This is the Prologue and Chapter 1 of AFLAME, releasing April 21st. It is best enjoyed by those that have read Bully and Falling Away from the Fall Away series.
Four Years Ago
“Jared Trent,” I scolded, “if I get into trouble for the first time in my life, three weeks before I graduate high school, I’m telling my father it was your fault.”
I nearly jogged behind him as he pulled me along down the darkened school corridor, the music from the dance like a subterranean hum around us.
“Your father believes in taking personal responsibility, Tate,” he pointed out, and I could hear the humor in his tone. “Come on.” He squeezed my hand. “Pick up the pace.”
I stumbled as he led me faster up the steps onto the second floor, my royal blue floor-length prom dress sweeping the length of my legs. It was nearing midnight, and our senior prom, happening downstairs, wasn’t holding my boyfriend’s attention. Not that I thought it would.
Sometimes I imagined he simply endured social activities by plotting what he was going to do to me when we were finally alone. Jared Trent had a few favorite people in the world, and if you weren’t in that group, then you received a modicum of his attention. If he couldn’t be with me, then the only other people he could stand being around were his brother, Jax, and our best friend, Madoc Caruthers.
He hated dances, he hated dancing, and he loathed monotonous chatter. But while his demeanor was meant to push people away, it only enticed them to want to know him more. Much to his delight, of course.
But he put up with it. All for me. And did so with a smile on his face. He loved making me happy.
I jogged to keep pace and held his arm with both hands as I followed him. He swung open a classroom door and held it wide, waiting for me to enter. I pinched my eyebrows together, wondering what he was up to, but I hurried into the room anyway, afraid we’d be caught. We shouldn’t be roaming the school, after all.
Once inside the deserted room, I twisted around as he followed me inside and closed the door.
“Penley’s classroom?” I prompted. We hadn’t stepped foot in this room since last semester.
His mischievous chocolate brown eyes flashed to me before he answered. “Yeah.”
I wandered down the aisle between two rows of empty desks, feeling him watching me.
“Where we hated each other,” I reminisced in a teasing voice.
I let my fingertips graze a wooden desktop. “Where we started to love each other,” I kept playing with him.
“Yeah.” His soft whisper felt like a warm blanket on my skin.
I grinned to myself, remembering. “Where I was your north.”
Elizabeth Penley was our literature teacher. We’d both had her for several classes but only for one class together. Themes in Film and Literature last fall.
When Jared and I were enemies.
She’d given us an assignment in which we had to find partners for each of the cardinal directions. Jared ended up being my “North.”
My strappy silver heels—which matched the silver jewels on my nearly backless dress—struck the floor as I turned around to eye him still standing by the door.
And his flat, stoic expression did nothing to hide the dangerous streak. I suddenly felt an urge to climb him like a tree.
I knew he hated suits, but he honestly looked like a devil of the best kind dressed up as he was. His tailored black pants draped down his legs and accentuated his narrow waist. The black dress shirt wasn’t tight, but it didn’t hide his body, either, and the black jacket and tie completed the look in a way that emanated power and sex, as always.
In the eight months since we’d gotten together, I’d become very adept at swallowing my drool before it seeped out of my mouth.
Luckily, he looked at me the same way.
He leaned against the door, his jacket pulled back from his waist as he slid his hands into his pockets and watched me with interest. His dark brown hair sat across his forehead in elegant chaos like a dark shadow hovering just above his eyes.
“What are you thinking?” I asked when he continued to just stand there.
“How much I miss watching you come into this room,” he answered, looking me up and down.
My body warmed, knowing exactly what he was talking about. I’d enjoyed toying with him when I knew he was watching me in here.
“And,” he continued, “I’m going to miss how your hand shoots into the air like a big dork to answer questions.”
I gasped, my eyes rounding in mock anger. “Dork?” I repeated. I put my hands on my hips and pursed my lips to hide my smile.
He grinned and kept joking, “And also how you huddled so close to the desktop when you were concentrating on a test, and how you chewed your pencils when you were nervous.”
My gaze flashed to the side, where his old desk sat behind mine.
