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BOOK: Falling for the Wrong Guy
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“He doesn’t mean it,” Ruby said, cutting into Drew’s thoughts.

Heaviness flooded his body, and his limbs felt tired. From where he stood, there was no question that Blake meant every word of it. And then some. “Of course he means it,” Drew snapped. “Because it’s true.” He drew in a long breath.

“Just give him time. He’ll get used to you being back.” Ruby didn’t sound at all confident.

“Yeah, time. Something Reese doesn’t have.” He stood up, leaned across to pick up his math book and jammed it into his bag. “You just don’t get it, do you?” He had to get out of that place, get away from Blake’s sister. “I don’t want your pity. I’m not your friend. And I’m going to fuck off back home now.”

Screw the meeting—they would have to manage without him.

Chapter Five

T
he haunted expression on Drew’s face cut Ruby to the core. She’d never seen anyone look so desperate in all her life. He’d suffered and continued to suffer, and witnessing the sheer fury Blake directed at him really brought it home to her. Her heart ached for him, for her brother. And for Reese. Ruby hadn’t known her well—Reese and Blake generally hadn’t wanted company when they’d been dating. But on the occasions where Reese and Ruby had spent time together, they hadn’t talked much beyond surface-level stuff, since they hadn’t had a lot in common. But that didn’t mean that Ruby wasn’t sorry she’d lost her life.

Without stopping to worry about what Blake might say if he found out, she hurriedly threw on her jacket, picked up her books and went after him. After bursting through the library door, Ruby caught sight of him as he headed down the corridor, his head bowed. She followed as he turned left and went outside into the student parking lot.

Crap.

She’d never reach him now, as he’d probably parked his car close by the school entrance. But as she pushed open the heavy steel doors that led outside, she saw that he’d walked away from where his black hatchback was parked and headed down the street. Keeping him in sight, she followed. When he reached the end of the road, he turned left onto West Magnolia Drive. A few seconds later, Ruby reached the corner and saw him about twenty yards in front of her. He had come to a halt and was facing one of the houses, his hands jammed into his pockets.

Reese’s house. The house where the fire had occurred.

It looked desolate. The windows were still boarded up, and scorch marks marred the wood paneling, a reminder of the awful damage that had been done all those months ago. She sucked in a breath, then jogged toward him.

“Drew,” she said softly as she approached him.

He didn’t respond, so she tapped him gently on the shoulder, and immediately wished she hadn’t because he jumped back in shock. When he tried to regain his balance, one of his black Chucks came down on her foot.

“Ouch!” Ruby yelped, as pain shot through her foot. She sat down on the stone steps on the walkway in front of the ruined house and yanked off her Skecher, rubbing until the throbbing began to ease. She hated that she sounded like a big baby, but who wouldn’t holler when someone of Drew’s size came down squarely on their first two toes?

“Sorry. Are you okay?” Drew reached out and placed a palm on her arm, rubbing it up and down like you might to soothe a child. It was the first time she’d seen him touch anyone since he’d returned, and she could only blink stupidly at him.

He looked down at his hand and then pulled it back with a small hiss, like she’d burned him. “Sorry,” he repeated.

She slipped her sneaker back on, the pain forgotten. “I’ll survive.” She waved her hand dismissively, not wanting to make him feel any worse than he clearly did, and pretending that he hadn’t just touched her or that it had affected her so much.

“I didn’t see you. What are you doing here?” He frowned, looking like he wanted to sit next to her. She scooted over to make room for him, but he just backed a few steps away from her.

She didn’t want him to go, so she tried the truth. “I was worried about you after the way Blake went off on us, so I followed you.” Okay, that had probably made her sound like some kind of stalker. It didn’t help that they always seemed to be in the same place at the same time—through no fault of his.

He gazed at a spot above her head, his green eyes going slightly unfocused. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m happy to be left alone. It’s best that way.”

