Chapter One – Roxy
It’s been six months.
Twenty-six weeks. One hundred and eighty-two days. Two hundred and sixty-two thousand, nine hundred and seventy-four minutes. Or perhaps the most accurate; fifteen million, five hundred and fifty-two thousand seconds.
At least that’s how it feels. It feels like a short slice of forever since I last saw my brother, but I remember the moment he died like yesterday. It’s so clear, like I’m watching a movie play out in my mind. I remember the glare of headlights. The screech of the tires as the car swerved. My own ear-piercing scream as I watched it smash head on into a tree.
And the guilt. The guilt of not forcing him to get into Selena’s car instead of Stu’s. That’s almost as bad as the memory itself – knowing I could have prevented it if I hadn’t have let it go as easily as I always did.
Six months and it still hurts as much as it did then. I miss him as fiercely as I have every day since he died, and I know without a doubt whoever said time is a healer is a great big fucking liar. Nothing has healed; I haven’t healed. I’ve been broken, my heart ripped to pieces, alone in my grief and unable to explain to anyone how I feel.
So I don’t. I don’t explain, I don’t even try to, and I don’t feel. I block it out, knowing it exists but choosing not to acknowledge it.
If I didn’t, I’d lose whatever will is keeping me alive. I didn’t just lose my brother that night. I lost a part of my very soul.
The vodka burns my throat as it goes down. It settles into a warm pool in my belly, and I savor that feeling for a moment. It’ll be gone as quickly as it came, a fleeting spark of happiness. I eye the bottle, wondering if I can get away with another one before Selena finds me.
And she will. She’ll know exactly where I’ve disappeared to… To the place she can’t keep her eyes on me.
“How many have you had?”
I sigh. “Two.”
“Bullshit, Roxy.” My blonde-haired best friend steps in front of me, her hands on her hips. “How. Many?”
“Four,” I lie for the second time. “I promise.”
She scrutinizes me with her brown eyes, flicking them from my face to the bottle behind me. “Hmm. Okay.”
“Don’t you trust me, Leney?” I smirk.
Her eyebrow shoots up. “About as much as I trust my sister with my make-up bag.”
“Ouch.” I put a hand to my chest. “That hurts.”
Selena snorts. “Spare me your dramatics, Roxy. You know I trust you with everything but the crap you keep putting in your body.”
“It’s just vodka.”
“And the rest.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“If you think I didn’t see you sneaking off with Layla, you’re wrong.”
“Please.” I brush my hair back from my face and turn to pour a drink. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Look at me,” Selena demands.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I slam the bottle down over the music.
“If you didn’t take anything, you’ll turn your ass around and look at me.”
Fuck me. “Fine.” I turn my face to her and look her in the eyes for a minute. “See? I didn’t take anything.” Tonight. Yet.
“Alright. I believe you. This time.” She sighs and takes the glass I offer her. “I just worry about you-”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all.” I take a drink. “You’re worried about my drinking, suspected drug use and relationships. My mom already gave me the grilling. Again.”
“Okay, as your best friend, you can hardly call what you have relationships.”
“No, you can.” My eyes scan the heaving room. “However short, they have all the ingredients. Attraction, want, and a mutual understanding of what’s expected. In this case, it’s nothing goes past one night. Hey – if they’re lucky, they might even get my name.”
Selena shakes her head, and I laugh.
“What? I might push the limits, but I’m always careful. I know I can get home safely if I’ve been drinking and I always use protection.”
“You’re a damn idiot, girl.”
“Probably. But at least I’m a sensible one.” I grin.
She runs her finger around the top of her glass. “Do you think he’d want to see you like this? Doing this to yourself?”
I freeze, every part of my body going cold. “I’m not doing anything to myself, and I’m sure as shit not talking about him tonight, Leney.”
I down the rest of my glass, the vodka stronger than the Red Bull, and push off from the table. My eyes fix on a broad-shouldered guy in the middle of the crowd, his short, light hair spiked up, and I move toward him, emotion rushing through my body.
Shit, Selena knows better than to mention my brother.
