Turn and Burn
The ‘Cuda Confessions Book 2
The ‘Cuda Confessions Book 2
After two days of freshman orientation, I could hardly wait for my first college class to begin. I booted up my laptop and eavesdropped on the two girls seated behind me. After ten minutes crawled by with no sign of our professor, one threatened to walk out.
And do what? We just got here. Isn’t going to class the entire point?
“We have to wait fifteen minutes,” the other insisted. “Dr. Matthews is tenured.”
I had no idea what ‘tenured’ meant, but started checking the time on my laptop. The buzz in the small classroom fell quiet when a slender man with salt-and-pepper hair and a healthy mustache sauntered through the door at fourteen minutes after nine.
“I’m Doctor Spencer Matthews and this is Psych 101. Good morning, ladies.” His bushy moustache stretched over a wide smile. “During my lectures, you’re welcome to do your homework for another class.”
I exchanged raised brows with the girl seated next to me. Her eyes dropped to my dirty jeans and her mouth twisted in scorn. I jerked my gaze to the professor.
He sat his coffee mug on the desk and propped his elbows on the lectern. “In fact, ladies, please feel free to check your phone, surf the ‘net, text your boyfriend, or sleep off your hangovers.”
I gaped at the man, unsure I’d heard him correctly. Was this a party school? Did they just take money from rich parents and print off diplomas that meant nothing? How could I have been so wrong about this place?
Waiting out the round of titters, he gazed into each of our faces. When the room fell silent again, he cleared his throat. “But you will be tested on everything I say, as well as every word of the assigned reading.”
He nodded at me, seated on the front row, and extended a sheaf of papers. “Miss….?”
Knowing my own name earned me a bright smile. “Miss Roberts, will you take one and pass the rest, please?” I reached out a trembling hand to grasp the stack of syllabi. Before I could slide one off the top and hand the rest to the girl behind me, he’d already spit out four sentences. I scrambled to open a new document.
When class ended, I only had to walk down two flights of stairs to my History class. Dr. Jones didn’t issue the same dare to fuck up as Dr. Matthews had, but by the time the dismissal bell rang, my wrists ached from typing and my head ached from the dry lecture. Stepping out in the warm September sunshine, I tried to decide if I could handle college after all.
I darted a few tentative smiles at other girls, but most were grouped in laughing arrays of two or three and no one noticed me.
The ache in my chest couldn’t be homesickness. I had no home.
My next two classes didn’t meet until the following day. My on-campus job in the dining hall had me scheduled to work the dinner shift, so I had nothing to do for the first time since setting foot on campus.
I have an essay to write for President Jamison.
Can’t face that right now.
I eyed the syllabi for both courses while I made the hike to the freshman dorm. It was already plain there’d be little structure. These teachers expected us to ‘get it’. No one was going to hold my hand. There wasn’t a slow lane, judging from the lecture outline. These professors intended to cover a chapter or more per class.
Per class. Not per week, as I’d been used to in high school—and those had been college-bound classes—but one chapter or more per class.
Should I just call Mom and tell her I’d made a horrible mistake? Could I actually handle college? I wished that Caroline had come with me. Knowing someone would’ve made things so much easier.
Of course, if Caroline had accepted her scholarship, I might not be here at all.
My roommate was a theater major from Douglas, Georgia. Becca Addison wasn’t a scholarship student. The first night, she’d offered to let me use her cell phone anytime, after I’d taught her how to put sheets on a bed. Apparently, she had servants to do that for her back home. When she realized I didn’t have any sheets, she’d loaned me a monogrammed set. Maybe, if Becca was in the room when I got there, I’d call my mother and let her know where I was. Now that I was enrolled, she couldn’t force me to go back to Concord. I was never, ever setting foot in that town again.
I pulled my bag off my shoulder and unzipped the top. Intent on sliding the flimsy pages inside without bending them, I jumped when a masculine voice called my name.
I skidded to a halt. Other girls flowed around me. Each one gave the man seated on the top step a wilting once-over, but Dale Hannah didn’t seem to notice. I stared in horror at the gaudy race team logo on his red polo shirt. While my stepfather got to his feet, I darted a look through the glass door to the dorm.
Dale spread his hands. “Just me. Didn’t let Macy come along.”
Didn’t let her?
His eyes twinkled when he smiled, reminding me too much of Caine. “Wanted to be sure my source gave up the right information before I got your mama’s hopes up.” His grin faded to an injured expression. “You know that Caroline held out for a full tank of gas before she ratted you out?”
That seemed only fair, since I had a feeling I’d been given part of the scholarship money Caroline had turned down. And why had the information on my whereabouts come from Caroline? My mother knew I wanted to come here. So did Colt, for that matter, since the bastard had stolen my acceptance letter.
“Shame she ain’t here with you. You two woulda stood the boys in this town on their heads.” He swept his gaze over the surroundings. “Looks like a real nice place, honey.” He cut his eyes back to me. “You think you’ll like it?”
He raked one hand along his jaw and shoved the other into the back pocket of his Wranglers. “Don’t hear of many young girls who run away to go to college. Guess I hit the daughter jackpot, huh?” He patted his back pocket. “Now, where do I go to drop off a check for your tuition? That was our deal, right?”
I blinked. No lecture about how I’d scared my mother by running off? No yelling? No threats to drag me home?
“I thought you lied,” I blurted. “Mom said you agreed with her that I should go to college in Charlotte.”
His brows went up. When I continued to stare, he narrowed his eyes and his affable grin disappeared. “Did she, now? What I recall is makin’ you a promise the day we met. If someone said I went back on my word, then you’ll know next time to take that shit up with me.” Anger flickered in his eyes, but the scowl soon faded and he slapped his back pocket again. “So, let’s do this. Can’t have ‘em kicking you out for non-payment.”