Ruby’s breath hitched in the back of her throat. Her dad’s favorite saying ever since his accident was “I just want to be left alone.” Always said in a self-absorbed, I’m-a-victim sort of way. It was disturbing to hear those same words coming from Drew’s lips. But it was yet another reminder that this kind-of crush she was developing really had to die. “Don’t think that. Of course we should worry about you,” Ruby said briskly, hoping to snap him out of his mood.

“Whatever.” He shrugged.

She should probably just leave him, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. Maybe it was the fact that his cold dismissal didn’t sound completely convincing. Or maybe it was that she knew she was the closest thing he had to a friend at school. If only she could get him to open up and talk, it would likely do him good.

“Do you often come here?” She hoped he would say no because stalking the house of his dead…whatever Reese had been to him…would indicate that he was further gone than she’d thought.

“No,” he said, without defensiveness and with enough sincerity that she believed him. “This is the first time. I don’t even think it was a conscious decision. I just started walking and ended up here.” He swallowed and shifted his weight, clearly uncomfortable.

He seemed so sad and broken that all Ruby wanted to do was to fling her arms around him. But how could she? First of all, she was Blake’s sister, and she owed it to her brother not to throw herself bodily at the guy who had betrayed him. And second, the gesture would probably make Drew jump out of his skin. He seemed so intent on punishing himself that an overload of kindness could send him over the edge. “Sometimes we do things without knowing why.” Wow. That sounded like a horrible Hallmark card. Or, at least, something her mother would say. She paused for a moment, wondering what to say next. “Is being here helping at all?”

As soon as the words were out of Ruby’s mouth, she wished she could take them back. How on earth was looking at a burned-out house gonna make him feel better? She could have kicked herself.

“Not really. Standing here brings it all back to me.” His voice cracked.

Tears formed in Ruby’s eyes. He was hurting so much, and she just felt…helpless. “Do you want to leave? We can walk back to school or go somewhere for a coffee, if you want to talk.” When he didn’t say anything, she stood up and moved directly into his personal space. “Drew, it’s okay. You can talk to me.”

His gaze locked onto the house behind her. “It’s like I can hear Reese’s screams even now,” he said, his voice distant and flat, like he hadn’t even heard Ruby. “I couldn’t reach her. I tried. So hard. The flames pushed me back. And then the firefighters pulled me out.”

Ruby shuddered. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how horrific it must have been for him. “Reese wouldn’t want you to blame yourself.”

“How can I not?” He shuddered, and she reached out and gripped his upper arms, willing her own strength into him. He closed his eyes and sighed, leaning his head forward until his forehead rested against hers. And then, like they were inside their own private bubble, he began talking. “It was my fault. I saw Reese at the mall.” Ruby could feel the warmth of his breath on her face, and when she looked up at him she could see his long, dark lashes resting against the slightly shadowed skin under his eyes. She held as still as she could. “She’d been so upset by the breakup that I didn’t want to leave her. She asked me back here.” He jerked his chin slightly in the direction of the house but didn’t lose contact with Ruby. “I should have said no. Why didn’t I say no?” The expression on his face was filled with anguish.

“You didn’t know what would happen.” All she wanted to do was pull him closer and comfort him, but she didn’t want to break the spell between them. He needed to talk, and she needed to listen.

“We had a few beers and just started making out. I didn’t mean for it to happen,” he continued. “I tried to push her away, said it wasn’t right. But she kept telling me that they were broken up, so it was okay. And I— I wanted it to happen.”

She couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy, which was ridiculous. Reese was dead. She squeezed his arms, silently urging him to continue.

“I’d never have hurt Blake intentionally. He’s my best friend.
Was
my best friend. I—” He opened his eyes and shook his head, looking up at the sky. “God, I’m such a selfish bastard.”

She couldn’t completely disagree. Blake and Reese had been on and off all through high school, so Drew should have known better, should have left her alone. For months after Reese’s death, Blake had refused to leave his bedroom, other than going to school and eating the occasional meal. The weight had dropped off of him. His cheeks had grown sunken, his blond hair dull. But the worst had been the fact that the brother who loved to play practical jokes and whooped like a hyena when he laughed had just—disappeared. Replaced by a sullen, perpetually angry imposter. It hurt to see him like that. At times, Ruby wondered if she’d ever see the old Blake again.

