. A tear slipped from my eye as I wondered what the other three would have been like.

  Obedient

  Beautifu
l.

  Kind.

  Fate had dealt Rosalyn a cruel hand when it chose me.

  I had a hell of a time dragging myself out of bed the next morning. Becca, suffering her first hangover, was even worse off. We were making our way to the computer lab to print off the materials we needed for class since we weren’t allowed personal laptops or cell phones. Even our social media and email accounts were suspended, not that I ever had one. We were completely cut off from the world as part of our ‘rehabilitation.’

  “Miss Archer.” I turned to see Ms. Wendell, the head attending, quickly approaching until her thin frame towered over us. “Come,” she ordered, her German accent thick. I held in my groan. Because of her fire-red hair that she always wore in a French bun and her ferocious disposition, everyone called her the dragon.

  “Why?”

  Thin lips pinched together at my violation, and Becca attempted and failed to hold in her giggle. Rule One: We are never to question or argue with an attending. The attending was an all-female staff who made up the teachers, the counselors, the cooks, and the nurses at Natasha Madison’s School of Ladies.

  “Mind your manners,” she hissed. She then shifted her focus to Becca. “I suggest you move along, Miss Wilson, or that’s five demerits.”

  Becca squeaked, fearing her pristine record would be smudged, and skirted off without a word. I wordlessly followed behind the attending. My palms became sweaty when I saw where we were headed—Madame Madison’s office. No one ever saw the Madame unless they were in serious trouble.

  “Wait here,” Ms. Wendell ordered before disappearing into Madame Madison’s office. Surprisingly, I had yet to see the inside of her office, but I imagined the walls were covered in blood, the floor with the skulls of her former students who couldn’t be reformed, and if you listened hard enough, you would still hear the screams of her victims. “She will see you now.”

  I wondered if Madame Madison could smell fear.

 
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