“I-I got a scholarship.”
His eyes rounded and he whistled. “Really? When you set your mind to do a thing, you don’t let no grass grow under your feet, do you? How about books? I hear some college scholarships don’t cover everything.”
No, thanks. Whatever this guy thought about my decision, Mom would be pissed that I defied her. Now that I’d told Dale she’d lied to me about him breaking his word, they’d fight, and in turn, she’d blame me for rocking the boat. I had a hunch that their long and embarrassing honeymoon period was about to end.
Dale was about to learn that Mom expected to get her way in all things. Especially from me. But as long as I took nothing from Dale, she’d have no leverage over me. She’d wanted a husband so she wouldn’t be alone when I left home, and by God, that was all she had, as far as I was concerned.
I tried to stand taller, shifting my bag to the opposite shoulder. “My on-campus job pays for my books and campus housing. Yesterday, I got hired at the coffee shop across from the main entrance, so I’ll pay for anything else I need, or do without.”
He studied me so intently, I almost turned and ran, but that would make me look foolish when I desperately needed to appear grown up, so I held my ground. He closed the distance between us, eyes fixed on mine.
After a long moment, he nodded. “You don’t aim to let nobody pull your strings no more, huh? Ain’t nobody never gonna admire the ambition to stand on your own two feet more’n me, Shelby. I respect what you done. You wanted somethin’ and you made it happen. I’m just sorry you and me didn’t get a chance to get to know each other better, so you’d have known I never say nothin’ I don’t mean.”
Despite his liberal abuse of the double negative, relief surged through me. My hunch was right. This man wouldn’t put up with Mom’s manipulative bullshit.
Just as fast, I realized that all that meant was they’d fight, and if they fought enough, they’d split up, so what was the point in letting myself like him? But, on the upside, once they split, Colt and Caine would just bad memories in my rearview mirror.
His intent gaze faded and the smile reappeared. “Spartanburg’s a nice place. I got a friend or two here. One dude introduced me to one of my all-time favorite places to eat. How about lettin’ me take you to lunch before your social life gets rollin’, and I ain’t got a shot of gettin’ a spot on your calendar?”
He stuck out his elbow. I swallowed the lump in my throat and thought about making up somewhere to be, but the stark sincerity of his speech wouldn’t let me. I slid my hand through the crook of his arm and wondered if this was what having a father felt like.
“The Beacon? I heard some of the girls talking about that place.”
He turned in the direction of the student parking lot. “Nope. I been there, but we’re goin’ to Sugar n’ Spice. Best damn meat on a stick I’ve ever put in my mouth.”
This would be an awkward half hour, but it was a free meal, at least. We strolled past the other dorms in silence. The parking lot was straight ahead, behind the building where my art classes would meet, but just as we passed the last dorm, he pointed to my right. We headed toward the shady street that bordered this side of campus.
Dale’s black truck and trailer took up half the block. I had no idea how he’d even gotten the rig on to such a narrow road. Even more confusing, the Barracuda was parked alongside the curb, behind the trailer.
“You was in such a rush to get here, you left some stuff I thought you might need.” Dale’s tone was gruff, but he patted my hand. “Wanna drive?”
My heart skipped a beat. The convertible’s purple paint seemed garish now, rather than cool, when viewed against a backdrop of elegant wrought iron fencing and the traditional cottages on the far side of the street.
The ‘Cuda felt like a bad penny, but having a way to get around meant I could find a better paying job.
And taking the car again was a nice ‘fuck you’ to his sons. But, what happened when he and Mom split? He’d come to take it back. Maybe between now and then, I could save up for something cheap, and give the Barracuda back before the inevitable end to this farce of a marriage arrived. I was sure the only reason that hadn’t happened yet was that Dale was on the road most of the year.
“I might not handle the clutch good enough for you.” I grabbed the handle of the passenger door.
He revved the engine with a broad grin. Across the street, an older woman stepped out on her porch to glare. I’d have scrunched low in the seat, but the safety harness made that impossible.
“Gave her the once-over ‘fore I loaded her,” he yelled above the roar. “Sounds good, don’t she?”
Imagining Colt and Caine’s faces when they got home from work tonight and saw the empty spot underneath the carport helped make up my mind.
“Thank you. I missed her.”
He adjusted his baseball cap, then dropped his hand to the shifter, whipping around the truck and trailer. He sped to the stop sign, and made a right. Two lights up Main Street, he hung a left. We couldn’t have traveled a mile from campus before he pulled into the parking lot of a sand-colored brick building.
I eyed the rusted, undulating metal cover that stretched the length of the lot. Flaking paint indicated the flamboyant shelter had once been bright orange. Dale wheeled the car into a space underneath. I imagined teenage carhops darting across the parking lot, holding trays that hooked on the edge of a car window.
Dale’s words confirmed my guess. “Reckon this place was rockin’ at night, back in the day. This old car should feel right at home.” Leaning across the console, he opened the glove compartment and pulled out my cell phone and the credit card he’d given me the day he’d given me the keys. “Two tanks a week was our deal, but if you need something, buy it.”
“Thank you.” Ducking my head in hopes he wouldn’t see my hot cheeks, I shoved the items into my book bag. He popped the trunk so I could lock my bag inside.
Embarrassed by his generosity, I headed for the restaurant door, but he grabbed my elbow and steered me to a door father down the side of the building. I scowled at the nearby Dumpster. Who’d put their entrance so close to the waste container and so far from the street?
“Hey, now. Don’t judge the food by the parking lot.”
He opened the door and I stepped inside, sensing that he wasn’t talking about the restaurant at all. A short, dark-haired man wearing a button-down shirt under a white apron smiled from behind a long counter. “What’ll it be?”
