“Y’all get to your side of the building. It takes longer to get over there than you think. Be good. I’ll see you out here at three. Don’t be late or we’ll miss the bus.”

They both rolled their eyes, then headed right, toward the eighth-grade side of the school, while I turned left toward the high school section.

Chapter Three


It had been almost three months since I’d seen her. I had tried everything to get that girl out of my head, but damn if she still didn’t take my breath away. Last year she had been new. She was a transfer student from a nearby city. Her name was Trisha Corbin, and she starred in every fantasy I had. That was all I knew about her. Not from my lack of trying. She just wouldn’t give me the time of day.

Admitting that I’d been looking forward to school starting again just so I could see her was pathetic. But damn if it wasn’t the truth. Even if she ignored me, I got to watch her. Every gorgeous inch of her.

Today she had stepped off the bus with a guy walking close to her like he was warning anyone who looked her way. Didn’t know who the f**k he was, but he was young. I could see that in his face. His body hadn’t grown into his height. He was lanky.

“Looks like her brother. That hair color. He has to be related,” Dewayne said beside me. He’d been watching me watch her. Shit.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said, jerking my gaze off her and back to the swarm of females trying to get some attention.

“Fuck, whatever,” Dewayne muttered.

Hiding anything from my friends was impossible. We’d been close since second grade. They knew me well. My fascination with Trisha Corbin was something they had all picked up on last year.

But after she’d shot me down not once but twice, I had backed off. Being turned down wasn’t something I was used to. Ever.

“I heard you and Gina broke up,” a blond cheerleader—Kimmy something or other—said, running her nails up my arm.

“Never dated Gina,” I replied, annoyed. Kimmy was cheap. I wasn’t interested in that. Not when I had just seen Trisha Corbin looking like a dream.

“Oh, well, she sure is telling people you f**ked her good up against the wall, on the car, and over the table,” she said, then giggled, batting her eyelashes at me.

“I f**k. I don’t date,” I replied, then threw her arm off me and stepped around the girls. I was a glutton for punishment—I was going to see if I could find Trisha and get her to talk to me.

“I like it hard,” Kimmy said as I walked past her.

“I can help you with that,” Preston drawled, and I knew pretty boy would get her off my back. She’d found just the guy to scratch her itch.

The guys with Trisha turned toward the eighth-grade wing. Dewayne was probably right. The blond was more than likely her brother. I hadn’t paid enough attention to the guy to notice.

Trisha stood looking at the schedule in her hands. The way she pressed her lips together when she was thinking was f**king cute. She had the best facial expressions. You could almost read all her thoughts just by watching her face.

“Ain’t fair that you get prettier every time I see you,” I said as I came up beside her and stopped. It was lame, but the girl made me nervous. I said stupid shit whenever I was around her.

Trisha tensed up just like she always did when I got near her. I hated that. Not once had I done anything to make her dislike me. I’d been knocking myself out to get her to notice me for more than a year now.

“You gonna talk to me this year, or do I continue to get the silent treatment?” I asked.

Her frown deepened, but I waited. I wasn’t going to let her lock me out. She could at least speak to me. Why she was the one girl at this school who didn’t want to talk to me, I didn’t know. Hell, even the girls I’d pissed off thawed easier than she did when I wanted them to.

“I’m not giving you the silent treatment. I just don’t want to encourage you. I’ve tried to be nice about it.”

Ouch. Damn, the girl was mean. Problem was, I didn’t believe her. I had seen her watching me when she didn’t think I was paying attention. And there had been interest in her eyes. Something else was making her put up a wall.

“I’m real nice. Wish you’d at least give me a break and be my friend.” Had I really just asked to be put in the friend zone with this girl? Dammit, I was slipping. I didn’t want her to be my friend.

She finally turned her head and tilted it back to look up at me. She was tall for a girl, but I was taller. The confused expression on her face almost made me laugh out loud. She was thinking I had lost my mind too.

“You don’t have girls who are friends. You have your little gang, and none of you are friends with girls.”

