Everything was turned upside down. Me included.
My purse was open and all my stuff fell to the ground. My backpack went down, hitting my head, then falling off my arm and thudding next to my purse. My phone fell out of my pocket. My keys rained down from my hands because I was trying to grab onto Stone’s shoulders so I didn’t land on my head, too, even though I knew he was more than capable of lifting me over his head.
But I was kicking and out of control, and I swung, hitting something.
He grunted, ducking, then putting me on my feet. “Jesus. I forgot how solid you are.”
My ass, I was solid.
Red in the face, hair literally everywhere, I shoved him back from me. “Get off me!”
“I’m off! Fuck’s sake. Chill the fuck out.”
He held his hands up, taking a step back, and then it was time to assess.
I was refusing to look at him. I knew how Stone looked. His face and physique was on the television on any given sports channel almost every day, or on the Internet, or people were talking about him on the radio. The team was local. I knew when I applied here that I’d have to deal with going into Stone-Land, but I hadn’t realized it would be this bad.
I did not need to know how he looked like a walking, well-cut ad for the Marines. He was a professional athlete. He and his teammates could walk and nuns would swoon. No joke. I heard one once, and that’d been when he was in college and I’d been visiting my mom in Hospice before she was sent home to die.
The memory was like a bucket of cold water.
I was drenched with reality, and fuck that. I looked up, seeing him still taking me in, a look in his eye I didn’t want to identify, a hand at his jaw, and I snarled. “What are you doing here?”
Now I was looking right at him, and I hadn’t been prepared.
He was gorgeous, with his ripped, lean body, and his crew cut, and those hazel eyes that were darkening, taking me in. Even his face had morphed into an athletic machine. I didn’t know that was possible, but his cheekbones were wide and slanting upwards. His jawline was so pronounced, ending in a strong square and fuuuuuuck, he was hawt.
Holy crapshitastic, he was hot.
I blinked a few times, needing to get myself together.
He had picked me up like I was nothing, and then told me I was solid, but I knew in Stone’s world, that meant I was strong. Because I wasn’t solid in the other way, but my body was freakishly strong. It was from my grandpa’s genes. The women, though they might’ve looked tiny and weighed nothing, were almost as strong as the men. It came in handy if I needed something moved, because as long as I didn’t twist my back, I could move almost anything. Might take some finagling and me being smart, but I rarely needed to ask for help.
It was a skill I prided myself on. Didn’t need a man.
“Fuck, Dust.” He grunted, shifting back.
At that, another bucket of water was tossed in my face.
I remembered where we were and looking around, I saw my roommates standing at the front of the house. Thankfully, they hadn’t moved down the alley to where we were, giving us a modicum of privacy, but I was livid. Word was out. Secret was blown. They all fucking knew now, and I’d have to deal with damage control after this. The fallout was going to be freaking epic.
Horrified, feeling a sob working its way up my throat, I clamped that shit down and dropped to my knees.
I was grabbing blindly, just seeing red. The edges of my eyesight were blurring. I could only see what was literally in front of me, and so I focused there. Forcing deep breaths out through my nose, because if I opened my mouth, I’d either start crying or I’d start shouting.
My toothbrush was on the ground. That’d have to be tossed. More money coming out of my account.
What else? What else? What else?
I was slightly hysterical. I grabbed a textbook at the same time I felt Stone kneeling beside me. He began grabbing my things, too.
I lost it. I snapped.
“NO!” I shoved him backwards, pushing him off his feet.
His eyes widened, shock infiltrating his own anger. “I was trying to help!”
“I don’t need your help!” I was on my feet.
People might think I was overreacting, but I wasn’t. I really and truly wasn’t. He had no idea what I went through because I knew him, because the wrong person found out I knew him. I was here because of that sick and twisted someone.
“Get gone, Stone! I don’t want you here.”
He stopped, taking me in, and a soft, “Shit,” left him. He let out a sigh. “Dust.”
“Don’t! Don’t ‘Dust’ me. I swear to God, don’t.”
He wasn’t leaving.
I waited, but he wasn’t going.
He took a step back, flinching. But stopped. He looked torn, his hand going back to that strong jaw that could cut metal. “Dusty, I—”
“What do you want?” I flung my arms out wide. “I talked to Gail. I told her to stop whatever she was doing and thinking. She got the message. It’s done. Your family. My family. We’ll cease to exist to each other. I blocked your number because I never want to hear from you or see you ever again. Yet, here you are. Leave me alone. Please!”
And then, with words so soft that I’d never forget them, his face shuddered as he said, “Your parents were in an accident.”
I hadn’t heard him right.
A strangled laugh from me. “What?” That wasn’t right. I’d just talked to Gail a few days ago.
I had told her—God. I had gotten upset with her. I’d been more heated than I should’ve been, and Dad—Dad.
I was shaking my head. That wasn’t right.
I must have heard him wrong.
He wasn’t looking at me like my old best friend. This was all totally wrong.
“Dust.” This one was even softer, filled with regret. And those eyes of his. The hostility was gone. Sympathy and something else? Mourning. NO! Who did he get to mourn?
No. No. Just no.
“They’re fine, right?”
They just couldn’t call. I hadn’t given my new number to anyone else but them. Stone had it, ironically. That’s why he was here.
He still wasn’t saying anything.
Whatever. I’d find out myself.
I went back to grabbing everything from my purse. I’d need all of that. And my emergency fund. I’d use that to fly back. I’d drop out of school. I’d have to. Then again, maybe they weren’t that bad. Maybe they weren’t even in a hospital.
I’d just have to call them.
Grabbing my phone, I tried Gail’s number first.
“Dust.” Stone stepped toward me.
I backed away.
“No, no. I’ll just…” She wasn’t picking up.
Okay. “Her phone was damaged. Is that what happened?” Okay. I’d try my dad’s cell, but he rarely used it. He hated the thing. He used Gail’s.
I pulled him up, hitting the call button.
“Dusty, stop.” Stone’s hand covered mine. He took the phone away from me, and then ended the call.
He had the update. That’s why he was here. I couldn’t avoid this anymore.
So I stopped and I stared at him, but I did not cry.
I would not cry.
Not in front of him, or in front of my housemates. In front of no one.
“Just tell me, Stone.”
He closed his eyes again, then opened them and I saw the tormented look flash there. It didn’t leave. It stayed and it just made this all that much worse.
“They were driving to see your stepbrother’s football game. Three deer were in the road. Right by Sidewinder Curve, you know the place.”
My chest was hurting, like really badly hurting.
I felt something squeezing in there, not letting go.
That curve was aptly named.
“Three deer?” I whispered.
He nodded. “I’m really sorry. One deer would’ve been a smashed-up car. But three—”
I winced as if he’d hit me. Three. I knew the damage three could do. It was rare, but not unheard of where we lived. Deer were everywhere.
“Their car rolled. Gail went through the front window. Your dad—”
I had to know.
I gutted out, “Say it.”
“Your dad was pinned under the truck. The steering wheel cut into him, and he died just as the ambulance got there. Gail died on impact.”
“No.” I slid down to my knees, right in the middle of all my things.
A part of my brain, the rational part, was watching from outside of me. It was telling me to get it together, go somewhere private, stop being entertainment for these people. But that part wasn’t controlling me right now. It wasn’t the irrational part either. Or the feelings part. It was a part I wasn’t entirely familiar with, a part that I’d only come to know one other time, so the tinge of familiarity wasn’t as strong.
There’s a pocket in your mind where you go when you feel unsafe, where you can’t handle whatever is happening in real life, and you lock yourself in there because you feel protected. Self-preservation.
I was there, but I wasn’t completely there.