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Taste for Trouble by Susan Sey Amazon
If you missed the first two chapters, you can find them here:
Damn, she’s pretty. Then again, she’s the first girl I’ve had my hands on in almost two years. She lay there on top of me for a second looking down at me and I immediately knew who she was. I’ll never forget her. But the last time we met… it wasn’t a good night for her. And she would probably be uncomfortable if I brought it up. I don’t want to get sent back to the city. I want to be here. I want to work with these kids. I want to have this damn tracking bracelet off my leg so I can go back to some semblance of a normal life. I just want to be Pete.
I wish the fuck I knew who Pete is. I had a pretty good idea of what my life would be like, until my brother Matt got sick. Then things got all fucked up.
Then I did what I did and ended up in jail. It was all my fault and I take full responsibility for it but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck ass.
She has green eyes and the same freckles I remember across the bridge of her nose. Shit. I can’t even think about things like that. If I were at home, I would ask her out to dinner. I would tell her about how I know her. I would find out if she’s all right. Then I would ask her out on a date. But here, I’m nothing. Nothing but a man who would get his nuts chopped off for talking to her. I have no doubts that her father was serious. Dead serious. I adjust my junk and keep moving.
But then she looks over at me, glancing over her shoulder. Her face colors, and my heart starts to do a little pitter patter in my chest. I’m an ex-con who’s still on house arrest, and she’s looking at me like I’m a real live man? She licks her lips and turns away to talk to someone else. I want her to look at me again.
Her blond hair is damp and it’s tangled up into a messy knot on top of her head. She’s not wearing any make up. The women I know paint their faces until they’re almost unrecognizable when they get out of the shower. This one is all natural. And I like it. I shouldn’t. But I do. I could look at her all day.
There was a second there when she fell on top of me that she looked fearful. Was that because of what happened to her? Does she even remember me?
But then a motorized wheel chair zips toward me. “Hold on there, Speedy Gonzales,” I say, stepping in front of him. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
The young man is blond and fair and he has a piece of plastic sticking out of his neck. He signs to me, but his movements are jerky and off balance. They’re not fluid like sign language usually is. Marshmallows, he spells with his fingers. He jerks his crooked finger toward where someone is lighting a campfire.
I wonder if this is the boy I’m supposed to work with. An older woman runs up behind him, her breaths heaving from her. “Sorry,” she pants, clutching her side. “He’s hard to keep up with in that chair.” She extends a hand. “I’m Andrea. And this is my son, Karl. Karl’s excited to be a camper this year.” I shake hands with her and drop down in front of Karl.
“You can hear, right, Karl?” I ask, signing to him. He nods and smiles, but it’s jerky and crooked. He’s so damn excited he can barely sit still in his chair.
I can hear, he signs. I just can’t talk.
I nod. I get it. “How old are you?” I ask.
Fifteen. He looks around me toward the camp fire. I think he really wants to get to where the other kids are congregating.
“Such a lovely age,” his mother says, rolling her eyes.
He’s fifteen? He can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. I step out of his way. “Go get ‘em, Gonzales,” I say, nodding my head toward the fire. He grins and rolls away from me, stopping beside where Reagan is now setting up chairs by the fire.
“I think he already has a crush on Reagan,” she admits.
“Reagan?” I ask. My Reagan?
She arches a brow at me. “The owner’s daughter.”
Reagan is Caster’s daughter? All this time My Reagan’s father has been my pro bono attorney? Shit. This just got even more convoluted. I shake it away and I look at Gonzo’s mom. “Can you tell me a little about his challenges so I know what I’m working with?” I ask.
“Not what you’re working with,” she corrects. “Who you’re working with.”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” I start.
She lays a hand on my arm. “Where did you learn to sign?”
“My brother is deaf,” I say. She nods, taking in my tattoos and my piercings, which I couldn’t even get back in after I got out of jail. I had to get re-pierced last night, and they’re still sore. At least I don’t feel naked anymore. “I didn’t mean to insult your son,” I say. Now I feel bad.
“Karl’s only limitations are that he’s in a body that doesn’t do what he wants it to do, and that he can’t speak.” She looks at him across the clearing, her eyes full of love for her son. And exhaustion. “He still has all the desires and urges of a fifteen year old boy. There are just some things he can’t do.” She heaves a sigh. “He gets frustrated easily. That’s the hardest thing for him. His mind is sound and his body just won’t cooperate.”
I nod. I know what it feels like to be out of control. “Why don’t you take a break for a half hour or so?” I say. “I’ll go hang with Karl.”
Her eyes widen and she looks so excited that I wish I’d made the offer as soon as they arrived. “Really?” she asks.
I nod. “Have fun. I’ll take care of him.”
Tears fill her eyes and I realize how much this woman desperately needs a break.
“I’ll see you in thirty,” I say.
She nods and walks toward her cabin. She’s tired. And I can tell.
I walk toward the campfire. The sun has just barely set and there are only a few kids out here. “Hey Gonzo,” I say to Karl. He turns around and looks at me, his grin big and goofy and so fucking adorable that I already love this kid. “You giving Reagan a hard time?” I drop down to sit on a log that rims the fire.
She’s really pretty, he signs. He looks up at her, blinking his blue eyes, his face tilted toward hers. She smiles at him.
“What did he say?” she asks.
“He says you’re really pretty,” I translate.
He throws up his hands in protest. You’re not supposed to tell her!
Sorry, dude, I sign back, trying not to grin. If you’re going to talk about her, I’m going to have to tell her what you say. I grab his shoulder and squeeze. This is a rule my brothers came up with and we always stand by it. You don’t get to use sign language to talk about people. It’s for communication. So, unless you want her to know it, you better keep it to yourself.
Traitor, he signs. But he’s grinning.
