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Collared(7)
Nicole Williams

“You shouldn’t have hit him,” I say as we wander down the sidewalk. Neither of us are in a hurry to separate.

“I know.” Torrin stares at the sidewalk, slowing our pace until we come to a standstill. “But there are only a few people I love, and you’re at the top of that list. If I don’t take care of you, what good am I?”

I feel the dreaded ball wedge into my throat again. Torrin somehow feels partly responsible for his dad’s death too. As if all twelve-year-old ninety pounds of him could have stepped out in front of that speeding minivan and crushed it before it crushed his dad. His thought process makes no sense to me, but that doesn’t change that it makes sense to him.

“I can also, you know, take care of myself.”

I glance down at my house. The lights are still on in every room but my little brother’s. It’s just past ten o’clock, and usually my parents go to bed at nine thirty on the dot. Except when I’m out with Torrin. They stay up until I get home every time, scanning me like they’re checking to see if my top is twisted around or my skirt is still bunched up or something. Having a police chief as a dad really sucks when you’re a teenage girl.

“Yeah, I remember.” Torrin rubs at his cheek, trying not to smile.

He likes to rub it in whenever he can that I once took a swing at him at recess in fourth grade. I’d expected him to dodge it, but he hadn’t. He stood there, unflinching, and took it. He deserved it though. He’d accused me of cheating on a spelling test, but he was just pissed because I scored one point higher than him. Like usual.

“How much longer are you going to keep covering for him?” I ask, rolling my eyes when he starts popping his jaw like I did permanent damage. “I know he feels responsible for what happened to your dad, and I know you feel bad for him because of that, but you can’t let him ruin your life at the same time he’s ruining his.”

I glare at Torrin’s house. I want to go back in there and make Caden’s nose bleed again when I remember the consequences Torrin has wound up with because of him. Yeah, I know Caden would have been suspended for good if he’d chalked up another infraction, but so what? He’s dug his grave as far as I’m concerned.

“I know. I’m done with it.” Torrin exhales and looks off into the distance. Whatever he sees there makes his eyes narrow. “I don’t want to lose you because I’m trying to save him.”

I tug on his hand until his chest is brushing mine. “You won’t lose me, Torrin.” I wait for him to look at me. When he does, his light eyes are finally starting to clear. “I guess I’m just hoping you’ll figure out one day that you can’t save everyone.” When the skin between his brows creases, that damn ball in my throat doubles in size. “Sometimes you have to just let go.”

His arm stretches around me, pulling me closer. “I’m a sucker for a hopeless case.”

When his smile starts to move into place, I exhale. “Good thing you’re so cute.” I smile back at him, slipping my thumb through one of his belt loops.

“And I might, you know, be pretty decent in bed?” His brow lifts at me.

My stomach knots as I think about how decent he is in bed. “I need to collect additional data before I make my final conclusion.”

His face flattens as he holds out his arm. “Hey, consider my schedule cleared. Time, place, I’ll be there.”

The seriousness in his voice and his face makes me laugh—loudly enough that Mrs. McCune’s little terrier starts barking at the front window.

“Jade Childs!” My dad’s voice echoes from where I guess he’s stationed at the front porch.

I wince. My dad’s voice has a way of doing that. Torrin’s expression doesn’t change. He’s immune to it or something.

“Coming!” I shout back, which only makes Roco at the window go even more nutso.

“Come on. I’ll walk you home.” Torrin shoves his hand in his pocket and starts leading me down the sidewalk.

I don’t move. “No, better not. After what happened in the hall last week, you’re lucky your man parts are still connected . . . and functioning rather impressively if I do say so myself.”

I bite my lip and try to contain the blush I feel creeping up my neck. Much to my parents’ dismay, I’m not the demure girl who blushes and could be voted Miss Congeniality. I’m the girl who lives in band shirts and rolls her eyes at cheerleaders. They’ve been calling me a strong-willed child since I was a toddler, but while they admit that with disappointment, it’s a point of pride for me. I know who I am and what I want, so why in the hell would I let a bunch of other people try to tell me who I should be and who I should want?

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