Under and Over It
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
The white house rivaled Isola in size, though was much more modern, the grounds iced with a thin layer of fresh, crunching snow. Lena had woken up that morning to Ty talking quietly on his cell in the kitchen, then again to Autumn shaking her gently by the shoulder. Chad chuckled.
“You didn’t think Jason was the only rich guy in town, did you?” he came up beside her. She shook her head.
“That’s not what I meant,” she told him, still staring at the mansion. “If Lance lives here, doesn’t that mean Stephanie does, too?”
Lance helped Ty with the folded keyboard lying across his backseat. He was unusually pale, with dark circles under his eyes and an atypical grit to his voice.
“Mom kicked her out last week,” he explained. “Said she was done dealing with her.”
Ty snorted and kicked the door shut.
“What did she do this time?”
“That would take all day.”
Everyone jumped as a powder blue Porsche roared up the long paved driveway, growling to a stop behind Chad’s dirty black Jeep. Stephanie glared bloody murder at them as she climbed out of the driver’s seat. Her shiny dark purple jacket clung to every curve, her tight black ski pants tucked into fur-lined black boots. Her eyes blazed behind white vintage sunglasses.
“What the hell is she doing here?” she demanded, stabbing the cold air with a long scarlet fingernail. Lena flipped her loose hair over her shoulder and flashed a perfect copy of Stephanie’s fake, arrogant smile.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked snobbishly. “I’m just here to piss you off!”
The rest of the group snickered. Stephanie glowered at them again, then scoffed in repulsion; she shoved Lance aside, nearly leaving him with a twisted ankle as he tried not to drop his end of the keyboard. She stormed to the front door and threw it open, the windows on either side rattling when she slammed shut. Ty winced.
“Maybe we should go around back.”
Chad pulled in a breath through his teeth.
“Good idea,” he grabbed the guitar case from his front passenger seat and curled the strap over his shoulder.
“I actually want to stay out here for a while,” Lena blurted. Chad looked at her, then shrugged.
“If that’s what you want.”
He caught up with the others, grabbed Jason’s wrist and tugged him back onto the patio.
“You said you wanted to help her,” he murmured, nodding toward Lena. She was staring at the woods on the western edge of the property, hugging herself tightly. “Looks like now’s your chance.”
He walked inside before Jason could say anything, lingering in the dining room to watch from the corner of his eye. As he’d expected, Jason hesitated before walking back to her; Chad knew he was more messed up than he let on, that blunt, quiet demeanor a thick shield for the terrified kid he and Lance had known for most of their lives. A shield they all knew would never break unless Jason let it crack.
They’d thought Emily would help him, and for a while, it seemed like she had, but then she’d gotten possessive, going crazy any time Jason had tried to do something without her. He’d been fired more than once because of the fake emergencies she’d created to take him out of work—swallowing pills that had turned out to be the sugar placebos from her birth control packets, claiming to have slashed her wrists when they’d just been scratched to hell with a paperclip. The only real instance was when she had been caught trying to hang herself, though the old scarf she’d used had ripped in half before it could cause any real damage.
Her parents had blamed Jason for all of it, and they’d only gotten worse after the incident on the bleachers. Even before, Jason’s own suicidal tendencies had been held back by threads, and it had taken a year for him to come out of it. They’d finally told off Emily’s parents after his third trip to the hospital in less than twelve weeks, saying they had to open their eyes and realize the jealous, manipulative harpy their daughter had been. They’d moved shortly after Emily’s funeral, and now the only public signs of her existence were a plaque, a painted rock and a small tombstone in a lonely corner of the cemetery.
“Huh?” he shook his head, realizing he was still in the doorway. Lance was staring at him, concern and fear plain on his worn face.
“Uh, sorry,” he chuckled weakly, his gut turning in knots. “Guess I stayed up too late last night.”
Lance shook his head.
“I know that look,” he replied, stepping closer. “What were you really thinking about?”
Chad turned to shut the door, his jaw dropping when Jason held out his arms to Lena. Lance gripped his shoulder.
“He’s getting there, but you know he’s gotta do it himself.”
Chad blew out a breath. It didn’t mean he was going to stop trying.
“Yeah, I know,” he followed Lance to the basement, where Autumn and Ty were already waiting. He’d done his part for now, and all he could do was wait to see where things went from there.
Anxiety welled in Jason’s gut as Chad walked away, the same he fought to bury whenever he got near Lena. She hadn’t moved, staring at the sky like heavy gray clouds full of snow were the most incredible things in the world. He swallowed hard, forcing down his fear as he walked over to her.