Reagan blushes. But she says, “Thank you, Karl. I think you’re kind of cute, too.”
I’ve never seen a kid grin quite so big. She looks down at him. “Do you want to go with me to find some sticks for the fire?”
He nods, and he’s already moving, before she’s even ready to go.
“You think we should bring your mouth piece?” she asks, nodding her head toward me.
He signs to me. I got this. You stay here. He waggles his eyebrows at me.
Not a chance, dumbass, I say back. He laughs. It’s the first sound I’ve heard him make. She’s too old for you.
Maybe she likes younger men.
I look around like I’ve lost something. I don’t see any other men here. I see a pretty lady and a boy who’s hoping to get some action.
He grins and nods.
I laugh. She’s too old for you. So, lay off. We’ll find you a different one. One more your speed.
My speed is faster than you think.
She turns back from where she’s been walking in front of us. “Are you talking about my ass?” she asks. She doesn’t even crack a smile.
Gonzo points to me as if to say, “He was.”
She laughs and blushes again.
Traitor, I sign when she turns back around.
He laughs, jumping in his chair a little.
Now all I can do is stare at her ass. She’s cute. Like a fairy princess walking in the woods, picking up sticks. When her arms are full, she looks at Gonzo and says, “Can you be my hero and carry these back?”
He nods and lets her fill his lap up with sticks. He turns to take them to the fire, and leaves us standing there, gathering more of them. “Hurry back,” I call to him. He turns back and signs, Hands off my girl.
I hold my hands out to the side and then give him a thumbs up.
She turns to me and extends her hand. “I’m Reagan.”
She doesn’t remember me. Should I even remind her? She probably works hard on a daily basis to forget that night.
I take her hand in mine and heat shoots straight through me. And it’s not because it’s been two years since I’ve had a woman in my arms. There’s something about this girl. She jerks her hand back and looks into my eyes. I want to ask her if she felt that. She wipes her hands on her jeans, and I realize she was just pulling back because my hands are sweaty. I’m an idiot.
“Pete,” I say.
“Why do you call him Gonzo?” she asks.
“Why not?” I continue to pick up sticks.
“He’s a sweet boy,” she says.
“He’s a hormone on wheels,” I correct.
She laughs. “At least you see him as a normal young man. Most people see the chair.” She shakes her head and looks up at me. I feel like she’s looking directly into my soul. “What makes you different?” she asks.
You mean aside from my tats, piercings and the fact that I came from prison? I shrug. I look in his direction. He’s already on his way back. “I just see a boy who wants to be treated like one.” I call to him when he gets close. “Hey Gonzo,” I say. “Can you take another load?” He grins and nods. We load him up and he leaves again. I turn to her. “So, what makes you different, Reagan?” I ask. I want to touch her. But I don’t dare. So, I just look at her instead. I watch her lips and wait for her to explain the meaning of life to me.
He has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. It’s a little distracting, because his piercings draw your attention away from his eyes and then you have to find your way back. He has tattoos all the way up his arms, from his wrists to where his t-shirt breaks up the designs. Then they start again and go all the way up his neck. He’s broad and tall, and he’s a little intimidating. But he’s not, all at the same time. He saw me at my most vulnerable point, and he did exactly what I needed.
“I don’t think I’m different,” I say. “I’m just like every one of those kids.” She nods toward the cabins. “No better. No worse. Same fears. Same drives.” I shrug.
He nods slowly and starts to pick up sticks again. He has a tattoo on the back of his neck. It’s written in gothic, chunky letters and it says, SAM.
“Is Sam your girlfriend?” I blurt out. I immediately want to bite the words back, but they’re already out there.
“Sam?” he asks.
I rub the back of my neck, then point to his. “The tattoo.”
He smiles. “Oh, that.”
But he doesn’t elaborate. I feel like a dummy for even asking the first time. I’m not going to ask again.
“So, you’re home from college?” he asks. I can’t believe he doesn’t remember me.
“Where do you go?” he asks. He looks at me, waiting for my answer. And I don’t think I’ve ever had this much attention from a man that I actually want to talk to. He really cares about what I say. Or at least he wants me to think he does.
“NYU,” I reply. “Junior this year.”
“My brother goes to NYU.” He smiles. “Logan Reed?” he asks. But it’s a big school. The chance of me knowing his brother is small. But I know about all his brothers because I asked a lot of questions when I was looking for him.
I shake my head.
I shake my head again. The only time I have seen him was outside the prison yesterday, but never at school.
“All tatted up, like me.” He looks down at his arms, and I take the opportunity to look at his tattoos.
“Can I see?” I ask. I don’t want to be rude, but I really want to look at him. I don’t want to touch him, but I want to look.
He grins. “You can look, but you can’t touch,” he teases. It’s like he read my mind. My heart starts to thud. I’m the last person he has to worry about touching him. “Because I like my nuts exactly as they’re hanging.”
My face floods with heat. But I don’t let the opportunity to study the drawings on his skin pass me by. I look at the cross that has the word “Mom” written inside it. “What’s this one for?” I ask.
“My mom died a few years ago.”
He also has the word “Dad” with wings attached. “Your dad died too?” I ask.
“He left after our mom died.” He stills. He’s suddenly tense, and I hate that I asked.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I don’t want your sympathy, Princess,” he says.
I snort. “Princess?”
He nods, his gaze lingering on my eyes, then my lips. He licks his, and draws his piercing into his mouth to play with it with his tongue. “Princess,” he says slowly.
“You couldn’t be farther from the truth,” I say. He has me pegged all wrong.
“I doubt it.” He looks at me for a minute too long. My stomach flips.
But suddenly, I hear the crash of boots stomping through the woods. I look up and see my dad walking toward us, a scowl on his face, and he has the hatchet in his hand. Pete immediately crosses his hands in front of his lap and steps away from me.
