Piper’s eyes narrowed to slits, and I could tell by the muffled whispers that the crowd was more on my side than hers now. I guess it didn’t hurt that everyone knew that Jared hadn’t sent that video. Hell, I guess they were really on his side.
Oh well, they didn’t need to like me, but it helped to not have them against me, too.
I twisted around to pass Jared his phone but was yanked back by my hair. Pain shot through my scalp as I slammed back to the lockers.
My equilibrium was thrown off, and I stumbled to right myself again. Shit. That had hurt. What did she think she was doing?
I saw Piper’s fist priming for a punch. My eyes nearly bugged out of my head, but I reacted.
I ducked, and her fist caught my hair instead of my face. Shoving her away, I whipped my hand back and smacked her across the face. Before she even had a chance to stumble, I brought my other hand across her other cheek, and that sent her crumbling to the floor.
I registered the audience’s sharp intakes of breath and their shocked laughs, but I didn’t care. I glared down at Piper, who was trying to hold her face and stand back up at the same time.
Pulling my hand back to deliver another blow—hey, she deserved it—I felt myself being lifted off the ground.
I tried to wiggle out of the grasp of whoever had me, but when I heard Jared shushing me in my ear, I eased up.
“What’s going on here?” A male voice interrupted us. I looked over to see Dr. Porter, coffee-stained beard and all, looking between the two heaps on the floor. I grimaced. There was no way I was getting away with all of the damage I’d done today. And thank you Jared for stopping me before Dr. Porter saw!
Madoc cleared his throat. “Dr. Porter. Nate and Piper bumped into each other.”
Oh, my God. I was convinced. Madoc was an idiot.
“Mr. Caruthers, I’m not stupid.” Dr. Porter glanced around, trying to make eye contact with anyone who would talk. “Now what happened here?”
No one spoke. No one even breathed, I think. The hallway was silent, and I merely waited for Nate or Piper to break the silence.
I was going to be in so much trouble.
“I didn’t see anything, sir,” a male student piped up, giving Dr. Porter a blank stare.
“Me either, Dr. Porter,” another student followed suit. “Probably just an accident.”
And I was blown away as everyone either lied or remained silent, covering for us. Okay, they were covering for Jared, but I was going to take what I could get.
Dr. Porter looked around, still waiting for someone to tell the truth.
He was right. He wasn’t stupid, and he knew something was fishy. I just hoped he didn’t call on me. I liked the guy and probably couldn’t lie.
He sighed and rubbed his scruffy jaw. “Alright, you two.” He gestured to Nate and Piper. “Get up, and come to the nurse. Everyone else. Head home!”
Piper grabbed her purse, slammed her locker shut and stalked off down the hall, while Nate held his bloodied nose and followed Dr. Porter.
As everyone dispersed, no one said anything to me. No one gave me snide looks or cruel snickers. Jared circled his arms around my neck and pulled me to him, enveloping me in the safe, warm wall of his chest. I closed my eyes and breathed him in as a wave of relief flooded me. I had him back.
“I’m so sorry about not trusting you. And about what I did to your car, too,” I said into his hoodie.
He laid his cheek on the top of my head. “Tate, you’re mine, and I’m yours. Every day you’re going to realize that more and more. When you believe it without a doubt, then I’ll have earned your trust.”
“I am yours. I just…wasn’t sure if you were really mine.”
“Then I’ll make you sure.” He kissed my hair, and his body started shaking with laughter.
“You’re laughing right now?” I looked up at him, confused.
“Well, I was kind of worried about my anger issues, but now I’m kind of worried about yours. You like to hit people.” His perfect mouth grinned with pride.
I rolled my eyes and pouted. “I’m not angry. She got what she deserved, and I was attacked first.” She got off lucky, actually. After the shit she pulled, Piper was lucky I didn’t take a flame thrower to her entire halter top collection.
He lifted me by the backs of my thighs, and I locked my arms and legs around him as he carried me off.
“It’s your fault, you know?”
“What?” Jared asked. His breath hot on my ear.
“You made me mean. And now I pummel poor, defenseless girls…and guys.” I tried to make my voice sound accusing and innocent.
Jared gripped me tighter. “If you beat metal long enough, it turns to steel.”
I buried my nose in his hair, kissing the ridge of his ear and joked. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, you big bully.”
Cool air caressed my back, sending chills down my arms. My eyes drifted open at the draft, and an uncontrollable smile crept across my lips.
“You better not be asleep.” Jared rustled behind me as I lay in bed, probably removing his boots.
A silent laugh escaped my lips as I turned onto my back and faced him. Hovering over me, the moonlight poured over his beautiful face, and his hair glistened with droplets of rain from the light drizzle outside. I couldn’t get enough of the sight of him.
“You came through the tree…in a storm,” I stated as he crawled into bed and immediately positioned his body on top of me. He still wore his clothes.
My dad had arrived home last week, and it went without saying that Jared was not welcome for any overnight visits. Of course, Jared and I already assumed this. I knew my dad loved Jared, but he wasn’t going to put up with finding him in my room either. That was understandable.