“Lena?” he coughed lightly into his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Michael was in a band,” she was talking to herself, her voice faintly tearful. “God, why does everything we do remind me of them?”
He touched her arm, pulling back when she jumped.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he held up his hands. “I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
She curled in on herself, keeping her back to him.
“I’m fine,” she answered. “Just lost in the past, I guess.”
He knew from experience that was just the tip of it.
“You still blame yourself for what happened, don’t you?” he asked gently. She took a deep breath, then her shoulders slumped.
“I can’t stop thinking that there was so much more I could have done.”
He bit his lip, then took her hand.
“You did everything you could,” he told her. “It was out of your control.”
“We always tried to make Dad see what was going on, when he was actually home,” she glared tearfully at the ground. “But he never listened to us.”
His jaw tightened; he knew what it was like to be ignored, after getting the courage to finally speak out.
“Guess love’s as deaf as it is blind,” he commented. A tear trailed down her cheek, and she quickly wiped it away.
“I know it’s hard,” he tried to comfort her. “But they’re still looking out for you, I know they are.”
He held out his arms when she turned to him, his heart jumping as she accepted his embrace without a second thought.
“You said you lost your parents, too,” she uttered after a while, a diversion so she could stop thinking about her own tragedy, a tactic he knew all too well. “What happened?”
His breath shuddered in his chest.
“My old man lost control behind the wheel,” his voice was low. It was the first time in years he hadn’t choked on the words. “But I didn’t actually care too much when I heard, I thought they’d gotten what they deserved.”
She brushed something from his sweater, her gaze locked on his chest.
“You don’t mean that,” she said just as quietly. “Do you?”
“They didn’t want to deal with their mistakes,” he pulled back, knowing he was saying too much, but unable to stop. His chest tightened, but he staved off the attack, at least for now. “And it means I don’t have a choice.”
He kissed the top of her head, then left, stuffing his numb hands in his pockets. He didn’t want to see how she would react, trying to tell himself that it didn’t matter how he felt about her, or how she did toward him. All that mattered was making sure she didn’t get hurt again, and if that meant keeping her in the dark, then that was exactly what he would do.
Lena watched him go, wondering what in the world had just happened, even as warmth flushed through her from the site of his kiss. He’d gone from trying to comfort her to muttering about past mistakes to leaving her out alone in the cold. Had she gone too far when she’d asked about his parents like that?
She thought back to the conversation she’d tried having with Autumn and Ty on the way over, about what Chad had mentioned at the party the night before. Neither of them had been willing to say much, and now Jason had gone and added yet another layer to the mystery.
What mistakes had he been talking about? Had one of his parents, or even both, been part of something they shouldn’t have? Was his family still involved in it somehow, and he was taking the blame for their trying to leave?
Ugh, she buried her face in her hands, realizing she could barely feel her fingers. This is making my head hurt.
She put the thoughts away for later, tucking them in one of the boxes an old counselor had told her to imagine in order to focus her feelings. It also made it easier to ignore certain things, at least in the short term. She shivered when the wind picked up, watching the weak sun fade behind the heavy clouds that had been building all morning. Oddly enough, something about that drab winter sky was soothing to her, the gray covering reminding her of a game she’d loved to play when she was little.
Either Michael or one of the adults in the family would throw a large blanket over her head, then pretend she’d disappeared. Often, she’d sneak off to another room while their back was turned, determined to make the fun last as long as she could. It had been another casualty of Kara shoving her way into their lives, when her father had decided that keeping the money flowing so the woman could spoil herself had been more important than his children. At least, that was how she and Michael had come to see things.
She sneezed, realizing she was still planted in the middle of Lance’s frozen front yard; she shivered again, rubbing her arms as she hurried to the house. She hoped she could get to the basement without running into Stephanie.
“I really have to stop spacing out like that.”
“Yes, you do,” he lowered his binoculars, his brow furrowed in frustration. “Makes this damn job even more boring.”
It had taken weeks to plant all those microphones throughout the house and grounds, but they allowed him to catch the smallest whispers, and it assured that their little secret was still safe. He watched the girl retreat through the back gate and shut it behind her, chuckling lewdly as he licked his thin, scarred lips.
“Hey, no daydreaming,” a voice crackled harshly through his headset. “You have to be ready at a moment’s notice.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he rolled his eyes. They never let him have fun anymore. “But why bother taking her out in the first place? She’s no threat to us.”
“He’s bound to tell her eventually,” his boss snapped. “We can’t afford that risk.”
