Release Date: June 21, 2018
Cover Design: Wicked by Design
With a history like ours, the meaning of the word family tended to tangle into something unrecognizable. DNA and bloodlines didn’t tie us together, and neither did our last names. Various shades of grey blurred the branches of our twisted family tree.I wasn’t her brother. They weren’t my parents. Not that it mattered… She was off limits. Portia was my friend. Then my foster sister. And she’d always be the love of my life.
As adamant as I was that the stages of grief were nothing other than crap some shrink created to sell books and services, the truth remained. I had hit stage two with guns blazing shortly after I dropped Portia off at school. Anyone in my path could testify to that fact, and most made excuses for my poor behavior.
Hensley tried harder than anyone to get me to talk. “Jude, I don’t understand what happened.”
If I weren’t careful, I’d find myself in a counselor’s office exploring my feelings—as if I needed to explore how fucking bad it hurt for my mom to die. I experienced that shit every day—talking about it wouldn’t bring her back or take the pain away.
“I got into a fight.” And suspended for three days.
Ernie and Hensley sat with me at the kitchen table, and Baker laid his head on my thigh in support. He didn’t have a clue what was going on, only that I was unhappy and Ernie had done a lot of yelling.
“Over what?” She pleaded with me to let her in—she’d be happy with a few crumbs.
It didn’t matter over what. They wouldn’t understand, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to explain it in any detail. “A guy said some things about Portia.”
Ernie’s shoulders finally relaxed, and Hensley leaned over to cup my cheek in her hand.
“Sweetheart, I love that you want to defend your sister, but fighting is never the answer.”
My sister. And that’s why I’d never tell them the truth. “Okay.”
She stroked her thumb over my swollen cheek. The guy had gotten in one solid shot. While I’d never thrown a punch, I hadn’t realized what kind of advantage my height gave me when push came to shove.
“Are you sure you won’t consider talking to Dr. Vanderhugh? He was such a help to me when we had family planning issues.” Family planning equated to infertility, which brought the Shaws to Portia and later me.
“I’m fine. I just refuse to let anyone say things about Portia that aren’t true. Neither of you would have stood by while someone talked shit about her, either.”
“Jude!” Ernie’s defeated posture became determined. Ernie and I had always had a bond that Hensley and I didn’t share. I had a mom, but Ernie filled in the empty space left by an absent father. “Language.”
Seventeen years old, yet they believed I never cussed. Or just that I shouldn’t. “Sorry.” I wasn’t.
“I’m concerned that you’ve suddenly started defending with your fists instead of words. You’re such an articulate boy. It just doesn’t make any sense.” Hensley said all the right things; I just had no interest in hearing any of them.
My own mother would have slapped me upside the head—not only for my behavior but my attitude in general. That thought only served to elicit internal shame. I sighed, desperate to end the discussion and wrap up the family powwow. “I won’t do it again. I’m sorry. It got out of hand.”
I didn’t want to disappoint them, either of them. They’d been good to me for the better part of ten years. Not once had they missed anything going on in my life, skipped out on a holiday or birthday, or taken the easy path when my mom was sick—they deserved better than I currently gave. Even with that realization, I couldn’t stop the anger that poured from every part of my soul.
“Can I go now?” This wasn’t getting us anywhere. Either they needed to punish me or leave me alone. I deserved the first and needed the last.
Hensley made to say something, and Ernie put his hand up, halting her. “You can. But be prepared to spend the next three days working around the house. Your suspension will not be a vacation.”
I pushed the chair back more forcefully than intended when I got up and knocked it over. “Understood.” Instead of apologizing and picking it up, I left it lying there and walked out.
I hadn’t even made it to the bottom of the stairs when the sting of a firm grasp jerked my bicep. The force at which the hand held me indicated it was Ernie; even so, I glanced at the offending hand and then at my captor.
“I know you’re hurting right now. I get it. But you will be respectful in this house. And you will act like you have common sense outside of it. We are more than happy to get you someone to talk to if you don’t think it can be either of us.”
I glared at him through squinted eyes and jerked my arm from his grasp.
“Don’t push Hensley and me out, Jude. We both love you.” The pity that radiated from his expression and dripped from his words ate at me. This wasn’t the relationship the two of us had always had, and it wasn’t one I wanted now.
Ernie’s prying wouldn’t change anything and it certainly wouldn’t solve any of my problems. I wished he understood that I needed him to be normal, not protective. If he wanted to serve a purpose in helping me through this, then he needed to act as though nothing had changed. But he wasn’t going to handle anything that way, and I wasn’t going to direct his parenting path.
“I’m fine.” And I stomped up the stairs. I didn’t slam my door, even though I wanted to. Instead, I closed it, locked it, and put on headphones. There, I listened to the Beatles playlist Portia and I danced to the night of my mother’s funeral.
I tried to think back to that night, dancing with her while she attempted to relieve me of some of my grief, but I couldn’t let go of Chad Hartman taunting me in the halls about Portia.
“I heard she’s become quite the free spirit since she’s been gone.”
“Rumor has it, if she was a virgin when she got to school, she sure isn’t now.”
“Frat parties just aren’t the same without Portia Shaw. Seems everyone on frat row has taken their turn.”
The guy had never cared for Portia, although I didn’t have a clue why. He’d teased her mercilessly last year, and somehow, she had managed to ignore him. Not me. The first words out of his mouth, I’d shoved him against the lockers in the D hall. The second insult and my fist met his face. That was the one time he got in a shot. I’d hit him gain, which spun him back into the foot traffic away from the wall. He’d wiped at his bloody lip and then spewed the filth that brought the teachers running. It probably wasn’t his words that grabbed their attention so much as me laying him out on the floor of the senior hall, straddling him, and punching him until someone pulled me off.
I wasn’t sure if I struggled with the horrid things he said or that I couldn’t be sure they weren’t true. Portia had been gone a month and hadn’t come home once. Her calls happened less frequently and were shorter when they came. I didn’t want to believe anything Chad said, yet I couldn’t deny it with any certainty. Something had captured her attention. It might just be growing up and independence. Or it could be all of Phi Beta Kappa.
One of Five ARC's for Family Ties
About the Author
Bestselling author, Stephie Walls is a lover of words—the more poetic the better. She lives on the outskirts of Greenville, South Carolina in her own veritable zoo with two dogs, three cats, the Mister, and Magoo (in no preferential order). She would thrive on coffee, books, and Charlie Hunnam if it were possible, but since it’s not, add in some Chinese food or sushi and she’s one happy girl.
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