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Authors: Carrie Butler

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CHAPTER 8

My shrink’s office smells like sunshine.

I swear, you walk in that place and it takes your breath away. Full octane coffee and citrus air freshener. And the paintings. Don’t get me started on the paintings. They’re so cheery, I wanna take a piss in one of the potted plants.

“Hey there, Cole,” Lacey, the secretary, cooed my name with a phony grin. “Glad you made it in to see us.”

“Same here. I’ve been holding my breath”— I did the math in my head—”thirty thousand, two hundred, forty minutes since the last time I saw you.”

Her facade cracked as she tapped the counter. “Yeah, why don’t you go ahead and sign in?”

“Sure.” I scrawled my name down beside a gigantic smiley face that took up a fourth of the page. Beside it, I made a speech bubble that said, “I LOVE MY LIFE!”

“Okay.” She gently pulled the clipboard back to her side of the desk. “That’s all we need. Thank you.”

I headed toward the line of chairs by the fish tank, but hesitated when I heard movement on the other side of the door. Heels, unhurried steps. My shrink.

The door opened, and Dr. Hannah Farrell poked her head around the corner. “Cole?”

“Hooray,” I said in my driest tone. “You’ve come to save me from myself.”

“Always the funny guy.” She flashed me a predator’s smile and pushed the door open wide. “You can come on back now.”

Fifth grade all over again. Getting sent to the principal’s office.
Of course, this time, it was a hot principal. Pencil skirt, modest blouse, and a mess of curly hair that screams ‘sex me’.

We settled into two overstuffed chairs in her office. The first time I was here, I laid on the floor in protest of her lack of couch. Apparently, that’s not a thing anymore. No one told me.

“So, how have things been since the last time we talked?” She picked up her iPad and opened up a note-taking program.

“Peachy.”

“We missed you last week.”

“I thought you might.”

She glanced up at me. “I wondered if it was harder for you to come, since we delved into the topic of family last time.”

Mind flinch.
“The only thing harder when I see you is my dick.”

“Again with the comebacks.” She laughed under her breath. “You know, you make my job pretty easy.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t bill my insurance company.” I flashed her a wicked grin, knowing I’d get away with it. “Okay, okay. Let’s talk about my feelings for the next forty-seven minutes.”

She raised a thin brow. “
You
want to talk about feelings?”

“Yeah, I had some this week. I thought you’d want to know, since it’s kind of a first.”

“Absolutely. Why don’t you tell me about it?”

I twisted around in the chair until I could lie in it like the couch it was supposed to be, my legs hanging over the armrest. “So, I went to this bible-thumping festival to meet up with my brother and his girlfriend—who’s currently his ex-girlfriend, but whatever. While I was there, I met this chick.”

Three, two, one…

“What was she like?”

“I don’t know. Fragile? She’s got that skin like pottery with freckles on her nose. Big hazel eyes. Dark red hair. Thin, but not like those throw-up chicks. She carries herself well.”

She typed something. “Well, now we’ve established what she
looks like.
But what was she like as a person?”

I kicked my feet up and let my laces dangle down. “Nice, I guess. I didn’t talk to her that long. She just had this air about her. Kind, you know? Like someone you’d trust to babysit kids or rescue a baby pig.”

“Why a pig?”

“Are you kidding me? Baby pigs are cute as shit.”

“And that makes them more valuable than other animals?”

I stared at her. “How the hell would I know the value of farmyard animals?”

“Well, you’d trust this girl to rescue a piglet, which we’ve established as cute. I’m wondering if you think its appearance makes it more worthy of being saved.”

Seconds ticked by on the clock.
“You’re losing me.”

“Could it be you see yourself as that pig?” she asked, leaning in. “Perhaps there’s something that makes you feel filthy—some thought or memory—that you need saving from. You may be trying to justify that desire by focusing on a redeeming quality. In this case, it could be your perceived level of attraction.”

