ZACK MARSHALL may look like a thug but underneath he’s all about family. His brother, Gabe, is the popular one but he’s never envied anything he has. Except for Josephine Harlow.
From now on JOSIE HARLOW is living life full throttle. First task: find a nude model for her next photo series. Next up: getting rid of her pesky V-card. No more trying to gain her family’s approval. They all think she’s in love with her high school boyfriend. Instead she dreams of his brother, tattooed, Mohawked mechanic Zachary Marshall.
He annoys her and they fight constantly but worst of all, he only sees her as “Gabe’s girl”. Until Zack makes the most shocking offer of all, to be the model for her show.
And the first man in her bed.
There was a time when I thought my brother was invincible. He could run faster, throw farther and hit harder than I ever could.
He was my hero.
I was always the loner, the antisocial misfit with few friends and even fewer fucks to give. Whereas Gabe is the type of guy who can charm the pants off a nun and makes everything look easy.
I glance over at my brother and have to acknowledge that his life hasn’t been so charmed lately. His face is pale and sweaty from exertion. One arm is slung over my shoulders as we shuffle down the hall at a snail’s pace and I’m pretty sure my grip is the only thing keeping him upright. He looks terrible.
Well, to be fair he looks like a guy who just got stabbed.
Once we reach his bedroom, he lets out a ragged sigh as I help him sit down on the bed. It only took so much effort to get him back up the stairs because he’s determined to prove he doesn’t need my help. His superman act has definitely taken a toll. His forehead has a deep furrow and his breathing is shallow.
He was only in the hospital for a few days before checking himself out against medical advice. It’s been two weeks since then and I’m getting worried. He doesn’t seem to be much better and I can tell he’s still in a lot of pain.
“I think it’s time for your meds again.”
“No more. I can’t think when I take that shit.” He closes his eyes and doesn’t look at me while I cover him with his blankets. Ignoring me while I’m helping him seems to soothe his pride a bit.
“You’re a terrible patient.” It’s impossible to keep the amusement from my voice which just seems to piss him off further.
He cracks his eyes open slightly. “Where’s Sasha?”
I grin, knowing the real reason for his grumpiness is more about her absence than the knife wound in his side. “She had to babysit for her sister. Don’t worry, she’ll be back before your heart breaks.”
“Fuck off.” There’s no heat behind the curse though and that worries me more than anything else he’s said or done today.
We’ve had some pretty heavy stuff thrown at us lately and I’m not sure how he’s handling it. I’ve been vacillating between enraged and depressed over the past few days myself.
“How is he?”
We both turn at the sound of Sasha’s voice. I manage to get out of the way, barely, as Sasha pushes past me and climbs on the bed next to Gabe. The frown lines on his forehead ease immediately.
“I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”
Neither of them looks up as I leave but I don’t take offense. Now that Sasha’s here I can finally take a deep breath and relax a little. As much as I love my brother, he’s always been one step away from straying from the straight and narrow. Worrying about him is as much a part of my life as breathing.
We grew up under unusual circumstances when our mothers, best friends before being knocked up by the same guy, decided to raise us together. Our community is small and there were plenty of people here who thought our little family didn’t belong. I doubt I would have been popular anyway as scrawny and sickly as I was but our social status definitely affected Gabe. He has a natural propensity for trouble but watching our moms struggle to pay the bills gave him the push he needed to develop some of his less than legal skills.
After repeated brushes with the law as a teenager, it’s been a constant battle to keep him away from temptation. I truly believe it was only the worry about upsetting our mothers that kept him out of jail. Now that he’s with Sasha, I don’t worry so much anymore. Even if he was tempted back to his old life, he wouldn’t do anything that would take him away from her.
As I close the door behind me, Debbie straightens up from where she was leaning against the wall.
“Hey, Mom. How long have you been out here?”
She smiles and glances behind me at the closed door. “I wanted to check on him before I go. But I won’t disturb him if he’s resting.”
