Read Brazing (Forged in Fire #2) Online

Authors: Lila Felix,Rachel Higginson

Brazing (Forged in Fire #2) (3 page)

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Strike!

I slammed the door shut and ran around to the other side of Blue Beauty. “Are you alright?”

The brother that had been knocked-out was wide awake now and the two of them were trying to untangle themselves with limbs that were slow-moving and unresponsive. I watched for several minutes, debating how morally corrupt it would be to take a video of this with my cell phone and post it all over the internet.

Finally, they were able to stand up and brush themselves off. Leaning on each other, they made their way to the key-carded front door. Bridger pulled out a set of keys and his keycard and let his brother in before turning around to reluctantly acknowledge me.

“You’re right,” he said simply and leaned against the open glass door for support.

I took a step toward him. It was that damn natural magnetism again. I couldn’t help but be drawn to him, even when he had previously proven to be a giant pain in the ass.

“About what?” I asked as sweetly as I could. I wasn’t always the southern belle my mother had hoped to raise. Actually, I was more like Esmerelda from
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
transplanted into the heart of the South with the kind of red hair that didn’t belong on any living creature. I tried to shove a chunk of it behind my ear in a move that I hoped was both sexy and sophisticated. The hair bounced back as if my ear was some kind of trampoline and fell in front of my face again.

“I
should
say thank you,” he told me honestly.

Our gazes locked at that moment and the sharp emerald color cut straight through me. He was a boy. That color of green shouldn’t be wasted on him and those long, thick lashes should make him look feminine. But both of those features enhanced his rugged good looks and heady masculinity.

My childhood crush was all man these days and I swallowed from a sudden stirring of nerves.

He could keep me here with the way he was looking at me. I could stand here forever if he didn’t blink.

“You
should
thank me,” I agreed.

He flinched at my words or maybe at my closeness. I hadn’t realized I’d taken another step toward him. We were only a couple inches apart by now and I could smell his wild night on the autumn breeze; beer, sweat and something underneath… something I wanted to inhale until my eyes rolled into the back of my head.

He opened his mouth like he was going to respond but then closed it when I took one last step into him. He couldn’t get a word out with my body brushing against his and my total lack of concern for his personal space.

This boy had messed with me for
years
, I couldn’t help the sick thrill that came with the success of a little bit of payback.

Besides, I wanted him to
remember
me. I put my face right in front of his and dared him not to get it.

“Th-thank you,” he finally said with eyes narrowed and a tight jaw.

I lifted my fingers and gently smoothed them over the angry bump on his head from where his brother ran into him. “You should put some ice on that before you go to bed.” He nodded slowly. My smile grew and my fingers pushed into his bump aggressively, just enough so that he winced a little, but I knew that he would remember this moment tomorrow. “You’ll want to thank me for that, too.”

“Th-”

I slid my hands from his bump to his lips, pressing my fingertips against their fullness. “Not yet,” I told him. “You’re not allowed to thank me for that until you remember my name.”

I gave him one last flirty smile and then turned around and flounced off. I could feel his eyes burning into my back the entire walk, but I refused to turn around and look at him again.

I did steal one more glance once I’d restarted the engine and clicked my seatbelt into place. He was still glued to that open door, staring at me like a codfish with his mouth open so wide. I waved at his brother you had his loopy face plastered against the glass of the side panel, and he waved back shooting me an even sillier grin.

I drove away with my own version of happiness spread out across my face, but I could not figure it out.

Bridger Wright was not someone I wanted to see again. Not ever. Whether he remembered my name or not, I hoped he kept his grumpy attitude and all-grown-up body far away from me.

My days of panting after him just so he could make me feel like crap were over.

I was grown up, too. And happy. And smart. And my hair was less orange. And my freckles were less bright.

I was enjoying the quintessential college experience. Well, mostly. With just that one small hiccup. The point was, I wasn’t going to let him affect it in any way.

And that would be true, just as soon as I could stop smiling.

For now, I’d go back to my dorm and tell Carter the hilariously-stupid story Bridger had given me after all.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Bridger

 

              I was probably the only person on the planet who went through this—but I completely panicked when I woke up after drinking and my entire mouth felt like it had been dried out with a blow dryer. My damned tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. I finagled my jaw this way and that and pried my tongue down from where it was Velcro-ed,  trying to get some kind of liquid in there so I don’t feel like I’ve swallowed a case of cotton balls—or sand paper.             

              Even opening my eyes hurt. Eyeballs weren’t supposed to hurt. They just sat there in their little eye socket cubbies, tethered by tentacles to your brain. Maybe it was residual brain pain.

              Maybe I’m still a little drunk.

