The Next Generation of Fall Away Series by Penelope Douglas

Feb 072019
 
 7 February 2019  Posted by  Tagged with: ,  Add comments

Everybody fell in love with the Fall Away Series by Penelope Douglas. For sure, I was one of them! And the fact that the author decided to continue the series with THE Next Generation of the kids from our beloved characters, makes me go up from too much joy! There is too much excitement, but little information. It actually doesn’t matter because even if it’s a lot of waiting ahead, I am going to pre-order as soon as I see a sale alert.

Lovely Penelope has given us some inside scoop on some bonus scenes, and I have gathered them all here for you. Secretly, I read them once in a while (Shh….)

Just enjoy!

Updated news regarding the Hellbent Series:

The Hellbent Series by Penelope Douglas

The Next Generation

***SPOILERS—this scene is a spoiler for Aflame.

Jared and Tate-parents of Dylan and James
Madoc and Fallon-parents of Kade and Hunter (twins), and A.J.
Jax and Juliet-parents of Hawke
Quinn-Daughter of Jason (Madoc’s dad) and Katherine (Jared’s mom). She’s Madoc, Jared, and Jax’s little sister.
Lucas-Madoc’s “little brother” from Rival

 

MADOC

“Hey, Jared?” I called out, shouting over the crowd at the Loop. “You know what you call two Mustangs at the top of a hill? A miracle!”

I chuckled, enjoying the sight of his back tensing as he knelt down in front of his tire. Tate cocked an eyebrow, shooting me a warning look as she rounded the Boss to talk to her husband.

I shook my head and smiled, turning around to face the crowd.

Still so easy.

Even after all these years, riling him up was as simple as tying my shoes. That’s what I liked most about Jared. He was predictable. He never threw my shit back at me. He took it in, absorbed it, and let his temper build. Which usually worked in his favor. He was probably going to win tonight despite the shade I was throwing at his car.

Sliding my hands into my pockets, I scanned the area, surveying the summer evening. The crowd was huge, the night clear, and music blared from all the speakers posted around. It was almost as if it was high school again.

Almost.

I spotted Jax chatting with Zack, both of them now able to sit back and enjoy the events without micro-managing the races anymore. It practically ran itself now.

His wife, Juliet, had a three year old flipped over her shoulder as she spun him around out in the field. She and Jax started taking in foster kids a few years ago, much braver than I would be, that was for sure. I could only imagine how hard it was to have to give the kids up when it was time for them to move on.

Their thirteen year old son, Hawke, stood a few yards away, tossing a football back and forth with my son Kade, while my little sister, Quinn, sat on the grass, ear phones hanging around her neck and drawing pictures in her notebook as she kept an eye on my 6 year old daughter, A. J.

Since Quinn was nearly fourteen now, and old enough to babysit, we’d started keeping her pretty busy. Unfortunately, she’d also started requiring that we pay her, too.

Dylan and Hunter were…

Where were Dylan and Hunter?

I glanced left to right, and then all around me, which I pretty much did every twelve seconds of my life, counting kids and assessing that everyone was in one piece. I finally found Dylan sitting on a blanket with some of her friends.

At twelve, she definitely had her mom’s spunk, but she was also burdened with her father’s disregard for rules. Hopefully it wouldn’t get her into as much trouble as it had him.

Hunter strolled over and pulled his headphones off his neck, nudging Dylan’s shoulder as he handed them to her. Without a word, she took them and put them on, as if they’d done this a hundred times before, and she slowly began to bob her head to whatever song he’d wanted her to listen to.

I couldn’t help but smile.

Hunter was very different from Kade. Hell, he was different from me, Jared, and Jax, too. He was quieter, gentler, and he took notice of things the rest of us didn’t see. And while I used to suspect that Kade’s connection to Dylan was stronger, I was slowly starting to understand that maybe—just maybe—Hunter’s connection to her went deeper.

She took off the headphones, handing them back up to him with a smile and nodding her head as if giving him the go-ahead. They were working on a video yearbook for their middle school and collaborating on music, so whatever he’d found must’ve gotten her approval.

I crossed my arms over my chest, watching him just stand there, his feet shuffling nervously as he struggled to find his game.

Not like his dad. I was born ready.

But before he got a chance to say anything, a football came racing toward him, knocking him in the arm. I let out an aggravated breath and watched as he stumbled backward. He righted himself and shot a glare to the field where Kade stood laughing at him. The football had clearly come from him.

A few of the girls around Dylan giggled, as well, and I could see Hunter’s chest heaving. He was angry, but he wouldn’t do anything.

He never did.

I locked my jaw shut, every muscle tensing. Kade needed a kick in the ass, but unfortunately, Fallon disapproved of abusing the children.

As the boys had gotten older, they got along less and less, and while Fallon and I used to intercede and deal with the situations, trying to make peace, we eventually decided that they needed to work it out themselves. Hunter would learn nothing if we constantly ran to his aide, and punishing Kade only made Hunter feel weak.

Hunter’s entire body was stiff, and I could tell he wanted to react, but I could also tell he was embarrassed. People were laughing at him, and as usual, others’ rallied in his brother’s corner.

Hunter was always alone.

He dropped his eyes, his expression going flat, and then he left, giving Kade exactly what he wanted.

I shook my head, following him over to Jax’s car where it sat on the side of the track. He put his headphones on and folded his arms over his chest as he leaned back on the hood.

Stepping over next to him, I pulled the headphones back off his shaggy blond head. “He was joking around with you,” I explained, seeing the annoyed press to his lips. “Give it back to him or tell him to screw off. I know he makes you angry. You can tell him.”

He stared at the ground, anger still boiling under his skin. He wanted me to leave. He didn’t want to talk about his brother or about how he felt powerless around him.

“I don’t care,” he said in a flat tone. “They all think he’s so cool, and they like him more, so let them. I don’t need any of it.”

His jaw flexed, and I could tell he was grinding his teeth.

“Everyone seems to like him more?” I repeated. “Or one person seems to like him more?”

He raised his eyes, and I followed his gaze, seeing Kade and Hawke pulling the blanket up around the girls, making it look like Santa’s sack. Dylan yelled for them to stop, at the same time squealing and giggling with her friends.

“Like I said, I don’t care,” Hunter replied in an even tone, pulling his headphones back on.

But I yanked them back off again. “Do you care that he excludes you?” I pressed. “Don’t you want to do something about it?”

He looked away, and I wasn’t sure if I should keep going or leave him alone. He definitely didn’t want to hear it, but then you think he might NEED to hear it, so…

Parenting was hard. Like really fucking hard.

While Fallon and I had stopped interfering every time he and his brother got in an argument, I still wanted to be there for him. You know, keep the lines of communication open before he retreated inward, dropped out of school, became addicted to heroin, and we never heard from him again.

But then if I communicated TOO much, it might make him self-conscious, nervous, and then he could still get addicted to heroin, and we’d never hear from him again.

I tipped my head down, speaking frankly. “Life gets more complicated as we get older, Hunter. Especially where girls come in,” I added. “And standing up to Kade will be hard, but the thing is, it’s only hard the first time you do it. Everything is difficult until it becomes familiar.” I paused and then kept going. “You move to a new place, with no friends, and it’s hard. But then it becomes easier. You kiss a girl for the first time…”

“Dad…”

“And it’s hard,” I said louder, talking over him. “But then it becomes familiar, and it’s a piece of cake. Everything is easier once you get used to doing it. Except seeing skinny jeans on men.” I narrowed my eyes, shaking my head. “That trend should just never happen again.”

He rolled his eyes, looking like he was suffering the worst torture.

“Anyway,” I continued, “like I said, everything is difficult the first time. Like standing up to Kade will be. But once you do it, it’s going to get easier. Now, whether or not it’s tonight, next week, or five years from now, is completely up to you, but you’re her friend, too, and you have every right to be over there with them. Understand?”

He frowned, continuing to avoid my eyes.

I offered a small smile and finally stepped away, knowing I’d embarrassed him enough. But before I got too far, I turned around.

“And you’re wrong,” I pointed out. “Not everyone is a fan of your brother. Jared likes you more.”

Jared didn’t like Kade around Dylan, because Kade was too much like him. And the last thing we wanted for our daughters was men like us in high school.

I headed back to the track. Swinging an arm around my wife, she looked up at me as I stared over at Hunter retreating into his headphones again.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

I shook my head in thought. “Not sure what it is about him. I just feel like he needs us more than Kade does.”

“Hunter’s more like you. That’s why.”

Pinching my eyebrows together, I peered down at her. “How do you figure that?”

Kade was the confident one. If anything, he was the one that took after me.

