I hopped off the dresser after he walked out, deciding it would be easier to climb back through the tree than face the walk of shame in front of his friend, but I stopped short when I noticed something on the floor. I bent to pick up a photograph near the bed, and my heart sped up when I realized that I must have dropped it when I went through that box.
As I took a quick look at it, bile rose in my throat. The picture was of the torso of a boy or a young man, but the skin was bloodied and bruised. Blue and purple marks covered the chest and ribs, while cuts spanned the entire area from his stomach to his neck.
Oh, my God.
Someone didn’t just hurt this kid. They tried to kill him.
The farm was packed. By the looks of everyone excitedly clearing the road for Jared’s car, we’d arrived just in time for his race. People stepped off the track slowly, eyeing Jared and me with curiosity. Most people probably thought Jared hated me, so they must be pretty confused. I didn’t care.
The car vibrated under me, and I tapped my feet on the floor with uncontrollable energy and a little residual nervousness.
I’d stuffed the picture I found in Jared’s room into the front pocket of my hoodie. I didn’t want to take the chance of him catching me trying to put it back in the box under his bed. I wasn’t sure if it was Jared in the picture, but I guessed it was. Why else would he have it? Unless…unless he did that to a kid.
My teeth clenched together. I didn’t like that thought one bit.
“Hey!” People, mostly female, shouted at the car. I took a deep breath and didn’t even try to hide my annoyance. Luckily, he didn’t greet them back, and my shoulders relaxed. His face was stone as Sick by Adelita’s Way pounded out of the speakers.
As Jared pulled into position next to an ‘80’s Camaro I didn’t recognize, I unfastened my seatbelt to hop out of the car, but Jared grabbed my hand.
“Hey,” he spoke softly, and I turned to look at him. “I like to keep my head in the game here. If I don’t act very friendly, it has nothing to do with you, okay?”
Translation: I don’t do the girlfriend thing, especially in public. Not that Jared and I were together, but I knew what he was trying to say.
I shrugged my shoulders. “You don’t have to hold my hand.” And I stepped out of the car.
It bugged me that Jared kept up an image, or maybe he just didn’t feel comfortable around people, but I’d be damned if I was going to stand on the sidelines feeling out of place all night.
Walking to the front of the crowd, I picked up whispers and sideways glances directed at me. “What’s Jared doing with her?” and “Maybe she’s racing” were some of what I heard. I watched Jared get out of the car, his eyes on me, and walk around to the front to meet with Zack and the other driver.
“Tate, how’s it going?” Ben stepped up next to me. I let out a sigh. Even though I didn’t see anyone else I really knew here tonight, I still didn’t want to chat with him. I wasn’t sure what Jared and I were, but I was interested in finding out.
“You’re here with Jared?” he inquired.
“Yep,” I snipped, not meeting his eyes.
“And you’re going to Homecoming with Madoc?” Even though I wasn’t looking at him, I could hear the smile.
What a douche.
“And I might go to prom with Channing Tatum. That’s the kind of girl I am. Haven’t you heard?” I met his eyes, boldly challenging him.
His shoulders scrunched up, and he let out a nervous laugh. “Alright, if you say so. But I’d opt out of taking Channing Tatum to prom. It’s the names. ‘Channing Tatum accompanying Tatum Brandt?’ It doesn’t work.”
It took me a minute to figure it out, but his playful tone sealed the deal. He was joking. He wasn’t trying to apologize, and I wasn’t trying to avoid him. We were just enjoying some friendly banter, and I felt a little more comfortable that I could handle this. He wasn’t pressing for information about my dating status—which was questionable—and I sensed that he wasn’t pursuing me anymore.
Grinning at his joke and looking at him like he’d just put pencils up his nose, I knew the tension had finally dissipated. We might never be friends, but were back to the beginning of the year and the simplicity.
Until I saw Jared spitting fire at us. Zack was speaking to both of the drivers, but Jared’s cold eyes were locked on Ben and me. His gaze narrowed, and I could tell by the way he breathed through his nose that he was pissed.
Whatever. I rolled my eyes.
“Clear the track!” Zack shouted, and we all herded to the side of the road, kicking up cold dust in our wake.
Jared climbed into his car without sparing me another glance and revved the engine, the bass vibrating under my feet. I cringed when girls started screaming excitedly. It felt like someone stuck a toothpick in my ear.
But that was nothing to the sinking feeling in my stomach when Piper stepped onto the track to send the racers off. She sauntered in front of Jared’s car wearing a blue school-girl skirt and black halter-top.
I groaned under my breath.
Her gleaming eyes zeroed in on Jared. I couldn’t see his face from my angle, but I knew she was eyeing him. She rocked back and forth, poking out her chest, or maybe that’s just how it looked. In the headlights of the cars, I’m sure she was quite a sight. The men in the audience whistled and hooted, and I ran my fingers through my hair to get it off my hot neck.