men on the board. She waved at them, looking at me. “I do think it’s horrid how they’ve ignored Mr. Sebastian’s history, and it’s not just with your family. Mr. Sebastian is a regular visitor to these meetings. Everyone up here knows that he’s the problem, even though I highly doubt that you and your brother are saints. A certain house that burned down where no one could prove that it was by your hands is one example that comes to mind, but yes, in the grand scheme of things, the problem is Mr. Sebastian. However, the other problem for us is his father. Do you know what happens every time Mr. Sebastian comes in here?” She rubbed her finger against her thumb, grinning at me. “Money, Mason. His daddy comes in and writes a big-ass check for the school.”
“Shut it, Aggie. This kid is a straight shooter, so I’m telling him the facts, not like anyone else in here will argue this anyway.” She shot all of them a warning look before addressing me again, “You know what else his daddy does? He drops a lot of names, reminding us how connected he is, and this board does the same thing every time. We let him push us around—just like we’re going to let him do again. One, it’s good for the school, and that’s always our main priority, but the other reason is because his father will continue to support this school even after his son has graduated. Because we have endured so much shit for this kid, Mr. Sebastian will come back and support the college financially long into his life. The cycle will continue. His kids will be pricks, too, just like him, but he’ll come in and write a big check. That kid will be given a pass, over and over again. It’s the way of life for some of us here.”
She tapped her finger on the table and held it there. Her eyes looked right at me. They were alert, intelligent, and focused. One of her eyebrows lifted. “What are you going to do, Mr. Kade? You’re a hell of a football player, but that’s all you’re giving us. With all those politics and all that money, why would we choose you over Mr. Sebastian here? Give it to me straight, just like I did with you.” She leaned back and folded her arms over her chest. “Give me a good argument, so we can suspend your brother instead of expelling him.”
My eyebrows bunched forward. They already deemed him guilty. This meeting was about getting Sebastian suspended. Now, she was saying Logan could be saved?
I was taken aback, and so were the others, as their heads snapped to attention, craning to look at Miriam. She wasn’t looking at them, only at me.
She held out her hand to me before folding it back under her arm. “Let’s hear it, Mr. Kade. The floor is yours.”
Another new voice spoke up, coming into the room. This time, I closed my eyes. My shoulders sagged in relief.
He came up, his hand a comforting weight on my back, as he patted me there before clearing his throat. “May I sit beside my son, please?”
“Oh.” My coach stood abruptly and moved down a seat. “We’ve never met before. I’m Mason’s coach.”
They shook hands.
My father turned to the board. “I’d like the boys to both be excused.” He spoke right to the Miriam lady, “I believe I have what you’re asking for.”
Her lips pursed together before lifting into a knowing grin. She waved a finger at the other board members. “I say that’s fine with all of us here. Mason, Park, you both can go to the waiting lounge.”
Sebastian pushed up to his feet but didn’t move from the table. “What is going on here?”
“Nothing for you to worry about.” She gestured to the door. “When your father comes with his checkbook, you’ll let him know that he can contact my office directly. You can leave. Now.” She pinned me down with her gaze. “It was a pleasure, Mr. Kade. I am not bullshitting you when I say that I hope you’ll continue to have a promising future at Cain University and, hopefully, after you go on to your future pursuits. You’re a straight shooter, and we need more of them around here. You could be a real asset for the university.”
I nodded and started for the door.
“Mason,” my dad caught my arm, “don’t leave. I’d like to talk to you after this.”
“You’re going to make them keep Logan, right?”
“Of course.” He nodded. “That’s one thing I’ve always done well over the years. Sam looks ready to cry out there. She needs you.”
That was an understatement. I wanted to hug my dad, an emotion I hadn’t felt for a long time, but I went to the lounge.
Sebastian went ahead of me, so Sam and Nate were on their feet, waiting for me. She was fidgeting with her hands, watching Sebastian with a nervous look through the corner of her eye, before she saw me. Her whole body seemed to pause. Nate, too. They were both waiting to hear the decision.
I said, breaking out into a grin, “My dad will take care of it. Logan will probably just be suspended.”
“But…” Nate turned sharply to Sebastian, who stepped to his group in the far corner.
A bunch of his douchebag pals were there along with their girlfriends. I scanned the room, but there was no sight of his sister.
I said, “No. He’s still here.”
