This prologue was deleted from Next to Never to shrink the word count in the paperback. If the paperback is too big (since it contains both Aflame and Next to Never) it would end up being too expensive for readers. This prologue still works and fits for the book, but it wasn’t crucially important to the story, so I’m offering it up now in its entirety for your enjoyment! Some of this has already been released to readers, but this is the whole thing. There will be a couple more deleted scenes coming after the release on January 17th!! Enjoy <3
“This isn’t working.”
I hear my mother’s voice coming from the office down the hall and pull my black sweatshirt over my head as I tiptoe undetected cross the hardwood floors.
“You’re twisting her into knots, Jason.”
“She’s fine,” my dad barks, and I hear papers shuffle. “You’re worrying for nothing. As usual.”
I’m careful to stay quiet as I stop next to the wall and inch closer to the office.
She. That means me, I assume.
A narrow strip of light spills through the crack in the door, and I peek in to see my father standing behind the desk, organizing his papers, while my mother stares at him from the other side.
It’s typical of my dad to avert his eyes in any confrontation with my mother. As if looking at her will make him fold.
“Jared and Tate rented a house in Huntington Beach for the summer,” she tells him. “I’m sending her with them.”
His gaze finally shoots up, and he glares at her. My heart starts pounding, because I know that look.
“Like hell you are,” he growls. “She’s thirteen years old! She’s not going away for an entire summer. Our daughter stays with us.”
“She needs a break!” Mom fights back. “She’s a straight A student, and you still have her seeing a Math tutor to get ahead. She’s in gymnastics, piano, the computer club, and she’s seeing a Spanish tutor three times a week in addition to the French she’s already taking at school. I want her to have the summer off.”
“Quinn likes to learn. She made those choices.”
“Because she loves you,” my mom says, “and she wants you to be proud of her.”
“I am proud of her,” he retorts, and I can see his chest starting to rise and fall faster as he plants his palms on the desk. “I’ve only ever wanted her to be happy. You know that.”
“But how do we know that she is?”
“Because there’s nothing wrong!” He pounds his fist on the solid wood of his desk, and I jump. “After all these years, you still don’t trust me. Our life is good now. Why can’t you let it be that way? You’re manufacturing these problems.”
My eyes sting, and I pull back, resting my shoulder against the wall. My parents are silent for a few moments, and then I hear my mother’s quiet voice, thick with tears.
“She doesn’t argue,” she tells him. “She doesn’t ever tell us what she wants. She just nods and agrees. ‘Sit still and do as you’re told.’ That’s Quinn.”
I lock my teeth together to keep my chin from trembling and stare down at my hands as I start to pick away at the pink nail polish on my thumb.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cry,” my mom continues.
“You want to see her cry?”
“Yes!” she bursts out. “I want to see her do something! Jared would yell, fight, break things, and I hated it, but at least I knew what I was getting was true. I knew what I had to work with. I can’t read Quinn.”
My toes curl into the floor as I run my thumb along the jagged piece of polish I’d peeled away.
My dad’s right. I’m fine. So I may not go out on big adventures like Hawke or tear up the track like my brothers. Maybe I don’t need to make a spectacle of myself or prove anything. Maybe I’m happier this way.
“Jared, Madoc, Jax…” my mom goes on, “they all raced over the edge, and they did it running. Quinn’s so afraid to even move a muscle.” She pauses, and I hear her inhale a breath, her voice turning resolute. “She’s going away for the summer, and that’s final—”
“She’s not going anywhere.”
“…and maybe I should go with her!” my mother bites out.
I suddenly hear a crash.
My breath catches in my throat as I peer into the office again. I see my dad glaring at my mom, his teeth bared and his breathing heavy, while everything on the desk is now piled onto the floor in a messy heap. The chords in his forearms, visible since the sleeves of his white shirt are rolled up, are tight and his hands are balled into fists.
Tears well in my eyes. I’m never seen him so angry.