She had me there. But she was different.

“I’m thinking I want to test the waters. Besides, if the only way I can get you to talk to me is to offer friendship, I will.”

She raised her eyebrows in disbelief, and then she laughed. I had never seen or heard her laugh before, and goddamn, it was something else. I wanted to record it and play it over and over again, soaking in the fact that I had made her laugh. Memorizing the way her eyes danced with amusement. I forgot where we were and everything else around me.

“You think that’s funny?” I asked, unable to keep from grinning like a fool.

She let out one more soft chuckle, then shook her head. “No, I think that’s hilarious. You wouldn’t last a day without flirting with me.” As she said those words she snapped out of her moment of amusement. The tense, frustrated girl was back. “I need to get to first period. Excuse me,” she said, and started to walk off. But I wasn’t caving in now. This was the most she’d talked to me, and I didn’t want it to end. I needed reassurance she’d talk to me again.

“Give it a chance. Be my friend.” I was begging. The boys were going to tease my ass for weeks over this.

She let out a sigh and turned back to look at me. “Sure. Whatever. Now I need to go to class, friend.”

At that, I flashed her a grin that had most girls wrapping themselves around me and I let her go. “See you later, buddy,” I called out as she hurried down the hall without looking back.

I watched as guys did double takes at her retreating form as she passed them. She was oblivious. The urge to shove them all into their lockers so they never glanced at her sweet ass again was hard to resist. But that wouldn’t stop them, and I would end up suspended.

I settled for giving warning glares as I walked toward my locker. They all needed to know she was mine. Friend or not, Trisha Corbin was off-limits. Every one of their horny asses needed to understand that.

Chapter Four


Friends? Was I crazy?

After three classes this morning I was still replaying my conversation with Rock Taylor over and over again in my head. It was like watching a train wreck on repeat. I couldn’t be Rock’s friend. He didn’t want me as a friend. He wanted in my pants. Or panties, to be specific.

Ignoring him was so difficult. He was huge. Bigger than life. Those arms of his looked like they could protect anyone. Guys in high school shouldn’t look like him. He was built like a wall. The men our stepmother brought home didn’t have anything on Rock. He could take care of them.

No. Shaking my head, I cleared that thought right out. Rock had no clue what baggage came with me. He wanted to add me to his list of girls he’d nailed. He didn’t want to protect me from the men who enjoyed slapping me around when I didn’t let them touch me.

Focus, Trisha. Focus. Keeping Krit safe was my only goal in life. Well, that and getting us the hell out of her house. The only thing I could find any solace in was that there was a line with Krit she would never cross. Fandora Daily didn’t let the men she screwed around with hurt her stepson too much. She preferred they hit me. Her unwanted stepdaughter who she also liked to hit. My mother had taken off when I was eight, and I’d been left with my father and his current wife, Fandora. When he took off, he’d left Krit and me behind. The only thing that kept Fandora from tossing me out with the trash was that I took care of Krit. She could go out on dates and live her life knowing she had a built-in babysitter.

So I was given a home. By the time I was ten years old, both my mother and father had deserted me. All I had left was my little brother. And I made it my goal to keep him safe and to keep us together.

Krit was the only person on earth who loved me. I would sell my soul for him. He was what kept me from just giving up and letting Fandora’s men beat me to death. I fought to live for my brother’s sake.

Touching my side, I inhaled sharply. I was afraid this time my rib was broken. I didn’t know what to do about that. I’d taken medical wrap and wound it around my ribs tightly. That was all I knew to do. Going to the hospital could land both Krit and me in foster homes, and I couldn’t risk being split from him. He needed me.

Yeah . . . Rock Taylor didn’t have a clue. Next time he hit on me, I should show him the black-and-blue bruises under my shirt. Or maybe the ugly green tint of the bruise healing on my ass. Or the scar that marred the skin on the left side of my hip where I’d been whipped with a belt so hard it sliced me open. I’d definitely needed stitches for that, but I’d never gotten them. Fandora was smart. She didn’t want me to be harmed where people could see.