“Go help with dinner,” Dad snaps at me. He glares at Pete.
“Yes, sir,” I say. I take the sticks Pete has in his arms and smile at him. “See you later,” I whisper.
“Don’t go,” he whispers back. “Who’s going to protect my nuts?”
“Princesses don’t do that.” I grin at him and walk away. It’s hard to do, but I don’t even look back over my shoulder.
If you missed Chapter One, you can find it here: https://tammyfalkner.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/unedited-chapter-one-of-ccc/
I don’t want to be back here. I didn’t miss jail at all last night. Not for a minute. And I don’t plan to be on the wrong side the bars again. Ever. But here I am, back where I never wanted to be. I’m outside the prison, but still… I’m wearing jeans, sneakers, a t-shirt, and a tracking bracelet on my ankle. The boys standing in line are still in prison garb. They haven’t been officially released from the youth program yet. But this volunteer program is their first step toward that.
Doors open in front of me and I step onto the bus, sliding into the front seat, pushing myself close to the window. I put my backpack with my meager belongings in the seat next to me, hoping the bus isn’t so crowded that someone has to sit with me.
A young man behind me sits forward in his seat. “You going to the farm, too?” he asks. His breath smells like he’s been eating the ass end out of a mule.
“Dude, sit back,” I grumble. I admit it. I’m a little hung over.
He leans back and I lay the back of my head against the window and stretch my legs along the length of the seat. But then his nose pops up near the crack between the seat and the window, right by my face. “You’re going to the farm, right?” He breathes heavily right by my ear. And it was two mules. Not just one ass that he ate. Good God, somebody better get him a Tic-Tac. I reach into my backpack and pull out a roll of breath mints, and pass him one. He pops it into his mouth and smiles.
“Yeah, I’m going to the farm,” I say quietly.
“Me too. Cool, isn’t it?” He grins. He’s even younger than me. I’d guess he’s eighteen, compared to my twenty-one.
“Yeah, cool,” I mutter.
“What were you in for?”
They know I was in prison? For some reason, I thought I was coming as a mentor of sorts. Not as an ex-con.
“Lay back and get some sleep,” I say, closing my eyes.
I really want to know what the kid was in for. But I would never ask. That would just be rude.
“I killed somebody,” he says. I open my eyes and see that he’s smiling. His eyes are a little maniacal, and they bounce from one place to another.
“Sure you did,” I mutter, but fuck it all… Now I’m intrigued.
“No, really,” he says. He’s suddenly excited, and he rubs his hands together. “Deader than a doornail.” He holds up his finger like it’s a gun and points it, then makes a pfewww sound with his mouth.
“Mm hmm,” I hum, closing my eyes again.
“Have you been there before?” he asks. He’s kind of like a puppy. A puppy that can kill people. Maybe a cocker spaniel. Those always were fucked up little dogs. My neighbor, Mrs. Connelly, had one and I used to walk it. That thing would bite you as quickly as it would look at you.
“Where?” I ask.
“The farm,” he says, getting all excited again. I hear him moving in his seat like he can’t sit still.
It’s actually called Cast-A-Way Farms, based on the brochures I saw yesterday. I force my eyes open. “No. Never been.”
“Me neither. But I know someone who went last year. He said it was nice. Except for the sick kids and the ones that are retarded.”
I fucking hate that word. “They’re not retarded,” I say. “They’re deaf. And some have MS. And some have autism. And lot of other things that make them special. But they’re not retarded.” I fucking hate labels. My brother, Logan, the one who is deaf, has been called more names than I can count.
“Oh, okay,” he says. He nods. “Okay.” He repeats himself.
“Don’t use that word again,” I warn.
“Okay,” he says. He nods, his head bobbing like a dashboard dog.
The bus driver gets on the bus and my parole officer enters, carrying his clipboard. He sits down in the seat opposite me and flips through his paperwork. He’s big and beefy and he’s packing. He’s dressed in a V-neck shirt that stretches tight across his shoulders, and khaki pants. He looks over at me and his brows draw together. “You Reed?” he asks.
I open my eyes. “Yes, sir,” I say. We actually met at the prison, but he must not remember.
“How’d you score this program?” he asks.
I shrug. “No idea.” I have a good idea it had something to do with Mr. Caster, but I don’t know what happened. He acts like this is an honor, or something.
His brows pucker again and he reaches for his clipboard. “You’re the one whose brother is deaf.”
I glare at him. “Yep.”
He nods and sets his clipboard to the side. “There will be a few hearing impaired kids at the camp. And there’s one boy who has MS and has a tracheostomy, so he can’t talk. You’ll be working with him as a translator.”
I nod. “Sounds good.”
“How long have you been signing?” he asks.
My brother lost his hearing when he was thirteen, and that was ten years ago. “About ten years?” I say. I’m not completely sure. I’ve been signing so long that I don’t even realize I’m doing it most of the time.
He turns so that his knees are facing me. “What were you in for?” he asks quietly.
I nod toward his clipboard. “You already know,” I say. I close my eyes again.
He grabs my foot and shakes it. I jerk my leg back. That’s something one of my brothers would do. “I’d rather you tell me.”
“Possession with intent,” I say quietly. I really don’t want Tic-Tac behind me to hear me.
He extends a hand to me. “My name’s Phil,” he says.
I grip his hand in mine. “Pete.”
“You’re not going to be any trouble, are you, Pete?” he asks.
“No, sir,” I reply. No trouble at all. I want to go home when this over.
He nods. “Fair enough. I may need for you to help me with some of the younger kids.” He jerks a thumb toward the back of the bus.
I nod. I’m the oldest one here, aside from Phil.