My mother’s back straightens. “Careful,” she says in a smooth voice, almost cocky. “You’re still so used to life revolving around your every command, maybe it would’ve been better keeping me as your whore.”
My breath shakes, and I blink to keep the stinging away from my eyes. Whore? What the hell does she mean by that?
My dad stares at her and slowly rises, standing up straight and looking furious. She went too far.
My mother twists around, and I tense, seeing her come my way, but she doesn’t make it. My dad rounds the desk, grabs her by the waist, and pulls her into him, her back against his chest.
She gasps, and he wraps his arms around her, holding her tight as he buries his face in her neck.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
She closes her eyes, breaking down and quietly sobbing as she turns her face toward him.
I breathe hard, backing away and unsure what to do next. I’m so confused, and I don’t understand the conversation I just overheard.
Turning around, I stop and inhale a quick breath. A dark figure stands in front of me.
“Shhh.” Lucas holds a finger against his lips.
I stare through blurry eyes up into his, which are a blue I would recognize anywhere, except I can’t really see clearly in the dark hallway. He reaches out a finger, and I blink as he catches a tear hanging off my bottom lid.
“It’s okay,” he says gently. Then he jerks his head to the side. “Come on.”
I swallow the lump in my throat and follow my brothers’ friend down the hall, into the kitchen, and through the door leading into the basement.
“Where are we going?” I ask as he flips on the light.
He says it as if that explains everything. It kind of does, I guess.
Our family loves pizza.
Just like my dad had a skating ramp built for his stepdaughter back in the day, Madoc, my brother, had a custom kitchen built for me outside on the downstairs patio, right off the finished basement.
I was here a lot, and even though my parents had bought another house less than a mile down the road, this house—the one my brother grew up in—was still home-base. Parties, barbeques, holidays…everything important was held here. And since it’s Memorial Day weekend, my other two brothers are here with their families, as well. Even though their houses are only a few miles away.
Our family is close even though we aren’t family in the traditional sense. I have three brothers, one of whom I share a mother with and one of whom I share a father with. The other one isn’t technically my blood, but it didn’t matter.
And then they all have children, which means I’m an aunt to four boys and two girls who aren’t much younger than me.
Yeah. Even I still get confused.
And then there’s Lucas.
Lucas is twenty-five—twelve years older than me. Madoc mentored him as a little kid, since he grew up without a dad, so for all intents and purposes, he’s family. He was a part of the family long before I was born, and I’ve never known a time without him.
I don’t want to.
Lucas never says anything negative, never puts pressure on me, never makes demands or redirects me, and as much I love my family—and I know they don’t mean to put me on edge—he relaxes me.
I’ve always veered in his direction. Stayed closed to him. Even though lately, I’ve gotten more nervous around him. I’m not sure why. Nothing has changed.
Except me, I guess.
Following him through the main room of the basement, across the plush carpeting, past the pool table, away from the entertainment center with leather couches and the Wall of Shame and Fame with all our family photos, I watch as Lucas opens the French doors and walks out first, holding the door open behind him with his hand.
“It’s raining!” I burst out, stopping to stare at the light but steady downpour.
He just tosses back a smile and continues walking for the outdoor kitchen, complete with a small fridge, sink, stove, and a brick pizza oven.
The bottoms of his jeans drag just slightly on the slate patio, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. In his flip flops and gray T-shirt, he’s a lot less intimidating than he has been lately.
After Lucas finished graduate school last year, he started wearing a lot of suits for work, and it was hard to get used to. He looked like a different person, and while I knew he was a grown up, I’d never thought of him like…a man.
And that’s getting harder to ignore now. I liked the seventeen year old who taught me how to blow bubbles with my gum when I was five. Now it…it feels like he’s passing me up. Sprinting ahead while I’m still at a light jog.
A mosquito buzzes in front of my face, and I shoo it away, but I stop short when I notice flashes of yellow out in the distance. The streams of light are whipping back and forth, moving erratically into the trees.
