Second Chance StepbrotherBy: Penny Wylder
“How are the hospitality studies going?” he asks, as if reading my mind.
Dad must have told him.
I swallow hard. “Fine.”
“Far cry from painting,” he points out.
I cast him a sideways glare. “How’s the architecture degree working out?”
“One year left,” he replies, surprising me. My eyes widen.
“You’re actually going for it?”
He laughs. It sounds a little bitter. “I always knew what I wanted to do. It’s a five-year masters degree though, and a lot more work than I expected.” He shakes his head, turns to look at the road ahead again.
“Worth it though?” I ask.
“It’s always worth chasing your dreams.”
The way he says it, it sounds almost accusatory. Like I’m not chasing mine. I side-eye him, but he’s avoiding eye contact now. “Well, I envy you,” I say. “It took me longer to figure out what I really wanted.”
“To run the front desk of a hotel?” He smirks.
I elbow him without thinking, the way I would’ve years ago. The contact sends a spark along my skin, and I jump a little, involuntary.
Josh’s smirk only widens.
“It’s a good job,” I reply, defensive. “It’s steady work, and you can work almost anywhere. One of the easiest ways to move abroad for a job—there’s some countries that sponsor visas for anyone who wants to work in the industry.”
“Because nobody really wants to work in that industry,” Josh counters. “What happened to your painting?”
“I still paint. On the side.”
“You were so good, though.”
I shake my head. “I was good for a fifteen-year-old, Josh. I wasn’t brilliant or anything.”
“I thought you were,” he says, so low I think I misheard. But when I look at him again, his eyes are distant, unfocused.
“Well. I’m sure we both thought differently back then,” I say. “About a lot of things.” I let my voice go a little sarcastic at the end. But if he notices, he doesn’t say.
“I remember this walk being shorter,” he comments as we continue along.
“You didn’t need to come,” I point out.
He laughs. I cast a sideways glance at him but he only shrugs at me. “Just trying to be polite.”
Polite. Right. Good. I pretend it doesn’t sting—I’d thought he might actually want to spend time with me. Guess not. But it’s better that way. He’s only being polite—not interested.
Because I don’t want him to be interested. That would be very, very bad.
So I tell myself.
We round the corner off of the isolated road toward the wider road to the store. Instead of dirt, it’s a gravel road now, and the gravel crunches under our shoes. I slip on it, and he catches my arm, steadies me, so fast it had to be instinct. For a moment, we both pause, and I look at his hand where it’s wrapped around my shoulder, his fingers branding red-hot imprints into my skin.
He lets go then, but I can still feel his touch. Lingering. Reminding me.
“Where did you wind up going to school?” I ask, just to change the subject.
As we start walking again, though, he sticks closer beside me. Close enough that our arms brush every few steps, and once his fingers graze along mine. It could be an accident. It must be, because he doesn’t react, doesn’t act like he’s noticed. But it’s too coincidental. He’s doing this on purpose. Trying to drive me crazy.
“Kent State, out in Ohio.”
“Wow. Long way from Georgia.”
He catches my eye, a funny look in his. “We’ve been out in Cleveland for the last three years,” he says. “Though, obviously we’re moving back home now.”
I laugh a little, because what else can I do? I forgot, of course, why we’re both here. The insane situation that landed us in this mess. “Did you know about them?” I ask.
“Not until this morning.” He laughs too. “It’s just like Mom to pull something like this.”
“You don’t think it’s crazy?” My eyebrows rise.
“Of course it is. But hey, life is short.” He shrugs. “You have to do what makes you happy. Go for what you want.”
He’s eying me again as he says that, and suddenly I’m aware that we’re standing very close once more. I catch the scent of his body wash, something piney, and underneath it, the familiar scent that’s all him. Oak and mud after a stormy rain, hot and savory all at once. It makes me inhale again, sharper.
He lifts an eyebrow. Grins that crooked grin I’ve missed so much. “You don’t sound convinced.”