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The showdownwith Jackson was a bit over the top, even for her. Her brother knew just how to push her buttons, and all but calling her out in front of Ryder apparently was her boiling point. When he brought their parents into the argument, she lost her shit. She had agreed to be the one to take care of their mother. Sure, Jackson had been by every day to make sure that they had everything that they needed, but she was the one giving up her daily existence to care for her mom. She’d do it all again too. Once her mother passed, she had to play catch-up with life, finding a job and a new place to live. The apartment her mother lived in was too much monthly for her to afford, so she moved out and found someone who needed a roommate—Justine. She was awesome to live with and they were roommates for almost two and a half months, until Justine met Jason and they decided to live together. The old saying, “Threes a crowd,” rang true and they asked her to move out when Jason started moving his things slowly over to the apartment. It was fine with her. The last thing Tatum wanted was to stay where she wasn’t wanted and made to feel like a third wheel.

She found another sublease and moved in with Asher. He was an old friend from high school and she quickly fell for his charms. When Asher asked her to move into his room and his bed, she turned him down, and well, he asked her to give up her lease. What he was asking her for, she wasn’t ready to give. Her mother had just died months before and the last thing she thought about was losing her virginity to anyone and that included the very cute Asher from high school. So, she packed her meager belongings and that’s when she found the room for rent at Hugh’s place.

Hugh was an ass but, she loved his apartment and the price was right, so she dealt with his shitty attitude and his constantly propositioning her for sex. She had learned to say, no, a long time ago, and telling him no seemed to work. Well, until she didn’t have the money to pay her half of the rent, and then, he left her no choice. She could either pay her rent with money or blow jobs, so here she was, living with a virtual stranger, pissing her older brother off.

She couldn’t control everything that happened with her ex-roommates any more than she could control getting fired because, “Numbers just weren’t where management needed them to be.” Times were tough everywhere and she couldn’t fault shoppers for not spending their hard-earned money at the fancy boutiques she worked at. She loved her first job—it was one she landed right out of high school. They even let her pick up shifts when her mother had good days, but those were few and far between, especially at the end and they ended up having to let her go. She was on the managerial track and having to let that job go hurt, but she’d do just about anything for her mother and she’d never regret losing a job to spend her mother’s last days with her. She never told Jackson the real reason as to why she had been let go from that job. He assumed that she had been fired for being lazy or not showing up for work, but he was wrong. Telling him that their dying mother cost her the job she loved wasn’t something she was willing to do. She didn’t want him to feel bad for not helping out more, especially since he had just quit his job as a detective and opened a security agency. He already had enough on his plate.

The last job she lost was only the second job she had ever held. It was at an adorable little boutique on Bridge Street and she loved the place. They sold things that she would wear and that made it easier for her sales pitch. She thought that things were going well until the manager called her into her office and gave her the old, “The numbers are down” speech. Tatum was the last person hired and so, it was only fair that she’d be the first let go during their slow time. She understood, but it still sucked, and trying to explain everything to her brother only made things worse. She already felt like shit for losing another job—her second in the last eight months, she didn’t need Jackson making her feel even more like a failure. But he did. He was good at making her feel like a fuck up and if she let herself, she’d begin to believe him. Maybe she should have told him everything—the reasons behind why both of her jobs let her go, but she shouldn’t have to. Didn’t being part of a family mean you didn’t have to explain yourself to have everyone understand you? She thought that telling her brother that she was down on her luck, and just needed a little help would have been enough, but she was wrong.

Tatum found the little bedroom just across the hall from Ryder’s and checked it out. It was nice—plain, but homey. She went out to her car and grabbed her bags. It was sad that everything she owned could fit into the tiny trunk of her sports car. After her mother died, she kept some of her pictures but didn’t want to hold onto much else. She knew that Jackson had kept a few of their mom’s things, even telling her that someday, when she had her own house, she might want them. But she wouldn’t. Tatum didn’t need anything of her mom’s except her memories of the good times they shared. She worked hard every day to put the last two years of her mother’s life out of her mind and focus on all the happy childhood memories she had of her mother, Jackson, and her. Those memories and the pictures she saved were all she needed to remember her mom.

Tatum quickly unpacked and grabbed her computer to search the job listings for the day. One thing she knew for sure, Ryder was going to get better and not need her around to help give him his pills or make him dinner. She needed to find a job and fast if she was going to be able to have a place lined up to move into when the time came.