But Fallon gazed down the track, nodding at Jared next to his car. “You know what it’s like to grow up in someone else’s shadow,” she remarked.

I breathed out a laugh. Okay, maybe she had a point.

Tightening my arm around her, I brought her in closer as I looked back at Hunter. “Storm’s coming, baby. I just hope she’s gentle.”

“I don’t think she’ll have any more control over that than they will.”

 

JARED

“Hey, Jared!” Madoc called behind me.

I glanced over my shoulder as I dumped some tools back in my car.

“I put chains in my trunk.” He smiled, holding his wife close. “Worst comes to worst, I can tow you across the line. At least you can finish, right?”

Fallon rolled her eyes, slapping him on the stomach as he and a few bystanders chuckled.

I turned back around, so he wouldn’t see the corner of my lips turning up in a smile. Madoc was so predictable.

He knew he might lose, so the best way to lose gracefully was to look like he wasn’t taking it too seriously. Crack some jokes, throw some insults, so he could just shrug off the loss as if it didn’t matter later. He’d always covered up his insecurities with humor, and it was one of the things I appreciated about him. Whereas I moped or retaliated through my self-doubt, his first instinct was to put himself and everyone around him at ease.

“Don’t worry.” Jax walked past me, slapping me on the back. “You’ll finish.”

And then he snorted, walking around the front of my car and attaching a small camera to the hood.

Really? Did everyone want to bust my chops today? I knew the prospect of a race between Madoc and me would bring in the crowd, despite the fact that we hadn’t raced here in years, but whereas everyone buzzed with who would win, I hadn’t really thought about it at all. I didn’t care.

When the hell had that happened?

“You’re quiet.” I heard a soft voice say as I fit the tools back into their case.

Looking up, I saw Tate standing next to the car, our five-year old son James standing in front of her. Her arms were draped over his shoulders, hands locked in front of his chest as she gave me a thoughtful look.

“I’m always quiet,” I said in a low voice, shooting her a smirk as I closed the trunk.

She nodded, a knowing smile crossing her face. And then she looked down, nudging James. “Why don’t you go see if Jax needs help?”

His brown eyes got bright, and he immediately pulled away from her. I ruffled his sandy blond hair as he shot past us, off to look for his uncle.

Tate moved in close, tucking her long hair behind her ear. She looked so good in her jeans, white T-shirt, and brown leather jacket. I was already thinking of asking Jax or Madoc to take Dylan and James for the night, so I could take Tate and the car and just go get lost after the race.

“We haven’t raced here in a long time,” she remarked, looking around wistfully. “It was very different back then.”

I grabbed the cloth out of my back pocket and wiped off my hands “Different? Like how?”

“You were angrier,” she said, leaning back on the trunk. “You had something to prove. Now you’re…calm.”

“I’m happy,” I retorted.

She smiled, and I moved in front of her, lifting her off the ground and planting her ass on the trunk.

She sucked in a quick breath and then let out a small laugh. “You still make my stomach flip when you do that.”

“Do I?” I narrowed my eyes, peering at her. “Because a minute ago, you said I was ‘calm’. It’s starting to sound like I’m not exciting you anymore.”

She dropped her eyes and her voice to a whisper, blushing. “Please. You know that’s not true.”

Positioning myself between her thighs, I wrapped my arms around her waist, catching Dylan over Tate’s shoulder, out in the field, scowling at us. Then she rolled her eyes before turning back to her friends.

My chest shook with a laugh. If the poor kid had any idea how Jax and I grew up, she might be grateful rather than embarrassed to see her parents showing a little affection.

“It’s…I don’t know,” Tate went on. “Something’s just different now. The Loop feels different than it did in high school. You know?”

I stared into her storm-blue eyes, realizing I wasn’t imagining it after all. She felt it, too. It was different.

Maybe our time here had passed. Maybe we’d outgrown it.

In high school, racing week in and week out, I needed this place. It was the only thing that I looked forward to, and I had shit to prove. To my parents, to Tate, to the guy that got in my face last week, to the teachers that washed their hands of me, to everyone…

But as I grew up, I realized that no matter how many races I won, I still wasn’t a winner. I’d just convinced everyone around me but myself. Now…I didn’t feel like that anymore. I was worthy of my family, my kids, my home, my career, and my wife. I could lose a race now and not feel like a loser.

I leaned in, kissing her forehead. “Yeah, I know,” I whispered and then pulled away. “I’ll be right back, okay?”

I turned and walked for Madoc’s car, sitting further down the track. He hadn’t moved into place yet, because he was late and the track was swarming with people who were in the way. Most of whom I didn’t recognize anymore.

He flashed a smile, jerking his chin at me. “Hey, what goes on pages 4 and 5 of that Mustang’s User Manual?” He gestured to my car behind me. “The bus and train schedule!”

I hooded my eyes, ignoring the dig. He seemed particularly excited, so I wouldn’t ruin it for him. Coming up next to him, I leaned on the car and folded my arms over my chest. “So I have to ask you something. Do you really want to race?”

I felt him stiffen next to me, and I could feel his eyes bearing down. “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” he shot out.

Hesitating, I avoided his eyes and took in a deep breath. “The thing is…back in junior year, when Tate was in France,” I told him, “Zack called me and wanted to set up a race between us.”

“What?” he blurted. “How come I didn’t know that?”

I looked up, locking eyes with him. “Because I turned him down. I even forgot about it until recently.”

“Why did you turn it down?”

A nervous laugh escaped, and I just shrugged. “I guess I was afraid you’d win, and I’d get pissed. Or I’d win, and you’d get pissed. The thing is…I didn’t want to risk anything changing. You know?” I hinted when he kept looking at me like I he was confused. “In our friendship.”

He just kept staring at me, the creases between his eyes growing deeper.

“Come on.” I exhaled, laughing. “You were really all I had. You knew that, right? You were my only real friend. The only thing I could count on, and I didn’t have anything to prove with you, so why risk that?” I asked him, not expecting an answer. Standing up straight, I told him frankly, “I enjoyed not knowing who was the better man. We were on even ground, and I wanted to keep it that way. Being friends with you was the only thing in my life that was easy. I didn’t want to risk anything changing it.”

He remained speechless, and I didn’t blame him. It wasn’t often I admitted things like that. He was probably searching his arsenal for some joke to shoot back with.

“So are you wimping out then?” he accused.

I straightened, scowling over at him. “No, I’m not wimping out,” I charged. “You want to race? I’ll race. I’m just saying that we don’t have anything to prove. I mean, after we race, what then?”

He wins, and I’m going to hear about it for the rest of my life. I win, and he’ll change. He’ll never challenge me again, because he would know I was better. And I didn’t want to be better than him. I didn’t want him to think I was better or the people in this town to think I was better at anything. I didn’t want to compete with Madoc.

“Yeah,” he finally responded. “I mean…we’re young. The Loop’s not going anywhere. We can race anytime.”

“Yeah. Absolutely,” I agreed. “There’s no rush.”

The only problem was all the people that showed up to see it. Well, maybe Tate would race him then. She might like that idea.

But my train of thought was interrupted when some kid in the crowd complained, making me look up. “Hey, when are the old people going to be done, so we can race?”

“Seriously,” another one chimed in, checking his invisible watch and staring at us. “It’s past nine. Isn’t it your bedtime yet?”

“Little Fuckers,” Madoc mumbled as the teens laughed with their friends.

“Yeah,” I growled under my breath.

“Leave ‘em alone, guys,” a black-haired kid next to them went on. “It’s the one night of the year their wives let them leave the house without the mini vans.”

I chewed the inside of my mouth, my heartrate picking up.

Finally.

The blood in my arms rushed hot, and every hair on my neck stood up as I glared at the latest Loop generation and their smug confidence. Was I that much of an asshole back then?

“I’m kind of feeling like I have something to prove now. You?” Madoc spoke up.

The corner of my lips curled. “Yep.”

“Hope you don’t mind getting a few scratches on the Boss.”

I shook my head. “Nah. As long as you don’t mind a few dents in the GTO.”

“Not at all,” he answered, moving around me to the driver’s side. “It’s about time the kids learned how to rebuild a car anyway.”

I nodded, feeling the rush and excitement in my stomach that only came from being a little bit pissed off.

I smiled to myself as I walked back to my car.

Fucking Mini Vans. Really?

 

LUCAS

Fallon strolled across the track, making her way over to where I leaned against my car. I couldn’t help but be amused at the way she rolled her eyes and let out a sigh. It was the expression she usually wore when Madoc was about to do something stupid.

