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“Would you guys excuse us for a while?” I addressed the room with an invisible line drawn between the Haywards and Scarletts. “Just, eh, make yourselves comfortable.” Grabbing Emma’s hand in mine, I headed for the balcony for the illusion of privacy. It wouldn’t have mattered if we were two houses down—if my brothers wanted to eavesdrop on our conversation, they could, and knowing Joseph and his expecting this whole convincing Emma thing to be a flop, he’d be hanging on every word.

Sliding the door closed behind us, I didn’t think about what I was doing until I was kissing her, bracing her against the railing, moving my mouth against hers not as softly as I should have, but not as roughly as I wanted.

I didn’t really care if her brothers were watching and about to kick my butt, and I didn’t care if my brothers were watching and disapproving of every last forbidden Mortal fraternization kiss, I only cared that this was what I had to do right now.

Some instances were created ages before the beings involved in it were even born. This was one of those instances. Me kissing Emma, Emma kissing me, like history had been building it up since the world’s inception.

I could have said this was something of a “good” kiss, but there weren’t words, least of all “good.”

“Goodness gracious,” she whispered, breathing short when I pulled away just enough to still feel close, but still kind of pained at the distance. “Now I’m even more convinced what you’ve got to say is going to be bad. Very bad,” she said, looking at me, waiting for an explanation.

“Why?” I asked, touching the bandage covering the better part of her forehead.

I felt the muscles move beneath it. “Because no one kisses like that unless they’re half convinced it could be their last kiss for a while.”

Man, that would have been the kind of kiss to end it all on, it was the way I wanted to go—kissing the woman I loved—but I hoped there’d be more before my lips, along with the rest of me, took me to jail.

“It’s not so bad,” I began, making a no big deal face.

“No one says that unless it is bad,” she replied, tracing a finger over the Stanford lettering of the sweatshirt I’d snatched from one of her brothers. “Just give it to me straight, no more stalling, no more kissing, no more modifiers as you ease yourself into it. Explain until the explaining’s done.” That was typically the way I liked things, the way I did things. I was anti-sugar when it came to coating the truth, but having Emma standing before me now, wanting nothing more than to protect her and give her nothing but happiness, I got why William had been a fan of using it with Bryn.

It was the only mercy we had to offer them in the midst of the often cold, always hard, truth.

However, just as William had been when Bryn had thrown the no-sugar-today ultimatum on the table, I was incapable of giving Emma anything but the same at her request.

“It’s very likely your brothers will be facing some convincing charges for what they did to Ty tonight,” I began, finding it hard to look into her face as the strength began to melt away, piece by piece. “I doubt there’s any way around serving jail time, which would result in them losing their scholarships, their spots on the football team, the futures they planned on.”

I glanced inside at the Scarlett brothers and how their lives could be permanently ruined from tonight, the injustice of it all. I was certain they hadn’t hit Ty half as many times as he had Emma over the course of five years.

“I’m not going to let this night demolish everything they’ve worked for. Like you said, the four of you got where you did by employing elbow grease and sheer determination. I won’t let them take the fall for something I would have gladly done had they not taken the honor of it away from me,” I said, trying not to overanalyze what the shift in her expression meant. “I put the bat in their hands, the idea in their heads; I was the mastermind, they were only the muscle. I can’t allow them to serve the time when they wouldn’t be facing it if it wasn’t for me. Especially when their futures won’t be waiting for them on the other side and mine will.” I’d lived three lifetimes of a man’s future and I was finally looking into the green eyes of the one I’d been waiting for.

“Patrick,” she said slowly, doubt in her voice, “what exactly are you getting at?”

“Everyone’s on board with the… modified version of what happened tonight. Your brothers, my brothers, Julia, Ty—”

“You saw Ty?” she said, her hands dropping to her side.

I nodded my head. “I had to convince crapperware with some persuasive means to align his side of the story with the one I crafted.”

Her face dropped too. “And what have you been crafting?” she asked, like she already knew.

“Everyone is going to confess to me being the one attacking Ty tonight,” I said, and there it was.

The flash of pain tearing open her face I’d wanted nothing more than to avoid. The pain that was perhaps the whole reason I’d avoided relationships in the past, because if you wanted to experience the good, you had to take the bad with it. Because the good was nothing but the norm without the bad.

The norm…

Everything Emma wanted and yet another reminder of what I couldn’t give her.

“You don’t have everyone in on your lie,” she said, trying to break free of my arms. I didn’t let her.

“You went to my brothers. Your brothers. Julia. Ty!” she yelled, letting me see the hurt in her eyes. “You went to the devil himself to get him on your side before even talking to me about this?” she asked, wanting me to confirm it again because she didn’t want to believe it.