Someone grabs my hand, stopping me and spinning me round. I press up against a hard chest and look up.
“Olly.” My hand rests on his chest. “Can I help you?”
He looks down at my chest and back up. “Several ways.”
I slide my hand up his chest to his face, running my thumb along his jaw. He tilts his head down, his lips brushing across the pad of my thumb.
“Oh, sorry. You must have missed the rhetorical part of that question.” I smile sweetly, stepping back and breaking our contact. “Maybe some other time.”
“You’re a tease, Roxy Hughes.”
“Me? Never.” I glance over my shoulder and wink at him. I’ve barely taken five steps when I’m pulled into another chest. A very, very hard chest. My eyes flick upwards into a pair of bright blue ones I don’t recognize. Oh. That sure doesn’t happen often in Verity Point.
“Well, hello.” The words escape me.
“Hello,” he replies, his eyes skimming me appreciatively. “I’ve had the shittest night ever, so do me a favor and tell me you’re here alone.”
Okay, Mr. Terrible-Pick-Up line, usually you’d get your ass kicked down, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna walk away from someone this damn hot.
I run my eyes over his brown hair, his sharp features, his broad shoulders and toned biceps. “I was here alone.” I flick my hair over my shoulder and rest a hand on his waist. “Now I’m here with you. How does that sound?”
His lips curve to one side as his arm slides around my back, pulling me into him. “That sounds real good to me.”
The crowd suddenly closes in on us, my senior class a mass of grinding bodies. The mixture of probably too many shots, the pounding music, and the muscular body against mine becomes heady, and I let myself go.
My body moves with the guy’s, his hand trailing down my back to the curve of my ass and cupping it. My pelvis pushes into his, and as we move I feel him steadily get harder. And bigger. Holy shit. His growing erection pushes into my hip, and I resist the urge to lick my lips and leave the party already.
Damn, two out of three for one night won’t be bad. God knows Selena is on my case tonight, so it looks like whoever this guy is will have to be my drug of choice.
Just, for the love of God, let this guy know what he’s doing in bed. Please.
He dips his head towards mine, touching his lips to mine. They’re warm and probing, and he wastes no time slipping his tongue across the seam of my lips. My hand curls around his neck, pulling him closer to mine, and I open for him. Our tongues meet in an easy dance, stroking and searching the other’s mouth. I feel the familiar clenching and warming of my nether regions as I imagine what else he could do with that tongue, and I push my hips into him without realizing.
His lips leave mine, traveling along my jaw to my ear. “What’s your name?”
I laugh. “You don’t really need my name, do you?”
“Good answer.” He smiles against my hair, running a hand along my side and down to my thigh. His finger creeps under the hem of my skirt, tickling my bare skin. “In that case, I have a room at the B’n’B around the corner.”
“As long as we sneak in round the back,” I reply. “My Aunt owns that place.” And wouldn’t that be a story for the next family dinner?
“A girl who takes a risk,” he murmurs, looking at me. “I like that.”
I look up at him through my lashes. “That’s not all you’ll like.”
He grins like the cat who’s just got the cream and we step into the hall. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Give me two minutes.” I find Selena in the kitchen and tap her shoulder. “Hey, I’m leaving.”
“What…” Her eyes glance over my shoulder. “Oh. Okay, I guess. But text me later, promise?”
I roll my eyes. “Jesus, Leney. Okay, I promise to text you and tell you I’m not gagged and bound in a river somewhere.”
“You’re a bitch, Roxy.” She shakes her head. “Who is he?”
I walk backwards, my lips quirking. “I have no fucking idea.”
I ignore the pounding in my head as I sneak out of my house earlier than usual. In hindsight, maybe half a bottle of Jack with… whatever his name was… after we left the party wasn’t the best idea. Actually, no maybe about it. It definitely wasn’t the best idea, not when I know Mom is gonna give me another talk when I get home.
Verity Point is dead. At eight in the morning, everyone is still in bed. If it wasn’t a Saturday, I would be too. I’d be snuggled under my covers, either escaping in dreams or trapped by nightmares.