But when she looked up and saw me, she perked up, her lips spreading in a tired smile. “You know he’s going to miss you more than he lets on,” she said, standing next to me and staring at the track. “He calls you his first-born.”

I let out a small laugh, watching Madoc and Jared climb into their cars as everyone cleared the track. Their engines revved in the night air, and I could feel the vibrations in my chest.

I also noticed two more cars lining up with them and narrowed my eyes, confused. I thought it was just Jared and Madoc racing first. But it looked like some of the new drivers were also joining in.

“We’ll all miss you, of course, but you’ll be back,” Fallon continued, sounding so sure.

I stayed silent, not sure how to respond.

Tonight was my last night in town. Madoc, the Big Brother that was more of a father to me than my own ever got a chance to be, made me promise to show up tonight to say goodbye to everyone.

But I think it was more for his own benefit—and the kids in their family who I’d gotten close to. He knew I didn’t want to see anyone, preferring to just get away from here as soon as possible tomorrow.

My throat tightened, and I swallowed, forcing myself to indulge Fallon. “Yeah, I’ll miss you guys, too,” I admitted.

The traffic lights on the tracks started blinking, and Fallon hugged her chest as she popped up on her tiptoes to see. The engines roared, over and over again as the crowd went wild. I never raced here—I never took much interest—but I would definitely miss this—and them.

During the past year since I’d finished grad school, I’d been running Fallon’s Chicago office, being a face on the scene and handling our clients. She preferred to stay in Shelburne Falls, working on her designs from home, while I handled the office.

Recently, however, I’d needed to get away. I took a job with a firm in New York, and was being sent overseas to work with a team of architects in the Middle East. It was slated to be a lengthy project, and I couldn’t wait to leave. It was exactly what I needed.

“Do what you need to do, Lucas,” Fallon had said. “We’ll always be here for you.”

And I hoped that was true. Madoc seemed a little pissed when I told him I was leaving town. With the distance, I doubted I’d make it home very often, either.

Jared, on the other hand, seemed less judgmental when I asked if going away for a while was the best thing. He said leaving his friends, family, and Tate was the worst thing he’d ever done, but he also said he didn’t regret it for a second. ‘We need to go through shit and suffer to learn who we are and distance can bring perspective and make us grow up’, blah, blah, blah…but also, ‘don’t expect the world to stop turning while you’re gone. Things will change, and you better expect that.’

And then he said to stop asking him about shit he didn’t have the answers to.

I looked up at Jared, Madoc, and Jax on the track. They had beautiful families and were lucky in love with women who were driven and strong. I used to think they had all the answers, and then I realized that they fucked up just as much as I had. The only difference was they were fighters. They refused to fail.

I crossed my arms over my chest, balling my fists and hardening my jaw. Where had my fight gone? Did I even fucking care anymore?

“Woo hoo!”

Shouts echoed across the field, and I blinked, coming out of my head. I watched as the red light turned to yellow—more engines revving—and then turned to green.

And all four cars shot off, their exhaust and the burn of their tires clouding the air and kicking up dust.

I heard Fallon suck in a breath as Madoc immediately took the lead. We watched as he rounded the first corner, but then, all of a sudden, he whipped his car around, skidding as he faced the opposite direction. The direction the other cars were coming from.

The other drivers swerved, kicking up more dirt under their tires as they laid on their horns.

What the hell he was doing?

Fallon groaned and locked her palms in front of her chest, her fingers entwined. “He is such an idiot sometimes.”

I watched as Madoc shifted into reverse, slammed on the gas, and started driving backward, swerving side to side as he blocked the other cars from passing him, clearly having a little fun teasing them.

Laughter filled the track, and I could feel Fallon’s eye roll as we watched Madoc hang back, topping out at only thirty miles an hour—all he could do in reverse—but keeping the other cars back and allowing Jared to speed ahead. I could see arms flailing out of car windows from pissed off drivers, and Jax was hanging in the stand, hunched over the railing, laughing his ass off at the joke his brother and Madoc were making of the race.

“I guess they’re working as a team?” I mused.

“Yep,” she said in a clipped tone. “Apparently, they needed to measure their dicks against a couple high school kids. Men never grow up. No offense.”

I breathed out a laugh, sticking my hands in the pockets of my cargo shorts. The guys continued rounding the track, and as soon as Madoc had an opportunity, he slammed on the breaks, spun back around—causing the other cars to skid and swerve again—and he jumped on the gas, speeding ahead and putting him and Jared in the lead.

“You know,” Fallon began, both of us still watching the guys round the track, “you won’t leave guilt-free tomorrow. I think someone other than Madoc is mad at you.”

Turning my head to her, I saw her eyes fixed out on the grass. Following her gaze, I spotted Quinn on a blanket, lying on her stomach and drawing in the journal she always carried around with her. The one Juliet gave her for her fifth birthday.

Madoc’s daughter, A.J., sat beside her, playing with her puppy, and I caught Quinn’s eyes briefly flash to me.

But then she quickly looked away when she saw me watching.

Yeah. Jaw clenched, tight lips, and even from here I could tell she was going over the same line with her pen again and again, probably tearing the paper underneath. Her fingers were as white as snow, because she was holding the pen so tight.

Definitely mad.

I frowned to myself. Quinn was just a kid, and even though the family joked about her little crush on me over the years, she did kind of have a special place in my heart. She hadn’t had it easy, after all.

Well, she hadn’t really had it rough, either. She had everything she could ever want, as the daughter of Jason Caruthers would. But she was on a short leash. Her father hovered, and when he didn’t, her brothers did.

I was the one that had let her do things no one else would.

I was the first one to put a rifle in her hand out at the shooting range. She was nine, and I got slapped over the head for it. And I also gave her her first ride on a motorcycle when she was eleven. I realize now it was a mistake not to have a helmet on her, but it’s not like I was racing down the highway, either. I thought everyone in the family was going to kill me.

I shook my head, blowing off Fallon’s little concern. “Well, she starts high school in the fall, right? She’ll be too busy with boys and teen drama to even remember my name.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” she retorted. “You’re pretty much the only non-family member male she’s allowed to be around.”

I smiled at the joke, taking off my baseball cap and running my hand through my hair before putting it back on. “Well, like I said…high school. All the men in her life will miss the days when it was just me letting her swim without a life jacket. They’ll realize I was the least of their problems.”

Fallon laughed to herself and then looked up, stopping as she peered over the track. “Oh, no,” she grumbled. “I’ll be right back.”

Looking over, I spotted Kade and some kid I didn’t recognize getting into a fight. Fallon rushed over and immediately planted herself between them.

Over their heads, I saw Jared and Madoc heading for the finish line, head to head. I peered closely as they got nearer and nearer, and then….

I saw it.

It was a moment, and it was small, but I was pretty certain. Jared laid off the gas.

He’d done the same thing years ago when I was a kid, and I saw him race Tate. I don’t think anyone noticed but me.

Madoc crossed the finish line, and screams and cheers filled the air, everyone rushing the truck after the cars had passed.

I wasn’t sure why Jared did it. Maybe he didn’t want to win, or maybe he wanted to let Madoc have the day.

Or maybe he was paying Madoc back for all the black eyes he’d given him over the years and Tate back for the fifty shades of dick he was in high school.

Maybe he just felt guilty.

Dropping my gaze back down, I saw Quinn looking at me again, but once more, she quickly turned away.

I let out a sigh, starting to feel some of that guilt Fallon talked about. Quinn had known me her entire life. I guess I could muster up a ‘goodbye’ even when all I wanted to do was leave.

Walking over, I stopped next to her and knelt down. “I’m going to miss your croissants, you know?”

Her frown deepened as she continued to stare at her paper. “They’ll probably have better food and restaurants where you’re going anyway.”

“But they won’t be made by you.”

I was trying to soothe her, but she wasn’t having it. I didn’t want her to be mad at me, but I knew it was hard for a kid her age to understand.

And there were things I couldn’t explain to her right now. She was too young. She should be happy and excited without a care in the word, and I hated that she was wasting even one minute of her time thinking I was going to be worth missing.

“Well, stay trained up, okay?” I nudged her shoulder with my hand. “I might be back to visit soon, and I’ll expect to try some of your new recipes.”

“You won’t be back at all,” she mumbled, still not looking at me.

“How do you know?”

“Because everyone lies to make people feel better.”

I narrowed my gaze, studying her. Where the hell had she come up with a thought like that?

She finally turned her head and looked up at me, her brown eyes sad. “You’ll find new friends and forget about us.”

I shook my head, no clue what to say next. Would I make friends where I was going? Probably. Was I sure I’d be back? No. Right now, I never wanted to come back here.

