Silence. Total and complete silence.
Then, a hiccupping sob. “I’m not a mean person.”
“No, you’re not, but you’re acting like one.”
“Wyatt,” a soft gasp. I don’t know from who.
“Look, you can hate the girl all you want, but at least make it be for a good reason. You’re hurt and mad at Char. Take it out on Char! That’s the kind of girlfriend I fell in love with, someone who had a problem and took it up with that problem. You can’t take it up with this girl because you know it’s not really about her. And you’re scared to deal with Char. I don’t get why because you know that Char’s gonna wake up and come back crawling and begging to be let back into this house, so you actually have the upper-hand with your old bestie.”
I was firmly team Wyatt here.
“If you want to rip into the new girl, fine. I’m with you, but make sure it’s because she’s done something that deserves it.”
My team allegiance was slipping.
Then the doorbell rang. Followed by a fist pounding against it.
Someone gasped again.
And then I heard my worst nightmare happening in real life, in real time, and I was frozen to stop it.
“Is Dusty here?”
Low. Angry. Irritated. Frustrated. A hint of savage impatience, too, and then as I swooned, but not in a good way, the fainting way because this was not happening. No way because I couldn’t deal if it was—and then Wyatt went, “DUDE! You’re Stone Reeves!”
There was a moment here.
It was the beginning of the storm. The air is thick, heavy. Hair sticking to the back of your neck. Your hands are oddly clammy. Your pulse is racing. You know a train is coming your way. You know you’re on the tracks. You know you should jump off, but you can’t. You’re frozen because it’s not just a flight or fight response. There’s the whole freezing response, and as your heart picks up in force, in speed, in sound, you know you’re about to get pummeled.
Yeah. Because that’s what was about to happen.
Then a door slammed upstairs and I heard a gasp, “Stone Reeves is here?”
Another pounding of feet.
Shit. They were coming from everywhere.
“Oh my God.”
That was Nicole. I recognized her voice just as I heard a growl rip from Stone.
“Hi. Yeah. I really need to talk to Dusty first, and then I can come back and chill for a while.”
“Chill. He said chill.” That was Wyatt. I could almost hear the face-splitting smile through those words.
A giggle. That was Mia.
She’d been screaming seconds ago, beside herself with anger, and now she was giggling.
I wanted to vomit.
The door in front of me opened and Lisa came out, her hair in a mess and her eyes soft from sleeping. Her face looked a little puffy. She stopped in the doorway, seeing me, and for a split second, we weren’t enemies.
She frowned, hearing the chaos above. “What’s happening?”
I said the first thing I thought, “Fire!”
And with that, I could move. The paralysis broke from me, and as Lisa yelled and rushed upstairs, I turned and sprinted for my room.
Thank God I hadn’t changed into pajamas yet. It was nearing eight that night, so with my heart trying to pummel its way out of my chest, I grabbed everything I thought I’d need. I had no plan, other than maybe sleeping in my car, but I was running. As far away as I could.
He sounded furious.
Running was the best course of action and the only thing that could save me right now. I was embracing my inner sailfish.
Purse. Books for tomorrow. Phone. Keys. I checked—I had a bra on. I toed on my sandals, and I threw my arm through my backpack, pulling it on without stopping, and I was out the back door. Wait. Backtrack—I grabbed my toothbrush and paste from the bathroom, then I was running up the stairs.
Out the door.
“Fuck no, you don’t!”
A cement arm grabbed me around the waist, and just like we were kids, Stone had me up in the air.
Everything was turned upside down. Me included.
My purse was open and all my stuff fell to the ground. My backpack went down, hitting my head, then falling off my arm and thudding next to my purse. My phone fell out of my pocket. My keys rained down from my hands because I was trying to grab onto Stone’s shoulders so I didn’t land on my head, too, even though I knew he was more than capable of lifting me over his head.
But I was kicking and out of control, and I swung, hitting something.
He grunted, ducking, then putting me on my feet. “Jesus. I forgot how solid you are.”
