Kaitlyn Cooper was bored. Phenomenally bored. She’d come home from school for the summer to visit with her family. Mom and Dad were helping Sandy Cohen run the Newport Group. Marissa spent all her time with Summer Roberts, going dancing at The Bait Shop and moping when Summer spent time with her dork boyfriend, Seth. The one and only time she’d asked about Ryan, Marissa’s boyfriend, her sister had run crying to her room. Mom had threatened to cut off her allowance if she ever mentioned his name again and Dad just said they broke up.
So, here she was, trying to find a non-lame party to crash on a Friday night. She was hanging on the pier, hiding her smoke from the narcs, when she saw the glint of fire further down the beach. Surf party sounded okay. And it was, really. There was this geeky guy who insisted his name was Chili and he was friends with this real hunk named Johnny. Who, unfortunately, had a girlfriend. She’d snagged a drink and was working her buzz when someone else crashed the party.
``Volchek.’’ Johnny didn’t sound happy.
``Harper.’’ The tattooed guy with the earrings and bottle of whiskey sneered at the crowd. ``You haven’t dumped this loser, yet, Callie?’’
``You’re the only loser here, Volchek.’’ Johnny’s girlfriend snapped. She tugged on his arm and the two walked away, Chili trailing along after.
``Whose this?’’ Kaitlyn looked up into ice-blue eyes that were definitely checking her out.
``Kaitlyn.’’ This guy looked like a real bad boy, which was just the sort of fun she needed.
``You bored yet, Kaitlyn?’’ She nodded. ``I know where to find a real party. Interested?’’
``Don’t trust me?’’
``No.’’ Rather than get pissed, he smiled like she’d paid him a compliment.
``Good.’’ He walked away. He was cool. And kind of hot. She stood up to follow him.
Kaitlyn pulled her car up outside a bar. There were a lot of people around, all looking excited. They were filing into the warehouse behind the bar, nodding to the bouncer as they went. No one appeared to be checking id’s, or taking money, so she just slipped into the crowd. People were making out in the dimly lit hallway, the throbbing music masking their noises. There was a cleared area in the center of the room with chain link fence around it. She stopped at the fringes of the crowd. Cage fighting? Seriously?
``You’re not gonna believe this guy.’’ Someone was saying, enthused. ``Some nights he kicks ass, some nights he just takes the beating of a lifetime.’’
``Sounds like an idiot.’’ Volchek answered from behind her. So much for the element of surprise. ``Hey, Kaitlyn.’’
``Cage fighting? Dude, this is so late nineties.’’ She tossed her head and hoped he’d get the hint. She didn’t need guys who were into this kind of thing. It was kind of gay.
``So?’’ He shrugged, handing her a beer. ``Money’s good, if you don’t bet on the Wild Card.’’ He knocked back a drink from his bottle. ``Sometimes even if you do.’’
``But….’’ Wild cheering and yells pulled her attention to the cage. A big bald guy with a dragon tattoo was climbing into the ring. The other guy had his back to her, but she could see he was blond, muscular, and a little shorter than his opponent. He looked vaguely familiar.
``Fuck.’’ Volchek finished off his beer. ``It’s the Wild Card.’’ He went off in search of more beer.
Kaitlyn knew she should leave, run straight home, in fact; but the tingle of familiarity pulled her closer and closer to the fight in the cage. Blond guy, or, as he was apparently known, Wild Card, was delivering punch after punch to the bald guy. Bald guy staggered back, nearly fell, then caught Wild Card with a right hook that threw the younger man face first against the chain link. His blue eyes flicked over the crowd and she gasped in startled recognition.
He didn’t act like he’d seen her, he turned back to the fight. Money was changing hands as people cursed and laughed. Ryan was winning. How did he get here? Wasn’t he still at the Cohen’s? How did he and Marissa break up? Should she call someone? Who? Caught by her own curiosity, she flinched in shock when Volchek came up behind her and put his arm around her waist.
``Guy’s good, I’ll give him that.’’ He sneered as Ryan’s hand was lifted in victory. ``Too much of a queer thing for me.’’ He smelled like skunked beer. She tried to tug away from him. ``What’s the matter, not having any fun?’’ He tightened his grip on her. ``Didn’t you drink your beer?’’ Oh, God, the beer. He’d put something in the beer? How could she have been so stupid? She dropped the beer to the floor, started to struggle in earnest.
There was this red-head next to her, sliding a hand up the guy’s arm. Kaitlyn would’ve been relieved at the reinforcements if it weren’t for the heavy glaze to the woman’s eyes. She was so stoned. And I am so screwed, she thought just as Ryan came up behind the red-head, bare chest glinting with sweat. He was going to have some lovely bruises, come morning. She tried not to lose hope when he gave her a confused look. He obviously recognized her. He just as obviously couldn’t place her.
