Fifteen years later, Marjorie is fading, her impending death a blow to Scarlett. Everett enjoys a flourishing legal career while Scarlett writes weekly investigative articles—keeping her own secrets hidden. An old police report is found in Marjorie’s house, revealing a web of deception spun by Scarlett’s family.
A spark of fear lit her eyes—a look Everett knew well—and her color paled for a moment before returning to the glow of olive skin. Her throat visibly tightened. An unspoken threat had been sent.
Everett was lost, not understanding how she was involved. He draped a possessive arm over Scarlett’s shoulder, turning from the group. The laughter died immediately. His frame alone deterred teasing, but Everett, like his father, had a murderous stare. It was as practiced as his fighting.
Scarlett eyed him, her back stiff. “That’s not the way to make friends.”
“Making friends was never the plan.” He fought the urge to pull her close, to tuck her into his side.
“You had a plan?”
“Pretend all you want.” He knew a caged animal when he saw it.
“Pretend what?” She checked her watch and led him between the art buildings to a smaller, hidden parking lot at the end of the fence. The outdoor high school was built like a college with each building connected only by sidewalk and sunshine. An old table sat under an enormous oak tree on the perimeter of the school, concealed between the cars and the building.
“You have a plan. You know exactly how this whole thing works.” Everett twirled his index finger in a circle. “You’re counting the years ’til you’re gone.”
“Years?” Scarlett arched an eyebrow.
“You realize they’re just going to replace teasing David with you, right?” She circled out from under his arm. “What you did back there doesn’t change anything.”
“You should probably just accept it then.” Everett lifted his chin. He’d helped her even if she wouldn’t admit it. Maybe he was more like his grandmother than he cared to admit.
“I already did.”
“How’s that working for you?”
“Perfectly.” She clenched her hands into tight fists and shoved them in her pockets. “Look, Superman, high school isn’t the same for people like me. You doing whatever that was doesn’t help. You can’t save me. Which, by the way, I don’t need saving.”
“Tell that to your face.” He shouldn’t care but he’d watched this before. His father was skilled in brutality, from minor digs to all-out mental warfare. Richard Ashley could confuse the pope into submission. “You were scared.”
A breeze blew between them, twisting her hair. Her eyes lit, her jaw set and her hair wildly untamed. Everett was done for, wishing he could capture her like this, alive with fire. He could only stare.
“That was nothing. That I could handle.” She rocked on her heels, sounding more like a toddler wanting to stamp her foot. “Thanks to your little performance, Andy’s going grill me about you.”
“Who’s Andy?” The jealousy in his voice was unmistakable, the fact written on her widened eyes.
“He’s my brother.” Her expression softened.
“Oh.” Everett rubbed the back of his head. He’d forgotten about that detail, Scarlett having family, having someone else caring about her.
“They’re close.” Her voice caught, and she broke her gaze. “David and Andy.”
“Your brother’s okay with it?”
She shrugged. “You tell me. He was there.”
Everett spun around, as if he could see them through the buildings he had walked by. “He was there? And did nothing?”
“They’re just teasing. It’s not like they mean it.”
“Mean what?” Everett watched the transformation, the slight hunch in her shoulders, the resignation in her stance. “Did they hurt you?”
“No.” Scarlett fidgeted and then said too quickly, “I have to go.”
“To eat lunch.”
“Me too.” He wasn’t letting her out of his sight. He blamed it on his head injury, this obsession with Scarlett Delfin, a stranger. He’d been warned by the doctors about possible behavior and memory lapses. But the sight of her, determined to be strong and yet wholly vulnerable, wouldn’t shake him.
“That wasn’t an invitation.”
“Duly noted.” Everett wouldn’t eat with her, but he wouldn’t leave her alone either. He frowned. The idea didn’t make sense. Nothing with this girl did. He felt bound to her, an intense connection that defied all reason.
“Who are you?” Scarlett looked around as if someone could help answer her. “And they call me a mystery.”
“Who says you’re a mystery?”
Scarlett rubbed the bridge of her nose. “It’s called a rhetorical question for a reason, Everett.”
She said his name, her voice echoing in his head. He grabbed the memory, wanting to hold it a moment longer. He shook his head—and immediately regretted it. Dizzy, he brought a palm to his head. In an instant, her hands guided him to the wooden table a few decades past its prime. She situated Everett, his legs long enough to sit on top of the table with his feet flat on the ground.
She scrambled next to him on the table and held up two fingers. “How many finger—”
“Two.” He groaned, although it sounded more like an angry lion than a pained high school student. “I told you I’m fine.”
“You mentioned that.” She smiled wryly and added, “How’s that working for you?”
“Those were my words.”
“We’re breathing the same air, want to whine about that too?” Scarlett’s hands fell to her lap, her tone now somber. “I get that you’re fine, but really, should you be here?”
“I will go insane if I spend one more day staring at a wall.” It’d taken a considerable amount of begging his grandmother to get here. If he went home now, Marjorie would never let him go.
“How, exactly, are you supposed to be Superman if you’re hurt?” Sitting on the table, Scarlett wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked back, her head cocked to the side.
“Oh, now, you want to be saved?”
“Are you always this moody?” She rolled her eyes. “I was kidding, you know.”
“The sarcasm gave it away.”
Scarlett winced again.
Everett wanted to kick himself. His tone was curt and his words were sharp. He reached for her. “I’m an idiot.”
Her head snapped up, her eyes unsure.
“I don’t know how to do this.” He stared at his hand, realizing he’d placed it on hers. His thumb instinctively drew small circles on the back of hers. “I’m sorry. I already said that. I don’t know what to say that would mean more than sorry.”
Nothing. Scarlett said nothing, her expression wary.
“You’re making me nervous. Please say something.” His tongue felt dry and his throat shriveled.
“For never touching a girl, you sure touch a lot.”
His hand froze and his arm went stiff. “I’m s—”
“Stop saying that,” she said softly.
He pulled his hand back, his face hot. “What do you want me to say?”
Scarlett didn’t meet his gaze. Her eyes lingered on his hand, back on his thigh. Everett didn’t know what that meant, what was okay and what wasn’t. Scarlett seemed to dance along the fence, a moment with contact and then without.
Risking, Everett shuffled sideways on the table, making room for her. He held out his arm. “Come here.”
She hesitated and then leaned forward, only to pause. The quiet debate appeared on her face.
Everett became instantly aware of his stature compared to her tiny frame. “You don’t have to. Just if you want.”
His voice seemed to pull the unease from her mind. She brightened and curled into his side, sending Everett into a mixed state of relief and confusion. She tucked her knees under her arms and leaned in.
“You are a mystery, just so you know.” He didn’t know how long she’d welcome the embrace but he’d take it.
“You’re no picnic either.”
“Scarlett?” Everett debated on asking, wondering again why he cared. “Did they hurt you?”
“No, not really.” She sat up but allowed Everett to coax her back, nestling her close. “They’re just boys being boys.”
He tipped her chin, forcing her to look at him. Her large, dark eyes searched his. Oh, he was in deep. “That doesn’t make it right.”
“Yeah, well, Superman can’t be everywhere.” A flicker of a smile appeared.
“I’m here now.”