He went on, pushing off the door and inching closer to me. “I’m also going to miss how you blushed when I whispered things in your ear when Penley’s back was turned.” He cocked his head to the side, and I looked up at him as he approached me.
Shivers ran down my arms as I remembered Jared leaning forward over his desk and tickling my ear with his hot promises. I closed my eyes, feeling his chest brush against mine.
“I’m going to miss sitting two feet away,” he whispered over me, “and no one the wiser as to what I’d snuck into your room that morning to do to you.”
I sucked in a breath, feeling his forehead dip to mine.
He continued, “I’m going to miss the torture of wanting you in the middle of class and not being able to have you. I’m going to miss us in this room, Tate.”
The pull was always there between us. Even in a crowded classroom, full of noise and distraction, there was an invisible rope cutting through the space, connecting him and me. He touched me even when he couldn’t reach me. He whispered in my ear from twenty feet away. And I could always feel his lips even when we were apart.
I smiled and opened my eyes, his lips now an inch from mine. “Even though you sat behind me, I could always feel your eyes, Jared. Even when you acted like you hated me, I felt you watching me.”
“I never hated you.”
“I know.” I nodded gently, circling his waist with my arms.
The three years he’d made an enemy out of me seemed unbearable at the time. Now I was just glad it was all over. I was grateful that we were here. Together.
But I wouldn’t look back on high school as a very enjoyable experience, and I knew he had a lot of guilt about that.
All of Jared’s life, he’d suffered abandonment and loneliness. From his horrible father and alcoholic mother. From the neighbors who ignored what was happening and from the teachers who looked the other way.
The summer before freshman year, the parents who should’ve protected him hurt him nearly beyond repair. His father was abusive, leaving permanent scars, and his mother couldn’t be there for him.
So Jared decided alone was best. He shut everyone out.
But with me, he went a step further. Several steps, actually. He sought revenge.
I was his best friend at the time, but he’d thought I’d abandoned him as well. It was a culmination of too many bad things happening in too little time, and Jared couldn’t be forgotten about anymore. He wasn’t going to allow it.
I was the one he could treat badly to feel in control again, and so I became his prey. All throughout high school I suffered at his hands.
Until last August, when I came back from my year abroad.
When Jared pushed, I started pushing back. The world turned upside down for both us, and after more shit than I care to remember, we found our way back to each other.
“We have a lot of good memories in this room.” I pulled my head back and looked up at him. “But there is one place where we don’t have good memories . . .”
I slipped out of his arms and walked for the door, reaching down to slip off my heels. “Come on,” I urged with a backward glance and a smile.
Swinging the door open, I darted out into the hallway and bolted, running.
“Tate!” I heard him yell, and I spun around, jogging backward as I watched him come out the classroom door. His eyebrows were pinched together in confusion as he watched me.
I bit my bottom lip to stifle a laugh before I whipped around and started running down the hallway again.
“Tate!” he called again. “You’re a runner! This is an unfair advantage!”
I laughed, excitement energizing my arms and legs as I lifted my dress and hopped down two flights of stairs, racing down the hallway toward the Athletics Department.
I could hear the thuds of his large body gaining on me. He was jumping stairs, and I squealed with giddy fright as I hurled open the locker room door and away from his gaining advance.
Hurrying to the third row of lockers, I collapsed against the little metal doors, my heavy breaths stretching the bust of my dress as I dropped my shoes.
I’d left my long blond hair down, but I’d had my best friend, K.C., blow it out and fix it in loose, wavy curls. Given the exertion, I was tempted to shove it away from my face, but Jared loved my hair down, and I wanted to drive him wild tonight.
The locker room door opened, and I fisted my hands, hearing him approach.
His soft steps rounded the corner as if he knew exactly where to find me. “The girls’ locker room?” he asked, discomfort written all over his face.
I knew he’d be timid, but I wasn’t letting him off the hook.
I took a deep breath. “The last time we were here—”
“I don’t want to think about the last time we were here,” he cut me off, shaking his head.
But I forced it again. “The last time we were here,” I emphasized, “you threatened me and tried to intimidate me,” I told him as I walked over and grabbed his hand, leading him back to the spot against the lockers where we’d had our confrontation last fall. I leaned backward, taking his waist and leading him in close, so he hovered over me.
