***SPOILERS!—this scene is a spoiler for Aflame!
Jared and Tate-parents of Dylan and James
Madoc and Fallon-parents of Kade and Hunter (twins), and A.J.
Jax and Juliet-parents of Hawke
Quinn-Daughter of Jason (Madoc’s dad) and Katherine (Jared’s mom). She’s Madoc, Jared, and Jax’s little sister.
Lucas-Madoc’s “little brother” from Rival
“Hey, Jared?” I called out, shouting over the crowd at the Loop. “You know what you call two Mustangs at the top of a hill? A miracle!”
I chuckled, enjoying the sight of his back tensing as he knelt down in front of his tire. Tate cocked an eyebrow, shooting me a warning look as she rounded the Boss to talk to her husband.
I shook my head and smiled, turning around to face the crowd.
Still so easy.
Even after all these years, riling him up was as simple as tying my shoes. That’s what I liked most about Jared. He was predictable. He never threw my shit back at me. He took it in, absorbed it, and let his temper build. Which usually worked in his favor. He was probably going to win tonight despite the shade I was throwing at his car.
Sliding my hands into my pockets, I scanned the area, surveying the summer evening. The crowd was huge, the night clear, and music blared from all the speakers posted around. It was almost as if it was high school again.
I spotted Jax chatting with Zack, both of them now able to sit back and enjoy the events without micro-managing the races anymore. It practically ran itself now.
His wife, Juliet, had a three year old flipped over her shoulder as she spun him around out in the field. She and Jax started taking in foster kids a few years ago, much braver than I would be, that was for sure. I could only imagine how hard it was to have to give the kids up when it was time for them to move on.
Their thirteen year old son, Hawke, stood a few yards away, tossing a football back and forth with my son Kade, while my little sister, Quinn, sat on the grass, ear phones hanging around her neck and drawing pictures in her notebook as she kept an eye on my 6 year old daughter, A. J.
Since Quinn was nearly fourteen now, and old enough to babysit, we’d started keeping her pretty busy. Unfortunately, she’d also started requiring that we pay her, too.
Dylan and Hunter were…
Where were Dylan and Hunter?
I glanced left to right, and then all around me, which I pretty much did every twelve seconds of my life, counting kids and assessing that everyone was in one piece. I finally found Dylan sitting on a blanket with some of her friends.
At twelve, she definitely had her mom’s spunk, but she was also burdened with her father’s disregard for rules. Hopefully it wouldn’t get her into as much trouble as it had him.
Hunter strolled over and pulled his headphones off his neck, nudging Dylan’s shoulder as he handed them to her. Without a word, she took them and put them on, as if they’d done this a hundred times before, and she slowly began to bob her head to whatever song he’d wanted her to listen to.
I couldn’t help but smile.
Hunter was very different from Kade. Hell, he was different from me, Jared, and Jax, too. He was quieter, gentler, and he took notice of things the rest of us didn’t see. And while I used to suspect that Kade’s connection to Dylan was stronger, I was slowly starting to understand that maybe—just maybe—Hunter’s connection to her went deeper.
She took off the headphones, handing them back up to him with a smile and nodding her head as if giving him the go-ahead. They were working on a video yearbook for their middle school and collaborating on music, so whatever he’d found must’ve gotten her approval.
I crossed my arms over my chest, watching him just stand there, his feet shuffling nervously as he struggled to find his game.
Not like his dad. I was born ready.
But before he got a chance to say anything, a football came racing toward him, knocking him in the arm. I let out an aggravated breath and watched as he stumbled backward. He righted himself and shot a glare to the field where Kade stood laughing at him. The football had clearly come from him.
A few of the girls around Dylan giggled, as well, and I could see Hunter’s chest heaving. He was angry, but he wouldn’t do anything.
He never did.
I locked my jaw shut, every muscle tensing. Kade needed a kick in the ass, but unfortunately, Fallon disapproved of abusing the children.
