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Chapter no 90 – GRAYSON

The Brothers Hawthorne

When Grayson arrived at the gates of Hawthorne House, he got out of his hired car and sent the driver on his way. It was a long walk to the House— and an even longer one to the tree house.

Or what was left of it, anyway.

Grayson stared up at the havoc he and Jameson had wreaked after Emily died. Slipping off his suit jacket and laying it over a low-hanging branch, he began to climb. Most of the walkways between the trees had been destroyed. Only one of the soaring towers remained intact. The main body of the house had angry, gaping holes.

Grayson made his way from a series of branches to one of the slides and climbed in through a window.

“Peek-a-boo!” Xander jumped down from the rafters. “And welcome home. Your nine-one-one was bare on details, so I took the liberty of extrapolating a bit.”

Grayson eyed his brother, then scanned the tree house. Xander “extrapolating” was rarely a good thing. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Grayson said. The reason for that nine-one-one. What happened after you and Nash left Phoenix.

“So don’t talk,” Nash called from down below. Without another word to Grayson, he hauled a series of brown paper grocery bags up into the tree house, handing them off to Xander.

“You heard from Jamie yet?” Nash asked.

Xander raised a hand. “I have. He and Avery are on their way back. ETA tomorrow morning.”

Nash swiveled his gaze back to Grayson. “Guess that means we’re having ourselves a little slumber party out here first.”

 

 

Jameson made it back just as they were waking up the next morning. Like Nash, he, too, had come prepared. Unlike Nash, Jameson didn’t make the rest of them wait to find out what was in his bag.

The first thing he took out was a massive water bottle. A massive, empty water bottle. The next three things out of the bag were ketchup, a gallon of milk, and a liter of root beer.

Grayson saw where this was going almost immediately—and so did Xander, who gleefully adopted an announcer’s voice. “It’s time,” he boomed, “for that standby Hawthorne classic… Drink or Dare!”

Ten minutes later, the empty water bottle was very full—and a disturbing shade of milky brown.

“I’ll go first,” Xander volunteered. “Jamie, I dare you to tell us the absolute most banana pants thing that happened while you were in England.”

“Met my father. Won a castle. Saved a duchess from certain death. Not in that order.” Jameson leaned back against the wall of the tree house, pretending—as the rest of them had all night—that it was still fully intact.

“Which one of those explains your face?” Nash asked Jameson. The bruises and swelling clearly suggested that their brother had been in one hell of a fight.

“Some faces need no explanation,” Jameson replied. He gestured to his own. “Work of art. And now it’s my turn. Nash.” The gleam in Jamie’s eyes was downright wicked. “I dare you to eat your hat.”

Grayson very nearly laughed but covered it with a cough. “Excuse me?” Nash drawled.

Jameson leaned forward. “Literally. Eat. Your. Hat.”

For the first time since Gigi had found that picture of the passwords on his phone, Grayson almost smiled.

“A bite will do,” Jameson continued.

Nash ran his hand along the brim of his cowboy hat. “And how am I

supposed to…”

“I brought utensils!” Xander volunteered, because of course he had. “And kitchen shears. You never know when you’re going to need kitchen shears.”

Nash looked to the murky liquid in the water bottle. Per the rules of the game, any player who failed to fulfill a dare had to take a nice, long swig, at least three seconds in duration. “Remind me what’s in there?”

“Milk, root beer, ketchup, pickle juice, oregano, chili powder, beef broth, and chocolate syrup,” Xander announced happily.

Nash removed his cowboy hat and narrowed his eyes at Jameson. “How big a bite are we talkin’ about here?”

 

 

Three hours later, Grayson had no shirt, and there was a giant face drawn on his stomach in permanent marker. Jameson’s eyebrows were neon purple. Nash still smelled like dog breath and peanut butter. And Xander had successfully built a Rube Goldberg machine the purpose of which was smacking his own ass.

The tightness in Grayson’s chest and the heaviness in the pit of his stomach were gone.

