Silence. Long enough that it becomes heavy. Isaiah pops his head to the right then to the left, as if he’s literally releasing steam from an engine on the brink of explosion. “I need to know.”
“Because I need to know the path I’m on. If Noah has family, and that’s the direction he’s heading, I need to know. You’re loyal to him and that’s what I love about you, but I need to know if Noah’s leaving.”
“Leaving?” His words land a punch to my gut. “Do you think Noah’s going to drop you for them? All Noah’s talked about is the apartment you’re getting together after we return to Kentucky. He loves you and Beth.”
Plus Noah promised he’d never leave either Isaiah or Beth behind. His loyalty belongs to them because they’re his family.
“I’ve seen patterns like this before, and you have, too.” Isaiah’s eyes pierce me and I shift, uncomfortable. It’s like he detects something that he shouldn’t. A part of my soul that I hide. “We have a lot more in common than either of us would admit.”
A pattern that Isaiah has seen and so have I…
Heat creeps along my neckline as I brush a curl away. I don’t know the specifics, but Isaiah’s parents abandoned him. Mine are still physically present, but when it counted, they both left me, as well. “Noah won’t leave us.”
“You and me, we’ve grown up with nightmares for moms, but Noah had something once. He had a real family. He gravitates to us because his life fell apart, too, but if he finds what he had before…” Isaiah shrugs. “People leave…it happens.”
Sometimes life happens…it’s what my father said when he tried to explain why he divorced my mother, why he married Ashley, why he left me behind. He’s selling the house. He had a new baby…
“Noah wouldn’t do that to you, to us,” I say. “He considers you a brother, and he loves me. He has Beth and his brothers. I’m going to start school in the fall, and so is he. We’re his family. He’s going to be where he belongs.”
Noah won’t be my father or my mother. He’ll put me first because he promised. I wasn’t Noah’s priority when he was seeking custody of his brothers, but he’s placed me first since then. Noah keeps his promises—always.
My computer beeps, signaling a Skype call. Just what I freaking need—Mrs. Collins poking in my life. I look at Isaiah, and he’s disappeared. Fantastic—guilt. Isaiah’s that type of guy who I’d rather burn my entire set of sweaters than upset.
Biting my bottom lip, I push Accept, and in a slicked-back ponytail, a black Nirvana T-shirt and her Labrador retriever smile, my therapist pops onto the screen. “Hi, Echo.”
It’s hard to focus when I’m hoping Isaiah will reappear and admit he didn’t mean what he said. He’s forever encouraging and strong, and what just happened was a side of Isaiah I’ve never experienced before. Possibly a side Noah has never seen, either. A powerful urge screams to chase after him, but if I did, what would I say?
“Echo?” The smile and her sunny disposition wash away as she falls into serious therapist much sooner than normal. “Are you okay?”
Six months ago, I would have blocked Mrs. Collins and repressed the turmoil inside me. But then I realized that she was the one person who cared. The one person who could help. “No. I’m not okay.”
I wipe the sweat forming on my forehead then flip the six frying patties. For the past two hours, the orders have poured in nonstop, and the heat radiating from the grill has me wondering if most of the girls I screwed got their wish and I did die and was sentenced straight to hell.
In a swift motion, I slip the toasted buns off the grill, throw the patties on them and slide them down the counter to the chick working on the toppings and sides. I turn to the left, searching for more tickets and release a breath. No more orders.
“Take a break, Noah,” the shift manager calls out as he rings up a line of people. “We’ll have another wave in a half hour.”
Without a word, I dump the mandatory apron and go out the back door for the alley. The early-evening air feels good against my skin and, to cool down, I whip the bandanna off.
“Shit, Noah, it’s like you want a repeat of our summer in Kentucky.”
Fuck me. The door behind me snaps shut, and I remember one second too late that the door locks from the inside and that the only way back in is through the front. I’m stuck with Mia.
In a white shirt buttoned low enough that it highlights the two assets she’s most proud of and a black skirt that barely covers her ass, Mia leans against the graffiti-covered brick wall. One quick inhale confirms that this time she smokes a cigarette.
Mia twists her hips to show off more of her outfit. “You like? I get great tips in this.”
“I hear there’s a Hooters in Denver.”
She only smiles. “Have sex with me. Right now. My car’s around the corner.”
Jesus, to think what attracted me to her was her direct style and noncommittal attitude. I didn’t realize that she sucked the soul out of then ate whatever she fucked. “Told you. I’m taken.”
With one final drag off the cigarette, Mia drops it to the ground then grinds it out with her foot. “That only makes me want you more. The first time, it was because you had that bad-boy persona. Now you’ve got that reformed bad-boy thing and I want to…” She curls her fingers in the air and lowers her gaze to the zipper of my pants.
“I’m not playing, Mia.”
I walk past her for the street, and Mia calls out, “You’re eighteen, right?”
The two of us never talked age last year. She was out of high school, and I wasn’t. “Yeah.”
“And the human race has evolved to the point that we easily live to be in our nineties.”
“Got a point?”
She assesses me, boots first then slowly up until she meets my eyes. “I’ve thought about you a lot since we talked.”
That’s what I get for talking. “Shouldn’t think of me at all.”
Mia ignores my comment. “I’ve done what you’ve done—graduated and played house with the good guy. It doesn’t last long. The summer. Maybe a few months into fall, but the good ones lose interest. Redemption becomes boring or maybe we become boring once we’re redeemed. There’s only two ways this can go—she’ll hurt you now or later.”