But I wanted her to feel better, so, without thinking, I took off my cap and fit it over her head, chuckling when the visor part fell over her eyes.

“I will be back,” I argued. “I’ll have to get my cap back, right?”

She plucked the hat off her head, her eyes going wide as she studied it.

“You can’t give me this,” she breathed out, stunned. She knew it was my father’s and how much I loved it. But for some reason, I didn’t feel like I would miss it if I knew it would mean something to her.

“I already did,” I shot back. “So take care of it, okay?”

Standing up, I cast her one last smile before turning around to head to my car. I needed to get out of here. I was lying to her. I was lying to everyone. I had no intention of returning, even for the baseball cap. I just didn’t want her to hate me. She was the only person that still thought I was something.

“Lucas!” I heard a yell behind me.

I spun around just in time to see Quinn dig in her backpack and pull out something small. Rushing over to me, she handed me the circular metal case.

“Now you have to come back.” She smiled, and then she dashed off, back to her seat on the ground.

Pinching my eyebrows together, confused, I opened my hand, immediately recognizing the compass her mom gave to her one year for Christmas.

Shit. This was vintage and an heirloom. If she didn’t want it back, her family would. I couldn’t keep it.

I flipped it over, studying the piece and saw the words inscribed on the back. “Happiness is a direction, not a place.”

Aggravation heated my skin, the words hitting home harder than they should. They implied that no matter where I went, nothing would really change.

Had to hand it to her. She knew how to make a hard situation worse.

Letting out a sigh, I took a step forward to return the compass to Quinn, or to someone in her family, but then I spotted her dad charging over the field straight for her, and I stopped, watching.

He never came to the Loop. What the hell was he doing?

“Quinn!” he called, his necktie hanging loose around his neck. “Get your things. You’re coming home.”

She popped her head up, looking startled.

But Madoc immediately stepped in, coming up next to his father. “What the hell’s wrong? Why can’t she stay?”

Mr. Caruthers ignored him, hurrying his daughter who had pushed up on her knees as she gathered her backpack. “Now,” he ordered.

“Dad, what are you doing?” Madoc barked, his expression turning angry now. “We already cleared this with Katherine.”

Quinn stood up, pulling my baseball cap down over her eyes and clinging to her backpack straps as she looked down at the ground, probably embarrassed.

“It’s nearly ten at night,” her father told Madoc, “and she’s on a schedule. She has a full day tomorrow, and I don’t want her running around town at all hours.”

“She’s not running around town,” Jared stepped in, his voice hard. “She’s with her family.”

“Dad, seriously,” Madoc chimed in again. “She’s fine.”

“Fine?” he challenged, looking sternly at his son. “She’s a teenage girl, and maybe you have more confidence in your kids to be around this element and not be influenced, but I’ve raised a teenager, Madoc.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I should’ve been more heavy-handed with you,” his father lowered his voice as Fallon, Tate, and Juliet came closer. “I should’ve been there for you, and I should’ve laid down rules and enforced them. I’m not making that mistake again. Quinn’s getting a good father.”

“I turned out fine!” Madoc nearly laughed.

But his father’s jaw flexed. “You were almost a sixteen year old father,” he retorted.

Madoc immediately straightened, rage crossing his face as Fallon closed her eyes, turning her head away.

A sixteen year old father? Well, that was something I hadn’t been aware of. Shit.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Mr. Caruthers added to his son. “It was mine, and I won’t be making that mistake again.” And turning to Quinn, he urged, “Come on.”

He turned, walking for his car with her slowly following behind. She turned her head, though, and I could see her eyes pooling with tears as she met my gaze. Quinn never cried, and something protective inside my head kicked in, and I was almost angry as we all watched her go.

My heart started beating harder and harder, and I tensed, feeling everything knot up so tight I thought I was going to explode. It was more than I’d felt in months.

But I was steel. I didn’t budge.

I was leaving, and if I came back, it wouldn’t be for years. I needed to cut my connection to this place and these people. Being nice and caring and considerate and a fucking pushover is what got me into the mess I was in, and as I watched Jason Caruthers drive off with his daughter, I ignored her little wave and dropped my eyes.

I didn’t care.

I didn’t care that Madoc was disappointed in me or that Fallon was worried for me.

And I didn’t care about Quinn or that she had looked up to me. Tomorrow I’d be gone, and she’d get over it sooner rather than later. Kids have short memories.

Still feeling the compass in my palm, I walked over toward Madoc to give it back, but then my eyes fell, seeing Quinn’s journal open and lying upside down on the ground. In the rush, she must’ve overlooked it.

Madoc picked up his daughter, and without looking up, I could tell everyone was slowly dispersing. Leaning down, I picked up the journal and quickly turned my head, seeing the shrinking taillights of her father’s BMW speed down the road.

Madoc could get this back to her before she missed it.

I flipped it over to close it, but I quickly caught sight of a page filled with black scribbles and stopped, opening it wide to look inside.

How do the stripes get in the toothpaste?

I narrowed my eyes. What?

Studying the page, I continued to read. Which language was the first? Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle? Boxing ring. Shouldn’t it be called a boxing square? How come psychics never win the lottery?

A smile spread across my lips, and I fanned the book, taking in the each and every page, front and back, used to its fullest. No dates, no complete sentences. There were just lines upon lines of mindless doodles, small drawings, big drawings, recipes, lists, random thoughts, and…questions.

Questions on every page.

Why do they nail coffins closed? Are eyebrows considered facial hair? How do you handcuff a one-armed man? If ghosts can walk through walls and glide down stairs, why don’t they fall through the floor? Small candy cars are called fun-size. But wouldn’t the big ones be more fun to eat?

My chest shook, and I laughed. Yeah, questions.

I remembered that her dad—and Jared, Madoc, and Jax—all complained when she was little that she asked too many questions. She was always curious about everything, and it even annoyed me, too, from time to time. In fact, part of any daily activity involving Quinn would also involve a pause to answer all of her questions.

So Juliet got her a journal. She could write down her non-essential questions, and Juliet would help her research the answers. After a few years, though, Quinn stopped looking up the answers. She just wanted to ask the questions, I guess. To just wonder.

Flipping back to the page she’d been working on today, I ran my hand over the scaly paper, bumpy from all of her pen’s dent marks, and spotted one last question down at the bottom.

What if he gets married before I grow up?

 

Fall Away Christmas Scene

This scene takes place about 7 month after the end of Next to Never on Christmas Eve.
Hawke (18): Jax and K.C.’s son
Dylan (16): Jared and Tate’s daughter
James (8): Jared and Tate’s son
Kade (17): Madoc and Fallon’s son
Hunter (17): Madoc and Fallon’s son
A.J. (9): Madoc and Fallon’s daughter

HAWKE

Damn, she was hot. So soft in my hands, willing and ready. It would never be easier.

I rocked against her, gripping the pillow under her head as I took her mouth again. The heat of her tongue, the taste of her lips, the rhythm of her body as we grinded on each other…everything was in sync. I wanted this. It felt good. It was…

I squeezed my eyes shut tighter. I kissed her harder, hearing her moan.

“You feel so good,” she panted against my lips as I slipped my hand up her shirt. “Hawke, please.” She nibbled at me softly again and again, teasing me. “Please…” And she put her hand on mine, guiding me up farther until I found a handful of soft flesh, and my cock throbbed painfully against my jeans.

Fuck. No bra. I could have her shirt and mine off and her skin against mine in ten seconds.

“What do I feel like?” she whispered.

I wetted my lips, rubbing my thumb over the hard nub of her nipple. Heat rose in her brown eyes as I half-smiled. “Hard,” I teased.

She flashed me a smile, as well, biting her bottom lip. “So are you.” And she rolled her hips, making me lose my breath with the pleasure.

Slowly lifting her shirt, I bowed my head, flicking my tongue over her nipple. Her little gasps and moans, the way her body squirmed and shuttered underneath mine, cast a thick fog in my brain, turning nearly everything else off.

I wanted this. It felt good.

And she wanted this. I wasn’t her first, after all. There was nothing wrong with having sex, because it was satisfying. Experience was good for me.

It was. I was ready.

She kissed me deep, sinking her tongue into my mouth and whimpering. “Hawke,” she breathed out, reaching for my belt and starting to unfasten it. “This is torture. I want you.”

My groin was hot and pulsing, but…

I suddenly stopped breathing, my arms stiffened, and my biceps flexed so hard they burned. My stomach tightened, and I didn’t feel comfortable anymore.

I barely knew this girl. And where the hell was I? Oh, yeah. I was upstairs in my uncle’s house, and my whole goddamn family was here celebrating Christmas for Christ’s sake. What was I doing? This wasn’t my house. I couldn’t have sex here. My mother would kill me.

