“It was kind of weird when he first got here and blew up, you know?” Crystal said softly. “I mean he was big news in high school but it was high school. Now he’s on national tv, people wear jerseys with his name on them, all that good stuff.” She cast a quick glance at Dylan but found him busy at the stove. “I was worried that first year. That he’d turn into some guy I didn’t know. That he’d get too busy, too popular for me and Mom.”

“But he wasn’t…” Tamar said hesitantly. Subconsciously, she needed some assurance that even if Dylan became more famous and more important than just college football, he wouldn’t change. That things wouldn’t change.

Crystal smiled softly. “Every week I had at least one day with him that was just for me and him. For winter break, he took me and Mom on little trip. I talked to him daily, sometimes twice or three times a day. If I called and wanted to talk, he made time. The only thing about him that changed was that he grew up even though he was already pretty grown even then.”

Tamar smiled wistfully in response, imagining taking a summer trip with Dylan and immediately blinked back to reality as Neecy’s mocking grin came to view. She shifted in her seat and released a breath. ”He’s a top-notch guy…” She replied, cutting off the other part of her thoughts.

“He is,” Crystal agreed without hesitation. “And not just because he’s my brother. I used to be incredibly selfish with him but watching the way he sings and plays with you, I’m glad I’m over that. He’s smiled more tonight than I’ve seen him smile all semester. He deserves to have somebody who makes him happy.”

Tamar’s cheeks warmed. ”Thank you for saying that…” She’d been feeling that she didn’t deserve his friendship or affection but she definitely appreciated him not giving up on her.

She shrugged, her eyes lowering to the bedspread. “It’s the truth. He’s all work, no play. Always taking care of everybody else to the point he doesn’t really think about himself, take time for himself.”

Tamar nodded, sneaking a peek at Dylan. ”To think I would’ve missed my chance time and time again,” She mused aloud, smiling wryly.

Crystal cocked her head to the side, studying Tamar curiously. “What do you mean?”

Tamar turned back to her. ”I didn’t give him the time of day… Didn’t think he was serious about being my friend.” She shrugged. ”I’m not the most liked person on this campus.”

She laughed. “Oh Dill doesn’t care. Tonio was probably the most hated kid in school when they became friends. My brother is…different.”

“If you two are done whispering about me, dinner is ready,” Dylan called.

”Then I thought that he seeking me out was because of an after-school project,” she said for just Crystal’s ears as she rose from the bed to join Dylan. ”Looks good, Sinatra.” She patted his back.

“Only the best for my pretty girl,” he returned with a smile as he pulled out a stack of plates.

“Hey, I’m here too! Remember me? Best little sister ever?”Crystal demanded with an appreciative sniff as she tried to pluck a piece off of a chicken breast. “An after-school project?” she asked Tamar, jerking her hand back before Dylan could grab her.

Tamar smiled. ”That’s what I accused him of doing. Being friends with me because of a spring project.”

Crystal turned around, laughter bubbling out of her until she couldn’t avoid Dylan’s playful bear hug. “Dylan’s not that creative.” Her observation was met by unmerciful tickling from her brother. “Okay, okay,” she squealed. “He’s nicer than that is what I meant.”

She could only smile, feeling a slight niggling twinge in her chest and turned to study the perfectly-baked chicken. ”If I knew you could cook like this, I would always come over for food. Sure beats enchiladas…”

“It’s a carefully guarded secret. You know what I have to do if you tell anybody,” Dylan warned, letting Crystal go.

“What he means is he only does it when he’s trying to impress you. Otherwise it’s ramen and frozen dinners.”

Tamar smirked up at Dylan. ”I’m impressed already…”

“Good,” he murmured. “Now stop looking at me like that. I can’t think of another song.”

She laughed. ”My loss…” Her blue eyes danced over him, a gentle smile lifting one corner of her mouth.

“You’re about to start drooling,” Crystal warned, nudging Dylan in the stomach as she grabbed a plate and started forking noodles onto it.

Tamar ducked her head to hide a laugh, wanting so much to be alone with him for even a minute. She reached for a plate.

“Can you blame a guy?” He dropped a quick kiss on Tamar’s cheek and opened the fridge, blind to Crystal’s look of surprise. “Lemonade okay?”

“Uh-hmm,” Tamar replied and blinked at the sound of her own voice. Almost as if she was shy from his open affection. Shaking her head. she dished her own meal before she looked up at Dylan. “Want me to make you a plate?”

“Yeah, that’d be good.” He glanced up from the lemonade he was pouring and frowned at Crystal’s furrowed brow. “What’s the problem?”

