Once Loved - Chapter One
I abandoned the locker room in a rush. I’d barely spoken to anyone on my crew team, and while no one had said anything directly to me, I caught every stare, every whisper. Despite the dean’s best efforts, word had spread that the man arrested the previous day was my father. I wanted to scream. Carlos had meant to humiliate me, and he’d succeeded. Next to his fists, humiliation was his favorite weapon.
My duffel bag slapped against my back as I hurried through the athletics center, my steps slowing as I passed a group of soccer players. “Isn’t that Lety Tres Santos?” the girl in the center asked her teammates. “The one whose tripped-out father beat up the campus police?”
I whirled around. “Yup. That’s me.” They exchanged stunned glances. They hadn’t expected me to respond and weren’t prepared for my reaction. “Anything else you want to know?”
The three of them shut their mouths. It was easy for them to talk. Their fathers hadn’t arrived out of control. Their fathers weren’t ex-cons in and out of jail. And their fathers hadn’t spent a lifetime hurting them. I couldn’t say the same.
Carlos had arrived on campus only one other time, demanding money for drugs. If there hadn’t been witnesses, he would’ve struck me for denying him. My father was many things: an addict, bipolar, and an all-around asshole. Stupid was not one of his traits. So he’d left, but not before calling me a bitch in front of my friends.
One of the other girls shrugged. “Melody didn’t mean anything by it,” she said. “She was just asking.”
“There are better things to ask about,” I responded.
I stormed away. My mind insisted I should let the comments and attention roll off my back. Saint Jude’s was a small private college with a little more than two thousand students living on campus. Word traveled fast, and when the rest of the students arrived in two days’ time, it would travel even faster. But eventually, everyone would forget.
Except maybe me.
I pushed open the glass doors that led out of the athletics center. Two girls walking toward the building with volleyballs tucked under their arms saw me as I stepped out. One motioned to me with a jerk of her chin and spoke quietly to her friend.
Gee, I wonder what they’re talking about?
I continued forward without another glance their way. I couldn’t fight everyone in the world, it was too damn exhausting. So I cut left in the direction of the soccer field, where a few players remained. Although I wasn’t anywhere near them, they stopped kicking the ball to watch me as I passed. Shame made me want to cower and lower my head. Instead I forced my chin up. I was a tough Philly girl, after all, even though I was all but sobbing on the inside.
I trained my eyes ahead, toward where the athletics fields ended and cross-country trails leading into the woods began. If I could just make it there, I’d find some solace from the whispers and judgmental stares. At least, that was what I’d hoped.
The late August breeze rustled the leaves in the trees just as I stepped onto the trail, fanning my long dark hair around me. I breathed in deep, enjoying the fresh air and the quiet surroundings. Despite the drama of the previous day and the negative attention it had brought me, I really loved it here and preferred the campus’s remote location to Philly’s loud streets and obnoxious hustle.
Located in a small town just outside Allentown, Saint Jude’s was surrounded by acres of one of two things: woods or cornfields. The cross-country trails weaving through the woods served the athletes for one hell of an endurance run, and underage drinkers for a place to hold their illegal keg parties. You could be spun out of your mind, but if you followed any path, it would lead you out to the sports fields or to the main road. The cornfields were mostly used for hooking up or for freshman initiation, where first-year students streaked through the tall stalks in exchange for five-dollar T-shirts.
I shouldn’t have grinned, considering my day, except that I did. The cornfield streak was the first time Brody and I had seen each other naked. And yeah, we still wore our five-dollar T- shirts.
My smile faded. Brody, God, Brody. What was I going to do about him? He was sweet, and smart, and good to me. But I wasn’t good for him, even though I really wanted to be.
My anxious steps slowed the more I thought of him. We’d met in chemistry class at the beginning of our freshman year. He introduced himself as only Brody could, by nailing me in the head with a crumpled ball of paper. I’d glared at him over my shoulder. “Do that again, and I’ll kick your ass, pretty boy,” I’d warned.
He’d smirked. “You think I’m pretty?”
No, I think you’re hotter than Alex Pettyfer standing in hell, I didn’t say. Instead, “Pretty damn obnoxious” was my response. I’d turned around when the prof stepped into the lecture hall, stiffening when I heard paper crumpling behind me. I’d booted my laptop, certain he wouldn’t have the stones, when another ball of paper bounced off my head. Like a knee-jerk reaction, I flung my chemistry book at him. Brody caught it before it struck him in the ribs. Instead of getting pissed, he’d laughed and offered me a ride after class.
We’d spent the remainder of the year practically inseparable, but it wasn’t until the start of the next semester that we became more than close friends. What sucked was that it didn’t last.
Thanks to Carlos, again.
My two-hour crew practice had been brutal, but it was the thoughts of my family that left me suddenly tired. I left the trail after another five minutes of walking and crossed the road. I wasn’t ready to head back to my room, so I veered into the small reflection garden at the top of the hill. I took a seat on one of the wooden benches, allowing my duffel bag to fall onto the gravel walkway. I liked it here and visited often. It provided me with a sense of calm I’d always craved as a child. Simple, easy, not something I had to seek beneath my bed when I was scared.