I tried to scan the hand-lettered menu boards over his head, but Dale ordered. “Two large souvlakis. I want extra grilled onions on mine. How about you, Shelby?” I found the correct board, noting that the meal came with slaw and fries.
Dale grabbed a plastic tray off a large stack. “They’ll bring it to the table.” He shoved the tray along the narrow row of cafeteria-style metal rods. “Tea?” I nodded and he set two Styrofoam cups of sweet tea on the tray. Forking over a pair of twenties at the cash register, he stuffed his change in the tip jar. It was more than twenty percent of the total. Nobody appreciated a good tipper more than me.
Huge hanging ferns screened a long bar counter opposite the serving line, but he strode into the dining area, which offered a selection of tables in the center of the room. Booths upholstered in copper and orange vinyl hugged the walls. An old-fashioned television mounted near the ceiling in the corner showed a replay of last week’s NASCAR race. My heart fell, because I figured he’d sit where I had to pretend to care about his line of work.
Instead, he headed for a booth near a window overlooking the street. Taking the seat with his back to the TV, he shoved the tray to the far side of the table and lifted his tea.
I slid into the seat opposite.
After a couple of long gulps, he lowered his cup. “I reckon I should give you a head’s up, sweetheart. Rick Ridenhour takes the whole bunch on a cruise every Christmas, if we finish in the top ten. You wanna go along, let me know by Thanksgiving.”
I pictured being trapped on a ship with Caine and Colt. Something of my dismay must’ve shown on my face, because Dale hurried on.
“If not, I put a house key on the ring with the car key. Now, you already know, summertime is smack in the middle of race season. I plan to take your mama along for every race she’s willin’ to attend. You can ride the circuit with us. If full-time racin’ don’t appeal to you, I’ll buy you a plane ticket to wherever we’re runnin’ that week, any time you want to come.”
I prayed the food would appear so I didn’t have to hurt his feelings. I’d rather pick up road kill for the highway department than ‘ride the circuit’ with Dale and Mom.
“Or, I studied some brochures I found in the lobby of your dorm while I was waitin’. Looks like the college sponsors a student trip to Europe every summer. I’d be more than happy to write a check for you to go along.”
What’s his angle?
“In short, Shelby, you can be as close as you want, or you can put some distance between you and us. No hard feelin’s on my part either way. You’re old enough to choose where you go and what you do. Even if your mama don’t think so just yet.”
He leaned back in his seat and smiled at the server who set our plates on the table. After thanking her, he lifted his fork and grinned at the plate, but darted a look and me and laid down the utensil to put his napkin in his lap.
“I’ll help her accept that her little girl’s all grown up. Besides, this town’s close enough to home without bein’ too close. Y’all can meet at one of them big malls in Charlotte and tear my credit card up after a fancy lunch.”
Overwhelmed, I slid a piece of meat off one skewer. While I nibbled the tender, delicious bite of steak, I felt someone’s eyes on me. The booth across the way held two guys, one in his twenties, one perhaps fifty. The younger guy wasn’t male model material, but he was nice-looking, so I smiled, but he looked away. His sandy hair and thin face resembled his companion’s so closely that I made them for father and son. When the older man slid out of his booth, he paused at the refuse container to dump the trash off their tray, but the younger one sauntered in our direction.
I sat up straighter and pretended that I wasn’t checking him out. Dale must’ve seen him coming, because he darted a look at me and raised his brows with a smirk.
“I’ll try not to scare him off, but no promises,” he whispered, loud enough that I feared the guy heard. My cheeks warmed and I wanted to crawl under the table.
The stranger’s cheeks turned pink too, but he looked at Dale, not me. “Don’t mean to bother y’all while you’re eatin’, but aren’t you Dale Hannah?”
I blinked. Dale set his fork down and stuck out a hand. “That’s me.”
The young man pumped his hand enthusiastically and gestured for his companion to come over. “I told Daddy you was Kolby Barnes’ crew chief.” The guy gestured for his father to join him.
Seriously? He knows the name of his favorite racecar driver’s mechanic? I quit being pissed off that he’d ignored my feminine charms. Rabid NASCAR fan? No, thank you.
The older man joined his son and also extended a hand. “And I told this kid that long before anybody ever heard tell of Kolby Barnes, you was tearin’ up every track NASCAR had to offer. You was the best rookie driver I ever saw. Couldn’t understand why you’d do go from drivin’ to turning wrenches, but with you under the hood, Jesse Hancock put the fear of God into every other team on the track.”
I stared across the table. Dale used to drive one of those cars? I’d sort of thought that the guys who weren’t good enough to drive did the mechanics’ job.
“Hancock’s a god.” The young man’s eyes glowed. “But you just wait, Kolby Barnes is gonna be every bit the driver he was and then some.”
This was worse than watching a silent race on television. I knew nothing about the sport, but I knew Jesse Hancock’s name because he was Caroline’s sperm donor. I went back to my meal, biting my lip to keep from saying that I thought the so-called legend was a jerk.
Caroline’s mother had tossed Colt into Dale’s lap so she could chase after Hancock, who fathered Caroline, then turned his back on them both. I looked up to see what Dale would say and caught the way his lips tightened. His eyes went hard for a moment, then he forced a smile.
Realizing he’d had two decades to perfect that thousand-yard stare whenever Hancock’s name came up sealed my fate. I respected Dale Hannah.
“Yeah, that was an excitin’ coupla years.” The lack of enthusiasm in Dale’s tone was plain. “But Roark’s had his share of wins, too.”
“Let’s let these folks get back to their meal, kid.” The older man slapped his son on the back and grinned. “Tough loss last Sunday. If Barnes had blocked for Roark on that last pass… well, I thought he had the win.” When Dale didn’t respond, the man asked, “I reckon you’re headed for Atlanta?”