“But wouldn’t taking her out just—”
“Enough!” the voice broiled with more anger than usual. “Your job right now is surveillance, not asking questions or making theories. We need to get rid of her, understand?”
He rolled his eyes again, letting his binoculars drop to his chest. The rough leather band scratched the back of his neck.
The connection clicked out, and he yanked off the headset, his knuckles white under his gloves as he tried not to throw it to the frost-covered ground. He’d set up in an old hunters’ nest on the edge of the Carters’ property, freezing his ass off while the boss lounged behind his desk in a big, warm office back at headquarters. But the arrogant son of a bitch paid more than his last four employers combined, so he figured he couldn’t complain too much.
But what kind of danger could that girl really be? He shifted from his kneel and crossed his legs. If he’d known he’d be spending this long watching the place, he would have taken some time to turn the nest into something more comfortable. What would killing her really do for us?
He sighed and went back to watching the mansion, sorely lacking any of Isola’s old-fashioned charm. It also sat on a smaller plot of land, which at least made his job easier. He perked up when another girl stomped out the front door, whirling to glare at a second-story window.
“You stupid bitch!” her angry shout echoed tinnily through the headphones around his neck. “This isn’t over!”
She stormed to the blue Porsche she’d pulled up in, the engine roaring as she blazed down the driveway. A vile grin flicked across his lips, and he laughed.
“Well, well,” he brought down the binoculars. “Looks like I’ve found an ally.”
Stephanie slammed her bedroom door and grabbed one of the stuffed bears crowding her shelves, the only part of her childhood room she’d been unwilling to give up, pressing it to her mouth to muffle her enraged scream. From the tall, sloping ceiling to the glossy hardwood floor, the large room was filled with every shade of red she could find, the walls taped over with charcoal and pencil sketches and her ink paintings. The original picture of Lena she’d Photoshopped was taped to the dartboard hung on the back of her door, littered with holes. She set the pale green bear back in its spot and snatched a dart from the black plastic basket on her dresser, stabbing it into the grainy image’s grayscale throat.
“Oh, Jason,” she fell on the bed and curled up on her side, staring longingly at the frame on her nightstand. He was smiling, his arm slung around skinny pale shoulders, the girl’s face scribbled out with red marker. It had been so easy to drive her over the edge, and while things hadn’t gone exactly how she had planned, nearly everything had still worked out in the end. “Why do you keep doing this to me?”
She traced the edge of his lean cheek with her nail, following the line of his hair, chin-length at the time. It was the first day she’d seen him with his braces, and he’d finally grown out of his baby face at the start of last year.
“I don’t want anyone else to have you,” she went on sadly. “You’re mine!”
She gripped hard on her pillowcase, gritting her teeth as hot tears ran across her nose. She’d been too young to understand it when they’d met, but she had fallen for him the minute he’d laid those gorgeous onyx eyes on her. Those feelings had only grown over the years, evolving into a fierce, all-consuming love. They would be perfect together, she just knew it.
Lena was the reason he couldn’t see it, just like it had been that other girl before. Stephanie had almost ensnared him when those sluts had come along, whisking him away without a second thought. She swallowed her tears and sat up. If only there were some way to get rid of that little freak. Then she giggled, remembering the plan Alex had outlined the week before.
“Oh, that’s perfect!”
She grabbed her phone and dialed Eric’s number—the muscle-bound jock had been under her spell for years, a sweet, obedient little puppy.
“Eric, baby,” she put on her most seductive tone, one he could never resist. “Call me when you get this, okay? There’s something big I need you to do for me.”
She jammed her phone in her back pocket and stood, going to grab the empty bag she’d left by the closet; she shoved the door open and threw in the last of her clothes. Her mom had actually followed through with her latest threat and kicked her out for smoking in the house, since it was the biggest trigger for Lance’s asthma. He was the sibling she’d never wanted, but she had learned to tolerate him, as long as he stayed out of the way. One more reason she had always preferred their father; she was his top priority, as it should be. She drew the bag closed and threw her door open, stopping short when Lena came out of the bathroom across the hall, patting her hands dry on her jeans.
“Oh, hey, Steph,” she smiled cheerfully. “How’s it going?”
Stephanie glared at her, her manicured fingers tightening on the strings of her bag.
“I know what you’re trying to pull, bitch,” she said angrily. “And it won’t work. You’ll see, Jason always comes back to me.”
Lena stared back at her, then took a deep breath.
“Look, Stephanie,” she started calmly. “I don’t want to keep fighting with you, can’t we just get along?”
