Protecting You Page 2

“But it still has flavor.”

I grinned. “Trust me. I have an idea.”

As if she could read my mind—and sometimes I figured she could—she smiled back and handed me her chewed-up gum. “Do it.”

I mushed our two pieces of gum together and watched Miss Naomi. I’d have to make a run for it and hope she didn’t see me.

“Don’t get caught,” Grace whispered.

“I won’t. But if I do, just run. I won’t tell them you were here.”

Staying low, I darted toward the car. The grown-ups kept arguing. I stretched the sticky wad of gum so it would cover more area and stuck it to the driver’s side door handle, right where he’d grab it.

Grace clapped her hand over her mouth to keep from giggling out loud as I ran back to her.

“Let’s go.”

Grabbing each other’s hands, we made a run for it, dashing for the creek. By the time we splashed through the water, Grace wasn’t crying anymore. Her blond hair streamed behind her and she smiled big.

She made me feel kind of funny when she did that.

We kept going until the sound of her parents fighting faded behind us. Narrow pine trees replaced the grass and gardens that grew in our yards, their needles covering the ground. This was still our territory, although we had to be careful not to go too far. There were bears in the hills, and coyotes and who knew what else. I was pretty sure I could keep a coyote from hurting Grace, but I didn’t want to come face to face with a bear.

Plus, if we couldn’t hear Gram calling us in for dinner, we’d get in trouble. I was already going to get it for the gum on Mr. Miles’ car, but I didn’t care. It was worth it.

We stopped when we got to a tall maple. It was a great climbing tree. Grace went up first, nimbly scaling the low branches. She was the best tree climber in Tilikum. She wasn’t scared to go up really high. That wasn’t the main reason she was my best friend, but it was one of them.

I followed and scooted out onto a thick branch to sit beside her. I had a fresh scrape on my leg, probably from the bark, but it wasn’t bleeding and it only stung a little, so I ignored it.

Our legs dangled high above the ground. It felt like nothing could get us up here. Nothing could hurt us. It was me and Grace against the world.

Without saying anything, she leaned her head on my shoulder and grabbed my hand. I rested my head on top of hers. I liked it when she did this. It gave me a funny feeling in my stomach, like when she smiled really big, but it was a good feeling, not a bad one.

I wished I had more gum to give her, but I didn’t. So I just sat with her, swinging my legs and holding her hand.









Age 21


I stood looking out the upstairs window, like a puppy who’d just caught sight of his owner. Craning my neck to see, my face close to the glass. I hadn’t come upstairs intending to stand here with my hands on the window frame, leaning so I could get a better view of my neighbor’s house. Although now that I was up here, I couldn’t remember why I’d come in the first place.

Grace was home for the summer.

My lip twitched in an almost-smile as I watched her get out of her beat-up Toyota Corolla. Her blond hair was in a ponytail and she wore a loose t-shirt and cut-offs, a pair of flip-flops on her feet. She paused outside her car, her hands on the open door, and looked around, like she was taking it all in.

Our houses sat at the end of a private drive, the narrow road bumpy with potholes. Her mom’s house was newer than ours, but you wouldn’t know by looking at it. The front porch was a patchwork of reclaimed wood my brothers and I had used to shore it up, and the whole thing needed a fresh coat of paint. The yard was tidy, mostly because Gram treated it like an extension of her gardens. Flowers bloomed in window boxes, and my brothers and I took care of mowing the lawn. But the whole place still looked tired and worn.

What was Grace thinking out there? Was she glad to be home? Or was she wishing she’d stayed in Pullman, where she was going to college? Maybe wishing she’d kept her job there over the summer so she wouldn’t have to come back. So she could still see her boyfriend.

The hint of a smile on my lips melted into a scowl. Grace was dating some shithead at school. Actually, I had no idea if he was a shithead. She’d never brought him home, so I hadn’t met him.

My eyes darted to the passenger seat of her car, an awful thought hitting me like a truck. Had she brought him with her?

My grip on the window trim tightened. The thought of spending the summer watching Grace with her college boyfriend made me want to put my fist through the glass.

Not that I had any right to be angry that she was dating someone.

Grace Miles was the literal girl next door. Sweet, pretty, and smart, with a stubborn streak that was as unshakable as the mountains we lived in. We’d grown up together. It hadn’t been that long ago that the land surrounding our two houses had been our entire world. We’d been friends for most of our lives, but we’d never dated. And we certainly weren’t dating now.

I released my grip on the window frame. Her passenger seat was empty. No boyfriend, shithead or otherwise.

Truthfully, I didn’t want the guy to be a shithead. I wanted him to be great, because more than anything, I wanted Grace to be happy. She should have been dating a guy who was awesome—who treated her like a treasure. That was what she deserved.

“Stop licking the glass.”

I whipped around and shot a glare at Logan. The floors up here creaked, so either my brother had been trying to sneak up on me, or I’d been too distracted to hear him. Probably the latter.

“How about I kick your ass?”

He grinned at me, the cocky little shit. Not that he was little anymore. He was eighteen, and we’d been the same height for a couple of years. My brothers and I—there were five of us—had inherited our father’s stature. None of us were under six-two, even Gavin, who was only sixteen.

But I was the oldest, so I still had big brother power.

“I’ll take a raincheck on that. I’m going out tonight. Don’t want to mess this up.” Logan gestured to his face. “Although a black eye is a great way to meet girls. Maybe I should take you up on it.”

“You’re an idiot.”

He grinned again. “Maybe, but at least I’m not a stalker.”

I stepped away from the window. “I’m not stalking her.”

“Sure you’re not.”

Maybe I would give him a black eye. “Shut your face, asshole.”

“Boys! Language.” Gram’s voice carried upstairs.

Logan and I furrowed our brows. We could start up our grandad’s old truck, which had an engine so loud it rattled the windows, and she’d barely notice. But let us utter a single curse word above a whisper in Gram’s house and she’d scold us like we were still kids.

“Sorry, Gram,” I called down.

Logan wandered over to the window and glanced out. “Cool that she’s home, though.”


Even without my face practically touching the glass, I could see her. She’d popped the trunk and pulled out a big suitcase. Her little brother, Elijah, burst out of the house and barreled into her, throwing his arms around her. She leaned down and kissed the top of his head.

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