“Not yet.” Dale picked up his fork. “Just helpin’ my daughter get settled in over at Constance College. I wanted to be the first to introduce her to Pete’s fine souvlaki.”
I hadn’t run far enough to escape the Hannah family’s shadow.
By the time I waved goodbye and watched the truck and trailer pull away, I was confident my mother hadn’t told him the things I’d told her about Colt. I was relieved. I turned for the dorm and vowed again to never take anything from this man. He’d only disappoint me.
As for my mother, she’d cashed in my trust on a new life. I hoped she could live with her new-found riches—and without me.
I had an essay to write if I wanted to keep my scholarship.
Four years later
“For real, Harry? People are still buying their Thanksgiving turkeys.” Scowling at the elaborate Christmas wreath on my best friend’s door, I banged the brass knocker and rolled my eyes. Harry Kinston loved Christmas about as much as I hated it. I should know. Whenever Converse College closed their dorms, his little townhouse became my home. Meaning, every major holiday and summer break, I moved in with a gay man who’d become my surrogate brother.
I banged the knocker again, cursing under my breath because I’d given my key to Harry’s new boyfriend. He hadn’t made me another copy yet. Probably afraid I’d walk in on him and Phillip doing the nasty. I should never have confessed I thought watching the pair get it on would be hot.
“Let me in, Harry!” What in the name of God is that music? I couldn’t make out the song, but the bouncy rhythm didn’t sound like a Christmas carol, thank God, nor his beloved country music.
Panicking, I dug in my purse to be sure I’d brought along a pair of earplugs.
At least a minute went by while I shivered on the stoop. They were doing it.
Nope, Phillip’s car’s not here. Groaning with impatience, I sent him a text. Open up, it’s the Grinch! I’ve come to take back Christmas.
When the door swung open, I wasn’t sure which alarmed me more—Robin Gibbs’ ear-piercing rendition of If I Can’t Have You, or the collection of GI Joe dolls on the table behind Harry. The Joes lived on the foyer table, but they’d had a sketchy makeover.
“Really? Disco? And your army is going to desert.” I took a second look at the assortment of action figures. Last week, they’d worn camo, as always. Tonight, they wore white robes and halos. One or two even sported wings.
No one would ever guess Harry was gay by looking at his apartment. The place looked like Dale had decorated it, except baseball was the featured sport, not racing. What the hell was going on?
I took a deep breath and spit out the bad news. “We have to send that Kolby Barnes standup back. I know FedEx delivered it yesterday, so don’t try to tell me it’s not here. I’ll help you find something else to give Phillip.” I pressed my palms together and stuck them underneath my chin. “I’ll even pay for it. Please, Harry, I have to send it back.”
The life-sized cardboard cutout of the rising NASCAR superstar was to be Harry’s Christmas gift for his boyfriend. The young prosecutor Harry had fallen for was a NASCAR fan. Dale had to pull strings with his boss to get me one of the coveted advertising pieces in advance of their release.
And now, the strings had pulled back.
Harry stared at the imitation slate vinyl flooring. “I made Phillip take it with him when he left last night.”
My heart dropped to my shoe tops. “You did what? I gotta have it back!”
He lifted his chin. “No, Shelby. I’m not asking for it back. Phillip can screw around all he likes, but every time he looks at that ugly thing, he’ll think of me.”
I tuned in to the deep ditches in Harry’s strawberry blond hair and spied the red rims around his hazel eyes. Harry, the heartless flirt, crying over another man?
“But you don’t do exclusive. I mean, it’s not like you guys said the L-word or anything.”
“Yes, we did. Or, rather, I did.” He blinked rapidly.
I threw my arms around him. “Oh, no. I’m so sorry, Harry.”
He squeezed me but soon let go. In a gruff tone, he demanded, “Get inside before you let all the heat out.”
I stalked into the living room and slung my purse over the back of the sofa. “Wait. First, I’m making us a pitcher of margaritas.” Darting into the kitchen, I returned with the bottle and two glasses. When he raised his brows, I waved the fifth of Jose Cuervo Gold. “Screw the margarita mix. This is definitely a straight tequila night.”
“So, what has you shrieking like a banshee? That tone. It’s just so… attractive. Every male badger within fifty miles must have a hard-on now.” Harry snatched one of the glasses I held and flopped into his recliner.
I poured his glass half full. “Mr. Ridenhour called today. He asked if the package had arrived, then wanted to know if I’d mind doing him a favor. He wants to surprise Dale at the team’s Christmas party. With me. And a plaque for twenty-five years’ service.” Ignoring my glass, I took a sip from the bottle. “Phillip’s fucking hero has feet of clay. Otherwise, they’d have finished in the top ten and the whole team would be on a damn cruise.”
Ridenhour Motorsports had finished in the money ever since I’d been in the family. Meaning, I hadn’t had to worry about my mother begging me to come home for Christmas for the past three years. This season had been a disaster, so she was already burning up my phone, insisting I had to spend Christmas in Concord, North Carolina.
I’d rather spend it in Hell.
Harry shoved upright. The hopeless look faded from his eyes. I didn’t want to see him sad, but the excitement blazing in them now made me want to… hide behind something really big, but I poured more liquor in his glass. With any luck, I could get him drunk enough to call Phillip and ask him to return the gift.
“Hey, get someone to take your photo with Barnes. Then, you can Photoshop me into it and I’ll send it to Phillip. Just a post card saying, ‘hello and fuck you’.”
I slammed the bottle onto the end table. “Harry! Have you lost your mind? I can’t go. My stepbrothers will be there.”
“Yes, they will. And you know what? You talk like a badass, Shelby. Some days, you even are a badass, but you’ve been running from this for way too long. I mean, what better place to confront them than a roomful of people their dad works with?”
Hi, y’all. I’m Shelby and my stepbrothers sold me as a prostitute. Is he nuts?