And yet, she knew that it wasn’t Drew’s fault. It had just been a senseless, horrible accident. Blake would have gotten over it. He might have even started back up with Reese again once she got Drew out of her system and they’d been through their requisite share of drama and tears. But she’d died, and now, everything was so wrong.

Drew and Blake—it felt like they were tearing her in two. It was all so impossible, and she felt so helpless.

Could she help Drew and still remain loyal to Blake?

“Looking back is pointless. You can’t change what happened. No one can. However much you wish you could.” Even to her ears, she sounded like some daytime TV host, the one who tries to solve people’s problems on their show and who always made her feel like shouting at the TV screen not to be so stupid. She’d have been better not saying anything, if that was all she could come up with.

He broke out of her hold and stepped back, shoving a hand through his tousled brown hair. “Maybe not. But at least every time I look in the mirror, I’m reminded what a fucking, freakish bastard I am.” He pulled at the hood of his sweatshirt, almost unconsciously yanking it to cover more of the scars on his jawline.

He sounded almost grateful for his scars. As if he appreciated the outward reminder of the ugliness he seemed to feel belonged to him. His words finally drove home to her how much he felt he deserved what had happened to him. The excruciating burns. The cruel whispers. The isolation.

And that worried her. A lot.

R
uby had always been an open book as far as her feelings went, and this time was no exception. It didn’t take a genius to work out that she was thinking about Blake and how much he’d been damaged by all this. He should walk away, leave her alone before he ruined her life, too, and only interact with her as much as he had to for the project. Which was not at all, because he couldn’t care less about his chemistry grade.

Ruby’s first loyalty was to Blake. And rightly so. He shouldn’t have talked to her about any of it. It wasn’t fair to put her on the spot like that. There were therapists who could be paid to listen to his nightmares, if that was what he wanted. Which it wasn’t. The hospital had offered for him to go and see someone, but he’d turned them down. It wouldn’t have brought Reese back. It wouldn’t have prevented the fire. All it would have done was make him feel even worse, and he could do that very well on his own, without help from anyone else.

“Don’t say that. You’re not a freakish bastard.” Ruby’s gentle words washed over him like rain. He couldn’t even remember what he’d just said to her that warranted her reply.

“What?” He rubbed the middle of his forehead and frowned.

“About you being a freakish bastard,” she replied softly, her eyes full of concern. “You’re not. You never have been, and you never will be. Life throws stuff at us, but it doesn’t make us bad people.”

“What self-help book have you been swallowing?” Maybe if he were cruel, she’d go away. Because he couldn’t seem to make himself leave her side.

She flushed a deep shade of red, and he immediately wished he hadn’t tried that. She didn’t deserve to be treated so badly. She was doing it with the best of intentions, even if she was making a mistake being nice to him. Nice was what you were when someone had tripped and fallen over. Nice was what you were when someone had lost their purse. Nice wasn’t how you acted toward some asswipe who had betrayed your brother and gotten someone killed.

“Don’t be mean.” Ruby covered her cheeks with her hands and then turned away. But he could still see the tears forming in her eyes.

He’d made her cry. And she hadn’t deserved that. “I’m sorry, Ruby. I don’t want to upset you. I’m just being a jerk. Ignore me.” He wanted to reach for her, touch her again, but instead he shoved his hands in his pockets. His mind was a mess with thoughts careering all over the place. If he stayed near her any longer, she would drive him crazy. “I’ve gotta go,” he muttered as he turned and walked away.

Chapter Six

“J
ust so you know, I’ve got science all morning,” Ruby said to Blake as he drove them into the school parking lot. “We’re working on our projects, in our
groups
.” She emphasized groups, hoping he’d get her meaning. “It will probably go through lunch.”