“But…” Nate sputtered some more, his face flushing red. His hands formed into fists before he roughly rubbed at his temples. “This is bullshit, Mason.” He raised his voice, pointing at Sebastian. “This is bullshit, Sebastian.”
His friends rallied around him.
One retorted, “Shove it, Monson. Our deal with you was between you and the house. You brought them in, not us.”
Nate’s arm went back down. “What are you talking about?”
“You left us.”
Another guy said, “You turned your back on us. The shit could’ve been handled in-house, but you didn’t give us a chance to fix the problem. Park gave you an ultimatum, and you left, like a bitch.”
“He was speaking for the house.”
“No,” a new guy, who was taller and bigger, spoke up.
He had a girl pressed against his side. Her arm was hanging off his arm folded over his chest.
“Park doesn’t speak for everyone in the house. He’s got a crew, yes, but not all of us would’ve followed him. You didn’t give us a chance to even decide that though. You ran to him.” He jerked his chin in my direction.
Nate’s eyebrows were permanently locked together. He was staring at the last speaker, almost fixated on him, before he asked, much quieter, “Are you for real? You would’ve backed me up on that issue?”
The big guy scoffed, jerking a shoulder up and down. “You’ll never know now. You’re out, Monson. We’re here to show support to the brother who didn’t hightail it out of the house.”
Nate glanced at me before his eyes slid down to the ground. His head hung there. He was going over everything they’d just said.
Sam pressed against my side, watching the exchange. I felt her trembling, and I swept a hand out to catch her on her hip. I anchored her to me. As soon as I did, her body calmed. She grew firm, as if taking my strength into her.
I met the bigger guy’s gaze and asked, “What’s your house policy on girls?”
“What are you talking about?” But the bigger guy glanced at Sam. He knew.
Sebastian looked back at his fraternity brother. He moved forward a step, getting between the two of us. “Stop meddling in our business, Kade.”
“None of us would be here if you hadn’t tried to meddle in mine.”
“Nate was our brother—”
I shot him down, “I’m not talking about Nate.”
“What are you talking about?” The big guy moved forward, brushing off the girl.
Sebastian shot him a nervous look.
The big guy didn’t care. He said to me, “What do you mean?”
“His politics.” I nodded in Sebastian’s direction. “He wanted to use my name and connections. He never said anything outright, but it was there. I know when a piece of shit is trying to manipulate me into being one of his patsies. That’s what I’m talking about.
A lot could be argued there. I was bringing up undercurrent dynamics, and most could pretend to be ignorant of them.
This guy didn’t. He nodded slowly, casting a side look at Sebastian. “That’s not what he said to us.”
“I’m the president, Clint.”
“No.” The big guy shook his head, turning to squarely face him. His arms folded over his massive chest again. “You were the president, but the house is gone.”
Sebastian sputtered, “Come on. We’re not really gone. All the old positions hold—”
“No.” His head moved forward. He was almost in Sebastian’s face. “They don’t. The old positions were disbanded when that house burned down, and we were given the ultimatum to remain as students and not as brothers or remain brothers but not students. You could’ve gone to another chapter. You didn’t. You chose to stay, but the old way burned down when the house did.”
“Clint—” Sebastian looked at the rest of their guys.
A few guys shuffled, showing their support for Sebastian. A lot of them didn’t. They didn’t move an inch. Their faces were impassive.
“Look, this is business we can deal with outside of here.” Clint skimmed over Sam, Nate, and me. “Especially now that new information has come forward.”
“Clint—” Sebastian started again, a more authoritative bark to his voice.
But the doors opened. My father, my coach, and Sebastian’s representative walked out. The board members were with them. They all paused in the waiting room to shake hands. My dad shook each member’s hand. All of them were grinning, even Sebastian’s representative.
Miriam was the first to leave, passing by me. She slowed and remarked, “I meant what I said in there. I do think you have a promising future, and your father just made it even more promising. Come and see me at my office sometime. I’d like to speak with you.”
Sebastian’s representative went to him. Their heads bent together before Sebastian reared back, shot me a hostile look, and stormed out. The rest of his friends, Clint included, followed behind at a more sedate pace. Everyone trickled out until it was Nate, Sam, my father, my coach, and me.
My father shook hands with my coach at the door.
My coach said to me, “Keep up with your off-season training, Mason. I’ll be seeing you.”
When he left, I asked my dad, “Logan’s okay?”
James let out a deep breath. “Yeah. He’s resting at the house?”
