With the exception of Bucky, the guys have been pretty good sports about giving up their Saturday morning. And honestly, it means a lot that they took an interest in something important to me. Since coming to the East Coast, I haven’t had a lot of time to reconnect with my passions. Hockey and classes didn’t leave any time for surfing or coming out to the coast. It was Taylor who got me thinking about looking for ways to volunteer again. She’d offered to join us today, but I thought this’d be a good way to get all the guys together. With the season over, we hardly ever get everyone in the same room anymore. Or the same beach, as it were.
I’m not gonna lie—a part of me missed them. I mean, yeah, I live with like half these assholes, but it’s not the same as sweating it out on the ice together. Skating drills. Spending hours on a bus. Ninety minutes of pure nail-biting determination. I guess I didn’t realize how much hockey meant to me until I played it with them. This team made me love it. These men have become my brothers.
My phone buzzes in my pocket. I expect it to be Taylor wondering what time I’ll be back, but an unknown number pops up on the screen. By now I know what that means.
I shouldn’t answer it. Nothing good comes from giving him the satisfaction. There’s this nagging feeling, though, that keeps me from sending him to voicemail. Because when it comes to Kai Turner, I’d rather see him coming. The worst thing I can do is let him sneak up on me again.
“What?” I bark in answer.
“Easy, bro. Simmer down.”
“I can see that.”
My blood runs cold. Trying not to draw attention, I look around, scanning the beach, the parking lot. In the distance I glimpse a skinny dude loitering near the restrooms. He looks like a little boy in his big brother’s clothing and I don’t have to see his face to know.
“How the hell did you find me out here?” I take a few steps away from Hunter and the others.
“Man, I got eyes everywhere. Don’t you know that by now?”
“So you followed me.” Fuck. He’s getting more desperate.
Tracking me down in Buffalo was one thing. Now he’s come to Massachusetts? From Hastings to this beach near Boston. Who knows how long he’s been watching me or what his game is this time. I hesitate to say Kai’s dangerous. I’d never known him to be violent beyond a few brawls. Just kid stuff. Black eyes and bruised egos.
Then again, I don’t really know him anymore.
“I wouldn’t have to if you’d just talk to me like a man,” he says.
I stifle a curse. “I’ve got nothing to say to you.”
“Yeah, but I do. So you can come up here and we can do this like friends, or I gotta come down there and embarrass you in front of your fancy new douchebags.”
It was like this when I first moved to Huntington Beach, too. Making me feel guilty for leaving the neighborhood, as if I had any choice in the matter. Taunting me about leaving him behind for trust-fund assholes, as if I even had any friends then. Ragging on me for my mom buying me new clothes. It took me a long time to realize what he was doing, the subtle psychological manipulation. Too long.
I tell Hunter I’m going to take a piss, then head up to the parking lot near the restrooms. I duck into the men’s for a minute before going to the benches near my Jeep. There’s no telling who he might have brought out here with him, and I’d rather not let him lure me too far from the crowds. If he’s gone to all this trouble, that means he wants something pretty bad. I can’t trust a desperate Kai.
“You’re making this difficult,” he says, sitting beside me.
“That’s on you. I’d rather be left alone.”
“Man, I don’t get you, Con. You were my ride-or-die. Back in the day—”
“Fuck. Just stop.” I turn to study him, this ghost of my childhood that becomes less a memory than a nightmare with every year that passes. “Back in the day is gone, Kai. We’re not kids anymore. I’m nothing to you now.”
I force myself not to tear my gaze away, but I see in him everything I hate about myself. And then I hate myself a little more for thinking that way. Because at least Kai knows who he is. Yeah, he’s a screw-up, but he’s not walking around with delusions, trying to cram himself into a mold that was made exclusively to keep guys like him, like us, out.
“Whatever you want, you’re not getting it,” I say in a tired voice. “I’m out, man. I’m done with your drama. Let me move on with my life.”
“Can’t do that, bro. Not yet.” He slants his head. “You help me out, though, and I go away. You don’t ever need to see me again. You can forget all about me.”
Fuck. Fucking damn it.
“You’re in trouble,” I say flatly. Of course he is. It’s in his voice. Not the usual man, I’m in a bind, can you spot me bullshit. He’s scared.
“I screwed up, alright? I was supposed to do a thing for these guys—”
Kai rolls his eyes, his head wobbling in exasperation. “I was just moving a little product.”
“Trafficking, Kai.” Goddamn idiot. “You mean trafficking. The fuck’s the matter with you?”
“It’s not like that, bro. I owed a favor to some guys and they said if I picked up a package from this place and took it to that place, we were square. Easy enough.”
“But?” Kai’s whole life is a series of easy way outs followed by a string of critical buts. But I didn’t know anyone was home. But someone talked. But I got wasted and lost the money.
“I did exactly what they told me,” he protests. “Picked up the package from their boy, took it to the place, dropped it with a guy—”
“And now they say their guy never got it.”
Kai deflates with how obvious the answer is. Because any moron would have seen this coming—and Kai never does. “That’s the gist,” he mutters. “I don’t know who’s got it out for me. Somebody’s trying to fuck me up over this and I don’t get the animosity.”
“What do you expect me to do about it? If you’re looking for a place to hide out, you gotta move along. I’m not having that kind of static around me. I’ve got roommates.”
“Nah, nothing like that.” He pauses, and the contrite droop of his shoulders says it all. “I just gotta pay them back, right, or they’re getting their money’s worth some other way, okay? Like I know we’ve been here before, Con. I get that. But these people think I stole their shit.”
He rubs his face. Then, with red, urgent eyes he stares at me, imploring me. We’re two kids again, making a pact in a dark room. Slicing our palms open with a pocketknife.
“Conor, they’ll kill me or worse. I’m sure of it.”
Damn him. Damn him for constantly finding ways to reduce himself to the street price of a brick of coke or an envelope of pills. Damn him for letting a bunch of Scarface wannabes run his life. Damn him for holding a gun to his head and telling me if I really care about him, I’d give him more bullets.
I don’t want to know the answer even as I ask the question. “How much?”