The laughter echoed through the house, and all I wanted to do was sleep. I buried my head under my pillow and squeezed my eyes shut. There were too many people out there, and even though Leanne meant well, I didn’t want to socialise. I felt like a freak. Like everyone was staring at me and feeling sorry for me.
The poor orphan girl.
I could see their eyes studying me, taking in every scar, every imperfection. I could hear the pity in their voices when they spoke to me. Careful, light, trying to keep things friendly, but it was too friendly. And they were uncomfortable. I could see it in their forced smiles and hear it in the pitch of their voices.
No one knew how to act around me. No one except Brody. He was my knight in shining leather. Literally. He saved my life. More than once, if I was honest, and he was the only one who didn’t walk on eggshells around me. The only one who didn’t stare too long at my skin or at my short hair. He was the only one who didn’t speak to me as if I were a child who didn’t understand how to lift a spoon to their lips. I wasn’t an idiot.
A knock on my door had me groaning and burying my head further under my pillow. If I didn’t respond, maybe they’d leave me alone. Highly unlikely, but a girl could hope. They knocked again. If it was Leanne, she’d have opened the door and called out, “Audrey, dear,” or something like that. So, I figured it must have been Indie or Nate. Leanne’s children.
The Kellermans, Steve and Leanne, were lovely people, and their kids were great, as far as I could tell. Not only did I owe my life to Brody, but also to Nate. Yet I still didn’t feel like I belonged. Everything felt like an effort, and most of the time, I just wanted to be left alone to wallow in my misery.
The door opened. “Audrey,” Indie called softly. I ignored her. The last thing I wanted to do was sit through another goddamn family dinner when I didn’t have a family anymore. No matter how hard the Kellermans tried, I would never be their family. My family were dead, and there was no replacing them.
The door closed again, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I dodged a bullet…again. Every damn Sunday, they had a “family” dinner, but it wasn’t just Nate and Indie and their parents.
No, Indie brought her fiancé Linc along, and then Nate brought his girlfriend Harper as well. Not to mention Ryder and Bailey, Indie’s best friends from high school, and Kenzie, her son Cole, and boyfriend Jeremy. It was crazy. They weren’t family, but they all came over every freaking week.
And sometimes their parents came too.
I didn’t know why Leanne organised it. Weekly dinners, in my opinion, kind of lost their appeal if they were exhausted that much.
Then there was Brody. He didn’t often go to these dinners. He told me once that he used to look forward to them, but ever since his cousin Nate had hooked up with his ex-girlfriend Harper, he’d been trying to avoid them as much as possible. So, it probably wasn’t the smartest idea to move into Nate’s parents’ house, but it was either that or leave town. I, for one, was incredibly grateful he chose to stay in town and not flee like I probably would have in his situation.
There was another knock on the door. I held my breath.
“Don’t think you can hide under the covers. Get up. I’m starving.” Brody’s voice made me smile.
I pulled the cover down slightly and peered at him leaning in my doorway. “I’m not hiding. And if you’re so hungry, you know where the dining room is. I’m sure there is plenty of food for you to eat.”
He screwed his face up. “Pass. Come on, get your lazy butt up, and let’s go get burgers.”
My stomach rumbled, and my eyes widened. “The best burgers in the state?”
On Sunday nights when everyone was here eating dinner, and Brody and I didn’t want to socialise with the group—which was most Sunday nights—we used that as an excuse to get out of the house and go to the roadhouse for dinner. It was the only time we knew it would be a safe bet to not run into anyone we knew. No lying ex-girlfriends, no lying cousins. No one except Johnny and Julie, Brody’s ex-girlfriend’s uncle and aunt. Apparently, it was the only day of the week they worked anymore. Semi-retired, I thought Brody called it.
“I’m not hungry,” I lied. And he knew it too, judging by the arched eyebrow and sceptical look he gave me.
“You’re always hungry. Get up.” He stepped into the girly grey, white, and pink room—which was so not what I’d have chosen for myself, but that was what you got when you were thrown into the foster system at seventeen—and added in a whisper, “We’ll sneak out.” I giggled into my pillow. Brody always knew how to make me smile. It was easy to forget he wasn’t my age sometimes. I threw off my covers and gave him a shy smile. Even though he didn’t look at me with pity in his eyes, I still felt self-conscious around him.
He nodded in approval as I stood, fully dressed, including a pair of boots I’d kept hidden under the covers of my bed. “I see you’re prepared. Like a Girl Scout.”
I nodded and picked up my jacket. This time of year wasn’t particularly cold, but it was starting to cool down of a night. Plus, it had a hood, which could keep me well covered and hidden from prying eyes.
“Ready?” Brody asked, and I shook my head. It was the same every week. The thought of going out in public made me nauseated. My stomach rolled, and a heavy weight settled on my chest as we snuck down the hall to the front door. Three more steps, and we’d be out of there.
But then Nate walked down the stairs and came to a stop in front of us.
“Where are you going?” he asked neither of us in particular.
“Out.” Brody stepped around him and opened the front door.
“Mum cooked dinner.” Nate gave Brody a pointed look. I didn’t know either of them all that well, but I did know they were as close as cousins could be until Nate started dating Harper. So close they were more like best friends or brothers, and even though I didn’t see as much of Nate as I did Brody, I felt bad for him. You could see he was trying to fix things between them, but Brody kept pushing him aside.
Ignoring him, Brody looked back at me. “Audrey?”
I nodded once and gave Nate a small smile, keeping my eyes averted as I followed Brody outside and to his car.
We drove to the roadhouse and pulled into the parking lot. I twisted my hands together and wiped them on my jeans. It never got any easier. My heart stuttered in my chest, and my legs shook.
I shook my head.
“Come on. It won’t be bad,” Brody tried to reassure me.
“It will. It’ll be awful and humiliating,” I said, looking down at my feet.
“We do this every week, Audrey. You can do it. I’ll be right there with you.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Just walk in the door a few steps, and if you don’t feel comfortable, we’ll leave.”
We came to the roadhouse often, but I’d never actually stepped foot inside the doors. I’d always backed out because the fear of people’s reactions to me was crippling.
“Brody.” I sucked in a deep breath. My chest felt heavier. “Please don’t make me.”
Brody sighed and reached across the center console and picked my hand up in his, gently stroking his thumb across my raised skin. “I won’t make you do anything you’re not ready for.”
That was what I liked about Brody. He was patient and understanding, and he didn’t push me. He let me recover at my own pace and didn’t get upset when he made an effort, and I wasn’t grateful or appreciative.
“I’ll go in and grab our food.” He climbed out and walked across the parking lot.
I closed my eyes and tilted my head back, concentrating on getting my breathing under control and my limbs to stop shaking.
I’d love nothing more than to be able to walk into a room with all the confidence I had six months ago, but that was never going to happen. I was doomed to be a recluse and live a lonely life of solitude.