Despite what had gone down with Drew the other day, Blake still said he’d give her a ride to school, and she had readily agreed. They were in his old white Ford, which used to be his pride and joy. He would spend hours cleaning and polishing it. And God help anyone who made a mess or tried to eat something in there. Now he’d lost all interest in it, and the car was just like most other people’s—full of trash.

“Oh.” Blake shrugged.

She’d been going over in her head what to say to Blake about her plans for the day. As much as she didn’t want to upset him, she also didn’t want him going crazy at her every time he saw her with Drew. Not that it would happen very often, she supposed. Since their time outside Reese’s house, Drew hadn’t spoken to her once and had managed to steer clear of her, even when their science group met. And to be honest, she hadn’t gone out of her way to be in his personal space either. It was almost a relief not to be treading on eggshells and worrying about what to say in case it upset him. Almost. Yet, despite that, she still found that he invaded her thoughts all day and night.

She shook herself back to her conversation with her brother. “So don’t go off on me if you see me hanging out with Drew,” she continued. “The way you were the other day in the library was so embarrassing.”

Crap.
She hadn’t meant to say embarrassing, even though it was true. But she knew that Blake wouldn’t understand because he’d interpret her embarrassment as meaning that she cared more about what Drew thought than she did about what had happened. When in fact it wasn’t that straightforward.

“You’re kidding, right?” Blake turned his head and glared at her for long enough that she put a hand on the wheel to make sure he didn’t drive into something. He brushed her away and returned his focus to the road. “All you got from what happened in the library was that I’d
embarrassed
you?” He swung the car into a vacant lot and rammed on the brakes, causing Ruby to lurch forward as they came to a halt.

Poor Blake—she had to remember just how much he was suffering in all of this. His high-school sweetheart had died, his best friend had betrayed him, and now his sister was all buddy-buddy with that ex-best friend, long before Blake himself was ready to even think about forgiveness. This must be gutting him.

One day she might actually learn to think before she spoke.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to say embarrassed.” She patted him awkwardly on the arm. Blake wasn’t much of a hugger—he’d be more likely to throw you over his shoulder and toss you into a pond as a way of showing his affection. He took after their dad—or at least, how their dad used to be. Now their father seemed permanently stuck on bitter and angry. “I understand why you’re mad. But I didn’t ask to be in Drew’s group, you know. And now that I am, it’s something we all have to deal with until the project is over. It’s only for a very short time.”

She couldn’t help that a wave of traitor-like sadness washed over her as she realized that once the project ended, she’d have no reason to speak to Drew. She pushed the feeling aside. Blake was
right here
. She couldn’t even begin to go down that road. Not now.

Not ever.

“Do what you have to. I don’t care.” He opened the car door and ducked outside, then slammed it shut with way more force than necessary. When she grabbed her backpack and got out, he stood strumming his fingers on the roof. But just as she started to feel relief that he’d waited for her—as if he couldn’t be too mad if he wanted to walk to class with her—he locked the car and strode off, leaving her behind.

She stood glued to the spot watching her brother walk away, anger emanating from him with each long stride he took. She wished there was something she could do to take away all that hurt and bitterness. To give him back just a little of the happy-go-lucky optimism he used to have.

“Ruby.”

She turned and saw Tiffany heading toward her. Thank God. She seriously didn’t know how she’d manage without having Tiffany to talk to. “Hey,” Ruby said. “I’m so glad to see you. I just told Blake we were having another science group session today.”

“How did he take it?” Tiffany asked, her brow furrowed.

Ruby let out a sigh. “As expected. I think he’s going to divorce me as his sister if this group project doesn’t end soon.”

But at least she didn’t have to be looking over her shoulder while they met, since Blake knew about the meeting.

“And how do you feel about spending the morning with Drew? Although that’s pretty obvious by what you’re wearing.” Tiffany shot her a toothy, knowing grin, which lightened Ruby’s mood almost immediately.

