Blaise met it with his own before leading me out.
The crowd moved aside for us, but I felt their attention on my back like I was a target, strung up like a bullseye. My knees were weak when we got to the parking lot.
Blaise stopped, turning to me. “You okay?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
He kissed my forehead, leading me to his Wagon by the hand. He opened my door, and I climbed in, his hand on the small of my back. He got behind the steering wheel, backed out, and without any discussion, turned toward my house.
He was quiet until the last intersection before my house. “Can I sleep at your place?”
“I assumed you would.”
He grinned as the light turned green, but went straight instead of turning left. “I like that.” He nodded ahead. “I want to grab some things from my house, so fair warning. You can stay in the vehicle if you want. I’m sure Douchebag Dickhead will be there and my mom too.” His jaw tightened. “Why she doesn’t kick him out and make him stay in a hotel is beyond me. I don’t get women sometimes.” Then he muttered after a beat, “Maybe I just don’t get moms.”
For some reason, that broke my heart.
He turned into a neighborhood I used to know.
I watched the houses, remembering how Nate would take Owen and me to see his friends. Blaise slowed, pulling into a driveway.
“This was the old neighborhood,” I told him. “My parents thought about buying a house here, but when the gated community started, they went there instead.”
“Yeah?” He turned the engine off, watching me.
I nodded, looking down the street. “My older brother knows people who live here.”
Blaise gave me a somewhat sad smile. “Yeah. I know.”
“I’ve met a few of them.”
“You have?” I felt a knot tightening in my throat.
“My brother’s girlfriend ran into this one lady. She’s kinda nosy, but in a nice way. Anyway, she’s been over to the house. She and my mom are friends, and I’m pretty certain she knows your brother and his whole group.”
My tongue felt so heavy, lying on the bottom of my mouth. “Really?”
“Yeah. Malinda Decraw.” That sad smile remained on his face. “She’d really like you.”
Oh. I blinked back tears.
Blaise pulled the keys from the engine. “Let me slip inside and grab some stuff. I’ll be back super quick. Okay? You can stay here.”
I was distantly aware that I nodded to him, and he disappeared inside.
When was the last time my brother drove this road? Did he drive past Blaise’s house? What house does Malinda Decraw live in?
Was she inside now?
I could taste the tears on my face.
By the time Blaise returned, I had stopped crying, and when he got into the car, I tried to give him a smile. I meant to reassure him, but he saw through me.
“What are you feeling?” he asked.
He’d said he would always be honest, so I figured he deserved that too.
He didn’t respond at first, but he started the engine and took my hand. He held it the entire drive back.
He parked in front of my neighbor’s house when we got back to my place. No one was around when we went inside. It was too late for Miss Sandy or Benny to still be here, and my mom texted earlier to say she and Dad were staying in Los Angeles through the weekend.
My whole mission to avoid graduation had been for nothing. They wouldn’t have known anyway.
I should’ve been relieved. I wasn’t. I was something else instead.
I didn’t know I was crying until Blaise’s arms were around me.
When he started to get into bed, I stopped him. I tugged him to the movie room instead.
We turned something on. He held me. And I tried not to cry.
I mostly failed.
But he held me the rest of the night.
Something was seriously wrong with Aspen, and it was becoming clearer that it was her family.
I hated it. I hated every part of how she’d cried herself to sleep in my arms last night. I’d been breaking apart, but I couldn’t do anything except comfort her.
Still, I was pissed.
And I was up early while she remained tanked. I eased out from under her. Fuck this. I was taking matters into my own hands. This was different. Aspen was different.
As I looked through the house, I got more and more angry at the empty walls I saw. There were no pictures of her, of her brothers. There were no family photos. There were no plaques on the wall. No trophies.
No handmade stupid-ass trinkets.
This house was a show house.
There was nothing personal here.
There were no marks on the doorway from the kids getting taller. And it was a new house, I got that, but seriously—a few pictures at least?
I was perusing the kitchen when the garage door opened and an older lady came inside. She startled, a scream came from her, and dropped the bag in her hands.
I waited it out. I’d made myself a cup of coffee, so I lifted the mug and took a sip.
A second later, she spat out, her eyes narrowed and promising all sorts of way to gut me, “Who are you?”
I narrowed my eyes right back at her. “I take it you’re Miss Sandy.”
Some of her fiery promises faded, but her eyes only turned wary. Her nose wrinkled and her mouth turned down in a pinch. “You’re the marijuana shirt guy.”
I grinned. “I am, and it’s no longer my shirt since Aspen’s been sleeping in it. She wants it, she gets it.”
I hadn’t meant that to sound dirty.
I coughed, clearing my throat. “Let’s talk about Aspen’s parents, shall we?”
A whole different look came over her then, and she took a step back.
I saw it trickle in, and by the time we were done with our chat, there was a bit more on her face. I, however, was ready to bash something. More specifically, I was ready to roll heads.
“Thank you,” I managed to tell her at the end.
My coffee was long done, and I hadn’t refilled it. I didn’t need the caffeine. I was hyped up on a whole bunch of other emotions.
When I turned to head back upstairs, she called after me.
“You care for her.”
The truth of that surprised me. I hadn’t expected it. But I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t even want to anymore.
She nodded back. “Good.”
That was it.
That was my meeting with the infamous Miss Sandy, and I’d been right. I liked her.
And I didn’t care if she liked me or not. She would, eventually.
Everyone liked me, eventually.
Aspen was the only thing that mattered, and I was going to wake the entire neighborhood up, because she deserved to matter to everyone.
I was just putting my stuff in my locker when Zeke came over. Shutting it, I turned to him. “Hey.”
He grinned, leaning against my neighbor’s locker. “You don’t sound too enthused.”
“Would you?” I waited a beat, adding, “If I were doing the shit you’ve been doing?”
He flinched. “Yeah, man.” He raked a hand over his face. The hallway was full of students. Quite a few watched us, and I didn’t like it. I was used to the attention. We got it almost everywhere we went, but we were getting more.
They were all waiting, seeing if Zeke and I were going to throw down.
I wanted to give ’em all the middle finger.
“Look, let’s walk and talk?” he said. “Yeah?”
I nodded. We started down the hallway.
Anytime we needed to hash something out, we went to the football field. I’d be late for my next class, but that was fine. I only had one project due this week, and it was my last class of the day.
Zeke laughed as we headed out the door, flipping everyone behind us the middle finger. “Hungry-as-fuck gawkers.”
We were on the same wavelength.
Zeke waited to speak until we were past the groups hanging around outside. Once we’d crossed the parking lot, he put his hands in his pockets, hunching forward. “So.”
I could hear how uncomfortable he felt. That made me feel a little better, just a bit.
“I, uh, I don’t really know how to start this.” He laughed with a hitch.
I’d never heard Zeke sound uncomfortable. This was a first in our friendship.
He sighed, angling toward the bleachers. “Why am I not surprised?”
I smiled, and my shoulders relaxed a whole lot. “Why are you such a dick?”
He snorted. “You’re calling me a dick?”
“Yeah. I’m not a dick like you. I don’t control and intimidate and do that sort of shit. I don’t make others fall in line and do what I say.”
“I disagree with that.”
I growled. “We gonna talk this out or just go right to punching? I’m down with either.”
He eased away. “I’ve no doubt you’re good with throwing a punch. I’ve seen you do it.”