I balled my fist against my thigh, clenching until it hurt. Pain was good. Pain distracted me from the present. The awkward-as-fuck present that was Christmas Day in the Stone-Prince house. The whole thing was a joke. Playing happy families. Ignoring the herd of elephants in the room.
Kyle caught my eye from across the table and flashed me a knowing grin.
He loved seeing me squirm during family time. Usually, I bailed, but it was Christmas. Even my heart wasn’t that black. I glanced around, checking no one was watching, and pulled my hand from under the table flipping him off. Laughter rumbled deep in Kyle’s chest and all heads snapped in his direction.
“I, hmm…” he spluttered. “Eggnog… I drank too much.”
Take that jackass. I smirked at him.
“Everything smells delicious, Rebecca,” Stella, the woman Uncle Rob was banging, smiled, inhaling for effect. I’d only met her a couple of times, but it was like she tried too hard. I preferred people who talked less. Like her six-year-old daughter, Beth, who sat fidgeting with the table cover, eyes darting all over the place, unsure what to make of us all.
Mom beamed as she fussed over the table, straightening pans and making room for everything. “I can’t take all the credit. Loretta came in yesterday to help me prepare. But I glazed the ham myself.”
Halle-fucking-lujah. Our family needed more than a glazed ham to mend the deep cracks.
“So, Cous,” Kyle piped up and my eyes slid to her. Lo was sat opposite me and one seat over, but she kept her focus on my stepbrother, refusing to look in my direction. My fist clenched tighter. The urge to bail was strong—rushing through my veins, heating my blood. I couldn’t leave her though. I wouldn’t. Even if she thought she didn’t want me here, even if she planned on ignoring me all day, I wasn’t going anywhere.
“What did the big red man bring you?” His brows quirked up with amusement. Motherfu—I tamped down the urge to throw Mom’s green bean casserole at him. He knew exactly what he was doing. After he’d asked me if I planned on buying Lo a present and I’d told him no, Kyle had given me nothing but shit. “It's too soon for that,” I'd grumbled at him. He didn't know I'd already gotten her something, but I didn’t want him running his mouth. The two of them had developed a tight bond. Between last-minute meetings with Coach, and the school’s guidance counsellor, Miss Tamson; and then Lo shutting me out, I hadn’t had chance to give it to her yet.
“Nothing special.” Her frosty glare moved right over me, and I groaned under my breath. If being suffocated by Mom’s fake smiles and Kyle’s passive aggressive bullshit wasn’t bad enough, Lo’s mood was a fuse to my temper, and I was one match away from losing it.
“Now, come on, sweetheart,” Uncle Rob said, “You had a nice pile of presents under the tree.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know, Dad, I just—”
“It’s ready,” Mom appeared in the doorway—her timing not completely sucking for once—lost behind the huge ham in her gloved hands, “and it tastes divine.”
“Darling,” Gentry went to her. “You’re not supposed to eat it before bringing it to the table.”
“Hush now and make room. Everyone be careful, the pan is hot.”
Ham safely situated on the table, Gentry pulled out her chair and Mom sat down, beaming at him. Even after all this time, it was hard to watch the two of them—a testament to how screwed up I was.
“This looks great, Rebecca,” Uncle Rob echoed Stella’s words, patting his girlfriend’s hand affectionately, and I risked peeking over at Lo. Her face was impassive. A stone mask. But I saw the hurt glittering in her eyes, and I knew exactly what it was doing to her watching her father with a new woman. A woman who wasn’t her mom. Because I knew first hand that no matter how high you built the walls around you, they would never be impenetrable. And part of me wanted to leave the table; to grab her hand and take her far away from this mess… but I couldn’t. Right now, I couldn’t be who she needed me to be.
And it killed me.
Something vibrated beside me and Macey peeked under the table, fumbling with her cell phone. I elbowed her, whispering, “If I have to endure this, so do you,” while everyone else started helping themselves to the food. In typical Kyle fashion, he already had his plate piled high. I was built, but he could out eat me any day of the week thanks to all the conditioning and drills Coach Munford made the football team run.
“As soon as dinner’s over, I’m out of here,” my sister hissed through gritted teeth, refusing to look at me.
