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I don’t need to be told when the barbecue is starting, because suddenly the pool area is filled with bellows of laughter and splashing pool noises. I get up and peek around the blinds in the kitchen and find the pool filled with stepbrothers.

I watch as they go from swimming lengths to dunking each other under the water, to playing with a ball. They seem very happy. Uncannily so. I bet if Sara saw them now, she’d swallow her own tongue. I keep watching as Jameson pushes up to get out of the pool, his biceps rippling like something out of a Rambo movie. He goes to retrieve the ball, and I get full sight of his body from behind.

I don’t want to notice his thick thighs or his strong, defined calves. I certainly don’t want to think about how his swim shorts hug the roundness of his ass or the way his broad chest narrows at his waist in a V that any man would be envious of. But when he turns around, I have to pull back from the window.

Fuck. What a body. I think, and I have no idea if it’s even humanly possible, that Jameson has an eight-pack and the tightest pecs I’ve ever seen. I feel like I need to fan myself with my hand, and I shake my head because I’ve never felt like this about any guy, certainly not about one of my asshole stepbrothers.

Seven years has turned my dad grey and turned my stepbrother into Jason Momoa’s doppelganger.

And if Jameson looks like that, then I’m pretty sure his brothers aren’t going to be that much different. They all play ball and have been exercise crazy since they were young. It’s certainly paying off.

I’m supposed to be going out there right now. Dad is expecting me. Barbecues always involve enjoying the pool. It’s hot as an oven out of the air-conditioning, but how am I going to walk around in a bikini in front of them? The last time any of them saw me, I was as flat as a pancake in the chest department. That has changed a whole lot. I had straight hips and a little flat bottom before the arrival of the voluptuous curves I’ve developed in adulthood. I’m sure they like their girls cheerleader-fit and Instagram-model thin. My rounded stomach and soft thighs are likely to be perfect teasing material. I can just hear it now. “Maisie, you been eating all the donuts?” “Maisie, you never heard of the gym?”

I run my hands over my face, remembering the last time I was in the pool with them. It involved the dunking incident and a whole lot of ridiculous splashing. It was lucky that I made it out of there alive. I don’t think I can put myself through all that again.

But Dad is expecting me, and if I don’t go, he’s going to send one of those brutes to come and find me.

It’s a lose–lose situation.

So I head into the bedroom and search out my red bikini. It was a parting gift from Mom, and I’m so grateful she bought it for me. I guess she knew I’d need it out here, and she was right.

When it’s fastened, I stare at myself in the mirror.

Wow. That’s a whole lot of woman on show, and I don’t hate what I see. To be honest, I feel sexy and womanly. I know a lot of men like their ladies juicy, so they have something to grab onto. I eat really well and I know that this body is healthy.

I just hate the way these assholes can make me feel so insecure.

Mom also bought me a red, orange, and white patterned wrap to go over the swimwear, so I secure that around myself and breathe a small sigh of relief. Like this, I still look like I’m joining in, but everything is more covered up.

I fluff my auburn hair and find my sandals, then I take a huge deep breath and take hold of the door handle.

I can do this, I tell myself. I’m going to be here for years. I can’t let them bully me into becoming a hermit in my dad’s home. My mom always used to say that you mustn’t show bullies fear because it feeds them. I need to show my stepbrothers that they’re not getting to me.

As the door opens, the heat from outside hits me. It’s late afternoon but still really warm. I stand in the doorway for a few seconds, glancing around. Dad is already at the grill with tongs in hand. He’s wearing a novelty apron with a busty woman on it; probably a gift from the five douchebags. The smell of grilling meat fills the air, and my stomach rumbles. As I turn to close the door behind me, I hear a whistle.

“Her Majesty is going to join us,” someone says.

Her Majesty? That’s a new one. I used to be princess or spoiled brat. I used to put my hands over my ears and sing loudly whenever they used names to try and hurt my feelings.

I’m too old to do that now, so I just ignore it.

The walk from the pool house, around the pool and to the grill, feels like a walk to the gallows. I can feel eyes on me, and they burn. I’m waiting for the personal comments, but they don’t come. Instead, as I get close to the pool, there’s a loud whistle.

“Looks like Maisie’s all grown,” somebody says. It’s not quite loud enough for my dad to hear, but I don’t miss it. When I look to the side, my stepbrothers are all still in the pool, gazing up at me.

Have they never seen a woman’s body before? I very much doubt that any of these meat-heads are virgins. Maybe it’s the novelty of seeing how my shape has changed, or maybe they’re trying to come up with all the quips I was dreading.

