Головна Until You (Fall Away Series)

Until You (Fall Away Series)

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Have you ever been so angry that hitting things felt good? Ever felt numb to all emotions?

The past few years have been like that for me. Traveling between fury and indifference with no stops in between. Some people hate me for it, while others are scared of me. But none of them can hurt me, because I don't care about anything or anyone.

Except Tatum.

I love her so much that I hate her. I hate that I can't let her go. We used to be friends, but I found out that I couldn't trust her or anyone else. So I hurt her. I pushed her away. But I still need her. She centers me. Engaging, challenging, bullying her - it's the last part of me that feels anything human.

But then she left for a year and came back a different girl. Now, when I push, she pushes back.

For everyone who loved Bully . . . This is Jared's story.
Fall Away
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The Duke's Happy Holiday: A Clean Regency Christmas Romance

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After You

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Copyright © 2013 Penelope Douglas

Cover Design © 2013 Cover to Cover Designs

Interior Design by Angela McLaurin, Fictional Formats

ISBN-13: 978-1494289102

ISBN-10: 1494289105

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


chapter 1

chapter 2

chapter 3

chapter 4

chapter 5

chapter 6

chapter 7

chapter 8

chapter 9

chapter 10

chapter 11

chapter 12

chapter 13

chapter 14

chapter 15

chapter 16

chapter 17

chapter 18

chapter 19

chapter 20

chapter 21

chapter 22

chapter 23

chapter 24

chapter 25

chapter 26

chapter 27

chapter 28

chapter 29

chapter 30

chapter 31

chapter 32

chapter 33

chapter 34

chapter 35

chapter 36

chapter 37

chapter 38

chapter 39

chapter 40

chapter 41

bully poem



about the author

This book was never supposed to be written.

After I published Bully, I realized that Jared’s story was just as important as Tate’s, and to be honest, the readers fought hard for his point of view. They wanted to know his side of the story.

For that, I am eternally grateful. I loved writing this book and watching Jared grow.

Although this novel can be read as a STAND ALONE, I wouldn’t recommend it. Reading Tate’s point of view in Bully first will increase your enjoyment and craving for Jared’s side.

That being said, I want to ease your mind if you have read Bully. Point of view novels are tricky, and no one wants to be bamboozled into buying the same story twice.

I’ve worked hard to give you something different.

This is NOT a retelling of Bully.

This is Jared’s s; tory.

This novel is dedicated solely to the readers. Thank you for believing in Jared and asking for this book.

My name is Jared.

My name is Jared.

My name is Jared.

I kept repeating it over and over again, trying to get my heart to stop beating so fast. I wanted to go and meet our new neighbors, but I was nervous.

There was a kid living next door now—probably ten years old like me—and I’d smiled when I saw that she wore baseballs caps and Chucks. Other girls in my neighborhood didn’t dress like that, and she was pretty, too.

I leaned on my windowsill, checking out the house next door, alive with music and light. No one had lived there for a long time, and even before then it was just old people.

A big tree stood between our houses, but I could still see through the green leaves.

“Hey, sweetie.”

I turned my head to see my mom leaning on my bedroom doorframe. She was smiling, but her eyes were teary, and her clothes were wrinkly.

She was sick again. She got sick whenever she drank the bottle drinks.

“I saw that we have new neighbors,” she continued. “Did you meet them?”

“No.” I shook my head, looking back out the window, wishing she’d go away. “They have a girl. No boys.”

“And you can’t be friends with a girl?” Her voice cracked, and I heard her swallow. I knew what was coming, and my stomach tightened.

“No, I can’t.”

I didn’t like to talk to my mom. Actually, I didn’t know how to talk to her. I was alone a lot, and she pissed me off.

“Jared—” she started but didn’t continue. After a moment, I heard her walk away and slam a door down the hall. She probably went to the bathroom to puke.

My mom drinks alcohol a lot, especially on the weekends, and all of a sudden I didn’t want to meet the blonde-haired girl next door.

So what if she seemed cool and liked to ride bikes?

Or that I could hear Alice in Chains coming from her bedroom? At least I think it was her bedroom. The curtains were closed.

I stood up straight, ready to just forget about it and go make myself something to eat. My mom probably wasn’t cooking tonight.

But then I saw the girl’s curtains open, and I stopped.

She was there. That was her room!

And for some reason, I smiled. I liked that our rooms faced each other.

I narrowed my eyes to see her better as she opened the double doors but then widened them when I saw what she was doing.

What? Was she crazy?

I yanked up my window and peered out into the night air. “Hey!” I shouted at her. “What are you doing?”

She jerked her head up, and my breath caught when I saw her wobble on the branch she was trying to balance on. Her arms flailed from side to side, and I was immediately out of my window and climbing into the tree after her.

“Be careful!” I yelled as she bent down and grabbed hold of the thick branch with her hands.

I crept into the tree while holding onto a branch at the side of my head for support.

Stupid girl. What was she doing?

Her blue eyes were big as she stayed on all fours, holding onto the tree as it shook beneath her.

“You can’t just climb into trees by yourself,” I snipped out. “You almost fell. Come here.” I leaned down to grab her hand.

My fingers instantly tingled, like when a part of your body falls asleep.

She stood up, her legs shaking, and I held onto a branch above my head as I walked both of us toward the trunk.

“Why did you do that?” she complained behind me. “I know how to climb trees. You scared me, and that’s why I almost fell.”

I looked over at her as I plopped down on the thick, inner part of the tree. “Sure it was.” And I dusted my hands off on my long, khaki cargo shorts.

I stared out at our street, Fall Away Lane, but I couldn’t shake the feel of her off my hand. The humming spread up my arm and over my whole body. It was like all of my hairs were standing up, and I kind of wanted to laugh, because it tickled.

She just kept standing there, probably pouting, but after a few seconds she took the seat next to me. Our legs dangled together off the branch.

“So,” she spoke up, pointing to my house. “You live over there?”

“Yeah. With my mom,” I said, and I looked down at her just in time to see her eyes drop, and she started to play with her fingers.

She looked sad for a few seconds, but then her eyebrows came together, and she looked like she was trying not to cry.

What did I say?

She was still dressed in the same overalls I’d seen her in earlier today when she was unloading the moving truck with her dad. Her hair hung loose, and other than some dirt on her pants, she looked clean.

We sat there for a minute, staring out at the street, listening to the wind rustle the leaves around us.

She seemed really little next to me, like any minute she’d fall off the branch, unable to hold herself up.

Her lips were turned down at the corners, and I didn’t know why she was so sad. All I knew was that I didn’t want to go anywhere until she felt better.

“I saw your dad,” I started. “Where’s your mom?”

Her bottom lip shook, and she looked up at me. “My mom died in the spring.” Her eyes had tears in them, but she took long breaths, like she was trying to be tough.

I’d never met a kid that had a dead mom or dad, and I felt bad for not liking my mom.

“I don’t have a dad,” I told her, trying to make her feel better. “He left when I was a baby, and my mom says he’s not a good man. At least your mom didn’t want to leave you, right?”

I knew I sounded stupid. I didn’t want to make it seem like she had it better than me. I just felt like I should tell her anything to make her feel good.

Even hug her, which is what I really wanted to do right now.

But I didn’t. I changed the subject.

“I saw that your dad has an old car.”

She didn’t look at me, but she rolled her eyes. “It’s a Chevy Nova. Not just an old car.”

I knew what it was. I wanted to see if she did.

“I like cars.” I kicked off my DC shoes, letting them fall to the ground, and she did the same with her red Chucks. Our bare feet swung back and forth in the air. “I’m going to race at the Loop someday,” I told her.

Her eyes perked up, and she turned to me. “The Loop? What’s that?”

“It’s a race track where the big kids go. We can go there when we’re in high school, but we have to have a car. You can come and cheer for me.”

“Why can’t I race?” She looked mad.

Was she serious?

“I don’t think they let girls race,” I said, trying not to laugh in her face.

She narrowed her eyes and looked back to the street. “You’ll make them let me.”

The corners of my mouth turned up, but I held back my laugh. “Maybe.”


She held out her hand for me to shake. “I’m Tatum, but everyone calls me Tate. I don’t like Tatum. Got it?”

I nodded, taking her hand in mine and feeling a rush of heat spread up my arm again. “I’m Jared.”

6 Years Later …

The blood spills over my bottom lip and onto the floor like a long strip of red paint. I let it pool in my mouth until it dribbles out, since everything hurts too damn much to spit.

“Dad, please,” I beg, my voice shaking as my body shivers from the fear.

My mom was right. He’s a bad man, and I wish I’d never talked her into letting me spend the summer with him.

I kneel on his kitchen floor, shaking, with my hands tied behind my back. The itchy rope bites into my skin.

“Are you begging, you little pussy?” he snarls, and the strap whips my back again.

I squeeze my eyes shut, wincing, as fire spreads across my shoulder blades. Closing my mouth, I try not to make any noise as I breathe through my nose until the burning fades away. The skin on my lips feels stretched and swollen, and the slippery metallic taste of blood fills my mouth.


Her face flashes in my mind, and I crawl back into my head where she is. Where we are together. Her sunshine hair floats on the wind as we climb the rocks around the fish pond. I always climb behind her in case she stumbles. Her stormy blue eyes smile down at me.

But my father breaks through. “You don’t beg! You don’t apologize! That’s what I get for letting that cunt raise you all these years. Nothing but a coward now. That’s what you are.”

My head jerks back and my scalp stings as he yanks me by my hair to meet his eyes. My stomach rolls when I smell the beer and cigarettes on his breath.

“At least Jax listens,” he grits out, and my stomach shakes from the nausea. “Isn’t that right, Jax?” he yells over his shoulder.

My father releases me and walks over to the deep freezer in the corner of the kitchen and pounds twice on the lid. “You still alive in there?”

Every nerve in my face fires with pain as I try to hold back tears. I don’t want to cry or scream, but Jax, my father’s other son, has been in the freezer for almost ten minutes. Ten whole minutes and not making a sound!

Why is my father doing this? Why is he punishing Jax when he’s mad at me?

But I stay quiet, because that’s how he likes his kids. If he gets what he wants, maybe he’ll let my brother out. He has to be freezing in there, and I don’t know if he has enough air. How long can someone survive in a freezer? Maybe he’s already dead.

God, he’s just a little kid! I blink back the tears. Please, please, please…

“So…” My father walks over to his girlfriend Sherilynn, a crazy-haired crack head, and his friend Gordon, a fucking creepy ass lowlife who looks at me weird.

Both sit at the kitchen table enjoying whatever drug is on the menu today, not paying any attention to what is going on with the two helpless kids in the room.

“What do y’all think?” My father puts a hand on each of their shoulders. “How are we gonna teach my boy to be a man?”

I jerked awake, my pulse pounding in my neck and head. A drop of sweat glided over my shoulder, and I blinked, seeing my own room and walls come into view.

It’s okay. I breathed hard. They’re not here. It was just a dream.

I was in my own house. My father wasn’t here. Gordon and Sherilynn were long gone.

Everything’s okay.

But I always had to make sure.

