They hadn’t, apparently. Without even realizing it, they stopped talking and stared at me like I had three heads. As if I’d been abducted by aliens and replaced by some sentimental sap. I made a joke, suggesting I was emotional because I was getting my period, but I could tell they didn’t exactly believe me.
So maybe it was time to get my shit together, so I could move on. Where to, I didn’t exactly know. But moving forward would be a good thing.
Me: Okay, fine.
Dakota, Rachel, and I were spread out in the living room, watching a movie on the big screen. This was the first time we’d been home together in the last couple of nights, given our different work schedules and activities.
I saw Dakota in passing at the casino, of course. She worked in the third-floor finance office with my mom, and her hours were different. I was mostly on second shift, which was cool by me, because I got to check out the consistently lame bands. There had been only one group that had a decent set of chops. They were mainly instrumental and played an eclectic set of music that sounded like a mix between jazz and psychedelic, and sometimes added old school punk.
As they were knocking back a few while on break the other night, I told them their sound was similar to a couple of bands I’d worked with in the recording studio in Amsterdam. Turned out their drummer, Cameron, knew Johan from a tour he’d done with another crew in the Netherlands.
Johan had helped them mix a CD that they’d passed out at their shows. Over a couple of beers after their set, I told Cameron what had happened to get me kicked out of Johan’s studio. He said that Johan’s girlfriend had quite the reputation for screwing around on the side. Then we exchanged numbers in case they needed an extra bass player to jam with, and I came away feeling as if maybe I’d made a new friend.
When I’d gotten home from work one night that week, I’d wondered if Rachel was awake and wanted some company. Not that I’d ever barge into her room. But I had hoped she’d maybe heard me come in and would want to talk or hang out.
She and Dakota had been to the local bar earlier that night, and I hadn’t been able to help worrying about whether Rachel had met or hooked up with anybody. I had been pretty sure that wouldn’t happen while she was with Dakota, let alone while she was home, unless she’d been very discreet. And the only person I wanted her to be discreet with was me.
I certainly had no desire to be with any other girl after our night together. Not in forever, actually. Not that Rachel knew that or would ever figure it out. But I couldn’t help hoping for another opportunity for her to seek me out, if only to comfort her. I’d welcome Rachel’s rice-flower scent wrapping around me. Along with her legs.
I adjusted myself in the chair and grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bowl Dakota had placed on the coffee table.
Tonight we were watching The Princess Bride, and Rachel and Dakota were in their pajamas, which for chicks consists of cotton shorts and tank tops. Thankfully Rachel still had her bra on, because I think I’d lose my mind if she ever decided to forego it around me. I’d heard chicks talking about how constricting bras could be, and I’m sure if I hadn’t been living there she would have had those puppies hanging loose.
Sometime in my senior year everything had shifted with Rachel. I had noticed for the first time that she was hot—and all of my friends had made the same determination. I became totally protective of her around my boys, who’d just assumed I was being an overbearing big brother. And of course I had been, but now that I thought back on it, I hadn’t wanted anyone having dirty thoughts about her, period.
During a commercial break, Dakota turned to Rachel. “So how strange was it for you to hang with Miles last night at the bar?”
I sucked in a sharp breath. That was new information. She hadn’t told me she’d even spoken to her ex again.
I’d never thought Miles was good enough for Rachel. He was a big-name jock at the school, walked around like he owned the place, and Rachel had totally fallen for that bullshit. It wasn’t that I hated jocks. Shane had played sports as well. But he hadn’t been a total douche with a God complex like Miles had been. Like he still was, damn it.
When I’d heard Miles had taken her out on Shane’s motorcycle without a fucking helmet, I’d almost killed the guy. He’d come away with some cuts and bruises, while Rachel had suffered a near-fatal head injury.
The next time I laid eyes on him, I punched him square in the face, with little warning. His weight and build might have been an advantage, but I had rage and raw instinct on my side. Had Shane not pulled me off of him, I would have broken all the bones in his goddamn body, too.