* * *

Tatum had trackeddown two promising job leads and ran to the grocery store to pick up stuff for dinner. She was feeling quite accomplished and very tired from such a busy day. Plus, arguing with her older brother always took it out of her. Ryder insisted on getting up and even taking a bath before dinner. She worried the whole time, that he was shut away in his bathroom, that he was going to fall and break his other leg, trying to get in and out of the tub. Of course, he let her know that he was going to be just fine, that he had broken many bones over the years, and didn’t need her to help him. She was happy that he stopped just short of beating his chest and going full-on caveman during his little fit. She stayed in his room, tidying up his bed and dirty clothes while she waited for him to bathe. He emerged thirty minutes later, smelling like aftershave and sin, wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt that did nothing to hide the fact that he worked out regularly, and she felt damn near ready to burst into flames.

She let her eyes roam his body and he chuckled, “You need to cut that out,” he warned. “Your brother was pretty clear, when we left the hospital today, about me keeping my fucking hands off you.”

“As I said earlier, what Jackson doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” Tatum noticed that Ryder hadn’t mentioned their earlier steamy kiss, and she was beginning to wonder if he was too drugged up to remember it, or if he was just avoiding the subject.

“Yeah—I remember you saying that just before you took advantage of my drug-induced state,” he chided.

Tatum gasped, “I did not,” she said. “If I remember correctly, you were the one who took advantage of my sweet, innocent peck on the cheek.”

Ryder almost fell off his crutches laughing at her. “Innocent my ass,” he growled. “What’s for dinner?” he asked, changing the subject. “It smells amazing.”

“I know that you’re trying to change the subject, Ryder,” she accused. “But complimenting my dinner will always earn you points. It’s my mother’s chicken and dumplings recipe. I figured you could use a little comfort food.”

“Absolutely,” he agreed. She helped him down to his kitchen, not ready to drop the subject of their steamy kiss.

“I’ll let you win this one, but don’t think that I’ll forget about that kiss, Ryder. It was pretty unforgettable,” she breathed, pulling out his chair for him.

“Yeah, well, your brother’s temper is also pretty unforgettable, Tatum. That kiss was a mistake,” he breathed. “I was heavily drugged and didn’t know what I was doing.”

Tatum sank into the chair next to him, trying not to look as defeated as she felt. She knew he was covering, that he didn’t feel that way, but his words still hurt her feelings. “It sure didn’t feel like you were confused about what you were doing, Ryder,” she accused.

Ryder sighed and she knew that he wasn’t going to give in to her. He had already made his mind up about her and from the determination she saw on his handsome face, he wasn’t about to change it. “Listen, Tatum,” he started. She groaned and sat back in her seat.

“No,” he said, “just hear me out. I like you despite the fact that you ran me over with your car and mangled both my bike and my leg. But you have to understand, your brother is my friend and I don’t want that to change.”

“My brother doesn’t get to say who I’m with or what I do with anyone, even his friends. Let’s just call this one for what it is—you don’t want me, Ryder, and that’s fine. I understand but don’t pin this on my brother and his unrealistic rules about who can and can’t touch me. I’m his sister, not his ward,” she said.

“Someone needs to tell him that,” Ryder grumbled. “Did he do this whole caveman routine with your other boyfriends?” he asked. There was no way in hell that Tatum wanted to tell Ryder about her past dating life. She had a few boyfriends and went on lots of dates, but she only ever had only one long term boyfriend—if three months could be considered “long term”. Once he decided that they should take their relationship to the next level and she disagreed, he dumped her and quickly moved onto someone else.

“Jackson hasn’t ever met any of my boyfriends,” she admitted. Tatum hoped that her small truth would end their topic of conversation, but she could tell that Ryder wasn’t about to let things go.

“Never—not even one guy?” he asked. “Wasn’t he curious? I mean, your brother does seem to like to stick his nose in your business. Why didn’t he go ape shit crazy with the other men in your life?”

“I wouldn’t call dating, ‘having men in my life’,” she corrected. “I just never kept a guy around long enough to pique Jackson’s interest. I guess I just flew under his big brother radar with the others.”

“So, no long term guy then?” he asked.

“No,” she breathed. “Not unless you call three months long term.”

Ryder shrugged, “If it makes you feel any better, I’d consider three months a long term relationship. Then again, I’m not much of a relationship kind of guy.”