“My dad targeted Jax. He was the bastard and worthy of less respect in my father’s eyes, apparently. He didn’t hit me until later.”

“Tell me.” I needed to know this. I wanted to know everything.

“One day—not long after I found out how he really treated Jax— my father asked us to go to a house and pretend to be selling something. He wanted to break inside and rob the place.”

“What?” I blurted out suddenly.

“From things they would say, I knew money was tight, especially with his expensive habits. Jax would tell me that this was normal, that he did this for my dad a lot. He never refused. My father abused him for anything and everything: burning dinner, making messes... Jax knew that saying no wouldn’t do any good. We’d still have to do the job but just with bruises. But I refused anyway. And my dad started hitting me.”

Nausea burned my stomach. While I was wasting away my summer resenting him for not calling or writing, he was being hurt. “Did you try to call your mom?” I choked out.

“Once.” He nodded. “It was before my father started abusing me. She was drunk, of course. She didn’t see it as a bad situation, so she didn’t come to get me. I tried to tell her about Jax, but she didn’t consider him her problem. I thought about just getting out of there, running away. But Jax wouldn’t leave, and I couldn’t leave him.”

Thank God she’d cleaned herself up otherwise I’d have to hurt her.

“So I gave in to my father,” Jared admitted flatly, his eyes waiting for my reaction. “I helped him and Jax do jobs. I broke into houses, delivered drugs for him.” He walked back to the window and peered out at the tree. “One day, after weeks of hell, I refused to listen to him and demanded to go home. And I was taking Jax with me.” He pulled his t-shirt over his head and showed me his back. “He took a belt to me, the end with the buckle.”

I ran my fingers across his scars. The edges were rigid, but the dip of the welts was smooth. There weren’t very many, and his skin was still gorgeous.

He paused for a moment and turned to meet my gaze, the ghost of his pain still deep in his eyes. “So I finally just ran away. I stole fifty bucks and jumped a bus home. Without Jax.”

Chapter 32

I could see the agony in his eyes. What had happened to his brother? Jared had thought that life with Katherine was bad, but his father turned out to be a horror. And he had to make the decision to abandon ship without his brother.

“Did you go to the police?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Not at first. There was no way I wanted to deal with that. I just wanted to forget about it. But when my mom saw what happened to me, she forced me to go. I never told them what happened to me, but I did report what happened to my brother. She insisted on taking pictures of me just in case, though. The police took my brother away from my dad and put him into foster care. I wanted him with me, but my mom’s drinking didn’t inspire any confidence with the state.”

“Have you seen your dad since?” I wanted to gag using the word “dad” for a man like that.

“I saw him today.” Jared stunned me. “I see him every weekend.”

“What?! Why?” So that’s where he went, but how could he put himself in the same room as a monster like that?

“Because life’s a bitch, that’s why.” He gave me a bitter smile and looked away. “Last year, after you left for France, I went a little crazy. I drank and got into a lot of fights. Madoc and I both had a ball for a while. I hated that you were gone, but I’d also found out that Jax had been transferred to another foster home after the last family had hit him. It was a bad time.”

He got up to go stand at the window, and I noticed he was clenching his fists. He wasn’t teary anymore. He was pissed.

“So I tracked down his old foster dad, and I f**ked him up. Like, really bad.” His eyebrows lifted, but there was no regret in his tone. “He was in the hospital for a week. The judge decided that, while my feelings were understandable, my reaction was not. He thought it would be poetic to sentence me to forced visits with my father in prison, since he was still in jail for abusing my brother as well as the drugs that the cops found at his house. It looked like I was on the same path, so the judge ordered one visit a week for a year.”

“So that’s where you go. To Stateville Prison in Crest Hill.” It wasn’t a question, just a clarification. I remembered the receipts in his room.

“Yeah, every Saturday. Today was my last visit, though.”

I nodded gratefully. “Where is your brother now?”

The first hint of a smile played on Jared’s lips. “He’s in Weston. Safe and sound with a good family. I’ve been seeing him on Sundays. But my mom and I are trying to get the state to agree to let him live with us. She’s been sober for a while. He’s almost seventeen, so it’s not like he’s a kid.”

This was a lot to absorb. I was elated that he’d finally confided in me. He’d been hurt, which had probably made him feel abandoned by the people that should’ve protected him. But I was still puzzled about one thing.

I walked over to him. “Why didn’t you tell me all of this years ago? I could’ve been there for you.” I got up from the bed, and walked over to him.

He ran a hand through his hair and inched away from me to lean on the railing. “When I finally got home that summer, you were my first thought. Well, other than doing what I could to help Jax. I had to see you. My mom could go to hell. All I wanted was you. I loved you.” He gripped the railing at his sides, and his body went rigid. “I went to your house, but your grandma said you were out. She tried to get me to stay. I think she saw that I didn’t look right. But I ran off to find you, anyway. After a while, I found myself at the fish pond in the park.” He raised his eyes to meet mine. “And there you were…with your dad and my mom, playing the little family.”

The little family?

“Jared—” I started.