I stopped kissing Jessica back and opened my eyes. She pulled my belt open and went for the fly on my jeans, but I pushed myself up and took my weight off her.

“No, stop, Jess,” I said, sitting back on my heels and running my hand through my hair. “We can’t. I’m sorry.”

Her breast, supple and beautiful, still peeked out from under her shirt, and I couldn’t even look at her face. My gut was wrenching, I was so turned on.

But it wasn’t enough to make me want to go all the way. Nothing was ever enough, and I was fucking sick of myself. Kade had his girlfriend over. They were probably off somewhere doing exactly what he wanted to do, because he didn’t worry about stupid shit like I did.

Most of the guys I knew wouldn’t hesitate to screw this girl and get it on in half a dozen different positions.

But I always found an excuse to stop.

I could hear her ragged breathing, and I knew she was probably in as much discomfort as I was, stopping so abruptly.

I still couldn’t meet her eyes. “Just not here, okay? It’s awkward.”

“That’s what you said about your house, my bedroom, the car…” she argued. “Don’t you want me?”

I finally raised my eyes, looking at her and taking in her long, auburn hair, thick, black lashes, and the sprinkle of freckles over her nose and cheeks that made her look far sweeter than she was.

But for some reason, I felt like I had never seen her before. Like we hadn’t been hanging out every day for the last week or hadn’t been in school with each other since freshman year. We’d do it, she’d go home, and she wouldn’t be on my mind, making me crave her again and again. It wouldn’t mean anything.

And for some stupid fucking reason, I kept thinking it should. Why?

My silence registered, and she pushed herself up and pulled her shirt back down. “You don’t want me?” she said again, more like an accusation this time.

“I didn’t say that,” I bit out, climbing off the bed and fastening my belt. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

I pushed my hair out of my eyes again and back over my head, the cool, silver ring in my eyebrow shifting against my skin. “There’s no problem. I just don’t jump into bed after seeing a girl for only a week.”

She was silent a moment and then scoffed, swinging her legs over the bed and refastening a button that had come undone on her shirt. “Well, you’d be the first.”

I flexed my jaw, my defenses going up. I knew she had a point, but I didn’t appreciate her not having he good manners to keep her mouth shut about it. I was already pissed at myself. I was becoming a running joke to the guys at school. I had all the attention I could ever want, always had, and more opportunities than they did to get laid, but I didn’t take any of it.

And the girls were talking.

I approached her at the bed. “Look, it’s not you—”

“Forget it.” She stood up, cutting me off and brushing past me. She grabbed her coat off the chair and slipped it on. “The amount of work you’re turning out to be isn’t worth the money anymore.”

Money?

I watched as she picked up her purse and pulled her hair out of the back of her jacket.

“What did you say?” I asked, feeling the anger pouring out of the scowl on my face. “What money?”

What the hell was going on?

Ready to leave, she paused and turned her head toward me, looking at me matter-of-factly. “There’s a pot,” she told me. “It’s up to a thousand bucks to whoever can get you into bed first.”

A pot. A bet?

What the fuck?

No wonder. I wasn’t a stranger to a little attention, but the girls had been especially motivated the past couple of weeks. Chloe Benson “accidentally” bumping into me at five a.m in the weight room last Thursday when the janitor let me and only me in early to work out alone. Taylor Waldman getting me to give her a ride home last Tuesday, saying her car wouldn’t start but refusing to let me try to fix it.

And Jessica Flaherty here getting hot and heavy every time we were alone together the past week.

They were all playing me.

Jess fixed a cocky smile on her face. “Maybe we should encourage the guys to take part in the bet instead? They might have a better shot with you?”

I flexed my jaw, tipping up my chin.

She twisted around, swinging open the guest bedroom door. “I’ll see myself out, Hawke. Merry Christmas.”

She left, and I gritted my teeth together, resisting the urge to kick the door shut behind her.

A bet. A fucking bet. What was their problem? A woman could say no, and it wasn’t unusual. In fact, the world expected her not to sleep around. But I was the weird one, because the world thought there was something wrong with a man who was…picky.

I should’ve just done it. Gotten it over with, and everyone would shut up. The second time would be easier, and in no time at all, I’d be enjoying it whenever I wanted and with whoever I wanted. I just needed to stop thinking so much.

I let out a breath, crawling the walls in my head. I needed to take the edge off.

I fixed my hair in the mirror, checked my clothes, and walked out the door and down the hallway. She’d no doubt texted her pals already and by the time holiday break was over, talk would be all over school, ready to welcome me back. I couldn’t wait to get out of this town.

Jogging downstairs, I swung around the bannister and headed into the kitchen. I could hear the game blaring from the TV in the family room, laughter and hollers carrying out, and caught the faint sound of the balls on the pool table downstairs clanking together as James and A.J. opened the basement door and ran through the kitchen. Kade and his friends must still be downstairs in the game room.

Winter Wonderland played on the Echo, while Fallon and my mom stood on opposite sides of the island, stirring and seasoning whatever we were having for dessert, while Tate typed on her laptop.

My mom’s lips moved with the words as she bobbed her head, and I couldn’t help but smile a little, momentarily forgetting my anger.

She loved the holidays. And while we all usually congregated here at Madoc’s for family gatherings, because the house was so huge, I liked my house the most. My mom made everything beautiful.

Hands in floury dough, she blew some hair out of her eye and looked up, noticing me and smiling. “Hey,” she said. “I saw that girl—um, what was her name? She left suddenly. Everything okay?”

I laughed under my breath. Like she cared. She didn’t think anyone was good enough for me and probably loved seeing Jess bolt. That was the problem with being an only child. I had my parents’ undivided attention.

Walking around the island and coming up behind her, I wrapped my arms around her and rested my chin on her shoulder. “I love you, you know that? Like soooo much.”

She snorted, and I could feel her eye roll. “Aw, you’re sweet. And yes, you can have a beer.”

I grinned, and Fallon laughed. They all knew my game by now.

Walking around the counter, I pulled open the fridge and grabbed a bottle, twisting off the cap and tossing it in the trash. Mom flashed me an amused look as she continued kneading the dough, and I tipped up the bottle, taking a swig. My parents and aunts and uncles were pretty indulgent. I was eighteen, and as long as I wasn’t leaving the house for the rest of the night, a beer was fine on occasion. And it was Christmas, after all, so…

Madoc walked into the kitchen, heading straight toward me and opened up the fridge. I watched as Fallon turned her head to follow him, her eyes drifting down his back and landing on his ass. I nearly laughed even though the heat of embarrassment was rising up my neck. She hated his suits for work, and him wearing jeans and a T-shirt right now was unusual. She was soaking it in.

“Keep looking at me like that, woman, and I’m gonna get you pregnant,” he said with a straight face, still scanning the inside of the fridge.

“Ew…” James looked disgusted, holding his glass of punch.

“Daddy…” A.J. followed with a whine.

Both nine year olds turned and left, and Fallon turned back to her task, still smiling.

All of a sudden a gust of wind blew through the kitchen, and I glanced up, seeing Jared and Dylan coming through the patio doors. A few flurries danced around their legs as my cousin jumped up and down and shivered.

“Ugh, that wind!” She ripped off her hat, goggles, and pulled down the zipper on her jacket. Her brown hair was pulled back in two French braids, and her cheeks were as red as apples.

Jared pulled the door closed and pulled off his hat, too, whipping it against his leg to get rid of the snow. They must’ve been out snow-mobiling.

“I’m going to check that alignment in the morning,” she told him, pulling off her jacket. “It’s definitely pulling to the right.”

I heard a chuckle and looked over at Kade who’d just come up from the basement. “I’m going to check that alignment in the morning. It’s definitely pulling to the right,” he mocked her as he grabbed a chocolate-covered pretzel off the counter. “You try hard, though. A for Effort, kid.”

Dylan scowled, looking away, but her dad, Jared, walked toward Tate, standing at the counter, and paused to pick up a broccoli crown off the relish tray and flick it right at Kade’s face.

It bounced off, and Kade jerked back, losing his shitty-ass grin. I watched with mild amusement.

“Cold?” Tate turned away from her computer to her husband who approached.

A guy of few words, Jared simply grabbed hold of her and pulled her back into him, burying his face in her neck.

“Oh, my God, get off me!” She laughed, squirming and bring her shoulders up to shield her neck. “You’re freezing!”

He just smiled, not letting go, of course.

“Game’s on,” Madoc told him, taking his fresh beer. “Wanna go watch?”

“No.” Jared’s made a face. “Do I ever?”

