Zeke glanced at me in question.
I hesitated. “The shorter one was kinda mean to me once. I might’ve mentioned it without thinking.”
Zeke’s eyes got wide. “Right on. Looks like we’re having a rumble tonight.”
Blaise had disappeared into the store, but I grabbed Zeke’s shirt, holding him back. “What do you mean?” A rumble didn’t sound good. It made my stomach churn. Really not good.
Zeke shook his head, a wry grin on his face. “Yeah, I’m sorry to break this to you, but your boy is protective. He’s going to call out Zellman, but knowing Blaise, he’ll probably try to do it a smart way.”
Oh God. “What does that mean?”
Zeke shrugged. “I don’t have a clue, but don’t worry. Blaise makes everything better. That’s what he’s like deep down. He settles things. It’ll be fine.”
That so didn’t settle me.
By the time we got to the actual dune buggying site, we didn’t have time to go out.
We pulled in time to camp for the night. That meant we’d stay a second night. That was all good, but even though my brother was set up on the complete opposite side of the campsite, I still felt an itch under my skin.
Every time I saw him, it doubled in size. And it was worse now that I was actually trying to be civil.
Aspen. All this shit was for Aspen.
The dune racing was for us—but the girls, my brother, that was all for her.
As soon as we pulled up, we assigned the campers. Aspen and I got the smaller one since I didn’t want anyone perving on her while she was in bed with me. Bren and Taz came over right away. They followed Aspen toward the camper, but I had a word with Bren before she went in.
Once Taz ducked inside with Aspen, I nodded to where my brother and the other two dipshits stood. “Aspen told me what the pipsqueak said to her in the woods.”
Bren narrowed her eyes. “Pipsqueak? Really?”
I scowled. “If he says one disrespectful thing to her, all bets are off. I’m coming for his ass. You and my brother can lay down against me. I don’t care.”
Her eyes stayed narrowed. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m letting you know. That’s all.”
Taz and Aspen came out, and Bren stepped back from me. I morphed into a nice guy, grabbing Aspen’s hand and tugging her over for a soft kiss. I flashed Bren a warning look before the three of them headed off. My eyes swept the campground and found Cross staring right at me.
I wanted to raise my middle finger.
Stomping down my inner asshole, I kept my hands in my pockets.
I needed a drink.
“Yo.” Zeke came from next door, carrying rum, a bottle of Coke, two cups, and a bag of ice thrown over his shoulder. We had set up a table just outside my camper, and he put everything down. “You look ready to tear your brother’s face off already.”
He began pouring, and I reached around, taking the bag of ice.
I filled one cup, and Zeke rotated them.
I put ice in the already poured cup and set the bag back down.
Zeke took his drink, sitting by the table, and cupped his hand around his mouth. “Conway, you and your pussy friend get to make the fire.”
Conway and Ashlome glared at us.
“What the hell?” Conway threw up a middle finger.
Zeke leaned forward, waving his own. “That’s what you get for doing what you’ve been doing the last two weeks. Like there wasn’t going to be a comeuppance? Fucking crazy if you thought that.”
I loved my best friend. A lot.
Both guys transferred their glares to me before stomping off.
Zeke leaned back, holding his cup up, and I met it with mine.
Zeke nodded, taking a slurp from his. “You think cops come around with drug dogs?”
I froze. “You didn’t.”
He laughed. “No, but I kinda wish I’d brought something—something soft, you know?”
I could only shake my head. “No way.”
“You used to.”
“That was before I had Aspen.”
He let out a sigh. “Never again?”
My answer was firm. “No way. Not unless she leaves me one day.”
“Shit, B. You’re talking like you’re married.”
Married? No. But I needed her. I knew it. I leaned forward, my drink in hand. “I’m not going to go to a dark place or anything. It isn’t like that.”
“I know. If there’s anyone who could survive the worst of the worst, it’s you.”
“Yeah.” Fucking Griffith. I hated him.
“You talked to your brother at all since that night?” Zeke asked.
I glanced over, not answering.
Zeke was watching their trailer.