She just shook her head and stuck a piece of chicken into her mouth before turning for the table.

Tamar focused her attention on dishing a mountain of noodles in the plate. placing the chicken on top before turning back to extend the plate to him, brow raised. “Enough?”

“Yeah,” he agreed, his gaze still on Crystal who was purposely avoiding catching his eye. He forced himself to look over at Tamar and smiled. She was going to spoil him.

Tamar tilted her head curiously at him but didn’t say another word. Instead, she gave him a gentle smile and handed him the plate in her hands. In the back of her mind, she wondered if maybe she should eat her food fast enough and leave the siblings alone. Although Crystal was nice and accommodating, she wondered if the girl was taken back by her presence here. Again, she shook her head to clear her wandering thoughts and reached around him for her own plate.

“Thanks.” He just barely resisted sneaking another kiss and instead turned to pull out a chair for her before claiming his own. “You never said how your day went,” he added after a moment of thought.

The half smile on her face faded instantly as she pictured Neecy’s venomous sneer. She picked up her fork promptly and focused her eyes on the noodles. “It was… okay. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Dylan’s fork hovered over his plate for a moment as he watched her. “You sure?” he asked casually and dug in.

“Yup,” Tamar replied, filling her mouth with the noodles. There was no point getting him involved more than he was with her issues. She would handle Neecy herself, like always.

For the briefest of moments, he considered pushing the issue but decided against it at the last moment. She would come to him, open up to him when she was ready. He wouldn’t rush her. “We’ll see what we can do about making tomorrow better than ‘okay’.”

Tamar could only smirk as she chewed her food before moving her eyes to Crystal. Her smile waned, not sure what to make of the younger woman’s silence. “You okay?” she asked after swallowing.

Crystal smiled faintly. “I’m fine. Just doing some thinking. Ignore me. I get distracted sometimes.”

Tamar studied her expression but didn’t press further. It wasn’t her place to anyway. Shrugging, she lowered her gaze to her food.

She was protesting too much. Dylan knew his little sister better than anyone and her reassurance had been far too long. There was something on her mind and he’d make sure they talked about it later. Before he could say anything, Crystal smiled and launched into a new conversation.

“How are you feeling about the game this week? Monte Vista’s a tough team,” she added in explanation for Tamar. “The first real challenge to the record. I mean they aren’t Redsville but they’re not lightweight either.”

Tamar could only listen, not completely in tune with Dylan’s fame and status. Too quickly, she recalled Neecy’s leering words and inadvertently cringed at the fierce animosity flashing in the girl’s eyes.

Dylan rolled a shoulder, loosening the muscles there. “I suggested another practice.  I set something with G-man to work on my completion percentage. I’m not real comfortable with it right now…” he trailed off when he saw Tamar cringe.

“What? Your percentage is like 60 percent! How much better can you get bro?”

“Aiming for 70 by the game. Tamar? You okay?”

Tamar lifted her head at the sound of her name and blinked at Dylan. “Hmm? Oh yeah, peachy keen.” She gave a reassuring smile although her stomach twisted painfully at the thought of returning to campus and running into Neecy again.

Crystal snapped her fingers in Dylan’s face. “Hello? Focus. You’re at 60 percent. Consistently. You’re aiming for 70. That means less play time. A lot less play time.”

Tamar blinked and jerked her gaze to Crystal, feeling a pang of guilt for being a possible source of distraction. An obstruction in a way.

Dylan frowned at Crystal, not liking the tone of her voice.. “I’ve got it under control, Crys. I’ve got plans in place that still allow for some play time.”

Crystal snorted and scrapped the last of her noodles off the plate.

Tamar watched Crystal for a brief moment before lowering her gaze to her plate. For some reason, she already felt like she’d overstayed her welcome and her throat consequently dried up.

Dylan’s frowned deepened. It was unlike Crystal to be so rude. Even he’d caught the reference to the time he was spending with Tamar. “Watch it,” he warned quietly.

Crystal’s fork froze for the briefest of moments before she brought it to her mouth without another word.

Tamar swallowed against her dry throat. The day had just gone from bad to horrible in less than a few minutes. She thought back to her last conversation with Crystal and frowned, wondering what she’d said to put the young girl’s guard up.

Dylan opened his mouth but Crystal beat him to it as she set her fork down and looked at the two of them. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. That was rude. Do you two mind if I call it an early night? Tonio won’t mind taking me home. I’m just not the greatest company right now.”