``Hey, Ry.’’ The red head slinked over to Ryan and put her arms around his waist. ``You in a party mood, tonight?’’
``New girlfriend, Ryan?’’ Kaitlyn asked, still trying to free herself. ``My sister know you go to the cesspool for your rebound?’’
``Kaitlyn?’’ He shoved the red head away and grabbed her arm. She didn’t protest how much it hurt as it got her loose from Volchek. ``What the fuck?’’
``Hey, get your own.’’ Volchek grabbed her other arm. She had a real bad feeling about this. ``She’s with me.’’
``She’s fourteen.’’ Ryan snapped.
``So?’’ She swallowed, now really scared.
``So, back off.’’ Ryan growled.
``Make me.’’ Volchek sneered.
``Really?’’ Ryan’s smile was nasty as he raised his voice. ``Looks like we’ve got a new player, Neil!’’
``What? I …’’
A crowd started to gather, people pushing and shoving. Volchek stopped protesting when people started calling him a pussy. Other people offered him money, and he glared for a long minute, but finally accepted. Ryan yanked her over to where a hairy fat guy was laying money down into little piles. He looked up and nodded at the two boys. No one said anything about rules or terms of the fight, it was all about money. How much to get into the ring, how much to come out of it the winner, how the betting was going and in whose favor. A chair was placed next to Fat Guy.
``Sit with Neil, Kaitlyn.’’
Ryan pushed her toward the fat guy, who smiled at her in a very non-creepy way. He turned and walked away from her without a second look. She sank nervously into the chair, staring. She didn’t think anyone would protest if she tried to leave, but she wasn’t sure enough to risk it. Volchek stripped off his shirt, giving Ryan dark looks and muttering to himself. His hands were wrapped and the two stepped into the cage.
She watched, eyes wide, as they went at it. This was different from the prior fight, this seemed to be personal. She saw the red head from earlier watching and wondered if she had anything to do with it. From what had been said, Ryan was at least sleeping with her. She shook her head. She just didn’t get it. What had happened? Last she heard, things were great. Okay, not great. Caleb Nichol was dead, Ryan’s ex-con brother was being a loser, Kirsten Cohen turned out to be an alcoholic…… But Marissa and Ryan were doing okay, right? So how did it get from `taking it slow’ to cage fighting and a ban on his very name?
``Winner!’’ Cheers and catcalls filled the air. People came up to Neil Fat Guy’s table to get their winnings or pay their debts. Volchek was out cold, bleeding heavily onto the floor.
``Jackass!’’ Red Head surged forward and slapped Ryan, hard. Kaitlyn caught her breath at the dark look on his face. His eyes glittered coldly, lips tightening. Red Head took a faltering step back.
``Cat fights are Tuesday nights, Heather.’’ He walked past her as if she didn’t exist. ``Neil.’’
``Ry.’’ The guy handed Ryan a wad of cash that he automatically stuffed into a pocket. ``Always a pleasure. When you showing up next?’’ Ryan smiled darkly and shook his head. ``Right, Wild Card.’’ Neil shrugged. ``Kid your sister or something?’’
``Or something.’’ Motioning to her, Ryan turned as if he didn’t care whether or not she was following. When she caught up to him, he was pulling a black t-shirt on over his head without bothering to wipe away the blood or sweat. The guy behind the stack of boxes serving as a bar handed him a baggy with Ryan’s keys, wallet, and watch. He slipped his watch on and shoved the baggy into the non-money pocket.
``I have a car.’’ Her voice was quiet. She was afraid, not just of the situation, but of his behavior. What had happened to the shy boy who tried so hard to make her sister happy?
``You can save me cab fare, then.’’ He followed her to her car in silence. She nervously belted up and started the engine. She wasn’t surprised to see that he wasn’t belting in. ``Unbelievable. Un-fucking-believable. I though Atwoods were fuck-ups, but you Coopers….’’
``It’s not my …..’’ She flinched away from the glare he gave her. ``Okay, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have gone to the stupid party, or followed the stupid guy to the bar, but Ryan….’’ All her confusion caught up with her and she shook her head to try and clear it. ``What happened?’’
``We broke up.’’
``Yeah, I kinda figured that out.’’ Long silence as the streets got better lit and the houses got bigger and nicer. ``Why?’’
``Everything.’’ Ryan shrugged. ``It just got to be too much.’’
``Putting up with her drama?’’ He shot her a surprised look. ``Hey, I’m her sister, not her therapist. Marissa has problems.’’