Phil gets up and sits down across from Tic-Tac and goes through the same drill. I see him do it with everyone. There are about ten young men on the bus, all under the age of eighteen, if I had to guess. There’s one younger boy who doesn’t look older than sixteen.
I heave a sigh and close my eyes. I cross my arms over my chest and try to sleep. If I’m correct, we have a few hours to go until we get to Cast-A-Way Farms.
The pool is wonderful. It’s too bad it’s surrounded by assholes. I squeal and cover my head when another one jumps into the water right beside me, drenching me with water, despite the fact that I specifically said I didn’t want to get wet. I have somewhere to be when I leave here.
Chase pops his head up out of the water and rests on his elbows right beside my head, his nose almost touching mine. “Didn’t get you wet, did I?” he asks. He looks at me just long enough to make me uncomfortable. Or make me want to punch him in the nose. I shrug to myself. Whichever comes first. He has been dropping these sexy hints ever since I went out to dinner with him two weeks ago. If I could do it with anyone, it wouldn’t be Chase Gerald. Besides, he doesn’t know what happened to me my first semester at college. Nobody knows about it, except for my family, Peter Reed, Rachel and the man who turned me off sex forever.
I want to tell Chase to fuck off, to tell him that he can just stop trying, because I’m never going to be the easy girl who will fall into bed with him. But I can’t tell him I was raped, because then he’ll look at me with pity. That’s the last thing I want.
I pretend like I didn’t hear his comment about getting wet. The type of wet he’s talking about isn’t even in my vocabulary. Chase grunts, and pulls himself from the water. I don’t know why I invited him over. He brought his buddies, and I don’t know which one of them gives me the creeps more. Even worse, they brought their girlfriends. These are the same girls who look at my little brother like he’s some kind of carnival side show.
Chase stands over me and shakes the water from his hair. His kneecap is directly beside my head. With a leg swipe, I could take him out…
His eyes narrow and I hear the rumble of a bus coming up the driveway. I stand up and grab my towel, dry off really quickly and then I pull my clothes on over my bathing suit. “Sorry, Chase. I have to go.”
“Are those the camp kids?” he asks.
I twist my hair up into a messy pony tail.
“Yep.” This is my favorite part of the summer. My dad has been holding his camps here since my brother was three, when we realized there wasn’t a safe place to send him to camp where he could be what he is – a normal little boy with autism.
The first year we did it, we invited only autistic kids. Through the years, it’s grown. Now we have kids with challenges like Down’s syndrome, autism, processing disorders and this year there’s even a group of young boys coming who are deaf. I’m excited. These boys need me. And they don’t threaten me. I don’t dream about them hurting me… Not like the others.
“Is that a prison van?” Chase asks.
“Yep,” I say.
Every year, my dad invites young men from the local youth detention center to come and volunteer at the camp. They’re not violent young men and are screened carefully, and they’ll come with their own director. But they all do have a criminal history. They get community service hours at the camp.
“Are you sure that’s safe?” Chase asks.
“Yep,” I say. I’d be more worried about Chase than I would them. “You guys can see yourselves out, right?” I ask over my shoulder, not really caring about their responses.
I step into my flip flops when I get to the gate and I see my dad coming toward me. “You ready to go meet the new campers?” he asks, dropping his arm around my shoulders. He’s one of very few people I allow to touch me. If anybody else grabbed me like he does, I would have to take him out. Dad smiles at me and kisses my forehead.
My mom comes around the corner of the house and catches up with us, and she has my brother Lincoln in tow. Link doesn’t like to hold hands with anyone, and he rarely looks anyone in the eye, but he looks like your average kid in every other way. Only he’s not average. He’s autistic. He speaks when he wants to speak, and when he doesn’t… well, there’s not much of a chance of getting anything out of him. We’ve had a lot of kids with autism at the camp and they all have different challenges, and not one is like another. I hold out my hand for Link to give me five. He grins in that sideways way he does, and it still makes my heart turn over even after all these years.
“The prison bus is here,” my mom warns.
“I’ll go talk to them,” my dad says. “You go unload the kids and help them get settled.”
I really want to go and find Pete, but instead I have to help settle kids into their cabins. Some of them have caregivers. Some of them don’t. Some of them have a parent with them. The ones who don’t will have a camp counselor assigned to their care. They’ll sleep with the boys and hang out with the boys and make sure they eat, drink, take their meds and shower. The counselors are all from the local hospital. Some are medical students. The youth offenders won’t be responsible for the kids’ needs at all. They’ll interact with them, but in a very small way.
My mom gives me a clipboard and we pin color coded name tags to all their shirts so we will know who the non-verbal ones are at all times. I read through the descriptions, see what their challenges are, and make notes in my head about each of their special needs.
The boys are always fun. We had girls here last month, and the girls are more of a challenge. They always have drama. Boys are just boys, and they want to ride the horses and swim in the pool and have a good time. They want to be boys in the most basic sense of the word. And this is where they can do it.
When the kids are all settled, I go to find my dad. He’s sitting on the top of a picnic table with his elbows on his knees, his hands dangling down between his thighs. He’s giving them the speech I’ve heard every year since I was eleven.
“You’ve been given a lot of responsibility, and I just hope you’re up to it,” he says. He holds up a single finger. I stand behind a tree and smile, because I know this part of the speech. “I have one rule,” he says. “If you break it, I’ll send you back to the center immediately.”
The young men all look at him with expectant faces. “My daughter is home for the summer from college. If you touch her, if you look at her, if you talk to her, if you think inappropriate thoughts about her, I will chop your nuts off while you sleep.” He picks up a hatchet he had on the picnic table for dramatic effect and slams it into the wood. He waits for a minute and I see the young men all ball into themselves. I cover my mouth to hold in a laugh. It’s always the same routine. He threatens and then they spend the week avoiding me.