As the boys had gotten older, they got along less and less, and while Fallon and I used to intercede and deal with the situations, trying to make peace, we eventually decided that they needed to work it out themselves. Hunter would learn nothing if we constantly ran to his aide, and punishing Kade only made Hunter feel weak.
Hunter’s entire body was stiff, and I could tell he wanted to react, but I could also tell he was embarrassed. People were laughing at him, and as usual, others’ rallied in his brother’s corner.
Hunter was always alone.
He dropped his eyes, his expression going flat, and then he left, giving Kade exactly what he wanted.
I shook my head, following him over to Jax’s car where it sat on the side of the track. He put his headphones on and folded his arms over his chest as he leaned back on the hood.
Stepping over next to him, I pulled the headphones back off his shaggy blond head. “He was joking around with you,” I explained, seeing the annoyed press to his lips. “Give it back to him or tell him to screw off. I know he makes you angry. You can tell him.”
He stared at the ground, anger still boiling under his skin. He wanted me to leave. He didn’t want to talk about his brother or about how he felt powerless around him.
“I don’t care,” he said in a flat tone. “They all think he’s so cool, and they like him more, so let them. I don’t need any of it.”
His jaw flexed, and I could tell he was grinding his teeth.
“Everyone seems to like him more?” I repeated. “Or one person seems to like him more?”
He raised his eyes, and I followed his gaze, seeing Kade and Hawke pulling the blanket up around the girls, making it look like Santa’s sack. Dylan yelled for them to stop, at the same time squealing and giggling with her friends.
“Like I said, I don’t care,” Hunter replied in an even tone, pulling his headphones back on.
But I yanked them back off again. “Do you care that he excludes you?” I pressed. “Don’t you want to do something about it?”
He looked away, and I wasn’t sure if I should keep going or leave him alone. He definitely didn’t want to hear it, but then you think he might NEED to hear it, so…
Parenting was hard. Like really fucking hard.
While Fallon and I had stopped interfering every time he and his brother got in an argument, I still wanted to be there for him. You know, keep the lines of communication open before he retreated inward, dropped out of school, became addicted to heroin, and we never heard from him again.
But then if I communicated TOO much, it might make him self-conscious, nervous, and then he could still get addicted to heroin, and we’d never hear from him again.
I tipped my head down, speaking frankly. “Life gets more complicated as we get older, Hunter. Especially where girls come in,” I added. “And standing up to Kade will be hard, but the thing is, it’s only hard the first time you do it. Everything is difficult until it becomes familiar.” I paused and then kept going. “You move to a new place, with no friends, and it’s hard. But then it becomes easier. You kiss a girl for the first time…”
“And it’s hard,” I said louder, talking over him. “But then it becomes familiar, and it’s a piece of cake. Everything is easier once you get used to doing it. Except seeing skinny jeans on men.” I narrowed my eyes, shaking my head. “That trend should just never happen again.”
He rolled his eyes, looking like he was suffering the worst torture.
“Anyway,” I continued, “like I said, everything is difficult the first time. Like standing up to Kade will be. But once you do it, it’s going to get easier. Now, whether or not it’s tonight, next week, or five years from now, is completely up to you, but you’re her friend, too, and you have every right to be over there with them. Understand?”
He frowned, continuing to avoid my eyes.
I offered a small smile and finally stepped away, knowing I’d embarrassed him enough. But before I got too far, I turned around.
“And you’re wrong,” I pointed out. “Not everyone is a fan of your brother. Jared likes you more.”
Jared didn’t like Kade around Dylan, because Kade was too much like him. And the last thing we wanted for our daughters was men like us in high school.
I headed back to the track. Swinging an arm around my wife, she looked up at me as I stared over at Hunter retreating into his headphones again.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
I shook my head in thought. “Not sure what it is about him. I just feel like he needs us more than Kade does.”
“Hunter’s more like you. That’s why.”
Pinching my eyebrows together, I peered down at her. “How do you figure that?”
Kade was the confident one. If anything, he was the one that took after me.