My eyelids were heavy as fuck, but I sat up and hurriedly scanned the room. The morning light blared through my window like an air horn, and I brought my hand up to shield my eyes from the painful rays.

The shit on my dresser had been shoved to the floor, but it wasn’t unusual for me to make a mess when I was wasted. Other than some disarray, the room was quiet and safe.

I let out a long breath and inhaled again, trying to slow down my heart as I continued looking left to right. It wasn’t until I’d made a full circle that my eyes finally rested on the lump next to me under the covers. Ignoring the ache between my eyes from the alcohol the night before, I peeled the blanket back to see who I was dumb enough—or drunk enough—to let spend the whole night at my house.


Another fucking blonde.

What the hell was I thinking?

Blondes weren’t my thing. They always looked like good girls. Not exotic or even remotely interesting. Too pure.

They looked like the girl-next-door type.

And who really wanted that?

But the last few days—when the nightmares had started again—all I’d wanted were blondes. It was like I had some sick pull to self-destruct over the one blonde I loved to hate.

But…I had to admit, the girl was hot. Her skin looked smooth, and she had nice tits. I think she’d said something about being home for the summer from Purdue. I don’t think I told her about me being sixteen and still in high school. Maybe I’d spring that on her when she woke up. Just for kicks.

I leaned my head back, in too much pain to even smile at the image of her freak out.

“Jared?” My mother knocked, and I jerked my head up, cringing.

My head throbbed like someone had stuck a fork in it all night, and I did not want to deal with her right now. But I hopped off the bed anyway and headed for the door before the girl next to me stirred. Opening it just a little, I eyed my mother with as much patience as I could muster.

She was wearing pink sweatpants and a long-sleeved fitted T-shirt—nice for a Sunday, actually—but from the neck up, it was a mess as usual. She had her hair stuffed into a bun, and her makeup from the day before was smudged under her eyes.

Her hangover probably rivaled mine. The only way she was up and moving around was because her body was a hell of a lot more used to it.

When she cleaned up, though, you could see how young she really was. When most of my friends first got a look at her they thought she was my sister.

“What do you want?” I asked.

I thought she was waiting for me to let her in, but that wasn’t going to happen.

“Tate’s leaving.” Her voice was soft.

My heart started thumping in my chest.

Was that today?

And suddenly it was like an invisible hand prying open my stomach, and I flinched at the pain. I didn’t know if it was the hangover or the reminder of her leaving, but I clenched my teeth to force down the bile.

“So?” I mumbled, overloading on attitude.

She rolled her eyes at me. “So I thought you might get off your ass and say goodbye. She’ll be gone for a whole year, Jared. You were friends once.”

Yeah, up until two years ago…The summer before freshman year, I’d gone to visit my father and came home to realize that I was on my own. My mother was weak, my father was a monster, and Tate wasn’t a friend, after all.

I just shook my head before shutting the door in my mom’s face.

Yeah, like I was going to go outside and give Tate a hug goodbye. I didn’t care, and I was happy to be rid of her.

But there was a lump in my throat, and I couldn’t swallow.

I slumped back against the door, feeling the weight of a thousand bricks fall on my shoulders. I’d forgotten that she was leaving today. I’d been pretty much drunk non-stop since the Beckman party two days ago.


I could hear car doors slamming outside, and I told myself to stay where I was. I didn’t need to see her.

Let her go study abroad in France. Her leaving was the best damn thing that could happen.

“Jared!” I tensed up when my mother called from downstairs. “The dog got out. You better go get him.”


Wanna bet she let the damn dog out to begin with? And wanna bet she let him out the front door? I pinched my eyebrows so close together that it actually hurt.

Throwing on last night’s jeans, I jerked open the bedroom door, not caring if Purdue girl woke up, and stomped down the stairs.

My mother was waiting by the open front door, holding up the leash for me and smiling like she was so clever. Snatching it out of her hand, I walked outside and over to Tate’s yard.

Madman used to be her dog, too, and he wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.

“Did you come to say goodbye to me?” Tate knelt on her front lawn near her dad’s Bronco, and I stopped dead in my tracks at the sound of her delighted and uncontrollable giggle. She was smiling like it was Christmas morning, and her eyes were squeezed shut as Madman nuzzled her neck.

Her ivory skin glowed in the morning sun, and her full, pink lips were open, showing a beautiful row of white teeth.

The dog was clearly happy, too, wagging his tail with giddiness, and I felt like I was intruding.

They were a pair, loving on each other, and my stomach filled with butterflies.

Dammit. I ground my teeth together.

How did she do that? How did she always manage to make me feel happy to see her happy?

I blinked long and hard.

Tate continued yapping to the dog. “Oh, well, I love you, too!” She sounded like she was speaking to a child, all sweet and shit, as Madman kept nudging and licking her face.

He shouldn’t love her this much. What had she done for him in the past two years?

“Madman, come,” I barked, not really angry with the dog.

Tate’s eyes shifted up to me, and she stood up. “You’re being a jerk to the dog now, too?” She scowled, and it was then that I noticed what she was wearing.

The Nine Inch Nails T-shirt I’d given her when we were fourteen, and my chest swelled for some stupid unknown reason.

I’d forgotten she had it.

Okay…not really. I guess I didn’t realize that she still had it.

She probably didn’t even remember that I’d given it to her.

Kneeling down to hook Madman’s leash onto his collar, I twisted my lips up slightly. “You’re talking again, Tatum.”

I didn’t call her Tate. She hated “Tatum”, so that’s what I called her.

I fixed a bored, superior expression on my face.

I’d be happier without her around, I told myself. She was nothing.

And yet, I heard the little voice in the back of my head. She was everything.

She shook her head, the hurt in her eyes clear as she turned to walk away.

She wasn’t fighting back, I guess. Not today. The party on Friday night—when I’d humiliated her, and she’d punched my friend, Madoc, in the face—must have been a one-time deal.

“Is that what you’re wearing on the plane?” I asked, sneering.

I should’ve just walked away, but hell, I couldn’t stop engaging her. It was an addiction.

She turned back to me, her fingers fisting up. “Why do you ask?”

“Just looks a little sloppy is all.” But that was a bold-faced lie.

The black T-shirt was worn out, but it clung to her fit body like it was made just for her, and her dark jeans hugged her ass, telling me exactly what she would look like naked. With long, shiny hair and flawless skin, she looked like fire and sugar, and I wanted to gorge and burn at the same time.

Tatum was hot, but she didn’t know it.

And blonde or not, that was my type.

“But no worries,” I continued. “I get it.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Get what?”

Leaning in, I taunted her with a smug grin. “You always liked wearing my clothes.”

Her eyes widened, and with her flushed skin there was no mistaking that she was pissed. It was raging all over her tough little face.

And I smiled to myself, because I fucking loved it.

She didn’t run away, though.

“Hold on.” She held up her pointer finger and turned to walk to the truck.

Digging under the front seat, in the emergency pack her dad kept there, she fished out something and slammed the car door shut. By the time she’d huffed back over to me, I saw that she had a lighter in her hand.

Before I could even register what was happening, she’d peeled off her shirt and exposed her perfect chest in a sexy ass sports bra.

My heart damn near shifted with the fucking pounding in my chest.

Holy shit.

I watched, not breathing, as she held up the shirt, flicked the lighter, and dipped the hem into the flame, bringing it to ash piece by piece.

Son of a bitch! What the hell was happening with her all of a sudden?

My gaze flashed to hers, and time stood still as we watched each other, forgetting the flaming material between us. Her hair danced around her body, and her storm-filled eyes pierced my skin, my brain, and my ability to move or speak.

Her arms shook a little, and her breaths, although steady, were deep. She was nervous as hell.

Okay, so breaking Madoc’s nose the other night wasn’t a fluke. She was fighting back.

I’d spent the past two years of high school making her life miserable. Telling a few lies, ruining a few dates, all for my own pleasure. Challenging Tate—making her a high school outcast—made my world go round, but she never fought back. Not until now. Maybe she thought that since she was leaving town, she could throw caution to the wind.

My fists balled up with renewed energy, and I was suddenly paralyzed by how much I would miss this. Not miss hating her or taunting her.

Just. Miss. Her.

And with that realization, I tightened my jaw so hard it ached.


She still owned me.

“Tatum Nicole!” her dad yelled from the porch, and we both jumped back to reality. He raced over and grabbed the shirt out of her hand, stomping it out on the ground.

My eyes hadn’t left hers, but the trance was broken and I was finally able to let out a breath. “See you in a year, Tatum,” I bit out, hoping it sounded like a threat.

She tipped her chin up and only glared at me while her father ordered her inside for a shirt.

I walked back over to my house with Madman at my side and wiped the cool sweat off my forehead.

Goddamn. I sucked in air like it was going out of style.

Why couldn’t I get that girl out from under my skin? Her hot little pyrotechnics weren’t going to help flush her out, either.

That image would be in my head forever.

Fear took root in my brain as I realized that she was really leaving. I wasn’t going to be in control of her anymore. She’d live every day not thinking of me. She’d go on dates with any asshole that showed interest. And even worse, I wouldn’t see her or hear of her. She’d have a life without me in it, and I was scared.

Everything, all of a sudden, felt foreign and uncomfortable. My house, my neighborhood, the idea of going back to school in a week.

“Fuck,” I growled under my breath.

This shit had to end.

I needed a distraction. Lots of distractions.

Once inside, I released the dog and climbed the stairs to my bedroom, digging my phone out of my pocket on the way.

If it were anyone else calling, Madoc wouldn’t answer this early. But for his best friend, it only took two rings.

“I’m. Still. Sleeping,” he grumbled.

“You still up for throwing a pool party before school starts?” I asked, switching on Buckcherry’s Crazy Bitch on the iPod dock on my dresser.

“We’re talking about this now? School isn’t for another week.” He sounded like half of his face was buried in a pillow, but it was how he talked these days. After Tate broke his nose the other night, he had trouble breathing out of one of his nostrils.

“Today. This afternoon,” I said, walking over to my window.

“Dude!” he blurted out. “I’m still dead from last night.”

And in truth, so was I. My head was still swimming from the liquor I’d tried drowning in the night before, but there was no way I could sit around all day with nothing but my thoughts keeping me company.

Tate going to France for a year.

Standing in the front yard in her bra, lighting fires.

I shook the images from my head.

“Then hit the gym and sweat out the hangover,” I ordered. “I need a distraction.”

Why did I just say that? Now he would know something was wrong, and I didn’t like people knowing my shit.

“Is Tate gone?” he asked, almost timidly.

My shoulders tensed, but I kept my tone even as I watched her come out of her house in a new shirt. “Who’s talking about her? You throwing a party or not?”

The line was quiet for a few seconds before he mumbled, “Uh, huh.” He sounded like he had more to say but wisely decided to shut his damn mouth. “Fine. I don’t want to see the same people we saw last night, though. Who are we inviting?”

Looking over at the Bronco pulling out of the driveway and the fucking blonde driver that didn’t once turn around to look back, I clenched the phone to my ear. “Blondes. Lots of blondes.”

Madoc exhaled a quiet laugh. “You hate blondes.”

Not all. Just one.