I stand there a little longer, until I feel like he’s done, and then I get ready to go and talk to my dad. He’s with the parole officer so I wait. I turn and lift my foot to take a step, but the tip of my flip flop gets caught on a tree root and I trip, my hands flailing as I careen toward the ground. But before it happens, strong arms catch me and I tumble into something solid.
I roll over and look down. I brush my hair back from my face. I’m laying half way across Pete and he’s holding his hands out to the side to keep from touching me. I scamper to roll off of him.
“Shit,” he grunts as he lumbers to his feet. “Ten bucks says you’re the daughter.”
I close my eyes for a second and try to control my breaths. I have wanted to talk to this man for almost two and a half years. But he looks at me like he doesn’t know me.
“And there go my nuts.”
My gaze slices to meet his. His eyes twinkle.
He jerks his thumb toward my father. “He was serious about the hatchet, wasn’t he?”
He looks so worried that I feel a bubble of laughter building within me, replacing hurt that came with him not recognizing me. “’Fraid so,” I say, biting back a grin.
“Figures,” he mumbles, and he walks toward his cabin, shaking his head. I watch him walk away. He doesn’t remember me.
Nobody f*cks with you in prison when you’re all tatted up.
Not a single, solitary soul.
It could have something to do with being big, too. I haven’t asked. I’ve just enjoyed it.
At home, it’s a completely different story. At home, everyone f*cks with me. I am the youngest of five, all brothers, they’re all as big as me, if not bigger, and they have even more tats than I do. You don’t get any points for being adorable. At my house, all you get points for is being a good person, contributing to the household, and supporting your family in every way possible.
It’s too bad I sucked at all the requirements. I f*cked things up royally two years ago.
I never should have done what I did. But I did it, and I did my time behind bars. I just hope that they can forgive me at home and not hold it over my head.
A hand clapped onto my shoulder jerks me from my internal dialogue. I look up and see my pro bono attorney, Mr. Caster. “Good to see you again, son,” he says as he sits down across from me. He opens a file folder in front of him.
“Why are you here?” I blurt out. I wince immediately, realizing how rude that sounded. But his brow just arches as he shakes his head. “I mean, it’s good to see you, sir.”
He chuckles. “Nice to see you, too, Pete,” he says. He takes a brochure from the folder and turns it so I can read it. “I have an opportunity for you.”
My oldest brother, Paul, says opportunities are other people’s problems. “What kind of opportunity?” I ask hesitantly. I open the brochure. There are pictures of horses and children and climbing structures and a pool with lots of splashing going on. I look up at him.
“This is a brochure for Cast-A-Way farms,” he says.
“And?” I ask.
“The opportunity,” he says. “I talked to the judge and told him you would be good for this program.” He raises his brow again. “I hope I’m not wrong.”
I hate to sound like a numbskull, but… “Not following, Mr. Caster.”
“I need a few good young men to help out at the Cast-A-Way camp for five days this summer.” He starts to reload his folder and closes it. “I read your file. I liked what I saw. I think you have potential. And you have the skillset that I need for this particular camp.”
Skillset? All I can do is ink people. I work at my brothers’ tattoo shop when I’m not behind bars. I don’t know how to do much else. “You want me to tattoo them?”
He chuckles again. “I need your signing ability,” he admits. “We have a camp every year for special needs kids. We have a very special boy this year who has MS, so he has a tracheostomy. He can’t speak. He signs. His mother’s going, but she can’t be with him twenty-four seven. So, I thought you might be able to come and help.” He shrugs. “There will also be a small group of boys there who are hearing impaired. You might work with them some, too.”
I look at Mr. Caster’s forearms and think I see a tattoo creeping out of his short sleeve dress shirt. He follows my gaze and shrugs.
“You think you’re the only one who wears your heart on your sleeve, Mr. Reed?” he asks, but he’s smiling.
I shake my head. “Your opportunity sounds interesting,” I say. “But I’m on house arrest for a year. I can only go to work and-or approved activities.”
“I already talked to your parole officer,” he says. “He’s in favor of it.” He crosses his arms in front of him on the table and leans on his elbows. “Only if you want to, though. No one is going to force you.”
I pick up the brochure and start to read. It actually looks kind of interesting.
“You’d be doing me a big favor,” he says. “I need another man present who can be a good role model for the boys we’ll be taking from the juvenile detention facility. They’ll be there working, getting service hours. I need someone to help me with them. That’s why I need you.” He narrows his eyes. “You’re big and scary looking enough.” He grins. “And your file looks good.”
“You’ll have the youth offenders at your camp? Working with the kids?”
He shakes his head quickly. “They’ll interact some with the kids. But not much. They’ll be there more to help with the daily living tasks – feeding the horses, moving hay, stacking boxes, doing odd jobs, helping with meals…”
I’ve never been afraid of manual labor. My brothers have drilled it into me from day one that I am going to work hard at everything I do, or I’ll have to answer to them. I heave a sigh. I’m slowly talking myself into this.
“There’s a perk,” he says. He grins.
“Do tell,” I say. I sit back and cross my arms in front of me.
“If your time spent at the camp goes well, I can ask for leniency with regard to your house arrest, based on merit.” He looks into my eyes. “If you earn it, that is.”
Wow. I could get leniency? “It’s for five days?” I ask.
He nods. “Monday through Friday.”
I heave a sigh. “When do we leave?”
He grins and holds out a hand for me to shake. I put my hand in his and he grips it tightly. “We leave tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow?” I gasp. I haven’t even gone home yet. I haven’t gotten to spend any time at all with my brothers.
He nods. “At oh-dark-thirty.” He smiles again. “You still up for it?”
“It can really shorten my sentence?” I ask.
