“Jimmy start kindergarten?” I asked.

Preston nodded, then sighed. “He was scared as hell this mornin’ too. It was hard not going with him. I wanted to sit in his class with him all day. You know?” He chuckled and shook his head. “I can’t imagine doing this with Daisy May.”

Daisy May was the baby. She was only one. Preston had been taking care of her since she was born. His mother had come home from the hospital and then left for a week. Preston had lost his job that summer because he couldn’t leave the trailer they lived in. Jimmy was only five then and Brent was about two, I think.

“We’ll all go sit with Daisy May on her first day of school. Threaten anyone who looks at her. She’ll be the most protected first grader there is,” I assured him.

Preston laughed, and then his smile turned into something real. I was reminding him that he wasn’t alone. That all he had to do was let us know when he needed us. We were his family too. Sometimes he needed reminding. He was bad about figuring shit out alone.

“Saw you talking to Trisha Corbin today,” Preston said with a smirk. “Two days in a row.”

Trisha had been hard to track down today. It was like she was avoiding me. I found her anyway. Chasing a girl like this wasn’t something I excelled at. But damn, she smelled good. And that smile of hers. . . . If I could get her to smile, then it made everything worth it.

“She’s not gonna be easy,” Preston warned.

He had no idea. “Yeah. I got that. I wasn’t looking for easy. It ain’t about f**king.”

Preston tossed his bag into the bed of Marcus’s truck and frowned. “Then what the hell is it about? Have you seen her tits and ass? Day-um.”

I would have snapped if it was anyone else who had said that. But it was Preston, and he graded all girls on their tits and ass. He was a player in a very bad way. He didn’t have a good opinion of females, thanks to his mom. Daisy May was the only female he put on a pedestal. Well, Amanda Hardy, Marcus’s little sister, too. But she was so off-limits it wasn’t f**king funny. Like any of us, Preston would beat anyone’s ass who touched her. But he wouldn’t talk about her body or go near it.

“It’s more. Something about her . . .” I wasn’t getting into this with him. He’d make fun of me for weeks. Months. Hell, all f**king year.

“Y’all ready to go?” Marcus called out as he slapped Rachel Mann’s ass and left her staring after him longingly. Rachel had been after Marcus all last year.

“You finally decide to dive into the Mann girl pu**y?” Preston asked, amused.

He’d messed around with Rose Mann, who was Rachel’s cousin. Both girls had rocking bodies and heads full of brown curls. They were hot. But I wasn’t going there. They paled in comparison to Trisha.

Marcus rolled his eyes and tossed his bag into the back of his truck. “Stop being an ass.”

“She’s clingy. Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Preston said as he put his hands on the sides of the truck, then jumped up and slung his legs over into the bed. It was his turn to take the back. “Where’s D?” he called out, looking around for Dewayne.

“He was preoccupied with two of the cheerleaders. Can’t remember their names, though. They’re new ones,” Marcus answered him.

“Shit. Does this mean he won’t be home so we can’t go swing by and get some of Mrs. T’s cookies?” Preston whined.

“We can still go get some cookies. Mrs. T doesn’t care if Dewayne is with us or not,” Marcus assured him.

Sometimes Preston reminded me of a kid. But it was part of his charm, I guess. Girls loved it. Until he brushed them off once he got some. Then they didn’t love it so much.

Marcus closed his door and looked over at me. “Do you think he’ll always be this way?”

Chuckling, I shook my head. No. I knew he wouldn’t. He had three kids to raise. When he was with us, he was free to do what he wanted, so he lived wild. When he went home, he became a dad.

“He needs this. When he isn’t home, he needs to live,” I replied.

Marcus frowned. He had the easiest life of us all. Although Dewayne’s was pretty sweet. Marcus had the happy family and the money. The life Preston had was something Marcus didn’t completely understand. He’d been trying to take care of Preston since we were kids and Preston would come to school without a lunch. But he didn’t know just how bad shit was. Preston didn’t talk about it much.