I sighed. “Right now, I want to drown in them.” I didn’t care if Madoc connected the dots or not. He wouldn’t push and that’s why he was my best friend. “Send out texts and get the drinks. I’ll grab some food and head over in a few hours.”

I twisted around when I heard the purest little moan coming from the bed. The Purdue girl—I forgot her name—was waking up.

“Why not come over now? We can head to the gym and then gather supplies,” Madoc suggested, but my eyes were hot on the bare back of the girl in my bed. Her squirming had nudged the blanket down to the top of her ass, and her face was turned away from me. All I saw was the skin and her sunshine hair.

And I hung up on Madoc, because my bed was the only place I wanted to be at right then.

The next few weeks were like cave diving with a perfectly good parachute that I refused to use. School, my mother, Jax, my friends—they were all around for me to grab onto, but the only thing that got me out of the house every day was the promise of trouble.

I dragged my irritable, pissed off ass into English III, trying to figure out why the hell I still came to school. It was the last goddamn place I wanted to be anymore. The hallways were always crammed with people but still seemed empty.

My appearance was shit, too. My left eye was purple, and I had a cut across my nose from a fight that I didn’t remember. Plus, I’d torn the sleeves off of my T-shirt this morning, because I couldn’t breathe.

Not really sure what I was thinking, but it seemed to make sense at the time.

“Mr. Trent, don’t sit down,” Mrs. Penley ordered as I strolled into class late. Everyone was already seated, and I stopped to look at her.

I liked Penley about as much as I liked anyone, but I couldn’t hide the boredom that I was sure was all over my face.

“Excuse me?” I asked as she scrawled on a pink slip.

I sighed, knowing exactly what that color meant.

She handed me the paper. “You heard me. Go to the Dean,” she ordered as she stuck her pen into her high bun.

And I perked up, noticing the bite to her bark.

Being tardy or truant had become a habit, and Penley was pissed. It had taken her long enough, too. Most of the other teachers had already sent me out the first week.

I smiled, euphoria washing over my body at any possibility of mayhem. “No, ‘please’ with that request?” I taunted, snatching the paper out of her hands.

Hushed laughter and snorts broke out around the classroom, and Penley narrowed her dark brown eyes on me.

She didn’t falter, though. I’d give her that.

Turning around, I tossed the pink slip into the trash and threw open the wooden door, not caring if it closed behind me as I left.

A few gasps and whispers filled the air, but it was nothing new. Most people veered away from me these days, but my defiance was getting old. At least to me. My heart didn’t race anymore when I acted like a dick. I was thirsty to up the stakes.

“Mr. Caruthers!” I heard Penley calling, and I turned around to see Madoc walking out of her classroom, too.

“It’s that time of the month, Mrs. Penley.” He sounded serious. “I’ll be right back.”

The outright laughter roared from Penley’s classroom pretty clearly this time.

Madoc wasn’t like me. He was a people person. He could serve you a pile of shit, and you’d ask for ketchup.

“You know?” He ran up beside me and jerked his thumb in the opposite direction. “The Dean’s that way.”

I raised my eyebrows at him.

“Alright, alright.” He shook his head as if to clear away the brainfart that I’d actually go sweat up in the Dean’s office for who knows how long. “So where are we going?”

I dug my keys out of my jeans pocket and slipped on my sunglasses. “Does it matter?”

“So what are you going to do with the money?” Madoc asked as he checked out his new ink.

We’d blown off school and tracked down tattoo artists that didn’t ask for I.D. We found a place called The Black Debs— “debs” being short for “debutantes” —which hadn’t really made sense to me until I’d looked around and noticed that the entire staff was female.

We were under eighteen, so not legally allowed to get tattooed without a parent’s consent, but they didn’t seem to care.

Some chick named Mary had just finished “Fallen” across Madoc’s back, except the “e” was inked to look like flames. Kind of looked like an “o” to me, but I didn’t say anything. He wasn’t asking questions about what my tattoo meant, so I wasn’t going to open a can of worms.

“Only so much I can do with the money right now,” I answered, grunting as the needle sliced through my skin over a rib. “My mother put most of it in a college fund. I can have it when I graduate. But I was able to get some of it now. I’m thinking of buying a new car and giving the GT to Jax.”

My maternal grandfather had passed away last year, leaving me some land and a cabin near Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. The cabin was falling apart, and it didn’t have any real sentimental value to the family, so my mother agreed to let some interested developers buy it. She put most of the money into the bank under lock and key.

I actually felt proud of her for insisting. It wasn’t normal for her to make such responsible, adult decisions.

But I wasn’t at all interested in going to college, either.

I didn’t want to think about how things were going to change when I finished high school.

My phone rang, and I silenced it.

I closed my eyes, while Crossfade’s Cold played in the background, and reveled in the sting of the needle carving into me. I hadn’t tensed up at all, and I hadn’t thought about much of anything since walking into the shop. My arms and legs felt weightless, and the ton of shit on my shoulders had faded away.

I could get addicted to this.

I smiled, picturing myself ten years from now covered in tattoos, simply because I liked the pain.

“You wanna take a look?” Aura, my tattoo artist adorned in dreadlocks, asked when she’d finished.

I stood up and walked to the wall mirror, eyeing the words on the side of my torso.

Yesterday Lasts Forever. Tomorrow Comes Never.

The words came out of nowhere in my head, but they felt right. The script was just illegible enough not to be easily read, and that’s what I wanted.

The tattoo was for me and no one else.

I squinted at the little droplets of blood spilling off the end of “Never”.

“I didn’t ask you for that,” I pointed out, scowling at Aura through the mirror.

She slipped on some sunglasses and stuck an unlit cigarette in her mouth. “I don’t explain my art, kid.” And she headed out the backdoor. To smoke, I would assume.

And for the first time in weeks, I laughed.

Gotta love a woman that can hand you your own ass.

We paid and picked up some food, taking it back to my house. My mother had texted and said she was going out with friends after work, so I knew I’d have the place to myself for a while. When she drank, she didn’t come home until she was numb.

And then—to dampen my mood further—there was a care package from France inside my front door.

It was addressed to Tate’s dad and must’ve been sent here accidentally. My mom had unknowingly opened it, thinking it was ours, when she was home for lunch. She left it for me with a note to take it next door when I got home.

But not before my fucking curiosity got the better of me.

After Madoc had gone into the garage, so we could eat while we worked, I peeled back the flaps to the cardboard box and immediately slammed them shut again. A fat, raging fire burned in my blood, and I was hungrier than I’d been in weeks. I didn’t know what was in that box, but Tate’s smell was all over it, and it was leveling me.

My brief high from the tattoo slowly seeped out and was instantly replaced with piss and vinegar.

I dumped it on her father’s front door step before charging back over into my garage to drown myself in car work.

“Hold up the flashlight,” I ordered Madoc.

He leaned further under the hood as I tried to unfasten the spark plugs from my car. “Stop struggling with it,” he complained. “Those things can snap easily if you’re not careful.”

I stopped and tightened my grip on the wrench, narrowing my eyes at him. “You don’t think I know that?”

He cleared his throat and looked away, and I could feel the judgment all over him.

Why was I barking at him?

Looking down, I shook my head and forced down more pressure on the plug. My hand immediately gave way, and my body lurched forward when I heard the snap.

“Shit,” I grunted and threw the wrench under the hood where it disappeared somewhere in the mess.


I gripped the edge of the car. “Get the extractor.”

Madoc leaned back to the tool bench behind him. “No ‘please’ with that request?” He echoed my own words as he grabbed the attachment so I could pry the spark plug out.

It was a bitch to deal with, and he was probably patting himself on the back that he’d called it.

“You know…” he started, letting out a sigh. “I’ve kept my mouth shut, but—”

“Then keep it shut.”

Madoc swung the flashlight out from under the hood, and I jerked backwards, out of the way, as he flung it across the room where it shattered against a wall.

Jesus Christ!

His usual relaxed demeanor was replaced with rage. His eyes were sharp, and his breaths were fast.

Madoc was mad, and I knew I’d gone too far.

Clenching my teeth, I leaned back down, my hands on the car, and braced myself for his meltdown. They came rarely, which gave them more impact.

“You’re sinking, man!” he shouted. “You don’t go to class, you’re pissing off everyone, we’re constantly in fights with random shitheads, and I’ve got the cuts and bruises to prove it. What the fuck?” Every word crowded the room. There was meaning and truth to everything he was saying, but I didn’t want to face it.

Everything felt wrong.

I was hungry, just not for food. I wanted to laugh, but nothing was funny. All of my regular thrills didn’t get my heart racing anymore. Even my own neighborhood, which usually brought me comfort with its familiarity and clean cut lawns, felt barren and void of life.

I was crammed in a fucking jar, suffocating with everything I wanted but nothing that gave me air.

“She’ll be back in eight months.” Madoc’s quiet voice crawled into my thoughts, and I blinked, taking a moment to realize he was talking about Tate.

I shook my head.


Why would he say that?

This wasn’t about her. I. Did. Not. Need. Her.

I tightened my fist around the wrench and straightened my back, wanting to stuff his own words back down his throat.

His gaze dropped to my right hand that held the tool and then back up to my face. “What?” he challenged. “What do you think you’re going to do?”

I wanted to hit something. Anything. Even my best friend.

My ringer broke the stalemate as it vibrated in my pocket. I dug out my cell, keeping my eyes on my friend.

“What?” I snapped into the phone.

“Hey man, I’ve been trying to reach you all day,” my brother, Jax, said, a little muffled.

My breathing wasn’t slowing down, and my brother didn’t need me like this. “I can’t talk right now.”

“Fine,” he barked. “Screw you then.” And he hung up.

Goddamn, son of a mother fucking bitch.

I squeezed the phone, wanting it to break.

My eyes snapped up to Madoc who shook his head, threw the shop cloth onto the work bench, and walked out of the garage.

“Shit,” I hissed, dialing Jax’s number.

If I needed to be level for anyone, it was my brother. He needed me. After I’d gotten away from my father two summers ago, I’d reported the abuse. My brother’s, not mine. He was taken out of that house and put into foster care, since his mother couldn’t be found.

I was all he had.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out, not even waiting for him to say ‘hello’ when he picked up. “I’m here. What’s wrong?”

“Pick me up, will you?”

Yeah, not with the spark plugs yanked out of my car. But Madoc was still here with his car, probably. “Where are you?” I asked.

“The hospital.”

“Excuse me, can I help you?” a nurse called behind me as I barged through the double swinging doors. I was sure I was supposed to check in with her, but she could shove her clipboard up her ass. I needed to find my brother.

My palms were sweaty, and I had no idea what had happened. He’d hung up after telling me where to find him.

I’d left him alone—and hurt—once before. Never again.

“Slow down, man,” Madoc chimed in behind me. “This will go a lot faster if we just ask someone where he is.” I hadn’t even noticed that he’d followed me in.

My shoes squeaked on the linoleum as I jetted down the corridors, flinging back curtain after curtain until I finally found my brother.

He sat on a bed, long legs dangling off the side and his hand on his forehead. I reached for his ponytail and yanked his head back to look at his face.

“Ow, shit!” he grunted.

I could’ve been gentler, I guess.