This time, the peace didn’t last, and I wasn’t alone for long. A parade of steps thundered to my left. I glanced up and saw the members of our lacrosse team jogging toward me on their way to the trails. They all ran shirtless except for Brody. As co-captain, he raced in the lead alongside his friend Logan.
Lacrosse wouldn’t start until next semester. But Saint Jude’s had won the Division III NCAA championship the last two years. The coach planned to keep the title and made them train long before their first game took place.
Brody’s gaze flickered when he saw me. My body tensed. I hadn’t been prepared to see him, but I shouldn’t have been so shocked. The team ran the campus’s perimeter at the end of each practice and finished where the cross-country trails opened to the sports fields.
He slowed to a stop. His teammates for the most part continued without him, tossing me a glance before crossing the road and disappearing into the trails. The few who remained watched me carefully. “Bro, come on,” Isaac Parker urged.
“I’ll catch you guys later.” Brody joined me at the bench, placing one foot on the seat to stretch. “Hey, Lety.”
Isaac spoke to Brody like I wasn’t even there. “You sure you want to do this? Her dad’s pretty fucked up.”
Brody rose to his full height. “So’s anyone caught jerking off to cartoons while wearing pink underwear.” He shrugged. “But I still hang with you.”
A couple of the guys laughed out loud as Isaac’s face deepened to red. Brody smirked. “No worries, Isaac. You’re not the first guy to— Wait, never mind. You probably are. Still, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, dude. You just keep doing your thing—and maybe next time try old episodes of Baywatch instead of cartoons. It might be less creepy.”
Isaac backed away, scowling, before taking off with the rest of the team behind him. “Later, Lety,” Logan called with a wave.
“Later,” I said, although likely too quiet for Logan to hear. Brody plopped down on the bench beside me. I pulled at the edges of my shorts; it was better than facing him. “Thanks.”
I sighed. “You could say that.”
Brody played with the wavy strands of my hair, his deep voice lowering. “Why didn’t you call me last night, or text me back today?”
“Didn’t really feel like talking.”
“Even to me? We used to talk about everything, remember?” He let out a breath when I wouldn’t answer. “Letz, I thought we were starting to get somewhere.”
His other nickname for me shouldn’t have tugged on my heart the way it did, but everything “Brody” had that effect on me. “I thought so, too.”
I motioned to where his teammates disappeared. “Isn’t it obvious? My batshit crazy father showed up, reminding me why you’re better off without me.”
Brody dragged his fingers through his chin-length blond hair. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to us again.”
My hands fell to my side. “Brody, I’m not trying to hurt you. Why can’t you just accept that I’m not the best person for you?”
“Why can’t you accept what you mean to me?”
My head lowered. I wasn’t the type of girl who cried much. But when it came to him, it was impossible to fight back the tears. Someone like Brody was never supposed to fall for someone like me. I was a minority from the wrong side of town. He was the popular athlete who came from wealth and who all the pretty, drama-free girls swarmed, waiting for their chance to pounce.
“Because we don’t belong together,” I answered truthfully.
“That doesn’t make sense. We spent our first year attached at the hip, having fun, raising hell.” His tone deepened. “And when you finally wised up and realized how bad I wanted you, no one could pry us apart.”
I covered my eyes. “Brody, don’t. I can’t think about us that way.”
“And I can’t stop.” His large hands enclosed my wrists and slowly lowered them. “I meant what I said at camp. You fucking broke my heart.”
Sadness and anger crossed his features, but he wasn’t the only one affected by what I’d done. My voice trembled. “Do you think it was easy for me to let you go? You weren’t the only one crushed. I cried every day for a month when we broke up.”
“Then why did you do it? And why are you doing this now?”
My vision blurred as I thought about that horrible day when I severed our relationship. Carlos had busted my nose and given me a concussion after arriving coked up at a family party. Brody had watched the blood pouring out of me, unable to break free from the men holding him back. I would have given anything to spare him from that part of my life. Instead he’d seen it all. “I’ll never be good enough for you, and you know it.”
“You’re wrong.” He drew me to him. His lips pushed against me until mine parted and allowed him in. I shouldn’t have. I knew I shouldn’t have, but my resolve crumbled and I gave in, linking my arms around his neck.
His strong arms wrapped around my waist and he deepened our kiss. His tongue flicked over mine, circling and taunting me to play. My spine arched as he pulled me tighter against his body. He hadn’t kissed me since the day I walked away, and now I didn’t want him to stop.
I moaned softly, returning his show of affection with equal force and enthusiasm. God, I’d missed that mouth. Our kiss intensified, turning into more. We took our time, as if nothing else mattered. When we finally parted, we were both panting.
“We shouldn’t have done that,” I told him.
He smirked. “Yeah, we should’ve. Truth is, I don’t know why we stopped.” I edged away when he tried to kiss me again, wishing life were that easy.
Brody cupped my chin, tilting it gently so I’d meet his face. “Letz, come on. We’re better off together than apart.”
I lowered my lashes. “You can’t mean that.”
“Yeah, I do. I spent all last year trying like hell to get over you.”
