Joker had a band of brothers. A huge family of good, kind people.
Suddenly, it occurred to me with blinding clarity that Aaron had sensed the same. That was why he'd studied Joker so closely. He'd even asked him if he knew him!
And last, Joker knew me. He'd known who I was the second he approached me on I-25. He'd gone completely still, staring at me.
He knew me.
And he didn't say anything. I told him my name, and he didn't say he knew me and I knew him.
He didn't say anything.
Why didn't he say anything?
He'd even pretended he'd forgotten my name!
"Carrie?" he called when he stopped close.
"Why didn't you say anything?" I whispered, looking deep into his eyes.
They hadn't been blunt steel back then. He was too young to have had time to build up that guard. Every girl in school could read the tortured brooding of the mysterious outsider who was Carson Steele right from his eyes. Every girl had wanted to soothe his savaged soul.
Every girl in school.
It was then I knew. I knew in the single most humiliating moment in my life why he'd done what he'd done.
Back in the day he'd liked me. He'd smiled at me. He'd been cool with me. He'd given me chin lifts. And that awful night when I saw him beaten up (again) and set on running away, he'd given me his time.
And so much more.
That more being the next day in my locker when he gave me beauty.
Hope that had died but I'd felt it, knowing that he'd taken his time to get to my locker and give that to me.
So it wasn't that he'd wanted to make a high school mean girl pay (though, I wasn't a mean girl, I just hung with them so I was guilty by association, still, Carson Steele was smarter than that).
It was because he felt sorry for me. The cheerleader. The homecoming queen. The quarterback's girl. Reduced to nearly nothing, stranded on the side of the road, in her twenties and divorced with a baby, no friends, no family, no money, a horrible car, cheap clothes, a job at a grocery store.
He felt sorry for me.
"Say anything about what?" he asked, taking me out of my abysmal thoughts.
And in doing so, making that humiliation burn so deep, I knew if I didn't let some of what I was feeling out, it'd destroy me.
Therefore, I shrieked, "About anything, Carson Steele!"
His head jerked. His face changed. And the air in the room went flat.
Then he lifted a hand to me.
I scrambled, knocking over the stool. It fell with a crash and I nearly went down with it, but thankfully I kept my feet as I moved to get away from him, screeching, "Don't you touch me!"
"Carrie," he whispered.
"Out," I heard Tack order.
"I haven't tried a cream puff," I heard Boz reply.
"Out!" I heard Tack bark.
I vaguely sensed the room emptying but I was too busy backing up and focusing on Joker.
And my burning mortification.
"I can't believe you," I hissed.
"Listen to me-" he started.
"No!" I screamed. "You pretended you forgot my name. You didn't forget me!"
"Carrie," he said gently, moving cautiously my way
. "Baby, take a breath and listen to me."
"Why?" I snapped. "You're sharp, Carson. You knew when I first saw you I recognized you!" I yelled. "But you didn't say a word. You let me introduce myself and you didn't say a word. You did all this," I threw out a hand, "because you felt sorry for me, and you didn't say a word."
"Carissa, seriously, listen to me," he growled as I moved, rounding into the room to make my way to the door and escape, doing this as he stalked me.
"I didn't get it," I threw at him. "No one is this nice. Daycare. New house. Legal counsel. Too much. Too nice. Too easy. I didn't get it," I bit out. "Now I get it."
"Carissa, goddamn it, you need to shut up and listen to me," he clipped.
"No, I don't," I retorted, making hasty decisions because I needed an end to this. I needed this over. I needed to escape the burn threatening to end me. I'd endured enough, too much. I could take no more. "I'll explain to Tyra and Tack about the house. I'll get some money to Big Petey. I'll sort the rest out. But no more Carissa Charity Case for you, Carson Steele. I'm leaving!"
I declared this, my heart breaking, my insides reduced to ash twisting in the flames, and I charged wide of him to get to the door.
He moved quickly, catching my upper arm in a firm grip and striding purposefully toward the back of the Compound, taking me with him.
I scurried to keep my feet under me as I was forced to walk backward, doing this shouting, "Take your hand off me!"
"Shut the fuck up," he ground out.
"Do not talk to me like that, Carson Steele," I yelled. "Take your stupid hand off me!"
He didn't. He dragged me down the hall, pulled me in his room and then propelled me further with his hand on my arm pushing me then releasing me as I fell backward three steps and he slammed the door.
"Let me out!" I shrieked.
"Wanted you," he replied. "In high school, I wanted you. So bad, my life went to shit, like it went to shit every single fucking day, to give my head some peace, I'd draw you."
I snapped my mouth shut as my stomach squeezed so hard, I thought I'd be sick.
He kept at me.
"Last person I saw before I left my fucked-up life, meant everything that it was you. Years later, saw you again, you didn't know me."
"Carson," I whispered.
"That fuckin' hurt," he forced out in a way I knew those three words cost him.
Yes, I was going to be sick.
"Didn't know who the fuck I was," he finished for me acidly.
"I did," I told him. "I just didn't completely recognize you and you didn't share when I introduced Travis and me."
"You're right," he shot back. "I didn't. Think on that, Carissa. You had a life where you got nothin' you wanted, but still, you were fool enough to want a guy. You liked him. He was nice to you and you used him to give you peace from the shithole you called a home and the jackhole you called a dad. You saw him again, he didn't know who the fuck you were, what would you do?"