He squinted up at the fluorescent lighting as I took in the stitches on his eyebrow.

“Mr. Trent!” a woman’s voice barked behind me, but I wasn’t sure if it was to me or Jax since we both shared our father’s name.

“What the hell happened to him?” I wasn’t asking Jax. Others were to blame.

My brother was just a kid, and while he was only a little over a year younger than me, he was still younger.

And he’d had a life of shit.

His mother was Native American and barely legal when she’d gotten pregnant with him. While he sported our father’s azure blue eyes, the rest of his looks came from her.

His hair was probably black, but it looked a shade lighter and fell halfway down his back. Certain pieces were braided and then everything was brought back to a ponytail mid-skull. His skin was a couple of shades darker than mine, and everything was overshadowed by his bright smile.

A woman behind me cleared her throat. “We don’t know what happened to him,” she snapped. “He won’t tell us.”

I hadn’t turned away from Jax to see who I was speaking to. It could’ve been a doctor or a social worker. Or the police. It didn’t matter. They all looked at me the same way. Like I deserved a spanking or something.

“I’ve been calling you for hours,” Jax whispered, and I sucked in a breath when I noticed that his lip was puffy, too. His eyes were pleading. “I thought you’d be here before the doctors called them.”

And then I knew it was a social worker, and I felt like a dick. He’d needed me today, and I’d screwed it up again.

I stood between him and the woman, or maybe he was hiding from her view. I didn’t know.

But I did know that Jax didn’t want to go with her. My throat tightened, and the lump inside swelled so damn much that I wanted to hurt someone.


She was always my victim of choice, but she was also in every good memory I had.

My brain flashed with the one place that was untouched by hatred and despair.

Our tree. Tate’s and mine.

I briefly wondered if Jax had anywhere he felt safe, warm, an innocent.

I doubted it. Had he ever experienced a place like that? Would he ever?

I didn’t have the first goddamn clue what life had been like for my brother. Sure, I’d gotten a taste of it during my summer with our father when I was fourteen, but Jax had had a whole lifetime of that shit. Not to mention the foster homes over the years. He was looking up to me like I was the fucking world, and I didn’t have the answers. I had no power. No way to protect him.

“Did Mr. Donovan do this to you?” the social worker asked Jax about his foster dad, Vince.

He looked at me before he answered, knowing that I would know when he was lying. “No,” he told her.

And every muscle in my arms and legs burned.

He was lying.

Jax wasn’t lying to protect Vince. He knew that I could tell when he wasn’t being honest. It was the way he’d hesitate and eyeball me before the lie. I always knew.

No, he wasn’t deceiving me. He was deceiving her.

Jax and I settled our own scores.

“Okay,” clipboard lady—who I’d finally turned around to make eye contact with—snipped, “let me make this easy for you. We’re going to assume that he did this to you and move you to a group home tonight until we find another placement.”

No. I closed my eyes.

“You fucking people,” I choked out, my stomach hollowing while I tried to keep my emotions in check for Jax.

All of his life, my brother had been sleeping in strange beds and living with people that didn’t really want him. Our father had carted him around from shithole to shithole, and left him at sketchy places all of the time growing up.

Enough was enough. Jax and I belonged together. We were stronger together. It was only a matter of time before what little innocence he had left decayed and his heart grew too hard for anything good to grow.

He was going to become like me, and I wanted to fucking scream at these people that I could love him more than anyone else. Kids didn’t just need food and a place to sleep. They needed to feel safe and wanted. They needed to feel trust.

Vince hadn’t taken that away from my brother tonight, because Jax had never counted on him in the first place. But Vince had made sure Jax would go back into a group home, and again, he’d put me in the position to remind my brother that I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t protect him.

And goddamn, I hated that feeling.

Grabbing a wad of cash out of my pocket, I yanked my brother in for a hug and stuffed the money into his hand. Without even looking at him, I spun around and walked out of the room as fast as I could.

I didn’t deserve to look him in the face.

But I did know one thing. I knew how to push back.

“Are we going where I think we’re going?” Madoc strolled up beside me, and I wasn’t surprised that he was still here.

He was a good friend, and I didn’t treat him as well as he deserved.

“You don’t have to come,” I warned.

“Would you for me?” he asked, and I looked at him like he was stupid. “Yeah.” He nodded. “I thought so, too.”

Madoc cruised up to the Donovan house a half hour later, and I hopped out of the car before he’d even stopped. It was late, the house was dark, and the neighborhood seemed lifeless, the deep rumble of Madoc’s GTO being the only sound.

I turned around to face him and spoke over the roof. “You need to go.”

He blinked, probably not sure if he’d heard me right.

The past month had resulted in more hell than I should’ve put him through. Sure, fighting was fun. Losing ourselves in girl after girl was moderately entertaining, too, but Madoc wouldn’t go over the cliff without me leading him there.

Would he walk to the edge?


Peek over the side?


But he wouldn’t take the step. It was always me who pushed him or let him fall. One of these times, though, he wasn’t going to get up, and it would be my fault.

“No,” he said resolutely. “I’m not going anywhere.”

I gave a half smile, knowing it was next to impossible to get him to leave. “You’re a good friend, but I’m not dragging you down with me.”

I dug my cell out of my jeans pocket and dialed 911.

“Hello.” My eyes were on Madoc as I spoke to the police. “I’m at 1248 Moonstone Lane in Weston. Someone’s broken into our house, and we need the police. And an ambulance.”

And I hung up and looked at the wide-eyed expression on his face. “They’re going to be here in about eight minutes,” I told him. “Go wake up my mom. You can do that for me.”

Someone, probably a legal guardian, was going to have to bail me out.

Walking down the path leading to the tan and red brick split-level house, I could hear the T.V. going from inside. I paused before the steps, aggravated that I hadn’t heard Madoc drive off yet but also puzzled as to why my heart was still beating so slowly.

Why wasn’t I nervous? Or excited?

I may as well have been about to go into a restaurant and order a milkshake.

With Tate, I thrived on that little thrill of anticipating her. It was enough to satisfy me day in and day out. I hated to admit it, but she was always on my mind. I lived for that first glimpse of her in the morning and any interaction with her during the day.

I squinted at the vibrant light from the television screen coming from inside the house and took a deep breath.

The son of a bitch was still awake.


On the rare occasion Vince Donovan and I interacted, it was with mutual intolerance. He spoke to me like I was a punk, and he treated my brother the same.

As I climbed the porch steps, I heard Madoc drive off behind me. I stepped through the front door and walked into the living room, filling the doorway as I hovered there.

Vince didn’t even bat eyelash as he barked, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Grabbing the long, wooden stem of the lamp next to me, I yanked the cord out of the wall.

“You hurt my brother,” I spoke calmly. “I’m here to settle up.”

“You didn’t have to bail me out.” I ran my tongue over the sweet sting of the cut at the corner of my mouth.

“I didn’t,” James, Tate’s dad, answered. “Your mother did.”

He steered the car through the quiet twists and turns leading into our neighborhood. The sun peeked through the trees, making the red-gold leaves glow like fire.

My mother? She was there?

Madoc and James had been at the police station all night, waiting for me to be released. I’d been arrested, booked, and ended up sleeping in a cell.

Word to the wise about waiting to be bailed out: Nothing happens until morning.

But if my mother had bailed me out, then where was she?

“Is she at home?” I asked.

“No, she’s not.” He turned a corner, downshifting the Bronco. “She’s not in any shape to help you, Jared. I think you know that. Your mother and I talked last night at the station, and she decided it was time to go to the Haywood Center for a while.”

James’s blue eyes were concentrated out the window, an ocean of things he would never say boiling underneath.

In that respect, he and Tate were one and the same. If James yelled, then you knew it was time to shut up and pay attention. He rarely said anything that wasn’t important, and he hated unnecessary chatter.

It was very clear when James and Tate reached the end of their rope.

“Rehab?” I questioned him.

“It’s about time, don’t you think?” he shot back.

I laid my head back on the headrest and looked out the window. Yeah, I guess it was time.

But apprehension crawled its way into my head anyway.

I was used to how my mother lived. How I lived. James could judge us. Others may feel sorry for me. But it was our normal.

I was never one to feel too sorry for poor kids or people in rough situations. If that was all they’d ever known, then it wasn’t suffering the way someone else would look at it. It was their life. It was hell for them, of course, but it was also familiar.

“For how long?” I was still a minor. I wasn’t sure how this worked with her gone.

“At least a month.” He turned the car into his driveway, and the morning light made the tree between Tate’s and my windows glimmer like the sun on a lake.

“So where does that leave me?” I asked.

“One thing at a time,” he sighed as we got out of the car. “Today, you’re with me. You’ll shower, eat, and go get a few hours’ sleep. I’ll wake you for lunch, and then we’ll talk.”

He handed me a bag from the backseat before we walked up the front steps.

“Your mom packed you a change of clothes. Go to Tate’s room, shower up, and I’ll get you something to eat.”

I halted. Tate’s room? Absolutely not!

“I’m not sleeping in her room.” I scowled, my heart beating so hard and fast that I couldn’t catch my breath. “I’ll crash on the couch or something.”

He paused before unlocking the front door and twisted his head around to fix me with an extreme don’t-fuck-with-me expression.

“We have three bedrooms, Jared. Mine, Tate’s, and the other one is an office. The only available bed is Tate’s.” He bared his teeth with every syllable like he was speaking to a child. “That’s where you sleep. It’s not difficult. Now, go shower.”

I stared for a few seconds, lips pursed and not blinking. Too busy trying to think of a comeback.

But I was at a loss.

Finally, I just blew out a huge-ass sigh, because that’s all I could do. He’d hung out at the police station all night, and he was trying to help my mother.

I was going to step foot in Tate’s room for the first time in over two years. So what? I could handle it, and man, would I hear her piss and moan all the way from France if she knew I was in there.

I actually smiled with the thought, and my blood rushed hot like I’d just downed two dozen pixie sticks.

I closed my eyes reveling in that warm feeling I’d missed so much. The one that got my heart pumping and shouting “You’re still alive, asshole!”

James veered off into the kitchen, while I headed upstairs to Tate’s room, my legs shaking the closer I got.

The door was open. It was always open. Tate never had anything to hide like I did. Stepping inside with soft feet like I was an explorer on unstable ground, I made a circle of the room and took inventory of what had changed and what hadn’t.

One thing I always appreciated about this girl was her abhorrence for the color pink—unless it was paired with black. The walls were halved—the top was black and white pinstriped wallpaper and the bottom was painted red, a white wooden border separating the two parts. Her bedding was a deep gray with a black leaf pattern all over it, and the walls were sparsely covered with candle holders, pictures and posters.

Very uncluttered and very Tate.

I also noticed that there was nothing of me in here. No pictures or keepsakes from when we were friends. I knew why, but I didn’t know why it bugged me.

I dropped my bag and walked over to her CD player that she’d had since forever. She had an iPod dock, but the iPod was gone. Probably in France with her.

Some fucked up curiosity bit at my insides, so I started hitting switches to start the CD player. I knew she didn’t listen to the radio, because she thought that most music that got radio play sucked.

