Of course. My thumb started to stretch for the end button, ready to push it and put to death his voice in my ear.
“Wait! Don’t hang up,” he pleaded. Like he could read my mind, like he knew what I was about to do.
I hesitated. I wasn’t sure why, but I stopped. I’d never heard his voice sound like that. There was a thread of desperation to it. He’d always been cocky and teasing, but he had never sounded quite so human.
Unable to keep walking with his voice in my ear, I stepped to the side of the hall and leaned against the wall, staring blindly into the ebb and flow of students.
Thumb poised, I waited for him to say something else, something more . . . to reveal that he was a different person. That what had happened between us was just a mistake of youth. That it had been the alcohol and poor judgment.
He sighed into the phone. “We want you to come to the wedding, Em.”
By “we” I assumed he meant Mom and him. His father wouldn’t care either way. The good thing about Don was his lack of opinion when it came to me.
“I want you there,” he added, filling the silence.
“We’re family. Don’t you think it’s time we move past—”
“Are you owning up to what you did?” I cut in. Because that would go a long way. If he just admitted it to me, I could maybe move on. If he admitted his mistake to Mom, even better. She had never believed me. She thought it was me being a pain in the ass and trying to wreck what she had going with Don.
He sighed again. “Will that change anything, Emerson? I want us to move on and not rehash old history.”
A pause fell between us as I processed this. Just the fact that he was even calling meant he had changed.
But I was different, too. I wasn’t as trusting.
“I just don’t think I can go.” Show up and pretend like we were the perfect family? No. I couldn’t play that game. I waited, expecting him to turn nasty on me, but that didn’t happen.
Suzanne walked into the building right then and spotted me. She was bundled up like she was going on an Arctic expedition. The usual for her. She was cold when it hit sixty degrees. She claimed that was her winter back home in Texas. She waved energetically and headed in my direction.
Justin sighed again. “All right. I had to try. Maybe you’ll feel differently in the future.”
I flexed my fingers around the phone. “I have to go.” Suzanne was almost to me now, and the last thing I wanted was for her to hear any part of my conversation with Justin.
“Sure. Take care, Em.”
The line went dead. I pulled back my cell and stared at it for a moment, not sure how I felt about the conversation. I’d made Justin out to be a monster for so long now. It was easier than accepting him as something real. As my stepbrother. And yet even though I’d turned him into this villain from the shadowy past, a part of me always knew the real villain was someone much closer to me.
Mom’s betrayal wounded me the most. She was the one I couldn’t expel from my life. Justin was nothing. No one. My mom . . .
She would always be my mother. And the hurt she’d inflicted went deep. It was like a wound that could never fully heal. The moment it would start to close up, she would come along and tear it back open.
I tucked my phone into the deep front pockets of my coat and smiled at Suzanne. Maybe overly bright, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“Hey, you,” she greeted me, her cheeks chapped from the outdoors.
“Finished with class?”
“Want to go see that new Bourne movie this week?”
I hesitated for a moment, thinking about whether I should spend more time in the studio preparing for the upcoming showcase or not. No matter how much time I labored over my work, I never felt ready to reveal it to the world.
Apparently she misread my hesitation because she lifted her eyebrows. “Unless you’re all booked up with . . . special plans with someone?”
I stared at her blankly.
“You know.” She nudged me with her elbow.
I shook my head. “No.”
“Hottie Shaw?” She lowered her voice and looked around. Like we were in high school or something and she didn’t want anyone to overhear us talking about a boy. She was conservative like that. Discreet. A little like Georgia with her small-town roots. For her, hooking up with a guy overnight was a big deal and not something she would just talk about in front of other people. In other words—the polar opposite of Annie.
“Why would you think I had plans with Shaw?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t know. I saw ya’ll together, Em.” Her voice dropped to a hush again. “And you brought him to your room.” Her big brown eyes widened meaningfully. “You never do that, Em. Thought he might be . . . different for you.” She looked almost hopeful as she said this.
I resisted agreeing with her. Yeah. Shaw was different. But that didn’t mean he was suddenly in my life to stay.
“I don’t have plans with Shaw. Let’s go to a movie. Not before three though. My dad’s in town and I have to see him.”
She nodded, her smile subdued. Almost like she wished I did have plans with Shaw.
“Hey, you’re not hoping I get all settled down and boring like Georgia and Pepper?” I nudged her with my elbow. “Who’ll be your wing-girl then?”
She shrugged and smiled easily. “Hey, I don’t want to be single forever. I wouldn’t begrudge you finding someone. I want that for both of us.”
I groaned. “Not you, too.”
“What?” She arched her dark eyebrows.
I started walking toward the door. “You. Pepper. Georgia. You’re all leaving me for your happily-ever-afters.”
“I’m an optimist, what can I say?” Then she shook her head, almost sadly. “But I’m not abandoning you. Haven’t met anyone yet. Still looking.”
She walked backward from me, inching toward her classroom door.
I shook my head at her. She wouldn’t be for long. Sweet, attractive girls like her found boyfriends. Got married. Had kids.
I pointed. “You better start looking now because you’re about to run into someone.”
She whirled around seconds before colliding with a guy who was walking with his nose buried in his phone. She warded him off with a hand, narrowly missing him. He looked up from his phone and said something. Suzanne laughed, tossing her rich mane of brown hair. Her laughter was a tinkling sound I only ever heard from her when she was getting her flirt on. Yeah. The girl was looking all right.