“Adam,” Ella squealed. “Get over here and give me a hug.”
Adam grinned and introduced her to Andrea.
“I love your hair,” Andrea said, reaching out to touch Ella’s waves. “I try to get mine that wavy, but it never works.”
“I like her already,” Ella said, nudging Adam’s shoulder.
We stood in front of the coffee shop, and I saw a line forming at the counter. “Let’s grab seats before they fill up.”
I plopped my coat down on a chair to reserve a table in the back corner and then joined the three of them in line. Adam and Ella were busy catching up, and Andrea asked me what sandwiches were good.
“The turkey bacon one is probably my favorite, but the others are good, too,” I said. “So your parents were okay with you coming up this weekend?”
“Totally,” she said. “They adore Adam. He’s over at our house a lot. Especially . . . if your mom has company on the weekends.”
My stomach tightened with that familiar tension. “How often is that happening lately? Be honest with me.”
“Maybe once a month.”
At least the broad had slowed down some since I left.
“Andrea, do me a favor. Make sure to stay away on those weekends?” I knew Adam was protective of her, but still I worried.
“Adam doesn’t let me come over on weekends, actually,” she said, her cheeks growing rosy. “I get why he insists.”
God, I was so proud of my brother. I pulled him into a hug from behind and stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek.
“What was that for?” he said.
“Just because I love you.” I messed his hair.
He shrugged and turned back to Ella. They were discussing Ella’s other brother, who was gearing up for basketball season with Adam.
“My parents were thrilled we were coming to see the campus,” Andrea said. “And since they knew we were staying with you, they were cool with it.”
I bit my fingernail. “Would they be cool with it if they knew I only had one air mattress for you guys to share?”
Andrea blushed a harsh shade of crimson. “You don’t have to worry about us, Avery. We would never—”
“Oh gosh, Andrea, I didn’t mean it like that,” I said, gripping her shoulder. “I just meant . . . a good big sister would have planned that part more carefully. But I trust you guys to behave yourselves at my house.”
There was that word again—trust. If they’d only known what I did back in high school. No sexcapades until college, but plenty of making out—on my terms—to rid my mind of Gavin and Tim.
“I’m so not worried about it.”
We were next up to place our orders, and I treated everybody to lunch.
I took bites of my turkey bacon sandwich while Ella talked about her psychology classes. Andrea was interested in social work as her major and also wanted to know about dorm life.
I had never experienced the dorms like Ella. I’d commuted to campus from my teeny efficiency apartment close to home so I could keep my eye on Adam. I only felt comfortable moving farther away when Adam had turned into a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound hulking high school junior.
“Look who’s here,” Ella said between bites of her sandwich. “It’s Avery’s new boyfriend.”
My head jerked around. Bennett was clear across the other side of the room with Nate and two girls. Bennett’s and Nate’s backs were to us, giving me a clear view of their company. The girl nearest Bennett had a pixie cut with flowery tattoos up and down both arms and a nose ring. The other girl leaned over a book close to Nate, black hair spilling over her shoulder as they talked and laughed.
Bennett was having an animated conversation with tattoo girl, too. Pretty tattoo girl. Maybe he had more in common with her than with someone like me. A ball of jealousy lodged in my throat, and I cleared it several times.
When I turned my attention back to our table, I realized no one was speaking. Adam was staring at me, his mouth slightly ajar. “You have a boyfriend?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head a little too forcefully. “Just someone I’m getting to know. I actually invited Bennett out to dinner with us tonight.”
Although now I wanted to rescind my invitation, pronto.
“Bitch, you were so shooting daggers at tattoo girl just now,” Ella said.
“I was not,” I said through gritted teeth. “Besides, it’s not like we’re exclusive or anything. You know I wouldn’t want that.”
Ella twisted her bottom lip and Adam still studied me intently.
“What?” I barked at him.
“I . . . I just haven’t seen you like this,” he said. “In a long time.”
“Like what?” I was so ready to be done with this conversation.
“Interested in a guy,” he said, his voice soft and timid, like he thought I’d rip him a new one any moment now. “I was actually starting to worry that you—”
“That I what?” I saw how Andrea gripped his hand now.
“That you . . .” His jaw ticked, and Andrea shook her head. “That you had more in common with Mom than you’d ever admit.”
His words were like a slap in the face, and I immediately sprang up. “Screw you, Adam.”
“No, sis, please listen to me,” Adam pleaded. Andrea put her face in her hands.
“Sit your crazy ass down before you make a scene,” Ella hissed. “Let your brother explain himself.”
I sat down reluctantly, despite wanting to bolt right out the door. My heart was slamming against my chest. “Damn you, Adam. Mom and I are nothing alike.”
“Okay, sis.” Adam sighed. “All I meant was . . . you used to be different. Not so cynical. When you were with Gavin, you were happy, at least most of the time. I just . . . liked seeing you like that.”
“I know, Adam. But lots of things changed after that. I’d seen too much. And I made the conscious decision to be alone. To take care of myself,” I said, reaching for his hand across the table. “I haven’t been with anyone because I chose not to be. And Mom isn’t with anyone because she chooses f**ked-up men.”
“She’s right,” Andrea said, to my surprise. His girlfriend was coming to my defense. “Adam, your sister is fiercely independent, and I admire that about her.”
“Me, too,” he said. “I just want her to be happy. Like we are.”
“She will be,” Andrea said. “When she’s ready.”
I was speechless. My brother and his girlfriend were having a conversation about me as if I weren’t even there. I let out an exasperated breath. I knew my brother wasn’t trying to be cruel. He was just worried about me. Like I was worried about him.
Ella winked. “Told you I liked that girl.” Then she stood up and motioned to Andrea. “Let’s go back up and get some desserts. Their cheesecake is killer here.”