Lo wasn't the only girl around the table pissed at me.
“Macey, pass the greens, please,” Mom said to her.
“Sure,” she mumbled, passing her the dish.
“Robert tells me you want to pursue a career in dancing?” Stella angled herself to Macey, who tensed up at the mention of her future.
“Maybe.” It came out clipped. “I haven’t decided. Senior year is a long way off yet.”
“Not really, sweetheart,” Mom said. “Maverick will be graduating before you know it and then you’ll be thinking about college applications.”
I sucked in a sharp breath, my fingers tightening around the silverware. Not here. Not now.
“And you’re hoping to play basketball, Maverick?”
Silence descended over the table and Mom shot me an apologetic smile. Too late for that, Mom.
“I…” the words lodged in my throat.
“Maverick knows putting all of his hopes on basketball is a risk. The likelihood of being drafted to the NBA is what?” She looked to me. “Five out of every ten thousand high school players?”
“Three.” My voice was flat.
“Yeah, but Rick’s got what it takes to go all the way,” Kyle chimed in. “He holds the three-point record for the State.”
I shot him a look that said, ‘not helping’. I didn’t want to discuss this. Not in front of strangers. Or Lo—definitely not Lo. Not when she still didn’t know everything.
“It’s sensible to have other options,” Gentry weighed in, surprising me, but then Stella had to go and ask the question I dreaded.
“What would you do instead of play basketball, Maverick?”
Mom’s face blanched this time. It was one thing to pretend I was keeping my options open, another to have to tell a barefaced lie to the people she considered family.
“Maverick’s always had a natural instinct for business.”
Could have fooled me. I swallowed the sarcastic reply souring on my tongue. Mom was only trying to help—it’s all she ever did. Mediated between me and my father, Alec Prince. Ruthless businessman and the devil in an Armani suit.
Anger speared through me. It came hand-in-hand with him. The very mention of his name. The sound of his voice. The weight of his demands and loaded threats.
“I have a boyfriend.”
Mom’s fork clattered to the table as she stared at Summer with wide eyes. “Excuse me?”
“I, hmm, sorry.” Summer tucked her hair behind her ear, unable to meet Mom’s heavy gaze. “I’ve been trying to tell you since school got out for the holidays.”
“That’s lovely, sweetheart. And this, boyfriend…” Gentry swallowed hard, loosening his collar. “Will we get to meet him soon?”
Summer’s eyes darted around the table, landing on me, and understanding passed between us. She was taking the heat from me to her, and it was more than I deserved after how I treated her and Nick. But I wouldn’t forget.
“He’s a good guy,” I said, forking potatoes into my mouth, trying to act normal. It was the least I could do.
“You knew about this?” Mom tilted her head and I shrugged.
“We all know,” Kyle added. “And for what it’s worth, Nick has my seal of approval.”
“Kyle,” Summer and Lo said at the same time and he threw his hands up.
“What? It’s a good thing.”
“Okay, okay everyone. Let’s calm down and finish eating,” Gentry said. “Summer, I’m sure he’s a good guy. Me and your mother very much look forward to meeting him.”
My little sister’s face turned crimson as she said, “Good, because he’ll be here in about an hour.”
When dinner was finally done, Lo was the first up to help Mom clear away the dishes. Macey made her excuses and left. If it was possible, I think she hated family time more than I did. Usually, we were a team. A united front. But ever since I’d played things down with her when she confronted me about Lo, that had changed. My sister wasn’t blind… or stupid, but I wasn’t ready to have that conversation, and she’d pretty much given me the silent treatment ever since.
“Laurie?” I asked Kyle as he texted someone.
“Yeah,” he grinned. “I’m trying to convince her to come over, but her mom is pretty into the whole family thing.”
I heard his words, but my eyes were too busy tracking Lo as she moved around. When she came out of the kitchen and disappeared down the hallway toward the back of the house, I pushed out of my chair. Kyle cocked his eyebrow. “You think that’s a good idea?” He flicked his head in the direction Lo had gone.
“If anyone asks, I’m upstairs.” I could take the other door out of the dining room and double back around past the stairs. It was risky, but I couldn’t go another second without seeing her.
