My phone buzzed and I sat up, reaching for it at the same time as I brushed a tear away.
Georgia: We landed!! Jared’s super excited to see you. We’re going to the hotel now, then we’ll meet you at the stadium. Door 8, right?
Me: Yes. How was the flight? I’m excited to see Jared, too.
I wasn’t. I was, but I was petrified. My hands were shaking as I typed that text out.
Georgia: The boys are both bouncing off the walls. They told everyone on the plane they knew Stone and the Kingfishers were going to dominate tonight. Okay! We’ll see you at door 8. So excited!
My hand never stopped shaking. All the way through taking a shower, changing. The button on my jeans kept slipping. Took me four times to secure it. Then, my hair. My whole arms were shaking now.
A knock and my door was pushed open. “You here—oh.”
It took me forty minutes just to get my clothes on. I had thirty minutes left to finish dressing before Stone’s driver would be outside waiting for me. I’d already sent him the text.
Nicole saw me, saw the state I was in, and came inside. She shut the door behind her, stood a second, and got serious. “What can I do?”
“My hair,” I croaked out.
“Okay.” She was eyeing the waves that’d come from my braiding attempts and the hair tie in my hand. “I know what to do.” She pulled out my desk chair and turned it around in front of her. Patting it, she said, “Come here. Take a seat.”
I did, almost sagging into it.
“Now,” she almost hummed under her breath, her fingers making quick work. I felt the tugging, but it wasn’t painful. She could’ve been pulling chunks out and I wouldn’t have cared. “I can’t do that fancy braid you did the other night, but I do know one trick that my mom taught me. And believe you me, I can rock a waterfall braid like no other. Trust, girl. Trust.”
And feeling the braid start to form across the back of my head, I closed my eyes and simply gave in.
The ache was back. My family was no more, except a stepbrother I was about to see. I had to accept it all and acknowledge it. I couldn’t see him in the half-state of denial that I was still existing in. Grief is a right bastard. Sneaks up on you, blasts you, hits you, pounds you, leaves you wrecked. There’s a moment of peace. You never know how long it could last. Minutes. Hours. Days. You’re starting to believe you can ‘do this’ and the bastard comes back, knocks you over with a battering ram. But if you fight it, deny it, ignore it, it’s still there. The bastard is just waiting until your shields are down, then he gets you again. Only way to deal is to take the beating, then breathe once he’s gone, and wait for him to return because it would get better.
I was rubbing at my chest when I realized what I was doing.
Nicole was finishing the braid. “Hold a second.” She disappeared, coming back with a curling iron, hair product, and hairspray. Plugging in the iron, she said, “Gotta perfect the whole look, you know. How my mama taught me.”
“Is your mom alive?”
She paused. “Yes.” She frowned. “Why do you ask?”
They didn’t know.
It was time. “My mom died when I was a senior in high school.”
She froze, cursing under her breath. “I—I thought maybe I heard something about that when you and Stone were here, but I wasn’t sure. I’m so sorry.”
My throat was so dry. My insides felt cracked. “The night Stone came over, the night of my wreck, he’d just told me that my dad and my stepmom had died.”
“Holy shit.” She drew in a harsh breath.
“My stepbrother is here. He’s being adopted by his best friend’s family, and they flew down to go to Stone’s game. Stone got them tickets. I’m going to see him for the first time since everything happened.”
Her hands flattened over my shoulders. “I’m so sorry. I…we had no idea.”
I admitted with a rueful grin, “I’m a mess.”
A sad smile came to her as she tucked a strand of hair behind the waterfall. “Well, you let me do my magic. This hairstyle, it’s something I can do to help.”
I nodded, whispering, my throat suddenly clogging up, “Thank you.”
“Of course.” She touched my cheek a moment before she was back, working on my hair.
Twenty minutes later, I had eight to go before the driver would be upstairs, Nicole stepped back. “You’re done!” She was smiling and blinking back tears. I was taking that as a good sign. Slipping from the chair, I went into the bathroom and stopped.
