The original crowd, p.63
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       The Original Crowd, p.63

         Part #0.5 of A Whole New Crowd series by Tijan
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  Brian was gone, buried and at rest. He was happy, finally at peace, and the best version of Brian would’ve wanted me to say this. So I looked up and spoke, clearly, “I loved you, Jace.”

  Jace met my eyes quickly, a sheen of tears misting over his beautiful eyes.

  I added, “I loved Brian and I loved you, but they were different loves. And I’m sorry that I was never brave enough to choose between them. I think I ripped the two of you apart because I just avoided what everyone knew was there. I’m sorry, Jace.”

  “I love you too.” It wasn’t past tense and we both knew it.

  Jace lifted a hand and brushed a tear away from my cheek. I hadn’t even realized I was crying.

  But it broke the dam, that simple soft touch.

  Jace drew me against his chest as I sobbed. I let my arms encircle him as I pulled him tighter to me and I felt him bend his forehead to my shoulder. I felt his own tears on my shirt.

  He cried right alongside of me.

  Jace had made a decision for me a year ago and because of it, everything he’d lived for had been unraveled. And I was in a better place in life. I had a brother and a sister.

  I had Tray.

  Who would’ve ever thought it? At first glance a rich, shallow, spoiled boy who had morphed into a man who was capable of what most would shudder from thought.

  But right now, this was me and Jace. And we were mourning more than just us.

  We both loved Brian. We both had intense, dysfunctional relationships with Brian. But we both loved him and only the other could understand what was ripped out of us from the inside.

  Brian had been the rebel innocent that both Jace and myself had never been allowed. And he knew it and he hated it because he wanted what Jace and I had. He didn’t want to be innocent, protected. He wanted the respect and power that Jace had carved out and what I demanded from necessity.

  But it was all over and done with now. I’d thought before, every time I said goodbye, each of those times had been the last. But I’d always known it wasn’t. I still had ties to Brian, I still had ties to Pedlam, and to Jace.

  But this really was it.

  Jace was leaving.

  “What’s going to happen now?” I asked, against his shoulder.

  His arms tightened around me. “I’ll go in Witness Protection and I’ll testify when they need me.”

  “Are you in danger?” Déjà vu. I’d asked that so many other times.

  And I felt Jace’s cocky answering grin against my hair. “I’m always in danger.”

  “Shut up.”

  “On it.” He sighed, but still chuckled. He hugged me one last time and murmured, “Don’t ever let Evans get away with anything. The guy needs to be held accountable. That’s your job now.”

  “I did it to you and Brian. I can handle my own.”

  “I know.” Jace sighed, pulling back slightly. “But I still really hate the guy.”

  That was quite alright with me.

  I saw his car waiting, Jace saw my eyes trail over his shoulder. So I murmured, huskily, “I love you.”

  “I know. Me too,” he whispered and bent for my lips.

  It was the second time I’d kissed him since our cheated night.

  It was soft, tender, and loving. It was the Jace that only I knew, no one else.

  He pulled away and nodded once, in farewell, and walked to his car. As he climbed into the backseat, something inside of me went with him. Some part of me was sitting in that backseat of his, right alongside of him.

  But it was the part that needed to go, because I felt every chapter in my book close.

  Who knew closure could be so painful and so refreshing at the same time.

  Fucking bittersweet. I hated this feeling. Really, really fucking hate it.

  I felt Tray behind me without looking, without any sound.

  “Hey,” he whispered, sliding an arm around my waist and pulling me against his chest.

  “Hi.”

  He kissed my neck and asked, “Everything alright?”

  “It’s over.” It was the only answer I had. It’d be alright and a part of me already felt it was alright. But for now…I’d closed the last page of that book.

  And it just hurt.

  But I think it was supposed to.

  It’s called healing.

  EPILOGUE

  The water felt refreshing. It always did. And when I surfaced, it was to the sound of the crowd going wild.

  Two years now, I’d been the recurring champion at Nationals on the Columbia diving team.

  In some ways, Shelley had been right. The scholarships had come in and I’d chosen Columbia. I’d won the first two years and this year I was competing again.

  Except Shasta Yoiuen was my competition this year and fuck—she was good. Really good.

  She’d beaten me at regionals two months ago, but I knew that I’d just won. I’d just pulled off the best fucking dive of my life. And there was no way in hell that Shasta was going to take that title away from me.