I knew she was just giving Adam and me privacy. But right now I was ready to throttle him. “I’m sorry, sis,” Adam said, his shoulders slumping forward.
“I know you are. Just forget about it,” I said, sipping my iced tea.
Suddenly everything about how I’d chosen to spend the last few years of my life came into clear focus. Bennett told me I’d given away pieces of myself. And now Adam had accused me of being like Mom and all of her men.
And it all came crashing down on me. I wasn’t giving pieces away. I was keeping them hidden. I’d only given my family and friends a small portion of myself, because I wasn’t ready to give all of me.
I should have let Adam in, told him exactly what happened with Tim. He was the one person in my life I protected the most. But he didn’t know the real me. The me that was trying to become an improved version of Mom. The kind of person Grandma would have wanted her to be.
And all these years I kept telling myself I was better than Mom. And in many ways, I was. In huge and important ways. But not in all the ways that counted. Because I wasn’t letting the person I loved most inside my world. Inside my heart. And I needed to change that. Right now.
“I’ve always had a different relationship with Mom than you did,” Adam said all at once. “Mom acted like she was competing with you. Like you were more of a friend than a daughter.”
I’d felt that from my mother, too. Like she was afraid I’d steal all her boyfriends or something. I just hadn’t known that Adam had observed it as well.
I winced. “You noticed that, too, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s not a great role model, Avery, but she’s all we’ve got. And I get why you moved. Why you wanted to get far away from her.”
“Maybe you don’t know the whole story, Adam,” I said, looking into his piercing eyes. Admiring how he’d turned into this handsome, smart, and strong young man.
“I think I have a good idea, sis,” he mumbled, and then looked down, like he was afraid to meet my eyes. I didn’t want him to feel ashamed or scared to talk to me. I didn’t want Tim to do that to us. Take that from us. I wanted us to hold our heads high. Be proud of the people we’d become.
I nudged his chin and forced him to look at me. “You do?” My heart crashed against my rib cage.
“I know it had to do with Tim,” he said, meeting my eyes. “I know that after he left, not only was Mom a mess, but so were you.”
So he had put two and two together.
“He did something to you, didn’t he?” he asked, his eyes bulging with anger. “He hurt you.”
“Yeah, he did,” I said. “He stole something from me. My innocence. But not all of it. I was able to fight him off for good.”
He looked at me in awe, his bottom lip hanging open.
Then he squeezed his eyes shut. Against the truth. And how harsh it probably seemed.
“Fuck,” he said. “Mom didn’t believe you, did she?”
“No, she didn’t,” I whispered.
“Does she now?” His mouth had curled into a grimace. “After he beat the shit out of her?”
“Yeah, she does. Guess it took her a while, huh?” I tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice. I was tired of feeling resentment. Betrayal. Anger.
“Hey, listen, little bro,” I said, having the urge to cradle him in my arms, like I’d done so many times before, whenever he woke from a nightmare, or fell down on the playground. “I’m a stronger person now. He didn’t break me.”
Adam grabbed my hand suddenly. “Sis, you are the bravest person I’ve even known. You’ve always been there for me. You practically raised me, taught me how to be a decent person.”
My eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t speak. Emotions were overflowing and spilling over the sides.
Love. Gratitude. Pride.
“You showed me how to be smart, survive, take care of myself,” he said. “And I don’t want you to worry about me anymore.” I shook my head. “I won’t ever stop worrying.”
He was my family. My heart. My home.
“I know I can always count on you. I do,” he said. “But, sis, it’s time.”
“Time.” I repeated the word. Felt it roll off my lips. “For what?”
“To live your life. Find your own happiness.”
“I am doing that, Adam,” I said, glancing around the café, the scenery coming back into focus for me. I looked everywhere but at Bennett’s table. Even though that happiness Adam was speaking of just might involve him.
He gave me a skeptical look. “Then prove it to me.”
“Introduce me to you new boyfriend,” he said, a flicker of challenge in his eyes. “Right now. In public. Stop being a chickenshit.”
Right then Ella and Andrea came back with two plates of brownies, cookies, and cheesecake, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was definitely a chickenshit, and now Adam was smirking at me.
I stuck out my tongue at him right before I took a bite of a brownie.
“Really, sis, you want to mess with me right now?” His lunged forward and slung his arm around my neck before I could back away.
He placed my head in a choke hold. The same move he’d used on me when we’d wrestle as kids, fighting over a television show or just messing around.
“I’ll kill you,” I sputtered while my fingers tried reaching under his arms to find his most ticklish spot. It had always worked when we were younger, with him dissolving into laughter.
But now he was too strong. Too grown-up. Too mature for his own good.
“Whoa! If I tried that on Avery, she’d seriously kick my ass.”
I froze as the sound of Bennett’s voice washed over me and swept down my back in waves. Adam released me, but not before messing my hair with his knuckles. I gave him a good punch in the arm. “Guess brothers earn that right, though,” Bennett said, and Adam looked up at him. I was too busy trying to straighten my hair. Little shit. “You must be Adam.”
“Yeah.” Adam reached out his hand to shake Bennett’s.
“I’m Avery’s friend Bennett. I’ve heard lots about you.”
“Awesome meeting you,” Adam said. “And this is my girlfriend, Andrea.”
Andrea waved, and Bennett nodded in her direction.
Bennett looked down at me, and his whole face lit up when our eyes met.
Hands squeezing my shoulders, he said, “Hi.”
I grinned. “Hi, yourself.”
“I was just headed back to work with Lila and Jessie,” he said, motioning to where Nate stood with the two girls outside. “Nate said to say hi. I’m pretty sure he’s sweet on Jessie.”