But Fallon gazed down the track, nodding at Jared next to his car. “You know what it’s like to grow up in someone else’s shadow,” she remarked.
I breathed out a laugh. Okay, maybe she had a point.
Tightening my arm around her, I brought her in closer as I looked back at Hunter. “Storm’s coming, baby. I just hope she’s gentle.”
“I don’t think she’ll have any more control over that than they will.”
“Hey, Jared!” Madoc called behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder as I dumped some tools back in my car.
“I put chains in my trunk.” He smiled, holding his wife close. “Worst comes to worst, I can tow you across the line. At least you can finish, right?”
Fallon rolled her eyes, slapping him on the stomach as he and a few bystanders chuckled.
I turned back around, so he wouldn’t see the corner of my lips turning up in a smile. Madoc was so predictable.
He knew he might lose, so the best way to lose gracefully was to look like he wasn’t taking it too seriously. Crack some jokes, throw some insults, so he could just shrug off the loss as if it didn’t matter later. He’d always covered up his insecurities with humor, and it was one of the things I appreciated about him. Whereas I moped or retaliated through my self-doubt, his first instinct was to put himself and everyone around him at ease.
“Don’t worry.” Jax walked past me, slapping me on the back. “You’ll finish.”
And then he snorted, walking around the front of my car and attaching a small camera to the hood.
Really? Did everyone want to bust my chops today? I knew the prospect of a race between Madoc and me would bring in the crowd, despite the fact that we hadn’t raced here in years, but whereas everyone buzzed with who would win, I hadn’t really thought about it at all. I didn’t care.
When the hell had that happened?
“You’re quiet.” I heard a soft voice say as I fit the tools back into their case.
Looking up, I saw Tate standing next to the car, our five-year old son James standing in front of her. Her arms were draped over his shoulders, hands locked in front of his chest as she gave me a thoughtful look.
“I’m always quiet,” I said in a low voice, shooting her a smirk as I closed the trunk.
She nodded, a knowing smile crossing her face. And then she looked down, nudging James. “Why don’t you go see if Jax needs help?”
His brown eyes got bright, and he immediately pulled away from her. I ruffled his sandy blond hair as he shot past us, off to look for his uncle.
Tate moved in close, tucking her long hair behind her ear. She looked so good in her jeans, white T-shirt, and brown leather jacket. I was already thinking of asking Jax or Madoc to take Dylan and James for the night, so I could take Tate and the car and just go get lost after the race.
“We haven’t raced here in a long time,” she remarked, looking around wistfully. “It was very different back then.”
I grabbed the cloth out of my back pocket and wiped off my hands “Different? Like how?”
“You were angrier,” she said, leaning back on the trunk. “You had something to prove. Now you’re…calm.”
“I’m happy,” I retorted.
She smiled, and I moved in front of her, lifting her off the ground and planting her ass on the trunk.
She sucked in a quick breath and then let out a small laugh. “You still make my stomach flip when you do that.”
“Do I?” I narrowed my eyes, peering at her. “Because a minute ago, you said I was ‘calm’. It’s starting to sound like I’m not exciting you anymore.”
She dropped her eyes and her voice to a whisper, blushing. “Please. You know that’s not true.”
Positioning myself between her thighs, I wrapped my arms around her waist, catching Dylan over Tate’s shoulder, out in the field, scowling at us. Then she rolled her eyes before turning back to her friends.
My chest shook with a laugh. If the poor kid had any idea how Jax and I grew up, she might be grateful rather than embarrassed to see her parents showing a little affection.
“It’s…I don’t know,” Tate went on. “Something’s just different now. The Loop feels different than it did in high school. You know?”
I stared into her storm-blue eyes, realizing I wasn’t imagining it after all. She felt it, too. It was different.
Maybe our time here had passed. Maybe we’d outgrown it.
