My vignette: OSL: Carter is a prerequisite for this story. If you have not read OSL: Carter, stop reading now and go back to read that vignette. Otherwise this chapter won't make much sense. Also, you need to have read through AOCSL2 before starting this one.
-- JUNE 2002 --
Tired from the long flight, not to mention putting up with the sleazebag businessman in the seat next to me for more than six hours, I was only too eager to get home. But flying across the country was only part of the journey. Mom, Dad, and Carter were still on the other side of the Bay, and after being away from my family for so long it felt like I was only halfway there.
Knowing I'd have to wait for my luggage to drop down onto the baggage carousels, I walked down the terminal at a casual pace, holding only my purse. The soft flats I'd worn for comfort padded silently on the tiles. And people in a greater hurry than me rushed past on both sides.
Eventually I walked past exit security into the Arrivals/Baggage Claim area of SFO's Terminal 3. In their usual spot were a cluster of drivers mostly dressed all the same: black suit, white shirt, black tie. A few also wore black chauffeur's hats, and a couple of them sported sunglasses even though we were indoors.
With a sigh I walked toward them and began scanning the various names they held on nearly-identical white placards. Mom always arranged for Towncar service to get me to and from the airport, and after a few seconds I zeroed in on the placard that read "Cameron Singleton", held up in front of the face of a young man wearing both chauffeur's cap and aviator Ray-Bans.
The anonymous driver to my right, the one without a chauffer's cap or sunglasses, inhaled sharply and held his breath for a moment. I was close enough for him to dare hope that I was his fare, never mind that the placard he held read "Michael Schutzman". No doubt he was imagining for a few seconds that he'd get to spend some time chatting up a breathtakingly beautiful young woman.
That would be me. I didn't consider myself egotistical, but I was aware of the effect my physical appearance had on most men - and not a few women as well. Even in my flats, I stood six feet tall and had a figure to be proud of. While I didn't dress to expose the goodies or anything, my clothes flattered my curves and were carefully chosen to be both practical and eye-catching. My long, dark hair draped nicely over my shoulders, neatly framing a face I was proud of. I also got compliments on my electric green eyes, eyes which I now focused on my actual driver as I moved directly in front of him and nodded silently.
The poor guy to my right holding the "Michael Schutzman" sign sighed regretfully and slouched in disappointment.
Lowering his placard, my actual driver tipped his cap and gestured toward the baggage carousel. "Shall we get your bags, Miss Singleton?"
I'd started nodding before his voice clicked the recognition part of my brain. My hand jerked out of its own accord and latched onto the driver's forearm, abruptly arresting his quarter-turn. And tilting my head and narrowing my eyes to scrutinize his face, I asked questioningly, "Carter?"
My stepbrother grinned and used his free hand to remove the sunglasses. "Surprise!"
"Oh, Carter! You came to pick me up!" I threw my arms around his shoulders and gave him a fierce hug hello.
Carter chuckled and stroked my back, holding me just as fiercely. Although two years younger than me, my 20-year-old "little" brother now stood 6'3" and outweighed me by quite a bit. Leaning back, he lifted me off the floor which made me squeal in delight. And when he finally set me down on my feet, he quickly leaned in and pecked my lips. "Four years of college PLUS an extra month backpacking around Europe with your friends? I've missed you," he sighed.
"Kinda missed you, too," I replied with a beaming smile.
"You have a good trip?"
"The best. Wish I was still over there, actually."
He put on a fake pout. "Aww, I thought you said you missed me."
I reached up, knocked Carter's hat off his head, and tousled his hair. "I always miss my little brother."
Carter's eyebrows went up. "Stepbrother," he corrected.
I rolled my eyes but grinned. "C'mon. Let's get my bags and I'll tell you all about the trip."
"Nice ride. Is it new?" I asked as I hopped into the passenger seat of what appeared to be a fully-loaded Cadillac Escalade.
"Brand new. Only got a hundred miles on this one," Carter replied proudly as he climbed into the driver's seat and tapped the dashboard. He started the ignition and heavy-bass hip-hop music immediately began pumping through the speakers, but he quickly turned it down to a less deafening volume.