I scrubbed my hands down my face. “Wow. You see right through me, doc. I’m a baby pig who needs to be loved. I think I’m cured…like bacon. Maybe you should sign my certificate of sanity, so I can pass it off to my grandma. Then I’ll let Rachel pork me whole again. Everyone will be happy.”

“Cole.” She tilted her chin. “I’ve noticed you seem to hold your grandmother in a higher regard than you do most people. Her needs, her opinions. Why do you think that is?”

“Gee, could it be because she raised me?”

This
was why I skipped these sessions. All shrinks do is pick at scabs until they get one to bleed—even if there’s nothing wrong with the person. It’s a time sink.

“Yes, I believe you briefly mentioned that before. Your grandparents took you and your brother in, after your parents were killed in a car accident.”

“It wasn’t an accident,” I corrected her, twisting to sit up.

“What?”

“They don’t call it an accident when a drunk driver crashes a two-fucking-ton vehicle into innocent people. There’s nothing
accidental
about it.”

“Oh.” She paused. “I can tell you feel strongly about this.”

“You must be a voodoo mind reader.”

“Did they charge the driver?”

I snorted. “Yeah, he got a seven-year slap on the wrist.”

“And you don’t think that’s fair?”

I crossed my arms and then uncrossed them, realizing she’d analyze the hell out of it. “On the contrary. I think he got
exactly
what was coming to him.”

Rotting in a crude oil storage container until lightning obliterated his remains.

“Have you forgiven him?”

“Would you?”

She frowned, waiting for me to press forward. Like it was a damn hypothetical question.

“I want to know,” I told her, clenching my jaw.

If she gave me some bullshit answer about forgiveness being healthy and him atoning for his sins, I’d walk. The only way I was going to blow fifty minutes of my life every week was if this woman was a real, living, breathing person. Not some question bot trying to get me to lose my edge.

“I don’t know the whole story, so it’s difficult for me to say.”

“You don’t need to know the fucking story!” My voice swallowed the room, and my heart pumped blood straight to my ears. “Either you’re sympathetic toward that unremorseful bastard or you’re not.”

Wallace regretted that night so much he woke up crying at night. Even months afterward, it still tore up his soul. But I knew what had to be done. I knew we had saved another family from going through what we did, even if Roman’s death had been an accident. Why couldn’t someone else see that, just once?

“There’s no need to raise your voice, Cole.” She set her tablet aside. “I’m here. I’m with you. I get that you’re upset.”

“I’m not upset,” I mumbled.

“Then why are you breathing so hard?”

I stood up, clutched both sides of my head, and took a deep breath. “You had to have known that subject was going to hit a nerve. Did I help you reach your outburst quota or what?”

“I’ve noticed you make remarks about my profession whenever you’re uncomfortable. Do you think it might be a way for you to keep me at a distance? Maybe you’re afraid I’ll get to know the real Nicholas Blake?”

I could’ve laughed. “Believe me,
I’m
not the one who should be afraid of that possibility. If you had any idea what I’m capable of, you’d run out of here screaming.”

And with those parting words, I ended our session.

CHAPTER 9

I waited a respectful six days before I checked on the unhappy couple.

Rena’s classes were done for the day, so I started with her. Or at least, I tried to. She wasn’t moping around her claustro-dorm room or beating up defenseless heavy bags, as expected. It took me two full sweeps of Wilcox College to find her waiting on a bench outside of Corynn’s dorm—licking the lid of an ice cream carton.

“What a sad, sticky girl,” I announced, hoping to get a rise as I came up behind her.

She lowered the lid to her lap without turning around. “Excuse me?”

“What’re you doing out here?” I gripped the back of the bench and hopped over. “Besides stalking the Nullari girl and ingesting 270 calories. You know that’ll go straight to your ass, right?”

She flicked me off and went back to her ice cream. “None of your business.”

“Oh, my beloved sister from another mister,” I chided, shaking my head. “Everything you do is my business.”