Silverhair’s Dearest Helpless popped on, and I couldn’t help the shake in my chest from the laugh I tried to hold back. Backing up to the bed, I laid down, letting the music hold me tight.

“I don’t understand how you can listen to this alternative crap, Tate.”

I sit on the bed scowling at her but still unable to control the smile that wants release. I give her a hard time, but I love nothing more than to see her happy.

And she’s so damn cute right now.

“It’s not crap!” she argues, widening her eyes at me. “It’s the only album I have where I can listen to every song with equal enjoyment.”

I lean back on my hands and sigh. “It’s whiny,” I point out, and she puckers up her lips while she plays air guitar.

Watching her—something I could do every minute of every day—I know I’m all bluster. I would sit through a million Silverchair concerts for her.

Things are changing between us. Or maybe just for me, I don’t know. I hope for her, too.

What felt friendly and easy before is different now. Every damn time I see her lately, all I want to do is grab her and kiss her. I feel like there is something wrong with me. My blood runs hot whenever she wears the short, little jean shorts like the ones she’s wearing right now. Even her baggy, black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt is turning me on.

Because it’s mine.

She borrowed it one day and never gave it back. Or I guess I told her she could just have it. One night when I noticed that she was sleeping in it, I didn’t want it back anymore. The idea of my shirt on her body while she sleeps makes me feel like she’s mine. I like that I’m close to her even when I’m not here.

“Oooh, I love this part!” she squeals as the chorus starts, and she rocks out harder on her invisible instrument.

Even a little sway of her hips or scrunching up her nose makes my pants tighter. What the hell? We’re only fourteen. I shouldn’t be having these ideas, but dammit, I can’t stop it.

I mean, shit, yesterday I couldn’t even watch her do her math homework, because the pensive expression on her face was so adorable that I had a strong urge to haul her into my lap. Not touching her downright sucks.

“Alright, I can’t take it,” I blurt out and get off the bed to turn off the music. Any distraction to kill the hard-on that’s growing in my pants.

“No!” she screams, but I can hear the laughter in her voice as she grasps at my arms.

I shoot out and lightly jab her under the arm, because I know how ticklish she is. She squirms, but now I’ve touched her, and I don’t want to stop. We nudge each other back and forth, each of us trying to get to the CD player.

“Alright, I’ll turn it off!” she yells through a fit of laughter as I move my fingers into her stomach. “Just stop!” she giggles, falling into me, and I close my eyes as my hands linger at her hips and my nose in her hair.

What I want from her scares me. And I’m afraid it would scare her, too. I know it will definitely scare her father.

But I’ll wait, because there is no other choice. For the rest of my life, I won’t want anyone else.

It’s time to man up and tell her.

“Let’s go to the pond tonight,” I say softer than I want. My voice cracks, and I’m not sure if I’m nervous or frightened. Probably both.

Our fish pond is where it needs to happen. It’s where I want to tell her that I love her. We go there a lot. Picnics or just for walks. It’s not unusual for us to sneak out and ride our bikes up there at night.

She leans back and looks at me with a casual smile. “I can’t. Not tonight.”

My shoulders slump a little, but I recover. “Why?”

She doesn’t look at me but pushes her hair behind her ears and walks to the bed to sit down.

Dread stomps into my brain like a big, fat rhinoceros. She’s going to tell me something I don’t like.

“I’m going to the movies,” she offers with a close-lipped smile. “With Will Geary.”

I swallow, feeling the thump in my chest damn near break a rib. Will Geary is in our class, and I hate him. He’s been sniffing around Tate for a year. His father and Tate’s dad play golf together, and that’s one part of her life that I’m not involved in.

Will Geary doesn’t have anything on me. His family doesn’t have more money or a better house. But his family is involved with Tate’s, and my parents are…well, not involved with anything. Tate’s dad had tried taking me golfing once or twice, but it’s never stuck. Fixing cars is where we bond.

I narrow my eyes, trying to reel in the anger. “When did that happen?”

She only makes eye contact with me for a second at a time. I can tell she is uncomfortable. “He asked yesterday when our dads played golf together.”

“Oh,” I almost whisper, my face rushing with heat. “And you said yes?”

She folds her lips between her teeth and nods.

Of course she said yes. I took my damn time, and another guy swooped in.

But it still hurts.

If she wants to be with me, I guess she would’ve told him no. But she didn’t.

I nod. “That’s cool. Have fun.” The pitch in my voice probably gives away how hard I’m trying to sound like I don’t care.

I start walking for her bedroom door. “Listen, I have to go. I forgot Madman needs some food, so I’m off to the store.”

She’s mine. I know she loves me. Why can’t I just turn around and tell her? All I have to do is say ‘don’t go’, and the hard part would be over.

“Jared?” she calls, and I stop, the air in the room almost too thick to breathe.

“You’re my best friend.” She pauses and then continues, “But is there maybe any reason you may not want me to go with Will tonight?”

Her shaky voice is hesitant like she’s scared to speak, and the moment fills the room like a broken promise. It’s the moment when you know that you can have what you want if you’re only brave enough to say so. It’s a split second when everything can change, but you pussy out because you’re too afraid to risk the rejection.

“Of course not.” I turn around and smile at her. “Go. Have a good time. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

That night I saw Will kiss her, and the next day my dad called and asked if I wanted to come visit him for the summer.

I’d said ‘yes.’

“Eat.” James pushed a plate of meatloaf and potatoes in my face as soon as I sat down on the barstool.

I’d fallen asleep on Tate’s bed listening to Silverchair and hadn’t woken up until two in the afternoon. Her dad pounded on the door to wake me.

After I’d showered and gotten dressed in fresh clothes, I’d come downstairs to an even better smell than Tate’s shampoo.

I sat at the center island in the kitchen and stuffed the food into my mouth like I hadn’t eaten a home-cooked meal in years. Well, I guess I hadn’t. Before the summer with my father, my alcoholic mother wasn’t very nurturing. And after that summer, I wouldn’t let her be even if she’d tried.

“Don’t you have work?” I asked before taking a drink to wash down the food.

It was Friday, and I was missing school as well. I’d skipped yesterday when Madoc and I went to get tattoos, too.

That seemed like so long ago now.

“I took the day off,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

To deal with me.

“Sorry.” And I honestly was. Mr. Brandt was a good guy, and he didn’t deserve drama.

Leaning against the counter opposite the center island, James crossed his arms over his chest, and I knew a talk was coming. Fixing my gaze on my plate of food, I braced myself, because with Mr. Brandt, it was best just to shut up and take it.

“Jared, your mom will be gone for at least four weeks. You’re going to stay here while she’s away.”

“I’ll be fine at my house.” It was worth a try.

“You’re sixteen years old. That’s illegal.”

“Seventeen,” I corrected.


“I’m seventeen today.” It was October second. I hadn’t realized until they’d dated my paperwork this morning at the jail.

That information didn’t give James any pause, though. “I spoke to a judge. One that I know well. I worked out a treatment, of sorts, in order for that mess from last night to stay off your permanent record.”

Mess from last night? That’s a strange way to describe it. “I nearly beat a guy to death,” I spit out sarcastically. How the hell were they going to keep that off my record?

His dark blonde eyebrows pinched together. “If that’s true, then why haven’t you asked how he is?”

I’d nearly beat a guy to death.

Yeah, even saying the words, I still didn’t care. Would I care if he were dead?

James continued. “In case you did care, he’s fine. Not great, but he’ll survive. Some broken ribs, a little internal bleeding that he went into surgery for last night, but he’ll recover.”

He’d be in the hospital for a while, but I was glad I hadn’t hurt him that badly. To be honest, most of last night swirled in my head like water down a drain. The more it moved, the more I lost. I could barely recall most of the attack. I remember hitting him with the lamp and kicking him in the stomach several times. He threw some shit at me, but in the end, he was the one on the ground.

Until that asshole cop showed up, and he stuck his knee in my back, pulled my hair, and called me every name under the sun while he cuffed me.

Why had I called the cops again? I still wasn’t sure.

“So the judge would like you to attend counseling.” I didn’t need to look up to know James was shooting me a warning look. “In exchange, you won’t have this latest episode on your record.”

“Absolutely not,” I shook my head and laughed at his joke.

Counseling? Most people pissed me off. And people up in my shit really pissed me off.

“That’s what I told him you’d say,” James bowed his head and sighed. “Jared, you’re going to have to start taking responsibility for yourself. You did wrong and the world doesn’t owe you anything. I’m not going to wipe your nose just because you come from a broken home and you think that gives you a license to behave badly. I call it the “Fuck up, own up, and get up” policy. Make a mistake, admit it, and move on. We all screw up, but a man solves his problems. He doesn’t make them worse.”

I should’ve just ate and kept my mouth shut.

“Did you fuck up?” he asked, every slow syllable a challenge.

I nodded.

Would I do it again? Yes. But he didn’t ask me that.

“Good.” He slammed his hand down on the counter top. “Now it’s time to get up. Your attendance and grades are in the garbage. You have no real goals beyond high school—that I can tell, anyway—and you suck at making responsible decisions. There’s a really good place for people who crave discipline and don’t need too much freedom.”

“Prison?” I blurted out sarcastically.

And to my surprise, he smiled like he’d just trumped me.


“West Point,” he answered.

I pinched my eyebrows together. “Yeah, right.” I shook my head. “Senators’ kids and Eagle Scouts? That’s not me.”

What was he thinking? West Point was a military college. The best of the best went there and spent years building up their high school resumes to get accepted. I’d never get into West Point even if I was interested.

“That’s not you?” he questioned. “Really? I didn’t think you worried about fitting in. Everyone else has to fit you, right?”

Motherf…I sucked in a breath and looked away. This guy knew how to shut me up.

“You need a goal and a plan, Jared.” He leaned on the island straight into my space, so I’d have no choice but to pay attention. “If you have no hope for the future or passion for what’s to come, then that’s not something I can instill in you. The best thing I can do for you is push you in a direction and keep you busy. You’re going to clean up your grades, attend every class, get a job, and…” —he hesitated— “go visit your father once a week.”

“What?” Where the hell did that come from?

“Well, I told Judge Keiser that you wouldn’t go for the counseling, so this was your only other option. You’re required to have one visit a week for a solid year—”

“You’ve got to be kidding me?” I interrupted, the tightness in my muscles so tense that I started sweating. There was no fucking way I could do it!

I opened my mouth. “Absolutely—”

“This is the ‘get up’ part, Jared!” he yelled, cutting me off. “You don’t agree to one of your options then it’s off to juvie…or jail. This isn’t the first time you’ve been in trouble. The judge wants to make an impression on you. Go sit in a jail, every Saturday, and see—not what got your father in there—but what being in there has no doubt done to him.” He shook his head at me. “Jail does two things, Jared. It weakens you or kills you, and neither is good.”

My eyes stung. “But—”

“You won’t do your brother any good if you’re sent away.” And he walked out of the kitchen and the front door, having made his point.

What the hell just happened?

I gripped the edge of the gray marble countertop, wanting to rip it out of the wall and tear the whole world up in the process.


I struggled to inhale, my ribs aching with every stretch.

I couldn’t visit that cocksucker every week! There was no way!