“Hey, Dad,” I call as I get closer to him. I want him to be aware that I’m here, so the boys won’t feel like they can attack me. They were always more respectful in his presence, not that he’d do anything much to step in if they weren’t. My dad doesn’t take things like that seriously. He’d just shrug it off, saying boys will be boys. I hate that sentiment; it pretty much excuses every kind of socially unacceptable attitude or behavior that men can exhibit. If I ever have a son, that is one thing I will never say about him.

“Hey, Maisie.” Dad flips over some burgers. “Could you go into the kitchen and grab a plate for these? They’ll be done soon.”

“Sure.” At least, I’ll be inside and away from the ten-eyed stare. As I go through the back door, I can hear loud laughter from outside and more splashing. I guess the douchebags have gotten back to their childish games.

Janice is inside, chopping up tomatoes for a large salad. It’s been seven years since I laid eyes on her. She hasn’t once tried to have a conversation with me or take part in any of the video calls I’ve done with my dad. I think that me moving was the best thing that happened to her. She seems smaller and slightly more stooped since I last saw her, and when she senses me, her eyes are as cold as I remember them.

“Maisie,” she says slowly, looking me up and down as though she’s taking note of all of my flaws to use against me at some point in the future. “So lovely to have you with us.”

“Hi, Janice,” I say. “Dad says, can he have a plate for the burgers?”

There’s a pause as Janice realizes that I’m not going to be simpering and fake with her. Then she gives me a snake-smile.

“Of course. Here.” She takes a large serving plate from the counter and hands it to me.


I make my way back to Dad with the plate. He starts to make small talk as he removes the burgers from the grill, telling me about people in his office that he assumes I’ll remember but don’t. I ask him about his brother and sister, my uncle Bert and my Aunt Cynthia. Neither of them lives nearby, so I hardly saw them when I was a child.

“Bert has been in hospital,” Dad says. “Diabetes.”

“Oh, that’s not good.”

“He’s out now, but he’s still not taking care of himself, but what can I do. We live too far, and he won’t listen to me if I try over the phone. And Cynthia is getting divorced. I think Uncle Al finally got sick of her nagging.”

“Wow,” I say. “That’s bad news all around.”

Dad shrugs. “The one thing you learn as you get older is that you can’t control anyone else’s actions. The only thing that is partly within your own control is yours.”

That’s more philosophical than I’ve ever heard my dad be.

“So, are you looking forward to seeing the campus tomorrow? It’s going to be pretty exciting.”

“I saw it today.” I tell Dad about Sara and how Jameson was kind enough to drop her off at her dorm.

“Well, that’s great,” Dad says. “A new friend already, and you haven’t even started. By the way, Jameson has offered to take you back and forth to college each day. You just need to share your timetable and make an arrangement about a place to meet.”

My heart drops into my intestinal cavity. Carpooling with the brothers Grimm, that was not something I was envisioning. “I…I don’t think that’s very fair on Jameson.”

“He doesn’t mind. I bought him that truck, so he’d be able to help out. He knows what’s expected of him.”

“But I don’t want to be a burden. Maybe you could get me a beat-up Toyota or something. It doesn’t have to be flashy. It’d just be good for me to have my own wheels.”

Dad shakes his head. “Sorry, Mais. I just don’t think that would be safe for you. I’d worry about you breaking down.”

In my head, I’m thinking that he could be offering to buy me something safe and reliable. If he could afford that truck for his stepson, shouldn’t he be affording something half decent for his own flesh and blood?

Just as I’m about to suggest something along those lines, I hear Janice’s heels on the patio stone.

“Here, darling. I’ve made your favorite salad to go with all this perfectly barbecued meat.” She gives Dad an adoring smile that could crack glass, and I feel nauseous, but Dad seems to love it. He’s practically beaming with pride. So this is how Janice gets her way with everything. She’s got him by the balls, and he doesn’t even know it.

“Come on, boys,” she calls. “It’s time to eat.”

I don’t watch as they all climb out of the pool. I don’t want to be caught looking at what I know is a wall of a jaw-droppingly hunky man. I don’t want to think of them as anything other than the assholes they are. Instead, I take a plate and fix myself a feast. I don’t want to be coming out to the house to get food later, so I’m going to eat big now. Then, tomorrow, I’ll go to the market and pick myself up some groceries. Enough to keep me going.

And then later I’m going to look online for a part-time job. I need my own money, or I’m going to be competing with the boys for money from my dad, and if Janice has anything to do with it, I’m going to be losing every time.

I take a seat at the table, which is under a huge wooden pergola, and watch as the boys come to get their food too. It’s not so daunting to see them from behind. The table fits eight, so I’m going to end up having to sit next to at least one of them. Or maybe my dad will sit next to me.

Jameson and Jessie are the first to the table, and they make the strange decision to sit either side of me rather than finding a space on the other side of the table. I thought my plate was full, but these boys have taken double. They must be eating my dad out of house and home.