“I did,” I admitted, because there was no other way to put it.

“Yeah,” she said, breaking through my arms this time. “I guess it doesn’t really matter what the woman you supposedly love thinks. The boys are all on board, so of course Emma will just go with it, right?” she accused, spinning towards the slider. “But guess what?” she hollered, looking at me over her shoulder. “Everyone is not on board, so good luck getting your story to stick in court.” She rushed through the door, whooshing it shut with a slam. Gripping the railing like I wanted to turn the wood to powder, I tilted my head back and cursed at the moon, at the bloody stars, and universe, and cosmos for aligning the stars to not be in my favor tonight.

One more curse flowing under my breath and I followed after her, not because I was worried about what would happen to all of us if she didn’t carve her story to match ours, but because I’d hurt her. No punishment that could be inflicted by man could hurt me worse than this.

The sets of brothers were still on opposite sides of the room, although William and Joseph were at least trying to make small talk.

“You guys,” I snapped at the pacing Scarletts, “you need to get out of here now. Before the cops get here.” When their pacing continued, I shouted, “Now!” One word put them into action faster than a string of them.

While one set of brothers were scrambling into action, I looked to the other set, one of which had a smile of satisfaction taking up the lower half of his face.

“That went well,” Joseph said, clapping his hands at me. “Like you said, convincing a woman is as easy as you are.”

William nudged him, shaking his head in a not now kind of way.

“Don’t you have a rainbow to paint or something?” I sneered over at him, holding myself back from throwing him to the ground because that’s how we Hayward brothers tended to resolve these kinds of situations. An old fashioned, rough and tumble, fight to the word mercy.

“You guys need to get out of here too,” I said, looking at William since he was the only one not smirking at me. “The fewer people here to question when the cops come to get me the better.” I waved at the door. “You can take the Mustang, so make like a tree and leave.”

“What?” Joseph said, shoving off the countertop. “I thought you wanted us to sit back and enjoy the show? I wouldn’t want to leave just as it’s about to good.” Motioning to the microwave, he added, “I just threw in a bag of popcorn to enjoy the part where Patrick is about to have his ego bubble burst.”

“Get out,” I whispered because it seemed more convincing that a scream. It was. Three brothers hurried out of the kitchen, congregating at the door.

“Hey, guys,” I called out, forcing my rage fuse to snuff out. They weren’t the ones I was mad at, and it wasn’t fair to take it out on them because I couldn’t on Ty. “Thanks,” I said, “and sorry for the mood swings.”

“When you say sorry,” Nathanial said, opening the door, “are you apologizing for tonight or since the day you were born?”

Joseph turned away, probably to hide the expression he was stifling a laugh around.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, shooing them away. “Get out of here, you ugly brutes.”

“We love you too, little brother,” William replied before the door closed behind them.

Once they were gone, I wished they were back because nothing was waiting for me but the uncomfortable silence only an upset woman could create. This might have been a good time for the cops to come and take me away.

Forcing myself down the hall, I tapped the door of the guest room Emma had occupied a week ago.

“Go away,” was her succinct and immediate response.

“Not gonna happen,” I said, sounding another knock before letting myself in.

“Go. Away,” a blanket covered lump repeated from the bed.


“I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t have anything to say. So be on your merry way to jail.” Her voice was more sad than angry, but more angry than affectionate.

“Don’t go to bed mad,” I said, pulling on the blanket. She snatched it right back. “Stay up and fight.

You won’t be able to sleep anyways.”

“You want to fight?” Emma seethed, the blanket performing acrobatics across the room.

“Not really,” I said, taking a couple steps back because she was three shades of pissed. “I’d rather discuss what’s bothering you in a mature, peaceful, you talk and I’ll listen, then I’ll talk and you listen kind of way.”

Walking on her knees to the end of the bed, she came to a stand, glaring at me like I’d betrayed her in every way a man could betray a woman. “How about I talk loudly and you listen because I’ve heard ten lifetimes worth of screaming and I made a promise to myself I’d never allow myself to scream at someone. As much as I want to right now.” She might not have been screaming with her voice, but her eyes were picking up the slack. “So, what defense could you possibly have for getting everyone else to go along with your lies, and then you came to me last? Because Emma will go along with whatever, right?” she said, mimicking a man’s voice as she threw her arms around. She wasn’t having any problem moving those arms now. “Emma doesn’t even have a backbone. She won’t stand up to me. She won’t challenge me on this.” Her eyes were too swollen for me to detect the tear before it skied down her cheek. She wiped it away so fast it could have been acid. “What sort of explanation could you have that I’d want to hear?”

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