Home > Aflame (Fall Away #4)(6)

Aflame (Fall Away #4)(6)
Author: Penelope Douglas

I tipped my chin down, inhaling a hard breath.

Tate’s not home.

Good. My jaw hardened. That’s good. I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I could go home and spend time with my family, and it could be done with. I wouldn’t have to see her.

I hated to admit it, even to myself, but I’d been afraid of running into her. So much so that I hadn’t gone home.

I ran my palm down my thigh, ridding myself of the sweat that always came when I thought about her. Even though I’d left to make myself whole, there was still a piece of me that seemed forever hollow.

A piece only she ever filled.

I couldn’t see her and not want her. Or not want to hate her.

“Jared?” My mother was talking, and I evened out my expression.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m here.”

“Listen to me,” she ordered. “This isn’t about why you’ve been away. This is about your sister. That’s all I want you to think about right now. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but I . . .” Her eyes fell, and she looked to be searching for words. “I never know what you’re thinking, Jared. You’re so guarded, and I wanted to have you to myself to tell you this in person. You never find time to come home, however, and I’ve waited as long as I can.”

I didn’t know why it bugged me that my mom had a hard time talking to me. I guess I’d never really thought about it, but since she’d put it out there, I realized I didn’t like that I made her nervous.

She took a deep breath and looked at me, her eyes kind but serious. “We need you,” she said softly. “Madoc will be the one playing with all of her toys with her. Jax will be climbing mountains with her on his shoulders. But you’re her shield, Jared. The one who will make sure she is never hurt. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. Quinn Caruthers needs all of her brothers.”

I couldn’t help it—I smiled.

Quinn Caruthers. My sister. She had a name already.

And hell yes I was going to be there for that.

I nodded, giving her my answer.

“Good.” A relieved look crossed her face. “Jax emailed you a plane ticket.”

And then she clicked off.

Chapter 2


Two Years Ago

I love mornings like this. Mornings when I wake up first, and I can just watch her sleep for a few minutes. The smooth, glowing skin of her chest rises and falls with her shallow breaths, and I know that if I slide my fingers up her back, underneath her tank top, I’ll feel her sweat. She overheats when she sleeps.

I relax into the chair by her window, watching her soft pink lips purse as she starts to stir. Her long, slender neck calls to me, and I’m desperate.

Fucking desperate never to leave her. Wanting never to do what I know I have to do right now.

Tate holds my heart, and I could choke trying to swallow and bury my need for her.

I try to remember the good things. The things that will keep me alive in her heart while I’m away. The rainy nights in my car. How the skin of her neck tastes different from the skin of her lips. How hot she gets under the sheets.

How I hate sleeping alone now.

Her phone starts vibrating on her nightstand, and I tighten my fists, knowing that everything is about to fall apart.

When she wakes, I have to hurt her.

Her head turns to the other side, and I see her eyes flutter open, her body coming to life. She inhales a deep breath and slowly pulls herself to a sitting position. She notices me right away and holds my gaze across the room. A small smile dances across her face until she sees me not smiling back.

I nod to her phone, hoping she’ll answer it and give me a minute. Heat floods my chest, and my heart pounds. I need to be able to do this. For her, and for me.

For our future together.

She looks at her phone, swiping her thumb up and down the screen, and then back up at me. “They made it,” she whispers. “They’re in New Zealand.”

She’s talking about Jax and Juliet. I’d driven them to the airport yesterday, and they must’ve been texting to let her know that they arrived safely. I probably had the same text, but my phone was in my duffel bag at my feet.

“Where are you going?” she asks, noticing the bag.

I drop my eyes but look up again, determined not to be a fucking coward. “I’m leaving for a while, Tate.” I try to keep my voice soft.

Her eyes turn worried. “ROTC?” she asks.

“No.” I lean forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “I . . .” I let out a breath, speaking slowly. “Tate, I love you—”

But she throws off her sheets and starts breathing hard, already knowing where this is going. With her long blond hair pulled back into a low ponytail, I can see the realization written all over her face.

“Jax was right,” she rasps.

“Jax is always right,” I admit, wishing I could keep doing what I’d been doing for the past two years. Just take her lips, turn off the lights, and shut out the world.

My brother can voice what everyone else is afraid to face, and he knows me like he knows himself. I’m unhappy, and I can’t use Tate to hold me up anymore.

“Continuing like this . . .” I shake my head. “I’d make you miserable.”

My brother knows that I hate ROTC. He knew without my telling him that I hate my life in Chicago. I hate school. I hate the apartment. I hate feeling like I’m a lost puzzle piece.

Where the hell did I fit?

And since Tate had overheard Jax and me the other day, now she’s on to me, too. It’s time to own up.

Fuck up, own up, and then get up.

Her eyes shoot to mine, and I can see the tears pooling there. “Jared, if you want to quit ROTC, then quit,” she cries. “I don’t care. You can study anything. Or nothing. Just—”

“I don’t know what I want!” I burst out, yelling so I won’t cry. “That’s the problem, Tate. I need to figure things out.”

“Away from me,” she snaps.

I stand up, running a hand through my hair. “You’re not the problem, babe.” I try to soothe her. “You’re the only thing that I’m sure of. But I need to grow up, and it’s not happening here.”

I’m twenty, and all I know about myself is that I love Tatum Brandt.

Two years ago I thought that was enough.

“Here, where?” she prods. “Chicago? Shelburne Falls? Or around me?”

I clench my jaw and stare out her French doors. I just want to grab her and keep her. I don’t want to leave.

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