were posing for a group photograph somewhere. It was sunny. Most of them wore sunglasses. They were all dressed for warm weather in tank tops, T-shirts, shorts, and loose skirts for the girls.
I couldn’t stop looking at my mother.
Her black hair was pulled up into a braid. She was smiling, but unlike the others, there were no sunglasses to block her eyes. She was looking sideways, up at Garrett, with her hand resting over her stomach. He was standing next to her but not looking at her. His shoulder was forward, so his back was turned slightly toward her, and he had his arm around Sharon’s shoulders. His head was angled down, like he’d just shared a secret with her.
Analise wasn’t showing, but a sixth sense told me that she was pregnant.
That was me.
I glanced to Mason.
He’d been watching me the whole time, and he nodded. “The PI thought so, too. The timing’s right.”
I was speechless.
“What?” Nate asked us.
Logan skirted between the two of us. “What’s going on?”
I handed him the picture. “I think my mom was pregnant there.”
He looked at it and hooted in laughter. “Your mom was sneaky. Holy shitola. And he’s still with the other chick. That’s his wife now, right?”
I nodded as he passed it to Nate.
“Oh, man.” Nate shook his head. “Wow. That’s…” He said to me, “Sorry, Sam. That’s gotta be weird to see.”
It was. A lump was clogging my throat, but I shrugged. “I’m fine.”
I knew it. I heard about it, but the proof was right there. Garrett was still with Sharon. He cheated on her, like how she’d cheated on him later. And Analise…it was just further proof about what type of person she was.
I’d come from two cheaters. I was a product of them.
I felt like I’d been gut-punched, and I couldn’t breathe for a moment.
“Sam,” Mason softly said my name.
He was going to reassure me, but I didn’t want that right now. I knew what Analise was capable of. Tears stung my eyelids, wanting to be shed, but I refused to let them free. I refused to cry over her. This wasn’t just about what she did, but what she’d continued to do, what she had done to me all my life.
Lie. Cheat. Hurt. Destroy.
That was my legacy. That was where I’d come from.
“Sam, stop.” Mason came over. His hands slid under me.
He was going to pick me up, but I pushed him.
“Stop.” I scrambled to my feet and scooted away. My arms crossed over my chest. I couldn’t stop looking at that photograph.
“Sam. Come on.”
Logan and Nate grew quiet. Nate was still holding the photograph, but Logan grabbed it from him and ripped it in two.
He stood, showing me both pieces. “See? Whatever’s in your head, shove it out, Sam. This piece of shit isn’t you.” He gripped the photo above Analise’s head and ripped it again. She was torn in half. “I was joking before. I’ll take your mom on any day of the week. I know Mason’s ahead of me, and Nate’s with us, too. Stop thinking.” He showed me the ripped pieces again. “This isn’t you.”
I looked at Mason. I didn’t know what I needed, but he’d have it. He always did, and he came to me now. He pulled me into his arms and sat down on the chair behind him.
I was cradled on his lap as he spoke, “I have to tell you guys what my PI uncovered, and some of it has to do with that photograph.”
“The one I shredded just now?”
“Oh.” Logan looked at it again. “Oops.”
Nate pulled out some negatives from the box. “We’re good. If we need it, I bet we can get it again.”
Logan’s head lifted. His shoulders bounced up. “Never mind me as I go to burn this piece of shit, and yes, I mean literally. Analise is a piece of shit.”
“Logan,” Mason called after him.
He was heading to the kitchen but backtracked. “Yeah?”
“Stay here for a bit. You all need to hear this just so you know what we’re going up against.”
Logan’s eyebrows locked forward together. “That doesn’t sound good.”
Mason added, “Because it’s not. Park Sebastian is connected in ways that we can’t fathom, but we have a card on our side.” He grew quiet.
I was perched on his lap, listening, when Logan and Nate both looked at me. Their gazes stopped and settled on me. I felt Mason’s attention before I realized he was staring right at me, too. Those butterflies picked up once more, and I swallowed that lump.
I said, “Okay. What do I do?”
And an hour later, the plan was hatched, but things needed to be smoothed over between Mason and me. By an unspoken agreement, we both got up and headed for his room.
