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Jared gently pul ed each of my fingers from his shirt. Imprints of where I had crumpled it between my fingers remained in the fabric, and I hastily ironed it out with the palm of my hands.

“Come home soon,” I whispered, trying to keep my voice from breaking.

Jared touched his lips to mine, and then looked to his brother. “Bex?”

“Got this,” Bex said, lifting his thumb in the air.

Before my eyes finished blinking, he was down the stairs and out the door.

For a few moments I felt nothing, but the second air fil ed my lungs, an overwhelming sense of sadness came over me. Jared hadn’t been more than a block away from me since I came to my senses and begged him back last May.

The bed seemed miles away, but I slowly made my way to it. The moment my backside sunk into the mattress, I heard purposeful stomping up the stairs. Bex ran at me ful speed, jumping up and taking flight, landing precisely one inch away.

I didn’t flinch.

“Hey,” Bex said, elbowing me. “Death Jungle is on. Come watch it with me.”

“Where is Jared going?”

“I dunno…come on,” he said. His voice was already deeper, and he had been tal er than me for several months. If I didn’t know he was stil a kid, I would have thought he was a fel ow col ege co-ed. He stil hadn’t quite fil ed out –the only thing that gave him away.

He tugged on me to fol ow him downstairs, and I reluctantly agreed, resting my head on the arm of the sofa.

A ridiculous array of mutilation and mayhem fil ed the screen. Bex watched with unyielding focus, but my eyes struggled to stay open. Shifting to find a comfortable spot, I settled in and let my mind drift into oblivion. In the darkness, with the screams of dying jungle wanderers in the back ground, I somehow stayed away from the dark building and my father.

Chapter Three

Four Feet

“Please?” Bex asked, holding open the passenger-side door.

I rol ed my eyes. “Fine. Don’t tel your mom.”

“I won’t!” he said. He took my backpack and threw it in the back as I col apsed into the seat. Within seconds he was beside me, starting the engine.

“You’re so cool,” he said with a wide grin.

“The only reason I’m letting you drive is because you completed your driving course at Cleet. If you can out-drive cops, I’m assuming you won’t wreck the only thing I have left of Jack.”

Bex frowned. “Buzz kil .”

He pul ed away from the loft, using his blinker and obeying every traffic law along the way. I watched the trees pass, the reds and oranges signaling the arrival of Fal . Jared’s whereabouts lingered in the forefront of my mind, but the wal I had learned to form around my feelings had long been routine. I didn’t want Jared to make a mistake. or get injured because he sensed my anxiety.

“Coffee shop, Oh-seven-hundred,” Bex reported, pul ing behind Kim’s dilapidated Sentra.

I shot him a look of disbelief. “Seriously?”

“Jared said you were to meet with friends Kim and Beth, to be prompt, and keep watch one block north, with front door in sight.”

“It’s me, Bex. Don’t act like a military robot. It creeps me out.”

Bex smiled. “I just want to do this right.”

I returned his smile and gave him a hug. “You’re doing great,” I said before stepping out onto the sidewalk.

Shoving my hands in my pockets to ward off the frosty morning air, I walked toward the front door of our favorite coffee place. The green door swung open and shut with patrons coming and going several times before I reached the handle. Just as I walked in, someone ran into me from behind, nearly sending me to the floor.

A familiar giggle tittered behind me. “Geez, I’m sorry!” Beth said, undoubtedly putting forth every bit of her southern charm. “I was trying to catch you,” she breathed.

My brows turned in. “Okay…why?”

She shoved a piece of notebook paper at me. “This. Josh got this in the mail yesterday, and he gave it to Chad. It’s from Ryan.”

I ripped it out of her hand and scanned it. Everything seemed to be fine. He had completed boot camp, and was now in specialized training; something about explosives and being a weapons expert.

“Great,” I said.

“But he’s doing wel ! He seems okay, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, returning the paper.

Kim shoved me from behind. “Hey!”

“What is with you two today?” I said.

“I saw Beth do it. Looked fun. Can I kick you later?” Kim said, her expression void of humor.

“No, you most certainly can not.” I turned to order, craning my neck once more at Kim to prove I was not in the mood for her antics.

We settled in at our usual table, grumbling about upcoming tests and papers. Beth shared Ryan’s letter with Kim, and complained about cutting back more hours at work, making their cupboards more bare than usual. As Kim and Beth discussed Chad’s foul mood due to his feeling that his man-of-the-house status was at risk, I had an epiphany.

“What are you getting paid now?” I asked.

“Beans,” Beth said.

“Wel …I am the CEO of Titan Mercantile. I need an assistant.”

Beth immediately perked up. “What are the hours? My classes are at quirky times, ya know.”

“I know,” I nodded. “If you can swing at least an hour a day, whenever you can get in, I’ll match the pay you were making this summer. You had a little breathing room then, right?”

“That’s robbery!” Beth squeaked.

“Oh, shut up,” Kim snapped. “Nina has money to burn. She doesn’t even get paid to work there,”

“Yet,” I interceded.

Kim continued,“She’s your rich friend, Oklahoma, take advantage.”

“You have interns for that stuff….” Beth said, shaking her head dismissively.

“They’re busy.”

After a short moment of thought, Beth’s mouth spread into a wide smile. “Real y?”

“Real y.”

She threw herself across the table, wrapping her arms around my neck. “I can’t wait to tel Chad! I’m sorry…I have to go!” she picked up her things and took a few steps, turning on her heels. “When do I start?”

I smiled patiently. “When can you start?”