“Oh, no. They both work for Ridenhour now.” Colt was driving in the light truck circuit, but working his way up quickly. Caine was taking classes at NASCAR University, whatever the hell that might be. I only knew what my stepbrothers were up to because of Mom’s e-mails.
“Even better. Walk your ass right through the door, dressed up so damn fine, they won’t know what hit them. Then, you make those bastards squirm. At least find out why, Shelby. Kids out to have a good time is one thing, but to go behind your back and sell the chance to fuck you? I’d want revenge. You’re a hell of a lot stronger now than you were at eighteen. Threaten to go to the cops.”
What good would that do now?
I didn’t even feel my next gulp of liquor because my heart started jumping around like a chicken with its head cut off. “I can’t, Harry.” Gee, guess you forgot the part about the sheriff fucking me, too? “I cannot face them. And let us not forget, my mother took Colt’s side.”
Harry’s expression turned sly. “But you never told their dad. And what about that little old man you met at Krispy Kreme? He talked like the father was a stand up guy. Did you ever think about telling him what his sons did to you?”
The older gentleman, Ernie Tipton, had told me an amazing story about my stepfather. Dale had made good on every promise he’d made me. He held my mom at bay. He treated me like an adult. He only fussed at me for not using his credit card.
Yeah, in one of the most awkward turns of events in the entire history of my awkward life, I actually liked my stepfather. Dale had recently given in to Mom’s begging to build a new house and things between them seemed great.
So Colt and Caine weren’t going away. They loomed over my life like a rain cloud.
“Harry, when you came out to your mother, she asked when you were going to find the right man and adopt her a grandchild. My mother asked me why I’d try to ruin her marriage by telling such a lie about Colt.” I waved the bottle. “I’m not agreeing to anything under the influence. Tell me about Philip.”
Harry relaxed into the ugly chair and drained his glass. “I should’ve known better than to pick him up, much less fall for him. He’s just bi-curious. One of those straight guys who’s figured out a man sucks dick better than a woman, but he’s not going to give up pussy for me.” He leaned up and extended his empty glass. “I bet he’s got guys in line over at the Cattleman’s Club right now, begging to suck that big dick.” He rolled his eyes toward me while I poured. “With that cock, he’s going to be a rock star in the gay community. Goddammit.”
I poured two fingers’ worth into my glass, then took another slug from the bottle. “I never understood that. I mean, I’m always grateful when they’re not carrying a baseball bat in their pants.” I let the burn settle into my belly. “If I’m gonna suck a dick, I mean.” My grimace wasn’t entirely from the tequila. “Which is never.”
“See, you’re the kind of woman who makes guys like Phillip find guys like me.” Harry waved a middle finger. “You’re hot and fun and smart, but I bet your oral skills are pathetic.”
I drained the glass with a shudder. “Listen, I do anal. When guys hear that, they start thinking about how big their cock’s gonna look going into my teeny-weenie derriere and they forget all about wanting to cram it down my throat.”
Harry spluttered. “You should never drink tequila. And I do both. Which explains why I date more often than you.”
“I’m dating someone, for your information.”
He rolled his eyes. “He’s not a boyfriend. He’s a soft place to land. I think Robert Kossel’s a condescending ass and you secretly think he’s boring.”
“Opinions are like assholes. We all have one. Why can’t you and Phillip just find a woman you both sleep with? Problem solved.”
Harry jabbed his finger at me. “See? You’re a wild child. You need a man who can handle that. And I don’t do va-jay-jay.”
“Was a wild child. Not anymore. Why can’t you just enjoy watching Phillip do the va-jay-jay, then?”
“That would either kill me or make me throw up. Let’s say you do marry this jerk, Shelby, or someone like him. Are you going to skulk around for the rest of your life, wondering when you two will be at some fancy party where some guy keeps staring? And you’ll be thinking, ‘Did he pay to have sex with me?’ I mean, Robert’s family lives less than an hour from your stepfather’s house. It could happen.”
The burn in my belly turned to ice. Harry had no idea just how much time I spent worrying about this very thing.
He toed off his Docksides. “I still think it’s weird. I mean, since when do middle-class white boys sell pussy?”
Since when are my stepbrothers middle-class? “When they have jobs paying ten bucks an hour, but put over a hundred grand into their hot rod.”
Before I could think of a way to get the conversation back on Phillip, he returned to the party like a dog with a new favorite bone.
“Listen, Shelby, your stepfather stops by to see you. He offers you money. I know you have his credit card in your purse, just like all the other little rich girls at your school. And he’s run more interference for you with your mother than a NFL linebacker. You owe it to him to do this.”
Aw, dammit. The downside of adopting a brother I could tell everything to, was that he knew just where to hit.
I scowled over the rim of my glass. “Does it matter one bit that Dale outright dared Mr. Ridenhour to make a big deal out of his anniversary?” I was flattered that Dale’s boss said I was the only person my stepfather wouldn’t cuss out for making the speech at this thing. I even had the perfect speech already written. I’d used the story Ernie Tipton had told me about Dale for my creative writing course and gotten a B+. From a professor who took giving A’s like a challenge to his manhood. I could simply tell that story.
Hell, no! Don’t go. Harry just wants to hang on to that idiotic advertising piece for Phillip. Not my problem.
Harry leaned over and extended his glass. “We have a month to figure out how you can put the fear of God in your stepbrothers. Don’t you want to see them squirm?”
I actually wanted to see them beheaded, castrated, and stoned to death on the public square, but tequila always made me feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. If Harry was exploiting our friendship, he must truly love this guy.
Thanks to Colt and Caine, my specialty was a little something I called ‘not love’. Trust was just too hard to come by. I always expected to get burned, so my love life was a series of drag races—I started out wide open and called it quits after the first quarter mile.
