Aflame, p.12
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       Aflame, p.12

           Penelope Douglas
 
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  Thankfully, he put up with it. He’d been my only parent for about twelve years now, and he finally got a clue and realized I needed him around for a long time to come.

  “Are you at the house?” he asked, looking around me. “I thought you were staying with Madoc and Fallon.”

  I shrugged, concentrating on my food. “It’s the weekend. The workers aren’t here, and I wanted to get some yard work in. Making it presentable, you know?”

  The yards were actually in great shape. Jax had been taking care of everything while my father was away and I was at school. I’d really just wanted to be home, and I knew, no matter how I tried to hide it, my father could read me well.

  “Tate, I know this is hard,” he said softly. “Selling the house, I mean. I know you’re going to miss it there.”

  I swallowed the lump of food in my throat, making sure I looked indifferent. “It’ll be a hard good-bye, but nothing can stay the same forever, right?” I was trying to stay positive. There was nothing that could be done, and I couldn’t expect my father to keep paying expenses on a large house we no longer needed.

  “Honey, look at me, please.”

  I stopped cutting food with my fork and looked up.

  He stared at me for a moment, but then frowned and looked away. Brushing his nose with his hand, he let out a sigh.

  My heart sank, and I wondered what the hell he was trying to say.

  “Is everything okay?” I shot out. “Your heart—?”

  “I’m fine.” He nodded quickly. “I just . . .”

  I narrowed my eyes. “Is it the house? Has it been sold?”

  His gaze locked on mine, and he hesitated before replying. “No.” He shook his head. “Nothing’s wrong necessarily.”

  “Dad, just spit it out.”

  He ran a hand through his hair and exhaled a hard breath. “Well, I’m seeing someone, actually,” he said. “Someone I’ve grown very close to.”

  I set my fork down, my back straightening. Seeing someone? I remembered him talking about going on a date here and there a while after my mom died, but he never introduced me to anyone. Was it serious?

  My dad watched me, waiting for me to say something, probably.

  I finally blinked, clearing my throat. “Dad, that’s great,” I told him with an honest smile. “I’m happy for you. Is she Italian?”

  “No.” He fidgeted, looking very uncomfortable. “No, she lives back home, actually.”

  “Here?”

  His cheeks puffed out as he ran his hand though his hair once more. “This is very awkward.” He laughed nervously. “Honey, about a year ago, I started seeing one of . . .” He trailed off, looking like he desperately needed different words to tell me what he needed to tell me. “I started seeing one of your old teachers. Elizabeth Penley,” he rushed out.

  “Miss Penley?”

  Miss Penley and my dad?

  “It was sporadic,” he explained, sounding more like he was apologizing. “With my schedule and her job and your schedule, not to mention that when you did make it home here and there, I wanted our time together to be just us.” He took a deep breath and continued, “It just seemed like there was never a good time to tell you.”

  I guess I understood.

  He probably could’ve mentioned it at some point, though. Jesus.

  “I didn’t know if it would last, and I didn’t want to mention it until I was sure. It’s only gotten really serious in the past couple of months,” he explained further, as if reading my mind.

  Nodding, I tried to absorb the idea of my dad telling me about someone new in his life. He’d never made this big a deal out of anyone.

  But the truth was, I had been worried about him. I always worried about him. Especially with me no longer home during his time at home, I couldn’t shake the guilt that he was eating alone, watching TV alone, going to sleep alone . . .

  Although my mom would always be loved and important, I didn’t want my dad by himself forever.

  “Well.” I sighed. “It’s about time. And I love Miss Penley. She’s amazing.” But then I narrowed my eyes on him, questioning. “But why, if you couldn’t find the time to tell me at Christmas or spring break or over video chat before, are you telling me now?”

  He offered a timid smile. “Because I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

  ***

  “Tate!”

  I jerked my head to the left, seeing Madoc heading my way.

  “Great,” I whispered, focusing back out on the track.