I only knew because my life wasn’t roses either and Preston felt like he could talk about it with me.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Marcus finally said.

I leaned forward and turned up the radio as Marcus pulled out onto the road.

I had to wait until tomorrow to see Trisha. Damn.

Chapter Eight


“Just go,” Krit snapped at me. He was scared. I could see it in his eyes. He knew his stepmother wouldn’t hit him too hard. But she had no limits with me. I didn’t care, though—I wasn’t letting her hurt him.

“No,” I replied, standing up from the table where Krit and I had been having an after-school snack. We weren’t supposed to eat the cereal without permission. It was for breakfast only. But we had both been hungry and thought we had time before she got home. If she wasn’t lying on the sofa watching trashy talk shows with a beer in her hand when we got here, it meant she was out and wouldn’t be home until later.

“What the FUCK?” she screeched as Krit shot up out of his chair to stand in front of me. Granted, he was taller than me now, but he was still younger. I was supposed to protect him. Not the other way around.

I tried to shove him aside, but he wasn’t budging. “Stay behind me,” he warned with a much more commanding voice than I was used to hearing my little brother use.

That made her cackle—a hard, sadistic laugh. “What, boy, you think you’re gonna protect that mooching sorry-ass slut from me just because you’re bigger than me?”

She took a step toward Krit, and his entire body tensed. “You. Won’t. Hurt. Me,” she said in a soft voice that gave me chills. “I’m your momma. You won’t touch me.”

“We wanted a snack. We’ve been at school all day and we were hungry. Lunch didn’t fill us up,” Krit explained. I heard the little boy come out of him. The scared one who always tried to reason with his crazy-ass stepmother. I wasn’t going to let him touch her to protect me. He’d never forgive himself.

I moved fast and jumped in front of him. “Get out of here, Krit,” I yelled at him, and barely had time to prepare myself for the slap across my face.

“SHIT! Mom, stop it!” Krit demanded, and I felt his hands clasp around my arms.

“Stupid, stupid, ugly slut.” She hurled words at me that she thought hurt me. Coming from someone I cared about, maybe they would. But she’d been calling me names all my life. I didn’t care what she said about me.

She pulled back at first, and Krit tried to move me out of the way. But instead her swing hit my hurt ribs. The scream that erupted out of me sounded like it was coming from somewhere else as black spots formed in my vision and I crumpled to the ground, trying to breathe.

I heard Krit yelling, but I couldn’t move. The pain was paralyzing, and I hadn’t been able to draw a breath yet. The black spots all bonded together until there was just darkness.


“Dammit, Trish, wake up.” Krit’s desperate voice worried me.

I fought to open my eyes. The pain had started to subside. I was breathing again. Looking around, I tried to sit up in case the crazy woman we called Mother was getting ready to strike again.

“Be still. She’s gone,” Krit said, pressing a hand to my shoulder to keep me from getting up. “She probably won’t be back tonight.”

“You sure?” I asked, then winced because I had tried to shift. The pain was there, but if I didn’t move I was okay.

Krit looked angry as he nodded. “Yeah. I hit her. I’ve never hit her. I was scared because you weren’t moving, and so damn mad that you had to deal with her shit. I just lost it.” He sighed and hung his head. “She said she was calling the cops.”

Krit had hit his mother. Exactly what I’d been trying to protect him from. He’d feel guilty about it later. And he’d question himself.

“If the cops come here and see me like this, she’ll get locked up. She isn’t calling the cops. She was trying to scare you,” I assured him.

He nodded and straightened his shoulders like he was trying to be brave. “You need to see a doctor. Your ribs look bad, Trisha.”

If I went to the hospital, they’d take us away from her and we’d be split up in foster homes or group homes. I wasn’t letting that happen. I couldn’t protect him there. He needed me.

“Not chancing that. Just help me stand up, and then I’ll need help wrapping it tight,” I told him.

