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By´╝ÜTijan

I got back from running early in the morning. Everything was still dark, the slightest hint of light was starting to creep over the lawns and the pavement where I jogged.

The last two weeks I’d gotten into the habit of waking around four in the morning, rolling out of bed, and pounding the cement five minutes later. I didn’t know what it was—running in the dark, running when no one could see me, or even just knowing I was out ahead of everyone else—but I’d become a dark figure blending in with the other darkness.

I loved it, and when I’d return to my stepmother’s house, I was usually still feeling that running high. I’d start the first pot of coffee, and as the machine began to spit and churn, I’d slip out to the front porch to finish stretching. The first morning, I was just about done and planning to head back inside to pour myself a cup when the door opened. I think Malinda had been woken by the coffee smell, like a vampire rising at the first whiff of blood.

My stepmother appeared, her rich chestnut hair looking like she’d hastily raked her fingers through it, and a glaze of sleep still over her eyes. She had two cups and handed me one, sinking down onto a porch chair before tightening her robe.

This morning was the same as that first time.

I was just lowering my leg from behind me when she appeared, giving me a warm smile. “Hey there, my little chickadee.” She pulled the ends of her plush robe tighter together before sitting.

“Morning.”

I sat on the chair next to her, propping my feet up so I could rest my coffee cup on my knees. It warmed my hands, and I inhaled the smell.

“You ran extra long today?”

I stiffened. I hadn’t realized Malinda knew when I got up or that today had been an extra hour earlier. But I should’ve known. She was the stepmother extraordinaire.

“Don’t say anything, would you?” I asked her.

She gave me a knowing look over her mug. “To your father or to those two young men who protect you like they’re guard dogs?”

“Both?” A girl could hope.

She laughed, sipping her coffee. She patted my knee. “Does Mason know?”

“That I got up early?”

“That you’re running so much every morning. I know you’re going in the afternoons, too.” A second knowing look. “And why you did a two-hour run this morning.”

Ah. There it was. “I didn’t know anyone else knew.” I shifted on the seat, ignoring the pounding that was starting behind my temples. Every time I thought of her, it would start.

It’d been with me the whole run.

“I overheard a phone conversation between Mason and his father, and it didn’t go well.”

I glanced over to her. Did that mean Mason knew, too?

She sipped her drink, getting more comfortable on the bench. “Did you know James is forcing him and Logan to be his groomsmen?”

I did. “I’m worried the same will happen to me.”

“No, no, no.” Malinda shook her hand in the air. “She’ll be lucky if you even attend the wedding. Analise won’t push her luck. She might have…” She paused. “…issues, but she’s one smart cookie. Trust me. You don’t need to worry about that.”

Her words should’ve been a relief, but they weren’t. Only two people fully understood the lengths Analise would go if she wanted something: myself and Malinda’s husband, David—otherwise known as the man who raised me. There was a reason we were both scared of the woman. Malinda, though I loved her dearly and was so grateful she’d come into my life, hadn’t been around during Analise’s darkest hours. Yes, my mother had gone away for almost two years to get help. Yes, she seemed to be doing better and had been back in Fallen Crest for an entire year and a half, and yes, she’d left me alone, for the most part. But she’d left the treatment facility and was living not just in Fallen Crest, but across the road, and I was here now, too.

I avoided her this long, but time was up. I couldn’t anymore.

Mason and I were spending the summer in Fallen Crest because he had an internship with his father’s company to fulfill a requirement for his business degree. He even had approval to return to school later than normal—not until the week before classes instead of earlier for football training like usual. A personal trainer was supposed to come out to make up for any practice he was missing, but it wasn’t needed. If I was insane with my running, Mason was equally crazy with his training. He was in the gym for three or four hours a night, and I felt the proof every time he was on top of me, under me, and inside of me.

My body heat rose now as I thought of our lovemaking the night before. It had a different feel to it. There was a desperation and hunger I hadn’t felt in a long time. Like we couldn’t get enough of each other, like we knew there were things set in motion that could tear us apart.

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