  After the call with my dad, I came out—as so many others did during the day—to take a few practice runs around the track and enjoy the calm I found here without the crowd.

  I was struggling, and I didn’t know why. I liked Penley, and I wanted my dad to have someone. His proposing was a good thing, and I should’ve been happy for him.

  So why did I feel like it was all suddenly too much?

  The house, Stanford, his relationship . . . I felt as if I were at sail without a rudder or an anchor.

  So I came out to drive. To clear my head.

  To be alone, which Madoc hated.

  “Let’s go.” The bite in his voice was sharp, and I knew he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Now.”

  I looked at him again, confusion, aggravation, and frustration probably all evident on my face. “Where?”

  He jerked his head behind him. “My house. We threw a party together. Fallon said she texted you an hour ago.”

  “No.” I shook my head, knowing exactly whom I’d see there. “No party.”

  He halted, pushing his suit jacket open and planting his hands on his hips.

  “What are you wearing?” I asked, taking in the black suit pants and jacket and the light blue shirt with the royal blue tie. His clothes and hair were sleek and stylish, and I could never get over how he wound up with someone as alternative as Fallon.

  He straightened, suddenly looking affronted. Running a hand down his front, he tipped his chin down at me. “Hot or not?” he asked, turning playful as he referred to his clothes. “I had to go in for my internship for a few hours this morning.”

  I turned my eyes back out to the track, deciding not to encourage him.

  “Let’s go.” His strong voice nagged again, getting back on topic.

  I heaved out a sigh and hopped off the hood. “Knock it off. I don’t need you interfering.”

  I went to open my door, but Madoc flattened his palm against the window, stopping me.

  “You’re going to run into him a lot in your life,” he pressed. “Reunions, friends’ weddings, and what about when Fallon and I have kids? Or Jax and Juliet?”

  My heart pumped wildly as I realized Madoc was right. I’d be running into Jared a lot over the years.

  Shit.

  Madoc grabbed my shoulders, forcing me to face him. “Get this through your head, okay?” He spoke to me like my father. “You are as important to us as he is. You’re not pulling away again. We’re not letting you go.”

  Like a petulant child, I shot my eyes up at him. I hated his persistence.

  Although I kind of liked it, too.

  He never let me go. Juliet and Fallon were going to be with these guys forever and have children with them. And they’d no doubt settle here.

  And they were all my friends as much as Jared’s.

  I dug my keys out of my pocket. “Fine, but I’ll drive my own car.”

  ***

  “Hey,” Fallon greeted me, pulling me in for a kiss on the cheek. Unusually chipper, so I guessed she was probably tipsy, although she seemed otherwise alert.

  She wore one of her old gray T-shirts—cut, ripped, and tied—turned into a sexy, nearly backless tank top. Her cutoff jean shorts were already making Madoc drool as he came up behind her, groping her ass and burying his face
in her neck.

  “Get a drink,” she ordered, smiling as Madoc wrapped a possessive arm around her waist. And then she pinned me with her laser green stare. “And relax, okay?”

  I spotted Ben outside by the pool, so I left my friends to it and trailed out to meet him.

  Madoc and Fallon liked having people around, and Madoc especially loved his parties. It wasn’t because he wanted to drink or act out. It was because he loved community. He loved his friends, and he liked good times and good conversation. I had absolutely no doubt that Madoc would end up mayor of Shelburne Falls one day, because that’s how much he loved his family. And this town was his family.

  And the idea of Fallon in a blue—or red—tailored dress with an American flag pinned to her was pretty funny, bless her heart.

  I stepped through the sliding glass doors, hearing “She’s Crafty” by the Beastie Boys fill the late afternoon air, and it made me smile finally. It wasn’t as crowded as many of Madoc’s parties, but there were a good thirty people out here. Most of them dressed in swim shorts and bikinis, while I still wore my jeans and shirt from the Loop.

  Walking up to Ben, I put my hand on his bare back, but before he even had a chance to turn around, I felt that familiar awareness that always made the hair on my arms stand up when Jared was around.