Madoc sighed. “I just keep hoping.”

“Come on,” Kade told him. “I’ll watch with you. Let me get something to drink first.”

Madoc left, Kade pulled a Coke out of the refrigerator, and I took another drink of my beer. Everyone else was happy and relaxed tonight, but I was going to need another five of these, at least, to cool down. The anger was festering.

I didn’t give a shit if someone didn’t like me or had it out for me, but I didn’t like being a joke. People at school were talking and making assumptions. Maybe it was unusual, abnormal even, for a guy to turn down sure thing after sure thing, but I liked girls, and I wasn’t impotent or whatever else they were saying… I had wanted Jessica. I wanted all of them when I had them under me.

But the truth was, they could’ve been anyone, and that’s what I didn’t like. I didn’t crave Jess. Or Ashton or Sara or Rachel or Tiff or anyone else. I didn’t think about them when they weren’t around, and I wasn’t starved for when I could get my hands on them again.

And if it wasn’t going to be epic then why waste my time?

Five months until I graduated. I’d be outta here and away from this small town bullshit soon enough. New scenery. Fresh faces. I just needed to stay out of trouble in the meantime.

Five months.

 

***

DYLAN

What was the matter with Hawke? He was normally happy and easy-going, but right now he looked like my dad when he was mad. Like in his head he was wrapping a wire hanger around someone’s neck tighter and tighter again and again.

I grabbed a carrot stick off the tray and plunged it into the dip. God, I was bored. Kade had his girlfriend downstairs, Hawke was clearly in a bad mood, Quinn was with her parents in Chicago for the night, taking her grandma to see The Nutcracker, all my friends were spending Christmas Eve with their families, of course, and Hunter was supposed to be here hours ago. He wasn’t going to show. I knew it.

And if he did show, his head would be somewhere else. I’d only seen him a handful of times in the last six months since he’d moved an hour away to his grandfather’s, and every time I saw him, he was more of a stranger. We talked less and less, and he barely looked at me anymore. The only one he was normal with was his little sister.

He and Kade hadn’t even gotten to meet on opposite sides of the football field last fall, our schools being rivals and all. We’d had to forfeit due to half the team getting into trouble for something stupid.

I glanced over at Hawke and the beer in his hand. I wanted one. Pretty much my last resort if I wanted to have any fun for the rest of the night. Madoc had a whole refrigerator with extra soda and beers downstairs, and he hardly seemed to notice when his sons and nephew skimmed a few. My parents weren’t as indulgent, unfortunately. They said I got into enough trouble without alcohol, and I needed to set a good example for my little brother.

Eye roll forever.

I stood up to go for the basement door, but when I turned, Kade blocked my path. I looked at him, staring down at me.

Dark blue eyes with a ring of green around the pupil, blond hair messy for once, angular jaw that made his cheeks look sunken just enough to pronounce his cheekbones. Even more so lately.

He was beautiful. Always beautiful, always guarded, and I’d always been drawn to him, because he was like a mystery. What was he like when he felt safe enough to open up?

I was kind of worried about him now, too. He was losing weight. Ever since his brother left, he was working out all the time, but he wasn’t eating enough to counter it, and it showed.

Finally scoffing, he moved to the side, bowed, and waved me along in dramatic gesture.

Yeah, okay. Asshole. Keep hiding some more.

I heard a phone ring, and I grabbed hold of the basement door, hearing Fallon’s voice.

“Dad, hey!” she burst out. “You almost here?”

I stopped and turned, wanting to hear this. Her father Ciaran lived outside of Chicago, and Hunter lived with him. They were supposed to be on their way here for Christmas Eve.

Everyone glanced at her, half-listening, but Kade watched her intently, knowing the bomb was about to drop.

She turned, walking away from the island and lowering her voice. “Are you okay?” she asked Ciaran.

Releasing the knob, I watched her, everyone in the kitchen quieting as she listened to whatever her father was saying.

“Well, let Hunter drive then,” she urged. “I’ll turn down the bed, and you can climb in as soon as you get here.”

Kade was shaking his head, breathing harder, and his scowl growing deeper. Oh, no.

“Put him on the phone,” Fallon demanded.

I could hear Ciaran’s gruff cough on the other end and then his voice, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.

“Dad, it’s Christmas Eve.” Her voice cracked, and her head fell forward. “I want my son home in his own bed. Put him—”

But she stopped and listened like Ciaran had interrupted her. Her shoulders fell, and she let out a sigh, hanging up. Then she immediately started dialing again, making another call. Hunter probably. After a minute, though, no one answered, and she hung up again.

Hunter. What is the matter with you?

“Fallon?” Juliet was frozen, her hands still in dough as she looked at her friend, concerned. “You okay?”

Fallon sniffled and pulled her head up, letting out a breath. “My dad’s tired,” she said, turning around and getting back to the counter. “Says he’ll drive down in the morning instead.”

“And Hunter?” Kade pressed.

Fallon wouldn’t look at him. “He’s not answering. Ciaran says he’ll bring him with him tomorrow.”

“What time tomorrow?” Kade bit out. “Nine, after breakfast? Noon, after presents? Maybe he’ll make it after we’ve finished dinner like on Thanksgiving?”

“Kade.” She stopped him, turning her head toward him. “It’s not your concern. I will handle your brother. He’ll come around. We just need to give him time.”

But Kade shook his head, and for once, I shared his doubt. I knew Hunter would make friends at his new school and ditch us more and more, but I didn’t think he’d be so inconsiderate on a holiday. His parents missed him.

Kade set his Coke down and whipped around, pulling open the basement door. I had to jump out of the way not to get hit. He descended he stairs, calling over his shoulder. “Hawke!”

My cousin and I exchanged a look, and he sighed, setting down his beer before disappearing down the stairs after Kade. They never included me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t push my way in. I followed the boys, closing the door behind me.

We reached the bottom of the stairs, two of Kade’s and Hawke’s friends playing video games on the couch, while Kade’s girlfriend, Danielle, sat on a stool at the bar, head bowed to her phone. She looked up, spotting Kade and smiling.

He grabbed the remote off the table behind the sofa, switching off the TV. “Let’s go,” he told his friends.

They turned around, looking confused, but Danielle was already on her feet and grabbing her purse.

“Out to the cars!” Kade yelled when they didn’t move. “Now!”

The guys stuffed whatever they were eating into their mouths and jumped up, picking up their coats.

“What are we doing?” Hawke questioned.

But Kade just pulled his sweatshirt off the hook and followed his friends out the French doors leading to the outside. “Screw this,” he mumbled as Hawke and I grabbed more sweatshirts off the coat hangers and jogged after him. “My parents are gonna be pissed all night. My mom’s crying. He’s ruining Christmas. I’m going to get him and bring his ass home.”

Hunter?

“You think he’s just going to get in the car?” I argued, the snow crunching under our shoes as we hugged ourselves against the bitter cold. “We’re not dragging him back, Kade.”

“Then stay here,” he shot back, leading us around the house to the front and the driveway. He didn’t want his parents to see him leave. “As a matter of fact, you should. Because I’m gonna knock some sense into that selfish little prick who thinks he’s so much better than us.”

“You mean better than you?” Hawke retorted. “And stop calling him little like you being 98 seconds older makes any difference.”

I rushed up to Kade’s truck, pushing my way into the backseat and squeezing between his two friends. Danielle, of course, was already planted in the passenger seat, no doubt working hard to ignore me. I wasn’t her favorite person.

One of the guys moved to close the door, but Hawke stayed rooted, in the way.

His eyes bore into me. “Get out of the car, Dylan.”

“Huh?”

“You’re riding with me.” He jerked his head behind him, toward Jax’s ancient Mustang that was now Hawke’s. “Come on.”

I just sat there, disbelief all over my face, I was sure. What the hell? What did it matter who I rode with?

“What?” I heard Kade laugh as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “Hunter’s not around, so you’re taking his place as her babysitter?” He slammed his door shut and looked over at Hawke. “She’s fine. Everyone needs to get the hell off her back.”

“Yeah, we got her, man,” Stoli added on my left, both of the guys chuckling.

Hawke pushed closer. “Yeah, no offense, and I like y’all as friends,” he said, “but you’re the last people I want around my female family members.” And then he glared at me. “Out! Now!”

I growled under my breath and gritted my teeth, but I hauled myself up and out of the car. If I argued, he’d just call my dad outside, and given the choice, Jared Trent only trusted me with Hawke. I wasn’t winning this one.

Putting my feet on the ground, I slammed the door closed and turned to walk for Hawke’s car.

“I wouldn’t let anything happen to her,” I heard Kade say to him behind me. “She’s my cousin, too.”