“I don’t know what you mean.” But she couldn’t help laughing as she glanced down at her clothes. After trying on everything in her closet three times over last night, she had eventually decided to wear her dark-wash jeans and a filmy pink beaded tank—one of the most expensive things she owned. Tiffany had helped her pick it out, so she knew exactly how it ranked in Ruby’s wardrobe. Ruby had also gotten up an hour earlier than usual that morning to straighten her hair and make an extra effort with her makeup, without looking like she’d made an extra effort. Which wasn’t an easy task.

“You look really cool. Is that the tank you bought from Ziggy’s?”

Ruby hadn’t believed her luck when she had seen the top on sale. She’d been admiring it for weeks, and had even tried it on, but couldn’t afford to buy it until it had hit the clearance rack. She’d had it hanging in her closet, waiting for a special occasion. Which this definitely was.

“Thanks. Yes, this is the one.”

“I hope he appreciates it.” Tiffany looked Ruby up and down and nodded her head in approval.

Ruby sighed. Truth was that Drew was probably too wrapped up in his guilt and sadness to notice her stupid new tank. It seemed so insignificant when she thought of what he was going through. “He probably won’t even look at me. And it’s not like we’re going to be spending time alone since there are five of us in the group.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re not getting excited about spending so much time with him today.” Tiffany nudged her and winked.

As usual, Tiffany had totally gotten it right. Even though Drew would hardly acknowledge her, the thought of being in the same vicinity for a few hours still sent butterflies whizzing around her stomach. Ridiculous, brother-betraying butterflies.

“I doubt he’ll speak to me.” She’d told Tiffany a few days ago that Drew had confided in her about the fire, though she hadn’t shared the details. And Tiffany was also aware that Drew had been avoiding her ever since. “He’s very good at blocking everyone out. He’ll just sit there and leave all the talking to Brad.” Ruby shuddered. It really sucked that the price she had to pay for spending hours in Drew’s company was dealing with Brad and his giant ego for the same amount of time.

“I’m sure you can change that. He can’t totally ignore you if you’re working together.” Tiffany smirked.

“If I want to change it, of course.” Ruby bit down on her bottom lip while trying to sort out in her head exactly what she wanted.

“You just said you did.” Tiffany tilted her head to one side, looking bewildered.

“I know.” Ruby leaned against the oak tree by the path. “It’s just complicated. One minute, I really want us to be friends. He needs someone to talk to about what happened. He can’t keep bottling everything up, which he is at the moment, because it’s destroying him. Then reality sets in, and I realize that it’s a stupid thing to wish for because it would lead to so much trouble.”

She didn’t just mean with Blake, although his feelings were important to her. She meant with herself, too. She didn’t think she’d be able to take on someone as complex as Drew, not in the least because of the worrying similarity he had with her father. The idea that she could get pulled into a negative spiral of despair and anger that would never end, just like her mother had with her father, kept nagging at the back of her mind.

“Ruby, stop,” Tiffany said, firmly holding her hand up. “You’re doing your usual over-thinking everything. Just let it take its course. Whatever happens will happen.”

Yet again, her friend was right. Over-thinking was her middle name. Life would be so much easier if she could be more like Tiffany and not let everything affect her so much. She pushed herself off of the tree and nudged Tiff with her elbow. “And Drew accused
me
of swallowing a self-help book. He clearly hasn’t had anything to do with you recently.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Tiffany placed both hands on her hips, her expression one of exaggerated innocence.

“Of course you don’t.” Ruby flicked her gaze upward, toward the sky. She then rested her arm around Tiffany’s shoulder and gently pulled her forward. “Come on, I don’t want to be late.”

They turned and headed toward the school entrance, tucking behind a trail of students heading in the same direction. After entering the school, they went to their lockers and then Ruby headed to the library where the group had planned to meet.

By the time she arrived, everyone was already there. She glanced at her watch. The bell for school hadn’t even rung.

“Didn’t you get my email?” Brad asked as she reached them.

Ruby glanced at the others in the group, including Drew, who had his head down. She shook her head. “What email?”

“To meet here at eight-thirty this morning, so we can have as much time as possible to work on the project.”