  Ben turned and flashed me a wide smile, but as he leaned in to kiss my cheek, I glanced over his shoulder, unable to not look.

  But Jared wasn’t here. I flitted my eyes around, scanning the party, but I didn’t see him anywhere.

  It was some weird sixth sense I had, and although it couldn’t be explained, I always knew when he was close. Could’ve been the way my neck heated up or my skin vibrated under the surface, or maybe it was just because I expected him to be there, but as soon as I felt him, that’s all I was aware of.

  Couples caroused and swimmers splashed around, but as I continued to look around, I didn’t find him.

  He had to be here, though. His assistant, Pasha, was pouring a beer from the keg. I had spotted her purple hair.

  “Are you okay?” Ben pulled back, one hand holding my waist and the other holding a plate of food.

  “Yeah,” I rasped, reeling myself back in. “I’m good. I just . . .” I sucked in a slow breath, trying to shake off my nerves as I pointed my thumb behind me. “I’m just going to run down to the storage and get Madoc some more bottles that he asked for, okay? I’ll be right back.”

  Giving Ben a quick peck on the cheek, I turned around and speed walked for the house before he saw the lie in my eyes.

  Of course, Madoc hadn’t asked for more liquor from his dad’s storage, but I needed a minute away. Veering around the few people in the kitchen and the island of food, I swung the basement door open and jogged down the stairs.

  The basement was empty, as early in the party everyone usually socialized together before the women allowed their boyfriends—and husbands—to disappear down to Madoc’s game room. The pool table, the skate ramp, and the leather couches all sat unused as I steered myself down the hallway and into the finished bathroom across from the storage room.

  “God, baby,” a man’s rough whisper caught my ears just as I was escaping into the bathroom. “I can’t keep my hands off you. Why do you do this to me, huh?”

  His muffled voice was accompanied by shuffles and loud breathing.

  There was giggling, followed by a girl’s voice saying, “I don’t do anything, Mr. Trent. Promise.”

  My eyes flared, and my stomach knotted. Mr. Trent.

  I heard fabric rip, and the woman sucked in a breath.

  Clenching my jaw, I dropped my hand from the door handle and inched toward the storage room door, which was ajar.

  “Spread your legs for me,” he ordered, sounding strained.

  I stopped and listened, afraid to hear but afraid not to.

  “Come on,” he urged, his voice getting firmer. “Wider. Show me how much you want it.”

  Oh, my God.

  That wasn’t Jared. It couldn’t be. But the voice was raspy, and I couldn’t tell for sure.

  What the hell?

  I put my hand on the door to steady myself.

  “Does that hurt?” He sounded amused.

  “Yes,” she gasped. “I’m spread so wide for you, baby.”

  “Do you love it?” he taunted, and I heard a zipper.

  “Yes,” she moaned. “Oh, God. Please. Fuck me!” Her cry carried into the hall, and my heart was racing.

  Was that Juliet’s voice?

  “I love you,” he said, and then let out a low growl as she sucked in a breath.

  “Oh, Jax!” the girl cried out, and I immediately let out a long breath.

  Jax. Oh, thank God.

  Not Jared. Just Jared’s brother. Also a Mr. Trent. Okay. I felt better now.

  Although why was Juliet calling her boyfriend “Mr. Trent”?

  I shook my head, laughing to myself. Kinky kids.

  I turned around, taking a step, but I immediately halted. Jared stood right behind me with his arms folded over his chest. He leaned against the opposite wall and seemed completely oblivious to Jax and Juliet. His eyes were on me only.

  A rush of hot anger tensed my limbs, and I steeled myself for whatever he had coming.

  “How long’s it been?” He jerked his chin, referring to what was happening in the storage room. “How long since you lost control like that?”

  It was a rhetorical question. Maybe he actually wanted an answer, but I’d never give him one. I stood there, letting him see me strong and calm. His gaze stayed locked with mine before falling slowly down my body, and I suddenly felt very naked.