Harry sat up so fast, his drink spilled, but he didn’t seem to notice the spreading stain on his shirt. “I’ll go, too. I’ll be your straight beloved.”
I burst out laughing. “Uh, no. I told Mom you were gay so she’d shut the fuck up about me staying here.”
“Well, if it were me, I strut my ass into that party and do to them exactly what they did to you. Act like nothing’s wrong and get close enough to figure out exactly where to stick the knife in.” He clenched his fist and twisted his wrist.
With liquid courage speeding through my bloodstream, it sounded so easy. Just suck up and look for the one thing I could do that would hurt them the most.
“Okay, I’ll go.” I extended my glass. “Revenge is a redheaded bitch.”
Harry stretched to clink his glass against mine “See? That’s the attitude, right there. Fuck ‘em up, Shelby. Best Christmas gift you’ll ever give yourself. Then you can graduate in May and just walk away.”
Four weeks later, I opened my eyes and tried to identify the streaks of gold and blobs of blue on the edge of my pillow. I blinked. The fuzzy image resolved into intent eyes, covered by a shock of blond hair.
“Good morning.” Sculpted lips curved into a smile.
My heart lurched. Why am I with Colt? Panic brought me fully awake. I struggled with the sheet, fighting to get free and run, but something pinned me. I blinked again. The cheekbones were less perfect than Colt’s; the blue irises fixed on my face were less vivid. My heart slowed from a gallop to a trot. Robert. I lowered my eyes to the arm draped across my waist.
Okay, that’s why I can’t move. His large body had mine pressed against the wall. Sweat glued us together. I kicked, needing to get a foot free so I could breathe.
Chipper voices came from somewhere. I managed to rise onto my elbow. A chubby bleached blonde smiled from the widescreen television, perched on a scarred desk on the far side of the small dorm room. At her side, a man in a suit flashed teeth that were just a shade too perfect. The morning news anchors. I collapsed onto the pillow. Why can’t he sleep without the television on? Just one of many things Robert did that annoyed me.
“Good morning,” he rumbled.
Robert Kossel attended Wofford College, a private, co-ed institution about a mile or so from my school. Why had I stayed over? I couldn’t recall making that decision, so… alcohol. My fuzzy tongue supported the deduction. He swept a hand along my hip, tugging me against him.
“Goddamn, I love opening my eyes and seeing you. You’re all warm and your hair’s messy. Fucking gorgeous.”
I didn’t feel gorgeous. I felt like I might heave. “Have I missed class?” I groaned.
“For fuck’s sake, it’s Christmas break. You got drunk last night.” Disapproval rang in his tone.
That explains why we didn’t argue.
“Oh. Yeah.” Recalling taking my last exam a week ago, I relaxed against the pillow. Because I never went home for any holiday, Robert had hung around rather than cut out for Rock Hill after his last exam, so we could spend time together. But then I’d agreed to pick up a few shifts for Harry, and all we’d done so far was fight.
Moving suddenly, he rolled me to my back and slid his knee between my thighs. The tender sensation in my sex when he spread my legs told me we must’ve gotten our make up sex out of the way already. He rolled on top of me, sliding his erection along my bare belly. Propping his elbows alongside my ribs, he cupped my breasts and lowered his head.
I closed my eyes, willing to lose myself in the soft stroke of his tongue across my nipple, but the jittery panic refused to subside. He redoubled the motion of his tongue. All I felt was the need to take a deep breath. He licked and suckled each nipple in turn, then lifted his head and leaned close. His thumbs took over on my still-soft peaks. His lips on mine were a familiar sensation, but I turned my head.
“Morning breath. Suck my nipples.” And make me tell you what I want you to do to me. Say nasty things and force me to repeat them. Robert loved to fucking talk. He just didn’t talk when he was fucking.
As usual, he returned to the task without a word. The sensation was nice. I closed my eyes again. Maybe he’d get a little freaky, since the dorm was empty.
Think about the hard cock between my legs, not random bullshit.
He shifted his hips and his cock breached my entrance.
Without warning, the room went black. Male shouts and jeers echoed inside my skull. I’d swear that a breeze raised goose bumps on the tops of my thighs. The sensation of heat seared the backs of my legs, even though I knew I lay on blue cotton sheets. I slapped my palms against his shoulders.
He jerked his head up. “What? Shelby, we quit using condoms before Thanksgiving.”
Awkward. I realized where I’d gone in my head. It pissed me off because I never knew when those too-vivid memories of wild nights spent drag racing and fucking my stepbrothers would blindside me. Sometimes, it felt as though Colt and Caine shared every bed I ever crawled into. That made no sense, since they’d mostly fucked me on the hood of a car.
And don’t forget, then they took money to let their friends fuck me, too.
I hated those memories, but the recollection did what Robert rarely managed–it got me wet in record time. My nipples hardened, even though he’d gone still while he stared through slitted eyelids.
If I’d ever told Robert about my stepbrothers, he might not be scowling. But I never had. And I never would. Why the hell am I here?
I unglued my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “Sorry. Temporary blackout. Blame it on the booze.”
His chuckle was more a huff, but he returned his lips to my breast. His soft licks felt better now that the peak was rigid and throbbing, but not five seconds later, he shifted his hips, trying to force his cock into me again. Colt and Caine were still in my head. I needed Robert to man up and do something besides just stick his cock inside me. I wanted him to drive my stepbrothers out of my mind, not benefit from my fucking emotional issues. Unfair, because he had no idea I had the damn problem, but still—this was bullshit.
Resentment rose, nearly choking me. “Did you give up foreplay for some religious reason I’m not aware of?”
His sigh was too loud and lasted a shade too long, but he wriggled lower. The sheet slid away, exposing my thighs. He made no eye contact, but warm breath wafted over my clit. He jerked his head up immediately.