  I hadn’t gone through hell and back only to be beat by someone like her.

  “You fucking have it, girl!” my teammate, Sari, squealed. I loved Sari. Her and I had flocked together our first practice and bonded at a party that night. Of course, she was the incarnation of me in high school, except she slept around a lot more than me. I’d been with three guys my entire life. She’d been with three that first week. But you couldn’t help but warm to her jest for life.

  She added, “Shasta knows it too. Look at her, she’s pissed! No way can she beat that, no fucking way. I love it, man. I love you, you kick ass.”

  “Good job, Taryn.” Coach Mayer patted me on the shoulder. I loved it. He was reserved as hell and I knew the smallest pat shouted volumes.

  A second later my scores came up and a deafening roar went around the pool-house.

  I’d won. Shasta was a mere shadow compared to my near perfect scores.

  Laughing, I ducked around most of my teammates, but a few managed to engulf me in hugs.

  My win brought the team to first place.

  Everyone on the team had just won a gold medal from Nationals.

  Fuck yeah.

  I grabbed a towel and pulled my swim-dress over my head before heading to the stands.

  Mandy was visiting and Carter couldn’t have been happier.

  And when I made my way up to them, amidst a sea of well-wishers, I had to wait. The two were disgusting and drowning each other.

  “Ahem!” I coughed, not at all subtle.

  “Taryn!” Mandy giggled, wiping her mouth. She shoved Carter aside and gave me a tight hug. “I’m so proud of you!”

  “I could tell,” I said dryly.

  “I am.” She blushed. “We were just—”

  “Carter’s happy you’re here,” I said simply. And he was. It’d taken eight more break-ups due to Devon’s cheating, but Carter finally made a stand and the two of them had been together for a year and a half now.

  “Taryn, that was awesome. You’re a great swimmer.” Whatever. Carter came for two reasons. To see girls in their bathing suits and to make-out with Mandy as much as humanly possible.

  “Hey, hey.” Grayley greeted from behind me, wrapping his arms around me. In my ear, he whispered, “That was fucking hot, Taryn. Really. I’m proud of you.”

  I blinked the tears away, but his words…got me right there, you know. He was my best friend.

  “Geezer will be just as happy as me when I call him,” he added.

  “Right. Happily stoned,” I remarked, sarcastically. Geezer hadn’t changed. He still liked the marijuana too much, but…what can you do. He’d probably always be a stoner, but Grayley had mentioned a girl. Maybe Geezer would hold back for the new girlfriend. But I wasn’t holding my breath.

  “Hey, Taryn. Where’s Tray?”

  “He was hoping he’d get back in time for the meet, but guess not. Chance wanted him to stick around for some extra meeting. I don’t know. He sounded
pissed on the phone last night.”

  “Where’s he at?” Mandy asked.

  “He flew to some conference with Chance and then they were going to visit their dad. All I know is that he was not having fun.”

  “Are they still trying to recruit him?”

  “Yeah. But Tray wants nothing to do with any of them. DEA, none of them. Ask me, I think Tray kind of gets a kick out of watching Chance’s supervisors send their little agents to do surveillance on him. They still think he held back a lot of his contacts when he was working for Galverson and the police force at Rawley.”

  “Dude, Tray’s gotten scarier, if you ask me.” Mandy murmured, but firmly encased in Carter’s arms.

  And he had. But it was a topic no one talked about. Mandy just broke that unspoken rule.

  “Oh hey,” Grayley murmured, “he’s right over there.”

  And there he was, looking as delectable and fine as shit.

  I could see his tattoo underneath the black muscle shirt he had on and it mixed well with the second tattoo he’d gotten between his shoulder blades. It was the Hebrew word for loyalty. And it meant a lot to both of us. I’d been there when he’d gotten it and the sex had been explosive that night.

  Mandy was right. Tray had gotten a bit scarier, but I knew most of it was because he was having a hard time dealing with Chance and his father. His dad hadn’t ran. He’d been prosecuted and he was in the penitentiary.

  It didn’t help that some of his father’s lawyers were hounding Tray to pay them for his dad’s legal services. Tray kept refusing to pay them. He wasn’t his father and he didn’t own any of his loans. Plus, Chance was always on the phone harping at Tray. Chance was among the legends of government authorities that thought Tray hadn’t been completely honest in all the evidence he’d handed over.