Mason closed the door behind us, and I went straight for the bed. Sinking down on his bed, I picked at my shirt while he stood away from me, studying me.
He asked softly, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
That wasn’t the question. I had to. I was their only in.
I sighed and looked up at him. “Ask me what you really want to know.”
There was an elephant in the room with us, and both of us hadn’t talked about it over the last week. Logan’s ass-kicking put everything on halt, but here it was. Here we were. It had to be talked about before we could take Park Sebastian down.
Mason let out a soft sigh, sitting on the bed beside me. It sunk under from his weight. I waited, expecting his hand to cover my knee, but it didn’t. He sat next to me. His side touched me, but he didn’t reach over. In some ways, that felt like a rejection. I yearned for it. I could relax into it, feeling the weight of his hand and arm over me in bed. He shielded me just by touching me. Without it now, I felt cold.
A shiver racked through me. Goose bumps appeared on my skin, but it wasn’t from the weather.
“Sam,” he started, leaning forward. His elbows rested on his knees, and his head bent over them. He clasped his hands together, forming one big fist, and he reached up, his forehead touching them for a split moment. “Fuck.” He expelled a deep breath. “Why did you lie to me?”
There it was—my deceit.
I shot back, “Why did you lie to me?”
“What?” He shifted, looking at me.
I raised my chin. “You heard me. You lied, too.”
“I lied for your protection.”
I felt bad about it—at first. Then, I started thinking, and the anger I shoved down was coming up. Mason was addressing it, which meant all those emotions could finally be dealt with.
I said, “You lied to me, too. You hired security.”
I ignored that. “You hired a private investigator.”
“I did that for—”
It didn’t matter. I clipped my head from side to side. “No way, buddy.”
His lip twitched up. “Buddy?”
“I was protecting you, just like you were protecting me. And I know you. You always think you have to protect Logan and me. Well, back up because, this time, it was us taking care of you. You can’t do anything. Your football career is like you’re a politician. One wrong move, and you’re done. That means, it was up to us, and you have no room to judge Logan or me about how we’ve been trying to take care of you.” I stopped for a breath before I kept going, “It’s because we love yo—”
Mason slammed his mouth to mine.
That shut me up.
The hunger took over. I was lifting my arms around his neck as he was pulling me onto his lap. My legs opened, straddling him, and Mason swept a hand under my shirt. His touch was addictive. My mouth opened, answering his back. He was demanding. His tongue went in, but mine was there. I was battling him. I wanted as much of him as he wanted of me. Desire and lust took over, shutting my mind down.
All the heated accusations.
I could protect him like he’d protected me.
All those statements melted away.
It was him and me. We were together on the same page again.
Mason rolled me over and laid me down. His lips were still on mine as he held himself above me. His weight wasn’t on me and I grabbed for him. I wanted it there. That was home to me, but he shook his head. I felt him lifting his head and caught the back of his head. My fingers twisted into his hair. I held him there. I still wanted him. I wasn’t done.
Mason pulled up, lifting me with him. I was moved to a sitting position, my hand still in his hair.
He gazed at me, smiling, raking his eyes all over me. “Sam.”
“Enough talking.” I tried to pull him back down. “I want you.”
“I know.” His hand grazed down my arm and took my hand in his. He pulled my other one from his hair, and he held on to it, entwining our fingers. “But you’re right. I wanted to tell you that.”
“What?” The addiction to having him inside of me was overwhelming, but I shoved it back, slightly. Some logic filtered in. I gaped at him. “You’re saying that I was right.”
“You were right.”
He waited for my reaction.
“Well, it’s about time.” My hand reached for him again.
He laughed, pinning my hand down. “I’m trying to tell you that you were right. I was wrong. I shouldn’t have kept the security guy or the PI from you guys.”
“Why did you?”
Mason grew quiet, thoughtful. He pulled his hand back and moved so that he was sitting next to me instead of holding himself above me. Wrapping an arm around me, he pulled me up so that I was straddling him again. I reached above him, grabbing on to the headboard. Mason held my gaze. His hands grabbed my arms, but he only held on to them. He didn’t move them back. He didn’t take over our position. I was dominating him, and in a small way, a thrill wound through me.