“You pushed into my space and hovered just like this,” I whispered, “and I ended up being pretty damn embarrassed in front of the whole school. Remember?”
I laid it all out on the line for him. We couldn’t be afraid to talk about it. We’d have to laugh, because I’d done enough crying. We’d face our fears and move on.
“You were mean to me,” I pressed.
He’d come in after I’d showered, rushed my teammates out of the room, and issued a few threats as I tried to stand tall dressed in nothing but my towel. Then some students came in and snapped pictures of us, in which nothing was happening, but being nearly naked with a boy in the locker room didn’t look so great to everyone in school who saw the pictures.
Jared’s eyes, always soft with me now, always holding me close, turned heated. I clutched the lapels of his jacket and melted my body into his, wanting to make a good memory here.
His face inched closer to mine, and my breathing faltered as I felt his fingers glide up the inside of my thigh, clawing my dress higher and higher.
“So we’re back to where we started,” he whispered against my lips. “Are you going to hit me this time like I deserve?”
Amusement threatened, and I could feel the corners of my mouth turn up.
I slid out of his shadow, hopped up on the center bench behind him, and stood over him, loving his wide-eyed expression as he turned around to face me. Placing both of my hands against the lockers, now behind him, on either side of his head, I bore down, crowding his space as I leaned in close.
“If I ever lay my hands on you,” I whispered his same words to me from all those months ago, “you’ll want it.”
He let out a quiet laugh as his lips grazed mine.
I cocked my head, playing with him. “Do you?” I prompted. “Want it, I mean?”
He cupped my face with both hands and begged, “Yes.” And then he snatched up my lips. “Hell yes.”
And I melted.
I always melted.
Kids are crazy.
Batshit, certifiably, without-a-brain-in-their-head crazy. If you’re not explaining something to them, then you’re reexplaining it, because they didn’t listen the first time, and as soon as you explain it, they ask the same damn question you just spent twenty minutes explaining the answer to!
And the questions. Holy fuck, the questions.
Some of these kids talked more in one day than I have in my entire life, and you can’t get away from it, because they follow you.
Like, take a hint, you know?
“Jared! I want the blue helmet, and Connor had it last time, and it’s my turn!” the half-pint blond kid whined from the track as all the other children climbed into their go-kart cars, two rows of six each.
I tipped my chin down and inhaled an aggravated breath as I gripped the fence surrounding the track. “It doesn’t matter what color helmet you have on,” I growled, tensing every muscle in my back.
Blondie—what the hell was his name again?—scrunched up his face, getting redder by the moment. “But . . . but it’s not fair! He had it two times, and I—”
“Get the black helmet,” I ordered, cutting him off. “It’s your lucky one, remember?”
He pinched his eyebrows together, his freckled nose scrunching up. “It is?”
“Yes,” I lied, the hot California sun beating down on my black-T-shirt-clad shoulders. “You wore it when we flipped in the buggy three weeks ago. It kept you safe.”
“I thought I was wearing the blue one.”
“Nope. The black,” I lied again. I really had no idea what color he’d been wearing.
I should feel bad about lying, but I didn’t. When children got more reasonable, I could stop resorting to rocket science to get them to do what I wanted them to do. “Hurry up,” I shouted, hearing little go-kart motors fill the air. “They’re going to leave without you.”
He ran for the other side of the gate to the shelves of helmets, snatching up the black one. I watched as all the kids, ranging in age from five to eight, strapped themselves in and shot each other excited little thumbs-ups. They gripped their steering wheels, their thin arms tense, and I felt a grin pull at the corners of my mouth.
This was the part that wasn’t so bad.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I watched with pride as they took off, each kid handling his or her car with increasing precision every week they came here. Their shiny helmets glistened in the early summer sunshine as the tiny engines zoomed around the bend and echoed in the distance as they sped off. Some kids were still pushing the pedal to the metal for the entire race, but others were learning to measure their time and assess the road ahead. Patience was hard to muster when you just wanted to be in front the entire race, but some quickly caught on that a good defense was the best offense. It wasn’t just about getting ahead of that car; it was also about staying ahead of the cars already behind you.
