His smirk fell away. “Are you going camping?”
“Camping?” Jamie Conway stepped up next to us, gawking at my backseat. “No way.” He smacked Blaise’s chest with the back of his hand. “Forget Zeke’s. Let’s go camping!” He turned his eyes my way. “Where do you camp? Do you go a lot?”
Um… My heart sank to my stomach.
Blaise was thinking, and he was thinking fast. He was connecting the dots, and then he knew, and I knew he knew because he lifted his eyes to me. They were filled with accusations, but also—my stomach shriveled up—with pity. A whole bunch of pity. But also confusion. His eyebrows pinched together, but he wasn’t saying a word.
Why wasn’t he saying anything?
“You camp a lot?” Jamie asked again.
I flushed, remembering it was Jamie Conway asking me that question.
I bobbed my head up and down, my neck feeling stiff but also jumbled at the same time, like I couldn’t get it right and my whole head felt loose. It was me. I was off-balance.
“I do, yeah. It’s kinda my thing.”
Jamie whistled under his breath. “That’s cool. My older brother camps. He does this whole month-long trek, uses it to raise awareness and has a cam set up. It’s pretty awesome. I joined him for a couple days, but I had to come back for football last year. How long are you going for?”
I opened my mouth.
No one had asked this many questions about my camping—not even Miss Sandy, though she always wanted to know where I was going and how long I’d be gone.
“How long?” came from Blaise, and his tone wasn’t so nice.
Jamie shot him a surprised look, but didn’t say anything.
“I’ll be out there a while.”
“How long?” His eyes were hot and hard on me.
I pressed my lips together. What was going on here? I was so confused. “I dunno. A while.”
As if catching on to something even I didn’t know was happening, Jamie eased back a step, pulling away so it was just Blaise glaring at me.
“Word is you’re done with school,” he murmured. “You could take off until graduation.”
Not helpful, so not helpful. But holy crap. How’d he know that?
“People are talking,” he grated out.
Man, his eyes were not happy, not at all.
I swallowed over a knot, still not understanding what was going on. “I—I like to camp.” It made perfect sense to me.
Jamie winced, easing back another whole step. “Damn.”
I gulped. “Are you mad about that?”
“You shouldn’t be camping alone. How long, Aspen?”
“I…” No one cared. Why wasn’t he getting that? Why was he caring? “I don’t know.”
I jumped at his sudden shout, then heard myself saying, “Till Monday.”
Jamie’s eyes bulged out. “Oh, damn.”
“Monday?!” Blaise stepped up, his chest almost rubbing against mine. The bag of food was still in my hand, but Conway stepped in and took it from me. He took the coffee too, and I watched it all go, only realizing once they were gone there was nothing between us.
He moved in, pushing me back against Maisie. His arms came down over my shoulders, and he had me trapped. His head lowered, his eyes intent on mine. “You were going to go camping for four nights?”
“I…” My mouth opened and closed. I was awash in so many feelings right now.
I was distantly aware of vehicles pulling up, people leaving the gas station, some going inside. People were filling up with gas, but then suddenly, a loud engine zoomed in and came to a screeching halt.
“Hey! Get away from her!” a woman shouted.
That all was clicking in the back of my mind, but mostly I focused on Blaise. Who was I kidding? I was all focused on Blaise. His mouth hovered just over mine, but at the sound of that voice, his entire body stiffened. It had already been tense, but now it bordered on a dangerous level of rigid.
His head snapped up. His nostrils flared
Blaise DeVroe was pissed.
And he was hot!
“Calm your fucking woman down, brother,” he snarled over my shoulder. “This ain’t her business.”
An icy dread blanketed me, and then all hell broke loose.
Cross had to show up now? Right when Aspen’s about to go off and camp alone for who knows how long? She said four nights, but Jesus. She finished school. She could be out there an entire week.
How long had she been doing this?
How many other nights had she gone camping? Been alone?
Where the fuck were her parents?
They just let her go out there? Alone?!