He nods. “Maybe. It’s up to the judge. And depends on how things go at camp.” He sobers and looks directly into my eyes. “Pete, I think you could help with the boys I’ve invited to the camp. With all of them. Both the hearing impaired boys, the ones who can’t talk, and the ones from the youth program. I think you can do brilliant things. I believe in you, Pete, and I want to give you an opportunity to prove you’re better than this.” He makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the room.
Better than jail? Am I better than what I have become? I am not so sure.
“Do we have a deal?” he asks.
I nod and stick out my hand again for him to shake. “We have a deal.”
“Do you need for someone to pick you up in the morning?” he asks.
I shake my head. “I can get here.”
“I’ll see you at six am.” He claps a hand on my shoulder and points toward the door. “I believe your family is waiting outside.”
My heart trips a beat. It’s been so long. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like to be with them again. To feel normal.
I nod and bite my lower lip. But I steel my spine and walk out the door. The guards lead me by the guard station and toward the door, where they give me a bag with my belongings and ask me to check it. I slide my wallet into the back pocket of my jeans. I put my watch back on my wrist. I drop my piercings into my pocket. I might be able to get at least some of them back in later.
“Ready?” Mr. Caster asks. I didn’t realize he was right beside me until I look into his eyes. Very softly he says, “Stop worrying so much. They’re the same family you left two years ago.”
They might be, but I’m the one who’s different. I nod my head, though. I can’t speak past the lump in my throat.
I shove through the door, pressing hard on the lock bar, pushing and then I find myself outside the walls of the prison for the first time in two years. I take a deep breath and look up at the sky. Then I see my brothers waiting at the end of the walk and the lump in my throat grows twice the size. I blink hard, trying to squeeze back the emotion. Paul, my oldest brother, is standing beside Matt, who has the biggest grin on his face. His hair has grown back, and it’s gotten longer than I’ve ever seen it on him. He told me in a letter that he had decided to let it grow out now that he knows what it’s like to lose it all to cancer. He’s recovering. I missed it all because I was behind bars. But that’s one of the reasons why I was there. I thought I could help him and just ended up getting myself in trouble. Logan is standing with his arm draped over his girlfriend Emily’s shoulder. She looks up at him like he hung the stars and the moon. He points and smiles toward me, and she looks up and yells. Then she wiggles out of Logan’s arms and runs toward me full force. She hits me hard in the chest, her arms wrapping around my neck. I lift her off the ground and spin her around as she squeezes me. She murmurs in my ear. “I’m so glad you’re coming home,” she says. “We missed you so much.”
I look around. Someone is missing. “Where’s Sam?” I ask. Her face falls and she looks everywhere but at me. Sam’s my twin. But he’s not here. My gut clenches. I really hoped he would be.
“He’s stuck at school. You know how tight school schedules can be.” She won’t look me in the face, so I know she’s lying. I put my arm around her for a second and walk toward my brothers, but it’s only a few steps before Paul jerks me away from Emily and wraps me up in a big bear hug. He squeezes me so tightly that my breath jerks out of me.
“Let me go, you big ox,” I grunt out, but when he does, he grabs my head in his hands and runs his fingers through my prison cut. My hair’s so short it’s not much more than fuzz on the top of my head.
Logan punches me in the arm and I turn to look at him. Logan’s deaf and he uses sign language. But, after eight years of silence, he started to talk right before I went to prison. He signs while he speaks. “Somebody scalp you while you were sleeping?” he asks, pointing to his hair. It’s so strange hearing words come out of Logan’s mouth. He went so long without speaking. But Emily brings out the best in him, including his voice. “It looks like you went three rounds with a weed eater. And lost.”
Before I can answer, he’s pulling me in for a hug. Logan’s special. He’s wicked smart and he’s ultra talented. Emily’s his and everyone knows it. They’re meant to be together forever and no one doubted it from the first night he brought her home with her ass tossed over his shoulder and her Betty Boop panties shining.
Logan lets me go and I look at Matt. He looks so healthy he’s glowing. “Speaking of haircuts,” I say, pulling on a lock of his hair, “when do you think you might get one?”
He cuffs me gently on the side of my head and pulls me into his shoulder. God, I have missed them.
“We’re going to start calling you Goldilocks,” I warn. We’re all blonde, and some of us are more blonde than others.
“Try it, asswipe,” he warns as he punches my shoulder. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good match.”
Emily wraps her arm around my forearm and squeezes. “I think you’re bigger than when you went in,” she says.
“Not much else to do but work out and read.” I shrug.
“I can still take you,” Logan says. He flexes his muscles. It’s so good to hear him speak.
Logan was injured in a car accident right after I went to jail and he almost died. I wanted to go to him so badly. But they wouldn’t let me out. “I heard you’re an old man with a limp now.” I duck when he tries to grab my head for a noogie and I dance away from him.
“Nothing about me is limp,” he says with a chuckle. “Right Emily?” he says, grinning. She punches him in the arm. He bends at the waist and tosses her over his shoulder. She squeals and beats on his butt, but he pays her no mind. He never does when they do this. He starts toward the subway so we can go home. The rest of us follow.
Emily gives up, and dangles there over Logan’s shoulder. She’s right by my face, so I lean in and kiss her on the cheek. “You all right?” she asks quietly. It’s fucking ridiculous the way she’s just bobbing there.
“It’s good to be going home,” I admit. “Strange, but good.”
She wraps her hands around her mouth and whispers dramatically. “We have beer at the apartment! For your birthday!”
I grin. I spent my twenty-first birthday behind bars. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t let it pass by without some kind of celebration. “Just beer?” I whisper back playfully.
She winks. “There might be some other stuff, too. Like wine.”
My brothers don’t do anything more than drink occasionally. “Is there cake?” I ask.
She nods. “Sam made it.” Sam’s the baker in the family. It’s too bad he had to play football to earn his way into college, because he’d make a damn fine baker. And he’d be happier doing it.