And more than just learning, they were also having fun. If only a place like this had existed when I was that age.
But even at twenty-two, I was still grateful for it.
When these kids first walked through my door they knew next to nothing, and now they handled the track like it was a walk in the park. Thanks to me and the other volunteers. They were always happy to be here, full of smiles, and looking to me with anticipation.
They actually wanted to be around me.
What the hell for, I didn’t know, but I was certain of one thing. As much as I complained or escaped to my office, struggling to scrape up just a little more patience, I absolutely, without a doubt, wanted to be around them, too. Some of them were pretty cool little shits.
When I wasn’t traveling and working the circuit, racing with my own team, I was here, helping with the kids program.
Of course, it wasn’t just a go-kart track. There was a garage and a shop, and lots of drivers and their girlfriends hung out, working on bikes and shooting the shit.
Godsmack’s “Something Different” played over the speakers, and I looked up at the sky, seeing the sun beat down, blinding me.
It was probably raining back home today. June was big on summer thunderstorms in Shelburne Falls.
“Here,” Pasha ordered, shoving a clipboard into my chest. “Sign these.”
I grabbed it, scowling at my black-and-purple-haired assistant from under my sunglasses as the go-karts roared past.
“What is it?” I unclipped the pen and looked at what appeared to be a purchase order.
She watched the track, answering me. “One is an order for your bike parts. I’m just having them shipped to Texas. Your crew can sort through it when you get there in August—”
I dropped my arms to my sides. “That’s two months away,” I shot out. “How do you know that shit’s still going to be there when I get there?”
Austin was going to be my first stop when I went back out on the road racing after my break. I understood her logic. I didn’t need the equipment until then, but it was thousands of dollars’ worth of parts that someone else could get their hands on. I’d rather have it here with me in California than three states away, unprotected.
But she just shot me a glare, looking like I’d put mustard on her pancakes. “The other two are forms faxed over from your accountant,” she went on, ignoring my concern. “Paperwork to do with establishing JT Racing.” And then she peered over at me, looking inquisitive. “Kind of vain, don’t you think? Giving your business your initials?”
I dropped my eyes back down to the papers and began signing. “They’re not my initials,” I mumbled. “And I don’t pay you to have an opinion about everything, and I certainly don’t pay you to get on my nerves.”
I handed over the clipboard, and she took it with a smile. “No, you pay me to remember your mom’s birthday,” she threw back. “You also pay me to keep your iPod fresh with new music, your bills paid, your motorcycles safe, your schedule on your phone, your flights booked, your favorite foods in your refrigerator, and my personal favorite: I’m to call you thirty minutes after you’ve been forced to go to some function or party and give you a dire excuse as to why you need to leave said social gathering, because you hate people, right?” Her tone dripped with cockiness, and
I was suddenly glad I didn’t grow up with a sister.
I didn’t hate people.
Okay, yes. I hated most people.
She continued, “I schedule your haircuts, I run this place and your Facebook page—I do love all the topless photos chicks send you, by the way—and I’m the first person you seek out when you want someone to yell at.” She planted her hands on her hips, squinting at me. “Now, I forget. What don’t you pay me to do again?”
My chest inflated with a heavy breath, and I chewed the corner of my mouth until she took the hint and left. I could practically smell her smug smile as she made her way back to the shop.
She knew she was priceless, and I’d walked into that one. I might take a lot of sass from her, but she was right. She took a lot of it from me, too.
Pasha was my age and the daughter of the man I co-owned this bike shop with. Although the old man, Drake Weingarten, was a racing legend on the motorcycle circuits, he chose to be a silent partner and enjoy his retirement in the pool hall down the street when he was in town or in his cabin near Tahoe when he wasn’t.
I liked having this as a home base near the action in Pomona, and I’d found I actually took an interest in the kids program he sponsored here when I started hanging around the motorcycle shop almost two years ago. When he’d asked if I wanted to plant some roots and buy into this place, it was the perfect timing.
There was nothing left for me back home. My life was here now.
A cool, little hand slipped into mine, and I looked down to see Gianna, a bright-faced brunette I’d grown pretty fond of. I smiled, looking for her usual cheery expression, but she squeezed my hand and brushed her lips into my arm, looking like she was ten kinds of sad instead.
