He flinched, and my stomach tumbled. I hated that I actually felt sorry for that. “Oh, God,” he said. “Syd, baby, I’m so—”
“Don’t say it!” My voice cracked. A tear snuck out and I wiped at it angrily. “You have never lied me to before. Never! But you lied about her, and he came here because of your inability to keep your dick in your pants for five seconds!” That was a low blow. I knew that. I also knew that what Zach had done really wasn’t Kyler’s fault, but I was hurt. I was destroyed, and I wanted him to hurt as much as I did. “Tell me this. Did you use a condom with her earlier? Did you fuck her face to face? Or is the whole ‘doing it from behind’ just another lie? God, you must think I’m the stupidest chick alive because I believed that.”
Kyler looked like I’d kicked him in the junk. “What? No. I don’t think that, and that wasn’t a lie, Syd. I—”
“It doesn’t matter.” I drew in a sharp breath, and it hurt as it scorched my throat. “I’m a lot of things, but I’m not that stupid.”
Before he could say anything else, a stranger’s voice rang out from downstairs—a police officer’s—and I stepped forward, my entire body trembling. “You were right, Kyler.” Tears clogged my throat. “I do deserve better than this.”
I would’ve preferred a kick in the junk than to be standing before Syd, to see her in so much pain, and to know that I was the cause of it. Some of it was my fault. Hell, a lot of it was, and I would gladly have walked through a pit of rattlesnakes to take back those things.
Zach had come here because of what’d happened between Sasha and me well over a year ago. The psychotic SOB had taken his issues with me out on Syd, and fuck if that didn’t slaughter me. I wished I’d told Sasha no when she’d asked me to help her tarp up her windows. I should’ve been here to protect Syd, not fucking around with broken windows and avoiding Sasha’s nonstop innuendos. Yeah, Sasha would’ve been down for a quickie. That girl would always be down for anything, anytime, but that didn’t happen. Hell, no.
But had it happened before?
Yeah, it had.
I desperately searched my memories for what I’d told Syd. Had I lied about Sasha, or had I skipped around the question? Either way, I hadn’t come out with the whole truth. The damage was done. It was too late. I saw it in Syd’s eyes, heard it in her voice.
Syd turned away at the sound of approaching footsteps. The police were yelling something. I barely heard them. The world that’d crashed down on me outside was still falling apart. She was quiet, but her shoulders shook, and I knew if she faced me now, tears would streak her face. I wanted nothing more than to go to her. I started toward her, because I couldn’t bear to see her like this. No matter what fucked-up shit I’d done in my past, I couldn’t stand this. There had to be a way to make this better.
I made it about a foot.
Tackled from behind, my arms were yanked behind me and I was in handcuffs in less than a second. Probably had to do with the fact there was a half-dead guy downstairs and the cop had no idea who had done what here. With my cheek smashed into the floor, I cursed under my breath.
“Wait!” Syd’s shocked voice erupted, and I forced my chin up. Confusion poured into her pale face. “He’s not the one who needs to be handcuffed. He’s—”
“Just stay back, ma’am, until we have this situation under control.” The officer yanked me up, and the muscles in my arms and back protested, causing me to grunt.
Syd’s teary eyes went wide with panic. “You’re hurting him! Oh, God, please stop. He’s the one who called you.”
This really didn’t feel good, but in a sick way, I welcomed the pain. It dulled the burning in my gut. Another officer barreled into the foyer, causing Syd to jump. Silver ornaments on the tree rattled. A bulb fell to the floor, shattering. The second officer spotted the gun where Syd had left it on the floor. He hurried over, pushing it away from Syd with his booted foot.
The first officer barked orders and the story came out in a rush of words—Syd coming home to find two guys messing with the tires on my SUV, the one guy running off and Zach telling her that he wanted to scare her. She left out the part about Sasha and how her lip had ended up split, but those answers came out when the officers took the handcuffs off me and the EMTs rolled into the house.
Apparently Zach was moving around. Too bad.
I tried to keep an eye on Syd as an EMT checked her out while I told the officers about Zach, but when she winced at the guy probing at her lip, I didn’t think twice. I started toward her.
“She’s fine, son.” The officer clamped a hand down on my shoulder. “She’s being taken care of. The best thing you can do for her is to give me all the information you can. Start from the beginning.”
I was seconds from telling the officer to go fuck himself, but my gaze locked with Syd’s. A moment stretched into eternity, and then her lashes lowered. Tears clung to them like crystals—tears I knew weren’t from the busted lip.
I hated myself in that moment more than I ever had before.
Rubbing my palm over my jaw, I turned back and focused on the officer. I started from the beginning, with the snowmobile. So many officers moved in and out of the house—too many, it seemed—and I lost sight of Syd for a little while. I knew she hated my guts right now, rightfully deserved, but it made me itchy to not know where she was and if she was okay.