But now I couldn’t get answers to my questions, because my brother was here and his woman was in my face. She yelled at me, tugging me away from Aspen, and all I wanted to do was grab Aspen, drag her into my Wagon, and peel the fuck out of here so I could be sure she wouldn’t do something fucking stupid.
But first, Christ.
Bren—that’s her name—was almost hissing at me. Her hands dug into my arms, and she pulled.
I turned to find Cross right there. “Get your woman off me, or you and I are going to have problems.” I didn’t have any patience today.
His eyes narrowed, but he moved forward, maneuvering himself between Bren and me. He began to pull her back. “Bren!”
“He’s got his hands on her. Aspen, are you okay?” Bren looked around Cross, her eyes wide and alarmed.
Shit. She knows Aspen.
I looked down, and Aspen hadn’t moved. The blood had drained from her face, and she looked up, meeting my gaze.
“What is happening?” she whispered. Her forehead dropped to my chest.
I felt something falling into place at the same time I heard it. And it wasn’t her forehead. It was me, realizing something had just happened, and it moved me. I didn’t want it to move me, but fuck it, I was moved.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I didn’t like this.
I stepped back, lifting my head, my eyes closed, and I cupped the back of Aspen’s head.
What was happening here? She shuddered in my arms.
Ignoring the sudden silence around us, I bent down and murmured, for her ears only, “Do not leave. Please.”
She nodded, her forehead not moving from my chest, and then I motioned for Jamie.
When he came over, I handed her off. “Put her in my car. Don’t let her leave.”
He nodded, taking her arm.
I sighed. “Babe.”
Jamie paused, a grin starting.
“Keys,” I said to Aspen.
Her eyes were still closed, her head down, but she dug into her pocket and pulled out her keys. I swiped them, nodding to Jamie. “Get her phone,” I told him. “Have her text me.” I wanted her number.
He nodded. A moment later, after she was in the car, my phone buzzed in my pocket. Then Jamie locked the doors and sat facing us, his back to Aspen, blocking her view.
I sighed and turned to face my brother.
Cross was my half-brother, but we looked so much alike, we could’ve been twins. It had been a shock when I saw him the first time, and it was a second shock when I realized later that he knew about me. I hadn’t known about him, not until I saw him with his group, facing off against Zeke. They’d been fighting—all of them, even Bren—because that’s what they did.
His group of four loved each other.
They were tight, but not the kind of tight that was a show. They were legit tight, and he and Bren were a unit like I’d never seen in my life. He had it all, and as I looked at him now, I wanted what he had.
I mean, I didn’t want his woman. She was gorgeous and all—a rock-tight body and dark hair—but she did nothing for me. But I did want friends that would step in front of a moving car for me, and that’s what he had. Was that what I had? Maybe.
Zeke would do it. He’d said as much.
Maybe I was the asshole, taking what I had for granted?
Either way, this wasn’t the time for these thoughts.
“Bren knows Aspen?” I asked.
Cross frowned, looking torn. He didn’t talk to me. I didn’t know if it was a rule, it was just the truth.
My blood had cooled, but I still didn’t have much patience. “Don’t make me say it again. I wasn’t hurting her. I like her, so tell me what you know.”
Bren moved around my brother, her eyes flashing a warning. “Yeah, we know her. She helped us out of a bind once. How do you know her?”
I settled back on my heels, taking a calming breath. My hands went into my pockets. We were communicating. Good. “We go to the same school.”
She frowned, looking at Cross. They seemed to share a whole conversation before she moved back, sighing and cursing at the same time. Then my brother stepped forward. It seemed he was the chosen spokesperson now.
His group remained beside their huge-ass truck, waiting to see how this ended.
Cross’ hands went into his pockets, and I grimaced, realizing how much we looked alike. I pulled mine out, but didn’t move. I just waited.
“We crossed paths with her once. She was camping.” He indicated behind him with his head. “Bren was worried about her. She thought she might’ve been homeless.”
I snorted. “She’s not homeless.”
He frowned. “You don’t know—”