“What’s the matter, kiddo?” I joked. “Whose butt do I need to kick?”
She wrapped both of her little arms around mine, and I could feel her shaking.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, “I guess crying is such a girlie thing to do, isn’t it?” The sarcasm in her voice was unmistakable.
Chicks—even eight-year-old chicks—were complicated. Women didn’t want to tell you what was wrong flat out. Oh, no. It couldn’t be that easy. You had to get a shovel and dig it out of them.
Gianna had been coming around for more than two months, but just recently she’d started in the racing club. Out of all the kids in the class, she had the most promise. She worried about being perfect, she always looked over her shoulder, and it seemed as if she always figured out how to argue with me even before she knew what I was going to say—but she had it.
“Why aren’t you on the track?” I pulled my arm out of her grasp and sat down on the picnic table to meet her eye to eye.
She stared at the ground, her bottom lip quivering. “My dad says I can’t take part in the program anymore.”
She shifted from side to side on her feet, and my heart skipped when I looked down and saw her red Chucks. Just like the ones Tate wore the first time I met her when we were ten.
Looking back up, I watched her hesitate before answering. “My dad says it makes my brother feel bad.”
Leaning my elbows down to my knees, I twisted my head to study her. “Because you beat your brother in the race last week,” I verified.
Of course. She’d beat everyone last week, and her brother—her twin—left the track crying.
“He says my brother won’t feel like a man if I race with him.”
I snorted, but then I straightened my face when I saw her scowl. “It’s not funny,” she whimpered. “And it’s not fair.”
I shook my head and grabbed the shop cloth out of my back pocket. “Here,” I offered, letting her dry her tears.
Clearing my throat, I got closer and spoke in a low voice. “Listen, you’re not going to understand this now, but remember it for later,” I told her. “Your brother is going to do a lot over the years to feel like a man, but that’s not your problem. You got that?”
Her expression remained frozen as she listened.
“Do you like racing?” I asked.
She nodded quickly.
“Are you doing anything wrong?”
She shook her head, her two low pigtails swinging across her shoulders.
“Should you be afraid to do something you like just because you’re a winner and other people can’t handle that?” I pushed.
Her innocent storm blue eyes finally looked up at me, and she tipped her chin up, shaking her head. “No.”
“Then get your butt on the track,” I commanded, turning to the go-karts flying by. “You’re late.”
She flashed a smile that took up half her face and shot off toward the track entrance, full of excitement. But then she stopped and swung back around. “But what about my dad?”
“I’ll handle your dad.”
Her smile flashed again, and I had to fight to hold back my own.
“Oh, and I’m not supposed to tell you this,” she taunted, “but my mom thinks you’re hot.”
And then she twisted around and darted off toward the cars.
I let out an awkward breath before glancing over to the bleachers where the moms sat. Jax would call them cougars, and Madoc would just call them.
Well, before he was married, anyway.
It was always the same with these women, and I knew some of them enrolled their kids simply to get closer to the drivers and riders who hung out here. They showed up in full hair and makeup, usually in heels and tight jeans or short skirts, as if I was going to pick one and take her into the office as her kid played outside.
Half of them had their phones in front of their faces to look like they weren’t doing what I knew they were. Thanks to Pasha’s big mouth, I knew that while some people used their sunglasses to disguise that they were staring at you, these women were zooming in with their cameras to stare at me close-up.
Super. I then and there made it another part of Pasha’s job description not to tell me shit I didn’t need to know.
“Jared!” Pasha’s bark boomed over every other sound here. “You have a phone call on Skype!”
I cocked my head to the side, peering over at her. Skype?
Wondering who the hell wanted to video chat, I got up and walked through the café and into the shop/garage, ignoring the faint whispers and sideways glances from people who recognized me. No one knew me outside of the motorcycle world, but inside it, I was starting to get a name for myself, and the attention was always going to be hard to deal with. If I could have the career without it, I would, but the crowds came with the racing.
Stepping into the office, I closed the door and rounded my desk, staring at my laptop screen. “Mom?” I said to the woman who was a female version of me in looks.
Thank God I didn’t look like my dad.
