Page 24

 Jay Crownover

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“We’re family, we take care of each other and do what we have to do to survive.”
I gritted my teeth. “Yeah, only that always meant I had to take care of you, Asa. I’m done. I’m not sleeping with anyone to keep you from getting your legs broken, because that is the only option. I’m not hanging out with guys that are too old for me, or only interested in using me to get you in the door anymore. I’m not doing lines of coke to numb myself and forget how crappy doing all the things I used to do made me feel. I’ve got a good thing going on here and I’m not going to let you or your idiotic choices mess it up.”
He scowled at me. “You won’t help me, but you’ll sleep around with any guy who can play the guitar?”
It was as close as my brother, my flesh and blood, had ever come to admitting that he had some kind of idea of the deplorable things I’d taken upon myself to do in order to keep him in one piece. It made me feel worse about it than I normally did, and I had beaten myself up over the truly awful decisions I’d made back then on a regular basis.
I poked him in the chest again and got in his face. “I sleep with who I want when I want, Asa. You have no right to say anything, after everything I’ve done for you. I’ll tell you one time: leave Jet alone. He isn’t a nice guy like Adam. He isn’t stupid, and the bumpkin act you have going on isn’t going to fool him.”
He jumped off the stair and glowered up at me. “Oh yeah, and how do you think all your fancy new friends are going to feel about Good-Time Ayd? Do any of them know what you used to do for fun, how you used to get by? Do any of them know where the real you came from, or do they all just see the polished version and take it at face value? Even if Rocker Boy is cool with it, what about the rest of them? Could he still look at you the same if the rest of them decided you were nothing but trailer trash?”
I sucked in a breath and rocked back on my heels. That was exactly what I was afraid of, but it was a cut that went miles deep coming from him. Half those trips around the block had been because of him because I was forever wanting to save him. Most of the things that I wanted to keep buried now were because of him. To this day I still never had concrete proof that Asa had any idea of the lengths I had gone to to keep him alive and breathing. And if he did know, how he could dare ask me to give him even more. And if he didn’t know, the fact that he never asked any questions about it was frankly just as heartbreaking. I loved my brother, and I liked to think somewhere in someplace inside he loved me back, but I just wasn’t sure and that’s why I could never trust him fully.
I pulled the cloak of indifference that I had been building since the last time I saw Woodward around me and headed up the steps so I could go to class without bothering to engage him further. I was pissed because the class was now almost halfway over.
“It doesn’t matter. What I’m doing with Jet is none of your business, and I have no intention of being invested enough to let my past matter or not. Stay away from Adam, and stay away from me. If I can think of a way to help you with the money, I will, but this is it, Asa. I’m not doing this with you or for you. I think it would kill me to have to bury you after everything I’ve done for you, and I deserve better than that.”
“I don’t have a whole lot of time for this to happen, Ayd, so even if you can’t help I still have to figure something out.”
“I guess you should have thought about that before you decided to rip a bunch of criminals off.”
He put that smile on again that made my skin crawl. “A leopard can’t change its spots, sis. Maybe it would do you some good to remember that.”
I watched him walk away and felt like the world was shifting under my feet. Asa was ruthless—he was a survivor and he didn’t care who he hurt or who he stepped on to get what he wanted. I needed to come up with something fast or he was going to systematically dismantle my entire life here in Denver.
I let out a startled yelp when a hand landed on my shoulder. Shaw held up her hands in surrender and laughed at me.
“A little bit jumpy, are we?”
I groaned and shoved my hands through my hair. “Yeah, you could say that.”
Her bright green eyes sharpened with concern. “Is everything all right?”
She was my best friend. She loved me and I knew she wouldn’t judge me. Only letting her all the way in, letting her have access to all the dirt and vitriol Asa brought up, froze me solid from the inside out.
“Yeah, I guess I’m just on edge still. You know, keeping both eyes open and all that.”
“It’s probably better to be safe than sorry.”
I nodded absently and resigned myself to the fact I was going to miss class and have to figure out a way to get my hands on a whole lot of money really fast.
“What’s been going on with you?”
She rolled her eyes and tucked her long hair behind her ears. “Still arguing with Rule about the house. I told him that I would love to move into one with him, if he let me put down half of the down payment. He lost his mind.”
I followed her up the stairs and let her talk while I nodded and listened sympathetically. We stopped outside the classroom for my next class and I tugged on the end of her braid to get her to take a breath.
