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Home > Aflame (Fall Away #4)(4)

Aflame (Fall Away #4)(4)
Author: Penelope Douglas

A cool, little hand slipped into mine, and I looked down to see Gianna, a bright-faced brunette I’d grown pretty fond of. I smiled, looking for her usual cheery expression, but she squeezed my hand and brushed her lips into my arm, looking like she was ten kinds of sad instead.

“What’s the matter, kiddo?” I joked. “Whose butt do I need to kick?”

She wrapped both of her little arms around mine, and I could feel her shaking.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, “I guess crying is such a girlie thing to do, isn’t it?” The sarcasm in her voice was unmistakable.

Oh, boy.

Chicks—even eight-year-old chicks—were complicated. Women didn’t want to tell you what was wrong flat out. Oh, no. It couldn’t be that easy. You had to get a shovel and dig it out of them.

Gianna had been coming around for more than two months, but just recently she’d started in the racing club. Out of all the kids in the class, she had the most promise. She worried about being perfect, she always looked over her shoulder, and it seemed as if she always figured out how to argue with me even before she knew what I was going to say—but she had it.

The gift.

“Why aren’t you on the track?” I pulled my arm out of her grasp and sat down on the picnic table to meet her eye to eye.

She stared at the ground, her bottom lip quivering. “My dad says I can’t take part in the program anymore.”

“Why not?”

She shifted from side to side on her feet, and my heart skipped when I looked down and saw her red Chucks. Just like the ones Tate wore the first time I met her when we were ten.

Looking back up, I watched her hesitate before answering. “My dad says it makes my brother feel bad.”

Leaning my elbows down to my knees, I twisted my head to study her. “Because you beat your brother in the race last week,” I verified.

She nodded.

Of course. She’d beat everyone last week, and her brother—her twin—left the track crying.

“He says my brother won’t feel like a man if I race with him.”

I snorted, but then I straightened my face when I saw her scowl. “It’s not funny,” she whimpered. “And it’s not fair.”

I shook my head and grabbed the shop cloth out of my back pocket. “Here,” I offered, letting her dry her tears.

Clearing my throat, I got closer and spoke in a low voice. “Listen, you’re not going to understand this now, but remember it for later,” I told her. “Your brother is going to do a lot over the years to feel like a man, but that’s not your problem. You got that?”

Her expression remained frozen as she listened.

“Do you like racing?” I asked.

She nodded quickly.

“Are you doing anything wrong?”

She shook her head, her two low pigtails swinging across her shoulders.

“Should you be afraid to do something you like just because you’re a winner and other people can’t handle that?” I pushed.

Her innocent storm blue eyes finally looked up at me, and she tipped her chin up, shaking her head. “No.”

“Then get your butt on the track,” I commanded, turning to the go-karts flying by. “You’re late.”

She flashed a smile that took up half her face and shot off toward the track entrance, full of excitement. But then she stopped and swung back around. “But what about my dad?”

“I’ll handle your dad.”

Her smile flashed again, and I had to fight to hold back my own.

“Oh, and I’m not supposed to tell you this,” she taunted, “but my mom thinks you’re hot.”

And then she twisted around and darted off toward the cars.

Great.

I let out an awkward breath before glancing over to the bleachers where the moms sat. Jax would call them cougars, and Madoc would just call them.

Well, before he was married, anyway.

It was always the same with these women, and I knew some of them enrolled their kids simply to get closer to the drivers and riders who hung out here. They showed up in full hair and makeup, usually in heels and tight jeans or short skirts, as if I was going to pick one and take her into the office as her kid played outside.

Half of them had their phones in front of their faces to look like they weren’t doing what I knew they were. Thanks to Pasha’s big mouth, I knew that while some people used their sunglasses to disguise that they were staring at you, these women were zooming in with their cameras to stare at me close-up.

Super. I then and there made it another part of Pasha’s job description not to tell me shit I didn’t need to know.

“Jared!” Pasha’s bark boomed over every other sound here. “You have a phone call on Skype!”

I cocked my head to the side, peering over at her. Skype?

Wondering who the hell wanted to video chat, I got up and walked through the café and into the shop/garage, ignoring the faint whispers and sideways glances from people who recognized me. No one knew me outside of the motorcycle world, but inside it, I was starting to get a name for myself, and the attention was always going to be hard to deal with. If I could have the career without it, I would, but the crowds came with the racing.

Stepping into the office, I closed the door and rounded my desk, staring at my laptop screen. “Mom?” I said to the woman who was a female version of me in looks.

Thank God I didn’t look like my dad.

“Aw,” she cooed, “so you do remember who I am. I was worried.” She nodded condescendingly, and I leaned down on the desk, arching a brow.

“Don’t be dramatic,” I grumbled.

I couldn’t tell where she was from the furniture behind her. All I saw was a lot of white in the background, so I assumed it was a bedroom. Her husband—and my best friend’s father, Jason Caruthers—was a successful lawyer, and their new Chicago apartment was probably the best money could buy.

My mother, on the other hand, was perfectly recognizable. Absolutely beautiful, and a testament to the fact that people do take advantage of the second chances they’re given. She looked healthy, alert, and happy.

“We talk every few weeks,” I reminded her. “But we’ve never video chatted before, so what’s up?”

Since I had quit college and left home two years ago, I’d been back only once. Just long enough to realize it was a mistake. I hadn’t seen my friends or my brother, and even though I’d kept in touch with my mother, it had been only via phone and text. And even that was kept short and sweet.

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