I scoped out the truck. "Dad's business must be doing well."
"It is. But he didn't buy this for me," Carter replied with that cocky grin of his. "I bought this baby all on my own."
I arched an eyebrow. "Really? You take up a side job I don't know about?"
He grinned but shook his head and stared out the front windshield. "You don't wanna know."
I blinked. "What is it? Business internship? Or did one of your friends start an entrepreneurial thing?"
Carter's eyebrows rose in warning. "Seriously, you don't wanna know."
But I was curious. "C'mon, Carter. You're my little brother. You're not supposed to keep secrets from me."
"Fine then. How many guys did you hook up with on that backpacking trip?"
I blushed immediately and averted my eyes. "Uh, I don't think that's a topic for polite conversation."
Carter smirked and shrugged. "Then you understand."
Unable to shake the nagging feeling in the back of my head, I sighed. "Just tell me it's not anything illegal."
But Carter merely shook his head. "I told you: You don't wanna know."
I rolled my eyes and let my head flop back against the headrest. "Fine."
"But other than your sex life, seriously, how was the trip? Any favorite places?"
I smiled and thought back over the past month or so. "It was awesome. The food, the culture, the history, and yes, some of the parties. There's a lot of good time to be had by a recent college grad. You should think about doing your own trip when you graduate."
"Why wait? I could probably cruise around for the rest of the summer and enjoy myself, especially if you were there to show me around."
I giggled. "What, me? Wouldn't you want to have an adventure like that with your friends?"
"You already know there's no one I'd rather be with than you," Carter said with complete sincerity, an open honesty in his eyes that simultaneously thrilled and terrified me.
I blushed and sighed. "It's tempting, actually. I had such a good time that I wouldn't mind going back. But that's done. College is done. I'm home now, I've got a good job lined up, and frankly I don't know when I'll have time to take another trip like that."
Carter shrugged. "Never say never."
"I suppose." I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly while staring out the window. "But for now, I think I'll just focus on starting this next chapter in my life. No longer a student. Full-time job. Back in the Bay Area. Most of my college friends are scattered all over the place. It's going to be a little weird starting all over again from scratch, you know?"
"You'll always have me."
I glanced over and smiled at my little brother. "Of course. But you moved out to that big house Dad set you up with in Berkeley, right?"
Carter shrugged while turning the wheel with both hands. "If you want, you could stay with me instead of living at home with Mom and Dad. There's plenty of room and you know I'd be happy to have you."
"I'll bet you would." I drawled, my eyes glittering at the innuendo of Carter 'having me'. But I shook my head in the negative. "Staying with Mom and Dad is only going to be temporary until I can figure out the best place to get my own apartment. Probably somewhere downtown close to work and the social scene."
Carter frowned. "Downtown? And here I was hoping you'd be close enough to visit more often. I really have missed you."
"Downtown isn't that far away, lazy ass." I reached out and lightly punched his upper arm. "We'll still see each other."
"I mean it," I said sincerely. "I'm not on the other side of the country anymore. You're my little brother and I want to spend time with you. We'll definitely meet up more often than the last four years."
"Anything would be more often than the last four years," he complained. "You barely ever came home, even for the holidays."
I heard the whine in his voice. "Don't be like that. I was busy with internships and trips and lots of stuff. But I'm home now."
"Yeah, you're home. So what does that really mean? Do things go back the way they used to be?"
It was a loaded question and he knew it. I stared over at my little brother, scrutinizing the tension his posture and the clench of his jaw. Carefully, I asked, "What do you mean 'the way they used to be'?"
Carter sighed, staring forward out the windshield. He wore his aviators, but even so I could see the pain etched in his face. And taking a deep breath, he muttered quietly, "I think you know what I mean."
"Carter ... really? Still?" I asked, feeling bad. "It's been four years."
"So? I still love you. Did you really expect that to change?"
"And I love you," I replied immediately.
His jaw clenched. "But not in the way that I love you."
I sighed. "That was the puppy love of a 16-year-old boy."