He lifted a shoulder. “I didn’t know what I would find. I don’t have a good reason for keeping you or Logan in the dark. I mean, all of this happened because of me. I wanted both of you to enjoy your first semester at college as normal students—or as normal as you could. All of this was because of me. I went against Sebastian last year, not you guys. I just pulled you into it with me.”
“But, Mason,” I murmured, my insides rolling over into mush. “We’re with you. When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.”
“I know.” He frowned. Regret flared over his face. “I-it was another battle because of me, you know? Yes, you had to deal with some shit because of your mom, but that stopped when you moved out. You were done and away from her. It all kicked up again because of me. She was trying to break us up, and you went to battle for me. The shit happened with Kate. That gutted me, what they did to you. That was all because of me. And again, with Broudou. Do you know how it killed me that he wanted to hurt you because of the mere fact that you were my girlfriend? None of that would’ve happened if you hadn’t been with me.
“I just…I wanted you to be normal for a little bit. I always get in some war. I always will. I know that, because it’s me. People try to dominate me, and you know me, that shit won’t fly. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know there will be more battles, more fights, more of you getting hurt.” His hand brushed the side of my face.
I closed my eyes, moving into his touch.
He slid his hands over my cheek and cupped the side of my face. His thumb brushed back and forth over my skin. He said, “I’m too selfish to let you go, but I’m selfless enough that I will always protect you.” He leaned forward, pressing a kiss to my lips. He breathed there, saying, “Because that’s my job. I will love you. I will take care of you. I will worry about you, and I will do everything in my being to make sure you are okay.”
“Mason,” I started.
He tugged my lips down, back to his. “I know that we’re going into this together. I know we’re equal, but let me protect you. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
My fingers slid into his hair, cupping both sides of his face, and I leaned back. “You and me.”
He nodded, his eyes lit up with love. “You and me.”
“We protect each other.”
He nodded again. “We do.”
“And you’re not mad at me because I didn’t tell you about Summer right away?”
“No.” His eyes closed for a moment. His forehead rested against mine. “I did the same to you. I lied to you, too.”
“Okay.” I nodded to myself. “As long as I know you’re aware that you fucked up.”
The corner of his mouth curved up. “I fucked up?”
I gave another nod with a stern look on my face. “You did. You completely fucked up.”
“Oh, yeah?” The other side of his mouth lifted into a playful grin. He started to lean toward me.
I leaned back until my head rested against his knees. I was flushed, growing warm, as a tingle of excitement started.
Mason laughed and opened his legs from beneath me so I was on the bed. He shifted so he was above me. His hand brushed over my forehead, tucking my hair back. He grinned at me, and his eyes held mine. And he was doing what he always did.
He was looking into me.
He was reading my insides.
He murmured, “I fucked up, huh?”
“Completely.” I closed my eyes.
His lips touched over mine again, a soft caress.
“Totally,” I added.
“I won’t do it again.”
“You’d better not.”
He pressed harder. His kiss grew more commanding.
I took hold of his face. He started to pull away, another teasing comment on his lips, but I stopped him. I tugged him to me, and I took over the kiss.
It was time to show him how much I loved him, and so I did.
The mission was to get invited to Park Sebastian’s party.
I’d accepted the mission, and when I returned to my dorm room the next morning, I had no idea how to do the impossible. I walked in, saw the bare desk, the empty closet, the empty dresser drawers, the one box on the floor, and the bag on the stripped bed. Summer sat beside it. She pushed it aside and folded her hands in her lap. She looked down at her lap for a split second before lifting her gaze again, biting down on her lip and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Summer? What’s going on?”
“This was all a lie.” Her voice was trembling, and she wouldn’t look at me. She kept her head down. “But I can’t participate in this anymore.”
“What do you mean? You already came clean.” My insides were twisting. I felt like I was approaching a wounded animal, and I proceeded inside with caution, closing the door with a soft click. “I know you’re Sebastian’s sister.”
“No, Sam.” She wiped a hand over her cheek. Wetness glistened from the top of her palm as it went back to her lap. “All of it was a lie. I wasn’t even going to come to college. I came because Park