In high school, racing week in and week out, I needed this place. It was the only thing that I looked forward to, and I had shit to prove. To my parents, to Tate, to the guy that got in my face last week, to the teachers that washed their hands of me, to everyone…
But as I grew up, I realized that no matter how many races I won, I still wasn’t a winner. I’d just convinced everyone around me but myself. Now…I didn’t feel like that anymore. I was worthy of my family, my kids, my home, my career, and my wife. I could lose a race now and not feel like a loser.
I leaned in, kissing her forehead. “Yeah, I know,” I whispered and then pulled away. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
I turned and walked for Madoc’s car, sitting further down the track. He hadn’t moved into place yet, because he was late and the track was swarming with people who were in the way. Most of whom I didn’t recognize anymore.
He flashed a smile, jerking his chin at me. “Hey, what goes on pages 4 and 5 of that Mustang’s User Manual?” He gestured to my car behind me. “The bus and train schedule!”
I hooded my eyes, ignoring the dig. He seemed particularly excited, so I wouldn’t ruin it for him. Coming up next to him, I leaned on the car and folded my arms over my chest. “So I have to ask you something. Do you really want to race?”
I felt him stiffen next to me, and I could feel his eyes bearing down. “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” he shot out.
Hesitating, I avoided his eyes and took in a deep breath. “The thing is…back in junior year, when Tate was in France,” I told him, “Zack called me and wanted to set up a race between us.”
“What?” he blurted. “How come I didn’t know that?”
I looked up, locking eyes with him. “Because I turned him down. I even forgot about it until recently.”
“Why did you turn it down?”
A nervous laugh escaped, and I just shrugged. “I guess I was afraid you’d win, and I’d get pissed. Or I’d win, and you’d get pissed. The thing is…I didn’t want to risk anything changing. You know?” I hinted when he kept looking at me like I he was confused. “In our friendship.”
He just kept staring at me, the creases between his eyes growing deeper.
“Come on.” I exhaled, laughing. “You were really all I had. You knew that, right? You were my only real friend. The only thing I could count on, and I didn’t have anything to prove with you, so why risk that?” I asked him, not expecting an answer. Standing up straight, I told him frankly, “I enjoyed not knowing who was the better man. We were on even ground, and I wanted to keep it that way. Being friends with you was the only thing in my life that was easy. I didn’t want to risk anything changing it.”
He remained speechless, and I didn’t blame him. It wasn’t often I admitted things like that. He was probably searching his arsenal for some joke to shoot back with.
“So are you wimping out then?” he accused.
I straightened, scowling over at him. “No, I’m not wimping out,” I charged. “You want to race? I’ll race. I’m just saying that we don’t have anything to prove. I mean, after we race, what then?”
He wins, and I’m going to hear about it for the rest of my life. I win, and he’ll change. He’ll never challenge me again, because he would know I was better. And I didn’t want to be better than him. I didn’t want him to think I was better or the people in this town to think I was better at anything. I didn’t want to compete with Madoc.
“Yeah,” he finally responded. “I mean…we’re young. The Loop’s not going anywhere. We can race anytime.”
“Yeah. Absolutely,” I agreed. “There’s no rush.”
The only problem was all the people that showed up to see it. Well, maybe Tate would race him then. She might like that idea.
But my train of thought was interrupted when some kid in the crowd complained, making me look up. “Hey, when are the old people going to be done, so we can race?”
“Seriously,” another one chimed in, checking his invisible watch and staring at us. “It’s past nine. Isn’t it your bedtime yet?”
“Little Fuckers,” Madoc mumbled as the teens laughed with their friends.
“Yeah,” I growled under my breath.
“Leave ‘em alone, guys,” a black-haired kid next to them went on. “It’s the one night of the year their wives let them leave the house without the mini vans.”
I chewed the inside of my mouth, my heartrate picking up.
The blood in my arms rushed hot, and every hair on my neck stood up as I glared at the latest Loop generation and their smug confidence. Was I that much of an asshole back then?
“I’m kind of feeling like I have something to prove now. You?” Madoc spoke up.