"Well I'm not a 16-year-old boy anymore. I'm a grown man now, and I'm old enough to know what love is. Four years later, I still love you."
"Carter, I'm your sister."
"STEPsister," he corrected as always. "And even that, maybe not much longer."
Not much longer? With a frown, I asked, "What do you mean by that?"
He didn't reply right away. His head turned away from me as he checked his blind spot and merged into the left lane. Even after he'd merged, his head tilted and turned again as he glanced into the rearview mirror and even fiddled with the CD player to change songs. But I kept silently waiting for him, and after a long while he finally glanced over at me for just a moment before returning his eyes to the road. "I think Mom and Dad are getting a divorce."
"WHAT?" I barked in shock, sitting upright in my seat.
Carter took a deep breath. "You've missed out on a lot over the last month on your trip. Dad's been screwing around. Nothing new, really; he's been doing that for years. But Mom caught him fucking one of the maids in their bedroom a couple of weeks ago and they've been fighting non-stop. I think Mom's fed up with the whole trophy wife lifestyle."
My eyebrows popped. "Are you serious?"
Carter grimaced. "Dead serious. I don't go home much anymore. And when I AM there, as soon as they start yelling at each other I just get in the car and drive back to my place. Dad's talking pre-nuptial agreements and Mom's citing California 'Community Property' law. It gets pretty ugly."
"Oh my gawd."
"And Dad's got a new girlfriend. Some hot blonde not much older than you."
My stomach turned. "Oh, eww..."
"He actually brought her by the house."
My eyes went wide in shock. "He wouldn't dare."
"He did. The point is: pretty soon I might not BE your brother anymore. So then there wouldn't be anything to stop us from being together."
I blinked and gawked at Carter, unable to believe his mind had gone straight to THAT. "Our parents might be getting divorced and THAT'S what you're thinking about?"
Carter winced and glanced over at me before again turning his attention forward. Sullenly, he mumbled to the windshield, "Well it's true..."
I shook my head emphatically. "From the time I was nine, we've grown up together. You're my little brother: always have been, always will be. No matter what happens or doesn't happen between our parents, you'll always be my little brother. And that's the way I'll always love you, understood?"
Carter scowled and shook his head, replying dejectedly, "Fine..."
-- JULY 2002 --
Mom and I both heard the doorbell, and she looked over at me as I quickly walked around the kitchen island to the sink to rinse off my hands. After wiping them dry, I headed out to the front door to answer it.
We used to have a couple of permanent maids who would answer the door, but not anymore. These were uncertain times, and Mom was proactively cutting expenses. I wasn't bothered; it wasn't like I was used to having maid service when I was at school.
I peered through the peephole and pulled my head back in surprise. Mom and I were making dinner in preparation for his arrival and we'd been expecting him, but not in this manner. Quickly, I flipped the deadbolt and opened the door, hands on my hips as I cocked my head and asked, "Carter? What are you doing ringing the doorbell? You lose your key or something?"
My stepbrother sheepishly stood on the doorstep with his hands in his pockets. His lower jaw jutted forward and his eyes were downcast as he shrugged and replied, "I dunno. Didn't feel right to just let myself in."
"What are you talking about? This house has been our home for years and years. Just because you got your own bachelor pad doesn't mean you need to ring the doorbell here."
He shrugged again, still not meeting my eyes. "But it's not my home anymore."
"Don't be ridiculous," Mom suddenly said from behind me. I turned and backed up half a pace as she stepped forward and frowned.
"Hey Mo--," Carter began before abruptly stopping. With a sigh, his shoulders slumped and he finished weakly, "uh ... Mrs. Singleton?"
Mom frowned. True, she wasn't Carter's biological mother. Everyone present knew full well that she'd only married his father seven years after he was born, but I'd never ONCE heard Carter call her "Mrs. Singleton", not until just now. With her eyes moistening, Mom pursed her lips and said softly, "Carter ... please..."
His head drooped and he shook it. "I'm sorry. I just don't know how to deal with all this."
"True enough," I grumped while folding my arms across my chest. "You've been avoiding the topic – practically avoiding US – for the last three weeks."
