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“So, Cooper, how’ve you been?” Kylie started with small talk to break the ice.

“Can’t complain. You?” He was so polite that Kylie almost felt bad for what she was about to do.

“I’m fine. So, how are things with you and Katherine?” Kylie knew as long as Katherine dreamed about Austen there was no way things could be perfect between her and Cooper.

“Um, they’re fine.” Cooper hesitated, “Why do you ask?”

Kylie sensed Cooper’s insecurities, “Oh, no reason really. Just wondering. I mean, with everything that happened over Thanksgiving, I just figured...” her voice trailed off.

“What are you talking about?” Cooper unintentionally projected his voice.

Kylie watched Cooper’s resolve weaken. He played right into her hands.

“Oh, she didn’t tell you?” Her questions tortured him, but she didn’t care.

“Tell me what, Kylie?” Cooper asked, agitated.

“Why don’t you just ask her who Austen is?” Kylie turned to walk away as Cooper quickly grabbed her by the arm. “Hey!” she shouted and shook her arm from his grip.

“Who’s Austen?” he asked through clenched teeth.

“Ask your girlfriend,” Kylie turned to leave.

“I’m asking you!” he demanded.

Kylie watched the adrenaline pump through his body as his chest heaved in and out in quick succession. She walked back to him and firmly stated, “And I’m telling you to ask her.” She leaned in close to Cooper’s face and whispered in his ear, “But if you want to make her jealous, I know something we could do.”

She glanced outside and noticed every pair of eyes from her group paying close attention to the drama unfolding in the kitchen.

“Why would I want to make her jealous?” Cooper asked, confused.

“Geez, Cooper, are you really that clueless?” Kylie turned around and glared at Katherine before returning her attention to Cooper. She grabbed the back of his head and pulled his mouth to hers. Her lips attacked his with a force and determination he couldn’t resist.

Cooper pushed Kylie away just in time to see Katherine run out the front door. He sprinted after her and shouted her name. Katherine knew she couldn’t outrun him, so she stopped. He jogged up to her and she stared at him, her heart in pain.

She knew why Kylie did it. She didn’t blame her for it. But she hadn’t realized how hurtful it would be to see Cooper kiss someone else. It pained her to witness that kiss. All she wanted to do was run to Austen. She thought of how he would never intentionally hurt her like that. Never allow someone to cause her that much pain.

“I’m sorry, Katherine. Kylie caught me off guard.”

“I don’t care. Kiss whoever you want,” Katherine turned to leave.

“Like you apparently did?” he shouted at her back.

She stopped and turned to face him, “What are you talking about?”

“You tell me. Who’s Austen?”

Hearing Cooper say Austen’s name made her stomach fall to the ground. Her head started to spin as she struggled to steady her breathing. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Cooper. Just leave it alone.”

“Come on, Kat. Who is he? Is that why you’re so different? Is there someone else?” With each question he asked, his voice pained more and more.

She didn’t want Cooper to be hurt any more than she wanted Kylie or Taylor to be. It seemed no matter what she did, it was unavoidable. Cooper didn’t deserve this. He deserved answers. He deserved someone to love him with all of their heart. Something she couldn’t do right now…or possibly ever.

“It’s not that simple. Just leave me alone, Cooper. It’s for the best,” she turned to walk away and he let her go.

A crowd of people watched Cooper and Katherine’s argument. As Cooper walked back into the party, girls threw themselves at him. He ignored their advances, pretending they didn’t exist. He found Taylor and asked her, “Taylor, who is Austen?”

Taylor immediately looked at Blake, who had a horrified expression on his face. “Shit. Not now, Cooper, sorry. We have to go.”

She grabbed Blake by the hand and turned to Kylie and demanded, “Let’s go.” She gave Danny a quick kiss on the cheek and then sped off, dragging her baby brother behind her.

Kylie turned to Cooper and said, “If you ever want to make Kat jealous again, just let me know.” She kissed him quickly on the mouth before he could stop her and then hurried to catch up with Taylor and Blake.

“How could you do that to her, Kylie?” Taylor’s voice was filled with rage.

“She deserved it and you know it,” Kylie’s responded with attitude.

“Are you kidding? How did she deserve it? You did that to her on purpose. She didn’t do anything to you on purpose. She never would. It wasn’t even her fault about Austen.”

“What the hell is going on? How did Cooper know about Austen, and what does he have to do with Katherine?” Blake interjected.

Taylor shot Kylie a look that screamed she was going to kill her. “It’s nothing, Blake. It’s a weird story, but I don’t want to talk it. Not here. Not right now,” Taylor shook her head.

“Stop trying to protect me and just tell me what’s going on. He was my brother, too.”

“You’re right. It’s just kind of hard to explain,” Taylor stalled when Kylie interrupted.

“No, it’s not. Katherine has dreams about Austen.”

“So?” Blake didn’t get what that meant. “What’s the big deal?”