My ass, I was solid.
Red in the face, hair literally everywhere, I shoved him back from me. “Get off me!”
“I’m off! Fuck’s sake. Chill the fuck out.”
He held his hands up, taking a step back, and then it was time to assess.
I was refusing to look at him. I knew how Stone looked. His face and physique was on the television on any given sports channel almost every day, or on the Internet, or people were talking about him on the radio. The team was local. I knew when I applied here that I’d have to deal with going into Stone-Land, but I hadn’t realized it would be this bad.
I did not need to know how he looked like a walking, well-cut ad for the Marines. He was a professional athlete. He and his teammates could walk and nuns would swoon. No joke. I heard one once, and that’d been when he was in college and I’d been visiting my mom in Hospice before she was sent home to die.
The memory was like a bucket of cold water.
I was drenched with reality, and fuck that. I looked up, seeing him still taking me in, a look in his eye I didn’t want to identify, a hand at his jaw, and I snarled. “What are you doing here?”
Now I was looking right at him, and I hadn’t been prepared.
He was gorgeous, with his ripped, lean body, and his crew cut, and those hazel eyes that were darkening, taking me in. Even his face had morphed into an athletic machine. I didn’t know that was possible, but his cheekbones were wide and slanting upwards. His jawline was so pronounced, ending in a strong square and fuuuuuuck, he was hawt.
Holy crapshitastic, he was hot.
I blinked a few times, needing to get myself together.
He had picked me up like I was nothing, and then told me I was solid, but I knew in Stone’s world, that meant I was strong. Because I wasn’t solid in the other way, but my body was freakishly strong. It was from my grandpa’s genes. The women, though they might’ve looked tiny and weighed nothing, were almost as strong as the men. It came in handy if I needed something moved, because as long as I didn’t twist my back, I could move almost anything. Might take some finagling and me being smart, but I rarely needed to ask for help.
It was a skill I prided myself on. Didn’t need a man.
“Fuck, Dust.” He grunted, shifting back.
At that, another bucket of water was tossed in my face.
I remembered where we were and looking around, I saw my roommates standing at the front of the house. Thankfully, they hadn’t moved down the alley to where we were, giving us a modicum of privacy, but I was livid. Word was out. Secret was blown. They all fucking knew now, and I’d have to deal with damage control after this. The fallout was going to be freaking epic.
Horrified, feeling a sob working its way up my throat, I clamped that shit down and dropped to my knees.
I was grabbing blindly, just seeing red. The edges of my eyesight were blurring. I could only see what was literally in front of me, and so I focused there. Forcing deep breaths out through my nose, because if I opened my mouth, I’d either start crying or I’d start shouting.
My toothbrush was on the ground. That’d have to be tossed. More money coming out of my account.
What else? What else? What else?
I was slightly hysterical. I grabbed a textbook at the same time I felt Stone kneeling beside me. He began grabbing my things, too.
I lost it. I snapped.
“NO!” I shoved him backwards, pushing him off his feet.
His eyes widened, shock infiltrating his own anger. “I was trying to help!”
“I don’t need your help!” I was on my feet.
People might think I was overreacting, but I wasn’t. I really and truly wasn’t. He had no idea what I went through because I knew him, because the wrong person found out I knew him. I was here because of that sick and twisted someone.
“Get gone, Stone! I don’t want you here.”
He stopped, taking me in, and a soft, “Shit,” left him. He let out a sigh. “Dust.”
“Don’t! Don’t ‘Dust’ me. I swear to God, don’t.”
He wasn’t leaving.
I waited, but he wasn’t going.
He took a step back, flinching. But stopped. He looked torn, his hand going back to that strong jaw that could cut metal. “Dusty, I—”
“What do you want?” I flung my arms out wide. “I talked to Gail. I told her to stop whatever she was doing and thinking. She got the message. It’s done. Your family. My family. We’ll cease to exist to each other. I blocked your number because I never want to hear from you or see you ever again. Yet, here you are. Leave me alone. Please!”