But the only thing I was doing with soccer now was coaching a summer rec league program as community service. There would be no more soccer. At least for the foreseeable future, and one act of anger had ensured that.
Most people my age spent Friday night drinking and hanging out with friends. I spent my Friday night sitting in a circle—yes, a fucking circle—listening to people’s problems. Some of the guys in the group weren’t bad. Like Henry. He got drunk one night and got into a fight at a bar. He wasn’t a psychopath. Neither was Aaron, who apparently had some road-rage problems. A couple of the other guys, and that one chick with the pasty-white makeup and heavy black eyeliner, I wasn’t so sure about. They were kind of scary.
Screwed-up thing was that I wasn’t the youngest person here. Not by far.
I only had . . . ten more motherfucking months of this.
I could do this. Seriously. I could easily do this.
“Cameron?” Dr. Bale cleared his throat, and I wanted to punch myself in the throat. “Is there anything you would like to share tonight?”
This was the part I couldn’t do. The talking-about-me shit with a whole bunch of strangers staring at me. I looked up, and a sympathetic look crossed Henry’s face before looking away.
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
Goth chick—who apparently had a penchant for knives—threw herself back in her seat, crossing her arms covered in black ink. “He never shares anything.”
I pressed my lips together to keep from getting stabbed.
“That is true.” Dr. Bale adjusted his wire-frame glasses. “You barely contribute to the group, Cameron.”
Shrugging, I sat back and slid the baseball cap down lower. “I’m just taking it all in.”
Henry jumped in, thankfully, diverting the attention, and I floated under the radar until the end of the session, but when I got up to leave, Dr. Bale summoned me.
As everyone filed out of the room, I dropped back in the metal folding chair and leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “What’s up?
Dr. Bale leaned over, picking out a folder from the plastic bin beside him. “I wanted to make sure you were getting something out of these meetings, Cameron.”
Uh. No. No, I was not. “I am.”
He eyed me as he hooked his leg over a knee as he leaned back in his chair. “You’ve barely spoken about the event.”
“There’s really nothing to say.”
“There’s a lot to say.” He smiled, pausing, and the skin around his eyes crinkled. “I know talking in front of people is hard in the beginning, but you have things in common with them.”
I stiffened. “I’m not sure I have a lot in common with them.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Sighing, I averted my gaze to the white walls. Posters lined them. Ones that spoke of talking, instead of throwing punches.
“Are you taking this seriously, Cameron?”
“Yes.” I forced my gaze not to search out the only clock in the room, behind me.
“Good. I’d hate for you to not take this wonderful opportunity and use it to benefit your life.”
I kept my expression blank.
“Do you realize how lucky you are, Cameron?” Dr. Bale asked when I said nothing. “What happened to that boy could have put you in jail for a very long time.”
“I know,” I said, meaning it. God knows I knew how lucky I was. And for the longest time I believed my ass should’ve been rotting in jail. I would’ve been if it hadn’t been for my father’s pull in the criminal courts and my otherwise spotless record. “I’m a really laid-back guy, Dr. Bale. What happened—”
“The beating you inflicted on that boy would beg to differ.” His gaze flicked down to my file. “Severe head contusions. Broken jaw, nose, and eye socket, along with several broken ribs.” He looked up, meeting my stare. That doesn’t sound like something a ‘laid-back guy’ would do, now does it?”
My stomach soured, but I didn’t look away. “I’m not proud of what I did. Looking back, I know there were plenty of other things I could’ve done.”
But I didn’t have an “anger” or a “rage” problem. And as fucked up as it sounded, I still wasn’t sure I regretted what I had done. The fucker had been beating on my sister, and well, I had lost my shit.
And truth be told, if I had to do the situation all over again, I wasn’t sure I’d handle it any differently. You hurt my sister, you’re fucking with me. It was as simple as that.
When it came to my little Shortcake, patience paid off.
At first, the trip out to Antietam National Battlefield to do our astronomy assignment had started off as painful as my weekly anger-management classes were. She sat in my truck like I lured her in there with the offer of free puppies, tugging on the sleeves of her sweater and sitting as straight as a board. Her nervousness increased as we headed down Bloody Lane, picking a spot that would give us a clear view of the sky and . . . cornfields.
I learned she was a bit of a history nerd, which was cool, because those brown eyes lit up when she started talking about the battlefield. And I also learned she was in one hell of a hurry to get this done and over with.
Never in my life did I doubt my ability to attract a girl like I did with Avery. She acted like spending time with me was tantamount to sitting in music appreciation class for two semesters in a row. As cocky as this sounds, I knew I could walk onto that campus and get a date with the nearest available girl. Probably even a girl who wasn’t available, but with Avery, it was like trying to hit on a nun. And not a naughty nun.
