My cell phone chirped loudly from inside my clutch, causing me to jump and almost eat asphalt. Placing my hand over my slamming heart, I let out a shaky laugh. Scared to death by a text message. Jeez. Stopping beside a large tree, I dug out my cell. Carson’s name flashed across my screen.
Then I heard it, the equal, measured steps—heavy and foreboding, sending my pulse racing. Ice formed tight balls inside my stomach. It’s not real. It’s not real. One. Two. Three. The footsteps were closer. The back of my neck burned with awareness.
I couldn’t breathe.
Fingers shaking, I ran them across the screen of my cell, opening Carson’s text. B THERE IN A SEC. My lungs spasmed, working again. Carson was coming. I was okay. I would be—
The loose strands of hair on the back of my neck stirred. Warmth moved over my skin.
A hand circled my bare arm, and my heart lurched into my throat. I started to scream, but another hand clamped down on my mouth, smothering the sound.
“Don’t scream,” he said.
The second I recognized the voice, anger replaced the terror. I slammed my elbow back into Del’s stomach with everything I had in me. Pain radiated down my arm, but with a startled grunt, he let go.
I whirled around, ready to use my clutch as a deadly weapon. “What is wrong with you?”
He clutched his stomach, eyes wide. “Jesus, Sammy, that wasn’t necessary.”
I wanted to hit him again. “It wasn’t? You snuck up on me and put your hand over my mouth! Jesus, I thought you were going to…”
Straightening, he met my stare. “Do what? You had to have heard me walk up behind you. I wasn’t being exactly stealth about it.”
“But...” But I thought he hadn’t been real, just another auditory hallucination. Now I wanted to hit Dr. O’Connell. What if Del had been some kind of psycho? And I just stood there, telling myself he wasn’t real? I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. What do you want?”
He looked wounded. “I just wanted to talk with you. You did promise, by the way.”
I slipped my phone back into the clutch. “I didn’t promise anything, and you’re here with Veronica—”
“I don’t care about Veronica!” A vein pulsed along his temple, and I took a weary step back. “I only came with her because you’ve been avoiding me, not giving me a chance to talk to you.”
Weeks later and he still wanted to fix things? Sad…and even a bit disturbing. I searched over his shoulder for Carson, but the parking lot appeared empty.
“Did you really come here with Carson?” Del asked. “Like, as a date?”
My eyes shot back to him. Upon closer inspection, I saw that his cheeks were ruddy. Temper or alcohol? “Yes. He asked me and I said yes.”
Del shook his head as he ran his tongue along the front of his teeth. “So you’re dating Carson now?”
Our newly labeled relationship seemed too fragile to blast to the entire world, but before I could say anything, the immediate lack of response hit a sore spot with him. He cursed. “Carson of all people? His dad works for your dad, Sammy. He’s below a bottom-feeder.”
“He’s not a bottom-feeder!” I took a step forward, hands shaking. “And I don’t care that his dad works for mine. It doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t buy taste, personality, or common decency.”
His eyes narrowed. “Are you saying Carson is better than me?”
I didn’t want to stoop to that level, but ugly anger turned me inside out. “Yes, he is better than you.”
“You know what? I wouldn’t have wasted almost four years with you if I’d known what a complete and utter loser you were going to turn into.” He took another step, towering over me. His own fury rolled off him in dark, murky waves. “I would’ve stood by you, too. While everyone is calling you Insanity Sam, I’ve backed you up, protected you! I’ve kept my mouth shut.”
“Kept your mouth shut about what?”
“What? You can’t figure it out? I know, Sammy,” he sneered. “You can forget loyalty. You screwed that up. And you’re nothing without me.”
I recoiled, stung by the venom lacing his words. And what was I supposed to know that he knew? Before I could demand answers, another voice, cold and hard, intruded.
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” Carson said from behind him, startling both of us. “She’s actually about a thousand times better without you.”
Del spun around. “Why? Because she’s screwing—”
Carson’s fist slammed into Del’s jaw. There was a fleshy sound, and then Del’s head jerked back. He folded like a deck of cards, hitting the ground and rolling onto his side, clutching his jaw.
“You know, I was sort of jealous when I found out Scott got to give you that black eye,” Carson said, shaking his right hand. “But then I told myself to be patient. You’d give us another reason to knock the living shit out of you.”
“What an odd thing to be patient for,” I mumbled.
He ignored me. “Listen to me clearly, Del. Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her again. If you do, you can trust that a busted jaw isn’t anything close to what I will do to you. Got that?”
Del grunted something in reply that suspiciously sounded like a string of four-letter words.
Coming to my side, Carson leaned in, his lips brushing across my cheek as he spoke. “I think we should get out of here before I hit him again.”
I glanced over his shoulder. Del was picking himself up off the ground, leaning against a car for support. My hand found Carson’s and squeezed. “I think you’re right.”
Part of me wasn’t surprised that the night ended with fists being thrown. On the way home, I told Carson about the memory I had but kept Del’s cryptic words to myself because I didn’t know what they meant. Like me, he seemed excited about this development. At first.
“This is a good thing. Maybe you’re starting to remember everything….” He trailed off, focusing on the road.
I studied him in the darkness of the truck cab. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head, and several moments passed. “You remembering what happened is dangerous. I don’t like to think that whoever was responsible is someone close to you, but if that person knew you were starting to piece together that night…”
I swallowed, looking away. My memories were dangerous, but they were also the key to the truth. I shook my head as if I could shake off the fear starting to cling to my skin.