“So he was home this weekend?” Hearing that he was home this weekend but he’s not there now is like a knife to my gut. It fucking hurts. I can’t say I blame him, though.
She nods, and she does that thing she does where she doesn’t look me in the face. She’d be terrible at poker because she can’t lie worth shit.
“How long do you think he’ll avoid me?” I ask.
Matt looks over at me, his face searching mine, but he doesn’t answer my question either.
I sit in my dad’s truck and drum my thumb on the steering wheel along with the music. I dropped Dad off an hour ago, and he sent me on an errand because he hates the idea of me sitting outside of a prison by myself. I finished his errand and now I’m waiting. He can’t fault me for that, can he?
I freeze when I see three tatted up men walk by where I’m parked. They’re blond and huge. But one of them is holding hands with a girl, a pretty lady with dirty blonde hair. I sit up taller and watch them. They’re friendly with one another and you can almost see how happy they are to be together. The one holding hands with the girl slaps her on the bottom and runs from her and she streaks off after him until she can jump on his back. She leans forward and kisses him on the cheek. He puts her down because she’s signing something to him. My heartbeat stutters. This is the family. I’m almost certain of it. They’re Peter Reed’s brothers.
Peter Reed is someone I have wanted to meet for two and a half years. He saved me one night when I really needed saving. He found me huddled in a room in the back of a frat house after the unthinkable happened.
I’m huddled by the wall, still shaking from what happened. He turned out the light when he left, so I sit in the dark, with my teeth chattering so hard that my jaw hurts. My panties are still wrapped around my ankle, dangling there like the useless piece of cloth they are. One side is broken from where he ripped them off me, but I can’t make my arms unwrap from around myself long enough to pull them up. Or off. My skirt is hiked up around my waist. He didn’t bother to even pull it down when he was done. He just whispered in my ear about how no one would ever believe me if I told, and how I had better keep it to myself if I knew what was good for me.
My phone dings beside me, its bright face a beacon in the darkness and I look down at it. I want to pick it up. It’s probably one of my friends wondering where I’ve gotten off to. But I can’t unwrap my arms long enough to reach for it either. If I unwrap, I’ll fall apart. I can’t fall apart. I just can’t.
The door opens and a sliver of light tumbles into the room. A young man laughs at someone as he closes the door in a girl’s face. He flips the light on and leans back against the door cursing playfully. I crawl on my hands toward the shadow in the corner. Maybe he won’t see me. But he does. I can tell when he freezes and curses for real.
My teeth are still chattering and I can’t draw in a complete breath. He drops down to squat in front of me. “Hey, are you all right?” he asks. He reaches a hand toward me. An animalistic sound leaves my throat. It’s one that scares even me, and he jerks his hand back like I’m a rabid dog and he’s afraid I’ll bite. The guy who just left, he wasn’t afraid of me at all. After a few minutes of really nice kissing, I was ready to stop but he pushed me down, tore off my panties, held me still and raped me.
I look into this man’s sky blue eyes and they’re so different from the brown ones that hurt me. I open my mouth to speak, but only a squeak comes out. My phone dings again and I look toward it.
“Do you want me to get it for you?” he asks softly. He reaches for it and then puts it within my reach. I take it, jerking it from his hand as I crouch further into the corner. He pulls back like I scare him. I look down at the screen.
Rachel: Where are you, hussy? I saw you locking lips with the douchebag. Did you leave with him?
I need to reply. But my fingers are shaking too much.
“Do you want me to do it?” the man asks. He gently takes the phone from my grasp with a twisty tug and I let it go. It’s of no use to me. I’m shaking too badly to use it.
“What do you want me to say?” he asks.
I swallow hard. I screamed when it started, before he covered my mouth with his hand, right before he banged my head onto the bathroom countertop, and now my throat hurts. “Help me.” The words are a whisper and he leans closer, because he can’t hear what I’m saying.
“What?” he asks softly.
“Help me,” I say. He looks at my face. He doesn’t look down at my exposed body. He just looks at my face, like I’m not sitting here with my skirt hiked up above my hips, like my shirts not torn open. Like I wasn’t just raped. Defiled. Used. I tug at my skirt and he looks around the room, opens a cabinet and lays an unfolded towel over me. I start to adjust my clothes beneath it. He looks down and picks up my shoes, which I must have kicked off when I was flailing. He sets them next to my feet. He sees my panties hanging over my ankle and he reaches for them, lifting my leg gently so he can pull them off my foot. “I need those,” I say. I really, really need them.
He shakes them out and holds them up, like if I was putting them on. “They’re torn,” he says.
“I need them,” I say again. A tear rolls down my cheek and his face softens. He finds the scraps of fabric where the man who hurt me ripped them at the hip and he ties a knot in them. He holds them up, like I’m two and need his help getting dressed. I put my feet in them and stand up, unsteady on my legs. He reaches out to support me. My hands are shaking so badly that I can’t pull them up. He helps me. He hisses in a breath when he pulls them past the blood on my inner thighs. He lifts his gaze, looking into my face as he pulls them over my hips and then he tugs my skirt down to cover them. I lower the towel and he closes my shirt with gentle fingers. He bends over and picks up my phone where I dropped it.
“Can I call someone for you?” he asks.
I nod. But I can’t think of who. I can’t call my parents. I wasn’t supposed to be at this party. I was supposed to be in my dorm room studying.
“Call Rachel,” I say. I lean against the counter, feeling like I can’t hold myself up anymore.
He scrolls through my contacts until he finds her name. He calls and I can hear the faint ring through the phone. “Hello, Rachel?” he asks.
“Who are you and why do you have that hussy’s phone?” I hear Rachel ask.
He looks at me. “Do you want to talk to her?” he asks me over the phone.