My feet drag, feeling as heavy as my head, as the big iron cast gate to the graveyard comes into view, just like they always do. I hesitate with every step I take. It’s pointless and unnecessary. My feet and I both know we’ll pass through the gate, follow the path, and sit in front of Cam’s grave like we do every Saturday morning. Like we have every Saturday since his funeral.
And we do. I slip through the open gate and take the path that leads to where he is. The branches of the trees lining the gravelly walk reach out over me, shading me from the rising summer sun and the heat it brings. The short walk is as full of heartache as always, and I still wonder if one day Cam will appear from behind the trees and tell me it was all a joke.
I hope he will. I hope the same way I once hoped he’d stop treating me like a little kid. I hope with everything I have, with all that I am. I hope one day I’ll wake up and it’ll all be a terrible dream. But I know it won’t happen… The same way he never stopped treating me like the six year old he wished I still was. I swallow and look up as I enter his section of the graveyard.
And stop, because for the first time, I’m not alone here.
Of course he’d be here – I knew he was coming home yesterday, so he would make Cam his first stop first thing. He’s crouched in front of the headstone, his face in his hands and his brown hair flopping over his fingers. I can almost taste the pain coming off of him, and it wraps around me, making me hurt even more. Me? I can deal with the pain of losing Cam, but I can’t deal with seeing Kyle suffer that same pain.
I wasn’t the only person to lose a part of myself that night.
My heart climbs into my throat, skipping almost painfully. And it’s wrong. So, so wrong, but it’s an automatic reaction to him. It’s the same reaction he’s elicited from me for the last four years – not that it matters, or even that anyone knows. I’m just Cam’s kid sister, and I always have been. I always will be, and I’ve accepted that. I just wish that acceptance would drown out the ever-present feelings I have for him, the ones that are roaring up even now. This time, though, the spikes of attraction are mixed with a hint of anger.
Anger because he wasn’t here then. He wasn’t there when Cam was dying in the hospital and he wasn’t here when he was being lowered into that goddamn hole.
He was the only person that could have made it easier to deal with losing my brother… But he wasn’t here. I needed him, and he was at the other end of the coast.
I blink, fighting back the burn in my eyes. “You weren’t here,” I say softly, a hint of accusation in my tone.
Kyle stands and runs a hand through his brown hair. “I know. I wish… I just…” He looks back at the gravestone for a second and sighs. “How are you?” His eyes rise to mine.
“I hope you don’t exactly expect me to answer that.” I walk toward the grave and stop next to him, staring at the darkened inscription on the gray marble.
Cameron John Hughes.
His name is all I can look at. I don’t need to look at the dates or the eulogy saying how amazing he is. I know that already, and the date of his death is burned into my mind. January 10th.
I shake my head. “Don’t. Don’t give me your sympathy, Kyle. Its six months too late.”
“I’d just gone back. I didn’t have the money for another flight.”
“We would have paid for you. Mom and Dad would have got you the ticket. You know that.” I drop to the ground, crossing my legs under me.
“They’d just lost their son. I wasn’t about to ask them to do that for me.” He sits down next to me, crossing his own legs and hooking his arms around them. The same way Cam used to sit.
I look at the grass. “I would have driven to get you. I would have driven through the night if that’s what it took.”
“Roxy, you can barely drive to Portland without breaking a sweat.”
“I would have driven there for Cam,” I say quietly. “He would have wanted you there.”
Kyle lets out a long breath, dropping his head. “Shit, I know. I shoulda been there. I bet he’s haunting me now and cursing my ass for not being here for you.”
I laugh sadly. “You didn’t need to be here for me.” I wanted you to be. “You needed to be here for you. I know you’ll never forgive yourself.” I pick at the grass, snapping off blades and letting them drop back to the ground. Causing death in a place full of it.
“I’ll never forgive myself for not convincing him to come to Berkeley with me. If he had, that never would have happened.”
“I’ll never forgive myself for letting him get in that car with Stu. We all knew he’d had a few to drink. If he’d got in with me and Selena, it never would have happened.”
