A hushed argument breaks out between Jax and Matt. My stomach plummets into free fall. Jesus Christ, how could I not notice her bruised knuckles or how the makeup poorly hides the slight discoloration near her eye? Conner is a dead man walking.
I raise my hand and it hovers close to her eye, my palm almost connecting with her skin. Heat builds in the gap as I ache to remove her bruises. Haley tilts her head away and I drop my hand, feeling cold, rejected.
“Tell me you didn’t get into a fight over me,” I whisper.
She lowers her head. “Conner wouldn’t have stopped. Even when you blacked out, he wouldn’t have stopped.”
“Haley…” There are no words. None. It’s not okay for her to wear bruises over me. It’s despicable that a guy would strike a girl. Regardless of whether she hit him first. Regardless of whether she was defending someone else. Regardless.
“Just go,” she says. “This isn’t your fight and I’ve got to make sure it doesn’t become my family’s battle, either.”
These two guys must be the cousin and brother that Jessica referred to earlier. Two feet divide Haley’s family from Matt’s brood. Everyone’s posture is open, daring, yet they remain in their neutral corners. For a few seconds, I respect them. They’re smart enough to keep the fights outside of school.
“I did it,” I announce.
Mohawk boy loses his outer playful demeanor and his inner demons possess him as he advances on me. “You hurt Haley?”
“No. I defended her.”
“I fell.” Haley grabs my wrist and her slender fingers squeeze my skin. “I fell.”
I don’t know how to help you. It’s what I want to scream. Instead, I lay my hand over hers and brush my thumb over her battered knuckles. Her hand is frozen, lifeless. She attempts to jerk away, but I hold tight. I don’t make promises lightly and I’m swearing right now to take care of her and her problems.
Releasing Haley, I face the two groups of guys. “She fell. I walked out of the store, saw Haley on the ground and Conner standing over her. I made the wrong assumption. My bad.”
The sneer on Conner’s face is almost enough to compensate for the blackout. “Bullshit.”
“Fine. Then you explain how it went down. We fought. I won. Unless you want to admit you were beat up by a girl.” I grin for effect and the ass**le twitches. Several guys in his group laugh at the “joke.”
“Is that the way it happened?” Matt asks Conner.
His internal struggle plays havoc with his face. I’m not sure which one is worse. Could I admit a girl pounded me? Damn, it’s bad enough to know a girl kicked a guy’s ass in my defense. The ass**le nods.
Matt scratches his temple and swings his gaze between me and Haley and Conner until settling on me. “Who are you and why are you up in Haley’s business?”
“He’s a stranger,” responds Haley right as I answer, “We’re dating.”
Haley whirls in my direction, a tornado in a cornfield. “We’re what?”
“Dating,” I state clearly. Because neither Matt nor her family is buying any of the bullshit I’m spewing and they won’t…unless we offer incentive. “In private. But it’s okay, Haley.” I overemphasize her name in the hopes of gaining her attention. “Now that I’ve transferred here, we can tell people our secret.”
She transforms into night of the living dead and blinks repeatedly. I position my hand under her elbow in preparation for if she faints. Note to self: she shocks out easily.
Mouths gape. Some guys harden into stone. Then it smacks me, is one of these guys her boyfriend? Jessica mentioned a failed relationship with Matt, but Haley could be seeing someone else. Shit. Fucking shit. Fucking shit in a Crock-Pot.
“You’re dating Haley?” The pure menace in Matt’s tone indicates I hammered the nail into the two-by-four. “My girl? You’re dating Haley?”
Haley snaps back to life. “I’m your ex-girlfriend.”
Thank God for small favors and the damn Easter bunny because that was one gift I needed. There’s no one else in Haley’s life and Jessica had it right: he is crazy obsessed.
Matt’s obviously the alpha in this mangy bunch of wolves, so I address him, “Is it a sin around here to protect your girl?”
He hasn’t peeled his eyes away from Haley since I announced our sudden relationship. Finally, he answers, “No.”
“Is it true?” Jax pinches his nose as if he’s smelling shit. “You’ve been dating this guy in secret?”
“I…” Nothing else falls from Haley’s lips.
“All the lies you’ve told since Friday… What I put up with at home because I covered for you… Over a guy again? Jesus, Haley.” He pauses, then sucks in a breath. “I’m done with you.”
“Jax!” Haley calls out, but he struts away. The other guy from her family wears the same expression my mom does when she talks about the daughter that died right after my birth. In silence, he follows after Jax.
Her posture droops. The look on her face…it’s like someone cut out her beating heart. I’ve got to get her out of here.
“Check it out, man.” I direct myself to Conner. “It was a misunderstanding. I saw you standing over Haley, I got protective and things went down. No harm, no foul.”
I wrap an arm around her shoulders and Haley tenses beneath me. I extend my other hand to Conner, knowing full well there is plenty of harm done and foul is a mild adjective to use to describe the animosity between us.
“Fuck you,” says Conner. I withdraw my hand and shrug. Hey, I tried.
“Then I’ll leave you to lunch.” I attempt to guide Haley away but it’s difficult to do when she’s grown roots and planted her feet into the ground.
“Sounds like it was an unfair fight,” says Matt. “My brother being chivalrous and helping out Haley after she fell and then you jumping him from behind. It’s easy to take down a guy when he doesn’t know you’re coming. An apology isn’t enough.”
“It’s enough,” Haley pleads. “Please, Matt, let it go.”
Matt mimics the crazy grin his insane brother had right before he knocked me out. “Do you know the lies your girlfriend tried telling me before you showed? Listening to Haley beg for you makes me wonder if you can actually take a hit.”
I rub my chin, release Haley and step into Matt. Chairs crack and squeak against the floor as his boys bolt to their feet. Matt stops them with one raised finger. “Got something to say?”