The girls were making Aspen laugh.
My chest loosened a little, seeing that.
“It was a good call inviting them,” he noted.
I sucked air through my teeth. Yeah. I hated admitting it, but he was right. I grunted in response.
Zeke laughed. “Yeah. This is going to be a fun night. I’m not even here for the dune racing.”
He laughed louder.
I wanted to shove his chair over, but I didn’t. See? I was growing.
After the fire was going, Zeke and Brian got the grills going.
Penny and her girls had helped get the food ready to go, and I was at the table, loading up a plate when I glanced back.
Daniels was right behind me.
She had her own plate, with a hot dog on it and nothing else. She never had been a big eater.
“You didn’t have to invite two watchdogs to stand guard over your girlfriend,” she said.
I picked up my drink and headed back toward my camper.
As I sat at my table, Mara followed me. She sat down where Zeke had been sitting earlier, putting her plate on the table.
She wanted to have this talk.
Fine. Let’s talk.
“What do you want?” I asked.
Air escaped her in a burst, and she rolled her eyes. “God. For you to give a damn?”
“I did, before you threatened someone I care about. It stopped then.”
She studied me, a flash of pain tightened her face before she squashed it. She lowered her head. “Yeah. I’m seeing that, but do you really blame me?”
Her head snapped back up.
I knew I was cold, but she’d threatened Aspen. What’d she expect? “She’s blameless, and you know that. And I never lied to you. I never promised you anything.”
“But if I had slept with someone else, you would’ve stopped touching me.”
I inclined my head. “Yeah, and that was on you to choose. You knew I didn’t want to date you. Before Aspen, I didn’t want to date anyone. I wasn’t lying about that. How you chose to respond is on you.” I lowered my voice. “You’ve been fucking two guys thinking I’ll give a shit about it? That’s stupid and reckless, for you.”
Her face twisted, and she started to cry.
That got me. Regret sliced through me, because I did care about Mara, but I didn’t care enough. That was the problem, and she knew it. She just didn’t want to accept it. But Ashlome and Conway? Neither of those guys was going to make her his girlfriend.
“Mara.” I sighed, but I couldn’t touch her. I wouldn’t, and not just because of Aspen. It was for Mara too.
“I just didn’t—” She stopped.
We’d been friends. We’d been more than friends, but I’d said all I could. The rest was for her to figure out. There was physical cheating, and there was emotional cheating. Letting Mara lean on me now would be giving her something that should only be Aspen’s. And it would also only prolong her pain. This conversation was done, and she sensed it, looking up at me.
I shook my head.
“You’re such an asshole,” she hissed before fleeing.
She left her plate behind.
Zeke headed back over, sat in her spot, and eyed the plate. “You think she’s coming back for that?”
“Have at it.”
He popped it in his mouth in two bites, then grinned around his chewing. “Nice and plain, but grilled to perfection. I’m going to watch her, see if she leaves any more food around. Can’t have the bears getting it.” He winked at me.
I grinned, but just slightly. “I’m always the bad guy.”
“Nah.” He hit me with the back of his hand, a distracted pat. “You’re just usually the bad guy. Everyone knows you’re doing what’s right with Mara. She’s got issues. You came, and she saw a guy who was strong enough to help shoulder some of her problems. You told her you weren’t that guy, but she chose to ignore that for a semester. That’s on her, and everyone else here knows that.” He paused, raising his cup to the fire, and then indicated my brother’s group. “Except them. They don’t know any of us.” He grinned at me. “They think we’re rich pricks.” He belched and added, “Which we kinda are.”
I grinned. “My brother’s family isn’t that bad.”
“Nah. They just ain’t in our league.” He leaned forward. “So whatever. We’ll be the bad guys. Not like we’re not going to get that all our lives.”
He had a point.
We sat in silence for a while.
“Are you going to get wasted tonight?”
I shook my head. “I can’t. I’ll start a fight if I do.” I wanted to be sober for Aspen.
“That’s too bad. I was hoping for some entertainment.”
I grinned, but my hand shot out, punching his arm. “Asswipe.”