Ever since Gabe was attacked, both of our mothers have been hovering to the point where they were driving him crazy. My mom is the type that doesn’t take hints too well but Debbie has always tried to respect our boundaries. Even when it’s hard for her to do.
“He’s doing a little better.” I lie, hoping it will put her mind at ease. “Now that Sasha is back, maybe he’ll stop being difficult and just take his pain pills.”
She pulls me into a hug. “Thank you, sweetheart. I don’t know what we would have done without you and Sasha these past few weeks.”
Her head barely grazes my chin but she smells like lavender and just… home. Growing up, both Gabe and I got used to being scooped up for “snuggles” as she calls it. Technically she’s Gabe’s mom but she’s never treated me like anything other than a second son. Getting comfort from Debbie is the most natural thing in the world. It’s so weird now as an adult to realize that sometimes she needs comfort, too.
She pulls back and dabs at her eyes with the back of her hand. “I finished your laundry and Paula is out getting groceries.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
She waves that away. “We need to do something.”
I understand that completely. Anything is better than sitting around and feeling helpless.
“Anyway, I just wanted to make sure that you check on Josie from time to time.”
Just the sound of her name hits me like a physical slap. “Jo’s here? Where is she?”
I didn’t hear her come in so she must have arrived while I was trying to wrestle Gabe up the stairs.
“She’s outside. Painting.”
“Oh.” I don’t need to hear anything else. “I’ll take care of it.”
Debbie squeezes my arm before walking back down the stairs. I hear her walking around and then the slam of the front door closing and still I stand there. I’m not ready to deal with what’s next. Taking care of Gabe these past few weeks has been a challenge but even that doesn’t compare to what I’m about to do. Because as difficult as it’s been to see my brother hurt, I’ve also had to deal with the only other person who has the capacity to annoy and terrify me the same way he does.
The girl who has loved him forever.
As soon as I walk through the back door, I see her. She’s wearing faded denim coveralls and her long, dark hair is up in a messy bun. I can only see her from behind but that face is burned into my memory. The dark slash of her eyebrows, the dramatic upturned brown eyes and the pouty mouth that has fueled so many of my fantasies.
I swallow hard, disgusted by myself. Shame has been a constant companion ever since discovering that I have a bit of a thing for my brother’s old girlfriend. We’ve all been friends so long that Jo is almost like a second sibling. She’s been trailing along after Gabe for years and I’ve practically watched her grow up.
Which makes me feel even more like a pervert for suddenly noticing that Josephine Harlow is insanely hot.
I’m so busy berating myself it takes almost a full minute before the destruction around me registers. When Debbie said she was painting, I knew I needed to get down here. Josie’s an artist but she prefers photography. She only paints when she’s upset.
The first week after Gabe’s attack, she came over every day to check on him. Afterward, she’d come out here and paint. She didn’t say anything to me and she didn’t cry. She just stood in front of the easel and painted until all the light was gone. It filled me with rage and helplessness every time to see her hurting like that, knowing there was nothing I could do.
But this is… different.
Paint is everywhere. She’s covered in it and so is my brother’s backyard. It looks like she bought several cans of paint and then blew them up one by one. When she leans down and sticks her hands directly into an open canister, I realize that isn’t too far off. She’s painting but she’s doing it in the most haphazard way possible, flinging it at the canvas in front of her with quick, angry swipes.
“I can really see the emotion in your work.”
Josie freezes mid-swing and the paint on her hands lands with a soft plop in the grass.
“Oh, hey.” She looks down at her hands like she isn’t sure where all the paint came from. Her cheeks flush pink and she sticks her hands in her pockets. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to wonder who the hell is going to clean all this up.”
Her eyes narrow. “Bite me, Zack.”