              It had been a long time since I was that drunk. All I remember is dragging West somewhere and then being picked up by a red haired girl in a big ass blue car. I thought someone with some sense had already gathered those sky colored monster-mobiles and sent them to car heaven—those that weren’t currently being driven by grandmothers and a lone college girl named…

              What the hell was her name?

             
What the hell was my name?

              “Bridger,” a groan resounds from the other side of the room. I didn’t dare open my eyes. I didn’t have to. It was West and if I felt like this, then he must really feel like shit.

Bridger, that was my name.

              I grunted—it was the only response I could manage in this state.

              “…urch.” He moaned out and even his baritone voice made my temples churn a new level of pain. There was one of two things he could be saying and I didn’t really like the idea of either one. The first of which could be lurch. I was down with lurching. In fact, it was really the main thought on my stomach’s mind. Do stomachs have minds—no.

              And I knew that if my brother had any sense at all he wouldn’t be saying the other word. That word was like a curse word to me most of the time. That was where I met Jesse. And Jesse was trouble. So now I associated everything trouble with that place.

              Shit, I was still thinking about Jesse. Hangovers sucked.

              Noises of drawers opening and shutting made the walls of my head vibrate, sending waves of incurable pain to my temples. Then the closet sliding door screeched against the railings above and below it—I thought maybe just the sound had ripped the skin off of my face. Then West started saying something again as he made more noises. It sounded like he was brushing his teeth, using my ears as the sink.

              “What?” I grumbled out. My chin hit a hard, cold surface as I bellowed out the syllable. That’s when I realized I was on the floor—somewhere—on my stomach. I flopped myself around until my chin was in the air and something wet was on my heels.

             
I think my feet are in the shower.

              Or I pissed on my feet.

              Either was a good possibility.

              But I was too lazy to even get up and see what it was.

              “Church!” West yelled and the word and all its nefarious meanings echoed with knives through my aching head. Surely our level of stupidity from the night before warranted a free pass from the religious routine.

              “No!” I yelled back, fully intending to hurt him the way he’d hurt me. But instead my own yelling made me grab my head and curl up into the fetal position.

              “Yes!” He was now in the room with me—wherever we were. It smelled like West’s dirty socks, which to me, meant we were back in our dorm room.

              “Sit up,” he told me and it took me a full ten minutes to get my head off the floor. He handed me a Gatorade and some white pills and stood there while I downed the whole thing. West didn’t even look like he’d been talking to Audrey Hepburn in the bushes all night. There wasn’t even a speck of dirt in his hair or teeth from him being ass up in a flower bed. Maybe I dreamed that. How did my little brother manage to keep up appearances so well?

              Asshole.

              I stripped right there and held onto doors and every willing piece of furniture until I reached the shower. The cold water brought me from cloudy to aware in just a few seconds. I soaped up, grouching the whole time about how that body wash that’s supposed to wake you up really just makes you feel like you’ve accidentally put Icy Hot on your balls.

              But I supposed Icy Hot on your balls would make anyone wake up.

              Quickly.

              “Ten minutes,” West announced.

              “What are you an effing cuckoo clock?”

              “Nine minutes and fifty-six seconds,” he yelled right outside the shower door.

              Asshole.

              Fumbling and having to do everything twice, I finally got some semi-decent clothes on appropriate for church. We went to a small church on campus run by a chaplain. It wasn’t even a church building. It was simply a lecture hall used on Sundays for sermons and worshippers. It was a contemporary service, nothing like the ones in my hometown. The pastor in my town was known as Preacher. I’m sure he had a real name, but I couldn’t think of it. He only answered to Preacher anyway.

              The walk to the lecture hall did me good. West was smart enough to keep his trap shut on the way. I was a slow waker anyway. I liked to wake up, check my emails, look over notes from the day before, eat a few slices of leftover pizza and find coffee—all before speaking a single word. It was my way.  I never understood the need for people to talk in the morning. It’s not necessary unless someone wakes up in an emergency situation—like they have an appendage missing—or the zombies are coming.

              If it were not either one of those, then they should keep their pie hole zipped.

              The other thing I hated more than talking in the morning?

              Being late.

              This day had gone from hussy to whore in no time.

              We had to sit in the second row all the way down in the front of the lecture hall. Those were the only seats left in the place.

              All I could think about was homework. It ruled my world. That was my curse for trying to be a business major. I’d pursued the same pipe dream that Stockton had, only to find that of late—I hated it. And since Stockton had now formed his own company, the temptation to quit school and pursue what I was really good at was so close I could taste it. But I was determined to at least finish out the semester.

              Stockton was trained by my father as a blacksmith, focused on the bigger, some would say manlier, projects—gates, machetes, knives.

              I was equally trained in those things, but our father also trained me in the little things.

              The silversmithing side of what he did.

              While I did most of my training under my own father, while Stockton was beating down iron with his hammer, I was tinkering with chainmail and delicate items.