He steadfastly refused to make eye contact with me and mumbled, "Sorry. This kind of drama just isn't my thing."
"I know it isn't, sweetie," Mom sighed as she stepped out onto the porch and wrapped him up in a hug. It took Carter a moment to return it, and even then he barely touched her.
He held her at near arm's length for the exact minimum amount of time necessary to be polite, and then pulled out of her grasp and asked, "What's up?"
Mom glanced at me and inclined her head. "Let's go inside."
Carter sighed and nodded, gesturing for her to lead the way. Mom did, heading for the living room. I wrapped my arm around Carter's waist and together we followed.
"Can I get you anything? Coke? Water?" Mom asked over her shoulder.
"Shot of whiskey to calm the nerves?" I suggested with a smirk.
"I'm fine." Carter waved us off and took a seat on the couch, perching on the edge as if ready to bolt at a moment's notice. "Let's just get to the point."
Mom frowned. "So businesslike. No matter what's happening between me and your father, I'll always be your Mom."
He shook his head and pouted. "No you won't. That's just the point. When this divorce becomes final, the two of you and I won't be family anymore."
"Carter," Mom said heavily with a frown. "Don't say that."
"It's the truth."
"We will ALWAYS be a family."
"Until we're not. Legally binding and all that jazz."
"There's more to 'family' than legally binding."
"I'm not stupid. I'm just saying..." he stared at the wall like a sullen teenager.
Mom and I looked at each other, and a moment later Mom suggested, "Why don't I check on dinner. The two of you can hang out. I know it's been a while since you've seen each other and Cameron has a lot to tell you about her new job in the City."
I smiled brightly, but Carter shook his head. "That's not necessary. You asked me to come over here for something and I came. What do you need? Otherwise, I'll just be getting out of here."
"Carter, please? What I want is for you to stay and have dinner with us."
"That's it? Seriously?" He frowned and stared at me. I couldn't stop myself from wincing, and he keyed in on that. "So there IS something?"
Mom and I exchanged another look, and Mom took a deep breath before returning her attention to Carter. "I was hoping you might be able to find out some information for me. Your father has presented his financial portfolio to the judge and there are a LOT of irregularities--"
"Whoa! Whoa!" he cut her off, sitting up straight and jerking his hands like blades. "Nuh-uh. No divorce talk. I'm not getting involved in this."
"But you're our SON. You're already involved."
"Not any more than I have to be."
"Please. You father will talk to you. Things aren't adding up and I'm afraid he's ... well ... he's trying to screw me over."
Carter frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that the numbers he's giving the judge show his net worth to be FAR below what I know it to be. And I mean FAR below."
"Psht. Big surprise. That's Dad."
"I know. But in this case, he and I both know that California law splits the family assets 50/50. By fudging his numbers like this, he's trying to make me walk away with pennies."
Carter shook his head. "Can he do that? I mean, he's the one cheating on you. Or don't tell me you've been cheating on him."
"Don't be ridiculous." Mom looked hurt. "I've been faithful for almost fourteen years, no matter how many bimbos your father slept with."
Carter sighed. "Didn't think so. Still, doesn't that make the divorce his fault and the judge awards you a bunch in damages?"
Mom shook her head. "The lawyers will haggle that stuff out, including spousal support. But the court can only make him pay according to whatever they can prove he's got."
"So what? You want ME to dig around Dad's files and find the rest?"
Mom and I looked at each other again. It was pretty much exactly what I'd suggested to her.
Carter rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Not happening. I'm not a spy, especially on my own Dad."
"I'm not asking you to spy, Carter," Mom said with a sigh. "I'm asking you to help me, your mother, not be left destitute after your unfaithful father kicks me to the curb. I'm not asking for much. I don't need to live some glamorous lifestyle, but seriously, I'm getting screwed."
He shook his head and stood up. "I'm sorry, but I can't do that."
"Carter..." Mom pleaded as she reached a hand out to her only son.
But Carter avoided her hand and headed for the door.
"Carter!" I yelled a little more shrilly.