Maybe I should just tell Mr. Brandt about everything. Everything.

There had to be another solution.

Pushing off the counter and out of my seat, I ran up to Tate’s room, crawled out of the double doors, and through the tree to my own bedroom.

Fuck him. Fuck them all.

I switched on my iPod to Apocalyptica’s I Don’t Care and crashed onto my own bed, breathing in and out until the hole in my gut stopped burning.

God, I missed her.

The reality disgusted me, but it was true. When I hated Tate, my world got small. I didn’t see all the other shit: my mom, my dad, or my brother in foster care. If I only just had her here again, I wouldn’t be such a jumble of fucking breathing fits and outbursts.

It was stupid as hell, I know. Like she should be around just for me to push whichever way I wanted.

But I needed her. I needed to see her.

I reached out to grab the handle on my bedside drawer where I kept the pictures of us as kids, but I pulled back. No. I wasn’t going to look at them. It was bad enough that I kept them. Throwing them away or destroying them had been impossible. Her hold on me was absolute.

And I was fucking done.


Let them think I played their game. My brother was the most important thing, and Mr. Brandt was right. I wasn’t any good to him in jail.

But I wasn’t going to any fucking counselor.

I exhaled and sat up.

Scumbag father it was then.

I slapped on some dark washed jeans, a white T-shirt, and gelled my hair for probably the first time in a week.

Walking down my stairs and out the front door, I found Tate’s dad in his garage removing stuff from his old Chevy Nova. Tate and I used to help him do little jobs on the car years ago, but it was always drivable.

He looked like he was clearing out the trunk and any personal stuff from inside.

“I need to replace the spark plugs on my car,” I told him. “And then I’m going to Fairfax’s Garage for a job. I’ll grab some clothes on my way back and be inside in time for dinner.”

“By six,” he specified, offering me a half smile.

I slipped on my sunglasses and turned to leave but stopped and spun back around.

“You won’t tell Tate about any of this, right?” I checked. “Getting arrested, my family, me staying here?”

He looked at me like I’d just told him that broccoli was purple. “Why would I do that?”

Good enough.

Not twenty-four hours later I stood in front of another cop, getting patted down, only this time I wasn’t in trouble.

According to Mr. Brandt’s judge friend, I didn’t have to start the visitations for a few weeks. They wanted my mother’s approval first, but I had no interest in waiting. The sooner I started, the sooner I’d be done.

“Through those doors, you’ll find lockers where you can put your keys and phone. Get rid of that wallet chain, too, kid.”

I eyed the Neo-Nazi-looking corrections officer like he could take his orders and shove them up his ass. He was bald, white-like-he’d-never-seen-the-sun, and as fat as a dozen Krispy Kremes a day will do to you. I wanted my shit on me, because I fully expected to turn around and walk out of here the moment I laid eyes on the sick bastard that was my father.

My father. My stomached turned at those words.

“How does this work?” I asked, reluctantly. “Will he be like in a cage, and we talk through some air holes or are there phones we use?”

Asking questions wasn’t my style. I either figured it out for myself, or I shut up and fumbled along. But the idea of seeing the twisted fuck made my muscles tense. I wanted to know exactly what I was walking into. Looking like a helpless kid to this cop was nothing if I could walk in there like a man in front of my father.

“Cages with air holes?” the Nazi-with-a-badge teased. “Watching a little Prison Break lately?”


He looked like he was trying to hold back a smile as he buzzed me through the double doors. “Thomas Trent isn’t here for murder or rape. No additional security needed, kid.”

No, of course not. It’s not like he was dangerous. Not at all.

Tipping my chin up, I walked calmly though the doors. “The name’s Jared,” I corrected him in an even voice. “Not ‘kid.’”

The visitation room—if that was what it was even called—boasted a high-school-like common area. Benches, tables, and snack machines filled most of the room, and windows along the south wall brought in enough light, but not too much.

It was Saturday, and the room was packed. Women held children in their arms, while the husbands, boyfriends, and significant others smiled and chatted. Mothers hugged sons, and kids shied away from the fathers that they didn’t know.

It was all happily horrible.

Scanning the room, I wasn’t sure if my father was already in here, or if I was supposed to sit down and wait for them to announce him. I wanted to dart my gaze everywhere at once. I didn’t like him knowing my position when I didn’t know his. My mouth was dry, and my heart pounded in my ears, but I forced myself to slow down and do what I always do.

I surveyed and tried to appear calm and comfortable, like I owned the place.

“Jared,” I heard a voice call, and I stilled.

It was the gruff voice I’d never forgotten in my dreams. It always sounded the same.


Like the snake sneaking up on its prey.

Slowly, I followed the sound until my eyes landed on a fortyish looking man with blonde hair that curled around his ears and azure blue eyes.

He sat there, forearms resting on the table and fingers interlocked, dressed in a khaki button-down with a white T-shirt underneath. He probably had on matching pants, too, but I didn’t care enough to check.

I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his face. Nothing had changed. Other than being clean shaven now and his skin tone a little healthier—from not being on drugs, I would assume—he looked the same. There was still a little gray in his hair, and his once average build was now on the lighter side. I doubted inmates got the chance to get fat in prison.

But the part that got my palms sweaty was the way he looked at me. Unfortunately, that hadn’t changed, either. His eyes were cold and distant, with a hint of something else, too. Amusement, maybe?

It was like he knew something he wasn’t supposed to know.

He knew everything, I reminded myself.

And all of a sudden I was back in his kitchen again, my wrists burning from the rope and paralyzed from despair.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the one thing I knew I would need. Tate’s fossil necklace.

I balled it up in my fist, already feeling a little stronger.

It was technically her mother’s, but I’d taken it when she left it on her grave one day. At first, I told myself that I was keeping it safe. Making sure it survived. Then it turned into another piece of her that I could claim.

Now, it was like a talisman. And I was no longer keeping it safe, but it was keeping me from harm.

Narrowing my eyes for good measure, I stalked over to him, not slow enough to look timid and not fast enough to appear obedient. On my own time, because he didn’t call the shots anymore.

“So what did you do?” he asked before I even sat down, and I hesitated for a moment before parking my ass in the seat.

Oh, yeah. He was going to talk to me. I’d forgotten about that part.

It didn’t mean I had to talk back, though.

I hadn’t decided how I was going to handle these visits, but he could go to hell. Fifty-two little get-togethers in the next year, and I may decide to speak to him at some point, but I wasn’t starting until I was goddamn good and ready.

“Come on,” he taunted. “May as well pass the time.”

A little part of me thought that, without drugs and alcohol, my father would—oh, I don’t know—behave like he had a heart. But he was still a dick.

“Did you steal?” he asked, but then continued as if talking to himself and tapping his fingers on the steel table. “No, you’re not greedy. Assault, maybe?” He shook his head at me. “But you never liked to pick battles that you could lose. With someone weaker, perhaps. You were always a little coward that way.”

I balled my other hand into a fist and concentrated on breathing.

Sitting there, forced to listen to his internal musings that he was so gracious to let me hear, I wondered if he just pulled this shit out of his ass or if he really was that perceptive.

Was I greedy? No, I didn’t think so. Did I pick battles with weaker opponents? It took me a minute to consider, but yes, I did.

But that was only because everyone was weaker than me.


“So it must be drugs, then.” He slapped his hand down on the table, startling me, and I looked down, away from his eyes, out of reflex. “I’d believe that. With your mother and me, it’s in the blood.”

Everyone. I reminded myself.

“You don’t know me,” I said, my voice low and even.

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that.”

No. He left me—and thank God for that—when I was two. He spent a few weeks with me one summer.

He did not know me.

Clenching Tate’s necklace, I stared at him hard. It was time to shut him up.

“How long are you in for? Six more years?” I asked. “What does it feel like to know that you’ll have gray hair before you get laid again? Or drive a car? Or get to stay up past eleven on a school night?” I raised my eyebrows, hoping my condescending questions would push him back in place. “You don’t know me, and you never did.”

He blinked, and I held his gaze, daring him to come at me again. It looked like he was studying me, and I felt like I had a sniper scope on me, zoning in.

“What is that?” He gestured to the necklace in my hand.

I looked down, not realizing that I had threaded my fingers through the light green ribbon. It was obvious I had something in my fist, and all of a sudden my heart started thundering away.

I wanted to leave.

Thinking about Tate and my father in the same thought, and having my father see something of hers, disgusted me.

You know the flowers a magician pulls out of their hand? At that moment, I wanted to be the flowers and go back into hiding. I just wanted to sink into the chair and be out from under his dirty eyes, taking the necklace with me where it would be safe.

“What’s her name?” His voice was low, almost a whisper, and I cringed despite myself.

Raising my eyes again, I saw him smile like he knew everything.

Like he had me under his thumb again.

“Six years, huh?” He licked his lips. “She’ll be in her twenties by then.” He nodded, and I saw flames, not missing his meaning by a long shot.

Mother. Fucker.

Slamming my hand down on the table, I heard gasps from those around us as I shoved my chair back and stood up to glare at him.

Whatever I was shooting from my eyes burned like hell.

I wanted him dead. And I wanted it to be painful.

Hot air rushed in and out of my nose, sounding like a distant waterfall.

“What’s wrong inside of you?” I growled. “Is it broken, dead, or just numb?”

My father looked up at me, not scared—I wasn’t a threat to him after all—and answered with the most sincerity I had ever seen from him. “Don’t you know, Jared?” he asked. “You have it, too. And so will your useless kids. No one wants us. I knew I didn’t want you.”

My face didn’t relax. It just fell, and I didn’t know why.

“I have a birthday present for you.” Tate’s dad appeared in my driveway, hands in his pockets, as I got out of my car.

I shook my head, feeling the fucking weight of the visit with my father crawling all over my skin. I’d just sped all the way home from the prison, and I needed a distraction.

“Not now,” I bit out.

“Yes, now,” he shot back, turning to walk back to his house, assuming I’d follow.

Which I did. If only to get him to stop busting my balls.

Traipsing behind him into his open two-car garage, I immediately halted with the disaster in front of me.

“What the hell happened?” I burst out, shocked.

The fully restored Chevy Nova that had sat in this garage for as long as Tate and Mr. Brandt had lived here was completely totaled. Well, not completely. But it was a fucking wreck. It looked like it’d been used in a baseball game between King Kong and Godzilla. Windows were shattered, tires slashed, and that was the easy stuff. Dents the size of basketballs covered the door panels and hood, and the leather seats were cut up.

“Happy Birthday.”

I jerked my head over at him and pinched my eyebrows together in confusion. “Happy Birthday? Are you crazy? This car was in great shape yesterday. Now you’ve turned it into a piece of junk, and I can have it?”

Not that I needed a car. Jax would get mine as soon as he turned sixteen and got a license, and I’d be buying another car any day now with the money from my grandfather’s house.

“No, you can’t have it. You can fix it.”

Gee, thanks.

“I figured you might need a little automotive therapy after today, so I decided to break out the sledgehammer and invent a project for you.”

Were all of the adults in my life on fucking crack?