She leaned over to toss her carton in the trash. “Cut the crap, AssCole. Why are you here?”

“Can’t I stop by to check on you?”

“Not when it takes over two hours to get here.”

“Maybe I wanted to see you before your semester ends.”

“Maybe you have ulterior motives.”

“Rena.” I put a hand to my chest. “I’m hurt.”

She wiped her hands on her pants and crammed whatever she’d been studying into her back pocket. “And I’m not in the mood to play games.”

Respect, sis. I’ve seen forts with fewer defenses.

“Fine,” I conceded, crossing my arms over my chest. “No games. What do you want to do? Trash Corynn’s room? Key her car?” A second ticked by. “Rough her up a little?”

Now
that
was an idea. I couldn’t intervene, but I could sure as hell tape it. Then I’d show Wallace, and he’d realize she still—

“She and I need to talk,” Rena interrupted my thoughts with a sigh, standing up. “But that’s not going to happen with you here, so if you’ll excuse me…”

“About Wallace?”

She failed at hiding the flinch his name elicited. “Maybe.”

I lowered my brows. “But…”

“But what?”

But my dumbass brother won’t let me tell you what happened, so now I have to resort to non-specifics.
I tried projecting the thought with my mind, but sadly, my Dynari talents lay in other areas.

“Maybe it was a misunderstanding.” I cleared my throat. “Maybe this chick doesn’t even want to be with him. I mean, hell, she’s an ERA plant. Maybe you shouldn’t want her to be with him.”

Determination wavered in her eyes. “I want what’s best for him.”

“So, ripping out his heart and thrusting him into the arms of the enemy is best for him?” I patted my pockets and shook my head. “Shit’s sake, Sis. You give me anxiety.”

She glared at me while I dug around for my pack and lighter.

“Here’s the deal,” I said, popping a cig into my mouth. “Your last class gets out at 2:50 on Fridays. Her last class isn’t over until 4:10. She works in the lab on weekends, but Maverick won’t be by to pick her up until 7:30 tomorrow morning.”

Suspicion narrowed her green eyes even further. “So?”

“So, we only have fifteen minutes to kill until our time window.” I shielded the tip against the wind as I clicked my lighter. “What do you want to do?”

She covered her nose and mouth with her shirt, like I’d taken a shit on the sidewalk. “I want to throw up.”

“Gimme a break,” I mumbled, letting warm, delicious smoke coil between my lips. “It’s not that bad.”

“It’s gross.” Her hair danced every which way in the breeze. “Your lungs probably hate you.”

I shrugged. “Fast healer.”

“Well,
my
lungs hate you,” she ground out. “Did you consider that?”

“Actually…” I pictured her little lungs, all charred and nasty. “No.”

“Shocker.” She started to walk off, but I caught her arm.

“Listen,” I said, wisps spilling from my lips. “I’ll put this out and wait with you, if you give me that redhead’s phone number.”

She let go of her collar, and the shirt snapped down around her neck. “You seriously came all this way to con me out of Rachel’s phone number?”

No, but I need an angle.
I dropped my poor cigarette, sacrificed before it had fulfilled its life’s purpose, and smashed it with my boot. “There. Are you happy?”

She stared at the sidewalk. “No.”

I ran an exasperated hand over my head. “Why? Do your lungs still hate me?”

“No, but Captain Planet does. That’s litter.”

I growled as I bent to pick up the discarded remains, and then tossed them in a tray atop the trashcan. “There.”

“Good,” she mock-praised me, raising her voice. “Now explain to me why you want Rachel’s number so badly.”

Of course. It has to be some song and dance…

I looked up. “You want an essay? Because she’s got great legs, and she’s nice and shit.”

“Oh, well, when you put it that way…” She made a face. “You know she’s not going to sleep with you, right? In case you didn’t notice, she’s churchy.”

“I didn’t say I wanted to sleep with her.”