“It was . . . different,” Rachel mumbled, and fiddled with the afghan that she’d wrapped around her knees. “Uneventful, really.”
I pocketed my phone and picked up my beer, trying not to act like I had a ticking time bomb ready to detonate inside my chest. “So you took my advice to get some closure?”
Had I seriously told her that? Maybe I needed to kick my own ass.
“Not exactly,” she said. “He sent me a text and asked to meet.”
My stomach tightened. “And?”
“And . . . he met me at the bar. Dakota walked away to play darts with Julia.” She worried her bottom lip between her teeth. “I expected more, I guess. More drama or something. But all I felt was numb. He’d said he wanted to explain some things, but he never did. So we just played catch up, then he walked me out, and that was it.”
Did she let him touch her? I clenched my fists and looked away.
“To be honest, you didn’t seem all that . . . interested. In him or anything he had to say,” Dakota said.
“If you finally wrap things up with Miles, maybe you can start dating again.”
Rachel scrunched up her face. “I’m not sure I care about dating, Dakota.”
“Seriously? C’mon, Rachel.” Dakota huffed out a breath. “You’re young and gorgeous and there’s a really cool guy at the casino I want to hook you up with.”
“What guy?” I said, trying to keep the alarm out of my voice.
“Knock off your protective-big-brother act. You probably haven’t run into him yet,” she said. “He works in the accounts payable office.”
My jaw ticked. Of course, someone who actually had his shit together. Unlike me.
“No thanks,” Rachel said, and I released the breath I’d been holding. “Besides, I’m only here for the summer.”
Her words were like a knee to the stomach. And a reality check for me as well.
“Then just be casual. I bet you haven’t had that kind of fun in a while,” Dakota said, wiggling her eyebrows.
Rachel kept her eyes straight ahead, trying like hell to avoid making eye contact with me.
“It’s been three years. It’s time.”
Rachel shot me a warning look. She was so determined to keep that part of herself that Nate had told me about hidden from her best friend. We’d been home less than a month, and already Rachel’s secrets were piling up. But this was one I was willing to keep, if only to be spared any details. Hell, I’d keep this secret for life if she’d asked me.
“Does that mean you’re finally giving in to your lustful feelings for a certain someone?” Rachel said in a playful voice.
Dakota’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head.
“Who are we talking about here?” I said. It had better not be Shane. I couldn’t help my defensive instinct from kicking in, despite my sister rolling her eyes. I waited for her You’ve-been-gone-for-three-years-and-I’ve-done-just-fine speech, but it never came.
“No one. Rachel’s just trying to cause trouble,” Dakota said in a strained voice. “Aren’t you?”
“Of course. I’m just messing with you, asshead,” Rachel said. “But maybe you should be the one dating your co-worker.”
“Not my type,” Dakota said, and then settled back just as the movie resumed playing. Dakota hadn’t done much dating of her own lately, at least not that I’d seen. She’d always had a boyfriend in high school and even in her first year of college. She was usually with nerdy and smart dudes, so the fact that she wouldn’t be with this accountant surprised me.
Rachel grabbed the remote and paused the movie. “What makes you think he’s my type?”
“You’ve always liked those bulky sports guys,” Dakota said, and I felt my stomach flip over. “Like Miles. And he doesn’t seem to be doing anything for you anymore. Not that I blame you.”
Rachel’s cheeks turned pink and she mumbled, “I honestly don’t know what I like anymore.”
“So maybe it’s time for a change,” Dakota said. “Andrew is smart and good-looking. You might like him, if you gave him half a chance.”
“No thanks,” Rachel said again, grabbing a handful of popcorn. “I’ve kept mostly to myself the last couple of years. It’s been working okay for me.”
“Yeah?” Dakota raised her eyebrows. “Whenever I checked in, you were always going to a frat party or some kind of game. So I figured you were at least scouting out future prospects.”