I shake my head.
He closes his eyes and says, “My name is Peter Reed and I’m here with your friend…” He stops and looks at me, his eyebrows scrunching together. “What’s your name?”
“Reagan,” I whisper.
“I’m sorry,” he says. And he really looks like he is. “I can’t hear you.” His tone is soft and much more sympathetic than I deserve.
“Reagan,” I bark. I groan inwardly at the way I said that. It was a spurt. But he heard me. That’s what matters.
“I’m here with your friend, Reagan. She needs you.”
“Where?” I hear Rachel say.
“J-just tell her the party. M-master bathroom, I think.” I look around.
“Do you want me to just go find her?” he asks, looking at me over the phone.
My gut clenches. “Don’t leave me,” I whisper. My jaw quivers and I hate it. But this man makes me feel safe.
He reaches out and very gently lays his hand on the side of my head. I jerk back, and he immediately realizes that touching me was a mistake. “I won’t leave. I promise,” he says. He turns back to the phone. “We’re in the back bedroom, in the bathroom. She’s hurt.” He looks at my face while he says it. Not at my abused body. His eyes stare into mine. “She’s strong,” he says. “But I think she needs you.” He looks down at the phone. “I think she hung up on me.”
I nod. “Thank you,” I say.
“I’m going to stay with you,” he says to assure me. “I’m not leaving. I promise.”
I nod and lean against the counter, crossing my arms beneath my breasts.
“I’m going with you so I can be sure you go to the hospital,” he says.
I shake my head. “That’s not necessary.”
He looks into my eyes. “A rape kit is necessary.”
Oh, I’m going to the hospital. I need to be tested for STD’s. And get a morning after pill. And do all the things I never thought I’d have to think about, much less do. “I know. I’ll go.”
“I’ll go with you.”
I shake my head. He’s already seen enough of my shame.
“I can’t walk away and leave you like this.”
There’s a quick knock on the door and he calls out, “Who’s there?”
“It’s Rachel,” says a muffled voice. My soul cries out for her. I nod and he opens the door. She rushes in and stops short. Her face contorts, but she bites it back quickly when she sees a tear roll down my face. “What happened?” she croons. She wraps her arms around me and pulls me in tight. I sob into her shoulder as she holds me. I look up at him through the curtain of her hair and see that he’s blinking furiously. He sniffles and straightens his spine when he sees me looking at him.
“She needs to go to the hospital,” he says quietly.
“I’ll take her.” She looks around. “How can we get her out of here without everyone seeing her?” she asks.
He pulls his hoodie over his head and walks over to me. He bunches it up like he wants to put it over my head, but he asks for permission to do it with his eyes. I nod and he drops it over me, and his scent wraps around me. It’s like citrus and woodsy outdoor smells combined. It wraps me up and holds me close, still warm from his body. I tug it down around my hips. Rachel wets a corner of the towel he gave me earlier and wipes beneath my eyes. “You have scratches on your face,” she says. Then she sees my neck. “Did he choke you?” she gasps. But she quickly recovers. I cover my neck with my hand. That’s not the worst he did.
A growl starts low in Pete’s belly, but I can hear it. He’s angry for me. “Thank you,” I whisper to him as she leads me to the door, her hand holding tightly to mine.
“Can I come with you?” he asks.
Rachel looks at me for confirmation but I shake my head.
“Can I at least check on you later?” he asks. “How can I find you again?”
“We need to go,” Rachel says.
He follows us down the hallway and through the noisy kitchen and the even noisier living room. He shields my body with the width of his and opens the door for us so we can walk in front of him. Rachel’s hand is in mine, but I feel the need to reach for his, because he represents strength for me. “Thank you, Peter Reed,” I whisper.
“You’re welcome,” he whispers back. He opens the car door for me and I gingerly sit down. I’m sore, so I hiss. He stiffens. “Are you sure I can’t go?”
I nod. I lay my head back and close my eyes. And let Rachel drive me to the hospital.
A shriek jerks me from my memories. I watch as a blond man walks out of the front of the jail and the girl who was with the three men launches herself at Peter Reed. I know it’s him. I haven’t seen him since that night, but I am completely sure that my savior just walked out of the prison.
A knock sounds on the passenger window and I jump. I look over at my dad, who makes a face at me through the window. I unlock the door and he gets in. He looks at the scene in front of us. “Are you happy now?” he asks.
My dad’s an attorney, and he took over Pete’s legal needs when I found out where he was. I went looking for him a few weeks after the attack. I asked around campus, until I finally found someone who knew one of his brothers. Pete was in jail for a foolish mistake. So, I asked my dad to help him. He’s been working to have him freed ever since.
My dad’s well known in this town for his work with the youth detention program, and he does a lot of pro bono work for people who can’t afford representation. Dad found out that Pete had legal counsel that someone else set up for him, so he asked to assist in the case. Pete still had to go to jail, but he got a much lighter sentence because of Dad’s help. Pete doesn’t deserve to be in jail. He deserves to be given a medal of honor.
I look at Dad and smile. “Yes, I’m happy now. Did you get to ask him about coming to the farm?” I ask it very shyly, because my dad reads me like I’m a book.
“And?” My insides are flipping around and my heart is racing.
I lay a hand on my chest and force myself to take a deep breath.
“What do you hope to get out of seeing this boy?” Dad asks.
“I just want to thank him, Dad.”
Dad grins and rolls his eyes. “I was thinking you might want to have his babies.”
I snort. “Not yet.”
I’ll see Pete tomorrow. I can’t wait.
“Hey, kid,” he says softly. “He’s been in jail two years. He may be a little harder than that boy you met that night so long ago.”
Dad talks about it like it happened years ago. But it happens again and again in my head, every single night.
“He still saved me, Dad,” I say quietly.