My voice got him to turn around. He sighed and gave us a weak look. "I'm sorry. I love you both. I'll always love you both. But I just CAN'T get in the middle of this thing, alright?"
"Please, Carter," I begged, knowing how important this was for Mom. And... "For me?"
Carter blinked and stared at me. He swallowed thickly, and for a moment I believed his eternal connection to me would make him change his mind. But in the end he shook his head once more and replied, "I'm sorry."
And then he left.
-- NOVEMBER 2002 --
We kept telling Carter to use his key, but he always stood on the front porch and rang the doorbell. Even though this house had once been his home, he didn't consider it that way anymore. And even though it broke Mom's heart for him to say it, Carter insisted that "the owner" wasn't even his family anymore, not technically, and it didn't feel right to just let himself in. Period.
We were expecting him, so it didn't take me very long to get to the door. Always happy to see him, I opened it with a megawatt smile. "Hey little brother. Good to see you."
Carter rolled his eyes at the 'little brother' remark. He knew I meant it as an endearment, but even so I knew he sorta hated the term as a symbol of how I would never see him as a viable mate. I really didn't. How could I? He was my little brother, step or not. Even now when I closed my eyes and pictured him, I didn't see the 6'3" strapping young man he'd grown up to be; I saw the little boy who'd needed me to put band-aids on his boo-boos.
Wanting to welcome my little brother, I stepped out onto the porch and enfolded him in a warm hug. "How've you been?" I asked while patting Carter's back.
"Doin' alright," he replied. "Can't complain."
I nodded. "Mom's in the kitchen. Come on."
Carter followed me into the house, and his eyes must've been glued to my swaying ass because halfway down the hall, I glanced back and noticed the angle of his gaze. Turning about, I cocked one hip and waggled a finger at him as if he were just some horny teenager who couldn't take his eyes off me. "Tsk, tsk."
"What? How can I NOT stare? It's a thing of beauty!" Carter gestured with both hands at my body while grinning at me.
I smirked back and couldn't help posing a bit, exaggerating the angle of my hips. "Don't you have yourself a girlfriend to stare at instead, little brother? What's her name ... Kelly, right?"
"Of course. Actually, I have a NEW girlfriend to stare at," he replied a little smugly.
"Really?" I arched my eyebrow. "What happened with you and Kelly?"
His grin widened. "Still dating her, too."
That got both my eyebrows to rise and I chuckled while shaking my head. "You're such a player."
Carter's eyes glittered as he stared me up and down. Almost in a trance, he intoned seriously, "But even the two of them put together only pale in comparison to the beauty standing before me now.
I felt heat rise into my cheeks – and flood other parts of my body at the same time. It really had been a rough few months for me on the dating front. With the challenges of a new job, the effort that went into not getting a slut reputation at the office, the difficulties in making new friends in a new city, and this whole divorce fallout taking up so much of my free time, I hadn't gotten properly laid since the trip to Europe. Even now I knew I was ovulating as my hormones were at their peak levels, so my arousal was on a hair trigger. As naughty and illicitly incestuous as it had been to fool around with Carter when we were teenagers, I had to admit that the memory of those encounters turned me on. And so with a deep red blush, I smiled demurely and gave him a coy look. My voice was throaty as I murmured, "It still gets me hot when you look at me like that."
After staring at my tits, Carter raised his eyes to meet mine. And with total sincerity, he said, "It still gets ME hot when I look at YOU."
But despite the lustful arousal coursing through my veins, I took a deep breath and put a cap on my hormones. Shaking my head slowly, I turned to continue walking. "So who's this new girlfriend? And does Kelly know about her?"
"She does. It's all good. Anyway, the new girl is named Rebecca. You'd like her, too. You both have much in common."
"Hmm, I'll bet," I glanced at him sideways. "Tall, thin, brunette?"
"Check, check, check."
"Hmm, a lot like Kelly then."
Carter smirked. "A lot like you."
I sighed, thinking back to everything we'd done to each other in high school. When I'd left for college, Carter had still been dating Lana LeGrande. But I kept tabs on him through Mom and found that after Lana there had been five more girlfriends in the last four years, all of them green-eyed brunettes. "Still fantasizing about me when you're fucking her? Kelly OR Rebecca?"