  I was dressed more than most of the people here, but my faded and ripped jeans were skintight, and my flowing black tank top was nearly backless, held only by the fragile spaghetti straps. And since the top flattered my form more without a bra, I wasn’t wearing one.

  I felt my nipples harden against the fabric, and I knew the moment he noticed it, too.

  Jared’s eyes heated with hunger, and his biceps stretched the short sleeves of his black T-shirt.

  You may never know what Jared was thinking, but you almost always knew what he was feeling. He was as subtle as a bomb when he was turned on.

  Desire flared between my legs, and the heat spread like a ripple in a lake through my body. Jared and I had never failed in the bedroom, and it’d been so long since I’d felt as good as he made me feel.

  “How about last night?” he continued, taunting. “I think you lost control then.”

  Ignoring my plans to escape to the bathroom—since I’d only been trying to have a quiet place to rid my head of thoughts of him and now he was here—I walked past him back down the hallway to make my way out the basement door. I wasn’t talking to him.

  But then I gasped as he caught me from behind and wrapped his arms around my waist.

  “What are you doing?” I bit out.

  His arms were like a steel band, crushing my body into his. I breathed hard, nearly stumbling with his weight falling into me.

  Shit.

  “Tate,” he whispered in my ear, desperate. “Would it have been better if I had never left? Would you still love me if I kept living a lie?”

  I turned my head away, folding my lips between my teeth.

  I never wanted him miserable. Why was he trying to break my heart all over again? I’d just wanted him to stay.

  I didn’t understand why he needed to leave me to feel whole.

  Pinpricks tingled my skin, and his breath on my neck felt like it was flowing through my blood. Having him close felt so good.

  I closed my eyes, taking in a breath of air. I needed to tell him to get his hands off me, but I couldn’t see straight.

  But before I knew what was happening, he spun me around and lifted m
e up, setting me onto the pool table. He wrapped an arm around my thigh, and I whimpered as he jerked me to the end of the table. I started to fall back, but before I could right myself, he leaned down, dipping his lips to the skin of my stomach.

  “Ah,” I moaned, shocked at what he was doing. My chest rose and fell fast as his lips and tongue, not to mention his teeth, worked my body and left a trail of sensation below my rib cage.

  I fell back onto the table, unable to stop, simply trying to keep my eyes from rolling into the back of my head.

  Jared.

  Oh, my God. His mouth. And his teeth, tugging at my skin as if no time had passed.

  I grabbed the back of his neck, arching my body into him. “Jared, get off me,” I groaned, my eyelids fluttering closed. “Please.”

  But then he sank his teeth into the sensitive skin on my side, and I squeezed my eyes shut, the pleasure racing inside me almost too much.

  “Jared, stop!” I yelled, urging him off me even as I clutched his neck, holding him to me.

  His lips left my skin, and when I opened my eyes, his nearly black stare, dark with desire, had zoned in on my exposed breast.

  Oh, shit.

  In the struggle, my shirt was a mess. The spaghetti strap on one shoulder had fallen down my arm, and so had the part of the shirt covering my breast.

  Jared looked up at me, raising himself higher as I shook my head.

  “No,” I warned, knowing what he was going to do.

  But he let out a low breath and sank his lips onto my skin anyway, covering my entire nipple with his mouth.

  I groaned, feeling warm all over.

  He swirled his tongue around my hardening flesh, catching my nipple between his teeth and drawing it out, playing with it. He went slow, diving back down to suck almost painfully hard, but I loved it.

  “I said I would be back for you. You know there’s only me, Tate,” he pushed. “No one else can give you this.”

  My fist squeezed at the back of his hair, and the pool of lust in my gut instantly cemented, turning hard and cold.

  I stroked his cheek with my thumb, looking down at his handsome face. “I know you loved me. I never wanted you unhappy.” I spoke through my shaky breath. “But I don’t trust you. You always desert me.”

 
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