“No, she’s not,” Hawke retorted, his words resolute. “Not really.”

And then he turned, following me toward his car.

Sparing a glance behind me, I met Kade’s eyes. He was unreadable. Like maybe pissed off that Hawke would insinuate that his connection and responsibility over me was stronger than Kade’s, but also like maybe he couldn’t argue with it, either. We weren’t blood, not like Hawke and I were. Kade and Hunter’s dad was my dad’s stepbrother, whereas Hawke’s dad and my dad actually shared a biological parent.

So Hawke was right. While Kade had always been a fixture in my life, like a real cousin would be, I looked at him and Hawke far differently. My connection to them wasn’t the same.

I crossed my arms, sighing. “Where the hell’s your girlfriend anyway?” I grumbled to Hawke as we climbed into his car. “You need distractions, so you can focus less on me, for crying out loud.”

He didn’t answer, his jaw flexing as he started the car. Kade peeled out of the driveway, kicking up snow as he descended down the moonlit white driveway.

Hawke stayed frozen. “How the fuck are we always getting wrangled into his stupid shit?!” he barked.

I just stayed still and silent. I watched Kade’s taillights grow smaller in the black night punctuated by sporadic flurries. If I argued, he’d argue more, and we’d never be on our way. He’d get over whatever he was really mad about soon enough if I didn’t give him the fight he was looking for.

And after a few moments, as predicted, he shifted the car into first and took off so fast, my head slammed back into the seat, and I had to grab the door to steady myself. What the hell was his problem tonight?

“Did you know about the bet?” he asked, staring at the road ahead.

I immediately glanced over at him. The bet. I closed my eyes, exhaling a sigh. Shit. I’d forgotten all about that.

“I found out right before holiday break,” I admitted quietly.

“And you didn’t warn me?” He shot me a glare. “Thanks a lot.”

“Why do you think I got into it with Jemma Ledger last week?” I shot out. “She’s the bitch who organized it. I wound up in detention until the end of January for that fight.”

His scowl softened as realization hit. “That fight was about this?”

“Yeah.” I shrugged. “I was defending your honor.”

He snorted, and I instantly relaxed. That was a good sign.

I hadn’t told anyone what the fight was about to avoid embarrassing Hawke and getting our parents worried, but plenty of people saw me start it. I was trying to control myself and my mouth, but she deserved it. She’d come up with the bet, because she was mad Hawke didn’t want her, and I hated bullies. I just saw red as soon as I found out.

“You could’ve just told me,” he said.

“I was planning to.” I reached for my seatbelt, realizing I hadn’t put it on yet. “I just…I thought it might make it worse if you knew.”

“Worse? Than standing there like an asshole without a clue?”

Yeah. Ok. Point.

“I thought maybe you had trust issues or something,” I told him, seeing Kade’s taillights ahead grow bigger as we caught up. “Finding out nearly every girl in the school is trying to get you into bed for a bet might really do some damage.”

Not that they weren’t all already doing that anyway, but their intentions were no longer pure. It wasn’t unusual for an eighteen year old guy to be a virgin, but it was when they looked like Hawke. Everyone wanted him, and no one understood why he wasn’t making the most of it. Jemma Ledger felt shunned and wanted to make him a joke.

“God, she is a bitch, isn’t she?” He shook his head, letting out a breath. “And I don’t have trust issues. There’s nothing wrong with a guy being particular about who he screws around with.”

“Hell no.” I chimed in. “I’m still a virgin, after all.”

“Too much info.”

I laughed to myself and reached over the back seat, grabbing two sodas from the cooler he’d packed for sledding that morning and handed him one.

“But,” I added. “You don’t want me to lose mine before you lose yours, because you’re older and now that would definitely be embarrassing.”

“No problem.” He smiled, holding the wheel and cracking the top of his can. “Between me, your dad, and your uncles, you won’t be alone with a male who isn’t family for like years yet.”

“A male,” I repeated, nodding. “So women are okay then?”

The soda in his mouth went splattering across the dash and windshield as he laughed and coughed and pulled the can away. “Jesus.” He set the can down, wiping off his mouth.

“Got-chya,” I teased, grinning.

He shook his head, but he was still smiling. Mission accomplished. He was in a good mood again.

Very few things had the power to piss Hawke off, he was like a Shaolin monk. Very zen most of the time.

I turned my head out the window as we overtook Kade in his truck. No need to follow him. Everyone knew where Ciaran’s place was anyway.

Kade glanced down at me, but immediately turned back toward the road as if he hadn’t seen me. I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Flaherty’s an asshole,” I told Hawke, referring to the girl who’d left earlier and still looking up at Kade. “Don’t give her a piece of you. Not one single piece. None of them deserve it.”

“You’re like my mom,” Hawke teased. “No one will be good enough for me.”

“That’s not true.” I faced forward again, seeing the flurries flying up at the car in the headlights. “Someone will be. Someone will want every single thing about you and look at you like you’re all they want to see forever.”

No one looked at me like that, and I talked so big. Why didn’t I have the guts to be tough on myself the way I was tough on Hawke?

“Can you go faster?” I asked, itching to get away from the weight of Kade’s presence on my right.

The engine revved, and I saw Hawke shift into fifth as he pulled ahead without another word. Everyone sped through the darkness, getting on the highway and getting off again, and I turned up Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis, realization hitting that I was missing the movie tonight. I watched Die Hard with my dad every Christmas Eve after James went to bed. Dammit.

Finally, after another forty minutes, Hawke slowed, letting Kade take the lead. We all pulled up to Ciaran’s gate, and Kade reached out his window, punching in the code. His grandfather’s large iron entrance creaked open, and a weird sense of unease suddenly hit me.

Hunter won’t be forced back home.

Yes, Kade was right. His brother was being selfish and inconsiderate to their parents, but I also knew Hunter, and he wasn’t mean. Maybe there was something more we didn’t understand. I missed him, but he deserved the benefit of the doubt. Kade was simply going to turn this into a brawl that tore him and his brother farther apart.

“Here we go,” Hawke mumbled as we all pulled up in front of the house. He shut off the car, and we both got out, the wind howling over the sprawling hills surrounding Ciaran Pierce’s estate. Following Kade to the door as his friends and girlfriend stayed behind in the car, he glanced back at Hawke and me.

“Just stay in the car.”

But I charged on after him. “You’re going to need someone to talk to him after you inevitably screw things up.”

“Oh, he’ll come home,” Kade spouted confidently, a little snarl on his mouth.

“Of course he will,” Hawke added with a chuckle. “Especially since you look like you’re going to ask so nicely.”

Kade took out his set of keys and unlocked the door, stepping inside and immediately punching another code into the keypad by the door. Hawke and I followed him in, closing the door behind us as Kade deactivated the alarm. There were probably keypads at all the entrances. Kade and Hunter’s grandfather didn’t have the cleanest past, and although he was now retired, he definitely still took precautions to keep himself and his family safe. Lingering enemies and all that.

It was all very cool. From a distance.

But he was good grandpa. I’d give him that.

“Grandpa?” Kade called out. “You awake?”

His voice echoed in the vast space, the foyer splitting off into various rooms, a high ceiling, and a wide staircase. The clock chimed, and I knew it had to be eleven by now.

“Hunter?” I called.

But only silence and darkness greeted us back. They could be asleep, I guessed.

Following Kade, we traipsed up the steps, down two different hallways, and finally came to a door that I assumed was either Hunter’s or Ciaran’s bedrooms. Hawke and I stayed back while Kade cracked it open.

No lights shone from the room, but I caught sight of a large desk with monitors, headphones, and a DJ 2-channel controller.

Hunter. It was his room.

We walked in, and a buzz spread under my skin, making the hair on my arms stand up at the familiar scent. I smiled to myself and inhaled. Wood, construction paper, a hint of some strong chemical cleaner like the one he used to use to clean his electronics, and fresh sheets.

“Where the hell is he?” Kade grumbled as we all took in the empty room and made bed, but it was a rhetorical question. He wasn’t in the house, so the question begged to be asked. If he didn’t cancel on Christmas Eve to stay with his tired grandfather as Ciaran suggested, where was he then?

The three of us trailed around the room, snooping, and my heart started to ache a little. God, I missed him. I missed talking to him. I missed coming into his room and seeing what he was up to.

There was a desk with robotic parts on it, as well as some tools, and another table with a huge piece of butcher paper and an incredibly intricate maze in black Sharpie as tall as me designed on it. There was some audio/video equipment on another table lining the wall, a table with books open and spread out detailing ATVs and other vehicles, and two cushioned chairs holding a fish tank, beakers and flasks, and clear tubes.