He had to be kidding. He really was taking his
science dictatorship
to a whole new level. She couldn’t wait to tell Tiffany about it. She’d crack up. “No. Sorry, I don’t think—”

Crap.
She remembered seeing Brad’s name on an email that she’d made a point of ignoring earlier this morning, since she’d had more important things to be doing, which involved lip gloss and her flat-iron. Then again, that was his fault because he’d sent so many messages already on the project. How was she to know that that particular email was actually important?

“Never mind.” Brad waved his hand dismissively. “Sit down, and let’s get started. I’ve already worked out everyone’s tasks, so now we—”

“Why don’t we work at Echoes, rather than being stuck here all morning?” Ruby interrupted as she pulled out a chair and sat down. “It’s a café. They serve coffee. A perfect reason to go, if you ask me.”

And nothing to do with the fact that it had suddenly struck Ruby that in a less formal setting, Drew might relax and be more comfortable with her. He might even talk a bit. Open up.

“Not a good idea,” Brad said, a pompous expression crossing his face.

“Why not?” Ruby asked. She turned to the others. “Who’s for working at Echoes?”

“Yeah,” Ricky said.

“Cool,” Jess added.

Ruby stared at Drew, arching a brow.

“Sure,” Drew said after a few seconds.

“Right. It looks like going to the café wins,” Ruby said. Brad’s eyebrows furrowed as though he couldn’t believe the group had gone against his master plan.

For the second time. Ha.

“Okay,” Brad said, giving a loud, clearly frustrated sigh. “We’ll go for a couple of hours. Some of us can’t afford to buy enough coffee to stay for longer.”

Ruby didn’t say anything as she figured she’d done enough already. She might have changed their location, but she didn’t want to upset Brad, since there had to be some level of cooperation for all of them to get a good grade on this assignment.

They all got up to leave, and she wondered about asking Drew for a ride to the café, but he strode off ahead of everyone before she had the chance.

D
rew parked his car outside the café and sat there drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for the others to arrive. He’d deliberately kept away from Ruby since the day they’d met outside of Reese’s house. Talking to her, touching her, had unnerved him. He knew she was just being nice, because that was the sort of person Ruby was. But he didn’t want, or deserve, someone to be
nice.
That aside, ever since his first day back at school, he’d had feelings toward her which just weren’t right, considering the situation.

He’d always liked her. And envied Blake for having a sister he was so close to. He knew things weren’t easy in their house, because of their dad, but it still beat being the only, unwanted child of two alcoholics. Not that it mattered any more. Everything had changed so much that his drunken parents didn’t even land on his radar now.

A car door slammed behind him, and glancing in his rearview mirror, he noticed Ruby and Jess getting out of Ricky’s car. He opened his door and stepped out onto the sidewalk, torn between dread and anticipation.

“Hey, Drew,” Ruby said.

He nodded curtly in her direction and then walked ahead of her and into the café. After spotting an empty, oversized booth toward the back, he made his way there, assuming the others would follow. He slid along the bench until he reached the wall—and felt Ruby sliding in beside him before he saw her. Since he’d been working so hard to ignore her, he’d expected her to sit as far away from him as possible. What the hell did he know?

She smiled, her lips cotton-candy pink with gloss, and a feeling of desire far stronger than anything he’d ever felt for Reese snaked through him. It shocked the hell out of him. Incapable of speaking, all he could do was nod in response. She’d think he was like one of those freaky nodding dog toys people had in their cars.

Once they were all seated, one of the waitstaff came up and took their order. Drew had a triple-shot cappuccino. He figured the buzz it would give him might help make the meeting more bearable.

“Triple shot? You want to be one of our test subjects then?” Ruby grinned and elbowed him gently in his side.

Drew felt his pulse speed up to double time. It seemed like he had no control over himself when Ruby was close by. Yet, he liked being near her, even if she had no knowledge of that. It wasn’t like he could ever do anything about it, whether he wanted to or not. “I wouldn’t mind. You?” he replied, forcing some semblance of calm and control into his voice.

BOOK: Falling for the Wrong Guy
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