Page 11


“We’re staying there,” I say, nodding towards the house, “for part of the summer.”
He smiles bigger. “Nice. I live six houses down. My name is Bryce, and this is Lyle and Max.”
He nods to his friends and I take them in. Lyle is tall, blond and lean. He’s got that lanky-yet-handsome thing going for him. As if he should be an athlete. He’s got a warm smile and gentle eyes.
Max is shorter than the other two, and stockier; he’s got a leer on his face I don’t like at all. He makes me uneasy just looking at him. He’s got dark hair, cut short, and is covered in tattoos.
“I’m Melanie,” Mel pipes up. “And this is Aria.”
“Nice names,” Bryce says. “How long have you been here?”
“This is our first night,” I answer.
His eyes slide over me and his smile gets bigger. “We’re having a party tomorrow night, down at my house. You should come down; meet some of the people who live around here. It’ll be great.”
That sounds fun.
“I’m in,” Melanie says before I even open my mouth to answer.
“That’s a yes.” I laugh.
“Awesome. I’ll give you my number and you can give me a call when you’re ready. I’ll walk down and get you.”
He’s sweet. I like that.
He pulls out his cell. I get mine from my pocket and type in his number as he calls it out. Then I text him with a ‘hi’ so he has mine.
“Awesome,” he says. “If you’re up for some fun, too, we’re going water-skiing tomorrow. My dad has a boat. It’s a blast. You’ll see us on the lake. Join in, if you like.”
“They’re busy.”
I jerk and turn to see Blade strolling down the jetty, followed by Brody. He’s got his arms crossed, and he looks pissed. Actually, they both look pissed.
“Sorry, bro, didn’t realize they were taken,” Bryce says, putting his hands up.
“We’re not. These are my step-brothers,” I say loudly, pronouncing the word in a way that makes it over-obvious. Blade shoots me a look, but I brush it off with a smirk and turn back to Bryce.
“Oh,” Bryce says. “Well, cool, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Later,” I say.
The three boys shift past Blade and Brody, and disappear down the jetty. I stand, reaching my hand out for Mel. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“Your mom is lookin’ for you,” Blade says.
“I could use one,” I say, ignoring him.
“I’m keen,” Melanie says, leaping up. She oversteps and trips, stumbling a few steps backwards. Brody’s hand lashes out quickly, wrapping around her arm and steadying her. He saves her from going over the edge. We all stare. Damn. Intense.
“Oh,” she gasps. “Thank you.”
He jerks his head and turns, disappearing into the darkness. Brody the mystery. Blade is staring daggers into the side of my face, but I don’t really give a damn.
“Come on,” I say to Mel and we step past him. He lashes out, curling his finger around my upper arm and pulling me close. He leans in so his mouth is brushing my ear. There, he whispers, “Careful, Tulip. I don’t play games.”
I pull my arm free from his.
Neither do I.
I’m tucked up on the outdoor swing later that night. Melanie has gone to sleep, and the guys are all watching television in the lounge. The screen door creaks open and I lift my head to see Jack walking out, beer in hand. “Mind if I join?” he asks.
I shrug and he walks over, sitting down beside me. Jack has a presence about him that’s warm, yet so confronting. He’s strong, the kind of man you wish your dad was like because he’d wrap you in his arms and keep you safe forever. I adore Jack, but he’s not my dad, and while I’m happy for my mom I can’t replace what I lost. That doesn’t mean I don’t adore him, because I really do.
“Your mom is worried.”
“I’m sorry,” I say softly. “I didn’t mean to go off like that.”
“It’s understandable,” he says, leaning back and crossing his big arms. “You need to understand somethin’, though. I’m not trying to replace your dad, and those boys in there aren’t trying to replace your sister. We’re just trying to make the best family we can with what we have. I love your momma, you know that, but I know I can never replace what was lost.”
“She’s happy, Jack. I want that for her.”
He turns and studies me with those intense eyes. “But not yourself?”
I flinch. “Jack,” I whisper.
He pins me with his stare. “You lost something no one should ever have to lose, but you’re not doin’ anything wrong by being happy and letting people in.”
“They were my family,” I say, my voice hitching. “How can I just replace them and be happy about it? How can I sit here, laughing and joking with all of you and not feel guilt over that when they’re not here? They didn’t get a choice.”
He reaches over, gripping my jaw and leaning in closer. “You’re not doin’ anything wrong. Do you think your dad would want you to be unhappy, honey? Do you think your sister would want to see you sad? No one is replacing them, Aria. We’re just trying to create something of our own.”
My bottom lip trembles and I turn my eyes away, unable to look at him.