“Aw,” she cooed, “so you do remember who I am. I was worried.” She nodded condescendingly, and I leaned down on the desk, arching a brow.
“Don’t be dramatic,” I grumbled.
I couldn’t tell where she was from the furniture behind her. All I saw was a lot of white in the background, so I assumed it was a bedroom. Her husband—and my best friend’s father, Jason Caruthers—was a successful lawyer, and their new Chicago apartment was probably the best money could buy.
My mother, on the other hand, was perfectly recognizable. Absolutely beautiful, and a testament to the fact that people do take advantage of the second chances they’re given. She looked healthy, alert, and happy.
“We talk every few weeks,” I reminded her. “But we’ve never video chatted before, so what’s up?”
Since I had quit college and left home two years ago, I’d been back only once. Just long enough to realize it was a mistake. I hadn’t seen my friends or my brother, and even though I’d kept in touch with my mother, it had been only via phone and text. And even that was kept short and sweet.
It was better that way. Out of sight, out of mind, and it worked, too, because every time I heard my mother’s voice or got an e-mail from my brother or a text from someone back home, I thought about her.
My mother leaned in close, her chocolate hair, same as mine, falling over her shoulders. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s start over,” she chirped and straightened her back. “Hey, son.” She smiled.
“How are you doing? I’ve missed you. Have you missed me?”
I let out a nervous laugh and shook my head. “Jesus,” I breathed out.
Aside from Tate, my mother knew me better than anyone. Not because we’d shared so much mother-son time over the years, but because she’d lived with me long enough to know I didn’t like unnecessary bullshit.
Small talk? Yeah, not my thing.
Plopping my ass down in the high-back leather chair, I placated her. “I’m doing fine,” I said. “And you?”
She nodded, and I noticed the happiness that made her skin glow. “Keeping busy. There’s lots going on back home this summer.”
“You’re in Shelburne Falls?” I asked. She spent most of her time about an hour away in Chicago with her husband. Why was she back in our hometown?
“Just got back yesterday. I’ll be staying for the rest of the summer.”
I dropped my eyes, faltering for a split second, but I knew my mother saw it. When I looked back up, she was watching me. And I waited for what I knew was coming.
When I didn’t say anything, she egged me on. “This is the part where you ask me why I’m staying with Madoc and Fallon instead of in the city with my husband, Jared.”
I averted my eyes, trying to look disinterested. Her husband used to own the house in Shelburne Falls, but he gave it to Madoc when he married. Jason and my mother still stayed there when they were in town, and for some reason my mother thought I was interested.
She was playing me. Trying to get me intrigued. Trying to get me to ask about home.
Maybe I didn’t want to know. Or maybe I did . . .
Talking to my brother had been easy these past two years away. He knew not to pry, and he knew I’d bring up anything I felt like talking about. My mother, on the other hand, was always a time bomb. I always wondered when she’d bring it up.
She was in Shelburne Falls, and it was summer break. Everyone would be there.
Instead, I rolled my eyes and leaned back in the chair, determined not to indulge her need for playing games.
She laughed, and I looked up.
“I love you.” She chuckled, changing the subject. “And I’m glad your disdain for small talk hasn’t wavered.”
She tipped her chin up, her rich eyes sparkling. “It’s comforting to know some things never change.”
I gritted my teeth, waiting for the bomb to detonate. “Yeah, I love you, too,” I said absently and cleared my throat. “So get to the point. What’s up?”
She tapped her fingers on the desk in front of her. “You haven’t been home in two years, and I’d like to see you. That’s all.”
I had been home. Once. She just hadn’t known it.
“That’s it?” I asked, not believing her. “If you miss me so much, then get your ass on a plane and come see me,” I teased.
I narrowed my eyes. “Why?”
“Because of this.” And she stood up, revealing her very pregnant belly.
My eyes grew wide, and my face fell as I wondered what the fuck was going on.
I felt the vein in my neck throb, and I just stared at the ski slope running from her neck to her waist, and . . . and it couldn’t be real.
Pregnant? She was not pregnant! I was twenty-two. My mother was, like, forty.
I watched her flatten her palms on her back and slowly lower herself back down into a sitting position. I licked my dry lips and breathed hard.