“You got enough there?” Jessie asks, glancing at my plate. Janice joins the table, and she has half of my portion.

“Maisie always did have a big appetite. She has a different frame to me; bigger bones.” Janice delivers that biting criticism with a wolf’s smile.

“Maisie’s certainly grown up since I last saw her,” Dad says.

“Yes, she has,” Kameron says, stuffing his mouth full of burger. I don’t miss his wolf’s smile, though. Like mother like son.

“Well, it has been seven years,” I say. “The boys have developed bigger bones too.”

Jessie snorts, and the rest of them start laughing. “I don’t think you should be concerning yourself with our bones,” he says.

“Ugh.” I scowl. “Trust me, that is one thing that I am definitely not thinking about.” But even as I say it, the image of the five of them naked and dripping wet slides through my mind, setting my cheeks alight. Shit. I really need to rein in this wild and disturbing imagination of mine.

“Boys,” Janice scolds. “Keep it PG.”

Yeah, I can see that happening.

“So, are you all ready to start tomorrow?” Dad asks me.

“I think so. Mom went through the list and got me everything I needed.”

“That’s good. And what about your schedule?”

“I guess I’m going to get that tomorrow. I’m going to meet the girl from the plane in the morning.”

“That’ll be good. Just remember, you can always ask the boys if you’re confused about anything. They’re practically part of the furniture.” I guess with Jameson, Jessie, and Joshua as seniors, and Kyle and Kameron as sophomores, they’ll be more familiar with college than I am, not that I’ll ever feel happy about asking them.

“Yeah,” I say vaguely. I can imagine asking them for directions and them sending me completely the wrong way—any excuse to make fun of me or cause me to make a fool of myself.

“I doubt we’ll see each other much,” Jameson says. “It’s a pretty big campus.”

“But you remember you’ll be driving Maisie,” Dad says.

I don’t miss the flare of Jameson’s nostrils. He definitely isn’t happy with this arrangement.

“That isn’t going to be ideal for the boys, Don,” Janice says. “They have practice and social arrangements.”

“It’s not far, Janice,” Dad says. “It was the deal.”

Jameson shakes his head, but he doesn’t disagree. I guess he just agreed to whatever demands my dad made when he was negotiating to get the truck. Now he has to live up to his side of the bargain.

Although I don’t like the idea of him driving me, I’m kind of going to relish his anger at having to do it.

I eat my food as fast as I can, deciding to take a quick swim while the boys are still munching theirs. “Thanks. That was great,” I say, picking up my plate to take it to the kitchen.

When I’m done, I go around the other side of the pool and find a chair to put my wrap on. I don’t know if I’m imagining the feeling of eyes on my skin because I don’t look up to check. It’s probably Janice judging my “big bones” or Dad freaking out at how much I’ve developed since he last saw me.

I sit on the edge of the pools and slide in as fast as I can. The water is perfectly cool against my hot skin, and I duck right under the water to wet my hair. I’m anticipating having a nice leisurely swim alone and then making my excuses to return to the pool house when I hear the rumble of bodies entering the water. As I rise up and clear my eyes, I find five annoying stepbrothers surfacing too.

I’m sure they were halfway through their dinner, but they obviously don’t seem to care.

This is really awkward, and I’m feeling decidedly unsafe. My heart races as the memory of being held under the water resurfaces. They were already bigger than me seven years ago. Now I look like a ten-year-old child next to them. Just a slight shove with one of their shovel hands would send me flying. They could easily dunk me under without me being able to object. I know I’d cry if they did it again. It’d be so much worse now I know how bad the panic is.

I quickly swim to the edge and take hold of the side of the pool. My knuckles are white, I’m holding so tight. I take some deep breaths, trying to reduce my anxiety. I don’t want my stepbrothers to see any weakness. I don’t want them to know that they’ve gotten to me so much. And I definitely don’t want them to know how scared I am of them.

If they smell fear, they’ll enjoy it. It will fuel them, and things will get worse. I need to get out of this pool right now. It’s the only way. My skin prickles at the idea that I’m going to be half-naked so close to them. When they were sitting at the table, I felt safer. Now, I feel exposed.

I don’t have a choice, though.

I turn and use my arms to pull myself up and out of the pool until I’m sitting on the side. Then I quickly swivel around until I can get into a standing position. My ass is facing the pool, and I flush with embarrassment. At this angle, there is practically nothing left to the imagination. In the background, I can hear my dad and Janice laughing over their conversation and below that, a low whistle.


When I’m finally on my feet, I snatch my wrap and tug it around myself, slipping my feet into my sandals.

I don’t turn to give my goodbyes. Fuck that.

It’s only once I’m back in the safety of the pool house that I burst into tears.


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