I laughed to myself. He was still an enigma. I couldn’t make sense out of any of this stuff.

I stopped next to Kade at a desk full of binders, notebooks, and some map detailing “desert habitats in China“. “Nothing has changed,” I mused.

And to my surprise, I saw Kade’s expression soften as the wind hissed outside. “It seemed like every year growing up, teachers would ask us to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up.”

I nodded, remembering. “Yeah, Hunter never had one answer.”

“Nope.” Kade shook his head, agreeing as he picked up a paperback and glanced at the back cover. “It took a whole page just to list everything he wanted to do. He didn’t understand the difference between a profession and a hobby.”

Still doesn’t, by the looks of things. Even at seventeen. But that was Hunter, and maybe he had the right idea. Hobbies were passions, and why do something every day for the rest of your life unless you’re passionate about it, right?

“Alright, fuck this.” He tossed the book back on the desk. “Let’s go.”

Hawke and I made for the door, and I turned to take one last glance, but I spotted Kade still at the desk. He picked up the paperback again and slipped in into the middle pocket of his hoodie. I narrowed my eyes on him. It was quick and sly, and I wondered what he was doing.

He turned toward the door, and I immediately turned away before he had a chance to see me seeing him. Normally I’d just think it was Kade stealing something of his brother’s to inconvenience or piss him off, but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen him swiping a book, and it wasn’t always from Hunter. What was he doing? Saving up for a bonfire?

We walked back down the stairs, and I heard a click, like the cocking of a gun.

“Kade?” A gruff voice burst out, and we all suddenly stopped.

Ciaran stood at the bottom of the staircase in his emerald green paisley robe, a fireplace poker in one hand and a pistol in the other.

“Jesus Mary Joseph, boy,” his grandfather said, lowering his gun. “I could’ve killed you. What are ya doin’ here so late?”

Kade brushed past us, descending the rest of the stairs. “Looking for Hunter. It’s fucking Christmas. He needs to come home.”

He took the gun out of his grandfather’s hand, uncocked it, and set it down on the small table.

Ciaran started coughing, a weezing sound filling his lungs as he covered his mouth.

“You okay?” Kade asked.

He cleared his throat, swallowing. “Aw, I’m fine. Just a cold. Which is why I couldn’t come tonight. Couldn’t get you kids sick, too.”

Hawke and I joined them at the bottom of the stairs, and Kade nodded at Ciaran. “Alright, well, call me in the morning. I’ll come back and get you. But Hunter’s coming home tonight,” he added. “Enough of his bullshit. It’s Christmas, and Mom wants him home—”

“He’s not here,” Ciaran interrupted.

I dropped my eyes.

I knew it.

Kade lifted his chin, defiant. “We’ll wait.”

“He’s snowboarding with some friends,” Ciaran explained. “And he won’t be back for a few days.”

Days?

I stepped forward. “He’s missing Christmas?” I asked. “He wouldn’t do that to his parents. Hunter would never hurt Fallon like that.”

“Check the garage,” Ciaran told us, holding Kade’s stare. “His car’s gone.”

Kade and I charged into the kitchen, through the mud room, and pulled open the door, walking into the large six car garage. Ciaran’s cars and motorcycles all sat in pretty lines but no black ’68 Camaro. The one Ciaran had given Hunter when he moved in with him last summer. Kade got to keep the truck they shared, so Hunter had needed a car, of course.

“I fucking knew it.” Kade’s eyes narrowed, and he looked furious. “Just blowing off Christmas like he blew off Thanksgiving. What the hells’s the matter with him?”

“He’s a good boy,” Ciaran said, having followed us into the kitchen. “Like you. Just give him a chance.”

Kade didn’t listen to any more. He spun around and walked out of the garage and back through the kitchen, leaving. I turned to follow him, but I stopped, noticing something on the wall.

I held up my hand, running it down the cold, black material.

Hunter’s ski jacket.

I flipped over the season pass tag hanging of his zipper and then looked down, also spotting his snowboard. Snowboarding, huh?

I looked up, meeting Ciaran’s eyes. His lips pursed, and he knew I knew. He was lying.

Keeping my mouth shut, I stalked past him, through the foyer, and out the front door, following the boys.

“Kade?” I heard his grandfather call out the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Kade didn’t respond, and I almost told him about the jacket and the snowboard, but I knew it would only make the situation worse. I needed to see Hunter on my own and talked to him. I could get through to him.

Hawke walked for his car, but Kade charged up to his and pounded the roof in anger. I stopped, seeing Danielle still inside the car, looking at him with a mixture of confusion. She didn’t know what was wrong.

“Hey.” I approached Kade. “He needs you. I know he does. He just thinks you don’t need him.”

He scoffed, shaking his head. “I don’t,” he bit out. “And that’s not his problem anyway. The little shit is jealous and needs to get over himself.”

Jealous? “Jealous of what?”

Kade rested his forearms on the roof of his car but turned his head toward me, holding my eyes.

But then he just opened his door, climbing in and ignoring me.

“I’ll see you in the morning. Tell my mom I went out,” he told me.

I opened my mouth to argue, but he slammed the door on me, started the car, and sped off. I watched as he raced down the driveway and slowed, waiting for the gate to open.

Kade didn’t know it, but he ran away just as much as Hunter did. Every time I thought he’d talk to me, his defenses went back up, and he ran off with his friends or some girl that wasn’t me.

I ground my teeth together, staring after him. What if, one day, those two came looking for me only I wasn’t waiting around to give them time of day anymore? What if they had to beg me for a bit of my attention?

Stomping through the snow, I climbed into Hawke’s warm Mustang, the heaters already blowing hot air inside.

He started the car as I put on my seatbelt. “Let’s get back to Madoc’s,” he said. “I’m starving.”

But I didn’t feel like people right now. “Actually, can you just take me home?” I said quietly. “I want to be in my own bed tonight.”

He didn’t reply, only shifted the car into gear and took off, making good time as he sped through the cold night. The snow trucks were out, clearing and salting the roads, and I just stared out the window, both of us quiet.

I missed Hunter. I missed Quinn. I hated that guys kept their distance from me, because they either found my dad or me too intimidating. And most girls thought I was silly, because being able to race cars or add a lift to a Jeep might’ve been a super cool trait when I was in elementary school, but it wasn’t admirable in high school.

I liked who I was, and I didn’t want to change, but I was starting to feel like less and less people wanted me in their lives. Not that it was their fault. They were moving on. I just didn’t understand why it was without me.

And next year, Hawke would be gone, too.

I stared at my reflection in the window, and my stupid French braids. Jesus, how old was I? Why would any guy want me when I still looked eight? I yanked out my rubber bands and pulled apart the braids, my long brown hair falling around my body, and my long bangs falling around my cheeks.

Juliet got me a gift card to the salon last Christmas. Was it still good? It was about time I used it.

I wasn’t going to seek Hunter out. Or Kade. They’d find me when they wanted to find me.

When they needed me. If ever. Fuck it.

Hawke dropped me at my house, telling me he’d be back at eight in the morning to get me and bring me back to Madoc’s, and I texted my mom, letting her know I was home and would be back in the morning.

But as I unlocked my front door, I noticed a bundle wrapped in a red ribbon sitting on the chair on the porch. Picking it up, I pulled the ribbon loose, and unwrapped the cloth, finding an old cassette tape inside.

I twisted my head, looking around, over my yard and up and down the quiet snow-covered street. Christmas lights glowed inside houses, but there was no movement on the lane and no cars passing by. It was quiet.

Looking back at the tape, I saw Hunter’s writing labeling the tape with one word: Crescendo.

Was it an actual mixed tape? I couldn’t help it. I broke into a smile and laughed to myself.

And then there was a note under the tape.

My colors would look good on you, Pirate.

Colors? What?

Then I noticed what the tape was wrapped in. The cloth. I held it up and fanned out the red and black T-shirt, seeing St. Matthew’s Knights written on the front with the school crest in the middle.

I immediately snorted, trying to hold in my laugh.

“In your dreams, Knight!” I shouted out at the empty street, smiling. The Shelburne Falls Pirates and Hunter’s school, the St. Matthew’s Knights, were rivals, and I’d take my black or orange any day over his black and red.

But…I fanned out the shirt again, looking at it. I looked good in red, too.

Aw, what the hell…I could always use more shirts to sleep in.


Updated news regarding the Hellbent Series:

The Hellbent Series by Penelope Douglas

1 Bully
Review here

1.5 Until You
Review here

2 Rival
Review here

3 Falling away
Review Here

4 Aflame
Review here

4.75 Adrenaline

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