“But you do, don’t you?” She put her hands on her hips. “I’m warning you, Cole. If you convince Rachel to go out with you, and you hurt her, Wallace is going to be pissed. They’re close.”

“Are you sure it’s Wallace who’s going to be pissed?”

She scoffed. “Rachel and I aren’t even friends.”

“Good,” I said, trying not to grin. “Then give me her number.”

Her eye twitched.

I took her arm and blurred around the building for a little privacy. There was an abundance of humans around the quad, and they were distracting as hell.

“Cole.”

“Look, I’m serious. I swear to God, I’m not going to touch her.”

She backed away like my words were going to conjure some righteous retribution. “Right.”

“She’s just so,” I went on. “I don’t know. She makes me feel good.”

“You talked to her for thirty seconds.”

“And she made me feel good for thirty seconds!” I snapped. “Now are we going to argue out here, or are you going to give me her number so we can go inside and wait?”

She eyed the back door. “You know they keep this locked, right? And we can only enter through the front entrance if a resident lets us in.”

“Sure.” I punched an access code into the numbered panel beside the door. More knowledge from the CIA—Cole’s Intelligence Agency. Okay, Tits. Anyway, there was a click, and the little light turned green. “Any other pressing issues?”

I ducked inside, and she followed my lead. ERA had Corynn placed on the second floor. Room 216. If we hurried, we could get situated before she came back from class. It’d scare the shit out of her…

“Now,” I began, taking the stairs two at a time. “Do I have your blessing or not?”

Rena scampered to keep up. “Why do you care if you have my blessing? I thought you just wanted her number.”

“I have her number,” I groaned, and opened the door marked with a giant two. “I just want you to say it’s okay.”

She edged around me and started down the hallway, dragging her feet. “I don’t care, Cole. Call her if you want to. Just don’t hurt her.”

I led by placing my hand at the small of her back. “You honestly think I’d hurt someone without provocation or necessity?”

Insulting silence ensued.

Wow.

“No,” she finally admitted, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not worried.”

“So, you
are
friends.” I grinned, coming to a halt in front of 216. “That’s cool, because I want you to like my future girlfriend.”

She wanted to kill me. It was written all over her face.

“And now that we have that out of the way.” I looked both ways before producing a mini can of WD-40. “Nobody ever said no to a little lube…”

Rena winced.

I crammed the straw in place and squirted the hole above the door handle. “And then we’ll acquaint Ms. Lock with Mr. Tension Wrench.”

I worked quickly—so quickly, in fact, I doubted she could track my movements as I swapped one tool for another. Then another. “Now for the pick gun.”

“The what?”

Click, click, click, click, click!

“Geez.” She whipped her head around, glancing up and down the hallway. “Are you trying to get caught?”

“Think I can’t get away?” I squeezed the trigger a few more times for good measure, and then removed the gun. A second later, I had the metal stick pointed the other way. “Here we go.”

“That’s it?” She twisted the door handle and moved in ahead of me.

I smirked, reset the lock, and put my tools away. “Now for some snoop—”

“What are you two doing here?” a distinctly English voice asked from behind me.

I thrust my hands in the air like a stick-up, following Sis into the darkened room. “Rena did it.”

She glared.

Corynn took a quick check of her surroundings before coming inside. The door closed behind her. “All right. What’s this, then?”

“U-Um,” Rena stammered. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”

Just when I thought she had potential as my assistant, she cracks under the pressure…

“Funny thing about observing a class for no credit,” Corynn muttered, tossing her backpack on the floor and flicking the lights on. “No one cares if you leave early.”

“Oh.”

“Well?”

“Rena wants to tell you something,” I interrupted, jabbing her in the side with my elbow. “Isn’t that right, Sis?”

“Ow,” she grumbled. “Right. I just wanted to say you and Wallace…well, you can go ahead and…he’s not my…”

She crossed her arms and leaned her hip against the dresser. “Are you giving me your boyfriend?”