The corner of my lips curled. “Yep.”
“Hope you don’t mind getting a few scratches on the Boss.”
I shook my head. “Nah. As long as you don’t mind a few dents in the GTO.”
“Not at all,” he answered, moving around me to the driver’s side. “It’s about time the kids learned how to rebuild a car anyway.”
I nodded, feeling the rush and excitement in my stomach that only came from being a little bit pissed off.
I smiled to myself as I walked back to my car.
Fucking Mini Vans. Really?
Fallon strolled across the track, making her way over to where I leaned against my car. I couldn’t help but be amused at the way she rolled her eyes and let out a sigh. It was the expression she usually wore when Madoc was about to do something stupid.
But when she looked up and saw me, she perked up, her lips spreading in a tired smile. “You know he’s going to miss you more than he lets on,” she said, standing next to me and staring at the track. “He calls you his first-born.”
I let out a small laugh, watching Madoc and Jared climb into their cars as everyone cleared the track. Their engines revved in the night air, and I could feel the vibrations in my chest.
I also noticed two more cars lining up with them and narrowed my eyes, confused. I thought it was just Jared and Madoc racing first. But it looked like some of the new drivers were also joining in.
“We’ll all miss you, of course, but you’ll be back,” Fallon continued, sounding so sure.
I stayed silent, not sure how to respond.
Tonight was my last night in town. Madoc, the Big Brother that was more of a father to me than my own ever got a chance to be, made me promise to show up tonight to say goodbye to everyone.
But I think it was more for his own benefit—and the kids in their family who I’d gotten close to. He knew I didn’t want to see anyone, preferring to just get away from here as soon as possible tomorrow.
My throat tightened, and I swallowed, forcing myself to indulge Fallon. “Yeah, I’ll miss you guys, too,” I admitted.
The traffic lights on the tracks started blinking, and Fallon hugged her chest as she popped up on her tiptoes to see. The engines roared, over and over again as the crowd went wild. I never raced here—I never took much interest—but I would definitely miss this—and them.
During the past year since I’d finished grad school, I’d been running Fallon’s Chicago office, being a face on the scene and handling our clients. She preferred to stay in Shelburne Falls, working on her designs from home, while I handled the office.
Recently, however, I’d needed to get away. I took a job with a firm in New York, and was being sent overseas to work with a team of architects in the Middle East. It was slated to be a lengthy project, and I couldn’t wait to leave. It was exactly what I needed.
“Do what you need to do, Lucas,” Fallon had said. “We’ll always be here for you.”
And I hoped that was true. Madoc seemed a little pissed when I told him I was leaving town. With the distance, I doubted I’d make it home very often, either.
Jared, on the other hand, seemed less judgmental when I asked if going away for a while was the best thing. He said leaving his friends, family, and Tate was the worst thing he’d ever done, but he also said he didn’t regret it for a second. ‘We need to go through shit and suffer to learn who we are and distance can bring perspective and make us grow up’, blah, blah, blah…but also, ‘don’t expect the world to stop turning while you’re gone. Things will change, and you better expect that.’
And then he said to stop asking him about shit he didn’t have the answers to.
I looked up at Jared, Madoc, and Jax on the track. They had beautiful families and were lucky in love with women who were driven and strong. I used to think they had all the answers, and then I realized that they fucked up just as much as I had. The only difference was they were fighters. They refused to fail.
I crossed my arms over my chest, balling my fists and hardening my jaw. Where had my fight gone? Did I even fucking care anymore?
Shouts echoed across the field, and I blinked, coming out of my head. I watched as the red light turned to yellow—more engines revving—and then turned to green.
And all four cars shot off, their exhaust and the burn of their tires clouding the air and kicking up dust.
I heard Fallon suck in a breath as Madoc immediately took the lead. We watched as he rounded the first corner, but then, all of a sudden, he whipped his car around, skidding as he faced the opposite direction. The direction the other cars were coming from.
The other drivers swerved, kicking up more dirt under their tires as they laid on their horns.