Carter stopped walking and reached out to take my hand, pulling back on it to stop me. As he tugged me around, he placed his other hand on my waist and stepped forward so that we were looking at each other eye-to-eye. And in a serious, weighty voice, he intoned softly, "Always and forever dreaming of you. From the beginning of time till the day I die."
I had to admit to myself that Carter had grown up into quite the dashing and handsome devil. While I may have imagined the little boy he'd been when my eyes were closed, with my eyes open I could see the strong young man he'd grown up to be. Feeling the strength in his hands as he held me, and staring into the deep richness of his eyes as he stared at me with unimaginable intensity, I felt like one of the damsels in distress on the cover of a romance novel. And with his deep voice so sweetly sincere in his profession of love, I felt my knees weakening as the urge to swoon into his arms and let him have his way with me took root in my brain.
But no matter how long I'd been stuck in this dry spell, and no matter how well he'd induced pleasurable orgasms in my body in the past, the fact remained that I considered him my little brother, and I'd sworn to myself I would put our past "fooling around" behind me. So after blinking twice quickly, I averted my eyes and gently pressed on his chest to separate us. And in a quietly steady voice I said, "You're not supposed to say things like that anymore."
Leaning forward, he kept his face within a couple of feet of mine. "You started it," he growled roughly, "asking me whether or not I still fantasize about you."
I didn't have an immediate response to that, so I looked away from him while biting my lip.
With a sigh, Carter let go of me and turned away. I caught my breath and tried to regain my composure while he paced a few steps down the hall before looking up at the ceiling. Moments later, he turned and looked at me with a new expression, one that lacked his previous lust and instead was purely platonic. "Hey, looks like a couple of bulbs burned out. Need me to replace them?"
I looked up where he'd been staring and shook my head with a sigh. "No, actually. Tried that already myself. Something's wrong with the whole electrical section. Both overhead lights and all the wall outlets along that side went down. There's probably a short somewhere."
"When did that happen?"
I shrugged. "About a month ago."
Carter frowned. "A month ago? And Mom hasn't gotten it fixed?"
I winced and put a hand to my forehead, momentarily overwhelmed by everything that was going on. I hadn't been kidding when I said that the fallout from Mom's divorce had been seriously hampering my life. "It's not really a high priority right now," I explained. "To be honest, Mom's cash flow is a little tight."
"A little tight? I thought ... well..." Carter took a deep breath and looked away. "I thought that problem got taken care of."
Feeling my sibling warmth returning to me, I reached up to touch Carter's shoulder as I said softly, "What you did helped a lot. Without you finding those hidden assets, Mom would literally have gotten put out on the street. But even so, Dad kept a lot of things covered up. She got the house and the car, but not that much liquid capital. She's trying to find a job, but it's not easy having been out of work for almost fifteen years. And it's not like 'former model' is all that helpful on one's resume to get a new job when you're forty-five."
"She still looks thirty-five," he replied.
I nodded. "I know, but it's a tough market for her age and experience."
"Well you're doing alright, aren't you?"
"I am. But you already know I moved back into the house."
"Thought that was just to keep Mom company after the divorce."
"Part of it." I shrugged. "But really, money's been tight enough that it made sense financially to give up my apartment and move back here. I've got a good job, and it'll be enough to keep Mom and I afloat. But ... well ... upkeep on something like this little electrical problem just isn't ... isn't..."
"High priority," he finished for me.
Carter scowled and looked away in thought before standing up straight and giving me an even look. "I'll take care of it," he stated confidently.
"That's not why we asked you to visit. It's not necessary."
Carter shook his head and leveled me with an even firmer expression. "I'll take care of it," he insisted. "We're family, aren't we? Family takes care of each other.
My shoulders slumped, I tilted my head to the side, and I breathed a sigh of relief. With a smile, I quickly moved up to him and wrapped my arms around his back. "Thanks, little brother."
Carter groaned immediately and pushed away from me, rolling his eyes. "Okay, seriously, you call me that one more time and I won't take care of it!" he complained.