“Ex-boyfriend,” she corrected way too quickly.

A few seconds ticked by as the women studied each other. “Why?”

Rena straightened her spine and lifted her chin. “Because he deserves a normal life. Because I want my friend to be happy.”

Corynn cocked an eyebrow. “A normal life. That’s what you think he wants?”

“Deep down,” Rena whispered. “So we’re going to make it happen.”

I snorted, but didn’t say anything. Best damn behavior today.

“I’m going to give you his number,” she told her, looking for something to write on. “Get things rolling, so we can all move on with our lives. I don’t want to hear another thing about it.”

“So, that’s it?” Corynn asked. “You’re going along with the arrangement?”

“Yes.” Rena was either on the verge of tears or about to deck her. I couldn’t tell. “He’s yours now, so take care of him.”

“He’s still hung up on you, you know.” She paused. “But whatever. We all have our parts to play, and it’s not like he’s bad to look at.”

“R-Right.” She made for the door, and I followed.

“He might even appreciate a good roll in the sheets.”

Oh shit.

Rena paused with her hand on the door handle. “I should probably make one thing clear.”

“What?”

“I don’t know your reasons for consenting to this arrangement,” she began, lowering her voice, “and I don’t know what you left behind to be here, but I trust you. I have to. Because you’re what’s best for Wallace.”

Rena’s grip tightened. “But if you cross him, if you endanger that man in even the slightest way, I will find you, Corynn. England, America—I don’t care. I will track you to the farthest ends of the earth, and I will make you beg for death. Do you understand me?”

Hot.

Corynn’s lips twisted. “Got it.”

We fled the scene in silence, and once we got outside, I knew Rena would bolt. Before she could get anywhere, I spun her around. “Hey.”

“What?”

I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and buried her face in my chest. “You’re stubborn, but you have a good heart, Sis.”

She struggled against me like a cat in water. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. It just needed said.”

I took off before she could notice I’d gone.

~

Wallace met me in the parking lot, after I called him.

I was almost touched until he said he didn’t trust me to ‘roam the streets’ of Wilcox unattended.

“What happened?” he asked, getting into the passenger side of my Jeep. “Is Faye on the offensive?”

I put out yet another cigarette. “Not yet. I’m just checking up on you.”

“Why?”

“Because I love you, jackass.”

He snorted as he settled in, cranking the seat back. “Yeah? Same to you.”

“Have you figured out what you’re going to do?”

“About what?”

“The debt crisis, obviously.” I shoved him—kind of. “This shit with Rena.”

He gave me the raised brow. “You think there’s something I
can
do?”

“Gee, I don’t know. You could tell her what happened?”

His lips tightened into a line. “We’ve been over this.”

Was he serious?

“It’s been almost a week.” I emphasized the passage of time by chopping the air into sections. “It wouldn’t seem forced to explain now. Just say you were giving her space.”

“And how would I know to explain what she overheard, without admitting you told me?” Wallace rubbed his brow bone until the skin turned red. “It’s useless. She’ll never believe that I won’t be better off with Corynn.”

I slammed my head against the steering wheel. “Well, find a way to convince her. I’ve got too many irons in the fire, as it is. I don’t want to worry about you two forever. Just get over yourselves and bump uglies already.”

“Your concern is touching.”

“Hey, I’m trying.”

“I know,” he mumbled. “I do appreciate it. I’m just tired. I don’t think I’ve slept for a week.”

“Makes sense with all the shit you’ve got on your plate.”

“Yeah.”

Neither of us knew what to say after that. Hell, if we were in the middle of nowhere, there’d be crickets. The Blake brothers did
not
bond over honest dialogue.

“So, you wanna see my burned nipples?”

“I’m leaving now.”

I snorted and lifted my head from the steering wheel to watch him go. “Suit yourself.”

“For what it’s worth”—Wallace straightened outside the Jeep and leaned back in the window—”I’ll try calling her.”

“Good man.”

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