Jared and I both jumped at the sound of knocking on his bedroom door.
“Jared, you ready yet?” a male’s voice asked.
What? Who was that?
“I’m going to kill him,” Jared growled quietly. “Go downstairs!” He shouted at the door but stayed on me.
“We’re already late, man. The car’s gassed up. Let’s go!”
And then it hit me. I hadn’t seen Jared leaving before. One of the friends he had over took the car to get gas, and Jared stayed behind to get cleaned up.
“I said wait downstairs, Sam!” Jared bellowed, tightening the towel around his waist as he got up off the bed.
“Alright!” Sam must’ve taken the hint, because I heard his footsteps fade away.
I grabbed my tank top and covered myself, the buzz of desire slowly disintegrating.
“No, don’t get dressed,” Jared commanded. “I’m going to go get rid of him, and we’re finishing this.” He bent down to kiss me and heat rushed to my face again.
“You’re racing tonight?”
“Not anymore.” He slipped on some jeans underneath his towel.
I slipped the top over my head and stood up to slip on my underwear and jeans. “Jared, go. It’s fine.” My detective work tonight took an unexpected turn, and his “birthday kiss” turned into much more than I bargained for. I needed to regroup, although I did feel guilty about leaving him hanging.
Jared wasn’t taking “no” for an answer, though. He lifted me off my feet again and set me on the edge of his dresser taking my mouth in his. His body was positioned between my legs, and he pulled me to him with the slow, deep kiss.
“Races aren’t important, Tate,” he said against my lips. “There’s nowhere else I want to be than with you.”
I think my heart skipped a beat, and a lump formed in my throat. I felt the exact same way.
But I needed to cool down. Things moved too fast, and I still didn’t trust him.
“Take me with you then,” I suggested. I loved the thrill of the races, and we could be together in a public setting, sure to keep us from pawing each other. The only downside was I wouldn’t be able to search his room if I was with him, but I didn’t feel so right about that anymore.
“Take you with me?” He looked at me skeptically but then turned thoughtful. “Alright, go get something warmer on, and I’ll come get you when we’re ready.” He moved towards the door, but stopped. “And after the race, we’ll come back here and finish this.” His promise made me smile despite myself.
I hopped off the dresser after he walked out, deciding it would be easier to climb back through the tree than face the walk of shame in front of his friend, but I stopped short when I noticed something on the floor. I bent to pick up a photograph near the bed, and my heart sped up when I realized that I must have dropped it when I went through that box.
As I took a quick look at it, bile rose in my throat. The picture was of the torso of a boy or a young man, but the skin was bloodied and bruised. Blue and purple marks covered the chest and ribs, while cuts spanned the entire area from his stomach to his neck.
Oh, my God.
Someone didn’t just hurt this kid. They tried to kill him.
The farm was packed. By the looks of everyone excitedly clearing the road for Jared’s car, we’d arrived just in time for his race. People stepped off the track slowly, eyeing Jared and me with curiosity. Most people probably thought Jared hated me, so they must be pretty confused. I didn’t care.
The car vibrated under me, and I tapped my feet on the floor with uncontrollable energy and a little residual nervousness.
I’d stuffed the picture I found in Jared’s room into the front pocket of my hoodie. I didn’t want to take the chance of him catching me trying to put it back in the box under his bed. I wasn’t sure if it was Jared in the picture, but I guessed it was. Why else would he have it? Unless…unless he did that to a kid.
My teeth clenched together. I didn’t like that thought one bit.
“Hey!” People, mostly female, shouted at the car. I took a deep breath and didn’t even try to hide my annoyance. Luckily, he didn’t greet them back, and my shoulders relaxed. His face was stone as Sick by Adelita’s Way pounded out of the speakers.
As Jared pulled into position next to an ‘80’s Camaro I didn’t recognize, I unfastened my seatbelt to hop out of the car, but Jared grabbed my hand.
“Hey,” he spoke softly, and I turned to look at him. “I like to keep my head in the game here. If I don’t act very friendly, it has nothing to do with you, okay?”
Translation: I don’t do the girlfriend thing, especially in public. Not that Jared and I were together, but I knew what he was trying to say.
I shrugged my shoulders. “You don’t have to hold my hand.” And I stepped out of the car.
It bugged me that Jared kept up an image, or maybe he just didn’t feel comfortable around people, but I’d be damned if I was going to stand on the sidelines feeling out of place all night.
Walking to the front of the crowd, I picked up whispers and sideways glances directed at me. “What’s Jared doing with her?” and “Maybe she’s racing” were some of what I heard. I watched Jared get out of the car, his eyes on me, and walk around to the front to meet with Zack and the other driver.
“Tate, how’s it going?” Ben stepped up next to me. I let out a sigh. Even though I didn’t see anyone else I really knew here tonight, I still didn’t want to chat with him. I wasn’t sure what Jared and I were, but I was interested in finding out.
“You’re here with Jared?” he inquired.
“Yep,” I snipped, not meeting his eyes.
“And you’re going to Homecoming with Madoc?” Even though I wasn’t looking at him, I could hear the smile.
What a douche.