Resting both arms on either side of my head, Jared gazed down into my eyes. “Yeah, we used to sit in that tree all the time when it rained. It’s like riding a bike. I never forget how good it felt.”
Tears welled in my eyes. The years that separated us had hurt, but how quickly they’d passed. We were together again. We’d never forgotten how to be together.
“Do you like your car?” He smiled and started nibbling my lips with soft, teasing kisses. Giving me little pause, I could only nod.
Last weekend, after my dad had gotten home, we all took a trip to Chicago and bought my G8. I’d owned the sleek, dark metallic silver car for only a few days so far.
Dad had decided to turn over the rest of the Germany project to his partner, so he could stay home with me. It’d been tough to face him after the video leaked, but after a couple of days and lots of talks, we got the situation under control. He came down on me for making such a dumb choice at a party, and he was slightly uncomfortable with Jared’s new role in my life. But, he admitted, he probably wouldn’t be comfortable with anyone at any time dating his only daughter.
Jared and I had been online constantly, taking down the video wherever we found it. Our classmates also seemed to be laying off the gossip. But I was sure it had more to do with their respect for Jared than their sense of decency.
A week ago, I thought I’d never live down that storm, but I was already concentrating on other things. I had a list of modifications to perform on my new car, and I hoped Jared, my dad and I could work on it together throughout the winter. Madoc seemed to think he’d be included, too, and I didn’t do anything to dispel his little brain fart.
My father agreed to let me take the money for Jared’s repairs out of my trust, but I’d have to get a job to replace it. He was very strict that my college fund wasn’t a snack dish that I could stick my hand in whenever I wanted. And that was fine. A job was a good idea. I needed something to take up my time now that Dad was limiting my time with Jared. I don’t think he was as worried about our intimacy as he was about me losing focus in school.
Jared started a slow grind between my legs as his soft nibbles quickly changed to devouring and caressing. The chill that came into the room with him was replaced by sweat and heat.
Oh. I breathed hard, the pulse between my legs twitched with the friction he was making.
“You know,” I gasped. “I want you here more than anything, but my dad will wake up. It’s like he’s still in the Army or something. He sleeps with one eye open.”
He abruptly stopped and peered down at me like I was crazy. “I won’t be able to stay away. Not with knowing that your cute little body is curled up in this nice, warm bed without me.”
“You would never disrespect my dad. Even I know that.”
“No, you’re right,” he conceded, and then his eyes widened. “Do you want to come over to my house?”
I folded my lips between my teeth to stifle a laugh.
As I guided my legs up and around him, he kissed me harder before whispering against my lips. “I love you, Tate. And I’m here for you always. With or without the sleepovers. I just needed to see you.”
I held the back of his neck as he raised himself to look down at me. “I love you, too.
The top half of his body slid off of me, over the side of the bed, as he searched for something on the nightstand. I ran my fingers along his back, barely noticing his scars beneath his shirt. He popped back up with a box in his hand.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Open it,” he urged gently.
I sat up, and he leaned back on his feet, watching me. Sliding the lid off, I pulled out a charm bracelet. Not the clunky, jiggling kind that makes lots of noise but a dainty, silver chain holding four charms. My eyes darted up to Jared, but he just sat silently, waiting for something.
Eyeing the bracelet closer, I saw the charms were of a cell phone, a key, a coin, and a heart.
A cell phone, a key, a coin, and…
“My lifelines!” I burst out, it finally hitting me.
Jared exhaled a laugh. “Yeah, when you told me on our way to Chicago about how you always wanted your escape plans when dealing with me in the past, I didn’t want you to see me that way anymore.”
“I don’t—” I started.
“I know,” he rushed to assure me. “But I want to make sure I never lose your trust again. I want to be one of your lifelines, Tate. I want you to need me. So...” He gestured to the bracelet. “The heart is me. One of your lifelines. I took Jax with me today to pick it out.”
“How is your brother?” I ran the bracelet through my fingers, never wanting to let it or him go.
Jared shrugged his shoulders. “He’s hanging in there. My mom is working with a lawyer to try to get custody. He wants to meet you.”
I smiled. “I’d love to.”
I didn’t know what else to say. The gift was beautiful, and I loved what it represented. But what I loved more was that I was getting to know Jared. We’d missed time over the years, but he had found family in his brother, and I could see the love he had for him.
A tear glided down my cheek, but I brushed it away quickly. “Put it on me?” I handed him the bracelet and blinked back more tears.
He worked the clasp and secured it around my wrist, not letting go of my hand as he sat back and pulled me on top, straddling him.
He brushed the hair away from my face, and I came down, meeting his lips. He tasted like heat and man, and I wrapped my arms around him, savoring the reality of just being here with him.
“Jared.” My father knocked on the door, and we both jerked our heads up. “You need to go home now. We’ll see you for dinner tomorrow night.”
My heart thumped so hard it hurt.
Jared snorted back a laugh and spoke to the door. “Yes, sir.”
The heat of embarrassment covered my face, my arms, my toes—hell, everywhere as I saw my father’s shadow under the door disappear.
“I guess I need to go.”