“Shaw, think about this from his perspective for just a second. This is a guy who has a hard time making bonds with anyone, has a hard time committing to anything, and he wants to buy you a home. You offering to pay for half of it makes logical sense to me and you, because you have more money than God, but to him it’s taking something he’s trying to do for you, for the two of you together, and making it less important. Besides, it’s money that comes from your folks, who hate him, and he wouldn’t want to accept a freaking penny from those people after the way they’ve treated you. He wants to do this for you, Shaw. Why shouldn’t he take care of you? You loved him unconditionally for years and years. Can’t this be your reward for that?”
She blinked at me with big eyes and then groaned. “Well, crap. Why didn’t I see that?”
I laughed. “Because you’re trying to prevent yourself from being hurt. That boy would rather chew off his own arm than hurt you again. Just chill out and enjoy loving each other.”
She raised a pale brow at me and pushed open the door to the classroom. She already had her phone out and was texting Rule. I really wanted what was best for them. They had had a hard road and deserved a break.
“Where did all this romantic insight suddenly come from? Did Jet get under your skin or what?”
Jet was under more than just my skin. He was doing things to me that were downright scary, and with Asa looming in the background, I needed to get it all together or risk it exploding in painful bits and pieces around me. I needed the control, the firm hand on my life I had maintained since landing in Denver years ago. I needed to remember that I was the one in charge of my fate, not Asa and not Jet.
“Jet is a lot different from what I really thought he was. There’s a whole lot there I never really anticipated or fully appreciated.” I wasn’t just referring to what was in his pants, either.
Shaw was smiling at whatever had come back at her on her phone, but she answered me anyway.
“It’s really easy to think that these guys are just one way because of how they look and how they talk, but once they let you in it’s an entirely different ball game.”
I sighed and dug a pencil out of my bag. “I really like him, Shaw. I mean like him. He sings to me at night and it makes my heart hurt. The way he looks at me, I feel like he’s trying to pull me apart and put me back together in an even better way.”
Her mouth fell open a little. “Wow.”
“I know. I’m not ready for any of that with him.”
“Why not? If he makes you feel that way, why wouldn’t you just jump in with both feet?”
“Because then I wouldn’t be in control of what’s happening between us anymore.”
She was going to say something back, but had to stop because the teacher started class and we had to pay attention. My life felt like it was suddenly spinning out of control. All I wanted was to build myself a rock-solid road to the future, a way to never end up back where I was. Now not only was my past staring at me like a loaded gun, but my future was tied up with a guy who didn’t care about security and stability, but made me feel like I was the only thing in the world that mattered to him. It was confusing and stressful, and the more time I spent worrying about it, the heavier that brick of cement in my gut got. Jet was a great guy, but the problem was, I wasn’t exactly a great girl, and I just didn’t know if I was ready for him to know that. I knew for sure I wasn’t ready to turn the reins of whatever our relationship was or wasn’t over to him.
After class was over, I knew Shaw wanted to rehash what we had been talking about, but I needed to go there like I needed a hole in the head, so I bolted when she was distracted by a classmate asking her about an assignment. I had bigger problems to tackle, like where in the hell I could come up with money for Asa. Realistically, I knew I could ask Shaw for help. She might not have that kind of money just lying around, but she was the only person that I knew who could more than likely come close to getting her hands on it. I had about five grand in savings, but it went quickly between school and rent, and there was no way that would be enough to keep Asa breathing, if he was in as deep as I thought or it was as bad as he was hinting at.
I had two more classes and was scheduled to work a closing shift, but I needed to get ahold of my mom to make sure she was okay. I called her twice but it went to voice mail, and I tried not to panic. It made my skin crawl that Asa could be so reckless and so thoughtless as to how his actions affected everyone around him. I had hoped and prayed that when I left Woodward, I was leaving behind all the awful things my brother dragged around with him.
Shaw sent me a text that let me know, in no uncertain terms, that we were not finished talking, and I started to dread having to work my shift with her. I wasn’t sure what to do about Jet, and trying to explain things to her wasn’t helping me figure it out. I was running across the parking lot because I was late again and needed to get downtown, when my phone rang. Since my mom was finally calling me back, I ground to a stop and answered her with a breathless, “Hey, Mama.”
“Why have you been calling me all day, Ayden? I’m busy.”
That was my mother—perpetually stuck at sixteen years old and knocked up. I don’t think she had ever emotionally matured beyond that.
“Did you know Asa was coming to Denver?”
“Of course I did. He misses you and wanted to see you.”
I had to bite my lip to try not to swear at her. “No, Mama, he owes some people back home a lot of money. He’s here so I can help him, as usual.”
“Asa is a good boy, Ayd. It’s good to help your brother.”
It was always the same thing. Every time he went to jail, every time he had thugs pounding on the door, every time he used me or used her, he was always just a good boy in her eyes and that would never change.