“Mom?” I hadn’t blinked. “Is this some kind of joke?”
She offered a sympathetic look. “I’m afraid not,” she explained. “Your sister is due to arrive within three weeks . . .”
“And I want all of her brothers here to greet her when she does,” she finished.
I looked away, my heart pumping heat throughout my body.
Holy shit, she’s fucking pregnant.
Sister, she’d said.
And all of her brothers.
“So it’s a girl,” I said, more to myself than to her.
I rubbed the back of my neck, thankful that my mother was light on the chatter, so I could process this. I had no idea what to think.
She was going to have a baby, and part of me wanted to know what the hell she was thinking. She’d been an alcoholic for about fifteen years while I was growing up, and while I knew she always loved me and she was ultimately a good person, I’d also be the first person to burst her little bubble and tell her she had sucked as a parent.
But the other part of me knew that she’d recovered. She’d earned a second chance, and after five years sober, I guessed she was ready for it. She’d also been a perfect surrogate mother to my half-brother, Jax, when he came to live with us, and she had an amazing support system now.
Just one that hadn’t included me since I’d been absent.
Her stepson, Madoc, and his wife, Fallon; Jax and his girlfriend, Juliet; my mother’s husband, Jason; the housekeeper, Addie . . . everyone was there for her except me.
I shook my head clear and turned back to the screen. “Jesus . . . Mom, I . . . I’m . . .” I was stammering badly. I had no clue what to say or do. I wasn’t touchy-feely or good with this kind of stuff.
“Mom.” I swallowed and looked her in the eye. “I’m happy for you. I never would’ve thought—”
“That I wanted more kids?” she cut in. “I want all of my kids, Jared. I miss you very much,” she admitted. “Madoc and Fallon are watching over me, since Jason is finishing up a case in the city, and Jax and Juliet are being wonderful, but I want you here. Come home. Please.”
I cleared my throat. Home.
“Mom, my schedule is . . .” I searched for an excuse. “I’ll try, but it’s just—”
“Tate’s not here,” she cut me off, dropping her gaze. My pulse echoed in my ears.
“If that’s what you’re worried about,” she explained. “Her father is in Italy for a few months, so she’s spending the summer there.”
I tipped my chin down, inhaling a hard breath.
Tate’s not home.
Good. My jaw hardened. That’s good. I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I could go home and spend time with my family, and it could be done with. I wouldn’t have to see her.
I hated to admit it, even to myself, but I’d been afraid of running into her. So much so that I hadn’t gone home.
I ran my palm down my thigh, ridding myself of the sweat that always came when I thought about her. Even though I’d left to make myself whole, there was still a piece of me that seemed forever hollow.
A piece only she ever filled.
I couldn’t see her and not want her. Or not want to hate her.
“Jared?” My mother was talking, and I evened out my expression.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m here.”
“Listen to me,” she ordered. “This isn’t about why you’ve been away. This is about your sister. That’s all I want you to think about right now. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but
I . . .”
Her eyes fell, and she looked to be searching for words. “I never know what you’re thinking, Jared. You’re so guarded, and I wanted to have you to myself to tell you this in person. You never find time to come home, however, and I’ve waited as long as I can.”
I didn’t know why it bugged me that my mom had a hard time talking to me. I guess I’d never really thought about it, but since she’d put it out there, I realized I didn’t like that I made her nervous.
She took a deep breath and looked at me, her eyes kind but serious. “We need you,” she said softly. “Madoc will be the one playing with all of her toys with her. Jax will be climbing mountains with her on his shoulders. But you’re her shield, Jared. The one who will make sure she is never hurt. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. Quinn Caruthers needs all of her brothers.”
I couldn’t help it—I smiled.
Quinn Caruthers. My sister. She had a name already.
And hell yes I was going to be there for that.
I nodded, giving her my answer.
“Good.” A relieved look crossed her face. “Jax emailed you a plane ticket.”
And then she clicked off.
Thanks for reading! Aflame releases April 21st.
Pre-order here—> http://amzn.to/1AyJDKu
And don’t worry. Mama Trent is lying through her teeth.
Tate is NOT in Italy.