              Stockton and I worked side by side during the last summer. I made some of my best pieces there, with no cares, just me and my tools. He said he was sending samples off to see what people thought and if they cared to buy my designs. But so far, he hadn’t heard anything.

              Who wants personalized silverware anymore when you can buy a set for ten bucks at the local superstore?

              No one—that’s who.

              My right eye closed in protest as an overzealous group of mediocre musicians clanged through an up-tempo version of Amazing Grace. They should’ve just left it alone. Some songs were just fine the way they were first composed. But no, everyone thought they could add a keyboard and a snare drum and call it contemporary. I called it killing a good thing.

              After they brutally murdered a few more songs and I was uncouthly elbowed by West to join in the singing, church bulletins were passed around in a little basket with fall leaves sticking out from every hole. The passing started at the front of the congregation and was making its way to me.

              Good. Something to read.

              The pastor got up and was just as ‘Holy Spirit is better than coffee’ as the rest. He called out, in his holey jeans and button down shirt, for people to shout out their blessings. A man up front yelled out ‘Love’ at the same time another yelled out “Joy.” Then right in front of me a big pile of flame red hair yelled out “Grace.”

              I wanted to yell out Tylenol.

              Coffee.

              Sugar.

              As the pastor finally started something resembling a real sermon with his microphone planted in his ear with a boy band contraption that hovered around his mouth, the girl in front of me turned to finally hand me the basket with my coveted reading material.

              And that’s when I saw her face—the face of dreams.

              Maybe church wasn’t so bad after all.

              She shoved the basket at me again, bringing me out of my ogling. Just a glimpse is what I got, but it was all I needed to get a good enough taste of her.

              It’s also when I recognized her and my brain finally put it all together.

              Beer goggle images from the night before meshed and integrated with the ones from my childhood in a hazy slideshow of recognition.

              It couldn’t be. No, it just couldn’t be. She was a gangly wiry thing when we were babies. I mean, we weren’t exactly babies. We were adolescent Hicksville rebels who thought we knew everything. I did. There was no way this gorgeous creature in front of me could be her. But it was her.

              When I’d set her up with Jake back in school, I’d done it to give her a boost. She was always a sweet thing, pretty sassy—smart as hell—everyone thought so. But her dad was a coal miner, just trying to do the best he could by his family. Coal miners worked their asses off but didn’t bring in a lot of money. She always wore clothes two or three sizes too big for her and some of them made for a grandmother rather than a teenaged girl. We never faulted her for it. Poverty in our town was as rampant as milk drinking.

              Tate Halloway—who would’ve thought?

              Her hair was wild now. Before it was an almost bleached out red—nothing as vibrant as the tendrils that floated over her chair now and tickled my jean-clad knees. I could see the back of her neck too, her freckles had now multiplied and taken on a ‘loud and proud’ stance all over her—a far cry from her previous, ‘maybe I have freckles, maybe it’s just dirt’ appearance. In school, she wore Coke bottle glasses that made her eyes look like they were being studied under a twenty-four-hour microscope.

              It was like everything pretty about her was being hidden beneath a grandmother’s disguise.

              Not wanting to keep the info to myself, I dead-legged West in the thigh who then bit on his fist to keep from yelling at me.

              “What,” he whispered through a clenched jaw.

              “That’s Tate Halloway.”

              “What?”

              “That’s Tate Halloway.”

              “What?”

              All that contemporary hymn singing had apparently deafened my brother. I jerked the pen out of West’s pocket—because he was extra nerdy like that and scribbled her name on the bulletin I’d yet to read.

              He shrugged like he could give a shit, but I just continued to give him the biggest stare down ever. I watched his face evolve from ambiguity to knowing as he contorted his body to try and get a look at her face. Then he turned to me with wide eyes and a huge smile.

              No one could ever say West was a quick one.

              I spent the rest of the service studying Tate instead of the bulletin in front of me. I couldn’t believe I acted like such an ass in front of her last night. And it certainly explained why she was so snippy with me. The last memory she probably had of me was when I set her up on a date and Jake stood her up—not that last night gave her anything better to remember me by.

              I hoped I didn’t puke on her.

              Everyone around me bowed their head. I’d been observing her through the whole damned sermon.

              While everyone was deep in prayer, I scooted past them—up the stairs and out of the hall. Pounding the pavement as fast as my overhung legs would take me, I kept glancing behind me to make sure she wasn’t following me. I had to run from her and avoid her at all costs.

              First and foremost, she knew about Jesse and would ask me about her.

              Second, I knew her kind and didn’t even want to begin to touch that fire.

              Third, and this was probably what I was running from the most—I had a feeling that if Jesse had ruined me—that this girl could surely kill me.

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