Tamar closed her eyes for a brief moment before lowering her hands to her lap. Then she looked up at Dylan. ”Actually, I should get going myself… Bekah might worry as she always does.” She managed a smile. It was her fault for interrupting their family time and now she’d caused an unnecessary rift. “Thank you for inviting me over, Dylan… Dinner was great,” she said, already standing to her feet while reaching for her plate. Then she turned to Crystal, giving her the least wobbly smile that she could muster. “And it was a pleasure meeting you, Crystal.” She stepped around the chair and walked toward the counter, already itching to leave as fast as she could without Dylan making a fuss.

Dylan was out of his chair before Tamar could even get to her feet. This was a moment he could have done without. He didn’t want Tamar to leave but he knew he was going to have to see to Crystal before she left and that was a conversation best had without an audience.

Crystal groaned softly. “It was good to meet you too, Tamar. Honest. Maybe we can spend some more time together?” she asked hopefully. There were things she was concerned about but she genuinely did like the woman who made Dylan smile so much.

Tamar nodded, giving Crystal another smile. She wasn’t sure if the girl really meant it or if it was to placate her brother. Either way, Tamar knew the girl meant well and that relaxed her a bit. Still, she knew when to leave and it was now. Turning to Dylan, she gave him a gentle smile. “I’ll see myself out. Sorry I couldn’t help you with the dishes. Raincheck?” she cocked a brow comically.

“You don’t need a dishes raincheck to come back over here,” he told her with an affectionate grin as he brushed hair back from her face. “I’m glad you came. Very glad you came,” he added and pressed a light kiss against her lips.

Knowing Crystal was probably an unwilling witness, Tamar leaned away once Dylan raised his head and she nodded. “Okay. Goodnight, you two.” She waved casually as she padded across the room, plucked her purse from one of the chairs and strode out the room. It wasn’t until she’d reached the stairwell that she paused and heaved a deep sigh. Glancing once over her shoulder at the closed door to Dylan’s room, Tamar bit the inside of her cheeks and turned to take the stairs down to the first floor.

Dylan couldn’t leave things as they were. He found himself opening the door behind Tamar and catching her just before she started down the stairs. “Forgive Crystal. She’s in a bit of a mood, nothing personal. I’ll call after I take her home, okay?”

Tamar turned slowly although she was surprised that he’d followed her out. She tossed him another smile. “It’s cool. We girls are known to be moody creatures… Don’t be too hard on her.” She shrugged slightly. “I might sleep a little early tonight. Let’s talk tomorrow instead.”

“Tomorrow then. Let me know when you make it home.”

“Will do.” With that, she turned and started down the stairs.

The walk from Dylan’s dorm to hers was a quiet and thoughtful one. Tamar’s face switched from wistful smiles to perturbing frowns as she strolled across the campus alone. Everything about the day had been successful in confusing her as she realized that it would not be as easy to walk away from Dylan. Even with his seemingly-mercurial younger sister’s company, Tamar realized that she was becoming more intrigued and couldn’t stop herself from falling for Dylan Ramsey, the most popular guy in the university. That unsettled her. She normally stayed away from trouble and being with Dylan spelled out big trouble… as far as Neecy was concerned.

Steeling her jaw, she crossed over to the other side of the street, seeing her dorm in view. As she trudged to the glass doors, Tamar couldn’t get the nagging sensation in the back of her neck. Shaking her head to clear the unnecessary suspicion, she trudged forward and headed up to her room.

Bekah was waiting for her at the front door with a worried look on her face. Pushing away from the wall, her cousin hurried over to Tamar and forcefully grabbed her hand, tugging her toward the stairwell. ”You’re coming to my place now.”

Tamar peered over her shoulder at her closed door but didn’t say a word as she followed her cousin out of the dormitory. As they crossed the street in silence, tears gathered in Tamar’s eyes and blurred the building in the distance.

”You’ve gotten so weak, Tam,” Bekah said sternly, now laying beside her cousin in the dark of the room. ”It’s serious, isn’t it? You like him a lot, don’t you?”

Tamar heaved a sigh before speaking, except she couldn’t muster much with her throat clogged up from sobbing earlier on. ”I….”

”They won’t go easy on you,” Bekah’s voice was full of remorse as she thought of the mess she’d stumbled upon in Tamar’s room. She wrinkled her nose in distaste, picturing Neecy’s taunting sneer and the jeering laughter. She dug her fingers into her palms. ”People can be so cruel.”

Tamar merely turned on her side with her back to Bekah and closed her eyes, allowing warm thoughts of Dylan’s mischievous smile to fill her mind. Within minutes, she was fast asleep.

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