``Trey attacking her probably didn’t help.’’
``Trey attacked Marissa.’’
``How bad did you beat him up?’’
``Okay, not believing that one for a minute, Ryan.’’
``I didn’t find out until after he left.’’ He canted a look towards her, frowning. ``Didn’t you hear all about how I’m a scumbag who broke her heart and…’’
``Oh, please, no one tells me anything.’’
``I know how that is.’’ They rode for a little longer before he spoke again. ``I just …with everything else ….. and then she sends Summer to tell Seth. Not even me, Seth.’’
``Yeah, that I believe.’’ Kaitlyn nodded as several things clicked into place. Somehow, though, Ryan’s reaction seemed a little extreme, given the givens. ``So, you dump my sister for being the user she is …..’’ He flinched. She saw a guilty look flash in his eyes for a split second. ``Or was there something else?’’
``I slept with someone.’’ He crossed his arms and slumped into the seat. ``The night before I found out about Trey.’’
``Whoa.’’ Kaitlyn was surprised. If there was one thing that she thought made him stand out from all Marissa’s other guys, it was his ethics. He was, basically, a good guy. She saw the shamed tilt of his head and knew what was at the core of the fighting. Everything was starting to come together. ``Okay, unexpected. That’s not like you.’’
``You hardly know me.’’
``I’ve read Marissa’s diary, I’ve heard her and Summer talk. I know you, Chino, and cheating on your girlfriend isn’t something you’d just do for no reason.’’ Something about the timing was tickling her mind. Funeral, when she stopped getting gossip emails from her sister, the wake where Kirsten had a melt-down…….``Ryan, does this have anything to do with Kirsten going to Suriak?’’ He flinched, bit his lip. Bingo. ``You poor thing.’’
``Sandy’s trying to hold it together and work with your parents, where they bad-mouth me every day, by the way. Seth’s lost his mother and can’t hang with me without endangering his relationship with Summer. Marissa’s ……’’ He cleared his throat. ``Marissa was almost raped by my brother and you’re feeling sorry for me?’’
``Kirsten’s your Mom, too, sweetie.’’
``Hush and let me talk.’’ She pulled the car over to the side of the road and turned to face him. He was staring at her, wide-eyed. ``I bet everyone expected you to just handle whatever came along, no matter what. No one even knew you were having trouble, did they?’’ He shook his head, looking dazed. ``So here you are, your second chance and bright future falling apart around you, everyone too involved with their own stuff to even give you a second……’’ Okay, this was all hitting a little too close to home. She shook it off. ``How much sex did you have in Chino, anyway?’’
``This is not a conversation I’m having with a fourteen year old.’’ Ryan grabbed the door handle and opened the door..
``I bet it was fun.’’ He blew air out of his lips in exasperation and got out of the car. ``I bet it was comforting.’’ He froze, hand suddenly white-knuckled on the doorframe. ``Who was it?’’
``It wasn’t Summer, was it?’’
``NO!’’ Ryan’s expression was priceless. ``Just….no….’’
``Ryan, if you don’t tell someone, everyone’s going to think this was more than a one night hook up. Not to mention….’’
``It was Hailey.’’
``Kirsten’s sister?!’’ Her voice went up two whole octaves.
``Yeah.’’ He slammed the car door and stood there, chewing his lip. Long moments passed before he spoke again. ``You said….you said you read her diary?’’ When she nodded distractedly, he licked his lips. ``Did she…..did she ever say…..did she ever really love me?’’
Oh, God, she wanted out of this conversation. Next time you’re bored, she scolded herself, read a stupid book or something. What could she tell him? What should she tell him? If she said yes, she knew he’d try everything to win Marissa back. He was like that, always about the other person. She knew, though, that her sister was the worst person in the world for someone like Ryan. But if she said no, would he ever recover? She looked into his hopeful expression and tossed the dice.
``No. I’m sorry, Ryan, but she didn’t’’
`` `Bout what I expected.’’ He seemed okay with it. Or not. He was really hard to read, all of a sudden.
Watching him walk away into her headlights, Kaitlyn wondered just what he had done to piss God off quite this much. The boy needed a break. Preferably before he got killed trying to punish himself for a single mistake. For someone who tried so hard to help others, he really sucked at helping himself. Someone needed to take that boy in hand. For a split second, she entertained the thought of doing it herself. After all, if you want something done right……
Sanity returned with the honk of a passing car. Pulling into traffic and headed home, Kaitlyn put the problem of Ryan on the back burner. It wouldn’t do any good to find someone to help him with her sister still moping after him. First, fix Marissa. Memories of some of the elder girl’s more memorable mistakes filled her mind. Right. This was going to be harder than she thought.