What the hell he was doing?
Fallon groaned and locked her palms in front of her chest, her fingers entwined. “He is such an idiot sometimes.”
I watched as Madoc shifted into reverse, slammed on the gas, and started driving backward, swerving side to side as he blocked the other cars from passing him, clearly having a little fun teasing them.
Laughter filled the track, and I could feel Fallon’s eye roll as we watched Madoc hang back, topping out at only thirty miles an hour—all he could do in reverse—but keeping the other cars back and allowing Jared to speed ahead. I could see arms flailing out of car windows from pissed off drivers, and Jax was hanging in the stand, hunched over the railing, laughing his ass off at the joke his brother and Madoc were making of the race.
“I guess they’re working as a team?” I mused.
“Yep,” she said in a clipped tone. “Apparently, they needed to measure their dicks against a couple high school kids. Men never grow up. No offense.”
I breathed out a laugh, sticking my hands in the pockets of my cargo shorts. The guys continued rounding the track, and as soon as Madoc had an opportunity, he slammed on the breaks, spun back around—causing the other cars to skid and swerve again—and he jumped on the gas, speeding ahead and putting him and Jared in the lead.
“You know,” Fallon began, both of us still watching the guys round the track, “you won’t leave guilt-free tomorrow. I think someone other than Madoc is mad at you.”
Turning my head to her, I saw her eyes fixed out on the grass. Following her gaze, I spotted Quinn on a blanket, lying on her stomach and drawing in the journal she always carried around with her. The one Juliet gave her for her fifth birthday.
Madoc’s daughter, A.J., sat beside her, playing with her puppy, and I caught Quinn’s eyes briefly flash to me.
But then she quickly looked away when she saw me watching.
Yeah. Jaw clenched, tight lips, and even from here I could tell she was going over the same line with her pen again and again, probably tearing the paper underneath. Her fingers were as white as snow, because she was holding the pen so tight.
I frowned to myself. Quinn was just a kid, and even though the family joked about her little crush on me over the years, she did kind of have a special place in my heart. She hadn’t had it easy, after all.
Well, she hadn’t really had it rough, either. She had everything she could ever want, as the daughter of Jason Caruthers would. But she was on a short leash. Her father hovered, and when he didn’t, her brothers did.
I was the one that had let her do things no one else would.
I was the first one to put a rifle in her hand out at the shooting range. She was nine, and I got slapped over the head for it. And I also gave her her first ride on a motorcycle when she was eleven. I realize now it was a mistake not to have a helmet on her, but it’s not like I was racing down the highway, either. I thought everyone in the family was going to kill me.
I shook my head, blowing off Fallon’s little concern. “Well, she starts high school in the fall, right? She’ll be too busy with boys and teen drama to even remember my name.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” she retorted. “You’re pretty much the only non-family member male she’s allowed to be around.”
I smiled at the joke, taking off my baseball cap and running my hand through my hair before putting it back on. “Well, like I said…high school. All the men in her life will miss the days when it was just me letting her swim without a life jacket. They’ll realize I was the least of their problems.”
Fallon laughed to herself and then looked up, stopping as she peered over the track. “Oh, no,” she grumbled. “I’ll be right back.”
Looking over, I spotted Kade and some kid I didn’t recognize getting into a fight. Fallon rushed over and immediately planted herself between them.
Over their heads, I saw Jared and Madoc heading for the finish line, head to head. I peered closely as they got nearer and nearer, and then….
I saw it.
It was a moment, and it was small, but I was pretty certain. Jared laid off the gas.
He’d done the same thing years ago when I was a kid, and I saw him race Tate. I don’t think anyone noticed but me.
Madoc crossed the finish line, and screams and cheers filled the air, everyone rushing the truck after the cars had passed.
I wasn’t sure why Jared did it. Maybe he didn’t want to win, or maybe he wanted to let Madoc have the day.
