Steadying myself, I grabbed the handle above the window. “Why can Piper know, and I can’t?”
“Fuck, Tate.” He threw off his seatbelt, and hopped out of the car. “I don’t want to talk about it.” The edge in his tone was angrier and louder.
I climbed out of the car after him. “You don’t want to talk about anything! What do you think’s going to happen?”
He stayed on his side of the car, so distant, and he looked at me like I was the enemy. I saw the wall go up behind his eyes. The wall that said we were done.
“What I do with my free time is my business. Trust me or not.”
“Trust?” I spat out. “You lost mine a long time ago. But if you try trusting me, then maybe we can be friends again.” Or more, I hoped.
He pinned me with disdain. “I think we’ve moved beyond friends, Tate, but if you want to play that game, then fine. We can have a sleepover, but there will be f**king involved.” His sour words cut me, and I sucked in a breath.
Was I nothing to him? My vision blurred with the tears pooling in my eyes.
He must’ve seen the pain on my face, because his hard expression faltered, and his eyes dropped.
“Tate…” He started walking towards me, his voice softer, but I plucked out the photo I’d stuffed in my pocket and shoved it in his chest. I darted around him and ran home. I barely made it inside the house before I broke down.
I slid down the door after I’d locked it and cried at his cruelty and my stupidity. Had I really been ready to give him my virginity a couple of hours ago? I banged my head once lightly against the door, but it didn’t help erase the blow to my pride.
Jared didn’t deserve me, but with little effort, he’d almost gotten me.
“I love birthdays. It’s the only time I let myself eat cake,” K.C. mumbled through a mouthful of the Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream cake she’d bought me.
“I can’t live like that.” My fork dug into the icy sweetness. “I’d go nuts counting calories.”
“You don’t have to count calories, Tate. Maybe if I started running…” she drifted off as if she couldn’t finish the thought. K.C. enjoyed exercise classes but hated the idea of motivating herself in her own time.
She’d taken me to Mario’s for my birthday dinner and just had the server bring out the surprise cake. The distant sound of Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano played from the speakers, and my nerves finally relaxed.
I’d been on edge all day from the fight with Jared last night. He’d peeled out of his driveway after I’d run into my house and, as far as I knew, hadn’t been home all day. It was the weekend. I guess he was off doing whatever it was that he did.
Ideas had been popping in my head all day. Maybe he sold drugs in Chicago? Worked for a crime family? Or maybe he volunteered at an elderly home? But every stupid thought drove me crazier than the last.
“Tate?” K.C. stopped chewing and looked at me. “Are you going to tell me about last night?”
I felt like the thumping in my chest shifted my body. Was she talking about me breaking into his room? The near-sex? But how would she know any of that?
“The race. I heard you showed up with Jared and …staked your claim, so to speak.” Her grin made me smile.
“Oh, yeah,” I answered hesitantly. After the fight with Jared, I was more confused than ever about where we stood. I couldn’t explain it to her if I didn’t understand it myself.
“Well?” She moved her finger in a circle to keep me going.
“Not much to tell, K.C. Jared and I have called a truce, I guess. Other than that, I’m not sure what’s going on.” I stuffed more cake into my mouth.
“Do you care about him? More than a friend?” Her fork was paused in midair, and she stared at me expectantly.
I cared about Jared. A lot. But what good did it do me?
“Yes,” I sighed. “But he doesn’t care about me, K.C. Just leave it alone.”
She gave me a sad smile and did what good friends do—gave me a second slice of cake.
After Mario’s, she drove me home instead of going to the movies like we planned. I was more interested in catching up on missed episodes of Sons of Anarchy than seeing the romantic comedy she wanted.
“What is that?!” she exclaimed, looking at something out the front windshield.
I followed her gaze and sucked in a breath at the sight of my yard, full of neighbors. They were eyeing a hugely bright spectacle by my house.
My pulse started to race. Was my house on fire?
I quickly shot out of the car and raced up my front yard. I gasped at what I saw.
The tree between Jared’s and my houses was lit up with lights. Hundreds. Of. Lights.
Oh, my God. Who did this?!
I couldn’t control the smile that spread across my face. The tree was decorated with an assortment of radiant lighting. White lights, small and big bulbs, as well as lanterns of different styles and sizes adorned the tree. The awe-inspiring magical quality of the world within the branches was too intense for words. I was sure I would never enjoy looking at this tree without lights again.
My lips began to quiver. As I walked closer to the tree, I understood why so many people were hanging around outside now. The sight was beautiful.
I’d spent a lot of time climbing this tree, reading in it, and talking with Jared in it until the stars faded with morning’s light.
He’d done this for me. I didn’t know who else it could’ve been. This was our special place—one of many—and he’d lit it up with magic and wonder.
The quake in my chest grew stronger, and a few tears cascaded down my cheeks as I silently took in the spectacle.
“Do you know what this is about?” K.C. asked beside me.
“I have an idea.” My voice was hoarse from the lump in my throat.
Noticing something stuck to the tree trunk, I walked away from my dispersing neighbors and ripped the sheet of paper from its staple.
Yesterday lasts forever.