James walked towards me, to the front of the car. “All that shit you feel, Jared…the frustration, the anger, the loss, whatever it is…” he trailed off and then continued, “it’s going to find a way out eventually, and you’re going to have to deal with it someday. But for now, just keep busy. It won’t cure anything, but it will help you calm down.”

Slowly walking around the car, taking in the damage and already compiling the materials I would need in my head, I figured it made sense. I still didn’t feel any better than I had a month ago, and I had no idea what to think of the things my father had said today. If anything, I felt worse now, but I just didn’t want to think about anything anymore.

But Jax needed me, and I couldn’t fail him.

Just keep busy.

“This is going to take me months.” I peered over at him as I leaned on the hood.

He smiled back and then turned to walk into the house. “I’m counting on it.”

So I dove.


Day after day. Month after month, I fed off the routine. I buried myself in activity and noise, so I wouldn’t have time to think about anything. So I wouldn’t have time to care.

I stayed in Tate’s room. I slept on the floor.

My mom got sober. Then, she got a boyfriend.

I got another tattoo. Madoc got a piercing….somewhere.

I went to class, and my grades improved.

James and I took a tour of West Point. It wasn’t for me.

My father continued messing with my head. Sometimes I walked out. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes we played cards, so I wouldn’t have to hear that motherfucker speak.

The dreams kept me awake at night, but the pills helped.

I bought a Boss 302. It kept me occupied.

I messed around with some girls. No blondes.

Madoc and I started racing at The Loop. Something else to keep me busy.

Jax got a decent home. I saw him every Sunday.

I had parties at my house. More noise.

Mr. Brandt was sent to Germany to work. Tate wasn’t coming home.

They got rid of the Heartland Scramble at Denny’s. Fine. Fuck. Whatever.

Everything rolled off of me, because none of it mattered.

Until eleven months later on a hot, August night when a girl with stormy eyes and sunshine hair breathed air and fire back into me again.

“Piper, come on!” I shouted out to the lake. “Storm’s coming. Let’s hit the road.”

“Don’t go,” Madoc spoke up from behind me. “Come over to my house. We’re taking the party there.” He laid on a picnic blanket on the rocky beach, cuddled up to some girl whose name he probably didn’t know, while Love-Hate-Sex-Pain by Godsmack played from the stereo of my car off in the distance.

We came out to Swansea Lake with about six people this afternoon, to swim and hang out, but the party had grown to more than twenty-five before it got dark. I had to work at the garage in the morning, so I was using that as my excuse to leave.

Truth was, I was just bored. I no longer drank in public. Going to parties. Passing out at strange houses. None of it seemed enticing when I wasn’t getting wasted, and I no longer thought about what enticed me. I only thought about what passed the time.

“Oh, baby,” Madoc groaned to the girl next to him. “Snickers ain’t the only thing king sized.”

I smiled to myself, wishing I could live in his skin. Every day was his birthday, and he was five years old, jumping in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese. I didn’t even need to turn around to know that that line had worked. The girl was giggling, and I was ready for my own action.

“You’re not taking me home right away, are you?” My current toy, Piper, trudged out of the lake, flinging water every which way as she wrung out her long, dark hair.

Yeah, I’m a dick. She wasn’t a toy, I know. None of them were. But, my car had more of a relationship with me than they did, so that made them the passing amusement.

Piper was going to be a Senior like us, and I’d seen her around school for years, but she never caught my interest. She was clingy and way too obvious. She knew she was beautiful, and she thought it mattered.

Yep, I had zero tolerance for her. Until…I found out on the Fourth of July that her dad was the asswipe who arrested me last year. The douchebag cop that shoved his knee into my spine and rubbed my face into the floor when he’d handcuffed me.

Yeah, then she became something for me to play with.

“What do you think?” I asked, not really asking. She had an amazing body, and I loved that she was pretty much into anything. As long as she didn’t talk too much, we kept hooking up.

“Hey, you know what today is?” Madoc laughed, breaking me out of my thoughts and slurring his words. “One year ago today, that girl Tate broke my nose at that party. Oh, she was fucking pissed, too.”

I tensed but continued pulling on my T-shirt, not looking at anyone.

“Jared, isn’t she supposed to be back by now?” Madoc asked. “I mean, wasn’t she only supposed to be gone for a year?” he pointed out as if I were stupid. “It’s been a year.”

“Shut up, dickhead.” Rolling my eyes, I reached down to pick up my wet clothes. I’d already gone into the nearby woods to change into jeans before calling Piper out of the water.

“What’s he talking about?” Piper just stood there, but I didn’t spare her a glance.

“Tate. Jared’s neighbor,” Madoc offered. “She goes to our school, but she left for junior year,” Madoc offered and then turned to me. “So, where is she? I miss that girl.”

He sat up, and even though I buried my face in my phone, I knew he was watching me.

Idiot. Dick. Fucking asshole friend.

I shook my head. “Her dad’s working in Germany, okay? He got put on an assignment there for seven months and won’t be home until December. He said she’ll be starting the school year there. Alright, dickhead-that-has-to-be-in-everyone’s-business?”

Mr. Brandt’s company had sent him to Germany last spring, so I’d been checking on the house and collecting mail since May.

Madoc looked at me like I just told him he couldn’t have ice cream for dessert. “Bummer, dude. But she’s probably thrilled,” he added. “She hated us.”

A twinge of amusement crept into my chest. Yeah, she sure did.

When Mr. Brandt had told me about his trip, I’d had another party at my house that night. Instead of getting drunk elsewhere, I had no problem getting wasted at home. And it helped.

I’d expected Tate to be back from France this past June when the school year ended, but when I found out that she wouldn’t be back until December now, I wanted to slam someone against a wall.

I loved hating her, and I wanted her fucking home.

But I just swallowed the ache like I’d been doing since last fall. I’d gotten used to going through the motions and pretending that shit didn’t matter.

And it was time to dive deep again.

“Let’s go.” I grabbed Piper’s hand and started for my car.

“But I’m still wet. I need to change,” she whined.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling, “and I’m going to help.”

The roads were slick as hell. It hadn’t rained much this summer, and all of the oil buildup on the street had me constantly fishtailing.

But it’s not like I had the sense to slow down, either.

I sped up onto my driveway and into the garage, even though I knew I shouldn’t be in a rush. Nothing waiting for me but quiet at my house, and I didn’t like quiet.

Closing the garage, I walked through the door leading to the kitchen, peeled off my black T-shirt, and threw it into the laundry room basket. Piper was all over it.

“Hey, man,” I greeted Madman as he came racing down the stairs. “Come on.”

Opening the backdoor so he could do his business, I left it open and ran upstairs to plug in my dead cell phone.

As soon as I’d turned it on, I saw that I had a voicemail from Tate’s dad.

Why is he calling?

We’d just texted a few days ago. He’d checked in on me and his house.

I wasn’t sure what he wanted now, but either way, I wasn’t calling him back tonight.

I jerked my head, a shrill scratching against my window panes causing me to jump.

“Goddamn tree.” I tossed my phone on the bed and stalked over to pull up the blinds. This tree between Tate’s and my window was a fucking nuisance. We constantly had to trim it, because it was threatening to puncture holes into the house. I’d told my mother this spring to just have it cut down, but it was technically on the Brandt’s property, and I guess they wanted to keep it.

Mr. Brandt kept it trimmed normally, but he never cut it back very far. I could still reach the branches, even after it’d been trimmed.

Pulling up the window and leaning out, I spied the branch sliding against the panes above me. With him gone, I’d have to take care of that tomorrow.

The rain was coming down in sheets and made everything glisten under the bright glow of the streetlights. I let my gaze wander through the maze of branches, shaking off memories of which ones I’d scraped my leg on or which ones I’d sat on with Tate.

I loved the damn tree, and I wanted it cut down.

And then…I didn’t even see the tree anymore.

My eyes caught sunshine in a midnight sky, and I fucking stilled.


“What the hell?” I whispered, breathless and not blinking.

She was standing in her bedroom, leaning on the doorframe of her open French doors. And she was staring at me.

What the hell am I seeing right now?

She was supposed to be in Germany with her dad, at least until Christmas.

Every muscle in my body tightened as I supported myself on the window sill, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from her. It was like I was in an alternate universe, starving, and she was a fucking buffet.

She was home.

I closed my eyes for a moment and swallowed down my heartbeat that was creeping up my throat. I was sick, excited, and grateful all at the same time.

Jesus, she’s home.

She wore some little pajama shorts and a white tank top. Not really so different from what I’d noticed she wore to bed a year ago, but for some reason, the sight of her was like a raging fire through my chest. I wanted to rip through the fucking tree and peel all the clothes off of her and love her like the past three years had never happened.

Her hair blew around her, and I could feel her eyes, locked in shadow, on me.

My mouth was dry, and the rush of breath and blood through my body felt so damn good.

Until she backed up and closed the doors.

No. I swallowed, not wanting her to go away.

Go on. Go pick a fight, I told myself, but I shook my head.

No. Just leave her alone. She hasn’t been thinking about me, and I needed to get over it.

I was crawling the walls inside my head, knowing for fact that I needed to grow up and let her be. Let her go to school without rumors and pranks hovering over her. Let her be happy. We were nearly adults now, and this petty shit had to end.


I’d just felt more alive in the past ten seconds than I had in a year.

Seeing that face, knowing I’d wake up to her blaring music and seeing her leave the house to jog in the morning…

My phone buzzed with a text, and I walked over to check it.

It was from Tate’s dad.

Change of plans. Tate’s home. On her own until Christmas. Give her back the house key, and be nice. Or else.

I narrowed my eyes, rereading the text over and over again.

I don’t even think I breathed.

She was alone? Until Christmas?

I closed my eyes, and let out a laugh.

And all of a sudden I was as thrilled as hell to wake up tomorrow.

“Should I be afraid?” my mother asked as I walked back in from the garage carrying a small ax.

“Always,” I mumbled, passing her at the kitchen counter and heading up the stairs.

I’d decided to take matters into my own hands, instead of hiring someone, and chop off the smaller branches jutting into the house myself. The ax would do the job.

“Just don’t hurt yourself!” she shouted after me. “You were hard to make!” And I rolled my eyes at no one as I disappeared up the ladder leading into the attic.

She’d been halfway decent since getting sober. Once in a while she tried making jokes. Sometimes I laughed but not in front of her. There was still a lot of discomfort between us, a crack I had lost interest in repairing.

But we’d gotten into a routine. She kept herself level, and I did the same.

Crawling through the small window on our dark third floor, I maneuvered myself onto the tree and inched towards the trunk where the branches were thick enough to support my weight. I figured I’d sit on the inside and chop the extra growth off and then climb down to the ground when I was done. I needed to work top to bottom and eventually get to the branches at my window—the whole reason I’d started this job.

But as I raised the ax to start, I nearly dropped it.

“You think his treatment of me is foreplay?” I heard Tate’s aggravated shouting, and I halted.

What? Foreplay?

“Yes,” she continued, and I stopped what I was doing to listen, “it was foreplay when he told the whole school I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and everyone made farting noises as I walked down the hall freshman year.”

My eyes widened, and my pulse pounded in my neck. Was she talking about me?