“I love you, babe, but… damn, Shelby, I went down on you last night and I came inside you twice.”
So? If he’d ever do something that downright dirty, I’d let myself fall in love with him. But he was no different from any other guy I’d slept with since starting college. Too fucking conservative in the sack. The only thing these guys seemed to lose their heads over was college football.
He grinned and crawled up my body. Flopping onto his side, he popped me on the hip. “Since the dorm’s almost empty, you can use the showers. I’ll be right here. You can wear my shirt.” He flashed his brows up and down. “I like the way you look in my shirts.”
But you don’t want to join me? Sex in the shower is against your religion, too?
I rose on elbow again and squinted at the time displayed on the cable box. Keyed up as I was, this could only go bad. I shouldn’t have come here last night.
“No time for that. I have a lot to do today.”
“Baby, it’s eight o’clock in the morning. On Christmas break.”
“Right.” I wanted to think up another excuse to leave, but my brain wouldn’t engage.
He left his hand on my hip long enough to let me know he was thinking about forcing the issue. Torn between hoping he would and fearing he might, I didn’t move. With a long-suffering sigh, he shoved his arm under his head.
I rolled to a sitting position. My head swam with the effort. Maybe I should just lay back down and give him his way. Going within fifty feet of either stepbrother when I was sexually frustrated was a bad idea.
Maybe, if I asked, he’d shower with me, then pin me against the tile and fuck my brains out. I bent and snagged his shirt, but stared at the red pinstriped cotton, debating. I couldn’t handle it if he said something like, “Yeah, right. Do you know how many people slip and fall in the shower trying to have sex?”
His father sued people for a living. The Kossel Law Firm handled a lot of slip and fall cases. If I argued, he’d just hammer me with statistics. Or worse, give me some boring anecdote about a boring court case.
What the fuck am I doing? And why the hell do I keep doing it here? I dropped the shirt and snagged my jeans and slid them over my legs. “I had to put off a lot of errands until today because I was working.”
“Oh, yeah. I know all about you working.”
Well, fuck you, rich boy. I have more pride than to ask my daddy for an allowance. Sometimes, I hated the kids I knew from college. They were mostly a bunch of spoiled brats.
I had to stand to reach my sweatshirt. He sat up. I tensed for an argument. “Listen, Shelby. Dad wants to meet you.”
My heart lurched. Meet the family? Really?
“Don’t know what Mom’s got planned. This is the first Christmas in three years they haven’t gone on a cruise. She’s probably planned out every available minute, since they’re in the new house.” I scanned the room. “Seen my purse?”
“Beside the couch.”
I almost laughed. He wanted me to stay but he couldn’t resist showing off that he knew something I didn’t know, no matter how minor.
I fastened my jeans and then yanked my sweatshirt over my head. Flopping onto the couch, I shoved my foot into the only shoe I could see. Craning my neck, I searched for the mate underneath the coffee table he used to roll joints.
What’s so painful about his life that he wants to be numb all the time?
“I thought we might get our parents together for dinner. How about on the 26th?”
Spying the little ballerina flat, I stretched my leg and hooked it with my toes. “Why? So your dad can make fun of the way my stepfather talks?” Wiggling my foot into the worn leather shoe, I leaned over the arm of the plaid couch that stank of marijuana, grabbing my handbag with a rising sense of panic.
“Shelby, they’re going to meet eventually. We might as well be proactive. Besides, if we don’t find a time to hook up while you’re in Concord, we won’t see each other until after New Years’.”
And that’s a problem… why?
“This is about that stupid You Tube channel you do, isn’t it?” Petulance tinged his tone.
You mean the stupid You Tube channel that puts cash in my checking account so I have time to spend with you?
“No, I told you what I was doing today.” I curled my nails into my palm. I didn’t have time for his jealous bullshit. He could be such a child if he didn’t get his way.
Something onscreen came to my rescue. “Hey, that car’s like mine.” I grabbed the remote and turned up the volume, drowning out Robert’s groan. He hated my car. He hated my hobbies. I couldn’t figure out what he did like about me. Except the sex. I hated thinking that he was with me because my petite size made him feel better about his less-than-average cock, because that was another drop of poison Colt had buried in my mind.
In a too-bright voice, the female news anchor announced, “And a record-setting price last night for an old car.”
The male anchor took over in a tone I found patronizing. “Not just any old car, Anne. A 1971 Plymouth Barracuda convertible. One of only eleven manufactured that year, this fully restored beauty brought four point two million dollars at the famous Bailey and Barnes auction barn in Reno, Nevada last night. The new owner says he’ll have the car transported to—”
“Wow.” I hit the mute button. “Four million dollars?” I darted a look to see if the large figure impressed him. He hadn’t bothered with the sheet, maybe because it was in a tangled heap on the floor. He still scowled, so I studied his body. His cock was erect, but going soft. It nestled in a thatch of dark gold hair. He wasn’t fat, but he wasn’t ripped like my stepbrothers.
The involuntary comparison pissed me off. Besides, I hadn’t laid eyes on Colt in years. Mom mentioned he had a girlfriend, so he probably had a beer gut and a baby on the way.
I blinked away the momentary vision of Caine pleasuring Colt’s faceless bimbo. Damn you, Mom. She’d been on the phone every other day, excited over all the stuff she was buying for the new house. Had to be why I couldn’t stop thinking about Colt and Caine.
Then, the fog in my brain parted.
The Ridenhour Christmas party’s tonight.
I longed to run, but Robert’s tone forced me to look at him.
“What, Robert? What?” Despite my best efforts to stay calm, the words came out as a shriek. In the ominous silence that followed my outburst, I jumped up.
“Shelby, you could at least take me along to that party tonight. I checked Google maps. That place is only a half hour drive from my dad’s.”