Or maybe he was paying Madoc back for all the black eyes he’d given him over the years and Tate back for the fifty shades of dick he was in high school.
Maybe he just felt guilty.
Dropping my gaze back down, I saw Quinn looking at me again, but once more, she quickly turned away.
I let out a sigh, starting to feel some of that guilt Fallon talked about. Quinn had known me her entire life. I guess I could muster up a ‘goodbye’ even when all I wanted to do was leave.
Walking over, I stopped next to her and knelt down. “I’m going to miss your croissants, you know?”
Her frown deepened as she continued to stare at her paper. “They’ll probably have better food and restaurants where you’re going anyway.”
“But they won’t be made by you.”
I was trying to soothe her, but she wasn’t having it. I didn’t want her to be mad at me, but I knew it was hard for a kid her age to understand.
And there were things I couldn’t explain to her right now. She was too young. She should be happy and excited without a care in the word, and I hated that she was wasting even one minute of her time thinking I was going to be worth missing.
“Well, stay trained up, okay?” I nudged her shoulder with my hand. “I might be back to visit soon, and I’ll expect to try some of your new recipes.”
“You won’t be back at all,” she mumbled, still not looking at me.
“How do you know?”
“Because everyone lies to make people feel better.”
I narrowed my gaze, studying her. Where the hell had she come up with a thought like that?
She finally turned her head and looked up at me, her brown eyes sad. “You’ll find new friends and forget about us.”
I shook my head, no clue what to say next. Would I make friends where I was going? Probably. Was I sure I’d be back? No. Right now, I never wanted to come back here.
But I wanted her to feel better, so, without thinking, I took off my cap and fit it over her head, chuckling when the visor part fell over her eyes.
“I will be back,” I argued. “I’ll have to get my cap back, right?”
She plucked the hat off her head, her eyes going wide as she studied it.
“You can’t give me this,” she breathed out, stunned. She knew it was my father’s and how much I loved it. But for some reason, I didn’t feel like I would miss it if I knew it would mean something to her.
“I already did,” I shot back. “So take care of it, okay?”
Standing up, I cast her one last smile before turning around to head to my car. I needed to get out of here. I was lying to her. I was lying to everyone. I had no intention of returning, even for the baseball cap. I just didn’t want her to hate me. She was the only person that still thought I was something.
“Lucas!” I heard a yell behind me.
I spun around just in time to see Quinn dig in her backpack and pull out something small. Rushing over to me, she handed me the circular metal case.
“Now you have to come back.” She smiled, and then she dashed off, back to her seat on the ground.
Pinching my eyebrows together, confused, I opened my hand, immediately recognizing the compass her mom gave to her one year for Christmas.
Shit. This was vintage and an heirloom. If she didn’t want it back, her family would. I couldn’t keep it.
I flipped it over, studying the piece and saw the words inscribed on the back. “Happiness is a direction, not a place.”
Aggravation heated my skin, the words hitting home harder than they should. They implied that no matter where I went, nothing would really change.
Had to hand it to her. She knew how to make a hard situation worse.
Letting out a sigh, I took a step forward to return the compass to Quinn, or to someone in her family, but then I spotted her dad charging over the field straight for her, and I stopped, watching.
He never came to the Loop. What the hell was he doing?
“Quinn!” he called, his necktie hanging loose around his neck. “Get your things. You’re coming home.”
She popped her head up, looking startled.
But Madoc immediately stepped in, coming up next to his father. “What the hell’s wrong? Why can’t she stay?”
Mr. Caruthers ignored him, hurrying his daughter who had pushed up on her knees as she gathered her backpack. “Now,” he ordered.
“Dad, what are you doing?” Madoc barked, his expression turning angry now. “We already cleared this with Katherine.”
Quinn stood up, pulling my baseball cap down over her eyes and clinging to her backpack straps as she looked down at the ground, probably embarrassed.
“It’s nearly ten at night,” her father told Madoc, “and she’s on a schedule. She has a full day tomorrow, and I don’t want her running around town at all hours.”