So, of course, Jameson took that as his cue to push things. “Grayson.” Green eyes met Grayson’s ice-blue ones. “I dare you to admit that you’re not okay.”

He wasn’t. Of course he wasn’t. But a Hawthorne didn’t just admit such things—especially this Hawthorne. Grayson reached for the now half-empty bottle, but Nash swiped it before he could.

“This is a safe place,” Xander told him encouragingly. “Unless you’re my ass.”

Grayson snorted, then the snort turned to a laugh, and then the laugh turned to something else, this horrible, strangled sound in his throat. He’d known, when he sent that nine-one-one, that the end result wouldn’t be all fun and games.

“Well?” Jameson asked him. “What’s it going to be, Gray?”

I dare you to admit that you’re not okay.

“I’m not okay,” Grayson said. “My sisters will probably never speak to me again, and I’m not good at losing people.” Grayson paused. “Either that,” he continued hoarsely, “or I am exceptionally good at losing people.”

Every time he let someone in… Every time he let his guard down…

Every time he was anything less than perfect…

“You haven’t lost us, little brother,” Nash said fiercely.

“Do you want to make fun of him for that?” Jameson asked Xander. “Or should I?”

Nash reached into one of the bags he’d brought and withdrew a stack of metal cups and some whiskey. “Just for that,” he told Jameson, “I’m not sharing—at least, not with you.”

Nash took one of the cups and poured himself a bit of whiskey, then did the same with a second cup and handed it to Grayson. Nash took a sip of his own, then looked out the tree house window. “A few years ago,” he said, his voice somehow a match for the whiskey, “when I realized that Alisa and I weren’t going to make it, I knew in my bones that it was because there was something wrong with me. Just look at me, I thought. No father. Skye’s never been the maternal type. Even the old man—he wasn’t for me what he was for you three. What did I know about trusting someone, relying on someone, being there? What did I know about staying put? How could someone like me even think the word forever?”

Grayson had never heard his brother talk like this. “And now you have Libby,” he told Nash. Grayson thought back to the heirloom ring that Nash had given him. His throat tightened. “I’m not ever going to have a Libby.”

“Bullshit.” Nash stared him down. “You know how to love people just fine, Gray. We all do. The proof of that is right here.”

Grayson’s father hadn’t wanted him. His mother had never really been there. The old man had been more concerned with forging them into what they needed to be than what they needed. But Grayson had always—always

—had his brothers.

“I don’t want to break again.” Grayson could admit that to them now.

“Pretend your heart is a bone,” Xander advised. “When has a broken bone ever slowed a Hawthorne down? Give it time, and a fracture just heals stronger.”

Grayson could see the Xander-logic there. Still, he turned to Jameson.

“Do you remember what the old man said to us that Fourth of July when he caught us up here with Emily?”

“All-consuming,” Jameson murmured. “Eternal. And only once.”

“You know what I think, Gray?” Nash finished his whiskey and stood. “I think the old man was full of shit.”

“Breaking news,” Xander intoned. “Full report at eleven.”

Nash ignored him. “And your broken heart—right here, right now,” he continued, his gaze locked on Grayson’s. “That’s not about romance. It’s about family. It’s about you being scared that if you let someone in— anyone, in any capacity—they’re going to leave you. And you can’t let that happen, so you leave first.”

Grayson’s grip on his own glass tightened. “That’s not true.” Except it was. Wasn’t that what he’d done with Avery?

“You left Phoenix,” Xander pointed out in his most helpful tone.

Grayson shook his head. “Gigi made it very clear that she wanted nothing to do with me. Savannah will feel the same, once she knows what I did.”

“So you left,” Nash said, cocking a brow.

Grayson slammed his glass down. “I can’t make this better! I can’t explain myself to them. I can’t apologize. I can’t do a damn thing, not without putting Avery at risk.”

Jameson leaned forward, snagged Grayson’s glass, and took a drink. “Then maybe you and Monsieur Belly”—Jameson nodded to the drawing on Grayson’s stomach—“should have a chat with her.”

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