My hands splayed across the bulky muscles of his broad chest. This time it was my turn to smirk. “Oh, yeah. I saw all the girls offering to help you out with your dilemma.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Just like I saw you and Justin Kalabrowski making out at the No-Pants dance.”
“I wasn’t making out with him.”
“Yeah, you were. You were in the hall near the bathroom and it took everything I had not to pound the shit out of him.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I would think Karen Enderson, your date for the evening, would have had a problem with that. Or was it Linda Marrington? Or Jessica Gustfenson? Or Cindy Vincent? Hmmm, maybe I’m confusing them with Lissette Miller.” I tapped my fingers against him. “Did I miss anyone?”
He grinned. “Wendy Jenner.”
My teeth clenched. “Oh, yes, good ol’ Wendy. The girl who yodels during sex. How could I forget?”
“I hear it’s not really a yodel, more like an excited vibrato.” He laughed when I did, but then his expression grew somber. “For the record, none of them meant anything. Just girls I went out with a few times.”
I smiled softly. “And for the record, I didn’t kiss Justin. He kissed me.”
He rolled his eyes. “Lety, I saw you. The guy was on you like a piece of duct tape.”
“If you saw that, did you see me knee him in the nuts when I told him to stop and he wouldn’t?”
Anger tightened his muscles and deepened his voice. “No. I didn’t.” “Well, that’s what happened.”
“I always hated that kid. Remind me to beat his ass next time I see him.” My head fell against his chest when he pulled me closer. I listened to the steady beat of his strong heart, feeling a sense of peace I hadn’t felt in forever.
“It didn’t work, you know,” he said after a long moment. “What didn’t work?”
“Dating all those girls. I never got over you.”
I clutched the fabric of his gray T-shirt. I knew what he meant. The few dates my girlfriends had talked me into going on were boring at best. None of those guys drew an easy smile or made me happy like Brody did. None of them made me feel sexy and wanted. Brody had been my everything, except I knew that I couldn’t offer him everything in return.
His hands trailed further down my back. “If you didn’t want me, Lety, I swear to God I’d walk away. But you do. I see the way you look at me. And I can tell by the way you kissed me.”
“It was never that I didn’t want you, Brody. I was only trying to spare you from me.”
Brody strengthened his hold. “Letz, I’m not going to pretend like your family isn’t messed up. But if you think you’re the only one with a fucked-up past, you’re wrong.”
His tone had gathered a strange and dangerous edge, and it scared me. “What are you talking about?”
He loosened his hold and dropped his arms away, angling his head to the side. “Never mind.”
He stood and placed his hands on his hips, staring hard at the ground. For a minute, I thought he was going to bolt. I rose. “What is it?”
He worked his jaw. “Not now, okay?”
The way he said it made me think there would never be a good time. I reached for his hands and held them tight.
He met my gaze then and gave our hands one hell of a squeeze. “I want another chance with you. Will you let it happen?”
Despite our kiss, I wasn’t convinced we would make it even if we tried. We were just so different. “I don’t know if I can, baby. Maybe we’re better off being friends.”
He laughed softly and gathered me to him again. “You can’t call me ‘baby’ like you used to and expect me to just be your friend.”
“Even if it’s the best thing for you?”
He stopped smiling then. “You’re the best thing for me. You just don’t know it yet.”
His tone, and his stare drilling into mine, held me in place. My new iPhone, a gift from my brother, buzzed in my duffel bag, giving me an excuse to slip from his hold. I rummaged through the extra pair of sweats and pulled it out to check the screen. It was a text from Dean Riley.
Lety, are you available to meet me in my office first thing in the morning?
I groaned, knowing it wasn’t good news. I spoke into my phone to iMessage her a text.
I can be there at eight-thirty. Does that work?
It didn’t take her long to respond. Yes. I’ll see you then.
Brody frowned. “What’s up?”
I tapped my finger on the back of the phone, debating whether or not to tell him. “The dean called me this morning. The O’Sullivans are revoking my scholarship.”
“Because of what Carlos did?” Brody swore when I nodded. “They can’t do that.” “It’s a private college and a private donation.”
“And it’s bullshit discrimination.”
I shook my head. “Not if they’re claiming it’s because of lack of funds.”
Yeah, pretty much. “The dean is trying to see about getting me a loan.”
He huffed. “A loan? Come on, with your background and grades, you should be eligible for aid.”
“I maxed out everything I’m eligible for. With tuition rising as it has, I needed that scholarship to stay in school.” I kicked at the gravel at my feet. “I may have to get another job.”
Brody threw out a hand. “You’re already going to be working your ass off as it is.” “I don’t have a choice.”
His stare locked on to mine. “Yeah, you do. I could just give you the money.”
I straightened. Brody drove a Porsche, came from money, and everyone knew it. Many a gold-digging skank had tried to make him her sugar daddy. I wouldn’t be one of them. And I wouldn’t be my mother. She showed me that I should never rely on a man—for anything.
I snagged my duffel bag. “I’ll take care of it, don’t worry about me.” “Lety—”
“I’ll be fine.” I hurried down the path toward the residential town homes where I lived, wishing like hell I could just let him go. I meant what I said, Brody deserved better than me.
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