  And he hadn’t been. But would you, considering that you had two drug empires on one side and the government on the other?

  Tray kept what he needed to for his life and mine. We called it our life insurance.

  And that was something Mandy, Carter, and Grayley weren’t privy too. No one was.

  I moved away from the group and met Tray on the bottom steps of the bleachers.

  “Hey,” I whispered, being pulled into his arms.

  “Hey,” he greeted, kissing me hotly. Almost desperately.

  I raked my hands through his hair, twisting them helplessly when the waves of lust engulfed me. He could always do that to me.

  “Okay. Public,” I panted, pulling away slightly.

  “I caught the dive.”

  I melted and wrapped my arms tighter around his neck. “Really?”

  “Really.” He grinned and dipped his head again.

  “Hmm,” I moaned against his mouth, “I’d love to continue this wild orgy that is engraved in writing for tonight, but we have visitors from out of town.”

  “Mandy will be busy with Carter. Let’s escape now.”

  I grinned, and felt him pull me back for another kiss. I felt like my panties might melt off.

  “Seriously,” he murmured, burying his head into my neck, “I need some time with you and not them. Mandy’ll be fine with Carter. She’s coming here anyway next semester. And Grayley goes here, he can see you tomorrow in class.”

  “I am not looking forward to that semester. Shelley and Kevin are going to be in town a whole lot more.”

  “Here come the bribes of money, dinners, cars, and lunches,” Tray joked.

  And it was kind of funny. Mandy had cleaned up after a second stint in rehab, but Shelley still refused her problem.

  To their chagrin, I’d stayed away. But Shelley and Kevin continuously send me cards and gift packages. They wanted a relationship and would wait when I decided I wanted one too.

  It’d been three years. They weren’t getting the hint.

  But oh well. I was still taking their money and saving it. I thought about buying a plane ticket to see them, ripping it in half, and mailing it to them. Maybe they’d get the idea then.

  But Mandy seemed better, probably because she wasn’t living there anymore. Austin had turned into the school’s bad boy, but that was to be expected. He ran the school almost as well as Tray.

  I was proud, like a momma.

  My thoughts were distracted again when Tray maneuvered us so that I was between him and the wall. When he dipped his head, I lost conscious ability and surrendered myself.

  Like I always have.

  And like I always would.

  “Taryn, are you going to the party tonight?” Sari exclaimed breathlessly, her gold medal already around her neck. She was fingering it, looking from me to the medal and back again.

  Tray neatly hoisted me up and I wrapped my legs and arms around him. As he explored the crook between my neck and shoulder, I grinned lazily to my teammate, “Of course. The team won, it’s going to be a raver.”

  “Fuck yeah. I’m going to get laid.” She beamed excitedly, and flushed.

  Tray lifted his head and remarked dryly, “I’m trying to get laid right now.”

  Sari rolled her eyes. It’d been like this between them since the first day, three years ago.

  Sari wanted to party and Tray wanted his own partying. But for the most part, they got along.

  “When aren’t you?” she griped, but it was good-natured.

  It had better be.

  “Can you two stop mauling each other?” Mandy asked, arriving with Carter behind her. I saw Grayley was talking with another teammate of mine across the pool. He’d been after her for a while, about fucking time he got somewhere with her. Not that Grayley had a problem finding girls, it was the opposite, but for some reason…he was holding back with this one.

  Kara’s nice and all, but she didn’t hang out with me and Sari for a reason. She was a good girl.

  Maybe that’s what he needed. A nice tame girl that would never get him mixed up in a drug-deal gone bad where he’s captured and has to recuperate in the hospital for two weeks.

  Tray pinched my ass.

  “Hey,” I cried out.

  “Your mind was wandering,” he murmured, and looked over to where I’d been watching. “He’s a big boy. He’ll be fine.”

  Sari looked over too and harrumphed. “She’s a pansy. I don’t like her.”

  Sari and Grayley tried for a good month. That had been freshman year. Ever since then, they’d just been fuck buddies when the need arose. It arose often, for both of them.

  “So what’s the plan? Are we going out to eat or what?” Mandy asked, Carter tucked her against his side.

  “Sari says party, so we party tonight. I don’t really care right now. I just want to shower and change.” I slid down from Tray, but leaned against him. I noticed Mandy watching him intently.

 
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