“Who’s out there?” I ask Lucas, making my way to the kitchen and staying dry under the roof above us. “I see flashlights out there.”
“Well, since it’s raining, I imagine it’s Tate.” He lights the pizza oven and adds more wood. “I think she and Jared are checking out the tree house.”
My eyebrows shoot up. “Well, let’s go, too.”
But he just shakes his head. “Uh no. I don’t think they want to be interrupted.”
My shoulders falling a bit, I keep staring as the glowing light in the trees fade away, hearing the refrigerator door open and close as he gathers the ingredients behind me.
“Do I melt butter and spread it on the dough or use cooking spray?” he asks.
I turn around and see one of the pizza pans already prepared with pre-made dough that Addie, the housekeeper, and I keep stocked in the fridge sitting on the workspace. Lucas has taken out pepperoni, American cheese, bay leaves and…ketchup.
“Oh, my God.” I groan. “Just let me do it.”
Walking over, I step in front of the counter, forcing him out of the way, and start putting away…well, everything except the pepperoni.
“Works every time.” I hear him gloat as he walks away. “And hurry up, I’m hungry.”
I roll my eyes, but I can’t help but indulge in a little smile. Cooking is the one thing I truly love, and I like it when people want me to do it.
As I get busy pulling out the mozzarella, sauce, and a small bowl of special seasoning, Lucas digs into a cupboard and takes out some pineapple juice, orange juice, and a small bottle of Squirt. Lucas pours equal parts of the juices and the soda into a shaker, adds ice, and shakes the concoction, mixing it up.
It’s my absolute favorite drink, and while it’s usually frozen to make a slushy-type punch for the holidays, Lucas figured out years ago how to make the liquid form behind the family’s back. They wait for Christmas to enjoy it, but I can have it anytime.
He pours it into a high ball glass, slips in a straw and sticks in a little umbrella, setting it on the counter next to me. While he digs in the fridge again, pulling out a beer, I dip my head down and take a quick swig.
“Thanks.” I laugh, feeling the flavor hit the back of my tongue.
He twists the cap off his beer and takes the stool next to the counter, giving me a quick wink. “It’s good seeing you smile, kiddo.”
The tension in my shoulders starts to relax despite the chills that spread up my legs from the breeze sweeping into the covered kitchen. We stay quiet for a few moments, and my mind drifts back to my parents.
I rarely see them fight, but I’ve been finding myself wondering more and more about some of the comments I hear. Things I never noticed before but I’m starting to pick up on now. Like how they’ve been in love for so long, but why did my dad have two other wives before marrying my mom?
And somehow, I’m starting to get the impression that their relationship didn’t start how I thought normal relationships were supposed to.
Life of shit? What did that mean?
I hear a shout behind me, and glance out to the vast lawn, beyond the pool, and see my nephew, Hawke, who’s only a year younger than me, catching a football in the nearly-pitch black night. I can’t see who threw it, though.
Turning back to Lucas, I sprinkle my secret seasoning mixture over the top of the uncooked pizza. “Can I ask you a question?”
He raises the bottle to his lips. “You can do anything you want.”
“What did my mom mean?” I ask hesitantly. “About being my dad’s whore?”
“You need to ask your mom.”
I drop my eyes and concentrate on my task to hide my disappointment. Lucas will almost always answer my questions, but I can tell he feels he shouldn’t say anything. And a small bite of resentment hits me that he knows something I don’t. I know about my dad’s previous marriages and my mom’s alcoholism before I was born, but I know there’s something else that no one talks about.
“Marriage is complicated,” he explains. “Or so I’m told. Committing yourself to one person for the rest of your life almost seems unrealistic.”
I can feel my eyebrows furrow. “But if you love each other…”
He smiles gently, and I can tell he’s thinking I’m such a kid.
“Do you think people change?” he asks. “Sometimes without knowing it?”
I shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I think they do,” he replies. “I think the person who’s good for you at one point in your life might not be the right person for you later in life. I think our experiences change us, and the longer we live the more we change. I think that sometimes people outgrow each other or what they want changes over the years, and they become different people. I think that some relationships aren’t meant to last.”
I merely stare at him. What? What is he talking about?
“And some are,” he then assures me. “You’ve seen Fallon yelling at Madoc, you’ve seen Jared lose his temper, you’ve seen Jax out of his mind, because he did something to piss off Juliet…” He sets down his beer and plants his elbows on his knees as he leans forward. “Some people are better off without each other, but then there are those who can’t function without each other. Your parents are fine, Quinn.” He nods assuringly. “Like your brothers, your dad can barely stand a night away from his wife let alone forever.”
I smile to myself, relieved. I’m not sure I understand everything he said, but I guess he’s right. My dad’s—and my mom’s—other relationships didn’t last, because they weren’t meant to. But I was starting to understand that even if you love each other, it still doesn’t mean that everything is going to be easy.
Grabbing the bamboo pizza peel off its hook, I slide it under the pie and pick it up.
“Extra pepperoni,” he speaks up, hinting.
I laugh and set the pizza down again. Taking a stack of pepperoni slices, I start adding more to the pie.
“Have you ever been in love?” I ask him.
He blinks and looks away, as if he’s not sure how to answer the question. “I think you would’ve known,” he mumbles, taking another drink.
Well, that’s true. I’d grown up around him my whole life. I’ve seen him with girlfriends, some of them more serious than others, but I don’t remember anyone being around that long.
“I wasn’t at college with you,” I remind him. There could’ve been someone he never brought home and introduced to us.
He heaves a sigh and stands up, picking up the pizza peel with the pizza on it and slides it into the oven.
“Why do you ask so many questions?”
“Because you’re the only one who answers all of them,” I shoot back. “Or mostly all of them. Everyone else just tells me to use Google.”
He laughs, a wide smile spreading across his face.
Just then, my brother Jax rushes underneath the covered area, catching the football, his white T-shirt soaked and his long ponytail glistening with droplets of rain. He must be the one playing with Hawke.
“What’s going on?” he asks us, breathing hard.
“Just making pizza,” Lucas answers, sitting back down on the stool.
“It’s late.” Jax looks to me. “I thought you were in bed.”
“Well, she’s not.”
Lucas’s response is curt, and Jax shoots him a look, arching a brow.
This is so stupid. Hawke is younger than me, and Jax is letting him stay up.
Madoc once explained to me that they didn’t mean to be overbearing. It was just that they enjoyed having a little sister, and their gut response was to be overprotective.
Story of my life. Sometimes they were easier than my dad. Sometimes they were worse.
Jax looks annoyed, but he shuts his mouth and tosses the football back out into the rain. Probably to Hawke again, but I don’t care to look.
“You’re their sister, not their daughter,” Lucas points out after Jax heads back into the rain. “Speak up.”
“Why, when I have you?”
“I won’t be around forever,” he states.
And I look up at him, feeling my stomach drop. What does he mean? Is he going away?
“And you won’t need me,” he points out. “You’re going to grow up, and I can tell already you’re going to kick ass someday. No man in your life will know what hit him.”
Heat rises to my cheeks, and I drop my head, hiding my smile. I hope he’s right.
The football that Jax and Hawke are tossing around comes plummeting back into the kitchen, hitting the ground, and Lucas bends down to pick it up.
“Can I ask you another question?” I turn to face him as he tosses the ball back to the guys.
But he just laughs, throwing my joke back at me. “Just Google it.”
And then he jogs out into the night to join the boys.
I lean back on the counter, watching him go. Spotting his phone sitting next to me, I grab it and slowly type Whore into the Google bar.
My chest caves, reading, and I set the phone back down, a knot pulling tighter in my stomach.
Thank you for reading!
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