But this particular distraction is over. I can’t even stand to have her touch my clothes, but my dad would kill me if he knew I was rude to a woman, particularly one I’d just fucked.

“I’m sorry.” I give her a tight smile. “Family thing.”

She shrugs. Ten minutes ago, the lift of her naked breast would’ve gotten me hard, and I’d have fallen on her. Now I only have Charlotte on my mind; there’s no room for Madeline without making me sick.

“I’ll call,” I say and then pull on my T-shirt and grab up my socks and shoes. I don’t look back, even when she calls my name out in a bewildered fashion. I can’t tell her Charlotte’s situation. It’s a family thing.

By the time I get to the hospital, my clothes are back together and I’m winded. I run to the door, and Dad is standing there looking grim. I falter. “Did she. . . ” I’m afraid to finish the sentence.

“She’s fine. A fighter,” Dad says with approval. I move toward the entrance, and he stops me. I hear him inhale and then he pushes me back. I strain against him, but my seventeen-year-old body isn’t strong enough to overtake him. Dad was a professional fighter back in the day, and he’s still as strong as hell now. I’m proud to be his son, but right now I’m confused as to why he’s keeping me from Charlotte.

“Sorry, hoss, I can’t let you go in there stinking like sex and perfume. You’d embarrass your mother, piss off your Uncle Bo, and break Charlotte’s heart. AnnMarie’d have your nuts on a platter.”

I flush and turn away, embarrassed by my behavior. Dad grabs my head and brings me close to him.

“This is going to be a tough. Loving people is tough.” His hard stare burns through me. “Are you strong enough to see it through?”

“I am,” I say and straighten. “Sorry, Dad. Won’t happen again.” And it won’t. I’ll apologize to Madeline at my first opportunity because using her to ease my pain was very wrong. And if Charlotte found out? She’d never look at me with the same trust and adoration again. Charlotte was meant to be mine. I knew it when she was born. Nick is her brother, but I’m her protector. I’ve let her down this time, but never again.

4

Charlotte

“Do you think I should just shave my head or wait until the hair falls off during radiation?” I close one eye and lift my long hair off my neck. The mirror says it’s a bad look. At the base of my head, there’s a shaved patch of skin where they opened me up to remove the cancerous cells; they were so precise that they only needed to shave a small section. The upper strands of hair cover that bare spot . . . but not for long.

“Are you going to get a pirate patch?” Nick asks. He is lying on the hospital bed next to me, playing on his DS. Mom and Dad had an extra wide hospital bed moved in here after the surgery because someone is always lying next to me. Not that I minded, but I didn’t even know that they made beds bigger. The nurses grumbled because apparently it is harder to take my vitals when one side is squished by the body of some teenager.

Friends from school started coming over when I could finally have visitors, three days after surgery, and invariably they end up beside me. Most of the time, though, it’s Nate. He is here every night like a giant, muscle-bound teddy bear. He’d disappeared after my surgery but came back late that night and sat with Mom for hours until she left to get something. Then he nudged me over. I like it more than I should because I’m sure that Nate is just being brotherly. But it’s a nice change from him always giving me a hard time.

His default mood for the last year has been pissed off. Even Nick gives him a wide berth. When I got sick, I was sure he was thinking I’d ruined something for him and that’s why he ran off during my surgery. But now he’s back to being big brother Nate. Unfortunately, I have some not-so-fraternal feelings toward him.

But a girl with a tube in her neck, a slightly enlarged noggin, and a bald head isn’t going to get someone like Nate to notice her in that way, particularly when the only attention I got from him before was mostly criticism about everything from how messy my hair was to how short my skirts were. I should probably just enter the nunnery now.

“No, why? You think that goes with a bald head?” I ask Nick, trying to shove Nate out of my thoughts. I have weird feelings toward Nate, and I’m not really up for dissecting them right now.


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