“How long do you think this will take?” she asked.
“Why?” I paused as something occurred to me. Maybe my charm wasn’t failing me. Holy shit, how had I not thought about this before? “You got a hot date tonight?”
She laughed dryly. “Uh, no.”
Part of me was happy to hear this. The other part was thoroughly confused. “You sound like that’s an insane idea. That no one would go out on a Saturday night for a date.”
Shrugging, she dropped the piece of hair she’d been messing with. “I’m not dating anyone.”
I walked on, tapping my hands off my thighs as the breeze stirred the cornstalks, causing them to rattle like dry bones. “So why the rush?” When there was no response, I glanced over my shoulder at her, grinning. “Are you worried that I’ve brought you out here for my own nefarious plans?”
Shortcake stopped, her face paling in a way that made her freckles punch out. “What?”
Whoa. I faced her, feeling the knot back in my chest and something else. Her reaction was too quick, too real. A bad taste filled my mouth. “Hey, Avery, I’m just joking. Seriously.”
She stared at me and then averted her gaze, cheeks flushing. “I know. I’m just . . .”
I hoped—fuck, I prayed—that was all this was. Watching her fiddle with the bracelet on her left wrist, I couldn’t let the train of thought go any further. Anger over the possibility of something fucked up in the most minor way happening to her was already pricking at my skin. I was sure I was overreacting. “Come on. It’ll be dark soon.”
I started walking, heading toward the tower, waving at two students from our class. Picking a spot on the hill overlooking the dirt lane, I pulled out a flashlight before I sat down. The grass was dry and in that stretch of silence, the hum of crickets was almost as loud as my pounding heart. I had no idea why my pulse was racing, but it felt like I’d run from the truck to here instead of walking.
Looking up, I found Shortcake hovering a few feet behind me. I patted the spot. “Join me? Pretty please? I’m lonely all by myself over here.”
She sucked her lower lip in between her teeth, and the muscles in my stomach tensed. Finally, she moved forward and sat . . . three feet from me. My brows rose, but then . . . then our gazes collided, and I took a breath, but it didn’t get really far. How many freckles did she have on the bridge of her nose? Nine. No. Nine and a half. One of them was faded. Her lips were parted, like she was waiting for a kiss.
The urge to kiss her hit me hard in the gut. Was it the first time? When I wiped the crumb from her lip, I had wanted to kiss her then, to taste those soft-looking lips. Any other girl I would’ve made a move, but not Shortcake.
And that’s when the strangest damn thing happened.
I wanted to slow down. How I could slow down this nonexistent relationship was beyond me, but I don’t know. My heart was still pounding.
Avery ducked her chin, studying her notebook as she cleared her throat.
Letting out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, I asked, “What constellation are we supposed to be mapping?”
“Um, the Corona Borealis, I think,” she said, skimming the notes as I held the flashlight.
“Ah, the Northern Crown.”
Her brows rose. “You knew that off the top of your head?”
I laughed at her dubious expression. “I might not take notes, but I do pay attention.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I really don’t understand how anyone sees shapes in the stars.”
“Really?” I moved closer slowly and peeked over her shoulder. “The shapes are pretty obvious.”
“Not to me. I mean, it’s just a bunch of stars in the sky. You can probably see whatever you want to see.”
“Look at the Borealis.” I pointed at the map. “It’s obviously a crown.”
She laughed—a real laugh, and the knot tightened in my chest. “It does not look like a crown. It looks like an irregular half circle.”
Grinning, I shook my head. “Look. You can see it now easily. That’s a crown. Come on, see the seven stars.”
“I see the seven stars, but I also see about a hundred others peeking out.” She grabbed a pen. “I also see the cookie monster.”
I laughed. “You’re ridiculous.”
As I watched her, her lips curved up in a smile as she posed her pen over the grid. It was clear she had no idea what latitude line to start at as she glanced up toward the Borealis. Finally, she connected two dots.
“You know where the name comes from?” I asked.
Shortcake shook her head, so I reached over and took the pen from her. In the process, my fingers brushed hers. A jolt zapped up my arm, and she pulled away immediately. “It represents the crown given from the god Dionysus to Ariadne,” I told her. “When she married Bacchus, he placed her crown in the heavens in honor of their marriage.”
She stared, brows furrowing. “Professor Drage didn’t teach that in class.”
“Then how did you know that?”
“Why don’t you know that?”
She tipped her head to the side, lips pursed.
“Okay. Maybe most people wouldn’t know that off the top of their head.” I twirled her pen. “I actually took part of this class as a freshman, but had to drop it.”