Tomorrow comes never.
Breathless, I looked over to Jared’s house, but it was pitch black. Where was he?
“Why’s your bedroom light on?” K.C. piped up, and my eyes shot to the second floor of my house where, indeed, my light was shining. I never kept any lights on when I left the house, except for the one on the porch.
“I must’ve forgotten to turn it off,” I muttered distractedly as I hurried to the house. “I’ll see you later. Thanks for dinner,” I called out behind me, racing up the stairs.
“Uh…okay. Happy Birthday!” K.C. stuttered before I slammed the door. I was being most definitely rude, but my head was elsewhere now.
I dropped my jacket and purse on the floor. I could see my bedroom light shining from my open doorway, and I slowly climbed the stairs. I wasn’t scared, but my heart pounded, and my hands shook.
As I walked into the room, Jared sat on the rail outside my French doors. He looked beautifully disheveled, jeans hanging from his narrow h*ps and sexy-messy hair. My arms ached to hold him.
I wanted to forgive him and forget about everything right now, but my pride held me back.
Luckily, he didn’t give me a chance to make a decision.
“Is that what you were looking for in my room last night?” He gestured to a thick manila file folder on my bed.
I must’ve been fire engine red at that moment. All day, I’d been thinking about his behavior and what he was so afraid to tell me, and I’d forgotten about the fact that I’d let him know I was snooping in his room by shoving that picture at him last night. I guess I’d just wanted him to know that I knew something was up.
“Go ahead,” he urged gently. “Take a look.”
Debating for only a moment if he was serious or not, I walked to the bed and leaned down to open the folder. I nearly choked on my own air.
There were pictures, just like the one I’d found, of a boy—no, scratch that—of Jared bruised and bloodied. Scanning the pile of thirty or so photos, I caught Jared’s fourteen year old face in some of them. Others were of parts of his body.
I spread the photos out, carefully scanning each one.
The pictures detailed different injuries to the his body: legs, arms, but mainly his torso and back. In one of them, I saw the fresh mutilations of the faded scars Jared now had on his back.
I held my fist to my mouth to stifle a groan of disgust. “Jared, what is this? What happened to you?”
He looked down to his feet, and I could tell he was searching for words. Jared didn’t enjoy pity parties, especially his own.
So I waited.
“My father…he did that to me,” he spoke low as if he didn’t even want to admit to himself. “And to my brother.”
I snapped my eyes up to his. What?! A brother?
Jared, like me, didn’t have any siblings.
He continued, “The summer before Freshman year, I was hyped up to spend my whole summer hanging out with you, but as you remember, my dad called out of the blue and wanted to see me. So I went. I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, and I wanted to know him.”
I nodded and sat down on the bed. My mind was reeling from wondering how a parent could do this to their child—or children—but I wanted to hear about everything, including this brother.
“When I got there, I found out that my dad had another son. A kid from another relationship. His name is Jaxon, and he’s only about a year younger than me.”
Jared paused, looking thoughtful. His eyes had lit up when he said Jaxon’s name.
I couldn’t believe he had a brother. I’d known him so well growing up, and even though he didn’t find out about this secret brother until he’d been fourteen, it still felt wrong that I didn’t know this about him.
“Go on,” I prodded softly.
“Jaxon and I got along really well. Even though it was a shock to find out I’d had a brother that long without knowing, I was thankful to have a family. We were close in age, both into cars, and he wanted to be around me all the time. Hell, I wanted to be around him, too.”
I wondered if Jared still saw Jaxon, but I decided to shut up and ask questions later.
He continued, “My dad’s house was a real dump. It was dirty, and there was never a lot of food in the place, but I was enjoying my brother. It was just the three of us. The first couple of weeks weren’t that bad.”
Not that bad?
“Then I started to notice that something was off. Our dad drank a lot. He’d wake up with hangovers—which was nothing new for me with my mom—but then I started seeing drugs, too. That was new to me. His house parties were filled with these horrible f**king people who talked to us like you shouldn’t talk to kids.” Jared’s eyes started to pool with unshed tears, and his voice was barely a whisper. I started to get scared.
What the hell had happened?
After a few seconds of pause, he let out a huge sigh. “I kind of got the feeling that Jaxon might’ve been messed with by these people. Like “messed with” other than just roughed up.”
Messed with? I sucked in my breath as realization dawned.
No. Please, not that.
He sat down next to me on the bed, still not making eye contact. “One night, about three weeks into my visit, I heard Jax crying in his room. I went in, and he was hunched over the bed holding his stomach. Once I got him to turn over I saw the bruises all over his abdomen. My dad had kicked him—more than once—and he was in a shitload of pain.”
I shut my eyes, trying not to picture the young boy.
Jared continued, “I didn’t know what to do. I was so f**king scared. My mother never hit me. I had no idea that people did these things to kids. I was sorry that I’d come but also glad, for Jax’s sake. If my father did this to him while I was here, I couldn’t even imagine what he did when I wasn’t around. Jax insisted that he was fine, and that he didn’t need a doctor.” Jared’s shoulders slumped, and I could feel the tension roll off his body as he spoke slowly and quietly.