Taylor hesitated, “They aren’t just simple dreams. Austen sought Katherine out. Like he found her and now she spends almost every night with him in her dreams.”

She turned to see Kylie’s reaction. Kylie looked devastated.

“What do you mean he sought her out?” Blake questioned.

“He watches over us and stuff and he saw Katherine with me one day and apparently he couldn’t stay away from her. I don’t really know; they have this intense bond, I guess.”

“STOP IT!” Kylie screamed. “I do not want to hear any more of this crap. I can’t listen to how Austen and some stranger have an intense bond and...” Her voice trailed off as she fought to stop the tears. She looked at Taylor and said, “I loved him so much. And he loved me back. ME.”

“I know, Kyles.” Taylor held her friend. “I don’t think Austen would ever want to hurt you. And I know Katherine wouldn’t, either. She’s been torn up about the whole thing ever since we got back.” Kylie cringed at the sound of Katherine’s name.

Taylor continued, “Kylie, you can’t go around treating people like crap because you’re hurting. It’s not right. You shouldn’t have done that. You’ve caused a lot of problems for Katherine and Cooper.”

“I kind of don’t care, Tay. I’m sure Cooper can get over it with any one of his adoring fans. And I don’t care about Katherine. I don’t owe her anything.”

“Except an apology,” Blake added.

Blake’s suggestion stopped Kylie in her tracks. “You really think so?”

“What you did tonight was pretty messed up,” he continued before she could interrupt. “Don’t get me wrong, I know that you’re hurting real bad. But I don’t think Kat deserved what you did to her.”

Kylie took a deep breath and swallowed her pride, “Maybe you’re right.”

“I am,” Blake smiled.

Taylor couldn’t believe her little brother could talk sense into Kylie and she couldn’t. She looked at him and mouthed ‘thank you’ and he smiled.

The three walked into the dorm room where Katherine lay in bed. She wasn’t asleep, but she pretended to be. The two small stones from Austen’s gravesite rested in the palm of her hand.

Kylie looked over at her and sat down on her bed. She shook Katherine’s body gently, “Hey, Katherine?” Katherine opened her eyes. “I shouldn’t have done what I did tonight. It was wrong and I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Kylie. I understand why you did it. I just need you to know that I really am so sorry for all the pain I’ve caused you,” Katherine’s eyes filled with water.

“Why are you so nice all the time?” Kylie asked, irritated. “I kissed Cooper, remember?”

“I know. And that really sucked,” Katherine winced. “I know how weird this whole Austen thing is. I just know that if I was in your shoes, I’d feel really hurt.”

“Thanks,” Kylie grimaced. “It’s hard to hear you say his name. Like in my mind, Austen will always be mine. So I can’t really listen to you talk about him and say the things you do without it making me want to throw up.”

Katherine’s eyes dropped, “I understand completely. Thanks for being so honest with me.”

Katherine’s cell phone rang and Kylie huffed out a breath in relief. Katherine looked down to see Cooper’s name and number on her phone. She pressed decline and less than a minute later her phone beeped with a text message.

“California, please talk to me. Just tell me what’s going on.”

She didn’t respond.

“I should probably apologize to Cooper too,” Kylie offered.

Taylor and Katherine glanced at each other before speaking. “No, it’s okay. He’ll just end up asking you a bunch of questions and stuff that you won’t have the answers to. I’ll talk to him when the time’s right,” Katherine explained.

“When the time’s right, huh? When is that going to be?” Taylor chastised.

Katherine faked a smile. She knew Cooper deserved the truth. But honestly, she just wished everyone would leave her and Austen alone.

“Can I ask something?” Blake broke the silence.

“Oh gosh, Blake, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you out.” Katherine looked at him and apologized, “Of course. You can ask me anything.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he said quietly under his breath. “I was just wondering if Austen has said anything to you about me?”

Katherine’s heart broke for the little boy who lost his older brother. She knew Blake had looked up to Austen in ways she couldn’t relate to since she was an only child.

She smiled before she told him, “Honestly, I think he’s a little worried about you. He loves you so much and just wants the very best for you and he’s concerned that his dying has changed you forever. He told me he wishes you would remember all of your memories together, playing baseball and stuff, instead of the memory of him dying.”

Blake’s eyes turned glossy. “Do you want me to stop? I know this must be really hard…and weird.” Katherine hesitated and looked around the room, as both girls wiped at their eyes.

“No, it’s okay. I know it should be weird, but it’s not,” Blake looked over at Kylie.

Katherine was grateful Blake understood and wasn’t angry or upset at her. “He just wants you to be okay again, Blake. He wants you to live your life and be happy. He wants the same for your parents, too. He understands how complicated it is. He knows it’s not easy. I just think it’s different for him now. I think he sees things in a way we can’t even imagine because we’re still alive. His perspective is so clear, where ours is clouded by everything we think and feel, you know?”