Then her eyes latch onto mine and before I can stop myself, my arms are open. She launches herself at me, knocking into me so hard that I have to take a step back to keep us upright. There’s paint all over me now but I don’t even care. The only thing that matters is the way her shoulders are shaking beneath my hands. In that moment, all I care about is the fact that she’s hurting.
Her feelings for my brother have never been a secret. Ever since that terrible day when Gabe interrupted the assholes who were trying to take advantage of her at a party, she’s looked at him like he’s her personal hero. Most people assume Josie loves Gabe for the same reasons everyone else does. Because he’s handsome and charming and the kind of guy that girls like her dream of. They have no idea that she sees him as her own personal guardian angel.
But I do.
Everyone around us doesn’t know the circumstances behind it because as far as I know, none of us ever told anyone about what happened that night.
As much as Gabe and I wanted to go back and tear those guys apart, Josie was frantic. She was humiliated and frightened about what her parents and friends would say and think. She didn’t want anyone to know and so that night has become just one more thing that none of us speak of. Jo has been following us around ever since and after a while she blended seamlessly into the fabric of our lives. It should be strange how we adopted her, like a random puppy or something.
But she just fit with us.
“I finally got him upstairs. He just needs to sleep. You know nothing can keep Gabe down for long.”
Her fingers curl into my chest, balling the fabric of my cotton T-shirt beneath her fists. She rubs her face against my shirt and nods wordlessly. The helplessness I felt earlier comes back full force.
“It’s all going to be okay.” I’m stroking her hair, whispering whatever I think will help to calm her down. But inside, I’m on fire because I know his injury isn’t the only reason she’s crying. It’s because Josie can’t do what she really wants and watch over Gabe herself.
He has a girlfriend now and things are never going to be the same.
After a few minutes she pulls back and wipes at her tears, leaving a streak of red paint on her cheek.
“I’m okay now. Sorry about that.” She can’t even look at me. Her breaths are still coming in gasping little sobs as she rolls up the paper on the easel.
I want to help her but something tells me she won’t welcome that so I move out of the way so she can collect the brushes near my feet. Several locks of her wavy hair have escaped her bun and are sticking to the paint on her cheeks and neck. Even sweaty and disheveled, she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
Over the years I’ve watched her blossom from a scared, naive young girl into a confident woman. The outside may have changed but she’s still our same sweet Josie on the inside. And she still loves the man who saved her when no one else cared. All the guys she’s dated since high school seemed like plastic stand-ins for my brother. I think our parents and hers have secretly been waiting for them to get back together. Hell, even I was expecting it to happen eventually.
Now things are different and it’s like she’s self-destructing right in front of me.
“You don’t have to apologize. I’m worried about him, too.”
She looks up at me sharply. “You are? Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
“No, it’s not that. He’s just never gotten hurt so badly before.”
“Yeah.” Her eyes become distant and she looks out over the yard. “He’s been better lately. Less impulsive. I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore.”
I understand exactly what she means. Gabe has gotten into his fair share of trouble, and so have I, but most of it was borne of necessity. When money was tight we’d boost a few cars to make sure the gas wasn’t cut off in the middle of winter. The stuff we did was wrong but I’ve never regretted it because we did what we had to do. Gabe though, he always seemed to enjoy it. Now that we’ve inherited millions from our father, it shouldn’t even be an issue. But for a while I was still worried that he’d be drawn back to his old ways just for the rush.
Thinking of our wayward billionaire father reminds me of the reason Gabe is upstairs wounded in the first place. I push that thought away. I can’t even think about his part in all this or I’ll get pissed off all over again.
Josie grabs the easel and folds it closed gently. “I should go home and clean up. My mom’s expecting me to drop by later. I can’t let her see me like this.”
Her mother is a real piece of work. No doubt she’d shit a brick if she saw her daughter dressed like a mechanic and covered in paint. Her mother tolerates Gabe, even she can’t resist him, but she’s never bothered to hide her disgust for me.
“Make sure to give Geraldine my regards.”