She was also completely selfish and bitter. And yet she loved Krit—well, to a degree. She was proud of the handsome man he was turning into, and I think she assumed he’d take care of her one day. So she kept him. And because he loved me, she kept me.

But she made sure I understood that I was a burden on her and always had been.

The end-of-class bell rang and I grabbed my books before standing up. Riley Owens stepped in front of me and grinned. Her dark brown hair was cut into a cute chunky style this year, and she was wearing more makeup than she had last year. I had always thought she was pretty, but she was really attractive now.

“You were in a zone, chick. I tried all class to get your attention. I haven’t seen or heard from you all summer. What gives?” Riley asked, bumping my shoulder with hers as we began walking toward the door and into the hallway.

Riley was one of the two good friends I had here. There were others who were friendly, but coming into this close-knit crowd last year was hard. They didn’t accept new faces that easily.

“Sorry. I was working mostly. How was your summer?” I replied.

She sighed in a dramatic fashion that made me smile. “Well, I had to go visit my dad and his new wife up in Pennsylvania. And, girl, let me tell you, they have rednecks up there too. Some people would give folks around here a run for their money. He lives out in the country, and his wife went barefoot to the grocery store! Seriously! Who does that?”

That was another thing about Riley: She always made me smile. “Sounds traumatic,” I replied.

She almost nodded in agreement, then squinted at me. “You’re being a smartass, aren’t you?”

I bit back a grin and started to say something when her dark green eyes went wide as she looked up at something behind me. I started to turn and stopped. I could smell him. Peppermint and leather. Why did that smell so good?

Riley’s eyes went from amazed to flirty real fast. She was preparing to grab my new friend’s attention. With her new look, I had no doubt she could. She would be an easy target. I needed to save her.

“Hello, Rock,” I said, turning to face him. He was completely focused on me, missing Riley’s fluttering eyelashes and come-hither smile.

His lips did a sexy smirk. “What lunch period did you get?” he asked me, keeping those determined eyes directed at me.

“Second,” I said, wishing my voice didn’t sound affected by him. But he was so close and he smelled so nice. I liked peppermint and leather. It worked. Totally worked.

“Me too,” he replied, his smirk turning into a pleased smile. “Let me walk you.”

Walk me. Rock wanted to walk me to lunch. Deep breaths, Trisha. Deep breaths. “Oh, I was going to walk with Riley to lunch.” It was the only excuse I could think of.

Finally Rock shifted his gaze from me to Riley, and I am pretty sure she made a swoony sigh. “Care if I join y’all, Riley?” Rock asked her.

“No. Not at all. I mean, you can walk us both. I don’t mind. Or if Trisha doesn’t want to, you can walk me. Anywhere at any time.” She was babbling like an idiot.

I shot her an annoyed frown. She had just told him he could walk her anywhere at any time. Really? Dear God. No wonder the guy thought all women should fall at his feet. Apparently they all did.

He chuckled. “I’d really like to take Trisha. She’s my new friend, and I’m working hard to get her to keep me.” His gaze was back on me.

Riley nudged me hard in my battered ribs, and I fell into Rock’s chest as I let out a small cry. Pain shot through me, making my vision blur and my eyes water. I was going to be sick. If only I could breathe, I would have run to the restroom.

Two strong arms wrapped around me and held me steady as I focused on not throwing up. “You okay?”

I couldn’t answer him. The pain was still shooting through me, and I was struggling to breathe.

“Shit, how hard did you hit her?” he asked angrily. His arms were gentle but held on to me firmly. I didn’t fight him. The pain was ebbing, and I could hear Riley apologizing as the pounding in my head eased. I needed to tell her it was fine, that this wasn’t her fault. But I was still fighting back the nausea.

“You okay? You need me to walk you down to the nurse? Have her take a look?” He was concerned. If he hadn’t held on to me, I would be on the floor in the fetal position.

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