He stared down at me with a frustrated frown. Then growled angrily. “I’m not a little kid anymore. When are you gonna see I can take care of myself, Trisha? Stop getting hurt for me! I can protect us both. And I want you to see a doctor.”

“They will split us up,” I reminded him.

He looked defeated. “Maybe. But at least you won’t be beat on.”

“There is no promise of that if we escaped from here. At least here I know what to expect, and I have you.”

Krit leaned down and kissed the top of my head. “One day we won’t live like this. We will have a real life. We will be free.”

Tears burned my eyes. When had my little brother become the one who comforted me?

Chapter Nine


Trisha wasn’t at school today. I’d watched her brother and his friend get off the bus, but she hadn’t been with them. The kid studied me as he walked by where I was standing. As if he was trying decide something. His blue eyes were so much like his sister’s. And there was a haunted look in them that I remembered seeing in Preston’s when we were younger.

Something was wrong.

That feeling stayed with me all day. When the last bell rang, I didn’t head to the field house. I made my way to the eighth-grade hall. I was finding her brother.

Krit was walking toward the door leading outside when I got to his side of the building.

“Krit,” I called out. There was a crowd of kids between us, and I knew if he got out that door then I’d lose him in the rush.

He turned and his eyes found me immediately. Which probably had to do with the fact that I was more than a head taller than most of these kids.

After telling his friend something, he pushed through the crowd and made his way back toward me. Thankfully, his friend continued on outside. Krit pulled his book bag up higher on his shoulder and stood up straighter, making his tall, lanky frame seem even taller. “What do you want with her? She’s not some chick you can just screw and move on from. She’d never sleep with you. She’s a good girl. She’s also got shit to deal with, and a player like you wouldn’t understand. So back off her if you’re just after her as one to add to your many.”

I was impressed. Not once did he falter in his demand. He was standing up for his sister, and he wasn’t afraid of the fact that I could snap him in two. I liked this kid.

“Not after her to sleep with her. I like her. A lot,” I assured him. “Where was she today?”

Krit frowned like he wasn’t sure he believed me. But I could see there was hope in his eyes. He wanted me to like her. “She’s hurt,” he replied slowly, and I could tell he was holding something back.

“How is she hurt?” I asked, wishing I’d not waited all damn day to figure out why she wasn’t in school.

He looked away from me and his jaw clenched. After a few too many beats of silence, I was beginning to think he wasn’t going to tell me. Finally he turned his gaze back to me, and the pain in his eyes didn’t make me feel better.

“Mom hit her. She already had messed-up ribs. And she punched her there again. I tried to help her.” He stopped, and his eyes watered as a hardness came over his face.


“She at home with your mom?” I asked, trying not to let the horror pounding inside my chest show on my face. The kid needed me to be strong. He was about to break down, and he was fighting it.

“I . . . I, uh, hit Mom. When Trisha crumpled to the ground, I lost it and I just . . .” He looked down and I saw him swallow hard.

“Did your mom leave?” I asked him.

He nodded.

Motherfucker. Why did her mother hit her? Sick f**ks didn’t need to reproduce. God should have made that a rule.

“Yeah. She was angry but she was bleeding. She left and wasn’t back this morning. Trisha was in a lot of pain and I convinced her to stay in bed. She needs to get better.”

“I’m taking you home,” I told him, and grabbed his arm and headed for the exit doors. I wouldn’t get any f**king sleep tonight if I didn’t see Trisha with my own eyes.

Krit tried to jerk his arm free. “Dude, let go. I’ve already missed my bus. I need the ride. You don’t have to break my arm.”

I wasn’t aware my grip was so tight. I let go of him.

“Sorry,” I muttered.

He shook his arm as if to get feeling back in it, but he continued to walk beside me.

“Don’t you have football practice?” he asked, glancing back at the field I had been due at twenty minutes ago.

“Yeah,” I replied, jerking open the door to my dad’s beat-up truck. I only got to drive it when he was working nights and sleeping all day. That was this week. I just had to fill it with gas and wash it.

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