The waterfall braid started at one corner, wound down and around to end behind my other ear. The top was tucked under, pulled into the braid and the rest fell loose at my shoulders. They were curled and shining, and I knew I couldn’t have done anything better.
“Thank you.” I wasn’t thanking her just for the hair.
“Come here.” She pulled me in, hugging me tightly before stepping back. “The girls and I, we’re here for you. Mia lost her dad two years ago. It’s why she and Char got as close as they did. Char’s mom died of cancer the same year. Lisa lost a little brother. Savannah, her sister has Down syndrome and is in a nursing home. When I say we’re here for you, we are. We all get it. Trust me.” She leaned in, still smiling. “Thank you for telling me what’s really going on.”
Nicole gave me one more hug, and I was back to being a mess, but a good mess this time.
“Okay.” She stepped back. “Get dressed and get all hot for your man.”
I sighed after she left.
My man. Her words echoed in my head. Stone and I said no romance. We hated each other, then bam, death put us in bed together, and that’s where we still were. And my phone buzzed.
The driver was here.
I didn’t have time to ponder that.
The driver’s name was Morpheus.
I thought he was joking until he took a call and I heard the other person call him ‘Morph!’ so yeah. Morpheus. He didn’t look like the Morpheus I was thinking. He was a young guy, dressed in a button-down shirt, jeans, and black and gold leather dress shoes.
The shoes made me pause, but okay, then.
He picked me up in an SUV, and driving to the stadium, I could tell he’d done that a time or two. He whipped around, used side alleys that I didn’t think cars should drive in, and then he pulled up outside of door 8. I hadn’t told him I needed door 8, so there you go. The epitome of professional service.
“Here you go.” He turned to me, sunglasses hiding his eyes. “Mr. Reeves said you’d go home with him?”
Took a moment, but he was asking me that.
“Uh. Sure. Yeah.” I had no clue. But it didn’t matter. That felt good, knowing that Stone was planning for that.
And I wasn’t pondering that either.
From down the sidewalk, merging out of the crowd of people going for the main doors, I saw Georgia first. She was tall, long black hair. Her complexion was so clear and gorgeous. She looked like Gina Torres from Serenity. Her husband was next to her. He was the male version of Gina Torres, and ironically, dressed similarly to Morpheus. Cream-colored button-down shirt. Jeans. Leather dress shoes.
Two boys came from behind, and a little girl.
Apollo. His sister, but my gaze was on Jared.
He’d gotten taller. Could that happen? But yes. The last time I saw him was Thanksgiving the year before. He would’ve been a junior, and he’d shot up at least another inch, maybe more. He was lean. Wearing a Kings ballcap, a Kings jersey, and Nike shorts, his feet were decked out in the latest shoes. Apollo was dressed the same.
I got out of the SUV, my knees knocking together.
Georgia saw me first. A bright smile showing, she came over and enveloped me to her. She smelled like peaches and citrus. A big squeeze. “Oh, my girl. Dusty.” Another squeeze before she stepped back. She wiped a tear away.
Hands on my shoulders, she held me for another moment, just taking me in.
“You are so beautiful.” Her hand cupped the side of my face. A sad smile pulling at her mouth.
Her mouth tightened, her jaw starting to shake, and the tears began falling.
Her husband stepped up, sliding an arm around her shoulders, he drew her to him and nodded to me. “It’s nice to see you, Dusty.”
A pair of arms wrapped around my waist.
I looked down.
Dark curls were there and I had to think a moment. Apollo and Angelina. I couldn’t remember how old Apollo’s little sister was, but she looked up, a beaming smile. “Hi! Did your mom really name you after dirt?”
Apollo groaned. “Angie, you weren’t supposed to say that.”
“What? That’s what Jayjay told me.”
I knelt down, hugged Angie and whispered in her ear, “No, but that’s what Jared likes to tell little girls that he’s fond of.” I pulled back and winked at her.
I was guessing she was eight because her eyes got big and she started blushing.
Standing, I looked at my brother.
He was fighting back tears.
My eyes were red and my own were coming. I didn’t fight them. They fell free, and seeing them, his own started flowing. He was holding a soda in his hand, but it fell and he just stared at it on the sidewalk.