So you can ridicule my stepfather and his friends at your next frat party? Or so I can be drawn in an even bigger knot, waiting to see how Colt and Caine tease me about you? Or, God forbid, they mess with that BMW you love so much.
I pictured my stepbrothers taking the car apart and reassembling it on top of the building, because that seemed like their idea of a good time.
“I had to RSVP weeks ago. Besides, I’m only going to be there long enough to give a five-minute speech and watch Dale get his twenty-five year service award.”
Colt and Caine had bought Dale’s house, but I’d be staying with Mom and Dale in the new house. That had led me to agree to stay in Concord from tonight until Christmas Day. Three entire days, when I hadn’t set foot in the small town for four years.
“Then I really don’t understand why you can’t meet me, Dad, and his girlfriend for dinner somewhere in Charlotte as soon as you finish.”
Because I have enough to worry about, dammit.
Why would Robert want to go to a party with a bunch of NASCAR people? He couldn’t even drive a stick.
“I told you, Mom will cry if I don’t go straight home with them afterward. Maybe we can do something before New Years’. I’ll drive up there to meet you.”
“You’ll just turn around and either say you can’t afford the gas or you’re working.” His tone was flat. Tension coiled in my stomach.
Fuck it. We’ve done our quarter mile sprint. The only way I can win is to walk away.
“Not all of us have rich daddies. Tell you what. Maybe I can hook you and my roommate up. I know for a fact, she’s looking for a future lawyer or banker. She only came here to get her MRS. degree.” The term was sarcastic, but he knew what I meant. A shocking number of women I went to school with were only attending college to find a husband with ‘potential’.
Hitching the leather strap of my purse over my head, I stepped over discarded clothing and empty pizza boxes.
“Shelby.” I made it to the door, but stared at the birch plywood, sliding damp palms along the side of my pants.
“What?” My headache tripled. I dug to the bottom of my handbag, searching for my car keys.
“Do you remember me telling you last night that I got an early acceptance to law school?”
That explains the hangover. “Vaguely.”
He snorted. His feet hit the floor, sounding like gunshots on the hard tile. I tensed as he made his way across the room. Reaching past my shoulder, he slammed a hand against the door.
“Why do I let you drink tequila? It’s too damn strong for your body weight or something. Makes you weird. I want you to take another look at this. It’ll take one minute out of your busy day.” His sarcastic tone made me cringe. A dull throb flared at the base of my skull, adding a thumping bass line to the soprano aria of pain shrieking behind my eyeballs.
He shoved a crumpled piece of printer paper in front of my face. I pulled back to give my eyes room to focus. “Assistant to the Administrator, Department of Public Works.” I dragged my tongue across cracked lips. “What’s this?”
“A job. In Columbia. With great benefits.”
South Carolina’s only law school was in Columbia, the state capitol.
“You plan to work and go to law school?” Maybe I’d misjudged him.
“Not for me, dumbass. For you.” Exasperation dripped from his tone. I was the dumbass? Yes, he must think so, if he thought I’d be thrilled to take some job logging potholes and broken water mains while he studied law. Why was I supposed to settle for a mind-numbing job while he—
The cobwebs cleared. Snatches of the night before played in my mind. Robert, telling me about law school. Me, saying essentially, good-bye. Him telling me about the idiotic job he thought I should take so we could stay together, when I had no idea why we were together in the first place. Our modus operandi was to break up, and then have makeup sex, only to break up again.
“I don’t know anything about the Department of Public Works.” Except it sounded like a good place to go insane from boredom.
He nuzzled my neck. I stiffened. “We already had this talk. That’s the great thing about a liberal arts degree. You can do anything. You’re as qualified for this job as you are that job your professor had you apply for in Atlanta. All you have to do is contact this dude and send him your resume. This is a done deal. The director is one of my brother-in-law’s golfing buddies. So, if you take the job, you can move in with my sister for the summer. Then, we’ll get an apartment together in September.”
So, it was a done deal, was it? He’d just used his family connections to find me some half-assed job? A place I could kill time and draw a paycheck while I waited for him to get his law degree and make me a country club wife? Or did he think I’d I handle all the bills while he blew his allowance on dope?
“Is this about me moving in with Harry for the summer if I don’t get that job in Atlanta?” He didn’t know me at all. He couldn’t fucking see past the fact that I liked my sex rough. He’d never treated a woman that way before, so I made him feel like a man. Whenever I pissed him off enough to be rough with me.
Which is why we argue so much. How had I never seen that before?
I felt ugly. Not just because of my messy hair or the need to brush my teeth. I felt ugly on the inside, because of the needs—the twisted, perverted desires—Colt and Caine had instilled in me. How could I ever rid myself of that? How would embarrassing them, or even having them thrown in jail, fix me?
“No. Hang on, dammit.” He vaulted out of the bed. Snatching his boxers off the floor, he shoved his legs through the holes and yanked them over his hips. I wrenched the doorknob.
“You do realize Harry’s gay, right? Gotta go.”
“Shelby, just give me one minute, then turn around.”
I wanted to run, but knew if I did, I’d throw up, so I did as he asked. Judging from the noises he made, I thought he opened a drawer. Maybe getting a shirt? I suppressed a sigh. He might be trying to apologize by walking me to my car. That possibility only made me feel worse. It was I who owed him the apology. How would that go? See, I need you to invite your friends in to fuck me. The more the merrier. Just a little gang bang every now and then.
“Okay, turn around.”
I whirled—too fast. I had to blink several times for the room to stop spinning.
“What are you doing?” I gaped at the sight of Robert on his knees, wearing only his boxers. He held a small box on his palm.
“Shelby, I knew I loved you on our second date. I don’t want graduation to come between what we have. I’ve never met anyone like you. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”