I giggled and nodded before stepping forward and enfolding him in another hug. "Okay, okay. From now on, I'll just call you 'Carter', deal?"
Carter grinned and squeezed me back. "If you really will stop calling me that, it'll be the best money I've ever spent!"
-- DECEMBER 2002 --
"C'mon, don't pretend like you're some innocent," Carter teased, proffering the business end of the hookah forward. "I know you better than that."
"You're such a bad influence," I sighed, but I was smirking as I shook my head.
"It's just a little weed. It's a party, remember?" he encouraged magnanimously. "I warned you what to expect when you said you were actually going to come over here."
"I wasn't planning on coming over here tonight. If that asshole Berk hadn't turned out to be such a ... a--"
"Jerk?" Carter finished for me. "Seriously, the guy's name is Berk. Who the hell names their kid 'Berk'? Plus, Jerk-Berk: smart girl like you couldn't put that one together?"
"Shut UP, you." I pushed out with my left arm, shoving his shoulder back but not hard. "Keep that up and I'll go home to Mom."
"Don't do that. Seriously, stay. I'm so happy you're finally here."
"I've been to your place a few times already."
"Not at night. Not for a party. Now seriously, toke up. Huh?"
"SUCH a bad influence." I sighed but reached forward and took hold of the hose. Bringing the tip up to my lips, I inhaled deeply and felt the smoke go to work. Closing my eyes for a moment, I savored the flavor, and after holding my hit for the proper amount of time I backed away, pressed my lips together, and expertly blew the smoke back out.
"You're a natural!" Carter crowed proudly. "Guess you weren't such a goody two-shoes at Yale after all."
"Oh, I was, at least to the outside world," I replied with a waggle of my eyebrows. "Great grades. Model citizen. But I've been to Amsterdam for cryin' out loud. A girl can work hard AND play hard, know what I mean?"
"I know what I'd like to play with you."
I shoved his shoulder again. "Stop it. You've got a girlfriend for that. Two."
"And I'd drop them both in a heartbeat if it meant I could have you again."
I frowned, Carter's persistence erasing any high I'd gotten from the marijuana. "Carter ... seriously. We're not like that anymore."
He gave me a puppy dog frown, a good one. I took one look and then averted my eyes, stifling a smile and covering my mouth with one hand. He kept it up, only deepening his frown theatrically, and when I looked back at him I couldn't help but bark in laughter.
"You're sweet, you know that?" I said with a smile.
"And you're perfect," he replied immediately, his eyes boring deep into mine. "Forever you..."
We were getting into "heavy" territory again, so shaking my head I looked away from him. Needing a distraction, I impulsively seized the hookah hose once more. I inhaled and exhaled again, breathing deeply as I felt the drug start working its way into my veins. And with a sigh, I replied sincerely, "I'll always love you, but not like that."
Carter closed his eyes and took a deep breath. For a moment, it looked like he was going to cry. And he looked so pitiful that I couldn't help but reach up to take hold of his head and gently kiss his forehead just above his right eyebrow.
"Suuuuu-weeet! Carter, who's the babe?"
I jerked away immediately. While I'd met Carter's girlfriends socially on a couple of occasions when he'd bring them over for dinner at Mom's place or meet up with us elsewhere, I really hadn't met any of his current friends, apart from Sam and Sang who I'd known since high school. Other than them, none of the people at this party knew we were siblings, ex-stepsiblings or not. Still, the last thing I wanted to deal with was awkward questions should any of them find out we'd been semi-related, especially while I was touching him in a semi-intimate manner.
The moment broken, Carter and I both glanced up to see a well-chiseled young man wearing a too-tight black T-shirt underneath a faded brown leather jacket. His dark hair was greased straight back, and his grin was just a tad too big to be genuine. Carter scowled and replied, "Not now Toby."
"Aww, just makin' conversation," the big lug replied.
"Not NOW, Toby."