“Which reminds me,” I said, in an effort to change the subject from Rachel’s conquests. I wasn’t sure how she was going to talk her way out of that one. Besides, I needed to say something before it was way too late. “I talked to Nate the other day.”
“Nate . . . as in our cousin Nate?” Dakota said as confusion stretched across her brow.
“Yeah. We’ve been talking quite a bit, actually,” I said. No way did I want Dakota to be surprised at the next family gathering if we seemed overly chummy. “He goes to TSU with Rachel.”
“How did I not know this information?” she said as her eyes snapped to Rachel. “Do you know him?”
“Yep. From around campus,” Rachel said, and then subtly narrowed her eyes at me. “He’s a cool guy. I only recently figured out that he was your cousin.”
“Anyway,” I said. “He’s thinking about driving down to the Manic Tour at the Artisan Music Center. It’s five acts including the Black Tresses, which you know is my favorite band of all time.”
A moment of panic passed through Rachel eyes. Little did she realize what was coming. I was only working up to it.
“When’s the show?” Dakota asked.
“Weekend after next, and I already told Stu not to schedule me,” I said. “The thing is, I already have two pavilion tickets, because I was hoping to talk Shane into going with me.”
“And?” Rachel said, looking confused.
“And”—I took a deep breath—“Nate asked if he could bring some friends from school. Said they’d drive up together and get lawn seats.”
The Artisan Music Center provided outdoor seating on the lawn for concerts. It was a distance away from the stage, but you could spread out blankets and party with your friends under the stars while listening to the music. The pavilion seats were close to the stage and required special-access passes. So I figured I could party with Nate and his friends on the lawn, and then move to the pavilion when my favorite band got to the stage.
“Which friends?” Rachel asked, her voice a bit quivery. She knew what was imminent.
“Your friends,” I said, almost too quietly, like if I’d spoken any louder, she might have throttled me. “Some dude named Bennett, his girlfriend, and other friends you know.”
“So Avery and Ella and Quinn, too, I bet,” she said, in the space of her own thoughts.
“Those names sound familiar, yeah,” I said. “It’ll be cool.” I was essentially trying to let her know that her secret was safe with me.
We had a silent conversation with our eyes, her telling me that she wasn’t nearly as confident as I had been.
“You mean I’ll finally get to meet your friends?” Dakota said, clapping her hands. “They weren’t around the weekend I visited.”
Rachel’s gaze flew to mine again. I hadn’t realized she had ditched her friends when my sister had come around. Honestly, I thought she was making this a bigger deal than she needed to. Unless there was something I was missing.
She had fooled around with dudes to get her needs met, and even though the thought of it turned my stomach, it was pretty clear that she shouldn’t be crucified for it.
So why was she being so hard on herself?
“I’ll order our lawn tickets online tomorrow,” Dakota said.
Rachel hit play and turned up the volume on the movie, as if to drown out her thoughts.
I lay in bed staring at a dark ceiling, knowing that sleep would not be coming anytime soon. My two worlds were about to collide. Fuck me.
But what’s the worst that could happen? Avery and Ella would find out that I’d been hiding things about my past. That they knew virtually nothing about me, especially not that I had suffered a near-fatal brain injury.
Or that my boyfriend had dumped me immediately after.
I had stretched the truth with Avery and Ella when it came to what had happened between Miles and me. Stretched it far and wide. Once the story had left my lips, I’d kept up the act and played the part. I’d regretted lying then, and I despised it even more now. Loathed how far I had strayed away from my true self. And now it was about to come back to bite me in the ass.
And I deserved it. Plain and simple.
I had carelessly told them over a few beers that Miles and I had gotten engaged, when all it had been was a stupid juvenile promise ring. A cheap silver band that had been lost forever after the accident. I told them that I broke it off and decided to attend TSU instead, while he remained on a basketball scholarship at CSU. At least that part had been true.