She reappeared with the EMT, a bag of ice pressed to her lower jaw. An officer blocked her from my view, getting her statement.
That…hell, that was the worst part of all of this, listening to her tell the officer what’d happened. And when her voice wavered, it was like a punch to the chest. Syd was so incredibly strong and brave, but she should never have had to face something like this.
I’d never thought I’d be the one to put her in danger. For years, I’d been the one always looking out for her—keeping her away from trouble. I just didn’t think that I’d be the cause of any now.
I don’t know how much time passed as we were interviewed. I did hear that Zach would be carted off to jail after making a pit-stop at the hospital. He had also given up his friend. The officer assured us that both of them would be charged with breaking and entering, vandalism, and assault, and it could even go as far as attempted murder with the buckshot-through-the-window thing. Served the stupid bastard right if he ended up spending most of his life behind bars.
The officers were still milling around, making it impossible to talk to Syd. I didn’t think I could explain myself in any way that would make things better, but I needed to apologize for this mess, and to let her know I never meant for her to get hurt in any way.
I caught sight of her in the kitchen, walking side by side with a young cop. He had a hand on her shoulder and she was without the ice bag. I doubted she should’ve gotten rid of the ice that quickly.
Startled by the sound of her father’s voice, I whirled toward the living room. What was he doing here? A second later, a bear of a man came through the door. Syd’s father had scared me shitless as a kid. Mr. Bell was the kind of man who shopped at the Big-and-Tall section and could give someone a look that made most guys want to run for the hills. He drew up short, midway through yanking off his wool gloves, when he saw his daughter. A look of horror flashed across his face, and then his cheeks went red with anger.
His gaze moved from his daughter to me, and I wanted to crawl into a fucking hole. I was a big, motherfucking letdown. I’d let his daughter get hurt. I couldn’t be more of a fuck-up than that.
A second later, a smaller figure darted around Mr. Bell. Syd’s mom looked like a child standing next to her husband. Syd’s “vertical challenge” was all from her mom, as were the thick, dark hair and heart-shaped face. The startling blue eyes were her father’s, though.
“Baby,” Mrs. Bell cried out, nearly knocking an officer over in her rush to get to her daughter. “Oh, my God, what happened? Look at you. What happened?”
Syd broke away from the cop and met her mom halfway, throwing her arms around her.
The sound of my name was like dropping steel down my spine. I turned to her father and, in that short period of time, Sydney and her mother were gone.
Mr. Bell took a step forward, and he was one of the few men in this world who made me feel about an inch tall. “What in the hell happened to my daughter?”
Being home was a relief, standing in my heated old bedroom, surrounded by all my things from childhood straight up to my teen years. But I’d been in this funk since we’d arrived in Hagerstown three days ago.
I needed to get peppy or something. Christmas Eve was in two days, and it’d always been my favorite holiday—the food, the family, the presents—everything about it.
My bedroom was weird in a way, like a time capsule. Never bothered me before, but right now? I wanted to take a sledgehammer to the room. I was embarrassed by the brown and white teddy bears stacked near the pillows. I picked one up, a red bear Kyler had given me for my eleventh birthday. Pain sliced my chest, and I placed the bear back down and turned away from my bed. I was bored with the overstocked bookcases. I couldn’t care less about the ribbons Mom had tacked on the wall above my desk, hanging in a line next to the academic awards I’d accumulated throughout high school. There were newspaper cuttings of the Dean’s List. I started to straighten one of the frames, but stopped and left it the way it was. Crooked. Unbalanced. Imperfect.
Turning away from the awards, ribbons, and clippings, I picked up my old cell phone off the bed and slipped it into my pocket. I headed downstairs, finding Mom in the kitchen. Dad was still at the office. Some things never changed, including his late nights.
The whole lower floor smelled like apple pie and cinnamon—usually my favorite. Mom looked up from the magazine she was poring over as I dropped into the seat in front of her. “Are you still going out with Andrea tonight?”
Dropping my elbows on the table, I put my chin in my hands. “Yeah, she’s driving up from Frederick and picking me up in a little bit. We’re going to grab dinner.” And I had a feeling she’d be visiting Tanner later, who was home in Smithsburg, about ten minutes away.
“Good.” Mom winked. “I didn’t put enough chicken in the oven to feed you and your father.”
She laughed softly as she flipped a page. “Has your lip been bothering you?”
“No. It’s fine.” And it practically was. Just a little mark was on it, near the corner, and my jaw didn’t hurt anymore. “I hope you’re not worrying about it.”
“Of course I’m worrying about it. What you went through?” She took a deep breath and closed the magazine. Looking up, she fixed dark eyes on me. “Honey, I—”
“I really don’t want to talk about it.” I placed my hands on the kitchen table. “I’m fine. It’s over. In the past.”