“Sure, we can,” she spat sarcastically, her glower getting darker. “Once you learn to keep your filthy hands off my boyfriend!”
She shoved Lena aside and stalked downstairs, fuming.
Does that slut really think she can fool me?
She almost laughed at the idea. Lena really was as stupid as she looked, and now it was time for one hell of a wake-up call.
Jason carefully set his guitar in the case. He’d barely been able to focus during practice, with Lena sitting just a few feet away. She was gorgeous when she smiled, and that thought had made it harder to keep his voice from cracking, or forget a chord and throw off the whole band. He’d ended up calling it quits early, relieved when she and Autumn left for a shopping trip with Heather. Lance had gone upstairs to order pizza, Ty talking in fast Spanish on the landing. Chad was by the wall, tuning his bass.
“You know you’ll have to tell her at some point, right?” he asked suddenly. Jason clipped the case shut.
“What do you mean?”
“We all know how much Lena likes you,” he elaborated. “Why not just tell her how much you like her?”
“I already did,” he got to his feet, his fist tight around the handle. “And that’s as far as it’ll go.”
“What?” Chad looked at him in confusion. “Why wouldn’t you—”
“There’s no point,” Jason cut him off sharply. “And it’s too dangerous, you know that as well as I do.”
Chad scratched his head, then set down his bass.
“I’m pretty sure you’re overreacting,” he crossed his arms. “I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”
Jason glared at him.
“I don’t need to explain that,” he said quietly. “This is the only way to keep her safe.”
Chad cocked a brow.
“You sure about that?”
He went to Jason’s side and took his shoulder, waiting until Ty headed upstairs.
“She’s in trouble now,” he said. “You really think she’ll be able to last much longer like this?”
Jason shrugged his hand off, staring at the floor. It felt like an eternity passed before he even breathed. A harsh exhale he was surprised hadn’t been tinged with smoke.
“Fine, I’ll do it,” he lowered his voice again, all but snarling at him. “But just know that if anything happens to her, it’s on your head.”
Chad gulped, shoving his hands in his pockets.
“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine,” he stepped aside. “Who knows, she might even end up helping you.”
Jason paused on the landing, one foot on the bottom step.
“I doubt it,” he said. “I just hate seeing her like this.”
Chad watched him go, then let out a relieved sigh. He was used to Jason being annoyed, even pissed at him, but that was nothing compared to the rage in his eyes just now. He couldn’t fight the fear that Jason wouldn’t think twice about carrying through with the threat, if things ended up going that way. He gulped again.
I can’t let it stop me, he told himself. Jason had to learn there were still people he could trust, and Lena had to know what it was like to be happy again. Besides, what was the worst that could really happen? Just hope I’m doing the right thing.
He packed his bass and headed upstairs, stopping short when he saw Ty was the only one in the living room, reclining on the arm of the couch.
“Where’d everyone go?”
“Autumn dragged Lena shopping with her and Heather,” Ty swirled his can of Pepsi before knocking some back. He was the only one in the gang who drank the stuff. “And Jason went with Lance to get the pizzas.”
There were only two pizza places in town, and of course, the Carter and Vetra mansions were just outside their delivery zones.
“Did any of them…say anything before they left?” Chad asked. Ty shook his head.
“Lena tried to tell Autumn she wasn’t up for being dragged around the mall, but of course, Autumn didn’t hear a word she said,” he chuckled a bit. If there was one thing the redhead had to work on, it was listening. “Though Jason did look more ‘I hate the world’ than usual, and I’m sure you had something to do with that.”
Chad laughed sheepishly. It was kind of unnerving how Ty always seemed to know exactly what was wrong.
“I told him he should stop being scared of the fact he likes Lena,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “I also might have said I’m worried about where she’s headed.”
“I knew I wasn’t the only one noticing that, and it explains why Autumn’s been pestering her so much lately,” he took another sip. “You really think her and Jason getting together will fix things?”
“It would at least be a start, wouldn’t it? And anything’s better than them beating themselves up for stuff that wasn’t their fault.”
“That’s certainly true,” he yanked his phone from his pocket when it vibrated, then scowled at it. “Ugh! ¡No otra vez!”
He accepted the call anyway and headed to the kitchen.
“¡Mamá, por favor!”
Chad snickered, then stopped himself as he remembered why Ty’s folks were so overprotective. Another pound of guilt that Lena carried with her. Just the thought of everything she and Jason had gone through twisted his stomach, and he wished there were more he could do to help them work through it. But there was only so much that could be done until they accepted that they weren’t to blame.