“I’d like to go see him, but yes, you’re both fine.”
“How much did you pay?”
James cringed. “A lot. Let’s just leave it there.” He clasped me on the arm and squeezed. “It’s good to see you, but I haven’t missed these meetings. You boys used to be hard on the bank account, and you still are.” He became somber. “I have a feeling things aren’t going to be just fine.”
He turned to Sam. “Can I talk to you in private for a quick second?”
She straightened, and her mouth opened slightly. “Sure. Uh, yeah.”
Nate and I followed them outside. James and Sam migrated toward his vehicle. Nate and I went to mine, but we didn’t get inside. We stayed there, leaning against it, as we watched James and Sam talking.
Nate mused, “So…it’s our move next?”
My eyes narrowed. I was studying Sam as she continued talking to my dad.
I murmured, “Yeah, it’s our move.”
Here we were.
Mason, Logan, Nate, and I were all in the living room, each in a different corner, as we looked at each other. There was a moment of silence. It was a few hours after the board meeting.
Logan hadn’t been ecstatic about Sebastian’s lack of punishment, but he couldn’t argue with only getting a suspension. James hadn’t stayed long. He’d come in, spent an hour talking with Mason and Logan, and taken off again. He mentioned he was going to Fallen Crest and seeing David, but I hadn’t asked. The less I knew about Analise, the better.
“Do I need to have a drink for this talk?” Logan broke the silence. He didn’t wait. He snapped his fingers at Nate. “My gaysome twosome, get me a beer.” He chucked a pillow at him.
Nate chucked it back. “You can walk. Get it yourself.”
Logan extended his middle finger.
Nate laughed and then the moment was done. They both quieted and turned to Mason and me. It was time. A shift happened in the air. It went from lighthearted and joking to a grave seriousness.
The butterflies started in my stomach. They weren’t the nervous kind. They were the kind where I wanted to puke and run for the next four days straight. The showdown with Sebastian wasn’t going to be pretty. I flattened my hand against my stomach, trying to calm those butterflies. I couldn’t lose anyone. That was all I was worried about.
“Okay.” Mason sat forward.
Everyone tuned into him.
He swept his gaze over the group, lingering on me for a moment. A dark emotion passed in his depths, but I couldn’t name it. My mouth became dry.
“We have to move against Sebastian.” Mason seemed unwilling to say more. He looked at Nate, Logan, and me again before he stood up.
I asked, “Where are you going?”
Mason stopped in the hallway to his room. He said to me, “I’m getting everything I have on Sebastian. It’s time to share it with you guys.”
“You have stuff on him?” Heat flared from Logan.
But Mason didn’t respond. He returned a moment later with a box in his hand. Putting it down on the coffee table, he stood back and said, “I didn’t just hire security for Sam. I hired a private investigator to look into Sebastian. He’s connected, and I wanted to know how connected.”
Nate pulled some photos from the box, musing, “You mean, to whom he’s connected, right?”
“Holy shit,” Logan muttered under his breath. He pulled out a pile of papers. His forehead wrinkled. The sides of his mouth turned down. “There are some big names here, big brother. Who did you hire for this job?”
Mason sat down again. “The same guy Dad uses.”
“Right on.” Logan bobbed his head. “Are you the future Mrs. James Kade? Does Analise have her throne threatened by his own son?” Logan winked at me. “Not to be a dick, but Mama Psychopath scares the shit out of me. I don’t think I’d be up for another round against her. I think we were safe to escape with our clothes on our backs from the first round against her.”
I reached inside the box when I saw a picture of Garrett. He was with my professor, the same one who said she already knew him. That wasn’t the surprising part of it. What caught my eye was the other person in the photo.
I showed it to Mason. “This was taken when they were in college?”
Mason was waiting for me. He nodded, his voice quiet, as he said, “Yes.”
I pointed at the other female. “Is that who I think it is?”
“She went to college with Garrett.”
“That wasn’t an answer.” I didn’t need him to tell me though. I knew who it was.
Logan asked, “Who is it?”
Another hush of silence fell over the room.
Logan said quietly, “Are you sure?”
Nate darted him a look. “Dude.”
I shook my head. “It’s okay.” And it was.
I already knew that Analise and Garrett went to college together. It wasn’t just the three of them in the photograph. She was the one I’d singled out, but as I looked over it, I picked out Sharon, Garrett’s now wife, Sebastian’s father, and others. They