“She’s not running around town,” Jared stepped in, his voice hard. “She’s with her family.”
“Dad, seriously,” Madoc chimed in again. “She’s fine.”
“Fine?” he challenged, looking sternly at his son. “She’s a teenage girl, and maybe you have more confidence in your kids to be around this element and not be influenced, but I’ve raised a teenager, Madoc.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I should’ve been more heavy-handed with you,” his father lowered his voice as Fallon, Tate, and Juliet came closer. “I should’ve been there for you, and I should’ve laid down rules and enforced them. I’m not making that mistake again. Quinn’s getting a good father.”
“I turned out fine!” Madoc nearly laughed.
But his father’s jaw flexed. “You were almost a sixteen year old father,” he retorted.
Madoc immediately straightened, rage crossing his face as Fallon closed her eyes, turning her head away.
A sixteen year old father? Well, that was something I hadn’t been aware of. Shit.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Mr. Caruthers added to his son. “It was mine, and I won’t be making that mistake again.” And turning to Quinn, he urged, “Come on.”
He turned, walking for his car with her slowly following behind. She turned her head, though, and I could see her eyes pooling with tears as she met my gaze. Quinn never cried, and something protective inside my head kicked in, and I was almost angry as we all watched her go.
My heart started beating harder and harder, and I tensed, feeling everything knot up so tight I thought I was going to explode. It was more than I’d felt in months.
But I was steel. I didn’t budge.
I was leaving, and if I came back, it wouldn’t be for years. I needed to cut my connection to this place and these people. Being nice and caring and considerate and a fucking pushover is what got me into the mess I was in, and as I watched Jason Caruthers drive off with his daughter, I ignored her little wave and dropped my eyes.
I didn’t care.
I didn’t care that Madoc was disappointed in me or that Fallon was worried for me.
And I didn’t care about Quinn or that she had looked up to me. Tomorrow I’d be gone, and she’d get over it sooner rather than later. Kids have short memories.
Still feeling the compass in my palm, I walked over toward Madoc to give it back, but then my eyes fell, seeing Quinn’s journal open and lying upside down on the ground. In the rush, she must’ve overlooked it.
Madoc picked up his daughter, and without looking up, I could tell everyone was slowly dispersing. Leaning down, I picked up the journal and quickly turned my head, seeing the shrinking taillights of her father’s BMW speed down the road.
Madoc could get this back to her before she missed it.
I flipped it over to close it, but I quickly caught sight of a page filled with black scribbles and stopped, opening it wide to look inside.
How do the stripes get in the toothpaste?
I narrowed my eyes. What?
Studying the page, I continued to read. Which language was the first? Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle? Boxing ring. Shouldn’t it be called a boxing square? How come psychics never win the lottery?
A smile spread across my lips, and I fanned the book, taking in the each and every page, front and back, used to its fullest. No dates, no complete sentences. There were just lines upon lines of mindless doodles, small drawings, big drawings, recipes, lists, random thoughts, and…questions.
Questions on every page.
Why do they nail coffins closed? Are eyebrows considered facial hair? How do you handcuff a one-armed man? If ghosts can walk through walls and glide down stairs, why don’t they fall through the floor? Small candy cars are called fun-size. But wouldn’t the big ones be more fun to eat?
My chest shook, and I laughed. Yeah, questions.
I remembered that her dad—and Jared, Madoc, and Jax—all complained when she was little that she asked too many questions. She was always curious about everything, and it even annoyed me, too, from time to time. In fact, part of any daily activity involving Quinn would also involve a pause to answer all of her questions.
So Juliet got her a journal. She could write down her non-essential questions, and Juliet would help her research the answers. After a few years, though, Quinn stopped looking up the answers. She just wanted to ask the questions, I guess. To just wonder.
Flipping back to the page she’d been working on today, I ran my hand over the scaly paper, bumpy from all of her pen’s dent marks, and spotted one last question down at the bottom.
What if he gets married before I grow up?