Her mouth tilts up slightly. “I’ll do that. And Zack… thanks.” She ducks her head bashfully before scooping up the paint.
I watch her walk away, her pert little bottom twitching attractively even under the ugly coveralls she’s wearing. She doesn’t look back, probably forgetting that I’m here as soon as her back is turned. I’ve never fooled myself about my place in Josie’s life. In her world it’s all Gabe, all the time and I’ve never thought differently. It’s only recently that I’ve realized the toll I’ve paid along the way. It takes a little chunk out of me every time I have to dry her tears after he hurts her. But I can’t stop. Because I love them both.
Everyone thinks mortality is about the sudden loss of the soul. We live our lives fearing the worst that we think can happen. Car accident. Gun shot. Heart attack. But very few people know the truth, that those aren’t the worst ways you can go. Although painful, at least a bullet to the heart is quick.
Watching Josie pine for someone who will never want her the way I do feels like dying slowly.
After Josie leaves, I pull out my phone and tap on the contact for one of my newfound brothers, Tank.
He answers right away. “Zack. I had a feeling you’d be calling today.”
“I would have called earlier but it took longer to get Gabe settled than I thought.”
“Is he still bitching about that little scratch on the side?”
I burst out laughing. Tank was a sniper for years and he’s still a pretty scary dude. I’ve no doubt he’s seen and survived way worse.
“I’ll definitely tell him you said that.”
Tank is quiet for a moment then says, “I’ll never forget the moment I realized he’d been stabbed. I lost about ten years off my life that day. That was a brave thing he did. Stupid but brave.”
Thinking of the guy responsible for my brother’s hospital stay sends a shaft of fear straight to my heart.
We assumed he was connected to our father’s shady past but we had no idea what we were dealing with. Gabe broke into the warehouse Blade was staying in and had the terrible judgment to bring along a friend of his from the old days. A friend who stole something when Gabe wasn’t looking.
He had no idea what had happened until Sasha’s house was trashed and he got the message Blade left for him. A dagger through her picture. To protect her, Gabe confronted him and ended up learning firsthand how he earned his name.
Tank clears his throat sounding surprisingly emotional. “Anyway, I got in touch with the guy you told me about. He admitted to stealing the ring but I got it back. I gave it to Max. He said he’ll handle it. Hopefully dear old Dad is actually telling the truth for once.”
Well, that’s a relief. Hopefully Max will settle whatever business they have and convince Blade to go back home. The last thing we need is that scary bastard hanging around. Tank agrees and by the time we hang up, I breathe deeply for the first time since I saw Gabe in that hospital bed.
Finally. A little peace.
I go back upstairs, careful to be quiet as I pass Gabe’s door. At this point he should be sleeping so even though I feel like I should check on him, I don’t. Sasha’s taking care of him so I’m not needed there. That gives me a little pang behind the heart.
I really like her but it’s strange to think of someone else being closer to my brother than I am. It leaves me with a sense of being out of place somehow. When Gabe bought this house, he convinced me that it was ridiculous to buy my own place right away. Why not wait until I found something I actually wanted and just stay with him until then?
It made sense at the time but I think it’s time to revisit the buying my own place situation. Sasha hasn’t been in my brother’s life for long but I already know where things are heading. When a man looks at a woman like she’s more vital than the air he breathes, only an idiot wouldn’t lock it down with a ring. She’ll be my sister before the end of the year, I’m willing to bet. My brother is many things but never an idiot. His recent behavior not withstanding.
I don’t want to cramp their style or feel like a third wheel but those aren’t the only reasons I want to move out.
Gabe has always been more popular and charming and the one everyone likes. And I’ve never minded before because I love him. Maybe that’s what makes this situation so unbearable. I never thought that I would envy or resent him for anything he has.
But when I look at Josie, when I see the love shining out of her eyes that he so easily disregards, it makes me feel something I never thought I could.
It makes me hate him a little bit.
** ZACK is available on 6/16/15
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