“And yes.” She kept going, talking to someone I couldn’t see. “It was completely erotic the way he had the grocery store deliver a case of yeast infection cream to Math class sophomore year. But what really got me hot and ready to bend over for him was when he plastered brochures for genital wart treatments on my locker, which is completely outrageous for someone to have an STD without having sex!”

Oh, shit.

She was definitely talking about me.

Grabbing a branch above me, I pushed myself up onto my feet and climbed over to the other side, careful to stay out of the view of Tate’s open doors.

Another girl was talking, probably her friend K.C., and I caught something about fighting back.

I slid down another branch, starting to feel like a perv for snooping on their conversation. But hey, they were talking about me, and that made it my business.

“I’ve told you a hundred times, we were friends for years,” Tate spoke. “He went away for a few weeks the summer before freshman year, and when he came back, he was different. He didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

And my fists clenched.

K.C. didn’t need to know my shit. Tate had no right airing our business like that.

The familiar swirl of piss and vinegar churned in my gut, and I felt my body warm.

“We’re going to have an amazing year.” Tate’s voice was lower now and stronger than before. “I’m hoping Jared has forgotten all about me. If he has, then we can both peacefully ignore each other until graduation. If he hasn’t, then I’ll do what I think is best. I’ve got bigger things on my mind anyway. He and that asshat Madoc can poke and prod all they want. I’m done giving them my attention. They are not taking my senior year.”

I’m hoping Jared has forgotten all about me.

And I’d almost thrown my future away in my need for her?

I’m done giving them my attention.

She hated me. She’d hate me forever, and I was a stupid fucking prick for wanting her when we were fourteen.

No one wants us. I knew I didn’t want you. My father’s voice crept into my head.

I climbed back over to my window and crawled through, not caring if they saw me. Tossing the ax onto the floor, I walked over and switched on my iPod dock to Five Finger Death Punch’s Coming Down and grabbed my phone to text Madoc.

Party tonight? Mom’s leaving around 4. My mother escaped every Friday night to her boyfriend’s in Chicago. I still hadn’t met the guy, but she almost always stayed the entire weekend.

Hell, yeah, he texted not a minute later.

Drinks? I asked. Madoc’s dad had a liquor store—or close to—in his basement along with a wine cellar. The guy was hardly ever home, so we took what we wanted, and I supplied the food.

Got it. See you at 7.

I threw my phone on the bed, but it buzzed again.

Grabbing it again, I opened up a text from Jax.

Dad called again.

Son of a bitch.

My father was finding ways to get Jax’s number, and he knew he wasn’t supposed to be calling him. Abusing him was one of the reasons my father was in jail, after all.

I’ll handle it, I texted.

Looking at the clock, I saw it was only ten in the morning.

Just go today, I told myself. Get it over with for the week, and you won’t have to go tomorrow.

These trips to my father’s ate at my insides, and I dreaded them. There was no telling what he’d say to me from one week to the next. Last time, he’d told me, in graphic detail, about how he’d dropped my mother off at the abortion clinic one day to get rid of me. And then, how he’d let loose on her when she hadn’t gone through with it. I didn’t know if the story was true, but I tried to just let the insults, stories, and taunts fly past me. Most of the time they did. Sometimes they didn’t.

Screw it.

Throwing off a sweaty, black T-shirt in exchange for a clean, black v-neck, I snatched my keys off the bedside table and bounded down the stairs.

“I’m heading out for a while,” I said as I passed my mother in the kitchen. “See you Monday.”

My hands shook, even though I’d been coming here nearly a year already. I hated looking the fucker in the face, especially when he made these visits as awful as possible. I knew he got special privileges for cooperating, but I had no doubt that he enjoyed every sick word that came out of his mouth, too.

“It’s Friday. I’m not supposed to have to see you until tomorrow,” he grumbled, sitting down at the table in the visiting room.

I forced myself to look him in the eye and even out my tone. “You’re calling Jax again. It stops now.”

He laughed me off. “That’s what you said last time, but you’re not in control, Jared.”

Yes. I. Am.

“You’re not even allowed to make calls.” After I reported it to the warden last time, he’d lost the privilege of making unsupervised trips to the phone.

Shrugging his shoulders with palms up, he answered, “And yet, I find a way.”

It was only a moment. But in the time it took for my chest to sink and for me to break eye contact, he knew. He knew he was right, and that I was powerless. Maybe it was the guards letting him make calls for favors, or maybe he had a fellow prisoner helping him out, but we both knew there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop him.

I could never stop him.

“Leave him alone.” My lips moved, but I barely heard my own voice.

“What bugs you more?” He leaned in and narrowed his blue eyes. “That I call him and not you, or that you can’t stop me? I keep telling you, Jared, you have no power. Not really. It may seem like you’re the one in control, because you’re out there and I’m in here, but I’m the one that haunts you. Not the other way around.”

I stood up and stuck my hand in my pocket, gripping the fossil necklace so hard that I thought it would break.

“Fuck you,” I growled and walked out.

“Oh, Jared,” Piper gasped my name as I devoured her neck. Gripping her hair and pulling her head back, I tried to get lost in her perfume and her body.

“I told you not to talk,” I whispered softly against her skin. “Do as you’re told.”

Hats off to the Bull pounded downstairs, and I could hear voices coming from all sides, both inside and outside the house.

Piper had come over to my party, uninvited, and I took what was offered. Noise, activity, distraction.

Distraction from the pull next door.

Distraction from my father.

That son of a bitch was right after all. The nightmares that kept me awake? The ones I had to drown out with sleeping pills just so I could get through the night? All of it was me being weak.

“I’m sorry,” she giggled. “That just feels so good.”

I had one hand buried in her thick, dark hair, and my other hand inside of her panties, my fingers pushing inside of her as she squirmed against the wall of my bedroom.

I grappled at Piper, looking for the magical body part that would get me zoned in. I peeled down the top of her dress, cupping her breasts, kissing her lips, but none of it brought me the peace I wanted.

I’m hoping Jared has forgotten all about me.

I grabbed Piper and hauled her up into my arms, carrying her to the bed. The peace would come when I was inside of her. Then I would be happily lost.

“Jared!” I jerked my head towards the pounding on the door.

“Go away!” I shouted as Piper unfastened my belt.

“That girl? Tate?” my friend, Sam, asked. “She’s downstairs, man. You better get down there.”

And I halted what I was doing and sat up.

“What the hell?” I mumbled.

Why was she at my house? I looked at the alarm clock that read after midnight.

“Tate?” Piper said, still laying back on the pillows. “I thought you said she was still gone.”

I climbed off the bed. “Just get dressed, Piper,” I bit out.

“What?” she screamed, and I looked over at her. Her lips and nose were scrunched up, and her chest rose and fell with her hard breathing.

Piper was no attachment and no complications. I appreciated that about her.

But she was pissed, and I didn’t stop to explain. I never did. She knew better.

I never let on that I wanted more than a casual thing, and she’d either roll with it, or she could leave.

Yanking the door open, my friend Sam waited in the hallway, hands in pockets and looking uncertain.

“Sorry, man.” He held up his hands. “Madoc’s got his hands all over her. Thought I should get you.”

Fucking little shit. I barreled past Sam and down the hallway, ready to stick my best friend’s head into the toilet to wake him the fuck up. I was pretty sure he had a thing for Tate, but he was told, years ago, that she was off limits.

And what the fuck was she doing here anyway?

Coming down the stairs, I rounded the corner and immediately stopped, my stomach caving in from the loss of breath.

Jesus Christ.

She was so beautiful it hurt.

She was lost in thought, otherwise she would’ve seen me, too.

I pressed my hands above my head to both sides of the doorframe. It was my way of trying to look casual, like I didn’t care. But honestly, I just needed the support to keep my legs from caving beneath me.

My heart thundered through my chest, and I wished like hell that I could pause this moment, just look at her until the Earth fell apart.

Her hair was lighter, and her skin was darker, probably from being in the sun this summer, and her body had gotten more toned. More grown up. The shape to the back of her thighs had my mouth going dry. Her nose was still little, her skin still flawless, and her full lips all made her look like the perfect doll. And I never played with dolls, but I damn sure wanted to play with this one.

Right at that moment, I wanted everything from Tate. Everything. Her anger and passion, her hate and lust, her body and soul.

I wanted control of all of it.

I’m the one that haunts you. Not the other way around. My father invaded my head again. He and Tate were always in there.

Neither of them wanted me, and both of them owned me.

But one of them I could control.

“What is she doing here?” I snapped, staring at Madoc but completely aware of Tate snapping her attention my way.

Madoc kept silent, but I could see the corners of his mouth trying to suppress a smile.

“‘She’ wanted a word with you.” Tate’s voice was calm but there was a hint of snippiness to it. I smiled to myself, feeling the long-lost adrenaline warming my dry veins.

“Make it quick. I have guests.” Dropping my hands, I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to appear bored.

Sam and Madoc veered off into the kitchen, and Tate stood tall with her chin up. Her lips were pursed, and her eyes could light a fire.

I wasn’t sure what had happened with Madoc to make her so angry, or maybe she was just mad at me, but I finally felt in my element after a year of walking around dead.

“I. Have. Guests,” I repeated, when she didn’t speak right away.

“Yes, I can tell.” She looked behind me, and I knew Piper was still here. “You can get back to servicing them in just a minute.”

I narrowed my gaze, locking her in.

Well, well, well…Tate had a low opinion of me. Go figure.

Piper walked over and kissed me on the cheek. Saying goodbye? Reminding me she was here? I have no clue, but she always did little things like that at unexpected times, and it made me uncomfortable. Like she wanted more, and I was obligated to give it to her.

I stood there, willing her to stop waiting for something and just go home. Tate’s presence was doing me more good than hers, anyway.

After Piper took the hint and left, Tate spoke up. “I have to be up in about five hours for an appointment in Weston. I’m asking politely that you please turn down the music.”

Was she serious? “No.”

“Jared, I came here being neighborly. It’s after midnight. I’m asking nicely.” The begging was cute.

“It’s after midnight on a Friday night,” I explained, trying to sound as condescending as possible.

“You’re being unreasonable. If I wanted the music off, I could file a noise complaint or call your mom. I’m coming to you out of respect.” She looked around the room. “Where is your mother, by the way? I haven’t seen her since I’ve been back.”

Oh, Tate. Don’t go there. Don’t act like you know me or my family.

“She’s not around much anymore.” I kept my voice flat and unemotional. “And she won’t be dragging her ass down here in the middle of the night to break up my party.”

She sighed, looking annoyed. “I’m not saying to ‘break it up’. I’m asking that you turn the music down.”

“Go sleep over at K.C.’s on the weekends,” I suggested, circling the pool table in the family room.

“It’s after midnight!” she blurted out. “I’m not bothering her this late!”

“You’re bothering me this late.”

The control was back, and my jaw twitched with a smile.

I felt calm. And very sure about who I was. It was strength, confidence, and trust rushing over me again.

“You are such a dick,” she whispered.

I stopped and glared, pretending to be angry. “Careful, Tatum. You’ve been gone for a while, so I’ll cut you a break and remind you that my goodwill doesn’t go far with you.”

“Oh, please,” she sneered. “Don’t act like it’s such