“Tate, you didn’t do anything wrong. I know that now. You just have to understand my mindset. I had been through hell. I was weak and hurting from the abuse. I was hungry. I’d been betrayed by the people I was supposed to be able to count on: my mom who didn’t help when I needed her, my dad who hurt me and my helpless brother. And then I saw you with our parents, looking like the happy, sweet family. While Jaxon and I were in pain and struggling to make it through every day in one piece, you got to see the mother that I never had. Your dad took you on picnics and for ice cream while mine was whipping me. I felt like no one wanted me and that life moved on without me. No one cared.”

Jared’s mom had gone on a couple of outings with us that summer. My dad was always trying to help her get straight. He loved Jared and knew Katherine was a good person at heart. He was only trying to get her out of the house and show her, in a humble way, what she was missing out on with her own son.

“You became a target, Tate. I hated my parents, I was worried about my brother, and I sure as hell couldn’t rely on anyone but myself. When I hated you, it made me feel better. A lot better. Even after I realized that nothing was your fault, I still couldn’t stop trying to hate you. It felt good, because I couldn’t hurt who I wanted to hurt.”

Silent tears streamed down my face, and Jared walked up to me and cupped my cheeks with his hands. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I know I can make this up to you. Don’t hate me.”

I shook my head. “I don’t hate you. I mean I’m a little pissed, but mostly I just hate the wasted time.”

He wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me close.

“You said you loved me. I hate that we lost that,” I said sadly.

Bending down, he grabbed the backs of my thighs and lifted me up. My breath caught, and I held onto his neck. His warm body only made me want to curl up in him. I wrapped my legs around him as he walked to the bed and sat down.

He put a hand to my face and guided my eyes to his. “We never lost that. As much as I tried, I could never erase you from my heart. That’s why I was such an ass**le and kept guys away from you. You were always mine.”

“Are you mine?” I asked as I wiped my tears.

He kissed the corners of my mouth softly, and I felt heat rise up my neck. “Always have been,” he whispered against my mouth.

I wrapped my arms around him, and he held me tight as I buried my face in his neck. My body relaxed into him, knowing without a doubt that we had crossed over. He wouldn’t hurt me again, and I knew that I needed him like water.

“Are you okay?” I asked. It seemed pretty late for such a dumb question, but I wanted to know.

“Are you?” he responded.

And I loved that about him. He’d been abused, abandoned, and helpless to protect his brother. My embarrassment at his hands seemed like small potatoes compared to that. But I also knew that his trauma wasn’t an excuse to treat me badly all those years.

“I will be,” I promised. If he could take the step to trust me with all of this, then I could try to move forward, too.

“I love you, Tate.”

He lay back on the bed, and I fell with him, clutching him tight. We stayed there, just holding each other, until I felt the steady rise and fall of his chest telling me he was asleep.

It was after midnight when awoke. I’d fallen asleep half on and half off of Jared’s chest. My legs were entwined with his, my head tucked in his neck, and my arm draped over his chest. His musk and wind scent filled my world, and I closed my eyes as my fingers slowly threaded through his hair. My lips glided up the side of his smooth neck, tasting his salty skin with an uncontrollable need to touch him with more than just my hands.

Damn. He’s asleep. And he looked peaceful, too. Not one worry creased his brow, and no scowl marred his face.

Shaking my head and deciding to leave him alone, I gently crawled off the bed. Heading to the double doors to pull the curtains, I noticed a light rain splattering my window panes.

Perfect. I had Jared and a rainstorm. I couldn’t help but smile.

I tore off my socks and tiptoed out of the bedroom, letting him sleep.

Heading out the backdoor from the kitchen, I stepped onto the porch with my bare feet. My fingers tingled, and I clenched them into fists with the renewed energy coursing through my body already. The air smelled like autumn. Like apples and burnt leaves.

The awning protected me from getting wet, so I walked down the steps and onto the brick patio. Drops of water fell on my feet, spilling between my toes, and the familiar hum of electricity charged my skin. Crossing my arms over my chest to help keep warm, I felt a surge of goose bumps fall over my arms and legs as I listened to the peaceful pitter-patter of rain dotting the trees and ground.

Tilting my head back to let the sprinkles cover my face, I already felt years younger than I’d been feeling lately, and the wind chimes clinking from Ms. Trent’s back yard lulled me into a peaceful meditation.

The rain was getting slightly heavier, and I closed my eyes as the light wind caressed my face. Thoughts drifted through my mind like clouds, and nothing existed but the distant rumble of thunder and my hair floating on the wind around my face.

As the sprinkle started to turn into a downpour, I opened my eyes and twisted around to head back inside. A semblance of calm had fallen over me, but I nearly screamed when I saw Jared leaning against the house by the back door.

“Jared! You scared me. I thought you were asleep.”

I held my hand to my chest, since my heart felt like it was trying to push through my chest.

But Jared wasn’t saying anything, and I straightened up when he started to approach me. His eyes were scary intense. He didn’t look mad, but he still looked about ready to explode.

If only I could move, then I’d meet him halfway. But I was stuck. His piercing eyes were burning me, and he looked…hungry.

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