“You told Blaise you were going to do something to me.”
A bitter laugh rippled from her. “I wanted to hurt him. Threatening you hurts him. That’s all I wanted. You helped me in the beginning of the year. Do you not remember?”
She laughed again. “I needed an answer on a test, and you moved your shoulder. You knew I didn’t know it, and you let me see your test. That one question helped me keep a passing grade. It meant a lot to me.”
I was pretty sure I hadn’t done that on purpose.
“Oh.” I eased back. “Yeah.”
Someone stifled a laugh behind me. This time I guessed it was Taz or Bren.
Mara waved, dismissing me. “Just go away. You got the guy. Stop rubbing it in by doing stuff like this. It’s barely manageable watching him fawn all over you, treating you like you’re made of glass or some shit. Want to do me a favor? Get away from me. That’ll help.”
And with that, she was done. She swung around, grabbed a bottle of wine, and stalked off. Her girls went with her, and I watched them move past the guys, giving them a wide berth too.
Taz stepped up. “That was refreshing. For once, no one came to blows.”
“I’m kinda disappointed,” Bren said. “But relieved at the same time.” She looked at me. “You okay?”
I nodded. “Is it wrong to feel bad for her?”
“Nah. She’s hurting. That’s obvious. But she’s trying to do the right thing by not taking it out on you. Steer clear of her. That’s the kindest thing to do now.”
She was right.
Taz gestured to their side of the campsite. “We’re going to do s’mores. You want to hang for a bit?”
I looked over my shoulder, my eyes meeting Blaise’s over the campfire.
I nodded in their direction, and he looked over to where his brother was.
I was trying to convey that I was going over there, but that’s not what happened. His shoulders went rigid, but he nodded and stood. He said a few words with Zeke, grabbed some of the booze we’d been drinking, and came around to where we were standing.
Bren went stiff next to me. “What are you doing?”
His tone was cool. “Not starting shit.” He nodded. “She likes you.”
That must’ve been enough, because Bren and Taz turned back, and their entire group watched us come. All were silent for a second until we settled.
I sat at their table, with Blaise beside me at first.
Then as the conversation started, as Blaise remained quiet, just sitting with me, and the guys started to relax. Conversation flowed, and after a full hour, they were laughing and telling jokes. The s’mores were yum. Blaise gave me an extra one of his, but for the most part, he was content to remain quiet, sipping his drink.
Later on, Zeke, Brian, and Branston moved their chairs so they were closer to where we sat, but they remained at their own bonfire.
Then Blaise moved, grabbing one of the bigger lounge chairs. He settled in and pulled me down onto his lap. And that’s where we sat the rest of the night.
Blaise held me while I laughed with his brother and the rest of their group.
It was nice.
It was progress.
The next month didn’t unfold the way I wanted it to, nor how I expected it to.
I’d thought July would be fun and filled with lots of Aspen sexy times. I’d looked forward to lazy mornings, rides in the car with my girl, and cuddling and more in the evenings. I was going to get a van and get it tricked out for camping—maybe with a wide moonroof so we could cuddle under the stars. Romantic crap like that.
Guess what happened?
Her brother happened.
Nate went apeshit on her parents while she was camping with me. I don’t know his motivation or the reason for his timing—since he’d seemed to keep it together at her graduation and the weeks after—but he ripped their asses a new one.
Aspen’s parents were now woke, and trying to be the world’s greatest parents instead of the neglectful asses they were. That translated into an entire month where I didn’t see my girl.
They whisked her off for trips all over the damn world: Europe, Singapore, Australia, a brief stop in Brazil for sentimental reasons (don’t ask me; I haven’t a clue why), and then off to some cabin they used to own in the mountains. It was supposed to be huge, and Aspen had been rallying to get me to come, but they’d been there the same weekend I had to go to Cain to look at apartments.
That was the other thing that happened—my plans for next year.
Soccer training started in early August, so I needed to get there and get situated. That also meant a conversation with Zeke about his true living aspirations. He wanted to rush a fraternity, but at first I’d thought he and I could get a place, and then if he rushed, that was fine. I’d have the place to myself.
But Zeke backed out, and it wasn’t because he didn’t want to start out living with me. He got his ass reamed by his dad. That seemed to be going around.
A cop friend had been at the house, recognized the smells coming from Zeke’s room, and informed Zeke’s dad that if his son didn’t clear out his room, he’d be returning with drug dogs. Zeke got the wake-up call of all wake-up calls.
He lost Daddy Dearest’s funding for college, so as of end-July, Zeke wasn’t sure if he was still coming to Cain University or not. And it wasn’t a bluff. He’d lost everything—his trucks, his room (he’d moved into a closet-sized bedroom on the same floor as his parents, and no one was happy about it) and all their house staff got a month’s paid vacation.
Zeke was the new household staff.
Turns out, his dad did give a shit, and Zeke had had no idea how much. So he was currently cleaning their house, not partying, and also working as an intern at his dad’s company to earn money for college. His dad had made it clear he didn’t give one iota if Zeke missed a year of higher learning or not.
So that’s where Zeke was, and that’s why I’d ended up getting an apartment by myself as close to Cain’s soccer complex as possible. I already knew Aspen wanted the dorm experience. She’d said she wanted to embrace what college was really about.
That was cool with me.
She’d meet people in her dorm, but I knew I’d be driving over to pick her up most nights and bringing her back early in the morning after my soccer runs.
So here I was. I’d not seen my girl all month, and my best friend was now a question mark.
This sucked was a gross under-exaggeration.
“This place is gorgeous, Blaise.”
I glanced back as my mom came through my new bedroom door. She went straight to the window.
“Oh wow. Look at that view.”
I looked. The view wasn’t anything great. It was the soccer field, which was going to be my home until January, but if it awed her, who was I to take that away?
“The place looks good.” Stephen came in next, not overly impressed, but still supportive. He nodded. “Smart. I can see why you picked it.”
It had no amenities, but I didn’t need them. I’d be using the college’s, and the rent was high enough that there were serious renters here. The management office said I was the only college student in the complex, and that made me happy. I preferred going to parties, not hosting them or living around them.
“They said a lot of professors live here, and some post-doc students,” I told my mom and Stephen. That translated to non-party people in my mind.
Stephen gave me the same look he’d been giving me for the last month. I wasn’t sure if it was respect, but maybe more of a re-assessment.
I’d been around nearly every night—except for the few nights Zeke’s parents had okayed me coming over to play video games. I was one of their only “approved” friends for him. Brian and Branston were out, so it was all me. I was actually the good guy in that situation. I’d also gotten serious about training, because I knew once Monday hit, and practices started, I’d be in sore shape.
Stephen had never seen me during soccer until this last month. I got real serious about my sport. Growing up, training had been another time Griffith mostly stayed away from me. Maybe because I was with coaches a lot, and he couldn’t get away with his normal punching since bruises would be visible. But ever since I was little, soccer came around and he took a hike, for the most part.
That was another reason I loved the sport. It’d been my only escape.
“How much is the rent?” Stephen asked.
Yeah. Neither he nor my mom was going to be privy since they weren’t paying. I had a trust fund from Griffith. He hadn’t taken it away, and we’d been assured by a lawyer that he couldn’t. I also had money set aside for me from my grandfather, my mom’s dad. She came from old money back east. When we went back to New York, that old money got even older, if that made sense. There’d been a fund for me, but it just grew. Though, I didn’t want to have to touch my inheritance from my grandfather, not if I didn’t have to.
And until then, I wasn’t going to sweat about it.
I grinned at Stephen. “It’s high enough that most college students can’t pay it.”