“It’s not just your head on the block, you know.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, casting Uncle Rob and Stella a sideways glance, but they were busy entertaining Beth. Kyle was right. This wasn’t the way anyone needed to find out about us, but I needed to know we were okay.
Excusing myself, I left the room, breaking out into a gentle jog as I neared the downstairs bathroom. The vibrations of the faucet filtered through the door confirming she was inside. I waited, ready to bolt up the stairs if anyone came this way.
When the door swung open and Lo saw me standing there, her walls slammed down. Arms folded across her chest, chin high, she said, “Let me past.” Her attempt at a scowl was too fucking cute, and I stepped closer, forcing her to back up.
“Not until you talk to me.”
“What’s to talk about? It’s been two weeks since the dance and nothing has changed. Not one thing.”
Not true. A lot had changed for me, but I didn’t want to anger her further. Not when I was unable to do anything about it right at this precise moment.
“It’s complicated; you know that.” I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me, locking it. Her eyes widened with disbelief and I dragged a hand down my face. I didn’t want to fight. Lo was my constant. My calm. She had no idea how much I needed her.
And I had a feeling she needed me too, not that she’d ever admit it.
She went to move around me, but I caught her wrist tugging her into my arms. “Don't be like this. It's you and me, okay?” I ran my nose along her cheek pressing a kiss to the corner of her mouth. “When we tell them—and we will—things will change. I just want it to be us, for a little while.”
It wasn't the whole truth. But she didn't need to know that yet. I'd crossed a line going to the dance for her—the kids at school were already talking—but when I found out what Caitlin had planned I couldn't just stand by. Besides, it was killing me seeing her around school, watching Lions follow her around like a lost fucking puppy, and not being able to touch her. To show everyone she was mine.
So, I had made a choice.
I knew things would blow up once everyone found out though. I just needed her to give me some time to figure stuff out. To protect her from the fallout.
“London, come on,” I buried my face in her shoulder, inhaling deeply.
“Maverick,” she sighed, and I felt some of her irritation ebb away. “I don't want to play games.”
I lifted my head and touched it to hers, forcing her to look at me. “This is not a game. It's real, Lo. I just need time.”
Indecision flickered in her eyes, and I couldn't blame her. I'd been a bastard. The worst kind. But I was only protecting her.
It was all only ever about her.
Lo's fingers curled into my t-shirt and she pulled me closer, igniting a fire in my stomach. “What was that all about at dinner? The college stuff?”
My spine went rigid. Of course, she’d witnessed the whole conversation, but I didn’t want to do this here. I’d have to tell her eventually, but not now. Not when I needed her so much. My lips crashed down on hers, hungry and possessive, as my hands buried themselves deep in her hair. I thought Lo would fight me. Push me away and demand answers. But she didn’t. She let me in, swirling her tongue with mine, and I groaned, feeling myself grow hard.
“I want you,” I murmured against her mouth, rolling my hips into hers, showing her just how much.
“Lo, sweetie. Everything okay in there?”
She scrambled out of my arms, breathless and flushed. “Coming, I'm just coming.”
I hooked my hand around her waist and pulled her back to me, my mouth brushing the shell of her ear. “Not yet, you’re not, but it can be arranged.”
Shuddering in my arms, her eyes darkened with lust as she bit down on her lip, staring up at me. I wanted nothing more than to—
“Lo, honey.” A soft knock at the door echoed around the tiled room. “Are you sure you're okay?”
She slipped out from between me and the wall and I stumbled forward, my breath ragged. “We should get back out there before she sends a search party,” Lo whispered.
I cussed quietly. My mother, the cockblock. “Fine. But this isn't over,” I said in a low voice.
As soon as the adults were tipsy on Loretta's infamous eggnog, we would finish this. By then, there was every chance I wouldn't care who saw us.
“Stay here and I'll distract her.” Lo sighed deeply, her eyes still blazing with lust.
She slipped out of the door, closing it behind her. I heard Mom hovering, asking questions, but soon their voices disappeared. Coast clear, I gave myself a couple of seconds for my racing heart to calm down then left the bathroom and returned to my version of hell.