"Fine, fine, I'll scram. Jeez. But we need to talk shop tonight, okay? I'm running low and the bitches are gettin' needy, you know? So you talk to Chad or whatever you need to do because I'll run out in two days if you don't--"
"Not NOW, Toby!" Carter barked and stood up, getting right in the guy's face. "Dude, the fuck are you trying to do? Not now, not here. Keep this shit up and I'll never talk to you again."
"I'm sorry, man, I'm sorry. You da boss, aiiight?" Toby glanced over at me as if just now realizing he was messing things up for his 'boss' while Carter was putting the moves on a girl. "Just ... don't forget, right?"
"I won't," Carter growled out. "Now beat it."
"Sure, sure." Bobbing his head obsequiously, Toby turned and headed off somewhere else.
I arched an eyebrow. "Friend of yours?"
Carter grimaced and looked around like he'd rather I hadn't seen that. "Something like that," he replied a little sullenly. "More of a work colleague."
Work colleague? "Right, right. Not that you have a day job or anything like that," I said evenly, my eyes narrowing.
He shrugged. "We've talked about this. You really don't want to know."
"I don't, I know I don't," I replied while holding my hands up. "But at the same time I kinda do, you know?"
"Can we just let it go?" he pleaded.
"I'm not so sure." Reaching out with my left hand, I pushed the hookah across the coffee table further away from us. "Level with me. Are you involved in something illegal?"
"You really want me to answer that?"
Something told me I shouldn't. Better willfully ignorant than complicit in whatever shit Carter was into. But at the same time, this was Carter. Even if I couldn't use the term to his face anymore, he was my little brother. While a part of me would love to remain in the blissful ignorance of seeing Carter as my innocent little brother, the truth was that he wasn't so innocent anymore, and neither was I. So I took a deep breath, pursed my lips, and sighed. "Yes. Yes, I do. Because I already suspect that the answer is 'yes', and I want that confirmed."
Carter would never lie to me. Withhold the truth because he thought it was in my best interests? Sure, anytime. But lie to me? To a direct question? I'd never caught him doing it before, and tonight was no different. With a shrug, he admitted, "It's illegal, yes."
I blinked twice and grimaced. "Are you a drug dealer?"
Carter took a deep breath, thought about that for a moment, and shook his head. "Not exactly..." he hedged.
His avoidance got my blood up. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Carter shrugged again. "I don't meet up in dark alleyways asking people if they're cops before handing over plastic baggies in exchange for crumpled bills."
My eyebrows arched. "But you ARE dealing drugs."
Carter grimaced. "More of the ... distribution network. I throw the parties."
I frowned. "Distribution network? You're going to have to elaborate."
Carter sighed and shook his head. "You really don't want to know the details."
"I do. Tonight I do. Tomorrow I may try to forget everything and go back to being blissfully ignorant, but tonight I wanna know."
He pursed his lips for a moment and thought about his explanation. At length, he began, "I don't deal the drugs. Like I said: I throw the parties. Think of it like a bar, where every night is ladies night. The girls get in for free, their presence brings in the guys, and it's mostly the guys that pick up the bar tabs."
"Only you're not selling alcohol."
"I'm not selling drugs, either. Sam handles that."
I made a face, thinking of Carter's best friend from high school. "Is that why he's always hanging around here?"
Carter shrugged. "More or less. Truth be told, I think he's more into the business for the girls than the drugs. That and because it's Chad that's doing the supplying."
I thought about that and looked around to see if Sam's big brother was here. I hadn't seen him on any previous visits to Carter's house. "So Chad is the drug dealer?"
I shook my head. "Just the supplier. The dealers are some of the guys you see coming around here to party with the girls and pick up their stock, like Toby."
"Oh, so you and Chad and Sam are all above the little drug dealers. And it all happens under this roof. Quite the kingpin you've become, little brother."
"I asked you to stop calling me that."
I didn't care. This whole thing sounded like a bad idea. I was no saint myself, and I'd done plenty of experimentation in college, but being an integral part of a drug dealing network in any fashion, no matter how Carter spun it, sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. "Jeezus, you're still in college."
He shrugged. "Because it'd break Mom's heart if I didn't graduate. But it's not like I need a degree to get an income."
"Thought you weren't selling."