“Jesus, Rox! It ain’t your fault. Cam was as stubborn as a goddamn mule. He never did anything unless his Royal Ass wanted to.”
I look at him properly for the first time. There are slight shadows under his brown eyes and there’s a sadness lingering in them I’ve never seen. Other than that he’s the same Kyle I’ve always known. His skin is tanned from living in California, and his body is just as lean as it’s always been.
“Then how could it possibly be your fault?” I question.
His eyes meet mine fully, and his lips twitch up at one side. “Touché, Roxanne. Touché.”
“Don’t call me Roxanne.” I elbow him. “You know I hate it.”
“I know. That’s why I do it.” He laughs quietly. “You know what worries me about Cam being gone?”
“Who’ll cause trouble with you now?”
“Partly… But mostly it’s who’ll keep your ass in check.”
“My ass doesn’t need keeping anywhere, thank you very much.”
“No, it does. It needs keeping in your pants.”
My eyes trace Cam’s name. “I believe the location of my ass is none of your business.”
He snorts. “It is if I’m the one keeping it in check.”
That sounds way more appealing than it should.
“Cam didn’t keep my ass in check. He kept everyone else’s in it.”
“Then I’ll keep their asses in check,” Kyle says nonchalantly.
I shake my head, a bitter laugh in my throat, and get up. “You’re not my brother, Kyle. I only have one of those.” I kiss my fingers and press them to the top of the gravestone, letting my hand fall away slowly before turning away.
“No, but I promised him I’d look after you if anything happened to him.”
I pause. “I don’t need looking after. I’m not a kid anymore.”
He laughs. “I know that, Rox. Believe me, girl, I know you’re not a kid. I’ll argue your other point, though.”
“There is no argument.” I turn back to him, my arms folded across my chest.
“That’s not what I’ve heard.” His eyes pierce mine. “There’s quite a few people who think you need an awful lot of looking after.”
“Unreal. This place is fucking unreal. You’ve been back, what? Twelve hours? And people are already talking about me.” I let that bitter laugh leave as my head shakes yet again. “I’ll say it again; I don’t need looking after, regardless of what the people here may think. You weren’t here for me when I needed you, Kyle, whatever your reason for that is, so there’s no need for you to be here for me when I don’t need you!”
“No one’s talking about you.” He gets up and walks toward me, stopping half a foot away. “It might surprise you that while I was at college and you were here transforming yourself into the resident bad girl, I was talking to your parents every weekend.” His eyes flick over my body. “You tell me I wasn’t there for you, but I was there for your mom when you weren’t.”
“Don’t you dare.”
“What? Tell you the truth?” He raises his eyebrows. “No one else does, do they?”
I say nothing.
“I didn’t think so. You might think I wasn’t there for you, Rox, but I was. Every day. I didn’t have to be here to care.” His voice softens and he tucks my hair behind my ear. “You just never looked for it.”
My arms drop, and I swallow, my chest tightening. A lump rises in my throat, and I fight against the tears burning my eyes. “That doesn’t matter.” I step back and point at the ground. “You weren’t here. You weren’t in the place that mattered when it mattered!”
“Go home.” Kyle looks at me steadily. “Go home and sleep off that killer hangover, and I’ll see you later when you’ve calmed down.”
I spin on my heel, my fists clenching at my sides. “Remember, you’re not my brother!” I throw back at him over my shoulder.
“I know. But I’m the closest damn thing you have.”
That’s the problem. And it always will be.
I don’t know what I’m more angry about – whether it’s the fact he’s come back and said all that shit, or because he still sees me as Cam’s kid sister. A part of me, a tiny part of me, hoped he’d come back and I’d be more than that. That he’d look at me in a way different to the brotherly way he always has.
A stupid, stupid goddamn part of me that needs shooting.
I swipe hot, angry tears from my eyes and turn into the woods. Kyle might be back for the summer but that doesn’t give him the right to act all protective of me. It doesn’t give him the right to do anything at all.