“I’m fine,” I insist, and Leti’s hand lands on my shoulder, his gaze full of pity that makes me roll my eyes.
“You know who’s not fine?” Joel asks. “The guy on the floor with the dislocated shoulder. Is anyone going to help me up and take me to the hospital?”
“Why would we do that when there’s IHOP waiting to be eaten?” I ask, and Rowan chuckles before releasing me and teaming with Leti to lift him up.
IN THE WAITING room of the hospital, I’m sitting between Joel and Rowan with Leti on Rowan’s other side. My legs are crossed and there’s a plate of pancakes on my lap that is very quickly turning into a plate of just syrup. I offered Rowan a bite, but she said the scent of antiseptic stole her appetite. It probably would have stolen mine too if my stomach didn’t feel like it was trying to eat itself.
“What happened to your hands?” I ask Joel, too curious to keep my thoughts to myself.
He glances at Rowan, and I catch her staring at the floor. She already knows, but whatever happened, she’s kept it from me.
“Cody’s face,” Joel answers, his tone loaded with latent aggression I’m finally beginning to feel.
“Did you make him sorry?” I ask, and Leti answers before anyone else has a chance to.
“He nearly killed him.” When I lean forward to search Leti’s expression, he adds, “I went out to show Mark the bus . . . Shawn and Mike had to carry Cody out. He looked like Rocky Balboa decided to use his face as a punching bag.”
“He wouldn’t stop talking,” Joel explains unapologetically.
I find myself gently unwrapping the bandages from his hands, and Joel watches me do it, not pulling away from me. I frown when I see the angry red scratches and taped stitches. “You didn’t have to do that . . .”
“Yeah, I did,” he says matter-of-factly.
I release my tender hold on his hands and withdraw my attention, not sure how to feel about what Joel did for me. I carve off more pancakes and push them into my mouth, trying to make sense of it. What could he possibly have to gain from getting involved?
A nurse comes to retrieve Joel with her eyes buried in a clipboard, but when they lift, the friendly smile falls from her face. With his mohawk, torn jeans, and battered knuckles, he’s a disheveled mess. He’s also the epitome of a bad boy, and I’m trying to ignore the fact that he’s hot as hell.
She clears her throat. “Joel Gibbon?”
Joel nods his head in my direction. “Take her first.”
I cough around a throatful of pancakes. The nurse eyes me until her gaze lands on my wrists, and an embarrassed flame ignites beneath my skin.
“I’m fine,” I growl at Joel under my breath.
“Yeah, whatever,” he says, standing up and waiting for me with agitated impatience. “Waiting on you, Deandra.”
I narrow my eyes and stand up, and Rowan and Leti are quick to follow my lead, with Joel taking up the rear. The four of us enter a curtained ER cubicle, where I’m prescribed pain medication for my bruised wrists and given a handful of domestic abuse pamphlets, and Joel is lectured about busting through doors with his shoulders and breaking faces with his fists. He’s taken for X-rays that determine his shoulder is just badly bruised, and then he’s prescribed his own pain medication, which we pick up on our way back to my apartment.
I ignore him as we climb the stairs of my apartment building and navigate the hallways to my front door. Once inside, I attempt to head straight to my room, but he’s right on my heels.
“Go away, Joel,” I order as I turn a glare on him.
“Not until you talk to me.”
Rowan clears her throat and begins backing toward the front door. “I’m going to go pick up some groceries.” She grabs Leti’s sleeve and drags him out with her, and I scowl at them even after the door closes between us.
With my arms crossed over my chest, I shoot Joel a look of impatience and wait for him to say whatever the hell he needs to say. But he just stares right back at me, engaging me in a silent standoff that I don’t stand a chance of winning.
“What do you want from me?” I snap.
His trained expression reveals nothing. “Why do you think I want something from you?”
Because that’s what boys do. They pretend to give a shit about you, but only because they want something. And then when they don’t get it, they try to take it anyway.
My fingertips are absent-mindedly nursing my wrists when Joel gently draws my hands toward him. His thumbs caress my pulse points while he studies my bruises, and he wears a look of such sincere sympathy that I almost choke up. “He shouldn’t have done this to you.”
I pull my hands away and try to slam the lid back on my emotions, resenting Joel for bringing them to the surface. I spent all yesterday nearing tears and choking them back down, and if he makes me break down now, all of that effort will have been for nothing. “I shouldn’t have led him on.”
It’s the truth, but Joel’s brows pull down in a picture of contempt that makes me look away from him. “Are you seriously standing there excusing what he did to you?”
I shrug my shoulders. I’m not sure what the hell I’m doing, but fighting and lying seems easier than telling the truth and crying.
“Dee,” Joel pleads, his slender fingers coming to rest on my shoulder, “you know nothing that happened was your fault, right? Cody is a piece of shit. The entire band voted him out. It was unanimous. It wasn’t even a fucking question.”