“And I might go to prom with Channing Tatum. That’s the kind of girl I am. Haven’t you heard?” I met his eyes, boldly challenging him.
His shoulders scrunched up, and he let out a nervous laugh. “Alright, if you say so. But I’d opt out of taking Channing Tatum to prom. It’s the names. ‘Channing Tatum accompanying Tatum Brandt?’ It doesn’t work.”
It took me a minute to figure it out, but his playful tone sealed the deal. He was joking. He wasn’t trying to apologize, and I wasn’t trying to avoid him. We were just enjoying some friendly banter, and I felt a little more comfortable that I could handle this. He wasn’t pressing for information about my dating status—which was questionable—and I sensed that he wasn’t pursuing me anymore.
Grinning at his joke and looking at him like he’d just put pencils up his nose, I knew the tension had finally dissipated. We might never be friends, but were back to the beginning of the year and the simplicity.
Until I saw Jared spitting fire at us. Zack was speaking to both of the drivers, but Jared’s cold eyes were locked on Ben and me. His gaze narrowed, and I could tell by the way he breathed through his nose that he was pissed.
Whatever. I rolled my eyes.
“Clear the track!” Zack shouted, and we all herded to the side of the road, kicking up cold dust in our wake.
Jared climbed into his car without sparing me another glance and revved the engine, the bass vibrating under my feet. I cringed when girls started screaming excitedly. It felt like someone stuck a toothpick in my ear.
But that was nothing to the sinking feeling in my stomach when Piper stepped onto the track to send the racers off. She sauntered in front of Jared’s car wearing a blue school-girl skirt and black halter-top.
I groaned under my breath.
Her gleaming eyes zeroed in on Jared. I couldn’t see his face from my angle, but I knew she was eyeing him. She rocked back and forth, poking out her chest, or maybe that’s just how it looked. In the headlights of the cars, I’m sure she was quite a sight. The men in the audience whistled and hooted, and I ran my fingers through my hair to get it off my hot neck.
My fingers curled into fists when I saw her approach his driver’s side. He had the window rolled down, and she leaned in, giving him a perfect view of her chest and the other driver a view of her ass. My eyes burned with fire as they almost bugged out of my head.
“Excuse me,” I mumbled to Ben before I walked onto the track.
Rounding Jared’s car, I came up to Piper and grabbed her by the hair. I forced her away from his window and pushed her ahead of me.
Too extreme, I told myself. But I wasn’t thinking.
And I liked how not thinking felt.
“What the hell?” she shouted and turned to look at me.
“Tate,” Jared called, but I ignored him.
The crowd was abuzz in the background, and their chanting for a fight made my heart race. I could barely hear anything else with their unintelligible noise filling the air.
“You bitch!” she snarled. “What the f**k is your problem?” But she didn’t wait for my answer. Instead, she charged me in high heels, and I almost laughed. As she stomped up to me, I swept her foot out from underneath her, and she fell to the ground.
As she lay on her ass, I clapped my hands twice in her face and shouted. “Hey! Now that I have your attention, I just want you to know—he’s not interested in you.” I tossed her words back at her like a pie in the face.
Taking a deep breath, I looked up to Jared, who had gotten out of his car and looked at me with a mixture of shock and amusement.
“I’m not wallpaper,” I clarified, walking up to him.
Pulling the fossil that I’d made for my mom out of the pocket of my hoodie, I pooled the necklace into his palm. “Don’t hide from me, and don’t ask me to hide,” I said for only him to hear.
He nodded and tipped my chin up, running his thumb along my jawbone. I sunk into him, and he caressed my lips with a light kiss. I instantly felt relief. More taunts and whistles came from the crowd, but I only cared about the warmth of his body close to mine.
“Ahem!” The guy in the next car signaled us loudly. “Jared, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to get this done some time tonight.”
I shook my head and sighed happily. “Good luck,” I wished to Jared as I pushed away and walked to the crowd.
“Are you tired?” Jared asked as we headed home to which I shook my head.
He had won the race, of course, and without a scratch to either car. There was another bonfire afterwards, but Jared hadn’t even considered it or asked me if I wanted to go. I didn’t mind, though, and a giddy tingle spread over my body when I thought he probably just wanted to get home to finish what we started before.
Part of me was scared. We’d almost had sex earlier, and if Sam hadn’t interrupted us, we probably would have. Did I want to be with Jared? I only had to think about it for a second before I knew the answer was yes. But was he ready to be with me?
I wasn’t so sure.
I still hated the memories he left me with the past few years, and I wasn’t sure if I’d forgiven him. Did I know for sure he wouldn’t hurt me again? Did he deserve me?
No. Not yet. Without a doubt, he hadn’t earned my trust yet.
“Jared?” I broke the silence. “Where do you go on the weekends?”
His fingers tightened around the steering wheel, and he wouldn’t look at me.
“Just out of town,” he mumbled.
“But where?” I pressed. If he cared about me, then it was time to come clean, about everything.
His eyebrows creased with annoyance. “What does it matter?” He turned onto our street and hit the gas way harder than he needed to. My head nearly hit the roof with how roughly he drove over the dip leading to his driveway.